“It’s a small village where we can eat a hot meal and you can sleep in comfort.”
Relief brightened her soft amber eyes. “How long will it take us to reach it?”
“An hour, mayhap a little longer.”
“Is it a large village? I’ve never heard of Lenalor before. What will we find there?”
Ewan raked his hand through his hair as she began barraging him with questions again. The lady was ever curious and never silent.
“You’re not answering me again, are you?” she asked after several minutes.
“You ask too many questions. I can barely draw breath to answer one before you assault me with three more.”
“Then I shall ask them more slowly.”
“I’d rather you didn’t.”
“Because then I’d feel obligated to answer them.”
To his surprise, she laughed. It was a sweet sound, not high pitched or silly. Rather it was deep and pleasant.
“Poor Ewan, ever vexed by a maid’s simple tongue. My father oft says that if he could harness the unfailing energy of my mouth and feed it to his troops he would never have to worry over any army defeating them in battle. He says an hour of my chatter would keep an army battling for at least three of four days.”
Ewan looked back at her over his shoulder. “Those are harsh words.”
“Nay, not at all. My father loves me and well I know it. I do talk too much. ‘Tis a fault I’ve had all my life. My mother claims it’s because I had no other sibling and since she wanted to have a large family the good Lord gave her me. I might be a single child, but I make enough noise for several dozen.”
Ewan snorted at that.
“Was that a laugh?”
“Nay, it was a noise of agreement.”
“Mmm,” she said as she stared at him. “You know, I’m thinking that must be why you’re quiet.”
“What do you mean?”
“You have so many brothers, I imagine it was rather difficult for you to be heard over them.”
“Believe me, I can make myself heard over them if needs be.”
She came to ride by his side. “I don’t know,” she said. “Your voice is so deep that I doubt you could get much out of it in way of a shout.”
Nora lowered her voice to a deep pitch that sent a strange shiver down his spine. “See how when I talk like this, it’s far too deep.” She raised her voice back to its normal level. “Nay, no real bellow would be possible with that. Poor you, to be so cursed.”
“Poor me, indeed,” he said under his breath, wondering why he was unimaginably amused by her.
There was something refreshing about her now that he thought about it. She was rather brash and stood up to him in a way no one other than his brothers ever had.
Most women were intimidated by his height and scowl. He’d scarce had to do more than turn a glance to a maid to send her flying off in the opposite direction, or worse, have her start giggling at him.
He hated giggling.
Nora never giggled.
Her laugh was deep. Pleasant.
Then she began to hum.
Ewan reined his horse in and stared at her.
She paused and looked up at him with large eyes. “Why are you scowling at me now?”
“You are terminally pleasant. How can you sit there and be so happy over nothing at all?”
“It certainly beats being sad over nothing at all. Don’t you agree?”
He stiffened at her implication. “I happen to like being sad over nothing at all. I find it suits me.”
“A smile would suit you better. My mother always says that a smile is dressing for the face.”
“And I always say the face, much like the body, is best left naked.”
Her cheeks pinkened at his words. “Do you always speak so freely?”
“I thought you said I don’t speak at all.”
Her face fair glowed with impish delight. She was enjoying their verbal sparring and though he hated to admit it, there was a part of him that liked it too.
“You’re certainly an interesting dichotomy,” she admitted. “I will give you that. A paragon of contradictions.”
“Well, you live in a cave which suggests a rugged demeanor and at the same time you made sure that you brought the comforts from home. You act beastly to people and you treat beasts with care. What say you to that?”
“I say that you have spent entirely too much time contemplating me.”
Just as he had spent entirely too much time contemplating her and the way the breeze played through her blond hair that peeped out from under her gauzy veil. The way the curve of her lips looked so moist and inviting.
Lips that would probably be as soft as a rose’s petals.
Lips that would taste like heaven…
He shook himself from that mental direction. The last time he had thought such foolishness, he had paid well for it.
And so had Kieran.
“Do you like living alone?” she asked suddenly. “I’m not sure if I would like it or not.” Before he could respond, she added. “Of course I talk so much you’re probably thinking that I could carry on a conversation with myself for so long that like as not I’d never miss anyone else.”
He smiled in spite of himself.
Nora gasped. “Was that a smile?”
He cleared his throat. “Was what a smile?”
“That strange curvature of your lips. You know, the one where the corners are actually going up instead of down.”
It was all he could do not to smile again. “I know not what you mean.”
It didn’t work.
She sat back with a satisfied look on her beautiful face. “You have a most pleasant smile, my lord. Perhaps ’tis best to keep them hidden. The rarity of them will make them all the more valuable. So I shall cherish that one until I gain another from you.”
She was the strangest woman he had ever met. Quite daft point of fact.
She continued to chatter and he found himself listening to her. Listening to the cadence of her voice, the soft lulling quality of it.
There was something soothing about the sound and the fact that she didn’t really expect to converse with him, but was content just to prattle off on her own.
But what disturbed him most was the craving she awoke inside him.
He purposefully kept himself away from women. He’d been lied to enough to last out his lifetime and he’d vowed long ago to let no other woman into his heart.
So he had kept all women at a distance. Both physically and mentally.
He hadn’t been lured by any of their kind since Isobail. But something about Nora made him yearn again.
He wanted to kiss her.
To savor her.
Worst of all, he wanted to hold her in his arms and let her sate the loneliness that lived inside him.
What strange thoughts were these? He needed no comfort. He’d proven that. He deserved no comfort after what he’d done.
Still, he took an odd pleasure in being in Nora’s company.
Before he realized it, they reached Lenalor.
At least here he could seek a modicum of peace from the lady at his side and the disturbing thoughts in his mind that she evoked.
“What a quaint place,” Nora said as they entered the small village. It was long after dark and most of the people were inside for the night. Firelight could be seen from the cracks around doors and through the open windows they passed.
“Not particularly large,” Nora continued, “but still wholesome and serviceable enough.”
Ewan held his silence as they approached the brewer’s house which was at the end of the line of cottages that made up the road that led through the village.
Old Aenos the Brewer and he had a love-hate relationship. Aenos loved to see the only man he’d ever known who could drink him under the table and he hated whenever Ewan had to leave.
Ewan stopped his horse and dismounted before Aenos’s door. He moved to knock on it.
“I be closed for the night,” the old man snarled from the other side. “So whoever you be, you better well…” His voice trailed off as he swung open the door to see Ewan. Aenos’s face and demeanor lightened immediately.
“Ewan!” he laughed, clapping him on the back. “Finished off my ale so soon, eh? Well, come in, my lord. I’ve plenty more to keep you happy.”
Ewan had started to step inside when he realized Nora was not beside him. He turned around to find her still on her horse, looking down at the ground skeptically.
Letting out a slow breath, he walked over to her. “Jumping wouldn’t kill you.”
“Nay, but it might break my leg. Are you always so discourteous as to leave a lady to her own means?”
“I’m not used to being in a lady’s company without my brothers being present.” Ewan clenched his teeth as soon as the words were out of his mouth. He couldn’t believe he’d said that to her.
“What do you mean by that?” she asked.
“Nothing.” He helped her down from her horse.
He’d no sooner set her down before him than old Sorcha came over to greet them. Her long gray hair fell in braids down the sides of her face as she clutched a plaid shawl about her shoulders. Her gray eyes were happy and bright, just like the woman herself.
Ewan had known her all of his life and at times thought of her as another mother. He loved the old woman dearly.
“My lord,” the older woman beamed. “Aenos didn’t tell me you brought company with you this time, and a lady no less. Have you finally gone and settled down?”
“Nay, Sorcha. I’m only taking her to my brother.”
He left Nora to Sorcha’s care and led the horses around the cottage to deliver them up to Aenos’s apprentice who also doubled as a stable hand.
Nora watched him leave and shook her head. “His manners are appalling,” she said under her breath. She turned back to the older woman. “I’m called Nora.”
The woman gave her a chiding smile. “Don’t be so hard on the lad, my lady. He’s a bit gruff, but he has a good heart.”
“He keeps it well hidden.”
The woman took her arm as if she’d known her all her life, and led her inside the small cottage. “Shall I answer your question for you?”
“The one you posed to him just now about what he meant by not being around a lady without his brothers.”
“Have you ever met any of his brothers?”
“Well, I’ve met them all. Wiped both ends of most of them back when I was a maid for his mother. They are a spirited bunch of lads to be sure. But Lord Ewan was always quieter than the others and whenever a lady came near, his brothers would fair knock each other down in an effort to win the lady’s notice. I can’t tell you the times I saw him attempt to speak to a woman only to have Braden or Kieran elbow him aside. After a time, he quit trying to compete with them and simply ambled off to tend his own needs and ignore the others.”
That was interesting.
“Are his brothers as handsome as he?”
“Some think they are more so. But I think each one is handsome in his own way. Braden holds many the same features as Ewan and is unearthly handsome, but is rather arrogant about it. Lochlan reminds me of a golden angel, all fair, graceful and refined. Sin is like a fallen angel, dark in his ways and yet extremely compelling. And Kieran, God rest his soul, was what every woman dreams of, I think. He had black hair and eyes so pale they looked almost colorless.”
Sorcha sighed wistfully. “Oh those eyes of his. They smiled even when he was serious. He was a charming rogue who dallied with more women than even Braden. I tell you the world is not as happy a place as it was when he was in it.”
Sorcha glanced behind them as if looking for Ewan, then leaned forward and whispered to her. “You do know what day today is, do you not?”
Sorcha shook her head. “Nay, my lady. ‘Tis the anniversary of Kieran’s death. This is the very day his brother Lochlan went out to find the lad and found his sword and plaid lying on the banks of the loch.”
“Ewan drowned his brother?”
Sorcha pulled back with a scowl. “Whatever makes you say that?”
“I’ve heard rumors that Ewan killed his brother.”
“Nay, my lady. Kieran took his own life because Ewan ran off with the lady they both loved. I was there that very day when Kieran had learned Ewan and Isobail were gone. He couldn’t believe that he had lost his lady to his brother. Heartsick, he’d told his family that he needed some time alone. Ewan was probably halfway to London by the time Kieran took his own life.”
Nora frowned at that last bit. “Halfway to London?”
“Aye, they were to go be with the lady’s aunt. She was supposed to shelter them. Only ’twas a lie the lady told Ewan so that he would take her to England to meet with her lover. The wee lad was devastated when she left him.”
Nora felt ill at the news. No wonder the man had looked so angry when she posed her suggestion to him.
“Oh Sorcha, I am such a fool.”
“I asked Ewan to take me to London so that I could stay with my aunt.”
“I didn’t know,” she hastened to assure the woman. “I can’t believe I said it today of all days no less. No wonder he looked as if he wanted to strangle me.”
No wonder the poor man had been lying drunk in his bed. He’d probably been doing his best to forget the pain he had caused his brother.
Sorcha cleared her throat as Ewan headed back toward them.
He’d started past them when Nora called out to him. “Ewan?”
He paused to look at her.
“Might I have a word with you?”
Sorcha excused herself as Ewan came to stand beside her.
“Do you need something?” he asked gruffly.
“I…” Nora swallowed as she tried to think of what she should say to him.
I’m sorry seemed somehow paltry given what she’d done to him this day. The memories she’d unknowingly dredged up.
“Thank you,” she said quietly. “I really appreciate your doing this for me.”
She raised up on her tiptoes and laid a quick kiss to his cheek before heading toward the cottage.
Ewan was dumbstruck by her actions.
She’d thanked him?
She’d kissed him.
He didn’t know which one stunned him more and for his life he couldn’t understand what had prompted either action.
The lass was an odd one to be sure. Peculiar and strange. And yet on some level she was rather charming, especially when her mouth was closed.
Bemused by her, he followed the women inside the cottage.
Aenos was already at the table pouring large goblets of ale. Ewan took his and downed it in one gulp, then belched loudly.
As he set the goblet down to be refilled, he caught Nora’s horrified face.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man swallow the whole of his cup with one breath. If you keep that up, you’ll be drunk in a matter of minutes.”
“Trust me, it’ll take more than a few minutes.” He nodded to Aenos who poured the goblet full.
Sorcha made them trenchers of roasted ham with leeks and onions.
As was his custom, Ewan ignored the food and continued to drink. He also did his best to ignore the lady who sat across from him.
Something that proved to be impossible. All he could see was the firelight playing in the golden highlights of her hair. The way the shadows played across her creamy skin.
The delicate grace of her hands as she used them to cut her food and eat.
Nora was pure elegance.
And it made him ache with desire for her.
She didn’t say anything else about his drinking, but chattered with Sorcha.
“‘Tis so kind of you to feed us, good-wife. I’m sorry we arrived unannounced.”
Sorcha waved her words away. “We’re used to it. Ewan shows up all the time like this.”
Nora looked at him expectantly. “Then why did you pass by the village?”
“I wanted to get you to Lochlan as soon as possible.”
“Then why did you double back?”
Because a lady so fine deserves better than to sleep on a soggy ground with me for company.
That was something he had no intention of explaining to her. “Because I wanted to.”
Ewan poured more ale and downed it, then poured more. He took the goblet and pitcher and made for the door.
Frowning, Nora watched him leave.
“Aenos, go after him,” Sorcha said. “I don’t want him sleeping in the barn again. He caught a cold and was sick for days the last time he did that.”
Aenos nodded and got up to follow him.
After Aenos left, Nora turned to Sorcha. “Sorcha, why is Lord Ewan so…”
“Surly and drunken was what I wanted to say, but gruff works as well.”
“Guilt, my lady, is hard on a man. Every day he lives that his brother doesn’t is a day he feels he owes to Kieran.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well one night when the lad was drunk, he said something that has stuck in my mind. He said that he didn’t deserve comfort while his brother was lying at the bottom of a cold loch because he was a fool.”
“So he intends to waste away his life?”
“It appears so.”
Nora sat back as she thought that over. Why would he throw away his life because his brother was weak?
“Well how foolish is that?” she asked.
“My lady, you don’t understand how close they were.”
“Perhaps not, but does he honestly think that his drinking and such would make his brother happy?”
Before Nora could think better of it, she got up and went outside to find Ewan.
He was sitting on a log at the rear of the cottage drinking with Aenos.
The instant he saw her, he cursed. “Why are you out here?”
She didn’t answer. Instead, she took the goblet from his hand and poured it out.
His face went flush with anger. “What are you doing?”
The answer was so obvious that she didn’t bother explaining. Instead, she grabbed the pitcher up and headed back toward the house.
Nora didn’t get far before Ewan caught her.
“Give me that,” he said, trying to take it from her hands.
“Nay,” she said firmly.
His face was aghast. “Nay?”
Ewan reached for it again.
Nora twisted and tried to get past him, but somehow in the process she ended up dousing both of them and stumbling.
So intent on regaining his ale, Ewan didn’t think to catch either one of them. They landed on the ground, limbs entwined with Nora on top of him.
His body reacted instantly to the feel of her softness squirming against him.
For a moment, he couldn’t move. All he could do was feel her breasts against his chest, her legs against his, her breath falling on his face.
It had been so long since he last held a woman, so long since he had seen a woman so fair as this one that didn’t belong to one of his brothers.
Longing pierced him as he focused his gaze on her parted lips.
It was all he could do not to yield to the anguished need he felt for her.
Nora couldn’t breathe as she stared down into Ewan’s perfect blue eyes. Never in her life had she been this close to a man.
Who knew one would be so hard, so…well masculine.
She felt a peculiar urge to rub herself against him, to feel his harness with the whole of her body.
His eyes were dark, dangerous as he watched her in silence.
“Here, my lady,” Aenos said as he joined them. “Let me help you up.”
Ewan cursed then and as Aenos helped her up and as she saw the amount of ale on their clothes, she realized why he’d done that. They were drenched by ale.
Aenos snorted. “Have no fear, Ewan. There be plenty more of that to be sure.”
Ewan got up slowly.
“He doesn’t need to be drinking anymore ale,” Nora said, turning to Aenos. “He needs a good bath and a night of rest.”
“And who are you to be lecturing me on what I can and canna drink?”
She thought about that for a moment, then seized on the one thing he couldn’t argue with. “Your responsibility.”
His face went from anger to shock in the span of a heartbeat. “Beg pardon?”
“I’m your responsibility,” she told him, “and you can’t be watching after me while you’re knee deep into your cups. I happen to be quite a handful and could get into any number of fixes while you’re off unconscious. So you see, it is my place to lecture you on how much ale you consume.”
She watched as the muscle in his jaw worked furiously.
He glanced to the old man beside him. “Aenos, fetch me an ax.”
Aenos headed off at his command.
Those words made her nervous. Especially since they were a mixture of anger and determination. “An ax? Why do you need an ax?”
His eyes blazed. “I’m going to take care of my responsibility so that it plagues me no more.”
She gulped audibly. “Take care of me how?”
“I’m going to cut your head off and bury your body in the back.”
She stepped back, unsure if whether or not he meant that. His face was stern and serious enough.
“That is a jest, correct?”
“Mayhap. But if you don’t leave me be, woman, you’re going to find out first hand why I choose to live alone.”
Aenos returned with the ax.
Ewan grabbed it from him, and handed him the empty pitcher. “Take her inside to finish her meal, Aenos. I’ll be back later.”
“Where are you going?” Nora asked.
He didn’t answer.
“Leave him be for a bit,” Aenos whispered. “He’s only going to work out some of his anger.”
“He chops wood. I’ve enough of it now to fuel the whole village through the harshest of winters. But it calms him down, so I never say anything. Come, my lady, let’s get you inside so that you can get dried off.”
Nora followed him back to Sorcha.
“Where is Ewan?” Sorcha asked.
“The wood pile.”
Sorcha sighed. “Poor lad. At the rate he’s going we’ll be able to build a castle.”
Nora retook her seat. “Is he always so angry?”
“He’s a man in pain, my lady,” Sorcha said quietly. “He’s forgotten how to live without it. Forgotten how to find joy of any sort.”
“Remember when he was a boy?” Aenos asked.
“Aye.” Sorcha smiled as she wiped a cloth over her table. “He was such a happy lad. He used to get up and stagger down the stairs asking, ‘Where’s my Kieran.'” She smiled at Nora and explained her comment, “He thought he owned his brother. And Kieran, bless his heart, very seldom ever ran out of patience with him. I don’t think I ever saw one without the other.”
“Until they fell in love with the same woman,” Nora breathed.
“Aye. Isobail was an evil lass,” Aenos said. “Turning them against each other so that she could get what she wanted. I know the devil’s saving a special corner of hell for her.”
“Aenos!” Sorcha gasped. “Watch your tongue before the lady.”
“Sorry,” he muttered. “But ’tis truth.”
Nora ate in silence as she thought about the man outside. What would it be like to live with such guilt?
She couldn’t imagine it.
Once she finished, she left them and headed outside again. There was a small path that led from the back of the cottage into the woods.
It didn’t take long to find Ewan. She could hear his chopping even from a distance.
What she didn’t expect was to find him shirtless. His body was covered in a fine sheen that fair glowed in the moonlight.
He was beautiful.
And as soon as he saw her, he cursed. “Unless you come bearing more ale, I suggest you head back inside.”
“And if I come bearing an apology?”
He didn’t even pause as he swung the ax. “I’m in no mood to hear it.”
“Be that as it may, I am in the mood to give it. I just wanted to tell you that I’m sorry I dragged you into my problems when it is obvious yours are much worse.”
He tugged the ax free of the stump, then buried it into the wood again. “What do you know of my problems?”
“Truly, nothing. You just seem incredibly sad and angry. I should have left you passed out in your cave.”
He struck the wood again. “Aye, you should have.”
Nora watched him with fascinated interest as he picked up the logs he’d made and carried them to the large pile. Sorcha and Aenos were right. It was quite a mountain of lumber.
Ewan wiped his face with his arm, then retrieved the ax from the ground and headed for another tree.
She swallowed at the strength and sight of him working. The muscles of his back rippled and flexed, making her body strangely warm and needful.
“Tell me,” she said, “does it help? Does ale really alleviate your feelings?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“In the event I don’t make it to England and I’m forced to marry Ryan, I was just wondering if that would be a way to ease the misery of the life I’m sure he’ll give me.”
With three strikes, he felled the tree. He waited until it was down before he spoke again. “Have you ever met this man you are betrothed to?”
“Aye, many times.”
“Is he truly insufferable then?”
She shivered at the thought of Ryan. They had never gotten along and in truth, she couldn’t believe he wanted to wed her given their mutual distaste.
“You can’t imagine. He is beastly. He looks at me and sees nothing but my purse. I speak and he turns away.” She shook her head. “How I wish I were a man. If I were, I would never waste my life hiding away.”
“Judge not lest ye be judged.”
“I know, but still it makes no sense. You are in complete control of your life and yet you do nothing with it. I, on the other hand, must do as I am told. I can’t just leave whenever I choose.”
“Is that not what you’ve done?”
“Aye and at what cost? My maid and servant will like as not be punished for it and you would hand me back over to my father in an instant if I told you who he was.”
Ewan thought about that. He’d never given much thought to what it would be like to be a woman. He’d always taken his freedom for granted.
She was right, he answered to no one.
He was his own man.
He paused and looked at her. “If you were free what would you do?”
She shrugged prettily. “I know not. Travel perhaps. I’ve always wanted to see Aquitaine. My mother has such marvelous stories about the acres of vineyards. She says there’s not a more beautiful place on this earth. Or perhaps I would go to Rome. Make a pilgrimage. Have you ever been to the Holy Land?”
Her face fell. “Oh. My aunt went. She had a marvelous time there.”
She unpinned a brooch from her dress, then moved forward to show it to him. “She gave me this. She said she bought it from a crusader who was selling items so that he could gain enough money to return home.”
Ewan studied the piece. It was a knight on horseback who bore a cross on his shield and was indeed a pilgrim’s badge.
He tightened his grip on it.
Was it possible that she really could be who and what she claimed?
Still he couldn’t shake the feeling that it couldn’t be. For all her sincerity, it wasn’t possible for the niece of the most powerful woman in Christendom to have shown up in his cave without escort.
He handed it back to her.
Her fingers brushed his, sending a jolt through him.
She was so soft and she smelled so feminine and warm. Closing his eyes, he inhaled her scent.
She was so tender.
Nora trembled at the look on his face. She’d only been kissed once before. It had been quick and rather slimy. The event was so distasteful that she had never wanted to repeat it and yet as she stood there alone with Ewan sharing her wishes with him, she felt a strange desire to taste his lips.
He bent his head down.
Instinctively, she rose up on her tiptoes.
He reached out with one large hand and tipped her chin up toward him. In one heartbeat, he lowered his head and took possession of her mouth.
Nora moaned at the contact and at the taste of him mixed with ale. His tongue brushed hers, making her entire body quiver.
Of their own accord her arms rose up and wrapped themselves around his bare shoulders so that she could feel his muscles bunch and flex under her hands.
He was sweaty and hot and she should be revolted by his smell, but she wasn’t. He truly didn’t stink. It was a pleasant manly smell and the sensation of his wet skin only made her ache more for him.
Gracious, she’d never felt the like. No wonder some women turned wanton.
Who knew touching a man could be so pleasurable?
Ewan growled deep in his throat as he tasted the sweet honey of her mouth. It had been so long since he last kissed a fair maid. So long since a woman’s hands had brushed through his hair.
He had forgotten the pleasure and yet as he kissed her the thought was in his mind that no other woman he’d sampled had ever tasted this good.
It was followed by another thought…
While he was kissing her, she wasn’t speaking.
He laughed at the thought.
Nora stiffened, then pulled back. “Are you laughing at me?”
“Nay, love,” he said honestly, smiling even though he wanted to cease. “It was but a passing thought that made me laugh.”
Her eyes narrowed as if she didn’t believe him. “And what thought was that?”
“That you can’t talk and kiss at the same time.”
Her face turned bright pink. “You are a knave.”
“Aye, to the core of my rotted soul.”
Her gaze turned gentle, warm. “It really isn’t proper for me to be out here with you like this.”
Her gaze ran over his body, making him harden in lustful need to touch her. “My mother would be quite scandalized.”
“Your father would be furious.”
“Aye, he would. No doubt he’d want your head.”
She cleared her throat and turned around. She took three steps, then stopped and looked back at him over her shoulder. “Oh and Ewan?”
“You kiss very nicely.”
Bemused, Ewan watched her leave.
You kiss very nicely. The words rang in his head and brought an odd wave of arrogant pride to him.
Why that was so, he couldn’t imagine. All he knew was that he had an overwhelming urge to follow after her, scoop her up in his arms and see if she was so bold and outspoken in the privacy of his bed.
And on the heels of that thought came another, much more painful one.
He would never know.
A man who had caused the death of his brother and best friend didn’t deserve a woman like her.
He deserved nothing at all.
And nothing was all he would ever have. He owed that much to Kieran