A Notorious Vow (The Four Hundred #3)(6)

By: Joanna Shupe

All the moisture left her mouth and her tongue grew awkward and thick.

You are ridiculous. He is not interested in you; he is trying to communicate with you.

Embarrassed, she let her gaze fall back to the dog. Merely because she enjoyed this interaction with Oliver did not mean he fancied her in return. He was a recluse, after all, though she could not understand why. The man was ruggedly handsome and seemed comfortable in his own skin. Intelligent. Kind. Perhaps he merely needed a friend.

And why on earth would that friend be you?

She could almost hear her mother’s voice saying this. No one could cut Christina quicker than her mother. Of course, there was some truth to it. He was being solicitous, end of story. He hadn’t asked her in for tea. She had injured herself on his property. More than likely he was anxious to get rid of her but too polite to mention it.

She rose and wobbled a bit. Oliver’s big hand shot out to steady her. “Thank you,” she said once she’d collected herself. “For everything. I would have frozen to death if you had not found me and brought me inside.”

You are welcome. He went back to his paper and wrote, Are you able to find your way home safely or shall I find a footman to escort you?

She noted he hadn’t offered to escort her himself. “No, I will be fine. It is not far.”

They stood for a moment, the silence stretching. Why was she so reluctant to leave? Perhaps you are in need of the friend, not him. Hard to argue that point; other than her cousin, she had no friends close to her age.

The Barclays were impoverished, so far in debt that London society had completely turned their backs on them. The only choice had been to flee to America. Who would want to be friends with a girl in such a situation? She was tainted, an outcast.

So she knew better than to ask. Instead, she said, “Would you mind if I continued the use of your gardens for my daily walk?”

His brows shot up, eyes round and wide. You walk in my gardens every morning? he wrote.

“I will not get in your way, I promise. And I will not fall again.”

“No,” he blurted, and they both blinked at the sound. He was able to speak?

She stuck to the topic at hand. “Why?”

He started writing once more. Because it is my home and I do not wish to have strangers strolling about the property.

The words irritated her. She was not one to usually argue, but those walks were important to her. Necessary to her sanity. Perhaps if she wrote it she’d craft a better case for herself.

She pointed to his ledger and pencil, which he promptly handed her. We are not strangers, not any longer. And I swear not to disrupt anything. You will not even know I am there.

I will know, he wrote, underlining the word “will” three times.

How? In nearly three weeks I have not encountered a soul in your gardens, she wrote then passed the ledger over to him.

A muscle jumped in his jaw. Nevertheless, this is my house and I prefer to be left alone.

She finished reading and bit back a sigh. He misunderstood, clearly thinking she would pop into the house and sit down to a chat. All she wanted was to continue her walks in his empty gardens. Instead of pushing the issue, she held up her hands in surrender. Let him think he’d won. “Thank you for your help today. Good-bye, Oliver.” She signed his name as he had shown her then walked out into the corridor in search of the front door.

Chapter Two

Three days later, in the dull midmorning light, Oliver hurried to his greenhouse to begin working. He had not slept much last night, thanks to fitful dreams once again keeping him awake. He finally arose when the sun broke over the horizon.

Movement caught his gaze and he stopped. Good Lord, it was her. Christina. He sucked in a breath. She had returned, even after he’d instructed her not to come back. Yet here she strolled along the path in the same black overcoat, hair tucked under a thick hat, her gloved palm brushing over the barren hedges.

He clenched his hands and worked to calm himself down.

Why here? What was it about these plain sticks and shrubs that appealed to her? In springtime, when the blooms came in and the gardens overflowed with beauty, perhaps he could understand her interloping. But in the dead of winter? The space was downright macabre.

Not to mention she had been expressly forbidden from trespassing . . .

She hadn’t noticed him standing there so he watched her, trying to decide what to do. Though he wanted to deny it, her perfect features affected him like a punch to the stomach. No longer pale and in pain, she looked vivacious and energetic. Mischievous, almost. Cheeks and nose rosy from the cold, her skin glowed like the purest cream. Silky dark hair blew around her face while her full lips were curled into a mysterious smirk. Quite a difference from the almost shy and skittish woman he’d met the other day.