* * * *
With no warning before they collided, and both moving at a fair pace until the moment of impact, they were caught in a vortex, his strong grip closed tightly around her. It was almost like being spun in a dance— a very rowdy May day dance where everybody had too much cider.
Persey could have sworn her heartbeat stopped completely for those few seconds as she swung through the air with the stranger's arms around her.
"Pardon me, ma'am," he wheezed, setting her down again on the grass.
Thick, muscular and browned by frequent exposure to sun, his limbs had taken possession of her for those few, startled seconds, and she was not at all sure whether it was the force of the strike, the sudden sensation of being airborne and flung about, or the powerful grip of one arm— which remained around her waist for several pulse beats longer than its partner— that caused her to stumble a second time.
Their equilibrium regained, he took a step back, finally releasing her.
Persey sheltered her eyes from the sun with one hand to get a better look at her assailant. His hands were well-used, the fingernails dark with grime. A black marking circled his wrist as if it were drawn upon the skin with ink. His chest and shoulders were broad, barely contained by a sweat-dampened, linen shirt and a simple flannel waistcoat. Above that came a thick neck and a face unshaven, but young. Dark hair, tied back in a simple tail. Brown eyes with a touch of reserved caution in the way they assessed her.
Persey prided herself on knowing the name of every worker on the estate, and always took time to learn about their families, maintaining a lively interest in births, weddings, and courtships. And she had certainly never laid eyes on this one before. But he must be a laborer who had worked long hours in the outdoors. In the next moment, it occurred to her that since his face was unfamiliar, he must be one of the new men brought in by that over-paid, pretentious idiot who fancied himself a "garden designer". Albert had mentioned she might see some of his workers about the place.
"Pardon me, ma'am," he said again, this time with a quick bow.
"You should look where you go, young man," she chided, quickly checking that she had lost no flowers from her trug. A few were crushed, but most had survived. Like her.
"Well, so should you, I reckon." He smiled. "I'd say it was your fault as much as mine, wouldn't you?"
She stared up at him. Apparently he didn't know who she was. But then, she reasoned, how could he? She wore no jewelry, just a simple, midnight blue muslin gown with a stained pinafore over it — her usual attire when working in the garden. Perhaps it was a good thing if he mistook her for one of the household staff. This could be her chance to find out a little more about her new enemy by way of interrogating one of his minions.
So rather than make comment on his impudent remark, she swung her flower-filled trug against her hip, blinked her lashes and said, "Where might you be going in such haste?"
His eyes looked confused for a moment as he tilted his head to one side, studying her face, and then he gave a bit of a smile as he scratched one shoulder, before resting his knuckles on his hips. "To find the secret garden hidden yonder beyond all these hedges. I hear its well-tended." He glanced at her worn leather gauntlets. "Would you be one of the maids responsible?"
"I... do tend the garden, sir."
"Perhaps you'd be good enough to show me to it then? Since you know your way around the maze."
"You have an interest in gardens?"
With one hand he brought the loose end of his neck-cloth to his brow and mopped up the sweat that glistened there. "Aye. I have an interest." A slow grin bent his lips, a little apprehensively, she thought. "Especially if you show me. I wouldn't want to get lost, would I?"
Biting her lip, she considered. "I suppose I might spare a minute or two."
"Or half an hour." His gaze swept her with more heat than the sun, but then he quickly looked away, as if he felt burned. "I don't like to rush my way around a garden. I prefer to take my time. Don't like to miss anything."
She raised a hand to her neck, where a lock of loose hair stuck to her perspiring skin. "I have my duties to tend for the mistress."
His eyes returned for a longer look, their curiosity following the trail of her fingers. "I promise I won't keep you too long." Then he smiled. It began cautiously, unassuming, even a little quizzical, but once that smile reached full strength, it felt as if the sun dazzled her. Although his voice was calm and steady, his body rippled and pulsed with dangerous vitality beneath that shirt and waistcoat. And as he stood before her with his feet apart, head cocked, the sun shining on his hair, the Dowager Marchioness of Holbrooke was suddenly aware of a long dormant, now reawakened ... feistiness.
Persey hadn't blushed in front of a man since she was eighteen. She had forgotten what that felt like, until now. Tread with caution, she warned herself. "You're a new face."
"Just arrived." He reached over their heads, his fingers toying with a leaf from the arbor, very casual, as if he thought she would be accustomed to so much masculinity in a state of bold undress. Close enough to touch. The proximity raised her temperature another ten degrees, but he didn't seem bothered by it.
"You must work for that fancy garden designer." She took a step back.
His lip quirked. "Fancy?" He stepped toward her again. "What does that mean?"
"I hear he plans to dig the place up and ruin everything that generations have built, change the place so it doesn't look like itself anymore, and all in the interests of vanity and fashion."
A soft laugh tumbled out of his mouth, and surprise lifted his brows. "Word gets about. I just saw a stable lad who said, more or less, the same."
"'Tis true, is it not?"
"Who told you that? The meddlesome old goat from the dower house?"
Persey caught her breath and looked down at her trug again while she composed her face. "Don't fret that I'll tell. A stable lad already informed me of the rumors she's planting about my... " He paused and when she looked up he scratched irritably at the side of his neck. "...My master. And we were warned by the marquess." He shrugged his wide shoulders. "Old folk just don't like change. But Radcliffe will manage her. He doesn't stand for nonsense when it gets in the way of his vision."
"How will he do that then?" she enquired nonchalantly. "How will he manage her?"
"You'll see." He gestured with his hand for her to lead on. "Aren't you going to show me this hidden garden? We'd best get on if you can't spare me much of your time."
So she turned and walked ahead of him, crossing to the gravel path, glad of the chance to hide her expression. Meddlesome old goat, indeed!
* * * *
Well, this was a delightful surprise, he thought, watching the enticing sway of her walk as she led him under the bowers of greenery and through a sun-dappled tunnel. He hadn't been thinking about women at all. Working too hard, building his name and his future, Joss rarely had a chance to let his mind stray in that direction.
But there she was, popping up in his path like the first spring snowdrop, gladdening his sight after a long winter. One look at her, one hand against her back, one breath of her scent, had reminded him that this was the time to come out of hibernation. It was the time for skipping lambs, wildly frolicking rabbits in the meadows, and birds frantically gathering sticks for their nests. He began to feel a little of that urgent spirit himself. Perhaps it had something to do with the delightful press of her body forced against his when he put his arms around her. He'd have to be a dead man not to appreciate those warm curves, not to feel a quickening.
"What's your name?" he called to her, lengthening his stride to catch up. She was a fast walker, or else she had long legs under that gown
"Why do you want to know? You won't be here long enough to get much use out of it, young fellow. Not if the dowager marchioness gets her way."
He chuckled softly. "Planning on being rid of us, is she? Inciting the staff to rebellion against the newcomers already? She must distrust every man before she's even met him."
"Her ladyship, my mistress, cares greatly for the grounds of the estate and won't see them brought to ruin. She will defend Holbrooke with everything she has."
He could have told her that he was that "fancy" garden designer her mistress so despised, but then, in fear of upsetting the old lady, she would run off and leave him there. Joss really wanted to find this secret garden. And he wanted her to show him through the maze. Those well-worn leather gauntlets, the grass and mud-stained, torn pinafore, and the much-abused hat all told of a woman who spent much of her time in the garden— that she was comfortable there and knew her way around. He recognized a fellow enthusiast when he saw one.
But if she knew who he was, she would probably get him lost in the maze deliberately, for there was a hot spark of mischief in her gaze and those lips had a habit of turning up at one corner in a semi-smirk that suggested a reluctance to smile and an impatience to bite.
"Tradition is important in a place like Holbrooke," she added. "My mistress keeps the grounds as her husband liked them and as his father and grandfather had them before that."
"The old lady can stop gnashing her teeth," he exclaimed. "Radcliffe has no evil intentions toward the place. Sounds to me as if the lady likes to make a storm in a tea cup. Perhaps she does not have enough to do with her time. In which case, we'll have to find something to keep her busy and out of Radcliffe's way."
She looked askance. "Such as?"
"Embroidery? Jam-making? What do old ladies like to do, when they're not poking their nose into other folk's business? If she plans to make trouble for Radcliffe, she'll soon find he can make just as much for her."
"I wouldn't advise anybody to cross her ladyship, young man."
"Yes, I suppose she's a formidable old crone, but Radcliffe can be equally difficult."
"I do not know that anybody would describe the dowager marchioness as a crone."
"Not to her face, I'm sure. But since I set foot on the estate everybody has warned me about her. It's clear she's a wretched old curmudgeon and they all know it."
"You're awfully free with your words and opinions, young man. I might tell her what you just said."
"Don't care if you do. She's a spent force. What can she do to me? I'm no wide-eyed stable lad to be frightened with tales of corpses in the rose garden. Neither is Radcliffe."
The woman quickened her pace between the hedges, and he hurried after her again. Perhaps he'd gone too far in the things he said of the old dowager, but he never could abide an interfering woman— of any age— and if her words had already set this interesting creature against him, then he truly had cause to be angry.
Eventually she said, "How long will you be here then? It can't take too much time to dig a few holes, throw some muck about and make a general mess of the view. Moles manage it well enough and they're blind."
"My master takes great care with his projects. I could be here for months." He snatched some lilac from her basket and sniffed it. "So there, you see. We'll have plenty of time to get to know each other. I'd like to call you by your name. If you'd permit it, of course."
She pursed her lips and stared straight ahead, her profile defiant.
"Otherwise I'll have to make up some other name to call you, shan't I?" he teased. "Sweet Lips or Blue Eyes or Buttercup." As he reached for another bloom, she moved her basket aside, tidying the contents as if they were in some special order he'd disturbed.
"Call me whatever you like. I shan't have to answer to it, shall I?" She walked on.
He leapt around in front of her and gave a little bow, one hand to his heart. "Well, my name is Joss, and I will always answer to your call. Very pleased to make your acquaintance. See? If I can do it, you can."
She licked her bee-stung lips and surveyed him haughtily for a moment. Her long lashes wafted down and then up, languid as if they were heavy. Her eyes, like windows through which he could see an even more glorious spring sky, remained cool.
"Oh, for pity's sake! Folk call me Persey." And as she gave a grandly mocking curtsey, he was suddenly rendered breathless by a teasing glimpse of rounded bosom, nestled within her muslin bodice and caressed by a transparent white fichu. Again he thought of sporting rabbits, their fluffy, bobbing tails, wide eyes, twitching noses on high alert, ears...pricked. The long, dew-speckled grass, glittering as they dashed through it, leaving a darker trail in their wake.
"Have you worked for your master long?" she asked, setting off again at her brisk pace.
"Many—" he caught a breath, as he ducked to avoid hitting his head on the low arch of a rose arbor, "many hard years."
"Not that many surely. You're too young."
He laughed. "I am eight and twenty."
The light dimmed a little under her lashes as she shot him a sideways glance. "Then you are young. I thought so." She shook her head and recounted her flowers.
"I'm old enough."
"Old enough for what?" She laughed lightly, dismissively. "Solid foods?"
Joss stopped her path again, squared his shoulders and rested his knuckles on both hips. "I'll have you know, Persey, I've been in gardens for ten years." That was what he preferred to call it: Being in gardens. Some used the term "landscaping", but he did not care for it. Sounded too grand, when it was really a case of helping nature do her work.
"An entire ten years," she muttered, sounding amused. "A man of eighteen is barely out of the cradle." There went the lop-sided bend of her lips again.
And suddenly, there, in the dancing jade shadows of the labyrinth, he knew he would kiss that smirk right off those skeptical lips. Soon. Yes, he was definitely feeling the warmth of Spring in his parts. It happened rarely that a woman caught his notice and never had one captured it quite so zealously.
* * * *
copyright Jayne Fresina 2017
(image above - Lady in a Garden by Frederic Leighton)
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