From a connoisseur's standpoint, the backside so sweetly hoisted heavenward twenty feet in front of Lucien was the most provocative one he'd ever had the good fortune to admire: lushly rounded, firm, high, and leading to well-shaped legs and dainty feet. The entire effect was so enticing that even the god-awful breeches of indeterminate gray did little damage to the overall presentation.
The sight made up for all the misery he had suffered thus far, including the everlasting drizzling that had not let up for the three days since his coach had rumbled into the rutted, gorse-infested purgatory of the Cornish wilderness.
Now, if only he could see the rest of the package that went along with that sweet bottom, Lucien thought, leaning against the stable door.
But the little thief continued to rifle through the drunk's pockets. He was out cold, his snores resonating louder than a logging mill, which might account for why the girl had not heard Lucien arrive, horse in tow. His coach had struck one of those deuced gouges so prevalent in this wretched nexus of the universe, leaving it and Tahj, his Buddhist shadow and conscience, stranded until Lucien could send assistance.
Content to watch, he adjusted his position to a more comfortable one, too much the cad to alert the girl of his presence. Might as well enjoy himself now that an opportunity had arisen -- and it had most definitely arisen.
A delirious haze descended as he stood there wondering if one could be smitten with a backside, and idly curious as to what the lass was intent on stealing, as she didn't seem to be taking anything.
The thought was relegated to obscurity as the girl's floppy hat tumbled from her head, unraveling a silky banner of blue-black hair that puddled on the floor in a glossy pool beside the drunk's head.
Lucien's hands fisted at his sides as his arousal swelled to a nearly unbearable throb, reminding him quite forcefully of how long it had been since he'd had carnal knowledge of a woman.
Five months, six days, and twelve hours, give or take a few minutes.
He had begun keeping track, wondering when this anomaly would pass. He should be glad business had called him away from London; otherwise his reputation as a first-rate libertine would be completely shot to hell. His oath as a Pleasure Seeker was at stake, and it seemed he had finally found a cure in the form of a lush pickpocket.
Divested of her uninspired disguise, the girl muttered a rather amusing curse, quickly rolled her silky mass of hair on top of her head with slim fingers, and jammed the hat back into place. Straightening, she stared down at the unconscious man, the slump of her shoulders conveying she had not found what she was looking for.
The least Lucien could do was lend some assistance -- preferably of a more compelling variety.
"Need any help, sweetheart?" he inquired.
The little robber whirled around so fast she very nearly dislodged her hat again. She had no such luck with the grimy scarf meant to obscure her face. It slid down to her throat, leaving Lucien dumbstruck.
He had long ago reconciled himself to the fact that the Lord generally didn't align all a female's features equally, that the Almighty enjoyed the jest of giving a woman a lush body but a sparrow's face, or the face of a goddess but a body like a Buddha.
dBut this...Good sweet Christ, the little larcenist was a fetching piece, from her dark winged eyebrows to her wide-set, exotically tipped eyes, a piercing shade of green, her pert nose, high cheekbones, and a mouth so damn full and wide he was already contemplating its possibilities.
She treated him to the same perusal he gave her, starting at the tips of his mud-splattered boots, over his less than pristine clothing, his shirt bearing a stain from a futile attempt at repairing the damage to his coach, his hair and greatcoat both damp. Overall, not his best appearance.
Rallying herself, she took a step back and said, "Don't come any closer." She made the wasted effort of covering her face again, a vision he would not forget for the remainder of his days. Eventually his luck would run out and someone would succeed in putting a bullet through his heart -- but hopefully not before he'd had a taste of the lush fruit in front of him.
"And what might happen if I dared come closer?" He took a step forward, amused at having this slip of a girl toss out warnings to him. He could tuck her under his arm with little effort -- restrain her with one hand. Span her waist with those same hands and settle her on top of him, poised like a goddess on his erection, impaled fully, fragile and delicate, nipples taut, skin flushed with pleasure.
She dispelled the image, saying in a surprisingly calm voice, "Then I guess I'd have to shoot you." A gun appeared from behind her back.
His delicate wildflower had turned out to be a determined wildcat. "That is dire, isn't it?" His gaze flicked to the hand holding the gun; it trembled like a leaf. Clearly she was not cut out for a life of crime.
"I mean it."
"I'm sure you do. But might I suggest that in the future you pick a less frequented spot to rob your victims?"
"I wasn't robbing him. I was -- " She stopped and frowned at Lucien.
"Was?" he prompted.
She lifted her chin. "That's none of your concern."
"But you've made it my concern, now that you're holding me at gunpoint. What do you plan to do with me, by the by? I don't intend on putting up even a modicum of resistance. Indeed, I promise to be the most willing of captives." Provocative new images replaced the old: his hands tied to a bedpost while she did her worst to him. Maybe this godforsaken wasteland wasn't hell, after all.
She leveled the pistol at his heart. "You'll move out of the way, please."
Lucien had looked down the barrel of a gun too many times to think death might decide to take him in a dimly lit stable, by the hand of a beautiful, dirt-smudged pickpocket.
"As you wish," he said, lowering his arm from the jamb and waving her by. He had to rein in his amusement as she hesitated, wariness in her eyes. Smart girl, not to trust him.
She edged along the perimeter of the stalls until she reached the doorway, barely five feet separating them. In one lunge, he could pin her to the wall, an idea that held great temptation as she stepped into a wash of moonlight that haloed her slim figure in its pearlescent beam.
Had it not been for the womanly beauty of the green eyes focused so intently on him and that impressive backside of hers, he might have thought her a child, she was so petite. Though, as his gaze skimmed over her, the front side was equally impressive. The baggy linen shirt did little to camouflage her curves.
Uncomfortably aroused, Lucien leaned back against the doorframe. She waved the gun at him. "Stay where you are."
He extracted a cheroot from his pocket. "I'd much rather stay where you are."
She scowled at him. "Turn around and count to one hundred."
Lucien decided not to remind her that he had already seen her face, so if she intended any sort of escape, she should put a bullet in him, or at the very least check him for weapons -- a prospect he would no doubt enjoy. But all that seemed counterproductive.
He turned to face the inside of the barn and lit his cheroot, blowing out a stream of smoke before saying, "Next time you might want to cock the hammer. Your threat would have been much more impressive."
"Start counting," she snapped.
"One...two...three..." She had until five, then the chase was on.
On the count of four, something bashed him in the back of the head. As black spots wavered before his eyes and his knees buckled beneath him, Lucien's last coherent thought was that Tahj was going to have himself a bloody good laugh if he ever found out his best pupil had been felled by a girl.
Then he hit the dirt.
What rotten luck, Fancy thought as she stared down at the prone form of quite the most handsome man she had ever seen. Black hair, thick and straight, hung well below the collar of his greatcoat. His chiseled profile was limned by shadows and moonlight, the leaves overhead casting patterns on the ground beside him, framing the glorious Goliath.
She winced when she saw the blood on the back of his head. She hadn't planned on hitting him with the rock. Frankly, she hadn't thought she had enough strength to incapacitate him, just daze him a bit so she could make her escape. The wicked glint in his eyes had been the deciding factor. He hadn't looked the least concerned about her shooting him, as though he had known the gun wasn't loaded. But she couldn't take the chance that he would follow her, or report her to the authorities too soon. She only hoped he hadn't gotten a good enough look at her face to give an accurate description.
Kneeling beside him, Fancy pressed two fingers to his neck. Relief coursed through her as she felt his strong, steady heartbeat, his skin taut and warm. His jaw was roughened with whiskers.
He had the most sinfully long lashes, she noted, and they had framed the most memorable eyes, a pale aquamarine that was startling against his swarthy skin. It had taken her a good minute to catch her breath when she'd spotted him leaning in the doorway.
Where had he come from? And was he staying at the inn? She should hope the answer was no, but the thought was oddly depressing. So few exciting things happened in her part of the world.
Itching to touch him, knowing she'd never get another chance, she lightly feathered his hair through her fingers, smoothing the soft strands back as she whispered in his ear, "I'm sorry."
Reluctantly, she pushed to her feet and stared down at him, shamelessly admiring the way his trousers molded his backside. He was so well built, so broad and tall. Not even Heath, her neighbor and long-time friend, whose stature and breadth was impressive, could match this stranger.
But this was no time to be acting bird-witted. She had to find the drunk's cohort and pray he would give her as little trouble as his friend, who had conveniently passed out in the stables. She needed to obtain proof that Rosalyn's stepbrother, Calder, was behind Rosalyn's attempted kidnapping that morning.
Without proof, it would be Rosalyn's word against Calder's. And now that his father was dead and he had appointed himself the district's magistrate -- ousting the fair and honorable man who had held the post for nearly twenty years -- finding allies who would bear witness that Calder was low enough to force his stepsister into marriage would be next to impossible.
Just the thought of what could have happened to her best friend made Fancy shiver. Calder had been furious when he learned that his father had left a considerable fortune to Rosalyn -- a good portion rightfully due her from her deceased father's trust -- enough so that Rosalyn would be independent of Calder or any man, should she so choose.
Everyone knew that Calder's uncontrollable gambling and expensive tastes would lead him to bankruptcy within a few years, even though he had inherited several profitable estates, including Westcott Manor, where Rosalyn had lived until she had fled two days ago.
At present she was at Fancy's house, Moor's End, protected only by Jaines, her grandmother's beloved but ancient butler, and his wife, Olinda, the housekeeper. Both of them had worked at Moor's End since their youth, and though Fancy could barely pay them, they stayed on.
Had it not been for her grandmother, she and her brother, George, would have found themselves in an orphanage when their parents died. Her father's family would never have lifted a finger to help them. When Colonel Samuel Fitz Hugh, Earl of Porthaven, had met and married a common Cornish woman, his family had dissolved any relationship with him.
Fancy was all alone now. Her grandmother had died a year earlier; George, two months later. She had been devastated when she received the news of his death. Only a few weeks before, he had written to say he was coming home.
While she had desperately wanted him home, she knew he was returning because he still thought of her as the fourteen-year-old sister he'd had to leave behind while he fulfilled his duties to God and country, rather than the mature twenty-year-old woman she had become. But she would welcome his overprotecting ways if it would bring him back.
And with her best friend in danger, they sorely needed a man's help. She had underestimated Calder's determination, but she would not be so naive again.
The thought stirred Fancy to action. She took a final look at the stranger, a pang of regret stirring inside her at the thought of never seeing him again. With a heartfelt sigh, she blended into the night to seek out her quarry.
Lucien awoke with a dull pounding at the back of his skull. Memory returned quickly of a pistol-wielding spitfire whose intent he had obviously misjudged. He never would have believed she had it in her to harm a fly, let alone brain a man who outweighed her by at least five stone.
Wincing, Lucien rose from the ground. He figured he'd been unconscious for a few minutes, long enough for the thief to escape. Damn, he'd been outfoxed, and he didn't like the feeling one bit.
His horse had ambled into the stable and was munching on hay. Lucien listened, hearing nothing but the wind through the trees and the drunken revelry coming from the tavern a short distance away, where he intended to enjoy one more night of freedom before reluctantly taking charge of his ward, Lady Francine Fitz Hugh. George's sister.
Lucien dragged a hand through his hair, coming away with blood on his fingertips. That was his reward for his honorable behavior and foolhardy agreement to come to this benighted place. George would be here, if he'd protected the boy better. He had been the lad's commanding officer, after all. From the first day, George had been overzealous, eager for action, eager to please -- and he should have stayed the hell back in Cornwall, with his family.
Instead he had landed in Lucien's regiment, all battle-hardened soldiers who understood that their leader was fallible and who weren't foolish enough to worship him. Most knew how he had earned the nickname Renegade.
Christ, he should have gotten out sooner. Before his demons had taken control of him. Before he had caused the death of a twenty-four-year-old boy.
Familiar anguish twisted in his gut as he grabbed the bay's reins and led him into a stall, removed his bridle and saddle and brushed him down, before stocking his hay and water.
As Lucien was leaving, the stable boy ambled in, a disheveled ragamuffin with sandy brown hair and a pale, freckled face, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, which widened upon spotting Lucien.
"Cor, mister...y' scared me." He blinked as his gaze traveled up Lucien's tall form. "Y' is a big 'un, ain't ye?"
The boy's reaction was not uncommon. At six-four, Lucien generally received a second look. He had to duck to enter most taverns, a damnable nuisance when one was inebriated.
"Where've you been, boy?"
A flush spotted the lad's apple cheeks. "I fell asleep in the back loft, sir. It be the only dry spot on a night such as this."
"Do you have a name?"
"Aye, sir. Jimmy."
"How old are you, Jimmy?"
Bloody hell. The boy should be at home in bed at this hour, asleep under the watchful eyes of his parents, not catering to a bunch of drunken swines on a damp night.
Lucien eyed the lad's bare feet and shabby clothing. They were glaring reminders of how miserable being poor could be, when children had to work to feed themselves and their families, and common necessities were luxuries. Lucien knew that life too well, seeing the youth he had once been in the boy staring at him. He didn't like the feeling.
"Please don't tell nobody," Jimmy beseeched. "I promise it won't ne'er 'appen again."
Lucien knew the boy would be out of a job if his employer got wind of his falling asleep. And the loss of even those meager wages could be devastating to his family.
Lucien had grown up in London's rookery amid filth and squalid misery, was taught about survival by beggars, prostitutes, scavengers, and swindlers. That life stayed in a man's blood and forever tainted him.
"I've got a job for you," Lucien said.
The boy eyed him warily and took a hesitant step back. "Wot kind o' job?"
A bitter taste rose in Lucien's throat as he realized what Jimmy thought he was proposing: some men found young boys to their liking.
He pointed to Sire's stall. "Give my horse some extra oats tonight. He's had a long day." Lucien pulled out a pound note and handed it to the boy, who gaped at it bug-eyed.
"Thank 'ee, sir! I'll take care of 'im right an' proper, I will."
Lucien took a step and then stopped, a pair of green eyes flashing in his mind. "Have you seen anyone strange around here this evening?" he asked.
Jimmy canted his head. "Strange, sir?"
Lucien didn't know why he was reluctant to ask the real question, which was if the lad had seen a woman masquerading in men's clothing.
"Never mind." She was best forgotten, anyway.
He headed toward the tavern, where the feeble glow of lamplight shone through the grimy windowpanes, the dregs of humanity within drowning themselves in ale and gin, their gaiety having nothing to do with the coming holiday. Lucien knew their type well; it was the life he was accustomed to. The life he had never managed to escape.
He stepped through the door. A cloud of smoke hovered against the rafters; the beams were darkened with age, the smell of cheap liquor familiar. He needed a drink. He needed a woman. And he prayed to God that tonight he wouldn't need anything more.
He sat down at a table in the far corner, his back to the wall as his gaze scanned the motley crowd. A plump barmaid sauntered toward him, ample breasts, ample hips, and lust in her eyes.
"Wot can I get 'ee, luv?"
"Bottle of whiskey."
"Plan on 'avin' y'rself a good time, do y'?"
"As good as possible."
"Alone?" Her query was as subtle as the rock the impertinent little thief had hit him with.
"Hopefully not." He couldn't bear another night of solitude.
She smiled seductively. "I get off at two."
Hopefully he'd get off soon thereafter. "Two it is."
Giving him a promising look over her shoulder, she walked away to get his order.
Lucien leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. He was weary. A common malady these days. Why hadn't he just hired another governess for his ward instead of coming here himself? Probably, he thought wryly, because the last two women had swiftly quit, referring to Lady Francine Fitz Hugh as an incorrigible chit who would never aspire to being a true lady. Hopeless, in other words.
Just what he needed: some willful brat who would give him more headaches than he already had. How the hell old was she anyway? He couldn't remember if Fitz had told him. George had always called her his little Fancy -- an angel, he claimed. Clearly the man had been too blind to see his sister for the pain in the rump she was. Lucien could only pray the girl hadn't driven off -- or killed off -- the two old retainers that yet remained at Moor's End.
The barmaid returned with his bottle and a passably clean glass. She leaned over to pour his drink, her mountainous breasts pressing suggestively against him, beginning the foreplay. Normally that would have been enough to stir him, and yet it didn't. He couldn't stop thinking about the lass from the stables. Clearly he had contracted a brain fever.
"Y' are a big hunk o' man. Probably built like a stallion." She shot a glance at his groin. "Ten minutes, and Sugar'll give y' the ride of y'r life." With that promise, she sashayed to the next table.
The first shot of rotgut hit Lucien like a rock rolling down his throat. But it would soon do the trick, benumbing his brain, and that was all that mattered.
He stared into his glass, his mind drifting back a few days to when he had stopped by Northcote, the estate that had once belonged to his friend Caine Ballinger, intending to offer the brooding old boy a bit of season's cheer with a finely aged bottle of brandy.
Caine was one of the first friends Lucien had made upon his return to England. They had been pitted against one another in a round of hazard at Dante's, a crude gaming hell in the bowels of Clerkenwell, the last place Lucien expected to find an earl's son.
Lucien had taken Caine for a considerable sum, but Caine had accepted his defeat with good humor, and they'd both gotten soused thereafter, two drunken fools singing in revelry as they unsteadily wove their way down darkened streets toward Madame Fourche's brothel, as though begging a footpad to relieve them of their money.
They made it unscathed and had one hell of a time that night. The next day Caine had invited Lucien to join a secret society, a group of men that made up a bachelors' club known as the Pleasure Seekers.
Lucien didn't know what would have become of his life had fate not thrown Caine in his path. He had formed the only real friendships he had ever known in those years after he had discovered his family was lost to him. They'd disappeared as though they had never existed, a fact Lucien owed to a dead man, who he hoped rotted in hell.
Caine was the only one who knew the whole story, and it had been damn hard for Lucien to accept the fact that his friend had shut him out. He had only seen Caine sporadically in the two years since Caine's father had died, and those occasions had been tense. The last time, Caine had refused to even see him.
Damn the man for being such a pigheaded ass. Lucien knew his friend was hurting from his father's suicide and from the circumstances he found himself in, an unhealthy relationship with the Marquis of Buxton's widow, Olivia Hamilton -- as well as his obsession over the home he had lost, and the rage he concentrated on the Duke of Exmoor, whom he blamed for his father's death. Lucien wished he could get through to his friend, but the blighter had always been stubborn as a bloody mule.
He took another belt of his drink and caught the barmaid's summons, a promise of promiscuous sex in her eyes as she waved to him from the stairs leading to the chambers above.
Lucien contemplated making an excuse -- peculiar for a man who had always thoroughly enjoyed women. Perhaps that was why he couldn't banish the image of the fiery little head-basher. She had stirred him, and he had needed to know if the feelings she aroused would carry him through, or if that veil of numbness would descend once again.
Yet the thought of being alone, knowing what awaited him in the hours after midnight when his soul was restless, propelled him to his feet and across the pockmarked floorboards. Grabbing the barmaid by the hand, he pulled her up the stairs.
"Y' like it rough, do y'?" She scraped her nails across his back and purred in her coarse voice, "Good. So do I."
Lucien blanked his mind. This was the best he could ever hope to get; he was destined to confine himself to serving girls and whores. The poor boy from the cesspits of Shadwell, on the East London riverside, could never break free.
He had fought it. God how he fought it. But the savage in him yet remained.
At the top of the stairs, the barmaid shoved him up against the wall, her hand cupping his groin as her mouth found his, her eyes nearly feral with lust.
Lucien took hold of her wrists and backed her up a step. "Patience, dear girl. My room is right down there."
He guided her toward the last door on the left, wondering if he could summon a properly enthusiastic response, since his body balked.
He was contemplating his options when a flash of movement caught the corner of his eye, drawing his gaze to a partially opened door. He spotted a familiar breeches-clad leg, heard a familiar warning, then a familiar thud. A grim smile curved his lips.
"Stay here," he ordered the barmaid as he moved to investigate, his restlessness forgotten as he imagined the reckoning one little thief was soon to have.
Copyright © 2004 by Melanie George