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She had all her teeth.
Raymond heaved a sigh of relief. She was wrapped in too many layers of clothing to see aught else, and she fought him with all the strength in her slight body, but her teeth glimmered behind her blue lips and they made a sturdy clinking as they chattered together. That meant she was young enough to beat children, in reasonable health, capable of warming his bed.
He tried to lift her onto his horse, but she twisted in his arms, flinging herself down onto the woodland path and scrambling away with a desperation he respected. Respected, but ignored. Too much was at stake for him to pay attention to a woman's apprehensions.
She floundered in the snow that misted the ground. Catching her, he wrapped her in his cloak, bundling her so tightly that her hands and feet flailed uselessly. With a heave, he tossed her face down in front of the saddle and mounted before she regained her breath. "Steady, Lady Juliana, steady," he soothed, patting her back as he urged the horse forward.
She battled against his solace, kicking her heels and trying to slide away. He didn't understand her persistent opposition in the face of such odds, nor did he understand the impulse that drove him to try and comfort her as if she were some wild bird he could charm to his hand.
Perhaps her refusal to scream appealed to his sympathies. She'd made no sound since he'd stepped out from the trees, only fought him with determination and silence.
Then again, perhaps she couldn't say anything. Bundled as she was, with her head bobbing beside the horse's belly, he couldn't see her face, and hebegan to wonder if she could breathe properly. Leaning down, he groped for her face, and those same strong teeth he had admired bit deep into his fingertips. He jerked his hand back with a grunt and an oath, shocked by her violence yet not truly surprised.
Hadn't he compared her to a wild creature? His own carelessness was responsible for his pain, and he sucked the drop of blood from his skin and then tucked his hand into his armpit to warm it.
Her breath froze as she panted harshly, the sound rending the still air. Scratched from the sky by bare, ice-tipped branches, the snow sifted down relentlessly, filling the spaces between the dried leaves with a thin layer of white. Damn, it was cold, and getting colder by the moment. "We'll be there soon," he said aloud, and held her firmly as his promise brought renewed strife.
I He topped the hill, and the blast of frigid air snatched his breath away. Here the threatening blizzard threatened no more. It was reality, and the world disintegrated into a narrow, white passage that opened as they moved through and closed behind them. The woodcutter's hut stood not far ahead, yet he worried about the lady, now rigid where she lay over the horse. He leaned over her to give her all his body warmth and peered ahead.
Dug into the hill, the hut had proved a godsend for him, providing a stock of fuel for warmth and a store of dried foods. Traveller's provender, he'd guessed, provided by Lady Juliana of Lofts and used by him for her abduction.
"Just a few more steps, my lady." His breath froze on the muffler before his mouth, but he thought it fair to warn her since she seemed so averse to his touch. Sliding out of the saddle, he pulled her down. She tried to stand; her legs collapsed, whether from cold or fear he didn't know. Like a bear with a haunch of venison, he dragged her along and swung wide the door. "We're here," he said unnecessarily. "I'll stable my horse close by the door. The fire's just beyond. If you'll sit on the straw until I can carry you in there . . ."
Her wide eyes glistened in the dim light as he dropped the bar, then she bolted into the little room beyond. Through the slats of the feeding pen, he watched as she frantically paced the length of the tiny room.
A fire burned in a pit in the middle of the woodcutter's shed. The smoke rose to a small hole in the thatch, melting the flakes as they drifted in. Drawn by the flames, she held her hands out and looked around, dazed. All the cracks in the walls had been stuffed with cloth, the window had been covered with a blanket. A rough bed laden with furs stood in one corner and his gear lay in another. But the only door lay behind him, and she couldn't reach that.
To give Juliana time to adjust to her surroundings, he took his time feeding and grooming the hardy gelding that had served him so well, but at last he could delay no more. "We'll be cozy enough, my lady, to weather the storm here."
She blinked away the snowflakes melting on her lashes and stared at him, and he wondered what she saw that made repugnance curl her lip so expressively. He was only a man, albeit a tall one. "You need to remove your damp clothes," he said.
He expected her to try and run again, but she seemed hypnotized by him, treating him with the attention one might give to a ravenous bear. She flinched when he removed his cloak from around her, then her cloak, heavy with snow. Working the gloves off her hands, his gaze remained fixed on her face, wondering what lay beneath the overhanging hood and the drooping muffler.
This woman he would spend the rest of his lifewith, and he was torn. Since the day King Henry gaveherto him, Raymond had wondered what she lookedlike. Now he would see her, but what would a fewmore moments matter?
Her shivering calmed his brief cowardice. As he untied the hood and unwrapped the muffler, he realized she was more than just young and healthy.