Chapter One of Dangerous JoyIn which the Irish Rogue gets a shock.
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Ireland, January, 1816
Miles Cavanagh frowned up from the legal documents in his hand. "Your father must have taken leave of his senses, Colum. You were supposed to be the girl's guardian."
His new stepfather put on a pious look. "When a man is about to take leave of these earthly shores, my boy, he can surely be excused if he abandons his senses first."
"Abandons them enough to be cajoled, perhaps?"
Colum Monahan, a middle-aged man still in traveling clothes, waggled a plump finger. "Don't you try to blame me now, Miles. Father was dead and the deed done hours before I arrived at Foy."
Miles supposed that to be true, but it was typical of Colum that he had in some way dodged an onerous duty. He was a charming, indolent man who found humor in nearly everything, and always expected the best in life. Amazingly, life seemed to grant it to him, including Miles's pretty mother.
And now the loss of a troublesome ward.
The man must have made a pact with the leprechauns.
"What the devil possessed him, then?" Miles demanded. "No one in his right mind would appoint a twenty-five-year-old man he hardly knew as guardian to a granddaughter."
"I have no idea..."
"His twenty-year-old granddaughter."
"My dear boy, there is no point in snarling at me! And Father is beyond your reach."
Miles ran a hand through his hair. "I'm sorry. But this is a damnable imposition."
"Tush, tush. You'll have a seizure yourself if you allow your choleric disposition to rule you."
"I do not have a choleric disposition."
Colum poured two glasses of brandy and passed one to Miles. "Every red head is given to anger."
"My hair is not red, and I am the most easy-going of fellows." Miles unclenched his teeth in order to sip from his glass. "I simply do not want to be responsible for a young woman, especially one I remember you describing as `that hellion Felicity.'"
Colum settled into his favorite chair. "The dear child is calming as she gets older. Nothing could have been more suitable than her behavior during the obsequies." He looked at Miles with a mischievous twinkle that made him resemble a portly leprechaun himself. "Sure and she's turned into a fine looking girl, you know. Dark hair and eyes, and a very handsome figure."
"Devil take it, if I have to have a ward, I'd rather she be plain. I know the way young men behave."
"I'm sure you do, my boy. I'm sure you do. And just think," Colum added, smiling up at the fine plasterwork of the ceiling, "she's an heiress into the bargain."
Miles stared at him. "An heiress? Surely your father didn't leave her that much."
Colum lowered his bright eyes. "You forget her maternal grandfather, Miles."
Dammit, so he had. After all, he'd never thought his step-father's niece's maternal relations were any affair of his.
This past summer, when Miles's mother had married Colum, Miles had accompanied the happy couple on a visit to his stepfather's family home of Foy Hall. But at that time Felicity Monahan had been off in England to visit her mother's family and discuss an unexpected inheritance from her maternal grandfather.
"You mean it amounted to something?"
A rich chuckle rolled through Colum. "When I think of the dust Father kicked up about Patrick's match with `that miner's daughter from Cumberland....' And then the man develops mines of his own and makes a fortune!" He raised his glass in a toast. "Twenty thousand a year, my boy."
"You might want to look at little Felicity with marriage in view."
"Hellion," Miles reminded him, and downed a strengthening swig of brandy. Twenty thousand. That was more than his own income. Hell and damnation. Every fortune hunter in Europe would be after her!
Miles couldn't help thinking that if his mother hadn't taken this unlikely notion of marrying again he'd never have known the Monahans, and would not be in this stew.
"Now, now, my boy. A man who likes horses should appreciate a bit of spirit in a filly."
"Devil take it, Colum, we're talking about a woman not a mare."
"It's all the same in the end." His step-father emphasized the comment with merry wink.
Miles re-filled his glass. He still wasn't comfortable with the idea of having a step-father at all, and one who clearly enjoyed his mother in a very earthy way was enough to try the patience of a saint.
The two of them were always touching, and a man would have to be a nod-cock not to recognize the way they looked at each other at times. In the middle of the day, too. Then they'd make an excuse to go off alone.
It wasn't decent.
But since Miles's mother seemed happy, he was determined not to make an issue of it. He'd be glad, however, to be leaving soon for England. Hopefully, by the time he returned, Colum and his mother would have moved beyond newly-wed fervor and be acting their age.
If he ever got to England, that was. He'd had the damnable luck to dislocate his shoulder in October, just as he was about to leave for the hunting season. And then the thing had not healed well. Resenting each missed day in the Shires, he'd given in to his mother's insistence that he stay home so she could be sure he wasn't risking his recovery by trying to manage one of his prime horses.
Then it had been Christmas, and since he'd not spent the season at his home for years, he'd decided to stay. Now he was ready to depart and this landed in his lap.
"It's a shame you're not married, my boy," Colum said. "If you had a wife, she'd look after the girl for you."
"But I don't have a wife, or any immediate intention of seeking one. I'm not ready to settle down."
Colum tut-tutted. "You are heir to Kilgoran and have your responsibilities."
Miles twitched his shoulders as if under a burden, though this was one he'd borne all his life, for his father had been cousin and heir to the Earl of Kilgoran. It was just that his father's death, and the increasing frailty of the old earl, meant the ax could fall at any time, putting an end to an almost idyllic life.
"If my revered uncle had accepted his responsibilities and taken a wife himself, I'd be in no need of marriage at all."
"True enough, but it makes the necessity of your marrying the more urgent. You're the last of the line, Miles. It would be sad indeed to see a revered old Irish title fall into abeyance."
"I have a brother."
"A naval officer. Now there's a nice safe profession!"
Miles shot a thoughtful look at his step-father. "It's not like you to be preaching the path of duty, Colum."
Colum's exaggerated expression of innocence confirmed Miles's suspicion that he was up to something. "Your mother would like you to take a wife, and whatever pleases Aideen pleases me."
"Good, because I doubt my mother wants me to be this girl's guardian. I'll have Leonard declared of unsound mind in his last hours. With the codicil over-ruled, you'll have charge of the girl."
Colum shook his head. "Alas, Miles, I doubt it would work. The codicil was witnessed by the doctor and Leonard's valet, and both are firm that he was of clear mind and determined on it."
"Damnation. There must be a way out of this."
"Not quickly." Colum looked, for once, completely serious. "I've had dealings with the Dublin courts, Miles, and my advice to any man would be to avoid them at all cost. In little over six weeks Felicity will be of age. A court case could easily grind on that long, and in the end all you'd have achieved would be to shovel money into the pockets of the legal vultures. No. It will be easier to just take up your yoke and bear it."
Miles took a restless turn around the cozy room. "I smell a conspiracy here, Colum. If you're so set on avoiding this task, there must be a catch to it."
"Not at all..."
"I've already missed two months of the hunting season, and this business will delay me even more!"
"Now, it wasn't my doing that you ripped your arm from its socket, Miles, and you can't claim it was! In fact, I told you to turn that horse into dog-meat months ago."
"Banshee has qualities I don't want to waste. But my horses are in Melton, and I'm stuck here. If I accept this duty, I'll have to at least go and meet the girl."
"Yes, I think you will. But it need be no more than that. She seems content to live at Foy, and my sister Annie is a suitable companion for her. Felicity has a Dublin lawyer and two other men as trustees for her fortune..."
Just then, Miles's mother, Lady Aideen Monahan, entered in her usual aura of crackling energy, eyes bright, smile wide.
Despite having been born into the august family of the Fitzgeralds, she had little use for pomp and elevation. She had, however, kept up the use of her title. After all, she said, there was something very hausfrauish about the designation "Mrs."
Plumply pretty in a blue wool gown, her sandy curls tucked into a lacy confection that hardly deserved the name `cap', she welcomed her husband home with a hearty kiss.
"Who has a fortune that needs managing?" she asked with interest. It was Aideen's willingness to manage Clonnagh that allowed Miles his unshackled way of life.
"Colum's niece, Felicity," Miles said.
"Oh yes! She inherited it from her maternal grandfather. Is there a problem?" If Aideen had the right kind of ears, they would have pricked. "Now I remember. You are her guardian, Colum."
"No," Miles said. "I am. Old Leonard Monahan changed his will on his death-bed."
She swung back, blue eyes sparkling. "How intriguing! Why?"
"Devil alone knows."
"As to reasons," Colum said slowly, "there was some talk of Felicity being in danger..."
"Danger?" Miles asked. "Of what kind?"
"He didn't say. Or wasn't understood. His speech was affected, I gather. Doubtless he worried about fortune hunters."
"Doubtless he did, but to talk of danger is proof his mind was affected."
Aideen looked at Miles carefully. "Are you very put out, my dear?"
"You can probably tell from the way my hair is standing on end." But he grinned.
She reached up to smooth it. "It should not be an onerous burden and Colum and I will keep an eye on matters while you are away. A dying man's wishes must be respected, Miles."
From his mother, that was as good as an order. Miles sighed. "Very well. I'll ride over tomorrow to introduce myself to the girl. I'll even stay a few days. But then I'm going to Melton."
The next afternoon, Miles urged his horse into a gallop across a lush meadow, each fall of Argonaut's heavy hooves throwing mud onto his top boots and leather breeches. It was proving to be a wonderful ride, and almost put him in charity with the young woman who was the cause of it.
He headed the horse toward a long rise. Even after a thirty-mile journey, Argonaut took the slope as if it were flat, cruising up without slackening speed.
Laughing, Miles pulled up on the crest, patting the horse's lathered neck. "Ah, my beauty, you're all I expected and more. It'll break my heart to part with you."
The big bay sidled and preened, taking praise as his due.
"I'll see you go to one who'll appreciate you, though, my friend. Don't you worry."
Nudging the horse back down toward the road, Miles thanked the gods that he didn't breed horses for the money. All too many Irishmen did. They had to harden their hearts and sell to the highest bidder, even to a heavy-handed lout, or a break-neck hunter who would kill his horses instead of himself.
Miles, however, could choose his customers. His normal practice was to take a string of hunters to Melton Mowbray for the hunting season. There, he either rode the horses himself or lent them to trusted friends, then negotiated sales privately. The Meltonians -- the avid hunters -- knew the reputation of Clonnagh hunters without having to see them run, but any man liked to see a horse in action before buying.
Once the hunting season was underway, Miles had more offers than the father of a grand heiress at Almack's.
Thoughts of heiresses recalled a certain grand heiress nearer to home. He prayed earnestly that he not be put in the position of judging contenders for Miss Monahan's fair and wealthy hand.
He kneed Argonaut onward, checking his direction against the setting sun. He was on course and couldn't be many miles from Foy, though he didn't yet recognize any landmarks.
Too bad the girl had not been at Foy during his visit so that he'd have some idea what to expect. He'd gained a clear impression from Colum's past comments that she was an ill-raised creature who rode astride, and came and went as she pleased.
Her wildness was hardly surprising. Orphaned at ten when her parents drowned on their way to England, she'd been left in the care of her grandfather. Miles's assessment of old Leonard Monahan was that he had been as charming as his son Colum, but twice as indolent.
Leonard's land had been cared for haphazardly by a lackadaisical agent, his house ruled by his equally indolent daughter, Annie, whose main interest in life was cats. She stirred herself for little else.
Yes, Felicity had doubtless been allowed to run wild but Miles had no interest in trying to correct this neglect. He just prayed his unwelcome ward behaved herself for the next few months.
At a fork, a signpost told him he was two miles from Foy. As he turned Argonaut in that direction another horseman cantered around the bend and drew up to exchange pleasantries.
"Rupert Dunsmore of Loughcarrick," the fine gentleman said, raising his silver-knobbed crop to touch the glossy beaver set with precise rakishness upon burnished pale gold hair. Though his showy gray didn't impress Miles much, his elegant clothing -- rather too elegant for riding -- marked him as a gentleman. Miles had no choice but to respond.
"Miles Cavanagh of Clonnagh.
He wasn't sure why he was taking an instant dislike to Mr. Dunsmore. Perhaps it was the disdainful expression on his pale narrow face, or the extreme Englishness of his accent. He was either English and determined to exaggerate it, or the sort of Irishman who tried to ape the invaders.
"You're a long way from home, Mr. Cavanagh." Dunsmore was eying him as if he suspected him of being up to no good. Horse thievery perhaps?
Having been educated in England, Miles could be as English as the Regent if he'd a mind, but now he deliberately slipped into a brogue." "As far as I know, Mr. Dunsmore, the English have made no law against it. Yet."
They moved on at walking speed, side by side but not in harmony, Dunsmore having clearly decided that Miles was not worth the waste of breath. Miles could have ridden on at speed and left the man behind, but Argonaut was due for a breather and the light was going.
"I'm for Foy, sir. And you?" he asked, hoping Dunsmore was headed elsewhere.
"Loughcarrick lies close to Foy."
Damn. "This is a fine part of the country."
"Indeed it is."
They might have continued this desultory conversation until they died of boredom if Dunsmore had not suddenly come to life. He turned sharply to look at Miles. "Cavanagh! You are not...? You cannot be grandson to old Leonard Monahan of Foy?"
"Indeed I'm not." Then before the look of relief could settle on Dunsmore's face, Miles added, "I'm his step-grandson if such a relationship exists."
"But... But then you're heir to Kilgoran!" Dunsmore looked up and down Miles's serviceable buckskins and well-used brown jacket in disbelief.
"I don't dress fine for a long day's ride, Mr. Dunsmore." Miles cast a similar look over Dunsmore's too dandyfied clothes.
Dunsmore collected himself and summoned a social smile. "Then you'll be traveling to meet your ward, Miss Monahan."
Miles despised people who were only pleasant to those of higher rank, but there seemed no point in quarreling with this specimen. "Indeed I am. You are acquainted with her?"
"Very well acquainted. We are neighbors. She and my late wife were quite close."
A prickle down the back of the neck warned Miles that there was more to the words than first appeared. "I've never met the girl."
"She is a fine young woman. Forgive me for mentioning it, sir, but it must appear strange that such a young man be given charge of her, and she an heiress, too. Her friends must be concerned."
So you rank yourself as a friend, do you? Or something more?The man was apparently a widower. One looking for a second wife? A rich wife?
"Her friends have no cause for concern, Mr. Dunsmore," Miles said blandly. "As long as Miss Monahan doesn't try to wed a fortune hunter before March we should rub along well enough."
Dunsmore's narrow face became even more pinched. "I mean no slight, Mr. Cavanagh, but it all looks-"
Before he could complete his sentence he was pulled from his horse by a gigantic rooster. In fact a company of animals had burst out of a copse. A goose. A ram. A horse. A bull...
Miles gathered his wits and realized they were men wearing masks and cloaks. Then a pig was on his back, cursing fluently in Gaelic and trying to drag him out of the saddle.
Miles elbowed backward and kicked Argonaut into a rear that dislodged the man. He wheeled the horse to see four men on Dunsmore, pummeling him unmercifully. He charged over to scatter them.
But two assailants grabbed him, clinging to a leg each, and Argonaut wasn't trained to this. The wild-eyed horse began to spin and buck. Miles slashed at one creature with his crop, but the other managed to drag him off and wrestle him to the ground.
Two other men flung their weight on top of him and he was quickly trussed. Argonaut was kicking at anything, and Miles saw a man strike him with a cudgel.
"God blast your eyes!" he yelled, struggling again, but a gag was shoved into his mouth and bound there ruthlessly. Argonaut made off down the road, a distinct break in his stride.
Writhing against the ropes binding his wrists and ankles, Miles vowed to flay every one of these rascals for hurting his horse!
But for now, he was out of the action, and the four men ran back to join the three who were beating Dunsmore. For what cause, Miles wondered, pulling against his bonds to no effect. Personal, or political? These days in Ireland it could be either.
Bruised and furious, he saw the goose thwack the cowering Dunsmore with a sturdy rod, blows designed to hurt but do no permanent damage. This affair was clearly a warning, but they must be mad to use an Englishman this way. By tomorrow, the area would be swarming with the military.
Then Dunsmore was hoisted back into his saddle, his battered beaver shoved cock-eyed on his head. He slumped forward and clung to his horse's neck as the nervous gray was set to run on down the road.
Now Miles had leisure to wonder what his own fate would be. Most of the strange animals slipped off into the misty shadows, leaving the horse and goose behind.
The goose still held that rod.
"What the devil are we to do with him?" muttered the goose to the horse in Gaelic.
"Leave him here. Someone'll come by."
"It's starting to rain."
"Christ, he won't melt!"
"Connor's cottage is just over there."
"Jesus and Mary, do you want me to carry him? He's a big man. Why not just let him go if you're feeling so soft?"
"He's the sort who'll pick a fight. Look at the red hair on him. With time to cool down, he'll see reason."
Don't bet on it, thought Miles vengefully.
He was trying to note anything that might identify the men, but the light was fading fast. The horse was heavy-set, and perhaps a foot taller than the goose, but the goose was tall enough. Their nondescript clothes were largely hidden by their cloaks. The animal heads both hid their features and muffled their voices.
The horse came over. "I'm going to loose your feet so you can walk to shelter. Give me any trouble, boyo, and I'll knock you out and drag you."
Miles believed him. The horse helped him to his feet and steered him through a gate and over to a decrepit bothy just as the slight drizzle turned into steady rain. The cottage lacked glass or shutters on the windows, and the door hung at a crazy angle to the opening, but it was dry inside. Miles was pushed down onto the ground and his feet were tied again.
"Someone'll come by later to let you free. If you're wise, you won't make trouble then or later."
At that moment, Miles would have tried to strangle anyone who loosed him, so he did see their point. Time probably would calm him a little, but he sent silent curses after them as they left him in the damp, musty dark.
He slumped back against the stone of the empty hearth, counting his bruises. There weren't too many. It was presumably just bad luck that he'd been with Dunsmore, and the rascals had been as gentle with him as they could.
He assumed they were the Farmyard Boys, who'd been operating around the eastern counties for the past few years, visiting sharp retribution on any landlord who oppressed his tenants, or on any Irishman who sided with the English. True, the English yoke lay heavy on Ireland, with harsh laws and twenty-five-thousand soldiers to enforce them, but these vigilantes were not the way to improve anything.
All the same, if only Argonaut was all right, he'd let the matter pass.
As darkness sank from dusky to deep, Miles's forbearance thinned. His bonds chaffed his wrists. He was turning numb in some places and cramped in others. The gag stretched his lips and leached all the moisture from his mouth. He began to shiver, for it was a chilly January evening.
Damn their black hearts! Despite the pain he began to work at the ropes around his wrists, hoping to loosen them enough to wriggle his hands free.
When he heard a sound outside, he stopped. About bloody time too.
Then he wondered why he was so sure the person was coming to help. He was, after all, a witness of sorts...
The broken-hinged door creaked open, showing a dark shape backed by the lighter gray of a misty night. The shape crept forward, scarce making a sound other than the brush of a cloak against the dirt floor.
Something was put down with a clink.
Uselessly, Miles tensed for combat.
It was a lantern, for a window was opened to spill golden candlelight into the shanty. The light haloed around the cloaked figure who had just placed the lantern on a wormy shelf on the wall.
Something in the cut of the cloak and the shape of the hands told him his reliever was a woman.
He let out his breath in relief. A clever move, for no matter how angry he was, he was unlikely to take it out on a woman. What were the odds that she was a pretty winsome piece, to boot?
She pushed back the hood of her cloak to prove him right -- thick red curls, a heart-shaped face, and stunning dark eyes full of warm hearted concern.
"Oh, you poor creature!" she declared, hands clasped before an ample bosom like the more maudlin type of Madonna. Her voice marked her as a peasant, but it was a pleasant voice all the same.
He would have said something polite if he hadn't had a damn gag in his mouth. Was she simple? She continued to just stand there looking at him in melting sympathy.
He made some protesting noises, and she gasped. "Oh, your mouth, sir! Indeed, sir. I'll have you free in just a moment, sir. Don't concern yourself!"
She ran over to undo his gag. But instead of going behind him, as would be sensible, she stretched from the front, bringing her chest to within inches of his face. He was practically smothered by soft warm flesh and the sweet perfume of roses.
"Oh, they've tied this rag so tight, the monsters! How could they be so cruel?"
She leaned even closer.
Saints preserve them both but it was a very well-endowed chest, and she was wearing an old-fashioned laced bodice which confined only the lower part of her breasts while pushing them up. The generous upper part was covered only by a shift made fine by many washings.
Miles was not really in a situation to be thinking amorous thoughts, but his body reacted all on its own to this excess of magnificence.
For a peasant she smelled remarkably sweet, too, with just a warm womanly scent and that delicate touch of rose. She was undoubtedly lacking some of her wits, though, for she was still struggling to free him by stretching her arms around him.
Why the devil didn't she just go around the back?
He tried to say something but only achieved a choking noise.
Still fumbling behind his head, she looked down at him, her beautiful eyes only inches away. She had long dark lashes so thick they seemed tangled with soot, but in this light there was no way to tell what color her irises were. They looked coal black, which gave her an expression of unending concern.
He reminded himself this was illusion, and that she didn't seem to have enough wit to come in from the rain.
He mumbled again, practically snarling at her.
"Oh dear, oh dear. You poor man. Are you in terrible pain? Oh, I have an idea! Let me try to do this from the back."
She shifted around and sat him forward. Within moments the gag was off.
Miles worked his aching jaw and tried to find saliva to moisten his mouth. "Drink?" he croaked.
"Oh, sir. Of course, sir!" She pulled a flask out of the pocket of her old-style full skirts and uncapped it. "Sure, and this'll revive you in a wink, sir!" She held it to his lips and tipped.
Instinctively, he swallowed, but then he jerked back so most went down his front.
"What ails you, sir?'Tis the finest Irish whisky! I swear it on my mother's grave!"
Miles coughed. "I'm sure it is, my dear. But it's not the thing for the thirst I have. Is there no water?"
She leapt her feet, her hands -- now around the flask -- once more clasped to that bosom. "What a fool I am, to be sure! I'll not be a moment, sir."
She dashed to the door, then froze as if caught in a terrible dilemma. She frowned at the flask in her hand, then at Miles, then left -- pouring the contents on the ground as she went.
Miles lay there, stunned. Definitely simple. It might be true that there was nothing else in which to carry water, but why the devil hadn't she just finished untying him, so he could make his own way to the stream?
He sighed, recognizing another stroke of genius on someone's part. If he was unlikely to throttle a woman, he'd be even less likely to harm such a simple one. Some men, however, would not hesitate to take what that ample, exposed bosom offered.
Had they thought of that?
Perhaps it was part of the plan.
Again, his unruly body reacted.
She came back to hold the flask to his lips again. This time cool, sweet water soothed his mouth.
"Thank you, my dear," he said as calmly as he could, for he had no desire to alarm her. "Perhaps now you could untie my hands and feet."
She sat back on her heels and put a finger to her lips like a child. "Well, now, you see sir, I was told to be very careful with you. That you might turn violent."
"Then perhaps one of those fine bullies should have accompanied you."
"It was thought on," she admitted, chewing her knuckle. "It was never intended that you be hurt, sir."
Miles's jaw was aching from the way his teeth were clenched, but he knew the slightest trace of anger could have this poor woman fleeing into the night. "I realize that," he soothed. "I promise I will not hurt you. Untie me, please. These ropes are very painful."
She gnawed on her knuckle a moment more, then stood and raised her skirt to reveal white stockings and sturdy shoes. They argued a slightly higher rank than he'd imagined. But what the devil was she doing?
The skirts rose a little farther, rose slowly so his gaze seemed guided by them -- up shapely cotton-covered calves, past a simple garter tied below the knee, and on to a creamy naked thigh. He was bemusedly wondering just where this journey was to end when it halted at a leather strap holding a sheath. She pulled out a knife so long and businesslike that he instinctively shrank back.
Knife glinting in the candle-light she grinned at him then flung herself forward. Miles cursed and tried to wriggle away, but she seized the rope around his ankles to stop him.
"Just you stay still, now," she said cheerfully as he felt the knife bite at the ropes. The ease with which they parted told him he had not been mistaken about its sharpness.
She moved behind him. "Sure and I fear the ropes have burned your poor wrists, sir. Just a moment here, and you'll be free."
The ropes parted and he brought his wrists to the front to rub them, wincing at their tenderness. He tried to stand, but was so stiff he rolled to his knees. He staggered to his feet by holding onto the rough stones of the chimney. Muttering curses at all farmyard animals, he limped around the small room, trying to ease the stiffness, cramps, and pins-and-needles.
Then the girl snared his attention. She was still kneeling, and now it was the knife that nestled between her breasts, pointing up in a way that could only make a man think of a phallus.
The pain faded...
"Would you like me to rub your legs, sir?" She stretched a hand toward his thigh. But it was the hand holding the knife.
Miles leaped back with a yelp, and his left leg gave way, landing him bum-down on the hard ground. "For Christ's sake, girl, put that thing away!"
With a hurt look she stood, raised her skirts again clear up to the top of her leg and slowly, suggestively, sheathed the knife. She definitely had more in mind than just relieving him of his bonds. It was a prospect that appealed mightily to certain parts of his body, but he was hardly in a fit state to do her justice.
He pushed back to his feet, noting with relief that the worst of the stiffness and pain had gone. "Where's my horse, girl?"
"That lovely bay, sir? He's at the Shamrock. The inn in Foy village."
"And is he well?"
"Indeed he is, sir. As fine as fivepence!"
His main concern eased, Miles stretched and studied the wench with more leisure. Faith, and she was an interesting piece. She was tallish for a woman, and with that interestingly generous bosom and a lovely full-cheeked face.
And lovely long strong legs, too.
Not so strong in the head, though.
Damn those ruffians for sending such a simple lass to do their dirty work. He touched her cheek. "What's your connection with those strange animals, then?"
She lowered her lush lashes. "Now, you can't expect me to answer that, sir, can you?" But she rubbed against his hand like a kitten and glanced up at him -- though he doubted she could actually see through the dense black fringe in such uncertain light. "You won't be making complaint to the magistrates, now will you, sir?"
Hell. She couldn't be plainer if she said it straight out. She was offering her body for his silence.
It was tempting, very tempting...
He teased her lower lip with his thumb, wanting to see her soft lips part a little for him. "So I'll not be making a complaint, will I not, sweetheart? For you, I might well hold my tongue, but Mr. Dunsmore will already have raised the military. Unless you've killed him."
She looked straight at him then, eyes wide with innocence. "Killed him, sir? By St. Patrick and St. Bridget, he's safe at home. A little the worse for wear, I'll grant you, but not near death at all, at all."
"In that case, he'll have the army out after your friends tomorrow. Do you have somewhere to hide?"
She lowered her head, but not before he saw her lips twitch. "Oh, I doubt that, sir. Even though he's a black-hearted Englishman, Mr. Dunsmore will not bring the soldiers down on these parts. So if you don't make trouble, no one will."
He raised her chin with a finger, seeking truth in those disarming eyes. "You seem remarkably sure of his silence. I wonder why? And I wonder what means you and your friends have in mind to make sure ®MDUL¯I®MDNM¯ don't lodge a complaint?"
"Sure, we'd never hurt a hair of your head, sir, you an Irishman, an' all. And I can see by your sweet face that you're no friend of the English tyrant!"
It was then Miles realized the girl was acting -- overacting -- a part. He moved back to study her. "I'm no friend of ruffians, girl, Irish or English."
She frowned slightly, then rested her hand on his chest. "You would see me transported, sir? I came to you unmasked."
He trapped her hand, part controlling, part to hold it against him, for he would miss it were it gone. "Perhaps that was foolish."
"Was it?" Her other hand slid up to his face and she kissed him quickly, temptingly open-lipped. Her hand on his chest turned to grasp his and move it to her breast. She rubbed it there, rubbed herself against it, speaking an invitation with her eyes.
Perhaps it was relief from danger, but he was abruptly ready for a woman, especially this one. His other hand slid around to hold her close. "You have an interesting way of buying safety, darling, but I'm willing. I prefer to have a name to put to a lover, though. What is yours?"
She stiffened slightly. "That would be foolish, wouldn't it, sir, to tell you my name?"
He brushed his lips against her turned cheek. "Come now, if I want to find you, it won't be hard."
After a moment, she moved to meet his lips and whispered, "Joy, then. My name is Joy."
He chuckled. "I doubt it, but it's appropriate. I'm sure you bring joy to many men."
Abruptly, she stiffened. "What? Why, you...!"
"Haven't you just come from buying off Dunsmore the same way?"
"I have not, you spalpeen!"
He resisted her token struggles. "I suppose he isn't in any state for this yet..."
He kissed her softly, tasting and testing with a keen sense of anticipation, exploring her generous body. She relaxed again and her lips welcomed him, but something -- a lingering tension perhaps -- told him this was no willing lover but a planned sacrifice.
He drew back with a sigh of regret. Though this baggage was not aware of it, as Felicity Monahan's guardian he had a position in this community. If Joy was unwilling, taking what she offered would cause nothing but trouble.
She doubtless thought he was passing through, that she could buy him off and never see him again. If he became her lover, however, he could end up having made enemies of a family, perhaps even the whole village. In Ireland such matters could be dangerous indeed, as Dunsmore had found out.
He kissed Joy's hand -- a gesture that appeased most women, especially those of the lower class. If he found out she was the local lightskirt after all, he might take her up on today's offer, for she was the most luscious piece he'd encountered in a long while. "I fear, like Dunsmore, I'm in no state to do you justice tonight, my dear. Perhaps another time."
She made no protest but held onto his hand. "And you'll not report the matter, sir?"
"If Dunsmore wants it kept quiet, I won't spill it."
She kissed his hand then with almost religious fervor. "Ah, thank you, thank you, sir! May Jesus and Mary guard you!"
She was overacting again. "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph guard you," he replied in the traditional way. "If you'll just lead me to my horse, sweet Joy, I'll be on my way."
"On your way? But it's late, sir. You should stay at the inn till morning. That's where your horse is, after all."
"I didn't think you'd want me lingering in the area."
The look she flashed him then was noticeably intelligent -- aware of all the aspects to this situation. "The law around here doesn't take kindly to people who are abroad at night, sir."
Interesting. Perhaps they feared that if he fell in with the military he'd tell his story. His journey, of course, would take him only as far as Foy Hall, which sat in the old style close by the village, but they couldn't know that.
Impulsively, he decided to let this play out, to see if there was more to be learned.
"Very well, sweet Joy. Lead me to the Shamrock Inn."
She collected her lantern, but closed it before leading him down the track to the Foy road. Perhaps she did fear a military troop. With only a sliver of moon to give natural light Miles had to watch his steps.
"So," he said when they were on the relative smoothness of the road, "what about Dunsmore makes him worthy of a beating?"
"What about him doesn't?"
"Since I don't know the man, I'd be hard pressed to say. He seemed courteous enough in a top-lofty manner."
"Top-lofty. Now there's a good word for him. And him a down-at-heels English captain before he married Kathleen Craig."
"Married money did he? And English to boot. Now there's a series of wicked sins to be sure."
She flashed him an angry glance. "The man's gone through as much of his wife's money as he could get his greedy hands on, and now she's dead, he's stealing from his son's estate, and squeezing every last penny out of his tenants without pity or mercy."
They were coming into the small village. "'Tis not unusual for landlords to wring their people dry, my dear. But perhaps he deserved a trouncing for it. I'd be interested to know why you think he won't report it."
She stopped beneath the creaking inn-sign and he heard a fiddle scraping inside. The shutters were drawn, however, so only a glimmer of light spilled out into the road. "He has matters he'd rather keep quiet."
Miles noted with interest that she'd pulled up her hood again. Probably not the local light-skirt, alas.
He perched on an edge of the stone horse trough there. "If you can stop him reporting an assault, I'd think you could stop his extortions altogether."
"He's growing desperate. He's a gamester, you see. Tonight was a reminder." She touched his sleeve. "Truly, he is a bad man, sir. Please don't betray us."
She really was an entrancing creature, and his body was recovering rapidly. He took her hand, and after a startled moment, she did not resist. "You offered payment for my silence before, sweet Joy."
He raised her hand and sucked gently on a finger.
She tugged tentatively. "It's late now, sir. I should be home."
He sucked the next finger. "Your parents don't know what you're up to? Or do you live with an employer? Tell me how to contact you..." -- he drew the finger suggestively deep into his mouth before sliding it free -- "...when I've regained my strength."
She tugged her hand harder but he didn't let go. "Are you saying you won't be silent unless I sleep with you?"
The note of outrage told him she'd never meant to pay with her body. Perhaps she'd thought his roughing-up made him safe. A strangely naive view for such a bold piece. He decided to see just how far she would go, and what he could learn from it.
He slipped his other arm around her and pulled her between his legs. "It wasn't sleeping I had in mind, alannah. I won't keep you out all night."
He could hear the unsteadiness of her breathing now, for her face was only inches from his. "I can't here, sir. Everyone would know."
"Do you still have your reputation, then?" He released her hand and cupped a breast as he'd wanted to do since first seeing her. Ah, but it was magnificent -- full, warm, and firm. He bent to kiss the rising swell. "I won't ruin you. You have my word, Joy. Are you betrothed to one of those animals? Is he willing to have you pay this price, or will he be after me for revenge?" His thumb found her nipple, already hard, and brushed it gently.
She shivered, pulling back again. "I am betrothed to no man." After a moment, however, she ceased resisting. "But I will do what I must to save them all."
A true patriot martyr, but such a tempting one. And the response of her flesh told him it wasn't all sacrifice. Or perhaps it was just the response of his own flesh, hoping it wasn't all sacrifice.
"Joyfully?" He teased her sensitive flesh again.
She grasped his hand. "Sir, please! Not here in public!"
He glanced around at the empty street. "Public? There's not a soul in sight and it's pitch dark. We could couple here with none the wiser, sweetheart. Let's kiss at least."
This time she was not pliant in his arms, but he tilted her chin and kissed her, using all his skill to overcome her scruples. To the devil with finding out her secrets. A night of Joy was becoming insistently attractive.
At last her lips did soften and part for him. Murmuring encouragement, he stroked her delightful curves. Easing her mouth further open, he kissed her fully, finding her every bit as sweet as he'd expected, and every bit as responsive.
He wasn't aware that his hand was inside her shift until she pulled away with an alarmed cry.
He quickly covered her mouth, abruptly remembering his resolve to be circumspect in this locality. "Alas, sweet Joy, this is not the time and place."
When he was sure she wouldn't scream, he freed her mouth. "Just direct me to my horse, my dear. When I've seen to him, I'll be happy to rest my bruises alone."
But she gripped his hand, bone-tight, preventing him from moving away. "You don't need to check on your horse, sir! Michael Flaherty has seen to him, and he's the best stable lad in five counties."
He twisted his hand free. "It's a practice of mine not to leave my horses to others, especially not a horse as valuable as Argonaut. The stables will be at the back, I suppose."
He set off toward the lane beside the low building, but she grabbed his jacket. "Sir, please. Don't leave me!" She towed him back and flung herself into his arms. "You cannot be so cruel! You've made me mad for you!"
She had him up against the horse-trough with enough weight and strength to bruise his back. "Darling, I've never left a lady desperate yet. Give me a moment to see to Argonaut and I'll ease your madness willingly."
"I can't wait! You can see to the horse in the morning."
He seized her hands and fought his way free. It was quite a struggle, for she was strong for her size. "Enough," he snapped. "Or -- terrible waste though it'd be -- I'll toss you into the trough to cool you down."
Her breathing was so rough it sounded like sobs. "Please..."
Her desperation was breaking his own control and he almost gave in, but Argonaut... He must check on Argonaut.
He put a comforting arm around her and led her down the lane. "Hush, a muirnín. Just a moment or two and I'll give you all you desire. Come on now. Open the lantern and let's find the fine fellow."
Her madness seemed to abate, for she managed to open the window in the lantern so he could check the loose-boxes. Two contained heavy horses and then he found Argonaut.
The horse whinnied a greeting and pushed his head into Miles's chest. Miles stroked him fondly. "Taken care of you better than me from the looks of it, eh?" Then he saw the bandage on the hind hock. Not a bandage. A fomentation...
Lust dissipated. He was into the box in a second, feeling for damage. He moved the horse, and took in the limp. "May hell wait for the lot of 'em!"
He erupted into the yard and seized the woman. "You and your louts have lamed my best horse!"
"We meant him no harm."
"Meant him no harm? I saw someone hit him with a cudgel. If Argonaut's damaged I'll see the lot of you in Botany Bay!"
Abruptly, she stood taller. "I see. People don't matter. Just horses, and then only for the price they'll bring in England." She wore a sneer fit for an ancient queen of Ireland.
He thrust her away. "Most horses are worth a deal more than most people. Especially whores."
"Whores! Damn your black heart, I'm no whore!"
"You'd have spread your legs to keep me from finding out about this, wouldn't you? To stop me reporting your antics to the magistrates. That's whoring in my mind."
She laughed with scorn. "You weren't reluctant to take me up on the offer, were you? Why is that more noble, my fine gentleman?"
He turned back to the stall. "Just pray my horse is sound, sweet Joy, or someone will suffer."
"Mick says it's nothing serious and he'll be easier in the morning. If you'd only waited until then you'd not have been so distressed. Why the devil didn't you take me up on my offer?"
Turning to face her, he was struck by her magnificence -- red hair touched to flame by the lantern, angry pride holding her straight and tall. Damn, but he still desired her.
"Hurts, does it? Darling, you could be Helen of Troy, Deirdre of the White Breast, and the Gunning sisters rolled into one, and you'd not have stopped me from checking on Argonaut. You're right. I do care for my horses more than most people, particularly people who attack defenseless men on the highway."
Before she could spit out her reaction to that, he stepped by her, heading for Argonaut's stall. Just then the inn door opened, spilling light and singing into the yard. "Who's out there? Oh, it's you Miss Felicity. Where's the stranger?"
Miles froze, then moved back into the lantern-light. "He's here." He turned to the young woman. "Felicity?"
She shrugged. "Another word for joy."
"I'm sure you're a joy to all who know you. Felicity Monahan, I assume."
Unease flickered in her dark eyes but she said nothing.
"What an interesting young woman you are to be sure. Allow me to present myself. I'm Miles Cavanagh, your legal guardian.
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