Ever since Miss Hartford’s response had arrived in the mail, Mr Preston had spent every waking second fretting over their meeting. Was she offended, asking to meet so she could scold him? He could infer little else from her reply, and left untamed, his doubts had flourished wildly since the evening prior. Despite their idyllic night at the ball, he could not be certain his feelings were reciprocated, and even if they were, he would have a new dilemma on his hands, one he never expected to arise quite so soon.
To appease Miss Hartford, he set off for the gazebo armed with her shawl and a cake tin filled with his latest creation. It was unusual for a gentleman to set foot in a kitchen, but his ancestors were bakers and he had always been close to his family’s cook, so it remained a cherished pasttime for him and a quirk to his peers. Now that he had taken ownership of the inn, it was proving rather useful. Even when in emotional turmoil, he could be confident in his skills, and he had taken extra care with this batch.
The Hartford estate was a bit of a maze, but he had a faint memory of its paths after the unfortunate goose encounter (ghastly creatures), and he located the gazebo without much trouble. He was contemplating whether he should pick some orange blossoms nearby when Tilly’s sharp giggle rippled through the air, twinned with Charlie’s distinctive tone.
The voices raised the hairs on his neck. He’d forgotten she wouldn’t be alone.
Blind panic flooded his veins. He dove behind a well-manicured hedge and dropped to the grass, his heartbeat pounding in his ears. He flinched as the voices grew closer and tried to embed himself in the foliage. After an agonising minute, he heard goodbyes exchanged, and they mercifully retreated.
He peeked through the hedge and found the path empty, the moment of chaos gone as quickly as it had arrived. Relieved, he began extracting himself from the shrubbery, only to collide with Miss Hartford herself!
She stumbled and let out a yelp of surprise, and he scrambled to catch her before she hit the ground.
“Oh Mr Preston! What on earth were you doing in the hedge?”
“Do forgive me,” he cried. “Charlie and Tilly gave me quite the fright. Are you alright?”
“Much better now,” she replied with a slightly dazed smile. “I ought to have warned you.”
Caught off guard, her demeanour had an ease he had not seen before. She was always more lovely than he remembered, and try as he might, his memory never quite conjured up the exact radiance of her eyes and rosiness of her complexion, and loveliest of all was her smile with a hint of mischief.
He was studying the gentle curve of her bottom lip when to his surprise, she reached for his hair and plucked a leaf out of his curls, then froze when she realised it was a rather intimate gesture. It was then he became aware he was still holding her, for longer than necessary, and he hastily released her.
They dusted themselves off in a flustered state and walked into the gazebo in silence, tension thrumming in the air.
He reached for her shawl and paused. “Before I return this to you, I wanted to apologise for my letter.”
She frowned. “Apologise?”
He took a deep breath and swallowed hard. “Once it left me I feared it was too presumptuous and most unseemly, and your reply was so brief that I thought it had surely upset you.”
Her eyes widened. “Oh... “ she began, wringing her hands. “It is true my reply was succinct, but for reasons so very different to what you presume.”
Still, he thought it prudent to tread carefully. “If I have been wrong in my assumptions, you will hear no more from me.”
She immediately became distressed and protested so. “You misunderstand me, for you surely realise I cannot possess any ill feelings towards you. But we are obliged to be discreet in public, hence my request to meet here.”
He did not dare breathe, for fear of disturbing his fragile hopes.
“In fact,” she continued, her voice trembling a little, “I asked you here because I found your letter very well written indeed.” She looked him directly in the eye. “An opportunity to glimpse a gentleman’s true feelings is rarely unwelcome, If that is indeed what they were.”
He felt faint. The suspense bloomed into joy, and the sense that this was only the beginning overwhelmed him. His anxieties seemed trivial now, dwarfed in comparison. Only moments ago he did not dare imagine this moment, and now it was here, fully realised. He began laughing, wondering how much more emotion he could possibly bear.
“Oh please do not laugh now!” she cried, swatting his shoulder playfully, “or I shall think you are the one joking.”
Overcome by her delight, the words tumbled from his mouth. “Miss Hartford, Miranda, make no mistake, the sentiment and affection was as true as can be.”
He loved the sound of her name, the syllables flowing from a touch of the lips to a tap of the tongue. He reached out and offered her his hand.
Their eyes met and her cheeks turned pink. Her fingers brushed his tentatively, then came to rest perfectly in his palm. He thought he might float away.
“You really liked it?” He asked.
She nodded, her eyes shiny with tears.
He knew there was no easy way forward for them, to say nothing of what he had left behind him. For sure there had been matches of greater disparity, but they were rarely in this configuration, and therefore entirely frowned upon. With as much tact as she could muster, Miss Hartford explained that her mother had all but dismissed him as a prospect, on account of his relative lack of status.
Fortunately, neither of them were one for convention, and there was a sense that they should enjoy whatever time they had now, fleeting as it may be. Miranda expressed that while Lady Hartford’s opinions were always loudly proclaimed, they were not so unalterable that she could not eventually be swayed, but they would need to tread carefully.
“if we see through the summer without rousing suspicion, I believe she will be more agreeable, particularly once Tilly returns home,” she explained. “Let this be our meeting place. No one need know.”
He was keenly aware of she was risking for him. If they were discovered, it would be her reputation on the line.
Reality sank in. “It’s too dangerous. I cannot have you do that for me.”
A flash of irritation crossed her face. “Why not? We shall just make sure we don’t get caught,” she said, waggling her eyebrows. Her boldness was terrifying.
“Can a union borne of deceit be happy?” he pondered, mainly to himself.
“Oh my dear Mr Preston, deceit is an awfully strong word. I prefer shenanigans.”
Resigned to her wishes, he reached for the cake tin. “Perhaps it is not so necessary now, but I brought a peace offering in the event you were angry with me,” he said, opening it to reveal several delicate squares of faintly pink cake, covered with pale lemon icing.
Her eyes lit up. “My, you set a dangerous precedent. I shall be in a foul mood and expect this every time now,” she said with a wicked grin.
“Ah, but I too may have ulterior motives. I’m planning to serve these at the inn, so do be honest in your assessment. This one is rose and apple.”
She picked up a piece with care, took an eager bite and closed her eyes. “It’s heavenly! So fragrant and light.” She reached back into the tin. “I presume this all for me?”
He beamed with pride. “Everything. Oh! And your shawl,” he said, handing over a paper-wrapped parcel.
“I’m glad my master plan worked out.”
“You did baffle me when you threw it at me,”
“And look what has happened now. I’m a genius.”
She started to untie the parcel, then turned her head to face him.
“Don’t I owe you a dance?” She asked sweetly.
Before he could reply, The sound of distant voices filtered through the air, and she gasped and pushed him out towards the hedges. “They’re coming back!” she hissed.
He scrambled to his feet and she grabbed his hands. They were warm and somehow already familiar, like home. ‘Write to me,” she said, and he nodded.
He gave her hands a squeeze goodbye and made a hasty exit over the hedges. He ran all the way back home, his heart fluttering.