Flora had fallen into a doze, her head flopped over to one side, her mouth open. Edna was gazing pensively out the carriage window. So was Claudia. Whenever she could see him, she gazed with a frown at the Marquess of Attingsborough, mounted on another hired horse and looking as smart and as fresh as he had yesterday morning when they set out from Bath. He was remarkably handsome and charming. He was also—she hated to admit it—surprisingly good company. She had thoroughly enjoyed their walk and most of their conversation last evening. There had been a certain novelty about walking outdoors during the evening with a gentleman. And then he had spoiled a memorable evening—and restored her initial impression of him—by kissing her hand when bidding her good night. She had been extremely annoyed with him. They had enjoyed a sensible conversation of equals—or so it had seemed. She had not needed to be dropped a crumb of his gallantry just as if she were any silly flirt. She could see that it was raining again—it had been drizzling on and off all morning. But this time it was more than drizzle. And within moments it was more than just a gentle rain. The carriage stopped, the coachman descended from his box, there was the sound of voices, and then the door opened and the marquess climbed into the carriage without benefit of the steps. Claudia moved to the far side of the seat as he sat beside her. But carriage seats were not really very wide. Nor was a carriage interior very large. He instantly seemed to fill both. Flora awoke with a start. “Ladies,” he said, smiling and dripping water all over the floor—and doubtless over the upholstery as well, “pardon me if you will while I travel with you until the rain stops.” “It is your own carriage,” Claudia said. He turned his smile on her and she had an unwilling memory of the warmth of those smiling lips against the back of her hand. “And I hope it is not too uncomfortable,” he said, “or the journey too tedious. Though that is a forlorn hope, I daresay. Journeys are almost always tedious.” He smiled about at each of them. Claudia felt somehow suffocated by his presence—a remarkably silly feeling. But why could the rain not have held off? She could smell the damp fabric of his coat and his cologne. She could also smell horse, as she had yesterday. Try as she would, she could not keep her shoulder from touching his while the carriage bounced and swayed as it bowled along the highway. What nonsense to be suddenly so discomposed—just like a green girl, or a silly spinster. What utter nonsense! He asked the girls questions about school—skilled questions that had even Edna responding with more than just blushes and giggles. Soon they seemed quite at ease with him. And he, of course, looked perfectly comfortable as if it were an everyday occurrence with him to be sharing his carriage with two exschoolgirls and their headmistress. “You told me last evening,” he said eventually, settling his shoulders against the corner of the seat and rearranging his long legs in their mud-spattered leather riding boots so that he did not crowd any of them—though Claudia was so aware of those legs, “about your planned employment and hopes for success. What about your dreams, though? We all dream. What would your lives be if you could have any wish come true?” Flora did not hesitate. “I would marry a prince,” she said, “and live in a palace and sit on a golden throne and wear diamonds and furs all day long and sleep on a feather bed.” They all smiled. “You would not sit on a throne, though, Flo,” Edna pointed out, ever the realist, “unless you were married to a king.” “Which can be easily arranged,” Flora said, undaunted. “His father would die tragically the day after our wedding. Oh, and my prince would have twenty younger brothers and sisters and I would have a dozen children and we would all live together in the palace as one big, jolly family.” She sighed soulfully and then laughed. Claudia was touched by those last details. In reality Flora was so alone in life. “A worthy dream,” the marquess said. “And you, Miss Wood?” “My dream,” Edna said, “is to have a little shop as my mama and papa did. But a bookshop. I would live among the books all day long and sell them to people who loved them as much as I and…” She blushed and stopped. She had strung more words together in that one speech than Claudia had heard her utter during the whole journey. “And one of those customers would be a handsome prince,” Flora added. “But not my prince, if you please, Ed.” “Perhaps Edna dreams of someone more humble,” Claudia said. “Someone who would love books and help her run the bookshop.” “That would be foolish,” Flora said. “Why not reach for the stars if one is dreaming? And what about you, my lord? What is your dream?” “Yes,” Edna added, looking at him with eager eyes. “But don’t you already have everything?” And then she blushed and bit her lip. Claudia raised her eyebrows but said nothing. “No one ever has everything,” he said, “even those who have so much money that they do not know what to spend it on. There are other things of value than just possessions that money can buy. Let me see. What is my greatest dream?” He folded his arms and thought. And then Claudia, glancing at him, saw his eyes smile. “Ah,” he said. “Love. I dream of love, of a family—wife and children—which is as close and as dear to me as the beating of my own heart.” The girls were charmed. Edna sighed soulfully and Flora clasped her hands to her bosom. Claudia looked on with skepticism. His answer had very obviously been crafted for their benefit. It was, in fact, utter drivel and not a genuine dream at all. “And you, Miss Martin?” he asked, turning his laughing eyes on her and making her wonder for an unguarded moment what it might feel like to be nearer and dearer to his heart than its own beating. “Me?” she said, touching a hand to her bosom. “Oh, I have no dreams. And any I did have are already fulfilled. I have my school and my pupils and my teachers. They are a dream come true.” “Ah, but a fulfilled dream is not allowed,” he said. “Is it, young ladies?” “No,” Flora said. “No, miss. Come on,” Edna said at the same moment. “This game must be played by the rules,” the Marquess of Attingsborough added, resettling his shoulders so that he could look more directly at her. His eyes looked very blue indeed from this distance. What game? What rules? But she had been undeniably interested in hearing from the other three, Claudia conceded. Now it was time to be a good sport. She felt very resentful, though. “Oh, let me see,” she said, and willed herself not to flush or otherwise get flustered. This was remarkably embarrassing before two of her pupils and an aristocratic gentleman. “We will wait,” the marquess said. “Will we not, young ladies?” “Yes,” Edna and Flora said together. “We have all the time in the world,” he added. “Oh,” Claudia said at last, “my dream. Yes, it is to live in the country again in a small cottage. With a thatched roof and hollyhocks and daffodils and roses in the garden. Each in their season, of course.” “Alone, Miss Martin?” She looked unwillingly into his eyes and could see that he was enjoying himself immensely at her expense. He was even smiling fully and showing his white, perfectly shaped teeth. If there was a more annoying gentleman in existence, she certainly did not wish to meet him. “Well, perhaps,” she added, “I would have a little dog.” And she raised her eyebrows and allowed her eyes to laugh back into his for a moment while mentally daring him to press her further on the subject. He held her glance and chuckled softly while Edna clapped her hands. “We used to have a dog,” she cried. “I loved him of all things. I think I must have one in my bookshop.” “I want horses,” Flora said. “A whole stableful of them. One for each day of the week. With red, jingling bridles.” “Ah,” the marquess said, finally shifting the focus of his eyes so that he was looking out through the window on Claudia’s side, “I see that the rain has stopped. There is even a patch of blue sky over there, but you had better look quickly or you may miss it.” He half stood and leaned forward to rap on the front panel, and the carriage drew to a halt. “I shall return to my horse,” he said, “and allow you ladies some privacy again.” “Ah,” Edna said with obvious regret and then blushed and looked self-conscious. “My sentiments exactly,” he said. “This has been a pleasant hour indeed.” After he had got out and closed the door behind him, the smell of his cologne lingered but the animation that had buoyed them all while he was there drained away and left the carriage feeling damp and half empty. Was it always thus when one was in male company, Claudia wondered crossly—did one come almost to need men, to miss them when they were not around? But fortunately she remembered Mr. Upton and Mr. Huckerby, two of her teachers. She did not wilt—or notice anyone else wilting—when they went home every evening. She did not need Mr. Keeble, except to be the porter at her school. She watched resentfully as the Marquess of Attingsborough swung with ease into his saddle, looking impossibly handsome as he did so. She was really coming to dislike him quite intensely. Gentlemen had no business trying to charm ladies who had no wish whatsoever to be charmed. “What a lovely gentleman he is,” Flora said with a sigh, looking after him too. “If he were only ten years or so younger!” Edna sighed too. “We will be in London soon,” Claudia said cheerfully, “and we will see Viscountess Whitleaf again.” Susanna and Peter had insisted that the girls stay at their house on Grosvenor Square as well as Claudia until they began their teaching duties. “And the baby,” Edna said, brightening. “Do you suppose she will allow us to see him, miss?” “She will probably be delighted to show him off,” Claudia said with a pang of something that felt uncomfortably like envy. Susanna had given birth to Baby Harry just a month ago. “I hope she lets us hold him,” Flora said. “I used to get to hold the babies in the orphanage. It was my favorite thing.” The carriage moved onward and for a short while the Marquess of Attingsborough rode alongside it. He dipped his head to look in and his eyes met Claudia’s. He smiled and touched the brim of his hat. She wished—she really, really wished that he were not so very male. Not all men were. Not that the others were necessarily effeminate. But this man possessed maleness in an unfair abundance. And he knew it. She hoped fervently she would not see him again after her arrival in London. Her life was peaceful. It had taken her many years to achieve that state of tranquillity. She had no desire whatsoever to feel again all the turmoil and all the needs she had fought so hard through her twenties before finally suppressing them. She truly resented the Marquess of Attingsborough. He made her feel uncomfortable. He somehow reminded her that apart from everything she had achieved during the past fifteen years, she was also a woman. 4