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by Jan Alyce Avery
Description: Desire and distrust combined? can their strange bargain hold when faced with a deadly threat? Lady Margaret D'Arcy has ruled the manor of Warnmark since her father and brother were killed by a vicious outlaw. After six years of independence, to be told that she must marry someone she's never met offends her pride. But outlaws are on the prowl, and the Baron, her feudal overlord, wants Warnmark commanded by a man. Richard Berenger, the bastard son of a nobleman who cruelly rejected him, has risen to the rank of knight through his own skill and courage. The Baron chooses him to become lord of Warnmark through marriage to Warnmark's lady, though Richard is convinced Lady Margaret will despise him for his low birth. When these two proud people are ordered to wed, the result is a fierce battle of wills that leads to an uneasy bargain: Margaret must acknowledge Berenger lord and husband in public, but in private, can deny any claim he has on her body or heart. Desperate to keep her home, Margaret agrees--but her resentment lingers. Then the rogue knight who destroyed her family returns and Margaret and Berenger must work together to save Warnmark. In the face of such danger, will their strange bargain hold?
eBook Publisher: Samhain Publishing, Ltd., 2007
eBookwise Release Date: January 2011
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [424 KB]
Reading time: 271-380 min.
Saracen moved on at a smooth canter, carrying their double weight as though it were nothing. A magnificent animal, worthy to carry a prince, but given freely as a gift from a stranger Berenger had tended without thought of payment. There'd been John Fitzwilliam too, another tormented little boy, whose misery had ended when Berenger had become his champion. How many other people, she wondered, had he helped in his hard, lonely life?
The sun climbed to its zenith. They came to another brook, this one a tiny rivulet tumbling between moss-covered stones, curling into a basin just large enough to drink from.
Berenger eased the stallion to a halt and swung off. "We'll stop here for a few minutes." Before she could move, his hands were at her waist, lifting her down as easily as if she were a child. The touch of his hands made her tremble, and she couldn't meet his eyes, afraid he'd see how he affected her. After a long moment, he turned away.
Together they knelt by the stream. Margaret glanced sideways at him through her lashes and felt her heart twist to see that his face was again cold, hard, as though the few moments of fellowship they'd shared had never happened. Was he now regretting that he'd told her so much, shown her the more vulnerable side of his nature?
Or perhaps--it was a small hope, but she hugged it to her with an eagerness that surprised her a little--did he wear that look because he thought of Warnmark and how with every mile they both rode closer to danger?
She said as cheerfully as she could, "Is it time now to finish our little pot of honey?"
Berenger turned and nodded. "As good a time as any, lady. We'll give Saracen a chance to snatch what few mouthfuls of grass he can find, then we'll go on again."
They sat on a fallen tree trunk, the stallion grazing beside them. Margaret plucked a broad leaf from one of the trees and carefully poured half the remaining honey into that.
Berenger accepted it with a murmured word of thanks, then stole a look at his lady's face as she bent over the tiny pot. When he'd helped her down from Saracen's back, she'd shivered and looked away from him, and he'd felt a strange despair, sharp as sudden pain. Why had he spoken to her of his childhood? At best, such stories could evoke pity, at worst, contempt. Yet he could have sworn he'd seen sympathy in her eyes and her laughter had seemed genuine. But perhaps he'd seen only what he wanted to see.
Lacking bread or spoon, she swirled her fingers in the pot and licked the thick liquid from them. A single tiny drop fell to cling, just visible, on the soft swell of her right breast. Sweet, so sweet--Berenger stared at it, a mere fleck of gold that glittered as she breathed. Her head was bent over the pot, the dark fans of her lashes veiling the sapphire eyes, her soft, gently curved lips parted just a little--and the tiny golden glitter of that single drop, as her breasts gently rose and fell--those soft breasts that he'd caressed, tasted, even if only for a moment, in the darkness of the night--
Something began to build in him, something fierce, savage, the feral hunger of a man long starved. It would only take an instant to pull her down, to pin that lovely, supple body under his--she'd be helpless--the feel of her skin beneath his hands, the taste of her mouth, her body moving beneath his--the sweetness of her--
He could take her now. He had the strength, and she was his by right, his wife, his possession.
There was a soft nicker as the stallion thrust his head between them, his nostrils flaring. Margaret looked up at him and her eyes danced. "Are you looking for something sweet as well, sir? But there's no honey left." She laid her cheek against Saracen's nose and gently stroked his muzzle. "Ah, it's cruel of us, but we've eaten it all." Her laugh rang out, pure and clear as a young girl's.
Her laughter broke the spell. The madness that possessed him died instantly, like fire quenched by snow. Berenger rose and turned away to hide the shudder that went through him, the wave of sudden self-loathing that turned him as cold as though he stood in the bitter wind of deepest winter.
Adam could have said no.
Breathing hard, he paced a dozen steps away and stood with his hands clenched, the shock of realization sickening him. He'd been ready to commit rape, to violate a woman who had just begun to trust him, a woman who'd risked her own life to save his. He would have taken her, ruthlessly, cruelly, caring for nothing but his own vile hunger. The lady he loved!
Deep in his soul, he seemed to hear mocking laughter. Mirrors are rare things in the lives of stable boys or even men-at-arms, and he'd seen his own face only a few times in his life. But he knew whose visage he wore, knew from whom he'd inherited the yellow wolf's eyes that had stared back at him. The fear was always with him, that he'd inherited his father's nature as well, that infinitely selfish nature that counted the pain of others as nothing.
"My lord?" Margaret's voice, calm, but slightly puzzled. "Is anything amiss?"
"No, lady," he said, fighting to keep his voice steady. He took another dozen strides to where the fallen trunk of a dead oak lay, its thick, naked branches thrusting through a clinging coating of moss. "I need something better than my bare hands to fight with, should we stumble across some of Nonesuch's men." He took hold of the straightest of the branches, braced his foot against the trunk and heaved, the dead wood straining for a moment, then breaking free to give him a hefty club.
He swung the crude cudgel experimentally as he returned to her, glad of an excuse for those few moments necessary to compose himself. "It's no sword, but it will do until I find something better." He caught up Saracen's reins, drew them over the stallion's head, mounted, then reached down to lift his lady up behind him again, fighting his body's instinctive response as her arms twined around his waist and he felt her soft breasts pressing against his back. Nothing mattered now but that he get her back to Warnmark.
He gritted his teeth, touched Saracen with his spurs, felt the stallion's muscles bunch beneath him as the horse swung again into that easy, ground-covering canter. Afterwards?
He would face afterwards when it came.