Meredith came at once to Phoebeâs side, as befitted a sorely smitten suitor. Bowing to her ear, he imparted that her brother was a fiend with the tongue of an asp, and that she looked properly hagged.
She leaned back in her chair and smiled up at him. âHow very un-charming you are, dear sir,â she said very softly.
âOh, yes,â he said just as softly, âI lack all the social graces, praise God! Allow me to demonstrate.â He stood and raised his voice. âMy friends, you will forgive do we go early to bed tonight. My betrothed and her family have been travelling since early morning, and are fairly exhausted.â
Such blunt dismissal of guests was new to Phoebeâs experience, and she stared at him in astonishment, aware that her motherâs mouth was all but hanging open.
Major Broadbent rose to his feet at once. âYou are perfectly right, Merry. Iâll be off, and thank you for your hospitality.â He kissed the hand of his hostess, bowed to my lady and Sinclair and, voicing the hope he would meet Phoebe again very soon, went out.
Lucille was plainly distressed and implored her friends not to run away, saying that although Lady Eloise and Miss Ramsay certainly must be fatigued, there was no need for everyone to leave.
Carruthers maintained a cool but implacable silence and, taking the hint, the other guests made their polite farewells and departed.
When they had gone, Phoebe retreated to the stairs with her mama, Carruthers leading the way, and proffering their candles.
My lady bade him a rather disjointed good night and started up the stairs on Sinclairâs arm.
Phoebe accepted her candle and gave her affianced a searching look. âGood gracious, sir,â she said. âI appreciate your concern, but in truth I wonder youâve a friend to your name.â
âConcern be hanged! I had to get rid of that lot if your brother and I are to tend to ourâencumbrance.â
She stared at him, not quite knowing whether to be amused or stern.
While she was thinking about it, Carruthers swooped down and planted a kiss on her cheek.
She jumped back, saying indignantly, âI thought it was agreed there was to be none of that!â
He shook his head at her. âYouâd make a poor spy, Miss Ramsay. You seem quite incapable of understanding that this is a most deadly predicament you have got me into.â
âOf course I understand, butââ
âIt is of vital import that we keep up the pretence if we are to come out of this alive.â
She glanced around. âCertainly. But there is no one here toââ
âOne of the first things I learned in my military career,â he said gravely, âwas that one does not fail to post sentries merely because there is no sign of the enemy.â
Phoebe regarded him suspiciously, then started up the stairs. She halted on the third step and looked back. He stood there, watching her. She fancied to detect a quickly suppressed grin, but then he said, âI believe we have taken sufficient precautions for tonight, maâam. Mustnât overdo it.â
The insolence of the creature! She announced with regal hauteur, âI was merely going to enquire as to when you mean to attend theâer, encumbrance. My brother is very tired.â
âThen heâll be a touch more so. Iâve to present my head for combing, first.â And with a short bow, he strode back towards the drawing room.
She remained there for a moment, looking after him. How straight was his walk, yet with the faintest suggestion of a cavalry swagger. Would his mama really comb him out? At dinner there had been an unmistakable hint of Lucilleâs holding a partiality for Jeffery, who was certainly the more charming and agreeable of her offspring. Still, Phoebe went to her suite troubled by the knowledge that because he had helped them, Carruthers must now attempt to pacify an incensed