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Teeny Tiny Romance contest – congratulations to Suleikha!

The winner of Love Notes from Purgatory’s “Teeny Tiny Romance Contest” was announced today – and it’s my friend Suleikha Snyder! I’m celebrating your win so hard, my dear!

Now that the winner has been announced, I’m free to post the story I entered on my own site, so if you haven’t read it yet, please enjoy My Lady’s Duchess:

Clarissa squeezed Duchess’s reins, the mare coming to an obedient stop at the slight pressure. Stroking the horse’s glossy chestnut neck, Clarissa crooned low into the furry ears that swiveled back to catch her words.

“Precious darling. Clever girl. You’re learning so fast.”

Her boots met the ground with a solid thud as she dismounted. Duchess stood still and quiet as Clarissa ran the stirrups up and loosened the girth. Drawing the reins up over the horse’s head, Clarissa led her into the dim aisle of the barn, empty loose boxes to either side smelling of fresh bedding, ready for the rest of the herd when they came in from the pasture for their evening meal.

Clarissa grabbed Duchess’s halter, slinging it over her shoulder so she could remove the bridle. She scratched the horse’s bristly face where the straps had lain in a vain attempt to keep Duchess from her usual practice of scrubbing her itchy nose against Clarissa’s jacket. Clarissa laughed as the force of Duchess’s rough caress pushed her back a half step.

“She’s ruining your habit, my lady.” A deep voice sounded from the other end of the barn, tugging at something low and primal inside Clarissa.

“Nonsense, Joseph.” She didn’t look for the source of the voice. She didn’t need to. Her pounding heart told her everything she needed to know. To cover her reaction, she brushed at the horse hair sticking to her tweed jacket before threading the halter onto Duchess, easing it over her sensitive ears and fastening it to the cross ties that were anchored to the walls on either side.

When she moved to remove the saddle, she felt Joseph close behind her, strength and heat radiating from his body. She stiffened even as she wanted to melt.

“You should let me get that, my lady.” His breath tickled her ear, warm and intimate. A liberty she shouldn’t permit.

“I prefer to rub Duchess down myself.” Her voice didn’t sound quite her own with her throat thick and tight like this. Swallowing, she tried for a lighter tone. “You know how sensitive she is around men.”

“Only strangers. She knows me. She trusts me.” Was he really talking about the horse? He reached past her, one hand flipping up the saddle’s skirt and releasing the girth’s buckle in a practiced, fluid movement. Perversely, Clarissa felt the air leave her body as if the girth was being tightened around her own rib cage, corseting her, robbing her of breath.

He moved again, this time to lift the saddle off the horse. Duchess stamped as the girth trailed across her back and Clarissa grabbed it, finally looking up at his sharp jaw, high cheekbones, mocking mouth. “You know she doesn’t like that.”

Blue eyes bright in a tanned face gazed at her innocently, at odds with those smirking lips. Then he winked. If she had any ability to breathe normally, she would have gasped at the effrontery of the gesture.

“She’ll forgive anything of me, my lady.”

“Will she?” Clarissa had intended the words to be arch. Instead, they were a squeak. He was the cat today and she, in very truth, the mouse.

“She will indeed. I have her favorite treat.” He gave her a significant smile and grabbed the bridle on his way to the tack room.

Air. Clarissa desperately needed air.

She took a shuddering breath, focusing on the smells of horse, hay, and wood shavings as she reached for a soft brush to remove the dust that had settled on Duchess’s otherwise glossy coat during their ride. Joseph returned and ran his hand down the horse’s legs, lifting and inspecting her hooves. Clarissa felt the touch on her own skin, as if his rough palm was skimming down her thigh, her calf, as if he was examining her body.

She was running the brush over Duchess’s flank when he caught up with her, crouching next to her to check the last hoof for chips or stones. Clarissa’s pulse drummed in her ears. When he rose, he was close to her again, crowding her back against the horse’s bulk. She had to tilt her head to see his face, the knowing expression.

“That hat.” His voice was a rumble, his eyes the barest circle of blue around velvety black pupils.

“What about it?”

“It’s in my way.”

“Is it?” She removed it, dropping it to the floor.

“That’s better.” He stepped forward, his body touching hers, rough-calloused fingers skimming her jaw. Clarissa’s tongue traced her lower lip, heartbeat accelerating.

Duchess shifted, knocking into them, making them stumble apart.

“Damn horse.” Turning, Joseph unclipped her from the cross ties and led her to the other end of the barn, opening the back door to the paddock and letting her loose with an affectionate slap to her flank as she passed. Clarissa didn’t move, couldn’t move. She was pinned in place, every nerve on fire as she watched man and horse, blinking at the strong autumn sunlight streaming through the open door.

He stood for a few moments, giving her the opportunity to ogle his silhouette, his broad shoulders tapering to lean hips, the long, strong legs. The physique that daily hard, physical labor produced. When he pulled the door closed, the light dimmed again. Clarissa stood rooted to the spot as he sauntered back to her, his cap sitting back on his head at an arrogant angle. Resuming his place in front of her, he cupped her face in his hands, making her gasp.

“Too forward, my lady?”

Not trusting her voice, she shook her head, her gaze locked with his.

“Just forward enough?” Before she could respond, he bent forward, capturing her mouth in a light, sweet kiss, only sipping at her lips, yet somehow unleashing something dark and primal inside her. Her eyes fluttered closed, her hands lifting to his chest inside his open jacket, clutching at his shirt, trying to draw him closer, her mouth seeking more, her body pressing against his.

His rough cheek slid along her softer one, his lips moving against her ear. “You can’t kiss me like that and not have consequences for it.” A dangerous purr this tomcat had.

“What will you do?” She remembered the slap on Duchess’s flank, imagining his hand landing on her, reddening her bottom. Her thighs clenched together, liquid heat pooling there.

“Nothing in a spot this public.” He looked over her head to the yard in front of the stable where a pair of chickens scratched and pecked. It was empty of people, but that could change in an instant. “Come with me.” Pulling her hands away from his shirt, he backed into the tack room, drawing her after him and closing the door behind them.

“Someone could still come any time,” she said.

“Are you afraid?”

Her cheeks burned. “No.” What she felt was something beyond fear. Beyond shame. Beyond thought, even.

“Then…” He tugged her hands and she stepped into his arms, the strength of them winding around her waist making her knees wobbly. “Kiss me again.”

She did, her hands tunneling into his thick, dark hair, knocking his cap to the floor, opening her lips to admit his tongue seeking hers. A thrill of power went through her as she felt him hardening against her belly, knowing she was affecting him as strongly as he affected her. He smelled of warm skin and fresh air and his hair was silky as it slid through her fingers. She gave a little tug, his responsive moan vibrating on her tongue.

“Clarissa.” Her name on his lips against hers was an illicit thrill of its own.

“Yes,” she said, encouraging him as his hands went to the neck of her blouse, unbuttoning until he could brush the tops of her breasts with those clever lips.

A door slammed and Clarissa stiffened. “Joe.”

“Mmm.” He straightened and kissed her again as she struggled to re-button her blouse.

“Joe, stop. Someone’s here.” She fought the absurd urge to giggle as he squeezed her bottom.

“Fine.” Bending to retrieve his cap from the floor, he slapped it against one thigh to dust it off.

Clarissa opened the door to the tack room, knowing she was disheveled and probably blushing to boot. A strange woman stood just inside the barn doorway, a pleasant, expectant expression on her face. Clarissa took in her appearance in one quick, assessing sweep. A quietly expensive flower-print dress and modest jewelry murmured wealth instead of shouting it, but there was money here.

“Can I help you?”

“Is this Morgenstern Farm?” the stranger asked.

Joe emerged from the tack room, a shameless grin on his face, as if they hadn’t almost been caught playing their game in broad daylight. He pointed at the embroidery on his baseball cap that showed a horse with the words “Morgenstern Farm” stitched underneath. “That’s right. Joe Morgenstern.” He shook hands with the stranger. “My wife, Clarissa. What can we do for you?”

The woman’s face relaxed in a slight smile. “I’m Felicia Jones. My family’s moving here in a few months and we’re going to need to board our two horses. I don’t suppose you have the room?” Her gaze swept over the loose boxes, probably having counted the horses she could see in the pasture and hoping the tally of stalls was at least two shy of the number of animals outside.

“As a matter of fact, we do.” Clarissa led the woman down the row of stalls to the two at the end which were bare of bedding, having no occupants to warrant it and began her sales pitch.

#

Joe chuckled to himself as Clarissa showed the other woman around the stable, explaining the pasture rotation, the personalities of the other horses, the availability of local trails, and their own small practice paddock. Clarissa had been worried about that extra space in the stable, the lack of income it represented.

Walking out into the cool afternoon, he saw what must be the woman’s car. An expensive Volvo station wagon with New York plates. He idly wondered if the Joneses were from one of those tony suburbs north of Manhattan, if New Hampshire was going to seem like a tedious bore in comparison.

Whatever. They could always sample the delights of Boston. It was no business of his. Keeping the farm running and Clarissa happy, those were his only two goals in the world.

Clarissa emerged from the barn, absently deadheading a petunia spilling out of one of the window boxes at the front of the barn as she and Mrs. Jones concluded their discussion with a handshake.

“I’ll e-mail you our contract,” Clarissa said, smoothing the strawberry blond hair that was coming loose from the low knot she wore when exercising the horses. Her tweed riding jacket was buttoned again, but it only half-hid the glorious curve of her ass in tight jodhpurs tucked into glossy hunt boots.

Mrs. Jones waved as she got into her car and Joe returned to his wife to watch their visitor leave. Wrapping his arm around her shoulders, he drew her tight to his side.

“Our game was rather rudely interrupted,” he said, his eyes still fixed on the long driveway out to the town road.

Clarissa sighed. “I know. But we need the money.”

“We could always resume it.” His pulse sped at the thought and he wanted to laugh. Six years married and she could still do this to him with a look or with nothing at all.

Her teeth worried her lower lip. “And have six horses and a donkey breathing down our necks? It’s too close to feeding time.”

“You’re probably right.” He threaded his fingers in hers, leading her back to the barn to call the horses in for their evening meal. “Tonight?”

“You’re incorrigible.” But her smile told another story.

“Whatever my lady wishes,” he said, touching the brim of his cap.

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