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She shows an equal propensity for mathematics, which I believe she sees as just another language, and she needs a teacher who cannot simply keep up with her but who can challenge and guide her. The intellect of a child must be nurtured carefully if learning is to be made a lifelong habit.”

“Even the intellect of a girl child?” He said it to goad her, to keep the fire in her brown eyes and the animation in her expression. If his sisters could have heard him, though, he’d be minced meat. He should be minced meat, in fact.

She would have stomped off had Ethan not caught her hand.

“My apologies.” He bowed slightly over her hand. “The question was unworthy of me, and you are right to take umbrage.”

“Umbrage?” Miss Portman snatched back her hand. “Umbrage is taken by vicars and duchesses, Mr. Grey. I am offended you would question the appropriateness of developing a mind as talented as little Priscilla’s. Given the unfortunate circumstances of her birth, her education might someday be all she has to fall back on.”

“Mr. Belmont wouldn’t allow that,” Ethan said. Hell, Nick wouldn’t allow that. “I wouldn’t allow it.”

“You barely know her,” Miss Portman shot back, but her tone had taken on an edge of curiosity.

“I don’t know her well, personally,” Ethan said, “but I do know, personally, what it’s like to be raised with only immediate family for company, Miss Portman. I know what it’s like to have my mother’s name as my own, what it’s like to require letters and dispensations to be able to claim any tie to my titled father. Priscilla’s parents can love her—mine loved me, after their fashion—but they cannot ease her path through life once she leaves their care.”

She stomped along in silence beside him, and Ethan could only guess at the thoughts rocketing around behind her grim expression.

He was about to open his mouth to stumble through further apologies, when a rabbit bolted from the undergrowth, followed closely by a second of the same species. His companion startled, gave a muffled shriek, and then toppled sideways, her gloved hand slipping from his grasp as she fell.

Two

In the instant between losing her balance and knowing she was going to fall, Alice had time for thoughts.

Please, God, not this, not now, with the arrogant and condescending Mr. Grey on hand to witness it, and only him to help me. Please…

“I’ve got you.” The words were gruff, the grip on her arms ungentle, but the way Ethan Grey held her against his chest was secure and such a relief Alice hung there, catching her balance in something very like an embrace.

“I’ve got you,” Mr. Grey said again, his grip relaxing, though he didn’t step back.

And neither did Alice. The near fall had scared her; the near falls always scared her, had her heart hammering in her chest, her breath coming too quickly, and memories—the worst memories in her possession— obliterating rational processes.

Panic swirled close. Alice forced her breathing to slow rather than allow that panic any closer.

“Here.” Mr. Grey tugged at her, his arm slipping around her waist as he guided her to a fallen tree large enough to sit on. He tossed the folded blanket over the tree and urged her down, sitting beside her with his arm still around her waist.

Ethan Grey was an awful man. He beat his children, and Alice hadn’t once caught him smiling; but he was tall, strong, and solid, and he smelled of cedar and safety. When he urged her against him, she leaned just a little.

“You’re pale as a ghost,” he said, his tone displeased. “If I had smelling salts, I’d be waving them under your nose. Are you going to faint?”

She shook her head, though she had to swallow twice to find her voice.

“I have a bad hip,” she said, eyes on her lap so he couldn’t see her embarrassment. “When it gives out, it can lame me for a considerable time, and the house is not close.”

“As if I’d leave you here for the gamekeeper to discover on his fall rounds some months hence. Does your hip pain you now?”

“You caught me in time.” Though her hip did pain her. It pained her nigh constantly, and this little slip would mean a bad night at least. It could have been so very much worse. “My thanks.”

“Hmm.” He regarded her, no doubt seeing her lips pinched against pain, her complexion pale, and her composure—upon which she prided herself—eluding her. “Has your hip always been unreliable?”

He made it sound as if her hip was a shifty, shady sort of character, not a body part they shouldn’t even be alluding to.

“I wasn’t born this way.” She glanced up at him, some of her irritation coming back, and wasn’t that a relief, probably to them both. “It’s worse if I’m tired, or I try to move too quickly.”

“We’re about halfway between the house and the orchard. What’s your pleasure?” He stood with his hands on his hips, looking put out. That was some comfort.

“Press on,” she said, trying to rise, only to find Mr. Grey’s hand on her arm restraining her.

“Soon.” His eyes—a startlingly handsome blue—lit with what had to be his version of humor. “Rest a minute longer, Miss Portman. You can do it if you put your considerable will to it.”

She shot him a truculent glare, which caused his mouth—also curiously well formed—to quirk up in a smile. The expression was unexpectedly charming on him, taking years off his features and giving an astonishingly winsome aspect to her escort.

Manners compelled her to smile back.

“Is this hip of yours the reason you do not enjoy horses?” he asked, glancing around at the surrounding woods.

“In part,” she replied, thinking again he talked as if her joint were naughty. “I can sit a horse if I have to, but it’s very hard to get on and off, and I pay for the privilege.”

“This is why God invented coaches, perhaps. Though for my part, they are mortally stuffy and cramped.”

“One can see how this might be true for you.”

“I cannot help my height, Miss Portman.”

“I don’t refer to your height, Mr. Grey.” She shifted, testing her hip and wincing at the result. “I refer to what might be a familial tendency to take the reins rather than be a passenger.”

“You still hurt.” He treated her to a frown while some lunatic bird started chirping above them. “And yes, as a family we tend to charge forth rather than sit back. Shall I pass some time reading to you?”

“Fairy tales?” She resisted the temptation to smirk. “That might be entertaining.”

“Not nearly so much as it might be were you to read to me.”

“What?” She frowned right back at him, wondering if he was attempting to flirt with her in some backhanded way. “You could do better than Lord Androcles Wolfgang Poopoo Paws Wolfbottom Wolf the Fourth?”

“Not on my best day, but we might get the story actually read.”

“And then it would be bedtime, Mr. Grey. Were you truly never a child? Nicholas would have me believe you were, but he likes to tease.”

He eyed her up and down, his disapproval now encompassing her entire corpus. “I can see Wee Nick taking on the challenge of teasing you with some degree of relish, but yes, I was once upon a time a child, though it was long ago and far away, and a folly briefly concluded. I am debating fetching my horse to ferry you to our destination.”

Alice waved a hand that had lost its glove—drat the luck. “No horses, please. If we take our time and avoid steep cliffs and earthquakes, I can manage.”

“Very well.” He rose, looking none too happy with her decision, which yielded a measure of satisfaction in itself. “If you please?” He extended his bare hand, and when Alice laced her fingers through his, he drew her to her feet, tucked his arm around her waist, and held her to his side.

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