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Highwayman's Daughter - a historical romance by Anne Avery
THE HIGHWAYMAN'S DAUGHTER
 

If life had taught John Francis Carleton anything, it was to take his pleasures where he found them. Right now, he was enjoying a pint of good ale, a roaring fire, and a snug seat in the corner near the King George’s hearth. He was dry, well fed, and comfortably protected from drafts and the ice-cold rain that blew in with each sodden new guest...and it was not enough. Not tonight.

        John Carleton wanted a woman. A pretty, plump, and willing woman who would indulge him with a rousing round or two of cock-in-the-henhouse, then snuggle up close to keep him warm through the rest of this miserable, misbegotten English night.

        Unfortunately, the George came provided with most of the amenities a traveler might require, but it did not come provided with a woman. At least, not a plump and willing one.

        The crone in the corner opposite looked as if she might once have been plump and pretty and more than willing to oblige a lonely stranger, but her days for slap-and-tickle were long past. Now she sat hunched over her ale pot, avidly listening to the heated argument that 

two stolid farmers and their equally stolid wives had been conducting at some length. The debate seemed to revolve around a complicated tangle of land rights, lost heirs, and the old Lord Henry Malloran’s steward’s meddling where he oughtn’t, and the crone cackled with satisfaction each time one of the disputants scored a particularly telling point.

        John had followed the discussion with the discreet, but bored curiosity appropriate to any traveler in an unfamiliar place, but his attention had been more pleasantly fixed on the comely wench who functioned as the inn’s tapster and serving maid.

        The wench had possibilities. She was a touch too tall and slender for his tastes, but she had a full, soft mouth that invited kisses, a perfect complexion, delicately pale to complement the raven-black hair piled under her mob cap, and breasts that would torment a blind man’s dreams. The breasts, John had long ago decided, more than compensated for the lack of flesh on her long bones. She was graceful, sloe-eyed, and eminently beddable—but she was not willing. He’d found that out when his first foray had earned him a set-down sharp enough to drive off a regiment of aspirants to her favors.

        John hadn’t ventured again, though he hadn’t entirely discarded the idea, either. There wasn’t much else to distract him, after all. Even the stolid farmers’ exploration of old scandals seemed to be drawing to a close, drowned in their respective pots of cider and ale.

        As for the serving wench, she’d ignored him except when it was necessary to clear away his supper plates or refill his tankard. Her manner might have wounded his masculine sensibilities if it hadn’t piqued his curiosity more. He wasn’t accustomed to having women ignore him.

        For his pride’s sake, he was willing to grant that her avoidance might be due to the clamorings of her thirsty customers as much as to his ill-fated flirt. Despite the cold and the drenching rain, the locals had managed to slog their way through the storm in sufficient numbers that she’d had no chance to sit down even once in the past hour. Instead, she scurried back and forth between taproom and pantry and kitchen, filling mugs and scolding the cook and tending to her customers’ demands with remarkable calm, in spite of it all.

        John watched appreciatively as she climbed on a stool to retrieve a jug. As she stretched to reach the jug, the hem of her skirt rose to expose a pair of stout, sensible shoes and ankles trim enough to rouse even the dullest of the sturdy laborers lucky enough to have good seats for the show. One toothless codger, bolder than the rest, craned sideways and tried to peer up her skirts. He was promptly rewarded for his pains with a solid thunk on the nob from the jug-wielding maid.

        “Here, now, Thomas Gaines, you mind your manners,” she said sharply, clambering down from the stool and tugging her skirts into place.

        Old Thomas assumed an expression of aggrieved innocence. “Awk, now, Lizzie. Weren’t nothin’ meant by it. Honest.”

He might have pulled it off if the urge to snicker hadn’t overcome him first.

        “Try it again and you’ll be out in the rain and no mistake,” Lizzie said, jug raised to emphasize her threat.

        Thomas promptly buried his nose in his tankard.

        Appeased, Lizzie turned to fill the jug from a wine cask set in a low cradle against the far wall. John Francis happily joined in the general masculine appreciation of the view—heavy skirts notwithstanding, the curve of the wench’s arse as she bent to draw the wine was a very pleasant one indeed.

 

*****

 

“I don’t like the way he’s eyeing her,” Oliver Hardwicke growled at his beloved. “I’ve a good mind to spill his ale down his shirt front next time he looks her way.”

        “Don’t even think it,” his beloved said. “Besides, you promised you wouldn’t do that sort of thing anymore. You know the troubles Lizzie had the last time you drove away her customers.”

        “Demned, lecherous noblemen’s brats, that pack was,” Oliver growled. “Like dogs off the leash. She was well rid of them.”

        “Perhaps, but you didn’t need to scare them witless. Lizzie’s trade was down for a good month after.”

        “Spoken like a landlord’s daughter!”

        “Well, and that’s what I was! You didn’t seem to mind.”

        “Mind?” Oliver laughed and drew his beloved closer. “No man with eyes in his head and a cock in his breeches would have minded that, my love, or even remembered it. Not once they’d got a good look at you!”

        “And look where it landed me!”

        “Ah, my beautiful Bess. Do you mind so much, then?”

        Bess smiled and tweaked his nose. “Not since I have you.” The smile faded. “But I do worry about our Lizzie. She’s so... She’s so serious, Oliver! Never pays so much as a moment’s notice to any of the men who’ve come courting her, and, say what you will, there were a couple of good ones amongst them all.”

        “What does it matter? Not even the best of ‘em was good enough for our Lizzie.”

        “I don’t want her to be a spinster, Oliver! But the way she drives away every interested male—”

        “Every one of them with nothing but one thought in his head!”

        “The same thought you had in yours, my love!” Bess giggled. “And a fine thought it was, too!”

        “We were good together, weren’t we, my beautiful Bess?”

        “We still are, regardless.”

        “Yes. Well...” Oliver turned his attention back to the matter at hand, and swore. “God rot him. Look at that filthy-minded cur! I tell you, Bess, one more glance like that and it’s over his ale pot goes!”

 

*****

 

Lizzie placed the filled jug of wine and three cups on a small tray, then carried them to the table where William Woodforde and his cronies were deep in a debate over the rival merits of tar and dock roots boiled in vinegar as an effective cure for mange in sheep. She neatly dodged William’s famously wandering hand, then hurried back to draw more ale for old Thomas. Roused by the stolen peek at her petticoats, he’d drained his tankard dry and was loudly demanding another round, quick, before he perished of the thirst.

        Her back and feet ached. She was tired and hungry and cross, just as she was on any night that Samuel wasn’t available to run the taproom. Yet tonight, Lizzie was conscious of an uncomfortable difference.

        It wasn’t hard to identify the problem. He was slouched in the corner by the hearth, one tanned, shapely hand protectively curled around his pint of ale, his foot arrogantly propped on a chair opposite. He was well-dressed and, judging from his speech, well-educated, even if he was a colonial. The man had scarcely spoken except to tease her—once!—and to order his supper and more ale, yet Lizzie was quite sure it wasn’t the sharp set-down she’d given him that was keeping him so quiet.

        There was a disquieting alertness about him underneath the surface carelessness. She had the sense that he heard and saw everything that went on in the room around him, even though he gave the appearance of being interested in nothing but his pint and the way her breasts filled the bodice of her dress.

        Lizzie was used to the latter. She’d been dealing with men—young, old, and every age in between—since she’d grown big enough to help her grandfather with the never-ending work of a public inn. Most of them were from the village and the nearby farms, of course, but there were always travelers passing through and guests stopping with the local gentry who wanted a little respite from the kindness of their hosts. It didn’t matter who they were; if they were old enough to be out from behind their mothers’ petticoats, they’d been interested in their ale and the curve of her chest, just like the stranger in the corner.

        Yet not one of them had managed to unsettle her the way this man had, with his lazy smile and his sea-green eyes, half-hidden behind lashes thick enough to make a woman weep. Whenever she came near him, her heart beat faster and her blood pounded through her veins. Whenever she was away from him, engaged in other tasks, she was conscious of his gaze upon her and her body grew warm in ways that were as disturbing as they were unexpected. If she weren’t so sure she was in her usual perfect health, she’d have thought she was sickening and needed to be blooded.

        It wasn’t just his effect on her that was troubling, however. He was looking for something, listening to everything being said, though he gave no outward sign of it.

        Why would a man like him, with every mark of being a gentleman, find the occupants of the George’s taproom of such interest? What was there in the various discussions of crops, politics, weather, old scandals, and the price of livestock that could possibly be of interest to a stranger?

        Yet interested he was, and Lizzie would bet her best lace tucker that it wasn’t the crops or the weather or the price of livestock that had his attention.

 

*****

 

By the time he was launched on his third pint, John had considered, and reluctantly discarded, a dozen different ways of seducing the serving wench. He had the uncomfortable sense she had already heard everything he might say a hundred times over and would be no more impressed by his blandishments than a dog by the overtures of a flea.

        In fact, lust was rapidly being replaced by a growing puzzlement that she should be here at all. Despite her menial occupation, she bore herself with a confidence that many a fine lady might have envied, and her speech lacked the heavy accents of the rustics who filled most of the taproom’s seats. Yet she moved among her customers with the calm familiarity of old acquaintance, and they, in turn, treated her with the ready ease that comes only with long association.

        John frowned at nothing in particular, irritated that such a trivial problem should nag at him like this, demanding an answer. Not that there was much of anything else to distract him, but he would have preferred simply to bed the wench, then forget her. It was a mistake for a man to get too involved in his pleasures, especially those of the female variety. They had a nasty habit of not letting go if given half a chance.

        As it happened, his wish for distraction was answered, but in a far less appealing form than that of the tall, black-haired wench.

        Thomas Gaines staggered up from the bench he’d been occupying and cautiously worked his way across the room toward the fire, tankard firmly clutched in one gnarled hand. He nodded to John, pale, rheumy eyes bright with curiosity, then slowly lowered his ancient bones onto the settle, as close to the fire as he could get.

        “Arrr,” he said in utter content, and raised his pint in salute.

        “Health.” John raised his own half-empty tankard in return.

        “Not much chance at my age,” said Gaines with a crooked smile, and disappeared behind his tankard. John could see the skinny cords of his neck work as he swallowed.

        The old man eventually lowered his pot with a gusty sigh—breathing was clearly secondary to a good long draft—and dragged his sleeve across his mouth. “A naggy, ill-tempered scold she be, but Lizzie brews good ale.”

        John nodded in assent. “And does a roast hen proud, if my supper was anything to judge by.”

        Gaines shook his head. “Nawr. That be Bertha’s doing. Bertha’s as fat an old sow as ever drew breath, which is ever a sign of a good cook. Lizzie, now, she’s the owner here. And the brewster. Learned it from her granddad, she did, before the old sod died.”

        He screwed up his face and stared into the corner, thinking hard and scratching his grizzled chin at the effort. “Year ago last Michaelmas, that were, or thereabouts. Or mebbe was it two?”

        “Mistress Lizzie runs this place by herself?” John didn’t bother to hide his astonishment. The inn was a good-sized one and, judging from what little he’d seen, well-run. Not at all the sort of place one would expect a woman to manage alone—at least, not a young and good-looking woman, who ought to have no trouble in finding a husband with whom to divide the labor.

        “Nawr. Not by herself, exactly.” Gaines took another deep swig—his wits seemed to require frequent stoking in order to function—and leaned forward confidentially.

        “Lizzie, now, she’s the boss, but she’s got a couple o’ chambermaids an’ the stable lads an’ kitchen maid t’do for her. Samuel Martin, he runs the tap here most nights. Only his cousin took bad, night afore last, and his sister dragged him off t’pay their respects t’the dyin’. Greedy old hen can’t bear t’see even a cousin pass on without makin’ sure she has her share o’ what’s left behind.”

        He gave a great cackle. “Comes ol’ Martin’s turn, she’ll be sittin’ by the bed countin’ his pennies and half-pence, jus’ t’make sure he don’t take none with ’im!”

        “An unpleasant prospect, to be sure.”

        “Arrr,” said Gaines in agreement, once more lubricating his vocal cords.

        Their hostess chose that moment to walk past. She glanced at John, then shot a suspicious glance at old Thomas, but didn’t stop.

        “Mistress Lizzie seems to do well enough without Samuel Martin’s help,” said John, admiring the easy grace with which she bore six well-filled tankards. She managed without spilling a drop, not even when she had to dodge a wandering hand attached to a broad, gruff farmer who seemed to think other favors came with the price of the ale.

        “Yers,” said Gaines, watching her appreciatively.

        John waited until she’d made her deliveries and gone back past the table before adding, “I’m surprised she hasn’t wed yet.”

        “Her!” Gaines craned to peer around the end of the settle, as if to assure himself Lizzie was safely out of hearing range, then edged into a chair at John’s right hand.

        “There’s more’n one feller would’ve had her, was she willin’,” he said, leaning forward conspiratorially, one hand protectively wrapped round his tankard. “She’ll have none uv em’. Even had a ‘Sir’ sniffin’ round her onct, but never a smile did she give ’im. Left in despair an’ blew his brains out, so they say.”

        John casually tilted back in his chair. The unmistakable aroma of the cow byre clung to the old man’s much-worn, but seldom-washed clothes. His breath smelled of ale, cheap tobacco, and rotting teeth, and the lingering damp from the rain combined with the heat from the fire only served to enrich the fragrant blend of odors.

        “Blew his brains out, hmm?” said John.

        “Yers. Courtin’ Mistress Lizzie can be a parlous business.” He mashed his gums together with satisfaction and took another swallow. “Course, that’s assumin’ all the tales you hears is true, which I ain’t sayin’ as how they is, nor I ain’t sayin’ as how they ain’t.”

        “Very reasonable.”John gave his nose a respite by burying it in his ale pot. “What tales?”

        Gaines glanced about him once more, then edged closer still. John started breathing through his mouth.

        “Ghosts,” the old man said. His eyes grew round and his jaw thrust forward so that his scrawny neck looked like a plucked chicken’s. “Ghosts an’ murder an’ vengeance everlastin’.”

        “Ghosts, is it, Thomas?” Mistress Lizzie had come up beside him so quietly that John hadn’t heard her approach.

        She scowled at Thomas, but her words were for him. “I warn you, sir. Unless you’ve no objection to paying for Thomas’ ale, you’d best not listen to his wild stories. There’s nothing to them, but the more murderous his ghosts, the thirstier he gets. You’d do well to find other conversation.”

        “Awk, now, Lizzie,” said old Thomas, abashed.

        “You know how I feel about that foolishness.”

        A dim-witted sheep could have guessed. The anger radiating from her was almost physical, and far out of proportion to the crime.

        If she’d intended to say more, it was cut short when the outer door suddenly crashed open and the wind howled in, driving the rain and three of King George’s soldiers before it.

        Like a hind at the sound of the hunters’ horns, Lizzie tensed, head up, poised to spring. She was a striking creature, John thought. Proud, almost haughty, and clearly unintimidated by the official presence, even though more than one of her customers had discovered a sudden and all-encompassing interest in the table top in front of him. She stepped forward.

        “You are welcome here, gentlemen,” she said sharply, “but the rain and wind are not. If you are coming in, then kindly do so and shut the door behind you. If you’ve no wish for ale, then I’ll thank you to leave, and I will be happy to shut the door as you go.”

        “Sharp-tongued as ever, eh, Mistress Tynsdale?” said the man in front, an officer, judging by his hat and the elegant sweep of his cape. His companions grinned. One, a runty, pinch-faced private, turned and kicked the door shut; the other arrogantly propped his hand on the butt of the pistol that stuck out of his belt, as though issuing a silent warning.

        “Sharp-tongued, Lieutenant? You flatter me. If you and your men will take a seat,” she nodded toward a table near John’s, the only one that was as yet unoccupied, “I will bring you ale in a moment—as soon as I have attended to others who were here before you.” With that, she snatched John’s and Thomas’s tankards out of their hands without so much as a by-your-leave and marched away.

        The Lieutenant watched her departure with narrowed eyes, then gave a curt nod to indicate the dragoons should claim the table indicated. With an arrogance that verged on insult, the two men did as they were bid. The Lieutenant swept off his cape and threw it over a chair back, then sauntered across to the fire. Everyone in the taproom watched him warily as he stretched his hands to the blaze. When he turned his back to the fire, his observers hastily transferred their attention to their tankards.

        Lizzie pointedly ignored the Lieutenant’s appreciative, mocking stare as she returned with the tankards.

        “Here, then,” she said, setting one in front of John. “And you,” she added, setting the second in front of Thomas, “keep your tongue between your teeth, or it’s precious little ale you’ll get from me in the future.”

        “Awk, now, Lizzie,” Thomas protested feebly, but he threw a cautious glance at the two dragoons before plunging his nose into his tankard.

        The soldiers’ presence put a damper on the companionable atmosphere that warmth, good ale, and friendly conversation had engendered in the taproom. The two stolid farmers rose as one, pulled on their coats and hats and, with their stout wives close on their heels, stumped out of the inn and into the night. One of the laborers followed in short order, with the crone close on his heels.

        Thomas Gaines was not so precipitate. Instead of retreating, he took his newly refilled tankard back to the settle and the warmth of the fire, clearly hopeful of more exciting diversions than the night had yet provided.

        “Yer Honor,” he said, giving an odd little ducking bow as he crossed in front of the Lieutenant.

        The officer stiffened and drew his head back, which was as far as he could go backward without stepping into the fire; his nostrils flared.

        The corner of John’s mouth twitched.

        The Lieutenant was as sharp-eyed as he looked. He turned his cold gaze on John. “You find something to amuse you?”

        “A shared sympathy, Lieutenant, nothing more.” With one booted foot, John shoved back the chair old Thomas had vacated. “Join me.”

        The Lieutenant’s eyes narrowed as he considered the invitation. Another sweeping glance about the taproom, then he swung the chair about so he’d have a clear view of the room’s occupants, gave an arrogant flick to his long coattails, and sat.

        “You’re a colonial.” It wasn’t a question.

        “I’m from the colonies, yes.”

        “What brings you here, so far from home?”

        John let one eyebrow slide upward at the harshness of the prying question, but his voice was mild enough as he replied, “My father was from this part of England. He always spoke of it.” That was true, though his father’s memories had been colored by something other than fond regrets.

        The Lieutenant grunted, evidently taking his words at face value. “A long way to come for a father’s memories.”

        “Yes.” But not too far for the purpose which had brought him. “Though I suppose there have been any number of changes since my father was here last. You would know, I suppose.”

        “I?” He laughed, the sound harsh against the subdued murmur of voices from the customers who remained. “I’m not from here, thank God!”

        “No?” The man’s anger said far more than his words. Not that it mattered. “I take it this wasn’t your choice of postings, then?”

        The Lieutenant tensed, as though just realizing where his anger might lead him. “It was not.”

        John nodded sympathetically, then took a good swallow of ale and disposed himself more comfortably in his chair. As a guest at the inn, he had no reason to plunge back into the storm. The fire was warm, the ale good, and if he was lucky, the conversation might be...useful.

        “Tell me about the place,” he invited. “Is it always this damned cold and wet?”

 

*****

 

The Lieutenant had taken the chair old Thomas had vacated. Judging from the hard, angry lines about his handsome mouth, he wasn’t finding the company all that entertaining.

        “Lieutenant Lamberre,” said Lizzie, coolly plunking a well-filled tankard down in front of the man. She would have preferred to toss the ale in his face. She circled the table and set brimming tankards in front of the other two dragoons. “Sergeant. Private.”

        She crossed behind the Lieutenant’s chair and would have slipped past without another word, but he grabbed her arm as she went by.

        “You’re getting good at sorting out the insignia, Mistress Tynsdale,” he said. “Been paying a bit of attention to my men, have you?”

        The private snickered, but hastily quieted under the sergeant’s quelling frown. The stranger went suddenly still; he set his tankard down on the table with elaborate care, but made no move to interfere.

        Lizzie ignored them all. Had she been given a choice, she would have avoided a confrontation with the Lieutenant, but he’d made that impossible the minute he’d grabbed her arm. She wrenched free of his grasp, but budged not an inch from where she stood.

        “I can hardly help notice them, Lieutenant,” she said. Her upper lip curled with her anger, but she managed to keep her voice steady, in spite of it. “You and your troops are rather hard to ignore, as much as you thrust yourselves into places where you’ve no business being.”

        The Lieutenant laughed. There was nothing pleasant in the sound. “I understand some of my men have been thrusting rather industriously, here abouts. Reports would have it that your chambermaid’s belly is already beginning to swell.”

        In the sudden silence, the snap and flare of the fire sounded unexpectedly loud. Lizzie had the vague sense that the room around her had taken on an angry red haze. She slammed her fist on the table as she bent to glare into his dark face.

        “Would you be so quick to laugh if it were your sister, Lieutenant? Or your wife?”

        “My sisters don’t work in a common inn, Mistress. And I don’t have a wife.” His smile grew cruel. “You’d do well to toss the slut out, send her back to her family.”

        “Her family’s cast her off. She’s no place else to go except into the arms of the man responsible, but he’ll have none of her now.”

        “And why should he? If she’d no more sense than to spread her legs for a few copper pennies, why should anyone care what becomes of her?”

        “She had no pennies from the man, Lieutenant. Just an earful of pretty words.”

        “And now she’s a bellyful of something else.” He shrugged. “That’s her problem, not mine. I’m not responsible for fools.”

        Lizzie shoved away from him, unable to stomach the closeness any longer. “But you are responsible for your men!”

        “Not when their pants are down!”

        This time the sergeant made no effort to hush his snickering subordinate. The stranger sat as carelessly in his chair as before, but even in her anger Lizzie was aware of the glitter of those sea-green eyes and the sudden hard set to his jaw.

        The Lieutenant seemed unaware of anyone but her. He lifted his tankard in an insolent salute, then took a deep draft. “Ahh. That’s good. However weak your control over your servants, Mistress Tynsdale, it must be said that your ale, at least, is strong.”

 

*****

 

“God rot those bloody redcoats!” snarled Oliver. “I’ll prick the bastards—”

        “Oliver! Don’t you dare! You’ll only cause more troubles for Lizzie.”

        “But, Bess! Can’t you see—?”

        “I see that Lizzie can take care of herself. Do something now, and it will be Lizzie that bears the blame, not you.”

        “But—!”

        “Wait, Oliver. Please.”

        Oliver hesitated, but he’d never been able to deny his Bess anything. Not ever.

        “All right. I’ll wait. But if he dares lay another hand on her...”

 

*****

 

John casually took his foot off the chair opposite. Nothing to rouse suspicion, but he’d be free in case he had to move quickly. There was something more to this confrontation between the Lieutenant and Mistress Lizzie than a quarrel over a chambermaid’s pregnancy. It crackled beneath the surface of their words like lightning behind clouds.

        The George’s owner was biting her lip and glaring down at the Lieutenant, clearly struggling against the temptation to plunge into a heated exchange of insults. For his part, the Lieutenant was smiling up at her with an insolent, mocking grin on his handsome face that made John want to wipe it off— violently. On general principles, if for no other reason.

        Slowly, gracefully, the Lieutenant rose to his feet. Lizzie defiantly held her ground.

        That was a mistake. The man grabbed her arm and yanked her to him to claim a rough, insulting kiss.

        An instant later he jumped back, knocking his chair over, pop-eyed with fury. “What the—! Damnation! You arrogant slut! Look what you’ve done!”

        As one, the occupants of the George’s taproom craned to see. John choked, fighting not to burst out laughing.

        Somehow Mistress Lizzie had managed to tip an entire pot of ale into the man’s lap without so much as nudging the table or disturbing a drop of John’s well-filled tankard. The Lieutenant’s breeches, so elegantly white a moment before, were now darkened and damp as if he’d pissed them like an incontinent two year old.

        Lamberre started toward Lizzie, fists clenched, and tripped over a chair that was suddenly in his way. With an oath, he jerked his foot free and kicked the offending piece of furniture into the fire.

        Lizzie stood her ground, but John casually got to his feet. After a wary glance at his superior, the sergeant dragged the chair out of the fire, then edged backwards, out of the way. The private, scowling mightily, reluctantly followed. How long they’d stay out of the way was anybody’s guess. John could only hope it would be long enough.

        The lieutenant advanced, clearly intent on exacting revenge for the insult.

        “I’m disappointed in you, my love,” John said, and swept Lizzie out of the Lieutenant’s path and into his arms. “You promised you’d save all your kisses for me.”

        “Wha—?” Lizzie twisted around to defend herself against this new attack.

        With a strategic change of grip, John contrived to pinion her arms and draw her closer still, so that his body blocked Lamberre and he could look into that beautiful face. Even with her cheeks stained pink with fury and her eyes flashing fire, Lizzie was dangerously tempting.

        John sucked in his breath. More than tempting. Lizzie Tynsdale was damned near irresistible.

        Lamberre and the tap room around him receded to the edge of his consciousness. He lowered his head. He’d be a fool to kiss her. It was one thing to pull her out of Lamberre’s way, quite another to claim what Lamberre had tried to steal only a moment before.

        He wouldn’t kiss her. He would not kiss her.

        Kiss her, you fool.

        John jumped. He could have sworn someone had just whispered into his ear.

        No one was anywhere close enough to have tried.

        Wide, blue eyes locked on his. Lizzie’s lips parted. Her body softened in his arms as he pulled her even more closely against him. He could feel the rapid rise and fall of her breasts where they pressed against her chest.

        Those full, rich breasts that had tempted him so.

        Beautiful breasts...

        Kiss her!

        Because he could not help himself, John closed his eyes, and bent his head, and claimed a kiss right there in front of God, the infuriated Lieutenant, and a wide-eyed, sniggering Thomas Gaines.

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