Forbidden to the Duke(4)

By: Liz Tyner

‘Forget her,’ the duke said. ‘She’s just an ordinary woman who likes to traipse the trails. I can’t fault her for that.’

He couldn’t. He’d travelled over those same trails countless times, trying to keep up with his brother, Geoff.

Looking for the woman had been the first time he’d been in the woods since Geoff’s death. The gnashing ache grinded inside him again, but the woman’s face reminded him of unspoiled times.

But she was...a poacher of sorts. Nothing like her sister—a true countess if tales were to be believed. He wouldn’t put it past Warrington to keep this bow-carrying family member in the shadows, afraid what would happen if the woman met with members of the ton.

‘You didn’t feel she could near strangle a man with one look from her eyes?’ Wicks asked. ‘I could feel that devil in her just trying to take my vicar’s words right from mind. She still be trespassin’ ever’ day. Taunting me, like. She tears up my traps and she lurks out in the wood, waiting until I check them and then she tries to kill me.’

‘I’m sure she’s not trying to kill you.’

‘This arrow weren’t whipping by your head.’ He pulled every muscle of his body into an indignant shudder. ‘And since I caught her last time, she stays too far back for me to snatch her again.’

‘You will not touch her.’ Rhys met Wicks’s stare. Rhys stood.

Wicks’s lips pressed together.

‘You will not touch her,’ Rhys said again and waited.

‘I don’t want no part of that evil witch,’ Wicks said finally. ‘I looked at her and I saw the Jezebel spirit in her. I be sleepin’ on the floor and not in my bed so she can’t visit me in my night hours and have her way with me.’

Rhys put both palms flat on the desk and leaned forward. ‘That is a good plan. However, if you sleep with your nightcap over your ears it will do the same.’

‘You’re sure?’

‘Yes.’ Rhys nodded.

Wicks’s lips moved almost for a full minute before he spoke and his shoulders were pulled tight and he watched the arrow in his hand. ‘Well, I’ll be considerin’ it. Floor’s cold.’

‘Do you think perhaps she is a normal kind-hearted woman, Wicks, and merely doesn’t want little creatures harmed?’

‘I wondered. But that seems odd to me. When I gave her my smile—’ He bared perfect teeth except for one missing at the bottom. ‘She didn’t even note. Just raised her bow right towards me and let this arrow loose.’

Rhys rose, walked around the desk and held out his hand. Wicks slowly placed the arrow across Rhys’s palm.

‘If you see her again,’ Rhys commanded, ‘at any time at any place, you are not to give her one moment of anything but respect. You are not to smile at her or approach her, or you will answer to me in a way you will not like.’

‘Not right,’ Wicks said, his nose going up. ‘Being shot at while doin’ my work.’

‘I will handle this. Do not forget my words. Leave her be.’

‘I will,’ Wicks said. ‘I pity her. Has too many airs to settle into things right for a woman’s place.’

Rhys glared.

‘But I be keepin’ it a secret.’ He nodded. ‘I ain’t givin’ her another one of my smiles. She missed her chance. And if she tries to have her way with me, I be turnin’ my head and keepin’ my nightcap tight.’

He used both hands to clamp his hat on his head as he shuffled out, grumbling.

Rhys studied the arrow and thought of his mother’s melancholia. How she hardly left her room, even for meals. How she talked more of people who’d passed than of her own friends, and how she claimed illness rather than go to Sunday Services. His brother’s death had taken the life from her as well. The one moment the duchess’s thoughts had wavered into the present had been when she asked Rhys if he’d heard of the earl’s guest, but by the time he’d answered, his mother’s thoughts had wavered back into the shadows of the past.

He brushed his hand over the arrow fletching. Window light bounced over the feathers, almost startling him. Raising his eyes, he saw the sun’s rays warming the room. He stood, walking to the sunlight, pausing to feel the heat on his face. He lifted the feathery end of the weapon, twirling it in the brightness.

Winter’s chill had left the air, but he’d not noticed the green outside the window until now. The woman had also worn the colours of the forest, he remembered. She’d not looked like a warrior goddess, but a woodland nymph, bringing life into morning.