Connor picked up the shot of whiskey and gave Luke a doubtful look. Wine was one thing, hard liquor quite another. And Connor had never been much of a drinker.
Luke poured himself a shot and raised it toward Connor. "To screwing up."
"If I drank something every time I screwed up," muttered Connor, "I'd never be sober." He shrugged, and when Luke tilted back his shot, Connor did as well.
Immediately his eyes watered and a trail of fire burned all the way down his throat to his stomach. He coughed and clutched the edge of the bar.
Luke chuckled. "A little liquid courage isn't always pleasant, I guess." He made shooing motions with his hand. "Okay now, go on. Go after her and beg forgiveness."
Connor blinked away the moisture from his eyes as the burning turned into a pleasant warmth inside him. The room spun slightly, and he hoped he'd be able to talk to Abby and still make sense. "Hang on," he said, realizing what Luke had said. "Why do I have to apologize? She's the one who said 'God no' when asked about marrying me!"
"Mate," said Luke with an eyeroll and a shake of his head, "maybe you're not ready for marriage yet. Don't you know you always apologize? It sets the tone. I mean, you need to stand up for yourself too, yeah? Just be diplomatic about it. Don't apologize for everything, just for the part you did wrong. Then talk to her and don't make assumptions."
Connor listened intently, trying to make mental notes of all the advice. "Okay."
When he didn't move, Luke reached over the bar and gave Connor's shoulder a shove in the right direction. Connor stumbled but kept his feet moving. When he glanced behind him, Luke gave him a thumbs up.
Out in the hall, Connor didn't see Abby anywhere, so he tried the parlor and a couple of other rooms, but she wasn't in either one. Finally he glanced out into the back yard and saw a shock of blonde hair poking up above the back of a bench. He opened the French doors and marched between manicured hedges to where she sat.
Abby's head was resting on the back of the bench and she had her eyes closed. She didn't move when Connor's shadow fell across her.
"Hey," he said.
She sighed and sat up. A stray tear rolled down her cheek, so she wiped it away with the heel of her palm.
"I'm sorry," he said, sitting next to her. He was trying to be more specific as Luke had instructed, but he wasn't sure what to say. Was he sorry for being antisocial during lunch? Hanging out at the bar? Being rude to the woman from the mansion? Or suggesting they get married in the first place?
"Yeah, me too." She took a deep breath. "Connor, we need to talk."
"I know." He took a deep breath and decided to fix the one thing that started off all their problems in the first place. "I shouldn't have said we'd get married here. We never talked about it, did we? It's just that I . . . well, I have always wanted . . ." He grunted and clenched his fists. Why wouldn't his mouth ever work when he wanted it to? "I think we should . . ."
Abby stared at him, a small crease between her brows.
"Abby, I love you, and I want to marry you. There, I said it finally. And if you don't want to marry me too, I don't blame you. I mean, I'm not big and strong like Stephen, and I talk too much, and I like to do all the wrong things, like computer games and whatnot. You can get any guy in the world if you wanted to. There's no need to stay with me out of pity or loyalty or—"
Abby pressed her fingers to his lips. "Connor, shut up." A smile made the corners of her mouth twitch. "You really are thick, you know that?"
He nodded, and the movement made the world spin around him counterclockwise. Funny how it was counterclockwise and not the other way around, he noticed absently.
Abby removed her fingers from his lips. "Why haven't we talked about getting married, if you want to so much?" she asked, curious.
"Don't know. I was afraid you wouldn't want to, and I couldn't bear finding out."
Abby grabbed the back of his neck and pulled him down to her. They kissed, and it was sweet and tender. When they pulled back, Connor dropped his forehead onto hers. "I've been wanting to marry you for years," he confessed. "Do you ever think of marrying me, even a little bit?"
Abby nodded. "It scares me, you know. Marriage. My folks didn't exactly set a good example, but I can't imagine my life without you in it. I don't know if I'm ready for marriage, but if I marry anyone at all, it'll be you, Connor Temple."
"Really?" Connor felt like he could float up into the sky and never come down again. But then he remembered something else. "Abby, but why did you say 'God no' when asked about marrying me? It sounded like you'd rather give all the animals in the menagerie to Phillip than marry me."
Abby winced and sat back a little ways from him. "Oh yeah, about that. See, the thing is, you're not the only one who talks too much sometimes. When we went up to Jenny's room last night, I guess we drank a little too much wine. Jenny mentioned what you'd said about getting married here, and we had a lot of fun planning a pretend wedding. You'd be in a tux with a top hat, yeah? And I'd be in an antique wedding dress that I'd find in one of those posh second-hand shops. Emily would be a bridesmaid in a peach floral dress. I'd carry irises, and Lester would give me away—"
"Lester?" Connor's eyes grew big with the idea.
"Did I mention how we'd been drinking?"
Connor snorted. "Must've been pure snockered to have said that!"
"Well, I don't have a dad, do I? Though I suppose I could ask Jack to give me away."
Connor reached over and brushed a lock of hair behind her ear. "Listen to you, talking about our wedding as if it might happen someday."
"I am, aren't I?"
"Anyway, I'm sorry for talking about it to them before telling you. A couple of Jenny's friends came into the room. I didn't realize until today that rumors had spread about us getting married here as if it were a done deal. It's a private thing, and we should talk about it between us before the rest of the world knows. Anyway, I feel guilty that I talked to them first."
Connor frowned. "Is that why you always looked so uncomfortable whenever someone brought it up?"
"And here I've been fretting all afternoon that you didn't want to marry me."
"I'm sorry for making you fret. I think if we talk about it once in a while, I'll get more comfortable with the idea."
"And you might say yes if I asked you?"
They kissed again, tongues tangling, and Connor wove his fingers through her hair. He scooted closer to her on the bench until their thighs were pressed close together. "I love you so much," he murmured against her lips, and proceeded to rain kisses across her cheek and over to her jaw and up to her ear.
"I love you too," whispered Abby.
"There you two are," called Matt. "I've been looking all over for you."
Connor cursed under his breath and pulled away from Abby. She snorted and mumbled something about "worst timing in the world."
"We're sorry to interrupt," said Emily graciously. "But apparently Lester contacted Matt on his telephone and expressed his interest in our whereabouts."
"He said 'I'm not paying you to sit around eating, drinking, and dancing, so get back here and earn your salary,' actually," said Matt, with a wry tone to his voice.
Connor stood and held his hand out to Abby. As he did, the outside world spun crazily, clouds and blue sky swirling by, hedges and trees blurring. It was still moving counterclockwise, he noticed with a surprisingly lack of alarm. Then the whole world tilted as if it had turned into an amusement park ride. Connor peered at the undulating grass, trying to figure out which way it would move, so he could take a step without tripping on the waves in the ground.
As Abby took his hand, a piece of sod reached up and smacked him on the side of the head. The world turned black.
"Connor?" he heard as if from a long distance away. "Connor? Wake up, baby."
"Who's 'baby'?" he asked, his eyes still closed.
"You are, idiot," said Abby, with a definite sound of exasperation.
"Can you open your eyes, Connor?" asked Matt, his voice gentle.
Connor opened them and squinted into the bright light. Both Abby and Matt were kneeling next to him, looking down. Emily was down by his feet, a concerned look on her face.
"He's been drinking all afternoon, and he hardly ate anything at lunch," said Abby to Matt. She was stroking Connor's hair and it felt really good. "Plus, he didn't get any sleep last night. I don't think it's anything more than that."
"Well, he can't go back to work like this," said Matt. "Though I suppose he already put in a full day's work last night, so I'll square it with Lester. You two go home and sleep or sober up or whatever you need to do."
"Thanks," said Connor, his tongue so thick that it barely came out. "You're nicer than everyone says, you know?"
Matt chuckled. "Go home, Connor. Get some sleep. When you come in tomorrow, I want a report by lunch."
Connor nodded before he realized how it would set the world to spinning anew, so he stopped and held perfectly still.
"Thanks, Matt," said Abby, running her cool fingers through Connor's hair down to his neck and back again. "We'll see you tomorrow."
After Emily and Matt left, Connor lay on the grass next to Abby.
"You really are an idiot," she told him, kissing his cheek. "Next time you're fretting, talk to me before you drink a bottle of wine or two."
"Okay," said Connor. He captured her hand and brought it to his lips. "Abby?"
"Is it too soon to ask you to marry me now?"
She smiled as she traced his lips with her fingers and followed them with a kiss that was soft and tender. "Why don't you ask me later."
Connor grinned. As Abby helped him to his feet, he threw his arm around her waist and waited for the spinning to stop. Gingerly, the two of them traipsed across the lawn and back to the mansion.
"Abby," said Connor when they got to doorway of the room where he'd made his ill-timed suggestion the day before. "Will you marry me now, please? It is later. Well, a little bit."
Abby stopped and stared at him. Her eyes filled with tears. "Yeah," she said, brushing them away. "I will."