Mary supposed a lady trying to chop down a waist high evergreen was a bit out of the ordinary even if it was the dead of winter. But really, the man staring at her from across the way shouldn’t have looked so astonished when he came upon her in the wooded area of the hamlet.
Her father had sent her to the small village a few days ago because she’d refused to choose a man to marry. How could she be expected to decide on a husband when her choices were between young bachelors who thought a lady too delicate to do anything for herself, and jolly old fellows who didn’t have an ounce of forward thinking?
Mary would rather be a spinster than an unhappy wife and no amount of dire warning from her mother or father was going to change her mind. Hence, as punishment for being a willful young lady who didn’t know what was best for her, Mary had been banished to her Aunt Hilda’s cottage in Cornwall to spend Christmas. Her father had railed at her, if she wanted to be an old maid on the shelf, she might as well live with her aunt for a while and see what it was like to be one.
Exile was fine with Mary. She’d packed several books, writing quills and two jars of ink. The men she made up in her mind were far more to her liking than any of the gentlemen her father had deemed acceptable for the daughter of a duke. The beaus she created always had a teasing wit. They were strong, yet understanding of her strengths as well.
Deciding to ignore the stranger, Mary gave her attention back to the sturdy trunk of the tree. Chopping it wasn’t going to be as easy as she’d expected. Brushing the lower limbs aside with one hand, she lifted the hatchet with the other when suddenly the man called out, “You there.”
You there? She’d never been addressed so informally. She let go of the branches and stood straight, curiously taking more note of him. That’s when the wide-shouldered man with a determined expression and hair the shade of harvest wheat stomped toward her.
“Yes, you,” he said.
“Sir, that is no way to speak to a lady.”
He stopped in front of her. Tall, lean and handsome as the day was long. His eyes were the color of a summer sky. Not unlike the gentlemen in her stories.
“A lady, are you?” He looked suspiciously at her before his gaze swept down her face to her dress and cloak as if to somehow assure himself she spoke the truth.
Her muscles coiled at his boldness and inference. “Indeed, sir,” she answered quickly, giving him a closer inspection, too. The button holes of his dark brown coat were worn and frayed. Clearly no valet or footman had been anywhere near his mud-caked boots, but his speech was refined and definitely that of a well-schooled gentleman.
He shifted his stance but not his attitude. “I’ve never seen a lady trying to use a hatchet before.”
That was no surprise. “Ladies can now do more than carry a handkerchief and reticule.”
“Not the ones I know. It’s more likely you’ll cut off your leg or make a gash in your cape.”
Mary bristled. He was an impertinent fellow. Not that she minded all that much, she realized. She’d much rather converse with a man who took her to task than one who mollycoddled her.
“What would you know about me or ladies, sir?”
“All that I need to. Now tell me, what are you doing out here alone?”
“Not that it’s any of your concern, but I’m going to cut down this tree and drag it to my aunt’s house. Both of which I’m capable of doing without harming myself.”
His expression turned thoughtful and he touched the needles of the small tree, stirring the fresh bold scent of the evergreen. His hand looked strong, yet gentle. There was a presence about him that intrigued her.
“Have you ever used a small ax before today?”
“No, but never you mind about that. I learn fast. Move away and be off with you so I can finish this. My aunt will start to worry if I don’t return shortly.” Letting the cold air fill her lungs, she bent over the tree again. She drew back the hatchet, readying herself to start hacking, but the man caught the handle near the blade in mid-air and stopped her.
Their eyes met again. Her pulse raced. A breathless, pleasant fluttering filled her chest.
“How dare you, sir.” She tried to yank the ax from his hand.
His hold remained firm. “No,” he said calmly. “How dare you, miss. You are trespassing on property that belongs to me.”
“Oh.” Her grip loosened on the handle and she straightened again.
He took possession of the hatchet and rested it by his side.
“Well, I’m sorry, of course,” she offered, feeling contrite. “It’s such a little tree and there are so many here, I didn’t think whoever owned this land would mind or notice.”
“Really?” A hint of amusement laced his voice. “So if I were to go onto your property and see all your bonnets, I could help myself to one little bonnet and it would be fine because you have so many.”
There wasn’t a ray of sunshine in the gray sky but his eyes sparkled with laughter. She couldn’t keep from smiling. She didn’t want to be attracted to him but she was. “Now you are being ridiculous, sir. What would a man want with a bonnet?”
“What does a lady want with a tree?”
“Your point is taken,” she answered, not quite forgiving him for stopping her efforts. “Would you mind telling me where there are trees that aren’t guarded by ogres and I may be free to chop one down?”
Amusement twitched the corners of his mouth, too. “That depends. Tell me who you are and why you want it? This will hardly give you enough wood to start a fire and it would be too green to burn anyway.”
“I am Lady Mary, the Duke of Brightwillow’s daughter? I don’t want to burn the tree but put it in the drawing room and decorate it. Now, who, sir, are you to question me so thoroughly?”
“My lady,” he said with a slight bow. “I am Christopher Gramstead.”
She knew the family name. “Are you related to the Earl of Gramstead?”
“His fourth son.”
So he was a gentleman even though he wasn’t dressed as one. She politely offered a curtsey. “He has five I believe, Lord Christopher.”
He nodded once. “And two daughters as well. Why do you want to put a tree in your house and decorate it?”
“It’s become fashionable for Christmastide. We’ll nail it to a stand and place it on a table. We will stream it with ribbons, bows and things we make out of parchment and fabric. Of course, homes in London have larger trees that are usually placed in a corner of the drawing room.”
“I haven’t been to London in a couple of years. I prefer a quieter life.”
So did she. His words softened her disposition, and she added, “My aunt and I can manage a tree this size very nicely on our own.”
He regarded her closely. “And you like to do things for yourself?”
“Yes,” she answered, appreciating the fact he recognized she wasn’t helpless.
He extended the hatchet toward her, handle first, and she took it. “Let’s see what you can do.” He bent down on one knee and moved all the little limbs away from the base of the trunk so she could have a clear target. “Grip the ax solidly with both hands near the bottom. Take it up to your shoulder and swing down at an angle with a firm continuous swipe.”
“Thank you.” Feeling quite pleased he was not only allowing her to do this but instructing her. She did as he suggested and was amazed at how much easier it was to cut into the wood with both hands and all her strength.
She struck the base again and again, getting the feel of the tool. Her fourth strike hit at an odd angle making the hatchet thud and bounce off the trunk.
“Keep your eyes focused here.” He pointed where she should aim. “Hit it from the side to carve out a wedge.” He demonstrated with the edge of his hand.
She followed his directions and in a few strokes, a chunk of wood chipped off the trunk.
“Perfect,” he said. “You’re a natural woodsman.”
Glancing at him she laughed. A bit winded but exhilarated by her effort and the man showing her how to chop. She went back to work.
“Tell me, Lady Mary, what are you doing so far from London?”
“According to my parents…” She whacked the trunk again. “I am being punished.”
She stopped and looked at him. He was an inquisitive man, but she didn’t mind. “For not conforming to their rules and marrying after my debut Season. But being here is not penance for me. I’m quite happy. My aunt and I are much alike. We play chess and cards, and she has many books I haven’t read. She’s even helped me write a story.”
Mary inhaled deeply and chopped again. The tree cracked and fell to the ground.
“Well done,” he whispered with a nod of admiration.
Mary’s heart soared.
“Who is your aunt?” Lord Christopher asked, rising from his knee.
“Mrs. Hilda Frankson.”
“Really? I was on my way to invite her to Christmas dinner. She’s joined me and other neighbors the past three years.”
Mary swallowed a quick breath. The fluttering in her chest increased. “Has she?”
He nodded. “Of course, you’re invited, too. Will you come?”
A stimulating warmth tingled through her. “Yes. I’d be delighted to share Christmas dinner with you.”
He picked up the tree and threw it over his shoulder. “I know you’re capable but I’ll carry this. You carry the hatchet.”
Mary studied him thoughtfully. As the fourth son of an earl, Lord Christopher would be considered a suitable and worthy match. Her father would approve.
“What are you thinking?” he asked.
“If more gentlemen like you had attended the Season, I might not have learned how to chop down a tree today.”
“Is that a proposal, Lady Mary?” He grinned and the light in his eyes seemed to dance with mischief.
“Certainly not,” she teased back. “I haven’t seen you dance, yet.”
He laughed softly. The sound was deep and warm as a Yuletide fire.
“Besides,” she continued as they started toward her aunt’s house. “I might be forward thinking in that ladies can do more for themselves than men will allow, but I still believe marriage proposals should come from the gentleman.”
“Would you prefer poetry or flowers with yours?”
She shot him a dubious look as they walked. “Neither,” she answered.
“Ah, you’re right. Too obvious.” He feigned a dramatic sigh. “I suppose I’ll have to think of something else to impress you.”
You already have, Mary thought. She’d have to thank her father for sending her to Cornwall.
About the Author:
New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Amelia Grey read her first romance book when she was thirteen. She’s been a devoted reader of love stories ever since.
Amelia has been happily married to her high school sweetheart for over thirty-five years and she lives on the beautiful gulf coast of Northwest Florida.
She is a two-time winner of the prestigious Booksellers Best Award, and she has also won the Aspen Gold, and Golden Quill awards. Writing as Gloria Dale Skinner, she won the coveted Romantic Times Award for Love and Laughter and the Maggie Award. Amelia’s books have been published in Europe, Indonesia, Turkey, Russia, and Japan. Several of her books have been featured in Doubleday and Rhapsody Book Clubs. Find her here: https://www.ameliagrey.com/