Written for the aiw_porn_battle on LJ.

Prompt: suspenders

Rating: M for sexual content

Note: Here lies Angst! Alice is afloat following her return from Asia and discovery that she is too late to make a life in Underland.

"Hamish!" a muffled voice repeatedly called from behind his bedchamber door.

His valet extended a box of cufflinks before him, but he could not focus to pick a pair with the call getting closer.

A quick knock sounded on the door before it opened.

The valet snapped the box shut—snap!—in shock, and Hamish could feel himself turning as red as a beet. "Alice."

"Excuse me. I did not know…" she paused, chewing her lip and fighting back a smile. "There is something I would speak with you about," she finally finished, clasping her hands behind her back.

"I'll be with you in the library in a moment."

Alice still stood with the door open, seemingly unaware that the wise thing would have been to step back through that door, shut it, and pretend this had never happened. The truly wise thing would have been to never knock on a gentleman's door this early in the morning (or ever!), but Alice Kingsleigh had always had more curiosity than useful wisdom at hand.

"Lord Ascot is in the library."

"In the sitting room then," he said in exasperation, wishing she would take the hint with due alacrity.

"Your mother will be up soon, and…"

Hamish cleared his throat forcefully, "Where then?"

Alice reached for the doorknob, "I'll be in the greenhouse."

The door shut and Hamish avoided his valet's gaze, which he had no doubt was disapproving.

"Miss Kingsleigh has been abroad in Asia," he apologized for her, as if her time abroad had left her ignorant of protocol. Hamish was aware that Alice had never given much thought to protocol, however. She left herself open to constant scrutiny.

He shrugged on his waistcoat, buttoning himself up under the valet's silent stare. "The silver," he said, nodding towards the box that was once more open for his perusal.

"Yes, sir."

Hamish offered each sleeve in turn to the valet.

The man finished with the second link and moved to the chair upon which Hamish's morning coat was laid. "Miss Kingsleigh has been back for a week."

"Yes, a week," Hamish agreed, as the man lifted the morning coat.

"I'm surprised your mother would have her stay here if you don't mind my saying so."

Hamish scowled down his nose at the man. He did not encourage idle servant gossip, but he supposed the whole of London knew what had transpired between him and Alice Kingsleigh some four years earlier, so there was no use in rebuking him for it. "I do." Well, a slight rebuke might be in order—for Alice's sake.

"Of course, sir."

He straightened himself up in the looking glass as his valet brushed at the back of the coat with a soft brush. "Mother was in a forgiving mood when Alice missed her mother's passing, while working abroad for the company."

"Very good, sir," he said, stepping back with a nod.

Hamish hurried down the principle staircase of the house, taking the steps two at a time. Alice had been home—well, to be precise, she had been in his home—for nearly a week, but she had seemed hesitant to spend time with him initially. That was no great surprise: when Alice left England, she was the last person on earth Hamish wanted to speak with, and since that time they had only exchanged letters of business. Most likely she believed him to be angry, waiting for an excuse to act petulant with her. Undeniably, unsaid things hung in the air upon her return.

But yesterday she had apologized. Most sincerely apologized in a moment when they had been left alone in the sitting room. Hamish had flushed with embarrassment in that moment too, and he had been unable to say the things that had raced through his mind. He wanted to tell her that he was sorry too. For being a condescending young man with very little sense, for allowing his mother to control the situation, for not having the courage to ask her properly. Instead, he had shifted on his feet, repeatedly clearing his throat, and finally his mother had returned, putting an end to any hope of his managing to speak. So much for being a man.

His heels rang out on the stone path to the greenhouse, and he could just make out Alice in her blue gown moving behind its wavy glass.

Opening the door, the humidity of the building hit him like a veil.

"Alice?" he called out.

"I'm back by the orchids."

He walked towards the back, sidestepping puddles of water left from an early morning watering by the head gardener, who was charged with the care of his mother's orchids. The flower show—a yearly moment of triumph for his mother—must be only a few weeks away, he considered, rounding the corner.

When he reached the table of flowers she was inspecting, Alice observed "They're the silent sort of flowers," sounding as irrational as ever she did as a child.

"You wanted to speak with me?" he asked, looking down at his cuffs, which he uselessly pulled at.

"I've embarrassed you," Alice said, turning to lean against the table.

"I was in my suspenders," he sputtered. It was downright indecent.

Alice smirked. "It would take a great deal more to shock me, I'm afraid." She reached out and grasped his right cuff, stopping his fidgeting before squeezing his wrist. "But, I'm sorry. Sometimes I don't think."

"You wanted to speak with me?" he asked again, folding his hands before him as her hand slid from his. "On business?" That seemed like a safe enough topic to pursue.

"Not exactly. Unless. Is that all that we can speak about nowadays?"

Hamish counted silently to three before beginning, "You can speak to me about anything, Alice."

"Can we be friends, then?"

He hoped so, although he had no measure for what a friendship with a woman should entail. "There is no reason why we cannot." He imagined it would be rather different from the friendship he had with Henry at the club. Although, Alice might be strange enough a feminine creature to want to play at billiards too.

Alice turned to the side and picked an envelope from the table that Hamish had not initially noticed. "You've been remarkably tolerant, Hamish. I can't tell you how I appreciate that," she said, holding the envelope out to him. "I wanted to give you this."

He took the envelope from her white gloved fingers. "What is this?"

"A letter I wrote you…a year ago. I never mailed it."

He flipped it over, looking at the sealed back.

"Don't read it now," she said a little nervously, which surprised Hamish: Alice seemed so self-possessed since she returned home a woman and not a girl. "Read it later."

He nodded, tucking it into his breast pocket.

Just as quickly as he had sensed some insecurity in her, it was gone. Mirth crinkled the corners of Alice's eyes, as she spoke, "Sometimes I have the most improper urges."

He blinked quickly, watching with trepidation as Alice reached out and brushed his coat aside. The tip of her fingers brushed over the blue silk of his waistcoat; his entire body stiffened at the impropriety of her touch and it provoked a most inconvenient lump to form in his throat.

"If you weren't wearing this waistcoat, I would snap those stupendous suspenders of yours."

Hamish coughed into his hand. "You wouldn't."

"I certainly would. How else am I to lighten the mood?"

Hamish attempted to summon his much used judgmental look, which was somewhat difficult given his current state of unease. "Speak of the weather."

"Or the condition of the roads," Alice offered flatly, fighting off a smile.

Hamish stuffed his hands into his pockets. "You like to tease me." Before she had left, he had considered it presumptuous—a young woman teasing him, a young lord—but now it just ate at his confidence, which was already shaken.

Alice tilted her head, considering for a moment. "It is rather too easy, Hamish. And it reminds me of when we were children a bit."

"You didn't like me when we were children."

Alice's brow furrowed. "Is that what you thought?"

Most other children had not liked him. It had always been easy to tease the ginger haired boy, who was hopeless at sport and game and stuttered when he was nervous; just as easy as it was to tease the ginger haired, weak chinned man he had become. At least when they were children they had that—social awkwardness—in common, and Alice had been too kind a little girl to tease, having compassion for even the lowliest of creatures like Hamishes and caterpillars. As adults, however, he may have been given respect by all due to his station in life, but Miss Kingsleigh now thought nothing of teasing him.

"I did like you, Hamish," she stated firmly. "You were rather adept at covering for my oddities when in company. You always have been."

"That might not have been a kindness," he admitted. It was at very least rather highhanded.

"I don't believe that anymore. I know you meant to protect me from the glare of the outside world."

He swallowed thickly. "Perhaps I didn't want you to embarrass me."

"I think the only person I embarrassed at the age of seven was Margaret," she softly laughed. "You won't convince me that you intended it to be anything but a kindness: I'm very stubborn, you know."

Hamish lowered his brows, "Quite stubborn."

Alice brushed back some wisps of hair that were escaping her coiffure, her eyes skimming over him. "So, then, you must believe me when I say that I know who you are."

Hamish felt his pulse quicken at this avowal. How could Alice Kingsleigh know who he was? Resolutely stated as it was, it struck him that this announcement meant a great deal more to him than Faith Chattaway's recent declaration that she was 'madly in love' with him. A declaration that he had no doubt was related to her sister's recent engagement. One Chattaway could not long outdo the other without a row ensuing.

Yes, this announcement meant a great deal more to him. It made him think about his wants. The ones he had not dared entertain for some time. "You're not the only one with urges, Alice. I think you rather congratulate yourself on being more…" Hamish struggled to find the proper word. "More alive than the rest of us."

"You're right, I think I do. No doubt unfairly." She raised her gloved hand to her mouth, her fingers touching her lips lightly. "But this does sound promising, Hamish. What urges do you speak of?"

Hamish could feel color spreading up his neck from his starched collar to his cheeks. He cursed his fair complexion.

"Well?" she pressed. "Are they naughty?" she asked, leaning forward to push at his shoulder. "Would your mother be scandalized?"

"Never mind," he said brusquely. "You're only teasing me again." She no doubt thought him incapable of having a scandalous thought.

She pursed her lips and crossed her arms. "A little, but you're the one to have brought up these secret urges. I confessed mine, and you know I wouldn't judge you for yours, as wicked a character as I am."

He laughed, shaking his head: if anyone should hear Alice speak so! "I can assure you that you wouldn't like it."

She leveled him with a look. "Try me."

He took a step towards her, attempting to summon the steeliness of spirit he admired in Alice herself. He knew of no other women who would set off for Asia. None other that would turn down a marriage proposal from a man materially and socially better off than she. None that insisted on being so very much herself despite what people might think. He liked her better for all of it, even if it frightened him no small amount.

"Sometimes I rather think I'd like to kiss you." He had managed to say it without his voice wavering, he congratulated himself, for this was a more horrifying pronouncement than the one he had made on one knee, seeing as he was able to blame the latter all on his mother. Mother made me do it. And the one was perfectly acceptable, while this was perfectly unseemly.

He could see Alice draw breath. "Only sometimes?" she asked slowly, deliberately.

That was not the answer he was expecting. "Would you permit me?" he asked, his hand closing on her elbow. What could it hurt? They had been very nearly affianced.

"Hamish," she said on a sigh, "you must know something important. I have seen a man in a great deal less than his suspenders. Do you understand my meaning?"

He involuntarily tightened his grip on her elbow. Yes, that was clear enough.

She stared at his chest as she spoke, "And I'm not married, because time got away from me…from the man in question, I suppose. He never was on terribly good terms with him."

Hamish shook his head, as Alice was not making much sense. "Alice," he said softly.

"It's too late, you see?" she asked, raising her eyes to his. "I'm always late."

He did not want the tears pooling there in her brown eyes to spill forth—it would make him uncomfortable, certainly, for crying females always made him uncomfortable—but unfortunately he was not prepared with the proper words that might help staunch their flow. Sometimes he had to practice the right thing to say, for it did not always come naturally for him. The desire to say the right thing was there, however.

"It's too late for me. For me and him…for me and you, certainly." She swallowed and swiped at her eyes with her free hand. "Are you going to tell your mother? She would certainly congratulate you on your escape."

Alice's tone was sharp as a knife's edge, but he could still see pain dancing behind her eyes. "I wouldn't tell my mother, Alice. I wouldn't tell anyone. If you knew me, as you claim you do, you would know that much."

She nodded, and accepted the handkerchief he pulled from his pocket. Not the right words, but something to offer at least.

She sniffed a little inelegantly, "That was ungenerous of me."

"You're doing an awful lot of apologizing. Let me level the playing field: I haven't yet had a chance to say what a rotter I was."

That earned him a smile even as she dabbed at her eyes and neatly folded the handkerchief back up. He liked making her smile, as he had never had much success in it before even when he had wanted to. It prompted the growth of a certain warmth in his chest that was a bit like pride but better.

"You were a bit of a rotter," she said, offering him back the handkerchief, but he shook his head.

"Keep it." He watched her tuck it away in a pocket of her skirts. Something of his now in her possession—romantic nonsense, but he could not help but think on it. "Alice, you didn't answer my question."

"What question was that?"

He was determined to be as fearless as Alice. "Would you permit me to kiss you?" he asked, this time louder than before, as that was the only way he knew how to project confidence.

She ran a shaking hand over her brow. "Did I not make myself clear?"

"If you would rather I didn't, then I won't say another word, but as to the rest of it, I don't care."

The silence that followed resonated in his ears more loudly than a passing freight train.

Alice licked her lips. "You're not shocked?"

By all rights, he should be: she had confessed the one thing that would sink a woman into the utter abyss. But, he could not summon the energy to care what Alice had done with this other man: his only concern was Alice and him, if there was such a thing, if there ever could be. Propriety now only seemed an obstacle and not the lynchpin preventing the world from falling into chaos. Did affection make radicals of all men? The next thing he knew, he would be advocating for those dreadful anarchists.

"There is very little that you could do that would shock me, Alice. You turned me down in front of nearly everyone I know with very little civility. You followed that up by showing everyone your ankles and dancing most irregularly. Never mind that you've been insisting since you were a child that there is a whole other world that you can visit."

"I still insist on that, actually."

That did not surprise him in the least. He nodded, straightening his jacket. "Listen, Alice. My mother thinks you didn't find me handsome enough. My mother thinks I'm not handsome enough. I know the heart of the matter is that you don't find me particularly interesting, and there isn't much I can do about that. I can make myself better but not more interesting."

"Goodness is nothing to scoff at. Besides, I only used to think you were uninteresting."

If he still had his handkerchief, he might have wiped his brow with it, for he found he was most indecorously breaking out in a nervous sweat. It was not wholly bad: a man used to more encouragement would have been disappointed by Alice Kingsleigh's tepid reply, but Hamish took note of the past tense and he dared hope. "And now?"

"And now, I'd like you to kiss me."

Hamish stepped towards Alice, her skirts brushing his legs as he reached up to touch her cheeks. His heart hammered in his chest as he waited a moment, waiting for Alice to come to her senses. But Alice was not a sensible woman, anymore than she had been a sensible little girl.

When his lips touched her, he swallowed nervously, feeling as if he was ruining this already. His whole body was stiff as a board, his lips acting as if they had no notion what to do when confronted by another pair. But then he felt her hands settle at his waist beneath his coat, and his lips closed more assuredly over her bottom lip, tugging just slightly. His eyes were screwed shut tight, waiting to see if she would respond in kind. He drew his thumbs over her unmarred, velvety smooth cheeks, his lips softening against hers. Finally, one of her hands moved to press against his heart and she sighed into his mouth, kneading his lip between hers.

He groaned. Hold it together, man! Taking this as a sign that he was most certainly losing his grip, he moved to clasp Alice's hand curled over his heart, holding it in place even as he pulled back, pausing only to press a kiss to the corner of her mouth. His eyes were half closed, and he stared down at where he might see his feet if they were not hidden by the blue skirts of Alice's gown.

She kissed him back, repeating his gesture by placing it just off center, a gentle return of what he hoped was the affection he felt for her. His eyes darted up to see if he might be able to see it in her gaze.

She looked pensive. "Hamish, do you want me?"

She might as well have shot him point blank. It took a moment, but he finally found his voice. Frowning he demanded a little too loudly, "Where did you learn to talk this way?"

"I thought I couldn't shock you," she reminded him, nudging him in the side.

He quirked a brow. "I was wrong." It was one thing to listen to Alice confess to having experience, it was another to have her prodding him about his private desires. He had already said much too much. Done much too much.

"Do you?" she pressed.

"Are you merely curious?"

Alice tilted her head, looking a tad bit saucy. "No, I think I know how gentlemen feel about the prospect in general."

"Honestly, Alice," he blustered, trying unsuccessfully to untangle himself from her. Not that it was an entirely genuine effort, but it was important to give the appearance of it.

She held fast to him, "Do you like me, Hamish?"

It seemed that she was determined to procure a confession from him about something. It might as well be this.

"Yes, Alice." He hoped she could not see the slight twitch he felt in his right brow. He was not used to emotional declarations, and this seemed a grand one with which to begin.

"Then I'm offering," she said quietly.

A war descended upon his psyche. Even now he could not help imagining moulding himself to her lithe form, his hand running down the back of her silken gown, fingers skidding over covered buttons. But, he had the greatest respect for Alice, respect incongruously earned by her rejection of him, and it did not seem right to accept what she was offering. It would not be the gentlemanly thing to do.

"We shouldn't," he said, yet failing to pull away from her. He cursed his own weakness.

"Time is no man's friend. Biding my time has done me no favors."

Her breath was warm against his neck, her words softly spoken, but they sounded so very maudlin. He almost wanted Alice to use some of that business sense to persuade him to feel differently, instead of this pervasive sadness. Perhaps his very adequate life could use a little spontaneity, a little impropriety…

But what he really needed, what his male pride demanded was that Alice want him. He already was acquainted with what he wanted.

"Lift me up on the table," she whispered.

As it turned out, that was encouragement enough: he lifted her by the waist onto the table, knocking over two of his mother's prize orchids. Alice's peeling laughter at that actually helped soothe his nerves. She sounded happy in that moment, at least.

"If I don't take the blame for that, the gardener will be skinned alive," she observed between dissolving giggles, as she shifted, widening her legs and pulling him into the gap between them.

"I'll take the blame," he said rather too seriously, for he knew she was joking.

"Hamish, my hero," she teasingly cooed, hooking a foot behind his knee and encouraging him the last inch towards her.

What he really wanted was to kiss her again, properly, not awkwardly. Slipping his hand behind her back and feeling those very tiny covered buttons of his imagination, Hamish brought his lips to hers less stiffly than before. He felt a spark jerk through him at the touch, at the realization that she was parting her lips for him. If he had known Alice could use her tongue in this manner, he would have asked leave to kiss before he ever asked for her hand, he mused, as her tongue begged entrance to his mouth. Who was he to deny her?

His hand hovered over where he knew a knee hid beneath her skirts. They were still just kissing—in a rather unconventional position in the greenhouse, but still just kissing—and if he grasped her knee, he felt certain what they were doing would undeniably become something else. And Hamish had committed very few transgressions in his lifetime.

"Someone could see us," he panted, breaking their kiss and resting his forehead against hers.

"Yes, someone could, and we could get ourselves in a great deal of trouble," she observed, running a hand through his hair. "I like gingers," she said, sounding as if this insight was just dawning on her.

"Alice," he huffed, secretly pleased with her comment, but attempting to keep Alice's wandering mind on task. Should this irrational plan be abandoned?

"What would you suggest? Would you recommend we go to your bedchamber? Or perhaps mine? Shut the door?" Her short nails scratched at the nape of his neck.

He laughed shakily. "No, certainly not." Every tongue in the house would be wagging. "I think perhaps the situation is impossible."

Alice tugged insistently at his neck, pressing her lips to his once, twice. "It is a very good thing then that I often believe in as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

Damn the consequences, Hamish thought, kissing her cheek, her neck, her clavicle, and reaching for her skirts to haul them up. What was the use of making an idol of someone as independent as Alice if one did not act somewhat unconventionally as a result?

His hand reached for her uncovered leg and found warm flesh.

"Good, God! Alice…" He looked down at her pale, bare legs, still halfway expecting to see grey stockings.

"I still don't wear stockings."

"I can see that."

"Staring is rude," Alice stated, as he stood there dumbly, his hand still gripping her skirts. "And you seemingly don't know what it means to be expeditious." Her hands went for his trousers. "We are attempting not to be discovered. Are we not?"

His irritation managed to overwhelm the anxiety he would have otherwise felt watching Alice's fingers make quick work of the buttons on his trousers. "I'm sorry you find me defective," he griped.

"Be quiet," she scolded him, as she pulled the front of his shirt free of his undone trousers. "He who hesitates…" she began to say, but Hamish hit upon a method to silence her chatter.

Her head fell forward onto his shoulder and her hands settled on his waist.

"Take your gloves off." He wanted to feel her really touch him without the scratch of lace.

He knew she had acceded to his request when she parted his shirt and ran the flat of her hand over his stomach. If he had not been aroused already, at Alice's touch he certainly was now; his touch was getting Alice there as well, clumsy though he feared his ministrations might be.

When he felt her hands nudge aside his unbuttoned trousers and reach for him, his breath hitched. His pulse thundered in his ears as she wrapped a hand around him.

He was no virgin, but his experience in Paris had nothing in common with…

Gripping her hips, he pulled her to the edge of the table. Having nearly lost her balance, Alice clutched his shoulders as he worked his trousers down enough to free himself.

Not trusting himself to speak, he raised his brows questioningly as he paused between her thighs, one hand parting the seam of her knickers.

Alice edged forward another half inch until her flattened breasts pressed into his chest as he pushed forward into her.

Her knickered hip beneath his hand, her breath puffing against his ear, the warmth of her enveloping…

"Dear God," he gasped. This is all going to be over much too quickly. "Alice, I'm sorry," he begged, his fingers digging into her hip.

"S'alright, Hamish," she rasped, pressing an open mouthed kiss below his ear.

He pulled out at the last moment, spilling on her thigh, as he fought for breath.

Her hand traced his jaw, as she continued to press kisses to his neck and cheek.

"That's what it feels like to be alive," she murmured against his ear.

He was mildly embarrassed at the brevity of their encounter—if she wasn't so, if it didn't feel so!—but her words and touch were helping. In a moment he would be able to straighten up and face her properly.

Oh, but there was also guilt. Guilt was settling on his chest like an anvil. He could see the wet spot on her white knickers, sticking to her thigh. Visual recrimination. "We can marry." The other man had not married Alice, could not marry her—he did not understand her ramblings about that—but he would.

"You don't have to say that," she assured him tenderly.

He was not sure that was the response he had been looking for. Indeed, he did not know what to make of anything Alice had done or said today. Her behavior was so different from what it had been when she first returned just seven days ago that he could not help but wonder what was in the letter. The letter that was tucked against his chest inside his coat, and which she had given to him moments before asking him to lift her onto this greenhouse table. He could not help but suspect that the two were connected. "What is in the letter, Alice?"

"It is a thank you." She paused to draw a deep breath, smoothing his mussed hair back in an intimate motion that caused his eyes to flutter shut. It would be so easy to imagine her like this for always. "For the service you did for my sister," she finished.

Hamish's heart sunk into his stomach, making him feel vaguely nauseated. "A thank you," he parroted back.

"Yes. I'm eternally grateful."

"You weren't supposed to know about it."

"Margaret told me, and if anyone had the right to tell, I rather believe she did."

He stood upright, disengaging himself from her as he turned away so he could work furiously to button his trousers. He could hear her shake out her skirts and slip to the ground, as he tucked his shirt back into his trousers—a rather unpleasant feeling given the mess—and calculated how long it would take for him to escape from this greenhouse and begin rebuilding his dignity.

It was all just a thank you for services rendered.

"Hamish," she said, gripping his shoulder. "For heaven's sake, I'm trying to thank you. Didn't your mother teach you how to properly acknowledge a thank you?" Having given her no response, she continued, "My sister would have been ruined if you had not stepped in and smoothed everything over. You didn't have to do that."

Sending Margaret's lover away had been rather expensive, but then, he supposed blackmail was never cheap.

"Lowell isn't good to her, and…"

"I know that," Hamish gritted out. "But I didn't do it for your sister."

She tugged on his shoulder, trying to turn him back around and very nearly succeeding: Alice was surprisingly strong. "You most certainly did. I know what a good man you are, Hamish. Now if you would only stop acting so stubborn!"

"No, you're wrong: it was perfectly selfish, Alice," he said, finally turning back to her. "I did it for you. So that you would be spared."

She was seemingly undeterred by his sharp change of temperament. Perhaps Alice was used to mad people. "It doesn't sound selfish to me at all." She slipped her hand into his, but he kept it limp, refusing to hold hers back. "I received her letter confessing it all and the role you had played in helping her, and I thought about it for weeks. Thought about why you would do such a thing, and I began to think I had misjudged you."

"You didn't at the time," he said, clearing his throat. "I was perfectly dreadful. I'd just rather like to think that I'm not quite as dreadful anymore."

"I'd like to think I'm not quite as dreadful either," Alice said with a half smile. "Please don't be angry, Hamish. Not after we…"

Hamish sighed, seeing the validity of her request. He would put it aside: his anger, his hopes, all of it, as long as she answered him one thing: "Will it always be gratitude or could you ever like me?"

"I already do," she answered quickly. "This wasn't about…gratitude," she frowned.

"It sounded as if…"

She interrupted him, "We both have urges, Hamish."

Even after what they had just done, he could not look her in the face at this admission. Women were not supposed to…

"And I do like you. It has been a while since I wanted to like someone, Hamish. I just needed to feel…" she fumbled, shaking her head. "Can you understand?"

Not entirely, but he had no hope of completely understanding Alice. Alice was right: he wanted to protect her from those people who would think her odd, smooth the way for her, and stand by her side. He was very different from her, but he was intrigued by those differences, not put off by them.

"Do you like me enough to accept me?"

Alice arched one brow in disbelief. "Come now…that just now, that wasn't a real proposal."

He bent down and picked up her discarded gloves. "I can make it a proper one."

She took them from him and smoothed them out in the palm of her hand. "Your mother would be apoplectic: first her orchids and then her son—both ruined."

"My mother would begin to think on the prospect of attractive grandchildren again in short order, I imagine," he said, attempting to smile, but failing miserably. The notion was too raw yet.

Alice sighed, "I'm not quite ready."

He nodded stiffly. "But, you might be someday." He was familiar with Alice's rejections and they were a great deal more brutal than this.

"Yes, I might be." She held out her gloves to him. "Keep them," she urged, biting her lower lip as he took them from her.

And for the first time since the garden party, Hamish felt a glimmer of hope. "Are you all right?" he asked, pleased to hear himself sounding kindly, the edge of anger having faded somewhat already.

She held her hand to her middle, composing herself, "Perfectly." Her mouth contorted, quirking at the sides briefly and falling just as quickly. "You don't think less of me?"


She drew breath, color flooding her cheeks. He wanted to smooth his hands over those cheeks and promise her that he held her in the greatest esteem, but that moment has passed. For now.

"Shall we go back inside?" He offered her his arm.

"Yes, thank you. I'd like that."