Forbidden to the Duke

By: Liz Tyner

Chapter One

The pudgy-eyed gamekeeper pointed a flintlock straight at Bellona’s chest. His eyebrows spiked into angry points. ‘Drop the longbow.’ His gun barrel emphasised his words and even without the weapon his size would have daunted her. He’d not looked so large or his stare so bloodless from a distance.

Noise crashed into her ears—the sound of her heart—and the beats tried to take over every part of her. She forced the blackness away and locked her stare with his. Charred hatred, roughened by the unshaven chin, slammed out from his face.

She nodded and tossed the bow into the twining berry thorns at the side of the path. The canopy of sycamore leaves covered him in green-hued shadows.

He put one hand to his mouth, thrust his fingers to his lips and whistled loud enough to be heard in Greece. The shrill sound jabbed her, alerting her that he wasn’t alone. She’d never seen anyone else in the forest but this devil. She would be fighting two men and at least one weapon.

‘...shoot at me...’ He spoke again and the words snapped her back into understanding.

She cursed herself for not taking more care. She’d not heard him behind her—but she should have smelled his boiled-cabbage stench.

‘I be bringing his lordship,’ he said. ‘Your toes be dangling and the tide be washing your face before they cut you down. You won’t be shooting at me no more. You’re nothing more’n a common wench and people in lofty places be wantin’ you to hang.’

Her fingers stiffened, her mind unable to send them commands. She held her chin high. She’d thought she was in a safe land. She’d thought she’d escaped men who wanted to hurt her. Showing fear would be dangerous. ‘You—’ She couldn’t have taken her eyes from his. ‘I’m a guest of the Earl of Warrington and I have misplaced myself.’

The man’s nose bunched up as he talked. ‘But you ain’t on the earl’s land now, Miss Lady Nobody. You’re no better’n me.’ He waved the gun. ‘You’re a poacher and I’ve seen you here aplenty times before. I just niver could catch you.’

‘The earl will be thymomenos, angered.’

He snorted. ‘But this is the duke’s land. His Grace don’t lose no sleep over what an earl would think.’

She forced her fingers alert. ‘You are the one who should think. You must know I live near.’

‘But you ain’t no real lady. I already told the duke all about you and how you been scattering my traps and he thinks I’m imaginin’. Your eyes is even uncommon dark like some witch borne you. I told him you’re half-spirit. They hanged Mary Bateman. If they don’t be hangin’ you, you’ll end up lyin’ with vermin in gaol. Good ’nuff for you.’

He indicated the trail behind himself by swinging the barrel of the gun towards it. ‘Don’t move a feather.’ The gamekeeper swaggered. ‘His Grace be right behind me. I told him I set my traps near and this time I be catchin’ somethin’ big. You’ve ruined your last snare.’

Footsteps in the leaves signalled the approach of another. Bellona rested her left hand on the top of arrows tucked into the quiver strapped around her waist. ‘You can go to the devil.’

The shoulders of another man came into view, and Bellona swallowed. She needed all of her strength. Two men to fight.

The gamekeeper stepped off the path so the other one could see her.

The duke stopped beside the gamekeeper and the scent of the air became clean. The newcomer examined her, not scowling or smiling.

She would not have thought this man a peer had she seen him without introduction, but she would have known him for a gentleman. His neckcloth looped in a simple, soft knot. His boots reached his knees and his dark riding coat had plain buttons. He wore every thread as if it had been woven to his own order. Sunlight dappled over lean cheeks. His eyes were the same colour as her own.

Her stomach clenched, but not with fear. She’d made a mistake. She’d looked into his eyes. For the first time in her life, she was afraid of something inside herself.

She stepped back.

‘Your Grace, I caught the murderous culprit what’s been stealing the hares from my traps and wishin’ curses on us all. She be a common thief, a murderous woman and full of meanness, just like I said.’ The gamekeeper’s words spewed out, leaving even less air for Bellona to breathe. ‘You want I should send the stable boy for the magistrate?’

The duke gave the slightest shake of his head. ‘You are mistaken, Wicks. I will see her back to my estate safely and ensure that she is escorted on her way.’