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Excerpt: To Catch A Bride

Excerpt: To Catch A Bride

Book 3: The Devil Riders

The moon rode low in the western sky. Rafe drifted in a blue reverie, contemplating with grim outrage the future his brother had mapped out for him, driven by his obsession to ensure the succession of the Earls of Axebridge…

The scrape of something against the bricks outside brought him to full alertness. He moved silently into position by the window. The room was open to the night, the carved wooden shutters fastened back. He stood in the shadows and waited.

A shadow slid noiselessly over the balcony. Small and slight; another boy, dammit. Older than the first one, a youth rather than a boy, but still, not a man. Not the master who Rafe was coming to despise.

Rafe had left a lamp burning low in Ali’s room. The boy’s shape in the bed was visible through a door deliberately left ajar. Like a wraith the intruder stepped through the open window and glided across the floor toward the boy.

Rafe caught a glint of light on steel. An assassin? He leapt forward and chopped at the youth’s hand. A soft exclamation and the knife clattered across the floor. The boy whirled and kicked  —  straight for Rafe’s balls. 

Rafe dodged. A hard foot collided with his upper thigh. It would have crippled him had it connected with its target. The lad had a kick like a mule!

The youth lashed out with a fist, at the same time kicking again for the same target. Rafe might not care about the succession, but he did care about his balls. Swearing, he kicked the lad’s feet out from under him and knocked him to the floor. 

The boy spotted the knife and made a grab for it. Rafe lunged, kicking it under the sofa. He turned and saw the boy making for the window. He dived, knocking him to the floor, landing on top of him. 

The boy was still for a moment. Rafe could hear him fighting hoarsely for breath. He’d knocked the wind out of him. Good. He flipped the boy over, but even though he was still gasping like a landed fish, the youth fought back, punching and kicking, and all the time writhing like a damned eel, trying to get a foot free to do for Rafe’s family jewels once and for all. 

He was small — half-starved no doubt — and though he fought like a little demon, his strength was pitiful by comparison with Rafe’s. Enough to be a damned nuisance, all the same, Rafe thought, dodging another punch, trying to grab the flailing fists to subdue the boy. He needed to question him, but first he had to tame him.

“I won’t hurt you if you surrender,” he said in English, then realizing it, repeated it in French. 

The boy bared his teeth in what Rafe thought could be a smile. He relaxed slightly and the boy lunged.

“Ow!” The little bugger had bitten him. Enough was enough. A quick scientific punch to the boy’s jaw knocked him cold. His head fell back and he didn’t move.

Rafe grimaced. He must have hit harder than he intended. He’d meant to subdue the little devil, not knock him out. 

He sat back on his haunches, kneeling astride the youth’s supine body and regarded his young assailant. In the soft light from the other room all he could see was an urchin face smeared with dirt. He looked about fifteen, thin and as raggedly dressed as Ali. His turban had come off in the struggle and his hair was very short, chopped jaggedly in a cut that Rafe decided the boy had done without benefit of mirror or scissors. It wasn’t unattractive, he decided. Might even take off — the Urchin Cut. He favored the Windswept, himself.

The youth’s features, under all that dirt, were quite delicate…

Good God. If he didn’t know better…

He thought of the lad’s lack of muscle. The way he’d succumbed to the merest tap on the jaw.

He stared at the youth’s chest. Flat as a pancake.

He shifted his position back till he was sitting on the lad’s legs. He peered at the place where the legs joined the torso. The pants were very baggy, but…

There was only one way to tell. He brushed down over the base of his prisoner’s stomach and between his legs… Nothing. Or rather not nothing, but nothing that would have been there if his youth had been a youth.

He was a girl. And, he thought, staring at the girl’s features in the dim light, not just any girl. 

Her eyes fluttered open. “Filthy pervert!” she snapped in French and in the same moment that Rafe recalled just where his hand was resting — and removed it  —  she exploded under him. 

If he’d thought she was angry before, it was nothing to the desperation with which she fought him now, bucking and writhing, kicking and biting, punching and scratching.

“Calm down,” he panted in English, trying to hold her down without injuring her any further. “I’m not going to hurt you. I’ve come to help you.”

She kept fighting.

He repeated it in French, in case she’d forgotten her English.

She spat in his face.

He swore and grabbed at her hands, keeping her hips jammed between his thighs. His thighs imprisoned her effortlessly, but she continued to squirm and buck against him.

“Stop it, you little fool,” he said. “Your grandmother sent me.”

In French she cast aspersions on his mother’s virtue and told him to put that grandmother in an anatomically impossible place. And then she bit his arm. Again.

“You little shrew! Do you want me to punch you again?” He couldn’t. He’d never hit a woman in his life —  until tonight. And it made him angry.

She bucked and getting a hand free, tried to scratch his eyes out. He dodged and caught her hand again, but not before he felt blood trickling down his neck. 

“This is becoming excessively tedious,” he grated. He could easily throttle the little she – cat —  and enjoy doing it. But they both knew he had the upper hand in every respect. 

She wasn’t going to give up. There was only one way to subdue her without hurting her any more than he had. Rafe knew exactly what to do.

In one swift movement he pinned her whole body to the floor, pressed under his; his powerful thighs pressing down her slender, smaller thighs. His big body covered her small one, intimately, not a breath of air between them. 

She struggled frantically, but Rafe was bigger, stronger and heavier; he overlapped her in every way.

He lay on top of her, unmoving, letting his weight do the job, sending a silent message: she was his prisoner.

Her head flailed madly. He caught her face between his hands and held it still. He didn’t trust those pearly white teeth anywhere near his skin. 

He kept her arms pinned down by his elbows. She struggled vainly and realizing she was utterly helpless, let fly with a stream of what he imagined was the finest gutter Arabic.

He waited until she ran out of breath and said, “Well, that was a waste, wasn’t it? I don’t speak Arabic.” 

She instantly switched to French. 

“How delightful,” he said conversationally. “So you do understand English.” He wished he could see her eyes. The curve of her cheek was quite lovely, and he could see enough to know her skin was streaked with dirt. It felt like silk, though.

She tried to buck him off but all that happened was that his body, already aware of a slender female body in extremely close proximity, responded.

She felt it, too, he could tell. She went instantly still, then called him a filthy pervert, again in French.

He chuckled.

She stiffened. “Have you no shame?” she hissed in French.

“Not really. Frankly I’m just pleased that everything down there seems to be in fine working order after your very determined assault on my masculinity.”

“Assault?” she snapped. “You’re a fine one to talk.” She said it in English.

It was the moment he’d been waiting for. He shifted, moving both their bodies so that they were face to face. “Miss Alicia Cleeve, I presume.”

She lay in rigid silence for a long moment. He wished he could see her face properly, but the moon had slipped behind the clouds again and though he could make out shapes and angles there was not enough light to for any detail.

Rafe simply lay on top of her and waited. The silence stretched. His body throbbed and strained toward the object of its desire. Bizarre. It had no idea what was good for it.

Give her half a chance and she’d cut it off.

Rafe might know nothing about love, but he knew women. Especially physically. They were — usually — all softness and smooth curves. This one seemed entirely made of elbows. Sharp, jabbing, uncomfortable elbows. And claws. And teeth.

And yet his body was as hard and wanting as he’d ever experienced. It must be all the sun he’d experienced in the last few weeks. All that heat pouring into him. The heat had to go somewhere. And it had. 

His body was burning —  burning for a dirty, little savage who’d just tried to disembowel him. 

It was most unlike him. He was famous for his elegance and discrimination. Particularly in women.

Could a certain part of his anatomy be suffering from sunstroke?

“Get off me,” she snarled at last. “You’re like an elephant, squashing me.”

“And you’re like a bag full of cats.” 

Her mouth twitched. Could she possibly have a sense of humor?

“I can’t breathe,” she insisted. “You’re smothering me.”

“I imagine that’s from spitting out that torrent of abuse. Quite remarkable, abuse in three languages. Did it take a lot of practice?” 

That time he was sure she was trying not to smile. She did have a sense of humor. He felt her body soften under his. Rafe relaxed. The skirmish was over. Miss Cleeve had decided to be sensible.

“Having exchanged compliments, I suppose I should introduce myself. Rafe Ramsey, at your service.” He released her and started to sit up.

A mistake. The moment she felt him shift off her, she exploded into action. He wrestled her back down beneath him. In three seconds he had her pinned under him again, only not quite so neatly this time. Lord, but the girl was all bones. And piss and vinegar.

“This is extremely tiresome of you, you know. I mean you no harm.”

“You’ll break my arm,” she growled.

“Probably,” he agreed. “If you keep struggling like that. It won’t be intentional on my part — “

At that moment a ray of moonlight lit her face. Rafe stared at his prisoner. She was… lovely. Her eyes were rather fine — blue, or green, or somewhere in between — fringed with dark lashes and set at an intriguing angle. Her nose was small and straight, her lips full and lush. And her skin, under the truly amazing amount of dirt, felt soft and smooth.

“My God,” he whispered. “What a rare little beauty.”

She jerked her head back and biffed him on the nose, hard. 

“Oof!” It hurt like the very devil. He had to hand it to the little demon. She didn’t give up easily. Without letting go of her wrists, he managed to plant an arm over her head and held it pressed to the floor. His nose ached. His eyes watered.

She gave him a smug look.

“Whoever brought Cleopatra to Rome wrapped in a rug knew his business,” he told her with feeling. 

The rather fine green eyes narrowed to furious cat-slits.