Excerpt from A Stroke of Luck

     
     Prestwick craned his neck to catch a glimpse of what she was sketching. Swans. She had captured their graceful lines to perfection, but he couldn't help wishing she had let her imagination take flight to another subject. Just as he couldn't help wishing, as he watched the deft movements of her fingers, that they were once again entwined in his hair, pulling his head down to meet her lush lips...
     She looked up abruptly, suddenly sensing his presence, though he had not moved a muscle.
     "Nice," he murmured, covering his embarrassment at having been caught staring with a show of examining the swirling of the waters to her left. "I had thought to try my luck here, but I should not like to disturb your subjects."
     "It is quite alright, sir. I was about finished." The paper snapped as she turned to a fresh page. "Go ahead and throw in your hook."
     He was, however, intent on angling for something other than trout. "Might I have a look at the others you have done?"
     Her eyes narrowed. "It is a new sketchbook," she said pointedly. "The rest of the pages are blank."
     There was no mistaking the tautness of her tone. Did she think he was baiting her? It was impossible to tell whether the flush of color on her cheeks was due to the brisk breeze or some other reason.
     "Miss Greeley...Zara..."
     "I have not given you leave to use my name, sir."
     "Given what has passed between us," he said quietly. "I should think we could let down our guard and address each other as friends."
     "Friends?" she repeated under her breath. "Not likely."
     "Why?" he demanded.
     Her fingers fumbled upon the book. "I should run out of paper before I finished listing all the reasons."
     "I had not expected to hear such a...conventional response from you."
     "It was you who reminded me that I must, for the sake of my brothers, be bound by the strictures of convention, sir."
     "Did I say that?" Setting aside his fishing pole, he took a seat beside her on the mossy bank. "No wonder you think me a prosy bore."
     Clearly taken aback by the unexpected comment, she plunged on as if she had not heard him. "And convention dictates that a hellfire hoyden is not the proper sort of friend for a gentleman of your exalted privilege and position in Society."
     "Shouldn't I be the judge of that?"
     "No, others will do it for you! You heard the low titterings and saw the speculative glances the other evening. Your spotless reputation will only be sullied if you continue to be seen in my company." Heaving a harried sigh, she suddenly reached out and brushed a spatter of mud from his knee. "Have a care, sir. You are in danger of ruining your immaculate buckskins."
     He was in danger of ruining far more than an item of his wardrobe. With the wind teasing an errant curl across her cheek and the slanting sun catching the sparks of gold in her green eyes, she looked so maddeningly lovely that Prestwick found himself having to exercise every bit of self-control that he possessed to keep from catching her up in his arms and kissing her in full view of her brothers and the farmer laborers who were repairing a nearby stile. If he put her reputation on the line, he would have no choice but to make an offer, else find his own honor sunk beneath reproach.
     Somehow, the idea was not all that awful. He leaned in a touch closer.
     She must have sensed his odd mood, for she quickly edged sideways. The tree, however, blocked that path of retreat.
     "The state of my breeches is the least of my concerns at the moment."
     "No, the state of your sanity should be," she countered, her movement now inching away toward the water's edge. "You are casting about for trouble if you insist on—"
     The sound of snapping twigs cut off further words. Prestwick, who had caught hold of the willow's lower branches in order to stay close on her heels, found himself teetering on the slippery rocks.
     "Oh!" Zara's shout was drowned out by a large splash.
     "Another pair of boots ruined," she observed after a brief pause, her mouth quivering with suppressed mirth as she watched him wading through the knee deep water. "At this rate, you shall be providing Hoby with the means to retire."
     Realizing how ridiculous he must look, standing in submerged Hessians, with drenched breeches clinging to his thighs, the duke drew in a long breath. But rather than voice any pique, he dissolved into a peal of laughter. "No doubt you think it serves me right for being such a stick in the mud over my first tumble into the water."
     She, too, could not refrain any longer from outright laughter. "I have to admit, you are displaying a much better sense of humor about this current soaking than you did the previous one."
     Prestwick managed to scramble back up the muddy slope and flopped down beside her. "I believe someone told me the best way of facing disaster was to laugh at it," he replied, peeling off his damp jacket and tossing it on the grass. His hands then loosened the Belcher kerchief at his neck, and picked off the wet leaf stuck to his chin. "Tell me, am I really such a pompous prig as you seem to think? Is that why you do not wish to be friends?"
     She bit at her lip, looking somewhat dismayed, then the smile slowly crept back. "Actually, it has been quite some time since I have thought of you as a starchy, straitlaced, stiff-rumped prig."
     "Are you sure you did not leave out any adjectives?" he quipped.
     Zara laughed again, and the sound of it harmonizing with the gurgle of the river and the rustle of the trees. All too soon for his taste, however, it was lost in the breeze.
     "All jesting aside, Your Grace," she said after shaking off some drops of water from the folds of her skirts. "I simply think it would be unwise to pursue a friendship."
     "I ask again why. It's clear we share a passion for music and art."
     A grimace twisted her expression. "That's part of the deuced problem. Passions are dangerous."
     Was it fear that he saw in her eyes? What was she afraid of?
     "And as I said before, there are a good many other reasons."
     "Name one."
     "Well..." There was an odd little catch in her voice. "Lady Catherine, to begin with."
     "C—Catherine?" Caught by surprise, he felt his jaw tighten.
     "Yes. No matter how nice a face she put on the situation, the young lady was not best pleased with having her intended spend his time ogling musty old canvases with a companion of questionable morals."
     "There is no understanding between Lady Catherine and myself."
     "That is not what the gossips say, replied Zara softly"
     "The gossips are wrong." Was he mistaken, or did he notice the spasm of some emotion flit across her features?
     "But what more can a gentleman desire?" The question seemed directed as much at herself as at him. "She has beauty, poise, charm and grace. Not to speak of a sweet disposition."
     It suddenly occurred to Prestwick that a gentleman could desire a great deal more than such shallow attributes which were, after all, only little more than skin deep.
     "But she has none of your courage, spirit, opinions or imagination."
     "I-I thought gentlemen did not care for any of those qualities in a female."
     "Perhaps we have both learned of late to dig beneath the surface of our preconceived notions." His solemn expression then split into a boyish grin. "Come, let us both throw caution to the wind, Zara." On impulse, he reached out and took hold of her hand. "Let us agree to cry friends, at least for the next little while we are together."
     He felt her fingers stiffen, then slowly relax in his grip. "Oh, very well. I suppose there is little harm in it. Friends it is."
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