Our story begins ... A vaunted knight intent on becoming legend realizes his perfect bride might not be the woman he intended in this novella set in the world of Monica McCarty's New York Times bestselling Highland Guard series.
An excerpt from Chapter One:
Edinburgh, Scotland, March 1314
I’m going to kill her.
How she was going to pay her cousin back for this was all Isabel Stewart could think of as she rode away from Holyrood Abbey beside Sir Too-Good-To-Be-True. Good gracious, an hour—God forbid two—of listening to whatever puffery Sir Thomas Randolph thought she wanted to hear was too much to be borne, even in the name of friendship.
Not that the esteemed knight looked very interested in charming or impressing her at the moment. A covert glance from under her lashes at her distinctly grim looking companion told her that he wasn’t any happier being forced into her company than she was his. The try-not-to-fall-in-love-with-me grin that was perpetually plastered on his face was nowhere to be seen.
Dislike was probably too strong of a word for it, but when Izzie arrived in Edinburgh four days ago and met the man her cousin hoped to marry, he and Izzie hadn’t exactly taken to one another. It was probably Izzie’s fault. She hadn’t been able to hide her amusement at his grandiose greeting. But good grief, she’d felt as though she was watching a player upon a stage act out the most perfect, romantic fantasy of the handsome knight in shining armor riding in on his magnificent charger and kneeling before his lady fair. It had been too much to take.
Clearly, Randolph (despite his new title of Earl of Moray, everyone called him Randolph) hadn’t seen the humor in the situation and had taken definite umbrage at her reaction—if that rigid back, stony jaw, and icy gaze meant anything. He might be perfect, and she had to admit his face came exceedingly close, but he seemed to know it and took himself far too seriously for her liking.
Which was ironic since in the four days that she’d known him, she doubted she’d heard one real thought come out of his mouth. He had a distinct knack for saying just the right thing—or rather what he thought you wanted to hear—which was undeniably charming, but again made her feel as though she was watching a performance. A magnificent performance without a doubt, but a performance all the same.
Still, there was something undeniably captivating about his larger-than-life personality and brash arrogance, and just like everyone else, she couldn’t help watching him. Sir Thomas Randolph was a great hero in the making—a man who would become legend—and everyone knew it.
So why was Randolph taking Izzie to see the rock formations known as Samson’s Ribs in the park next to Holyrood Abbey, and not her cousin Elizabeth, to whom he was all but engaged? Good question! And one Izzie intended to have her cousin answer as soon as she returned.
Izzie suspected it had something to do with Elizabeth’s handsome childhood friend, Thom MacGowan. But her cousin better figure out which of the two Thomases she wanted—preferably before Izzie had to cover for her again. One uncomfortable ride through the park was more than enough.
At least they weren’t alone, although it felt like it. As the favored nephew of King Robert the Bruce, Sir Thomas Randolph was one of the most important, wealthiest men in the kingdom, and the retinue of men around him reflected that. Though there were probably three score of men-at-arms in his service, only a handful had accompanied them today. The men, however, were riding at a discreet distance behind them.
Apparently, they hadn’t been informed of the change in plans, she thought with a wry smile. It was no longer the romantic ride and midday meal in a basket that Sir Thomas had intended with her cousin. Still, Izzie had no doubt that most of the women at court—including many of the married ones—would give their eyeteeth to be in her position. And she would gladly switch positions with any one of them. The awkward silence was unbearable.
But what could they talk about? They didn’t have anything in common. She frowned. Except for music. She wasn’t surprised that he sang—what self-respecting knight in shining armor couldn’t sing a chanson de geste about some chivalrous tale?—rather, she’d been surprised by the depth of his skill and the attention he’d obviously given to the study.
It seemed a safe enough place to start. They had to talk about something, for goodness sake. And preferably something that wasn’t going to make his spine stiffen and that formidable jaw of his turn to stone, which she seemed to have a unique ability to do every time she opened her mouth. She wasn’t purposefully trying to antagonize him; it just sort of happened.
With a heavy sigh, she looked over at him. She would have blinked a few times, but from experience she knew it wouldn’t dull the effect any. He really was startlingly magnificent to look at—the dark, glossy hair, the brilliant hazel eyes that sometimes looked green, and the refined, arrogantly handsome features that were it not for the strong jaw, once-broken nose, a few thin battle-scars, and fiercely proud expression on his face, might have verged on prettiness. He was built rather magnificently as well, with the broad shoulders and the powerful chest and muscular arms of a man who’d probably had a sword in his hand since he could walk. But it was his mouth that undoubtedly made women lose their heads. It was pure sin with a sensual twist—when it wasn’t pressed into a thin line around her, that is.
Simply gorgeous, she thought to herself in the same way that one might admire a fine jewel or decorative artwork—from afar. It certainly wasn’t something she wanted for herself. Her cousin Elizabeth would have her hands full with him. From what she heard, Sir Thomas was a very popular man at court with the ladies. They loved him.
It wasn’t hard to see why. “What’s not to love?” her cousin liked to jest. He was rich, handsome, and charming. Seemingly too good to be true. Which in Izzie’s experience meant that he likely was. Despite his surface charm and gallantry, she sensed something cold underneath—as if emotion was something Randolph might play at as well. He could put on a good show, but she wagered very little really touched him.
“Look,” she said now, trying to hide her amusement. The situation was ridiculous, but she knew better than to think that he would see the humor. “I know this isn’t the day either of us had planned, but we might as well make the best of it. I’m sure we can find something to talk about to pass the time.” She was aware that she didn’t actually sound too sure, which, if the arch of his brow meant anything, he seemed to be aware of as well. “Perhaps you might tell me about your musical training,” she added hastily, recalling the surprisingly passionate exchange they’d had about music the other day. “Where did you learn to sing like that? You had the nuns spellbound yesterday.”
He held her gaze a little too long, as if he were trying to figure out some ulterior meaning to her words. Eventually he let the brow drop. It was a bit like lowering a shield. “Only the nuns, Lady Isabel?”
She tried not to flush, knowing full well that he might have caught her staring once or twice. But she was stunned, not mesmerized—there was a difference. Pretending she didn’t know to what he was referring, she said, “Perhaps a few of the patients as well.”
She sobered. There had been one young girl in particular—probably no older then fourteen—who had looked at him as if he were an angel descended from the very heavens that would be claiming her soon. He’d been the perfect, gallant knight, sitting by her bed and making her laugh with his stories—much to the admiration of everyone around. Izzie couldn’t help but wonder whether that was why he’d done it. She sensed that appearances mattered to Sir Thomas Randolph. He was one of the greatest knights in the kingdom and everyone had to see it.
Their eyes met for an instant, and from the shadow that crossed his face, she wondered if he were remembering the girl, too. But that wasn’t likely. There were few noblemen who would trouble themselves with a poor, dying peasant girl, and certainly not ones who had been charged by the king with the difficult task of taking Edinburgh Castle from the English. Randolph was so busy commanding the siege of the important castle, he barely had time for the woman he was supposed to be courting for marriage.
Not that her cousin was any better. Elizabeth’s head was so turned by the handsome Thom MacGowan that so far Izzie had ended up talking to Randolph more than her cousin had.
Apparently, thinking that he’d made his point, which in a way she conceded he had, he let the matter of catching her staring drop. “The village school attached to the church where I grew up,” he said, answering her original question. “In addition to Latin grammar, the priest also instructed us in music. I proved a far more proficient student at the latter.”
She grinned, feigning shock. “Do you mean there is actually something in which you do not excel, my lord?”
The words were out before she could take them back. Anyone else would have heard them for the teasing jest that they were. But Sir Thomas Randolph was deaf to teasing—and humor.
His face darkened, and she saw the telltale tic appear at his jaw.
Oh no, she’d done it again.
She sighed. Oh well. So much for finding something safe to talk about.
Randolph stared at the young woman riding beside him and tried to contain his irritation. But if he were a dog, his hackles would be rising. Hell, they’d be standing all the way on end.
What was it about Lady Isabel Stewart that made him feel as if a nettle had worked its way under his plaid and wouldn’t stop poking? There was nothing outwardly in her appearance to give an indication of trouble. Fair-haired and blue-eyed, with pretty enough, finely-boned features, she was so serene-looking her likeness would not have seemed out of place on a church wall.
Too bad her temperament didn’t match.
From the first moment they’d met, he sensed that she was amused by him—and not in the way he was used to amusing women. Nay, it was almost as if she was laughing at him. Which was ridiculous. Women didn’t laugh at him. They smiled, flirted, and occasionally simpered, but they definitely didn’t laugh. They might bat their eyes, but they sure as hell didn’t roll them, as he could swear he’d seen her do more than once.
What the Devil was wrong with the lass?
She didn’t even look at him the way other women did. He hadn’t noticed the difference until meeting her had made it clear. Unawareness. That’s what it was, and he didn’t like it. Especially as he could hardly make the same claim toward her. He was oddly attracted to her, which under the circumstances, only increased his annoyance. He was about to ask her extremely beautiful and would-make-him-a-perfect-wife cousin to marry him, for Christ’s sake. He shouldn’t be thinking of ways to make Isabel—“Izzie” as her family called her—aware of him. Plenty of women were aware of him; he didn’t need another.
But it didn’t stop him from imagining how satisfying it would be to see those big, laughing blue eyes darken with arousal and those pink lips, always set in a wry grin, part with a gasp of pleasure.
It wasn’t just her unawareness riling his irritation this time, however. Unknowingly she’d struck a tender spot. Learning hadn’t come easy to him. “Not all of us are born to be clerks or churchmen.” With a long, meaningful look, he couldn’t resist adding, “Indeed there are other things in which I do excel that ensure priesthood will never be in my future.”
When she took his meaning, he was rewarded with a sharp intake of breath that if not a hint of passion, was close enough for him to imagine it could be. Viscerally. He felt it run through him in a hot buzz as if a lightning bolt had been set at the base of his spine.
Their eyes met, and in her shock, he wondered if maybe she wasn’t quite as unaware as he thought.
But just as he was about chastise himself for acting like an arse by baiting her—inappropriately—to salve his pride, she did it again. She laughed and gave a half roll of her eyes. “So I’ve heard.”
Damn her. At least if she were haughty, condescending, or judgmental, he’d have cause to be so irritated. But it was partly the good humor with which she imparted her indifference that annoyed him. She might have been a distant aunt, teasing him for being incorrigible.
But she wasn’t his aunt, damn it. She was the twenty-two-year-old unmarried daughter of the great patriot hero John Stewart of Bonkyll, who’d died leading his archers beside William Wallace at Falkirk sixteen years ago. She was also cousin to both the Lord of Douglas and the current Steward of Scotland. In other words, she was just the kind of well-connected young noblewoman who usually tried to impress him.
But she didn’t seem to care what he thought, and he knew it wasn’t because he was nearly engaged to her cousin. Nay, she’d simply sized him up and found him somehow wanting. Him. Wanting! And that irritated him to no end.
She was a young woman at court for the first time, and he was one of the most important knights in the kingdom. It was unnatural, blast it.
What did he need to do to impress her, slay a dragon? Hell, that probably wouldn’t even do it. She was remarkably unimpressionable.
Why the hell was he even thinking about this? It was probably the novelty of having a young woman not interested in him. Aye, that must be it.
Still, he couldn’t resist prodding her a little. “I’d tell you not to believe everything you hear, but in this case…” He shrugged with a wicked smile.
To which she was completely immune. His comment merely elicited another eye roll and an adorably twitching mouth. “I’m sure everything you do is perfect, my lord.”
He pulled on the reins, and swung around his horse to face her. “What the Devil is that supposed to mean?”
She didn’t seem taken aback by his anger at all. Rather the opposite as a matter of fact. The lass was entirely too self-possessed for one so young. It was disconcerting, and he didn’t like it.
She stopped her own horse and turned to face him, shaking her head with a wry smile and something of an “Are you kidding me?” expression on her face. “Come now, my lord, is that not what I’m supposed to think? Sir Thomas Randolph, the perfect, quintessential knight: handsome, charming, chivalrous to the core, whose prowess on the battlefield is only equaled by his prowess in the bedchamber?”
Randolph’s mouth might have gaped. She’d shocked him speechless. Now, admittedly he’d been suggesting that very thing, but for her to come out and actually say it was different. It made him feel almost… embarrassed. Hell, he was embarrassed.
How did she do this, damn it? How did she so easily turn the tables on him when he was the aggrieved party? Wasn’t he?
He would have dragged his fingers through his hair if he wasn’t wearing a helm. “It isn’t like that.”
She smiled, clearly amused. “Isn’t it? But no matter, my lord. I did not mean to offend you. I think it’s just that we don’t share the same sense of humor.”
That was an understatement.
She tilted her head, her mouth in a bit of a frown. “Do you ever laugh, my lord?”
“Of course.” All the women found him quite witty. All except her, that is. He laughed with them… didn’t he?
Her mouth twitched again, and he knew she was fighting a smile. He suspected because he’d been scowling as he answered. “I should like to see it.”
His scowl deepened. She had an uncanny way of making him feel defensive. “Perhaps you might try by saying something that was actually funny.”
The words were out before he could stop them. It was a rude and ungallant thing to say. He was never rude and ungallant—especially to a young lady.
But if he was worried about offending her, he should have known better.
She looked over at him, clearly startled, and then did something extraordinary. She burst out into laughter. Deep, honest-to-God, joyous laughter. It was beautiful to hear—even more so than her singing the day before, which had conjured images of angels and other heavenly creatures.
“I suppose I deserved that,” she said with her typical good-natured wryness. She tilted her head, studying him with an intensity that made him vaguely uncomfortable. “You should be forthcoming more often, my lord. It becomes you.”
“I’ll try to remember that.” He gave her an odd look. He didn’t know what the hell to make of her, and it showed. “You are an unusual young woman, Lady Isabel.”
Proving the truth of his comment, she beamed. “Thank you. I think that is the nicest thing you have ever said to me.”
He hadn’t necessarily meant it as a compliment.
She laughed again, demonstrating a disconcerting ability to read his thoughts. “Even if you hadn’t meant it as a compliment.” When he reflexively started to assure her otherwise, she stopped him. “No pretty protests, please. Do not ruin the good impression left by your honesty. Perhaps you can think of something else rude to say instead?”
Her eyes sparkled with amusement. They were the prettiest shade of light blue—like the sun on a crystal clear spring day. A day much like today as a matter of fact.
Randolph was pretty sure this was the oddest conversation he’d ever had. “Give me a minute or two. I’m sure you’ll make me think of something.”
She laughed again. “Keep this up, my lord, and you will have me swooning at your feet.”
I’d pay to see that.
He didn’t realize he’d muttered it aloud until she gave a fresh burst of laughter. “Why, when there are so many willing to do so for free?”
Their eyes met. Was she teasing him or laughing at him again? He couldn’t tell. That was part of the problem.
Suspecting that if he tried to continue the conversation, she’d keep getting the last word, he did something rare and gave up.
They rode for a few minutes in companionable silence until he heard her gasp.
“Is that it?” she asked, pointing to the hill and cliffs that had just appeared before them.
“Aye. The hill is known as Arthur’s Seat, and those oddly shaped columns of rock in the cliffs on the southwest side are Samson’s Ribs.”
Her eyes lit with excitement, and it hit him with the force of a hammer. Low in his gut at first, then stirring rather hard below his belt.
Christ, she should look like that all the time. Animated and full of excitement, she was about as far from serene as he could imagine. She was lovely… absolutely breathtaking.
“They are magnificent! I’ve never seen cliffs shaped like that. And they are aptly named, indeed; the square sided columns look like ribs.”
“Hexagonal,” he corrected automatically. “When you get up close you can see the six sides of the columns. There are similar rocks on the Isle of Staffa and along the coast of Northern Ireland.”
“There are?” She was honestly amazed, and for the first time he felt as if he might have impressed her with something. He liked the feeling. He liked it a lot.
“Can we get closer?” she asked.
“If you’d like.”
The words were barely out of his mouth before she snapped her reins and raced off ahead.
Strangely caught up in her enthusiasm, he told his men to wait there for them and set up their meal while he rode after her.
She was a good rider, he noticed, but that didn’t surprise him. She seemed the kind of woman who would be just as comfortable roaming the moors as she would be sitting on the dais in the Great Hall of some fine castle. There was a genuineness to her, a lack of pretense that made her seem grounded in whatever she seemed to be doing.
She was already tying her reins to a tree when he caught up to her.
He dismounted, tied up his own horse, and followed after her along the narrow path that circled the base of the rock.
She seemed to dance through the ankle-high grass, still brown from winter, as she walked. If he wasn’t so acutely aware of the shapely hips, round bottom, and very womanly chest revealed quite splendidly in her form-fitting, green wool gown, he might have thought he was watching a child let out of doors for the first time after a long, cold winter.
The thought made him smile, which he was still doing when she reached the furthermost curve and turned to look at him.
She seemed to startle. He could have sworn he heard a sharp intake of breath, and the pulse at her neck appeared to flutter a little faster.
“Is something wrong?” he asked.
She blinked a few times and shook her head. “You’ve never smiled like that before.”
He frowned. “Like what?”
But she’d already turned from him to examine the rock face. She had her hand pressed against one of the flat surfaces when she turned back to him to ask, “How do you think it became shaped like this?”
The sun had turned her hair to shimmering silver, her eyes to aquamarine, and seemed to bathe her features in a warm light. He was struck by the delicate lines of her small, straight nose, her softly pointed chin, her deftly curved cheeks and brow, her big, wide-set eyes, and her dainty bow-shaped mouth.
“By the hand of God,” he answered, his voice oddly rough, not just thinking about the rocks.
The answer didn’t seem to satisfy her. She skimmed her hand over the mostly dark gray with an occasional tinge of pink, finely-grained rock surface. “It’s magnificent.”
Could one be jealous of stone? Clearly the stone had impressed her—which was more than he could say for himself.
He reached back through the recesses of his mind and pulled out a fact that had been buried a long time ago. “Pliny the Elder classified different kinds of rocks. He would have probably called this ‘tephrias’ as it appears volcanic in origin.” He frowned. “Or maybe ‘basanite,’ which is a specific type of volcanic rock used to carve ancient statues.”
She was looking at him as if he’d grown a second head. His face started to feel hot, and if he didn’t know better, he would say that he was actually feeling self-conscious.
“You’ve read Naturalis Historia?” she asked, obviously shocked.
“You know Pliny?” he asked, equally so.
“A little. Unfortunately, my brothers were more interested in learning about Sparta than they were natural philosophy.”
He chuckled. “I was, too, but I’ve always been interested in architecture.” It was his passion. He could talk about it for hours. “The book on mineralogy includes information about stones for building.”
Izzie hoped she didn’t look as surprised as she felt, but she suspected her expression matched her incredulity. First the smile—the real smile that nearly stole her breath—and now this? He liked architecture? Apparently, singing wasn’t the only anomaly of shared interests between them.
“I know,” she said. “That’s why I wished to read it as well.”
She wasn’t alone in her shock—or in her ability to mask it. He was just as surprised as she. “You are interested in architecture?”
She shrugged, a little embarrassed. Her brothers teased her about her uncommon propensity for learning by telling her that if she wasn’t careful, they’d send her to a nunnery. But Randolph wasn’t her family. Would he understand the curiosity that took her in strange directions of study?
“Nothing so formal,” she said. “But when my brother had our donjon rebuilt—it had been hastily repaired after King Edward had it slighted in 1298—I worked with the master builder on the design. I loved it and wanted to learn more. He was the one who told me of Pliny’s work—among others. I tried to interest my younger brothers with the hope that their tutor would try to procure a copy, but alas…” She shrugged.
“Sparta?” he finished with a smile that twinkled in his eyes.
She was momentarily transfixed, but then quickly managed to return his smile. But good gracious, when he smiled that way, he was so handsome, it was almost ridiculous. “Aye, I’m afraid my attempts to make rock and foundations sound as interesting to my thirteen and fourteen-year-old brothers as swords, shield walls, and ancient warriors failed miserably.”
“I can’t imagine why.”
Izzie grinned. “Sarcasm, my lord? Have care or you will win my heart along with my cousin’s, and doom me to an eternity of heartbreak.”
He shook his head and held her gaze. “Somehow I don’t think there is any danger of that.”
A few minutes ago, she would have agreed. But she had to admit Randolph had surprised her. He was still strung too tightly and took himself far too seriously for her taste, but he did appear to have some sense of humor and a couple redeeming qualities beyond his good looks and charm.
She studied the handsome face looking down on her—he was at least two or three inches over six feet—with the same intensity that she’d looked at the stone earlier, trying to penetrate their secrets. To the same effect. They both revealed little.
“Perhaps you would be interested in looking at a few drawings I have of some improvements I’d like to make to my castles?”
“I would love to,” Izzie said before he’d even finished.
Realizing she’d perhaps sounded a little over-eager, she was trying to think of a light reply when a loud rumble shattered the peaceful quiet hum of nature around them.
She started to look around. “What was that? It sounded—”
“Watch out!” He pushed her back against the wall of rock she’d just been admiring, pinning her body to it with his own.
The shock of sensation riveted her from head to toe. She’d never been in such intimate contact with a man before and everything about it seemed to strike her at once. He was warm, solid, and very muscular. Were it not for the heat and the way her body seemed to be melting into his, she might have thought she was being pressed between two stone walls.
He was wearing a mail shirt but it was the solid strength of the chest underneath that she was feeling. Every ridge, every bulge, every slab, every rock-hard inch—of which there seemed to be quite a lot. Not that she was complaining. He felt good. Really good. Flushed cheeks and weakened knees good.
Sensing her shock—and she hoped misinterpreting it—he tried to explain what was happening before her head cleared enough to ask.
“Slide…” he started to say, but the rest of his words were drowned out by the crash of rock that rained down behind them like a deadly waterfall.
Good God! Had he not reacted as quickly as he had, she would have been crushed beneath all that. He’d saved her life—he really was a hero. The bones in her legs felt as if they’d turned to jelly. She would have slid to the ground had he not been holding her up.
Yet, through it all, he held himself like an iron cage over her. He wouldn’t let anything touch her. She was perfectly safe.
She knew that. It was the only reason to explain why she didn’t panic. Why she stood there calmly, concentrating on the hard warmth of his body, the steady beat of his heart, and the faint scent of rare cinnamon, while the ground reverberated and her teeth rattled with the force of the rockslide.
It lasted only a few seconds, though it felt much longer.
But when the din had faded and the dust had settled, he was still pressed against her.
The beat of his heart had been steady, but oddly she felt it pound harder now.
He turned his head enough to meet her gaze. Instinctively she sucked in her breath. There was something in his eyes she’d never seen before, but which she instinctively recognized. Desire. It washed over her—flooded her—with heat and awareness.
Awareness that made her heart start to pound and her body start to tingle when she felt him harden against her.
There was so much of him, it was impossible to miss. Rather than being shocked and offended, however, she became embarrassingly aroused. She flushed with heat, and a strange dampness rushed between her legs. Her body was coming alive with sensations that she couldn’t seem to control.
His eyes were dark and penetrating—almost as if he were looking for something.
Permission, she realized. He wants to kiss me.
Her heart jumped to her throat and seemed to pound in her ears. Her eyes were telling him no… weren’t they?
Apparently, they weren’t inclined to lie because a second later he was lowering his mouth to hers.
Her lips parted on their own, anticipation making her forget to breathe. The air was so thick and heavy between them; her body held captive by the tight grip of desire. She couldn’t have moved if she wanted to.
She didn’t want to, she realized. She wanted him to kiss her. And he did. Thoroughly. Magnificently. With every bit of finesse she would have expected from someone of his reputation. Was it any surprise that Sir Thomas Randolph kissed divinely? That his lips were warm and soft and heart-wrenchingly tender? That his breath was the perfect mix of hot male and warm spice—the cinnamon she’d smelled earlier.
He was a rogue, and he kissed like one.
And from the first touch of his lips to hers, Izzie knew she was in trouble. This wasn’t like any kiss she’d ever experienced. There was nothing delicate or chaste about the feel of his mouth on hers. It was searingly hot, achingly wicked, and thoroughly consuming.
The explosion of sensation shook her to the core and wouldn’t let go. It penetrated in a hot wave of pleasure that radiated through her body from her head to her toes and everywhere in between, concentrating in the place between her legs where he was now wedged even more firmly.
He felt so good that she pressed herself closer. The low groan—growl?—he made in response seemed to reverberate low in her belly.
It was amazing. And then it was ever more so. The sensations grew stronger as his mouth moved over hers. Softly at first—deftly—then with increasing intensity as his tongue filled her mouth. It hit her again. His tongue was in her mouth. She’d never…
Oh God. The teasing flicks gave way to demanding strokes that seemed to reach deeper and deeper within her, making her want more. Her heart fluttered with every stroke.
She couldn’t seem to get enough of his mouth and tongue as it wrapped around hers in an intimate dance. She felt greedy—insatiable—for the taste of him, for the pressure of his lips, for the pleasure he was building inside her.
He made a sound as if she might have spoken her demand aloud, and his tongue stroked deeper, harder, fiercer. Finesse and skill gave away to something else. Something even more powerful and exciting. It devoured her. He devoured her. Her bones seem to dissolve as the passion enfolded them both.
His hands were still braced on either side of her head, but when she reached up to circle her arms around his neck, they slid around her to pull her fully into his embrace.
Their bodies fused together—locked—perfectly, which was why it was such a shock when he suddenly released her and stepped back with a sharp curse.
She was too busy trying to stay on her feet to notice that it was a rather crude word for such a lauded knight to utter before a lady.
But a moment later she understood what had provoked his reaction.
“Captain!” One of his men suddenly appeared around the bend in the path where Randolph and she had apparently—fortunately—been hidden from view. “We feared the worst when we heard the crash.”
A second man came up beside him. “Did you not hear us calling for you?”
“I was tending to the lady,” Randolph explained evenly, as if nearly ravishing someone against a wall was a daily occurrence.
Was it? She pushed the thought sharply away.
But perhaps he was more affected than he appeared—he still hadn’t looked at her.
“Are you all right, my lady?” the second man asked. “Were you harmed?”
Devastated but not harmed. What had she done? How could she have let him kiss her like that? He was supposed to be courting her cousin, not kissing her. He didn’t even like her.
“I’m fine,” she assured him, pleased by the relative evenness of her own voice when her insides were a riot of emotions too tangled to analyze.
“We should get you back to the castle to make sure,” Randolph said.
Their eyes met, and she felt a pinch of disappointment in her chest. The mask was firmly back in place. Whatever lightening of humor, whatever relaxing, whatever common ground they might have temporarily found had been wiped away by that kiss.
He looked just as prickly as when they’d first started out. His arrogant features were set perfectly in place. The mouth that had just plundered hers so tenderly and thoroughly was pulled in a tight line and the jaw below it had turned once again as rigid as stone.
She nodded and looked away, suddenly as eager as he to see this ride over.
End of Excerpt
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