Authors: Courtney Milan
Tags: #historical romance, #childhood sweethearts, #victorian, #victorian romance, #sexy historical romance, #friends to lovers
Table of Contents
For OuiOui. With a kiss on the cheek, perhaps a little too close to the ear.
A small village in Kent, Spring, 1845
AVENANT HAD JUST
three days to woo and marry a woman.
Right now, the only things standing between him and the object of his affections were an exuberant field of colored tulips, a walkway of white crushed stones, and seven years of pointed silence on his part.
It had been that long since last he’d set foot in Chester-on-Woolsey—seven long years in which he’d buried himself in his work, trying to forget dark hair and darker eyes, the feel of her skin, the sound of her laugh.
It hadn’t worked. Everything he’d done had reminded him of this place.
Simon had walked to Barrett’s Folly—the little property she had inherited from her aunt—from the railway station three miles distant. He’d diverted from his destination only long enough to leave his valise at the inn in town. The man who had assigned him his room was new to the area; he’d not even blinked in recognition when Simon gave his name.
At that early hour, only the bakery had been open. He’d stopped for a bun, but old Mrs. Brandell hadn’t remembered him, either. There was no reason the little village should recall him. He’d merely spent his childhood holidays here.
Nevertheless, it seemed unfair that he should have thought so often of Chester-on-Woolsey, while its inhabitants scarcely gave him so much as a backward glance. Still, he reminded himself as he watched the tulips wave before him, he’d come here for one reason, and one reason only. And she was in the house now in front of him.
The first glints of morning sunlight spangled off windows that needed washing. Barrett’s Folly had never been more than a cottage, but it seemed even tinier than he remembered. It had been just large enough for an aging woman and her scapegrace niece. He’d only been here twice over Easter, but both times he’d been struck by the effect of the tulips: two full acres, blooming in a riot of pinks and golds and reds.
One didn’t think of tulips as having an aroma—not like roses or gardenias. But massed in the tens of thousands, he could breathe in their scent: subtle and green and new, a smell that made him remember a time when he’d had nothing but hope for the world. It curled around his heart like a fist, that awakening nostalgia.
But even if he’d had the inclination to indulge in memories that had grown rather more bitter than sweet, he didn’t have the patience. He certainly didn’t have the time.
Simon adjusted his cravat, which was made of the finest, purest linen, and arranged his cuffs, which were held together at the wrists by gold links set with onyx stones. For richer or poorer, for better or worse, Virginia Barrett—no, damn it, Virginia
—was finally going to be his.
He grabbed hold of his determination, ignored the faint protestations of his irrelevant conscience, and strode forward.
It took several minutes for someone to come when he rapped the knocker smartly. When the door finally opened, the person behind it was a maid-of-all-work, her apron layered with coal dust and white flour alike. She took one look at Simon—at Simon’s cuff links and Simon’s cravat—and frowned in puzzlement.
“Eee,” she said. “You’ll be having the wrong house, then, sir. The Granthams are two miles down, yet.”
So it was the Granthams who had purchased his parents’ old home. He didn’t care.
Simon took off his hat and brushed past her into the entry.
“I am precisely where I intend to be. Go fetch Mrs. Croswell, will you?”
The maid glanced at him, standing uninvited in the entry. Her gaze marched up the shiny gold-plated buttons on his navy coat, and settled on his unsmiling countenance.
“Yes, sir,” she finally said, and ducked back through another door.
She wasn’t a very good maid. And given the time it had taken her to respond, he suspected she was the only one. Curious, that.
He set his hat on a side table, and then his gloves. The same mirror from seven years ago sat in its fading false-gold frame on the wall; when he checked his reflection, he noticed that the edges had begun to spot with age. In the corners of the entry, dust had settled. Simon shook his head.
A door opened, and he turned from his inspection. The maid came through first. Behind him, he could hear a woman speaking.
“...very well,” she was saying. “But I don’t believe—”
The woman marched through the door, swiping flour-dusted hands over an apron. She saw him and stopped midstride.
He had envisioned this moment a thousand times. Sometimes, she threw herself at him. Sometimes, she flushed and looked away. He usually imagined her as she stood in his memory—a young, slim maiden, dressed in demure, light-colored muslins. Often, he’d thought of her in less. Far less.
But in all his imaginings, he had never pictured her as she was now: features made severe by the dark gray of half-mourning. The possibility that she’d be clad in widow’s garb should have occurred to him. Given the reason behind his swift decampment, it seemed idiotic not to have imagined her in somber colors. Maybe, deep down, he had refused to accept that she had married another man.
The years had changed her. They’d carved little laugh lines into the corners of her mouth. She’d rounded out comfortably, her hips and breasts fuller, her arms pleasantly plump.
The discontinuity in his expectations jarred him. She’d been in his thoughts so much over the years that it was disconcerting to discover that she’d existed outside them.
But of course.
She rubbed the back of her hand against her forehead, leaving a trace of flour above her eyebrow. “Mr. Davenant. Why, how lovely to see you.” She gave him a faint, patronizing smile—the sort one might grant to an old acquaintance, long forgot. It might have worked, without that streak of flour.
He crossed his arms. “Are you not going to ask why I’m here?”
She flicked her gaze behind her. “Alice,” she said to the maid, who stood near the wall, “if you’ll finish putting the bread away, I’d be most obliged. Mr. Davenant and I are old friends. We’ll visit in the parlor.”
“Old friends,” he repeated in disbelief.
“We grew up alongside one another.” She was speaking to her maid, but her eyes had not left Simon’s. “At one time, we were quite inseparable.”
“I would not have put it that way,” Simon said, not quite as mildly as he’d intended. “Inseparable means unable to separate. The last seven years suggest something rather different.”
“Oh.” Alice glanced between them, perhaps catching a hint of a dangerous undercurrent. “Shall I bring some tea, ma’am?”
Ginny pursed her lips. “Yes,” she finally said. “That will do nicely. And some of the new bread. And butter. And the raspberry preserves.”
“The, um—” The maid blushed, and glanced at Simon.
raspberry preserves,” Ginny said sweetly. “Not the ones we use when the vicar comes calling.”
Simon scarcely muffled a smile at that. She had not responded to his accusatory tone. She’d always been stubborn—damned stubborn. That, apparently, hadn’t changed. It was what he’d liked best about her.
He waited until they were seated around a table, tea steeping beside them in a chipped china pot, before he spoke again. “How long has it been since last we spoke?” he mused.
She met his eyes levelly. “You know perfectly well, Simon.”
“True.” He picked up his teacup and swirled the dark liquid around. “It was seven years, two months, and three—” He cut himself off. “No. It was four days, not three. That last time we saw each other, you refused to speak to me altogether.”
She hadn’t even blinked at the precise nature of his recollection. “Of course I did.” She took a sip of her tea and smiled, as if that final, bitter argument had become nothing but a fond memory to her. “Can you blame me?”
“No,” he admitted.
In the corner, a clock ticked. He counted off the beats, watching her. Waiting for her to break the silence.
But if the tapping of his fingers unnerved her, she did not show it. Ginny rarely let her emotions show. She simply set down her teacup and turned her saucer precisely. “Sometime in the last seven years, you might have apologized.”
“Unfortunately, no. I could not have done.” He lifted his head. “What I said to you then... It was rude and unpardonable. And yet there has not been a moment between now and then when I could have truthfully taken it back. You see, I meant every word. I still mean it.”
She blinked at him. The long column of her throat contracted in a swallow. It was the first unguarded reaction he’d drawn from her. “Oh,” she said quietly. “That’s interesting.”
“Indeed.” He was watching her very closely. But other than that initial reaction, she betrayed no other response. Not even a twitch of her lips.
“You must be here for a good long while, then,” she said.
“Three days. I’ve urgent business back in town after that.”
“You’ve allotted three days to accomplish all your threats?” Now she did smile. “My. You’ll be working quickly. When last we spoke, you said that if I married Mr. Croswell, I’d regret it.”
“I don’t believe I used quite those words. But yes, you’ve got the general gist of my sentiment.”
She put her head to one side, looking off into the distance. “You claimed that when he passed away, you’d seduce me, and once I’d fallen in love with you, you’d stomp on my bleeding heart and leave me weeping.” She recited those words as sweetly as if she were discussing a favorite recipe for plum preserves. “Oh, don’t give me that freezing look; I’m just trying to make sure our memories are in accord.”
There was only one thing for it. He was going to have to lie.
He reached across the table and took her hand. “You’ve got one thing wrong, Ginny. I didn’t just claim that I’d do those things. I
I would.” He stroked his thumb across her palm. “And you know I always keep my promises.”
His heart was racing. It was just like one of their old games—this time with a touch more bitterness, and with stakes so high he was afraid to breathe. Her hand was cool against his. Another woman might have taken him at his word and pulled away. But after all these years, Ginny still knew him, heart and soul.
She curled her fingers around his. Not in surrender; Ginny never surrendered.
“Goodness,” she said, a faint smile touching her lips. “You think you can accomplish all that in seventy-two hours?”
He drew a little circle on her wrist. “I know I can. You have no idea how these last seven years have honed my instincts.”