“Indeed,” Hugh murmured. He supposed he was thankful, actually. Better Lady Frances than some stuffy old lady or a gentleman with a cheroot. And surely her sisters would be tolerable.
“I asked him specially,” Frances continued. “I had such a nice time at the wedding yesterday.” She turned to her sisters. “We ate cake together.”
“I saw,” Elizabeth said.
“Do you mind riding backwards?” Frances asked. “Harriet and Elizabeth both get sick if they do.”
“Frances!” Elizabeth protested.
“It’s true. What would be more embarrassing, my telling Lord Hugh that you get sick from riding backwards, or actually getting sick from riding backwards?”
“I would prefer the former myself,” Hugh said.
“Are you going to chatter the whole way?” Harriet asked. Of the three, she looked the most like Sarah. Her hair was a few shades lighter, but the shape of her face was the same, and so was her smile. She looked at Hugh with a hint of embarrassment. “I beg your pardon. I was addressing my sisters, of course. Not you.”
“Think nothing of it,” he said with a light smile. “But as it happens, I don’t intend to chatter the whole way.”
“I was planning to write,” Harriet continued, moving a small sheaf of papers onto her lap desk.
“You can’t do that,” Elizabeth said. “You’ll get ink everywhere.”
“No, I won’t. I’m developing a new technique.”
“For writing in the carriage?”
“It involves less ink. I promise. And did anyone remember to pack biscuits? I always get hungry before we stop for lunch.”
“Frances brought some. And you know Mother will have a fit if you get ink on—”
“Watch your elbows, Frances.”
“So sorry, Lord Hugh. I hope that didn’t hurt. And I didn’t bring any biscuits. I thought Elizabeth was going to do so.”
“Did you sit on my doll?”
“Oh, bother. I knew I should have eaten a bigger breakfast. Stop looking at me like that. I’m not going to get ink on the cush—”
“Your doll is right here. How does one use less ink?”
Hugh could only stare. There appeared to be sixteen different conversations going on at once. With only three participants.
“Well, I just jot down the main ideas—”
“Do the main ideas have unicorns?”
Hugh had been completely unable to track who was saying what until that.
“Not the unicorns again,” Elizabeth groaned. She looked over at Hugh and said, “Please forgive my sister. She is obsessed with unicorns.”
Hugh glanced down at Frances. She’d gone rigid with anger and was glaring at her sister. He didn’t really blame her; Elizabeth’s tone had been as older-sibling as it got, two parts condescension and one part derision. And while he didn’t really hold that against her—he would have been the same at her age, he was sure—he was seized by a sudden urge to be a little girl’s hero.
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been anyone’s hero.
“I rather like unicorns,” he said.
Elizabeth looked stunned. “You do?”
He shrugged. “Doesn’t everyone?”
“Yes, but you don’t believe in them,” Elizabeth said. “Frances thinks they are real.”
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Frances eyeing him nervously.
“I certainly cannot prove that they don’t exist,” he said.
Frances let out a squeak.
Elizabeth looked as if she’d been staring into the sun too long.
“Lord Hugh,” Frances said, “I—”
Frances stopped midsentence and they all looked toward the carriage door. It was Sarah’s voice, just outside the carriage, and she did not sound happy.
“Do you think she’s going to ride with us?” Elizabeth whispered.
“Well, she did on the way here,” Harriet replied.
Lady Sarah. In the carriage. Hugh was not sure he could imagine a more diabolical torture.
“It’s here with your sisters or with Arthur and Rupert,” came the voice of Lady Pleinsworth. “I’m sorry, but we just don’t have room in . . .”
“I won’t get to sit with you,” Frances told Hugh apologetically. “They won’t all three fit on the other side.”
Lady Sarah would be sitting next to him. Apparently there was a more diabolical torture.
“Don’t worry,” Harriet assured him, “Sarah doesn’t get sick riding backwards.”
“No, it’s fine,” they all heard Sarah say, “I don’t mind riding with them, but I was hoping—”
The door was wrenched open. Sarah was already halfway up the step, her back to the carriage as she continued to speak with her mother. “It’s just that I’m tired, and—”
“It’s time to depart,” Lady Pleinsworth cut in firmly. She gave her daughter a little shove. “I won’t be the one to hold everyone up.”
Sarah let out an impatient exhale as she backed into the carriage and turned around and—
“Good morning,” Hugh said.
Her mouth hung open in surprise.
“I’ll move over,” Frances grumbled. She got up and moved across the carriage, trying to take the window seat from Elizabeth before ending up, arms crossed, in the center.
“Lord Hugh,” Sarah said, clearly at a loss. “I, ehrm . . . What are you doing here?”