To Woo a Widow (The Heart of a Duke Book 10)(8)

By: Christi Caldwell

The young nursemaid rushed over, shifting Violet in her arms. “Oh, my lady,” she cried, with a fervor more suited to a carriage accident than a little stumble in the park.

She sighed. Then, she’d always been weak, pathetic Philippa, doing exactly as people wished to keep everyone happy. Doted on by all. “I assure you, I am fine,” she murmured and once more made to stand, when thundering hooves sounded in the distance.

They looked as one. Philippa’s heart did a funny leap. He’d returned.

The Marquess of Guilford brought his mount to a stop. In one fluid movement, he dismounted, tethered his towering horse to a nearby oak, and strode toward their quartet. He dropped to a knee beside Philippa. “Are you hurt, my lady?” he asked, in a mellifluous baritone that caused her heart to speed up another beat.

Unable to drag forth words, Philippa shook her head and then glanced at her ankles. She gasped and rushed to cover her exposed lower legs.

“My mama is hurt,” Faith said, when Philippa failed to respond.

The marquess shifted his gaze from her feet and she braced for his questioning. Instead, he moved his attention to the little informant. “Is she, my lady?” he asked in gentle tones.

“Oh, yes. She stepped in a rabbit hole because she was not looking where she was going.”

As her daughter proceeded to chatter like a magpie, Philippa cocked her head. Never in the course of her life had a gentleman taken the time to speak to her as a woman, let alone a small girl. Her own father, God rot his soul, had been a dark devil who’d beat his daughters with the same frequency he’d beaten his sons. As a woman, her elder brothers had taken little interest in her future or her happiness, beyond the proper, formal match coordinated by her eldest brother. And yet, here was this man…a stranger, speaking to her child as though she were an equal, when gentlemen tended to not see a child, and most especially not a female one.

“Isn’t that right, Mama?”

Blinking wildly, Philippa looked from her daughter to the nursemaid cradling Violet, and then to the marquess. Each stared at her, expecting something. Her mind raced. Just as Philippa was not the manner of woman to not attend where she was walking or to stare after a gentleman, neither was she the one who woolgathered while others spoke. She attended conversations. She worried her lower lip. Or she did. Normally. Not now. And when possessed of an absolute lack of idea on how to respond, she opted for the very safe, “It is.”

A lazy smile turned the marquess’ lips up and her maid gasped.

Philippa’s stomach dipped and she realized she’d said the absolute worst thing.

“See, my lord,” Faith said loudly, beaming. “I told you my mother was looking back at you. That is why…” Philippa choked on her swallow. “She stepped in the hole.”

Mortification set her cheeks ablaze. “I was… I was…” Please let that rabbit hole widen and suck me under…

His smile deepened, revealing two even rows of gleaming white teeth. No gentleman had a place being so wholly beautiful…even his teeth. “Allow me to check your ankle for injury, my lady,” he murmured.

And when presented with the option of debating whether or not she’d been staring curiously after him, or having him probe her decidedly uninjured ankle, Philippa gave a small nod.

The marquess slightly lifted her satin skirts and, with infinite tenderness, removed her boot. Her breath caught. Head bent over her ankle and the early morning sun shining off his ginger-blond strands, Lord Guilford gently pressed and probed the sensitive flesh; his touch burning her like the hot summer sun.

This is scandalous. I am in the middle of Hyde Park with a stranger, whose hands are on my person…

And never in the course of her life had she ever dared anything that was remotely scandalous. Perhaps if she had, she’d not have ended up married to the cold, soulless man she had. As such, she bit hard on her lower lip, while this gentleman trailed his fingertips over the curves and arches of her ankle and foot; his touch rousing delicious warmth that set off a wild fluttering in her belly.

He lifted his gaze and their stares collided. A spark of passion lit his eyes, reflecting the same current running through her. There should be the appropriate modicum of embarrassment at being caught watching him. And yet…she fixed on his face. She, who’d always demurely looked away and certainly never did something as bold as meet a gentleman’s eyes.

“Is my mama all right?” Faith’s concerned tone slashed across the charged moment and Lord Guilford promptly lowered her skirts.

“I believe she is,” he said, reassuringly. The marquess stood, his midnight cloak whipping about him. “If you’ll lead Her Ladyship’s children to their carriage,” he instructed the maid and in one fluid movement, bent and swept Philippa into his arms. Heat singed through the fabric of her satin dress as he drew her against the powerful wall of his broad chest.