“Tell His Grace that I refused.”
McMahon’s mouth fell open.
“And that I was awfully obstinate about it,” she added, “a veritable shrew.”
The groom slowly shook his head. “I c-can hardly tell him that, miss.”
“He won’t be surprised, not one bit.”
“See here, miss—”
“Good afternoon, McMahon.”
She did not turn her back on him, because she did have manners, excellent manners, actually.
Still McMahon looked unhappy. Would the duke take it out on the lad? She pressed her lips together; this was a matter of self-preservation.
Muttering something under his breath, McMahon finally doffed his cap, mounted, and turned the horse around, soon becoming a dark dot against the white landscape.
She pushed onward with redoubled effort, a restless urgency coursing beneath her skin. The duke wanted her back, and he was a man who got what he wanted. She needed to be faster. Also, she was coated in sweat, gluing her chemise to her back and forming crystals on her cold face. She needed to get out of the cold.
Not even half an hour had passed when there were hoofbeats again.
She turned, prepared to see a large brown horse.
The horse was gleaming white.
The rider was approaching rapidly, and there was no mistaking that erect posture. It was Montgomery himself. Another horse, riderless, was hard on his heels.
She spun around, her wits suddenly as frozen as her face.
Montgomery himself had come for her.
He was upon her like a gust of wind, a flurry of motion and stomping, steaming muscle as he maneuvered the horses across her path.
As if she’d be so foolish as to run at this point.
When she rose from her curtsy, he was staring down his nose at her from the lofty height of his saddle. That was how his forefathers would have looked on the battlefield, imperious men on mean warhorses, their voice the signal that made soldiers raise their swords and hurtle toward peril and glory. Peril it was for her, no doubt. He was stone faced.
“Good afternoon, Miss Archer.” His tone was deceptively idle. “Now, what exactly were you hoping to achieve with this?”
His index finger made a circular motion around her and the snowy path at large.
“I’m following your orders, Your Grace. The road permits travel, so I left your house.”
“And as you could have safely assumed, that referred to travel by coach, not on foot.”
“I wouldn’t dare to make assumptions about your orders, Your Grace.”
His jaw tightened. “So had I made my order very, very clear, that it precluded travel on foot, you would have stayed put?”
She could say nothing at all now, or blatantly lie. They both knew she would have taken off regardless.
Montgomery nodded, that tight little nod again, and then he smoothly swung from the saddle. Riding crop in hand, he advanced on her, the snow crunching menacingly under his boots.
Her heels dug in to hold her ground. They were under the open sky now, a more equal stage than his library, but he still looked disconcertingly unassailable in his heavy navy topcoat with the double rows of glaring silver buttons. He hadn’t even bothered to secure his horse. It stayed put, the poor beast no doubt long harangued into submission.
Montgomery planted himself a mere foot from her, his eyes piercing bright with annoyance.
“I would never order a woman to walk anywhere,” he said, “so mount up, if you please.” He pointed the crop at the spare horse.
She eyed the beast. It was the size of a small house and looked nervous; besides, she would not go back with him had he shown up in a plush four-in-hand.
“I will reach Hawthorne in an hour, Your Grace.”
“You won’t,” he said, “but it will be dark, and you will be ill.” Said with a certainty as if he weren’t just foreseeing but steering the course of nature. “You might also lose a few toes,” he added for good measure.
Her feet curled in her boots at his mentioning of toes; botheration, she hardly felt them.
“I appreciate your concern—”
“I will not have a woman come to harm on my land,” he said. “Concern plays no part in it.”
Of course not. “I have no desire to come to harm, merely to get to Hawthorne.”
He gave her a cold, cold look. “You are putting pride above your safety, miss.”
Well, there was no arguing with that. She gritted her teeth, struggling to control the unfamiliar urge to snarl.
“Get onto the horse,” Montgomery ordered.
“I prefer not to, Your Grace. It’s huge.”
He slapped his riding crop against his boot, and she had a feeling that he’d quite like to slap something else instead.
“There’s an inn in Hawthorne where I plan to stay,” she said quickly, “and—”
“And then word gets around that I cast my guests out into the cold?” Montgomery snapped. “Certainly not. You are not even wearing a proper coat.”
She looked down at herself. “It’s a most regular coat.”
“And utterly useless for an eight-mile march in these conditions,” he shot back; ridiculous woman were the unspoken words. He’d never say it out loud, of course, and he didn’t have to. He inflicted enough damage with the contempt coloring his cultured voice.
She considered his wide-shouldered form, clearly superior to hers in weight and strength, and wondered what he would do if she tried to walk around him.
“Very well,” he said, and then he did something unexpected. He took off his hat.
“It is not the appropriate setting,” he said, “but it appears that we will be here a while.”
He tucked the hat under his arm and met her eyes. “Miss, I apologize for handling our last encounter in an overly high-handed manner. Please do me the honor of staying at Claremont until the party concludes tomorrow.”
It was very quiet on this windless hill in Wiltshire. She heard the sound of her own breath flowing in and out of her lungs, and the slow thump of her heart as she stared back at him, with his hat so formally held under his arm. His breath, like hers, was a white cloud.
No man had ever given her an apology.
Now that she had one, she found she was uncertain what to do with it.
Montgomery’s brow lifted impatiently.
Well. He was a duke, after all, and probably not in the habit of apologizing. Ever.
“Why?” she asked softly. “Why would you invite a woman like me into your home?”
The look he gave her was inscrutable. “I won’t have any woman come to harm on my estate. And our earlier conversation was based on a misunderstanding. It is clear that my brother is quite safe from you.”
She cringed. Had he questioned Peregrin about the nature of their relationship? Or worse, Hattie and Catriona? The questions that would cause—
“No one told me,” he said. He wore a new expression, and it took her a moment to class it as mildly amused.
“That’s reassuring,” she said, not sounding assured at all.
His lips twitched. “It was plain deductive reasoning, logic, if you will.”
“That’s a sound method,” she acknowledged, wondering where in Hades he was going now.
“You made it perfectly clear that you weren’t in the market for a duke,” he said. “It follows that my younger brother would be rather out of the question for you.”
She blinked. Was he trying to . . . jest with her?
His face gave away nothing, and so, carefully, she said: “But wouldn’t that be inductive reasoning, Your Grace?”
He stilled. A glint struck up in the depths of his eyes. “Deductive, I’m sure,” he said smoothly.
Deductive, I’m sure. So the premise that a woman would always prefer a duke over any other man was a natural law to him, like the fact that all men were mortal. His arrogance was truly staggering.
“Of course,” she muttered.
He smiled at that, just with the corners of his eyes, but it still drew her attention to his mouth. It was an intriguing mouth, upon closer inspection. Enticing, even, well-defined and with a notable softness to his bottom lip when he was of a mind to smile. One might call it a sensual mouth, if one were to think about him in such a way, a promise that this reserved duke knew how to put his lips to use on a woman . . . This man and I are going to kiss. The awareness was bright and sudden, a flash at her mind’s horizon, a knowing rather than a thought.
Her heart gave a sharp, confused thud.
She glanced away, then back at him. No, this new Montgomery was still there, with his attractive mouth, with intelligent humor simmering in the depth of his eyes.
She knew then that she would never be able to unsee him again.
She gave her head a shake. “I can’t return with you,” she said, her voice firm, thank God. “I don’t know how to ride.”
He frowned. “Not at all?”
“Not on a sidesaddle.”
Blast. The last thing she wanted was to plant images in his mind of her lifting her skirts and riding astride.
“I see,” he said. He clicked his tongue, and his horse stopped nosing at the snow and trotted over, tagging the spare mount along.
Montgomery took the reins in one fist. “You will ride with me,” he said.
That was not at all the conclusion she had wanted him to reach. “Is that another jest, Your Grace?”