Court settled heavily into the seat opposite her, then the coach started forward with a lurch and a squeak. Harmony waited for it to turn and change direction, but the duke kept his word and they continued toward the wall.
She knew he was angry. Furious. Perhaps he thought she would make marital demands on him as a result of this mad dash. She could, easily, but she wanted nothing less on earth. All she wanted was to get to the wall. She would not even broach the subject of compromising situations and propriety, because she didn’t care about that at all. If only her original plan had worked, if only that cursed farmer hadn’t stranded her in the middle of nowhere. If only the duke hadn’t come across her in Sedgefield...
How awful that he was involved. 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. She supposed he was speaking of the spanking he’d alluded to earlier, the sound spanking she “so richly needed and deserved.” It was impossible to imagine the duke turning her over his knee to punish her, but what if he did? It would hurt, she knew that. She stared at his large hands resting on his thighs and, to her horror, felt some small pang of excitement.
For shame, Harmony. What is wrong with you? She couldn’t think about such things now, not with him sitting across from her glowering in such a grim way.
She had been prepared to walk to the wall, only to prove that for once she could do as she wished. For once, her desires and dreams would not be denied her. That line of thought only brought more tears and the beginnings of a headache. She pressed His Grace’s handkerchief to her eyes, taking deep breaths of its folds. The linen held his rich, heady scent of musk or cologne and now she smelled of it too. When she finally calmed, she offered it back to him.
“Put it in your reticule, madam,” he said tautly. “I do not doubt you will need it again.”
Yes, he was furious. Perhaps she ought to just tell him she’d harbor no expectations of him, but she had no idea how to say it without embarrassing herself. She shrank as small as she could to give his legs more room. It was not a large coach but it was much more comfortable than the wagon she’d engaged. His scowling regard heightened her feelings of shame, but no matter. Thanks to him, she would get to see the ancient wall. She chanced a look up at his eyes, at his rigidly composed features.
“Have you seen it, Your Grace? Hadrian’s Wall?”
“I have. I’m not sure from my recollection it is worth all this trouble but perhaps you will feel otherwise.”
“I love history,” she offered, as if that might somehow disperse his ire.
“So I gather.”
His short, curt answers unsettled her. The times they had conversed at Danbury House, he had been formal with her, but not unfriendly. Now he was a dark cloud of disapproval hovering over her, promising a storm. She had earned a storm, she supposed. They rode an hour or more in heavy silence before Harmony delivered her carefully rehearsed apology.
“I am so very sorry to have inconvenienced you this day, Your Grace.”
He answered her sincere effort with an inelegant snort of a laugh. “Inconvenienced me? This day, my dear girl? You are a genius of understatement.”
“The wall is not so far from here. We can return to Sedgefield on the morrow.”
He gazed at her and then down at his hands, stretching his fingers before clasping them in his lap. “You understand we will have to stop at an inn when we reach Newcastle.”
“I am sorry for the expense.” She was, truly, although she knew that wasn’t the point he meant to get across. “I will ask Stephen to repay you for the night’s lodging if you wish, as well as the cost of the coach.”
He gave a great sigh and looked to the heavens. “It is not the expense of the inn or coach that angers me. You realize I will have to send word to your brother explaining our whereabouts? It is the dinner hour and you are nowhere to be found. They will be organizing search parties, fearing the worst.”
“Oh.” Harmony had only fretted about her brother finding her out, but the ladies would worry when she turned up missing. “I have behaved very impulsively. I did not think things through.”
“As I tried to explain to you earlier. When they realize I am also missing…”
She could see she was making him angrier by pretending not to understand the gravity of their situation. “If you are worried about proprieties, Your Grace, I wish you would not. I’m sorry I’ve involved you in this disaster but I’ll not… I won’t…”
His eyes widened and bored into her, silencing her reassurances. She would explain her position later. She had the feeling she’d annoyed His Grace enough for one evening. She squinted into the waning summer sun, ashamed to think how much she’d irritated him during their limited acquaintance. Now he would have to bide at some country inn on her account, believing he was stuck with her for life.
“I’m sorry,” she blurted once more. She was afraid she’d begin to cry again, just from the exhaustion of the day and the duke’s scorn. She closed her eyes and tried to find a comfortable position on the carriage bench, but the vibration of the road prevented any relaxation.
“Are you tired, Miss Barrett?” the duke asked.
She tried to rouse herself. “I can stay awake until Newcastle.”
“I imagine we are an hour from there. Perhaps more. You must be hungry as well.”
This too was her fault—starving the poor man. “I am so sorry, Your Grace.”
He looked at her a long time but made no response aside from a slight tightening of his lips. The other women at Danbury House talked about the Duke of Courtland as if he was a dangerous sort of gentleman, but he wasn’t. He was fiercely angry at her now and hadn’t laid a finger on her.
“All the ladies tell tales about you,” she said. “That you are cold and not at all nice. But I never believed it. I told them…” Harmony paused. Why would he care about the women’s silly gossip, or her defense of him? “I told them they ought not to spread gossip about you,” she said anyway. “I think you are only…misunderstood.”
His eyes narrowed slightly. “I hope you will remember those words, should occasion come that you and I are not on good terms.”
Harmony thought that over, wondering what he meant. Then she didn’t know what happened, only that she woke up some time later on the opposite bench with her head bobbing against his shoulder. His coat was soft against her cheek, his bulk so solid. In the dim light she could see his fine gloved hands resting in his lap, the long outline of his legs beside her skirt. This was a dream, surely. She’d never been so close to a man before. She was leaning right against his person and it gave her an odd, secure feeling she couldn’t remember from anytime before. This is not proper, she thought to herself, but she was too tired to sit up and behave as she ought to. Next she knew he was rousing her gently. The carriage slowed, moving over bumpy cobblestones into the courtyard of an inn.
“Miss Barrett, we have arrived at Newcastle. Will you collect yourself?”
She mumbled something, trying to awaken, to get her limbs to cooperate. She searched for her reticule in the darkness, finding it on the seat beside her. The coach door opened and candlelight shone in her eyes. She heard the duke confer with the driver, then heard the distant, obsequious tones of what must have been the innkeeper. Yes, he would be honored to make two rooms available for His Grace. Yes, he could provide a valet and lady’s maid at once. Yes, he would supply a dinner in the private dining room.
“I am too tired to eat,” Harmony said, wishing to free His Grace from keeping her.
“You will dine with me,” he replied in a quiet but inexorable tone.
*** *** ***
Miss Barrett stifled a yawn as an endless parade of servants brought refreshments to lie before them. “It is so late to make them wait upon us,” she said.
He shrugged. “They are servants. They serve.”
The coachman had delivered them to the inn of greatest prestige in Newcastle, and while Court found the establishment not so impressive as the lodgings nearer to London, it was nonetheless clean and well-managed. He would wager the beds were free of fleas. There was really only one thing wrong with this inn—he should not be here.
He had sent a messenger with a terse note to her brother as soon as they arrived.
Miss Barrett is safe and under my protection. We return tomorrow.
There was nothing more to say. He had progressed from fury to chagrin, then to a calm state of resignation. He had considered hiring a lady to accompany them back to Sedgefield in some attempt to lend respectability to their wild adventure, but such measures would be for naught. Barrett would question his sister. The truth would come out, and Court would rather not look like a coward or shirker. He would not attempt to back out of his responsibilities even if this whole thrice-damned mess was not his fault.