A pox on Lady P–S, Felicity Wilcox thought as she tugged extra hard on a patch of watercress growing along Yardley Stream. It came loose easily, almost sending her backward into the water.
The Wilcox family did not need—-she assaulted a fresh patch of watercress—-any help. They would manage this difficulty on their own. Anyway, Felicity knew perfectly well that Lady Pincheon–Smythe’s visit earlier that morning hadn’t really been motivated by a desire to help. She’d come to see whether the rumors were true.
Felicity’s stomach, unsatisfied with the meager breakfast she’d eaten, rumbled loudly. The watercress was to be part of lunch.
The warm June morning was quiet, without so much as a cart passing on the road just above her, which ran parallel to the stream and led toward Longwillow village. But that changed a moment later as she was curling her fingers around a final bunch of greens and she became aware of the sound of thundering hooves. In the next instant a rider dashed by on the road above, sending a shower of mud down on her.
She yelped and lurched in surprise. Her feet slipped and she fell backward into the stream. Cool water immediately began seeping through to her undergarments. Above her the racing hoofbeats slowed abruptly and came nearer again. They stopped somewhere over her, though the high banks of the stream prevented her from seeing either the horse or the rider.
She struggled to stand up as the fitted bodice of her antiquated gown constricted her with its new weight of water. Straining to get a deeper breath, her empty stomach churning queasily, she had just taken in the sight of a tall gentleman striding toward the stream when her vision clouded and she fell backward again.
A muffled curse drifted in the air above her as strong arms caught her and tugged her upward. The sun shone blindingly behind her savior, and she closed her eyes against it. He held her for a moment clutched against him, so that she inhaled a masculine scent: rich, woodsy, with a spicy, surprising note of… orange? He let go of her with one arm and jerked at his coat. Then he laid her on the ground and she opened her eyes to blue sky.
Her bare arms felt not grass below her, but the satiny smooth, wonderful–smelling lining of her rescuer’s coat. She turned her head and there he was, squatting next to her with a look of concern on his face.
“So, you’ll live,” he said, one of a pair of elegant black brows drifting upward with the hint of jest, a lightness for which she was absurdly grateful. She’d never in her life swayed or swooned, and she had no intention of becoming a vaporish miss now.
“Apparently I will,” she said as her wits reassembled.
She pushed herself up to a sitting position and blinked, focusing her gaze on the stranger. The dramatic whiteness of his crisp shirt was creating a startling contrast with his skin. But no, it was not the shirt. He was remarkably tanned, darker than any Englishman she had ever seen. His hair was glossy black, short but with a wave to it, and his deep brown eyes—-they were as dark and rich as chocolate—-held an intelligent light. His face was all planes and angles and well–modeled bones.
He was darkly, astonishingly handsome. And, from the richness of the fabric on which she lay and the cut of his clothes, a wealthy gentleman.
The man’s gaze lingered on her face, and she grew aware that her bonnet was hanging about her neck by its strings and that her wavy gold hair was now barely held by the bit of ribbon she had tied around it that morning. Her bodice and skirts were well splashed with water and mud, but his faint smile said, if anything, that he approved of her. The breeze danced a loose strand of hair against her cheek as she gave him a dry look.
“You’ve undone all my efforts, you know. The cress was going to be part of lunch.”
They both glanced in the direction of the stream, where a spreading patch of watercress could be seen in the distance downstream.
“Forgive me.” He grinned ruefully at her, an expression that projected confidence that he would be forgiven. He probably always was.
“I had no idea you were in the stream,” he continued, “or I would have checked my pace. Although,” his eyes twinkled, “here it was, my very first time causing a female to swoon, and it was through clumsiness. Mortifying.”
She laughed and reached for the hem of her skirt, squeezing out the excess water. And thought, with a flutter, that she’d been rescued by a fabulously handsome rogue. A stranger, someone who couldn’t possibly know anything of her family’s recent misfortunes. He wouldn’t know anything about the rumors, or care that they were true—-that some crony of her uncle had won Tethering, her beloved home. How wonderfully refreshing to talk to a new, unknown person. She couldn’t think when that had last happened.
“I’m sorry to disappoint you,” she said, “but I’m sure it was not a proper swoon. Doubtless it was just the heat of the day.”
He tilted his head. “Was it? Perhaps, then, you would like a drink.”
“Thank you. That would be welcome.”
He stood up spryly, towering above her for a moment before he turned toward his horse and began rooting around in his saddlebags. He was tall and slim in his white shirt and dark breeches that hugged well–muscled legs, and the spread of his broad, angular shoulders made her stomach do a little flip.
Having apparently found some water, he turned and came back toward her, holding out a silver flask of unusual design. Sitting on his haunches near her, he watched her lift it, as though he wanted to be certain she was well enough. When she put the flask to her lips, she was startled by the thought that this man’s lips had been there too—-or would be.
He handed her a small packet.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“Some jam sandwiches pressed on me.” He chuckled. “I was staying with my cousin, who is accustomed to carrying food about with her. She assures me that her young daughters will turn into tiny trolls if allowed to become too hungry, though, disappointingly, I have never witnessed the transformation.”
Jam sandwiches sounded divine.
He sat down on the grass across from her, and she opened the packet and wondered if she should get off his coat, but he didn’t seem concerned about it. He was watching her with light dancing in his eyes, and she liked that.
And then she reminded herself that she no longer had the right to flirt with him, or any man. That her days of such spontaneous fun were in the past. The girl who’d laughingly bested all the village gentlemen in ring toss at the fair and never gone unpartnered at any dance had put all of that away.
But. He was a stranger. It was not as if her contact with him would last any longer than the few minutes they were in each other’s company. Before the hour was out, she would certainly be back at Blossom Cottage, the dower house, darning socks and pulling weeds. What would be the harm in enjoying his admiration for this little bit of time? It had been so long since she’d allowed herself to feel anything toward a man.
She held out a sandwich to him. “Would you like one?”
“No, thank you. I am not far from my destination.”
She took a bite. Heaven. When had she last tasted anything so good? They weren’t exactly starving at home, but they had run out of jam and sugar ages ago.
“The color has come back into your face,” he said. “It suits you.”
“Well, I must certainly look pale next to you,” she replied.
She was being bold. Flirtatious. How did she dare? a little voice whispered. She’d trained herself over the last three years not to consider men and the fun and playful times she’d once enjoyed. And with all the work she had to do at Tethering, she’d been able mostly not to care, or at least, to forget. But if a man like this one lived in Longwillow, she’d be tempted. Someone like him wouldn’t live in a small village like hers, though. His whole demeanor spoke of sophistication and affluence, of a confident readiness for challenge.
“Well, anyone who’d just returned from Spain a few weeks ago would be tan.” He cocked his head. “Do you live nearby?” His eyes flicked toward her dress. “Or perhaps you work on one of the estates. I will guess that you are… a governess, yes?”
“A governess?” she repeated. Ah, but of course she looked like a servant, because who else would wear such old clothes? Her dress must be a good four decades old. When Uncle Jonathan had died unexpectedly—-and ignominiously—-a few weeks earlier of a stroke after losing their estate in a London gaming hell, there’d been no money for mourning clothes. Felicity had found some gowns in the Tethering attic that had belonged to a departed relative who shared her medium height and dyed them black. They looked acceptable. Mostly.
She was not well dressed, but the intensity of his gaze told her that he found her attractive. A seductive feeling. Prettiness hadn’t been on her mind for ages.
“I live close by,” she said vaguely. She consumed the rest of the first roll and started on a second.
Apparently he was content with her answer. “And have you had much practice gathering watercress in the wilds of this roaring stream?” His eyes teased hers.
She leaned over her bent knees and nibbled on the roll. “I normally have no trouble at all, when gentlemen aren’t dashing about startling me. And the stream is swollen with the recent rains. It’s not as simple a matter as it might look.”
He flicked a glance toward the stream. “Is that so? I believe I might vow to gather three times the amount you had without getting so much as a drop of water or mud on myself.”
A ripple of pleasure traveled through her. “Oh, really? I should like to see such a feat. But the rocks are all covered over with moss and water, and I’ve already gathered all the watercress within reach.”
He merely lifted an eyebrow and sprang to his feet—-he seemed taut, like a bouncy spring, full of energy and strength—-and disappeared over the side of the stream bank. She came up on her knees for several moments to watch him unobserved as he picked his way among the stepping–stones, hopping as sure–footedly as a twelve–year–old boy.
She sat back down and finished the second roll and told herself that when the third was done, she would get up and leave, before this fascinating stranger discovered anything of substance about her.
The last sandwich was almost finished when the black top of his head reappeared, then his face, wearing a boyish grin in irresistible contrast with his manliness. The stranger put an arm on the top of the bank and hopped neatly up. He came and knelt down next to her and presented the watercress with an elegant flourish, as if it were a bouquet for his lady. She laughed and accepted the enormous handful he’d picked. Oh, she’d forgotten the fun that gentlemen could be.
“Well done, noble sir,” she said, continuing the tone he’d set.
“You are most welcome, my lady.”
She put the last of the jam sandwich in her mouth, pressing a finger to her lower lip where a sticky crumb rested and pushing it in, and saw with a shiver that his eyes were drawn to her finger. He was close enough that she could, in that quiet moment, feel the heat coming off him and hear the sound of his breathing. His deep brown eyes were focused solely on her. He might be a stranger, but he was also real—-a flesh–and–bone man, not some dreamed–up Galahad on a white horse—-and he must have plans and responsibilities of his own. She closed her eyes and imprinted his features on her mind for later, so that his face might be like a flower brought home and pressed after a happy meadow picnic.
Desire for all the things she’d given up surged within her, but she pushed it back down. Opening her eyes, she dusted her hands off. “I must be on my way.”
A look of disappointment crossed his face, just a flash. She was glad, though she shouldn’t be.
“Of course,” he said affably, standing up and holding a hand out to help her up. She took it, and it was warm and strong as he tugged her easily upward. Oh, what would it be like to have the right to hold the hand of a man like him?
He leaned over and picked up his coat, giving it a brisk shake to knock off the bits of grass that clung to it, and put it on. It was a particularly vivid claret color, unusual like him.
“I can’t offer you a ride, can I?” His lips quirked up in a wicked half smile that said he would enjoy sharing a horse with her. “I must stop in Longwillow on business before completing my journey.”
She looked up at his enormous white horse and flattened together lips quivering in a returning smile. No more. She shook her head.
The sound of carriage wheels approaching could now be heard from behind them, and he said, “Ah, that will be my accoutrements. I had planned to precede them.”
“Then you must be off.”
“Yes. Though I’d rather stay and find out if I might render you any other service, my lady.”
“No!” she said, too sharply, so that he looked quizzical. But she needed to rein herself in, or she’d be tempted to ride right off into the sunset with him, if only he would ask her.
“Might I beg the favor of your hand to kiss?”
She hesitated, wanting to agree but knowing she had already indulged herself too much here. She’d probably dream about these moments on the stream bank for years.
“Very well.” She held out her hand to him and he took it and, bowing over it, brushed his warm lips once against the back of her hand, then more slowly a second time, until she burned with the pleasure of his mouth and breath against her skin. He dropped her hand and, looking at her now with eyes that were no longer laughing, bid her good-bye.
He hopped jauntily onto his horse and was away down the road.
As she stood watching him, the carriage that had been approaching rolled past her and disappeared where the road curved ahead. She licked her lips and caught a lingering taste of jam sandwich, the best food she’d had in ages, though she knew its ambrosial quality had mostly to do with him. Her hand still held the watercress he’d gathered for her.
She started down the road. A host of everyday tasks awaited her, and the moments on the stream bank were as gone as a dream dreamt.
A fifteen–minute walk took her to the shoulder–high stone wall that marked the beginning of the Tethering property. Behind the wall, a line of apple trees created a pretty screen between the road and the estate. The tall wrought–iron gate stood open, as she had left it earlier. She cast a yearning glance up the sloping gravel drive to Tethering Hall, her ancestral home, which stood atop the hill like a friendly sentinel. Even more—-a member of the family.
Biting her lip, she experienced a familiar fury at her uncle Jonathan, who had always promised that the Tethering estate would belong to Felicity’s family when he died. Jonathan had never been interested in running the estate and had left that task to his sister Caroline, Felicity’s mother. When Caroline died three years ago, the tasks she and Felicity had been sharing fell solely on Felicity’s shoulders. Felicity had been happy to take them on, even though her uncle’s gambling problems meant that most of the estate’s proceeds disappeared on the gaming tables. She’d become a master at making a household budget of nothing into something by making economies, even selling off small pieces of furniture when necessary. She’d made it work, successfully kept things running—-and now Jonathan’s foolish weakness had taken that all away from her.
She turned away from the path to Tethering and walked instead toward the dower house. Blossom Cottage was a pretty stone dwelling that stood among a scattering of fruit trees several minutes’ walk from the drive. She liked the cottage, though like Tethering its roof leaked and its furniture was old. But it would do for now, and more importantly, it belonged to her family, which could not at the moment be said of Tethering.
But she had hope. Already, she had written to a lawyer, although she’d not yet mentioned this to her father. Whoever this gambler was, he was not going to find a warm welcome when he arrived.