See, this time it didn't take me as long to update, less than two months. *winces* I know it's still not ideal, but I'm really trying to keep my promise to update all my stories. This was just first in line.

Thank you to those of you still reading and especially those reviewing, your kind words really make my day brighter. And to Deanna, really, if this chapter is any good it's because of her awesome suggestions and her support while I was trying to lure Wes into speaking to me. *hugs* Thank you so much, honey! And last but not least, to Carrie and Vara, for the read-through and saving me from making awful historical mistakes. I couldn't do this without you. *snuggles*

Do the thing you fear to do and keep on doing it... that is the quickest and surest way ever yet discovered to conquer fear. ~ Dale Carnegie

Chapter 24. Of Misunderstandings, Proposals and Other Affairs

It hadn't taken Fred long to convince Elizabeth to join her in her quest for the answers that would explain Wesley's behavior over supper.

Giggling conspiratorially they made their way to William's study and she'd placed a finger to her lips and winked at the blonde before opening the door a sliver and listening in on the conversation taking place inside…

* ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Think it's wise to be having any more?" Spike asked Wesley, arching a brow when the brunet raised his glass in a silent request for a refill.

They'd retired to his study room ten minutes ago for a drink after supper while the ladies freshened up and in that time his partner had already downed two tumblers of whisky. It was quite amusing at first, especially with the way Wes shuddered when the liquor burned his throat, but now he wasn't too certain if it'd be in his friend's—or even his—best interest to have another before they joined Fred and Buffy in the drawing room. His sister would castrate him with a blunt spoon if he allowed Wes to get drunker and botch his proposal to her up because of that.

"I'll need all my courage to get through this, Spike, liquid or otherwise, and you know that. I barely made it through supper as it is," the other man groused from the chair opposite to the duke.

Wes was the very picture of misery. His body was tense and his gestures anxious. His shoulders slumped forward in defeat, his pallor sickeningly grey and his features grim and dark, darker than Spike had seen on him. It certainly didn't help his case that he kept dabbing at his brow every few seconds with his handkerchief, or wiping his hands on his trousers.

While Spike felt a tad guilty to see his friend like this, a bigger part of him was getting fed up by his partner's reticence and nervousness. Yes, he knew proposing was a serious matter, but the brunet had to be aware that there was no way Fred was going to reject him. After all, he'd told Wes as much just that morning and he'd thought he'd convinced him.

There was no doubt in his mind that if he hadn't given Wes a friendly nudge in the right direction, it would've taken him forever to propose and there was absolutely no bloody way he could allow that. Not with his sister's reputation on the line.

Fred might be older than him—and quite scary when she wanted, but he was still the head of the family and he had to look after her. If he had to be a little cunning and manipulative to warrant her happiness, well then, he would be that and much more.

"That's more `n `nough, pal," Spike said with a harsh glare in his friend's direction, getting up from his chair and nearing Wes menacingly. "Whoever looked at you now would imagine you were just sentenced to a lifetime in Newgate and not about to propose to the woman you've been in love with for years. A woman, I might add, who's gone through hoops and loops to prove to you she doesn't care if you're a prince or a pauper. So just be a man `bout this whole deal and drop the poor me act, before I make you drop it. `nough is `nough already."

"I agree with William," Fred interjected in a steady tone she was quite proud of, opening the door further and standing tall when both men turned toward her, their shock at seeing her there written in their stricken features. "Enough is enough already."

"Winifred!" Wesley got up from the chair immediately, even paler than he'd been during supper, one hand extended in supplication as he wracked his brain for something to say, anything that would make this better. "I can exp—"

"You don't need to explain anything to me, Mr. Wyndham-Pryce," she stated haughtily. "I understand perfectly. You don't need to worry over how this woman might respond to your proposal, because I can tell you now, there's no way in hell she'll ever accept it." She twisted on her heel to leave, but not before pinning him with a scathing glare that chilled the blood in his veins.

Wes wasn't certain how he'd managed to mess it all up so royally before even opening his mouth, but it was quite evident he had. He couldn't tear his eyes away from the place where his ladylove had disappeared, unable to move, to think, to do anything until Spike gave him a little shove forward.

"If you love her, I strongly suggest you go after her… now!"

That was all he needed to shake off from his stupor, nearly stumbling over his own feet in his haste to follow Winifred out of the room.

Spike shook his head as he watched Wes leave and sighed heavily before advancing towards his fiancée, who seemed thoroughly confused by what she just witnessed.

Buffy leaned against his chest as his arms wound around her waist from behind. "Shouldn't we follow them?" she asked, her gaze still on the empty doorway.

"No, love, the last thing they need now is us there with them."

"Are you certain? Your sister didn't seem as if she would welcome anything Mr. Wyndham-Pryce has to say right now."

"Perhaps; still, I think they need to hash this out on their own, kitten. No witnesses," he said.

He truly hoped Wes was rattled enough by Fred's words to actually get his head out of his arse for once and stop being so bloody pigheaded over this issue. Right this moment, though, he had other plans that didn't include meddling in his sister's love life.

"I know `f somethin' that'll take your mind off them," he whispered in her ear, delighting in the shiver that wracked her tiny frame.

Buffy gasped at his words, her treacherous mind supplying her with enough thoughts of what he might do to her to leave her breathless and blushing. The sinful cadence of his voice and his body, so hard and firm against hers, were enough to send her pulse racing madly in her veins.

She had little doubt he could make her forget her own name if he so chose.

"Y-you do?" she asked shakily, her eyes closing in rapture when his fingers trailed sensuously down her neck to the lacy edge of her bodice, dipping slightly under the fabric to caress the skin underneath.

"Do you want to know what it is, love?"

Oh dear Lord, did she ever! Her knees wobbled under her and she was more than thankful one of his arms was still around her or she might have fallen in a rather disgraceful heap at his feet.

"Or perhaps I should just show you."

He placed a kiss on the back of her neck, sliding his hand down to grab hers and she just about melted, breathlessly waiting for him to turn her around and claim her mouth with his.

It didn't seem that was what he had in mind, however, because the next thing she knew, he was pulling on her hand and dragging her off through the French doors and into the night.

* ~ * ~ * ~ *

Fred ran out of the house as if the hell hounds were behind her. Her heart thundered in her chest and her lungs burned from the lack of oxygen and still she ran until she reached the farthest end of the sunroom.

Only then did she allow herself to stop, dropping on a stone bench as she fought to catch her breath and not to give in to the pain that threatened to consume her, a thousand thoughts swirling inside her head.

Bitter tears prickled the back of her eyes, but pride and mounting anger came in her defense. She wanted to curl up and cry, but she couldn't right now. Not when there was still a chance—slim as it might be—that Wesley would find her. Not that she was ready to face him, because frankly she doubted she would ever be, but the sooner they got past this, the better.

She couldn't say she was surprised by what happened. Not really. Same as she wasn't surprised that for the brunet man the mere idea of marrying her would be the equivalent to a death sentence.

Neither did she blame William for how he spoke to his partner. He was protective to a fault of those he loved and while he hadn't said anything to her about their overnight stay at the inn out of respect for her, she just knew Wesley hadn't been so lucky. She didn't blame Wesley, either. She should have known better than to think him professing his love for her would change things between them. If anything, it made it worse.

She should've known better than to listen behind closed doors. It'd never brought her anything good in the past and that obviously hadn't changed in the present.

She'd thought him finally admitting he loved her meant that he wanted to make a life with her. That he'd finally gotten over his many qualms regarding their many differences, both social and economical… she couldn't have been more wrong, it seemed.

Then again, Wesley had never promised her anything, had he? All her dreams of them sharing a life had been nothing more than wishful thinking on her part. And damn if that knowledge didn't make it hurt even more.

* ~ * ~ * ~ *

Wes had never been happier that Spike insisted on having almost every square meter of the estate grounds illuminated as he'd been tonight. The lanterns scattered around the house, the garden, stables and the sunroom certainly made his search of the elusive Lady Winifred a whole of a lot easier than it might have been otherwise.

He'd searched inside the mansion first, which was why it nearly took him half an hour to finally find her in the solarium.

She didn't even hear his approach, lost in her thoughts as she appeared to be and that gave him the chance to gather his bearings before making his presence known.

He was still afraid of the step he was about to take, but he was even more afraid of losing Winifred because of his 'bloody insecurities' as the duke had plaintively pointed out to him several times.

Thing was, neither Spike nor Winifred had ever done anything to foment his lack of confidence. They'd never treated him as anything other than a dear friend, not even during the time he was still the duke's aide. The siblings were the only ones who'd given a damn about him, who always cared for and had taken him in after he became an orphan, and truly, their opinion should be the only one that mattered to him. Who cared what the rest of the ton might think of him marrying into the Withers family? He and, most importantly, they would know the truth.

He felt a pang of remorse at the frown currently marring Winifred's delicate features, at the sadness that even the poor lighting in the solarium couldn't hide from the inside of the chocolate depths. He put it there and now he had to make sure it left and never returned.

Trying to be as stealthy as possible, he neared her, making sure to block the only exit just in case she tried to evade him before he managed to explain himself to her.

He cleared his throat to alert her of his presence, and felt guiltier at her startled jump and the way she brought her hand to her agitated bosom, looking at him with wide, frightened eyes. Frightened until she focused them on him, that is, because once she recognized him they blazed with anger that almost had him turning around and making a very strategic escape.

"Good heavens, Wes! What are you trying to do, kill me?" she snapped, panting. The last thing she'd expected was for him to appear out of thin air and scare the hell out of her. Especially not when she wasn't ready to speak to him… dammit!

"Sorry, I didn't thi—" He raised his hands in surrender and she saw red.

"No, of course you didn't." She got up from the bench, advancing towards him until they were just a few inches apart. "You never think of how your actions or your words might hurt or affect others, do you?"

"Of course I do."

"Of course I do, he says." She scoffed, her index finger jabbing into his torso. "Did you think how your behavior would make me feel then, especially once I discovered the reasons behind it?"

"I-I can imagine," he replied, and at least had the decency to seem ashamed, which made her fury slip… just a tad. "But you have to understand that…"

"What? That you don't love me enough to want to marry me?"

"I didn't say that."

"Probably not, but you implied it," she huffed airily.

"Actually, William implied it, not me. And neither of you gave me the bloody chance to explain!" he stated angrily, a muscle on his jaw ticking and his blue-grey eyes shining with both annoyance and barely contained irritation.

She could hardly believe this was the same Wesley she'd known since they were children. He was always so collected, so serene and poised; rarely—if ever—did he allow his temper to explode like this and the face of it now effectively silenced her.

"Are you going to listen to me or do I have to chain and gag you?" he said, eyeing her sternly. "Don't think I won't if I have to, Winifred."

He looked and sounded so imposing, that at that moment, she didn't doubt he would do it. She nodded meekly, feeling thoroughly chastised and more than a little intrigued and interested in exploring this new facet of his further. Not that she would ever confess to it out loud.

A sigh rolled off his shoulders and just like that, he was back to being the man she knew and loved. "I'll admit to being nervous over proposing to you, but it's not because I don't love you or because I don't want to spend the rest of my life with you. It's just that I didn't think I deserved you." He placed a finger on her lips when she appeared about to interrupt him. "Ah, ah, ah, no interruptions." He winked at her mischievously and she shivered. Where had this Wesley been hiding all her life?

"Hell, I know I don't deserve you," he said. "However, I don't care any longer. Social and economical conventions aren't as important as I once thought and I don't care what anyone else thinks as long as you know the truth."

"T-the truth?" Her heart galloped madly inside her chest and she could hardly breathe. Could it be that after all this time he was finally ready to offer her what she'd wanted all along?

"That I can't live without you, that while I can't offer you much yet, I can give you what's been yours since the first moment I saw you… my love, my life, myself, for as long as you want me.

"Would you marry me and make me the happiest man on earth by allowing me to make you happy, as well? Would you, my sweet?"

* ~ * ~ * ~ *

Back in London…

"Everything set?" the man asked as soon as his partner, Ethan Rayne entered the room.

"Yes," he replied succinctly, plopping on a chair opposite to the dark-haired man.

"Does he suspect anything?"

"Not a thing. Actually, it was like taking a toy from a baby." He shook his head, an evil sneer curling his lips. "Poor sod is so desperate for money that he doesn't care who he gets it from or what he has to do to get it."

"Good, good." A pleased smiled drew on the younger brunet's face. Everything was falling into place perfectly. Better than he expected for certain.

"Are you sure the little filly is worth all this trouble?"

"Oh, she is worth it, more than you can imagine."

tbc

Like, dislike? *bats eyelashes* I'd love to know if you're inclined to letting me know.

Next in line to be updated: Bring Me To Life, Into the Night, Dirty Little Secrets and Corazón Salvaje. When I'm writing the last one I'll make a poll again. This seems to be working for my muse… so far.