NEWFORD, CORNWALL - 1814
Anna marched along the bank of a winding stream, irritation staining her cheeks. She’d only had a tiny piece of pound cake—hardly enough to warrant her mother’s criticism—and yet here she was, taking exercise to prevent herself from growing too soft.
She and her mother had arrived at Penhale, Mrs. Steward’s Cornwall residence, the previous week after traveling from their home in Berkshire. As nice as the lady’s manor was, Cornwall was a poor substitute for the glitter and sparkle of a London Season. Granted, her first season the previous year had been less than successful, but she’d rallied with dreams of a better, second season. But her father’s death a few months before had put a halt to her plans. And now, rather than flirting and dancing at balls and routs, Anna found herself plodding along in the grass and mud.
She lifted her hem and eyed her velvet slippers. Ruined, as she’d suspected. At least she’d managed to keep the hem of her dress—her current favorite—from the worst of the mud. She loved the rich, golden hue of the muslin. Like spring sunshine, it never failed to lift her spirits, and with a deep breath, she allowed its vibrancy to improve her mood.
She pushed a crooked branch aside and plodded on, grimacing as a patch of mud sucked at her foot. A copse of trees nestled in a curve of the stream ahead. She’d walk as far as that, then return to Penhale. Perhaps by then her mother would have forgotten about the pound cake.
As she neared the trees, a brace of birds squawked and took flight. Anna stumbled and held a hand to her throat at the sudden noise, watching as the pair soared toward the brilliant sapphire sky. Then a louder rustling sounded from the trees, and she looked down in time to see a dark shape lunging toward her from the shadows.
“Trout! Manners!” A masculine voice commanded as footsteps crunched beneath the trees.
Anna squealed as two paws landed on her chest, knocking her to the ground. Hands shielding her face, she peered between her fingers to see sharp, white teeth. She squeezed her eyes shut and braced for certain death, only to receive . . . a wet swipe across her hand. Opening one eye, she spied the beast’s pink tongue and recoiled while its hot, moist breath fanned her curls. Was it smiling at her?
“I’m proper sorry, miss. Are you all right?” A large hand reached down to assist her. She lifted to her elbows and looked up—then up some more—into the face of its owner, and her breath caught. He was hatless, and sunlight glinted off tousled hair the color of wet sand. But what captured her attention were his eyes. Clear and blue, the same shade as the sea, they shone from a face lightly weathered by the sun.
At last, something of interest in Cornwall. Then her eyes moved down. He wore simple clothing—coarse trousers and a rough linen shirt. No waistcoat. Boots and a plain kerchief about his neck. A laborer of some sort, then. Perhaps a servant from Oak Hill, the neighboring estate. Disappointed, she pushed her interest down while mud seeped through her favorite dress, through her petticoat and shift to dampen the backs of her legs.
“Miss? Are you well?” he asked again, his hand still extended.
Ignoring his assistance, she stood on her own and shook out her skirts.
He pulled his hand back. “I apologize. Trout’s young, and she’s still learning her manners. But right now, she’s a proper heller.” He scowled at the dog, who sat next to Anna, tongue hanging from grinning dog lips.
Anna took a breath to assure him she was all right, then she gasped. “What—what is that awful smell?” she asked.
He winced and flicked a finger to call the dog to his side. “’Tis merely Trout. She rolls on dead fish.”
“She rolls on—why on earth would she do that?” Anna asked, holding a hand to her nose. She smelled damp earth then—an improvement over dead fish, to be sure—and pulled her hand away to see it covered in mud. Mud that now covered her face. She tried to brush it off, but there was no part of her that was clean.
“’Tis a question I’d dearly love to know the answer to myself,” he replied as he stretched a linen handkerchief toward her.
She hesitated before taking it with her thumb and forefinger, but it appeared clean. When she lifted it to wipe the end of her nose, she was surprised by the linen’s bright scent. It reminded her of fall, of sunshine and apples, and she was sorry to see she’d stained it with mud.
Wait . . . she wouldn’t have stained his handkerchief if his dog hadn’t mauled her in the first place. She frowned. Now she’d have to see it laundered and returned to him.
“Keep it,” he said as if he’d read her thoughts. “And please, allow me to reimburse you for your ruined dress.” His voice was rich and smooth, Rs rolling as he motioned toward her bodice with reddened cheeks.
Anna glanced down and gasped on seeing two very distinct paw prints at the top of her dress. That, combined with the wetness at the back, confirmed it. The dress was ruined. She doubted the man had the funds to reimburse her for it, though, and she didn’t wish to embarrass him. She only wished to leave, to return to Penhale and forget this dreadful afternoon had ever occurred.
“There’s no need,” she responded crisply. “I must go.”
He swallowed and nodded, a furrow creasing his brow.
Anna spun on her heel in the mud then began the march back to Penhale. She held her skirts away from her, the scent of dead fish competing with apples and sunshine as she walked.
The next day, Anna set out for her exercise promptly after luncheon. Despite the maids’ attempts, there had been no saving the yellow gown from its muddy demise. Today she wore a pale blue muslin with a darker ribbon beneath the bodice—not her favorite, but it was still a lovely shade. If it reminded her of the blue-eyed man she’d encountered yesterday, she ignored the fact.
She’d given yesterday’s slippers to one of the maids, who’d cooed appreciatively over the stained velvet. Anna thought of the mud along the path and considered donning a sturdier pair of half boots. They would be the more sensible choice, but they would hardly do justice to the blue dress. She shook her head and donned blue satin slippers instead. She’d just have to be more cautious of the mud.
She thought of the fish-scented beast and her master with the rough clothing. What were the odds she’d encounter them again today? Slim, if she was one to wager. The stream was long and meandered through vast fields and thickets along the edge of Newford until it reached the Penryn River. It was unlikely that she’d happen upon the pair again.
She looped the ribbons of her bonnet beneath her chin and set out from Penhale with a bounce in her step. As she neared the curve in the stream and the stand of trees, she smiled to herself. She’d skirted much of the mud and her slippers had survived thus far. And without the ravening beast to knock her to the ground, she might just make it back to Penhale with her clothing—and her pride—intact.
She smiled as she turned at the trees to begin the return trip, then she heard a rustling behind her moments before a dark shape crashed and lunged from the shadows.
Anna’s heart raced and she began to turn—to brace herself for attack—but her foot caught on a root, and she landed in the mud. Face down.
The stench of dead fish was overwhelming as a cold, pink tongue licked the back of her neck. She squealed and brushed it away, earning another lick to her hand.
“Trout, heel,” the man repeated.
Anna pushed up from the mud, noticing he didn’t offer a hand to help her this time. She looked down at her dress. Mud coated her from tip to toe. Perfect. Another ruined gown. At this rate, she’d be walking in her chemise before the week was out.
She looked up and caught the tiniest hint of a smile on the man’s face. It wasn’t as broad as his dog’s grin, but it was a smile, nonetheless. She scowled, and he pressed his lips together.
“My apologies, miss,” he said. “Are you all right?”
She shook her head and held her skirts away from her to gauge the extent of the damage. “Your dog is a menace,” she said. The animal must have sensed she was the topic of discussion because her grin grew wider, her tail swiping the ground where she sat at Anna’s feet. Anna frowned at her. “A lady would behave with more decorum,” she told her. Wait. Was she speaking to a dog?
He stretched another handkerchief toward her, and she took it after a small hesitation. Wiping the square across the tip of her nose, she inhaled and resisted the urge to close her eyes on the warm scent of apples and sunshine. Why hadn’t any of the gentlemen she’d met in London smelled as nice?
Then she stared in consternation at the muddy streak she’d created and debated the propriety of accepting two handkerchiefs from the same man. She could hardly walk about with mud on her face, but neither could she return the linen to him in its current soiled state.
“Keep it,” he said.
The appearance of confidence, she reminded herself. She nodded briefly then closed the linen in her fist and turned to leave.
“Good day to you, miss,” he said behind her. She lifted one hand in farewell and kept walking.
The next afternoon, Jory cast his line and wedged the angling rod between two rocks. He leaned against a boulder to tie a new fly while bugs skipped along the water, dimpling the smooth surface while his line floated undisturbed.
He wondered if the prim and fancy miss would invade his favorite spot again. Trout had assumed her usual position to nap at his feet, at least until a clean dress paraded itself before her muddy paws. Jory chuckled as he recalled the squeak of astonishment the lady had emitted when she’d landed in the mud a second time. Even though Trout had stopped short of planting her paws on the lady’s person, he still felt accountable. She’d landed in the mud trying to escape Trout’s attentions, after all. He was fair certain his dog’s exuberance had ruined her pretty dresses.
He scowled down at the collie, wondering if she would ever learn her manners. He’d been working with her since his uncle had found her shivering outside his foundry last winter. She’d shown improvement, so he knew she could learn, but sometimes she simply . . . forgot herself. She was downright pathetic in her wish to love and be loved, and Jory’s scowl instantly softened. It seemed cruel to begrudge the animal her need for affection, her wish to share her joy with the world. She must have sensed his thoughts, for she rolled over and stood then butted her head against his hand for a scratch behind the ears.
Footsteps sounded beyond the edge of the trees and Trout stiffened, nose in the air. “Stay,” he said with a motion of his hand. Trout’s ears perked forward, but she heeded his command. When he felt confident of her manners, he stood and left the shade of the trees, Trout following at a ladylike pace for once.
The lady of the mud stood before him, dressed this time in a brown linen dress and half boots. His lips twitched. No satin slippers today? No fancy skirts?
She eyed him and Trout warily, no doubt braced for attack. He wondered whether she was local to the area or merely visiting. He guessed visiting, as he knew most everyone in Newford and the surrounding countryside. Plus, she had the look of an incomer about her.
“Dohajydh da,” he said. At her confused look, he had his answer. “Good day,” he translated.
Her face cleared. “Good afternoon.”
The broad brim of her bonnet shaded her eyes, but he recalled they were a pretty shade of green. Everything about her was small, from her pert nose all the way to her dainty feet.
“D’you stay at Penhale?” he asked.
She hesitated, understandably uncertain about the propriety of speaking with a man to whom she’d not been introduced. He didn’t think their previous discussions counted as she’d been covered in mud. Finally, she reached a decision and replied. “Yes, my mother and I are visiting Mrs. Steward.”
“Where d’you go every day?” he asked, motioning to the path behind her.
“I just walk. For the exercise. Why are you here?”
“I just fish. For the enjoyment.”
She pressed her lips together, whether in amusement or annoyance at his mimicry he wasn’t certain.
“Would you like to join me?” he asked.
Her brows lifted. “Join you? To fish?” She wrinkled her nose, nibbling her bottom lip.
He rubbed the back of his neck. “Or you could simply enjoy the stream. ’Tis clear and peaceful. At least when Trout’s asleep.”
She eyed the dog at his feet, then gave him a short nod. “Perhaps just for a moment.”
Excerpt © 2022 by K. Lyn Smith.
Jilting Jory is available in paperback and e-Book formats.