“Where did you get it?” Cecilia asked.
“I have my secrets.”
Amazingly, she did not pursue the question. Instead she pulled the gown from the box, rising to her feet so that she could hold it in front of her. “We have no looking glass,” she said, still sounding rather dazed.
“You shall have to trust my eyes, then,” he said. “You are radiant.”
In truth, Edward did not know much of ladies’ fashion. Aunt Margaret had warned him that his chosen gown was not quite au courant, but to him it seemed as fine as anything he had ever beheld in a London ballroom.
But then again, it had been several years since he had seen a London ballroom, and he rather suspected that for Margaret Tryon, fashion was measured in months, not years.
“It’s got two parts,” he said helpfully. “The, ehrm, inside and the out.”
“Petticoat and robe,” Cecilia whispered. “And a stomacher. Three parts, actually.”
He cleared his throat. “Of course.”
She touched a reverent hand to the silver embroidery, which ran in swirls up and down the length of the skirt. “I know that I should say it’s too fine,” she murmured.
“Absolutely you should not say that.”
“I’ve never owned anything so beautiful.”
That, Edward thought, was a tragedy of epic proportions, but he sensed that saying so might be laying it on a bit too thick.
She looked up, her eyes snapping to his with an abruptness that signaled a sudden clarity of thought. “I thought we weren’t going to the governor’s ball.”
“Why would you think that?”
Her lips came together in a fetching purse. “Because I had nothing to wear.”
He smiled, because she so clearly realized the absurdity of her words as they passed over her lips.
She sighed. “I must be terribly vain.”
“Because you like pretty things?” He leaned down, settling his mouth dangerously close to her ear. “What does that say about me, then? That I like to see pretty things on you?”
Or off her. Dear God, when he’d watched the dressmaker package the gown into its box, he could not help but keep a close eye on the fastenings. This would not be the night that he finally made love to his wife, of that he was sadly certain. He was still too weak, and far too vain to risk doing a bad job of it.
But he wanted her all the same. And he vowed that one day he would peel this dress from her body, unwrapping her like his present. He would lay her down on the bed, part her legs, and . . .
He blinked. When she came into focus, she looked somewhat concerned.
“You’ve gone a bit red,” she said. She touched his forehead with the back of her hand. “Have you a fever?”
“It’s been warm today,” he lied. “Don’t you think?”
“No, not really.”
“You’re not wearing a woolen coat.” He unbuttoned his scarlet jacket and shrugged it off. “I’m sure I’ll feel better if I sit down next to the window.”
She watched him curiously, still holding the pale green dress in front of her. When he was settled in the chair, she asked, “Don’t you want to open the window?”
Without a word, he leaned over and pushed it open.
“Are you sure you’re all right?”
“Fine,” he assured her. He felt like a fool. He probably looked like a fool too, but it was worth it to see her face when she looked at the pale green gown.
“It really is beautiful,” she said, gazing down at it with an expression that was almost . . .
No, that could not be right.
“Is something wrong?” he asked.
“No,” she said absently, her attention still on the gown. “No.” She blinked, then looked him square in the face. “No, of course not. I just . . . Ehrm, I need to . . .”
He watched her for a moment, wondering what on earth could be responsible for her abrupt change of countenance. “Cecilia?”
“I need to get something,” she said. But it sounded more like an announcement.
“All right,” he said slowly.
She grabbed her reticule and hurried to the door, pausing with her fingers on the handle. “I’ll only be a moment. Or a few moments. But not long.”
“I will be here when you return,” he said.
She gave him a little nod, cast a longing glance at the gown that now lay on the bed, and dashed from the room.
Edward stared at the door for a moment, trying to make sense of what had just happened. His father had always told him that women were a mystery. Maybe Cecilia thought she had to buy him a gift since he’d got one for her. Silly girl. She should know better.
Still, he could not help but wonder what she’d pick out.
He got up from his chair, adjusted the window so it wasn’t quite so far open, and settled down atop the bed. He didn’t mean to fall asleep, but when he did . . .
He had a silly smile on his face.
Oh please oh please oh please.
Cecilia hurried down the street, praying with every ounce of her soul that the fruit cart was still at the corner of Broad Street and Pearl, where she’d seen it that morning.
She’d thought the matter of the governor’s ball had been settled two days ago when they’d not been able to find a seamstress who could fashion a gown in time. If she didn’t have a dress, she couldn’t go. It was as simple as that.
Then the blasted man had to go and find her the most beautiful gown in the history of gowns, and dear God she wanted to weep at the injustice of it, because she really wanted to wear that dress.
But she couldn’t go to the governor’s ball. She flat-out simply could not. There would be too many people. There was no way she could contain her lie to its current small circle if she was actually presented to New York society.
Cecilia bit her lip. There was only one thing she could do that would guarantee she would not have to attend the governor’s ball. It would be awful, but she was desperate.
So desperate she was willing to eat a strawberry.
She knew what would happen. It wouldn’t be pretty. First her skin would go blotchy. So blotchy that the port master would likely call for a pox quarantine if he saw her. And it would itch like the devil. She still had two scars on her arms from the last time she’d accidentally eaten a strawberry. She’d scratched until she bled. She couldn’t help herself.
Then her stomach would revolt. And as she’d eaten a full meal right before Edward had arrived with the dress, the revolt would be of epic proportions.
For about twenty-four hours she’d be misery personified. A swollen, itchy, vomitous mess. And then she’d be fine. Maybe a little woozy for a few days, but she’d recover. But if Edward had ever thought her attractive . . .
Well. She’d cure him of that.
She hurried around the corner onto Pearl Street, her eyes searching the length of the street. The fruit cart was still there.
Oh, thank God. Cecilia practically ran the last few yards, skidding to a halt in front of Mr. Hopchurch’s cart.
Goal for today: Poison herself.
“A fine afternoon to you,” he said. Cecilia decided her eyes must not have looked as crazed as she felt, because he did not back away in fear. “What can I get you?”
She looked over his wares. It was nearing the end of his sales day, so he didn’t have much. A few skinny courgettes, several ears of the sweet corn that grew so well here. And over in the corner, the biggest, fattest, most hideously red strawberry she’d ever seen. She wondered at its presence here, so late in the day. Had all his other customers sensed what she already knew? That the speckled, pocked-up, inverted red pyramid was nothing but a little bomb of misery and despair?
She swallowed. She could do this. “That’s a very large strawberry,” she said, eyeing it with queasy distaste. Her stomach heaved just at the thought of it.
“I know!” Mr. Hopchurch said with great excitement. “Have you ever seen one so grand? My wife was right proud of it.”
“I’ll take it, please,” Cecilia said, practically choking on the words.
“You can’t take just one,” Mr. Hopchurch said. “I sell them by the half dozen.”
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