“And more arrived this morning.” Bonville continued his harried tale. “Three young ladies and their chaperone, and we are not sure one of them is even a lady.”
“She is not,” Sebastian said grimly.
Wait. A chaperone?
“I thought so,” Bonville said. “Why would the daughter of the Earl of Wester Ross don a ghastly plaid and stroll about like a Jacobite . . .”
Sebastian raised a hand. “Lady Catriona is here?”
“Presumably, Your Grace.”
Damn. He should have heard the guest list to the end before setting out to find Madam.
“You mentioned three ladies,” he said. “Who else?”
“Miss Harriet Greenfield and her aunt, Mrs. Greenfield-Carruther. We gave them the apartment with the gilded ceiling.”
A Greenfield daughter and Lady Catriona. Neither of them would keep inappropriate company. So apparently Peregrin hadn’t lodged his paramour under his roof. And considering how Miss Archer had attacked him, she was hardly a professional.
Sebastian frowned. Travel fatigue must have scrambled his brain to make such an error. None of it explained this woman’s presence in his armchair, though.
“They are all at Oxford,” he said suddenly.
“The women,” he said. “Greenfield’s daughter and Lady Catriona, and I suspect the third one, too—they are bluestockings. Their manners and dress sense can be . . . atrocious.”
“I see.” Bonville sniffed, sounding much more like his usual self.
“Bonville, you are one of the most competent butlers in England, are you not?”
A modest flush spread over Bonville’s haggard cheeks. “I aspire to be, Your Grace.”
“You are. Now be competent and handle this situation. And inform kitchen staff that they will be paid double for the next two days.”
He watched Bonville’s back assume its usual straightness as he strode off.
That left the other issue: he had just booted a guest off his estate who, her impertinent mouth notwithstanding, had a right to his hospitality. Grand. He very, very rarely reversed a decision. He decided that the little shrew could stew awhile, and he told a footman to send for his groom. Nothing quite smoothed his temper as a long ride over the fields.
* * *
You will leave my estate . . .
The words, so quietly spoken, were clanging around in Annabelle’s head like a fire bell. The Duke of Montgomery had thrown her out of his house.
She had not even unpacked yet.
When she entered her chamber, she realized that her things had been unpacked for her. The bottle with jasmine perfume and Mama’s old brush sat on the vanity table, her books and papers on the desk, including Debrett’s Etiquette Manual, which she had painstakingly studied to avoid slipping up during the house party.
Her gaze narrowed at the binder with profile sheets on men of influence.
With three quick strides, she reached the desk.
General description of the gentleman’s character.
She unsheathed the fountain pen like a rapier.
The Duke of M: Impossible, arrogant, high-handed, the pen scratched, a pompous arse!
Panting, she swiped a curl from her face. Unexpectedly, she caught her reflection in the mirror and gasped. There was a hard gleam in her eyes, and her mahogany locks were snaking in all directions: a Medusa, not Helen of Troy.
She pressed her palms to her hot cheeks. What had happened? She knew how to handle a rampant male, knew what to say and more importantly what not to say. A fool would know not to goad a peer of the realm, even if he was an arse. Especially not if he was an arse.
Her reflection looked back at her, chagrined. But you do have a temper, don’t you; in fact, you have just shown your true nature.
She closed her eyes. Yes, her emotions had got the better of her before. And no, she had never really known her place. Where others were appropriately intimidated, she seemed oddly intrigued by the challenge.
She had dug deep to bury that flaw.
But the duke had known. Any gentleman would be mortified to insult an innocent woman, but he had stared right into her, and had seen something rotten.
Oh, no. Hattie and Catriona . . . what would she tell them? The bonds of friendship were so fragile, and she had only just found them.
I have to leave.
There was an inn in the gingerbread village they had passed; she could clearly picture the wrought-iron sign. How far could it be? Not more than seven miles. Seven miles was perfectly doable.
A bundle would suffice for now—jasmine bottle, brush, papers, her night rail, and the spare chemise. The books came last. Her hands were fast and meticulous, her face still afire. The duke’s presence was pressing upon her; there was no evading him within these walls, where he owned every stone and creature.
She had to leave the girls something, so out came the papers again.
“How about this,” she muttered. “I insulted the Duke of Montgomery to his face and he thinks I’m a strumpet, so I considered it best to take my leave.” Imagine the confusion that would cause . . . She scribbled a few innocuous lines and left the note on the desk.
She laced up her boots and moved to the window. The sun had just passed the zenith; she’d have three, four hours of daylight still. Perfectly doable.
Two riders came into view in the courtyard below, dotting dark lines across the pristine white blanket.
The leading horse had sprung straight from a winter’s tale, a gleaming white stallion, the play of its powerful sinews and muscles so graceful it seemed to be dancing over the snow. No doubt Hattie would have it sit for the mount of her blasted Sir Galahad.
It should have been a pitch-black beast to suit its master, though, who was no other than Montgomery himself. Her hand curled into the thick velvet curtain. His ducal posture, the adroitness with which he controlled the prancing animal . . . it made her whole body pulse with fresh anger. Would that the pretty horse tossed him on his rump.
He turned his head toward her sharply then, and she stiffened, her breath frozen in her lungs. For a moment, a rather vivid memory of his scent had brushed her nose.
She grabbed her bundle and fled.
It would have been wiser to claim an indisposition and hide in her room. It certainly would have been more pragmatic—trudging through knee-deep snowdrifts made that perfectly clear. Unfortunately, both wisdom and pragmatism had abandoned her in the space of half a day. That was what happened when the past unexpectedly collided with the present: it roused the ghosts and one became erratic.
Seven years had passed since she had stood in another grand library and another aristocrat had torn her limb from limb. She would have thought that seven years was a long time, but the duke’s voice, with its superior vowels and easy disdain, had gripped and shaken her like a fist.
She still shouldn’t have sniped at him. Gallic pride, Aunt May had used to call it, Gallic temper . . . rein it in, lass; you can’t afford it. Gallic pride had been silent as a snared rabbit seven years ago, when her lover’s father had called her a money-grabbing harlot and she had been sent to live with Aunt May. She hadn’t really been prideful since.
Panting, she paused to adjust her bundle. The path ahead was barely distinguishable from the white rolling fields on either side, but the clouds had lifted, and the wind had ceased. The trees on the ridge stood black and still like paper cuttings against the fading sky. Another five miles remaining, she knew; she was good at estimating such a thing. She had to be. Women such as herself went everywhere on foot.
She had barely managed another mile when the muffled thud of hoofbeats sounded behind her.
A large brown horse was thundering along the path toward her, the rider flattened against its neck.
Her body went rigid. This was an expensive horse, one from a nobleman’s stable. Her stomach was churning by the time it reached her.
“Miss. Miss Archer.” The young man slid from the saddle and took off his cap, his sweat-dampened red hair sticking up. “McMahon, groom-gardener, at your service. I’ve been sent to retrieve you, miss.”
No, she would not go back there.
“I appreciate your troubles,” she said, “but I’m going to the village.” She pointed her thumb back over her shoulder.
Surprise flitted across his features. “To Hawthorne? But it’s far still. It’s cold; you’ll catch the cough.”
“I’m warm enough, and I walk fast.”
“You’ve walked much farther than we expected; you must be exhausted,” he said. “I’m to bring you back to the house.”
He wasn’t listening; they never did.
She gave him a wide smile, and he blinked the way men blinked when she smiled widely at them.
“McMahon, there’s only one horse.”
His face brightened. “Not to worry, miss, you’ll have the horse.”
“But it’ll take us two hours walking to the house, and it will take me little more to get to Hawthorne.”
McMahon assessed the situation with a deepening frown, probably realizing that he could not just bundle her onto the horse if she refused to cooperate.
“His Grace will not be pleased,” he finally said.
His Grace? Why did he send for her at all, when he wanted her gone?
Because he wanted it all on his own terms, the domineering autocrat.