your, er,
    Mariah's cheeks flamed. The woman was his mother. And she'd just caught Mariah sprawled over her son.

    Mariah had made her escape as soon as possible without seeming rude, though she
laughed, albeit hysterically, at the thought of being concerned
about rudeness when she'd been attacking Brandon on the front lawn
not thirty minutes ago.
    What on earth would his mother think of her
    As she waited for her bath to come, Mariah
paced agitatedly up and down her room.
    Brandon had changed with his mother's
arrival, reverting back to the surly, sullen man he'd been
    She tried not to be hurt by it but she was.
Of course she was.
    He must be furious with her.
    She turned with a smile of relief on her face
as the door opened, no doubt heralding the arrival of her hot water
but instead a tiny person bounded into the room, a blur of golden
curls and white dress.
    "Hello." The blur skidded to a halt and
addressed her shyly.
    Mariah smiled at the gorgeous creature who
had just burst into her room.
    "Hello, there," she answered kneeling down to
the child's level. "I think I know who you are. You're Charlotte,
are you not?"
    "I am," answered the little one, her
cornflower blue eyes huge in her baby face. She was an absolute
doll, and from Brandon's description of her, the very image of her
poor mother. "But everyone calls me Lottie."
    "What a pretty name for a pretty young lady.
May I call you Lottie?"
    Lottie nodded then tilted her head and
studied Mariah closely. "I know who you are too."
    "Oh, you do?"
    "Yes, you're the damned nuisance that Uncle
Brandon won't marry."
    Mariah felt as if she'd been doused in icy
water. "I… beg your pardon?" she said in astonishment.
    Lottie shrugged in that marvellously uncaring
way that children had and repeated it.
    "At least, that's what Uncle Brandon just
shouted at grandmamma. I'm sure one of those words is naughty
because Uncle Brandon always says naughty words when he's cross,
and he's very cross now."
    "Lottie, will you excuse me?" Mariah said
without waiting for an answer as she swept from the room.
    She reached the drawing room but paused
outside as the battle that Lottie had heard clearly raged on.
    "You simply cannot cavort with a respectable
young lady in full view of God knows who and not marry her,
Brandon. It is simply not done."
    "Do you think I give a damn about what's done
or not?" Brandon was yelling. "I am warning you, Mother. Let this
drop. I will not be trapped in the parson's noose because of one
meaningless kiss."
    "How can you say such a thing?" his mother
demanded while outside the room, Mariah's heart broke in two.
"After the way your sister—"
    "This is nothing like Daphne," Brandon
bellowed. "I haven't touched her save for a few kisses, and nor do
I intend to. How can you think I would do such a thing?"
    "I don't," his mother replied now in soothing
tones. "But still, Brandon. The girl has a reputation to think of.
Besides, I saw the way you looked at her and she you. Clearly there
is some feeling between you. Some affection."
    Mariah waited with bated breath for his
    Please God let him say he cares, she
prayed fervently.
    "And if there was, what good would it do? You
don't know her, Mother. She is young, vivacious, and full of life.
She deserves more than a broken man, half living."
    "Just tell me one thing," said his mother
softly. "Do you love her?"
    Mariah's heart galloped and she closed her
eyes hoping against hope.
    His derisive laugh was like a dagger to her
bruised heart. "Of course not."
    As quietly as she could, tears threatening
more every second, Mariah turned and fled.

    "Mariah, do hurry up for goodness' sake. The whole village will be there already."
    Mariah bit her tongue, something she hadn't
had to do for weeks now.
    "I am coming, Mama" she answered as sweetly
as she could though her teeth were clenched. The woman never
stopped scolding.
    It had been four days since she had snuck
from the

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