Excerpt: Her Wicked Ways
Secrets & Scandals, Book 1
“Stand and deliver!” Montgomery Foxcroft demanded as he and the other four members of his band stepped out from the trees lining the rutted and muddy road. They’d scouted the two coaches for the last quarter mile. Each had a coachman at the reins and a footman on the back. The footman on the rear coach crouched low as the vehicle rumbled to a halt.
“You there, stand away!” Fox stalked toward the second coach, training his pistol on the man’s chest. The servant stared, wide-eyed in the milky light offered by the half moon. After a breathless moment in which Fox prayed the man would obey the simple command, the footman jumped from the back of the dark blue lacquered coach, his arms spread. Thank God.
Fox waved his pistol toward where his steward, Robert Knott, sat on horseback. “Move between the coaches, and keep yer hands where I can see them!”
Rob wore a black mask that left his mouth just barely visible below the rough cotton. Fox counted on being equally unidentifiable.
“What is the meaning of this?” Mr. Carmody, Fox’s target, a retired MP and landowner, opened the door of the first coach and thrust out his nearly bald head. Rob pointed his pistol at the man’s face and was answered with a decidedly unmasculine shriek, followed by a thud. “Mrs. Carmody!” Mr. Carmody disappeared back inside.
Rob turned his head toward Fox. “Why’re there two coaches?”
“Because we’re in this coach.” The door of the second vehicle flew open. Pale hair glistened in the moonlight as a female head poked forth and looked down at where the step would have been if the footman had pulled it out. She raised her face and Fox’s jaw loosened. He just managed to keep it from unhinging entirely and dropping to his feet.
Her heart-shaped face was perfectly proportioned with delicious bow lips set above a strong chin. A delicate nose turned up at the end in a rather saucy fashion. Softly angled cheekbones were accentuated by her annoyance. Eyes of an indiscernible color tilted at the outside. At once he imagined her beneath him, those provocative eyes slitting with desire…
“Are you here to steal our money or gape?” She jumped from the coach then, scattering a spray of mud as she landed in the lane. The girl looked down at the dark spots now marring the lower skirt of her dress. He’d no notion of its construction, but the rich fabric and sparkling decoration bespoke extravagance. She raised her gaze to Fox’s once more and again, the impact of her beauty hit him like a blow to the head.
Rob coughed loudly.
Fox slid a glance in his steward’s direction. Rob gestured toward the first coach.
Right. Time for business.
“We’re here to steal his money.” Fox eyed her gown again. He knew nothing about fashion, but recognized expensive cloth when he saw it. “Though, I’m happy to take yours as well.”
A second chit stuck her head out of the window of the coach the beauty had just vacated. Fox recognized the young woman’s dark hair and narrow face. “We don’t have any money!” Beatrice Carmody squealed.
“I find that hard to believe. This one looks as if she’s got money to burn.” Fox’s grip tightened on his pistol. What he wouldn’t give for a surplus of money. Hell, what he wouldn’t give for just enough money.
“Unfortunately, I do not.” The beauty heaved a great sigh. She was disappointed she didn’t have money for him to steal? “Perhaps I might offer you something else?”
He’d take whatever she offered, regardless of its value. He couldn’t afford not to.
“Get the money from him,” Fox said to Rob. “I’ll take care of these two.”
Rob nodded. He dismounted and went to relieve the Carmodys of whatever wealth they carried.
Fox kept the pistol in his right hand as he moved toward the beauty presently shaking—to no avail—the mud from her hem. His boots squelched in the wet earth. She paused as he approached. With her pert chin elevated. Damn, but she looked as if she belonged in a ballroom, not some dirty lane in the middle of the night. He had the sense she would always look like that—regal, proud, utterly self-aware—no matter her surroundings or her trappings.
Up close, she was even more stunning. Impossibly so. She smelled of oranges and clove. Spicy. And completely feminine. Caution screamed at him, even while his pulse quickened. “What do you have for me?”
She stepped toward him until they stood a mere hand’s width apart. “A kiss.”
His jaw did drop then. She’d been flirting with him, saying she’d offer an alternative to money. Brazen enchantress. He willed his brain to think of the orphans. They needed him. They needed her. Or, her money anyway. And she had to have money. Just look at her.
“I don’t need a kiss.” Much as I’d dearly like it. “I need your money. Where is it?”
“Beatrice is correct. I have no money.” She sighed again after delivering the news, a sound of deep regret.
“I don’t believe you. You reek of money.” Fox sniffed loudly to punctuate his statement and got a nose full of her alluring scent for his trouble.
“I know.” Her lips curved into the hint of a smile. It stole his breath. Literally. When he finally remembered to take air, he did so quite audibly. Her mouth widened and her face shone beneath the glory of the most wondrous smile the earth had surely ever known.
What the hell kind of highwayman fixated on some chit like a cheap Byron impostor?
“You must have something of value. A piece of jewelry? A quizzing glass?”
She arched a brow. “What do you take me for? A doddering dowager?”
Good God, no. Never that. “How are you doing over there?” Fox yelled at Rob, careful to drop his voice lest Carmody determine his identity. Highway robbery shouldn’t be this complicated.
“Coming along. Gent’s being quite accommodating.”
Ever aware of her intoxicating loveliness—their gazes had been locked for what seemed an eternity—Fox reluctantly decided to call a halt to their impossible flirtation. “I don’t have time to discuss the finer points of your, er, doddering or lack thereof. Might you return to the carriage and retrieve whatever it is you have of value? I’d hate to have to use my weapon.”
“Your weapon?” Her gaze flicked downward.
Hell’s teeth, had she just looked at his crotch?
“Your pistol? You’re not even pointing it at me.”
She was quite maddeningly correct. His pistol hung from his fingers, forgotten amidst her beauty and the dizzying effect of her nearness.
“Yes, my pistol. I’d prefer not to point it at you, but if you do not procure your valuables immediately, I shall be forced to do so.”
A pouch splattered in the mud near their feet. Both of them looked down.
“Here! That’s everything we have. She’s not lying to you. Her parents have exiled her to Wiltshire and gave her nothing of value as punishment. She doesn’t even have her maid.” Beatrice delivered this information from the coach.
“Beatrice!” The beauty threw a glare at the coach. At last, she appeared ruffled.
Fox’s lips quirked beneath his mask. A spoiled Society chit then. “Would you mind picking up the pouch and putting it in my cloak?”
She turned back to him, her bow-shaped lips pursed. He still couldn’t detect the hue of her eyes, but imagined them to be the color of the sea – not blue, not green, but something just between. “I suppose you’re going to threaten to shoot me if I don’t obey?”
The word “obey” coming from those lips roused the desire he barely kept in check. He licked his lips, searching for the moisture needed to form words. He wanted to say he hadn’t threatened to shoot her, but speech failed him.
With a huff, she bent and plucked the purse from the ground. She straightened and raised her right brow again. “Do you have a pocket?”
Fox forced the words from his mouth. “In my cloak. Here.” With his free hand, he held the left side of his black cloak open. She reached inside and fumbled for a moment, the back of her left hand—she wore no gloves, he realized—grazing the front of his waistcoat. Upon locating the pocket he’d had sewn solely for the purpose of this robbery, she deposited the purse. She pulled her hand back, but he grabbed her fingers, bare against the leather of his glove. Her gaze met his and her lips parted.
Later he would chastise himself for his poor judgment, but now…now he would kiss her.
Fox lowered his head and put his mouth on hers. Soft lips moved beneath his in delicious response. He moved closer, aching to touch her, but caution made him hesitate. Her tongue flicked against his mouth. Her tongue?
Given her behavior during the entire encounter, he shouldn’t have been surprised by her shocking display of experience. She was obviously not married given her exile, but someone had taught her how to kiss. Someone he’d like to thrash.
Then her tongue slid into his mouth, and he forgot everything but her velvety caress. With a groan, he tugged her against his chest and wrapped his arms around her back. Her hands crept up and pulled his shoulders closer while her head angled beneath his.
It had been years since he’d kissed someone like this, as if he’d never have enough of her. He tipped his head to deepen the kiss and she met him, her tongue dancing with his as if they’d done this many times before.
The swell of her breasts thrust into him, echoing the insistent pressure of her palms driving him nearer. He was overwhelmed by her touch, her scent, her taste. He had to have more. And, dammit, holding a gun whilst kissing a goddess was terribly inconvenient. Still, he managed to work one hand up to the back of her neck, his fingers caressing her warm flesh. Ah, like silk…
“Christ! What’re you doing out here?” Rob’s booming voice crashed into their embrace like a pistol cocked against Fox’s temple. Fox pulled away guiltily, feeling like a green lad instead of a grown man of five and twenty. She gasped.
Despite the dim light he noted her kiss-bruised lips. Dark red and moist, he wanted them on his mouth, his chest, his…everywhere. He couldn’t stop looking at them, his breath coming fast. “Siren.”
She took a staggering step back. Good. She couldn’t claim immunity either. But then she arched that damn brow again, and once more he couldn’t tell if she was an innocent girl or an accomplished seductress. Not that it mattered. He hadn’t the time for either.
Rob came to his side and elbowed him in the ribs. Fox threw him a glare, even knowing he’d never see it through Fox’s mask. He lowered his voice to barely above a whisper. “Did you get enough?”
Rob cocked his head to the side. If Fox could’ve seen his face, it surely would have expressed, Is there ever enough?
“Sorry, stupid question,” Fox muttered.
Fox turned a wary eye on the siren. She stood stock still, her chin thrust out, whether in pride or insubordination, he couldn’t tell. She’d play merry hell with the bloke who had the nerve to court her.
He gestured toward the beauty and the coach behind her. Beatrice, all pursed lips and furrowed brow, glared from the window. “I got a bit of blunt from those two as well.” Christ, he hoped it was enough for their immediate needs. He didn’t want to do this again.
Rob called, “Let’s go, lads.” He mounted his horse, and the other two members of their motley band trailed him into the trees where their horses waited. They’d meet up at the manor.
Fox should have followed directly on their heels, but couldn’t resist a final glance at the beauty who kissed too well. Her lips curved into that devastating smile and for a brief moment Fox pondered risking the hangman and sweeping her into his keeping. He shook the madness from his head and offered a slight wave instead.
She raised her hand in response. “Until next time, then?”
Fox chuckled. Incomparable. “Pray, my lady, there isn’t a next time.”