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By LORI BRIGHTON
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Lori Brighton
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIndia, 1857
She was naked. Naked as the day she was born. Naked as the winter was long in Scotland. Naked as the days were hot in India. Naked.
But the drunken sod who'd burst into her room didn't seem to notice. He didn't bother to glance Bea's way as he cursed in slurred words and wavered about the moonlit bedchamber as if he owned the small abode and had the right to be there, which he most assuredly did not.
Completely and utterly shocked, Bea stood frozen in the dark corner. Not bolting. Not screaming. Not fainting into a naked heap at his feet. Even when the wet cloth that was pressed to her chest dripped warm water between the valley of her breasts, over her stomach, and tickled lower regions a refined woman best not mention, she didn't dare move.
He turned. The moonlight filtering through the open windows hit his face. In one breathless moment, Bea took in his features. High cheekbones, square jaw, and an aquiline nose were highlighted under a silver glow. Mythical, really. Or perhaps the light was playing tricks, for he looked almost handsome. One would think he was a spirit, or some beast come to seduce her soul. Yes, at first glance one would think he was magical, and that person would most definitely be wrong.
Bea didn't need a lantern to know this person was nothing otherworldly. And he was no gentleman. A gentleman would not burst into a lady's bedchamber. A gentleman would not curse. And a gentleman would most assuredly not smell of alcohol, smoke, and the same spice that seemed to permeate the entire blasted country.
"Damn it," he growled in what sounded decidedly like an American accent.
Surprised, the grip on her washing cloth eased. What was an American doing in Delhi?
Better yet, what was an American doing in this tiny room?
He stumbled closer to her cot, closer to her. Bea swallowed her squeak of protest and stepped back until the sensitive skin on her shoulders rubbed against the rough stone of the walls. Her breasts rose and fell with each sharp intake of breath, but he didn't seem to hear. In fact, he seemed completely unaware of her presence.
She thought for sure he'd collapsed upon her tiny cot, but somehow the inebriated man managed to keep to his feet, wavering closer to her. Sweat beaded on Bea's brow, her toes curling into the reed mats that covered the floor. Oh, how dreadful! How wretchedly dreadful! Why had she ever agreed to leave the sanity of Britain? Because Leo and Ella had practically begged.
"Come along," Ella had urged. "My dear cousin Colin is in Delhi and we'll reside with him. When would you have another chance to visit such an interesting country? Think of all the butterflies you'll be able to study."
Bea almost snorted. Interesting, indeed. If one found extremely hot weather, the constant feel of sand in your corset, and horrible men bursting into your bedchamber interesting. Oh yes, she'd pay dearly because of her urge for adventure, just as Grandmother had always warned. Stuck in a moldy, drafty castle in Scotland for the past ten years didn't seem so terrible now.
Not only was Colin's home ridiculously primitive and small, but the man was nowhere to be found, leaving dear Ella to worry and pace all night before she'd finally given up hope that he'd return home. Ella and Leo had retired to their room next door only two hours earlier. Were they fast asleep, or were they alert and awake enough to hear her scream?
"Damn boots," the intruder snapped, spinning around and stumbling farther away.
Bea released the air she hadn't realized she held. The bloody humidity pressed down on her lungs. The urge to cough settled on her chest like an anvil. A blasted cough she'd picked up only days after arriving in India. Dear Lord, she couldn't cough now. She closed her eyes for the briefest of moments. Concentrate, Beatrice Edmund. She prayed until the spasm passed.
But as the urge to cough faded, she was once again left with the realization that she was naked. Completely and utterly naked. And even in the dark, the man would surely notice. Frantically, she searched the room until she spotted her white robe lying like a sleeping spirit on the end of her cot.
Could she reach it before he spied her?
If he noticed, he may very well attack ... or worse. She'd heard stories of men going mad at the mere sight of a woman's ankle. What would one do if he saw a woman completely naked? The thought sent a shiver of disgust over her skin. Perhaps before she bolted across the room she should arm herself. As Grandmother said, always be prepared.
Taking her lower lip between her teeth, she eased her hands from her chest. The air instantly hardened her nipples, an embarrassing reminder of her lack of clothing. Ignoring her body's reaction, her fingertips grazed the table holding a pitcher of water and her dagger.
Her hand inched along the smooth teak toward the metal blade. A dagger Cousin Leo had given to her when they'd first arrived in India. A gift she thought completely barbaric at the time yet she'd accepted to be kind to a relative she hadn't seen in years.
The intruder turned. Bea froze, the handle just out of reach.
Had he heard her? Could he see her? Dash it! She couldn't tell.
He sighed and rested his hands atop his head. "For God's sake. I know I left the damn thing here somewhere."
The man shuffled toward a trunk not five feet from her. Thank the heavens he didn't seem to see or sense her standing so close that if she exhaled too strong, the curl that touched his ear might take momentary flight. Surprise was an element still on her side. She started to reach for her dagger once more when the meaning of his words seeped through her muddled mind.
The thing. Somewhere.
He'd left something here? Bea frowned. She'd been given the room to occupy, and assumed, because of the trunks, it was used for storage. Perhaps he wasn't an intruder after all. Fear eased into curiosity. Maybe he was a servant in Colin's small household?
But no, he didn't have the typical Indian accent and she'd never heard of an American working as a servant in India.
A friend of Ella's cousin Colin? Her frown deepened. Certainly Colin wouldn't befriend a drunken imbecile who barged into rooms without the mere courtesy of a knock. Then again, she'd never met Colin and perhaps he felt the need to hobnob with cads.
She gave her head a slight shake, her long locks brushing across her lower back. He most decidedly must be a friend. There was no other explanation. If so, this certainly complicated her plans, which, at the moment, consisted of screaming and slashing at the stranger with her dagger.
She uncurled her fingers, forcing herself to relax. If friend, then it was only proper she introduce herself. Her gaze traveled to the far corner where her luggage rested, her clothing still packed. Reaching her valise for her calling card wasn't possible and he'd hardly be able to read it in the dark.
Could she reach her robe before he noticed? Really, it was rather difficult to decide on a plan of action when she was naked and wasn't sure what exactly he was, gentleman or cad? Bea resisted the urge to sigh in frustration.
Steeling her resolve, she inched closer toward the cot. Dare she ring the bell for Ella to introduce her? But if Ella didn't know the man, she'd have to ring for Leo and ... well, that could take a rather long time with an endless line of people waiting for introductions and she doubted he'd wait patiently by. He most certainly did not seem the patient sort.
As if to justify her conclusion, the man threw open a chest that had been left in the room by some unknown occupant. The lid banged against the wall with a thud that rattled the room and would surely attract someone's attention. That would not do at all. If anyone found her with the strange man, her reputation would be shattered. And even halfway across the world she knew, somehow, Grandmother would hear about it by morn.
She shuffled another step toward her robe. Best to be a brave girl and confront him herself. Of course, it would be horrifyingly shameful, but even Americans had some sense of decency. Didn't they? Yes, he'd realize his mistake, apologize, and leave. There'd be embarrassment on her part, but she could live with the repercussions as long as he kept his mouth shut.
There was a clank of metal as he tossed an object aside and it rolled across the reed mats covering the floor. Bea shook her head. Really, he'd wake the house like this. Was he completely lacking in manners?
Slowly, she dropped her washing cloth on the cot. A mosquito buzzed around her ear, humming a melody of seduction. She waved aside the pest and stepped closer to her robe. If only she could reach the garment before he noticed her, she wouldn't have to be quite so humiliated. The floorboard underfoot squeaked.
Bea froze. The man spun around. Metal flashed in the moonlight.
A sword. He had a sword in hand.
"Son of a bitch!" the man roared, dropping the sword with a clank.
Frantic, Bea stumbled back, focused on nothing but escape. Her foot caught on the netting that hung from the ceiling and gathered around her cot, tripping her steps. Off balance, she grasped on to the material. A rip screeched through the room like a dying cat. Suddenly, there was nothing but air beneath her. Steel arms banded around her waist. Was he trying to save her, or murder her?
Her backside hit the floor with a thud. His body followed, crushing her into the reed mats. The netting floated down around their prone bodies. For one long moment, neither of them moved, their harsh breathing the only sound. Finally, Bea squirmed underneath him, but the movement only made his clothing rub against her sensitive skin in a most embarrassing way. Her breasts grew heavy. His breathing was harsh across her neck, harsh, but warm. She should push him off, kick him, scream again. Yet she couldn't seem to think, let alone move.
Frozen in surprise, or was it fear, she merely lay there, feeling every inch of his body, every long, hard muscle. Underneath the scent of alcohol and smoke, she smelled him—warm and musky, male. An oddly ... pleasant aroma. Slowly, his hands moved up the sides of her naked form. Bea stiffened, but her traitorous body reacted, sending shivers over her skin.
Hesitating, his large hands settled at the curve of her hips, touching places no man had ever touched. "A gift?" His deep voice had turned pleasantly husky.
"Wh ... what?" she gasped.
"My dear, Delilah, you do surprise me." With those words he crushed his mouth to hers.
Bea's cry of outrage was lost in the back of her throat. Stunned, she merely allowed the beastly man to explore her mouth. He tasted of alcohol, but more ... something heady, something spicy, something rather delicious.
When his tongue slipped between her lips and rubbed against her own, an odd and not entirely unwelcome heat spread through her body, tingling her nerve endings. Shocked, Bea merely lay there, reveling in the moment. She'd been kissed before ... sweet, simple kisses. But this was no sweet kiss. This man took control, his mouth demanding, hard.
His hands slipped around her hips, farther, until suddenly his palms were cupping her bottom, lifting her higher into his body ... into something hard, pulsing ... The realization of just what that hard, pulsing thing was jerked her back into reality. Bea's lips burst wide open in a scream.
Outraged, she shoved the heels of her palms into his muscled shoulders. The man pulled back just enough so she could reach up and slap him soundly across his face. The sound lingered in the room like thunder after a storm.
"What the hell?" He pressed his hand to his cheek. "Delilah?"
Bea curled her fingers, ignoring the sting of her palm. "Of course not, you bloody brute!"
Before she could scream again, a thump sounded from somewhere in the small abode.
He stilled, hovering over her. With his gaze pinned to the door, he reached toward the cot and snatched up her dressing gown.
"Dress," he demanded, sounding surprisingly sober.
Bea wasted no time, and shoved her arms through the light, silky gown she'd purchased in Lyon.
Leo? Please let the noise be Leo. Was her cousin finally coming to her rescue? The man was only next door; surely he'd heard her scream.
Before either could react, the door exploded. Wood splinters skittered across the floor like dancing marionettes.
Leo's tall, dark shadow filled the empty space. "Bea?"
Her cousin didn't wait for a response. Fortunately, knowing danger when he came upon it, he burst across the room and slammed into the man hovering over her. The stranger was torn from her body, and together Leo and the man landed with a thud that rattled the windows.
Bea was finally able to breathe. She squirmed, but the netting around her bed twisted between her ankles, holding her captive. Leo wasted no time and slammed his fist into the man's stomach. There was a loud grunt and the men became a jumble of dark shadows, tossing about the floor so she couldn't decipher one from the other. Frantically, she tried to untangle herself from the netting, but the blasted thing seemed to only catch all the more. She felt like a fly in a web, doomed to be a spider's next meal.
"Bea!" Ella called out as she raced into the room. Bea immediately ceased struggling. She'd never been so happy to see her cousin's wife. The woman's nimble fingers worked the netting until Bea was free from her confines.
"Are you all right?" Ella's hands clutched Bea's shoulders. "Bea, my dear, what happened?"
"I was ... bathing," she managed to get out.
Ella helped her to her feet. "Dear, why were you bathing in the dark?"
The heat in her cheeks intensified. She leaned closer to Ella, keeping her voice low. "I couldn't sleep because it was so wretchedly hot and I had the windows open. I didn't want anyone to see me and then he barged in. I can only assume he didn't have a lantern because he didn't want to be seen. He's a thief ... or ... or something equally as terrible!"
"Don't be ridiculous," the man mumbled, "Christ, Leo! Get the hell off me."
Bea stiffened and at the same time she heard Ella suck in a breath. He knew Leo? But how?
Leo stilled, his fist raised in the air. "Colin?"
"Yes, you ass," the man growled and shoved Leo aside.
Colin? Colin! Ella's cousin? This was Colin? The very man they'd come to India to visit? Bea's gaze jumped to Ella, looking for confirmation, but she could read nothing in the darkness.
"You said he was English!" Bea confronted.
Ella shook her head. "No, I didn't."
Bea parted her lips to argue, but realized the woman was right. She'd only assumed Colin was English because Ella was.
"Colin's mother was American," Ella explained. "He lived there."
Colin rubbed his jaw. "What the hell are you doing here? I wasn't expecting you until next week."
"We're early, obviously," Leo said.
Colin. Ella's cousin Colin. Heat shot to Bea's cheeks. Thank God no one could see her in the dark. He'd touched her naked flesh. Ella's cousin had touched her naked flesh. She didn't think she could be any more embarrassed. The sudden urge to throw herself from the window held certain appeal. With her luck, she'd merely break a leg and lie sprawled half-naked across the street for all of Delhi to see. Bea wasn't sure if she wanted to laugh or cry.
Leo stumbled to his feet, but Colin remained on the floor like an enormous ragdoll, most likely too drunk to stand. How could the cad possibly be related to Ella? Bea couldn't deny she'd been expecting someone rather bookish, thin, perhaps with glasses and a shy smile, for Ella had claimed Colin had come here to study Indian culture. But this man ... this brute of a man ... well, he didn't fit her thoughts in the least. Oh, how she hated surprises, and Colin Finch was most definitely a surprise.
"Colin!" Ella finally cried out as if the words had just sunk in. She abandoned Bea and raced to the man's side.
"I'm fine." He waved her away.
Excerpted from Wild Desire by LORI BRIGHTON Copyright © 2011 by Lori Brighton. Excerpted by permission of ZEBRA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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