Royal herald, Sir Talon Quereste could never love an overly adventurous, impulsive, argumentative woman of dubious background who threatens everything he values. Lady Larkin Roshan can only despise a man who would deny her identity and steal her heritage. So why has fate thrown them together to solve the mysteries of the heart?
The sound of metal on stone clanked behind her. She whirled and threw the hammer at the tall, broad man advancing from the doorway. Whoever it was dodged the hammer, leaving her an opening to the hallway.
Lifting her robe, she leapt forward, tumbling the lamp to the floor as she sped past him and flew down the corridor.
He pursued, shouting his denial.
She ran faster. She would escape him.
A jerk on her robe made her stumble. The cloth tore, and she was able to recover her balance. The stairs were in sight. She could lose him in the gloom at the bottom. She lengthened her stride.
A tremendous blow knocked the breath from her lungs and the chisel from her grasp, then brought her to her knees. The weight behind the blow laid her flat. Her brain rattled on impact with the floor, and pain burst in her left cheek.
Her hood fell over her head. Despite the ache in her pate, she struggled to rise, to breathe, but the weight on her back pressed her down. She kicked without effect at the solid limbs that surrounded her legs. Her hands scrabbled. If only she could find purchase in the exposed skin of the face that she knew rose just above her head.
Luck was with her. One hand filled with a hank of hair. The nails of her other hand sank into his neck. She would not succumb to her mother’s fate. She would slit his throat by hand, if she must.
“Arrgh!” Iron fingers closed around each of her wrists. A satisfying clump of golden locks flashed by in one of her hands as he jerked them away from his face. The relentless pressure on her back increased, forcing her to exhale what little air she had left.
Then her back was free of the weight, but more of it settled on her rump at the point where her bottom met her thighs. She sucked in huge gasps of air. Despite the grip on her arms, she twisted wildly, trying to dislodge her attacker and break the hold.
“Stop,” a vaguely familiar voice ground out as tight and hard as his grasp. “Or you’ll get more than the beating you deserve.”
She ignored him, pitching herself from side to side and bucking as much as she could.
The pressure on her arms increased. She shivered as his warm breath flowed over her ear.
“Sweet Jesu, will you cease before you do us both an injury?”
Larkin stilled, panting, but could not cease the trembling that seized her body. That voice belonged to the man she’d left cursing in the fog.
“Much better,” he huffed and eased back.
He hadn’t hurt her and was trying not to. Why?
Holding her wrists in one hand, she felt him fumble at her waist and remove the rope that cinched her robe tight. Nay! He would not rape her. Before she could renew her fight, he bound her wrists. When hard hands bit into her upper arms, she writhed in protest. He stood, lifted her upright, and turned her to face him. Her feet dangled above the floor.
From beneath the shadow of her hood, she stared into the same dark eyes she’d seen in the fog outside. Were they purple? ‘Twas too dark to tell much save they were nearly black. Bloody furrows decorated his neck. Scraped skin showed on his nose and chin, and his mouth twisted in a frown. She made a silent prayer for release.
The prayer found answer in a rapid shaking.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
Larkin closed her eyes against the disorienting motion and felt her hood fall back.
Of a sudden the shaking ceased.
“St. Swithun’s toes, you’re the woman from the fog.”
She opened her eyes and sent him a piercing glare.
Unaffected, the man turned her around, set her on her feet before him, and pushed her into the solar and down onto a footstool. He pulled up the only chair and sat in front of her. Her gaze traveled from his square chin and firm-lipped mouth, past his broad shoulders, lingered briefly on his lightly furred chest, and then dipped lower. That was the moment when she realized he was naked-completely, hugely naked. She felt her eyes grow round. Her gaze sprang back to his face. Her cheeks burned, though she doubted he could see it in the dimness.
“Like what you see?” He grinned, showing strong white teeth. Without waiting for her reply, he rose and went to the bed where he donned hose and chausses, then returned to sit with his well-muscled chest entirely too close to her nose. “Now who are you? What are you doing here? Where is the earl?”
She remained mute under the hail of questions. Why couldn’t she have run faster?
“Well.” He leaned forward, crowding her. “I’m not a patient man, but I can be merciful, if you tell the truth.”
Larkin held herself still. Would he believe the truth?
He leaned forward once more and spoke quietly in her ear. “You were about to explain who you are and what you know about the earl’s disappearance.”
“I know nothing about the earl.” She answered in the same clear, crisp Norman tongue of the nobility that he used so he could not mistake her meaning.
“‘Tis possible,” he acknowledged, “but not likely. I shall count that as one falsehood against you. Do not tell me another. Who are you?”
He would not believe her, so why not say true? “I am Lady Larkin Rosham.”
He heaved a great sigh.
Mint wafted her way on breath that was surprisingly sweet for such a monster. She shivered.
“Not many peasants can manage such clear Norman. ‘Tis obvious you have been well schooled. I told you not to try another lie.”
“I don’t lie.” Although she did not bother to correct his assumption that she was a peasant. ‘Twould be a waste of breath.
“Do you not? All England knows that Scots raiders murdered Baron Rosham and his family years ago. Since you cannot tell the truth, I have no choice but to keep you with me.” He grasped her chin between his thumb and forefinger.
“‘Tis a shame. I would have liked more cooperation this night.”
He would rape her after all. And she could do nothing to prevent it. She would end like her mother. But before she died, she would find a way to kill him.