Her hand pressed to her chest. “Do I want to have a season in London and marry a lord? Do I want to stay here in the village and become a permanent spinster? Do I want to join a circus? I don’t know, Mr. Dawes. I don’t know, and it terrifies me. All those years of setting aside my emotions. My lungs are healed, but at what cost? I am a stranger to my own heart.”
Raindrops spotted her face, like dew on petals. Damn, this was torture. He wanted to comfort or guard her, but he didn’t know how. She wasn’t his to tend.
He pulled her under the branches of a chestnut tree. The least he could do was shield her from the rain.
“There’s only one thing I feel absolutely certain of,” she said.
Whatever it was, he vowed that she would have it.
At last she’d shaken off the manacles clapped on her—the restraints of illness and her mother’s expectations. Good. Good for her. She deserved to have the things she desired.
“This afternoon.” She drew close. “I wanted you to kiss me. I wanted it more than I can remember wanting anything in my life.”
With that, she tilted her face to his.
Aaron stared down at her, watching the white puffs of her breath as it left her lips. He could taste them. Little clouds of whiskey.
Her eyes fluttered open. “Didn’t . . . didn’t you want to kiss me, too?”
“Then why don’t you? We’re alone. No one ever has to know.”
He snorted at that last. “It’s impossible to keep a secret in this village.”
“No, it’s not. I’ve been keeping all sorts of secrets for years. For example, sometimes I think, very hard, about how you’d look without your shirt. You never would have guessed that, would you? No one would.”
He couldn’t help his startled laugh.
“And I gaze at your hair.” She lifted a hand, and her ungloved fingers caught a lock of his hair. “It gets long sometimes, all the way to your collar. And then one day, it will be short again. I always wonder who you’ve been to see.”
She was half drunk, more than a little overwrought . . . but her words tapped a deep well of curiosity. He’d always known there was more to her than the pretty face everyone admired. He’d known her to possess courage and a good heart. But now, he caught glimmers of other qualities. Sensuality. Jealousy. A sly sense of humor.
This was an entirely new Diana Highwood. A real one. And she was with him, right now, in the rain and dark.
“Won’t you kiss me?” she whispered, sidling close. “Just the once?”
“The thing is, Miss Highwood, I’m not interested in kissing you just the once.”
He propped one finger under her chin, tilting her face back up. “If I were to kiss you, once wouldn’t be enough. I’d want to kiss you many times. In lots of places.”
He doubted she did see. She couldn’t even imagine. A few fingers of whiskey couldn’t provide that much education. The carnal images in his mind could shock the silk from her stockings.
“Listen,” he said, “I know you’ve been living in some sort of cage. And tonight, it seems you learned you’ve been holding the key all along. You deserve a bit of rebellion, but I can’t be it. I can’t be the man you wake up regretting.”
“Then make the kiss good. So I won’t have regrets.” Smiling, she slid her arms around his neck. Her weight pitched forward.
Jesus. She could barely stay on her feet. Which, of course, meant her body was all pressed up against his. Fortunately, her woolen cloak was as thick as a horse blanket.
“Call me Diana.” She let her head fall forward, nestling into his coat.
“Diana.” Until he spoke the name aloud, he hadn’t known how deeply he’d wanted to call her that. Diana, Diana.
“You’re so strong,” she murmured. “And warm. You smell like soap.”
“Diana, I know you. We’ve lived in the same small village for almost two years, and we’ve come through a few trials together. Let’s just say I’ve paid attention. I won’t deny I’ve wanted this, but not this way. You’re confused, upset, and more than a little drunk. This”—he put an arm about her, steadying her—“can’t happen tonight.”
She clung to him, her face stubbornly buried in his coat. He embraced her, trying to keep out the chill. Not entirely selfless valiance on his part. He loved the feel of her in his arms.
He bent his head and murmured in her ear. “I’ll take you home now.”
“No, Diana. It has to be now. Else I’ll be tempted to bring you home with me instead, and then you’d be stuck. All those choices you’ve glimpsed tonight would disappear. Ruined, and forced to marry a craftsman? You don’t want that.”
She didn’t answer. Just hugged him tight.
“You don’t want that,” he repeated more firmly.
Or did she?
She was silent for a few moments, which his heart stretched into hopeful lifetimes.
And then she gave her answer—a soft, unmistakable snore.
The next morning, Diana woke with all sorts of regrets. They were stabbing her straight through the eyes, those regrets. Her pounding head felt like . . .
She groaned, putting a hand to her eyes. She had a hazy memory of coming in through the rooming house door, waving a brief good night to her mother and sister, then stumbling up to her bed. Unfortunately, her memories of throwing herself at Aaron Dawes were all too clear.
Oh, the humiliation. What he must think of her.
She pulled the coverlet up over her head, turning to bury her face in the pillow. A mistake. She couldn’t hide from the memory here. As she pressed her face to the mattress, recollections of last night’s embrace assailed her. His warmth, his solid strength. His honorable treatment of her when she’d cast all her good breeding in the mud at his feet.
Her head throbbed. The rest of her ached with a fierce, hopeless yearning.
“Diana?” Charlotte rapped on the door. “Are you well?”
No. No, I’m not well. I am very poorly in the head. And in the heart. Kindly go away.
“The rain’s let up,” Charlotte said, opening the door a crack. “Mama wants to pay a call at Summerfield. Will you join us?”
Diana was tempted to stay abed and plead headache. She wouldn’t even need to exaggerate. But if there was one thing she was proud of doing last night, it was deciding that she wouldn’t be defined by “delicate health” any longer.
She rose from bed, dressed, choked down a bit of tea and toast, and donned her sturdiest shoes. Perhaps if she walked far enough, she would leave this feeling of mortification behind.
The walk to Summerfield did loosen some of the knots in her stomach. And they all enjoyed their brief visit with Sir Lewis Finch, who told them the latest news of his granddaughter. By the time they began their walk home, the sky had lightened noticeably. Diana could almost forget the embarrassment of last night.
“How did it go last night?” Charlotte asked.
Diana stumbled over a rock. “What do you mean?”
“Your thimble. Did you find it at the Bull and Blossom?”
“Not really. It’s just a thimble. Thimbles go missing.”
“But just this morning, Mrs. Nichols was missing her ink bottle, too. It’s a mystery.”
Diana smiled. Charlotte’s imagination always led her to see more excitement than was truly there. “I’m sure it’s a coincidence.”
“It’s a tragedy,” Mama exclaimed, stopping in the lane. “Oh, this cannot be borne.”
“The disappearance of my thimble, a tragedy? I think I can survive it.”
“No, look.” Mama gestured toward the sky, where the thick blanket of clouds had parted to reveal a patch of blue—and within it, the bright, cheery face of the sun. “The sun is out. Oh, this is dreadful.”
“Dreadful?” Charlotte laughed. “It’s our first sunshine in a fortnight. It’s marvelous.”
“It is dreadful. Because your sister left the rooming house with only her cloak and no proper bonnet.” She hurried to Diana’s side. “Ten minutes of this, and she will freckle. Oh, and less than a week before our invitation to Ambervale. What will Lord Drewe think?”
“If he notices—which I doubt he will—he will think I’ve been in the sun.”
“Exactly!” She tugged at the hood of Diana’s cloak, drawing it up as far as it would go. “Keep your head down, Diana. Just look at your feet.”
Diana lifted her head, letting her hood fall back. “But then how will I see where I’m going? I might fall on my face. I should think Lord Drewe would take more notice of bruises than he would freckles.”
“Head down, I say.” Mama yanked the hood up again.
“No.” Diana thrust it back. “Mama, you’re being ridiculous. This is a beautiful morning. I mean to enjoy it.”
She braced herself for another round of Tug-o’-Hood, but Mama didn’t care to play. She was distracted by the sounds of hoofbeats and carriage wheels and turned to peer down the lane.
“There is Mr. Keane with his curricle. He will save you.”
“Save me? I survived years of asthma. I don’t believe freckles are a terminal condition.”
“Head down,” she snapped. As the curricle drew near, she lifted one arm and waved to him with her handkerchief, like a drowning sailor in need of a rope. “Mr. Keane! Oh, Mr. Keane, do help!”
“He is the vicar. He ought to do a good deed.”
The curricle rolled to a halt in the lane. What with the strong sun and the harsh shadows, it was hard to peer into the covered bench seat—but the driver didn’t seem to be the vicar. This man was rather . . . larger.
“Is there some problem?” he asked in a dark, all-too-familiar baritone.
Oh no. No. It couldn’t be.
What wretched luck. Diana took her mother’s advice. She drew her hood up and stared at her boots.
“Why, Mr. Dawes,” her mother said, her tone wary. “What are you doing with Mr. Keane’s curricle?”
“Mama,” Diana hissed. Good Lord, she made it sound as if he’d stolen the thing.
“And good morning to you, Mrs. Highwood,” Mr. Dawes answered patiently. Out of the corner of her eye, Diana saw him tip his cap. “Miss Charlotte. Miss Highwood.”
She felt his gaze on her. Now it didn’t matter if she stayed out of the sun. A blush this furious would surely stain her cheeks for a month.
“Mr. Keane asked me to mend the axle,” he explained. “I’m out for a short drive to test the repair before I return it. Is something wrong?”
As she listened to her mother carry on about the tragedy of sunshine and the need to keep her daughter’s complexion unmarred for Lord Drewe, Diana squirmed with shame.
“Surely you can drive her back to the rooming house,” Mama said. “I know it’s a liberty, as you are a hired man. But I daresay I can grant permission in Mr. Keane’s stead. It’s what he would do, as a gentleman.”
In how many ways could she insult him? Mr. Dawes was not a “hired man.” He was a skilled craftsman and artisan, and everyone in the village—Mr. Keane included—respected him.