"Nigel, would you please be so kind as to escort Miranda home?" Lady Rudland asked. "Her father seems to have been detained."
Miranda wondered why he winced when she said his name.
"Certainly, Mother. Olivia, did you have a good party?"
"Where is Winston?"
Olivia shrugged. "He's off playing with the saber Billy Evans gave him."
"Not a real one, I hope."
"God help us if it is," Lady Rudland put in. "All right, Miranda, let's get you home. I believe your cloak is in the next room." She disappeared through the doorway and emerged a few seconds later with Miranda's serviceable brown coat.
"Shall we be off, Miranda?" The godlike creature held out his hand to her.
Miranda shrugged on her coat and placed her hand in his. Heaven!
"I will see you on Monday!" Olivia called out. "And don't worry about what Fiona said. She's just a silly old cow."
"Well, she is, Mama. I don't want to have her back."
Miranda smiled as she let Olivia's brother lead her down the hall, Olivia's and Lady Rudland's voices slowly fading away. "Thank you very much for taking me home, Nigel," she said softly.
He winced again.
"I'm- I'm sorry," she said quickly. "I ought to be calling you 'my lord,' oughtn't I? It's just that Olivia and Winston always refer to you by your given name and I- " She cast miserable eyes toward the floor. Only two minutes in his splendid company, and already she'd blundered.
He stopped and crouched down so that she could see his face. "Don't worry about the 'my lord,' Miranda. I'll tell you a secret."
Miranda's eyes widened, and she forgot to breathe.
"I despise my given name."
"That's not much of a secret, Nig- I mean, my lord, I mean, whatever you wish to be called. You wince every time your mother says it."
He smiled down at her. Something had tugged at his heart when he saw this little girl with the too-serious expression playing with his indomitable sister. She was a funny-looking little creature, but there was something quite lovable about her big, soulful brown eyes.
"What are you called?" Miranda asked.
He smiled at her direct manner. "Turner."
For a moment he thought she might not answer. She just stood there, utterly still save for the blinking of her eyes. And then, as if finally reaching a conclusion, she said, "That's a nice name. A bit odd, but I like it."
"Much better than Nigel, don't you think?"
Miranda nodded. "Did you choose it? I've often thought that people ought to choose their own names. I should think that most people would choose something different from what they have."
"And what would you choose?"
"I'm not certain, but not Miranda. Something plainer, I think. People expect something different from a Miranda and are almost always disappointed when they meet me."
"Nonsense," Turner said briskly. "You are a perfect Miranda."
She beamed. "Thank you, Turner. May I call you that?"
"Of course. And I didn't choose it, I'm afraid. It's just a courtesy title. Viscount Turner. I've been using it in place of Nigel since I went to Eton."
"Oh. It suits you, I think."
"Thank you," he said gravely, completely entranced by this serious child. "Now, give me your hand again, and we shall be on our way."
He had held out his left hand to her. Miranda quickly moved the ribbon from her right hand to her left.
"This? Oh, a ribbon. Fiona Bennet gave two dozen of them to Olivia, and Olivia said I might keep one."
Turner's eyes narrowed ever so slightly as he remembered Olivia's parting words. Don't worry about what Fiona said. He plucked the ribbon out of her hand. "Ribbons belong in hair, I think."
"Oh, but it doesn't match my dress," Miranda said in feeble protest. He'd already fastened it atop her head. "How does it look?" she whispered.
"Really?" Her eyes widened doubtfully.
"Really. I've always thought that violet ribbons look especially nice with brown hair."
Miranda fell in love on the spot. So intense was the feeling that she quite forgot to thank him for the compliment.
"Shall we be off?" he said.
She nodded, not trusting her voice.
They made their way out of the house and to the stables. "I thought we might ride," Turner said. "It's far too nice a day for a carriage."
Miranda nodded again. It was uncommonly warm for March.
"You can take Olivia's pony. I'm sure she won't mind."
"Livvy hasn't got a pony," Miranda said, finally finding her voice. "She has a mare now. I've one at home, too. We're not babies, you know."
Turner suppressed a smile. "No, I can see that you are not. How silly of me. I wasn't thinking."
A few minutes later, their horses were saddled, and they set off on the fifteen-minute ride to the Cheever home. Miranda stayed silent for the first minute or so, too perfectly happy to spoil the moment with words.
"Did you have a good time at the party?" Turner finally asked.
"Oh, yes. Most of it was just lovely."
"Most of it?"
He saw her wince. Obviously, she hadn't meant to say so much. "Well," she said slowly, catching her lip between her teeth and then letting it go before continuing, "one of the girls said some unkind words to me."
"Oh?" He knew better than to be overly inquisitive.
And obviously, he was right, because when she spoke, she rather reminded him of his sister, staring up at him with frank eyes as her words spilled firmly from her mouth. "It was Fiona Bennet," she said, with great distaste, "and Olivia called her a silly old cow, and I must say I'm not sorry that she did."
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