Authors: Lauren Royal
Tags: #Historical Romance
Well, second sight, actually—but he hadn't paid any attention to her the first time, so surely that didn't count.
Then she would turn around, ride back, stop in the middle of the road, right in front of him, and slide off Pandora slowly...so slowly. Still gazing at her, he'd come forward, reaching her in two or three of his long strides, his large, strong hands spanning her waist as he eased her to the ground. And then...
She had no idea. Inexperience didn't make for detailed fantasies. And she certainly wouldn't have anything to do with a highwayman, anyway. Her fantasy wasn't only boring, it was absurd.
But instead of turning back, she rode along the crest of the hill a spell, then turned away from the lane. And there, perhaps a hundred feet distant, was a very mysterious mound.
It wasn't sculpted by nature, Kendra realized immediately. Its shape was angular, its surface dirt, not grass.
A grave. A fresh grave.
Her hands tightened on the reins as she approached the tomb. Who could be buried there? The highwayman? A victim of his? Either one was unthinkable. She bit the inside of her cheek, worrying the soft flesh with her teeth.
A single raindrop fell on one of her clenched fists, and a gust of wind whooshed as she reached the mound. From her perch atop Pandora, she saw the loose dirt blow across it, revealing a sheet of canvas underneath. Her heart hammered at the sight. Was the man not buried properly, then—just covered with a spot of fabric?
She slid off Pandora and led her forward to investigate. Leaning down, she took a corner of the canvas, just a corner, in two shaking fingers and lifted it...
If her brothers had been here, they'd have told her, as usual, not to jump to conclusions. And this time, they'd have been right. Her shout of laughter rang across the Downs as she threw back the canvas.
Twelve blocks of wood. Twelve narrow pipes of various gauges. Twelve hats with different colored plumes and a variety of hatbands.
She tethered Pandora to a tree. Atop a nearby hill, she set a hat on a block of wood with a pipe sticking out from under it. When she ran back down and glanced up, it looked for all the world like a man lying on his stomach, pointing a gun at her.
He was clever, this man. Very clever.
"What do you think you're doing?"
She froze. She hadn't heard anyone approach, and for the barest second she thought the voice was in her head. But he was standing behind her. She could feel his presence, maybe three feet away.
"I'm..." Words failed her. "I'm..."
"You're letting my hat get wet."
"Oh." Kendra put a hand to her head, feeling the mass of her hair curling with dampness. She hadn't noticed the increasing drizzle. "It's raining."
"Very observant of you."
She turned then and gazed up at him, and he looked exactly the way she'd known he would. His hair
golden—thick, silky, and straight. It was cut short, not chin-length like a Puritan's, nor cropped like a wig-wearing Royalist's, but somewhere in between, and the front was hanging in his eyes. She wanted to reach out and sweep it off his forehead, but she seemed rooted in place, and she wouldn't have dared to touch him, anyway.
His snug black breeches were wool, not velvet, and his shirt was white, not black. He wasn't here for business, then.
"I've come to save my props from the rain. Will you help me, seeing as you're here?"
Help him? She ought to be bolting for Pandora at this very moment. "Of course."
Had she said that? She knew she shouldn't have. He ran up the hill and snatched up the three props, then turned and strode back to the rest of them. Windblown, his golden hair bounced in time with his steps as she followed.
She concentrated on his broad back, watching the play of muscles beneath his thin shirt as he flipped over the canvas and piled the hats on top, bundling them up and tying the four corners in a neat knot to make a parcel. He hefted it, testing its weight, then turned to her. "You can carry this, aye? Before you, on your horse?"
He didn't sound angry at her, more like he was simply resolved to complete his task in the most efficient manner possible. Kendra was somewhat relieved, but she moved in a haze of unreality.
She managed to find her voice, however. "If you'll hand it up to me, yes, I'm sure I can carry it. Where are we taking it?"
"A cottage over the next hill, not too far." He gathered the pipes under one arm and lifted the bundle by its knot. "Let's be off, before it starts raining in earnest."
His horse was tied by hers—amber, of course, his glossy coat a tawny tan color. Pandora's hide was a deep brown, and Kendra thought they made a handsome pair.
It was difficult to see over the bundle in front of her, but it was a short ride.
The cottage was unlocked, and the highwayman made short work of tethering their horses before depositing the pipes inside and returning for the bundle. After handing it to him, Kendra slid off Pandora slowly...so slowly...and a second later he was back, and his large, strong hands were spanning her waist as he eased her to the ground.
His fingers rested on her waist a little longer than necessary, and she felt their warmth through her habit. She looked up at him. He had a wide mouth, the full lower lip perfectly straight across the center bottom edge. She wanted to touch him, just there.
Her eyes locked on his, and her breath caught in her throat.
A crash of thunder rent the air, and big raindrops began pelting to the earth. He jumped back, motioning her to follow him inside.
She should leave. Now. But it was pouring...
The cottage looked more like a well-appointed hunting lodge, warm and cozy and very masculine. He shut the door behind them and wandered to a leather-upholstered couch, throwing his long form onto it with a surprising grace. "Close, aye? Five more minutes, and my hats would have been ruined. I thank you for your help."
"You're welcome," Kendra said from just inside the door where she still stood in a daze. She couldn't believe she was in a hunting lodge with this dangerous man. It was incredible—and, all of a sudden, incredibly scary. She couldn't remember ever having been alone with a man, save her brothers. And she didn't know the first thing about this one—except that he was an outlaw.
The fear must have shown on her face, because he sat straight and patted the cushion beside him. "Come here—I don't bite. You'll stay till it stops raining, aye?"
"Aye—I mean, yes." Outlaw or not, she loved the way he talked, the words slow and melodic. Though her heart was pounding, she screwed up her courage and moved to sit gingerly beside him. "I'm Kendra. Kendra Chase."
"Trick?" she echoed, startled. She turned to him, forgetting for a moment that he was supposed to be frightening. "What kind of a name is Trick?"
"Ah, and that's a story." He smiled at her, a wide white smile that lit up the cottage and belied the dreary day. Leaning forward, he reached out a hand and placed it on her wrist, just lightly, but a tingle raced up her arm and throughout her body, warming her in the strangest way. Something snapped inside her, and the sense of unreality was gone.
She was here, really here, with the amber highwayman—no, Trick, she corrected herself—alone, and he wasn't scary at all.
Well, not very.
"Are you hungry?" Trick asked suddenly.
She shook her head, wondering if he actually had food here. Surely he didn't own this cottage. Well, maybe he knew where the owner kept stores, and she shouldn't be surprised he would use them.
He was a thief, after all.
"Thirsty, then? Aye, I'm guessing a spot of wine would do you. You look tense."
Tense didn't begin to describe how Kendra felt. She glanced down at his long fingers ringed lightly around her wrist. "A...spot of wine would be nice, if you have it. Thank you."
Releasing her, he rose with a leonine grace and sauntered over to a cabinet without hesitation, as though he knew every nook and cranny of the place. Crystal goblets and a matching decanter were hidden behind the doors. He filled two glasses, and she took one, hoping he didn't see her hand shake.
"I'll just settle the horses and return, aye?"
"There's a small stable in the back." He set his goblet on the mantel. Taking a heavy cloak that dangled from a peg on the wall, he shrugged into it and was out the door with a whoosh of wind.
She sat on the couch, listening to the rain on the roof and sipping the sweetish Madeira. Though she wasn't cold, she shivered. Looking around, she wondered how he could describe this as a cottage.
The cottages in the village of Cainewood were generally tiny and dark, single-room buildings with rough plastered walls and trodden earth floors. This cottage was impeccably clean and boasted large glass windows. The wooden walls and floors were polished to a gleam, and her feet rested on a lovely Oriental carpet. Besides the couch, there were two chairs and several small tables, two marquetry cabinets, and a desk in one corner.
She walked over to it and ran a hand along the smooth, rich wood. Everything on top was neatly arranged. Setting down her goblet, she slid open the top drawer to find a stack of paper and bottles of ink. Her hand went to the bottom drawer and tugged, but it was stuck closed or locked. She frowned at it, then turned to survey the rest of the enormous room.
A beautiful carved dining table and chairs sat on another patterned carpet, obviously imported from lands far away. A peek through an archway revealed a spotless, quite modern kitchen, the shelves heavily stocked with victuals. Another archway opened onto a corridor, which apparently led to several more rooms.
Some cottage, Kendra thought. All furnished, food and drink...Trick seemed quite at home. Maybe he lived here, after all. She'd never thought much about where a highwayman might live, but she hadn't expected it would be a hunting lodge, or a cottage, or whatever he wanted to call it. She'd assumed they slept in inns or the like.
When the door opened and Trick walked in and swept off his cloak, she rushed back to the desk and reclaimed her goblet.
"It's not letting up," he announced, stomping the rain off his boots.
She was relieved that he didn't seem to care she'd been nosing around. "Is this...yours?" she blurted, making her way to sit on the couch. "I mean, do you live here?"
Kendra felt her face heat. She really shouldn't be so curious. It was none of her business whom the cottage belonged to, and now she'd put Trick on the spot.
Of course he didn't own it. Many highwaymen had a reputation for being gentlemanly, but that didn't mean they were actual
. Men of property didn't turn to the roads for sustenance.
Thankfully, he looked amused rather than annoyed or embarrassed. He swiped his wine off the mantel and sat beside her.
The room was quiet except for the soft pit-pat of rain. She sipped from her own goblet, peeking at him over the rim. He gazed at her through the ends of his damp golden hair, and she saw his eyes darken. But surely he had no reason to be angry.
No, it was something else.
Her heart sped up, and of its own accord her hand rose to sweep clear his forehead. Horrified at herself, she snatched it back just in time.
With a sudden grin, he gave a toss of his head that flung the hair from his eyes. "We were speaking of my name," he reminded her—or himself.
She gulped more wine. "What did your parents name you, really?"
"Patrick Iain Caldwell." He settled back slowly. "But my father was away when I was born—Father was always away—so my mother named me. Scots–Irish, she was. In any case, he was appalled when he finally ventured home to meet me. Said she'd tricked him good, giving his English son two barbarian names."
Kendra grinned. "Trick...since she'd tricked him?"
"And short for Patrick, though he'd never admit it. They hated each other, they did. It was an arranged marriage."
"That sounds rather old-fashioned. Why?"
"Damned if I know." He drained his goblet and stared at it pensively, twirling it by its stubby stem. "Neither of them would talk of the other long enough for me to find out."
"How sad," she murmured, the sincere tone of her voice drawing his gaze.
Trick looked up to see Kendra shaking her beautiful head. Sweet Mary, she was lovely. And regardless of the dreary, rainy day, she smelled of sunshine and lavender. It was all he could do to keep from leaning close and burying his nose in her burgundy curls.
Damn. Why couldn't she be a bloody serving maid? It had been a long time since he'd bedded a woman—a long time since he'd felt attracted to one—but Cainewood's sister was not the female on whom to slake his pent-up lust.
He shouldn't have asked her to the cottage, shouldn't have encouraged her to stay. Jason Chase would have his head if he knew she was here, unescorted. But with the rain and all, it had seemed the gentlemanly thing to do. And he hadn't seemed able to help himself.
Still, the last thing he needed was her sympathy regarding the childhood he'd just as soon forget.
"Not so sad," he said, tearing his gaze from her face only to have it land on her chest. Pert breasts were molded within her riding habit's collarless jacket, in perfect proportion to her small stature. His eyes moved down to her waist, and his palms itched as he remembered his hands spanning it. He forced himself to look out the window. A raindrop trailed in a slow, crooked line. "Arranged marriages are common enough."
"For some, perhaps. The peerage is often compelled to wed for alliance."
God's blood, she thought he was a commoner. She really had no idea who he was. Trick smiled to himself, then sobered. Considering yesterday's encounter, if she knew nothing of him, her brothers were even more protective than he'd thought.
He rose to set his empty goblet on the mantel, then turned and leaned back against it, crossing his arms and ankles. "Your folks were different, then?"
"Oh, yes. They had a perfect, romantic marriage and loved each other very much. Too much, according to one of my brothers. He says they loved each other and the monarchy, and there was nothing left for us."