She must have been waiting for him, as the door swung open at his knock. She greeted him with a bright smile and a teasing, “My Lord.” He regarded her sternly.
“Aye, and what was that today?” he asked, shutting the door behind him. “You know I’ve never coveted a title.”
“That’s exactly why you needed one,” she replied, turning to pour some wine from a small decanter.
“Oh? Because of the lack of it?” His voice dripped with sarcasm. “I suppose that if I were to confide in you that I also don’t possess tears cried by the moon, or the jeweled heart of the sea, you’d endeavor to equip me with those as well?” Far from having the desired effect, however, his comment brought an amused smile to her lips.
“Of course not.” She took a deep breath. “When I was a girl, I used to play in the palace courtyards with the other children of the castle. William most of all, as he was closest to me in years. It was rough play, tumbling and chases and sometimes whacking at each other with sticks. That is, unless my mother was supervising us. Then, more often than not, he’d remember his manners and play games that was automatically doomed to lose. Mother never said anything to him to make him behave more courteously, and I don’t believe that anyone else did either. It was simply the fact that he- and the other children as well, knew that someone was aware of how they were behaving. I’ve found it much the same with the nobility.” She glanced at him shrewdly. “ Although they knew you to have some presence in my court, how often have they listened to you? How often did they take heed of your advice?”
“Somewhat infrequently.” He was forced to admit. “Am I much mistaken, or did you in fact just compare the nobility of your land to children?”
She smiled. “I should say so. The way they squabble and antagonize each other, covet what each other possesses and tattle on one another, there are some days when it seems this palace is inhabited by a hoard of persnickety toddlers.”
“Have I mentioned yet my gratitude for being formally included among this collection of esteemed individuals?” he asked dryly. This prompted a hearty laugh from her.
“The title itself is little more than a measure so that they know you act on my authority and with my support. Think of it as a signal to them that someone- namely I- am watching, and that they should at least be courteous in their games. Apart from that, you may do with your title what you will.”
He considered this for a moment. “I suppose it will do,” he conceded. She held one of the wine goblets out to him.
“A toast to your new status then,” she proposed.
“To squabbling children.” He agreed with mock solemnity as his raised his own glass, and was gratified to see her smile widen further. She tapped their glasses together with a musical clink, and lifted her own glass to her lips.
Try as he might, he could not help but be mesmerized by the, slender column of her throat, tilted back as she drank, and the way that the motion highlighted the smooth expanse of skin below it, displayed to remarkable effect by the low cut of her green and gold brocade dress. The cloth was beautiful, and served to bring out the green of her eyes, yet he would be lying if he were to claim that it were her eyes he was currently focused on. He was powerless to do aught but appreciate her flawless ivory skin and the sensuous sell of her bosom as it rose enticingly over the confines of the dress’s square-cut neckline.
How exquisite it would be to touch her freely, to skim his fingers across that perfect skin, to feel the silkiness of it against his lips. What reaction would she have if he dared to press a trail of kisses up her throat and let his breath ghost along the contours of her spine? Would she shiver, or gasp, or swoon? Belatedly, he reigned in his fantasies. His vow to love her chastely was certainly off to an inspired start. He gulped at his wine, praying that the raised glass would obscure his face enough that she did not observe the lust in his eyes.
The wine was sweet- far sweeter than he was accustomed to. It was a summer wine, the kind of wine a child would favor. Of course it was, he berated himself. Her captors would not have served her wines during her imprisonment. She would not have had time to develop a more discerning palate. She was so fierce, and brave, and wise beyond her years that it was too easy to forget that in this way- and in so many others, she had never had the chance to be anything more than a child. His shame at the way he had looked at her only seconds before deepened.
What she needed from him was protection, not lechery. He schooled his features into a placid expression and set the empty glass upon the table. Her brow furrowed for a fleeting second, but then the look of concern was gone and she turned her back to him, sweeping her hair over one shoulder.
It had become their unspoken ritual. He moved to her, his fingers deftly releasing the laces that held the panels of her dress together. He had gotten far more adept at this than the night she had first asked it of him several weeks ago.
“You know,” he said conversationally as he attacked the ties, “there is another aspect of your decree today to consider.”
“And what is that?” She asked.
“Well, you’ve tasked me with the creation of your personal guard, a group of men willing to give their lives for yours and charged with guarding you every minute.”
“I have. I believe that you are more than capable of the task. At least, you are far better suited that most others I could assign to do it.”
“I’m sure I’m honored,” he said blandly.
She glanced back over her shoulder with a smirk.
“There!” she exclaimed. “And you thought you had no gift for the elegant words and empty sentiments of life at court. You sound practically an expert already.” He narrowed his eyes at her, but she only grinned.
“Be that as it may,” he continued, “I wonder if it has occurred to you that the man you’ve assigned to organize, train, and oversee this guard is the very same man whom you would have defy them by sneaking in to your personal chambers each night. It’s perhaps a conflict of interest, isn’t it?”
She considered this a moment.
“Well, at least you need not worry that they’ll report you to their commanding officer,” she said lightly, “being as how that would be first you, and then I suppose me, and we are already both aware of the situation.”
“That wasn’t exactly my point.”
“I know.” She stepped out of the gown, gathered it in her arms, and carried it with her into the smaller room that served as her dressing chamber. Though she disappeared from view, she left the door open so they could still converse. He hesitated, then forged ahead. It wasn’t something he was eager to pursue, yet his purpose here was to look out for her, not his own self-interest. He began unfastening the hooks that held his vest closed as he spoke, choosing his words carefully.
“Have you considered what would happen if our…evenings together were discovered? How your other lords and advisors might react?” He shrugged the vest off and laid it across the back of a nearby chair. She emerged from the dressing chamber with her hairbrush in hand and her eyes flashing.
“And what business is it of theirs?” She demanded.
“In my experience, people have a peculiar way of determining what is, and what is not their business that rarely corresponds to what we would have them believe. It seems to be no one’s business if the village baker beats his wife, yet everyone’s business if she is rumored to be having a tryst with the candle-maker.”
Her anger seemed to deflate a bit.
“Even so,” she said, “Why should they care? There is nothing untoward between us. You have made sure of that.”
He thought of the times he had felt her lips pressed against his own, three times in total, of the way he had become so accustomed to helping her to strip her from her dress, the nights he had spent in the same bed with her and awoken uncomfortably aroused, and of the intensely inappropriate thoughts that he had just chased from his mind. He did not think is so much of a stretch to untoward. Still, he was not about to argue the point with her.
On a whim, he held out his hand, gesturing for the hairbrush. She relinquished it without question and moved to perch on the bed. He sat behind her and gently, tentatively, began to draw the brush through her hair. Part of him felt eminently foolish- a man of such brawn and physical ability as himself sitting with a delicately filigreed silver hairbrush clasped in his large fist, voluntarily acting the part of a lady’s maid. And yet, anyone who thought that would be the fool themselves, because they did not feel the silky slide of her raven tresses under their fingers, or hear the nearly-inaudible hum of pleasure that she made as he devoted himself to the task. He committed the sensations to memory, another tiny piece of her that he had not had before. Still, he did not intend to let it distract him from the topic at hand. He drew an audible breath.
“I’m not certain that everyone would agree, Milady,” He said carefully. “For some, the mere hint of impropriety would be enough to cast your…purity into question.”
“And then what?” she asked tiredly, “Would they then turn against me, the lords and ladies and my subjects, because they have decided that my reign is dependent upon the purity of my body, rather than that of my blood or my heart?”
“I doubt they would abandon you as readily as that. But it could make your life and your reign increasingly difficult. You should know what risks it is you take.” He sighed, set the hairbrush aside, and moved to rise. “Perhaps I should go.”
She said nothing, though he could feel the weight of her gaze upon him. He kenned the meaning of her silence. She did not want him to leave, but neither would she command him to stay. This decision would be all his own.
He had retrieved his abandoned vest and had nearly reached the door when he heard her speak. She spoke quietly, yet her words seemed loud in the quiet sanctuary of the room.
“Do you think me pure, Huntsman?”
There was something odd about the way she said it that had him pausing and turning back to her. She knelt in the bed, the white linen of her nightdress hiked to her knees. There was something unusual in her eyes, something he did not like seeing there- as much angry and defiant as it was fragile and frightened.
“Is that why you hold yourself back from me?” she challenged. “Because you think I know nothing of the carnal appetite of men?”
He was at a loss for a reply. The ground here had suddenly become as murky as a swamp, and he was uncertain where it was safe to step.
“Do you think,” she continued, “that being locked behind bars in a tower room offered some sort of protection for me, along with my captivity?” Though her voice never wavered, her eyes shone with the glint of unshed tears. He felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“What is you meaning?” he asked with a steadiness he did not feel. He moved toward her slowly, quietly, so as not to startle her, much the way he might approach a startled deer. She directed her attention to her own hands.
“He used to watch me. At night, while I slept. Or at least, while I pretended to sleep.”
“Who?” he bit out, feeling a rage begin to bubble up inside him.
“Finn. The Queen’s brother. The one who took your wife.”
His rage reached a boiling point. If the man were not already dead, he would kill him again this very second.
“When I was younger, I think it was just that he enjoyed watching me because my captivity was a testament to their triumph. She hardly ever came though- it was always him. And then, as I got older, it… changed. He wasn’t just there to gloat anymore. He wanted something else. He would stand outside the door for what seemed like hours, peering through the bars. And then I would hear noises. The rustling of cloth, and heavy breathing, and other muffled sounds that I did not understand. It puzzled me at first, and frightened me.”
Eric’s throat choked with revulsion for the perversion of the dead man. He didn’t interrupt her tale, however. He could see that this was like a demon that had been trapped inside her, and needed to be set free.
“There was a girl there one time it happened, in the other cell. She helped me to understand what it was he was doing. What he wanted from me. At least then I wasn’t puzzled. After awhile, I wasn’t really even afraid anymore, either. He always stayed outside the door. Watching. He never tried to come inside.” She glanced up, seemingly gauging his reaction, and he had to will himself to unclench his fists. Her next words had them clenching again, however, in anguish not only for her, but for himself as well.
“Then something changed. He came, but during the day. And he brought the key to my door with him.” She had begun picking nervously at the hem of the nightdress. He wanted to reach down and touch her, comfort her, but he was afraid what doing so might prompt in her. So he stood helplessly and did nothing while she forged ahead with her tale.
“I had a nail. An iron nail that I had found and pulled from the wall only moments before. I lay in my bed, hiding it from view. I guessed that if I was in the bed, he would come close to me, and I was right. He came closer, and I waited. I needed him to be close. I had to wait. I had to let him touch me.” Her lips curled in disgust. “I lay there, and let him put his hands on my body, in places where I had never been touched before or since. I waited until he put his hand here.” at this she brought her own hand to her breast to illustrate. “And that’s when I lashed out at him. While he roared with pain, I made my escape, locking him in the call behind me.” When she looked at him again, her eyes were dull. “The rest you know.”
“I am so sorry.” He whispered. “What you knew… it is far from the way that such things are meant to be.”
“I know that,” she said. “Celeste told me. That was the girl’s name. Celeste. She promised me that not all men were like Finn- that in fact most were good, and kind, at least in their own way. She said to me that one day I would find a man who was completely unlike Finn, and that when I did, I would want him in a way I could not then imagine. She told me that there is nothing that burns more sweetly than the desire of love. I confess that I found it hard to believe her. It seemed impossible that I would ever leave the tower, and that I would find a man whose touch I yearned for, who could make me go breathless and weak at the knees, or whom I would dream of kissing. I never thought to trust a man so deeply that I would offer him my heart. And then I met you, and everything Celeste promised years ago suddenly seems possible.” She looked up at him sadly. “Does it change the way you think of me, Huntsman? To know that the purity and innocence you think you are protecting are already tarnished?”
“No. Never.” He vowed vehemently. “I have seen you calm trolls, charm beasts, and inspire men. I have watched the white stag bow before you. I know that your purity is of the heart, and of the soul. I could never doubt it.” He knelt on the bed beside her, sliding one arm tenderly around her shoulders. “I will defend it with every fiber of my being.” She sagged against him wearily as he finished speaking.
“Then let us sleep,” she said. “You will stay the night?”
“I will stay the night,” he agreed, his earlier thought to leave all but forgotten. She needed him here.
“Good.” She pressed against his chest with the palm of her hand. He laid back obligingly, and expected her to do the same. Instead, she lifted his arm, tucked herself underneath it, and lay her head on his chest like a pillow. He stayed awake long after her shallow breathing told him that she slept, staring and the ceiling and wondering how he could possibly protect her from the things that had already happened.