Lion's Bride

Lion's Bride

Lion s Bride 4

  She could not speak. She could scarcely breathe. She could feel the calluses on his warm hands as he grasped her naked flesh. His grip was not brutal, but she felt as if he were branding her, that even if he let her go, she would have the marks of his fingers on her.

  He lifted her with effortless strength to one side and released her.

  “You lied,” she whispered. “You said I’d be safe here.”

  He smiled bitterly. “But I’m a brute and a bully. You cannot trust the word of such a rogue.”

  As the door closed behind him, she sank back against the wall, trembling in every limb. She had never experienced a moment when she had been this helpless. When he had touched her, she had felt totally possessed. Slavery.

  Her stomach twisted with panic as she realized that even in Nicholas’s house in Constantinople she had never felt that imprisoned. It must not happen again.

  But it could happen. Jasmine’s dislike might instigate another attack and put her in a position where she would be forced into another confrontation with Ware. He had meant what he’d said. It was possible his anger might lead him to make her one of those women Jasmine said he used for his pleasure. She could not bear it.

  Of course she could bear it. She had seen coupling both brutal and gentle in Nicholas’s house. It would not be pleasant, but it would not destroy her. The only thing that would destroy her would be to lose what she had already won and to betray Selene. She could not risk being made a toy and kept in this fortress.

  No one enters or leaves Dundragon without his permission.

  Yet she must leave this place at once. She could not wait, and she must not ask Kadar for help.

  But she must make sure all was well before she left. She had tried to carry enough for the journey, but she had not counted on Hassan’s attack or the long trek through the desert.

  She didn’t bother to pick up the gauze blanket Ware had thrown onto the floor. Jasmine had taken away her ragged gown, but she would surely bring a replacement soon. She gathered her strength and haltingly walked across the room toward her basket. She sank down on the bed and carefully opened the lid of the basket.

  She gasped with dismay. “No!”

  Kadar was standing and admiring a graceful brass pitcher when Ware walked into the hall. “This is truly a beautiful piece. I was right in making you barter higher at that bazaar.” He turned to face Ware. “But, then, I’m always right about everything. It must be a great comfort to you that—” He broke off as he studied Ware’s lower body. “But I’d judge you not in the least comfortable at this moment.”

  Ware strode toward the table and poured wine into a goblet.

  “I shouldn’t have left you alone with her.” Kadar paused. “Did you hurt her?”

  “I didn’t rape her, if that’s what you mean.”

  “I didn’t think you did. You may have prodigious appetites, but if you’d taken her, even you couldn’t become this aroused again so quickly.” He lifted his wine to his lips. “I was referring to hurting her soul, not her body.”

  Ware had a sudden memory of those huge amber eyes gazing at him like a wounded doe when he had accused her of seducing Kadar. He forced the picture away. She was no helpless doe. Only a moment later she had turned and stung him. “She made me angry.” He glared at Kadar. “You made me angry. Why did you fall into her trap? Don’t you know she wants to make use of you?”

  “I think she’s the one who is trapped.” He shook his head. “And the world is not entirely filled with deceit and treachery, Ware.”

  “It’s safer to expect treachery than kindness. Considering the life you’ve lived, you should have learned that by now.”

  “It’s a very lonely road you’ve chosen. Someday you’ll choose to leave safety behind.”

  “No.” He threw himself into a chair and smiled sardonically. “Why should I choose a different path? I have everything I want. I’ve a great castle, more gold than Saladin, and the freedom to indulge my every desire.” He lifted his goblet. “And I don’t have to pretend to be anything but the rogue I am. When I go into battle, I admit it’s for gold and not for any higher aim.” He added deliberately, “And, when I couple with a woman, it’s because I lust and must relieve myself, not because Cupid’s dart has pierced my heart.”

  “You’re not a rogue,” Kadar said. Then he amended, “Well, not all the time. And when you are, it’s because you’re in pain. You’re like a lion with a thorn in his paw who only growls when he steps on it.”

  He felt like that wounded lion now, Ware thought. He was weary of Kadar’s probing, and his loins were aching and heavy. He wanted nothing more than to go back to that wench upstairs and sink between her thighs. Why hadn’t he done it, instead of merely threatening? It would have settled the problem before it became one. “It’s Conrad who is the lion.” He finished his wine in two swallows. “And he’s roaring for me to join him again. A messenger came this morning with an invitation to come to his tent and meet with him. It seems the flush of victory has faded and he wants to make sure Tyre isn’t threatened again.”

  “Will you do it?”

  “Perhaps.” He shrugged. “Or perhaps I’ll offer my sword to Saladin. Of the two, he is the more honorable.”

  “I thought you no longer cared about honor.”

  “I care about being paid for my services. Conrad might choose to forget my share of the booty on the grounds I’m a traitor and a renegade. At least Saladin won’t be tempted to hand me over to the Temple and let the Grand Master put a convenient and final end to me.”

  “You believe Conrad would betray you?”

  “I wouldn’t trust the mercy of the angel Gabriel if the Grand Master applied his influence. You don’t know—” He broke off. Of course Kadar didn’t know. No one could possibly understand who had not been one of the temple. “I have time to make a decision. Perhaps I’ll wait until there’s a new player in the game. Richard of England is rumored to be coming to launch a new and glorious Crusade. My price will only go up after Conrad loses a few battles.”

  “Such power. Ah, to be able to change the course of history to suit oneself.” He smiled. “But it’s really too bad you don’t have the freedom to go beyond these walls without a battalion of soldiers.”

  Ware carefully kept any hint of expression from his face. He should be accustomed to these jabs by now. They came often enough. “I don’t have to stay behind these walls. It’s my choice.”

  “Then why not leave this country? Why be forced to make a choice between Saladin and Conrad? You care nothing for either of them.”

  He looked down into the depths of the wine in his goblet. “By God, I won’t let that bastard force me to leave.”

  Kadar shook his head. “I would have thought the temple would have rid you of the sin of pride.”

  “Why? There’s no more pride on earth than in the temple.” He stood up and put his goblet down on the table. “Except perhaps in Kadar ben Arnaud. Stay away from the Greek woman, Kadar. Lust makes all men vulnerable.”

  “It’s pity I feel. Though I’m a man and I admit to a little lust at the time,” Kadar smiled. “She has truly lovely breasts.”

  Pale and full and crowned with taut, pink nipples.

  The memory came back to Ware, and with it a rush of heat to his already aching loins. There was no reason for the intensity of this lust. He had called for a woman to come to his bed last night and had indulged himself thrice before he had fallen asleep. Yet here was need again, sharper and more tormenting than he could remember.

  It could not be the woman herself; it must be the anger and defiance she had shown him. The women he had brought to Dundragon to satisfy his needs submitted eagerly to his every wish. It was natural that a challenge might pique his lust.

  “Ware.” Kadar’s tone was warning, his gaze on Ware’s face. “She’s still not well.”

  “Then get her well enough to send away from here soon.” He smiled recklessly. “It seems she makes that thorn in my paw th
rob every time I’m near her.”

  “As soon as I can.” He frowned. “There may be difficulties. I’m not sure she will have any place to go. She says her father was killed in the caravan.” He shook his head. “I think she was alone.”

  “Why should she lie?”

  “Because she has something to hide. She was at the end of the caravan, where the very poorest are placed. I doubt if she had little more possessions before Hassan’s raid than when we found her. A woman without funds, traveling alone…” Kadar paused. “The risk is enormous. Only desperation would lead anyone to take such a chance.”

  He didn’t want to hear about desperation. He had lived with it as an intimate companion and would not risk a feeling of bonding with the woman. “She has to leave here. Find out the problem and then solve it.”

  Kadar nodded. “I’ll try. You must be patient.”

  Ware didn’t feel in the least patient. “Solve it or I’ll find my own solution.” He strode toward the door. “It’s growing dark. I have to go inspect the battlements. Are you coming with me?”

  Kadar shook his head. “I wish to consider this matter of the woman. I believe I’ll go and see how the falcons have survived my absence.”

  The guards on the battlement were in place and alert, as Ware had expected. He had taught them that alertness in a hard arena. He watched a boy running about the courtyard lighting the multitude of torches. He was too young, Ware thought with annoyance, probably not more than ten and two. He had told Abdul no one under ten and six was to be recruited from the villages to come to Dundragon. He would send the lad home tomorrow.

  He slowly moved to the edge of the ramparts. The sun was down now, and deep-purple twilight lay over the mountains like a dark cloak.

  But there was a glimmering in the darkness on the side of the third mountain. A small pinprick of fire. A campfire.

  He had known it would be there. It was always there. He came here to the battlements every evening to watch that fire hurl defiantly out of the darkness, telling him he would never be safe behind these strong walls.

  “Good evening, Vaden,” he said softly to the watcher.

  He stood looking at the fire until full darkness fell. Then he strode toward the door leading off the battlements.

  “Lord Ware.” Jasmine stood in the shadows of the hallway at the bottom of the stairs. It had become her custom to wait for him when he returned from the battlements. Wise Jasmine. Somehow she sensed the bitterness and despair that seared and scarred, and was always ready to provide a balm to soothe the wild tension.

  “A woman?” she asked. “To your chamber?”

  His chamber was too close to the Greek woman’s, and he did not want to be near her tonight. Her tongue had stung and made him think, and her body had aroused him too much. “No, send her to the hall.” He moved down the stairs ahead of her. “And wine. Many, many bottles of wine.”

  “I will send Tasza.” Jasmine called after him, “She always pleases you.”

  He did not demand pleasure. He wanted only relief from the lust aroused by Thea of Dimas.

  And to forget that tiny, relentless flame burning on the third mountain.

  Thea paused at the bottom of the stone steps, gazing hesitantly at the arched opening leading to the hall. She had heard voices and the sound of a lyre only minutes before, but now there was silence. It was close to midnight; he might have retired to his chamber for the night. Perhaps she would have to wait until morning. Relief poured through her.

  The scrape of a chair on stone floor. He was still in there.

  Disappointment flooded her as she realized she had no excuse to avoid the confrontation. It was probably for the best; she shouldn’t wait. It had already taken her too long to brace herself for this meeting.

  She drew a deep breath and strode across the foyer into the hall. She stopped short, her eyes widening in shock.

  Ware was sprawled indolently in a high-backed chair before the huge fireplace, a goblet in his hand.

  He was naked.

  He lifted his goblet to her. “Good evening, Thea of Dimas.” His words were a little slurred. “How kind of you to join us.”

  Naked and drunk.

  “Send her away.”

  Thea’s gaze flew to the hearth. His chair half blocked her view of the sheepskin pallet spread before the fire, but she could glimpse a shapely bare leg.

  “Now, Tasza, you must not be unwelcoming. It’s partially due to her that you’re here tonight.” He waved a hand. “Come and have a goblet of wine. Tasza will play for you. She’s very accomplished on the lyre.” He smiled down at the woman. “But it’s not her primary skill.”

  “I don’t want to play for her. Send her away.”

  He frowned. “You’re being rude. It does not please me.”

  “I don’t wish to hear her,” Thea said quickly. She should not have come. It was clear what was transpiring in this room. The air was heavy with the scent of incense, wine, and musk. Yet she could not leave without accomplishing her purpose. “I came to speak to you.”

  “I’m not sure I can speak. I seem to be having a slight difficulty. Are you sure you’d not prefer another form of communication?”

  “No!” Tasza jumped to her feet. She, too, was without clothes and very beautiful. She was in her middle twenties, with smooth golden skin, and long dark hair half veiling large, voluptuous breasts. “Send her away, my lord.”

  “You’re beginning to annoy me, Tasza.” Ware waved a slightly unsteady hand. “If you cannot be courteous, then you’ll be absent. Go to your quarters.”

  “But, my lord—” She stopped, glowered at Thea, and marched from the room.

  “You should not have sent her away.” Thea moistened her lips. “I didn’t come here to pleasure you.”

  “No? Pity.” He lifted the goblet to his lips. “No matter. I’m not sure I could perform at the moment anyway. I’ve already indulged myself a number of times tonight, and I’m a little drunk.”

  “More than a little.”

  “Sometimes it eases me.” He drank deep. “Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes I require”—his gaze went to the door through which Tasza had disappeared—“other means.”

  She felt a sudden flare of anger. “A woman should not be used for such a purpose. It’s cruel and—”

  “Did she seem to be suffering?”

  “Because she knows no better than to lie down and spread her legs for you is no reason for you to rut with her.”

  He threw back his head and laughed. “You have a tongue like an asp. It’s good that I’m drunk; it mellows the sting.”

  It mellows the sting.

  Her last qualm about being here vanished at his words. If wine mellowed and removed that hard edge, perhaps this would be the best possible time to talk with him. It might be possible for her to wrest a promise from him he would not give if sober. “Are you too drunk to listen and understand?”

  His gaze went to the window overlooking the mountains. “I never let myself get that drunk.”

  “Then I’ll stay and talk to you.” She strode over to a cushioned stool to one side of the hearth and seated herself.

  “How kind of you.”

  She was now at eye level with his lower body, and she tried to keep herself from staring at him. “Wouldn’t you be more comfortable if you garbed yourself?”

  “No.” He sipped his wine. “Shouldn’t you be sleeping? Kadar will be upset if you lose strength.”

  “I couldn’t sleep until I saw you.”

  “Yet you say you don’t wish to couple with me.”

  She repressed the flare of annoyance. “Women are not only for coupling.”

  He leaned back and gazed at her from beneath half-closed lids. “Not all women. But you’re very suited for the sport.” Frowning, he gazed at the thick single braid that lay on her left shoulder. “I don’t like to see your hair bound. I want to see it flowing around you as it was this afternoon.”

  She flushed as she remembered t
hat scene upstairs. “I always wear it this way.”

  “Take it down.”

  “It gets in my way.”

  “If you want me to listen, take it down.”

  She clenched her teeth in exasperation. Perhaps she should leave him after all. Yet the demand was more sulky than arbitrary. Like that of a little boy who was being denied his way. It would do no harm to let him have his will in this. She untied the cord, loosened her braid, and shook her head to let her hair flow free.

  He nodded approvingly. “Very good.” His gaze went to her white cotton gown, and she stiffened in alarm.

  But he only commented. “Ugly. It swallows you.”

  She was sure that had been Jasmine’s intention, but since it had suited her, she had made no objection. “It’s clean and neat.”

  “You looked better without—”

  “I’ve come to ask a favor,” she said quickly to veer him away from that direction.

  “I don’t grant favors. Ask Kadar.”

  “I have to ask you. I have no choice. It must be done at once, and I—”

  “I’m out of wine.” He stood up and moved toward a pitcher on the table across the room. “Go on, I’m listening. Did I tell you that you have a very pleasant voice? Like honey…”

  She could not take her eyes from him. Strange that such a giant of a man would move with the grace of a lion. If he was a beast, he was a truly magnificent one. His unbound mane tumbled about massive shoulders that bore the scars of battle. His thighs and calves were thick and powerful, stomach and buttocks lean and corded with muscle. A triangle of dark hair thatched his chest, and another circled his manhood.

  He glanced up as he poured his wine. “Well, did I?”

  It took her a moment to remember what he had asked her. Something about her voice. “No, you compared me to an asp.”