She was a lot smaller, and younger than he’d anticipated. And painfully beautiful.
Heart-shaped face, clear—perceptive—green eyes, and an abundance of freckles; thick red hair rolled and caged in black netting at her nape. Set free, would it fall straight, in silken waves, or in wild Medusa-like curls?
Why the hell did it matter?
Flexing his fingers to dispel the strange urge to release her hair from its bindings and watch it tumble like a crimson waterfall over the ebony shoulders of her dress, and then sift his fingers through it, Joe tipped his head in the approximation of a welcoming nod.
“Mrs. Sweeney. I’m Joe Banner.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Banner.” She faced the staff he’d ordered lined up on the lawn. “And a pleasure to meet all of you. I appreciate you each taking time from your important duties to greet me, and I assure you I will get to know each of you in time, but today……” Her mouth curved in a warm smile. “Today my only wish is to retire to some place cool and catch my breath. So if you will all excuse me…” She looked expectantly at Joe. “Would you kindly direct me to my chamber?”
She was barely taller than Maisie who was only nine years old, and yet she spoke with authority to rival a general half again her height and twice her weight.
Joe glanced at the staff that, despite their new mistress’s less-than-subtle dismissal, remained exactly where he’d left them, though a few cast questioning looks his direction. Catching Rufus’s eyes, he nodded.
The butler faced the group and dismissed them by simple expedient of raising his wiry salt-and-pepper eyebrows. Joe was certain old Rufus could bring the Devil to heel simply by giving him that look. Only Maisie did not react, other than to frown, and tilt her head.
Joe said, “Before I show you to your suite, Mrs. Sweeney, there’s someone I want to introduce you to.” But Mrs. Sweeney was already on the move, her black hems dragging along the grass.
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