Read an Excerpt
On the golden crescent visible at high tide, a horseman cantered towards the headland. An emerald green bandanna tied back glossy black hair from his face. His white shirt ballooned as he rode, muscular thighs gripping the horse’s flanks.
Fingers laced, two young women giggled their way across the dunes above, to scramble into a sandy bowl, sheltered by swaying grass and sea thrift.
‘She’ll never catch us now,’ said Rebecca, fingers raking her copper curls. ‘I won’t let her spoil our fun.’
‘Biddy’s only following your father’s orders,’ said Catrin. ‘He wants you to make a good marriage.’
‘It’s not fair! Marrying me off to someone who’s a hundred years old.’
Catrin frowned. ‘He’s a wealthy lord.’
‘Born back in the last century. You do the sums! Once I’m in the old goat’s clutches, I shan’t see you any more. As for Biddy – she’d chop off her head rather than leave my father. I’ll have no one to talk to.’
Catrin looked down at the dry sand trailing through her fingers.
Rebecca’s eyes narrowed. ‘You know something, don’t you?’
But her cousin’s attention was elsewhere. On the beach below, a horseman had appeared. The horse’s hooves kicked at a wave, sending watery diamonds into the air. Catrin pointed him out to Rebecca and they watched him vanish around the headland.
‘He rides well.’ Catrin smoothed her skirt around her legs.
Rebecca bent her head towards her cousin’s ripe-corn mane of hair and whispered.
Catrin gasped. ‘You wanton!’
‘Why? I know what you really meant. And you still haven’t answered my question. I might be forced to tickle you.’ Rebecca knew her companion would confess to murder once subjected to this torment.
Catrin upturned her palms. ‘I’m to be married too.’
‘What?’ Rebecca froze.
‘You and I will be wedded and bedded by summer’s end. It’s what’s destined for young women like us.’
Rebecca scrambled to her feet. We’ll see about that.’ Her defiant cry merged with the mew of the gulls fussing overhead.
The girls retraced their route. Laughter drifted down to the shore where the horseman had turned to ride back towards the opposite cliff. His lips twitched at the glimpse of snowy petticoat peeping from skirts swirled by the breeze. His gaze followed the two slender figures climbing the path snaking through the dunes until it dipped sharply, swallowing the tops of the girls’ heads.
‘Pretty,’ he told his horse. ‘A fair milkmaid and a fiery goddess. This peninsula shows promise. Maybe I’ll enjoy my stay with my uncle even more than I anticipated.’ He pressed his thighs against the animal’s flanks. ‘Come,Sofia. I need sustenance and so do you.’
* * *
‘I can’t marry him. I won’t. I can’t bear the thought of his lizard claws on my body!’ Rebecca drained her goblet of wine. Slammed it on the table.
Her father rose and paced towards the window, wishing for the umpteenth time his belovedMarionwas still alive. But his wife had been burnt out by fever when Rebecca was a child. Now a lovely young woman, as well as a minx, her bright autumn leaf hair and proud nature were poignant reminders of her mother. Lord Beaumont had seen the expression in men’s eyes, watched them contemplate the dew on the bud. Rebecca must be married, and soon. Loyal Biddy was no match for his spirited daughter. And if Rebecca continued wandering off on escapades, even with Catrin …
Hugh tried wheedling. ‘Geraint’s a good man. You’ll lack nothing, Rebecca. Nor will your children.’
‘Children?’ Rebecca’s tone implied he’d suggested a family of polecats. ‘How can I marry someone without first loving him?’
‘My daughter – that’s what your dear mother thought when we became betrothed. She’d convinced herself she couldn’t possibly wed a fair-haired man. I had to gain her confidence until, like a shy young filly, she trusted me. After Rhys was born, she thanked me for her flaxen-haired boy.’ His voice faltered. ‘In the fullness of time, you arrived and we had two fine children.’
‘But Father, you’re much more handsome than my lord Geraint. While his left eye looks at my face, the right one peers over my shoulder.’
Her father hid a smile. ‘Imperfection is God-given, as is perfection. Looks are not of great importance in a man or a woman.’
Rebecca pounced. ‘So say you! A handsome man who married a beauty. How can you condemn your daughter to taking a toad to her bed?’
‘Hold your tongue, girl. Go to your quarters. You’ll find marriage brings its own rewards. And any children of yours will be handsome, of that I’m certain.’
She’d pushed her father enough. Rebecca knew he was deaf to her views. He was also concerned about the local people’s obsession with smuggling. The idea of such dangerous doings thrilled her. She and Catrin often whispered in the dark, the whiff of melting candle wax tickling their nostrils. What were they really like, these swarthy sailors bringing fragrant scents, fiery spices and rich tobacco? Which local men patrolled the smugglers’ coves?
Rebecca sought out her cousin, startling Catrin who sat dreaming in her room. ‘He won’t listen, Cat. I’d run away but he’d fetch me back before nightfall. I long for something to happen … someone to help me.’
‘Will you settle for a wager?’
‘I heard the servants talking last night,’ said Catrin. ‘I was outside the kitchen door, giving Lol his supper.’
Rebecca nodded. Catrin’s little corgi gave her ample excuse to be around the yard. ‘Go on.’
‘There’s talk of a new king.’
‘Something’s happened to George?’
‘No, silly. A smuggler king.’
Rebecca leaned closer.
‘Will Bevan from down the coast, is no longer the dominant force. There’s a local man, Dermot Maddocks, trying to keep Bevan out. Maddocks has a nephew – a young Irishman, come to keep his uncle company.’
‘An apprentice smuggler?’
‘Bold but gentle, they say. Reluctant to use his fists or his sword, unless the provocation’s too great.’
‘Then he’s a fool or a coward.’ Rebecca knew compassion wasn’t a common trait among the smuggling community.
‘He’s known as a kind man who takes his share of bounty and distributes it. There are widows and old, sick folk thanking God for Jac Maddocks’ generosity.’
‘I think,’ said Rebecca, ‘this Celtic Robin Hood sounds dreary. Maybe he’s too puny to find a wife.’
‘Biddy says he’s pretty enough to eat.’
‘She said that?’
‘Told me she was out walking the other afternoon and saw him riding along the bridleway. Biddy’s not so old, you know.’ Catrin nudged Rebecca. ‘I think she’s right.’
‘You’ve seen this Jac too?’
‘We both have,’ said Catrin. ‘Wasn’t it only yesterday we ran off to the sand dunes? Remember the horseman on the shore?’
‘I recall him.’ Rebecca’s expression was unreadable. ‘So, what’s your wager?’
‘I wager you can’t steal a kiss.’
A smile curved Rebecca’s lips.
‘Of course, it’s only servants’ gossip about his kindness,’ said Catrin hurriedly. ‘You mustn’t endanger yourself or risk your reputation for the sake of a little escapade. I don’t know what possessed me to mention such a thing.’ She looked anxiously at her cousin. ‘You’re a lady, almost betrothed to a man of substance.’
‘If I’m to wed a frog,’ said Rebecca, ‘surely I deserve to kiss a prince? This is one wager I can’t resist, even if the prince is a smuggler.’
‘Will you take me with you?’
‘Where are we going, Catrin?’ Rebecca’s full lips parted.
‘We know when the prince rides out.’
‘So we do, Catrin. So we do.’
Rebecca’s curiosity about the handsome horseman fuelled her fantasies later as she lay in bed. There he was, walking along the sea shore. No one else was allowed to ruin their solitude. Jac ran the last few yards towards her, making her heart race. Making her anticipate the touch of his lips on hers. Their first kiss surprised her with its intensity. Holding her gaze, he pulled her close so she felt his excitement as his body pressed against hers. His lips covered her throat with tiny kisses, found her mouth again, his tongue teasing, flooding her body with delicious sensations. Her own hands took on a life of their own, stroking her breasts, seeking out each nipple in turn. Rolling it between thumb and index finger.
Her mind spun an erotic fairy tale in which she and Jac lay on the sand, his hand stroking the soft skin of her thighs. She felt herself melting as he bunched up her skirts. She moved her legs apart. Instinctively. Gently. He murmured her name as he edged closer to her core.