Rather to Roberta’s surprise, Mr. Cunningham didn’t say no outright. “Swimming involves disrobing, which wouldn’t be appropriate for ladies,” he noted.
“A boy never shows a girl his pizzle,” Teddy informed Roberta.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” she said.
“But once you’re married, you can look at all of ’em that you wish.”
“I assume that is a philosophy learned at Papa’s knee?” Roberta enquired.
Damon stopped laughing to say that perhaps the field would be a good place for their picnic.
Mr. Cunningham agreeably began steering the boat in that direction and a moment later they were on the bank. Teddy let it be known that he would like a private visit to the trees, and he and Damon set off in that direction. Roberta busied herself with setting out the picnic basket under a tree while Mr. Cunningham fashioned a landing post out of a sapling.
By the time they came back, Roberta had discovered that a rug on top of bumpy ground is not a comfortable seat. They all seated themselves except Teddy, who danced around them like an impatient dragonfly.
Damon drained his glass of wine with a slightly desperate air. “Parenting is exhausting,” he said.
“That is because you have insufficient help. Weren’t you going to find a nursemaid?”
“The Registry Office is sending a new one tomorrow,” he said. “I only have to survive today.”
Roberta looked at him and couldn’t help a tiny smile. His hair was standing on end, and his arm was wet to the elbow from pulling Teddy’s hand out of the river. He was pouring himself another glass of wine as if it were the elixir of life. Mr. Cunningham had deserted his uncomfortable seat and was swinging Teddy in a circle until he shrieked.
“Perhaps Mr. Cunningham would be kind enough to go through the grove to the mud flat?” Roberta asked. “He can teach Teddy how to swim and we’ll sit in this vastly uncomfortable spot and wait for them to come back, sparing me the sight of a miniature pizzle.”
Damon blinked at her for a moment and then leapt to his feet. “Ransom!” he called.
Roberta finished her glass just as Mr. Cunningham and Teddy set off through the grove.
“He won’t drown, will he?” Damon said, sounding not terribly concerned.
“I think it’s unlikely. Where did Mr. Cunningham learn about children?”
“Likely he has siblings,” Damon said. He lay backwards and then sat up with a curse. “Damn it, where have you placed us, Roberta?”
“In a field of buttercups. Tables and chairs are unaccountably missing.”
“I’ve been in many a field,” Damon said, “and this is the most uncomfortable of my experience.” He brought Roberta to her feet. Then he picked up the rug and kicked at something underneath.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Cowpats,” he said. “You put the rug down on a lovely collection of them. In fact,” Damon said looking about, “this entire field is dotted with cowpats.”
“Do you suppose a bull will be coming along?”
“In a month or so when the grass is high enough. I’m going to have to sacrifice my gloves, which will give Martins palpitations, but what can I do? Back up, Roberta.”
Two minutes later, cowpats started sailing across the field.
“See if you can get one in the river,” Roberta suggested.
The river lay gurgling in the sunshine, about ten yards away. Damon pulled back his arm and then let the cowpat fly.
It struck the bank just before the river. Roberta very loudly said nothing.
“I can do better than that,” Damon muttered. “Here, help me take my coat off. I don’t want to soil it with my gloves.”
She helped him pull off his beautiful coat. It was a misty grey, lined with scarlet silk that trimmed the sleeves with a huge open cuff. His breeches were the same scarlet, very tight. His waistcoat followed until he was wearing nothing but the breeches and a linen shirt, so fine that she could see the swell of his muscles as he threw another cowpat. But it landed a good foot before the edge.
“Do gentlemen invite women into their chambers to help them dress, the way ladies do?” she asked with some curiosity.
He shook his head. “I’m aiming at that duck, Roberta—” And he gave a little whoop. “Hit it!”
“Perhaps, if it hadn’t dived first.” And then, answering his gesture, “No, I am certainly not going to hand you a cowpat.”
“I’d never ask such a thing of a proper lady, but that’s the great thing about you, Roberta. You’re not so ladylike.”
“I don’t think that’s a compliment.”
“Only because you have no idea how tedious ladies can be. For one thing, they have no sense of competitiveness. And having grown up as Jemma’s brother, you can imagine how boring I find that.”
“Is Jemma competitive?”
He laughed. “Jemma is the best female chess player in England and France, and quite likely better than all the men as well. She kept beating Philidor, and he is the best in France.”
“Who’s the best in England?”
He blinked at her. “You don’t know?”
She shook her head.
“Your lover,” he said with relish. “Villiers. Though I suppose I shouldn’t yet call him that. Now, do you suppose I could hit the sapling we tied the boat to?”
“You’re not very encouraging,” he complained and then leaned back as far as he could and let go with a mighty fling. The pat fell far short.
“I’ll try,” she said.
It was very gratifying; his mouth actually fell open.
Clearly, the right shape of cowpat was essential. It had to be disc shaped, as opposed to some of the balls Damon was hurdling around; they lost their shape in midair and fell to a pile of dust.
Finally she found just the right one and, saying a silent apology to Jemma’s beautiful lilac gloves, crossed her hand over her chest and spun the disc as hard as she could.
It didn’t quite hit the sapling, but it went further than any of Damon’s.
“How in the hell did you know how to do that?” he said, a gratifying shock in his voice.
“Your sister may be the best chess player in two countries,” she said, pulling off her soiled gloves, “but I shall claim the title of best cowpat thrower.”
“It’s yours. So where did you do your training, Lady Roberta?”
“No training,” she said, grinning at him. “Just the ability to assess the mistakes of those who went before me.”
“Piss on that,” Damon said, finding a disc-shaped cowpat for himself. Of course, when he tried the spinning method it went past the buoy. “Still, you were there first,” he said, very fairly. “I think that’s cleared a spot for a rug; what you do think?”
“I think we should walk through the woods and see how Teddy is swimming.”
“You don’t want to lounge in the dappled shade with me and practice your kisses? I could quote some poetry and ply you with wine.”
“I’ve heard enough poetry in my life,” she said wryly.
“Ah, but this is—with excuses to your father—a different brand of poetry. Come live with me, and be my love,” he said, with exaggerated emphasis. “You will be my buttercup and I will be your—your—parsnip.”