Too Wicked to Tame

Page 1


Chapter 1
“I’m going to carve out his lying tongue,” Lady Portia Derring bit out as she surveyed the stretch of empty road nestled among thick, spiny gorse and rocky hills, desperate to catch a glimpse of her errant driver.
An icy wind pulled at her bonnet. Her fingers, stiff and aching from the cold, clung to the frayed ribbons dangling beneath her chin. Even horribly out of fashion, the straw confection was her best bonnet and she wasn’t inclined to lose it.
“Looking out that window again?” Nettie asked.
Falling back against the seat, Portia heaved a sigh and announced, “We’re stranded. John’s not coming back.”
“He’ll be back,” her maid replied with a decided lack of worry as she stretched her generous curves along the threadbare squabs. “Take a nap.”
Portia frowned at Nettie. “And let highwaymen take us unaware? Splendid idea, that.”
Nettie yawned widely, offering Portia a view of the tonsils far back in her throat. She closed and opened her mouth several times with a vulgar smacking sound before adding, “What’s got your nose out of joint?”
Portia gestured about them at the motionless carriage, a feeling of frustration sweeping over her.
“In case you failed to notice, we’ve been abandoned by our sot of a driver.” She nodded to the window where the sky deepened to a smoky purple. “I don’t relish the idea of spending the night in this rickety carriage.”
Nettie lifted a reddish brow and glanced out the window. Portia followed her gaze, eyeing the craggy limestone terrain, then the dark clouds scuttling across the sky, distracted at the sight of such raw beauty. Miles away from civilization. From family and words like duty, responsibility—marriage. Her heart lifted, her precarious situation suddenly not feeling so calamitous. The invisible band about her chest loosened, allowing her to take her first easy breath in years.
Nettie clucked her tongue. “You really did it this time for the ol’ bird to send you all the way out here.”
Portia flicked a piece of lint off her blue merino skirt and stifled the retort that burned on her tongue. “I don’t know what you mean,” she lied. “I’ve done nothing. Nothing at all.”
“Nothin’,” her cheeky maid snorted. “That’s about the gist of it. Five years of nothin’. Well, your time’s run out.” She nodded as though pleased. “I heard what your grandmother said.”
“Listening at keyholes again?” Portia accused.
“Either you choose or they will. And if you ask me, they should have put an end to your contrary ways long ago.”
“No one’s asking you,” Portia snapped.
Shrugging, the round-cheeked maid looked out the window again, granting Portia a meager moment of peace before demanding, “Ain’t there rich enough nabobs in Town? Hardly seems possible any swell lives in this godforsaken land.” Shaking her coppery head, Nettie turned to glare at her in a way that left no doubt whom she held responsible for their ejection from Town.
“Tell me we’re at least almost there.”
“John didn’t say, but we must be near.” Not that her driver had said much before staggering down the road, his vow to return within the hour echoing hollowly even then. Especially when issued through gin-laced breath. “I should have taken the mail coach,” she muttered.
Not that Grandmother would have permitted such a thing. A Derring never resorted to public transport. No matter how desperate. There were appearances to be kept, after all. A Derring must not appear destitute. Even if they happened to be.
“Bet you wish you’d chosen one of those swells back in Town now, eh?”
Portia stifled a grimace and looked out the window again, careful not to reveal her decided lack of regret. What was one suitor to fend off when she was accustomed to the dozens foisted on her by her family?
She gazed out through parted frayed curtains. The sight of the bleak land, both majestic and deprived, wild with gorse and wind-ruffled heather, washed over her like a balm to the soul. It stirred something deep inside her—in a hidden, secret place that hadn’t felt anything in years.
The moor was a far cry from the drawing rooms of the ton and she was heartily glad for it.
“Not especially,” she replied, inhaling clean air kissed by the lips of a vanishing winter. A chance to get away was a rare treat, a much appreciated holiday. Especially when her greatest wish was to travel, to taste the freedom and adventure her mother experienced everyday.
Being forced to entertain the attentions of a new suitor didn’t matter much. Not when it meant escape from the tedium of another Season, from the auction block, from her family’s nagging.
From a pervading sense of isolation—of holding her breath and waiting, watching, searching every room with senseless hope filling her chest.
Even missing her mother, Portia could understand what drove her to depart for lands unknown.
The hot breath of ruin didn’t reach so far as Italy, Greece, Spain, or whichever country her mother currently called home.
Portia closed her eyes in one long blink and did her best to shake off the fetters of her world, to let the irons drop and pretend that this was a holiday of her own choosing and not just another foisted courtship.
“Enough of this,” Portia announced, arranging her bonnet and repositioning her hatpin through the straw with a determined twist.
“Where you off to?”
“To find help.” Portia grasped the latch and pushed the door open. Like an animal lying in wait, the wind attacked the door, whipping it inward again. She caught it with the palm of her hand and pushed, grunting. “Someone must. We can’t rely on John.” Gathering her skirts in one hand, she added, “You’re welcome to come. A brisk walk might energize you.”
“I’ll be staying here where it’s warm and dry, thank you very much.” With a sniff, Nettie curled up on the squabs, heedless of arranging her skirts to cover her plump, milk-white legs.
Glancing at the wild, windswept landscape surrounding them, skies darkening with every passing moment, she experienced a flash of misgiving. Suppressing the feeling, she dropped to the ground, her feet sinking like two stones in water. A wave of mud rolled its way inside her boots.
Clutching her skirts high, she wrinkled her nose at the disgusting feel of sludge squishing between her toes. The wind buffeted her, whipping her cloak open and exposing her to the ravaging cold.
“S-splendid,” she bit out through chattering teeth, dragging one foot, then the other, through the body-sucking muck. She could ill afford to ruin a good pair of boots. The shops on Bond Street had politely but firmly ceased extending credit to her family. New boots weren’t in her near future.
“At this rate you should reach the village tomorrow,” Nettie called cheerfully from the carriage window.
Shooting a glare over her shoulder, Portia increased her pace, leaving the carriage and her vexing maid behind.
Suck, drag. Suck, drag. Her lungs expanded, aching from the frigid air filling them. The thought of returning to the shelter of the carriage, to dryness, to a modicum of warmth, tempted her. Yet she did not relish spending the rest of her days trapped in a musty carriage with Nettie. And John—the wretched sot—more than likely lay facedown in a ditch somewhere. With that looming likelihood, she pulled her lips between her teeth and trudged along.
Her cloak’s hem dragged behind her, slowing her already crawling pace. Lightning lit the horizon. Portia jerked to a stop. Tilting her head back, she scowled at the sky. A fat raindrop splattered on her cheek.
“Of course,” she grumbled. Abandoned. Stranded. Cold. A storm was utterly foreseeable.
Then the clouds opened up.
Rain sluiced her face, obscuring her vision. Icy trails trickled down her neck and beneath her gown, leaving goose bumps in their wake. Too caught up in her misery, she assumed the sudden pounding in the air to be more thunder.
Too late, she realized the air did not shake from thunder. No, the very earth shook. Uneasiness rolled over her as icy as the rain that drenched her. She looked down at her feet as they absorbed the ground’s subtle vibration.
“What the—”
Looking up, her words died in her throat.
A horse and rider rounded the bend, emerging through the gray curtain of rain. Portia opened her mouth to scream. To cry out. But she couldn’t so much as squeak. She merely stood frozen, dumb-struck, watching as death charged her.
Blood rushed to her head in a dizzying roar, mingling with the rain’s furious tempo. With a choked cry, she flung her hands up—a feeble attempt to protect herself. She jerked sideways, but the mud held fast, manacles at her ankles. Unbalanced, she toppled over in a graceless heap.
Drowning in mud and rain, her gaze swept up, riveted on the massive hooves pawing the air above her. Voice trapped somewhere between her lips and her chest, she clawed fistfuls of wet earth and hauled herself backward, vaguely registering the rider’s curses, his wild movements, as he pulled frantically on the horse’s reins.
The horse crashed down, its deadly hooves landing inches from her, spraying her with mud.
Gasping, she blinked dirty eyelashes and fixed her mud-blurred gaze on the beast’s trembling legs, praying they stayed put.
The rider dismounted with a curse that lit fire to her cheeks. Lean, boot-encased legs stopped before her, braced apart as if he stood at the prow of a ship.
Her gaze slowly slid upward, assessing. Muscled thighs. Narrow hips. A broad chest that stretched on forever. Gray eyes as stormy as the sky flashing above.
Gradually, she realized his lips were moving. He was shouting. At her. As if she had been the one in error. As if she were to blame for his wild, reckless riding, for his total disregard for human life.
His dark slashing brows dipped into a frown. “What’s wrong with you?” he thundered. “Are you dim-witted? Did you not hear me approach?”
She closed her sagging mouth with a snap. Looking at his lean, ruthless face, her temper flared.
The utter gall. Not an ounce of accountability. Not a hint of contrition or apology. Not even a hand to help her to her feet. He was a primitive—a snarling beast. Totally out of control.
She eyed his clothing: buff trousers, wool brown waistcoat, black Hessians. Decent quality. Wet but clean. Mud-free. The heavy black cloak swirling about him looked deliciously warm. He twitched a riding crop against a very solid looking thigh and she couldn’t help thinking he wished to use it on her.
“Come now,” he coaxed with a breeziness that his storm-cloud eyes belied. “Can you not speak, little Miss Mud Pie?”
Miss Mud Pie?
Her hands fisted into the mud surrounding her, sinking deeper, indifferent to the slime infiltrating the worn cambric of her gloves and sliding thickly beneath her fingernails.
First he nearly killed her.
Now he mocked her.
It was not to be borne. Pulling her bottom lip between her teeth in a determined hiss, she launched a fistful of mud directly at his face, praying her aim proved true.
Chapter 2
The mud slapped the stranger in the cheek, splattering across his nose and mouth with a resounding smack. A lovelier sight she had never seen.
Her satisfaction, however, was short-lived. The look he leveled on her turned her blood to ice.
Panicked, certain he meant to turn the riding crop on her, she struggled to her feet. Squaring her shoulders, she smoothed her gloves, which would never again resemble their former pristine white, over drenched skirts and attempted to strike a dignified pose. To resemble a lady. Even covered head to foot in mud.
Prepared to look him dead in the eye and show him she was no cringing female, she lifted her chin. And blinked. Twice.
Her head barely topped his chin. Unease skated down her spine. She usually looked men in the eye. A definite advantage when intimidating prospective suitors. However, something told her this man did not bow to intimidation.