In the days of Shakespeare…
Lucy may be the well-dowered daughter of the wealthiest merchant in England, but no man will go near her. The townspeople claim calamity strikes any fellow foolish enough to cross the sharp-tongued woman’s path. Lucy scorns the gossip, declaring she has neither the need nor the desire for a man. But when she accidentally knocks unconscious a carefree rogue at a market fair, Lucy fears her curse may be real, after all, and hauls the knave home to her father’s house to make sure he recovers.
Emile ‘the Fox’ should probably feel thankful the interfering wench sneaked him past the gang who sought to kill him at the market fair, but he doesn’t appreciate the emotions she stirs up, emotions he’d long since banished from his heart. He doesn’t want the foolish desire that creeps up on him, a thieving knave, to win a drop of her respect. All he wants is to steal a plate or two of her father’s silver and be on his way, free of any personal entanglement or responsibility.
Lucy’s father, however, has other plans. He’s not about to let slip the only man in England who isn’t afraid of Lucy.
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Emile glanced down at the knife pointed at his belly. It was a wicked little blade, quite deadly.
Smiling, he looked up again. “Oh, now. You don’t mean to stick me with that thing, do you, Fish?”
Yellowed eyes fixed on Emile amid the sounds and chaos of the crowded market fair. “Oh, but oi do.”
Yes, he probably did. Fish was loyal to the gambling master Stone. All of Stone’s minions had thought Emile had been loyal, too, playing his lute, priming the gamblers.
But Emile had not been loyal. Far from it.
In the market fair, Emile recalled his awful—and most profitable—disloyalty with pure satisfaction. Meanwhile, he plotted his escape. Turn and run. Easy. Once clear of Fish and his knife, Emile could jaunt his way to the next town and start over. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Then from behind his left shoulder, Emile heard another voice. “We all do mean it.”
That eliminated running. But Emile swiveled with an even brighter smile than before. “Why, good morning there, Carver.”
An incongruous dimple appeared in Carver’s stubbled cheek as he raised a dagger the size of a mutton chop. “You’re through, you no-good whoreson bastard.”
Around them the village fair continued fantastically oblivious. Past Carver’s shoulder Emile could see people moving among the stalls, squeezing apples arranged on tiered bales of hay, haggling over prices. The smell of roast pork hung in the air.
In the midst of the scene, two more ruffians slunk up on Fish’s heels. Perhaps it was the end of this whoreson bastard.
But not if Emile could help it.
“Now, I can explain.” He held up his palms. Duck? he pondered. But Fish’s stiletto knife was awfully close.
“You can explain that worthless fighting cock?” Carver’s eyes widened.
“He wasn’t worthless. Just…a little scrawny.”
“A scrapper, you told our master.”
Though Emile stretched his lips tight, he couldn’t help showing a grin beneath his neatly clipped beard. Stone had wagered a fortune on the wretched rooster—and gotten clobbered in his own gambling pit. Oh, it had been passing sweet to watch. Particularly considering all the times Emile had watched the opposite scenario, that of Stone fleecing his ‘customers’ of their hard-earned wages.
“Shit of a dog,” Carver growled. “You’re pleased about it!”
“No!” Emile held up his hands. “I—I want to repay Stone. How much will it take to satisfy?”
Fish laughed, a rusty and foul exhalation.
Carver joined in, less rusty and a lot more eager. Though they couldn’t guess Emile hadn’t a penny, they did know Stone was too furious to take money. And too embarrassed.
Fish raised his knife.
Carver stepped forward.
They were too close. No room to duck, whirl, or jump. As Fish feinted, Emile swiveled to escape the knife but was unable to dodge the fist Carver had weighted with grapeshot. The blow to his head knocked his eyes crossed.
Pest! While fighting the pain between his ears, Emile saw Fish come at him again. Emile’s heart contracted. There was no time or space to do anything except—
He reached forward, clapped both hands around Fish’s pockmarked jaw, and kissed the brigand full on the mouth.
“Hey!” Reeling back from this abuse, Fish gave Emile just the opening he needed.With his head still pounding from the grapeshot, Emile looped around the stricken brigand, and then pushed the next ruffian into his fellow.
“No!” Carver’s voice bellowed as Emile plunged into the crowded market fray.
His head hurt like the devil, but Emile was grinning as he dodged a man holding a tray of figs.
From the sound of a thud and sharp exclamation, Stone’s cutthroats had not been as quick-footed.
Emile hardly had time to gloat, however, before a mountain of a woman stepped into his path, blocking the aisle from one side to the other.
“Apologies, mistress,” Emile breathed before dropping to the ground and lifting the frayed hem of her skirt. He dove. A squeal and a glimpse of blue-veined skin—and he was on the other side of her.
“Oh, good,” Carver drawled. His dimple appeared over the outraged mountain woman’s shoulder. “But not good enough.”
Spitting straw, Emile rolled to duck Carver’s reaching blade. He leaped to his feet and hopped onto the bale of hay that had been his target all along. With his breath cutting hard into his lungs and his head still pounding, Emile scrambled upward. Apples, artfully arranged upon the tiered bales, began to tumble. Oh, it was a regular cascade of apples by the time Emile reached the top of the display. Chuckling at the oaths of frustration below, Emile hurled himself over the other side.
He hit the ground harder than he’d expected. For a moment his sore head rang. A cloudy blackness obscured his vision. He caught a definite whiff of the death he’d been cheating for years.
The next moment he was through with such nonsense. He heard a commotion above him on the hay bales. Dizzy or not, he picked himself up and ran.
Weeds snapped beneath Emile’s feet as he made for a tent, the closest of several spotting the empty field. Emile threw himself at the untied slit, home to some vendor from the fair.
At the same time a shout trumpeted from the top of the hay bales. “Go on!”
“He’s got to be here somewhere.”
They hadn’t spotted him, then. But as Emile finished rolling into the vendor’s tent, his shoulder hit something hard. Cringing, he opened one eye.
He’d bashed into a bath. Yes, a tub of oak barrel slats stood as high as his hips and big enough to drown an ass. Intrigued, Emile opened his other eye and unsteadily got to his feet.
A head peered over the soap-flecked surface of the water. It was a female head, her eyes wide. A vast quantity of raven-black hair was piled in a loose knot above her astonished face.
A woman? And unguarded? Emile was too shocked to know what to make of the situation.
“Check that way,” Carver’s voice commanded, sounding just outside the tent’s canvas. “I’ll search the tents over here.”
Emile’s eyes locked on those of the woman. He thanked the saints she appeared too surprised to make a sound. Regaining his balance, he put one finger to his lips.
The female’s eyes opened wider.
Emile knew what was coming next. As he stepped over the copper rim of the tub, his hand went from his own lips to hers. His palm covered her nascent scream. Then he grabbed the woman’s naked body against his own and dropped them both under the filmy surface of the water.
She was a fighter. With his breath held and his heart pounding, Emile felt like he was holding a caught fish. But this fish had buoyant breasts and a soft rump twisting up against his groin. It was impossible not to notice, impossible not to…react. Yes, he reacted even though—or perhaps because—he expected Carver’s mutton chop knife to slash down at any moment. This could be his last taste of heaven before Carver killed him.
Him? Underwater, Emile froze. A sickening thought occurred. What, pray, would keep Carver’s slashing knife from killing the girl instead of himself?
Idiot! He’d put the girl in danger!
Adding to his horror, Emile felt her squirm out of his arms.
No! If she surfaced, Carver would kill her. He’d slash at anything that rose from the water.
Emile pushed upward. He had to drive the cutthroat’s attention toward himself instead of the woman. Panicked, he yelled at the top of his lungs.
Or he might have yelled at the top of his lungs if a powerful kick directed at his backside had not propelled him face first back into the water. Emile swallowed a large gulp of soapy liquid.
“Worm!” he heard the female exclaim. “Idiot madbrain.”
Choking, Emile whirled. He caught the damn woman’s mouth and covered it.
She growled and jerked in his arms.
“Be still!” Emile hissed. “They’re just out—” With an inner curse, he stopped to hold his breath and listen.
All he could hear was the splash of water against the sides of the tub. No pounding feet, no cursing commands, no cutthroats.
A wide grin spread across his face. Carver had passed on.
Best of all, the girl in his arms was safe.
He felt himself trembling. He hadn’t caused any harm. By luck, true, but the fact was all that mattered. She was safe. Thank God.
Her elbow connected with his ribs.
“Ow!” Off guard, he made the mistake of releasing her mouth.
“Low-down, rotten cur,” she spat. “You will pay for daring to handle me this way.”
Emile eyed the woman. She looked mad enough to combust. And lovely enough to belong to somebody. If he didn’t get out of there fast, he supposed he would indeed pay dearly. Smiling, he held out his free hand. “Calm yourself, mistress.”
“Calm myself!” She knocked her fists into the water. Soap splashed into Emile’s eyes. “Surely you want your little friends to hear me squeal. How else will they know you dared to touch me?”
“My little friends? Oh, no more of that, now.” Emile grabbed both her wrists when he saw she was about to splash again.
“Oh! You will be sorry.” Immobilized once more, the woman sneered up at Emile. “My curse will strike you just as it has struck every other man.”
“Your—? Hey!” Emile adjusted his grasp as the woman suddenly jerked against his hold. “Look.” He strove for a reasonable tone. “I know you’re angry. You have every right to be. As will any, uh, friend of yours. In sooth, I am powerful moved to get out of your vicinity. So if you’ll just, um, be still, I will do so. Completely. You’ll never have to see my blessed face again. Hm?” Emile smiled encouragingly.
But anger only flashed hotter in her face. “Oh yes, now, now, you want to get out of my ‘vicinity.’ Ha! Now that you’ve— Now that you’re afraid and quite correctly, too.” She paused, her nostrils flaring. “Do not imagine you have hurt my feelings. Do not pride yourself that far. I am quite used to being treated like a—like a monster.”
Emile frowned deeply. He hadn’t treated her like a monster. A little rough, maybe—
Her chin shot up. “Am I not a woman?”
His eyes popped wide.
“Well?” she demanded. “Am I?”
What in the world—?
Her glare intensified.
“I— Uh, that would be my guess,” Emile stammered.
“Your guess.” She spread her hands, still grasped by his, to either side. “Did I not feel like a woman in your arms?”
Emile choked. Aye, she had felt like a woman, and a lush, supple specimen indeed. But he did not think it wise to remember that. She obviously belonged to somebody. And he ought to be leaving—now.
But she wasn’t done. “What about my skin?” She pulled one hand from his to pinch her upper arm. “It is as soft as any other woman’s, isn’t it?”
Flabbergasted, Emile stared at the tender flesh caught between her fingers. “Your skin…” It was pale and soft. “I—I guess,” he croaked.
“You guess!” Scorn personified, she wrenched her other hand from his.
Dazed, Emile took a step on his knees back from her. He might have remembered his original intent, to leave, had not two wet globes suddenly lifted to the surface of the water.
“My breasts,” she demanded. “Are they not womanly?”
Emile stilled. His gaze dropped to a pair of the most luscious breasts he had ever seen. Water slicked the creamy skin and dripped from a pair of large, brown nipples.
“Well?” she asked.
“Yes,” Emile heard himself whisper. “Oh, yes. Your breasts, they are quite womanly. Perfect, in fact.”
“Perfect!” She sounded very surprised.
Emile lifted his eyes. “Your tail end, too,” he thought to add, “is passing excellent.”
“My tail end!” She sounded more surprised than ever. Finally developing some modesty, she sank until her breasts disappeared again under the surface of the water.
Emile met her wide-open eyes with a crooked grin. He did not understand her questions. Some intelligent instinct reminded him he’d better run, but—she looked so heartbreakingly uncertain.
The heat he’d felt during their scuffle underwater returned in a rush. Mayhap this was providence. She’d saved him with her bath, and he would…reassure her. Yes, he would take care of a matter in which her own man had been negligent.
“Your lips as well,” he soothed, and took a waterlogged knee-step toward her. “They are ripe and plump. Shall I kiss them?” Aye, one kiss. What harm could there be in that?
“What?” The woman gasped as Emile took hold of her. “Wait!” she yelped. “Wh-what are you doing?”
He smiled. Perhaps even a single kiss would be going too far, but for all her surprise, she felt pliant in his arms. A look of wonder shone in her eyes. She wanted reassurance. He would give it. “You will soon discover what I am doing,” he murmured and pulled her close. He lowered his mouth toward hers.
Ten little fingers clapped over his lips.
“But—my curse,” the woman chirped.
“Your curse.” From behind her fingers, Emile mumbled, “What’s that?”
Her hands drifted down. “You…do not know?”
Emile’s face warmed. No, he didn’t know. Worse than his ignorance, however, was the way her eyes now widened. Apparently she was figuring out that was his erection pressed against her stomach.
Her eyes swept down and then up again. She looked stunned. “My God,” she whispered. “You really do not know.”
Emile realized he had no idea of anything at all. If he weren’t crazy, he would say she looked thoroughly…impressed.
Impressed? His face got even warmer. Just what did she expect of him? But even as he worried, he could feel the heat of her naked body. The breasts he’d so admired smashed very sweetly against his chest. Emile groaned.
Impressed could work…
“To be left alone like this,” he joked in a murmur and lowered his head. “You must be cursed indeed.”
His words turned out truer than he’d dreamed. Instead of melting, she stiffened in his arms. At the same moment a heavy foot crunched the gravel outside the tent.
“Mistress?” a deep voice inquired. “You are not yet done with your bath?”
Emile froze. He’d known it. He’d known she had a man! “Don’t,” he breathed and squeezed her shoulders.
But she only drew in an outraged breath. “I must be cursed indeed?”
Emile uttered a profound oath as a man as tall and thin as a pikestaff came running through the untied slit of the tent.
“Mistress!” the man cried and glared murder at Emile. “I will save you!”
The mistress did not appear to need this assistance. With an expression of righteous fury, she drew back her arm.
“Pig shit!” Emile exclaimed. Even though he was caught in the tub, he managed to duck the more punishing blow from above. There was no way, however, to avoid the open-handed slap of the woman.
“There is nothing cursed about me!” she proclaimed, completely belying her original assertion. Her hand connected smartly with Emile’s head. “Ha! Nothing different from any other woman!”
Pain immediately exploded through Emile’s head. Too much pain. By some absurd chance, the woman’s hand had caught the very spot Carver had already softened with his fistful of grapeshot.
Amused, Emile opened his mouth to chuckle. Instead a flood of water poured in. Suddenly he couldn’t breathe.
No. She couldn’t have. One naked little woman could not have accomplished what half a dozen cutthroats had failed to do. But the black rose up.
Emile actually felt an instant of panic, as if his life had any worth to the world. Then the moment passed, and he chuckled.
To think he’d be dead—and Stone would never know.
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