Authors: Charlotte Boyett-Compo
"Fool!" she snapped.
"What did you say?" he asked, his eyes narrowing.
"You don’t want to know."
Conar’s face wrinkled with confusion. Had the girl called him a name? Surely she had not. He was the Prince Regent of Serenia. She wouldn’t dare! Not completely satisfied with her innocent look as she gazed calmly at him, he dug his boot heels into ’Yearner’s ribs.
Liza caught up with him where the pathway widened as it wound close to the stream they had heard. She refused to look at him and he didn’t turn around to look at her.
Overhead, the trees arched into a high ceiling of thick greenery, shading the clover-flecked ground with shadows of shifting light and dark. Spreading willows opened lacy green arms over the banks of the silver-shot stream like a mother hen beckoning her wandering brood to her. The tall scented pines and firs on the opposite side of the serpentine roadway lent a perfume all their own to the sweet-smelling air. It was a heady fragrance ripe with musk.
Conar let his attention wander to the girl. He was annoyed he couldn’t seem to keep from doing that. With a snort of disgust, he shook his head, flinging the golden mass from his eyes. He was acutely aware of a growing attraction to her that both angered and thrilled him.
She was different from any woman he had ever known.
She rode her mare as though bred to it. It smacked of professional training, and that was an absurd thought, he reasoned, since no one but the nobility had such luxury. But then again, her father could be a horse master. That was a strong possibility, he knew, for her hands were light on the braided black reins and she moved in such complete harmony to her mare’s gait, he was positive she had been trained by a man who knew what he was about. Yet that way of riding was not an easy thing to teach, or accomplish, even for a male. You either had the ability or you didn’t. This girl obviously did, for she and her horse moved like twin entities, with a rhythm all their own.
He shook his head as he observed her. She was an enigma that truly puzzled him; puzzled and alarmed him; worried his male superiority.
"Why do you frown so much, Milord?" her teasing voice called to him, breaking his reverie. He looked into her smiling face. "It causes wrinkles, you know."
Conar blushed at having been caught staring so intently.
"Do you not have some kin somewhere who care where you go and what you do?"
She wrinkled her nose. "Of course I have kin. My parents know full well where I am and what I do."
"And they sanction this stupidity?" he asked with astonishment, amazed any parent would be so lax in their care of a girl-child.
"Not only sanctioned, but approved and recommended! And it isn’t stupid!"
He pulled on his horse’s reins. "What parents in their right mind would allow a girl to go off on her own?"
"Ones having faith in their daughter’s ability to take care of herself! And fully capable of taking care of those she might need to help! Who do you think taught me how to defend myself?"
"Your father should have his head examined!" he snarled, his eyes jerking away from hers. He was getting tired of her rubbing it in that she had helped him back at the Hound and Stag. "Teaching you to ride was one thing; teaching you to fight was insane. The man should have known better!" He threw a leg over his stallion’s neck and slid smoothly to the ground.
"And just who said it was my father who taught me to fight?" She cocked her head to one side as she watched the look of disbelief form on his handsome face.
"Well," he thundered, "I know it wasn’t your mother!"
She shrugged her delicate shoulders. "You don’t know my mother!" She raised one soft black brow. "Do you?"
Conar blinked. If the mother was anything like the daughter, she could very well have taught the girl. It was a ludicrous assumption, but he had to entertain the thought, nevertheless. That made him all the more furious. He turned his back and walked his steed to the slow-moving stream. "You still haven’t answered my question."
"What question?" she queried, getting down from her mare with one quick, graceful move.
Sighing heavily, realizing that getting angry would not gain him an answer, he rolled his eyes to the heavens, took a deep breath, exhaled and then spoke to her as though he were dealing with the village idiot. He stressed each word as he spoke—
She turned and gave him a coy smile. "Not…from…Serenia," she answered and her grin widened at the blaze of fury that suffused his angry face. "I…am…a…foreigner."
"You told me as much, reminding me in the stable that you were no subject of mine!"
"I have not forgotten," she quipped.
"Besides, our women are not so bold or argumentative."
"And they know their place, eh?"
"Aye, they know their place! They are not as disrespectful as you."
"Nor as interesting." She sat on the edge of the stream and began to pull off her boots.
"Interesting isn’t the word I’d use to describe you!" He stared at the top of her shining hair, liking the way a beam of filtering sunlight through the willow branches turned the black into a shimmering band of midnight blue.
Liza shrugged and leaned back on her elbows, something Conar wished she hadn’t done, for the fabric over her high breasts stretched taut, accentuating the curves beneath.
"How would you describe me, then, Milord?" she said, craning her neck to look up at him.
Tearing his gaze from her bosom was one of the hardest things he had done of late, but he forced his reluctant blue gaze to the running stream. "Irritating as hell."
"Well," she said as she brought down her elbows and stretched flat on the ground, "I need no guide to escort me about and no chaperone to hinder me once I have found what I am looking for. Perhaps your women need to be led about like geldings in training. Our women don’t."
His pulse began to beat faster as her breasts became even more prominent. He licked his suddenly dry lips and then bit his tongue. She was deliberately enticing him, but he was man enough to ignore it. He sat down heavily on the clover beside her, raised his knees and rested his wrists on them. He looked to the far bank across the stream.
"Comfortable, Milord?" she asked sweetly.
"What is it you’re looking for?"
"I’ve already found it."
He turned to gaze at her pretty oval face, but his stubborn eyes dipped once more to the rise and fall of her chest. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
She shrugged and the fabric tightened again. "I think you know, Milord."
His hands itched to strangle her. Or caress her. He wasn’t sure which. "If you think I would allow you to audition for one of my Elite, you’ve got another thought coming!"
She giggled, her breath exploding in a gush of hilarity. "Don’t be silly! A woman’s place is to care for a man, not fight him."
His face lit up with triumph. "So you are looking for a husband!"
"Husband, lover. Whatever."
"Whatever?" There was sudden shock in his tone.
He stared at her for a long time. He was having difficulty imagining the
. She certainly didn’t look, or act, like a courtesan, and decidedly was not a common prostitute. Her gaze was too direct when she spoke to be one of those women whose duplicity was part of their stock and trade. Her eyes were not bold and sassy, just teasing, but not like the professional teasing of a whore. He knew that type of woman better than he admitted to anyone—other than his eldest brother—who knew that type better than any man alive. His lips curled in disgust. He could be totally wrong about the girl.
"I’m not one of them," she whispered. "Loose women, I mean."
He flinched, amazed she had been perceptive enough to realize what he must have been thinking. "I didn’t say you were! Did I say you were?"
"No, but you were thinking it."
"What else would ‘whatever’ mean?"
"Ah, ha!" he shouted. "It is a husband you want!" His hateful tone was meant to insult her. "Someone with money and land and title. Someone who will give you a station in life."
"I have a station in life."
"But you want a better one, isn’t that true? You seek a nobleman, a Lord even, to give you status?"
"I won’t settle for anyone other than a Prince."
Liza waited patiently as he remained silent. Instinctively, she knew he was about to say something patently male and idiotic.
She wasn’t disappointed.
"If you think I am your destiny, Mam’selle, then I will disabuse you of that notion here and now!"
"I didn’t say you were, did I?" she asked innocently, mocking him.
"You didn’t have to. I know how you women work!"
Her brows shot up. "Oh…really?"
"Only royalty marries royalty, Mam’selle," he said with a superior smirk. "It keeps the bloodlines pure."
"But it doesn’t necessarily guarantee intelligence, now, does it?"
He narrowed his eyes. "Have you forgotten to whom you are speaking?"
"The dimwit whose life I saved?"
"Be careful, girl."
"I can tell you’re attracted to me," she said, sitting up and tucking her legs beneath her buttocks as she faced him. Her look went over him, but there was a sweep of pure devilment in the forest-green depths as she smiled at him. "You can’t deny that."
"Is it?" Her smile deepened. "Then why is it you can’t keep your eyes off me?"
"Well? You are, aren’t you?"
A muscle worked in his jaw. If anything, he was scrupulously honest. He could have lied, but he had never told a lie in his life. He could have skirted the issue, but that would have been cowardly. He could have changed the subject, but that would have been tantamount to admitting she was correct. He saw no way out. And he saw no real harm in admitting that he found her, if not attractive, at least companionable. His admission wouldn’t mean anything.
"You’re distracting," he finally answered.
"You find me distracting? A loud noise is distracting, Milord. A buzzing insect is distracting. A baby crying in the background is distracting!"
"Aye, that’s you!"
"You conceited oaf! Why can’t you just admit you find me fascinating? Puzzling? Captivating?" Her voice became a soft whisper of sound as she leaned toward him. "Alluring?"
He stretched out one long leg and lay back on the clover, propping up his head with one fist as he leaned on his elbow. "It wouldn’t matter if I found you all those things and more, Mam’selle. I can’t, and I won’t, take advantage of the opportunity you are so obviously offering."
"Did I say I was offering you anything?"
He grinned. "You didn’t have to. I’ve played this same scene with more women than I can count!"
"But not with a woman like me!"
"Maybe not." He shrugged. "But the invitation is the same."
"There is nothing about me that is like anything you’ve ever before encountered, Milord! I am more woman than you will ever see again!"
His look turned hot with speculation. "I don’t doubt that at all."
"So why not take advantage of it?" she countered boldly.
His face changed. The soft lines of laughter around his mouth were replaced with a mask of blankness. It was as though a thick curtain had dropped over his emotions. "I have my reasons."
"Not that I am offering myself to you," she quickly added, "but why would you not want me if I were to do so?"
He lifted one brow. "It’s a moot point, isn’t it? I’ve already told you I’m not interested."
Her mouth turned stubborn. "I’d like to know why you don’t find me to your liking."
"I didn’t say I didn’t find you to my liking, Mam’selle."
"Then you do find me to your liking?"
"I didn’t say that either."
Her exasperated gush of air made him laugh. "I don’t think you know what you feel, Conar McGregor!"
He shook his head. "Let it rest, little one." He winked. "You’re very attractive, but I’m just not inclined to take you up on your offer."
"I didn’t make you any gods-be-damned offer, McGregor!" she shouted.
He cocked his head to one side and reevaluated her. This one was different, there was no mistaking that. He would have given anything to be able to show her just what he was made of.
"I am betrothed." He thought that would end the conversation and the temptation.
"Oh, pooh! Is that all? What does it matter? You aren’t chained to the woman, are you?"
Conar felt a shiver go down his spine. "I might as well be," he said beneath his breath.
It was a moment before she spoke to him. "You don’t seem particularly happy about the situation. Don’t you like the idea of marriage?"
"Not really, but it is my destiny to produce an heir to take my place."
"Then is this particular woman not to your satisfaction?" She watched his facial expression. "What’s wrong with her?"
Conar looked away. "I didn’t say there was anything wrong with her."
"You didn’t have to. If you didn’t want to marry her, why did you ask her?"
His self-contemptuous laugh was strident and harsh in the fading sunlight. "I didn’t ask the bitch to marry me. I wasn’t consulted. I was betrothed to her on the day of her birth. The promise was made between her parents and mine. It is an obligation I can’t reverse."
"I see. And would you have agreed to the marriage if you had been consulted?"
Conar chuckled, an ugly sound full of self-pity. "It is what is required of me as first-born legal son. I wouldn’t have been consulted and I have no say in the matter."
"And is she as unwilling to wed you as you are to wed her?"
"How should I know?"
"Well, if anyone should, it should be you! What is she like?"
"Like any other woman, I suppose."
"What does that mean?"
"It means what I said. The bitch is like every other female. She was bred to burden some poor man. Unfortunately, that man was me!"
"Don’t you like women, Milord?"
His lips twitched. "They’re the only game in town for me, Mam’selle."
"But you don’t think much of us as a species, do you?"