She was simply magnificent.
The Lady Aethelflaed, Queen of Mercia in all but name, took advantage of Finan’s momentary lapse in concentration to slash savagely at his face.
He danced back just before her blade could slice open his cheek. “Good one, my Lady,” he affirmed. Her skill had progressed beyond practice swords, and now he wanted her to grow used to the weight of a real weapon.
“You’re letting me win,” she accused, eyes narrowed in a mischievous pout that made Finan feel a little weak in the knees.
“Not at all,” he tossed back quickly, stepping into her guard and hammering on her swift defense just to make the point. Clang, clang, clang. “You’re just beginning to see the openings, is all.”
Aethelflaed bared her teeth, staring up into his face as he pressed the advantage of his height over their crossed swords.
“Now, do you remember what I taught you ‘bout this situation here?”
Her eyes flitted to the grind of his blade down her own, the proximity of his pommel as he pressed down on her. She bit her lip as she pondered her next move.
It took all of Finan’s willpower not to bend his neck and kiss her right there.
Aethelflaed’s eyes lit up as she remembered. “Yield, with intent.” She took a half step back and twisted under his elbow, the one he had left purposely too high because any man that faced this vision of a woman would be sloppy and bullish, not expecting a trained swordfighter. She used his strength against him, vanishing from under the fall of his arm and twirling along his side.
She feigned a cut up high, to the chink that would be found in just about any type of armor underneath the armpit. “Good lass.”
“Lady,” Aethelflaed corrected, staring down her pointed blade at him as he dropped that arm and pretended a wound.
“Lady,” he repeated, dazzled again at the stormy eyes that lately were always a half a breath away from drowning him. Finan wasn’t sure he could go on like this much longer.
She smiled like she could see the secret of his heart, and that alone shocked him into clambering to his feet and getting on with the match. “So now I’ve got one arm that’s just about useless.” He switched his sword to his left and clutched his right to his side like it hurt him terribly. “But I’m still comin’. Where’s your opening now?”
He raised his left arm high, threatening her with a brutish overhand swing. Aethelflaed stepped back, still assessing, so Finan marched forward with a few more awkward strikes.
The berry-red plump of her bottom lip was caught between her teeth again as she looked for her opening. “If you bite your lip one more time, I’m going to do it for you,” Finan growled before he could stop himself.
Aethelflaed’s eyes flew open wide, but she did not look exactly offended.
Finan was a bold man. Trying to take the comment back would only make this more awkward. He stepped in instead, redoubling his attack. “Hesitate too long, my Lady, and you lose the advantage of getting me off-balance.”
Their blades sang against each other as Aethelflaed met his strikes. She felt the weakness on his left side, just as he hoped she would. She angled her pressure suddenly, just the right way to break his grip on the sword and send it flying from his hand.
The smile that graced her perfect lips as she watched his weapon flip to the ground was just a bit too cocky for Finan to let pass, however. He wrapped his right arm around her waist and hooked her leg, spinning her deftly to the ground before coming down on top of her. In her surprise, he easily broke her own sword out of her hand. “And overconfidence can be just as deadly as hesitation,” he added, his voice a low murmur with his face mere inches from hers.
There was that pout again. Finan wasn’t sure he was going to be able to control himself much longer. He ought to find an excuse to end the lesson right here. “Your right arm started working again quite suddenly,” she complained.
“Ah,” Finan tipped his head in teasing reprimand, “one must always be ready for deception in any battle.” He pressed the weight of his body into hers, telling himself it was only to prove the point of his victory. “Soon we’ll have to start teaching you a bit o’ how to grapple,” he continued. “The fight can’t be over once someone gets you to the ground.”
“I think I know what to do,” Aethelflaed rejoindered, some mysterious little smirk tugging at her mouth.
“Do ye now?” Finan replied, the spike in his heart rate triggering his accent to thicken. He had not yet started to teach her anything for ground fighting. He was too afraid of how he would react to a pose just like this one.
Aethelflaed nodded solemnly. “The key to it just is as you are always saying, Finan.” God, his name was like music on her lips. “Get them off-balance.”
She pressed her face up and kissed him squarely, right on the mouth.
Stars exploded behind Finan’s eyes. He had no earthly power to resist as she pushed harder, rolling him right over onto his back. Her weight landed hard on his belly but he couldn’t even flinch; he only hoped his breath wasn’t too ripe when it rushed out of him at the impact, right into her face.
Aethelflaed’s thighs were the sweetest prison as they wrapped over his ribs, pinning him down. Finan praised the Lord that she wasn’t straddling him any lower, for there would be no hiding what she’d rub up against there.
She leaned forward as she gazed down at his startled face. Tied only at the nape of her neck, Aethelflaed’s hair spilled over one shoulder and almost brushed Finan’s cheek. Sweet Jesus, he was just about a goner.
“Well,” the Lady Aethelflaed said, staring down at him with lidded eyes.
“Well,” Finan responded lamely, no idea what she wanted him to say or do now. She wiggled softly against him, and he realized that when she had flipped him he had just about encircled her ribs with his hands. They were still gripping her there now.
Pure mischief danced in Aethelflaed’s eyes, and behind that Finan finally glimpsed her longing, equal to his own. She took a deep breath in, and very deliberately pressed her teeth into her lip for a third time.
Aethelflaed’s heart was in her throat when she pressed her teeth into her bottom lip, deliberately baiting the man beneath her. Finan’s slip of the tongue, his bald threat that spoke of the desire that had simmered behind his eyes for weeks now, had pushed Aethelflaed to finally make the decision she had been pondering for just about as long.
She was rewarded by the flex of his hands encircling her waist, the crunch of muscled flanks between her thighs as her swordcraft instructor reared up to reach her offending mouth.
As wild as Finan’s movement had started, he stopped short just before touching her face. Instead, his fingers merely ghosted along her cheek as he looked carefully into her eyes. “Are ye sure you know what you’re provoking, Lady?”
His self-control only increased her passion. “I certainly hope so.” She moved closer, pressing her face into his palm.
Finan’s eyes blazed, but his lips only traced her brow. “You are a married woman.” Even as he said it, his fingers clutched at her waist, pulling her body closer to his own.
“Yes,” Aethelflaed said, voice filled with resolve. “And though my husband hates the very sight of me, I would not abandon Mercia to make it otherwise.” Finan dropped back, but Aethelflaed caught his eye. “And so I simply must take a lover. A secret one, of course. No other option remains for a woman in my position.”
She watched his face fill with glee as the Irishman realized what she was offering. She had already observed that the man was a perpetual bachelor, with no seeming interest in settling down with a wife. Perhaps she had finally found a man that she need not feel guilty about tying up around her heart. Finan brought his smiling face closer to hers again. “Well if that’s the case…”
He finished his sentence by capturing her lips, in a kiss as bold as all his heavy looks had promised. His hand came around the back of her head, pulling her in as his he sucked sweetly at the lip he had declared his intention to bite.
Aethelflaed hadn’t been certain what to expect from the touch of a man who found most of his comfort in brothels. She had loved Erik for his gentleness, but he had taught her not to fear a man’s touch and now, after years of loneliness, she found the confident, heavy-handed caresses of this Irishman just as arousing.
Finan pulled her lip out in a long, languid suck that broke the kiss, and then she felt his teeth trap it. He was careful; she felt the pressure but no pain. He bit down just a fraction harder and then released her all at once. “Lest you think I’m not a man that makes good on my threats.”
Laughter bubbled up into pure joy in Aethelflaed’s throat. She had made the right choice in Finan, she could feel it. They would be discreet, and every time that his lord Uhtred passed through her hall she would take his man to her bed again. There would be no chance to grow so close that anyone might become suspicious, that way. She pushed him flat to the ground, then covered his mouth with her own.
The feeling of the warmth of his body beneath her, the way his broad hands encircled her waist and hips, and the coaxing of his lips and tongue all conspired to lead Aethelflaed to linger longer on the ground with him in the yard than she had intended. Discreet, indeed. She was panting when she finally tore her mouth from his, gratified only to observe that Finan was just as breathless.
“We cannot do this here.”
Finan arched his brow. “What a sight that would be.”
Her laugh was shy and Finan cupped her cheek, grinning up at her like he relished such a girlish expression. She schooled her features. “Meet me.”
His earnest adoration was almost more than she could bear to look upon. “My bed chamber. Come in to the manor through the south door tonight. My maid is completely loyal, she can be trusted to sneak you in.”
“I can find my way to your bed chamber without risking her help,” Finan countered.
“She watches me like a hawk, there will be no way for you to do this without her knowledge. We can trust her.” Anticipation welled bright and hot through her core, and Aethelflaed pressed one more weighty kiss to the man before rising. “I shall retire soon after supper. Don’t leave me waiting for too long.”
* * *
“Tell me I haven’t died and gone to heaven,” Finan exhaled against the vision before him. Once the maid had let him in, he froze just in the doorway upon seeing Aethelflaed clad only in gauzy white, waiting for him upon the grandest bed he had ever seen.
Aethelflaed smiled, a wicked curve on her graceful lips. “I can’t say for certain,” she said, leaning forward, “if you stay in the dark all the way over there. Come closer, let me feel if your heart is still beating.”
He should be eager, but Finan found his steps dragging as he complied. He barely felt he deserved to touch the beauty before him. Aethelflaed stood, the rustling of her fine linen the only sound between them as she met him halfway.
He lifted his hands, but they stopped, twitching and hovering just above her shoulders. “What’s wrong?” Aethelflaed asked, her perfect brows creasing.
“I don’t want to dirty you,” Finan choked out. He had left his armor behind, and had tried to wash up, but…
Aethelflaed stepped in, pressing herself against his palms, tipping her face up toward his. “That’s exactly what I want from you, Finan.” Her eyes flitted down to his mouth, and she tilted her chin even more. “I have been pure, and untouched, for far too long.”
He groaned and folded over her, too seduced by her bold need to let hesitations linger. She met his lips fiercely, and let her body melt under his enclosing arms.