Today's Reading

Just as she was closing in, the beast playfully darted from one side to the other. The young woman paused, slender hands on hips, and regarded the thief with marked determination. After a moment's consideration, she bent to pat the tops of her thighs. Then she pursed a pair of deep pink, Cupid's-bow lips and kissed the air to call the animal.

Leo felt himself take a step.

The motion must have drawn her attention. Her head turned at once and a pair of stormy blue eyes alighted on him. Framed with lashes the color of dark sand, they were set inside a heart- shaped face bejeweled by beads of dew that shimmered like diamonds in the bleary rain-soaked light.

Leo couldn't look away. A legion of trimmed tawny hairs lifted on his nape, his flesh tightening beneath layers of fine lawn and tailored wool. And when she straightened, his appreciative gaze drifted down the lithe form that the clever rain saw fit to reveal in subtle curves and shallow nooks where the dark cloak clung.

When his gaze returned to hers, there was a definite degree of coldness there. A warning to keep his distance. And since he couldn't fathom why he'd moved in the first place—when he was the last man on earth to come to the aid of a damsel in distress, no matter how fair—he merely inclined his head and ed his boots to the earth.

"Even she would be a far sight better for you than Millie Sutton," Phoebe said. "A wayward country waif? I think not."

"Oh, but she's one of us," she said, surprising him. "I'm acquainted with her stepmother, Lady Whitcombe. The viscountess and I were finished together."

"How delightfully sapphic, my dear. I do hope you both enjoyed yourselves."

Phoebe ignored the naughty remark. "If rumors are to be believed— and you know the delicious ones always are—this stepdaughter was caught in a rather compromising position at one of the soirees last year. Don't know the particulars, but the gentleman involved obviously chose not to marry her. Poor girl. Quite ruined, of course. Lord Whitcombe holds a seat in Parliament and summarily banished her to the country without batting an eyelash."

"Nothing like the warm embrace of a father to give one a bright start in the world," Leo muttered sotto voce.

His mood—bitter as it usually was—abruptly soured. He knew all too well what it was like to have parents who chose their own pursuits without considering the ramifications to others.

What the devil was the daughter of a peer doing out here all alone? Had she no other family to look after her?

He studied the stranger once more as she attempted to reclaim her property. He caught sight of the frayed hem and a faded blue dress that had seen better days. Yet, even in tattered muslin, there was something regal in her bearing. She kept her swanlike neck straight as she snapped her graceful fingers and ordered the dog to heel.

Surprisingly, the beast trotted toward her. But heeling wasn't at all what he had in mind.

Instead, he bounded up with his paws reaching to her shoulders, his hindquarters wagging with glee. However, since he likely outweighed her by a stone, she summarily toppled to the squelchy ground with an audible 'splat'.

A huff of indignation preceded her careful attempts to stand with utmost decorum. Yet, as soon as she righted herself and shook out her skirts, the dog woofed and knocked her down again.

This was all just a game to the exceptionally enormous puppy and wasn't likely to end anytime soon with the shepherd busily trying to corral his errant sheep. So, Leo decided to intervene.

Placing the hook of his thumb and middle finger between his lips, he issued a shrill, ascending whistle. Instantly, the drover turned, ears perked like two spraying fountains beneath that tangled mop. Then he loped obediently over to Leo, sat on his haunches and dropped the valise.

Behind him, and a little muddier than before, the young woman stiffly smoothed her clothes as though she wore a coronation robe instead of a threadbare cloak. As she approached, he heard her grumble, "You couldn't have done that sooner?"

He felt a grin tug at the corner of his mouth as he lifted her bag from the ground. "I believe this is"—just then one side of the handle tore free of its stitching—"yours."

She issued a soft, barely audible growl as she reached out. But she took special care to ensure that her grip wasn't even close to coming into contact with his. "Thank you for your assistance."

"Delighted to be of service," he said and saw those stormy eyes narrow ever so slightly. Behind him, Phoebe gave his shoulder a light shove to move him out of her view. "Miss

Thorogood, what a lovely surprise to see you here. It's been an age since we've last met."

"Oh, Lady Chastaine. How very . . . kind of you to remember me," the young woman said, all politeness. But it was clear in her halting tone and shifting stance that she was eager to depart their company. "If you would forgive me, I'm not quite fit for a social visit and must be on my way. I have a pressing errand to attend."

...

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