WILLIAM drove to the nursery to see the new plant emerging, in due course, and returned singing the praises of Hathern’s.
“A grand job, they’ve done, and no mistake!’ he said, over and over, to anyone listening.
Luke sent frequent messages to Lyon Place about the Flower of Hope. He also visited in person more often than before.
He enjoyed being shown around the gardens by Albert, where they always found much to talk about.
Caroline found Luke in deep conversation with her father once or twice, but afterwards neither of them said anything, and she was fearful of asking questions in case the answers were not to her liking.
What if Luke alone had been asked to mount this expedition? What if she and William were excluded?
Her deepened feelings for Luke had turned her into a coward, and the notion that any arrangements were too delicate for her to speak her mind upset her.
Instead, Caroline spent time organising the paintings she had made both in South America and in Florence.
She also went regularly to Hathern’s in order to record the progress of the Flower of Hope.
The first leaves unfurled. They grew greener, taller and more branched. A narrow, lily-like scented bud appeared.
Her work absorbed her attention almost completely. Almost.
If she paused for any length of time, she was aware of a bubble, a puzzling feeling of lightness and anticipation, that made her begin painting again with ever greater concentration to quell it.
She returned home one afternoon from a visit to friends to find two men unloading an unwieldy shape from a Hathern’s cart. They were trying, and failing, to manoeuvre it into the basement.
“It will not fit!” she shouted, leaning over the railings. “You should have been directed to the side entrance!”
The package was lugged back to the pavement and replaced on the cart. Caroline clambered up to direct it. As she did, Luke strode out through the front door and leaped into the cart beside her, grinning.
“Is this package from Hathern’s?” Caroline asked.
“It is something much delayed,” Luke replied apologetically.
Caroline pulled at the wrappings. A corner had worked loose and she saw one carved edge of wood. She peered more closely.
“A garden bench! Why have you brought this to Lyon Place?” Caroline demanded.
“I bought it at auction for your father,” Luke said. “To thank him for all his work.Unfortunately, I’ve had to wait for a suitable moment to hand it over . . . Caroline, why are you laughing?”
“Didn’t you realise? I tried to buy this at auction, too!”
“You bid against me?” Luke asked, surprised. “I wondered who it was!”
Caroline caught his hand.
“If only we’d spoken together first. Luke, how could we have been so stupid and cause such trouble for each other?”
She went to lift her hand away, but Luke held it. He suddenly looked more serious than Caroline had ever seen him.
“I fear this has been the story of our recent encounters. Isn’t it time we stopped pretending?”
At that moment, the cart rumbled around the corner and lurched into the muddy lane beside the gardens.
“I can’t imagine what you mean!”
She had disentangled one hand, but was obliged to renew her grip on Luke’s arm to prevent herself from toppling out of the cart.
“I think you can,” Luke insisted, holding her. His gaze never left her face. “You know my feelings. But I long ago decided not to offer for you again as the marriage seemed so unwelcome to you.”
Unwelcome? Caroline was shocked. She couldn’t imagine she’d given such an impression. Then she recalled that in the past that was exactly what she’d done.
But after Florence, everything had changed. If only she’d spoken!
The cart shuddered to a halt. The two drivers leaped from their seats and Luke went to supervise. Caroline waited, her boots squelching in the wet grass beneath the muddied hem of her dress.
If she spoke now of all that was in her heart, he would think it was only because she wished to be included in his Chinese expedition. Yet parting from him again, and for so long, was something she feared even more.
There was little time to consider, so she decided a few, forthright words were best. On his return to her side, and dismissing every constraint of etiquette, Caroline smiled.
“Mr Luke Hathern, will you marry me?”