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My Noble Knight
By Cynthia Breeding
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Cynthia Breeding
All right reserved.
Scotland, ten years later
Scents of sex and musk permeated the cool night air, accompanied by deep grunts, soft moans, labored panting, and sharp gasps. Cautiously, Deidre pushed back the bracken and peered into the sheltered glade, canopied by a velvety black sky sprinkled liberally with diamonds. It had seemed harmless enough, but she'd lost both her escort and coin, and barely managed to escape abduction the night before. She wasn't taking any chances. To her right, a banked fire sent slow spirals of blue smoke curling lazily into the air, interrupted only by an occasional crackle of yellow flame when the breeze fanned unburned wood.
Deidre squinted beyond the light of the smoldering embers and detected movement near a shrub. A giggle accosted her from the left and she shifted her gaze. A naked young man, his erection huge in the dim light, was coaxing the shirt off a girl who lay writhing on the ground beneath him. Well, maybe he wasn't "coaxing" her clothes off. Tearing them off might be a better description. Deidre blinked. In her unfortunately still-virgin state, she'd never seen a naked man before. She gasped a little as he lowered himself over the girl and she heard the muffled shriek that told her he had not beengentle. Apparently, though, the woman was used to it, for she was bucking enthusiastically, begging him for more.
Deidre surveyed her surroundings. The remains of a huge bonfire cast shadows of the trees near the glade. A road or track led off around a bend. As her eyes grew accustomed to the light, she could now see more squirming couples beneath the low bushes that spread toward the tree line. Quite a bacchanalian sight.
Listening to gasps and groans of pleasure was really more than a reluctant virgin of four-and-twenty could take. She should have lost her accursed maidenhood and been wed long ago were it not for her gift of Sight, which kept her practically a prisoner at Childebert's court. Her cousin needed her talent, he said, even though his Christian mother, Clotilde, frowned on anything pagan. Sometimes Deidre thought the only reason Clotilde tolerated her was for the large dowry she'd inherited from her mother, which Childebert had access to as long as she remained a maid. Between her cousin and his mother, they'd managed to discourage any and all suitors.
Suddenly Deidre became aware of other noises. Boots. Male voices. Laughter. Drunken laughter, from the sound of it. She stepped back quickly, intending to seek shelter in the trees. Too late. She had been seen.
"Begorra! There's a fine lass," someone shouted. "Doona let her get away!"
Deidre tripped and picked up her long skirt. Dratted thing. Traveling clothes were always heavy. The skirt alone had to weigh near a half stone. Deidre hiccupped hysterically, stifling a scream. She ripped the headdress off; the ungainly thing was hindering her sight as she raced toward the trees.
A big, burly arm caught her roughly around the waist, expelling the air from her lungs. She gasped as she fought to free herself, kicking and scratching.
"Och, a feisty lass. I like that kind." The man laughed, and, with one huge paw on her shoulder, spun her around.
He wore a kilt and sash and his breath reeked of liquor, although he was not drunk. He was barrel-chested, big and bulky, with gray hair and a bushy beard, and his eyes glinted like steel in the moonlight. He grabbed her face in one beefy fist and leaned close, his mouth slack and drooling. As much as she resented her virginity, she was not about to lose it to this lecher. The thankful young stable lads to whom she'd slipped forbidden sweetmeats at Childebert's court had taught her a few things. Deidre brought her knee up hard to meet the lout's groin.
A surprised look crossed his face as he doubled over. She lost no time in pushing back and starting to sprint away, but the man lurched for her and she landed on the ground with a hard thud. He rolled her over, his considerable weight pressing her down, leaving no room for air in her lungs.
"Ye'll pay for that, lassie, but I like it rough," he said, grabbing her long, flaxen hair and pulling her head back painfully. He pushed her skirts up and thrust a knee between her thighs, the wayward kilt obligingly out of the way.
Deidre struggled, but her arms were pinned. She fought to keep her knees together, but he only laughed and spread her legs farther. All those years spent dreaming of giving herself willingly to one of the gallant knights from The Book were about to disintegrate into her worst nightmare. Desperately, she snapped at him with her teeth, drawing blood from his chin.
He raised a fist and she turned her head, bracing herself for the blow. Perhaps being knocked unconscious would be the best thing that could happen to her. As if he read her thoughts, he brought his hand down and roughly flipped her over.
"Ye can't do much damage like this," he said, "and I can go deeper."
Deidre tried to push against him, and then realized she was probably helping him more than herself. She gritted her teeth. Bâtard. Then, suddenly, the weight was lifted and she could breathe. She rolled to a sitting position, hands protecting her face, and gulped for air.
"I'm thinking the lass might not be wantin' to play yer game, Niall."
The voice of an angel. It had to be. A soft, rich Scottish burr, not menacing, but authoritative all the same.
Deidre opened one eye and peered up. By the saints. It could have been the archangel Michael himself, complete with flaming sword. Righteous indignation flashed across his face as he towered over her attacker, claymore at the ready. Relief flooded her and she couldn't help but notice the muscular, leather-clad thighs that were at nose level. She forced herself to look up past a flat belly and narrow waist. Firelight reflected off a finely chiseled face with high cheekbones, a straight nose, and a sinfully sensual full mouth. The wind rippled through her rescuer's shoulder-length dark hair and caused the flowing white shirt he wore to flatten against a broad chest and powerful arms. A whimper escaped her. Angels shouldn't look like this. If they did, she was definitely going to start attending more of those boring Masses she hated.
"It's Beltane, mon!" Niall said churlishly. "What's she doing out, if she doesn't want to be taken?"
Beltane. The ancient pagan fertility festival held on May 1. She'd forgotten, after last night's narrow escape.
Her personal god turned a discerning gaze on her. "I don't know why she's here, but I'll make sure the lass gets back to where she needs to go." Niall gave him a challenging look. "Safe and unmolested," he added, as he met the older man's gaze.
Niall stared at him sullenly and then gestured to his men that they were leaving. He looked down at Deidre ominously. "Ye haven't seen the last of me, lass. No woman gets the best of me."
She shuddered slightly as he strode off, straightening his sash. And then, her divine savior was offering her his hand.
She slipped hers into his. Strong, warm fingers closed over her hand, sending tiny tingles coursing up her arm. He put a steadying arm around her waist as she stood and those sparks ignited into full flames that shot deeply through her belly. She wanted nothing more than to press her suddenly achy breasts against that hard chest. Even her wildest flights of fancy about Camelot's knights hadn't evoked such passion.
"I'm Gilead. Are ye all right? He didn't hurt ye?"
Gilead. Perhaps the comparison to the archangel Michael hadn't been such a stretch after all. Gilead was one of the names of the Bloodline that traced through Kings Solomon and David all the way back to Abraham. The original Gilead's father had been named Michael. Did this Gilead have aught to do with the Stone that she had come to find? Sometimes the Sight worked in strange ways. She wished her gift was more reliable.
For certes, he had the most brilliant blue eyes she had ever seen. Even in the near darkness, she could see they were fringed with thick, black lashes that any female would kill for. His clean soap and leather scent seared her brain; the man was intoxicating. He might have stepped right off the pages of The Book, even if he wasn't wearing shining armor. He did have a sword. Here he was, all six-foot-plus of solid, muscular, good-looking male-exactly the kind of man Childebert had kept away from her-and all she could do was stare at him like a dullard.
"I'm Deidre. Yes. I'm fine." Entretien éclatant! Brilliant conversation, that!
"Dee? Of Dundee?" He looked puzzled that her name sounded like a town.
Dee. She liked the Gaelic pronunciation, or maybe because it was coming from him. He really could make Adonis weep in envy. "No. My name is Deidre, but you may call me Dee if you wish." She added, "Thank you for rescuing a damsel in distress," hoping he'd respond in true knightly fashion. Even with all the personal defense skills she'd covertly learned, she had been in need of rescuing this eve. Like it or not.
He nodded curtly. "I'd best be getting ye to the Hall, then." He turned abruptly and headed back up the path.
Not quite the answer she wanted, but ... "Wait!" She ran to the bush where she'd dropped the satchel that held The Book and a few other necessities. "I'll need this."
He gave the small bag a curious look but said nothing as he began to walk.
Deidre started after him and tripped again on her heavy skirt. Merde! Did her celestial deity have to take such long strides? She was a lot shorter than he was, barely coming to his shoulder. And, he seemed annoyed with her. Hurt swept over her and then she raised her chin defiantly. It wasn't her fault she'd nearly been raped by some brute. She inhaled quickly as realization hit her. Certainement. It was Beltane. Her fabulous man had probably been on the way to rendezvous with some wench and she'd ruined his plans. She felt a ping of jealousy toward her unknown competitor. He was her knight, right from The Book. Mon Dieu, to feel Gilead's full sensual lips on hers ...
Her fantasy paused. "Are ye coming?"
Her mother, rest her soul, always told her she was a dreamer, but just looking at him and hearing that delicious brogue ... hmmm. The scowl on his face brought her fanciful notions back to reality. Really, he didn't have to spoil the moment and be rude. Swains who rescued damsels were supposed to pledge faith or something. That's what it said in The Book.
She stuck out her chin, picked up the skirt, and hurried to catch up. "I'm sorry if I'm keeping you from an ... appointment."
His glance swept down to her bared legs and she thought she saw his mouth twitch. "Ye are a Sassenach, an outlander. It's a strange accent ye have."
Deidre thought quickly. Her cousin was powerful and the Franks always a threat to the Isle. If Gilead found out she'd escaped from Childebert's clutches, no doubt she'd be returned for a ransom and incur not only the king's wrath, but his dungeon as well. She couldn't take that chance, not now when the mists surrounding the hidden Stone were finally lifting. If the Stone were found by the wrong person ... Well, the fewer people who knew about her mission, the better.
Her erratic "gift" really was a curse, she thought again. Had the rumor not reached Paris that Bishop Dubricius of Britain claimed to have had a vision of a spectacular golden jeweled cup from which the Christos had drunk at his last supper-and had not that greedy holy man issued a reward for its discovery-Childebert would probably never have remembered the stolen Philosopher's Stone.
But he had, and he'd called Deidre in to question her about it. The familiar light-headedness that heralded a Sighting had engulfed her immediately. After more than a decade of the Stone being hidden from her Sight, her senses stirred. An image of the sea and craggy hills spotted with heather had told her the Stone was no longer in Gaul, but if Childebert sent men to Scotland and he found the Stone, he would turn it over to the ever-needy hands of the Roman Church in exchange for Rome's powerful backing. The wisdom of the Goddess would be lost to history. When found, the Stone must be returned to its grotto in the Languedoc and the priestesses recalled. It was her duty to see that it was done.
She couldn't deny the Sighting, but she had misdirected her cousin's men toward Rome instead, while she made plans to visit Pictland, and the father she'd never met. When Childebert traced her escape-and he would-to a fishing vessel that left from Calais, he'd assume she had gone to the closest port in Londinium. He'd not, she hoped, look for her this far north.
But what to tell the darkly brooding Eros standing in front of her?
"I come from Armorica, across the sea."
He frowned. "Ye're a long way from home, then. How came ye here?"
What to say? Twenty to thirty red-cloaked cavalry, looking for all the world like a turma from the old Roman legions, had surrounded her small escort and taken them away last night. Dion, the sturdy captain of her loyal guard, had rallied their defense, but he had been wounded badly, slung over a horse, and taken, along with the rest of the men. If Deidre hadn't wandered a little too far into the cover of the trees to insure privacy for her personal ministrations, she would have been abducted too. She clutched her satchel with The Book inside; thank goodness it had contained items she'd needed to use and she'd taken it with her. It was all she had. She hated having to lie, but she had no idea whose troops those were ... perhaps even her hero's. Until she reached her father's lands, her identity would have to remain a secret.
"I ... uh ... was traveling and our coach was accosted by highwaymen. I just barely managed to escape."
He raised a dark eyebrow. "My Da willna be pleased to hear that. Were ye coming to Culross? Do ye have family near?"
Culross on the Firth of Forth was close to her destination. Or at least where she thought Caw's lands would be. "Yes."
Gilead stopped and was apparently waiting for her to continue. "My mother is dead." No need to tell him how long ago or that she thought her father's holdings would be a good place to search from. "I am kin to Caw of Pictland," she said. "I was hoping he'd take me in. Do you know him?"
"Aye. His wife is a distant relative of my mother's." His face softened momentarily. "But, lass, Caw was long banished to the West. He was killed in battle not long ago."
Deidre drew her breath in sharply. Since her visions of the Stone had begun again, her goal had been to reach Caw. Childebert did not know who her father was, and she would have been safe. She swallowed hard to keep the threat of panic from bubbling up. She'd need food and lodging now that she was on her own, and somewhere to start finding out what happened to her escort. "I guess I'll need to find employment."
He looked skeptical as he turned back to the path. They continued to walk even more briskly. Deidre hiked her skirts up farther in order to match his stride, and again his glance swooped down. A small smile flitted briefly across his face. Enough to get that delicious tingle started again.
His voice was gentler when he spoke. "My mother will find ye something. Mayhap as a lady's maid."
"A maid?" Deidre nearly bumped into him as they turned a sharp corner and he abruptly stopped. They had left the trees behind and the path they were on converged with a wider road that led up a steep hill to a stone castle. Well, perhaps more of a fort, she realized as she studied it. She saw how earthwork banks were laid out defensively as they climbed the incline. It was steeper than she thought, and she saved her breath for exertion, since Gilead had quickened the pace instead of slowing it. Did that devastating bulk of muscle never get winded? Apparently not.
Metal ratcheted wheels clacked, and chains rattled as the massive, heavy oak gates slowly opened at their approach. Gilead looked down at her as they waited and a corner of his full mouth quirked up, giving him more the look of a fallen angel.
"Ye might be putting yer skirts down now. It'd be best if the men dinna think ye a wanton."
She felt herself flush crimson. She knew that. Modesty had been drilled into her at the Frankish court under the strict tutelage of her prudish aunt Clotilde. Most of it hadn't stuck, to her aunt's frustration, but it was his fault she'd had to hike her skirt to her knees, anyway. Furiously, she shook it out, only to have the hem in back tangle itself. "If you'd adjusted your pace to meet mine like a proper courtier ..."
Excerpted from My Noble Knight by Cynthia Breeding Copyright © 2007 by Cynthia Breeding. Excerpted by permission.
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