Tabitha allowed herself to relax as William's eyes drooped closed and his head nodded forward. When the excitement over the treasure had died down, he had remembered his anger and hadn't allowed either her or Melvin to forget it – although Melvin had winked encouragingly at Tabitha and claimed William was merely put out by the fact that he hadn't been there when they first found the treasure. This had earned him the brunt of William's fury and made Tabitha chuckle. Now that William was asleep at last, however – poor thing, not getting a wink of sleep for three days and nights – she could breathe again without receiving a glare.
She turned to Melvin, expecting a customary grin, but he was looking quietly out the window. He'd been unusually subdued, in fact, aside from a few almost half-hearted jibes at William. Tabitha frowned and brushed her knuckles against his jaw, thought she knew it was an entirely improper action. She had never seen his jaw so set and serious, except, perhaps, that first night at the Goat. Goodness, had it only been a month ago? It felt as if she'd known Melvin for years.
He turned at her touch, and his eyes were solemn. Even a bit…frightened? Melvin? Her Melvin?
"Tabby," he murmured, catching her hand and pressing his lips to it. His touch was tender to a fault, making Tabitha smile. The words that followed made her smile fall.
"You needn't wed me anymore."
Tabitha blinked in shock and stared at him. "I – I beg your pardon?"
He looked away from her, jaw working. At last, he said, "I realize that at the time of my proposal, it was a financial necessity for you to wed, and that I was your best option at the time. Now that you have your uncle's treasure, you no longer need to marry me – or anyone else, for that matter. If you choose to end our engagement, therefore, I shall not hold it against you."
Tabitha felt as if the ground had been snatched away from under her feet. He was letting her go. He couldn't have been more clear if he had torn the ring off her finger: he didn't want to marry her. He never had wanted any such thing. The only reason he had proposed at all was because he had felt compelled to help her. Good god, why did he have to be such a bloody gentleman?
Tabitha felt tears welling up in her throat and looked away, trying to swallow back the tightness. It hurt almost as much as her rushed heart. Melvin didn't love her, didn't even want her. And why should he, when he could have any other lady for his bride?
She remembered Bonfire Night, Fulton Manor and the mad dash to Lizard village and the tears coated her eyes despite her struggles. Almost desperately, she reached for the one thing that had allowed her to go on this ridiculous escapade in the first place.
"We – we were unchaperoned, Melvin. For three days." She would never use that to force him into marriage, but perhaps if he was reminded of that…
"No one knows that. We can tell people that William was with us the entire time. No one will even raise an eyebrow against you."
Tabitha swallowed hard as her last chance at happiness slipped through her fingers. How foolish she had been, to truly believe she could make a life together with Melvin. It was all just silly dreams and fantasies. One fat tear escaped her eye and rolled down her face to catch the corner of her mouth.
She bit back the sob that arose at that softly spoken pet name, and all that came out was a tight whimper. She loved him still, despite this. How could she not, when he said her name like that?
She felt his free arm slide around her shoulders and tug her closer to his warmth. How lovely it would be if she could simply sink into his heat and forget his awful suggestion. But it could not be so. Blinking away her tears, Tabitha refused to allow herself to lean against Melvin. Instead, she schooled her back straight and lifted her chin, though she still did not look at Melvin.
"Yes," she rasped, then cleared her burning throat. "Yes, you are right, of course." Her voice was shaky, and her hands were trembling, and she was sure her heart was withering away with every painful breath she took. Surely she was about to die from heartbreak. "We – we need no longer marry." She swallowed, almost choking from the pressure in her throat. Melvin withdrew his arm, obviously believing her façade of calm restraint and decorum.
"I shall cry off." Her voice was barely more than a whisper now. Slowly, she drew the engagement ring off and held it out to him in the palm of her hand. Still she did not look at him, though her eyes were wide open and unblinking. "Consider yourself free of our engagement.
After a moment of tense silence, she felt Melvin's warm fingers against her palm. They lingered there a breath and Tabitha slid her eyes closed. Surely this was the most cruel of tortures. Then both his touch and his ring were gone. Tabitha withdrew her hand and pulled her cloak more tightly about her.
She had never felt so cold and alone before.
Melvin allowed himself exactly two weeks of moping to nurse his deflated ego. For two weeks he sulked around Kendrick Hall and Furlough Manor, until his relatives grew sick of him casting such gloom on their holidays and ordered him to pretend to be festive. He heaved a resigned sigh and obeyed half-heartedly, singing carols and drinking toasts and pecking his younger cousins on the cheek when they lingered purposely beneath the mistletoe. Still, he sorely missed Tabitha.
She had refused him. He still couldn't quite believe it. He'd never been refused before, conceited as it made him sound. He'd thought she had come to care for him as he had for her, but instead…
He sighed, forgetting his promises to smile. Reid, Lorraine's ten-year-old half-brother, looked up at him and wrinkled his nose. "I don't ever want to fall in love if it's that bad," he stated.
Melvin regarded him dismally. "A wise choice, my boy," he replied and sighed again.
Lorraine chose that moment to plop down on Melvin's other side. "So what are your plans?" she asked.
"Plans? I have no plans," Melvin declared dramatically. "I'm a wastrel of an only son. A dandy. My life has no purpose but to eat and drink and make merry. I stay out until dawn and sleep well past noon and do society no good at all. I am –"
"Oh, for God's sake," Lorraine exclaimed, earning herself a chiding look from her stepmother which she blithely ignored. "I mean, what are you going to do to get Tabitha back?"
"What makes you think I'm going to do any such thing?" he demanded, though he planned to do exactly that – as soon as he finished feeling sorry for himself.
Lorraine sent him a meaningful look that required she say nothing else. Melvin sighed in response.
"Well?" she prodded.
"None of your business." She didn't move. "I'm not telling you anything."
Melvin gritted his teeth fiercely and scowled at the thickly carpeted floor beneath his feet. "I'm going back to London and I'm going to woo her," he growled tightly.
Lorraine patted his back. "There now. That wasn't so hard, was it?"
"I can't wait until you get married."
With an indignant harrumph and a few muttered words Melvin thought she really shouldn't even know, Lorraine rose to her feet and stalked away. Melvin remained where he was, musing over his plans. He supposed it was time to go back to London now. There were still quite a few weeks before the Season began, but it had already been a fortnight since they had found Lucien's treasure; he had spent enough time brooding.
Tabitha's holidays were not much brighter. William was constantly busy dividing and investing the money, tactfully avoiding any mention of piracy when questioned about the source of this sudden wealth. It somehow got about that they had inherited from some eccentric old aunt, though neither of them had ever met any aunts that they could call their own. In any case, her brother was rarely ever home, and even with the addition of a butler, two footmen and a cook, the Royle townhouse felt starkly empty and lonely to Tabitha.
William and Tabitha hadn't made it back to London in time for Christmas, but Mrs. Hudson still insisted on having a feast, especially now that money was no longer a worry. The night of the twenty-seventh, Tabitha had found the dining room fully decked out with ribbons, holly and a select few pieces of chinaware from Laurelwood Manor that hadn't been bartered away. William and his hastily hired solicitor had dragged themselves out of the study long enough for a few bites before disappearing once more to discuss the repurchase of Laurelwood Manor and the renovations to take place come spring.
Tabitha had picked away at her pudding more to avoid hurting Mrs. Hudson's feelings than out of any real enjoyment before retiring to her room, more miserable than before. New Year's didn't go much better, and by the time Daniel came calling on the sixth, she was desperate for company.
They spoke of inconsequential things at first, but Tabitha could tell he had heard the news by the way his eyes flickered away whenever she caught him looking at her.
"Shocking, isn't it?" she commented abruptly.
"The weather? No, not really. It tends to get –"
"Not the weather. The end of my engagement to Melvin."
"Ah." Twin spots of colour appeared on his face. "I was rather surprised to hear of it."
"Yes, well…" Tabitha sighed. "He felt I no longer needed him now that… now that William is more financially secure."
They sipped their tea silently, and Tabitha was glad that he didn't press for details though she knew he must be bursting with questions. After a moment, Daniel cleared his throat. "Tabitha, I realize that you cared deeply for Mister Knighton, and that the end of your engagement to him must be a cause of great distress for you."
Oh, dear, Tabitha inwardly bemoaned, closing her eyes. Surely not this. I'm not sure I can handle such a thing so soon.
Oblivious to her thoughts, Daniel continued, "And I realize, too, that we agreed to simply be friends. Still, I feel the need to ask." Leaning forward, he took her hand in his. "Do you think, Tabitha, that I might presume to pay you court once more?"
Tabitha sighed and opened her eyes, looking straight into his. "Daniel, I truly cannot say at this time. It has barely been a fortnight, after all, since Melvin and I decided to end our engagement – oh, yes, I know the papers say that I was the one who cried off, but it was a mutual agreement. I truly do think I need more time before I start entertaining suitors once more."
"Of course. I understand." He raised her hand and gently pressed the back of it to his lips. "Knighton was a fool to let you go," he murmured.
"Oh, I completely agree," a new and familiar voiceannounced from the doorway to the sitting room. Both Tabitha and Daniel turned in their seats to see Melvin striding into the room, his arms full of a dozen or so parcels and a very large and ostentatious bouquet.
"Melvin, what on earth?" Tabitha exclaimed, jumping to her feet to rescue one of the packages from falling to the ground. Daniel rose as well, though a tad bit more slowly.
Melvin deposited the packages in a rather disorderly pile on the coffee table and held out the bouquet of roses – where on earth had he gotten roses at this time of year? – to Tabitha. "Merry Christmas, Tabby – I may still call you Tabby, mayn't I?"
"Well, yes, but I –" Tabitha frowned in confusion. "Melvin, what are you doing here, exactly? What is all this?"
"What am I doing? Why, I'm courting you, of course!" He picked up a box from amongst the packages and opened it to reveal a variety of candies. "Bonbon?"
Daniel heaved a beleaguered sigh and looked heavenward desolately. "I knew it was too good to be true," he said.
"Quite right, old man. Better luck next time, I suppose," Melvin declared in way of reply.
Daniel sighed wearily and inclined his head to Tabitha. "I'll take my leave of you, now, Tabitha. Knighton."
Tabitha blinked at Daniel's retreating back, her mind a whirl. Then her eyes focused on Melvin. "You're courting me? Why?"
"Well, because it is the polite thing to do before one asks a young lady to bind herself to him in holy matrimony for as long as they both should live."
"I said, 'it is the polite thing to –'"
"I heard you, Melvin. I simply can't believe that only two weeks after telling me that you didn't want to marry me, you come and –"
He frowned. "I never said I didn't want to marry you. I said you no longer needed to marry me."
"Yes, but I thought that by that, you were saying that the only reason you had proposed to me at all was because you were trying to be dashing and noble and a knight in shining armour, and now that I no longer needed to be rescued, you –"
"Proposing was never part of being a knight in shining armour," Melvin protested, sounding insulted. "Removing you safely from houses of ill repute and climbing up thousand-foot high, decrepitbuildings – that's being a knight in shining armour."
Tabitha laughed, despite the tears beginning to clog up her throat. Melvin took a step forward and grasped her hands in his. "Tabby, I proposed to you because I wished to marry you – as I still wish to do so now. And to prove that…" He bent to pick up the smallest of the packages and held it out to her.
Tabitha's brows drew together as she slowly unwrapped the paper to reveal a porcelain figurine of a pear tree with a miniscule bird perched amongst the branches. "It's…very pretty, Melvin," she said hesitantly. What on earth could this have to do with marriage?
Melvin grinned and handed her another package, this one slightly larger than the last. It held another pear tree figurine, along with two palm-sized turtledoves. Some faint memory began to form at the back of Tabitha's mind as she opened the third package. Melvin was humming an old Christmas tune.
Three hens. Two turtledoves. A pear tree.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, suddenly understanding. She laughed and happily opened the rest of the packages, marvelling at the intricate detail. At last, all twelve pear trees and drummers, twenty-two turtledoves and pipers, thirty hens and lords, thirty-six calling birds and ladies, forty gold rings and maids and forty-two geese and swans stood arrayed on the coffee table beside the forgotten tea service. Tabitha grinned at all the perfectly crafted pieces like a small child. And yet…
She frowned. "But Melvin, what does this have to do with our engagement?"
Melvin raised his brows, leaning back comfortably on the sofa beside her. "Who gives all the presents in the song, Tabby?"
Tabitha's mouth formed a round O as she stared at him. Was he truly saying what she thought he was saying? Was he saying that he…
Melvin interrupted her train of thought with a deep kiss. Tabitha's eyes fluttered closed, and she leaned into his familiar warmth. So comfortable. So lovely. So right. Her arms stole around his neck, and a small sound of surprise escaped her throat when he pulled her crosswise into his lap. Grinning, he pulled away from the kiss and pecked her nose playfully.
"Well, Tabby?" Though his smile was bright, his eyes were tender with an unmistakeable emotion, and Tabitha felt her heart would burst in response.
"The true love," she whispered. "The true love gives the gifts."
"Clever little Tabby Cat," he murmured, leaning down to kiss her again.
Someone cleared his throat, and Tabitha's eyes flew open, but Melvin continued to kiss her. In her limited vision, she saw him wave away William distractedly with one hand.
"Knighton," William growled warningly, and Melvin lifted his head with a reluctant sigh and a slight scowl.
"Royle, if you don't mind, I'm trying to work my way into a romantic proposal to your sister. I give you my word as a gentleman that her honour shall remain completely intact until our wedding night, so long as you do not delay the occasion any more than need be by ruining the mood at this time."
Tabitha smothered a hysterical giggle in the soft superfine of Melvin's jacket, as William turned and left them with a roll of his eyes and a muttered, "Good God."
Then Melvin's lips were brushing over her cheek and ear and neck. "I thought there was going to be a proposal," she commented, nuzzling his jaw line.
"There will be. In a minute. Or five."
Their lips met once more, parting and caressing amidst smiles and sighs.
"Could you say the words?"
He kissed her again. "My dearest Tabby, will you marry me?"
She pulled away. "Not those words."
"Then which words?" he inquired, frowning.
She crossed her arms over her chest and raised an expectant eyebrow, obviously not about to give him any help. Melvin thought she looked utterly kissable at the moment, and would very much have liked to fulfill that potential. His eye fell on the porcelain figurines behind her.
"Oh." He smiled and leaned close once more. "I love you, my little Tabby Cat," he whispered against her lips.
Tabitha smiled elatedly, and kissed him back. "I love you, too, my would-be knight."
A.N. I feel so cheap because with Petals, I ended the last chapter with the 'I love you's as well. I really do need to come up with something more original for the rest of my stories.
I don't know where the whole 'Twelve Days of Christmas' thing came from. It just occured to me while I was writing, and I decided to run with it. I was considering having a cat in each figurine (like one lounging on top of the cow for the maids a-milking), but I could think of a way to include them with the doves. Anyway, yeah, that was a bit random, I admit.
James and Melanie's story, Ruination,will be up next week.
Lara Bykirk: I know William's carrying-ons at the Gassy Goat are a bit at odds with his stiff-rumpness, but I swear it will be made logical in his story if you stick around long enough for that one. lol.