Authors: Alissa Johnson
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
As she had tiptoed past the breakfast room, she had heard Lady Thurston’s soft voice mingling with the guests’, along with Whit’s deeper one, but she wasn’t ready yet to face either of them.
To make pleasant conversation with a man she’d spent more than half her life dreading the very sight of…
No…no, that wasn’t quite right.
She sipped at her hot chocolate, contemplative. She’d never dreaded the sight of Whit. Not once, that she could recall, had she been unhappy to see him. It seems she had always been unhappy
him—annoyed, irritated, angry, furious and…and
she realized with a start.
She’d always been at least a little bit pleased to be annoyed, irritated, angry, or furious.
She set her cup down on her knee with a small thump, failing even to notice when some of the liquid splashed over the rim onto her dress.
Good Lord, what was the
with her? What sort of person enjoyed being aggravated—and aggravat
She gave that a great deal of thought and decided that it was the very same sort of person as Whit.
She wasn’t solely to blame for their continuing rivalry, after all, and she certainly wasn’t the only one to gain pleasure from it. He had initiated their disagreements as often as she, and she could recall, quite vividly, more than one occasion in which he’d clearly been having a grand time of it while they went at each other with slights and barbs.
She blew out a short breath and rubbed a hand on her thigh.
They were both deranged. It was as simple as that. She suspected seeing their way to
being deranged would be a much more complicated matter, but Lady Thurston wanted it done. In Mirabelle’s opinion, standing in opposition to the countess was not only the act of the deranged, but of the plainly stupid. She’d just as soon not be both in one day.
She heard the distant approach of footfalls on the gravel path leading to her bench. Her muscles tightened instinctively, so that she had to force herself to relax them again. Was it strange that she should know the sound of his walk, she wondered? Perhaps not—she knew Sophie’s quick and light steps, and Evie’s steady and uneven ones. Kate’s were slow and meandering. Lady Thurston’s were brisk and…
And this was silly, concentrating on the way her friends walked in an attempt to still her sudden nerves. She wasn’t a green girl to be ruffled by the idea of speaking with a man—a man upon whose head she’d once dumped an entire plate of eggs. Remembering that fine occasion, she relaxed, smiled, and waited.
She was still smiling when Whit stopped to stand in front of her.
“Good morning, Miss Browning,” he offered.
He looked almost adorable, she thought, with his hands clasped behind his back and his blue eyes brimming with such determined sincerity.
“Good morning,” she returned.
“How are you feeling this morning?”
“Er…very well, thank you. And yourself?”
Determination or not, what followed after that painfully stilted conversation was a long and awkward silence.
She scraped her toes against the gravel path.
He rocked on his heels.
“Lovely weather we’re having,” he tried again.
“Yes. Yes, very.”
Whit waited a moment more. Then lifted a brow and tilted his head forward and to the side. Unable to decipher what that could possibly mean, Mirabelle just stared at him until he gave up and blew out an exasperated breath.
“You have to say something I can respond to, imp. ‘Yes, very’ is hardly sufficient to keep a conversation going.”
“Oh, right! Right…Er…” She bit her lip and struggled to come up with something suitably benign to say. “Oh! Have you any plans for today?”
He nodded once, though whether it was in response to, or in approval of, her question, she couldn’t say. “I do, in fact. Several of the young ladies expressed an interest this morning in a tour of the grounds, and I’ve agreed to act as a guide.”
“That was kind of you, Whit. I wonder, which of the…Why are you glowering at me now?”
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for you to call me Whit,” he told her.
“Whittaker then?” she asked with a sugary smile. “Or would you prefer Whittaker Vincent?”
“You’re edging perilously close to being insulting. You’ll address me as ‘my lord.’”
Mirabelle snorted, twice, at the mere thought. “I will not.”
“It’s only proper. I addressed you as Miss Browning, so—”
“Then don’t,” she suggested. “It doesn’t sound right coming from you, at any rate. Why don’t we refer to each other by our given names? Your mother has asked us to behave as friends, not new acquaintances. And I can’t very well start—”
“You’re arguing, imp.”
“No I’m not, I’m—” She heard the beginnings of temper in her voice and cut herself off. She took a very deep breath, held it, then let it out. When she spoke again, it was in careful,
measured tones. “You’re absolutely right, I am. But in the interest of doing this thing well, I must tell you—in a calm and objective manner, of course—”
“—that I am uncomfortable with, and therefore unlikely to, refer to you as ‘my lord.’ As we have known each other from earliest childhood, I believe it would seem odd and forced.”
“Very well, I’m willing to—”
“Also, it is improbable that I shall remember.”
“You’re making this exceedingly difficult—”
I think it best you refrain from calling me ‘imp.’”
“I swear to—” He started and broke off as her words filtered through frustration. “Have I called you ‘imp’? This morning, I mean?”
“More than once.”
“I…really?” He squinted as if trying to remember. “I hadn’t realized.”
Mirabelle shrugged. “I don’t mind, but your mother might take offense.”
“You don’t mind?”
“Not in the least. Does it bother you when I call you ‘cretin’?”
He slanted her a look. “Yes.”
“Very well. I’ll not call you ‘my lord,’ but I’ll refrain from referring to you as ‘cretin.’”
“Among other insulting names.”
“Among other insulting names,” she agreed. “I’ll address you as ‘Whit’ or ‘Whittaker.’ You may address me as ‘Mira,’ ‘Mirabelle,’ or even ‘imp’ if you think your mother won’t mind.”
“I don’t think it will bother her overmuch.”
“Are we in agreement, then?” she asked, and wondered if two intelligent people had ever had a more ridiculous conversation.
“I’ll agree, but for the record, ‘Whittaker Vincent’ is out of the question.”
On the other side of the lawn, Lady Thurston stood in the cool shade of a willow tree and watched the young couple with mounting frustration. Even from a distance, she could see their discomfort in the way they held themselves so rigidly. Whit with his polite tilt of the head and Mirabelle with her ramrod-straight back. She could just imagine the infuriatingly formal tone of their conversation.
Lovely weather we’re having. So unusual for this time of year.
She scowled in their direction. Then scowled at the man standing next to her. “Well for heaven’s sake, this isn’t working at all. The next thing we know they’ll be addressing each other as Lord Thurston and Miss Browning.”
William studied the couple a moment longer before answering. “It does seem to be headed in that direction.”
“I thought you’d done this sort of thing before.”
He shifted at the quiet hint of accusation. “I have, and with some success, I’ll remind you.”
She nodded toward the pair. “And was this the way your earlier success proceeded?”
“The two cases are entirely different.” When she only stared at him, one eyebrow raised, he coughed nervously into his fist. “There were, I’ll admit, one or two…er, complications.”
“Complications,” she repeated with narrowed eyes.
“Well, they do happen,” he said in a defensive tone. “I’ve taken a lesson from them and tried to go a bit more simple this time ’round, but I’m not a fortune-teller, am I?”
She blew out a quick breath and reached to give his arm a gentle squeeze. “No, of course not. Please accept my apologies. I’m a bit concerned is all. Her uncle’s hunting
party is at the end of the week and I had rather hoped she wouldn’t have to go.”
“If all goes well, it’ll be the last she need ever attend. Did the invitation arrive?”
“Same time every year,” she affirmed. “The man’s an idiot. A vile, drunken idiot.”
“I’ll not argue it,” he said softly. “But Mirabelle’s safe enough, my lady. As safe as any of us can make her at present.”
“I know.” She turned to give him a smile filled with gratitude. “I’ll never be able to repay you adequately for that kindness. It’s a priceless gift you’ve given me.”
“Well now.” He coughed into his hand a second time and shuffled his feet. “It’s nothing. Nothing at all. Just a favor for an old friend.”
“You give it too little credit. I’m in your debt.”
“But as for the other matter we discussed.” She turned to face him. “Whit may be a man fully grown, but he is still and always will be my son. If he comes to harm while under your command, I’ll use every resource at my disposal to see you suffer. And you may be sure my methods will be a good deal more…thorough than anything your clever but unimaginative men ever thought to devise.”
His only response was an audible swallow.
Satisfied she’d made herself perfectly clear, she smiled and gave him a soft pat on the arm before leaving. “Wipe your boots when you come inside, dear.”
Mirabelle scooted over to make room for Whit on the small bench. Having successfully concluded the monumental task of agreeing on names, they were now once again at a loss for what to discuss.
“Well,” he said pointlessly and looked about him, searching for inspiration.
“Well,” she returned, feeling several degrees beyond foolish.
She was generally rather good at making friendly chatter. She was a popular dance partner during the London Season for that very reason. Ye t here she was, quite unable to think of a single topic of conversation. Or perhaps more to the point, quite unable to think of a topic of conversation that wouldn’t have one or the both of them up in arms within minutes.
Truth be known, the one thought that kept popping into her mind just now, was that she couldn’t recall a time before in which she’d ever sat so close to Whit.
Physical avoidance had been included in their feud. Probably less out of a conscious distaste for the contact than out of a concern for safety—Whit’s primarily. But their knees and shoulders were brushing this morning, and she could feel the heat of his form through her gown. There seemed to be an awful lot of it, she noted. An awful lot of him.
Why that should make her uncomfortable now, when they were sitting together in peaceful—if awkward—silence, was a question she’d just as soon not answer. She might recognize the little jolt her heart gave at the contact, but it didn’t stand that she had to acknowledge it.
She reached for something to say, something to take her mind off their closeness.
“Would you care to join the tour this morning?” he asked suddenly.
She snapped her mouth shut, what ever she was about to say instantly forgotten. Until that moment, Mirabelle would have been unable—even upon pain of death—to recall a single instance before in which Whit had extended her an invitation without his mother’s immediate prompting. Unless, of course, she’d been allowed to count the times he’d invited her to go to the devil, in which case she’d have had ample examples—
“Oh, sorry. I was woolgathering.”
“I guessed as much. Merino or just your everyday sort of wool?”
“Merino,” she decided with a smile. “And I think I’d like to go for that walk this morning. Where will we be going?”
“The lake path, if it suits the ladies.”
“Really?” Mirabelle asked, genuinely pleased. “That’s my favorite.”
“Is it?” He studied her face. “Honestly, or are we still being polite?”
“Both, I suppose. We’re behaving remarkably well, in my opinion. And it truly is my favorite walk. I particularly enjoy the curve on the far eastern side, where that enormous old oak stands and the reeds grow high as my waist. Did you know, last spring, there was a nest of ducklings right on the other side of that tree?”
“I did, though I hadn’t realized anyone else knew it was there.” His face lit up with a knowing smile. “Fattest chicks I’ve ever seen.”
Mirabelle found herself smiling in return. “They were enormous…I fed them regularly.”
“Yes, me too.”
Delighted with the picture of a grown man sneaking behind an old tree to feed baby ducks, Mirabelle laughed out loud.
Feeling comfortable, Whit stretched his legs out before him. She had a nice laugh, he thought. Soft and low, like a warm wind over water. He’d heard it before, countless times. But never had he heard it directed at him. No, that wasn’t right. She’d laughed
him more times than he cared to remember. Never before had she laughed
him. It was a completely different experience, and one he was finding surprisingly pleasant.
A whole world more pleasant than the experience of hearing the tittering giggles of Miss Willory and her followers,
which, unfortunately, was the very sound currently emerging from the back door. He felt Mirabelle tense as the group spotted them and began to head in their direction. He could hardly fault her for the reaction.
Miss Willory may not have been the most pretentious and mean-spirited young woman of his acquaintance, but she was a contender. And it didn’t help matters that she was so often surrounded by Miss Fanny Stills and Miss Charlotte Sullivan, her greatest admirers and mimics. And Miss Rebecca Heins…well, Miss Heins seemed a sweet creature, actually, but the group as a whole was a disquieting sight to behold.
“These are the ladies you spoke of?” Mirabelle asked, still watching the group.
“I see,” she said slowly. “You didn’t think of this outing, did you?”