Twice tempted by a rogue, p.1
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       Twice Tempted by a Rogue, p.1

         Part #2 of Stud Club series by Tessa Dare
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Twice Tempted by a Rogue
Page 1

  Chapter One

  Rhys St. Maur, newly Lord Ashworth, was a broken man. Literally.

  By the age of twenty, he’d fractured his left arm twice—once in a schoolboy brawl at Eton, and then again during an army training drill. Cracked ribs … he’d lost count of those. Fists driving through barroom haze to connect with his face had snapped the cartilage in his nose a few times, leaving him with a craggy profile—one that was not improved by his myriad scars. Since sometime around his thirtieth birthday, the little finger on his right hand just plain refused to bend. And in damp weather like this, his left knee throbbed with memories of marching through the Pyrenees and surviving the Battle of Nivelle unscathed, only to catch a Basque farmer’s hoe to the knee the next morning, when he left camp for a predawn piss.

  That left knee was on fire tonight, sizzling with pain as Rhys trudged through the granite heart of Devonshire, leading his horse down the darkened road. The moisture in the air kept dithering between fog and rain, and the night was thick with its indecision. He couldn’t see but a few feet in front of him, which was why he’d decided to dismount and lead his horse on foot. Between the poor visibility and the surrounding terrain littered with chunks of stone and boot-sucking bogs, the risk of fatal injury was too great.

  For the horse, that was. Rhys wasn’t in the least concerned for himself. In fact, if he thought this godforsaken moor had any chance of claiming his own life, he’d cheerfully saddle his gelding and charge off into the gloom.

  But it wouldn’t work. It never had. He’d just end up with a lamed or dead horse, another broken rib perhaps, and the same curse that had haunted him since boyhood: unwanted, undeserved, and wholly wasted good luck.

  No matter what misfortune befell him, this or any night, Rhys St. Maur was doomed to survive it.

  The wind’s low moan played his spine like a fiddle string. Behind him, the gelding balked. With a reassuring shush for the beast’s benefit, Rhys marched on, turning up the collar of his coat to keep out the mist.

  Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…

  He’d been walking through this valley for a long, long time. Trod so far into death’s shadow he’d felt his feet turning to dust in his boots, the breath in his lungs burning acrid as sulfur. A living ghost, that’s what he was. He’d returned from war to a newly inherited barony, and his sole duty now was to haunt the English aristocracy. Hulk awkwardly in the corners of their parties, terrify their delicate young ladies, and cause the gentlemen to rub their temples self-consciously as they tried not to stare at the gnarled scar marring his own.

  As Rhys rounded a sharp curve in the road, a vaguely familiar sight emerged from the gloom. If he’d read his landmarks right, this had to be it. The tiny village of Buckleigh-in-the-Moor. At this distance, just a meager constellation of amber pinpricks against the black night.

  The horse, scenting straw and safety, picked up his pace. Soon the cluster of stone and cob buildings came into focus. It must not be as late as it felt. A fair number of the cottages still showed light through their windows—yellow eyes peering out from beneath thatched-roof hats.

  He halted in the center of the road. Wiping the moisture from his eyes, he squinted in the direction of the old inn. Fourteen years he’d been gone, but the same sign still creaked on its chains above the door. It read, in retouched gilt letters, The Three Hounds. Below the words, the pictured trio of dogs remained at perpetual attention. A burst of coarse laughter rattled one of the inn’s unshuttered windows. Old Maddox was still doing a brisk trade, then.

  Though his mount stamped with impatience, Rhys stood motionless facing the inn. Finally, he tilted his face to the sky above it. Fog covered the village like cotton wool, obscuring the craggy tors that loomed high on the steep slope beyond. Without their ominous shadow, the village of Buckleigh-in-the-Moor—this hated place he’d been running from since before he could remember—almost appeared … quaint. Charming. Welcoming.

  And at that fool notion, Rhys almost laughed aloud.

  This place would not welcome him.

  No sooner had he formed the thought, than the inn’s front door swung out on its hinges, tossing a shaft of light and warmth into the courtyard. The dull wave of laughter he’d heard earlier now swelled to a roar of excitement—one punctuated with a crash of breaking glass.

  “You bastard son of a bitch!”

  Ah, now that was the sort of reception he’d been expecting. But unless the old superstitions were true and some witch had foretold his arrival, Rhys knew the words couldn’t have been meant for him. No one was likely to recognize him at all—he’d been just seventeen years old when he’d been here last.

  Pulled forward by curiosity and the smells of ale and peat smoke, he approached the open door, stopping just outside.

  The tavern was cramped, and much as Rhys remembered it. Just big enough to hold a small bar, a half-dozen tables, a mismatched assortment of chairs and stools, and—on this particular occasion—complete pandemonium.

  “That’s it! Pound ’im good!”

  Two neckless apes faced off in the center of the room, spitting and circling one another as the onlookers pushed aside tables and chairs. The taller of the two brutes took a clumsy swing that caught nothing but air. The momentum carried him into a startled onlooker’s arms. That man took exception and shoved back. Within seconds, the room was a blur of fists.

  Standing unnoticed in the shadowed doorway, Rhys shifted his weight. An echo of bloodlust whispered in his ear. As a younger man, he would have hurled himself into the thickest knot of violence, eager to claw and punch his way back out. Just to feel the surge of his racing pulse, the slice of broken glass scoring his flesh, the tang of blood in his mouth. The strange, fleeting sensation of being alive.

  But he wasn’t that young man anymore. Thanks to the war, he’d had his fill of both fighting and pain. And he’d long given up on feeling alive.

  After a minute or two, the peripheral scrabbling defused. Once again the two louts faced off, huffing for breath and clearly hungry for more. They chuckled as they circled one another, as though this were their typical Saturday night fun. It probably was. Wasn’t as though life on the moor offered a wealth of amusements other than drinking and brawling.

  Now that he studied their faces, Rhys wondered if the two might be brothers. Or cousins, perhaps. The taller one had mashed features, while the shorter sported a beaky nose. But their eyes reflected the same empty shade of blue, and they wore identical expressions of willful stupidity.

  The shorter one picked up a low stool and taunted his opponent with it, as if baiting a bull. The “bull” charged. He threw a wild punch over the stool, but his reach fell short by inches. To close the gap, Bull grabbed a brass candlestick from the mantel and whipped it through the air, sucking all sound from the room.

  Whoosh.

  Beak threw aside his stool, and it smashed to splinters against the hearth. With Bull’s attention momentarily diverted, Beak dove for a table still set for a meal. Half-empty dishes and bread crusts were strewn over white linen.

  Rhys frowned. When had old Maddox started bothering with tablecloths?

  He stopped wondering about it when Beak came up wielding a knife.

  “I’ll teach you to raise a club to me, you whoreson,” he snarled.

  Everyone in the room froze. Rhys ceased leaning against the doorjamb and stood erect, reconsidering his decision not to intervene. With a brass club and a knife involved, someone was likely to get seriously injured, or worse. As tired as he might be of fighting, he was even more weary of watching men die.

  But before he could act, a s
eries of sounds arrested him where he stood.

  Crash. A bottle breaking.

  Plink, plink, plink. Glass bits trickling to the floor.

  Thud. Beak collapsing to the table unconscious, rivulets of wine streaming down around his ears.

  “Harold Symmonds, you’ll pay for that wine. ” A slender, dark-haired woman stood over Beak’s senseless form, clutching what remained of a green-glass bottle. “And the tablecloth too, you great lout. ” She shook her head and tsked. “Blood and claret will never come out of white linen.

  “And as for you, Laurence—” She wheeled on the second man, threatening him with the broken bottle’s sharp glass teeth. Though he was twice as big as the barmaid and a man besides, Laurence held up his hands in surrender.

  In fact, every man in the room had gone still. As though they all feared the harsh discipline this tiny barmaid might dole out. Interesting. To a man like Rhys, who’d spent several years commanding soldiers, that snap to attention spoke volumes.

  Jabbing the bottle at Laurence, the barmaid backed him up against the wall. “’Twas your own master who brought that, you know. ”

  “This?” He stared at the candlestick in his fist. “It’s Gideon’s?”

  “No, it’s the inn’s. ” She wrenched the brass club away from the stunned brute and curled her arm, lifting it to eye level. “But Gideon delivered it. Hauled it and its mate all the way up from Plymouth just last week. The set came very dear, and I’ll thank you to keep your grimy mitts off the bric-a-brac. ”

  The thing must have weighed a stone, but it cost her no effort to heft the candlestick up on the mantel with one hand and nudge it back into place.

  “There,” she said to herself, apparently satisfied with the symmetry. Standing back, she threw the jagged remnants of the bottle into the fire, and a wine-fueled blaze surged in the hearth.

  The reddish flare illuminated the woman’s face, and Rhys got his first good look at her.

  Holy God. She was beautiful.

  And young.

  And … and beautiful.

  Rhys had never been especially good with words. He couldn’t have described exactly what it was about this woman that made her appearance so striking. He just knew he’d been struck.

  She had pale skin and dark hair coming loose from a thick plait. Her figure was slight, yet feminine. Her eyes were large and wide, but to discern their color he would’ve had to stand much closer to her.

  He wanted to stand much closer to her.

  Especially now that she was no longer armed.

  Fury radiated from her slender form as she propped her hands on her hips and scolded the assembly. “It’s the same damned scene, again and again. ” Her tone was sharp, but the voice beneath it was husky, warm. “In case you haven’t noticed, this inn is all we’ve got in Buckleigh-in-the-Moor. I’m trying to build a name for this place, make it a respectable establishment for travelers. Now tell me, how am I to make this inn fit for the Quality, what with you overgrown clods destroying my dining room once a fortnight?”

  She swept an angry glare around the room, silently confronting each offender in turn. When her gaze collided with Rhys’s, he noted the first crack in her veneer of poise. Her eyelashes fluttered. That was the extent of her visible surprise. The rest of her remained granite-still as she said, “And all this in front of a guest. ”

  Rhys sensed every head in the room swiveling to face him. But he couldn’t have torn his gaze from the barmaid’s if he’d tried. Jesus, what a woman.

  Between the travel and the damp, his body had been grousing at him all night. He wouldn’t have believed one more part of him could stiffen … but evidently it could. His riding breeches pulled snug across his groin. He’d gone hard enough to rival that brass candlestick. He hadn’t reacted so intensely to a woman since he’d been a randy youth. Perhaps not even then. His heart pounded. Blood surged through his veins, carrying orders to his every limb. He felt his whole body tightening, mustering strength, readying for a purpose. A very specific, very pleasurable purpose.

  Damn. He felt alive.

  Still holding his gaze, she said steadily, “Now put this place to rights. ”

  Rhys blinked. He didn’t recall this woman—he couldn’t possibly have forgotten her—but had she somehow recognized him? Was she calling him out for his gross negligence as lord? It would be a fair enough accusation. If there was anything that needed putting to rights in Buckleigh-in-the-Moor, the responsibility should be his.

 
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