Authors: Joanne Rock
Exiled noblewoman Isolda of Iness longs for the one thing her forest home cannot provideâa baby to inherit her family's lost lands. She has already chosen the virile hunter who visits her woods to father her child, intending to lure him to her bed before quickly sending him away. Besides being young and handsome, the stranger also warms Isolda's untouched body with a desire she has never felt beforeâ¦.
With no adoption agencies in the Middle Ages, where would a noblewoman turn if she desperately wanted a baby and she's been cast out from her keep during war time? While I'm sure there were many children in need of good homes during the 11
century, Isolda of Iness can't afford to come out of hiding long enough to search for a child who needs her. So she resorts to baby-making the old fashioned way. All she needs is the right man to cross her path.
Cormac of Glenmore can't believe his eyes when Isoldaâa virgin by all accountsâlaunches a full-scale seductive assault. It takes a heroic effort to resist her, but that's just what he must do. Because Cormac wants far more than one night with the mystery woman in the forest, and he'll do whatever he needs to make her his for a lifetime.
I hope you enjoy
The Virgin's Pursuit
and, as always,
For my grandmother, Grace, a heroine in her own right.
The potion tasted bitter, but the result would be the sweetest blessing imaginable.
Isolda drank it down in one gulp and shuddered, her eyes focused on the second half of the equation that would bring her heart's desire. She imagined this one would taste far more pleasant.
Peeping over a low-hanging branch from her hiding place just outside her woodland cabin, Isolda of Iness watched the hunter as he prowled through the forest. Tall and powerfully built, he moved with surprising silence over fallen tree limbs and dead leaves. He was young. He was virile.
He was the perfect choice to be the father of her baby.
She had watched him hunt in her woods for many moons, and had long admired his respect for the animals. He never took more than he needed, and he always treated the land and its creatures with care. In a world gone crazyâwith wars and violence everywhere she turnedâIsolda had come to value a strong but gentle hand in a male. Her hunter was a rarity among men, and she would have no other give her the one thing she could not provide for herself in the forest home she'd come to love since her self-imposed exile.
The longing for a babe had started even before her retreat to the woods. Norman invaders had killed the neighboring lordling she should have wed. Even though she had not loved the man or the match, she had looked forward to becoming a mother before all of Northumbria was cast into turmoil.
Nearby, the hunter paused. His thick muscles bunched. He turned.
She had never ventured this close to him before, always keeping her distance and making herself disappear when anyone passed near her well-hidden hut. But today, she wanted to be seen. Noticed.
She'd planned for this moment over and over againâhow to win him to her bed to achieve her heart's desire, yet send him on his way again without undue interest in her life. Her past. Her precarious position as an exiled noblewoman.
What kind of life would it be for her child if her true identity was discovered? No. She had to be very, very careful. Discreet. That meant she couldn't approach him like a highborn woman accustomed to sweet manners and courtly deference.
She would throw off her mantle of decorum for the sake of the babe she wanted so desperately. A child that she would nurture to strength in the safety of the woods until her heir was strong enough to claim the Iness birthright.
That meant she would approach the hunter with the earthy charms of a young kitchen maid or an experienced widow. If only she had observed such interactions more carefully instead of averting her eyes to the occasional lovers' games that played out in darkened corners of the hall or shadowed nooks between the corridor tapestries.
Now the hunter's tawny eyes swept the tree line, penetrating the thick hedge of thorny brambles she'd trained all around her tiny thatched dwelling. Her heart pounded with a strange excitement that plagued her only when she laid eyes upon him. She told herself it was because she knew he was the key to her success if she wanted to have a baby.
Yet she'd never experienced such a reaction when she'd been in the company of her betrothed, before her world fell apart.
“Who's there?” The hunter spoke, and his voice was a new sound to her. He'd always been silent in the past, except for the occasional whistle to his merlin if he brought a bird for hunting.
The timbre of his smooth, deep bass hummed all around her, echoing through her veins. The welcoming reverberation calmed her and helped draw her feet forward.
Her body accustomed to the thorny hedge, she ducked and drifted easily through the maze of sharp obstacles until she stepped clear of it. Into sight.
“Greetings, sir,” she started, unsure of her words, but injecting a note of husky warmth into her voice. “Your journey must be a long one to venture so deep within the woods. Fare you well?”
He studied her in silence with the same predatory stillness she'd observed many times when he stalked his prey.
She'd never been so close to him, nor had she ever viewed him so keenly before. He had the lithe strength of a stallion with his sleekly muscled grace. His dark looks were not the foreign variety of the Norman invaders, although his tawny eyes were unusual for a Scot. Thick, dark hair shone with good health and revealed good care of his person, one of many reasons she'd chosen him for this task.
He was garbed in the muted shades of the forest, with dark braies that hugged muscular thighs and ended around the taut bulge of his calves. His boots were laced up the ankle, the heavy leather protecting him from the thick forest brush, and enabling him to tread with utter stealth.
His tunic was of a crude hue that many a crofter would wear in the field. Yet the fine pleats and embroidered embellishment about the placket conveyed a far higher status. A deposed nobleman? The thought struck a deeper note of fear. Nay. No nobleman hunted the woods alone as often as this forest warrior. His sword was simple and free of gems and scrollwork. A rough leather strap served as his belt, with a functional eating knife at the hip.
Surely this hunter's position leaned more toward a successful trade.
“My journey has been long,” he admitted after a moment, his finely sculpted mouth capturing her attention as he spoke. “Have I ventured near another town to meet a fair maid I've never spied before?”
“I wash clothes in yon river,” she lied, pointing away from her cottage to help ensure he did not know where she lived. With luck, he would think her a lowly washerwoman and never seek her out again, which would keep her babe safely in her care alone.
Then, rousing her courage, she made a bold suggestion. “Perhaps you would like me to wash your clothes?”
As soon as she made the offer, she realized she'd spoken a bit too softly, her tone lacking the brash flirtation she'd heard more experienced women use. But the words themselves were so improper, she found it difficult to infuse them with more suggestive meaning.
“You are unprotected here?” he asked, looking around the clearing for some companion. “Does no one accompany you?”
The concern in his voice alerted her to how badly she'd misjudged this business of seduction. He was not thinking about stripping down to nothing and taking advantage of her in the remote woods. He worried for her safety. The notion touched her heart even as she feared she would not be able to achieve her heart's desire. What if this man proved too noble to touch an unchaperoned maiden?
“My friends have returned to our village with the washing, but I have lingered hereâ¦hoping to see you.” She met his gaze with all the directness she could muster, allowing the carnal nature of her desire to show in her eyes.
When an answering heat fired in his expression, a tense awareness apparent in his limbs, she glanced away again. She had not expected such immediate results from her admission.
“This is not the first time you have been in these woods.” It was no question. His voice, tinged with new understanding, stroked over her senses.
He stepped closer.
Her throat constricted.
She merely shook her head in response.
“You take a great risk,” he chided, lifting a hand toward her.
Everything within her stilled. His fingers skimmed the fabric of her sleeve without grazing the skin beneath. Her flesh tightened and tingled with his nearness. Heaven help her, she did take a great risk. What did she know about him, besides his gentle respect for the forest animals?
“I have seen you walk with care through these woods before,” she admitted, her gaze fixed upon the broad column of his throat, since she found it difficult to meet those tawny eyes directly. “Your demeanor did not suggest a need for fear.”
Her heart thudded strongly, the fertility potion she'd consumed adding to the dizzy sensation he inspired. She was not prepared for the brush of his fingertip beneath her chin or the gentle tilt of her jaw to face him.
“A woman can never be too careful alone with a man.” That heat she'd felt rolling off him before returned with new force, prickling her skin like too much time spent in the sun. “The lure of such sweetness can bring out the beast in any male.”
He warned her away, his voice turning as fierce as his gaze. But strangely, she had no wish to heed it. Something in that fiery expression of his made her more curious than fearful.
“I have learned experience is a far more memorable teacher.” She raised her palm to his chest, letting it hover over his heart for a long moment before she found the power within to drag her fingers lightly along the hard plane of muscle.
She had witnessed her cousin tease a young groom thus once, and that man had been noticeably affected. Would her touch prove as tempting to the hunter?
“What game is this?” His eyes narrowed, and he released her chin to grip her hand in his. “If these are the hands of a laundress, then I am the king of the realm.”
He smoothed his thumb along her palm, making wide circles that spiraled and narrowed until he reached the heart of her hand. Only then did she realize her error in the lie. For while her hands were no longer the smooth, unblemished mark of her rank, they also lacked the deep red, irritated flesh of a laundress.
Her cheeks flushed hot from the untruth, but she could not lose him now. She had been drinking her potion for a fortnight, preparing herself for this meeting when she was at the most fertile time of her moon cycle.
“You do not play enough games, sir, if you find this one objectionable.” Taking a deep breath, she willed her heartbeat to steady along with her nerves. “Does it matter how we come to be in one another's path so long as we both enjoy the diversion?”
Cormac of Glenmore did not begin to find anything objectionable about the willful, independent woman doing her utmost to seduce him.
If anything, he had ventured into these woods for many moons in the hope of protecting her from afar. He'd heard tales about the daughter of a noble house who had escaped her home during a Norman attack. Her father had died defending his keep and her mother had remarried one of the invaders to save herself. But their sole heir had disappeared. Some claimed she'd been carried off like her mother. Others said she'd perished in these very woods during the harsh winter that had followed. Yet there'd been sightings of an ethereal, golden-haired beauty roaming the woods, rumors of the sole heir's spirit lingering in the forest where she'd died.
The blue-eyed blonde pressing her palm to Cormac's chest right now was no spirit, however. She was a living, breathing woman who tempted him beyond reason. He'd lured her out of hiding as surely as he'd coaxed the cagiest harts and boars from their lairs. But even though he would give his sword arm to take what she offered, the predator inside him remained wary of any prize that appeared too easily won.
A greater danger might lie ahead. He simply couldn't see it yet.
“Perhaps it does not matter what brought us to these woods.” He kept her hand captive in his, certain he must have found the elusive Lady of Iness. “But I would know your name at least. I am Cormac.”
Would she remember the name? He had served the Scots king long enough to have met nobles from most of the ruling houses, including her father. He waited for any sign of recognition, but found none. It was a common enough name, especially with no identifying characteristic attached.
“Very well, Cormac.” She tossed her unbound hair behind one shoulder, her lack of veil marking her as a lowborn woman. Or a highborn one who wished to hide her status. “I am Isolda.”
The confirmation of her identity was bittersweet. Yes, he'd hoped to find the lawful heir to the Iness lands. But knowing it was she who stood before him meant he could not lift her skirts and tumble her to the ground the way he could have with an eager laundress.
Still, her surcoat was not the stiff, jeweled garb of a noblewoman. Perhaps the months living in the wild had softened a fabric she'd stripped of all baubles, or maybe she'd taken a maid's clothing before departing the keep the day of the Norman raid. But the pale, sun-worn fabric conformed to her lean, womanly curves. The skirt hem was ragged from thorn bushes and time, the whole lower half of her garb darker from accumulated spatters of mud, even though presently it had been washed clean.
She wore part of the hem tucked into her girdle to better move through the forest, a trick employed often by field laborers. The raised skirt revealed an even paler kirtle beneath, and a hint of creamy ankle just above her boot.
Bending over her hand, he brushed his lips across the backs of her fingers.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Isolda.” With an effort, he raised his mouth from her sweetly scented skin, knowing he could not allow himself a taste.
He'd sought her too long to rush the meeting with undue haste. But why did she wish to tempt a stranger with such a bold overture? Never before had he been lured so thoroughly by a maid. Even now, his blood rushed through his veins like spring sap, his senses acutely heightened. Had the stretch of companionless seasons made her that lonely?
“You are determined to be noble, I see.” She frowned up at him as she withdrew her hand from his, her mouth forming a delectable pout. “Do you love another, I wonder?”
He had offended her. By the saints, she was a brazen lass to make her pursuit of him so apparent. What did a lord's daughter see in a man dressed so plainly he could be a merchant or tradesman?
Sunlight shone through the scant canopy of leaves remaining on the trees overhead, bathing her in dappled shadows.
“No woman holds my heart,” he assured her, missing the feel of her already. “And since you hardly know me well enough to wish for such tender sentiment yourself, I wonder what made you seek me out.”
“Women do not grow lonely where you are from, sir?” She folded her arms about her waist and seemed to take his measure.
“If they do, they have not come to me about it.” Was that truly all there was behind her request?