Previously in The Unwanted Suitor: Determined to have her revenge on Sir James for vexing her at every turn, Cornelia sewed his coat sleeves shut. Her victory is short-lived, however, for he warns her that she has underestimated her sparring partner.
As Sir James left his room Sunday morning, he turned to his man-servant and said, “Cholt, please open the windows in here and give the room a good airing today.”
Attempting to hide his surprise, Cholt bowed. “Yes, sir.”
Sir James could not spend another night with Cornelia’s scent still hovering about him. His impatience to take her to wife was difficult enough without the torment of dreams inspired by such a stirring of his senses.
He had always been a man of action and, today, he was determined to turn tables on Cornelia. Propriety and manners had not helped him to win her heart. Well, there was certainly nothing proper about his plan for today.
He needed only to ask a favor from the Countess to put his plan into action. He had long since realized that she had invited him to this house party for the express purpose of throwing him together with her personal companion. How she had come to know of his failed proposal was a mystery, but no doubt she would prove a willing and capable ally.
Throughout the morning, as many of the other guests set off to attend church, Sir James hung back in one of the morning rooms with the London paper. It held only mild interest for him for across the room, Cornelia sat at a table with the Countess. He did not know what they were busy at, but several times, he caught Cornelia looking at him when she thought he wasn’t attending. Hiding his smile behind the paper, his heart lightened to know he had the lady’s attention.
The Countess cleared her throat. “Miss Greystock, will you please ensure that all of the elder guests who are going to church are accommodated in the carriages?
“Yes, my lady.”
Sir James couldn’t help but watch Cornelia leave the room with her customary grace, allowing his eyes to linger on her familiar features, which grew ever more pleasing to him.
“Sir James, you may stop pretending to read that paper now.”
Smiling, James set it aside and went across the room to his hostess. Kissing the back of her upheld hand, he felt the slightest age-tremor in her fingertips, but as always, he was impressed with her rigid posture and keen eyes. “Your most obedient, my lady.”
“Are you indeed? Then I suppose I may command you to tell me what has passed between you and Miss Greystock. She is all aflutter.”
“Not wishing to betray the woman I love, I shall only say that we have been crossing swords and it is my turn to go on the attack.”
“You are singularly candid about your feelings this morning.”
“Considering your perception on the matter, it seems unnecessary for me to dissemble—especially since the balance of my future happiness lies in making the most of my remaining days here.”
“I infer then that you desire my assistance. Why else would you be hanging about my drawing room?”
Deciding to come right to the point, Sir James met her eyes squarely. “Will you think of some excuse to send Miss Greystock along the road to the village in an hour’s time?”
“For what purpose, Sir James?”
“Why, so that she may spend the afternoon enjoying the splendors of a fine summer day.”
The Countess gave a humph and laughed. “You mean the splendors of your no doubt charming advances.”
“Let us hope. How would you rate my chances, dear lady?”
With an amused smile, The Countess allowed her eyes to sweep over him. “I would say they are very good indeed, if you can overcome her missish nonsense. I suppose I shall have to pretend I know nothing about this.” Then sighing, she said, “Will you please come and let me know how it goes between you? Of all my schemes, this one is the very dearest to my heart.”
“Then we are of like mind. I will indeed report, my lady. After all, if we are to be accomplices, we must have open communication between us. Now, I must go before she returns.”
Bowing to the Countess, Sir James strode away, anxious to be about the business of laying his trap. He was certain Cornelia had enjoyed stitching up his coat sleeves, but he was determined they would both enjoy his afternoon of revenge.
Leaning against an ancient oak tree, well back from the road where it made a turn to the south, Sir James smiled as Cornelia appeared on her way back to the manor. He wondered what errand the Countess had found to send her on, but from the basket she carried, it was likely an errand of charity. Wellington trotted along at her side, his tongue lolling out as he panted with the exertion of a gentle stroll. He had hoped she would use the opportunity to give the pug his exercise.
Trodding carefully, so as not to make noise by rustling the underbrush, Sir James slipped further back into the trees and whistled. It wasn’t long before he heard a scrambling racket through the brush, such as an overweight dog might make. Stepping behind a wide tree trunk, Sir James whistled again and was pleased when Wellington came right to him.
“Wellington,” Cornelia called. Her voice held just a note of concern. But when Wellington yipped at her and she found him sitting quite unharmed, her expression relaxed. When Sir James moved around the tree to show himself, however, she jumped.
“It’s only me,” he said soothingly.
Her breathing was labored as she pressed her hand to her bosom. “What are you doing here?”
“Waiting for you to come along so I could steal you away.”
Her brows twitched together. “Stop teasing me.”
“I promise I’m not. You know, you really shouldn’t walk out alone.”
“Why not? I’m not some young miss with expectations, but an employed spinster.”
“That relieves me greatly. Added to the fact that we are childhood friends, I am now confident that all the proprieties will be met. Well, if not precisely, at least no one shall know I have kidnapped you anyway.”
“Please be serious. I must return.”
Sir James stepped forward then and grasped the ribbon of her bonnet. With one tug, it untied, and he plucked it from her head. “You cannot return without your bonnet.”
“Give that to me,” she cried, reaching out for it.
Lifting her bonnet above her reach, he lodged it between two branches. “In due time. I need to ensure you won’t go running off home.” He plucked the basket from her loosened grasp and looped the handle over a branch above her head as well.”
“But…but what are you doing?”
Taking her hand, he led her deeper into the trees. “I am going to spend the afternoon with you, my darling. Everyone has gone to church and I hear there is some outing or other planned for later, so I do not think you will be missed for quite some time.”
“I don’t wish to spend the afternoon with you.”
He nodded somberly. “That is why I must kidnap you, of course. I didn’t expect you to admit that you want nothing more than to be alone with me.”
She stopped, stock still, and pulled her hand away from his. “You, sir, are—”
“Madly determined,” he interrupted, trying to keep from smiling as he caught her hand again. This time, he held her wrist loosely, pleased when she did not pull away, and slipped her glove off her hand. He draped it over another high branch. Unable to resist, he held her bare hand a moment before letting it go.
This time she laughed. “You are being utterly ridiculous. As if taking my bonnet and glove would keep me from returning home.”
“No?” he said. He moved quickly and claimed her other glove, draping alongside its fellow. “But the proper Miss Greystock wouldn’t go anywhere without them. Just imagine the speculation that would arise as to how she had lost them.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Wellington, it appears that I must endeavor further.” He took her hand again and she resisted not at all, as he led her further. They soon emerged from the woods onto a narrow strip of land rimmed with a low stone wall that ran along the crest of a hill like a crown.
She ran forward, resting her hands on the sun-warmed stones, and stood as if spellbound. Before them stretched vast acres of farmland, each crop marked out like patches on the landscape. In the far distance, more hills rose like green waves against the cloudless azure sky.
“Cornelia, if I may,” he asked.
Turning around, she tilted her head. “What?”
Catching her about the waist, he sat her up on the wall and drew off her kid boots. He tossed them a good distance away, each in a different direction. As he threw the first, Wellington jumped into action, enthusiastic for a game he knew well, but Sir James called him back. “Stay.”
Wellington sat and looked up at him with disconsolate eyes.
“Have you gone mad?” Cornelia asked.
He noted a brightness in her eyes that had not been there before, and a certain bubbling warmth in her tone that hinted at laughter held barely in check.
“I have been mad for a great while now. Would you like to go exploring with me? There is a folly nearby with an ugly statue of Hercules.”
“But I cannot go anywhere without shoes.”
“As if I have not seen you going barefoot any number of times.”
In a piqued tone, she said. “When I was a girl. Oh, very well. I cannot ruin my stockings, however. Turn around, Sir James.”
Both amused and highly tempted to pull her stockings off himself, he made himself turn away. After a moment, he heard a scream and turned swiftly around. He couldn’t see Cornelia, just one of her stockings laying over the edge of the wall. With his heart in his throat he ran forward, afraid of what he would see. Was the hill steep? Had she fallen a considerable distance?
With wide, panicked eyes, he looked down—and saw her sitting at her leisure, quite comfortably, on a patch of moss at the base of the wall. “Why you deceitful baggage,” he said, jumping over the wall.
She burst out laughing, leaning her head back against the stones as she gave way to her mirth. “Your face. Did you think I’d fallen to my death?”
He sat down beside her. “Do you still deny being a hoyden?”
“Well, look at you—stealing my belongings and strewing them about the countryside. And for what purpose, pray tell?”
“To give you a break from drudgery. To give you sun and sky and a whole afternoon of freedom to do nothing but be your true self.”
Her expression dimmed and her lips turned up in a wistful smile. “Why? So I may suffer all the more when such things are denied to me again?”
Reaching forward, he took her hands, reveling in the feel of her fingers curling into his. “No, because I want to make you happy, in any moment that I can.” And then, thinking there was surely no better place to kiss her, sheltered from the entire world as they were, still he stood and helped her to her feet. He would not take such a liberty until he knew she desired it as much as he did.
But oh, how tempting she was, with her heavy hair escaping its pins and her toes peeking out from beneath her dress on the lush green moss.
“Where are we going?” she asked, her voice taking on the warm, happy tone he remembered from years past.
He took Cornelia by the waist and assisted her back over the wall. “To see what the Countess’s chef packed for us in the hamper I hid near the folly. I believe there’s even a bone for Wellington.”
She laughed and took his arm. “No wonder Alphonse turned sour when I asked him to pack a basket for poor Mrs. Jarvis. Sir James, if I promise to stay with you and eat your picnic, may I have my belongings back?”
“Most decidedly not. I’d sooner trust a tinker selling the crown jewels. We’ll collect them when we are finished, though I warn you, that will not anytime soon.”