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It was her intention to be home by tea each afternoon, but somehow Marian lost track of time regularly. She always had a different excuse, sometimes saying she'd been window shopping in town, or spent too long choosing ribbons, or daydreamed away the hours. The afternoons away from home always started with an errand that Betsy or Susan needed to do, or maybe a team that was bringing crops to the tithe barn, yet somehow Marian became separated from them. Late afternoon became early evening before she'd return. Sometimes Maman would chide her, sometimes Rachel would scold her, but only in a quiet way, and only when Amanda's spirits were not their first concern.

Marian felt a heavy lump of guilt every time she came back late and Father gently inquired where she'd been. Yet, on the other hand, she felt a burst of butterflies in her stomach every time she remembered why she was late.

It was an innocent rendezvous the first time she met Simeon along the banks of the River Leven. She'd been walking off the mist of blackness that hung over her family, enjoying a clouded-over afternoon and skipping rocks across the little river. She'd followed a family of ducks downstream, then found herself within a few yards of where the road crew was building a culvert under the road.

And there was Simeon, laughing at something said, wiping the sweat of the day off his brow, his powerful shoulders stretching the homespun cotton shirt. She'd hitched in her breath a tiny bit, realizing just how attractive he was. Then she chided herself for letting her thoughts stray, tugged her bonnet down over her eyes, and turned to walk farther down the bank.

But her eyes willfully drifted back to the group of men over and over, and it wasn't long before Simeon noticed her, too. She hesitated. Today he was even dirtier than before, but somehow, it made him seem real. Powerful. Manly.

She made a slight bow of acknowledgment, and he broke from the group of workers, coming toward her with a tip of his hat. "Hello, Mr. Hameldon."

"Maid Marian, what brings you so far astray this afternoon?" He said it with a laugh, and a bit of a challenge, which made her eyes spark as she looked up at him.

"Sir, I was only enjoying the fine ripple of water, the natural beauties of the river. I hadn't realized how far I'd come."

He looked up and down the bank, then curiously at her. "You're out alone?"

"As you see," she said, biting her lip and casting her eyes about uncomfortably.

"Well, I know how you feel about the... ruffians... those that I work with." He jerked his thumb back at the crew. "It'd be best if I offer to walk you back to the safety of town."

"Oh, no sir, but thank you. I see no need."

"Indeed?' He quirked an eyebrow in a way that made her heart skip a little. She began to grin, then pulled her lips tight to smother it.

"What's so jolly?"

"No, nothing, just enjoying... the breeze." She pretended to study the willows near the river, then smiled back up at him. He looked puzzled, as if her friendliness was unexpected. Marian decided to be a little more convincing.

"Mr. Hameldon, I don't mean to delay you, but there is something I'd like to discuss with you."

He nodded, glanced back at his crew, then asked her to wait a moment. He went and made some excuse to his boss, then came back to Marian. "I've told him my relative has come with distressing news of mother, and I must walk back to town with you."

"Oh, is your mother unwell?" she asked with alarm. When he rolled his eyes, she said, "Oh, I see. Yes, she's unwell, and I, your dear relative, must request that you accompany me home to her."

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