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Queen Eleanor's Court at PoitiersMay 1171
In the three months she'd been at Queen Eleanor's court, men had called her many thingsthe least unpleasant, and familiar, had something to do with ice and frost. She'd heard that complaint more times than not.
Yet now, each article of clothing seemed to evaporate like the morning mists. Her gown fell from her body, leaving the evening air free to whisper across her quivering flesh. With nothing more than a smoldering stare, he undressed her slowly, one agonizing layer at a time.
Adrienna of Hallison trembled with anticipation, fear and a longing so intense she was certain she'd die. She wanted more than just his gaze. She wanted his breath on her neck, his lips against hers. Her breasts strained against the bodice of her gown, seeking his caress, aching for the touch of his hands.
Beneath the tight layers of linen and silk that concealed her body, her skin tingled. Fire and ice coursed through her veins. She prayed she'd not reveal her desire by blushing. To her utter dismay, heat filled her cheeks. She studied the richly laden table before her, hoping to hide her flaming face from him.
Men were the same everywhere. Fortified keep or lush palace mattered not. They had fought for the right to thaw her composure. All had failed.
Their false, near-fawning attention held little interest. At times, when it wasn't downright tiresome, it bordered on the ridiculous.
If they could perceive her thoughts at this moment they would be shocked. No man had ever caused her blood to rush in this manner. Never had anyone conjured this unbidden state of desire from her. They would be appalled by the heat coursing through her body at the mere stare of a stranger. A dark and dangerous stranger dressed in the deepest shade of blue she'd ever seen. The near-black attire made him even more noticeable than the brightly adorned peacocks that filled Eleanor's court.
Yet, those peacocks had been correct. Her body, as well as her heart, had been frozen for what seemed a lifetime.
The stranger's stare bore through her, forcing her attention back to him. His eyes stripped away her clothing and laid her body bare.
With a quick ragged breath she yearned for his touch. Would his fingers be rough against her soft flesh? Would his hands carry the same flame that burned from his eyes?
Adrienna tore her gaze away and stared at the ornate tapestries hanging on the walls. His unwanted attention would do naught but give lie to her carefully built reputation. He would peel away the cloak she'd so carefully wrapped around herself in an attempt to shield her heart from pain.
Nay. No matter how extreme the temptation, she'd not let any man, especially this unknown one, break through. She'd cared about one man and he'd deserted her, leaving her alone and a maiden still in her father's keep.
Never again would she be drawn into any man's promises or lies. No. This time she would do the choosing. Her life, her future, would be laid out by her own hand alone.
Torn from her thoughts, Adrienna leaned toward her dinner partner.
Elise of Fairway nodded toward the stranger. "Who do you think he is? I've not seen him here before."
With feigned indifference, Adrienna glanced about the crowded hall. "Who? There are so many strangers here this night."
Her friend lowered her voice to a whisper. "The one staring at you as if he'd like to dine on your body for his supper."
There was little she could hide from Elise. They'd been friends since the moment they'd both arrived at the queen's court. Two not-quite-young widows with little to offer except the power inherent in land and men. They shared a common bondboth had been sent to court to find a husband.
Not just any husband, but someone who could advance their fathers'ambitions.A goal neither of them cherished.
When faced with the options her father dangled before her, Adrienna chose marriage. It had been an easy choice. Her sire had offered to find her a position with the court, or to remove her from his keep and allow her to fend for herself. Marriage, or certain death.
Adrienna was not ready to die. But neither was she ready to become some man's chattel.
"Oh, him. Hopefully he finds someone else to play the gallant with this night." She studied those seated at the high table. "Ah, no worry. Sarah has spied him."
Elise's unladylike chortle drew the attention of several nearby diners. She covered her lapse in manners with a cough, managing to hide her mirth. "The poor man. Shall we pray for him?"
Adrienna did her best not to imitate her friend's reaction. "What and spoil Sarah's fun?"
Startled by the queen's page standing at her elbow, Adrienna hastily swallowed. She wiped the amusement from her voice. "Yes?"
The youth looked down his nose at her. "Queen Eleanor requests your presence." His voice cracked, giving lie to his manly attitude.
Elise asked, " Would you care to guess who is with her?, The question required little thought. Adrienna knew the answer before she looked toward the queen, and the stranger beside her. He caught Adrienna's perusal and nodded in a knowing, near-intimate manner. Dear God, could he read her thoughts? Did he know of her desire? Her stomach fluttered. Her pulse raced. She silently cursed her body's reaction, the queen and the stranger all in one thought.
The page held out his arm and announced, " Milady, I am here to escort you."
She rose and placed a hand on his arm. Before leaving, she looked down at her friend. "My pardon, Elise, I will return anon."
Elise pointedly looked across the hall and back to Adrienna. "Do not make any wagers on that. I would hazard to say you will be occupied elsewhere for the rest of this evening."
Adrienna ignored the sudden racing of her heart. She gritted her teeth and shot her friend a look that sent the other girl into a fit of laughter.
"Milady?, The page's voice held a note of impatience. She nodded at the young man. "Let us go."
While holding her head erect, she forced her legs to carry her across the floor. It proved a hard task to clear the distance between her table and the queen's dais at the end of the hall. Her knees shook. She could barely draw in a steady breath. What was it about this man that caused her to react in such a manner?
Lord, this stranger was a sight to behold. When the troubadours composed their tales of mighty heroes, surely they'd sung of him. Had she ever seen anyone as tall? Was there any other man present who appeared as strong? The breadth of his shoulders bespoke of someone accustomed to the grueling tasks of war. Surely he would wield a broadsword as if it were a feather. She doubted if he needed more than one mighty swing to cleave an enemy in two.
Gem-studded blue eyes from his sun-darkened face pierced her with a knowing gaze. She felt as if she could hide nothing from him.
Her footsteps faltered under his hypnotic stare. A laughing countenance flashed through her memory. Did she know this man? Had she seen him before? She shook her head slightly. No, it was just a passing thought easily pushed aside. The memory lingering in her mind was of a boy. Not the confident, self-assured man she now faced.
As she knelt in obeisance, Adrienna was startled by a firm touch on her arm. With a large, callused hand, the stranger helped her rise.
"Lady Adrienna, may I present the Earl of Wynnedom." Queen Eleanor smiled and then nodded toward the earl.
"He has graciously requested your company for the meal."
Hugh, Earl of Wynnedom, looked down at his wife in amazement. Lord, how she'd grown. The pale hair of childhood had darkened to a burnished gold. The slight figure had blossomed into a lushness that beckoned a man's touch.
Like a beautiful and rare lotus flower blooming amongst roses, she stood out from most of the women at court. His wife had not grown into a pale, frail beauty of legend. Instead, she'd developed into a woman whose very appearance bespoke of untold nights of passion.
When last he'd laid eyes upon her, she'd been nothing more than a girl. A child sitting atop their marriage bed dressed in wedding finery and playing with a cloth doll. A sight that twelve years ago had amused and confused him.
Quickly, the image of the child fell from his mind. Just as quickly, the anger and thirst for revenge rushed forward to fill him. Do not be led by pride and revenge alone. Words learned long ago echoed in his ears. With great effort, he quelled his thirstfor now. Eventually, he would let her experience the soul rending taste of heartache, lies and deceit.
"Lady Adrienna, will you join me?, The look she turned on him made him want to laugh. he'd been correct. She knew him not. He held back a smile. This would prove all too easy.
When she hesitated, Hugh prompted, " You've no husband or lover awaiting your return?"
The queen interceded. "No. LadyAdrienna is a widow." He bit back another smile. Not only did Adrienna not know him, it was obvious that King Henry had not informed the queen what was afoot. Good. He mentally thanked the king for his silence. Then he wondered how much it would cost him.
Adrienna shook her head at the queen's statement. "You can hardly call me a widow when there was nothing worth calling a marriage."
And whose fault was that? He swallowed his question before it left the recesses of his mind. Instead, he offered her his arm. "Ah, milady, you whet my curiosity. Such a contradictory turn of events must be explained. Perhaps your regaling of the incident will keep us amused during our meal."
Hugh led her to one of the private tables tucked away in a shadowed alcove. These small chambers permitted more private conversation. Subdued light from the well-placed wall sconces added a measure of intimacy.
Adrienna hesitated briefly before following him into the recessed room. She said nothing, but made certain the curtains were left open. While they ate and conversed in the shadows, they would still be able to see the high table directly before them.
He didn't mind. After all it was not as if he intended to bed her during dinnerthat could wait for a time. Her shoulder brushed against his thigh as she took her seat on the short bench. The brief contact felt like a flame against his flesh. The unbidden image of her kneeling naked before him flashed through his mind. Hugh frowned. Thinking with his loins would gain him little.