Authors: Gayle Callen
A KNIGHT'S VOW
England September, 1486
The dowry rested uneasily on James Markham's conscience as he rode through the forest towards home. Though hidden away in his saddle pack, the money could get him killed—not that it would matter to his former betrothed.
At the crack of a branch, he whirled in the saddle, expecting to see his soldiers. But the path was empty, dwindling away into darkness as the day crept towards its end. The senses he had honed in battle awoke, though they had lain dormant through his long debauchery at court. He eyed the trees above him, searching for any unnatural movement. His ears picked up every rustle of leaves. Something wasn't right.
Suddenly, a man dropped from the trees above, crashing into James and sending them both tumbling from the rearing horse. James rolled onto his back, digging in with his heels, pinning the man beneath him. Before he could reach for his dagger, a sword appeared at his neck. He went still, and looked up the thin length of steel, past the arm that steadily held it. He almost laughed at the mask that covered the upper half of his assailant's face, until he saw the long, wild, black hair of a woman. He took a deep breath and didn't fight the arms gripping him from behind.
They remained silent, the three of them caught in a strange moment in time. James was so overcome with fascination that the possibility of peril receded from thought. He could see little of her face, but she was stunning, with her hair untamed and flowing in dark curling streams down the cloak that covered her body.
"Your purse, sir," she said, her voice cold, impassive.
James grinned. He felt suddenly more alive than he had throughout the months of drunken lethargy and self-pity. Then the sword pricked his neck and he flinched.
"Do you think this a jest, sir?"
"No, my dear. Is this a whim on your part?" Though he tempted much, he couldn't resist taunting her. He wanted to hear the husky, low tones of her voice. His arms were jerked back harder, and he grimaced.
"Your money," the man's voice hissed in his ear, spraying spittle in a hot wave across his jaw.
"At my waist, you fool."
The woman pricked the tip of her sword beneath his ear. Her dark eyes never wavered. "I have no qualms about killing you. I am a desperate woman, and you are nothing to me."
"Very convincing, my dear." He felt the new flow of blood seep into his collar. He resisted glancing at his horse, for fear they'd search it, too. "Your plight so moves me that I must warn you. My men are not far behind."
Her eyes betrayed her and she glanced back down the path. James barely felt her accomplice pawing at his belt. His gaze was drawn to the smooth line of her throat, then up to her full lips compressed into a thin line. Her eyes were black as the depths he'd lived through so recently. She'd slashed crude coloring beneath her lashes, and he thought perhaps she wore paint on her skin.
"I have it," the man said, then abruptly threw James to the ground.
James rolled over and the woman brought her boot down on his neck. The sword danced bare inches from his eyes.
"Search the horse."
He clenched his teeth. The dowry money from his failed attempt at marriage was all he had to restore his estates.
"But his men—"
"Do it now, quickly." Her low voice rang with authority.
Her hooded cohort untied the saddle packs and staggered beneath their weight. James sighed heavily, waiting for her grin of triumph. She showed nothing.
He had trouble swallowing beneath the pressure of her foot. Her cloak swirled above him, offering glimpses of feminine legs encased in hose.
"I will find you," he whispered.
She gave a faint smile, almost a grimace. "You may try. But you reveal your foolishness, sir. I could easily kill you."
He reached for her boot. As she lost her balance, the sword slashed his cheek, deeper this time. She steadied herself, applying even more pressure to his throat. The sword shook in her hand and blood from its point dripped onto his shirt. Her face betrayed its first emotion—shock. She staggered back.
James lifted himself to his elbows and the sword returned swiftly.
"Do not tempt me, sir." She looked up at her partner. "Let us be gone."
The man came forward with a rope in his hands.
James's calm vanished as he realized she might actually succeed with her theft. Knocking the sword aside, he lunged off the ground and reached for the woman. She whirled towards him, but before he could touch her, a blinding flash of pain exploded through his head. The last things he saw were her black-rimmed eyes.
A dull pounding invaded James's dreams, and it seemed a long time before he realized it came from his head. Slowly, he opened his eyes. The room was dark, with no windows. By the dim light of a fire, he could see a prickly thatched roof. Where was he?
Suddenly, the fire roared higher, and James noticed a squatting man tending it, his face covered by a hood. The robbery had been no dream.
He remembered the woman then, and turned his head until he saw her. She was watching him through the slits of her mask. The throbbing inside his skull rose and ebbed, and he gritted his teeth.
"You have all my money. What more could you want of me?"
She came out of the shadows into the firelight, wearing a man's short, black doublet, and hose beneath. Her legs were fine and long, her waist narrow but not fragile. Wild hair curled and clung, wrapping itself insidiously about her arms and waist. Of her face, he could only see her eyes and lips, and knew for certain that she had painted them. He saw intelligence and purpose in those eyes, and knew instinctively that she was the enemy.
"My lord, your head is badly bleeding," she said.
"I could not leave you to die."
James stared at her. "Why not? Then I would not be a witness to your crimes."
"I have a wealth of witnesses, and one more will be of no consequence."
She propped her foot on the pallet beside his head and leaned over him. She smelled of earth and greenery, and James could picture her kneeling naked in the forest. He smiled.
She leaned closer. A black curl teased his chest. "Do you find me amusing, my lord?"
"A thief with shocking tenderness for her victims? Yes, you amuse me. You do other things to me as well." He lifted a hand, and the sword reappeared at his throat like lightning.
"Beware, my lord. I could change my mind."
Her accomplice moved closer.
James swallowed carefully, feeling the sharp blade at his skin. "You won't. Just return my money, and I'll leave."
She straightened and returned the sword to her side. "A large amount you carry, my lord. I'll have to keep it."
James was finding it hard to keep his eyes open. His head pounded with each heartbeat, and he had to concentrate to follow her words. "You could be noble and return it."
"And you could be noble and understand that you are aiding a lady in distress."
He chuckled, sensing a lie, yet intrigued by it. "A lady? I have known few ladies who dress as you do."
She whirled before him and gave an ungraceful curtsy. "I need to ride astride."
James looked her up and down, as a slow grin moved across his face. "I'm sure you do."
Her cohort kicked the pallet, and James's aching head rocked side to side. The woman eyed him.
"You are unusual, my lord. Though you have lost a fortune, you have not lost your humor."
She hesitated, and James found his gaze drawn to her mouth. The sudden slow burn that swept through his body had nothing to do with fever. Why should he be so affected? She was a thief, a masked woman with no scruples. Yet, he sensed something beneath the surface, at odds with what she showed the world.
Over her shoulder, she said to her accomplice, "Keep watch in the forest. Tell me when his soldiers approach."
"I cannot leave you alone with him," the man said in a rasping voice.
"He is wounded, and I am armed. I can handle him."
James blinked sleepily and managed a grin. "Please do."
After her accomplice had closed the door, the woman silently studied him. James returned the favor, wishing he could see more beneath her bulky doublet. Who was she, and why had she resorted to theft? She seemed well bred and healthy. Surely she should be tending children by day and keeping her man warm at night.
"You stare hard, my lord."
James shrugged, then grimaced at the pain that shot through his head. "Just contemplating your identity."
"Then I'll keep you in suspense no longer. I am the Black Angel."
"Your mother must have had a sense of humor. Such an intriguing name."
"Turn your head and let me look beneath your bandage."
He did as she asked. He considered going for her sword, but he still thought he could escape peaceably, with his money.
She untied the cloth from around his head and peeled away the bandage. James closed his eyes, fighting the sickness that turned his stomach. And fighting the rush of sensation her skin ignited in him.
"The bleeding continues, my lord," she said.
He felt the warmth of her breath against his neck. "Why do you do this?" he asked, turning suddenly until their faces were inches apart.
She remained still, looking at him. "You've smeared blood on the pallet."
He caught her arm and pulled her against his chest. He heard the quick intake of her breath, but saw no fear in her eyes. If anything, cold anger lit her from within. Her hair tumbled about them, filled with the elusive scent of the outdoors.
"Release me, my lord," she said calmly.
Her heart seemed to betray her, hammering wildly against his chest. Instead of escape, James found himself thinking of her lips.
"You had best not hesitate," she whispered. "My sword might damage the part of your anatomy you most treasure."
His head was growing foggy, but he couldn't miss the weight across his hips. He chuckled and closed his eyes. "Ah yes, you do go right to the heart of the matter. Very well, my lady thief, what are your plans?"
"You may release me."
He opened his eyes. "Why ever for? I haven't held a woman in, oh, days."
She put a hand against his chest and pushed. James's arms fell away weakly and he looked at them in bemusement. "That was rather easy, wasn't it?" He wearily closed his eyes. "Perhaps I'll sleep now. We can discuss my money at a later time."
"You do that, my lord," he heard her say, as if from far away.
Once again he felt her hands at the back of his head, but soon, even that sensation disappeared.
"Lord Bolton! Lord Bolton!"
Someone shook James's shoulders. Awareness came to him slowly, and he felt the hard earth beneath his back. Had the Black Angel actually left him to be found by his own men?
"My Lord Bolton, thank heavens above!"
James cracked open his eyes. Everything seemed tilted, distorted by the pain that blazed through his head.
"My lord, you were hurt. Is it serious?"
With a groan, he lifted his arms, and hands helped him to a sitting position. Three of his men- at-arms bent over him, their faces worried. One man stepped aside, and a bolt of reddish sunlight blinded James. He covered his eyes.
"How late is it?" he rasped. His head throbbed and his stomach shifted queasily. "Where are the rest of the men?"
" 'Tis close to dusk, my lord," said Wiggins, the unacknowledged leader of the three. "The others are a league behind, searching for you. After we were... separated, we found your horse, and we have been looking for you ever since." He spoke slowly in his usual attempt to master the accent of the nobility.
James found he could barely support his weight. He dropped back on his elbow. "I was robbed, hit over the head. Strange as it seems, the thieves took pity and tried to stop the bleeding. But they have all
the dowry money." He sighed. "Whose idea was it to pretend we carried nothing of value?"
"Yours, my lord," Wiggins answered.
James rubbed his head. "I thought so."
A cheerful Mort squatted down beside him. "Good to see ye, milord."
The boyish good looks of his most deadly archer were more annoying than ever. "Where the hell have the three of you been?"
Their heads bowed in unison.
Wiggins coughed. "We have searched for your lordship for many an hour."
Mort threw his arms wide. "Covered near the whole forest, we did." His shoulders slumped. "We woulda been with ye for the attack, milord, but... Riley saw a butterfly."
James groaned and rolled his eyes. The dark giant, Riley, held his silence as usual. One big boot scuffed lines in the dirt. Riley had never spoken while in James's employ. But he was too good a fighter to dismiss for something as trivial as not speaking. Between Wiggins and Mort, James usually heard enough pointless blathering.
"Don't tell me any more." James squinted into the forest. "Do we still have enough light to make for home?"
"My lord, your head," Wiggins reproached. "I do not believe you can ride."
"Can we reach it before dark?"
Mort gave a sunny grin. "Aye, milord. But we must see to your head first. Riley?"
The giant took something from his saddle pack, but James was in too much pain to care. He submitted to Riley's examination, clenching his jaw at each probe of the massive, delicate fingers. He swayed once, and Mort caught him. The young soldier's face had turned grim.
"Milord, ye've lots of blood on your shirt, and not enough in your head. Your skin's a mite hot to the touch."
James gritted his teeth. His skull pounded with waves of pain. But still he thought about the woman, and remembered the feel of her breasts against his chest, and the flutter of her heart. He was too affected by far.
"Riley is doing as best he can, but ye need rest and medicine. We should make camp—"
"No," James interrupted. "We press on to Bolton Castle for aid. The thieves must not escape."
Riley stepped in front of him, tying a new cloth around his head to hold the bandage in place. He finished the knot, put his hand on James's shoulder,