Marcus smoothed his palms over the stone wall's surface. It was cleanly worked and neatly mortared, and its facing and joints offered no toeholds for intruders who might seek to scale it. That didn't surprise him, since this thick curtain of rock protected one of the crown's properties.
However, it also served as a barrier to some of Marcus's property, and scale it he would. It had been many years since he had played the thief, not since the hell of his youth, but one never forgets such skills. This wall would not keep him out.
He moved through the night, over to where the wall curved around a corner of the garden it enclosed. Here the flat stones could not be laid in straight courses and their corners would protrude. The best masons would finish the surface to be as smooth as on the straight sections of wall, but most builders were not that fastidious. That was something else that he knew a thing or two about from the dark years of his youth.
His fingers swept the joints, and he found what he needed. The jutting edges were shallow, but deep enough for a body practiced in such things. Groping his way in the silence, he climbed until he sat straddling the wall. A convenient fruit tree grew near the corner, its branches like silhouettes in the full moon's light. He jumped over to it, his soft boots barely making a sound. With the stealth of a cat, he lowered himself into the early autumn smells that filled the garden.
He studied the bulk of the house, guessing how its chambers were arranged. Would she be in the large one on the second level, the one on the left indicated by two windows rather than one?
The vaguest sound interrupted his inspection ofthe building. He slid toward it along the wall until he could see a section of the garden not shadowed by trees. The bright moon displayed a little pool, its glittering surface dotted with fallen leaves. A woman strolled down the path surrounding it, pausing every now and then at bushes to touch one of the late-blooming roses.
Her unbound hair, darker than the night, fell around her body, swaying with her step. She wore a straight, pale flowing robe with long broad sleeves. It was the sort of thing a woman might put on when she first rose from bed. He could barely see patterns on it indicating rich embroidery. The night was cool, but she did not seem to notice that the thin fabric offered little warmth.
She moved toward him, close enough that he could see her moonlit face. Pale of skin, and large in eyes and mouth, it appeared mysterious, and matched the descriptions he had been given. One of the knights who had brought her from Wales had called her a moon goddess, and the praise had been apt. Her subtle glow cast a spell on the garden. And on him.
She paused in her stroll, not more than ten paces from where he lurked in the shadows. "I know you are there. Go back the way you came, and no one need know that you dared such a thing."
Her voice was quiet and melodic, steady and unfrightened. But then the princely blood that flowed in her veins would neither quicken nor slow easily, for any man or any danger.
"I know that you are there," she said again. "I can smell that more than plants are in this garden."
He could smell her, too. Something freshly earthy, a memory of spring, floated on the small breeze along with the scents of dying leaves and flowers.
He stepped away from the wall. She heard him, and turned.
"Who are you? Not a thief, despite your furtive arrival, if you make yourself known."
"Nay, not a thief."
"Whoever you are, it will go badly for you if you are discovered here."
"For any man but me, maybe so. But something that is mine is here. I am Marcus of Anglesmore."
She reacted. Barely, but it was there, a vague stiffening. She gave him an encompassing glance, from head to toes. "What is here is not yours."
"Not yet. Soon, however, since the illness that has confined you these last weeks is clearly over." There had been no illness, of course. Only a long lie. He had always suspected as much, and her barely clothed presence in this chilled garden proved it.
She cocked her head, and regarded him as if she could see him very clearly in the dim light. "It took you long enough to decide to find out how serious this illness was. Perhaps you do not welcome this either, and prayed the malady was fatal."
Her perception surprised him, although he had never prayed for her death. He simply had allowed the ruse to continue until the insult it implied had conquered his reticence.
He did not know why he had reacted so strongly against the offer of this girl. After all, the marriage promised power, and the favor of the King, and a chance to prove Anglesmore's loyalty beyond any doubt. His response had come from deep inside his soul, perhaps a rebellion by the part of him that knew how to scale garden walls in the night. It had made no sense, but still an inexplicable resentment had seethed in him ever since hearing King Edward's plan.
He had hoped that seeing her would soothe that rebellion, and it did. She was not childish, as he had feared. She possessed a poise and confidence far beyond her young years. She had not screamed for guards or her women on discovering his intrusion.
She was not running away now, even knowing who he was. That was a good sign.
Perhaps a very good sign.
He walked over to her. She took one step back, but no more. He lifted a strand of her silky hair, and then pushed all the tresses back over her shoulders so he could see her face better. The moon's light did not illuminate her much, and the subtle details were invisible, but he could tell that his first impression, that she was beautiful, had been correct.
"I find myself thinking that I should thank my king," he said.
"You can barely see me."
"I can see enough to know you are lovely."
"And that alone reassures you? You are a man easily appeased, if a woman's beauty is enough to satisfy you."
"I see more than beauty, and I find myself pleased, not appeased, that is all."
"Aye, the true prize is the land and wealth that go with this marriage. A bride's beauty is merely a sweetmeat added to a full meal. It is the way with such things, I know. But the favor of a king always has its cost. Do you understand the price of this banquet?"
He understood. But, oddly enough, that was not the part that he had resented. "The duty that Edward gives me is a small cost, and his to demand of me even without the prize."
"With that duty goes danger."
"That is also the way with such things." He stepped closer, and deeply inhaled her spring scent. Rich. Full of sensual fertility and the delicate odors of flowers. It reminded him of carefree days as a child, when the warmth of May promised freedom and play and joy. "It is very sweet of you to warn me, though." He touched her face, and slowly skimmed his fingertips down the curving line of her heart-shaped face.
Very little space separated them. He could decipher the patterns on her robe now, and their intertwining Celtic lines. She did not retreat from his touch, but merely looked into his eyes. Hers were dark pools glimmering like the pond at their feet. He felt a subtle tremor beneath his fingers, but still she did not pull away.
Something invisible and wordless passed between them. A mutual sharpening of awareness. A recognition, and acceptance, of what was to come. Images of that possession entered his head, and the garden shrank to a very small space fully occupied by a stark intimacy.
"I remind you of the danger for your own sake," she said. Her words came low and halting, as if she knew that what filled the air made everything else irrelevant. "It would be a pity if the knight standing in front of me died soon."
He smiled at her warning. Then again, perhaps it was meant as a threat. Right now he didn't care which it had been. His thoughts were on other things. He rested his entire hand against the warmth of her face. She did not pull away, and a heavy silence beat between them.
His thumb wandered to her lips, and brushed their full, velvet swells. "Why do you dislike that notion? Does the knight please you just as you please him?"
"You appear handsome enough, and not as brutish as I expected."
"Not brutish at all with you, I promise. Here, I will show you." He bent and kissed her alluring mouth.
She did not react with shock or surprise, but a small hesitation stiffened her. Then a subtle yielding seemed to sneak out before she could catch it. She might have lost a debate before arguing very far.
He had intended it to be a small kiss, a gentle first step to reassure her. Her acceptance served to fuel his simmering blood, however, and the small kiss became a long one. He took her face in both his hands and gently tasted and nipped until a barely audible sigh breathed out of her and into him.
He gazed at the face he held. Her expression, heavy lidded and bright eyed, appeared unbearably sensual in the moonlight. Desire began a fierce pounding through his head and body and the same primitive excitement pulsed in her. He felt it. He almost heard it. It flowed around them and between them and in them, luxurious, tantalizing, and seductive.
He should leave. He should woo her slowly the way a good man does his intended. He should not take advantage of her ignorance, and her vulnerability after her first kiss.
He knew full well how a chivalrous knight should behave. Instead he pulled her into his arms.
Shock this time. Confusion. "I do not think . . ."
He silenced her with another kiss, and caressed down her back. She was naked beneath the thin gown, and the feel of her feminine softness and warmth, of her full, invisible curves, inflamed him. Her body moved in reaction to his touch, both retreating and encouraging all at once. He pressed her closer, enclosing her in his arms, and turned his kisses to her neck. She gasped quick breaths, a series of tiny, astonished announcements of delight.
And then, with a pliant stretch, she surrendered and impulsively embraced him back.
She intoxicated him. Her scent, her body, the kiss she returned, maddened him. In his mind he was already on the ground with her, sliding the robe off, warming her with his hands and mouth, covering her with his body. Kissing her still, he lifted her in his arms and carried her to a bench near the wall.
He settled her on his lap, swearing he would only dally a bit more and then take his leave. But the feel of her on his thighs and the new closeness of her body, so available beneath the thin robe, defeated that moment of good sense. Nor did she resist. The kisses turned mutual and hot and savage. Passion made her wild and her abandon became audible. For an instant, no more, she hesitated one last time when he slid his tongue into the moist warmth of her mouth.
He wanted more. Everything. Now. He caressed her stomach, then higher to the swell of her full breast.
A startled, muffled cry escaped her. She broke the kiss, gasping for breath, and leaned away as she shook her head. It looked less like a denial than that she sought to clear her thoughts.
"This is wrong. A mistake," she whispered.
He eased her closer again while he smoothed his fingers over her breast's tip. Its erotic peak hardened more at his touch. "It is permitted. We will marry soon."
"Nay, we will not."
She disentangled from his embrace, jumped from his lap, and began to run away. He grabbed for her, but caught only a thick strand of trailing hair. Still, it stopped her. She froze, her back to him, her shoulders still trembling from the passion they had shared.
"Come back to me. You know that you want to."
"What I want is a small thing in this. In all of this."
"Not to me. Making you want me, and then fulfilling your desire, will give me great pleasure when we are wed."
"You and I will never wed."
"We will. Very soon. I will not permit more delay now that I know what is waiting."
She glanced over her shoulder. "It must have been the full moon. It makes some women mad."
"Nay, it was the pleasure. That too makes some women mad, and you are one of them. If Edward had not given you to me, I would fight to claim you now anyway."
She walked away. It made her hair yank in his hand, and he released it.
She gave him one last look. "Now the moon is making you mad. The King's man should not be swayed so easily by a few kisses in a garden."
Nesta rose from her bed, sleepless again. Naked, she walked to the window and peered down at the spot where she had recently behaved very stupidly.
She should stay away from moonlit gardens. They kept getting her into trouble.
Marcus would return in the morning. She did not doubt that. He would come, and demand entry, and no tale of illness would work this time. He would come to speak of the betrothal, or just to woo his lady, but he would be here all the same.
That was going to complicate things.
A muffled sound distracted her, and she turned to the bed. A dark head rose and darker eyes blinked away sleep. "Are you awake still?"
"Aye. Go back to sleep," Nesta said.
"You should put on a robe, or wrap yourself in a blanket."
"I do not feel the cold as most others do. You know that."
"Still, you might take ill. That would be a fine thing, and hard to explain a real illness after this long false one. And it might keep us here."
"Nothing will keep us here."
The head sank back into its pillow. "I have been told that he is very handsome."
"Not handsome enough. No English knight would be."
A deep yawn filled the chamber. Nesta turned back to the window. In her mind's eye she saw a man standing near the pool, tall and strong and young, with a stimulating vitality in his aura. Aye, very handsome, and exciting enough to take her breath away and turn her knees to water. But still, not handsome enough.
From the Paperback edition.
Copyright© 2002 by Madeline Hunter