The carriage bumped along the dirt road jolting Draco from his light doze. He stretched his neck and gazed out the window to see the mid-morning sun had burned the frost from the ground. The steady pounding of horse hooves pounded ahead leaving a cloud of dust behind them.
He would have much rather Apparated to their destination, but Theodore Nott insisted on bringing along his new wife, Lady Daphne Nott née Greengrass and her younger sister, Astoria, along with them.
Apparation was too harsh on the delicate constitutions of the fairer sex.
Draco loathed leaving the comforts of London with its cobbled streets and gambling halls. But he had inherited a piece of property from a cousin he didn't even know he had, and as his solicitor, Theodore insisted he go see the manor house.
Theo pulled his pocket watch from his coat pocket. "We should be arriving in Godric's Hollow by mid-afternoon."
Next to him, Draco replied with a nod and a grunt.
"What vexes you so, Mr. Malfoy?" Lady Nott asked. She and her sister sat across from the two men in the forward-facing seats. "Are we not a merry party?"
"Ah, fret not, wife! You and Lady Astoria are merry witches, indeed, and enough to bring joy to any man," Lord Nott consoled his wife. "Malfoy has other worries."
"Do you mourn for your cousin, Mr. Malfoy?" Astoria asked kindly.
"I cannot mourn a man whom I did not know, Miss Greengrass."
"Oh." She blushed.
"Malfoy is afraid of the country!" Theo announced with a laugh.
The ladies looked at him wide-eyed.
"Don't be absurd, Nott! I'm not afraid of the country. But I'm not very fond of it."
"Why not, sir?" Daphne asked.
"The country is full of uneducated, lower-class witches with poor bloodlines looking to raise their status by latching onto wealthy upper-class purebloods," he explained.
"You're wicked, Mr. Malfoy," Lady Nott said.
"You're not afraid of the country," Theodore declared. "You're afraid of women!"
The women giggled.
"You can jest, sir, for you have a wife," Draco said sourly. "But you shall see when we arrive. Women become crazed when they discover the size of a gentleman's income."
Their tittering continued, and he closed his eyes wishing he had Apparated ahead.
Godric's Hollow was a quaint little village nestled in the rolling hills of the West Country. Autumn was in full swing, and the trees were bursting with colour in brilliant hues of red, orange, and yellow.
"It's like a painting," Astoria said.
The carriage pulled up before a large manor house where they were greeted by their old friend, Lord Marcus Flint, his wife Pansy, and a whole host of servants, both human and house elves. When the coach came to a stop, a footman came forward and opened the door for them.
"Welcome to Parkinson Hall," Lord Flint greeted them with a bow. The house bore the name of his wife's father as she was the one with the fortune and not he. "You must be weary from your travels."
"Aye," said Theodore as he helped Lady Daphne from the carriage. "But nothing that wine and supper cannot cure."
"Then you are most fortunate for Lady Pansy has requested our cooks to prepare the finest of meals for us all tonight," Marcus boasted.
"We are most grateful to you, Lady Pansy," Theo said with a bow in her direction, "and we are grateful to you and Marcus for hosting us while we are taking care of Malfoy's business in town."
Pansy curtseyed. "Of course. We are all old friends, after all."
The gentlemen escorted the ladies into the house, and the travellers freshened up. The ladies changed into fine taffeta gowns, and soon, they were seated around an elegant dining table for supper lit by beeswax candles. It was practically covered with from one end to the other with food - roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, sweetbreads, English rarebit, apple pie, and stewed celery.
Draco sipped his claret as conversation turned to his reluctant inheritance.
"You may have a fight on your hands, old boy," Flint said.
"Whatever do you mean, sir?" Theo asked. "When Sirius Black died, he left no heirs and there are no other male heirs in the Black line. Malfoy is his first cousin, once removed and the next male heir in line, thus making him the rightful inheritor of Grimmauld Place."
"To be sure," Flint said. "However, rumour has it that old man Black may have written a will leaving the property to his godson, Harry Potter."
"Potter?" Malfoy spat with a sneer.
"Yes," Flint replied, his face twisted with a smirk. He seemed to be taking a bit of delight in telling Draco the news.
It was well-known that Harry Potter had been Draco's rival during their days at boarding school. To have his own relative potentially give away his inheritance to said rival was the ultimate insult. Before, Draco hadn't any real interest in the old country house, but now, he wanted to rip it back out of Potter's grubby hands.
"We'll see about that," he growled. Turning to his solicitor, he said, "I'm assuming you can do something about this, Nott."
"Of course, Draco. I'll look into it first thing in the morning," Theo assured him.
"Oh, enough about business at the dining table," Lady Pansy said dismissing the topic with a wave of her hands. "I have much more exciting news to share. Lord McLaggan is hosting a ball, and we're all invited."
The ladies cooed in glee while Draco's face barely contained his displeasure.
Theo laughed. "I'm afraid our Mr. Malfoy is not as pleased by your news as you ladies are, Lady Flint."
"Oh, Draco," she said with a pout. "Why must you always be contrary?"
"He's not very fond of country bred women," Theo answered before Draco could.
"Oh, well, I can't say that I blame him," Pansy said knowingly with her nose raised slightly. "They are ever so dull. And I am afraid that Lord McLaggan does invite a – how should I say? - mixed crowd to his assemblies. But he's wealthy and well-respected, and it's important to make an appearance. He is, after all, the local magistrate." She brought her wine glass to her mouth.
At that news, both Draco and Theo sat a little straighter in their chairs. Getting friendly with the local magistrate could help influence their case against Potter.
"Perhaps it would behove me to attend this social function, after all, Lady Flint," Draco conceded.
"I knew you would see it my way," she said with a smile.
The following day, Draco and Theodore borrowed a couple horses from the Flints with the intent of riding a few miles west to see the house his cousin had once lived in. However, Nott decided that they should wait until they had a curse-breaker in case there were any enchantments left upon the property.
So, instead, they turned east and headed toward the village to explore.
The small village was bustling with activity. Children ran up the street chasing a dog, and young girls admired the latest fashions adorning a dress-makers' window. The sound of the blacksmith's hammer rang through the streets as he made new shoes for a horse, and travellers came in and out of the pub that also served as an inn at the end of the street. There was a butcher and candle maker, and a milliner and fishmonger. Nearly everything one needed could be found here.
To be honest, it took Draco somewhat by surprise.
The two men decided to dismount and walk for a spell. They had just secured their horses when their attention was drawn to a small group leaving the cobbler's shop.
"What do you think?" asked a young man with messy black hair and wire-rimmed glasses as he looked down as his shiny, and obviously, new boots.
"They're ever so dashing, Harry," replied one of his companions, a petite and pretty girl with fiery red hair peeking around the edges of her bonnet and a pinkish flush on her cheeks.
"Oh, yes, you look like a right dandy," the other gentleman commented. His hair was just as red as the first young lady's.
"Ronald!" chastised the other young woman in their party. She was also fairly attractive with a pretty complexion and big, brown eyes. "How do they feel, Harry?"
The bespectacled man took a few experimental strides before coming to a stop and bowing at the waist before her. "I think they shall do, Miss Granger."
It was then he caught Draco and Theo out of the corner of his eye and straightened his stance abruptly.
"Malfoy?" The surprise was evident in his voice.
"Potter," Draco replied.
The two men eyed each other warily as their respective parties shuffled awkwardly. Finally, the dark haired girl cleared her throat softly drawing attention back to the matter at hand.
"Excuse me," Potter said. "Where are my manners?"
Draco wanted to comment on exactly how he felt about Potter's manners, or lack thereof, but managed to hold his tongue.
"Gentlemen, I believe you are already acquainted with Mr. Ronald Weasley." The redhead nodded his head. "This is his sister, Miss Ginny Weasley." The girl with the matching hair curtseyed. "And finally, this is Miss Hermione Granger." She, too, dipped into a curtsey.
Potter continued the introductions for the benefit of the ladies. "These two gentlemen are Lords Theodore Nott and Draco Malfoy, old acquaintances from our school days at Hogwarts." Nott and Malfoy bowed in response.
Miss Granger's eyes widened. "Mr. Malfoy, is it? I do believe I've heard your name many times over the years, although, usually accompanied with an epithet or two."
"Hermione!" Potter exclaimed with a look of horror.
"What?" Miss Granger asked innocently. "Are we going to pretend that the great schoolyard rivalry did not exist because we are in public? I'm sure Mr. Malfoy cursed your name a time or two as well, didn't you, sir?" She gave him a wide-eyed, but somewhat saucy look that made him feel all warm inside. Before he could even form a response, she continued on her own. "Of course, you did. Besides, it happened when you were children, and now you are men grown."
"I do believe you're correct, Miss Granger," Nott chimed in.
"She usually is," Potter said with a hint of pride.
"As much as I'd love to continue discussing how I'm always right, I'm afraid I must part ways with you now," she said. "My father will begin to worry."
"Let me call for my carriage," Potter insisted.
Miss Granger shook her head. "I'll be fine, Harry. Besides, you need the carriage to take Ginny and Ron all the way back to Ottery St. Catchpole."
"Hermione," Ron Weasley interjected, "it's not proper—"
"Ron! It's not your place to impose society's expectations upon me. I shall do as I see fit." She turned to Nott and Draco and curtseyed again. "Gentlemen, if you'll excuse me."
Pulling her wand from a discreet pocket in her dress, she stepped away from the group and Apparated away.
"Did she just-?" Theo asked.
"Yes," Potter said. "Hermione, er, Miss Granger, rather is an... independent sort of woman."
Draco stared at the spot where she had stood. He had never seen a woman be so bold before, from the way she talked to the magic she used, and he found her utterly intriguing.
He was still gazing at the empty spot when Nott took up the conversation again.
"Mr. Potter," he said, "Mr. Malfoy and I have some business to address with you. Would you be agreeable to meet with us to discuss it? Tomorrow, perhaps?"
"What sort of business?" asked Potter suspiciously.
"The sort which shouldn't be discussed on public streets," Draco snapped.
The dark haired man's green eyes narrowed behind his spectacles. "Fine," he said in an almost growl. "But tomorrow is the ball at the McLaggans'. You can call on me at Potter Manor midday after next."
"Why Potter Manor?" Theo asked. He was clearly expecting a more neutral locale.
Potter smirked. "I want you on my territory where I can keep a proper eye on you." With that he bowed and exited with his party to a nearby carriage.
"Delightful chap," Theo remarked once they were out of earshot. "Malfoy, I do admire your talent for making friends everywhere you go."
Draco lifted his chin. "I attempted friendship with Potter once," he confessed.
"What?" Nott was surprised. "I never heard of such a tale."
"It was when we first arrived at Hogwarts. Potter and I were both of privileged backgrounds, and it seemed only fitting that he and I become more acquainted. However, he threw my offer in my face and befriended that unlicked cub Weasel instead. "
"Why are you laughing?"
"Even as an eleven year old child, you weren't making friends. You were making alliances."
Draco walked back to his horse leaving his friend laughing in his wake.
The next morning came faster than Draco would have liked. He took his breakfast of toasted bread, marmalade, and tea in bed and pondered with displeasure the evening to come.
Like all well-bred young men, Draco had been brought up with the expectation of finding a wife to bear him a son and carry on the Malfoy name. In order to do this, he had been trained from a very young age how to walk, talk, and behave. In the same vein, he learned what to expect from potential mates.
But he also found that there were women eager to attach themselves to a man with a hefty purse.
Draco disliked playing games with simpering females, and balls seemed to bring them out in spades.
With a snap of his fingers, Draco ordered a house elf to take away his food tray and dressed for the day until it was time to prepare for the dance.
The moonlight guided the way for the fancy carriage cutting its way through the dark autumn road to McLaggan House. Inside, the ladies were dressed in their finest silks and taffetas in the richest colours topped with glittering jewels. The gentlemen were just as striking in their waistcoats and breeches, although Marcus Flint was a bit ostentatious compared to Draco's and Nott's more muted colours.
The carriage slowed as it approached their destination and queued up behind other coaches until they finally pulled up before the door, and a servant opened the door.
The gentlemen escorted the ladies into the house; Draco, by default, offered his arm to Lady Astoria. Upon entering the ballroom, they were introduced to Lord Tiberius McLaggen and his nephew, Cormac, a handsome young man with flaxen wavy hair wearing a blood red jacket.
The room was brightly lit with dozens of beeswax candles on wall sconces and chandeliers. The room was already lively as people greeting each other excitedly and changed from their boots to their dancing slippers. Across the room, Draco spotted a gaggle of redheads, their clothes looking a little less bright than the others in the room.
"I see what you mean about a mixed crowd," he said to Pansy.
The younger McLaggen overheard, and said, "Ah, yes. The Weasleys," he spat. "I told Uncle that he shouldn't invite anyone who doesn't have an income of at least 5,000 a year." He sneered. "That'll change when I inherit."
Draco raised his brow. "I'm sure your uncle would be pleased to know you look forward to his passing."
McLaggen chuckled nervously. "You misunderstand me, sir."
"I think I understand you just fine." He bowed. "If you'll excuse me."
The musicians were tuning their instruments, and the first dance was coming up soon. Draco asked Lady Greengrass for the first dance. He hoped he could just spend the evening dancing with his friends and avoiding these other women.
Just as the dance was forming up, Draco saw a bright red coat cross the room and approach a woman. Hermione Granger was wearing a simple white gown with iris blue flowers and princess sleeves. Her hair was pulled back with ringlets softly framing her face.
Cormac McLaggen was clearly asking her to dance, and her eyes looked slightly panicked. She could say no, but that would mean she wasn't dancing for the entire night. If she wanted to dance at all, she would have to suffer through him.
Putting on what Draco interpreted as a brave face, she smiled slightly and accepted his hand, and he led her to the dance floor.
For the next thirty minutes, they danced through "The Cotillion." Draco could do the steps in his sleep, so he could easily sneak glances at Miss Granger. Her face was flushed from exertion, and he found himself thinking that she looked sweet with pink in her cheeks. When the movements called for them to pass each other, he caught her eye, and she smiled at him. Embarrassingly, he caught himself smiling back.
The dance came to an end, and they applauded the musicians. The room was much warmer than before, and ladies furiously swished their fans to and fro for relief.
McLaggen was still standing near Miss Granger, and Draco decided to approach her. He walked up behind her and overheard him asking her for the next dance.
Before she could respond, Draco spoke up. "I'm sorry, sir, but Miss Granger already promised me the next dance."
McLaggen looked angrily at Draco, and then Hermione.
"I'm sorry, Cormac," she said. "My dance card is full."
"I see," he said, clearly insulted. He nodded his head to each of them and took his leave.
Hermione turned to Draco.
"Sir," she greeted with a curtsy.
He bowed in return. "Miss Granger."
"I must say, this is an unexpected turn of events," she said wryly.
"Is it not the custom for men to dance with young ladies at these functions?"
"Well, yes," she said, "but rumour has it that you're trying to avoid the women of our little hamlet."
Draco felt his face go warm. "Where did you hear such nonsense?" he sputtered.
"I overheard your friend, Mr. Nott, talking to Lady Flint." Draco's eyes widened. "Oh, don't worry, Mr. Malfoy! Your secret is safe with me. But I should warn you, everyone in this room has already heard that you have an income of 10,000 Galleons a year. So, you should tread very carefully. Especially around Miss Lavender Brown as she is particularly persistent."
His eyes gazed around the room. "Which one is Miss Brown?"
"She's just over your right shoulder. No, no! Don't look!" He halted. "Okay, very slowly look behind you. She's the fair-haired one in the lacy pink dress."
Over his shoulder was an overly-coifed, overly-rouged, overly-frilled woman with her bosoms pushed a little too high and giggling a little too loud. She looked more like a confectionary than a girl. Shuddering, he turned back to Hermione and her laughing eyes.
"Miss Granger, how do I know this is not an attempt to besmirch the good name of a lady in an attempt to put yourself in the front of the running."
Hermione laughed. "Oh, Mr. Malfoy, you do not have to worry about me. I do not have any ambitions for matrimony. "
"You are a very unusual woman, Miss."
"So, I have been told."
He held out his hand. "May I have this dance?"
"I'd be delighted."
They danced the Quadrille often exchanging glances and smiles, and when the dance allowed for it, snippets of conversation. Even though they both wore gloves, Draco felt his stomach flip every time their hands came in contact.
He was smitten.
The dance ended, and they applauded the musicians. A refreshment of Punch à la Romaine, or Roman Punch, was brought out to the guests. It was a mixture of rum, lemon, water, Italian meringue, sugar syrup, and champagne.
Feeling a little tipsy from the alcohol, Draco found himself asking her for the next dance.
As they danced "The Savage Dance," they focused completely on one another, neither taking into account that the rest of the room was taking notice as well. For a man and woman to share two dances sent a message of greater intent than just casual friendship. To the townspeople of Godric's Hollow, their future spinster Miss Granger had just secured herself an advantageous marriage.
When supper was announced, everyone was eager to leave the heat of the ballroom and sit for a spell. The meal was an extravagant affair as the McLaggens were eager to show off their abundance of wealth. There was a tantalizing amount of food such as white soup, partridge pie, sturgeon, fricandeau of veal, cold fowl garnished with skewers of crayfish, black olives, and truffles, ragù of veal, and roasted widgeon. For dessert, there were jellies and blancmanges, two kinds of gateau, six kinds of biscuits, and moulded ices flavoured with tamarind and bourgamot oils.
"Miss Granger?" Draco asked as he placed a bit of mutton on his plate. "May I ask where you did your magical training? Most witches are home taught, but you seem to have extraordinary ability."
Hermione blushed. "Why thank you, sir. I actually was tutored by Miss Minerva McGonagall along side with Harry. When he went along to school, she was kind enough to continue to teach me."
"You did not have your own tutor?" he asked, slightly confused.
"Of course she didn't," Lavender Brown butted in with a laugh. "Her parents are Muggles!"
Draco looked at Hermione with shock. "You're a Mud-, er, Muggleborn."
Though he had corrected himself, the impolite word that had almost crossed his lips was clear as day. Their section of the table went silent, and Potter tensed beside her. The warmth that had been in her eyes all evening went out, and she squared her shoulders and lifted her chin.
"Yes, my parents are Muggles, and I am a Muggleborn. But that matters not for my wand works at well as anyone else's here. "
"Miss Granger, I—"
"Harry, I'd like to go now."
Without another word, Potter stood and helped her from her seat and escorted her from the room. As soon as she left, the room began buzzing with gossip. For Draco, everything became much duller and the colour drained from the party. He danced no more and was grateful when the final dance, La Boulangère, finally came to a rousing close so they could make their way back to Parkinson Hall.
The ride back to the Flints' was an uncomfortable affair, and Draco remained silent through it all. Pansy made it very clear that she thought Draco had made a spectacle of himself dancing with someone of Miss Granger's breeding, and her husband, being the sycophant he was, agreed loudly and often.
Daphne said nothing, but her silence was as deafening as any vocal opinion. Her sister was a littler kinder and commented that she knew nothing of Miss Granger, but she thought she and Draco danced very well together.
That opinion was not met with very high regard.
Theo, bless him, was the one that broke the barrage of contempt against Miss Granger and Draco's association with her that evening.
"I think she's a lovely young lady," he said softly.
Daphne inhaled sharply through her nose.
"Mr. Nott," Flint said condescendingly, "though I agree she may have agreeable physical attributes, she's still of lower class and blood."
Nott raised his hand in protest. "I am not speaking of her attributes, sir. Though she may have a pleasing countenance, I am speaking of her mind. She is sharp witted and magically gifted. I dare say if witches were permitted to attend Hogwarts, she may have given us all a run for our money. She is a rare sort, and if Mr. Malfoy chooses to dance with her, then he should be able to do so without judgement."
The carriage became quiet as a tomb with only the sound of the wheels and clopping of the horses' hooves echoing through the night breaking the silence.
Theo was right. She was an exceptional witch, one like he had never met before. Instead of showing her his appreciation, he insulted her in a most infantile way.
Draco slept fitfully that night. Guilt was not a feeling he was used to associating with, but it was one that nipped at the heels of his dreams. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw himself shouting "Mudblood" into Hermione Granger's disappointed face over and over again.
The next morning, Draco again took his breakfast in bed. He thought about feigning illness and locking himself away in the room indefinitely until Nott came and reminded him that they were to leave for Potter's Hall within the hour.
The day was gloomy, which suited Draco's mood just fine. He and Nott rode across the countryside to Potter's Hall on horseback. The autumn air was cold enough that they could see their breaths every time they exhaled.
Lord Harry Potter was a wealthy young man. His parents had died at the hand of an evil wizard when he was still a swaddled babe. There had been talk, at one point, about having him raised by his Muggleborn mother's Muggle family, but his godfather wouldn't hear of it. Though his godfather was only a bachelor, he was also a baron with great wealth, so young master Potter was brought up with the wizard aristocracy.
Potter's Hall sat on several thousand acres of land that included gardens, farmland, and wooded parks used for hunting. The house itself cut and impressive silhouette against the sky and looked quite imposing. It surprisingly rivalled Draco's own Malfoy Manor where he grew up in the neighbouring county of Wiltshire.
A stable hand greeted them and took their horses for a rubdown, and they made their way to the door. Another servant led them to a parlour where they found Mr. Potter and Miss Granger.
Draco felt his heart halt.
"Miss Granger," Theo greeted with a bow. "I did not know we would be seeing you this afternoon. How do you do?"
"I am well, sir. I am only here to pester Harry to scavenge his lands for potions ingredients, so I must be on my way." She curtseyed quickly and made to leave from the room.
"Madam, I—" Draco started to speak, but was cut off by the look of scorn in Potter's eyes.
"I shall escort you to the door, Hermione," he said, never taking his eyes off Draco. "Remember, there should be some fluxweed on the east side of the lake." Their voices faded as they walked down the hall. "And make sure you have your wand handy!"
"Harry, I'll be fine!"
Soon, Potter returned more agitated than before.
"I should challenge you to a duel," he spat.
Draco sneered. "Then, why don't you?"
Potter stared at him loathingly. "Because she begged me not to."
The two glared at each other for an uncomfortably long time before Nott finally cleared his throat breaking the tension.
"What was it that you needed to see me about?" He gestured to the sofas in the room indicating that they could finally sit.
"Grimmauld Place," Nott said.
"What about it?" Potter asked.
"Did my cousin leave a will, Potter?"
"Perhaps I should do the talking, Draco?" Theo whispered.
"What?" Potter asked incredulously.
"What Malfoy means to say is that by law, Grimmauld Place and Baron Black's fortune would pass on to the next male heir in his family. Seeing as the Baron had no children of his own, the next heir in his line is Draco." Potter grunted. "However," Nott placated with a slightly raised voice, "if the good Baron left a last will and testament naming you as his heir, then the inheritance would pass on to you."
"Wait right here," Potter said and left the room. Soon, he returned with a parchment written in the hand of Baron Sirius Black leaving on his earthly belongings to Lord Harry Potter.
"I think you should leave," Potter said.
"Mr. Potter," Nott said, "there are no witnesses on this will."
"While this may be the Baron's will, it's not properly executed."
"But it's in his hand!"
"With all due respect, it could be forged."
"I would never!" Potter said indignantly.
"I am not accusing, sir," Nott said. "I am just saying that this would possibly not stand in a court."
"How do you suggest we proceed, then?" he asked, clearly becoming angry.
"We shall have to take it to the good magistrate and have him make a judgement."
"Agreed," Potter said, then stood. "Now, if you'll excuse me, it is nearly one, and I would like to have my dinner in peace. Good day." With that, he stormed out of the room.
"I think we have been dismissed, Theodore," Draco said dryly.
Upon leaving Potter's Hall, the two men went their separate ways; Nott headed back toward Parkinson Hall, and Draco veered in the direction of the lake.
He founded her sitting on a log sorting through plants and herbs in small, burlap sacks, before placing them in her basket. While still a good distance away, he dismounted his horse and tethered the animal to a nearby tree. Before approaching her, he took a moment to study her as he didn't really get a chance to look at her earlier.
She was dressed in a pale pink gown that made her seem particularly feminine and delicate. To ward off the autumnal chill, she wore a deep green velvet cloak and black gloves. Her hair was only partially pulled back from her face, and for the first time, he realized it was a thick mass of riotous curls.
"You shouldn't be here," she said, startling him from his observance of her.
"I must speak with you," he replied stepping closer to her.
"We should not be alone without a chaperone," she chided.
"You have no qualms being alone with Potter," he said almost accusingly.
Hermione quirked her mouth in amusement. "Harry is my oldest friend; he's practically my brother."
"Are you certain he sees you the same, Miss?" He couldn't hide the hint of jealousy in his voice.
She sighed. "Sir, if you opened your eyes, you would see that Harry's affections are focused elsewhere. It is Miss Ginny Weasley that he loves."
"Miss Weasley?" Draco wrinkled his nose. "I am not fond of Potter by any means, but she is far below his station."
Hermione looked at him sadly. "Oh, Mr. Malfoy, the heart is blind to things like the weight of one's purse."
He shook his head slightly confused.
"The heart," she continued, "looks for another heart that beats in time to the same tune." Picking up her basket, she stood and turned to walk away. "I think you should go. Your business is with Harry."
"Potter is not very happy with me at the moment."
"And should I be?" she said shortly.
"Miss Granger... Hermione, I..." He stumbled over the words for he had never said such a thing before. "I am afraid I did you a grave disservice, and I must apologize for my crudeness last night."
"Sir, may I ask you a question?"
"Had you known before, would you have still asked me to dance?"
She looked at him with those wide, open eyes as he considered her question. He had been asking himself the very same question, and he had been thinking very hard about the answer.
Though it pained him to do so, he answered truthfully. "No."
Hermione's eyes glossed over with tears. "Why did you ask me?"
"To annoy McLaggen."
Hurt flashed across her face.
"At least at first," he rushed out. "Then, I found you beguiling and clever and beautiful."
A tear slipped down her flushed cheek. "Am I no longer those things to you? Now that you know?"
Draco walked forward until he was standing before her and placed his gloved hand on her cheek. He rubbed the wetness away with his thumb, and whispered, "You are all that and more."
Leaning down, he touched his lips to hers.
The kiss lasted for a brief moment before Hermione squeaked and pulled back; she slapped her hands on her reddening cheeks.
"Oh, Mr. Malfoy! This is inappropriate!"
He didn't know whether to be amused or horrified. "I've never heard you be so concerned with propriety before today," he said with a laugh.
"This is not something silly like Apparation! This is my reputation! I do not wish to be a scarlet woman!"
Draco did laugh at that. "One kiss does not a scarlet woman make. And if you still fear your reputation is in danger, do not fret, my darling. I shall marry you and save you from scandal."
"Mr. Malfoy, I do believe you have gone mad!" she said. "Have you had anything suspicious to drink? I think someone has slipped you some Amortentia."
"Do you think so lowly of yourself, Miss Granger, to believe that a man could only wish to kiss you if he had been slipped a potion?"
Her cheeks flushed pink. "I... Mr. Malfoy, you are teasing me."
"A little," he conceded, "but only because you make it so amusing."
She backed a few steps away from him and leaned against a nearby tree. "You stay right there," she said, "and keep your distance! No more kissing, and I'll permit that we can continue to speak."
He nodded in agreement.
After a moment or two of calming breaths and shy smiles, he finally asked her, "Why are you collecting potions ingredients out here? Surely Potter has a greenhouse?"
"He does," she said, "but I find that wild grown herbs often have stronger properties in potions."
"Really?" he asked with raised eyebrows, the surprise evident in his voice. "You know, I do believe Theo was right. You would have been brilliant at Hogwarts."
It was Hermione's turn to be shocked. "Mr. Nott said that?"
"He did. You've made quite the impression on all of us, Miss Granger. But I must ask, how did you come to be so magically academic? It's not something usually found in witches, Muggleborn or otherwise."
"Can we walk?" she asked. "You won't become overwhelmed and kiss me again, if we do?"
Draco chuckled and raised his arm for her to take. "I shall be the most chivalrous of gentlemen."
Slowly, she took his arm and they began strolling through the leaf strewn grounds.
"You know of the Statute of Secrecy?" she asked him, and he nodded in response. "In the Muggle world, if one is discovered practicing magic, the consequences can be most dire." He was well aware of the history of torture and abuse of wizards and witches by Muggles and that she was phrasing it delicately. "As a witch born in the Muggle world, I cannot rely on the security of an advantageous marriage, and a husband to protect me. A Muggle husband could not do so, and because I'm Muggleborn, I'm not the first choice for a wizard. I needed to learn more than magical needlework. I needed to learn practical things so I could defend myself or escape if need be.
"Fortunately, Baron Black and Miss McGonagall were both kind people who helped along the way." The gratitude was evident in her voice.
Draco stopped their walk and looked down at her. "Potter never offered?"
"To marry you? To protect you?"
Hermione smiled. "He would if I asked, but I would never. His heart has found its dance partner."
The sun broke through the clouds, and looking down at her, the world seemed a little brighter, as if she was the source of the light. He marvelled at this girl and her kindness; where he had never cared much for anyone or anything, she was the opposite, caring for everyone and everything, even in the face of her own safety and happiness.
As his heart thump-thump-thumped, he wondered if hers was beating in the same rhythm.
Two days later, Draco and Theo met again with Lord Potter at the home of the local magistrate, Lord Tiberius McLaggen. Fortunately for all, his nephew Cormac was out fox hunting that afternoon.
Tiberius was slightly overweight, clearly someone who had lived a life of rich over-indulgence. His eyes were piercing blue and his skin was rosy, and one could still see glimpses of the handsome young man he had once been. He wore a white, powdered wig and fine, expensive clothes.
With a monocle pressed to his right eye, he closely scrutinized the document Harry provided. For good measure, he even compared the will to correspondence of Baron Black's to see if the handwriting matched.
Sighing, he placed his eyeglass on his desk and looked at the younger men sitting before him.
"Well, I do believe that the will is, indeed, in ol' Sirius' hand," he announced. Potter sat a little straighter in his chair. "However, Harry, my boy, I'm afraid that Mr. Nott is correct. Without witnesses, it legally does not stand."
Draco felt a sense of triumph as Potter's disappointment became transparent.
"So, my godfather's wishes mean nothing?" Potter asked coldly.
"I'm sorry, Harry," the elder McLaggen responded genuinely.
"Well, gentlemen-" Theo began, but he was interrupted.
"What if I chose to relinquish my inheritance?" Draco asked suddenly.
"Pardon?" Tiberius asked.
Theo looked at him in shock, and Potter narrowed his eyes.
"Perhaps Potter and I could come to an agreement where he could keep Grimmauld Place," he suggested.
"What do you want in return, Malfoy?" Harry asked suspiciously.
"Now, wait a minute!" Theo objected to the accusation.
Draco looked Potter in the eye. "I want you to not object when I ask for Miss Granger's hand in marriage."
Potter jumped up from his chair. "What?!"
Nott's mouth dropped open in shock.
Tiberius was just amused and watched the drama unfold as if it were a play being put on his private library. If only he had a drink to go along with it.
"I'm going to ask her to marry me," Draco said calmly.
"The hell you are!" Potter growled through clenched teeth.
Draco got to his feet and faced Harry. "I am, Potter, so it would behove you to become accustomed to the idea."
"She is not some country girl you can use for a dalliance, Malfoy. She's not to be used for your amusement!"
"I am not interested in dallying or being amused!"
"Then what interests you?!" Potter shouted.
His loud declaration startled Harry, and the dark haired man stumbled back a step with wide eyes.
"You're in love with her," he said quietly. It wasn't a question.
"Grimmauld is yours," Draco said, swallowing hard.
Harry nodded and picked up his hat. He said his goodbyes to Lord McLaggen, then turned to Draco.
"She is like my sister. If you are ever unkind or insincere, remember that I am adept with a wand."
Draco nodded. "As is she."
For the first time in all the years they had known each other, Harry Potter smiled at him. "Yes, she is."
With that, he left.
The Granger home was modest in comparison to Potter Hall and Malfoy Manor, but it could not be described as small or quaint either. Hermione Granger was clearly the daughter of a gentleman.
Draco had never been to a Muggle home before, but it didn't appear too terribly different from a wizarding home. There were fewer servants, and none of which appeared to be house elves, but he was greeted in the same fashion as he would have elsewhere. He did note a housemaid cleaning the soot from a fireplace and realized how far messier it was without a wand.
He was brought to the study of Mr. Edward Granger who, surprisingly, cut a much more formidable figure than he had anticipated. Hermione must have inherited her slight stature from her mother.
"Mr. Granger," Draco greeted, "I thank you for seeing me without delay."
Mr. Granger gestured to one of his sitting chairs before taking a seat himself. "I must admit, Mr. Malfoy, I am most curious as to your visit."
Swallowing past the lump in his throat, Draco said, "It is about your daughter, sir."
The elder man's brown eyes twinkled with affection. "I do hope my Hermione has not done something to vex you, Mr. Malfoy. " He quirked his mouth in a crooked grin. "She has a way of getting under one's skin."
"She vexes me, sir, but not like you are imagining," he replied looking down at his lap.
Edward looked at him with more wisdom than any Muggle should be allowed to have. "I'm afraid you'll have to explain further, sir."
Draco met Mr. Granger's eyes. "I love Hermione, sir. I wish to ask you for her hand in marriage."
"She certainly did get under your skin," Edward said with raised eyebrows.
Mr. Granger raised his hand and stopped Draco mid-sentence.
"Asking for my permission, while proper, is moot. I learned long ago that Hermione makes her own choices despite the wishes of her father."
Feeling a little lost at his response, Draco said, "Regardless sir, I'd still like your blessing to ask her."
Edward smiled. "My girl has spoken of you, and I do believe she is fond of you. She has always been bright, and if she chooses you for a husband, then that is a good choice.
"You seem like a good lad, and if you love my Hermione, you must be fairly bright as well. You are more than welcome to approach my daughter."
Draco's face broke into the biggest grin he had ever smiled. "Thank you, sir!"
"If you'd like to try now, I believe she's in the back garden," Mr. Granger said with a little smirk.
Heart thumping, Draco nodded dazedly and left Hermione's father sitting in his study. He made his way around to the back of the house, and found Hermione overlooking a beautiful view of a hillside covered in trees in their full autumn glory. She was standing with a paintbrush in hand trying to capture the colours onto a canvas.
"I didn't know you could paint," he said, startling her.
"Oh!" she said with a gasp as she whirled around to face him. She had a smudge of yellow paint on her cheek. "What are you doing here?"
"I wanted to see how Muggles lived."
"Draco! Shh! The servants," she admonished in a harsh whisper. He had never considered the servants, and suddenly realized that all these years, she even had to keep from being a witch in her own home.
Looking properly ashamed, he stepped closer to her. "I came to ask you for a dance."
"Don't you hear it?" he asked her desperately. "I feel like my heart is beating like music and it is pulling me toward you."
He reached for her face and wiped the paint away. "Will you have me, Hermione? Will you be my partner for this dance?"
"But, Draco, I'm—"
"You're who I love," he said insistently.
With a most beatific smile, she said, "Yes, sir. I shall dance with you. For now and always."
Framing her face with both his hands, he pressed his forehead against hers. "And if anyone should ask, your dance card is forever full."
Then, he kissed her, as one kisses his future wife. This time, she did not pull away.