Chapter One: Of Trees and Nymphs

Miss Marissa Evans was a gentleman's daughter. Her father was a silly man who enjoyed his port and cards too much. Gentleman by rank but not by deed. When Marissa was fifteen, he finally died and left the estate to the eldest boy, Garrett. Although her father had been a wastrel, Garrett was not and took good care of everyone in his care. He did have help, however. Mrs. Evans was a life saver in those days. She would call on all the tenants once a week, bearing gifts and comfort. Marissa would often accompany her mother when visiting the tenants to visit her childhood friends who were still close to her. They would tease Marissa about her escapades, past and recent. You see, although Marissa was a pretty girl with smoky brown curls and speaking blue eyes, she was something of a tomboy, even in her older years. If you watched the treetops closely, you might be able to see a flash of a gown up high in the leafy branches. The people of the surrounding area had grown accustomed to the sister of a well-respected gentleman up high in the trees, laughing in delight. Her laughter was contagious and whoever heard it could not help but join in.

One day Marissa was climbing her favorite oak tree. The full branches were her shelter and she had taken care to wear a dress the easily blended into the foliage. Her mother had recently scolded her about behaving in such and unladylike manner. Marissa had fought the urge to snort and roll her eyes. She loved her mother dearly but she could not give up the comfort her trees gave to her. Besides, what was so unladylike about climbing trees? Anyone who saw her either knew her or knew of her, so they didn't comment and weren't surprised. As Marissa sat in her tree, idly swinging her legs back and forth, she thought back to the interlude with her mother.

"Marissa, you must stop this behavior," she had said. "Climbing trees is innocent out here in the country but now that you've had a Season, it has to stop."

"Mama, I love London because of the shops and balls but I would never want to live there," Marissa had replied. "If I do marry, I don't want to marry for money, or securing my own comfort. My marriage will be based on mutual love and affection. That means my husband will not only approve of my tree climbing, he'll join me in the trees." Mrs. Evans threw up her hands in exasperation. Marissa was her youngest child and only daughter. They had never spoiled her and her education was better than most young women at the time but she was a stubborn child. Although she would never admit it, the stubbornness was not from Marissa's father.

"At least be a little more discreet," Mrs. Evans pleaded. "You know I only want you to have a happy and safe future."

"I know, Mama," Marissa said and kissed her mother's cheek. "I will be more inconspicuous and I will limit myself to the trees in the woods where I'm less likely to be seen."

"Thank you, dearest," Mrs. Evans said in relief. "Now go practice. Your harp is waiting." After a quick practice, Marissa had returned outside to her oak. Now as she sat up high in its branches, she thought about the up and coming Season. The members of the ton liked her family well enough, despite her father, and she had many friends but she didn't feel excited to go back to London. The city was too crowded and loud for her liking but it was more than that. At nineteen, she had plenty of time to "catch" a husband but that's not what she wanted. She wanted to be swept off her feet. She wanted to find a man who loved her for herself and not for her dowry, who would waltz with her, who would follow her up into the trees. If she could find the man who would do that, she would marry him, be him king or stable boy. She sighed loudly. Her fantasy was just that, a fantasy. It would most likely never happen. She sighed again. The thought made her so sad!

"Who's there?" a deep voice demanded. Suddenly, a tall man strode confidently into her little haven. His tawny hair shimmered slightly in the midday sun and his brown eyes shone with intelligence. Marissa pulled up her legs quickly and retreated farther back into the covering the tree offered.

"Nathan, what's wrong with you?" another voice demanded. "It's pure folly to jump off a moving horse just because you thought you something in a tree." Another man joined the first in the shelter of the oak tree. His hair was as dark as tar and his ebony eyes were mysterious. Marissa felt like she could fall into their depths.

"Lay off, Jasper," Nathan said. "I heard a sigh."

"It was a chipmunk or some other form of animal," Jasper replied. "We're going to be late to dinner. Amelia will not be happy if she has to play hostess alone." Nathan waved his hand.

"Go on then," he said. "Your sister is awaiting you, not me. I'll be back as soon as I can." Jasper huffed in annoyance but left the secluded shelter. Once Nathan heard his friend ride safely away, a small smile started to grow.

"I know you're here," he called. "I'm not quite sure where but I know what I saw." Marissa stayed silent and watched him in fascination. What a strange man! Why couldn't he just leave with his friend? As much as Marissa loved trees, the idea of spending the night in one didn't appeal to her. The man sat down and gazed at the tree.

"Whoever you are up there, I must inform you that I have no intention of leaving until I know who you are," he said lazily. Marissa rolled her eyes. The man was handsome, obviously well-off, and he seemed to have a sense of humor, but she was disinclined to make herself known. Mama would be shocked if she allowed a gentleman, whom she had never met, to see her climbing trees. Her position was becoming uncomfortable, so she carefully tried to adjust. Her foot slipped and a little cry escaped.

Down below, Nathan Blackwell watched the tree. He knew someone was up there and judging by the sigh, they were most likely female. The idea of waiting all night to discover who it was didn't appeal to him but he was determined to win this battle of wills. When he saw a small, booted foot suddenly appear and a small cry was heard, his grin grew. He immediately leapt up, threw off his restrictive coat, and made his way to the bottom branches of the tree. Now that he knew where she was, he could easily reach her.

Marissa was struggling to regain her footing. When she finally did, a glance to where the man sat revealed the he was nowhere to be seen. Warily, she stood and looked around for him. It appeared as though he had left. Finally, Marissa thought as she balanced precariously on a branch. Maybe now, I can go home.

"There you are," an unexpected voice said from behind her. Forgetting momentarily where she was, Marissa whirled around, only to feel herself start falling. Strong hands wrapped around her waist to stop her plunge. They lifted her up and gently placed her back on the branch of the tree. She struggled to calm her racing heart.

"What were you doing?" she gasped angrily at the man who saved her from the fall he had caused. "It's rude to startle people in trees." To her surprise, he laughed and sat down next to her on the branch.

"You are absolutely correct," he said. "I'm terribly sorry to frighten you, Miss…"

"That's none of your business," she told him.

"Miss That's-none-of-your-business," he smiled and she fought to hold in her laugher. "Although in my defense, you could have just come down and saved me the trouble of coming up."

"You could have just left," she countered.

"Impertinent, are you?" he said. "Should have guessed as much. Only a plucky girl would climb trees at such an advanced age."

"Advanced age?" she repeated heatedly. "I'll have you know that I'm only nineteen. Hardly advanced."

He laughed again. "Quite right, my girl. You make me look ancient in comparison, though obviously still spry enough to climb trees in search of nymphs."

"I am not a nymph," Marissa protested primly, while trying to suppress a smile, "I am a lady." This caused the man to laugh again.

"I believe that you can be both," he said. "A proper lady for the ton but a nymph out here in the forest, eh?"

"I suppose you could put it like that," she said with another sigh as her mind was turned to her pervious thoughts.

"That sound is what drove me to stop my horse," the man said. "What has you sighing?"

She blushed. "Nothing that you need to concern yourself with, sir."

"Hmm," he mused. "I'm not sure I like you calling me 'sir'. Let me introduce myself. Nathan Blackwell at your service."

"I'm pleased to meet you, Mr. Blackwell," Marissa smiled.

"Well Miss That's-none-of-your-business, are you going to tell me what caused you to sigh and blush so prettily?" he asked, lips slightly upturned.

"We barely know each other, Mr. Blackwell," she said coyly. "You do not even know my real name. No, I'm afraid you will never know what I was sighing over. In fact, I'd better get home. Mother will be worried."

"I'm sorry but I believe I'm blocking your exit," he grinned mischievously. "I will only let you leave on two conditions: you must tell me your name, and why you were sighing."

She laughed. "Mr. Blackwell, if you think that I have only one means of escape you are quite mistaken. I bid you farewell, sir." With that, she hopped over to the next branch and carefully lowered herself down out of the tree's protection.

Nathan watched her run away in awe. The girl was enchanting and yet he didn't even know her name. He wondered if he would ever see her again. There must be some way to find her. But no. The Season had already started and he must return to London. Jasper and his sister would come with him and then he would return to his estate for the summer. He would likely never see the mystery nymph again. Her intelligent, deep blue eyes would probably haunt him until the end of time. If he could just see her one more time, he would be content.

Marissa rushed home and avoided the servants. Although they were used to her sudden appearances, she didn't want word spreading to Mother. As she rang for her maid, Sadie, Marissa thought back to her oak tree. Tomorrow she'd have to find someplace else to walk. She couldn't risk seeing the gentleman again. It didn't matter anyways. By the end of the week, she would be in London for the season and would likely not see him again.

"Miss Evans!" Mrs. Jennings, the housekeeper, exclaimed upon seeing her.

"Hello, Mrs. Jennings," Marissa said happily. "How are you this fine day?"

"Miss Evans, you have leaves and twigs in your hair and dust all over your dress," Mrs. Jennings scolded. "Sadie will have to do your hair all over again."

"No, I'll do it," she said. "Mama and Garrett are quite used to my escapades and will not be surprised to see me with a simple hairstyle."

Mrs. Jennings shook her head. "I will never understand why you enjoy scampering about the countryside but I haven't the time to think about that now. You're having the occupants of Carrington Hall over tonight for supper, so you'd better start getting ready." She rushed upstairs. When old man Carrington died, he left his second son his smaller, less well-to-do property. The second son was the buzz of the town. He had recently moved in and Garrett had already called upon him. Mr. Carrington had obviously appreciated it and invited them to supper that night. Marissa was eager to meet this enigma everyone was talking about. Her maid, Sadie, took her time with her dress and hair, much to Marissa's amusement.

"It's just supper, Sadie," she laughed. "Not the Prince Regent's coronation."

Sadie blushed. "I know, Miss Marissa. I just want you to look your best. I've heard Mr. Carrington has an earl staying with him."

"Listening to kitchen gossip again, Sadie?" Marissa smiled. "Don't worry, I've heard the same but this earl must like me for me and not my looks."

"But if you aren't beautiful, what will attract a man's notice?" Sadie asked, confused.

"Sadie, listen to me," Marissa said to the younger woman. "I do not want you to marry unless you are in love. If you love someone and they love you, do not wait. When I marry, you shall be coming with me but I want you to be happy. Do you understand?" Sadie nodded. She knew her Miss Marissa was passionate and believed strongly in her ideas. Sadie was used to it by now and knew that when the time came, she would marry for love and nothing else.

"There," Sadie said. "You are ready. With some time to spare too." Marissa looked at herself in the mirror. Blue silk covered her body and her curls were pinned high atop her head. The gown made her eyes seem more intense and bright.

"Thank you, Sadie," Marissa said. "I don't know what I'd do without you."

Sadie smiled. "Now run along. Don't want to keep your mother waiting." Marissa curtsied daintily and went downstairs in search of her family. They were waiting for her at the front hall.

"There you are," Mrs. Evans said. "They carriage is pulling up."

"Where Mark?" Marissa asked. Her twin brother, Mark, was on holiday from university and visiting his family.

"Talking to Garrett," Mrs. Evans replied. "They'll join us in a moment." Just then, the library door burst open.

"Hello there, Mari," Mark greeted his sister. "You look very pretty."

Marissa rolled her eyes. "Thank you ever so much," She said sarcastically. "I believe that's the only compliment I've ever gotten from you."

"Can't have people knowing that I actually like my baby sister," Mark smiled, blue eyes twinkling.

"I'm only ten minutes younger," Marissa said. "Did you know that it's all your fault that I'm not a vain girl? If I said I was beautiful, then I'd be complimenting you and I can't have people knowing I actually like my big brother."

"Touché, Mari," Mark laughed. The resemblance really was uncanny. They both had twinkling blue eyes, brown curls - although Marissa's were slightly lighter due to her exposure to the sun — and freckles spattered their noses. As children, they had been inseparable. Mark was the main reason Marissa loved trees so much. Their mother had never truly forgiven him for that.

"We must be civil and attentive to our new neighbors," Mrs. Evans told all of them, with a stern look at Marissa and Mark. "Yes I mean you two. Mark, don't tease them too terribly and that goes double for you Marissa."

"The thought never entered my mind, Mother," Mark said, innocently with a not-so-innocent wink at Marissa. Garrett rolled his hazel eyes and struggled to hold back his laughter. They all knew their mother was adept at worrying and the best course of action would be to just say nothing. The guest pulled up in front of the house and Marissa admired the fine carriage until she saw the man from the woods step out of it. He glanced up but luckily, Marissa had ducked out of sight.

"Who is that?" she demanded of Garrett who had already met everyone there. "The man with the light hair?"

Garrett glanced to where she was gesturing, not noticing she was hiding in the niche of the wall. "That is Lord Nathan Blackwell, the Earl of Derbyshire." Marissa closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the wall. She had been climbing trees with an earl.

"Mama, may I go back upstairs?" she asked. "I've suddenly got a headache."

"Come on, Mari," Mark grinned. "I cannot wreak havoc without my accomplice."

"Are you sure, dear?" Mrs. Evans asked. "We only have one more week before we leave for London. Do you want to miss this opportunity?"

Marissa sighed. "If I felt well enough, I'm sure I would have enjoyed it thoroughly but I feel that I must take supper in my rooms tonight."

"I hope you feel better tomorrow, Mari," Mark teased. "I've still got to beat you out riding." She smiled weakly.

"Perhaps if I feel better," she said and quickly swept out of the room.

Nathan stepped out of the carriage and admired the quaint estate. It was much like his favorite estate in Wales. Nathan was looking forward to this supper. He had already met the eldest son, Garrett, but there was another son and a daughter he wished to meet. A flash of blue caught his eye as he entered the house. He inwardly sighed. Another form of blue had been in his thoughts all day. That impertinent minx of a girl would not leave his thoughts! Three members of the Evans family were there to greet them. Nathan recoiled when he saw Mark. They man was the mirror image of Nathan's tree nymph.

"If would have said something before we arrived, then I might have been able to say yes," Mrs. Evans said, "but I'm afraid you'll just have to endure it. Besides, this is your last chance to meet them. We're leaving in the morning for Town." Marissa heaved a frustrated sigh but knew there was nothing she could do about it. She prepared to leave the carriage with a sense of dread.

Nathan was waiting with his friend, Jasper Carrington, for the arrival of the Evans family. Since he had discovered that Miss Marissa was his tree nymph, he had searched the woods every day. There was no way she could escape him this time. Garrett Evans entered the house first, followed by Mrs. Evans and Mark Evans.

"Welcome to Carrington Hall," Jasper greeted his guests. "I had heard there was another member of your party."

"My daughter, Marissa, is suffering from a headache and will not be joining us tonight," Mrs. Evans said. "She sends her apologies."

"I sorry to hear that she is unwell," Jasper said honestly. He had heard much of the elusive Miss Marissa Evans and was disappointed they wouldn't meet her. "May I introduce my closest friend, Nathan Blackwell, the Earl of Derbyshire? And this is my sister, Miss Amelia Carrington." The proper bows and curtsy was exchanged and the group chatted amicably until supper was served.