Morgan de Lacy, a lawless rake with the bearing of a nobleman, treats her finer than those who should have loved and protected her. Recognizing a fine gem when he sees one, de Lacy sets about seducing his orphaned companion. His caresses incite passion—his fiery kisses tantalize, and Faith is in peril of losing herself to temptation. She may be the brash Irishman’s captive, but pride will not allow her to surrender to a man whose lust for revenge terrifies her.
The November sleet bit bitterly into Faith’s thinly clad shoulders. Clutching her bundle, she pulled her meager cloak tighter, but the icy wind swirled between her legs and up her back. Her chilblained hands ached all the way to the bones.
The sudden storm had obliterated what remained of the afternoon’s gloom. Darkness shrouded the dreaded forest ahead, mercifully disguising the blight of miserable landscape on either side of her. The land rolled away in endless mud flats without sign of habitation or even life.
Faith shivered and briefly closed her eyes against the blinding sting of wind and snow. Her lashes turned to painful shards of ice against her skin, and she moaned at this new punishment.
Her stomach felt as if it were flat against her backbone. The emptiness inside hurt even more than the numbness in her fingers and toes. The pitifully thin pieces of leather that had never adequately protected her feet were now worn into holes as large as the ones in her torn wool stockings. Unable to lift her feet, she tripped on the hem of her overlong homespun skirt and heard the worn material rip, but it scarcely seemed to matter anymore. Her mother was no longer there to scold or lecture on the proper attire of young ladies.
An ancient stone wall lined the rutted road, and Faith tried to imagine what it would be like come spring. The thorny briars spilling over the top would fill with scented roses, and perhaps larkspur and campion would sprout along the mud-covered base. If she could just remember the hope of spring, she might find the strength to keep moving in the direction of London.
At least Faith hoped she was still walking in that direction. She could no longer remember when she had seen the last signpost, or where. She wasn’t at all certain that she remembered why she needed to reach London. The notion had been a nebulous one from the first, born out of desperation and a need to have some direction.
If only she could sleep, just for a little while. There had been no barn to rest in the night before, and the ground had been cold and damp. And now it looked as if there would be no protection again this night. Exhaustion blurred her senses and froze her mind more thoroughly than the ice did her toes.
As the gloom of the forest gathered around her, Faith clung to the sight of the wall along the road. The stones rose higher now, and the thorns had become thick brambles beneath which mounds of dirt concealed burrows for rabbits and other creatures of the forest. Faith tried to imagine herself as a rabbit covered with fur, snuggled warmly deep inside that cozy bank of earth, and envied the animal its home. If only she could snuggle close to that wall and sleep until the cold and the night passed.
As she tripped once more, it became increasingly evident that she would have to lie down and sleep somewhere. She hadn’t the strength to move her feet or lift her head, and even keeping her eyes open was a struggle she had begun to lose.
Just a little while, she vowed. She would curl up beneath the bank for just a little while. Sleep was impossible to find anymore, but she had to rest, and perhaps if she pulled her toes up beneath her cloak she might begin to feel them again. The thought became more appealing as the sleet beat down harder and the barren trees offered little cover against the wind.
The pale glimmer of broken stone offered the opening she needed. Someone or something had broken through the ancient rock, leaving a littered trail of debris and a cut through which one small, forlorn waif could wriggle. Faith never hesitated. Perhaps the Lord had sent this blessing as a sign that things would improve.
She no longer believed her father’s ecstatic promises of wealth beyond her dreams to be had in the kingdom of heaven, but she had to believe there was Someone still looking after her, or she couldn’t go on. She had lost all else in the world; she would not give up her beliefs.
As she wrapped her mud-colored cloak around her and knelt behind the barrier of the wall to say the prayers she had said every night of her life, the wind blew over her head and left her frozen body alone. For this, she gave grace. Then, thoroughly exhausted, she rolled up in an indentation of earth between wall and forest floor, placed her small bundle of possessions beneath her head, and closed her eyes and prayed for sleep.
It never came easily. To keep at bay the horrifying images that haunted her dreams, Faith tried to imagine the future. She had mistakenly thought she could find employment along this road. She knew herself for a hard worker, but there didn’t seem to be a Christian soul in all of England willing to part with a few coins or even a hot meal for a day’s work.
Had it not been for the aid of her father’s parishioners, she could not have come this far. She closed out thoughts of her father, for they only led to that ugly morning… Faith squeezed her eyes tighter and tried to concentrate on where her plans had gone awry. If she could only find her faults, perhaps she could correct them and things would improve on the morrow.
She knew her father’s parishioners had offered her coins only to hasten her way out of town. She did not have the experience to know whether it was their own guilt they tried to ease or if they truly wished the best for her, but those coins had kept her from the workhouse, at least.
She tried not to judge them too harshly for not offering a home instead of money. They were poor, desperately poor, with more mouths to feed than any could provide. Her father had tried to show them the road to righteousness through the methods of hard work and discipline taught by John Wesley, but work was not easily come by these days. The gin on a Saturday night eased the bleakness. Faith knew all that, and she tried to keep her father’s lessons in her heart.
But it was damnably difficult to feel kind toward others when your toes and fingers were numb and your belly was empty. At first she had sought out other Methodists. Wesley had taught to give until it hurt, and her father had followed these precepts, sometimes to the detriment of his own family. She had discovered other followers were not quite so eager to accept this particular lesson.
After a few days of starvation , Faith had not been quite so choosy in her search of employment. She applied at houses large and small, to the good Church of England believers and to nonbelievers alike. There had even been a few secret papists, but she had come to realize religion was no indication of Christianity. The few Good Samaritans who had actually given her food or money or a place to sleep came from all ranks, and they were few and far between.
She sighed as her stomach gave a hollow rumble, and she tried to find a more comfortable position amid the rocks and mud. Exhaustion wasn’t enough to ease her mind to sleep. Every night she lay still and questioned where she had gone wrong. Should she have been humble? More proud? Should she have begged for work? Insisted? Should she have cried and told her tale of woe? Should she have lied and given some tale of her wealthy family in London?
She never found an answer. She simply quit confronting anyone. By now she looked like any beggar. If people hadn’t cared before, they would care even less now. She had learned that much in these last few weeks.
She refused to cry. The tears would freeze, in any case. She would make it to London somehow. Surely, in all that great city, there would be room for one small girl willing to work her fingers to the bone for a right to live. Perhaps, when she was strong again and could buy good clothes, she might inquire about the families she had never known. Perhaps. They had turned their backs on her parents, so there seemed little hope that they would acknowledge her, but she so desperately wanted a family again….
The tears were gathering beneath her lids, and Faith forced them away with images of the rabbits in their burrows. Mayhap London was just the other side of the woods.
The rattle and creak of the mailcoach racing dangerously over the frozen, rutted road jarred Faith back to wakefulness sometime later. It must be earlier than she thought for the coach to still be abroad, but the darkness of the storm had the same effect as nightfall.
She curled tighter in her cloak and wished she could be squeezed on the wooden bench between all those warm bodies packed into the lumbersome vehicle on its way to London. Undoubtedly there was an inn down the road where they would stop for the night. The innkeeper would bring them big mugs of hot toddy and steaming bowls of soup and seat them before a roaring fire. She could almost feel the heat of the flames, and her eyes closed drowsily at the warmth creeping through her veins. Tomorrow, perhaps, she would reach that inn and apply for a position….
The sound of gunshots and screams, neighing horses, and violent curses jerked her awake once more. Fearing the nightmare had returned, Faith forced her groggy senses to search the darkness.
“Stand and deliver!” roared through the wind’s wail. Highwaymen!
Voices carried on the wind: the whining complaint of women, the angry and helpless protests of men, and the resonant commands of the thief. She had known these woods concealed the dregs of society, but she had thought herself safe enough, since she had nothing they could want. It had never occurred to her that she might act as witness to their illegal acts.
Faith gulped as another shot rang out and a woman screamed. If only there were something she could do, but she knew there was not. Her fingers wrapped in the wool of her cloak as she tried to shut out the sounds. They could not be too far away. There could be thieves all along this wall, just waiting for some movement to betray her presence.
She had no gun, no strength, no means but prayer of fighting their depredations. She prayed fervently, if not coherently. Please, God, do not let those poor people be harmed, deliver them from their enemies, let me live another day.
The sound of racing hoofbeats came closer, and Faith stared wildly at the wall, praying its shelter would conceal her from the horrors of the road. The wind rattled the barren branches of the trees, and the icy sleet began again, pelting her with tiny shards that pierced like knives where they hit her face.
The coach rumbled off, and she began to breathe once more. Only then did the hoofbeats seem to pound just beside her head, and a huge beast flew over the wall mere inches from where she lay.
She curled inside her cloak like a frightened hedgehog. She couldn’t shut out the sight of the black cape billowing like a thundercloud behind the alarming giant beast, half-man, half-horse, as it flew over her head.
The hoofbeats thundered into the distance, but she still feared to breathe.
The horse had to be huge, bigger than anything she had ever seen in her life. If it had breathed fire, Faith wouldn’t have been surprised. And it had been blacker than the night sky, so black the man on its back had blended in until they had seemed one heaving, flying projectile of muscle and blood. She would remember the sight of them lunging over that wall until the day she died.
And that day could be today, should the highwayman discover she had seen him. Huddled in her cloak, Faith tried to discern the sound of hoofbeats on the forest floor, but she heard nothing. She would have to leave this haven from the wind and hurry on as soon as she knew it was safe to scamper from hiding. The idea of walking a dark road infested with thieves and murderers held no peril compared to the possibility of the highwayman discovering her presence. Better the evils of her imagination than the very real terror of that beast bearing down on her again.
When she finally raised the courage to lift her head from her hiding place, she looked blindly through the icy sheets of rain, and at the sight revealed, screamed until insensibility overcame her.
The huge beast loomed overhead like an avenging god. The icy, masked visage glowered with eyes of fire. His curse was deadly as he reached for the miscreant who dared witness his nighttime depredations.
James Morgan O’Neill de Lacy III stood in the crumbling shadows of his home and choked back shame and rage. Although he had not yet achieved his full manhood, his fists were large and murderous as he clenched them at his side. He strained not to raise them to the heavens and rail at his fate, or to let the hot, furious tears cascade down his face.
The elder de Lacy watching his struggles stayed silent, his lined visage an etching of pain as raw as the boy’s. His own black hair was streaked with gray, and the shadows of his beard did not disguise the deep creases of suffering in his weathered face. He had a legacy of anguish to pass on, and it twisted in his heart as he watched his elder son’s shoulders shake with just this first sample of it.
“You’re the eldest, Jamie,” he said. “And not to put too fine a finish on it, you’re the one with the fists and the fire to be a grand soldier. Your grandfather would be proud of you. The day will come when you will ride in here with Charlie’s men and drive the murtherin’ redcoats out, but until that day, we must see you safe. Your brother will hold the lands for you. Sean can be trusted, and he’s not the sort to be a soldier.”
Sean was meant to be a priest, but neither of them spoke of that. Priests had been outlawed, along with everything that made them Irish, Catholic, and proud. Sean would become a Protestant, and hold the lands against the day the Irish rose again.
It churned in Morgan’s gut, and the red rage of hatred rose in him again. For years they had been teaching him patience. He had hidden in the hedgerows with the other children, learning from the outlaw priests, soaking up his heritage, and being told the day would come when he would ride his lands as unfettered lord. And this was what it had come to. Exile.
“I should have killed the bloody bastard. At least he would not have Queen Maeve now.” He mourned the horse almost as much as the forthcoming loss of his home. He had been there at her birth, trained her since a filly; they had been a part of each other. The lovely black mare was the only thing of value he had ever owned, and the damned English robbers would take her from him too. And they called it the law!
Though his son still spoke with loathing in his heart, de Lacy knew his heir had gained control of himself again. He clasped Morgan’s shoulder and shook it slightly. “He’ll not keep her. We’ll see to that. And you damned well did near kill the lad. That’s why it’s time for you to go. They’ll be wanting your head if you stay.”
Morgan knew that with his mind, but he could not reason with his heart. This was his land. His. He knew every acre, every leaf, every life that stirred in these rolling emerald hills. He belonged here, not with the soldiers in France.
His grandfather had died over there, a fugitive from his own home because of the bloody, dishonorable British. James de Lacy I, along with all the other brave Irish patriots, had volunteered exile in the promise that the British conquerors would not punish those who remained. And look what that promise had come to!
It seemed the only thing the British laws now allowed a Catholic to do was to starve in the hills. They weren’t even allowed to die in the cities, for they had been barred from most of them.
But the law burning in Morgan’s chest right now was the one causing his fists to curl and his bile to rise. A Catholic could not own a horse worth more than five pounds. Queen Maeve had been worth a hundred or more and he would not have sold her for a thousand. But when the bastard redcoat offered five pounds for her, he had to sell or leave their lands liable for confiscation.
Morgan’s shoulders slumped as the humiliation of that defeat ate at his insides. Even though he had beaten the insulting bastard to a pulp, he had been forced to surrender the mare when the man pulled out a five-pounder and waved it in his face.
His father had promised she would be saved from the spurs of that inept idiot. He would have to be satisfied with that. For now.
That day was in the past now, just another black moment in a long line of cruel memories. Jack didn’t know why it had come to mind, other than that he must have been as young then as this child was now.
He lifted the lifeless body from the ditch, shocked by the slightness of her weight. She scarce weighed more than a sack of flour. The sleet had turned to snow and she would freeze to death before morning. He shouldn’t have terrified her into fainting. He could have sent her on her way then.
His little sister must have been this size when she died. He hadn’t been there to protect her. No one had been.
Conscience warred with logic. Conscience seldom won, but he was weary this night, and cold, and the memory of his family broke loose shreds of heart he hadn’t known in years.
Jack hoisted her into the saddle and gave the stallion the signal to move on. He couldn’t linger longer to argue with himself or he’d have the sheriff to argue with too.
The child moaned, and he felt the rumbling in her belly. The road to London crawled with beggars but he seldom encountered little girls. It did not relieve his hatred to know the British system was as unkind to its own as it had been to his.
When he reached the cottage, he dismounted with the child under one arm. He felt her stiffen into wakefulness, but apparently one glance at his fearful visage was sufficient to send her into the vapors again. Patting the stallion, he carried the child’s limp form into the darkness of the hut and deposited her on the bed. His horse came first.
When he returned and lit the lantern, Jack discovered his unwelcome guest had curled into a ball in the center of his bed and fallen sound asleep. He was hungry, cold, and impatient for his supper, but he raised the lantern just for a moment to examine his hostage from this night’s evil deeds.
He was no judge of age, but her pale face was very young. The hood of her cloak had fallen back to reveal a tumble of tangled brown hair that offered a hint of red. The high, almost aristocratic cheekbones reminded him painfully of his sister, and the knotting in his stomach was not entirely from hunger.
Jack turned away. Memories did not sit easy on an empty stomach. He resisted the urge to reach for the bottle of rum on the shelf. He knew the dangers of drink.
The child had not stirred by the time the fire had warmed the room and his supper boiled in the pot. He wondered if she were dead and wandered back to check the pulse at her throat. Her skin was icy to the touch, but he could feel the thread of life still beating beneath his fingers.
He wasn’t a man who cared about anything anymore. The child could die and he would dig a grave and bury her out back and not think about her again. But as long as she was alive, he supposed he ought to do something to keep her that way.
The fire cast flickering shadows over the wattled plaster of the walls and the rough-hewn beams as he sought a spare blanket and prepared a pallet by the hearth. A single table, chair, and bed made up almost the entirety of the room’s furniture. The wide plank floor had room enough to spare for one small pallet. Removing the child’s muddy cloak, Morgan covered her with an old one of his own.
He studied her tiny form beneath the enveloping material and wondered what in hell else he was expected to do to keep her alive. He had never taken care of another soul besides himself, unless he counted his horses.
Adjusting the pallet a little farther from the stone hearth and the fire’s menace, he scowled and went to check on his horses. He had been a damned fool idiot to bring her here, but as the snow hit his face, he knew he could have done nothing else.
Faith stirred and moaned, then tried to stretch her cramped legs. She ached in every fiber of her being, but she had grown accustomed to the pain. She was warm. There must be work to do.
Darkness did not deter her from rising. She could not remember where she was or how she got there, but a lifetime of habit forced her out of the cozy cocoon of her covers to stir the fire.
Next she needed to heat water, but if she had been shown the pump or well, she could not remember it. Ignoring the emptiness in her middle, she used the fire’s meager light to search out pail and kettle. Unable to locate her own cloak, she donned the one that had covered her. It dragged along the plank floor, but it was warm, and she was cold as soon as she left the hearth.
The snow had stopped, leaving a crystalline covering that crunched beneath her feet in the dawn’s gray light. A large structure loomed against the midnight black of the trees. Barns meant animals, and animals needed water.
She found a trough frozen and covered in snow, and she broke the ice. A whinny from inside the barn reminded her that the animals would need to drink too, and she filled her pail and carried it to the closed door of the barn. Opening the massive panels almost proved too much for her limited strength, but her parents had taught her that the weak must come first, and animals were always weaker than humans.
Her head spun from the effort, but she rested a moment before picking up the pail and entering the darkness. Perhaps if she worked hard enough, the owner of this grand barn would allow her to stay.
To her surprise, the only inhabitants of the structure were four horses, a cat, and a few hens. The horse in the last stall was a magnificent beast so large as to be terrifying, but he only whickered gratefully as she offered the pail of water. Timidly she patted his long, soft nose, and he pushed against her hand, searching for treats. She smiled and wished she had aught to offer, but she did not.
She had always wished for a pet of her own, but they had moved too often, and her parents had protested the nuisance of yet another mouth to feed. Recalling the hatred that had marred her life, Faith knew any pet would have been a victim. Her parents had known too, but she had been too young to understand.
Petting the scrawny cat that curled around her ankles, Faith went in search of the hens’ nests. She hadn’t had eggs in months. Would the owner mind sharing his breakfast if she cooked it?
The thought made her mouth water and her legs tremble as she tucked the precious ovals into her skirt pockets. Closing the door and refilling her pail, she stumbled through the growing dawn to the tiny cottage. It was smaller than the barn, but the snow gleaming on its thatched roof and the ice frosting the tiny windowpanes painted a fantasy image coated with sugary icing. Or perhaps just her hungry stomach turned to thoughts of food.
She crept through the doorway, hesitating to wake whatever inhabitants there might be. She had slept in so many strange places these last weeks that she had grown accustomed to making her own way around other people’s houses and lives. The peat she had thrown on the fire had begun to burn, and the warmth greeted her as she slid off her wet shoes and hung her cloak on a peg by the door.
She was still shivering in her torn stockings, but she hung the kettle over the fire and took the eggs from her pocket and looked around for the larder. A few pots and skillets hung on the mantel, and a crude cupboard in the corner uncovered the bare rudiments of a meal. Whoever lived here did not spare much time or money on fancy food. There was nary an herb or spice of even the most common kind. A sack of meal, a tin of tea, a rasher of smoked bacon, a stale half-loaf of bread, and a pot of lard constituted almost the entirety of the pantry.
But that was enough to make a breakfast that would fill her stomach, if allowed. Since no one had come to hinder her actions yet, Faith boldly set about making the kitchen her own. Surely no one would complain to find a meal waiting.
She conscientiously avoided looking toward the bed cupboard in the shadows across the room. She had never seen a bed quite like that, but she recognized it for what it was from the soft snores within. At one time it had possibly possessed doors to keep out the cold drafts of a winter night, but not even a curtain blocked the opening now. It nearly filled the entire wall, and if she thought about it, she would have to wonder what kind of giant needed that size of bed.
The smell of bacon cooking made his mouth water, and Jack conjured up memories of steaming pots of coffee, fresh cream, and baking bread. His stomach rumbled, and he awoke enough to know that last night’s greasy stew hadn’t filled his ever-empty belly. He would have to ride down to the inn and sweet-talk Molly out of a bowl of porridge.
The idea of a bowl of Molly’s lumpy porridge did not quite satisfy the image of Jack’s dreams, but it would have to do. He had learned the bare necessities of cooking to keep from starving, but he didn’t enjoy it. And he was too hungry to plunder his larder for its meager contents now.
Swinging out of bed, Jack realized he had slept in his shirt and stockings last night. What imp of hell had caused him to do that?
Nearly bumping his head on the cursed bed roof, he swore irritably and groped for his breeches. Only then did he realize that the floor was almost warm, and he wasn’t shivering with the predawn cold of a dead fire. The smell of cooking bacon became more than a dream, and as he donned his breeches, his gaze sought the source of this miracle.
The impact of seeing that frail figure bent over a flaming fire in his own hearth almost sent Jack back to his bed. He hadn’t been drunk in years. He couldn’t be hallucinating. When had he last seen a feminine cooking his breakfast? Not since Ireland, he was certain. Was she a faerie from his lost past? A bean sidhe to haunt him for his sins?
She turned then, and the slim shadow became a child with a glimmering mat of waist-length hair, prosaically setting a skillet on the table. Jack released a pent-up breath of relief and emerged from the bed.
Faith nearly dropped the skillet as the lean form rose from the shadows. But he fastened his breeches like a man, and she shoved her fears back in a box and faced her host. She did not recognize him, though she searched her memory.
He had to be over six feet in height, for he was much taller than her father. His hair was coal black and curled in disgraceful disarray about his collarless shirt. His eyes were hidden in the dawn light, but she could see the black stubble of beard on a long masculine jaw that squared with a stubbornness she had learned to recognize in others.
This one would be no easygoing farmer who jested and produced a shy wife and half a dozen children. Faith gulped with fear as she noted the breadth of his shoulders. She had thought him on the skinny side at first, but she could see now that he was all lean sinew and muscle—a formidable adversary if she ever knew one.
It was then that she remembered the prior night and the nightmare of the highwayman, but she couldn’t piece the two together. A highwayman didn’t offer beds to his victims. Perhaps he was some farmer who had stumbled across her in the snow and carried her here. She wondered where his wife was, and she threw an anxious look to the loft ladder at the rear of the room. Perhaps the rest of the family would be down in a little while.
“Bean sidhes do not remain after dawn,” her host commented oddly.
“Banshees?” Faith mouthed the word tentatively. His voice was a deep, resonant baritone with a soothing lilt.
“Faerie women. Do ye know naught of the faeries?”
Was he teasing her? Faith knew little of jests other than the mocking taunts of children. She stared at him with incomprehension, then ducked her head politely. “No, sir.” She waited for him to abuse her for making free with his larder or to issue orders for the day’s chores. She just prayed he would allow her to eat first.
The man sniffed the air hungrily, then glanced toward the table. “I don’t suppose you’ve made enough for two, have you? I’m that starved I could eat the hearth.”
She could very well imagine this giant chewing stones, but the mention of the size of the meager meal brought a lump to her throat. She was so hungry she was almost ready to fight him for those two eggs, but a lifetime of her mother’s teachings warred within her. They were his eggs. She had no right to them.
Even as her nose and throat filled with the delicious scents of lightly fried eggs and bacon, Faith bobbed her head and replied, “I fixed what I could find, sir. I’ll eat when you are done, if you do not mind.”
“There’s plates in the cupboard. We’ll share,” he answered gruffly. Leaving her to divide the bounty, he started for the door and his boots.
“The horses have been watered, sir,” she said, almost timidly.
He scowled. “People around here call me Jack. I’ll just take a look for myself, shall I?”
Faith jumped, startled, at the slamming of the door. Then, glancing hungrily at the food in the skillet, she swallowed and tried to relax. For all his gruff manner, he didn’t look like he would eat her for breakfast.
She went to the cupboard and found a few tin plates and mugs and brought them to the table. Carefully she divided the eggs and bacon between the two of them, giving him the larger portion, since his appetite would have to be so much larger than her own, with his size. Then, keeping the plates warm on the trivet by the fire, she sliced the stale bread and soaked it in the skillet grease and heated it over the fire until it grew soft again.
The expensive tea had finished brewing by the time Jack returned, and she poured the steaming beverage as he shook the snow off his boots.
The room possessed only one chair. Without hesitation, Jack scooped up one of the plates and dropped to the floor, picking up a slice of bacon with his fingers and biting into it.
Faith regarded him with a mixture of dismay and outrage. “You cannot sit there! And that is my plate. Yours is here.” She picked up the plate with the larger portion and set it at his rightful place on the table. “Where are your forks?”
Jack finished chewing his bacon and tilted one arrogant black eyebrow at her. “The bacon is sliced too thin. A starving man likes something substantial to bite into. Give me some of that tea. I hope it’s strong.”
Orders, she understood. Faith handed him a mug. “I did not find cream or sugar,” she apologized.
“And you will not. Sit. Eat.” He gestured at the table. “There’s a fork in one of those drawers somewhere, but the bread works just as well.” So saying, he scooped his egg onto his toast and filled his mouth.
No lack of manners could appall her any longer, but being ordered to sit at the table while the owner sat on the floor went against all she knew. Uneasily Faith searched for the errant fork. Seeing he didn’t mean to move, she looked at the plate of mouth-watering food. With decision, she took the fork, plate, and mug and sat on the other side of the hearth.
He didn’t raise an eyebrow as she bit into her thick slice of bread. They ate in harmonious silence. Faith neatly cut every bite with her fork and chewed it thoroughly before cutting off the next piece, as she’d been taught.
With eyes closed, she sighed in a quiet enjoyment as she consumed the last bite of bread. Jack was startled by the bolt of pleasure he received just from watching her.
Before he could find an opening for conversation, she leapt to her feet and poured him another mug of tea. She then took the heavy iron kettle from the fire and poured steaming water over the skillet and efficiently began scrubbing their eating utensils.
To Jack, who had unconcernedly left his dirty dishes to accumulate enough grease to feed the field mice, this efficiency was nothing short of amazing. Unwilling to admit his astonishment, he sat and sipped his tea and watched her work.
She could do with a good bath. Although it was obvious she had made attempts to scrub at face and hands, her hair was a tangled nest of filthy curls and her neck looked none too clean. The hem of her tattered skirt was caked with filth, and her frayed cuffs were grayer than the rest of the dingy fabric of her bodice. The bodice itself hung in wrinkled folds, and he winced at the rail thinness of the wrists sticking out beyond the cuffs.
“I’ll slice your bacon thicker on the morrow, if you like,” she offered timidly.
He raised his brows. “The snow has stopped. You would do better to be on your way. I’ll see you to the road.”
“I’m a hard worker,” she answered with defiance. “I can scrub your floors, cook your meals, mend your linen, keep your horses. I don’t eat much. I can even sleep in the bam, if you prefer.”
Had she been the most beautiful woman in the world, Jack could have told her no. He had his goals, and a partner was not one of them. He had women when he needed them and solitude when he wanted it.
But she was a child—an oddly well-behaved child, to be sure, but a child just the same. She certainly didn’t need the taint of his life, but it could scarcely be worse than the deprivations of the road. Jack found he couldn’t say the words that would throw her out.
“Have you no home? No family? This is no place for a female.” That was as firm as he could be.
She didn’t look back at him, but continued scrubbing the skillet. “There’s no one will be missing me. You needn’t fear that. I’ve been looking for a position, but there’s none to be had. I won’t ask for pay, just room and board. What could be fairer?”
What, indeed? Jack sighed and stretched his legs and rose to his full towering height. He didn’t have time for arguing with stubborn little girls. Rubbing his hand over several days’ worth of beard and his ill-kempt hair, he wondered she hadn’t run in horror from him. Did she even realize he was the apparition who had nearly frightened her to death last night? He suspected not.
“I’m not here much, and these woods are full of villains. I’d recommend you look elsewhere. I’ll be off now.” He pulled his cloak off the peg, swung it around his shoulders and stomped out into the snow.
A few minutes later Faith watched his lithe figure ride off on one of the smaller horses from the barn. The old cloak billowed out around him, but he rode like a centaur, as one with his beast.
And beyond the shadow of any doubt, she knew she had just broken her fast with a highwayman.
We hope you have enjoyed this sample of
Devil’s Lady by Patricia Rice