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Lion s Bride 17
Jasmine turned and stared directly into her eyes. “You promise me?”
“I promise you.”
Jasmine slowly nodded. “Then all will be well.”
Thea wished she were as confident. Those first few years were going to be a hard struggle for both her and Selene. “You may have to be patient.”
“I have patience.” She fixed Thea with a stern glance. “But you must work very hard, you understand?”
Thea smothered a smile and nodded meekly. “Every hour of the day.”
“Perhaps not every hour,” Jasmine said grimly. “But many hours of the day. And don’t wait until you can make a place for us. We’ll make a place for ourselves when you open your house. Soon you’ll find you won’t be able to do without us.”
What had she got herself into by that offer? she wondered ruefully. Jasmine and Tasza were both extremely strong-willed. If she wasn’t careful, they would be giving her orders in her own house. The thought brought no unease. It would be good to have about her people she knew and trusted when she ventured forth into the world of trade.
They had reached the castle and Jasmine opened the door. “You’ll teach me another stitch today?”
Thea nodded. “As soon as I leave Lord Ware. Come to my chamber.”
“I’ll try to bring Tasza.” She started toward the servants’ quarters. “It would be easier for her to learn from you than me.”
That was all she needed, Thea thought wearily—a difficult confrontation with Ware and then a lesson with a sulky, rebellious Tasza.
She braced herself, then strode quickly down the long corridor toward the Great Hall. She had deliberately kept herself from thinking about Ware or the words he had spoken last night. They brought a twisting pain that filled her with too much confusion and sadness. She must not think now. She must just reiterate her refusal and leave him.
He turned away from the window when he heard her steps. “It took you long enough. Where were you hiding?”
“I wasn’t hiding. I was tending the trees.”
She brushed the question aside. “What do you wish of me?”
“I told you what I wished.” He lifted his hand as she opened her lips to speak. “Don’t worry, I’m no longer out of my senses. I’ve no intention of either coupling with you or getting you with child.” He smiled sardonically as he added, “Today. I don’t speak for tomorrow. I woke this morning full of guilt and torment, but I can’t be sure it will last.”
She felt oddly deflated. After bracing herself to resist him, he had changed again and made resistance unnecessary. “Such conduct was most selfish of you.”
“I’m a selfish man. You should know that by now.”
A truly selfish man would not be tormented by guilt at taking what he wanted most in the world. By the saints, she was making excuses for him again, she realized with exasperation. “You can be very selfish…on occasion.”
He waved away her words. “But that’s not why I asked Jasmine to find you. I wanted to tell you that I’m going to Acre tomorrow. I’m leaving Abdul here to watch over you, but you’re not to leave the castle. Do you understand?”
“Acre?” she asked, startled. “Why?”
“To seek word of Kadar.”
“You said that it wasn’t unusual for him to take this long.”
“It’s not unusual.”
“Then why are you going?”
“It will do no harm to give Kadar and your sister safe escort back to Dundragon.”
“You didn’t think Kadar needed an escort when he left here. Why should it be necessary now?”
“Because I wish to go,” he snapped. “Stop questioning me. I’d think you’d like to see the last of me for a while.”
The last of him. Sudden fear iced through her. Every time he left the castle, there was a possibility it might be his last. “Not when you ride foolishly into danger for no reason.”
“I’m taking a small force.”
“And will that be enough if you’re attacked?”
“Of course it will. Do you think I’d let anything happen to my men?”
“No, you’d probably tell them to leave you and let yourself be cut down.” She tried to steady her voice. “It’s stupid for you to go when it’s not necessary.”
“It is necessary.”
“Why? When you said—”
“Dammit, because it will happen again.” His eyes were suddenly blazing down at her. “I have to get away from you. Some night I’ll drink too much and I’ll come to your bed. I want it too much. I want you too much.”
“So you would die for lust? You’d die for a child who doesn’t exist?” She wanted to shake him. “You said you were back in your senses, but I see no sign of it.”
“I’m not going out to die. I’m going to Acre to escort Kadar and your sister to Dundragon.”
“And risk your life doing it. You’re a stupid, stupid man.”
“Not only selfish but stupid.” He started for the door. “I’d best go before I become more of a monster than I am already.”
He was leaving her. Tomorrow he was leaving Dundragon. “Wait!”
He stopped and looked at her.
“This is madness,” she whispered. “Don’t go.”
“I can do nothing else,” he said haltingly. “I’ve hurt too many people already. I find…I cannot hurt you, too.”
She was shaking, she realized, as she watched him leave the room. She was cold and shaking with a knot twisting in the pit of her stomach. She wanted to strike out at him. She wanted to yell and scream.
She wanted to hold and comfort him.
It was the same emotion that had nearly overwhelmed her last night, but now it was stronger, much stronger. She turned and stared out at the mountains. Death could be waiting for him when he rode out tomorrow. The enigma that was Vaden could strike him down. Why would he not listen to her?
She knew why he would not listen. She understood him now, and she wished with her whole heart that she did not. She should not have allowed herself to come this close, but she could not hold at a distance someone she had embraced in friendship. It was not possible.
Any more than it was possible for her to let him ride out of Dundragon tomorrow into danger.
Her hand was trembling on the candlestick as she moved down the dark corridor. Her shadow looked small and fragile in the light cast on the stone walls. Mother of God, what was she doing? She wanted to run back to her own chamber and jump into bed and pull the covers over her head. He might not even be alone. She had purposely waited until the middle of the night, but Ware’s lust was great, and he might still be engaged in coupling.
Well, she could not help it if he was. She paused outside his chamber, drew a deep breath, and then threw open the door. “Wake up. I must talk to you.”
“I wasn’t asleep.” Ware sat up in bed and watched her impassively as she came into the chamber and closed the door. “But I have no desire to talk. We’ve said what we had to say.”
There was no woman in his bed, she saw with relief. “You are alone?”
“Will she be back?”
“Who?” Then he smiled crookedly as he understood. “No, I sent for no woman tonight.”
“Perhaps I’ve decided to embrace once again a monk’s abstinence.”
She grunted with derision.
“And it’s none of your concern what my reasons were.”
“It’s my concern if she comes back while I’m here. It’s bad enough that I must do this, I refuse to share your bed.”
He went still. “Share?”
She glanced away from him as she set the candlestick on the table by the bed. Her chest was constricted and she was finding it hard to breathe. Get it over. It would be better when all was settled. She took off her sandals, then pulled her gown over her head and dropped it onto the floor. “Move over.”
He didn’t move. “What i
s this?” he asked hoarsely.
“It would appear evident to anyone who is not a monk, and you are certainly not that.” Since he had not made room for her, she went around to the other side of the bed and slipped beneath the cover. “I’ll not have your blood on my hands. I have other things to do with my life than sit and brood and wonder if I could have stopped this nonsense. I will stop it.”
“Get out of my bed.”
Every muscle of his body appeared rigid and locked in place. “I told you that I’d changed my mind.”
“And in the next breath that you were leaving to avoid temptation. If you yield to temptation, there will be no reason for you to leave.” He still did not move, and she didn’t think she could bear the tension much longer.
“I won’t have you sacrificing your life for—”
“I’m sacrificing nothing. I won’t let anyone deprive me of one thing that I value. Not my life, or my freedom, or anything else. I do this because I choose to do it. You wish my body? Take it. I’m not like my mother. I’ll be the same after the coupling is over.”
“You may not be the same.” He muttered, “I’ll probably do my best to make sure that you’re not.”
“A child?” She shrugged. “I’ll leave it in God’s hands. I like children, and I’d find a way to protect myself and my babe.”
“Not from the Templars.”
“They are only men.”
“You’re wrong, they’re not like—” He inhaled sharply as she rolled against him. “Get away,” he said through his teeth.
His flesh was hot and burning against her own, but his muscles were still locked and knotted. He had to break. She could not stand this. “Besides, you may not find me so easy to get with child. Nicholas used my mother for three years before she bore me. I’ll be here only a few more weeks.”
He turned his head and looked at her. He said thickly, “If I touch you now, I may not leave your body until you ride out those gates.”
Heat coursed through her, and for a moment she couldn’t speak. She moistened her lips. “Don’t be foolish. We both know coupling does not take long. I’ll be back in my chamber by dawn.”
“Will you?” He took her hand and placed it on his chest. “I think not.”
The hair on his chest prickled her palm and sent another spasm of heat through her. She could feel his heart drumming fast and hard beneath her touch, and his chest was moving rapidly. She had done this to him. She had stirred him, made his huge body respond. The knowledge brought her a strange sense of power. For the first time she could understand Tasza’s pride in her ability to arouse and please.
Tasza. The memory of the girl brought a twisting pang. She didn’t want to think of Tasza bringing Ware this pleasure. She reached down and began to stroke his abdomen.
He groaned and his eyes closed. His cheeks were darkly flushed, and his expression was one of unutterable sensual pleasure. So simple. She had not dreamed men could be controlled by a mere touch. In the House of Nicholas it had always been the women who were subjugated.
“I warn you. I cannot hold on.” His voice was guttural. “If you leave now, I think I can let you go, but you must—” He broke off with a low cry as her hand closed around him.
Warm and big and weapon hard. She squeezed slowly and watched his face. Pleasure. She squeezed again. His teeth bit into his lower lip as he tried to suppress another groan. She shoved aside the cover to study him.
“What—are you doing?”
She looked up to see that his eyes had opened. “I just wanted to see if it looked any different. Your response was…interesting.”
“For me also.” He looked down at her hand. “But I think you should let me go if you don’t want an even more interesting response.”
She was reluctant to relinquish that sense of power, but she obediently released him.
“And stop looking at me. It has the same effect as your stroking me.” He reached out and outlined her mouth with his forefinger. He murmured, “Christ, you have a lovely mouth.”
Her gaze flew to his face as she remembered Tasza’s lips kissing his thigh and then moving up to caress…Did he mean for her to do that?
He shook his head as he read her thoughts. “Not now. That’s not where I want my seed.” He reached down and cupped his hand between her thighs. “Here. You’ll take me here.” He began to rub her slowly, pressing and releasing. “Later we can find other—What’s wrong? Why are you shaking?”
Only now did she realize that she was shuddering with every movement of his hand. “I’m not certain. I feel…” Empty. Helpless. Hot. Tingling. Was this what she had made him feel? It was as if she were tottering on a precipice. “I think—you should stop.”
His gaze was narrowed on her face. “I don’t agree. I like to see you like this.” His thumb searched and found. He began to press and rotate.
She cried out and arched upward as an unbelievable sensation spasmed through her. “Take down your hair,” he muttered as he widened her legs. “I want to see it around you when I come into you.”
She gasped as his finger slid within her.
He went deeper. “Take it down.”
What was he saying? she wondered dazedly. Her hair?
Another finger entered her, and he began to move in and out while his thumb still pressed and rotated.
She bit her lip to keep from screaming. Her hips lifted from the bed. With difficulty he slipped another finger within her. “Do it.”
She dazedly lifted her hands and loosened her braid. His fingers…
“Run your fingers through it. Bring it over your breasts.”
She obeyed, barely aware of what she was doing. She was making little whimpering noises deep in her throat.
“That’s right.” He took away his hands and moved over her. His lips were curled back from his teeth as if he were in pain as he positioned himself. “I want to feel it against me.” He began petting the curls surrounding her womanhood. “I want to feel all of you stroking me while I—No, don’t move. I have to get in and I don’t want to hurt you.”
He was in and she felt pinned, unable to move. She lay there, panting, gazing helplessly up at him.
“Stop looking at me,” he said roughly. “I can’t let you go now. It’s not my fault that you’re a virgin. You’re the one who came to me: It will be over in a minute.”
“I didn’t ask you to let me go.”
“No, you just lie there so tight that I know I’ll hurt you if I so much as breathe.” He glared down at her. “I told you to leave me. Now all I can do is get it over quickly and then—” His hips plunged forward.
Pain. Invasion. Fullness.
“I told you.” He moved again, in, out. The pain was receding, and she was beginning to feel that tingling heat she had known before. “Why do you never listen to me?”
“Be silent,” she whispered. There was something here…more than lust…She felt part of something more than his body. It was most strange. “Something’s happening. Do you not feel it?”
He went still and looked down at her. A multitude of emotions flickered over his face before it became impassive. “No.” He brought her hair between them so that it would touch him with every movement. He began to move slowly, deeply. “This is the only thing I feel. This is all that matters.” He reached beneath her and cupped her buttocks, bringing her up to meet each thrust. “Isn’t it?”
She gasped as he touched the quick. She reached out blindly and grasped his shoulders. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t think.
She wanted to scream but she had no voice.
He was the voice.
He was motion and passion and…everything.
“It will be over soon,” he muttered.
Was that supposed to comfort her? She didn’t want it to be over. Yes, she did. She could not bear this tension.
He was moving faster, deeper.
She lunged upward as the waves of tension shattered.
He was still moving, she realized dimly. Didn’t he know the world had just ended? She tried to tell him, but she was too weary and shaken.
He cried out, his arms tightening around her.
Never mind, he had found out for himself.
“You should not have come to my chamber.” He stroked her hair. “It was foolish.”
How curious that his awkward touch could be both rough and infinitely gentle, she thought drowsily. “I couldn’t stop you any other way.” She nestled closer. “You’re very large, aren’t you? I feel very small lying next to you like this….”
“You still shouldn’t have come here. Now it’s too late. I may have killed you.”
“I feel very much alive.” It was an understatement. She had never felt more gloriously, joyously alive in all her life. How odd that a simple animal act could bring boundless happiness. “And if you’ve killed me, it was with pleasure.”
“You shouldn’t have come.”
He was not about to relinquish the thought, she realized. He would gnaw at it until he devoured all this wonderful contentment. She would not have it. She raised herself on one elbow and looked down at him. “And you’ll brood and mutter until you drive me mad. I came because I feel a fondness for you and did not want to see you dead. It was my decision and you are free of guilt.” She grimaced. “Though I know that you will not believe me. You seem to prefer being tied down by guilt. Well, I’ll not be one of the burdens tethered to you. I’ve no liking for chains of any sort.”
“A child can be a chain.”
“True, but it’s a bond that I’d welcome just as I welcome my bond with Selene. I’ve no desire to be alone in this world. The difference between a slave and a free woman is that a free woman has choice. There’s no more precious gift on this earth.”
“And I’ll not listen to your mockery.”
“It’s not mockery. I envy you. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt passion for anything.”