Endover Plantation, outside Williamsburg, Virginia
25 November 1783
Perhaps if Lark recited the pirate’s code it would steal his attention. She could try standing on her head. Or if those options failed—as surely they would—she could throw herself to the floor before him.
Except Emerson Fielding was as likely to mistake her for a rug as to realize he ought to help her up. Lark indulged in a long sigh and cast her gaze out the window. The plantation lay dormant and brown.
Most days saw Papa and Wiley in Williamsburg, swapping stories at R. Charlton’s Coffeehouse. Emerson usually met them there, which was why this was the first she’d seen him in a month. Heaven knew he wanted only to see them, never her.
She wished her heart hadn’t fluttered when he entered the room. Wished the disappointment hadn’t followed so quickly when he barely glanced her way. Wished she had the courage to command his
attention…and he the sense to give it without her command.
Life would be so much easier if she weren’t in love with Emerson Fielding. But what young lady wouldn’t be captivated by those dark eyes, the strong features, the height that left him towering above
Today his hair was unpowdered and gleamed sable. He was in undress, his coat the common one he wore every day, unlike what he was sure to don for her birthday dinner that evening. His smile lit up
his eyes, his laugh lit up the room.
Neither one did he direct toward her.
Lark’s gaze flicked down to the emerald on her finger. Two years. Twenty-four months. Seven hundred thirty interminable days. Not that she was keeping account.
“Hendricks ought to be at the coffeehouse about now,” her brother said, standing. He tugged his waistcoat into place and tightened the band around his hair. “We have just enough time for a cup of chocolate with him.”
She would not sigh again, it would be redundant. Why protest the usual, even if today was supposed to be distinctive?
As if reading her mind, Wiley flashed a twinkling gaze her way and grinned. “Of course, you will want to wish my dear sister happy returns before we head out, Emerson. I shall go fetch my overcoat and
hat while you do so.”
For the first time in the two hours he had been there, Emerson looked her way. And like every time he looked her way, she wished she had more to offer his gaze. Perhaps if she shared the golden-haired
beauty of her mother and sister, his eyes mightn’t go empty upon spotting her.
He smiled the practiced smile gentlemen were taught to wear in company, not the earnest one he shared with her brother. “Are you having a pleasant birthday, darling?”
An unexpected wave of anger crashed over her. “Do you never tire of using endearments you don’t mean?”
Well, that earned a spark in his eyes. Not exactly one of delight or affection, though. “I take it you are not having a pleasant day. Well, perhaps I can brighten it.” He reached into his pocket, pulled out a box
covered in a scrap of printed calico.
She could manage no enthusiasm for what was sure to be another gift of jewels. He never seemed to grasp that she wanted no more things. She wanted his love—something he was either unwilling or incapable of giving. “What is it?”
His smile was right, teasing. But no secret knowledge nested in his expression. “Open it and see.”
“You haven’t any idea, have you?” She shook her head and looked out the window again as he strode toward her chair. His mother had undoubtedly foisted it upon him as he left, otherwise he wouldn’t have remembered what the date signified.
She often wondered if his mother had also foisted that first gift of jewels upon him two years before.
His breath hissed out. “Of course I know what it is, but you shan’t cajole it out of me. You will have to open it yourself to see.”
The wrapped box appeared under her nose. She took it, careful to avoid brushing his outstretched palm with her fingers. It would only make awareness shiver up her arm, an unnecessary reminder of her
unrequited attachment. Once she held it, though, she made no move to untie the ribbon.
Emerson shifted, impatience coming off him in waves. “Open it, Lark.”
She shook herself. “But of course. I am certain you wish to hasten to your coffee and conversation. What will the topic be today? Congresses, constitutions, or crop rotations?”
Wiley would have appreciated the alliteration. Emerson greeted it with a rudely arched brow. Tempted to return the insult and roll her eyes, she tugged at the bow. Unfolded the cloth. Lifted the lid of the
small wooden box.
Lessons in propriety had never covered how to handle a surprise like this. Lark gasped.
Emerson muttered a curse that proved he not only knew not what present lay inside, he disapproved of his mother’s selection.
She leapt to her feet and shoved the glittering diamond necklace into his stomach. “Absolutely not. I cannot accept that.”
His hand caught the box, but a war to rival the Revolution charged across his face. He wanted to take the jewels back, without question. But pride would not allow him. He held out the box. “Don’t be ridiculous. I want you to have it.”
An unladylike snort nearly slipped out. “Yes, that was apparent from your reaction. I will not, Emerson. Your sisters have told me of this necklace, and I shan’t accept the most valuable possession in the
Fielding family—especially when it becomes increasingly clear I will never be a member of said family.”
Thunder darkened his complexion. “What madness is this? You are my betrothed, and you will accept the gifts I give you.”
The emerald on her left hand felt heavy. “Perhaps what I ought to do is return the ones you have already given. They are naught but mockery.”
She reached for the clasp of the bracelet that matched the ring. Her breath caught when his fingers closed around her wrist. He all but growled. “You will do no such thing.”
“Prithee, why not?” Though she struggled to pull free, he held tight to her arm. “ ’Tis obvious you’ve no desire to make me your wife. For two years you have dodged every mention of nuptials, making a fool of me in front of our families and friends. For the life of me, I know not why you ever proposed. Release me.”
He shook his head. “Calm yourself, Lark. Is that what this is about? The blasted wedding date? Deuces, I would agree to any date you want, if you would just be reasonable!”
“I have had my fill of reason. I want a morsel of your regard, and I will not marry you without it.” She gave one more vain tug against his fingers. “I tire of being alone at your side, Emerson. I cannot subject myself to a lifetime of it.”
Through the tears burning her eyes, she saw his face harden, then relax. His grip eased, but he did not release her wrist. Simply pulled it down and then held her hand. The warmth that seeped into her palm belied the cool words she had spoken.
Yet his smile was no more than it had ever been. “I have been remiss, darling, and I apologize. I assure you, you are my chosen bride. It has simply been a struggle to readjust to social life. After Yorktown…”
Anger snapped at her heels again, largely because of the compassion he called up with the mere mention of Yorktown. How could anyone—man, woman, or child—argue with one who had been at the dreadful battle? The moment a soldier uttered that word, all arguments necessarily ceased.
In this particular case she could not help but think he used it for that very purpose. “Emerson—”
“I shall make it up to you. Let us set a date this moment, and I will be the figure of devotion.” The idea seemed to pain him—his smile turned to a grimace. For a man with a reputation as a charmer, he did a remarkable job of dashing her heart to pieces.
She sucked in a long breath. “I shan’t hold you to the engagement. If you—”
“Not another word of such nonsense. Let us say the first Sunday in March, shall we? The worst of the winter weather ought to be over by then. We can announce it to our parents this evening.”
It should have brought joy instead of defeat. It should have lit hope instead of despair.
He pressed the necklace back into her hands. “Take it, my darling. Wear it on our wedding day.”
Before she could decide whether to relent or argue, he pressed a kiss to her fingers and fled the room as if the hounds of Hades nipped at his heels. Lark sank back into her chair and flipped open the box so she could stare at the large, perfect gems resting within.
Why did the thought of marrying her light such fires of panic under him? Lark rested her cheek against her palm and let her tears come.
She should have tried the pirate’s code.
* * * * *
Emerson scraped the tavern chair across the wooden floor, fell onto its hard seat, and, for the first time in his memory, wished Wiley Benton would hold his tongue for five blasted minutes. He barely saw the familiar whitewashed walls, the wainscoting, the multitude of friendly faces. His mind still reeled, wrestling with images of those blinding diamonds—and the equally blinding tears in Lark’s eyes.
What had Mother been thinking, blithely handing off the most valuable Fielding possessions? The diamonds—to Lark. It was beyond fathoming. They would overwhelm her. Eclipse rather than complement. And to have them abiding outside Fielding Hall for the next several months…
Still, he should not have lost his head. Then she wouldn’t have lost hers, and he wouldn’t have talked himself straight into a trap.
“What can I bring you gentlemen today?”
He looked up at the tavern’s owner but couldn’t dredge up a smile. No matter—Wiley would smile enough for the both of them. “Chocolate,” his friend said.
“Make mine coffee, if you please, sir.”
“That I will. And I shall direct Hendricks your way. He and the governor are chatting in the back corner.”
“In a few moments,” Emerson answered before Wiley could supply what was sure to be thankful acceptance.
As the proprietor stalked off, Wiley lifted his brows in that particular way that bespoke both humor and confusion. “What plagues you, man? You have been playing the dunderhead ever since we left Endover.”
“I played it while there too.” Indulging in a mild oath, he swept his tricorn off his head and plopped it onto the table between them. “I upset your sister.”
“Well, your other sister was hardly there to be upset.”
Wiley took his hat off as well, his confusion plain on his face. “But Lark is so rarely in an ill temper. She especially shouldn’t have been, given the good news of our cousin’s delayed arrival.”
Under normal circumstances, Emerson would have been amused at his friend’s perpetual dislike of the family soon arriving from Philadelphia. At this moment he gave not a fig who was coming or when. “Apparently all it takes is overreacting when one sees one’s mother wrapped up the family diamonds for her.”
Wiley looked near to choking. “The ones your father goes ever on about? That had belonged to the countess?”
“The very ones.”
Wiley let out a muted whistle. “I cannot conceive she accepted them. Especially if you seemed opposed.”
“I had already insisted I knew what the gift was, though I did not. Then rather than returning just the diamonds, she grew angry and made to return all the Fielding jewels.”
Wiley’s eyes widened, and he leaned over the table. “What did you say to her?”
Emerson waved him off. “It hardly matters. I smoothed matters over, and we decided on a wedding date. The first Sunday of March.”
Instead of seeming satisfied, Wiley’s gaze went probing, and then accusing. “So simply? After shifting the topic away from the wedding each time my parents mentioned it the past two years? Frankly, Emerson, we have all doubted your intentions of making good on your promise.”
“Of course I intend to make good on it.” It was an advantageous match all round. The Bentons were a wealthy, respected family, perfectly equal to the Fieldings. Lark herself would make an excellent wife. She was well bred, well taught, not homely—if not as lovely as her sister, who was now Mrs. Hendricks. Sweet of temperament—today aside. He liked her well enough and expected he would come to love her in a decade or so, once they had a brood of children between them.
And she loved him, as his own sisters had pointed out two years ago.
Wiley narrowed his eyes. “Emerson, you know I would welcome you eagerly into our family, but I confess the longer this drags out, the more misgivings I have. You treat my sister no differently now than you did when she was a child, dogging your heels and sending us up a tree to escape her.”
Perhaps that was the problem. She still seemed twelve to him, as she had been when he’d returned from England to fight for freedom from it. She still looked at him with the same blind adoration, still sat silently by whenever he was near.
That would change once they were wed though, surely.
“Emerson.” Wiley’s tone had turned hard, though barely more than a murmur. “I will see my sister happy. If you still dream of Elizabeth, if you cannot love Lark, then release her from the betrothal and let her find someone who can.”
The name snapped his spine straight. Fight as he might against it, the image nonetheless surfaced of a woman as opposite Lark as one could find. Did he dream of her? Only in his worst nightmares. “Rest assured your sister is loved.”
His friend’s eyes narrowed. “If I did not know better, I would call that a cunning evasion. Loved she is. But I would have her loved by you.”
As would he. He could manage it, assuredly. He simply must put his mind to it, as he had to Newton’s Principia Mathematica back at King William’s School. “You have no reason to fear for your sister’s heart, Wiley. I will be a good husband.”
In three short months.
“You look more frightened than when we saw our first Redcoats advancing, muskets at the ready.” Amusement laced its way through the frustration in Wiley’s tone. “I would have many a laugh over this were it not my favorite sister that made you wince so.”
“I am not wincing.” Much.
“Benton, Fielding! There you are.” Hendricks’s voice came from the corner of the room, where the man had stood and waved a greeting to them. “I shall join you in a moment.”
“We await you eagerly,” Wiley replied with his usual grin. When he turned back around, it shifted and hardened into the expression few knew. But Emerson did, from the field of battle. It was the look that had always appeared on his friend’s face moments before he let out a war cry and charged into the thick of things. “If you hurt Lark,” he murmured so quietly Emerson could barely hear him, “I will kill you—or make you wish I had.”
“I know you would. ’Tis not at issue.” Twenty-five years of friendship had not been threatened by competition, an ocean’s distance, or the ravages of war. He would not allow it to be distressed by one small, unassuming woman.
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