Layers of clouds drifted across the horizon and the dipping sun lowered behind them, infusing them with red, oranges, pinks, and purples, and sending streams of color out over the pond he’d used as his bathing spot for the past week.
Garrett reapplied the pressure round her waist. “Who are you?” Even to himself, he sounded menacing as hell. He clenched his free hand, prepared to clamp it over her mouth should she attempt to scream for help from her accomplices. “Why are you here?”
She glanced over her shoulder at him, sparks lighting her dark eyes. Her lips twisted into a rueful expression. “Must I answer that?”
“Can I…?” Her chest rose beneath his forearm as she took a deep breath. “Might I look at you while I do so? I daresay this is a rather awkward means of conversing with a person one hasn’t properly met.”
He considered for a moment. “Very well. But I’m not letting you go.”
“Of course.” Slowly, she turned within the circle of his loosened arm until she pressed against him from chest to groin. She tilted her head to look up at him. “That’s better.”
Theoretically she should complain that this was still an awkward way to converse with someone who wasn’t even an acquaintance, but Garrett didn’t point out the inconsistency. He was somewhat more concerned with stifling his body’s reaction to her. As if he were a long-dormant volcano flaring to life, blood boiled in his veins, and his skin heated from the inside out.
He took a deep breath, trying to calm his raging blood. It made no sense. Few women had this effect on him. The two who instantly came to mind possessed elegance and beauty in spades, while this woman didn’t possess either of those attributes. Katherine was brown and drab, with pale lips, coffee-colored eyes that seemed too big for her face, and shoots of dark hair poking out haphazardly from her cap. Her body was tall and thin—too tall and too thin, perhaps—and her dress plain. All in all, her outward appearance reminded him of England in the dead of winter. Dry and somber. Lifeless.
And yet…she was alive. Somehow beneath all that dullness, she sparkled. She was radiant. He couldn’t tear his eyes from her face. From those luminous eyes. Her glow must be infectious, because in such close proximity to her, something he’d thought dead deep inside him sprang to life.
Her voice trailed off, and he lifted a brow. “You…what?”
She licked her lips. “This is embarrassing, sir. I’d really rather not tell you.”
“Embarrassing?” He didn’t understand. Either she was spying on him with the intention of relaying his activities and whereabouts to his enemies, or… He couldn’t think of an “or.” There was simply no other reason for the woman to be alone in this lonely, abandoned place.
“Well…yes. Quite embarrassing.”
When he didn’t respond, pink tinted her pale cheeks.
“Perhaps we could just shake hands and I’ll continue on my way?” She bit her lower lip in anticipation and gazed at him from beneath her lashes.
Garrett stiffened. It wouldn’t be so easy to manipulate him. Once, maybe, but not anymore. “I don’t think so.”
She released her breath in a whoosh. “Oh.”
He tightened his arm around her, wedging her against his body. A pretty rose color suffused her cheeks, and she’d plastered her arms to her sides as if she were afraid to touch him—or didn’t know how—and he considered the possibility that she’d never been this close to a man.
He ground his teeth. “Tell me.”
“I…I was watching you,” she breathed.
“I know that much,” he bit out. “Why? Don’t lie to me.”
He held her close, every muscle in his body braced to hear his enemy’s name. William Fisk. The man who had made his life a living hell for the past eight years.
“Because…well, because you’re quite interesting,” she finally said. “And…” Again, she began to tremble.
“And?” he growled.
The column of her pale throat moved as she swallowed hard. “And…you’re…you’re so beautiful.”
Her flush deepened. Garrett stared at her with narrowed eyes, searching for signs of guile. He found none in the wide brown eyes that gazed up at him, nor in the flush that now bordered on crimson, but God knew he was no expert at discerning treachery and deceit.
She must be lying. He was damn ugly, inside and out. Ruined by the violence of war and betrayal and heartbreak, and of too many years of living a lie.
She studied him with her eyes that widened minutely as she interpreted his expression. “No. No, you’re wrong,” she whispered with absolute conviction.
“What are you talking about?” he snapped.
“You think I’m playing you false, but I’m not. I am very bad at telling lies. I’ve abandoned lying altogether, for I’m discovered every time.”
He shifted his stance. His instincts told him she was innocent of treachery, but his instincts were invariably wrong in such matters. And yet, he couldn’t ignore them. Was he playing the fool yet again?
“Please forgive me. It was horrid of me to invade your privacy.”
“But you see, this is my pool.”
He raised a brow. “Is that so?”
She nodded. “I come here often.” She gestured with her chin in the direction of the castle ruins. “People often visit the castle to explore and have picnics and such, but they never come out this far, and the pool is rather secret, hidden as it is. I never encountered another soul here until I saw you.”
He believed her, despite himself. Against his will, his anger faded and his muscles relaxed. “When was that?”
She hesitated, then answered, “Eight days ago.”
He’d arrived at Kenilworth eight days ago. He’d set up camp in an abandoned, ruined cottage near the castle, and he’d found the pool during his exploration of the area. It had been a fine, summery day, and the cold, clean water had lured him. He’d stripped off his clothes and dived in to wash the grime of travel from his body. He’d returned often since.
“And how many times have you spied on me?”
She broke her gaze from his eyes and dropped her chin to stare at his chest. “Four times. I… ” Her voice dwindled.
He reached up to press his palm against her cheek, forcing her to look up at him. She blinked, and for the first time, he saw that her lashes were long, thick, and dark, gracefully framing her vibrant eyes.
He trusted her. He might regret it later, and he thought that likely, but he couldn’t continue to intimidate a woman he innately trusted. But he didn’t let her go. Not yet.
“What is your name?” Katherine asked softly.
He sucked in a breath. Best not to get too specific. “Garrett.”
“It’s good to meet you, Mr. Garrett.”
“No. Just Garrett.”
She nodded. “Where are you from, Mr…uhm…Garrett?”
He shook his head slightly. “Where are you from?”
“Kenilworth,” she answered readily enough, but her lips twitched. “Well, I suppose you’ll insist upon being mysterious.” She nearly scowled at him as she studied him. “You almost have a London gentleman’s accent…but not quite. There’s a touch of something else there, something I’ve never heard. Something foreign.” She shrugged. “Which means that until you inform me otherwise, I shall be forced to stand by my first theory of your origin.”
“What was that theory?”
“I concluded you must be from Olympus.”
He choked on a laugh. “Olympus? Why?”
She groaned, and the flush bloomed over her cheeks again. “My mama is right. I’m a silly chit who shouldn’t speak at all.”
“I like the way you speak.” The words flowed out of him before he could check them, and he snapped his mouth shut.
Her lips spread into a wide smile. It lit up her face, infused her lips with color, and made her eyes sparkle and dance with mischief. Holy hell—she was beautiful. Incredibly, devastatingly so. She stole the breath from his lungs. Stunned, he dropped his arm, freeing her.
She stepped back, still smiling. “Well, I have the unfortunate quality of being too blunt, I’m told. But I see you and I suffer from the same malaise.”
She hadn’t turned and sprinted. In fact, she seemed to have no plans—or desire—to escape from him.
“What malaise is that?” he asked stupidly. He couldn’t get enough air. His brains had turned to porridge.
“You didn’t intend to compliment me about the way I speak. The words escaped your mouth before you could stop them. It happens to me, too. Incessantly.”
He answered that with a wry smile of his own. “It seldom happens to me. Perhaps your condition is contagious.”
“Perhaps it is. Perhaps you should run away from me. I could be detrimental to your health.”
It felt so odd, so foreign, to smile. The realization was enough to flatten his lips.
Her smile faded too. “What’s wrong?”
He paused, studying her. Why not speak the truth? If she was honest, she’d understand. If she was up to something, it would serve as a warning. “I cannot be certain you’re to be trusted.”
“Oh.” She cocked her head, and her eyebrows squeezed together. “Is that why you’re alone out here? Because you don’t trust anyone?”
His jaw tightened. “Something like that.”
“Sometimes it can be difficult to trust others, but I do believe most people are good. Though goodness can be near impossible to detect sometimes. Don’t you think so?”
Once he might have agreed with her, but now… “I don’t know.”
She looked down, kicked at the dirt with her mud-caked shoes, then looked back up at him with shining eyes. She opened her mouth to speak, but as if she thought better of it, she clamped her lips. Her tongue darted out to lick them.
“What is it?” His voice was a gruff whisper. He couldn’t tear his eyes from her lips. Plump. Enticing.
“Who betrayed you so terribly that you cannot trust a simple countrywoman?”
Her voice was soft, sympathetic, and nearly compelling enough for him to respond with the truth. He nipped the compulsion in the bud, quickly taking a different tack. “How old are you, Katherine?”
“Will you call me Kate?”
He liked the sound of her name, so he said it again. “How old are you, Kate?”
“Two and twenty. How old are you?”
She wasn’t as young as he’d thought. Still, she was far too young for him. Too sweet for him. Too innocent. Too…different. He had no intention of selecting a bed partner any time soon, but when he did, he’d make certain the woman was experienced. And as jaded and cold as himself.
“Far older than you,” he said quietly.
She smiled again, and his blood surged. God. Tamping down his lust, he pushed his hand through his wet, tangled hair. He resisted the urge to command her to stop smiling.
“How old?” she demanded.
She released a breath through tight lips. “Pfft. Hardly too old to befriend someone such as me.”
“Befriend?” he asked with a raised brow.
The suggestion in his tone escaped her. “I don’t have many friends.” She clasped her hands together in front of her brown skirt. “But I believe I should like to be a friend of yours.”
“You’re too trusting,” he said in a low voice. If he were any other man, her virtue would be in peril. Hell, her virtue was in peril.
“Am I?” She studied him, her eyes seeming to dive into his soul. Surely if they could do that, she would see the blackness residing there, and she’d flee for her life.
Slowly, she shook her head. “No, I don’t think so. You won’t hurt me.”
His lips twisted. “You think not?”
“I know it,” she said in a low voice.
“You are too naive.”
Her eyes darkened at that, and they flickered away. “You’re wrong about that.”
He clenched his hands into fists, stifling the protective instinct that overcame him at her words. He wanted to demand to know who’d caused that shadow to pass over her face, and then he wanted to go beat the hell out of that person.
It had been a long time since he’d felt much of anything. Surely these sudden, strange emotions weren’t natural, nor were they logical. Garrett felt as if he was awakening from a months’-long slumber and was struggling to reassimilate into the world of the living.
She had done this to him. As they spoke, she brought him to life. How was it possible?
He pushed out a measured breath, reined himself in, and tried to conjure the response of a gentleman from his fractured memories.
“You don’t understand,” he said as gently as he could. “You cannot sneak up on a man, watch him bathe, speak to him the way you’ve spoken to me…”
“I wouldn’t,” she said. “I wouldn’t sneak up on any man, nor would I speak to him the way I’ve spoken to you. I’m not stupid.”
“I could be dishonest. I could be a criminal, a murderer.” He said the words through clenched teeth as a shudder of revulsion slithered down his spine. “A rapist.”
“But you’re none of those things.” A frown line appeared between her eyes as she gazed at him. “Are you?”
“I could be.”
The thought of this guileless woman stepping into the path of some predator made him want to grab her and shelter her. He might possess some honor, but not many men would resist this kind of temptation. Out at twilight beside an abandoned pool, a beautiful woman blatantly flirting with him . . .
He ground his teeth. “How can you know?”
“At first . . . I wasn’t sure. Or maybe I was. I think maybe I always knew, deep inside. But now, after having spoken to you—” she shrugged, “—I just know.”
“You shouldn’t be out here alone, ever. It could be dangerous.”
“I’ve come out here alone for my entire life, and I’ve never been in any sort of danger whatsoever. Not once.” She tilted her head at the pool shimmering silver-orange in the decreasing twilight. “This is my private place. My thinking place.”
He swallowed, imagining her stripped bare, swimming in the pond. Imagining swimming with her, touching her, making her shudder in his arms…
Damn. He rubbed his temple to expel the images. Those thoughts were wrong. Depraved. Hell, the ink wasn’t even dry on his divorce and he was already debauching a maiden in his dark fantasies.
“I apologize,” he said tightly. “I didn’t mean to intrude.”
“I’m glad you did.” She shifted from foot to foot. “As I said, I think you’re very . . . interesting.”
“You should stay away from me.” He took a step closer to her, close enough to feel the sweet heat cascading from her body. She smelled of cinnamon and pine.
She stood her ground. “I don’t fear you.”
“Perhaps,” she breathed. “But not to me.”
“Associating with me will only bring you pain.”
“How can you say such an awful thing?”
“I have that effect on people.”
She reached out and brazenly placed her hand flat on his chest, scorching him through the thin linen of his shirt. “So be it. But no matter how much pain associating with you might bring me…” Her words dwindled as he pressed his palm over her hand.
She stared at his hand engulfing hers on his chest. Raising his other hand, he touched one finger to the soft skin beneath her chin and pressed upward.
“Tell me what you were going to say.”
Her eyes shone, and she blinked. “I’ll never regret it.”
Bending his head, he touched his lips to hers.