Brinton and Spelling had headed straight for the kitchen upon leaving the twins.
“I thought service to my country had hardened me, Archie,” the earl said as they made their way down the narrow stairs. “Now I find it is not so.”
“You weren’t thinking of giving them the bed?” Archie responded in mock alarm.
Brinton laughed. “Would I do that? I was not referring to creature comforts, actually. I meant my heart –either it or my head is still soft after all.”
“Better those than a certain other part of your anatomy,” Archie teased. “You were always the man for a lady in distress, Raff! But I can’t see where your interest will get you if she’s already headed for Gretna Green!”
“I no longer think that is the case.”
“I doubt they are lovers, Archie. More likely relations. Did you not notice the resemblance between them? And I think they are quarreling up there even as we speak.”
“Relations don’t signify,” Archie argued. “Cousins marry all the time! As for quarrels, what better proof of love could you ask for?” He laughed. “I think you’ve developed a case of wishful thinking! I’ll wager my matched grays they’re headed for Gretna Green. But I’ll not settle for anything less than your Tristan against my famous grays.”
Brinton hesitated. He seldom gambled without a good sense of the odds, although his luck was almost legendary. He took pride in the reliability of his instincts, yet what did he know? Nothing for certain. Could Archie be right about wishful thinking? Were emotions clouding his judgment?
* * *
He wondered again when he felt the pleasure sparked by the mere sight of the girl as he and Archie returned to their room, laden with bounty salvaged from the kitchen.
“We were successful beyond our wildest dreams,” Spelling announced cheerfully, brandishing a decanter of ruby port and a tray with glasses and a large wedge of cheese.
The girl had been standing bareheaded near the fire, her luxuriant curls fully exposed. At their entrance she clapped a hand to her head and sent an agonized look to her companion, who promptly tossed over the cap she had left on the table.
The exchange amused the earl. He noted with satisfaction the wet clothes spread before the hearth and the drier ensembles that now clothed his guests. The tension in the room seemed at least reduced.
“I’m pleased to see you both have found something dry to put on,” he said, nodding with approval. “A further bit of refreshment and you will feel much more the thing.”
He moved close behind the girl and, stopping there, gently removed her soggy cap and tossed it onto the hearth. “There is no need to be uncomfortable,” he said softly.
Her hair was a magnificent color, touched with red where it gleamed in the candlelight, but dark where a wet tendril lay against her ear. He could smell the rain-washed freshness of it. The urge to touch it was so strong, he could not allow himself to move at all for a moment.
“Your ‘brother’ here needs to know that he is quite safe with us,” he said, addressing his remark to Gilbey.
The lad nodded, but the girl stood absolutely rigid in front of Brinton. She was so small! She came no higher than his shoulder. He could tell she was holding her breath, and he felt a little twinge of satisfaction to know that he could affect her.
“You may have difficulty convincing my ‘brother’ of that,” Gilbey confessed, nervously clearing his throat. “It shames me to tell you, after all your generosity, but it seems he is convinced the two of you have designs on our purse.” Gilbey’s face was nearly scarlet. “He felt it only fair to warn you that we are armed with a pistol, and are in such desperate need of our blunt we would be quite prepared to defend it.”
Brinton and Spelling exchanged amused looks, then the earl threw back his head and laughed loudly. It was not quite the cool behavior expected of a fashionable gentleman.
“And now that you have so gallantly warned us,” said Brinton, restoring some of his polite control, “would that stop us from robbing you, if, indeed, that was our intent?”
Gilbey flushed even deeper and looked down at the table. His silent partner stared stonily into the fire as if she hadn’t heard at all.
“If I might offer some friendly advice,” Brinton went on, “don’t let anyone know you have a weapon.” A smile was playing at the corners of his mouth. “That is almost as foolish as letting them know you have a heavy purse! Preserve the advantage of surprise.”
Brinton put his hands on Gillian’s shoulders and turned her towards the table. “Come, sit down and eat and drink. I’m sure you need to be warmed on the inside as much as the outside.”
Gillian in fact felt as if she was on fire from his touch. If he hadn’t wanted her to feel uncomfortable, why had he stood so unbearably close? His proximity had created a warm tingling in her bones that numbed her mind. She had not dared to breathe. Now she felt foolish and confused as well. She stumbled toward the chair and sat down opposite her brother, accepting a glass of port with trembling fingers.