Home > While You Were Spying

While You Were Spying
Author: Shana Galen



Hampshire, 1800



“That vile, odious—”

Tiptoes perched precariously on the bottom of an old broken bucket, Francesca levered herself higher. Her hands whitened in their angry grip as she finally managed a good look inside the barn.

“Worm!” she spat.

The rough wood of the window casement speared her flesh, but the pain of the splinters focused her anger enough to prevent her from seizing the nearest pistol, marching to the dilapidated estate a few hundred yards away, and shooting Will Skerrit in an area of his anatomy ladies were not supposed to think about.

As her eyes adjusted from the late afternoon sun to the darkness of the stable, Francesca saw only too clearly why shooting Skerrit would be too good for the man. He should suffer a slow, painful death.

Inside the crumbling mud-brown building, the once-beautiful colt was scarred and bloody. He stood trembling with his head hung low, his breathing labored. On the foul floor of his cold stall, wisps of scarce straw danced about like puppets manipulated by the biting November wind. Far more abundant were the flies and maggots buzzing around the feces in which the horse stood fetlock-deep. Francesca saw no evidence of feed, and the only water bucket lay on its side, dry as a bone. Francesca put a hand to her nose, the barn’s fetid stink almost overpowering her.

Rage boiling inside her, she leaned forward and craned her neck to eye the far end of the stable. The bucket lurched under her just then, and she pinwheeled her arms in a vain effort to regain her balance. Unsuccessful, she tumbled helplessly backwards—into a wall of hard, unyielding muscle.

With a squeal, she pitched forward, only to be caught and steadied by the wall’s hands. One hand, sinewed and tanned, pulled her securely against a broad, hard chest while the other covered her mouth.

She cried out, but her screams were ineffective and muffled. Her heart beat a frantic drum against her ribcage as she struggled against him.

Dear God, she prayed, please don’t let it be Skerrit.

“What are you doing here?” the man breathed into her ear.

She caught the scents of horse and leather lingering on the skin of his hand, and his lips tickled the sensitive hairs behind her ear. Francesca closed her eyes with relief, her heart slowing to an uneasy thump. The sound of his rich, deep voice coupled with the feel of his large, strong body against hers told her he wasn’t Skerrit. Thank Heaven. The lecherous farmer would have been only too glad to find her sneaking about his property unescorted.

Francesca shivered at the thought.

Her captor’s grip on her mouth immediately slackened, and she realized he must have misinterpreted her shudder.

“I won’t hurt you.” His mouth brushed her earlobe. “If I remove my hand, can I trust you not to cry out?”

His voice, a low velvet purr, resonated through her very bones. Francesca chided herself for her overreaction. Of course this man wouldn’t hurt her. This was the Hampshire countryside, after all. Nothing interesting ever happened here. She felt his warm breath caress her ear again.

Until now.

His hold on her mouth eased. “Don’t scream,” he repeated.

There was something about this man—the smell of him, the steady strength in him—that made her feel secure, that made her nod her acquiescence almost without thinking. She was surprised at her response. For the last half year, her reaction to being touched by any man had been nothing short of panic.

He slackened his grip, fingers brushing her mouth as he withdrew his hand. She pressed her dry lips together, wetting them with her tongue, and she could taste the leather of his gloves on them.

“For a moment I was worried,” Francesca began as she turned to peer up at the man. “Who are—”

Her smile fell, and she crushed her knuckles to her mouth to stifle the shriek.

“What are you doing here?”

Reeling from shock, she stumbled backward again, nearly falling over the forgotten bucket.

The man reached out, grasped her arm, and for the second time in as many minutes, hauled her upright. She jumped at his touch, flailed forward, and landed in his warm, solid arms. Head resting against his warm, solid chest. And, Heaven help her, she didn’t pull away as quickly as she knew she should. She told herself it was because if she fell over one more time he’d label her the Clumsiest Girl in All of England.

But that wasn’t the only reason.

Francesca couldn’t believe, even without seeing him, she hadn’t known it was him. His smell, his voice. She’d thought they’d been stamped indelibly on her brain. His physical appearance, too, though each time she caught a glimpse of him it was as breathtaking as the first.

She didn’t need to look at him to picture him. Ethan Caxton, the Marquess of Winterbourne, was the most attractive man she’d ever seen. Tall and lean, he was graced with rich auburn hair and dark amber eyes. Unconventionally handsome, the chiseled angles and sculpted planes of his facial features made him appear harsh but arresting. Even dressed unremarkably in charcoal black with a white shirt and cravat, he radiated danger and sensuality.

She glanced up, her gaze locking with his. What she saw made her belly flutter. Those golden eyes, flecked with burnt honey, were his real appeal. They captured her, trapped her in their sticky allure, like an unsuspecting insect caught in sap. The eyes alone hinted at softness. The rest of him was hard, intimidating, and enthralling all at the same time.

Not him, she thought. Anyone but him.

Francesca forced herself from the security of his arms and flattened her back against the coarse wood of the stable wall.

He watched her as she backed away, dark eyebrows slashed together in a scowl. She felt a bead of sweat meander the curve of her spine. Despite those captivating eyes, he’d always had a particularly potent scowl. “I said I wouldn’t hurt you.” He looked angry, almost offended.

“I know.” She inched her hands behind her body, the barn’s prickly wood rasping the tender flesh of her palms.

“Then why are you cowering?” The line between his eyebrows deepened with disapproval.

“I’m not cowering.” Francesca pushed away from the barn, her chin coming up a notch. “I was just being”—she pursed her lips, eyes searching the dusky sky for the right word—“cautious.” She gave a succinct nod. “After all, you could have been a...highwayman.”

His mouth quirked in what she supposed for him passed as a smile. “A highwayman? I’m sorry to disappoint you, miss. I’m not nearly as exciting or romantic as a highwayman. I’m—” He stepped forward, preparing to introduce himself.

“I know who you are, Lord Winterbourne,” Francesca interrupted. She felt a flood of heat wash her cheeks at the realization that he didn’t recognize her. But then, why should he? She was nothing special, particularly not to him. “I don’t suppose you remember me.” She hated the tiny spark of hope that flickered in her.

He wasted no time dousing it with an ocean of water.

His warm tawny eyes skimmed over her with a skill borne of practice. His perusal was thorough, and she felt her blush deepen. She hated blushing. It made her look like a big red beet. But she couldn’t help it. Being the daughter of a viscount, she wasn’t used to such insolent behavior. Then again, she should have expected this and worse from the Marquess of Winterbourne: rake, rogue, and rumored agent for the Crown

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