Loving an Aldridge Book One
The Marriage Pact copyright © 2018 by Wendi Sotis
Cover art by Matthew Sotis
Photograph of the cover art by Madeline Sotis
The heir to an earldom has little control over his own fate, but Mr. James Aldridge promised himself one freedom. To marry for affection instead of wealth or connections. Anger flares when he learns his father has struck a deal: in one year, he will be leg-shackled to Miss Celia Colton, the dazzling beauty who had previously caught his eye. Now certain she was simply performing her role in a scheme to catch him as her husband, resentment prompts James to refuse to squander his last months of independence in the company of such a mistress of manipulation. But why can he not wrench his gaze from her at every encounter?
Completely unaware of the pact that has matched her with James, Miss Celia Colton is at a loss to explain why the man she secretly loves has suddenly become cold and critical. Abandoned by James, who had promised to guide her through her debut Season, she fears she will have to navigate the ton with only her grasping mother and distracted cousin as companions. Surrounded by gentlemen merely interested in her dowry, young ladies who view her as unwelcome competition, and, worse yet, James’s icy stares and disdainful manners, her primary concern is to discover the reason for his altered behaviour. How can she make things right between them? Will a love-match be forever out of her reach?
~ June 1814 – Yorkshire, England
For the first time in her seventeen years on earth, Miss Celia Colton’s dearest desires were perfectly aligned with her mother’s demands. That alone should have instantly convinced her that her dreams were impossible. If she did not put an end to these foolish expectations, her heart would be crushed.
Truly, the facts were undeniable: With almost every unmarried young lady of the upper crust vying for Mr. James Aldridge’s attentions, why would he ever think of marrying her? And yet, she could not curb her hopes.
Celia stumbled over something hidden in the shadows.
The wings of a hundred butterflies quivered against Celia’s ribs, as always happened when James drew near. He offered his arm.
Could he read her feelings for him in her expression? She blinked, averting her gaze from his deep blue eyes to his bent elbow as she slid her hand through it. They resumed their ascent to the Ridge. Even through their riding attire, warmth radiated from him, dispelling the damp chill still hanging in the early morning air.
No matter how she tried to ignore it, she was agonizingly aware of his every movement. The muscles of his forearm flexed, sending a flicker of delight up her spine.
James’s smooth tones enveloped her. “Is the climb a bit easier, now, Miss Colton?”
Hesitantly, she met his gaze. “Yes. I thank you, sir.”
She glanced over her shoulder at her cousin Victoria, who leaned heavily on her husband’s arm. Considering the viscount’s protectiveness of his wife’s delicate condition, Celia was amazed he did not carry Victoria up the hill.
A few more steps and the party reached the crest. Burchard Park manor house seemed to float on a layer of mist rising from the valley floor.
The sun’s rays broke over a distant peak. Nature itself paused to observe the miracle unfolding before her.
Every line of the elegant manor drew her eye toward the shimmering central focus — a broad colonnaded portico bordered by steps on all three sides. The house glowed the brightest white, as if each stone was illuminated from within.
The sun climbed higher. The fog slowly dissolved. The trills of woodland birds recommenced with an increased liveliness.
The formal gardens surrounding the house gradually appeared. More distant from the house, crop fields in various shades took shape, defined by waist-high rock walls. Tenant farmhouses dotted the landscape. Cream-coloured sheep scattered across one pasture, and ruddy-brown cattle peppered another.
“Magnificent.” She glanced up at James, then to his father and Victoria. “Thank you for bringing me here this morning. The Ridge has just become my favourite place in all the world.”
She stepped forward.
James placed his hand firmly over hers on his arm, restraining her from moving further away. “No closer to the edge, Miss Colton.”
“Yes, please be cautious, dear.” Cousin Victoria gestured to her right. “The heavy rains in the spring caused a landslide. The edge might yet be unstable.”
A few hundred yards away, the smooth curve of the Ridge was interrupted by a section of terrain that looked as if it had been carved away with a knife. The possibility of peril amidst such beauty was difficult to fathom.
James reclaimed her attention. “When you see the places Grandfather asked me to show you today, your opinion of the Ridge may change.”
That the Earl of Westbury had troubled himself to consider her love for the outdoors warmed her heart.
“I am sorry I cannot accompany you in your exploration,” Viscount Eagleton said.
“As am I.” Victoria laid a hand on her increasing abdomen. “The cart that brought me thus far cannot traverse the narrow horse trail through the woods. Angus will escort me home to rest, and there is an urgent matter at one of the tenant farms he must see to.” She waved her hand towards the horses and cart that awaited her. “Tommy will ride along with you.”
Excitement bubbled in Celia’s chest at the prospect of spending the day with James, followed by a sinking sensation in her stomach. Was it proper that she spend an entire day with a single gentleman with only a stable boy as a chaperone?
She raised one eyebrow at Victoria, who smiled and nodded in answer to her unvoiced query.
If her mother ever heard of it, she would claim compromise and bring up the circumstances with Uncle John. Although she did not know her uncle well, her father had always said his brother was as interested in social connections as was her mother. Without hesitation, James would be pressed to marry her.
Yes, Celia wished for that same outcome, but if it was not for mutual love and respect, she preferred not to marry at all.
Should she risk insulting her cousin and Lord Eagleton by questioning their judgment? And since Lord Westbury approved the excursion, would not she offend him, as well?
No, she would not complain about the lax propriety. She would just have to make certain her mother never heard of today’s activities.
James’s voice distracted her from her musings. “Since Cook packed us a meal for midday, we shall venture further into the property than you have ever been before.”
She faced James and swallowed her worries. “Let us proceed, then.”
After waving goodbye to Lord Eagleton and Victoria, Celia could not tear her gaze from James’s back as he led the way into the woods. Her cousin’s step-son was utterly perfect in every way possible. He dressed impeccably, his fine suits emphasizing his flawless athletic physique, and he sat a horse better than any man she had ever seen. He was infinitely more handsome, too, superior even to the most swoon-worthy heroes described in the novels buried at the bottom of her hope-chest, hidden in the darkest corner of her dressing room, away from Mother’s disapproving glare.
As today was her seventeenth birthday, somehow, she expected everything would change. Last night, she even dreamt that James would wake up this morning, realize he loved her, and propose the moment he laid eyes on her.
Instead, he treated her as he had every time they were in each other’s company since she had met him at Victoria’s wedding breakfast a little more than a year ago — somewhere between a friend and a sister.
Although she was not yet out, she was no longer a child, but she suspected everyone present at Burchard Park still thought of her as such. Why else would she and James be allowed to ride out practically alone?
Not long after returning to London, she would make her debut. Dread settled in her stomach like a hot iron. Heaven help her through the months that lay ahead. Without her father here to restrain her mother, she would thrust Celia into the way — if not the very arms — of all single, titled gentlemen with absolutely no concern for Celia’s preferences.
Shaking herself from such distressful thoughts, she chose to enjoy this last summer without the restrictions that would begin the moment she arrived home at her mother’s house in Town.
Wending their way carefully through the rubble of a long-forgotten, crumbling cottage, they followed a broad stream of rushing water. After stopping to admire a lovely hidden waterfall and rest the horses, they crossed a stone bridge.
About mid-day, the mossy scent of woodlands mingled with a sweeter fragrance, reminding her of long rambles in the woods surrounding Eastwood, her father’s estate — now her uncle’s property — with her father and Nanny Dolina, who had remained as a companion when she and her sister had outgrew the need for a nurse. Both loved the outdoors as much as Celia did, and the three would often walk or ride out.
Celia touched the mourning brooch that held a lock of her father’s hair, hanging on the gold chain that had been Dolina’s prized possession, a gift from her late husband, and bequeathed to Celia upon her death. How she missed them both. They understood her. No matter how she tried to please her mother and sister, she could not think like them. She was not sure she wanted to.
Green-tinted shadows brightened ahead, pulling her from her somber reflections. Before long, they broke through the trees into a spacious meadow blanketed with a rainbow of wildflowers.
Celia gasped. It was very much like her favourite place at Eastwood. “It is enchanting.”
James turned and a lock of chocolate-coloured curls fell across his forehead. He grinned. “Shall we stop here to have our meal?”
James placed his hands around Celia’s waist to help her dismount from Buttercup and lowered her to the ground.
Her sparkling green eyes beamed her thanks.
When she looked away to survey the meadow, he examined her profile. So lovely. A jolt of yearning passed through him. He stepped back, fisting the fingers that itched to touch her more intimately, and moved to retrieve the hamper from his horse.
After arranging the blanket, he reclined upon it, raised up on one elbow. Celia progressed through the meadow, collecting flowers.
With the train of her riding habit gathered over one arm, the material hugged her waist and flared out over her hips, while the voluminous skirts pulled snugly around the bottom half of her form. The effect was mesmerizing. Shifting, she leant to pick some yellow blossoms. Her body swayed most invitingly. She rose and strode to a grouping of blue flowers, repeating the sequence of movements.
He should look away, for her actions were giving him ideas he should not have. It was wrong for him to feel this way about one so young.
He glanced at the stable boy, who squatted near a tree stump close to the horses, nudging at something with a stick. A toad hopped. The boy laughed.
Good. Tommy had not seen him gaping.
Actually, he should not scold himself. At the end of the summer, Celia would return to London to prepare for her debut into society. Several weeks later, she would enter the marriage mart and be approached by any number of men — respectable and not — at balls and in drawing rooms all throughout London. Each of them would scrutinize her form more thoroughly than he had just done. As he was doing once again. He could not tear his gaze from her.
In addition to being lovely, Celia’s lineage was admirable. Her father had been the younger son of an earl, her mother the granddaughter of another. She would be highly sought after.
At least one gentleman was sure to make an offer for her this coming Season. By this time next year, she would most likely be married — perhaps even carrying a child.
Another man’s child.
He rubbed at the tightness in his chest. Where had that come from?
Celia approached with a large bunch of flowers in the crook of her arm. Unwilling to meet her eye with such thoughts echoing through his mind, he sat up and rifled in the picnic basket until he found a string, then helped her tie it around the stems.
Laying the flowers off to one side, she sat on the blanket next to him and began to unload the food from the hamper. “I shall make bouquets when we return to the house. One to brighten Lord Westbury’s rooms, since he must enjoy this place to have recommended it. One for Victoria and Lord Eagleton’s sitting room, since they were unable to come along. And one for each of us, as a reminder of such a lovely day. Thank you for bringing me here, Mr. Aldridge.”
He blinked. She was so thoughtful. “It is my pleasure.”
He scooped some cold meat and cheese onto a plate for Celia. Calling Tommy over, he handed the boy the cloth-wrapped bundle that Cook had pointed out was his. The boy retreated to his perch on the stump. James served himself, nearly attacking his food.
They were quiet as they ate, and though he noticed no tension in Celia’s countenance, he began to feel the silence was strained. He had felt comfortable with her from the moment he met her — why was he allowing his new inclination towards errant thoughts to dissuade him from sharing pleasant conversation with her?
“Ah … are you looking forward to returning to London at the end of the summer?”
She frowned at the bit of meat she pushed around her plate with a fork.
“Is the food not to your liking?”
“As always, Cook’s cuisine is perfect. It is just that …” She met his gaze. “I am apprehensive about returning to London. It will be time to prepare for my first Season.”
“You are worried about meeting the Queen?”
“A little.” She shook her head. “But I am less anxious about making my curtsy than about what will take place afterwards.” Celia plucked a wildflower from the grass nearby, giving it all her attention for a few moments.
The sunlight exposed strands of rich rose tones that he had never noticed in her golden hair. Even with a concerned look on her face, she was truly beautiful.
“I am disillusioned,” she said finally. “I heard much from Penelope and Mother before the baron proposed to my sister during her debut Season. Ladies with whom my sister had always been friends suddenly became rivals. It was difficult for her to determine whether gentlemen liked her for her thirty thousand pounds or herself … though in truth, since Penelope’s only aim was to be able to tolerate her husband for short periods of time so long as he came with an appropriately impressive title, it did not bother her overly much.”
Quite like most of the ladies he had encountered himself, James thought, always trying to lead a gentleman of standing to the altar. He was determined that his eventual marriage would be unlike many couples of the upper class who could barely stand the sight of the other and lived separate lives, only to be seen together at important functions. But Celia needed to know what to expect.
“You must understand that this is common. Half of the ton is looking for a title, the other half is looking for a fortune, and all expect to better their connections. When all of these conditions are met, it is said to be a match well made.”
“I have been told it is so.” She frowned. “But, do you think it is proper to be so limited in what one thinks will make one happy? To be so mercenary — so covetous?”
Would it insult her if he told the full truth? Would she recognize that her mother and sister embodied everything he despised? Everything.
He must have hesitated too long, for she spoke again.
“Although my family does not agree with my romantic notions …” She blushed. “I fear that I will disappoint them. I will not marry unless the gentleman and I love each other wholeheartedly.”
His heart sang with delight at her response.
His friend Daniel had been wrong to caution him to be on his guard around Celia, assuming she had been tutored by her relations. She was so innocent, so naïve, and so kind-hearted; she could not be like them.
James said, “I, too, would not agree to a marriage of convenience.”
She tilted her head. “I cannot understand how so many of the upper crust can recite their vows when all know they are lying. How do they stand in the house of the Lord, promise they will love their spouses, and keep straight faces? I do not believe I could do it.”
The perfect response. Yet it also struck him that, in being so different, society would not be charitable to her.
“While many do as you say, it does not follow that you must do the same.” He purposely changed his voice to be more playful. “And yet, you may still enjoy dancing, outings, and interesting conversation during your first Season without making a promise to marry a man you do not love.”
The creases in her brow smoothed then deepened again. “That is not my only concern about this coming Season. I am certain you recall that while I was staying with Victoria and your father last winter, they held a ball celebrating my sister’s debut into society. You suggested I sit on the floor of the little alcove across from the musicians to watch the goings on with little chance of being discovered.”
Avoiding the first set, as always, James had joined her there for the first half hour. The awe dancing in her wide eyes had been the most entertaining part of the event. Viewing the ball from above was much different than being a part of it on the floor; one could experience the beauty of the rich colours swirling in perfect harmony instead of the scheming, flirting, and rivalry between the participants.
“My father was so handsome that evening.” A shadow of sorrow passed over her features.
That she should remember her father in such a way … his heart ached for her.
In truth, James had been shocked at how unwell Mr. Colton had appeared that night.
The incident that occurred a month later drained the remainder of the poor man’s strength. With the help of James, who was acquainted with all those in the group that had come upon Penelope and the baron in their compromising position, in addition to the calling in of some favours owed to James’s grandfather, who had a long-standing friendship with Celia’s father, scandal had been averted.
But such an effort took its toll on the sickly Mr. Colton. The gentleman suffered a fit of apoplexy only hours after walking Penelope down the aisle. He had not survived the week.
One thing James had learned in the course of that undertaking was how close Mr. Colton and Celia had been. Every sacrifice the man made ultimately had been to rescue Celia’s reputation, for if all had not turned out well, her standing in society would have been ruined by association.
Although James and his own father did not share a similar relationship, his father’s guidance through James’s entrance into society had been invaluable.
Celia would not have her father’s protection during her debut. Her mother lived on, but that woman’s influence would only harm her in the end, as it had almost done to her sister. And her uncle, the Earl of Herrick, ignored his brother’s family. There was no one else.
James would have to remain near Celia to safeguard her.
A curious sense of gratification washed over him.
Celia continued, “I recognized a few of the ladies at the ball — those I had met when they made morning calls on Victoria, my mother, or my sister while I was in attendance — but there were still many I never saw before. And all those gentlemen! How is one able to memorize all their names? What would happen if I mistakenly addressed an earl as mister? I am almost determined to call everyone my lord or my lady without mentioning any names, but what if I address a duke as my lord when I am supposed to say your grace? And if they are not a member of the peerage at all, they would think me a simpleton. I do not know how anyone can keep them all straight.”
Celia had twisted the poor flower stem until the flesh was so mangled, it leaked onto her gloves. She removed them, laying them on a corner of the blanket that was in the sun, and plucked another bloom.
“I know it seems impossible, but with time, you will recognize them all.” He did his best to smile reassuringly. “I have an idea. I will do what my father and grandfather did for me and remain by your side as much as possible until you are comfortable. That way, I can address a person first, and you will learn. I am sure Victoria and your family will do the same when I am unavailable.”
Her expression changed to relief, but it was temporary. “But what of the balls?”
“Surely it is not dancing that makes you uneasy. You have mentioned spending years with a dance master.”
She returned to examining the now-crushed purple flower between her fingers. “I am well prepared in that respect, except… Mr. Aldridge, you have been to a number of balls, have you not?”
“Yes.” Too many for his tastes. He despised dodging the marriage-minded mammas and their title-conscious daughters, whose only intent seemed to be tricking him, heir to the title Earl of Westbury, into compromising them. But attendance was expected of him.
“Mother says I may not refuse any gentleman’s request for a dance or else I must sit out the remainder of the evening, so I am not permitted to do so. Is the waltz included in that rule? It is so new to society…I understood that many do not take part in that particular dance. And I am not comfortable allowing just anyone to hold me in such an intimate manner.”
She shuddered, and his heart squeezed uncomfortably.
“Do not allow such worries to consume you, Miss Colton. A patroness at Almack’s or a hostess at a private ball must grant permission for you to dance the waltz. The solution is simple: do not ask.”
Celia closed her eyes for a moment and inhaled deeply. “If you expect permission to waltz will not be requested because I am uncomfortable with the requirments of the dance, you do not know my mother well, sir. She will not allow me to refuse any offer to dance — including a waltz.”
“Well, then, perhaps my family will come to your rescue. I can poll the Aldridge gentlemen, begging them to ask you to dance any waltz that may arise. In fact, simply write in ‘Aldridge’ on your dance card and one of us will come to your aid. Either my grandfather, father, Richard, or I will waltz with you. Would that be helpful?” Certainly Mrs. Colton would not reject the opportunity to publicly display her daughter’s connection with a peer’s family.
Her eyes widened. “Your grandfather?”
“Being confined to a chair, he may not be able to actually dance with a lady, but he told me he plans to sign dance cards and have young ladies sit with him and partake in conversation. Although not everyone will approve of the idea, his eccentricity is acknowledged by society in general, so I expect it will be overlooked.”
“Oh, yes! Thank you, Mr. Aldridge.” The light that had begun to sparkle in her eyes dulled a bit. “However, there is the matter of… well, my mother would not allow the dance master to be so close to either of us and would only allow my sister and me to dance the waltz with each other. Since Penelope has married, I have not practiced it at all. I fear I will step on many toes and trip across the dance floor, embarrassing the Aldridge men. Perhaps it would be better if I reserved all waltzes with Lord Westbury.”
He frowned at the sheer magnitude of disappointment weighing on his chest. “And deprive the rest of my family the pleasure of dancing with you, Miss Colton? That will not do. We shall practice.” He rose and held out his hand.
“Now?” Celia gaped. “Here?”
“Yes, exactly. What better place to dance than among all this beauty?”
“Mr. Aldridge, should not we at least have a better chaperone present than Tommy?” She gestured to the stable boy, who was now half-way across the field, most likely chasing his toad.
“God will hold us accountable for our actions. In my opinion, there exists no better chaperone. But in return for this favour of practicing the dance, you must promise to stop calling me Mr. Aldridge when we are alone or within our family party. We are friends, and from here on in, we shall address each other by our Christian names when we are not in company.”
She took his hand and allowed him to pull her to her feet. She glowed with delight. “I agree… James.”
There was something about the way she spoke his name, or perhaps it was the way she looked at him when she did. A pleasant warmth pulsed through his entire body, beginning where her hand remained in his. He shuddered with its intensity. Her emerald eyes held him captive. Heart pounding, James pulled her closer, but not nearly close enough to suit his desires.
He tilted his head to the side and startled when she broke their shared gaze and reached for the train of her riding habit.
“I must hold my skirts, or I will trip and step on your toes.”
He was disappointed when she laid her hand in his once again, for the material of her habit now separated their palms. The fingers of her right hand curled around his. Normally, when dancing the waltz, he would keep his hand flat, but now, his fingers bent over her hand and rested on her velvety skin. He stepped forward. She reached up to lay her left hand on his right shoulder.
Of its own volition, his right hand moved to her upper back and, for the briefest of moments, he could identify the laces of her stays through the material. He guessed how it would feel if her golden locks had been left loose to brush across his hand as he held her. Repositioning his arm, he moved his fingers away from the laces but no higher than the top of her corset, though now his fingertips ached to move lower to trace the curve of her waist to her hip. His mind tingled with a vision of Celia wearing a silk gown, which would be thinner than the material of her riding habit and cut much lower.
He had to end the direction of these thoughts and concentrate. He cleared his throat. “Let us dance to see how much you remember.”
He hummed an appropriate tune, and they began. Along with every step, the couple rotated. With six steps, they made a full turn. He stopped when she chuckled.
“Our dance master told us the gentleman should watch where we are going, and I should look over my shoulder to where we have been. Never is a couple supposed to look at each other, and yet, you have not even glanced away from me.”
“Ah, yes. He is correct, but that is so impersonal. I would rather look at you.”
Her eyes opened wide. “But we shall bump into the other couples whose gentlemen might not have had as much practice as you have.”
“Have no fear, Celia. My peripheral vision happens to be excellent. I shall avoid all others with an abundance of skill.”
Her laughter tinkled, and her eyes gleamed with mirth. His heart took flight.
He resumed humming. Four rotations into the dance, he switched the direction of their turn. She floundered, and he stepped on her toes.
“Celia! I am sorry —”
“No, please do not apologize. It is my error, I am sure, but I am glad to be wearing riding boots and not dancing slippers. What did you do there?”
“You mean the change?”
“Yes. We did not learn that.”
He arched one eyebrow. “I am surprised. Your mother is the type to hire the best masters in every subject, though it must have been difficult to teach you both how to dance the waltz when the instructor was not allowed to touch either of you.”
A bloom of pink rose to Celia’s cheeks. “Perhaps he did not feel we were ready for it?”
“You would have been, but maybe your sister was not. You have excellent coordination and natural grace.”
Celia seemed dazed for a moment. “I do?”
He nodded. “Let us go through it again, but more slowly. I will show you.” He grinned. “I promise not to tread on you this time. Ladies begin with the left — step back first, continue for four revolutions. Then we change. You will step forward for four more complete revolutions. As a couple, we will move in the same direction as before. It is the direction of the turn that changes. Continue to alternate between the two.”
She frowned deeply. “How can we change directions but continue moving in the same direction?”
“The turn changes, not the movement.” He hesitated. How to explain it? “Here, it is easier to show you. Come, let us begin.”
After a few mistakes, Celia understood and agreed it was not as difficult as she had anticipated.
“It would have been simpler for you to understand had you ever seen the Viennese Waltz performed.” He lifted his left arm and with his right hand, applied pressure to her back to cause her to twirl under it.
She ended up pressed against him, her hands splayed across his chest as if she were holding on for dear life. Without thinking, he raised his arms around her and pulled her closer, into an embrace.
She laughed. “I am dizzy, but that was such fun, James. Can we do it again?”
Gazing down into Celia’s bright eyes, her scent still swirling around him, her body pressed fully against his, his wayward fingertips moved down the length of her back, again tracing the laces of her corset with purpose.
His heart skipped a beat. If he didn’t put some distance between them, he was going to do something he would regret. Or at least, she would regret it, for he would not. Ever.
The artless expression on her exquisite features demonstrated she had no idea what her closeness was doing to him. She was a complete innocent. The smile faded from her lips, but not from her eyes.
Perhaps he should teach her a lesson about what to expect if she pressed her bosom so firmly against any other man? His gaze dropped to her mouth. Her full lips parted as if giving him permission to kiss her.
A sudden anger exploded in his breast. His imagination was lending meaning to her responses according to his own desires. Celia thought of him as a brother, not a lover. He could not taste those enticing lips. He would not be the one who buried his hands in her hair. His name would not be the one she cried out in the depths of passion.
Unbidden, and certainly unwanted, Daniel’s warnings again leapt into his mind. Could this scene be a part of the scheme his friend had warned him about? Had Celia skillfully led him to offer to teach her to dance the waltz in a secluded area of the woods the moment the stable boy had been distracted?
Taking a deeper look into her eyes, he could not believe it of her, yet he had more than enough experience with women attempting to trap him to know he should be more careful than he had been today.
With some great effort, he stepped away from her.
“You must learn how to recover in a more ladylike manner, Celia. You will be cast off from polite society in ruin if you end up in a gentleman’s arms in public.”
Her gasp and the flush of colour rising to her face gave him an idea of how harsh his tone had been.
She lowered her eyes.
He took a deep breath and continued in a kinder voice. “Perhaps we should practice again in the ballroom after supper one day soon?” Since, apparently, he did need a chaperone present, after all.
“Yes, of course.” She did not raise her eyes. “I apologize for my misstep.”
Guilt welled within him for doubting her. Cursing himself inwardly, he grabbed the blanket off the ground, folded it roughly, and shoved it into the saddlebag. Feeling her come up beside him, he turned.
She handed him the hamper and retreated.
He hooked the basket onto his saddle, grabbed his gloves, and followed her to her horse. “Celia?”
Her eyes remained downcast. He lifted her chin with one finger so she could avoid his gaze no longer. The last remnants of his uncertainties about her melted away.
Daniel was wrong. Celia was utterly guileless and unaffected.
“I was … trying to protect you. Some gentlemen would take a movement such as that as a hint that you are giving them permission to take advantage of you, even if it was, in truth, a mistake. You must be more careful once you are out.” He raised his eyebrows. “Forgive me for my tone of voice? I have not had occasion to understand these things must be taught.” He smiled. “Perhaps you pave the way for my teaching a sister if Victoria has a girl?”
She nodded against his finger.
He dropped his hand to his pocket and pulled out his watch. “We should head back.”
Yes, she was safer from him mounted on her horse.
Unwilling to place his hands upon her waist to lift her, he pulled on his gloves and led Buttercup to the tree stump Tommy had been using earlier. Tommy took the reins and held the horse steady as Celia mounted it.
Before long, they were on their way, heading in the general direction of the manor.
Celia urged Buttercup to follow James, who was riding Horatio. Tommy followed her on a pony.
She was now convinced that she knew why her dance master had told her she should not look at her waltz partner. It was too distracting.
Dancing in James’s arms had been like a dream come true. The expression in his eyes and the way his hand had moved on her back had given her hope. She yearned for his touch, and something within her ached for even more.
His anger had been most unexpected.
Victoria always cautioned that if she was not willing to return a gentleman’s regard, it would be best to give a sound rejection as soon as one recognizes the gentleman’s interest. She imagined the same held true when a gentleman discovered a lady’s unwelcome affection.
If James had sensed her adoration of him, perhaps that was why he responded so forcefully.
Could he ever forgive her for allowing her feelings to show? Could she forgive herself? Now that he knew, would everything change between them? Would he pity her? Would he feel that they could no longer be friends?
She straightened her spine. She would act as if nothing had happened and hoped he would do the same.
As the path widened, she swallowed past the tightness in her throat and called out, “Are we to return along the same route?”
He slowed his horse to ride next to her. “Grandfather suggested we return on a different path.” He met her gaze and smiled. “I believe you will enjoy the ride.”
She returned the gesture. Relief coursed through her. “I know I shall.”
All was not lost.
~ ~ ~ ~ Copyright 2018 Wendi Sotis ~ ~ ~ ~
The Marriage Pact
is now available for PREORDER on Amazon!
Publication date March 1, 2018