Bronwyn was so close to him she could have reached out and touched him, and she realized she wasn’t afraid of him any longer.
“Well?” She raised her eyebrows slightly and cocked her head. “What was I in this dream of yours?”
“My own true love, the one I’ve been seeking so long. I thought I would never find you, and now here you are,” he replied, unsmiling, in a husky whisper that no one else could hear. His eyes were so penetrating she felt herself blush.
His cohorts had resumed their game. For an instant it was though they were alone in the world as he laid his hand over hers and studied her face. “Do you know how beautiful you are? How little else I have been able to think of since the moment I first laid eyes on that face of yours, heard you sing? Who are you?”
Bronwyn dropped her gaze, not knowing what to say.
No, he wasn’t a stranger to her, either. “It’s true , we have met in a dream,” she said quietly.
She was so deep in remembering the past that she didn’t become aware of the men approaching until it was too late to run and hide as she usually did. Too late, she heard the crunch of boots on the icy ground and twirled around as two strong arms grabbed her about the waist. How long had they been watching her?
“Let me go!” she cried, as she was lifted from the ground. She kicked at the tall stranger, but her feet hit only air. “Let me go!”
The man laughed down at her. “Nay, sweet maid, stay a while. I must see what it is I’ve caught.” His voice was deep, and his strength seemed to mock her struggles. His grip was secure when he grabbed the arm that lashed out at him, and he pulled her up close to his large body. She was trapped. Her mind reeled at the thought of what could happen to her as she glared up into a pair of cunning eyes in the lean face so far above her. She’d been foolish to linger here in the dark.
“You’ve caught nothing, sir!” she boldly spat back at him, still fighting to free herself from his iron grasp. “Nothing that is yours. So please, put me down. I’m no wild animal. I’m only a girl.” She was angry, using it to hide her fright. She was determined not to let him see how afraid she was. Nothing will happen, she kept telling herself to soothe her fears. Nothing. It was silly to believe that this man would want to do her harm.
“Only a girl?” He laughed as his eyes raked across the length of her face and twisting body as she tried to fight him off. “You’re no girl, my sweet, but a woman to my mind,” he told her in a husky whisper, and laughed knowingly at the two men who’d suddenly appeared behind him, as if out of nowhere. His hands were roaming unbidden about her waist and then cupped her breasts possessively as his lips found hers and greedily kissed her.
Ashamed and terrified at her helplessness, Bronwyn wrenched one of her hands free and, with a cry of indignation, reached up and scratched his face from eyebrow to chin, so deeply that she could feel blood seeping from under her fingernails when she snatched her hand away.
He threw her violently to the ground. One of his gloved hands flew up to explore the wound unbelievingly. “Why, you little vixen!” His voice roared down at her as she cowered in the snow at his feet.
Horrified at what she’d done, and knowing there’d be a penalty to pay, she scrambled up and tried to run, but his strong hand yanked her back into his arms. “Hold still, you little wildcat, or I’ll snap that slender neck of yours,” he growled into her ear, as he bent her body back painfully to stare into her frightened eyes. His grip tightened as he continued to glare down at her in the dark. Glaring back at him, she didn’t cry out or whimper.
Finally, to her amazement he burst out laughing. “Wildcat, that’s truly what you are. Why, you even fight like one with those sharp claws of yours. Nay, you aren’t a girl or a woman, but a wild animal. I think I’ll teach you some manners. You have spirit. I like that in my wenches,” he said to her. “But now,” he commanded, “hold still or I’ll break your neck, pretty as it may be. I will have no animal disobeying me.”
She could tell he was used to being obeyed and, beaten at the moment by his greater strength, she went limp in his arms. There would be another chance to escape, she told herself, but she couldn’t do that if she were dead and, right now, there was murder in the man’s cold eyes. Her heart was thumping so furiously in her breast that she could hardly hear his next words.
“Yes, you have spirit. I hate women who whine and beg as if they hadn’t a brain in their heads, and I detest weeping women.” He wiped the blood from his face with the back of his hand and grinned down at her, the hunter observing his freshly caught prey. He shot a glance over his shoulders at his friends who’d watched the whole episode and were now laughing as they nudged each other.
They usually shared the wenches. However, this one was different. They could tell by the way their friend was looking at them. Hands off, his expression said plainly enough.
“Cousin, she’s yours,” one of the men said. “I’m in no mood to fight a wildcat’s claws and teeth this night. No, all I crave is a mug of hot buttered rum and a willing female. This one is all yours.” The other shadowy figure beside him chuckled in agreement, and the two men disappeared into the warm, brightly lit inn, letting the light from inside shine out into the night. The stranger caught a brief glimpse of Bronwyn’s face before the door closed again, and she fleetingly saw his face; a dark, brooding one with high cheekbones framed by lengthy ebony hair that nearly touched his broad shoulders. He was a very tall man, but it was his eyes that captured her gaze and kept her silent. Piercing eyes that seemed to burn right through her, as if he could see what she was thinking, predict her next move. Those eyes, she realized, held her prisoner more than his iron grip, for there was power in them. He was a handsome man, she thought with surprise. Handsome in a wickedly dark way, handsome like a hawk or a wolf.
He loomed over her and seized her face between his strong fingers, pulling her close to him. He studied her with a strange gleam in his angry eyes and with one swift movement reached out and freed her long hair from her hood, so that it cascaded down about her face and shoulders. She met his stare, her chin held high.
How she hated an arrogant man, she thought, trembling inside. Yet something vague and nameless was nagging at the edge of her memory as she stared at him. He seemed, somehow, familiar. It bothered her. Some inner sense told her that this was no ordinary man and to show him weakness would be the wrong move.
“Well, sir, you’ve had your fun. You’ve shamed me enough, and you’ve earned the scratch I’ve given you. We’re even. A kiss for a scratch. And you have ogled me long enough. Now let me go.” She was shocked when he not only refused to answer her, but also simply lowered his lips until they softly brushed her cheek. She shivered at his touch, though his lips were hot on her cold skin. She tried to pull away.
“Will you apologize for scratching me? Beg me to forgive you?” he said in a maddeningly calm voice. Its sinister tone made her pulse jump. He wasn’t going to let her go.
“Will you, then, apologize for grabbing me and stealing a kiss in such an intimate manner? A kiss you had no right to take?” she said angrily, knowing she shouldn’t have said such a thing the moment the words slipped from her mouth. This man was dangerous. He was used to getting what he wanted. Getting his way. Always. She shouldn’t be toying with such a man. She didn’t know enough of the ways of men to do so.
“Apologize for taking what I want?” He smiled. “Never. You’re far too pretty not to kiss. You were made for kissing. And more. All women are.” As if to prove it to her, he yanked her away from the doorway of the Red Boar and dragged her out into the yard behind him, as she frantically kicked and squirmed to escape. He pushed her roughly up against the wall of a building in the gloom and pressed his lips cruelly upon hers again. Forcing her mouth open, he thrust his tongue inside, probing. His powerful body pinned her against the wall so tightly she couldn’t move.
“So anxious to get away from me, hey, little one?” His breath was hot on her face. “Well, you shall pay for that as well as for my wound. I’ll take you here and now, because no one defies me and gets away with it. You’ll learn to enjoy it once we start. So, put away those claws and make it easy on yourself. I get what I want. And I’ll have you.” He laughed softly, kissing her again.
Panicking, she kicked at him, and they tumbled to the ground, entwined. She couldn’t believe what was happening. Wouldn’t anyone come to her aid? No, she realized with terror. No one would interfere. He was a soldier, and she was a peasant. ****