Goodness. Just look at it. Thick as my ankle.
Diana Highwood took her glove and worked it like a fan, chasing the flush from her throat. She was a gentlewoman, born and raised in genteel comfort, if not opulent luxury. From an early age, she’d been marked as the hope of the family. Destined, her mother vowed, to catch a nobleman’s eye.
But here, in the smithy with Aaron Dawes, all her delicate breeding disintegrated.
How could she help staring? The man had wrists as thick as her ankle.
As always, he wore his sleeves rolled to the elbow, exposing forearms roped with muscle. He pumped the bellows, commanding the flames to dance.
Broad shoulders stretched his homespun shirt, and a leather apron hung low on his hips. As he removed the glowing bit of metal from the fire and placed it on his anvil, his open collar gaped.
Diana averted her gaze—but not fast enough. She caught a moment’s glimpse of pure, superheated virility. Sculpted chest muscles, bronzed skin, dark hair . . .
“Behave yourself,” he said.
The words startled her breathless.
He knows. He knows. He’s realized that refined, perfect, gently bred Miss Highwood comes to the smithy to gawp at his brute manliness. Behave yourself, indeed.
She felt ridiculous. Ashamed. Exposed.
He wasn’t speaking to her. He was speaking to his work.
“That’s it.” Perspiration glistened on his brow. With a steady hand and a low, rich baritone, he finessed the broken clasp. “Be good for me now.”
Diana turned her gaze downward, focusing on the floor. Neatly swept and fitted stones paved her half of the smithy, where visitors waited for their work. The ground around the forge was packed with black, smudgy cinders. And the border between the two could not have been more stark, or more meaningful.
Here was the division between customer and smith. The line between the world of a gentlewoman and a working man’s domain.
“There we are,” he said. “That’s the way.”
Oh, goodness. She could look away from his thick forearms and his muscled chest. But that voice.
She gave herself a brisk shake. Time to put a stop to this silliness. She was a grown woman, turning four-and-twenty this year. It was surely no sin to admire Mr. Dawes. He was an admirable man. However, she ought to concentrate on the many reasons that had nothing to do with carnality.
The Highwoods had come to this seaside village for Diana’s health, but she’d come to think of Spindle Cove as home. During their stay, she’d learned a great deal about rural life. She knew a good village smith was indispensable. He shoed the farmers’ draft horses, and he mended the oarlocks on the fishermen’s boats. When neighbors were ailing, he pulled teeth and set broken bones. The nails struck on his anvil held the whole village together.
This forge was the glowing, iron heart of Spindle Cove, and Aaron Dawes was its pulse. Strong. Steady. Vital.
She watched him striking off beats with his hammer. Clang. Clang. Clang.
Now her eyes were fused to that forearm again.
“This weather,” she said, trying to change the subject. “It’s been a dreadful March, hasn’t it?”
He grunted in agreement. “Near a fortnight now without sun.”
He plunged the heated metal into a waiting bucket. A cloud of steam rose and filled the smithy, curling the short hairs at the nape of her neck.
“That should do,” he said, examining the cooled clasp of her necklace. He polished it with a scrap of cloth. “Let’s hope it lasts this time.”
Diana gave him a nervous smile. “I do seem to have bad luck with it, don’t I?”
“This is the third time it’s broken this year, by my count. You must think my craftsmanship is faulty.”
“No,” she hastened to assure him. “Not at all. You do very good work, Mr. Dawes. I’m just careless, that’s all.”
“Careless? You?” His gaze locked with hers from across the smithy, dark and intense.
She caught him looking at her like this sometimes. In church, around the village. She didn’t know what to make of her reaction, but she couldn’t deny it was a thrilling sort of confusion.
He mopped his brow and neck with a damp cloth, then wiped his hands clean. “It’s a curious thing, Miss Highwood. You don’t strike me as the clumsy sort.”
She shifted on her seat, uneasy.
“And of all things,” he said, “I’d think you’d be careful with this.”
She watched as he threaded the tiny vial back on its chain. In the vial was a tincture of shrubby horsetail. She kept a dose with her at all times, in case of a breathing crisis.
“You’re right.” Despite her accelerating pulse, she forced an easy smile. “I should be more cautious. I will be, in the future.”
He looked up at her. “Are you well?”
“You look flushed.”
“Oh. Er . . .”
He walked behind her and placed the chain about her neck, standing close to do the clasp. If she’d been flushed already, now she was enflamed. It was as though he’d soaked all the heat up from the fire, and now he gave it to her. Soothing and melting all her knotted places. Like the heated brick she took to bed when she had her courses.
Oh, Lord. The last thing she needed right now was thoughts of bed. Much less this big, solid brick of masculinity sharing it.
“Still don’t know how you managed to smash it like that,” he said.
By slamming it in a drawer. And finishing the deed with a rock.
“I don’t know, either,” she prevaricated. Her heart thumped wildly in her chest.
“I could almost believe someone did it on purpose. I know accidents happen. But they don’t usually happen the same way twice.”
As he fastened the necklace, his fingertips brushed her neck.
Diana sucked in her breath. She wanted to pretend the touch was an accident. As he’d said, accidents happen.
But they didn’t happen the same way twice.
He caressed her neck a second time, his roughened thumb sliding down the soft skin at her nape.“Why are you here?” he asked.She couldn’t answer. She couldn’t move, couldn’t think.“I wonder about it. Why you come so often. Why every metal latch and clasp and rivet you possess seems to need mending of late.” His voice grew deeper, almost dreamy. “I’ve told myself you’re just bored with this village. With this weather, there’s little else to do.”He circled her, running his finger beneath that chain. Branding her with a necklace of his touch.“Other times”—she caught a wry note in his voice—“I decide you’ve been sent by the devil to torment me for my sins.”He came to stand before her, holding that vial that dangled from her necklace. He pulled gently, and she swayed toward him. Just an inch.“And then sometimes I think maybe . . . just maybe . . . you’re hoping for something to happen. Something like this.”She swallowed hard, staring straight into the notch above his sternum. That shamelessly sensual crossroads of bone and muscle and sinew and skin.The heat of him swamped her. She felt . . . It was so very odd, but she felt ticklish. As though every inch of her was exquisitely attuned, anticipating his touch.Perhaps he was right.Perhaps she had been wanting this.He released her necklace. “Well?”She gathered her courage and looked up at him. Outside of social calls and dinner parties, Diana had little experience with men. But if there was one thing her genteel upbringing had taught her, it was how to read an invitation.If she gave Mr. Dawes the slightest encouragement . . .Oh, heavens. He would kiss her. Those strong, sensual lips would be on hers, and his powerful arms would hold her tight, and there would be no taking the moment back. She would leave with a changed understanding of herself and smears of soot on her best blue frock. In the eyes of the world, she’d be soiled.Dirty.“I should go.” The words erupted from her throat, like a geyser of panic. “I should go.”He nodded and stepped back at once. “You should go.”She hopped down from the stool and reached for her cloak. The cloak didn’t seem as eager to leave as she was. She wrestled with it, cursing the tangled laces.“I’m not sure the smithy’s the safest place for you, Miss Highwood.” His manner was easy as he returned to the forge and pumped the bellows. “Lots of smoke and steam. Sparks have a tendency to fly.”“Perhaps you’re right.”“Next time you have something what needs mending, just send it over with one of the rooming house maids.”“I’ll do that.” She made a desperate grab for the door, pulling it open. “Good day, Mr. Dawes.”“Good day, Miss Highwood.”She made it a respectable distance down the lane before stopping to press her hand to her chest. Closing her eyes, she inhaled a deep, steady breath.Oh, Lord. What a fool she was.Damn. Aaron felt like an idiot.No, no. Idiot was too kind a word. Idiots were innocent of their mistakes. Aaron knew better. He was a coarse, mutton-brained lout.What the devil had he been thinking? He didn’t know what had made him do it. Only that she’d been wearing that china-blue frock with lacy edges—the one that made him want to carry her into a field of wildflowers, lay her down like a picnic blanket, and feast.Perhaps it was best this way. She wouldn’t come around to tempt him again—that much was certain.Too much of the day remained, and he was too restless for leisure. Lacking an urgent project, he pulled out some thin iron stock and decided to bang out nails. A smith could never have too many nails.Again and again, he heated the rod to a glowing yellow, braced it on his anvil, and pounded one end to a tapered point. With an ease born of years of practice, he severed the length in one blow, crushed the flat end to a blunt button, and plunged the finished nail in a waiting bucket of water.Then he began again.Several hours of mindless, sweaty pounding later, he had a pile of nails large enough to rebuild the village should a mammoth wave wash it all out to sea. And he still hadn’t driven the feel of her skin from his mind.So soft. So warm. Scented with dusting powder and her natural sweetness.Damn his eyes. Damn all his senses.Aaron banked the fire in the forge. He put all his tools away, washed at the pump, and saddled his mare for a ride into the village. He wasn’t usually a hard-drinking man, but tonight he needed a pint or three.After tethering his horse on the village green, he made his way through the familiar red-painted door of the Bull and Blossom. He hunkered down on a stool in the nearly empty tavern, stacking his fists on the bar.“Be right with you, Mr. Dawes,” the serving girl sang out to him from the kitchen.“Take your time,” he answered.He had all night. No one was waiting for him. No one.He lowered his head and banged his brow against the anvil of his stacked fists. Coarse. Mutton-brained. Lout.“Dawes, you need a woman.”Aaron’s head whipped up. “What?”Fosbury, the tavern keeper, plunked a tankard of ale on the counter. “I hate to say it. Unhappy bachelors are better for my profits. But you need a woman.”“Tonight, a woman is not what I need.” He took a long draught of ale.“She came around the forge today, didn’t she?”Aaron lifted the tankard for another sip. “Who did?”“Miss Highwood.”Aaron choked on his ale.“It’s no secret.” Fosbury wiped down the counter. “Ever since she showed up in this village, you’ve had eyes for her. Not surprising. You’re a man in your prime, and she’s the prettiest thing to grace Spindle Cove in some time.”