Mina Nichols sprinted across the sodden field, hoping to get back to her family’s modest home sooner, rather than later. Her shoes sunk into the muddy sludge attempting to pass for a meadow, hampering her progress.
She ducked into a small enclosed alley, cutting through the small market, hoping the passageway would prove drier and faster. She underestimated how much rain had gathered inside the center gutter.
When she splashed through, a few strands of hair fell in her face, which she shoved free. At the same time, she caught sight of her dress dragging in the rancid filth. The heavy cloth tangled and she jerked it free before she tripped on the damnable mess. A man entered the same alley the moment she raised her head. Not in enough time to dodge him. She rebounded against his body with a yelp and fell back into the filth, which promptly sucked her into its grasp.
The small basket of roses she carried went into the air as she went down. With a final shloop, the roses sunk into the muck. The man scrambled to catch the basket, only to lose his own footing. He tumbled on top of her, managing to get his hands out before flattening Mina to the ground.
“I haven’t hurt you, have I?” The man gathered himself together. After he stood, he reached for her. His face caved in on itself when he noticed his hands and knees covered in the same mess Mina was a victim to. Her almost savior rubbed the muck on his pants with a deep scowl.
Mina’s eyes welled up. The beautiful blue roses were now covered in brown. Most of the morning she’d spent gathering them in the fields. It was her birthday so she snuck out early, hoping to collect a dozen of her favorite roses to adorn the kitchen table while she made breakfast. It was her only hope at a decent birthday.
Seeing the lovely stems lying in the muck and the petals wilting was too much. Top that with the certainty she was in trouble for having snuck out, and the tears held back no longer. She fumbled to stand on her own, rather than dare allow this stranger to touch her.
He seemed no “regular” man, anyway. At least not from where she lived. This man had dark hair and arresting golden eyes. Wearing such a nice suit meant he was rich, or richer than her. He was far too distinguished to be from these parts. And the way he grimaced at the gunk on his hands spoke volumes.
The suit wasn’t as impeccable now that he’d wiped the gooey mess on his thighs. A slight stubble along his jaw and moustache didn’t go with the mud splattered on his cheek either. It didn’t seem to bother him, he seemed more intent on her well-being.
Well! The last thing she needed on top of her humiliated state and destroyed roses was some strange smug man in her face, making her feel worse.
Mina clambered to her feet, swiping away the tears with the back of a muddy hand. A cold smear along her cheek let her know she had muck on her face like him. Her ire grew, which caused more tears to tumble out.
Could this day get any worse?
“Are you all right?” he asked gently, fixing to help her.
Now pity? Her cheeks burned, her heart raced. Mina bashed his hands away from her. “Leave me be. I do not need your help.”
With a shove against him to get further away, Mina trudged out of the alley and into the main market. Her toes squished in her shoes with each gruesome step. The day was ruined before it began.
“Miss! Please, let me help you.” The aggravating man came up beside her and she went to shove him away once more, but the tip of her muddy foot caught a stone, slipped, and she tumbled backward. Her eyes widened with a squeak.
As quick as a breath, the man snaked his fingers around her upper arms and clamped down. With a slight tug, he pulled her close to prevent her from falling. Mina took a deep breath. His eyes caught the light from a nearby fire, reflecting the flames in a blaze of amber.
He leaned within a breath’s distance and repeated his earlier statement. “Please, let me help you. You needn’t be afraid.”
Mina’s heart skipped a beat. An odd compulsion to go along with whatever he asked massaged her into complacency. Those eyes seemed to hold the flickering flames inside and held her transfixed. Without realizing it, her head drifted up and down. Her entire body electrified.
His lips curled upward in a slow motion that in the distance of Mina’s brain, she thought of the way a snake slithered along the ground, heading toward its prey. Fitting since prey was what that smile moved toward.
“Mina,” she whispered without him asking.
He was far too gratified over her having given up the information of her own volition. A part of her bristled and tried to force itself to the surface, screaming at her to listen, but his warm lips touched her ear. Her brain stopped.
“You may call me, Holt. I am honored to make your acquaintance, my dear Mina.”
A small shiver swept through her body that he misinterpreted as her being cold. At least she hoped so. The look in his eye when he pulled back said otherwise. A cold knot formed in her stomach.
The market beyond was unusually quiet, the rain sending everyone to find asylum until it let up. Leaving the two of them alone together, amplifying her sense of concern.
“You must be cold. This rain is yet unlikely to ease. Come. Let us get you out of this nightmare weather. I gather by the rushing, your own home isn’t close?”
Holt took off his jacket and draped it over her shoulders. Warmth drifted through her body, allowing her angst to ease a bit. He pulled her against his body, securing her beneath an arm to provide safety from the cold rain continuing to assault them.
She shook her head in regard to his question.
Mina fought the urge to give way, but her mother was in her head and overruled her thoughts, you must treat gentlemen with respect. Don’t you dare embarrass me, Mina! You are a willful and foolish child. You will never become anything of importance, you must start acting like a lady so you will get a good husband. No man wants to marry a wild animal. The warmth of Holt’s embrace overpowered any fight left. Mina allowed him to lead her from the market, further away from her home, across a field, to a small quaint home. A home she didn’t expect to encounter. Not one she would have placed Holt as inhabitant of.
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