Too Wicked to Tame

Page 3


“Because I do not take insults kindly?”
“No, because nothing but vinegar flows from your lips.”
“Then I shall spare you further ridiculous conversation,” she retorted, hot indignation stinging her cheeks.
He chuckled again, the sound rich and throaty as he pulled her even closer. His hand shifted, sliding beneath her cloak to splay against her rib cage indecently. A circumstance she might have objected to could she break her self-imposed vow and speak. Instead, she endured his nearness in silence and denied that her heart raced at the feel of his big hand resting scant inches from her breast—denied that his touch sent waves of heat through her otherwise freezing body.
Iago trudged along at a sedate pace, stumbling occasionally in one of the many water-filled ruts in the road. Distant cracks of thunder shook the air. The din agitated Iago, eliciting distressed whinnies.
Behind her, his deep voice hummed gentle murmurings to the volatile stallion and did strange things to her insides.
“Something tells me you’re unaccustomed to holding your tongue.”
She jumped, taken aback at the sound of that velvet voice addressing her and not the horse.
“I don’t mind. Talk,” he murmured and his hand moved again, closer to her breast, his thumb almost grazing the underside. “I enjoy listening to your voice. So proper. Clipped but soft.
Almost breathless, like your corset’s laced too tight.”
Portia sputtered. Heat scalded her face all the way to the roots of her hair. He dared make mention of her undergarments? Her outrage mounted as he added, “You know, I could loosen it for you.”
“You—you beast!” she cried, struggling out of the shelter of his cloak.
Iago stepped into another rut and they plunged off balance. Portia shrieked and slid off his lap, nearly plummeting to the ground below. A firm arm wrapped around her middle. She dug her fingers into a taut, straining forearm.
“Stop your caterwauling,” his harsh command rang out. “You’re frightening the bloody horse!”
Biting her lip against another scream, her fingers clawed their way up his forearm to his biceps, desperate to keep from falling. Suddenly the horse reared.
And she was falling. With him. Her fingers didn’t release their death grip on his arm as they tumbled to the ground in a tangle of limbs.
Chapter 3
For a long moment, Portia didn’t move a muscle—couldn’t. Partly due to the large man sprawled atop her, and partly due to the shock of finding herself submerged in mud. Again. At this point, she wondered if she would ever be clean and dry again. Muck coated every last inch of her.
Turning her head, she watched the horse flee down the road, reins whipping wildly in the wind.
“Where’s he going?”
“Home,” she echoed, looking up at him.
His face hovered above hers, the chill of his ice-gray eyes the only color in his mud-covered face. If possible, those eyes made her even colder.
“Yes, several miles from here,” he bit out.
“Oh, brilliant,” she exclaimed. “Splendid horse you have there!”
“Nothing is wrong with Iago.”
“No?” she countered, feeling herself start to shake with rage. “He abandoned us.”
“With a shrieking witch on his back, I can hardly blame him.”
“What kind of horse can’t withstand a little noise? A first-rate mount can ride into battle with cannons firing—”
“A cannon, he could tolerate. A loud-mouthed shrew is another matter.”
Chest heaving, she shoved at the big body covering hers. The action forced her deeper into the wet, yielding earth. “Care to get off me?”
“With plea sure,” he spit out, pushing to his feet.
It was with some satisfaction that she saw he was as filthy as she. He speared her one last fulminating look before turning and stalking away.
“Where are you going?” she shouted, struggling gracelessly to her feet—nearly falling back down when her right ankle collapsed under her weight. Her mouth opened wide on a silent cry.
She quickly shifted the bulk of her weight to her left ankle and hopped until she steadied herself.
“The blacksmith can loan me a horse,” he called over his shoulder without breaking stride.
Lifting her impossibly heavy skirts, she drew a deep breath and stepped forward—or rather, limped—determined to keep up and not humiliate herself by falling again. Not an easy task.
Especially with her ankle throbbing inside her boot.
Wincing, she stifled her pain and worked hard to keep up. Her breath fell hard and fast as she moved her legs. The throb in her ankle intensified, each footfall a bolt of agony.
His figure grew farther and farther away. He was leaving me.
Her eyes burned. A deep sob welled up in her chest and she fought to keep up. She gulped air, determined to swallow back the tears. I will not cry. I will not cry.
And in that moment, she felt crushed, beaten by life—her family, the mother whose letters were rare and few between, the cloud of poverty that perpetually hung over her, shadowing her every move and breath. And now him. A brute that didn’t care if he left her to drown in mud and rain.
The sting in her eyes intensified. Yet she’d be damned if she cried. If she succumbed to weakness. She stopped abruptly. Tilting her face to the sky, she let the deluge of rain wash over her, cooling her burning emotions.
“Keep up,” he called.
She dropped her head to glare at his back, wanting to lash out. To hurt. To weep uncontrollably.
And that, she absolutely refused to do.
Instead, she dropped where she stood in the middle of the road like a heavy stone sinking to the bottom of a riverbed. Uncaring of her muddied gloves—what part of her wasn’t covered in filth?—she buried her face in her hands.
And laughed.
Brittle, shaky laughter rose from deep in her chest. Laughter that she knew could change at any given moment and swing into humiliating tears if she weren’t careful. Busy on keeping those tears at bay, she did not hear him approach. Through parted fingers, she saw his boots stop in front of her. Her chest stilled, all laughter gone. With an odd sort of detachment, she studied the rivulets of water running down the gleaming length of his boots.
Dropping her hands, she scanned the long length of his body, her eyes stopping at his face, expecting to see condemnation there—unforgiving reproof for being weak and lagging so far behind.
He gazed down at her blankly, not a flicker of emotion on his stone-carved face. Sighing heavily, he leaned down and reached for her arm.
She slapped at his hand.
Frowning, he went for her arm again.
Again she slapped at his offending hand—this time with more force.
“I can make my own way,” she grumbled, determined to accept nothing from him. “Go on without me.”
His nostrils flared, his lips flattening into an unrelenting line. A warning she had no time to heed.
In one swift, fluid motion, he bent, slid an arm under her knees, and swept her up into his arms as if she weighed a feather. Shocked, she didn’t even struggle as he cradled her close to his chest.
His long-legged strides cut through the road with seeming ease.
“I can walk,” she muttered, holding her arms awkwardly in front of her, wondering where to put them.
“Of course you can,” he returned, not looking at her, simply staring ahead, unblinking against the steady fall of rain.
Giving up, she slid one arm around his broad shoulder, her fingers resting lightly at his nape, beneath the too-long strands of hair. His dark hair fell over her fingers and she fought the urge to stroke the rain-slicked strands. Her other hand relaxed against his chest, where the steady thud of his heart beat against her palm.
She studied his profile for a moment, her anger fading as he carried her forth so stalwartly.
Suddenly he looked down, his eyes locking with hers. This close she could see the dark ring of blue surrounding his gray irises. Something strange and foreign swelled to life in her chest, trapping her breath deep in her lungs like a bird caged—just as those intense eyes of his trapped her.
Perhaps he wasn’t such a brute. A brute would have left her behind instead of sweeping her into his arms like some kind of hero from Arthurian legend.
She gave herself a hard mental shake, reminding herself that those were legends, stories her mother had read to her as a girl. Real knights in shining armor existed only in fairy tales.
A relieved breath escaped her chest when the village came into sight—an assortment of several thatch-roofed cottages, a small stone church, a blacksmith’s barn and a large two-story inn that leaned ever so slightly to the left. The cottages, hunkered shapes that seemed to tremble in the biting wind, lured her like a first edition copy of Mrs. Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication on the Rights of Woman.
The prospect of the warm fires burning behind those meager walls brought home her misery.
She’d give anything to be sitting warm and snug in front of a fire, a book in her lap, a steaming cup of tea and plate of honeyed scones within reach.
A clanging carried over the storm, coming from the blacksmith’s barn at the edge of the village.
They followed the noise, turning full force into the wind. The sharp air lashed at her, stabbing her face and throat. She couldn’t imagine how he must feel. He had carried her the distance without complaint, never breaking stride.
Her eyes smarted, tears seeping from the corners and streaming her cheeks, blending with the rain coating her face. She tucked her chin to her chest and averted her face, burying her nose against his chest, seeking his heat, the shelter of his body. Shivering, she burrowed deeper against his chest, pretending not to notice the hard body holding her so securely even as she sank against him, hungering for his warmth.
He carried her beneath a jutting portico. Still holding her in his arms, he stood still for a long moment as if he doubted whether she could stand and support herself.
“I can stand,” she murmured, moving her face away from his chest.
Nodding, he released her legs. Her body slid the length of his in agonizing slow degrees. The sensation of her br**sts crushed to his hard chest sent a lick of heat curling low in her belly.
Flustered at such an unfamiliar sensation she flushed and quickly stepped back.
Though sheltered from the worst of the wind and rain, she felt cold without his nearness, bereft.
He kept one hand on her arm, their only remaining contact. From beneath her lashes, she studied the hard, shadowed line of his jaw and accepted what she had tried so hard to ignore. He was magnificent. Even covered in filth. The most attractive man she had seen outside of a ballroom.
He reeked raw, masculine power. From the unfashionably long hair clinging to his face and throat, to the intimidating breadth of his shoulders. If my family ever thrust a man like him at me, I might think twice before chasing him off. Following that unbidden thought came the desperate need for distance. No man was worth the shackles of matrimony. No matter how he made her body tingle.
Even yearning for the warmth of his hand, for the burning imprint of those long fingers, she pulled free, severing all contact. He glanced down at her, lifting a dark brow.
Lips compressed, she crossed her arms and forced her attention on the stocky, flat-nosed man stepping out of the building’s glowing core. He wiped grimy hands on a leather apron and nodded in greeting.
“Tom, the lady here is looking for her driver.”
The blacksmith shook his head, frowning. “Haven’t seen a soul since the storm blew in.
Everyone’s got better sense than to be out in this.” His gaze raked them, his expression seeming to say, everyone except you two fools.
“My carriage is stuck in a ditch north of here—my maid’s still inside.” Probably snoring soundly, Portia thought as she lifted her reticule. “I need someone to retrieve both here.