After she’d dropped her outfit off in her room, Jen was astonished to see that it was nearly lunchtime, so she went to the kitchen to fuel up before she hit the books again.  It was a hive of activity, so she tried to keep out of the way, as she grabbed a sandwich and headed for the garden to escape and eat in peace.  She realised her mistake almost as soon as she got to the bench in the middle of the garden.  She heard a chattering and looked around to see magpies gathering on the walls, looking hopeful and eyeing her sandwich, hungrily.  She cursed and changed direction, heading away in search of a magpie-free area to eat her dinner in peace.  Since the stables weren’t too far away and offered the prospect of shelter, she headed for the tack room.

Nearing it, she smiled to herself and crept as quietly as she could to the doorway and peeped round.  Rick was sitting with his back to the doorway, cleaning some tack.  Jen grinned, and shouted, “BOO!”

The tack flew up into the air and landed on the floor with a clatter as Rick started violently.

“Jen!” he protested, turning around to see her laughing in the doorway.

“Well, you didn’t have a fork in your hand and, frankly, I couldn’t resist it,” she chuckled.  “Can I come in?  I’m seeking protection from Mags’s feral feathered friends.”

Rick glowered.  “I ought to leave you out there to be pecked to death,” he growled.

“Pretty please?  Surely you wouldn’t deny shelter to a damsel in distress?” she said, winningly, batting her eyelashes.

“Oh, alright then.  But only if you promise to behave yourself.”

“I’ll be as good as gold,” Jen promised, entering the room.

Rick grunted and began to retrieve the tack from the floor.   “Looking forward to tomorrow night?” he asked, as he did so.

“Huh, hardly,” Jen grumbled as she sat down at the table.  “Formal dinners aren’t really my thing.”

Rick pulled a face.  “Mine neither.”

“Gosh, your Lordness, you do surprise me,” she replied, impishly.

“I thought you were going to behave yourself?” said Rick, warningly.

“But isn’t it a lady’s prerogative to change her mind?” asked Jen, innocently.

“I’ll set the magpies on you if you do.”

“Huh, big deal.  They’re not exactly scary, I just didn’t want to share my food.  I’m hungry” Jen countered, biting into her sandwich.

“Then I’ll have to think of another way to make you sorry,” said Rick, eyeing a riding crop in a meaningful manner.

Jen raised an eyebrow.  “Yeees….  I’ve heard things about you aristos and your peccadilloes…”

Rick flushed and looked away.

“Yay!  I win!” said Jen in delight.  “What’s my prize?”

“You get to leave with your life,” said Rick in an embarrassed growl.

“Well that’s not much of a prize,” said Jen, sulkily.  “Don’t I even get a handsome escort to a boring as hell formal dinner?”  she pouted.

Rick recovered surprisingly quickly.

“Well, I suppose that could be arranged.  You might have to forgo the handsome part, though.”

“Why?” asked Jen innocently, “Is Dave coming?”

“No, just me” said Rick, with a small amount of puzzlement.

“Well, that’s all right, then, isn’t it?”

“…Er, if you say so…” said Rick, nonplussed.

They continued chatting whilst Jen ate and Rick cleaned tack peacefully.

Eventually, Jen noticed that she was taking smaller and smaller bites of her food, realising that she was enjoying her time with Rick and spinning it out as much as possible.  She chided herself that she had plenty of work to be getting on with, so she finished it quickly and regretfully took her leave of Rick.

He looked slightly disappointed at this, but said, “Oh, ok.  See you tomorrow?”

“You betcha.  Will you meet me somewhere before, though?  I don’t really want to face a bunch of strangers all on my lonesome.”

“Of course I will” Rick smiled.

Jen sighed with relief and smiled.  “Thanks, Rick – really.”

“No problem.  You’d better get back to your books before they run away.”

Jen stuck her tong out at him and vanished through the doorway.

 

Jen had a hard time concentrating that afternoon.  The library windows were open again, and a soft warm breeze was blowing the scent of summer through.  She’d find herself staring blankly at the screen for minutes at a time.  By the time the sky began to darken, she’d made little progress.  She could hear magpie chatter coming from the kitchen garden below, as well as the occasional corvid curse.  The clattering from the kitchen had subsided, though, so when Jen caught herself woolgathering again, she decided that enough was enough and she really ought to take Mags’s advice and get an early night.

She went down to the kitchen to grab a bite to eat before turning in.  There she found Mags seated at the table, looking pale and washed out.

“Are you ok, Mags?”

Mags looked up.  “Oh, hello, dear.  Yes, I’m fine – just a bit tired, that’s all.”

“Well, it looks like I’m not the only person who needs to get an early night.  You should too; you’re going to have a busy day tomorrow.”

Mags laughed shortly.  “Hah!  I suppose I should do at that.  I think you’re right, and I will.  “

In the end, they both did.

 

Jen was up early the next day, in order to try to get as much work done as possible before she had to go and get ready for the dinner that evening.  However, when she shuffled blearily down to the kitchen, she felt as if she had slept in.  Mags and several others had got an even earlier start and the kitchen was already abustle, preparations once again in full swing.  Mags spotted her hovering uncertainly in the doorway.

“Oh, there you are, dear!” she called “I’ve packed you some food so you don’t have to negotiate the bedlam in here.”

Jen found a box of sandwiches, a bacon roll and a large flask of tea thrust into her unresisting hands.

“Mags, you’re a marvel!  Thank you – you shouldn’t have, though.”

“Oh, nonsense, dear!  I wouldn’t let you starve.  Now, shoo!”

Jen retreated to the library in short order.

She made good progress that morning, after the previous day’s hiatus and early night.  When it came to lunchtime, she opened the box of sandwiches and found a note folded on top.  Written on the outside it said:

 

“Rick asked me to pass this on – Mags.”

 

She picked up the note and found that it was resting on a sprig of meadowsweet, the stem carefully wrapped in damp paper and cling film.  A little ripple of happiness spread through her.  The note said:

 

“Looking forward to dinner (‘Liar’ Jen said, with a smile).  Meet you in the hall at 7:30.”

 

The sweet fragrance of the flowers filled her lungs, but they were beginning to wilt, so she took them to her room and put them in a glass of water.

 

The afternoon passed much as the previous one had done.  In the end, Jen shook her head in disgust and gave the whole thing up as a bad job.  She went to her room to start getting ready for dinner.  She’d left herself plenty of time; she so rarely got the excuse to pamper herself other than sheer self-indulgence, she decided to make the most of it.  She took one last look around the library to make sure it was tidy.  If this dinner was to allow Lord Ambrose to show off his newly discovered secret room, she reasoned that he wouldn’t be too happy if she left half-finished work around the place.  Anyway, she didn’t want any of the guests to think she had sloppy or lackadaisical working practices, either.  She’d probably have enough trouble holding her own as it was.

Satisfied that not even the most prejudiced old fuddy duddy could accuse her of being untidy or inefficient, she closed the library door and headed to her room.

When she got there, she found that Mags had been in before her.  At some point whilst Jen had been at work in the library, Mags had, thoughtful as ever, popped in and left a big pile of fluffy towels and – joy! – some luxuriant bath products.  Jen sang happily as she undressed and ran a bath, realising as she did so that the bubble bath smelled almost exactly the same as the meadowsweet that Rick had sent.  She soaked in the bath for some time, then got out, dried herself and dressed with care.  She decided to wear some of the meadowsweet nestled here and there amongst the pile of curls on her head, having noticed that the colour matched the pearls that rested creamily around her throat.  She put on very little makeup, just a touch of mascara and lipstick, which was, in any case all she’d thought to bring with her.  She was glad, now, that she had.

Eventually, she was ready.   Looking at the clock by her bed, she saw that there was still half an hour to go before she met Rick in the hall, so she sat at the window and fidgeted nervously, watching the garden move softly in the breeze.  She was surprised at her nerves and searched herself for the reason.  It was true that she was not looking forward to the prospect of making conversation with compete strangers for the whole evening, and that she seldom attended formal dinners and had little knowledge of what to expect.  But that wasn’t it.  Eventually, she realised how much she was looking forward to seeing Rick and spending the time in his company.  She wondered not only what he would look like in a suit, but also what he would make of her, all scrubbed up.  She also realized that she really hoped he liked what he saw.

“Oh, no!” she groaned, putting her face in her hands.  “This is the last thing I need!”  It would have been enough to try and make conversation with strangers, some of whom at least that would be expecting her to talk coherently about the contents of the library.  What if she …no, be honest… she did find Rick very attractive, and she was starting to get butterflies in her stomach and feel tongue-tied at the prospect of seeing him again.  Her mind began replaying images and memories; of his face, and the way it lit up when he smiled; of conversations they had had; his dark hair, and the way it was always tousled, as if he’d just woken up; his gorgeous dark eyes; how delightfully easily he blushed…

It was almost with relief that she noticed the hands on her clock had finally made it around to twenty five past seven.  She quickly brushed her teeth, thankfully managing not to get any toothpaste on her dress, went to the loo, and then looked in the mirror to check her makeup.  And she gave herself a good talking to, whilst she was at it.

“Look, he’s probably not even interested in you.  You’re only going to make a fool of yourself if you say or do anything.  Just try not to drink too much.  And for god’s sake, enjoy his company for its own sake!  Part of the attraction is that you like talking to him, so talk.”

She glared fiercely at herself, forcing the butterflies down by sheer effort of will, composing herself.  It seemed to work, so she was much calmer as she picked up the satin shoes and headed out of the door to hurry along the corridors and passages towards the hall.  She slipped them on just before she got to the gallery at the head of the stairs into the hall.  There was no sense in breaking her neck, but no sense either in dashing about when she was all dressed up like this where anyone could see her.  She would just have to remind herself to move at a slower pace than she would normally, and to keep her back and legs straight as she walked.

She moved out on to the gallery and to the head of the stairs at a stately pace, taking deep, calming breaths, as the butterflies were threatening to return.

She looked down into the hall to see Rick leaning pensively against a wall, staring into the middle distance.  When he heard her heels click on the staircase, his head snapped up, and a beautiful smile lit his face.  Jen felt an answering smile light hers.  She continued her slow and stately way downwards, one hand resting lightly on the banister for balance in her unaccustomed heels.  Besides this, it gave her a good opportunity to drink in the sight of a very well scrubbed Rick, resplendent in a beautifully cut dinner jacket, a crisp white shirt and, Jen giggled inwardly, a bowtie, for goodness sake!  Still, it looked very good on him.

When she finally reached the foot of the stairs, he was there, waiting for her.

“Jen, you look wonderful,” he said, in his quiet voice.

“Why, thank you, kind sir!  You don’t look too bad yourself, actually.”

She tried very hard to keep her cool, but failed miserably when her stomach did a back flip as he took both of her hands in his and kissed her on the cheek, murmuring “I’m so lucky – a roomful of men, and I get the gorgeous girl.”

Jen flushed and mumbled something incoherent.  It seemed their roles had reversed.  Rick seemed, bafflingly, more full of confidence than she had ever seen him, and she was suddenly shy, barely able to string two coherent words together.  She struggled to pull herself together as he spread her arms wide and took a good look at her.

“That really is a beautiful dress, Miss Alexander.  And my, my – it fits perfectly…  everywhere,” he added with a mischievous twinkle.

Jen flushed even redder.  She managed to say, “Rick, stop it!  How am I supposed to make intelligent conversation when you say things like that?  It’s not fair…”

“But nothing could be as fair as you are tonight, lovely girl, so why even try?” he said, impishly.

“Rick!” she protested.  Her heart was beating hard now, and the butterflies had returned in force under the threefold assault of the shower of compliments, the gorgeous man before her, and the beautifully fresh, heady smell of him.  Then her knees started to go as well, as he tilted her chin up gently, looked directly into her eyes, and said, “But I mean it, Jen.  You look lovelier than any woman I’ve ever seen.”  His breath washed over her as sweet as a summer breeze as he added, with absolute sincerity, “I feel honoured to be escorting you tonight.”

She could hardly breathe as he held her eyes for a moment longer.  Then he let her off the hook as he grinned and said, “So – are you ready to face the lions, then?”

Jen took a deep breath, closing her eyes and attempting, once again, to pull herself together.  The sweet, grassy smell of him didn’t help in the slightest, but she remembered the talking-to that she’d given herself, and somehow managed to pull her scattered and skittering thoughts back into some semblance of order.  She opened her eyes, smiled as brightly as she could manage and said, “As I’ll ever be,” and took his proffered arm.

 

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