A Lady by Midnight / Page 3

Page 3


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She made a lunging grab for it, desperate to save what she could.


“Look sharp!” a man shouted.


Cartwheels creaked. Somewhere much too near, a horse bucked and whinnied. She looked up from where she’d crouched in the lane to see two windmilling, iron-shoed hooves, big as dinner plates, preparing to demolish her.


A woman screamed.


Kate threw her weight to one side. The horse’s hooves landed just to her left. With a squalling hiss of the brake, a cartwheel screeched to halt—inches from crushing her leg.


The parcel of sheet music landed some yards distant. Her “plan” was now a mud-stained, wheel-rutted smear on the street.


“Devil take you,” the driver cursed her from the box, brandishing his horsewhip. “A fine little witch you are. Near overset my whole cart.”


“I—I’m sorry, sir. It was an accident.”


He cracked his whip against the cobblestones. “Out of my way, then. You unnatural little—”


As he raised his whip for another strike, Kate flinched and ducked.


No blow came.


A man stepped between her and the cart. “Threaten her again,” she heard him warn the driver in a low, inhuman growl, “and I will whip the flesh from your miserable bones.”


Chilling, those words. But effective. The cart swiftly rolled away.


As strong arms pulled her to her feet, Kate’s gaze climbed a veritable mountain of man. She saw black, polished boots. Buff breeches stretched over granite thighs. A distinctive red wool officer’s coat.


Her heart jumped. She knew this coat. She’d probably sewn the brass buttons on these cuffs. This was the uniform of the Spindle Cove militia. She was in familiar arms. She was saved. And when she lifted her head, she was guaranteed to find a friendly face, unless . . .


“Miss Taylor?”


Unless.


Unless it was him.


“Corporal Thorne,” she whispered.


On another day, Kate could have laughed at the irony. Of all the men to come to her rescue, it would be this one.


“Miss Taylor, what the devil are you doing here?”


At his rough tone, all her muscles pulled tight. “I . . . I came into town to purchase new sheet music for Miss Elliott, and to . . .” She couldn’t bring herself to mention calling on Miss Paringham. “But I dropped my parcel, and now I’ve missed the stage home. Silly me.”


Silly, foolish, shame-marked, unwanted me.


“And now I’m truly stuck, I’m afraid. If only I’d brought a little more money, I could afford a room for the evening, then go back to Spindle Cove tomorrow.”


“You’ve no money?”


She turned away, unable to bear the chastisement in his gaze.


“What were you thinking, traveling all this distance alone?”


“I hadn’t any choice.” Her voice caught. “I am completely alone.”


His grip firmed on her arms. “I’m here. You’re not alone now.”


Hardly poetry, those words. A simple statement of fact. They scarcely shared the same alphabet as kindness. If true comfort were a nourishing, wholemeal loaf, what he offered her were a few stale crumbs.


It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter. She was a starving girl, and she hadn’t the dignity to refuse.


“I’m so sorry,” she managed, choking back a sob. “You’re not going to like this.”


And with that, Kate fell into his immense, rigid, unwilling embrace—and wept.


Bloody hell.


She burst into tears. Right there in the street, for God’s sake. Her lovely face screwed up. She bent forward until her forehead met his chest, and then she heaved a loud, wrenching sob.


Then a second. And a third.


His gelding danced sideways, and Thorne shared the beast’s unease. Given a choice between watching Miss Kate Taylor weep and offering his own liver to carrion birds, he would have had his knife out and sharpened before the first tear rolled down her face.


He clucked his tongue softly, which did some good toward calming the horse. It had no effect on the girl. Her slender shoulders convulsed as she wept into his coat. His hands remained fixed on her arms.


In a desperate gesture, he slid them up. Then down.


No help.


What’s happened? he wanted to ask. Who’s hurt you? Who can I maim or kill for distressing you this way?


“I’m sorry,” she said, pulling away after some minutes had passed.


“Why?”


“For weeping all over you. Forcing you to hold me. I know you must hate it.” She fished a handkerchief from her sleeve and dabbed at her eyes. Her nose and eyes were red. “I mean, not that you don’t like holding women. Everyone in Spindle Cove knows you like women. I’ve heard far more than I care to hear about your—”


She paled and stopped talking.


Just as well.


He took the horse’s lead in one hand and laid the other hand to Miss Taylor’s back, guiding her out of the street. Once they reached the side of the lane, he looped his horse’s reins about a post and turned his sights toward making her comfortable. There wasn’t anywhere for her to sit. No bench, no crate.


This disturbed him beyond reason.


His gaze went to a tavern across the street—the sort of establishment he’d never allow her to enter—but he was seriously considering crossing the lane, toppling the first available drunk off his seat, and dragging the vacated chair out for her. A woman shouldn’t weep while standing. It didn’t seem right.


“Please, can’t you just loan me a few shillings?” she asked. “I’ll find an inn for the night, and I won’t trouble you any further.”


“Miss Taylor, I can’t lend you money to pass the night alone in a coaching inn. It’s not safe.”


“I have no choice but to stay. There won’t be another stage back to Spindle Cove until morning.”


Thorne looked at his gelding. “I’ll hire you a horse, if you can ride.”


She shook her head. “I never had any lessons.”


Curse it. How was he going to remedy this situation? He easily had the money to hire another horse, but nowhere near enough coin in his pocket for a private carriage. He could put her up in an inn—but damned if he would let her stay alone.


A dangerous thought visited him, sinking talons into his mind.


He could stay with her.


Not in a tawdry way, he told himself. Just as her protector. He could find a damned place for her to sit down, as a start. He could see that she had food and drink and warm blankets. He could stand watch while she slept and make certain nothing disturbed her. He could be there when she woke.


After all these months of frustrated longing, maybe that would be enough.


Enough? Right.


“Good heavens.” She took a sudden step back.


“What is it?”


Her gaze dropped and she swallowed hard. “Some part of you is moving.”


“No, it’s not.” Thorne conducted a quick, silent assessment of his personal equipment. He found all to be under regulation. On another occasion—one with fewer tears involved—this degree of closeness would have undoubtedly roused his lust. But today she was affecting him rather higher in his torso. Tying his guts in knots and poking at whatever black, smoking cinder remained of his heart.


“Your satchel.” She indicated the leather pouch slung crossways over his chest. “It’s . . . wriggling.”


Oh. That. In all the commotion, he’d nearly forgotten the creature.


He reached beneath the leather flap and withdrew the source of the wriggling, holding it up for her to see.


“It’s just this.”


And suddenly everything was different. It was like the whole world took a knock and tilted at a fresh angle. In less time than it took a man’s heart to skip, Miss Taylor’s face transformed. The tears were gone. Her elegant, sweeping eyebrows arched in surprise. Her eyes candled to life—glowed, really, like two stars. Her lips fell apart in a delighted gasp.


“Oh.” She pressed one hand to her cheek. “Oh, it’s a puppy.”


She smiled. Lord, how she smiled. All because of this wriggling ball of snout and fur that was as likely to piss on her slippers as chew them to bits.


She reached forward. “May I?”


As if he could refuse. Thorne placed the pup in her arms.


She fawned and cooed over it like a baby. “Where did you come from, sweeting?”


“A farm nearby,” Thorne answered. “Thought I’d take him back to the castle. Been needing a hound.”


She cocked her head and peered at the pup. “Is he a hound?”


“Partly.”


Her fingers traced a rust-colored patch over the pup’s right eye. “I’d suppose he’s partly many things, isn’t he? Funny little dear.”


She lifted the pup in both hands and looked it nose-to-nose, puckering her lips to make a little chirping noise. The dog licked her face.


Lucky cur.


“Was that mean Corporal Thorne keeping you in a dark, nasty satchel?” She gave the pup a playful shake. “You like it so much better out here with me, don’t you? Of course you do.”


The dog yipped. She laughed and drew it close to her chest, bending over its furry neck.


“You are perfect,” he heard her whisper. “You are just exactly what I needed today.” She stroked the pup’s fur. “Thank you.”


Thorne felt a sharp twist in his chest. Like something rusted and bent, shaking loose. This girl had a way of doing that—making him feel. She always had, even years upon years in the past. That long-ago time seemed to fall beyond the reach of her earliest memories. A true mercy for her.


But Thorne remembered. He remembered it all.


He cleared his throat. “We’d best be on the road. It’ll be near dark by the time we reach Spindle Cove.”


She tore her attention from the dog and gave Thorne a curious glance. “But how?”


“You’ll ride with me. The both of you. I’ll take you up on my saddle. You’ll carry the dog.”


As if consulting all the concerned parties, she turned to the horse. Then to the dog. Lastly, she lifted her gaze to Thorne’s. “You’re certain we’ll fit?”


“Just.”


She bit her lip, looking unsure.


Her instinctive resistance to the idea was plain. And understandable. Thorne wasn’t overeager to put his plan into action, either. Three hours astride a horse with Miss Kate Taylor nestled between his thighs? Torture of the keenest sort. But he could see no better way to have her swiftly and safely home.


He could do this. If he’d lasted a year with her in the same tiny village, he could withstand a few hours’ closeness.


“I won’t leave you here,” he said. “It’ll have to be done.”


Her mouth quirked in a droll, self-conscious smile. It was reassuring to see, and at the same time devastating.


“When you put it that way, I find myself unable to refuse.”


For God’s sake, don’t say that.


“Thank you,” she added. She laid a gentle touch to his sleeve.


For your own sake, don’t do that.


He pulled away from her touch, and she looked hurt. Which made him want to soothe her, but he didn’t dare try.


“Mind the pup,” he said.


Thorne helped her into the saddle, boosting her at the knee, rather than the thigh, as might have been more efficient. He mounted the gelding, taking the reins in one hand and keeping one arm about her waist. As he nudged the horse into a walk, she fell against him, soft and warm. His thighs bracketed hers.


Her hair smelled of clover and lemon. The scent rushed all through his senses before he could stop it. Damn, damn, damn. He could discourage her from talking to him, touching him. He could keep her distracted with a dog. But how could he prevent her from being shaped like a woman and smelling like paradise?


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