Home > Her First Desire(9)

Her First Desire(9)
Author: Cathy Maxwell

His hair was black and thick. He wore it overlong as if he couldn’t be bothered with the details of grooming. Although neither the worn boots nor his shaggy hair detracted from his singular good looks.

However, a handsome face could mask a rotten soul. She’d learned that lesson from Paul. And her guard immediately went up when, in the blink of a golden eye, his manner changed.

He took a step away from her. The movement broke his hold over her, especially as mistrust crossed his face. “What are you doing here?”

At his bluntness, she almost offered an apology, until she realized she had every right to be here. He was the trespasser. Proudly, she stated, “I am the owner of this establishment.”

“The devil you are.”

“The devil I am,” she replied coolly. “And you are?”

“Mr. Ned Thurlowe, and I’m the owner of this establishment.”

Her response matched his coldness. “You lie, sir.”

 

 

Chapter Four

 


He was lying.

Ned prided himself on never lying . . . because there had been a time in his life when his very existence had depended upon his ability to lie.

Then later, after his father had taken him in under his roof, Ned had learned hard lessons about how civilized society judged liars. Especially lies told by a bastard son. It was because of his lying he’d been packed away to school before he’d turned six. That had been a brutal experience and somewhere along that journey, Ned had vowed he would never lie again . . . until this moment.

He didn’t own The Garland. But this woman’s appearance out of nowhere, her bold claim, well, it threw him off. She threw him off.

For the first time in his life, he experienced . . . desire. His reaction to her was immediate and strong. It made him feel out of kilter.

She reminded him of the descriptions of ancient sirens he’d read about in his schoolbooks. Her skin was clear and creamy. The modest black dress and cape could not hide her womanly curves, and his imagination supplied the rest. Her hair was in shambles with tendrils of curls escaping every which way and yet, the light from the greasy windows made it glow like the most brilliant ruby. Her eyes were the color of the clearest summer sky.

So of course he’d lied. He’d been turned inside out. She robbed him of good sense. He also had a headache to make Satan proud, induced by last night’s overindulgence, and a need to not let the Logical Men’s Society lose the only home they’d ever had. He was the chairman. This was his watch, and she was so very unexpected.

In truth, he remembered very little of what had happened last night. He recalled arriving at The Garland and all the lads royally roasting him about finally marrying Miss Taylor. He remembered Winderton being there . . . and that he’d not tethered his gelding, Hippocrates, outside, so that when he wanted to go home, he’d discovered the beast had seen himself back to the stables, something he was wont to do since Ned did not live far from The Garland.

Ned knew he had checked on the horse before stumbling to his own bed because, this morning, Hippocrates had been unsaddled and the paddock bolted. But the details were beyond Ned’s memory. When he’d asked Royce, his man who served as butler, valet, and assistant, if he had seen to Hippocrates, the answer had been no.

So Ned hadn’t been completely beyond redemption last night. Just a touch out of commission.

Well, more than a touch. He had woken in his bed still wearing boots and clothes. He couldn’t let Royce shave him this morning because the scraping of a razor on skin made his teeth ache.

Nor had it helped that as he’d saddled Hippocrates for this morning’s rounds, snippets of memory had begun to return, and one snip was alarming.

There had been women present at The Garland last night, or had there been? His drink-fuddled mind had registered the sight of skirts on people hustling in as he was leaving. As if they had been waiting for him to go.

Or had he just imagined it all?

Ned had stopped by the tavern this morning because he wanted to piece together the truth. He hoped it all had been his imagination. The Logical Men’s Society stood for male comradery, not loose ways. Heavy gambling and outlandish wagers were also frowned upon.

But now here was this woman.

If she’d been here last night, he would not have forgotten her. Then again, he’d been very drunk, and it embarrassed him. He was also taken aback by her claim. He did not own The Garland. He wanted to. He’d asked questions about legally claiming the building for the Society. The consensus was that eventually the Society would assume ownership since Andy had no family. They already considered it theirs.

Her claim, right or not, would upset everything.

“I am not accustomed to being called a liar,” he said stiffly.

“Then you shouldn’t lie.” She didn’t even miss a beat.

“Who are you? Were you here last night?”

Delicate brows arched as if affronted by his direct demand.

She moved into the main room. “You are Mr. Thurlowe? The physician?” She stopped some five feet from him. He caught the scent of her. It reminded him of a fragrant, potent tea. One that was a treat for the senses. His senses.

It took all his power to stand his ground. “You have the advantage of me. Have we met?”

“My uncle Andrew told me about you. He admired you, sir.”

Ned ignored the compliment. “You don’t sound Scottish.” Old Andy had never lost the hint of his homeland.

She smiled. “I’m half Scot. I grew up in Manchester, where my father had business interests. I spent my summers in Glasgow.” She held out a gloved hand. “I am Gemma Estep. Andrew MacMhuirich left The Garland to me. I am pleased to meet you, sir. I am a healer myself.”

Andy had left the tavern to her?

Perhaps if Ned hadn’t been so drink-bit, he could have accepted the news with more grace. As it was, he spoke his thoughts aloud. “If this isn’t a curse, I don’t know what is.” She claimed ownership of The Garland and the title of a “healer.” A woman? He laughed, the sound without mirth, too late realizing she’d offered her hand and he hadn’t touched it.

Her hand dropped before he could make amends. “Did you find something I said amusing, Mr. Thurlowe?”

“Just everything,” he answered candidly. “The first being your claim to the power of healing. That is a bald statement, isn’t it?”

“I didn’t say I had powers—”

“You don’t have to explain yourself to me, Miss—”

“Mrs.,” she corrected firmly.

“Ah, Mrs. Estep.” She was married. Of course. That was the jolt he needed. He could school his battered senses now.

“Well, Mrs. Estep, I’ve known many healers during my time here. The English hillsides harbor a host of them. Meddling women who scour the forests for herbs and claimed their treatments for warts to cholera could save lives. Although, how anyone can believe the nonsense they spout defies my understanding.”

Her lips parted in surprise at his insults but then she said briskly, “You sound jaded, sir. Perhaps you haven’t met the right people.”

“Trust me, I have. I’m dumbfounded by what people accept as cures. I’ve dealt with more rotting sliced potatoes placed on jaws for toothache, or feet for warts, or for the healing of open wounds than any man should over a lifetime. I do not believe that onions cut in half can soak up cholera or that dung packs can be a cure for the French pox, or ensure the gender of a baby, or be a cure for infertility. In fact, I wager the opposite would be true of infertility. The smell was horrendous.”

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