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By Tina Donahue
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Tina Donahue
All rights reserved.
Andalucía, Spain — 1488 The castle of Don Fernando de Zayas
Of all the perils a man might face, Enrique de Zayas figured the worst was unending desire for a woman. Especially one whose heart he hadn't yet claimed, because the lady in question was being remarkably difficult. Heat had burned in Sancha's eyes the few times she'd deigned to meet his gaze. Of course, she had been busy tending to his brother Fernando's grave injuries, sparing him death and life as a cripple.
Isabella would never have forgiven her sister if Sancha had chopped off Fernando's arm and leg to save his life. He was a warrior knight and had proved his bravery by falling in love with and wedding Isabella, one of the Lopéz de Lara sisters, who appeared to be delicate Spanish flowers but were as hard as any man.
Steeling himself for whatever happened tonight, Enrique joined the other nobles in his brother's grand dining hall. Exotic spices, garlic, and onions scented the cavernous space. Rich tapestries depicting country life hung on the walls below ornate Moorish designs in gold and silver. The metal glinted from the flickering candlelight and oil lamps. A harpist, flutist, and a man playing a lute sat in the center area on red chairs. The musicians' vibrant Spanish melody was scarcely audible beneath too much converse and loud laughter from hundreds of guests, all dressed in their finest.
He spotted Isabella, regally attired in a gold silk gown that complemented her auburn hair and milky complexion. She saw him too and threaded through the crowd, heading his way. Numerous señoritas also edged close, eyeing him as the main fare for this evening's feast. Being a rich man in need of a wife was the second greatest peril a man could face. Isabella stood only as close as etiquette allowed to quell wagging tongues. Spaniards loved intrigue whether it involved the Crown or one of Spain's wealthy subjects. Her earlier abduction and near sale as a concubine for the Sultan's harem had certainly fueled enough gossip.
She turned into him, the top of her head reaching his shoulder. "Take heart. Sancha is here tonight."
His pulse pounded. Warmth rushed to his groin.
Isabella glanced around the opulent, red-walled room. "This time she promised not to take too long with the servant."
"Too long doing what?"
Isabella paled then shrugged. "Whatever one does with servants. Trust me, she will not keep you waiting."
She already had, repeatedly, in the few weeks since they'd met. To him the time seemed longer than most of his life. He wasn't a man who needed decades to determine his feelings for a woman. With Sancha, he'd fallen in an instant. Each day without her added to his torment.
"Oh no." Isabella regarded him closely. "Have you lost interest in her already?"
She'd made him sound like the worst sort of beast when he was the one in pain. "It would appear your sister has never shared my passion."
She flicked her hand dismissively. "You need to woo her as Fernando wooed me."
"When he believed you were Sancha, his betrothed, or after he learned your true identity?"
"Both." She grinned despite the hell she'd put him, Fernando, and two of their other brothers through. "Everything worked out as it should."
Indeed. Sancha had never wanted to wed Fernando. With Isabella taking her place, she remained blissfully unattached in order to torture Enrique with his endless yearning. "Where is my brother?"
"Resting before the meal. I insisted he do so until his strength returns."
"Fernando allows you to order him about?"
Her slender eyebrows lifted slightly. "You believe I or anyone could make demands of a warrior-knight? Never. I request and woo. Something for you to keep in mind with my sister." She searched the crowd and inclined her head. "There she is."
God help him, Enrique couldn't resist staring.
Bathed in the light of candles and oil lamps, she seemed unearthly, an angel sent to visit mere mortals, her complexion creamy and flawless, streaks of gold highlighting her auburn hair, a shimmering mass of temptation.
He locked his knees to steady himself, lost in her allure.
She stepped deeper into the room, emerald skirt swaying, her gown cut modestly, though still providing a hint of her ripe breasts and narrow waist. Unlike the other women here, she wore no jewels to prove her wealth, which was considerable. She was sole heir to her late parents' estate, her holdings as vast as his.
Caballeros watched as she passed.
She didn't glance at any of them.
Enrique wasn't about to suffer such treatment for himself any longer. Tonight he would change everything between them. First though, she had to look at him. To see him.
She stared into the distance, lost in her own world. A server passed too close and brushed her arm. Despite his heavy tray, he stopped and inclined his head in apology. She offered a gentle smile and stepped back to give him more room, her gaze touching Enrique.
He stilled, unable to draw a full breath. Pleasure registered on her lovely face, followed by the same longing he'd seen during their previous encounters, her dark eyes luminous with unmasked desire.
They wouldn't satisfy their craving for each other easily. She may have believed she was independent and even enjoyed playing a role more suited to a male. However, she still had a woman's need for a man to thrill and protect her within his strong embrace.
He fully intended to be that man. His inertia broke. He stepped toward her.
Her passion instantly turned to caution.
Fearing she might bolt, he prepared to give chase.
Isabella dug her fingers into his sleeve. "Give me a moment with her. My sister is shy."
Sancha's impassioned expression upon seeing him had said otherwise. Hunger had burned deep within her, simply waiting to be free.
"Stay here." Isabella patted his sleeve and brushed past the others.
Enrique waited a moment, lost patience, and followed. Another hand clamped on his arm. He gritted his teeth and turned.
Luscinda de Cortés held onto him, her strength surprising, her expression too eager. He would have expected such desperation from a homely woman, not her. She was remarkably beautiful, her snowy skin, long black hair, and dark eyes enhancing her sultry features. Her full lips had surely given many caballeros pleasant dreams. The scandalous cut of her red silk gown barely covered her ample breasts, quivering with each breath she took. Numerous pearl necklaces studded with diamonds graced her long throat.
From the rumors he'd heard, her clothing and gems represented the full sum of her family's wealth. A matter her mamá, Señora de Cortés, seemed determined to change, allowing her daughter to dress as she had tonight to catch a rich husband. The older woman stood to the side, watching closely.
He regarded Luscinda's hand on his arm.
A painfully long moment passed before she finally released him. "So good to see you here, Enrique."
Where else would he be with Fernando celebrating his and Isabella's union? Given how their wedding had come about, he'd suspected his brother might need help defending against any unkind comments or gossip.
He, on the other hand, needed to keep Luscinda and her grasping family away from himself. Rather than address him as Don Enrique, as good manners required, she'd addressed him as a betrothed or a man who was already her husband. He'd willingly face death before wedding her or anyone other than Sancha. Rather than explain the obvious, he bowed his head slightly. "Doña Luscinda."
Señora de Cortés snapped her fan and beat the air with the thing. He pretended not to notice the woman's outrage at his failure to add señorita to his greeting, affording her daughter even greater respect.
Luscinda's expression remained inviting and seductive. Color stained her cheeks, her pupils dilating unnaturally, possibly the result of using belladonna in her eyes and on her face. The poison was supposed to enhance a woman's beauty, if it didn't kill her first.
He hardly wished her harm, wanting only to have her bother someone else. Perhaps if he simply ignored her, she'd drift away. He glanced at Sancha. She neared one of the tables, speaking to Isabella as if no one else in the room existed, not even him.
"Poor Sancha." Luscinda looked to where he had and inched closer to him, her fragrance heavy and cloyingly sweet. "We must understand what she goes through and pity her."
His chest tightened with indignation, fury heating his face. "What did you say?"
She stepped back, her smile faltering. "I meant no harm. Everyone feels quite badly for her. Any woman would be shamed at having lost her betrothed to a younger sister, leaving her alone and unwanted at such an advanced age. Fernando surely had his reasons for spurning her and the great wealth she could have brought to their union. However, she has no recourse now except to enter the order and remain at the convent. As soon as she returns there, of course. Perhaps she prefers such a sad fate rather than fulfilling her duty as a wife and mother as the rest of us long for."
Señora de Cortés stopped working her fan despite perspiration dotting her fleshy cheeks and stout throat. "Our women have always carried out their duty in birthing the finest heirs. Nothing has stopped them."
Not even a man's disinterest. Poor Luscinda. She might have been a nice girl if not for her greedy mamá.
"Excuse me." He turned on his heel and left before her mother suggested he offer his future to Luscinda or threatened him if he refused to comply.
Sancha sat at a long table laden with tonight's feast. Isabella stood behind her sister, motioning frantically for him to fill the empty chair next to hers.
Was there any doubt?
He reached the spot. Another man put his hand on the back of the chair to make his claim. Isabella scowled, warning him away. Good thing. Enrique was ready to push the fool aside. He offered a slight bow to Isabella, acknowledging her assistance.
Once seated, he warned himself to give Sancha a chance to meet him halfway. He considered clearing his throat to capture her attention or asking her to pass the olives and boiled eggs, both slightly out of his reach. Of course, the servants who stood behind the chairs were well prepared to see to every need, except what he wanted most. Her in his arms.
She wore the same fragrance he'd come to identify with her. Her delicate rose scent brought to mind soft, heated breezes, a night sky in summer, threads of moonlight piercing the velvety dark, the silvery glow glittering off countless stars.
Perhaps a simple greeting would encourage her to look at him.
Before he could open his mouth, Luscinda took the seat to his other side with her mamá directly across from them. Both women regarded him intently. No different from beasts in the wild before those animals pounced on their prey.
He ignored them and filled himself with Sancha. No one else mattered. "Buenas noches."
She looked at him without pause, her expression guileless and wanting.
He smiled helplessly. Her eyes were more beautiful than he recalled, lushly lashed and expressive, the dark brown color unbearably warm. His brother had always boasted about Isabella's blue-green eyes as the most beautiful on earth.
Unique, yes, but more exquisite than Sancha's? Never.
Her cheeks grew rosy as they always did whenever he was near. If that wasn't proof of her attraction, what was?
He had much he wanted to teach her. The delights of their carnal play, the pleasure of wedding him, bearing their many children, their future filled with enough joy to last a lifetime. She only had to agree to his plan.
She inclined her head. "Buenas noches, Señor Don Enrique."
His stomach sank. Such formality when she'd already claimed his heart. She should take lessons from Luscinda, whose leg brushed his. He shifted in his seat to get away from her. She controlled herself for a moment, then slid her foot toward his. Their shoes touched.
Enough of this. He leaned toward Sancha to keep the others from hearing. "We must have a word after we eat. I insist."
Rather than acquiesce or demurely turn away, she studied him without reserve, her inner strength and resolve showing through. "Why must we?"
Expressing himself when they were alone would prove difficult enough. Doing so in front of this crowd would be impossible. He lifted one eyebrow. "The matter is not one I intend to speak of here."
Her cheeks darkened, but she didn't draw back, apologize, or try to change the subject as another woman might have. He liked her bravery in facing him even though her spirit rankled at times. Like now.
She straightened even more. "You know a chaperone has to accompany us if we speak alone."
If there were anyone else around, they would hardly be alone.
Isabella leaned down between them. "I will chaperone willingly."
Enrique had forgotten she was behind them. He gave her a hard stare, wanting her to go to her husband.
Fernando had arrived finally, thinner than he'd been before his brush with death, but his complexion matched Enrique's healthy bronze shade. They resembled each other closely, both tall with hazel eyes and dark brown hair. Only Enrique's white forelock set them apart.
Fernando waved away his guests' cheers and a servant's assistance, but he did take Isabella's arm. She led him to his chair at the head of the longest table. Rather than sitting at the other end, as custom dictated, she took the seat at his side, her full attention on her husband, father to the child she'd recently conceived.
Enrique wanted Sancha to treat him the same way and let him fill her with their babes.
After eating a bite of roasted pork, she peeked at him. A pearl of juice clung to the corner of her mouth. He longed to lick it away, then run his tongue over the seam of her lips, coaxing them to part.
"Dear Sancha." Luscinda leaned over. "How wonderful to see you out and about despite what occurred. Are you feeling all right?"
He turned to Luscinda and pulled back quickly at how close she was. "If you mean her health, as you must, she was never ill."
"Señor Don Enrique is correct." Sancha remained composed as always. "I am quite well."
Luscinda gave him a sweet smile, then looked around him and spoke to Sancha. "When do you return to the convent?"
"Tonight, surely." Señora de Cortés heaped more mutton on her plate and took the last of the white bread near them. "Prayers are important and should never be put off."
He drummed his fingers against the table. "Can she finish her meal first?"
"Of course." Luscinda grew as serious as he had. "We want her to be happy." She leaned past him again, her arm touching his, her breasts nearly falling out of her gown. "Eat, please. You have no reason to deny yourself now with your betrothal in the past. You can fatten up as widows do when they no longer have to worry about pleasing men."
Enrique shot Luscinda and her mother a warning look to say no more.
Both women kept their tongues. Once they'd stuffed their mouths with food, not words, he ate a small portion of bread and cheese, his hunger hardly for tonight's fare. He wanted what his brother had.
Fernando and Isabella held hands during their meal, sharing comments and quiet laughter, shutting out the rest of the world. Having witnessed what they'd gone through to come this far, including rogues intent on their destruction, Isabella's unfortunate deception, and a murderous uncle, Enrique was happy for them and sad for himself.
Sighing, he reached for an orange. So did Sancha. Their hands touched.
Bursts of heat raced up his arm, his skin tingling, throat constricting with desire. Before she could pull her hand from his, he folded his fingers around hers. Their softness and warmth stole his breath.
Others laughed boisterously, leaned back in their chairs, or indulged in the food and drink. She stroked his thumb.
His blood thickened with hard lust and aching tenderness. She wasn't like Luscinda and the other young women who flirted shamelessly, pursuing a man until they ran him down. A touch from her meant something.
He inclined closer to ensure no one heard them speak. "Will you join me after you sup? Please."
She stopped stroking his thumb.
Crushed, he prepared to make his case, even if hundreds watched and heard. Words swirled in his mind, none perfect or even adequate to begin his pretty speech.
She caressed his fingers again, much to his surprise. A faint sound poured from her.
Excerpted from Wicked Whispers by Tina Donahue. Copyright © 2015 Tina Donahue. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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