Too Wicked to Tame

Page 5


“Impossible.” He frowned and shook his head, dismissing the possibility. “You need a change of clothes before you catch a chill. A warm meal would probably do you some good, too.”
Portia shook her head, slapping at the drooping brim of her bonnet. “Really, I—”
“Wet and cold are not a good combination,” he said as if he were speaking to a half-wit.
“Yorkshire winters aren’t for the fainthearted.”
Portia stiffened her spine, unsure what offended her more. His overbearing manner or his estimation of her as faint of heart. She’d have him know she had never fainted in her life, not like so many ladies she knew who never strayed far from their smelling salts.
“It’s March,” she retorted. “Spring.”
“Not here.”
The rim of her bonnet sagged again, obscuring her vision. With a growl of frustration, she yanked it off her head, uncaring that she exposed her horribly mussed hair. She was done with people telling her what to do. Family, she had to endure. This man—a stranger—she did not. No matter how handsome. No matter how her body tingled in his presence.
“I appreciate all you’ve done, but I no longer need your assistance.”
His face hardened and the intimidating stranger from the road returned. “Very well, then. I’ll bid farewell.” Turning, he strode swiftly away.
Guilt stabbed at her…and something else she couldn’t identify. Her chest tightened as she watched his retreating back. Before she could reconsider, she surged to her feet.
He was halfway across the taproom before she caught up with him. Her hand clamped down on his arm. The muscles in his arm tensed under her fingers. He twisted around to look down at her, those deeply set eyes dark, unreadable. She stared up at him, groping for words, unclear why she had pursued him.
“Yes?” he asked.
Portia stood still as stone, frozen for an interminable moment, feeling an utter fool. They were strangers. He had deposited her safely at the inn. They were done. They had no business interacting further.
“T-thank you,” she whispered, pausing to swallow, fighting the impulse to look away, to hide from his watchful gaze. “For your help. I did not mean to sound…ungrateful.”
Portia bit her lip. Her brother would say good manners weren’t required from her. That this man’s assistance was her due as a Derring. But she couldn’t let him go without some kind of acknowledgment.
Opening her mouth, she thought to explain the true reason she could not stay overnight at the inn, then stopped herself. Or rather, pride stopped her. Her explanation stuck in her throat.
A strange light entered his eyes, making her heart pound. Those gray eyes darkened—polished onyx, gliding over her, looking at her in such a way that her blood burned in her veins. He took his time eyeing her muddied person and disheveled hair before returning to her face with a smoldering intensity.
He touched her face then. Warm fingers landed on her cheek with surprising gentleness. She couldn’t shrink away. Not as she should have. Not as her mind willed her to. No. Instead she found herself leaning into his hand, turning her cheek fully into the heat of his palm.
Closing her eyes, she forgot herself and let her lips brush his skin. The texture of his palm felt velvet rough against her lips. Her tongue darted out. A quick flick just to taste him. His gasp forced her eyes wide open.
The intense look in his eyes, the way they blazed down at her, no longer gray but a dark, gleaming blue, had her staggering back, distancing herself as if she suddenly found herself in the paws of a wild jungle cat intent on devouring her.
He dropped his hand, holding it before him, staring at it for a moment, turning it over as if he had never seen it before, as if he searched for some answer, some greater truth, carved on the flesh of his hand.
When he looked up, his eyes were the cool gray of before, impassive as stone. Just a stranger.
“Stay warm, Miss Mud Pie,” he murmured.
Then he was gone.
The door slammed behind him, wind rattling the crude wood length for several seconds, struggling to gain entrance. Gone with the same suddenness as his entrance into her life. His touch, his pervasive scent, the temptingly wicked man that made her tremble like a fall leaf.
Gone. She couldn’t help feel a pang of regret. As if she had somehow lost an opportunity. For what she could not say—or dared not.
“Miss Mud Pie,” she muttered, gazing at the door for a long moment. Oddly, the nickname failed to annoy her anymore. Not in the almost tender way he had uttered it. Not after the way he had addressed her, looked at her, touched her.
She hugged herself, feeling bereft and troubled by his departure. Cold. Which was absurd. Why should she regret the departure of a stranger? A rough-mannered squire at best? For all his help, he was coarse and ill mannered…and made her heart slam against her breast.
Dropping her arms, she headed back to the fire, searching out a heat totally unlike the burn that he had stoked within her. Settling herself on the hard bench, she clasped her knees and waited for the fire’s blaze to warm her, doing her best to forget his name, to forget him and the hot invitation in his gaze. She waited for the familiar apathy to settle over her, vowing that by tomorrow he would not even cross her mind.
Heath. Fitting. As wild and out of control as the plant teeming the undulating moorland.
Chapter 4
Heath strode outside, his body cutting through wind and rain as he attempted to block the image of pure blue eyes and long, coal black lashes. Of sweet innocence wrapped in saucy packaging.
He walked faster, fleeing the inn and the acute reminder of all he could not have.
Cursing, he jerked to a stop and looked back at the inn’s shadowed outline, battling the overwhelming urge to return, to see that she stayed put where it was safe and warm—to hammer at the walls of her ladylike reserve and settle her on his lap for a thorough kiss.
Good God, what was she doing about without a proper chaperone? She didn’t have to say anything for him to know that she was a lady. As blue-blooded as they came. A female as headstrong as that needed constant supervision. The little fool actually insisted on venturing out on a night like this. He only feared she might find someone willing to aid her.
Heath gave his head a violent shake. She wasn’t his responsibility. And a proper lady like her damn well never would be.
He spun around and entered the blacksmith’s, resisting the invisible string that seemed to connect him to the inn—to her. A few words with the blacksmith and he had a mount. Swinging atop the horse, he stared at the inn again, still feeling the infernal pull to go back inside. She hadn’t wanted him to go. She hadn’t said the words, but he had seen them in her eyes. He could return. Could see just how strong the walls of her reserve were built. If he were different, perhaps he would.
The old, gnawing bleakness skated through him with the slow insidiousness of a stalking predator. A bleakness he hadn’t felt in years. Not since he had learned acceptance. Not since he had trained himself in forbearance. Not since he had ceased wishing for what could never be.
Della. Like a life raft in a tossing sea, her face emerged in his mind. Della would help him forget.
Forget the girl that brought forth aching reminders of what could never be his. She would banish the bleakness gripping him. He would make use of her body, sink into her familiar heat and tell himself it was enough.
He urged his mount into a gallop, splashing through the village without a care for his own safety.
A man like him had given up concern for his well-being long ago.
Some days he contemplated an abrupt end to it all. Not to mistake that he considered suicide. His mother chose the coward’s route and he would not do the same. Yet a random accident, the result of one of his foolhardy risks, would be far kinder than the fate that awaited him.
He pushed his mount harder, determined to get far, far from the inn. And the wisp of girl inside who made him wish things were different, that he was different—not a man bound by duty, responsibility, and a curse that he could never outrun.
Portia entered the dingy taproom the following morning, her brow knitted angrily from her exchange with the innkeeper. Horrid man. Not an ounce of kindness.
“At least we can afford breakfast,” Nettie said with far too much cheer, pressing a hand to her stomach as if to stave off hunger. “I’m starved. Can’t believe you didn’t allow us to eat last night.”
Portia briefly closed her eyes and stretched her neck, trying to ease the painful crick, no doubt the result of sharing a too small bed with Nettie in the drafty attic room, the cheapest accommodations to be had.
Heath had been correct. No one could be lured out into the storm last night. Especially since she did not possess coin with which to lure. As a result, Portia and Nettie had spent the night clinging to each other for warmth beneath a scratchy, threadbare blanket. After such a night, Nettie’s complaints did not meet with Portia’s usual tolerance.
“I explained last night—”
“Yes, yes,” Nettie interrupted with a wave of her hand. Her narrowed gaze shot to Portia’s wrist.
“Too bad you didn’t think to offer your bracelet up before. We might not have gone to bed hungry.”
Portia clutched her reticule, the weight of coins a painful reminder of what she sacrificed. The idea to barter the bracelet had come to her last night as she stared blindly into the dark, sick with worry over how she would pay the innkeeper come morning.
She rubbed her now bare wrist. Her mother had sent the bauble from Italy three years ago. Portia rarely received correspondence from her mother, let alone gifts. The bracelet had been special. It had been—
Sucking in a breath, she gave her head a small shake, blinking back the sting of tears. She would not cry over something as inconsequential as a bracelet. Mere silver and stones. Not her mother.
Portia gave the dingy taproom, meager and unwelcoming in the light of day, a sweeping glance, refusing to admit that she searched for someone in particular, hoping beyond hope that she would see him again. For some reason Heath had occupied her thoughts long after he left last night.
Even when she had managed to fall asleep he had invaded her dreams, his wicked hands and mouth doing to her body all that his hot gaze had promised.
A foolish, disappointed sigh escaped her. No sight of him anywhere. Instead, her gaze landed on a familiar figure. She stiffened.
There, at a corner table, sat her driver, hunkered over a pint of ale.
She stormed across the room, ignoring her sore ankle, paying no heed to the dizziness that swept her from the sudden movement. “John! Where have you been?”
Blinking bleary eyes, he lifted his tankard in mock salute. “Hullo there, my lady. What you doing here?”
“Me? Me?” Portia gave no thought to her raised voice or the pain that lanced her temples, only that John sat before her sipping his ale without a care for the women in his charge—the women he had abandoned. “I ought to horse whip you. You were supposed to fetch help and return for us yesterday!”
“Aye, you bloody louse. Where the hell have you been?” Nettie added as she arrived at Portia’s side, at last showing some displeasure over their abandonment.
John lumbered to his feet, jerking his rumpled blue livery into some order. “No need to get your feathers up, my lady. I was on my way to collect you.”
“This morning?” Nettie propped both hands on her generous hips. “Right nice of you.”
John puffed out his barrel chest, his furry caterpillar eyebrows dipping together as he glared at Nettie. “Now see here, I’ll not let a bit of baggage like—”
“Enough. Both of you,” Portia commanded, pressing the back of her hand to first one overheated cheek, then the other. Drawing a deep, shaky breath, she ignored the way her head spun and said,
“I simply want to reach Moreton Hall…as we should have done yesterday.” She glanced at Nettie. “Forget breakfast. I want to be gone from here. Now.”