As I promised last week, here is an excerpt from The Smuggler’s Escape, which is on pre-order now and comes out July 24th.
Setup: Noelle needs Richard’s help, but she doesn’t want him interfering in the smuggling business. She refuses to marry him, and she can’t afford to let him seduce her, either. Richard has other ideas…
Noelle slid off Snowflake’s back, passed her to a surprised groom, and hastened toward the house. The wind ceased its fitful snatching at her bonnet and tore it off good and proper, dancing with it in the sunlight, tossing it around the side of Boltwood Manor.
Noelle picked up her skirts and ran after the hat. The wind teased it away from her grasping fingers and threw it this way and that across the lawn. Noelle followed, cursing, while the wind tugged her hair out of its pins and flapped it into her face. The bonnet flew through the herb garden, lit briefly on the outstretched hand of a stone nymph, and fluttered toward the terrace.
Richard Boltwood stepped through the French doors to the terrace, reached out a long arm, and rescued Noelle’s hat from the wind.
Sacré tonnerre, but he was beautiful. Most improperly, he wore only shirt and breeches. His sleeves couldn’t hide those powerful shoulders and arms, nor his breeches the muscles of his thighs. The open neck of his shirt revealed his firm throat and a few hairs of the masculine chest she had seen and touched only once.
His face was bright with laughter, his bearing confident. Masterful. Irresistible. In spite of herself, Noelle quivered inside.
No. This was no time for quivering. She hurried forward. “Richard, I must speak with you.”
“With pleasure,” Richard said. “Your bonnet, ma’am.” He held it out but made no attempt to touch her.
Noelle closed her fingers around the ribbons, and immediately Richard put his hands behind his back. She moved closer, and he inched away. “In private!” she whispered. She put her hands on her hips and scowled at him. The hat strained away from her hand, and her hair flapped in her face. “Stay here! It’s urgent. I need your help immediately.”
“Ah,” Richard said, “I am of course at your service, my love, but do consider. Your only legitimate excuse for such a precipitate arrival must be desperate love for me, but if there is to be no touching, it won’t look like love, will it?” He danced away like the bonnet on the wind. “You do look delightfully desperate, my sweet.”
“That was your idea,” Noelle fumed. “I never said I wouldn’t touch you, merely that it would be wiser not.”
“It would have been wiser not to involve yourself in the free trade. As to not touching me, do as you please, as long as you understand that if you touch me, I will consider it a clear invitation to touch you in return.” His lips twitched.
“Nom de Dieu.” She must keep her distance, but he was making that impossible. “Oh, very well. You may kiss my hand.”
“Your Majesty is most gracious.” He took her gloved hand in his and tugged at the tip of one finger.
She tried to draw away, but he wouldn’t let go. “What are you doing?”
“Exactly what it looks like. I won’t waste one of my burning kisses on a mere glove.” A few seconds later, the glove was in his breeches pocket. He took her cool hand into his large warm one and brought it within an inch of his lips.
The warmth of his hand, the heat of his breath, traveled all the way to her toes. “Get on with it,” she said, quivering with impatience. Get it over with before it kills me. When he did nothing, she pulled at her hand.
He didn’t let go. “It’s not enough. No woman who gallops to her lover’s door would be content with one little kiss.” He paused. “On her hand.”
Waiting for that kiss was torture, and she had urgent news. She said in French, “Richard, the excisemen are nearby! We don’t have time for playing games.”
“This is no game,” he answered in the same language. “Lives are at stake, and therefore our charade must appear real.”
Did that mean he accepted her refusal to marry him? In which case, she should be glad. Or at the very least, relieved.
She didn’t have time for emotions. “Lives are at stake, and therefore we must hurry.”
“But not appear to do so,” he said. “A bargain—both your hands. It’s not dangerous, surely . . . just a little hand kiss or two.”
Before she had a chance to respond, he took the other hand, pried her fingers open, and released the ribbons of her hat.
It fluttered away across the lawn. “My bonnet!”
“What’s a mere bonnet when one is deep in love?” Richard removed the second glove and stowed it in his pocket. He pulled her close and pressed his hot lips to the back of one tingling hand.
Something inside Noelle pulsed in response. Yes.
His lips settled hotly on the other hand.
“Enough?” Richard whispered. “We have demonstrated love, but what about passion?”
Noelle couldn’t bring herself to move. Her breathing quickened, and her knees felt abominably weak.
“Only a passionate woman would ride ventre à terre to the man she loves.” He turned her hands over and cupped them in his large ones. “You, my sweet, are the essence of passion.”
He pressed his lips into one palm and then the other. The pulsing inside her deepened to a throb.
She couldn’t help it. She whimpered, staring at his lips and her hand.
His tongue reached out and gently, devastatingly, licked her palm.
Dieu du ciel. His arms surrounded her and his heady aroma overwhelmed her senses. She drank it in through her very pores. I love you. Oh, how I love you. She pressed her face into the hollow at his throat.
She made a small despairing sound, and immediately his arms loosened. He pushed up her chin and deposited a swift kiss on her lips. “You do love me, and you know it.”
“You tricked me, vaurien.” She pushed away, but he tightened the circle of his arms again. “You said you wouldn’t touch me.” Deliberately, she wiped her hand on her skirt.
Something twitched in his cheek, but he said coolly, “I only did what you agreed to, my love, and then you fell into my arms. What clearer invitation could there be?” He lifted a few stray hairs from her cheek. “We need to talk.”
Noelle shook her head and drew away, and this time he let her go. “No. We don’t. Not about that, anyway.”
“And what, pray tell, is ‘that?’” He toyed with her hair.
She sighed. “It doesn’t matter. Richard, the excisemen are everywhere. They were at Johnny’s camp this morning, but he’s gone. Is Johnny all right?”
Richard’s fingers stilled. Did he think she cared more for Johnny than for him?
Rightly so, she reminded herself. Johnny was a good, kind man. Richard was a heartless libertine.
She found herself explaining anyway. “They shot him, and Lucretia bandaged him last night.”
“Courageous of her.” Richard’s fingers moved again, pulling out pins, spreading her thick, tangled curls around her shoulders. Her body longed to melt against his. She clenched her fists and sucked in a breath of chilly air to counteract the effect of his touch.
She said briskly, “Yes, isn’t it? But she said he’d been bleeding dreadfully, and this morning Uncle Matthew told us your grooms removed his wagon.”
Richard let her go and handed her a fistful of hairpins. “So that the excisemen wouldn’t destroy it. They’re no doubt stinging at being duped by a tinker and his dog last night. My carpenter will repair the wagon, and in the meantime, Johnny has been patched up and is asleep in the chamber next to mine.”
Noelle lowered her voice as they moved toward the house. “There’s an exciseman watching Sir William Luttrow’s stables. I saw him in the trees by the stream and came to warn you. I don’t think he saw me. Will you order him off your land?”
Richard cocked his head. “I don’t think so. He won’t search without Sir William’s permission. It will be much more fun taking the contraband out from under his nose.”
“Sir William will give permission. He’s dead set against smuggling.”
“We can only hope Sir William is away for the moment. There’s not much in there, if I recall the list correctly—only a few tubs. We’ll move them from his stables this morning.” He plucked Noelle’s hat from a puddle.
“How?” Noelle’s voice rose. “We can’t go carting tubs across the countryside.”
“Hush! I have everything under control.”
“Don’t dismiss my concerns!” She was shouting, curse it. She forced her voice lower, but she couldn’t make it calm. It shook with fury and also, though she hated to admit it, fear. “You may have helped the smugglers as a boy, but you have no experience of the current situation. You’ll land us all in prison with your arrogant, irresponsible, aristocratic ways.”