Excerpt from Miss Wonderful

Having examined the drawing room’s collection of pictures--which included several superlative paintings of Egyptian scenes--and studied the carpet pattern, Alistair walked to the French doors and looked out. The glass doors gave out onto a terrace, which gave way to a profuse arrangement of gardens. Beyond these lay rolling parkland and, farther on, the picturesque hills and dales.

He did not notice any of these landscape features. All he saw was the girl.

She was racing up the terrace stairs, skirts bunched up to her knees, bonnet askew, and a wild mass of hair the color of sunrise dancing about her face.

Even while he was taking in the hair--a whirling fireball when a gust of wind caught it--she darted across the terrace. Alistair had an unobstructed view of trim ankles and well-shaped calves before she let the hem drop to cover them.

He opened the door, and she irrupted into the drawing room in a whirl of rain and mud, taking no more heed of her bedraggled state than a dog would.

She smiled.

Her mouth was wide, and so the smile seemed to go on forever, and round and round, encircling him. Her eyes were blue, twilight blue, and for a moment she seemed to be the beginning and end of everything, from the sunrise halo of hair to the dusky blue of her eyes.

For that moment, Alistair didn’t know anything else, even his name, until she spoke it.

“Mr. Carsington,” she said, and her voice was clear and cool with a trace of a whisper in it.

Hair: sunrise. Eyes: dusk. Voice: night.

“I am Mirabel Oldridge,” the night-voice went on.

Mirabel. It meant wonderful. And she was truly--

Alistair caught himself in the nick of time, before his brain disintegrated. No poetry, he told himself. No castles in the air.

He was here on business and must not forget it.

He could not allow his thoughts to linger, even for an instant, upon any woman...no matter how lovely her skin or how warm her smile, like the first warmth of spring after a long, dark winter...

No poetry. He must view her as--as a piece of furniture. He must.

If he stumbled into another disaster this time--and disaster was inevitable if a member of the opposite sex was concerned--he would not merely suffer the usual disillusionment, heartbreak, and humiliation.

This time his folly would injure others. His brothers would lose their property, and Gordmor would be, if not utterly ruined, then left in greatly embarrassed circumstances. That was no way to repay the man who’d saved his life, not to mention his leg. Alistair must prove himself worthy of the trust his friend had placed in him.

He must prove as well to Lord Hargate that his third son was not an idle, useless fop of a parasite.

Praying his face told no tales, Alistair casually drew back, bowed, and murmured the usual polite response.

“You wanted my father, I know,” the girl said. “He appointed to meet with you today.”

“I collect he has been detained elsewhere.”

“Exactly,” she said. “I have considered engraving that as his epitaph: ‘Sylvester Oldridge, Beloved Father, Detained Elsewhere.’ Of course, that would truly be the case, would it not, were he in need of an epitaph.”

The faint color rising in her cheeks belied the coolness of her voice. It was instinctive to incline toward that hint of a blush, to see if it would grow rosier still.

Rather hastily she moved away and began untying the ribbons of her bonnet.

Alistair came to his senses, straightened and said composedly, “Since you imply he is not yet in need of it, one may safely assume he is detained only in the usual sense, not the permanent one.”

“All too usual,” she said. “If you were a moss or a lichen or possessed stamens and pistils or any other uniquely vegetative quality, he would remember the smallest detail about you. But if you were the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the eternal disposition of my father’s soul depended upon his meeting you at such and such a time, it would be exactly the same as this.”

Alistair was too much occupied with stifling inconvenient feelings to absorb her words. Luckily, her attire finally caught his attention, and this promptly purged his brain of poetic drivel.

The riding dress was of costly fabric and well made, but in a dowdy style and a shade of green unflattering to her coloring. The bonnet likewise was of superior quality, but frumpy. Alistair was baffled. How could a woman who obviously understood quality have no acquaintance whatsoever with taste or fashion?

The contradiction annoyed him, and this, combined with stifled feelings, perhaps explained why he grew so unreasonably irritated when, instead of untying the bonnet ribbons, she proceeded to tangle them.

“And so I ask you to overlook my father’s absence as a quirk or ailment of character,” she was saying as she tried to undo the tangle, “and not take offense. Drat.” She tugged the ribbons, which only tightened the Gordian knot she’d created.

“May I assist you, Miss Oldridge?” Alistair said.

She retreated a pace. “Thank you, but I do not see why we should both be aggravated by a stubborn bit of ribbon.”

He advanced upon her. “I must insist,” he said. “You are only making it worse.”

She clutched the knotted ribbon with one hand.

“You can’t see what you’re doing,” he said. He nudged her hand.

She brought her hands to her sides, and went stiff as a board. Her blue gaze fastened on the knot of his neckcloth.

“I must ask you to tilt your head back,” Alistair said.

She did so, and her eyes focused above and somewhere to his right. Her eyelashes were darker than her hair, and long. A wash of pink came and went in her cheeks.

Alistair forced his own gaze lower--past her overwide mouth--to the knot, which was very hard and very small. He had to bend close to look for a likely opening in it.

Instantly he became aware of a scent that wasn’t wet wool, but Woman. His heart gave a series of hard thumps.

Resolutely ignoring these disturbances, he managed to get one well-manicured nail into a sliver of an opening. But the ribbon was damp, and the knot gave way not one iota, and he could feel her breath on his face. His pulse picked up speed.

He straightened. “The situation appears hopeless,” he said. “I recommend surgery.”

Later he would realize he should have recommended she send for her maid, but at the time he was distracted by her lower lip, the corner of which was caught between her teeth.

“Very well, then,” she said, still looking at the spot above his head. “Rip it or cut it--whatever is quickest. The thing gives more trouble than it’s worth.”

Alistair took out his penknife and neatly sliced the ribbon. He longed to tear the bonnet from her head, hack it to shreds, throw it down and stomp on it, then hurl it into the fire--and by the way, have the milliner pilloried for making it in the first place.

Instead he withdrew to a safe distance, put away his penknife, and told himself to calm down.

Miss Oldridge snatched the bonnet from her head, stared at it for a moment, then carelessly tossed it onto a nearby chair.

“That’s better,” she said, and beamed up at him once more. “I was beginning to wonder if I must wear the thing for the rest of my life.”

The billowing cloud of fiery hair and the smile knocked Alistair’s thoughts about as though they were a lot of ninepins in his skull. He firmly put them back to rights.

“I sincerely hope not,” he said.

“I do apologize for bothering you with it,” she said. “You endured trials enough, I daresay, coming all this way for nothing. Not that I know where you came from.”

“Matlock Bath,” he said. “Not a great ways by any means. A few miles.” At least twenty it had seemed, on filthy roads, under skies spitting icy rain. “There is no harm done. I shall come another day, when it is more convenient.” When, he fervently hoped, she would be detained elsewhere.

“Unless it is convenient for you to come as a paw-paw tree, it will be another wasted journey,” she said. “Even if you should happen to find my father at home, you shan’t find him at home, if you take my meaning.”

Alistair didn’t quite take it, but before he could ask her to explain, a pair of servants entered, bearing trays laden with enough sustenance for a company of Light Dragoons.

“I beg you to partake of some refreshment,” she said, “while I withdraw for a moment to make myself presentable. Since you’ve come all this way, you might as well acquaint me with your errand. Perhaps I can help you.”

Alistair was certain it would be fatal to spend any more time alone with her. The smile muddled him horribly.

“Really, Miss Oldridge, it is no great matter,” he said. “I can come another day. I plan to stay in the area for some time.” As long as was necessary. He’d promised to take care of the problem, and he would not return to London until he’d done so.

“It will be the same no matter what day you come.” She started toward the door. “Even if you do run papa to ground, he won’t attend to anything you say.” She paused to direct a questioning look at him. “Unless you are vegetative?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Botanical,” she said. “I was aware you had been in the army, but that doesn’t mean you haven’t another occupation in civilian life. Are you botanical?”

“Not in the least,” Alistair said.

“Then he won’t attend.” She continued to the door.

Alistair was beginning to wish he’d let her choke on the bonnet ribbons. He said, “Miss Oldridge, I have a letter from your father, in which he expresses not only a strong interest in my project, but a clear grasp of its implications. I find it difficult to believe that the man who wrote this letter will heed nothing I say.”

That stopped her in her tracks. She turned fully toward him, blue eyes wide. “My father has written to you?”

“He replied to my letter immediately.

There was a longish pause before she said, “It is about a project, you said. But not connected to botany.”

“A dull matter of business,” he said. “A canal.”

She paled a little, then her animated face hardened into a polite mask. “Lord Gordmor’s canal.”

“You have heard about it, then.”

“Who has not?”

“Yes, well, there seems to be some misunderstanding about his lordship’s plans.”

She folded her hands at her waist. “A misunderstanding,” she said.

The temperature in the room was rapidly dropping.