A Proposal

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The Pearce family left, and John motioned for Rachel to go into the dining room. He brought a candle from the hallway, and they stood gazing around the long room. The house settled into quiet while they just stood there.

"I feel I should at least look under the table," she said, glancing sidelong at him. He didn't say anything, so she moved to where she'd sat, looked around, and walked back to him.

"We should check the drawing room again," he suggested.

"Indeed."

They entered the room, and Lord and Lady Ellsworth looked up. "No luck?" Lady Ellsworth asked.

"I'd like to see if it is caught in the rug beneath the settee," Rachel said, then moved to the end of the room. John went with her then knelt on the rug, running his fingers through the plush fibers.

"We'll have our housemaids look for it in the morning," Lady Ellsworth offered, stifling a yawn.

"Thank you, m'lady," Rachel said quietly. John walked her back to the front hallway and then waited while she pulled on her gloves.

"This way," he offered, and they stepped out the door then walked along the front of the house while the curricle was still being hitched. He walked with hands behind his back, deep in thought.

"John, you're being mysterious and vexing," Rachel finally said. "What can you have been thinking?"

He looked at her, but she couldn't continue to scold him when she saw the heavy sense of importance in his eyes. "It's important that we had a moment to be alone," he said. He stopped and stared far out across the hills, where the moors rolled in dark shadows to the skyline.

"Why is that?" she asked quietly.

"A girl doesn't get engaged in the middle of the drawing room," he said, still staring away at the night.

Her breath rushed out of her, and she felt hot, then cold all over. "John, what are you—"

"It's the perfect answer," he interrupted. "You want Amanda to feel free to get engaged. I want a reason to hitch up my team and be out of the house every day. It would be more convenient for both of us, if it was quietly made known to our families that we had an agreement, but were going to wait a while... until perhaps a certain team was sold and a dowry could be arranged?" He finally looked into her eyes, a slight smile playing on his face. She dropped her mouth open, but no sound came out. Her mind seemed to process very slowly, dimly, what he was saying.

"After Amanda marries, we can say we've changed our minds. We are too good of friends to let a broken engagement keep our families apart, however. Things will go on the same as before."

"The same as before—" she choked a bit as emotion forced its way up her throat. She swallowed and looked away. After a few deep breaths, she could look back at him with more control. "As I said earlier tonight, John, you are my oldest friend. My dreams have run parallel to yours, just like our estate fences. In this case, however, I think we want a different outcome." She gritted her teeth and looked away

"Rachel," he said, lifting her chin with this knuckle to force her to meet his eyes.

She stared back at him, the face she'd come to adore as a friend, to hope would one day say these words to her—and now they were a sham, a false front just to make her appear desirable. Which she was not. Not to him.

But after a moment she swallowed and forced a smile. If it would help Amanda... "You are too good to me, to my family," she said. "How can I thank you?"

He broke into a wide grin, then gathered both her hands in his. "We've been through everything together," he said with a gleefulness she did not feel. "After the first rush of all the family saying this and that and good and bad... well, it will all settle down. And we'll still have our friendship."

She felt numb as she nodded, forcing the smile to remain on her face. "Your mother doesn't like me," she finally said.

He bit back a harsh laugh. "Mother doesn't like anyone. Her own children are too good."

"How will you manage her?"

He shrugged. "I will. Besides, your family's joy will preoccupy everyone's minds for a long while. We'll be in the background."

The gig arrived and as they rode to the vicarage, they talked about the timing of the announcements. "You're sure about Lord Dabney?" Rachel hesitated. "He won't...wait for you to go first?"

He smiled at her across his shoulder, then shook the reins. "I've known him for eight years, and he's as close as I've come to having a brother. He'll find all the encouragement he needs when I vouch that the daughters of Vicar Pearce are indeed of marriageable quality." His smile slowly faded as he studied her closely, sitting side by side, the gentle sway of the trap making their shoulders brush against each other. Her brows furrowed as she felt a sudden crossness inflame her mind. He was toying with her, with everyone they held dear—

"You look darling when you're angry," he said, and that only made her scowl fiercer. It was just like him to know exactly what she was thinking.She crossed her arms and looked away.

They pulled up at the front of the vicarage. The moon shone brightly, turning the lane to a silver ribbon, and the light from the front parlor windows spilled out in pools of gold. A curtain moved, and Rachel knew they'd watched for her return. She started to stand, but John placed his hand on her arm to retain her a bit longer. She scowled again.

"Tonight... we could put this all in motion tonight."

"Isn't that what we've been doing?"

"We need to act our parts, make it convincing."

She nodded, inhaling deeply. If only he knew how well she could act this part, as she'd played it out in her mind a hundred times. She straightened her shoulders and gathered her skirts.

"Rachel," he said, and she again paused. "Convince me you can do this?"

"How?" she asked, raising her gloved hands in a helpless shrug. "What do you want me to do?"

He looped the reigns over the brake, the drew her hands into his. He glanced once more at the windows, then gently drew her face towards his, leaning closer until his lips brushed against hers. She froze, a feeling of needle pricks running down her neck.

"Convince me," he whispered, his breath warm against her cheek. She stopped resisting, slowly releasing her tension as her lips moved against his, closing her eyes and melting into a blissful state where time stood still. The more she kissed him, the more she felt it was all a dream.

The sound of the front door creaking open and the "ahem" of her father's voice made her eyes fly open. 

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