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"Mornin', Miss Carmichael."
"Good morning, Dilly." Miranda smiled down at the little maid on her knees scrubbing the front step. "What a beautiful morning!" She looked out over the lawns, shrubbery and trees in the centre of Portchester Square, gleaming in the early sun after a nighttime shower.
"Luverly, innit? Ouch!" Dilly jerked back.
"Mudge, you horror!" With a yank on the leash, Miranda hauled the pug away. "I'm so sorry, Dilly. I fear my attention wandered." Hanging onto the fat little dog's collar as he did his best to sink his teeth into her wrist, she stooped to examine the damage.
"'T'sall right, miss, skin's not even broke, see?" The maid held up a red, rough-skinned hand. "Cook says his teeth've got blunted with age."
"He can still give a nasty nip when he puts his mind to it. You haven't been using the rosewater lotion I made up, Dilly. You really must remember. You know how it distresses her ladyship when your hands are chapped."
"Cor, miss, my last place no one wouldn't've cared if your hands'd fell off. I wouldn't want to upset her la'ship, not nohow. I'll try not to fergit."
"I shall tell Mrs. Lowenstein to remind you. Patience, Mudge, I'm coming!"
The pug had spotted a black-and-white cat strolling towards the gardens. His short legs scrabbled as he pulled against the leash. With a wheezy yip, he dragged Miranda, laughing, after the impertinent creature which had the infernal cheek to cross his street.
Kneeling on the step beside her bucket, scrubbing brush in hand, Dilly watched. Miss Carmichael was a nice lady, a proper lady. Not a bit like her la'ship's last companion who, Cook said, was sostuck up she couldn't hardly see over her own nose. Miss was pretty as she could stare, too--for all she was a bit of a Long Meg--what with them big brown eyes and dark curls under her plain straw bonnet, and the nicest smile. The high waist and straight, ankle-length skirt suited her. She oughta be out dancing at grand balls every night, flirting with the gentlemen, not running to do an old lady's bidding and humour her odd fancies.
It was a strange household, and no mistake, Dilly thought, turning back to her task. A foreigner for a housekeeper what wouldn't do no work of a Saturday like ord'n'ry Christian folk, and a butler with a wooden leg. And as for her la'ship ... well, there was no knowing what her la'ship'd take into her head to do next.
Still 'n' all, Dilly wasn't complaining. Like Pa said, she'd fallen in clover and she wasn't going to do nothing as might get her turned off. She scrubbed away with a will.
Meanwhile Miranda, with considerable difficulty, persuaded Mudge he was by far too stout to squeeze through the railings after the cat. A disgruntled snort expressing his displeasure, he consented to accompany her to the gate into the garden.
Although most of the square's grand houses were shut up for the summer, their owners dispersed to country estates, bright flowers bloomed gaily in the neat flowerbeds. Amidst pink, white, and crimson phlox, yellow marigolds, and tall blue delphiniums, a speckle-breasted thrush battled in a mighty tug-of-war with a large earthworm. Mudge darted at it with a venomous growl. It flew off to perch in a tree, singing as gloriously as if it had swallowed the worm for breakfast.
Turning to watch the bird, Miranda loosed her hold on the leash. In a flash, Mudge was off.
As he scampered towards the laurel bushes, the leash trailing between his bandy legs, Miranda saw the black-and-white cat fleeing before him. They disappeared among the laurels and she dashed after him. Unlikely as it was that the elderly pug could catch his adversary, if she let him commit mayhem Lady Wiston would be dreadfully upset.
She pushed through the bushes, each large, shiny leaf depositing its burden of raindrops on her periwinkle-blue muslin gown. Ahead, a flurry of furious, if asthmatic barks suggested the cat had escaped, but it might have turned at bay and be about to attack Mudge in turn. Miranda hurried on.
And then she stumbled. Twisting to keep her balance, she caught a glimpse of the obstacle which had tripped her, a pair of down-at-heel top boots, as she fell full length into the nearest bush.
The landing was unexpectedly soft.
For a startled moment she looked into a startled pair of startlingly blue eyes in a sun-bronzed face. Then an arm clamped around her waist, a hand caught the back of her head, and the ruffian kissed her!
Taken by surprise, Miranda lay there for several seconds absorbed in the extraordinary sensations created by the touch of lips on lips. Suddenly she came to her senses. Rearing back, she slapped the sun-bronzed face. She scrambled to her feet and glared down at her assailant as he emerged on hands and knees from the greenery.
"Sir, you are no gentleman!" she said crushingly, if a trifle breathlessly.
"No," he agreed with a cheerful smile, uncrushed. He stood up, his lanky, rumpled form towering over her by several inches. "I'm an adventurer." He bowed. "Peter Daviot, at your service, ma'am."
"At my service?" Miranda queried, outraged. "Your assault upon my person cannot be described as service!"
"Sorry about that," Mr. Daviot apologized, abashed penitence belied by the gleam of amusement in his eye. "I've been living in America, where customs are somewhat different."
"Different indeed, if gentlemen customarily sleep on the ground in city squares."
Openly grinning, he pointed out, "You've just said I'm no gentleman."
But his voice was cultured, with just a faint hint of an odd inflection. Miranda studied him. He looked to be about five or six and twenty, not much older than she was. His clothes were of decent cut and fit, though inevitably stained and crumpled after a night in the open. As she had already observed, he was tall, loose-limbed, with a long, humorous face, presently unshaven, and those extraordinarily blue eyes. His light brown hair, flopping over his forehead, had more than one twig caught in it. She almost reached out to remove the nearest, but stopped herself in time.
"Why were you sleeping in the bushes?" she asked.
"Why were you running through them?"
"Oh lord, Mudge!"
"I've been called many things in my life," he began, but Miranda did not wait to hear what doubtless justified epithets had been applied to the self-confessed adventurer over the years. Somewhere not too far distant the pug was whining. If the cat had bloodied his nose it was no more than he deserved, but she had best go and rescue him.
She burst from the thicket. Mudge stood at the base of a plane tree, glowering up at where the cat hissed and spat at him from the security of a high branch. The horrid beast's whine was not a sign of pain, it was sheer frustrated blood-lust.
Seeing Miranda, he gave a perfunctory wag of his ridiculous curled tail, and a sharp bark as if to command, "Get it down so I can chew on it."
Behind her, Mr. Daviot burst from the thicket. "Don't run away," he called. "I shan't assault you again, I promise." He stopped beside her. "Oho, is that your cat? I'll hang onto that devilish little monster of a dog while you coax it down."
He started forward and, before Miranda could warn him, bent down to grab the end of the leash. With the lightning speed so at odds with his pudgy wheeziness, Mudge slashed at his ungloved hand.
"Meow!" the cat echoed.
"The dog is mine, not the cat," Miranda disclosed stiffly, joining him but keeping well beyond Mudge's reach. "Has he drawn blood?"
"Yes, he has drawn blood." Mr. Daviot took a none too clean handkerchief from his pocket and applied it to the wound. "The brute's yours? Dammit, have I gone and offended you again?"
"No, he is a horrid little monster."
"Then why do you keep him?"
"Actually, he's not mine, he's my employer's, so I have no say in the matter."
"Your employer?" He looked her up and down. "Let me guess. Lady's maid? Oh, oh, now I have offended you again. Governess?"
"Truly? I thought companions were all small, grey, mousy creatures. But of course no mouse would have a hope of managing yon ravening fiend."
"I have not managed him very well this morning," she admitted. "You had best come home with me to have your hand cleaned and bound up with basilicum."
"I wouldn't want to land you in hot water with your employer."
Miranda laughed. "No fear of that!"
"Does she not rise until noon? I'm out of touch with fashionable ways. How do you propose to regain control of the pug, or shall you abandon him?"
Taking an aniseed comfit from her pocket, Miranda tossed it just in front of Mudge's nose. He instantly lost interest in the cat. While he snuffled in the grass after the sweetmeat, she picked up the leash.
Mr. Daviot applauded. "Clever! Bribery is always to be preferred to violence. If you're sure it won't get you into trouble, I'll come with you, at least to wash the gash."
"I'll just fetch my bag, then."
He returned with a disreputable top hat on his head and a large, battered, leather valise. As they set off, Mudge pattering along with a hopeful eye on her pocket, Miranda wondered bemusedly what on earth had got into her. Not that Lady Wiston would object to an unexpected guest, but how had he wheedled her into disregarding his outrageous insult to her person?
She cast a sidelong glance at him, only to find him gazing down at her.
"Your profile is superb," he said. "I wish I were an artist. A bite to eat wouldn't come amiss if it's not too much to ask."
"I suppose you believe flattery will win the day when you have not the means for bribery!"
His heavy sigh did not take her in for a moment. "It is too much to ask. Very well, then, no breakfast. Perhaps you will be kind enough to tell me," he went on with deceptive meekness, "at what hour I may reasonably call upon a lady? You see, I climbed the rail and dossed in the shrubbery because I arrived in London very late last night and didn't wish to disturb my aunt."
"Your aunt? Does she live near here?"
"Number 9, Portchester Square."
Miranda stopped and stared at him. "Lady Wiston is your aunt?" she asked, incredulous. "I thought all her nephews were pillars of rectitude."
"No, no, that's Sir Bernard's nephews. Aunt Artemis has only me, and no one has ever described me as a pillar of rectitude. Nor do I aspire to such an honour."
"Fortunately, for I'm sure it would be beyond you. Oh, I beg your pardon! I don't in general let my tongue run away with me, I assure you."
"Out of the mouths of babes and companions..." Mr. Daviot said blithely. "I'll forgive your insult," he continued with an engaging smile, "if you'll forgive mine."
Forgiven or not, that kiss was best forgotten, Miranda decided, especially since Lady Wiston was his aunt. She took refuge in primness. "I daresay we had best begin again from the beginning," she said in a repressive tone. "As you will have guessed, sir, Lady Wiston is my employer. I am Miranda Carmichael."
"How do you do, Miss Carmichael." He bowed again. "Peter Daviot, very much at your service." His momentary solemnity failed to last. "Don't fret," he advised her, grinning, "I shan't tell Aunt Artemis I kissed you."