Leaning across the table, Esme Maguire squinted at her guest. Her eyesight wasn’t what it used to be, but her instincts were rarely wrong. And right now they were telling her that the gel who’d stumbled up to her cottage during this wretched storm wasn’t telling the entire truth.
“Lost, you say?” Esme mused. “And here we thought… well, never mind that. It’s not like Nelson to be wrong, but still I’m glad you ended up on my doorstep, for it isn’t a fit night to be out.” From the lady’s side, an indignant yowl rose, and she scratched the cat with an indulgent caress.
Yes, Nelson, you have the right of it, Esme thought.
The drenched young lady across the table stared down at the cup of tea in her hands. “Yes, after the mail coach became mired in the mud, the driver assured me there was an inn not far up the road, but I fear I wandered down the wrong lane. Thank you so much for taking me in.” She shivered and took another sip from her tea.
Over near the fireplace hung her steaming gown—an expensively wrought piece of blue silk, and of far better quality than any of Esme’s usual clients wore.
So, the old lady reasoned, she was no milkmaid or country girl, but most likely a lady. And from the state of her perfect hands, white and uncallused, one who had never toiled.
The mystery of her guest tugged at Esme’s innate curiosity. “Lucky you are to have found your way here, Miss—”
The girl glanced up, her eyes wide. “Oh, uh, I’m… I’m… Miss Symthe.”
“Miss Symthe it is then,” Esme agreed. For now. “And I’m Mrs. Maguire. But you must call me Esme, for everyone does.” She sighed. “Oh, but isn’t it nice to have a bit of company on such a miserable night.” As if to emphasize her words, a clap of thunder boomed overhead, shaking the timbers around them. “I don’t get as many visitors as I like, and I do so love to have someone to talk to.”
“Yes, company is lovely,” the lady mused, as she glanced about the shadowy room.
“More tea?” Esme asked even as she filled the lady’s cup once again with the spicy brew. After she refilled her own, she settled back into her seat. “Now where is it that you’re bound?”
Miss Smythe took a nervous sip from her cup. “Brighton.”
Esme smiled. The tea was starting to work, because that was the first honest thing the girl had told her. “Oh, a bit of sea air, a bit of romance, I suppose,” she mused. “Are you meeting someone there? Perhaps a young man?”
“Oh, nothing like that,” the girl said hastily. “I fear I’m rather too old for such a thing.”
Esme waved her hand at such a notion. Certainly this Miss Smythe was no schoolgirl, for she hadn’t that dewy innocence about her, but she was hardly past her bloom what with her rosy cheeks and bright eyes. “Too old for love, she says,” she muttered in an aside to Nelson.
Nelson shot a glance at their guest, before he switched his long tail and then returned his gaze to his mistress and let out an adamant meow.
“Nelson is quite right,” Esme declared. “No one is too old for love. Even you, Miss Symthe.”
“I hardly have time for all that,” she said, politely covering a yawn with her hand.
“Time?” Esme asked. “Time is what you make of it. And I would imagine you have enough to find your heart’s desire.” She scratched Nelson again. “I could help you with it, if you like. For a small fee that is.” She held out her hand, her eyes fixed on the delicate little blue reticule before her guest.
“A small fee for my heart’s desire?” The girl laughed, making just a small hollow sound, as she reached for her purse. “‘Well, I suppose it is the least I can do for your hospitality.” As she passed the coins across the table, her glance strayed to Nelson.
The foolish cat was grinning at the sight of gold—probably fancied a fine chicken and kidney pies with their newfound riches. Oh, yes, there would be a bit of that for him, but first and foremost they had to discover the truth about their newfound client.
“What would that be?” Esme prodded. “What would be your heart’s desire?”
Miss Smythe yawned again. “I do beg your pardon. I traveled quite a distance today, and what with the storm and all, I fear I am quite tired.”
“I suppose you are.” Esme nodded toward a small cot in the corner. “Lay down over there, Miss Smythe. Sleep a bit. We can discuss everything in the morning.”
The tea had done its work, for even as the girl’s head touched the pillow, Esme could see the dreams that rose within her guest. Wishes that tipped and toppled as they danced through a Season in London.
Settling into her rocking chair and pulling out a pipe, Esme smoked and eavesdropped on the girl’s dreams.
And of course into Miss Smythe’s slumberous interlude strode a man.
“Isn’t there always one?” she said, nudging Nelson who’d climbed up into her lap.
The cat shook his head and then nodded at her to get on with her business. As far as Nelson was concerned, there was a fine dinner to be had out of all this.
So caught up in her own jest, Esme almost missed a glance at the sort of man Miss Smythe desired. But when she did turn her attention to him, the elegant figure cutting a dashing path across Almack’s stopped her cold.
A man with a carefree smile and a rakish gleam to his eyes. A man Esme knew only too well.
“How could this be?” she whispered to the large tabby. Even the unflappable Nelson appeared stunned. Yet there he was, Miss Smythe’s heart’s desire, as clearly as if he’d just walked through Esme’s door. Now it was up to them to see that the girl found her way into his heart.
Esme set Nelson down, then rose and tottered over to the door, reaching for her cloak hanging there. Turning to Nelson, she motioned at him to follow her. “Storm or not, come along. We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
The cat grumbled something under his breath, but followed his mistress out into the dark and wretched night.
A bargain, was after all, a bargain.
The next morning…
“Esme, are you in there?” The door rattled on its hinges as something hard rapped against the solid oak. “Time to wakeup, old gel. I come bearing gifts.”
Miss Amanda Preston sat bolt upright in a narrow cot. For a moment she couldn’t reconcile the deep voice outside with the odd dreams she’d been having, least of all, determine where she was or why she was wearing a night rail that wasn’t her own.
As the man outside knocked again, this time a little more insistently, the sharp sound jolted her memory like the claps of thunder that had rattled the cottage through the long dark hours.
The storm. She’d sought shelter here after she’d . . .
She blinked at the bright and merry sunshine pouring in through the windows. The morning radiance had chased away the shadows and eeriness that had lent the lonely cottage such a mysterious air the night before. Especially since it seemed her well meaning, albeit odd, hostess, Mrs. Maguire was gone. Not even that peculiar feline, Nelson lurked about.
Why in daylight, the entire place looked rather ordinary. Amanda would have sighed in disappointment but the pounding started in again, as well as the voice.
“Esme? Are you well? Come now, open the door. Her dragonship sent me over with a basket of provisions, including a nice roast chicken for Lord Nelson and by the smell of it, a batch of Mrs. Stocken’s scones which are making me nigh on faint. That, and this demmed leg.” The last comment was muttered more like a curse. “Oh, playing hard to get, are you? I’m going to count to three and if you can’t get decent in that time, I’m still coming in.”
Of all the impertinence, Amanda thought, that is until a jolt of panic raced through her. This man intended to come in and she wasn’t dressed. Not even moderately decent.
“One!” came the cry from the door.
Goodness, where were her clothes? She glanced first toward the hearth where they had hung the last time she’d seen them. There was nothing there now but a bundle of herbs. She dashed out of bed and ran right into a low table sending it toppling over.
The rather boisterous laughter from outside did nothing to improve her mood.
“Who have you got in there, Esme? A lover? I’ll be jealous if you’ve been cheating on me.” More laughter ensued. “Stow the bastard quickly for I won’t stop counting just to protect your questionable reputation. Now where was I? Ah, yes—two!”
A lover? Last night her hostess had seemed so kindly, though granted a bit odd, but now Amanda was starting to wonder about the lady’s character if she had such forward callers so early in the morning.
Taking one more frantic glance around, she spied her gown neatly folded on the chair beside the bed.
In her haste, she’d bolted right past it.
If she felt relief in finding her gown, her panic returned tenfold. She stared down at her clothes and wondered what one did next. She’d never dressed herself a day in her life. Her mother had forbidden her and her sisters from ever doing anything for themselves. It just wasn’t done, the lady had extolled her daughters time and time again.
But it had to be done now. And quickly.
The pounding on the door started anew. “Esme? Are you well?” Now there was an anxious tone lacing the voice outside, something that spoke of friendship and respect, and well, concern.
She wondered if anyone was so worried about her now that she’d gone missing. Amanda snorted and decided worry was the least of the emotions that were probably echoing through the manor. Most likely the walls were reverberating with her father’s complaints as to the ‘expense’ of bringing her home, while her mother fussed peevishly about the possible scandal of it all.
Meanwhile, outside Esme’s cottage, this man didn’t seem the least deterred by expense or propriety as he hammered on the door. “Three! I’m coming in whether you like it or not.”
“Oh, no, please don’t,” Amanda called out, as she frantically yanked her dress over her head. Suddenly instead of being her sister’s best day gown, the elegant creation turned into a straitjacket, trapping her arms askew, not even allowing her a peek at Mrs. Maguire’s anxious protector.
The door to the cottage creaked open. “Esme? Is that you?” The bemused questions were followed by footsteps and the tap of a walking stick. “I think not. I haven’t seen a pair of legs that fine since the last time I saw the Revue in London.”
A hot blush rose up on Amanda’s cheeks. He was looking at her legs? She knew right there and then this trespasser was no gentleman.
All her mother’s stern warnings about the evils of men rose in her ears like a cacophony of banshees. To answer their strident cries, she struggled to pull the dress down.
At least far enough to cover her knees.
Her ankles could wait, some little wicked part of her ventured.
“So who have we here?” The footsteps and tap of a walking stick drew closer.
“Sir, I beseech you to leave. At once,” she pleaded through the tangled folds of her gown. “I am not decent.”
“I beg to differ. From my vantage point, you appear quite fetching,” came the whimsical reply. “But here, let me assist you. It wouldn’t do for me to be caught with a half-dressed client of Esme’s.”
Client? Whatever did that mean?
Then like the storm from the night before, the old lady’s words clamored in her head with the same resonance as the thunder that had shaken the timbers.
I could help you with it, if you like. For a small fee that is.
Oh, what kind of muddle have I found myself in now? Amanda struggled and wiggled and tried pushing her arms this way and that, searching for a sleeve or the opening at the neck. How could getting dressed be so difficult? “Oh, the devil take this,” she muttered as yet another frantic attempt failed.
“Truly, I can help you,” her mysterious benefactor offered. “If you would just—”
A pair of warm, strong hands caught hold of her waist. After the shock of being held with such . . . such . . . enticing familiarity started to wear off, Amanda panicked. Oh, she could see why her mother’s warnings had always been so strident, there was something altogether too tempting about being held thusly by a man. One that made her want to lean into his chest, to reach out and touch him to see if the man surrounding the deeply sensual voice was just as promising.
What was she thinking?
“Unhand me!” Amanda cried, trying to get away. The back of her legs smacked into the cot and she nearly toppled backward onto it.
Nearly that is, if it hadn’t been for the unwanted help he continued to offer. His arms wound quickly around her waist and hauled her upright until she was pressed scandalously against his chest.
Really held, not at some proper distance, but gathered in close without any regard for decency or manners or society’s rules.
Amanda gasped as her body melded to his. In an instant, the warmth of his limbs sent a dangerous tremor of recognition through her. She was no longer just Miss Amanda Preston, but “fetching” and she felt it all the way done to her bare toes.
However, her mother’s stern warnings and her years at Miss Emery’s Establishment for the Education of Genteel Young Ladies overruled any further sense of adventure, and so she told him in the sternest voice she could muster, “Please sir, unhand me.”
“If you would only hold still, I could get you dressed,” he said with such supreme confidence, she had no doubt that he was well-versed in the intricacies of lady’s clothing.
Yet why did she have to be the lady men wanted to help get dressed?
“Hold still,” he told her again . “You’ve really got this in a dreadful tangle.” His fingers, which had been diligently searching for a sleeve, instead brushed over her breast, sending a quake of delight and shock through her.
“Oh, my!” she gasped. Being held was one thing, but this … this sent her into a realm that not even her mother’s ominous warnings had strayed.
“Release me now!” she told him, this time in earnest, her hands finding the wall that was his chest and giving him a good shove.
It was enough to send him toppling over. She heard the clatter of his cane, but to her dismay, he had no intention of letting her go, and she fell with him into a heap on the cot.
“O-o-o-f,” he said as she landed atop him.
If merely being with a man in her undress was ruinous, then this, without a doubt, would be her final undoing. She sat straddling him, her bare thighs against the thin leather of his breeches, her breasts pressed against his chest. And what she felt pressed to her thighs—so hard and all too masculine, sent her heart pounding at a dangerous rate.
When she’d fled her parent’s house yestermorn, there had been a small, fervent hope that she would find her own bit of excitement. But never would she have believed that she’d find it so quickly, or rather, that it would find her, and quite insistently for that matter.
His hands found her hips and settled her exactly atop him. “I daresay if you wanted me beneath you,” he said, the tempting promise behind his voice bringing a hot blush to her cheeks, “all you had to do was ask.”
“I wanted no such thing,” she shot back, even as the delicious heat of his body enticed her to move closer to him. “Truly, I did not want this.”
Oh, now she could count lying as another of her newfound sins. That, and the unnamable desires this man stirred within her—irresistible notions of intimacy—the feel of his bare skin against hers, his confident touch, the whisper of his deep voice in her ears. If she didn’t find a way to resist his spell, she’d be a fallen woman in no time.
Not that such a thing mattered to her anymore. But still, she couldn’t erase her four years of schooling at Miss Emery’s Establishment for the Education of Genteel Young Ladies so easily.
So resist him she should. Er, would. “Sir, if you do not unhand me I’ll—”
“If I must,” he said, a hint of playful regret in his voice. Next thing she knew, his hands no longer cradled her hips, but were once again pulling and tugging at her dress. Before she knew it, her arms found her sleeves and the gown popped down over her head without any further mishaps.
That is until she glanced at her savoir, or as her mother would say, despoiler, and realized she must be dreaming.
“Oh dear, oh my,” she sputtered as her heart sang with recognition and then lurched in despair.
The man beneath her was none other than Mr. James Reyburn.
But her anguish was for naught, because it was obvious he didn’t recognize her. The quizzical look in his clear blue eyes told her only too clearly that he had no idea who she was. Like most men who’d ever met her, he’d put her out of his mind as quickly as the introduction had been made and the sting of his failure now hurt no less than it had all those years ago when he’d danced with her out of desperation.
Oh, yes, for what man ever remembered Miss Amanda Preston, the all-too-forgettable daughter of Lord and Lady Farleigh.
The disappointment flooding the lady’s lively green eyes was nothing compared to the stabbing grief that wrenched through Jemmy’s gut as he watched her struggle to get away from him.
He didn’t know why he expected anything different. Mayhap it was because he hadn’t flirted with, let alone held, a woman in so long. How easy it had been to delude himself in those few seconds, in the thrill of the chase, in the intoxicating desire of having a woman in his arms, as to forget why he’d turned his back on such conquests.
For any young woman who looked at him, no matter how well-bred or disciplined she might be, could not hide her dismay at the beastly reminders the war had etched upon him.
The pain in his leg he could live with. The scar on his face he didn’t mind, but a woman’s regard, the kind that spoke of approval and desire, something that had once seemed like his birthright, he sorely missed.
“I must be away,” the young woman said, as she scrambled up from the cot, unwilling to look at him. “This is hardly proper. I wouldn’t want anyone to think that we…”
Then it occurred to him what the real reason for her alarm might be. Not so much his appearance, but…
He didn’t even want to say it, it was so laughable. Not even Esme would dare such a bargain. “You don’t think that I’m—”
“I don’t know what you are, sir, but I am not… not…”
“Going to marry me?” he suggested.
This brought the chit’s gaze spinning back to his. “Marry you?”
Well, she needn’t sound so incredulous.
“I don’t believe,” she said, “that this situation calls for such drastic measures. I may not have much experience in these matters, but I doubt my clumsiness would be regarded as compromising enough to demand marriage. Indeed, if you think I’ve lured you here on some pretense—”
Jemmy had heard enough. He glanced around and spied his cane, which he caught up and used to rise from the bed. His leg wobbled beneath him but he held his position as if he were facing the French. “Lured me here? I’m not the one lolling about Esme’s cottage in their altogether awaiting their true love.” His words came out bitter and harsh, more than they needed to be. He suspected it was the lingering sting of her rejection that spurred such venom, but if he was honest, he’d admit that it was fed mostly by his own disillusionment.
He’d believed in true love once. Of happily ever afters.
“You’re mad,” she shot back, “if you think I’m here looking for a husband. What is it about this place that has everyone convinced I need to find romance?” She turned her back to him and finishing smoothing her gown into place.
Unfortunately, the pretty silk fell all the way to the floor and Jemmy cursed himself for helping her.
She truly did have a fine pair of legs and it was a shame to hide them.
But that wasn’t the point, he reminded himself. Besides, it wasn’t like he’d have an opportunity to view them again. “Romance is the only thing most people have on their minds when they come here,” he told her.
She glanced over her shoulder at him, her brown hair tumbling in a long curl down her back. “Whatever for?”
“Because of Esme,” he said. He stepped a little closer to her. “You don’t mean to tell me you didn’t know that she is the matchmaker.”
“A matchmaker? Ridiculous. Whatever would I be doing with a matchmaker? I simply got lost in the storm last night and stumbled upon this place. Mrs. Maguire offered me shelter and when I was awakened this morning, rather rudely I might add, she was gone.” She opened a plain leather valise and started searching through it as if tallying up her belongings. “Now if you are done with your speculations as to my character, I’ll be gone.”
Something about her indignation, her denial caught Jemmy’s curiosity. “What would you expect me to think?” he asked her. “After all, this is Bramley Hollow so it is natural to assume—”
Her hand froze over the latch on her traveling bag. “Bramley Hollow?” Her eyes widened in recognition.
So she really hadn’t known. “Aye, Bramley Hollow.”
“And this is—” She looked about the cottage, her gaze darting over the bundles of herbs hanging from the rafters to the heavy pot slung in the fireplace.
“Yes, the cottage of the matchmaker,” he told her. “The matchmaker of Bramley Hollow.”
From the look on her face, she was no longer lost. She knew exactly where she was.
“Oh, this is a disaster.” Her hand now floundered about for something steady to grab hold of.
“Hardly all that.” Jemmy slid a chair beneath her shaky legs. She sat down, her head resting in her hands. “As long as you didn’t engage Esme’s services, make a bargain with her, then you needn’t worry that you are about to be dragged before the parson.”
Her gaze flew up to meet his. “A bargain?”
“Yes, you know, over tea, I would imagine. She pours you a cup and offers to help you find your heart’s desire.”
If the gel had been pale before, she hadn’t a bit of color left now. “Don’t tell me, you drank the tea?”
She didn’t speak, only nodded.
Jemmy had been warned by his father from an early age not to ever partake in a cup of Esme’s potent brew. It was how his own parents had ended up wedded. “I wouldn’t be so overwrought,” he offered. “As long as you didn’t give her any money, then there is no harm done.”
She closed her eyes and shuddered, as if trying to forget the evening in its entirety.
“You gave her money?”
“Just a few coins. It seemed the decent thing to do. She’d taken me in, after all. I thought she was naught but a lonely old lady with a fastidious cat to feed—”
“Nelson,” Jemmy said, groaning. If Esme could be called a bit of an oddity, a few centuries back the eerie Nelson would have qualified her for a nice toasty blaze in the village square.
“Yes, Lord Nelson. I thought a few coins would put her right for the time being. Just enough for a stewing hen is all. But I certainly didn’t ask her to make a match for me.”
“Are you positive?” he asked. “Absolutely positive?” Esme wasn’t renown for being all that open and honest about her transactions.
The young woman bit her lower lip and closed her eyes. “I fear it is all a bit hazy. But I think I did give her a few coins after she offered to help me. But with what, I can’t recall.”
Now it was Jemmy’s turn to seek out a chair. He slumped down and looked across the table at her. “You know what you’ve done, don’t you? You’ve contracted a match!”
Her cheeks pinked. “I did no such thing. I was merely lost and sought shelter here, nothing more.”
Jemmy stared at her. “Well, it turned into something more, now didn’t it?”
The lady’s chin notched up. “It’s not like these sort of things are done anymore. It was all just an innocent bit of conversation.”
“Not in Bramley Hollow,” he said. “A bargain is a bargain. And when a match is contracted, it must be completed.” He paused for a second, feeling no small twinge of guilt to be the one to break the bad news to her. “‘Tis the law. You must be wed.”
Her eyes widened again. “The law? Why that is barbarous. You can’t force a person to wed.”
“No one is forcing you. You were the one who contracted Esme’s services. But the law is quite specific on the subject. Once a match is engaged, an expedient marriage must take place.”
“How can that be? Banns must be read.”
“Not in Bramley Hollow,” he told her. “The King granted the village an exemption from the Marriage Act, though only in weddings contracted through the matchmaker.”
She shook her head at this unpleasant news. “I don’t see how I can be forced to wed someone in such short order.”
“Surely you know the legend of Bramley Hollow?” Having grown up under its auspices, Jemmy couldn’t imagine anyone not knowing the story.
“Yes, yes, I know the tale, but I don’t see why a thousand year old pledge need be honored. Especially since I was induced into this bargain by trickery.”
“Trickery is how matchmaking got its start in Bramley Hollow—if that princess hadn’t induced the baron to marry her, she would have ended up wed to that wretched despot. Her clever bit of matchmaking and the baron’s loyalty have kept the village out of harm’s way all these years.” He smiled at her. “But just in case you are of royal blood, your father isn’t going to sack the village if we don’t hand you over, is he?”
She managed a wane smile. “I don’t think Bramley Hollow need fear anything so dire.”
“Relieved to hear it—I had visions of having to haul the family armory out of the attics.”
“But don’t you see—I don’t want to be married.”
“Oh, this cannot be!” she said, bounding up from her chair. “I can’t get married.” Something about her spirit tugged at his heart, almost more so than the memory of her soft thighs and long legs.
“Whyever not? You aren’t already engaged, are you?” He didn’t know why, but for some reason he didn’t like the idea of her being another man’s betrothed. Besides, what the devil was the fellow thinking, letting such a pretty little chit wander lost about the countryside?
But his concerns about another man in her life were for naught, for she told him very tartly, “I am not engaged, sir, and I assure you, I’m not destined for marriage.”
“I don’t see that there anything is wrong with you,” he said without thinking. Demmit, this is what came of living the life of recluse—he’d forgotten every bit of his town bronze. “I mean to say, it’s not like you couldn’t be here seeking a husband.”
The disbelief on her face struck him to the core.
Was she really so unaware of the pretty picture she presented? That her green eyes, bright and full of sparkles, and soft, brown hair, still tumbled from her slumbers and hanging in long tangled curls was an enticing picture—one that might persuade many a man to get fitted for a pair of leg-shackles.
Even Jemmy found himself susceptible to her charms—she had an air of familiarity about her that whispered of a strength and warmth and sensibility, capable of drawing a man toward her like a beggar to a warm hearth.
Not to mention the parts, that as a gentlemen, he shouldn’t know she possessed, but in their short, albeit rather noteworthy acquaintance, had discovered with the familiarity that one usually had only with a mistress . . . or a hastily gained betrothed.
He shook that idea right out of his head. Whatever was he thinking? She wasn’t interested in marriage, and neither was he. Not than any lady would have him . . . lamed and scarred as he was.
“I hardly see that any of this is your concern,” she was saying, once again bustling about the room, gathering up her belongings. She plucked her stockings, gauzy, French sort of things, from the line by the fire.
He could imagine what would they would look like on her, and more importantly what it would feel like sliding them off her long, elegant legs.
When she saw him staring at her unmentionables, she blushed and shoved them into her valise. “I really must be away.”
“Away?” He shook his head. “You can’t leave.”
“I’m certainly not staying.”
He rose from the table. “You don’t understand. You can’t leave. If you do, you’ll be breaking the law. The magistrate won’t allow it, and I assure you the constable will have you in irons before you can cross the shire.”
“And you, sir?” she asked. “Will you allow me to be wed against my will?”
“Well, I . . . I mean to say,” he stammered. He’d never considered the idea. “That is, order must be maintained.” Some answer, he thought. He sounded like a third rate barrister who’d barely managed to make the bar let alone find the Inns of Court.
“Yes, that is a fine opinion. Some gentleman you are.” She tossed a glance in his direction, as if she were sizing him up to see if he were capable of stopping her. When she continued her packing he felt more than just slighted.
“I care not what your antiquated laws require,” she told him. “I will be well away from here before anyone misses me. As it is, I’ve tarried too long. Thank you, sir, for your warning, and now I bid you good day.” She finished stowing her meager belongings and then plopped a straw bonnet atop her head and hustled out the door before he could even try to stop her.
So much for his arguments about maintaining law and order.
But more than that, he found himself unsettled by the quiet solitude of Esme’s cottage that now surrounded him. Instead of wrapping him with a sense of calm, it only served as a unpleasant reminder of the empty, lonely void that was his life.
How was it that in such short order, this tart tongued, spirited lady had left her mark upon him? Not that he was likely to discover what that mark might be for he’d let her get away.
Demmit, he didn’t even know her name.
But a few moments later she came rocketing back into the cottage, a frown creasing her fair brow, and she managed quite handily to toss his life upside down once again.
“Forget something?” he asked, trying his best to ignore the cheer of elation rising in his chest at the sight of her crooked bonnet and the tangled curls peeking out beneath it.
“Yes,” she said, her booted foot gouging at the floor, her teeth nibbling for a moment at her lower lip. “Which way is it to Brighton?”