Loving the Marquess(10)

By: Suzanna Medeiros



“Thank you,” she said.

To give herself time to regain her composure, she folded the dress with care and placed it on the settee next to the sewing basket before facing Overlea again.

He seemed to be studying her. “Is something the matter?” he asked when he finally spoke.

Other than the fact she had been caught preening like a silly school girl, Louisa thought, with a dress that was not and could never be hers, what could possibly be the matter?

“No, nothing, my lord. You need not concern yourself with me. But what about you? How are you feeling?”

At her words, his jaw tightened and a mask came down over his features. The warmth and concern she’d seen in his eyes only moments before was gone.

“I’m fine.”

He entered the room and crossed to the window, his back to her.

She was not convinced he was telling her the truth. “Is there anything I can do for you?”

“Thank you, but no.” He turned to face her, his hands clasped behind his back. “I have decided to return home. There are matters there that require my attention.”

“When?”

“Now. After I take my leave of you.”

She could only stare at him for several moments. The marquess had stumbled after breakfast, proving to everyone he was not completely recovered, and now he intended to ride home? Surely even he could see such an action would be foolhardy.

“Are you certain you are feeling up to it? Only this morning—”

“Yes,” he said, an edge of impatience in his tone. “I am aware of what happened this morning. It was nothing.”

“But—”

“Surely I do not have to explain myself to you?”

His words hit her like a slap, stopping her cold. The man who stood before her now was not the same person with whom she had shared breakfast that morning. He certainly wasn’t the person who had understood the pain of having lost a father. The man she had found herself beginning to like. No, this man was a stranger.

She felt the loss of that man more deeply than she cared to admit. It was clear she’d been acting foolishly. He was, after all, a Manning. But despite his cool demeanor, she couldn’t allow him to leave.

“No, of course not, my lord. You owe me no explanations. But perhaps you could wait until John returns. I expect him midafternoon. He can ride with you.”

She didn’t think it possible, but he seemed to stiffen even more.

“That will not be necessary,” he said, his words clipped.

Louisa couldn’t understand his anger, nor could she understand the cursed male pride that balked at showing any sign of weakness. Surely he realized she was just concerned for his safety. But if Overlea insisted he was well, she wouldn’t be able to prevent him from leaving. Overlea Manor wasn’t far by horseback and she could only hope his strength would hold until he reached it.

“I am in your debt, Miss Evans.” He paused briefly. When he continued, his voice had lost its curt edge. “If there is ever anything I can do for you or your family, you need only ask.”

Now it was her turn to stiffen. Distasteful as the thought was, they might one day have to rely on the charity of strangers. But she, too, had her pride, and she doubted they would ever be so desperate as to accept charity from the Mannings.

“Thank you,” she said.

He looked at her for several seconds. His dark eyes seemed to see straight through her and she couldn’t help but think that he knew what she was thinking. Finally, he looked away and reached into his coat pocket to produce a small gilt case from which he removed a calling card.

“Please accept this,” he said, handing her the card. “I’ve written my direction in town on the back. I’m not sure how long I will remain in the country. If you change your mind—” She started to protest, but he spoke over her objection. “If you change your mind, please feel free to contact me.”

She stared down at the card, a suspicion forming. “I will not accept payment for last night.”

“No, of course not.” He rushed to reassure her. “But you may very well have saved my life.” His lips twisted slightly at that. “At the very least, your hospitality saved me from a cold, uncomfortable night on the side of the road. Hopefully you will never have need of my assistance, but I want you to know the offer stands.”

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