Dirick de Arlande is in the stables just before dawn. He’s saddling up his horse, preparing to leave when the daughter of his host comes upon him….
Dirick’s smile felt forced. “I must leave. It is that I have no desire to do so is the reason I spoke thus.”
Maris looked up at him as if trying to determine whether he was merely being gallant or whether the words actually were truth. “I could not believe you would leave without a word of farewell.”
“I bid your father good-bye,” he told her, releasing her shoulders. They stood much too close. The smell of lemon and rosemary from her hair caught at his nostrils, mingling with the feminine scent of her. Dirick closed his eyes for a moment and forced himself to take a step backward. He turned into the stall to gather Nick’s bridle. “But I must leave now, my lady. I have used your father’s hospitality much too long.”
Maris worked the candle into a cup appended to the wall of the stable and stepped toward him, unwittingly blocking him into the stall. She offered him a leather‑wrapped packet. “I’ve brought you cheese and bread, and there is a bit of salted venison here. I did not know how long your journey would be.”
He took the packet, warmed by her thoughtfulness and tempted by her presence. “Thank you my lady. I was not able to break my fast and this will be a good meal for the road.”
“Where are you going?”
“I am a traveling knight, my lady, and I go where I can find work. I do not know where my next place of rest will be.”
Maris frowned, a charming line crinkling around her nose. “Then why do you leave? Papa has work for you. I’m certain he would hire you for as long as you wished.”
A flare of irritation twisted inside him. Verily, she saw him only as a charity case. A man who could not make his own way.
Despite the fact he’d led her to believe just that, it couldn’t help but rankle that she saw him in such a lowly light. “Nay.” He turned his back to her, taking his time to loop up the reins and bit, hoping she would leave before he mortified himself again.
Or before he gave in to the base temptation she presented.
“Sir Dirick, I vow, you make little sense of anything. You need work, and there is work to be had, but you must leave nevertheless. I vow, ’twill be simpler to have you gone.”
“Aye,” he said as he turned, his hands brimming with the leather bridle, “I am sure you will not miss my company now that your betrothed has arrived.” As soon as he spoke those bitter words, Dirick wished he could cut out his tongue. Foolish.
“He is not my betrothed,” she said, the spirit draining from her voice.
“He will be anon, and well you know it. When that happens, I am quite sure Victor d’Arcy will be pleased to trail you on your treks through the wood, digging in the snow for berries and watching as you nurse the ill.” He knew he should stop speaking, but the words continued to flow. “I saw you come in here with him last night. Your father and I were watching from above. Mayhap you didn’t realize you were seen?”
Maris’s expression altered, but he couldn’t read her thoughts. “Aye. He wished to meet Hickory.”
Dirick quirked one eyebrow and managed to look sardonic even as a barrage of unwanted images assaulted him. He well knew how comfortable the warmth of a stable could be when one’s arms were filled with the warmth of a woman. Hay might be a bit prickly against bare skin, but it was springy and warm. “And was there nothing more he wanted? Mayhap he wished to taste the ruby lips of the woman he is to wive.”
“Mayhap he did,” she replied, lifting her chin smartly.
“Foolish girl. What if he had wanted more than a taste? Did you not think to have a chaperon with you? ’Tis not meet for a lady to have assignations alone with a man in the stable of all places, particularly if she is not yet betrothed to him.”
Maris’s eyes snapped. “But here I stand with you, then. Alone in a stable, with no chaperone…and my virtue has never been safer.”
His resolve at an end, he dropped the bridle, reaching for her more roughly this time. “I would not say that your virtue is safe with me, my dear lady,” he said, pulling her flush against him. “In fact, Maris, I should say that you are treading upon very thin ice.”
He looked down at her and saw no fear in her eyes, only surprise, and he felt the warmth of her breath touch his face. His hands on her shoulders, he eased her backward until she felt the wall behind her and he imprisoned her there, holding her with his muscled legs.
Maris’s eyes sank closed as his tanned hands smoothed up the sides of her neck to cup the line of that stubborn chin. His thumb traced over her lips and her heart pounded madly beneath his fingers, pulsing in her long neck so that he could feel her unrest. Lifting her hair from the nape of her neck, he carefully pulled the long sweet-smelling tresses from the confines of her cloak. It was warm and silky and it twined like vines around his wrists and about her arms.
Dirick let his breath out slowly as his hands ran through her hair. She was not afraid, he noted, although if she had any sense, she would be.
When his hands stilled on her shoulders, and he eased back on the pressure from his thighs, she opened her eyes to look up at him. “Maris,” he said softly as their gazes met. He would never see her again, and she was not yet betrothed. It was a moment of madness, but not a sin. “I cannot leave without kissing you once more.”
He did not wait for a response, pressed her into the wall, his mouth descending to hers.