Authors: Miriam Minger
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Medieval, #General, #Historical Fiction, #Romance, #Historical Romance
So it appeared, an interminable day that had merely
plagued him before now become a blight of epic proportions. Striding past
Gerard, he thought to stop and warn him of the beautiful yet voracious fox now
in their midst, but a sharp tug at his cloak distracted him.
He spun around yet saw no one, until an amused cackle
made him look down. No higher than his knees stood a misshapen little man
wearing a bright red cloak and a matching cap, Adele's court jester, who
grinned at him from ear to ear and made a lewd gesture jabbing a stubby finger
into a circle formed by his other thumb and forefinger.
"Sweet dreams, Baron. Sweet dreams!"
Before Duncan could utter an oath, the dwarf scuttled
away and took refuge under a nearby table, which was a very good thing.
Harboring dark fantasies of throwing Adele's entire entourage into the moat,
the time-honored tradition of hospitality to one's guests
damned, Duncan was only too glad to leave the hall. That the sanctity of his
home had been so shattered was almost more than he could bear.
"My lord! My lord, wait!"
He didn't wait. Faustis was puffing with exertion as
the steward caught up with him at the tower stairs leading to his private
"My lord, there is something I must tell—"
"Not now, Faustis!"
"But my lord—"
"Not now!" And he meant it, Duncan taking the
stone steps three at a time, his fury only mildly abating as the noise from the
great hall began to recede. He didn't stop until he had slammed the door to his
bedchamber behind him and thrown the bolt, the quiet which greeted him making
him swear with relief.
If there was any refuge for him at Longford Castle, it
was this place, a group of well-appointed rooms including the outer chamber,
where he now flung off his cloak and began to strip from his armor, a huge
bedchamber, and a smaller side room that held his precious collection of books
and an oaken table, where he would sit and work often late into the night. But
this evening he thought only of sleep, the bone weariness he'd felt earlier
returning like a heavy blow and making him feel a man older than his
Long bloody years of fighting in King John's armies had
made it so. His body bore the marks of many battles, the worst one a deep, ugly
scar across his chest that had nearly cost him his life. Yet it had won him,
too, a king's gratitude, his reward the very land upon which Longford Castle
A fierce sense of possession gripping him, Duncan
dropped his hauberk upon a bench, the chain mail thunking heavily. Again the
calming silence was broken as his stockings and shoes of mail, made of one
piece, followed, and he wondered then why Flanna hadn't come from the
bedchamber to greet him. Not so tired that he didn't feel a jolt of desire at
the thought of her soft lips and willing body, Duncan felt renewed irritation,
too, that Adele had found his Irish mistress somehow lacking.
"Dammit, man, you'll think of that blasted woman
no more this night!" he vowed angrily to himself, though he knew that
forcing his half sister from his mind would be impossible. That she was under
his roof, her very presence an unwelcome reminder of all in his life he wanted
to forget, permeated his thoughts as the offensively sweet smell of her perfume
had the great hall.
With an emphatic curse, Duncan stripped off his padded
gambeson and then hauled his sweaty undertunic over his head, the air in the
chamber suddenly cool against his bare skin. Flexing sore muscles, he knew he
could use a bath, the long day's stink upon him, but he couldn't stomach
summoning servants for the commotion they would bring with the hot water.
Instead he strode into the next room, a spacious chamber bathed in dim light
from the low guttering fire in the hearth.
As quiet as the anteroom, Duncan's gaze went at once to
the massive canopied bed, Flanna snuggled so deeply under the covers that he
could barely see the top of her dark head.
Strange, that she could be too tired to greet him.
Usually wine would be poured, a sensual welcome in her teasing green eyes.
Wondering if Adele had said something to distress her, he decided against
waking her, afraid of the flood of tears that might provoke. If there was
anything that wearied him about Flanna, it was her petulant nature; any small
slight on the part of the servants was sure to bring on a bout of pouting or
weeping. At first it had amused him, but now . . .
Sighing heavily, Duncan poured his own goblet of wine
from the pitcher placed near the bed, then settled into a carved chair in front
of the hearth. He stretched out his legs, kneading a stiff muscle in his thigh,
the fire warming his flesh if not his mood. He lifted the goblet and drank
deeply, then leaned his head back against the chair and closed his eyes.
It wasn't Flanna's petulance that wearied him. In
truth, no woman amused him for long. It was an impossible thing, a cold fact to
which he'd grown accustomed. None could ever compare . . . would ever compare,
He really hadn't thought of her for weeks, tried not to
think of her at all, but now her image seemed to drift in front of him—her long
honey hair rivaling the brightness of the sun, her smile, the love shining in
her eyes, as radiant—making his stomach knot and his heart thunder. Any tears
had been shed long ago, but the piercing ache inside him remained as surely as
She was to have been his bride. But he had lost her.
Only days before the secret wedding they had planned, fate dealt the cruelest
of blows. And now Adele had come to Ireland to help him find a wife . . .
A laugh as grim as Duncan felt echoed around the
chamber, his throat grown so painfully tight that he could barely finish his
wine. Settle for another after he had known perfection? The sound of the empty
goblet, too, scraping upon the stone floor when he set it down, seemed as
bleak, and he scowled when a soft sigh came from the bed.
God's teeth, he was in no fit temper to contend with
Flanna's complaints! Hoping that he hadn't woken her, he rose and moved
silently to the bed, relieved to see that she still lay almost completely
covered by blankets, her back to him. Which was odd, too, considering how she
preferred to sleep cuddled against him, but tonight he was more than thankful
for the respite.
Just as quietly he stripped out of his braies and
climbed in naked beside her, turning his back as well. He heard another small
sigh, and felt her shift ever so slightly, but he ignored her and shut his
So quiet. So dark. Fearing she might be in her own
grave, Maire couldn't move for long moments, didn't dare move, only the dull
throbbing in her head convincing her finally that she was yet alive. But why
then, did she feel as if she were smothering . . . ?
She blinked several times, something warm and soft over
her face that slow recognition told her was no grave at all, but a woolen
blanket that smelled of fresh air as if recently hung to dry in the sun—
Jesu, Mary, and Joseph, the sun! Desperately she
squeezed her eyes closed, but she could not shut out the horrible memories
rushing in upon her. Pain, such dreadful pain, and blinding sunlight, and
shrill feminine laughter that pounded within her skull like a thousand hammers.
And Fiach, oh God, poor Fiach and the others . . . all slaughtered. Dead.
Again she couldn't
fear so sharp that she tasted blood from biting her lips. Where was she? Where
were the Normans who had attacked them?
More memories assaulted her, making her begin to
tremble, making her remember the horror of being pursued, of lying helpless
upon the ground, of a cool hand gliding like a mythic serpent across the side
of her head. Words came to her, too, in a foreign tongue known to her only
because Ronan had insisted his people learn well the language of their hated
enemies, yet in her mind they were more sounds than sense. She had been in such
fierce pain . . .
Maire slowly, cautiously, lifted shaking fingers to
just above her left temple, wincing at the sizable lump that ached dreadfully
at her touch. She wondered then if she could sit up, even walk, for the wave of
dizziness that assailed her when she lifted her head slightly and lowered the
blanket to her chin, noticing out of the corner of her eye a low flicker of
Relief swept her, dulling some of her fear. She wasn't
completely in the dark. Yet the next moment she was stricken by confusion at
her surroundings when she dared once more to lift her head.
She had never seen such a place before, the dying fire
in the hearth revealing a room of massive proportions enclosed by somber stone
walls, a high, timbered ceiling, and a trio of narrow, arched windows. The
furnishings puzzled her, too, sparse but heavy and richly carved, and the bed
in which she lay with its vermilion canopy was as large as any she'd ever—
Saints preserve her, a bed? She almost laughed
nervously at herself in the next instant, though her heart had begun to pound.
Of course she lay in a bed if she were smothered in blankets, her head upon a
soft pillow, a sturdy mattress beneath her—oh, God, where was she?
Panic clawing at her, Maire gave no heed to her
dizziness and lifted herself onto her elbow, her hair falling across her bare
. . . ? Incredulous, she stared at her
nakedness, her heart nearly leaping from her chest at the sudden shifting
"Dammit, Flanna, lie down. Go back to sleep."
Maire froze, a heavy masculine hand covering her
"Anything that's troubling you, we'll talk of
tomorrow. Now lie down."
She couldn't blink, couldn't breathe, crying out when
she was pushed gently but insistently back onto the pillow.
"Woman, it's too late for tears— Ah, God's teeth,
Maire was enveloped so suddenly in a powerful embrace,
hard, muscular arms drawing her
she had no
chance to fend off her captor. Stricken, she felt a warm nuzzling at her neck.
Her heart pounded furiously as a callused palm covered a breast and squeezed
gently, arousing shivers unlike anything she'd known. Yet when she felt his
other splayed hand glide down her belly, his fingers slipping into the softness
between her thighs while something rigid and wholly foreign to her nudged
Maire's shriek filled the air, her elbow grinding into
her captor's ribs with all her might as he swore in surprise and released her.
only thought to flee, she lunged from the bed with such
desperation that she forgot wholly her dizziness, forgot the limitations of her
legs and went tumbling to the floor, tears of fright burning her eyes.
"By the blood of God, what in blazes—?"
Through her tangled hair she saw him come around the
bed toward her, the Norman a hulking silhouette in the faint light and, Jesu
help her, as naked as she! For she knew him to be an enemy, his marked accent
one she could not forget.
Terror filling her, she scooted away from him across
the cold stone floor, knowing in her heart there was no escape, sobbing
wretchedly that she had not legs with which to run, to save herself . . .
Maire shrieked again when he caught her, fighting him
and screeching as she'd never done before in her life as she was lifted into
the air and carried back to the bed. But to her surprise the Norman merely
wrenched a blanket from the mattress and then strode with her still struggling
and flailing her arms to a chair in front of the hearth, where he plopped her
"Here, wrap this around you. And don't move
woman, do you understand me?"
Dimly she felt herself nod, clutching the blanket to
her breasts as he left her and went again to the bed, Maire so stunned she
could but watch him grab a strange sort of breeches from the floor and don
them. But he might as well still be naked for how snugly they fit his thighs,
and her face grew hot as she thought of how he'd held her in the bed, the
hardness of his body pressing against her . . .
Maire swallowed and closed her eyes, shocked at
herself, horrified that she would recall such a thing when her circumstances
were so dire. Yet when she looked again, she was astonished anew that the
Norman held out a brimming goblet to her, his expression grim but not unkind in
"Here, drink this wine. It will calm you."
Again she could but stare at him, his husky voice now
more concerned than forbidding.
Which made no sense.
Not from everything she knew about Normans, everything she'd heard from Ronan
and Niall over the years about their enemies' vicious bloodlust and cruelty.
And especially not from what she'd seen in the meadow, the bodies of her
clansmen ruthlessly hacked to pieces.
She must have paled, for the Norman took one of her
trembling hands and gave her the goblet, then covering her hand with his own,
brought the wine to her lips.
Somehow she did, her face burning at how closely he
leaned toward her, the jolt of red wine to her senses making her notice
suddenly the striking cast of his features, his dark hair long to the neck much
like Ronan's, yet not wholly brown or black, and the deep, vicious scar across
a chest of powerful breadth that was matted with hair just as dusky.
His nearness made her notice, too, the smell of him,
not clean like the blanket but sweaty and blatantly masculine, the scent of
saddle and horses clinging to him. Flushing, she noticed as well the hard
pressure of his fingers upon hers, and she suddenly began to choke.