featured author: kristi ann hunter
With an unfortunate name like Florentia Frances Fernmore, she should have expected life had more than a few unpleasant surprises in store for her, but somehow she still thought that one day she would marry the man she fell in love with as a child.
Somewhere along the way the boy she’d been enamored with had become a man she didn’t know. For years she’d been bringing a mid-day meal to her father’s office where he worked as an estate manager for Lord Nordrum. Whenever Philip had been home on school break, she’d carefully timed her deliveries so that she would encounter him somewhere along the way.
If that meant occasionally lurking in the woods for an hour or so in order to approach the house when he was walking up from the stable, so be it. Of course, that meant her father’s meal was occasionally delivered cold, but that dilemma was easily solved by packing a meal of cold meat and cheese whenever waiting might be a necessity.
Avoiding Philip’s older brother Jasper was not quite as easily accomplished. Somehow he always knew where she was hiding or which route she had chosen.
More than once, he’d interrupted her asking Philip about school or London or his future plans.
More than once he’d come up behind her and asked if she needed assistance finding the way across the lawn to the house.
More than once she’d thought about kicking him in the shin to see if a flash of pain would wipe that arrogant frown from his face. Just because he would one day be the Earl of Nordrum didn’t mean he had the right to interfere in her life.
At this moment, though, she wished someone would interfere in it. Some sort of benevolent godmother would make her day much brighter because at one-and-twenty, she wasn’t getting any younger and all the dreams she’d once had for her life were now splattered in the dirt along with her father’s roast beef.
She’d known Philip was due to arrive for a visit today and she’d dressed in her very best dress, determined that this time he would see that she would be the perfect choice of wife for a younger son intending to go into the church. It would seem, though, that Philip had already decided the daughter of a gentleman in Kent would make a better choice.
She couldn’t fault him. From Florentia’s vantage point amongst the shrubs at the corner of the house, the other woman appeared the very picture of quiet, humble sophistication.
The fine weather meant she was gaining abundance of dream-crushing information. Jasper had greeted his brother on the drive itself and enjoyed a prolonged conversation in the warm sunshine before taking the two inside to meet the earl and countess.
What was Florentia supposed to do now? There wasn’t a great deal of demand for the daughters of estate managers in their small local society, and it wasn’t as if Florentia could afford to travel somewhere and have any sort of season. Without Philip, her options consisted of being a shopkeeper’s wife or taking a job herself as a governess or a companion.
She would have to stop coming to Ellwood Park, the only place that had ever truly felt like home. Even when she had to finagle her way through Jasper’s derision, she breathed easier at Ellwood.
She ran a hand along the smooth granite corner of the building. She didn’t have time to find a new dream. It was time to form a practical life. It was time to say goodbye.
Tears welled in her eyes and dripped over the ends of her lashes, blurring her vision as she abandoned the dropped plate of food and started across the lawn to return home.
“Leaving so soon?”
Florentia’s head snapped up and she brushed quickly at her cheeks, recognizing Jasper’s stern voice. There was no point in denying that she’d been listening in, no reason to pretend she hadn’t heard.
She sniffled and sighed. “Yes, I’m leaving. I… Well, I think we both know why.” She cast a longing look up the side of the house. “I’ll miss this place.”
Jasper coughed and shifted his position to keep her trapped amongst the shrubbery. “This place?”
His quizzical look speared through her and she ducked her head in hopes of hiding her suddenly warm cheeks. Once more she’d given Jasper reason to believe she was no more responsible than the little nine-year-old girl in braids that had climbed the tree to tap on Philip’s window and ask if he wanted to go fishing.
Of course, she hadn’t even been able to do that right since she had ended up tapping on Jasper’s window. He’d been seventeen at the time and had made it a point to witness every one of her embarrassing moments ever since.
Including this one.
She nodded. “I’ve always liked it here.”
“Your father still works here.”
“You can still bring him food.” He gave a wry grin. “Perhaps even hot food if you aren’t preoccupied.”
“Yes,” she said quietly. “That would certainly free up some of your time.”
“I’ve often thought of how I’d fill my time if you weren’t chasing Philip.”
The heat in her cheeks intensified and tears rushed into her eyes once more, fuller and heavier than they had before. What was wrong with her that the idea of no longer seeing Jasper made her cry even harder than Philip’s looming betrothal? Why did his dreaming of the day she let him be hurt worse than the loss of her childhood fantasies?
Shaking her head, she pushed past Jasper and ran across the lawn toward her small home on the edge of the property. She burst through the door, ignored the curious squeals of the servants, and locked herself in her room.
Not ten minutes later, a tapping sound drew her attention to the window.
Jasper was leaning against the glass.
She pushed open the sash. “Did I leave something behind?”
“I was wondering if you might like to go fishing.”
And then he kissed her.
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