Should she trust this dangerous rogue?
Lady Desire Godwin keeps out of the public eye, preferring instead to tend her rooftop garden in the Strand. Her gentle existence is shattered when a handsome brigand crosses the parapet. She watches, dismayed, as this impudent stranger is carried off to gaol.
As fire rages across London, Jakob Balston uses the confusion to escape. He fully expects that Desire will have already fled town. Only she is still there, at the mercy of the flames and ... alone.
Is his intention rescue or abduction as he rows them both to safety upstream? He must surely be after her wealth, because no man could possibly want a woman as scarred as she ...
London was being destroyed before her eyes. And the fierce wind was driving the flames dangerously close to Godwin House. Desire was almost sure that Fleet Street was already on fire. She pressed the shank of the river-gate key against her lips. She had prayed all night for the gale to cease and the flames to be quenched, but now it seemed inevitable that the fire would reach the Strand. It was finally time to leave. She would seek out her watchmen and take to the safety of the river.
She turned to leave the roof - and screamed in terror.
Jakob Smith stood three feet from her. A huge, wild-eyed, soot-grimed monster. She was sure he'd come for his revenge. Shock momentarily paralysed her.
His lips draw back in a snarl of fury as he made a gesture towards her.
She threw herself away from him, falling backwards into a bed of herbs.
He lunged after her.
She rolled frantically away, fetching up against the parapet wall. The impact knocked the air out of her lungs. She gasped for breath. Heard him curse.
'What the hell are you doing here?' He shouted, looming over her.
Desire didn't answer. She struggled to sit up, keeping a tight grip on the key. It wasn't much, but it was the only weapon she had. Even a monster like Jakob could not be entirely invulnerable. If she could only find his weakness ...
Abruptly he moved away from her. Out of her reach. An expression of grim wariness in his red-rimmed eyes. Wild speculations raced through her mind. She wondered if he'd guessed her intent. The demon had a lot more experience of reading a foe's intentions than she had. She resolved to keep her expression impassive.
'Where are your men?' he shouted at her.
'What?' His question startled a response from her.
Too late she realised he wanted to assure himself that no-one would interrupt his planned revenge on her.
'För bövelen!' he exclaimed, in apparent exasperation. 'At least on Saturday you had a small army to protect you - some of them even seemed loyal. Today I find you alone and defenceless, like a peach waiting to be -'
'Not by you!' Desire shouted back, too angry to be afraid. 'I'll die ... you'll die first!'
She tried to dig her heels into the ground, to give herself purchase to scramble backwards along the wall. Instead her foot caught in her petticoats. Before she could untangle herself a large clump of fiery debris cart-wheeled down from the smoke-filled sky. The wind bowled the tattered ball of flames across the roof until it was trapped between the parapet and Desire's tangled skirts.
The fire hissed and crackled as it found new food to feed on. Desire screamed, terror consuming her as flames seemed to engulf her legs.
In her panic she barely noticed Jakob seize her in his arms. A few seconds later he plunged her into the water cistern. Shock knocked the air out of her lungs. An instant later Jakob thrust her billowing skirts beneath the ash-covered surface of the water. The flames hissed and died. Desire panted for breath.
It took several long moments for her wits to return sufficiently to comprehend what had happened. She was sitting in the large cistern, water almost up to her neck, though a fair amount had washed out when Jakob had dumped her into the trough. Bits of soot and ash floated around on top of the dirty water in front of her. Jakob knelt beside her. One of his strong hands gripped her shoulder. The other covered the hand in which, to her somewhat detached amazement, she discovered she was still clutching the key.
She stared at Jakob, drained of all emotion.
He stroked a matted strand of hair gently behind her shoulder and smiled at her. He had a very attractive smile for a fiend - even though his face was black with soot and his eyes were red. His hair had lost its angelic lustre. It was stringy with sweat and grime.
Images of the long-ago siege of Larksmere House receded from Desire's mind. She focussed on the immediate past instead. She'd thought about Jakob often since Saturday. Confused by the conflicting emotions he aroused in her. She'd been a little captivated by him when he'd first appeared on her roof - and then he'd destroyed all her ridiculous illusions. She'd allowed herself to be deceived by his comely appearance. The fire-grime which now covered him gave a much clearer indication of his true character. Except, of course, that he'd just saved her from being roasted alive.
'What does the key open?' he asked, his voice soft, almost teasing. 'Your jewellery case?'
'The river-gate!' she exclaimed indignantly.
The iron key was large and ugly. It opened the gate in the wall which separated the edge of her property from the Thames. Even the keys to the sturdy locks on her treasure chest were more elegant. Besides, did he really think she was so vain and foolish that she would put jewels before her own safety?
'Good girl.' He smiled and slipped the key out of her fingers before she'd realised his intent, and stood up.
'You scurvy, double-dealing -'
'Language, my lady,' he chided her, chuckling gently. 'No, don't get up,' he added, as she seized the edges of the cistern. 'We aren't leaving just yet.'
'We?' She stared at him warily, still clutching the sides of the water cistern.
'I didn't expect you to be here,' he informed her, shrugging out of his doublet. 'Not once I'd discovered the house was deserted. I only came onto the roof to get a better look at the fire. To see how far it extends. Lucky for you I did.'
'Why?' Desire asked warily. 'The house isn't deserted,' she added. 'There are porters guarding the gate - aren't there?'
Jakob grinned. 'Easily evaded, my lady,' he said, and stripped off his shirt.
Desire's eyes widened at the breadth of muscled chest and lean, hard-ridged stomach his actions revealed. Then, as the likely motive for his disrobing dawned on her, she tried to surge out of the water.
'Sit.' He put his hand on her shoulder and easily shoved her back under the surface. 'You're safer there till we get off this damned fire-trap.'
'Why are you - ?'
'Not for the reason you think,' he retorted, casting a quick glance towards the advancing flames.
The sky above them was thick with roiling smoke. Desire's throat was raw. She could tell from the hoarseness in Jakob's voice that he was also suffering the effects of the smoke. Amidst the noise of the fire and the wind she heard something that sounded like an explosion.
'They're using gunpowder in Fleet Street,' Jakob explained. 'Blowing up houses to make a fire break. But unless the wind drops ...'
He gripped his shirt tightly and jerked his hands apart. The fine linen ripped apart. Desire watched in bewilderment as he tore his shirt into several pieces.
'Why are you doing that?' she asked.
'Just a precaution, my lady,' he replied, smiling in a way that she only belatedly realised was deeply suspicious.
In one smooth movement, he seized her wrists and efficiently tied them together with a piece of ragged linen.
Desire struggled valiantly. Water splashed everywhere but, but in the confines of the cistern, she had little chance to evade him.
She cursed him freely, anger temporarily displacing the underlying fear she continued to feel in his presence.
'You mangy, flea-ridden, thieving, ill-begotten cur!' she raged, just before he pushed one of the rags in her mouth.
He tied the strip of linen securely behind her head. Then he grinned at her.
She blinked water out of her eyes and glared at him over the gag.
'Time to go,' he said, and hauled her out of the cistern.
Instantly she swung up her bound hands in an attempt to hit him in the face.
He barely managed to dodge the blow. Her hands rasped across the stubble on his chin. He swore briefly and concisely, and threw her over his naked shoulder.
She kicked viciously and tried to pound her fists against any part of his anatomy that she could reach. His grip on her tightened until it was painful. He bounded across the roof and down the stairs which led to a side entrance. From there he had only to run through the gardens behind the house to reach the river-gate.
Desire stopped struggling. He marginally relaxed his grip, but he didn't slow down. Instead of trying to hit him, Desire concentrated on getting rid of the gag. If she could only attract the attention of her watchmen
But it wasn't easy when Jakob was jolting her along upside-down through the neatly clipped box hedges. By the time they'd reached the boathouse she'd only just managed to free her mouth, painfully yanking out several strands of her hair that had been caught in the knot as she did so.
Jakob laid her on the ground and began to drag up her charred, water-soaked skirts. Desire fought desperately, flailing at him with her clubbed fists, whimpering with terror. She had no breath to scream for help.
He threw himself over her, finally containing her struggles with the weight of his large body.
'Stop fighting, you vixen,' he said, through gritted teeth. 'I'm only trying to find out if your legs are burnt.'
'I should have left you to roast!'
For a few moments they both lay still, breathing heavily. Reason slowly replaced the terrifying images of rape which had filled Desire's mind. She didn't trust Jakob, but so far he hadn't actually hurt her.
'My legs aren't burnt,' she said frigidly.
She shoved ineffectually at the solid bulk of his torso. The weight of his hard body pinning her to the ground was profoundly disturbing. She wasn't used to intimate physical contact with any human being - much less with a large, powerful man naked to the waist. She felt trapped and frightened - and furious at her sense of helplessness.
'You're too upset to know if they are,' he retorted, easing himself cautiously away from her.
'I'm not stupid!' she snapped. 'I'd know if my own legs were burnt.'
'I've seen men wounded in battle who didn't even know their legs had been cut off!' Jakob countered.
'Battle ...? Are you claiming to be a soldier?' Desire jabbed her knuckles against the ridges of his stomach, ineffectually trying to increase the distance between them.
Jakob winced. 'Until lately I was an officer in the Swedish army,' he growled.
'An officer?' she scoffed. 'A cowardly deserter more like. Or a camp following scavenger who steals from wounded me-'
He clamped one large hand over her mouth.
'Var tyst! We'd have been on our way by now if you weren't such a wildcat.'
'Way? Where?' Desire demanded, as soon as he took his hand away.
Jakob didn't reply. Instead he moved so suddenly she was left gasping with shock. One minute he was lying half on top of her, the next he was straddling her hips, his back towards her head as he doggedly pulled up her skirts.
Outraged, Desire hammered his broad shoulders with her bound fists. His naked flesh was hard and unyielding. Only his occasional grunt indicated he wasn't entirely immune to her assault. Desire kicked wildly, trying to clout him in the face with her knees.
With a muttered curse he finally managed to contain her struggles. Half-blinded by her hair, panting with her exertions, Desire endured the insufferable indignity of having her captor satisfy himself that her lower limbs were only minimally scorched.
'All this material must have protected you,' he announced at last, 'your chemise isn't even singed. I don't think you're much damaged.'
'That's what I said!' Desire was beside herself with rage. 'How dare you ...'
He jumped off her. Springing aside just in time to avoid a well-aimed blow to his groin as she scythed her hands upwards.
He grabbed her joined fists, pulling her to her feet in one smoothly continuous movement.
'I should have trussed you tighter!' he declared in exasperation.
'You oaf! I'm a lady!' Desire was incensed at his impertinent suggestion.
'Not like any I ever met before.' He dragged her along behind him. 'You'd have made this a lot easier on both of us if you'd had the good sense to swoon when you first saw me.'
'I never swoon.'
'More's the pity.'
Jakob found some rope in the boathouse and tied it around Desire's knees, over her blackened, dirty wet skirts.
'You'll hang.' She taunted him, from her undignified position on the ground. 'At Tyburn, you'll hang for this.'
Jakob merely grunted. Now that he was no longer hampered by Desire's stubborn resistance he made short work of getting the small rowing boat onto the Thames and Desire into the boat. He even locked the gate, thoughtfully safeguarding the house from river-borne looters. He dropped the key on Desire's lap, pushed the boat away from the river stairs and began to row upstream.
Desire stared at him in baffled fury, then twisted around to look at the burning city behind her. The boat rocked precariously in the waves stirred up by the wind and the other crafts which thronged the river. Desire was stunned by the scenes of devastation all around her.
The Thames was full of people escaping the inferno. Boats were piled high with belongings. She could hear a woman sobbing, children screaming...
She abandoned her half-formed plan to shout for help. Amidst this chaos her cries would either go completely unnoticed or would be ignored in the general pandemonium.
From the book: The Abducted Heiress by Claire Thornton
Imprint and Series: Mills & Boon® Historical Romance™
Publication date: 2005. ISBN: 0-263-84384-X
Copyright © 2005 by Claire Thornton
® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books SA