» Sample Summer is for Lovers

Sample Summer is for Lovers

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Brighton, July 1842

Caroline Tolbertson knew she would never forget her first kiss … even though she desperately wanted to.

It wasn’t the mechanical part of the act that bothered her. One almost expected some discomfort in a first kiss: a bump of noses, a clash of teeth. Technique could be learned and practiced, and she had mastered far more difficult tasks in her twenty-three years. No, the execution of the kiss was not the problem. It was the aftermath she couldn’t tolerate.

And that aftermath was heading straight for her.

Caroline froze, distracted not by the sound of seagulls or the chatter of nearby strollers along the Marine Parade, but by the perforating sound of Brandon Dermott’s laughter. And just like that, the kiss she had tried so hard to forget came flooding back in all its inglorious detail.

The awkward parting of lips. The amused frown on Mr. Dermott’s face. And the next day, the cupped hands and whispers among the vacationers down from London.

“It was like kissing a boy,” Dermott had told them all. Not the kind of notoriety a girl wished for.

Especially a girl like Caroline.

Panic twisted its knife as Dermott made straight for her. The breeze off the ocean held not even a prayer of cooling the sweat pricking beneath her arms. A member of the summer set who arrived in Brighton every June, Dermott dressed the part. Today he sported a check-patterned waistcoat and a four-in-hand necktie that proclaimed him as one of those fashionable young men with more money than good sense. His smile stretched to catch the sun’s rays and dazzle unsuspecting girls with its brilliance.

And as usual, this prime specimen of the species carried with him a simpering, primping young lady dressed in summer white. Caroline didn’t recognize the girl, but she recognized the sort. Mr. Dermott’s companion was an absolute vision of ladylike decorum, her properly gloved right hand holding a yellow parasol aloft, her left resting on the man’s arm.

“Good afternoon, Caroline,” Dermott drawled as they pulled within striking distance. His gaze traveled upward the inch or so it took for his eyes to meet hers. “You look robust today.”

Caroline searched her memory. Had she given the man leave to use her first name? Or had he merely presumed it his right following the circumstances of their unfortunate last encounter? “Mr. Dermott,” she managed between clenched teeth.

He smiled down at his petite partner as if she was a hothouse flower, ripe for picking. “Miss Baxter, may I present Miss Caroline Tolbertson. Miss Julianne Baxter is the daughter of Viscount Avery, and is visiting from London.”

Caroline eyed the pretty young woman. Bile pricked the back of her throat. Why should it bother her whom Dermott walked with? She didn’t even like the man.

But for heaven’s sake. It had been only two weeks since he had kissed her, quite uninvited, at the end of the Chain Pier.

She had not known at first why he had kissed her. He was handsome and popular, while she was the girl whose chest resembled nothing so much as a board. It was only later she had heard the rumors of the wager that lay behind her humiliation, most likely orchestrated by Mr. Dermott for no purpose other than to relieve his own boredom.

She knew why she had done it, despite the fact that kissing a man who had not declared his intentions was a poor idea. She wished she could claim her lapse in judgment had been a defensible reason. But Caroline had not kissed him for any logical purpose, such as the fact that his family was wealthy enough to own a summer home in Brighton and a town house in London’s fashionable Belgravia district. No, she had done it for a much more regrettable reason.

She had been curious.

The idea of her first kiss had occupied a place in her dreams ever since she was twelve years old and had first imagined growing up to kiss a fair-haired, half-drowned soldier. A text her sister, Penelope, had discovered among their father’s musty collection of books proved shockingly explicit regarding things of a physical nature, but lacked all mention of emotion and feeling. And so, having reached the age of three-and-twenty without garnering so much as a wink from a member of the opposite gender, much less a kiss, Caroline had been ill-inclined to look her gift horse … er … male in the mouth.

She would not make that mistake again. She had no thought—or desire—to repeat the failed experiment.

Caroline studied Mr. Dermott’s companion, sorting out where she stood in the unfolding feminine hierarchy. Somewhere beneath the tiny girl’s three-inch heel, she would imagine. The new chit looked fresh and rich and dreadfully pretty. The few curls visible near the edge of her bonnet were a fetching red. Miss Baxter was possessed of the sort of delicate pallor and want of height that were the hallmark of a London beauty. Beside her, Caroline felt close to a broad-shouldered simian, dragging her knuckles across the sun-weathered walkway.

After all, she wasn’t dressed in fresh summer white, and while she was quite sure she owned a parasol, she was hard-pressed to say what color it was. She was wearing an old cotton dress that was several inches too short, having dressed for a far more practical purpose than strolling Brighton’s Marine Parade.

“Are you here for the summer too?” Miss Baxter asked, brushing one of those copper-colored curls from her cheek.

“I live in Brighton.” For some reason the girl’s imperious tone set Caroline’s teeth on edge.

“Oh, I do so enjoy meeting locals.” Miss Baxter cocked her head and examined Caroline as if she was a rare species of lizard.

A dozen insults flashed to mind, but Caroline wrestled each one into submission. She should walk on, leave Mr. Dermott to his gossip and his pretty companion to her sunstroke, and seek out the solace of her private beach. But then her tongue got away from her.

Much as it had during that humiliating kissing business.

“My family lives here year-round,” Caroline said. “And Mr. Dermott’s family comes nearly every summer. But I find myself curious I have not seen you in Brighton before, Miss Baxter. What brings you down from London?”

And where was the chit’s chaperone? Caroline herself often skirted this necessary bit of propriety, but her family had only a single maid-of-all-things, and the dear woman couldn’t be expected to traipse all over Brighton following Caroline and her sister around. But Caroline couldn’t think of the last time she had seen a well-bred young lady, especially the daughter of a viscount, walking on the beach without a maid or relation in tow.

Unperturbed by the directness of the question, Miss Baxter giggled. “Why, the social possibilities, of course. My father is delayed a few days, but he has permitted me to come down ahead of him. Lord and Lady Beecham are already here, with their son, Mr. Harold Duffington. And the Traversteins arrived last night.” She smiled, as if Caroline should not only know who those people were, but be agog at the thought of meeting them. “It promises to be the London Season, all over again. There will be parties every night, and dancing until dawn.”

An unsteady beat of panic bloomed in Caroline’s chest. “But … why?” was all she could think to say.

It couldn’t be true. This was Brighton, the seaside town where she had lived her entire life. The fashionable season, if indeed Brighton could even be said to have one, was in February, when Londoners sought a milder climate and relief from the coal-dust air of a London winter. Summer attracted a different crowd, people who preferred spa treatments and long walks over ballrooms. In fact, the most exciting thing that happened here in the summer was watching the sun set over the spires of the Royal Pavilion.

Miss Baxter leaned in, her pale, pretty nose twitching in excitement. “Well, you mustn’t tell anyone you heard it from me, of course, but I have it on excellent authority the royal family is rumored to be planning a visit this summer.”

The explanation did little to erase the confusion knocking about in Caroline’s thoughts. “But … I thought the queen preferred Brighton during the winter months.”

Miss Baxter shook her head, as if Caroline was an absolute recluse to not have already heard the gossip. “That was last year. You may trust my word on this, Miss Tolbertson.”

“Indeed.” Mr. Dermott grinned down on his partner as if she possessed a rare, world-changing talent. “Miss Baxter is quite an authority on the latest gossip from London.”

Caroline must have squeaked, or hiccupped, or something equally unladylike, because Miss Baxter leveled an assessing stare in her direction. There was no telling what sound she had made to pull the girl’s sudden, sharp-eyed notice.

And she had been known to snort on occasion.

But the only noise Caroline could discern at the moment was the pounding in her ears. It was frightening enough to imagine a summer spent dodging a London socialite whose worth was measured by how well she repeated others’ failings. But if the queen’s purported residence this summer shifted from rumor to fact, Brighton would descend into an entire month of celebratory fervor. And that meant summer, the season Caroline lived for, the only time of year when the ocean warmed to tolerable and she could venture into the water without fear of pneumonia, would become a thing of nightmares instead of pleasure.

“There is an informal dinner at Miss Baxter’s house tonight, and there be will parlor games after.” Mr. Dermott broke through her swirling thoughts. “It promises to be jolly good fun. You should come.”

“Of course,” Miss Baxter added, a smile blooming on her pretty face. “We would be honored to have you.”

I’ll just bet you would. Caroline had a pretty clear idea of her role in the promised parlor games, should she have the brass to show her face at Miss Baxter’s dinner. “I believe I am otherwise engaged,” she said. “Dinner with my family.”

Miss Baxter blinked. Then two bright spots of color appeared high on her cheeks, and Caroline realized her mistake. She had just rejected an invitation from the daughter of a viscount, and for no reason other than a quiet family dinner.

“Well, Miss Baxter will send an invitation around to your house, in case you change your mind,” Mr. Dermott gleefully interjected, as if he had chummed the water and discovered the situation offered a bit of good sport. “You should bring your charming sister too. How old is she now, twenty-nine? Thirty?”

“Twenty-five,” muttered Caroline.

“Oh. And still unmarried. Shame, really. Although, with her stammer, is anyone surprised? Well, perhaps luck will turn for both of you this summer.” He laughed.

Miss Baxter, to her credit, did not laugh. But then, why would she? She had just been snubbed by a nobody, and her cheeks were still flushed with the sort of bright, florid color that came from either stiff indignation or indigestion.

Not that the girl appeared to permit much food pass through her mouth. She looked as if a stiff gust of wind would punch a hole clean through her.

As if bored by the course of the conversation, or else fearful of that threatened gust of wind, Miss Baxter squeezed her companion’s arm. “You promised to show me the famous Chain Pier, Mr. Dermott,” she reminded him.

“And I would not want to be remiss in a promise made to such charming companion.” Dermott tossed Caroline a last, suspicious smile over his shoulder. “I look forward to becoming reacquainted tonight, Caroline.”

And then they were off, a pair of fashionably dressed predators poised to rip her quiet summer from its hinges and leave her, vulnerable and exposed, to their swirl of gossip and mean-spirited fun. As the pair faded into the crowd, Caroline permitted her shoulders to relax an infinitesimal degree. Reacquainted. As if the man hadn’t already become acquainted with her lips, and then spread the tale far and wide.

She glanced toward the row of white chalk cliffs that beckoned in the far distance. The unpleasant interlude had cost her a quarter hour, but surely it would be several hours before Miss Baxter was able to pen an invitation, if indeed she even meant to.

Desperate for the peace a walk would bring, her feet automatically began to move toward the one place in the world where she could escape. As she walked, she fumed. Hadn’t she considered whether Mr. Dermott might be the tiniest bit unsound when he had first expressed interest in her? She no longer had to wonder.

The man was deranged if he thought she was going to make an appearance tonight.

#

David Cameron stopped dead in his tracks and let memory knife him in the gut.

One moment he had been walking that ever-changing line between land and ocean, focused on the act of not remembering. It had taken him an hour to hike to this isolated bit of coast, and much of that walk had tested his athleticism, with sharp rocks and narrow footholds where the ocean encroached on the white chalk cliffs. He had not recalled navigating such a grueling footpath eleven years ago, but he had barely been walking at the time, and his thoughts had been focused on things more difficult than the landscape.

The next moment he spied a woman, emerging from a break in the cliff walls a hundred feet away, and those denied memories split open and threatened to swallow him whole.

He squinted, sure his eyes were deceiving him. But the prickling awareness that set up beneath his skin at the sight of her only intensified with each passing second. This was no mere memory, conjured to life by an active imagination. Their only prior meeting had been a chance encounter more than a decade earlier, but there was no denying his Brighton mermaid still haunted the same section of beach he had narrowly escaped with his life.

And apparently his savior, whom he had more than once suspected of being nothing more than a drunken mirage, had been real.

He moved toward her, pulled by memory, prodded by manners. He discerned the exact moment she recognized him. Her limbs arrested, as if she were suspended in time and place, and her mouth opened in surprise.

“Miss Tolbertson, isn’t it?” he asked as he drew up in front of her, because under the peculiar circumstances, what else could he say?

Her mouth seemed to work around the words she wanted to say. “You remember my name, Lieutenant?”

Her words settled in the space between his ears, the voice more mature than he recalled. Time had a way of taking a memory and turning it into a still miniature in one’s head, to be tucked away and brought out on special occasions. When he thought of her at all, it was always as the child who had pulled his sorry arse from the surf.

This was not that child.

Oh, she had the same freckles and dark hair, although this time those tresses were dry and pulled back from her face in a ruthless knot. She possessed the same sharp nose, the same flat chest. Christ, she had on near the same girlish frock, some plain thing that came down only to her calves and looked to have seen one too many summers.

But she was far taller now. Lanky, he would have called her, had she been a horse he was contemplating at auction. Her shoulders seemed ill-contained by her clothing, and strained against the seams of her dress. Her expression was different too. The girl he remembered—although, admittedly, it was a memory distorted by grief and a Highland malt—had been extraordinary. Full of life, leaking emotion.

The woman seemed better contained.

“A man retains certain facts regarding near-death experiences,” he admitted ruefully. “The name of his rescuer tends to be one of them.” He looked down at her, and realized he did not have to look very far. Her nose came nigh up to his chin, a singular experience when one considered he was six-foot-two in stocking feet. “And it’s no longer Lieutenant. I sold my commission last year. Please, call me David.”

Her eyes widened. “I don’t think … I mean … I do not know you.”

“You’ve known me for eleven years. You rescued me from this very spot, when I should have drowned. Formality seems a little pointless, under the circumstances.”

She drew in a deep, audible breath, and then her mouth found a smile that reached her eyes. He recalled now too how he had to search his mind to identify whether her eyes were green or brown or somewhere in between.

“Then you must call me Caroline.” She sent a furtive look in two directions before her gaze came back to rest on him. “It is not as if there is anyone to hear our frightful lack of propriety anyway.” She assessed him in a broad, hazel sweep. “I confess, you have taken me a bit by surprise. No one else visits this stretch of beach.”

David had not known what to expect on returning here this morning. An epiphany, perhaps. A dark memory of the boy he had once been, and a sharp reminder of the man he must be. But he had not expected her.

“I am not surprised, given the calmer waters and wider beaches of Brighton. It is a bruising walk.” He glanced down to the high hem of her skirts and the sturdy half boots that graced her feet. She had dressed properly for the walk, it seemed. He was wearing shoes better suited for a casual stroll along Brighton’s Marine Parade, and a vicious blister had taken up residence on his right heel.

“Why did you never return?” she asked, her voice lower and huskier than the one in his memory.

His gaze pulled back to her face. After the events of that fateful day, he had returned to nearby Preston where his infantry unit had been stationed. He had been close enough to have come back any time he had wanted.

But he hadn’t wanted. The less he thought of Brighton, and the fewer visual triggers he forced on himself, the easier it had been to go on during those early, guilt-ridden years. “I live elsewhere. This is my first visit back since that day.”

“Oh.” Her wrinkled forehead softened. “I suppose that explains why I never saw you again.”

“Do you live in Brighton?” Though her accent was more educated than the dialect he had picked up from the few local fishermen he had encountered in town, it seemed too much of a coincidence to see her twice in two visits if she did not.

“Yes, on the east side. Our house sits right on the ocean.” As if prompted by the question, her eyes pulled toward the crashing surf. He followed her gaze and caught the diamond flash of waves peaking before boiling over into gray. The tide was coming in, and it was a fearsome sight. The high cliff walls surrounding them formed an inlet that seemed to force the water into a constricted space, intensifying the effect.

Had the waves been this rough that day when she had swum out to save him? He couldn’t remember. But the thought of such danger, heaped on a child’s shoulders by his own stupidity, chilled him thoroughly.

“I wouldn’t want to keep you.” Her voice broke through his thoughts. She motioned toward the footpath down which she had just come. “Not if you have a schedule to keep.”

She seemed anxious to be rid of him. He wondered if she felt a need to hurry him along, in case he was considering another ill-advised swim off this section of treacherous, rocky coast.

Truly, there wasn’t enough whisky in the world.

“I am not expected elsewhere at the moment. I am staying at the Bedford with my mother, but she has eschewed my company for the afternoon.”

In point of fact, his mother had tossed him out of the room they had taken at the grand hotel, insisting she was fine, snapping at him when he tried to plump her pillow or read to her out loud from the novel she kept on the table by her bed. He might have been plagued by troublesome memories in the three days since their arrival, but his mother seemed better, at least. The physician’s prognosis a month ago had not been favorable, but already her lungs sounded clearer. Perhaps there really was something to the restorative power of Brighton’s seawater cures.

Two weeks ago, when his mother had first suggested this trip, he had argued against her wish for a recuperative holiday here. He felt no desire to return to the town of Brighton and the nightmares he sensed would await him there. But he had not been able to refuse his mother when she had told him her heart was set on Brighton. Not when she had been so ill for so long.

And not when she had implied it might be her last request.

“You are here for the summer then?” Caroline asked, oblivious to the maudlin direction of his thoughts.

“Two weeks,” he answered. Ten more days. It was a bloody long time, all things considered. “We shall return to Scotland near the start of August.”

“Oh. Still, it is longer bit of time than many take. The new rail system even permits Londoners to come for the day, if they want. Can you imagine? London to Brighton and back again, in only a few hours.” She smiled, stretching a remarkable constellation of freckles far and wide. “Last year they came in droves every Saturday, to soil the beaches and overrun the sewers and trample over every blade of sea grass they could find. We have begun to earn the moniker London-by-the-Sea, I’m afraid. I hope you won’t be disappointed here.”

A grin worked its way into residence on his face. She was the same, but different too. She no longer chattered on with quite the same fervor as she had as a child, but she still chattered. He was fascinated by the changes time had wrought, both in her appearance and in her demeanor. Although he would have expected the opposite reaction, given the circumstances of their history, her voice drew him from his self-flagellating thoughts and diverted him from painful memories.

Suddenly his remaining ten days’ penance in Brighton no longer seemed so long, or so threatening. He offered her the full force of his smile. “I have not been disappointed in the least. And while Brighton’s popularity among Londoners is a diverting topic, I would prefer to talk about you.”

#

Caroline drew a deep breath, wondering why her stomach skittered so at the sight of one man’s straight, white teeth.

David Cameron was not quite as handsome as she remembered. Although his shoulders were every bit as broad as they had been eleven years ago, today they were covered in a brown woolen sack coat instead of an eye-catching military uniform. He was not wearing a hat, and his straw-colored curls mocked the shimmering spun gold of her memory. His face had lengthened into the hard planes of adulthood, framed by tiny lines etched by sun and experience, there at the corners of his blue eyes.

Handsome, to be sure, but not that handsome.

And for heaven’s sake, a younger and every bit as attractive specimen—Mr. Dermott, to be precise—had smiled at her not an hour before, and the sight had caused nothing but an urge to rake her nails across his face.

Of course, David Cameron was the man she had fallen a little bit in love with before she was old enough to know better. The man she had imagined kissing when she had, in fact, been kissing Mr. Dermott.

When she had first caught sight of him, framed by sea grass along the eastern edge of the white cliff walls, she felt as if she had been slammed against the rocks that broke the waves into fragmented pieces, a dozen yards or so from shore. She couldn’t believe he had appeared after eleven long years. It was astonishing, really, as was the fact that he was speaking to her as if she was a lady and as if he was enjoying the conversation.

But despite his kind teasing, she was going to do anything it took to prevent the conversation from turning to her.

“You mentioned Scotland?” She wet her lips, wishing she didn’t feel so nervous. “Although your brogue is not so strong as my memory.”

He grimaced. “Ah, I treated you to my brogue during our last meeting, did I?” He leaned in, one conspirator to another, and she felt his nearness as acutely as if he had pressed himself against her. “I’m from a town to the north, called Moraig. And I’ll share a little-known secret. My accent tends to come out when I have had too much to drink.”

She pursed her lips around a smile. “Well, that explains it. You smelled like a distillery the last time we met.” She took an exaggerated, in-drawn sniff. “Not today, however.”

In point of fact, he smelled … interesting. Like salt and ocean and, ever so faintly, laundered cotton that had been heated by exertion. In contrast, Mr. Dermott, who was the only other male in recent memory she had taken the opportunity to sniff, had smelled of Watson’s hair pomade, and his mouth had tasted too much of the tankard of ale he had purchased from a vendor on the pier.

She wondered, for a heart-stopping moment, what David Cameron’s mouth would taste like. Her cheeks heated at the audacity of such an inappropriate thought, and she cast about for a diversion. “Why does your mother not wish for your company today?”

He sighed, and she could pick apart the different tones of worry and exasperation that formed the sound. “She has been ill, and the doctor prescribed a rest cure. I brought her to Brighton with every expectation of serving as a doting son. But since our arrival, she seems to harbor other opinions for how I would spend my time.”

Caroline smiled. “Long walks to undiscovered beaches?”

He laughed, a spontaneous burst of mirth that the wind snatched up and tossed against the cliff walls. “No, nothing so pleasurable. The baroness harbors aspirations of a social agenda that eclipses anything to be had in my hometown of Moraig. I don’t understand the fuss. I am only a second son.”

Caroline was startled enough to take a half step back. She had not known of his status, that day eleven years ago. She had seen his military uniform and presumed him a common soldier, but by Brighton standards, he was borderline royalty. “Well, the son of a baron attracts some notice, especially in a town like Brighton.”

“A Scottish barony is not the same thing as an English barony.” David waved a modest hand. “Really, it is more that my father owns a small estate. There are those who would dispute whether he even rates the title of peer.”

Caroline blinked. She supposed that made sense. Although it still stood to reason that if Mr. Cameron moved in the circles she suspected, he was not just out of her social sphere.

He was in Mr. Dermott’s.

“I brought my mother here to heal,” David continued, “but it seems her constitution is less dire than the pressing matter of her youngest son’s lack of marriage prospects. She has already accepted not one, but two invitations on my behalf.”

Caroline gave an indelicate shudder. “Sounds lovely.”

“Truly?” He sounded surprised.

“No.” She shook her head. “I confess I would rather play shuttlecock. And shuttlecock is a game I despise.”

That had him laughing again. “If not shuttlecock, what then? We’ve established you don’t mind a bit of impropriety. Do you still swim, mermaid?” he teased.

And just like that, the desire to direct the conversation away from her eccentricities circled full round to take her by the throat. He might not have heard the rumors about her ill-considered kiss, but he had once seen her swim. Even if it had occurred eleven years ago, even if it was something they had both sworn to silence, that kind of secret was dangerous to a girl like Caroline, who already hovered on the outer fringes of society.

And while she was not sure she wanted to be accepted by the summer set, Mama expected her to act like a lady, even if she couldn’t actually claim such a title.

“No.” Caroline squirmed against guilt. In Brighton—indeed, in Britain—a lady did not swim. She might stroll along the shore, as long as she remained bundled to her chin in sweltering layers of wool and lace. She might partake of a seawater treatment in one of the ridiculous wheeled bathing houses that ensured privacy and propriety. If she were very brave, or very desperate for a “cure,” she might even don a flannel bathing costume and venture out to take a medicinal dip in open water before scrambling back to the safety of those wooden walls.

But a lady did not swim. Not if she wished to be considered a lady.

“You don’t swim here?” he asked, looking perplexed. “Or at all?”

For a moment she contemplated changing her answer, telling him the truth. But how to explain that, despite her knowledge of Society’s expectations, Caroline’s soul—nay, her sanity—cried out for something different? The ocean might pull and push her. It might occasionally threaten to kill her.

But it did not degrade her.

She felt whole amid the waves, in a way she never did among the crowd.

And so she swam in secret. Furtively, like one of the silver-finned fishes that darted among the rocks, escaping the larger toothed fish that sought to consume it whole.

“Ladies do not swim,” she told him, weakly to her own ears.

His brow lifted. “You used to swim very well. You had an unusual stroke, if I recall, but it was quite effective. ”

The warm day and the uncomfortable bent to the conversation made the perspiration break out along her forehead in what she had to presume was a most indelicate sheen. The swim she had come for, the swim that was now out of reach, would have helped restore her to rights. But the reality of her circumstances stopped the words from lifting off her tongue.

David Cameron seemed to like her. Why would she destroy that with a bit of uncalled-for honesty?

“You were drunk that day,” she pointed out. “You probably don’t remember things very clearly. And I was never very experienced. I doubt I could manage much more than a bit of uncoordinated splashing now.”

He nodded, as if her lie made all the sense in the world, when it didn’t even make sense to her. And just like that, the idea of telling the truth shriveled into something unrecognizable.

He believed her. It was a pity too. The heat of the day was pooling, damp and ominous, in the space between her breasts.

Well, the space where her breasts should be.

“I never told anyone, you know,” she murmured.

“That you used to swim?”

“That you could not. I never told anyone about that day, not even my sister, Penelope.”

He inclined his head, a physical acknowledgment of the courtesy she had shown. “That is a long time to keep a promise. I would not have faulted you if circumstances had compelled you to share such a secret.”

“I think someone’s word is the most important part of his character,” she told him. “A promise is something you must keep.”

His mouth flattened into a thin line. “An admirable sentiment. I wish I could claim to keep my promises half so well.”

For a moment, fear knocked the base of her spine. “You mean you told someone about me?”

He shook his head. “No. I was referring to another promise I made once. A long time ago.”

When he made no move to explain further, Caroline wiped her damp palms on her skirt. The sun mocked the awkward silence. It was always this way, next to the white chalk cliffs, an unexpected blast of blinding color and energy. As a result of this peculiar convergence of sun and wind, she was tanned in places a proper lady should not be, just from her daily swim. She could feel her nose burning now.

It occurred to her, in a flash of annoyance, that Miss Baxter’s yellow parasol would come in very handy in a place like this.

Oh. Miss Baxter. The invitation for the dinner party.

She had been so shaken by the excitement of seeing David Cameron—indeed, by the thrill of revisiting the past—she had forgotten about the unfortunate state of her future.

“I must go,” she said in a rush, already turning toward the footpath. If Miss Baxter had actually sent the threatened invitation, her mother would be searching for her in every corner of the house. “Mama will expect me home for tea.”

“Will I see you here tomorrow?” David called after her, breaking the silence that had engulfed him since his last peculiar statement.

Caroline hesitated. While his unexpected appearance had stirred her hopes, it had also interrupted today’s opportunity to swim. As long as she could remember she had come to this hidden cove with her father, first to collect shells, and then, in the years before he had died, to learn to swim. And despite this man’s easy smile, despite the fact he had already seen this beach, she did not want to share it with anyone else.

Not even David Cameron.

“I don’t come here every day,” she hedged. “But you can call on me in town, if you prefer, and we can walk on the Marine Parade, or along the Steine. My house is the large Georgian with red shutters, the first one you encounter on the footpath back.”

He grinned, whatever melancholy that had gripped him tucked away for another time. “I shall do that.”

For a maddening moment, a moment she could not regret, but which she wished she could control, her stomach churned its agreement. Did he mean to court her, then? Eleven years of yearning, secret dreams stretching from childish fancy to adult curiosity, rose up in hope. No one, not even Mr. Dermott, had ever called on her at home before.

And then he ruined it. Took her swelling hope in his hands and pressed it flat, as if her dreams were a whimsical castle made of sand and he was the inevitable tide.

“After all,” he said, as if the matter of Caroline Tolbertson receiving a gentleman caller was not an astonishing thing. “If I am going to resist my mother’s harried matchmaking efforts this summer, I suspect I am going to need a good friend in Brighton to make it through unscathed.”

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