Read Unlacing the Innocent Miss Online

Authors: Margaret McPhee

Tags: #Romance - Historical, #Romance: Modern, #General, #Romance, #Fiction, #Fiction - Romance, #Historical, #Romance - General

Unlacing the Innocent Miss (9 page)

BOOK: Unlacing the Innocent Miss
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She set the flask down where he would find it and winced as she got to her feet. One more glance behind and then she picked her way over the few stepping-stones to the other side of the stream. Ignoring the pain in her damaged feet, Rosalind broke into a run.

 

Kempster was standing by his horse, adjusting the strap of his stirrup when Wolf strode up to him.

‘What the hell did you think you were doing? I told you to ride easy with her.’

‘I was just muckin’ about.’ Kempster held his hands up in an innocent gesture. ‘No harm done.’

‘Stupid sod, couldn’t you see that you were terrifying her?’

‘What’s to terrify?’ he asked, so that Wolf had the urge to land his fist in the footman’s face. ‘We were just riding.’

Wolf scowled at him. ‘Ride like that again with her and I’ll plant my foot up your arse.’

‘Keep your hair on, gov’nor. I didn’t realize you had such a concern for Miss Meadowfield’s welfare.’

Wolf’s dislike of the footman was fast escalating. ‘My only concern is delivering Miss Meadowfield to Lord Evedon—in one piece. Now go and fetch her back.’ Wolf made to turn away, and then stopped. ‘On second thoughts, you go in his place, Campbell. She’s down by the stream.’

Campbell drew Kempster a foul look, before disappearing into the wood.

Wolf waited by his own horse, and in his mind he saw again the fear in Miss Meadowfield’s face as she sat frozen upon Kempster’s horse. The woman had been genuinely terrified. The sight of her distress caused a clenching in his own stomach so that he wanted to punch Kempster’s idiot face for what the footman had done. And he knew none of this would have happened had he only taken her upon his mount instead of passing her off to Kempster. Maybe Wolf had mis judged this whole thing. Maybe he was making her suffer for another’s crime, avenging his own bitterness at her expense.

Two minutes later and Wolf had revised his opinion.

Campbell appeared, running, out of breath, and alone. ‘There’s no sign of Miss Meadowfield. This is the only thing by the stream.’ He threw something into Wolf’s hands.

The hip flask.

‘She’s done a runner,’ Campbell added.

Kempster could barely keep the smile from his face. ‘The sickness must have been feigned. She’s played you good and proper, Mr Wolversley.’ And there was a smugness in his tone that made Wolf’s fist itch again to hit him. ‘Made fools of us all.’

Wolf’s mouth hardened. She had made a fool of him all right. He felt the flicker of an anger that was searing in its heat. He slipped the flask back into the inner pocket of his coat. ‘Go on ahead to the Angel Inn in Catterick. I’ll meet you there by nightfall.’

‘Shouldn’t we help you find her?’ asked Kempster.

‘No need.’

‘But—’ started Kempster, and stopped when he saw Campbell’s warning shake of the head.

‘Get on your horse, Mr Kempster,’ said Campbell, and as Kempster did as he was bid, Campbell turned to Wolf.
His eyes met Wolf’s. ‘Have a care how you do this,’ he said quietly, ‘for both your sake and the lassie’s.’

‘I’ll have a care, all right,’ said Wolf with quiet promise. ‘More care than you can imagine.’ He watched Campbell and Kempster ride off before leading his horse into the wood, tethering him by the stream, and crouching low to view the surrounding ground. From where he squatted, he could see quite clearly the path Rosalind Meadowfield’s feet had taken through the mass of blue bells on the opposite bank. Wolf smiled and the smile was small and hard and cold. He rose and moved to follow her trail.

Chapter Eight

T
he soles of Rosalind’s feet felt like they were on fire yet still she kept on running. Her breathing was ragged and so loud that she feared that it would mask the sound of her pursuers. They would come after her, of course; Wolf would not let her go so easily, and it would not take him long to discover her dis appearance. She wondered if he was on her trail yet, scouring the wood, hunting her. That thought made her shiver and kept her legs running even though they were heavy and aching to stop. It was not fear of Wolf that drove her on, for she knew now that for all his harshness he would not hurt her, nor did she think of Evedon. She remembered too well the tantalising caress of those long tanned fingers and her own shameful response. Lord help her but she did not understand why she had behaved in such a way.

She pushed on harder, until there was a sharp stitch pain in her side and her lungs were gasping in air as if they were fit to burst. Her feet, raw and aching, stumbled over clumps
of grass and fallen logs and rocks, yet she kept on going, ignoring the whip and scratch of branches against her face, clearing a path through their barrier with her hands. She felt the snag of her skirts upon something solid and sharp, and wrenched the material free, knowing that every second counted in her bid to escape.

She ran for as long as she could before slowing to a walk, looking behind her every few steps, listening beyond her own breathing. Walking and walking, and then half running again. The birds were singing and the wood stretched on ahead a vivid carpet of blue bells with the occasional patch of pale yellow prim roses. The scent of blue bells filled her nose from the flower-heads crushed beneath her feet.

She was glancing back more often, hurrying on, hopeful now that she really could evade him, that perhaps he had not yet noticed her absence. But there was nothing save the trees and the sway of their branches in the wind. She kept on trotting, and after a while, she noticed that the birds no longer sang, that everything was quiet, and even the wind seemed to have died away to leave only the sound of her own tread through the under growth and the panting of her breath. The surrounding still ness was unnatural and unnerving; she could not rid herself of the conviction that someone or something was following her, stalking her. And even though she was flushed pink with warmth and sweat, she shivered.

Again and again, she looked behind, her eyes scanning through the trees, and each time, she saw nothing that should not have been there. Maybe she truly was free; maybe he would never find her. She wondered whether she dare find her way to the nearest inn and stay there for the night or whether Wolf would search all inns in the locality. It was what she would do were she him, she thought. Maybe
she should just find shelter out here, but then she had left her cloak behind, and the night would be cold and filled with unknown predators. She was just worrying over this quandary, glancing back once more when a large figure suddenly stepped out before her.

The scream was piercing and short, escaping her lips before she even had time to think. Her heart was hammering against her ribs, her blood pounding so hard that she thought she would faint. She stared at him with incredulity, dis believing that he could really be there standing so perfectly motionless and silent before her.

‘Wolf!’ His name was a whisper upon her tongue.

‘Feeling better, Miss Meadowfield?’ he asked, and although his words were harmless enough, his tone was not. Everything about him was still and waiting and watchful. She could see the ferocity of his mood in the deep grey of his eyes, a torrent of anger held in check, ready to be released.

She took one small step back, and then another. ‘I—I—’ The words seemed to freeze beneath the darkness of his stare.

‘You…?’ He raised a sardonic eyebrow and waited, like a cat that waits before striking at the mouse captured within its claws.

She whirled and tried to run but he caught her, his hands firm against her arms, hauling her back in, until her spine was tight against his chest. She could feel the heat that emanated from him and smell the scent of him surrounding her: leather and soap and masculinity. With one hand he held her, with the other he untied the ribbons of her bonnet beneath her chin and, freeing the bonnet from her head, threw it carelessly aside. An arm clasped firm around her waist.

He bent his head and she could feel his breath warm
against the side of her face, whispering over her cheekbone, her eyelid, her forehead. His stubbled chin was rough as it slid against her hair, until his mouth found her ear.

‘Tut, tut, Miss Meadowfield. I did warn you not to run.’

His lips were so close that their vibration set up a tingle in her ear that emanated from that one point to suffuse throughout her body. Goose pimples raised on her skin. His forearm was against her stomach, touching lightly against the lower part of her breasts, so that her body tingled and her nipples felt strangely tight and sensitive. It was so close, so intimate as to have almost been a lover’s embrace. She trembled with the audacity of it.

‘Mr Wolversley!’ she gasped, trying to hide the shock in her voice beneath indignation. He held her so firm that she could not look round at him.

‘I do not like thieves that try to make a fool of me.’ Even though she could not see his face, his voice was hard with dislike.

‘I did not…Kempster and his horse…I was unwell.’ She could hear the quiet steadiness of his breathing so different from the raggedness of her own.

‘So unwell that you could run away,’ he said.

‘You cannot blame me for trying. You are taking me to Evedon, for pity’s sake. He will see me hang.’

‘Then you should not have stolen his mother’s jewels.’ His voice was harsh, without anything of compassion.

She shook her head, feeling her chignon loosen slightly as she did so. ‘I know you do not believe me, Mr Wolversley, but I did not steal anything belonging to Lady Evedon.’

‘You are right, I do not believe you, Miss Meadowfield.’ Without releasing her, he turned her in his arms, so that his face loomed just above hers.

She shivered at the intensity of the look in his eyes.

‘We have yet to talk of what you have done with the emeralds.’

She shot him a glare.

‘Do not worry,’ he said, ‘I’m saving that for later. For now, I want to know why you did not tell me of your fear of horses.’

There was no more point in denials. He had witnessed her response to Kempster’s actions. ‘It was not your business to know, sir.’ She stared at him defiantly.

‘Had you told me, Miss Meadowfield, I would have hired a coach and four for the journey. You could have travelled in some small degree of comfort.’

His words swept away all that she would have said. Lies, of course. He was saying it only to torment her further. ‘I do not believe you.’

‘Why not?’ he asked, and his eyes were as cold as ever.

‘Because you are a cruel man, Mr Wolversley,’ she taunted.

‘You think me cruel, Miss Meadowfield, because I am a thief-catcher and you are the thief that I have caught.’

She said nothing, just stood where he held her.

‘Am I cruel because I will not let you escape me?’ His voice was harsh. ‘Or because of what I will do to prevent you from trying again?’

Her heart flip-flopped.

‘Should I beat you, Miss Meadowfield?’

He had said that he had never raised his hand to a woman in his life and she believed him, yet still she bit at her lip to prevent its tremble.

‘Bind and gag you and strap you over my saddle for the rest of the journey?’ he demanded.

She felt the blood rush from her head and her legs grow weak just at the thought.

‘Or maybe I can think of something even better.’

‘You would not,’ she said, and, for all its determination, her voice was barely more than a whisper.

‘But such are the actions of a cruel man,’ he said with a deadly softness, and he released one hand to stroke his thumb against her cheek.

The action shocked her more than his words.

She wrenched her face away from his touch—both incensed at his audacity and shocked at the flare of excitement that his caress elicited—and heard his quiet laugh.

Keeping hold of one of her arms, he began to walk back through the woodland through which she had run. ‘Do not try anything foolish, or I will bind your hands behind you and put a rope around your neck.’

‘Savage!’ she muttered beneath her breath, but Wolf heard her.

‘Aye,’ he growled, ‘I’m that all right, and you best not forget it.’

Rosalind forced her gaze away from the contempt in his eyes. She was acutely conscious of the overwhelming strength of the man, of the extent of his anger. He was all tall and lean and hard, broad-shouldered and long-legged. She glanced at the light yet un breakable grip of his long tanned fingers surrounding her arm.

‘My bonnet,’ she tried to pull free. ‘We must go back.’

His grip did not slacken beneath her pressure. ‘Forget the bonnet,’ and he frog marched her back through the wood through which she had fled with such hope, back down the slope and across the stream.

His horse was tethered to the nearby hawthorn trees.

Rosalind could see the big stallion and the way that his
eye stared with undisguised ill temper at her. She started to fight against Wolf’s progress, digging in her heels, trying to pull away from him. ‘No!’ she cried, ‘I will not let you do this!’

He dragged her round to face him, holding her still. All of the fierce ness had gone from his eyes, and in its place was a calm confidence that stilled her struggle.

He would take her up on the horse and make him gallop, just as Kempster had done. And in her mind, she saw again that terrible scene again from across the years and Elizabeth’s poor bloodied body. ‘No,’ she whispered, pushing the memory away. ‘I will not,’ she said, no longer caring if he heard the desperation in her voice.

In the silence that followed, there was only the trickle of the nearby stream.

‘We must reach the inn by nightfall. It is too far for us to walk.’

Her stomach clenched, she knew what was coming. She would not beg. She looked into his eyes and waited.

‘I will ride him at a trot, nothing faster. You shall be quite safe; I will not let you fall.’ His voice was calm and reassuring, all of the harshness stripped away; it reminded her of how he had spoken to the little mare.

She wanted to believe him, but after Kempster, the fear was back stronger than ever.

‘I give you my word, Miss Meadowfield.’ He released his hold upon her and looked at her with eyes as silver as that first night they had met. But this time, there was a gentleness in them that surprised her.

There was little choice. To run again was pointless; he would only fetch her back once more. She glanced across at Wolf’s horse; it was bigger and looked meaner by far than the beast Kempster rode, as mean as Wolf himself when
he was angry. But his anger seemed to have dropped away, she reasoned.

She swallowed hard and gave a small nod.

Only then did he untie the reins, and swing himself up into the saddle.

Rosalind stood where she was, feeling the tremor shimmer through her body.

He reached down for her, and she let him lift her with one arm into place, sitting, as before, as if on a sidesaddle. His other arm fastened her into place, securing her to both the saddle and the warm hardness of his chest.

She gripped at the pommel with her left hand and hesitantly wrapped her right arm around him. The intimacy of their position brought a blush to her pale cheeks.

His eyes met hers once more, and there was nothing of the storminess that she had seen in them before. He seemed almost concerned. ‘Ready?’

‘Ready,’ she answered quietly, aware that sitting snug against Wolf was nothing like sitting near Kempster. Ashamed though she was to admit it, she liked the smell of Wolf, the feel of him. Her whole body seemed to hum with an inexplicable awareness of him—this man who had just thwarted her escape, again; this man who would take her back to Evedon.

A twitch of the reins between his fingers and the horse began to walk.

The stallion walked until it reached the road and then Wolf urged it to a trot. And that is the way it stayed, just as he had said, trotting for hour after hour, in silence, while she sat safe in Wolf’s arms.

 

The sun was setting by the time that they reached the Angel Inn, a glorious red ball sinking towards the horizon and washing the fading blue sky a vibrant pink. A promise
of a cold night and fine morrow. His horse’s hooves, clad with their iron shoes, clattered loud within the inn’s yard.

Wolf slid the woman down on to the cobblestones before dismounting and handing his horse to an ostler who waited by the lantern-lit stable. He dropped some money into the ostler’s palm that the man would attend to the horse.

Miss Meadowfield stood where she was, bare headed, her dark hair escaping the chignon at the nape of her neck, its long thick strands curling over her shoulders and glowing red where the setting sun touched upon it. She touched a hand self-consciously against it, trying to poke the loose tendrils back up, but only succeeding in making things worse. Several hairpins dropped to the ground with a tinkle and she stooped to gather them.

Wolf saw the small beggar boy dart from his position by the gate, his out stretched grubby palm at the ready at the possibility of a coin or two from the new arrivals. The boy’s clothes were ragged and dirty, his frame small and undernourished. He pulled the filthy cap from his head, revealing dingy fair hair that framed a gaunt little face that seemed too old for the child. Wolf felt that same stab of kinship and recognition that he always felt on seeing such children. Twenty years earlier and it might have been Wolf himself that stood there begging, cap in hand. His eyes slid to Miss Meadowfield, ready to see the revulsion and distaste upon it but there was nothing of any such emotions as she crouched down by the child. Wolf watched in amaze ment as she touched a hand gently to the child’s cheek.

She smiled, and it was a smile filled with such tenderness and sadness that Wolf felt as if a hand had reached into his chest to squeeze upon his heart. He stared, unable to believe what he was seeing. And as he stared, he saw
her slip her hand into the pocket of her dress and remove a small purse. She unlaced it and dropped a few coins into the boy’s hand. And then she leaned forward to kiss his cheek. The child ducked away, staring at Miss Meadowfield with shocked suspicion, an expression that mirrored what Wolf was feeling. Having got what he came for, the boy disappeared as quickly as he had appeared.

BOOK: Unlacing the Innocent Miss
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