Authors: Alissa Johnson
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
“Oh, I’ve had a great many thoughts regarding this outing,” he assured her. “None of which I should voice in mixed company.”
There was a pause before she said, “Your mother made you do this.”
“Yes.” He made himself smile as the giggling group drew closer. “Yes, she did.”
Mirabelle rose from the bench and cast a longing glance at the house. “Do you know, I think I may have forgotten to—”
“If you leave now,” Whit whispered quickly as he stood beside her, “they’ll think they ran you off, and crow over the accomplishment for days.”
“I…Damn.” She straightened her shoulders, lifted her chin, and managed a strained expression he assumed was meant to be a kind of smile.
It took considerable restraint for Whit to hold in his sigh of relief. Mirabelle would be staying. He’d rather thought
she would…at least, he’d certainly hoped. Very well, he had prayed to every god known to man that she wouldn’t leave him alone to face this group on his own.
Unmarried women of the
made him distinctly uneasy. Title-hungry and blatantly conniving young women with ambitious mamas flatly terrified him. And if Miss Willory didn’t qualify as such as creature, he rather thought no one would.
She ought to be beautiful, he thought as Miss Willory and her band stopped before them. She had all the hallmarks of beauty—the pale hair and eyes, the ivory skin, the delicate features. Her hair was perfectly coiffed, her fashionable figure perfectly turned out.
But he didn’t find her beautiful. He didn’t even find her pretty. He just found her irritating.
“Here we are, Lord Thurston,” she chirped gaily. “I do hope we didn’t keep you waiting, but poor Miss Heins, we just couldn’t seem to set her bonnet straight. We quite gave up on the matter.”
Miss Heins reached a startled hand up to her bonnet, which looked perfectly adequate as far as Whit could tell. He thought to mention as much, but Mirabelle beat him to it.
“It’s a lovely bonnet, Miss Heins,” she said with a bright smile for the blushing girl. “Did you do the work yourself?”
“I…I did, yes.”
Miss Willory started and blinked at Mirabelle as if only just realizing she were there.
“Oh, Miss Browning, will you be joining us? How…unexpected.” She sent Whit an overly sympathetic smile and reached out as if to pat his arm.
In a move too smooth to insult, he avoided the contact by stepping over to Mirabelle and offering his arm. There were, it seemed, unexpected benefits to this truce with her. Not the least of which was dodging Miss Willory’s advances.
“Mirabelle agreed to join our group at my insistence.”
“Oh.” Miss Willory floundered for a moment before pasting on a doting expression. “How very, very sweet of you, my lord. You must be terribly excited, Miss Browning.”
If he hadn’t been holding her arm, Whit likely wouldn’t have noticed the way Mirabelle tensed. Her face remained impassive, and she gave a small shrug of indifference.
“I’ve always enjoyed this particular trail,” she said. “It’s best viewed in the fall, mind you, but there’s plenty to appreciate in the spring, as well. Perhaps next year, if you’re about, you might have the opportunity to view the western shore—as we’ll only be making a half trip of it today. The flora on that side are not to be missed…if one can help it.”
Neatly reminded that Mirabelle had regular access to both Haldon Hall and its master, Miss Willory could do little more than hold her false smile and speak through her teeth.
“I’m sure it’s lovely.”
“Oh,” Mirabelle breathed sweetly and took a good hold of his arm. “You have no idea.”
“Shall we begin?” Whit suggested quickly.
Conversation between Whit and Mirabelle along the trail was stiff and awkward. It was still so new, this not arguing, and there were long stretches of silence between them. Mirabelle wished dearly for long stretches of silence from the others, but while there was a notable dearth of intelligent discourse, there seemed to her no lack of pointless jabbering.
“How pretty everything is!” Miss Willory crooned. “I vow I could live on this path!”
“But what of the gypsies?” Miss Stills gasped, as if there
was a real risk of Miss Willory forsaking all her worldly goods to live in the Haldon Woods.
“Or the hermit McAlistair,” Miss Sullivan added. “Oh, do look at these big round things!”
“Oh! They’re prickly.”
“Oh! What ever could they be? Lord—”
“Chestnuts,” Mirabelle informed them, though she’d have wagered they knew quite well.
“Don’t be silly, Miss Browning,” Miss Willory snapped, clearly put out by having her question answered by someone other than his lordship. “I know what a chestnut shell looks like. My uncle’s quite fond of them. Lord Thur—”
“It’s the outer casing,” Mirabelle snuck in. It was no doubt small of her to gain such satisfaction at thwarting Miss Willory, but she just couldn’t bring herself to care.
Miss Heins nudged one with the toe of her boot. “Looks to be a chestnut.”
“Lord Thurston?” Miss Willory asked, ignoring her.
“It’s a chestnut,” he confirmed.
“How clever you are,” she simpered. “You simply must give us a lesson on—”
“Miss Browning would be a better choice of tutor. She’s made quite a study of the local flora and fauna.”
“It’s only a hobby,” Mirabelle said with a startled glance at Whit. She hadn’t realized he knew of her interests.
“Are you a bluestocking then, Miss Browning,” Miss Willory asked in a patronizing tone. “A great scholar of plants?”
“Hardly, but I’ve some passing knowledge. For example, the tree you’re standing next to is a sessile oak, and the vine wrapped around it is
a species introduced from the Americas—better known as poison ivy.”
The vine was actually a harmless everyday variety of ivy,
but Mirabelle didn’t think it would mind the lie. “Shall we continue?”
The lake path followed the curve of the shore for the most part. But there was a small section that required the group walk up a steep hill and through the trees. It was tougher going, but well worth it in Mirabelle’s opinion. The advantage of height and the distance from the lake allowed for the most spectacular views of the water. She didn’t even mind stopping when some of the others needed a rest from the climb.
“It’s beautiful,” Miss Heins said softly when they’d reached the top of the hill.
“What it is,” Miss Willory complained, “is muddy.”
It was almost always a bit damp at the top of the hill. The steep side received more sunlight and allowed for draining, but the combination of a thicker canopy and a flat expanse meant the top often had several small puddles of mud, and one larger stretch of it that disappeared around a curve.
“We simply must turn back.”
“It’s not so terrible,” Mirabelle assured her. “The worst of it can be gotten around.”
“Well, I’m certain you don’t mind, Miss Browning, not in that old thing. How wonderfully clever of you to wear a…” She waved her hand about as if searching for the right word. “…dress one wouldn’t mind having splattered hem to neck in mud.”
“That old thing” had been her best day gown until she’d purchased the lavender dress. She opened her mouth to deliver a scathing reply.
But Miss Willory continued babbling. “Mine was made by Madame Rousseau, you know. I don’t suppose you’ve heard of her. She’s terribly select in her clientele. I dare say she’d be quite displeased to see the hem of one of her creations covered in mire. And my little half boots—”
Whit stepped forward and cut her off. “You’re absolutely right, Miss Willory. Such a charming ensemble shouldn’t suffer the indignities of mud. Do you see that path we just passed there on the right?” He turned her about to point down the hill. “Not more than ten yards down? It leads back around to the house. I’m certain you, and your very fine gown, will be more comfortable there. Miss Browning and I—and anyone else who cares to join us—will continue on this way.”
Miss Willory spluttered for a moment. “You’re very kind I’m sure, my lord, but—”
“Not at all. Can’t have that pretty white muslin ruined, can we?”
“I’m sure my maid—”
“Now, now, there’s no need to be brave about it.” He gave her a slightly less than gentle nudge. “Off you go, then.”
“Miss Willory,” Whit said with just enough coolness to have Miss Willory blinking, “I insist.”
After that, there was nothing Miss Willory could do—short of begging—to retain her position in the group. But because there is nothing misery likes quite so much as company—particularly when felt by the likes of Miss Willory—she made a concerted effort to ruin everyone else’s fun as well.
“Come along then, Charlotte and Fanny,” she snapped. “Your mothers will have your heads if they hear you’ve been traipsing through the woods like common gypsies. And those worn boots of yours, Miss Heins, are likely seeping already, you’ll catch the ague.” She spun on her heel and began marching down the path, her reluctant followers trailing behind.
“Hurry along, Rebecca,” Miss Sullivan called out. “We’ll not wait for you.”
“I—” Miss Heins gave Mirabelle and Whit an embarrassed smile. “It was kind of you to let me join you this morning. I wish…well…it was kind of you.”
“Why don’t you stay,” Mirabelle suggested gently. “After the curve, this trail’s actually quite a bit nicer than the other. Not that they need to know.”
“It’s very kind of you to offer, but I—”
“I’d only be kind,” Whit pointed out, “if your company wasn’t genuinely desired, and I assure you, it is.”
“Oh…oh.” She turned a charming shade of pink and ducked her head.
“Do say you’ll come along,” Mirabelle pleaded.
Miss Heins looked toward the trail where the others, having kept their word and not waited for her, had disappeared. “I suppose, perhaps. They might wonder what happened to me.”
Mirabelle sincerely doubted they’d give it a single thought, but didn’t have the heart to voice the opinion. “Why don’t you run ahead and let them know where you’ll be? Whit and I will wait.”
“Well…all right.” A smile bloomed on her face. “Yes, all right. I’ll only be a moment.”
Mirabelle watched her scamper down the path.
“She’s like a lost kitten,” she murmured, and grimaced at her own words. “I didn’t mean that to sound insulting. There’s just something so endearing and helpless about her.”
“There is, isn’t there?” Whit agreed. “And that makes it all the more unforgivable for someone to kick at her.”
“I wonder why she keeps company with Miss Willory and her group?” Mirabelle asked as she wandered to the edge to look out over the water.
“I couldn’t say. I make a point not to involve myself in the social peculiarities of females. Perhaps there’s some sort of family friendship.”
“Well, her family could do better,” she grumbled, pacing a bit in her agitation. “Butter wouldn’t melt in Miss Willory’s mouth.”
“No,” he agreed. “But it might sour.”
That drew a laugh from her and had the knots in her belly easing. “
“I’ve no idea,” he admitted. “Shall we test it and see? You fetch the butter. I’ll hold her down.”
“Oh, Lord,” she gasped on another laugh. “Can you imagine? I wonder if we’d be lauded as heroes or villains.”
“Lunatics, would be my guess.”
“It might be worth it, just to—”
Her words cut off as she felt her heel sink, then slip in mud. If she hadn’t been so distracted, she might have noticed how close she’d been walking to the edge. She certainly would have taken care in how she righted her stumble, and where she put her next step.
Because where it landed, was in the air.
o a bystander, the act of falling off a hill might seem to be a very sudden thing. One moment a person is standing there, and the next moment she’s not, ergo—sudden.
But for the unfortunate individual actually engaged in the act of falling, it is an event that takes an inordinate amount of time—at least initially.
Mirabelle had the opportunity to remember the box she’d watched drop slowly to the sidewalk the day before, and she had the time to think she really—really and truly—ought to
be able to grab hold of a branch or a bush before it was too late. But even as her fingers reached out, the long hill rushed up before her.
After that, things moved along at a very brisk pace, indeed.
She hit, she rolled, she bumped and slid. Sky and ground raced past in a dizzying circle. She slid to a stop a good fifty yards from the top, and still a distance from the water. For one terrible second she couldn’t feel her limbs and feared she might have lost them sometime during the tumble.
Then the pain came—stings and burns mostly, that niggled more than truly hurt. Her ankle, on the other hand, positively screamed, and had her bolting up to grab hold of her leg.
Ow…ow…ow!” Between each exclamation of pain, Mirabelle mentally injected the list of invectives she’d apologized for only the day before.
With an oath of his own, Whit came crashing through the brambles to crouch at her feet.
“Look at me, imp. Look at me. Do you know where you are?”
Hurting, and irritated with what she considered a tremendously stupid question—had the man been struck blind in the last five minutes?—she shook her head at him and concentrated on breathing hard through her teeth.
His hands cupped her face, forcing her to look from her throbbing ankle to his worried gaze. “Tell me where you are.”
She glared at him. “Bottom of a hill.”
“Good.” He pulled one hand away to hold in front of her. “How many fingers am I holding up?”
Understanding began to seep in, and she made herself count the slightly blurry fingers. “Two.”
He flicked his eyes along her forehead before turning his attention to her leg.
“Move your hands. Let me see what you’ve done to yourself.”
“No! Don’t touch it!” She swatted at him. It was an instinctual response brought on by fear and pain, and Whit didn’t react to it other than to reach up and run a soothing hand down her arm.