Authors: Catherine Kean
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
Aldwin pulled Lady L firmly back toward him.
Her breath rushed between her teeth. Her head wrenched sideways and she glanced once more at her unconscious comrade, while digging her fingernails—rather grubby ones, Aldwin noticed—into his hand. He ignored the pain. He wouldn’t let go even if she drew blood.
Slowly, he pulled her forward, until her face, still turned to him in profile and wisped with streaks of hair, was a mere breath away.
She swallowed, as though finally accepting she was caught.
Then she looked at him.
The weak candlelight provided less than satisfying light. What he saw, though, snatched the air from his lungs.
Lady L was exquisite. More so than he’d ever imagined.
Her honey-brown hair, once plaited into a braid, snarled out around her to frame her face like a mane. Her wide, almond-shaped eyes, as golden as a feline’s, sharpened in a glare that promised him all kinds of torments once she escaped. When she blinked, sparing him her outrage for the barest moment, her dark golden eyelashes swept against skin dotted with freckles.
That defiant stare . . . His memories shot back to a distant summer and the girl he’d ordered tied to a tree. She’d looked at him with such spirit. Yet this woman couldn’t possibly be Leona Ransley; she’d died from bee stings years ago.
Refusing to heed the wench’s threatening stare, Aldwin skimmed his gaze down the delicate line of her nose, also dusted with freckles, further proof she wasn’t of the noble class; almost all ladies of his acquaintance—with the exception of Lady Elizabeth—avoided the sun to keep their pale, unblemished complexions.
Despite her freckles, this wench had a fetching nose, surprisingly slender and aristocratic. Was there noble blood in her, after all? She might be the illegitimate daughter of a lord who’d pleasured himself with one of the local strumpets and refused to acknowledge the resultant child as his. Aldwin had heard of such before. The likely explanation played into her amusing title, Lady L.
Resisting a smile, he glanced lower. His gaze settled on her mouth’s rosy fullness. Her teeth were still clenched, and her breaths rasped between her slightly parted lips. A shiver of desire ran through him, for she had the fullest, most intriguing mouth he’d ever seen on a woman. Her bottom lip was plumper than the top one. It gave her a sensual pout that promised all manner of pleasurable sins.
His groin warmed. Being a courtesan, she’d know how to deliver those sins well.
Tossing her head back, she pulled hard on her arm.
“Stop,” he said, surprised by the huskiness in his voice. “You will hurt yourself.”
She stilled, but her gaze spat pure fury. “I will not be hurt if you let me go.”
Her commanding voice made him want to shiver again. “That I cannot do,” he said, tamping down his inconvenient desire.
“You could if you wanted.”
He indulged in a lopsided grin. No way in hellfire was he obliging.
A frustrated growl rumbled in her throat, barely visible above the neckline of her cloak, which looked dusty and worn. “Release me,” she said, biting out each word, “and I will hand over the pendant.”
“A tempting offer.”
She arched a slender eyebrow. “A wise one. I will not abide you groping around in my garments.”
Groping around in her garments?
A tantalizing mental image. He dragged his gaze down the front of her cloak and stared long enough at the swell of her breasts that she couldn’t possibly misinterpret his meaning. “Pity. A strumpet like you must enjoy a good grope.”
He caught the whisper-rustle of her garments, sensed her fist flying toward his face, and ducked. Not fast enough. Her knuckles slammed into his jaw. The deft wallop cracked his teeth together. Certainly not a punch he expected from a woman.
Where had she learned to hit like a man? Were there moments, in her service for less than favorable clients, when she had to defend herself with her fists? Had she needed to fight for her life when her two ancient bodyguards weren’t around to protect her?
With a pained grimace, Aldwin rubbed his face. At the same moment, she twisted her restrained arm and broke free, almost tripping over Sir Reginald, still unconscious.
Aldwin grabbed for her, but she scrambled backward, stumbling on her cloak’s hem. Sparing Sir Reginald a worried glance, she straightened and pushed to standing. When she rose, she reached into her boot, and he spied the glint of a knife in her right hand. Her hair snaked down her back like a silken rope as she spun and hurried toward the door.
Aldwin stood, taking the candle with him. The bitter taste of defeat tainted his mouth. Pushing the candleholder onto a nearby shelf, he fought the near blinding urge to chase her. If he pursued, she’d bolt out into the tavern crowd. For all he knew, she had many loyal friends in this tavern who’d beat him senseless before they let him capture her.
If she escaped him, he forfeited his promise to de Lanceau, as well as his chance for knighthood. Not only would Aldwin return to Branton Keep a disappointment to his lord and himself, but such failure promised dire consequences—especially if Veronique and the baron got hold of the pendant. If they sold it and used the funds to hire themselves an army of thugs, de Lanceau—indeed, all of Moydenshire—would be in terrible danger.
, his conscience screamed.
“Wait!” he called.
She held the knife in her left hand now. Her right hand on the door handle, she looked back at him. Her face tautened with defiance.
He forced himself to stand very still. If he made even the slightest threatening gesture, she’d be out the door. “We have not yet made our exchange,” he said.
Her slender fingers tightened on the handle. With a faint
, she drew the door open a fraction, letting in light and noise. She hesitated, long enough that he sensed he might still be able to barter with her. To coax her back into his arena of control. That is, if he treated her with the respectful care one gave an untamed lioness.
“I traveled a long way for that pendant.” Aldwin reached inside his cloak and withdrew the bag of coins. He shook it, causing the silver to
. “I cannot leave without the jewel.”
“Pity. A knave like you must hate to fail.”
He bit his tongue and tried to ignore the sting of her words. “Indeed,” he agreed, “I would.”
Her hand flexed again on the handle, as though to draw the door farther open. Such elegant fingers, for a woman of harsh circumstances. For one bizarre moment, he wondered how those fingers would feel running over his bare skin.
“You still want the pendant, then?” Lady L murmured.
She waved the knife, indicating the floor between them. “Drop the bag of coins.”
“Drop it,” she repeated, “where I can reach it.”
Anger hummed inside him. If she thought to grab the reward and run, she was in for a nasty surprise. “Agreed,” he said softly. “Then you will hand me the pendant.”
For all her determination to flee, she sounded as eager to be rid of the jewel as he was to get it. How intriguing. If she’d wanted to forfeit the responsibility of such a treasure, she could have sold it during the days it had taken him to reach the tavern. She could have found a less-than-reputable merchant who would have bought it at a fraction of its real value. Less risk for her, and she still would have walked away with a payment.
Which led to yet another question. Why had she contacted de Lanceau to arrange the meeting at this tavern? Why was it important to her that the pendant be returned to his lordship?
Questions de Lanceau had every right to ask her himself.
And he would.
Aldwin tried not to smile as a new plan played out in his mind. He stepped forward, the bag in his outstretched hand.
, his mind whispered.
Don’t let her guess what you intend
Halfway between them, he opened his fingers. The bag plummeted to the floor and landed with a musical
. Spreading both arms wide in a gesture of surrender, he stepped back.
Her gaze dropped to the coin. An odd expression—a poignant mix of relief and regret—flitted over her face. Then, releasing her white-knuckled hold on the door, she edged toward him. Her wary gaze still upon him, she stooped to pick up the bag.
The moment her focus left him, Aldwin lunged. He kicked the knife from her hand, sending it flying across the room, at the same moment her fingers closed on the coin. He followed, his hand crushing down upon hers.
“What—” she cried.
“Pity that I had to deceive you.”
She sprang back, grabbing for the door. Her fingers touched the panel, but he wrenched her away. With a sharp tug, he drew her into his embrace. Her honeysuckle scent hit him a moment before her body slammed against him. Chest to chest.
His arm clamped around her waist, smaller beneath the cloak than he’d suspected.
Her breath rushed out on a huff. “Why, you—”
With his free hand, he snatched the bag of coins. “I will take that.” He shoved the sack inside his cloak.
She writhed in his hold. “Sir Reginald!”
“Still unconscious,” Aldwin said.
“Twig!” she shrieked.
“Cannot hear you.”
Her gaze became a frigid gleam, an instant before her knee jerked upward. He twisted to the side, avoiding a blow to his groin that would have left him crumpled in agony on the floor near Sir Reginald. Instead her knee bumped against his inner thigh, protected by his cloak.
Aldwin crushed her tighter against him. “Tsk-tsk. How unladylike of you.”
A wicked glint lit her eyes.
He smiled. “Pity, that you underestimate me.”
Her body tautened in his grasp. Before she could carry out whatever assault she was contemplating, he dropped to a crouch, slid his arm down behind her legs, and tossed her over his left shoulder. She landed with a gasp.
Grunting at her weight, he stood.
“Put. Me. Down,” she cried, trying to rise up on his shoulder.
“I would gladly do so.” He tightened his hold on her thrashing legs. “You weigh far more than any lady I know.”
“Oh!” Her elbow jabbed into his ear.
He almost laughed. While her bulky cloak concealed the contours of her body well enough, he’d already determined her enticing proportions. Full breasts. A rounded bottom. Long legs. He resisted a groan. For what he had in mind, he’d have preferred her old, ugly, and completely undesirable.
Her toes whacked into his gut, knocking the breath from him on a grunt.
He bounced her, once, on his shoulder.
“God’s teeth,” she spluttered.
Squaring his shoulders, Aldwin turned to the open doorway.
Her hands pounded his buttocks. He felt little more than dull punches through his wool cloak. “I warn you,” she said, her words muffled against the fabric. “Put. Me—”
“Down?” Aldwin laughed. “Nay, Lady L. You are coming with me.”
The swell of noise from the main tavern room mirrored the roar of blood rushing into Leona’s head. Being thrown over an arrogant knave’s shoulder like a sack of beans and dangling upside down was most disorienting. Not to mention mortifying.
When Aldwin moved toward the door, causing her to bounce against his back, she fisted her hands into his cloak. Oh, God. The laughter, singing, and a chorus of cheers seemed to focus right in her throbbing brow.
Nevertheless, she was not going to allow this arrogant oaf to carry her away as if he were an ogre from one of her childhood nightmares. She squirmed with all her might. The scratchy wool of his cloak abraded her cheek, as did the rope of her braid she’d looped around her neck, her only means of keeping it from dragging on the ground.
He swatted her legs. “Stop struggling.”
She tilted her face away from his cloak. “I warn you,” she yelled. “Put—”
The door creaked farther open, spilling light over Sir Reginald’s prone form.
Hammering her fists against Aldwin’s arse again, she yelled, “Sir Reginald!” Why did he not wake? And where was Twig with that accursed drink?
Aldwin strode into the corridor. His boots raised a cloud of dust . . . or whatever lay on the floor in a fine coating. He paused, clearly deciding whether to proceed through the crowded main room or find another way out.
A draft edged up under the hem of her gown, as if a ghostly sot tried to peep at her undergarments. Kicking her legs, she glared at Aldwin’s back. How galling for the tavern’s patrons to see her bottom up.
His arms tightened around her thighs, restricting her struggles. She punched him again and raised her head. “Twig!”
Hearty laughter swarmed from the bar, followed by a chorus of “Down in one! Down in one!” A drinking contest. No wonder Twig hadn’t returned with the liquor.
” she screamed again, hoping he heard her over the din.
Aldwin pivoted, and she guessed he now faced the rear door, the source of the draft. Turning her face, she caught a glimpse of the main room. Past the tables where two men were arguing over a whore, she spied Twig. Clutching an earthenware mug in one scrawny hand, holding it high above the crowd so it wouldn’t spill, he elbowed his way through the throng. Intent on dodging the drunkards, he hadn’t seen her.
“Tw—” she began with all the breath in her lungs, but before the screech broke full force, Aldwin jostled her again. “—ig!” she groaned.
With brisk strides, Aldwin headed down the corridor toward the back door.
Thrashing her legs, Leona inhaled another breath. “Tw—” Aldwin shifted her weight on his shoulder. She started sliding toward the ground. Headfirst. Her scream died on a frightened squawk.
She fell the space of one gasp before Aldwin grabbed secure hold of her again. Not that she would have hit the floor. Her hands firmly gripped his cloak.
He laughed softly, and her gaze clouded with fury. He’d almost dropped her on purpose. To let her know she was wholly in his control.