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Not So Fickle A Finger

 
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Clare Grey
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PostPosted: Thu May 25, 2017 2:45 pm    Post subject: Not So Fickle A Finger Reply with quote

June 1887: London

London society was agog. Though nothing untoward had happened and no scandal attached to either name, it had become increasingly clear over the course of May that Sir Lawrence Grey, Lord Arden, was sincere in his attentions to Miss Clare King. They had been seen often together - walking in Hyde Park of an afternoon, riding Rotten Row in the morning, sharing a box at the theater with others. At receptions, he was attentive not only to Miss King, but also to her mother; at balls, he danced with her no more than was appropriate, yet each of those dances was the waltz, a dance that allowed for more intimacy of movement. Thanks to Lord Arden's attentions, and the warmth of his sister, Lady Stanley, the Kings found themselves invited to gatherings that might ordinarily have shunned them, for the nobility at least could see where this was going. Better to make a friend of Miss King before the day arrived than to scramble in the wake of her wedding. Even the day of the Derby, the June date most associated with the true opening of the Season, Lord Arden was not far from Miss King and her party, and the ease of their companionship was plain to those who knew what to look for. Yet it was just a few days after that outing that things came to a head for both families.

Warned ahead of time that Lord Arden intended to call upon her in the morning, Clare sat in the window of their drawing room in Grosvenor Square, idly sketching her sister from memory in an attempt to ease her sense of nervous excitement. Sir Grey had never yet called upon her without his sister in attendance; did that signify that his decision had been made? And how was she to keep her father, newly arrived in town, from way-laying him when he arrived?

It seemed obvious to anyone who'd been following their courtship what the Lord of Arden's intentions were. Though some believed his interest in Miss King was purely financial, and that had been the initial reason for his trip to London, his attraction to the young woman had very little to do with her family's finances and far more with his growing fondness of her and her companionship. Though it might not yet be love in full bloom, they were well on their way toward first blossom. Some might even think they were moving too quickly, having only known each other a month, but Lawry knew his heart well enough to know he would never find another bride who suited him quite the way Clare did. And so, his sister had arranged for him to call upon the Kings that lovely June day, looking resplendent in a summer walking suit, which was as comfortable as he was going to get while out in public on a warm summer day. It was not the most comfortable clothing to wear on a summer day, but it was at least acceptably in fashion.

Impropriety be damned. Clare had placed herself in the window purely so that she would see him walking down the square, and at her first glimpse of him, she whirled up from her seat in search of her mother. "Mama, he is coming," she said breathlessly, gratified to see Edith lurch upright in as much excitement as she was feeling. "Please ... just a few moments, that's all I ask. He does not know Father is here."

Torn between her fondness for her daughter and duty to her husband, Edith was hesitant for a moment, but Clare's pleading touched her foremost. "Oh, very well," she conceded. "Take him into the conservatory when he arrives. I cannot promise to keep your father occupied for more than twenty minutes."

"Thank you!" Kissing her mother's cheek effusively, Clare whirled back to the drawing room, unable to sit down as she waited for the doorbell to be rung, for the servant to answer, and for Lord Arden to be escorted into the drawing room to meet her.

It wasn't long before that doorbell was rung and Sir Lawrence Grey was escorted into the drawing room to await an audience with either Clare, her mother or both. His intentions were probably clear, as he'd never visited their home before, alone or otherwise. All of their meetings had taken place elsewhere, a courtship that had, thus far, mostly taken place in the public eye. He had brought with him the one component necessary to accomplish his intended task, but that as yet was known only to him.

Clare was already waiting for him, her cheeks flushed enough to betray the madcap dash through the house that had resulted in her mother seeking out her father to keep him occupied for a short while. "Lord Arden," she smiled warmly, rising to curtsy to him. "Welcome to Grosvenor Square."

"Clare ..." he blurted, as he moved forward to meet her, looking nearly as flustered as she was and forgetting himself for just a moment. "I'm sorry," he apologized, correcting himself with a hastily-spoken, "Miss King, thank you for allowing me to visit." Whatever had him in such a state of nervousness was likely to only get worse when he found out her father was there.

"If I had my wishes, you would be welcome to visit every day," she said softly, her smile almost tender at the sound of her name from his lips, however unintended it had been. They had learned a good deal of each other over the past month, enough that his clear nervousness was a little unsettling. "If you would like to come through to the conservatory? It is a more ... comfortable room."

"Yes, of course," he replied, willingly ready to follow her wherever she wished him to go. He would walk through fire if that was what she asked of him. He knew she could have no way of knowing why he'd asked to visit her here today, though she must have suspected. Theirs had been a whirlwind courtship, but with any luck, the engagement would be a little less rushed.

"Please." She gestured for him to come with her, leading the way from the formal drawing room toward the back of the house, into the conservatory where the sunlight sparkled through stained glass to warm the skin. "You seem terribly ill at ease, sir," she said quietly, concern clear in her gaze as she drew him forward to look out over the small garden. "Might I assist in some way?"

"No ... Yes ... That is ..." He trailed off with a sigh as he turned away from the garden to face her. While the view of the garden was lovely, the view before him was far lovelier than any flower he had ever seen, as he'd hinted as so often during their daily walks in Hyde Park. He wondered if he'd ever been clear enough with his intentions or his opinion of her, and that was part of what had him ill at ease here today. "Miss King ... Clare, if I may ... I have not come here today merely to seek your company. I know we have not known each other very long, but I am sure prolonging our courtship will not change my mind."

She took a deep breath as he spoke, understanding that her suspicions had been right - he had come to a decision about their future. But was it in her favor, or was he here to give her the cut in as gentle a manner as he could? "I have always rejoiced in your company, my lord ... Lawrence." His name was a whisper; she knew she did not have the right to speak it aloud until he made his intentions absolutely clear. The candor and honesty he had admired in her reared its head. "Please, you are too good to trifle with me. If you wish to give me the cut direct, say so at once and I shall not trespass on your time any further. I have no wish to be parted from you, but it is not my decision to make."

"The cut?" he echoed, looking confused. As well as they thought they knew each other, she had apparently misunderstood his intentions. Or did she truly think so little of him or herself to think he'd come all the way here only to tell her he no longer wanted anything to do with her? Why would he do such a thing when it would have been far easier to simply write a letter? No, she had misunderstood him entirely. "No, Clare ... That is, Miss King, rather ... It is just that I feel it is time to make my intentions known and to inquire as to whether they are agreeable to your own."
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Clare Grey
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PostPosted: Thu May 25, 2017 2:47 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

"And ... what are your intentions, Law - Lord Arden?" she asked tentatively. Her hands, pressed to her stomach, twitched toward him, wanting to take his hands in her grasp but not daring to cross that line until she was invited. Was this truly happening? So many hopes and dreams had been wasted on other men; was he truly the one man whose time would never be wasted with her?

He might have answered that he thought she already knew that, but apparently, it seemed she didn't. Or perhaps, like him, she was hoping for it, but didn't want to get her hopes up too high. He knew he could not present her with the ring he so hoped to put on her finger, not until he spoke with her father, and he had grown impatient in the waiting. So long as he had her permission, though, they would be able to move forward with their plans, even if by some chance her father denied her permission to marry him. "Miss King, I would like your leave to speak with your father regarding our intentions to marry ... If you so desire."

The breath she had taken in was released in a strong burst, her hand leaving her stomach to curl into his sleeve as a bright smile lit up her face. "I do desire it," she rushed to tell him. "Very much so. Dearest Lawrence ... Lawry ... I have come to care for you very deeply. I should be honored to be your wife."

He exhaled a relieved sigh, a smile brightening his face, as he reached for her hands for the first time since he'd met her. There were still certain rules they had to follow, but at least he was allowed to touch her and speak her given name without worrying about gossip or causing either of them humiliation. "Clare, darling, it makes me so very happy to hear you say that."

So many rules, and even here, alone as they were, neither one dared to cross the lines society had laid down for them in their situation. However much she wanted to kiss him, Clare did not dare, curling her bare fingers into his grasp as she shared her smile with him. "And it takes a little of the sting from what I am about to tell you," she said, reassured enough not to be afraid of telling him this. "My father is come to town. Mama is ... distracting him momentarily, for I suspected you might wish a few moments alone before he pounces."

Lawry blinked in surprise. He had intended to ask when her father would be in London so that he could ask the man's permission to marry his daughter, but he had not expected that to happen today. "In town," he echoed, looking a little confused. "Do you mean he is here ... today ... at this very moment?"

"Aye, sir, he is, and mighty curious as to who this young man embracing his daughter in the conservatory might be," a robust voice interrupted them.

Clare gasped, her head turning to see her father standing in the doorway, his hands in his pockets, looking more amused by what he had interrupted than offended by it. "Father!"

To his credit, Lawry did not echo Clare's gasp, as taken by surprise as they both were by the man's sudden and unexpected appearance in the doorway. Instead, he tucked Clare's hand into the crook of his arm and turned to face the man, as bravely as he might a firing squad, despite his nervousness. "Mr. King, sir," he greeted the man as courteously as he previously had the man's wife and daughter. "My name is Lawrence Grey, and I have come here to seek permission to have your daughter's hand in marriage," he said, leaving it at that for now and letting the man digest that before he said anything further.

"Have you now?" Mr. Alfred King eyed the pair of them for a long moment, absorbing the way Clare clung to this Lawrence Grey's arm, and the hope in her eyes as she met her father's gaze. There was more to this one than a need for money, he thought. "Well then, Lord Arden, for I believe that to be your formal title ... come away into my study and let us discuss my daughter's hand, shall we?"

Lawry did not deny his formal title, but neither did he flaunt it. Though his initial intentions might have been to find a bride with a generous dowry, the money no longer meant so much to him, if it ever had. It seemed to have meant more to his sister, really, but he had no regrets about following her advice to spend the Season in London. He turned briefly to Clare to offer her hand a pat, along with a reassuring smile. "I will be back soon. Try not to worry," he whispered.

Clare could not help but worry, however. It was meeting with her father that had sent several men running for the hills two years before, and though she trusted in Lawry's sincerity, she knew her father could be terribly abrasive. "I hope he does not offend you," she whispered back to him, releasing his arm so that he could follow Mr. King back through the house to the older man's study. She trailed along behind them, too anxious to wait anywhere but outside the door.

He smiled and gave her hand a light squeeze. He might have kissed her, if only on the cheek, were her father not watching. "Have faith, dear heart," he whispered back. After all, his brother-in-law was Edmund Stanley. If Lawry could manage him, then Clare's father shouldn't be much more difficult.

"Come, come, man, inside you come," Alfred King called to him from inside the study. "Clare, you'll oblige me by fetching your mother downstairs and having refreshments put together for when we are done. Off you go now."

Clare hesitated, glancing between her father and the man she knew she was close to loving, before giving in. "Very well, Father."

Lawry thought the fact that the man was presumably expecting him to join them for refreshments afterwards was a good sign, but one could not be too sure. He'd heard rumors and gossip about Alfred King, but Lawry was not like Clare's other potential suitors. The fact was, Lawry was more concerned about the man finding him unworthy of his daughter, than being unable to reach an agreement regarding a dowry. Lawry only offered Clare another reassuring smile and nod of his head before letting her go and turning to join her father in his study, where the women could not follow.

Alfred King was not a man to stand on ceremony, and he saw no need to pretend at airs he did not have. Nor did he see the need to bow to a man whose intentions had already been made clear. As soon as the study door was closed, he gestured for Lawry to take a seat, himself remaining upright as he paced to the window. "So you've a wish to marry my Clare, do you?" he said boldly. "How much are you expecting for her?"

Lawry was anticipating, expecting even, some discussion regarding money, but he was not expecting the man to be quite so direct or quick with his questions. "I beg your pardon, sir?" he asked, obviously taken aback. It was almost as if the man was offering to pay Lawry to take her off his hands and wanting to negotiate the price. He almost bristled at the implied understanding that he was only interested in Clare because of the dowry that came with her. "I believe that is up to your discretion," he countered, refusing to name a price.

"Aye, and I've an abundance of discretion," Alfred said almost jovially, glancing back at the younger man. "She's a pretty piece, a little wild at the edges but no less pretty for all that. She'll make you happy or miserable, dependent on your treatment of her. Whatever her wishes, this discussion is for men, a negotiation that needs be made." He turned to look Lawry directly in the eye. "I know your circumstances as well as you know mine, Lord Arden. And still I ask you this - would you take her for nothing, sir, tradition be damned?"
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PostPosted: Thu May 25, 2017 2:48 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Lawry hadn't quite been expecting that question from the man. Perhaps it had been unwise to come here today and let his intentions be known. It was no secret any longer that he cared for her and that he wanted to make her his wife. Was he willing to do it without the added bonus of a dowry? And what father would risk the disgrace of allowing his daughter to be married without one? In the end, all Lawry really needed was enough money to pay his father's debts, but there was still one thing in Lawry's favor and that was the fact that Clare's father wanted the one thing only Lawry could give him.

"Let us be honest with each other, then, shall we? One man to another. As I understand it, you wish to elevate your family's social status by marrying your daughter to a man with a title. I can offer you that. That is what is really for bid here, sir, not your daughter's hand in marriage. To answer your question, were it up to me, I would gladly make her my wife today, with or without a dowry, but to do so would be selfish on my part. There are other people who are depending on me, other people who will suffer if I do not succeed in obtaining a dowry at least large enough to pay off my father's debts and remove the stain against my family's good name. So, you see, Mr. King, even if I wanted to say yes, I could not. And yet, I would appeal to your position as a father. Would you not wish to see your daughter happy? Would it not be worth a substantial sum to ensure her happiness?"

Alfred watched as Lawry declared his intentions, listening as much to what wasn't said as to what was. Though the younger man had not said as much, his emphasis on Clare's happiness spoke volumes to her father, and his honesty about his circumstances was readily commendable. "And what father would I be, sir, if I did not ensure that it is my daughter you want to marry, and not simply her fortune?" he countered with a smirk. "You've answered me well, with honesty and clarity of purpose, something I've not had from many of your class. I've one caveat, if you'll allow me - wed her by the end of September. She's been a wallflower too long, and long engagements are only a fad."

Lawry had prepared himself for the need to say more, to argue with only words as proof of his good intentions for Clare. Now that her father had so readily agreed to an engagement, he found himself almost dumbfounded as to what to say next. Though they had not yet agreed on a sum, he was relieved to at least have impressed the man enough that they had his permission. "I can assure you, sir, that her happiness is my utmost concern, and with your leave, I would be happy to wed her whenever she so desires," he said, knowing weddings didn't usually happen overnight. There were preparations to be made, people to invite.

"Aye, and you'll have a wish to begin setting your estate into order as soon as may be, no doubt," Alfred agreed, moving to his desk. He had apparently discussed his daughter's wishes extensively with his wife, for he picked up a banker's draft for £10,000, handing it to Lawry. "A gift, on the occasion of your engagement, sir. Her dowry will be the £30,000 I always intended to bestow on her, regardless of her choice, and I'll not hear a word against either piece. You're to be my son, of a sort, and I'm reliably informed that sons do as they're told far more readily than daughters." He cracked a grin, daring Lawry to tell him otherwise.

If Lawry had been dumbfounded by the man's initial offer, he was even more shocked by the sum of money he was willing to offer in advance, not to mention the amount of Clare's dowry, which was nothing short of a small fortune. The additional sum alone was enough to pay his father's debts, with enough money leftover to get his estate in order and ready for a bride. The look on his face said it all, shifting from shock to awe to gratitude. Lawry offered the man a hand, his expression brightening as he was flooded with relief. "Thank you, sir. I promise you will not regret it!"

Chuckling, Alfred shook his hand firmly, the calluses on his fingers betraying that he still walked down to his docks and took a hand in his business, despite his family's rise in fortunes. "I've no doubt I will not, sir," he agreed cheerfully. "No other man has stood before me and declared he would take her for nothing, nor acknowledged that there is more than himself in this world. You're a good sort of fellow. I look forward to knowing you better."

Though the man had only just met him, Clare's mother had seen quite a bit of Lawry since he'd started courting her daughter and had likely shared not only her thoughts of him but her daughter's wishes. For the first time in a long time, Lawry was starting to feel hopeful about his own and his family's future. The man's praise was not lost on the younger man, who had rarely heard praise from his own father before he had died. "I thank you again," Lawry echoed, shaking the man's hand a little too vigorously. "I must go tell Clare," he murmured aloud. "With your leave, of course."

"I doubt you'll have to look far," Alfred predicted with a low chuckle. "Off you go, off you go. My wife and I will join you in the conservatory. The woman adores that room for some unknown reason." He waved his hand to dismiss Lawry, treating a peer of the realm the same way he did his servants, his friends, even his own family.

There was no hesitation on Lawry's part as he strode toward the door to locate Clare and share the good news. There was something else he wanted to share with her, as well, but interrupted as they'd been by her father, he hadn't had the chance.

As her father had predicted, Lawry didn't have to go far to find his fiancee. If he'd been just a little faster opening the door, he would have found her still bent double, listening at the place where the keyhole should be. Instead, he was in time to see her whip herself upright, blue eyes wide with innocent surprise at being caught out. "Lawry! I ... Mama is having tea laid in the conservatory," she said hurriedly, offering a reasonable excuse for being so close to the door. And it might have been believable, too, were it not for the bright smile on her face. She'd heard every word.

"Good news! He said yes!" Lawry exclaimed with a grin as he grabbed hold of her hand, having to practically force himself not to jump up and down in excitement. "He's agreed to let us be married," he explained further, though an explanation was hardly necessary.

"Truly?" All right, so it wasn't exactly news to the eavesdropper, but Clare couldn't help her response, buoyed up by how excited Lawry seemed to have been accepted by her father. "Oh, Lawry, how wonderful!" Propriety be damned - she let out a joyous laugh and threw her arms about his neck, giggling with unfettered delight. Thank goodness they were behind the closed doors of her family home.

He laughed with her, his arms going around her waist without thinking and lifting her off the floor to twirl her around in a circle, both of them obviously overjoyed by the news and forgetting propriety all together. Remembering himself, he set her on her feet and looked around as if to see if anyone had been watching before grasping hold of her hand. "Is there somewhere we can go? There's something I need to ask you."

Strange, how the touch of his bare hand on hers felt somehow more intimate than the embrace they had just shared, bringing fresh color into her cheeks as she smiled up at him. "The veranda beyond the conservatory?" she suggested. "No one will eavesdrop on us there."

"All right," he agreed with a nod of his head, letting her lead the way. Her hand felt good in his, like it belonged there - small and soft and warm against his palm, his fingers tangled with her. Now that they had her father's permission to be married, they could enjoy such simple pleasures, so long as they were out of the public eye. Once the engagement was officially announced, they'd even be able to do so in public.
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PostPosted: Thu May 25, 2017 2:48 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

With a gentle tug on his fingers, she backed toward the conservatory, only turning when it became necessary to open the door and draw him out of the sight and sound of her parents. She knew they would make themselves known in the conservatory before long, but one thing the Kings understood very well was the need for a little privacy every now and then between a newly engaged pair. Stepping out onto the veranda, she breathed in the smell of the climbing wisteria, the sunlight making her copper curls shine as she turned back to him with a warm smile. "I can scarcely believe it," she confessed. "That you chose me at all."

While the view on the veranda was lovely, it was nothing compared to the beauty standing before him. Whatever attraction he'd felt for her before seemed to pale compared to what he was feeling now. "Why does that come as such a surprise to you?" he asked, daring to slide his arms around her waist as he breathed in her scent, mingled with that of wisteria.

Hands that trembled only a little lay flat against his chest as he drew her close, surprised and warmed by a level of physical contact she had never experienced from anyone but her family before this moment. "I have been overlooked, or dropped abruptly, by every gentleman who ever took the trouble to learn my name," she said softly. "I did not dare to hope that you might truly want me for your wife. Yet I am glad, so glad, that you are here, Lawry. I may call you Lawry now, mayn't I?"

"And I may call you Clare," he countered with a smile. All those who'd let her slip through their fingers had been nothing but fools, and yet, it was those very fools he had to thank for being here right now. "I am sorry for the pain those other men may have caused you, but I am grateful they did not claim you for their own."

"As am I," she breathed tenderly, unaware of the intimacy of her gaze as her eyes found his once more. "You are so much more than I could ever have hoped for, more than I ever believed I deserved. I do not care about your title, or your lands. I care for you, Lawry, I hope you know that."

"As I care for you, Clare," he echoed quietly, unable to resist saying her name once again - a name as lovely as she was. He frowned a little, though, at the thought of her money and the reality that his financial situation was what had forced him to seek a bride. Her dowry would make life easier for them both, but it was humbling to know that it was needed. "I want you to know I'm not marrying you for your money. If money were my only objective, I would have sought a bride from the wealthiest family."

"Oh, Lawry, I know you did not court me purely for the money," she assured him fondly. "If you had only designs upon my dowry, you would not have troubled to know me at all. Indeed, you could simply have written to my father asking for my hand, and had the whole thing arranged without ever seeing me at all."

"I do care for you, Clare. I want you to know that. I wish you to be happy, but ..." He frowned, feeling the shame of the crippling debt his father had incurred that had forced this decision upon him. "I cannot give you the life you deserve without a dowry," he admitted shamefully. Though it was a common enough occurrence, and the reason for his first marriage, he had his pride.

"Shh." Her hands crept from his chest to touch his jaw, daring her own bravery to smooth her fingers over his skin as she smiled for him. "My life will be with you," she told him in a firm tone, however gently she spoke. "And we will begin again, away from the sins of our fathers. There is no shame in moving forward, Lawry. Not if we do it together."

"I do not know what I did to deserve you, Clare, but I will be forever grateful that we met," he told her, daring to lean close enough to brush a kiss to the top of her head. But he had not wanted to speak to her alone to say any of this, but for another reason he had not yet revealed.

She dipped her head as he leaned in, not quite brave enough to ask for the kiss she knew now she would receive, eventually. It might take months, but she would taste him on her lips someday. "I think perhaps my mother and your sister should be gifted with something for arranging everything so deviously."

"Perhaps, but it was I who picked you out of a crowd that very first night at the opera," he told her, admitting perhaps for the first time his own part in the choosing of a bride. "When I saw you that night, I thought you were the loveliest women I have ever seen," he told her, now that they were engaged and there was no reason to keep these things to himself any longer.

The blush he had come to know very well over the past month colored her cheeks as he admitted to having picked her out that first night they had met, charmed and delighted to realize that she was his choice first and foremost. "Lovelier in my ignorance, or after your title was revealed to me?" she asked teasingly. It was a clumsy tease, certainly, but the wrap of his arms about her waist was doing fascinating things to the rest of her.

It was certainly tempting to have her so close and to wonder if her lips tasted as luscious as they looked, but he thought it might be too soon for a kiss, and he certainly didn't want to do so where her parents might interrupt them again. Instead, he pulled away a little so that he could reach into a pocket for something he had hidden there. "As lovely before as after," he replied, before reaching for her hand to slide something small and round and sparkly onto her finger.

She laughed, shaking her head at his compliments. "I am sure I am not the loveliest woman you have ever encountered, sir, I -" She broke off as he took her hand, her eyes opening wide as she recognized the sensation of a ring being slipped onto her finger. A ring she could not wear openly until their engagement was announced, certainly, but still ... "Lawry," she breathed, unsure why she was so touched and surprised. He was not the sort of man to do anything by halves.

He did not need ask her to be his bride, as she had already given him an answer to that, but he wasn't too sure whether she'd like the ring, especially once she found out where he'd obtained it. "It belonged to my mother," he explained, a hint of worry in his voice. "I can sell it if you like and you can pick out something more in fashion," he suggested quickly, just in case she hated it.

"Don't you dare," she told him quite vehemently, hugging her hand to her chest as though he might pluck the ring from her finger and do just that. "It is an honor to wear your mother's ring. And it is beautiful. Thank you." A soft smile touched her face as she glanced down at the sparkling sapphire surrounded by diamonds that adorned her hand. Caught by a sudden impulse, she raised herself onto her toes, daring to kiss his cheek.

It was a ring that, for whatever reason, he had chosen not to give to his first wife. There had been no way of knowing then that he'd be widowed and eventually wish to remarry, but the simple fact that he'd hung onto his mother's ring for so long, despite everything, spoke volumes of what she'd once meant to him. He mirrored her smile, relieved that he had made the right decision in giving it to her, and surprised by the reward of a kiss, even if it was only to his cheek. "It is a ring befitting a beautiful woman," he told her quietly, a blush rising to his cheeks.

"Then I shall just have to wear it until our daughter is old enough," she teased him fondly, so accustomed to deflecting compliments that even his were gently swept aside. Her fingertips touched his cheek. "Why, Lord Arden, I do believe you are blushing."
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PostPosted: Thu May 25, 2017 2:49 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

It was hard to say whether it was the kiss or the mention of her beauty that had made him blush, but he smiled in embarrassment at the mention of it, which only made him blush all the more. "I feel like a schoolboy in your presence," he admitted, only further embarrassed by his own statement. "But I am happy that you like it. It means a lot to me that you wear it."

"I do like it," she promised him, emboldened by his blushing admission to raise herself up once more and kiss his cheek. "I like it very much." She touched the tip of her nose to his, tilting her head to kiss his other cheek. "I'm evidently a wanton woman, not to be able to control myself now that I am yours."

He smiled as she touched her nose to his and kissed his cheek again, not once, but twice, his arms creeping around her waist again, though he did not pull her too close. "Your father wishes us to wed before the end of September," he told her, feeling a flutter of excitement at the thought of that. She would be his wife sooner, rather than later, and then they would not have to worry so much about pretenses and protocol.

She bit her lip as his arms found their way about her waist once more, the flush on her cheeks reviving even as his faded. "The twentieth?" she suggested, the first date that came to mind. A little over a month after the Season ended in London, time enough for her mother to whisk her over to Paris for the trousseau to be procured. "Will we be married from Chatham, or Arden?"

There was that twinkle of amusement as she presumably picked a date at random. "And why the twentieth?" he asked curiously, pulling her just a little bit closer. "Which would you prefer? I have no preference."

She gasped softly as his embrace tightened just enough to pull her in that bit closer, her fingers curling to the sleeves of his jacket, her body swaying toward him without conscious thought. She admired him greatly; his mind, his passion, his empathy ... these were all admirable traits that made him a good match. But it was becoming increasingly clear that she desired him, too, in a way that her peers would consider intolerably wanton. Women weren't supposed to want like this. "I ... I have no particular reason for that date," she admitted in a hushed whisper. "I would rather not have to share breakfast the morning after our wedding with my parents, however."

"Perhaps we could go on a honeymoon," he suggested. "Is there anywhere you would like to go?" he asked further. He had the banker's draft from her father in his coat pocket, which was more than enough money to afford them such a trip, and he had to admit a little time away from their families and alone with his bride was a very tempting thought.

"Anywhere?" His question clearly surprised her, her expression opening with unexpected confusion as she tried to clear her mind enough of him to be able to formulate a sensible response. "I ... I have no idea. I have not traveled for three years. Where would you wish to go?"

"Anyplace where we can be alone," he replied, this time pulling her close, unable to resist any longer. His heart was beating hard, and his body was reminding him what it felt like to want someone, but he was content for the moment merely to hold her and to know she was his.

He was rewarded with another soft gasp, the sight of her cheeks flushing to rose as she found herself unaccountably breathless at their closeness. Her grip tightened on his sleeves, her gaze flickering to his lips even as she endeavored to produce a somewhat coherent response to his request. "The Lakes, perhaps?" she heard herself suggest. "A cottage out of the way somewhere, just you and I." And hopefully a cook, because her talents did not extend to the kitchen.

Lawry was a little surprised to hear that his future bride didn't want to travel to France or Italy or anywhere else too far from home, but he was just as glad. The thought of the two of them relaxing at the Lakes sounded like a perfect way to spend a honeymoon and start their marriage. It would certainly give them plenty of time to relax and get to know each other better, not to mention enjoy the obvious benefits of married life. "That sounds perfect. Shall I have my sister make the arrangements?"

A shy smile flickered over her face as she nodded. She had become quite fond of Lady Constance in the past weeks, though she was still intimidated by a woman who had been running not one, but two households, for ten years. "Yes," she agreed. "And we may be married from Arden, if your staff will not mind housing my parents, and my sister, for a few nights."

"I'm sure we will be able to accommodate your family there," he assured her, smiling now that their plans were made and they had her father's blessing. "Your parents are waiting for us in the conservatory," he told her, though he was enjoying this, their first real moment of privacy since they'd started courting. "We should probably join them."

Clare glanced toward the conservatory doors, where her parents were just visible, sitting together at the table and doing their best not to seem too curious about the embrace taking place not far from them. She blushed, turning her eyes back to his as she smiled once more. "We should," she agreed reluctantly, smoothing the creases on his sleeves where her fingers had held on so tightly. "Another time, for us."

"We have all the time in the world," he told her, leaning in to touch another affectionate kiss to the top of her head. He knew that wasn't quite true. In fact, he knew how short life could really be, but this time around, he planned on enjoying every moment of every day spent in her company for as long as Fate allowed.

That smile belonged entirely to him, lighting up her face even as she stepped back to take his arm and draw him in to take tea with her parents. In a few days, all of London would know of their engagement, and in just a few months, they would be married. And all because of a single night at the opera, when a single redhead stood out among the crowd. The fickle finger of Fate, indeed.
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