He squeezed the lad’s shoulder, hard enough to hurt without doing damage, hoping he could scare him into giving up information. Whatever his motive for setting the trap, Will suspected the boy had not acted alone, and he was determined to get the name of whoever had ordered the act.
“And you’ve damaged a valuable horse, probably permanently,” he added.
Will hoped not. Jet had been with him throughout his time in the army, had carried him through Portugal, Spain and France, and into Belgium, to the horrific charnel house at Waterloo. Will owed his life to the fearless stallion. If he was going to lose him now, on a peaceful English lane, somebody was going to pay.
“Why did you do it?” he insisted. “Who ordered it done?”
The boy shook his head. Tears and spittle flew in all directions.
“You will tell me. Easy or hard is up to you, but you will tell me.”
“Let him be!” Eleanor Forbes-Smythe had steered onto the verge to avoid hitting them, almost oversetting her cart on the camber. Now, she clutched the reins tightly, shoulders rigid, face thunderous. She wore a rich red dress, and with the red and lemon feathers curling around her hat, and that terrible expression on her face, she almost looked as if she was on fire.
“I caught this villain on your property,” began Will.
“He is no villain! Unhand him at once!” She clambered to the ground and marched toward him, her riding crop fisted in one hand. Her eyes sparked, drawing his attention, commanding every nerve and fibre with their magnificence. Will had to remind himself to draw breath. His grip on the boy slackened and before he could tighten it again, his captive pulled free and ran.
Will gave chase but the boy was too fast. After fifty yards, Will pulled up, knowing it was futile. The boy vaulted a fence, ran across a meadow and disappeared beyond the dry stone wall on the far side.
“Now look what you’ve done!” Miss Forbes-Smythe sounded horrified.
Will turned to her, astonished.
“You frightened him, and now he’s run off into Marshy Meadow.”
“I hadn’t frightened him anywhere near enough,” Will retorted. “But I would have.”
“You—you brute!” She raised her fists. The whip came up and Will flinched, half expecting to feel its bite. “You bully! You—you—” she finished on a shout of angry frustration.
He glared at her, jaw so tight his head hurt. “It might interest you to know, Miss, that this ‘bullying brute’ just fell foul of an attempt to do you harm, and thanks to your intervention on his behalf, the culprit is now free to try again.”
She frowned, quiet for a moment while she took in that information. Will waited for the horror to hit her, for the frightened tears to begin, and for the inevitable faint. He prepared to catch her.
But Eleanor Forbes-Smythe did not faint. Of course she didn’t. This woman was made of sterner stuff than that, a fact that should have made Will glad. He’d always had a horror of simpering females who cried and had the vapours at the slightest excuse. It made no sense at all that his arms now felt empty because she hadn’t collapsed into them, or that regret for her strength gnawed at him.
She raised a disbelieving eyebrow. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “Ned Fellows would never do me harm.” She stared out in the direction the boy had fled.
“I beg to differ, madam.”
She sniffed and looked him up and down, her contempt plain. “You may beg all you like, my lord, but Ned Fellows would not harm anybody. Not even you, though you gave him cause. And now he’s gone into Marshy Meadow, where he can break a leg, or his neck.” She glanced back at her cart, stuck on the verge. “You’ll need to help me right my vehicle so I can go and find him.”
Will raked a hand through his hair, frustrated beyond belief. What was the matter with the woman? Did she not understand the danger? Did she wish to be murdered?
“Now, if you please,” she snapped. “If I follow the road around, I may reach the far side before he does.”
It took less than a minute for Will to manoeuvre her vehicle back onto the road. He handed Miss Forbes-Smythe into it and climbed in beside her.
The look she gave him was pure ice. “What are you doing?” she asked.
“I’m coming with you.”
“Not a good idea. You’ve frightened him already with your bullying.”
“He tried to kill you. That was almost certainly his plan. I will not stand by while he takes advantage of another opportunity.” He wrapped his hands around hers, intending to make her flick the reins and start the pony moving forward. Heat flared between them, and sent shocks up from his fingers, along his arm, and into his whole body.
She pulled away quickly as if she had felt it, too. “He…” her voice was strained and she cleared her throat and tried again. “He did no such thing,” she said. “Anyone with a teaspoon of commonsense could see he doesn’t have it in him to plan to kill anybody.”
She pressed her lips together and raised her chin in defiance, giving Will a better view of her profile, unshadowed by her hat now. He wanted to reach out and touch her cheek, to learn if it was as petal-soft as it looked, to feel the soft weight of her golden hair…
Wondering when he had become such a poetic sap, he inhaled deeply, trying to restore his equilibrium. The breath filled him with the scent of her; flowers and fresh air and beautiful woman.