Avicia stumbled into the courtyard and headed for a dense copse of thick leaves. Her eyes watered with every step. She wiped the tears aside as soon as they fell, intent on the solitude the thicket offered.
“Avicia?” In her path sat the source of her embarrassment.
When Edric rose, she stepped back. He advanced and she put her palms up, warding him off. His fingers closed on her wrists.
“Get away from me! By your own recent observation, I am a lowly retainer, worth no one’s notice.”
“Stop this. I did not mean to hurt you.”
She wriggled from his grasp, desperate for an escape. “Let me go, or I shall scream.”
“You behavior draws unnecessary attention. The King’s guards look at us.”
Two huscarls, who warmed themselves by a fire, nudged each other with shrewd leers. One winked at her and gave a raspy chuckle before he whispered to his companion, who also laughed.
“Come with me,” Edric urged.
She bridled. “Leave me be! How dare you?”
His hand clamped on her wrist. He dragged her toward a timber structure. Behind them, the sounds of laughter echoed.
He pried open the door and pushed her inside. Birds squawked in loud protest at the intrusion. They stood in the King’s mews.
“I am the wife of a knight, not some peasant you can abuse. Let me out, my lord, or I shall scream this place down!”
He barred the door and stepped closer.
Her stomach fluttered and she licked her dry lips.
She wiped her clammy hands in her skirts before she balled them into fists. Her senses grew attuned to the sound of his even breath, the smell of horses and grass that lingered on him. Masculine power emanated in his square shoulders and powerful legs.
“I acted without foresight. I regret my earlier behavior, my lady.”
“You regret it? You regret it! You embarrassed me before my friend, my husband, and a woman whom I despise. Yet you can counter my feelings with simple regret.”
“Shall I fall on my knees and beg forgiveness? I shall if you want!”
As if giving proof of his words, he did so. His body hit the earthen floor with a heavy thud. She held his rapt gaze in silence. The King’s birds quieted.
“Why did you do it?” Her eyes watered again.
“It was unforgivable. I was angry. I did not expect that you might marry, might love another.”
“Should I have brooded forever in your absence?”
He smiled but it seemed insincere, forced. “Was it too much to hope?”
She turned her back on him. “You are an English lord’s son. I lived by the whim of my uncle. Your status and mine dictated our fates.”
“My father is dead. I am the lord of his lands now. Your fate changed for the better, too. You left Lille and your cruel uncle behind.”
“Philippe rescued me.”
Stillness descended in the room again. Stifling warmth grew and swelled in the enclosure. Edric’s boots scraped the earth behind her. She whirled and faced him. He stood with arms rigid.
Perspiration glided down her back underneath her garments. She backed off, but he reached for her and held her firm.
“Do you love the Frenchman?”
“I married him.”
He jerked her toward him. “That is no answer. Do you love him?”
His breath warmed her cheeks. His mouth drew her gaze for a moment before her eyes flitted back to his. “I love him! I carry his child. Did you believe I would never find love again, content with shallow memories of you? There is a great divide, which separates us forever. Hope forsook me when you told me you belonged to another. Philippe found me. He desired and loved me. I chose to love him, too.”
Edric released her so fast, she stumbled a moment. He turned from her, his shoulders hunched. Waves of misery cloaked him. Her heart wrung with pity at the sight.
“Cynwise is no true wife,” he muttered. “She does not love me. I married her because Godwin wished it. She tolerates me at best.”
Avicia blinked back tears. His voice seemed so wooden, remote. With trepidation, she put a hand on his shoulder. Muscles bunched beneath her touch.
“I am sorry for you, my lord.”
He spun around, his face a dark mask. “Do you think I want your compassion? Am I some object of your pity, scorned and ridiculed for my loveless marriage? Do you congratulate yourself for the happiness of your union with the Frenchman?”
“Please, I meant no such thing! I would never pity you, or think myself above you. You have confused me and made me say things I do not mean.”
Edric captured her face in his hands, forced her gaze upward.
Her eyes traced the contours of his mouth. She remembered the pleasure of his lips on hers. Her heart fluttered in tiny ripples.
He loomed closer. “Did you forget me, Avicia?”
She tugged at her lips with her teeth. He inhaled sharply, desire warming his gaze.
“Please release me. I am a married woman, my lord.”
“What did you feel when you first saw me? Why did you stare openly? Did you remember our days together? Have you missed me as much as I have missed you?”
“I love my husband. Edric, do not do this….”
His lips hovered dangerously close to hers. “You forgot to say ‘please’.”
She drew breath in one space. In the next, the feathery light touch of his kiss trailed across her mouth. So softly, her mind scarcely acknowledged it. She leaned toward him, seeking proof of the phantom caress. With a low, urgent chuckle, his mouth pressed against hers in full. She responded with keen insistence. Their lips and breath melded together. Her hands swept up his arms to his face. She held it firm between her fingers.
The distance and time between them faded. His kiss outmatched the hesitant, exploratory embrace of their past. He grew bold and brutal, possessive. She moaned when his hands slid down her waist, cupped her buttocks beneath the coarse wool and lifted her against him. He hardened beneath the layers of cloth, and pressed against her firm, rounded belly where the child grew inside her. Philippe’s child.
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