"You are adorable, Miss Peyton," Hugh, Earl of Briarly murmured, stopping before a late flowering rose bush in his sister, the marchioness of Finchley's, garden. It was late afternoon and the other houseguests were resting before dinner. But Lord Briarly had suggested that Kate might like to visit the garden and as this fell in nicely with Kate's plans—Kate being a self-acknowledged master planner—she'd agreed.
Lord Briarly tipped Kate's chin up between his thumb and forefinger, angling her face with unexpected gentleness. Kate was no longer a green debutante. She understood perfectly well his intentions. Indeed, she anticipated it. She held her breath, preparing to be kissed and preparing to like it.
Hugh was very handsome and most manly. Indeed, he looked a great deal like her father's head groom, a large, muscular fellow with dark reddish brown hair and chocolate brown eyes. It would, of course, be nice had he trimmed his hair. It would lend him just that certain air of elegance he somehow, well, missed. He was also, truth be told, a trifle dusty, and having two season now firmly on her family's account ledger Kate felt secure in opining that an earl oughtn't be dusty.
Still, he was an earl and he did have magnificent cattle and he did bathe. Which until recently was more than she could have said of her four brothers…She chided herself. She ought to have been attending more closely what Briarly was about because as she'd been considering his lack of sartorial splendor, his head had been slowly descending toward hers but now he'd paused, an odd, hesitant expression appearing on his face.
She knew that look. Having assumed the role of matriarch upon her mother's death six years ago, she was well versed in reading male expressions. The earl wanted encouragement. Males, young, old, servant or earl, always wanted encouragement.
So when he smiled down into her eyes, Kate smiled back, lifting her chin even higher to make sure he understood his kiss was welcome. Because it would be very pleasant to be pursued by an earl, especially now. Then she shut her eyes. And waited. And when nothing happened, experienced a twinge of rueful irritation. Must she do everything herself? She pursed her lips invitingly. Briarly swore.
Startled, Kate opened her eyes just in time to see Briarly spin around as a dark sleeve ending in a large hand shot out of nowhere and connected with his shoulder, pushing him forcefully away. The earl stumbled back, his muscular arms already notching into battle readiness but by now Kate, well used to ending masculine tussles, had already darted between Briarly and his assailant. She swung around to face the interloper and--
She knew he had been invited; she'd expected him but still... It had been four years.
She stared, her heart leaping in her throat, her breath rushing out between her parting lips as she took an involuntary step toward him. Her hands rose in an unconscious gesture of welcome as her gaze marked every detail of his countenance, every change and alteration: a red sickle shaped scar on the hard chin, deep lines scoring cheeks now devoid of any boyish padding, black brows lowered over the large, Romanesque nose. He seemed taller, darker, broader. Everything about him was at once familiar and alien.
'Twas said his tenure in the army had matured him and that he was no longer the wild, scapegrace whose name had been a byword for roguery in these parts. But since he'd just manhandled Briarly, an act much in keeping with his past, she questioned the veracity of those reports. And reports were all she had. Since his return from the wars, he'd been in London being presented to the Queen.
"Move aside, Kate," Neill said, startling her with a voice both deeper and gruffer than she recalled.
Move aside, Kate? After being away at war for nearly four years and seeing her for the first time since his return, all he could say was "Move aside, Kate?"
"I will do no such thing, Neill Oakes," she said, setting her hands on her hips. Captain Oakes, she reminded herself, though in truth she did not need reminding. Her brothers—one older and three younger—crowed about Neill's meteoric rise in the cavalry at every opportunity. From that and all the letters that passed between Neill and her family one would think he was the son of the house instead of the son of the neighbor's house. And why not? He'd had the run of Bing Hall since she could remember.
"You struck His Lordship," she said, tapping her foot.
"I did not strike him. I removed him. He was about to compromise you," Neill replied, turning his black gaze on her.
"Compromise?" she sputtered. "Oh, for heaven's sake, Neill. Only an old grandmother could think so trivial..." She caught Briarly's astounded expression and blushed, starting over. "Nothing that has happened or that might have happened can be thought to compromise me. And I might add, " she said, eying Neill darkly, "that were every kiss to lead to the alter, you would currently be heading a veritable harem!"