Authors: Kinley MacGregor
ll a woman ever needs know about men is that they are creatures of their codpieces. Appeal to their chausses and you will have complete control of them, for when their male piece is in control, their brain is not.”
Emily sat on her bed beside her sister Joanne, trying not to offend Alys by cracking a smile at her proclamation. She pressed her fist to her lips to hold back her mirth.
Then Emily made the unfortunate mistake of looking at Joanne, and the two of them burst out laughing.
Who wouldn't laugh? Especially given the image in her mind of the overexaggerated codpiece Joanne's betrothed wore.
Why, Niles paraded around like the god Priapus at a virgin festival.
Her maid, Alys, however, didn't look so pleased by their merriment. Clearing her throat, Emily pressed her lips together and did her best to sober.
Alys set her hands on her hips and grimaced at them. At barely five feet in height, the maid was hardly one to intimidate. Still, they had been the ones to ask after the matter. The least they could do was listen without laughing.
“I thought my ladies were serious about this?” Alys asked.
“Forgive us,” Emily said, clearing her throat and folding her hands primly in her lap. “We shall behave.”
Indeed, they had no choice for they were conspiring to gain Emily a husband, and since neither sister had any idea how to seduce a man to marriage, Alys had been the only woman at the castle they dare ask. Any other would have made straight for their father with the news.
But luckily, the earthy and often corruptible Alys could be counted on to remain loyal to the ladies she served.
Alys flipped her black braid over her shoulder and shrugged. “Well, as Lady Joanne can attest, the seduction part be easy enough. 'Tis the keeping part that is difficult.”
Joanne's face flushed deep red, highlighting her blue eyes. “I did naught but enter the room. Niles was the one who seduced me.”
Alys raised her hand, palm upward, in triumph. “As I said, the seductionâ”
“But what if he doesn't want to be seduced?” Emily asked, interrupting her.
Alys returned her hand to her hip. Though Alys was in fact two years younger than Emily, she had been around all sorts of men and was considered by all the young women in the shire an expert.
“Milady,” Alys said, her face one of studied patience. “I had my flower plucked when I was scarce more than a girl, and I can assure you there's not a man born who isn't randy. The only reason you've never had to fight them off is because of His Lordship's sharp sword.”
Emily couldn't argue that. Her father kept watch over his daughters as if they were his most prized falcons, and he dared any man to look.
And if one dared to touchâ¦
She was quite surprised Niles had anything left beneath his codpiece.
Another thought struck her. “But what if I want him and he wants another?” Emily asked.
Alys sighed. “Lady Emily, you are always so full of
Let us say for argument that he might have interest elsewhere. All you must do is keep yourself in his presence. Flash him a little smile, a little ankle, aâ”
“An ankle!” Emily gasped. “I should be mortified.”
“Better mortified than an old maid.”
Perhaps there was some truth to that, and at this point in her life she was becoming quite desperate. Her father wouldn't listen to reason, and if she had any hope of finding herself a husband, then she'd best be on with it.
“A little ankle,” Emily repeated, her face growing hot at the mere thought. “Anything else?”
“Always make him wait,” Alys said. “Anticipation makes a man appreciate you all the more.”
Joanne folded her arms over her chest. “Now, the next question is where do we find this man?”
Emily frowned in frustration. “Aye, that would seem to be the crux of the whole seduction thing, wouldn't it? How can I make a man marry me when there's no desirable man to be found?”
“Well,” Alys said. “My mother always says you'll find your rose where and when you least expect it.”
Later that day, Emily left the kitchens and headed back to the donjon. She'd no more than taken two steps when she found her way blocked by Theodore, the cousin of her sister's betrothed, and the man they had disaffectionately dubbed the “demon from the devil's most odoriferous pit.”
They must have inadvertently summoned him with their words that morning, for Alys had no sooner finished her lecture than Niles and Theodore had shown up on their doorstep.
A great big bear of a man, Niles had rudely taken Joanne off on a picnic and left his cousin behind. From the moment her sister and Niles had vanished, Theodore had done nothing save make a nuisance of himself as he hung about her skirts while trying his best to get beneath them.
Emily's patience had long worn thin, and all she wanted was peace from her pestilence.
If Theodore be the rose Alys had referred to earlier, then Emily decided spinsterhood had great possibilities.
He rushed to her side and immediately reached for her hand, sending a wave of revulsion up her spine.
Why could he not leave her in peace?
The man might be considered passably handsome, if a woman were desperate enough. And Emily prayed she never became
But he lacked basic hygiene. If it was true cleanliness was next to godliness, then this man had to be a heathen through and through, for his balding blond hair looked as if it seldom saw a comb and had never known soap. His clothes were eternally rumpled as if he slept in them, and by the stains marring the fabric she would say he cleaned them about as often as he did his hair.
“Are you ready to give me my kiss now?” he asked.
“Um, nay,” she said, trying to step around him. “I fear I have many,
chores to do.”
“Chores? Surely my company is far more desirable than any chore.”
Personally, she'd rather clean the cesspit.
He stepped in front of her, cutting off her escape. “Come now, sweet Emily. I know how lonely you are here. Surely you dream of a man to come and claim you for his own?”
Aye, she did, but the key word was
. Since she barely classified Theodore as a bedbug, he would never be the one she dreamed of at night.
He reached out and touched her veil to the side of her face in a familiar gesture that made her cock her brow in censure. He disregarded her look. “You're fast passing your prime, milady. Perhaps you should consider doing as your sister did in order to gain yourself a husband.”
Emily didn't know what part of that offended her more. The insult to her age or the reminder of her sister's shame at being caught abed with Theodore's cousin.
“I can find my own husband, thank you,” she said icily. “And without any help from you.”
Anger darkened his gaze.
have you.” He wound his fist in her veil.
Emily clenched her teeth in expectation of pain as she jerked out of his hold. The pins that secured the veil to her head tugged at her hair before popping free and allowing her to escape.
She rushed across the bailey, hoping to reach the crowded donjon before he caught her again.
She was not so lucky.
Theodore tossed her veil to the ground and this time grabbed her arm to pull her to a stop.
Emily winced at the way his fingers dug into her upper arm as she tried to pull away. Scared and angry, she wished her father home. No man ever dared such insolence while looking at his fierce countenance, and wherever Emily went, her father's watchful gaze always followed.
have a kiss, wench.”
She would sooner kiss a leprous mule! Panicking, Emily looked about for some way to escape him.
A flock of chickens rushed out just then, gathering about their feet. As Theodore kicked at them, she was suddenly hit by inspiration.
She turned to face her pestilence with a charming smile as she recalled Alys's earlier advice.
“Theodore?” she said in her softest voice.
It worked. The anger left his face and he released her arm to take her hand. He placed a slimy kiss on her palm.
“Ah, Emily, you've no idea how many nights I've lain abed dreaming of you and your soft sighs. Tell me, how much longer must I wait before I sample the fruit of your succulent thighs?”
Until the devil's throne turned into icicles.
Emily barely caught the words before they escaped. She couldn't believe her luck, she finally found a man to whisper poetry to her and it was the most offensively obscene poetry she could imagine, and came from a man who was only one step up from a warted troll.
On second thought, he wasn't even a full step.
She forced herself not to let her distaste show on her face as she wrested her hand from his cloying grip.
She heard horses approach. Assuming they were her men-at-arms returning from patrol, she didn't even bother to look behind her as they entered the bailey.
Instead, she coyly wiped her hand off on her skirt. “At last you have won me over, milord.”
The arrogance on his face was unbelievable as he postured before her like some molting peacock. “I knew you wouldn't be able to resist me, milady. No woman ever has.”
He must make it his habit to stay in the company of women who'd lost their ability to see, their ability to judge, and, most of all, their ability to smell.
“Close your eyes, Theodore, and I shall give you what your tenacity deserves.”
A sly smile curved his lips as he closed his eyes and leaned forward with what she assumed he thought was a seductive pucker.
Wrinkling her nose at the awful face he made, she seized one of the red hens at her feet and lifted it to his lips.
Theodore gave a loud smooch as he kissed its neck.
Then it must have dawned on him that his lips were against feathers and not flesh, for he opened his eyes and met the curious gaze of the hen.
His eyes widening, he gave a mighty shriek of surprise.
The frightened hen squawked back in reprisal. It raised its wings and flapped about in Emily's hands as it fought for freedom. Emily let go, only to have it launch itself at Theodore, who raised his arm to ward it off as its sister hens joined the fray. The hen pecked at his head, leaving tufts of his thin, greasy hair sticking straight up while the other hens gathered about his feet, tripping him.
Chickens and man tumbled backward in a cacophony of curses and clucks.
With a curse to shame all others, Theodore stumbled into a water trough where he landed on his backside. Water splashed up all around him, and Emily had to step back to keep from being doused. The chicken screeched, then shot to the edge of the trough, where it buried its head in its feathers in an effort to smooth the damage Theodore had done.
As Theodore came sputtering up from the water, the chicken moved to rest upon his head.
Emily burst into laughter.
“The gentlest maid on earth? Hugh, your lies know no bounds.”
That deep, resonate baritone was not the voice of one of her men-at-arms. Her laughter dying in her throat, Emily turned about to see her father in a company of fifteen men.
By his face, she could tell the depth of her father's displeasure.
Still, relief overwhelmed her at his presence. At last she would have to tolerate Theodore no more.
As she took a step in his direction, her gaze went to the left of her father. On the back of the whitest stallion she had ever seen sat a knight wearing a bloodred surcoat emblazoned with a black raven. Even though she couldn't see the man's face, she could feel his gaze upon her like a blistering touch.
She stopped dead in her tracks.
Never had she seen his like. He sat tall in the saddle as if he and the horse were one creature united in power and in form.
His mail armor draped most sinuously over a body rock hard from years of training, and he wore his armor with the ease of a second skin. His broad shoulders were thrown back with pride, and the mail only emphasized the breadth of them.
The huge, powerful charger shifted nervously, but he brought it instantly under control with a squeeze from his powerful thighs and one taut jerk at the reins.
Still she felt his gaze on her, hot, powerful.
This was a man who commanded attention. A man used to control and authority. It bled from every part of him.
And as she watched him, her gaze unwavering, he reached up and removed his great helm.
Her heart stopped beating an instant before it began to pound furiously. Never in her life had she seen a man so handsome. Eyes so light a blue they seemed to glow stared out from a chiseled face surrounded by his silver chain mail coif. The black brows that slashed above his eyes told her his hair must be the color of a raven's wing.
There was something mesmerizing in his gaze. Deep intelligence shone there along with a guarded look that kept his emotions well hidden. She had the impression that nothing escaped his attention. Ever.
For all his handsomeness, though, there was a hardness to his sculpted features that told her a smile was all but alien to those lips.
He raked her with a bold, assessing stare that set fire to her blood as he cradled his helm beneath his arm. She couldn't tell what he thought of her, but as his gaze paused over her bosom, she felt her breasts tighten in response to the searing heat of his stare.
“What goes here?” her father demanded as he dismounted and moved to her side.
She jumped at his thundering tone, grateful for the distraction from the strange things the knight's gaze had done to her.
Theodore shooed the chicken from his head and climbed out of the trough while trying to look dignified.