One of my favorite people in the world is Katharine Ashe, whenever I get the opportunity to spend time with her I do. Not only do I love her as a person, I love her writing as well. One of my top historical reads this year is her book My Lady, My Lord. After I finished reading I Adored a Lord I knew I wanted to share this book with everyone. So Katharine was gracious enough to send over a snippet for us.
A heavy footfall sounded on the other side of the door. A man’s tread. Then another. He paused out of sight beyond the opening she’d left.
She’d thought the stables empty. Now a man stood on the other side of the door without speaking. If he had come to see the pups, he would enter. If he had followed her inside with ill intent, he might be silent. It would not be the first time a man had assumed she was fair game for a tumble in the hay. But this time her protector did not stand by her side, growling and baring his sharp teeth. This time she was alone.
The pup whimpered more desperately. No other sound stirred the stillness, no breath, no movement. But the man remained. Every prickling hair on Ravenna’s arms felt him.
She slammed the door outward. It jarred and sprang back. His body fell heavily to the floor and a short, deep moan sounded in the hush.
Then … nothing.
The pup whined.
Ravenna counted to thirty. Stepping forward, she pushed the door open.
In the dim light she barely made out the man’s profile against the floor: cap fallen askew off dark hair that curled around his collar, longish nose, and a jaw shadowed by whisker growth. He wore plain clothing, a loose brown coat, dark breeches and boots. His hands spread upon the floor were large. A scar ran across the top of his right hand from the V between his forefinger and middle finger into his sleeve, the memento of a sharp-edged tool going astray. She’d seen plenty of scars like that on farmers and stable hands.
This man must be a stable hand—a stable hand who should not have alarmed her. When he regained consciousness he would have a welt on his head the size of Devonshire.
His body blocked the door. To fetch help she would have to step over him. But her narrow skirts would not allow her to traverse him in one step. So much for attempting to dress like a lady.
He didn’t move. He could not possibly be dead. But he remained so still. In the dimness it seemed he did not draw breaths. Ravenna’s fingertips itched, habit overcoming fear. She should probe his skull. If the door had cracked it, she knew what must be done. But first she must examine him.
Tentatively she shifted a toe forward and nudged his shoulder.
He groaned. She nudged harder.
His hand gripped her ankle so swiftly her fingers wrenched from the door. Twisting to avoid the pups, she went down fast, her shoulder striking the floor buffered by the thick straw. But he did not release her. Struggling back, she scrabbled for the wall and a weapon. Her hand snagged a handle. She wrenched it forward and it slipped through her numb fingers. The pitchfork crashed down on his leg.
“Good God!” he howled. “Damn it!”
Instead of doubling over, he lurched forward and grabbed her knee, and his other hand cinched around her wrist. Then he was upon her, his weight atop her, his knees and hips and chest pinning her to the straw and his hand clamping over her mouth as a scream jolted from her throat. She thrashed. His ankles twisted around hers, holding her legs immobile. He gripped her arm, the other trapped beneath her.
“Be still,” he growled like an animal.
She went still.
“What are you doing, attacking an innocent man?” His tongue slurred. “Damn it, my head hurts. And my leg.”
Her heartbeats battered against his chest pressed to hers. His face was inches away, satiny hair falling over eyes that were dark sockets of outrage. The icy air between them did not reek of spirits. He was not foxed. The slur must be from the injury. The door had hit him hard.
“I will release your mouth,” he said, and squinted as though he were trying to focus. Long lashes. Long for a man. “But if you scream, you won’t like the consequences. If you understand, blink once.”
She blinked. His hand slid away from her mouth. She gulped in air.
“I still can’t breathe,” she rasped.
The pup mewled.
“Why are you here?” His gaze swept the neckline of her gown, then her hair. “Are you a maid?”
“I came outside—needed air. You’re crushing—my lungs. Get—off me or—I’ll scream and—bear the consequences.”
“No scream will come without air to carry it.” He sounded less slurred now. And too rational. “Tell me who you are and I will release you.”
“Regina Slate. Daughter—Duke of Marylebone—guest. He’ll have you—strung up by your neck when—he learns you’ve—touched me.”
“Marylebone is a neighborhood, not a duke. And threatening a man with hanging in the uncertain future when he’s got you in his power at present is idiocy.” Now she heard a round, broken tone in his words. He was a foreigner. But not French, she thought, and he spoke English perfectly. Also, he knew Marylebone was a neighborhood in London. Her poor luck. “And if your father is a duke,” he said, “I am the Emperor of China.”
“Pleasure—” She gasped. “To make your acquaintance—your imperial majesty.”
His hand tightened about her wrist. “What is your name and why are you in this stable?”
“Ravenna—Caulfield. Truly. You were right. I’m—nobody.” With no one of her own to wrap her arms around at the end of the day and breathe in deeply, and no one to protect her from men who would throw themselves upon her because she was nobody. “Now get—off me.”
“Caulfield.” His brow bent. The pressure on her chest relaxed slightly and she tried to fill her lungs. But his grip remained tight around her arm. “You are in Sir Beverley Clark’s party?”
As stable hands went, this one seemed unusually well informed. “I work for him.” Not really now that she was a duchess’s sister, of course. But how much could he know about Sir Beverley’s household?
“What work do you do?” His eyes scanned her face with particular interest now, and an odd little eddy of awareness scampered through her. “Are you his mistress?”
Apparently he didn’t know much about Sir Beverley after all. “I care for his pet dogs and exotic birds.”
Abruptly, his brow relaxed. A crease dented his scruffy cheek.
Ravenna’s heart did a peculiar sideways leap.
“You care for his—”
“Dogs and exotic birds. Twelve dogs. Two birds. And one house pig.” A strange agitation was rushing into her numb limbs. It must be terror. It could not be caused by the dent in his cheek above his hard jaw. He was a dangerous stranger attacking her. But attackers did not grin like they were curiously pleased. Did they?
A shimmer of red peeked from the fall of hair over his brow, the welt forming. A biscuit poultice would soothe that quick enough. Perhaps in the kitchen she could find milk and some—
“Animals?” he said, his gaze trailing over her face again, the dent deepening.
“I care for them and doctor them. I do the same for everybody’s animals in the county when they get sick, without compensation because I am not a man and nobody thinks they need to pay me except with a basket of fresh eggs or a cream or a cake of soap, which I usually take to mean they think a woman should smell better than I do. This struggling in straw soaked with puppy urine isn’t helping that problem, by the way. So now get off me.”
But he wasn’t going to release her. She saw the change in his eyes and felt it in his body the instant it happened. She hadn’t much experience with men beyond the occasional brush of hands when she was holding on to one end of a lambing ewe and a farmer was hanging on to the other end. But she knew enough about rutting animals to recognize the signs of arousal in the male of the species, even her own.
The pupils of her attacker’s eyes were wide in the darkness. Then his gaze dipped to her mouth. He might not have initially followed her into the stall with rapine intent. But it certainly seemed to be on his mind now.
“You smell good to me,” he said, his voice deeper than before, like a warm autumn night, the vowels especially round. Not French. Italian? Spanish? He must have come with one of the other guests—one of the other guests who had wretched judgment when hiring stable hands.
“And, por Deus,” he said upon a catch in his throat, his eyes hard upon her mouth, “you are lovely.”
The rutting urge must have overcome him. The only male creature that had ever considered her lovely was Beast, and that was because she sometimes smelled like bacon.
She must distract him.
“I can help with that bruise on your brow,” she said, struggling against panic.
“Can you?” He seemed bemused. Jars to the head could scramble the brain.
“It’s starting to swell. It will leave a painful wound that could fester. Let me up and I’ll ask the housekeeper for—”
His mouth came down upon hers without further warning. Not hard or violently or forcefully. But fully, with complete contact.
Ravenna pinned her lips together. Breathing through her nose, she smelled horses and straw and something else foreign and male and . . . good. Like whiskey without the bite. Or well-loved leather. He released her wrist and with his big hand cupped her cheek.
She did not push him away. She must. But his scent, the heat of his skin, the sensation of his lips upon hers—teasing, encouraging, urging—paralyzed her. The pad of his thumb stroked gently along her throat. His touch was so warm. Intimate. Tender. Tingling pleasure mingled with the panic in her belly. She could kiss him back. She could discover what it was like to really kiss a man.
He had one thing in mind after kissing, and she wasn’t prepared to oblige him…
All that clever, passionate Ravenna Caulfield wants is to stay far away from high society’s mean girls.
All that handsome, heroic Lord Vitor Courtenay wants is to dash from dangerous adventure to adventure.
Snowbound in a castle with a bevy of the ton’s scheming maidens all competing for a prince’s hand in marriage, Ravenna’s worst nightmare has come true. Playing babysitter to his spoiled prince of a half-brother and potential brides, Vitor is champing at the bit to be gone.
When a stolen kiss in a stable leads to a corpse in a suit of armor, a canine kidnapping, and any number of scandalous liaisons, Ravenna and Vitor find themselves wrapped in a mystery they’re perfectly paired to solve. But as for the mysteries of love and sex, Vitor’s not about to let Ravenna escape until he’s gotten what he desires . . .
Katharine Ashe is the award-winning author of twelve romances reviewers call “intensely lush” and “sparkling and witty,” including 2014 RITA® Award nominee How to Marry a Highlander and Amazon’s Editors’ Choice for the Ten Best Romances of 2012, How to Be a Proper Lady. Visit her at her website www.KatharineAshe.com and on Facebook, twitter, Pinterest and instagram.