A Night Like This

Page 51

“Anne,” Daniel said urgently, reaching across the table to take her hand. “What can be wrong?” It was as if his touch snapped some sort of constricting band, because her entire body suddenly spasmed with a deep, convulsive breath. The black edges that had It was as if his touch snapped some sort of constricting band, because her entire body suddenly spasmed with a deep, convulsive breath. The black edges that had been squeezing down on her vision shimmered and dissolved, and very slowly, she felt her body returning to normal.

“Anne,” he said again, but she didn’t look at him. She did not want to see the concern on his face. He had been joking, she knew that perfectly wel. How on earth would she explain such an overreaction?

“The tea,” she said, hoping he did not remember that she had already put down her mug when he’d made his comment. “I think—” She coughed, and she was not faking it. “I think it went down the wrong way.”

He watched her face intently. “Are you certain?”

“Or maybe it was too hot,” she said, her shoulders quivering in a nervous little shrug. “But I’m almost recovered now, I assure you.” She smiled, or at least tried to. “It’s terribly embarrassing, realy.”

“Can I help you in any way?”

“No, of course not.” She fanned herself. “My goodness, I’m suddenly quite warm. Are you?” He shook his head, his eyes never leaving her face.

“The tea,” she said, trying to sound bright and cheery. “As I said, it’s quite hot.”

“It is.”

She swalowed. He saw through her act, she was sure of it. He did not know what the truth was, just that she was not saying it. And for the first time since she’d left home eight years earlier, she felt a pang of remorse over her silence. She had no obligation to share her secrets with this man, and yet, here she was, feeling evasive and guilty.

“Do you think the weather has improved?” she asked, turning to face the window. It was hard to tel; the glass was old and wavy, and the inn’s large overhang shielded it from the direct onslaught of the rain.

“Not yet, no,” he replied.

She turned back, murmuring, “No, of course not.” She fixed a smile on her face. “I should finish my tea, in any case.” He looked at her curiously. “You’re no longer too warm?”

She blinked, taking a moment to remember that she had been fanning herself just a few moments earlier. “No,” she said. “Funny, that.” She smiled again and brought her mug to her lips. But she was saved from having to figure out how to set the conversation back on its previous, easygoing course by a loud crashing noise just outside the dining room.

“What can that be?” Anne asked, but Daniel was already on his feet.

“Stay here,” he ordered, and strode quickly to the door. He looked tense, and Anne saw something familiar in his stance. Something she’d seen in herself, time and again. It was almost as if he was expecting trouble. But that made no sense. She’d heard that the man who had driven him out of the country had dropped his quest for revenge.

But she supposed that old habits died very hard. If George Chervil suddenly choked on a chicken bone or moved to the East Indies, how long would it take her to stop looking over her shoulder?

“It was nothing,” Daniel said, coming back to the table. “Just a drunkard who managed to wreak havoc from the inn to the stables and back.” He picked up his mug of tea, took a long swig, then added, “But the rain is thinning out. It’s still drizzling, but I think we should leave soon.”

“Of course,” Anne said, coming to her feet.

“I’ve already asked them to bring the carriage around,” he said, escorting her to the door.

She gave him a nod as she stepped outside. The fresh air was bracing, and she did not mind the cold. There was a cleansing quality to the chily mist, and it made her feel more like herself.

And right then, in that very moment, that wasn’t such a bad person to be.

Daniel still had no idea what had happened to Anne back in the dining room. He supposed it could have been exactly what she’d said, that she’d choked on a bit of her tea. He’d done so before, and it was certainly enough to set a body coughing, especialy when the tea was steaming hot.

But she’d looked terribly pale, and her eyes—in that split second before she’d turned away—had looked hunted. Terrified.

It brought to mind that time he’d seen her in London, when she’d stumbled into Hoby’s, scared out of her wits. She’d said she’d seen someone. Or rather, she’d said there was someone she did not want to see.

But that was London. This was Berkshire, and more to the point, they had been sitting in an inn full of vilagers he’d known since birth. There hadn’t been a soul in that room who would have had cause to harm so much as a hair on her head.

Maybe it was the tea. Maybe he’d imagined everything else. Anne certainly seemed back to normal now, smiling at him as he helped her up into the curricle. The half canopy had been raised against the rain, but even if the weather held, they would both be thoroughly chiled by the time they reached Whipple Hil.

Hot baths for the both of them. He’d order them the moment they arrived.

Although sadly, not to be shared.

“I’ve never ridden in a curricle,” Anne said, smiling as she tightened the ribbons on her bonnet.

“No?” He did not know why this surprised him. Certainly a governess would have no cause to ride in one, but everything about her spoke of a gentle birth. At some point in her life she must have been an eligible young lady; he could not imagine she hadn’t had scores of gentlemen begging for her company in their curricles and phaetons.

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