He knew. But not nearly enough.
“I would love to own Aubrey,” she said wistfully. “I know every corner. I can name every crop in every field, and every name of every tenant, and half of their birthdays, too.”
He looked at her in wonderment. She was so much more than he’d ever allowed himself to see.
“I would have been an excellent Viscount Bridgerton.”
“Your brother will learn his way,” George said gently. He sat down in the chair by the desk. She wasn’t sitting down, but she wasn’t exactly standing, either, and as he was alone with her behind a closed door, he rather thought this would not be the critical breach of propriety.
“Oh, I know he will,” Billie said. “Edmund is very clever, actually, when he’s not being annoying.”
“He’s fifteen. He can’t help being annoying.”
She gave him a look. “If I recall correctly, you were already a god among men by the time you were his age.”
He lifted a lazy brow. There were so many droll rejoinders to such a statement, but he decided to let them all pass and simply enjoy the easy camaraderie of the moment.
“How do you bear it?” she asked.
“This.” She raised her hands in a gesture of defeat. “The helplessness.”
He sat up a little straighter, blinking her into focus.
“You do feel it, don’t you?”
“I’m not sure I catch your meaning,” he murmured. But he had a feeling he did.
“I know you wish you could have taken a commission. I see it in your face every time your brothers talk about it.”
Was he that obvious? He’d hoped not. But at the same time…
He looked up.
“You’d gone very silent,” she said.
“I was just thinking…”
She smiled indulgently, allowing him to think aloud.
“I don’t wish I’d taken a commission.”
She drew back, her surprise evident in the way her chin tucked into her neck.
“My place is here,” he said.
Her eyes lit with something that might have been pride. “You sound as if you’re only just realizing it.”
“No,” he mused. “I’ve always known that.”
“You hadn’t accepted it?” she prodded.
He chuckled wryly. “No, I had definitely accepted it. I just think I hadn’t let myself…” He looked up, straight into her lovely brown eyes and paused for a moment as he realized what he wanted to say. “I hadn’t let myself like it.”
“And now you do?”
His nod was quick and firm. “I do. If I don’t —” He stopped, corrected himself. “If we don’t care for the land and its people, what are Edward and Andrew even fighting for?”
“If they are going to risk their lives for King and Country,” she said softly, “we should make it a good King and Country.”
Their eyes met, and Billie smiled. Just a little. And they didn’t speak. Because they didn’t need to. Until finally she said, “They’re going to be up with your food soon,” she said.
He quirked a brow. “Are you trying to be rid of me?”
“I’m trying to protect my reputation,” she retorted. “And yours.”
“If you recall, I did ask you to marry me.”
“No, you didn’t,” she scoffed. “You said, ‘of course I’ll marry you’,” – this she said in a remarkable impression of a distempered crone – “which is not the same thing at all.”
He eyed her thoughtfully. “I could get down on one knee.”
“Stop teasing me, George. It’s very unkind of you.” Her voice wobbled, and he felt something tight, squeezing in his chest. His lips parted, but she pushed herself off the edge of her bed and walked over to her window, crossing her arms as she stared out into the night.
“It’s not something you joke about,” she said, but her words were oddly formed, round and wide, almost as if they were coming from somewhere deep in her throat.
He came quickly to his feet. “Billie, I’m sorry. You must know I would never —”
“You should go.”
“You should go,” she said, more forcefully this time. “They’ll be here with your dinner at any moment.”
It was a dismissal, clear and sensible. It was a kindness, really. She was stopping him from making a fool of himself. If she wanted him to propose, wouldn’t she have taken the bait he’d so casually dangled?
“As you wish,” he said, executing a polite bow even though she was not facing him. He saw her nod, and then he left the room.
Oh, dear God, what had she done?
He could have proposed to her. Right then and there. George.
And she had stopped him. Stopped him because – bloody hell, she didn’t know why. Hadn’t she spent the entire day in a blue haze, wondering why he was avoiding her and how she might get him to kiss her again?
Wouldn’t marriage ensure future kisses? Wasn’t it precisely what she needed to achieve her (admittedly unladylike) goals?
But he’d been sitting there, sprawled out in the desk chair like he owned the place (which she supposed he did, or rather, would), and she couldn’t tell if he meant it. Was he teasing her? Having a spot of fun? George had never been cruel; he wouldn’t purposefully hurt her feelings, but if he thought she regarded the whole thing as a joke, then he might feel permitted to treat it as such…
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