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Essex, May 1809
"Marry you?" Lucy stared open-mouthed at her cousin Sebastian for a long moment before she remembered that she must always be ladylike and self-controlled. She closed her mouth and looked down at her clasped hands. She could not stop her heart from trying to gallop its way out of her chest, but she could and did force herself to breathe slowly and steadily.
This was the very thing she had always wanted most, the thing she would have dreamed of had she permitted herself dreams. It could not possibly be real. Someone as golden and perfect as Sebastian could not possibly intend to marry anyone as plain and insignificant as she was. "Surely you cannot be serious," she said in the calmest, steadiest voice she could manage.
"Lucy." Sebastian reached across the small gap that separated them on the stone bench in his mother's garden and covered her small hand with his large one. He hadn't held her hand since she was a little child, newly orphaned and come to live with her mother's fine, aristocratic relations. "When have I ever spoken in jest to you? Of course I am serious."
That much was true. Unlike her other cousins, Sebastian had never teased or mocked her, and he would never joke about something so momentous as his own marriage. But it made no sense. He was the younger of the two Arrington brothers, a cavalry lieutenant who needed to make his own way in the world. He ought to marry a woman with a fortune or connections, not a penniless orphan like her whose only claim to gentility was her kinship to the Arringtons themselves. "But, why, cousin?" she asked. "I offer you nothing."
He squeezed her hand. It felt pleasant, just as it had when she had been a frightened child and he had been the only one of the cousins to show her any kindness. "You offer yourself," he said.
Lucy gazed unseeing at the blooming roses. She had come out to pick a bouquet for her aunt when Sebastian had waylaid her with this. It still made no sense. Offering herself would be all very well if he was in love with her, but he wasn't. Of that Lucy was sure. She might be young, just turned eighteen that winter, and she might have lived a sheltered life in the country for the past nine years, but she knew enough to know what was missing in Sebastian's proposal. There was no ardor there. He did not look at her the way the second footman did at the upper housemaidnor how Lucy remembered her own parents looking at each other when they weren't quarreling about too many babies and too little money. "How could I marry you?" she asked. "You do me too great an honor."
He laughed, a soft chuckle with just a hint of teasing in it. "Surely not so great an honor that you cannot accept it."
As much as she adored Sebastian, Lucy wanted to refuse, or at least plead for further reasons behind this extraordinary and completely unexpected proposal. Of course she wanted to marry him, but this was all so sudden and odd. In her experience, blessings always carried a hidden trap.