He could wash his hands of the whole affair, let Miss Barrett journey to the Roman wall alone, unprotected, across the moors. No, that was out of the question.
He could go in search of her brother. He might catch the gentlemen on their hunt, but he might not. He could wait at Danbury House for her brother to return and then notify him of his sister’s situation, but by that time, Miss Barrett could be in some peril. The thought of that peril, the dangers a lady like Miss Barrett faced alone in the world, was what finally made him turn and continue to walk with great frustration toward the inn.
He would have to go after her himself. It was as reckless and dangerous a choice as Miss Barrett’s, but what alternative did he have? By the time he found her and fetched her home, they would have been out and about together for some hours without a chaperone. Disaster.
Perhaps he could still catch her in time to return with her to Danbury House unnoticed. They could part at the gate. She could lie and say she’d been out walking and gotten lost, while he slipped in some back door unnoticed. Dissemblance never sat well with him, but the alternative…
He could not consider that now, or he would become too paralyzed to act.
It seemed an eternity before he reached the inn. He hired the most comfortable coach they had and waited impatiently for it to be prepared. By the time they were on the road to Newcastle, he’d lost almost two hours in his pursuit. He sat forward on the cushions, his gaze fixed on the way before them. The smartly-turned-out driver assured him this was the most traveled route to the wall, and Court had no choice but to believe him. He watched expectantly for an hour and a half or so, and then he began to worry.
If he found Miss Barrett, she was going to endure the full wrath of his temper. Here he was riding north, no valet, no clothes to change into should he become dusty or dampened. He hadn’t eaten in hours, bringing a headache to go with the great storm of worry roiling around in his brain. They ought to have caught the wagon by now. What if she hadn’t gone back to the driver she’d hired? What if she’d returned to Danbury House? Or hired a different driver? What if the driver had pulled off the road and was even now doing unspeakable things to Miss Barrett with rough, grasping hands?
For another half hour Court stared out of the carriage, stomach clenching with anxiety. Miss Barrett could be in great distress at this moment due to his ineptitude at controlling her. But people behaved around him, deuce take it. From the age of fourteen, since he’d inherited his dukedom, people had deferred to him, respected him. They had not argued or shouted, or pulled away or disappeared without permission from his side. Even before then he’d been a marquess, first son of a powerful man, and people had treated him with proper deference. He had lived an ordered life, observing conventions and doing those duties his title required, earning, in effect, the respect that most people showed him.
Most people, but not her.
He scrubbed a hand over his face and growled. Why was the esteemed Duke of Courtland crossing the moors of northern England to fetch an ill-behaved woman who was not his kin or even his social equal? Again his mind turned to thoughts of retribution. When he got his hands on Miss Barrett, he’d give her a tongue lashing she’d remember for the rest of her life. He’d give her that spanking he’d told her she deserved. She did deserve it. He’d punish her until she begged forgiveness for her behavior, her manners, her strangeness which had no place in polite society. And then— And then—
And then, out the window, he saw her pale gray frock, her bonnet perched atop her blonde curls as she stomped down the side of the road, and all he could think was, thank you. Dear God, thank you.
“Stop!” he called to the driver. Court was out of the door before the vehicle completely slowed. Once he assured himself it really was her, it penetrated his brain that she was crying. Not just crying—she was choking with sobs. “What happened?” he asked. “What has befallen you?” He took her shoulders and searched her person in a panic, fearing the worst. But it was not terror in those tears. She was whole and well. It was anger.
“He left me,” she cried. “He promised to take me the whole way, but when we reached the crossroads a while back he said he must be off to some other place. He shrugged and said I must get down. I reminded him that I paid him for his services, but he claimed he only promised to take me this far!”
She appeared so injured, so distraught, that Court couldn’t find the words to scold her. To say, you should have known better. This is what you deserve. He thought wildly of finding that man, of combing the countryside all around and bringing him before the law, but it would only delay him in fetching her back. “Miss Barrett,” he sputtered instead. “Hell and the bloody devil. You frightened me.”
She gave him a sideways glance as he fished in a pocket for his handkerchief. Once he handed it over, she ripped off her bonnet and swabbed at her tears. For a moment she seemed to him some unworldly thing, some mythological goddess who might shoot lightning from her fingertips or turn men to stone with her gaze. “Do not look at me that way!” she shrilled in a breaking voice.
Court blinked and spread his hands. “What way?”
“With that reproach and…and pity. I know you think I’m awful, that my behavior is impetuous and foolish, but I truly wished to see the wall, to see where the Romans walked so many centuries ago. If you do not enjoy history, you cannot understand! You cannot understand the way I feel right now.” She wept still, even through her fervent speech. Not the pretty, polite tears of a well-reared young lady, but torrents of sorrow.
Court stepped closer as she mopped at her face. “Nor do you seem capable of understanding how I feel,” he said. “If I had not found you— For God’s sake—”
“That driver promised to take me. He lied.” More heartrending, bitter tears. “He is probably somewhere now laughing at me. This is my life’s work, I suppose—amusing others. I am sick of it. You cannot understand.”
Court studied her, his anger tempered by alarm. He’d thought her manners at Danbury House outlandish, but they were nothing compared to this fit of passion. It could be called nothing else but a fit. “Miss Barrett,” he said. “Was it his lie that has distressed you so, or your disappointment in not getting to see the Roman wall?”
“I am going to see it,” she bawled. “I am going to walk.”
Court rubbed his upper lip, finding his own emotions in surprising upheaval. Before he could think what to say she was off again, trudging down the road in her dusty gown, her bonnet dangling from one hand.
“You must return home and give this up,” he pleaded. “It grows late.”
“I do not care.”
“You cannot walk all that way,” he said to her back. “It is not possible for a lady of your constitution. Even I could not do it.”
She half-turned, her quavery voice propped up with an underlying note of conviction. “That is because you are not as determined as me.”
For a long, dreadful moment he watched her stride away from him, her back squared and stiff. He stared, he struggled, his future unfolding before his eyes. What might have been with Gwen…and what increasingly seemed likely as Miss Barrett soldiered down the road.
He counted very slowly and deliberately to ten. Then a stream of profound vulgarities sounded in his head, accompanying the realization that he was going to take her. Take her to the wall, take her on a journey, unchaperoned, that would require a stay overnight at an inn. Perhaps she did not realize the repercussions of such, with her single-minded unconventionality, but he did. He would be saddled with her then, this hopeless, passionate creature.
Damn him. Damn him a hundred thousand times.
“Miss Barrett.” He sighed momentously. “I must insist you get into the carriage.” She spun to face him. Before she could refuse, he held up a quelling hand. “I will take you to view your pile of Roman rocks, although I believe we will both come to regret it.”
She stared at him as the coachman inched up the road, following them. The entire tableau was comical, as ridiculous as the woman standing in her bedraggled dress before him. All of it, farcical. He swung an arm in the direction of the coach. “Get in.”
“Do you promise, Your Grace? You will not have your man start back to Danbury House the moment I embark?”
The prospect was tempting. He took a deep breath and let it out, praying for sanity.
“I swear on the graves of every Courtland duke before me.” He turned to the coachman, who was doing an excellent job of keeping a straight face. “Will you kindly convey us to the Roman wall at Newcastle and back to Sedgefield on the morrow? You will be well paid for your time and trouble.”
The man touched his cap and nodded. Court turned back to Miss Barrett with a scowl. “I will give you exactly one minute’s time to board the carriage before I lose my temper and do something we shall both regret.”
For a moment, she looked like she might reply, but then she wisely bit her tongue and let Court assist her up the steps and into the traveling coach.