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It was a particularly frisky, cool October evening. Around her, shopkeepers beckoned civilians to their shops, children played along cobblestone walkways, flicking marbles with the nails of their thumbs, and she, with a most gorgeous man hooked to her elbow, was dabbing her eyes with the kerchief he had proffered her.
And, to her delightfully pleasant surprise, he didn’t seem in the least bit embarrassed as she sniffled pitifully.
“It was a wonderful performance,” he said bluntly, hand curved delicately over her own gloved one. “The pianist proved to be quite intact with Beethoven’s compositions.”
Charlotte nodded. “And also a very moving performance, if I do say so myself.” She smirked up at him and extended the damp kerchief.
He shook his head, hair richly black beneath the dipping sunlight. “Keep it, as a present.” His teeth were as white as a string of pearls. “Now, shall we take a stroll through town? I hear there are some charming shops just around the corner, if you fancy a visit.” Preston’s eyes sparkled mischievously. “Your parents aren’t expecting us back until later, so you have nothing to worry about, of course.”
She let herself ponder the offer, just to let him sit for a moment. “Alright,” she said slowly, even though her heart was already galloping with excitement in her chest. “I suppose it shan’t hurt. We only live once.” She didn’t look at him, but she could feel his smile hum beneath his skin. “Lead the way, naturally.”
Preston placed his hand at the small of her back to guide her through the bustling streets, and the daring public display of intimacy made her blush.
“So,” Charlotte lifted a hand to tuck a flyaway piece of auburn hair behind her ear, “have you anything planned? I’d hate to waste an evening wandering through London, searching for something to do.”
“A few things, as I’m sure you’ll love to hear.” At her vigorous nod, he grinned and reached over to squeeze her chin. “I’m not going to tell you. Let’s keep you on your toes, shall we?”
Charlotte squinted at him. “Unfair.”
“Yes,” his fingers curled into her back, teasing her. “But I’m glad to say that you’re fond of me, anyway.
She decided to withhold her reply.
The evening began with a few stops at some attractive clothing stores, and then they came upon a rather flattering ice cream parlor, placed helpfully on a corner overlooking the Thames.
“His Grace Nicholson of Buckingham.” The pudgy man behind the counter smiled, cheeks rosy and mustache fluffed, and dipped his head into a nod. “A lovely encounter.”
“Good evening, sir.” Preston stepped forward, dragging Charlotte with him. “This is Lady Hawley.”
“A pleasure.” He took a hold of her extended hand and dropped a kiss to it. He quickly returned his attention to Preston. “What would you fancy tonight, son? The regular?”
Charlotte lifted an eyebrow. “I’m assuming you come here often.”
His cheeks dimpled as he smiled. “I’ve dropped in a few times.” He reached into his pocket to withdraw a few coins. “And yes, the regular will do just fine. Make it two, actually.”
“Ice cream in October?” She accepted the waffle cone from Preston as he led her away again. “This is something I haven’t done before.”
“It’s a special night.” The sun had disappeared, and the flickering flame of the streetlamps lit their way. By the ferry entrance, a violinist played with precision and skill, filling the air with a delicate harmony.
The musician smile as they passed, and Preston flicked a coin into his open violin case.
“It seems pretty normal to me.” She handed the cone to him for a moment so she could peel off her gloves.
His grin had devil horns in it. “It seems like it, yes.” An attendant helped her into the boat, and Preston did not hesitate to follow her in. “I suppose you’ll just have to pay closer attention.”
Charlotte caught a stream of chocolate as it slid down the cone and brought the finger to her lips. “You’re in a very peculiar mood, Preston.” She let him grasp her elbow so he could bring her toward the back of the boat. “Would you care to explain?”
The back deck was relatively small, but only one other couple occupied it. He brought her to the edge, hand slipping back down to her back, and he remained silent, licking his ice cream.
“No, I didn’t think so.” Charlotte watched him from the corner of her eye, but he ignored her sarcasm. A breeze bit through the air, picking up his bangs so they played across his forehead, and water lapped gently at the sides of the boat as it began a journey through the river. Lights flickered from the backsplash of buildings, setting a distracting orange glow over the dark waters.
After a few minutes spent in silence, Preston turned to face her, eyes a sharp contrast against his suntanned skin. Most likely from the reckless hours he spent wandering through his backyard with her, clad in a shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a restless familiarity. But that was only her presumption. It hardly mattered, anyway, for the sun always speckled his cheeks with the most charming freckles and she absolutely adored them.
“Yes?” She twirled the cone slowly between her fingertips, peering up at him through her eyelashes.
He opened his mouth, touched her arms. Closed his mouth.
Cleared his throat and tried again.
Charlotte bit into her cone and turned away. “Odd.”
She glanced back at him just in time to see his mouth quirk.
He let her maintain a good two strides ahead of him, hands buried in his pockets, eyes watching as her figure moved beneath the many layers of her dress.
Her hair, tumbling down her back in thick, auburn curls, blanketed her skin, and he quietly wondered how she could keep her head up with the weight of it all.
She seemed to be examining her gloves, pausing so the flow of civilians spooned out around her. “Oh, bother.” She heard Preston stop behind her. “I’ve gotten chocolate ice cream on my gloves.”
He caught her wrist, arm laid over the dip of her shoulder, and examined the blotch. “Mm. Indeed you have.” With his free hand, he ran his fingers through her hair. “Nothing a little scrubbing can’t fix, though.”
Charlotte stepped away from him, cheeks pleasantly pink. His lips curved into a satisfied smile.
“I don’t know where I’m going,” she said, eyes adverted, hands smoothing over her dress. “Maybe you should lead the way.”
“Nothing to worry about.” He grasped her shoulders, easing her back around. Then, when she relaxed beneath his hold, he slid his hands up to cover her eyes. Mouth by her ear, he smirked as she gasped. “We’re almost there, anyhow.”
She nodded slowly, cautiously, fingers grasping his wrists.
“Let me just ask you something.” Breath teasing the sensitive skin of her neck. “Do you trust me?”
No hesitation. No debate. Wonderful.
“Very well. Keep your eyes closed, please.” He withdrew his hands and parted her curtain of curls to place a gentle, smooth kiss on the spot just below her hairline.
She shivered, and he delighted himself by shielding his palms over her eyes again.
“Shall we continue, then?” When she offered a quick nod, he nudged her with his hip until she took slow steps forward.
It felt like hours had past, with them moving at the same sluggish speed, before he offered her a ride on his back. “This is the difficult part, I’m afraid,” he explained, and around them, the temperature cooled. They must have entered some sort of building.
“Are you sure? I won’t be too heavy?”
She felt him smile against her shoulder. “Too heavy? No, no.” He moved his hands to cradle her waist, and she was tempted to peek out from behind her eyelids. “Don’t you dare look, Charlotte. I’ll know if you do.”
She huffed, arms crossed, and her skin tingled as he circled around to her front side. “I wasn’t going to peek, Preston.”
“Yes, but you were thinking about it.”
Oh, he knew her too well.
“Now, just place your arms here,” large hands guiding her arms over his shoulders. “Link your fingers. That’s it.”
She couldn’t help the squeal as he hefted her onto his back, his elbows hooked beneath her knees, and she bobbed forward, forehead clonking against his skull with a discerning crack.
“I’m sorry!” She hid her face in his hair, head throbbing. “You could have at least given me a warning.”
“I thought you were expecting.”
“Well, obviously not.” She squeezed her thighs tightly at his hips as he began walking. “Be careful.”
“I thought you trusted me.” She didn’t have to see to understand his pained tone.
“Sorry,” she mumbled again, and muscles rippled beneath clothes as he ascending what she assumed to be stairs. “Are you sure I’m not too heavy?”
“It would help if you didn’t press against my neck.”
She blushed and gradually slid her arms forward until they were extended ahead of them. “Better?”
“Very much so. Thank you. Now, just relax. This might take awhile.”
It did take quite awhile.
Charlotte’s head nodded forward, and she jerked herself awake. It was becoming very difficult to keep her eyes closed. “Are we almost there?”
“Almost. Now, stop your whining.”
“You aren’t my mother,” she muttered beneath her breath, forehead resting against his head.
He chuckled. “I should certainly hope not. Those gowns of hers would never settle on my hips right.”
Charlotte snorted. Her father would most definitely reprimand her for doing that in someone’s presence. But something told her Preston wouldn’t mind.
“Okay, we’re here.” He brought them to a stop, letting her slide to the floor. He took her hand in his as he waited for her to find her footing. “On the count of three, you may open your eyes.”
Her stomach tightened with excitement. “Alright. Go ahead.”
He led her forward, and the floors – they appeared to be wooden – clicked hollowly beneath her shoes.
She had to bite her lip to keep from opening her eyes. Preston would be most disappointed if she did.
She laughed. “Preston!”
“Alright. Just hold on.” He released her hand, and her ears perked, listening as he moved about. His voice seemed farther away when he finally spoke. “Three.”
Charlotte’s eyelids fluttered as they adjusted to the slight change in brightness. She had been correct, the floors were wooden. But, to her astonishment, everything else was not.
Around her, metal crisscrossed and intersected in carefully premeditated x’s, extending high, high above her. She tipped her head back, eyes following as the ceiling came to a point. Extravagant.
Four clock faces, with endlessly long hands, ticked in a secure beat with time, reflecting the moon’s dewy glow and filling her silence with a steady pong. “The clock tower?” she offered dumbly in a voice that echoed against the walls, turning around and around in circles, taking it in with a slacked jaw and arms spread outward like a pair of wings.
“The one and only,” Preston, hands buried in his pockets, walked over and stood alongside her, head tilted to look at what she was seeing. “Isn’t it lovely?”
“Lovely?” she parroted, incredulous. “It’s utterly marvelous! How on earth did you get permission to come up here?”
Preston shrugged, smirking. “Somebody owed me a favor. Nothing for you to fret about, surely.” The minute hand ticked to eleven-fifty eight. “Wait until it strikes midnight. The sound is practically deafening.”
She swatted at him before wandering around. “Don’t ruin it for me. This is practically a chance of a lifetime.”
“Yes.” His voice was light, excited. “Come here, Charlotte.”
When she came back round, face glowing, he twined their fingers and drew her toward a staircase – how had she missed that? – and as they trotted up it, he pointed.
“Oh.” Peeking out through one of the clock’s face, the city of London greeted her with twinkling lights. “Beautiful.”
“I know.” When she glanced over at him, he was not admiring the scene of the world outside. He was looking at her, one corner of his mouth lifted. “Completely and entirely, if I may say so myself.”
“Preston, stop it.” A blush crept up her neck.
“You see, Charlotte,” he began, turning to face her completely. “I want to give you this.”
“The clock tower?” She had the audacity to look perplexed. “That’s impossible.”
“No, no, not this, per say. This.” He motioned to the flowing river, the townhomes, the stray folks wandering the empty streets. “I want to make you endlessly happy, Charlotte. Corny sounding, unfortunately.”
He was silently counting the seconds as they ticked by.
Charlotte, eyes bright with confusion and flattery, let her gaze slid back out the window.
Preston took the chance and dug through his pocket.
When she glanced back, cheeks pink, a gasp reverberated around them.
The clock struck midnight, and as the bongs began their vociferous melody, Preston bent to his knee. He had expected her to cover her ears, expected her to be surprised by the intensity of the bells, but she stood there, fingers clenched into fists, eyes overflowing. Oh, it nearly tore his heart out.
“Charlotte.” He was shouting to make sure he was heard. “I think I can make you endlessly happy. If you trust me, of course.” The moonlight caught the diamond of his grandmother’s ring, reflecting pearly shapes across the floor. “Charlotte, love, will you-”
“Yes!” she cried, shaking, so overwhelmed, and she cupped her cheeks. “Yes! Yes! Preston, yes, yes, yes!”
“You could’ve let me finish,” he joked, eyes soft and face split by a wide, broad smile. He pushed back up to his full height, peeled off her glove, and placed a kiss of promise into her palm.
Charlotte was jumping now, curls bobbing up and down around her shoulders. “Yes, yes, yes!”
He began laughing, elated, and the sound bubbled out from deep within him. Carefully, with her hand held tightly in his grasp, he slipped the ring onto her finger. Perfect fit.
She threw her arms around his neck, cheeks damp with tears. The bells continued their calls, playing out their approval for the sleeping night.
“I never would have suspected,” she mumbled against the corner of his mouth, so quiet Preston barely heard her. “You could’ve given me a warning.”
“It wasn’t needed,” He pressed his forehead to hers, noses brushing, lips slanting against her mouth, red and lush and waiting for him, “because you trust me, of course.”
She drew his head back down for another kiss, not letting him get away. “Naturally.”