Excerpt from Tempting Fortune
He had not expected to be amused by this mission but now, faced by this valiant defender of hearth and home, he was hard pressed not to laugh.
She'd probably shoot him outright if he laughed at her.
She was so tiny, though. Perhaps five foot to his six. Despite full skirts and drowning layers of woolen shawls, he could tell she was lightly built. Certainly the two hands so resolutely gripping the large pistol were small and delicate.
But delicate was not the word that came to mind.
Energy—part courage, part anger, part fear—crackled from her like sparks from green wood on a fire. He could not tell the color of the hair that flowed loose down her back, but he suspected it was be red. She really would shoot him if he provoked her, and that alone was enough to intrigue him.
It was also inconvenient. He did not have much time in which to complete his mission, and this tiny warrior seemed determined to prevent him. He tried reason first.
"I confess to having broken the kitchen window in order to gain access, madam. But no one answered the door."
"And do you always break into houses when no one answers the door?"
He considered it. "Generally speaking, the houses whose doors I knock upon seem to have servants. You have no servants?"
"That is none of your business!"
But he'd hit a nerve. Who the devil was she? This house in Maidenhead had been rented by the Earl of Walgrave to act as a prison for his daughter, Lady Chastity Ware. Bryght had expected to find it empty now Chastity had escaped.
The young woman raised the pistol a threatening inch. "Leave, sirrah!"
Bryght heard her hiss of irritation and awaited events with interest. It took a great deal of callousness to shoot a stationary person in cold blood, and whatever her qualities he didn't think this pocket Amazon was callous.
He was proved correct. She did not pull the trigger.
"Now," he said. "I have a reasonable purpose in being here."
"What reasonable purpose can excuse housebreaking?"
"I have come to collect a document left by a recent occupant."
She did not waver an inch. "What recent occupant?"
"You are full of questions, aren't you? Let us say, a lady."
"I prefer not to answer that." Tiring of the game, he stepped forward to disarm her.
He saw her suck in a breath and raise the gun an inch farther. Damn. He threw himself at her legs just she squeezed the trigger.
Portia was flat on her back, squashed under a giant. Her hands felt numb from the kick of the pistol, and her head was ringing where it had connected with the tiles of the hall floor. Or perhaps it was ringing with the thunder of the pistol-shot. She had never fired a gun indoors before. It made a lot of noise.
She gazed up dazedly and saw that the house-breaking devil seemed rather concerned.
He raised some of his weight on his arms and she took a deep breath. "How dare you!"
"I could hardly let you shoot me."
"Then you should have left!" Portia heaved to try to throw him off but immediately realized that it was a very bad idea. He was lying between her legs and her simple dress with but the one petticoat was very little barrier.
The way his elegant lips twitched at her predicament made her want to scratch his all-too-handsome face. No one had a right to features which so closely resembled an amused Lucifer, especially a bullying, housebreaking wretch.
"Who are you?" she demanded.
"Bryght Malloren, not precisely at your service. And who are you?"
"That, sir, is none of your business." She tried to wriggle from under him, but he had her trapped.
"Then I will call you Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons." He brushed back a tendril of hair that had fallen over her eyes, and the gentleness of the gesture disconcerted her. The same gentleness was in his voice when he said, "Do you always fight against the odds, Hippolyta?"
His dark hair was disordered, too. It was escaping its ribbon and falling in wavy tendrils about his face. The informality was disarming.
"I had a pistol," she pointed out.
"Even so." And he grinned.
Portia growled. The wretch was laughing at her. "Get off me." She made each word clear.
"Not until I claim my forfeit."
"Forfeit?" Portia felt the first touch of real fear. She had been alarmed to hear breaking glass. She had been almost horrified at first sight of the dark creature coming down the corridor toward her. But in some way while bandying words with this man she had not been truly afraid.
Now she realized she was at his mercy. She was not missish by nature, and in her salad days had been a tomboy, but she had never before been unprotected in a strange man's power.
"Forfeit," he said, and the gentleness did not reassure her scurrying heart at all. She found herself staring at his earring—a discreet but expensive-looking jeweled stud. Only the wildest wastrels wore such outrageous ornaments, and only a wealthy one could afford that jewel.
She was in the power of a wealthy, dissolute rake.
He smiled, and it was a devil's smile. "I always claim a forfeit from women who try to kill me."
Portia started to fight in earnest, but her hands were tangled in her three woolen shawls. By the time she'd dragged them free he was ready to capture her wrists.
"Do you ever stop fighting?"
"Would it help?" She twisted against his grip, but it immediately tightened. "You're hurting me!"
"Then stop fighting me."
"Can you really do it on demand? I'd be interested to see that."
Portia hissed with exasperation, but her fear was ebbing like the tides. For some reason she simply could not be truly afraid of this man. It was most peculiar.
She became aware that his weight over her—mostly carried by his arms—was almost comforting, and that she was warm when before she'd been chilled. Faint scents came to her, too. Lavender, she thought, from his linen, and a perfume such as men wore, but a subtle one. Not the heavy sort used to cloak dirt and disease....
"Can you not force even one tear?" he teased and Portia snapped her wits back into order. She tested his grip again, but he immediately tightened it just enough to control.
"You don't think I have reason to cry?" she spat.
"I don't think you're a weeper, my Amazon, unless you see it as a weapon." And he kissed her.
In all her twenty-five years, Portia had never been kissed like this. Not with a man's hard body pinning her to the ground, and his hands confining her for the assault of his mouth.
But it was a tender assault.
Braced as she was for something much worse, the tenderness almost trapped her. She remembered in time that he was her enemy, and held herself still and unresponsive beneath him.
He drew back, and she heard humor as he said, "What a range of weapons you have, my warrior maid. If I give you the victory in this, will you allow me to collect the document? It can be no concern of yours."
He laughed and rocked back onto his feet, then helped her up. While she was still finding her balance and gathering her tangled shawls, he sidestepped her and ran lightly up the stairs.
Portia raced after him, shedding shawls, her shoes clattering on the bare wooden treads. He moved swiftly as if he knew the house, and headed straight for the back bedroom.
That showed he did not know the house at all. That room was empty, stripped of every item of furniture. Perhaps he had the wrong house after all.
She fell into the room after him and grabbed his cloak. "There see! There is nothing here!"
He simply unfastened the cloak and went forward, leaving her with a mass of heavy wool in her hands. She dropped it and plunged after him. He was headed for the fireplace and she ran around him and spread herself in front of it, gasping, "Not another step!"
He stopped mere inches from her. It occurred to her at last that she was being very, very foolish.
This room had two long uncurtained windows and the moonlight was bright, showing him to her clearly at last. Beneath his dark jacket and leather riding breeches was clearly a superb collection of bone and muscle that must out-mass her two to one. Behind the beautiful face was a will that would not be turned from its goal.
His goal just now was the fireplace she guarded with her body.
She swallowed, hoping she did not look as frightened as she felt.
Portia's mother had often bemoaned her rash nature, blaming it upon the name chosen by her idealistic father. Hannah Upcott did not care for theater at the best of times, and thought Portia's name encouraged an unseemly drive to challenge the world. She had insisted that her second daughter be named Prudence.
Hannah regularly predicted that Portia's reckless nature would land her in trouble, and often quoted the adage: "Those who dice with the devil end up in the flames." Portia feared that she was about to prove her mother right, but she still couldn't meekly step aside.
The devil made no immediate move to manhandle her. "If there is nothing there, why the heat?"
Despite a racing heart, she looked him in the eye. "You have forced your way into this house, sir. I will not allow this intrusion."
"At another time, Hippolyta, I would be amused to test your ability to allow or disallow, but my business is somewhat urgent. May I point out that the easiest way to have me leave is to allow me to find what I have come for?"
"You will have to prove you have the right to the document. To whom does it belong?"
"I told you. To a lady." There was the warning edge of impatience in his voice.
"And how did it come to be here?"
"Let us say, she was a guest."
She glanced around the stark room. "In here? I doubt it."
"Perhaps she has ascetic tastes. Why, I wonder, are you so fierce in your guarding of this place? Does the Earl of Walgrave deserve such allegiance?"
The name startled Portia. If this Malloren man knew the house was leased by the Earl of Walgrave, then he clearly was not in the wrong house after all.
For the first time Portia wondered if his business here were legitimate. He had, after all, knocked on the door like an honest man. She had heard the sharp raps but ignored them. No one would be knocking at the door looking for her, and being alone in the house she had no mind to open it so late at night.
She said, "The earl, like any householder, has the right to expect that his home be inviolate."
"I doubt the mighty earl would claim this simple place his home. He merely leased it for a purpose. Since it is the earl's property, however, I wonder what you are doing here. Housekeeper, perhaps?"
"An intruder, then, like myself? After all, I came upon you skulking in the chilly dark, pistol in hand."
"I was not skulking! We are guests, sir. We are well-acquainted with the earl, and he invited us to stay here." Portia would not tell him that she and her brother were impoverished supplicants and that the earl had commanded them to await his pleasure here.
Portia realized she was being trapped into conversation, and conversation was dangerous.
"Us?" he repeated softly.
"Myself, ten hefty brothers, and three servants," she declared, chin high "They are all out at the moment."
"Only three servants?" he drawled. "How paltry. I require that many to hand me my clothes in the morning."
She was not entirely sure he was joking. "I will not meekly permit you to do what you want here, Mr. Malloren."
"My lord," he corrected amiably, moving a little closer. "Lord Arcenbryght Malloren. An absurd name, but mine own."
Portia was aware of a distressing tendency to both gape and sidle away, but she hit back. "Your rank does not excuse your wickedness, my lord."
"True." He caged her with a hand on the wall on either side of her head. "But it makes it a lot less likely I'll be hauled before the magistrates for my sins, doesn't it?" His height forced her to tilt her head back to meet his eyes, and her neck hurt as she watched his lips lower toward hers. Her heart was pounding and she was beginning to turn dizzy. Damn him, damn him, damn him....
"So, mignonne," he whispered inches from her lips, "why not just allow me my wicked way?"
Portia admitted at last that she was completely out-matched. He was a lord, a rake, and a large, ruthless man intent on his purpose. She ducked away from him and he let her go, flashing her an all-too-knowing grin.
May the ten curses of Egypt fall on his head!
Portia knew it, for now there was no humor in his voice at all. He had one arm unbreakably around her and the folded paper was in front of her face. It was heavily scented with Otto of Roses and she turned her head away from the smell.
"Do you not care for the perfume?" It was said lightly, but nothing could persuade her that he was in a good humor.
"It is a little cloying, my lord."
"A lady of virtue and discretion, would you say?"
"But this letter could be to a friend, discussing the latest gowns."
"I fear not." His tone was almost contemplative.
His arm was a prison as secure as iron bars, but Portia was relaxing. Again, she sensed no direct threat in him, and in fact found this strange embrace almost comforting. It was hard being small, female, and responsible for everything. What would it be like to have a strong man at one's command?
Such foolishness. What point in trusting men when they could lose the very roof over one's head with foolish investments, or on the turn of a card? As her father had done, then shot himself. As her half-brother had done, landing them in this predicament.
She pushed against his hold. "Let me go, my lord. You have what you came for, and I cannot stop you taking it."
"I'm glad you realize that at last." He relaxed his arm and she pushed free and turned to face him.
She saw she was right. The light humor that had marked him throughout their encounter was shadowed now by something else, and the way he was looking at the papers in his hand was disquieting. Surprisingly, she felt a kind of tenderness, a desire to comfort one who suffered.
"Are those not the papers you came for?" she asked.
His gaze flicked up to hers. "Do you think there is a collection of perfumed love-letters behind the fireplace? What an entrancing thought! I suppose I should check this...." He made no move to do so, however, but turned the papers contemplatively in his long fingers. "It would be a shame to leave with merely a laundry list pushed back there to seal a gap, wouldn't it?"
Portia folded her arms primly. "That, my lord, is no laundry list."
"Recognize the type, do you? Tut, tut, Hippolyta. Yes, I do indeed expect it to be a searing love letter, and one that is part of an illicit, rather than a holy love." He was speaking lightly, but he was not composed of light. He was dark and coiled dangerously tight. Even though she did not feel he posed any direct threat to her, Portia shivered.
They stood there, frozen in the silvered silence for what seemed an age, but then he unfolded the paper and angled it into the moonlight.
She saw his face change.
He could not be otherwise than pale in the moonlight, but now his features tightened as if he read bad news. Portia put aside antagonism and went forward to place a gentle hand on his sleeve. "My lord, what is it?"
He seized her by the front of her gown. "Time for your secrets, Hippolyta. Who are you, and what are you doing here?"
"I'm the earl's guest!" Her voice came out as a squeak, finally strangled by pure terror.
He pressed her back, back until she was flat against the wall. "No servants. No lights. A pistol, and an unholy interest in these papers. Try again."
"There's a candle in my bedroom!"
"And the pistol?" he queried in caustic disbelief.
"I heard someone break in!"
"And immediately came down to confront the burglar? What well-bred lady would behave that way?" But the terrifying surge of rage was leashed. "Your name, Hippolyta."
She would give anything to be free of him. "Portia St. Claire."
It did not help. He stared at her, new passion blossoming behind his eyes. "St. Claire?" he repeated quietly like a curse. "No wonder you are so anxious to get hold of this letter." His sudden smile was as pleasant as a rank sewer. "What, I wonder, are you willing to trade for it?"
She tried to press back into the solid plaster of the wall, away from his malice. "Nothing. Nothing at all."
"No? But it is very damaging. Do you want proof?" Restraining her with one hand, he flicked open the letter. "It is addressed to Hercules from Desiree. See what she writes. I think of your mighty rod in my satin pocket and Weak Tea thinks I moan for him. When we met last week at the theater, I was wearing your handkerchief between my legs—"
She tore at his restraining hand. "Stop it!"
He stopped. "I think See what she writes. I think of your mighty rod in my satin pocket and Weak Tea thinks I moan for him. When we met last week at the theater, I was wearing your handkerchief between my legs—"
She tore at his restraining hand. "Stop it!"
He stopped. "I think Desiree would expect you to try harder to get this back from me, Portia St. Claire."
"I know no Desiree!"
"Come, come. We know it's not her real name."
"Real or not, I do not know her!" She struggled against his grip. "Let me go. Please!" Portia hated the plea in her voice, but she would grovel to get away. She was choking from fear, and her heart was racing fit to burst. She had never before encountered someone so filled with violent anger. "Just take your letter and go," she whispered.
With his back to the long windows, his face was shadowed. "You are willing to let me leave with it without a fight?"
"Then why did you try to steal it?"
When she did not answer, he shook her. "Why?"
"Just to thwart you!" she gasped.
He abruptly released her. "I'm amazed you've survived to your current advanced age, Miss St. Claire."
Portia sidled away from the madman. "I am only twenty-five."
"I took you for younger, both by your looks and your behavior." The razor's edge of danger had gone, though, and he seemed largely bemused. "Tell Desiree when you report to her that Bryght Malloren has her letter, and will contact her about payment."
She straightened her spine and glared at him. "I tell you, I know no Desiree! You are mad, my lord!"
He just raised a brow and turned to leave, swooping to gather up his cloak as he passed. Portia offered no further protests, but just prayed earnestly that nothing would interfere with his departure.
Her young brother Oliver walked in, candle in hand. The wavering golden light was shocking after the time of silver and shadow. "Portia? What are you doing in here in the dark?" He stopped. "Who are you, sir?"
"A housebreaker," said Bryght Malloren curtly. He glanced back at Portia. "Your other hefty brothers and the three servants?"
"Just leave, my lord." Oliver was only half a foot taller than she and no match for this Malloren man.
Oliver, however, did not seem aware of his danger. "Housebreaker?" he queried. "My lord? Servants? What the devil's going on? I'll have an explanation of you, sir!" His free hand reached for his sword.
"Oh, 'struth." And Bryght Malloren plucked the candle from Oliver's hand and knocked him unconscious.
Portia cried out and ran forward. She stopped when the intruder turned on her, his features now demonic in the flaring candle light.
"When the bantam cock comes round, tell him who I am. As a Malloren I could crush him like a cockroach. As a swordsman, I suspect I could kill him with one hand tied behind my back. And my conscience wouldn't trouble me much over killing a St. Claire."
Her hands became fists. "Get out of here, you arrogant bully!"
He made no move to go, but looked her over coldly. "You improve with lighting, Hippolyta, but you need to learn discretion. Do you really want another battle with me?"
"I wish I still had a pistol. This time I would not hesitate. Get out!"
He moved toward her, then halted. "Amazon tears," he said softly. "Now there's a weapon to defeat any man." With an ironic inclination of his head he turned and swept out of the room.
Portia had not been aware until then that she was crying.
Tears of rage, she assured herself, scrubbing the evidence from her cheeks. By heaven, but she meant what she said. If she still had a loaded pistol she would shoot the bully now.
She glanced at her brother, who was stirring, then ran out to the landing to make sure the intruder really did leave. She reached there as the door slammed behind him.
"And good riddance," she muttered. Pray heaven she never set eyes on the man again.