Snowflakes drifted around her, cold on her skin. She began to shiver, and if she didn’t keep moving, she would freeze to death. There was only one avenue open to her. The oak tree’s solid branches were within reach.
It wouldn’t be so difficult to climb down. Was she mad to consider it?
She dropped her reticule down into the dark. Removing her gloves, she tucked them into a pocket, while silently bemoaning the absence of her cloak. The tulip sleeves of her gown left her arms bare. Ignoring the goose bumps, she hitched up her canary yellow silk skirts and petticoats, slipped one foot over the railing, and then gritted her teeth as the cold metal bit into her bare thighs above her stockings. She reached out, endeavoring not to look down and was able to grasp the branch. When confident of her balance, she swung her other leg over the rail, finding another branch below on which to stand. It was less sturdy and bent alarmingly under her weight. With a muffled curse, which would have made a sailor blush, she recklessly launched herself onto another more solid branch below it, as her dress caught on a sharp twig with a ripping sound.
The ground was bathed in deep shadows. Too far away to jump. It was difficult to keep her balance as her evening shoes slipped on the damp, frosty bark. “I can do this!” she muttered. She had climbed much taller trees growing up in the country, but not in shoes like these. Despairing of her silk stockings, she kicked off her slippers. They fell with two soft thuds to the ground.
While she hugged the trunk and searched for a new foothold, a low pitched, melodic voice addressed her from out of the darkness.
“Lady Brookwood. May I be of assistance?”
Shocked, Althea almost fell. She knew that voice. The branch beside her creaked and bowed, and the whole tree shook unnervingly. A breath tickled her ear, while a hand snaked around her waist. She was swung into midair and lowered to the ground.
As she gained her feet, Lord Montsimon dropped down beside her.
Her face burning with embarrassment, Althea swiveled to face him, glad of the shadows. “What on earth are you doing here?” Annoyed by the tiny flip of her heart, her whisper sounded waspish. She busied herself searching around for her reticule and shoes.
“I was about to ask you the same thing,” he said coolly, as he removed her reticule and slippers from the pockets of his great coat. “But we can hardly discuss it here.” He watched as she pushed her damp, chilled feet into them. “I saw no carriage awaiting you in the square. I expect I shall have to see you home.”
She lifted her chin. How ungallant! She was in no mood to deal with the mercurial Lord Montsimon. She reached in her pocket and took out her gloves, pulling them on with a nonchalant shrug. “I plan to hail a hackney.”
“You seem inadequately dressed for such a purpose. May I offer you my coat?”
“No, thank you.” She was freezing and would have loved to wear it, but she refused to give him the satisfaction.
“As it happens, I have a hackney on hand.” His gloved fingers took a firm hold of her arm.
Althea had to admit she was glad of his support; her footsteps were unsure in the dark. He led her through the garden and out the back gate onto a narrow laneway. “Where are we—?”
“Please be quiet.”
“I wasn’t about to yell, my lord. I’m not so reckless.”
“Really? I doubt you’re in a position to defend that claim.”
She sucked in a breath. “Well, neither are you!”
Althea tripped and discovered a torn double frill at the hem of her gown. Its cord now trailed behind her like a harvester gathering up gravel. “Could you please slow down,” she hissed. “My evening footwear is not designed for negotiating rough ground.”
He stopped. Wordlessly, he hefted her up into his arms, holding her close against his chest.
“Oh!” She wriggled. “This is ridiculous. Put me down.” Evidently not feeling the need to respond, he strode with her along the lane.
“Are you deaf? Put me down!” She struggled to free herself.
“Can’t I’m afraid. At your present snail’s pace, my lady, we would be lucky to reach the carriage by breakfast."