Spindle Cove Series, Book 1
Welcome to Spindle Cove…
Spindle Cove is the destination of choice for certain types of well-bred young ladies: the painfully shy, young wives disenchanted with matrimony, and young girls too enchanted with the wrong men. It’s a haven for those who live there.
Victor Bramwell, the new Earl of Rycliff, knows he doesn’t belong here. So far as he can tell, there’s nothing in this village but spinsters and sheep. But he has orders to gather a militia. It’s a simple mission, made complicated by the spirited, exquisite Susanna Finch–a woman who is determined to save her ladies refuge from the invasion of Bram’s makeshift army.
The last thing either of them expects is a powerful attraction. Much less explosive passion. The village of Spindle Cove is set for an epic battle of the sexes…but will love conquer all?
Romance Writers of America 2012 RITA award, Regency Historical category
RT Book Reviews Reviewers Choice award, Historical Love and Laughter category
“Dare pairs up an educated spinster and a wounded hero in this delightful Regency, the first in the Spindle Cove series… Enticing romantic encounters are matched by witty conversations that slowly and seamlessly reveal deep truths about Dare’s endearing one-of-a-kind characters.”
~Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
“Dare has struck just the right chord with readers. Her light yet fascinating plots, disarming characters, sense of humor and sensuality enthrall.”
~RT Book Reviews, Top Pick!
“Lively and sexy, this funny, enjoyable battle of the sexes ensnares readers in a delightful adventure.”
“Such a delight that readers will find themselves surrendering to its charms!”
“Tessa Dare never fails to write a splendid read.”
Bram stared into a pair of wide, dark eyes. Eyes that reflected a surprising glimmer of intelligence. This might be the rare female a man could reason with.
“Now, then,” he said. “We can do this the easy way, or we can make things difficult.”
With a soft snort, she turned her head. It was as if he’d ceased to exist.
Bram shifted his weight to his good leg, feeling the stab to his pride. He was a lieutenant colonel in the British Army, and at over six feet tall, he was said to cut an imposing figure. Typically, a pointed glance from his quarter would quell the slightest hint of disobedience. He was not accustomed to being ignored.
“Listen sharp, now.” He gave her ear a rough tweak and sank his voice to a low threat. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll do as I say.”
Though she spoke not a word, her reply was clear: You can kiss my great woolly arse.
“Ah, the English countryside. So charming. So . . . fragrant.” Colin approached, stripped of his London-best topcoat, wading hip-deep through the river of wool. Blotting the sheen of perspiration from his brow with a handkerchief, he asked, “I don’t suppose this means we can simply turn back?”
Ahead of them, a boy pushing a handcart had overturned his cargo, strewing corn all over the road. It was an open buffet, and every ram and ewe in Sussex appeared to have answered the invitation. A vast throng of sheep bustled and bleated around the unfortunate youth, gorging themselves on the spilled grain—and completely obstructing Bram’s wagons.
“Can we walk the teams in reverse?” Colin asked. “Perhaps we can go around, find another road.”
Bram gestured at the surrounding landscape. “There is no other road.”
They stood in the middle of the rutted dirt lane, which occupied a kind of narrow, winding valley. A steep bank of gorse rose up on one side, and on the other, some dozen yards of heath separated the road from dramatic bluffs. And below those—far below those—lay the sparkling turquoise sea. If the air was seasonably dry and clear, and Bram squinted hard at that thin indigo line of the horizon, he might even glimpse the northern coast of France.
So close. He’d get there. Not today, but soon. He had a task to accomplish here, and the sooner he completed it, the sooner he could rejoin his regiment. He wasn’t stopping for anything.
Except sheep. Blast it. It would seem they were stopping for sheep.
A rough voice said, “I’ll take care of them.”
Thorne joined their group. Bram flicked his gaze to the side and spied his hulking mountain of a corporal shouldering a flintlock rifle.
“We can’t simply shoot them, Thorne.”
Obedient as ever, Thorne lowered his gun. “Then I’ve a cutlass. Just sharpened the blade last night.”
“We can’t butcher them, either.”
Thorne shrugged. “I’m hungry.”
Yes, that was Thorne—straightforward, practical. Ruthless.
“We’re all hungry.” Bram’s stomach rumbled in support of the statement. “But clearing the way is our aim at the moment, and a dead sheep’s harder to move than a live one. We’ll just have to nudge them along.”
Thorne lowered the hammer of his rifle, disarming it, then flipped the weapon with an agile motion and rammed the butt end against a woolly flank. “Move on, you bleeding beast.”
The animal lumbered uphill a few steps, prodding its neighbors to scuttle along in turn. Downhill, the drivers urged the teams forward before resetting their brakes, unwilling to surrender even those hard-fought inches of progress.
The two wagons held a bounty of supplies to refit Bram’s regiment: muskets, shot, shells, wool and pipeclay for uniforms. He’d spared no expense, and he would see them up this hill. Even if it took all day, and red-hot pain screamed from his thigh to his shinbone with every pace. His superiors thought he wasn’t healed enough to resume field command? He would prove them wrong. One step at a time.
“This is absurd,” Colin grumbled. “At this rate, we’ll arrive next Tuesday.”
“Stop talking. Start moving.” Bram nudged a sheep with his boot, wincing as he did. With his leg already killing him, the last thing he needed was a pain in the arse, but that’s exactly what he’d inherited, along with all his father’s accounts and possessions: responsibility for his wastrel cousin, Colin Sandhurst, Lord Payne.
He swatted at another sheep’s flank, earning himself an indignant bleat and a few inches more.
“I have an idea,” Colin said.
Bram grunted, unsurprised. As men, he and Colin were little more than strangers. But during the few years they’d overlapped at Eton, his younger cousin had been just full of ideas. Ideas that had landed him shin-deep in excrement. Literally, on at least one occasion.
Colin looked from Bram to Thorne and back again, eyes keen. “I ask you, gentlemen. Are we, or are we not, in possession of a great quantity of black powder?”
“Tranquillity is the soul of our community.”
Not a quarter mile’s distance away, Susanna Finch sat in the lace-curtained parlor of the Queen’s Ruby, a rooming house for gently bred young ladies. With her were the rooming house’s newest prospective residents, a Mrs. Highwood and her three unmarried daughters.
“Here in Spindle Cove, young ladies enjoy a wholesome, improving atmosphere.” Susanna indicated a knot of ladies clustered by the hearth, industriously engaged in needlework. “See? The picture of good health and genteel refinement.”
In unison, the young ladies looked up from their work and smiled placid, demure smiles.
Excellent. She gave them an approving nod.
Ordinarily, the ladies of Spindle Cove would never waste such a beautiful afternoon stitching indoors. They would be rambling the countryside, or sea-bathing in the cove, or climbing the bluffs. But on days like these, when new visitors came to the village, everyone understood some pretense at propriety was necessary. Susanna was not above a little harmless deceit when it came to saving a young woman’s life.
“Will you take more tea?” she asked, accepting a fresh pot from Mrs. Nichols, the inn’s aging proprietress. If Mrs. Highwood examined the young ladies too closely, she might notice that mild Gaelic obscenities occupied the center of Kate Taylor’s sampler. Or that Violet Winterbottom’s needle didn’t even have thread.
Mrs. Highwood sniffed. Although the day was mild, she fanned herself with vigor. “Well, Miss Finch, perhaps this place can do my Diana some good.” She looked to her eldest daughter. “We’ve seen all the best doctors, tried ever so many treatments. I even took her to Bath for the cure.”
Susanna gave a sympathetic nod. From what she could gather, Diana Highwood had suffered bouts of mild asthma from a young age. With flaxen hair and a shy, rosy curve of a smile, the eldest Miss Highwood was a true beauty. Her fragile health had delayed what most certainly would be a stunning ton debut. However, Susanna strongly suspected the many doctors and treatments were what kept the young lady feeling ill.
She offered Diana a friendly smile. “I’m certain a stay in Spindle Cove will be of great benefit to Miss Highwood’s health. Of great benefit to you all, for that matter.”
In recent years, Spindle Cove had become the seaside destination of choice for a certain type of well-bred young lady: the sort no one knew what to do with. They included the sickly, the scandalous, and the painfully shy; young wives disenchanted with matrimony and young girls too enchanted with the wrong men . . . All of them delivered here by the guardians to whom they presented problems, in hopes that the sea air would cure them of their ills.
As the only daughter of the only local gentleman, Susanna was the village hostess by default. These awkward young ladies no one knew what to do with . . . she knew what to do with them. Or rather, she knew what not to do with them. No “cures” were necessary. They didn’t need doctors pressing lancets to their veins, or finishing school matrons harping on their diction. They just needed a place to be themselves.
Spindle Cove was that place.
Mrs. Highwood worked her fan. “I’m a widow with no sons, Miss Finch. One of my daughters must marry well, and soon. I’ve had such hopes for Diana, lovely as she is. But if she’s not stronger by next season . . .” She made a dismissive wave toward her middle daughter, who sat in dark, bespectacled contrast to her fair-haired sisters. “I shall have no choice but to bring out Minerva instead.”
“But Minerva doesn’t care about men,” young Charlotte said helpfully. “She prefers dirt and rocks.”
“It’s called geology,” Minerva said. “It’s a science.”
“It’s certain spinsterhood, is what it is! Unnatural girl. Do sit straight in your chair, at least.” Mrs. Highwood sighed and fanned harder. To Susanna, she said, “I despair of her, truly. This is why Diana must get well, you see. Can you imagine Minerva in society?”
Susanna bit back a smile, all too easily imagining the scene. It would probably resemble her own debut. Like Minerva, she had been absorbed in unladylike pursuits, and the object of her female relations’ oft-voiced despair. At balls, she’d been that freckled Amazon in the corner, who would have been all too happy to blend into the wallpaper, if only her hair color would have allowed it.
As for the gentlemen she’d met . . . not a one of them had managed to sweep her off her feet. To be fair, none of them had tried very hard.
She shrugged off the awkward memories. That time was behind her now.
Mrs. Highwood’s gaze fell on a book at the corner of the table. “I am gratified to see you keep Mrs. Worthington close at hand.”
“Oh yes,” Susanna replied, reaching for the blue, leather-bound tome. “You’ll find copies of Mrs. Worthington’s Wisdom scattered everywhere throughout the village. We find it a very useful book.”
“Hear that, Minerva? You would do well to learn it by heart.” When Minerva rolled her eyes, Mrs. Highwood said, “Charlotte, open it now. Read aloud the beginning of Chapter Twelve.”
Charlotte reached for the book and opened it, then cleared her throat and read aloud in a dramatic voice. “’Chapter Twelve. The perils of excessive education. A young lady’s intellect should be in all ways like her undergarments. Present, pristine, and imperceptible to the casual observer.’”
Mrs. Highwood harrumphed. “Yes. Just so. Hear and believe it, Minerva. Hear and believe every word. As Miss Finch says, you will find that book very useful.”
Susanna took a leisurely sip of tea, swallowing with it a bitter lump of indignation. She wasn’t an angry or resentful person, as a matter of course. But once provoked, her passions required formidable effort to conceal.
That book provoked her, no end.
Mrs. Worthington’s Wisdom for Young Ladies was the bane of sensible girls the world over, crammed with insipid, damaging advice on every page. Susanna could have gleefully crushed its pages to powder with a mortar and pestle, labeled the vial with a skull and crossbones, and placed it on the highest shelf in her stillroom, right beside the dried foxglove leaves and deadly nightshade berries.
Instead, she’d made it her mission to remove as many copies as possible from circulation. A sort of quarantine. Former residents of the Queen’s Ruby sent the books from all corners of England. One couldn’t enter a room in Spindle Cove without finding a copy or three of Mrs. Worthington’s Wisdom. And just as Susanna had told Mrs. Highwood, they found the book very useful indeed. It was the perfect size for propping a window open. It also made an excellent doorstop or paperweight. Susanna used her personal copies for pressing herbs. Or, occasionally, for target practice.
She motioned to Charlotte. “May I?” Taking the volume from the girl’s grip, she raised the book high. Then, with a brisk thwack, she used it to crush a bothersome gnat.
With a calm smile, she placed the book on a side table. “Very useful indeed.”
“They’ll never know what hit them.” With his boot heel, Colin tamped a divot over the first powder charge.
“Nothing’s going to hit them,” Bram said. “We’re not using shells.”
The last thing they needed was shrapnel zinging about. The charges he prepared were mere blanks—black powder wrapped in paper, for a bit of noise and a spray of dirt.
“You’re certain the horses won’t bolt?” Colin asked, unspooling a length of slow-burning fuse.
“These are cavalry-trained beasts. Impervious to explosions. The sheep, on the other hand . . .”
“Will scatter like flies.” Colin flashed a reckless grin.
Bram knew bombing the sheep was reckless, impulsive, and inherently rather stupid, like all his cousin’s boyhood ideas. Surely there were better, more efficient solutions to a sheep barricade that didn’t involve black powder.
But time was wasting, and Bram was impatient to be moving on, in more ways than one. Eight months ago, a lead ball had ripped through his right knee and torn his life apart. He’d spent months confined to a sickbed, another several weeks clanking and groaning his way down corridors like a ghost dragging chains. Some days during his convalescence, Bram had felt certain he would explode.
And now he was so close—just a mile or so—from Summerfield and Sir Lewis Finch. Just a mile from finally regaining his command. He bloody well wouldn’t be thwarted by a flock of gluttonous sheep, whose guts were likely to burst if they weren’t scared off that corn.
A good, clean blast was just what they all needed right about now.
“That’ll do,” Thorne called, embedding the last charge at the top of the rise. As he pushed his way back through the sheep, he added, “All’s clear down the lane. I could see a fair distance.”
“There is a village nearby, isn’t there?” Colin asked. “God, tell me there’s a village.”
“There’s a village,” Bram answered, packing away the unused powder. “Saw it on the map. Somesuch Bay, or Whatsit Harbor . . . Can’t exactly recall.”
“I don’t care what it’s called,” Colin said. “So long as there’s a tavern and a bit of society. God, I hate the country.”
Thorne said, “I saw the village. Just over that rise.”
“It didn’t look charming, did it?” Colin raised a brow as he reached for the tinderbox. “I should hate for it to be charming. Give me a dank, seedy, vice-ridden pustule of a village any day. Wholesome living makes my skin crawl.”
The corporal gave him a stony look. “I wouldn’t know about charming, my lord.”
“Yes. I can see that,” Colin muttered. He struck a flint and lit the fuse. “Fair enough.”
“Miss Finch, what a charming village.” Diana Highwood clasped her hands together.
“We think so.” Smiling modestly, Susanna led her guests onto the village green. “Here we have the church, St. Ursula’s—a prized example of medieval architecture. Of course, the green itself is lovely.” She refrained from pointing out the grass oval they used for cricket and lawn bowls, and quickly swiveled Mrs. Highwood away, lest she spy the pair of stockinged legs dangling from one of the trees.
“Look up there.” She pointed out a jumble of stone arches and turrets decorating the rocky bluff.
“Those are the ruins of Rycliff Castle. They make an excellent place to paint and sketch.”
“Oh, how perfectly romantic.” Charlotte sighed.
“It looks damp,” Mrs. Highwood pronounced.
“Not at all. In a month’s time, the castle will be the site of our midsummer fair. Families come from ten parishes, some from as far away as Eastbourne. We ladies dress in medieval attire, and my father puts on a display for the local children. He collects ancient suits of armor, you see. Among other things.”
“What a delightful notion,” Diana said.
“It’s the highlight of our summer.”
Minerva peered hard at the bluffs. “What’s the composition of those cliffs? Are they sandstone or chalk?”
“Er . . . sandstone, I think.” Susanna directed their attention to a red-shuttered façade across the lane. Wide window boxes spilled over with blossoms, and a gilt-lettered sign swung noiselessly in the breeze. “And there’s the tea shop. Mr. Fosbury, the proprietor, makes cakes and sweets to rival any London confectionery’s.”
“Cakes?” Mrs. Highwood’s mouth pursed in an unpleasant manner. “I do hope you aren’t indulging in an excess of sweets.”
“Oh no,” Susanna lied. “Hardly ever.”
“Diana has been strictly forbidden to indulge. And that one”—she pointed out Minerva—“is tending toward stoutness, I fear.”
At her mother’s slight, Minerva turned her gaze to her feet, as if she were intently studying the pebbles beneath them. Or as if she were begging the ground to swallow her whole.
“Minerva,” her mother snapped. “Posture.”
Susanna put an arm about the young woman, shoring her up. “We have the sunniest weather in all England, did I mention that? The post comes through two times a week. Can I interest you all in a tour of the shops?”
“Shops? I only see one.”
“Well, yes. There is only one. But it’s all we have need of, you see. Bright’s All Things shop has everything a young lady could wish to buy.”
Mrs. Highwood surveyed the street. “Where is the doctor? Diana must have a doctor nearby at all times, to bleed her when she has her attacks.”
Susanna winced. No wonder Diana’s health never fully returned. Such a useless, horrific practice, bleeding. A “remedy” more likely to drain life than preserve it, and one Susanna had barely survived herself. Out of habit, she adjusted her long, elbow-length gloves. Their seams chafed against the well-healed scars beneath.
“There is a surgeon next town over,” she said. A surgeon she wouldn’t allow near cattle, much less a young lady. “Here in the village, we have a very capable apothecary.” She hoped the woman would not ask for specifics there.
“What about men?” Mrs. Highwood asked.
“Men?” Susanna echoed. “What about them?”
“With so many unwed ladies in residence, are you not overrun with fortune hunters? Bath was teeming with them, all of them after my Diana’s dowry. As if she would marry some smooth-talking third son.”
“Definitely not, Mrs. Highwood.” On this point, Susanna need not fudge. “There are no debt-ridden rakes or ambitious officers here. In fact, there are very few men in Spindle Cove at all. Aside from my father, only tradesmen and servants.”
“I just don’t know,” Mrs. Highwood sighed, looking about the village once again. “It’s all rather common, isn’t it? My cousin, Lady Agatha, told me of a new spa in Kent. Mineral baths, purging treatments. Her ladyship swears by their mercury cure.”
Susanna’s stomach lurched. If Diana Highwood landed in a spa like that, it might truly be the end of her. “Please, Mrs. Highwood. One cannot underestimate the healthful benefits of simple sea air and sunshine.”
Charlotte tugged her gaze from the ruined castle long enough to plead, “Do let’s stay, Mama. I want to take part in the midsummer fair.”
“I believe I feel better already,” Diana said, breathing deep.
Susanna left Minerva’s side and approached the anxious matriarch. Mrs. Highwood might be a misguided, overwrought sort of woman, but she obviously loved her daughters and had their best interests at heart. She only needed a bit of reassurance that she was doing the right thing.
Well, Susanna could give her that reassurance truthfully. All three of the Highwood sisters needed this place. Diana needed a reprieve from quack medical treatments. Minerva needed a chance to pursue her own interests without censure. Young Charlotte just needed a place to be a girl, to stretch her growing legs and imagination.
And Susanna needed the Highwoods, for reasons she couldn’t easily explain. She had no way to go back in time and undo the misfortunes of her own youth. But she could help to spare other young ladies the same friendless misery, and that was the next best thing.
“Trust me, Mrs. Highwood,” she said, taking the woman’s hand. “Spindle Cove is the perfect place for your daughters’ summer holiday. I promise you, here they will be healthy, happy, and perfectly safe.”
Boom. A distant blast punched the air. Susanna’s ribs shivered with the force of it.
Mrs. Highwood clutched her bonnet with a gloved hand. “My word. Was that an explosion?”
Drat, drat, drat. And this had all been going so well.
“Miss Finch, you just claimed this place was safe.”
“Oh, it is.” Susanna gave them her most calming, reassuring smile. “It is. No doubt that’s just a ship in the Channel, sounding its signal cannon.”
She knew very well there was no ship. That blast could only be her father’s doing. In his day, Sir Lewis Finch had been a celebrated innovator of firearms and artillery. His contributions to the British Army had earned him acclaim, influence, and a sizable fortune. But after those incidents with the experimental cannon, he’d promised Susanna he would give up conducting field tests.
As they moved forward into the lane, a strange, low rumble gathered in the air.
“What is that noise?” Diana asked.
Susanna feigned innocence. “What noise?”
“That noise,” Mrs. Highwood said.
The rumble grew more forceful with each second. The paving stones vibrated beneath her heeled slippers. Mrs. Highwood squeezed her eyes shut and emitted a low, mournful whimper.
“Oh, that noise,” Susanna said lightly, herding the Highwoods across the lane. If she could only get them indoors . . . “That noise is nothing to be concerned about. We hear it all the time here. A fluke of the weather.”
“It cannot be thunder,” Minerva said.
“No. No, it’s not thunder. It’s . . . an atmospheric phenomenon, brought on by intermittent gusts of . . .”
“Sheep!” Charlotte cried, pointing down the lane.
A flock of deranged, woolly beasts stormed through the ancient stone arch and poured into the village, funneling down the lane and bearing down on them.
“Oh yes,” Susanna muttered. “Precisely so. Intermittent gusts of sheep.”
She hurried her guests across the lane, and they huddled in the All Things shop’s doorway while the panicked sheep passed. The chorus of agitated bleats grated against her eardrums. If her father had hurt himself, she was going to kill him.
“There’s no cause for alarm,” Susanna said over the din. “Rural life does have its peculiar charms. Miss Highwood, is your breathing quite all right?”
Diana nodded. “I’m fine, thank you.”
“Then won’t you please excuse me?”
Without waiting for an answer, Susanna lifted her hem and made a mad dash down the lane, weaving around the few lingering sheep as she made her way straight out of the village. It didn’t take but a matter of seconds. This was, after all, a very small village.
Rather than take the longer, winding lane around the hill, she climbed it. As she neared the top, the breeze delivered to her a few lingering wisps of smoke and scattered tufts of wool. Despite these ominous signs, she crested the hill to find a scene that did not resemble one of her father’s artillery tests. Down at the bottom of the lane, two carts were stalled in the road. When she squinted, she could make out figures milling around the stopped conveyances. Tall, male figures. No short, stout, balding gentlemen among them.
None of them could be Papa.
She took a relieved gulp of acrid, powder-tinged air. With the burden of dread lifted, her curiosity took the fore. Intrigued, she picked her way down the bank of heather until she stood on the narrow, rutted road. In the distance, the figures of the men ceased moving. They’d noticed her.
Shading her brow with one hand, she peered hard at the men, trying to make out their identities. One of the men wore an officer’s coat. Another wore no coat at all. As she approached them, the coatless man began to wave with vigor. Shouts carried up to her on the breeze. Frowning, Susanna moved closer, hoping to better hear the words.
“Wait! Miss, don’t . . . !”
An unseen force plucked her straight off her feet and slammed her sideways, driving her off the lane entirely. She plowed shoulder-first into the tall grass, tackled to the turf by some kind of charging beast.
A charging beast wearing lobster-red wool.
Together, they bounced away from the road, elbows and knees absorbing the blows. Susanna’s teeth rattled in her skull, and she bit her tongue hard. Fabric ripped, and cool air reached farther up her thigh than any well-mannered breeze ought to venture.
When they rolled to a stop, she found herself pinned by a tremendous, huffing weight. And pierced by an intense green gaze.
“Wh—?” Her breath rushed out in question.
Boom, the world answered.
Susanna ducked her head, burrowing into the protection of what she’d recognized to be an officer’s coat. The knob of a brass button pressed into her cheek. The man’s bulk formed a comforting shield as a shower of dirt clods rained down on them both. He smelled of whiskey and gunpowder.
After the dust cleared, she brushed the hair from his brow, searching his gaze for signs of confusion or pain. His eyes were alert and intelligent, and still that startling shade of green—as hard and richly hued as jade.
She asked, “Are you well?”
“Yes.” His voice was a deep rasp. “Are you?”
She nodded, expecting him to release her at the confirmation. When he showed no signs of moving, she puzzled at it. Either he was gravely injured or seriously impertinent. “Sir, you’re . . . er, you’re rather heavy.” Surely he could not fail to miss that hint.
He replied, “You’re soft.”
Good Lord. Who was this man? Where had he come from? And how was he still atop her?
“You have a small wound.” With trembling fingers, she brushed a reddish knot high on his temple, near his hairline. “Here.” She pressed her hand to his throat, feeling for his pulse. She found it, thumping strong and steady against her gloved fingertips.
“Ah. That’s nice.”
Her face blazed with heat. “Are you seeing double?”
“Perhaps. I see two lips, two eyes, two flushed cheeks . . . a thousand freckles.”
She stared at him.
“Don’t concern yourself, miss. It’s nothing.” His gaze darkened with some mysterious intent.
“Nothing a little kiss won’t mend.”
And before she could even catch her breath, he pressed his lips to hers.
A kiss. His mouth, touching hers. It was warm and firm, and then . . . it was over.
Her first real kiss in all her five-and-twenty years, and it was finished in a heartbeat. Just a memory now, save for the faint bite of whiskey on her lips. And the heat. She still tasted his scorching, masculine heat. Belatedly, she closed her eyes.
“There, now,” he murmured. “All better.”
Better? Worse? The darkness behind her eyelids held no answers, so she opened them again.
Different. This strange, strong man held her in his protective embrace, and she was lost in his intriguing green stare, and his kiss reverberated in her bones with more force than a powder blast. And now she felt different.
The heat and weight of him . . . they were like an answer. The answer to a question Susanna hadn’t even been aware her body was asking. So this was how it would be, to lie beneath a man. To feel shaped by him, her flesh giving in some places and resisting in others. Heat building between two bodies; dueling heartbeats pounding both sides of the same drum.
Maybe . . . just maybe . . . this was what she’d been waiting to feel all her life. Not swept her off her feet—but flung across the lane and sent tumbling head over heels while the world exploded around her.
He rolled onto his side, giving her room to breathe. “Where did you come from?”
“I think I should ask you that.” She struggled up on one elbow. “Who are you? What on earth are you doing here?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” His tone was grave. “We’re bombing the sheep.”
“Oh. Oh dear. Of course you are.” Inside her, empathy twined with despair. Of course, he was cracked in the head. One of those poor soldiers addled by war. She ought to have known it. No sane man had ever looked at her this way.
She pushed aside her disappointment. At least he had come to the right place. And landed on the right woman. She was far more skilled in treating head wounds than fielding gentlemen’s advances. The key here was to stop thinking of him as an immense, virile man and simply regard him as a person who needed her help. An unattractive, poxy, eunuch sort of person.
Reaching out to him, she traced one fingertip over his brow. “Don’t be frightened,” she said in a calm, even tone. “All is well. You’re going to be just fine.” She cupped his cheek and met his gaze directly. “The sheep can’t hurt you here.”