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LADY IN THE MIST
by Laurie Alice Eakes

Genre: Historical Romance, Inspirational

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Tabitha gasped for breath. She lay on her back on the sand packed as hard as rock, staring at stars fading into streaks of lavender, and wondered if the air driven from her lungs would ever return, or if the blast of gunfire had caused irreparable damage.

“Miss Eckles, are you all right?” asked Dominick Cherrett.

“You,” she gasped. “You. . .oaf. You. . .”

She ceased speech in favor of a struggle to sit up.

“Let me help you.” He slipped an arm beneath her shoulders and raised her to a sitting position.

He didn’t remove his arm. He knelt beside her, his head bent over hers, his hair falling soft and free of ribbon and powder, to caress her cheek.

Breathing continued to prove difficult, though the effects of her fall, the numbing jolt to her torso, had already faded. She lifted a hand to brush away the soft waves, and he clasped it.

“I’m so sorry I hurt you.” The pale blur of his face hovered near hers, his breath brushing across her lips. “I acted without thinking.”

“I doubt that’s the first time.” She tugged her hand free of his, but made no move to elude his supporting arm. “The first time you’ve acted without thinking.”

“In truth, madam Midwife, I rarely act without thinking. But I usually don’t have a ship-of-the-line firing so close at hand.”

“The ship.” She jerked out of the circle of his arm and surged to her feet so she could look out to sea. “How could I forget it?”

Easily. She wasn’t thinking with Dominick Cherrett so close to her, smelling of sun-dried linen and heady sandalwood, an expensive fragrance for a bondsman, and hauntingly familiar.

She peered into the lightening sky. The ship appeared as nothing more than a curved dark hulk against the horizon, while the fishing boat swooped toward shore like a dolphin fleeing a net.

“They got away.” She spun toward Dominick, heart soaring. “They didn’t get captured.”

“It looks that way.” He caught hold of both of her hands. “For once.”

“Indeed.”

“Mr. Cherrett.” She started to yank her hands free, felt the bandage wrapping his left palm, and hesitated.

As much as she wished to be free of his hold, she didn’t want to hurt him.

“Please let go of my hand,” she said.

“Which one?” Teeth flashed in a grin.

She ground her teeth. “Both of them.”

“Ah, if you insist.” He drew his fingers away, the tips grazing her palms, stopping. “What is this?”

He raced the scabbed over marks where the rose bush had punctured her own palm.

“A disagreement with a rosebush.”

“I have been so distracted by your lovely face I didn’t notice before now. I am sorry. It must have been painful.” He lifted her hand and pressed his lips to the palm. “Better?”

“No, worse. She’d rather have a hundred thorns driven into her flesh than to feel the jolt of heat rushing through her, stealing her breath as though she’d been knocked to the ground once more.

“You shouldn’t do that.” Her voice sounded breathless.

“Probably not.” He released her hand, remaining close to her. “But be assured I didn’t do it without thinking first.”

“Why would you—“

Tackle creaked above the hiss of the retreating tide. She glanced toward the sound and caught sight of the fishing boat heading toward shore, hull-down with its night’s catch, and she understood.

Dominick Cherrett, the Englishman, wanted to distract her from the incident with the frigate firing upon that single-masted craft.

She faced him, eyes narrowed. “When threats don’t work you resort to-to—flirtation?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He sounded bored. “Does a man need a reason to kiss the hand of a lovely lady?”

“I am not lovely and I am not a lady,” she snapped. “And you, sir, are once again on the beach at an hour when you’re supposed to be in your master’s home. And, once again, we have a British vessel invading our territory at the same time you appear on the beach. Coincidence? I think not.”

“Neither do I.”

His calm reaction to her accusation left Tabitha speechless.

“I came out early in the hopes of seeing you before you leave for Norfolk.”

“I hoped to waylay you to inspect my hand.”

“In the dark?” She snorted. “Unlikely.”

Up the beach, the fishing boat entered the inlet and lowered its sail in preparation for tying up to a jetty. Other men in proximity, American men, lent Tabitha a sense of security. Dominick Cherrett wouldn’t harm her with others so near.

Her hand still tingling from his kiss, she doubted he could harm her at all. When she encountered him under other circumstances, she believed him to be as innocent as he claimed. On the beach at dawn, with a British vessel vanishing over the horizon after firing on a fishing boat, she believed him capable of anything dastardly.

She touched the healing mark on her throat. “You don’t need to see me regarding your hand, Mr. Cherrett, unless it’s gone septic.”

“Alas, it is healing very well, thanks to that vile ointment you left behind. What’s in it? Kitchen waste?”

“Comfrey.” Her lips twisted into a reluctant smile. “It’s foul odor is only outweighed by its healing properties. But if you don’t need me for your hand, why are you here?”

“For you.” He drew a knuckle along her cheekbone. “I said I would one day.”