Ten Reasons to stay
The new Earl of Monteith, Colin Hunt, had been in possession of Chaunceston Hall less than a day and already trouble was afoot.
Surrounded by unpacked boxes, Colin watched through his study window as a cloaked form darted across the lawn to slip into the stable. It was after midnight; none of the servants he’d hired in London should be about. And since the stable was filled with prime horseflesh he’d purchased at Tattersall’s earlier this week . . .
Confound these English thieves to hell! Unearthing his pistol from a box, he loaded it and shoved it into the waistband of his trousers before hurrying into the hall.
Why wasn’t some groom outside guarding the stable? Because this wasn’t India, of course. In Colin’s home country of twenty-eight years, the weather was so balmy that a syce could sleep across the stable doorway very comfortably. But here in England, no sane man slept outdoors in such weather.
Grumbling to himself about the brutal English winter, he donned his heaviest wool surtout, lit a lantern, and headed out. The gust of icy wind that greeted him made him swear vilely.
He missed the hot Poona days, the sultry Calcutta nights, where a man could lie naked in his bed and still
be comfortable. A wave of homesickness swept him. He missed spicy pickles and cinnamon-scented tobacco and jackal hunts with the local jemadar and other fellows from the native infantry . . ..
Who would just as soon slip a knife in his back as breathe.
Colin sighed. He didn’t miss that, the suspicions and spying, the petty grievances that erupted into violence, the ever-present threat of marauding bandits, of mutinies and rebellions. Of women cowering beneath the sword—
He shuddered. No, there was nothing left for him in India, no reason to stay where the persistent memories of his wife’s slaughter at Poona could torment him. He wanted peace, and he’d hoped to find it in the sleepy English countryside.
This wasn’t a promising start. It was only his first night at the Devon estate he’d inherited from his late, unlamented grandfather, and already the local rogues were robbing him. But they were in for a surprise. Half-Indian or no, he had every right to live here, and they would soon learn that he meant to hold on to what was his.
With that resolve beating in his breast, he slid open the stable door. At first he could see nothing, just his new Cleveland Bays sleeping in their stalls. But the faint acrid scent of a recently snuffed candle hung in the air, proving that the cloaked figure probably still lurked here.
He swept his lantern in a wide arc, then came back to where his pride of purchase, a chestnut Arabian, stood wide-awake. She was saddled and ready, with a cloth sack slung over the pommel.
His temper flared.
“Come out now, whoever you are!” Colin demanded,
setting the lantern on a hook. “If you force me to go stall by stall to find you—”
“No need for that, sir,” said a decidedly young voice as a short figure emerged from the stall. Colin glimpsed riding boots and breeches before the fellow shrank into his voluminous cloak like a turtle into its shell. “Beg pardon, but I didn’t mean to wake you. I was just seeing to the horse.”
“Seeing to stealing it, you mean.”
“No!” The lad’s head jerked up, though the hood of his cloak still shielded his face. “I-I merely wish to borrow it. I know the owner personally, and I assure you he’d happily loan it to me if he were here.”
Colin didn’t know whether to laugh at the bold devil or shoot him. “That, too, is a lie.”
“Honestly, sir, the owner’s wife is a good friend of mine.”
“That’s impossible.” Furious that this thief persisted in his pretense, Colin slid his hand inside his surtout to grasp his pistol. “The owner’s wife is dead.”
“Dead!” The lad sounded genuinely upset. “How did it happen? Did the duchess die in childbirth? I can’t believe—”
“Hold up there, lad. What duchess?”
“The duchess of Foxmoor. You said that the owner’s wife—”
“The owner of this horse, of this entire estate, is the Earl of Monteith.”
“Who’s lying now?” the fellow retorted. “The earl has been dead for six years or more.”
If the boy knew that, then he wasn’t some wandering horse thief. Which also explained why he thought that the duke owned the estate; Foxmoor had managed it for the heir. “The new Earl of Monteith is alive and well, I assure you.”
“The new—” The lad broke off with a groan. “Ohh, I forgot. The duke’s cousin inherited the Monteith title. But he’s over in—” He stared at Colin. “Blast.”
“Exactly.” Was it usual for a country boy to know so much about a duke and his family? “I am the owner. And you are trespassing.”
“I-I suppose that means you won’t lend me a horse.”
“That’s exactly what it means.”
“I understand. Don’t blame you a bit.” The fellow turned his head toward the open door beyond Colin. “I won’t keep you any longer. I’ll just go—”
“The hell you will,” Colin bit out and took a step forward.
A hand suddenly appeared from beneath the fellow’s cloak, bearing a rather substantial flintlock pistol. “S-stand aside,” he said as he pointed the gun at Colin.
Colin’s fingers tensed on his own weapon . . . until he noticed that the thief’s pistol wasn’t cocked, and the barrel was an ancient rusted relic. He’d lay odds that the thing hadn’t been loaded in twenty years, much less fired. “An unloaded weapon won’t do you much good, lad,” he said dryly.
The fellow’s hand shook. “How did you know it isn’t loaded?”
“I didn’t.” Colin taunted him with a smile. “But I do now.”
The lad groaned. Without warning he hurled the pistol at Colin. As the heavy weapon glanced off Colin’s brow and the boy dashed past him, Colin let out a roar and lunged after him.
Catching the fellow’s hood, Colin yanked him back, then slammed him against the stable wall and pinned his arms at his sides. “Now see here, you little
devil—” he began as the lad’s bared head shot up and their gazes met.
The words died in Colin’s throat. Because the nearby lamp flooding the thief’s face revealed porcelain features and a tumbled-down length of thick, golden brown hair that were decidedly not male.
“I’ll be damned,” Colin murmured. “You’re a woman.”
And quite a woman, too, judging from the full mouth, rosy cheeks, and long silky lashes. Not to mention the ample breasts crushed against his chest. No wonder she’d worn a cloak. No one would ever mistake her for a boy without it, breeches or no.
A series of sweet-scented breaths stuttered from between her pretty lips and her lightly freckled cheeks flushed. For the first time in a long while, his blood stirred.
“Get off of me, blast you!” she cried. “You’ve no right—”
“I wouldn’t be talking about rights just now, if I were you,” he warned, trying not to be affected by the soft, feminine body plastered to him from thigh to chest. “Last I heard, they hang horse thieves in England.”
Her chin trembled. “You know perfectly well I’m no horse thief.”
He did know. Despite her oaths, her speech was that of a well-bred miss. And if her tale about borrowing a horse from the duke was true, she had the connections of one, too.
But why was she out at midnight dressed as a boy? “Tell me who and what you are.”
“I’d rather not.”
“And I’d rather not release you, so it appears we’ll be here all night,” he said, deliberately pressing his body into her.
“It appears so,” she said, but with less bravado.
As he gave her his fiercest glare, she began chewing on her lower lip, and the girlish gesture made him feel like a scoundrel for bullying her. With a curse, he released her arms and shoved away from the wall.
“Thank you.” She pulled her hood back up to cover her hair. Warily she edged out from between him and the wall, then slid toward the door. “I’ll be sure to tell Louisa of your kindness.”
If the foolish wench thought he would free her simply because she’d tossed out the name of his cousin’s wife, she was mistaken. “Oh, no, you don’t.” He whipped out his weapon. “My pistol is loaded. And you aren’t going anywhere until you tell me why you were ‘borrowing’ my horse.”
Her eyes fixed on the gun, and even in the lantern light, he could see her flinch. “You . . . you wouldn’t shoot a woman.”
She was right, but he didn’t put the pistol away. “You never know what a foreigner might do when faced with a lying thief.”
“I’m not lying! I really was borrowing it!”
A frustrated breath escaped her lips. “If you must know, I need to ride it to Honiton. But once I get there, I plan to pay a post boy to return it.”
He snorted. “Right. You can’t afford a mount of your own and don’t have the wherewithal to rent one, yet you can afford a post boy.”
“Oh, but I can! I can even rent the horse from you if you’ll let me.”
She reached into her cloak, but he waved his gun at her. “Keep your hands where I can see them. I don’t need another conk on the head.”
Which was beginning to throb. He gestured to the
door. “Let’s go. We’ll continue this discussion inside.”
“But I don’t have time for that!” she cried. “I must reach Honiton by two!”
“I’m not lending or renting or otherwise giving you a horse, so get that idea right out of your head.” He snuffed the lamp, then strode up to grab her by the arm. “Nor am I going to freeze to death while you try convincing me to do so.”
Hustling her out of the stables, he led her across the well-clipped lawn dotted with topiaries. “I suppose you know your way, since you’re such a grand friend of Louisa’s.”
“Well . . . um . . . I’ve never actually been to Chaunceston Hall.” She gazed ahead to the battlemented turrets and parapets of the manor house that dated back to the Middle Ages. “It looks positively gothic, doesn’t it?”
“If that’s the word for a moldering old pile with drafty halls and monstrous pieces of ancient furniture, then yes.” He shot her a quizzical glance. “And if you weren’t familiar with the place, why did you come here?”
“I overheard the servant talking about preparations for a hunting party’s arrival next week, so I knew—”
“There’d be horses,” he clipped out. “That were easy to steal.”
“Obviously not that easy,” she grumbled.
He choked back a laugh. She certainly behaved like Louisa’s friends, those young ladies who’d flitted in and out of his cousin’s town house in London during the month Colin had lived there after arriving in England. And his little captive had servants: more evidence she wasn’t the sort of female to steal a horse. Unless—
“Why are you running away from home?”
Her head swung around, her eyes full of panic. “How did you know I was run—” She broke off with a groan. “That trick of yours grows more tiresome every time you use it.”
“So you might as well tell me everything. I’ll get it out of you eventually.”
“It has nothing to do with you!”
“It does if you’re trying to entangle me in your scheme.”
“You’re the one insisting on an entanglement. Just let me leave, and I’ll walk to Honiton.”
“The hell you will. I’m not letting some fool of a young woman out on the road alone to be raped or killed.”
The harsh words made her tense. “Fine. Then be a gentleman and drive me there in that cabriolet I saw beside the stable.”
“Not a chance.” He hurried her up the front steps. “Not until I know what you’re up to.” He led her into the house, releasing a grateful breath to be out of the infernal cold. “Hand me your cloak and gloves,” he ordered as he shut the door.
She blinked at him. “Why?”
“You’d be an idiot to run off without them in this weather, and I’m not taking the chance that you’ll knock me over the head while my back is turned.”
With a roll of her eyes, she peeled off her gloves, then untied her cloak. When she drew it off, the sight of what lay beneath struck the breath from him.
He’d guessed her to be a girl of about sixteen. He’d guessed wrong. God help him, that was a woman’s body half-bursting out of the ridiculously tight male apparel she’d apparently “borrowed” from a man much thinner than she.
It was impossible not to stare at the fetching picture
she made in a waistcoat half-unbuttoned to make room for her plump breasts and a pair of breeches too snug for her hips. Her unfortunate choice of a tailcoat made matters worse, too, since the nipped-in waist only accentuated her curves.
So did the shimmering cascade of thick hair that fell to her waist unfettered, although a few lingering hairpins twinkled in the candlelight.
This time it wasn’t just his blood that stirred.
Confound her. Why had she come along now? In the first years after his wife’s death, he’d felt nothing but grief and anger. But in recent months, especially since he’d arrived in England where his memories didn’t plague him so, his desire for feminine company—in and out of his bed—had begun to return.
So the last thing he needed was a reckless runaway firing his blood. She was too much like Rashmi, his late wife. When he married again, it would be to a steady, quiet female who wanted peace as much as he. Maybe even some settled widow who wouldn’t be bothered by his mixed blood. Certainly not an impudent wench with more curves than sense.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, coloring beneath his intense scrutiny.
“You thought you could pass for a man in that costume?”
“Well . . . no. I’m too plump in . . . er . . . certain places for that.”
Plump? Luscious, more like.
“But that’s what the cloak’s for. And even without it, from a distance—”
“—you’d look like a cherry ripe for the picking,” he snapped. “Just how old are you, anyway?”
“Nineteen.” She cast him a mutinous glance. “Old enough to go where I want and do as I please.”
She had a point. In India, she would already be married. And her lucky husband would already be happily initiating his blushing bride into the pleasures of the bed, unveiling those creamy breasts and that dimpled belly, winding himself in the luscious silk of her dark honey hair as he buried his flesh inside—
He swore under his breath. What was he thinking? She was trouble. The chit was probably running off to elope with some equally clod-pated idiot. Although if that were so, why hadn’t the idiot come to fetch her?
Whatever her reasons, no young female with her attractions and rash tendency to land in trouble should be roaming the English countryside at midnight.
The last time a woman had convinced him to let her travel without his protection, she’d ended up dead. He wasn’t about to let that happen twice.
“Old enough or not, you shouldn’t be on the road alone.” He held up his free hand. “So give me the cloak and the gloves.”
Rebellion flared in her face. Taking him by surprise, she tossed the gloves at him. As he lunged to catch them, she deftly swung the cloak to cover his head and pistol, then took off.
He swore, momentarily blinded, but managed to fight free of her cloak just as she sped past him toward the door. “Oh no, you don’t,” he growled as he reached out and snagged her about the waist, then jerked her up against him.
When her furious gaze swung to him, he added, “Nice try, my dear. But it would take a better ‘man’ than you to best me.”
“Very . . . funny,” she gasped as she struggled against him. “Let me . . . go!”
“You’re plucky—I’ll give you that.”
Also incredibly foolish. And it was time he made
her aware just how foolish. “But my patience is at an end.” He stuffed his pistol inside his waistband, then caught her by the throat. “You have one minute to tell me your name, where you live, and why you’re running away.”
Although she stopped struggling, her hazel eyes narrowed to slits. “Or what? You’ll throttle me?”
“Tempting as that sounds, no.” He slid his thumb down to brush her top shirt button. “I’ll simply remove the rest of your clothes piece by piece until you do.”