“Simon, you’ve been like a brother to me all these years. ‘Tis a damn shame that I have to kill you now.” Stryder’s angry tone was low, lethal. Even so, it reverberated through the empty hall where Simon sat, eating a light repast to tide him over until the evening meal.
Simon choked on his bread at the unexpected words and the heartfelt sincerity of Stryder’s voice.
Stryder’s eyes were cold and unfeeling, devoid of the friendship that Simon was used to seeing from him.
“That’s it,” Stryder said, his gaze narrowed by rage. “You go ahead and choke. I’m not even going to bother saving you from it, but before you die of asphyxiation, could you at least tell me who it is I’m supposed to wed?”
Simon choked even more.
Stryder was going to kill him for this.
As Simon reached for his mead to help clear his throat, Stryder continued his angry rant.
“Apparently, Simon, I have been writing to my future wife. And just for clarity, let me repeat that…I have been writing to my future wife.”
His glare intensified until it would rival the devil for heat. “Don’t you think that it is rather difficult for me to do such a thing since I write to no one, hmm? But then since I don’t write, who is it who answers all my personal letters? Oh, aye, I know…’tis you, Simon. You.”
Simon took a deep drink of mead as his mind raced. He’d known this was coming, but he had hoped for a little more time to think up some way to extract all of them from this madness. “You told me to answer your letters as I saw fit. Not to bother you with their content.”
“Answering my letters does not require a betrothal. Tell me of this woman. Is she at least wealthy?”
“She’s very nice.”
Stryder gave him a glare so sinister that Simon could almost believe the tales that claimed Stryder had sold his soul to Lucifer.
Had Simon been any man other than himself, he might even have flinched, but Simon flinched from no man’s anger and most especially not from Stryder’s.
They had known each other too long and had been through too much for Simon to fear him.
But when it came to annoying him, that was another matter entirely.
“What say you?” Stryder asked, his voice even angrier. “Is this a jest? Who is this woman who claims I have proposed to her?”
Simon met Stryder’s stare levelly and wondered how he’d gotten himself into this.
Unfortunately, he knew.
It, like all ills of the earth, had come from a woman.
And not just any woman was she.
Like Eve with Adam, she had lured him into disaster against his will and his common sense. When he should have ran, he’d stayed and now he would pay a steep price for it.
His downfall had but one name.
Kenna with light brown hair and eyes that were golden brown and bright. She was a small slip of a woman, rather plain in looks, but she held an inner beauty that had enchanted him from the moment Simon had read her first letter.
Unfortunately, said letter hadn’t been intended for him.
She’d written it to Stryder, the earl of Blackmoor, self-styled barbarian cur, known to possess the wrath of Armageddon. When Stryder entered a room, renowned warriors broke into a sweat lest they incur his notice.
Stryder who was every woman’s fantasy.
Stryder who was the bane to Simon’s existence. At least at this moment because the woman Simon loved was in love with Stryder whose heart would never be captured by a single maid.
At least not for any longer than a night or two.
Damn Stryder anyway for putting him in this position. But then if not for Stryder and his prowess, Simon would never have met Kenna.
He would do anything for his lady.
“You said if I could find you a level-headed woman, you would marry her.”
Stryder sputtered at that and looked at him as if he’d grown three heads. “Are you mad?”
Aye, he was. Mad for a woman who had spilled her heart out to him as the one she thought was destined to be her husband.
“If you meet with her, you will see. She would make a good wife to you.”
Stryder cursed. “Simon, what were you thinking? You proposed on my behalf? How could you do such a thing?”
Simon cringed at that. He’d been writing to Kenna for so long and signing the letters as Ever Your Knight, S, that he had forgotten the one small fact that in her mind the S stood for Stryder, not Simon.
He hadn’t realized the mistake until her next letter had come to him. Instead of her writing, My Dearest Warrior, she had penned, My Dearest Stryder.
The words had struck his heart like a blow as they reminded him all too clearly of what he had done. Who she thought him to be.
He was such a fool.
“It just happened.”
Stryder narrowed his eyes. “Nay, Simon. Foul weather just happens. Disaster just happens.” He glared meaningfully. “Death just happens. But people do not get betrothed without design. You will get me out of this, or so help me I will have your head and your bullocks.”
Simon just looked at him. “Now there’s an empty threat if I ever saw one. Calm yourself, Stryder. Meet with her. She’s not like other women. You will see.” Simon stepped forward and lowered his voice, “Besides she knows of us.”
“Everyone knows of us, Si, we happen to be rather famous or infamous as the case may be.”
“Nay,” Simon said, giving him an arched look. “She knows of us,” he spoke in an even lower tone, enunciating each word slowly. “Her brother was Edward MacRae. Do you remember him?”
Stryder’s eyes turned dull as the repressed memory of their captivity in the Holy Land came back to him. “He’s the one I saved from the crocodiles.”
“Aye. She is the sister he spoke of on so many occasions, and even after his death, she is still abiding by his oath to our cause. It was his praise of you that caused her to write to you that first time while we were in Normandy. It was her brother’s fondest wish that the two of you should meet.”
“Because the two of you are the people he loved most in this life. She wanted to say thank you to you for saving his life and seeing him home again.”
“That didn’t require a betrothal.”
Simon drew a deep breath as he struggled against his untoward emotions that demanded he beat Stryder and take Kenna regardless of the consequences.
Nay, it didn’t require a betrothal.
He’d become so comfortable with Kenna that he’d let his common sense slip and his careful guard down. He had confided things to her that he had told to no one. Over the course of the last year, he had laid bear his thoughts and his heart to her.
And she had returned the courtesy.
Simon sighed. “Have no fear, as soon as she comes here, I shall set things aright.”
“Then you’d best be about it, since I saw her right before I came seeking you.”
His heart pounded at the words as happiness flooded him. “Kenna is here?”
His food forgotten, Simon started for the door. “Where is she?”
“She was with Sin MacAllister last I saw.”
Simon faltered at the name of his childhood friend. “Sin brought her here?”
“I would assume so.”
He clenched his teeth at that. Things just became twice as complicated. Not that it mattered.
Kenna was here.
She was the most important thing to him and now he would be able to see her again. To touch her. Hear the sound of her voice…
After all these nights of struggling to remember her precious face and beautiful smile, he could see her again. Feel the warmth of her physical touch. Smell the light lavender scent of her skin.
It would be heaven.
He left Stryder in the hall and went to find the woman whose amusing insights and anecdotes had stolen his heart.
It didn’t take long to ascertain her whereabouts. He found the king’s steward and learned that she’d come to the castle the night before after Simon had retired to his tent.
Lord Drexton had given her, Sin and Caledonia rooms in the castle.
Simon made for the area posthaste. He ran up the stone spiral steps, desperately seeking the woman he loved. Ignoring the maid who gasped and hurried from his path, he sprinted down the hallway to the last door.
The room that held her…
He knocked on the door without hesitations.
Simon closed his eyes and savored the lilting brogue that single word betrayed. She was here! By all the saints in heaven, she had come at his request.
As he reached for the handle, his courage faltered.
Kenna didn’t know him at all.
All this time she’d made the assumption she was writing to Stryder. Even though he’d meant to tell her the truth about who he was, he’d never had the heart.
At first it had all seemed harmless enough. Just a few notes back and forth on nothing of any import. Until last Christmastide. In a moment of weakness, he had shared his mother’s death with her.
She’d responded with such precious words of comfort that he hadn’t had the courage after that to let her know his real identity.
If she ever learned the truth…
She will think I betrayed her.
Fear sliced through him at that thought. He would never do such a thing and yet, she would believe it. Most likely, she’d never forgive him for it.
She would hate him eternally.
Nay, he couldn’t bear that.
What was he to do?
He heard her approaching the door.
His heart hammering, Simon did something he’d never done before.
Rushing away from the room, he found a shadowy alcove where he could hide himself. He’d barely crammed himself into it before the door swung open.
Her silken voice assailed his body with pleasure. “Hello? Is anyone out here?”
From the shadows, he saw her. She was far more beautiful than he remembered. Her cheeks were flush, her eyes bright. She wore a deep scarlet kirtle that made her pale skin glisten.
He hardened instantly at the sight of her. How he yearned to go to her, take her in his arms and taste her full, moist lips. To sample the full bounty of her soft curves and pale skin.
He wanted her in a way he’d never wanted anything.
It took all his will not to leave the shadows and touch her. To yield to the burning ache in his loins that demanded he claim her for his own.
But he didn’t dare.
He had no right to this woman who had spilled her heart out to him while thinking he was someone else.
By all rights, he who knew everything about her, should know nothing at all.
Damn him for his foolish stupidity.
She looked around the corridor, then stepped back into the room and shut the door.
Simon still didn’t move.
He was torn between the desire to go to that door, kick it open and take what he wanted and the need to run for cover lest Kenna learn of his trickery.
But was it trickery when he didn’t mean it that way? He’d never really lied to her. He’d only failed to correct his identity.
Every word he’d written to her had been the truth. Every feeling real and honest.
He started at the familiar voice that came from the opposite end of the hallway.
Stepping out of the shadows, he saw the MacNeely lairdess. She was even more beautiful now than when he’d left Scotland. Her long, red hair was braided down the side of her face and she wore a deep navy kirtle that accentuated the perfection of her body.
“Callie,” he greeted.
A warm smile curved her lips as she pulled him into a sisterly hug of affection. “Whatever are you doing here and hiding in the shadows no less?”
Simon stepped back. “Like the others, I have some for the show of arms.”
She nodded. “Is your brother, Draven, with you?”
“Nay. He didn’t want to travel without Emily and the boys, and he felt it was too far for the youngest to journey.”
Caledonia took his arm in hers and led him toward the room where Kenna was.
His heart pounded more with every step that took him closer to his doom.
Perspiration broke out on his forehead.
Unaware of his panic, Callie continued. “Then I shall just have to stop at Ravenswood on my way home and make sure to see them and Dermot. And speaking of my errant brother, have you seen him recently?”
Simon shook his head. “Not since I released Dermot’s custody over to Draven, but Emily has written to say he is well.”
Simon swallowed as she reached for the door handle.
The command was so strong that he wasn’t sure what kept him from heeding it.
But before his common sense could return, Caledonia opened the door.
Simon’s gaze met Kenna’s instantly. She sat in a chair on the other side of the room, just before the open window with a small psalter in her hands. Sunlight streamed in through the window where it lightened strands of her hair to form an angelic halo around her face.
She was beautiful.
Desire hit him fiercely. It was all he could do to breathe. His body was instantly hard, hot and cold.
He found himself unable to move. Unable to break eye contact with the one woman who had haunted him for the last year.
The one woman he would give up his life for.
Kenna couldn’t breathe as she saw the man beside her cousin. His dark auburn hair was a bit longer than was the English fashion, but he wore a small, stylish goatee that had been perfectly manicured.
He was taller than most men, with a lean, muscular build that bespoke power and strength. Deadly grace. His pale blue eyes were riveting in their striking color.
Truly, he was a most handsome man.
And it took her a full minute before she realized who he was.
They’d seen each other only briefly, but she had never forgotten the handsomeness of his features. The way his blue eyes were able to sear her with his passionate heat.
He looked at her now like some hungry predator who had just found its next meal. The intensity of that stare made her hot and nervous. And oddly enough it brought a strange thrill to her.
There was an aura of dangerous power surrounding him. One of possessiveness.
She couldn’t fathom why, but the sensation didn’t lessen.
“Kenna, have you met Simon? He is the friend of Sin’s who came with him to Scotland after we married. His elder brother is the one Dermot was sent to live with.”
Kenna was completely stunned by the news.
“You’re Simon?” she said, her face breaking out into a smile. It was all she could do not to laugh at some of the stories she had heard from Callie and Sin about this knight.
It was hard to fathom the dangerous predator before her could be the kind, good natured man they had spoken of.
He was far too intense for that. Far too intense to ever follow the orders of someone else. She had imagined Simon of Ravenswood as a small, gentle man, not as someone who towered over her cousin with such a steely and dangerous demeanor.
He inclined his head toward her. “It’s good to see you again, my lady.”
Caledonia looked back and forth between them. “You know each other?”
“We met in France when I went to see Lord Stryder.” Kenna rose to her feet and placed her psalter in her seat.
As she neared Simon, she tilted her head to look up at him. What was it about this man that made her knees weak? Made her burn to reach out and touch him. To brush the stray lock of hair back from his forehead and to kiss the bared skin?
His gaze was guarded, cool.
“You refused to tell me your name then,” she said, “Why?”
Kenna was fascinated by the way his muscles rolled under his supertunic as he shrugged his shoulders. “You were more interested in Stryder than you were in me.”
She had the impression that those words seemed to wound him somehow.
“Have you heard the good news, Simon?” Callie said. “Kenna is to marry Stryder.”
There was a very subtle tensing to his features. One that looked like pain. “Congratulations, my lady. I hope he makes you happy.”
Callie frowned at that. “Are you all right, Simon? You seem rather reserved.”
He cleared his throat and offered her a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Forgive me, Callie. I didn’t rest well last night.”
“Do you still travel with Stryder?” Kenna asked him. “Or are you knight to another lord?”
A fierce heat came into his eyes at that. Flickering. Burning. Her question had offended him, she could sense it.
“I am always my own knight, my lady. I travel with my friends and brothers until I feel the urge to leave and go my own way.”
“Brothers?” Callie repeated. “I thought Draven was the only one you had.”
“Nay. I am bastard born. I fear my father was rather free with himself and I have a large family to burden whenever the mood strikes me.”
Kenna laughed at that. “You sound like Stryder. He once said the very same thing to me.”
There was no mistaking the panic that flashed across his features. “I had best be going. ‘Twas nice seeing you both again.”
He was out the door before Kenna could even open her mouth to return the sentiment.
“Well that was certainly odd,” Callie said as she rested her hands on her hips at his hasty departure. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Simon so stiff and guarded. He’s normally much friendlier. I can’t imagine what has gotten into him.”
Kenna barely heard the words. There was something strange here. Something very strange.
Stryder acted as if he didn’t know her and Simon quoted almost verbatim an anecdote that Stryder had once written to her…
A bad feeling settled over her.
Nay, surely not.
Her chest tight with apprehension, she grabbed her letters and excused herself from Callie, then went below to find one of the two men who had her perplexed.
It was Stryder she sought first. She found him alone in the stable, readying his horse for a ride.
He paused and turned to face her. She had the distinct feeling that he was biting his tongue to keep from cursing.
Once again she was struck by the handsomeness of his features, by the way his black hair curled so becomingly around his face and shoulders.
Stryder of Blackmoor was a man to make any woman weak in the knees.
“My lady,” he greeted coolly. Dispassionately.
And it was then she knew the truth.
This wasn’t the same man who had written to her. That man had spilled out his heart and soul to her. He had been open and funny. Warm and enchanting.
The man before her was too guarded and closed to her. She had been tricked, she knew it.
Now she wanted proof before she let loose her wrath on them.
So, she handed Stryder her letters. “Are you the man who wrote these to me?”
He turned them over and looked at the Blackmoor seal. “They bear my mark.”
“Aye, they do indeed.”
He frowned as he handed them back to her. “Then they are from me.”
“But you didn’t write them.”
He moved away.
“Please,” she begged, taking his arm to stop him. “I must know.”
“Because these are tender words,” she said, holding the letters up to him. “Poetic words. Who would dare write me such while signing your name to them? Was this some cruel game you played?”
His eyes darkened as if her accusation greatly offended him. “Nay, lady. I would never play with another in such a manner. I may have committed many crimes in my life, but mockery has never been one of them.”
She pulled the top letter off and removed the red ribbon. “Read this and tell me what you see.”
A tic started in his jaw. “I can’t read that.”
“Because I can’t read. I never learned.”
All the breath left her lungs at that. Stunned, she could do nothing but stare.
She’d wanted the truth and now she had it. Stryder was illiterate.
“Then who wrote this to me?”
She turned to Simon standing behind her.