A Lady by Midnight / Page 6

Page 6


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And then today . . .


A year’s worth of avoidance and intimidation, all shot to hell in one afternoon, thank to that wrongheaded, stupid, goddamned glorious kiss.


“Look at me.”


He leaned forward and braced his hands on the stone wall, confronting her face-to-face. Daring her; daring fate. If she was ever going to recognize him, it would be now.


As she took him in, he did some looking of his own. He drank in the small details he’d denied himself for long months. Her sweet pink frock, with ivory ribbons threaded through the neckline like little dollops of confectioner’s icing. The tiny freckle on her chest, just below her right collarbone. The brave set of her jaw, and the way her pink lips crooked fetchingly at the corners.


Then he searched those clever, lovely hazel eyes for any hint of awareness or flash of recognition.


Nothing.


“You don’t know me,” he said. Both a statement and a question.


She shook her head. Then she spoke what were quite possibly the most foolish, improbable words he’d ever heard. “But I think I’d like to.”


He gripped that stone wall as if it were the edge of a precipice.


She said, “Perhaps we could—”


“No. We couldn’t.”


“I didn’t finish my thought.”


“Doesn’t matter. Whatever you meant to suggest, it won’t happen.” He pushed off the wall and gathered his gelding’s lead, loosing it from the stile.


“You’ll have to talk to me sometime. We do live in the same tiny village.”


“Not for long.”


“How do you mean?”


“I’m leaving Spindle Cove.”


She paused. “What? When?”


“In a month’s time.” A month too late, it would seem.


“Are you being reassigned?”


“I’m leaving the army. And England. That’s what I was doing in Hastings today. I’ve booked passage to America on a merchant ship.”


“My.” Her hands fell to her lap. “America.”


“The war’s over. Lord Rycliff’s helping me arrange for an honorable discharge. I’ve a wish to own some land.”


She moved as though she’d hop down from the wall. By reflex, he took her by the waist, slowly lowering her to the ground.


Once there, she showed no inclination to leave his embrace.


“But we’re only just getting to know one another,” she said.


Oh, no. This stopped right here and now. She didn’t truly want him. She was overwrought from the day, clinging to the only soul in reach.


“Miss Taylor, we kissed. Once. It was a mistake. It won’t happen again.”


“Are you certain?” She laced her arms around his neck.


He froze, stunned by the intent he read in her eyes.


Sweet merciful God. The girl meant to kiss him.


He could tell the exact moment she dared herself to do it. Her gaze lingered on his lips, and he heard her sharp intake of breath. She stretched up, and as her lips neared his, he marveled over every fraction of an instant in which she didn’t change her mind and turn away.


Her eyelids slipped shut. He might have closed his eyes, too, but he couldn’t.


This, he needed to see to believe.


She pressed her lips to his, just as the last wash of sunlight ebbed. And the world became a place he didn’t recognize.


She smelled so good. Not just pleasant, but good. Pure. Those light hints of clover and citrus were the essence of clean. He felt washed by that scent. He could almost imagine that he’d never lied, never stolen, never shivered in prison. Never marched into battle, never bled. That he hadn’t killed four men at distances so intimate, he could still recall the colors of their eyes. Brown, blue, another blue, then green.


This is wrong.


A dark growl rumbled in his chest. He kept his hands on her waist, but he fanned his fingers wide.


His thumbs skimmed upward, skipping from rib to rib until they just grazed the soft undersides of her breasts. With the little finger of each hand, he touched the gentle flare of her hip. His hand span was stretched to its limits. This was as much of her as he could possibly hold.


He needed every bit of that leverage to push her away.


When they broke apart, she gazed up at him. Waiting.


“You shouldn’t have done that,” he said.


“I wanted to. Does that make me loose?”


“No. It makes you soft in the head. Young ladies like you don’t pass time with men like me.”


“Men like you? You mean the sort of men who rescue helpless young ladies in the street and carry puppies in their satchels?” She gave a playful shiver. “Lord preserve me from men like you.”


A timid smile played at the corner of her mouth. He wanted to devour it. To catch her in his arms and teach her the consequences of teasing a fiercely lusting, barely civilized beast.


But saving this girl was the one decent thing he’d done in all his life. Some nineteen years ago, he’d sold the last bits of his own innocence to purchase hers. He’d be damned if he’d ruin her now.


With firm motions, he unlaced her arms from around his neck. He held her by the wrists, making his hands tight as manacles.


She gasped.


“Have a care for yourself, Miss Taylor. I’ll take blame for the kiss. It was a liberty and my mistake. I let a carnal impulse distract me from my duty. But if you’re imagining tender feelings on my side, they’re just that—imaginings.”


She twisted in his grip. “You’re frightening me.”


“Good,” he said evenly. “You should be scared. I’ve killed more men than you’ll kiss in your lifetime. You don’t want anything to do with me, and I don’t feel a damned thing for you.”


He released her wrists. “I’m finished discussing it.”


He was finished discussing it.


Kate only wished she were finished living it.


Sadly, she had another two hours on horseback in which to recline, mortified, against his chest and savor her full humiliation. What a horrid, horrid day.


She wasn’t used to riding horseback. As the miles wore on, her muscles began to knot. Her backside hurt as though it had been paddled. And her pride . . . oh, her pride smarted something fierce.


What was wrong with the man? Kissing her, telling her he wanted her, and then so callously pushing her away? After living with his standoffish treatment for an entire year, she supposed she should have known better. But today she’d fancied that maybe she’d found his hidden emotional side. Perhaps, she’d thought, the hardened beast had a tender underbelly—a soft spot, just for her. She couldn’t resist giving it a poke.


He’d all but snapped her finger off.


So mortifying. How could she have misread his intentions so completely? She should have refused his offer of a ride home and spent the night singing for pennies in the Hastings streets instead. It would have been less degrading.


I don’t feel a damned thing for you.


The only consolation was that he’d be leaving Spindle Cove in a matter of weeks, and she need never speak to him again.


Erasing him from her thoughts would be a more difficult trick. No matter how long she lived, this man would always be her first kiss. Or worse, her only kiss.


The cruel, teasing ogre.


Eventually they reached familiar bends in the road. The scattered amber lights of the village appeared on the horizon, just below the silvery stars.


Kate had a quiet laugh at her own expense. She’d left the village early this morning with a heart full of foolish hopes and dreams. Tonight, she returned with her spine wilted from six kinds of humiliation and her arms full of mongrel dog.


“If you’re still taking suggestions, I’d name him Badger,” she said when the silence became too much. “It suits him, I think. He’s all nose and teeth and tussle.”


His reply was a long time in coming. “Call the pup whatever you wish.”


She bent her head and nuzzled the dog’s fur. “Badger,” she whispered, worrying the soft flap of his ear, “you’d never spurn my kisses, would you?”


The pup licked her fingertip. She blinked away a silly tear.


As they neared the church and the heart of the village, she looked to the Queen’s Ruby. Lights burned in nearly every window. The sight kindled a warm glow in her heart. Badger’s tail began to wag, as if he sensed the lift in her spirits. She did have friends, and they were waiting up for her.


Thorne helped her dismount and loosed the horse to graze on the village green.


“Do you plan to come in and eat something?” she asked.


He shrugged back into his coat. “That’s a bad idea. You know there’s talk about me. I’m bringing you home well after dark. Your frock’s torn, and your hair’s a shambles.”


She cringed at the blow to what remained of her vanity. “My hair is a shambles? Since when? You might have said something.”


Tucking Badger under one arm, she plucked at her hairpins with her free hand. His concern for appearances wasn’t unfounded. Small villages were buzzing hives of gossip. She knew she must keep her reputation unsoiled if she wanted to continue living in the Queen’s Ruby and tutoring the gently bred ladies who summered there.


“Just give the dog here, Miss Taylor, and I’ll be on my way.”


In an instinctive reaction, she hugged the puppy close to her chest. “No. No, I don’t think I will.”


“What?”


“We get along, he and I. So I’m going to keep him. I believe he’d be happier that way.”


The severity of his frown seemed to slice through the darkness. “You can’t keep a puppy in a rooming house. Your landlady won’t allow it, and even if she would—a dog like that needs space to run.”


“He also needs love. Affection, Corporal Thorne. Are you telling me you can provide it?” She playfully tugged at Badger’s scruff. “Tell me right now that you love this dog, and I will return the pup at once.”


He didn’t answer her.


“Four little words,” she taunted. “ ‘I . . . love . . . the . . . dog.’ And he’s yours.”


“I own the dog,” he said tersely. “He is mine. I paid coin for him.”


“Then I’ll pay you back. But I will not surrender this sweet, defenseless little creature to a man with no feeling, no heart. No capacity to care.”


Just then the front door of the Queen’s Ruby burst open.


Mrs. Nichols came running out from the inn—as much as the poor old dear could run. Her hands were flapping. “Miss Taylor! Miss Taylor, oh, thank goodness you’re here at last.”


“I’m so sorry to have worried you, Mrs. Nichols. I missed the stagecoach home, and Corporal Thorne was good enough to—”


“We’ve been waiting and waiting.” The older woman put her arm through Kate’s and pulled her toward the door. “Your visitors have been here for hours. I’ve run through three pots of tea, exhausted all possible topics of conversation.”


“Visitors?” Kate was stunned. “I have visitors?”


Mrs. Nichols gathered her shawl about her shoulders. “Four of them.”


“Four of them? Whatever do they want?”


“They won’t say. Except that they’ve insisted on waiting for you. It’s been hours now.”


Kate paused in the threshold, scraping the mud from the soles of her boots. She couldn’t imagine who these visitors might be. Perhaps a family seeking music lessons. But at this hour of night? “I’m so sorry I’ve put you to such trouble.”


“Not a trouble, dear. It’s an honor to have a man of such rank and stature in my parlor.”


A man? Of rank and stature?


“Might I just nip upstairs and see to my appearance first? I’m all mussed from the road.”


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