Fresh tears pooled in her eyes. "I went to Winstow to see Dunstan. Orrik sent him there so that he wouldn't tell me..." She closed her eyes; the tears overflowed.
"Tell you what?" he gently pressed as he blotted her face with his sleeve.
"That Caedmon... that he deserted the field of battle. He didn't die in prison, Luke. He was murdered." She broke off in sobs, her face pressed against his chest.
Luke held her with arms deadened from shock. "Oh, G.o.d." She knows. Oh, G.o.d, she knows.
She cried for just a moment, then quieted. "He was killed over a woman."
Steady, now. She needs you. "Faithe. I'm so sorry, I-"
"'Tisn't your fault."
He squeezed his eyes shut, gritted his teeth. "Faithe... oh, G.o.d."
"I shouldn't be reacting this way."
"How could you not?" He kissed the top of her head. "Go ahead and cry. Go ahead. You have every right." And it would be just punishment for him to have to hold her while she did so-comfort her while she grieved over that which he had brought to pa.s.s.
She cried until the tears were all wrung out of her and she lay limp in his arms. Thunder rolled softly in the distance; an eerie sort of twilight had descended, although it was just late afternoon.
"We should go back," he said quietly.
Faithe tightened her arms around him. "Nay. Please. Not yet. I can't face them yet." She looked up at him, her eyes enormous in the strange, purplish light. "Please, Luke. I need you."
Luke felt dizzy. I need you. He buried his hand in her hair, gripped the back of her head. I need you...
"Ah, Faithe..." He pressed his mouth to her temple, felt the frantic pulsing beneath the hot skin. "I'm lost," he whispered, so quietly he could barely hear it himself. "Lost." He touched her wet cheekbone with his lips.
"Not lost," she said on a sigh. "I've found you." She stroked his face with trembling fingertips. "We've found each other."
"Faithe..." Her lips beckoned him. He felt their heat, was drawn to it, bent his head to her. "Faithe, forgive me," he breathed against her mouth as his eyes closed.
A light gust of laughter tickled his lips. "Foolish man." He thought she whispered these words, and then she moved her head, deliberately, slowly, stroking the hot silk of her lips against his.
A sound escaped him, an exhalation of pure delight. He joined in, caressing her lips with his, lightly, teasingly, savoring the sweet, heartbreaking pleasure of it.
Framing her face with his hands to still her movements, he covered her mouth with his and kissed her, a deep kiss of wild longing, a kiss they'd waited too long to share. He felt her hands on his back, his shoulders, his neck, urging him closer, raking his hair. He clutched at her. He reeled from the intensity of it.
A rumble of thunder startled them both. They broke the kiss, gasping for air, and held each other tight.
"Luke," she said, "I've wanted you to do that. I've wanted it so much."
He smiled, gratified in spite of everything by the pleasure she took in him, her frank desire for him. "So have I."
She kissed his throat, whispering against it, "What else have you wanted?"
Her soft query sp.a.w.ned a fierce rush of arousal within Luke. Bracing himself on an elbow, he eased Faithe onto her back in the straw and spent a moment just looking at her. Even with her face all tearstained and straw tangled up in her hair, she was the most exquisite thing he'd ever seen. The odd, dusky light made her skin look translucent, incandescent. Her lips were puffy, and a deep, bruised red. There was something potently erotic about lips dark and swollen from kissing. He touched them; they were feverishly hot. He wanted to lick them; he wanted to bite them. He was lost.
"What else," she repeated patiently, "have you wanted?"
Drawing in a shuddering breath, he allowed his gaze to travel downward. She wore the russet kirtle that she preferred on warm days. He could tell by the unenc.u.mbered fleshiness of her b.r.e.a.s.t.s beneath the rough homespun that she hadn't bothered with an undershift. Unlike most of her gowns, this one laced up the front. Every time he saw her in it, he wanted to untie the cord.
Lowering his hand, he did just that.
Luke saw her out of the corner of his eye, watching him as he tugged at the cord, loosening the bow in which it was tied. She studied his eyes as if something in them fascinated her. He concentrated on keeping his hand steady as he pulled the cord slowly through the top pair of eyelets... and then the next... and the next. Her chest rose and fell rapidly; the thin homespun trembled with her heartbeats.
Those keys of hers were in the way. He lifted them, and she tensed slightly. Instead of removing them, as he had intended, he merely moved them to the side. She smiled, and then closed a hand over the arm on which he braced himself. The heat of her touch seemed to burn right through his linen shirt.
Thunder murmured distantly as he continued unlacing the kirtle. From the surrounding stalls came the low fretting of the animals as it grew forebodingly dark. The very air seemed to swell and press in.
Luke drew the cord through the bottom pair of eyelets, just below her navel, leaving her kirtle unlaced but still closed. One end of the cord was softly frayed. He brushed it lazily over her throat, along her jaw, and around the dainty edge of an ear. He swept it across her lips, over her chin, and down her throat again. She closed her eyes, smiling as if this were the greatest sensual pleasure imaginable. Tossing the cord aside, he replaced it with his hand.
She sighed at the first rough touch of his fingertips on her throat. He traced the shape of her face, caressed its delicate contours-forehead, eyelids, cheeks, nose, those blood-flushed lips, still hot to the touch.
To touch her in this slow, hypnotic way, as if he had all the time in the world, was the greatest indulgence imaginable. He'd never taken his time with a woman, prolonging the preliminaries just for the elemental pleasure of it.
I'm truly lost, he thought as he lowered his hand. The loosely woven homespun grazed his fingertips as he trailed them over the rise of a breast. He felt an erratic thudding through the supple flesh; his own heartbeat thundered in his ears.
Very gently he rested his hand on her breast. Her grip tightened on his arm. He felt an insistent nudging against his palm as her nipple hardened through the rough fabric. His body echoed her response, as if they were a single being; he stiffened beneath his braies, straining toward her against the confines of the loose trousers.
Everything seemed to be happening so slowly in this unnatural and expectant semidarkness. He was lost, cast adrift with Faithe in a kind of bewitched haze. It was as if there were no past and no future-just the two of them, alone together, now and forever, in this nest of fragrant straw. Time was suspended, if only temporarily; and so were his sins. What had gone before did not exist. All he could hear was the deafening pulse of his heart, all he could see was Faithe, her head back, her eyes half closed, her smile one of dreamy antic.i.p.ation.
Luke moved his hand languidly over the heavy cushion of her breast, cupping it, thumbing the rigid nipple until she arched her back, her fingers digging into his arm. Leaning down, he closed his mouth over hers, stealing her sigh as he slipped his hand beneath the open gown. He glided his fingertips over the silken underside of her breast; the skin there was like the finest, sleekest satin, but warm. She moaned into his mouth when he caressed the resilient flesh with a firmer touch, gasped when he gently tugged her nipple. Withdrawing from the kiss, she writhed in delicious abandon. He'd never beheld anything as sweetly, irresistibly provocative. He had to see more of her.
Sitting up, he swept her open kirtle aside with both hands, exposing her from the waist up. Faithe drew in a quick, startled, breath, but lay still as he gazed at her. Her body was an exquisite contradiction. Those voluptuous b.r.e.a.s.t.s belonged on a rounder, more ample woman, not this fine-boned creature with her slender waist and flat stomach. The juxtaposition should have looked wrong, but it couldn't have been more enticing.
He ached-quite literally-with the need to possess her. If he'd ever been more aroused than at this moment, he couldn't remember it. All his former doubts and misgivings evaporated in the scalding heat of their mutual need. The urge to untie his braies and take what they both wanted was powerful, but stronger still was the need to prolong this temporary respite, this isolated moment in time-to rejoice in this wonderment, this sense of revelation, to let the magic spin itself out. A quick coupling wouldn't do. He wanted to discover her, consume her, join with her... make love to her, body and mind, heart and soul.
And, too, Faithe of Hauekleah wasn't one of his wh.o.r.es, accustomed to taking the full, violent measure of a man's animal pa.s.sions. She might not look and act like a highborn lady, but that's exactly what she was, and he must heed his father's counsel and take her with care. He had no idea how it had been between her and Caedmon, but he could surmise that she'd not been ill used s.e.xually. Although her feelings toward her first husband seemed lukewarm, she regarded him, still, with sisterly affection. Most likely he'd been very much the gentleman in bed, and so Luke must endeavor to be the same. After all they'd been through, he was not disposed to jeopardize this delicate moment by venting his l.u.s.t like some rutting beast.
He skimmed his hands lightly over her face, her throat, her b.r.e.a.s.t.s. Faithe breathed his name, and other words he couldn't make out. Drawn, for some reason, to her delicate little navel, he probed the tiny indentation with a fingertip. A kind of kittenish growl rose from her, and her hips moved-just slightly, but enough to spark a hot, answering pulse in his loins.
"What else?" she whispered. His confusion must have shown on his face, because she added, "What else have you wanted?"
He met her gaze for a long, breathless moment, and then he smoothed his hand downward, over her lower belly, until he felt, beneath the homespun, a subtle swell. She bit her lip as he moved his hand slowly-so slowly-over this place of heady mystery. His breath and hers came faster and faster. He felt the little ridge of bone beneath the soft flesh, traced the tight cleft with his fingertips.
She was damp; he felt it even through the kirtle. Suddenly impatient, he whipped her skirt up and lay next to her; she turned to face him. Luke pushed a thigh between hers to urge them apart, and they locked their legs together as naturally as longtime lovers. He searched her eyes as he slid his fingers deep into her exceedingly narrow entrance. Her gaze lost its focus, and she sucked in a tremulous breath. He stroked her with slow, inquisitive fingers, enthralled by her slippery heat.
Curving his other hand around the back of her neck, he coaxed her closer and took her mouth in a hungry, lingering kiss, all the whole caressing her intimately, reveling in her breathless sighs, her little gasps of pleasure. He felt her hand fluttering between them, untying his shirt all the way down the front. She glided her fingers through the hair on his chest and whispered against his lips, "What else, Luke?"
He hesitated only briefly, loath to ask too much of her, but so desirous of her touch. Taking her free hand in his, he guided it between his legs, pressing it to his aching shaft, hoping it wouldn't offend her. Although she'd touched him this way once before, that had been playacting-part of her misguided effort to seduce him. To his relief and gratification, her fingers curled automatically around him through his thin braies; he wore no drawers, because of the heat. A spasm of pleasure sucked the breath from his lungs. He was as hard as a column of steel. She drew her hand up and down his length, squeezing with just the right pressure, and he groaned helplessly.
"Ah, Faithe..." Luke rocked his hips in time with her caress. "Yes." He explored her until she moved in rhythm with him. With his free arm, he pulled her to him, crushing her b.r.e.a.s.t.s, warm and heavy and damp with sweat, against his chest. He buried his face in her hair, inhaling her scent, moaning her name as his body tightened, strained, trembled.
She trembled, too. Her legs, tangled with his, quivered like bowstrings, and her breath came in soft pants. "Luke... oh, G.o.d, Luke."
Now. He rolled her onto her back in the straw, cradled between her legs.
"Yes!" She slid her hands down to his waist and pulled him against her. Her responsiveness surprised and delighted him. Holding himself stiff-armed above her, he went to undo the drawstring of his braies just as she did. Their hands fumbled together, and they laughed in breathy frustration.
"Let me," he said hoa.r.s.ely. She nodded and sank into the straw, her eyes closed, her bare chest heaving. Luke didn't think he'd ever seen a more alluring sight.
He reached for the drawstring as a volley of thunder shook the barn and lightning illuminated their little stall. The cold white light flickered over the face of the woman lying before him. An ugly memory stabbed Luke in the gut, and he stumbled backward, squeezing his eyes shut. "Jesu!"
His mind's eye conjured the face in the straw, adding a trickle of blood from the slack mouth. He saw the tangled red hair, the beard, the lifeless, half-open eyes-a fleeting image, there and gone in a blink of lightning. He smelled the dead Saxon, felt, all over again, the sick jolt of realization. What have I done?
"Nay." He ground his fists against his forehead, as if that would obliterate the image of the man he had slain-of Caedmon, a good man fallen victim to the Black Dragon's ungovernable rage. I grieved for him... I cried until I had no more tears. "Nay..."
Why now, in this timeless, enchanted moment, when he thought he'd been granted a brief reprieve from his greatest sin, did he have to relive it? Cruel timing, just when he was about to... had been about to...
"Christ." It would be a pointless effort now, his erection having waned.
He opened his eyes and saw her sitting up and looking at him, her gaze full of concern. With one hand she held her kirtle closed; the other reached for him. He instinctively recoiled from her touch.
"Luke?" Thunder exploded again, accompanied by a burst of lightning. Her beautiful face tightened with worry. She moved toward him, her arm outstretched.
He stood abruptly. "I have to go."
Her eyes were huge. "Go?"
"Faithe..." He dragged his hand through his hair, loosening it from its braid. What could he say? How could he possibly make this all right?
For an endless moment she stared at him, wide-eyed in the heavy darkness. And then her face took on a horrible stillness. The light left her eyes, her throat moved convulsively.
"Faithe." Why was this happening? What could he do? What could he possibly say? He went to her and knelt in the straw, reaching out to gather her up while his mind raced to find words, any words, to explain why he couldn't do this.
"Nay!" She jerked away from him, backing up hurriedly and gaining her feet as she clutched the bodice of her kirtle with both hands. "Don't touch me." It wasn't her anger that twisted the knife in his gut, but the chill in her gaze, a detachment that had never been there before. He'd pushed her too far. She was closing herself off to him.
"Oh, G.o.d, Faithe." Luke rose on unsteady legs, raking the hair out of his eyes. He'd never begged in his life, but he begged now, in a raw, choked voice. "Don't do this. Please. I couldn't bear it. I need you."
"You need no one. You've never needed anyone, least of all me."
His chest shook with a kind of tragic laughter. Not need her? She'd given him his heart; she was his heart. She'd made him human again. Without her, he'd revert into the beast he'd once been. "Dear G.o.d, Faithe, if you knew how untrue that was..."
"Then why can't you-" Her voice caught in her throat. "Why?" Her chin wobbled; her eyes shimmered. "Why? I don't understand. Explain it to me. Can you just explain it to me?"
"Don't cry," he said gruffly, taking a wary step toward her.
She sidestepped him and lifted her chin, making a heartbreaking effort to compose herself. "Fear not, my lord. I'll make every effort not to cry in front of you again."
"Faithe..." He buried his face in his hands. G.o.d, think of something to say. You can't lose her. You can't let this happen.
"You wanted me to trust you," she said in a wavering voice. When he uncovered his face, she was studying him with that dreadfully remote gaze, one fist keeping her kirtle together, the other clutching her skirt. Unshed tears pooled in her eyes. "You didn't want me on just any terms. You wanted me willing. You wanted me to want you. You said... you said our marriage may have been a coldhearted arrangement, but that didn't mean it had to be a coldhearted marriage. And I believed you." A huff of bleak laughter escaped her.
"Fool that I am, I believed you. I thought you wanted..." She faltered, covering her mouth with her hand as tears slid from her eyes.
"I did. I do." Luke took a step toward her, and she took a step back.
She rubbed her cheeks with her sleeve. "Perhaps you actually believe that. But I'm not so deluded, not anymore. How can our marriage be anything but coldhearted? You haven't got it in you to make it otherwise."
"You're wrong, Faithe."
"Am I? I took you at your word, Luke. I took a chance. I opened myself to you. I gave you everything that was in me, more than I've ever given anyone, simply because you asked for it. You made me take off my armor, but yours is welded on tight. That's why you can't..." She glanced toward the nest of straw where they had lain. "You don't want me that close to you. Deep inside you, there's a place I'll never touch. But you touched me, Luke." Fresh tears spilled down her cheeks, hated tears that she couldn't bear to shed in his presence, but couldn't seem to stop. "You made me fall in love with you."
She loved him. She loved him! Joy and despair warred dizzily within him.
"That was cruel of you," she added grimly. "You didn't have to make me love you." She tried to sweep past him. He grabbed her arm. "Let me go!"
"I can't." He knew if he let her go now, it would never be the same between them. They would have crossed a line, shattered the fragile bond they'd forged. That bond was all he had; his whole world was built around it. He couldn't lose it.
"What do you want from me, Luke?" She tried to wrestle out of his grasp. "How much more do you mean to take from me? When will it be enough?"
"Faithe, be still. Let me try to explain-"
"Your words mean naught to me. Actions are more telling by far."
He nodded slowly. "You're right. I've been a fool." His sins be d.a.m.ned. Caedmon be d.a.m.ned. All Luke had been and done, all his remorse and torment, all that had gone before be d.a.m.ned and forgotten. The only thing that mattered now was Faithe and him, and he could think of only one way to renew their delicate bond. Why resist anymore what he wanted so desperately-what they both wanted? Banding his arms around her, he bent his head to kiss her, but she wrested it to the side.
"Save your kisses. Let me go!"
"Nay. You're not leaving here until I've convinced you-"
A thunderclap crashed overhead, accompanied by a sputter of lightning; they both started. Faithe took advantage of the diversion to extract herself from his grip. Turning, she fled toward the entrance to the stall, but Luke leapt upon her before she could slip through.
"Let me go!" She fought him, lashing out wildly, raining frenzied punches on him until he pinioned her arms. Her fury took him aback; he must have mishandled things very badly to have driven her to this. Now he had to try and repair the damage, if only she would let him.
"Stop this!" he demanded, but she squirmed and kicked until he lost his balance, toppling over with his arms locked around her. He deliberately twisted as they went down, landing on his back in order to take the brunt of the fall himself, but the gesture was lost on her. She was like a savage thing, enraged and determined to get free.
He wrapped an arm around her waist and grabbed both flailing fists in one of his as she grappled with him. Her kirtle fell open as she struggled to rise off him, her b.r.e.a.s.t.s brushing heavily against his bare chest, along with the cold sc.r.a.pe of the keys. As she thrashed to get free, her hair fell across his face, inundating him with her scent; her hips ground against his. His body responded with a mindless resurgence of arousal, but she didn't seem to notice.
"Be still!" he growled.
"Burn in h.e.l.l!"
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