Disguised as a young boy for safety during her long hike from Northern England to London ,“half-Mohawk and all American” Maxima Collins takes a shortcut through a Yorkshire wood.
Maxie paused, a smile spreading over her face. Discovering new creatures and plants was one of the pleasures of traveling. This birdsong sounded like one of Britain’s famous nightingales. She thought she had heard one the month before, but her cousins had been unable to confirm it. The only birds they recognized were roasted and served in sauce.
Silently she made her way through the underbrush. Her search was rewarded by a brief glimpse of brown feathers in a thicket ahead. She pressed forward through the shrubbery, her gaze on the leafy canopy above.
Her carelessness caught up with her when she tripped over an unexpected obstacle. Swearing, she tried to regain her footing, but the weight of her pack wrecked her balance.
She crashed with humiliating clumsiness, falling sideways so that her shoulder struck first. In the next instant, she realize that instead of hitting the cool forest floor, she was sprawled full-length on a warmer, more yielding object.
Warm, yielding, and clothed.
As she gasped for breath, she realized that she was lying on top of a man. Apparently he had been dozing, but he awoke with a start, his hands reflexively jerking upward, skimming her body before locking on her upper arms.
The two of them were chest to chest and eye to eye. Startled alertness showed in the vividly blue depths, followed an instant later by amusement. For a long moment they stayed pressed together, strangers as close as lovers.
The fellow’s mouth curved into a smile. “I apologize for getting in your way.”
“Sorry,” Maxie said gruffly. She broke away, giving thanks that her hat was still in place, shadowing her face. “I wasn’t watching where I was going.”
She scrambled to her feet, ready to vanish into the forest. Then, like Lot’s wife, she made the mistake of looking back.
Her first impression of the man had been fragmentary. Compelling eyes, fair coloring, a well-shaped, mobile mouth. It wasn’t until she stepped away that she realized he was the handsomest man she had ever seen. His longish hair shimmered with every blond shade from gilt to dark gold, and the bone structure of his face would make angels weep with envy.
A fairy ring in the center of the circle gave her the wild thought that she had stumbled over Oberon, legendary king of Faerie. No, he was too young, and surely a fairy would not be wearing such mundane clothing.
The blond man sat up and leaned back against the tree trunk. “Females have thrown themselves into my arms a time or two before, but not usually quite so hard,” he said, the skin at the corners of his eyes crinkling humorously. “However, I’m sure we can work something out if you make a polite request.”
Maxie tensed. Lowering her naturally low voice still further, she said brusquely, “You haven’t woken up yet. My name is Jack, and I’m not a female, much less one interested in hurling myself into your arms.”
He raised his brows. “You can pass as a lad at a distance, but you landed with considerable force, and I was awake enough to know what hit me.” A sapient gaze surveyed her from head to toe. “A word of advice—if you want to be convincing, make sure your coat and vest stay in place, or else find looser trousers. I’ve never seen a boy shaped quite like you.”
Maxie colored and tugged her rucked coat downward. She was on the verge of bolting when he raised a disarming hand.
“No need to run off. I’m a harmless fellow. Remember, you assaulted me, not vice versa.” He reached toward a lumpy bag that lay a few feet away. “It’s time for a midday meal, and I have far more food than one person needs. Care to join me?”
She really should put some distance between herself and this too-handsome fellow. But he was friendly and unmenacing, and some conversation would be pleasant.
Her decision was made when he pulled out one of the odd-shaped meat pies called Cornish pasties. A fresh, delectable scent wafted toward her.
Her stomach would never forgive her if she refused. “If you are sure you have enough, I would be pleased to join you.” She lowered her knapsack to the ground, then settled on crossed legs beyond pouncing distance in case young Apollo proved more dangerous than he appeared.
The blond man handed over the pasty. Then he rummaged in his bag again, producing another pasty, cold roast chicken, several rolls, and a small jug. Uncorking the jug, he set it midway between them. “We’ll have to share the ale.”
“I do not drink ale.” She did, however, eat pasties. It was an effort not to wolf hers down. The crumbly crust and well-flavored shreds of beef and vegetables were delicious.
He chewed and swallowed a bit of his own pasty before saying pensively, “In most circles, it is considered rude to eat with one’s hat on.”
Maxie was reluctant to expose herself to the other’s gaze, but she could not ignore the appeal to manners. The acceptance of hospitality imposed obligations. Raising her hand, she removed the shapeless hat, keeping a wary eye on her companion.
For a moment he stared, face tightening. She had seen such reactions before, and her hand shifted so that she could reach her knife quickly if necessary.
Luckily he refrained from foolish or vulgar comments. After swallowing hard, he asked, “Care for some chicken?”
Maxie relaxed and accepted a drumstick. “Yes, please.”
He took a piece for himself. “How do you come to be trespassing in the Marquess of Wolverton’s forest?”
“I was walking along a track when I heard someone coming. I decided that being unobserved was the better part of wisdom, then got distracted by a nightingale. What is your excuse—poaching?”
He gave her a wounded look. “Do I look like a poacher?”
“No. Or at least, not a successful one.” She finished the chicken leg and daintily licked her fingers. “On the other hand, you don’t look like the Marquess of Whatever, either.”
“Would you believe me if I said I was he?”
“No.” She cast a disrespectful eye over his garments, which were well tailored but far from new.”
“A young woman of excellent judgment,” he said with approval. “As it happens, you are right. I am not the Marquess of Wolverton any more than you are British.”
“What makes you say that?” she asked, thinking her host was altogether too perceptive.
“Accents are something of a specialty of mine. Yours is almost that of the English gentry, but not quite.” His eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “My guess is that you are American, probably from New England.”
He was good. “A reasonable guess,” she said noncommittally.
“Is your name still Jack?”
Her eyes narrowed. “You certainly ask a lot of question.”
“Asking is the easiest method I know for satisfying curiosity,” he said with perfect logic. “And it often works.”
“An irrefutable point.” She hesitated a moment longer, but could see no reason not to tell him. “I’m usually called Maxie, but my name is actually Maxima.”
“You look more like a Minima to me,” he said promptly, examining her scant inches.
She laughed. “You’re not precisely Hercules yourself.”
“Yes, but I’m not named Hercules, so I’m not trying to deceive anyone.”
“My father was named Maximus and I was called after him. No one thought to wonder if I would grow up to fit the name until it was too late.” She finished eating her roll. “If your name isn’t Hercules, what is it?”
“It isn’t a lot of things.” He took a swig of ale as he weighed what to say. He was obviously a wayfaring rogue who had had so many names and identities that he didn’t remember himself what he’d been christened.
Eventually he said, “Lately I’ve been using Lord Robert Andreville.”
Startled, she asked, “Are you really a nobleman?” Despite his old clothing, he did have an air about him. Then she frowned. “You’re hoaxing me, aren’t you?” My father explained titles to me once. A real peer does not use Lord with his Christian name. I reckon that Lord Robert is a pretend title that you invented to impress people.”
“And here I thought I could fool someone from the colonies.” And impish light showed in his eyes. “You’re quite right. I’m a commoner, not the least bit noble. My friends call me Robin.”