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The Knight's Return

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Chapter Four

Onora Con Connacht stifled a gasp of surprise at the strange knight’s presence in her sister’s garden.

So this was the Norman mercenary who had caused such an uproar in her father’s court? She urged her mount closer to the garden wall, determined to obtain a better view. Standing on her palfrey’s back, she could just see over the moss-covered enclosure where the kings of old used to install their mistresses or—occasionally—a widowed queen out of favor with the new ruler. Now Sorcha lived here, a prisoner in her own realm for daring to defy their father.

“Be still,” she hissed at her horse, her balance unsteady as she stood on the mare’s back. “I’m almost there.”

Gingerly, she reached past the thorny branches of a yew tree to the smooth trunk of a young pine. As the palfrey stilled beneath her, she bent her knees and leaped, keeping the pine in her grasp as she flung herself to the top of the garden wall.

She must have disturbed a group of birds, because there was an outcry nearby and the flap of wings. Onora held herself steady, waiting to be discovered and hoping against hope she would not be.

This wasn’t the first time she’d sneaked into Sorcha’s domain, though her older sister forbade the secret trips. Onora missed her sibling dearly and knew if their positions were reversed and Onora had been banished, she would want someone to visit her. As it was, Onora took great pains to escape her father’s watch, his vigilance far more formidable with his younger daughter than it had been for Sorcha. A fact that had proven a vast inconvenience, but she took pride in finding new ways to elude her protectors.

Of course, she could never remain away from her father’s keep for long and she confined herself to bringing the occasional length of exotic silk or a wildflower cutting. Her presents were small and often attributed to one of Sorcha’s attendants. But it pleased Onora to know she’d touched her sister’s life anyhow.

When the garden quieted again, Onora felt certain she had not been discovered. Carefully, she seated herself on the stone wall to watch amidst the cover of thick branches. In the distance, her sister conversed with the tall Norman, their talk too low for her ears.

How could her father have permitted this stranger to visit Sorcha with no guard? The Normans would march on Ireland before long now that the exiled king of Leinster had asked the Normans for help regaining his kingdom. The Normans always rejoiced at trouble in Ireland since they lived for the chance to steal power in the greatest land on earth. So why trust a Norman with his own daughter?

Or could the stranger bring an honest offer to Sorcha that might save her from the convent? Onora’s romantic nature rejoiced at the possibility.

“Lady Onora?”

From outside the wall, a man’s voice startled her.

Her hand flew to her waist and the protection of her dagger as she turned. There, standing at the base of the wall, stood a frowning young groom she recognized as the caretaker for Sorcha’s horse.

“Eamon,” she whispered, wishing she did not feel a pang of feminine pleasure at the sight of someone so wholly inappropriate to her station. Why couldn’t her heart beat with such speed at the sight of a noble who came to court her instead of a man destined to wed a village girl?

He was broad shouldered in a way that made the female servants of the court sigh, his muscular form filling out his tunic admirably. His dark hair and blue eyes marked him as Irish, while the deeper shade of his complexion suggested a hint of the exotic, as if his mother had been wooed by a spice trader at the village fair.

“Come down at once before you are injured.” Eamon glared at her with the displeasure one might cast upon a disobedient child. Then he began to scale the wall.

Hand over hand, he climbed quickly, his nimble fingers finding purchase between the mossy rocks. Alarm tingled up her spine.

“You cannot order me about.” It was difficult to infuse her voice with the proper authority while striving to whisper, but she did not wish anyone to hear them.

“I am keeping you safe, Princess,” he retorted, closing the distance between them rapidly.

“Shh!” she hushed him, fearful now for him as much as her. At least her rank would save her if she was discovered. “Have a care with your voice. My sister is within.”

Eamon reached the top of the wall, his long, tanned fingers splaying along the rock so that the smallest of the digits rested a hairsbreadth from her bottom. She scooched back a bit, the pine tree impeding her movements.

“All the more reason you must descend.” He pulled one leg over the wall so that he straddled it like a horse.

He faced her, his thighs bracketing her without touching.

“You, sir, are highly improper.” She glared at him to cover her nervousness.

“Unfortunately, sneaking out to your sister’s cottage against your father’s orders is even more improper.” He winked, a wicked smile revealing straight, white teeth. “It’s not me who’ll have to worry if we get caught.

If you’ll allow me, I’ll help you descend safely.”

He extended his hand like a high king shuttling his queen about the great hall with much ceremony. Being the center of a handsome young groom’s attention would not have been a hardship, except that Onora had the impression that Eamon thought she was more of a bother than anything. And that wounded her feminine pride far more than a tumble off the wall would injure the rest of her.

“I will allow no groom to command me.” She looked down her nose and ignored the girlish urge to accept his hand.

Her heart fluttered oddly in her breast as she kept her eyes trained on the garden. Unfortunately, she had moved too far behind the pine tree to see Sorcha or her knight any longer. She could see only a pitch-covered trunk and, if she looked to her right, a small waterfall in the brook that trickled through the garden. Peering to the right was not an option, given Eamon sat so near.

“You see naught but a groom then?” He lifted a hand to a leafy limb of an overgrown apple tree and followed Onora’s gaze. “Are you always so quick to believe what you see?”

“What else would I believe?”

He plucked a white flower tinged with pink and rolled the stem between his fingers.

“We sit among branches that bear naught but decorative flowers today.” He stilled the bloom and offered it to her. “Yet the tree has not revealed its true purpose with the fruit that will follow, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Do you mean to suggest you are working toward a higher purpose?” She knew some ambitious villagers lifted themselves out of drudgery to become clerks or even clerics.

But as she cast a wary eye upon her strong and virile companion, she could not envision him taking priestly vows.

“I mean you have not discovered my hidden task in dismissing me as a mere groom.”

He turned his sea-blue gaze upon her, unsettling her with the frank assessment contained therein. The look he gave her bore none of the subservient ducking or downcast eyes she usually received as the king’s daughter. Eamon studied her the way a man might research a keep he wished to conquer. He seemed to seek out her weaknesses and strengths, as if he viewed her for the first time.

Awareness swirled inside her, a warm, tingling sensation that danced through her veins like a sip of well-made wine.

“You overreach to suggest otherwise,” she complained, although he certainly gave her pause. Why claim to be something he was not? “I have seen you tend my sister’s mare these last many moons.”

As soon as she said it, she regretted the implication that she’d noticed him at all. Flirting with grooms—even grooms who aspired to a higher station—was out of the question. If her sister had been exiled for being with a knight, what would the king do to a daughter who dared dally with a servant?

Turning on the wall, she lifted her legs over the other side so she could climb back down. Her visit with Sorcha would have to wait. She didn’t wish to have witnesses to the news she brought from the keep.

“Allow me to help you, Lady Onora.” The man plucked the apple blossom from her fingers and tucked it behind her ear, using the stem to secure a bit of her hair along with it.

He touched her so quickly that she scarcely had time to protest. Her pulse pounded in her veins, warming her skin all over. Even now, he moved to steady himself on the top of the wall, lying on his belly so that he might guide her down the sheer face of the enclosure.

“Nay.” Shaking her head, she refused his help. “I will depart on my own, but it will be the last time you chase me away from my own sister. Whether or not my father approves of my visits, he shall hear of your presence if I see you on the premises again.”

“That would only aid my true purpose, and for that I would thank you.” He kept his eyes upon her as she made her way carefully down the wall, her toes seeking chinks in the rock more slowly than his had done. “Be sure to mention I tried to keep your pretty neck intact.”

She flushed even warmer, confused by the strange encounter. Shoving the thought from her mind, Onora leaped to the ground.

“I will not give any credit to you for saving a neck that was never in danger.” She turned on her heel and wondered how she could mention the strange meeting to her father. She was curious now, and wanted to know about this mysterious groom even more than she wanted to know about Sorcha’s new Norman.

But she could not risk her father’s wrath in admitting this visit since that might encourage Tiernan Con Connacht to rid himself of his eldest daughter all the sooner. Onora had only come to tell Sorcha her time avoiding the convent was almost over. Their father made plans to send Sorcha away before harvesttime.

And Onora would not lose her sister to the nunnery without saying goodbye.

“I think you’d better take your leave.” Anger poured through Sorcha. Did Hugh think her so daft that she would believe such idle flattery?

“Have I offended you by declaring a fascination with you?” He remained seated, a fact she appreciated since his physical size would intimidate her even with a whole slew of her father’s knights to protect her.

And, truth be told, his imposing presence made her acutely aware of her femininity. Her petite stature and slender limbs. The sexual element of that contrast was never far from her mind and she could not understand why. How many times had she regretted her passionate decisions? She could not afford any more. Especially not with a man who bore a strange resemblance to Edward.

“Nay. You offend me by not speaking the truth.” She knew he had come to Connacht for reasons he did not reveal. Anyone looking upon his fine, strapping form and the sharp intelligence in his eyes would see a knight in his prime. A knight accustomed to command. He must have a reason for being here besides courting an exiled princess far from his homeland.

“Do I not?” He shot to his feet and a few quick strides carried him close enough for her to touch. “I would be more than happy to prove my…interest.”

She bit her lip, unsure how to respond. Unsure what exactly he had just offered.

“That will not be necessary.” Her voice failed her, emerging from her lips in a cracked sound.

Her first lover might have only visited her bed a handful of times before fate and an enemy’s sword had felled him, but their time together had taught her the way of things between a man and woman. And even if the coupling had not fulfilled her every last romantic dream, it had taught her much about the way a man could turn a woman’s steely will to molten want. Edward hadn’t provided her with that elusive pinnacle of pleasure, but his embrace had taught her she was as passionate in bed as she’d always been outside of it.

She would do well to rein in that fire now before she allowed it to dictate the course of her life again. Except Hugh’s sinewy form emanated a heat that warmed her, while the spicy male scent of him tempted her to lean closer and take a deeper sniff.

“You’ve no right to call me a liar, lady, lest you are willing to let me prove I speak the truth.” His amber eyes locked on hers, the whiskey-golden gaze seeming to see past her defenses to the woman beneath.

A foolish notion, and yet those eyes undid her.

She swayed on her feet, perilously close to him. Who knows what folly she might have fallen into if the rustle of birds in a nearby tree hadn’t distracted her. Straightening, she shook off the spell he seemed to have cast upon her and took a step back.

“I owe you naught, sir. I risk much by even allowing you within the walls of my home.” She had no guards to protect her here, just a wet nurse for her son and a groom who helped keep the horse fed and exercised.

“Then you have all the more reason to trust my ability to restrain myself with you.” He reached toward her and for one heart-stopping moment she though he meant to touch her, but instead he merely scruffed the head of the sleeping cat within her arms. “If my intentions had been less than honorable, I could have easily exercised my will here in the privacy of your gardens. Will you not trust me to escort you to the village fair on the morrow where we will be in full view of many watchful eyes?”

Her gaze dipped to his broad hand gently stroking the kitten’s fur, his fingers a hairsbreadth from her breast as he did so. Her breasts ached in warm response and she was grateful the tiny beast and her folded arms hid her body’s reaction.

“Think about it, Sorcha,” he prodded, lifting his hand to tip her chin, forcing her to meet his clear-eyed gaze. “When was the last time you enjoyed the taste of freshly baked meat pies and the scents of a spice trader’s cart? I hear there are minstrels from Scotland who are known to perform long into the night.”

He dropped his hand, but her skin retained the memory of his touch.

“You do not play fair, sir,” she complained, already smelling the smoke of a bonfire heaped with fragrant dried wood. “It has been many moons since I attended a feast day, let alone a full-fledged fair.”

“In truth, I cannot remember the last time I had the pleasure of such entertainment myself.” His grin beguiled her, calling her to forget her worries and join him in whatever mischief he had planned for the morrow. “We will make a merry pair.”

“Too merry, I think. The whole village will think we are courting.” She snuggled the kitten closer to her face, rubbing the fur along her cheek, but not even the animal’s warmth could replace the memory of Hugh’s gentle fingers. “And while I am pressured to wed, you must know there will be equal expectations heaped upon you.”

She worried her lower lip as she replaced Conn’s kitten on the ground. She should have already refused Hugh’s offer. Joining him at the fair day would only complicate matters. Yet what if his presence soothed her father’s haste to send her to the convent and bought her more time with her son before she had to give him up forever?

“Not even an Irish king could force a marriage upon me that I did not wish.” He narrowed his gaze for a moment and she shivered to think what kind of enemy Hugh Fitz Henry would make. “I vow no amount of pressure would sway me.”

She had spent every day since discovering her “husband” had played her false telling herself to trust no man. And still the fiery truth in Hugh’s eyes swayed her as much as her longing to dance a merry round while the minstrels played and the bonfires yawned flames into the night.

“Aye.” She could not resist the opportunity to break free of her exile. The chance to make a happy memory before she was confined to a life of toil and prayer. “I will attend the fair day at your side.”

“Excellent.” His smile brought forth an answering grin from her lips and she thought for a moment she might actually have fun with this mysterious Norman who chided himself for peering at her thighs and devoured her sweet bread like a starving man. “I will call for you at noon.”

She would have to leave Conn in the care of his nurse, but by the saints, she would venture out of her narrow domain and into the world again.

“Until then.” She dropped her gaze and dipped her head as a polite courtesy even if she had once outranked him.

For a moment, she thought he might attempt to steal a kiss. Oddly, she did not recoil at the notion. No matter that her passions had been used against her so cruelly once, the old flame still leaped to life as she envisioned Hugh’s mouth brushing hers.

She licked her lips as heat flowed through her veins.

“Until then.” With a quick bow, he spun on his heel and departed, leaving her surprisingly bereft and more than a little indignant.

Did he seek to toy with her affections by granting teasing touches? She was no maid who needed her passions awakened, but an experienced woman with desires long suppressed.

Sorcha might not drag the man into marriage to save herself from the convent, but she would be hard pressed not to give Hugh a taste of his own teasing medicine at the morrow’s fair.

.

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