MISTAKEN KISS by Kathleen baldwin72 dpi 600Mistaken Kiss

(Book 2, My Notorious Aunt) A Traditional Regency Romantic Romp

Willa is nearly blind, but she knows trouble when she trips over it.

(Aunt Honore is back…)

Willa, the vicar’s little sister knows full well that her prospects are bleak. When she accidentally kisses Alexander Braeburn, her dull predictable world turns upside down. Logic dictates that she should stay away from the handsome Corinthian. He’s the black sheep of their village. But how can she resist? She yearns for one more taste of the most tantalizing excitement she has ever experienced. Just one more, before Willa settles back into her dreary life forever.

Alex is intrigued by the refreshingly forthright Willa. Her genuine character warms his jaded heart and makes him smile. When she naïvely marches into trouble, Alex feels duty bound to rescue her. Is it duty? Or something else that compels him to watch over the vicar’s little sister?

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2006 HOLT MEDALLION Finalist

What critics are saying about Mistaken Kiss:
“warm and charming tale”
   – Romantic Times 4½ Stars

“a delight… laughter aplenty”   – Cheryl Sneed, Rakehell Reviews
“Hilarious!” – Reva Merchant, Library Specialist

EXCERPT:

Chapter 1
Three Blind Men Stumbled Upon a Maiden

Wilhemina sat in Sir Daniel Braeburn’s carriage, an object of study for the two men seated across from her.

She glanced out of the window in a vain attempt to ignore them. The landscape outside jounced past in a blur of green and gray. Soon, very soon, she would convince her brother to take her to London for new spectacles. What a grand adventure they would have. If she planned very carefully, she might even persuade him to take her to Madame Tussaud’s, or perhaps even the Royal Opera House. Willa sighed.

She mapped a strategy, plotted a persuasive argument, and mentally calculated the cost of such a trip, all the while paying no heed to her brother’s hushed conversation until his consternation reached a crescendo.

“You see what I mean?” Jerome’s voice bore tragic undertones.

Sir Daniel peered at Wilhemina suspiciously. The coach went over a bump, and her traitorous bosom bounced in response. His eyes widened in alarm. “Oh dear. I see what you mean.”

Jerome slapped his hand against the leather seat like a judge pronouncing sentence. “She’s a full-grown female, isn’t she?”

Wilhemina wanted to chide her brother for behaving like a dolt, but that wouldn’t do, because Sir Daniel wore the same absurd expression of anxiety. She squinted, trying to bring into clear focus his mouth rounded into an alarmed O between his lamb chop side whiskers.

“I’m afraid so.” Sir Daniel nodded. “What are you going to do with her now?”

Jerome shook his head mournfully.

Good grief, one would think she had the plague.

She smiled at them as genially as she could manage. “Perhaps you ought to consider auctioning me off to the nearest traveling carnival. Judging by your conversation, I must be the only female in in England to have reached maturity. Surely, that should fetch a sovereign or two?”

The two bachelors looked at each other, their mutual fear of the female alarming their dour features.

Jerome sighed and bowed his head. “I suppose there is nothing else for it, but what I must take her to London for a season. Though how I will stand the expense of a townhouse, I don’t know.”

Daniel clucked his tongue. “The townhouse is just the beginning, my good man.” He ticked off expenditures on his fingers. “You must pay the earth for gowns and a party. Then, there is a chaperone to hire. I dare say your pockets will be let before the first month is out.” He took a deep breath. “And then, after your tremendous outlay there is the unhappy possibility that Willa won’t take. She’s a well-enough-looking young woman, no doubt. However, I’m not at all certain spectacles and red hair are in vogue.”

Jerome moaned and leaned back in the seat. His wide-brimmed hat flipped up as it knocked against the back of the carriage. He whisked it off, slapped it on the seat, and glared at the offending female across from him.

Wilhemina’s head began to hurt. She loved her brother and Sir Daniel dearly, but this entire discussion was complete and utter twaddle. “Really, you two, it’s bad enough you discuss me as if I’m not here. Now, you must spout nonsense? After the education you’ve both given me, forcing Greek philosophers down my throat from the time I was old enough to read, history lessons, mathematics, and the classics—now you plan on puffing me off like any ordinary female? What an absurd notion.”

Sir Daniel sat up and nudged Jerome. “I have it! My dear fellow, she’s right. The solution is obvious. Why, nothing could be simpler.”

Her brother perked up. “Speak man. What is it?”

“Haven’t we brought her up to be nearly as engaging company as we are?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t you see? That’s our answer. I shall marry her.” He handed up this conclusion like a cook presenting them with a perfectly baked trout. No amorous notions. No undercurrent of desire. He offered them a simple well-reasoned solution.

Willa sighed, earnestly wishing she’d chosen a different frock that morning.

Jerome closed his gaping jaw and blinked at his friend. “Marriage? You can’t be serious?”

“Why not? If Willa marries me, you are spared the expense of a season, and the three of us are free to go on just as we always have.”

“You would do such a thing?”

“Of course. Haven’t I known her since she was in leading strings? Nothing could be more natural. I daresay she’s the only female in all of Christendom with which I am entirely comfortable. She’ll make an admirable wife. Able to hold her own in any discussion. What possible objection can there be?”

What indeed?

Slowly, both men turned to Willa and grimaced. She glared at them as if they had completely lost their senses. In the ensuing silence, at the exact moment when she needed to feel at her most imperious, the coach hit a bump and her old-fashioned sausage curls began springing ridiculously.

Jerome cleared his throat. “Willa, my poppet, did you hear? Sir Daniel has just offered for you.”

Each creak and rattle of the carriage exaggerated the uncomfortable silence. Willa opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. She snapped it shut, tilted her head, and reevaluated the situation. Folding her hands squarely in her lap, she refused to give rise to their preposterous suggestion. Instead, she took another tack.

“I am not your poppet. A poppet is a small child, or a little girl. You have concluded this very day that I am no longer either one; ergo, you cannot call me your poppet.”

“Wilhemina, be sensible. We are not debating terminology. We’re discussing your future. Sir Daniel has just made a most magnanimous offer. What is your answer?”

Daniel cleared his throat. He removed his hat and peeked sheepishly at Willa, but his words were for her brother. “I suppose, regardless of everything we’ve taught her, Willa is still a romantical sort of female. Perhaps we, er, I should’ve asked her on bended knee with some sort of posy in my hand.” He scratched at his curly side-whiskers. “A thousand pardons, my dear. Perhaps you will allow me to pay my addresses at a later date?”

The kindness in his voice never failed to soften Willa’s heart. His brown eyes wavered with uncertainty, and he looked, for all the world, like a forlorn puppy.

“Think carefully, Willa,” chimed Jerome. “Consider all sides of the matter before you make an answer.” It was his clerical voice, a voice she had obeyed since before she could remember.

The pressure on her temples tightened. It had been a long day. Jerome’s sermon had droned on for longer than usual. She’d envied those who had the luxury of nodding off to sleep in church. Willa would not dream of wounding her brother by failing to pay attention. So she had pinched herself and sat bolt upright on the hard pew to maintain her concentration.

Now she was bouncing toward Sir Daniel’s house for their customary Sunday dinner while they stared at her, waiting anxiously for an answer that would alter her future forever whilst maintaining theirs in perfect equilibrium.

She rubbed her throbbing forehead. “Very well. I will consider discussing this at another time.”

“Excellent. That’s settled.” Jerome clapped his hands together and smiled. “Now then, Daniel, what do you say to this morning’s sermon?”

Sir Daniel steepled his fingers into a perfect arch and launched into a debate over this morning’s precepts. It was their favorite game, verbal chess. Willa ignored them and watched the colors gallop past the window.

Their coach rolled to a stop in front of Sir Daniel’s manor. Willa stepped out of the carriage, missed the bottom step, and would have tumbled to the ground had not her brother caught her with one hand and set her to rights. He accomplished this without so much as a pause in his conversation.

The butler held open the front doors as the gentlemen entered the house, still deeply engaged in verbal combat.

“Ahem.” The man attempted to attract his master’s attention. “Sir Daniel, if I might have a word, a matter of some importance. We have an unexpected—”

Sir Daniel, too engrossed in his argument with Jerome, waved him off.

Wilhemina trailed behind them completely forgotten. She stopped at the stairs and spoke loudly to their backs. “I would like to have lie down. I’m afraid I have the megrims.”

Reminded of her presence, the gentlemen turned.

“Yes. Of course.” Sir Daniel tapped his forehead lightly as if trying to remember what was called for in this situation. Finally, he motioned to his butler. “See to Miss Linnet’s comfort.” Daniel smiled uneasily at Willa. “Perhaps, we might have our little discussion later, when you are feeling more the thing.”

She nodded and started up the stairs, running her hand along the banister. These stairs, which she had run up and down since childhood, now looked different to her. They might, one day, be her stairs. Willa had never realized what a narrow hallway the house possessed. It really was a gloomy old box. The ancient house had never bothered her before. Before, it was merely Sir Daniel’s house. Now, it might be hers forever, a dark, crumbling dungeon.

Jerome and Daniel resumed their debate and disappeared into the study, shutting the door in the butler’s face. The servant sighed and turned to follow Miss Linnet up the stairs.

*  * *

Willa lay down on a massive old Elizabethan bed with a cool cloth on her forehead. She stared at the walls, covered with a blue-and-white pattern she knew from memory but could not distinguish at this distance, and tried to envision herself as his wife. Would Sir Daniel do husbandly things to her here on this bed? The thought made her stomach lurch uncomfortably.

She could foresee the future. Nothing would change. Marriage would simply be an extension of the past eighteen years. Sir Daniel was right. If she married him, the three of them would continue on just as before. There would be no romance, no adventure, no excitement, just antiquity and books and years and years of tired old arguments between her brother and her husband. She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t.

“What choice do I have?” Willa asked the musty room.

She imagined herself standing next to the beautiful debutantes who undoubtedly floated gracefully through every London season. Her image of all the frilly white princesses turned sour as she thought of how they would surely snub her, sneer at her unruly red hair, and laugh at her severe nearsightedness. With scarcely a groat to her name, no gentleman of the ton would stoop to marry an ill-favored miss who was nothing more than a vicar’s younger sister. True, her father had been the third son of a viscount, but what was that to anything? The facts were obvious. Her chances on the marriage mart were nil.

Willa sat up and threw the cloth to the floor. “Blast it all!” She glanced defiantly at the blue walls, daring them to cave in on her for her expletive. She pulled on her kid slippers and paced up and down the ancient wooden floor.

There must be options. She could become a governess. Although, she’d spent her entire life in the schoolroom. Another twenty years might suffocate her entirely. She might become a housekeeper, but who would hire a nearly blind servant? Her shoulders slumped.

She bent to pick up the wet cloth from the floor and caught a glimpse of herself in the oval mirror on the dressing table. She sighed and moved closer, so that her nose almost touched the glass. All she could see were her blue eyes made garishly large by the thick lenses in her spectacles. She took them off and whispered, “At least the freckles are fading.”

Willa ran a finger over her lips. “Perhaps Sir Daniel has a secret passionate nature.” It must be well hidden, she thought, because she had never seen it.

Marriage might be bearable if he harbored unspoken yearnings for her. She’d read of such things, unrequited passions, long-held desires. If he did, indeed, feel genuine warmth toward her, life with him might not be so wretchedly dull after all. She leaned away from the mirror and speculated on exactly how one goes about uncovering a hidden passion.

What if I were to kiss him? Surely then I would find out if he concealed any such feelings. I might also discover whether such an activity would ignite any enthusiasm within me.

A perfectly logical plan, she congratulated herself, and bent to have a word with the face in the mirror. “It’s settled then. You must kiss Sir Daniel.”

Her image shook her head in refusal.

“Yes. You must do it, no matter how awkward or uncomfortable it may seem.”

She grimaced at the thought and put her glasses back on. If he responds warmly, I suppose I ought to agree to this absurdly convenient marriage.

Suddenly the room felt very small. “And if he doesn’t—I vow I’d rather die a spinster and lead the apes into hell.” Willa spun around and headed for the door.

* * *

She left the house through the back hall and tromped out into the Braeburn gardens. A bracing walk would bolster her courage. She set a brisk pace for herself.

Sir Daniel’s gardens were a study in efficiency. Willa marched past eel ponds, past feeder streams stocked with trout, past three rows of experimental sugar beets, seven varieties of leeks, and twelve strains of peas and headed for the orchard.

The orchard was Willa’s favorite haunt on Sir Daniel’s grounds. The huge old nut trees grew in cheerful disarray, and there was a small Greek folly hidden in their midst. Here and there Daniel’s grandfather had placed wooden benches around the tree trunks. No matter how much Daniel tried to groom the natural appearance out of it, the grove remained an inviting and comfortable refuge.

Willa slowed her steps and squinted up at the canopy of branches overhead. She could not see details, but the trees formed a ceiling of shifting colors and muted light, wonderful flickering patterns—light against dark, dark against light.

She lowered her gaze and connected with a shape that was foreign to the grove. Straining to make sense of it, Willa moved ahead slowly.

It appeared to be a man slouched on a bench, relaxing against a tree trunk with his long legs unceremoniously sprawled out. She squinted and then caught her breath as she recognized Daniel.

This was beyond good fortune. No sooner had she decided what course of action must be taken than God had delivered the opportunity into her hands.

Willa straightened her shoulders and flexed her hands at her sides. Courage, she commanded herself. Your entire future is at stake. It must be done. Kiss him.

She charged forward. Halfway there she stopped, remembering the garishly big eyes staring back at her from the mirror, and removed her glasses. She meant to make this moment as perfect as possible. With that thought, she stuffed the spectacles into her pocket and proceeded on with her campaign.

Willa tripped on a fallen branch lying on the ground in front of him. Recovering her composure, she faced her quarry squarely. He did not look up. She cleared her throat and waited for the blurry face to respond. He remained motionless.

“Ahem. Pardon me for intruding on you in this manner. But this is most fortuitous meeting. I have a request of a delicate nature to ask of you. Before I make a decision regarding your generous offer of marriage, I wish for you to kiss me.”

There was no answer. “To see if we will suit, of course. Perfectly logical.”

When he still did not respond, she moved closer, so close she could smell the faint scent of shaving soap and brandy. “Please, sir. I know it is highly irregular, but would you please kiss me?” Willa put one tentative hand on his shoulder, leaned her face toward his, and closed her eyes.

Alexander Braeburn stirred in his slumber. Exhausted from having ridden the entire night, he was having a particularly effective dream. A shapely young maiden was demanding to be kissed.

She thrust her face toward his, and he could almost feel her warm breath. Her hair was the color of spice and her skin soft and inviting with just enough freckles to convince one of her innocence. A dream like this must not be denied. He caught the face in his hands and kissed it with enthusiasm.

When the curvaceous dream whispered, “Oh my,” Alex laughed, a drowsy, husky chuckle. He pulled the dream across his lap and kissed her again. The noise from his own throat propelled Alexander to complete consciousness, that, and the superb reality of the mouth he was kissing.

This was no dream, no matter how exhausted he might be. Her lips were full and sensuous, and they yielded to his in a way that sent currents of heat through his loins. He looked down into the young woman’s wide blue eyes.

Willa’s mind turned to thick jelly. Kissing was tenfold better than she had imagined. Joy flooded through her veins. Life with him was going to be wonderful.

She blinked up at his face and squinted. She raised her hand to his cheek and stroked the clean-shaven skin. “You have no side whiskers.”

“No.” It was half spoken, half whispered, but Willa instantly knew the voice was not Sir Daniel’s.

“You’re not Daniel.”

“No.”

She did not leap out of his lap. He did not remove his hand from curving around her waist.

“Oh. Then, it would seem, I’ve kissed you by mistake.” She spoke slowly, trying to keep the mournful tenor she felt out of her speech.

“So it would seem.” His voice gathered more fullness, a soothing baritone with undertones that made her think he was suppressing laughter.

She forces a casual smile, acting as if it were a trifle. “It was most enjoyable.”

“Thank you.”

“Is kissing always so pleasant?” She squinted up at him, wanting to read his expression, but falling prey to the seductive lines of his jaw and the mouth that had so effectively kissed hers.

Alex nodded. “Yes, generally. But, not always quite so—” He almost told her that kissing did not usually set him on fire this quickly. “I cannot answer your question.”

She slid off his lap, pulled her glasses out of her pocket, put them on, and studied him as if she were the local magistrate interrogating a poacher. “You look familiar, very like Sir Daniel. Who are you?”

Alex smiled. She wore her hair in an ancient hairstyle. Her blue eyes were enormous behind the lenses, and her clothing was from another age. “I am his brother, Alexander Braeburn, at your service.”

“Oh yes, of course. There’s a painting in the hallway. I remember you from when I was a little girl. But that’s been ages ago. He never speaks of you anymore.”

“I’m not surprised.”

“You don’t visit often, or I would have remembered you.”

He smiled. “A logical deduction.”

She sighed wearily. “Yes. I am nothing if not logical.”

“You appear to be many things. Logical would not have ranked high on the list I was composing. Do you have a name?”

“Miss Linnet, Wilhemina Linnet. However, in view of the fact that I have already taken the liberty of kissing you, you may call me Willa.”

“Ah, Linnet. I know the name. Surely, you cannot be the vicar’s baby sister? You’re all grown up.”

She frowned. “So I’ve been told.”

“A privilege.” He remained seated and lazily bowed his head. “Am I to understand that you thought you were kissing my brother?”

Willa pressed her lips together and nodded. “I was testing him.”

“Testing?” One of Alex’s eyebrows shot up.

“Yes, to ascertain if he had a passion in him for anything besides intellectual pursuits. I cannot marry him without some passion.”

Alex struggled to remain solemn. “I see.”

“This isn’t a laughing matter, sir. I am quite undone. For his kisses will certainly never compare to yours. Now I must spend the rest of my life with the unhappy knowledge that there are better kisses to be had.”

Alex folded his arms across his chest and grinned at the beguiling young woman standing between his legs, completely unaware of her effect on him. “Perhaps you are mistaken about that.”

She shook her head. “I doubt it.”

“A great logician like yourself must be able to calculate a solution?”

“There is none. No. It’s a futile undertaking.” Her chest heaved.

Such a serious maiden. He was almost moved to compassion over her nonsensical dilemma. “Why not complete your plan? Kiss him as you did me. If you find Daniel as passionless as you fear, you can refuse to marry him.” He shrugged. “It’s not so difficult.”

“I’ve already weighed that course of action.”

Willa studied Alex. His features were the mirror image of Daniel’s, and yet on this man, the curly brown hair invited one to run her fingers through it. The hard plains of his jaw were tempered with smile lines, and he had an intriguing dimple next to his mouth. His brown eyes flashed with merriment, and his brows were not so heavy as his brother’s. Small distinctions, yet they made a world of difference.

She shook her head. “You haven’t considered the consequences.” She mimicking her brother’s teaching tone. “Suppose I kiss Sir Daniel, find him lacking, and choose not to marry him. Then, I must spend the rest of my days as a spinster, with no kisses at all.”

“An unhappy alternative.”

“Yes.” She shifted closer to him. “After today, it is unthinkable. I wonder if I might impose upon you to kiss me once more? So that I may remember it well?”

He arched one brow. “Are you sure it is wise?”

“No. It is, undoubtedly, unwise. Wholly improper. But when I am old and alone, I would like to be able to look back on the experience. As a gentleman, you cannot deny me this simple request.”

“How old are you? All of sixteen years, I would guess.”

“No, of course not. I’m eighteen. Almost on the shelf. You probably miscalculated because I am so short.”

“I see. Eighteen. In that case, given the prospect of your dotage, it’s almost a deathbed request. How can I refuse?” He inclined his head with a flourish. “Your servant.”

She leaned closer to him. “I’ll remove my spectacles if you like. When I’m this close, I can see fairly well.”

“You must please yourself.” He stood to perform his duty.

She folded her glasses carefully and placed them in her pocket. Nervously, she leaned up on her toes, closing the distance between them.

Alex didn’t grab her as he had before. He bent his head and let her come to him. She timidly placed her lips on his. When she pressed her full lips against his, he opened his mouth and coaxed her into a deeper kiss. He touched her waist, lightly tracing the old-fashioned cinched corset, enjoying the narrowness. Then he flattened his hand against her back and pulled her to him. She yielded, melting into his embrace, pouring fire into his veins.

Alex took a breath and forced himself to let go. It was time to stop, or the delightful Miss Linnet would soon discover what followed kisses.

She remained close enough that her breath tickled his chin when she spoke. “Thank you. I will never forget that.”

Alex grinned lopsidedly. “I assure you, Miss Linnet, I will not soon forget it either. Now, perhaps it is time we went back to the house.”

He wondered, briefly, what possessed him. Why should he behave with such restraint on her behalf? Wasn’t she offering, nay, begging him to kiss her? If she relished kissing so much, wouldn’t she also enjoy…

But no, she was, after all an innocent, the vicar’s little sister.

Willa set her spectacles back on her nose. They strolled silently through the grove of trees until she turned and looked up at Alex. “Are you a rake? Is that why Daniel never speaks of you? Is that why you kiss so wonderfully well?”

A rake? He choked, barely able to keep from bursting out in laughter. “Such language, Miss Linnet. I’ve been called many things—let me see, a wastrel, a scapegrace, a prodigal, a gamester—but no, I can’t recall being called a rake.”

Willa was quiet for a moment. “Oh, but surely, most wastrels and gamesters are rakes as well.”

Alex was unable to keep from smiling at her audacity. “I bow to your superior knowledge of the breed.”

Willa huffed. “Now you are gammoning me, Mr. Braeburn.”

“Alex,” he corrected her.

“Very well, Alex. Why does Daniel never speak of you?”

He glanced down at the headstrong imp walking next to him. “I did mention prodigal in that list of traits, did I not? Well, there you have it. I was expelled from Eaton and several other schools, tormented a score of England’s finest tutors, had no interest in experimenting with leeks, and, apparently, demonstrated considerable talent for getting into mischief. Daniel and Father decided I was an embarrassment to the Braeburn name. Father bought me an officer’s commission to which I was wholly unsuited. I sold out two years later. That was the coup de grace.”

“What did your mother say about all this?”

“You ask very pointed questions for a young lady.”

“Nonsense. I merely wish to know what your mother thought of your antics. By all accounts she was a very kind lady.” Willa pointed toward the garden. “I doubt she would’ve expected you to turn out exactly like Daniel. If I were a mother, I would not expect all my children to be the same. That would be rather like expecting a cabbage to be a melon.”

“A cabbage. I’m flattered, Miss Linnet.”

“I did not mean—”

He held up his hand to forestall her apology. “Quite right. I was a cabbage in the melon patch. Fortunately, my mother was rather fond of cabbage. You see, she could hunt and jump as well as any man. It was she who taught me to ride. For my tenth birthday, she gave me a hunter, a mare with an excellent bloodline.”

Alex turned his gaze toward the stables. It was an unconscious movement followed by an unchecked wince of pain.

“What happened? Did the horse die?”

“No.” He looked straight ahead. “Mother died the following year. Father sold off everything in the stable except for his coaching teams.”

“Even your hunter?”

“Yes, Miss Inquisitive, even my mare. It was not necessary for my education.”

“How could he have been so heartless?” Willa looked up at him with eyes full of compassion.

“Not heartless. Practical. It costs a great deal to keep a horse.”

“Hmm. Nevertheless, I think it is unconscionable that Daniel does not speak of you.”

“You’re too hard on him. You forget the schools I ran through, tutors, and the cost of a commission. Not only that, we have very little in common. I do not care for endless book reading, nor experimental farming. No, I’m contented to stay away.” Alex gestured toward the garden rows labeled with cards on stakes. “I’m not a farmer, nor a squire by nature. Daniel thinks of me as a gambler. I prefer to call myself a sporting man. We have very little in common. I suspect that he does not mention me merely because he does not think of me. Nor do I think of him often.”

Willa tilted her head. “Yet, you are here, visiting your brother.”

Alex laughed. “A matter of convenience, Miss Linnet. There is a prizefight between a London fellow and a bruising country lad. It takes place tomorrow afternoon, just outside St. Cleve. I’m imposing on my brother’s hospitality until the contest is over.”

“I see.” Willa bit her bottom lip. “And I suppose you have a wager on one of these fellows?”

“Naturally.”

“Which one did you place your bet on? The London fellow or the country lad?”

Alex adjusted the lace at his sleeve. “Well, Miss Inquisitive, I will make it a game for you. You must figure it out for yourself, and I’ll tell you if you guess correctly.”

“Oh, but this is too easy.” Willa grinned at him. “You’ve placed your bet on the London man, and I will tell you why. You think our local boy will be a great slow lummox and the London chap is a more sophisticated pugilist. Am I right?”

“Why Miss Linnet, you astound me.” He bowed. “And do you concur?”

“That depends upon who the country lad is. Tell me the fellow’s name so I may decide.”

“Ah, but then you’ll have an unfair advantage.”

“Do you mean to tell me you know nothing of the fighter from London?”

He laughed. “You don’t miss a step, do you?”

“Unfortunately, I miss quite a few. I need new eyeglasses. But that is aside from the point. Who is the fellow from St. Cleves?”

“The young man’s name is George Thompson.”

“Georgie? Oh, but you must be mistaken. Georgie is hardly a grown man. Why, George Thompson is only seventeen. It cannot be.”

“I’m certain of the name. Perhaps, there are two George Thompsons in the neighborhood. It is a common enough name.”

“Yes, there are two, but the other is young George’s father. And I can assure you, Mr. Thompson is not a boxer.”

Alex held out his hands. “I don’t know what to say. It must be your Georgie. Seventeen is not so very young. There are boys much younger fighting for their king and country on the continent.”

“But he’s needed on their farm. If anything should happen to him, I don’t know how his father will get on.” Willa frowned and kicked at a stone. The stone proved too large for her slippered foot to stir. She winced and hopped on the other leg.

Alex held out his arm. She took it and limped along next to him.

“Where is this contest to be held?” she asked in an irritated clip.

“I believe Lord Winthrop has volunteered one of his tenant’s pastures north of town.”

“Oh lovely, now the poor tenant’s pasture will be trampled by spectators from London.”

“Surely the man will be paid.”

“I certainly hope so. But that says nothing to the fact that poor Georgie will have his head bashed in by your vicious London man.”

“Then you believe my wager is well placed.”

“How can you consider the money, sir? This is barbaric. What pleasure can you have watching two men thrash each other as if they were recalcitrant schoolboys?”

“It is a great mystery,” he said with false gravity. Then Alex stopped abruptly and turned to her. “I don’t suppose there is any chance this Georgie fellow has paid a visit to Gentleman Jackson’s Pugilist Academy in London?”

“That’s ridiculous. He’s never left the farm.”

Alex clicked his tongue and shook his head but walked on with a smug grin.

“Do not gloat, Mr. Braeburn. I assure you something will be done. You will not win any money on this contest. This massacre will never take place—not if I have to stop it myself!”

To which Alex’s shoulders shook with merriment. “My dear Miss Linnet, what a perfectly terrifying female you are.” He could hold back no longer and laughed aloud.

Willa let go of his arm, tilted her chin into the air, and marched off in a great hurry toward the house. Alex stopped and watched her hips swing, without artifice, from side to side as she stomped resolutely away. Intriguing little minx.

* * *

Willa vowed to herself she would show him she meant what she said. First, however, she would prove that she was right about Sir Daniel. It was time to settle the matter of her engagement. She proceeded directly down the hallway and threw open the study door. There they sat, Jerome and Daniel, still engaged in the same heated debate.

“I might’ve known,” she muttered. In a considerably sterner tone, she addressed her brother. “Jerome, I would like a few moments alone with Sir Daniel.”

“Not now, Willa, I—” Jerome took one look at her and reconsidered.

Willa shut the library door behind her brother and marched up to Sir Daniel. “Kiss me, Daniel.”

He sprang to his feet and shuffled uncomfortably. His face turned red and then white and he fidgeted with his cuffs. “Really, Willa, what can you mean?”

“It’s quite simple. I mean for you to kiss me.”

Daniel coughed and pulled at his collar. “I’m not at all sure it’s proper, perhaps after we are married.”

“Perhaps?” Willa stamped her foot. “Perhaps, you will suffer a kiss after we are married? Daniel, you will kiss me now, or there will be no marriage.”

He studied the corners of his ceiling. His fingers, failed to tap together in a perfect steeple, they fumbled, twisted and wrung into a knot.

“Very well.” He closed his eyes, bent toward Willa’s upturned face, and planted a small kiss on her forehead.

“That is not what I meant.” Willa pointed to her lips.

Daniel stumbled backward and bumped into a bookcase. She stepped toward him. His eyes no longer looked like those of a sad puppy. They reminded Willa of a frightened hare.

“It doesn’t hurt,” she tried to persuade him.

“Really, Willa, this is all quite peculiar. You have never behaved in this manner toward me before.” Daniel straightened his shoulders, and for a fleeting moment, he resembled Alex.

“You’ve never offered marriage to me before. If you won’t kiss me, you must withdraw your proposal.”

“I can’t do that. A matter of honor, don’t you see? What would your brother think?”

“Are you going to kiss me or not?”

“Yes. Yes, very well.” He closed his eyes, puckered his lips, and slumped toward her. Willa pressed her mouth against his as she had done to Alex. Daniel created a small smacking noise and withdrew.

“As I thought.” Willa turned around.

Alex entered through the back of the house and meandered down the hallway toward Daniel’s study, curious as to how Miss Inquisitive’s quest for passion fared. He found her brother, the vicar, squatting outside the library door peering through the keyhole. At the sound of Alex’s boots clicking on the marble floor, Jerome jumped up, red faced and stammering. Alex chuckled. “Well met, Jerome.”

Jerome gawked at him. “I don’t usually…I wouldn’t except it’s my sister, you see…” He pointed at the door.

Alex nodded and tried to school his features. He could well imagine Daniel quaking like a jelly as Willa made her demands. “Unusual young woman, your sister. Unless I miss my guess, she’s testing my brother.”

“Testing? But, but—” Jerome stuttered and appeared to be almost at the point of regaining his equilibrium when the door flew open, forcing him to leap out of the way.

Willa looked decidedly unhappy.

“I was right.” She glared pointedly, first at Alex and then at her brother. “There will be no marriage. You may tell Sir Daniel he is off the hook. Furthermore, you needn’t worry about me, Jerome. I’ll hie me off to a nunnery and tend the sick.”

She flounced past them and headed up the stairway.

Jerome followed closely on her heels. “Willa, be sensible. This is preposterous. You’ve been reading too much Shakespeare. No one runs off to a nunnery anymore. This is England. You know full well that Queen Elizabeth abolished—” His voice trailed off as he wound up the stairwell after her.

Alex’s mouth curved up into a one-sided grin. So, the little whirlwind hadn’t liked Daniel’s kisses. He felt unaccountably pleased.

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