Ten years later
"If you do not want blood all over your carpet, I suggest you call a physician," Evelyn called out from where she lay flat on her back. She pushed her spectacles back into place and turned her head to look at the unbroken window.
The reflected image of the tall man who'd walked into the library abruptly stopped, caught in a pool of bright mid-morning sunlight. He wore shirtsleeves, the white cuffs rolled halfway up sinewy, tanned forearms, the collar open at the throat.
"Which carpet?" he asked, looking about for her.
Ten years had passed, but it might have been yesterday that she'd last seen him. The easy, imperturbable voice was the same, as was his loose-limbed build and disheveled good looks.
"Here," Evelyn called. "On the floor by the window. The broken one."
Justin Powell closed the book he'd been carrying and came round the side of the desk. Looking up past his expensive shoes, she could see the subtle changes a decade had wrought. Thin lines radiated from the corners of his eyes and little comma-shapes bracketed his wide mouth. A dusting of gray threaded through dark brown hair in dire need of a good clip.
Mutely, he gazed down at her. Just as mute, she returned his regard.
What was wrong with a man when even the sight of a woman bleeding on his floor couldn't excite him to action?
"I understand how the sight of a woman lying in a pool of her own blood might be off-putting, Mr. Powell," she said. "But can I do anything to dispel the paralysis that seems to have gripped you and encourage you to act?"
"Woman, eh?" he murmured, calmly setting his book on the desk. He hunkered down, his elbows on his knees and his hands hanging between his legs. Gingerly, he lifted the torn flap in the knickers she'd borrowed from her nephew Stanley.
She dared a glance at her leg, saw the red blood, and averted her face. She looked up at him in order to read in his expression the severity of her injury, but instead found herself staring in fascination at his eyes. They were just as she remembered, too, a fascinating, glinty-soft bluish-green. Forest pond beneath brilliant autumn sky. Gold leaf swirling through liquid jade--
"You aren't bleeding to death," Justin said matter-of-factly. He released the flap of twill. "And that spot isn't a pool." He frowned at his fingertips, looked around, and ended up wiping them on her pant leg. "Though the cut is long, it's not very deep."
"Thank heavens!" She released the breath she'd been holding. She was, admittedly, a bit of a sissy where blood was concerned.
"Not much more than a scratch," he said calmly. "A tad messy, but nothing any English schoolboy hasn't suffered a dozen times over."
His lack of sympathy made her bristle. "I am not an English schoolboy."
"Since Mrs. Boyle's Finishing School opened in the neighborhood, I have learned that the difference between the average English schoolgirl and the average English schoolboy isn't all that great." His gaze drifted in a purely impersonal manner over poor Stanley's blouse, knotted kerchief, and ruined knickers.
She frowned. "I dressed this way only because I expected I would need to crawl up the trellis outside your library window in order to get in."
"Now that you explain, it makes perfect sense."
She was wounded and he was being sarcastic. She lifted herself to her elbows, preparing to deliver him a stinging set-down, but as soon as her head rose above her chest and she saw the sticky red flap of cloth, her head swam. She dropped back with a moan.
"Are you hurt elsewhere?" Justin asked quickly.
"No. It's just that . . . Blood." She shuddered. "I'll be fine as long as I don't look at it."
"Then by all means, don't look. You're as white as Devon sand." He uncoiled. "Just lie there quietly while I nip off and raid the old medicine cabinet. I'll be back in a trice."
Only after he'd left did it occur to Evelyn that he hadn't asked why she was lying in such a condition on his library floor. Most men would have demanded to know. At the very least, they would have been unnerved by her appearance. But then, she recalled, Justin Powell had no nerves.
She twisted her head, looking about the library. A small, untidy working library, just the sort she'd have loved to explore--and put in order. A pair of deep leather club chairs faced a ceiling-high bookshelf outfitted with a rolling brass ladder. Across the room, a library desk basked in the light pouring in through a now permanently open east-facing window.
She was squinting through her glasses, trying to read some of the titles on the bookshelves, when she heard returning footsteps. A second later Justin came in with a tray filled with medical paraphernalia: a bowl of water, scissors, a brown bottle, a roll of bandages, and a cloth.
Without wasting time fussing about proprieties, he simply knelt beside her and proceeded to cut off the right leg of her nephew's knickers five inches above the knee. He wadded the ruined material and tossed it into the wastebasket, then dipped the towel into the water. "I'm going to clean you up a bit, all right?"
Before she could answer, he started dabbing at the wound. She took a deep breath and stared bravely at the coffered ceiling.
"Nice wood, that," she said in a high, thin voice.
"Cherry," he muttered distractedly.
She winced as the warm water seeped into the cut. "You're sure it's not deep?"
She sucked in as his dabbing became more pronounced--very like scrubbing, in fact. "It feels as though it's been cut to the bone. Tell me. I can take it."
"True, you're slender, but it's nowhere near the bone," he replied, sitting back on his heels and tossing the washcloth after the pant leg. "There. All nice and clean. Have a look for yourself."
"Thank you, no. If you'd be so kind as to put a bandage over it, I'm sure I can finish tying it up." She began struggling to a seated position but he stopped her, his big hand enveloping her shoulder and gently pushing her back down.
"Not a bit of it, m'dear," he said cheerfully. "Besides, always finish what you begin. Or so me old granny used to say."
She breathed a heartfelt "thank you." She hated being brave about blood. She'd never seen any real value in it, except that it made everyone else feel better just when you were feeling your worst, which was generally the time a girl needed a bit of sympathy.
"You just rest easy and think of something else. I know," he said, as if a novel idea had only just occurred to him. "Why don't you tell me why you broke into my house?"
"Broke . . . ? Oh. That. The insufferable person who answers your door kept insisting that you were not at home. As I had to see you, I had no choice but to find an alternative entry."
"Beverly told you I wasn't in? How reprehensible!" Justin said and then, "I suppose there was some good reason you didn't believe him?"
"Of course," she answered. "I saw you."
"Saw me?" Justin repeated mildly. He opened the little amber bottle and withdrew a small glass wand from it. Carefully, he guided it along the cut.
"Ow!" Evelyn squealed, pulling away and glowering at him with the air of one grossly betrayed. "You hurt me!"
He grimaced apologetically. "Sorry. Carbolic acid. Should have warned you it would sting a bit."
"I should say," Evelyn muttered bad-temperedly.
"Almost done. Just a bit of bandaging and you'll be right as rain. Now, then," he began unrolling a linen bandage, "you were saying how you spied me in the house and thus deduced Beverly to be the lying knave he undoubtedly is. Where did you see me?"
"Through the back window here."
"Ah." Justin nodded. "So, having been told I was not at home, you at once became suspicious of Beverly's villainous mien and decided to walk around to the back of the house, climb the alley wall, and look through the windows. Most enterprising."
Evelyn frowned. "Put that way, it sounds rather . . . intrusive."
"No, no," Justin said affably. "I'd say the actual intrusive spot came when you broke into the house. Up to that point I'd call you merely . . ." He looked at her hopefully, as though she would supply the word that eluded him.
"Ah, prying," he said happily. "Yes. That might do."
She couldn't detect the least bit of sarcasm in his tone, but it was there, as was his amusement. She thought over all the reports she'd heard of him through the years, which were few enough.
Eccentric. Reclusive, or was it exclusive? Clever. Unflappable. Some people had deemed him inattentive, others preferred oblivious. Obviously none of them had ever spent any time with him, for clearly a razor-sharp intellect lurked beneath his pleasant, obliging manner.
"And exactly why were you prying?" he asked.
"Because," she replied, "it was absolutely essential that I speak to you."
"Me? How flattering! Young girls are so seldom so resourceful. Or persistent." He clipped off a length of linen and deftly wound it around her thigh, securing it with a piece of sticking plaster. He admired his work. "The medical field will ever feel my loss, I'm afraid."
She grinned at his nonsense. He definitely had a way of getting around a girl.
He uncoiled with feline grace and she was reminded of another adjective that had on occasion been associated with him. He seemed so gentlemanly, without being the least stiff, that for a moment she'd forgotten the circumstances under which they'd originally met. But being the recipient of his indisputable charm and seeing him move with such fluid ease, it all came rushing back. A dark hall long past midnight, another man's wife, another man's room.
He was a Lothario.
Not that for one second she feared she was in danger of exciting any romantic efforts on his part. Heavens, no! But that didn't mean she couldn't see why other women found him hard to resist.
Though, now that she thought of it, it was odd that since that night she hadn't heard any sordid stories about him. Perhaps it was because one only heard stories about the incompetent Lotharios, the ones that got caught--
She gasped as he suddenly stooped down and scooped her up in his arms. She blushed, warmed by the notion that he'd read her thoughts.
"You can put me down. I can easily walk."
"Of course you can, if you want," he replied in the tone one would use on a recalcitrant child. He didn't stop, however. He strode into the narrow, carpeted hall, heading for the back of the town house. "But why should you? A lift is the least I can offer you by way of making reparation for owning such shoddy, easily broken windows, as well as for employing such a scoundrel for a butler."
She searched his face. "You're mocking me."
"Never!" he denied. "I'm perfectly serious. I'm just thankful you aren't this very minute sending for your parents' lawyer in order to press suit, and I wish to express my gratitude by offering you a nice glass of lemonade. Which is in the kitchen. Which is where I am taking you."
Gads! Listening to him she could almost believe she was in the moral right and he ought to be making amends, when she knew very well that she should be offering him every apology she could think of to keep him from ringing up the local constable and having her carted away to the jail for breaking into his home.
"Besides," he was saying, "I should dearly love to hear why it was 'essential' that you speak to me."
She hesitated, knowing she should protest further. But he didn't seem to mind carrying her and she didn't seem to mind being carried, not in the least, so she relaxed in his arms and sank comfortably against his chest.
It was a nice broad chest. And warm under the starched, white shirt. He smelled fascinating, too: sharp astringent soap, earthy warmth, and something else, something unique.
She closed her eyes, trying to pinpoint the aroma and finding instead a whole new vista of sensations opening before her. The easy, rhythmical motion of his stride carrying her, the gentle swing of her legs in counterpoint, the soft feathering of his breath on her face. She held herself still, soaking up impressions. Lovely.
She smiled and opened her eyes just as he looked down and knocked her glasses askew with his chin. She shoved them back into place, the movement causing her to shift in his embrace. He jounced her up, settling her more comfortably and in doing so his hand slipped up her rib cage and his fingers brushed the curve of her breast. His hand jerked back. His brows suddenly dipped in a scowl.
"You're not from Mrs. Boyle's school, are you?" he asked in a voice tinged with accusation. He looked down into her upturned face, peering past the faintly smoked lenses, touching on her mouth and moving to the dark tumble of hair that had come undone during her escapade and now swirled like a gorgon's tresses around her shoulders. "Why you're not a girl, at all!"
"I beg your pardon." Evelyn stiffened.
"You are a woman."
By God! He'd thought she was . . . a child! That's why he hadn't castigated her, or sent for the authorities, or treated her as a real person at all. He'd thought she was from this girls' school he'd been babbling about, and that this was some girlish prank!
Evelyn, who had spent the last decade fighting the prejudices roused by her youthful appearance, who was always, in spite of her best efforts, a little too aware of her lack of female curves and thus a tad defensive about her womanliness, spoke before she thought. "Heavens, you're perceptive! I bet that you might even be able to find your way to the front door!"
Excerpted from Bridal Favors by Connie Brockway. Copyright © 2002 by Connie Brockway. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.