To Woo a Widow (The Heart of a Duke Book 10)(6)

By: Christi Caldwell

“Yes. To make her smile,” she explained.

Something tugged at that thoughtful spirit. “Well, I expect they should do just that,” he said solemnly. “Perhaps you might bring them to her.” He paused. “Now.”

The nameless child blinked and glanced about. Her eyes widened, giving her the appearance of a frightened owl. Her lower lip trembled. It was then he had confirmation of something he’d suspected from down the riding trail. “Where is my mama?”

Blast. Well, there was no avoiding it now. Forcing a smile, Miles straightened and held out a hand. “I expect we should be off to find her.”

She hesitated, grabbed her book, and then placed her spare hand in his. The other clung tightly to the buttercups she’d gathered.

“Do you have a name?”

The little girl giggled. “Yes.”

Miles’ lips twitched. How very literal a child was; incapable of artifice that drove the world she’d eventually grow into.

“Do you?” she asked.

He paused and dropped a deep bow. “Miles Brookfield, the Marquess of Guilford. And what is your name, then?” he asked. While guiding her down the path, he worked his gaze over the grounds.

Another little giggle escaped the girl’s lips.

“My name is—”

“Faith!” A cry sounded in the distance and startled the wrens from the branches of a nearby elm. The birds took off into sudden flight.

Miles peered ahead, to where a woman sprinted down the riding path tripping and stumbling over herself. She skidded to a stop before them, landing hard on her knees. She dragged the girl into her arms and knocked his hand free of the child’s. The book slipped from her fingers. “Faith,” she said between her panicky, raspy breaths. The fine quality of her gray satin skirts was not the type befitting a maid.

The mother. The midnight tresses and like cornflower blue eyes hinted at the familial connection.

“Where did you go?” the lady entreated.

“I was picking flowers,” the child’s words came muffled against her mother’s chest.

The young woman drew back, searching a frantic gaze over the small figure. “Do not wander away from me or Miss Cynthia,” she demanded. “Ever.” The stern rebuke underscoring that utterance set the girl’s lip atremble.

An interloper on the reunion      , Miles shifted his weight back and forth…when the lady looked up. The panicked terror receded from her gaze, as she blinked up at him. She blinked again. And once more. “Hullo,” she said hurriedly and scrambled to her feet.

Miles sketched a bow. He opened his mouth to speak when the little girl piped in.

“Mama, this is Miles. He picked flowers for you.”

He blinked and followed the ladies’ gazes to the wilting bouquet in his hand. Gifts between a lord and lady were forbidden. Even more so between a gentleman and a married woman.

Color blossomed on the nameless lady’s cheeks. “It is impolite to refer to a gentleman by his given name,” her mother murmured.

“Miles Brookfield, the Marquess of Guilford,” he supplied and turned over the yellow buttercups. Surely improprieties could be forgiven for the benefit of a child’s happiness?

The lady hesitated, darting her wary gaze about. Did she worry about the possible scandal should a passerby observe her receiving an offering from a gentleman?

Her daughter tugged her hand. “Mama, you are being rude. He picked them for you.”

The young woman lifted her eyes once more to his. The soft blue irises momentarily froze him. When he’d been a small boy in the Sussex countryside, so many summer days he’d lay on his back staring up at the vibrant blue skies overhead. Her gaze harkened to summer skies and soft pale waters. “Thank you,” she murmured, jerking him back from that lapse into madness. As she accepted the blooms, their fingers brushed and even through the leather of his gloves, the heat of her naked fingers penetrated the fabric.

Bloody hell. Miles let his arm fall to his side. He’d never been one of those roguish sorts to lust after or bed another man’s wife. He glanced down at her wide-eyed daughter, staring up at him, and he forced a smile. “I cannot fully take credit for the offering, my lady. I had a most excellent tutor.” The child giggled at the praise. “Thank you for the lesson on how to properly gather flowers, my lady,” he said. Faith beamed and a radiant smile spread across her face. She was very much her mother’s daughter. Clearing his throat, he again turned his attention to the midnight-curled mama. “I bid you good day, madam,” he murmured and turned to go.