Excerpt from Not Quite a Lady

He watched the endless blue world of her eyes widen, and for a moment he forgot everything: where he was and who he was and what he was. Then he dragged a hand through his hair and wondered if he’d hit his head without realizing.

She looked away quickly, down at her gloved hand clutching his arm. She pulled her hand away, giving him a little shove as she did it.

He could have stepped back a pace, as she clearly wanted, but he held his ground, standing too close. “That will teach me to rescue damsels in distress,” he said.

“You had no business hiding there and jumping out at me, like a--like a...” She put her hand to the tumbling mass of champagne-color hair piled upon her head and frowned. She looked about her. “My hat. Where is my hat? Oh, no.”

Her hat, a silly bit of straw and lace, had tumbled to the water’s edge.

He swallowed a smile and started that way.

“Don’t trouble yourself,” she said, and hurried toward the hat.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said.

His long stride easily overtook her nervous little trot, and they both bent and reached for the hat at the same time. Thanks to his longer arms, he captured it first, but as he came up, his head hit hers.

“Ow!” She sprang back, clutching her forehead. Her feet slid out from under her, and down she went, in a swirl of petticoats. She started to scramble up, but not too quickly for him to miss the handsome calf briefly on display.

This time he planted his boots firmly onto the sloping ground, reached down, caught her under the arms, and pulled her upright, then hauled her firmly against him as he backed up the slippery embankment.

Her round backside pressed against his groin. Along with the smell of pond muck he detected a sweeter, distinctively feminine scent. He noticed a tiny spot of mud on the nape of her smooth white neck. He caught himself in the nick of time--half a heartbeat before his tongue could flick out to...groom her?

She stomped her heel on his boot and shoved with her elbow.

He let go. “If you persist in this behavior, I shall be obliged to summon the constable,” he said.

That turned her around sharply. “The constable?”

“I could bring charges against you for trespassing,” he said. “And assault.”

“Tres-- Assault? You touched my--my--” She gestured at her bosom, which was a fine one and which his hand had encountered during the tussle, perhaps not completely accidentally. “You put hands on me.” Her face was quite rosy now.

“I may have to do it again,” he said, “if you continue to blunder about the place, alarming the wildlife.”

He had not thought her blue eyes could open any wider but they did. “Blunder about?”

 “I fear you have disturbed the dragonflies during an extremely delicate process,” he said. “They were mating, poor things, and you frightened them out of their wits. You may not be aware of this, but when the male takes fright, his procreative abilities are adversely affected.”

She stared at him. Her mouth opened, but nothing came out.

“Now I understand why none but the hardiest of the livestock remain,” he said. “You must have either frightened them all away or permanently impaired their reproductive functions.”

“Impaired their-- I did not. I was...” Her gaze fell to the hat he still held. “Give me my hat.”

He turned it in his hands and studied it. “This is the most frivolous hat I’ve ever seen.” Perhaps it was and perhaps it wasn’t. He had no idea. He never noticed women’s clothes except as obstacles to be got out of the way as quickly as possible.

Still, he could see that the thing he held was an absurd bit of froth: a scrap of straw, scraps of lace, ribbons. “What does it do? It cannot keep off the sun or the rain.”

“It’s a hat,” she said. “It isn’t supposed to do anything.”

“Then what do you wear it for?”

“For?” she said. “For? It’s... It’s...” Her brow knit.

He waited.

She bit her lip and thought hard. “Decoration. Give it back. I must go now.”

“What, no ‘please’?”

The blue eyes flashed up at him. “No,” she said.

“I see I must set the example of manners,” he said.

“Give me my hat.” She reached for it.

He put the nonsensical headwear behind his back. “I am Darius Carsington,” he said. He bowed.

“I don’t care,” she said.

“Beechwood has been turned over to me,” he said.

She turned away. “Never mind. Keep the hat if you want it so much. I’ve others.”

She started to walk away.

That would not do. She was exceedingly pretty. And the breast that had more or less accidentally fallen into his hand was agreeably round.

He followed her. “I collect you live nearby,” he said.

“Apparently I do not live far enough away,” she said.

“This place has been deserted for years,” he said. “Perhaps you were unaware of the recent change.”

“Papa told me. I...forgot.”

“Papa,” he said, and his good humor began to fade.