Slipping from the swing, Holly gazed down at the giant she had felled, her heart thudding wildly in her throat. He sprawled in a puddle of moonlight, bearing more resemblance to some shaggy beast than a man. A fearsome beard shaded his jaw, climbing to mate with a dark froth of unkempt hair. She doubted she could have spanned his tendon-corded throat with both hands--although at the moment she would have liked to try.
She was torn between the desire to rest her foot triumphantly on his surcoat and scream for her father's guards or flee and pretend she had never left the haven of her chamber. She cast the stairs a longing glance.
The knight's utter absence of movement drew her gaze back to him. With his mighty arms flung outward in supplication and his thick, stubby lashes resting flush against his pallid cheeks, he looked as vulnerable as a sleeping babe. Or a sleeping bear, she amended. Clammy fingers of dread stifled her thundering pulse.
Suppose she had killed him?
The wretch deserved no less, she thought, for daring to invade her sanctuary and scaring her half out of her wits. She tried to pull herself away, but found she could not abandon him without assuring herself she had not caused him mortal injury. Dropping gingerly to her knees beside his still form, she forced herself to splay a trembling hand over his surcoat, noting that the coral oval of one of her fingernails had been torn to the quick.
"Nathanael will have my head," she muttered.
Her dismay was tempered with relief as her hand rose and fell in rhythm with the giant's steady breathing. She frowned, suddenly bewildered. The jarring impact of her feet striking his chest had convinced her the knight was wearing chain mail, yet she felt no betraying links beneath the faded linen of his surcoat. Casting a furtive glance over her shoulder as if expecting Brother Nathanael to spring out of the budding heliotropes, she slipped a shy hand inside both surcoat and tunic to discover a chest armored not with the cold artifice of steel, but with an extravagant expanse of warm muscle. Crisp whorls of hair tickled her questing fingertips.
She snatched her hand back, disturbed by the urge to explore further. Jerking up her hood, she prepared to flee, but a heartrending groan stopped her. Trapped in a vise of indecision, Holly wanted to groan, too. So the man wasn't dead. But what if he was dying? Did she dare leave him at the mercy of the cold damp seeping into his bones? Perhaps if she revived him, she could convince herself to flee before he came fully to his senses and decided to pursue whatever sinister purpose had brought him to the garden.
She leaned over him. Her hair brushed his nose, making it twitch. "Sir?" she whispered. "Oh, sir? I pray, sir, can you hear me?"
His lips parted in a gentle snore, as if he would be content to slumber forever, deaf to her pleas. There was no help for it, Holly thought. She was going to have to touch him again.
Amazed that one being could radiate so much heat, she curled her hand around his throat, determined to shake him awake if necessary. His hair teased her knuckles. The unruly locks felt soft and clean, not coarse and tangled as she had expected. She peered curiously at his face, wondering what manner of features such a forbidding growth of hair obscured. Beguiled by the mystery, she drew her thumb along the edge of his beard, exploring the strong curve of the jaw beneath.
Before she could react to the hoarse mutter, a brawny forearm clamped around her waist. One powerful hand seized her nape, dragging her down until she sprawled in ungainly shock across the knight's chest. Holly turned her face away, convinced he was going to snap her fragile neck like a twig.
"Witch," he whispered, this time the word more endearment than accusation.
Quivering with terror, Holly eased her head back around. She expected his eyes to be as dark as the rest of him. Her shock was doubled when she found herself gazing down into orbs of glacial blue lit not by flame, but smoldering frost. It wasn't the absence of threat in those eyes that paralyzed her. It was the pained brew of dread and anticipation simmering in their depths. With unspeakable tenderness, the knight's big hand drifted up from her nape to smooth back her hood, baring her face to the moonlight. Holly resisted the urge to flinch. Not even when being displayed on a dais before a potential suitor and his gawking retinue had she felt so exposed.
At the sight of her face, a shudder rocked the powerful masculine frame beneath her. The unspoken confession of vulnerability robbed her of conscious will. This man wore no mask to shield her from his desire. Holly knew instinctively that in that moment, he was as defenseless as she. He slid his fingers beneath her hair to capture her nape with gentle mastery, drawing her mouth down to his.
Holly had been kissed before--shy pecks on the cheek, fervent kisses pressed to the back of her hand, and once even a moist kiss on the lips from Eugene de Legget that had earned him a resounding slap. But this man did not so much kiss her mouth as partake of it.
With Eugene, she had kept her lips clamped tight, but with this stranger, it seemed only natural that they part beneath the coaxing urgency of his own. The unfamiliar tickle of his mustache and the silken heat of his tongue dipping into her mouth was blunted by the irresistible tenderness with which he seemed to savor their mingled flavors. A small sound, half dismay, half delight, escaped her throat.
As if her involuntary moan had jarred him to his senses, he tangled a fist in her hair and dragged her face away from his. Smarting tears of loss sprang to Holly's eyes. The stranger studied her face anew, his eyes no longer unguarded, but narrowed and sheltered by their thicket of dark lashes. She could not help but recoil as he dropped that exacting gaze to her lips, which felt swollen and scorched by the ruthless moonlight and the faint, minty gusts of his breath. Her tongue darted out to soothe them.
Swearing a guttural oath, he shoved her off of him and staggered to a standing position, drawing the back of his hand across his mouth as if her kiss had poisoned him. Had it not been for the overt shaking of that hand, Holly might have gathered the crumbs of her pride and fled. She was torn by a compulsion to touch him, to gently wrap her fingers around his until their troubled glissando had eased.
She had seen men robbed of speech or driven to babble like idiots in her presence, but she had never seen a man sickened unto death at the mere sight of her. He looked less like he'd caught her feet in his chest than taken a lance to the gut. As she rose from her undignified sprawl, he backed into the shadows beneath the elm until she could see little more than the wary gleam of his eyes. From his tense posture, she half expected him to whip out a crucifix.
"For God's sake, woman, cover yourself," he snapped in lieu of rattling a necklace of garlic cloves at her.
An absurd shame flooded Holly's cheeks with heat. Feeling as if she'd been caught in one of those horrid dreams where she was locked outside the castle walls naked, she barely resisted the urge to shield her breasts with her hands. A furtive flick of her gaze assured her that her modest cloak was intact. She lifted a hand to her hood, then lowered it, defiantly flaunting her face to the moonlight's bold caress and the knight's steely glare.
His voice deepened to a resonant growl. "Heed my warning, lady. Leave me now or suffer the consequences."
A foreigner, Holly realized by his crude accent. One of those savage Welshman who so frequently plagued the western borders of Eugene's lands. She took a tentative step toward him. "Do you seek to do me harm, sir?"
She already suspected his answer. If he wished her ill, why would he have spared her the gravest harm a man could inflict upon a lone woman in a deserted garden? And why would he be warning her from his presence even now?
"What I seek to do has no bearing on what I'm driven to do."
Holly ducked beneath a low-hanging bough, breaching the dappled shadows beneath the elm. "Ah, a man who favors riddles! Perhaps you'd care to answer one for me."
Robbed of further retreat, he folded his imposing arms over his chest, erecting a more impenetrable defense. "Will you leave me if I do?"
His words stung more than Holly would have admitted. She was accustomed to men tumbling over one another in their eagerness to seek her company. His reticence was beginning to insult her.
"If you wish," she said coolly. They were nearly toe-to-toe now, and as she tipped her head back to meet his gaze, her senses quailed at the reminder of how very large a man he was. And how very dangerous it might be to bait him. "Why did you pursue me?" she asked softly. "And once you'd caught me, why did you let me go?"
For several nervous thuds of her heart, he was so still he might have been hewn of stone. Then a crooked smile transformed his face into a derisive mask. "I was to meet my lover here. I mistook you for her. When you fled at my approach, I thought you were she, simply indulging in a game we sometimes play."
Holly found it painfully easy to imagine the outcome of that game, regardless of who its winner might be. It seemed the tender enchantment of his kiss had been only an illusion. In truth, she had done nothing more than interrupt a sordid tryst. She inclined her head, caught unawares by a jarring blow of disappointment.
Holly must have imagined his pained grunt, for when she lifted her head, his face was once again impassive. He unfolded his arms as if he'd come to some irrevocable conclusion. "Do not look so melancholy, my lady. 'Tis early yet. Perhaps we can restore the bloom of cheer to your cheeks before my own lady arrives."
Holly took a step backward. "I think not, sir. I should prefer my bloom to wilt on the vine before I bestow it on a faithless knave such as yourself."
He pushed away from the tree trunk with unmistakable menace. "A faithless knave, am I? What of your own fidelity, that you would bestow your kisses so freely on a stranger?"
His words cut more deeply for their truth. Now it was she who was being stalked. She backed away from his towering form, stumbling over the hem of her cloak. 'Twas little wonder he thought her wanton. She'd done naught to discourage such reasoning. But not even
her mortification could prevent her from striking a parting blow.
"I might yet bestow my kisses on a stranger, but you can be assured, sir, that I will never again bestow them on you."
Wishing desperately that she'd heeded his earlier warning, she spun around to flee only to be wrenched to a painful halt. Believing he'd seized her hair, she closed her eyes, panting with dread of the moment when he would hurl her to the ground and tear at her skirts with his ruthless hands.
"Betrayed by your crowning glory, eh? How fitting." The mocking voice came from a few feet behind her and Holly was abashed to realize the knight had pursued her only in her overwrought imagination.
She dared a glance upward. 'Twas not a mortal hand, but a gnarled finger of the elm that had snagged her. She tugged at the treacherous strand, but only succeeded in weaving it into an intractable snarl around the branch. She hung there, as defenseless as a rabbit in a snare at the knight's swift approach.
As his shadow enveloped her, she nervously licked her lips, then wished she hadn't. They still tasted of the foreign, but not unpleasant, flavor of his kiss--the cool mint of wintergreen wedded with the warm musk of hops. Her mouth went dry as he drew a misericorde from his belt. The tiny but lethal blade was dwarfed by his tense fingers. She whimpered involuntarily.
"Christ, woman, would you stop whining? I've no intention of cutting your bloody throat." He captured the skein of hair in his fist, relieving the painful pressure on her scalp.
As the dagger bit into the captive strand, a fresh moan of dismay escaped her. The knight froze, his breathing audible, and glared at her as if reconsidering his pledge. Her attempt at a sheepish shrug was hampered by her tenuous position. "Forgive me, sir. 'Tis just that a blade has never touched my hair. Not since I was born."
He gave the dark mane that rippled well past her rump an arch glance. "What of a comb? Has a comb never profaned its hallowed state?"
"Why, of course! My nurse combs it five hundred strokes each night before I lay down upon my pillow."
He snorted. "And I had supposed you slept sitting up, so as not to jounce a precious tendril."
Holly might have wrinkled her nose at him had Nathanael not taught her that such childish indulgences could carve permanent pleats in her skin. "If you're quite done making sport of me, sir, I give you leave to proceed."
Instead of clumsily hacking at the mess as she expected such a ruffian to do, he took his time, severing each filament as if it had been spun from gold. His care shook her composure as none of his blustering had done. When he was done, she fingered her scalp, half expecting to find a gaping bald spot. She couldn't resist shooting a covetous glance at the glossy black curl laid like a sacrificial offering across his palm.
He closed his fist around it and shook his head. One big, blunt finger drifted upward to caress the delicate arch of her jaw. "Leave me now, my lady, and I shall consider it a trophy of a battle contemplated, but never fought."
Mesmerized by the frosty glitter of his eyes, Holly hesitated, sensing it was the last warning he would bestow upon her. A peculiar mixture of fear and anticipation quickened her breath as she briefly wondered what fate she might endure at his hands should she fail to heed it. His mask dropped, briefly, tantalizingly, showing her the indisputable truth. He wasn't afraid of her. He was afraid of what he might do to her should she be fool enough to linger.
Tearing her gaze away from his, she raced for the stairs without daring a single backward glance.
Had she done so, she might have seen the knight sink down on the bench in the moonlight, his massive body folding in on itself as if to protect his heart from a blow that had already done mortal damage.
Fairest of Them All