The Marchioness of his Desire – Ava MacAdams

Hurry up!” Little Rebecca lifted her skirts higher. She would catch him this time for certain. In fact, she would dare the short-cut. Anything to beat him to their hideout. She stopped, just as Nicholas turned round. “I shall beat you this time, Nicky! Watch me!” She made a sharp turn and sped across the closely cropped grass, her feet pounding and heart racing. “No, Becks! Stop!” Nicholas’ voice held a frantic tone. She grinned. Of course, he was frantic. He knew she would win by coming this way. A few more yards to the spinney, a quick climb over the stile, and then she would be racing across the meadow to their secret hiding place in the caves near the lake. There was no way he would catch her up now. She slowed as she reached the edge of the spinney. He might have thirteen years to her ten and have much longer legs, but she knew how to maneuver quickly through the trees and brambles of the spinney. Darting among the brush and tree trunks, she could hear him reach the spinney.

“Becks! ‘Tis not safe!” He was panting. Good. She was nearly through the densest part and would reach the stile in moments. Once she was in the meadow, he would never reach her. She was so focused on her footing that she failed to hear the noise in the meadow beyond the narrow gap in the hedge. The stile was just ahead. She looked back as she placed her foot on the bottom step. Nicholas was closer than she had thought he was. Before she could speak, she felt his arm circle her waist and pull her back, just as a rush of warm air engulfed her face. The next thing she knew, she was on her face in the dirt with a branch poking into her side.

“Stay very still, Becks,” Nicholas whispered into her ear. “If we do not rile him, he will go on his way.” She had started to squirm, trying to get away from the branch, but she lay still as soon as Nicholas spoke. She did not know what had happened, but she knew she would be safe as long as Nicholas was with her. For a few moments Rebecca could hear a strange snuffling and snorting sort of sound on the other side of the hedge separating her father’s property from that of Nicholas’ father. Nicholas had laid his hand upon her back, and she felt certain he would let no harm come to her, whatever had caused his alarm. As the odd noise faded, Nicholas laughed and stood beside her. He batted dust off his trousers and offered his hand to help her up as well. “What were you thinking, you peagoose?” He leaned forward and picked several small sticks from her tousled hair. Rebecca stopped shaking the dust from her skirt and examined her side where the branch had poked her.

“I? What was I thinking? Why — I would have beaten you to the cave had you not flung me off the stile. What were you thinking?” She batted his hands away from her braids. “Just look at my dress! That branch has made a hole in the side, just here.” She pulled at the small tear in the fabric of the bodice, enlarging it enough to reveal a small patch of red staining her white chemise. “Oh! And I am bleeding!” Her fingers curled into fists, and she beat at his chest and arms as he laughed. “Here, now. Let me have a look, you wildcat.” He pushed her fists down and bent his head to examine her side. “Hmm… ‘tis a mighty fearful wound you have here, Becks. I cannot be certain you shall survive it.

” “Oh, you…” Rebecca renewed her assault on his lowered head. “Why did you snatch me off the step like that, you blackguard?” Nicholas captured her flying hands and brought his head up, a smile stretching across his lips. “Now, now, Lady Rebecca. Mind your tongue, or I shall have to speak to your mother about your manners in company.” “You knew I would win if I crossed the stile ahead of you. That is why you tossed me on the ground.” That teasing smile of his made her blood boil. She pulled her hands from his grasp. “I tossed you to the ground, little urchin,” he flung one arm toward the meadow as he stepped toward her, “because I knew that you would be trampled to death if you set a precious little boot into that meadow.” “What do you mean? The meadow is empty of cattle or horses, and, I daresay, had a lost sheep found its way there, I could have defended myself from a trampling, Nicholas.

” She crossed her arms and tipped her chin up as she had seen one of the maids do when she was arguing with a footman. “What a goose you are, Becks.” He picked pine needles from one of her braids. “They brought Old Ned to the meadow today. I only saw him on my walk here, so you were not to know. He has gone blind as a bat, but he can still do some damage, for all that.” “Old Ned?” The air whooshed from her lungs, and her legs wobbled. “Here now.” Nicholas grabbed her upper arms and lowered her to sit on the ground. “Your face is white as a sheet.

” He patted her shoulder. “‘Tis alright now, my girl. You are safe.” Rebecca pushed her palms against the ground, feeling the cold earth and the sharp tips of broken twigs press into her skin. Old Ned. She had been terrified of the enormous bull ever since she could remember. Why, if she had gotten into the meadow, no doubt he would have made a quick end to her. She gulped. Nicholas had saved her life. She looked up at him.

“You saved me, Nicky.” She drew a deep, ragged breath as tears rolled down her cheeks. “Aw, don’t go being a little girl, Becks!” He sat down awkwardly beside her and draped his arm across her bowed shoulders. “C’mon, now. Buck up.” She sniffled and scrubbed her face briskly. “I … I am sorry, Nicky. ‘Tis just that I … I hate that old bull! And if you had not stopped me, I could be … I would be….” “Now, I say that is enough, Lady Rebecca. Come along.

” He stood quickly and pulled her up beside him. “We still have to get to the lake.” “I… I do not think I want to go to the lake today, after all, Nicky.” Her breath wobbled a little as she inhaled. She was feeling steadier now but still not quite herself. “No? Very well, then.” He looked around. “What say you to a turn on the swing?” She looked at him. “Oh, Nicky, could we? Are you sure?” They did not venture often to the swing. It was deep in the woods at the back of her father’s land.

“I do not see why we should not. Come along, then.” He grabbed her right hand in his and began to thread his way through the copse as Rebecca followed behind. They spent a glorious two hours in the woods. Nicky pushed her on the ancient branch swing they had found several years ago. She pulled the back of her skirt forward and up between her legs, tucking it firmly into her waistband and scampered up the trees after him. He was always a little bit ahead of her, dropping twigs and leaves down on her as he laughed. They found obliging sticks on the ground and used them as flashing sabres, battling round about the clearing and up and down the path, and they had laughed. Nicky had always been able to make her laugh. They sat together on the swing, catching their breath and drawing circles in the dirt with their boots.

Nicholas pulled out his pocket watch and flipped it open. He looked at her and gave her his lopsided grin. “Time to go, Becks. Luncheon soon, and I need to get back to the schoolroom before my mother learns I have been out.” Rebecca sighed, then stamped out the circles she had made with her foot. “Very well, but promise that you will come back tomorrow.” “I cannot promise you that, Rebecca.” He stood up quickly, setting the swing spinning. Rebecca dragged her feet on the ground to slow the spin even as Nicholas grasped the ropes suspending the branch and steadied the swing. She jumped off and walked past him.

“What do you mean, Nicky? Are you traveling to London again?” “No, not London, Becks. Further away, I fear.” Nicholas reached her side and turned her to face him. The serious expression on his face sent a cold lump to her stomach. “I have to go away, Becks. To school, you know.” He looked away, biting his lips. “They are sending me to Eton.” “Eton? But …” “Shh, now. You know I am to be Duke one day.

And a duke must be educated … know the right people … learn how to …” he paused and turned his back to her, clenching his fists. She stood silent and listened as he took several deep breaths. After an age, he turned back to her. “Anyway … I shall be leaving in the early morning, but I need you to do something for me, Becks.” She snatched his hand, holding it tightly between both of hers. “Do not leave, Nicky. I … I will be so sad.” He smiled at her and dug in his pocket with his free hand. “I know you will, Rebecca. So will I … but we shall both make new friends, and we shall still see each other when I come home for holidays.

” “I will not make other friends, Nicky. You are my friend. My very best friend.” She dropped his hand and turned away. “We will still be friends, Rebecca. I promise. Here.” He thrust something into her hand and closed his fingers over hers. “Here is the token I give in pledge of our friendship.” She opened her fist and gasped.

“But … but this is your pocket watch.” She looked up at him. “So, it is. My grandmother gave it to me after my grandfather died. It was special to him, and he wanted me to have it. See the painting of the lady on the back? My Grandfather brought this back from Paris.” Rebecca traced her finger over the miniature painting. “She is beautiful. Who is she?” Nicholas laughed and grabbed her hand, leading her away from the clearing. “She is Madame de Pompadour, and that is all I shall tell you.

You must work hard on your lessons and learn more about her for yourself while I am away.” “But I want you to stay.” “I know, but I cannot. We are growing up now, you know.” He swung their clasped hands as they walked. “And that means people expect us to do certain things. I have to go away to school. You,” and he squeezed her hand, “must work hard and become a lady — prepare to come out one day. You understand?” He paused, and she nodded. “So, we must both do our best and remember that we are friends — always.

” He turned her to face him at the edge of the wood. Holding both her shoulders, he leaned down to look into her eyes. “Yes, Becks? Friends? Always?” Tears welled in her eyes, and she swallowed. She tucked the precious watch into the pocket of her dusty frock. Her hands flew to her braid, quickly working loose the ribbon that held it. Wadding the strip of red satin in her hand, she pressed it into Nicholas’ palm. “Yes,” she choked out. “Yes, Nicky. Friends always. Here is my pledge.

” Then she turned and ran.

.

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