Stanbrook, England—the Westerfield Country Estate
“Permit me to repeat my understanding,” Lord Westerfield said, leaning his forearms on his huge mahogany desk and fixing Andrew with a dark look. “You believe one of my guests will sell secret government plans to another guest during our Ides of March party.”
“That is correct, my lord.”
“And you want me to add you to my guestlist, introduce you as a friend and a lord, and give you free reign to intercept the transaction?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“No, Mr. Andrews. Absolutely not. I would rather cancel the event.”
“My lord, I understand your concern; however, if you send everyone home, we lose the only lead we have on this exchange. It will take place elsewhere, and our country’s secrets will be in the hands of the enemy. As a member of the peerage, you have an obligation to support me in protecting British citizens from this treason.”
“Do not tell me my obligations,” the broad-shouldered man snapped, glowering. “I have a wife who is increasing and fifty guests whom I am obligated to keep safe, above all. I will not allow them to be endangered by some spymaster cat and mouse game.”
“They will be safer with me here, my lord.”
“I would be wiser to cancel the festivities.”
He sighed and rubbed his forehead. He wanted to promise the powerful man he could guarantee their safety, but in reality, he knew very little about his quarry, not even the traitor’s gender.
“My lord… I understand your primary concern is for your wife and guests. I cannot argue that cancelling the event would be the best way to prevent danger befalling them. But your event is the only lead I have; without it, I can do nothing to prevent important war plans from falling into the wrong hands.”
Lord Westerfield frowned at him, but he sensed indecision. He held his breath.
“All right,” Westerfield said. “Against my better judgement, I will allow the event to continue and give you free reign to conduct your business. Can you bring any extra men in to help protect my guests?”
He exhaled. “Yes, my lord. Both my carriage driver and the man acting as my butler are trained Billings Street spies.”
Westerfield nodded. “Shall I notify my staff to be on the lookout for anything in particular?”
“Actually, my lord, I would prefer you said nothing. Because we have little information about the seller or the buyer, the fewer people who know my true objective here, the better.”
“I do not wish any innocents to be harmed.”
“Nor do I, my lord. I assure you I will take the utmost caution in all my activities whilst I am here.”
“And I am to introduce you as…?”
“Lord Darlington, the earl of Stenwick.”
Westerfield raised an eyebrow. “Is there such an earl?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Are you he?”
“No, my lord. But he has been out of society for many years now, so no one is acquainted with him.”
“And how do we know each other?”
“I am a sympathizer with your cause against animal cruelty. This is our first meeting in person, though we have corresponded by letter.”
A light tap on the door preceded it opening and a lovely pregnant woman entered the room. “Oh! Forgive me, my lord, I did not know you had a guest.”
“Come in, dear,” Westerfield said, his entire demeanor transforming as his eyes caressed the woman who must be his wife.
Both men had stood when she entered and Westerfield introduced him. “My lady, this is Lord Darlington, the earl of Stenwick. He is a supporter of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Darlington, my wife, Lady Westerfield.”
He bowed to the lady, keeping his eyes from wandering to the expanse of her belly, which would be rude.
“A pleasure to meet you,” Lady Westerfield said, her smile lighting up the shadowed room. “I hope you will be staying with us for the Ides of March?”
“Yes, Lord Westerfield was kind enough to invite me. I thank you for your hospitality.”
“Not at all. Have you been shown to a room yet?”
“I can tell Mrs. Burling, dear,” Westerfield said, starting out from behind the desk.
She waved a hand at him. “No, I will do it, I was on my way to speak to her about the meal, anyway.” She turned her gaze to him. “I shall send someone in to show you up and have a place added for you at dinner.”
“Thank you, my lady,” he said, bowing again.
When he turned back to Westerfield, the man’s face had hardened again.
“I understand,” he said, guessing at his reluctant host’s thoughts. “I will do my utmost to keep her from any additional stress.”
Westerfield pressed his lips together. “I never should have allowed her to throw such a big fête in her condition. She just loves to entertain,” he said, looking as though he could deny his wife very little. He turned a glower back on him. “Just so we understand each other—if anything happens to make me think my wife or guests will suffer, I will throw you out on your ear.”
“I expect no less, my lord,” he said.
A butler arrived, leading him up the stairs to a room and informing him his own butler and carriage driver had been installed in the servants’ quarters.
“If you don’t mind, please send them up to me.” he requested, though he knew his men already understood their orders. They were to make a list of every person coming or going from the Westerfield estate, gleaning the utmost in background and behavior of each.
Smith and Jenners arrived shortly. Smith, the carriage driver, gave him a summary of the layout of the estate—how many rooms, all possible exits and entrances, and the access from the road. Jenners told him who had already arrived based on their servants below.
“Jenners, search every servant’s room during their dinner,” he instructed, “and Smith, act as watchout.”
“Next time I am going as the lord,” Jenners grumbled.
He grinned. “Consider yourself lucky I do not actually expect you to polish my shoes,” he said. “And you can go as the lord as soon as you can play the part without slipping into your cockney accent.”
“I do not slip!” he exclaimed in protest as Smith chuckled.
“Well, I can do an Irish or a Scot far better than you,” Jenners insisted.
“That is true,” he conceded. “All right, you have your orders. I will try to sneak away and search the upper rooms during the dinner hour or afterward.”
With their plan set, he thanked them and left to go downstairs for introductions to the other guests.
Entering the parlour, he scanned the room to commit each face to memory and take in as much as he could. Most were engaged in lively conversation, facilitated by their charming hostess. He noted one young lady appeared to remain in the background, observing the crowd as intently as he. When her eye caught his, she froze, her lips parting, a flush creeping across her cheeks.
He saw at once the reason she stood apart from the others. A large birthmark splashed across one eye, the skin a mottled red. He imagined she had become accustomed to acting the part of a wallflower, though apart from the birthmark, everything else about her appeared perfect. In fact, the birthmark only intensified the blue of her long-lashed eyes, a striking contrast to the dark locks piled on the back of her head, falling in ringlets down her back. She made a charming figure, her narrow waist set off in a gown of the latest fashion that was cut open to the shoulders. Rounded breasts almost tumbled out of the neckline.
His cravat suddenly felt too constrictive as his body heated with a surge of lust. He gave himself a mental shake. Work, not pleasure.
She recovered from their met gaze, dropping her eyes to the floor before they darted right and left as if looking for someone nearby with whom to converse. Her fluster seemed real enough, though the mouse act made an excellent ruse for anyone seeking to avoid attention.
Lady Westerfield began to conduct the guests into the dining room and to his pleasure, sat him next to the young lady, whom she introduced as Miss Elizabeth Hunt.
“A pleasure,” the young lady mumbled, her eyes never reaching his face.
“The pleasure is mine,” he said, remaining still until she lifted her gaze. Something about her made him want to force her to engage, to quash her reluctance to interact socially. When the blue eyes met his they widened, startled at his scrutiny, perhaps.
* * *
Her breath caught in her throat. “My lord, I have not seen you before in London,” she managed to say to the commanding man beside her. Most people avoided her eye, the natural response to her blemished appearance, but this man stared unflinchingly into her face. And not with the type of fixed stare that deliberately avoided her marking. No, Lord Darlington studied her, unabashed of his examination, scanning her birthmark and all without any trace of disgust.
He held her chair out and pushed it in as she sat. “No, indeed. I have been traveling out of the country for much of the past few years.”
Something about his words sounded insincere, so she did not follow up with a further question, relieved to disengage.
Nothing escaped Lady Westerfield, however, who chirped from across the long table, “Lord Darlington, Miss Hunt has also just returned from traveling.” Since she was their hostess and commanded the attention of the entire gathering, all the guests’ heads swiveled to listen.
Never comfortable in social settings, the focus overwhelmed her. Her face and neck grew warm and the more she tried to draw a breath, the more she seemed incapable of it. The pregnant pause labored on, everyone waiting for her to say something, whilst she could neither breathe nor speak.
“Exhale,” Lord Darlington murmured beside her.
As if he had command of her very organs, she blew out her breath in a gust, not having realized she could not inhale because her lungs were already full. “Yes,” she said, with a shaky voice. “I have just returned from France.”
The faces turned away, uninterested in her or her trip to their neighboring country. All save Lord Darlington, from whom she sensed a sympathetic camaraderie. “Did you? What brought you there?”
She closed her eyes a moment too long, wishing she could simply disappear. These were the sorts of social situations she simply could not navigate.
To her surprise, Lord Darlington spoke to her in the same undertone only she could hear. “Is your corset too tight, Miss Hunt?”
She almost laughed. It was an inappropriate question on his part, and yet she so appreciated a private conversation—with anyone—over the mindless prattle. “No, I am simply socially awkward,” she said, meeting his eye squarely and daring him to disagree.
His lips tugged upward in amusement. “You are charming,” he said firmly, as if he had the final determination. Despite the authoritative presence, he had a youthful face featuring a square jaw and dark sideburns that matched his hair.
His words caused her face to heat once more, but in a far more pleasurable way.
“How do you know the Westerfields?” he asked.
She gave a faint shrug. “From the London season, I suppose.”
“Are you here alone?”
“Yes. Well, I brought my maid,” she said, then stopped, realizing he certainly did not care about her servants.
Yet he continued to look at her as he sipped his wine, lifting his chin slightly to cue her that a servant meant to slide a plate of food in front of her. Again, she experienced a sense of companionship with him, as if they were a pair, looking out for one another.
As an only child, and one with an ugly face, she had never had the sort of easy comfort with people that she observed in others. She never had a best friend with whom she giggled, or been courted by any man. Her parents were her closest allies, and they often frustrated her with their own ideas of who she was or should be. Her father ignored her birthmark, dismissing it as if it were nothing. Her mother tried her best to help, offering sympathy and coaching for how she might diminish its effect on others, such as keeping her face averted, or covering it with a fan. Neither point of view had helped her. Four London seasons without more than a few courtesy dances proved even her father’s wealth could not help her attract a husband.
“How well do you know the other guests?” he asked, looking down the table. The question fell short of sounding casual, as if he had real purpose in learning about them.
She remembered the way he had studied each person when Lady Westerfield had introduced him, as if committing them all to memory. Who was this Lord Darlington who had appeared out of nowhere, and what was his purpose?
“I suppose I know the particulars on everyone,” she said, inclined to help him in whatever his endeavor may be. “What did you want to know?”
One corner of his mouth lifted as he warmed her with an appreciative gaze, somehow imparting a sense of conspiracy. “The particulars,” he answered with a flick of his brows.
She drew in a breath. “All right,” she said, speaking in a low voice and gazing down the table. “You know the Westerfields, I presume?”
“Next to Lord Westerfield is Lord Auburn. He is a bit of a cad—plays the part of the bored aristocrat, though I have heard he may have squandered much of his fortune. He makes an excellent guest—entertaining and sociable, which is probably why Lady Westerfield invited him. That, or she is playing matchmaker for the unattached young ladies.”
She made a dismissive sound, but conceded, “Yes, I fear she does hope to find me a husband, too.”
“Any interests?” he asked with amusement.
“Would I tell you if I had?” she shot back.
He grinned. “Why not?”
She rolled her eyes and looked away.
He chuckled. “Forgive me. Do go on about the guests.”
“All right,” she said. “Next to Lord Auburn sits Lord and Lady Winters and their daughters Miss Susan Winters and Miss Jane Winters. They certainly hope to meet potential husbands here.”
“Go on,” he said. She sensed he had dismissed them and wondered again what information interested him.
“Mr. and Mrs. Wynette. He owns the Grand Hotel in London.” She continued with her summary of each guest, settling into an easy banter with Lord Darlington. She noted he seemed particularly interested in the people who had come alone, though she could not understand why.
After dinner, Lady Westerfield directed her guests into the parlour for games. She sighed, dreading yet another uncomfortable social situation, particularly one which often became a thinly veiled excuse for impropriety.
“I think I will bow out,” Darlington said to her in the same undertone, as if he owed her an accounting of his plans.
She nodded mutely. Perhaps she could steal away to the library and avoid the entire endeavor. Since he had shared his intention with her, she said, “I wonder if anyone would notice if I went to the library instead?”
He held out his arm. “I shall escort you there.”
* * *
Miss Hunt appeared cheered at his support of her plan not to join the parlour games. “Thank you, my lord,” she said, grasping his arm. He walked her to the library, then took the opportunity to slip upstairs and begin to search the guests’ rooms.
Using a hairpin to pick the lock of the first room, he crept in and secured the door behind him. He checked under the bed, mattress, and pillow before beginning his search of the wardrobe. He had not yet ascertained which room belonged to which guest, but it made his search less biased. From Miss Hunt’s summary, several guests fit a profile—those who traveled alone or were less known in society or who seemed to need money. Miss Hunt, herself, landed on his list as someone who had come alone and did not appear to have much social connection. Her awkwardness could be an act, as she certainly had little shyness when speaking one-on-one.
Having her as a prime suspect did not stop him from admiring her, however. Her musical voice replayed in his ears as he searched in the sleeves and pockets of clothing and the trunk and the vision of her bright blue eyes made him hunger for more time with her.
Judging from the contents, the room belonged to one of the single gentlemen. When he exhausted his search of the wardrobe, he checked for loose floorboards or wall panels where the plans might be stored.
The note their boy had intercepted and read had been short:
Meet me at the Westerfield Estate gatehouse at midnight during their Ides of March ball.
Bring the twenty-five thousand in notes to exchange for the plans.
That was the entirety of his information. He did not know what information the traitor would sell, nor to whom. Obviously, foreigners were more likely suspects, but no one who had already arrived fit that description.
He completed his sweep of the room and exited, locking the door behind him and preparing to pick the next door down when he realized Miss Hunt’s solitary location in the library made an ideal situation for meeting an operative, if she were the traitor. He hesitated, torn between continuing his search and keeping an eye on anyone leaving the gathering. Checking on Miss Hunt won out, because she was a solid suspect, not because he could not stop thinking of her. Or so he told himself.
He opened the door to the library without a sound and peered in. Though prepared to find her engaged with another, what he saw shocked him. Miss Hunt stood in Lord Auburn’s arms, appearing to be struggling to free herself from an unwanted kiss.
“Miss Hunt.” He spoke sharply, startling both of them. The moment Lord Auburn released her, she sprang away, walking swiftly toward where he stood in the doorway. He held out an arm to her as if nothing had happened. “Are you ready for that stroll?” he improvised.
“Yes, my lord,” the distraught lady murmured, grasping his arm without a look behind her.
He led her away from the library and down the corridor, not sure why he had suggested a stroll when there was nowhere to walk at night. Hearing her gasping, he slowed the pace.
“Can you breathe?”
“Oh,” he said, comprehending the reason for her gasps. He withdrew a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to her. “Shall I go back and break his nose? Because I would not mind. In fact, I would enjoy it quite a bit.”
She giggled through her tears. “No.”
“Are you hurt at all?”
“No. Mostly I am just… embarrassed you found me in such a position.”
“Should you not be glad I found you? You did not seem to be enjoying it.”
“Yes, forgive me. I am grateful for your timely rescue. Grateful and ashamed at once, I suppose.”
He stopped and turned her to face him, peering down at her. She had the gift few possess of looking beautiful when she cried, her face not crumpling into tragic expression but remaining unchanged, save for the tears streaking her cheeks and the trembling in her lips. He wanted to wipe her tears himself or pull her against his chest and smooth her hair, but he could do neither.
“Never be ashamed with me,” he said with a slight scoffing sound. “What happened, exactly?”
She sighed, blotting her tears and twisting his handkerchief in her fingers. “I hardly know. Lord Auburn came in and asked why I was not playing the parlour games. And then he suggested we play games of our own and—well, that is how you found us.”
“Is he a suitor of yours?”
“Not at all! His advances came as a complete shock. He has never so much as asked me to dance or spoken more than a few words to me. I do not know what possessed him to think… well, I do not know what he thought!”
He picked up her hand and placed it on his arm again, walking slowly up the corridor.
“Why did you return?” she asked.
“I came back to see you,” he admitted. “Though I did not plan to ask you to play parlour games with me.”
“Why?” she demanded. “I do not mean why not parlour games, but why did you come to see me?”
“I enjoy your company,” he answered truthfully.
And I suspect you of treason.
He hated his suspicious mind, which reasoned she and Lord Auburn might be the two he sought, and the forced kiss an act to cover up an interrupted meeting. He did not wish to believe such a thing. He wanted only to comfort the lovely woman on his arm.
She stopped and stared up at him, a deep furrow between her brows. “How can this be?” she demanded. “What is going on? Two men cannot seek me out without cause.”
He frowned. Grasping her arms, he gave her a gentle shake. “Do not underestimate your charms,” he scolded.
A giggle bubbled up from her lips. “You are like no other man I have ever met, Lord Darlington.”
He smiled and released her. “I am pleased to hear it, Miss Hunt. I think you should drop your pretense of being socially unfit. You are nothing of the kind.”
She shot him a look. “How can you say such a thing when you have just rescued me twice from my own ineptitude?”
“What I am saying is the ineptitude is entirely unnecessary. You think because you have a mark on your face you cannot shine like the rest of them?”
He feared she might slap him for mentioning her splotch, his bluntness well beyond polite conversation.
She flushed and glared at him. “What would you know about my mark?”
He shrugged, maintaining direct eye contact. “I know it makes you unique. I know it brings out the blue of your eye. And I can see you do not find it as beautiful as I do.”
Her face twisted, showing flashes of anger, vulnerability, and pain. She searched his face as if trying to discern his sincerity. “Do you know what they called me as a child behind my back?”
He did not know, nor did he want to know, but she went on.
“Spot. They called me Spot.”
“Are you still that child?” he asked softly. He knew something about distancing oneself from childhood demons.
He could see her retreating before his eyes and wanted to apologize, to say never mind, to lighten the mood. But it was too important to drop.
She swallowed. “Sometimes.”
“Do you wish to continue to be?”
“No,” she whispered.
He bowed to her. “I honor your courage, Miss Hunt, in admitting your shortcomings, which have nothing to do with a birthmark I find beautiful.”
She blinked, the rise and fall of her quickened breath drawing his attention to her creamy décolletage.
They had reached the end of the corridor and turned back in the direction from whence they came.
“I think I shall retire,” she said when they reached the stair.
He bowed, allowing her to walk up the steps first, as it would be unseemly to escort her to her bedroom. He followed twenty paces behind, noting which room she entered. Pressing his ear to another door, he took out his hairpin and picked the lock, entering to do another search. He listened at the door before he opened it to exit, but just as he slipped out, Miss Hunt opened her door, her gaze sharpening as she looked from his face to the door.
She knew it was not his room.
* * *
Why was Lord Darlington in the Winstons’ room? She jumped back into her own chamber and shut the door, her heart pounding. She had known there was something off about him. Was he a thief? What other explanation could there be?
She listened as his footsteps drew closer to her door.
“Good evening, Miss Hunt,” he murmured through the door, as if he knew she leaned against it.
She held her breath, not answering, her heart hammering in her chest. His footsteps moved away, back down the stairs. She exhaled, assimilating what she had just seen with her impressions of Lord Darlington. She considered her obligation to notify Lord Westerfield, yet nothing short of a fire in the manor would make her open the door and go back down the stairs.
…a birthmark I find beautiful.
Warmth still filled her chest from their discussion. So what did she care if he were a thief? He had helped her out of two uncomfortable situations without shaming her and he called her charming and seemed to mean it. But then, a thief would be a good liar.
Still, she did not care. If the Winstons raised an uproar in the morning about missing items, she would not say a word. Lord Darlington, or whoever he was, had protected her from embarrassment; she would do the same for him.
* * *
In the morning she left the manor to take her daily walk. Throwing a wrap around her shoulders, she strode out into the misty air, eager for her favorite time of day, when she could be alone without the distress of interacting socially. She lifted her skirts, taking long strides, breathing in the fresh air. She headed for the woods, where the sounds of birds chattering in the branches called to her.
She slowed when she reached the thicker area, her mind lulled into a pleasant state of little thought. Her foot slipping into a hole came as a total surprise, and when the earth crumbled beneath both feet and she plunged downward, she panicked and let out an ear-piercing scream.
She thought she heard her name being called in alarm by a male voice at the same moment she screamed, but she landed on her back with the wind knocked out of her and her vision turned black.
“Miss Hunt… Miss Hunt… Miss Hunt.”
As she still struggled to regain her breath, quick, capable hands made an efficient examination of her body in the darkness, stroking down the sides of her face, lifting her head to check the back of her skull, traveling the lengths of her arms.
“Miss Hunt?” he asked with an urgency in his tone.
Lord Darlington. Her rescuer once again. She could not catch her breath to answer him. His hands continued their assessment, slipping underneath her to run along the length of her back, then down her legs, ankles, and feet. His touch was feather-light, but sure, as if he frequently checked the limbs of ladies who had fallen into… where had she fallen?
“Miss Hunt, Miss Hunt, Miss Hunt,” he breathed again, more to himself than to her. The hands returned to her torso, and to her shock, his fingers slipped inside the neckline of her dress, grasping the bodice of her dress and stays.
“What are you doing?” she croaked.
“Oh!” he exclaimed, yanking his hands back and then laughing. “I was trying to loosen your corset so you could breathe,” he explained, his voice still filled with mirth. “Forgive me! Are you all right? No—do not try to move yet,” he said, his hands stilling her as she tried to sit up in the darkness.
“I think I am unhurt,” she said. “My breath was knocked out of me. Where are we?”
“I believe it is a natural opening in the earth caused by the old tree roots rotting away. We are under the tree in a sort of earthen cave, I suppose.”
She blinked up in the only direction of light, which appeared to be a good ten feet above them. “How did you get here?”
“I saw you fall and I followed. I am Darlington, by the way, if you have not guessed.” He threaded one hand behind the nape of her neck and assisted her in sitting.
“Of course I guessed. Who else has such all-consuming interest in the state of my corset?”
Darlington laughed, the deep rich sound of genuine male amusement. His hand stroked up and down her back as if he were still checking for cuts and bruises. “Any pain?”
She groaned. “Yes… no, not really. Just stiffness.”
“Sit for a moment until you are certain you are unharmed,” he instructed, his hand traveling to her nape, where his fingers lightly stroked her neck. It was too intimate, yet in the darkness, where he had been using his hands to see, it seemed a natural transition.
“How will we get out?” she asked, her voice wavering.
“Oh, I imagine I can boost you out. And if I cannot manage to climb out on my own, you can go for help,” he answered, sounding completely nonchalant about their dilemma. “Are you ready to stand?”
“Yes, please,” she said.
He lifted her to her feet before she could even begin to help herself. Stepping under the opening above them, his form came into view—strong, confident shoulders squared the top of a sturdy frame. She walked over to him.
“Well, if I boost you straight up, you should be able to catch hold of the tree roots up there—do you see them?”
He knelt down. “Sit upon my shoulder.”
“Oh!” she exclaimed, grateful the darkness would hide the blush she felt rise to her cheeks. She gingerly perched one side of her bottom on his shoulder, holding his opposite shoulder with her hand.
His arm looped around her waist and held her snugly against his neck as he lurched to his feet. She gave a tiny shriek at the wobble, then giggled in embarrassment.
“All right, Miss Hunt. Can you reach anything at all this way?”
Fear made her reluctant to let go of his shoulder, so she reached with her left hand, waving it without actually looking up. Darlington shifted his feet, making her jerk in fear again.
“I have you,” he soothed. “I will not let you fall, I promise. Go ahead and look up to grasp a root.”
His coaxing voice made her realize her foolishness. “Forgive me,” she said, feeling like a goose.
“There is nothing to forgive,” he said without any sign of impatience, though she must be crushing him in the unbalanced way she sat side-saddle on his shoulder.
She looked up, holding her breath as she reached with her right hand and snatched a root. She caught it on the first try and exhaled. But even with the root in her hand, she could not see how she might climb out.
Lord Darlington grasped her feet and began to push them up, as if she might stand in his hands. Like when he lifted her to stand from the ground, she did not even have time to try to help herself before he boosted her into the air. She clutched at the roots, reaching higher to use her arms to climb out as Darlington propelled her from below.
She reached the soft ground above only to find it crumbling beneath her, sending a cascade of dirt down upon her poor rescuer. “Oh!” she shrieked.
“Keep climbing,” came his calm instruction.
She obeyed, wriggling her way forward on her torso until she reached more solid ground. She lay there panting, her heart beating a frantic, irregular rhythm in her chest. “I am out!” she called when she caught her breath.
“Yes,” he said in an easy tone, as if being patient with her for stating the obvious.
“I will get help straightaway!” she called down, guilty at being free whilst he remained trapped.
“Thank you,” he said, sounding unconcerned.
She scrambled to her feet, brushing off her skirts and rushing toward the manor. When she reached the edge of the trees, she looked back to mark the area and stopped, flabbergasted.
Lord Darlington sauntered toward her, a grin on his face as if nothing had happened.