* * *
“It’s very cold, m’lady,” Jane complained once again through chattering teeth.

“It will feel warmer after a few minutes,” Elizabeth said absently, sending her maid a reassuring smile as she quickened her pace, needing the fresh air and peace that walking provided her.

In truth, it was quite a bit colder than it had been yesterday. It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, but unfortunately it was also cold enough to form icicles on pretty much everything. When she’d stepped outside ten minutes ago and was hit with a blast of cold air, she’d considered going inside and spending the day by the fire with a good book, but after seeing Robert this morning, she needed to clear her head.

This morning she’d forced herself to get dressed after a restless night spent pacing her bedroom despite her exhaustion and went downstairs, hoping to use the late night to her advantage and break her fast alone before she secluded herself in the library for the day. She would have never left the safety of her room if she had known what waited for her in the breakfast room.

When she saw him standing there, filling his plate with an insane amount of food, wearing a ridiculous suit that was too small for him, she’d felt her heart skip a beat and had an overwhelming urge to walk up to him, wrap her arms around his neck and pull him down for a kiss. Knowing that he wouldn’t welcome her touch had felt a thousand times worse than when James had stepped out of her life and broken her young heart.

She’d wanted nothing more than to run up to her room, throw something and perhaps cry into her pillow as she bemoaned the unfairness of her situation, but she’d forced herself to walk into that room and pretend that her heart wasn’t breaking. After reminding herself that she was dealing with Robert Bradford, the horrid boy that had once filled her bureau drawers with snakes, she was able to act like his presence didn’t bother her.

But it did.

She was torn between kicking him or kissing him, neither one a very good option if she wanted to convince her father to allow her to leave London on her own.

“M’lady?” Jane said through clattering teeth.

“I’m sorry, Jane,” she said, forcing her thoughts away from Robert. “Here,” she said, removing her shawl from around her shoulders and holding it out to her maid.

Jane eyed the shawl with longing, but her training kept her from accepting even though her lips were starting to turn an interesting shade of purple. “No, thank you, m’lady,” she mumbled, forcing herself to look away.

With a muttered curse about the ridiculousness of propriety, Elizabeth stepped behind the trembling woman and wrapped the shawl around her shoulders before she stepped away and continued walking at a quick pace, needing the exercise.

“Thank you, m’lady,” Jane mumbled, gripping the shawl tightly around her shoulders as she did her best to keep up with Elizabeth.

“You’re welcome,” Elizabeth said, looking over her shoulder to give the other woman an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry that you had to come out with me in this cold.”

“It’s no trouble, m’lady,” Jane dutifully said when they both knew that the woman would rather be doing just about anything else.

Jane hated going for walks, which was why Elizabeth never asked for her company when they resided in the country. Out there the protection of a servant wasn’t needed. She could spend her days walking her father’s land freely without worry, but in London she was required to have a servant with her anytime she ventured away from the house without the protection of a relative. It was a ridiculous rule, one she’d argued about with her father every season, but one that she couldn’t seem to get out of.

Five minutes later she was regretting giving up her warm shawl as the cold finally managed to seep into her bones, making it painful to walk or breathe for that matter. Oh, why hadn’t she stayed home and waited for James to take her for a ride later? Because, she was stubborn and foolish, she decided as a violent shiver tore through her body, making her grind her teeth against the cold assault.

“What the hell are you doing out in this cold?” Robert snapped, startling her just as something rather warm was wrapped around her shoulders.

She looked down to find herself wrapped in a thick wool coat. Before she could argue, which she desperately wanted to do on principle alone, Robert was standing in front of her, giving her no choice but to stop walking as he finished pulling the coat around her and fastened the buttons.

“I’m perfectly fine,” she lied even as she gripped the inside of the coat to pull it more tightly around herself.

“Then why are your lips blue?” he asked softly as he gazed down at her.

“They’re not blue,” she argued, feeling herself tremble from something other than the cold as he reached up and gently pushed a strand of hair behind her ear.

“Why didn’t you wait for my brother?” he asked as he gently rubbed the back of his knuckles along her cheek.

Because she didn’t want to be courted by James, but she wasn’t about to admit that to him. Instead she thanked him for the use of his jacket and moved to step around him, but he wasn’t having that. He-

“Put me down!” she gasped as he picked her up and threw her over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes, turned around and started walking back the way they’d came.

“Just as soon as we reach your house so that your father can spank some sense into you,” he said, wrapping a rather large arm around her legs when she tried to kick her way to freedom.

“Put me down this instant, Robert!” she snapped, punching his bottom to emphasize her demand.

“I really shouldn’t be surprised,” he mused to himself, clearly uncaring that she was currently trying to fight her way to freedom.

“Sir?” Jane said, sounding unsure.

“Help get me down!” Elizabeth pleaded as she shifted so that she could send the maid an imploring look that was promptly ignored as the maid took in Robert’s size and determination. Noticeably swallowing, Jane shook her head, faltered back a step and focused all of her attention on the ground ahead of her.

“Traitor,” she muttered although she couldn’t really blame the woman.

“To be honest,” Robert went on, “I thought by now that your father would have you locked up.”

“I hate you!” she snapped, punching his bottom. If her attack hurt, it didn’t show.

“Hopefully, your husband will have more sense and will keep you locked up. Maybe in a convent where the sisters could beat some sense into you.”

“Robert Bradford, you put me down this instant!” she demanded, glad that the park was practically empty and other than a few street vendors trying to sell their wares, there was no one to witness her humiliation.

“Sure thing,” he said, quickening his pace, but he didn’t put her down. Instead, he forced her to grab onto the back of the thin lawn shirt that he wore to stop herself from bouncing all over the place.

A few minutes later, she was forced to tighten her hold on his shirt as he jogged up the stone steps to her father’s house. When she saw the freshly polished foyer floor, she sighed with relief, but it was short lived.

“You said that you’d put me down as soon as we reached the house,” she reminded him as she tried to wiggle out of his grip.