Diana had to look up now. “Please don’t let us trouble you, Mr. Dawes. I’m perfectly fine walking.”

She caught his gaze and tried to send an apologetic look. Forgive her. And me.

His expression was impossible to read. “I’d be glad to give Miss Highwood a ride into the village. I’m going there anyway.”

“That is very good of you,” her mother said. “When I see him, I will be sure to speak highly of your service to Mr. Keane. Perhaps there will be a shilling in it for you.”

Mr. Dawes alighted from the curricle, adjusted the folding hood for maximum shade, then offered his hand to help Diana. Despite the awkwardness of the situation, she took a thrill from the feel of his hand dwarfing hers and the easy strength with which he boosted her onto the seat.

When he joined her, she pressed herself all the way to the opposite side.

“We’ll see you back at the Queen’s Ruby,” Mother said. “Don’t fret about me walking. I will be fine. Even at my age.”

“I’m sure you will be,” Diana muttered.

As Mr. Dawes flicked the reins and set the curricle in motion, Diana slunk down in her corner of the seat.

She learned something new as they rattled down the lane.

Awkwardness wasn’t characterized by silence. Oh, no—awkwardness had a symphony all its own. The thump of an erratic heartbeat, contrasting with the steady squelch of hooves on packed mud. The roar of a thousand unspoken words piled up in one’s throat, all clamoring to get loose. The sound of fence posts whooshing past—each one brought them closer to the village, and each one felt like a stinging lash of rebuke. Another opportunity missed.

Frantic emotion built in her chest. She couldn’t stay quiet any longer.

“Mr. Dawes. Please let me apologize. For my mother just now. And for my behavior last night. And yesterday afternoon. I don’t know what—”

He held up a hand, gently shushing her.

“Truly. You must think me the most presumptuous—”

“Nothing of the sort,” he said, keeping his eyes on the road. “I’m just trying to listen for the axle. I think I heard it creak.”

“Have these for a moment.” He passed her the reins, then bent and twisted away from her, looking over the curricle’s side to observe the axle in motion.

Diana stared down at the leather braids in her hands. Then she looked at the trotting horses and the muddy road flying by beneath them.

He held up that hand again, requesting silence. “Just a moment.”

He straightened and turned to her. “What’s the matter?”

“Kindly take the reins,” she begged. “I don’t know how to drive.”

“You seem to be driving right now.”

“But what if we have to turn? Or slow down? Or stop?” She tightened her grip. “Oh dear. Now they’re going faster.”

He eased closer to her on the seat. His arm pressed against hers. “You’re doing fine. It’s not a busy road, and the horses know their way.” He put his hands over her wrists, shaking lightly. “Just lift the reins a bit and loosen your grip. These are good horses. They’re trained to a soft touch.”

He helped her position the reins, sliding them between her fingers.

“That’s just it. You’re doing well.”

His low, gentle voice entranced her and gave her confidence.

He showed her the commands for right and left; how to urge the horses faster and draw them to a halt. The lesson made for welcome distraction. At least they had something to discuss other than the mortifying events of yesterday.

“Every woman should learn to drive,” he said. “I taught my own sisters when they were old enough. I never understood why the Spindle Cove ladies spend all those mornings shooting pistols and muskets, yet never have driving or riding lessons.”

“I suppose the shooting lessons make us feel strong. In control of ourselves and our lives.” At least, that’s what the ladies’ weekly target practice did for Diana.

He shrugged. “I’m not saying it’s bad. But there’s feeling powerful, and then there’s actually taking the reins. They are a great many situations a woman might do well to drive away from. Very few where it’s advisable to shoot her way out.”

He was right, Diana thought. Loading and shooting a pistol might give a lady a rush of exhilaration, but this was true power. The freedom to choose her own direction, and harnessing the power to take her there.

“There, now you know how to drive.” He moved back to his side of the seat. “Where do you want to go?”

Diana pulled on the reins, drawing the horses to a lurching halt in the middle of the empty lane. “I want to stop right here and apologize to you. I know you don’t wish to speak of yesterday, but I cannot be easy until I say this. You were very kind to me, and I can’t . . . I heard the way my mother spoke to you just now, and I need you to know I don’t think of you that way. When I came to the tavern last night, I wasn’t just seeking a moment of rebellion. I . . .”

She’d been staring at her hands all this time, but she forced herself to look up. At him.

His handsome features were a mask of confusion. Oh, she was making a hash of this.

“May I be honest with you?” she asked. “I think that’s the best strategy. I’ll just say everything I’ve been keeping to myself. And when it’s out, it will surely sound ridiculous. We’ll have a good laugh, and that will be the end of things. Can you bear it?”

His wide mouth crooked in a smile. “I can bear far worse.”

“I . . .” Out with it. “I’ve been infatuated with you for quite some time. It’s terrible.”

“Not that you’re terrible, of course. That ‘s not what I mean. I think you’re remarkable. I’m the terrible one. It all started that night of Finn’s accident. You were so confident and so strong. Just did what needed to be done, and no wavering.”

“That night? Believe me, I was wavering. On the inside, I was wavering.”

“I never would have known it.” She laughed a little. “Of all the places to develop an infatuation. Making eyes at a man over an amputation table. It’s embarrassing, isn’t it?”

“Hardly a story a woman wants to tell her grandchildren someday.”

She felt lighter already. “See, I told you this would all sound ridiculous. Oh, and there’s so much more. You already know that I purposely broke things just to have excuses to come by the smithy. When did you start to realize the truth?”

“Just recently.” His mouth tugged in a self-effacing grimace. “I’m not too sharp.”

She waved off his words. “That’s not true. You’re so perceptive. It’s evident in your finer work. I’ve spent hours poring over your jewelry pieces in the All Things shop. I’ve bought five of them.”

“Yes. Five.” She cringed. “I told Sally I was sending them to friends as gifts. A small taste of Spindle Cove, I said. But I never meant to give any of them away. I kept them all for myself. It was so stupid of me, because once I’d said they were gifts, I couldn’t be seen wearing them. And if I kept them in my jewelry box, Charlotte would find them—she’s always going through my things without permission. So I resorted to keeping them in the chest with my trousseau. They’re wrapped up in a tablecloth.”

“You have five of my pieces in your trousseau?”

“Where’s the other one?” he asked.

She shook her head and pressed a hand to her cheek. “Oh, this is where it gets truly mortifying. There was one I couldn’t bear to put away. But I couldn’t gather the courage to wear it, either. So I took it off its chain and sewed little pockets into my frocks. Every morning, I slip it in as I’m dressing, and at night, I tuck it . . .” She buried her face in her hands.

“Where?” He sounded as if he was enjoying this now.

“Under my pillow,” she moaned into her hands, knowing he’d laugh. “As if I’m a girl of fourteen.”

He did laugh, but he did it good-naturedly.

“I admire all your work, but that one is my favorite. From the moment I saw it in Sally’s display case, I knew I had to have it. It just . . .” She’d come this far. No turning back now. “It seemed made for me.”

He was quiet for a moment. “Was it a little silver pendant with a quatrefoil design?”

“Then you had it right,” he said. “So long as we’re being honest. It was made with you in mind.”

Her heart turned over in her chest. “Oh.”

“I do all my best work with you in mind. I never questioned why you came by the forge because I was just pleased you came. I didn’t want you to stop. And that night with Finn? That’s when it started for me, too.”

They stared at each other. His dark eyes held her rapt.

“I find you terribly handsome,” she blurted out. Because it was the only thing left unsaid.

He rubbed the back of his neck. “I would tell you you’re the kind of lovely that’s unfair to roses and sunsets. But I don’t think this honest conversation is working the way you hoped.”

“No. It’s not. We were meant to be laughing, but none of this seems ridiculous. In fact, it feels more serious by the moment.”

To know that her attraction hadn’t been one-sided—that she’d been right about those long, searching looks he’d given her now and then . . . The vindication buoyed her spirits, and a delicious tingle ran from her scalp to her toes. But from there, she didn’t know what happened next.

Evidently, he had some ideas.

He took the reins from her hands and secured them on the dash rail. Then he gathered her in his arms and drew her close.

Her heart stuttered. This was really going to happen.

She’d run from his kiss the first time.

The second time, she’d begged him for it.

This time, she’d learned her lesson. She did nothing but remain absolutely, perfectly still.

His lips touched hers, imparting that unique blend of strength and tenderness she was coming to treasure. To crave.

But all too soon, he lifted his head. “Have you been kissed before?”

“I don’t know whether to say yes or no. Which answer will make you do it again?”

“Oh, I’m going to do it again.” His thumb stroked her cheek. “Just wanted to know how slow to take things.”

“A little faster would be fine.” She’d been waiting twenty-three years, after all.

His answer was a thrilling, sensual growl. “As you like.”

He renewed the kiss with a series of rough presses of his mouth to hers. Warm friction teased her lips apart, and his tongue swept between them.

The invasion was startling. She felt as though the ground had gone to liquid beneath her, and now she was adrift on unfamiliar seas. Far outside the boundaries of her experience.

As if he sensed her uncertainty, his arms flexed tight, drawing her flush with his chest. Her head naturally tilted back. She was vulnerable beneath him now, and he took control, deepening the kiss. His tongue stroked hers. The grain of his whiskers rasped at the edges of her lips. Intriguing and so essentially male. She wanted to touch him, slide her fingertips down the edge of his jaw. But she lost her courage, afraid to make a mistake and bring an end to everything.