A Dead Man’s Debt by Grace Elliot
After publicly humiliating a suitor, Celeste Armitage is sent from the ton in disgrace. Exiled to the country she discovers a sketch book of nude studies and is shaken to discover the artist is her hostess’s eldest son, Ranulf Charing, Lord Cadnum. This darkly cynical lord is exactly the sort of dissipated rogue she most despises – and yet her blood heats at the thought of him!
Ranulf Charing, Lord Cadnum is being blackmailed over his late brother’s debts. Whilst visiting his mother, he discovers her new companion, Miss Celeste Armitage, to be a woman of unusual perception and starts to fall in love. But then the jealous fury of the blackmailer is unleashed and Cadnum must cast Celeste aside in order to protect her. However, in underestimating her resolve to clear his name – Cadnum places his true love in mortal danger…
So be it. Cadnum gritted his teeth as he grasped the leading leg and pushed. It was like fighting against a brick wall, the calf barely moving. A lamb was difficult enough; how much more so a calf? Just as he was wondering if one man was strong enough, a shower of pebbles rattled down the bank. Concentrating on the calf, he barked to whomever approached, “Don’t just stand there. Get down here!”
“I beg your pardon!” a woman’s voice answered.
With a flash of annoyance, he glanced upward.
A wide eyed young woman wearing a straw bonnet peered down. “I say, is everything all right?”
“Does it look all right?” he muttered under his breath. All he needed was some sensitive miss fainting on him. “Go! Fetch help from the house.”
He saw her hesitate, biting her top lip. “But you need help now.”
A contraction clamped around his arm as the cow’s tail switched across his face, stinging his eyes like a cat-o-nine-tails.
In a flurry of muslin and lace, the miss slid down the bank, landing with a thud in the ditch.
“Ouch.” She rubbed her ankle.
Cadnum glared back, dark eyes flashing. “You should have gone to the house.” Damn it all, she could make herself useful then. “Hold the tail aside.”
Pulling a face, she limped over. His gaze lingered; up close, she merited a second glance. Of middle height with a tidy waist and curves where God intended them, she appeared quick-witted and bright-eyed. Without further ado, she stripped off her gloves, throwing them onto a bramble bush. Long, sensitive fingers grasped the muddy tail.
Practical, he thought, silently impressed. “Why didn’t you go for help?”
“There isn’t time.” Her bonnet slipped backwards, revealing a quirky face with a pointed chin, her lips finely drawn with an arched cupid’s bow. The sort of face an artist could lose himself in; all shades of the sea were found in deep emerald eyes framed by a tangle of chestnut hair.
Cadnum tightened his grasp and pushed. Sweat beading his brow. The calf retreated an inch.
“What are you doing?” Her voice was gentle and calm, if somewhat deep for a woman.
He guessed it would be husky in bed, whispering over a pillow after a night of passion. Her eyes were on him, deep green eyes, lively and entrancing. He suddenly remembered that he was undressed to the waist, her curious gaze on his skin as he imagined those lily-white hands gliding over his naked chest, her almond shaped nails digging into his skin. He shook away the thought, trying to remember her question.
She watched with innocence and interest, blushing faintly in a charming way; and yet, he realized, she was no wilting flower. He shook his head. The woman had asked a question; damn it, he would answer.
“The calf is breech,” he grunted. “I need to push her back into the womb to turn her.” He wanted to shock this stranger, to test how bold she truly was.
She stared back, biting her top lip, exaggerating her snub nose. “Ah!” Her gaze met his.
“Think of the calf as a carriage in a narrow driveway. To turn it around, you push it back into the stable yard.”
“What can I do to help?”
“Nothing,” he growled.
Throwing him an angry look, she anchored the tail with a log and scrambled around to the beast’s head. After a moment’s thought, she placed her pelisse under the cow’s head, stroking the broad nose and crooning words of comfort.
“She’s relaxing.” Cadnum’s arm was numb from the contractions. He fell forward as the first leg finally slid back into the womb. “That helps.” His hair had come free from the ribbon, falling thickly about his shoulders. He glanced at the woman. She was leaning forward, her bosom straining a tight bodice, a satisfying cleavage between her breasts. He swallowed hard. She was odd looking, he decided, not exactly beautiful but eye catching nonetheless. Her face showed character and determination. Her complexion was too healthy to be fashionable, all rosy cheeked and peppered with freckles.
The woman glared at him now, her skin glowing bright pink. Had he been staring? His heart raced as he returned to the calving.
Timing his efforts, he used all his strength to push the second leg back. His shoulder felt as if it were being ripped from the socket. With gritted teeth, he found a slippery hoof and clung to it, guiding it from the womb into the birth passage. Grimacing with the effort, he found the other foreleg, dragging it forward to match its mate. Pulling first one leg, then the other, he inched them forward.
The muscles of his back burned as he braced, digging his heels into the damp earth. He pulled in time to the cow’s weakening contractions, but as her effort became more feeble, even that assistance was lost. The beast lay stretched on her side, head extended, breathing erratically and growing weaker by the second. It was going to be a close thing; all the effort would be for naught if he couldn’t pull the calf out soon.
After minutes of heaving, two small cream hooves presented themselves. Cadnum sat back on his heels, sweat dripping into his eyes. So intense had been his concentration that he’d completely forgotten the woman. But there she was, slightly pale but watching him intently.
“I need your help…” It wasn’t so very difficult to say. The woman nodded silently, her face so serious he almost laughed. “The cow’s spent, she can’t push any more. I need you to pull with me.”
Licking her lips she nodded weakly.
“Come here. Grasp my waist. Pull when I say.”
She stood and, with a whisper of skirts, was at his side. As her arms wound hesitantly around his waist, he suppressed a shiver of excitement. Her hands where peach soft and cool. She smelled of lemongrass.
The thin feminine arms around the hard plain of his belly made his body ache unexpectedly.
“Pull as hard as you can, when I say,” he barked more gruffly than he intended. “Now.”
Digging his heels into the dirt, his muscles strained as he struggled to keep hold of the slippery hooves. But his attention was not wholly on the calf as he became aware of the press of her breasts against his bare back, of her sweet warm breath against his neck. If he wasn’t mistaken, he could feel her heart hammering against his ribs.
With a desperate heave, he pulled the calf and the woman pulled him. The calf moved another few inches, the forelegs exposed to the wrist joint.
“Again,” he urged.
Another pull and half the forelegs were out.
“Stop. I need to check if the calf’s head is coming nose forward.”
The woman released him. Glancing over his shoulder, he noticed her pink tongue darted out of her mouth to moisten her dry lips.
Turning back to the cow, he knelt, feeling inside, satisfied that he could feel a muzzle lined neatly along the forelegs.
The woman’s arms circled back around his waist, wiry with feminine strength. This time they fitted snugly, her cheek against his back. A ringlet had broken free of her chignon, brushing his skin. His groin tightened—much to his annoyance.
“Ready? Heave!” Never had he been more glad of the distraction from a woman’s unnerving affect on his body. He noticed her soft mossy eyes and sweetly tempting curves, yet her bravery and determination excited him most. Innocent, yet bold.
The calf slithered free with a slippery suck, sliding to the ground in a flood of fluid and membranes. Man and woman rolled backwards. Cadnum landed on her skirts, pinning her down. Her face was flushed, her pupils large. He stared into her eyes, which were framed with thick dark lashes now modestly brushing her cheek. He noticed her breathing heavily, a sheen of sweat on her neck, chest heaving.
The temptation to lean forward and claim a kiss was dizzying. It was like looking up at a high church tower against scudding clouds, making him giddy.
Scowling, he turned away. When had he become such a cad that he’d consider taking advantage of an innocent stranger? He deserved to be horse whipped. It didn’t help that the throb in his groin reminded him of his weakness.
“The calf?” a small clear voice questioned.
It was a bull calf, steaming slightly in the cool morning air. Hooking a finger in the calf’s mouth, he cleared away the mucus.
“The cord. I need to tie off the cord. Quick, find me something.”
With a whisper of satin, she held out the ribbon from her bonnet.
“Will this do?”
When she didn’t immediately release it, it occurred to him that she was waiting for him to say thank you. He acquiesced. With a humph she handed over the ribbon.
As he worked, she stood, regarding the newborn with wonder. For some inexplicable reason he wanted to hold her tightly in his arms and smooth her hair, to kiss that perfect oval of a mouth. Damn her for distracting him!
Cadnum rounded on her, squaring his bare chest. She recoiled, threatened by his unabashed maleness. She shrank back, making Cadnum angry at himself for frightening her.
“Well don’t just stand there, now go and fetch help! Tell them to send men to the ditch between the five acre field and the hazel copse.” Her presence had become intolerable, eating away at his self-control. “Look sharp about it!”
She jumped and scrambled up the bank with a flash of neat ankle, but not before giving him on last angry glare.
A wave of heat washed over Ranulf, who silently gave thanks that her back was turned. It was not his habit to ravish complete strangers, especially those so obviously gently born. But for some reason that was exactly what he wanted to do to this mysterious chestnut haired stranger. Only as she disappeared over the brow of the hill did it occur to him to inquire who this practical Miss was and what she was doing on his land.
Grace Elliot leads a double life as a veterinarian by day and author of historical romance by night. She is housekeeping staff to five cats, two teenage sons, one husband and a bearded dragon (not in order of importance)
Fall in Love with History (blog) http://graceelliot-author.blogspot.com
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