"You ask the impossible!" Apryll stared at her brother as if he'd gone mad. She slapped the reins of her listless mare into a stable boy's hand and frowned as she glanced up at the foreboding sky. Dark winter clouds, swollen with rain, moved slowly across the heavens as a keening wind tore through the outer bailey of the castle she'd called home for all of her nineteen years.
Mud speckled her skirts and gusts of the blasted wind snatched at her hair as she strode toward the great hall. Payton, her half-brother, marched at her side and she was certain he'd gone daft. "I cannot sneak into Black Thorn Castle and dupe the lord with my . . . charms--is that what you said--you want me to . . . ‘charm' the beast of Black Thorn while you . . .you . . . what? Steal his jewels and his horses? ‘Tis madness."
"You will not need to sneak. During the Christmas Revels the portcullis is raised and the doors of Black Thorn are thrown wide," Payton assured her, his jaw set, determination etched in his bladed features. He took a quick step in front of her and grabbing both her arms, forced her to stop just as the first drops of rain began to fall. "Look around you," he ordered, desperation and a need for revenge carved into his features as he insisted she take a harder look at the once-beautiful castle now falling deep into ruin. Thatching had blown from the roofs of some of the huts in the bailey, beams had rotted, even the mortar in the thick curtain wall surrounding the keep was giving way, pebbles littering the dead grass. Winter apples hanging on leafless trees were shriveled and wormy. Sheep were huddled against the wind, their coats black with mud and dung, their bleats pathetic.
"You can't be so blind not to see that there is not enough wood in all of the forest to get us through the winter, the stock is sickly, the grain supply infested with rats, the horses already showing bones. The stores of wheat and spices are nearly empty, the wool to make new clothes in scant supply as the sheep are dying. You're the lady here," he reminded her roughly as she threw off his hands and began walking again, hurrying through the inner bailey where chickens scattered, their tattered feathers flying into the puddles that had collected in the rutted pathways. "‘Tis your obligation to help those who serve you."
"Aye, Payton I must do something," she admitted with a heavy sigh. Few hammers were banging as carpenters labored against impossible repairs and though the black smith's forge was glowing bright, the bellows hissing, ‘twould only be a short time before the castle was depleted of steel. Boys ran carrying sacks of acorns they'd gathered for the pigs, but soon what meager stores of feed that had been harvested and gathered would be drained. Gripping her cloak more tightly around her, Apryll bit her lip and hurried up the chipped steps to the keep. A rail-thin guard with a pockmarked complexion and sad eyes, opened the door. "M'lady," he said with only a shadow of a smile.
"Geoffrey." She paused before entering and felt rain seep under her hood to run through her hair and down her face. "How is your wife?"
He glanced to the ground and clamped his lips together, then cleared his throat. "Mary–-she be fine. As soon as the babes-–twins they be, the midwife says--arrive, she'll be back on her feet, mark my words. A strong lass Mary is." But his gaze belied the courage in his words.
"I'll see that the physician stops to see her and that cook makes her best soup. I'll bring it to your hut myself."
"‘Tis kind ye be, m'lady." Geoffrey nodded, managing a grateful, snagged-toothed smile as he shut the door behind them. Apryll felt cold to the bottom of her soul.
"His wife will be dead within a week," Payton predicted. The tables within the great hall had been pushed against the aging walls. He rubbed his gloved hands together. "As for Mary's unborn babes . . ." He clucked his tongue and shook his head in dire prediction. "‘Tis a pity."
"They're not yet born, for the love of God. Mary has already birthed two fine, strong sons, so don't be placing the twins in their graves already." She refused to believe there was a grain of truth in his words. Mary, with her flaming hair and wide smile, was a big-boned strong woman. The twins would survive. Somehow. But the gloom of the castle with its cracked walls and cobweb dusted rafters couldn't be ignored. And if those babes die, and other children as well, who will be to blame?
A fire burned within the grate and yet the cavernous room was as chilled as if a ghost had passed behind the ragged curtains. There had been a time when the whitewashed walls had been covered by colorful tapestries, the rushes had been fresh and sweet-smelling, enticing aromas from the kitchen had been ever-present. Apryll remembered the smell of roasting pork as it turned on the spit, fat dripping into the coals, or the sweet scent of fruit tarts, or the smokey tang of charring eel flesh. Delicious scents had mingled and swept through the corridors and tunnels, sweeping through the great hall and filling the secret nooks and crannies where Apryll had played with the castle dogs or other children. But that had been long ago in a time when it had never seemed to grow cold, a time of laughter and songs and freedom. A time when her mother had been alive. Apryll had been her father's pet, a spoiled child who had easily weaseled sweet tidbits before dinner from cook, or been allowed to play seek and hide in the hay stored for the winter, or who had been dressed like a small princess for every festive occasion. She'd sat on her father's knee and tugged on this thick reddish beard. It had been long ago, of course.
Before the curse of Black Thorn had been cast upon us.
Wrapping her arms around herself, she rubbed her sleeves, as if warding off a chill.
Payton was too young to remember the happiness that had spilled like sunshine through this very hall.
"The treasury be nearly empty," he reminded her as Apryll tore off her riding gloves and, ignoring the hole in one finger, stuffed them into her pocket. Tossing off her hood, she warmed her palms by the fire. Piled high with ashes, the iron dogs supporting the burning logs seemed to glower up at her with their tarnished and blackened eyes. "The stores of feed are lower than they have been in years." She bit her lip and braced herself for she knew what was to come. Always, after Payton's prophesies of doom and disaster for the keep, he came up with suggestions on how to improve things. She wasn't disappointed this afternoon.
"‘Tis simple, Apryll. Either you marry and marry well, or we will not make it through the winter. Your subjects will starve."
"I'll not marry--"
"Lord Jamison asks for your hand," he cut in.
She shuddered at the thought of the rheumy-eyed baron. His girth was as wide as his height and he had a cruel streak she'd witnessed while hunting. Angry that the quarry, an impressive stag had escaped, he'd raged and sputtered and whipped his dogs and steed with a fury that had brought a gleam to his eye and spittle to his lips. Apryll didn't doubt for a second that his brutality had extended to his wives. "He has been married four times, brother. None of his wives lived longer than three years. Think you I should be the fifth?"
"You are strong . . ."
"Fine, fine. But if not Jamison, why not Baron William of Balchdar? He asks of you often and would make a fine husband."
"Then you marry him," she snapped angrily, shaking the rain from her hair. "I detest him."
"You detest all men." Payton raised a dismissive hand.
"Then all suitors. ‘Tis long past the time when you should marry. By now, you should be wed and have two or three babes."
"Not Lord William," she said angrily. William was a handsome man with crafty eyes and a prideful stance. He looked down his straight nose as if everyone he came upon-–peasants, servants, knights and even other lords–-were beneath him, were put upon this land but to serve him. There were secrets hidden in his dark, imperious eyes, secrets that sent a shiver down Apryll's spine, secrets she, nor any one else, dared not unveil.
"Say no more," she ordered. "You need not remind me of each and every baron who would deign wed me and save the Serennog. By the saints I know well who they are!"
Payton laid a brotherly hand upon her shoulder as the fire crackled and smoke spiraled to the patched ceiling. Raindrops found their way inside, running down the walls or plopping in ever-growing puddles on the stone floor. "I know you want not to marry them and so I am offering you another answer." Her half-brother's voice was soothing and sincere, yet she told herself he had his own reasons for scheming against Black Thorn.
The wind whistled eerily through the cracks in the walls muting the sound of a baby wailing, sobbing pitifully in some distant part of the keep. Payton, curse his sorry hide, was right. Soon the sickness that had infected a few would spread throughout the castle and village, killing many and leaving those who were strong and unlucky enough to survive the illness only to face starvation.
"Listen, Apryll, ‘tis your sworn duty to protect and care for these people," her half-brother reminded her as he spied a page huddled in a corner. "You there boy!" Payton snapped his fingers. "John–-wine for the lady and myself!" he ordered and Apryll cringed inwardly for in light of their conversation, the wine seemed frivolous, best saved. "And see that it is warmed as we be chilled to our bones." The wool of his cloak was steaming, giving off an odor from the heat of the fire and his eyes, usually as blue as a summer sky, had darkened. "All the trouble that has come this way can be laid at the feet of those who rule Black Thorn. ‘Twas Black Thorn's army and their lord that brought a curse upon Serennog. ‘Tis only justice that we return the favor."
"Or revenge," she said, eyeing her half-brother and wondering how deep his hatred ran.
He lifted a shoulder. "As I said, you, m'lady have an obligation to those who serve you, and, as I see it, you can either marry some rich baron or partake in my plan."
She dropped into a chair near the fire. Neither option was acceptable, both left a bad taste in her mouth. "And if I were to agree, I would need clothes . . . A fine gown and jewels . . . as well as an invitation."
"I have considered all this."
"Have you?" There was more to her brother than she knew, a side far more shrewd and deadly. She would have to tread lightly.
"Aye, and I've found all but the invitation, which will not be necessary."
"Found?" She laughed hollowly and rolled her eyes. "You found a gown? When we have no grain for the livestock, little food and not even a scrap of cloth large enough for cook's apron, as you so just warned me, but now, now you claim you've got a gown and gems fine enough to wear to the Revels at Black Thorn?" She shook her head at the folly of it all. "Now, Payton, ‘tis no longer a guess. Now I know you be daft."
"Trust me." Payton's face was sincere, his brown hair glinting red in the light from the fire. "There are treasures within this very castle that were hidden away–-our mother's bridal gown and her jewels, all packed and wrapped carefully with dried herbs and flowers, then hidden deep within a crypt, untouched by the castle rats or moths or mold."
"And you just happened to find them."
"Father Hadrian and I."
She scowled a bit. The priest was new to the castle, a seemingly pious man whose kindness seemed forced. Apryll wasn't sure she trusted the man. There was something very amiss here, something wrong. "Even if you did have these things--"
"Then bring them before me and . . . Nay! ‘Tis foolishness. There must be another way," she said, drumming her fingers on the smooth arm of her chair. Stealing from the Lord of Black Thorn would only spell deeper trouble.
"Mayhap." Payton scowled and shrugged out of his mantel, draping it on a stool by the fire. "But I know it not and we have little time."
As if on cue, one of the servants who had been hiding behind the thin curtains began coughing loudly, the sound rattling in the poor man's lungs and ricocheting through the rafters and ceilings of the drafty castle.
"Geneva has had a vision--"
"Hush! I'll not trust the prophesies of a woman who claims to see spirits and casts spells and practices the dark arts!" Apryll quickly made the sign of the cross over her chest, for, in truth, the sorceresses was a kind, yet disturbing woman.
"Did Geneva not foretell the death of the miller's son?" he asked and she refused to think of the poor boy drowning in the mill pond just this past spring. Payton lowered himself into the chair next to hers. "And what of the loss of the Father Benjamin's eyesight? Did not Geneva predict ‘twould be so?"
"Aye, aye." Apryll's eyebrows pulled into a knot of concentration. Because of the rotund priest's blindness that Father Hadrian had been sent to Serennog. "‘Twas happen chance."
"I don't think so."
John, the nervous page with pockmarked skin and hair that stuck out like dirty straw, entered quickly and poured two mazers of wine from a jug.
"Even Father Benjamin, a true man of our Lord, now believes that Geneva's is blessed by God with the sight to see what is to come," Payton insisted, taking his cup from the table and dismissing the page quickly with an impatient snap of his wrist. "Geneva has seen prosperity for Serennog again."
"Because of your plan against Black Thorn?"
"Aye." He crossed one booted leg over his knee and took a long swallow of wine. Firelight reflected in his eyes and the edges of his mouth curved ever downward. Deep in the rushes, the sounds of tiny claws, mice or rats, scraped against the stone floor.
Apryll sensed a half-truth hidden in her brother's plan. "There is more you have not told me."
Payton lifted a dismissive shoulder. "Mayhap."
"What is the rest of it?"
He hesitated. Buried his nose in his mazer.
"If I am to be a part of this or give your scheme any merit, I must hear it all."
"So be it." He set his cup on the scarred planks of a small table. "Geneva . . . she . . ." He sighed, clenched and opened a fist, and shook his head as if he were unable or unwilling to say the rest. Turning his head slightly, he called. "Geneva. Be you here?"
Apryll felt a tingle on the back of her neck, the fine hairs at her nape raising one by one. ‘Twas as if Satan himself had breathed upon her.
Appearing on silent footsteps, Geneva rounded a pillar where, Apryll surmised, she'd been lurking and listening–-at Payton's behest.
Tall and slender, wearing a faded green gown and an expression of abject serenity, Geneva observed Apryll with eyes a pale watery blue. Her skin was without a wrinkle and so white it was nearly translucent.
"M'lady," she said with a half curtsey.
"What do you know of this?" April demanded, but Geneva's gaze was turned toward Payton.
"You were to tell her the truth, Sir Payton." Reproach edged the deep clarity of her voice.
Payton's Adam's apple bobbed. He didn't meet her eyes. The wind whistled and the coals in the fire glowed bright.
"What is it?" Apryll demanded. A frigid chill seeped deep into her skin and she knew in a heart beat that whatever it was, she would not like what the sorceress had to say. When Payton didn't answer, she turned her question to Geneva. "Tell me."
A second's hesitation.
"Now," Apryll ordered. "What is it you see?"
Geneva lifted an elegant eyebrow. Her gaze fixed deep in Apryll's. "In order for there to be peace and prosperity at Serennog again," she said, "you will marry the Lord of Black Thorn."
Apryll's blood turned to ice. "Never," she said in a hoarse whisper that was far from her normal voice. Her stomach clenched in repulsion when she thought of the powerful, brooding baron and the rumors that had swirled around him. Cruel. Without a heart. Feared rather than loved, Lord Devlynn of Black Thorn was known throughout Wales for his unbending will. "Did he not kill his first wife and unborn babe?"
"No one knows for certain." Geneva's demeanor remained unmoved, expressionless.
The wind seemed to have died. Apryll's heart drummed a furious, denying tattoo. "And yet you think I would agree to marry him?" ‘Twas absurd. Swiveling her head, she asked, "Payton? You knew this?"
He nodded stiffly, then snapped his fingers for more wine.
"‘Tis not about choice," Geneva said with quiet conviction as she stepped closer, and Apryll was drawn once again to those unblinking pallid eyes. "‘Tis about destiny, m'lady. Your destiny."
Black Thorn Forest
"Happy Christmas," Lord Devlynn muttered without a trace of a smile. Tossing a sprig of mistletoe onto the grave where his wife and infant daughter were buried, he couldn't ignore the remorse that lay heavy upon his soul, nor the bitterness that had festered deep in his heart. He stared at the graying tombstone, fingered the rosary deep within his pocket, but could conjure up no prayer to ask God's forgiveness.
A raw December wind, promising snow, blew across the hillside. Frosted blades of grass crumpled beneath his boots. Two horses pawed the hard ground. Astride the bay, his brother sat, gloved hands over the pommel of his saddle, a long suffering expression on a face considered handsome by nearly every woman in the barony. "Come along, m'lord," Collin mocked. "‘Tis time to put away the ghosts and leave the dead buried where they belong. There is living to be done and now ‘tis the time. Like it or not, the Revels are upon us and soon the keep will be filled with guests and laughter and celebration." In the coming darkness, Collin slanted a wicked grin, the likes of which had melted the ice around more than one young maid's heart. "‘Tis time to forget the past, get drunk, raise a skirt or two and make merry."
"Aye." Deep lines of frustration burrowed across Collin's brow. He rubbed his hands together and his breath fogged in the air. "Mayhap you fancy a tongue lashing from our sweet sister but I, for one, would like to forgo that supreme pleasure at least for this night."
"I'll be along! Tell Miranda to heat my mazer and fill it with wine." Mayhap his brother was right; ‘twas time to look forward rather than back.
Collin hesitated, then glanced across the stream and tops of the forest trees to the hill upon which Castle Black Thorn rose, a massive stone and mortar fortress with towers spiraling heavenward. The main gate was thrown open, the drawbridge lowered and portcullis raised while high on poles above the watch towers twin standards emblazoned gold and black, snapped in the harsh winter breeze.
"Have it your way then. After all, you be the lord."
"Forget it not," Devlynn suggested striving for humor and failing miserably. His brother sent him a look of pity, reined his stallion and shaking his head, slapped the beast on his broad rump. With a snort the steed bolted, and Collin, fur-lined mantel swelling behind him, rode furiously down the hillside. The horse's hooves thundered against the frozen ground. Overhead a startled hawk flapped its great wings as it soared toward the woods.
Devlynn watched horse and rider splash through the stream at the base of the hill, then disappear into a thicket of naked-branched oaks on the far side of the creek. Waiting until the echo of hoof beats had faded into the low moan of the wind, Devlynn turned back to the grave. His jaw clenched so hard it ached. ‘Twas time to let all the old pain die. Banish the guilt. He pulled off a glove with his teeth, then, reaching beneath his mantle he wrapped chilled fingers around the black ribbon he'd worn around his arm, the reminder of the tragedy that had claimed his beloved wife and unborn daughter's lives, the symbol of the guilt that was forever carved into his heart.
"‘Tis over," he growled, stripping the band from his arm and dropping it onto the dead grass. The first flakes of snow drifted from the dark sky as he strode to his horse and swung easily into the saddle. Thoughts as black as the coming night, he yanked on the reins and urged his barrel-chested gray. "Run you devil," he growled.
The stallion shot forward. Sleek muscles moved effortlessly, long strides tore over the open fields and ever downward to the creek. On the near bank, the steed's gait shifted, his muscles bunched, Devlynn caught his breath. Phantom sprang, catapulting over the gurgling stream where ice had collected between the rocks. Devlynn felt a surge of power, a freedom as the raw wind pressed hard against his flesh and stung his eyes.
This night he would bury all thoughts of his wife and unborn daughter. By the grace of God he still had his son. A hint of a smile tugged at the corner's of Devlynn's mouth as he thought of the boy. A strong, smart boy nearing ten, Yale was as quick with a dagger as he was with a roll of the dice. A dead-eye with a bow and arrow, sly and bull-headed, Yale eagerly argued with the castle priest, defied his teachers, and often escaped from beneath his nursemaid's wary eye. He rode the finest steeds without a saddle alone in the forest, was known to shimmy up a tree or down a rope faster than the most agile knights and promised to be a handsome man in time. Gray eyes, thick black hair, a dusting of freckles and a bravery that bordered on recklessness. Aye, the lad was trouble, but also Devlynn's pride and joy. Soon Yale would grow tall and strong and Devlynn never once doubted his decision to keep Yale here, at Black Thorn, rather than send him to be a page at another lord's castle.
The boy would someday be Lord of Black Thorn.
There was no reason for Devlynn to ever marry again; he had his only son and heir.
Hours later, aided by warm wine, a long, hot meal, and the crackle of the Yule log burning brightly in the grate, the chill had drained from Devlynn's bones. Holly, mistletoe and ivy had been draped throughout the great hall where hundreds of candles burned, their flames flickering brightly.
As part of the festivities and feast a boar's head, replete with sprays of laurel and an apple stuffed into its snout, had been paraded through the guests upon a sliver platter, then consumed along with great trays of eel, pheasant, salmon and crane. Wine flowed. Music trilled. Laughter rang. Dozens of finely garbed guests, resplendent with jewels, were dancing and making merry, laughing and drinking as if they had not a care in the world. Half of them he'd never met.
The spirit of the season was lost on the Lord of Black Thorn. Seated on the small of his back at the head table with the rest of his family, Devlynn had no interest in the festivities, nor had he paid any attention to more than one fetching young maid determined to catch his eye.
"You break more hearts and dash more hopes than ‘tis wise," Collin warned his brother after Yale, uncharacteristically drowsy, had been hauled off to bed. "There be skirts to be lifted tonight."
"So lift them," Devlynn replied, drinking heartily and motioning to a page to refill his cup. "All of them."
"Some of the maids have eyes only for you."
Because I am the lord, he thought cynically as the Yule candle burned bright before him. He had no interest in foolish, ambitious women. The page refilled his cup and he wondered when the evening would end.
"By the saint's ‘tis an angel," Aunt Violet whispered almost reverently as she gazed upon the guests.
Devlynn slid a glance in the older woman's direction and saw her pale lips quiver in awe. Hurriedly, with deft beringed fingers, she made the sign of the cross over her ample, velvet-draped bosom. ‘Twas as if she were warding off evil spirits rather than embracing a divine being cast down from the heavens.
Devlynn paid little mind to the old woman and swallowed another gulp of wine. Though her once-clear eyes had clouded with age, Violet was always seeing spirits and ghosts. Now during the holidays his aunt was forever searching for some sign of heavenly intervention–-conjuring up a miracle to lift what she considered a dark, gloomy pall that had fallen upon the Lord of Black Thorn's shoulders.
A scamp of a child, Miranda's eldest, screamed gleefully as she dashed past.
"Hush, Bronwyn, off to bed with you," Miranda ordered.
"Nay, mother, not yet," the girl cried, brown curls bouncing around her flushed eight-year-old face. "We've not yet played hoodman's blind or bob apple."
"But soon, the nurse will take you upstairs."
"Where be Yale?" she asked Devlynn.
"Already abed," her mother said sternly. "Where you should be."
"Why? ‘Tis not like him," Bronwyn sniffed.
"Nay, ‘tis not," Devlynn agreed, wondering if the lad was becoming ill.
"Mayhap he is only pretending sleep and he is even now escaping the castle as he has before!" Bronwyn said, her eyes bright at the thought of her adventurous cousin.
"Nay. ‘Tis only too much merriment and festivities," Miranda said and Bronwyn, as if realizing she was in danger of being hauled off to bed this very minute, tossed her dark ringlets then scampered away, chasing after a servant carrying a platters of jellied eggs, tarts and meat pies.
"Violet is right. She is a beauty," Collin whispered under his breath. There was awe in his voice, but Devlynn refused to be infected with the rapture his brother felt for females.
"All women are beauties to you, Brother." Devlynn tossed back his mazer, wiped his mouth and, bored by the conversation, searched the milling crowd with his eyes.
Then he saw her.
Knowing instinctively that it was the "angel" of whom his Aunt had murmured in awe. Mayhap his doddery, ancient aunt was right for the first time in her seventy-odd years, that the unknown woman was a magical being sent straight from the gates of heaven.
She certainly was like no other Devlynn had ever seen.
Tall and slender, bedecked in a dazzling white gown, she moved thought the crowd with an easy, elegant grace. Her dress was embroidered with silver and gold thread intricately woven and her hair, as pale as flax, was threaded with silver and gold ribbons. Her eyes sparkled from the reflection of the hundreds of candles within the room, her cheekbones arched high above rosy spots of color on flawless skin.
Devlynn's heart thumped in his chest. He silently called himself a fool. Took another swallow of wine.
Who the devil was she?
"You told me not that you had invited divinity," Collin teased, leaning closer to his brother, one side of his mouth lifted in cynical, wicked appreciation.
"I knew not." Devlynn couldn't pull his eyes from the curve of her cheek, nor the lift of her small, pointed chin.
Christ Jesus. The air stilled in his lungs.
"I think I might ask her to dance." Scraping his chair back, Collin lift an eyebrow in his brother's direction, as if in challenge. ‘Twas his way these days. Collin seemed restless and bored, ready for a fight, always daring his older brother.
A spurt of jealousy swept through Devlynn, but he raised one shoulder as if he was not interested in the woman. Not at all. Yet he couldn't stop following her with his eyes and felt the muscles at the base of his neck grow taught as Collin strode to the woman and with only the slightest bit of conversation, begin dancing with her.
She smiled brightly, radiantly, and slid easily into his brother's arms.
Devlynn's back teeth gnashed. His gut clenched. He feigned interest in the conversation around him, drank heartily, but the truth of the matter was that he could barely drag his eyes from the elegant woman bedecked in white as she swirled past lords and ladies festooned in purple, dark green, and scarlet.
When the dance was finished, Collin bowed and she inclined her head, then turned to yet another man, a burly knight, who swept her into his arms. For a second Devlynn thought she cast a quick glance in his direction, but ‘twas but a heartbeat and then she laughed gaily in the bear of a man's embrace.
Collin returned, picked up his mazer and sighed. "Truly an angel, but one with a touch of sin, me thinks."
"How would you know?"
"Trust me, brother. I know women. This one--" he pointed her out with the finger around his cup, "–-is spirited and I'm not talking about heavenly spirits now."
"Hush!" Violet said. "I'll hear none of this!"
Devlynn finished his wine and while the tapers burned low and a jester tried to regale him with a bawdy joke, his attention never strayed from the bewitching woman as she danced. His eyebrows drew together and he wondered yet again who she was, why he'd never met her, how she'd come to be invited here.
As if he read his brother's mind, Collin said, "I did not catch her name. But mayhap I will the next time." The music faded and he started to climb to his feet, but Devlynn laid a hand upon his shoulder.
"Nay, ‘tis my turn," he said, surprising even himself.
"Ah . . . So, Brother, you not be made of stone after all." Collin chuckled gruffly as Devlynn waded through the crowd, nodding to well-wishers as he passed, walking to the knot of guests near the fire where the woman swept a lock of hair from her cheek. He was not alone in his quest. More than one man was following her with appreciative and lust-filled eyes.
"Excuse me," he said, as he approached.
"Lord Devlynn." She dipped her head.
"Could I have this dance?" he asked as a musician began to play a harp. She smiled, her lips parting to show just the hint of white teeth. Gold eyes sparkled brightly at him, yet there was something deeper in her gaze, something hovering beneath the surface. One honey-colored eyebrow raised imperiously.
"Aye, m'lord ‘twould be my pleasure, to be sure." She said, then tossed back her head to stare directly at him. "As it was, I thought I would have to ask you."
"You would be so bold?" He was surprised.
"As to approach the lord of the castle?" she asked, some of her gaiety fading.
"Aye. I assure you I would."
Who was she to flirt so wantonly with him? "And had I denied you?"
"Then I would have asked your brother." He swung her easily into his arms and she moved unerringly. "He would not have said ‘nay.'"
Devlynn didn't doubt it for a second. Even now he felt the weight of Collin's gaze boring into his back. "Who are you?" "You know not?" she teased moving easily as the tempo of the music quickened. Other couples stepped lively and swirled around them. Fragrant smoke spiraled to the ceiling and conversation buzzed beneath the lilting music.
It had been years since he'd danced, forever since he'd wanted to hold a woman and spin her across the floor, but this one molded tightly against his body and followed his steps easily when they were together, held his gaze when they danced apart, her feet moving quickly over the rushes, her snowy dress smooth and shimmering. She smelled of lavender and roses and the sheen of sweat that covered her skin glistened in the candle glow. She cocked her head as if silently defying him; as if beneath a false layer of civility there was a wild, rebellious spirit lurking within the deepest part of her soul.
For the first time since his wife's death, the Lord of Black Thorn experienced a heat in his blood, a lust running through his veins, a throb in that part of him he'd thought long dead.
She angled her head and he saw the curve of her neck, long and slim, and fought the urge to press his lips against it. ‘Twas foolishness. Nothing more. Too much wine and Collin's cursed suggestion that he bed a woman this night. ‘Twas all. And yet as he caught sight of the tops of her breasts, plump white pillows pushed seductively above the squared neckline of the dress, blood thundered in his ears and his manhood, so long dormant, began to come to life.
She was innocent beauty and wicked seduction in one instant. Glancing up at him from beneath the sweep of honey-colored lashes, she met his gaze and didn't back down for a second. As if she could read his thoughts, her smile diminished and her eyes darkened.
By the Gods he wanted her.
Deep in the most vital part of him, he yearned to sweep her from her feet, carry her up the curved staircase, strip the glittering white dress from her body, drop her onto his bed and press his hot, insistent flesh against hers.
Oh, for the love of Jesus!
Silently he condemned his soul to hell for his wayward, wicked thoughts. ‘Twas reckless desire brought on by too much wine, the spirit of the Revels, the rapture of the night and the absence of a woman for too long in his life. Nothing more.
"We've never met before," he said. "I would have remembered."
"So would have I," she said, her voice without any trace of teasing. "Apryll of Serennog." She said her name as if it should mean something to him, yet it only conjured up vague thoughts of a castle some thought to be in ruin, a keep that was rumored to be haunted, a once-prosperous barony that had, under this woman's dominion, shriveled into poverty.
And yet she was here, in jewels and finery, boldly flirting with him.
Deep inside he knew he should tread warily here, that something was amiss, but the seduction of her smile caused him to cast caution to the winds. Tonight he would not be so suspicious. Tonight he would enjoy the festivities. Tonight he would let the tight reins on his desires slip through his fingers.
Tonight, mayhap, he would bed the lady.