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“I’m not sure I see what you’re so nervous about,” said Mary, as Dickon reached up to straighten his necktie for the third time in as many minutes. “It’s just Colin and Sara. And a party.”

“Aye,” agreed Dickon. “And I’ve not been around so many human souls who weren’t my own kin, never mind while dressed as a… a popinjay.”

“But a very handsome popinjay,” Mary assured him, leading the way through the gardens and back toward the house.

The other guests, she knew, were beginning to arrive as well, being driven to the main gate in carriages, rather than walking across the moor, but it had been enough of a challenge for her to convince Dickon to come at all that she wasn’t going to worry about how he’d gotten there.

It was the first ball at Misselthwaite since Colin’s mother had been alive, which made it something of a local event. It was also a chance for Sara to show off her ladylike manners and her skills as a hostess before she became the next Mrs. Craven.

She was welcome to it, as far as Mary was concerned. Long ago, she had admired her beautiful, distant mother, had dreamed of being a lady like the Memsahib. But now there was a little house on the other side of the moor filled with noise and laughter that was as much her home as Misselthwaite, and society did not fascinate her as it once had.

There were several guests already in the hall when they arrived, and Sara was quick to introduce them. They were mostly older people, around the age of Colin’s father and Sara’s Uncle Tom, but Mary made polite conversation. Dickon stayed at her elbow, still looking nervous, and he did not have much to say, even when Mary purposely drew him into the conversation. And the little he did saw was odd in a way Mary couldn’t place for a moment.

When she did, Mary politely excused them from speaking with the kindly local politician and took Dickon’s arm, pulling him to the side.

“Why are you talking like that?” she demanded.

“Like what?” he asked, this time in the accent she’d always heard him use, and Mary scowled at him. Dickon sighed. “They’re society people, Mistress Mary. I don’ want them thinkin’ I’m no’ good eno’ for tha.”

“You will always be good enough for me, Dickon Sowerby,” she told him, softly. “It’s a bit of a treat to see you dressed like a fine gentleman, clean for once, but I fell in love with that Yorkshire tongue.”

“Did tha now?” he asked, smiling.

Mary smiled back, but she said seriously, “I might have been mostly raised in this house, but this isn’t the life I want. My happily ever after is a cottage on the moor, always full of animals.”

“And children?”

“A dozen, at least,” she replied.

Dickon’s smile broadened and he took a step back, offering his arm. “Will tha allow me to escort tha, Mistress Mary?”

“Always,” she promised.