“Good afternoon, Mr. Carbury,” the young woman said firmly, proud chin up, hands behind her back.
Face red, mouth spitting ugly curses, the man swept out, his shoulder nudging Luke’s chest as he passed. The young woman followed, as did Luke, watching to be sure he left the hotel. They walked under the counter flap together.
“A charming fellow,” he observed.
“He’s persistent. I’ll say that for him. And as much charm as a grass snake. Thank you, by the way, although I was quite capable of managing Mr. Carbury myself. I’m not afraid, and I’m no china doll. Just because I wear petticoats doesn’t mean I can’t fight just as dirty as the rest of them.”
“I’m used to sticking up for myself. But anyway, thanks all the same. I don’t suppose it’s your fault that you didn’t know I was very independent. You’re entitled to make the same mistake as most men when they see me. I’ll forgive you this once. Don’t make a habit of it.”
He bowed his head in reply to this rushed announcement.
“And who are you anyway?”
Before he could answer, the mouthy boy leapt forward and tugged on her skirt, eager to declare at the top of his lungs, “He’s here on a very important business matter with you, Miss Wellfleet. It’s a secret.”
The young woman now stared at Luke, steadily taking it all in. Under her boldly challenging regard, he began to wish he’d spared the time to shave that morning before he left his father’s house. His hair, he knew, must be a rumpled mess after falling asleep in the carriage, and his clothes were wrinkled. It was rare for Luke Blackwood to acknowledge the possibility of anything lacking in his appearance. Other folk’s opinions were of little consequence to him. Usually.
But there was nothing usual about the small woman currently treating him to a quick, thorough inspection. One might think she was six foot tall and looking him straight in the eye. She didn’t even blink. There was no cowering, no simpering, no insincerity.
He felt oddly adrift. He wasn’t sure he liked this new sensation.
“Miss Daisy Wellfleet?” Of course, he already knew who she was, but he couldn’t think of anything else to say. He would have recognized her at once from his father’s painting. Even with her clothes on. But she was still young, hadn’t changed much since she posed for the old devil. Luke had no idea when the painting was done, but it couldn’t have been as long ago as he’d previously assumed. He’d expected a much older woman, perhaps even a dead one, and instead found this disturbingly lively creature. And that changed quite a lot of things, tumbled his thoughts in a disorderly muddle.
Why would a young, seemingly respectable, strong-willed, single woman like this take all her clothes off for his father?
He’d spent many hours staring at the painting since it first came into his possession. He knew every curve, every angle, every freckle. Intimately. In fact, he was more familiar with her naked body than he was with that of any woman he’d ever slept with, because he didn’t usually hang around long enough to study them. And now, as she stood before him, in the flesh and fully clothed, he was choked into stupid silence, like a mute beast humbled in the presence of a goddess.
His earlier foul mood melted away to a puddle of foolishness he hadn’t felt since he was twelve and forced, during some abysmal dance lesson, to hold a girl’s hand for the first time. Luke was never much of a conversationalist and avoided talking to women if at all possible. He preferred his own company to anyone else’s and valued his peace and tranquility to cultivating friendships. Many called him unsociable, even a recluse. He called himself wise and incredibly sane.
Today he made an effort, purely because he wanted to keep her in his company for as long as possible while he examined this strange effect she caused.
“Bellis Perennis,” he muttered.
“Daisy, in Latin.”
She looked skeptical. “Oh.”
“The name Daisy is actually a modification of day’s eye. Did you know that?”
“I can’t say I did.”
He scratched his head, trying to remember why he was there. Meanwhile, her gaze lost interest with him and turned to his battered trunk, reading the initials painted on the lid. Her eyes widened. “Oh! It’s you.”
“I began to think you’d changed your mind,” she added, cheeks flushed under the light pattern of freckles. “You’re three days late. Your cousin’s letter said you’d be here Tuesday. I’d almost given up on you. Oh well, I suppose Friday is better than never. Even if it is Friday the thirteenth. Seems ominous, don’t you think?”
Tuesday? He suddenly had no idea what a Tuesday was. He didn’t even know his own name anymore as he stared down into her eyes and felt his body leaning forward.
“I thought you’d be walking with a cane,” she said, “or even pushed in a bath-chair. Your leg must have healed quickly. That’s good because I was wondering how you’d manage the stairs, and I thought I’d have to make you a bed in the office somehow until you could get about. So that’s sorted. Shall I show you up? I’ve had a room prepared for you since Tuesday, in case you could manage the stairs. Lucky, wasn’t it?”
She was short but beautifully made. He might even go so far as to call her exquisite. She had a heart-shaped, deceptively innocent face. Deceptive, he already knew, because she had at least one scandalous secret in her past. Hesitant, he glanced over at the package now resting by the counter. He’d come here to give her the painting inside the calico wrapper. It was one of his father’s last bequests, but Luke was already forgetting all that, forgetting his purpose there entirely.
He wanted to swim awhile longer in her eyes. They were large, summery pools of green gilded with a tint of copper. Her nose had a charming upward tilt and was speckled with a dusting of girlish freckles. How old was she? And what fool left this little bit of a thing in charge of a hotel?
“Are you all right?” she whispered. “Is it your head? Your cousin explained, of course.” She raised her small hand and touched his brow where he’d hit his head a few minutes earlier. “I’m so sorry about what happened to you. It’s dreadful. They should have far better safety precautions in those mines. I’ve read about it. Only a little, but I try to find things in the newspaper to enlarge my knowledge. I think that’s important, don’t you? To learn about what’s going on in the world? Some people believe they’re all that matters, but the world is a much bigger place, isn’t it?”Confused, more than a little distracted by her incredible eyes and those curling bronze lashes, not to mention the gentle touch of her cool fingers against his hot brow, Luke wasn’t sure what to say. The fact that she couldn’t possibly have expected him, evidently mistook him for someone else, was quickly dismissed in his mind as inconsequential.
Want to read more? A Private Collection by Jayne Fresina (three novellas in one) is available from all online bookstores and the publishers own site here.
Thank you for reading!
(Image above is from a painting by Victorian artist Frank Bernard Dicksee)