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The dowry rested uneasily on James Markham's conscience as he rode through the forest towards home. Though hidden away in his saddle pack, the money could get him killed--not that it would matter to his former betrothed.
At the crack of a branch, he whirled in the saddle, expecting to see his soldiers. But the path was empty, dwindling away into darkness as the day crept towards its end. The senses he had honed in battle awoke, though they had lain dormant through his long debauchery at court. He eyed the trees above him, searching for any unnatural movement. His ears picked up every rustle of leaves. Something wasn't right.
Suddenly, a man dropped from the trees above, crashing into James and sending them both tumbling from the rearing horse. James rolled onto his back, digging in with his heels, pinning the man beneath him. Before he could reach for his dagger, a sword appeared at his neck. He went still, and looked up the thin length of steel, past the arm that steadily held it. He almost laughed at the mask that covered the upper half of his assailant's face, until he saw the long, wild, black hair of a woman. He took a deep breath and didn't fight the arms gripping him from behind.
They remained silent, the three of them caught in a strange moment in time. James was so overcome with fascination that the possibility of peril receded from thought. He could see little of her face, but she was stunrung, with her hair untamed and flowing in dark curling streams down the cloak that covered her body.
"Your purse, sir," she said, her voice cold, impassive.
James grinned. He felt suddenlymore alive than he had throughout the months of drunken lethargy and self-pity. Then the sword pricked his neck and he flinched.
"Do you think this a jest, sir?"
"No, my dear. Is this a whim on your part?" Though he tempted much, he couldn't resist taunting her. He wanted to hear the husky, low tones of her voice. His arms were jerked back harder, and he grimaced.
"Your money," the man's voice hissed in his ear, spraying spittle in a hot wave across his jaw.
"At my waist, you fool."
The woman pricked the tip of her sword beneath his ear. Her dark eyes never wavered. "I have no qualms about killing you. I am a desperate woman, and you are nothing to me."
"Very convincing, my dear." He felt the new flow of blood seep into his collar. He resisted glancing at his horse, for fear they'd search it, too. "Your plight so moves me that I must warn you. My men are not far behind."
Her eyes betrayed her and she glanced back down the path. James barely felt her accomplice pawing at his belt. His gaze was drawn to the smooth line of her throat, then up to her full lips compressed into a thin line. Her eyes were black as the depths he'd lived through so recently. She'd slashed crude coloring beneath her lashes, and he thought perhaps she wore paint on her skin.
"I have it," the man said, then abruptly threw James to the ground.
James rolled over and the woman brought her boot down on his neck. The sword danced bare inches from his eyes.
"Search the horse."
He clenched his teeth. The dowry money from his failed attempt at marriage was all he had to restore his estates.
"But his men--"
"Do it now, quickly." Her low voice rang with authority.
Her hooded cohort untied the saddle packs and staggered beneath their weight. James sighed heavily, waiting for her grin of triumph. She showed nothing.
He had trouble swallowing beneath the pressure of her foot. Her cloak swirled above him, offering glimpses of feminine legs encased in hose.
"I will find you," he whispered.
She gave a faint smile, almost a grimace. "You may try. But you reveal your foolishness, sir. I could easily kill you."
He reached for her boot. As she lost her balance, the sword slashed his cheek, deeper this time. She steadied herself, applying even more pressure to his throat. The sword shook in her hand and blood from its point dripped onto his shirt. Her face betrayed its first emotionshock. She staggered back.
James lifted himself to his elbows and the sword returned swiftly.
"Do not tempt me, sir. " She looked up at her partner. "Let us be gone."
The man came forward with a rope in his hands.
James's calm vanished as he realized she might actually succeed with her theft. KnockMg the sword aside, he lunged off the ground and reached for the woman. She whirled towards him, but before he could touch her, a blinding flash of pain exploded through his head. The last things he saw were her blackrimmed eyes.
A dull pounding invaded James's dreams, and it seemed a long time before he realized it came from his head. Slowly, he opened his eyes. The room was dark, with no windows. By the dim light of a fire, he could see a prickly thatched roof. Where was he?
Suddenly, the fire roared higher, and James noticed a squatting man tending it, his face covered by a hood. The robbery had been no dream.
He remembered the woman then, and turned his head until he saw her. She was watching him through the slits of her mask. The throbbing inside his skull rose and ebbed, and he gritted his teeth. "You have all my money. What more could you want of me?"
She came out of the shadows into the firelight, wearing a man's short, black doublet, and hose beneath. Her legs were fine and long, her waist narrow but not fragile. Wild hair curled and clung, wrapping itself insidiously about her anus and waist. Of her face, he could only see her eyes and lips, and knew for certain that she had painted them. He saw intelligence and purpose in those eyes, and knew instinctively that she was the enemy.
"My lord, your head is badly bleeding," she said.
"I could not leave you to die."The Knight's Vow. Copyright © by Gayle Callen. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.