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Oxfordshire, England, 1816
If, one by one, you weeded all the world --
Arabella Blydon blinked. That couldnt be right. There weren't any gardeners in The Winter's Tate. She held the book farther from her face. Even worse. She pulled the book closer. The type on the page slowly focused.
Belle sighed and leaned back against a tree trunk. That made a lot more sense. She blinked a couple of times, willing her bright blue eyes to focus on the words that lay before her on the page. They refused to obey, but she wasn't about to read with her face pressed into the book, so she squinted and plodded on.
A chilly wind passed across her, and she glanced up at the overcast sky. It was going to rain, no doubt about that, but if she were lucky she'd have another hour until the first drops fell. That was all the time she'd need to finish The Winter's Tale. And that would mark the end of her Grand Shakespearean Quest, the semi-academic endeavor that had occupied her spare time for nearly six months. She'd started with All's Well that Ends Well and proceeded alphabetically, wending her way through Hamlet, all the Henrys, Romeo and Juliet, and a host of other plays she hadn't even heard of before. She wasn't exactly sure why she'd done it, other than the simple fact that she liked to read, but now that the end was in sight she was damned if she was going to let a few raindrops get in her way.
Belle gulped and looked this way and that, as if afraid that someone had heard her cursing in her thoughts. She glanced back up at the sky. A beam of sunshine burst through a tiny hole inme clouds. Belle took that as a sign for optimism and plucked a chicken sandwich out of her picnic lunch. She bit into it daintily and picked up her book again. The words seemed just as unwilling to focus as before, so she moved the volume closer to her face, which she contorted in a number of different ways until she found a squint that worked.
"There you go, Arabella," she muttered. "If you can just hold this exceedingly uncomfortable pose for another forty-five minutes, you should have no problem with the rest of your book."
"Of course your facial muscles will probably be quite sore by that point," drawled a voice from behind her.
Belle dropped her book and whirled her head around. Standing a few yards away was a gentleman in casual, yet elegant, attire. His hair was a rich chocolate brown and his eyes were the exact same color. He was looking down at her and her solitary picnic with an amused expression, and his lazy pose indicated that he'd been watching her for some time. Belle glared at him, unable to think of anything to say but hoping that her scornful gaze would put him in his place.
It didn't seem to do the trick. In fact, he looked even more amused by her. "You need spectacles," he said simply.
"And you are trespassing," she retorted.
"Am I? I rather thought you were trespassing."
"I most certainly am not. This land belongs to the Duke of Ashbourne. My cousin," she added for emphasis.
The stranger pointed to the west. "That land belongs to the Duke of Ashbourne. The boundary is that ridge over there. And thus you are trespassing."
Belle narrowed her eyes and pushed a lock of her wavy blond hair behind her ear. "Are you certain?"
"Absolutely. I realize that Ashbourne's land holdings are vast, but they are not infinite."
She shifted uncomfortably. "Oh. Well, in that am, I am very sorry for disturbing you," she said in a haughty voice. "I'll just see to my horse and be off."
"Don't be silly," he said quickly. "I hope I am not so ill-tempered that I cannot allow a lady to read under one of my trees. By all means, stay as long as you like."
Belle considered leaving anyway, but comfort won out over pride. "Thank you. I've been here for several hours and am quite ensconced."
"So I see." He smiled, but it was a small one, and Belle got the impression that he was not a man who smiled often. "Perhaps," he said, "since you will be spending the rest of the day on my land, you might introduce yourself."
Belle hesitated, unable to discern whether he was being condescending or polite. "I'm sorry. I am Lady Arabella Blydon."
"Pleased to meet you, my lady. And I am John, Lord Blackwood."
"How do you do?"
"Very well, but you still need spectacles."
Belle felt her spine stiffen. Emma and Alex had been urging her to get her eyes examined for the last month, but they were, after all, family. This John Blackwood was a perfect stranger and certainly had no right to offer her such a suggestion. "You can be sure I will take your advice under consideration," she muttered, somewhat ungraciously.
John inclined his head, a wry smile touching his lips. "What are you reading?"
"The Winter's Tale." Belle sat back and waited for the usual condescending comments about women and reading.
"An excellent play, but not, I think, Shakespeare's finest," John commented. "I myself am partial to Coriolanus. It's not very well-known, but I quite liked it. You might read that sometime."
Belle forgot to be pleased that she had met a man who was actually encouraging her to read and said, "Thank you for the suggestion, but I've read it already.
"I'm impressed," John said. "Have you read Othello?"
John searched his brain for the most obscure Shakespearean work he could recall. "What about The Passionate Pilgrim?" Dancing at Midnight
. Copyright © by Julia Quinn. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.