Too Wicked to Tame

Page 2


Wiping a broad hand over the mud obscuring the sharp planes of his face, he snarled, “What the bloody hell was that for?”
“Evening the score,” she replied, stumbling back as he advanced one step. Then another. The mudclogged road posed no difficultly for him. He moved like a panther, closing the distance between them with ease.
“Blinding me with mud accomplishes that?” He reached for her arm. Portia lurched back, jerking away from that grasping hand, and lost her balance. She toppled over. Again. An indignant squeak escaped her mouth as her bottom hit the ground with a loud smack.
He laughed. A rich, boisterous sound that rumbled in the air, mingling with the distant thunder.
Scowling, she scooped up a handful of mud, pausing when he wagged a finger. “Don’t.” The single word dropped into the air like a heavy stone, freezing her.
Thick mud dripped from her fingers as she considered him. From the hard, ruthless look of him, she had no doubt he would retaliate if she hurled mud at his face a second time. The man looked like a pirate. Or a brigand. She shrank further into her wet cloak at the possibility.
“An apology,” she demanded. Brigand or not, she refused to back down without the courtesy owed her.
“For what?” he snorted, crossing his arms over his chest. “You’re at fault here. The one walking in the middle of the road with your head—”
“Me?” she cut in, pushing to her feet. “Are you mad?”
A change came over him. The barest stiffening. He drew a deep breath that expanded his broad chest. A beat of silence fell, held, stretched as his eyes glittered down at her. Portia waited, breath suspended, staring up at him through the screen of rain.
At last, he replied, his words caustic, a veritable sneer, “If I’m not already, then I’m well on my way.”
Suppressing a tremor of nervousness, she retorted, “Well, no doubt…for how sensible is it to ride hell-bent around a bend with nary a thought for anyone who might be in your path?”
The muscles along his jaw knotted dangerously. Rain rolled down his face, washing away the last remnants of mud, but his hard gaze never blinked. “No more insensible than someone foolish enough to walk in the middle of the road in such inclement weather.”
“Rest assured, it’s not by choice. My carriage is mired in mud down the road.”
The corners of his well-shaped mouth pulled into a frown as he looked beyond her. The wind whipped long strands of hair against his face and neck. The dark, gleaming strands reminded her of a sea lion’s pelt.
“Where’s your driver?” he demanded.
“I haven’t the foggiest notion.” Portia lifted her impossibly heavy skirts and adopted her grandmother’s most officious tone. The one she used when addressing someone beneath her dignity. “Now, if you would be so kind as to step aside, I should like to reach the village before nightfall.”
He made no effort to oblige so Portia stepped around him and began sludging forward again.
“Wait,” he commanded. His large hand clamped down on her arm.
Portia glanced in surprise at the hard fingers encircling her arm. They were surprisingly long and elegant, blunt-tipped. She felt the burn of them through her cloak, into her very skin. Men didn’t touch her. Not voluntarily. None presumed such familiarity. She saw to that. Of course this stranger didn’t know that, didn’t know the rules that governed her.
Looking up into his face, she swallowed a small frission of alarm at how truly alone they were.
How very much at his mercy she was. Swiping at the drooping brim of her bonnet, she said in her firmest voice, “Unhand me, sir.”
The sound of rain hitting earth and rock increased at that moment, a dull roar that filled their lapse in conversation. His image grew blurry—apart from his eyes. They glowed preternaturally, penetrating the gray screen of rain. “You’re a fierce thing, aren’t you, little Miss Mud Pie?” his disembodied voice taunted.
Fierce? Never had anyone described her as fierce. Capricious. Eccentric. Even odd. But never fierce. Portia supposed she might be a little like her old dragon of a grandmother after all—
perish the thought.
“You can’t walk to the village in this storm.” His head dipped, assessing her, and she shuddered to think of the picture she made. Almost on cue, the wind picked up, nearly knocking her sideways.
He sighed and seemed to reach some sort of decision. Squaring those broad shoulders of his, he said, “I’ll take you there.”
She blinked against the relentless rain and heard the smile in his voice as he replied, “Yes, me.”
Swiping again at her recalcitrant bonnet, she lifted her chin. “Why would I accept a ride from a self-proclaimed madman?”
His smile slipped and the hard look returned to his eyes. “Because you’ll reach the village in ten short minutes rather than the week it will take you on foot.”
Hmm. Sound logic for a madman. And truthfully, Portia was too miserable to refuse. Anything to reach shelter. Warmth. Dryness. Ground that didn’t shift and sink beneath her feet.
“Very well,” she declared, moving past him.
His stallion, hands taller than any horse she had ever mounted, eyed her suspiciously as she approached. Portia stopped, eyed the great beast in turn and wondered how she might mount without the aid of a step. An accomplished horse woman, she could usually mount unassisted, but not with wet, muddied skirts weighing her down and the spongy ground sucking hungrily at her boots.
She stepped closer, reaching for a handful of sable mane to pull herself atop. The stallion had other ideas. He dipped his head toward her with teeth bared. She jerked back, only barely avoiding the snapping jaws.
“Beast,” she cried, shocked and absurdly offended.
Hard hands grasped her waist and lifted her, securing her sideways atop the horse before she had a chance to protest. He swung up behind her, draping her legs over his thighs as if she were nothing more than a cloth doll to be neatly maneuvered.
Heat rushed her face. Settled snugly against him, she recovered her tongue. “W-what are you doing?” she sputtered. Who would have imagined that she, Lady Portia Derring, renowned bluestocking and spinster, would find herself in such an improper position? And with such a virile man?
The stallion craned his neck and tried to take another hunk out of her leg.
“Stop that, you devil,” she hissed.
“Iago doesn’t care for females.”
Iago? How fitting. The beast would be named after one of Shakespeare’s most villainous characters.
“Well, would you mind having a word with him?” she asked as she dodged another nip. “Before he cripples me?”
“No need for that,” he replied.
Portia opened her mouth to disagree, but he kicked the horse into motion, forcing Iago’s attention away from making a meal of her leg. The sudden movement also sent her rocking against him. He looped an arm around her waist.
“What are you doing?” she demanded.
“Delivering you safely to the village.” His warm breath fanned her ear. A bolt of awareness shot through her and her breath caught. “Never let it be said I’m not a gentleman.”
She snorted. A gentleman would not ride in the midst of a storm with no thought for life and limb. Nor would he toss her about as if she were a sack of grain. Nor press himself so intimately against her.
True, he possessed a fine horse and cultured speech, but his manners were coarse, his clothing plain, his hair too long, and there was something uncivilized about him. Something raw, elemental, as wild as the rough-hewn land surrounding them. More than likely he was a rustic squire unaccustomed to polite society.
Biting her lip, she told herself not to behave like a simpering miss. The type she rolled her eyes at every Season. Of course she would have to sit closely to him in order to share a mount.
Desperate circumstances called for desperate measures.
Closing her eyes, she tried to ignore the firm chest at her back, the hard thighs beneath her. The solid arm holding her close. A slow trembling stole over her.
“You’re cold,” his husky voice sounded in her ear, and he drew her closer, folding her into him and wrapping his cloak about the two of them, cocooning them together. Far more courtesy than she would have ascribed to the snarling wild man he had first appeared. “You have no business being out in this weather.”
She stiffened in his arms, not caring for his chastisement.
“You could catch ill,” he added.
“I didn’t plan on getting caught in a storm,” she retorted, “but I’m hardly a frail creature.” Indeed not. She stood taller than most of her would-be suitors, was only thin and lacking in feminine curves—as Grandmother frequently criticized. “I have a healthy constitution. A bit of rain won’t hurt me.”
“In case you haven’t noticed, this is more than a bit of rain.”
“Wet and miserable as I am, it’s hard to ignore.”
“Then you should have—”
She twisted her head around, snapping, “I don’t need a lecture from someone who can’t exercise simple caution when riding his horse.”
Portia faced front again, leaning forward as much as she could, too annoyed to let herself relax against his chest.
Silence fell. No sound could be heard save the loud pelting of rain and sucking sound of hooves as they lifted from the quagmire beneath them.
He tugged at her waist, forcing her back against him. “What’s your name?” he asked, his voice grudging, as if he resented asking, resented wanting to know.
She answered in an equally grudging voice, “Portia.”
No more than that. No need for him to know that a duke’s daughter sat on his lap. Soon they would part company, never to set eyes on each other again.
“Portia,” he replied slowly, drawing out her name as if he tasted it on his tongue. “Different.”
“My mother named me after Portia in Merchant of Venice…or Hamlet, depending what day you spoke with her…and her mood…and whether or not I happened to be in her favor at the time.”
She couldn’t keep the bitterness from creeping into her voice. Thoughts of her mother did that to her, even when she willed them not to. Frowning, she wondered why she had volunteered so much to him. An uncouth stranger.
“Not from these parts, are you, Portia?” he asked dryly.
Ignoring his bold usage of her name, she suppressed her impulse to ask after his name and turned her gaze to the rain-soaked terrain, both wild and beautiful.
“No,” she answered. Not that she would mind staying. Even awash in rain, this rugged land appealed to her. But this was no holiday. She had a potential husband to scare off—a task at which she particularly excelled. She need only open her mouth and expound at length upon what ever text she currently read. Be it an ancient treatise on Roman engineering, a dramatic work of Sophocles, or the latest commentary on female rights, no one chased away a prospective suitor better.
“London?” he asked, his voice knowing, derision lacing his gravelly tones.
“Obvious, is it?”
“You’re not like chits in these parts.”
If she had been inclined, she could have told him she wasn’t like London ladies either. Vowing never to be auctioned off in matrimony like a cow at market set her apart from the rest of the herd. Not such a difficult task, she had discovered. No one wanted an impoverished bluestocking—even one with an excellent pedigree.
“Indeed,” she replied stiffly, certain he did not mean to compliment her.
“Indeed,” he echoed, laughter lacing his voice. “Never met someone so haughty.”
“Haughty?” she cried. “That’s rich. Especially coming from an arrogant brute like you.”
“God, you are a shrew,” he chuckled against her ear, the sound oddly pleasant.