Demure by Johanna Harmon
Henry took a moment there on the front steps to contemplate all he felt for Claire. He knew it was love and that it had been that almost right from the very beginning. That truth terrified him. She had the power to devastate his life and after the hell he had been through with Viola, he did not know if he could survive losing Claire.
She and the friendship they shared was the most precious thing in his life and now that his mother was leaving, he was going to need her more than ever. His siblings and friends had all long settled into marriage. He would be alone if she went with his mother to
but he did not know how he could possibly persuade her to stay without some
kind of declaration. France
Still without resolve, Henry returned to the blue salon where Claire sat patiently with the newly arrived tea service and he took the chair across from hers.
“Shall I pour you a cup tea or fix you a brandy?” she asked sympathetically.
He held a moment without bothering to answer with an expression she had never seen on him before, something serious and uncertain then he said, “Claire have you ever given marriage any real thought?”
“Of course I have,” she said looking at him now in earnest. “What female hasn’t?”
“Then why haven’t you married?”
“You know why.”
“No, I can’t honestly say that I do. You’re beautiful Claire. In fact, I can honestly say I’ve only know a handful of women whose beauty compares to yours and though modest, your family is respected.”
“Not modest, my lord, but paupers hence my vocation as lady’s companion,” she said with knitted brows. She could not tell what he was getting at and she didn’t like it one bit. She was accustomed to knowing precisely what he was thinking and was extremely bothered by this new interest in her personal life.
“Has knowing me stopped you from marrying?”
“Here now –”
“What am I to you Claire?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“It’s been a full decade since you and I have been acquainted yet you’ve never once used my given name. Why is that?”
“You’re my employer.”
“We are friends.”
“You don’t count me as a friend Claire?” he asked with open affront.
“Is friendship the only cause for this inquiry?”
“I’ll start there.”
“You either tell me what this is about this instant or you leave.”
“It has to do with you being in love with me.”
“You’re here sacrificing your youth for the hope that I’ll turn up and brighten your day.”
“Let me stop you there before you embarrass yourself any further.”
“You needn’t deny it anymore for now that it’s been brought to my attention I’ve come to offer you my hand in earnest.”
“Henry will do.”
“No, my lord. It most certainly will not,” said Claire. “Who’s responsible for this? Who would be callous enough to convince you of such a thing?”
“Do you deny it?”
“What do you really want?” she asked.
“You ask me that after a lifetime of friendship?”
“The fact that you are indignant does not help me for even the guilty are able to express righteousness and I’ve been your confessor long enough to know what you’re capable of.”
“Then you also know that if all I wanted was you in my bed it would not be a hardship for me. I see the way you look at me-”
“If you have mistakenly interpreted my pitied glances for an aged Lothario as anything but that well… it explains quite a lot.”
She lied for there was no denying that he had mastered the art of male allure or that you could very well seduce her out of her good sense, clothes or inhibitions.
He was the quintessential romantic English lord. He was tall, fair, lean and brilliantly proportioned with the sort of ratios that had undoubtedly inspired Michelangelo to put chisel to marble. He was beautiful and effortless with his clear blue eyes, wide shoulders and narrow hips.
He was sex, embodied.
He was built for it, smelled of it… Christ it radiated from his every pore with his lazy masculine smile to his easy fluid carriage. He was strong, intelligent and comfortable in his own skin. Men coveted him, women were drawn to the raw carnality of the air he exuded, and Claire was no different.
“What the devil is that to mean?”
“That you have an inflated sense of self.”
“From anyone else that might have been true,” Henry said. “It’s strange how I’m honest in all things in my life except with you. You with whom I hold my breath, trying always to be more than I am, younger, faster, smarter. All for you who expect nothing from me.”
“Are you telling me that our entire friendship has been nothing but a lie?”
“No, what I’m saying is I always make an attempt to present to you my best self but in the end I always fall short and through no fault of my own, I end up presenting to you my honest self. Though, why I should feel the need to defend myself to you who doesn’t even consider me a friend…”
“We are friends,” she conceded.
“And still you are an enigma to me, unseen but for your beauty. I know nothing of you, no vulnerability, no flaw, absolutely nothing beyond your pretty exterior.”
“You say that as if you hold me responsible.”
“Oh, but I do. You learned early that most are content to look upon a beautiful face, never seeing beyond its façade and you use it as armour to keep everyone at bay.”
“Why don’t you simply tell me what’s caused this sudden interest in me and my personal life.”
“This is your mother’s doing?”
“She worries that your deliberate restraint at my presence is a sign of your deep tendre.”
“I’ll admit to you having a degree of allure but I would not go so far as to say it has altered my life.”
“Now, we both know that that’s not the truth and I feel it’s worth discussing.”
“There was never anything between us but a fleeting consideration and not even that if the truth is to be told. I was never more to you than an awed girl with unspoilt adoration but I’ve long out grown my fascination with the idea of you as romantic hero.”
“I was always so very careful with you, you know,” Henry said sincerely. “Ever mindful not to cross the lines of decency, never touched you the way I wanted. I let you provoke want in me time and time and again… but then, it’s never been a hardship for me for I’ve always delighted in the thrill and the chase.”
“None of this matters anyways. I hadn’t planned to tell you quite like this but I have decided to marry,” Claire said over her now strained emotions and his open stare.
“Is that right?”
“Yes. My Cousin Rachelle’s widow,” she offered steadily as Henry looked on with an easy smile.
Claire was bothered by his calm but she refused to let him see how much he was affecting her. After all, she was sorted now, she had just put him behind her and she would not allow him to upset her newfound equilibrium.
“Tell me, Claire. How long dead will I be when this wedding takes place?”
“You are being unreasonable. Besides I owe you no explanation and since that is the case I shall take my leave,” she said in preparation to leave.
“I’ll have my say, sweetheart.”
“What is there for you to say now that I’ve found an end?”
“Does that mean you no longer desire me chérie?”
“What does it matter what I want now that I’m no longer available to you?” she asked angrily. “I waited a whole lifetime for you to acknowledge what it was that laid between us and had your mother not insisted, heaven only knows what would become of me. No more. I’ve found a gentleman who is sensible and reliable.”
“And it’s your intent to build a life with this man based on qualifications that one seeks in a steward.”
“Better a gentleman with the resumé of a steward than one with the credentials of a malcontent, hell-rake.”
“Why are you trying to provoke me when all I seek is your comfort?” he asked with his continued irritating calm while she burned with barely contained anger. He liked that he was able to incite her out of her usual composure and took the opportunity to unsettle her further with a slow easy smile.
Poor Claire, she had never been able to tolerate the full effect of Henry’s lazy, self-assured smile and her traitorous body glowed with her want.
“I’d like you to leave this instant,” she said with dignity.
“Say it so I believe you mean it and I’ll not only leave. I won’t return unless invited to do so.”
“Why are you doing this to me now that I’ve found contentment?”
“Because what lies between us does not belong to you alone and I no longer wish to deny the attraction I feel for you.”
“I know,” he said with a wicked grin. “Why don’t you come here and let me show how truly depraved I can be.”
“And so smug. You’re convinced that you’re more equipped to resist my lure than I am yours.”
“Am I to take that as a challenge, darling?” he asked with a mocking brow.
“Now what kind of sense would that make? Why would I initiate a wager in a field where I have so little knowledge?”
“Surely you know that I’d be nothing but eager to teach you all I know on the matter.”
“Yes, alright then.”
“I beg your pardon?” asked a flabbergasted Henry.
“I’m accepting your offer.”
“Yes, I see that, but why now?”
“It will serve as a means to an end.”
“Yes?” he asked with a gesture for her to elaborate.
“It will cure you of me and affirm for me my belief that my choice of husband is the most sensible.”
“What the devil did you just say?”
“This is not meant to hurt you, you understand. It’s only that I’ve known you for long enough to know that you have not been able to sustain your interest in any female once you’ve had full physical knowledge of her,” she said. “In fact, I think it’s the only thing that’s kept you interested in maintaining our association.”
“You believe this to be true and still you continue to involve yourself with me?”
“I never said I was without fault. I know my judgement where you are concerned is not to be recommended and it’s for that reason I’ve decided now to go this course.”
“Oh, I see… Well, I wish you a good afternoon, Miss Maxwell,” he said before rising to take his leave.
“And to you my lord,” she returned with a triumphant smile as Henry rose to offer a curt bow before leaving.
Then something changed in his eyes and she knew, in that instant before he spoke, that she had given him the advantage by showing her hand too soon. He revelled in her loss, walking past her for the door as if he was nonetheless willing to concede. Then he stopped suddenly behind her with a, “Tell me, Claire… Have you already accepted this widower’s offer?”
“I will the instant his period of mourning is over and he sets forth his formal offer.”
“Brilliant,” he said suddenly bending to whisper in her ear, “For I wouldn’t want you to have to break your word once you finally accept that no one but me will do.”
He stopped for a moment so that she could feel the weight of his words while his breath, hot on her ear, pulled at her core. When he was sure she was well aware of the promise of the moment he brushed his lips over the eager flush of her earlobe with a, “I’ll see to it that we are not disturbed.”
My love ,
My love ,