Settings
Lion's Bride

Lion's Bride

Lion s Bride 16


  Her eyes widened in alarm. “You jest.”

  “We’ve already established I rarely jest.” He shrugged. “So we must hope Kadar succeeds.”

  “It would be too dangerous for you to journey to Constantinople.”

  “The danger exists every time I leave Dundragon. The threat is no greater in Constantinople than in Damascus. I made you a promise.”

  “But I would not have you die for it,” she said fiercely. “I will find a way to get Selene myself as I first intended.”

  His gaze fastened intently on her face. “Promises must be kept.”

  “Don’t be foolish. I survived many years in Nicholas’s house. Selene can do the same. A few years out of her life is not worth your death. I will not hear more of this—Why are you looking at me like that?”

  “I was wondering if you’d weep for me should I fall.”

  “I do not weep readily.” His curious expression didn’t change, and it was making her uncomfortable. “And I see no reason why I should weep for a man who would risk himself so foolishly.”

  “But you have a tender heart and you insist I’m your friend. Would you weep for me, Thea?”

  She could not read his expression, but there was a note in his voice that made her hesitate to avoid the question. He was a man who lived constantly with death as his companion. Perhaps the knowledge that he would be mourned meant something to him. She met his gaze. “I would weep for you.”

  He nodded slowly. “I believe you would.”

  She could not look away. The room suddenly seemed to be without air. He was trying to tell her something. No, there were no words or thoughts, just…what? She didn’t know, but she could not bear this intensity. She tried to smile. “But I shall not weep, because Kadar is going to bring me Selene.”

  “She is ready, my lord.” Haroun had appeared in the doorway.

  Thea breathed a sigh of relief at the interruption. “What are you doing still awake, Haroun?” she asked him.

  Haroun gave her an indignant glance. “I go about my lord’s duties.” He bowed to Ware. “You said to tell you when she was ready.”

  She? Thea suddenly tensed as she realized what he must mean. Ware had not called Tasza to his bed of late, but that did not mean he was not coupling with other women in the household. Of course he was using them; he was a man with a lustful appetite. Why did she feel this sense of shock and outrage? She jumped to her feet. “I keep you. You clearly have things to do.”

  He frowned. “Why are you—” He stopped as he understood. “You think I have a woman waiting in my bed?”

  “It is none of my concern.” She moved toward the door. “But I’d think you would not use Haroun to arrange such acts.”

  “My lady,” Haroun objected, shocked at what he deemed impertinence.

  “It’s a squire’s duty to make his master comfortable.” Ware rose from his chair. “And you’re right, it’s none of your concern. Still, I believe it will amuse me to have you come with me.”

  I want you to watch.

  The scene that night in this hall came back to her. Ware sitting naked, Tasza crouched at his feet, her lips on his—

  A bolt of heat seared through her. “I’ll not do it.”

  “You will.” He strode past her. “Because it pleases me. One must always strive to please one’s friends. Isn’t that true?”

  She hesitated, standing watching him. What was he about? He had gone not toward the staircase, as she had expected, but toward the front door.

  He opened the door and stepped aside, gesturing for her to precede him.

  Haroun took her hand and tugged. He whispered, “You must obey my lord.”

  Haroun believed everyone on this earth must obey Ware. Still, she was curious. She let him lead her toward the door.

  “I please my friend Haroun,” she told Ware as she went past him. “Not you.”

  He chuckled. “I note the distinction.”

  She started down the steps. “Are you going to tell me where we—” She stopped as she saw a wagon across the courtyard. Four fully armored soldiers were mounted behind it. “What is this?”

  But Ware was already striding toward the wagon. Haroun immediately dropped her hand and ran after him. Thea slowly followed them.

  As she drew closer, she saw a young woman lying in the bed of the wagon. She was vaguely familiar to Thea, one of the multitude of servants in this vast place.

  “I don’t want to go, my lord,” the woman said, her gaze fixed pleadingly on Ware. “Let me stay.”

  Ware shook his head. “You will do well in Damascus. All your needs will be met. The babe must be kept safe.” He motioned to the driver of the wagon. “Go with God.”

  Babe.

  Thea watched numbly as the wagon slowly rolled toward the gates with the escort following. “She’s with child?”

  “Four months.” Ware was looking after the wagon with an expression she had never seen on his face—a strange mixture of desperation and bitterness. “She had to leave now. Later the journey would have been too hard on her.”

  Her numbness was gone, leaving raw anger in its wake, an emotion as wild and intense as it was unexplainable. “I’d think you would want to be present when your child was born.”

  “I would.” He turned to look at her. “But the babe is not mine. Fatima is the wife of one of my soldiers.”

  Another rush of emotion cascaded through her, and she glanced quickly away. “I see.”

  “No, you don’t,” he said roughly. “I wouldn’t send a woman bearing my child away without my escort. I would be by her side, guarding her and the child from all harm.”

  She didn’t look at him. “She didn’t want to go.”

  “She bears Jusef’s child, and a child is a man’s only hope of immortality. She must be kept safe. I won’t have him cheated.”

  There was such an intensity of passion in his tone that she was startled. “But will she be safe?”

  “I’ve deliberately sent only an escort of four. Vaden will know that I’d be more careful if they were guarding something of mine.”

  “He won’t harm her?”

  He frowned. “Of course he won’t hurt her. He’s no monster.”

  “Forgive me,” she said with sarcasm. “When you said he wished to murder me, I assumed he was—”

  “That’s a different matter.” He turned and strode toward the castle.

  She did not follow him but watched the wagon roll through the gates. Ware was probably returning to the Great Hall. She would go directly to her chamber and avoid any further encounter with him tonight. She had passed through too many emotional peaks and valleys this night. In the space of that few minutes beside the wagon, Ware had changed from the man to whom she had become accustomed to the moody despot she had first met.

  But he was not moody, he was a man in pain. She knew now how he covered every emotion with a blanket of thorns. She was trying to ignore it because she did not want to deal with it. Her response had been too strong, too frightening, and she wanted only to hide away.

  He was in the Great Hall, as she knew he would be, sitting staring into the fire.

  She strode past the arched doorway and started up the staircase.

  By all the saints, she couldn’t do it.

  She sighed and started down the steps again.

  “Your face is ugly when you scowl,” she said as she entered the room. “It displeases me exceedingly.”

  “Then go somewhere you don’t have to look at it.”

  She sat down on a stool beside the hearth. “Kadar wouldn’t like it.”

  “Kadar.” He turned his head to look at her. “Is that why you’re here?”

  “Why else would I be—” She met his gaze and shook her head. “It troubles me when you’re like this.”

  “Does it?” He lifted his goblet to his lips. “Would you like to soothe me?”

  “I’d like to help you.”

  “No, you wouldn’t. Not in the way I want you to help
.” He drained the goblet. “But if you don’t go away, I may ask it anyway.”

  She smiled with effort. “That’s no great threat. I’ve refused you before.”

  “No, you haven’t. I haven’t fallen that deep into the pit as yet.” He gazed at her for a long moment and then shifted his glance away. “Leave me.”

  She sat unmoving.

  His hand tightened with white-knuckled pressure on the goblet. “Leave me,” he said through his teeth. “Or, by God, I’ll call Abdul and have him carry you from this room.”

  He meant it. She had never seen him like this. She slowly rose from the stool. “No one need force me. I take no pleasure in your company when you’re like this.” She started across the chamber. “Good night.”

  “Wait!”

  She glanced over her shoulder to see expression after expression flickering over Ware’s face. “What is it?”

  “Nothing,” he muttered. “Nothing.” He lifted his goblet to her and smiled mockingly. “A moment of weakness. Shall we wager whether I succumb the next time?”

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about, and I’m weary of trying to understand you.”

  “No more than I am. I don’t understand myself at all of late.” He looked back into the fire. “But I wouldn’t wager on either my generosity or strength of will. It would be very unwise.”

  Thea woke with a start in the darkness.

  “Hush.” Ware was a massive shadow sitting on the bed beside her. “I’m not going to harm you.”

  Her heart was beating so hard, she could scarcely speak. “You already have,” she said tartly. “Frightening me unto death is harm enough. Light the candle.”

  “No, there’s moonlight. I can see you well enough.”

  “Well, I can’t see you.” But she could sense him and the tension that seemed to reach out and enfold her. She was suddenly acutely conscious of scents and textures drifting to her in the darkness. The scent of leather, which always surrounded Ware, the fragrance of lemon, cedar, and mulberry drifting from the trees below on the green, the soft cotton coverlet against her naked body. She swallowed. “Light the candle.”

  “I don’t want you to see me.” He reached out and touched her bare shoulder. “Silk,” he murmured. “Can you weave cloth this fine?”

  Her skin seemed to burn beneath his fingers, yet she didn’t want to move. “Finer.”

  “No,” he said thickly. “Not finer.”

  “Have you had too much wine?”

  “No, but I might have had enough.” He rubbed gently, sensuously at the hollow of her shoulder. “Why else am I here?”

  “I don’t know. Go to your bed. You’ll feel better in the morning.”

  “Not better, but not as mad, perhaps. They say dawn brings a sweet clarity of spirit.”

  “What do you do here?”

  “Madness. I thought I’d told you.”

  She moistened her lips. “You wish to couple with me?”

  “Oh, yes, I’ve wanted that since the night I brought you to Dundragon. But lust is not madness. I wish something much more dangerous.” He paused. “I want to get you with child.”

  She went rigid with shock.

  “That’s why I had to be drunk before I came to you.” He continued to stroke her shoulder. “I find I have scruples about asking a woman to bear a child who will never know his father. Particularly since the act of conception alone will mark you for death. Wouldn’t any man bare his secrets to the mother of his child?”

  “I thought you said I was already marked for death.”

  “Probably. But Vaden might—No, he couldn’t, if he knew you were bearing my child.” His voice hoarsened. “You see how low I’ve fallen? I’d risk your life for my own ends.”

  “Why?”

  “Because I want this.” The air crackled with the intensity of his passion. “I don’t want to die and not have something of me live on.”

  Mother of God, she could not believe she was feeling this wrenching pang of sympathy. “Then have a child by Tasza or one of the others. I’m no mare to be bred at will.”

  “I want your child. I want my son to have your pride and your strength. I’d trust you to care for him and teach him.” He was silent a moment and then said jerkily, “It’s not such a bad thing I offer you. The danger may be the same whether or not you take me to your bed, and I’ll do all I can to protect you. I’d take you to the safest haven I could find as soon as we knew you were with child. Kadar would stay with you and watch over you. You would never want for anything. I’m a very rich man. It would be too dangerous to wed you, but on my death I would see that you had—”

  “Be silent.” Her voice was shaking as she pushed aside his hand and sat up in bed. “I’m tired of this talk of death from you. I will not have it.”

  “Very well. I’ve said what I came for and it appears the answer is no. I expected it would be.” He stood up, swaying a little on his feet. “I bid you good night.”

  His abrupt departure was as startling as everything else that had happened this night. “You’re leaving?”

  “As you’ve guessed, I’m more than a little drunk, and I have a tendency toward self-indulgence when I’ve had too much. I can’t stay without taking you, and I can’t touch you unless you agree to the child. I couldn’t stop myself from spending within you as I do with other women. I’ve known that from the beginning.” He started heavily across the room. “But I should warn you that I’ll probably not give up. Vaden used to say that once I got something in my head, I couldn’t leave it alone.”

  “It will do you no good. You’ll have to find another woman to give you the immortality you crave.”

  “I told you, I don’t want another woman.” He opened the door. His voice had a thread of wonder as he added, “I haven’t wanted another woman for a long time. Isn’t it strange that no other woman will do?”

  The door closed behind him.

  She was trembling, Thea realized. It was anger. She was furious with that drunken oaf. Or afraid. It was natural for a woman to be frightened when she was confronted by a man who told her he wanted to use her body. Or bewildered. She had been thrown into a turmoil of shock and confusion at Ware’s words.

  A child…

  The thought brought a warm rush of tenderness. She had always loved children.

  By all the saints, what was wrong with her? She had no need of a babe. She already had Selene, whom she had practically raised from babyhood. She had her living to make in this world, and it would only be harder if she was with child. It was out of the question, and she was right to be angry with that big idiot of a warrior who thought he could stride into her life and use her body as he saw fit.

  Tears were running down her cheeks. Dear God, it was not from anger, she finally realized. Even as she had issued that rejection, she had wanted to pull him close and comfort him, to tell him that he would live forever and had no need of a child. Why did she let him move her like this?

  She wiped her damp cheeks with the back of her hand and lay back down. This softness must be banished. Pity was no reason to have a man’s child.

  What Ware had asked was outrageous and totally out of the question. She would think no more about it, and if he posed the question again to her, she would tell him what she thought of such ruthless selfishness.

  She would think no more about it….

  “MY LORD WISHES to speak with you,” Jasmine said. “You must come to the Great Hall at once.”

  Thea glanced up at her before pouring more water at the base of the tree. “When I’m gone, you must be careful not to give these trees too much water. Too much is worse than not enough.”

  “Have you told Allah this secret so that he can ration his rain?” Jasmine asked dryly.

  “We can do nothing about God, but we can do all we can ourselves.”

  “My lord wants you.”

  There was no use putting it off any longer. She had been avoiding Ware all day, but she would have to face him somet
ime. “I’m coming.” She rose to her feet, dusted the earth from her skirt, and started back toward the castle. “I was finished here anyway.”

  Jasmine fell into step with her. “He set me searching all over the castle for you. You are angry with him?”

  “No.”

  “He is angry with you?”

  “I don’t know. Perhaps.” She changed the subject. “Have you practiced that loop stitch I showed you yesterday?”

  Jasmine nodded. “But I’m still very clumsy.”

  “The skill will come.”

  “I showed it to Tasza. She did it better than I did.”

  “You’re teaching Tasza to embroider? I thought she had no interest in learning it.”

  “This is a good thing. Tasza will do as I tell her.”

  Thea shook her head. “No, Jasmine. She must do it because it is her wish, or it will become slavery for her. I will not have that happen.”

  Jasmine frowned. “Sometimes she doesn’t know what is good for her. I must tell her.” She paused. “I think she is afraid.”

  “Afraid?”

  “To fail. Everyone must take pride in something. Tasza may be a whore, but she is a very good whore. Through all the cruelties heaped upon her, she could hold to that. Now she must start at the beginning and it frightens her.” Her lips tightened. “But I’ll not permit her to stop. I could not save her when she went on the streets, but this is another chance. So do not tell me not to teach her.”

  How could she remonstrate with Jasmine? She was not even sure she wanted to do so. Both these women had suffered and sacrificed for each other. It was not for her to interfere with a bond of such strength. “If I can help, call on me.”

  “You can help us by staying. We need your teaching.”

  She should have known Jasmine would ask that of her. “I cannot stay. As soon as Selene arrives, I must go to Damascus and make a life for us. You can understand how I want the best for her. You feel the same about your Tasza. I’ll teach you all I can before I leave.”

  “It may not be enough.”

  “Perhaps someday both of you can come and work with me. You are free women. It’s best now that you stay with Lord Ware, since I cannot offer you a place. But once I have my own house, I’ll send for you.”