What if the man of your dreams and the man you were avoiding like the plague were one and the same, but you had no idea? It's a lesson Maryette Browning is about to learn.
“Are you all right, Miss?” The deep, resonant tones came to her as she looked up, shielding her eyes with one hand to peer up at the man through the bright sunshine.
“Yes, quite,” she said, a bit humiliated as she stood and brushed the dirt from her dress, then turned to watch her parasol roll down the street. “Oh no!”
“Not to worry,” the man called over his shoulder as he dashed down the street, catching it moments before it tumbled into a nearby stream. He unfurled the lacy umbrella and shook the dirt from its delicate fabric as he made his way back to her.
“A bit worse for wear, I fear, but I believe it is still usable,” he said, handing it back to her.
Maryette took the parasol thankfully and gave the man a quick curtsy. “Thank you, Sir. That was most kind of you.”
“’Tis the least I could do to help a damsel in distress,” he nodded politely, moving to where he’d hastily dropped the reins of his horse.
Maryette smiled up at the man, realizing quite unexpectedly how striking he was, not only in action but in style and countenance. His well-fit trousers were tucked neatly into his smart riding boots and his tailcoat displayed his muscled, broad shoulders and slim waist in a most appealing way. It was then she wished she’d worn her hat, so she could hide the blush flaming her cheeks as she gazed at this handsome and effortlessly charming stranger.
“I wish there was some way I could repay you, Sir, for a gesture so kind.” She immediately wished she hadn’t said a word as he turned to meet her gaze and the smile he gave was surely her undoing.
“Perhaps there is a way,” he offered, his voice smooth as silk as he stepped closer, sending an uncontrollable shiver through her. The way his eyes made a wicked sweep of her body was indecent, but she could not turn away from him. Instead, she stood her ground, no matter how her knees quivered.
“I assure you, Sir, I am a respectable young woman.”
The man chuckled wryly and tipped his hat to her.
“No doubt you are, Miss. I thought nothing less. What I would request of you is your assistance, nothing more.”
“My assistance?” she asked curiously, swallowing the lump growing in her throat.
“I am new here in Downing’s town and though I do not plan to remain here, I will need a place to stay. Would you be able to direct me to a respectable establishment that might put me up?”
Maryette let out a relieved sigh and turned to look up the street.
“Certainly, Sir. Downingtown has some of the finest establishments one can find along King’s Road, the best being Hammond’s, there on the left.”
“And is it an honorable business?”
“Most assuredly, Sir. I know the Hammond’s well and there is no finer family in the county. You will find no gambling or other debauchery there.”
The man rubbed his chin thoughtfully and gave her a scowl.
“Shame,” he said, cracking a sly smile. “I could go for a bit of faro.”
Maryette gasped and covered a giggle with a delicately gloved hand. “Sir!”
“Johnathan…” he said, offering her a broad, genuine smile and a formal bow, removing his hat to reveal a head full of lush golden curls.
“I beg your pardon?” She gasped again at the sight of him.
“My name is Johnathan.”
Maryette could feel the heat rise up her neck as he smiled proudly, expectantly. When she did not respond, he tilted his head, his sapphire blue eyes twinkling devilishly.
“And would I have the honor of your name?” he asked.
“Maryette,” she offered beneath timid lashes.
“Well then, Miss Maryette, would you do me the added honor of accompanying me to Hammond’s for a touch of tea?”
“I – I do not feel ‘tis proper, being I have no chaperone.” She averted her eyes from him diffidently.
“’Tis the middle of the afternoon. We are in full view of the town, Miss Maryette, and I have no mind to do anything untoward to damage either of our reputations.”
Maryette gave him some consideration and looked about the street. After a moment’s pause, she nodded to him.
“Very well, I shall accompany you.” She smiled demurely as Johnathan offered his arm, which she took gladly.
Walking up King’s Road on the arm of such a fine looking man made Maryette feel regal, as though everyone in town should be looking at her with astonishment. Her manner, her posture, her very air changed as they rambled toward the inn at the end of the street. She felt beautiful, important—and just a bit scandalous for being so brash in broad daylight. She also wished she were dressed in an amazing gown, her hair topped with a fine Parisian bonnet of velvet and feathers. As it was, she was mortified she’d stepped out in one of her duller walking dresses instead of something more tasteful. Still, her escort didn’t seem to mind.
He’d been rambling on about his travels and how weary he was from them. She smiled and nodded up at him decorously as her mind continued with its daydreams. How deliriously happy she would be to have a man such as Johnathan in her life. They could attend the theater, be invited to high society balls – they would be the talk of the county. And then her smile suddenly faded as her father’s voice came crashing through her fanciful thoughts. “The man has offered for your hand, Maryette. I’ve given my permission and that’s the end of it.”
She was to be married in three days to some stodgy businessman who was probably old, fat and more concerned with his wealth than her happiness. The mere thought of having to be coupled with such a man made her stomach lurch. She suddenly felt ill.
“Are you quite well, Miss Maryette?” Johnathan asked as they stepped off the street. “You are looking quite piqued.”
“I shall be fine once we sit. I suppose I have taken too much sun,” she offered weakly, looking away from his concerned gaze. She could never tell this stranger what was really wrong.
Without a word, he took her elbow and, placing a hand at the small of her back, helped her up the stairs to the inn. The feel of his warm touch made her gasp and she bit her lip to conceal her quickening breath. As he ushered her around to the veranda, she thought for sure she would swoon. He smelled so wonderful standing so close to her, a mix of saddle leather and lavender, his breath warm against her neck as he helped her sit.
“I shall be just a moment,” he said with a nod as he turned and strode purposefully into the inn. Maryette was finally given the opportunity to catch her breath and she blotted her forehead with her handkerchief as he left her. Her father would be furious if he found her in the company of a strange man when she was, for all intents and purposes, engaged. Johnathan rushed inside to find the innkeeper. He’d hoped to make this a quick stop, deal with his pending business and be on his way in but a few days, but after running into the enticing Maryette, he wondered if his life wouldn’t soon be fraught with some huge complications.