Ashley, get out of the coach," Maddie said. "This is my elopement. You're not invited."
"Nevertheless, I'm coming," Ashley said, and Maddie knew that stubborn look in her cousin's eye. "You're not the only one who's allowed to have an adventure."
"But it won't be an adventure, Ashley. It will be boring, I assure you."
That was unless Ashley insisted on coming along.
Maddie glanced at Mr. Dover, seated beside her. He looked agitated and impatient. In his hand, he held a pocket watch. "We are now precisely eleven minutes behind our scheduled departure," he said.
Maddie massaged the bridge of her nose and tried to be patient.
And optimistican act that was becoming increasingly more difficult every time one of Mr. Dover's precious seconds ticked away. "Ashley," she pleaded. "Get out."
Maddie was about to leap across the coach and forcibly evict her friend when Dover raised his hand. "As time is of the essence, might I suggest an alternate solution?"
Ashley shook her head. "Where did you find this ... man?"
Dover sniffed. "As I was sayingor about to say"he gave Ashley a reproving look"it might be more expedient to allow Miss Brittany to travel with us."
Maddie stared at him. "Come with us?"
He removed his spectacles and began polishing them. "Yes. After all, what is the harm in her coming?"
"You obviously don't know her very well," Maddie grumbled. Ashley could find trouble in a nunnery.
"Well," Dover said, looking at his watch again. "Perhaps she could be our chaperone. We didn't think to bring a chaperone."
"That's because eloping couples don't have chaperones!" Instantly, Maddie felt guilty for raising her voice. Especially as Mr. Dover had turned his reproving look on her. "I'm sorry for that outburst, Mr. Dover. I'm extremely agitated at the moment."
"I think Mr. Dover has a splendid idea," Ashley said with a smile for Maddie's fiancé. "I would make an excellent chaperone."
Maddie would have laughed if she didn't feel like crying. They really did not have time for this. Any moment her parents were going to realize she was missing and begin searching for her. It wouldn't be long before they or one of the servants discovered the note she'd left on her pillow.
"Ashley, please," Maddie begged. She never begged, but she was at her wit's end. "My father will be after us, and if we don't leave soon, we won't get away."
Ashley, who by all appearances had settled into her seat permanently, said, "Then by all means, tell the coachman to drive on."
Defeated, Maddie dropped her head in her hands. Mr. Dover, seeming to understand that a decision had been made, rapped on the roof of the coach.
He rapped three times, waited, then rapped again.
Maddie lifted her head and peered up at the hatch, where the errant coachman should have appeared.
There was a loud crash on top of the coach. Maddie ducked, afraid the ceiling would fall in on them. The ceiling held, but the crash was followed by a scrambling sound. She stared at Ashley, who, for once in her life looked frightened.
Maddie almost groaned. The dreaded adventure was starting already.
Mr. Dover reached for the hatch, but the coach lurched and he fell back. Maddie staggered against the window with a small squeal, then almost tumbled out the door when it was thrust open and a dark-haired man with a bloody nose and a coffee-colored stain on his buff breeches climbed inside.
He barely got the door closed before the horses were whipped into frenzied motion and the coach pitched violently.
The man practically fell into the seat beside Ashley. He pushed his dark hair out of his eyes, his gaze falling on each one of them. When his dark eyes met hers, Maddie gasped, unable to breathe. There was something feral and untamed about this man. The space between them seemed to buzz with heat.
He gave her a wicked smile, and she swore she heard the hiss and crack of lightning.
She tried to close her mouth or to make it function, to say something. Her mouth moved, but no words would form.
The man settled in, stretching one booted foot out to rest beside her, and said, "So, where are we going?"
© Shana Galen