Twenty-One (1)

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Izzy had lied to everyone.

For the first time in her life, she was doing something she ought not to have done, and the thrill of it all was empowering. Pretexting a shopping trip to Selfridges with Vita, she'd told her mother she'd meet her best friend at the department store and left the Mayfair house. But Vita was with Archie for the afternoon, running errands for the upcoming party at Weatherly.

And Izzy had a rendezvous.

She hurried along the pavement, her heart beating hard against her ribs. It was a cloudy day, with a drizzle strong enough to wet everyone's clothes. Huddled under her black umbrella, half-hiding her face to the passers-by, Izzy reached the theatre.

Robert, in a well-fitted three-piece grey suit, waited for her under the awning. He smiled when their eyes met.

"I wasn't sure you'd come," he said.

A weight lifted off Izzy's chest. Until then, a whirlwind of thoughts had made her confused, but now that Robert stood in front of her, she forgot about her doubts. Yes, coming had been the right decision. No, lying about it to everyone wasn't as bad as it sounded. Yes, Robert was all worth it. Thank goodness, he was here.

He offered her his arm, and she took it, a grin carving dimples in her cheeks.

"You doubted my word, Mr. Lang?"

Her tone was mischievous, and she avoided telling him she had nearly not come. Her biggest fear had been that he would be the one to cancel.

They made their way inside the red and gold-trimmed theatre, and a man in uniform checked their tickets before helping them find their seats inside.

"I haven't been to the pictures in ages," Izzy said in a low voice.

The newsreel was on, the flickering images casting white-light shapes on the audience. There weren't many people there. Robert put his arm on the armrest between them, and Izzy was acutely aware of their closeness in the dim light.

"I'm glad you invited me," she added.

Two days ago at the ball, dancing with Robert again had been an unexpected thrill. Then they had somehow found themselves talking until the end of the evening, their identity hidden behind their masks. Whether it was the champagne they had drunk, the intimacy provided by the crowd or the anonymity of their costumes, they had found themselves talking about the future again. And a future together hadn't sounded as mad as anticipated. Nor had an invitation to the pictures.

But now they were here, without masks or alcohol or prying eyes, and Izzy wondered if this was the moment of truth the heroine always went through at the end of the story.

On the screen, the feature started, and a piano accompanied the plot. The film was Little Lord Fauntleroy, and told the story of a poor American boy who found himself the heir to a wealthy British earldom and thus became a lord. Izzy had loved the book and seeing it on screen, with no less than Mary Pickford playing the main part, was delightful. For a moment she lost herself in the story, until she became aware of Robert's gaze trained on her.

"Why aren't you watching the film?" she whispered, a confused frown crossing her expression.

Robert's eyes returned to the screen, embarrassment making him straighten in his seat.

"I am watching the film," he protested.

Izzy shook her head, smiling. She turned her attention back to the story, glad of the semi-darkness, which hid her blushing. Taken by a sudden burst of boldness – or madness – she took Robert's gloved hand in hers, and felt his warmth through the fabric. He didn't move to take his hand back, maybe assuming her impulsive gesture was due to the action on the screen. But when the following scene was quieter, and Izzy didn't draw back her hand, he pressed her fingers in his, and they didn't let go of each other until the closing credits rolled.

When the lights came back on and everyone shuffled towards the exit, Izzy and Robert stood up as well. They were the last ones to leave the theatre, and melancholia tightened Izzy's chest. She didn't want this moment to end, she didn't want to let go of Robert's hand, and she didn't want to break the blissful silence between them.

Outside the drizzle had turned into rain, spattering the pavement. The rare passers-by hurried along the streets, a firm grip on their black umbrellas. Izzy and Robert stopped under the awning, and he shifted his weight from one foot to the other, seemingly as reluctant to part ways with her as she was.

"What happens now?" Izzy asked at last.

She kept her eyes on the water pooling in the road, the smell of wet stone filling her nose.

"I don't know," Robert said, his voice low.

He took a deep breath, and Izzy assumed he wouldn't go on, until he added: "I thought I was doing right by you when I stayed away. I thought it was only fair to let you find someone more suitable--" Izzy opened her mouth to protest, but he carried on: "—then I realised that doing right by you was maybe to give you a choice, instead of making it for you."

He faced her then, his gorgeous dark brown eyes boring into her. Izzy's heart pounded so hard, it drowned the sound of the rain hitting the awning above them. She swallowed the happy lump in her throat before replying.

"What's the choice, then?"

Robert took both her hands in his, drawing her near, close enough that the smell of his citrus after-shave reached her.

"I love you, Lady Isabel Campbell."

Her heart plummeted down to her feet. She blinked once, holding her breath.

"I tried to leave you alone," Robert went on. "But the truth is, every moment I spend away from you is a constant throb I can't ignore. I want to be with you, always. I want to be able to love you and make you happy. So I suppose the choice is: do you think I can be that person for you?"

Izzy exhaled, very slowly. Her answer was obvious, yet she counted to three to make sure it was indeed the right one, the one both her heart and her head agreed upon.

"Yes," she said, "I believe you are."

She stood on her tiptoes to lay a light kiss on his lips.

"I love you too," she added. "And I don't care what my parents think or want. I choose you."

A tentative smile spread across Robert's face. He bent down and kissed her, for longer this time. Izzy closed her eyes, letting go of his hands at last and grabbing the back of his head instead. For a moment there was only his taste on her lips and the rain around them.

The kiss ended when they both pulled apart, their foreheads still touching.

"May I take you out to dinner?" Robert asked.

Izzy nodded, slowly recovering her breath. Going home now seemed an impossible feat. She wanted to stay in his arms forever. Besides, they had plans to make, now.

To her sudden dismay, Robert let go of her. She motioned to keep his arm linked with hers, at least, but his attention was on her hat, for some reason.

"Allow me," he said.

She froze. He took something from her hat, and for a second she thought some insect had landed there, and she blushed. But it was a golden ribbon that flapped from his hand in the light wind.

And he went down on bended knee.

"I apologise for not having a ring," he said, his wonderful smile apologetic. "But Lady Isabel Campbell, will you do me the honour of becoming my wife?"

Lost for words, Izzy nodded, beaming. With a gentle gesture, Robert took her left hand and wrapped the ribbon around her finger. As far as she could remember, she had dreamed of this moment. She had imagined all sorts of backdrops for it, and all sorts of gentlemen in the role of the fiancé. But she had never thought it would take place on a street in the rain, with a boy from the other side of the world. Yet it was perfect.

***

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