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The lord of Llanstephan Fawr looked around the nearly empty hayloft and sighed. There was barely enough hay to last until harvest, and Caradoc had no money to buy more. Worse, he had no money to pay the king's taxes, and hadn't for months.
He glanced out the small window through which the June sunlight shone, over the stone curtain wall of his castle across the valley to the Welsh mountains beyond. Mist covered their crowns and seeped into the valleys, trailing down the slopes like an old woman's unbound hair.
He might end his days living up there a hermit in a cave if things got much worse. That almost seemed a blessed future to be wished for, except that duty and honor tied him to Llanstephan as long as he lived or until King Richard took it from him.
He turned and saw his friend Dafydd-y-Trwyn peering at him as he climbed up the ladder.
“What is it?” Caradoc asked. “Something wrong with the ffridd?”
A damaged sheep pen would be all he needed now.
“No,” replied the bailiff of Llanstephan. “I was in the courtyard”
“Having an ale and bothering the maidservants, I don't doubt,” Caradoc growled, although in truth he was relieved that there was not more to trouble him.
Dafydd grinned as he joined Caradoc in the loft. “Aye, I was, I was. And that's when it happened.”
Caradoc crossed his arms over his broad chest and leaned his weight on one long, strong leg. “What happened? One of them refuse to becharmed by your honeyed tongue? Had to happen eventually, that did.”
Dafydd put his hand over his heart as if mortally wounded. “If you're going to insult me, I'll let you find out for yourself and no warning.” He gestured toward the ladder dramatically. “Go you to the yard.”
“Just tell me, Dafydd,” Caradoc said dryly, quite used to his friend's theatrics.
“It's a woman.”
“I should have guessed. Another one after your favors?” Caradoc shook his head.
“I don't know how you do it.”
And he really didn't, because although they were fast friends and had been since childhood, Dafydd-the-Nose was one of the ugliest men Caradoc had ever seen.
“I'm charming,” Dafydd replied cheerfully. “But she's not here for me, odd as that may be, and now that I think of it, insulting, too.” He made an exaggerated frown. “I should be offended that she's so persistent about talking to you.”
Caradoc uncrossed his arms. “A woman wants to talk to me?”
“Aye, and not taking no, or explaining, either. Just smiles and says she wants to speak to the lord of Llanstephan Fawr.” Dafydd ran a measuring gaze over his friend. “There's no accounting for taste, I suppose. If she wants a man who looks like a sheep in serious need of shearing, who am I to judge?”
Caradoc gave him a sour look. “Who is she?”
“Not saying, her, despite my very best efforts.”
“She's in the courtyard still, then?”
“Aye.” Dafydd pointed at the small window. “See for yourself.”
Caradoc turned toward the window and, resting his broad hand against the frame, searched the courtyard of his castle, which was a humble one by Norman standards. Beside three large covered wagons, looking about as if surveying the place for taxes, stood a lone woman. Slender and well dressed, she wore a light blue cloak against the morning chill, her face hidden by the hood trimmed with fox fur.
Caradoc had the sudden unsettling sensation that she seemed familiar from the way she stood so straight and confident, perhaps. Or was it the way she studied the fortress that troubled him? Llanstephan Fawr was no great Norman monstrosity with inner and outer walls and towers to spare. True, the word fawr meant great, but it had been a simple motte and bailey fortress originally, an enclosure of wooden walls surrounding wooden buildings on a hill overlooking a Welsh valley. Caradoc's father had rebuilt the castle with stone and slate, strengthening the walls and adding a second level to the hall for his solar and family quarters, but it was great only compared to the cottages in the village.
Yet it was more than enough for him, and he had sworn to protect it and hold it, and so he would, for as long as he possibly could.
His gaze returned to the unknown woman. If she had been here before, why wouldn't she tell Dafydd who she was? And there was something else. “Where are her drivers, her escort?”
“She paid them and they've already gone.”
Brows raised in surprise, Caradoc faced his friend. “She means to stay, obviously. Is she under the impression I enjoy having guests?”
And having to feed and house them as well, when his purse was nearly empty?
“She paid them in silver,” Dafydd noted significantly.
“So what if she did?” he replied, trying not to be annoyed that a possibly crazed woman had so much money while he, the lord of a Welsh estate, had almost none. “Unless those carts are full of money and jewels and she intends to give it all to me, why should I care?”
“Nobody knows what she's got in there.”
Caradoc snorted. “Maybe it's nothing at all.” He studied her again. “She wants to talk to me, does she?”
Suddenly the woman turned and saw him. She smiled and gave him a merry wave.
Startled, he drew back so fast, a muscle in his back twinged in protest. Ignoring it, he wracked his brain for an explanation, because there was something even more familiar now something that made him feel...happy. He should know that face and her pointed chin and delicate, elfin features. He should recognize the gesture she made, for it seemed to echo another long...Tempt Me With Kisses. Copyright © by Margaret Moore. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.