Rune grimaced. Madame Wiebke’s motorcar grumbled as it thundered along the road. When he’d pulled Laila onto his lap, he’d meant to punish her for risking her life. Instead he was the one suffering. His hands slipped off her tiny waist to catch on the flare of her hips. His thighs cradled her soft bottom. He should have known she’d derail his plans.
Cold sweat beaded his upper lip.
Laila’s red locks danced over his cheek. Her lavender scent filled his senses.
“I—I—” Facing front, she wiggled on his lap as the motorcar picked up speed.
His body hummed to life. Warm woman; desperate man. He chained the thought and threw it into a steel locker. This wasn’t any woman; this was Laila. He had rules because of females like her. And he’d better not forget them. This time.
“Be still.” His fingers dug into her hip, preventing her from moving.
Her green eyes widened. Scarlet swept over her pale skin and concealed her freckles. “I’m sorry. Perhaps I could sit there.”
She pointed to five centimeters of space on the bench seat.
She bit her lip and looked away.
Dammit. Now he’d gone and hurt her feelings. Rune exhaled slowly. He should fix it, compliment her. He should jump out of the car and let her have the seat to herself.
The Lancer next to them patted his red pants. “I’ve room.”
Laila inhaled a sharp breath.
Rune dragged her tight to his chest. Lecherous soldiers. Laila was a lady. “She’s staying where she is.”
In the driver’s seat, Madame Wiebke tapped the horn then strangled the wheel with liver-spotted hands. “Make way. Make way.”
A peasant led his dog cart to the side of the pitted road. A mother cradled her infant to her chest. A toddler in a lace dress stumbled alongside a boy in short pants.
Laila raked her hair over her shoulder, gathering the pins that remained. “Have you seen my pins?”
She’d left plenty in the cornfield. But Rune didn’t mention it. She shouldn’t be punished because he wanted to break his rules for her. He knew the danger. He knew why he’d made the rules. His fingers spasmed.
She could hurt him ten times worse than his late wife ever had.
Right after he saw her safely to her home in Antwerp, he would avoid her. And her selfish sister, too. Sofia Vigdis was only interested in helping herself. He saw no reason to pursue that relationship further.
Twisting her ponytail, Laila formed a bun over her left ear. Red strands bristled from the ends. She opened her hand. Three pins glistened on her palm. “Oh dear. If ten pins aren’t enough to hold my hair, this stands no chance.”
Rune clamped his lips together. Confound Madame Wiebke and her comments about doxies. This isn’t your problem. This isn’t— “That’s because you’re doing it wrong.”
She glanced at him under her lashes. “Don’t be silly. This is my hair. I’ve been dressing it for years.”
And it fell out that first day he’d met her in the park. And it was still coming undone.
“Nevertheless, you are doing it wrong.” Curses railed inside his skull. He should just leave it alone. She wasn’t his responsibility.
But she was.
She’d stopped to help him and Private Alain.
That made her his. His responsibility. No way would he even entertain other thoughts.
“Here.” He spread his legs wide and she dropped between to perch on the edge of the seat. His hard thighs guarded her soft ones. Her round bottom pressed intimately against him. Desire ripped through him like a flash fire. He held his breath before it consumed him.
The two Lancers beside him looked away.
Her lips parted when she stared at him over her shoulder.
Rune would bet his commission her lips didn’t taste like lavender. He’d bet they were sweet like fresh-picked cherries.
Her attention dropped to his mouth and she ran a pink tongue across her lips. “What are you going to do?”
A strand of her hair caressed his cheek. Oh the things he could do with her. For a moment, time stretched before him. Endless time filled with her smile, her flowery scent and her soft touch. He leaned forward. His chest cradled her back.
She melted against him, turned her face up.
Madame Wiebke honked the car horn.
“Oh.” Laila straightened and nearly slipped off the seat.
He caught her and pulled her back. His hands shook when he released her. The woman was dangerous. But he was stuck with her until Antwerp. In the meantime, he needed to take control. “Face front.”
Brow furrowed, she did as he asked.
He finger-combed her hair off her forehead. Thick locks glided like silk ropes through his hands. Twigs, leaves and dust rained on the coat she wore. His coat. Holding her, comforting her. Stop thinking such things.
She sagged against him. “That feels nice.”
Yes, it did. He mentally slapped himself. He wasn’t supposed to think such things. Or think about her hair brushing against his bare skin. Or how much her waist-long locks would cover… He swallowed despite his dry mouth.
“What are you going to do?”
He gritted his teeth. That was the second time she’d asked him the same question. Each time, his answer became less and less worthy of a lady. He cleared his throat. “I’m going to braid your hair.”
She moaned softly. “Ummm.”
He sunk his index finger into her thick hair. Running parallel to her spine, he divided her red mane into three sections.
Her hands rested on his knees and her head lolled forward. “That’s nice.”
He shook his head. She was supposed to think the worst of him, rail at him because of the intimacy. At the very least, jump to the wrong conclusion. But she didn’t. Laila Vigdis never did as he expected. Never behaved as she ought. She was supposed to be selfish. She was supposed to demand attention. She was supposed to act meek and mild, not like she could take care of herself and everyone around.
Even when she couldn’t.
Especially when she couldn’t.
If Rune didn’t know better, he’d think she’d behaved in a way designed specifically to vex him. She excelled at vexing him. Like now. She was supposed to be angry at him, instead of all gooey and starry-eyed. “Don’t you want to know all the women who taught me how to braid their hair?”
For a moment, she stiffened. A heartbeat passed, then another. Her shoulders shook and she laughed. “None of the ladies I’ve seen you with braid their hair.”
And just what did she find so funny? He quickly switched the ends over each other forming a queue down her spine. “Lots of peasant women braid their hair. Officers wives do, too. I know plenty of women who wear their hair this way.”
She patted his thigh. “And I’ll be glad to be one of them, if you can wrangle my hair with three pins.”
What was wrong with her? Why wasn’t she flying at him, accusing him of being a libertine?
Madame Wiebke shifted gears as more wagons lurched along the road. “Rune should be able to do it with two. We couldn’t afford pins at Willowsby.”
He stiffened at the name of the orphanage where he and his sisters had been dumped after his father died, after his mother had remarried. Few knew of his past. He’d made sure of it. Yet, Madame Wiebke revealed it for all to pick over.
Laila nodded. “Rumor has it, he could make a coronet stay without pins.”
“What rumor?” Who the hell could have discovered his childhood skeletons? He’d been very careful to make certain only his father’s military service and death in the Congo had been passed onto his superiors. Officers had connections; orphans did not.
Reaching inside the coat, she unpinned a spray of wildflowers from her bodice and unwound the red, black and gold ribbons holding it together. “You may have left Willowsby, but your reputation remains.”
Madame Wiebke shook a gnarled finger at him. “Even that prank you did with the frogs is still whispered about in the boy’s dormitory.”
Rune grinned. The frogs had been inspired by the Bible story the head Matron had forced him to copy for not sitting still during class. “No one’s broken my record yet?”
Placing them in the old crone’s bed had been an act of divine justice. Not a centimeter of white sheet had been free of the squirming, muddy, croaking mass.
“That’s because God hasn’t seen fit to create a plague of frogs again,” Madame Wiebke cackled.
The motorcar swerved off the road.
“Insolent hunk of tin.” Madame slapped her hand on the wheel and strong-armed it to the right. The tires bumped back into the ruts. “Stay where I put you.”
Laila handed him the ribbons. “Several of the boys have tried to beat your record. One girl was two dozen frogs short.”
A girl? Well, what do you know? Rune imagined the pretender to his throne had red hair. In fact, he wouldn’t put it past Laila to help… Just a minute.
“How do you know?” His fingers tingled when they brushed hers. Shaking off the contact, he quickly tied off her braid.
She stiffened and picked at her cuticle.
Rune’s stomach tightened.
Madame’s long scarf fluttered near her withered cheek. “Laila helps at Willowsby. She’s there all morning, tending the little ones or playing with the older ones.”
Laila at Willowsby? Her braid slipped through his fingers. He could see her with a babe on her shoulders, a soft smile on her lips but… But Laila was a lady. They didn’t do those things. They hired people to do them. People like his sisters. It couldn’t be true. The old lady was trying to get his goat. “You volunteer at Willowsby?”
Laila nodded. “Yes. It’s something I can do.”
“Is there anything you can’t do?” Damn her. Why couldn’t she do what he’d expected of her? Why couldn’t she leave him be?
“I have no musical talent. No accomplishments in painting or embroidery.”
Scooping up her braid, he tugged on her hair. “Enough.”
She had to stop listing her failures.
“Who needs fancy embroidery anyway?” Madame fiddled with some knobs on the dashboard and the engine growl changed timbre. “You remake those clothes your family donates into wonderful garments for the children. And I’ve seen you practicing with the girls until they understand how to set a table.”
Laila waved away the compliment. “I’m certain their employers showed them how to do it properly once they started their new duties.”
Did she always belittle her accomplishments? Rune eased Laila back then wrapped the braid around her head. Her mother certainly never had a kind word to say. As for her sister, Sofia… Sofia never said a harsh word about Laila. Securing the braid with the three pins, he frowned. Actually, Sofia never mentioned Laila at all. It’s as if she didn’t exist for the raven-haired beauty.
He collapsed against the seat back. How had he missed it? Sofia always changed the topic of conversation, ignored Laila when she made an appearance for calling hours, and positioned her body so Laila remained outside the conversation. His red-headed terror deserved a champion.
But it couldn’t be him.
He clenched his hands. He couldn’t do anything. The Vigdises were rich. They mingled with the folks who promoted soldiers. He’d deserted his post. If he defended Laila, her father could ensure he never received another. And there was still the matter of his late wife’s unsettled debts. Laila would have to find another.
Bouncing on the seat, Laila patted her hair. “It’s wonderful.”
A strawberry birthmark winked at him from the graceful curve of her neck.
A lover would leave such a mark just there. He mustn’t think that. He had to let her go. Let Madame Wiebke look after her. “It’s nothing.”
Twisting on the seat, Laila faced him. Her knees brushed his. “It’s not nothing.” Setting her hand on his chest, she leaned forward. Her lips bussed his cheek—there and gone so fast, he barely registered the kiss before it ended. “Thank you.”
His body tightened.
Her green eyes sparkled.
His chest swelled. For a moment, he knew he could do anything if she just kept looking at him like that.
Madame Wiebke swerved to the side to avoid the smoking crater that destroyed most of the road. The car shook as the wheels trampled the grass.
Rune returned to reality. He hadn’t been able to keep his late wife happy. He hadn’t a prayer in Hades chance of making Laila happy. She had to see that. He had to make her see. “Face front, Mademoiselle Vigdis. We’ll be in Antwerp soon.”
Laila opened her mouth then shut it. Silently, she turned and looked through the windscreen.
He massaged the ache pulsing at the base of his skull. Their parting was for the best.
Just as his mother leaving him at the orphanage had been for the best.
And his late wife’s running up an expense account at his stepfather’s store to keep up appearances.
As well as her penchant for sleeping with his commanding officers to ensure his promotions.
Rune squeezed his eyes shut. Why was the best so empty?