Out of all the words in the English language, Cynthia's absolute favorite was "don't."
The most interesting things to do were always “don’t”s. “Don’t” was how she'd learned that climbing trees was great fun and so was swimming in the lake. It was how she'd learned breeches were more comfortable than skirts, and riding astride much more exciting (and easier) than riding in a lady's sidesaddle - although she could do both. Kissing was another great fun she would have missed out on if she listened to the word, "don't."
The moment Cynthia was told "don't,” she immediately felt the strong urge to do whatever it was she wasn’t supposed to. It led to such wondrous discoveries!
As she'd grown older, those discoveries were what gave her life sparkle after her parents died. Of course she missed them very much, she did, but that didn't mean her life should always be sad. She was sad when she thought of them and she'd mourned them very properly, and during her mourning period had tried to behave as the perfect young lady she hadn't been during their lives, in their memory, but once she'd thrown off the black she'd thrown off the shroud of gloom as well. Life was just more fun when attempting all the things one wasn't supposed to do.
Which was how she'd ended up sneaking out of Lady Spencer's house in Bath to go meet with the scandalous Mr. Carter. According to her ladyship, Mr. Carter was a rogue, a rake, a dissolute braggart and a man completely without honor. Her ladyship's clear instructions had been "don't ever even talk to him, avoid him at all costs."
How was Cynthia supposed to ignore such temptation? Such a colorful description? Mr. Carter must know even more wonderful things one wasn't supposed to do, things Cynthia didn’t know. She had to admit she thought he cut a rather dashing figure with his air of indifference, those lazy brown eyes and his mop of golden curls which were always slightly mussed. So, of course, when he'd coaxed her onto the terrace during one of the Assemblies she'd gone willingly, only to be interrupted moments later by an irate Lady Spencer.
Fortunately he'd found her in a shop this morning, her hovering chaperone nearby but not within earshot, and had murmured he'd like to meet her. She'd whispered back that she'd meet him at the nearby park in the afternoon, when she knew Lady Spencer would most likely be entertaining. At first her ladyship had tried to include Cynthia in her 'at-homes,' but Cynthia quickly grew bored of sitting, drinking tea, and listening to vicious old ladies exchange scathing observations and gossip. Although she did perk up whenever any of them had anything to say about Lady Spencer’s sons.
She'd become great friends with Matthew and Vincent, and while she hadn't met the Earl of Spencer yet, she rather enjoyed hearing stories about him. Most of the best stories weren't told in Lady Spencer's presence, but a few of the old dragons would whisper the juicy tidbits to each other while the Countess was occupied, and Cynthia had managed to overhear quite a bit. Gambling, tumbling other men's wives, gallivanting about town... it all sounded quite grand to her. They said he was as handsome as the devil with a twinkle in his eye that could make the most chaste lady turn up her skirts for him.
Cynthia knew she wasn't supposed to know what that meant, but she did. She was bright enough, and listened often enough to the matrons’ gossip, to at least be able to guess at some of the things men and women did together. Husbands and wives, Lady Spencer had said, but Cynthia knew unmarried couples did the same activities.
Perhaps the most delightful "don't" she'd ever received was "don't touch yourself between your legs." Combined with her observations and her natural penchant for trying anything new, she'd quickly managed to discover exactly why touching herself between her legs could be quite wonderful, although she still hadn't discerned why it was a "don't."
Mr. Carter had wanted to touch her between her legs today, but she hadn't allowed him to. She was wary of gentlemen, not wanting to find herself in a situation, although she certainly planned on touching herself there as soon as she was able. His passionate kisses and wandering hands had quite aroused her. But she had remained cognizant of the fact that Lady Spencer couldn't remain shut up in her room forever, even if the woman had thrown quite a fit when she'd realized her charge and the roguish Mr. Carter were standing far too close to each other in the store. She'd dragged Cynthia home immediately, told her to stay in her room until the Earl arrived there this afternoon to "deal with her," and then immediately took refuge in her own room.
Of course Cynthia wasn't going to stay in her room, not when she wanted to know what Mr. Carter could show her, but she had known she only had a limited amount of time. Then they'd almost been caught by a pair of gossiping girls who were talking in high-pitched excited voices about how both the rakish Lord Hyde and the Earl of Spencer had been seen in town.
Still, it had all been rather wonderful even if she had to rush home now.
Unfortunately, just after pushing through a group of rather rowdy young men, she ran straight into the poor man who was walking behind them. She thought it was unfortunate because he seemed like a very fine specimen of a man, even taller than Mr. Carter and with a harder body - she knew because it felt like she'd just smashed herself against a wall - and he was very handsome, but she didn't have time to make any kind of introduction or discover his direction. It also wasn't the kind of impression she wanted to make on a man as attractive as he was, but it couldn't be helped.
"Oh I'm so sorry, I beg your pardon!" she blurted out, before darting past him. Hopefully he wouldn't get a good enough look at her to remember her if they were to meet later; she'd rather he remember her as anything other than a rampaging harpy dashing through the street. Hurrying up the steps to the house she went immediately into the front door, hoping Manfred might be in one of the other rooms doing whatever it was he did when he wasn't watching her with disapproving eyes.
Unfortunately her hopes were in vain. Not only was Manfred standing in the center of the foray, there were several other servants running in and out of the room as well, including her maid Julie who looked to be rather teary-eyed. Cynthia glared at Manfred. If he'd been taking Julie to task over Cynthia's disappearance then she would have words with him. How could a mere maid be expected to keep tabs on her?
Manfred ignored her as the front door opened behind her again. Shockingly, something like relief flickered across his normally blank face.
"My Lord.... your ward has returned."
Oh dear. So not only was the Earl of Spencer certainly here, he knew she had been missing. Well, Cynthia had always been one to face up to her misdeeds without flinching. After all, they were almost always well worth whatever repercussions came from ignoring the word "don't."
Taking a deep breath for fortitude, she turned to face the Earl and gasped. It was the same man she'd bumped into outside! Now that she could get a better look at him she realized why she would have never expected him to be an Earl - he didn't at all look like one. Even though he'd been described as a rogue and a devil, she still expected him to look like the other rakes amongst the ton she'd met. This man had tanned skin, like a laborer, and his brown hair was long and unruly, falling in waves down to the collar of his shirt. A shirt which was anything but pristine and his cravat was crooked too. Besides which, he wasn't even wearing a waistcoat! What kind of titled nobility went anywhere without a waistcoat? He looked more like a pirate than an Earl!
She was so busy gaping at him that she missed seeing the amusement flashing across his face.
"So I see," the Earl said.