EXCERPT: Untamed by Hope Tarr

Posted by: Hope Tarr

“Runaway Bride” meets Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew”

in Hope Tarr’s UNTAMED

Book #3 of Hope’s Men of Roxbury House” Trilogy

Covent Garden Opera House

February 1890

 

Keeping Lady Katherine in his sights, Rourke shouldered his way through the throng.  From the pit, the orchestra struck up a waltz.  He smiled.  The dance had three features to recommend it to a tangle-toed clod such as him: it required moving in step with only one other person, its tempo was slow, and it afforded a man the chance to lay actual hands upon a woman in public without being slapped.

Approaching his quarry, he ran his gaze over the competition, assessing his most likely point of entry.  Of the six men assembled, he recognized two by name.  The tall, lanky blond was Henry, Lord Dutton, and his porcine and prematurely balding young friend was Sir Cecil Wesley.  The latter’s slouch betrayed him as the weak link.

Aware of Lady Katherine watching him, Rourke summoned a sunny smile.  “Good evening, gentlemen, milady.  I trust there are no objections to my joining you?”  Without awaiting an answer, he clapped Wesley on the shoulder.  Fingers sinking into the young baronet’s sponginess, he moved him aside and stepped forward, thrusting himself dead center into the circle.

He made Lady Katherine what he hoped was a serviceable bow.  “Lady Katherine.”  Straightening, he caught a whiff of her scent, orange blossoms and some other fresh but as yet unidentified fragrance that had him thinking of sunshine and balmy spring breezes.  Ignoring his rivals’ furious faces, he honed his gaze on her coolly curious brown eyes.  “I’ve come to claim my dance, milady.”  I’ve come to claim you.

For a few seconds, her aloof mask slipped, and he caught a flicker of surprise in her eyes, the pupils widening ever so slightly.  She hesitated, glancing down at the arm he extended.  “Yes, I do believe this dance is promised to you.”

Lord Dutton scowled, his bottom lip protruding like a sulky child whose gingerbread was about to be taken away.  “But how can that be?  This is the first waltz of the evening.”  He turned to Lady Katherine.  “As I’m sure you will recollect, I bespoke this dance when I brought you your glass of punch.”

Tiny though she was, she held her ground.  “You are mistaken, sir.”  She circumvented Dutton and came to Rourke, laying her small, gloved hand lightly atop his arm.  “Gentlemen, if you will excuse us.”  The latter was not spoken as a question.

Chest swelling, Rourke led her away toward the dance floor, his triumph a trillion times more potent than snaffling a watch or pinching a purse.  In this case he’d stolen something far more precious, a diamond of the first water, a pearl beyond price, straight out from under the toffee noses of his supposed betters.

As soon as they were out of earshot, she leaned in and whispered, “I suppose I should thank you for rescuing me.  Dutton and his set, ugh!  What a lot of bloody bores.”  She angled her face to his profile.  “By the by, who the hell are you?”

For a lady born, she certainly cursed a blue streak, not that he was one to mind.  “Patrick O’Rourke, though my friends call me Rourke.  Actually, my enemies call me Rourke, too, as well as do my business colleagues.  Come to think of it, everyone does.  I’m Scottish,” he added for no particular reason.

“So I gathered from your burr.”

He nodded, unsure of whether to feel complimented or put out.  “The O in my surname confuses some.  My father was Scots-Irish from Ulster, but my mother was Scots born and bred.  Her people are in Cromartyshire.  That’s in the far Highlands.”  Jaysus, they hadn’t even reached the dance floor and already he was blathering like a dimwit.

Lady Katherine sent him a cross look.  “Yes, yes, I am well acquainted with the location of the Scottish counties.  No doubt you surmise I am one of those silly females content to wallow in utter ignorance of geography, but I assure you, I possess both a globe and a map of the British Empire.”

Her snappishness stunned him.  He hadn’t pegged her as silly or ignorant.  That she apparently consulted maps didn’t unduly surprise him.  He opened his mouth to say as much, but instead something very different came out.  “You don’t much care for people, do you?”

She shrugged, which did interesting things to the creamy flesh edging out of her bodice.  Small though she was, she wasn’t small everywhere.  “I find people in general to be quite tolerable.  It’s arrogance and ill manners I cannot abide.”

He opened his mouth to remark upon the questionable wisdom of pots calling kettles black, but by that time they’d reached the thronged dance floor.  She let go of his arm.  Lumbering behind her, Rourke’s broad shoulders clipped couples on either side.  Clearing a space for them, he turned to take her in his arms.  It was then that he was minded of the proverbial fly in the ointment.

He couldn’t actually dance.

She looked up at him and cleared her throat.  “You did invite me to dance, did you not?”

Sweat pricked Rourke’s brow, and his glasses fogged from heat, but this time he couldn’t blame the overabundance of people and lamps.  His arms hung at his sides as if once more weighted with prison irons.  “Aye, I did.”

She let out a sigh as though suddenly weary.  For a heart-stopping few seconds, he thought she might turn on her heel and walk away, leaving him to stand there alone, a buffoon, a laughingstock.  Instead, she reached down, clasped one of her small hands about his wrist, and carried it around to rest on the small of her slender back.

“I won’t bite, I promise.”  Under other circumstances, Rourke considered a well-placed nibble to be a most pleasing occurrence, but he held off on voicing such a naughty thought so soon and instead concentrated on his stiff legs and shuffling feet.  “Place your other hand in mine—yes, the right hand, there’s the way.  Now all we need do is to carry off some semblance of keeping time with the music.  One-two-three, step in, step close.  Mind how we are making a small circle?”

Staring down at their toe-to-toe feet, her slipper-shod ones making his seem like elephant hooves, Rourke nodded.  Her waist beneath his hand felt supple and impossibly small, the warmth from her silk-sheathed skin pouring into his palms.

The lady’s scowl confirmed she was not pleased to find herself in the arms of an amateur.  “Do try not to lift your feet quite so very high.  We are not cantering, Mr. O’Rourke, we are dancing, or at least attempting to.  The proper move is more of a glide than a step.”

How on earth did a woman who barely reached his shoulder still manage the trick of seeming to stare down the tip of her nose at him?  Finding his voice at last, he asked, “Will there be any further instructions, milady?”

“Just one.  You needn’t squeeze my hand like a tourniquet.  I assure you, I’ve no notion of escaping.”

He grinned.  She was warming to him, he could tell.  “You don’t?”

“No.”  Expression pained, she shook her head.  “Your foot upon mine has me most securely pinned.”

He lifted his foot, and her expression eased.  “Bullocks.  I mean, forgive me, milady.  You’re so slight, I barely felt—”

She looked up at him and released another sigh, her cool, peppermint-laced breath wafting up to kiss his cheek.  “Pray do not apologize.  I find apologies to be bloody boring.”

Rourke found himself fighting a smile.  “You’re a very good teacher.”  He was looking forward to teaching her a trick or two, only off the dance floor, but there was a whole fortnight of wooing to be got through before that happy event occurred.

She shrugged, apparently oblivious to his carnal thoughts.  “It’s one thing for you to look a fool, but I can’t very well have you making me look foolish, now can I?”  Caught up in staring at the kissable tip of her nose, he stumbled, clipping what must be her big toe.  “Ouch!  You really don’t dance, do you?”

“This is only my second go at it, actually.  Seems like a great deal of trouble.”  Not to mention potentially crippling to his partners.

“Why did you ask me, then?  You needn’t have.  I was hardly in danger of turning into a wallflower.  Dutton was correct.  This dance was promised to him.”

“Would you believe I fancy meeting pretty girls, and dancing seems the best way to go about it, at least in London?”

She hoisted her chin.  “I’m hardly a girl.  I’ll be seven-and-twenty in another few months.”

So she was only about a year younger than he.  That surprised him.  Still what surprised him most was that she’d so readily owned her age.  Most women on the shady side of twenty-five would sooner lie down on a bed of nails than admit it.  And yet she still satisfied his third requirement: she was young enough to breed.  With the first two requirements well met, Rourke considered he had a green light to move forward with his goal.

Eager to get on with the wooing, he said, “By the by, has anyone ever told you that you have verra beautiful eyes?”

She rolled her eyes at him, her beautiful eyes, and then shook her head.  “As a point of fact, sir, I have been told so many times, not because they are particularly handsome—they are plain brown and quite ordinary, in fact—but because complimenting a lady’s eyes is the sort of trite blandishment gentlemen seem to think we fancy hearing.”

He smiled, secretly pleased she wasn’t easily won.  “On the contrary, they are neither brown nor plain.  Amber, I think, for sure it is I’m a dragonfly caught up in the sticky resin of your gaze.”

“The sticky resin of my gaze!”  She threw back her head and laughed, the rich throaty sound putting him in mind of coarsely woven silk.  “Tell me, are the girls in Scotland snared by such tripe?”

Careful to keep the requisite six inches between them, he said, “Some are, enough I suppose.  In your case, however, any compliment I give is no less than true.  My mate, Harry, scarcely did you justice.”

Looking down on her upturned face, he could appreciate all the dazzling little details the photograph had missed or muted—the thick fringe of smoky lashes rimming her almond-shaped eyes, the single beguiling freckle touching the top of her upper lip, the small white scar riding her left cheekbone, which he suddenly very badly wanted to lick.

That got her attention.  “How are you acquainted with Mr. St. Claire?”

“We spent part of our childhood together.”

After Gavin’s grandfather had surfaced to reclaim him and Daisy had been adopted by an older theatrical couple, their Roxbury House Orphans’ Club had halved to two, he and Harry.  Though they’d sometimes fought like cats, the future photographer was the closest he had to a brother.

“In London?”

He shook his head.  “No, in Kent, near Maidstone.”

He paused, wondering if he might have given too much away.  It was early days as far as wooing was concerned, and it wouldn’t do for her to find out he was an orphan.  And yet, of all the places he’d so far lived, some more than once—London, Edinburgh, Kent, and now Linlithgow in Scotland—Roxbury House was the only one he ever thought of as home.

“I grew up in Kent, as well.”  Lady Katherine’s voice pulled him back to the present.  “Our seat is in Romney.”

“Your father is an earl, is he not?”

She nodded.  “The peerage isn’t terribly old.  My father’s only the third Earl of Romney.  It started out as a courtesy title, a life peerage granted to my great-uncle for some dubious personal service rendered to the Crown and then. . .  Oh, well, it scarcely matters now.  Suffice it to say, the Lindsey name is very old, very proper.”  She said the last bit while making a face as though to suggest that while her family was proper, she was less so.

“Where do you bide in town?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You keep a house in town, do you not?  What is your direction?”

Her gaze shuttered.  “Sir, must I remind you that we’ve not yet been introduced.  You should have had your friend, Mr. St. Claire, speak for you.  Even a Scotsman must have some sense of protocol.  There are rules about these things, you know.”

He bent his head to the soft velvet of her cheek.  “Ah, well, rules are a hard thing for a rough fellow like me to hold in mind when I’ve a bonny lass in my arms, the heat of her skin pouring into my palms, and the scent from her hair filling my nostrils and leading my thoughts astray to all manner of foolish fancies.”

It was her turn to stumble.  “You are beyond forward, sir.  I would be well within my rights to slap you.”

He grinned, enjoying himself more by the moment.  Not only did Lady Katherine meet his requirements for a bride in terms of title, looks, and breeding ability, but she exceeded them.  Unlike the other milksop females he’d encountered in the past weeks, she had a mind all her own.

“Aye, you would be, but you willna.  Slapping me would cause what you highbrow folk fear above all else: a scene.”

She didn’t seem to have an answer for that.  They completed another turn, and then the waltz segued to a close.  He let his hand linger in the curve of her back a moment or so after the music stopped.  Imagining holding her thus the first time he lowered her onto their marriage bed, he withdrew and stepped back.

He led her to the edge of the floor.  “I claim the next waltz as mine whether you’ve promised it to that dolt, Dutton, or not.”  He would gladly claim the next dance as his and every one thereafter, though he didn’t think bravado alone would carry him through the complicated figures of a reel.

She opened her mouth as if to answer with some cheeky retort when her gaze snared something beyond his left shoulder.  The beguiling mischief drained from her face, a darker emotion—fear, horror—taking its place.

“No,” she whispered, and for whatever reason he didn’t think she addressed him.

He took a step toward her.  Improper though it was, he laid his hand on her arm.  “Lady Katherine, Kate. . .”

Her eyes found his.  Like a subject of mesmerism coming to from a trance, she blinked and then shook her head as if to clear it.  “Delightful though it was to have my head planted in your breastbone and your feet flattened atop mine, I cannot dance with you again.”

Just when he’d fancied she was warming to him, she turned chill as ice.  “And why is that?”

She glared up at him.  “A lady is not required to give a gentleman her reason, nor is it his right to demand one.  I bid you good evening, sir.”

Before he could think what answer to make to that, she curtsied, turned, and swept away.

*** ***

One Response to “EXCERPT: Untamed by Hope Tarr”

  1. Ali Says:

    omg, I love this first meeting *g*. Katherine is so much fun to read… can’t wait to read what troubles she gives Rourke *bg* lol

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