Nate smiled as the wind rushed against him. He had brought his favorite riding horse with him to Clifford’s estate. He did not get to ride enough during the Season. Sedate walks on his mount in Hyde Park could satisfy neither horse nor master.
When the ladies had separated after dinner last night, the conversation turned toward the trouble facing the mills again. Brandon jibed at him more than usual. Apparently, the earl felt triumphant in his glory after having Sylvia Linwood hang on his arm all night. What could she possibly see in him?
He pushed the horse to gallop faster as he scolded himself. Nate should be attempting to court Lady Hannah—or perhaps find another lady who would suit his list. The fact that he called it a list and no longer referred to it as his needs or requirements was a testament to the reality of how much Miss Linwood got under his skin. He was halfway through dinner before he realized Lady Hannah sat next to him. However, he was aware of every false smile Sylvia offered Brandon.
The moment she had entered the drawing room last night, he felt her presence. Still having some control over himself, he avoided looking at her for a half an hour. During that time, he was all too aware of the direction of the other men’s eyes, the approving smiles they sent her, the hushed whispers around him all had her name on their lips. When, at last, he turned his eyes upon her, he noticed hardly anything out of the ordinary. She was beautiful, and she was confident. If he followed fashion better, he might know if it was the way her hair was styled or the cut of her gown that gained their notice. It certainly drew his attention, but there was some other quality about her which appealed to him.
Nate shook his head at the other men. How could you call a lady truly beautiful if it required a specific gown? She would not always appear that way, and then a man might discover who he really married. Woe to the man who only married for a comely shape or dazzling smile. He shook his head again, to dispel thoughts of Sylvia. The wind gusted and sent his hat flying under a tree. Reluctantly, he pulled his steed to a stop and dismounted. He bent, retrieved his hat* and dusted it off. Just before turning to walk back to his horse, something plopped on his head followed by a feminine voice uttered a curse.
Nate looked up to see Sylvia Linwood in a tree, her stocking foot dangling above his head.
“Miss Linwood,” he drawled. “Without an escort again.”
“So are you,” she said before huffing and folding her arms over her chest.
“And might I ask why you are up a tree?” He bent to pick up her boot. “And without your shoes?”
“There was a cat.”
Nate scanned the tree and then the surrounding area. “I see no feline. I suppose your mother never told you that if all your friends dropped off a bridge you did not need to copy them? The same holds true that if cats are up a tree, you do not need to do likewise.”
“Yes, I know that,” she snapped. “I surely knew that already. Do not look so well-pleased as though you handed down some valuable information and educated the little simpleton.”
Nate laughed. What else could he do? When they first met, she had reminded him of an angry kitten, and now she was in quite the predicament due to one and hissing just as much as she had done that first day.
“Well,” he tossed his hat down and spread open his arms. “I will catch you.”
“You cannot be too choosy about my method, madam. You are up a tree, and I have no intention of going up after you. Therefore, this is how I shall retrieve you.”
“Who says I need any assistance?”
“I assume if you did not you would have come down by now. And not have lost your boots…” He perused her body before returning his eyes to hers. “Or scraped your stockings.”
Sylvia looked down at her exposed legs, for her gown rested above her knees. Gasping, she attempted to arrange the fabric in a more ladylike position. She appeared indecisive until there was a crack of thunder, causing her to jolt. “Oh, Lud. Very well. I was out walking alone and saw a kitten. He appeared trapped and was loudly bemoaning his fate. I climbed up, and as I stretched forward to reach him, the branch bent lower, and he found his courage, leaping to safer ground.”
Nate grinned at her story. “Ah, but now it is too high for you?”
“If I were not so far from the house and it did not look like rain, I would have risked the sprained ankle. As it was, if I had injured myself, there would have been no assistance for some time.”
“Well, I am present now. So, jump if you wish. If you are hurt, I can carry you back to the house.” Sylvia’s brows rose at his words and Nate rushed to add, “On the horse, of course.” He waved his arm at the animal. “Of course, I could catch you instead, and then you could avoid any harm for certain.”
“I suppose I must,” she said with all the pleasure one expected from a criminal facing the gallows.
“On three,” he said and waited for her nod. “One, two, thr—”
Sylvia toppled over him and knocked him to the ground. Nate’s head rattled, but he had managed to soften her fall. “You jumped too early,” he muttered.
He could not make any more sense than that. He might have hit his head, but the greater impairment to his ability to think was the fact that Sylvia lay sprawled over him. Her hair had come out of its pins and fanned around her. She pushed herself to her elbows, and the pieces fell over her shoulder, creating a veil-like effect of strands as golden as the sun, despite the impending rain. She shifted, and a lock brushed against the skin of his face. His body responded in turn. This was far too intimate, far too erotic. If anyone saw them just now, they would assume a lover’s tryst, and she would be utterly compromised. That thought sobered him, bringing back his faculties as well as calming his desire.
“Could you get off of me?” His voice sounded harsher than he had intended but it was just as well.
“I would love to, your grace, but your arm is on my hair, and I am pinned.”
She thought she was pinned, did she? Indulging in a rare feeling of roguish desire, he grasped her hips, delighting in her astonished mew, and rolled them so he hovered over her, balancing on his elbows.
His head dropped near hers, and she gasped. Their bodies did not touch, yet he could feel the fast racing of her heart—or perhaps it was his matching time to her quickened breath. What on earth had come over him?
Nate pushed up, catching himself by balancing on his toes before lowering his feet to the ground. As fast as he had stood, he bent and offered his hand to her. Sylvia blinked rapidly but took it. In one single movement, he pulled her to her feet, then swept her up into his arms.
“Your grace!” she cried as she struggled to get down.
“Nate,” he said gruffly into her ear, pleased to feel her shiver. Nothing more could ever be, but he would enjoy holding her form against him for the moment it took to reach his horse.
“Nate?” she echoed in astonishment. “No, I cannot call a duke by his given name!”
“But he can carry you to his horse?”
“He does not need to carry me! I am perfectly capable of walking. If anyone saw—”
“Which is exactly why you should moderate your voice,” he whispered in her ear, another shudder coursed through her.
“Stop doing that!”
“What?” He inched his mouth closer to Sylvia’s ear even as her hair tickled his nose. “This?”
“Precisely,” she said in more of a pleased exhale than the irritated commands she usually gave him.
“As you wish,” he said, as his lips just barely grazed her skin.
“Oh,” she moaned.
Nate deposited her on the horse. Her breathy exhalation returned to irritation.
“A pity,” Nate smirked. “I think I preferred you the other way.” He grabbed the reins to his horse. Indeed, he had quite enjoyed her in his arms. He had also discovered a way to quiet her mouth, he added to himself. Quite the enjoyable way to do so, really.
“Well, I did not,” Sylvia glared.
“You are quite rude. Has anyone told you that, your grace?”
“It might astonish you,” he said as he led them down the trail, “that you are the first person rude enough to tell me.”
“I am not the rude one!” she screeched.
“Why the cat?” Nate asked, hoping his abruptness would disarm her reproofs.
“Do you always save small animals? Or was it only the cat that appealed to you?”
Nate looked over his shoulder as he awaited her answer.
“I do not know” she shrugged. “No one would ever call me maternal. There is hardly a feminine bone in my body.”
“Was it wounded?”
“It was crying for help,” she acknowledged. “It was helpless, and I was present. I am not a great nurse and do not think I shall excel in motherhood. However, I greatly like to be of assistance to others.”
“And does serving others often find you stuck up a tree with no rescue?”
Sylvia sighed as the stables came into view. She muttered something that Nate thought was, “I have found my rescue.”
Did she mean Brandon? How could such a stupid oaf of a man rescue her from anything? He was not terribly rich. He was not talented or intelligent. If she were seeking a man with deep pockets or position in Society, she would do much better to ensnare him.
Just before reaching the stables, it began to rain. Nate nearly pushed the groom aside to help Sylvia dismount. She avoided meeting his eyes as the water from her golden locks ran onto his arm. Once settled on the ground, he was hesitant to release her. She was so small against him, not quite reaching his shoulder. She shivered in the cold rain, and it was easy to think that she needed his protection or even that she desired it.
“Thank you, your grace,” she said and raised her eyes, at last, to him.
Sorrow glittered in them. He raised a brow.
“Thank you, Nate,” she said, before pushing past and running into the house.
At a slower rate, Nate trudged back to the house. His valet restored him to order, and when he entered the drawing room before dinner, he was confident he looked as much the Duke of Russell as ever. However, internally, he was less convinced. Sylvia laughed and smiled at everything Brandon said, giving the image to all that she was well on her way to being in love with him. For some reason, that unsettled him more than it did the night before.
She deserved better than Brandon, he acknowledged. Sylvia deserved someone who could match her wit and reason. Only a man who considered her needs over his own should be the man rewarded with her hand. Brandon had never thought of anyone but himself. Even now, Nate could tell he saw Sylvia only as a prize to be won.
As he watched her through the evening, Nate wondered about the change in her demeanor. With him, she had always been frank and open. He had seen her in humiliating circumstances, and she always held her own, wearing confidence the way others might wear a new cravat. At the Cliffords, the outspoken miss he had the pleasure of verbally sparring with transformed into a demure, but seemingly vacant-headed debutante who must be told how to think and feel. He could not puzzle her out and chose to fixate on that rather than the tug on his heart that happened whenever she glanced his way.