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Lion s Bride 3
His arms tightened around her. “We cannot stay here all night on that premise. Kadar will carry you to your chamber.”
“My basket,” she murmured. “I can’t go anywhere without my basket.”
“I have your basket.” Kadar appeared at her side. “But you’ll have to carry her, Ware.”
Ware gave him a cold glance, then lifted her in his arms and strode across the courtyard and into the castle.
Torches everywhere. Servants scurrying about before them. Silk. Stone. Flame. It was too much to absorb when she could barely hold open her eyes. She solved the problem by the simple action of closing them.
Softness beneath her. Suddenly Ware’s arms were gone.
Loneliness. As intense as it was unexplainable.
She opened her eyes. He was standing over her, his gaze on her face. His expression was just as hard and impassive, but his eyes…
She couldn’t look away. There was something there….
He tore his gaze away and turned on his heel. But he whirled back and said haltingly, “You needn’t be afraid. You’ll be safe here.” Then, as if regretting the moment of softness, he said harshly to Kadar, “For God’s sake, get her clean clothes and a bath.”
“As soon as she wakes. I’ll not trouble her now.” Kadar smiled down at Thea. “You must forgive him. He has a violent dislike of odor. I think it must be a reminder of those sheepskin drawers.”
Sheepskin drawers? She didn’t understand and was too weary to question him. “Put my basket by the bed.”
He put it down. “It’s very light. You must not have much in it.”
Her whole world. Selene’s freedom and her own. She put her hand protectively on the lid.
“You needn’t sleep with it by your side,” Lord Ware said roughly from the door. “You may believe me a thief, but I don’t steal from guests under my roof.”
How strange that her condemnation had hurt him. She would not have thought anything could pierce that hard exterior. She should not care. He was a brutal man, probably little better than those savages who had attacked the caravan.
“But I admit to curiosity.” Kadar coaxed, “I don’t suppose you’d care to trust us enough to tell us what precious trove is in your basket.”
Lord Ware was still at the door, watching her. He may not have brought her there willingly, but he had given her safety, she thought. He might even have saved her life. It was difficult for her to trust anyone, but perhaps it would not hurt to lower her guard a little. She took her hand from the lid of the basket.
“Worms.” She rolled over and turned her back to them. She drowsily closed her eyes again. “Hundreds and hundreds of worms…”
THE BASKET WAS STILL in the same place by her bed when she opened her eyes the next afternoon.
“You wish your bath now? It’s very late.”
Thea glanced at the corner from where the question, spoken in Arabic, had come.
A middle-aged dark-haired woman gowned in flowing blue cotton rose to her feet from a low cushion. “My name is Jasmine. I serve you while you’re here.” She bustled forward. “I will give you fruit to break your fast, then Lord Ware says you must have a bath. He demands everyone in the household bathe once a day.”
Sheepskin drawers. Kadar’s sly comment popped into her head, then was gone as Jasmine drew back the gauze cover. “Come. Do you need my help? Shall I bring the food to you?”
“No,” she answered in Arabic. She was not ready to be confronted by this new challenge of a servant for her. The idea was ridiculous. She sat up slowly, carefully. By the saints, she was stiff and sore. “I’ve no need of a servant. I’ll serve myself.”
Jasmine shook her head. “Lord Ware says I’m to serve you.” She glided across the room and stood behind a chair at a table. “Fruit.”
At least the woman was not groveling, Thea thought with relief. On the contrary, her manner was brusque and close to rude. She swung her legs to the floor, then had to stop a moment. The night’s rest should have strengthened her, but it appeared to have done the opposite.
“Ask for help and I will give it,” Jasmine said without expression.
Definitely not groveling. The woman would probably let her fall to the floor and crawl to the table. A flare of irritation rushed through her. She did not want service, but it would not harm the woman to display kindness. She stood up and then swayed as dizziness washed over her.
Jasmine impassively stood watching her.
The dizziness was gone in a few minutes, and she started across the room. Every muscle in her body was sore; she could manage only a pained shuffle. The journey to the table seemed as long as her trip through the desert. She sank into the chair with a sigh of relief.
“Eat.” Jasmine pushed a pewter plate toward her.
After looking down at the slices of pomegranates, oranges, and dates, Thea leaned back in the chair. “Presently. I’m not hungry right now.”
“The water for your bath will be coming. I ordered it heated when I saw you stirring.”
She met Jasmine’s eyes. “Then they will have to heat it again.”
Jasmine studied her for a moment and then shrugged. “Yes, they will.”
A victory, but it had taken its toll on Thea’s meager strength. “I believe I’m hungry after all.” She reached for a slice of pomegranate. “You are slave to Lord Ware?”
“I’m a free woman. There are no slaves here.”
Thea’s eye widened in surprise. Slavery was as common here in the East as it was in Constantinople, and she had a vague memory of a multitude of retainers when they had entered the gates of Dundragon. “None?”
“None.” Jasmine moved across the room to the high chest. When she returned, she was carrying an ivory-backed brush. “Your hair is tangled. I must brush it before you bathe.”
“I’ll do it.”
“Eat.” The command was brusque, but the pull of the brush through Thea’s hair was gentle. “Your hair is very pale. Men enjoy fair-haired women, and you are of an age for coupling. Did Lord Ware bring you to use in his bed?”
Thea stiffened in shock and she felt the heat flood her cheeks. “No, I will never do that.”
“You will if he chooses.” The brush moved smoothly through her hair. “He is master here. You should be proud if he summons you to his bed. The women of this household come eagerly when he sends for them.” Jasmine worked at a tangle at the back of Thea’s neck. “He is not always gentle, but he has a great appetite for pleasure.”
He is only half beast, Kadar had said. Which side did he show those women who came to his bed? She shivered as she realized she had not even considered this threat. He had been so cold and fierce….
But she should have considered it. Men were always beset by lust, and they considered all women prey. No one should know that fact better than she did, she thought bitterly. “I care nothing for his appetite. As soon as I’m stronger, I’ll leave Dundragon.”
“That is best. He has no need of another woman,” Jasmine said. “But sometimes men think that the fruit they have not tasted is more succulent. Though, in truth, I don’t see how you could please him. The skin of your face is red and not at all comely. I will put a salve on it after you bathe.” She stepped back. “I heard Omar outside with the tub. Have you finished your fruit?”
“Enough.” She had eaten only half the fruit, but she felt sated. Her appetite must have shrunk during those days in the desert. “I would not keep you waiting.”
Jasmine ignored the irony in her tone. “It’s of no moment. I only serve.” She moved toward the door. “We all serve here at Dundragon.”
And they all served Lord Ware, master of this vast fortress.
She was probably being foolish to let Jasmine’s words disturb her. Lord Ware had been most reluctant to bring her here and was eager for her to leave. According to Jasmine, he had far more comely women to use. Yet for some reason the woman was antagonistic toward her and had attacked her appearance.
o matter. She had other things to worry about. She must leave here and find a place for herself. She could do this by herself, but it would be difficult.
Kadar. He was a strange, quicksilver man, but he had been kind and appeared to wield some power over Lord Ware. Perhaps he could be persuaded to help her when she gained enough strength to leave Dundragon. “I’d like to speak to Kadar ben Arnaud,” she called to Jasmine as the servant opened the door. “Will you tell him to come to me?”
Jasmine stepped aside to make way for a small man in a djellaba and turban who bore a half tub. She smiled at Thea. “Certainly. As I said, I’m here only to serve.”
Kadar stopped short, his gaze fixed on her naked breasts and widening in shock. “Dear God, I didn’t mean—I’m sorry. Jasmine told me to go right in.”
Thea quickly covered her breasts with her arms and scrunched down as far as she could in the half tub. Every inch of her body felt on fire with embarrassment.
Jasmine came forward and said without expression, “You said you wanted to see him.”
“Not now.” Her voice was strangled. “You know I didn’t mean—” She stopped as anger banished shame. Of course Jasmine had known what she had meant, but she had wanted to make Thea uncomfortable. “Turn your back, Kadar.”
Kadar quickly presented her with his back.
Thea glared at Jasmine. “And you get me something to cover myself.”
“I’ve not put the balm on your face yet.”
She spaced her next words with precision. “Get me a cover!”
Jasmine shrugged, then jerked the gauze cover from the bed and moved to stand beside the tub. She silently draped it around Thea, who stepped out of the tub. Thank heaven, the cloth was not oversheer and large enough to completely envelop her from feet to shoulders, past which hung freshly washed hair.
“Now leave us,” she said to Jasmine.
Jasmine shook her head. “It is not proper. He is a man.”
“Not just any man,” Kadar murmured. “Kadar, the wise, the honorable, the magnificent.”
Jasmine ignored him. “Lord Ware brought you here; therefore, you are his property. I’ll not have him shamed by leaving you without a woman present.”
“Leave us!” Thea could not believe her. Jasmine had deliberately brought Kadar to her when she was naked, and now Jasmine was giving her this outrageous argument?
For a moment Thea thought the servant would hold her ground. Then Jasmine turned and glided toward the door. “I warn you, I must inform Lord Ware of this trespass.”
“Any trespass was yours. Get out!”
Jasmine gave her another cool glance before she left the chamber.
“You can turn around,” Thea told Kadar as the door closed behind the older woman.
Kadar sighed when he saw the blanket wrapped around her. “It’s a hot day and you look very warm. Are you sure you don’t wish to shed that cumbersome wrapping?” Then as he saw color flood Thea’s cheeks, he said gently, “I was but joking. You are very lovely, but I am no threat to you. What did you do to so irritate Jasmine?”
“Nothing.” Thea’s hand nervously opened and closed on the edge of the cover. “She doesn’t like me.”
“Jasmine has had a difficult life and likes few people. But she doesn’t try to hurt them as she did you.”
“I did nothing.” The embarrassment and rage had taken their toll. Her knees were trembling, and she sank down on the stool beside the tub. “She’s just a cruel woman. It makes no sense.”
Kadar studied her and then said slowly, “Perhaps it does make sense.”
She shook her head, then drew a deep breath. She had not asked him there to rail against Jasmine. “You were very kind to me last night. The reason I asked Jasmine to—”
“It was Ware who saw you and made the decision to go help you.” His gaze went to the basket beside the bed. “Worms? Were you joking?”
She impatiently shook her head. “I will tell you of that later. As I said, I wished to ask you to help me a little more. I must leave this place and go to Damascus.”
“You’re not well yet.”
“In a few days I will be. I’m very strong.”
“When that time comes, we will talk to Ware about it. No one enters or leaves Dundragon without his permission.”
Her eyes widened in surprise. “Not even you?”
“It’s the law of Dundragon. Ware has reason. He’s a great warrior, and warriors have many enemies. Dundragon must remain secure.”
“My leaving will not cause this fortress to fall. He does not want me here.”
“Where is this balm Jasmine spoke about?”
“What?” The discussion was not going as she had planned. He was being both evasive and distracted. Thea gestured to the small pottery jar on the table. “I’ll not ask much of you, but I’m a stranger in this land and I—What are you doing?” He had opened the jar and stood before her with a small portion of a clear salve on his fingers.
“It appears obvious.” He carefully spread the salve over her nose and cheeks. “You’re not as burned as I thought. The skin may not even peel. A few days should bring about healing.”
“I kept my mantle drawn forward over my forehead to protect me.” The salve felt cool and tingly. “I learned a harsh lesson the first week after the caravan left Constantinople. I was not accustomed to being outdoors and I burned very badly.”
“Did no one warn you of the dangers of the sun?” He dipped his fingers again in the jar. “Your father, perhaps?”
She went still. “I’m willful at times and I did not listen.”
He tilted her head and spread a little of the salve on her neck. “I can believe you are willful. I cannot believe you would not listen to warning. I judge you to be very sensible.”
She moistened her lips. “I was different before my father died. Sorrow brings wisdom.”
“True.” He pushed aside the blanket. “Your shoulder blades are burned. The straps of the basket must have pulled the gown from your shoulders.” He gently rubbed the salve into her shoulder. “How did you escape from the caravan?”
“I was at the very end of the caravan when Hassan surprised us. I grabbed my basket, water, and some food and hid beneath a wagon. When I saw my chance, I slipped away.”
“You were not—” He hesitated.
She gazed at him, puzzled. Then she realized what he meant and shook her head. “They did not see me.” She smiled bitterly. “And they were far too busy with the other women to seek me out.”
“You were very fortunate. Except for your father, of course. You said he was a merchant?”
“Perhaps a pilgrim on his journey to the Holy Land? Or a soldier on his way to join the knights who defend this land from—”
“For God’s sake, Kadar, what are you about?”
They both turned around to see Ware standing, scowling, in the doorway, his gaze on Kadar’s hand on Thea’s bare shoulder.
Ware entered the chamber and slammed the door. “If you must couple with the woman, take her to your quarters. I won’t have my servants running screaming to me of—”
“I’m certain Jasmine would not scream. It would do damage to her dignity.” Kadar leisurely drew the gauze cover back over Thea’s shoulders. “I was merely tending to our guest’s burn.”
“Are you finished?”
“Then wait for me in the hall. I would have a word with her.”
Kadar hesitated, then said to Thea, “We will have our talk later.”
She did not want him to leave. His dangerous probing had made her uneasy, but not as uneasy as Ware did. He was wearing a simple dark-blue tunic instead of armor, but he still looked like the warrior he was, with broad shoulders and the thick, corded muscles of his arms. His hair was so dark, it appeared almost black and was bound back from a face whose bone structure was clean and bold as the edge of a sword. His glance had the same sharp edge as he stared down into her eyes.
And she felt entirely too small and helpless sitting on the stool. She stood up, facing him as the door closed behind Kadar.
He attacked with no preliminaries. “I’ll not have you practicing your wiles on Kadar. You will not display your body or couple with him. You’ll not try to use him in any way. Do you understand?”
She stared at him in disbelief. “I did not display—”
“You sent for him while you were naked.”
“It was a mistake. I didn’t mean—I was in my bath and I—”
“Like Bathsheba on her rooftop.”
“No, it wasn’t like that at all.”
“What was it like?” He drew nearer, his gaze boring down at her. “You’re a woman alone and you need protection and sustenance. You chose to inveigle yourself into Kadar’s bed to obtain them. Seduction is a woman’s way.”
She was weary of being battered by his words. She glared up at him. “It’s not my way.”
“Then why did you send for him?”
“It’s true I needed his help, but I—”
He strode toward the door. “If Kadar wishes to couple with you, refuse him. Or you will deal with me.”
He had dismissed her as if she were a hound yapping at his heels, she realized in fury. She would not let him leave her like this.
She strode past him and blocked the door.
“Get out of my way.”
“You’re neither fair nor kind.” She was shaking with anger. “You tell Kadar to take me to his quarters and then order me to refuse him because you fear his displeasure.”
“Get out of my way.”
“It’s true. You fear to lose him because he’s the only one who is foolish enough to accept such a brutal, rude, selfish man as a companion. I do not say ‘friend’ because you could not be friend. You are too guarded and demanding and—”
“And let you abuse me in silence? It’s the way of bullies and pompous louts who—”
He tore the blanket from her body.
She stared at him in shock.
His chest was rising and falling with the harshness of his breathing as his gaze raked her from her blazing face to her naked feet, lingering longest at the thatch of hair that covered her womanhood. “You’re right, I can be demanding and I will be obeyed in this. Kadar chooses not to bed my women. He regards it as a discourtesy.” His hands closed on her waist. “Refuse him, or I’ll make certain he refuses you.”