The muse and other confusing thoughts.
I am a writer of romance. I believe in happily ever after because there is already too much hate and unhappiness in the world, who wants to read it in a book? I love to write about strong men and the ladies they give their hearts to who are as strong as they are. I love writing historicals, fantasies, paranormals and murder mysteries.
My Hunters are a peticular favorite. I still am half in love with Hunt, my first Hunter in Captive Angel. Who wouldn't like to find a gorgeous naked man in their bed? I hope to be able to continue on with them after I finish Alpha Bravo. I just signed the contract for Unusual Circumstances to be published and I am psyched.
I love writing about the "Were" Worlds and am trying something new in a new novel I've titled "His".
I plan to use this blog to let my readers know when I will have new books out and to give excerpts to my books both new and old. So sign up to follow along and I hope to keep you entertained. Lots of love all!
My Hunters are a peticular favorite. I still am half in love with Hunt, my first Hunter in Captive Angel. Who wouldn't like to find a gorgeous naked man in their bed? I hope to be able to continue on with them after I finish Alpha Bravo. I just signed the contract for Unusual Circumstances to be published and I am psyched.
I love writing about the "Were" Worlds and am trying something new in a new novel I've titled "His".
I plan to use this blog to let my readers know when I will have new books out and to give excerpts to my books both new and old. So sign up to follow along and I hope to keep you entertained. Lots of love all!
Friday, October 22, 2010
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Monday, October 18, 2010
I wrote this as a sequel to A Gamble Worth Taking. It just didn't go over as well as Gamble did. I'm not quite sure why. I enjoyed the tale and the relationship between the hero and heroine. I hope you enjoy this snippet. Most of my novels can be found at All Romance Ebooks. Most of my print novels can be found at Amazon.com or at Barnes and Noble.com. Take care!
The Taming of a Vixen
The tiny shoulder straps parted with ease, sending the silky chemise floating down to gather at her slender waist. Her breasts, large, round and capped with delectable berry-colored nipples, filled his hands as if they were made just for him.
He listened to her moan, felt her arch to press herself more firmly into his fingers. He couldn’t help but wonder if the reaction was contrived. Was this a ploy to earn the ruby and diamond bracelet she was going on and on about earlier? Were her mewlings a bit overdone, her ardor a smidgeon too zealous?
He tried to concentrate, to lose himself in the luscious form she was so proud of, and rightly so. She was a catch to have as a mistress. He’d been lucky to find her between protectors and snatch her up so handily. She was the beauty of the season, incomparable to those giggling debutantes that were being thrown at him at every ball and gala he attended.
Long blonde tresses curled artfully, spilling over her strawberries and cream complexion. Huge blue eyes stared dreamily at him from a small heart-shaped face with lush lips and a classical nose, thin with just a touch of an upturn at the tip to make it precocious. She was petite, as was the fashion, but her body curved splendidly, designed as if by the heavens to prey upon the lusts of men.
Her name was Abigail Worth. Once a governess, she’d been taken by the master of the house, the father of the children she’d been hired to teach. He’d snuck into her room, shutting the connecting door to the children’s nursery. With his hand over her mouth he’d thrown up her night rail, plunging into her with no soft kisses or caresses, rutting on her like an animal.
Since that night, she’d used what God had given her to carve out her own place; her beauty, her intelligence, and her womanly wiles. She’d gone from being the governess to being the mistress and then onward, earning her own house and shelves of jewels, wardrobes of gowns. She was coveted by many, able to choose who she wanted.
Now she sat across his loins, staring down into his handsome dark face. His hair was mussed from her hands, cut in flyaway fashion, soft black locks that felt like pure sin between her fingers. His mouth was firm but could be soft and sensuous and could turn a woman’s mind to mush when he wanted. Blue eyes stared up at her, the blue of clear summer sky; but when his passions were roused, they turned dark like the cool depths of a lazy river.
That was the color she wanted to see them at now, not slightly mocking and cold as they were. Her hands stroked across his chest, her nails racking over his flat male nipples with deliberate taunting. They hardened under her fingers. Abigail leaned over, allowing her long hair to play across his neck and chest, her mouth moving with skilled ease, finding his lips and kissing him deeply.
She’d been after him since the first time she’d seen him, staring out the windows of one of the many galas that she’d finally talked her last protector into attending. It was a masked event, which allowed mistresses to sneak in undiscovered and she’d been anxious to go. He’d been at the window over looking the gardens, his dark hair uncovered, his handsome face unmasked. She’d asked another woman his name, her eyes hardening with lustful ponderings. Lord Jason Ashington, Duke of Clarington, was his name; a bachelor with a love of fine woman, fine horses and fine brandy. She hadn’t been able to get him off her mind.
Abigail had contrived the break up with her current lover after a single dance with Lord Jason. A dance she had spent flirting shamelessly and setting up an assignation with the handsome duke. That little tryst had gone splendidly, and she had allowed him to know that she was seeking a new protector, the blush having faded from the rose of her last benefactor.
They’d been together for almost four months now, and she was beginning to feel as if he were pulling away from her, as if she bored him in some way, a possibility too ridiculous to consider. Recently, his visits had gone from three times a week to two and this week? This was his first visit and it was already Friday!
“Jason,” she moaned, against his warm lips. “I love the way your hands feel on me.”
He rolled with her, pushing her under him, his hands coming out to rip her shift away. Her laugh was soft and seductive, with just the right note to make it a sensual delight to the male senses. It irritated him.
He kissed her neck, letting the scent of her perfume envelope his senses. It was an expensive scent; a heady aroma that she’d had made just for her. His lips slid to her breasts, finding a plump nipple and taking it between his lips. He suckled as she writhed under his mouth, her hands stroking his back and neck, sliding over the long muscles in his arms, her moans reaching his ears.
Were they fake? Did she actually feel desire? He took her nipple between his teeth, pulling on it lightly. If she were enjoying him, wouldn’t these pink tips be hard? He suckled again, plying the flat of his tongue and sweeping it over her breast.
With a sigh, he sat up, staring down at the picture she made in her dishabille. She was lovely, there was no doubting that. He had enjoyed every aspect of her slender body, from the sweet pink of her cunny to the lusciousness of her mouth and even that tiny pink rosebud that she’d tried so hard to stop him from taking the first time. Now she begged for it when he took her, wanting to be taken hard like the beasts in the field.
All he could think now was that he wanted something else. What? He didn’t know. He did know that he was bored with Abby, through no fault of her own. She tried, he would give her that.
“What is it?” she asked, her breath rushed, her hands reaching out to him. “Are you all right, Jason?”
He smiled distractedly, pushing his hand through his hair and not understanding his own mood. Any other man would have her flat on her back, her heels in the air as he plowed into her sweet little cunt. But when she tried to touch him, he almost leapt from the bed, anxious now to get away.
“It is nothing, my dear. A forgotten appointment is all.” The lies tripped from his lips easily. He felt guilty, though he knew he shouldn’t. He paid her well for her time; this house, a coach and four for her own use plus the endless trinkets that the woman was always demanding. He had no reason for guilt. But he felt it, for he knew he would be ending their arrangement. If not today, than the next time he visited.
“But you said you had all afternoon when you arrived, Jason. I was hoping you’d stay for dinner and then perhaps we could discuss Lady Emily Trent’s ball.” She moved to sit on the side of the bed, pushing her golden locks behind her shoulders so to allow him to fully gaze on her assets.
“Lady Emily’s ball is for the nobles, my dear, of which it is sad to say, you aren’t.” He reached for his shirt, pulling it on quickly, pushing her hands away as she rose to play with the buttons he’d already done up, slowly undoing them again.
“I could be a noble, Jason. If you would but marry me, I could be your wife and a Lady in my own right.” The words were out before she could stop them, but once they were, she couldn’t regret them. Abigail had been thinking this for a while now, how to stop having to depend upon a man’s lust for her very existence. It was easy, marry one of them. And which one would suit her more admirably than this handsome duke?
Jason tried to control the laughter that burst out of him, coughing into his hand before he allowed himself to look at her.
“You are serious?” he asked, his voice rising in disbelief that she could aspire to such. “Abby, you were nothing but a lowly governess, a school teacher’s daughter who managed to get an education. Half the lords in
have been between your thighs, my dear. You can’t possible think that I could marry you. Even if I were in the market to get married, which I am not, my position requires that I marry someone of equal status. I could never marry my mistress.” London
She narrowed her eyes at him, her mouth thinning to a straight line as she sulked. “It isn’t ridiculous and it is done. Many men marry their mistresses.”
“Abigail, most men who have mistresses have them because their wives won’t open their legs in the marital bed anymore. But most importantly, a fact that you might have missed in what I just said, I’m not interested in being leg shackled yet. I’m enjoying my life just fine right now, without a wife to whine and pout and wheedle her way into things.” He reached for his cravat, looping it over his shoulders as he pushed his shirt tails into the fine lawn breeches he hadn’t bothered removing before.
“Jason, you aren’t getting any younger, and you will need a wife to gain heirs from. You need to be able to pass the title along. I could bear those children for you, care for your home, and be hostess at your parties. And you know we deal well with each other in bed. What more could you want?”
“Oh yes, that would go over smashingly. You sitting at the foot of my table with half of the men present already having had a go at your soft cunt.” He laughed. “Abigail, you must get this out of your mind or else I will have no choice but to end our arrangement here and now.” He waited to hear her answer, wondering which he actually wanted. It would be so convenient if she would keep at him, now after his warning. He could walk away with it being her fault. It would absolve his conscience nicely.
She pouted, her pink lips pursed, her eyes downcast as she showed her disappointment and ire at his attitude. “I cannot believe that you think so little of me as to end our love over a small disagreement, Jason. I thought you cared more for me than that.”
“I care about you, Abby,” he said, pulling on the gray and silver waistcoat that went under the dark gray of his coat. “But I don’t love you. I have never uttered those words to a woman, and I won’t. That mythical emotion will never foul my thoughts. It is only women who believe in love.” He finished buttoning his waistcoat, turning to the mirror over her dressing table to tie his cravat, the limp material producing a completely unsatisfying knot.
“So, you think that women are foolish, and less than a man.”
“No, I never said they were less than a man. Women have their place in society and in this world. It just isn’t at my side at this moment. At least, not as anything other than lover.” Shrugging into his coat, he felt almost an overwhelming feeling of relief at knowing he was almost out the door.
“When will you be back, Jason?” she asked, coming to run her hands over the exquisite fit of his coat, admiring the way it clung to the manliness of his form.
“When my schedule permits, Abby,” he answered, pulling out of her clutching hands to turn and press a chaste kiss to her cheek. “You know how incredibly busy I am. The balls, the parties, my club all keep me very occupied.”
He looked down at her pretty face, a face that was stunning despite the disappointed moue that she wore. With a chuckle, he flicked her chin with his fingers, feeling much better now he was leaving. “If you behave yourself, I am pretty sure I can stop by that shop you were telling me about, the one with that pretty bauble you had mentioned.”
“I’d rather have your time than jewels,” she said, hurrying to add, “but if it would make you feel better for all the time you’ve ignored me recently, I shall endeavor to be pleased with the present.”
He laughed, enjoying the characteristic greediness. “Good bye, my dear. Perhaps I can stop by on Monday of next week. I shall check my schedule and send you round a note.” He kissed her cheek again and hurried from her bedroom.
His feet flew down the steps, taking his cane and his hat from the surprised housekeeper with a smile of thanks. Opening the door, he stepped out into the cool spring air, hearing the sounds of the evening birds chirping in the park across the street.
The green grass and newly budding trees called to him, so he took the reins of his horse from the groomsman that he paid to care for Abigail’s matched coach horses, and crossed the narrow street. His horse, a high spirited stallion that he hadn’t had the heart to geld, followed him eagerly, hoping for a quick gallop in the park before heading home to his stall and the oats he knew waited for him there.
“Up for a gallop, old boy?” he asked the frisky beast. The horse reached out and knocked his hat from off of his head, nickering his answer. Jason bent, picking up his hat, straightening just in time to jerk back from the trail he’d been about to turn on.
Another horse, this one a huge bay stallion, raced by, almost knocking him off his feet. He stared after it in consternation, noting the girl on the horse’s back, her hair streaming behind her. She was leaning over the horse’s neck, holding on for dear life.
Jason was on his stallion in a flash, kicking his heels into the horse’s sides and giving chase to the runaway horse. His hat was torn from his head by the rush of wind, his heart pounding with the thrill of the chase. He gave the horse its head, whispering words of encouragement as they gained on the runaway.
He could make out the girl’s shape now, no longer just a blur on a big bay horse. She wore a gray habit, her hair streaming behind her; the pins, if she’d been wearing any, were long since gone. He moved steadily closer. His horse, a true racer, felt the spirit of the match, his strides long and fast as he gained on his competition.
With a shout, Jason leaned over, grabbing the girl around the waist and dragging her across his saddle, holding her there as he fought to slow his own stallion, who wanted to continue the race.
He didn’t realize the girl was struggling against him until he felt her teeth sink into the muscle of his thigh.
“Damn me!” he shouted, dropping her off the saddle to sprawl in the grass at his stallion’s feet. “That hurt. What the hell did you do that for?” His hand rubbed over the offended area, seeing her tooth marks in the fine material of his breeches.
* * *
Lady Alyssa Cortland lifted herself off the ground with a grimace, unhurt except for the bruise to her ego. “Why the hell did you knock me from my horse?” she said with the same tone of outrage he had used. “I was out for an afternoon gallop one moment and the next you were manhandling my person.”
Jason dropped from his horse, still rubbing his leg. He held the reins with one hand, calming his agitated stallion with the other. “I’m sorry,” he said sarcastically. "I thought your horse was running away from you.”
“Ha!” she said, finally standing to look at the man before here. “I’ve been riding since before I could walk. I raised Vixen’s Boy from a baby. He would no more hurt me than I would him.”
Jason was spellbound. The girl in front of him was unlike any he’d seen. Her hair was the color of fox fur, with fiery highlights that drew the eyes. Her skin was pale cream, silky smooth but blushed with the chill of the wind that had blown past. Her eyes were gray, a simple word to use for such a wonderfully unique shade; the gray of the fog in the morning, mixed with just a hint of green that taunted of the passion in their depths.
She was tall, coming to his shoulder, a height not many women could attain. Her shoulders were slim, her breasts rising and falling with spectacular result beneath the fine gray wool she wore. But it was her face that enthralled him. Fine-boned, her eyes were huge in the slim oval, her chin a determined point with a tiny dimple in its center. Her long hair fell from a middle part, giving her an angelic appearance that would have held if she wasn’t staring at him with such incredible dislike.
“Did you lose your tongue?” she asked, her voice sharp.
“You are quite lovely,” he said, almost kicking himself as he heard the inane words coming from his mouth. “And I had no clue that your horse hadn’t spooked and gotten a hold of his bit. Do you race through the park like that often? You came very close to knocking my head off.”
“This park is part of my family’s estate here in
. You, on the other hand, were trespassing and have no rights to be here.” London
“Your family? That would make you…”
“I am Lady Alyssa Cortland. My father is Lord Edward Cortland, Duke of Sexton.”
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Lady Alyssa, though the circumstances are such as they are.” He stepped back, bowing low and taking her hand to press a kiss upon her knuckles. “I am Lord Jason Ashington. Since I have deprived you of your mount, perhaps I can give you a lift back to your home?”
* * *
Alyssa snatched her hand from his grasp. A strange tingle shot up her arm, leaving her gasping. She blinked as she heard his name, for it was well known in
. He was a known rakehell and scoundrel, a determined bachelor and a touted horseman. He was also rumored to be known for his fists at the gentleman’s club he frequented; not one to take on in the ring unless one was willing to walk away bruised and swollen. London
And he was unbelievably handsome, a fact that was just becoming apparent to Alyssa as her ire slowly faded. She had a temper as fiery as her hair and was known for sharp tongue and bursts of pique. But she was also known for her generosity and kind heart.
This was her first trip to
. She had been forced to come. She’d returned home from London just a few months before, where she’d gone to a finishing school at the behest of her father who thought she was becoming too “male-minded”. The one bright point of this trip would be her visit to her best friend, Lady Catherine Trent. Cat had been her roommate at school and also her conspirator, helping her get away with numerous pranks on the staff rs of the school. A fact that hadn’t set well with her father and had caused him to rage at her when he’d come to visit. France
But now she had returned to the life she loved; raising horses, reading, hunting, all the things that had sent her father into such a tizzy.
“It is not necessary, Lord Ashington. I am sure I will be able to find my own way very well.”
“But Lady Alyssa, it grows late and the night will be upon us soon. With no horse, it will be full dark before you reach home. Come, it is only a small ways and you can ride pillion behind me, if that will cover your maidenly modesty,” he chuckled, watching as her cheeks grew redder, and her eyes flamed with ire once more.
She lifted her fingers to her lips, pursing those lush morsels and letting loose a shockingly loud whistle. Within moments, a high pitched whinny was heard, followed by the sound of a horse’s hooves beating down as it ran. Alyssa held her gown as her mount barreled toward her, making no effort to get out of the brute’s way.
Jason watched, his heart unexpectedly in his throat, his hand , ready to pull her out of the way. To his surprise, the horse swerved at the very last moment and ran past Alyssa. She reached out, grasping the pommel with both hands, swinging herself up and into the saddle with an ease that told him that this was a practiced move.
“Impressive,” he said, whistling through his teeth as he watched the fiery vixen ride away. She turned and he swore she was laughing at him. With a wave of her hand, she aimed her mount into a small copse of trees and disappeared from his sight.
Saturday, October 16, 2010
This was one of the first full length novels I wrote and one of the first that was published. I will never forget the way it felt to get that acceptance email. I think I walked six feet off the ground for about a month. It still sells and it gave me my love of writing historicals for all the romance that comes with the period. I hope you enjoy this sample...
The rough wooden door splintered and bit into her fists. Pain from the gashes it left radiated up her arms but was forgotten instantly as Lara kept pounding and beating at the door, praying that someone, anyone would come and free her from this place.
Someone or anyone but him.
Matthew Trent, Fourth Duke of Marshalling, was the reason she was behind these doors, locked into a chamber that was high in the tower of his castle. He was the reason she was trapped here, unable to escape, unable to leave this place of horrors. She was to be forced into marriage, the contract signed and validated by people of power, leaving her no recourse but to be brought to this place.
It was her father's fault. If not for his stubborn refusal to quit the life of debauched gambler and the debts that he had acquired, she would not be here now, a prisoner to the worst of the rogues that court had ever seen. Lord Matthew was that, a rogue with the penchant for seducing young virgins and leaving them, soiled and spoiled, to be rushed into quickly contracted marriages. He drank and gambled, but unlike her father, Lord Matthew had a way with a wager, never leaving a table as a loser.
His prowess with both women and cards was legendary, as was his skill with the sword and his aim with a pistol.
He had come to their house, a small, modest manor house unlike the huge castle that was his home. He'd come to retrieve what he was owed by her father. Money that they did not have and had no way of acquiring for her father's friends and family had cut them off without a cent. With his high hat and starched cravat, deep claret colored coat and fawn colored breeches, he'd been the epitome of the dashing young lord.
But in this instance, the clothes didn't make the man, though they did frame what the good Lord had blessed him with. Black hair, rich and thick, curled past his shoulders, clubbed back and tied with a black ribbon. High cheekbones under taut, tanned skin and a thin, aristocratic nose, sat above lips that were just a trifle too wide. Black brows slashed across a wide forehead and thickly lashed eyes that were a piercing shade of green seemed to see all with barely a glance.
He'd been shown into their parlor by their one and only servant, a woman who'd been with them since before her mother's death ten years before. She'd taken over, raising Lara and her little sister Kathleen, as her father had lost interest in his daughters with the death of his beloved wife. The servant, Mary, was too old to go and find a new post and stayed with the family despite the fact that she hadn't been paid in years.
If Lara had only known, she would have stayed in her room that day instead of investigating the raised voice of her father. But no, the curse of curiosity had been stamped on her early in life, always leading her down the path of trouble, and today was no different.
She crept down the creaking stairs, carefully maneuvering around the third riser that would snap and pop and give her presence away. Slipping carefully past the door to the parlor, she'd peered inside, staring at the back of her father's head as he yelled and postulated to the man who sat in his big leather chair in front of the fire that must have been started just for him.
Lara felt her heart leap in her breast as she stared at the handsome lord, for he truly was a most pleasing specimen to look upon. His eyes were incredible, inscrutable as was his expression as he listened to her father make his many excuses and rage about the hand he had been dealt.
She must have made some small noise, for he suddenly turned her way, his eyes spotting her in the open doorway and freezing her to the spot. She felt a thrill of fear, for his expression was no longer that of the bored lord. No, he stared at her with a smile that spoke of other things than boredom, things that she knew nothing about at her tender age. Things that she could only guess at and feel a shiver of terror as his eyes slid down her body.
With a gasp, she forced herself away, turning to flee up the stairs, jumping over that third riser and rushing to her room. Throwing herself upon her bed, she pushed down her long skirts and buried her heated face into her palms. There had been something there, something in his eyes that had made her feel dirty and ashamed. She would have to ask her father who he was, for the man had scared her, not a feeling she was used to as she was the one to whom all the problems of the manor fell to.
She didn't know how long she laid there before she realized that the loud and raucous voice of her father was silent now, though she hadn't heard the door close behind the strange visitor. Getting up, she went to the pitcher of water that sat on the small stand and poured some into the basin, rinsing her face and hands with the cool liquid.
As she was wiping them dry on the ragged towel left for that purpose, there was a knock upon her door. Mary opened it at her bidding.
"Milady, you are wanted in the parlor," she said, her well modulated tones enunciating the words carefully.
"Mary, is that man still here?" Lara asked, her voice quivering just a bit in fear.
"Yes, milady. A fine gent he is too, a duke or an earl, I believe." She bobbed a quick curtsey and left the room now that her message had been delivered.
"A fine gentleman," Lara repeated softly, her hand at her breast as her heart beat rapidly as if trying to flee from her body. Taking a deep breath, she went to her dressing table and picked up her brush, quickly taming the blonde mass of curls that resisted her pins. She thought of changing her gown for the one she kept for good, to go to mass or to tea if they were invited, but decided against it. Her father would be up here himself to drag her down to the parlor if she didn't come in goodly time.
Brushing her skirts into place, she took a deep breath and left the safety of her room once more, descending the stairs in a much more refined manner than she had before. She tapped on the parlor door and then stepped inside, her head bowed as she waited for her father to bid her to speak.
"Here she is, your grace, here she is." Her father sounded as if he and the duke, or was it earl, had debated upon her arrival. And now that she was here, he was rubbing his hands in glee. "Stand tall girl, raise your head and let his grace get a good look at you."
Lara did as she was bid, lifting her chin and letting her shaking hands clasp in front of her skirt. She felt the eyes of her father's guest upon her and stiffened her resolve. She would not let either man see her fear for her father was known for his little tortures. It would give him much pleasure to break her resolve this day and in front of this man, Lara could sense it.
She didn't know what their guest thought, but he took his time with his inspection of her person, finally rising to walk with a limping gait towards her. Lara met his eyes, feeling the power of his green gaze and fought not to turn away. She wanted to, for the things she saw there were frightening to the innocent girl. As he came towards her, she lifted her chin, finding that he was so much taller than she, much taller than she had expected.
"She is a fine looking girl, Edward. But what would I do with the insipid miss?" Matthew said, his voice bored, his stance languid. Though inside he was anything but. When he'd spied this beautiful girl standing in the doorway, his eyes had widened. She was lovely, graceful, and vivid; nothing like the insipid miss he had called her.
Golden curls escaped pins and tumbled around her with an artless beauty, skin as pale as ivory and as flawless as silk blushed under his inspection. Her eyes, when they met his, had seemed hazel but as he came closer, they turned amber with a dark brown ring circling the iris. A pert nose and lush, full lips completed the picture in a heart shaped face blessed with a pointed stubborn looking chin.
The gown she wore was horrid, unflattering and plain. She should be dressed in satins and silk, velvets and lace, with diamonds dripping from her pretty ears and caressing the long length of her neck. He could see her in midnight blue velvet with a plunging neckline that made the most of her exquisite breasts, the color causing her skin to gleam like a pearl.
She was petite, but her figure was curvaceous though slender. He would have to fatten her up some if he took her with him.
"You said your family was after you to wed, your grace. My family is related to royalty, though we have fallen upon difficult times. If you were to take my daughter as your wife, her bride's price could be the amount that was agreed upon."
"A wife?" Matthew asked, his voice breaking with laughter. "What would I do with one of those? They cling and whine and are inordinately annoying if the truth were to be told."
But even as he laughed off the suggestion he realized the merit of the man's ideas. She was a timid lass and would probably be happy shipped off to his country estate once he tired of using her body to slake his lusts. And she would make a lovely hostess for the balls and parties his family was hounding him to have so that he could launch his three younger sisters into society.
He needed sons to pass his title and lands down to, though he had no plans to die for many years yet. Matthew walked around the girl once more, his hands clasped in thought, one finger tapping his lips as he mused over the idea.
"Wife?" the girl gasped, staring at her father with a look of horror. She'd thought to meet and marry a tender and gentle young man, one who would love her and care for her. Not someone like this dark lord whose eyes seemed to strip her bare and make her feel wanting. "You cannot be serious, father."
"Quiet, girl. Do as you are bid. This matter does not concern you." Edward could have slapped Lara. She would ruin everything with her unruly tongue and her overly intelligent mannish ways. He'd never understood the girl, for she showed none of the traits that he thought a genteel young woman should. Her nose was always in a book, but he knew not where she got them, for he had sold all the books in the house and had wagered the money on a horse race.
She bickered and fought with him, her voice nagging in his ears as he dragged himself home, drunk and more in debt night after night. To be rid of her would be a blessing. He couldn't for the life of him think why he hadn't had this idea before.
Matthew's eyes lit as he saw her argue with her father. There was some spirit in her after all. It would be a pleasure to teach her a wife's place in and out of bed. "I suppose that the idea does show merit. Fine, have her things packed. I shall send a coach for her to bring you both to my estate where the papers shall be signed and the banns posted." He stepped closer to the girl, causing her to tip her head back far to stare up at him. With a grin, he dropped a kiss upon her nose, startling her so that she took a step back. "We shall deal well together, ah," he looked at Edward in askance.
"Lara, your grace. Lara Elizabeth Ashley Maitland."
"Lara, yes, we shall deal well with each other." He stepped back awkwardly, bowing quickly and left the room.
As he was handed his hat at the door, he heard her voice ring out in tones of anger that made him smile. "You've just sold me in marriage to a man who didn't even know my name, father. How could you?"
The coach had come as Matthew had promised and Lara was loaded aboard as if she were just so much baggage, her arguments and recriminations ignored. She'd thought to run but had found herself locked in her room with the order to pack her things or find them left behind and sold off for what they would bring if she didn't. And then the door was locked and she was left to stew.
She'd packed her few belongings, her books and the locket she'd managed to keep hidden from her father that had belonged to her mother. Her other gown was folded and placed with care in the small valise she'd been given, a drawing done by her sister Kathleen went on top and that was it, all she had in this world. She'd had no other choice; stubbornness would have meant losing everything.
Lara hadn't even been allowed to wish her sister good-bye, though Kathleen sat in the window in the parlor and waved as the coach had driven off.
When they'd reached their destination, a huge castle that could be seen from a great distance, Lara thought she'd disgrace herself and be sick. She was terrified, more than she'd ever been before. Her life had gone careening out of orbit, instead of being in charge, she was now the one being ordered about, made to perform actions not of her liking.
Her father had helped her out of the coach, taking her arm in his fat, strong fingers and pulling her up the long stairs that led to the massive front entry of the castle. A footman stood in attendance, opening the door and allowing them inside where he took Lara's tattered cloak, holding it gingerly and then folded it across his arm.
"His lordship is waiting for you. Please, follow me," another footman spoke up, ushering them through a massive entryway that opened up into a hall large enough to fit their entire home in. Lara stared in awe at the exquisite detailing of the frescoed ceiling, at the curving staircase that was wide enough for an army to climb in formation. She longed to gaze at the many fine paintings that graced the silk covered walls and the tiny portraits, done on ivory disks that sat upon delicate rosewood tables. Marble floors were polished to a high gleam showing off veins of pure silver that ran through them.
For just an instant, Lara wished she could stop and study the paintings and sculptures, and enjoy the wealth of creative talent that was housed in the grand entryway. But that was not to be the case. Her father took her arm, half dragging her behind the footman that led the way to where the duke was waiting to greet them.
The room they were taken to was obviously used as a library as row upon row of books were shelved to reach the high ceilings. There were bookcases on every wall, interspersed with floor to ceiling windows and a huge fireplace where a roaring fire was laid, warming the large room wonderfully. Lara felt her heart leap at the sight of all those books, a veritable orgy of delight to the senses for those who had the intelligence to glean meaning from their printed words.
But then she spotted the Duke, settled in behind a large teak wood desk, a stack of papers in front of him. He looked up as the footman knocked on the door, calling for entry before returning to the pages sat in front of him.
"Sir Edward Maitland, your grace, and his daughter, Lady Lara," the footman announced in a sonorous voice.
"Thank you Jeffrey," Matthew said. "Have Mrs. Owens bring in a tray, please."
He studied his papers for a few moments after Jeffrey had closed the doors behind himself and then looked up at his guests. "Please, be seated. I was just going over the required paperwork and contracts to make sure my solicitor had drawn them up properly. I think you'll find all is in order." He slid the papers across his desk, waiting for Edward to pick them up.
"It but requires your signature, Edward. I've made arrangements for the banns to be posted for the next three Sundays hence and until that time, Lara shall remain here with me."
"But, your grace, the scandal would..."
Matthew interrupted, waving his hand through the air as if waving away the objections. "I've thought of the scandal, Edward. Lord, man, you know me by reputation if not by contact. Would you think me too deft to ignore my wife-to-be's sterling reputation?"
"No, your grace," Edward said, the denial quick and fawning as he stood before the desk. "I just wish to know what means you have put into play to protect my girl."
Matthew felt a twist of derision, a feeling of nauseated disgust as he stared at the short toad of a man before him. Edward had all but thrown Lara at him the instant he'd expressed any curiosity at all about the girl. He'd even offered the use of her body for an evening of pleasure, without the stricture of marriage or even of becoming his mistress. All to pay off his gambling debt and keep him from the beating he'd been sure he was to receive.
"Your girl will be my wife in but three weeks time, Edward, and is none of your concern as soon as you sign those papers." He opened the top drawer of the desk, picking up a small pouch and weighing it with a quick toss of his hand. It clinked inside, drawing Edward's eyes like a beacon in the dark. "This is for your trouble, a reward if you like, and also the last money you shall see from me, ever," he said, his tone warning the man easily of the dire consequences of crossing a man of his stature. "Now sign the papers and get yourself gone from my sight. I wish never to see you again, Edward."
Edward, his face pale, scooped up the pouch that had been tossed on the desk and thrust it into the pocket of his coat before taking the feathered quill offered to him by Lord Matthew. With a quick flourish, he signed his name beside the X left for him, dating the document and then handed back the pen.
Lara waited for her father to turn to her, to speak some word of caring or compassion. Instead, the man hurried towards the door, glancing fearfully behind him once as if Lord Matthew would change his mind and wish the whole situation undone. When the doors closed behind her father, she felt betrayal and despair as her only parent sold her to pay his debts and for the money to feed the illness that had changed him so drastically. He'd once been a loving and kind father, devoted to their mother, until her death had changed him. He cared for nothing then, not her or her sister, their home or his own life. Only the gambling and the drinking had been important to him.
She'd taken over then, finding the means to keep the household together until he'd finally gambled away their home and moved them into the small manor house with its cold floors and leaky roof. Even then, she'd persevered, keeping Kathleen and herself safe and as well fed as she could, hiding their few possessions from their father to keep enough to keep the wolf from the door.
And now here she was, standing in the richness of this castle being stared at by a wolf in man's clothing. "What of me?" she asked, unable to keep the hostility from her voice.
The smile that touched his dark face made her nervous and she wished she'd kept her mouth closed instead of speaking up. It was a curse that came along with the curiosity, this insufferable need to speak her peace instead of staying in the background such as a good wife and daughter did.
"What about you, Lara? Would you like to discuss your future with me?" He chuckled as he watched her stubborn little chin rise and her hazel eyes turn amber with anger. He pushed back his chair, coming from behind the desk to stand in front of her. "What will happen to you is this, my dear. We shall be married, you shall submit to me in all things and after a suitable period, I shall send you to live on one of my country estates. Of course, I shall pay you visits periodically; it wouldn't do for those in positions of power to believe that I have deserted you and banished you to the far reaches. What would such do to my reputation?" He chuckled again, running one finger down her soft cheek.
Lara jerked away from his touch, backing away from him. He followed, stalking her with a cynical twist to his smile. "You can't get away from me, my dear. You've been given to me, signed and delivered."
"Why?" she asked, her voice breaking though she tried to cover it. "Why would you want me?"
"That is a good question, my dear. And one I can answer readily enough. I see what is beyond that ugly hair style and tattered gown. You are most desirable. And your father was correct; my marriage to you will call my family off and make my mother quite happy, especially if she thinks we are glowing with marital bliss."
Lara started as she felt the hard knob from the door pressing into her back. "But I don't wish to marry you," she stuttered, trying to show no fear.
"It's good that it doesn't matter what you wish or don't wish, my dear. I have bought you." His hand came up, his fingers taking a hold of that stubborn chin that gave him such amusement. Staring down into her pretty face, he found himself fighting with an impulse. He wanted to kiss her, to taste her mouth, to sink into her until she learned her place.
"You are lovely," he moaned, his mouth moving to cover hers even as he felt her tiny fists come up to strike out at him.
Lara couldn't move. He held her chin in his hand, his fingers tight against her soft skin. His lips were harsh upon her own, so different from what she'd thought her fist kiss to be, twisting her mouth until it opened and his tongue could probe inside, pushing against her clenched teeth. She felt a sob building and fought against it, pride keeping her from pleading for him to stop. Instead she fought, striking at him with her small hands, kicking at his legs with her slipper covered feet.
Matthew felt the softness of her mouth under his, the sweetness of her breath, the heat of her small body and seemed to forget where he was. His hand held her still even as his mouth roughly captured hers. He felt her struggles almost as an afterthought, blotted out by the streak of desire that shot through him. A groan, unexpected and embarrassing, tore from his throat and he pushed away from her, backing away to stare at her as if she were some kind of witch.
Her hand at her mouth, Lara felt her lips, swollen and bruised from his brutal kisses. Her breasts heaved as she fought for composure, wanting to scream and cry at the blow fate had dealt her. Her hands shook and her body quaked as she wondered how she would fair being his wife, being forced to submit to his wishes as was her wifely duty.
"I won't marry you," she whispered, her eyes defiant even as her lips trembled. "I won't stay here with you. I can't," she sobbed, losing her battle for pride. Her hand found the door knob that was still pressed against her back and turned it, hurrying through the door to run for the entry way, her skirts flying up and around her.
Matthew limped after her. He reached the door just as she was struggling to open it, her hands pulling futilely at the panel, beating upon it when it resisted her every effort to budge it. She felt his hands upon her slender arms and tried to fight, but he was so much larger than her, so much stronger. With a curse, he lifted her in his arms, amazed at how light she felt and how quickly she gave up her struggle, lying limply against his chest.
Lara felt him pick her up, the movement so quick that she grew dizzy and light headed. The room spun around her and she blinked her eyes, staring up at him as his face moved in and out of focus. She closed her eyes tightly, a sick nauseated feeling growing in her stomach. She'd already humiliated herself enough, getting sick and vomiting on him would have been the final straw.
He carried her quickly up the long flight of stairs, hurrying down the wide corridor to a smaller darker one. Instead of silk upon the wall, here it was stone and mortar, the air carrying a distinct chill. Matthew managed to open a small door close to the end of the corridor and carried her up a long circling flight of stairs that lead to a small door at the top. He walked inside, staring around at the dust and dirt, the cobwebs that hung from the ceiling to the floor. A sickly light came in though the dirty windows that were small, mere slits in the stone.
It was cold and damp here in the west tower, a place that not many of the castle folk would come. There was talk of a ghost, the spirit of the first Duchess of Marshalling who, rumor had it, had thrown herself from the top of the tower and onto the rocks below, despondent over the death of her children, all but one of whom had died in infancy. It was said that she haunted the tower and the west wing of the castle, causing dire harm to any that set foot in the area.
The rumors would keep all from the tower. He dropped her legs, letting her slide down his long body until her feet touched the ground. "You find me disgusting, my lady?" he asked sarcastically.
"Yes," she almost spat at him, her hand coming to her head as the dizziness threatened to overwhelm her once more.
"You have no wish to marry me?"
"None!" she cried, forcing herself to step back and face him. "I find you despicable and loathsome, your grace, and wish nothing more than to go back to my father's home where I will pray that I will never see you again."
"We shall see what a few days here in the tower will do to change your mind, my lady. My mother was to send my elder sister to come and chaperon you until our wedding day but I shall tell her you have decided to stay with your father until that happy blissful event." He turned toward the door, taking the heavy iron key from its bolt and palming it. With a sarcastic bow, he turned and headed for the door. "Enjoy your stay, Lara."
Then he was gone and the door was shut, the heavy lock turning with a resounding click. And she was locked in this strange and dirty place.
Panic overwhelmed her and she ran to the door, her fists pounding on the scarred and splintered wood until blood ran in tiny rivulets down her arms. Only then did she manage to stop, sinking down to the dirty floor, her back against the door, her head bent as the tears she'd fought so long began to stream down her face.
"How could you father?" she sobbed despondently, burying her face in her sore hands. It was the pain that finally brought her out of her despair, pain and the cold that was getting steadily worse. While she still had light enough to see, she had to do something for herself so that she wouldn't freeze and to make herself more comfortable. But first, she had to see to her hands.
A few splinters still stuck in her flesh, her skin was abraded with nasty scratches and gouges where the splinters had torn out. With a hiss of pain, she pulled the first splinter out, and then the next, a tiny whimper escaping as she reached the biggest one.
Lara bit her lip, grabbing the thin wood with two fingers and pulling quickly. As soon as the splinter was out, blood welled in the long cut that was left, one drop falling from her palm and landing on the skirt of her dress.
There was no hope for it; she had to bind her hands. With a sigh of regret, she reached down and carefully ripped a long strip of fabric from the bottom of her skirt, staring at the ragged edge that was left. Then she ripped it in two, using her teeth to pull it apart and then wrapped the strips around her hands, stopping the blood. It would keep the wounds clean, or cleaner than they would be otherwise.
Getting to her feet, she felt her head spin again and fought the now familiar feeling. She had sold the last of their saleable items weeks ago. With that gone, they were forced to ration their food, hoping beyond hope that father would finally get that change of luck he was always going on about. But until that time, Mary was old and needed nourishment to continue working and Kathleen was still just a girl and looked to Lara for her care. She couldn't disappoint either of them.
So her portion of the rations had mostly been given to the two of them. It hadn't been bad at first, giving away a few bites of food, and going to bed slightly hungry. But now it had been two days since she'd had anything more than a small slice of bread, filling her gnawing stomach with water to take away the pain of hunger.
The gnawing ache was now a pain that was hard to ignore, especially now since she had no water to soothe her cramping stomach with. She had to do something to take her mind off the pain. Looking around the room, she noted it was mostly empty. A small iron bed, the mattress lumpy looking and covered by a very dusty blanket took up most of the space. In the corner was an old wardrobe, one door hanging half off on one rusty hinge. An ancient rocking chair sat next to the window, as if waiting for its owner to come back and stare out at the view of the rocky hillside.
Lara went to the wardrobe, yanking weakly on the door until it opened. Inside, a sheet had been draped loosely and she started to work to pull it free.
The cloud of dust that rose from the sheet made her sneeze and she stepped back to let it settle before peaking into the wardrobe to see what treasure she'd uncovered. With a gasp, she let her hand trail over her discovery, feeling materials of every description she could think of brush her fingertips.
A pale blue velvet caught her eyes and she pulled it free, holding the material against her waist with one hand while holding it up. It would be warm and soft and feel wonderful against her skin, so much more so than the ragged cotton day gown she wore.
She shook the gown once, hard, to make sure it was free of any kind of spider or insect and then laid it down across the old bed. Stripping out of her own gown took seconds and then she was slipping the velvet on. The gown fit as if made for her, cupping her breasts and holding them tightly, flowing from a darker blue ribbon high on her waist to just cover the toes of her slippers. It had long sleeves that fell from a gathered shoulder and formed a point over the back of her hands, fitting tightly.
The gown smelled a little musty, a little like the wardrobe it had been tucked into, but it was warmer and covered more of her than her own little day gown. Now that she was a little warmer, she went to work on cleaning up some of the mess, pulling the gowns made from heavier material out of the wardrobe to use as bedding of sorts, she layered them on the lumpy mattress, finally lying down as the last of the light left the room.
She must have slept, though she didn't remember falling into slumber, for when she opened her eyes, darkness unlike any she'd felt before was around her. The moon, though high in the sky, was far from being full, its pale light falling short of illuminating the tower. Something had disturbed her sleep, something strong enough to pull her from her exhaustion. Pushing aside a velvet skirt, she sat up and looked around the tower.
She heard an eerie creak and then a footstep but no matter how hard she strained, she could make out no form in the darkness. Suddenly, a slight glow appeared, a figure, her arms hanging limply at her sides, her head held at a weird angle, seemed to materialize from that glow. The figure paid her no mind, gliding to the small chair and sitting down. She seemed to be staring out the windows, her eyes searching for something or someone.
Just as Lara was working up the nerve to say something, the figure rose once more, her hands reaching behind her neck as if unclasping an object, and then she seemed to throw herself through the window, the glass shattering around her body, the sound of her scream cut off suddenly as she hit the rocks far below.
Lara jumped out of the bed, a scream escaping her own mouth, running towards the window, her hands hitting the window sill as she tried to look down. Her head connected with the glass, surprising her. She'd seen and heard the glass shatter, watched as the woman had thrown herself onto the rocks below.
But the window was unbroken, nothing lay upon the rocks.
"It's hunger," she said, her voice loud in the eerie silence. "I'm seeing things because I'm hungry and tired and so upset."
She huddled on the bed, gathering the warm fabric of the dressed around her. She thought she wouldn't sleep again but her eyes grew heavy and closed despite her fear.
Matthew stared down at the small figure huddled under a rainbow mountain of fabrics. He'd brought her a tray for breakfast for it was not his want for her to starve despite her stubbornness. Setting the tray on the floor, he noted her bandaged hand, the blood soaking through the thin material, though it was dark brown and not bright red as it would be if the wound were still bleeding.
He sighed, wondering what there was about him that would make her fight marrying him to the point that she would injure herself and wish to return to that cold, fetid manor house he'd rescued her from.
"Stubborn minx," he said quietly, his eyes tracing her fine features and silky skin. She seemed pale, too pale, he thought, feeling the urge to brush his fingertips over the skin of her cheek and see if it was as soft as it looked.
Lara opened her eyes, feeling a presence in the room. She'd slept well after watching her midnight visitor leap to her death, neither dreaming nor waking again until now. The scent of food assailed her nostrils as she sat up, seeing Lord Matthew standing over her, his eyes hardening as she looked up at him with fear.
"I've brought you food," he growled, feeling a frustrated anger simmer in his stomach. "And come to see if you've decided to be reasonable, or if a more direct approach must be taken. Will you consent to the marriage?"
Friday, October 15, 2010
Available now through Eternal Press or All Romance Ebook, The Gentle Highwayman was an interesting tale to write. I had a lot of research to do and realized how little I actually knew of that period in American History. It was informative and also rather daunting, trying to get all the details correct. I hope you'll give the novel a chance. Enjoy the excerpt!
"God's teeth, I've never felt it so cold," the man shivered, helping the littler man into his garb. "Don't forget your hat. You come home with a cold and Harriet will have my hide."
"It's not your hide you're worried about but your stomach," the smaller man said. He slammed the tricorn hat with its jaunty white piping and huge feather down on his head. It fit tightly, too tightly and he frowned but didn't say anything. Throwing on his cape, he stepped up on the box in the stables and threw his leg over the big black stallion that moved under him with nervous energy.
"Shh, you devil. We'll be about our business soon enough. But for now, settle or I'll trade you in on a nag." His words were harsh but the hand that reached out and scratched the big brute behind his sensitive ears was caring and gentle. "Come, we must be off or I'll lose what little nerve I have left. Hand me my pistol."
He cradled it in his lap, waiting until the third of their party pushed open the doors of the stables, shivering as the cold of the winter season settled over him. His ears turned red and his feet grew numb in their boots, and they hadn't even left the stable yet. Kicking his horse, he set off, hearing his compatriots fall in behind him as they traveled cross country and stayed shy of the roads. The deep ruts of the fields were rough and he slowed his horse, allowing the other two to catch up.
"Lord Warringer is having a ball tonight," he said to the largest of the two lad with him.
"Did you get the invite?" he asked, sending his brother a wink.
"What would I do at one of those balls?" their leader said, disgust in his voice.
"You could be looking for a mate you know? Someone to help warm the sheets on a night like tonight."
"No one will look twice at me, with the failed crops and the damn English and their constant call for more taxes, I barely have two pennies to pinch," the young master growled. "Why the hell else do you think I conned you two into this?"
"We know, Jack," the biggest said. "We wouldn't have let you go without us, no matter what Harriet did to us."
They were upon the road almost before they knew it would be there. Sliding down from his horse, he stood in the center of the road holding his reins. "I will wait here for the coach to come, you two will hide yourselves in the woods and come up behind the coach when it stops. Keep your faces covered and don't speak, I'll do all the talking. Understood?"
They both nodded, slipping off their own mounts and hiding them in the woods.
Jack stood in the road, the cold biting deep until he thought he'd never be warm. When he finally heard the sound of the coach coming around the bend in the road, he was so cold, he didn't know if he could open his mouth. Stamping his feet, he held his hand up in the light of the lanterns that swung on either side of the front of the coach.
"Stand and deliver!" he shouted though his voice sounded a bit on the high and shivery side.
The coachman pulled in his team, staring at the small man in the middle of the road. His livery was red and gold and inside his coachman's coat he carried a pistol of his own. He reached into the coat only to hear the click of a dueling pistol being cocked close to his ear.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you, mate," the hoarse whisper came from the man who handled the pistol. "Ye hold still and this'll be done quicker than a whistle."
The coachman nodded his head, his hand slowly coming out from his coat empty.
"Good man," the whisperer said. Jack headed for the door to the coach, opening it from the side like he'd been told. "Hand out your fineries," he said in a gruff voice, standing slightly on his toes to make himself look bigger.
There was a duet of screams and then a flash of light lit the inside of the coach. The two ladies were accompanied by an older gentleman, either their father or their protector. He sat like a lump under a fur coach rug. "Don't hurt them," he growled.
"No one shall be hurt sir if you but do as you've been bid. Hand out your fineries and we shall be on our way letting you be about yours." Jack reached in, retrieving the man's purse easily enough. It clinked heavily with coin and Jack felt his heart race with triumph. He dropped it into the bag he held. "Now that watch and fob if you don't mind, sir."
The gentleman gave a grunt of anger, yanking at the gold watch with its long gold chain and dropping it in the bag as well. He pulled off his rings, almost flinging them into the bag before giving Jack a look that promised vengeance.
"My lady," he said to the frightened brunette who sat primly, clasping her trembling hands upon her lap. A lady of your beauty has no need for such fripperies." He nodded at the diamond and emerald necklace she wore as well as the bracelet. She handed them to him as well as her own purse, turning to her sister to help her remove her jewelry.
The younger of the two clasped her hand around a small gold ring on her finger. "Please," she said, staring out at the small but rugged looking highwayman. "It is not worth much but what it means to my heart. It was my mother's. She is dead sir; might I not keep this as a remembrance?"
Jack glanced at the ring and then back up into the brunette's eyes. "Fine, my lady. Your remembrance shall remain yours. You remember to tell them though, that Gentleman Jack is a man of his word." He reached for the door, meaning to close it when suddenly his arms were filled with the young beauty.
"Thank you, sir," she said softly then her lips found his.
Jack gasped, not sure what to do in this situation. When he felt her tongue probing between his lips, he opened his mouth to rebuff her. But she didn't give him the chance, instead she upped the anti, sliding her hand over his shoulder and against his neck to hold him still.
With a soft moan of regret, she moved away from him and back into the coach. "Thank you," she whispered with a smile, dropping a soft, silken handkerchief onto the ground at her feet before getting back inside and sitting down.
The burly gentleman reached out and slammed the door closed. He could be heard berating the young Marguerite even as Jack stepped back, his hand coming to his mouth.
"Be away!" he called, grabbing Demon's reins and swinging himself up and into the saddle. He hooked his bag of goods onto the pommel, looking up as the shade on the window of the coach moved just a bit and the beautiful brown eyes of Marguerite stared out at him.
She watched him as the coach jerked and then began to move. On the other side of the road, his partner now in crime, Simon, stared over at him, a small smile turning up his lips.
"You hush," Jack called, unwilling to hear the callousness of the man's words when his own mind was so over run.
"We should be away, Jack," Felix whispered close by him. "They are beyond the curve and won't know which way we went. We should separate and then meet back up at the barn."
"Aye," Jack said. He nodded toward Simon, watching as he easily leapt upon his horse and took off in the opposite direction of the barn. Felix galloped away as well, quickly being lost to the shadows of the forest. Jack knew he should be off, but he sat for a moment savoring the triumph of the evening. With what he'd gotten in the purse and what Felix and Simon would get for the jewels, they would be able to keep their land as well as put food on the table for at least a month's time.
The sound of horses caught his ear and he quickly sank back into the forest, letting the shadows cover him as well. With the light of the moon covered by the thick clouds sending down the drifting snow around him, he was concealed.
Two men upon horses came into sight, coming from the direction of Lord Warringer's estate. Jack sat quietly, watching them as they came further into sight. Both were heavily bundled in thick woolen coats with hats upon their heads and thick gloved fingers holding onto the reins. One had hair of a fiery hue, his locks just a touch beyond the current fashion's decree of length. His cheeks were ruddy from the cold, Jack could see him speaking at length from the plume of condensed air that came from his mouth. He couldn't hear their words, they were too far away.
The other man laughed, his head going back and Jack felt a flush of heat suffuse him. Hair as black as coal was clubbed back, the ends waving down his back. He was handsome, more so than what was good for a man to be. His eyes shone amber in the dim light, such as the head of Jack's grandfather's cane. There was something about him, something almost magnetic that made Jack unable to turn away.
He barely stifled a gasp and watched in almost horror as the man turned his head, his amber eyes carefully searching out the shadows where Jack hid.
"Did you hear something?" he asked his companion.
"Aidan, you're paranoid. All this talk of war and traitors has gotten to you," his red haired companion replied.
"You're the one that is touting the benefits of freeing ourselves from England, Warren, not me."
"But you're the one with the skills we need, Aidan. Your hunting and tracking skills would be a huge benefit in training our men."
"I told you, I'll think about it," Aidan said, turning his head toward his companion. Jack breathed a silent sigh of relief. Those eyes were too thorough, seeming to see him in the deepest of the shadows he hid in. He could feel his heart racing and his palms were sweating in the gloves he wore. A warmth seemed to center in his groin, startling him.
They were far enough down the road now, almost to the curve. Jack could no longer stay still, he kicked Demon, tearing across the road and through the brush on the other side.
No shout greeted him, or the sound of a pistol firing. He heard nothing other than the heavy beat of his heart that seemed to echo the sound of his horse's hooves. Tearing wildly through the trees as if all the devils in hell were after him, he barely kept control of Demon, the big black horse rearing wildly, his eyes showing white.
He finally regained control of the horse before the huge tobacco field that stood behind the stables. Holding him steady for a moment, he tried to take a few deep breaths, ridding himself of the fear he'd felt.
"Aidan," Jack said softly, the name coming easily to his lips. "He's a handsome one," he said to Demon, knowing the horse would calm even more at the sound of his voice. "But Harriet would be wont to say, handsome is as handsome does." He chuckled, rubbing the froth of white from the horse's neck.
The door to the stables opened and Demon, sensing home, heat and food, started across the field at a brisk trot. "Aye, my handsome one. We've done well tonight. We all deserve a treat."
* * * *
It didn't take long to take care of the horses, rubbing them down and then covering them with blankets so that they didn't fall sick. Giving them an extra measure of oats Jack hadn't thought they could afford until now, he patted Demon on the flank.
He split the take, giving Simon the jewels to sell. He would leave on the morrow, taking them far from here to sell, perhaps across into another of the colonies. Perhaps to Maryland. Jack didn't want to know.
"Take them but beware," he told the older man. "I cannot afford to lose you to another of our ilk." Simon chuckled.
Now, he quietly closed the door into the kitchen, pulling off his boots by that door. Tucking them under his arm, he would have to return them to his brother's room before Harriet could catch him. He tugged off the hat, breathing a sigh of relief at getting rid of the thing. That and the wig that he wore had kept his head warm but now it itched and he couldn't wait to get to his room and brush out his own hair.
The stairs were an easy climb; he remembered to jump over the third one because of the squeak they'd never been able to get to go away. Hurrying up the rest of them, he snuck on stocking feet past Harriet's room at the top of the stairs, heading down the hallway to the last door.
The light casting his shadow over in front of him was his first indication that someone besides himself was up and he turned guiltily.
"Who are you and what are you doing in this house?" Harriet's stern voice sounded from just outside her room. She carried a candle in one hand, the match to Jack's dueling pistol in the other.
"It's me, Harriet," he said, stepping forward and holding up his hands while letting the boots fall to the floor. "Don't shoot."
"Me who?" Harriet asked. "There's been no men in this house since Master Graham was taken by them redcoats." Harriet had come over from England as an indentured servant to Jack's father and then had stayed on, more like one of the family when Jack's mother had died.
Jack reached up, pulling off the wig. Her long blonde tresses fell down her back to her waist. "No, Harriet, I'm not a man," she said quickly, knowing the woman's eyesight was beginning to fail her at night. "It's me, Heather."
* * * *
Heather Elise Maria Coulter sank down further in the tub of hot water that sat before the fire. The heat was wondrous after the cold weather of the wintry night. She leaned back against the high back of the copper tub, letting the water lap at her chin as she listened to Harriet berate her for the thousandth time since she'd returned home.
"What was you thinking, Miss Heather? Running around out there dressed like some lad and holding up people, taking their jewels and such. You're going over to that house tomorrow and return them things you took."
Water splashed against the side of the tub as Heather sat up. "No!" she almost shouted. "Harriet, you know as well as I that if we don't do something desperate, we'll lose our home as well as our lands to those redcoat taxes. In this one take, we've got enough to pay the taxes and put food on the table. I am not returning it to those that have so much when we have barely a roof over our heads." Her hands slammed down onto the surface of the soapy water, splashing herself in the face. She reached almost blindly for a towel, wiping her eyes.
The look on the older woman's face was pinched and she frowned. "Your poppa made a match for you before he died," she said. "I've kept the papers that was signed in the family bible."
"He did what?" Heather screeched, coming out of the tub like a shot. She grabbed the towel she'd used on her face and wrapped it around herself, tucking it in between her full breasts. They still ached from the wrapping she'd used to bind them flat for her disguise. "Why have I not heard of this before?"
"Because you never did something so blamed foolish before," Harriet scolded, her eyes softening as she saw the shock in her mistress's soft gray eyes. "Come, child, sit in front of the fireplace and let's get you dried before you catch a chill."
"I can't believe Poppa would trade me like some piece of stock," she whispered, sliding her hands into the warmth of her robe and wrapping it around her as Harriet pulled her wet hair out to let it hang in front of the fire. It was pure gold in the light, even wet, and hung heavily to lie against the hearth she sat upon.
"Your Poppa knew he was sickening, Miss Heather. He knew he had little time left to see to your and Miss Mandy's safety. He meant to talk to you about it, ease you into the idea, but that last attack came so quickly and suddenly, there was no time." Harriet picked up Heather's brush, one that had belonged to her mother, and used it to rid the long golden tresses of snarls, letting the strands dry in the heat of the fire. "It weren't his fault."
Heather could hardly stand to remember her father's last days, those attacks that came so suddenly, leaving his entire right side paralyzed, his speech so badly slurred he was all but unintelligible. His eyes, usually so warm and brown as they gazed upon her had been so filled with pain; it had tore at her heart. She'd been with him the night that he'd died, had sat with him as he fought against that pain, grimly trying to stay with his daughters who still needed and loved him so.
But his fight had been to no avail. He'd taken his last breath as she'd sat next to him, holding his hand, her tears falling against his chest, once so mighty and wide, now shrunken by age and illness. Only after his death had she found out how strapped they were. She'd done everything possible, sold valuables and chunks of her family's land, everything she could think of to keep them safe and sheltered. Gentleman Jack had been her last recourse.
She thought of Mandy, her little sister at fourteen. She was just beginning to blossom. Blonde like her sister, Mandy's face was a touch more angular, her eyes slightly darker than Heather's. Where Heather was curvy, Mandy was all long lithe leanness. But the beauty was there, just ready to bloom. Heather was responsible for her, for keeping her safe and for finding her a husband.
It wasn't fair, she thought for a moment. Graham had been taken and then her father's death. She was little more than a child herself at eighteen and she'd been left to carry the weight on her own. Her eyes moved around the room, seeing the bare spot on the walls where she'd taken down artwork to sell, the tin candle holders that had replaced ivory and gold. Even her clothing was threadbare and in need of replacement, but it was impossible now. Maybe after her next evening out as Gentleman Jack...
"What is going on in that beautiful head of yours?" Harriet asked, knowing the look in her mistress's face.
"We were successful tonight, Harriet. There's no need to bring out some betrothal agreement that my groom to be couldn't care two pennies for. We can manage until I can think of something else."
"You could be killed, Miss Heather. Those two laggards can't keep you safe. Please, just think about meeting him. What harm could that do?"
"I'll think about it," Heather said, trying to hold Harriet off.
"Good. The Benjamin's Ball is this weekend. It'll be the perfect place for you to see him without having to be seen yourself. I know Mr. Benjamin will keep an eye on you there so we don't have to worry about a chaperon. I can redo your blue gown so that no one will know it's last years."
"Wait," Heather said, holding up her hand to stop Harriet's plans. "I didn't say I would go."
"But you will, Miss Heather. You will or I will take it upon myself to return the money and the jewels. You know those two oafs won't stop me. It's what is best and it's past time you do what you should and get your head out of the clouds."
Heather felt her shoulders slump. She was defeated and she knew it. "At least tell me what his name is," she whispered, remembering the black haired man who'd sent such thrills through her body earlier tonight. Marriage to him might be interesting at least.
"His name is Lord Matthew Hunter," Harriet said, pronouncing the name like it was royalty.
"I do not know him," Heather said, her hopes shrinking. Gone were thoughts of the dashing Aidan as images of a Lord, his wide belly spreading into his lap from over eating, his thick, sausage like fingers touching her skin consumed her.
"No, he was new to the colonies when he approached your father with the contract for your hand."
"He approached father?"
"Yes, or at least that is what your father told me. Now will you at least go to the ball and meet Lord Hunter?"
Heather sighed, her eyes lowering to where she clutched her robe between her fingers. "You leave me no choice," she said.