Excerpt from The Major's Mistake

     
     The marquess watched the boy's retreating form until his small head was barely visible above the tall grass and clumps of gorse. Save for an occasional cricket or the chirp of a robin, there was silence.
     Miranda's hands tightened in her lap—she hadn't considered that the two of them would be forced to spend any time alone. She stole a glance at Julian, whose attention was still riveted on Justin. He had removed his coat and his immaculate white linen shirt only emphasized the breadth of his muscled shoulders and taut planes of his chest. The fitted buckskins and polished Hessians were also of the finest quality and showed his form to perfection.
     She looked quickly away. If anything, he was even more handsome than when she had first met him. The changes the years had wrought were, to her eyes, only for the better. The fine lines etched around his eyes softened the blind arrogance of youth and the set of his lips somehow bespoke of a firmer, wiser man.
     Her breath caught in her throat. She had no illusions of how she must appear—thinner, plainer, poorer. No doubt he must be congratulating himself of being well rid of her.
     To make matters worse, she once again felt the prick of tears. She couldn't restrain a silent oath. Damnation, she knew it had been a mistake to come. A confused anger welled up inside her. Anger at herself for allowing self pity to rear its head, anger at Julian for reappearing in her life. After all, it was much easier to hate a phantom of her own imagination.
     With a jerk of her skirts, she made to get up.
     "You have been a wonderful mother, Miranda."
     His words, spoken softly, caught her totally off guard. She turned towards him in astonishment.
     "What?"                        
     He shifted uncomfortably on the blanket, but his eyes never wavered from hers.
     "I said, you have raised him well."
     There was a sharp intake of breath. "I... I never expected to hear you say anything good about me."
     His brows came together for an instant. He looked as if to say something, then turned his gaze off towards the stream, where Justin was dancing along the shore, pushing at the bobbing hull with a long stick to free it from the rocky eddies. Finally, he gave a long sigh. "I wish I had known I had a son all those years I was in the Peninsula. It would have made... a difference."
     His tone was not accusatory, merely one of regret.
     Miranda twisted a bit of fabric in a hard knot. "It was not out of malice, sir," she said, her voice barely above a whisper. "Can you truly say you would have believed me if I had written of it?"
     Julian's face creased in thought, then his mouth pursed in a rueful grimace. "Touché." He leaned back on his elbows, the wind ruffling his long locks. "Tell me everything about him," he said abruptly. "Hell's teeth, I don't even know his birthday! Was it a... difficult birth?" The questions were fairly tumbling out of his mouth. "What was he like as a baby? When did he take his first step?"
     * * *
     She stared at him in wonder.
     "Please," he added in a low voice.
     Her eyes fell to the muted plaid of the blanket. "Yes," she began slowly. "It was a difficult birth. I nearly lost him... ."
     How long she talked she wasn't sure. He interrupted often, eager for every detail of the little boy's life. She avoided any references to her own circumstances, but at times, he paused to regard her with an odd look before asking of something else. Finally it seemed the subject was nigh exhausted.
     "Well, milord, there is really little more I can tell you about your son."
     He grinned. "I know he loves frogs and hates Brussels sprouts—"
     "All little boys hate Brussels sprouts."
     The marquess feigned an injured expression. "I loved Brussels sprouts when I was little."
     Miranda quirked a tentative smile. "Oh, fustian, sir!"
     "Well, maybe I didn't love them."
     The sun had become quite warm, and as Julian spoke, he reached down to undo the cuffs of his shirt and roll them back from his wrists.
     "Oh, Ju—sir!" Miranda sucked in her breath as she stared at the jagged white scar cutting across his forearm. "Why, that is from a saber?"
     "Nought but a scratch," he muttered, quickly turning back the soft linen.
     Her eyes came up to meet his. "And your leg? Was that a saber too?"
     "Shrapnel." he answered curtly as he looked away. The laughter had drained from his face and a faint color rose to his cheeks. "As you see, I'm hardly the man I once was." His lips twisted in a mocking smile. "Damaged goods."
     Miranda was shocked to hear him speak thus. Never would she have imagined that he, with all the advantages of position and wealth, could feel unsure and even a bit afraid. And yet, all too well she recognized the raw vulnerability beneath the glib words. It betrayed a very different side of the Marquess of Sterling, one that she had hardly expected.
     Without thinking, she was moved to respond. "It seems to me, milord, that the man you once were has only changed for the better. The things you refer to are of no real importance at all."
     He looked at her with an intensity in his deep blue eyes that caused her own face to flame. She rose hastily to cover her embarrassment. What had prompted her to say such an idiotic thing, she wondered? No doubt he would think her a fool—or worse.
     "It's getting late. I must go check on Justin."
     She rushed of, leaving the marquess trying to digest all that had been said.
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