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The Knight's Return

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Chapter Three

The warrior caught the door neatly in his hand, his fingers wrapping around the wood at the last second.

The move was quick, silent and unexpected.

He reopened it slowly, his broad arm coming into focus by degrees until she could see the whole impressive length holding open her threshold. And wasn’t that just a little bit…dominating?

Sorcha searched for her old grit and fire—the willfulness her father had bemoaned half her life—and found only a maternal fear for the babe sleeping two rooms away. She would not allow any strange male in such proximity to her son, especially not one who would flex his strength in direct opposition to Sorcha’s wishes.

“Be careful, sir. I practiced my hold on my knife and I assure you I can wield it more easily thanks to your advice.” She kept her hand hidden in her skirt to perpetuate the idea that she might hide a blade from him.

“You closed the entryway with that hand.” He smiled as he released the slab of wood, the removal of that strong arm making her feel less intimidated. But then, she remembered that about him from the glade where they’d met. Hugh Fitz Henry was skilled at giving the illusion he would not harm someone. No doubt he’d needed to cultivate that talent from a young age, given his size.

“I reached for it after I closed it.” She was no stranger to deceit when a situation warranted.

Her fear had diminished somewhat, but she could not be too careful.

“Lady Sorcha, will you feel more at ease outside?” He gestured to her small plot where a few wildflowers had grown since winter. “I just wish to speak to you and if you are still as unmoved by my suit afterward, I promise to leave and bother you no more.”

Ah, they could be so accommodating when it pleased them, couldn’t they? She peered past him to the fresh spurts of spring grass and budding trees, an awakening world she’d spent little time noticing until she’d had naught to entertain her but the seasons and her son.

Would it be so dangerous then, to sit in the garden with him, this man who had already proven no threat to her well-being? She had not spoken at length to any noble person—any adult noble person—since she had been banished. Her sister, Onora, had attempted to visit her, but Sorcha had feared Onora would suffer at their father’s hands for the efforts and had forbade her younger sibling to visit the cottage anymore.

Surely Sorcha could keep this knight at bay when his intentions were more—corporeal than violent. After her first romantic encounter with a man, she’d learned too late the power of a woman’s ability to say no, but she would put that lesson to use well now, if necessary.

“I will join you shortly.” She pointed to the left where her garden awaited. “There is a bench nearby. I will bring us some mead.”

Hugh’s head tipped back and a short bark of laughter sounded.

“And a knife, I’ll warrant.” Nodding, he stalked out to the garden, reading her far too well.

Had her expression become so transparent in her year away from court that even a knight with such unpolished manners would see through her purpose so quickly? Ach. She was as awkward and unpolished as he after keeping no company for so long.

Perhaps she should not turn away Hugh Fitz Henry without a bit more thought. Conversation might do her good. She could hone her skills and sharpen her mind grown dull from lack of use. If she hoped to talk her father out of locking her away in a convent, she would need a smooth tongue and sharp wit.

Tucking a sheathed blade into her garter, Sorcha hurried around the kitchen to assemble a tray. A pitcher of sweet mead. Freshly baked honey bread. Two flagons. When all was ready, she carried it out into the garden and set it on the bench.

Hugh was nowhere in sight.

Had she scared him off already? Perhaps a woman who threatened him with a blade had not been what he’d hoped for in a courtship. Surprised at the twinge of disappointment that filled her throat, she was about to retrieve the tray when she heard the rustle of tree branches and a crack of wood.

“Sir?” She peered around the garden to the woods nearby and didn’t see anything.

Until she looked up.

And spied Hugh Fitz Henry perched in a tree, his big body balanced on a thick limb as one boot dangled from a freshly broken branch. With one hand, he held tight to the oak. With the other, he reached out for a tiny puff of white and black. Her son’s six-week-old kitten.

“Oh!” Sorcha raced over to stand beneath the tree, nervous the animal might fall.

“The bold little thing. He is not yet weaned and he would scale heights as if he were a bird.”

She lined up under the small animal, holding her skirt out from her body like a cradle to catch the poor thing if he should lose his tenuous grip. Conn would be sad and puzzled should any harm befall his wee friend.

But Hugh stretched a hand’s span more and snatched the animal up while the kitten mewed piteously. Relief flooded through her. For although the kitten was a small thing and the mother cat had litters of many to safeguard against the loss of one, this particular little beast remained special to her son. And therefore, tremendously special to Sorcha.

“Thank you.” She waited impatiently for Hugh to descend, finally taking the kitten from him when he was but a few feet from the ground. “You have averted tragedy, sir, and I appreciate it greatly.”

She wrapped the mewling creature in her long sleeve as she crooked her arm, smiling as the feline licked her wrist in joyful obliviousness of his near accident.

Hugh leaped to the ground as nimbly as a squire, though the expression on his face bore little resemblance to a boy’s.

“You should have a care with the revelation of your legs, my lady.” His voice took on a growling note that surprised her in the middle of her happy reunion with the cat.

And then she recalled lifting her skirt.

“Thankfully a woman’s garments allow her to dispense with a layer without revealing—anything.” Her cheeks heated nevertheless. And while she would like to pretend that it was her long and lonely exile that had turned her manners so coarse, she suspected she would have been as quick to flash her underskirts even while she lived beneath her father’s roof.

“You forget that men require little encouragement to envision the exact shape and texture of a woman’s thighs.” He stormed past her, boots pounding an angry tempo on the ground as he closed in on the pitcher of mead. Helping himself to a flagon, he downed it quickly, readjusting his tunic.

His braies.

Sweet. Merciful. Heaven.

She needed to remain mindful of being around a man. Heat washed through her like a summer fever even though she had no business imagining anything so—physical about this bold and unusual warrior. Quickly, she averted her eyes, although she hadn’t seen anything untoward. It unsettled her enough to have imagined the discomfort his movements hinted at.

Flustered and frustrated with herself that she only perpetuated the man’s probable view of her as having loose morals, Sorcha kept her distance while he took a seat beside the tray of bread and mead. The scowling expression on his visage told her to run back inside the cottage. Yet he held himself firmly to the bench as he poured a second cup full of mead.

The man possessed restraint, if the flexing and tightening of the knot in his jaw proved any indication. That spoke well of him.

Still…how to proceed? She’d had every intention of sharpening her conversational skills and improving her manners, yet here she stood, speechless and supremely ill at ease.

It did not help matters that her thoughts had turned as warmly intimate and disconcerting as Hugh Fitz Henry’s must have. But then, how could a woman’s thoughts remain pure when a man insisted of speaking about the shape of her…er…legs?

“Forgive me for my lapse of judgment, sir,” she said finally, only half meaning it. She’d hardly flaunted her body in front of him, but if she was going to humble herself enough to ask her father to let her raise Conn, she would need practice in swallowing her pride.

The task had never come easily to her.

“No, it is I who should ask your forgiveness. It is not your fault that a man’s thoughts are wayward and inappropriate.” He poured the other flagon full of mead. “Here. Come and join me, my lady, and I pray you do not hold my ill-tempered outburst against me. Your mead would soothe the ragged beast in any man.”

He lifted the second cup, holding it out to her. Entreating.

Saints protect her, she felt as frightened as the tiny kitten must have, perched on a high branch and teetering against a fall only to be given an alternative that appeared every bit as scary. But she, too, found herself moving inexplicably toward Hugh Fitz Henry.

She came to him.

Hugh thanked all that was holy that he had not scared off the woman who might be his only link to his past. For that matter, even if Sorcha could provide him with no hints of his identity, at least he had been admitted into her father’s service. Where else would a man with no past and no true name obtain such a chance? There was a certain safety in that acceptance that he would not risk for the sake of the heat Sorcha stirred within him.

“Thank you.” She gripped the cup he offered and brought it to her lips with a hand more steady than her breathing.

He turned his attention back to his own drink lest he lose himself in watching the way her lips cradled the smooth silver vessel.

He knew in that moment she was not like most women. But how did he know that? As soon as he formed the thought, he attempted to chase down the root of it. What other women in his past had helped him form the basis for comparison? He possessed a sense that females did not appreciate being reminded of a man’s baser nature. Many a noblewoman would have fled his presence at the mere suggestion of what the shape of her legs did to him.

Yet all his struggle for an image of any other woman yielded nothing. No face of a mother or sister, wife or betrothed.

The only woman he could see was the one who sank slowly to the bench beside him, her cup clutched in a tense grip. Had her father been correct in his assessment that she would permit any man to court her—even one as coarse as he—if it meant she might gain freedom from her exile?

“Your gardens are a sight to behold,” he observed lightly, needing to divert their attention.

And yet even that topic weighed awkwardly on his tongue. How could he comment on the lushness of her budding fruit or the heavy blossoms on the vine without sounding like he meant something else entirely?

“I have far too much time to tend them,” Lady Sorcha returned mildly. “I do not know what you have heard about my situation, but as an exile, I am not allowed in my father’s presence and I have no duty to his house. That leaves me with substantial time to tend the flowers.”

Settling her empty cup on the tray beside his, she refilled them both from the heavy pitcher before proceeding to slice a squat loaf of sweet bread.

“He gave me the impression you were free to leave your home with a guardian.” He extended his palm to receive the bread, but she was careful not to touch him as she handed it to him.

Instantly, he regretted putting her on guard to such an extent.

“Did he suggest I might be endlessly grateful for the chance to escape?” She arched a brow and studied him assessingly, her earlier discomfort fled in the face of her irritation.

He debated the wisdom of a lie and decided such a course would be unwise with this woman. Clearly she knew her father well and, perhaps, was as well versed in manipulative games as her sire.

“Are you so content with your banishment?” he asked instead, tearing into the honey bread with the enthusiasm of a man still recovering from a long journey.

His food on the road had been sparse and dependent upon his hunting, something he indulged only upon dire need with his focus so keen to discover his name. His home. He savored the rich texture and delicate scent of the honeyed bread, so different than any scantly cooked beast on his travels.

“No one would seek such isolation as this, and yet I have discovered small delights in the silence of a summer night where there are no servants to sneak about the courtyard stealing embraces or reveling knights to sing and jest till sunrise.” Sorcha broke off a bit of her repast and nibbled the morsel. “Here, I am not subject to my father’s tempers or marched in front of his guests like an exotic animal on display.”

“So you do not wish to hasten your release?” He helped himself to more bread, suddenly aware of how long it had been since he had eaten well.

Or perhaps he merely ate to quiet another hunger. His gaze strayed entirely too often to the princess’s mouth as she licked a crumb from her lips or tasted her mead.

“On the contrary, I cannot wait for my release.” Her green eyes took on a new fierceness. “But I will never be so desperate that I will accept any man my father places in my path in order to secure freedom.”

“I would like to think I have placed myself in your path.” He studied her with new respect, appreciating her shrewd assessment of the situation. “I was not summoned to Connacht by the king. I arrived at his gate under my own accord.”

“If you do not see my father’s larger designs, you are not as clever as I suspected.” She returned her cup to the tray between them with a thump, startling the wee kitten that had fallen asleep in her lap.

The furry beast lifted its head and blinked bright blue eyes before dropping back into slumber amid Sorcha’s skirts.

“I suspect your father wishes you to wed so he does not have to send a cherished daughter to the convent.” Hugh stretched his legs and tipped his head back to the warmth of the spring sun, not daring to gaze upon the fiery Irish princess for long lest his thoughts stray again into uncomfortable terrain.

And while Sorcha might not be desperate to accept his suit, he needed her acquiescence with every fiber of his being. If she refused, he would be dismissed from Connacht and separated from the only clue he had to his past.

“I hardly think my position on the far outreaches of his lands makes me cherished, but you have seen his purpose well enough.” She shifted on the bench beside him and he straightened to see her rise, the kitten now in her arms.

Her feet followed a stone path through the hedges and flowers, a small nod to order in a garden overflowing with pleasant disarray.

“And you know my purpose as well,” she continued, halting to meet his gaze from where she stood. “That leaves me at a disadvantage because I do not comprehend your motives at all.”

Her searing gaze told him she would not tolerate lies lightly.

Nor could he tell her the truth.

That left him in uncharted terrain, just like the whole rest of his anonymous life. He settled for shades of the truth instead.

His eyes raked over her, taking in her proud spirit and womanly form. From her straight shoulders and proud tilt to her chin to the way she cradled the young kitten in her arms, Sorcha was a study in contrasts. And underneath his need to know why she recognized him, Hugh simply wanted to know her.

“I couldn’t forget you after I saw you in the forest yesterday.”

.

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