Laura sank to her knees in the soft loam beneath the spreading boughs of her favorite tree. Today she hadn't come to the wood to dream. She'd come to beg a favor of an old friend.
She closed her eyes, bowed her head, and clasped her hands in front of her, just as her mama and papa had taught her. "Um, God? I'm terribly sorry to trouble you, Sir, especially after having all of those uncharitable thoughts about Lord Devil"—she winced—"I mean, Lord Devonbrooke. But it seems the children and I are in something of a pickle."
Even when George and Lottie were tottering about with bad knees and wooden teeth, Laura would still think of them as 'the children.' She couldn't help but want to shield them from realizing just how grave their situation was. Especially to her.
"I hate to be such a bother when I know I haven't been as faithful as I should," she continued. "Why, only last week I neglected my psalms two mornings in a row, drifted off to sleep before I'd finished my prayers, gobbled up the last scone when I knew Lottie wanted it, and snapped at Cookie for burning the porridge. Then when I scalded my cheek with the hair tongs, I said..." she peeked through her lashes to make sure there was no one around to witness her shocking confession "a very wicked word."
The wind ruffled the leaves, sighing its disappointment. Perhaps a recitation of her shortcomings wasn't the best way to begin, Laura thought, nibbling her bottom lip.
"I wouldn't have troubled you at all, but if I am to thwart this Lord Devil"—she winced again—"Lord Devonbrooke...and keep a roof over the children's heads, it seems I must wed before my birthday. Which leaves me lacking in only one thing—a gentleman that I might marry."
Laura ducked her head deeper, her words spilling out in a rush. "So that's what I'm asking you to send me, Sir. A gentle man, a decent man, a man who will cherish me for all the years we shall live as man and wife. I'd like for him to have a warm heart, a faithful soul, and a fondness for regular bathing. He doesn't have to be terribly handsome, but it would be nice if he wasn't abominably hairy and had a reasonably straight nose and all his teeth." She grimaced. "Or at least part of them. I'd rather he not beat me, even when I deserve it, and I'd like for him to come to love George and Lottie as I do. Oh, and a tolerance for kittens might ease things considerably."
Deciding that it couldn't hurt to make a few promises of her own, Laura added, "And if you'll send me a man who can read, I'll see to it that he takes up where Papa left off." It only made sense that if God was generous enough to bless her with a husband, she should be generous enough to share him with God. Fearing she had already asked too much, she blurted out the rest. "Thank you for all of our blessings. Give Papa and Mama and dear Lady Eleanor all our love and amen."
She slowly opened her eyes, gripped by a tingling sense of anticipation. She couldn't have said what she expected from the Almighty in that moment. Rolling thunder? A majestic blast of trumpets? Incredulous laughter?
She scanned the dazzling swath of blue visible through the branches of the towering oak, but the heavens seemed as far removed as the elegant ballrooms of London.
Climbing to her feet, she brushed bits of dried leaves from her skirt. She was already beginning to regret her hasty prayer. Perhaps she should have been more specific. After all, hadn't God already sent her several prospective husbands? Kind, decent village lads who would be proud to make her their wife and Arden Manor their home. Men with loyal hearts and sturdy backs willing to work from dawn to dusk to keep a roof over all their heads.
Even tender-hearted Lady Eleanor, fearing the future could be nothing but bleak for an unmarried woman with a brother and sister to provide for, had chided her for spurning their clumsy but earnest proposals.
What if God now sought to punish her for her pride? What better way to teach her humility than to have her spend the rest of her days shaving Wesley Trumble's back or scrubbing behind Tom Dillmore's ears? Laura shuddered as a choking wave of panic rose in her throat. If God didn't send her a gentleman before her birthday, she would have no choice but to swallow her pride and marry one of the village men.
Half fearing that His answer to her prayers might be lurking in the meadow beyond in the lumbering form of Tooley Grantham, she turned away from the manor and plunged deeper into the wood. Between caring for Lady Eleanor in her last days and managing the manor since her death, there had been little time in the past few months to wander. Or dream.
The sun-dusted shadows seemed to beckon her forward. Even though Laura was old enough to know she was unlikely to encounter anything more dangerous than a cranky hedgehog or a patch of poisonous toadstools, she still found the wood's illusion of mystery irresistible. As she ventured deeper into the forest, the web of branches overhead grew more tangled, filtering the sunlight and lacing the air with a delicious chill.
As she wandered, her thoughts strayed back to her dilemma. How could she bear to wed a Huey or a Tom or a Tooley when she'd always dreamed of marrying a Gabriel or an Etienne or a Nicholas? If she married a Nicholas, she could call him Nick when they had a lover's spat and Nicky in moments of great passion. Of course, she'd never had a moment of great passion, but she remained optimistic. And he would call her by some pet name like...well, Pet. She was so busy pondering the charms of the imaginary gentleman she was going to marry that she nearly walked right into the rock-strewn gorge that bisected her path.
She was turning to go in search of a fallen log to use for a bridge when she saw him.
She froze, blinking rapidly. It wasn't the first time she'd had to blink away her fancies in this wood. As a child, she'd often had to pause and blink madly, turning a forbidding face into the gnarled trunk of an elder or a grizzled dwarf back into the squat rock he'd been all along.
But this time her frantic blinking was to no avail. She closed her eyes, counted to ten, then opened them.
He was still there, sleeping on a bed of moss at the edge of the gorge beneath the broad boughs of the oldest oak in the wood.
Laura drifted toward him, mesmerized. She might not have seen him at all if a stray sunbeam hadn't pierced the gloom, bathing him in its golden glow.
She knelt beside him, her dismay growing as she noted how still and pale he was. Her fingers trembled as she unbuttoned the top two buttons of his waistcoat and slipped her hand inside. The crisp lawn of his shirt molded itself to her hand with each steady rise and fall of his chest.
Laura didn't realize she had been holding her own breath until she sagged against him, going dizzy with relief. His heart beat strong and true beneath her palm. He was alive.
But how had he come to this place? Laura anxiously skimmed the underbrush. There was no sign of a horse, no telltale hints of a skirmish. Had he been the victim of foul play? An attempted abduction perhaps or a highwayman's attack? Such crimes were almost unheard of in the sleepy little village of Arden and the surrounding countryside, but then again, so were handsome strangers dressed in elegant finery. Laura rummaged through the pockets of his riding coat. His purse was still as intact as the mystery of his appearance.
It was almost as if he'd dropped right out of the sky.
She sat back on her heels, her eyes widening.
There could be no denying that he had the face of an angel. Not the plump, rosy cherubs Lottie was so fond of sketching in her primer, but the towering seraphim who guarded the gates of heaven with their flaming swords. His was a purely masculine beauty, strong of brow and rugged of jaw. His regal cheekbones and the hollows beneath them gave his face a faintly Slavic cast, but the ghost of a dimple in his right cheek dispelled any notion that he might be given to brooding.
Laura tilted her head to study him with a critical eye. Although there was a faint dusting of gold along the backs of his hands, most of his wavy, fair hair seemed to be growing on his head instead of out of his ears or nose. She leaned toward him, sniffing warily. The scent of some masculine soap—crisp, yet rich—emanated from his skin. She closed her eyes, breathing deeper. Even the earthy musk of his sweat was oddly compelling.
She opened them to find herself level with his nose. A nearly imperceptible bump marred its aquiline perfection, giving his face a winsome charm.
Laura sat back, shaking her head at her own folly. She was being as silly as Lottie. For a moment there, she'd actually allowed herself to entertain the ridiculous notion that he might be the answer to her prayers. But you couldn't just find a man in the woods and keep him for yourself. It simply wasn't done. She sighed wistfully, taking in the flawless cut of his buckskin trousers and the beguiling curl of his hair around his starched collar. Especially a man like him. A man like him would be sorely missed by whoever had been unfortunate enough to lose him.
Her gaze flew to his hands. He wore no wedding ring that might indicate there was an anxious wife waiting at home for him. Nor was there an ornate signet ring to provide a clue to his identity. She reached to touch his long, tapered fingers without realizing it, then jerked back her hand.
He needed a soft bed and a warm poultice for his head far more than he needed her mooning over him. She didn't relish having to explain to the local authorities how he'd perished while she wasted precious seconds admiring the chiseled curve of his smooth, firm lips.
Laura started to rise, then hesitated. She'd already lingered this long. Surely it wouldn't do any harm to steal a quick peek at his teeth.
At least that's what she told herself she was going to do as she leaned over him once more.
With the sun streaming over his noble features, he looked as timeless as a prince who had waited a thousand years for someone to come along and stir him from his enchanted slumber. Gilded dust motes drifted all around the two of them like a sprinkling of faerie glamour.
Later, she would swear that she must have fallen beneath the spell of the wood, for that was the only explanation for the shocking impulse that led her, Laura Fairleigh, a pious rector's daughter who had never so much as allowed any of her suitors to hold her hand, to lean down and touch her lips to his.
They were even smoother and firmer than they appeared, giving her an alluring taste of strength and softness. Her breath escaped in a dizzying rush, mingling with his. Since she had never kissed a man before, it took her several dazed seconds to realize that he was kissing her back. His lips had parted ever so slightly beneath hers, matching the subtle pressure of her own. As the tip of his tongue brushed her bottom lip, a wicked thrill sizzled through her, warning her that she had finally found the danger she had been seeking all of her life.
His hoarse groan shocked her to her senses. She slowly lifted her head, even more shocked to realize he had been groaning not with pain, but pleasure.
"Who...?" he whispered, gazing up at her with amber eyes fogged by confusion.
Laura couldn't have been any more mortified had she just awakened from one of those dreams where she was strolling down the streets of Arden wearing nothing but her stockings and her Sunday bonnet.
She shoved herself away from him, her words tumbling out in a nervous rush. "My name is Laura Fairleigh, sir, and I can assure you that regardless of how this appears, I am most definitely not in the habit of kissing strangers." She smoothed her hair away from her flaming cheeks. "You must think me the most shameless of hoydens. I can't imagine what came over me that would cause me to behave in such an outrageous manner, but I can assure you it will never happen again."
Before she could leap to her feet, he seized her by the arm. "Who...?" he repeated, his voice emerging in a desperate croak. His eyes narrowed as they struggled to focus on her face. "Who...? Who...am I?"
There could be no mistaking the pleading expression in his eyes. His fingers bit into her arm, demanding an answer she could not provide.
Even though she knew she was about to commit the most damning sin of her life, Laura could not stop the tender smile from spreading across her face. "You're mine."
A Kiss to Remember