“Merryn,” he said softly. “I have something for you.” He pulled an object from his pocket but kept it hidden in his hand. Her curiosity grew.
He cupped her cheek, the warmth of his touch a comfort.
“I provided gifts for our guests and the priest, but it’s customary for the groom to bestow a gift upon his bride, as well.”
He caressed her face. “I am supposed to compensate you for your lost virginity.” Geoffrey encircled her waist and tugged her close, then dropped a kiss on the tip of her nose.
Merryn felt cherished in that moment. Her worries vanished. She might be inexperienced, but she knew her husband would take good care of her.
“I had this made in France.” He opened his right hand.
A gold and enamel brooch rested in his palm. Brilliant sapphires made her smile.
Merryn met his intense gaze and immediately recognized the love shining in them.
“Your eyes are the bluest of blue, my love. When I saw these stones, I knew the piece was meant for you alone. Will you wear it for me every day? I would be happy to see it pinned to your cotehardie.”
She picked up the brooch and admired it. “Never a day shall pass that I do not pin it on and think of you. It will be my constant reminder of how much you love me.”
Merryn kissed it. She looked back at her husband. “You spoil me. I have nothing for you.”
Geoffrey reached inside his gypon and pulled out the gold necklace she’d given him on the day of their betrothal.
“This has rested next to my heart since we parted five years ago. I have never taken it off. I never will. ‘Tis the best gift you could ever give me.”
He continued, “Until now.” He embraced her. “I know you are unsure, my love, but we will explore love together. Come.”
Merryn set the brooch on the table and took his hand as they crossed the chamber. Geoffrey drew the curtains aside from the large bed.
Her new husband rested his hands on her shoulders and gazed into her eyes. “You are the most beautiful bride that any man has claimed. I shall tell you every morning how lovely you are.”
“Even when I am wrinkled and gray?”
Slowly, Raynor began to stroke her throat with his thumbs. Beatrice locked her fingers behind his neck and pulled him closer. At the last minute, he realized what she meant to do. But it was too late. Beatrice’s lips brushed against his.
And the world caught on fire.
The smell of roses invaded Raynor’s nose as his lips pressed against hers. He had always thought of himself as a strong man, both physically and mentally. Yet, any resolve he had disappeared when he came near this woman. Everything he knew himself to be changed in an instant.
There was only here—now—with her.
He cradled her face as his tongue ran along the seam of her lips. She opened her mouth to him. As desire burned deep within his belly, he drank in her essence.
Beatrice whimpered. The sound pleased him immensely. His hands moved to the nape of her neck. Her breasts pressed against his chest, causing his manhood to stir.
Raynor broke the kiss. Beatrice gasped for air as his lips glided down her throat and then across to her ear. His teeth teased her earlobe, lightly tugging on it. Her quick intake of breath and low moan brought a smile to his face.
Gradually, he brought his mouth back to hers, wrapping her in his arms, drawing her near. Time stood still as he feasted upon her. Both of their hearts beat rapidly as their bodies touched. His hand cupped her breast, kneading it before dragging a finger across her nipple.
Raynor’s heart warred with his mind. It had to stop. This woman belonged to another, no matter how much he wished it could be different. He could go no further. Reluctantly, he dragged his lips from hers, ashamed at how quickly he’d given into temptation.
But Beatrice was having none of it. Her fingers locked tightly in his hair, and she yanked him back to her. Her tongue invaded his mouth. Raynor clutched her. He would enjoy this moment for what it was, drink it in and treasure it always. On those lonely nights when his need for her burned, he would remember these precious kisses.
Because it would be all he had of her—of them—and their time together.
Elysande kissed Michael hungrily, greedily, as if they would never see each other again. He responded to her kiss with a like passion, knowing the time spent away from her would seem an eternity. Her hands began to roam his body boldly, causing his pulse to quicken. They moved lower and his member sprang to life at her touch.
She broke away a moment, a surprised look on her face, and glanced down. When their eyes met, she suddenly seemed unsure of herself.
Michael pressed his lips to her forehead. “Your caress has spurred me to want to take action.” He cupped her face in his hands and sweetly brushed her lips with his briefly. “But we must stop with our goodbyes.”
“Why?” she asked, a longing shadowing her face.
“Because we should be husband and wife before we take our love play further.”
“Do you love me, Michael?”
Her question startled him. “Of course, sweetling. You know I do. And when we’re wed, I’ll tell you that seven times a day. Nay, seven times seventy—or more!”
“Love me,” she said simply. “Love me now. I am already wed to you in my heart. ‘Tis only a few words we’ll repeat after some priest. I want you. Now.”
He saw she spoke the truth. Her truth.
Kenric found himself stunned when Avelyn beat him soundly in their first game of chess. It happened quickly, as if he experienced a surprise attack by the enemy that left him decimated. He struggled but clawed his way to victory in the second game. Though the noblewoman proved a cunning opponent, when he saw the disappointment in her eyes, he thought to give her an out.
“Mayhap your injury contributed to your loss, my lady.”
“A slightly twisted ankle has nothing to do with my thinking.” She eyed him for a moment, much as a cat might before it pounced upon a helpless mouse. “A final game, my lord, to see who’ll take the match?”
“Nay.” He sat back from the gaming board. “We can reengage in play once we reach Sandbourne.”
Her grin told him that he had been caught.
“You wish to think about my strategy and plan a way to try and win.” She laughed, a teasing light shining in her eyes. “You think, despite your talk of honoring ladies with your code of chivalry, to embarrass me in front of your home troops in the great hall, where you will have a bevy of knights cheering for you.”
Avelyn picked up her queen and toyed with it. “I accept your challenge, Sir Kenric. It will give me time to give thought to your chess play, as well.” Her eyes now sparkled with mischief. “You should fear me, my lord. I won’t go easy on you—no matter what witnesses stand present at your defeat.”
He crossed his arms. “I fear I won’t find an easy victory, for I now see you have a keen mind.” He paused. “I underestimated you, Lady Avelyn.”
In more ways than one …
Both men and women circled the maypole, dancing with utter abandonment. His eyes were drawn to Alys. She moved with an innate grace, almost as if she flowed like water coursing in a stream. The circle became smaller and smaller until the ribbons surrounded the maypole and the music switched again, causing the participants to reverse direction and unwind the ribbons they held.
Alys handed her ribbons to a young girl and joined him. “You must come dance, my lord,” she encouraged.
“I don’t think I have ever danced,” he said, appalled at the thought of giving himself over so freely to the music.
“Then it’s high time you learned,” she declared. Alys took his hand in hers and pulled him along. As they weaved in and out of the crowd, she turned and looked over her shoulder, her cheeks full of roses. He swallowed hard, taken by her simple, fresh beauty.
They finally reached the maypole. His heart began to beat faster. Her hand in his seemed the most natural thing in the world. Reluctantly, he released it when she took a long bit of ribbon from a girl and handed it to him.
“Dance, my lord,” she said. She accepted a ribbon herself as a new song began.
He began moving to the beat of the drum. As a soldier, he knew he was a physical man. He had lain awake at night and pictured himself, sword in hand, arcing through the air. The weapon had seemed an extension of him. This ribbon now felt the same. He let his feet move as he became swept up in the melody. His ribs twinged unpleasantly if he moved his arms too high, so he lowered them and only waved them in small circles.
His body took over, and he experienced the happiness that he saw on the faces of those surrounding him. He looked across at Alys, who seemed to float through the air as a feather might. Her braid bobbed along as her feet did some intricate steps that he wouldn’t bother to attempt. But looking at her brought a yearning that he decided must be satisfied.
Whatever had happened in his past. Whatever his present might be. Whatever the future held for him. None of that mattered.
Only Alys did.
It might be wrong, but he planned to kiss her this day. Leisurely. Thoroughly.
Ancel led Margery through the hidden passageway, holding fast to her hand. They arrived at the secreted door and he pushed it open so they could step out into the cool night. Though he doubted he would ever need to make use of the concealed path, he’d wanted to learn everything about it. Being prepared had served him well in the past.
“If you like, we can return to the keep from the outside,” he suggested, knowing she might dread taking the darkened pathway again. “I hold you in high regard, Margery. I can’t imagine navigating something unknown such as this narrow passage as you did, much less in total darkness. Though you feared for your life, you pressed on and even tried to rescue your mother. Even the bravest of knights would have seen this as a formidable challenge.”
She nibbled on her bottom lip and desire shot through him. His hand tightened on hers.
“I didn’t feel very brave. Most of the time I was paralyzed with fear,” she admitted.
“But you continued on,” he pointed out. “That’s courage, Margery. Being afraid and not letting it stop you from what you have to do.” He paused.
“When I ride into battle? I feel terrified. But I press on because I must.”
“You know fear?” she asked, disbelief on her face.
“I think most men who ride into battle are terrified. Very few men enjoy war. But as a knight of the realm, I fight for king and country and will do it every time I’m asked to defend England.”
“I hope I am never that scared again, Ancel,” she confessed. “I don’t ever want to be so afraid. I want a quiet, simple life.”
He studied her a moment. “Have you thought on the king’s words, Margery?” he asked softly. “On staying here, at Highfield, as my wife?”
Her mouth trembled. “I’ve wanted to. But I haven’t. Part of me wishes for it desperately. A husband. Children. Making Highfield into a home that’s full of happiness—and love.” A single tear cascaded down her cheek. “But a part of me is terrified that Thurstan will ride back through the gates and I will, once again, be a prisoner with no choice.”
Ancel set the lantern down and cupped her face. “Even if your stepbrother returns, you don’t have to stay here.”
Her sad eyes gazed at him. “But where would I go?”
“Wherever I go,” he said simply.
Edward looked deeply into her eyes. “I know you have sensed something between us, Rosalyne. I believe it is a bond that will stand the test of time.”
His tone was so serious. She had never seen this side of him.
“I must share with you things about myself that you do not know.” He smiled. “But once I do, I hope you will still want me. Want to be with me. For all time.”
“You … wish for us to … wed?”
“Aye.” His smile widened.
She had no idea what he might reveal to her. Had he been married before and his wife passed away? Did he have children that she would need to mother? Had he done something awful and run away to Canterbury to escape his past? Was he in debt? Had he killed a man?
“Tell me,” she urged.
He cupped her face, his thumbs caressing her cheeks. “My name is not Edward Munn,” he said.
Her heart skipped a beat. “Are you an outlaw? Have you assumed another name to … escape punishment?” Rosalyne prayed that wasn’t the case. Edward seemed like such a good man. She couldn’t imagine him being a criminal.
He laughed heartily. “No, my love, I am no thief, much less a murderer.” He kissed her swiftly. “My true name is Sir Edward de Montfort. I am a knight of the realm and a member of the royal guard, here in Canterbury on a mission for King Richard.”
Hal couldn’t possibly love her.
He lowered his forehead until it rested against hers. Elinor inhaled the familiar scent and longed to taste him. They stood together this way for some minutes until she thought he was trying to lull her into a false sense of confidence. Why was he toying with her, as a cat did a mouse, pretending to feel some great affection for her?
Then his arms fell away. His hands found hers and he threaded their fingers together.
Hal lifted his head and met her gaze. “Hear me out, Elinor. Please.”
His voice cracked on the last word. A flood of tenderness swept through her. She nodded mutely.
“You not only healed me physically but emotionally. I was broken and did not even know it. You gave me a gift—the gift of rediscovering myself. With you, I learned to be the man I once was. And the one I want to remain.”
His fingers tightened around hers. “I left so many things unsaid before we parted. I longed to tell you how much I care for you. Desire you. Need you. How much I always want you by my side.”
Hal gave her a crooked grin. “I love you, Elinor. I believe we are soul mates. I want to see your face next to mine when I awaken each day after having spent the night holding you in my arms.”
His words left her with unanswered questions. “Then … then … why did you leave me?
Why did you not say what was in your heart?”
“Because I’d never told a woman that I loved her. I didn’t know how.”
Nan dropped to her knees, nausea and despair threatening to overwhelm her. Tristan Therolde lay on the ground—with her arrow protruding from his leg. She cleared her mind of everything except helping the man who had sacrificed himself by coming to her aid.
Taking his hand in hers, she said, “My lord, you have been struck by an arrow. You may not feel the pain yet, but you soon will.”
His eyes met hers. “Oh, I definitely feel it, my lady. My thigh is pulsating with a world of hurt. And while we are discussing my injury, we might want to note that the arrow in my leg belongs to you.”
Nan cringed. “I am sorry my arrow penetrated your leg, Lord Tristan. ‘Twas meant for the boar that charged me. You came from nowhere. I had already released the bowstring when you appeared.”
“I caught sight of the yellow you wore tonight as I heard the animal crashing through the woods.” He gave her a crooked smile. “Little did I know you would walk these woods with protection in hand. I thought to shield you from the boar’s attack. It all happened so suddenly.”
“But you threw yourself in the beast’s path,” Nan said. “It might have killed you.”
He shrugged. “I acted on impulse. Who knew deep inside that I was such an honorable man?”
Marcus took Jessimond’s hands in his. This time, she didn’t yank away. “Thank you for spending some time with me today,” he said. “I enjoyed being in your company.”
“I enjoyed it, as well.”
They stood gazing at one another. Jessimond suddenly had a fierce urge to kiss him. Such a thought had never crossed her mind before.
As if he knew what went on inside her head, Marcus asked, “Have you ever been kissed, Jess?”
“Nay,” she whispered, her heart beating rapidly.
He bent and brushed warm lips against her cheek. Her fingers tightened against his as light filled her. His breath fanned hot against her face. She turned her head slightly so her mouth could meet his. Before it did, Agatha called out.
Marcus released her hands and stepped away. Disappointment flooded Jessimond.
“Coming!” she called over her shoulder.
As she turned, Marcus caught her elbow and turned her so that they faced one another.
“A first kiss is something special, Jess,” he said softly. “It takes time—and requires privacy. I promise you this—we’ll find both.