Destined to Last(3)

By: Alissa Johnson

“Good morning, Mr. Hunter,” she chimed in her cheeriest voice. “Have you come out for a stroll? It’s a lovely day for it.”

Had Mr. Hunter been a typical gentleman of the ton, he likely would have floundered a little at her appearance—not to mention her apparent ignorance of said appearance—and then very courteously played along as if nothing was amiss while he assisted her back to the house.

Unfortunately, Mr. Hunter was a man of great wealth but inauspicious origin, which made his connection to the ton rather loose and his position as a gentleman decidedly suspect. Kate didn’t hold with the notion that a man’s status as a gentleman should be awarded solely by right of birth. She felt strongly that it was a man’s character and behavior that marked him as a gentleman…or not, as she rather thought to be the case with Mr. Hunter.

He stopped in front of her, raised one dark brow, and took a long, thorough look at her bedraggled form before running his tongue along his teeth. “Am I to pretend I don’t see the mud? Is that how it’s done?”

Kate gave up the smile to roll her eyes and step around him to begin a hurried walk toward the house. “If you were truly interested in how it was done, you would not have asked.”

He fell into step beside her. “How is one supposed to learn if one doesn’t ask?”

“The fact that I did not wish to acknowledge the mud should have been obvious to anyone with even the most basic powers of perception.” She pursed her lips. “Perhaps you did need to ask.”

He chuckled at that, a low and soft sound she was irritated to discover she found pleasant.

“Let us assume for a moment,” he replied after a pause, “that I do possess some very basic skills of perception. Why then, do you suppose I did ask?”

She glanced and saw that his lips were curved up with humor. “Because you wished to amuse yourself by discomforting me.”

“Patently untrue,” he returned. “You looked sufficiently uncomfortable already. I had hoped to make you smile.”

“I…” That was another thing about Mr. Hunter that set her on edge. He was charming to the point of being glib. “Well…thank you.”

“It would have been my pleasure,” he responded smoothly, “had I succeeded.”

“I believe I was smiling when you arrived,” she pointed out.

“Because of me? How gratifying.”

She felt a bubble of laughter form in her throat and ruthlessly swallowed it down. Nothing good could come from encouraging the man. Then again, not encouraging him had done very little good as well. Perhaps a more direct approach was required.

“Your arrogance is astounding,” she informed him.

“No point doing things in half measures.”

She wanted to laugh at that too. Instead, she increased her pace. “Just because something can be done, doesn’t mean that it should be done.”

“Just because something shouldn’t be done, doesn’t mean it can’t be done well.” He waited a beat before adding, “I imagine you fell into the pond spectacularly.”

“I…” The laugh escaped, and she blamed what happened next solely on the distraction of that laugh.

He sidestepped a large root from a nearby oak tree.

She did not, and likely would have added grass stains to her poor dress had he not reached out and gently caught her arm as she toppled forward.

“Easy.” He stood very still, his large hand keeping a firm grip on her arm as she righted herself. “May I assume by your energetic pace that you were unharmed by your accident this morning?”

Ignoring the amusement in his voice, as well as the sudden fluttering of her heart, she carefully extracted herself from his grip. “Yes, you may. Thank you.”

“I am relieved to hear it.”

She gave him a wry smile. “Relieved enough to go about your business and leave me in peace?”

“Disturbing your peace was the business I had in mind when I came outside.”

“Ah.” She titled her head up at him. “Is that why you’ve come to Haldon, simply to vex me?”

“Not entirely, or I’d have made the effort to arrive sooner.”

There was no arguing with that bit of logic. It was the last full day of her mother’s house party and Mr. Hunter had made the trip from London only that morning. Just in time, it would seem, to find her returning from her walk.

“You’ve come for tonight’s ball,” she guessed.

Rather than answer, he took a step closer and bent his head to catch her eye. “Tell me Lady Kate—and to be clear, I ask not to make you uncomfortable, but because I am genuinely curious—what is it about me that ruffles your feathers so?”

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