Miss Cabot appeared to shrink slightly as Roan strode back to the stand of trees, which he took as another sign that she was hiding something. The woman reminded him very much of Aurora. Roan loved his sister, adored her—but she was the most impetuous female he’d ever known. Without a care, heedless of the consequences of her actions, and therefore at risk of being irrevocably compromised. Of course he grudgingly admired Aurora’s independent spirit—he had a bit of that himself—but he wouldn’t trust his sister for even a moment.
Looking at Miss Cabot glance around as if planning her escape, he had the same feeling of utter distrust for her.
Miss Cabot apparently thought the better of running and engaging him in a true foot race, but she took a tentative step back.
Roan stopped himself from grabbing her by the arms and giving her a good shake. He put his hands on his waist and stared at her. “All right, then, the sisters have gone. You may safely confess what you’ve done.”
“Whatever do you mean? I’ve done nothing,” she insisted unconvincingly.
“Thievery?” he asked flatly.
“Don’t look so aghast, Miss Cabot, for I can’t think of a single reason why you would hide herself from a doctor with a superior coach.”
Miss Cabot paled. She had nothing to say for herself and bit her bottom lip in a manner that Roan believed was a universal sign of guilt on a woman. He honestly didn’t know if he should deliver a lecture of conduct or bite that lip, too, as he desperately wanted to do. He thought of a man with Aurora under similar circumstances—another lip biter—and inwardly shuddered.
“Admit it—you were to be in that coach.”
She lifted her chin, clasped her hands together tightly at her waist. “Yes.”
Any number of scenarios began to race through Roan’s mind, none of them good. “Is he…are you involved in an affair with him?”
“What? No!” she exclaimed, her cheeks flooding with color.
“Are you affianced to him?” he asked, wondering if perhaps she was avoiding her engagement. Again, the similarity to Aurora was uncanny and strangely maddening.
“Did you not see his wife? He’s married!”
“Then what is it, Miss Cabot? What has you hiding in these trees like a common criminal?” he demanded, his anger—admittedly, with Aurora—ratcheting.
“I am not a criminal,” she said hotly.
“Mmm,” he said dubiously.
“I was…” She swallowed. She rubbed her nape. “It is true,” she said, putting up her hand, “that Dr. Linford was to escort me to Himple, where I am to be met by Mr. Bulworth, who will see me the rest of the way to my friend Cassandra’s side. But this coach will also stop in Himple.”
Roan waited for her to say more. At the very least he expected her to say why she was on the stagecoach at all. But Miss Cabot merely shrugged as if that was sufficient explanation.
It was not.
“Why didn’t you go with him? Why would you put yourself in an overcrowded stage coach with any number of potential scoundrels instead of in a coach with springs?” he asked, incredulous.
Miss Cabot rubbed her nape once more. She sniffed. “It’s rather difficult to explain, really.”
“Difficult? The only difficulty here is your reluctance to admit whatever it is you’ve done. I can’t begin to imagine what you’re doing.” A thought suddenly occurred to Roan, and anger surged in him. He abruptly grabbed her elbow and pulled her forward. “Has he attempted…has he taken liberty with you?” he softly demanded and glanced over his shoulder at the others. He would get on the back of one of the horses from the coach and catch up with the bastard if that was the case. He’d break his damn neck—
“No! No, not at all! Dr. Linford is a good man, a decent man—”
“Then what in blazes is the matter?”
Miss Cabot drew herself up to her middling height, removed her arm from his grip with a yank. “I beg your pardon, but I owe you no explanation, Mr. Matheson.”
“No, you don’t,” he agreed. “And neither do I owe you my help. So I will explain to the driver that you must be met by a responsible party at the very first opportunity—”
“All right! I thought traveling with the Linfords would be tedious. I thought the stagecoach would be more…” She made a whirling motion with her hand, as if he should understand her and reach the conclusion quickly.
But he had no idea what she was talking about. He leaned forward, peering at her. “More what?”
“More…” Her gaze flicked over him, top to bottom, and her cheeks bloomed. “Exciting,” she murmured.
That made absolutely no sense. This cake-brained young woman thought a stagecoach would be more exciting than the doctor’s comfortable coach? That a stagecoach with its close quarters and ripe strangers was more exciting than a padded bench? Roan couldn’t help himself—he laughed. Roundly.
Miss Cabot glared at him. “So happy to amuse you.”
“Amused? I’m not amused, I’m astounded by your foolishness.”
She gave a small cry of indignation and whirled about, looking as if she intended to march into the woods, but Roan caught her arm before she could flee, pulling her back. She fell into his chest, landing like a pillow against him.
“All right, then, unlace your corset a bit,” he said. “But a stagecoach? It’s the worst sort of travel, second only to the sea if you ask me. Whatever would make you think it would be exciting? A walk over hot coals would be more pleasurable.”
Miss Cabot shrugged free of him and folded her arms across her body. She glanced at him from the corner of her eye. Her flush had gone deeper. “I’m sorry you found it so reprehensible, Mr. Matheson.”
Roan blinked. Understanding slowly dawned, and frankly, he could not have been more delighted. Or flattered. But delighted, utterly delighted. “I see,” he said jovially, aware of the wide grin on his face.
“Oh, I think I do. You wanted to travel with me,” he said, and poked her playfully on the arm.
“You flatter yourself,” she said imperiously.
“There is no need for me to flatter myself, because you have flattered me beyond compare,” he said with a theatrical bow. “I’ll admit it, I’m surprised. Granted, I am highly sought after in New York, what with my handsome looks and fat purse…” He was teasing her, but that really wasn’t far from the truth. Just ask Mr. Pratt if it wasn’t true. “But to be admired so by a fair English flower makes my heart pitter-patter.”
“God in heaven, I could die,” Miss Cabot said.