hand slowly higher, Jude dragged his foot up and propped himself up on his elbows. She jerked her arm back.
"Thought I heard something," he said, and the words set her head turning back and forth to try to locate the nonexistent intruder. On another day, in another place, he'd let Marissa explore his thighs as much as she liked. But not here in the garden. Not when the very thought made him throb.
Goading Marissa York could prove a very dangerous exercise indeed.
Marissa hurried down the stairs, surprised by her eagerness to see Jude again. After luncheon, he'd asked if she'd like to ride to the old church, and Marissa had happily accepted. Her mother was busy gathering up players for the next stage drama, and Marissa was not in the mood for bad acting.
But her leaf-green habit lightened the weight on her heart, and the thought of a ride through the warm autumn with Jude ... it sounded almost as lovely as dancing.
Lovelier perhaps, because when Mr. Dunwoody stepped into the hall, stopping her rush, Marissa felt nothing but regret. "Oh, Mr. Dunwoody. Good afternoon." He wore riding breeches just as Jude did, as the men all rode during the day. But Mr. Dunwoody looked very different in his. Elegant, of course. Or just. . . ornamental? She shook the thought from her head as Dunwoody offered a friendly bow. "I'm off for a ride," she explained with an awkward wave toward the corridor.
"Oh, of course. Forgive me for keeping you. I only wished to ask if I might escort you into dinner tonight."
For a moment, her brain told her to say yes, to cultivate a relationship with anyone but Jude. But she'd made a decision today, and she'd honor it.
"I'm flattered, Mr. Dunwoody, but I fear I've already committed myself."
"Ah. I see. A new suitor, perhaps?" he leased. His words pricked her with both excitement and guilt.
"I..." Her blush worked to the advantage of the story they were wearing, but it was entirely genuine, all the same.
Mr. Dunwoody smiled wider. "I'm relieved to see you looking more yourself. And, uh ... no word from the Samuel family as of yet?"
That erased her awkwardness, and Marissa matched his grin. "They must arrive today."
Marissa was still smiling when she swept out the front door to find the groom waiting with her horse. Her smile didn't falter until she saw Jude, mounted and waiting as well.
It wasn't the sight of Jude that stopped her though. It was his horse.
The horse—if such a beast could be graced with that name—was huge, and just as sturdy and inelegant as Jude himself. In fact, the mount was downright ugly. A gray gelding that was fading to white in splotches and stripes, the poor thing now looked like an old carthorse dingy with grime.
Marissa look her time mounting and arranging skirts, giving herself a moment to recover. But when she looked toward him again, she couldn't help but wince.
"He looks as if he will be put out to pasture soon," she ventured as they walked their horses toward the road. "Perhaps you should find another mount."
He glanced down and patted the beast's neck. "He's only ten, and his gait is perfect." "Oh."
Jude spared a look for her mount. "If I braid his mane, will you like him better?"
Her mare, a sweet, feisty girl named Cleopatra, tossed her head as if she knew she was the focus of attention. "It's only one braid!"
Marissa felt he was making some annoying point about her vanity, but she was distracted from her frown by the appearance of Harry and Aidan riding in. The men waved and nodded, as if they both agreed that Marissa and Jude were doing a good job of keeping up appearances.
Aidan's face looked younger in the warm sunlight, as it often did after a good ride. In London he never seemed happy.
"My brother," she murmured to Jude. "I'm happy you're a friend to him."
"What do you mean?"
"For a long while there, he only spent time with Harry, and that was begrudging."
"Ah. I suppose I have seen too much tragedy wrought from