Perry left his brother’s house under a moonless sky without a backward glance— like a coward. The past month had sent his life into a spiral and he was unable to right himself. In the space of a Season his brother, Gideon, the Duke of Roxleigh, had gone from recluse to fiancé, and Perry had gone from rake to guardian for three young French ladies.
He sat in the dark, tossed to and fro in the seat as it traversed the country ruts, and pondered. Guardian. Respectable.
He shook his head and leaned back into the squabs of his landau as it rolled away from the seat of the dukedom. He stretched his long legs across to the opposite seat, folded his arms, lowered his chin, and let his lids close. The carriage lulled him and he slumbered heavily.
Half asleep, Perry felt a tingling sensation and his foot twitched. He snorted, pressing his head further into the plush paneling. When the sensation skimmed his knee he kicked and moved his boot to the floor, pulling at his trousers to stop the nerves that spread through his leg. When it returned, farther up his thigh, he stomped his foot to rouse the sleeping limb and arrest the incessant tingling.
Then he felt what was quite clearly a feather-light touch against his shoulder, so he relaxed his eyelids, allowing a narrow view from beneath his thick eyelashes. He searched the shadowy depths without moving. When he saw a hand move toward him he snatched it, wrapping his fingers tightly around the wrist and pulling it across his body.
It was then he knew two things without a doubt: first, that there was a woman in his carriage—for the slide of a woman’s bosom across his chest was all too familiar—and second, that she trembled. Whether from fear, anger, or passion—of that much he was unsure. But his gut told him fear.
She slipped to the floor with a squeak and a thud as he sat up and lowered his other foot. He felt her hand press weakly against his knee as his eyes attempted to adjust and he stared intently, willing his vision to clear the thick darkness between them. Without taking his eyes from where the intruder’s face should be, he banged a closed fist against the roof, then yelled, “Gardner!”
They ground to a halt and he heard the coachman jump down. The door opened swiftly and Perry backed out—without releasing the delicate wrist.
Gardner took the lantern from the forward bracket and handed it to him. Perry reached through the open door, casting the flickering glow throughout the carriage, bathing a small bundle huddled on the floor.
“Please, milord, I beg ye.” Her voice was tiny, her arm stretched out above her head as he held firm. He lowered the lantern to see who was piled on the floor of his carriage but she ducked, turning her head away.
“Turn your face to me or I will drag you from this carriage and abandon you in the field.”
The mound of fabric shifted, then shivered, and the girl rose like a flower opening to the errant sun, her pale skin reflecting what light was available and increasing it as she stepped down, following the luminescence. She cowered before Perry and slowly looked up.
Her pale, fear-stricken face implored his concern without permission.