"I'm quite sure I will." He rolled her onto her back and pressed her into the straw. Pinning her wrists above her head with one hand, he closed the other around her face, forcing her to look him in the eye. "Faithe, listen to me."
She whipped back and forth beneath him, oblivious to the effect this was having on him. He was painfully erect beneath his braies, and it was all he could do to keep from thrusting against her.
"Let me go! I hate you!"
He brought his face close to hers to be heard over the rumbling of the thunder. The soft weight of her b.r.e.a.s.t.s, the silk of her skin, the scent and warmth of her, nearly robbed him of his self-control. "I love you."
That seemed to confound her for a moment. She gazed searchingly into his eyes, then shook her head. "You don't love me."
"G.o.d help me, I do," he rasped. "I do."
"You don't know the meaning of love."
"Not before, perhaps, but I do now. I love you, Faithe, and I can't let you leave here thinking otherwise. I can't lose you now. Christ, 'twould kill me." He kissed her quickly, before she could object, a fierce kiss of possession that she didn't return.
"Words," she ground out, trying vainly to free her imprisoned hands. "Words and kisses. They mean nothing. Let me go."
He released her. She blinked in surprise when he raised her skirt and knelt between her legs, whispered his name in disbelief when he yanked open his braies and fell upon her.
"Why are you doing this?" she gasped, pushing futilely against his shoulders. "Because you think I want it?"
"We both want it. We both need it." Luke wished she could rise above her rage and hurt long enough to see that.
"Nay, 'tis naught but an act of pity. Let me go!" She struck out with her fists. He grabbed them and held them tight as she bucked beneath him.
"Don't make me hold you down, Faithe."
"Let me go!"
He shifted to position himself between her legs. "This" -he nudged her with his organ's broad tip- "was hardly born of pity." She felt slick and hot and very tight against him. She grew very still and closed her eyes.
Thunder reverberated as he whispered her name. She couldn't have heard him, yet she opened her eyes and met his gaze as quavering flashes of lightning played over her. There was a clear-eyed calm about her-an understanding, an acceptance. Thank G.o.d.
Squeezing her hands, he flexed his hips, driving himself deep, deep inside her with one long thrust. Another blast of thunder swallowed up his shuddering groan. Faithe might have cried out; he couldn't hear her. She threw her head back, her expression unreadable in the dark.
For one long, heart-stopping moment she lay inert beneath him, gripping his hands as tightly as he gripped hers. She felt impossibly snug where he was buried within her, and hot. How he'd hungered for this; how often he'd awakened, soaked with sweat and shivering on the edge of ecstasy, after dreaming of this. 'Tis no dream this time. 'Tis very, very real.
"I love you, Faithe," he said shakily. "I do, I swear it to G.o.d." He released her hands slowly, experimentally. Let her want this, Luke silently prayed. Please let her want this.
A crack of thunder made them both flinch. She wrapped her arms around him, holding him close, her damp face pressed into the crook of his neck. Slipping an arm beneath her shoulders and curling the other around her head, he breathed incoherent words of comfort into her hair amid a flurry of kisses. She wants this. I know she wants this.
Lightning flared as the sky burst open. Rain sizzled onto the thatch-a hard, steady, cleansing rain that drained the sodden heaviness from the air. Within moments, it felt lighter, cooler; Luke could breathe deeply for the first time all day.
Faithe's chest rose and fell slowly. She untucked her face to look at him. Her hazel eyes were transparent in the stormy half-light. Threads of rusty gold feathered out from her enormous pupils, like veins of precious ore trapped in polished crystals. The effect was striking, but it was the human warmth in their crystalline depths-the tender rea.s.surance-that squeezed his throat with emotion.
She raised a tentative hand to his cheek and rubbed it lightly; his stubble rasped against her palm. His eyes stung suddenly; he shut them and lowered his forehead to hers. He tried to say her name, but choked on the simple word.
"Shh." She slid her hands beneath his shirt and rubbed his back and shoulders. "Shh."
He sank on top of her, inhaling the tranquil scents of rain and straw, almonds and thyme... listening to the rhythmic hush of her breathing, the constant pattering on the thatch... basking in the sweet, warm, limitless comfort of her body.
To lie so peacefully within a woman's arms, while intimately connected with her, was a novel experience for Luke. s.e.x had always been a quick, primitive labor of l.u.s.t. None of the women he'd paid to release that l.u.s.t had ever stroked his back with cool, gentle hands, or whispered soothingly into his ear. None of them had loved him. Nor had he loved them. He'd never truly made love to a woman, although he had, on occasion, called it that. He'd never lain united in quiet contentment with a woman as their breathing synchronized and their hearts beat as one. He'd never been a part of anyone else, until now.
Her fingers drew soft, languorous circles over his shoulders and back, down the length of his spine, and beneath his loosened braies, over the slope of his b.u.t.tocks. The airy ma.s.sage was both pacifying and stimulating. His skin tingled all over; his body felt heavy, yet charged with sensation. As she continued this feathery touch, that sensation gravitated to where they were joined. His senses focused in on his body penetrating hers. Deep inside her, within her warmth and softness, he felt her heart pulsing in time with his.
The pulses became a steady throb. Still unmoving, he felt his ardor quicken, felt himself grow harder still, within her. She noticed this; her hands stopped moving.
"Would you tell me again?" she asked, very quietly.
He knew what she meant. Lifting himself up on an elbow, he brushed her hair off her face and whispered, just loudly enough to be heard over the rain, "I love you, Faithe." He lowered his mouth to hers and kissed her tenderly. "I love you." He kissed her again, and again, breathing words of love and need upon her lips, as his body strained and quivered inside her.
There was something exquisitely maddening about lying perfectly still while his craving for release grew more intense, more undeniable, with every moment that pa.s.sed. The source of that craving, sheathed within her, vibrated with the need to push, and push, and push again.
He trailed his hand down from her face to a breast, fondling its silken weight until her breath came fast. When he took her nipple between thumb and forefinger and pressed, she gasped. A spasm rippled through her from within, clenching him.
Enough. Closing his hand around her hip, and still braced on his elbow, he slowly pulled out of her. He paused at the snug little opening, willing himself to go slowly, to be gentle and solicitous.
Curling his hand beneath her to lift her hips, he pressed inward, gradually this time, gritting his teeth against the astonishing pleasure, against the urge to plunge hard and fast. She sighed as he seated himself within her, and again as he slid out and in, out and in, taking his time, his entire body taut with desire.
Faithe kissed his throat as he rocked slowly within her, all his muscles tensed and shivering. She closed her hands over his shoulders and met his measured thrusts with sinuous grace. The rhythmic crush of straw beneath them provided counterpoint to the rain's cool, steady hiss.
"You feel wonderful inside me," she murmured, snaking her hands down to his hips.
"You feel... oh, G.o.d. I can hardly bear it." He felt as if his heart were going to burst; every beat pummeled him from within. Her body milked him like a hot fist. With each partial withdrawal, it seemed to pull him back in. It was too much; at this rate, he'd explode within moments, and he didn't want this to end yet.
He altered his thrusts to make himself last, penetrating her again and again with a rotating movement that coaxed soft moans from her. Sliding his hand out from under her hip, he caressed her b.r.e.a.s.t.s, teasing the nipples in a way she seemed to like. Her breathing turned ragged. "Yes... oh, Luke."
Just hearing her whisper his name as she writhed in his arms fired his loins. Truly, I'm lost, he thought as he spiraled inexorably toward o.r.g.a.s.m, his thrusts accelerating despite his desire to go slowly for Faithe's sake. His body took over, tightening and lunging, ramming deep, deep...
Faithe's expression of easy delight soon fled. Looking almost pained, she grew rigid beneath him, her fingers digging into his hips. Her body trembled; she arched, grinding herself against him, her head rolling back in the straw. He heard a low, whimpering cry as her body bucked and shuddered. Her internal muscles pumped him frantically.
"Oh, G.o.d." His body recognized what was happening before his mind did, responding to her climax by driving into her with savage urgency. Animal instinct propelled him, tearing a roar of fulfillment from him as tremors shot like lightning up his extremities, meeting and igniting in his groin, shooting out of him with blissful violence. The intensity of it blinded and deafened him. Amid the delirious frenzy of release, he felt Faithe's arms and legs lock around him, holding him tight even as her own crisis ran its course.
I was lost, he thought dazedly as the convulsive pleasure crested and then slowly ebbed, racking him with its aftershocks. But Faithe has found me. I'm lost no more.
Faithe lay sated and drowsy in Luke's arms, absorbing his heat, reveling in his quiet strength. His chest hair felt springy, cushioning her cheek against the rock-solid muscle underneath. She breathed deeply, savoring the damp, tangy smell of him-of both of them. Hard work and s.e.x were a heady combination, one that affected her like strong wine. Directly beneath her ear, his heart thudded with steady resonance.
The straw underneath them crackled softly as he shifted. He'd not retied his shirt, nor his braies, although he'd pulled them up. Her clothing was similarly disheveled. She had no idea what became of the cord that had laced up her kirtle, once, long ago, in what felt like another lifetime. Where the gown parted, she felt his warm torso against her bare b.r.e.a.s.t.s. Her skirt was tucked around her thighs, and her legs were comfortably intertwined with his.
Rain still whispered against the thatch. The livestock had quieted, save for the occasional contented grunt. In the aftermath of the storm's worst fury, the light had lost its strange, purplish cast and taken on a silvery radiance, enhancing the mystic aura surrounding them. Never had Faithe felt more at peace. The day's distressing revelations about Caedmon-although she would have to find a way to deal with them-seemed for the time being to recede into the distant past. She felt a happy sense of fruition mingled with hope.
"This is a perfect moment," she murmured, nestling against her husband as she slid her fingers through his chest hair. "Everything is good. We love each other... we have each other. Naught is amiss."
Luke's heart hammered erratically for a few moments; she felt him tense.
"Is anything wrong?" she asked, lifting her head to find him frowning.
When he met her gaze, she saw that unsettled look that had so troubled her during the past few days. He looked away quickly; she felt his chest expand, and then he let out a lengthy sigh. He looked back at her, and she saw a fierce determination in his eyes. "It matters not. Nothing matters save for us. Nothing can touch us. I won't let it."
She studied him; there was something vaguely desolate about him "What's wrong, Luke? You can tell me."
A hot, liquid sadness shimmered in his eyes. "Nay, I can't," he whispered rawly. "I can't. I wish to G.o.d-" His words caught in his throat. He looked everywhere but at her, his eyes shining, his mouth set in a grim line. "Have you ever wished," he said unsteadily, "that you could go back in time and undo something you've done?"
"Of course. Everyone has." She settled back on his chest, facing away from him, since he didn't seem to want to look her in the eye. "What is it you want to undo, Luke?"
After a long pause he said, "Something I can't tell you. Something I can never tell you."
"Have you told a priest?"
"Aye, I've made confession and spent two months doing penance at St. Albans. But there are some sins that blacken the soul irretrievably, and this is one of them."
Faithe sorted through the possibilities. Her stomach clenched. Closing her eyes, she forced the words out slowly. "The Norman soldiers... some of them, when they want a woman..." She swallowed down her dread, recalling how barbaric Luke had seemed just a short time ago, pinning her hands to either side of her as he crushed her into the straw... Don't make me hold you down, Faithe. "They just take her," she finished in a quivery whisper.
A heartbeat pa.s.sed, and then Luke rose abruptly onto an elbow. Cupping her chin, he turned her to face him. The intensity of his gaze robbed her of breath. "I'm guilty of many sins," he said, "grievous sins, for which I'll surely suffer the flames of h.e.l.l. But rape is not one of them." His fingers pressed hard into her chin. "Never."
"Truly?" she asked, wanting so badly to believe.
He hesitated, and she began to fear the worst, but then he said, "If you're thinking about... before... with us..."
"I would have lost you. 'Twas the only way I knew to show you... to keep you..."
"I understand," she a.s.sured him, meaning it. "I understood then." Reaching up, she caressed his scratchy cheek. "And I believe you. You're a good man, Luke de Perigueux."
His mouth quirked. "I've been called many things in my life, but never that." He fell back again in the straw, and Faithe lowered her head onto his chest.
They lay together contentedly, listening to the rain and each other's breathing. Faithe lifted Luke's rough cross from its nest of chest hair and brought it close to her face. It was fairly large and carved of dark wood. She hadn't noticed before, but it was actually a crucifix. A crude figure of Christ was sculpted on the surface of the cross. It was primitive work, but there was something endearing about it.
"I should think a man of your n.o.ble birth would wear a golden crucifix," she said, "if he wears one at all."
She felt a gentle plucking at her hair; he must be picking straw out. "I made that."
She turned to look at him. "Did you?"
"Put your head back where it was," he scolded amiably. Pressing her down with firm hands, he continued idly grooming her hair. "I made it at the abbey at Aurillac, when I was a child."
She smiled at the image of a dark young boy taking a knife to a block of wood, his attention fixed on his work to the exclusion of everything around him. He commits himself entirely to everything he does, Alex had said of his brother. Luke's lovemaking had borne out the truth of that. Awed at first by his single-minded intensity, she'd soon found herself swept up in the same fierce pa.s.sion. She's been transported, not just physically, but spiritually. It was as if they'd lost themselves in each other, merging as one into a domain of pure ecstasy.
Rubbing her fingertips over the uneven surface of the crucifix, she said, "And you've worn it ever since?"
There came a pause; she sensed he was smiling. "This may surprise you, but I've got this absurd streak of piety in me that I can't seem to eradicate-a souvenir from my monastic upbringing, I suppose. I actually enjoy Ma.s.s."
"It doesn't surprise me in the least," she said. "I'd already discerned it. And I don't think it's absurd at all." She hesitated before asking, "Did you really mean it when you said... do you really think you're... d.a.m.ned to h.e.l.l?"
He left off extracting straw from her hair and tightened his arms around her. "I'm afraid there's little question of that," he said softly.
"Why? Because of this mysterious sin you can't undo?"
He hesitated. "Partly, yes. Mostly. But then there are all my years of soldiering."
Faithe reclined next to him, looking down; he wouldn't meet her eyes. "Luke, even the priests say 'tis no sin to serve your king in battle."
"Not all soldiers embrace warfare with quite the enthusiasm I did," he said hollowly.
"Nor is it any sin to want to do a thing well."
"Nay. 'Twas more than that." He sat up with his back to her and raked his fingers through his hair, groaning in exasperation when he yanked yet more loose strands from the braid. Faithe murmured something pacifying and set about unwrapping the leather thong that bound his hair and gliding her fingers through the plaits.
He sighed. "I was twelve when I was sent home from the abbey for failure to apply myself to my studies. My father gave me a simple choice. Return to Aurillac and commit myself to my education so that I could take holy orders, or remain at Perigueux and learn the arts of soldiering along with little Alex. I made my choice. Now, I regret it with all my heart. Although" -he glanced over his shoulder at her, his expression softening- "if I'd become a monk or a priest, I never would have married you. So perhaps 'twas worth it."
"How can you say that, when you believe you're d.a.m.ned for having been a soldier?"
Quietly he said, "I will certainly suffer the pains of h.e.l.l one day, but until then, I get to spend the rest of my earthly life with you. That's worth more to me than you'll ever know." His expression sobered, and he turned away again, his elbows resting on his up-drawn knees. "I didn't want to disappoint my sire a second time, so I threw myself into my training. When I was called upon to fight for real, in a private war in Aquitaine, I was like a machine. I sent many men to heaven with my crossbow that day. We vanquished the enemy. My father's overlord had me kneel in the blood-soaked mud, and he knighted me right there in the field. That's when they started calling me the Black Dragon. My father was very proud."
Faithe drew her fingers slowly through his hair. "As well he should have been. You did nothing wrong, Luke."
"I was so young, so... unthinking. I had not a care for my own mortality, much less the state of my soul. And I spared not a moment's remorse for those I killed."
"They would have killed you if they could have," she said.
"That's not the point," he remonstrated gently. "I was so brutally callous. I'd chosen the crossbow because I could kill from a distance. I never had to look in the eyes of the men I slew, so I never thought of them as real. They were... the enemy. Animated suits of mail. And I dispatched them by the score. G.o.d alone knows how many lives I took." He rubbed his forehead.
Faithe rested her face on his back, feeling the strain in him through his shirt. "That's why you feel such torment? Because you didn't care about the men you killed? Does Alex care?"
"Alex has always known they were flesh and blood. He's had no choice. Killing with the sword is very... personal. The first time he killed in battle, he wept afterward. I held him."
"Oh." Faithe slid her arms around Luke's back.
"He eventually came to terms with it-and in a way I never had to. He grew into an acceptance of the killing, knowing full well he was taking another man's life. I never developed that type of wisdom. I just kept on killing, easily and thoughtlessly. Until one day..."
She lifted her face from his back. "Yes?"
"An engagement had just ended. I remember standing in a castle courtyard, surrounded by the bodies of my enemy, many with my own crossbow bolts piercing their armor. The sun was setting. 'Twas one of those fiery sunsets that casts a sort of otherworldly glow on everything it touches."
Faithe closed her eyes, picturing the scene, and nodded.
"It looked so different, so unreal... that for the first time, it actually did seem real to me. Does that make any sense to you?"
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