Authors: Kinley MacGregor
But some fathers expected more of their sons. Those sons were never shown anything save war, and now she understood why Lord Draven was withdrawn. He had lived his life on the battlefield, in the company of enemies and soldiers.
“You do not share the same father?” she asked as she remembered Simon speaking of his father falling in battle.
“Nay, milady. My father was more minstrel than knight. He was reliable in battle, but never the best.”
“And Draven's father?”
Simon fell silent. She looked to his face and there encountered a look of hatred so strong that it set her back. “He was undefeated in battle. I am told that some armies would merely see his pennant and immediately surrender.”
She had heard those tales as well. Harold of Ravenswood was a man of renowned cruelty. “Why do you hate him?”
“I doubt you would believe me if I told you.”
And before she could question him further, Draven announced it was time for them to renew their journey.
No more words were spoken as they packed up their meals and remounted their horses.
Emily remained lost in thought as she sifted through old memories of what she knew about Draven's father. He had died almost twelve summers back, not long before her mother. She knew that only because she recalled her father speaking about it to her mother over supper.
“I heard the devil claimed Harold of Ravenswood a sennight ago,” her father had said.
“Harold is dead?” her mother had asked.
“Aye, and by the hand of his own son I am told.”
Emily had been terrified by his words. She couldn't imagine anyone killing his own father. And at that time it had been the most horrific thing she had ever heard.
Had it simply been for the lands as she had been told, or was there more to the story?
Though Lord Draven was indeed terrifying and dangerous, there was still something about him that didn't seem in keeping with all the stories of cold brutality she had heard.
Nay, Niles and Theodore she could believe such tales about. There was a coldness to their eyes that appeared malevolent and cruel. But the iciness of Lord Draven's stare was nothing like theirs. It was different. As if the coldness was more internal and focused on himself rather than others.
Of course, she could just be fooling herself by seeing in Draven's eyes what she wanted to see. Just as Joanne had done.
“But I am not so foolish,” she breathed. “At least I hope I'm not.”
ust before dusk, they entered the bailey of Ravenswood. Emily had always known Ravenswood bordered her father's property just to the south, but never had she realized how close they actually were.
But physical closeness was the only thing they had in common, for never had she seen a more dismal place.
Of course, her ability to compare was rather limited since the only castle she'd ever seen was her father's. Even so, she doubted if any place on earth could be less inviting than the foreboding hall in front of her.
Looking up at the bleak, dark donjon, Emily reined her horse to a stop. Stark, unappealing misery surrounded her at all angles.
The yard unkempt, it held no flowers or shrubs anywhere. Weeds were the only thing that seemed to be in abundance.
A handful of scrawny chickens pecked at the bleak earth and squawked while dogs milled on the outskirts of the yard.
At this early evening hour only a handful of men lolled about. And none offered a greeting to their lord. They went about their business of pulling water out of the well, fetching horses, and baling hay as if they feared even to look upon their lord. And in truth, she had seen dead lice move at a faster pace than what any of them showed.
Emily frowned, then turned about in her saddle to scan the inner bailey.
“Milady?” Simon asked. “What do you seek?”
“A marker announcing this as the gate to Hades,” she said before she realized it.
Horrified by her slip of tongue, she pressed her fist to her lips.
Simon tilted his head back and gave a great peal of laughter. “Keep your sense of humor, milady,” he said as he sobered. “You're going to need it.”
Simon dismounted and handed his horse over to his squire. “And have no fear of offending me. I assure you I have the hide of a boar.”
“And the thick head to match,” Draven muttered as he dismounted and handed his reins over to a young stableboy.
“Very true,” Simon said, looking to his brother. “But 'tis why you love me so.”
Draven removed his helm, coif, and arming cap and handed them to his squire, who then dashed off with them. “There is one thing I love about you.”
“And that is?”
Simon took it in stride and smiled up at her. “Now you know why I have thick skin.”
Emily returned his smile as he helped her dismount.
Such bantering between Niles and Theodore had always made her uncomfortable, but it bothered her not when Simon and Draven did it. Perhaps because unlike Niles and Theodore, there appeared no real animosity between them. 'Twas almost as if the verbal sparring was a good-natured competition between them to see who could get the last word.
“I'm afraid you'll find Ravenswood far different from Warwick,” Draven said as Simon set her down in front of him.
She thanked Simon as her gaze trailed up the old, dark gray stone steps to the thick wooden door. There was nothing inviting or warm about his home. Nothing at all.
No wonder the man was morbid.
“I can make do, milord. Just show me to your housekeeper and Iâ”
“There is no housekeeper,” he interrupted.
“I beg your pardon?”
Draven shrugged. “I have only a handful of servants. You'll find I am not a man to waste time on frivolities.”
If not for the fact she knew he employed twelve knights, had won numerous tourneys on the mainland, and been rewarded most handsomely by King Henry, she would have questioned his solvency. But Lord Draven was a wealthy man with assets purportedly greater than even those of the crown.
Deciding criticism would not endear her to the man she hoped to seduce, she sighed. “Very well, milord. I shall make do,” she repeated.
Draven ordered Simon to find someone to unload her wagons. “I shall show you to your chambers,” he said to her, then turned and walked up the steps.
Stunned, Emily took a full minute before she followed. She couldn't believe the man hadn't even offered her his arm! No one had ever given her such a slight before.
At least he had the good grace to hold the door open for her.
Gathering her skirts, she entered his hall, then stopped dead in her tracks.
There was an indescribable odor to his home, something between rotted wood, smoke, and other things too foul to contemplate. The fading sunlight sliced through the slits of closed wooden shutters, showing her a wealth of rotted rushes, an unlit hearth, and only three dilapidated trestle tables set in the middle of the hall. Five dogs ran about, scavenging in the rushes, while the tops of the tables looked as if they had never known even a semblance of cleaning.
No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't keep her nose from wrinkling in distaste. She covered her nose with her hand in an effort not to choke on the stench.
Skimming the hall with her gaze, she noted the lack of a dais and lord's table. “Where is your table, milord?”
“I don't have one,” he said as he walked past her and headed toward the stairs.
Had that been a catch in his voice? She wasn't sure and he didn't pause in his journey.
Hurrying to keep up, she ascended the drafty stairs. At least up here, the odor abated to where she could breathe normally.
He stopped at the top of the stairway and pushed open a door. He stood back for her to enter, with one hand splayed on the door and the other on the hilt of his sword.
Emily swallowed hard as she walked past him. So close to him she could hear his breathing, feel the warmth of it fall against her skin.
Overwhelmed by his presence, 'twas all she could do not to pause and inhale the raw, pleasant, untamed scent of leather and spice.
Never in her life had she felt this way. So breathless. So titillated.
So very alive and alert.
Again an image of a charging black lion came to her mind, for the earl was every bit as wild and unpredictable. Deadly and disconcerting. She held little doubt he could take her in an instant and do anything he wanted with her. She would be powerless to stop him.
The fact that he didn't move toward her only added to her curiosity about him. And his appeal to her.
Seeking to distract herself from him, she stopped and stared at a plain room that would rival a monastery for its spartan quality.
All her tender thoughts of him evaporated.
“This will not do at all,” she said, horrified at the very idea of spending a night in this uninviting room.
“You said you could make do.”
She looked at him in disbelief. “I assumed you had a home, sirrah, not a dungeon.” Emily regretted the words as soon as they were out, but he showed no sign of anger, or anything else for that matter.
He just stood in the doorway, reserved. The fading sunlight caught in the reddish highlights of his hair, and reflected in the icy blue of his eyes.
He kept his spine ramrod stiff, his left hand on his sword hilt, and looked at her as if assessing her mettle. “I'm afraid Henry didn't give me time to make more suitable preparations for your stay. I shall send Edmond up to change the mattress and fetch new linens.”
“Milord,” she said, knowing she should remain silent on this issue, but too repulsed not to speak out. “I hope you won't take this the wrong way, but your home is dreadful and hardly fit for human habitation.”
“Tell me, milady, is there a
way to take that statement?”
“Nay,” she admitted. “But I will not stay here unless changes are made.”
His gaze hardened. “You will stay here regardless.”
“I most certainly will not.”
Anger flared in his eyes, so intense that she took an involuntary step back from it. Still, she refused to cower completely.
“You will do as you are told,
Now that got her dander up. She knew her place as a lady, but with that station came certain rights, and this man was quickly violating every one of them. “I am not one of your men to be dictated to, nor am I your wife.”
“True, you are my hostage.”
“Nay, I am the king's ward. Is that not what he said?”
If she didn't know better, she'd swear she saw a light of humor in those icy depths.
“And my father told me the king said anything done to me would be done to him. Is that not correct, also, milord?”
“Then I ask you, would you expect His Royal Majesty to sleep in this room?”
Draven didn't know what surprised him more: that she had the temerity to stand up to him or that she made such sense with her arguments. In truth, he knew his home was nothing more than a fetid sty to be endured. His life revolved around war, not country life.
He had never been able to stand Ravenswood and would gladly be gone from here forever, or see the donjon fall down in disrepair. 'Twas only his duty to the king that kept him here. Ravenswood was one of the corner pieces of the kingdom. Strategically placed between the north and the south, it needed someone loyal to the king to maintain it.
Even so, he couldn't very well expect a well-born lady to suffer in his home. Such things had been his father's specialty. “Very well, milady. I shall give notice to my steward to approve any accommodations you wish to make.”
“Does that include a housekeeper?”
“If it is necessaryâ¦”
Draven nodded and did his best to ignore the sweet floral scent of her flaxen hair. If memory served, 'twas honeysuckle. It had been more years than he could count since he last stood this close to a lady. But one thing he was sure of: no other woman had ever made him long so much to touch the creamy softness of her cheeks.
There was something about the Lady Emily that reached out to him in a most unsettling way.
Indeed, he could barely stand here and not lean over to capture her lips with his own. Would they be as sweet and soft as they appeared?
His need to know bordered on desperation.
What was it about this woman that appealed to him?
But then he knew. She was as fair of form as any he'd ever beheld, and she had courage to rival any man. And courage was the one thing he valued most in others.
“I leave it in your hands,” he said quietly as he tried not to notice the fact that the top of her head reached just below his chin. She was a tall woman, and a perfect size for his aching, hungry body.
By St. Peter's hairy toes, he had to get away from her. Anon.
Why, all he could think of was the bed that waited just a few feet away from them. A bed he had seldom used, but one he wanted desperately to take advantage of while he had her in his room.
Aye, even with his eyes wide open, he could see himself laying her down on that bed, stripping her clothes from her body, and sampling for himself the wealth of her milk-white skin, the taste of her sweet flesh.
Burying himself deep within the hot moistness between her thighs.
His entire body flared with need.
“I shall send Edmond to see to you,” he said, then turned to leave while he still could.
She reached out and touched his arm. Draven froze at her hesitant touch. Such gentleness was unknown to him, and few if any ever touched him physically unless it was a deliberate act to wound him in some fashion.
He couldn't speak as he glanced down at the tiny feminine hand resting innocently on his forearm. Those fingers, so long, slender, and gracefully tapered, her nails well manicured. It was all he could do not to take them in his hand, lift them to his mouth, and sample the sweet, delicate tips of them.
Did she have any idea how such a careless caress scorched him from the inside and out?
“Forgive me for my brashness, milord. I'm not normally so outspoken.”
He lifted his gaze from her hand to those exotic, dark green eyes of hers that reminded him of a perfect summer's meadow. “Your father described you as the gentlest maid ever born.”
A becoming shade of pink stained her cheeks, making him long to brush his lips against her high cheekbones and long eyelashes. To taste her breath on his tongue.
Not that he would ever find out how she tasted, he reminded himself. Women such as this carried death with them, and he would never lose control of himself. Never surrender his body to the urges that were blistering his loins.
“My father often exaggerates my virtues, milord.”
“But he didn't exaggerate your beauty,” he whispered.
How had that escaped his control?
Her blush deepened, and the look of pleasure on her face almost undid him.
Unconsciously, he moved toward her, wanting to inhale more of her sweet, intoxicating, feminine scent, wanting to feel her arms wrap about him as heâ¦
Retreat! his mind roared before he lost any more control over himself.
Without another word, Draven did what he had never done before in his life.
He withdrew from the conflict.
Not once did he look back as he left his room, descended the stairs, and entered his decaying hall. His entire body trembled from the pent-up lust she had awakened within him, and he shook forcibly with need.
He couldn't even remember the last time he'd had a woman, but it had been primitive and basic and quick, as were all his encounters with the fairer sex. Never once had he wanted to spend any more time with a woman than what was absolutely necessary to pacify his body.
Yet Emily was different. He couldn't imagine anything more wondrous than to spend an entire night making love to her, slowly, methodically. Touching every inch of her with his hands, his lips, his tongue.
Why he felt this way for her, he knew not. They had only just met, and yetâ¦
It made no sense to him whatsoever.
Closing his eyes, he leaned back against the cold stone wall. It must be the fact he had sworn not to touch her.
Aye, that must be it.
She was his forbidden fruit, and though she might tempt him mercilessly, he would have none of it. He had sworn on the finger bones of St. Peter and on his very honor that he wouldn't lay a hand to her in anger or in lust. And he would abide by his oath even if it drove him insane!