Chapter Seven - by Louise Allen
‘Never!’ Araminta cried. A highwayman, here in their quiet country parish? She glared up defiantly at the tall but slender figure on the big horse. His face was covered by a mask, his hair by a slouch hat pulled low. His long legs…She pulled herself together. She had seen rather too many pairs of magnificent legs today and she had no intention of coming any closer to these. ‘Begone before the magistrates hear of this,’ she said, hoping that she did not sound as alarmed as she felt. ‘And let that horse go – stealing such an animal will get you transported, if not hanged.’
‘I merely borrow it, my lady.’ The man’s voice was light, yet masculine. He was disguising it, she could tell. And he knows who I am, or at least, that I am titled, she realised with a shock.
‘Come here, my lady and give me your hand.’ He controlled the edgy gelding one-handed with ease.
‘Certainly not.’ She stayed firmly where she was. Behind her Mr Hodges’s gasps and cries had died away into silence, broken only by an occasional, pathetic, splash. At her feet the three gentlemen lay sprawled in the dust watching the highwaymen with lethal alertness for one mistake.
‘Which of these would you like me to shoot, then?’ the rogue enquired. ‘You don’t want Silverthorne. The man’s a rake and he’s far too engrossed with his buxom mistress to be serious in his attentions to any other woman just now. His Grace the Duke of Dashing? Do you want to play second fiddle to your husband all your life? He’s a smug, manipulative type, if you ask me.’
‘I did not ask you,’ Araminta interjected indignantly. At her feet Derek was choking in indignation and all Torquil could manage was a hiss of fury.
‘Then there’s Ed Deppity. Damn silly name – do you want to be Lady Deppity?’
‘I’ll have you know it is an ancient name of great – ‘
‘Idiocy,’ the highwayman interrupted the affronted baronet. ‘So which shall I shoot, my lady? Rake, pompous smug duke or baronet with a name from a stage farce?’
‘None of them.’ To her horror Araminta discovered that she was finding this rather stimulating. She very much doubted that this scoundrel really meant murder, however much he was provoked. And the contemplation of his lithe body mastering that restless horse sent little shivers up and down her spine.
‘Then come here.’ He reached out again and she walked forward, skirting the prone, spluttering gentlemen to put her hand in his. Araminta found herself lifted up until her foot found his, then she was sitting on the saddle in front of him.
His thighs, hard with muscle, supported her in the most delightful manner although the pommel of the saddle was rather obtrusive. If it was the pommel…
‘Unhand her!’ With a sound like a hundred boots being wrenched from thick mud Mr Hodges rose to his feet. Dripping with stagnant water, his hat gone, his hair full of brambles and cow parsley he looked like an indignant rural god wakened from his slumbers and ready to smite whoever had disturbed him with something unpleasant. Cow pats, perhaps, Araminta mused, caught up in her own fantasy.
‘Set down that lady immediately!’ The curate had found the voice usually reserved for hell-fire sermons when the villagers had been particularly active at the ale house.
‘Or?’ the highwayman enquired politely.
The gelding sidled and Araminta found herself clutching his coat to keep her balance. He smelled nice, she realised. Not like a sweaty, unwashed criminal. She breathed deeply: hay, plain soap, horse and warm man. Yum.
‘Or… or…’ Mr Hodges stuttered to a halt.
‘Good day to you, gentlemen.’ The highwayman inclined his head with mocking courtesy, turned the horse and cantered off down the lane with Araminta clinging to the lapels of his coat, her face pressed against his chest and her heart thudding with mingled excitement and alarm.
It could not have been more than five minutes before her captor turned off the lane into a little copse. In the centre was a glade, open to the blue sky and spangled with wild flowers. He slid her gently to the ground, dismounted and threw the reins over a branch.
‘And now, Lady Araminta…’
He did know her name, it was not just a guess at her title. ‘What do you want of me?’ she asked. Standing in front of her he was tall, lightly built with a muscled grace and, she guessed, a little younger than the gentlemen who had been enlivening her walk home.
‘Just something I have been aching for these past two years,’ he murmured as he took her by the shoulders and drew her close. ‘Just one kiss.’
Her hands closed on his forearms. He was so close now his breath was warm on her lips, she could see the vivid blue of his eyes, the arch of dark brows beneath the sweep of his hat brim. Those eyes! Did she recognise them? And then he bent his head and she had to decide. Stay or run…?
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