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Insufferable man. Already planning her future. All of Mama’s wonderful training about reserve fled Sara Hargrove and a groan welled inside. “I’d don’t think I’ll be able to finish this painting. I’m too flustered.”
He took the paintbrush from her tight fingers and slipped it onto the easel’s ledge. “Miss Hargrove, your prospects are endless. Both of the earl’s sons are smitten.”
“The obsessive heir or the humorous flirt, for me?” She shook her head. Maybe Jeremiah Wilton didn’t know her soul. How could the man suggest such poor matches? Providence surely misled her. Her heart sunk even lower.
“I see how they’ve taken notice of you.” His sea blue eyes swept over her as if he hunted for agreement. “My dull nature will stifle you. You must concur.”
Dull? She counted upon his steadfast manner, so like, Papa. For a brilliant man, Jeremiah could be dense. “This must be a courtroom, barrister. You’ve declared your judgment. My feelings are not material.”
He hovered so close she could feel his soft breath on her crown. Pushing away from him, she knocked her easel. Jeremiah thrust his arms about her catching the canvas, but imprisoned her within his embrace. The warm smell of his sandalwood surrounded her, shrouding her in hopeless dreams.
Unwanted tears pregnant in her lashes fell. “Have you come to torture me?”
He eased the canvas back upon the easel, but kept his arms about her. “I didn’t know the strength of your feelings, not until this moment. You do love me?”
“You came to gloat?” She balled her fist and punched at his gut. Her knuckles stung against the iron muscles of his stomach as if she’d hit a metal washbasin. Undaunted, she struck him again.
He grunted and released her.
“Good day.” She picked up her paints and headed toward the house.
“Miss Hargrove. Please don’t go.” The hitch in his voice stopped her.
She wiped her face, then glanced over her shoulder.
Jeremiah, so tall and handsome in his crimson tailcoat and cream breeches, wrenched his arms behind his back. “Miss Hargrove, lovely Sara, I love you. With all my heart, but I cannot hold you to a long engagement. I don’t know how long the war will burn.”
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath of the fresh air. The sweet scent of apple wood met her. His confession didn’t salve her heart. Maybe, if she ran to thickest part of the orchards, her composure would return among the hearty trees, her safe haven.
Something yanked on her hem.
Jeremiah’s head covered in thick ebony hair hung near her hip. On bended knee, he gripped the muslin fabric of her paint smock. The proud giant humbled himself at her feet.
“I’m desperate for you. This is against my reason. I shouldn’t propose, but I can’t find a way not to. Accept me?”
“Get up, Mr. Wilton.” With another quick tug on her skirts, she’d be free.
Jeremiah held fast. “I’ll give you the power to dictate our course, but for your sake say no to my proposal.”
“This is a proposal?”
“It is Miss Hargrove, but it’s not rational. It’s inappropriate to obligate you. Say no.”
Did he think mere words could free them from this bond? She licked her lips. “No.”
He swallowed hard then stood to his full height. Head drooping, he kicked a rock with his boot. “Tell…. Tell your father and mother I called.”
Her heart beat hard at his stutter. He’d gotten his way, but maybe his spirit, his proud spirit, was breaking too.
He soldiered away, his shoulders hunched as he marched to his dapple-grey mount.
Could she let him go, forget him? No, he was for her. Since the day she climbed Papa’s tree and witnessed Jeremiah besting the town beaus to save his friend, Jeremiah Wilton owned her heart. “Is this how you wish to leave things, sir?”
“No.” He scooped up his gloves, but hadn’t turned.
“What type of husband will you make, if you can’t admit to be being wrong? And what would it say about me, if I waited for such a man?”
“Perhaps, you’re just as foolish as I?” He trudged back to her, took her hand, and placed it over his heart. “I need to trust that our thoughts are the same, shared of one spirit. I’ll not doubt us again. But, if you find you can’t withstand a long engagement—”
Putting a shaking palm to his mouth, she stopped the voicing of his misgivings. Her gaze lowered from his searching eyes to the gold braiding of his epaulet. Only time would prove her commitment.
Yet, how could he be so uncertain of her character? Perhaps each passing day would lessen the sting.
He moved her fingers, bent his head, and slowly covered her lips. His arms tightened about her as she let his affection deepen. In spite of his words, Jeremiah’s actions seemed clear. He had to love her as much as she loved him.
Tossing her paints, she wrapped her arms about his neck and reveled in his possessive grip of her waist, the heavy coursing of his pulse.
He tugged her closer, snuggling her against the smooth floss of his waist sash. “Come, we must go convince Mr. Hargrove. I know Mrs. Hargrove won’t be happy. They may not give their permission.”
“Mama, may be more difficult to persuade, but who can withstand my Mr. Wilton.” The clouds in Sara’s spirit receded as she slipped her palm into his. They soon trudged the path to the great portico of the main house. “If the war can end by spring, we should take our wedding breakfast on the lawn or even set a table on the entry.”
Jeremiah looked off into the distance. An unreadable expression set upon his thinned lips. “If we can convince your parent, then I’ll make this war as short as possible, even capture Napoleon to return to you.”