Daring in a blue dress, p.6
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       Daring In a Blue Dress, p.6

           Katie MacAlister
 

  “That’s right. Only three breeding places in the whole of England, and the biggest is on your land.” Barry waggled his massive eyebrows. “Which brings me to the subject I wanted to speak to you about—that piece of land you have.”

  “What piece of land?” Alden asked, mentally pulling up a map of the estate.

  “The bit with our tits, of course. The stretch that runs from the copse of oak trees to the cliffs. It’s about ten acres, wouldn’t you say, Poppet?”

  The woman evidently named Poppet nodded vigorously. “We’ve looked it up on the county maps. It’s almost exactly ten acres, a mere fraction of your one hundred and twenty acres.”

  “We in the Hairy Tit Conservancy Trust would like to purchase that land. To preserve and protect the habitat of the endangered tit.” Barry beamed like he was giving Alden a present.

  “That’s . . . I’m . . .” Alden tried hard to pull himself out of his verbal stumbling fit. “I couldn’t think of selling any of the land. The estate was cut down to just seventy-two acres, not one hundred and twenty, and almost all of that is leased out to farmers. The house itself stands on less than twenty acres, your bird area included.”

  “We’ll offer a fair price, mind you. We don’t intend for this to be a hardship on you,” Barry said, then clapped his hand on Alden’s arm and walked him a few steps away from the others. “Just between you and me, that bit of land isn’t worth half of what the trust is prepared to offer you. It would be a folly to turn up your nose to that sort of money, especially if you’re intending on renovating the old place. I know what sort of money that can run to, and I’m sure you’d be grateful for an influx of cash.”

  “I’m sorry,” Alden said firmly. “The land isn’t for sale.”

  “You haven’t heard the figure we’re offering yet,” Barry said, and named a sum that had Alden mentally raising his eyebrows. “Tell me that isn’t generous!”

  “It’s very generous, but the land simply is not for sale.”

  “Now, then,” Barry said, giving him another shoulder punch. “Don’t be hasty in thinking it over. I’ll come back another day when you’re not so busy and we’ll have a natter about it. In the meantime, you think of what you could do with that money.”

  “I really don’t need to think about it—”

  “We’ll get out of your hair,” Barry said loudly, and waved the others forward. “We’ll continue on to the cliffs, and walk up to the tit sanctuary before turning to the west to check out the cormorants. Nice meeting you at last, Ainslie.”

  “A pleasure,” the woman named Poppet said with a little bob before she hurried after the others.

  Alden watched in exasperation, partly with himself for not being able to articulate in a manner that made his feelings clear, but mostly for what he could tell was going to be a man who refused to accept no as an answer. “What is it with people feeling they can do whatever they want on my land?”

  “Still going on about that, are you?”

  Mercy emerged from the back of the house, tipping her head to the side as she considered him. “Boy, you really do like to hold on to grudges, don’t you? You shouldn’t, though. It’s bad for the digestion.”

  “I’m not holding on to a grudge,” he told her, so annoyed he wasn’t above arguing. And yet, at the same time, he was oddly pleased to see her. There was something about her, a sense of warmth and comfort, that was strangely enticing. “If you had people tramping through your land looking for rare, quasi-obscenely named birds, not to mention having your plans altered by a batty old woman—speaking of that, what do you know of bats?—then you’d feel the same way as I do.”

  “Oh, I don’t know.” She struck a thoughtful pose, and Alden was instantly aware that he was standing there, in the hot summer sunshine, chatting with a woman. His palms pricked with sudden perspiration. “I think I’d welcome the change. I try to do that, you know—embrace change. I mean, life is change, isn’t it? What’s the use in trying to force everything into little cubbyholes when it all comes bursting out the next minute?”

  “What bursts out?” he asked, mildly confused. A faint sheen of sweat started on his back, not just from the effect of wearing a dark shirt on a hot day. He fought the urge to stammer, and forced himself to speak slowly and calmly. “And I’m not forcing life into cubbyholes. I couldn’t if I wanted, since your friends refuse to cooperate.”

  “Employers,” she corrected gently, giving him another considering look.

  Alden wanted to bolt, and had to physically force himself to stand still, damp palms, sweating back, and trembling legs notwithstanding. “Just so.”

  “Life bursts out of cubbyholes is what I meant. If I were you . . .” She leaned in, dropping her voice to an intimate level that seemed to go straight to Alden’s groin. He was horrified at such a reaction to a woman he’d just met. He was even more horrified at the thought that she might notice he was having a physical reaction to her. “I’d stop fighting what life hands you, and instead make the best of the situation. You never know. Some good may come out of it.”

  “Erm . . . if you’ll excuse me. I believe . . . er . . . something . . . er . . . needs me.”

  “Something needs you?”

  “Yes. Something is . . . it’s on fire.”

  “What?” she asked, and he had a fleeting glimpse of disbelief on her face before he hurried past her, running down the gravel path that curved around the side of the house and led toward the front expanse.

  He knew he was being insufferably rude, but he couldn’t stand there in the sun with Mercy that close to him, so close her breath softly caressed his cheek, the scent of a sun-warmed woman seemingly wrapping invisible tendrils of sexual awareness around him tighter and tighter until he felt he couldn’t breathe.

  “Bloody hell,” he swore to himself, stopping to lean against a sheltered wall. “Bloody, buggery hell. You’re a fool. A big fool. A colossal fool. All she wanted to do was talk, and you start babbling and run away. . . .” He suddenly remembered the phone, now gripped tightly in his hand, and lifted it to his ear. “You still there, El?”

  “Yeees,” Elliot drawled. “That was quite a scene. Almost as good as the Hairy Tit man, but not quite. I agree that you were a colossal fool. Is something on fire?”

  “No,” Alden answered miserably, and slumped to the ground. Rocks poked painfully at his legs, but he felt it was just penance for treating Mercy to such rudeness. “But any hopes I had of trying to speak to a woman without making a complete ass of myself have gone up in flames.”

  “Possibly, but I don’t think it’s quite as dire as that. What was she doing that made your voice go up an octave and sound like you were choking?”

  “She leaned in to say something.” He gave a little shudder at the way he’d run off. “The look on her face when I bolted . . . El, I’m doomed, I’m just doomed.”

  “Don’t be maudlin. You just need practice talking to women. Once you realize they’re just as scared of you as you are of them, you’ll be fine.”

  Alden uttered a strangled little laugh.

  “There, now, you see? You’re laughing. All is not quite as lost as you imagine. What did you think about the offer on your north acres?”

  “I don’t think anything of it. I’m not going to sell.”

  “It’s a nice chunk of money,” Elliott said thoughtfully. “It could come in handy with your remodeling.”

  “I’m sure it would, but I’m not going to sell something I just went through hell to buy.”

  “Well, it’s your decision. If you intend on selling the house once you’ve fixed it up, you’ll likely be happy you kept the land.”

  “That’s assuming I can do everything I need to do with a medieval fair running in the garden.”

  “Ignore them, and focus on your work. Their lease on the garden will be over with before you know it.”

>   “You’re right,” Alden said, getting back to his feet and brushing off his trousers. “The house is what’s important. Everything else is just distraction. Especially Mercy. I can tell she’s going to be pestering me a lot.”

  “Oh?”

  “Yes. She says she’s a middle-child peacemaker.” Alden snorted. “She clearly is one of those bossy women who likes to take charge of things and run them. Well, she’s not going to run me. I don’t need her or her interfering ways.”

  Elliott audibly choked.

  “And the sooner she realizes that, the happier we’ll all be. Not that I’ll see her much. She’ll be with the others out in the garden, and I’ll be focusing on the house,” Alden said over the sound of Elliott coughing and wheezing. “‘Focus on the house’ is my new motto in life. I will focus like the wind. I will be the most focused man who ever lived. I will focus like, as the Americans say—did I tell you that Mercy is American?—as she would say, I will focus like no one’s business.”

  A spate of coughing was the answer to his declaration.

  “Are you all right?” he asked solicitously.

  “No,” Elliott wheezed, his voice hoarse and gritty. “But at least I didn’t run away from Alice when I met her.”

  “You’re supposed to be supportive. That sort of comment is not supportive. That is judgmental and petty. I will leave you to your judgmental, petty coughing fit that you wholly deserve, and go attend to my house.” A dull grating sound started overhead, growing sharper until he looked up in time to see three tiles and an ancient bird’s nest fall to the ground in front of him. “It is, after all, what’s important.”

  “You’re protesting too much,” came the hoarse reply.

  “I’m not doing any such thing. I’m simply telling you where my priorities lie, and that I really don’t want a woman munging up my plans. If you could find a way to have Alice call off her protégée, I’d be grateful. There are enough people clogging up the house now without having another one.”

  “Too late, I believe,” Elliott wheezed. “Alice said something about the woman being on her way.”

  “Dammit.” Alden straightened his shoulders, stepped over the slates and the bird’s nest, and set out again on the gravel path. “Well, I’ll just deal with the woman when she arrives. Perhaps I can leave her a note, and I won’t even have to see her. Oh, hell, I forgot to ask Mercy about the bat. Er . . . I don’t suppose . . .”

  “No,” Elliot said, his voice still rough around the edges, although he had stopped coughing. “I will not call her up and ask her for you.”

  “That’s a fine sort of supportiveness you practice,” Alden said pointedly, and, after a few more remarks of that nature, hung up the phone. He waffled for a minute, trying to rally enough inner strength to hunt down Mercy so he could apologize for his brusqueness, followed by an inquiry into her experience with possibly ill bats, but decided in the end that he’d put off that task until later. Instead, he toured the remainder of the estate, checked the condition of the outbuildings, and took photos of various spots around the exterior of the house about which he’d seek professional opinions.

  An hour had passed when his stomach reminded him that he’d had a meager lunch at best, and perhaps a little food might be in order. The thought that Mercy might be in the kitchen was almost enough to send him running (again), but in the end, he persuaded himself that she wasn’t likely to be present.

  She had other things to do, no doubt. There was that Vandal character—he sounded like a right bloke with the ladies. He just bet Mercy would fall for that sort of a man. Not that he cared. Not that it mattered whom she fell for, so long as she didn’t expect to stand around chatting with him, and leaning in to the point where he could smell that delicious scent that seemed to wrap around her, or feel the nearness of her body. No, he didn’t need that in his life, and certainly not after his experience of the afternoon.

  “I’ve had enough emotional trauma for the day,” he said aloud, letting himself in through a pair of French doors into what he knew was the long, narrow room that used to be a library.

  “Really? What’s traumatized you now?”

  He froze at the door. Mercy was seated at a card table that had been set up to the right of the doors, a massive mound of books, journals, loose papers, and what looked to be sheet music spilling off the table onto stacks on the floor.

  “Or should I say who?”

  “Who has done what?” he asked, confused by the fact that she was there in his formerly empty library, that she had set up a desk so quickly with what were clearly Lady Sybilla’s papers and assorted documents, and that he felt a spurt of pleasure at seeing her. He wasn’t happy to see her, he reminded himself. She terrified him, just as every other woman had ever since puberty.

  “Caused trauma.” She watched him with interesting hazel eyes that appeared now to be a stormy gray tinged with green.

  “You,” his mouth answered without his brain giving the all clear to do so. The second the word left his mouth, he was mortified. Shame heated his cheeks, which in turn made him feel even more uncomfortable. Men didn’t blush—women did.

  “Me?” Her brows, straight slashes of chocolate brown, pulled together in consternation. “What have I done to traumatize you?”

  “I . . . you . . .” His tongue seemed to stumble over the words as he gestured hopelessly. “It’s not really you, per se. . . .”

  “You’re blushing,” she said, disbelief rampant in her voice.

  He couldn’t be more mortified if he had set out to achieve that goal. With an inarticulate noise of self-loathing, he turned stiffly toward the French doors, intending to retreat to an unoccupied room where he could chastise himself in private, but a warm hand on his arm stopped him.

  “Hey, I’m sorry. That was rude of me. You’re obviously upset with me about something, but I don’t know what it is, so I don’t know how to fix it. I don’t suppose you’d like to start over? Pretend we’re meeting for the first time?”

  The look in her (now darker gray with more brown than green) eyes kept him from running away again. There was sympathy there, yes, but no pity. Just concern and worry. “No! That would be infinitely worse.”

  “Really? Why?”

  He closed his eyes for a moment and tried to focus on breathing calmly, as a therapist had once counseled him to do when faced with stressful social situations. “Because then I’d have to meet you all over again.”

  “And that’s . . . unpleasant?”

  He opened his eyes to find her in front of him, a puzzled expression on her face. But there was a hint of pain in her interesting, changeable eyes. Pain that he had caused.

  “Yes.”

  She took a deep breath and he felt her withdraw. She didn’t move physically, but he knew he had insulted her deeply, and yet his tongue felt like it was tied in knots, unable to explain the hellish nightmare of his intentions. “I see. I’m sorry if you don’t like me, but—”

  “No, it’s not that.” He gestured awkwardly, tried to think of words that would make everything right, make her understand, but they all tumbled around in his brain and refused to form sentences. He tottered over to her chair and slumped down in it, elbows on knees, and his head in his hands. “It’s not you, it’s me. It’s . . . women.”

  “You don’t like women? You’re gay?”

  “Not gay. It’s just . . . hard.”

  Air swirled gently around him, the faint spicy aroma of exotic scents teasing his nose. Whatever perfume she wore went straight to his head. “If I ask ‘What’s hard?’ you’re not going to make a dick joke, are you?”

  “No,” he said, braving a little smile as he looked up. “I’m the least likely person to do that.”

  “Why?” she asked, kneeling on the ground next to him. She tsked, and pulled a packet of papers out from under her knee. “Lady Sybilla’s private jou
rnal. She swears it’ll make a best seller if I type it up for her. Why are you not likely to make a dick joke, not that I want you to, mind, but still, why the least likely business?”

  He sat up straight, his hands on his knees, unable to look her in the eye when he bared his soul. He didn’t even wonder over the fact that he suddenly was driven to explain the truth to her—he just knew he had to. He owed it to her. He didn’t want her hurt simply because he was socially inept. “I’m . . . I have anxieties. Social anxieties. With women.”

  “You’re . . . shy?” she asked, her nose wrinkling a little.

  He thought it was a wholly charming expression, one that perfectly suited her open, honest face. He considered that face for a few moments. She wasn’t what would have been described as classically beautiful, with a round face, straight eyebrows, and a little nose that drifted toward the upturned category. Her hair was the color of dark honey, straight and cut in a shoulder-length bob that rippled like silk curtains when she tipped her head to the side, as she was doing now. No, she wasn’t strictly beautiful, but he found her all the more appealing because of that.

  “‘Shy’ is a good word for it. I don’t communicate well with women.” He made another awkward gesture. “I try, but . . . it all gets tangled up, and . . . and then . . .”

  “And then you just want to escape.” She nodded. “I know exactly what that feels like. One time, when I was in Edinburgh taking some classes in criminology, I was wearing my favorite pair of capris. They were light blue. Really pale baby blue. And my period came, but I didn’t know, because I’m not always crampy, and I spent a good chunk of the day running around with a huge old stain that no one told me about, and when I found out, I could have died. I just wanted to hole up in my room and never face all those people in all those classes who must have seen me, but instead, I told myself that there was nothing to be ashamed about a perfectly natural occurrence, and I wasn’t going to let societal reaction to women’s bodies and their functions ruin my life. So I went to my classes the next day with my head held high.”

 
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