He thought the creature was female, but he couldn't be sure. Any hint of its sex was buried beneath a shapeless tunic and a pair of loose leggings. It blinked up at him, its gray eyes startlingly large in its pallid face.
"Who the hell are you?" he growled. "Did that murdering bastard send you to ambush me?"
It lifted its cupped hands a few inches off the ground. "Do I look like someone sent to ambush you?"
The thing had a point. It wore no armor and carried no weapon that he could see unless you counted those beseeching gray eyes. Definitely female, he decided with a grunt of mingled relief and pain. He might have been too long without a woman, but he'd yet to be swayed by any of the pretty young lads a few of his more jaded comrades favored.
He steadied his grip on the sword, hoping the woman hadn't seen it waver. His chest heaved with exhaustion and he was forced to shake the sweat from his eyes before stealing a desperate glance over his shoulder.
The forest betrayed no sign of pursuit, freeing him to return his attention to his trembling captive. "Have you no answer for my question? Who the hell are you?"
To his surprise, the surly demand ignited a spark of spirit in the wench's eyes. "Wait just a minute! Maybe the question should be who the hell are you?" Her eyes narrowed in a suspicious glare. "Don't I know you?" She began to mutter beneath her breath as she studied his face, making him wonder if he hadn't snared a lunatic. "Trim the hair. Give him a shave and a bath. Spritz him with Brut and slip him into an off-the-rack suit. Ah-ha!" she crowed. "You're George, aren't you? George....George...?" Shesnapped her fingers. "George Ruggles from Accounting!" She slanted him a glance that was almost coy. "'Fess up now, Georgie boy. Did Daddy offer you a raise to play knight in shining armor to my damsel in distress?"
His jaw went slack with shock as she swatted his sword aside and scrambled to her feet, brushing the grass from her shapely rump with both hands. "You can confide in me, you know. I promise it won't affect your Yearly Performance Evaluation."
She was taller than he had expected, taller than any woman of his acquaintance. But far more disconcerting than her height was her brash attitude. Since he'd been old enough to wield a sword, he'd never met anyone, man or woman, who wasn't afraid of him.
The sun was beating down on his head like an anvil. He clenched his teeth against a fresh wave of pain. "You may call me George if it pleases you, my lady, but 'tis not my name."
She paced around him, making the horse prance and shy away from her. "Should I call you Prince then? Or will Mr. Charming do? And what would you like to call me? Guenevere perhaps?" She touched a hand to her rumpled hair and batted her sandy eyelashes at him. "Or would you prefer Rapunzel?"
His ears burned beneath her incomprehensible taunts. He could think of several names he'd like to call her, none of them flattering. A small black cat appeared out of nowhere to scamper at her heels, forcing him to rein his stallion in tighter or risk trampling them both. Each nervous shuffle of the horse's hooves jarred his aching bones.
She eyed his cracked leather gauntlets and tarnished chain mail with blatant derision. "So where's your shining armor, Lancelot? Is it back at the condo being polished or did you send it out to the dry cleaners?"
She paced behind him again. All the better to slide a blade between his ribs, he thought dourly. Resisting the urge to clutch his shoulder, he wheeled the horse around to face her. The simple motion made his ears ring and his head spin.
"Cease your infernal pacing, woman!" he bellowed. "Or I'll--" He hesitated, at a loss to come up with a threat vile enough to stifle this chattering harpy.
She flinched, but the cowed look in her eyes was quickly replaced by defiance. "Or you'll what?" she demanded, resting her hands on her hips. "Carry me off to your castle and ravish me? Chop my saucy little head off?" She shook that head in disgust. "I can't believe Mama thought I'd fall for this chauvinistic crap. Why didn't she just hire a mugger to knock me over the head and steal my purse?"
She marched away from him. Ignoring the warning throb of his muscles, he drove the horse into her path. Before she could change course again, he hefted his sword and nudged aside the fabric of her tunic, bringing the blade's tip to bear against the swell of her left breast. Her eyes widened and she took several hasty steps backward. He urged the stallion forward, pinioning her against the trunk of a slender oak. As her gaze met his, he would have almost sworn he could feel her heart thundering beneath the blade's dangerous caress.
A mixture of fear and doubt flickered through her eyes. "This isn't funny anymore, Mr. Ruggles," she said softly. "I hope you've kept your resume current, because after I tell my father about this little incident, you'll probably be needing it."
She reached for his blade with a trembling hand, stirring reluctant admiration in him. But when she jerked her hand back, her fingertips were smeared with blood.
At first he feared he had pricked her in his clumsiness. An old shame quickened in his gut, no less keen for its familiarity. He'd striven not to harm any woman since he'd sworn off breaking hearts.
She did not yelp in distress or melt into a swoon. She simply stared at her hand as if seeing it for the first time. "Doesn't feel like ketchup," she muttered, her words even more inexplicable than her actions. She sniffed at her fingers. "Or smell like cherry cough syrup."
She glanced down at her chest. A thin thread of blood trickled between her breasts, affirming his fears. But as her bewildered gaze met his and the ringing in his ears deepened to an inescapable roaring, he realized what she had already discovered. 'Twas not her blood staining her breast, but his own. His blood seeping from his body in welling drops that were rapidly becoming a steady trickle down the blade of his sword. Horror buffeted him as he realized it was he, and not she, who was in danger of swooning. The sword slipped from his numb fingers, tumbling harmlessly to the grass.
He slumped over the horse's neck, clutching at the coarse mane. He could feel his powerful legs weakening, betrayed by the weight of the chain mail that was supposed to protect him. Sweat trickled into his eyes, its relentless sting blinding him.
"Go," he gritted out. "Leave me be."
At first he thought she would obey. He heard her skitter sideways, then hesitate, poised on the brink of flight.
His flesh felt as if it were tearing from his bones as he summoned one last burst of strength to roar, "I bid you to leave my sight, woman. Now!"
The effort shredded the tatters of his will. He could almost feel his pride crumbling along with his resolve, forcing him to choke out the one word he detested above all others. "Please..."
Swaying in the saddle, he pried open his eyes to cast her a beseeching glance. Sir Colin of Ravenshaw had never fallen before anyone, especially not a woman.
And in the end he didn't fall before this one either.
He fell on her.