The Wood Nymph(10)

By: Mary Balogh


She must have indulgent parents if she was allowed to escape the day’s chores without punishment. Perhaps, though, she thought the punishment an acceptable exchange for a few hours of freedom. In fact, maybe it was not parents she was escaping. Perhaps it was a husband. He did not think she was as young as he had at first thought her. She did not seem married, though.

Helen was still sitting on the bank of the stream, hugging her knees. She was no longer studying the water. She was gazing across at the trees on the opposite bank. The man was not at all as she had expected. He certainly looked every inch the proper gentleman, and his face in repose was severe. But there was warmth and humor in him, and an understanding of what depths were in nature for those who cared to observe. She liked him. Yes, she thought, her eyes widening in surprise, she liked Mr. Mainwaring. She could never remember liking any man before, and precious few women.

But what a coil! She had deliberately deceived him into thinking she was a village wench. She had talked with that accent all through their conversation and she had not contradicted the suggestions he had made about what she should be doing that afternoon. Her appearance, of course, would have completely deceived him. The dress, her loose, tangled hair, her feet and legs bare to above the ankles—none of them would betray her true status.

What was she to do when he discovered her real identity? What an embarrassment it would be! Would he look at her with amusement as he had done a few times that afternoon? Or would it be with disgust that a lady could have appeared and acted as she had done? Either way, it was going to be hard to face him. That evening! Of course, he was to dine with them that evening. Helen groaned and put her forehead down onto her raised knees. She couldn’t. She just couldn’t face him, least of all with Mama and Papa and her sisters looking on. Why, oh why, had she not simply revealed her identity immediately?

The afternoon was clearly ruined, she thought, getting to her feet and crossing with lagging footsteps to the old hut. Her hut. Her precious gift! A slow smile lit up her face. She was going to have to think of some course of action, and fast.





CHAPTER 3



I

t was five days later before Helen was able to return to her private place in the woods, the longest absence she could remember since she had started to go there two years before. It seemed that everything conspired against her.

First of all, she had to play sick for the whole of a glorious midsummer day. She had feigned a headache on the night when Mr. Mainwaring had been invited to dinner, and Helen never had headaches. She had finally convinced the whole family after wandering around the house frowning and clutching her temples for more than an hour and had been packed off to bed with lavender water and vinaigrette, warm milk, and a hot brick for her feet. Mama herself had come to bathe her temples with the lavender water.

“Poor child,” she had said. “I do hope you are not going to become a martyr to the migraines as Emily and I are. You lie there and do not worry about a thing. I shall make your excuses to our guests. It is provoking that yet again you will miss Mr. Mainwaring, though. Such a gentlemanly man, and just the person for one of you girls. Of course, I believe he already favors Melissa, but he has not yet met you, child, and you can be quite prettily behaved when you set your mind to it.”

Helen moaned and her mother leaned over her and kissed her forehead. “There, there,” she said soothingly, “you go to sleep now, child.”

Helen had felt very guilty after her mother had left. Mama did not often treat her with such gentleness. It seemed unfair to have won sympathy through a deception. She had sat up in bed and clasped her knees. It was all very pointless anyway, this feigned illness. She would not be able to avoid meeting Mr. Mainwaring forever. Sooner or later he would know that Lady Helen Wade ran around in the woods in rags that barely covered her decently and spent her time doing undignified things like lying on her stomach by a stream, bare legs waving in the air.

Perhaps it would have been easier to have dressed for dinner and met him after all. She could have put on her very best chilly manner, the one she used with that horrid Oswald Pyke, who fancied himself such a ladies’ man. Mr. Mainwaring would not dare look at her with contempt if she treated him so. Helen had sighed. Truth to tell, it was not so much the embarrassment of having her identity revealed to Mr. Mainwaring that bothered her. It was more the ending of an intriguing situation that she could not bear to see. She wanted to meet him again in the woods, just to see if her first impression of him was correct. She did not know that he would come ever again, of course, but she was almost sure he would.