Percy walked out into the dewy grass and paused to smell the fresh summer air. He thought he saw a shadow in the distance and since he was headed that way he stepped forward to follow.
As he grew closer he noted the cloaked figure of Lady Annette Wallington. Daughter of a neighboring earl who passed away six months ago, and his closest friend all these years as they were neighbors.
She sat beneath the sprawling oak tree, on a blanket she must have carried with her. Percy gave a soft whistle to let her know he was coming and not startle her. It was a jaunty little tune they had made up one summer and was unique to them.
He saw her hood fall away from her face as she turned to look at him. Her expression grave.
“Good morning, Annette. What brings you out this early in the day?” He settled down with his fishing pole and tackle to bait his hook.
“I needed to get away from the house.”
“At this time of the day?”
“Even now it is an untenable place to live.”
“My uncle is to be wed to Miss Sophorina Dimplewile in a fortnight and demands that mother and I vacate the premises prior to that date.”
“This is shocking news. You are all still in mourning.”
“He has gone to half-morning and declares it is a prudent move.”
“Sophie was one of your bosom friends from finishing school?”
“Was being the operative word.”
“There’s a huge age gap there. He’s only two years younger than your father.”
“So where will you go?” He cast his hook into the stream before looking at her again. He was concerned by the dark circles under her eyes, and wrinkles on her forehead.
“I know not. We have been ill-provided for. There is no Dower House and even his smaller properties he has denied us residence at.”
“He will not find you a place?”
“He says he washes his hands of us.”
“You and your mother have run that house and you especially have overseen the estate on his behalf and made it profitable, yet he refuses you aid?”
A tear trickled down her cheek and he propped his rod up so he could scoot backward to sit next to her.
“And Sophie is in agreement with his treatment?”
“It seems that becoming a countess brings with it a distaste for the lower orders.”
“Apparently. With a heritage and education of a lady, but no season, and having worked in trade as an estate manager, they deem me ‘unmarriageable.’”
“They see you as employable in that role?”
“Right. Who would employ a woman as estate manager?”
She stared at him and shook her head. “You are the dearest of friends but even you cannot take on a single female into your home without scandal falling on both of us.”
“Ah, but a Duchess has more influence than a Countess, doesn’t she?”
“There are not many Dukes on the marriage mart and those who are, are ancient.”
“But there are heirs to dukedoms available.”
“And the only one of them I could ever have any affection for was you, Percy.”
Lord Percival smiled. “I’m glad to hear it. It would be poor form for me to duel with another peer for your affections.”
“You are being silly now. Everyone knows you will never marry and have no need to do so. Your brothers have provided a bevy of heirs.”
“Where did you ever get the impression I was opposed to marriage?”
“You’ve never been serious with a woman before and have never talked about it.”
“Not every man boasts of his conquests with women, although to be honest, I have none. But my heart has been engaged for an age. It has never seemed a prudent time to broach the matter with the one who holds my heart.”
She smiled at him. “Oh, Percy, I’m so glad for you. I pray she will be worthy of you. Who is she?”
“You don’t know?”
Her brow furrowed. “No.”
“Let me see if you can guess.”
She warily nodded her head.
“She was a devoted daughter and works hard. Her beauty takes my breath away and even the thought of her brings a smile to my face. I’ve known her for many years and she dances divinely. She has never had a season due to unfortunate circumstances. She has unwittingly held my heart for years as I have waited for her to grow, I hope, to return my affections.”
She smiled and a tear trickled down her cheek. “I’m so happy you have found love, Percy. I cannot guess though who this deserving woman would be.”
“No? More clues then?”
“Yes, silly man.”
“She is a wonder with numbers and reads and is able to converse on a wide variety of subjects from gothic novels to crop rotation. She is light on her feet and has lips so kissable that I have yet to taste.” He watched her face turn a rosy hue.
“Please, tell me you have proposed so I may wish you happy.”
“But you have your own problems. My happiness should never supersede your distress.”He sighed. She looked up through the trees as the early dawn glow filtered through the leaves and dappled her face with odd patches of light.
He frowned at her cloak and reached up to the catch at the top to peek at what she wore underneath. “You came here in your night rail?”
“I was suffocating in my room and left in a hurry so as not to wake my maid who would have tattled to my uncle.”
“Tsk, tsk, tsk. You do know you could cause a scandal being alone with me. It is beyond the pale to be alone with me dressed in such a way. Did you even wear slippers?” He moved aside part of the cloak to reveal naked toes. He raised his eyebrows. “Well, Anne, you do know there is only one thing to be done now and it will make everyone happy.”
“What would that be?”
“You can marry me.”
Her book dropped off her lap as her jaw fell open. She recovered with a shake of her head. “But what of the one you love? I would never deprive you of that because of my imprudence.”
“If you said yes, I would hope she would be delighted.”
“You speak in riddles.”
“And you have not had enough rest. You are not thinking clearly.”
“Your pole! You have a bite.”
Percy reached out to grab his rod and tried to bring the fish in. Just as he was to bring it out of the water, it escaped leaving a naked hook. He set the pole down and came to sit next to her again. “Anne. It’s always been you I have loved and longed for. Please say you return my affections?”
“You, my love.”
“You love me?”
“I. . . I . . .I don’t know what to say.”
“Perhaps that you love me and want to be my bride, my best friend and mother of our children? And that you will help me run my estate?”
She gave him a soft smile. “I do love you and always have. You are the reason I didn’t mind missing a season. I couldn’t have borne seeing you in the arms of other women. I never dreamed . . .”
“Maybe you should start dreaming then. I’ve had plenty of dreams about you and would love to make every one a reality.” He watched her face grow pink. Or was it a trick of the light? “Say you’ll be mine, Anne?”
“I have no fortune.”
“Having you will be all the fortune I need.”
“You are certain?”
“Never more sure of anything than this. I love you, Anne. Please say you’ll marry me?” He leaned forward and their lips met in a tender moment of bliss. He pulled back and watched her eyes flutter open.
“If I marry you, will I get more of those?”
Percy smiled. “As many as you want, every day of our lives together.”
She leaned toward him and kissed him. He savored the moment but pulled back. It would be no good to tarnish his bride’s name.
“Yes, Percy. I will wed you.”
He couldn’t hide his grin if he had tried. “Soon? Would you like to beat your Uncle to the altar?”
“But the banns . . .”
“I’ll get a special license. We could be wed within a few days. Could you manage to be ready by then, with whatever you need and moving to my home?”
“I could be ready tomorrow should you but ask.”
“Do you need me to speak to your uncle?”
“I am of age and do not need his permission. I will inform him on the day of our wedding lest he, or Sophie try to ruin my joy.”
“I’ll bow to your wisdom on that.”
“I’m glad you decided to come fishing today. I’m sorry I’ve kept you from catching anything.”
“I caught myself a beautiful bride. You smell better than the fish too.”
She giggled as she pulled him toward her for another kiss. “Guess I reeled in a good catch myself.”
“Glad to be caught, Anne. I’ll be the one who didn’t get away.” He leaned down for his kiss, grateful that somehow today, his fishing was better than ever.