Marcus kept his pace quick, glancing over his shoulder now and then to make sure that Lydia was keeping within sight of him. He knew it would be far more gentlemanly and courteous to slow his pace to hers, but he was also certain it would be more difficult for her to berate him if he kept her at a distance and nearly out of breath. If only he had been right!
“You are doing this to vex me,” she called. “Ouch.”
He stopped and looked back to see that she was well. “Mind the branches.”
“If you would slow down, I might be at leisure to do so,” she spat back.
“If you would stop complaining, I might willingly slow down.” He gave her a crooked smile. “However, it seems a young thing like you should be able to keep up with an old man like me.” He ran a hand over his horse. Content that his horse was faring well, he turned and continued walking.
“I did not say you were old,” she called.
“Per se,” he returned.
Oh, he was as irritating as he was attractive, which made it all that much more frustrating. She should be imagining knives in his back instead of noticing how wide his shoulders were or how muscular, his legs. Why could he not act as every other handsome man she had met? If he did, she would not be marching at a ferocious pace through the woods. “I am not going any further,” she said, stopping and taking a seat on a fallen log. “My feet hurt.” She held her breath. Surely, he would not leave her alone in the woods. He took three more steps before turning in her direction once again.
“If you stay there, I will bring your uncle to you,” he called.
Her mouth dropped open. He would leave her? She folded her arms across her chest and glared at him. She was positive that he was too far away to see her scowl, but she wore it none-the-less. “A gentleman would not abandon a lady,” she called in an attempt to goad him into staying.
Had her tone not been one resembling that of a willful child, he might have taken the comment as an insult. But since it was most definitely spoken in a tone of one trying to get her way, it did not injure his pride in the least. It did, however, raise his ire. “It is fortunate for me, then, that you are not a lady.”
The responding huff was rather satisfying to Marcus.
“Now,” he called to her, “will you stay where you are, if I promise to bring a horse with me for you to ride?”
Receiving only a shrug in response, he sighed and said, “Five minutes, and then we move on again.” He dropped the reins of his horse and came back to take a seat on the ground closer to where she was. He watched as she stretched out one leg, twirling her foot in a circle before repeating the same activity with the other leg. She rubbed her calves rather vigorously. Her face did look a bit pained.
“If you turn around, I could take off my boots for a minute.”
He shook his head. “That would be a bad idea.”
She glared at him yet again and began to untie her right boot. She had only gotten it loosened and was beginning to remove it when his hands were on hers, halting her progress.
“If your foot is swollen, you might not get your boot back on.”
“You needn’t growl at me.”
He applied himself to the task of retying her boot and tried not to hear the hurt in her voice. “If they are truly sore, you may ride with your bag.”
“Thank you,” she said, pulling her foot away from him and tucking it back under her skirts. She considered untying her left boot so that he might also retie it and that foot might feel as lovely as her right did at this moment. She bit her lip. He would just scold her again, but the lovely prickly feeling might be worth it.
“So you will ride?”
He was looking at her with the most concerned look he had given her since their meeting, and it was making it very difficult to be angry at him, although she knew she should be since he was being so demanding.
She sighed and looked toward his horse. “Must I indeed go back?”
He nodded. “Your family will be worried.”
She pulled her lip between her teeth once again. “I cannot marry him,” she said softly. “I will not.”
“Let me help you onto Erebus, and then you can tell me about it.” He waited until he saw a small nod. Then, he stood and extended his hand to help her to her feet. It was odd how he at one moment wished to leave her sitting here in the woods, exposed to the elements, and suffering the fate of her foolishness and the next he wished to bundle her up and see her protected. He hoisted her up onto Erebus and situated her bag so that she had enough room to be comfortable.
She grabbed his hand before he could remove it from her bag. “You will stop before we get there so I might dismount?”
His brows drew together. “If you wish it, I can.”
She looked away from him, her cheeks growing rosy. “It is not very ladylike to ride astride. I know what they think of me, but I assure you I am not…that.”
He mumbled his understanding. She was a conundrum ─ worrying about her modesty yet sneaking out at night and travelling with a man such as Wickham ─ and then there was that perplexing wavering of his own opinion about her.
“Did you name him Erebus because he is the colour of shadows?”
“Indeed, I did. Have you read mythology?” He glanced up at her. She was smiling, and her head bobbed up and down enthusiastically.
“I have. They are such fanciful tales. I quite enjoy them.” She laughed. “Although Papa does not know I have read them. In fact, only Kitty knows.” She leaned forward and spoke more softly as if what she was going to say was a secret that not even the trees were allowed to hear. “I cannot let Mama know, you see. She is always going on about how Lizzy is far too quick to make a good match, and I should not want her saying such things about me. It would ruin my chances.”
“And why would it ruin your chances?”
“Because gentlemen do not wish for intelligent wives. They want only pretty women who smile, flutter their lashes, and agree with their opinions.”
She said it in such a matter of fact way, as if all of creation, save him, already knew this fact. “I would disagree.”
“You cannot. It is true. That is why everyone prefers Jane to Lizzy and me and Kitty to Mary.”
“Everyone?” Her head was bobbing up and down again quite emphatically, and his mind was once again perplexed by the disparity of her thinking. She claimed to enjoy reading myths; she had out-schemed Wickham; and yet she could not countenance the fact that some man, such as himself, might wish for a woman with more than just good looks and pleasant manners.
“I would disagree.”
Lydia shook her head. “You cannot.”
He realized she was quite probably correct. Although he could make a case to refute her claim, he was uncertain as to which Lydia he might be presenting his case. The scheming Lydia might see his logic, but the one that rode his horse did not seem capable of it.
“Very well, I shall not disagree. However, it is not because I agree.” His lips twitched in amusement at the look of utter confusion on her face.
“That makes no sense,” she said after a few moments of contemplation. “If you do not agree, you disagree, and if you do not disagree, you agree.”
He shrugged. “Ah, but it does make sense that I am neither old nor young?”
“It does. You see there are degrees to age. If you were young, you would not have such a prickly look about your jaw.”
He rubbed his hand against the stubble on his jaw.
“It is not a bad look,” Lydia added, seeing his brows furrow. “It looks quite good actually, but it does give the appearance of age rather than youth.”
“And precisely how does an appearance of age and a lack of youth not equate with being old?”
“I did not say you lacked youth! I said you were not young. The two are very different. One can still have a youthful vigor and be quite decidedly old.”
“Very well, continue with your explanation.” He dared not ask any further questions, for his mind was already getting rather turned about.
“To be old, I imagine, one must be at least forty. You are not forty, are you?”
“No, I am not forty.”
She tipped her head to the side. “Are you thirty?”
He shook his head. “Not yet. I have two more years.”
She smiled. “I thought as much.” She pointed to the corner of her eye. “There are no little creases.”
“And creases happen when one turns thirty?”
“I think so,” she replied. “You have no creases; your eyes are bright, and your hair is brown without a fleck of grey or white. It is actually a lovely colour, as are your eyes. And, therefore, you are not old although you are not young, either.”
He nodded, unsure exactly how to respond to such statements. “Very well, I will allow that you do not find me old.”
“As you should,” she said with a smile.
He chuckled, and this time, instead of being a sound that annoyed her as it had before, it was a sound that she found rather pleasing. How odd. But then her feet were no longer hurting, so that must account for her better opinion of him. Lydia patted the neck of Erebus. Yes, her feet not hurting must be the answer.
Some time later, as they approached Willow Hall, Marcus stopped as he had promised he would.
Lydia’s cheeks puffed out and then flattened again as she released the breath she had drawn. “I cannot go in there,” she said, turning to Marcus. “They will make me marry him.”
“We discussed this,” Marcus replied gently. He had listened at length to why Lydia could not marry a man like Wickham. Much of her reasoning was sound. Wickham was a cad. He drank and gambled too much, and he would surely be the sort that would not remain faithful to his wife. Wickham was also merely a lieutenant, so even if he could keep his money, it was not enough for Lydia. She desired a man with a steady character and a good income.
There were also some ridiculous reasons. Wickham had blonde hair, and Lydia had brown, so they would not look good together. Apparently, it was important that a couple look good together or a marriage would never be happy. It was a concept Marcus had not heard before. But it seemed fitting for one such as Lydia to deduce such a thing. She was, as he was coming to learn, an interesting mix of the astute and the absurd.
He reached up and lifted her from his horse. “You must return. There must be a way to undo whatever scandal you might have created.”
She shook her head. “Scandals for ladies cannot be undone. They can only be undone for men.”
He waited for her to straighten her skirts. At least, during their discussion, she had finally come to realize that what she had done was, in fact, scandalous, especially if the story should be shared by a man such as Wickham, who knew how to spin a boring tale into something fantastic.
Skirts straightened she stood there, unmoving, looking every bit like a skittish foal about to run.
“You mean to tell me, Miss Lydia, that you cannot find a solution to this debacle? Other than running away from it, that is.” The comment drew her eyes from their focused gaze on Willow Hall as it was meant to do. Why he felt a need to goad her into action and out of despondence, he was unsure. But then, he seemed to have been at odds with himself since discovering her in the cottage.
She shook her head. “I cannot, and I am quite good at getting out of scrapes.”
He chuckled and extended his arm to her and began leading her toward the house. “I can well imagine you are.”
They had taken only a few steps when suddenly she stopped. “Oh!”
Marcus turned toward her, thinking she might once again be distraught or fearful, but instead, her eyes gleamed, and her lips formed a perfect o that slid into a delightful smile.
“Wickham likes money,” she said. “We shall give him some.” Her eyes grew wide. “And that grumpy constable, Mr. Williams, can scare him into taking it and remaining silent. Wickham is afraid of him, you know.”
“That is an idea,” said Marcus. A fairly good one, if he thought about it. Wickham had always been able to be bought off with a bit of coin. “But it could be expensive.”
She shrugged. “I cannot marry him,” she repeated as they once again began walking toward Willow Hall. Her mind whirled as they walked. She had very little money of her own, and she was uncertain that either her father or her uncle would be willing to lend her any. There was, however, her dowry. The thought made her sigh heavily, but surely some man might marry her without it. It was not large to begin with, according to Mama. And did not Mama always claim that Jane was so beautiful that no man would care if she had not a farthing? She glanced at Marcus wishing to ask him about it but was uncertain if she should.
“Ask what you wish to know,” Marcus said as Lydia peeked up at him for the third time.
“Do you think a man of good fortune — enough for a cook, a housekeeper, a butler, a few maids, a couple of footmen.” She sighed. What else might be required for a comfortable life? “And a carriage with a driver — would such a man consider a lady without much dowry if she were very pretty?”
He had not been in her company for not more than a couple of hours, and yet, he found he had become accustomed to her unusual thoughts and questions. He was almost surprised that it was a question that made perfect sense to him. She must, of course, be considering funding the payment to Wickham out of her dowry. And, although he did not think her father would allow her to part with it, he answered honestly instead of trying to turn her mind from such a suggestion. She was pretty — very pretty — and if a gentleman could get past the randomness of her logic and not mind an occasional fit of temper, he might be sorely tempted to offer for her regardless of the monetary disadvantage. “I imagine if the gentlemen did not need the money to prop up his estate, he might.”
“I could replace part of it, I am sure, if I could but go without a new dress or ribbons for my bonnet.”
There was a particular tone of wistfulness to her voice that let Marcus know that to do so would be no small sacrifice.
She sighed. “I will not need my dowry for a few more years.”
“You do not plan on marrying young?”
She shrugged. “I had thought it a fabulous joke if I should marry before Jane or Lizzy, but I have not met a man worthy of me just yet. I expect it will take some time to find him. Oh, my bag!” She cried as a groom led Marcus’s horse away.
“Have the bag brought to the house,” Marcus called after the groom.
“But we are here. Can I not have it now?”
Marcus shook his head and tried not to smile at the pout forming on Lydia’s pretty lips. Yes, some gentleman might be sorely tempted to offer for her just to kiss those pretty lips. He shook his head. Clearly, the fatigue of bodily exercise along with the exertion of his mind that had been required to follow Lydia’s way of thinking had addled his own logic. “You claimed you would not stay. I do not wish to have to chase after you before I have had a chance to rest my legs.” And chase after her he would since his fickle mind seemed determined to see her safe.
Her eyes narrowed. “I was beginning to think you likable.”
“I assure you I am likable, Miss Lydia. I am just not a fool.”
Lydia pursed her lips.
“Nor am I whatever name it is you are about to call me.” He raised the knocker and let it drop.
Lydia lifted her chin and set her jaw. It was rather ungentlemanly of him to be guessing her thoughts unbidden, but she was not willing to admit to him that he had guessed correctly, so she said, right primly, “I am sure I do not know of what you speak.”
“I believe you do,” he replied with a smile. Then, feeling her grip on his arm tighten as the door began to open, his mind once again flipped from wishing to tease and taunt her to needing to see her well. “Are you ready?” he whispered as the door opened the rest of the way. Her eyes, for a brief moment, said no before she smiled and nodded and the fear was hidden.