Authors: Johanna Lindsey
Still, Jeremy might not have drawn the conclusion he did, at least not quite so soon, if his own stepmother hadn’t used the same sort of disguise when she’d first met his father. She’d been desperate to get back to America, and signing on as James’s cabin boy had seemed to be her only option. Of course, James had known from the start that she wasn’t a lad, and to hear him tell it, he’d had a great deal of fun pretending to believe she was a boy.
Jeremy could be wrong in this case. There was that slim possibility. And yet he was rarely wrong where women were concerned.
But there was no need to expose her. Whatever reason she had for hiding her gender was her business. He might be curious, but he’d learned long ago that patience reaped the best rewards. And besides, they only needed one thing from her—her talent.
“What do they call you, youngun?” Jeremy asked.
“None o’ yer bleedin’ business.”
“I don’t think he’s figured out yet that we’re going to do him a good turn,” Percy remarked.
“Ye set a trap—”
“No, no, think of it as an opportunity for employment,” Percy corrected.
” their thief insisted. “And I don’t need wotever it is yer offering.”
Jeremy raised a black brow. “You aren’t even a little curious?”
“No,” said the thief most stubbornly.
“Too bad. The nice thing about traps is—you don’t get out of them unless you get let out. Do we look like we’re letting you out of this one?”
“Ye look like ye’ve bleedin’ well lost yer minds. Ye don’t think I’m alone, d’ye? They’ll be coming for me if I don’t return when I’m expected to.”
The question just got Jeremy another glower. He shrugged, unperturbed. He wouldn’t doubt she ran with a pack of thieves, the very bunch that had systematically been sending their numbers in, one at a time, to rob the unsuspecting gentry who had blundered into their territory. But he doubted they’d come looking for her. They’d be more interested in obtaining the expected fat purse first, before they thought of any rescuing. If anything, they’d assume this attempt had failed, that she’d been apprehended, knocked out, or killed, and would be sending in the next thief soon.
Which meant they should wrap this up and be on their way, now that they had their quarry in hand, so Jeremy said congenially, “Sit down, youngun, and I’ll explain what you’ve volunteered for.”
“I didn’t vol—”
“But you did. When you came through that door, you most surely did volunteer.”
“Wrong room,” their thief tried to assert. “Ye’ve never walked into the wrong room by mistake?”
“Assuredly, though usually with my shoes on,” Jeremy said dryly.
She blushed again and swore a blue streak.
Jeremy yawned. Much as he’d enjoyed the cat-and-mouse bantering, he didn’t want this taking
night. And they still had a good distance to travel to reach Heddings’s house in the country.
He injected a note of sternness in his tone when he ordered, “Sit down, or I will physically put you in that chair—”
Jeremy didn’t have to finish. She ran to the chair, practically dove into it. She definitely didn’t want to risk his touching her. He forced back another smile as he moved away from the door to stand in front of her.
Percy, amazingly, injected a bit of logic into the proceedings: “I say, we could explain this on the way, couldn’t we? We’ve got our man. Is there any reason to remain in these god-awful accommodations a moment longer?”
“Quite right. Find me something for binding.”
“To tie him up with. Or haven’t you noticed that our thief isn’t being the least bit cooperative—yet?”
At which point their thief desperately bolted for the door.
EREMY HAD KNOWN
it was coming, one more effort to escape them before it was too late. He’d seen it in her eyes just before she flew past him. He was at the door before she could get it open, though, and rather than just lean his weight against it to keep her inside, he decided to find out conclusively whether he was right about her sex and put his arms around her instead. He’d been right. Those were definitely female breasts under his forearms, packed down flatly, but unmistakable to his touch.
She didn’t just stand still there and let him discover that. She turned around, and good God, that was even better, since he wasn’t letting go of her yet. The very last thing he’d expected to find that night was a pretty wench wiggling about in his arms. Now that he was positive she was a wench, he was quite enjoying himself.
“I suppose I should check you for weapons,” Jeremy said, his voice lowered to a husky note. “Yes, indeed, I really should.”
“I ain’t got—” she started to claim, but ended on a gasp as his hands slid over her derriere and stayed there.
Rather than pat her pockets as his suggestion had implied, he gave each rounded check a gentle squeeze. Supple, soft she was, and suddenly he felt an urge to do more than just feel her with his hands; he wanted to press her loins firmly to his, pull down those ridiculous trousers she was wearing, run his fingers over her bare skin, and enter her wet warmth. He couldn’t have been in a better position to do so, his hands cupping her luscious bottom. But he was already rising to the occasion, as it were, and didn’t want her to know the effect she was having on him.
“Will these do?” Percy asked, reminding Jeremy that he wasn’t alone with the girl.
With a sigh, Jeremy got back to the matter at hand and toted their thief back to the chair and shoved her into it. He leaned over her, his hands on the arms of the chair, and whispered, “Stay there, unless you like having my hands all over you.”
He almost laughed, she went so motionless. But the glare she gave him promised retribution. Not that he thought she was capable of anything of the sort, but she probably did.
He glanced back to see that Percy had ripped up the bedsheet, having found a good use for it after all, and was dangling a number of strips from his hand.
“Those will do nicely, bring them here,” Jeremy said.
He should have had Percy take over from there, but he didn’t. And he tried not to touch the girl more than he had to, really he did, but he was a man who loved women and he just couldn’t help himself. He held both her hands in one of his while he wound the strip of cloth about her wrists. Her hands were warm, moist with fear. She had no way of knowing that they meant her no harm, so her fear was natural. He could have eased her mind, but Percy was right, they needed to vacate the place before the next thief showed up, so the explanations could wait.
The gag was next, and he didn’t mind at all leaning close to her to get it tied behind her neck. He should probably have tied her hands behind her back instead, but he didn’t have the heart to make her any more uncomfortable than he had to. The fisted punch he got to his gut when he leaned over her wasn’t expected, but didn’t annoy him all that much since there wasn’t much strength behind the punch from her current position.
Her legs he didn’t trust a’tall, though. Squatting down to get the cloth around her ankles would have put him in a prime position to get knocked on his arse, so he sat on the arm of the chair instead and brought both her legs over his lap. She shrieked under the gag once, but then was quiet and still again. She had long pants and socks on, so there was no bare skin he could touch. But still, just having her legs across his lap affected him profoundly, much more than it should have. He glanced down at her when he was done, and there was such heat in his eyes, she would have had no doubt that he saw through her disguise—if she’d been looking at him to catch it. She wasn’t. She was trying to work her wrists loose from the binding and had nearly succeeded.
He put his hand over hers again and said, “Don’t, or instead of my friend toting you out of here, I’ll do it.”
“Eh? Why me?” Percy complained. “You’re the stronger by far. Don’t mind admitting it. No indeed, specially when it’s so bloody obvious.”
Much as Jeremy would love to carry the wench, he had to be sensible for the moment. “Because one of us has to make sure there are no objections to our leaving with this chap in tow. And while you might be up to the task, old man, I doubt you’d enjoy it quite as much as I will.”
“Objections?” Percy said uneasily.
“We aren’t exactly walking out arm in arm, the three of us.”
Understanding now, Percy said abruptly, “Quite right. Don’t know what I was thinking. You’re better at bashing heads by far.”
Jeremy managed not to laugh, since Percy had probably never bashed a head in his life.
They didn’t run into much opposition. Only the bartender was still around downstairs, a huge, ugly fellow who would likely give most men pause if he even glanced their way.
“ ’Ere, now, ye ain’t leaving ’ere wi’ that baggage,” he growled.
“The ‘baggage’ tried to rob us,” Jeremy cut in, attempting for the moment to be peaceable about the matter.
“So? Then kill ’im or leave ’im, but ye ain’t taking ’im to the watchmen. Ain’t ’aving no law come sticking their noses round ’ere.”
Jeremy gave it one last try. “We have no intention of visiting the authorities over this matter, my good fellow. And this
will be returned by morning, none the worse for wear.”
The big man began lumbering his way around the bar with the intention of blocking their exit. “We’ve rules round ’ere, gov’nor. Wot’s ’ere stays ’ere, if ye catch my meaning.”
“Oh, I’m very good at catching. And we’ve rules where I come from as well. Sometimes, they don’t need explaining—if you catch
Jeremy didn’t think any head bashing would work on a head that big, so he simply lifted one of his pistols and shoved it in the chap’s face. That worked very well. The man spread his arms wide and started backing off.
“Smart fellow,” Jeremy continued. “Now you can have your thief back—”
“ ’E ain’t mine,” the burly bartender thought it prudent to mention.
“Whatever,” Jeremy replied on his way out the door. “He’ll be returned just as soon as we’ve concluded our business with him.”
There was no other attempt to stop them from leaving the area. And the only other person they came across at that late hour of the night was an old drunken woman who still had enough of her wits to cross to the other side of the street to get out of their way when she saw them.
But Percy was definitely out of breath after traversing four blocks with the bound thief over his shoulder. They hadn’t left the coach near the tavern for obvious reasons, mainly being that it probably wouldn’t have been there when they were ready to leave. Four blocks away in a safer, well-lit area had seemed a reasonable spot, but was a bit far to tote their thief. So it wasn’t surprising that Percy simply dumped his package on the floor of the coach and none too gently, too worn-out to do more’n that.
Climbing in behind Percy, Jeremy saw there was no help for it, he was going to have to touch the wench again after all, to get her up on the seat. He’d been trying to avoid temptation by letting Percy carry her. It wasn’t as if he couldn’t have carried her
seen to any interference along the way. But he’d given the chore to Percy because he’d already discovered what touching her did to him. Looking was one thing. It had no effect on a man who overindulged in women. Touching, however, was much too intimate, and Jeremy reacted to intimacy on a purely prurient level.
And the simple fact was, he didn’t want to want this wench. She was beautiful, yes, but she was a thief, probably raised in the gutter or worse. Her personal habits were more than likely so far below his standards that they weren’t worth contemplating.
There was no help for it. Percy, poor fellow, was no doubt as exhausted as he presently looked. But before Jeremy actually put his hands on the girl, he realized that enough time had passed while contemplating his dilemma that the coach was on its way, the outskirts of the city were in sight, and it would be a simple matter to keep their prize from escaping now. So he could simply untie her and she could make herself comfortable on the seat.
He did that now, first her feet—damned dainty they were. Then her hands. He didn’t touch the gag. She was able to remove it now herself and she did that most quickly. Quick, too, was the punch she threw at him as she came up off the floor.
It was the one thing he hadn’t expected, though he should have, since she’d tried to punch him earlier. Ranting and raving could be expected, yes, more vulgar swearing, certainly, but for her to do what a man might do…
She missed, of course. Jeremy was no slouch in his reactions. And although he did get his jaw out of the way, which she’d aimed for, her fist still slid along his cheek and clipped his ear, which was now stinging.
But before he dealt with that as it deserved, Percy said in an excessively dry tone, “If you’re going to beat him to a pulp, dear boy, do it quietly, please. I’m going to nap until we get there.”
And that had their thief turning toward the door. Jeremy reached out and caught the back of her collar and yanked her onto his lap instead. “Try that again and you can spend the next several hours right here,” he said, wrapping his arms around her so tightly she couldn’t move.
She couldn’t get loose, but that didn’t mean she was going to stop trying. Wiggling about in his lap, however, was probably the worst thing she could have done. The position was much too sensual, producing lascivious thoughts of what he’d like to do—no,
do if they were alone. Stripping her clothes off slowly, finding out how she was concealing her breasts, nibbling on her shoulder as he drove into her.
If she continued to bounce on him like that, he might just kick Percy out of the coach for a while.
She must have realized her efforts were useless about the same time he realized he couldn’t stand the wiggling and bouncing of her bottom on his thighs and loins anymore without becoming quite obvious in what she was stirring up. She groaned, yet to him it sounded more passionate than frustrated and had him dropping her as if he’d just been burned. Good God, she shouldn’t be affecting him this strongly. He had to get it under control.
She’d fallen to the floor again, but immediately scrambled up on the seat opposite them, jerking down her coat lapels, dustingoff her grubby pants, and avoiding eye contact as best she could, all the while watching for the counterattack that Percy’s remark had suggested might be coming.
Jeremy waited a full five minutes, about the time it took for him to get his desire in check and hope his voice wouldn’t reflect it. Finally he stretched out his legs, crossed them, leaned back and crossed his arms as well, and said, “Relax, youngun. We’d as soon not hurt you. You’re going to do us a favor, and in the process make yourself rich. What could be more agreeable than that, eh?”
“For ye to take me back.”
“That isn’t an option. We went to a lot of trouble to obtain you.”
“Ye should’ve obtained me bleedin’ consent first—
The title was added as an afterthought, and with a large heaping of contempt.
She was glowering at him again, now that she was relatively sure he wasn’t going to throttle her. He’d tried not to examine her eyes too closely, hoping the dim light of the candle in the tavern room had misled him. But the brighter coach lamp and close proximity were his undoing. Her eyes were simply incredible and added tenfold to her beauty. Violet they were, dark, rich violet, and such a startling contrast to her white-gold mop of curls. Her eyelashes were long, but not overly dark. The brows, too, weren’t very dark, merely a few shades more golden.
He tried, he really did, to find some masculinity in the face across from him, but it just wasn’t there. How anyone could mistake her for a boy boggled his mind. And yet Percy had no trouble seeing a lad, albeit a “pretty” one. Her height, he supposed, was the deciding factor. It was rare, after all, to find a female who was bloody well as tall as his father was. Anyone that tall would naturally be assumed to be male.
He’d also tried, truly, not to react to her as he would any other beautiful woman he came across. But those eyes…He gave up the fight. He would have her in his bed, and before the night was done. It would happen. He had no doubt whatsoever.
Having given in to his prurient nature, the change in Jeremy was immediate. Some might call it charm, but it was in fact pure sensuality, and to look at him when his thoughts were carnal was to know he promised pleasures untold.
The wench reacted immediately to the way he was now looking at her, casting her eyes away from him, but not before she blushed. Jeremy smiled. He’d known she wouldn’t be an easy conquest, yet that blush spoke volumes. She was no more immune to him than other women were. But he wasn’t going to give away her little secret. He’d let her play her manly role for now—at least until he got her alone.
For the moment, he addressed her remark, wondering aloud, “Should you have obtained our consent before you robbed us?” That got him another blush, so he merely concluded, “No, I didn’t think that was your habit. So let me just explain what’s needed and why, before you get back to refusing out of hand. My friend here got himself robbed, you see, but in a legal way.”