Theo sensed the second Elisaveta's mood shifted. Throughout their walk there had been an air of possibility, of hope, attraction almost palpable in every word and movement. But there was a sudden shift and, as she made the tea, Elisaveta reverted to the pleasant, businesslike woman he worked with, her mask firmly back in place.
Which was probably for the best.
'I'd better drink this quickly and get back. Big day tomorrow.' He could hear the false heartiness in his voice.
'Yes.' Elisaveta brought the tea over, keeping a careful distance from him as she did so. 'I'll just get some biscuits. You're not worried about fitting into your suit tomorrow, are you? It seems so unfair that every bride I know spends the months before her wedding dieting and stressing about this impossibly perfect look and all the guy does is rock up and wear a suit. I should think Madeleine will look stunning. I mean, she's beautiful anyway.'
'Yes,' he agreed heavily. 'She's beautiful and she's been a great support to my mother.'
And I proposed to her out of fear that I was losing my father before I'd made him proud of me, and out of guilt that I was going to let him die without the comfort of seeing his legacy secured and because I thought my business was all I needed. A marriage based on compatibility didn't seem like a sacrifice then, it seemed like common sense.
But I was a fool.
Elisaveta was still chattering on in a too-bright voice. 'She’s made to be a countess. You know, I forget that you're an earl, when we're in London I mean. Then we come here and it hits me every time that you grew up here... it's kind of intimidating. But this is Madeleine's world too, isn't it? She doesn't come here and see somewhere to visit on a day out. She sees a home.'
The subtext couldn’t be clearer – he belonged with a woman like Madeleine, thanks to his birthright.
Elisaveta placed the biscuits in front of him and as she moved away Theo caught a hint of her scent, a sweet, old-fashioned floral perfume, like a garden at the height of summer. A familiar scent, one which invoked a memory of a mouth under his, a body melded to his, of warmth and need and rightness. Of coming home. He set his cup down with unsteady hands and stared at Elisaveta.
How could he brush it aside, that one life-shattering, life-changing kiss? Only realisation had come too late. The house was full of guests, the banns had been called, Madeleine was expecting to marry him in the morning. He'd made a promise. And a kiss couldn’t change that.