He turned his head and caught her staring at him. Diana looked away and quickly fumbled for the hated embroidery. All the while, her heart continued its horrid hammering in an unsettling manner. Why did one’s mind accept a logical decision but one’s body refuse to acknowledge the sense therein? Of course, she felt nothing for him. How could she after his display of such ungentlemanly behaviour. He stood, paused for a moment, and then wandered over to the fireplace. The last days of November had been utterly freezing and a fire was necessary every day. He stood with his back to the fireplace, no doubt warming the backs of his legs. He still said nothing; he hardly had a chance. Mrs. Dashwood, who was prone to garrulity when she felt nervous, prattled on with the most inconsequential details guaranteed to bore anyone to death. He simply smiled and nodded as she related the final details of the painting, and seemed to be interested in her discourse. He had always liked Mama, so perhaps he was just being polite. His manners were faultless.
Then Mama rang the bell for Patsy but said, “Oh, I must make sure Cook has baked a sponge cake like I asked. You never know what servants take it into their heads to do, and it’s often quite the opposite of what they were instructed.”
Babbling, Mama exited the room “for just a moment,” she said. Diana gritted her teeth. What a transparent ploy to leave them alone. She had nothing to say to him of any interest, given the nature of their now non-existent relationship. A chasm of uncomfortable silence yawned between them. Sir Gareth coughed, tugged at his neck cloth, and stared at her without saying anything. Diana stared back, then dropped her gaze and pretended to choose an embroidery silk. Perhaps she would be more successful with a daisy. Embroidery was so tedious but Mama insisted on it.
“Miss Dashwood, I appreciate the few moments of privacy your mother has given us.”
Diana looked up, startled. He wanted to be alone with her? On closer inspection, he gave the impression of a man with something pressing on his mind. He cleared his throat.
“I believe you have been invited to my aunt, Lady Prescott’s Christmas party.”
“Yes,” she replied. “Mama and I were both invited. However, Mama has a prior engagement with a relative in Devon so it’s very likely she will not attend.”
“And you?” Oh, how his gaze bored right into her. “Will you attend?”
Despite her earlier determination to attend, no matter the situation, Diana was now at a loss for words. Was he hinting he would prefer her not to attend or did he, in fact, desire her company there? His expression revealed nothing, just an intense stare that made her uncomfortable.
“I-I’m not sure. I haven’t quite made up my mind—”
“Because if my presence there would cause you discomfort or embarrassment, then I will not attend. You need only say so.” He blurted out these words in an awkward manner.
His statement took her by complete surprise. How unexpected and how generous of him. And here she had been thinking he had no sensitivity. Diana stood and moved towards him, one hand outstretched. He took it automatically.
“Please do not upset your aunt’s arrangements on my account. I’m sure you have family members and friends who would be sadly disappointed not to see you.”
He did not reply at once but held her hand a moment longer before releasing it.
“Forgive me,” she said, “I was too vehement. What I mean is despite what…what has happened between us, I remain your friend.”
He clenched his jaw. “For God’s sake, Diana, why can’t you tell me what I did wrong? How could you have such a sudden change of heart? I must have upset you or angered you in some way. Tell me what it is. I demand an answer. You owe me that at least.”
As he spoke, he gripped her by both arms, drawing her towards him. His face was just inches from hers, his eyes, so piercing, so blue; his mouth a fraction away. If she did nothing he might kiss her out of sheer exasperation. Diana closed her eyes and lifted her chin. For some strange reason, she was breathless and giddy with anticipation. He groaned and—and then, “Cooeee, my dears!” Mama trilled as she entered the room. Patsy followed, almost staggering under the weight of a tray laden with a large teapot, cups, and a sponge cake. Diana didn’t know whether she should be relieved or angry at the interruption.
“Finally, Cook has obeyed my instructions and produced the perfect sponge cake.” Mrs. Dashwood stopped, cocked her head like a curious bird, and said with a playful expression, “I hope I wasn’t interrupting anything?”
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