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Ella was caught so off guard that she stumbled on the algae covered rocks and slipped right into the creek. The water was much colder seeping through the thin fabric of her dress than it had been on just her ankles.

The soldier wasted no time in running to her aid.

Ella was much too stunned to move. She was cold and wet and thoroughly embarrassed.

“Are you alright?” the soldier asked, snaking a hand around her waist to help her stand.

Ella stood in the stranger’s arms, shivering.

“Yes, I-I am fine. Thank you, kind sir."

“It’s no trouble. I’m sorry I made you fall,” he said, helping her to a fallen log to sit. Ella smiled up at him through her shivers.

“It wasn’t your fault. It’s just that I have a habit of being clumsy.” At least that was what Lady Méchante was always telling her.

The soldier let out a laugh while he undid the tie to his cloak and pulled it from his shoulders.

“I have a feeling you couldn’t be clumsy if you tried. The fall was entirely my fault. I apologize, Miss…” the soldier trailed off, waiting for Ella to supply her name. She did not.

If anyone got hold of her name and Lady Méchante found out, Ella could only imagine the punishment that would await her for slacking off on her chores in favor of whatever she could call this meeting.

The soldier brushed off her silence.

“No matter. You must be freezing.” He slipped his cloak off of his shoulders and gently draped it over Ella’s.

“Thank you.” Ella glanced at the ground, finding it difficult to meet the handsome man’s gaze.

“Think nothing of it,” He smiled at her.

Ella felt heat rise to her cheeks and knew that she must be blushing profusely.

“Might I ask what a lady such as yourself is doing out in the forest unattended?"

It was Ella’s turn to laugh.

“You are kind, but I am no lady.”

“No? You had me fooled. You carry yourself like one.” If she wasn’t blushing before, she certainly was now.

Ella was so embarrassed by the way this man was treating her. No one had ever been so kind or charming to her before, and she didn’t know how to respond. She had never had any experience with boys to speak of. The closest thing she could think of was chasing the baker’s son around, but she was no older than six at the time. Ever since then, Lady Méchante had kept her under such tight lock and key there’d really been no opportunities to interact with anyone from the opposite sex.

It was then, avoiding his gaze for the umpteenth time that she noticed a red stain on the sleeve of his shirt.

“Are you bleeding?” she asked suddenly.

“What?” the soldier was startled by her question. He allowed his gaze to follow hers to where it rested on his sleeve.

“Oh, I suppose I am. My men and I were set on by some highwaymen earlier.”                              

Ella’s face contorted in fear. Thinking on instinct, he gently grabbed her porcelain chin in his large hand and tilted her gaze towards his own.

“You have nothing to fear, little bird. No one will hurt you.

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