Perry’s entire body tensed as he scanned the park for Lilly’s petite figure. His cousins and men were the only people in sight. Oh God he was an ass, if something happened to her now because of him—
“Lilly!” he bellowed, startling the four ladies. He paid them no heed. “Lilly!”
Callous bastard. He shook his head. He should have known better. Why was it that Lilly could unman him so easily, turn his mind to pudding? He truly needed to get his wits about him.
They rushed toward him, Gardner and Kerrigan in tow.
“What have you done, Perry?” Maebh asked.
“Maebh. What I have done I am all too eager to remedy. Do not cast aspersions on my soul just yet. Right now I simply need to find her.”
“No! I’ve no time for this! Gardner! Kerrigan!”
“Not. Now. Maebh!”
Shock in her eyes Maebh turned from him as he sent Gardner off with Isadore and Poppy and Kerrigan with Maebh and Saoirse in another direction. She threw one last glance at Perry then moved off, around the lake.
He stared across the park without seeing. His mind considered options, but he didn’t pay much attention as he blindly strode away from the lake, deeper into the park. He had to find her, and soon. It wasn’t just that he had to find a way to apologize, but if Hepplewort— he stopped the train of thought. There were stands of trees breaking up the vastness of the sweeping green lawns. He peered into each copse as he passed, his eyes searching for a slash of crimson.
Several times he ran for a tree, only to find the breeze playing tricks on him. He turned and walked toward a thicket bordering another copse and paused, pulling a flower from a bush and crushing it in his hand, letting the petals fall to the ground slowly as he moved deeper into the trees.
How could I have been so cold as to speak to her that way? How am I going to repair this? Regardless of station, regardless of possibility and future, he knew she deserved more from him, no matter how deeply that affected his way of life. He needed to stop thinking of her as the poor damaged servant girl from Kelso.
He groaned. He suddenly wanted the impossible from her, the responsibility of her. But she was a lowly scullery maid, possibly someday to rise as high as lady’s maid, but no more—never to a rank suitable for his attention, never to a status at which he could offer. He really wasn’t himself if he was considering marrying a scullery maid.
He shook his head, leaning back against a tree. She could be anywhere by now and she had every right to run, to leave. He had treated her as badly as Hepplewort—no, worse. Hepplewort had never made her promises, spoken or unspoken, so there was no basis for his destruction. Hepplewort was a stranger, but Perry had given Lilly kindness, sensitivity, and a certain regard—then he took it all back in one fell swoop.
His jaw clenched, and he closed his eyes tight against the sting behind them.
He felt irretrievably broken for his actions. He wouldn’t find peace until he found Lilly and repaired this damage. Yet he didn’t think it possible, and had no right to try. She certainly shouldn’t accept it, she shouldn’t accept him. In fact, she should stay away. It would be far better for her if he never saw her again—but he couldn’t imagine never seeing her again. And then there was Hepplewort. Still…somewhere. He panicked at the thought, his chest seizing and his eyes flying wide as he tried to breathe.
He turned to head back toward the open lawns and—
She was there, too far to touch but close enough he caught the scent of his own bath oils on her skin. Her eyes were on fire, her spine rigid, her hands clasped in her skirts. She had never been so beautiful.
“Lilly!” He collapsed before her, his breath finally loosed. Sitting back on his knees, he tangled his hands in her skirts and pulled her to him as though he needed proof of her existence. He buried his face in the folds. She smelled of fresh cut lawn and warmed sugar and him. “I thought the worst possible, oh God I thought—”
Her hands opened in panic at her sides.
“I beg you, I never should have said what I said,” he said. “I was— You should never forgive me. I beg you forgive me. You have me at such a disadvantage, I have never felt—” He shook his head. “I don’t know what I feel.” He couldn’t bear to look at her, knowing how she must look upon him, knowing he would see her anger. He couldn’t see her anger again. His shoulders shook.
“Perry,” she breathed.
He moved his arms around her knees and pulled her closer still, turning his head to the side and holding her closely.
“I think it would be better if I left,” she whispered, her hand coming down to stroke his hair.