Destined to Last(2)

By: Alissa Johnson


“Is it warm?” Lizzy asked.

“Quite.”

“Is there food?”

“Oh, plenty,” Lady Thurston assured her.

“Mama?”

Lizzy bit her lip, clearly tempted. “And Puck can come too?”

“Certainly.”

“Mama, who is that?”

“Hmm?” Lady Thurston looked away from Lizzy briefly. “What is it?”

Kate turned to point across the square. “Who is…” She trailed off and dropped her hand. “He’s gone.”

“Who, darling?”

“A boy.”

“There are many boys in Benton, Kate.”

“Yes, but…this one was different.”

“Every child is different,” she said distractedly and rose to offer Lizzy her hand. “Shall we go?”

The little girl hesitated, then reached out and placed a small, cold hand in hers.





One


Lady Kate Cole was, by most accounts, a young woman of exceptional beauty, extraordinary talent, and notable charm. She was also, by all accounts, a woman so remarkably prone to accidents that it was generally considered wise to back away if she happened to be standing next to a steep hill, a large body of water, an open window, or any sort of material that might cut, discolor, burn, spill, break…It was probably best if one simply kept a bit of distance from the girl whenever possible.

There were times Kate rather wished she could do the same. Now, for example, would have been an ideal moment to back away from herself—while she was standing on the grassy lawn of Haldon Hall with her pale rose gown conspicuously splattered from hem to neck with mud. Again. And while her blonde hair was damp at the ends, coming out of its pins, and likely sporting a number of leaves in various stages of decomposition. Again. And while one Mr. Hunter was striding toward her from the house to witness her in all her rumpled, mud-covered, frightful-haired embarrassment. Ag—Well, no, that was a first.

“Oh, blast.”

Why, why had she not taken care where she walked along the pond instead of humming the new waltz she’d composed whilst daydreaming about what it might be like to dance that very waltz with the gentleman of her dreams? She’d imagined what he might look like and sound like and talk about and…and then suddenly it hadn’t been a waltz she was hearing in her head, it had been a sonatina. And she’d no longer been walking gracefully along the muddy shore, she’d been lying on it.

Grimacing, she watched as Mr. Hunter drew closer, and wondered if it would be unforgivably rude if she turned away and walked—or quite possibly ran—around to the side of the house. Then she wondered if she cared overmuch whether it was unforgivably rude. She decided yes on both accounts, which was something of a disappointment, because of all the people currently attending her mother’s house party, there were few she would rather see less.

There was something about Mr. Hunter that put her on edge. To begin with, the man was impossibly well groomed. In Kate’s opinion, it simply wasn’t natural that one should never have a spot on one’s clothes or have a button go missing or a hair fly out of place. Mr. Hunter’s attention to the details of his attire seemed more in tune with the fussy habits of a delicate London dandy than it did with a gentleman of his size. Which was another thing about the man that put her on edge—he was, aside from the local blacksmith, quite the most imposing person of her acquaintance. He was even taller than her brother, Whit, and notably broader across the chest and shoulders. Perhaps the broadness was the reason that, while she found Whit’s size and strength to be reassuring, Mr. Hunter’s large frame made her feel a mite overwhelmed.

The rest of his appearance only enhanced that feeling. His eyes and hair were dark as night, his jaw hard, his cheekbones sharp, and his full mouth often curved into a small, but wicked smile, so that she rather fancied he looked a well-dressed pirate caught in a private joke.

What troubled her most of all, however, was that he sometimes used his size, dark gaze, and impossibly polished appearance to stand over her and make her feel ill at ease.

The man loomed, there was nothing else for it. Even when they were separated by an entire ballroom—and she generally took pains to see that they were—he still managed to loom. It was most disconcerting.

Resigned to an inescapable spot of looming that morning, Kate indulged in a brief but heartfelt sigh, and a futile but equally heartfelt wish that she had not forgotten to bring her bonnet. It would have gone a long way toward covering up the damage done to her hair.

She waited until he’d drawn close enough for her to see that he was impeccably turned out in fashionable tan breeches, dark coat, and intricately knotted cravat; then she pasted on an extremely bright smile, having long ago come to the conclusion that the next best thing to avoiding embarrassment altogether was pretending it didn’t exist. She’d become depressingly adept at that pretense over the years.

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