No. She leaned forward squinting. That wasn’t a bell.
He nodded at his handiwork and then turned around. That was when he saw her. His eyes widened slightly. “Free.”
“Edward.” She looked at him. “You awoke early.”
“Not precisely.” He gave her a small, tired smile. “I’ve not slept yet. Now shut your eyes, Free. And Jeffreys—you can take yourself off. Thank you for your help.” Edward jerked his head, and the man who’d worked the bellows smiled slightly, bowed, and slipped away.
“Shut my eyes?” Free didn’t comply. She looked around instead. “Why would I—” And then she stopped, her breath taken away. Because there were others—an entire pail of these plants, stems rising gracefully to belled flowers. It was like looking at a meadow of metal flowers waving in some spring breeze.
She took a step forward.
No, those really weren’t bells. They were thimbles—he must have taken a handful from the seamstress’s room. He’d made all these flowers from those.
She could suddenly feel the pebbles beneath her slippers, hard, gritty little dots pressing into the soles of her feet.
“Last night,” he said, “after you fell asleep, I kept thinking. Of all the things you said, of all the things I know you want. You told me that everyone tempered their dreams over time—eventually.”
“I did.” What this had to do with a sheaf of iron bluebells, she didn’t know.
“You told me you wanted to believe in me,” he said. “And—here’s the thing, Free. What I remembered most was that day in your office. The day I fell completely, irrevocably, head over heels in love with you. I was a complete ass to you, and I told you that you were trying to drain the Thames with thimbles.”
She smiled faintly. “I remember that.”
“You told me I’d had it wrong. That you weren’t trying to drain the Thames—you were watering a garden, drop by drop. You made me think, for the first time in my life, that there was a way to win against all of this.” He stretched his arms wide.
Her throat felt scratchy.
“So that’s what I was doing last night.” His voice was low. “You told me to believe in myself, and so I made you a garden of thimbles. A promise, Free, that we won’t compromise. That our marriage won’t be almost what you wished for, that your dreams will not be tempered. That I will not be the one who holds you back, but the man who carries thimbles to water your garden when your arms tire.”
A breeze came up, swirling between them, and the stems danced in the wind, the flowers clanging merrily together.
“That’s how I thought I could make it up to you,” he said. “Drop by drop. Thimble by thimble. But about halfway through making these, I knew it wasn’t enough. I couldn’t ask you to become another viscountess. I’d be miserable; you’d be miserable. And you’d do a bang-up job, but there are a hundred women who could be viscountesses. There’s only one of you.”
She was feeling almost hazy. Her knees felt weak. But he was the one who took her hand. “So I’m asking you, Free. Don’t be my viscountess. Don’t throw my parties. Don’t run my estate. Let me be your thimble carrier. Be you, the most wonderful woman I have ever known. I’ll be the one making sure that you never run out of water.”
“How?” Her voice cracked. “You have a seat in Parliament, an estate that needs care. Your wife needs to make sure that…”
“No,” he said softly.
“I mean, it, Edward. I have no patience for those lords who neglect their duties.”
He came up to her and touched her cheek. “The lovely thing about being a complete and utter scoundrel is that I don’t have to accept everyone else’s reality. I had this idea last night. This strange, incomprehensible idea. Why do we have to make decisions about the estate? I’ve spent the last seven years of my life blackmailing people and forging letters. I know nothing of estate management.”
“You could learn.”
“Why should I? Neither of us want this. Why should we change our entire lives when there are people who already know this place better than I ever would? Let them run it.”
Free blinked. “Who do you mean?”
“All the land I showed you yesterday? Those hundreds of tenants, all the people in town who rely on the estate? They know what they need, and they surely don’t need us to explain it to them. Let them decide how to manage this all. It’s their life. Imagine what would happen if we simply got out of the way.”
Free let out a breath. She’d been trying to figure it all out—how to have this, and have her newspaper as well. It…it might be possible.
“Take this house, for instance,” he said. “We don’t want it. So why not find a better way to use the funds to keep it open? Ask the tenants what they’d want. Maybe they’ll choose to rent it out. Maybe they’ll convert it to a hospital or a school.”
“You’re right,” Free said slowly. “Would we choose a board of tenants, then?”
“Choose?” He smiled at her. “Come, my dear. It’s time you stopped being so acquisitive and started being more political.”
For one moment, her heart stopped. And then—as the future truly opened up to her—she began to smile.
“I rather think,” he said, “that they’re competent to vote on a board themselves.”
“They could.” She couldn’t breathe. “And who will get to vote, do you think?”
He reached out and took her hands. “Must you ask? It’s our estate. Our board. We can set any rules we wish.”
The bluebells shifted as another breeze ruffled them, thimble after thimble ringing out.
“So,” he finished, “I had rather assumed the women would vote, too.”
She couldn’t stop smiling. She reached out and pulled him to her. He was solid and real in her arms. And he was right—there was no need to compromise. Not with him. From here on out, there would be no almost—just more, and more, and more.
“That’s where we’ll start,” he said. “When the fabric of society fails to unravel in response… Well, we’ll take on the rest of the world.”
She pulled him down for a kiss. “They don’t stand a chance.”
IT WAS LATE AUGUST, and the archive room at the Women’s Free Press was miserably hot. In part that was because the weather was deucedly warm. In part, it was because no breeze came in through the window, even though they’d opened it as wide as it would go. But mostly, it was because there were seven people—counting Edward—crammed into the tiny space.