“I know.” She dried her eyes and drew in a breath. “I don’t know why I’m sitting here weeping. I just wanted so badly for this meal to come out right.”
Aaron put a roughened hand over her delicate one, touched by the implication of her words. She wanted more than just the meal to come out right. She wanted this to work between them, and so did he. But it wouldn’t be easy.
“There’s hope yet.” With a fond squeeze to her hand, he stood. “Let’s clean this up and make something to eat.”
They worked together. While Aaron rebuilt the fire, Diana wiped the table and swept the floor—and then she ducked outside for a moment to wash her face and tame her frazzled hair. She did have some vanity.
She returned to find Aaron taking eggs and hard cheese from the larder.
“I hope omelette will do,” he said. “I don’t know any fancy cuisine, but I’ve become quite accomplished in bachelor cooking. Once my mother and sisters moved away, it was that or starve.”
“Omelette sounds wonderful.” She marveled at the way he could carry four eggs in one hand, holding them each separate with his big fingers. “Where did they move to? Your mother and sisters, I mean.”
“They both married sailors. One married a navy man, and she moved to Portsmouth. Mum went with her to help while he’s at sea. The other lives over near Hastings. Her husband’s a merchant sailor.”
“Do you have nieces and nephews?”
“Five so far,” he said proudly. He broke the last egg and added it to the bowl. “If you want to help, you could pare some shavings of that cheese.”
She gathered a board and a small knife, then set about slicing the cheese as thinly as she could. Simple as the task was, she still had a near miss with the blade. His forearms were every bit as distracting in the kitchen as they were in the forge. She was entranced, watching him whisk the eggs with a long-handled fork.
He was so good with his hands in every situation. It was hard not to imagine the wonders those hands could work on her.
She ducked her head and finished paring the cheese.
He took a skillet from a hook and cut a lump of butter into it before carrying it over to the fire.
While he cooked the omelette, Diana sliced a loaf of bread and set the table for two. A burst of whimsy led her to gather two china candlesticks from a high shelf, dust them, and fit them with tapers.
He smiled when he saw them. “That’s nice. Those don’t get used often.”
As they sat down to eat, she felt like she’d finally done something right.
“I’ve been wondering.” He jabbed at his food, gathering a man-sized forkful of eggs. “So you’re named Diana, for the Roman goddess of hunting.”
“Right.” He wolfed down another bite of eggs. “And then your next sister is Minerva.”
“So where does ‘Charlotte ’come in? Shouldn’t she be a goddess, too?”
“She was meant to be. Those classical names were all the fashion in my mother’s day, and you know my mother is always concerned with the latest fashion.” She pushed the eggs around her plate. “She had the idea to name all her daughters after deities. I think Charlotte was supposed to be Venus. No, no. Vesta.”
He choked on his food. “Either is cruel.”
“I know, I know. My father’s name was Charles, and they’d been waiting to name a son for him. But he fell ill while my mother was pregnant the third time. I think my mother knew there wouldn’t be a fourth child, or any son at all. So that’s how Charlotte was named Charlotte and spared the cruelty of Vesta.”
He put down his fork. “I’m sure she’d rather have the cruel name if it meant having her father. I shouldn’t have joked.”
“Don’t be sorry. Nearly everything my mother does is ripe for ridicule. But occasionally she does mean well.”
They finished their simple meal all too quickly.
“Look at that,” he said. “The sun’s come out. Just in time to disappear again.”
“I really ought to be going back to the Queen’s Ruby. If I’m not there when dinner’s called, they’ll be worried.”
He walked her outside and they stood there, side by side, watching the sun sink toward the horizon. A fiery red ball, painting the clouds with vibrant shades of pink and orange.
“My father used to say, Christ might be a carpenter, but the Heavenly Father is a blacksmith. He melts the sun down every night and forges it again the next morning.”
“No, it’s rubbish. At least that’s what I decided after he died. If a good man slumps over his anvil at the age of two-and-forty, his Creator is no kind of craftsman. I inherited his forge, not his faith.” His chest rose and fell in a thoughtful sigh. “But then, every once in a while, I see something so finely made, so exquisitely wrought”—he turned to her—“I can’t help but wonder. Maybe he was right.”
He brushed a light touch down her cheek. “Only a divine hand could make something this lovely. Christ, you’re perfect.”
She laughed a little. Partly because she was amused by his blend of reverent wonder and shameless blasphemy. And partly because it made her uncomfortable.
“I’m not perfect,” she said. “Not inside, not out.”
“You’re a terrible cook. That I’ll grant you. You can’t hold your liquor, either. And you have questionable taste in men. So no, you’re not perfect.” His voice sank to a husky whisper, and his gaze dropped to her mouth. “But you’re close. Close enough to restore a man’s faith in miracles.”
Her heart fluttered as he leaned in for a kiss.
“Dawes!” The call came from around the other side of the smithy. “Dawes, are you here?”
Diana jumped back, worried they’d been seen. And then she worried she’d offended Aaron with her swift recoil. Again.
She didn’t know which of her concerns he meant to allay.
For his part, he didn’t show any unease. He walked out around the smithy and greeted the man. Evidently a horse needed shoeing.
She heard Aaron speak to him. “Walk him around, and I’ll be right along. Just have to fetch something from the house for Miss Highwood.”
Diana patted her hands down her front. Gloves, cloak, reticule. She had everything she’d come with, but she followed him anyway.
“What was it you needed to give me?”
He lashed an arm about her waist, pressing her up against the wall and claiming her mouth in a passionate kiss. No time for preliminaries today. He took what he wanted, thrusting his tongue deep and putting his hands in places that were just this side of scandalous. The light boning of her corset pressed into her torso—the one thing holding her together, while the rest of her seemed to dissolve.
“Right,” she breathed a few moments later. “I’m glad you didn’t let me leave without that.”
He trailed kisses toward her ear. His whiskered jaw scraped deliciously against her cheek. “I’m taking my work to Hastings tomorrow,” he murmured. “Invent some reason you need to go along. Shopping. Someone to visit. Anything.”
“I . . . I could do that. So long as Charlotte comes with us.”
“Good.” After one last kiss to her lips, he pulled away. “I’ll come for you at the rooming house, first light.”
He left her there, slumped breathless against the wall. Her head whirled, and God only knew where her knees had disappeared to.
She smiled weakly to herself. “I’ll be waiting.”
“Why, Mr. Dawes,” Charlotte said. “I almost didn’t recognize you, you look so smart this morning.”
“I’m on business today,” he said, tugging down the brim of his hat. “Best to look the part.”
He did look splendid, Diana had to agree. He was dressed in a rich brown topcoat that made her think of melted chocolate. His freshly starched neckcloth made a delicious contrast with his bronzed skin and dark hair.
That hair was still a touch too long, curling in dark waves at his collar. Staring at it made her wistful.
They didn’t have Mr. Keane’s curricle today—just Aaron’s own wagon. The seat was wide enough to fit three, and Diana took the middle. The morning was brisk, and he tucked a rug over their laps.
Hastings was almost two hours’ distance away, and they passed the first hour or so in near silence. Which was not to say that no communication was happening. One side of Diana’s body—the side pressed against him—had developed a manner of speaking all its own. They were having a whole conversation in subtle exchanges of heat and pressure and “accidental” brushes of arm against arm, knee against knee. Each touch electrified her. She had to ration her glances in his direction so as not to give Charlotte any idea.
The secret pleasure of their flirtation made her giddy. They weren’t even halfway to their destination, and already this was her favorite outing in years.
“Lud, you two are silent,” Charlotte finally declared. “We must talk about something.”
“I’m glad we’ve had this break in the rain,” Diana said.
“And not the weather!” Charlotte complained. “I’m exhausted of everyone discussing the weather.”
“What is it you’ll be needing in town?” Aaron asked. “Where can I drop you when we reach Hastings?”
“We must visit the draper’s first,” Charlotte answered. “That’s our main errand. We need yards and yards of white for Diana’s costume, and there wasn’t enough in the All Things shop.”
Diana forgot she hadn’t told him about the theatrical. Whenever they’d been alone together, there had been too many other things to discuss. And too many kisses to share.
“Yes, that’s why we’re going to Ambervale on Thursday,” Charlotte explained. “We’re presenting a theatrical. A pantomime on the life and death of Saint Ursula. I’m playing Cordula, and Diana is playing the lead.”
“Oh, is she?” Aaron slid her an amused look. “Now that would be something to see.”
“You should come,” Charlotte said eagerly. “Everyone’s coming. Captain Thorne will be there, of course. And I just received a letter from Minerva yesterday. She and Lord Payne will be coming down from London to attend.”
“I might like to see them. What do you think, Miss Highwood?” he asked. “Would I be welcome?”
“I suppose. So long as you promise not to laugh.”
When they reached Hastings, Aaron saw them to the draper’s before taking his wagon to the mews and completing his business. Diana and Charlotte spent the next hour debating sateen versus crepe, then purchasing great spools of ribbon and gold braid to make headdresses for each of Ursula’s eleven handmaidens.
“When he’s playing Prince Meriadoc, do you think Lord Drewe will wear a codpiece?” Charlotte whispered.
“What a question! I’m sure I don’t want to notice it if he does.”
“Well, he’s going to notice you.” Charlotte draped a length of white brocade over Diana’s shoulder. “You’ll be stunning.”
Uncomfortable with that line of conversation, Diana took the fabric and folded it away. She moved on to the display cases. “I must find a new lorgnette for Mama. Hers has disappeared.”