She oughtn’t have. Her humiliation was complete, for he was looking at her with pity. His deep, rich green-blue eyes held hers and softened as if they shared her pain. But she mustn’t be fooled by his beauty, his seeming tenderness. He belonged to the part of the world that ruled and controlled, socially and in every other way. He belonged to the circle that shunned her every chance it got.
“Please go,” she said, turning her face from him. “I wish to be alone.”
He did not go, which she supposed was a duke’s prerogative. She tried to pull away from him, but his hand tightened over hers. “I walked you this far. Let us walk the rest of the way.”
“I had rather go and sit—sit over there,” she said, gesturing toward a remote glade.
“Miss Barrett, are you cross with me?”
Yes, she was cross with him, with his wealth and prestige, his easy manners. He might always do as he wished and look casual and confident about it, as opposed to her with her awkwardness and muddling. She tried to be like him, ruffled by nothing, her chin set high against the world, but it was only a charade. It was the role she played of necessity, when inside she felt lonely and hopeless, and so desperate for just one person to accept her. But she was hopeless. Again, she moved to pull away.
“No,” he said, drawing her back. “Continue to walk with me. For a few moments only, until you gather yourself.”
“Gather myself? I am perfectly gathered, thank you,” she said in a strained voice.
They grappled there beside the lake, Harmony trying to retrieve her hand while he trapped it ever more stubbornly.
“Miss Barrett,” he said as they struggled, “forgive me if I offended you. I only meant to help.”
“I do not require your help.” Harmony laughed bitterly at herself, at this entire situation. “I assure you, I am beyond help. Everyone believes so.”
She went still at his staunchly spoken words. “You don’t?”
“I don’t,” he repeated. “Now please, calm yourself and paste a pleasant smile on your face. At the very least, something besides that frown. They watch, you know. Always.”
They watched, yes, all of them believing her beyond help—except him. She wondered if his words were true or only a gentleman’s polite response. She wondered why she cared, since she’d given herself up for lost a long time ago.
Harmony relaxed her arm—and her expression—and allowed him to draw her back onto the path.
*** *** ***
Damn and blast, Court thought. What a confounded situation. This was what came of meddling in young women’s affairs. What had come over him, to barge in again like a white knight on horseback to rescue her from the likes of Sheffield? Or more accurately, rescue Sheffield from her?
He watched his companion master her emotions, take in air and square her shoulders. Her misery-pinched face relaxed by slow degrees into a shuttered mask that disturbed him almost as much as her glares and frowns. “I am better now,” she said. “I am sorry I cut up at you when I was annoyed by someone else.”
Court was sorry too. Sorry to know how sad and tormented this creature was beneath her false, forced veneer. He didn’t want the burden of her woes, not on top of his own responsibilities. “It is no matter,” he said in a brisk tone. “Let us forget this episode ever occurred.” He led her nearer to the lake, being careful to not to trod the hem of her sage-sprigged dress. “We will have some light conversation until you are feeling completely yourself again. What shall we talk about?”
She thought for a moment. “Did you kill anything today?
A bloodthirsty topic, but she was not known for her girlish repartee. “Yes, I did,” he said aloud. “A hare and several pheasants.”
She shuddered. “I hope the hare did not have babies. They will be crying now, wondering where their mama is.”
“It was a male hare,” he lied.
This did not placate her. “I’m sure other mamas were killed today, and on every other day you and the gentlemen go out to hunt. Is it necessary to kill helpless creatures?”
He gazed down at her, thinking how desperately the contrary young woman needed to be spanked. “Are you one of those crusaders who oppose blood sport, Miss Barrett?”
“I find it distasteful to kill things. To want to kill things,” she added, giving him an affronted look, as if it was her own mama hare he’d shot.
“You feel strongly about things, don’t you? Yes.” He answered his own question. “But in this case you need more information.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you know about the benefits of culling? Reducing the herd? Hares are pests to the farmers and villagers, and with the rate at which they reproduce, they might soon overrun all the crops in England. What would be done then?”
They walked a few steps in silence as she bit her lip. “Oh.”
“Counting out the inconvenience of not having enough bread or produce on your table, what would become of the hares—and the hares’ babies—when their own sources of food became scarce through overpopulation?”
It was not a conversation he would have had with a typical lady, but he rather enjoyed watching Miss Barrett work through it in her agile mind.
“I had never thought of it like that. It would be quite disastrous, wouldn’t it? Still…it seems cruel. Killing.”
“It is cruel in a way, but kinder to shoot a hare or stag or fox than have them overrunning the countryside, forming packs and slowly starving for lack of food.”
She would not meet his eyes. He was not forgiven yet for his gentlemanly crime of hunting. Perhaps he never would be. Young ladies’ hearts were so capricious, which was why he avoided having anything to do with them. Usually. Until now.
They walked in silence for a few moments until they rounded the other side of the lake and headed back toward the manor. Her gaze fixed on the distant house guests. He detected a subtle stiffening of her spine. “Aren’t you glad now you did not attack him in front of everyone?” he asked.
“He deserved a drubbing.”
Do not laugh. Do not encourage her. “You must behave in a mannerly fashion, Miss Barrett. Without manners, we are…savages.”
“I should like to leave,” she burst out. “This instant, I should very much like to leave this house party and return to London.”
“Shall I escort you to Sedgefield so you might hire a carriage and be on your way?”
She bristled at his mocking tone. “I wish you would. I’m sure my brother and our hostess would both find themselves well rid of an inconvenient guest.”
“You are not inconvenient. Merely unconventional. And undisciplined,” he added for his own private titillation.
She gasped, her eyes going wide. “I don’t think it is very polite to call ladies ‘undisciplined.’”
“I don’t normally do so. But in this case…”
Her blue eyes snapped in irritation, for he was not being a gentleman. He did not feel, at present, very much like a gentleman. He felt the strongest urge to tumble her back on the grass and kiss her outrage away—after he disciplined her, of course. He settled for a much-more-appropriate shrug of his shoulders. “It is not that difficult a thing to use manners. For instance, in turning down a dance with creaky old Monmouth, you might more delicately plead the headache than profess yourself bloated.”
Miss Barrett sputtered. “Did you— Who said—?”
“I fear nearly everything you say is repeated. If I were you I would use it to my advantage. Say some horrid things about that bounder Lord Sheffield, for example. They needn’t be true.”
“Your Grace.” She tried hard to look shocked as she ought, but a smile played around the corners of her lips. “I was not bloated, by the way.”
“Of course not.”
“I simply didn’t want to dance with him. I do not enjoy dancing.”
“I don’t either. Not these country dances anyway. In London, they waltz.” He gave her a look he feared contained some longing. “Have you danced the waltz, Miss Barrett? In the ballrooms of London?”
She looked stricken. “I am not permitted to waltz.”
“Not permitted? By whom?”
“By the patronesses at Almack’s.” She paused. “Rather, they revoked my permission. I am mortified to say why.”
Ah, the Almack’s debacle. Beautiful Miss Barrett, strewing chaos wherever she went. He could not laugh at the poor thing, not to her face, but his mind swam with comical images of what a young lady might do to have her dancing permissions revoked. He disguised his laughter in a ponderous frown. “I do not know the circumstances,” he said, “but you ought not to have lost your waltzing privileges. It’s criminal. A miscarriage of justice, I’m sure.”