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Authors: Stephanie Laurens

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BOOK: Captain Jack's Woman
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Jack’s lips curved appreciatively. She obviously rode a lot. How did she perform when the roles were reversed? He allowed his imagination, rampant by now, a whole three minutes to run riot, before reluctantly calling his mind to order. With a sigh, he gazed once more at Young Kit’s pale face. Female skulls were weaker than male. She might take a few hours to come to.

Jack looked along the sands to where Champion stood in the lee of the dunes, reins dangling. Beside him stood the black mare, uncertain and skittish. Disengaging his legs from Kit’s, Jack stood, brushing sand from his clothes. He whistled, and Champion ambled over. The mare hesitated, then followed.

Catching Champion’s reins, Jack murmured soothing nothings to the great beast while watching the mare. The Arab approached slowly, then veered to come up on Kit’s other side. The black head went down. The mare softly huffed into the bright curls. Kit didn’t stir.

“What a precious beauty you are,” Jack breathed, edging closer. The black head came up; one large black eye looked straight at him. Slowly, Jack reached for the mare’s bridle. To his relief, she accepted his touch. He lengthened the reins, then looped the ends through a ring on his own saddle. Then he stood back to see how Champion would take to the arrangement. The big stallion did not normally tolerate other horses too close, yet a single minute served to convince Jack he didn’t need to worry about the Arab. Champion clearly possessed equine manners when he chose to employ them, and he was all out to make a good impression on the mare.

Grinning, Jack turned to consider the female he had in charge. He bent and lifted Kit from the sands, then sat her in his saddle and held her draped over the pommel while he mounted behind her. Swinging her once more into his arms, he settled in the saddle, balancing Kit across his thighs, her head cradled against his chest.

Jack turned Champion toward the dunes, touched his heels to the grey’s flanks, and set course for the cottage.

B
y the time he reached the cottage, Jack’s jaw was clenched with the effort of ignoring the thoroughly female body in his arms. With every stride, Champion’s gait pressed the warm swell of Kit’s bound breasts against Jack’s chest, alternating with the even more unnerving rub of her firm bottom against his thigh. The ride was torture—a fact he was sure Kit, whoever she was, would delight in, if he was ever fool enough to tell her. He suspected she’d wake with a headache. On the sands, he’d felt a touch guilty about that. Now, he considered it only her due—he was sure he’d have a splitting head by dawn. And no chance of sleep, either.

Champion’s hooves thudded on the packed earth before the cottage. The door opened, and Matthew came out. “What happened?”

Jack drew rein some paces from the door. “The lad didn’t take kindly to my invitation. In fact, he didn’t even wait to hear it. I had to exert my powers of persuasion.”

“So I see.” Matthew advanced, clearly intent on taking Jack’s burden from him.

Jack brought his leg over the pommel and slid to the ground, Kit’s inanimate form clasped to his chest. He brushed past Matthew and headed for the door. “Stable Champion and the mare. I doubt she’ll give you much trouble.” Jack paused in the doorway and looked back. “Then you may as well go home. He’s apt to be out for a while.” He smiled. “I think Young Kit would probably feel more comfortable if he thought no one but me had seen him
in extremis.

Wise in the ways of lads and young soldiers, Matthew nodded. “Aye. You’ll be right enough there, no doubt. I’ll be off then.” So saying, he caught Champion’s reins and headed for the small stable beside the cottage.

Jack entered the cottage and kicked the door shut, leaning back on the rough panels to juggle the latch with his elbow. Then he straightened and looked down at his burden. Thank God he’d put Kit’s hat back on. The wide brim had shaded her face enough for him to get her past Matthew. Quite why he was keeping her little secret from his unquestionably loyal henchman he wasn’t entirely certain. Perhaps because he hadn’t yet had time to consider just what Kit’s secret meant and how he was going to deal with it, and, from long experience, he knew Matthew would unhesitatingly avail himself of the license accorded longtime servitors to disapprove, vociferously, should his master elect to follow some less than straightforward course.

But before he could think of anything, he had to get rid of the distracting body in his arms.

Jack strode to the bed and dropped Kit onto the coverlet as if she was a lump of hot iron. In truth, she’d set him alight, and he couldn’t see any prospect of dousing the flames. Making love to unconscious women had never appealed to him. He stared down at the slender and still silent form. The muffler had shaken loose and lay about her throat. Her hat had fallen off, exposing her curls and telltale face to the lamplight.

Abruptly, Jack took a step back.

Now that she was out of his arms, he could think clearly. And it didn’t take much thought to conclude that making love to Kit at any time was likely to prove dangerous, if not specifically to himself, then certainly to his mission. He’d already dropped the appellation “Young”—having carried her for half an hour, he knew she wasn’t that young. Certainly not too young.

With a growl of frustration, Jack swung around and crossed to the sideboard. He poured himself a generous brandy, wryly wondering if Kit actually drank the stuff. What would she have done if he’d invited her back to share a bottle?

Jack grinned; the grin faded when he glanced toward the bed. What the hell was he to do with her?

He prowled the room, intermittently shooting glances at the figure on the bed. The brandy didn’t help. He drained the glass and set it aside. Kit hadn’t stirred. With a long sigh, Jack approached the bed and stood beside it, staring down at her.

She was too pale. Tentatively, he touched her cheek. It was reassuringly warm. Leaning over her, he pulled off her leather gauntlets and chafed the small hands, fine-boned and delicate. It didn’t help. Jack grimaced. Her breathing was shallow, her chest constricted by the tight bands she wore to conceal her breasts. He’d felt them when he’d carried her.

His arms felt leaden; his feet wouldn’t move. His body definitely didn’t like what his brain was telling it. But there was no help for it. And the sooner he got it over with, the better.

Jack forced his limbs to function. He turned Kit over, making sure she didn’t suffocate in the soft folds of the coverlet. He bundled her out of her coat, then pulled her shirttails free of her breeches, trying to ignore the most unmasculine curve of her buttocks. Pushing the back of the shirt up to her shoulders, he located the flat knot securing the linen bands, craftily tucked under one arm. The knot was well and truly tight. Jack swore as he tugged and fumbled, fingers brushing skin that felt like cool silk and burned like a brand. By the time the knot finally gave, he’d exhausted his repertoire of curses, something he’d hitherto believed impossible.

He sat on the edge of the bed, garnering strength for the next move, willing his mind not to see the beauty revealed to his senses, the slim back, delicate shoulder blades sheathed in ivory silk. With slow deliberation, he loosened the bindings and shifted them until they gave. Quickly, he pulled the shirt back down, wisely refraining from tucking it in and, rising, turned Kit onto her back once more.

Almost immediately, her breathing deepened. Within a minute, her color improved, but still she didn’t stir. Resigned to more waiting, Jack drifted to the table and pulled out a chair. Leaning back, he gazed broodingly at his unconscious visitor. He reached for the brandy bottle.

Consciousness trickled into Kit’s mind in dribs and drabs, a flash of memory, a tingle in her fingertips. Then her eyelids fluttered, and she was awake. And confused. She kept her eyes shut and tried to think. The memory of the wild chase on the beach, and Captain Jack riding her down—it must have been his body that had hit her—crystallized in her brain. That was all she could recall. Warily, she let her senses search out her surroundings, stiffening with apprehension at the incoming information. She was lying on a bed.

From under her lashes, Kit surveyed what she could see of the room—rough walls and an old oak wardrobe. Beyond confirming the fact she was in someone’s bedroom, in someone’s bed, they told her little.

But you can guess who that someone is, can’t you? And now you’re in his bed.

Don’t be silly,
Kit lectured her wilder self.
I’m still dressed, aren’t I?
On the thought, the looseness of her bands registered. Kit sat up with a gasp.

The bands immediately slipped lower, freeing her breasts. Her head swam. With a weak, “Oh,” Kit fell back on her elbows, closing her eyes against the pain in the back of her head. When she opened them, she saw Captain Jack watching her from across the room. He was lounging in a chair on the other side of a table, a look of aggravation on his handsome face.

For the life of him, Jack couldn’t tear his gaze from the proof of Kit’s womanhood, thrust provocatively against the fine cotton of her shirt. The front was pulled taut by her reclining position, revealing the rich swells beneath tipped by the tight buds of her nipples. When she just lay there and stared at him, Jack felt his temper stir. Hell and the devil! Was she doing it on purpose?

Kit raised a hand to her head, stifling a groan. “What happened?”

The shirt eased, and Jack could breathe again. “You hit your head on a rock buried in the sand.”

Kit sat up and gingerly felt her skull. She’d forgotten how velvety deep his voice was. Her fingers found a sizable lump on the back of her head. She winced and shot a frowning glance at her nemesis. “You could have killed me with that foolish stunt.”

The accusation brought Jack upright, the legs of his chair crashing onto the floor. “Foolish stunt?” he echoed in disbelief. “What the hell do you call a woman masquerading as a boy and leading a gang of smugglers? Sensible?” Real anger at the risks she’d courted rose up. “What the hell do you think would have happened after your first slip? Do you swim well with rocks tied to your feet?”

Kit winced. “Don’t bellow.” She dropped her head into her hands. She didn’t feel all that well. Coping with Captain Jack at any time would have proved problematical, but right now, feeling as woozy as she did, this was shaping up to be a disastrous encounter. And he was already annoyed, though what he had to be annoyed about she couldn’t imagine. She was the one with the lump on her head. “Where are we?”

“Where we won’t be interrupted. I want some answers to one or two questions—understandable in the circumstances, don’t you think? We can start with the obvious—what’s your name?”

“Kit.” Kit grinned into her hands. Let him make what he liked of that.

“Catherine, Christine, or what?”

Kit frowned. “You don’t need to know.”

“True. Where do you live?”

Kit reserved her answer to that one. Her head ached. A quick reconnoiter yielded the information that they were in a small cottage, alone. The fact that the door led directly outside was reassuring.

Frowning, Jack stared at the glossy curls crowning Kit’s bent head. In the lamplight, they glowed a rich coppery red. In sunlight, he suspected they’d be redder and brighter still. The color tugged at his memory, an elusive recognition that refused to materialize. When she pulled her knees up, the better to support her hands which in turn were supporting her head, Jack grimaced. He supposed he should give her some brandy, but he didn’t really want to get closer. The table was a protective barricade and he was loath to leave its shelter. At least he was wearing his “poor country squire” togs; the loosely fitting breeches gave him some protection. In his military togs, or, heaven forbid, his town rig, she’d know immediately just how much she was affecting him. It was bad enough that he knew.

Her head was still down. With an exasperated sigh, Jack reached for the bottle. Rising, he fetched a clean glass and half filled it with the best French brandy to be found in England. Glass in hand, he approached the bed.

She’d glanced up at the sound of his chair on the boards. Now, she raised her head, to look first at the glass, then into his face.

Memory returned with a thump. Jack stopped and blinked. Then he looked again and suspicion was confirmed. “Kit,” he repeated. “Kit Cranmer?” He allowed one brow to rise in mocking question. Her eyes staring up at him, liquid amethyst, were all the answer he needed.

Kit swallowed, barely aware of his words. Heavens—it was worse than she’d thought! He was perfectly gorgeous—mind-numbingly, toe-curlingly gorgeous—with his wild mane of hair, wind-tousled brown streaked with gold. His brow was wide, his nose patrician and autocratic, his chin decidedly square. But it was his eyes that held her; set deep under slanted brows, they gleamed silver-grey in the lamplight. And his lips—long and rather thin, firm and mobile. How would they feel…

Kit clamped off the thought. Parched, she reached for the proffered glass. Her fingers brushed his. Ignoring the peculiar thrill that twisted through her, and suppressing the panic that swam in its wake, Kit sipped the brandy, very aware of the man beside her. He’d stopped by the side of the bed, towering over her. Entranced by his face, she’d spared no more than a glance for the rest of him. How did he measure up? She leaned back on her elbows the better to bring him into view.

Her shirt drew taut.

Beside the bed, Jack stiffened. Kit shifted to stare up at him. She saw his jaw clench, saw the planes of his face harden. Then she noticed his gaze was not on her face. She followed its direction, and saw what was holding him transfixed. Smoothly, she sat up, taking another sip of brandy, telling herself it was just the same as when London rakes had sized her up. There was no need to blush or act like a missish schoolgirl. Another sip of brandy steadied her. She hadn’t answered his question. Perhaps it would be wise to do so. Trying to hide her paternity was hopeless; the Cranmer coloring was known the length and breadth of Norfolk.

“Now you know who I am, who are you?” she said.

Jack shook his head to clear his befogged senses. Christ! It’d been too long. His mission was in grave danger. With some vague idea of safety, he walked to where a chair stood against the wall and, swinging it about, sat astride, resting his arms on its back, facing her. He ignored her question; at least she hadn’t recognized him.

“I doubt that you’re Spencer’s.” He watched her closely but could detect no reaction. Not the current Lord Cranmer’s child, then. “He had three sons, but if memory serves, the elder two don’t have the family coloring. Only the youngest had that. Christopher Cranmer, the wildest of the bunch.” Jack’s memory lurched again. His lips twisted wryly. “Also known as Kit Cranmer, as I recall.” A lifting of the corners of Kit’s lips suggested he’d hit the target. “So you’re Christopher Cranmer’s daughter.”

Kit allowed her brows to rise. Then she shrugged and nodded. Who was he, to have such detailed recollections of her family? At the very least, he was a local, yet she’d never seen him before yesterday. From under her lashes, she glanced at the broad shoulders and wide biceps, bulging as he leaned forward on his forearms. There was no padding in the simple jacket—those bulges were all perfectly real. Powerful thighs stretched his plain breeches. Seated as he was, she couldn’t see much beyond that, but anyone who rode as he did had to be strong. The lamplight didn’t illuminate his face, but she supposed him in his thirties. There was no chance she would have forgotten such a specimen.

“Who was your mother?”

The question, uttered in an amiable but commanding tone, jerked Kit’s mind back from whence it had wandered. For a full minute, she stared uncomprehendingly. Then the implication of Jack’s question struck her. Her eyes kindled; she drew breath to wither him. Belatedly, her wilder self tumbled out of its daze and scrambled to clamp the lid on her temper.

Hang on a minute—stop, cease, desist, stow it, you fool! You need an identity, remember? He’s just handed you one. So what if he thinks you’re illegitimate? Better that than the truth—which he wouldn’t believe anyway.

BOOK: Captain Jack's Woman
3.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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