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.
By the middle of the carol, when the Wise Men came from country far, John wondered where Miss Jennings had disappeared to. Standing at the rear of the group assembled around the pianoforte, he slipped away and went to look for her. His plan to see his fiancée often and convince her of his affections had so far been less than successful.
He paused at the open door to the dining room and found her there, seated alone, with no servant in sight. For once, she looked relaxed, her eyes closed as she put the last bite of a piece of gingerbread in her mouth, then licked the crumbs from her fingertips and sighed in pleasure, savouring the taste. Her honey-blonde hair shone in the candlelight, making her an entrancing sight to behold.
For a moment, he forgot to breathe. “Miss Jennings,” he found his voice at last, even if it came out barely a whisper.
Her blue eyes flew open and she gasped, bolting upright in her chair. “Mr. Ashton, I’m sorry, I—”
“Don’t.” He held up his hand to stall her as he advanced into the room. “You have no reason to apologize. Once we’re married, if you wish to eat gingerbread every day of the year, you may do so.”
She stood then with a sway and clung to the table for support. “I fear the wine has gone straight to my head, sir.” He covered the distance between them in seconds and pulled her against him, afraid she might fall if he did not. She turned her face up to his, looking startled.
Whether it was the two cups of the punch he’d had or simply the opportunity, he would never know, but he would kiss her now or die in the attempt.