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Authors: Amanda Quick

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BOOK: Mystique
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“Very well. I shall speak to Sir Ralf at once.” Hugh turned to leave the study chamber.

He was vastly pleased with the results of the bargaining. True, he had only succeeded in coaxing Alice into a vow of betrothal, but a betrothal was near enough to a
wedding. Once he had her under the roof of Scarcliffe Keep he would worry about the details of the arrangements.

Alice raised an imperious hand to hold his attention. “One moment, Sir Hugh.”

He paused and turned back politely. “Aye?”

“I warned you that you must not arouse Sir Ralf’s suspicions and thereby induce him to demand a king’s ransom for my hand. We shall need to concoct a reasonable explanation to explain why you wish to wed me. After all, you have only just met me and I have no dowry to offer.”

“I’ll think of something.”

She gave him a quizzical look. “But what?”

Hugh stared at her for a moment. It occurred to him that in the morning light, her hair was a lovely hue. There was a straightforward, clear-eyed perception in her gaze that drew him. And the curve of her breasts beneath her blue gown was very enticing.

He took a step back toward her. His mouth was suddenly dry and he could feel a distinct tightening in his loins. “‘Tis obvious that, under the circumstances, there is only one reasonable explanation why I would ask for your hand.”

“And what is that, sir?”

“Passion.”

She stared at him as though he had just spoken in some strange, unknown tongue. “Passion?”

“Aye.” He took two more steps toward her, closing the gap between them.

Alice’s mouth opened and closed. “Nonsense. You will never convince my uncle that a legendary knight such as yourself would be so … so utterly witless as to get himself betrothed for such a trivial reason, my lord.”

He came to a halt and closed his hands around her delicate shoulders. He was astonished at how very pleasant it was to touch her. She was fine-boned but sturdy. There was a resilient feminine strength about her that excited him. She was fiercely
alive
under his hands. He was close enough to smell the scent of herbs in her hair.

“You are wrong, madam.” His tongue felt thick in his mouth. “Witless passion is obviously the only force strong
enough to make a man overcome good sense and sound reason.”

Before she could comprehend his intention, Hugh pulled her against his chest and covered her mouth with his own.

He acknowledged then, for the first time, that the desire to kiss her had been brewing within him since he had first seen her in the firelit hall.

She was a creature of shimmering magic
. He had never before touched a woman such as this one.

This was madness. No woman could be allowed to affect him so intensely.

He knew that the easiest way to rid himself of the dangerous sensual curiosity that plagued him was to surrender to the impulse. But now, as he felt the small shiver that coursed through Alice, he wondered if he had unleashed a force that would be far more difficult to control than he had anticipated.

She stood very still beneath his hands, as though uncertain how to react.

Hugh took advantage of her confusion to indulge himself in the taste of her.

Her mouth was as warm and moist as figs drenched in honey and fresh ginger.

He could not get enough of the taste.

Kissing Alice was more intoxicating than walking into a storehouse full of rare spices. She was everything the dark imaginings of the night had promised. Sweet, soft, and fragrant. There was heat in her, the sort of fire that inflamed all of a man’s senses.

Hugh deepened the kiss, searching for a response.

Alice made a tiny, muffled sound. It was neither a protest nor a cry of fear. It seemed to Hugh to be a choked exclamation of pure astonishment.

He eased her more tightly against his body until he could feel the thrust of her soft breasts beneath her gown. Her hips pressed against his thighs. His shaft stirred hungrily.

Alice moaned softly. Then, as though she had been freed of a spell that had bound her in place, she abruptly gripped the sleeves of his tunic. She rose on tiptoe and
clung to him, straining against him. Hugh felt her pulse quicken.

And then, to his great satisfaction, Alice parted her lips beneath his. He seized the opportunity to plunder the lusciousness that had been opened to him. He was suddenly mad with a desire to possess all of her, as if she were a seasoning that had no name, exotic beyond description.

Hugh was well aware of the effects the unique spices of women had upon the male senses. He had long ago learned to control and moderate his taste for them. He knew that a man who was not the master of his own appetites was doomed to be mastered by them.

But it was suddenly very difficult to recall his own rules. Alice was a heady mix. The taste and scent of her beckoned him as he had not been beckoned in a very long time. Mayhap in his entire life.

He wanted more. Much more.

“Sir Hugh,” Alice finally gasped. She freed her mouth and looked up at him with wide, stunned eyes.

For a moment Hugh could think of nothing else except retaking her mouth. He started to lower his head once more.

Alice put her fingertips on his lips. Her brows snapped together in a quelling expression. “A moment, if you please, sir.”

Hugh forced himself to take a deep, steadying breath. The realization of how close he had come to sacrificing the iron self-mastery that had served him so well all of his life struck him with bruising force.

He shook off the disturbing suspicion that Alice might be able to exert a woman’s power over him. It was simply not possible. He had not been vulnerable to feminine wiles since the earliest days of his youth. He certainly had no intention of allowing this particular woman to work her way past the armor of his control.

Every move he made was calculated, he reminded himself. Kissing Alice had merely been one more such maneuver. To judge by the rosy flush on her cheeks, the stratagem had worked. The lady was not immune to passion. That fact would no doubt prove useful.

“As I said,” Hugh muttered, “I believe I can convince your uncle that I have been swept away by passion.”

“Aye, well, I shall leave the matter in your hands, my lord.” Alice’s cheeks were very pink. She turned away, not meeting his eyes. “You appear to know what you are about.”

“Rest assured that I do.” Hugh took a deep breath and went toward the door. “See to your travel preparations and those of your brother. I wish to be on the road by noon.”

“Aye, my lord.” She glanced at him. Satisfaction and a womanly pleasure gleamed in her vivid eyes.

“There is just one more small detail that must be dealt with before we leave,” Hugh said.

Alice gave him a politely inquiring look. “What is that, sir?”

“You have neglected to tell me in which direction we shall be traveling. It is time for you to fulfill your end of the bargain, Alice. Where has the green stone been taken?”

“Oh, the stone.” She gave a shaky chuckle. “By the Saints, what with one thing and another, I very nearly forgot about my part of this arrangement.”

“The green stone is what this is all about,” Hugh said very coolly.

The glow promptly disappeared from Alice’s eyes. “Of course, my lord. I shall lead you to the stone.”

S
ir Ralf choked on his morning ale. “You wish to betroth yourself to my niece?” His round, heavy features screwed themselves into a grimace as he sputtered and coughed. “Your pardon, sir,” he gasped. “But did I hear rightly? You want to wed
Alice?

“Your niece suits my requirements in a wife.” Hugh helped himself to a wedge of aging bread. The unappetizing breakfast fare that had appeared from the kitchens this morning indicated that Alice had lost interest in culinary matters after she had arranged last night’s banquet. The lady had achieved her goal and had promptly ceased working her magic.

Hugh wondered wryly what she herself had dined on this morning in her private chambers. Something more interesting than weak ale and old bread, he suspected.

Ralf stared at him, openmouthed with amazement. “She meets your requirements? You actually believe that Alice will make you a proper wife?”

“Aye.”

Hugh did not blame Ralf for his incredulity since his host had not been the beneficiary of Alice’s mastery of household arts.

The great hall was empty this morning except for Hugh and Ralf, who sat at a small table near the fire, and a sullen band of drudges moving about in a desultory fashion. The servants made a halfhearted show of cleaning up after last night’s feast but it was plain they took little interest in the task. One took occasional swipes with a cleaning cloth and another made a few idle attempts to scrub the wooden boards. There was little soap and water involved in the process.

The ale-soaked rushes that had covered the stone floor last night were still in place together with the bits and pieces of food that had fallen among them. No amount of scented herbs scattered about could disguise the smell of rotting meat and sour wine. Not that anyone was bothering to toss fragrant herbs onto the moldering pile.

“The wedding will have to be held at some future date in the spring.” Hugh eyed the stale bread. He was hungry but not hungry enough to eat another slice. “I cannot spare the time for a proper celebration just now.”

“I see.”

“And there is the business side of the thing to be considered.”

Ralf cleared his throat. “Uh, certainly. The business side.”

“I think it would be best if Alice and her brother accompanied me back to Scarcliffe so that I will not be put to the trouble of making another trip to collect my bride at some later date.”

“You’re going to take her with you today?” Ralf’s beady eyes reflected undisguised disbelief.

“Aye. I have instructed her to see that she and young Benedict are packed and ready to leave by noon.”

Ralf blinked several times. “I don’t comprehend this, sir. Forgive me, I don’t mean to pry into your personal affairs, but I cannot help but wonder at this turn of events. Granted, Alice appears young for her years, but you do realize that she is three and twenty?”

“’Tis no great matter.”

“But ‘tis well known that a young bride is much easier to train than one of more advanced years. The youthful ones are more docile. Easier to manage. My own wife was
fifteen when we wed. I never had a bit of trouble out of her.”

Hugh looked at him. “I do not anticipate any difficulty in managing Lady Alice.”

Ralf flinched. “Nay, nay, of course not. I’ll wager that she would not dare to gainsay you, my lord.” He sighed ruefully. “Not the way she does me, in any event. Alice has been a great trial, you know.”

“Is that so?”

“Aye. And after all I’ve done for her and that lame brother of hers.” Ralf’s heavy jowls shuddered with indignation. “I gave her a roof over her head and food to eat after her father died. And what thanks do I get for doing my Christian duty by my brother’s children? Naught but constant quarrels and irksome demands.”

Hugh nodded soberly. “Annoying.”

“By the Rood, it’s damned annoying.” Ralf scowled furiously. “I tell you, sir, that, except when it suits her purposes, as it did last night, Alice cannot even be bothered with the management of my hall. You will note, however, that her own chambers are kept clean and perfumed.”

“Aye.” Hugh smiled to himself. “I did notice.”

“‘Tis as if she lived in a different household up there in the east tower. One would never know it was connected to the rest of Lingwood Hall.”

“That was plain enough,” Hugh said, half under his breath.

“Not only does she dine in the privacy of her own chambers together with young Benedict, she gives her own instructions to the kitchens regarding the food that is served there. And it’s a far cry from what the rest of us eat, I can assure you.”

“That does not surprise me.”

Ralf seemed not to hear the comment. He was in full sail on the sea of righteous indignation. “Last night was the first decent meal I’ve had here in my own hall since my wife died seven years ago. I thought things would be different when I brought Alice here. Thought she’d assume her natural female responsibilities. Thought she’d supervise
things the way she did when she was in charge of her father’s manor.”

“But it did not work out that way, I take it?” Hugh suspected that Alice had practiced her own form of revenge against her uncle.

Ralf sighed glumly. “She blames me for taking her and her brother away from their home, but I ask you, what choice did I have? Benedict had but fifteen years at the time. And you’ve seen him. The boy’s crippled. No amount of training will turn him into a proper fighting man. He could not possibly defend his own lands. My liege lord, Fulbert of Middleton, expected me to see to the defense of my brother’s lands.”

“Which you chose to do by installing your son as lord there,” Hugh observed softly.

“‘Twas the only solution, but my shrew of a niece would not acknowledge the fact.” Ralf swallowed ale and slammed his mug down on the table. “I did my best to secure her future. Tried to find her a husband.”

BOOK: Mystique
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