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Lion's Bride

Lion's Bride

Lion s Bride 7


  “Let me go.”

  He pulled her hand forward until it was in his field of vision. “Small,” he murmured. “Clean, well shaped.” His thumb rubbed one of the calluses on her forefinger. “But strong. I like your hands, Thea of Dimas.” He brought it to his lips and lazily licked the palm. “I would have been very angry if they had been crippled.”

  She could scarcely breathe. “You would not have known. We would never have met. I’d never have dared to come to Damascus if I’d had only the skills I learned as a child.”

  He licked her palm again. “Why would your mother be so cruel as to let her child be used so brutally?”

  “My mother wasn’t cruel.” Each time he touched her palm, a strange tingling jolt went up her arm and through her body. “Don’t…do that.”

  “The oil on your hands is lemon flavored. I like the taste. Why did she let you be put to that task?”

  “She…had no choice. She begged Nicholas to—” She was saying too much. Dear heavens, she was feeling too much. She jerked her hand away and jumped to her feet. “Why are you questioning me? That time has nothing to do with now. My mother is dead.”

  “How did she die?”

  “Of the fever. Several women died that winter.” She moved hurriedly toward the door. “I will get Omar….”

  “Thea.”

  She stopped with her hand on the door. “I will answer no more questions.”

  “I…thank you.”

  Her gaze flew back to him. His big body gleamed like burnished bronze in the water, but it was his expression that held her. Gentleness from the beast?

  He quickly lowered his gaze to the water. He said gruffly, “Though I had no need of your services. I was only a little stiff.” He scowled. “Well, maybe more than a little.”

  A smile tugged at her lips. He sounded like a cross little boy.

  “And I don’t want Omar.” He reached for the soap. “Send me Tasza.”

  Her smile vanished. He was not a little boy. He was a rude, lustful brute who used women only as toys.

  “As you wish.” The door slammed behind her.

  Jasmine was waiting in the hall. Her gaze immediately went to the damp bodice of Thea’s gown. “You are wet. Did he put his hands on you?”

  “No,” she said curtly. “I was leaning against the tub. He didn’t touch me.” Yet she felt as if he had. Her breasts felt heavy and ripe, and the palm of her hand still tingled. “I told you that was not my intention.” She turned and moved down the hall toward her chamber. “He wants Tasza.”

  “Good. I will go tell her.”

  Thea closed her door, then moved toward the window and threw open the shutters. The breeze rushed in, cooling her hot cheeks. Why did she respond in this manner to that man? He was rough and had the barbaric sensuality of a wild animal and was everything that was alien to her. She had thought that if ever a man were to draw her, he would be someone kind and gentle, handsome and smooth as a length of Chinese silk. Ware of Dundragon was more like strong, supple leather studded with spikes. It had been a mistake to try to help him.

  Yet she could not have done anything else. He had kept his promise and given her what she needed at evidently some risk to himself. She owed him far more than a momentary easing.

  “I’ve brought you another gown.”

  Thea turned to see Jasmine standing in the open doorway. The woman shut the door, came forward, and draped a blue cotton gown on the back of the chair. “You cannot wear that one every day. You will soil it, as you did in Lord Ware’s bath.”

  “It’s almost dry now.” That sounded ungracious so she sought to make amends. Quickly glancing at the gown, she commented, “It’s a pretty color.”

  “Lord Ware gave it to Tasza, but it does not become her.”

  “Tasza?” Thea repeated, startled. “She offered me her gown?”

  Jasmine shrugged. “She won’t miss it. She has many gowns. When Lord Ware brings a woman to his house from the village, he gives her many presents. When she returns to Jedha, she has a fine dowry with which to make a good marriage.”

  “But would a man accept a woman who—” She stopped, afraid to offend Jasmine. It was clear the servant had a fondness for Tasza. “In Constantinople men prize women who are untouched.”

  Jasmine smiled with a touch of bitterness. “It is the same here, but Jedha is a very poor village. We have no fertile land, and before Lord Ware came to Dundragon, we barely managed to eke out a living in these barren hills. He took the young men and gave them fine armor and taught them how to fight. He gave the older men and women a place here as his servants.”

  “And brought the younger women here to be his lemen,” Thea said dryly.

  “Well, why not? He never demands a woman who is wed or a girl who has never known a man. Our women come eagerly to Dundragon. He uses them only for a few months before he sends them back with enough gold to assure that they’ll have suitors aplenty.”

  “Is that what will happen to Tasza?”

  “No!” Jasmine said quickly. “Tasza is different. She will stay here. She knows how to please him in ways the others cannot. He won’t grow tired of her.”

  “It’s true she is very beautiful.”

  Jasmine proudly lifted her chin. “Yes, and I taught her to play the lyre. She’s not very clever, but she has a good heart and is very determined. She will see that he chooses to keep her here and send the others away.”

  “She does not want the dowry?”

  Jasmine abruptly turned away. “Take off your gown and try on this one. Since Tasza is bigger in the hips, it may need an adjustment.”

  Thea shook her head. “I could not take her gown without her permission.”

  “You have my permission. It is enough.”

  Thea shook her head again.

  Jasmine stared at her in exasperation. “You’re very stubborn. I have the right to give you the gown. Tasza would not even be here if I hadn’t brought her to my lord’s attention.”

  “It is still her gown and not yours.”

  “Tasza would give you the gown if I told her to do so. She’s a good, obedient daughter.”

  Thea’s eyes widened in shock. “She’s your daughter?”

  Jasmine nodded curtly. “Now, try on the gown.”

  Thea abstractedly stripped off her white gown and slipped the blue one over her head. “And you brought her to Lord Ware’s bed?”

  “You think I made a whore of my own daughter.”

  “I didn’t say that.”

  “You don’t have to say it,” Jasmine said bitterly. “You don’t know what it is to be so poor that you can’t find even a bit of bread to put on the table. I didn’t make Tasza a whore. I didn’t even know she had sold herself on the streets of Jedha until it was done. She did it to make sure that we would both survive.” She paused. “She had not even reached her twelfth year.”

  Thea felt sick. “There was nothing you could do?”

  “My husband died the year after she was born, and we had no man to help us. There was only one kind of work available for a woman alone in Jedha.” She stared defiantly into Thea’s eyes. “I also sold myself, but I grew older and men like young, smooth bodies. Tasza decided it was her duty to help me as I had helped her.”

  “I am sorry,” Thea said gently. “I meant no offense.”

  “I’m not offended. I’m proud of my Tasza. I don’t care that the women of the village flinch from us as if we were lepers.” She pinched the material of the gown on either side of Thea’s waist. “As I thought, it will need to be pinned. Take it off again.”

  Thea obeyed and handed her the gown. “Does Lord Ware know she is your daughter?”

  Jasmine shook her head. “At first I feared he might think my judgment clouded when I called her to his attention. Now it would not matter, but he does not need to know.”

  “What will you do if Lord Ware does send her back to the village?”

  “It will not happen. It cannot happen.”

&nbs
p; Thea was not as sure as she remembered the offhand manner with which he had spoken to Tasza. “But you said he would give her a fine dowry.”

  “Are you stupid?” Jasmine asked fiercely. “She’s not like those other women. She’s a whore. Men do not wed whores, no matter how high the dowry. She could only live on it until it was gone and then go back to the streets. She must stay here, where she’s safe.”

  Safe with Ware of Dundragon? The woman was truly grasping at straws, but Thea could hardly blame her. Thea had never thought of her own lot as fortunate, but she had never been hungry, and she had learned a way to earn her bread that wasn’t dependent on selling her body. She had never realized how sheltered she had been at the House of Nicholas. “I hope she will be safe wherever she is.”

  Jasmine took the gown and draped it over her arm. “I will see that she’s safe.” She moved toward the door. “I will have the gown ready for tomorrow.”

  “But ask Tasza if I may have it.”

  Jasmine frowned in disgust. “Very well. Though it’s a waste of time. She always does what I tell her.”

  “I meant it, you know.” Ware bit into a wing. “You should leave Dundragon. You’ve been here too long.”

  Kadar shook his head. “I’ve not been here long enough. If I had, your manners would be too polished to try to cast me out so rudely. You clearly still have need of me.”

  “I don’t need anyone.” Ware pushed the plate away and leaned back in his chair. “Where’s the woman?”

  “She declined the honor of our presence. She prefers to eat in her chamber. You must have been particularly surly to our guest. She was only trying to help you.”

  “I wasn’t surly.” He thought about it and then added, “For me.”

  “Which doesn’t say a great deal.” Kadar reached for his wine. “Did she help you?”

  “Yes.” By the time she had finished, his muscles had felt so soft and melting, he had thought he would dissolve into the water. But that had changed in the space of a heartbeat after he had taken her hand. By the saints, he had not been soft then. “But Tasza helped me more.” It was not true. Tasza had eased his lust, but he had been left curiously unsatisfied. “I want you to take the Greek woman to Damascus day after tomorrow. Find her a place in a fine shop and stay with her until you’re sure she’s safely established.” He took a drink of wine. “And then go your own way. Don’t come back here.”

  “This is a fine wine,” Kadar said. “I don’t think I could be content with a lesser stock now.” He moved to the hearth and curled up in his favorite place before the fire. “I taught Thea to play chess today. She’s very clever but has curious gaps in learning. She can cipher and read and write. She speaks Greek, Arabic, and French. Yet she has never learned to play a game, never heard a troubadour tell a tale, never seen anyone dance or danced herself. She knows what is going on in the world, but it’s as if she learned it behind the walls of a convent.”

  Ware’s hand tightened on the goblet as he remembered Thea’s matter-of-fact words regarding her work on the carpets at the House of Nicholas. “Not unless the good sisters’ discipline is crueler than I can imagine.”

  “And I’ve told you I think she’s running away from something,” Kadar said. “If she’s as skilled as she claims, she might be considered valuable enough to follow.”

  “Once she’s safe in Damascus, she’s no longer my responsibility. I’ll cut all ties.”

  “Some ties cannot be broken. You saved her life.”

  “I’ll cut all ties,” he repeated.

  “Vaden held his hand,” Kadar said softly. “It could mean the danger is over.”

  Ware knew that Kadar didn’t understand. He had tried to warn him without telling him too much but had succeeded only in making Kadar believe the threat less than it was. The danger would never be over, even when Ware was dead. “Go away from Dundragon. Go to Egypt. Go north to China. Just get away from me.”

  As if he hadn’t spoken, Kadar said, “I think we must find out what threatens her before I take her to Damascus. It should take at least a week. I would hate to have you be forced to go rescue her at some later time.”

  “I would not be forced to—” He broke off as he met Kadar’s bland gaze. It was no use, he realized in frustration. Kadar would think and do exactly as he pleased. “You’re leaving day after tomorrow.” He pushed his chair back and stood up. “I’m going to the battlements.”

  “And I’ll stay here by the fire and drink this fine wine.” He leaned back against the stones of the fireplace. “And plan how to convince Thea it’s safe to confide in us…in the next week.”

  No fire burned on the third mountain.

  Ware’s hands slowly clenched into fists at his sides as he looked out into the darkness.

  Something was wrong.

  Kadar would have said Vaden’s absence was proof that the danger was lessening.

  He would have been wrong. The danger never lessened, it only changed.

  Where had Vaden gone?

  “I’m disappointed in you.” Grand Master Gerard de Ridfort frowned. “There has been no opportunity?”

  Vaden didn’t answer directly. “He keeps himself surrounded by soldiers. Wouldn’t you?”

  “Every day that he lives the threat grows. He must have already told this Kadar.”

  “Perhaps.”

  “And what of the other members of the household?”

  Vaden shrugged. “No danger. Ware’s officers fear him—they don’t love him. He keeps women at the castle for use but never longer than three months. Then they’re sent back to their village with a handsome reward. He keeps himself distant from the servants. He keeps himself distant from everyone.”

  “There is danger,” he muttered. “Then you have nothing new to report?”

  For a fleeting instant Vaden remembered the puzzling branches lying on the ground before he shook his head. “Everything is the same.”

  The Grand Master’s fist crashed down on the table. “It must not remain the same. Do you hear me? He must be killed. It’s been two years. It should have been done by now. I chose you because I thought you his match. I didn’t know you were a fool.”

  “A fool?” Vaden said softly.

  “A fool and an ill-bred whoreson who—” He broke off as he met Vaden’s gaze. He took a step back. “You dare to threaten me?”

  “Threaten? Have I uttered threats? I’m merely standing here.” Vaden inclined his head in mock obeisance and turned on his heel. “But now I must return to my duty. I’m sure Ware misses me when I’m gone.”

  “Don’t disappoint me again, Vaden,” Gerard de Ridfort snarled. “It’s been too long.”

  “Then set someone else to play cat to the mouse.”

  “You know I cannot. The matter is too delicate to give to anyone else.” He paused. “Your father will be very proud of you if you succeed in this task.”

  “I will succeed in time. My time.” Vaden left the tent.

  He paused outside to breathe deep of the clean, cool air. He always felt suffocated when in the Grand Master’s presence. By all the saints, de Ridfort was a vainglorious fool, full of fanaticism and pride. Did he think Vaden would be swayed by that last remark? He was not doing this for the Temple or for his father. He was doing it because it had to be done. God help them all if Ware’s death was left in the hands of the Grand Master.

  The Grand Master threw himself into a chair and gazed broodingly at the door through which Vaden had just passed.

  Arrogant whoreson. How dare he speak to him with such a lack of respect? He was the Grand Master. Kings and princes curried Gerard de Ridfort’s favor, and this knight with no heritage or name had looked at him with contempt.

  After Ware was dead, Vaden would follow.

  Vaden’s father might question the death, but it would be explained as a necessary thing—that Vaden knew too much and had become careless….

  But at the moment Ware of Dundragon was the problem. It was maddeningly irrit
ating that the Grand Master himself could not touch the traitor. Ware was a thorn pricking him, and he would no longer tolerate it.

  Dundragon might be too powerful to be overcome at this time, but de Ridfort must do something to show that bastard that he was not out of reach of the temple.

  THE FIRE BURNED BRIGHTLY on the third mountain.

  Vaden was back.

  Ware’s hands closed on the stone wall of the battlement. He should not feel this relief. Vaden was always a threat.

  But it was a threat to which he had grown accustomed. Vaden was as much as part of the fabric of his life now as in the past. He had grown almost comfortable with the knowledge that Vaden would be there, watching, waiting.

  Until the time he decided to attack.

  Well, that time was not now. After three days’ absence Vaden had returned to the mountain.

  Laughter.

  He turned to look down into the courtyard. He had noticed that Thea and Kadar had made a habit of taking a stroll in the courtyard in the cool of the evening. They were now standing talking to the young boy whose task was to light the torches. The boy…He remembered he had intended to send the lad home but had been distracted. He called, “Abdul.”

  His sergeant broke off his conversation with one of the guards and hurried forward from the other end of the battlement.

  Ware gestured to the boy. “He’s too young. Send him home.”

  “Haroun is a good lad. I thought—His father is dead. He needs the money to support his mother.”

  Ware scowled. “I can’t be expected to support the entire village. Am I now to take babies away from their mothers? Send him home.”

  Abdul nodded and turned away.

  “Tell him he can come back in a few years’ time.”

  Abdul nodded again.

  “And see that his mother doesn’t want until he reaches the proper age.”

  A broad grin lit Abdul’s face. “Yes, my lord.”

  “And don’t do this again. No younger than ten and six.”

  “Yes, my lord.” Abdul hurried back to the soldier on the battlements.