In this scene, our intrepid heroine Prudence Walker is about to steal a peek at the dangerous highwayman who abducted her after she accidentally got him shot...
As she hooked the lantern on her finger and crept toward the pallet, she remembered her aunt’s chiding refrain.Curiosity is most unbecoming in a lady. Prudence’s papa had not called it curiosity, though. He had called it a sharp mind for deduction. What Papa had failed to tell her was that a deductive mind was not an asset suitors desired. Prudence seriously doubted if a desperate criminal would be any more appreciative of it.
She knelt beside the pallet, her petticoat cushioning her knees as she held the lantern aloft.
The highwayman had shrugged aside most of the covers. Only a single blanket rode dangerously low on his hips. One serious sigh might dislodge it. Downy hair the color of honey covered his chest. Prudence’s wide-eyed gaze traced it to where it tapered to a thin line, then disappeared beneath the blanket. Moving the lantern, she shifted her gaze back up his body. He was of average height, but the wide breadth of his shoulders made him look bigger than he was.
A smile touched her lips when she saw the ball of gray fluff tucked into his elbow. The sleepy kitten lifted his head and gave her a disgruntled look. Prudence touched her finger to her lips in a plea for silence. With a faint squeak, the kitten stretched and rested his chin on his paws.
Prudence’s mouth went as dry as cotton as the lantern flame shed a halo of light over the highwayman’s face. His tawny hair was badly in need of a trim. She reached to brush it back from his brow before she realized what she was doing. Snatching her hand back, she inadvertently touched the hot tin of the lantern. She stifled a gasp of pain, telling herself one burn was better than another.
Lifting the lantern higher, she hungrily studied his features. The sun had burnished his skin to a warm, sandy color that nearly matched his hair. His low-set brows were a shade darker. A thick fringe of charcoal lashes rested on his cheeks. Aunt Tricia would do murder for such lashes, Prudence thought. Not even copious amounts of lamp black could duplicate them. His nose was slightly crooked, as if it had been broken once, but its menace was softened by the faintest smattering of freckles across its bridge. A pale crescent of a scar marred the underside of his chin. Shallow lines bracketed his mouth and creased his forehead. Prudence suspected they had been cut not by time, but by wind and weather. She judged his age to be near thirty.
The lamplight played over his mouth like a lover, and Prudence felt her chest tighten. It was a wonderful mouth, firm and well formed, the bottom lip fuller than the top. Even in sleep, the slant of his jaw tightened it to a sulky pout that would have challenged any woman. Prudence wanted to touch it, to make it curve in laughter or soften in tenderness.
She leaned forward as if hypnotized.
“Amethyst.” The word came from nowhere.
Her gaze leaped guiltily from the bandit’s lips to his wide-open eyes.
Prudence was caught in a trap of her own making, paralyzed not by the accusing circle of light, but by the stranger’s eyes, which were the misty gray color of summer rain. She felt like a dowdy moth beating its wings against a star.
“Amethyst?” she repeated weakly. Perhaps the bandit was dreaming of gems he had stolen.
“Your eyes,” he said. “They’re amethyst.”
She blinked. Prudence had no difficulty seeing things close to her, so there was no need to squint now. If she closed her eyes, she suspected she would still see his face, etched indelibly on the slate of her mind. He did not touch her, but she could not move. Poised there in the light, she waited for him to reproach her or yell at her or shoot her. She bit her bottom lip, then loosed it quickly, remembering how her aunt said the childish habit emphasized her buckteeth.
Sebastian studied her frankly, his earlier suspicions confirmed. The girl was utterly lovely. The delicate alabaster of her skin gave her even features a surprising fragility. A nearly imperceptible cleft crowned the tip of her slender nose, and the primness of that nose was belied by a faint overbite that hinted at an alluring pout. Stubby dark lashes framed her violet eyes. The lamplight sought out burgundy highlights in the velvety tumble of her hair.
Sebastian caught a coil of that hair between his fingertips. It was as soft and heavy as it looked. He had forgotten the pleasure of touching a woman’s hair without getting powder on his hands. The steady throb of his ankle waned as a new throb shoved blood though his veins in a primal beat.
His eyes narrowed in a lazy sensuality Prudence mistook for drowsiness. “Put out the lamp,” he said.
She obeyed, relieved that she had escaped being scolded or shot. Darkness drew in around them. The firelight cast flickering shadows on the far wall.
“Lie down beside me.”
Her relief dissolved at the husky warmth of his voice. The darkness shrouded his features, reminding her he was a stranger, with all the dangerous edges of any unknown man met in the seductive solitude of night.
She twisted her petticoat between both hands. “I’m not very tired, thank you.”
“You’re not a very good liar either.” His hand circled her slender wrist. “If I offend you, you may kick me in the ankle. I’m relatively harmless right now.”
Prudence doubted he’d be harmless with both legs broken. No man with a mouth like that was harmless.
“I won’t hurt you,” he said. “Please.”
It was the “please” that did it. How could she resist such good manners in a highwayman? After a moment of hesitation, she stretched out beside him, her arms and legs as rigid as boards. He slipped an arm beneath her shoulders in a casual embrace, and her head settled in the crook of his shoulder more easily than she would have hoped. Rain pattered a soothing beat on the thatched roof.
“Have you no family to worry over you?” he asked. “Won’t they be frantic when you haven’t returned?”
“I’m supposed to say yes, aren’t I? So you’ll hesitate to throttle me lest they should burst in.”
He chuckled. “Perhaps you’re not such a bad liar after all. Have you heard rumors of me throttling women?”
She thought for a moment. “No. But a friend of my aunt’s, a Miss Devony Blake, claims you ravished her last summer. It was the talk of every picnic and ball for months. She swooned quite prettily each time she told the horrid tale.”
“Which I’m sure she did,” he said curtly, “in frequent and exacting detail. What do you think of this Miss Blake?”
Prudence buried her face against his collarbone. “She hasn’t a brain in her silly blonde head. It was more likely that she ravished you.”
“So only a girl without a brain would ravish me?” His fingertips traced a teasing pattern on her arm. “Tell me—will this aunt of yours be wondering where you are?”
“She had gone to a midnight buffet when I went out. Perhaps she’ll think I snuck out for an illicit tryst.” Prudence smiled at the improbability of the thought.
Sebastian did not find the idea amusing. His arm tightened around her shoulders.
“Aye, that I did.” Again, she mocked his burr with uncanny accuracy. “To meet the bonniest fellow betwixt London and Edinburgh.”
Sebastian’s ankle started to throb again. “Your lover?” he asked quietly.
“No, silly—my Sebastian.”
Hearing his name spoken in his mistress’s adoring tones, the kitten lifted his head with a drowsy purr. Sebastian took advantage of the distraction to slide his hip next to Prudence’s, feeling unaccountably elated at her words. The kitten deserted the crook of his elbow and climbed onto Prudence’s chest by way of her stomach,
“Fickle beast,” he muttered.
He reached over to pet the animal, and his hand found the kitten’s silky fur at the same moment as Prudence’s. Their fingertips brushed, and she laughed breathlessly.
“It seemed such an ordinary morning when I awoke,” Prudence said. “I had my bath. I put up my hair. I ate my prunes and cream.” Her voice sounded odd to her, more like Devony Blake’s than her own. “If anyone had told me I would be having such an extraordinary adventure by nightfall—I mean, lying in a highwayman’s arms—I would have thought them insane.”
He pulled his arm from beneath her and propped himself up on his elbow. “And if anyone had told you a highwayman would be kissing you?”
She swallowed. “I would have judged them a madman, lunatic, bedlamite ...”
Her voice trailed off as his fingers entwined with her own. His head bent over her, blocking out the meager firelight, and he touched his wonderful mouth to hers.