Her sister clucked her tongue. “I tell you, something strange is going on at the rooming house. I think we have a thief in the Queen’s Ruby.”
“I think you just enjoy believing so.”
“I have my eye on Miss Bertram. She’s such an odd duck.”
Charlotte just laughed. “Speaking of birds, I’m going to have a look at the plumes.”
Her sister drifted away, and Diana concentrated on the display of lorgnettes. They didn’t have any that matched the style of Mama’s missing one, so she was left to choose the next best. She was just about to ask the shopgirl to bring out two for comparison when a man clad in dark chocolate brown approached her and interrupted in a deep voice.
She turned to him, taking his cue and playing as though they were strangers. “Yes, sir?”
“Might I ask your opinion, as a lady?”
She looked him down, then up. “I should be glad to help if I can be of service.”
He drew to the side, motioning for her to follow. He paused over a case filled with beaded reticules and lace gloves and tooled ivory fans.
“I’d like to buy a gift for my sweetheart,” he said. “And I’m not sure what she’d like. I thought perhaps you might be so good as to help me choose.”
A helpless smile tugged at her lips. He didn’t need to buy her anything, but she couldn’t deny the thought made her dizzy with joy.
Until Charlotte popped between them. “Mr. Dawes, you have a sweetheart? Who is it? Who?”
Aaron watched as Diana’s cheeks paled. She gave him a look of pure panic.
“Do tell, do tell.” Miss Charlotte bounced on her toes. “Who is your sweetheart, Mr. Dawes?”
He didn’t know what to say. He didn’t want to lie, but clearly Diana hadn’t told her sister anything about the two of them. That struck him as a mite strange—his own sisters had told one another everything about their romances. But they were closer in age than the eldest and youngest Highwoods were. And more to the point, they’d never gone courting with young men from a different social class.
“Charlotte, don’t harass him so,” Diana chided. “Is your business complete, Mr. Dawes?” She was clearly anxious to change the subject.
“Yes, thank you. And your shopping?”
“Nearly done.” She called to the shopgirl and asked her to wrap up one of the lorgnettes.
“We have some time before we need to start back,” Aaron said. “I thought perhaps the three of us could take some luncheon at—”
“But you haven’t purchased your sweetheart’s gift yet,” Charlotte said.
God, the girl was like a bulldog with a bone.
“Do tell us who it is, and we’ll help you choose. Is it Sally? Pauline? Oh! I know. Gertrude, the upstairs maid from Summerfield.”
Charlotte snapped her fingers. “One of the Willett girls. Or that miller’s daughter from the next parish. What’s her name again? Betsy?”
“Do we know her?” she asked.
Diana gathered her purchase from the shopgirl and thumped her sister with it. “Charlotte, stop. You’re embarrassing him.”
Embarrassing her, too, Aaron would warrant.
“We’d be glad to take some luncheon,” she went on. “Thank you very much for the suggestion, Mr. Dawes.”
He was quiet over their meal of pigeon pie. He didn’t know what to make of her reluctance to tell the truth. She wasn’t ready to tell anyone, obviously. He supposed it was understandable, this soon. But would she ever be ready? That was the larger question.
Perhaps she didn’t see matters going that far.
Aaron surreptitiously touched the packet buried deep in his breast pocket—the small quantity of gold and gemstones he’d accepted in payment from the jeweler. He’d requested compensation in materials rather than coin, thinking he’d make something special with it.
But now he was feeling like a fool. If Diana didn’t even feel ready to tell her own sister about them, Aaron was getting too far ahead of himself.
He lifted his ale and regarded her over it. Like she did so often, she fidgeted with the slender chain always about her neck and the vial of tincture at the end of it.
She wasn’t wearing the vial on her chain today. Instead, he saw his pendant. The quatrefoil one he’d made for her. The one she’d been hiding in pockets and under pillows for months. Until today.
It wasn’t a public confession. But it was something, that.
He drained his ale and thumped the tankard on the table. “If you don’t mind,” he announced, “I’ve an errand on our way back to Spindle Cove. Someone I promised I’d call on today.”
Charlotte perked with interest. “Is it your sweetheart?” And close on the heels of her question, “Ow!”
He was certain Diana had kicked her under the table.
“No, Miss Charlotte, it’s not my sweetheart. It’s my sister.”
“Aaron Jacob Dawes, what are you doing?” Jemma chased him around the kitchen, flogging him with a damp rag and scolding him in shouted whispers. “I could have your hide, bringing such ladies around to my house with no notice.”
He held up his hands in innocence. “Don’t be angry. They’re fine.”
His sister peered through the doorway into the small sitting room, where Diana and Charlotte were sitting with Jemma’s three small children and a tray of tea biscuits.
“You’re lucky I baked this morning. That’s all I can say.” Jemma gave him the sharp side-eye that all the Dawes women used.
“You know why I’m here.” He plucked a set of shears from a drawer and handed it to her. “Let’s go outside and have this done.”
Aaron removed his coat and cravat, then assumed his usual seat on a stump in the back garden. The air smelled damp and green. A few early daffodils were poking through the ground.
Jemma set about clipping his hair. Several moments passed in quiet, save for the snipping of scissors. Jemma was a stubborn woman—always had been—but insatiably curious as well. He sensed a battle going on between her desire to know and her unwillingness to ask. But if he kept silent long enough, he knew which side would win.
He smiled at the clump of toadstools near his boot. “So.”
“What exactly are you doing with this Miss High-and-Mighty-Wood?”
“No, no. She’s quite nice, I’m sure. And beautiful as anything. I just don’t know what she’s doing with you.”
“She’s catching a ride to and from Hastings. That’s what she’s doing.”
“Aaron. You cannot expect me to believe that. You brought her here. I’m cutting your hair.”
The violence of her snipping began to alarm him. He was afraid he’d lose the top of an ear.
He said, “Stop clucking over me like a mother hen. I’m a grown man. I’m entitled to my privacy.”
She snorted. “After all the headaches you gave my Dennis, I think I’ve earned my turn.” Her voice softened as she set the scissors aside and ran her fingers through his trimmed hair. “I just don’t want to see you hurt.”
He stood, turned, and looked down at her from his full height, as if to say, You’re worried about this getting hurt?
She brushed the clipped hair from his shoulder. “Yes, you’re big. Yes, you’re strong. Big and strong don’t add up to invincible. I remember too well what happened with that schoolteacher.”
He sighed with annoyance. “That was ages in the past. And Miss Highwood isn’t anything like that.”
Years ago, Aaron had taken a liking to a schoolteacher from a nearby village. They’d done some courting; he’d made some plans. Only to learn that she’d never been interested in a future with him. She’d just been hoping to make a certain bank clerk jealous—and she’d dropped Aaron like a hot brick the moment her ploy had worked. She was married to that clerk now. They lived in Lewes, in a house with glazed windows.
“I’ve known Miss Highwood for nearly two years, Jemma. She’s a fine person.”
“Mm-hm. Fine indeed. Too fine for you. That’s a lady what could marry into a fortune. A grand house. Fine carriage. Dozens of servants.”
“Yes, I am. The best way I know how.” Her brown eyes held his. “Let this one go, Aaron.”
He thought of that pendant hanging about Diana’s neck. The tears she’d shed at his kitchen table because she’d let his dinner escape. The sweetness of her kiss.
“I can’t let her go. We have something.”
Jemma huffed out her breath. “Well, whatever your ‘something’ is . . . I hope you’re prepared to fight for it.”
I am, he thought to himself.
She crossed her arms and peeked into the house again. “I’ll say this for her. She’s been in there counting jacks with Billy for near a quarter hour. No one would put up with that child’s games unless she were related to him, or hoping to be.”
Her grudging approval made him smile. It was what he’d come for, after all.
“Billy’s a good boy. He has a good mum.” He gave his sister a fond rub on the top of the head, just as he’d done when she was a girl. “I’ll stock up your woodpile before I go.”
An hour later, Diana thanked her kind—but notably wary—hostess for the tea and biscuits and expressed a wish to have a wander in the garden.
She rounded the side of the house, only to narrowly miss a collision—
He had shorter hair. And three children clinging to him—a giggling niece attached to either leg, and Billy hanging from his neck. She’d obviously caught them in the middle of a favorite game.
“You . . .” Diana cleared her throat and said in a low, solemn voice, “Mr. Dawes, you have a little something.” She motioned discreetly toward her body, indicating the position of Billy’s stranglehold on his neck. “Just here.”
“Hm.” He shook his whole body, as if he were a dog just come out of a lake. All three children clung tight and laughed.
“Did that take care of it?” he asked.
He shook again, and the children laughed harder.
“Well, then.” He frowned in exaggerated concentration. “Perhaps I need a good dousing in the stream.”
At that, the children squealed, released him, and ran away shrieking. Diana laughed, too.
He stood tall and straightened his clothing. “Sorry to have taken so long.”
“Not at all. Please don’t apologize.”
“Jemma’s husband is at sea for months at a time. I try to come by every so often to keep the woodpile stocked, fix the leaks and sticking doors . . .”
“Chase the children around the garden,” she finished for him.
Diana could have sworn she felt her womb shiver. What an excellent husband and father he’d make. Protective, affectionate, devoted.