|An Excerpt From
THE MAIDEN AND HER KNIGHT
She jumped and whirled around as the unexpected sound of a deep mail voice invaded her peaceful solitude. "Who is it?"
A man stood in the shadows near the garden gate, as if he were a part of them. Her anxious gaze darted to the surrounding battlements, seeking the sentries who should be patrolling there. "I warn you, I have but to scream --"
"There is no need to cry out, my lady. Now wishing to cause you any harm, me."
His gentle, deep voice seemed a part of the night, and the peace she had found for a few brief moments. He did not sound like a Norman. There was an accent to his words that she thought sounded Welsh. "Then come into the moonlight and show yourself."
The handsome stranger from the hall sauntered out of the shadows. The man who knew her heart.
No, that was impossible. He could know nothing about her except her name and station. "What do you want?"
"To thank you for a fine meal and your generous hospitality." He strolled closer, and his movements had that special grace men skilled at arms sometimes possessed, a lithe suppleness of the limbs despite their obvious strength.
Up close in the moonlight, he was darkly handsome, with his hair black as a crow's wing waving about his angular face, his eyes pools of mysterious shadow, and his exquisitely shaped lips compelling even in stillness. "You might have done that in the hall, or waited until tomorrow."
"The hall was too crowded, and I think you have many cares when you are there." He smiled that secretive little smile of his and warmth spread along her limbs, a warmth unfamiliar, strange - and yet strangely welcome, too. "Besides, tomorrow, I may be the worse for battle."
An alarm sounded in her mind, and in her heart. She must not be alone with him - or any man except her father. "So now you have thanked me and now you may go."
"I fear I must prevail upon you a little longer, for I confess I am trying to avoid someone."
It was ridiculous to feel envious. "What woman? As chatelaine of Montclair, I should know if a woman is annoying a guest."
"Her name is Merva."
Of course. Who else could it be? She should have thought of Merva at once. She was clearly more tired than she supposed.
"I would not call her attention annoying - simply something I would rather avoid and she seems the persistent sort," he said with a wry self-mockery in his tone that was very different from the way every other man addressed her. He spoke to her like a companion, not a person seeking to impress or command. "A wise man learns when to stand and when to leave the field, and this time, I thought it better to flee."
Alone in the moonlight in her mother's garden with this smiling stranger, all her duties and responsibilities and worries suddenly seemed far away, and a light-hearted euphoria stole over her. "Merva is not often disappointed. I'm sure she would be heartbroken to discover you are hiding from her."
His low laugh sent delicious trills of delight along her spine. "Her disappointment would be short-lived, I think."
"Probably. We have many guests."
"Not fussy, is she?"
She frowned. Perhaps she should leave the merry banter to Merva, after all. "I am sorry to wound your feelings."
"Oh, you haven't. It's a relief."
His smile and his tone told her he was not offended and she smiled. "You usually have to hide from women? You are that constantly pursued?"
He laughed again, a low, delightful chuckle this time that seemed to well up from his broad chest, pleasant and joyful - yet utterly virile. "Not constantly. As I told your maidservant, I am saving myself."
"For any particular woman?"
"No, for the tournament. Mustn't be too fatigued."
The moonlight, the garden, their solitude, his laughter...all combined to embolden her. Why not be like Merva, just this once? "I wondered if you believed you are like Samson and that if you cut your hair, you would lose your strength."
He grinned, slowly and speculatively and oh, so very attractively. "If I thought it would help, I'd grow it to my ankles. But I assure you, my lady," he continued, lowering his voice to one of confidential intimacy, "my strength is not in my hair."