She neither saw nor heard Colin's approach as he stretched his legs after the long carriage ride. He'd been told where his sister was and strode out on the usual path to meet her, but the children had taken the alternate route through the woods and missed him.
Sean, who had been trotting along beside him, became engrossed in something under a bush until Colin came up to investigate. He picked up the shoes the dog was nosing and held them behind him while he went in search of the owner. When he spied her, he gave Sean the hand signal to 'Down' and 'Stay." He hesitated a moment before shifting the little half-boots to his left hand. Then he bent and broke off a blade of tall grass. Treading softly until he was close enough, he extended the straw leaf until it just touched Eden's neck.
This, of course, made her flinch and strike her neck, thinking it was an insect. When she turned and saw the earl, she drew her bare feet up under her skirts. "Very amusing," she attempted to quell him.
"Mistook you for a wood nymph. Had to test to see if you were mortal," he explained. She felt stupid being found barefoot and wreathed in flowers, but it was too late. When she didn't answer him, he asked, "Where are the children?"
"They went up to eat."
"And left you to play dress up?"
"Daniel was painting my portrait. It came out quite well, I might add. I'm supposed to be a medievil maiden."
"You look more like a wood nymph to me. You were too pensive; what were you thinking about?"
Eden looked back at the big Mute swans gliding sedately near the shore. "I was watching your swans, my lord, and identifying with them."
"In what way?"
"They are pinioned, are they not?"
"The pen's wings are pinioned. The cob stays of his own volition."
"Then they reverse the roles humans play. With people, it is usually thought to be the male whose wings must be clipped to keep him from straying."
"Not when the female is worth staying home for," he grinned.
Eden smiled at his quick riposte. "To answer your question, I am feeling a little like that pen out there. God has given me the desire to fly, but society has clipped my wings. I'm paddling about in a much larger pool here at Chadilaine, but I'm still not flying.
"You're not walking either."
Eden turned back to look at him. "I beg your pardon?" He held up the boots to explain. She stood then and made a single attempt to take them, but he yanked them high above his head. She found herself uncomfortably close to him. "Please give them to me. You can have no use for them."
"Wood nymphs don't wear boots."
"But I do."
"I think I'll conduct a little experiment. How far do you think I can throw these, and how long will it take them to sink to the bottom of the lake?"
His chin came up at that. "How can you know what I would do? If you want them returned safely to you, what ransom are you willing to pay?"
"They're not worth much."
"To me they are. They look brand new, and well constructed. Why, what have we here? Stockings! Miss Barrett, I'm shocked!"
"Very well, what do you consider a suitable ransom?"
"Why the priviledge of watching you put them on, stockings included."
The gleam in his eyes caused Eden to look about for an escape rout even more than his words had. Her cheeks were aflame. "How can you suggest such a thing?"
"So, I'm a scoundrel, am I?"
"If you insist on pursuing this course, yes. Let me by."
"Oh, very well. Take your old boots," he said, holding them in front of him. When she reached to take them, his right hand darted out to grasp the hair at the nape of her neck. He turned her face to him and stole a gentle, lingering kiss from her generous mouth.
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