Authors: Samantha James
For my family . . . Kelly and Traegon,
who gave me my precious babies,Nick and Ashley—who always make me laugh.Sara and Steve... thanks for brainstorming with me
from across the pond, guys!Jami, who I know will be the best R.N. ever!And last but not least, for Ed.
My husband, my heart ...my own perfect hero.I love you all.Prologue
hispers had begun to circulate in the church. Oh, but it was wrong . . . so wrong. For only moments earlier, all she could think was that no other day could have been more perfect for this...her wedding day.
High above, the sunlight shone through the stained-glass windows of St. George’s Church in Hanover Square, bathing the interior of the church in a radiant, ephemeral glow.
It was a sign, Lady Julianna Sterling had decided as she stepped from the carriage and approached the church. For too long, a cloud of shadow had been cast upon the Sterlings. She’d viewed the beautiful day as a symbol of her life to come, a good sign. For surely on such a glorious, golden day like this, no hint of darkness woulddare come to pass. Her union with Thomas Markham would be blessed, blessed as no other.
And yet, but moments later...she battled a low-grade panic. Thomas should have been here by now.
Where was he?Where?
A hand touched her elbow. Julianna looked up into her oldest brother’s gray eyes. If Sebastian noticed the whispers of their guests, he ignored them.
“You look like a princess,” he said huskily.
Julianna struggled for a smile and miraculously produced one. Her gown was of sheer, pale pink silk—her favorite color—draped over silver satin. Matching pink slippers encased her feet. Sheer Brussels lace adorned the sleeves; embroidered on the hem were delicate white rosebuds, shot here and there with glistening silver thread. But perhaps the most striking feature was the long, elegant train, which swirled behind her.
“I feel like one,” she admitted softly. “But thank you, my lord. I daresay you’re rather dashing yourself.”
“And what of me?” Another voice, this one belonging to her brother Justin. “Am I not dashing as well?”
Julianna wrinkled her nose. “Desperate is what you are,” she retorted, “if you must seek compliments from your sister.”
“Minx,” Justin drawled.
Sheltered on each side by her dark-haired,suavely handsome older brothers, Julianna slipped dainty, lace-gloved hands into the crooks of their elbows. For twenty-three years Sebastian and Justin had protected her and sheltered her to the best of their ability—not that she had wanted it or needed it—but she loved them dearly for it.
Justin cocked a brow and addressed Sebastian. “While I realize it’s normally a mother’s duty to see that a young bride is adequately prepared for her wedding night, I trust you’ve seen to it that our sister has been apprised of all the...how may I put this delicately ...the requisite information—”
“Actually, I asked that Sebastian save that duty for you, Justin. After all, you are a man of vast experience in that particular arena, are you not?”
It was a rare occasion to see Justin discomfited; Julianna savored it.
“Besides,” she went on mildly, “there is no need. While I am not a woman of excessive skill, I do pride myself on my imagination—to say nothing of the fact that I became quite adept at listening at keyholes in my younger years when the two of you were in your cups. I garnered quite an education, shall we say. Therefore, I predict no shortcomings in that area.”
Sebastian straightened himself to his full height. “The devil you say—”
“Julianna!” Justin was saying. “Now see here—”
“Stop looking so disapproving, both of you.” They appeared so shocked that Julianna couldn’t withhold a laugh.
Little did she know it would be the last time she laughed that day.
While her brothers were still glowering at her, her gaze shifted to the nave of the church. From the time she was a child, Julianna had cherished dreams of being married in St. George’s in Hanover Square, built nearly a hundred years earlier—why, the marriage of the king’s son, Prince Augustus, had taken place there in grand fashion! And thanks to Sebastian, the fanciful dreams of a child were about to become a reality—it was he who insisted her wedding take place at St. George’s.
Julianna did not argue. It wasn’t simply a child’s fanciful dream; she knew, too, that for Sebastian, it was a symbol of prosperity and success.
They had come such a long, long way, the three of them, since the days when Society shunned the Sterlings. Upon their father’s death, it was Sebastian who had restored respectability to their name.
The box pews on either side of the aisle were filled to overflowing. But Julianna noted several heads had begun to turn, traveling from the back of the church where they stood just to the side of the doors, to the front near the sanctuary . . .
Where Thomas should have awaited her.
An uneasy knot had begun to gather in the pit of her belly. “I daresay fully half thetonis here,” she murmured.
“I do believe you’d have invited the whole of England had Sebastian allowed it,” Justin said, with a faint smile. Sebastian made no comment.
The church was still. In the west gallery, the organist coughed while waiting for a signal from Reverend Hodgson, who had begun to shift from one foot to the other.
Several minutes later, Sebastian reached for his pocket watch and flipped it open, his expression grim. The ceremony was set for one o’clock.
It was nearly a quarter past the hour.
Julianna could not bear to look inside the church. The faces of the guests had turned from mild inquiry to pitying glances; the whispers had turned into an ominous hush.
Julianna looked up at Sebastian imploringly. “Something’s wrong,” she said, her voice low. “Thomas should have arrived by now.”
Justin was not so generous. His features were tight-lipped. “He’d better have an explanation for this. My God, late for his own wedding—”
“Justin! Thomas is a good man, a compassionate man, the best of men. You know as well as I that he has a heart of gold!”
“Then where the devil is he?” growled Justin.
Julianna began to fret. “Oh, a dreadful accident has surely befallen him, for there is nothing that would keep him from this day! He is an honorable man. He—” her voice cracked “—otherwise he would be here. Hewillbe here! There must be some reason . . .”
And so there was.
The side door opened. Three sets of eyes swiveled sharply when Samuel, Thomas’s brother, suddenly appeared.
It was just like Justin not to bandy words. “Egad, man, where is Thomas?”
Sebastian stepped forward as well.
Samuel paused before Julianna. She could barely breathe. His bearing was such that it seemed he carried the weight of the universe on his shoulders.
Something was horribly, horribly wrong. She sensed it. Sheknewit. “Samuel. Samuel, tell me what’s wrong!”
It was only later that she realized she should have known ...He avoided her gaze. “I’m sorry, Julianna. But Thomas is gone.”
Her heart gave a feeble thud. “Gone?” she said faintly.
“Yes. A note was delivered to me a short while ago. Oh, but I know not how to tell you this! Last night, you see—last night he left for Gretna Green...with Clarice Grey.”
Samuel raised anxious eyes to her. “Julianna,” he ventured tentatively, “did you hear me?”
Julianna stared. This couldn’t be happening. It was a dream. Nay, a nightmare! Her heart was as cold as the stone beneath her slippers.
Behind her there was a collective gasp.
“Gretna Green!” someone was saying. “He’s eloped to Gretna Green with another woman!”
And then it was spreading through the church, like a flame set to tinder, until her ears were roaring and she couldn’t even think. Everyone was staring at her. She felt the touch of their eyes like shards of glass digging into her skin. She felt barren. Naked.
She had little memory of leaving the church. Sebastian and Justin hustled her outside and into the carriage, shielding her from the gaping stares of the guests, who had already begun to file from the nave.
When they rolled up in front of Sebastian’s town house, she had yet to speak. Justin was still swearing, muttering something about a duel, when he leaped from the carriage.
Sebastian touched her shoulder. “Julianna?” he murmured. “Jules, are you all right?”
“I’m perfectly fine,” she heard herself say in utterly precise tones. But she wasn’t. Inside she was cringing. With utter calm she turned her head toward her brother.
“There will be a scandal, won’t there?”
A ghost of a smile crept across Sebastian’s lips.
“We’re Sterlings, Jules. Perhaps it’s inevitable. But we’ve weathered scandal before, haven’t we?”
He meant to comfort, she knew. Yet how easy for him to say. After all, he was a man. It was easier for men. Men weren’t branded as spinsters. As ape-leaders. Some old windbag wouldn’t forever be whispering behind her fan about howhehad been deserted on his wedding day . . .
She wanted to weep, to cry, to hurl herself into Sebastian’s arms and sob out her heartache. As a child, he was the one who soothed her hurts and scrapes.
But this was a hurt he could not heal.
Through eyes so dry they hurt, she stared at him, pressing her lips together. She dared not blink, for she knew the tears would begin in earnest then. He searched her face endlessly, and she wondered if he could see the gash in her heart, the twist in her soul. She tried to be brave. Shewouldbe brave. She wouldn’t cry. She wouldn’t weep. Not yet.Not yet.
For that would come later.
Sebastian leaped out, then extended a hand. Julianna took it, alighting from the carriage. As she stepped toward the house, she felt the warming kiss of the sun upon her head. Mocking her, reviling her.
It was all gone, she thought wildly. All gone...her girlish hopes, her fanciful dreams.
She wanted to curl up into a ball and sob her heart out.
For something had happened that day. She was forever changed.
t was a perfect night for thievery. From beneath the crowning shelter of an aged oak tree, the figure on horseback surveyed the roadway. The hour was late, and with a sliver of moon slumbering behind a wisp of a cloud, the night was as dark and depthless as the yawning pits of hell. The faint rush of the wind sighed through the tree limbs to sing a plaintive, lonesome melody.
All the better to conceal his presence. All the better to aid his endeavor. All the better to await his opportunity.
Dressed wholly in black, from his hat to the soles of his boots, a dark mask obscured all but the glint of his eyes. He sat his mount— Percival—like a man accustomed to long hourson horseback, his posture straight as an arrow, betraying no hint of weariness ...and with the silent stealth of a man who knew well and true that his presence must be concealed at all costs, until such time as he deemed therighttime to strike.
Lest his very life be forfeit.
And the man known as the Magpie had no desire to meet his Maker.
Percival’s ears pricked forward. Black-gloved fingers tightened on the reins. Squeezing his knees, he stilled the massive horse’s movement. A fingertip pressed gently over his neck. “Wait,” he cautioned.
The powerful animal quieted beneath his touch, but he could feel his muscles bunched and knotted, ready to spring into action.
With narrowed eyes, the man squinted into the encroaching darkness, directly to the east. This was not his first night masquerading as the Magpie. Nor would it be his last. Not until his purpose was accomplished to his satisfaction.
Beneath the black silk mask, a faint smile appeared. A familiar rush of excitement raced along his veins, an excitement he could not deny that he relished. His heartbeat quickened, for the pounding of hoofbeats had reached his ears as well as Percival’s. The light from a dim yellow lantern had appeared as well, bobbing in the distance.
He waited until it was within sight, for he wasnot a man to make mistakes. As if on cue— damn, but he had the devil’s own luck!—the moon slid out from behind the cloud. The Magpie lifted his reins, broke free of the waist-high grasses beside the road, and stationed himself directly in the path of the lumbering coach.
When the coachman saw him, he stood on the box and hauled on the reins. With a jingle of the harness and a shout from the coachman, the vehicle rolled to a halt.
Coolly, the Magpie raised a pair of pistols dead center at the man.
“Stand and deliver!” came his cool demand.
Hours earlier, Julianna seized her skirt and ran across the courtyard at the inn, zigzagging to avoid the puddles left by yesterday’s rain. “Wait!” she cried.
The driver clearly was not particularly disposed to patience. He glared at her. “Ye’d better hurry, mum,” he grunted. “We’re late already.”
Late. Yes, that was certainly the word of the day. There was athumpas her trunk was loaded. And by Jove, she was determined to reach Bath, if not by tonight, then tomorrow.
Nothing about this journey had gone according to plan. Traveling by public coach had not been on the agenda. Unfortunately, she’d missed the speedy mail coach.
Breathless, Julianna hurtled herself inside.
She’d barely seated herself when the door closed and the contraption lurched forward.
There were three passengers besides her: an elderly woman; another woman with a huge, drooping bonnet; and a man next to her who Julianna guessed was her husband.
Julianna found herself next to the old woman. “Good day to all of you,” she greeted pleasantly.
“Good day to ye,” nodded the old woman.
The other woman eyed her gray-striped traveling gown curiously. “Are ye traveling alone then, madam?”
Madam? Mercy, but at twenty-seven, had she begun to age so dreadfully then?
“I am,” Julianna returned evenly. “My maid and I were en route to Bath—I recently bought a house there, you see—when she became ill early in the afternoon. We stopped and spent the night at the inn. I’d hoped she would be quite recovered by today, but sadly that was not the case. By this afternoon, it was clear poor Peggy was in no condition to travel the remainder of the way to Bath, so I sent her back to London in my carriage.” The fact that Julianna was unaccompanied didn’t bother her in the least.
“That was most kind of ye, mum,” said the other woman. “But we aren’t traveling as far as Bath. And the roads aren’t safe after dark.”
Her husband sent her a censuring glance. “Leticia! ’Tis hardly your affair.”
“Don’t look at me like that, Charles. You knowit’s true! There’s that terrible highwayman, the Magpie. What will come next, I ask! Why, the wretched man may very well murder us in our beds, every one of us!” She cast an imploring glance at the elderly woman next to Julianna. “Mother, tell him!”
The old lady folded her hands and bobbed her head. “It’s quite true, Charles,” she said, her eyes round. “Oh, he’s quite a horrid fellow, this Magpie.”
“You see?” Leticia transferred her gaze to Julianna.
“I thank you for your concern, Mrs.. . .” Julianna paused meaningfully.
“Chadwick, Leticia and Charles,” the woman said briskly. “And my mother is Mrs. Nelson. You’ve heard of him, haven’t you? The Magpie?”
Julianna’s mouth quirked. The London newspapers had been full of the Magpie’s exploits—he was becoming quite the infamous brigand. Perhaps she was growing jaded, but it occurred to her that chance his reputation had been exaggerated, merely for the sake of selling more newspapers. Indeed, she would have almost welcomed an encounter with the Magpie, thus named for his cheekiness in robbing a coach carrying the private secretary of the Prime Minister himself, the Earl of Liverpool—a daring, if not foolhardy deed, to be sure.
But to think that they would be robbed by this notorious highwayman—she dismissed the notion out of hand. Such things did not happen to women such as herself. Had she been asked, she’d have described her life as rather mundane.
Three years ago, Sebastian had wed, and Julianna had taken it upon herself to move out of the family residence. The shame and scandal of being stranded at the altar had been difficult to bear. Julianna counted herself a realist, and she was aware the experience had not left her unscathed. But she liked to think she was at least somewhat wiser. She’d floundered for a time, spending months in Europe, dreading the day she must face thetonagain.
What a shock it had been when she returned to London on the eve of Sebastian’s wedding!
It was then that she’d realized it was time to face life head-on. There could be no more hiding away, for what would that accomplish? She and Justin and Sebastian would always be close—the circumstances of their childhood had seen to that. She lived quite comfortably on her allowance from Sebastian, but she had made some investments of her own that allowed her to purchase a modest town house in London, and her newest acquisition, a lovely little manor house in Bath.
Julianna was proud of her accomplishments, for she had discovered a courage and a dignityshe hadn’t known she possessed. It had begun that long-ago night when Thomas and Clarice had returned from Gretna Green. Apologetic and contrite, Thomas had come to her.
“I know my marriage to Clarice must have come as a shock,” he’d said. “I can offer no excuse except one...Clarice is carrying my child, Julianna.”
In stunned, muted silence, Julianna listened while Thomas relayed how Clarice had come to him in tears the night before they—Julianna and Thomas—were to wed.
“I cannot deny what I have done, Julianna. Clarice and I have been friends since we were children. We succumbed to a moment of weakness— a moment of abandon. It was wrong. I knew it. But I told myself you would never know. Indeed, both Clarice and I agreed that we could not continue to see each other. But when she came to me and confessed that she was with child, I could not deny her. Honor and duty compelled that I do the right thing and marry Clarice. And so I did. I will regret to the end of my days if I hurt you, Julianna. But it was the right thing to do.”
If he had hurt her. He knew that he had. He knew that she’d loved him madly ...And honor and duty. Well, those were things that Julianna understood, and so did her brothers. Indeed, it was all that had stopped Justin from calling him out. Oh, yes, she had understood...
But to forgive him his betrayal. That was not so easy.
And never would she forget.Never.
The pain and bitter hurt had faded. They were but a twinge in the region of her heart. But no man would ever turn her head again. Never again would she be so gullible, so trusting. She would rather grow old alone than marry simply for the sake of marrying.
For despite the abominable circumstances of their youth—their mother’s abandonment, their father’s disregard—Julianna had never lost faith in the sanctity of marriage. A nurturer, Sebastian had always called her, sweet and softhearted, always taking care of others.
It was true, she supposed. Oh, yes, it was in her nature to be a wife, a mother. She’d once speculated that it was the fact that their mother had run off with her lover that instilled in Julianna the desire to be everything their own mother was not. Indeed, Julianna had once been convinced that the whole sordid makeup of her parents’ relationship had simply made her all the more determined that when she, Julianna, married—and as a child she had somehow never doubted that shewould—it would be for love...and love alone. Ah, yes, the longing for a husband and children was something that only grew stronger as she grew older. Forever it seemed she had planned the day of her wedding.
Oddly, it no longer hurt to think of that day.
What hurt was knowing she would never have a child of her own. No, there would be no children.
For there would be no husband.
And that particular heartache was one that had taken a long time to accept—and remained a secret locked tight in her breast for all eternity. She would never experience the joy of a child snug against her breasts . . .herchild. For a husband was beyond her reach—perhaps more aptly, beyond her desire. And so she had buried the yearning for a child.
For it could never be.
No, she was no longer quite so carefree, seeing only the good in those around her. As for the Magpies of the world, well, in time this one would surely get his due.
“I daresay all the kingdom has heard of the Magpie,” she returned lightly.
Mrs. Chadwick eyed her. “Are you not afraid?”
“Afraid of a man I cannot see, a man I’ve yet to meet?” Smiling, Julianna shook her head, mildly amused. Reports of such men and their misdeeds had fallen off in the last few years. The notion of a highwayman made her shiver, but not in dread. Why, if she were given to such fancies, the notion might be almost romantic!
“Now, if he were to leap through thatdoor”—she nodded—“I might be inclined to say otherwise.”
“Oh, but you should be afraid. That’s a pretty bauble at your throat. No doubt he would take great pleasure in relieving you of it. That and more.” Mrs. Chadwick nodded knowingly.
Julianna raised her brows.
“Oh, indeed,” put in her mother. “Why, the tales we’ve heard...they’re not to be spoken of in polite company.”
Mr. Chadwick finally spoke. “What nonsense is this?”
“ ’Tis not nonsense, Charles!” His wife thrust her chin out. “A lady would not want to fall into his hands, for she would surely suffer a fate worse than death, and I think I need not expoundonthe matter!The manisadevil—’tis said he even has the devil’s eyes—and everyone knows it!”
Her meaning was not lost on Julianna, whose smile froze. Until that moment, she’d actually found herself wishing for a little adventure . . . She chewed the inside of her cheek and reconsidered. For all the notoriety surrounding the Magpie, the papers in London had said nothing of his ravaging women.
Wringing her hands, Mrs. Chadwick glanced anxiously out the window. “Oh, but I do hope the driver hurries. I want to be home before dark. Iwon’t feel safe until we’re settled before the fire with a nice cuppa.”
Charles Chadwick lifted his gaze heavenward. “For the love of God, missus, will you stop your whinin’! If the Magpie should waylay us, by God, I swear I shall put you on his horse myself and bid you good riddance!”
Mrs. Nelson gasped. “Well, I never!” Her mother glared daggers at her son-in-law.
Julianna directed her eyes to her lap, biting back a laugh. The four of them lapsed into silence.
They passed through several more villages but no more passengers joined them. It was late in the afternoon when the coach began to slow. Leticia Chadwick had scooted to the edge of the seat even before they came to a halt before a small tavern. “At last,” she nearly sang out, then turned to Julianna. “May your journey be a safe one.”
Julianna smiled her good-bye, welcoming the rush of clean air that swept in when the door opened. It was cool and fresh, with no stench of coal and smoke. It was good to be away from London, she decided. The decision to go to Bath had been an impetuous one, but she would so enjoy the chance to rest and catch her breath from the hectic pace of the Season, which was in full swing.
The trio disembarked. Julianna had wondered about their state of marital bliss—they wereclearly not in the first blush of youth. She looked on when Charles Chadwick took his wife’s arm protectively as they crossed the street. Leticia glanced up at him, a wisp of a smile on her lips. An odd ache filled Julianna’s throat, an ache for what might have been...
Deliberately, she looked away.
No other passengers boarded. The coach did not linger. The driver shouted, and they were off. The wheels cracked and rumbled as they began to gain speed.
It wasn’t long before the walls of darkness began to close in. She found herself peering out the window, anxiously searching the side of the road, trying to see behind every tree and bush until she began to grow dizzy. Oh, but this was silly, she chided herself, to be spooked by the Chadwicks’ talk of highwaymen!
She forced herself to relax. Eventually, the roll and lurch of the coach lulled her into drowsiness. As she swayed with the rhythm of the coach, her eyes drifted shut.
The next thing, she felt herself tumbling to the floor. Jarred into wakefulness, she opened her eyes, rubbing her shoulder where she’d landed. What the deuce ...? Panic enveloped her; it was pitch-black inside the coach.
And outside as well.
She was just about to heave herself back onto the cushions when the sound of male voicespunctuated the air outside. The coachman... and someone else.
“Put it down, I s-say!” the coachman stuttered. “There’s nothing of value aboard, I swear! Mercy,” the man blubbered. “I beg of you, have mercy!”
Even as a decidedly prickly unease slid down her spine, the door was wrenched open. She found herself staring at the gleaming barrels of twin pistols. In terror she lifted her gaze to the man who possessed them.
His eyes were all that was visible of his features. Even in the dark, there was no mistaking their color. They glimmered like clear, golden fire, pale and unearthly.
The devil’s eyes.
“Nothing of value aboard, eh?”
A gust of chill night air funneled in. Yet it was like nothing compared to the chill she felt in hearing that voice . . . So softly querulous, like steel tearing through tightly stretched silk, she decided dazedly.
She had always despised silly, weak, helpless females. Yet when his gaze raked over her—throughher, bold and ever so irreverent!—she felt stripped to the bone.
Goose bumps rose on her flesh. She couldn’t move. She most certainly couldn’t speak. She could not even swallow past the knot lodged deep in her throat. Fear numbed her mind. Her mouthwas dry with a sickly dread such as she had never experienced. All she could think was that if Mrs. Chadwick were there, she might take great delight in knowing she’d been right to be so fearful. For somehow Julianna knew with a mind-chilling certainty that it was he...
ane Quincy Granville did not count on the coachman’s reaction—nor his rashness. There was a crack of the whip, a frenzied shout. The horses bolted. Instinctively, Dane leaped back, very nearly knocked to the ground. The vehicle jolted forward, speeding toward a bend in the road.
The stupid fool! Christ, the coachman would never make the turn. The bend was too sharp. He was going too fast—
The night exploded. There was an excruciating crash, the sound of wood splintering and crack-ing...the high-pitched scream of the horses.
Galvanized into action, Dane sprang for Percival. He raced ahead. Leaping from the stallion’s back, he hurtled himself down the steep embankment where the coach had disappeared. Scrambling over the brush, he spied it. It was overturned, resting against the trunk of an ancient tree.
One wheel was still spinning as he reached it.
The horses were already gone. So was the driver. Their necks were broken, the driver’s twisted at an odd angle from his body. Dane felt for a pulse, but he had seen enough of death to know it was too late.
Miraculously, the door to the main compartment had remained on its hinges. In fury and fear, Dane tore it off and lunged into the compartment.
The girl was still inside, coiled in a heap on the roof. His heart in his throat, he reached for her, easing her into his arms and outside.
His heart pounding, he knelt in the damp earth and stared down at her. “Wake up!” he commanded. As if because he willed it, it would be so ...He gritted his teeth, seeking to instill his very will—his very life—inside her.
Her head fell limply over his arm.
“Dammit, girl, wake up!”
He was sick in the pit of his belly, in his very soul. If only the driver hadn’t been so blasted skittish. So hasty! He wouldn’t have harmed them, either of them. On a field near Brussels,he’d seen enough death and dying to last a lifetime. God knew it had changed him. Shaped him for all eternity. And for now, all he wanted was—
An odd little laugh broke from his chest, the sound almost brittle. After all his careful planning thatthisshould occur...But he couldn’t ascertain her injuries. Not here. Not in the dark. He must leave. Now. He couldn’t afford to linger, else all might be for naught.
The girl did not wake as he rifled through the boot, retrieving a bulging sack and a valise. Seconds later, he whistled for Percival. Cradling the girl carefully against his chest, he lifted the reins and rode into the night.
As suddenly as he had appeared, the Magpie vanished into the shadows.
She was still unconscious a short time later, when he shouldered his way into a small hunting cottage. His stride as surefooted in the dark as in the light of day, he strode to the bed on the far wall and eased her down.
He made quick work of replenishing the fire, then returned to her. His manner briskly impersonal, his long-fingered hands slid over her, checking for broken bones.
She’d sustained a few cuts and bruises. The worst of the damage appeared to be a nasty crack on the back of her skull. It was swollen, the skinbroken. When his fingers moved over it, she flinched. Rising, Dane fetched a basin of warm water and several strips of linen. Returning to the bedside, he cleaned the wound, his gaze roving over her as he worked.
Half a dozen thoughts washed through him. Quickly he revised his opinion. She was young, yet hardly in the first blush of youth. Her build was slight, her shoulders narrow; why, she’d hardly weighed much more than a child, he recalled absently. But delicately made though her body was, she was no girl, he decided with a black smile. She wore a traveling gown of striped watered silk buttoned up to her chin. Expensive fabric and expensive taste, he suspected. Both her clothing and fine-boned features declared her well breeched, a woman of wealth and privilege, a lady of quality. Impatiently, he loosened the buttons. How the devil could women even breathe in such clothing?
His gaze returned to her face. The point of her chin, delicate though it was, warned of a nature most purposeful. Nor had nature failed her, he decided. He suspected her eyes—had they been open—would be incredible. He could see each separate lash, thick and black and full, resting on the elegant sweep of her cheeks. Vaguely he wondered what color they were . . . Blue, he decided, for her skin was fairest ivory. There was a pixie quality about the narrow span of her face, theslant of her brows. Her bonnet was gone; her hair had come hopelessly undone, a wealth of rich, chestnut strands that tumbled over the narrow set of her shoulders.
His eyes narrowed, a silent speculation. What the devil was a woman like this doing traveling alone, without maid or companion to accompany her? Even as the question simmered through his mind, his regard settled on her hand.
She wore no ring, either wedding or betrothal.
So. No husband. No fiancé either.
Dane was well aware that had he been able to glimpse his expression, it would have been impassive. His insides were not, however. A ripening awareness slipped over him, a subtle tightening of his insides, yet his mind remained curiously detached. While her body was hardly lush, her mouth most certainly was...She was not at all the kind of woman to whom he was usually attracted. When he touched a woman, he wanted toknowshe was a woman. He liked warm, mature curves and lush womanhood filling his palms. This one—whoever she was!—was too small, too slight. Indeed, he thought, unconsciously measuring the slim length of her neck, she was nearly given to scrawniness. So why this strange, unsettling sensation curling low in his belly?
It came as a shock to realize he gripped her hand between his own—he hadn’t even realizedhe’d taken it! He dropped it as though he’d been burned, yet in the very next instant, he found himself tucking a blanket up over her shoulders.
Nor was it just his own behavior he found most perplexing.
A lean, furry body had leaped with effortless ease upon the bed. His brows shot high when the feline ignored him outright, stretched his long body against the chit’s side, and proceeded to purr for all he was worth. Dane stared in amazement.
“Maximilian, you little traitor! This is most unlike you. I would remind you this chit is a stranger, and you take exception to strangers most vehemently. Indeed, I thought you disliked everyone but me most vehemently.”
Huge, slanted yellow-green eyes blinked owlishly at him.
Dane sighed. “All right, all right, I admit it,” he said aloud. “She is rather fetching, isn’t she? In truth, she’smostfetching.”
The cat’s purring grew louder. Reaching out, Dane ruffled the fur on his back, a faint smile on his lips.
But in the next instant, his mouth thinned. His expression turned grim. The lady was so still. So quiet. He’d seen head injuries before. It was possible she might never wake.
And if she did... well, then what? That was another matter entirely.
He did not wish her dead. He wished no onedead! But Dane was not pleased that the fates chose to carry her into his path. Her presence was an unexpected—and most unwelcome— complication. He sighed. Yet it was beyond his power to change the fact that she was here. No, he could change nothing.
Maximilian looked up at him, stretched, and leaped lightly up to his shoulders.
Dane reached to scratch the creature’s neck. “All we can do is wait, eh, my friend?”
Settling his length along the back of Dane’s shoulders, Maximilian purred his agreement.
At almost the very same instant, Julianna stirred. Some innate sense she hadn’t known she possessed sent prickles of alarm all along her skin. Something was wrong. Her head felt twice its size. She didn’t want to move, for it was as if her limbs were weighted by lead. But there was softness beneath her. She was lying on a bed, she realized, smothered in warmth. Prying open first one eye, and then the other, she discovered her surroundings were laden in shadow. She stirred, only to have a knifelike pain shoot through her head. Gasping, she stilled into immobility. What on earth...?
Little by little, she relived the scene on the roadway. Her thought processes were slow, almost tortuous, like slogging through wet sand. The gleam of pistols flashed in her mind’s eye.
She recalled the jolting motion of the coach,
flinging her hands up to catch herself . . .
But now, she was here, in this strange place.
And so was he. The Magpie.
She could almost feel the hair stand up on the back of her neck, the bead of sweat pop out along her upper lip. Straining to see through the filmy shadows, for nary the light of even a single candle filled the void, only the eerie glow of dying embers from a fire, Julianna found herself in the grip of an unsettling awareness. Two things came to her in the space of a single heartbeat. There was something strange about his silhouette, she realized. His shoulders were odd and misshapen— sweet Lord, he was a hunchback!
That...and the fact that his mask was gone.
The sight gave rise to a stomach-churning fear. Still, she struggled to see him. Alas, she could discern nothing but the sharp blade of his nose, the broad sweep of his brow. There was a nightmarish cast to the room, tohim. Her mind seemed capable of registering only darkness and shadows, shadows that seemed to undulate and shift from every corner, surrounding him, as if to shield him. Indeed, it was like a hazy mist clung to his form, dark and impenetrable. He turned then, facing her fully. Beneath thick black brows his eyes were aglow in the dark, golden andburning ...the devil’s eyes, a demon’s eyes, just as Mrs. Chadwick predicted, Julianna thought vaguely.
He stepped close.
A chill went through her at the touch of those eyes. The pounding rhythm in her head matched the rampant rhythm of her heart. Her thoughts twisted and turned, like gnarled branches in the forest. He loomed above her like a black monster.
“So. You’re awake then, mistress.”
Mistress.It is not mistress, Julianna thought argumentatively. Her lips parted. She licked her lips, prepared to tell him exactly that, but her tongue felt weighted and clumsy.
“Don’t try to talk,” came his voice. Soft, low, even melodious. “It was quite a tumble you took. Indeed, you were pitched and rolled like a ball in a child’s game.”
Kindness? Advice? From a dreaded highwayman? “Go back to hell whence you came,” she heard herself mutter.
And she paid for it. Oh, how she paid for it! Pain lanced from one side of her head to the other and back again. She bit back a moan. She felt cold, clammy, sick to the very essence of her being.
“Noble words, lady. But I suspect you know little of hell.”
It was in her mind to argue, but suddenly Julianna had neither the strength nor the inclination. Her eyes squeezed shut, and she felt the world fading away. Darkness and confusion swirled all around. She felt herself sliding toward oblivion once more. She fought it, but it was no use. In some distant, faraway corner, she felt the bed dip.
“No.” The soft protest was hers.
“It’s all right. I won’t hurt you.”
She tried to speak once more. She tried with every ounce of her being. But her body, her mind, refused to obey. And then the hard, heavy length of this great hulking man stretched out next to her. A part of her was appalled. She couldn’t help but remember what Mrs. Chadwick had said.He may well murder us in our beds.This couldn’t be happening, she decided vaguely. She—a very proper virtuous spinster—wasn’t lying abed with a man next to her...and not just any man. A notorious highwayman.
A hunchback, she thought with a shudder.
It had to be a dream. Lud, a nightmare! When she woke, surely he would be gone.
But when next she woke, sunlight streamed all around her. The golden glow was surprisingly cozy, and the feeling gave her pause. Cautiously she moved her head. There was no answering pain this time, and she opened her eyes.
It was then she heard the splash of water. Her gaze followed the sound. The Magpie stood before a washbasin, clad only in boots and breeches. His head was down, the muscles of his arms knotted and keenly defined as he braced himself against the table.
Julianna’s mouth went dry as she was given a heart-stopping view of his chest. She must surely have been dreaming last night, for there was nothing misshapen about his form, no hint of imperfection. No, she reiterated faintly, this was no hunchback to offend the eye or sensibility. Indeed, there was naught to be found in his form but a startling perfection. Every lean, solid inch of him was muscle and brawn. Amidst the dark, curly mat of hair on his chest, droplets of water sparkled like tiny jewels.
As if he sensed her regard, he slowly raised his head.
Their eyes caught.
It spun through Julianna’s mind that his hair was dark and shaggy, too long for him to be considered a slave to fashion. And those eyes she had compared to the devil’s were actually hazel, so light they were almost gold.
In that instant, Julianna’s heart surely stood still. She wasn’t sure which was more disconcerting— seeing him half-naked or knowing that this man had lain next to her the night through. Though it cost her pride mightily, she did not avert her eyes from his.
His voice, when he spoke, was like the Scotchwhisky her brother Sebastian favored—dry but laced with a touch of silky smoothness. “So,” he murmured, arching one dark brow. “That was quite a nap you took. Indeed, for a time I was afraid you would not wake.”
Julianna said nothing, merely watched him warily as she sat up. “I would have thought you’d rejoice if I hadn’t woken.”
“Why is that?”
“I’ve seen your face.” The admission came without thought, without volition.
For the longest time he said nothing. When he spoke, his voice was almost deadly quiet. “So you have,” he returned at last. “So you have.”
Julianna looked at him sharply. Alas, she could gauge nothing of his meaning from his expression.
“I suppose you’re nursing a bit of a headache. That’s quite a lump you have there.”
Julianna’s hand went automatically to the back of her head. Indeed, there was a sizable knot there that made her wince.
His brows shot up. “What! Did you think I was a liar?”
Julianna sent him what she hoped was a suitably quelling glare.
“I’m not, you know.”
“Oh? You are a highwayman, sir. I suspect you’re many things, all of which are quite despicable.”
“Ah, so you’re feeling rather peevish again, are you?”
Julianna angled her chin high. “Where is the coachman?” she demanded. “Are you holding him here as well?”
Something flickered across his face, something that made her go cold inside. “He’s gone,” he said briefly.
“Gone,” Julianna repeated. “What do you mean?”
He simply looked at her.
Her lips parted. “What,” she said faintly. “You mean he’s ...dead?”
Julianna’s eyes widened. For all that she couldn’t decipherhim,she was unaware her expression conveyed her every nuance of thought. “I ...Mercy, you mean you...you...” She couldn’t seem to complete the thought.
He took her meaning immediately. “I did not harm him,” he said flatly, shrugging on his shirt. “He was dead when I reached him.”
“Oh.” Julianna averted her gaze. Tears filled her eyes. She blinked them back before he could see.
Beneath the covers, something brushed against her legs. Something she couldn’t see. With a screech, she hurtled from the bed.
“You’ve rats in here!”
He caught her when she would have rushed past him. “It’s only Maximilian.”
“What, you’ve names for them?” She was aghast.
To her shock, he threw back his head and laughed, a low sound that was oddly pleasing— which left hermostconfused.
With a hitch of his chin, he indicated the bed she’d just vacated. “Look,” was all he said.
Julianna glanced behind her, just as a shiny black head and two pointed ears popped out from beneath the coverlet. A long, fuzzy body followed. Acat,she realized in amazement, at first dumbfounded, then feeling profoundly like a fool. Huge yellow-green eyes regarded her in unblinking curiosity. The animal tipped its head to the side, as if in silent query.
“Meet Maximilian,” said the robber. “He appears to have taken a liking to you, a fact that quite frankly surprises me to no end. Generally, Maximilian is a creature of most discerning taste.”
“I can see that if he is attached toyou,” Julianna retorted.
“Ah, a cheeky wench.”
“Wench!” Julianna sizzled. Never in her life had she been called a wench. Why, no one would dare! Thathehad roused in her a seething rage. Drawing in a deep breath, Julianna prepared to heap upon him a most scathing denunciation.
Two things dawned on her in that instant, however. Rather belatedly she realized she was still clutching at him; indeed, she was wrapped around him in a most unseemly manner!
The second was the feel of him beneath her fingertips.
All at once she felt several degrees warmer. The bottom seemed to drop out of her belly, for he was as solid and unyielding as a rock, as hard as if he were fashioned of pure granite.
She attempted to step back; it appeared he had other intentions.
His hold on her tightened. He gave a slight shake of his head. His grip was not hurtful, but Julianna was acutely aware of those strong, masculine hands curled around her shoulders.
“You were alone in the coach,” he said abruptly. “Why?”
Julianna looked him straight in the eye. “I am of an age, sir, where I am hardly in need of a chaperone.”
“And do you always travel without a maid?”
“My maid was ill. I sent her back to London,” she said levelly.
“And where were you going?”
Julianna lifted her chin. “To Bath,” she told him evenly. “To my home.”
“Who awaits you there?” He shot off questions, one after the other, like a firing squad.
“My husband,” she said quickly.
His eyes narrowed. Before she could stop him, he snatched up her hand and held it high.
“You wear no ring nor have you ever,” he stated flatly. “You, lady, are neither wed nor betrothed.”
Dismay shot through her. And yet he was wrong, she decided wildly. She’d once worn Thomas’s betrothal ring . . .
“I will ask you once more. Who awaits you there?”
Panic raced through her. Julianna tried to disguise it. “I told you, my husb—”
“My dear lady,” he stated very deliberately, “I am a man of instinct. Why, my very life depends on it! Indeed, my very life depends on what I read in people’s faces—and what I read in yours tells me that you are a liar. It tells me that no one is expecting you. So pray do not insult me by seeking to deceive me.”
Julianna felt as if she’d been hit in the chest by a tremendous weight. By Jove, he was right. Peggy would surely think that she had already arrived in Bath. The servants in Bath did not know to expect her arrival. If either of her brothers called on her, or inquired as to her whereabouts, they would be told she was in Bath.
No one knew where she was.No one.
“What is your name?”
Her mouth opened. Her first instinct was to haughtily inform him her brother was the Marquess of Thurston; it was hastily revised. If heknew her real name, he might easily demand a ransom—it was altogether possible he could have her killed while collecting it!
Her mind was racing, yet she was amazingly calm, even brave, as she answered evenly. “I am Miss Julianna Clare.” It was true; the omission of her surname was deliberate. Holding her breath, she forced her eyes to his. She was no fool. If she looked away, he would take it as a sign she was lying.
“And yours, sir? What is your name?”
Her response was much more swift than his. He had yet to release her hand, but rather gave a little bow over it. Manners from the Magpie! She wasn’t sure if she was outraged or impressed.
“You may call me Dane.”
Neither one of them fooled the other. Julianna was very certain the lack ofhissurname was just as calculated.
He straightened to his full height. Another calculated move, she suspected. Despite her determination not to be cowed, there was a sudden sharpness in his regard that gave her pause. There was something unrefined and unrestrained about this man, something that suddenly made her mouth go dry and her heart go all a-tumble.
She looked up—forever it seemed—until she felt as if her neck would surely crack! A man as big as her brothers was a rare man indeed. To struggle would prove futile. He was a large man,a strong man, aboldman. At such close range, he was even more imposing than he had appeared last night, wearing a mask and holding his pistols. His features were sharply arresting, his jaw squarely defined, his nose carved in perfect balance between the sculpted planes of his cheekbones. He was too masculine to be considered truly handsome—an artist would have tried to soften those uncompromising features. But somehow his hard face was the perfect setting for those lavish eyes, their clear gold brilliance enhanced by thick black lashes.
Her reaction to him was intense.Hewas intense. But suddenly his eyes were like thick fog, dark and impenetrable. They made her shiver inside.
She considered him with renewed caution, as well she should. He was, after all, a dangerous highwayman. A demon. For all she knew, a despoiler of women.
Even worse, as if he knew precisely the vein of her thoughts, he smiled slowly.
“What are your plans for me?” she asked stiffly.
A dark brow quirked high. “An excellent question,” he appeared to muse. “I’m not, you see, in the habit of taking hostages.”
Julianna couldn’t help it. Though she’d told herself she would not shirk, she would not cower, she felt herself pale.
“Yes,” he said softly. “I see you’ve grasped the crux of the situation. WhatamI to do with you? I can hardly let you go, now can I?” He shook his head. “Yet I dislike the wordhostage.”
Julianna held her spine stiff. “Would you preferprisoner? Both are the same, are they not?”
“I suppose that’s true.” He stroked his jaw, as if to give the subject great thought. “Let us consider you...my guest. Yes, my guest.”
“If I were yourguest,” Julianna observed coldly, “I could leave when I wish. And I cannot, can I?”
Something flickered across his features, something she couldn’t decipher. Surely not guilt.
“No,” he said after a moment. He spoke the word almost regretfully, yet there was the merest hint of a smile on his lips.
Oh! Was he feeling smug? Exactly what came over her then, Julianna could never say. She was suddenly fighting mad, angrier than she’d ever been in her life that he dared to trifle with her so.
Without hesitation she stepped around him, taking a direct path toward the door.
His smile was wiped clean. “Where the devil do you think you’re going?” He reached for her. Julianna eluded him, swooping under his arm and darting for the portal. Quick as she was, he was quicker, grabbing her from behind and whirling her from her feet.
But Julianna was incensed. She fought for all she was worth, swinging her arms wildly. There was athunk!as her elbow connected with something solid. Sensation zinged down her arm, but she paid no heed. The vile oath resounding above her head only made her all the more determined to land another blow.
It was impossible. The next thing she knew she was toppled back, the mattress beneath her. She gasped as a long, hard body followed hers down, and he was atop her. Sweet mercy!
Subdued but hardly beaten, held in place by the weight of his body and strong fingers curled around her wrists, she toyed with the notion of spitting in his face—a tactic never before employed in her life!
Above her the highwayman—Dane—gritted his teeth. “Do not dare!” he warned.
“You wretched beast!” she hissed, launching into a tirade the likes of which she hadn’t even known she was capable. “You won’t get away with this! You’ll be caught and hung. Drawn and quartered. The authorities will take your body and—”
“Are you quite finished?” he demanded.
She regarded the cut just above his eye with a considerable amount of satisfaction. No doubt he wasn’t feeling so smug, she decided. “I am not—”
“Oh, but you are. My God, you are a harridan. A shrew.”
“How dare you!”
He continued as if she hadn’t spoken. “Lord, but you’re a bloodthirsty little thing, aren’t you? And to think when I first saw you I deemed you a lady of remarkable gentility! But now I begin to see why you have no husband!”
“Must you insult me?”
Cool golden eyes stared directly into hers. “It is no insult but fact. And now that I have your undivided attention, I feel it only fair to inform you, my little kitten—”
“Don’t call me that!”
He shook his head. “It’s never wise to underestimate one’s enemies,kitten, and I do believe you should heed my warning. I’ve more experience than you at this kind of thing.”
He smiled, not a particularly nice smile. “I’m a thief. A brigand. A man wanted by the Crown. You can hardly predict what I might do now, can you?”
Julianna took a deep breath. Her blood was beginning to run cold. “You won’t hurt me.”
“What makes you so certain? You’ve seen my face, remember.”
Julianna did not appreciate the reminder. “You wouldn’t have brought me here,” she said with far more certainty than she felt. “You’d have left me in the coach. And though I wish I could sayotherwise, I’ve nothing of value with me, save the necklace I wear. No other jewelry, no—”
“Perhaps I brought you here for another purpose.”
“What purpose?” Too late, she realized the foolishness of such a question. Stupidly, she realized she hadn’t considered the possibility, not really.
But apparently he had. Or at least hewas.
His gaze slid down her neck, unabashedly irreverent. Julianna drew a sharp breath, only to realize his attention was not riveted on the lace edge of her bodice. Glancing down, she was shocked to confront soft, pink flesh—the weight of his body had thrust up her breasts so that they were nearly half-exposed. She tried to wrench her arms down, but his fingers tightened ever so slightly.
“Perhaps I brought you here for my own”— there was a telling pause, a wicked arch of brow—“amusement. After all, we’re alone in this cottage, kitten, just the two of us.”
Julianna’s throat closed off. She couldn’t breathe. For the space of a heartbeat, she literally could not find a scrap of air in her lungs. She blanched, locking her lips to keep them from trembling.
What a fool she was! Had she really wished for a little adventure? Now she wished for all theworld that she could take back her earlier words.
But if he expected her to cower, she wouldn’t. Pride alone forbade it. She swallowed painfully. “Then do what you will. I won’t fight you.” It was a statement made with quiet dignity. “But you may as well know I’ll find no pleasure in it.”
Something flickered across his face. “Bravely spoken. But you may set your mind at ease. I will not force upon you a fate worse than death. Your virtue is safe ...at least for the moment. Another time, perhaps. For now, I’ve other things to do.”
He mocked her. He wounded her. But he let her go, and as he did, an icy tremor shot through her. The instant she was free, Julianna scrambled up against the wall, as far away from him as she could get.
He pulled a shirt over his head, then moved to retrieve a dark cloak from a hook on the wall, along with a black silk mask—his costume from the previous night, she realized. Folding them neatly, he put them into a small pouch and tugged the drawstring tight.
“You’re leaving?” she asked. Drawing her knees against her chest, she regarded him.
“Oh, you need not fret,” he said smoothly. “I’ll be back, I promise.”
“What? More coaches to rob? More women to kidnap?”
“I think not. The bed would be rather crowdedwith three of us, don’t you think? Though perhaps the idea does hold merit.”
Did her tormentor see her blush? She had the disconcerting sensation he did, and that he delighted in it. “You’re quite despicable.” Her tone conveyed her disgust.
“So you’ve told me.”
“And I have no intention of sleeping with you in this bed.”
His smile was naught but a charade. “You slept with me last night, kitten.” The silken undertone in his voice was decidedly seductive.
“And I won’t be doing so again!” she told him heatedly.
He laughed, the rogue, he laughed! “What righteous indignation! Why, if your behavior is any indication, I could almost believe you’ve never shared a bed with a man before.”
Julianna had no intention of dignifying such a comment. But she sucked in a breath when he approached again. It was all she could do not to launch herself from the bed. Miraculously, she held her ground.
Did he smile? Did he smirk? Still wearing that infuriating whatever-it-was expression, he leaned close. “You may as well know right now, we are in the middle of the forest, far from the nearest village. And no, I have no intention of telling you preciselywherewe are. So you can scream all you want, though it won’t do any good. There’s noone to hear, you see.” He ran a finger down her nose. “And now,adieu, my little kitten.”
She slapped his hand away. “Stop calling me that!”
With a swagger he started toward the door. Ah, but somehow she’d known he would swagger, the arrogant oaf! Julianna was not yet finished. “Don’t be surprised if I’m not here when you return!” she spouted.
That stopped him dead in his tracks. Slowly he turned, arching a brow in almost lazy amusement. “Perhaps the blow to your head has affected your hearing. So I will say again, there’s no way you can escape. And I would hate to have to bind your hands and feet, though I will if that’s what it takes to convince you. I fear it would be most unpleasant, however.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” Julianna said with all the haughtiness she could muster.
His smile vanished, as quickly as if it had never been. “Wouldn’t I? You won’t be leaving here, kitten, and I will take whatever means I must to assure that you don’t. The sooner you resign yourself to that fact, the better off you’ll be. For you see, there is a limit to a man’s patience—tomypatience—so if you are wise, you will not tempt me. You will not test me, for you may well regret it.”
His speech was delivered with matter-of-fact ease, yet his countenance was no less than forbidding, the bite in his tone unmistakable. Turning his back on her, he opened the door and disappeared outside, yanking the door tightly behind him. The next thing she heard was a key scraping in the lock.
Julianna gaped, sinking back against the wall, her spine like mush. Had she been standing, she would have surely collapsed, for her knees were still shaking! Unfamiliar though it was, she tasted fear in her mouth, and acrid and bitter it was!
Did he intend some darker purpose? Rape? Murder? Merciful Lord, had he just threatened her life?
Oh, if she only knew! For all her defiance—for all his lighthearted mockery—he frightened her.
For he had made his point well...and well indeed.
She could not forget. She was at the mercy of a treacherous brigand. A highwayman. The Magpie. For all she knew . . .
A most lethal killer.Three
ane had not lied. Miss Julianna Clare had been unconscious for so long he’d feared she might never awake. He was heartily glad her injury wasn’t serious. For all the fragility of her appearance, it appeared she was a lively one—to say nothing of the fact that she was passing fair.
Gingerly, he fingered his eye. The skin beneath was puffy and broken. By God, the wench had drawn blood! He was amazed, outraged—and admiring, all at once.
Yet his mouth turned down as he whistled for Percival. Whom did he fool? No one but himself, it seemed. The chit was more than passing fair, far more.
She was a beauty, the likes of which stirred his blood in a way that hadn’t happened in a longwhile. He’d watched her as she slept, the light from the morning sun spilling in through the window and lighting the hair that spilled on his pillow with sun-burnished gold. It had taken all his will to crawl from the bed this morning.
Saddling Percival, he pondered further. The lovely Julianna was clearly well-mannered, wellborn, well fed, and well educated. Her clothing came from the very best shops on Bond Street, unless he was very much mistaken, and Dane was quite sure he wasn’t. No twittering young debutante was the lady. Ah, yes, she was already past the first blush of youth. If he had to guess, he would put her age at somewhere just beyond her midtwenties.
But she was untried. Untouched, when it came to the ways of men. Dane would stake his life on that.
And the certainty aroused him undeniably.
Mounting Percival, he glanced back toward the hunting cottage in the woods; it belonged to his family, but it had recently been put to another use . . . Oh, but he wished with all his heart that Miss Julianna Clare was ugly, her charms nonexistent, her beauty wilted and faded. He recalled how she’d leaped from the bed—straight into his arms—when she’d felt Maximilian beneath the covers. Why, she’d been practically crawling up his leg! A most disturbing sensation, that, he decided almost irritably.
He shifted on Percival’s back. Just thinking of her had a very physical effect. It made his blood swell heavy and thick between his thighs. Very odd, for Dane was a man who prided himself on being a master of his emotions. Considering his line of work, he had to be...
Yet his mind continued to stray.
He’d been right about her eyes. They were incredible. Not just blue, but sheer, brilliant cobalt. He had to remind himself that those brilliant eyes were not alight with passion, her mouth soft with yearning and seeking his. Instead they were glacial and cold, her tongue as icy as a blast of wind from the most dreary winter skies. Considering her position, she’d been remarkably defiant. It was, he admitted reluctantly, a fascinating mix— both strength and delicacy.
Yet, truth be told, he liked her spirit, her poise, the fact that her brain wasn’t stuffed with muslin. Under other circumstances ...He dismissed the notion almost immediately. The circumstances were what they were. There was no changing them. He was pragmatic, if nothing else, for Dane had learned long ago that wishful thinking was for fools. Yet patience was also his strongest virtue, for a less patient man could not do what he did. The waiting, thinking, trying to predict ...He had a temper, too, one that was rarely quick to arise, but dangerous when it did.
He was also a man of action, and in this particular case, he would simply have to adapt. Certainly it wouldn’t be the first time! He reminded himself he was a man who could charm and cajole and lie with ease, threaten and bully, capture and win . . . whatever he was called upon to do.
He sighed. Of course he’d seen the way she shrank against the headboard. If she glimpsed a beast in him, well, that was well and good. If she was convinced he was dangerous, so much the better. And much as he’d have liked to have done precisely the opposite—kissed the lovely Ju-lianna’s sweet, pink lips until she melted against him in yielding trust and ardor, he would not.
Nor did the lady need to know that his dastardly reputation as the Magpie far exceeded his deeds. He had a reputation to maintain. Not as a womanizer, but as a robber.
For if Dane had learned anything throughout his adult life, it was this ...Fear could be a good thing. It kept one’s senses sharp and alert. Ah, yes, fear was good as long as it did not develop into a malignancy that obliterated all else and kept one from living.. . .
Death—and dying—was the one inevitability in life. He had come to that realization on the battlefield at Waterloo, with bodies littered all around—a day that haunted him still. A day that would haunt him forever.
Dying was the one thing he was afraid of.
No one knew, of course. Dane defied it, decried it ...denied it.
He was no hero. He was simply lucky.
Ah, yes, death and dying terrified him. But that was his own cross to bear. His own private demon.
His own private hell.
Julianna’s heart was still slamming wildly against her ribs when the lock clicked. Her head had begun to throb as well. The urge to rest her aching head in her hands and succumb to a good cry was almost overwhelming. But when Thomas had deserted her at the altar, she’d cried until there were no more tears left, until she was empty and dry. Tears had accomplished nothing then. Nor would they now.
She had changed since then. She would not be weak. She must be strong. She would not feel sorry for herself or bemoan her predicament.
Better to make use of her time alone. Better to find a wayoutof it. Better to find a way out, period.
But first she had a most urgent need. Spying a chamber pot in the corner, she quickly made use of it. Replacing the lid, she turned and gazed around the cottage, taking note of her surroundings. It startled her to realize that the bed onwhich she reclined was quite comfortable. And now that she took the time to examine it, the cottage itself was actually quite good-sized, in excellent repair and—most surprising of all, clean as a whistle. A pair of wing chairs sat before the wide stone hearth. A small table and two chairs stood nearby; it was then she noticed the plate in the middle of it. Suddenly realizing she was ravenous, she crossed to the table and sat. Whatever the Magpie’s intentions, it wasn’t to starve her.
Unwrapping a wedge of cheese and bread, she broke off a hunk. It was simple fare, yet in Ju-lianna’s mind, she’d tasted no finer meal served from the most delicate china and finest crystal. There was even a small bottle of wine—and quite excellent wine, at that.
As she sated her hunger, her mind continued to race. With outrage. With possibilities. The Magpie was not like any robber she’d ever imagined—not that she had an intimate acquaintance with men of his ilk! But he was right, she decided, finishing the last bite of cheese almost angrily. It was not wise to underestimate one’s enemies. And if he were wise, he would not underestimateher.
Wiping her mouth, she eyed the massive cupboard across from her. A search revealed that it was well stocked. It also held the portmanteau she’d packed for the journey to Bath.
Julianna couldn’t help it. She made a small sound of pleasure. So. Her captor had had the foresight to retrieve her belongings.
Careful,warned a voice.Remember, there’s a price on his head.
It was a sobering thought. No doubt he’d only taken it believing there were jewels or such inside! Again her gaze roamed the room. There was something odd about it. It came to her slowly; and then she called herself every sort of bloody idiot. This was not, she realized, the cottage of a man of meager means. The furniture was sturdy and well crafted, no pallet on the floor but a proper bed; the bedding, even the wine, all spoke of comfort.
So. He was not just a robber, but a successful one.
Dusting off her hands, she got to her feet. The ache in her head had begun to subside, but she was still smarting inside that he’d locked her in, the wretch! Moving to the door, she tugged and pulled and rattled the latch, all to no avail.
Calmly, she assessed the windows. There were four in all, two on either side of the door. Discouragement shot through her, for they were tiny and set high in the wall. Even if she stood on a chair, she would never be able to climb through; it was too high.
Rubbish! He was right. His absence afforded no opportunity for escape.
It was then she spied a burlap sack in the corner next to the cupboard. Her hands on the ties, she paused, aware of a sliver of guilt. It was almost as if she were snooping in someone else’s home without permission ...which you are, chided a voice in her mind.
But certainly the circumstances were out of the ordinary. With that, she loosened the ties and peeked inside.
The bag was stuffed with banknotes! The thief!
Beside her, Maximilian rubbed up against her. “You should tell your master there are safer ways to make a living than stealing.”
In answer, Maximilian thrust his head beneath her palm, seeking her touch.
With a sigh, Julianna moved to sit in the chair before the fire. Maximilian leaped lightly in her lap, kneaded her belly several times, then settled against her and closed his eyes.
Julianna stroked her fingers through his fur, glad for Maximilian’s company, such as it was. Perhaps she should be ashamed, but if this was to be her temporary prison, she was glad it was at least a comfortable one. For itwouldbe temporary, she promised herself. Clearly she wasn’t going anywhere, not yet anyway. And since it appeared she had all the time in the world to ponder her method of escape, that was exactly what she would do.
Julianna spent the remainder of the day quietly. By evening, her headache had subsided, and she was feeling much better. She had no idea of the time, other than to gauge it by the color of the sky through the windows and the shadows seeping into the cottage. The night aged, and for a time she could see the moon shining high in the sky.
Still the Magpie did not return.
Her mind turned, refusing to be still. What if he’d been caught? Captured? What if he’d been strung up on the spot? No one would even know she was here, wherever the devil that was!
The thought persisted. However much she disliked the wretch, she certainly had no wish to see his neck stretched by a noose. Oddly, when she finally crawled into bed, it was this thought that kept her from sleep. Finally, she lit the bedside candle and lay back, staring at the ceiling. Maximilian had nosed his way beneath the covers and warmed her side. Miraculously, she had just begun to doze when she heard the key grate in the lock.
The door swung wide. A rush of cool moist air accompanied his entrance.
Julianna was instantly wide-awake.
There was a bag slung over his shoulder. He handled it as though it weighed no more than a bag of feathers, depositing it across the room beside the other.
He turned. His brows shot high. “So you’re awake! I trust you had a pleasant day?”
Julianna leveled upon him a gaze of utter disdain. Her newfound friend, Maximilian, had already deserted her. He’d bounded from the bed at the sound of the key in the lock. Leaping onto the table, he jumped to his master’s back and lay curled across his shoulders like a fur. In the back of her mind, it came to her that’s what she had seen when she first awoke—and to think she’d thought her captor a hunchback!
Now two pairs of golden eyes surveyed her. He wore his arrogance like a medal of honor; it was there in the incline of his chin, the curl of his lips in that ever-so-confident smile.
Clad in black from head to toe, the very sight of him made a shiver run through her. He filled every corner of the room in a way that was utterly foreign to her, in a way that had naught to do with size, though his height and breadth and brawn proved impossible to ignore! For it was more than that, much more. Had the cottage been a hundred times larger, it would have made no difference. There was something about him that set her insides to quivering like pudding. Like it or not, his was a presence all-powerful, all-consuming. He commanded the eye ...nay, hedemandedit!
No fop here. No dandified Corinthian. She could smell the wind in his hair, the earth on hisskin. He was quite handsome—he, a highwayman! She was stung by the acknowledgment, then struck by the strangest notion that despite the wildness she sensed in him, here was a man who would have been at home in the most elegant drawing rooms of thehaut ton. It was a notion that left her puzzled. Confused.
Most shocking of all, consumed by utter fascination.
Oh, the deuce take him! Whatever was wrong with her? The blow to her head must have addled her senses!
“My dearest Julianna, you surprise me.” He tossed his mask aside and removed his cloak, hanging it over the hook.
“My dearestDane,” she emphasized sweetly, “how so?” If he thought he could get the best of her, he was mistaken.
He approached, sending prickles of awareness over her skin.
“Under the circumstances, I might easily have had an hysterical female on my hands. But you do not call for your Maker. You do not call for help. Instead you seem quite calm.”
Julianna glared. “What, do you have someone outside spying on me?”
He threw back his head and laughed as if she’d said something immensely amusing, a rich deep sound that might have been pleasing had it not been directed ather.
“You did make a point of warning me that screaming would serve no purpose,” she reminded him.
“So I did. Nonetheless, as composed as you are, one could almost believe you are accustomed to being—” He paused.
“What? You think I’ve been kidnapped before? Hardly. Besides, what point is there in expending useless energy in melodramatics?”
“Precisely.” He smiled. “But that you think so ill of me wounds me.”
A chestnut brow arched in query.
“Oh, come,” he said lightly. “I have yet to hear of your gratitude for my gallantry in rescuing you.”
Julianna snorted, a most unladylike sound. Come to think of it, she was saying a lot of unladylike things. More strange behavior to dissect ...or was it?
The rogue stood before her, strong hands propped on his hips, his stance straight as an arrow. And to think she’d been worried for his safety!
“A rescuer does not imprison his charge,” she snapped, “or advise her that screaming will accomplish nothing.”
“We could argue the point until dawn, but then we wouldn’t get any sleep now, would we? And while I regret being such an inhospitable host and leaving you alone for so long, I suddenly find I am excessively weary.”
He advanced toward the bed. Her guard went up as he nudged Maximilian from his shoulders, then stripped off his shirt. Confronted with the sight of his naked, hairy chest, her heart began to pound in thick, uneven strokes.
Julianna wet her lips. “I suggest a simpler solution. Let me go, and there will be no need for argument.”
He said nothing, but bent to remove his boots.
Julianna had already scooted to the far side of the bed. “Please,” she said again, a touch of ragged pleading to her tone now, “let me go.”
His bluntness stung. He didn’t even have the courtesy to look at her!
He gave no answer.
She took a deep breath. “I can pay you. My father—he was a wealthy man. I have money enough—”
“I don’t want your money.”
He was growing impatient. She gestured to the two sacks in the corner. “Pray forgive me if I am skeptical!”
His eyes narrowed. “Ah,” he said silkily. “Snooping, were we, kitten?”
Kittenagain. Drat the man! “Snooping is not a criminal offense. Theft is!”
“I begin to think I should have bound youandgagged you. So now, if you don’t mind, I shouldlike to go to sleep.” He lifted a corner of the coverlet.
Julianna glared. “Aren’t you afraid I’ll escape while you sleep?”
His slow-growing smile should have served as a warning. He paused, reached for the key he’d laid on the bedside table, and dropped it deep into the pocket of his breeches. Still wearing that smug smile, he climbed into bed beside her.
The pompous ass! Julianna fumed and turned her back on him, putting as much space as possible between them. With the key inside his breeches there was little she could do. She longed to flee while she had the chance, but she needed the key! How the devil was she to get it?
She was totally unaware that she tossed and turned until his voice split the night.
“For pity’s sake, can you not be still!”
Julianna froze. Peering up through the shadows, she saw him glaring over at her, his scrutiny like the prick of a knife. “A few hours of rest is all I crave. Can you not oblige me?”
Julianna spoke not a word. A sense of helplessness assailed her. Releasing a long, uneven breath, she tore her eyes away from his accusing gaze.
Beside her, he raised up on an elbow. “What is this?” he demanded. “You’ve not decided to turn weepy on me now, have you?”
Her fingers clutched at the blanket. She staredat the rafters on the ceiling. Stupidly, foolishly,
shedidwant to cry.
Time stretched endlessly.
“I’m sorry,” he said rather stiffly. “I neglected to ask you how you feel tonight.”
Manners again! Who would have expected such from a highwayman? She jerked when a hand came down to rest on her shoulder.
“I’m fine,” she said raggedly.
“Are you?” Lean fingers came up to graze her temple. “You’re looking rather pale, my dear. Are you sure you’re all right?”
“Yes,” she said wildly. “No.”
“Ah, I do so like a woman who knows her own mind.”
Julianna wet her lips. “Well,” she said in a tiny, quavering voice, “my head does ache a bit.”
“You’ll feel better in the morning. Try to sleep.”
His manner was gruff, but there was a subtle softening in his tone. And his hands on her face ...his touch was unexpectedly gentle. But now he turned his back and laid his head down.
Damn! The key was farther away than ever. There was no way she could retrieve it without waking him. Why, no doubt he slept with one eye open.
Julianna’s mind was churning. Arguing had done no good. Pleading fared no better. She was clearly going to have to come up with anotherway to extricate herself from this dilemma, for she refused to spend another night lying next to this oaf! Oddly, she’d thought a man like him would be impervious to tears. Yet she had the strangest sensation he was discomfited at the thought of her weeping ...What would he do if she burst into sobs? Would he let her go? Or would it merely make him angry?
Julianna was not quite willing to test the supposition ...or him.
Time. She needed time to think. Time to plan her escape. She thought of her brother Sebastian, ever a great one for planning. There had to be a way out...
ane was puzzled. He was also worried. He could not help it. From the moment the chit woke that morning, she had been unaccountably quiet. Wan and subdued throughout the day. And so weak she could barely stand! Why, he’d had to help her to the table to eat. Naturally, he’d insisted she remain in bed the rest of the day.
Surprisingly, she hadn’t argued.
He couldn’t help it. Her sudden frailty worried him. She’d sustained some lumps and bruises during the accident. But was it possible the bump on her head was worse than he’d thought?
Riding away from the cottage that evening, he paused and looked back. Damnation! He couldn’t help but feel guilty over locking her in.
Tomorrow, he decided cautiously. If she wasn’tbetter tomorrow, he would simply have to fetch a physician.
Phillip wouldn’t be pleased at the turn of events. Alas, it couldn’t be helped.
Ten o’clock the next evening found him miles away, riding into a deserted clearing. His lovely guest was still very much on his mind.
Behind him, a twig snapped. Dane whirled.
His friend Phillip Talbot materialized from the shadows. “Either you’re growing careless,” he said, “or my skills are improving.”
Dane merely raised a brow. He’d met Phillip shortly after returning from the battlefield, and it wasn’t long before friendship sprung up between them. Beneath Phillip’s affable manner and kindly features was a man of lightning-quick intellect. Dane greatly admired his attention to detail, his ability to foresee the unforeseeable.
Most of all, he trusted him implicitly ...it was the same with Phillip.
A most necessary commodity in the affairs they conducted.
Phillip stared at his face. “What the devil happened to you?” he asked in astonishment.
Dane cursed the moon, which chose to slide out from beneath a cloud a moment before. He’d forgotten his black eye. Devoid of his mask, no doubt he was quite a sight.
“A slight accident,” he said lightly.
Phillip wasn’t fooled.
“Someone tried to darken your daylights. Who?”
With an economy of words, Dane told him about the carriage accident two nights earlier. Phillip was quiet for a moment when he finished.
“This is most unfortunate,” he said. “I’d hoped there would be no more forfeiture of life.”
“You of all people know that sometimes things happen we cannot predict.”
Phillip nodded. “The lady’s involvement complicates matters. What the devil are you going to do with her?”
“I’m not sure yet,” Dane admitted, “but I’ll think of something. She knows nothing, nor is she suspicious, and I intend for it to stay that way. Someday the chit will tell her grandchildren how she was kidnapped by a highwayman and lived to tell the tale. For now, I can’t have her running to the authorities.”
“Perhaps we could have her spirited away to the north. By the time she made her way back to civilization, perhaps this will be over.”
Dane was shaking his head. “It would not be wise to involve anyone else. That, I fear, would increase the chances of being discovered.” He paused. “But what of you? What of our quarry?”
“Covering his tracks well. What else can we expect when he’s one of our own—and managedto murder two unsuspecting souls while making it appear an accident?”
“Yes, it was clever. A wet, rainy night and a runaway carriage ...I doubt the pair of them even saw it coming. The poor woman’s only crime was in overhearing her husband and thatrat,” Dane stated grimly. “All she wanted was to keep her husband from going back to prison. And the bastard is brazen enough to continue his plan.”
“Brazen. Yes, the culprit is that, isn’t he?” Phillip paused, then studied his friend. “As for you, my friend, the Magpie is garnering quite a reputation as well,” he observed quietly. “You should hear what’s being said about you, Dane. The people may soon be clamoring for your head.”
“It can’t be helped. We cannot openly conduct an inquiry. That would put the blackguard on alert, to say nothing of how it would embarrass the Home Office.” Dane shrugged and offered a faint smile. “The Magpie shall ride until this bastard is caught.”
Phillip’s gaze sharpened. “This is not a game, Dane. What will you do if someone decides to shoot?”
“I’d best be quick and duck then, eh?” He gave a wink.
Phillip sighed. “Be serious! Barring that, whatwill happen if you’re caught? If that should occur, there’s a good chance you’d be strung up before the Home Office could intervene.”
“What, do you have so little confidence in me?” Dane clapped a hand on Phillip’s shoulder. “I knew the risks at the outset, Phillip. There’s a reason you do what you do and I do what I do.”
Phillip sighed. “You relish it, don’t you? The adventure, the danger?”
He had, once. But now...now Dane wasn’t sure. He was a man of action, not a man who could sit back and bide his time. He hadn’t Phillip’s patience. But the excitement was no longer as satisfactory as it had once been... why, he wasn’t quite sure.
The smile he gave Phillip was inscrutable.
A breeze ruffled Phillip’s light brown hair. “Do you know,” he said slowly, “I should love to be in your place for just one night.”
“You? A highwayman? An adventurer?”
“I admit, I envy you. I have for quite some time.”
Dane couldn’t help it. He grinned and touched the puffiness of his eye. “This is not to be envied, my friend.”
“Nonetheless, I think I should like the thrill, the rush of the blood through my veins, the anticipation of never being quite sure what the next moment will bring, yet being ready and willingto face it unafraid. I daresay it would never be boring.”
Dane lifted his brows. Unafraid? Ah, if he only knew ...And, though keen of mind and sharp of wit, Dane had never considered that Phillip the strategist might long for something else.
“Is that not life?” he murmured. “The challenge of each new day?”
“I daresay my life is infinitely less exciting than yours, Dane.”
Dane eyed him curiously.
“Ah, well,” Phillip said. “Perhaps someday. For now there is work to be done.”
“So there is,” Dane agreed. He whistled for Percival.
“I should be off as well.” Phillip brushed an insect from his coat, then looked over at Dane. “When shall we meet again?”
“Let us see how the game plays out for a time, eh? I shall contact you in London.”
Phillip watched as Dane swung up onto Perci-val’s back. “To success,” Phillip said with a faint smile.
Dane inclined his head. “Indeed,” he murmured.
With a brief salute he rode into the night.
Miles away in London, the streets of Westminster were nearly deserted. Within a small, brickfronted house, Nigel Roxbury strode into a tiny study and picked up a sheaf of papers from the middle of his desk. In the corner, a tall pendulum clock ticked loudly.
Dressed in a worn black jacket, his was a face undistinguished by any particularly remarkable features—except for the patch that covered one eye. Shrewd, calculating, and tough were among the traits attributed to him by his colleagues. Still, he considered himself a relatively simple man. He did not aspire to wealth. God knew he was in the wrong profession for that. He did not whore or gamble or drink to excess. But he was a great admirer of all things ancient, the graceful simplicity and line.
He glanced at the clock. Almost midnight. Where the devil was she—
A knock sounded.
He strode to the door and threw it open. With a swish of her skirts, a woman entered, pulling back the veil that covered her face.
Though some ten years his senior, she was, he admitted, a woman who had aged most gracefully. Her skin was still ivory and smooth, her features elegantly refined, but there a glint of silver here and there streaked in her hair. Clad in a gown of the latest Parisian fashion, her petite form remained as slim as many a girl’s.
“Greetings,madame!” He led her into the study. “Ah, you have something for me!”
She handed him a small box. Impatiently, he pulled off the lid and thrust aside the coarse yellow straw. His eyes gleamed as he lifted out a gleaning statuette. The light from the lamp glinted off the smooth gold surface.
“Glorious! Absolutely glorious!”
Taking a seat across from him, his visitor arranged her skirts over her knees.
“That piece is worth a fortune.”
“And I am paying a small fortune for this and the other pieces you will bring.”
“Yes,” she said archly. “And I can only wonder how a man such as you can afford such pieces.”
“Oh, come!” he admonished. “Must you look at me so? Why should only the rich indulge their passions? For twenty years I’ve longed for such treasures. Your late husband Armand and I shared a fascination for the splendors of Egypt. Oh, but he was a generous man to allow others to view them at their leisure! He chose to donate his collection to a museum. I find, however, that I am not so magnanimous.”
“It is not your passion to which I object,” the woman said coldly, “it is how you go about it.”
“Ah, you meanyourinvolvement. Come, a few pilfered pieces from the tombs of the ancients, otherwise destined for the art market! I can hardly compete with private collectors or museum buyers, can I? How fortuitous for me,though, that you remained acquainted with the
curator’s assistant François.”
“Yes,” she said shortly, “and I must pay him.”
His eyes flickered. “I fear there has been a slight problem.”
Her eyes flashed. “We had an agreement!”
“And it will be honored,” he said irritably. “There has simply been a delay in the transfer of funds.”
“The transfer of funds,” she repeated.
Roxbury’s expression hardened. “That damned highwayman the Magpie has seen fit to rob me,” he said brusquely. “And François did insist on gold.”
“I see. Perhaps there will be some delay, then, in the next transfer of your goods.”
“It would not be wise to threaten me,madame. You know who you deal with. Neither of us wants to lose what we have, do we?” With a finger he traced the headdress of the statuette, admiring it once more before glancing at her. “We both have a great deal to gain. As you say, it is a mutually advantageous agreement, is it not?”
Her pointed chin came up. “I do not stand to profit from this.”
“Oh, but you do,” he contradicted. “And you know what will happen if you try to trick me. One word from me, and you won’t be able to show your face anywhere in Europe. Your secretwill be out. The estate you inherited will be lost. Your marriage to Armand Lemieux will be exposed as the sham it was should I choose to reveal you already had a husband! You will lose all you gained at Lemieux’s death. Your life, as you know it, will end.”
“I loved Armand!”
“And you certainly loved what he gave you, didn’t you? But I find I’m curious. What of my brother? What of James? Did you love him too? He died,madame. He drowned, and you lived. I knew of your plan, you know. I always wondered that you took a fancy to a Roxbury, a man who was not upper-crust. James did always fancy himself a man about town, though, didn’t he? I confess, it was he who taught me to appreciate the finer things in life.” With his fingertips he caressed the statue. “Oh, but James was always abon vivant, wasn’t he? He pledged me to secrecy, you know, for I guessed about the two of you. What a man will not do,” he mocked, “for love of a woman! Ah, but you did quite well without him, didn’t you? I daresay, as Armand Lemieux’s wife, you fared much better!”
“You are a cunning, crafty man. And quite ruthless.”
“It was not meant as a compliment.”
“Nonetheless, I take it as such.” He caressedthe statuette once more, then set it aside. “When will the next piece arrive?”
She moved stiffly to the door. “I will send word.”
His eyes glinted. “I anticipate our next encounter then with the utmost pleasure.”
To his amusement, she did not echo the sentiment.
Dawn streaked the horizon when Dane let himself into the cottage. It had proved a fruitless night. He’d spent hours waiting for the coach, but his wait had been in vain. Frustrated, he finally departed for the cottage.
His mood was thoughtful as he unsaddled Percival and led him beneath a shelter that had been built next to the cottage. Was the culprit onto him? he wondered. He was reminded of Phillip. So it was excitement he craved, did he? For all that Phillip claimed he wished to be in his place for the night, he had the feeling Phillip would not have relished lying in wait on such a miserable evening.
The fire had burned down to embers. Dane threw a chunk of wood onto the grate. He stood a moment, watching the flames leap high. Finally, he walked over to stand above his captive.
She was sleeping soundly, her face turned away from him on the pillow. Dane released a breathof relief. Thank God. No doubt she would be back to plaguing him tomorrow, fiery and tart, which posed the question ...Whatwashe to do with her?
Sighing, he sat and removed his boots. He was too tired to search for answers. For the moment, he possessed neither the will nor the wit to do battle with a tongue such as hers. He was exhausted. Sitting, he removed his boots and his shirt. A few hours’ rest was all he needed. Then he would be ready for a new day—and his unexpected charge.
Raising a corner of the blanket, he slid into the narrow space, taking care not to disturb her. She gave no sign of waking, but continued to slumber on. Dane closed his eyes.
Sleep claimed him. And in his sleep, he dreamed. Ofher. Of the lovely Julianna. Dimly, he felt her slide above him. Oh, but she was fair and sweet, her beautiful hair swirling over his chest as she bent over him. He fancied he could see her, poised above him as one small hand daringly explored, skimming the grid of his belly.
He felt himself smile. It would be good with her, he decided. Indeed, it would be exquisite. Her hand was sliding down ...down. Lower, he thought, willing her to cup his rod, to touch and explore. To feel him grow hard beneath her fingertips.
In some faraway part of his mind, he regretted the barrier of his breeches. Out of consideration for her sensibilities, he hadn’t discarded them these last few nights. Her fingertips extended, a tentative venture. With dainty hesitance, almost stealthily . . .
With an oath, he vaulted from the bed.
The lovely lady was already on her feet. She was backing away. Her eyes were sizzling, pure, bright, and filled with blue fire.
She stopped. In her hands she held one of his pistols, aimed directly at the middle of his chest.
“Don’t move!” she cried. “Stop right there.”
Dane froze. Bloody hell! He’d been careless. He’d been foolish, and both might well come back to haunt him. Oh, but he should have known! He’d sensed her willfulness in the tilt of her chin.
“Give me the key,” she said, her voice very low.
A dawning awareness slipped over him. Damn! he thought. She was neither meek nor weak, and quite insistent.
Bloody hell, this was what happened by letting down his guard. He should have known better. Hedidknow better! Never again would he be so gullible.
“Well,” he said. “It appears I underestimated you. You weren’t ill, were you?”
Her lips pressed together.
“It was a ruse. A way to disarm me, I suppose.” He paused. “I suppose you think you’re very clever.”
“Cleverness has nothing to do with it. You wouldn’t let me go!” Her tone was accusing.
Their eyes met. Softly he said, “I was worried about you, kitten.”
“Worried! You left me alone for hours on end.”
“Not because I wanted to,” he said immediately. And indeed, he hadn’t. But if he hadn’t shown up for his meeting with Phillip, it would have thrown everything into chaos. All would have been ruined.
“Why should I believe anything you say? From your own lips, you’re a thief. A brigand!”
A logical assumption, he thought.
“. . . and now I want that key!”
Dane shook his head. “And where would you go? I told you, we’re in the middle of the forest, far from the nearest village. Would you rather be lost than here with me? I won’t harm you.” His tone was cajoling. “If that was my intention, I would have done so by now.”
Dane eyed her, silently calculating the distance between them. She stood perhaps ten paces away. She was a well-bred young woman, clearly of privileged upbringing. It was a miracle she knew one end of a pistol from the other.
“If you want the key, you’ll have to take itfrom me. You’ll have to get close. And who will
have the advantage then, I wonder?”
Her eyes flickered.
“You won’t shoot,” he predicted.
“I will! Do you think you know me so well? You do not know me at all, sir! Now put your hands up!”
Damn! His hands inched up, while he eyed the barrel, which was level with his chest. “Yes. But have you ever seen a dead man?”
“I have. My father.”
“Perhaps I should rephrase. Have you ever seen a man die? Have you ever seen a man shot?”
“Stop it!” she said wildly. “I know what you’re doing!”
“It’s not a pretty sight,” he continued. “Frankly, it’s damned messy. Granted, that depends on where a man is shot. A head wound—”
“You’re sweating, kitten. I can see it from here. I think if you were to shoot me, you’d probably faint dead away.” Her resolve was weakening. The tables were about to turn. Perhaps it was stubborn pride, but he was reasonably certain his instincts hadn’t deserted him entirely.
His eyes bored into hers. “I thought you were going to shoot.”
“I am. I will!” She swallowed hard. She was faltering, the barrel of the pistol wavering.
“Then do it,” he dared.
She retreated a step. “Stay there!” she said
shakily. Smug now, Dane took a step forward. Julianna squeezed her eyes shut, turned her
head aside...and fired.Five
t was most odd how it happened . . . It was not pain, but shock that filled his mind. His heart seemed to sputter, then resumed with hard, thudding strokes. A sensation of blinding heat was spreading through his chest. He couldn’t breathe. Was this how it would happen then...? God rot it, this scrap of a woman had managed what Napoleon’s army could not do. His knees weakened. Damnation! He would not swoon like a woman—by God, he would not! Yet fear washed through him—the secret fear that no one knew of. A hundred things passed through his mind in that instant.
Still stunned, he raised incredulous eyes to hers. But she wasn’t there...Sweet Christ, hemight die...and the chit was rifling through his pockets.
After that blasted key.
The sound was deafening. Hearing it, Julianna dropped the pistol; she was dimly aware of it clattering across the floor. For the space of a heartbeat, she couldn’t see. The acrid smell of smoke filled the air before her and burned her throat. When it cleared, she saw him.
The shot had brought him to his knees.
A curious haze seemed to surround her; she saw herself as if through a dark mist. Almost before she knew what she was about, she was at his side, thrusting her hand into the pockets of his breeches.
She emerged with the key to the door.
It glinted in her palm, catching the light from the window. She stared at it dumbly for an instant, then scrambled to her feet, nearly tripping in her haste. Bolting toward the door, she thrust the key in the lock; it clattered to the floor. With a cry she bent to retrieve it. Straightening, she looked from the key in her palm, back to his face.
Little did she realize it was a moment that would change her life forever.
Dane was wavering, his expression one of sheer disbelief. Julianna stood motionless, paralyzed by what she glimpsed there. Somethingnaked. Something vulnerable. Something almost pleading.
She wasn’t quite sure what she’d intended. Her thoughts were a wild scramble in her brain. She’d closed her eyes ...she had no conscious recollection of pulling the trigger. The next thing she knew there was that dreadful explosion, and her ears were ringing.
She, who had always thought herself a tenderhearted soul ...had just shot a man.
A sickening sense of shame spilled through her. What had she done? She was appalled. Horrified at her own behavior. She’d only meant to frighten him ...a silly notion, that! As if a highwayman would be afraid ofher!
But at least he wasn’t dead. At least not yet anyway. She darted back toward him.
He was looking up at her. Gritting his teeth, he fought to stay upright. “Go,” he said tightly. “Just go, damn you!”
But she couldn’t. She knew then she couldn’t leave him.
The effort seemed to expend all his strength. He pitched forward on the floor.
Kneeling beside him, Julianna shook his good shoulder, as if to jar him awake. “No!” she cried desperately. “No!”
Wrapping her arms around him, she tried to turn him over.
His eyes flickered open. He stared at her, almost as if he was angry. She knew it when his brows drew together fiercely over his nose. “Why the devil are you still here?”
“I shot you,” she said grimly. “Now I’m going to save you.”
He was right. There was blood. A good deal of it.
He had turned to his back. A bright red stain was blooming on the front of his shirt. Frantically, Julianna dug her fingers into the opening and ripped it away. Blood welled, pooling above his heart, thick and dark and crimson. Looking at it, the bitter taste of bile burned her throat.
The sound of her name wrenched her gaze to his.
Dane had pushed himself to a sitting position. “You’re going to have to help me, kitten.”
Julianna took a deep breath. Steadying her nerves, she slid her shoulder beneath his and slid an arm around his back. In truth she wasn’t much help; his frame was too large. He’d have pinned her cold if he’d fallen. It was his own strength that got him to the bed. But as he lay back, she noticed how pale he was, his skin shades whiter than before. Beads of sweat dotted his upper lip.
“The bleeding must be staunched. There’s a basket of cloths in the cupboard. Will you fetch them?”
Julianna scurried to obey, wadding up a clean white cloth and holding it to his shoulder.
“Press hard,” he said. “I realize you’re just a puny little thing, but try, will you, kitten?”
“Don’t call me that!” Her breath was sawing in and out of her throat. It was half sob, half angry protest. Almost defiantly she leaned into him, using the heel of her hand to increase the pressure. Dane sucked in a scraping, labored breath.
It seemed to take hours before, at last, the bleeding slowed to a trickle. She could see the hole where the bullet had gone in. The flesh around it was black with gunpowder. Somehow she hadn’t expected that, and it shook her to the core.
Dane released the air from his lungs and looked at her. He regretted what he had to tell her, but it had to be done. “I’m afraid your work isn’t done yet, kitten. You’re going to have to remove the bullet.”
“What!” she said faintly.
“The ball is still in my shoulder.”
She stared at him dumbly. Was he suggesting . . . “Maybe you’re wrong. Maybe it—”
He was shaking his head. “If it had gone clean through, it would have gone out through my back. It didn’t.”
Julianna stared at him in horror. She shook her head wildly. “No. I can’t—”
“Who else? You’re the only one who can. I certainly can’t. Besides, you said you were going to save me.”
What had she been thinking, to say such a thing? Julianna’s heart began to pound against her ribs. Hard, so very, very hard...
“You can do it, I know you can.”
She wished she had as much faith in her abilities as he did. “How could you know that? You don’t even know me.”
“I think you are a woman with a remarkable will. And you have a steady hand, don’t you?”
Julianna swallowed hard. “Tell me what to do.”
“In the cupboard, you’ll find a basin. In it you’ll find everything you need. And bring the bottle of brandy that’s there, too.” His voice was beginning to show signs of pain.
Julianna did as he said. “My word, I could almost believe you were expecting this.” Julianna unfolded a small leather case. In the pockets were a sharp-edged knife, another with a hook on the end, and a pair of tweezers. Another held needle and thread.
She sent him an incredulous look. “Surgeon’s tools?” she asked in amazement.
One corner of his mouth crooked up, the tiniest smile. “Let us just say I believe in being prepared.” In the aftermath, Dane felt a sheer and utter fool. He hadn’t been prepared forhershooting him. Perhaps the wound had addled hissenses, but he couldn’t be angry with her. What she had done had taken a great deal of mettle.
Nor was Julianna surprised, once she paused to consider. It was a dangerous life he’d chosen.
She listened intently to his instructions. After dousing the knife with brandy, she gathered her courage and took it up. Her heart thundered so loud she could scarcely think.
Dane held up a hand. “Wait!”
Julianna stopped, the point of the knife poised over his chest. He grabbed the bottle and took several long swallows. He started to set it down, then paused.
“Perhaps you’d like some, too.”
That she even considered it spoke to her state! She glanced pointedly at the knife in her hand. “I think not, sir. If I do, I won’t have a steady hand, now will I?”
Her prim tone nearly set him off. A dull haze had settled over him. Whether it was pain or the effects of the brandy, he didn’t know.
He leaned back. Quietly he spoke. “I’m ready,” was all he said.
Uttering a fervent prayer, Julianna went to work.
Only once did Julianna brave a glance at his face; it was a mistake, for she nearly dropped the knife. He was as pale as winter’s snow, his eyes squeezed shut. She wondered wildly if he’dpassed out—indeed, she hoped he had. But then he swallowed, the cords in his neck standing taut.
Tears stood high and bright in her eyes. Tears she refused to allow to fall.
Perspiration gathered on her brow. How he could stand the probe of the instruments in his chest, she had no idea. She encountered flesh, muscle—cringed at the hardness of bone. But he was being incredibly brave, and the knowledge made her ache inside.
Minutes later, the ball dropped into the basin. But he’d begun to bleed again, and her probing had widened the opening where the ball had first torn into his shoulder. She had no choice but to stitch it closed as best she was able. She was breathing hard by the time she sat back.
A tremor went through him. His eyes opened. “There. That wasn’t so bad, was it?” His tone was hoarse, but a whisper of sound. And he was trying valiantly to smile.
Julianna couldn’t. Her throat was clogged tight. She could barely breathe. His blood was warm. Sticky on her fingertips.
The walls of the cottage tilted crazily. Her stomach began to heave. Lunging outside, she lost the contents of her stomach.
Her arms clamped tight to her breast, she rocked back and forth, over and over. She felt like the world was going crazy, andshealong with it.
All she’d wanted was a few days away fromLondon. Perhaps a trifling bit of excitement to
liven her humdrum life!
But not this. Never this.
Hot, blinding tears streamed from her eyes. Finally, she wiped her cheeks with the backs of her hands, dabbed at her mouth with the end of her gown, and walked back inside.
Dane’s eyes never left her pale face. “Better?” he murmured.
Standing above him, she nodded, still unable to speak, trying desperately to calm her wayward emotions. And he seemed to know it, for his gaze sharpened intently.
“You’ll be all right, won’t you?”
She raised her head. “Why wouldn’t I?” she said with all the dignity she could muster.
He gave a faint smile. “Why indeed?” The smile faded. “You’re a puzzling little creature, aren’t you? First you shoot me, then you cry.”
Julianna didn’t know what to say, and so she said nothing.
His mouth opened. He was about to say something more, but all at once he stopped. His eyes were glazed and unfocused. He gave a tiny shake of his head. She sensed him struggling to remain aware. But it was no use. His eyes closed. He succumbed to exhaustion and pain.
Or so she thought.
All at once his eyelids snapped open.
“Percival. I forgot about Percival.” He was quite agitated. “He must be looked after.” Julianna frowned. “Percival? Is he your friend?”
He looked at her as if she’d gone daft. “Percival is the finest mount a man could ever have,” he declared. “But ...he must be fed.”
Groaning, he sought to rise. Julianna pressed him back to the bed. “You needn’t worry! I’ll do it.”
“You will?”“I will,” she said firmly. “I promise.”Her assurance appeared to satisfy him. Within
seconds he was asleep.
Pulling the covers up, Julianna shook her head. The unexpected makings of a smile tugged at her lips. Here he was, hurt and wounded, and he was concerned about hishorse.
How very like a man.
ane lay still and quiet throughout the day. Julianna could have sworn he moved not a single whit. Anxious, she surveyed him. Countless times she bent her head to his lips, as if to reassure herself that he still lived.
While he slept, she tidied the cottage. Her gown was quite ruined, the bodice filthy and stained with crimson splotches from tending Dane. She tossed it into the fire, along with the bloody rags, and quickly donned another.
Toward evening, she let herself out of the cottage. Dane had not been lying when he’d told her they were in the midst of the forest. Overhead the sky was a serene, dusky blue. There was a stream nearby; the muted gurgle of water reached her ears.
It was going to be up to her, she realized, to attend to their needs—their essentials were food, water, and warmth. It was spring, and while the days were warm, the nights were cold. She’d have to keep the fire going, she decided. If she let it die out, she was half-afraid she’d never get another started. She was rather ashamed to admit that never in her life had she started one herself, from tinder and kindling.
There was a stack of wood just outside the door, so she carried in enough wood to last through the night and into the next morning. She found Percival in a small building attached to the cottage. Half of it had been transformed into several stalls. Her eyes widened as she laid eyes on the towering black stallion. She approached cautiously, stopping a few feet away.
He was a beautiful animal. He watched her with attentive scrutiny, his eyes large and expressive, his ears pricked forward. His coat was like black gloss, shiny and sleek, gleaming in the evening light. He stood with quivering skin, his sleek, powerful muscles bunched.
Julianna had the sensation of being weighed and measured, and hoped she passed judgment. Slowly lifting a hand, she ran her nails gently down the sleek lines of his neck. His skin quivered beneath her hand. Julianna could feel his power beneath her touch, but he displayed no hint of aggression.
“My, but you’re a big fellow, aren’t you? Just like your master.” He snorted and gave a proud shake of his head. She continued to stroke him, talking to him in low, soothing tones, letting him acquaint himself with her scent and presence.
Before long, the animal bumped his nose beneath her free hand. Soon he did it again.
Julianna chuckled. “What, are you looking for a lump of sugar? I’m sorry, Percival, but I’m afraid I’ve nothing for you today.”
Looking over, she saw a door near the outside wall. In the small room within, she found what she was looking for—a bag of feed. Seizing the bucket next to it, she filled it to the brim. With no more hesitation, she let herself inside the stall, for she sensed that the mighty animal had accepted her—at least she hoped he had!
He nickered as she poured the feed into a bucket. Patting his neck, she withdrew, picking up another that was half-full of water. Across the clearing, she discovered what she was after— a well.
Filling the pail from Percival’s stall with cool, clear water, she saw that Maximilian had wandered outside as well. He and Percival stood nose to nose, huge black beast to tiny black beast. The sight made her smile. Clearly the pair were already well acquainted with each other.
Her smile slipped. An odd little ache spearedher heart. She was perilously near to tears... again! Memory surfaced, unbidden. She felt horrible about pretending to be ill. Deceit was not in her nature. What was it Dane had said before she shot him?
I was worried about you, kitten.
Had he been? Had he really? And afterward, when she had returned inside...A piercing shaft of guilt rent her breast. It wasn’t himself he’d been concerned about, but her. What kind of man was he? she wondered. And why did she even care? What little she knew of him had little to commend him. He was an outlaw, a robber.
Yet everything inside told her he was not a man without heart, a man without a soul.
As she was not a woman without conscience.
Biting her lip, she glanced at Percival, slurping thirstily from the bucket. She could leave. Sheshouldleave. She now had themeansto leave. She had only to ride away, to leave him and be free.
But she no longer had the will. She could not abandon Dane. She simply could not.
Maximilian was sidling around her feet. Suddenly he bounded toward the door of the cottage, which stood ajar. He stopped, gazing back at her with huge, slanted eyes. As if he were waiting . . .Juliannasighed.“Yes,Maximilian.I’mcoming.”***
Throughout the night Dane alternated between burning hot and shaking chills. Once he woke and stared at her through searing, golden eyes. Julianna had the unsettling sensation he saw right through her, as if she weren’t even there. She chafed at her helplessness, their isolation. She had no medicine. All she could do was keep the wound clean, and wait.
She was exhausted, but afraid to sleep, afraid he might need her. By noon the following day, her mind was made up. If he was not better by the next morning, she would ride out. There had to be a village somewhere. A road. A farm nearby. There had to besomethingshe could do.
But what if someone realizes he’s the Magpie?chided a voice in her mind.What then? How will you feel then?
Like a traitor, she admitted. It made no sense, for she owed him nothing. She had taken care of him as best she was able. Yet she couldn’t explain her strange feelings toward him. It was almost akin to...loyalty. Oh, but it made no sense! And that, too, she didn’t understand.
Yet one thing was abundantly clear. She couldn’t let him die either.
Stirring the fire, her mind made up, she resumed her vigil at the bedside. She had drawn a chair close so she could watch him. His brows and the lock of hair on his forehead were verydark against his skin, which was bleached of color. She brushed at the hair that persisted in springing forward on his forehead, the gesture oddly tender.
“You have to be all right, Dane. Youhaveto.”
Almost before she knew what she was about, her hand crept within his where it rested on the blanket; his fingers curled around hers. He seemed to like that—indeed, she could have sworn he rested easier when she touched him. More than once her head drooped, and she jerked herself awake.
It was Maximilian who knew even before she did...he leaped up onto the bed and stretched out beside his master.
It gave her a start to discover Dane’s eyes open wide and focused directly upon her. But this time his regard was clear and steady.
“You’re still here. I thought I dreamed it.”
His voice was hoarse and rusty.
“How do you feel?” she asked.
He shot her a telling look. The golden brown of his eyes was a stark contrast to the bristly shadow of his beard. He looked rather dangerous, his jaw rough and dark with stubble, but his features were rimmed with fatigue.
His eyes closed. She both saw and heard the uneven breath he took. “How long?” he rasped.
“I beg your pardon?”
His eyes opened. He wet his lips with his tongue. “How long have I been unconscious?”
“Since yesterday morning.”
His gaze traveled to the windows, where daylight cast a mellow glow within the cottage. “The entire day?” He shook his head. “That’s not possible.”
Julianna smiled slightly. “I’m afraid it is.”
Dane said nothing. His gaze had fallen to their hands. Julianna snapped hers back to her lap. She could feel the heat of a blush creeping beneath her skin.
A dark brow hiked upward, but he chose to make no comment. Julianna was heartily grateful. Her heart gave an odd little flutter. Vaguely, she wondered what it would be like to feel the hardness of his lips moving over hers...Blast the man! What was it about him that affected her so? She was not in the habit of thinking thusly about any man. And why it should bethisman, she had no idea . . .
The thought was abruptly cut off when he sat up and pushed the blanket aside.
“What the devil are you doing?”
“What the devil does it look like?” he retorted.
Julianna surged upright. The chair hurtled backward, hitting the planked flooring with a bang. She paid no heed. “You are not to get up,” she admonished sternly. “Do you hear me, sir?”
He was frowning as ferociously as she. “Mydearest Julianna, it’s impossible not to.” With a grimace he swung his feet to the floor. “And under the circumstances, don’t you think it’s utterly ridiculous that you persist in calling me ‘sir’? My name is Dane.”
“Very well then. Dane. Now tell me, Dane, where do you think you’re going?”
He muttered an explosive curse.
Her eyes flashed. “There is no need to swear!”
“My dear, there is every need. It is not my intention to offend your sensibilities. However, I do not know quite how to say this, other than...given the situation, I’m finding that a man has certain needs.” He paused, gauging her reaction.
“Needs?” Her mouth popped open. Her blue eyes blazed and her spine went stiff. “How can you even be thinking of such things—”
“Not,” he interrupted, “thosekinds of needs.” He slanted her what he hoped was a suitably meaningful gaze. “I don’t suppose you would be kind enough to leave me alone for a few minutes?”
Julianna stood stock still. “Oh,” she gasped. “Oh!” She gulped, her face burning as she practically flew out the door. She was tempted to tell him to call if he needed her, yet how would that have sounded?
She allowed what was surely a suitably appropriate amount of time for him to use the chamberpot, then knocked on the door, still feeling rather foolish.
There was no answer. She listened intently, then knocked again, more loudly this time.
“Dane?” she called.
He made no reply. Worried, she opened the door and peeked inside. He was standing near the table, a marked consternation on his features as he braced himself with one hand. Her embarrassment fled, for he was pale as a sheet. He appeared ready to crash to the floor. She thrust a chair behind him just as his knees gave way.
“Everything is spinning.”
“Put your head on the table.” Gently she pushed his head down.
Long moments passed before he finally raised his head. She was relieved to note some of the color had seeped back into his face. “Christ,” he muttered.
“How do you feel?”
“Weak as a babe,” he admitted.
“You lost a goodly amount of blood,” Julianna said quietly. “It may take some time before you feel quite like yourself again.”
He sighed. “Well,” he murmured dryly, “it appears the tables have been turned. I am wholly in your hands then. Dare I trust you?”
Julianna couldn’t withhold the smile that was creeping across her lips. “You can indeed,” she said briskly. “Now back to bed with you, si—”
She broke off when his brows shot high, and he began shaking his head in reproof.
She slipped an arm through his. “Back to bed with you, Dane.”
This time she received no argument in return.
It was later that she found herself reflecting . . . The tables had been turned indeed. The Magpie was totally in her hands. It was a strange thought to consider. Well, not completely in her hands, she decided. Weakness or not, there was an aura of leashed strength about him that nothing or no one could hide. His hard frame dominated most of thebed. Shewas notfooledbythe wayhelay still, quietly dozing. The sight of his naked chest was disconcerting, and she couldn’t prevent her eyes from straying to it again and again throughout the day. More than once she felt her face grow hot, and she had to divert her attention elsewhere.
In rummaging through the cupboard, she’d found some dried beef. He would never regain his strength if he didn’t eat, she reasoned. But she didn’t think it would be wise for him to eat too heavily.
Several black iron kettles of varying sizes hung near the fireplace. Reaching up, she plucked the smallest from its berth. Filling it with fresh water from the well, she placed it on a hook suspended over the fire, threw in a handful of beef and a measure of salt. Dusting off her hands, she stepped back to wait. After feeding Percival,carrying in more wood and filling a bucket with water, she returned to the fire. Raising the lid, she sniffed and peered warily within. The liquid was dark and murky; it didn’t look particularly palatable. Oh, what she wouldn’t have given for a pastry and pot of chocolate!
Nighttime shadows crept into the cabin. She lit several candles and walked back to the pot. It was then that Dane awoke. “What is that?” he asked.
“Broth. I thought it would be good for you. Would you like some?”
Julianna carefully ladled it into a wooden bowl and carried it to the bed. Dane was pushing himself to a sitting position, his back against the wall. As he did, icy-hot needles shot through his chest, all the way down his left arm. The movement arrested, he cradled his arm with his good hand.
“God rot it—” he gave an explosive curse “—I don’t think I can hold the damned bowl!”
“It’s all right.” She hastened forward. “I can feed you, if you like—”
He was scowling, his mouth tight. “It is not all right! I won’t have you feeding me like a child!”
Julianna froze. She was caught squarely between the desire to dump the broth over his head and an elusive hurt. And it was that which Dane saw.
Yet before he could say a word, she said carefully, “Perhaps tomorrow you’ll feel well enough to sit at the table. For now, I have an idea.”
Seconds later, she stepped to the bedside, handing him a cup with the hot broth.
Wordlessly he accepted it. Unthinkingly he took a sip. His eyes watered. He choked back a cough. God above, had she emptied the entire tin of salt in the kettle? Over the rim of the cup, her features flashed before him, the brilliance of her eyes wide and wary, yet he read in them an eagerness to please.
And here he was, he thought grimly, acting the beast.
Wretched though it was, he drained the broth, every last drop.
He set the cup aside and leaned back. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “I shouldn’t have lost my temper. It’s not your fault.”
Oh, but it was. And they both knew it. Julianna battled a rush of stupid, foolish tears. She would have stepped back lest he see, but he caught her fingers.
She gave a tiny shake of her head. “I . . . It’s all right,” she said awkwardly.
He frowned suddenly. His gaze roved over her face. “You look tired,” he observed.
“I’m fine.” She flashed a smile. “Truly.”
But Dane saw beneath the façade. “You’re exhausted, aren’t you?”
“Now why would you say such a thing!”
So. The lady was stubborn and persistent. He tried another tack.
“When was the last time you slept?”
“I cannot remember.”
He cocked a brow. “Haveyou slept?”
“A little,” she lied.
“You haven’t,” he pronounced flatly.
“I did!” she insisted. “I slept there!” She pointed to the chair next to her.
His eyes narrowed. He made a disapproving sound low in his throat.
“Well, you won’t be sleeping there tonight.”
She yanked her hand away and propped them on her hips. “You’re certainly in no condition to stop me,” she pointed out.
“No?” Dane allowed a smile to curl his lips, nodding at the empty cup. “Your sustenance has given me renewed strength.”
She blinked. She wasn’t looking quite so sure of herself.
Holding her gaze, he reached for the coverlet, his intention clear.
“Don’t you dare!” It was an ardent, vehement protest.
Dane paused, raising a brow in silent query.
“Oh, bother!” she cried.
Dane sighed. “Need I remind you I am hardly in any condition to accost you? And whatwould people think of me if they knew I let a woman sit in a chair all night while I occupied the bed?”
Her eyes met his rather unwillingly, he decided. But she was softening; he sensed it.
“They would, no doubt, say you are a rogue, which you are.”
He lifted a corner of the blanket. “You won’t do either of us any good without rest.”
“It would be highly improper for me to sleep with you in that bed.”
He scowled. “Lady,” he growled, “you already have.”
“It is most ungentlemanly of you to remind me of that.” It was true. But she hadn’t had a choice then, with him the Magpie and she his captive. But now—now, she did.
She was weakening. This was madness, she told herself. She did not know this man. What she did know of his character was thoroughly reprehensible!
Her fingers were imprisoned within his once more. She felt him tugging, inexorably pulling her toward him.
“Come,” he invited. “Come lie with me, kitten.”
Her eyes widened. “If you weren’t hurt,” she stated, “I do believe I’d slap you.”
Dane made a sound that was part laugh, partgroan as she slid in beside him. A man would have to be dead not to be aware of this woman’s loveliness. “Ah, kitten! If I wasn’t hurt, I do believe I’d deserve it.”Seven
ulianna was up when Dane woke the next morning. She was just pinning her hair before the small oval mirror on the wall next to the door. She turned when she saw that he was awake.
“Good morning,” she murmured, with a tentative smile.
“Good morning,” he returned.
A shaft of hungry desire shot through him as he watched her approach. She’d changed into a simple gown of white muslin. Dane’s eyes followed the delicate blue lace that edged the rounded bodice. Beneath the cloth her breasts swelled round and high, her skin milky white and smooth. He wanted to touch it—touchher, to see if she was as soft as she looked. And when she satand bent slightly to peer at his shoulder, it was all he could do to tear his gaze from the cleft between. Even the sharp knifelike pain that sizzled through him as he flexed his shoulder couldn’t banish the sharp, sudden stab of longing that shot through him. The scent of roses drifted to his nostrils. God, but she was fresh and sweet, and he was suddenly achingly aware of his own disheveled appearance.
Little did he realize that while he was indulging in his perusal, Julianna was taking stock of him as well. In all her days, she didn’t know when she’d encountered such stark, bold masculinity. It was most vexing, she decided irritably. Why the devil did he affect her so?
She sat, trying to keep her gaze trained on the bandage—impossible! With his throat and chest bare, he seemed bigger than ever. The sheer size of the man was overwhelming. His forearms were long and corded with muscle, covered with silky-looking dark hair. Even his wrists were big, his fingers lean and strong-looking. When hers brushed his hair-roughened flesh, her stomach dropped like a brick.
The muscles in her belly contracted. A tingle of some strange, unnamed emotion curled her insides. Almost desperately, she sought to quiet her leaping pulse. There should have been layers and layers of clothing between them. Shirt, vest,jacket, cravat. She wasn’t used to it. She wasn’t used to touching a man, period. Instead, there was nothing between them, nothing but a rather daunting expanse of brazenly male skin.. . .
She strove for a breezy, even tone. “Let’s have a look at this, shall we?”
“Must we?” He was grim, wincing as she began to unwind the bandage from around his shoulder.
She inhaled sharply when at last it was revealed. Her stomach lurched at the sight of the raised, swollen flesh, bracketed by her stitches.
“That bad, eh?”
Julianna examined it more closely. It was raw and jagged and crusted with blood. “Actually, no,” she ventured cautiously. “It’s bruised and red, but I think that’s to be expected. Frankly, it looks better than I thought it would.”
She had already placed a basin of hot water and a stack of clean cloths on the table. Dane steeled himself when she began to clean it, but she was very gentle. He watched her fingers as she worked. They were slender and small, like the rest of her. He vaguely recalled her hands on his body. Smoothing his brow, a voice speaking in dulcet, soothing tones. But her tongue was tart—an intriguing contradiction, he mused!
He surveyed her as she very efficiently folded aclean pad into a square. “You’re very capable.
Have you worked in a hospital?”
Julianna blinked. “Heavens, no.”
“Are you laughing?” he demanded.
“Well, to be sure, the only experience I have is with animals.”
Even when she was very young, she was always taking in some poor creature or other—an orphaned rabbit, a dog whose leg had been caught in some kind of trap... Oh, how she’d wanted to keep him once he was well! She’d begged and begged.
Papa had refused.
From her brother Justin she’d inherited a hint of stubborn defiance, for she had nursed the animal back to health without her father’s knowledge, keeping him hidden in the boathouse away from sight. Sebastian and Justin had helped as well, sneaking her juicy tidbits of food for the mongrel. And when he was well, Prudence from the village near Thurston Hall had given him a home and shelter.
Papa would have been furious if he’d known. Not that any of them had cared, however . . .
“What kind of animals?” he asked.
Julianna shrugged. “Several rabbits. A bird with a broken wing once.” She couldn’t quite hide the tiny little smile that flirted at the cornersof her mouth. “But I daresay, you are the most beastly of all.”
“Thank you. I’m glad I know what you really think of me.”
“You weren’t complaining a few days ago,” she reminded him.
“True.” He watched as she held the square, easing his arm up as she began to wrap another strip around it to hold it in place. “But it would appear someone has taught you well.”
Julianna was intent on her task, her tone rather absentminded. “Actually, Sebastian tended my bumps and bruises when I was young.”
“You call your father by his given name?”
“No, of course not. Sebastian is my brother.”
Dane gave her an odd look. “Your brother tended your scrapes?”
“You would have to know my brother. He’s a very protective sort.”
“Where was your mother?”
Her smile slowly faded. It was a logical question, she supposed. “I don’t even remember my mother.”
“I’m sorry.” He paused. “She died when you were young?”
“Yes. She—she ran off with another man.” The admission came out all in a rush. “Across the Channel. The two of them were killed.”
He was staring at her. “Good God.”
“Yes, it was all quite disgraceful.”
“What about your father?”
“He died a number of years ago, too.” Her fingers plucked at her gown. Her laugh was a little forced as she raised her head. “I don’t know why I told you that. It’s rare that I even think of it.”
Dane didn’t say anything for a few seconds. Then he asked, “How old are you, Julianna?”
Her eyes narrowed. “That, sir, is none of your affair.”
“Oh, come,” he said brashly. “How old are you?”
She glared at him, the soft line of her lips compressed into a tight seam.
“Very well then. I shall hazard a guess. Are you eight-and-twenty?”
“I am not!” she said through her teeth.
He’d offended her. Younger then. Dane hastily revised his guess.
She neither denied nor confirmed it. Ah, so he was right. She was seven-and-twenty.
“Why aren’t you wed?”
“That’s not a question one should ask a lady!”
He persisted. “Are you a bluestocking?”
Julianna could feel her face growing hot. “Must you persist in insulting me?”
“I mean no insult. Someone should have married a beauty like you long ago. You should have had at least three babes at your breast already.”
Babes. She was reminded of her brothers’ littleones—Sebastian’s twins, Geoffrey and Sophie, Justin’s new daughter Lizzie. She loved them dearly, but they weren’thers. And all at once she felt the loss keenly.
And his gibe hurt. Julianna couldn’t help it. She’d thought herself well beyond it, but it did.
Her mind veered straight to Thomas. A rending ache tore through her, but she was determined not to show it.If only, she thought.If only. Deep in her soul, she knew Thomas was not the man for her—would never have been the man for her—but there were times that she longed for what might have been...
“You ask questions you have no business asking,” she told him bluntly.
“Perhaps. But what if I said I am a man who values truth and honesty?”
“You? An outlaw?” She took a deep breath. “Tell me then. Why aren’tyouwed? Or are you?”
“I am not.”
She gave him a withering stare. “Perhaps no one would have you.”
“That may be true. But I have never asked anyone to be my wife.”
“I cannot imagine that anyone would say yes,” she shot back. “Being a highwayman can hardly be a stable livelihood.”
Little wonder that she scoffed. He deserved that, he realized. He had been teasing, but he was also curious. Yet he sensed her defensiveness, anelusive hurt, but he would not press. Since the lovely Julianna was clearly sensitive about her age and her marital state, and since it seemed the conversation was taking a turn neither of them were prepared to discuss, Dane decided a change of subject was in order.
He ran a hand over his raspy chin. “Have you ever shaved a man?”
Her stunned expression was all the answer he needed. But he discovered she was up to any challenge he presented.
Her eyes took on a gleam. “You would trust me with a razor at your throat?”
The question took him aback. Dane couldn’t help it. His gaze slid up and down her form. All of a sudden he wasn’t so sure . . .
“You may not be an honest man,” she said sweetly, “but it seems you are a brave one.”
As it happened, she held the mirror while he scraped the stubble from his face and neck. Wiping the last of the soap from his chin, he glanced at her.
“Is that better?”
She nodded her approval. “A vast improvement,” she pronounced. She replaced his shaving supplies in the cupboard and turned back, pursing her lips. “I suppose you’re hungry.”
“I am. But I don’t want any of that damned broth.”
Her mouth opened, then closed with a snap. She was clearly affronted. “I’ll have you know I went to a great deal of trouble to fix that broth.”
“And I appreciate your efforts. Truly. But I’m ravenous, kitten.”
“Yes, I imagine you are.” Her ire faded. She looked suddenly worried. “But I ate the last of the bread yesterday. And...”
She was chewing on her lip. “What?” he prompted.
She met his gaze reluctantly. “I think it only fair to tell you I’ve never cooked a meal in my life,” she confided in a small voice.
“Really?” He feigned great shock. “Why, I should never have guessed.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Are you making light of me?”
“Not in the slightest. I have every faith in you. Now, if you will only listen, I have a suggestion. Outside on the north corner of the cottage, there is a small storeroom . . .”
An hour later the cottage was filled with the aroma of meat and vegetables. Julianna stirred the stew, humming a little as she crushed some herbs in her fingers and sprinkled them over the top.
But when she reached for the salt, Dane reared up. “Easy on the salt, kitten!” he called.
By the time night draped its shadow over the forest, Julianna was nearly dropping with exhaustion. She swiped at the hair falling into her eyes. What would Sebastian and Justin think if they could see her now? she wondered, hauling water and wood. She was dirty, disheveled, and they would surely never believe their eyes!
But she was certainly feeling rather proud of herself.
Dane looked on as she dropped onto the side of the bed. “Tired?” he asked.
“A little,” she admitted.
“I’m sorry. I’ve given you a merry chase today, haven’t I?”
There was no disputing that her charge was a trying patient. He fretted, grumbled, stewed, and complained about his inactivity—and the fact that she wouldn’t allow him up. Yet it flitted through her mind that not once today had she thought of London. Not once had she wished to be elsewhere. Granted, there hadn’t been time! Still, she enjoyed being busy. And—she had liked being needed.
Even if it was by an outlaw!
She shrugged, tugging one foot onto her knee and pulling off her slipper. Oh, but her feet did ache! She was quite certain she hadn’t sat down even once throughout the day.
Dane adjusted his arm on the pillow. “My dear Julianna, if it eases your mind, removing your stockings will hardly send me into fits of lust.”
Julianna frowned at him. His habit of discerning her thoughts was rather vexing, his suggestion quite improper. Yet what about their acquaintance had been proper anyway?
Tugging off her slippers, she rubbed her feet, blew out the candles, and slipped beneath the sheet.
They lay together, shoulder to shoulder. The only sound was the crackle and hiss of the fire.
It was Dane who broke the silence. “I suppose this is quite a change from your life of leisure. You do lead a life of leisure, I take it?”
“Yes, but I am not a laggard.”
His eyes flickered. “I didn’t mean to imply that you were.” He paused. “What would you be doing if you weren’t here?”
She considered. “Well,” she said thoughtfully, “if I were at my home in Bath, I would probably be out for an evening walk in the countryside. If I were in London, I would likely be dancing at a ball—” there was no mistaking the smile beneath the words “—I suppose in either case, my feet would surely be aching anyway.”
He laughed. “Thank you. That eases my mind considerably.” Silence drifted between them, yet it was an oddly intimate silence.
“Why did you stay, Miss Julianna Clare?” He stopped. Something flickered across his face. “I didn’t think you would.”
Miss Julianna Clare. Guilt lodged in her breast. Her smile froze. A faint distress crept into her eyes, for she’d forgotten that particular untruth. “Why are you asking me this?”
“I should think it would be obvious. Because I wish to know.” He turned to the side, leaning on his good shoulder.
“Dane!” she protested. “You shouldn’t—”
“I want to see you when you answer.” Heedless of the fire that burned in his shoulder, he snared her chin. A thumb beneath her jaw, he brought her gaze to his.
“Why did you stay?” Quietly, he posed the question once more. “You didn’t have to. You could have left me.”
Sudden, startling tears brimmed in her eyes. “No,” she stated haltingly. “I couldn’t. I looked back, and I saw you, the way you looked at me...and I couldn’t leave you like that. I just couldn’t! And—I’m so sorry I shot you. You cannot know how sorry I am!”
He nearly groaned. “You’re a tenderhearted soul, aren’t you, kitten?”
She shook her head. “Dane, I—”
A finger slid along the line of her jaw. “Hush,” he commanded. “Hush.”
Their eyes collided.
The words she’d been about to utter evaporated.
He didn’t plan it, though God knew he’d imagined it. It simply ...happened. Dane didn’tknow why—he didn’t care. His gaze lowered slowly on her lips. Leaning over, he saw the way her eyes widened—a flash of realization—as she discerned his intent.
His mouth closed slowly over hers.
She didn’t stop him.
No, she didn’t stop him—and the earth could have been splintering to pieces all around them— and Dane wouldn’t have cared. Nothing could have stoppedhimfrom kissing her. Her lashes fluttered shut. Her lips parted beneath his. The scent of lemon that clung to her skin teased his nostrils ...The whisper of a sigh echoed in his mouth.
He took his time, acquainting himself with the essence of her mouth. Tasting her, the way the center of her lower lip pouted out ever so slightly, there where the color bloomed to a ripe shade of pink ...the heat of her breath mingling with his, the way her breathing quickened.
The ache in his shoulder was forgotten. She was so slight and delicate, he was half-afraid to lean over her, afraid she could not bear his weight.
A shudder ran through him. He wanted her. Closer. Close as a man and woman could be. He wanted to stretch out beside her, pull her clothes off, and chart every sweet, creamy inch of her, then drive deep inside her and satisfy the ache in his gut. He could feel the muslin covering herbreasts scratching against his chest. A part of him wanted to tear it away—she persisted in wearing her gown to bed, dammit! But the rational part of him prevailed. This was not a time for lust. Indeed, he’d promised her. She was untried. Untested. He knew it instinctively, and he didn’t want to frighten her.
When at last he raised his head, his heart was drumming. Julianna’s eyes climbed slowly to his, searching his face, her breath coming in little pants that drove him half-wild. Within the depths of her eyes he glimpsed a soft confusion, the same shattering tumult he was feeling.
Her lips parted.
A finger pressed to the center of her lips, Dane shook his head. He didn’t understand it, but he wanted nothing to ruin the spell of this moment.
He managed a glimmer of a smile. “Don’t, kitten. Not a word. Just . . . just go to sleep.”
With a fingertip he brushed her eyes closed.
And sleep she did, clear through till morn.Eight
or the second day in a row, Julianna arose before Dane. He woke late, but his condition was much improved over the day before, enough that he rose and walked about the cottage. But she knew he was frustrated with being limited to the use of one arm. At her suggestion, they fashioned a sling for his arm, and he seemed pleased with it.
Neither of them spoke of what had transpired the night before.
Julianna was heartily glad. Indeed, she was still having trouble believing it. She went hot all over whenever she thought of it—and she could notstopthinking of it!
Why had he kissed her?
Moreover, why had shelethim?
She had no answer. She knew only that Dane was a man who drew her gaze again and again, and there was no help for it.
Why? her mind screamed.
It was sheer madness. After Thomas’s betrayal, she had retreated for months. She despised scandal as much as Sebastian. When she’d finally emerged, the gentlemen of thetonhad tried to rally her attentions. She had firmly rebuffed any attempts to court her. Deep in her heart, she had told herself she would never again allow herself to be hurt the way Thomas had hurt her. That way she wouldn’t miss what she would never have.
And so she had schooled herself well. She hadn’t allowed herself to wonder what it would be like to lie naked with a man, to feel his mouth running over her skin, his touch burning into her body. Her breasts. Her belly. Even there between her thighs . . .
But last night she had. In the wee hours before dawn, she had dreamed. She had seen herself lying nude with Dane. Beneath him. And he had been naked, too. Gloriously naked . . .
It was a dream that was wild. Torrid. So vividly erotic she had quite shocked herself. No wonder she had practically leaped out of bed this morning!
Why should this...this...thisrogueaffect her so?
He’d put on a shirt, for which she was eternallygrateful. But the material clung to the shape of him; the muscles of his shoulders were clearly visible, curved and hard. The shirt was open at the throat, revealing a pie-shaped wedge of hair-matted skin that brought a surge of heat to her cheeks. Oh, yes, even with that impressive chest covered, it rendered her no less aware of him!
Her eyes followed him as he rose to poke at the fire. She couldn’t deny that his profile was intriguingly arresting. She traced the bold slash of black brows, the blade of his nose—there was a slight bump she hadn’t noticed before—the squareness of his jaw. He needed to shave, she thought vaguely. His cheeks and chin were again shadowed with his beard. God rot it, his raw masculinity scrambled her senses and made her pulse skid wildly—she was appalled at herself for even thinking in such a way!
It did not help that she caught him staring at her more than once. Replacing the poker, he turned.
He was staring once more.
Julianna had had enough. “Why do you look at me like that?”
Something flickered across his features. “I was thinking I’ve seen you before.”
“I think not,” she said coolly.
He raised a brow. “And what if I said I think you’re wrong?”
She gave him a quelling look. “And wheremight that have been? I daresay we do not travel in the same circles. Or have you robbed me before?”
His brow remained cocked high. “I’ve robbed you of nothing, kitten. Nothing but a kiss. And indeed, I think it was freely given.”
So much for her earlier relief. Julianna did not appreciate the reminder. “Must you mock me?” she asked stiffly.
The flash of humor disappeared. He was suddenly intent. “I do not mock you, Julianna.” He studied her, his head tilted to one side. “Tell me,” he said suddenly. “Are you angry that I kissed you?”
All at once there was an unfamiliar dryness in her throat. A hot tide of color surged into her cheeks. She averted her eyes.
“That’s none of your affair.” Drat! Her tone wasn’t at all steady.
“Of course it’s my affair. If I am the perpetrator, don’t I deserve to know?”
Julianna had no wish to debate on either count.
She tried to step by him. He stopped her, lean fingers winding around the fragile span of her wrist, a gentle entrapment.
“Kitten? Won’t you tell me?”
Julianna avoided his gaze. She looked at the opening of his shirt. No salvation there. She could look no higher.
“Yes,” she said shakily. “I mean no.” She wasfloundering, and there was no help for it. “Oh, I don’t know what I mean!”
“Well, that certainly clarifies the matter. Perhaps”—his eyes took on a gleam—“another kiss might help you decide.”
Julianna’s heart was beating high in her throat. He was tugging her inexorably closer.
“What the devil are you doing?” she heard herself ask.
“It is but a kiss, kitten. Will you not grant a dying man his last wish?”
Her eyes jerked up. “You are not dying!”
“I could,” he stated brashly. “Infection might set in. It’s been known to happen.”
Lord, he was right...But then she saw laughter surface in his eyes.
She stiffened. “You are a womanizer, aren’t you?” she accused.
“Not true.” He defended himself staunchly.
“Isn’t it? There was a woman on the coach— her name was Mrs. Chadwick. She said that the Magpie ...that you...that you have a liking for the ladies.”
“Onlythisparticular lady,” he countered.
Her heart lurched. His arm was curling around her waist now. Suddenly it was impossible to swallow, difficult even to breathe.
She placed her fingertips on his chest, mindful of his wound. “Dane—”
His gaze pinned hers. “Be still, kitten,” he whispered, “and let me kiss you.”
Those words should have brought the scene to a sizzling halt ...her hand to his cheek—and hard! Whatever objection she might have made dried up in her breast. In all honesty, she wasn’t sure she wanted to object. Everything inside her stood still as his mouth came down on hers. Locked fast against his chest, she let it happen...shewantedit to happen. And it was just like before, she decided fuzzily. No, it was better.
Sensation surrounded her. She could feel his strength, his sheer length against hers, the heat emanating from his body. His mouth on hers was meltingly sweet, sliding to the corner of hers.
“Open your mouth for me, kitten . . .” The plea was no less urgent for its softness. “Ah, God. Yes.Yes. Just like that.” He gave an odd little laugh. “You’re very responsive, aren’t you, kitten?”
Her lips parted. There was no thought of refusal. Of denial. Not even when he tasted her.Tastedher with his tongue, sliding along hers with no hesitation, the texture of his pleasurably rough, a slow, almost leisurely journey that explored the dark interior of her mouth. The contact sent a jolt through her, but she didn’t move. She couldn’t. She was—God help her—she was curious.
She had always left the sensual journeys to others. It certainly wasn’t something she could discuss with her brothers! She had been brought up to be a lady, and the dictates of a lifetime were hard to abandon. Thomas had been the only man ever to kiss her, and that but a chaste brush on the lips. It was nothing like this wild, lingering contact that went on and on. There had been no secret adventures in the garden, no tentative explorations in the dark. And, while she had wondered what it might actually be like toexperiencesuch things, her wistful imaginings had always been rather vague and nebulous.
Except for that dream last night. That hot, wicked dream.
And now it was finally happening. To her.To her.
And God above, it was more than curiosity. There was nothing vague about her response either. A jolt of sheer pleasure shot through her. The muscles in her belly contracted. Tiny needles of excitement centered in her breasts. She wanted to feel Dane’s hands—his mouth, sweet Lord, his delightfully wickedtongue—curling around her nipples in the same way he explored the depths of her mouth, painting them wet and dark. It had been like that in her dream, she realized. ...She felt wanton. Wicked, but deliciously so. At seven-and-twenty, she was not a naïve young girl. She might be innocent, but regardless of her lack of firsthand knowledge, she was not ignorant.
She felt bereft when he finally released her mouth. Clutching at the front of his shirt, she blinked, her breathing shallow.
“Oh, my,” she heard herself say.
His laugh was husky. He sounded as short of breath as she. “My thoughts precisely.”
Julianna blushed fiercely.
“I won’t apologize.” He smiled crookedly. “You’re very lovely. But I expect you know that.”
Something within her cried out. Had Thomas ever told her that? she wondered with a pang. Had he ever made her feel the way that Dane did? The burning, all-consuming way she felt at the touch of Dane’s mouth hot upon hers blazed through her like wildfire.
“And now, kitten, my head is buzzing. I fear I had better sit down before I fall down.”
The next afternoon Dane sat on the bed. Cautiously he removed the sling. He flexed the left side of his torso, only to wince as a sharp twinge cut through his shoulder. It was damned stiff and sore, and he had to remind himself that only time would heal it.
Julianna had just entered the cottage, carrying a small bowl full of apples. On seeing his grimace, she stopped short and glared her displeasure. “What the devil do you think you’re doing?”
Dane smiled sheepishly. “What you think I shouldn’t, apparently.”
“Indeed.” She bent to retrieve an apple that had rolled onto the floor.
His smile widened. She wore the same muslin gown she’d worn yesterday. The material of her gown was rather thin, and with the sunlight pouring through the window as it was, it offered him a rather tantalizing view of her round little backside.
When she straightened he was trying to replace the sling—with little success. “Julianna? I seem to require a bit of assistance.”
Julianna set aside the basket and came to his aid. The material had become rather twisted, though, and it necessitated refolding it and tying it again. The first attempt failed, and Julianna bent forward to adjust the length of the sling, intent on the undertaking. She sighed in vexation.
Dane offered no complaints. In truth, he was rather enjoying himself. Seated as he was, it put his head at a level with her bosom. The bodice of her gown gaped. Dane stared straight into the valley between what appeared to be delectably round, firm breasts.
Oh, yes, he thought. This was better still . . .
Reluctantly, he lifted his gaze. Her eyes were snapping.
“I do believe you’re enjoying this!”
He quirked a brow. “I do believe I am.”
“I suppose you will offer no apology this time either, will you?”
“My dear Julianna, in my defense, I can only say that I am a man. And you are truly a vision the likes of which I’ve never seen before.”
She flipped her plait over her shoulder. “Do you think you can turn my head with such talk, sir?”
“Well, you’ve certainly turned mine.”
“I beg your pardon?”
He accorded her a lazily rakish smile, his gaze drifting briefly to her breasts. “Clearly I was mistaken when I called you a puny little thing.”
She sputtered. “You—you!”
He chuckled at the tide of color that turned her cheeks the color of a new spring dawn. “Oh, come. You are hardly clumsily made.”
“I should leave you to fend for yourself!”
“No doubt you should,” he agreed. His gaze captured hers. Softly he said, “But if I had the chance to choose my nurse, it would only be you, kitten. And I meant what I said. You are truly a most enchanting vision.” His gaze roved slowly over her features. Her lips were softly parted, pink and moist. “Are you aware your eyes change color with the sway of your mood? I never knew there were so many lovely shades of blue.”
She blushed again—but this time with pleasure, he noted.
Her gaze skidded away. Her hands clasped together before her, a nervous gesture. “I... ah, Ibelieve it’s time to see to Percival.” She darted outside.
And indeed Julianna was nervous. Oh, it wasn’t that she was afraid of him. Perhaps she should have been, she realized. She was alone with a stranger. She knew nothing of his past. What she knew of his present circumstances was most reprehensible! Had another woman recounted the events of these past few days, she would have expected her to be reeling with fear.
What she felt was far different. What she felt was something she’d felt with no man, not even Thomas. When Dane was close, she was seized with a near-painful awareness. She couldn’t seem to think straight. She should never have allowed him to kiss her. She most certainly shouldn’t have kissed him back! But she had...and she didn’t understand it.
Any more than she understood why she was still here.
Outside the day was warm and bright, the sun a rich buttercup yellow as it poured through the treetops. In truth, she needed a moment to collect herself. To no avail, for he followed her outside.
Julianna did not speak as she fed Percival; it was Dane who hefted the bucket of water from the well and carried it to Percival’s stall.
“He likes you,” Dane commented, when Percival thrust his nose beneath her hand.
Julianna glanced at him. “You sound surprised.”
“He can be a monster,” he admitted. He watched her for a moment. “I must thank you for taking such good care of him for me.”
Julianna glanced at him sharply. Was he chiding her? Judging from his expression, it appeared not.
She rubbed the animal’s velvet nose. “Percival,” she said casually. “A noble name for a noble animal. Did you name him?”
“Why Percival?” she asked.
“It’s said that Percival was so quick he could spear a bird in the wing with his javelin. I thought it a fitting name, for he’s truly as fleet as the wind.”
“You must be well-read if you are so familiar with King Arthur and his knights. But I daresay, it is an odd choice of name for a highwayman, is it not?”
Dane’s smile froze. He went very still.
“And indeed, I am given to wonder where you acquired your education.”
He went silent, turning and walking back inside the cottage.
Julianna was right behind him. “Did you not hear me, sir?”
“There is nothing wrong with my hearing, lady.” His tone was cool, his expression equally so as he faced her.
“Then why do you not answer?”
“You are remarkably persistent, aren’t you?”
“Sometimes annoying, according to my brothers.”
“Brothers? You have more than one?”
“I have two, Sebastian and Justin. But we weren’t talking about me, Dane. We were talking about you.”
Standing near the rough wooden table, he eyed her. “Your point, Julianna? I trust there is one?”
Taking a deep breath, she faced him squarely. “Only this, sir.” She picked up his free hand, turning it over in hers, running her fingers over the tips of his. “I do not believe you are a man of humble origins. These are not the hands of an ordinary laborer. You are neither uncouth nor uncivilized. Therefore, I must deduce that you are anything but common. Perhaps you are even a gentleman.”
Nor was she done. She gestured to his boots. “Those, I would venture to say, are made of the finest leather.”
“Clearly my efforts are not without fail then.”
“Indeed,” she challenged. “Nonetheless, I think you are an educated robber.”
“But of course. If I were not intelligent,” he retorted, “I’d have been caught by now. Besides, what can I say? Being a highwayman can be a lucrative trade.” He pointed to the two bulgingbags sitting in the corner. “There’s a great deal of
money in those.”
“Yes, so I’ve seen.” Mercy, he was boasting!
He gave her an assessing gaze. “Ah, yes. I’d forgotten you liking to snoop in things that are not yours.”
Julianna glared. By Jove, she would feel no remorse!
But in the next second, everything changed. He walked over to the fireplace mantel and picked up one of his pistols. She couldn’t look away as lean, dark fingers slid almost caressingly along the smooth metal of the barrel.
Her stomach did a peculiar flip-flop. “What are you doing?”
“I have a proposition for you, kitten. Would you like to learn how to shoot?”
Julianna’s gaze jerked upward. He was watching her closely. “What?”
“Perhaps then, the next time you take aim at my heart, you won’t miss.”
An angry hurt welled inside her. “Oh!” she cried, “must you taunt me? You know very well that’s a perfectly horrid thing to say!”
“Come. What do you say? I’ll show you how to shoot.” His gaze drifted deliberately down. A faint smile curled his lips. “Unless,” he offered casually, “you can think of something better to do.” His gaze lingered on the thrust of herbreasts beneath her gown before coming back up to tangle with hers.
She caught her breath, suddenly steaming inside. “I take that back!” she told him heatedly. “You, sir, are clearly no gentleman.”NineThe
sharp blast of a pistol reverberated through the clearing. “Kitten”—he laughed—“you are abominably bad.”
Julianna muttered under her breath, glancing in vexation at the piece of paper he’d nailed to a tree trunk. She was not particularly comfortable handling the weapon, but it no longer felt so alien in her hand. And after the first few shots, she was no longer closing her eyes—but that was probably due to Dane’s prodding.
As for him, his nearness was distracting. Disturbing. And he was coming deliberately close, brushing his fingers against her bare arm, curling his fingers around hers for far longer than necessary. She was quite certain of it. And once again he eased close, pressing his chest against her back as he helped her sight the weapon.
“Ready?” he asked.
She nodded, even as she struggled to regain control of her senses. Her attention constantly wandered when he was near—no wonder she found it difficult to concentrate!
Yet another shot went far wide of the trunk of the oak tree.
He gave an exaggerated sigh. “I begin to fear this is hopeless. You did not tell me you were in need of spectacles.”
Julianna shot him a supremely glacial look.
“If I hit the target—” She posed the question quite sweetly as he primed the pistol. “—will you answer my question?”
“And if I hit it twice, will you answer two?”
He smiled and handed the pistol back. “Most assuredly.”
“And three?” she challenged. “Will you answer three questions?”
He chuckled. “I will,” he declared. “Though such a feat would surely be deemed a miracle.”
Oh, but he was confident. Cocky even! Clearly he had little faith in her abilities, which made Julianna all the more determined to prove him wrong.
He nodded for her to proceed.
Julianna squinted at the target ...and hit it dead center.
He cocked his head. A black brow climbed high. “Impressive. But can you do it again?”
Julianna fired once more. It was a much easier task when she focused on the target and not his presence!
“Sheer luck,” was all he said when the next shot followed the same path as the first. A third followed, but the fourth missed its mark.
Still, Julianna had every intention of holding him to his bargain. “You are a man who can be haughty of brow and haughty of manner,” she stated, handing the pistol back to him. “I dare-say, a man accustomed to command. Therefore, I am given to wonder if you served in the war.” She watched him closely. “Did you?”
Something flickered in his eyes. At last he nodded.
“I knew it! Were you a hero?”
He appeared to hesitate. “Some say so,” he admitted reluctantly, “though I call it loyalty to my country and my fellow soldiers.”
Julianna’s mind was off and running. So why, she asked herself, would such a man resort to being a highwayman?
“I’ve told you about my family, my brothers. Even how my mother ran off. But what of you?
You’ve said you do not have a wife. Do you have other family?” She held her breath.
For the longest time she thought he would refuse to answer. Finally, he said gruffly, “My parents are dead. But I have two older sisters.”
“Ah,” she said lightly. “And what do your sisters think of their brother being the Magpie?”
His expression grew stormy.
Julianna sucked in a breath. “They don’t know, do they?”
“That’s four, kitten. More than your allotment.” He began to walk back toward the cottage.
“Wait! Is this cottage your home the year through?”
That brought him back around. “Now why would you ask that? I suppose you intend to lead the authorities back here when you leave!”
“How could I do that when I don’t know where we are?”
“How indeed?” He eyed her, a glance of little patience. “Are you coming?” he asked shortly.
“Yes. But I should like to know—”
He whirled, scowling blackly. “No more questions, Julianna.”
Julianna. Those occasions he had called her by her given name were rare. This was serious, she decided.
Her mind was troubled, her thoughts whirling, as she fell into step behind him. Somethingwasn’t quite right about this man. Everything inside told her he was not a man without principle. Without morals. Without conviction.
Yet that very same sense warned he was not what he pretended to be. He harbored secrets . . .
Of that, she was suddenly very, very certain.
Nigel Roxbury was pleased. He wasexceedinglypleased that the Magpie had not made an appearance of late. Perhaps the fool had been caught in the act, and word of his demise had not yet reached London. Faith, but he prayed it was so!
He had been furious when several of his shipments had been stolen. And that wretched highwayman the Magpie was responsible.
Leaning back in his chair, Roxbury adjusted the patch over his eye. He’d thought his plan quite ingenious. After all, he could hardly steal from the Royal Mint itself, and Boswell had been a skilled artisan! The currency looked remarkably real. Most likely, the Magpie believed itwasreal, the fool!
Once the currency was produced, the distribution was already in place. That was the beauty of it—the fact thathewas privy to such information, by virtue of his position. No one was harmed, and the fruits of his labor afforded him the opportunity to buy what he could not otherwise afford—his pretty baubles from the sands of Egypt. Bogus currency in exchange for gold . . .
Of course there had been that messy affair with Boswell’s wife ...he was still amazed the Boswell bitch had possessed the effrontery to try to turn him in! A pity about the two of them.
But now he had gained their share as well.
At last there was a knock. He couldn’t quite hide his satisfaction as he opened the door to his visitor.
“Madame, I’ve been expecting you. What have you for me?” He delved through the box she carried, lifting out a jar that had once housed the organs of the dead; it was topped with the head of a falcon. Turning it upside down, he shook it, his eyes glinting when she pressed a handkerchief to her mouth in distaste.
“Another splendid piece,” Roxbury praised, setting it on the table behind his desk.
She said nothing, merely regarded him through the silk of her veil.
“For pity’s sake, there’s no need to hide from me.”
She tossed her head but slid back the veil. “You lack your brother’s charm,” she informed him. “I must confess, I have been wondering how the devil you found me.”
“I did not go looking for you, my dear. Imagine my surprise when I saw that sketch of you in the Paris newspaper. It really was quite remarkable. How lucky that my memory did not fail me.
And how lucky I was that you continued your social proclivities after your husband’s death!”
She held out her hand. “Is our business concluded?”
He retrieved a small pouch from his desk and dropped it into her palm. “For tonight it is,” he murmured lightly. “Pleasant dreams,madame.”
One week after she’d shot him, Julianna removed the stitches from Dane’s shoulder. But where the two of them were concerned—Dane and Julianna—tensions were mounting.
Lying next to her each night, it was impossible not to be aware of her beauty. Her voice was sweeter than the sun shining through the blackest night. Pure, bright, and untarnished. If it were up to him, he’d have said to hell with Phillip and Nigel. To hell with the world at large. He wanted to make slow, lingering love to her, take his time about it, bury himself deep and hear her moan— and make it last for hours. Hell, all night, if that’s what it took to satisfy his craving for her.
But something inside warned that just once would not do with the lovely Julianna. Just once would only sharpen his desire to feel her softness beneath him again and again and again.
Christ, this was madness. He had a job to do. An enemy to trap.
And the lovely Julianna was not a ninnyhammer. She was smart and intelligent, compassionate and tenderhearted. He remembered her crying as she’d removed the bullet. He liked her hands on his body. But much to his vexation, she noticed everything.
He had to watch what he said around her. That much was clear. Damn, but it was growing harder and harder. Yet he couldn’t risk having her find out the truth about him. He couldn’t take the chance . . .
It had been a mistake to bring her here. He’d been a fool. Yet how could he have left her, knowing she might be hurt?
Her presence complicated things greatly—and in ways he could never have foreseen! She twisted him in knots, inside and out. And he would soon be well. What then?
He didn’t know. God above, but he didn’t.
Julianna was no less aware of Dane. She was drawn to him, drawn to him in a way that had never happened before. One day, her gaze returned to him, again and again. He sat before the fire, Maximilian in his lap. She watched, as if in fascination, as he idly brushed his long fingers through Maximilian’s silky fur. And she wondered what it would be like to feel those lean-fingered hands stroking alongherspine. Why, she might easily purr in sated contentment as Maximilian was purring.. . .
No matter that he was stirringly handsome, he was a highwayman, destined for the hangman’snoose. But that seemed not to matter when he’d kissed her.
He made no move to kiss her again, and... oh, though it made no sense, she wanted him to. Shewanteditwithevery fiber of hersoul, for when his lips touched hers, nothing else seemed to matter. Several times she caught him watching her, a brooding air about him that was unsettling. What was in his mind? If only she knew. But alas, she would not ask—not after the way he’d snapped at her when she had deigned to question him.
Late one afternoon, she held the door wide as he carried a load of firewood in his good arm. He muttered a brusque thank-you as he passed by, but he did not return her regard. Julianna sensed his refusal to meet her gaze was deliberate. But his task was not an easy one. Carrying the wood with one arm proved awkward, and the topmost chunk tumbled from its perch and clattered across the floor.
Julianna was immediately on her feet. “I’ll get—”
“Leave it!” His tone was razor-sharp. Dumping the wood near the hearth, he tore off the sling and flung it to the floor.
Julianna was shaking her head in reproof. “Dane,” she scolded, “I don’t think you’re—”
“I believe I’m fully capable of judging what’s best for me, Julianna.”
Julianna clamped back a sizzling retort. Inside she was seething. Lord, but he was in a mood! Ignoring him, she presented him with her back and straightened the bedclothes, determinedly ignoring him. She could hear him rummaging through the cupboard behind her.
When she turned back, Dane was tossing a length of linen over his shoulder.
“Going somewhere?” she inquired when he stepped toward the door.
“I’m going to take a bath in the stream.” It was almost a growl. He paused, his eyes glinting as he turned and paused, resting his uninjured shoulder against the doorjamb. One corner of his mouth curled upward in a smile that was almost lazy. His gaze traveled her form from head to toe. “Does the idea appeal to you, kitten? Perhaps you’ll join me then.”
Oh, how she longed to slap his cheek! “Do not flatter yourself,” she snapped. “I would dearly love a bath. But you, sir, would hardly be my first choice of companion!”
In shock she heard her own words. In the aftermath, she very nearly choked. What the devil had come over her? Sweet Lord, had she really just said what she had? She was appalled at her own daring.
And Dane was amused. “Kitten! I confess, I am intrigued. I should dearly love to know who your first choice would be. What a lucky, lucky man!”
Julianna shot him a withering glance. His smile widened. Apparently she’d managed to restore his good humor. And it was just like him to tease her about her own folly! “A scant quarter hour, kitten, and the stream is yours. Simply follow the path between the oak trees. You can’t miss it.”
Long after he’d left her alone, Julianna was certain her face was still flaming. She picked up his pocket watch, sitting on the table where he’d left it. Twenty minutes had passed. Where was he? she thought impatiently.
Fifteen minutes later she was pacing around the table. Panic struck a chord in her. He should have been back by now. Why wasn’t he? Perhaps he’d underestimated his strength. Perhaps he was unconscious. Maybe even hurt.
Grabbing a length of linen, clean clothing, and a small cake of soap, she almost bolted out the door.
High above, birds sang from the treetops as she scurried down the path. It was a warm, beautiful day, but she was too agitated to enjoy it. Rounding a bend, through a stand of trees, the stream came into view. Beyond was a flower-clad hillside. Julianna lifted her skirt and stepped over a gnarled root. The sight of a pile of clothing made herstopshort.Aflutterofmovement caught her eye.
Slowly she raised her gaze. Unaware of her presence, Dane was floating lazily on his back. Movement was impossible. Her throat constricted. He was naked.Naked. Her mind grappled, but logic prevailed.Dolt!chided a silent voice.How else is he to bathe?
Therewasasplash, then he wasonhis feet. Tossing the water from his hair, he started toward the bank. Looking up, he caught sight of her.
It was too late to run. Too late to hide. She’d been caught, as surely as a hare in a trap.
“This is an unexpected pleasure, kitten. Did you come to join me after all?”
Julianna couldn’t have moved to save her soul. Her pulse was clamoring. Her heart was thudding in her ears, thick and heavy.
She swallowed the dryness in her throat. “You were so long, I-I thought something was wrong. I thought something had happened.” By God, she wouldn’t act like a child, either embarrassed or silly or flighty. She would neither gape nor gasp. She had no intention of giving herself away. No, she would not reveal that he was the first naked male she’d confronted in her life—and to be sure, it was a sight she knew would remain burned in her memory for a long time to come.
The water was placid and serene. She wished he hadn’t stopped where it was so deep. Daring as the thought was, she didn’t care. She would have loved the chance to study his form at leisure, to indulge what was surely a wanton curiosity. Not that she cared, surprisingly enough. As it was, all she could do was stare.
He was overwhelmingly masculine, his skin sleek and shiny wet. An angry, fiery red scar marred his shoulder. Seeing it, a surge of regret shot through her. Julianna found herself possessed of the urge to run her fingers over it, to press her lips upon it and kiss away the hurt and pain.
Her gaze slipped lower. Droplets of water trapped in the hair on his chest glittered in the sunlight. A quiver tore through her, and she licked her lips. His belly was taut and defined by hard bands of muscle. Below, the water lapped at the ridge of his hips, hiding his—
“Kitten,” he said softly.
She dragged her gaze up at the sound of her name. It gave her a start to realize he’d been watching her all the while.
Their eyes caught—and held. “Kitten,” he said softly, “are you certain you won’t change your mind?”
Her cheeks burned. Wordlessly, she shook her head.
“As you wish then.” Bold as you please, he began to wade from the stream.
Julianna sucked in a breath and hastily turned her back. If it was of no consequence to him that she saw him naked, why should it matter to her? Oh, but she longed to give in to temptation! For in her mind’s eye, she could still see the outline of a shockingly brazen masculinity. Little wonder that her newfound courage was nowhere to befound. Nay, she wasn’t quite so bold as she would have liked.
A few steps behind her she could hear the rustle of clothing. Nonetheless, she actually jumped when he laid a hand on her shoulder. “It’s quite safe now.” His voice was laden with amusement.
When she turned, a maddening smile lurked on his lips.
“A pity you didn’t take me up on the offer, kitten. I venture to say that we should do very well together, you and I.”
Oh, the insufferable wretch! His high-handedness provoked a rebellious response.
“I didn’t come to see you,” she said tartly. “I only came for—for a bath!”
And now it seemed she had no choice but to follow through.
“In that case, I shall be happy to stay and scrub your back.”
Julianna’s eyes flashed. She bestowed on him a haughty stare.
“No?” He remained where he was, his boots planted firmly. It appeared he was undaunted, the rogue!
“No,” she informed him flatly. “And I trust you will not spy on me when you think I’m not looking.”
“Kitten, you wound me, that you think so little of me,” he said lightly. He executed a smart bow and dropped a cake of soap into her palm. “Butshould you change your mind, you have only to
call my name.”
“I will not,” she responded tartly.
“Ah, but a man can hope, can he not?”
Oh, but he was infuriating . . . infuriatingly disarming! Julianna watched him as he ambled toward the forest. Any fool would know better than to accept the word of a highwayman. Why should she believe he would honor his word?Why indeed?asked a voice in her mind.Because you know he will, answered another.Whatever else he was, he was a gentleman...Ach, but it made no sense! Why did she persist in regarding such a man in a such a way?
Odd, how her heart blustered and squalled, like a storm at sea.
Quickly she disrobed and waded into the stream. The water was freezing; she gasped in shock. Certainly she would not linger, as Dane had been wont to do. Sinking down, she washed hastily, dunking her head beneath the surface to wet her hair. Chilly as it was, it was wonderfully refreshing to be clean.
She dried hurriedly with the length of linen, shivering a little as she drew on her gown. Seating herself on a flat-topped boulder, she pulled her hair over her shoulder, wrung it out, and tugged her comb through the wet strands. As she unrolled her stockings up over the arch of one foot,a sound behind her snared her attention. She turned sharply.
Confound it! Had she been wrong about Dane? She scanned the forest, her lips pressed together. Overhead, a bird dipped and wheeled and turned in a vibrant blue sky. A leaf floated lazily down to the forest floor.
There was nothing.
It was silly, to think that someone was watching her. Pushing aside her uneasiness, she quickly gathered up her clothing and the wet toweling, then left the stream. When she reached the cottage, she crossed the clearing. Maximilian was sitting at the base of a stout oak. He rose and snaked between her feet, rubbing himself against her ankles. Reaching up on tiptoe, she draped her gown across a low-hanging branch so that it could air out. She’d just finished hanging the wet linen when Maximilian yowled and bounded toward the cottage.
She glanced down in surprise. “Maximilian!” she said with a laugh. “Whatever has gotten into you?”
When she looked up, she realized they weren’t alone. A large dog stood on the other side of the clearing.
Her smile froze. The fine hairs on the back of her neck prickled, as if in warning. She had never been afraid of strange animals. Growing up atThurston Hall, she’d encountered many. But this one was filthy, his long hair matted with brambles. Chills ran up and down her spine.
A low growl vibrated deep in the animal’s throat. His lips pulled back, baring his fangs. Saliva dripped from his mouth. Snarling viciously, he crouched back on his haunches, his eyes wild, as if preparing to spring.
Julianna had already begun to move toward the cottage. Her steps quickened, but she was afraid to move too suddenly. The door was ajar. She gauged the distance. Could she make it before—
The animal lunged.
Her slipper caught on an exposed root. She went down hard, jarring the breath from her lungs. Instinctively, she tried to lurch upright. Her hem snagged on the jagged root. She tugged frantically, dimly aware of the cloth tearing. But she was still caught, and she came down hard yet again.
A jagged cry caught in her throat. “Dane!” she heard herself cry. “Dane!”
It all happened in a haze. Dane appeared in the doorway. From the corner of her eye she saw the dog barreling toward her.
A deafening explosion seared the air.
In midleap, the mongrel dropped to the ground scant inches from her face.
“Julianna! Christ, are you all right?”
Julianna blinked, struggling to focus. Her headswam giddily as she was hauled to her feet. Slowly, she turned her head and looked down. The mongrel lay at her feet, sprawled limply on his side. His eyes were still open, his teeth bared. A sticky stream of blood was still spreading, mingling with the dust.
Her stomach heaved.
Her gaze shifted back to Dane. Stricken, she regarded him. “You killed him,” she said faintly. And then again: “You killed him.”
Dane reached for her. “Kitten—”
The word sparked something inside her. Her eyes seemed to blaze. She wrenched away.
“Julianna! What the devil?” Strong hands closed over her shoulders.
Julianna turned on him. Her fists rained against his chest. “You didn’t have to kill him!” she cried, over and over and over. “You didn’t have to kill him!”
“Julianna! He was mad. He would have attacked you! My God, if he’d bitten you...I had to!”
Her expression was wild. She was in a frenzy, pummeling him for all she was worth.
Uttering an explosive curse, Dane caught her wrists. “Kitten!”
“Don’t!” she screamed, a cry torn from deep in her vitals. “Don’t call me that!”
Hard arms closed around her, capturing herflailing arms and pinning them to her sides. “Julianna!” His tone was razor-sharp. “Stop this!” She didn’t even hear him. “Julianna!”
Dazed, her head fell back. She looked at him as he scoured her features.
“What is it? What the devil is wrong?”
As quickly as they had erupted, her struggles ceased. All the fire went out of her.
Her eyes squeezed shut. She slumped against him. “Oh, God,” she whispered.
And then she began to cry.
ane would not soon forget the terrified scream that brought him crashing out the door of the cottage, nor the sight that met his eyes. Christ, if he hadn’t had the presence of mind to grab a pistol . . . In the weeks before Waterloo, one of his men had been bitten by a mad dog. His death had been horrifying, sad, tragic— and excruciatingly painful. To think that Julianna might have suffered the same end...But he dare not think of that.
His features grim, he picked her up and carried her into the cottage, ignoring the ache in his shoulder.
He kicked the door shut with the heel of his boot. He was bewildered, alarmed, stunned by the way she’d lashed out at him. The shock ofnearly being attacked was understandable. Even her near hysteria was understandable. What the devil was wrong?
Her face had gone pasty white. One look in her beautiful blue eyes, and he had the eerie sense she had retreated to another time, another place, where the remnants of something horrible battered her mind and heart.
Kitten, he had said. Lord, but it seemed so innocent! Indeed, he’d grown so used to it, it emerged unwittingly. But then he remembered that once before her temper had flared high. Why, he wondered.Why?
Now, in the aftermath, it was as if she’d been bled of every drop of strength. Dane sat in the chair before the fire, cradling her on his lap. Turning her face into his neck, she sobbed quietly, pitiful, heart-wrenching sobs that turned him inside out. Something caught at his chest—at his very soul.
He let her cry until at last she was spent. She lay with her head on his chest, her hand curled beside it. One hand drifted up and down her spine.
With the other he guided a damp chestnut curl behind her ear. “Julianna,” he said softly. “What were you thinking of? What happened to you?” He paused uncertainly, his gaze mutely questioning.
She shivered. She shivered as if she were caughtin the midst of a freezing storm from the north. Dane covered her hands in his. Her skin was ice-cold. He weaved his fingers through hers, seeking to warm her.
“Tell me, sweet.”
She regarded him with tear-bright eyes. “He killed them,” she said woodenly.
“Who?” he prompted gently. “What?”
She swallowed hard. “My father,” she said jerkily. “He killed my kittens.” There was a heartrending pause. “He drowned them, Dane. Hedrownedthem.”
Dane sucked in a breath. “What happened?” he asked quietly.
“I was perhaps eight or so. I ...we were at Thurston Hall, in the country. My brothers were away at school. The tabby in the stable gave birth to kittens. They were darling, so soft. So sweet. Two were white as snow, the other a spotted tabby like his mother. When they were born, I asked my father if I could have one for my very own. I—I was rather lonely, you see. But he said he wouldn’t have such creatures in his house, that they were dirty and filthy and belonged in the stable with the mice. But I didn’t care. They were so darling. So when they were old enough to be away from their mother, I took them.
“They made me laugh, Dane. I can still see them chasing each other’s tails. I named them— Alfred, Rebecca, and Irwin. I—I pretended theywere my babies. I wrapped them in blankets and cuddled them. I played with them and scolded them and sang to them ...they even slept with me in my bed.” A wisp of a smile crossed her lips.
It waned all too soon, though.
She continued. “But my father...he found them in my room one day. He was furious. He shouted and raged. I had disobeyed him. And he wasn’t a man to stand for that, not from any of his children. So I had to be punished.”
“Good God! He punished you by drowning your kittens?”
Dane swore silently. No wonder she hated being calledkitten.
But there was more.
He could only listen while she went on. “He dumped them in a sack and grabbed my hand. I remember crying, all the way to the stream.” There was a tiny little break in her voice. “He... he made me watch. He made melisten.” Tears slid unchecked down her cheeks. She cringed, clamping her hands over her ears and curling into a tight little ball against him.
His heart stood still. “Oh, Jesus,” he whispered, feeling himself pale...and feeling her pain like the stab of a knife.
Dane’s lips compressed to a thin, harsh line. Inside he was seething. A black rage blistered hisgut, darker than any he’d ever known. Damn the bastard who had been her father! If the wretch had been before him now, he’d have taken great pleasure in throttling the man. How could any man do such a thing to his own child?
“I suppose you think it’s silly.” Her voice was muffled against his shoulder.
He stroked the groove of her spine, a soothing, monotonous movement. “No. Lord, no.” Tenderhearted Julianna, always looking after her animals ...and now him. So sweet. So nurturing. He could see how it battered her—how it still hurt her. He was stunned by her revelation. It was so different from his own childhood.
Something nagged at his brain. Seeing her like this, he was more puzzled than ever that no man had wed her—that she had never married. It wasn’t just her beauty. She possessed a sweetness of nature that shone from within. She was meant to be a wife, a mother, to hold her children close to her breast as she had once held her kittens.
He should have known. Perhaps hehadknown. There was strength behind her softness. Darkness behind the screen of fragile beauty. Secrets behind the lightness of her smile.
“It was the blood that did it,” she said suddenly. “When my kittens drowned, there wasn’t any blood . . .” Graceful fingers plucked at the front of his shirt. She raised her head and staredat him, her eyes huge and wounded. “Dane... the dog...will you—”
“I’ll bury him,” he finished gently, so she wouldn’t have to.
“Thank you.” She whispered her gratitude.
“You’re quite welcome.” His expression solemn, he watched her. All of a sudden her gaze shied away.
He frowned. “What is it?”
“I’ve done it again. I don’t know why I’m telling you this,” she confided, her voice very low. “It was something I never even told my brothers.”
“Why not?” He was more curious than anything else. From the way she spoke of her brothers, he’d already guessed that they were close.
“It wouldn’t have changed what happened. There was nothing they could have done. But mostly—I couldn’t bear to think of it again.”
“Little wonder.” Dane’s lips were thin. “Julianna, forgive me for being blunt, but I wouldn’t have liked your father.”
“I’m not sure anyone did,” she said after a moment. “He was a harsh, rigid man, very stern.” She seemed to hesitate. When she spoke again, her voice was barely audible. “I was almost fourteen when he died. And—I cried when my kittens died. But I didn’t cry whenhedied. May God forgive me, but—I wasn’t sad. The truth is ...I was almost relieved. I felt . . . like perhaps we could finally be happy, Sebastian, Justin, and I.” Shadows invaded her eyes. “Do you think that’s terribly wrong of me?”
“Not,” he stated grimly, “under the circumstances.”
She bit her lip. “And that, too, is something I’ve never told anyone.”
Dane couldn’t help it. He was rather uncomfortable. He liked that she trusted him enough to confide in him so. Yet a sliver of guilt cut through him. He hadn’t earned her trust. He didn’t deserve it, not really. For he had not been totally open with her...
But he couldn’t tell her the truth. There was too much at stake. He couldn’t risk involving her.
His mind drifted. After a moment he said, “We all have our demons, Julianna. For I, too, have something I’ve never told a living soul.”
“You do? Truly?”
He nodded, steeling himself. “I’m afraid,” he admitted at last.
“You? Of what?”
“Of dying.” He released a long breath. “I wasn’t, until Waterloo. When one is young, it’s not something one worries about, is it? Like you, it was...something I prefer not to think about. It was—a battle unlike any other. Volleys of musket and cannon fire all around. Smoke so thick we nearly choked. We certainly couldn’t see. I thought it would never end! I remember, men were falling all around me. Like sticks beingfelled by a hand from above. And when it was over, thousands were dead all around me, and I was alive. And all I could feel was a mind-numbing relief that it was them, and not me. I was hailed as a hero, when in truth I was, in a word, or rather two, quite terrified. And that made me feel like a coward. And so”—he shook his head—“so very ashamed.”
“Because I was glad—glad!—that I was alive. That I had not been the one to die. That someone else had fallen—and not me.” He hesitated. “It seems wrong somehow.”
“I don’t think it’s wrong to feel that way. I should imagine anyone would feel like that. It’s simply that not everyone would admit to it.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not. But either way, since that day, I”—Christ, he could barely stand to say it—“I cannot bear to think of death and dying.”
He lapsed into silence, then tipped his head to the side and regarded her. “Any more secrets you wish to share?”
To his surprise, a look of utter surprise flitted across her features. The breath she drew was deep and ragged. Her lips parted.
With his thumb he wiped the glistening dampness from her cheek. “Here now! I’m only teasing.”
His arms encircled her. “You don’t have to say any more, sweet, I swear.” He drew her tight against him—tight!—sliding his arms around her back and bringing her against him. It seemed she clung to him forever. The damp heat of her tears against his shirt twisted him into knots.
And then it happened.
Slowly she raised her head.
Their eyes locked.Theywere locked fast in an intimate embrace. Ascorchinglyintimate embrace, the air between them heated and close. At some point her arms had twined around his neck. She was so slight he could barely feel her weight in his lap. But he could feel the press of soft, ripe breasts resting against his chest. One slim leg was wedged between the steely strength of his; her thigh pressed against his rod. Heat rose in his body—he couldn’t stop it.
He swelled hard and full.
Silence thundered all around them.
He stared down at her, sensing she was caught in the same shattering void as he. A current of awareness streaked through him. Her eyes were riveted to his, her arms wound tight around his neck. Everything inside him had gone taut.
He sucked in a harsh breath. God, she smelled like lemons, crisp and light, a scent that was uniquely hers. Holding her against him likethis...it was part joy, part pain. His gaze traced the contours of her face, the delicate molding of her cheeks and chin.
A voice in his head clamored for him to release her. His mind urged one course, while his body willed otherwise. He didn’t trust himself to touch her. Heshouldn’ttrust himself to touch her. But the afternoon sunlight was shining through her hair, making it shimmer like honey. Her mouth was dewy and tremulous and vulnerable, hovering but a breath beneath his.
His hands clenched on her waist, whether to lift her away, or draw her nearer still, he didn’t know.
It was she who broke the stalemate.
Her eyes were still awash with tears, blue and shimmering. He couldn’t look away as her fingertips came to rest directly on the center of his lips. “Dane,” she whispered. “Dane.” And within that sound was immersed the same fierce yearning, a sound that eroded what little shred of will he possessed.
The moment was young, the time ripe, and a dozen different emotions were roiling inside him...
And then there was no turning back.
His mouth captured hers, a kiss of deep, rousing exploration. There was no withholding it. He succumbed to a desire that had been building for days. And knowing she was not indifferent to him set him afire like flame to tinder.
In one swift surge of power he was on his feet, bearing her to the bed.
He eased down beside her. Her gaze never left his as she trailed her fingers over his jaw. Her eyes searched his face. “I’m sorry. Did I hurt you?”
A half smile curled his lips. “A puny little thing like you? I think not.” He caught her hand and pressed a kiss into her palm.
Her fingertips extended, the merest caress. She looked up at him, as if to gauge his reaction.
His smile faded. His eyes darkened.
Slowly, he lowered his head. His kiss was languid and unhurried. Her eyelids fluttered shut. Her lips parted. She offered her mouth with a breathless little sound of pleasure. The tip of her tongue touched his, her response sweetly unbridled. She tasted delicious, and he pictured the delicate pink tip of her tongue lapping against his naked skin. Venturing across his chest, swirling around his navel, down his belly until she reached his—
The vision shook him to his very bones. It was like a fist ramming hard into his gut, driving the air from his lungs. Sweet Christ,thatdidn’t bear thinking about. His mouth opened wider as he caught her to him, his kiss turning almost ferocious. Her hands slipped beneath his shirt, sliding along his ribs, creeping upward, a tentative exploration until finally her palms splayed wide on the bare skin of his back. She arched against him,the entire sweet length of her body against his. A shudder tore through him, and he nearly groaned.
His fingers fumbled with the ribbon that laced the neck of her gown. He plunged his fingers inside the cloth, tugging it aside and revealing the sleekness of her shoulder...revealing her breast.