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By Helen Kirkman
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
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Chapter OneWessex, southern England, 716 A.D.
HE WAS A FIRE SPIRIT and he had come for her.
Everyone else in the small chamber of the Wessex nunnery stepped back. Not Alina. She knew him.
"The woman is mine. I will take her and none shall stop me."
Alina's breath choked. He would do what he said, this creature made out of light and fire and unstoppable force. He had proved his words before.
Her gaze caught his face, fixed on its fierce, brilliant planes. She had loved this man with all she had, through the wild extremes of joy and sorrow.
She had destroyed him.
Love was no debt payment for that.
He had come for her, her wild-souled Northum-brian, and he would take: not love, but vengeance.
Her betrayal of him had been absolute. He had no reason for forgiveness. She would give him none. Not if it meant her life.
She stepped forward, out of the press of shivering strangers clustered round her.
"Brand," she said. It was the Saxon word for fire. Living fire.
He moved. Just the tread of one heavy warrior's foot, and the cold empty space round her gaped wide in the sudden rustling retreat of a dozen people. She stood her ground in front of them, just as she had come in from the orchard, her rough, plain tunic and kirtle stained withpurple sloe juice, streaks of wild dark hair escaping from the uncomfortable restriction of her coarse veil.
A nun's wimple in front of the finest, the best, the highest-hearted man in all the lands of England, of Britain.
It was a killer, that understated Northern English irony. She had forgotten. It would bite through steel, just like the snake blade sheathed at his hip. His hand rested on the hilt like something that belonged there. It did.
He strode forward. Sunlight from the open window glinted on his flame-bright hair, dazzled on the gold twisted round his wrists, on the sword hilt, on the buckle of his leather belt. Her aching eyes stared in disbelief.
But it was there: all she had robbed him of by reason of who she was. Wealth, position, riches, all the very foundation of his life had been restored.
"You seem surprised."
She raised a dark-winged brow in exactly the expression she had used on importunate vassals in her uncle's palace at Craig Phádraig. Never let any inappropriate emotion show. That was life's teaching.
She smiled. That was because she could not get another word out. If she did, he would read the fear in her voice.
The gold light of his gaze flicked at her.
"Nay, stunned is what I should be, looking on the living dead."
Her insides jumped. For one instant she thought she saw in the luminous golden depths of his eyes some reflection of what her forced deception might have done to him. It seemed greater, different, deeper a thousandfold than she had expected - "The lost Princess of the Picts. Or am I addressing a phoenix risen from the ashes?"
There was nothing in his eyes but fire. He thought she had been killed and her body burned. She had made sure of that. He was not supposed to pursue her. He was a creature of impulse, not cold calculation. Everyone said so.
"Aye," she said in the voice that matched the haughty turn of her brows. "Restored, it seems. Just like you."
She forced her gaze to take in the deep blue dye of his tunic, the pure gold thread decorating its edges, the fine dark cloth of his trousers, the leather shoes. She kept coming back to the gold and the garnets. Just what he wore at waist and wrist would have bought more land than this small abbey owned.
She would not let herself look on his face, because if she did, he might read all that she would conceal. Bright metal clinked as he moved his hand.
He would see terror.
"So? Is the past wiped out?"
She raised her head.
His eyes glittered. All the gold about his person, the twisted thickness of the arm rings, the belt fittings, the plated scabbard chape, dulled into leaden grey beside that living brightness. His eyes were the colour of light-shot amber. Liquid fire.
"Indeed? Shall we see if that is so?"
She tried not to look at him.
"Of course it is so. The past is gone. What would you expect me to remember? Flight? Loss? Disaster?"
He walked toward her.
"Such things stick in my mind."
He kept moving. Power leached from him, from the broad shoulders and the thick warrior's hands, from a body that belonged to a hero from some blood-thirsty English saga. Its strength spoke the language of fear; the splendour that adorned it brought awe. None of it mattered beside the fire in his eyes.
No one could hold the gaze of such eyes. There was a faint rustling noise around her like the sound of a dozen indrawn breaths. A dozen people shrinking back.
They must have been plastered against the wooden walls by now, the abbess, the priest, the nuns, the servants, all the inhabitants of the southern Wessex abbey that had given her sanctuary. By the time the fire spirit reached her, he and she could have been the only two people on Middle Earth.
She took a breath that scorched her throat. She had no words left. Nothing to frame the truth that she still loved him, that that was why she had left him.
"Brand." It was all she could get out of her mouth, just his name, like someone repeating an enchantment that might be deadly. "Brand."
He stopped, almost touching her but not quite. She would never have that again, the wild frightening magic of his touch. Her body ached for it, even now, pierced through with longing. Everything, words, even the sound of his name, was burned away.
Excerpted from Embers by Helen Kirkman Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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