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Summer 1190 In the Reign of King Richard, Coeur de Lion The Forest
The leader of the small party of bandits crouched tensely behind the barrier of the old oak, watching as the group of noblemen approached.
The leader's eyes narrowed, assessing the strength of the oncoming travelers.
A shivering sensation seemed to steal its way into the leader's heart. The man at the head of the group of well-dressed and richly festooned riders was wearing a tunic that proclaimed the colors of the house of Montjoy, a tunic with a rich yellow-gold background, the Plantagenet lions in one corner to proclaim the Norman relationship to the King, and the field of broadswords in the lower right-hand corner, perhaps to signify that the Montjoy men were knights and fighters, and gained their riches that way, and would continue to hold them so.
Again, that ripple of unease swept along the outlaw leader's spine. Montjoy. A formidable opponent.
But as the bandit had heard, this party of travelers was lightly armed. Montjoy wore no armor. He was clad in silver-gray chausses, trousers and hose combined, leather boots; the family-crested tunic; and a sweeping gray cloak held in place at his shoulder with a jeweled brooch.
He wore no hat or cowl, and his hair seemed blacker than a raven's wing beneath the sun, a color that somehow added to his formidable appearance, for despite his lack of armor, he was formidable appearing indeed. He rode a huge black war-horse, an animal incredibly tall and muscled, and atop it, he seemed almost a god, exuding an energy and animal strength as great as that of the beast beneath him.
It shouldn't have been he traveling through the forest here. Word had come that a small guard would be riding through with a wagonload of wheat, wool and coin taken from the poor people of a nearby village as taxes trumped up for the Prince's "protecting" army.
A good king sat on the throne now. At least, a king that the people admired and loved. But that good king had left them. He'd gone off on Crusade.
And already the strong control of his barons and government that Henry II had held was sinking by the wayside. Dukes, counts, earls—they were all becoming little kings unto themselves. Chief among the power grabbers was the King's own brother, Prince John. Richard had scarce left the country but already John's hands were reaching.
The laws were left to the lawless.
But Montjoy ...
His ability as a knight was legendary. Perhaps they should melt away into the forest now.
"Nay, nay!" the bandit leader mouthed, determined not to be swayed by this man's appearance. Damian Montjoy, Count Clifford, was nothing more than mortal man, no matter how tall and dark and powerful he might appear.
Once again, a shiver snaked along the bandit leader's spine. The man did appear forbidding indeed. No armor padding made the man's shoulders appear so broad, no plates of steel added to the hard ripple of muscle beneath the fabric of his clothing. The lines of his face were hard ones, perhaps handsome in their very ruggedness, cleanly structured. His cheekbones were high and broad, his clean-shaven jaw was dead-set firm, with a surprisingly sensual mouth above it. His nose was long and very straight, and like his high cheekbones, his eyes were well set apart, dark it seemed today, but the bandit leader could not see them so well against the glimmer of sunlight that now rose behind the travelers.
The sunlight caught and shimmered on something else. Something else created of silver and steel. Montjoy's sword.
Perhaps this had been a mistake ...
"Now?" the man to the leader's right queried.
"Nay, nay, not quite yet. Wait. Wait until they are close, so close that we can see them sweat, and give them no leave to defend themselves."
And so they waited. One more moment ...
"Now!" the leader cried. They leaped out from the shield of the trees, five of them dressed in simple spun-wool tunics and hose in the colors of the forest, brown and green, their silver swords flashing the only bright color about them. They were quite good at their craft, having learned over the past months to separate many men from their riches, doing far more with threats than with any real violence.
The bandit leader, clad in a green cloak and cowl, faced Montjoy, determined not to display fear.
"Halt, sir! Give over the coin wrested from the people, and pass in peace!"
Montjoy quickly took in the five who had surrounded his party. A slow smile of challenge curled his lip. "I give over nothing that is mine!"
"Give over, my lord, give over!" cried the fatter of the two friars accompanying him.
Montjoy cast him a contemptuous glare. The bandit leader swiftly decided to use the good friar's fear.
"Surrender the riches you rob from the people. We shall then let you go in peace!"
"I'm not known for being a man of peace," Montjoy retorted. "Nor have I robbed any people."
"Then the blood be on your hands, sir!" cried the bandit leader.
"As you would have it!" Montjoy returned. His sword was suddenly freed from his scabbard. To the bandit leader's astonishment, he sent that sword flying first against the haunches of one friar's horse, and then the other's. Both animals reared, then went flying down the length of the road.
"Hop aboard the wagon, boy!" Montjoy ordered his pale young squire, and the towheaded boy did as he was commanded, leaping for the wagon and the reins.
"No!" shrieked the bandit leader, but it was too late, for Montjoy had sent the flat of his blade against the wagon horse, and that animal, too, bolted, carrying all the riches from the forest.
"God's blood!" swore the bandit leader, turning about with dismay. "Lem, Martin, go! See if you can catch it!" Then the leader turned again, certain that Montjoy would have given chase to the wagon.
He had not.
"Now, lad, you will give over!" Montjoy ordered. "Surrender, or your own blood will be upon your hands!"
"Jesu!" shrilled one of the remaining bandits, stepping forward. He shook, and his fingers trembled around his sword, but he was determined to meet Montjoy for his leader. "Meet my sword, my lord!"
Montjoy did. Without causing a whit of harm to the young man, he swirled his great broadsword from atop his horse, and sent the bandit's blade flying to some far corner of the forest.
Once again, with cold, calculating eyes, Montjoy faced the leader.
The leader's blade rose high. Despite the encumbrance of cloak and cowl, the leader moved agilely in a circle, trying to unseat the nobleman, who now had the advantage of height and power.
And more. Montjoy had unbelievable confidence. A deep, rich laugh riddled the air as his blade swung in a sure arc.
Swords met and clashed. The bandit dug in against the force of power. Montjoy smiled. "A worthy opponent, so I see. Ah, but young! Too young to have learned that supple play cannot always make up for youth and inexperience!"
Once again, Montjoy swung, this time catching the blade on an upward stroke.
And like the sword that had come against Montjoy's before it, the bandit leader's blade went flying into some green oblivion of forest, bracken, and trees.
Retreat could be most noble. The bandit leader had learned that long ago.
Noble, indeed. And now—this very second!—seemed the most noble time ever for retreat.
The bandits knew how to melt into the forest. "Separate!" the leader called to them, and fell into the westward section of the road, running down a trail of dense bracken and bush, certain that, if they went in separate directions, the great Lord Montjoy could not follow them all.
Nay, he could not.
But their scattering did not cause him the least confusion.
He meant to follow the leader.
Just seconds after plowing down the overgrown and near-forgotten trail, the bandit leader heard the heavy sound of the destrier's hooves pounding close behind.
The bandit leader zigged and zagged, surefooted and comfortable with the forest here.
And all to no avail.
Within seconds the horse was there, pounding the ground, breathing down the bandit leader's very neck.
The great horse reared, and the bandit leader pitched forward, rolling quickly to avoid the lethal hooves of the animal. Panting, gasping, the leader tried to rise again, but was cut down quickly with a new assault.
The man had leaped from the rearing horse.
The bandit, felt the warm, redolent earth, and reached quickly for a handful of dirt and grass, throwing it into Montjoy's face as he approached.
"Fool!" Montjoy roared, adding almost as an afterthought, "and an ignoble and dirty fighter, at that, I daresay!" The dirt did not even give him pause. He was still coming.
Scrambling against the ground in an attempt to either gain footing or find some other weapon to hurtle at the aggressive Montjoy, the bandit cried back in return. "A dirty fighter against a filthy set of monsters keen on destroying this country!" There were no stones or twigs. The bandit's fingers curled around another clump of earth.
But there was no chance to throw it. Montjoy, not blinded at all but ever more furious, moved with a startling ease and agility for a man so well-muscled. Like lightning, he crossed the few feet left between them, and pounced upon his prey himself.
A knight's thighs, solid as rock, wrapped around the bandit's hip. Teeth gritted tight, struggling desperately against the hold, the bandit lashed out, slapping, clawing at Montjoy's face.
Something within Montjoy quickened as he held the bandit. Sheer amazement at his discovery regarding his opponent held him still for a second, and the bandit leader lashed out again with renewed energy, desperate for freedom.
But Montjoy was quick, and ruthless in his determination. Gauntleted hands found the bandit's wrists and forced them tightly together, as if they were locked in prayer. The force and weight were so great that the bandit cried out in pain, trapped for the moment, but still defiant and determined to fight.
"Now, my young cutthroat—" Montjoy began, easing his weight up just a bit.
The bandit found an advantage and bucked upward, struggling fiercely and now trying to kick out with a vengeful fervor.
"Christ's bones!" Montjoy swore. "But you are looking for a serious whipping with an oak stick—"
"Give me a chance with a sword or an arrow—"
"Any further chance, and I'd have had your heart cut squarely from your body. Your chances are all over. Ah, yes! An oak stick, I think." The bandit leader was horrified as Montjoy suddenly leaned close, something akin to a smile curving his lips. "You should be stripped bare, I think, and severely chastised from head to toe."
The leader's eyes widened. Stripped?
"What say you?" Montjoy demanded, and his thumb traced the bandit's chin. It was a sensual movement, and the bandit was horrified to feel a rush of heat at the touch. Dear God, he wouldn't. He might. Did he know that he dealt with a woman?
Ah, yes, the way that he touched her. And the way that it made her feel.
Fury cascaded through her. Against herself, and most certainly, against him. Then a shivering, fierce and desperate, seized hold of her. The bandit's eyes closed. Memories swept over her and the years washed away. So many years. But the forest was the same, green and deep. And a lad lay on the ground, blood gushing from the stump of his arm, punishment for the thievery of a deer, a mouthful of food for the harsh winter to come.
Her eyes flew open, meeting Montjoy's. "I shall kill you! Let me up!"
"Oh, I think not!" His thighs locked around hers tightly. Intimately. Yes, he knew! He spoke in a leisurely fashion now with a husky voice that taunted and teased. "You're nothing but a little thief out here in these woods, and you ought to know that you're interfering with something bigger than you can imagine. You'll learn to stay home and—mind your fields. Or whatever it is that you usually do mind."
"They hang thieves, you know."
"Let go of me! I'll kill you or you can kill me! But get your hands off me!"
"Hmm." Montjoy seemed to enjoy his dominant position with his legs locked around her. "Once, the Norman laws were truly hard against poaching and thievery. Why," he paused, leaning very close, "once, a poacher might have been blinded and castrated for just such an offense as that you've committed here. Lie still. You wouldn't want me to determine to lop off your manhood, eh?"
His eyes glittered tauntingly. She felt her temper rise, along with a startling degree of heat within her. Her voice seemed to have left her when she first tried to speak.
"Ah, let's see. Where shall I begin? Strip you naked first, I think. And see what there is that one might lop off."
Enraged, she found her voice. "Hang me, and be damned with you—"
"Life is precious, my little thief. I'll not take yours, nor will you take mine!"
"Then let me go!"
"Not on your life!"
The bandit spit cleanly into Montjoy's face.
Montjoy swore. "A thief and a brat! With lessons in manners to be learned."
Lessons in manners! Her fury and her fear suddenly exploding into recklessness, she reached swiftly for the knife that protruded from a small sheath in Montjoy's scabbard. The blade flickered before Montjoy's face.
"I'll have your throat," she cried, triumph ringing plainly in the words. "Now, my great lord, you step back! Take yourself off me, and get yourself to a field to plow! Ah, wait! Perhaps I should strip you naked first. And lop off your manhood!"
The point of the sword was close against Montjoy's throat. So close that it tickled the flesh beneath his jaw. "Up!" the bandit cried.
She smiled like a cat. The tables were turned. "I'll punish you the way you intended to punish me, my lord. Stand, and pay heed. I shall give you a few lessons in manners. Taught, perhaps, with an oak stick!"
Eyes narrowed dangerously, Montjoy began to rise as he had been ordered.
"There, there! Good lad!" she cried. "Ah, now! Where is a good oak stick when one is needed? I do believe that the big strong knight might find his arrogant manners well repaired with a good switching! Ah! But we need some bare flesh here, I think."
"Take care—you will have what you threaten!" he warned.
"Hmm," she murmured. "You are the one who so seems to enjoy threats!"
"You tempt the very heavens!" Montjoy warned.
"I tempt the heavens? But sir, I hold the blade! Ah, dear! A stick! Upon that bare hide, I think. It is a kindness, surely, to teach lessons in humility. And what could be more humiliating than trudging naked through a forest?" she taunted. Ah, yes, this victory was sweet!
But too soon savored, for even as Montjoy rose and the bandit scrambled up, keeping the knife at Montjoy's throat, Montjoy suddenly defied the blade, his fingers reaching swift as sound to swipe the hilt of the weapon from the bandit.
"Nay!" she cried.
But Montjoy's fingers were vises, nearly crushing her bones. With a second cry, she released the weapon, gasping at the pain, stunned to be weaponless against the dirt once again.
"What, ho!" Montjoy cried. "And now, you see, I hold the blade!"
The tables were indeed turned.
Ah, it seemed time to run again, the bandit thought in distress. Running could be such great valor ...
But running was impossible. Even as the bandit turned to leave, Montjoy reached out. Those powerful fingers curled into the material of her shirt. She was wrenched around, gasping.
"Oh where, oh where, is a good stick when one needs one!" Montjoy moaned mockingly. "Ah, but first! Let's snatch away every stitch of clothing here."
The bandit tried to escape his grasp. The shirt tore.
The flesh beneath Montjoy's fingers was soft and ivory in color. She wasn't just a maid, he determined. She was an exceptional one. No matter how she attempted to deepen her voice, it was soft and feminine.
Thinking her nothing but a girl, he eased his hold somewhat. A mistake. She was a maid, indeed, but a bold and angry one. Any attempt at mercy on his part would be a foolish one. She would kill him now if she got the chance.
He had nearly lost his hold on his captive. He caught the bandit's arm, and wrenched the defiant soul around with such a force that the bandit fell flat to the forest floor. Gasping, stunned, the bandit tried too late to rise again.
Montjoy straddled her, his thighs a punishing prison once again.
He had wanted to tease her into submission. He had been startled by the sensual pull he had felt toward his captive, and had even thought that the sexual threat might make a more amiable prisoner of her.
Excerpted from Damsel in Distress by Heather Graham. Copyright © 1992 Shannon Drake Pozzessere. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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