He walked past an inn and down the main thoroughfare of town. Though narrow, it was lined with thriving shops. He glanced in the window of a bookseller’s and thought instantly of Miss Barrett, of her lopsided hats and bookish ways and large blue eyes. He thought of her curled up in one of Darlington’s deep library chairs, her slippered feet drawn up beneath her as she devoured some volume of the Royal Historical Society. He thought of her too much.
Make a wish…
He had made no wish, though. He didn’t believe in them. But he could still picture her dainty gloved fingertip in his mind, his curved lash at the end of it like some treasure she’d found. Make a wish. A wish…
He turned at the end of the street, surprised to see the figure of a well-born lady in the setting of an outdoor marketplace. Pretty dress, lopsided bonnet, fingers twisting in her skirts.
Bloody hell. “Miss Barrett?”
She turned and took a step back, looking as surprised as he. She stood by a rickety wagon, engaged in conversation with some village man. A farmer or tradesman perhaps, none too genteel or clean.
“What on earth are you about?” he asked. “I was only jesting about hiring passage back to London. Where is your brother? Your lady’s maid?”
“My brother is out with the gentlemen, and the lady’s maid from Danbury House would not come into this part of town.”
“Wisely so.” He cast a withering look at the man by the wagon. “It is not the thing for a woman of quality to tarry here. Particularly alone.”
She released a stream of garbled explanation. Perhaps it only sounded garbled to him because he’d never had the experience of being talked back to by anyone, much less this slip of a woman who barely approached the height of his shoulder. He held up a hand and finally succeeded in silencing her.
“Miss Barrett, I must insist for propriety’s sake that I escort you back to Danbury House at once.”
She shook her head. “I am sick unto death of Danbury House. And this could be my one and only chance to go to the old Roman wall.”
“Go to the old Roman wall? Now? With whom?”
She’d already turned from him, sweeping toward the wagon and its sagging horse. He moved to grab her arm.
She tugged away, freezing his words with her glare. “The driver will leave without me if you do not let me go. I had to bargain for some time to gain passage on his wagon.”
Court gaped. “Don’t tell me you have hired a ride north with that man? Miss Barrett—surely—you cannot mean to—”
“I’ve always wanted to see the old Roman wall,” she said slowly, as if she were explaining to a child. “My whole life, ever since I learned of it in geography and history books. When you joked about hiring a carriage in Sedgefield, I realized I actually might if I wished.”
Good God, so this was his fault. The tradesman shifted from foot to foot, clearly growing uncomfortable with the situation. It would suit Court fine if he would just run off. Otherwise he might need to resort to force to dissuade Miss Barrett from setting off on this journey. There would be struggling and drama, a full scene right here in the heart of town. The idea appalled him, but to step away and let her go was not an option. He would not have her ruination on his hands.
He made one last attempt at reason. “Surely, madam, you are not considering taking an hours-long journey north, unchaperoned, with a perfect stranger. A man,” he added with emphasis. “He is not a gentleman, and you’ve no lady to accompany you at any rate.”
“Your Grace, you must understand—”
“I understand one thing only. You are about to do a dangerous thing.”
She threw up her hands, then clasped them at her waist. “I have no choice, you see. I’ve asked Stephen to take me nearly every day since we arrived, but he is preoccupied with hunting and women. He has no care for history, for exploring the world.”
“Exploring the world? Dear girl, your place is back in the drawing room, beside the fire. Leave exploring to those who are suited to it.”
“I am suited to it,” she cried.
He drew himself up, fixing her with his most intimidating stare. “I will not allow this caper to proceed. I cannot.”
“You have no right to stop me. You have no power over me, Your Grace,” she added for good measure. That was twice in five minutes she had mouthed back to him. Preposterous.
“It’s unfortunate I don’t have any power over you,” he said when he recovered himself. “If I did, I could give you the sound spanking you so richly need and deserve.”
The words were out before he could stop them. She looked appropriately scandalized and turned away, toward the shifty man and his rickety cart. He had to grasp her hand to stop her. Grabbing at someone else’s person—him, the Duke of Courtland. He hadn’t done such a thing since his childhood, and he’d done it twice with Miss Barrett now.
“The wall you speak of is at least six hours’ journey from here,” he said. “Perhaps more.”
“But it’s days from London, and Stephen says we are going home this weekend. Which is why I must leave now. I can be there tonight and take the mail coach back tomorrow, and my brother will never know. When he is at cards and women, he stays out all night and never wakes before two the next afternoon.”
She was leaving. In three days. The thought upset him almost as much as her reckless plans. She yanked at his hand until he released her. “Why is it so important to see it?” he asked. “Will you risk your good name, your reputation?”
“I told you before, those things are meaningless to me now. I do not care.”
“You ought to. You ought to have a care for the safety of your person at least.” He shot a look at the driver, or tradesman or farmer, or whatever he was. “That man could take you somewhere and ra—” He bit off the word before he uttered it. “Bedevil you. How do you know he’s an honest person? Not only that, but his wagon and horse are both dilapidated.” He looked around at the curious townspeople beginning to gather. She was turning him from a refined peer to a public scold, damn her. “Miss Barrett, if you must continue on this ill-advised course, permit me to engage a more fitting conveyance for your trip, and hire a proper chaperone to ride along with you.”
She seemed, finally, ready to listen to reason. “Will you? How long will that take?” she asked, watching him carefully.
Long enough for you to regain your senses. Or at least long enough for me to force you into a carriage and get you home. “It will not take long,” he assured her.
Court offered her his arm, which she refused, but she followed. “I would lend you my coach but my mother is using it to call on acquaintances,” he said. “I’ll hire one at the inn.”
“What if you can’t?” came her small voice.
“There are very few things I can’t do.”
His tone of authoritative control worked to silence her. He walked quickly along Sedgefield’s narrow streets in the mid-afternoon sun. He was angry, yet he felt some sympathy for her, some grudging admiration. Miss Chaos was willing to risk her life to visit Hadrian’s ancient pile of rocks—it was not merely some passing fancy to her. Any other woman of her set would see the wall as nothing more than a background to pose against and look pretty, but Miss Barrett was not of that ilk. She refused to languish in the drawing room, even though, as a woman, that was her fate.
Ah, but he could not entertain sympathetic feelings for her. His pace quickened along with his temper, and he left it to her to keep up. After all, this was her fault. If he had not come across her by chance, what might have become of her? What would her brother do when he found out about her attempted flight north? Court remembered with some distaste Barrett’s rough handling when she’d refused to dance with Lord Monmouth, and this was a considerably worse offense.
Well, it wasn’t his concern to put down sibling squabbles, but to get her safely home. As soon as they arrived at the inn, he’d put her into the first carriage he saw, along with a maid, and send her back to Danbury House. What a load of trouble to take up his afternoon.
“The innkeeper surely has a lady’s maid to spare,” he lied over his shoulder. “It should be no great thing to hire a girl to take a couple days away. This is not, after all, a busy town like Harrogate. But Miss Barrett, it would be better to abandon this adventure entirely if you can bring yourself to do it. There are Roman antiquities to see in London.” He paused and thought a moment. “I will take you to visit them someday, perhaps, with your brother’s permission. And a chaperone, of course.”
He turned to receive her response, only to find a village girl stepping along behind him with a covered basket. With great anger, he realized Miss Barrett had not been following at all, but stolen away at some point, probably while he was still going on about the carriage. The girl passed by him, dropping a curtsy. She must have thought him daft, prattling on to himself. Cold fury washed over him, and something else. Shock. No one, no mortal being of his acquaintance had ever made him feel hapless and furious and powerless like this. He stood for long moments, fists clenched, face flushed with anger, and considered his choices.