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The wood creaked, a faint noise that hardly anyone would notice. But Honora St Leger had trained herself to perceive details such as this, the underlying hints of a man's presence.
He was here. The thief she'd been waiting to capture.
Her knees ached against the cold stone floor of the chapel, and though she pretended to pray, she inched her way closer to the altar and the sword she'd hidden beneath it.
A sennight ago, the thief had stolen a wooden cross from the chapel. And last night, a chalice had gone missing. Her father's men had found nothing, not a trace of the thief.
The hairs stood up on the back of her neck, her instincts roaring. Closer now. Her breathing grew steadier as she mentally steeled herself for battle.
She reached beneath the altar cover, finding the cool metal hilt of the sword. The candles extinguished from a sudden gust of air.
Honora leapt to her feet, poised to strike. The soft sound of footsteps betrayed the man's presence. Darkness shielded both of them, and she used her other senses to her advantage. Although she could not see her opponent, neither could he see her.
The rhythm of footsteps shifted, and fear suddenly arced through her. Oh, Jesu. There were two of them.
The air within the chapel shifted without warning, and instinct made her swing the sword behind her. Her blade struck steel, and the thief parried, the blow numbing her arm.
Where had the cur gotten a sword? A sword meant he was no ordinary thief—he was a trained fighter. Her pulse quickened, her fear rising. Though she had full confidence in her skills, fighting blind made it more challenging.
And there was still someone else in thechapel, someone she couldn't see. The footsteps quickened, though she could not tell if they were running towards her or running away.
She swung the blade and was rewarded with a hiss of pain. 'Who are you?' she demanded. 'What do you want?'
When she sliced the sword again, it missed. She halted the blade, listening. Nothing remained but the coolness of air coming from the open door. Not a footstep, not a foreign breath marred the stillness. Both men had vanished.
Unless one of the men had driven the other off. Like an unseen protector.
She frowned, dropping to her knees again. The sword hilt warmed beneath her palm while her heart pulsed with energy. It had been half a year since she'd fled her husband's home, Ceredys, and returned to her father's donjon. She'd thought she was safe here at Ardennes. Now, she wasn't so certain.
It unnerved her that this thief kept returning, as though he were searching for something. But what?
Honora contemplated returning to her chamber, but her sister Katherine was still abed. She couldn't endanger her by leading the attackers there.
Instead, she lit the candles once more, trying to calm herself while the familiar scent of beeswax and old incense filled the space.
With her sword in hand, she sat against the stone wall. Though it was freezing and uncomfortable, she tucked her feet beneath her skirts.
It was then that she noticed the missing chest. She had brought it back from Ceredys, a gift given by her mother-in-law, Marie St Leger.
Furious, she eyed the empty space where it had rested only moments ago. As she murmured a silent prayer for Marie's soul, she vowed she would bring the thief to justice.
'She won't wed you.'
Ewan MacEgan shielded his eyes against the glare of the sun beginning to sink below the horizon. His brother's prediction came as no surprise to him. He was the youngest son, with not much more than a tiny plot of land. What right did he have, thinking he could win the hand of an heiress? None at all.
But this was Lady Katherine of Ardennes, the woman he'd idolised since he was a lad of sixteen. While others had mocked his clumsiness, she had smiled at him, reassuring, 'You'll beat all of them one day.'
Though she was only a girl of fourteen years, Lady Katherine's quiet faith had sustained him. Now that she had grown up to be a lady worthy of a thousand suitors, he intended to wed her.
'I've known her since we were children,' Ewan told his brother.
Bevan drew his horse to a stop by the river and let the animal drink. 'That was five years ago. Her father will want her to wed a wealthy nobleman, not a penniless Irishman.'
'I'll gain my own wealth,' Ewan answered. 'Enough to build whatever kingdom she desires.' Though he spoke with confidence, like Bevan, he had his doubts that Lord Ardennes would even consider him as a suitor for Katherine. The only thing in his favour was his royal bloodline, for his eldest brother, Patrick, was king of their province in éireann.
Bevan rested his arm upon the horse and regarded him. 'Let us help you. Take the land Patrick offered.'
'I won't take what I haven't earned. I'll get the land myself, or not at all.' He would not be a leech, feeding off the family's wealth.
'Too proud, are you?' The scar upon Bevan's cheek tightened. 'It won't do you any good here. The girl's family possesses wealth beyond your imaginings. She'll marry a nobleman of the highest rank. You haven't a chance.'
Ewan refused to believe it. 'I have to try.' He stiffened, keeping his gaze fixed upon the horizon. Urging his mount forwards, he tried to behave as if he didn't see the pity on his brother's face.
'There are others who might be more suitable,' Bevan continued, softening his tone. 'Someone from éireann. You don't need to live here, among enemies. Wed an Irish cailín.'
Give up this Herculean task, was what his brother meant. Don't reach for what you cannot possibly achieve.
It was what his brothers had counselled him, long ago when he'd expressed his desire to be a warrior. He had not possessed the natural talents of Patrick or Bevan. And though he'd poured himself into the training, his skills came from brute strength rather than finesse. Despite all the failures he'd suffered, he had overcome his weaknesses to become the man he was now.
Could he not do the same with winning a bride? Persistence counted for something, didn't it?
He turned to Bevan. 'She is the one I want.'
His brother expelled a sigh, drawing his horse to a stop. Although they were less than five miles from the donjon, Bevan turned his gaze westwards. 'Be sure of it, Ewan.'
They travelled alongside one another for the remainder of the journey, not speaking. The landscape was familiar to him, verdant fields that rolled into hills. In five years, none of it had changed.
It struck him suddenly that he'd been content here. Though most of his kinsmen viewed Normans as the enemy foreigners, Ewan had never seen them as such. He'd spent three years among them, after Bevan's wife, Genevieve, had arranged it. He'd finished his fostering with her father, Thomas de Renalt, the Earl of Longford. There, he had finally learned to fight.
A sense of unease passed over him, and he glanced at the scars upon his palms. Although the wounds had healed long ago, his hands were stiff. Grasping a sword took his full concentration, and he'd had to compensate for his awkwardness in other ways.
But he deserved the scars, for what he'd done to Bevan. He risked a glance at his older brother, wishing to God he hadn't betrayed him. And though Bevan had forgiven him, he felt unworthy of it.
Ahead, he spied the castle that belonged to the Baron of Ardennes. The fortification was a blend of stone and wood. The outer bailey wall stretched high, perhaps the height of two men. The inner donjon held stone battlements and wooden outbuildings. Though he had not dwelled within the fortress, he had visited a time or two, along with his foster-father.
He tensed as they drew close to the barbican gate, wondering if Katherine would remember him.
His grip tightened on the reins. During his fostering, Honora had nearly killed him on three different occasions. Accidents, she'd claimed. Though it was forbidden for women to train, that did nothing to stop her. She'd wanted to learn swordplay, like him, and he'd reluctantly offered instruction.
She was married now, he'd heard. Perhaps to a husband who could tame her wildness. He'd never met a woman so eager to wield a blade. And though he'd tried to avoid her, Honora had followed him everywhere.
Would that her sister had worshipped him so.
Despite the number of men vying for her hand, he intended to win Katherine first—no matter what it entailed. Anticipation rose up inside him, for soon he would conquer her heart.
The thief was among the suitors who had come for her sister; Honora was certain of it. With so many strangers, it would be simple enough to avoid notice.
She'd waited many hours until darkness shrouded the castle once more. In the ebony cloak of night, she moved soundlessly. Past the guards, keeping to the shadows while they conversed and played games of dice.
Find the chest, find the thief. It was as simple as that. Already, she had searched the Hall, but there was no trace of it among the low-born knights and retainers. All that remained were the private chambers reserved for guests of noble birth.
Not a sound did she make when she entered the first chamber. After searching the men's belongings, she found nothing. She slid against the wall, moving towards the next chamber. Ahead, she spied the guard standing by the staircase.
Honora held her breath, praying he wouldn't see her. Her father would murder her if he knew what she was doing.
When she reached the next chamber, she opened the door. Inside, silence permeated the space. She moved closer to a pile of belongings, staring at the shadows for a glimpse of the chest.
Abruptly, someone grabbed her. His hand clamped over her mouth, the other arm gripping her waist as he spun her around. Honora fought, kicking at his legs, but he lifted her up, pressing her back against the wall. A blade of moonlight slipped from behind the clouds, casting a beam upon his face.
She froze at the sight of Ewan MacEgan. By the Rood, she'd never thought to see him again. What was he doing here?
His sculpted bare chest gleamed silver, his pectoral muscles rising and falling as he breathed. Her heartbeat pounded, her skin prickling with gooseflesh, despite the warm summer heat.
'Looking for something?' he accused. His muscles did not appear taxed in the least by her body weight.
The last time she'd seen Ewan, he'd been a gangly boy of sixteen. Tall and thin, she remembered him as an awkward fighter, driven to succeed. He'd trained night and day, struggling to gain expertise.
The boy had become a man. A handsome one at that. His dark blond hair was cut short, emphasising a lean face and a strong jaw line. Broad shoulders revealed a tight strength she hadn't remembered. Ridged muscles lined his abdomen, down to…
Oh, dear God above. He was naked.
With that, every coherent thought left her. She gaped at him, unable to stop herself from stealing a long look. Her husband had never looked like this. Like a savage Celt, Ewan had a wildness about him that made her uneasy.
He eased her down the wall, still holding her wrists trapped. She had stopped struggling, too disconcerted at being near him. He released one wrist and ripped her hood free.
'You're a woman.'
She couldn't gather up her thoughts to answer.
'Who are you?' he demanded.
Her tongue caught in her throat. Didn't he remember her? After all the years she'd humiliated herself, tagging along and trying to defeat him in swordplay? But then, the darkness hid her features from him. He couldn't see her clearly.
'Katherine?' he asked gently.
Anger surged through her. No, she wasn't her beautiful, saintly sister. He ought to have figured that out, from her unexpected entrance into his chamber. Her sister wouldn't dream of entering a man's bedchamber, much less hunt a thief.
Before she could deny it, his mouth came down upon hers. A shocking sensation rushed through her skin, as though every part of her had caught fire. She forgot what she was seeking, forgot what was happening. The world around her crumbled, with nothing else, save his kiss.
She didn't know how to respond, and her lips remained frozen. Gentle and coaxing, Ewan slid his hands through her hair. His powerful thighs pressed up to her body, the hot length of him suddenly reminding her why it was unwise to awaken a sleeping man.
His hands caressed the hollow of her back, slipping beneath the man's tunic she wore. A light shiver rose up on her skin while his hands roamed her body, caressing her as though she were made of silk. The touch of his rough palms aroused her, and an aching warmth bloomed between her thighs.
The unfamiliar sensation caught her without warning. His rough palms stroked her spine, and she longed for his hands to move upwards. To fill up with her breasts, easing the heaviness and the shocking need.
Never had a man touched her in this way. Especially not her husband.
The memory slashed through her, shattering the moment. She pushed him away, her lips swollen and her body restless. 'I'm not Katherine.'
She nodded, not trusting her voice. She reached for her dagger, but discovered it wasn't there.
Ewan raised the blade, the steel reflecting in the moonlight. 'Looking for this?'
'I didn't come here to harm you.'
'No. Only to rob me.'
'I didn't even know you were here,' she protested. 'I came looking for—' She almost said a thief, but silenced herself. For all she knew, Ewan was the thief. Doubtful, but she could not rule it out.
'Looking for your husband?' he queried. Accusations filled up his voice, as though she were a little girl caught stealing sweets.
'My husband is dead.' She pulled his hand off her other wrist and held out her palm. 'Give me back my dagger.'
'No.' Ewan held it out of reach, and Honora lunged for it. With her full weight bearing down on him, she took him down. Before she could grab the blade from his grasp, he rolled over, his body crushing hers.
Trapped, she felt every line of his body. And the dangerous glint in his eye made her aware that she had made a very bad decision.
'I'm not the boy I was, Honora.' He kept her pinioned, and tossed the knife away. 'You won't defeat me in a fight. Not any more.'
Her face flushed. Apparently, he hadn't forgotten how she'd bested him. More than once she'd disarmed him, her fighting skills equal to his. But that was long ago.
'Let me get up.' She tried to sit, and Ewan rolled off her. He sat beside her on the floor, seemingly at ease.
She tried to straighten her clothing, regaining her composure. 'Why are you here?'
'I'm going to wed your sister.'
She bit back the argument that he was but one man among many. Her father hadn't settled the betrothal yet, nor would he, until he had taken each man's measure.
'I'm sorry I kissed you,' he said. 'I mistook you for Katherine.'
His apology only heated up her temper. Honora knew she wasn't as comely as her sister, but she didn't need to be reminded of it. 'Katherine would never enter a stranger's bedchambers.'
'Unlike you.' There was a hint of humour beneath his tone, but she didn't acknowledge the teasing. It made her feel insulted, and she regretted her impulsive behaviour.
The door opened, and Honora jerked to her feet. Oh, heaven. Another angry MacEgan brother was staring at her.
'Am I interrupting something?' He glanced at Ewan, who didn't seem at all embarrassed to be naked with a woman beside him.
'Honora was just leaving.' Ewan gestured towards the door, and she took the invitation gratefully. She didn't even bother about the dagger, so thankful was she to flee their presence.
Bevan closed the door behind Honora, setting a torch within an iron sconce. Ewan didn't miss the questioning look upon his brother's face. 'Wrong chamber,' was his only offer of explanation.
Bevan didn't believe a word of it, and waited for him to elaborate. Frankly, Ewan didn't feel like it. He'd been awakened by the sound of Honora's intrusion, and hadn't at all expected to find a woman in his chamber.
His uneasiness escalated, for he'd acted on impulse, kissing her. At first, he'd tricked himself into thinking Katherine had come to see him. Fool. Katherine was shy and demure, not nearly as brazen as her sister.
Honora. He rested his fingertips against his mouth, thinking of the kiss he'd stolen. The taste of her lingered, soft and sweet. Completely unlike the stubborn girl who had plagued him so many years ago.
'Her father won't be pleased,' Bevan said. 'I drank nearly half a barrel of ale with him this night, pleading your case.' He grimaced at the late hour, running a hand through his hair. 'You'd best ensure that he doesn't find out about this. I doubt if he'll let you wed his youngest daughter if you were dallying with her sister.'
'Honora intruded upon my sleep.' Ewan returned to his pallet, flipping the woollen coverlet over himself. 'It wasn't my fault.'
'What was she doing?'
'Looking for someone.' He shrugged, as though it were of no importance. Though now that he considered it, he wondered precisely whom she had sought. 'What else did her father say?'
'He will consider your suit. Thomas de Renalt also spoke with him and offered his approval of the match.'
Ewan's tension eased a bit at the mention of his foster-father. 'Good.'
Sinking back onto his pallet, he stared at the ceiling while Bevan retreated to his own sleeping place. The torch flickered shadows on to the walls, while all around, he heard the noise of other guests. In the distance, a dog barked, its cries mingling with the sounds of night.
Honora's hair had been short, barely touching her shoulders. Ragged and silky, he hadn't expected that. He was accustomed to seeing her with a veil. The intimacy of her bare head reminded him of how he'd kissed her, winding his fingers through the softness.
Her hair was the colour of a midnight sky, her skin milky pale. Large, full lips had kissed him back, and she'd tasted like apples, succulent with a hint of sweetness. Her arms were not the soft skin of most women, but they held a lean strength. So often she'd tried to best him when they were fostered together. She'd won, more times than he wanted to remember.
Not any more.
He shifted upon the bed coverings, trying to force his thoughts back to Katherine as he drifted off to sleep. Even so, he couldn't forget Honora's kiss.