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6: The Tea and Biscuits
The stupid bloody tea service had never looked so…mismatched before.
The blue flowers painted on the china teacups didn't seem to pair well with the red flowers painted on the teapot, and those didn't match the yellow ones painted on the cream jug. When her father sent her to London, along with her mother and a handful of help to take in the season, she had taken tea with many promising young men and had never once noticed the tea service.
Of course, back then, she had not received visitors who wanted to compliment the print on the china. Then again, she was not receiving Benedict for that either.
With a huff, Edie sat down on the settee, casting her eyes toward the half finished painting that sat beside her.
She felt foolish; the Bridgerton was only coming for one purpose—to see her work and trade words about her work and his, perhaps have a cup of tea to be polite, and leave again. A short visit, and yet Edie dreaded each moment. But when she examined her feelings to an uncomfortable degree, she found that it was not the fact that Benedict Bridgerton was coming to see her, but, for the next hour, she had to be…interesting. Engaging. Charming, even.
She had abandoned such a gentle personality when she found it did not endear her to the ton. If anything, they turned their noses up, disgusted at the pathetic sight. No, life was more comfortable as a prickly, cantankerous spinster. At least this way, people were more inclined to ignore her.
But wort of all, she could not retreat to sweet, comforting seclusion if the air became awkward.
She had no such worries when she had been nineteen, thinking comments about the weather and the material of her gown were wonderful, fulfilling themes of conversation. Alas, when she became ugly, and therefore knew her beauty was not something a husband would seek out, she found the normal conversation she had so enjoyed to be dull.
Conversation, when trying to attract a husband, was so tepid. Men despised being argued with by a woman with a fair point, and they usually avoided making her a wife.
Edie had no idea how to behave around Benedict Bridgerton. She had been perfectly comfortable with her disdain and detachment, but now that he'd made note of it, the same attitude wouldn't do. Even now, an uncomfortable feeling started to bubble in her belly to remember how he'd asked her what he did to offend her. Everyone was too afraid to confront her, preferring to stay away entirely. Edie couldn't deny the exchange with Benedict had shaken her.
What made it worse, was that the only thing Benedict Bridgerton had done to earn her scorn, was try to engage her in conversation. He had been perfectly gentlemanly, kind even.
It was tempting to tell Lucy to tell the man she had taken ill and to come back never, but Edith hated to be a coward. In fact, she liked to think the Incident had thickened her skin into an impregnable armour that few possessed. Such women did not shy away from a man coming to see her painting.
Still, her fingers twisted around each other, her eyes set on the canvas at her side. It was turned around, hiding the colours swirling together on the canvas. Idly, she wished that she the sense to tell Benedict not to come until she had finished.
Instead, she had let herself feel badly for making that ever present grin on his face dip and had invited him into her home to make that frown vanish. Though, she thought, casting her eyes over the tea service once more, this shall be the first and only visit a Bridgerton every pays me.
Edie had not always been so cantankerous, in fact most described her as sweet and gently spoken. But that had been before the Incident, before life killed her dreams and made her hard as iron, and cold as it too.
Lucy had once pondered if Thomas Haken had only shaken away the outer shell that day in the parlour, only to reveal the true face of the woman within. It was meant in the kindest way—to say Edie had always been strong— but it left her feeling oddly wounded.
Doubt had then surged through her for months after that, wondering if her rage had come too quickly, too strongly, if she had been spitting her venom at those who did not deserve it, if it would make all those that dared to stay at her side, leave her until only a few remained.
The soft swishing of skirts and petticoats drew her eyes towards the entrance of the room. Edith stood immediately, her hands clasped gently in front of her. "Mister Bridgerton, ma'am." Cath said, the man in question following close behind her. Edie was not sure, but she thought the man looked just as nervous as she.
"Thank you, Cath." With a grin, Cath nodded her head, and left the room. But not before throwing a wicked smile at her behind Benedict's back.
Left alone, Edie felt rather exposed. And afraid. Edie had the most terrible experience with men, and to be alone with one made her feel like fleeing and locking the doors behind her. No matter that Benedict seemed gentle and kind, he was still a tall man with unknown intentions. But Edie would never allow herself to be labeled a coward. Even if it meant spending an hour flinching at every move Benedict made. She blamed her grandmother for that keen sense of pride.
"I hope Cath has treated you well." She smiled awkwardly, her mouth falling from the awkward upturn it had formed. An awkward air surrounded them, and she could not bear to linger in it for long. "Erm," she hummed. "Aunt Lucy is here, she just thought it silly the two of us needing her to sit in, so she's reading upstairs."
Edie agreed that it was stupid to need a chaperone at her age. Chaperones were for the young and the beautiful and Edie was neither. But she so dearly wished her aunt was here, deflecting the awkward tension in the air, filling it with polite conversation that came so easily to her.
"Ah," Benedict's smile was nearly as fragile as hers, his eyes falling to the carpeted floor at her side. "More biscuits for the two of us, then." He motioned to the sweet treats set out on the table.
"I'm not…partial to biscuits, actually." The sweetness made her teeth ache. But the moment she said it, she felt foolish. It would have been easier to just pretend to like them. "More for you?" she tried.
"I do like a biscuit now and then, but not ten at one sitting."
Three different remarks crossed her mind then, none of them particularly sweet or courteous, so she kept quiet. Nothing else was heard but the ticking of the clock, and it was a handful of seconds before Edie spoke again, her voice higher than normal and a bit hasty.
"Er, yes, please. Tea would be lovely."
Edie made herself busy in preparing his drink, wishing she had the courage to find her uncle's best whiskey and add a little kick to her own cup. It was quiet again as they settled back and sipped the hot brew, and for a moment Edie felt so uncomfortable that she hardly cared anymore if she spoke too sharply. "Well that's over with, shall we get to the reason I invited you?" she asked as she set her saucer down onto the table between them.
Benedict blinked his wide blue eyes in a way that was horribly sweet, and Edie scoffed, averting her eyes and standing before he could form a response. Swiftly, she turned the painting around, setting it down with all the gentleness of a mother handling her babe.
She turned to look down at the canvas, pursing her lips, and linking her hands together behind her back. "So?" she asked, tilting her head.
She heard Benedict stand and settle beside her, but she was too busy examining her own work. It was nearly done, only a few more colours, only another blurred figure to run her brush over, and a few more details that would arise in the final moments before she could set down her brush and call it done.
But Benedict's frown made her uncomfortable. It was not one of anger or annoyance, but rather one of deep thought. He even had a little crease between his brows that was horrifyingly adorable.
"It's quite…" he huffed out a breath from his nose, tilting his head the other way. "It was not what I was expecting."
It was not an insult, not yet anyway. "In what way?"
"Well…the daisies seem quite out of place, a shock of innocence in a place it does not belong."
Edie's mouth opened but no sound escaped. It was such a small thing to find irksome, but the fact of the matter was that Edie had grappled with the choice of daisies for an appallingly long while, and when she'd settled on the choice to add them, she had become quite defensive of their presence. In short, those daisies were there for a reason and she was not going to let a bloody Bridgerton tell her they were out of place. "The paleness of the flowers draws the eye, as it is meant to."
But Benedict only shook his head once more, his eyes still set on the pale flowers the seemed to vex him. "Nothing pure would survive in this world you've made. See all the movement? They would have been knocked over and trampled on. A bolder statement to have them already spilled."
Edie shook her head. "Yes, exactly. I aimed to capture the moments before the ruin. The hope, the foolish sense of invincibility. It is a sad painting, really."
Benedict frowned. "That is not what I see."
"Oh? And what does the Pointy Critic see?"
At her tone, he turned and looked at her, his deep blue eyes boring into hers until Edie was certain he was trying to see into her soul. "Disconnect. Obliviousness." A beat passed, thick with tension. "A sense of not belonging."
Edie scoffed, quickly taking up the work in question, and setting it behind the chaise, away from view. "And what would a Bridgerton know about belonging?" she grumbled. "That, from a man whose entire family is admired and adored, blessed with good health and beauty. Goodness, the adoring sun must shine too harshly on your pretty eyes." She skirted around his tall frame and stood across from him, the tea service standing between them.
Another frown overtook his face. "And what do you know of me? You haven't an idea of who I am, what I know, what I feel or think. You, madam, seem to think you know the soul of everyone you meet and judge them too harshly."
"And am I wrong?" she spluttered, her voice rising to a screech she would be most embarrassed over once he left. "Every other week in Whistledown, you and your lot are fawned over. Praised for merely existing. None of you suffer poor health, none of you are plain or ailed. What, then, Mr. Bridgerton, can you know of not belonging? Of true pain or loneliness?"
Benedict was quiet a long moment, but she could see the anger simmering beneath his calm, collected surface.
"You do not own the sense of pain, nor the feeling of loneliness, Miss Granville. Believe it or not, one can still feel those things without suffering as you have."
Somehow, his calm utterance wounded her most of all and she felt her mouth draw inward, a natural defence to hide trembling lips. There was not an ounce of pity in his eyes, not one tiny piece of regret. Edith was quite dismayed that it bothered her. She did not wish to be a creature of pity, but she found that she had grown rather used to it. Seeing something so harsh on his face, directed at her, twisted something inside her that she quite honestly wished did not exist.
Edie drew herself back, biting her cheek. "I do not own them, but is it so hard to believe I know more about it than you?"
Benedict scoffed. "For gods sake, are we truly quarreling about who understands suffering more?"
Edie tilted her head. "Apparently we are. All because you have such an issue with the flowers on a painting I created."
"Did you want me to fall over with praise?" his face was twisted with anger and disbelief, scowling at her in the afternoon sun. This meeting had certainly not taken it's time in growing heated. When she cast her eyes at the clock over Benedict's shoulder, she saw that only twenty minutes had past them by.
"Oh what a lovely thought—you falling over." Preferably over a cliff, she added silently.
"Good god, are you a child?" He growled back.
"No, Mr. Bridgerton, I am a grown woman." Her voice was sharp and direct as a whip, rendering him silent. "A grown woman who paints and sketches the world she sees, the way the world has shaped her. You see obliviousness, I see a momentary sense of wonder."
In the resounding silence, Edie found herself uncomfortable, mostly because Benedict's keen eyes still watched her carefully, the flare of anger dimming and something softer coming into his blue eyes.
"You said the moments before the ruin?" He spoke gently, the rough edge that had been there before was gone.
Edie paused, her mouth in a taught straight line as she thought of the best way to phrase it. "A baby bird does not realize it isn't flying until it crashes to the ground. Until then, I imagine it would feel rather excited."
At that, Benedict was quiet, looking away from her and rubbing his fingers across his forehead.
The silence stretched on and it became clear that the moment of ire was over, leaving the space between them swollen and empty and uncomfortable. Edith sat back down, folding her hands demurely in her lap, waiting patiently for Benedict to take his leave.
The thought left her strangely forlorn. She had invited him to her home because she felt…uncomfortable with the fact that she'd offended him. And then she'd started an argument moments after he came. Perhaps she would drive everyone away with her moods.
But the man obviously could not read a room and sat himself back down across from her, reaching for his tea. So calm and casual was his actions, that Edie found that her hands felt empty and took up her own cup of tea as well.
She was just in the middle of another sip of her tea when Benedict chose to speak.
"Miss Granville," he began. "despite all my opinions regarding your painting, please do not think I believe it without substance." Words escaped her, and all she could think to fill the moment was take another sip of tea. "Vexing daisies aside," he added, a slight incline of his head making her believe he still found them irritating. Tentatively, Edie pulled her shoulders back, uncertain, bracing herself out of instinct. "I find myself enthralled with all other aspects of your work." Edie could feel the furrow of her brow smooth, her mouth loosing the tight line it had been drawn into.
"Thank you." She said finally, her voice soft. "You are honest, and for that, I must commend you." At that, Benedict offered her a grin, and she returned it, her mouth pulling him slightly, still aware that a smile would deepen the scar marring her cheek. "I'm keeping the daisies though." He chuckled, looking down before meeting her eyes again.
"When you can complete a drawing and present it to me and my overly critical eye, I shall take your word with a bit more weight." But Benedict was rather certain she took him more seriously than she would ever admit. She would not have reacted so poorly to his opinion if it did not matter to her. The idea made Benedict grin, though the anger of their row still simmered beneath his skin. "It is, after all, only fair."
Benedict's smile fell. "I am no artist, Miss Granville."
Edie raised her brow, remembering the sketches he'd left behind, the ones she'd saved and kept. "My uncle does not invite talentless strangers into his home. I suggest you accept the fact, Mr. Bridgerton, that you have talent with a pencil."
The look that came into his eyes then, was one that Edie never wished to forget. An artists eye finds beauty in all things, but one would have to be blind to miss how Benedict Bridgerton's eyes softened, warmth flooding into them, a glimmer of doubt still flickering behind the joy. For a mad moment, she wanted to go running up the stairs and fetch her pencil and paper.
He blinked, and the naked emotion was quickly hidden behind a jovial smile.
"I believe that is the kindest thing you have ever said to me."
"Don't get used to it." She bit back, grinning back at him.