Her heart skipped several beats then started thrumming. Scrambling up from her seat, Velvet grabbed the heavy iron poker in front of the hearth and raced upstairs. She couldn’t afford to wait any longer. She should have acted first thing this morning, but something had held her back. She glanced toward the boarded up window in her bedchamber, noting the bright rays slanting in through the cracks.
The sun remained high; there would still be plenty of light before nightfall. This time she was taking his horse, and if all went as planned, he wouldn’t be in any shape to follow. Her hand felt sweaty around the long length of iron she carried. She wiped her palm against her brown woolen skirt and pressed an ear to the door, listening for the highway- man’s return downstairs. It wasn’t long before she heard him moving about. Removing the bright yellow daffodils from the vase on the dresser, she emptied the water into the chamber pot below the bed. Holding the poker in one hand, she knocked the vase to the floor, unleashing what she hoped would pass for a shriek of pain as the glass crashed into splintery shards.
“Duchess?” His worried voice drifted up the stairs. Velvet made a weak little sobbing sound she hoped sounded like crying, then quickly climbed up on the chair she had draggedbehind the door. Her stomach felt tied in knots, her mouth cotton-dry, but her resolve remained steady.
“Duchess, are you all right!” His heavy boots took the stairs two at a time.
Velvet took a breath for courage, raised the poker with shaking hands, held it aloft and waited till he burst through the door.
Her stomach felt leaden–dear God she didn’t want to hurt him–but she tightened her hold and swung the poker down full force. His black eye patch flashed as his head came up. A single blazing blue eye caught the movement, went wide with astonishment. At the last possible moment he twisted. The poker caught the side of his head and glanced off his shoulder, but the blow did its job and he went crashing to the floor. Velvet’s stomach knotted.
“Oh, dear Lord.” Scrambling down from the chair, her legs weak and trembly, she tossed the heavy length of iron away, knelt down and touched his cheek. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, trying to ignore his pitiful groan of pain. “I had to do it. I have to get away.” His skin felt warm. She hadn’t killed him, thank God. Hopefully he wasn’t hurt too badly. Stumbling in her haste to leave, both knees shaking, she raced down the stairs, stopping only long enough to grab the highwayman’s cloak and the bread and cheese she had man-aged to stash away. Then she was out the door and running toward the stable. His big black horse was there but thankfully the stable boy was gone. Shehad prayed he wouldn’t try to stop her.
“Come on, Blackie,” she whispered, remembering the name the outlaw had called him, leading the animal from the stall by his halter, fastening the lead rope around his head to use for reins. The saddle pad was all she had time for. Pulling the horse through the door of the barn, she climbed up on the fence and dropped down on its back, adjusting her skirt around her, ignoring the stockinged legs she exposed below the hem of her skirt. “Good boy, just take it easy.” He was a spirited horse, but she was a passable rider. Better than most women when she was properly mounted. Surely she could manage the big black stallion well enough to make it to some sort of town.
At least that’s what she told herself as he dug her heels into the animal’s ribs and leaned forward, but at the first leap the tall horse made, big hands seized her waist and jerked her roughly off its back. Velvet screamed as One-eyed Jack Kincaid swung her to the ground in front of him, his face a dark mask of rage. Her breath caught. She whirled to flee, but his fingers caught her arms, dug into the tops, and halted any possible movement. A trickle of blood ran from his hair line and as much as she wanted to escape her insides clenched to see how badly she had hurt him.
“Going somewhere, my lady?”
Fear pumped through her at the cruel set of his jaw. Sweet God, mayhap now he would kill her. She bit down on her trembling lips. “I-I’m sorry. I had to get away.”
His mouth twisted cruelly. “Sorry to disappoint you.”
Her fear increased, a chilling tingle that slid down her spine and settled like cold steel in her belly. She stared into his features and for the first time it occurred to her that instead of a single blue eye glaring down at her with menace, this time there were two.
“Sweet Jesus,” she whispered, suddenly transfixed. “Who are you?” Certainly not One-Eyed Jack Kincaid. His features turned even more harsh.
“You’re nemesis, my lady. A man who has underestimated your will for the very last time.” A shrill whistle brought the return of the horse. With a death grip on her arm, he led the animal back to its stall, dragging her along in his wake. He jerked off the saddle pad and unfastened her makeshift reins, then dragged her back toward the house, his big rough fingers digging into her flesh all the way. She tried not to cry, but his painful hold combined with her failure had her cheeks wet with tears by the time they reached the door. The highwaymen saw them, cursed, and surprisingly his hold on her gentled. “Get inside,” he said gruffly. She did as he commanded, taking several wary steps out of his reach. He rounded on her with the full force of those penetrating eyes. “Dammit, woman. Can’t you understand? I’ll let you go when it’s time and not before then. Make it easy on us both and resign yourself–you aren’t leaving until I say!” She sniffed and wiped the wetness from her cheeks. “Bloody hell!”
He stalked back outside, slamming the door so hard it rang into the smoke-darkened rafters. Through the window she saw him heading for the watering trough. He ducked his head beneath the surface, then shook the water from his wavy dark hair like a dog emerging from a stream. Streaks of pink ran along his cheek, and guilt sifted through her. Good Lord, she had never hurt another human being. She hated herself for it, yet couldn’t deny she’d had good cause. She retreated several paces as he strode back in, but he made no move to approach her, only sank down on the sofa, closed his eyes, and rested his head against the back. Velvet eyed him warily. A bruise was beginning to form on the side of his face, and another spasm of guilt lanced through her. She moved a little closer.
“I never wanted to hurt you,” she said softly. Two blue eyes cracked open. She felt them on her face as if he touched her.
“You’re a woman. I should have known better than to trust you.”
Velvet sighed. “If you would tell me the truth, tell me what this is about, perhaps I could help you. I don’t believe you are really Jack Kincaid. I’m not even sure you’re after the ransom. Please…if you would just–”
“Lady, if you would just keep quiet, maybe my head would stop hurting.” Velvet bit down on her lip. The man was in pain and she was the cause. Making her way to the bucket of water by the fire, she dampened a cloth then returned to the sofa, carefully placing it across his forehead.
Those piercing blue eyes slid open. Something dark and turbulent swirled in their depths, something of hurt and betrayal. Something that made her wish she could change what she had done. “I had to do it,” she whispered. “I wish you could understand.” They drifted closed again.
“Perhaps I do,” he said without looking at her. “Perhaps I even admire you for it. I still can’t let you leave.”
Velvet said nothing more. She had never met a man like this one. She couldn’t begin to understand him, and yet she was drawn to him. Fascinated by the danger that seemed to surround him. Touched by the gentleness she had glimpsed in him more than once. She would continue to fight him. She had no other choice. But she knew no matter what happened, she would never hurt him again.
Make sure to order the newly reissued version of “Nothing But Velvet” today! No Kat Martin collection is complete without it.