“I don’t jest,” he said, sounding faintly appalled.
So she was to sit on the horse with him, clutching him like a damsel in a lurid novel?
Her every feminine instinct cried no, and he must have guessed as much, for his expression hardened.
“It seems unsafe,” she tried.
“I’m a good horseman,” he said, and wedged the crop beneath the stirrup. To clear his hands to lift her, she assumed.
A shiver ran through her, she was not sure whether hot or cold. She could still step around him and continue walking toward the village, as far away from this man as possible.
He shot her a dark look. “Come here.”
Unbelievably, she took a step toward him, as if he had tugged at her bodily, and he didn’t miss a beat—he took her elbow and turned her, crowding her back against the warm body of the horse. She smelled sweat and leather and wool; the wool had to be him, for he again stood too close, trapping her between the stallion and his chest.
“Near instant compliance, Miss Archer?” he murmured, his gaze intent on her face. “You must be feeling the cold after all.”
She stared back into his eyes. She couldn’t help it; her gaze became strangely anarchic around him as if it quite forgot that not all gazes were created equal. Perhaps it was the contrasts that drew her in, pale clearness, dark rims; flashes of guarded intensity in cold depths . . . She watched as his attention dropped to her lips.
Her mouth went dry.
His jaw clenched. In an annoyed way.
“Your teeth are chattering,” he said. “This is ridiculous.”
His hand went to the top button of his coat, a gesture old as instinct, and she froze. So did the duke, his hand suspended in midair. His face was almost comically blank as he looked at her, and she knew his impulse to keep her warm had taken them both by surprise. While he might consider it his duty to keep her from perishing on his land, wrapping her in his coat like a fine lady would go too far. She was not a fine lady. She was not his to protect.
He began working loose his scarf. “Take this.” He sounded sterner than ever before. This was a battle she shouldn’t pick. She slung the scarf around her neck and tried to ignore the scent of cedar soap and man that wafted from the soft wool.
Montgomery’s hands wrapped around her waist with a firm grip; next thing she was perching atop the nervously shifting stallion, half on its neck, half on the saddle, clutching fistfuls of shiny white mane. Holy Moses.
And then Montgomery was in the saddle behind her, shockingly close.
“Allow me.” He shocked her again by looping an arm around her waist and pulling her snug against his chest. A notably solid chest. Heat shot through her, all the way down into her toes. And that was a feeling she had hoped to never feel again.
Now she felt it everywhere, a warming, a softening of her body in response to the uncompromising masculine strength surrounding her.
She should have walked to the village; it had been such a simple decision.
She’d ignore it, it would be easy to ignore . . .
His left thigh pressed up against hers, and she gasped. “Wait, please.”
He reined in the horse. “What is it?”
“Please take me to the village, Your Grace, to the inn. It’s a much shorter ride.”
He went still for a moment. Then his arm around her tightened. “Too late now.”
He spurred the horse into a gallop.
She smelled of jasmine, sweet and warm like a summer night in Spain. Utterly incongruous with the snow-covered fields flying past, and certainly with the shivering, obstinate creature in his arms. She had marched through the snowdrifts with the determination of a small battalion, and had defied him until her teeth rattled. Her stubborn resistance had left him two options: one, throw her over his shoulder like a barbarian, or two, negotiate. Sebastian’s mouth thinned with annoyance. He never negotiated unless the other party had something to offer, and there she had compelled him to present his apology on a hill, and to try a joke to break down her defenses. Even the joke had gone out of control, when she had unexpectedly, cleverly, volleyed it back at him. Trust a bluestocking to know the difference between deductive and inductive logic.
By the time they cantered into the courtyard, it was dark and the lanterns on the palace walls spilled yellow twilight across the cobblestones. His horse chose to be disobedient and veered toward the stables, and he leaned forward to take control of the reins. Miss Archer turned her head, and his nose landed in soft curls and his mouth against one cold ear.
She went stiff.
He straightened. “I beg your pardon.”
The iciness of her skin lingered on his lips.
Night would have fallen long before she would have reached Hawthorne. She could have lost her way, and she would have been found in the morning, on one of his fields, a prone, frozen form in a patched-up coat.
An irrationally strong desire to shake her gripped him.
“Your Grace.” His groom stood by his left knee, eyeing the woman in Sebastian’s arms with blatant astonishment.
“Stevens,” he said curtly, “the spare horse.”
Miss Archer shifted, the movement pressing her round backside more firmly against his groin. With a silent curse, Sebastian swung from the saddle the moment Stevens was out of the way.
Her face was above him, still and pale as moonlight. He raised his arms to assist her, but she didn’t budge, her fists still gripping the horse’s mane.
“If you please, miss.” Had she fossilized up there? She was suspiciously quiet.
The horse danced sideways, eager to get to the stable. Still she clung on.
He put his hands where her waist would be under layers of clothes, ready to pluck her off, and he heard the faintest of whimpers.
“I’m not sure my legs will carry me,” came her voice, annoyed.
It dawned on him that she had probably never been on a horse in full gallop before. He supposed the raw speed of it could be frightening for a novice. His own face was numb from the stiff headwind.
“I assure you I will catch you,” he said gruffly.
She all but fell into his arms and clumsily slid along his body, her hands clutching at his shoulders as her feet hit the ground. She blinked up at him, her eyes an undefinable color in the gaslight. He knew for certain, though, that they were green, a surprisingly calm, muted shade like lichen. He had taken a good look earlier.
She strained against him, and he realized his arms were still locked firmly around her. Releasing his hold, he stepped back, a supportive hand below her elbow. “Are you able to stand?”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
She seemed rattled. No doubt she was used to standing firmly on her own two feet.
He placed her hand onto his forearm, just in case. Her gloves were worn, and he felt the absurd urge to keep his hand on top of hers until Stevens, slowest groom in Christendom, moved to take over his horse.
He all but dragged her up the main stairs. A small audience awaited them in the bright warmth of the house—Mrs. Beecham hovered, and there at the back of the entrance hall were two young ladies, looking ready to come dashing the moment he was out of the picture.
Miss Archer dropped her hand from his arm, her expression as buttoned-up as her useless coat. It didn’t help. She was still beautiful.
He’d noticed her beauty earlier, out on the hill. Even stripped of strategic fineries that would fool a less discerning male eye, even with her nose reddened and her hair windswept, she was beautiful. She had the timeless features that transcended fashion and rank: the graceful neck, the elegant cheekbones, the soft mouth. That mouth. The pink fullness belonged on a courtesan in Brittany, not an Englishwoman, or bluestocking, or country girl . . . He became aware that he was staring, that he was trying to place her in any one of the categories of females he knew, and, amazingly, he could not.
She still wore his scarf, and the monogrammed crest of Montgomery had settled like a badge on the swell of her left breast. A dark, hot emotion surged through him at the sight, incinerating calm and conscious thought. Possessiveness. For a moment, it beat through every part of him, a searing want, a near physical pull tugging him toward her.
He stepped back.
Lichen-green eyes followed him suspiciously.
“I trust I will see you at dinner, miss.” The coolness of his voice turned it into a command, and her mouth gave a mutinous little twitch.
He stalked off, almost tasting the base satisfaction of sinking his teeth into her plush bottom lip.
* * *
An hour later, he was staring at his reflection in the washstand mirror, restored. A bath, a close shave, a valet who knew what he was doing, and from the outside, even he couldn’t tell that he had unboarded a ferry in Dover this morning and then chased after an impossibly stubborn female. But there was still a hollowness, an unease in his chest. Perhaps he was beginning to feel his age.
“I heard the young gentlemen are pleased to be dining with you so unexpectedly, Your Grace,” Ramsey remarked as he tapped the pin into his cravat.
Sebastian watched his mouth curve into an ironic smile. At least one young gentleman was presently not pleased at the prospect of dining with him. Peregrin aside, he was well aware that while he edified a party, he didn’t make it a more pleasant occasion for the people in attendance. When he entered a room, conversations sputtered, laughter became muted, and everything became a little more purposeful. Everyone had something to gain from a duke, and everyone had something to lose. His presence spun a web of caution around people, trapping truths and impulse like a spider’s lair with a wayward fly. There came a point in a duke’s life when he rarely encountered an honest opinion, where he could be on his way to hell in a handcart and everyone would politely step aside and wish him godspeed.