“Is there anything with which I may help you?” he asked, choosing his words – and his tone – with great care.
“No,” she said succinctly. And then: “Thank you.”
He sighed wearily, thinking it might be time to change his approach. “Honoria, you have no father, your brother is somewhere in Italy – we think – and your mother wants to retire to Bath.”
“What is your point?” she bit off.
“You are alone in this world,” he replied, almost as snappishly. He couldn’t recall the last time anyone had spoken to him in such a tone. “Or you might as well be.”
“I have sisters,” she protested.
“Has any of them offered to take you in?”
“Of course not. They know I live with Mother.”
“Who wants to retire to Bath,” he reminded her.
“I am not alone,” she said hotly, and he was horrified to hear a choke in her voice. But if she was near to tears, she pushed them back, because she was all anger and indignation when she said, “I have scads of cousins. Scads. And four sisters who would take me into their homes in a heartbeat if they thought it was necessary.”
“Honoria . . .”
“And I have a brother, too, even if we don’t know where he is. I don’t need – ” She broke off, and she blinked, as if surprised by the words on her tongue.
But she said it anyway. “I don’t need you.”
There was a horrible silence. Marcus did not think about all the times he’d sat at her supper table. Or the family pantomimes in which he’d always played a tree. They’d been dreadful, every last one of them, but he’d loved every branchy, leafy moment. He’d never wanted the lead roles – he was thrilled never to have to speak at all – but he’d loved taking part. He’d loved being there. With them. As a family.
But he didn’t think about any of this. He was quite sure he wasn’t thinking about any of this as he stood there staring at the girl who was telling him she didn’t need him.
And maybe she didn’t.
And maybe she was no longer a girl, either.
He let out a pent-up breath and reminded himself that it didn’t matter what she thought she felt about him. Daniel had asked him to watch over her, and watch over her he would.
“You need . . .” He sighed, trying to think of some way to say it that wouldn’t make her irate. There was none, he concluded, so he just said it. “You need help.”
She drew back. “Are you offering yourself as my guardian?”
“No,” he said vehemently. “No. Believe me, that’s the last thing I’d want.”
She crossed her arms. “Because I’m such a trial.”
“No.” Good God, how had the conversation deteriorated so quickly? “I am merely trying to help.”
“I don’t need another brother,” she said sharply.
“I don’t want to be your brother,” he shot back. And then he saw her again, rather, saw her differently again. Maybe it was her eyes, or her skin, high with color. Or the way she was breathing. Or the curve of her cheek. Or the little spot where her –
“You have dirt on your cheek,” he said, handing her his handkerchief. She didn’t, but he needed something with which to change the subject.
She dabbed at her face with the handkerchief, then looked down at the still snowy-white cloth, frowned, and dabbed again.
“It’s gone,” he said.
She returned his handkerchief, then just stood there, giving him a sullen, stony stare. She looked twelve again, or at least was wearing the expression of a twelve-year-old, which was just fine with him.
“Honoria,” he said carefully, “as Daniel’s friend – ”
“Don’t.” Nothing more. Just don’t.
He took a breath, using the time to choose his words. “Why is it so difficult to accept assistance?”
“Do you?” she countered.
He stared at her.
“Do you like to accept assistance?” she clarified.
“It depends upon who is offering it.”
“Me.” She crossed her arms, looking somewhat satisfied with her reply, although for the life of him, he had no idea why. “Just imagine it. Imagine the tables were turned.”
“Assuming it was a topic about which you had some expertise, then yes, I would be happy to accept assistance from you.” He crossed his arms, too, rather pleased with himself. It was a perfect sentence, placating and agreeable, and saying nothing at all.
He waited for her reply, but after a few moments she just gave her head a little shake and said, “I have to get back.”
“They’ll be missing you?”
“They should have already been missing me,” she muttered.
“The twisted ankle,” he murmured. With a sympathetic nod.
She returned that with a scowl and marched off. In the wrong direction.
She turned around.
He took great care not to smile as he pointed her in the correct direction. “Bricstan is that way.”
Her jaw tensed, but she just said, “Thank you,” and turned about. But she spun too fast and lost her footing. She let out a shriek as she tried to regain her balance, and Marcus did what any gentleman would instinctively do. He rushed forward to steady her.
Except he stepped in that damned mole hole.
The next cry of surprise was his, and somewhat profane, he was ashamed to admit. They both went down when he lost his balance, and they landed on the damp earth with a thud, Honoria on her back, and Marcus right on top of her.