The front desk of the Lowry’s Inn was a veritable hotbed of activity. Mr Lowry had been called from his desk several times, and Rose had amused herself by ascertaining the reasons why. First had been Mr Embry delivering a side of beef, which she’d determined by virtue of Mr Embry being the only producer within a ten mile radius and, upon his return, Mr Lowry had called Mrs Lowry to his side, resulting in a brief discussion and Mrs Lowry had changing the menu on the chalk board to include roast beef. Another had clearly been a delivery of flour by Mr Collier, as Mr Lowry’s coat and trousers had been lightly dusted with the stuff upon his resumption of his post. There had been other absences and resumptions, each explainable upon concentration and observation, and it had kept her occupied while awaiting Mr Evan’s arrival.
Shifting, Rose rolled her shoulders as subtly as she could. She hadn’t slept well. The bed had one lump that had refused to move, no matter how she poked and prodded at the mattress. While she appreciated why Lady Caro wished her stay at Lowry’s, her neck and shoulders protested the inferior bed.
The abrupt, clipped tone set her heart racing. Resisting the urge to smooth her hair, she turned. “Mr Evans,” she greeted him breathlessly, cursing herself at the tremulousness of her voice.
Mr Evans, however, made no comment, instead continuing out the door.
Astonishment had her rooted to the spot.
After a moment, he returned, brows drawn into a frown. “Are you not ready?”
“Do you require something fetched?”
“Then what are you waiting for? The carriage is here.”
“So we are then to Faringdon Abbey?” she asked sharply.
His frown darkened. “Where else would we journey?”
Of course. Because she had been awaiting his arrival and just because he had not greeted her warmly was no reason for her to take her bad mood out on him. Closing her eyes briefly, she said softly, “Of course. My apologies. Let us depart.”
Still frowning, he turned on his heel and led the way to the carriage. As he was about to alight, he hesitated. With a small shake of his head, he turned to offer his hand.
She looked at it. Then she looked at him.
Silence stretched between them as he waited for her to take his hand. “Well?” he finally said.
She dropped her gaze to his hand. Encased in fine calfskin, his palm was broad, his long fingers outstretched. “You don’t need to offer your hand to me.”
“I am a servant.”
“You’re not my servant.”
“I am below you.”
He scowled. “You are a female. I am being polite.”
Well, she couldn’t argue with that. Hesitantly, she took his hand. His grip was firm, the calfskin of his glove smooth against her own work-roughened skin. As soon as her fingers were encased by his, he practically hauled her into the carriage, and a memory hit her, of when she had been a girl and serving in her father’s pub.
Concentrating on the large, heavy tray of drinks she’d been carrying, she hadn’t noticed the satchel. She’d stumbled, the tray wobbling and the drinks sloshed dangerously but a strong hand curled around her upper arm and another had steadied the tray. The crisis averted, she’d made to thank her rescuer only for the words to die in her throat. Dark eyes had assessed her, and a voice almost to manhood had in an abrupt and clipped tone asked if she were injured. He had then turned to admonish his companion for the careless placement of his satchel, further cementing her infatuation.
She had forgotten that moment until now. She should not have. That was the moment the girl she had been had tumbled into love with Nathaniel Evans.
From that moment on, she’d lived for when he’d visited her father’s pub, which given he and his friends were students at a Cambridge university had been numerous and frequent. Her infatuation had lasted even beyond his graduation, such that when she’d entered Lady Caro’s service and begun to learn reading and writing, she’d chosen to write unsent letters to him to practice.
Shaking off the memory, she settled into the carriage, folding her hands in her lap. Mr Evans sat opposite, removing his hat and his gloves but keeping his coat. Running a hand through his hair, he turned to stare out the window.
They travelled in silence, so. Usually if she sat in a carriage, Lady Caro desired work completed or some conversation, and as she was not thus occupied, she occupied herself instead with studying him.
Lady Caro had been correct in her words—he was astonishingly handsome. His profile displayed the sharp line of his jaw, the fullness of his lips. His coat outlined his lean form and broad shoulders. Dark hair waved back from his forehead in disarray, his fingers having destroyed the hard work his valet had no doubt performed. It was completely obvious why ladies found him devastatingly attractive—and why they would make a play to share his bed.
Face hot, she felt a sudden urge to fill the silence. “What is your stratagem for today?”
His head whipped around. “What?”
He may be handsome, but his manner left much to be desired. Well used to rudeness, she kept her smile pleasant. “I would presume you would have determined a strategy in relation to your investigation. As I am to assist you, I thought it prudent to ask what it might be so I can help facilitate it.”
Resisting the urge to fidget, or to fill the silence, she met his dark stare calmly, waiting.
“I shall ask questions,” he finally said. “Eventually the answer will be obvious.”
She blinked. “That is your strategy.”
“What else would it be?”
“Because it is. As is the situation.” He looked again out the window.
Brow creasing, she examined his profile. Was he being deliberately obtuse? Was he unused to explaining himself? Or was he, in actuality, unaccountably rude? “How do you mean?”
Clearly irritated at her continued questions, he turned to lock his gaze on her. “The culprit will become obvious before the day is done. I have already deduced this case will not be difficult and will, ultimately, be unworthy of my talents. This will become obvious before the day is done.”
“Then,” she said deliberately. “Why are you here?”
The faintest hint of uncertainty shadowed his gaze.
“If the death of Lady Caro’s fiancé is so unworthy of your talents, then why are you here?”
He opened his mouth, then closed it.
They sat like that, he staring at her and she refusing to give him quarter.
“You wrote me a letter,” he finally said.
“I did. However, you could have easily ignored it.”
“You wrote me a letter,” he said again, then he shook his head. “I do not understand why we are discussing this. It is a waste of intellect and both of our time.” Looking out the window, he presented his profile once more.
Laced fingers digging into her clasped hands, she forced a retort silent. He was quite happy with their association being fractious and, well, she had little care to change his opinion. Quite deliberately, she turned her gaze to examine countryside as well, though she could not for the life of her recall what it was she saw.
The rest of the journey was conducted in silence.