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Friday, 4 April 2014

First Chapter Friday: Borderland Betrayal by Samantha Holt

Northumbria, England 1370
James swirled his ale around his cup, eyeing it with distaste. He cast his gaze about the alehouse and grimaced. In an attempt to gain peace in a place where his face was not known, he’d resorted to seeking out an inn on the outskirts of Durham, far from the busy lodgings in which he was staying.
Draining his ale, he motioned to a serving girl for another. Aye, this inn did not have decent drink as The Rose and Crown did, but no one knew him as the Captain of Thornewall here. The rough patrons suited the dilapidated state of the alehouse, but at least they left him alone.
He allowed his gaze to follow the movements of two peasants as they staggered out the door, letting a waft of fresh air cut through the stale, sweat-tinged odour of the building.
Curse the idiot criminal who thought he could hide out in Thornewall. Escorting the thief back to the sheriff had taken him away from his duties, and James did not relish leaving the castle in the hands of Lucy, his lord’s young bride, who now carried Dominic’s babe.
Grin hidden behind his cup, he conceded that if anyone could run a keep as vast as Thornewall while her husband toured the lands, it was Lucy. The Lady had proved her worth time and again.
The battered wooden door swung open once more with a thud and James glanced up as a woman in a drab brown gown and apron wove through the long tables, carefully skirting the sprawled legs and groping hands. James straightened as he studied her. She carried herself with surprising grace, and his breath caught as her gaze settled briefly on him, interest sparking in her expression.
With her long brown hair caught in a messy braid and that plain gown, it would have been easy to dismiss her as her nothing more than a wench, but one glimpse of her face made his blood simmer. Her strong features and exotic dark skin were far from the pale, delicate looks of the noble women he knew, but underneath the peasant-girl appearance was a face that could start wars.
Sensual lips quirked into a smile as she bent and spoke with a grizzled old man. Murky smoke from the tallow candles swirled as she breezed around the crowded inn. All eyes remained on her as she tugged something out of her apron. She grinned as she approached the nearest table, leaning over and fluttering her eyelashes at the men as she inserted herself between them. Over the din of raucous laughter and leering shouts, James just made out her voice as she offered the men love potions. A hint of a lilt in her tone told him she was not native to England. Spanish perhaps.
She slapped at the errant hands of the men as she pressed little fabric parcels into their palms and took their coin with a wide smile. James watched closely. As much as she seemed to have the men under control, she would be no match for any of the drunkards if they decided to push themselves upon her. His hand flexed over the pommel of his sword. His mouth thinned as he noted the movement of her hands while she seduced them with her charms.
 A thief.
God’s blood, the woman was a thief. As she distracted the patrons with her looks and potions, she snaked a hand into their coin bags. James shook his head to himself. Suddenly she did not seem so enticing. Dishonesty made his stomach curdle.
The woman secured her gaze on him as she rose from the table and made her way over, her hips swaying. James scowled. Her every movement held all the men captive, including him, in spite of his disgust. As she settled on the bench next to him, he gritted his teeth and studied his ale, determined to ignore her disturbing presence.
“Sir Knight.” Her voice was smooth and flowing, with just the faintest hint of an accent. Spanish, for certain. Yet her words were as well-spoken as an educated lass. “Does a woman put that scowl on your face? Mayhap you would like a love potion? Your beautiful lady will likely fall head over heels for you with but a drop of my herbs in her wine. Or mayhap you would prefer her to fall into your bed. I have potions for that too, though I suspect a man like you has little trouble with such matters.”
Giving into curiosity, James met her teasing gaze and studied the woman properly. Her long straight nose, expressive dark eyes and high cheekbones instantly captivated him. Her lips were pale against her skin and even when curved into a grin they remained full and succulent. Aye, certainly her looks were worth fighting for. A pity her soul was wanting.
Though tempted to ignore her, he wondered if he could not teach her a lesson. A lesson from him would be far better than one from any other man. He did not find pleasure in the thought of her put in the stocks or worse.
“Aye, I shall take some of your herbs.”
Her smile widened, revealing a set of pretty teeth. Extremely uncommon in a peasant girl. Who was this woman?
“And which herbs would those be, good sir? For bed or for marriage?”
“Whichever, I care not.”
“You care not whether you bed or marry her? She cannot be a special woman. Or mayhap you take delight in tormenting a woman so. Mayhap you are already married and take joy in women falling desperately in love with you.”
James let his glower deepen and he extended a hand. “Are you here to sell me your herbs, lass, or question my morals?”
“My, you shall need these herbs with that scowl. I have never met a knight with such rough manners.”
“And I have never met a lass with such a candid tongue.”
“‘Tis time you did then. Here, you shall have these. I will not reveal which I have given you. You shall find out for yourself when you administer them.”
The woman slipped a small packet into his hand and forced his fingers to close about it as if it were some sacred potion rather than a mix of likely useless herbs. Though rough, her fingertips glided over his hand, creating a simmering sensation under his skin.
Mimicking her, he pulled a coin from his money pouch and snatched at her wrist. She sucked in a breath and observed avidly as he pressed the coin into her palm. Her eyes lit but he couldn’t be sure if it was the coin or the touch of his hand that did it. Enfolding her fingers around the coin, the desire to bring those fingers to his lips struck and he dropped her hand abruptly.
A disturbance broke out nearby and James instinctively thrust an arm in front of her as the two men crashed into a table and sprawled on the floor. He almost missed the tug on his belt as the woman’s intrepid fingers delved into his money pouch. Had he been inebriated, he doubted he would have noticed.
As the two fighting men were shoved out of the building by the burly innkeeper, James snatched her wrist and yanked it from his bag. She gave a slight cry and her eyes widened in alarm as he held her hand out in front of him, a coin clearly clasped between her fingers.
“I think that mayhap I cannot afford the cost of your herbs, lass. Here I did not realise they would cost me all of my coin.”
“P-pray,” she tugged away from him but James tightened his grip, “forgive me, sir. I had no intention of…”
“Robbing me?”
“Nay! Nay…I am desperate. Pray, my lord, I shall cause no trouble again, I swear it. Just release me and I shall hand you back your coin.”
James plucked the coin from her fingers and slid it safely into his leather pouch. Her reaction appeared to be one of genuine fright, not something he expected from a seasoned thief. In his experience, they usually attempted to worm their way out of trouble using quick tongues and even quicker movements. The lass had a quick tongue to be sure, but it seemed she had lost the use of it.
“My lord, I beg of you…” She wriggled against his hold.
“Calm down, lass. I’ll not see you punished but I trust you will not thieve again.”
“I will not,” she promised breathlessly. “I am not a bad woman, pray believe that.”
A shadow fell across the table and James glanced up to see the innkeeper bearing down upon them.
“Ellise, ‘tis ye? Ye are leaving me patrons barren of coin?”
“Oh nay,” she forced a giggle, “we are just sharing a jest, Rob. I am no thief.”
Rob’s brows rose and he crossed his arms over his chest. “Is this true, sir? Ye be jesting?”
James gently released Ellise’s wrist and nodded. “Aye, just a jest.”
The innkeeper snapped his head round as a man from across the room shouted, “Hey, me coin! Some little thief has been at me coin! Rob, ye’ve got a wretched thief in yer midst. I’ll see ‘em hanged, if I catch ‘em.”
Rob’s nostrils flared, his jaw tense as he motioned hastily to a serving wench. “See that Tom has his fill of ale for free this night.” Seeing the other man’s dissatisfied expression, Rob waved a hand to the man. “Ye’d have lost all yer coin on ale this night anyway. Ye cannot complain surely?”  His gaze darkened as he turned his attention to Ellise and James curled a hand around his sword. “Ye, girl, will be leaving now. I’ll not have a thief driving away my patrons. Grab yer belongings and be gone with ye or I’ll take ye to the sheriff.”
“Where shall I go?” Her voice wavered and James’ heart panged with remorse.
“Away from here. Now,” Rob barked before pushing his way back past the customers and slamming through the rear door.
James grimaced as he glanced at Ellise. Hell’s teeth, he hadn’t meant for the lass to lose her lodgings. He’d only meant to teach her the error of her ways. This was the last time he’d take the moral high ground.
“Forgive me,” he went to put a hand to her, “I intended not—”
Ellise leaped away, coming to her feet and stumbling over the bench in her haste to escape him. “It matters not what you intended. You sought to punish me and now you have. I hope it has brought you satisfaction.”
With this, she spun on her heel and raced through the back door. James cursed and slammed his palm on the rough table. He cursed again. This eve had gone from bad to worse.
Arms wrapped around herself, Ellise kicked a pebble and cursed under her breath. Having gathered what few belongings she had, she left the inn through the rear courtyard, unwilling to face the knight who discovered her.
Wretched man. Why could he not have let her be? She should have known better than to approach him, but he enticed her with his handsome looks and serious brow. A small flicker of guilt teased at her and she tamped it down. She took no pleasure in thieving but she needed the coin. Desperately.
A man who looked like an angel caught her stealing. Ellise snorted. Of course, should she have expected any less? Still, she would not be cowed by events. As soon as she’d found somewhere else to live, she would figure out another way of earning money. Mayhap she could work in one of the townhouses or even as a seamstress. She shook her head. Nay, her sewing skills were severely lacking.
Ellise shivered, despite the balmy summer evening. The few torches in the street had long since been snuffed out and large buildings loomed over her, their uneven white walls glowing in the moonlight. Alleyways threaded their way between the houses and Ellise eyed them warily. Danger lurked in every corner at night. She touched the small knife in her apron, assuring herself it was still there.
Where should she go? With little coin and her ragged appearance, none of the finer inns would take her in. Her only hope would be to sneak into a stable for the night or else she’d be left on the street.
A movement in the shadows caught her attention and she slipped a hand into her apron, clasping around the wooden handle of the blade. A scrawny man scurried into her path, swiftly followed by three others and Ellise blew out a breath. “Adam, ‘tis you? You drunken fool, lurking about in shadows. You scared the wits from me.”
Adam peered at her—through an inebriated haze probably—and grinned as he recognised her. “Ellise? Lovely lass, what ye be doing out at night? Should ye not be tucked up in bed? Or mayhap ye wish to join me in mine?”
Allowing her eyebrows to rise, Ellise skimmed her gaze over the man. A far cry from the handsome knight and certainly not her type. “Even if you were not married, you know I’d not be joining you.”
“Oh, ye pretend to be virtuous but we know ye are not. Witches bed many a man, do they not?”
Stomach flipping, she straightened her expression. Even if Adam was jesting, she did not find it amusing. Such words could get her killed. And they certainly would if anyone found out the truth about her. “You’d best be getting back to your wife, Adam. Before she misses you and gives you a scolding.” Head high, Ellise sidled past the men as they laughed at their friend’s affronted expression.
“Ellise!” someone called after her and she picked up her pace.
Adam would cause no hassle, he was too fearful of his wife, but she did not recognise the other men and was reluctant to find out if they were in the mood for trouble. Flicking a peek over her shoulder, she grimaced as the men clutched at their crotches and made lewd gestures. Lord above, they were drunk. Ellise hurried away, unwilling to listen to any more of their insults, only slowing when their shouts faded into the night.
Bent double, she sucked in a few breaths and glanced around. Que Dios me ayude! God help her, now she was lost. The town’s streets wound like vines between the cluttered houses and, in the dark, she had little idea where she was. Durham had only been her home for a few weeks. If she continued through the alleyways she would either end up in danger or even more lost.
Male voices forced her straight and a small flutter of panic resided in her stomach. She needed to get out of sight, and fast. A she scurried around the corner, her foot slipped in the deep grove caused by the carts and a sharp stab of pain speared through her ankle. Ellise fell to the ground with a cry, the dry dirt hurting her palms as she tried to brace herself.
She glanced around and sat up. Curse her clumsiness! Sliding up her skirts, she inspected her foot. She was unable to see the damage clearly in the darkness but it hurt. How was it she saw so many things in her visions but never anything that directly affected her?
She shuddered as Adam’s words echoed through her mind. Witch. Aye, it was time to move on again. If anyone found out about her dreams, she would be burned at the stake before long.
Horse hooves sounded, drowning out the sound of approaching voices and Ellise tried to force herself up but her ankle gave way and she tumbled back to the ground, throat tight with fear. The animal approached but before she could glance up at the rider, a hand curled around her arm and hauled her into the saddle. The rider held her firmly, coaxing her into position in front of him before she’d even registered what happened.
“Good eve to you, Ellise.”
The press of leather mail against her back made her breath hitch and she turned to glimpse him out of the corner of her eye. Even though she’d recognised his voice, the sight of him still surprised her. Aye, an angel in disguise. The knight’s golden hair gleamed in the night illumination, short with a slight curl to it, and his chiselled jawline bore a little stubble in the same shade. Underneath the facial hair, a dimple in his chin begged for the touch of her finger and she fisted her hand under her apron.
Strong arms surrounded her, cocooning her in an all too reassuring shield of masculinity. With a flick of his reins, he coaxed his mount into a trot, making Ellise start and clutch at his forearms. It had been too long since she’d last ridden.
“What are you doing?” she asked as she gently released her grip on his arms, the heat of his skin through the linen shirt lingering on her fingertips. He wore no chainmail, only his leather plates, and Ellise thought it brash of him to be so unconcerned with his safety. Big towns were dangerous for noblemen, and she had no doubt her rescuer was a rich man. His well-crafted sword and large horse spoke of wealth.
“Rescuing you, I think.”
Ellise blinked, having almost forgotten her question. “Aye, well, you have rescued me now and you have my thanks. You may release me.”
“And where shall you go, Ellise?” The way he whispered her name made her shudder, as he made no attempt to let her go.
“I know not. But that is not your problem. You showed little concern for my welfare at the inn, why should you care now?”
“I am not heartless. I suggest you be quiet for the journey or I may be tempted to throw you back where I found you.”
Ellise tried to scowl but a chuckle forced its way from her lips. “Ah, knight, you have a most persuasive tongue. Yet am I likely to end in even more trouble should I stay in your arms?”
“In spite of what you may think, I mean you no harm. I had no intention of seeing you out on the street.”
“And yet here I am.”
“And here I offer to rectify my mistake. In my arrogance I wished to show you the error of your ways, and I hope to make amends for my misdeeds.”
“A noble knight wishing to prove his worth to a common thief? Well there be a tale I have never heard before. And yet I was thieving. Do you not feel the outcome was what I deserved?”
The man directed his horse along a wider street and recognition sparked. They were not far from the centre of the settlement, where the richer townsfolk lived. “You are no common thief, Ellise, that is very clear.”
Ellise thrust her chin up. First the knight wanted to play her punisher, and now he played her rescuer. What an odd man he was. “Mayhap I am a criminal of great cunning and my every move is an act. Mayhap I had expected you, the brave dashing knight, to come to my rescue so I could rob you blind.”
With her face turned forward, she felt the rumble of his chuckle against her back. Deep and oddly seductive. For some unknown reason, she suspected he did not laugh much.
“A cunning criminal would not be on the verge of tears at being caught. I have been around many dishonest folk and your reaction was no act.”
“There were no tears.”
Mayhap there were, but Ellise would not admit to that. Tears never helped, something she learned long ago. The knight did not respond and the tension in her chest loosened. If he’d started questioning the circumstances that had turned her to crime, the tears may well have flowed again and she did not want that. An acute ache throbbed in her breast as she thought of her son and she forced the memories aside.
The horse followed the edge of the town square and the knight directed it under a stone archway and into the courtyard of The Rose and Crown stables. Ellise peered up at the large, two storey inn. Its white-washed walls and timbers were clean and well-maintained, and there were no drunken patrons lounging in the doorway or being sick in the streets.
Dismounting, the knight offered her his hand and aided her down. The large hand over her own made her throat constrict and she thanked God for her dark complexion that hid the heat in her cheeks. Ellise winced as she put weight on her ankle and her companion’s brow furrowed in concern.
“Does it cause you much pain?”
“Nay…” She hissed as she tried again. “Aye, a little,” she admitted.
“Give me but a moment.” He pressed her hand into the saddle of his mount, urged her to lean against the cool leather and marched into the shadows of the stables.
Ellise took a moment to admire his walk. Strong and proud, there was no doubting his knightly heritage. She recognised that kind of walk. One that spoke of discipline, confidence, and righteousness. As he came back out, a stable-hand followed, rubbing at his eyes and giving a yawn as he eyed Ellise with a bashful grin.
She longed to fold her arms over her chest and glare at the knight as he returned to her side, but she still needed the support of the horse. Arm easing behind her back, he coaxed her away and encouraged her to put her weight on him.
“I do not even know your name,” she announced as the realisation struck her.
He laughed as he led her toward the inn door, his wide torso providing the support she needed. And more. His muscular arm propping her up sent tingles racing through her body.
“My name is James Deveraux.”
“James, whatever are you doing with me?”
His lips tightened as she pulled lightly against his hold. “I am seeing to it that you rest that ankle and have somewhere to sleep for the night.”
“You cannot want me to stay here, surely? They will throw me out.”
“Not if you are my guest.”
“Your guest? You know they will consider me your… your whore.
James shrugged and Ellise shook her head. Either the man meant to have her as his whore or he cared little for his reputation. The term stung Ellise but she’d been called worse and would bear the scrutiny with indifference. She doubted he expected her to warm his bed, even if she sensed a spark of interest directed her way from him. The man clearly lived and breathed the chivalric code.
“Well on your head be it. I shall take no blame when your repute is well and truly tarnished.”
“Ack, ‘twould do my repute no harm to be seen with a bonny lass. Many a noble man takes a woman to bed with him upon visiting The Rose and Crown, just as long as ‘tis done quietly.”
Ellise attempted to ignore the flurry of delight his words caused and forced a serious expression on her face. “Not you though, I’d wager.”
“Aye, well, I do not make a habit of paying women to join me in my bed, I’ll admit that much.”
And other women? She urgently wanted him to deny the presence of any other women in his life, even knowing she had no right to such knowledge. A man like James likely had a wife or was surely betrothed.
The pain in her ankle all but forgotten, she found herself faced with a steep set of wooden stairs as James led her past the main hall. The inn smelled of herbs and ale and jovial laughter rang out. Here the candles were wax and no smoky atmosphere or unwelcome smells swirled about the air. Ellise had practically forgotten what the finer side of life looked like. Did her son still enjoy that kind of life?
Even with the support of James, her first step up sent a shaft of pain through her ankle and she released an unbidden cry. With a muttered curse, he yanked her into his arms and carried her easily up the steps. The moment ended too quickly when he placed her down, and Ellise fought the need to pout in disappointment. No man had ever taken her in his arms before. She had to admit to liking it.
Arm slung around her once more, he eased her along the balcony and into one of the end rooms. Laid out across the entire end of the building, James’ lodgings were clearly superior. She peeked sideways at him. She had thought him just a knight but mayhap he was a lord.
He led her past a large bed, the red drapes concealing most of it and helped her onto a long carved bench under the window. Ellise sank gratefully onto the padded cushions and observed as James removed his sword and laid it carefully across a writing desk in one corner before shrugging out of his armour and hooking it over the back of a chair.
James sent a glance her way but Ellise couldn’t make out his expression in the candlelight. It was too quiet. Her usually bold tongue refused to work and her chest felt clogged as he stalked across to stand in front of her. She traced the cut of his chausses, up to his loose shirt and let her gaze linger on the glimpses of tanned flesh at the collar. He swallowed and she found herself doing the same as she watched the cords in his neck move. Finally she braved a peek into his eyes. No man should be blessed with such beautiful eyes.
 That green gaze roamed over her before settling on her ankle and he scowled. “You should raise your leg, lass. Prop it up on the bench.”
The sudden order snapped her out of her haze. Inching her skirts higher, she studied her bare ankle. Red and swollen, the sight made her grimace. But it was her filthy leather shoes that really caused her to cringe. She could hardly put them up on the chair.
“Mayhap I should have a maidservant attend to you.” James clasped his hands behind his back and rocked briefly on his heels.
Ellise tilted her lips. “I think they will not attend a woman like me.”
“They would if I asked it.”
So sure of his own power. Ellise shook her head. “Mayhap. But I should not like it. I can attend to myself. Pray, is there somewhere I can wash? I wish not to soil the finery here and alas, I have been out all day and the dust clings.”
“Aye, of course. Have you a change of clothes? Or something you can sleep in?”
A rush of heat flooded her body. Foolish woman that she was, the reality of sharing a room with the handsome knight was only just sinking in. Thank goodness she had lost all worries of propriety long ago. She no longer cared for her reputation, for the good it had done her. Repute meant little on the streets of Northumbria’s towns.
James continued to watch her and Ellise offered an apologetic smile. “I-I have a spare chemise in my apron but naught else.”
He nodded thoughtfully as if weighing up their options before pointing at a set of curtains at the other end of the room. “There is a washbowl and cloths there. I will see if I cannot beg a gown or robe from one of the serving girls when I request some food.”
“I thank you, James.” Ellise realised by now there was no use in arguing with him. Too used to getting his own way, she decided. With a commanding manner like his, everyone likely bent to his will. And his angel-like looks probably did no harm either. She imagined the serving girls falling over themselves to help him. She made to stand and he came speedily to her side but she brushed him off. “I am no cripple and I have no wish to have you aid me in washing.” She bit back a laugh as he jumped back at her words. He likely felt the lack of propriety far more than she did.
Ellise hobbled behind the curtain, stealing a peek at his concerned expression before drawing them closed. Poor knight. He looked thoroughly overwhelmed by her presence.
James scraped a hand through his hair and backed away from the curtains as the rustle of clothing resounded in the quiet room. Damn, what was he doing? Indeed, a noble man sharing their room with a whore was no unusual thing. But Ellise was no whore and he made no habit of sharing his room with strange women.
And Ellise was strange. Or certainly uncommon. In spite of her circumstances, she retained her droll wit. He found it ridiculously charming. Aye, she was no common thief. A criminal through circumstance rather than choice, and he felt guilty for forcing her out onto the street. He didn’t know what to do with her after this night, but he would help her. It was not in his nature to ignore those who needed aid and he desperately wanted to help Ellise.
Water splashed. He cursed the curtains that were so thick and then cursed himself for such thoughts. When had he ever let lust get the better of him? Never. A flash of something through the tiniest gap in the fabric caught his attention and he watched closely as he held his breath.
Aye, the briefest glimpse of dark smooth skin. God’s blood, but he disgusted himself. Turning away, he escaped the room, slammed the door shut and exhaled slowly. This eve would prove to be a long one.
He went in search of a maidservant and managed to persuade her to donate one of her gowns in return for a goodly amount of coin. It was no fine garment, but was in a better state than that awful thing of Ellise’s. The woman deserved a great deal more. Beauty such as hers belonged in fine fabrics, and in superior surroundings.  With her cultured tongue, Ellise would have no problem fitting in with nobility. In fact, part of him wondered if she had not spent time with the higher ranks of society, but Ellise was not pretentious or overly-modest like many women he knew. With the exception of the Thornewall lords’ wives. Both were kindly women, but neither would consent to being alone with a strange man. Ellise was indeed a puzzle.
She remained hidden behind the curtain when he returned, gown over one arm and a platter of fruit and bread in the other. “Ellise?”
“I have a gown…”
An arm thrust out from between the curtains and James shook his head. He’d half-expected her to leap out from behind them and accost him with words once more. Half-hoped too, if he was honest. Draping the gown across her arm, he retreated to the chair in front of the writing desk and picked at the chopped apple whilst sneaking glances at the hangings.
Ellise swept aside the thick fabric with a flourish just as James popped some apple into his mouth and he sucked in a breath. The fruit wedged in his throat, making him cough. Ellise’s eyes flew wide, and she hobbled to his side and slapped his back. Hard.
“Enough!” he said, holding up a hand and giving a final cough. “For a slender lass, you are astonishingly strong.”
“Forgive me.” She attempted to look contrite, but he could see the mirth in her eyes. “Are you well?”
“Aye, aye, well enough. Sit, woman, before you strain that ankle any further.”
With one last concerned glance at him, she retreated to the bench and drew her legs up onto it, spreading herself out comfortably. Taking a moment to recover, James shifted on his chair and considered his next move. He needed to take a look at her ankle, he concluded. But he didn’t trust himself. It was not that the gown was particularly spectacular. Its simple dark blue colour and cut were more suited to a peasant girl than nobility, but it was that it displayed Ellise’s figure fully. And what a figure it was. A hint of cleavage greeted his gaze just above the line of her chemise, and the tight cut of the garment followed her gently curving waist to her hips. With her legs propped up, he was afforded a glimpse of slender calves as she repositioned her skirts and looked at him expectantly.
“Well, what do we do now? Shall we sit in silence all evening?”
James resisted the groan threatening to force its way out of his throat and came to his feet. Women really were baffling creatures. With several decisive steps, he forced himself to sit next to her, the scent of soap and herbs lingering. She had washed her hair too, a few damp strands still stuck to her face and her skin glowed, now free from grime.
“Now I shall look at your ankle. If you have done lasting damage then you shall need to see a physician.”
“I cannot afford a physician!”
James raised one brow and ignored her as he eased her foot into his lap. She squeaked but he ignored that, too, and wrapped a hand around her ankle.
“So small,” he murmured and then cursed himself for letting the words slip. Even with her injury, her ankle seemed so tiny and fragile. So very unlike the woman herself. A hiss escaped her as he manipulated her ankle and he offered her an apologetic smile. “‘Tis not broken. Just a sprain.”
“That I know.”
“You need to keep it raised.”
“Aye, that I know too.”
“Is there aught you do not know?”
“I know naught of you. Tell me, brave knight, what do you do? Are you a mercenary? Do you fight other men’s wars?”
She tilted her head to consider him and James caught himself studying the gentle arch of her neck. Ack, but he could hardly remember the last time he’d taken part in a conversation with a woman. In truth, he had little occasion to. Looking after Thornewall took much time and if he was not in the keep, he was at his manor house seeing to his lands and people. Women, in his experience, wanted protection or pleasure.
And certainly not conversation.
James shook his head. “Nay, I am no mercenary. I am a captain. My lord’s demesne lies near the border.”
“So you do fight another men’s wars.”
“Nay, for they are my own, too. I hold land not ten miles from the main village.”
“Ah. And have you a wife there? And babes?”
Lord, would the lass never cease? “Nay, no wife. No babes.”
“But you are what? Seven and twenty?”
“Nine and twenty.”
“Yet you are handsome and powerful. Mayhap you have not found a woman who can see past your scowl. Or mayhap you are a demanding man and no woman can satisfy you.”
Her lips turned up, prompting his own to follow suit. “Mayhap they do not like my unchivalrous ways. Mayhap I am simply a rogue and no woman can tame me.”
“Nay, that is not it. You hold chivalry in high esteem, any fool can see that, or else you would not have come to my aid.”
“Aye, Ellise, alas you have the measure of me. I fear the perfect lady may just have passed me by and I am destined to grow old and grey alone.”
“Now I see it. You seek perfection. Therein lies your problem. No woman is perfect. And a man is even less so. An imperfect man seeking a perfect woman. Ha, ‘twill never happen. You would be wise to look more closely at the women around you. ‘Tis the imperfections that make a soul beautiful.”
James realised he was still stroking her ankle and he carefully released it but she kept it in his lap. Shifting his attention away from her leg, he considered her. “You are very wise, Ellise, for someone so young.”
Ellise straightened at this, allowed her chin to tilt up. “Mamá taught me well. I would not have survived as long as I have done on my own without the skills with which I’ve been blessed. I thank God every day for more wit than that of my enemies.”
“You speak as though you have many enemies.”
“A woman alone always has enemies.”
“You have been alone long?”
She paused, seeming unsure how to answer. “Aye, since I was five and ten. I am three and twenty now.”
“And you have no husband? No babes?”
“I have no one,” she agreed softly.                                            
A convoluted mix of relief and sorrow rolled through him. Aye, his attraction to her grew by the second and at least no angry husband would be upon him but he saw a heavy wash of sadness in her gaze, even as she tried to mask it.
“A woman like you should not be alone, Ellise.” His voice came out low and husky, as her dark gaze connected with his. James suspected he’d just given away his desire for her and knew he should retreat from that disturbing gaze of hers.
The tip of her tongue licked briefly across her bottom lip and she rested her hands on his forearms, the touch sending heat down to his groin. “I do not have to be,” she said quietly, glancing at his arms before bringing her gaze back up to his. “Not for this night.”

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