The door swung wide open. She sprang to her feet and bolted out of the vehicle, flying right into someone who grabbed her around the waist and swung her in his grasp, holding her close against his hard body.
Emily did the only thing she could think of doing in an unexpected situation like this. She shrieked. “Put me down, whoever you are! Put me down at once!”
“Miss Rawlinson!” a strange baritone barked in her ear, as she smelled an enticing blend of brandy and leather and…was that sandalwood? It was certainly a vast improvement over what she’d smelled in the hackney. The delightful scents swiftly dissipated as he set her down on her feet. She swayed as dizziness swept over her and she lowered her head lest she faint into the stranger’s arms.
“Miss Rawlinson,” he said again as he reached out to steady her, turning toward the lights spilling out from the open doorway and mullioned windows of the Spaniards Inn. “What the—?” A spurt of anger infused his voice. “Well, you’re certainly not the Miss Rawlinson I expected!”
Heavens. There were two men involved in this? What sort of trap had Annabel been on the verge of falling into?
Oh, never mind that now. What sort of trap had Emily fallen into? And she’d never had the chance to teeter on the verge!
The dizziness passed and she slowly straightened up. “At least you know I am Miss Rawlinson, even if I’m not the one you expected, either.” Without another word or backward glance, she staggered toward the open doorway of the inn.
“Wait!” He dashed after her. “Don’t go in there.”
“Pray, where do you expect me to go? I’m not getting back into that hackney, and I most certainly am not going to Scotland. I want to return to Mayfair.”
“Then why did you even get into that hackney in the first place? What the devil were you thinking? Surely you can’t be thatdesperate?”
Indignation spiked through her. “And just what do you mean by that, sir?”
He threw up his hands. “Very well, go inside. But I think you should know that Lady Nellis is in the parlor, and I vow she won’t leave until she finds out what I’m doing here, and now that you’ve arrived, whatyou’re doing here.”
Lady Nellis was one of the most notorious gossips in Mayfair. She’d certainly insist on knowing what Emily was doing at Spaniards Inn on Hampstead Heath without her bonnet or pelisse or reticule or even…whatever happened to her shawl? Unless it fell to the ground as she was being dragged into the hackney, it must still be inside the wretched vehicle, but she didn’t want to go back in there ever again, not as long as Mr. Wendell was still within, clutching his nose and whining. Yet she didn’t want to stand out here all night, either. It was chilly without her shawl, and she shivered.
“Miss Rawlinson, may I direct you to my carriage over there,” the stranger suggested.
“Are you quite out of your mind, sir? I don’t even know who you are. And how do you know who I am?”
“I’ve seen you with the younger Miss Rawlinson. As for myself, I am Thorndale.” His tall silhouette briefly shortened as he sketched a quick bow.
She lowered her voice to a stunned whisper. “As in the Earl of Thorndale?” For years he’d been one of the most eligible and handsomest bachelors in the ton. At the thought that she’d just been swung around in his embrace, she shivered again, but not from the evening chill this time.
“None other. Here.” He doffed his multi-caped cloak and wrapped it around her shoulders before lowering his own voice to an urgent whisper. “So I trust you apprehend the importance of avoiding Lady Nellis. How will you explain to her why you’re here at this hour, and without a chaperone? Surely you’re aware you can’t ignore her? She won’t be ignored.”
“Oh, I know. But for that matter, how do you intend to explain my presence in your carriage—assuming that I deign to step into it?”
“I’ll take you back to Mayfair, and no one need know, as long as you don’t set foot in this inn.” He strode back to the open door of the hackney. “Come on out, you clunch!”
Emily glanced back at the open doorway of the inn, where most of the golden lamplight was nearly obliterated by the silhouette of another woman.
“Why, Miss Rawlinson. What are you doing here?” the woman asked. “And why are you wearing Thorndale’s cloak?”
Emily’s heart sank. The woman was none other than the inquisitive Lady Nellis.
She said the first thing that popped into her mind. “Obviously I came here to see him.”