As we all already know, Carolina has NO shame. Sorry, but it’s true and we all know it. There’s no sense in denying it. As a setup for this scene, Carolina has gone to look for John with a picnic hamper in tow. Except she can’t find him. Why? Because he’s trying to avoid her. So in a resignation that she’s not going to get to have lunch with him she goes to her favorite secluded spot by the pond to eat–and just as she approaches, she see’s something: a shirtless man swimming in the water!
John’s skin prickled with awareness. Someone was out there watching him.
He sank lower in the water until all that could be seen was his head.
“Who’s there?” he shouted.
He kicked his feet and moved to the middle of the pond to get a better view of the trees that encircled the pond. A soft sound of twigs breaking under someone’s foot stole his attention.
His command went unheeded and he continued to scan the thicket of trees.
Mrs. Ellis seemed to have a severe distaste for him, but surely even she wouldn’t be so coarse as to approach him while he was bathing.
A flash of pink caught his eye.
He groaned. “Come on out, Carolina,” he called.
He thought she might ignore his request and was quite relieved when she stepped out from behind her hiding spot in the trees and walked toward the pond.
“What are you doing?” he demanded.
She shrugged. “I came over here to have a picnic and…”
If he was one who placed wagers, he’d guess she’d been looking for him so he could be her picnic companion. “Well, if you’ve satisfied your curiosity, I’d appreciate it if you’d find something else to amuse yourself with this afternoon.” He sorely hoped she’d take his meaning and leave. There were only two possible outcomes if someone were to find them like this. One was marriage, the other was death. One of those—he wouldn’t say which—was slightly more preferable than the other. But only slightly.
“There’s another pond, one far more private, just over that way.” She pointed to the left; her eyes still trained on where he was treading water in the middle of the pond. Had she no shame? He already knew she lacked the manners all the other females of his acquaintance possessed, but did she have to stand there and stare at him?
“Thank you. I’ll keep that in mind.”
She took a seat on the plush green grass that lined the edge of the pond. “Would you like to come out and have lunch with me? I’m sure Bethel packed enough for both of us.”
He’d just bet she had. “No, I think I’d like to swim a little longer.”
“Oh, well, that’s all right. You keep swimming. I’m famished. I have to eat.”
“Is there nowhere else you can picnic?” Perhaps somewhere that wasn’t within a stone’s throw of a naked man in a pond?
“No.” She opened the picnic hamper and began removing some of the items. “I rather like it here.”
She wouldn’t like it if he stepped out of the water. Actually, she probably would. He suppressed that thought immediately. “Carolina, do you think your stomach can manage not to eat itself for just a moment, so you may leave while I get out of the water?”
Carolina seemed not to hear him and continued to pull items out of the basket. “You need not worry. I’ve seen a man’s chest before.”
“Perhaps so, but have you seen a man’s pego?” The words were out before he could think to stop himself from saying them.
“Pardon me, what?”
In for a penny, in for a pound, he supposed. “A man’s pego, rudder, snake, rod, bauble, tallywag, member. Have you seen one before?”
Her cheeks turned bright red, as he’d hoped they would. “N-no.”
“Very well, and if you plan to keep it that way, then you’d better leave, so I can get out of the water and put my clothes back on.”
Carolina’s eyes shot to where his clothes were in a pile by the shore, but she made no move to get up. “How about if I turn around? Then, when you’re dressed, we can have lunch together.”
John wanted to groan. “Does anything scandalize you?”
“No.” She tucked a long, curly tendril of hair behind her ear. “At least not where you’re concerned.”
“Why the devil not?” he burst out.
She brought her hands to her lap and looked at him. “Because I know you’re only saying those things to put me off. But I have news for you, John Banks. It’s not working.”
“And I have news for you, Carolina Ellis. Your news isn’t news at all. Furthermore, if I didn’t think it was possible for your brother or someone else to happen upon us at any moment, I wouldn’t hesitate to get out of this water.”
“Then go ahead.”
“No,” he bit off. “I’d rather not get married with the barrel of your father’s gun pressing into my back.”
“Ah, so you do wish to marry me.”
He ground his teeth. “I never said that.”
She shook her head and sighed. “I don’t understand why you’re being so stubborn.”
“And I don’t understand why you think I want to offer you marriage.”
Carolina’s face fell. “I already told you. It’s the way you look at me.”
“Yes, well, perhaps I think you’re beautiful. But that’s as far as my attraction for you goes.” He tore his eyes away and coughed, silently praying she didn’t challenge the validity of his words.
Silence filled the air between them and he dared not venture a look in her direction. “Are you practicing your near honesty now?” she asked airily, emphasizing the word near.
He ground his teeth. “No. That was a perfectly honest statement.”
“All of it?”
“Yes,” he bit off.
“Say what you wish.” She gestured to the food she’d laid out. “Wouldn’t you like to join me? I’m sure you’re hungry after working so hard this morning.”
“No, I’m quite content, thank you. I had a large bowl of slop before I came out here. I should be able to tread water for at least another four hours before requiring anything else.”
“Suit yourself,” she called back, taking a bite of a roasted chicken leg. “You do realize if you tread water for four hours straight, you’ll likely get a blistering sunburn?”
It wouldn’t take that long. He’d been so hot the last few days he’d taken his shirt off several times before feeling his skin burn and remembering to put it back on. That’s actually why he came to the pond: to soothe the blisters he already had. Unfortunately, they might only get worse if he didn’t get out of the sun soon. “Then perhaps, if you don’t wish such a fate as blistered skin upon your darling, you should leave so he may dress.”
Carolina nearly lost her grip on her chicken leg. “Now, I’m certainly not leaving.”
“Why, so you might torture me longer?”
“No, because you just admitted to being my darling.”
“You know that wasn’t what I meant.” He brought his cupped hand up to the surface of the water and moved it in a sweeping semi-circle, creating a large spray of water. “Why are you here?”
“To enjoy a picnic.”
“And it’s just a coincidence you decided to have your picnic forty feet from a naked man?”
“Actually, it is. I didn’t know you were here when I came to the pond.”
A few minutes went by with John treading water and Carolina happily eating her lunch.
“Why are you really here, Carolina,” he burst out at last.
“I told you. I came to the pond to have a picnic.”