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Authors: Karin Tabke

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BOOK: Master Of Surrender
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“I will deal harshly with any and all traitors.”

“I am sure you will act first and ask questions after your dastardly deed is done.”

“I am a patient man.”

“You are a brute.”

“It has kept me alive.”

As they entered the hall, Isabel expected to see debauchery abound. Instead, the tables were cleared, the maids gone, the torches dimmed, and the knights, the ones with the scars, gathered around the hearth, their voices low.

“Have your men had their fill of my food and maids so early?”

“Wenching and wine do not mix when surely Saxons abound.”

Isabel threw him a glare, then pushed off from his arm and moved toward the pallet where Manhku lay tossing and turning.

She pushed past the tall, hard shoulders and sank to her knees beside the African. Pressing her hand to his brow, she recoiled at its heat. She looked up at the men surrounding her. “He burns with the fever. Move the pallet away from the fire.”

The men hurried to do her bidding. As they did, Isabel hurried to the kitchen, where she drew cool water from the well and grabbed several clean linens from a cabinet.

When she returned, Rohan scowled, no doubt angry that she had not asked permission to leave the room. She moved past him, sank to the floor beside Manhku, and immediately set about removing his clothing. When she could not pull the hauberk over his head, Ioan and Wulfson helped. As they pulled his last layer of clothing from him, Isabel gasped. Manhku sported the same scar on his chest as did Rohan. And on closer inspection, she saw he also bore the same crescent-shaped scar on his chin.

She pressed her fingertip to the spot at the bottom of his throat where the sword scar began. The mending tissue was hard and heated. Her initial reaction was horror. She wanted to recoil, to turn away, but she did not. A sense told her these men all bore the mark, and if she were to reject them for it as if it were a curse, she would never be able to retake the slur. The pain one endured to benefit from such a scar must have been horrendous.

She turned to look up at the knight who had tossed her world into the air. He stared back at her with hard, cold eyes. Her brow wrinkled. What manner of men were these?

Rohan dropped to one knee and placed his hand to his man’s brow as if her word were not good enough. “The fever rages.”

“I fear his wound will fester.”

Rohan caught her eyes with his. “My ax is sharp should the poison spread.”

Isabel’s jaw dropped at his nonchalant offer. “How could you be so callous? A knight without a leg is one without an identity. He would have to beg in the streets for his dinner.”

Rohan stood. “Manhku will never have to beg as long as I live. I owe him my life. I will see to his.”

Isabel turned back to Manhku. She soaked the linens in the cool water and began to bathe him. For a long time, the men were silent as she ministered to their fallen comrade. It was an odd silence. And Isabel found a small comfort in the fact that these men, all vicious killers, would entrust their man into her hands. Hands of the enemy. She looked down at Manhku’s face. And since his color had lightened from the blood loss, she noticed for the first time a series of circular tattoos on his cheeks. She turned back to look up at the gathered knights. Each of them different in his own right but all somehow the same.

Too tired to contemplate them more, Isabel bent her full attention to bathing Manhku in the cool water. So intent was she that she did not hear the men behind her leave the hall until she turned to ask Rohan to fetch her more water and realized they were gone.

The water in the bucket had warmed. She picked it up and walked quickly back to the kitchen to refill it with cool water. As she drew up the bucket, a small sound behind her caused her to let go of the rope and turn. Rohan stood in the doorway, filling the space almost completely. “The linens have warmed the water,” she said.

He took a step closer. She backed up, the edge of the well biting into her backside. The hard flicker of her heart in her throat nearly choked her. In the low light of the tapers, Rohan’s eyes glowed like molten coals. She was trapped. “I—I must fetch more cool water.” Isabel turned quickly around, grabbed the handle to the rope, and began to wind it up.

Rohan’s large hand stayed hers. She stiffened, and as she did, he moved closer. So close she could feel the thick column of his manhood against her back. His heat and strength engulfed her. Isabel squeezed her eyes shut and set her jaw, not wishing to experience on any plane the way he made her body feel. “P-please,” she whispered.

His free hand slid around her waist, and he twined his fingers with hers on the handle. Bending down, he nuzzled at her ear, and Isabel nearly crumpled to the floor. His greater strength prevented it. When he splayed his big hand across her belly and pressed his groin firmly against her back, Isabel cried out, “Please!”

“Aye, I please, Isabel. I please very much.” He turned her in his arms and bent to kiss her, but Isabel arched away from him and turned her head. His lips sank to the warmth of her neck. Despite having no willing part in his mauling of her, warmth spread throughout her body, followed by a low escaping moan. It seemed only to whet his appetite for more. Rohan pulled her tighter against him.

“Yield to me, damsel,” he hoarsely demanded against her throat.

“Nay, I cannot.” As the words left her mouth, he cupped her breast, and Isabel squeaked in surprise, but her body pressed hotly into his palm.

His thumb rubbed across a taut nipple. Isabel shook from the shock of the sensation. “You play yourself false, Isabel.”

She struggled against him, his words biting her pride hard. She opened her mouth to deny his words but stopped when he pressed his mouth to the same nipple he had just taunted. Isabel stiffened, the sensation so intense and so foreign to her she did not know how to react. His mouth clamped firmly onto her through the layers of fabric. Her body shuddered, and she felt a warmth spread between her legs. If he felt so good this way, how would he feel if they were skin to skin? The image shocked her.

“You say nay with your words, but your body begs the opposite.”

Shame infiltrated her reason. She was Isabel of Alethorpe, Lady of Rossmoor. Her blood was among the best in Saxony. And here she hung like a spineless ninny in the hands of an invading Norman. And a bastard Norman at that!

Her ardor cooled quickly. “Leave me, Norman! Leave me my dignity!” When he did not move a muscle, Isabel chose another line of defense. “You repay my attention to your man with your dalliance here while he burns with fever?”

Rohan pulled away from her. The air that whooshed between their bodies cooled them both. For that, too, she was grateful. His bright eyes looked deeply into hers. “Your dignity is your responsibility, damsel. Not mine. Mark my word, as it is my oath, I will see our agreement met. Make no mistake of it.” He stood back. “Now, tend my man.”

He turned and walked away. Isabel stood for a long time, fighting her anger at the man and her fear of his carnal power over her.

 

Rohan stripped to his braies, washed his face and hands, and flopped onto the feather-stuffed mattress. Its comfort was the best he had had the good fortune to find. The linens were clean and smelled of fresh herbs, and the pillows were soft. Yet he could find no comfort on it. He was used to sleeping on the hard, uncompromising ground or a pallet in a lord’s hall. He had his own cutout at William’s castle in Rouen, but he spent most of his time with his men, either warring or practicing the art of war.

He rolled onto his back, folded his arms under his head, and stared at the embroidered design in the canopy. A hawk surrounded by smaller birds. The hearth burned bright, casting weird shadows on the fabric, warming the room. But it was the heat in his loins that burned hottest. His cock stirred as he thought of the wench below.

Ha! More like a witch!

Her audacity shocked him. In all of his travels, he had never stumbled upon a woman with so much to lose acting as if she had all the world to gain. Did she not know whom she dealt with? He’d slain men for lesser deeds than her impertinence.

His muscles tightened, and his cock flinched against his thigh as he envisioned her naked and hungry for him in this very bed. A man could lose himself for a fortnight in her lush body. He’d never touched skin so soft. Or a temper so sharp. Rohan smiled despite his discomfort. Yea, she was a bold wench, all right, but his boldness surpassed hers by far. He sat up in the big bed and nearly rubbed his hands together in anticipation of her yielding that ripe body of hers to him. He grinned and moved from the bed, limping to the fire to throw more logs onto the glowing embers. Yea, she would share this bed for more than a night. Mayhap through the winter.

Rohan moved to the tapestry covering the shutters to the window. He pushed it back, opened the wooden closure, and peered out into the night. Stars rose bright and clear in the sky, the full moon lighting the way. His gaze traveled over the distant forests and down to the courtyard and bailey beyond. His sentries moved back and forth, their dark shadows larger then life under the moonlight.

A slight movement from the stable caught his eye. A small figure moving along the courtyard wall to the manor. His blood quickened. Isabel.

 

As she assured the guard near the kitchen door that she had seen to her chore of retrieving leeches from the bog, he allowed her to pass. It had been a hard-won battle to have the man agree to leave her alone. But when she reminded him that his master, Sir Rohan, slept and would not like to be bothered by a mere girl searching for leeches to save a favored knight, he allowed her to pass. As she came into the hall, she moved to where Manhku tossed and turned on his pallet. His leg swelled, and his only hope was the leeches to bleed the poison from his wound.

Her gaze slipped across the score or more of men bedded down for the night near the far hearth that burned bright and warm. More filled the stable. The enemy. Could Arlys drive these men from her home?

Isabel set the bucket of leeches down next to Manhku, unwrapped the bandage, and slowly applied the slimy creatures to the swollen leg. As she did, she wondered at her own fate. Would that devil sleeping in her father’s bed be her undoing? Would he break his oath and force her to spread her legs for him?

She closed her eyes. Nay, he would not! She would hold him to his vow. She opened her eyes and was glad to see the leeches attached. They should be filled by morn.

Isabel sat back on her heels and wiped her hands clean on a wetted linen towel. Aye, not only would she see to it that Sir Rohan kept his oath to her, she would see she kept hers to him. And despite the fear that oath inspired, her body warmed as she wondered what else he would do to her. Would it be more intense than what she experienced in the kitchen? Her hand moved to touch her neck where his lips had pressed. Her breasts swelled, and a tingling sensation taunted her nipples.

Her gaze traveled up the stairway toward the lord’s chamber, and she cried out. Rohan stood at the landing, his eyes locked on her.

Slowly, he walked down the wide berth, his gaze not wavering from hers. Isabel’s skin heated to rival the flames that she was sure cast an eerie glow about her. Rohan stood naked at the bottom of the stairway save for the braies he wore. The low firelight flickered off the planes and edges of his body, illuminating his old battle scars and those fresh from Hastings. The cloth around his hips stirred, and she flinched, stepping back, her heel brushing the embers from the hearth.

“Damsel, you avoid my bed.” His eyes continued to hold her captive. Had they not, she still would have not been able to drag her eyes from him. His long black hair hung wildly around him in the fashion of the Vikings. His wide, muscular chest rose and fell to a quick beat. Power and danger swirled around him. In his presence, while she was terrified, she knew that if she ever required a champion, this would be the man she’d pick. His prowess was legendary.

The cloth around his hips rose as if a serpent squirmed beneath it. Now, instead of fear, something deep and primal moved within her. She didn’t question it. Instead, unabashed, she continued to regard him.

“You cannot hide from destiny, damsel,” Rohan softly said, approaching her as stealthily as a wolf stalking a deer.

With nowhere to go but into the fire, Isabel held her ground, her chin high and proud. “You are not my destiny.”

“This eve I am.” Rohan laughed low, the sound husky, provocative, and terrifying.

She sidestepped away from him, her gaze never wavering. “I will not succumb to you.”

“’Tis not necessary.”

His muscles rippled as he flexed his long arms. Isabel shook her head, terrified of what he could do to her, knowing that if he pressed her regularly, despite her will, he would become as addictive to her as wine had become to her father after her mother’s death. Her pride would suffer greatly for becoming his willing leman. Not to mention that should her heart ever become involved, this man would leave it in pieces in the dirt as he rode off to his next conquest.

As if the gesture would stop him, Isabel put her hand out to halt him. “Sir knight, I beg you, do not trespass against my person. It is all I have left to give freely.”

Rohan scowled but continued toward her. Taking her hand into his, he brought it to his lips, though he did not press them to her skin. She warmed to his touch even though she feared him. The sensations he wrought so unnerved her she wanted to shriek and run as far into the forest as she could.

“’Tis not a trespass when struck as an oath. Would your dignity support breaking your word?’

She shook her head, angry that he should turn the table around. She was a woman of her word, and if she swore an oath, she would do everything in her power to uphold it. It did not mean she had to embrace it.

“I see we are agreed at least on this one matter.” He pressed his lips to her fingertips. Their warmth, and yes, their softness surprised her. Yet the hot look in his eyes stripped her of her dignity.

BOOK: Master Of Surrender
3.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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