Forbidden to the Duke(2)

By: Liz Tyner

‘She be a thief, Your Grace, and a bewitched woman. Why, see how her eyes be puttin’ evil my direction now. She be tryin’ to burn me into ash right where I stand.’

‘Miss—’ the newcomer directed his words to Bellona and he leaned forward as he peered at her ‘—have you been poaching on my land?’

She sensed somehow that he jested with her. ‘No. Never,’ Bellona said, shaking her head. The knife was in her boot. But she didn’t want to attack. She only wanted to flee.

The duke’s lips firmed and he took in a small breath on his next words. ‘Wicks...’

The gamekeeper’s stance tightened and he rushed his words. ‘She tossed her bow into the briars. She’d kill a man herself for blood sport. She’d cut out his heart and cook it.’

The duke’s lips tightened at one side and his eyes dismissed the other man’s words.

‘I don’t eat hearts,’ Bellona inserted, directing a look straight into the vile man. ‘Only brains. You are safe.’

‘Your Grace,’ the gamekeeper sputtered, outrage and fury mixed. ‘She’s—’

‘Quiet.’ The duke’s words thrust into the air with the seriousness of a sword point held to the throat.

He stepped towards her, moving over the fallen log in the path, his hand out. ‘The lady and I have not been introduced, but as this isn’t a soirée, I think—’

Instinctively, she pulled an arrow from the quiver and held the tip against the duke’s grey silk waistcoat—pressing.

His arm halted, frozen.

‘Do not touch me.’ Her words copied his in command.

His eyes widened and he straightened. ‘I was going to take your arm. My pardon. It’s usually received well, I assure you.’

She kept the arrow at his stomach, trying to keep the spirit around him from overtaking her.

The gamekeeper moved so the weapon again pointed at her. ‘Just give me the word, Your Grace, I’ll save you. She be tryin’ to kill a peer. No sense wasting good rope round that boney neck.’

‘Put the flintlock away, Wicks. Now.’ The duke didn’t take his eyes from Bellona. ‘This woman and I have not finished introductions yet and, by my calculation, the arrow tip isn’t exceedingly sharp.’

‘It’s sharp enough,’ she said.

‘Miss...’ He blinked. He smiled. But they were just outward movements. ‘Most people get to know me a little better before they think of weapons. Perhaps you should consider that. It might make an attempt on my life more enjoyable for you if there were some justification.’

She never saw his movement, but his hand clamped around her wrist, securing her, not tight, but shackle-strong.

‘My property.’ He stepped back from the arrow. Then he extricated it from her fingers, the warm touch of his hand capturing her in yet another way before he released her. ‘My rules, Huntress.’ He studied her face. ‘Or if my observation is correct, should I refer to you as goddess?’

As he examined the arrow, she took another step back. She gave the merest head toss of dismissal and readied her hand to the single arrow left in the quiver.

His eyes flickered to the sharpened tip of the projectile he held, but he wasn’t truly examining it. He twirled it around, tipped his head to her and held the feathered end to her. ‘I have met the lovely Countess of Warrington and although you resemble her, I would remember if I’d met you. That means you’re the sister named for the goddess of war. The woman hardly ever seen.’

‘You may call me Miss Cherroll.’ The rules she’d studied fled from her, except the one about the curtsy and she could not force herself to do it. She took the arrow.

She only wanted to leave, but her limbs hadn’t yet recovered their strength. She controlled her voice, putting all the command in it she could muster. ‘You’re not what I expected.’

‘If you’ve been talking to Warrington, I suppose not.’ He tilted his head forward, as if he secluded them from the rest of the world. ‘What is he fed for breakfast? I fear it curdles his stomach—daily.’

‘Only when mixed with entertainments not to his liking.’

‘Well, that explains it. I can be quite entertaining.’

‘He claims you can be quite...’ She paused. His eyes waited for her to continue, but she didn’t think it prudent, either to Warrington or the duke.

The duke continued, taking in the words she didn’t say. ‘Not many are above him, and, well, I might give him the tiniest reminder of my status, when it is needed.’ He shrugged. ‘Our fathers were like brothers. He thinks he has become the old earl and I have not attained the grandness of my sire. My father did limp—and that knee was the only thing that kept him from perfection. The injured leg was the price he paid for doing the right thing. He once thrust himself between someone and the hooves of an angry horse.’