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Max dodged - and found himself face to face with the smallest, strangest, and certainly most belligerent stagecoach driver he had ever met.
‘You oaf!’ It was his young woman. In the better light of the inn yard she was even more striking than he recalled from that startling glimpse, her looks heightened by shimmering fury. No classical beauty, although a low-crowned beaver jammed down almost to her eyebrows so that not a lock of hair showed, did not help. And goodness knows what her figure was like under the bulk of the caped greatcoat. But her face was a perfect oval, her skin clear, her eyes deep blue and her mouth flooded his mind with explicit, arousing images.
‘What are you staring at, sir?’ she demanded, giving him the opportunity to admire the way those lovely lips looked in motion, glimpsing a flash of white teeth. ‘Haven’t you ever seen a woman driving before?’ She grounded the butt of her whip with one hand and glowered at him.
Tall, she’s tall for a woman, he thought irrelevantly as she tipped back her head, just a little, to look at him.
‘Not one driving a stagecoach,’ he admitted. Somewhere behind him the increase in noise heralded the arrival of the two rival drags. Max moved instinctively to shield her from sight. ‘Madam, I must apologise for that incident. Naturally I will meet any damages to the coach, and you must allow me to pay for whatever drinks the passengers are taking in there.’
‘Certainly. Your card for the bill?’ That was businesslike with a vengeance. Max dug into the breast pocket of his coat and produced his card case. ‘Send me a round sum, I am not concerned with detail - it was our fault.’
‘It most certainly was, and I am concerned with detail, You will get a full accounting. Now, if you please, I must see to having my next team put to.’
‘Wait. You surely do not want to be seen by the other drivers.’ He did not appear to be in the least discommoded by being found, dressed as a man, in the midst of a group of boisterous gentlemen.
‘Really, Mr…’ She glanced at the card, tilting it to catch the lantern light: her eyebrows rose. ‘Lord Penrith, I am in a hurry.’ If it had been a young man with that accent and that attitude he would have assumed it was some young sprig of fashion out for a thrill. But women did not drive stages, and ladies most certainly did not drive anything on public highways outside the centre of town.
‘Damn it, Dysart, if it wasn’t for that damnable stagecoach I’d have had you in the last straight.’ Latymer.
Max swung round, the flaring skirts of his greatcoat effectively screening the willowy figure of the woman. ‘Go and argue the toss with Nevill,’ he suggested. ‘But I say you lost it on the pull past Syon house. How far behind was Lansdowne?’
‘One minute, but I still maintain -‘
‘I’ll be with you inside in a moment. I’ve just got to argue this blockhead down from claiming half the cost of his damn coach,’ he added, low-voiced, taking Latymer by the arm and turning him away. ‘I told Nevill to get the brandy in.’
As he suspected, that was enough to turn the grumbling man back to the warmth of the inn parlour. As usual, whenever Latymer lost something he would insist on a prolonged post-mortem, the aim of which would be to prove he had failed for reasons entirely outside his control.
When he turned back, the young woman, far from taking advantage of his efforts to shield her, was engaged in spirited discussions with the head ostler about the team he was proposing to put to. ‘And not that black one either. It’s half-blind,’ she called after him as he stomped back to the stables to fetch another horse.
‘I will not run with those broken-down wrecks they try and fob one off with at night,’ she pronounced as he came up with her.
‘Miss Mallory. Bree Mallory.’
‘Miss Mallory, you cannot be intending to continue driving?’
‘As far as Newbury.’ She turned an impatient shoulder on him, watching the team being put to. It would take only a few minutes, now the horses had been agreed. ‘Jem, get the passengers.’
‘But wait, you’ve had a nasty shock.’ Max put out his hand and caught her by the right wrist, then dropped it as she went white and gasped in pain.
For a sickening moment the yard spun and Bree found herself caught up hard against Lord Penrith’s chest.
‘Let me go!’ The effect of being held by a strange man - no, by this strange man - was making her as dizzy as the pain. Reluctantly, it seemed, he opened his arms.
‘You are hurt. Let me see.’ What a nice voice he has, she thought irrelevantly. Deep and gentle and compelling.She had no intention of doing as he asked, and yet, somehow, her hand was in his again and he was peeling back the cuff of the gauntlet to examine the wrist. ‘Has that just happened?’ She nodded. ‘Can you move your fingers?’
‘Yes, it isn’t broken,’ she said impatiently. His concern was weakening her; she had to tell herself it was nothing, that she could drive despite it.
‘Well, you aren’t driving a stage with that. You had best go inside and get it bound up.’
‘Yes, I am driving! I cannot abandon a coach full of passengers here, let alone the parcels we’re carrying. The Challenge Coach Company does not cancel coaches.’
‘There are entirely too many cs in that sentence,’ Lord Penrith remarked, ‘but it does at last prove that you haven’t been drinking if you can declaim it. the coach won’t be cancelled. ‘I’ll drive it.’