Tris did not anticipate a quarrel with Julie about his plans to wed another girl. If there was one thing about which he and Julie were in complete agreement, it was that they would never wed each other. Nevertheless, he felt uneasy as he paced round the summerhouse, the capes of his greatcoat flapping in the chilly March wind. Not that there's any reason for unease, he told himself. We've always sworn that we would never marry, no matter what our mothers said.
This interview would not have been necessary at all if, nineteen years ago when Juliet Branscombe was born and he, Tristram Enders, was merely three years old, their mothers had not officially betrothed them. But they had. The two mothers, with wicked premeditation, had had the banns read at church and had even sent an announcement to the Times. Later, when the two victims were old enough to understand what their mothers had done, they had quite understandably rebelled. Since they were more like squabbling siblings than lovers, marriage between them was out of the question. "We don't have to comply with a compact in which we had no part," Tris would often declare.
"Just because our mothers arranged it," Julie would agree, "it doesn't have to follow that we must accept it."
Tris truly believed that arranging a betrothal between children was ridiculous. "No one makes birth-matches anymore," he'd said more than once.
"Royalty, perhaps," Julie would add, "but no one else."
"It's been out of fashion for centuries."
"Leg-shackling children at birth! Medieval, that's what it is!"
Thus they'd made a pact that, when the time was right, they would join forces and reject their mothers' plan. That was the one matter on which they'd been in agreement for years. So there was no reason for Tris to feel so deucedly uncomfortable now. No reason at all.
He turned and peered out past the hedges that separated Enders Hall's north field from Larchwood, the Branscombes' property. A stile that provided an opening between the hedges gave him a view of the grounds leading to the rear lawns of Larchwood, but there was no sign of human movement anywhere. What was keeping the girl?
He'd sent her a note asking her to meet him at the Enders' summerhouse, but he hadn't told her why. He'd chosen the summerhouse for the meeting because it was a place he knew would be safe from prying eyes. It stood at the far corner of the Enders' northernmost field, where the slope of the land kept it from being seen from either house. In summer the structure was beautiful; graceful and delicate, it was a cool retreat, with its open sides shaded by flowering vines that covered its latticed balustrades and its carved posts holding up a sloping hexagonal roof. But in other seasons it looked bare, as it did now. Today--on a day so chill and gray it was more like February than March--the place was depressing. The ornamental trees and shrubs that shaded it in summer were still bare of leaves, and there was not yet a sign of flowering on the vines. There was not a touch of color anywhere. Tris shivered as the winds, still wintry-sharp, blew a swarm of dead leaves about his legs.
Expelling an impatient breath, he leaned against a post and looked about him. The rolling lawns of his family home were just beginning to shed their winter dullness. Bits of green sprouts could be faintly seen pushing up beneath the frost-dimmed grass and glimmering along the edges of the shrubbery. I shall be in London when spring comes, he thought with a momentary twinge of sadness. I'll miss seeing the colors burst forth.
The thought brought his primary problem right back to his consciousness. Why was he so reluctant to tell Julie what was on his mind? There was no reason to believe that she would not be in complete sympathy with his intentions. She'd always felt as he did on the subject of their mothers' oddities.
Tris recalled a conversation he'd had with Julie after his mother had ordered him to give the girl a heart-shaped locket on her seventeenth birthday. Julie accepted the gift without comment, but she'd known perfectly well that the gesture had been forced on him. Later, when they were alone, they laughed about it. "How dreadfully sentimental our mothers are," Julie said, carelessly swinging the silver bauble by its chain. "Did they really believe I'd be so moved by a trinket that I'd fall in love with you?"
"They're sentimental fools," he said, "both swooning over courtly love and chivalric behavior. I can't convince them that I'm not a white knight."
"Nor am I Elaine of Astolat. As if a heart-shaped bauble could inspire love! I sometimes think they actually believe in nonsense like charms and amulets and talismans. The trouble is that they're both too fond of literary romance."
"Fond? They're positively looney!" Tris declared. "One can see it in the names they gave us. Tristram, indeed. What sensible mother would name a son Tristram? I'm surprised your mother didn't name you Isolde."
"Heaven forbid!" Julie gasped. "Juliet is bad enough. What would you have done if your mama had named you Romeo!"
Tris shuddered at the very thought. "Romeo! I'd have been laughed out of school!"
Conversations like those did not mean that Juliet Branscombe and Tristram Enders were close friends. In truth, they often wondered if they really liked each other. Having been brought up together on adjoining estates and encouraged to do everything together--play together, study together, attend church services together, celebrate birthdays and holidays together--each claimed the other was often not only uninteresting but positively irritating. The one matter on which they agreed was that they could never have been, were not now, and could never be, lovers.
"We know each other too well," Tris would often remark.
"Much too well," Julie would second. "There's no excitement."
"No mystery. Not the slightest tinge of mystery."
Thus they were in complete agreement that a match between them was not to be thought of. So there was no reason for him to feel like a scoundrel for having fallen in love with someone else. Julie would not care. She didn't want him anyway. He was quite certain of th--
He turned in time to see Julie climbing over the top of the stile. The girl was her usual disheveled self. Her yellow bonnet had blown from her head and was hanging against her back by its green ribbons, thus allowing long strands of hair to blow wildly about her face. Her cheeks were ruddy from the cold wind, and the shabby old dull-green shawl, which she was clutching to her throat with one gloved hand, blended perfectly with the dead grass of the lawn behind her.
Julie jumped down from the stile with a clumsy thump of her muddy boots and waved his note at him. "What's amiss?" she asked as she hurried toward the wide wooden steps of the summerhouse. "I had to tell Mama a fib about where I was going."
"Nothing's amiss." Tris frowned down at her uplifted face in disapproval. She was a pretty little thing, with that silky auburn hair and those light hazel eyes that always seemed to be seeing something in another world. Any man would find her lovely if she had the least idea of how to show herself off. But he would not say that aloud; he rarely said anything kind to her. "Put that bonnet back on your head," he growled in disgust. "You've let the wind make a fair hodgepodge of your hair. We may have to disentangle the strands from your eyelashes."
"Thank you, sir, you flatter me as usual," she responded dryly. "You, on the other hand, look very fine. You haven't dressed that way just for me, I'd wager."
"You'd win that wager. But never mind my clothes. What dreadful fib did you tell your mother?"
"I said I was going to call at the vicarage. Mrs. Weekes is, fortunately for us, ailing."
"Mrs. Weekes is always ailing. Call on her before you go home, and then you'll not have fibbed."
"That, Tris Enders, is a liar's reasoning," she retorted. "A fib's a fib." Then she looked up at him inquiringly. "If nothing's amiss, why did you send me this cryptic note?"
"I wanted to speak to you before I left."
She blinked. "Oh? Are you going away?"
"I'm going back to London this afternoon."
He nodded. The uneasy feeling, suddenly returning, caused him to look down at his boots.
"To see her, I suppose," Julie said, peering at him suspiciously.
"Her?" His eyes shot up to hers, his brows lifted in amazement.
"Your Miss Smallwood."
"Good God! You guessed?"
Julie shrugged. "Well, your one and only letter from town was so full of her..."
The girl studied him with interest. She'd known him all her life but she'd never known him to care for a girl. Had he actually fallen in love at last? "Since you've been home less than a fortnight," she ventured carefully, not wishing to sound as if she were prying, "I must assume you are so impatient to return to town because you have a real tendre for your Miss Smallwood."
"I wish I could call her mine," Tris said ruefully. "Cleo has yet to accept me."
Julie's eyes widened. "You've already asked her?" The matter must have progressed farther than she thought!
"No, not yet. That's what I intend to do, however, when I get back to town. Ask her."
"Oh. I see."
Though this response was given in one brief, quiet exhalation of breath, Julie was finding Tris's news staggering. Tris was truly in love! And intending to wed! Astounding!
Julie hadn't ever given thought to what such a development might mean to her. She'd always found Tris irritatingly high-handed, argumentative, and critical, but though they were longtime adversaries, she had no good reason not to wish him happy. Good-bye, good luck and God bless, she ought to say to him. Why not?
But of course it was not that simple. There would be consequences that were certain to be unpleasant, not the least of which would be to face their mothers at last about the birth-betrothal. Facing their mothers would be far from easy. Tris's mother, Lady Phyllis, was soft-voiced and sweet, but she wore an iron determination inside her velvet glove. And her own mother, loud and overbearing, would surely make a scene. Julie hated scenes. The prospect of this one was so dreadful to contemplate that it tightened her chest.
Trying to catch her breath, she sat back against the balustrade and studied Tris with a furrowed brow. He was changing right before her eyes. He seemed to have suddenly become older than his twenty-two years. His face seemed leaner and less irritatingly mischievous than it had been just yesterday, when they'd been forced to dine with their mothers at the Branscombes' table. She couldn't even detect that annoying dimple that always appeared in his left cheek when he smiled. Today he looked ... well, different. He was only of average height, but today he looked almost tall. It wasn't merely that he'd dressed for town, his usually tousled dark hair brushed into a modish Brutus and his new beaver hat with its stylishly curled brim set on his head at an especially rakish angle. Nor was it that that his shoulders looked broader than usual in the caped greatcoat he'd thrown over them. It was just that he seemed, all at once, more knowing, more purposeful, and more ... more manly. Was it love that had done it? She wondered. Did love have the power to make one more mature?
"It's too cold to stand about," Tris was saying. "Let's walk."
He offered his arm, but she shook her head. In silence, they set off together along the gravel path that edged the woods shared by the two estates. Julie gathered her thick wool shawl more closely about her shoulders but let the wind blow her long auburn tresses freely about her face. "Tell me about her," she requested suddenly, feeling both fascinated and repelled.
"About Cleo?" He gave a careless shrug. "Not much to tell. Cleo's beautiful, of course, but in a different sort of way from the usual beauties."
"In what way different?"
Tris considered the question with a furrowed brow. "Her hair, for one thing. She cuts it short, little curls close to her head."
"Like Caro Lamb," Julie offered with a knowing nod.
"Yes. I find it charming. And she moves with the most enchanting swing of her limbs." His eyes shone with a reminiscent glow. "Her gestures are all like that, sort of ... loose and ... and wide. They're all of a piece with her character."
"Her character is loose and wide?" Julie asked, amused.
He threw her a quick glare, the kind he habitually tossed at her. "Of course not, you goose. What I meant was that her gestures are, in a manner of speaking, spontaneous."
"Yes. You might call them uninhibited. And ... and self-assured. They seem to reveal her inner nature. She thinks well of herself, you see."
"Does she really?" Julie could not help being impressed by his description.
"Oh, yes. She's very sure of herself. Not simpering and missish like other girls."
Julie's step slowed. "That's a swipe at me, isn't it?" she asked ruefully. "I suppose you think that I'm simpering and missish."
"You?" He looked down at her in sincere surprise. "No, I didn't mean that at all. You're not missish. Not with me, at any rate. However," he added, reconsidering, "you may be so with other fellows. They all say you're too shy."
"I don't know why you're surprised. You know how you are when you're in your mother's shadow."
Julie winced. "Yes, I know."
"It's your own fault. You shouldn't let her overwhelm you as she does. I don't believe shyness to be an asset to a girl, Julie. Even being missish and simpering would probably be an improvement. At least you'd giggle and flicker your lashes at a fellow, instead of just ... just hiding."
She stiffened. "Hiding?"
"Yes, hiding." Tris, ignoring her obvious dismay, barged on. "That's what you do in society, you know. You hide. Behind your dowdy shawls, behind your mother, behind your fan."
"Really, Tris," she said, her voice rich with sarcasm, "you shouldn't flatter me so."
"If you want flattery, my girl, ask someone else. You should be grateful for the truth."
"You're quite right. I'll write you a note of thanks as soon as I get home."
He laughed. "That's the spirit. That was saucy. Don't you see, Julie? That's how you should behave in society."
"You want me to be saucy? I could never--"
Disgusted, he shrugged and walked on. She followed, not speaking. But after a while, she caught up with him. "I'm not surprised that you love your Miss Smallwood," she remarked thoughtfully. "Someone who thinks well of herself ... that must be rare."
"She is rare," Tris said. "I think you'd like her."
"I only hope--Oooh!" The gasp came from deep in her chest, and her whole body froze in horror. There in the path ahead of them lay a small, furry little animal, quite dead.
"Dash it, Julie, you needn't carry on so," Tris scolded. "It's only a dead rabbit." He stepped over it and put out his hand to help her follow.
But Julie hung back, staring down at the lifeless bit of fur. "Shouldn't we do something? Bury it or something?"
"Bury it? Good God, girl, one would think it was your pet! Must you always be so deuced squeamish? We'll leave it where it is. The groundskeeper or some passerby will find it and think himself lucky for coming upon a good dinner without having to waste a bullet."
Julie swallowed her distaste at the thought of the poor creature being turned into rarebit and surrendered to Tris's good sense. She took his hand, stepped over the body and proceeded down the path.
Tris, dismissing the incident from his mind, returned to the subject of their meeting. "So you see, I wanted to warn you. The next time you see me, when I've won Cleo's hand, we're going to have to face our mothers."
"We?" This time it was Julie who looked scornful. "In the first place, I don't see why this is any concern of mine. In the second place, what makes you so sure your Miss Smallwood'll have you?"
He stopped in his tracks. "Well, she seemed to encourage..." His eyes narrowed, and he peered at Julie through knit brows. "Do you think she won't?"
"I'm sure I couldn't say. I don't know the lady. But if it were me, I wouldn't."
"You only say that because you know I won't ever ask you. I'll have you know that Cleo hinted she considers me a catch."
"A catch?" Julie gave a disdainful little laugh. "Really, Tris, you can't be serious."
"Why not? I've a title, haven't I? And an estate that's not inconsiderable. And a certain confidence in address. And I'm told that my appearance is pleasing. So why am I not a catch?"
"Because you're a peacocky, bumptious ass is why!" She stalked off down the path, tossing some of her long tresses over her shoulder contemptuously.
"Ass?" he echoed angrily, striding quickly after her, grasping her shoulders and pulling her round. "How dare you call me an ass?"
"I dare because you are one. Do you think you're worth your wealth just because you have it? Anyone who believes that a title and an income will win him a lady's heart has to be an ass. If the lady in question is half the creature you described, she'll be looking for more than mere superficialities in the man she weds."
"So that's what you think of me, eh? Merely superficial?"
"It doesn't matter what I think, does it?"
"No," he snapped back, "it doesn't matter one bit."
"Then why ask me?"
"I don't know why I did." He loosed his grip on her and threw up his hands. "It was a moment of weakness."
Julie relented. "You needn't look so murderous. Your lady may not find you as superficial as I do."
"Thank you, ma'am, for that encouragement. You are saying, therefore, that in order to succeed, I need only hope that my lady remains ignorant of the shallow nature of my character."
"Don't let my words worry you," Julie assured him with a sudden, unexpected smile. "She'll probably have you. Most girls would."
"Good God, ma'am, have I heard you alright? Did you actually say something kind?"
She laughed. "It was a moment of weakness." But then her eyes abruptly clouded. "You'll have to tell our mamas."
"Yes, soon or late." Tris, his expression darkening also, kicked at the pebbles in the path. "But not quite yet."
Julie threw a quick glance up at him. "Why not yet?"
"I haven't even made Cleo an offer. It's best to wait until the matter is a fait accompli, isn't it?"
"Is it? Or are you just being cowardly?"
Tris glowered at her. "Is that what you think? That I lack courage? That I'm a deuced muckworm?"
"My, my, you are quick to take offense today. I don't look on you as a muckworm, you gudgeon. I just don't see why you can't tell them now. Straightaway."
"Would you, if you were in my place?"
"Of course I would," she answered promptly.
"Ha! What a hum! You of all people."
She lifted her chin in offense. "Why not me?"
"You shudder at the sight of a dead rabbit!"
Her eyes fell. "I'm not saying it would be easy..."
"Easy!" He gave a mirthless laugh. "Impossible is more like it. I can just imagine the scene--my mother weeping copious tears, and your mother shouting the roof down."
Julie sighed in agreement. "I know, Tris. But you'll have to face it, as you said, soon or late."
"Better late. When I'm already wed, their tears and shouts won't have any effect."
"Tris! You're not--!" She stared at him in horror. "You can't mean you're planning to wed before telling your mother!"
"I'm not planning anything," Tris responded tersely, striding off angrily down the path away from her. "I told you before. Cleo hasn't even accepted me yet."
"Well, you needn't snap at me," she called after him. "It isn't my fault that she hasn't."
He paused and turned slowly back. "I'm sorry. I tend to lose my temper when I think of the fix our mothers put us in." He grinned sheepishly, the dimple in his left cheek making an appearance. "In a way, all this is your fault, you know. If you hadn't been born, our mothers couldn't have leg-shackled us."
"Yes," she said with a sneer, "that would have been nice for you."
"Nice? It would have been bliss."
"You wouldn't have had me to contend with."
"True. No discord. No wrangles. No bickering. Oh, the peace and quiet!"
"No two-family dinners. No shared birthdays. No being pushed to go to the assembly together..."
"A veritable heaven on earth!"
"Yes, heaven," she agreed, "but may I point out that it would have been just as heavenly if it were you who hadn't been born?"
"You have me there." He sighed in mock surrender. "I suppose we'll have to accept what is."
"Yes." She too expelled a sigh, but hers was real.
He studied her face with sudden, unexpected compassion. He was on the verge of escaping this life, but she was still mired in it. "Don't look so glum, Julie," he said cheerfully. "My betrothal to Cleo will change everything. Our mothers will have to admit defeat."
Heads lowered in thought, they slowly returned to the summerhouse. There they said their good-byes. "As soon as Cleo says she'll have me, I'll come back and deal with our mothers," he promised. "And after they accept the fact that they've lost this battle, things will change. Life is suddenly full of interesting possibilities."
"Yes, for you," she muttered glumly.
"For you too. Just wait. You'll see." He tipped his hat and started toward home, adding, "As soon as I'm betrothed, you'll be perfectly free to find yourself a fellow of your own."
"That is an interesting possibility," Julie said, throwing him a last wave.
She climbed the stile, but before dropping down on the other side, she looked back at his retreating figure. He looked almost tall in his fine beaver, with the capes of his greatcoat flapping in the wind. As the distance grew between them, she reviewed the one hopeful note that had been sounded in all that had been exchanged between them this afternoon. You'll be perfectly free to find a fellow of your own, her mind echoed as she watched him walk away. A fellow of my own. Yes!
But ... who?