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Blissfully unaware of their elders’ scrutiny, Frodo and Pearl strolled underneath the apple trees, swinging a chortling Pippin between them as they held his hands. Frodo gave Pearl a sideways glance, and decided the time had arrived to pay her an open compliment.
“You’re looking very pretty today, Pearl.”
“And you’re looking very handsome,” she replied, adding mentally, Only handsome because Pip is here . . . If we were alone, I’d use the right word—beautiful.
Frodo’s looks were hardly conventional for a hobbit, but Pearl knew she was not the only girl who sighed over him, and often. His features were far finer-boned than other hobbits, with an ethereal cast, and he was thinner than most, to the point that Esmeralda tried to fatten him up when he visited. It was Frodo’s eyes, though, that gave him an extraordinary beauty. Large, deep blue, and possessing bottomless depths, they had always enthralled Pearl. Her first memories of Frodo were of his eyes. He’d picked her up once when he was nine and she was two, and she stared into those blue pools, seeing nothing else and grabbing at his face so she could keep drowning herself in them.
Frodo in his turn surveyed Pearl with the mixture of love and concern, desire and nervousness that she ever provoked in him. She had light brown hair that gleamed with golden highlights; her face and ears, so like his own, were winningly fragile, and her blue-green eyes sparkled and changed color with her constantly shifting moods. Pearl’s well-brushed feet were uncommonly small and her nose had a saucy uptilt. Her beauty was exotic enough to cause some superstitious elders to mutter she proved the truth of the legend that an early Took had taken a fairy to wife. Frodo had regarded her as his personal toy when they were children, enchanted with her prettiness and precocity and happy to let her trail after him at every family party. Age brought a sharper awareness of her desirability, and he felt quietly prideful she ignored all her other suitors and stayed devoted to him alone.
At the same time, though, Pearl exhibited a sensuality and willfulness—a wildness—that gave him pause. He remembered Gaffer Gamgee’s occasional bawdy jests, during late nights at the Green Dragon, that “you’ll need to have a good seat in the saddle if you’re riding a filly like Pearl!” He took such joking in good part, yet he sometimes asked himself if he could keep Pearl happy for the rest of her days. She could not be called greedy or selfish; and yet . . . she seemed to want so much. But he couldn’t imagine marrying anyone else; when he pictured sharing his bed and life with another, it was Pearl he saw, no other.
“Hey, Frodo, Pearl! Wait up!”
His reverie over, Frodo turned and saw Merry bounding across the lawn towards the three of them. Pippin yanked his hands away and ran to his favorite cousin, while Pearl shaded her eyes and looked at Merry in surprise.
“Weren’t you taking care of Aunt Lalia?” she called out.
Merry reached Frodo and Pearl with a grin, Pippin balanced on his shoulders. “I got lucky, Pearl darling—Aunt Lalia acquired a thumping headache and demanded I return her to her apartments. But the best part is, she declared she couldn’t possibly attend the party tonight, feeling that wretched. So we really will have fun, without the fat old bat huddling at the table, hurrah!”
“Careful, Merry,” said Frodo warningly. He pointed up at Pippin, currently busy picking apples off a branch. “Little ones have a nasty habit of repeating things they hear—especially this one.”
“Oh, come on, Frodo, we all know what Lalia’s like. I’m just thankful she isn’t our blood aunt, merely the elderly cousin we’re paying respect to, which is why Aunt Tina had to invite her to the party. She certainly has a bee in her bonnet about you and Pearl, coz—after I failed at the riddle game, I had to sit there while she complained endlessly over you two marrying. Also made it plain what a dust-up she’d had with you earlier, Pearl. Seems to think you’d behave better—since you are her favorite—if it wasn’t for the misbegotten Baggins boy.”
Pearl snorted in a most unladylike fashion. “If being Aunt Lalia’s favorite means taking the kind of treatment she inflicts on a daily basis, you’re welcome to the title, Merry.”
Frodo sighed wearily. “All of this may be true, but we need to stop talking about her . . .”
“Catch, Pearl, catch!” Pippin called, and threw two apples down to his sister. She caught them gracefully and gave one to Frodo. “Thank you, Pip—see, you can be good, when you try.”
Pippin grinned, and asked innocently, “How fat do most bats get, Pearl? As fat as Aunt Lalia?”
Pearl groaned, and Frodo said, “Merry, I think I see quite a lot of apples on that tree next to the brook. Don’t you?”
Merry was canny enough to take the hint and immediately went off, fighting to hang on to a bouncing Pippin. Frodo bit into his apple and waited until Merry and Pippin were out of earshot before speaking to a distressed Pearl. “Is what Merry said true? Did Lalia pick another fight with you over me today?” he quietly asked.
“Yes, I’m afraid she did. Blast Merry, anyway, I planned on keeping it to myself.” Pearl faced Frodo, her eyes misting up. “What ever are we going to do? Aunt Lalia will never give her consent to our marriage, and there’s no one who can force her to agree—not Mama, not Father, and certainly not poor old Cousin Ferumbras.” She and Frodo traded a knowing look, for their cousin Ferumbras Took, despite being Thain for many years, had still not inherited the family headship and was completely under his mother’s thumb. Worse yet, Ferumbras had never married, because no hobbit lass in the Shire would tolerate living with Lalia. While this ensured Paladin would someday be Thain, and Pippin after him, it also made the current Thain even more powerless than he already was.
Frodo brushed Pearl’s forehead with a soft kiss. “Let’s not panic yet. I come of age in two weeks, and Bilbo has been implying he’s going to give me some property. It might be enough for me to build my own nice hobbit hole, and then maybe we’ll contrive some way to be together, regardless of Aunt Lalia. Think about it—our own home, with Sam to take care of us.”
Pearl smiled and kissed Frodo, her lips lingering far longer than was proper for a cousinly greeting. “Or maybe we can persuade Gandalf to turn her into a toad when he arrives soon. What do you think?”
Frodo laughed. “I think you’re being your usual pert self, Pearl.” He slipped an arm around her waist. “Now stop talking about Lalia, and come enjoy yourself with Merry, Pippin, and me for a while before we have to get ready for the dinner. There’ll be fine presents for everybody, with not a mathom in sight.” Pearl nodded, and the two of them walked slowly down to the two boys, Pearl snuggled against Frodo’s side.
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