The instant he spotted Marisa and her groom riding down the hill, Will changed course to intercept her. He could not put a name to the day he’d last seen her, and he barely recognized the lovely girl who now graced the spirited mare. Indeed, she had become a young lady, and one with an arresting presence that his sister, Lyvia, though not even a year less in age, did not yet possess.
He knew and approved that Marisa wore no cosmetics; unlike some young women, she really had no need for paint. A vigorous life, much of which had been led out-of-doors, had made her skin clear and smooth with an attractive glow to cheekbones that were just high enough to give her face distinction. Fairly blessed with delicate features and green eyes fringed with dark lashes, she radiated a vitality he found both pleasant and stimulating.
Why have I never noticed that her lips are such an inviting shade of rose red?
“Good morning, Will,” she called as she tugged on Venilia’s reins, for the skittish horse danced sideways as Neptune thundered near. “I see you could not resist such a fine day, as nor could I.”
“I ride to Dorchester on business. I hope your reasons for venturing from home are not so dull as mine.”
Marisa laughed, and Will experienced a sudden vision of her in town, being courted by a long line of eligible suitors, each one in search of a well-to-do and willing young wife.
A wife who would reserve her laughter just for him.
“I ride to escape my mother and the confines of the manor,” she said. “I could not endure one more dress fitting if the very existence of England depended upon it!”
“Oh, but it does, my dear,” he replied, forcing the unexpected and disturbing image of her enjoying the company of other gentlemen from his mind. “For the men who serve England never forget that women and all your finery await to give them their proper rewards upon their return from battle.”
He teased her and, to her credit, she blushed not at all. “What rewards beside our gratitude would those be, sir, pray tell?”
“Ah, Marisa, you are a young lady now. Surely your mama has explained such things to you?”
Her eyes widened then, no doubt at his impudence. Her cheeks did redden a bit, but she pressed on as if reluctant to forfeit the game. “My mother has schooled me in a great many subjects, Will. I shall have to wait until the Season begins, though, to see if I am up to the challenge of treating a gentleman as he wishes to be treated.”
He drew in a sharp breath. When and how had the girl he’d always regarded as another little sister become such an outrageous flirt? He leaned forward a bit in the saddle, so that her groom would not hear his next words.
“Please be careful when you undertake that test, my dear. For, suffice it to say, that some of the gentlemen that you shall meet in London have no interest in being ‘gentlemen’ at all.”
Divested of the boots at last, George dispatched Laurence for a pair of shoes more suitable to the house and told the servant he would find him working in the library. He needed to make a note in the account books of the additional amount now owed for the grain. There was another, less tedious, but certainly more difficult, task to complete, as well—the writing of the St. Valentine’s Day verse, the first step in his wooing of Penelope.
George paused at the entrance to the great hall, found neither Sir Robert nor his daughter anywhere in sight, and made haste, his stocking feet noiseless on the cold stone floor. Once in the library, he shut the door behind him and exhaled in relief, grateful that their guests hadn’t caught him running about the place like an errant child, with no shoes on.
“Good morning, Mr. Harburton.”
His heart sank to his non-existent boots. George turned and saw Penelope seated in one of the wing chairs by the hearth, with an open book on her lap and a look of amusement in her eyes.
“Miss…Miss Braxton,” he stammered. “Yes, good morning. I trust you slept well?” Gathering his wits, George embraced his embarrassment and strode forward, seeking the warmth of the fire.
“Yes, quite well, sir. Thank you.” She nodded and smiled, as if finding one of her hosts pacing about, wearing twice-patched stockings, was an everyday occurrence. “I pray I haven’t overstepped by making myself comfortable here with my favourite of Mr. Shakespeare’s plays?”
She held up the volume in question, so he could see the title, The Merry Wives of Windsor.
“Not at all,” he assured her. “But, may I say, what an unusual choice. For I can imagine you enjoying a romantic tragedy such as Romeo and Juliet or even a history, on the order of Julius Caesar, but not a risqué comedy.”
“Do you think I possess no sense of humour, then, Mr. Harburton?” She cast a fleeting look down at his unshod feet.