CHAPTER ONEGeorgiana Ferrier had all but given up on the chance of seeing her friend for yet another day when she heard his thundering footsteps through the underbrush. He’d turned eighteen this very April, and though she had no brothers, she’d seen enough among her father’s farm hands to know such an age changed things. She’d begun to fear he would lose interest in their friendship.“There you are,” Frederick Hathwell said as he burst through the bushes surrounding their spot, light brown hair tousled from his journey. He looked nothing like the heir to a small but respected barony should, but exactly as she expected her friend to appear.Georgie shook her head. “As if I’m the one who’s been missing. I’ve come looking for you every single day since the last on the hope you’d be here. And you never were.”“I’m here now.” Freddie shrugged as if his absence meant nothing. “Though not for long. My father has me working on the estate. Mother was less than pleased with his decision, but he wouldn’t have me as ignorant as he had been when the barony fell to his shoulders.”“So your promises to me have little meaning now that you’re a man grown?” She hadn’t meant to scold him, but the careless way he mentioned leaving so soon came too close to her own fears.He moved forward and laid a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t ever think so. You know how important you are to me. I’ve outgrown my tutors is all, and I have more responsibilities. I am a baron’s son in the end.”Georgie’s eyes narrowed as she stared at him. “And my work isn’t as important? You might be titled, but it doesn’t make you better than any of the rest of us. We all have important work to do.”“I didn’t mean it that way. It’s just harder now to sneak out and come to you. I can’t have my father discover what we’ve been doing.”His apology only made her anger rise. She stamped a foot, caring not one whit if it might make her seem younger. “And what have we been about that your father would care? You don’t want him to know you couldn’t even catch your own supper when I first came upon you, do you? Or is it that you’re spending your time with someone who’s beneath you?”“Georgie, it’s just how my father and mother will see it. They won’t understand.” He frowned and shook his head at her.“Well I don’t think I understand either.” She sent him a fierce scowl in return. “Go on with you, Mr. Hathwell, heir to the Lord Brookway. Go see to your important duties. I’d best help make sure there’s food on my father’s table when he gets done with his unimportant labors.”She twisted and marched off into the forest, even in her anger keeping her footfalls soft so he could not follow her. The brook had fallen far behind before her pace slowed and her feet dragged.He didn’t say anything she hadn’t expected, but Georgie had not anticipated how his clear change of focus would affect her. He’d been her friend through so many major changes in her life. She’d thought he would always be there at her side. The idea of losing him now, of having him wander off into the adult world without her, made her chest ache.Georgie had heard him coming after her for a bit, but he gave up all too soon, a further sign her concerns were grounded in nothing less than fact. If he’d called out to her, she would have gone back.Tears gathered at the corners of her eyes, but she wiped them away, unwilling to give him even so much. “If he’s only concerned with his title and the property that will come with it, I’m better off without him. He doesn’t know much else besides what I taught him in any case.”Her sharp words offered little comfort and even less truth.Georgie sank to the forest floor, her back braced against a broad oak tree. She longed for the shelter of his arms, the one place she’d found comfort when life became too hard. She had no one to help her suffer this loss. Her family didn’t even know why she sought out the forest and would be unlikely to mourn if they had.It had once been a place away from the farm and three sisters who all thought they knew better than she did simply from the order of their birth. But everything changed when her favorite spot along the brook had been invaded by an ignorant boy.How she missed that boy.He read her lines of poetry and told her of the arguments found in his studies, but he’d looked to her for everything governing real life. Now, though, he’d grown beyond her teachings and cast her off as easily as he’d outgrown his tutors. He’d become just another one of the arrogant lordlings her father complained about when reading the London papers.Georgie clenched her fists in the moss on either side of her, wishing Freddie could be as easy for her to forget.She had other friends in the village. She had her sisters. She couldn’t figure out what made him so important, or why the way he dismissed her own value hurt so much.GEORGIE’S EXPRESSION HAUNTED FREDDIE ALL night and continued to throughout his morning tasks. He’d given up the chase when he lost her trail, choosing to return to his tasks even though he hated leaving things unresolved between them.He hadn’t been pretending when he told her how important his new responsibilities were, to her as much as to him. But he hadn’t expected her to run away without giving him the chance to explain.Yesterday, he’d been angry. Today, he ached as if the place where their friendship had nestled close to his heart now stood empty.She was still so young.He hadn’t thought her ready to hear what he had to say. Yet, he hadn’t considered how she might hear his words without knowing why his father’s opinion held such weight, why it was so important he performed his labors well.When the time came to gather for luncheon, Freddie slipped into the kitchen and asked Mrs. Baker if she could put together a basket for him. He planned to go inspect the far fences, or so he told her. He knew the particular section better than any other because it abutted the edge of the forest and the trail he’d first learned of from the family coachman when just a boy before his mother put a stop to their rambles.His gaze fell upon his mother’s garden as he crossed to the stables with a heavy basket slung over one arm. The flowers would have won prizes had they still been in London, his mother said, but they could serve another purpose as well, one Freddie had need of.He took out a knife, and paying little mind to the thorns that scratched his skin, he cut ten roses, the flowers bursting with many beautiful colors at the end of their short, thorny stalks. These he laid on top of the cloth protecting his food and continued on his way. He had no idea if Georgie would be at their special spot, but he had to try.Their place seemed too quiet when he arrived.Shoulders slumped, Freddie put the basket on the ground and contemplated leaving the roses for her to find. Would she understand from the gift how he regretted his words? Would she even return here? He feared he lacked the courage to find her at her home when he couldn’t be sure of his reception.A slight movement in the corner of his eye caught Freddie’s attention and distracted him from the disheartening thought. He turned, startled, to meet bright blue eyes staring over her rock much like the first time he’d seen her eight years before.“I didn’t expect to find you here,” he said without thinking.“I didn’t think you’d return.”Her voice came out soft and quiet, holding neither the sharp anger of the previous day nor her usual delight. It reminded Freddie all too well of when she’d mourned her mother so long ago.He turned and knelt, both to hide the guilt in his expression and to collect the flowers. It was little enough to repay her for his arrogance, but he could hope she’d understand.Freddie bit back a curse as one of the thorns pierced deep into his thumb, his focus more on her than his actions. He winced and thrust the finger between his lips even as he smiled around it.The roses were much like his Georgie. Sweet and beautiful on the surface, but with sharp defenses when provoked.Georgie came around her rock and pulled his thumb free, stroking her finger over the injury. “You might think you’re all grown up,” she said, “but underneath, you’re still a sheltered boy.”He would have torn open every one of his fingers if it brought her spirit back.She shook her head as if aware of his thought. “Wildflowers might make for a better apology next time. Your mother will know from the look of your hands just who stole her prized roses.”Freddie turned his hand in hers until he could clasp her fingers and pull her nearer. “I could hope they’d never be needed a second time.”When she laughed, he knew he’d been forgiven. Georgie was not one to hold onto her anger, whether or not her response had been warranted.She looked at him then with a contemplative expression, and glanced between the flowers still in the basket and him. “Flowers are a courting gift in London, are they not? So my sister said.”He’d thought her too young to know or care about courting. From the blush pinking her sun-kissed cheeks, he’d been mistaken.Freddie stared down at his hands then turned to pick up the roses. This time he lifted only one and used his knife to trim its thorns.“And what are they here?” he asked, raising the first one toward her.The faint hint of color in her face deepened until he had no doubt of her blush. Her gaze fell to the dirt between them, lashes casting shadows across the top of her cheeks. “An apology from how you’re using them,” she said, her voice once again soft.Freddie rose from where he’d been kneeling and stood beside her. “And what if it could be both?”Her head came up then, a smile trembling on her lips. “It would be surly to refuse them.”Her words did not answer the question he’d carefully not asked, but he chose not to press. The blush had told him enough to know, while she might still be young and boyish, she was not as unaware of him as he’d expected.“Does the same courtesy extend to sharing my luncheon?” He could feel the tension in the air lightening and gave a long-suffering sigh to encourage the change. “Mrs. Baker always packs too much. She’ll be offended if I come back with any of it.”Georgie shot him a grateful glance as she sank to the ground and arranged her skirt around her. More than almost anything, her care with her clothing told him how much she’d grown past the wild child he’d first discovered in these woods. Perhaps he would not have to wait as long as he’d thought before getting a truthful answer to the question he’d yet to ask.She lifted the rest of the flowers free, careful not to be scored by the very thorns that had marked him. “So what did she pack for you?”Freddie dug into the basket and lifted a loaf of bread free. He put discussions of courting and their future aside in favor of sharing a meal with the young woman who had captured his heart.
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