Momentary madness, by definition, was momentary.
All the same, it took some effort not to notice that her hip was only a few inches from his.
“To what do we owe the pleasure of your company, Lord Hugh?” Sarah asked as she untied her bonnet.
She definitely had no idea. There was no way she’d have used the word pleasure, otherwise.
“Your cousin informed me that he had saved me a spot in the best carriage of the trip,” he said.
“The caravan,” Frances corrected.
He pulled his eyes off Sarah to look at her youngest sister. “I beg your pardon?”
“The Great and Terrible Caravan of British Aristocracy,” Frances said pertly. “It’s what we call it.”
He felt himself grin, and when he next breathed, it sounded like a laugh. “That’s . . . excellent,” he said, finally settling on a word.
“Sarah thought of it,” Frances said with a shrug. “She’s very clever, you know.”
“Frances,” Sarah warned.
“She is,” Frances said in the worst imitation of a whisper Hugh had ever heard.
Sarah’s eyes flitted this way and that, the way they did when she was uncomfortable, and then finally she leaned forward to glance out the window. “Aren’t we meant to be leaving soon?”
“The Great and Terrible Caravan,” he murmured.
She turned to him with suspicion in her eyes.
“I like it,” he said simply.
Her lips parted, and she had that look about her, as if she was planning a long sentence, but instead she said, “Thank you.”
“Oh, here we go!” Frances said happily.
The wheels of the carriage began to turn beneath them. Hugh sat back and allowed the motion to lull him into quietude. He’d never minded coach travel before his injury. It had always put him to sleep. It still did; the only problem was that there was rarely enough room to extend his leg, and it hurt like the devil the following day.
“Will you be all right?” Lady Sarah asked quietly.
He tilted his head toward her and murmured, “All right?”
Her eyes went fleetingly to his leg.
“I’ll be fine.”
“Won’t you need to stretch it?”
“We’ll be stopping for lunch.”
“I will be fine, Lady Sarah,” he cut in, but to his own surprise, his words held no bite of defensiveness. He cleared his throat. “Thank you for your concern.”
Her eyes narrowed, and he could tell that she was trying to decide if she believed him. He didn’t want to give her any cause to think him anything but perfectly comfortable, so he glanced idly over at the three youngest Pleinsworth sisters, squeezed in a row. Harriet was tapping the feathered end of a quill against her forehead, and Elizabeth had pulled out a small book. Frances was leaning past her, trying to see out the window.
“We haven’t even left the drive,” Elizabeth said, not taking her eyes from her book.
“I just want to see.”
“There is nothing to see.”
“There will be.”
Elizabeth flipped a page with crisp precision. “You’re not going to be like this the whole— Ow!”
“It was an accident,” Frances insisted.
“She kicked me,” Harriet said, to no one in particular.
Hugh watched the exchange with some humor, well aware that what was amusing now would be agonizing if it went on for the next hour.
“Why don’t you try to see out Harriet’s window?” Elizabeth said.
Frances sighed but did as her sister had suggested. A moment later, however, they heard the sound of paper crumpling.
“Frances!” Harriet cried.
“I’m sorry. I just want to look out the window.”
Harriet looked over at Sarah pleadingly.
“I can’t,” Sarah said. “If you think you’re uncomfortable now, just think how tight it would be with me there instead of Frances.”
“Frances, sit still,” Harriet said sharply, and she turned back to the papers on her lap desk.
Hugh felt Sarah nudge him lightly with her elbow, and when he turned, she motioned with her eyes toward her hand.
One . . . two . . . three . . .
She was discreetly counting the seconds, each finger stretching out in time.
Four . . . five . . .
Hugh peeked over at Sarah, whose faint smile was decidedly smug.
“Frances, you cannot keep leaning over me like that,” Elizabeth snapped.
“Then let me sit at the window!”
All eyes turned to Elizabeth, who finally let out a hugely irritated huff as she crouched in the middle of the carriage to allow Frances to slide over to the window. Hugh watched with interest as Elizabeth wiggled about far more than was necessary to find a comfortable position, reopened her book, and glared at the words.
He looked at Sarah. She looked back with an expression that said, Just you wait.
Frances did not disappoint.
Sarah sighed, torn between amusement and embarrassment that Lord Hugh was about to witness a classic Pleinsworth spat.
“For the love of— Frances!” Elizabeth glared at her younger sister as if she might take her head off. “It hasn’t been more than five minutes since we switched places!”
Frances gave a helpless shrug. “But I’m bored.”
Sarah stole a glace at Hugh. He seemed to be trying not to laugh. Which she supposed was the best she could hope for.
“Can’t we do something?” Frances pleaded.
“I am,” Elizabeth ground out, holding up her book.
“You know that’s not what I meant.”
“Oh, no!” Harriet cried out.
“I knew you were going to spill the ink!” Elizabeth yelled. Then she let out a shriek, “Don’t get it on me!”
“Stop moving so much!”
“I can help!” Frances said excitedly, leaping into the fray.
Sarah was just about to intervene when Lord Hugh reached forward, grabbed Frances by the collar, and hauled her across the carriage, where he deposited her unceremoniously onto Sarah’s lap.
It was rather magnificent, really.
“You should stay out of it,” he advised.
Sarah, meanwhile, was dealing with an elbow to her lungs. “I can’t breathe,” she gasped.
Frances adjusted her position. “Better?” she asked brightly.
Sarah’s reply was a huge gulp of air. Somehow she managed to twist her head to the side so that she was facing Lord Hugh. “I would compliment you on a superior extrication except that I seem to have lost all feeling in my legs.”
“Well, at least you’re breathing now,” he said.
And then—heaven help her—she started to laugh. There was something so ludicrous about being complimented for breathing. Or maybe it was just that one had to laugh when the best thing about one’s situation was that one was still breathing.
And so she did. She laughed. She laughed so hard and so long that Frances slid right off her lap to the floor. And then she kept on laughing until the tears were running down her face, and Elizabeth and Harriet stopped their bickering and stared, astounded.
“What’s wrong with Sarah?” Elizabeth asked.
“It was something about having trouble breathing,” Frances said from the floor.
Sarah let out a little shriek of laughter at that, then clutched her chest, gasping, “Can’t breathe. Laughing too hard.”
Like all good laughter, it was contagious, and before long the whole carriage was giggling, even Lord Hugh, whom Sarah could never have imagined laughing like that. Oh, he smirked, and occasionally he chuckled, but right then, as the Pleinsworth carriage rolled south toward Thrapstone, he was as undone as the rest of them.
It was a glorious moment.
“Oh my,” Sarah finally managed to say.
“I don’t even know what we’re laughing about,” Elizabeth said, still grinning from ear to ear.
Sarah finished wiping the tears from her eyes and tried to explain. “It was— He said— oh, never mind, it would never be as funny in the retelling.”
“I’ve got the ink cleaned up, at least,” Harriet said. She pulled a sheepish face. “Well, except for my hands.”
Sarah looked over and winced. Only one of Harriet’s fingers seemed to have been spared.
“You look as if you’ve got the plague,” Elizabeth said.
“No, I think that’s on your neck,” Harriet replied, taking no offense whatsoever. “Frances, you should get off the floor.”
Frances looked up at Elizabeth, who had slid back into the seat by the window. Elizabeth sighed and moved to the center.
“I’m just going to get bored again,” Frances said as soon as she was settled.
“No, you’re not,” Hugh said firmly.
Sarah turned to look at him, amused and impressed. It took a brave man to take on the Pleinsworth girls.