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Authors: A Rose in Winter

Shana Abe

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T
EMPTATION

The image of Solange beneath him, naked, alive with passion, would not vanish. Damon struggled to focus beyond it, to form a logical reply to her question, but when her lips moved he saw himself kissing them. When her arms lowered and the comb released her hair, he saw himself buried in it.

He took a heavy breath. How could she not know? How could she not feel it too? She was no longer an inexperienced maiden. She had to realize what she was doing to him, that she was deliberately torturing him. It was enough to drive a sane man over the edge, and he had already been there too many times.

“Damon?” She placed her hand lightly on his arm.

The simple touch jerked him back to the present. He pulled away from her and turned, baring his teeth in a semblance of a smile.

Her eyes grew wide, fearful. He almost hated her for that, hated that she could feel fear of him, when all he had ever wanted to do was protect her, take care of her, love her.

Damon took a menacing step in her direction. “Now, what’s amiss with you, Countess? You do not look yourself.”

Solange shook her head in bewilderment. “I don’t understand you. You are angry. Have I done something wrong?”

“Something recently, you mean? I don’t know, you tell me.” He was stalking her now, steadily matching each step, closing the space she put between them.

“Stop it! Why are you behaving in this odd manner? Are you feverish?” She halted defiantly, daring him to come closer. Brave, foolish little Solange, and so he caught her up easily.

“Yes, my lady,” he drawled. “I think I must be feverish. It is the only reason I can think of to do this,” he said. He covered her lips with his own.…

A R
OSE IN
W
INTER

A Bantam Book / January 1998

All rights reserved.

Copyright © 1998 by Shana Abé.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

For information address: Bantam Books.

eISBN: 978-0-307-83393-8

Published simultaneously in the United States and Canada

Bantam Books are published by Bantam Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. Its trademark, consisting of the words “Bantam Books” and the portrayal of a rooster, is Registered in U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and in other countries. Marca Registrada. Bantam Books, 1540 Broadway, New York, New York 10036.

v3.1

For Darren.
With sincere and heartfelt thanks to
Mom and Dad, Ruth Kagle, Stephanie Kip,
and Michael Palmer
.

Prologue

FRANCE, 1287

T
he knight knelt at her feet and took her proffered hand.

“My lady,” he said. The irony of the words twisted his lips. He kept his head bowed.

Her hand was cool between his fingers, the smooth, alabaster skin a sharp contrast to his own roughened, dark palms. Her fingers were long and elegant, her nails pink and satiny. He noticed with dull surprise that she wore the garnet and gold ring he had given her all those seasons ago. The stone glowed subtly in the dim light.

A slight shiver shook her fingers—had he imagined that? Damon looked up, meeting her eyes for the first time this evening.

Even after these full nine years she appeared unchanged, beautiful, as youthful as the maiden he knew during their schooling together at the castle keep. All those long nights Solange had haunted him, and now he saw his dreams hadn’t even done her justice.

Her face was perhaps a bit more drawn; her fine dark eyes contained a faint sadness now that was not
banished even as she smiled down at him. The gold and silver circlet that graced her forehead seemed too heavy for such a slender neck.

Her hair was swept back into a regal roll beneath an almost transparent veil. He didn’t need to see it again to remember the color of it: a rich brown so dark it fooled the eye until sunlight hit, and then it transformed to a halo of russet fire. Aye, he remembered that.

“My loyal friend,” she finally said with a squeeze of her fingers. “I am pleased to see you again.”

Damon remained kneeling, absorbing her presence, content and not content at once to stay at her feet. Her other hand covered both of his, and she raised him to stand on the step below her on the dais.

The chamber room was cold enough to frost their speech, for all the elaborate tapestries lining the walls and thick rugs on the floor. Behind him he could hear the hushed whisperings of her attendants, huddled around the fireplace. He could feel their speculative eyes on his back.

“You were sore missed,” Solange added softly.

Damon felt the old familiar tightness in his chest and took a steadying breath. “I come out of duty, my lady.” He kept his tone formal, hoping the reminder of his obligation would serve to ease this terrible ache she brought on.

A flash of emotion—pain? regret?—crossed her face. She released his hands.

“Of course,” she said, then looked away.

The silence stretched between them, heavy with unspoken thoughts both knew neither could acknowledge. To distract himself, he studied her gown, embroidered
pale gold cloth encrusted with pearls so luminous, they reminded him of dewdrops. The material captured and held the soft light of the torches above them.

His eyes were drawn helplessly to the cut of the bodice. He found himself counting her breaths, straining to see beyond the froth of lace edging her breasts.

What was he doing? Damon took control of himself and wrenched his eyes back up to hers. She was studying him, well aware of the nature of his thoughts.

The sting of blood heated his cheeks. He was a knight of the realm, and here he was acting no better than a rude young squire.

The corners of her lips tilted up slightly. She had always been able to read him so clearly.

“The lord, my lady?” he asked desperately.

The delicate smile vanished. Once more she looked at him with grave intensity.

“I have no lord,” she replied.

“Madam?” He was stunned.

The world had taken on a shimmering edge, and she was the center, the sun, the moon, all the jeweled stars. He was falling, but there was nothing left for him to hold on to.

“There is no lord,” she said very quietly. “There is only you.”

He gaped at her, unwilling to believe what she said. The tightness in his chest became an unbearable pain. Unconsciously he pulled at the neck of his hauberk to ease it.

The muted chatter of the ladies behind him faded into silence.

Solange stood before him unmoved, unblinking. Her lips seemed very red against the paleness of her face, her eyes shadowed as she watched him. There was about her, as always, a fragility that drew him, even though he knew she had perhaps the strongest will he had ever encountered.

Now the stern purpose of her gaze was belied by the physical trembling he could see affecting her entire body.

She was mocking him. She could not be serious.

“My friend,” she said, then paused. Carefully she reached out and placed her right hand on his shoulder. Her voice was low and sweet.

“Wilt thou have me?”

Chapter One

ENGLAND, 1279

A
s children they had rarely fought. Her elevated status as daughter of the overlord had placed her in a social restraint that even as a young girl she had fought to outwit. Solange hated embroidery, she loathed the lyre, and lessons in decorum sent her scrambling away to the remotest corners of the castle, where Damon would find her tucked away, spinning stories to invisible companions.

Many of the serfs whispered that she was an enchanted child, a changeling elflet traded in the cradle for the true human daughter. Perhaps some of her strangeness was the influence of her French-born mother, who had died giving Solange life without ever bothering to learn the language of the adopted country she had detested.

But there was no doubt that Solange had a solitary sort of presence, a singular completeness all her own.

From her mother she had inherited her milky skin, almond-shaped eyes, and fey demeanor. From her father, the stoic Marquess of Ironstag, Solange received her slender frame and the love of reading. And yet she
was widely considered a child of mixed blessings, born of castle folk but not wholly one of them. Most of the servants avoided her, fearful of the unusual.

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