by Fiona Vance
Coming December 2010 to it’s new home, Etopia Press!
After finding her husband tupping one of the maids in the pantry, Ariadne, Marchioness of Danvers, sets off to visit her sister to avoid scandal. Wondering if her marriage is over, she’s come upon by a highwayman, whose silver tongue and suave manner soon have her eager to demand what she’s due. Having found the ability to get what she desires, will Ariadne choose to pass his way again? Or will she use her newfound knowledge to bring her husband to heel?
The forest grew darker as we continued further among the trees. Sunlight pierced down in shafts through the canopy of leaves, mottling the road in light and shadow. The quiet grew deeper, as well, until the sound of the iron-banded wheels on the dirt road and the clopping of four sets of hooves reverberated like thunder off the rows of trees. I caught a glimpse of a stag near a fallen log, but the very next moment, it was gone, vanished into the undergrowth like a phantom.
A short while later, the carriage halted again in a patch of gloom. Branches arched overhead, casting odd shadows that seemed to shift from dark to darker. It had gotten cooler since we’d entered the trees, and I shivered, but I wasn’t quite sure if it was due to the cold or the moodiness of the setting. Around us, the leaves stood absolutely still. Not a single one rustled against the breeze. Neither bird nor beast made a sound.
I waited, frowning, hoping it was nothing more than a dead limb in the road that had caused Harlan to rein the team to a halt.
“Step out of the coach!”
A deep voice, highborn. Not Harlan.
I reached for the pistol just as Harlan’s whip cracked. The shriek of a horse and the confused tread of hooves rent the air as the carriage jerked forward, then back, and toppled me to the opposite bench. The pistol flew out from beneath the pillow and spun off across the floor.
More shouting. Harlan, I thought, but then the carriage lurched again, sending me this time to the floor. I scrambled to snatch up the pistol, feeling like a child’s ball bouncing to and fro.
There was a thud and a grunt, and someone fell past the window in a flutter of dark coattails to the tall grass along the roadside. I rose and lurched to the window. It was Harlan. He made no attempt to rise.
I sat frozen, the smooth curve of the pistol heavy in my hand. For a long moment, nothing moved, nothing made a sound, other than the nervous stamping of the horses against the rails, which shook the coach.
“Stand and deliver!”
My heart punched hard and fast in my chest like a hare beneath the shadow of a hawk. I clutched the pistol tighter and pressed back into my seat, trying to look between the windows on either side to see where the threat would first appear. I had no idea what I should do then, with only an unloaded pistol between myself and a bandit, who would be most certainly armed.
“Step out of the carriage! I shall not ask again!”
“I am only a woman alone,” I shouted back, cocking the flintlock on the pistol as quietly as I could. I hadn’t loaded it because in truth, I was deathly afraid of it going off accidentally. What a rattle-pated goose!
Perhaps he’d fall for the ego game. “Please, sir, you frighten me!”
I glanced back and forth between the windows, straining to hear something. There! The creak of saddle tack and the thump of boots on the ground. His footsteps ambled lightly toward the door to my left.
An idea exploded in my head like a cannon shot. I slid to the floor and dropped to my back, facing the door which opened outward, and drew my knees to my bosom. I held the pistol in one hand, its weight tugging at my wrist, and took a deep breath to silence the pounding of my heart.
His dark form filled the window, and he turned the latch. The moment he began to pull the door open, I kicked out savagely with both feet. The door crashed out into him, sending him sailing back into the dust. I leapt to my feet as gracefully as I could, cursing my skirts to the devil, and looked out at my handy work.
From his back in the dust, he peered up at me, his gaze firmly on mine. His eyes were a startling, clear sky blue. He’d dropped his pistol, and it lay in a heap of dried grass along the edge of the road. He glanced at it briefly, then back at me.
“I shouldn’t try it, if I were you.” I raised the empty pistol and pointed it at his head.
And felt the pull of its weight immediately in my wrist and shoulder. His eyes widened a bit, whether at the pistol or the fact that my bosom hung half out of my bodice from tumbling around in the carriage, I couldn’t tell.
“Drop your sword, sir.” My voice trembled, but only the slightest bit. All in all, I was quite proud of my brave façade.
He tossed the rapier aside and didn’t budge.
God help me. Only a moment ago I’d been in fear for my life, but now, seeing those eyes, and with my pistol firmly in hand and his own hands empty, a sense of power blossomed inside me like nothing I’d ever known. Or perhaps that feeling of power, that thrill rushing through me and dampening my thighs, had more do with the flicker of awareness in his gorgeous eyes, and how they fluttered almost imperceptibly, not to my pistol, but to my décolletage.
He took a moment, as if to collect himself, then swept off his tricorn—adorned with a garish black plume—and bent forward in as much of a bow as a man in his position was able.
“My lady, forgive the intrusion.”
“What have you done to Harlan?” I could see my poor coachman from here, but he remained still.
“He’s only stunned—a blow to the head with the butt of my pistol. I haven’t killed him.”
“How uncommonly kind of you.” I looked the highwayman over, but sprawled as he was in the flaps of his greatcoat in a patch of shade, he seemed to melt into the shadows like a wraith. A tall wraith, broadly built, in well-cut greatcoat and fine buckskin breeches, certainly of quality. His blond hair fell unbound over his shoulders, lending a wildness to his rugged face that completely suited his occupation. He was a handsome creature, no doubt about that, but his appearance possessed a hardness, an edge—a sensuality—which even Edgar’s never had.
Yet his pale blue eyes seemed…kind. Strange to say about a man who had just clouted my coachman and seemed set on stealing my jewels, but there it was. There was no malice in his gaze, no violence, and the smile on his face looked more than a little chagrined at finding himself disarmed by a lady.
But there was more. Beneath it all, those blue eyes reflected something else.
Arousal of my own fluttered deep in my womb and spread like liquid silk through my veins. My nipples suddenly noticed the rub of my bodice against them and craved a firmer touch. My hand, clutching that ridiculous empty pistol, grew damp.
I stepped down from the carriage, keeping well away from the handsome bugger on his arse in the dust. He relaxed his posture and leaned back upon one elbow, as if reclining on a chaise in my parlor, waiting for me to feed him sweatmeats. The nerve! Still, I kept my wits about me as I edged over to Harlan. “Give me your word as a gentleman that you shan’t try anything while I attend my coachman.”
His face grew solemn, and I thought I saw something new in his eyes. Respect? He swept his hand out in what would have been an another elaborate gesture if he were actually standing. “You have my word, dear lady.” He bowed his head to me, and when he looked up, his eyes gazed directly into mine. And positively burned.
I shook off the feeling of recklessness need and knelt beside Harlan. His face felt warm to the touch, and he breathed as he should. He’d have a nasty bruise, I imagined, but nothing more. I stood again and raised the pistol.
And looked directly back into those alarming blue eyes.
My gaze fell of its own accord, having been well schooled by a lifetime of propriety befitting a lady of my station. As soon as I realized it, though, I forced myself to look right back at him, and I forced as much alarming vigor into my own gaze, to match his. “You may mount your horse and go. Leave your weapons behind. They shall be here waiting for you after we depart.”
“I’m sorry, my lady, but I cannot.” The corner of his lip quirked up in a devilish grin.
Was he smiling at me? Apparently, my attempt at alarming had achieved only amusing. “I don’t make idle suggestions, sir.” I shook the pistol at him in a way that I hoped would appear more menacing.
“And I don’t idly refuse the suggestions of a beautiful woman,” he said, “especially one so… disarming. But alas, my lady, I must.”
We stared at one another for a long moment. He remained recumbent on his elbow and glanced down at his hand, as if inspecting his nails for stray dirt. How absolutely vile!
“You will not go, then? You would force me to shoot you?”
“If you must. But I cannot, as a gentleman, leave a lady unprotected on such a dangerous road.”
My laugh was sharp, cynical. “You, sir, are the chief danger on this road!”
He stood and brushed off his breeches, then took a step toward me, his smile a slash of pure masculine temptation. “An insignificant detail.”
I backed up a step. “I prefer that you to stay where you are.”
He took another step forward. “And I would prefer to kiss your hand in greeting.”
“And snatch the pistol away as well? Do you think me a fool?”
“I think you anything but a fool.” His smile nearly undid me, that half quirk of the lip that seemed to restrain all the heat and hunger, then thrust it out to spill instead from those deep, expressive eyes. “I give you my word, dear lady, that when the pistol leaves your fair hands, it will be you who sets it aside.”
I said nothing. It was insanity to trust the word of a rogue and a bandit, but those eyes… A thief he might be, but he held his spine erect with honor. Still, I didn’t dare comply. I might be weak and intemperate to fall for his rakish grin and beguiling charm, but stupid I was not.
He took another step toward me, then another. His hands raised to show me he held no weapon, his gaze still locked with mine. I backed up until I bumped the footboard of the coach, and I scrabbled backward onto the folding step like a crab with her gown caught ungracefully beneath her feet. And came full against the closed door, which I blocked shut with my own foolish body. He came to the coach, set his hands on the frame on either side of me, trapping me between his arms. There he paused, pinning me just as effectively with his burning blue eyes, set deep beneath his harsh slash of brows and brimming with lust. His gaze smoldered down my neck to the tops of my breasts, lingered there for so long that were I a blushing maid, I’d certainly have blushed. Possibilities blossomed in my mind—wicked, delightful possibilities.
“I won’t hurt you,” he said, his voice a low rumble edged with tenderness. Tenderness…and promise. “You have my word.”
Oh, I wanted much, much more than his word.
“The word of a freebooter and a knave?”
“The word of a former officer and a gentleman, fallen on hard times. But let’s not speak of me.” He leaned toward me, and I felt his words against my cheek as much as heard them. “I prefer to speak of you.”
“I—” He pressed his lips, warm like firelight, against my own, and a rush of arousal dampened my thighs. Oh, dear heaven, what was I doing?
I found myself kissing him back. Harder, more insistently. We drew the kiss out, and I became aware that I wanted him—wanted him as urgently as I had ever wanted a man. Edgar flashed into my mind and right back out again, chased by an image of the girl in the pantry. I slammed the door behind them. I would not allow Edgar to haunt me out of collecting my well-deserved restitution.
If I dared collect it myself.
I broke the kiss first, breathless, my mind swimming from the pleasure of the contact. He leaned back to gaze at me, and if anything, the desire in his eyes burned hotter than ever. He set a hand upon my waist, and even through the layers of my dress and chemise, my skin jumped with shock and delight. So I did what any respectable lady would do.
I raised the pistol to his face.