Most infuriatingly, it appeared the universe conspired to prevent Miranda and Mr Preston meeting again in the coming days.
Firstly it was the weather, their idyllic summer rudely disrupted by a deluge of squally showers, which then rendered the paths too muddy for recreational strolls. Then Charlie caught a minor chill (brought on by sneaky trips to the tavern in the rain) and was confined to his home, forcing Miranda to accompany Tilly on her walks. Miranda was indifferent to Tilly’s impromptu nature lessons, often daydreaming about Mr Preston’s perfectly unruly curls and lovely eyes instead, but she did enjoy visiting Tilly’s tamed goose (now christened Ferdinand), who would follow Tilly around like a charmed baby chick.
Secondly, Stevie’s wedding preparations were in full swing, and Miranda was naturally appointed as a bridesmaid along with Stevie’s favourite sister. She was duly summoned to assist with the preparations, spending much of her spare time selecting flowers and determining the most appropriate shade of pink for a bride.
Love always finds a way though, and Mr Preston dutifully wrote to her as she had requested.
She implored him to call on the Suttons to offer his services for the wedding, and his reply was grateful but tentative.
What a splendid idea. I’m touched you thought of me, but does she know about... us?
Us. She reread the sentence over and over, a flurry of delight running through her veins.
She knows enough. We share so much, and my dearest friend would never betray my confidence.
Very well. I shall call upon the Suttons then.
Stevie had accepted with glee. “How wonderful Miranda! You and your beau incognito at the wedding!” she squealed, as they pinned silk flowers on a bonnet.
Miranda was able to intercept the mail with surprising ease, for her parents paid little attention to such things, and the household staff asked no questions. She began scheduling her day around the postman’s visits, each envelope slipped through the door a sliver of her heart. His letters were always effusively polite and revealed a depth of emotion she could not have anticipated, and she treasured every one. In her bedroom she had a mahogany box with a false floor, and she saved each letter there, stashing away the box at the back of her armoire.
She almost considered sneaking out to see him on her own, but decided that without the plausible deniability of their current arrangement, weak as it was, even she could not rise to that level of rebellion. Not yet anyway.
if absence makes hearts grow fonder, then absence with a dose of secrecy was a most heady concoction, and their subsequent meeting was all the more sweet from their time apart.
He had arrived first, and Miranda was so giddy with delight that she started skipping up the path.
“I say, that is a curious gait Miss Hartford,” he called out.
“It’s a gallop sir. I find it makes every walk more jolly, if not less taxing.”
“Is that so? I must try it sometime.”
“Oh do try it now, it’s ever so fun,” she pleaded.
He sheepishly bent his wrists in front of him and galloped down the path.
“Such elegant lines! A natural equestrian,” she exclaimed. “You would be most excellent at dressage!”
“Why thank you my lady,” he called out, slowing to a trot and circling around her. “The Preston men pride themselves on horsemanship.”
They came to an abrupt stop, almost crashing into each other. When their eyes met, his expression was so sweet and earnest she thought she might faint on the spot. Their hands brushed together. “I’ve missed you,” she said softly.
“Me too,” he murmured. “You don’t know how much I’ve wanted to see you.”
She lowered her eyes and grinned. “All your letters gave me some idea. Not many people entertain my hijinks.”
“But that is what I like most about you. Promise me you won’t ever change.”
“Good. Ah! I have something for you,” he said, producing a small wrapped cake seemingly out of thin air.
“Oh! What culinary delight do we have here?”
“It’s a surprise.”
She took a bite. “Cherry and almond? My favourites! How did you know?”
“Just intuition,” he said, suppressing a giggle through his serene smile.
“What’s so funny?”
A blush rose on his cheeks. “Miss Sutton and I had a chat about you when we were discussing the wedding breakfast,” he confessed.
“You didn’t! What did she say?”
“She divulged a few of your tastes, food and otherwise, but suffice it to say that she made it clear I will be in grave danger if I ever were to treat you poorly.”
Miranda tried not to laugh at the mental image of Stevie attacking Mr Preston, although she was certain Stevie would more than hold her own. Nevertheless, she was moved by her friend’s protectiveness. “Don’t you be deceived by her diminutive nature. She can be a force to be reckoned with.”
“Oh I took her quite seriously and gave her my word. I don’t do that lightly.”
They talked until their time was up, and he bid her farewell with a chaste kiss on the hand. As soon as he was gone, Miranda flopped over on the wooden bench and sighed happily. It was proving to be a most excellent summer.
And so it came to be that Miranda cracked her life in two - one shard on display to all, the second a secret nestled to her chest, fragmented but brilliant. Their time together was short, but there was nothing she looked forward to more. Having once thought love was beyond her, it was most transformative to find her heart growing more accommodating by the day.
In their other chance meetings in public, they were cordial but kept their distance, eyes meeting and sharing the subtlest of smiles, their secret safe. Penny stopped bringing up the unsuitability of Mr Preston to Miranda, satisfied that line of inquiry had been snuffed out, and once again recommenced her presentation of eligible gentlemen. “I do wish you would give Mr Detorri another chance, darling. You barely met him at the ball...”
It was quickly established that Tilly and Charlie could be trusted to be gone for half an hour, but no more than two-thirds. Mr Preston would await her arrival out of sight and run up to meet her, almost always with cake.
This plan went swimmingly, until one rather thrilling morning when Charlie and Tilly returned unusually soon, Tilly having torn her dress on an errant branch in the woods. Miranda managed to help him escape over the bushes, but she was discovered looking rather guilty among the foliage.
“Oh my goodness me Miranda! What on earth are you doing in there?”
She froze, shellshocked. “I thought I saw a tiger crouching in the hedge, and I had to check.”
Charlie was unperturbed. ‘“In Surrey? Good gracious. Are you sure it wasn’t one of the village cats? Norman’s ginger tom is a portly old thing.”
“Do you know what, it might have been a, um... dragon?” she suggested, her voice rising to an unnaturally high pitch. She felt rather hot. “I think the heat is playing with my mind.”
“Oh Charlie!” Tilly shrieked. “Miranda must have heatstroke! The delirium is already setting in!"
"Oh no no no I'm fine! No mythical creatures here, see!"
They insisted on rushing her back home to cool down and rest. Miranda later recounted this episode to Mr Preston, “...And that is how I ended up in a cold bath with some ghastly salt and sugar drink, which was actually quite nice once you get used to it, but it took two whole hours for me to persuade them I was of sound mind again.”
"Only two hours?" he teased.
Mr Preston brought her cakes almost every day, wondrous new flavour combinations she had never tasted. The sweet fragrance of rose and apple was followed by lavender and earl grey, pear and ginger, and a very nice peach and basil. He insisted she was doing him a favour and that her feedback was most helpful for business at the inn (which was nearing completion), though curiously they were almost always tailored to her tastes.
She always looked forward to these treats, until one day she bit into the cake and immediately spat it out.
“It’s savoury!” she cried.
“You don’t like it?” He asked, looking wounded. “The cheese and bacon are from the farm at Pemberley.”
“Well,” she began, trying to spare his feelings, “It is not unpleasant per se, now I know, but it is most unexpected when you are anticipating something sweet.” She took another bite. “Sometimes perfection is not to be altered.”
He laughed and pretended to write something down. “Duly noted.”
"You haven't put any surprises in Stevie's wedding cake have you?" The wedding was this weekend, and they would not see each other again until then.
“Oh good lord no. She liked the rose and apple one the most.”
Miranda nodded in approval. ”Oh that one is stunning. Maybe you’ll make our wedding cake someday,” she said dreamily, without thinking.
”Nothing!” She hastily stuffed the rest of the cake in her mouth.