First Kiss – Well, sort of…
Lady Charity, raised her fists and hopped from one foot to the other. “Is this right?”
Harry crossed his arms while rubbing one hand over his mouth to stifle himself from laughing aloud. Though Her Ladyship was most likely the loveliest opponent he’d ever faced, she was about as fierce as a butterfly with all the ribbons and lace bouncing in tandem with her efforts. “Mayhap, if you’re dancing a jig,” he said, hoping not to dash such admirable enthusiasm.
“Och, nay.” The woman stopped abruptly, her hands flopping to her sides. “Please, will you not show me how to defend myself? Even a sheltered lady such as I never kens when she’ll face a scoundrel.”
Harry took a step back and stroked his fingers down his stubbly chin—as usual, scarcely three hours after he shaved this morning, his ungainly whiskers bristled. At first he hadn’t thought her serious about giving a demonstration, but once she mentioned defending her person, he realized Her Ladyship hadn’t been jesting. “I reckon the best defense for a woman such as yourself is a smart pair of walking shoes.”
“Yes, practical shoes that allow you to run. And perhaps a parasol.”
“Do explain the latter.”
“I’ve always imagined in the right hands, a woman can do a great deal of damage with a parasol.”
“Not her fists?”
“I wouldn’t recommend it, not unless you’re facing someone of similar size and strength.”
Lady Charity picked up a stick and addressed him as if it were a fencing sword. “Since I’ve left my parasol in the house, will this do for a wee demonstration?”
Perhaps he shouldn’t have mentioned a weapon. “That looks to be about the right size.”
“What do I do, wallop you over the head?”
“Well, an attacker. How should I strike him?”
“I must reinforce that eluding scoundrels is the absolute best action you can take, but if avoiding a confrontation is not an option, I might go for a jab to the solar plexus.”
Using one hand, Her Ladyship thrust the stick forward, missing Harry’s stomach by a fraction of an inch. “Like this?”
“Something like that, but I’d advise you to use both hands.”
“Both? Are you certain?”
Perhaps a demonstration might be better served to prove his point. “Use one hand and come at me again, and this time, don’t pull up short.”
“You mean for me to strike you?”
“Yes, madam, that is exactly what I mean. Give it a go with one hand as you did afore.”
A pink tongue slipped to the corner of her mouth while she eyed his midsection as if she intended to skewer him. With a feral growl she lunged. Harry stepped aside and took the weapon from her grasp by bending the shaft toward her thumb, a surefire maneuver to relieve any attacker of their weapon.
Except there were two problems.
The first, he could easily contend with, but rather than deliver a kick to the snarling dog gnawing on his heel, he chose to ignore Muffin. As for the second, Harry’s sensibilities seemed to be confounded to the point where he froze in his tracks, holding the stick aloft like a daft idiot. How in all of creation did a mere brush of this woman’s fingers render him not only speechless but immobile?
Lady Charity’s single utterance jolted him back to his senses. With a flick of his heel, Harry dislodged Muffin’s teeth from his boot. “Where are you hurt? Please forgive me. I merely meant to show you how important it is to wield your weapon with both hands.”
Rubbing her wrist, she dipped her chin with a shy smile. “It is all right. ’Twas more of a surprise than anything, I suppose. One moment I was worried about hurting you, and the next my stick completely disappeared from my hand.”
Her Ladyship took in a breath of air, her lips slightly parted as if she were about to say more. But with her hesitation, she shifted her gaze to the stick—or was she looking at Harry’s hand? Those captivating blues narrowed as if appraising a heifer at market, and as they traveled up his arm she fixated upon his chest.
No, she decidedly was not looking at the stick. “My, you are an exceptionally strong brute, are you not?”
“You think me brutish?”
“Not a brute, per se, but you did just relieve me of my parasol with hardly any effort on your part. In my estimation that makes you one braw butcher or fighter or…ah…roofer.” Blast it if she didn’t intentionally brush her fingers over his as she took back the makeshift parasol and addressed him, once again like a fencer. “Two hands, did you say?”
“Then I suppose I ought to give it another go, och aye?”
Harry nodded while flicking his fingers and preparing to defend another strike. “Come again.”
Rather than attack, Lady Charity glanced down to the dog. “Stay. I will not tolerate any hostilities against Mr. Mansfield.”
Her words were spoken with such authority, Harry shifted his attention to Muffin. Obviously elated with the attention, the dog sat with his tail beating away the leaves and debris within a one-foot radius.
“Oof!” Caught completely unawares, Harry doubled over from the jab of an unforgiving and inordinately hard stick.
“Argh!” The woman shrieked, slamming said weapon across the back of his neck.
“Ugh!” Harry bellowed, throwing out his hands to break his fall while his hat tumbled away and dozens of stars danced across his vision.
As he rolled to his back, blinking and doing his best to clear his vision, the vicious stick wielder dropped to her knees beside him. “Oh my goodness, are you all right?” She scooted her knees beneath his head and brushed the softest fingers he’d ever felt in his life across his forehead. “I’m so verra sorry.”
Harry knew he ought to stand, pick up his hat, and pretend that she hadn’t nearly knocked the wind from his lungs, not to mention just about bludgeoned him to death, but instead he didn’t move. No, she rendered him completely immobile, especially when he gazed up into a pair of inordinately captivating dark-blue eyes. This close, he marveled at how sparkling crystal threaded through them with a fascinating ring of solid blue around the outside. When she blinked, her irises grew smaller, almost instantly becoming larger as she focused.
Her Ladyship’s face was only a hand’s breadth away from his, her cool breath soothing his forehead while those lithe fingers swirled through his hair. “I do hope I havena done any serious damage.”
His mouth turned up. “I rather doubt it. I’ve endured far worse in the ring.”
“Oh dear, oh dear.” She whispered in a sultry tone, smoothing her hands along the bristles on his face, then lightly scratching her fingernails through his stubble as if she were enjoying the coarseness of it—at least keen to explore the feel of his late-morning whiskers. “Please forgive me. I just figured that after you so easily disarmed me the last time, I had no chance of actually striking you.”
Harry tipped up his chin, nearly sighing while she scratched beneath and trailed down to his neck. “Not once but twice.”
“I must apologize for the second strike as well.” She cradled his cheek and stared into his eyes. “I have no idea what came over me.”
“I reckon you have good instincts.”
“I do?” she asked, her lips pursing with the O and remaining puckered and…
Dash it all, he couldn’t help himself.
With a clench of his stomach muscles, Harry rose up high enough to steal a kiss—not really a kiss, but the tiniest of pecks.
“Oh.” Lady Charity sat straighter, moving her fingers to her lips. “I suppose one does unpredictable things when one has been bludgeoned by a parasol.”
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