The lending library was empty. Perfect.
Lucien le Duc didn’t want anyone to witness him returning books meant for babies. If he hadn’t managed to become fluent in English by now, there was no point in carrying on. Not when he finally had a ticket back home tucked away in his waistcoat pocket.
Perhaps what he ought to pick up were a few things in French. Was there a latest novel everyone would be raving about? A fascinating biography? Advances in wine production and the cultivation of grapes? He stepped around the corner… and crashed directly into a young woman emerging from between two tall shelves.
Her book went flying.
His books went flying.
She flailed for balance.
He caught her.
Gray-blue eyes met his and widened.
He sighed. “You wonder… if I am… the local blacksmith…”
Her eyes glinted with mischief. “I’m actually wondering what else you can do with those strong hands.”
He let her go.
She placed the back of her hand against her forehead and dramatically slumped against his chest as though she had just swooned.
Her eyes were still open. And twinkling wickedly.
Lucien had absolutely no idea how a gentleman should respond. So he froze. Her hair smelled like lilacs. An errant curl tickled his jaw. He had a feeling she knew it.
She pushed away from his chest and burst out laughing. “I’ve been dying to be alone with you for six long years. I thought I’d imagined every possible way it might happen, but you’ve just exceeded my every expectation. You even let me nuzzle against your chest for the briefest of moments. It was just as warm and hard and muscular as I dreamed it would be.”
He stared at her helplessly. The more she talked, the less he knew what to do with her.
“Here.” She knelt to the floor. “Let me retrieve your books.”
“No,” he barked, but it was too late.
A Little Pretty Pocket-Book was already in her hand.
She blinked at the title. “Interesting choice. I prefer gothic intrigue, and a shameless lack of virtue, but I suppose this could also… No, it probably couldn’t.” She handed him back his books.
“Who are you?” he managed.
But of course he knew who she was. Not her name, but her face. The village was much too small for even a recluse like Lucien not to recognize other locals. He’d glimpsed this black-haired beauty several times in the company of his new sister-in-law. Her generous curves and blue-gray eyes were impossible to miss. Nor could anyone mistake her habit of throwing back her head with a laugh so shockingly loud, so unabashedly delighted, so enticingly infectious, that even a marble statue would be tempted to smile back.
What he hadn’t realized was that she’d been watching him, too.
“I’m Meg.” She dipped an impressively graceful curtsey.
She added no additional information.
He cleared his throat. “Meg…”
“Meg, of the Christmas Megs.” She smiled brightly, then fluttered her eyes heavenward. “If you must have all the boring details, I am Miss Margaret Church, cousin to Mr. and Mrs. Allan Farrell of the local Farrell dairy, and yes, I live there, too. Eve insists on saying ‘Margaret’ just to needle me, but friends can call me Meg.”
“Are we friends?” he asked doubtfully.
“Oh, do I get to decide? In that case, yes. We are most definitely friends. I’m Meg, and you’re… may I call you Luc?”
She tapped her cheek. “Lucien, then. But wouldn’t it be fun if we all had a one-syllable name? Meg, Luc, Eve, Beau—”
He crossed his arms. “My brother’s name… is Bastien.”
“Ah, but you knew who I was talking about, didn’t you? Yet I see your point. If everyone used a one-syllable nickname, it would become monotonous. Maybe Eve has it right, and I should be Margaret after all. Well, too late for us. You’re a friend who calls me Meg. I’ll have to save ‘Margaret’ for the next rugged blacksmith I crash into at the library.”
Lucien wished he knew a polite way to say Do you always talk this much? in English.
But he wasn’t here to be polite to English people. He was here to rid himself of English nonsense that he had no interest in reading.
Mademoiselle Church either took deep pleasure in being shocking, or she had no idea how scandalous her behavior actually was. A gentleman would walk away, so as not to find himself embroiled in scandal himself.
And he would. Any second now.
He narrowed his eyes. She was no debutante. Not just for lack of manners, but because Lucien took her age to be at least five-and-twenty. A beautiful spinster living in someone else’s humble country farm would imply Mademoiselle Church was an impoverished cousin relying on family charity. A poor relation to a dairy maid. Leagues beneath the caliber of well-bred aristocratic young ladies Lucien would be associating with once he returned to France.
No doubt she saw that damnable article in the Cressmouth, realized his family was no longer as poor as they’d been, and figured a blacksmith would be a step up from her current circumstances. Well, he wasn’t interested. Not in her, or any Englishwoman. She would have to find some other mark to bat those long eyelashes at.
He opened his mouth to tell her so.
“No, no, don’t stop now.” She fanned her neck. “I love the way you glower. I have no idea what you’re thinking and really it doesn’t matter, because if you told me, all the mystery would go away. When you cross those big, strong arms over that wide chest and narrow those piercing chocolate-brown eyes to slits, it feels as though you’re smiting an entire room with the power of your thoughts. It comes across positively devilish.” She lowered her voice. “I adore anything wicked.”