It is true that I acted boldly, brazenly, wantonly…and I confess, I have only myself to blame. I knew what sort of man I was dealing with, knew Gawain Lammergeier was a rogue and a thief. Yet when I schemed to seduce him and reclaim what was rightfully mine, I never imagined I would succumb to the charms of this reckless, golden-haired scoundrel.
Make no mistake, I took what I came for — the sacred relic stolen from my father that can restore the fortunes of my keep. I should have been content then, to return home with my prize. Alas, I let desire rule me. For I have dared to tempt Gawain — to best me, bewitch me and even bed me, in pursuit of my treasure.
—Lady Evangeline of Inverfyre
A Rhapsody Book Club Selection
“Enthralling and compelling!”
2003 Knight in Shining Silver (K.I.S.S.) Award
An excerpt from The Scoundrel:
December 29, 1371
Only a fool rides at night in these times, especially with a burden so precious as mine. The sky was darkening as the shadowed walls of a burg rose beside of the road. It was York, not far enough from Ravensmuir to my thinking, but the darkness gave me pause.
It seemed that Ravensmuir breathed at my very back. Though my brother was dead, I had stolen from him and I half-expected his specter to demand some grisly compense of me. Though I am not a superstitious man, I would have preferred to have all of England and half the continent betwixt Merlyn’s corpse and I. The ominous shadows lurking on either side did little to ease my trepidation.
The rain began while I tried to recall how far it was to another settlement, let alone one I might find hospitable to my tastes. Certainly, I could not reach London in less than several days and my horse needed a respite. Night fell, swallowing what little light there is with that northern haste I find both astonishing and daunting.
The rain began to fall in gusts, a surly kind of weather and one to which this hostile land seems inclined. That made my decision for me. To be dry and cold was far better than being wet and cold. I conjured some tale of being a merchant on the road for the complacent gatekeeper and he waved me onward with indifference.
York is a muddy burg, and the dirt hides whatever charm it might possess. I suppose it is large enough and prosperous enough for those who choose to inhabit it, but one glimpse of its churning river, filled with mire, and its dingy streets, thick with another manner of mire, and I was repulsed.
I chose the tavern simply because I saw it first. It was no meaner and no cleaner than any of the others that were its neighbors.
The demanded price was exorbitant, but both steed and I would be sheltered from the rain that now drove against the shutters. I grit my teeth and paid, then tended my own horse as they seemed disinclined to offer any service in exchange for my coin.
The meat served to the guests was sinewy, the gravy thin, the bread tough enough to break a tooth. That the stew was the same hue as the muck in the streets did little to encourage a man to clean his bowl. It is oft said that hunger is the best sauce. As I was nigh starved, I ate the swill and called for more ale to rinse the taste of it from my mouth.
Ale, I say, for I know no other word to use. They make a brew in these lands that they ambitiously call ale, but which bears no resemblance to any ale of my acquaintance. By the third cup, the taste of the brew improves considerably, and so it did that night. Even the cold, which is enough to freeze a man’s marrow, began to retreat from my flesh.
It could be no coincidence that she appeared at that very moment, just as I might take interest in a comely wench, if only to prove that I still lived.
She ducked through the portal and shook back her hood, scattering raindrops to the floor. Every soul glanced up at the gust of wind and rain she admitted, every complaint was silenced afore it was uttered.
She was a beauty, of that there could be no mistake. The sight of her fairly stopped my heart, and it certainly stopped the chatter in the common room. She shone, like a polished gem, all the glorious for the humble setting.
Her hair was as black as ebony and hung in loose waves over her shoulders. It was long and thick and tempted one’s fingers to tangle within it. Her eyes were a sparkling clear blue, her lashes and brows as dark as soot. Her face was heart-shaped and her fairness gave her the appearance of being carved of alabaster. I had the sense that a fine sculpture drew breath, pinkened slightly, then stepped daintily from her pedestal.
She was finely boned and tiny, but there was a fire in her eyes when she lifted her chin to survey her surroundings. A slight smile curved her ripe lips, the glint in her eyes telling every man there that she would choose her companion.
Ah yes, there could be no doubt of her trade. More than one man in that hole caught his breath hopefully. The keeper frowned and might have made his way toward her, but she spied me and her smile broadened in a most inviting way.
I smiled in my turn, not adverse to a little companionship. She waved her hand, as if we were acquaintances well met, and called something I could not hear.
The keeper stepped back to his place by the ale with a shrug. Most of them men returned to their cups, but I did not care.
There was solely the demoiselle for me. She cast her hair over her shoulder and loosed the neck of her cloak, easing her way through the crowd to my side. The man beside me nudged me and muttered some manner of congratulations beneath his breath, but I had eyes only for her.
Every graceful step she took made my blood heat yet more. Every pace fed my desire – I fairly simmered when she finally halted before me.
I though it Providence at the time that she chose me so readily, or perhaps her ability to assess masculine potential. I was the best dressed of the sorry lot gathered there and certainly the most handsome. No doubt I also had the heaviest purse. In my experience, whores are quick to assess such practicalities.
She tipped her head back to meet my gaze, her secretive smile tempting me to taste her lips. Her eyes twinkled, as if she had just heard a particularly amusing jest.
“Good evening, my lord,” she murmured, her voice low and luscious, then drew her cloak open with a fingertip.
I inhaled sharply at the view she covertly offered me. She wore nothing beneath the garment. I could see her creamy throat and the pale curve of her breasts. Her nipples stood erect against the shadows of the cloak, and at my reaction, she chuckled.
“You rode with such haste that I thought you lost to me forever,” she said, then winked.
I realized that she meant to let others believe that we were acquainted. Her manner was so intriguing that I decided to support her ruse, if only to see what she desired of me.
I had my hopes.
I took her hand in mine, then kissed her knuckles. “It was never my intent, my lady, to lose such a prize as you.”
Her skin was surprisingly soft, considering how difficult her life must be. Perhaps whores fared particularly well in this burg. I met her gaze, noting again how she seemed to be amused, and considered that a good portent.
She smiled, then plucked the cup of ale from my hand, ensuring our fingers brushed leisurely in the transaction.
She stood so close that I could smell her skin, some sweet perfume mingled with her own scent and the smell of the rain.
And I lusted for this bold beauty, as I have seldom lusted for a woman before.
I watched hungrily as she ran the tip of her tongue around the rim of the cup, then paused where I had placed my mouth. Her gaze darkened as she licked there, and the thought that she savored the taste of me made me adjust my stance. It was cursedly warm in this place, to my thinking, and there were too many curious souls in proximity.
Mischief danced in her eyes as she raised her voice. “I feared that you tired of my company, my lord,” she said, her words carrying to the attentive men surrounding us.
She eased closer, her hand landing companionably upon my upper arm. “I feared to slumber in a cold bed this night.”
I smiled and slipped my arm around her waist. “I can ensure that you do not.” She was finely wrought, small and light, and I knew that I could easily lift her against me.
But I had no need to do so. The bold wench stretched up and brushed her lips across mine, her touch so achingly sweet that I closed my eyes.
Her next words I felt as well as heard, her breath falling against my lips. “I miss you too greatly when we are apart, my lord.”
I should have guessed what she intended to do, but I was beguiled.
She pressed the cup back into my hand, locked her hand behind my neck and, stretching to her toes, kissed me boldly upon the lips. She tasted of ale and her own sweet nectar. Her breasts pressed against me, the knowledge that she was nude beneath her cloak enflaming me. I caught her more tightly around the waist, drawing her closer and drinking deeply of her kiss.
She purred, a gorgeous deep purr that had my tongue easing between her teeth. Her fingers twined in my hair, her tongue danced with mine, the scent of her deluged me. I was lost, oblivious to the hoots of the other men, and might have taken her there if she had not pulled away.
She was flushed and disheveled, her eyes sparkling so that I yearned only to finish what we had begun. I took a deep breath, wondering when I had ever come so close to losing command of myself.
Her fingertip traced a seductive path around my ear and down my throat. I swallowed, tried to slow my racing heart, and smiled with all the gallantry I could summon.
There was rather less of it than might have been hoped.
“My lady, I meant no offense by my haste.”
She chuckled, clearly unoffended.
I ran my fingertips down her cheek in a caress I could not have forgone. She turned her face into my palm, pressing a hot kiss against my flesh even as she closed her eyes.
My next words were uncommonly thick. “Perhaps you will allow me to compensate you for your disappointment on this night.”
I smiled. “With pleasure, of course.”
“I shall be difficult to persuade,” she teased, fluttering her eyelashes playfully. Her eyes danced with merriment and fetching color touched her cheeks. The men hooted and elbowed each other as they watched us, doing so more overtly with every passing moment.
“It is fortunate that I feel most persuasive this night.” I pulled her close and bent her backwards as I claimed her lips. I kissed her, so possessively and thoroughly that she made a little growl of satisfaction. I felt her grip in my hair tighten to a fist, felt the wild flutter of her pulse against my fingertips, and knew she was as aroused as I.
Her passion made the kiss sweeter than sweet, the sordidness of our surroundings irrelevant.
When we parted, breathless, her eyes were dancing. “I suppose it would only be polite to permit you the opportunity,” she whispered wickedly.
I gave her no chance to reconsider. I swung her into my arms and made for my humble room, knowing there would be little sleep for either of us this night.
I did not care. I was not so distracted that I forgot to sling saddlebag over my shoulder, but its contents were hardly at the fore of my thoughts.
The demoiselle ensured as much, for she kissed me with fervor even before we left the common room. She had my chausses loose and her legs locked around my waist by the time I reached the summit of the stairs.
I lunged across the threshold of my chamber, distracted as I seldom am. I placed her upon the pallet, then locked the door and stowed the bag. I turned to find her nude upon my shabby pallet, her dark cloak pooled beneath her creamy curves. Her welcoming smile was all she wore and all the enticement any man could need.
When she reached for me, I could do nothing but to surrender to the magic she wrought.
I am only human, no matter what is said of me, after all.
©2004, 2011 Claire Delacroix, Inc.