To Woo a Widow (The Heart of a Duke Book 10)(9)

By: Christi Caldwell

She gasped. “What…?”

He looked down at her and quirked a ginger brow. “Surely you do not expect I can leave you laying in the middle of Hyde Park, my lady?” he drawled with a sardonic twist to those words.

God help her. If she were at all honorable and proper she’d insist there was no injury. She would correctly inform him that she was, indeed, fine to walk. “Thank you,” she breathed.

He flashed another one of those smiles that sent her heart tripping into double time. “It is my pleasure,” he said, as he strode towards the carriage.

Gentlemen were not supposed to be these six-foot three-inch towering, muscular figures. They were supposed to all be like her heavily-padded, more than slightly soft late husband. Her fingers curled reflexively about the marquess’ powerful bicep. Philippa’s pulse raced. After all these years of indifference to her husband, she’d believed herself incapable of the heady desire that sent her thoughts into riot. Now that myth was shattered in Hyde Park, in the arms of a stranger, no less.

As they made their way in silence, the occasional passersby stared with open curiosity and Philippa burrowed closer into Lord Guilford’s arms. The scent of sandalwood, so wholly masculine, and not those fragrant florals preferred by her late husband wafted around her senses, blissfully distracting. She closed her eyes and ignored those curious stares that portended gossip. There would come time for Edgerton disapproval later. For now, there was this ginger-haired gentleman who so effortlessly carried her through the grounds.

“I confess,” the marquess began, bringing her eyes flying open. “I know that we must have met before, my lady, but to my shame, I cannot bring forth a memory.”

Bitterness twisted in her belly; harsh, ugly and real. “Since I made my Come Out seven years earlier, I have spent the majority of my time in the country,” she said softly. Six of those years where she’d been treated as nothing more than a broodmare her late husband had gotten child after child upon. Children who had never mattered to Calvin. But to Philippa, even with her loathing for her husband, those babes had been precious souls in her pregnancies. She’d journeyed through hell with them, only to emerge solitary at the end of their battle—left with nothing but a husband who was angry for all the wrong reasons. All the well-hidden hatred for her late husband boiled to the surface, scaring her with its power.

Lord Guilford paused and looked down, their gazes meeting. The heated intensity of his green-eyed stare shot through her; eyes that could see into a person’s soul and dig forth all those darkest, most coveted secrets. “That is a shame, my lady,” he said quietly.

And, of course, his words were spoken for politeness sake, but her breath hitched. “Philippa,” she blurted, as he continued walking.

He again halted.

She wet her lips. “My name is Philippa. Given the circumstances of our…meeting, I expect you might call me by my given name.” As soon as the indecent offer left her lips, heat scorched her body, threatening to burn her inside out. Only shameful widows went about offering strangers the use of their Christian names and she would never be one of those wanton creatures.

“Philippa,” he murmured, wrapping those three syllables in his husky baritone and set off another round of fluttering in her belly. He shifted her in his arms, to touch the brim of his elegant black hat. “I am Miles.”

Miles. Strong, commanding, and direct. It suited him perfectly.

Up ahead, her daughter, Faith, paused and looked over her shoulder. She waved excitedly. “Are you all right, Mama?” she called, her voice carrying on a spring breeze.

Her heart pulled at that devotion. Since she was born and Calvin had disdained her because of her gender alone, Philippa had forged a special bond with the tiny human entrusted to her care. She cupped her hands around her mouth in a move her mother would lament and called back. “I am quite all right,” she assured. Faith returned her attention forward.

“She is devoted to you,” the marquess…Miles observed quietly.

Philippa stiffened. After all, one could hardly explain to family, let alone a stranger, that they’d been so since Faith’s birth when the late earl sneered down at the girl babe in her arms. “She is,” she said softly. “She worries after me.”

As soon as the revealing words slipped from her lips, she bit down on the inside of her cheek, wishing to call them back. Alas, they’d been uttered. She held her breath. Mayhap he’d not heard. Mayhap he’d not probe. After all, he was a stranger and gentlemen didn’t truly worry after women. Not enough to ask those probing questions. Certainly not of a stranger.