withdrawal. Was it mere dislike that caused her reaction, or was the lady as aware of him as he was of her? He preferred to think the latter. Straightening, he added, “The worst of the gangs are led by Will Nolles, the owner of the tavern named The Ram’s Head.”
“But if his identity is known,” interjected Sophia from his other side, “why is he allowed to continue his activities?”
“The smugglers are a close-knit community and most people in the area are either smugglers themselves, or they have family that plies the trade, or they benefit in some way from the smugglers’ activities,” he answered, glancing at Sophia. “Besides that, Nolles’s gang is a powerful one and he and his men are greatly feared. You’ll not find many who are willing to go against them.”
When both ladies looked uneasy, Luc cursed his unruly tongue and apologized. “Forgive me! I did not mean to frighten you. There are smugglers about, but you have nothing to fear from them. They have no wish to bring attention to themselves and generally go about their business with no one the wiser.” He grinned. “Usually the only sign of their passing is a cask or two of fine French brandy left in one’s stable or barn.”
Sophia chuckled and murmured, “You mean like the brandy Uncle drank last night?”
Blue eyes dancing, Luc nodded. “ Exactement! And enough of this talk about smugglers and contraband—I am forgetting my role as guide.” Waving a hand in the direction of Cuckmere Haven, he said, “Those chalk cliffs you see before you are the Seven Sisters; the tallest of them rises five hundred feet above the Channel.” His grin deepened. “And that, Madame Easley, is the extent of my knowledge of the area.”
He looked far too attractive, Gillian thought as she watched Sophia respond to his charm. It irritated her that she had noticed the russet color of his coat intensified the azure hue of his already striking eyes and that the excellent fit of his buckskin breeches kept drawing her gaze to the smooth muscles of his thighs. And we won’t even mention, she scolded, the way his coat displays his shoulders and arms or how handsome he looks on horseback. She jerked her eyes away and stared straight ahead, but a few minutes later they strayed back to his tall form. Broad shoulders and strong arms, she admitted, with a quiver down low in her body.
Annoyed with herself, Gillian said sharply, “Uncle said that the nearest village is Broadhaven. Is it nearby?”
“Not far,” Luc replied, wondering at the note in her voice. More dislike? Surely the lady was not jealous of his attention to her cousin? “Broadhaven,” he added cheerfully, pleased at the idea she might be jealous, “is beyond that rise just below us.” He looked at Gillian with a cocked brow. “Would you like to ride through the village?”
Displeased that she had allowed her annoyance with herself to color her words, Gillian forced a smile and replied, “Perhaps not today. I just wondered where it was.”
“Well, I, for one, am ready to head back to High Tower,” said Sophia. “This has been most enjoyable, but the breeze is no longer as pleasant as it was when we began our ride, and unless I miss my guess, the temperature is falling. If we tarry much longer, we’ll be chilled to the bone by the time we arrive home.”
Aware of the creeping coolness in the air and the cutting edge to the breeze, Gillian agreed. “You’re absolutely right,” she said. “We should be going back. We’ve left Uncle alone long enough as it is.”
“As you wish, ladies,” Luc said gallantly and swung his horse around.
Sophia had been right. The air was distinctly chilly by the time they arrived at High Tower. With the groom holding the reins of the horses, Luc first lifted Mrs. Easley down from her horse before turning to Gillian to help her dismount. His hands around her slim waist, his eyes met hers and for a moment time stood still.
Gillian’s breath stopped