© 2001 Madeline Hunter
EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER FOUR
The canvas walls blocked the sun, and the shelter was lit mainly by the fire. It took Anna's eyes a moment to adjust to the dimness as she slipped inside.
What she finally saw made her halt in her tracks.
Morvan had risen from the cot. He stood naked in front of the hearth, facing it, legs parted and arms spread low and wide. His head was angled back, and she imagined his eyes were closed. He appeared as if the sensation of the heat had created an ecstasy.
He had not heard her enter. She should leave, or make herself known. She should at least look away.
The plague had cost him some weight, but it had not diminished his strength much. He was still a beautiful animal, more like the courser she had just ridden at the farm than a warhorse. His torso and legs were muscular but without exaggerated bulk. His shoulders stretched straight and hard and a series of flat angled planes defined him. His body was chiseled in stone rather than molded of clay, and now it stood in its glory in the fire glow, like a statue given life.
She had come to know that body well while she cared for him during the fever and deliriums. More than once she had needed to bathe it. After the first day she had ceased being embarrassed. During his illness he was both with her and separate at the same time, and his ignorance had made her fascination with his beauty dispassionate.
It had been different since the fever had broken, though. Very different. Suddenly Morvan became a man conscious and alert, regaining his vitality with every passing hour. The slightest touch had turned awkward and embarrassing. For her, not him. His diamond eyes had reflected vague amusement at her predicament. Ascanio had guessed, and taken over the more personal duties. That had helped, but the last two weeks had still been difficult.
She suspected that the next few would be impossible.
His arms fell. He looked over his shoulder. His fiery gaze met hers, and she felt her color instantly rise.
He stepped to the cot, unembarrassed by his nakedness, but then they both knew she had seen him thus often enough. He sat and pulled the blanket around his hips. "You said that I will move to the keep today. Now, I hope. I am done with this death house."
She brought over the garments that she carried, and tried to look like someone who had just arrived. "These were my father's. There are more in a trunk in the chamber you will use." She moved a pail of warm water from the hearth to the cot. "After you wash and dress, I will take you there."
She fetched a clean rag. His fingers closed on hers as he took it, gently imprisoning her hand. "Aren't you going to do it? I'm not sure I can spare the strength." His expression appeared innocent, but his eyes sparkled.
"You looked strong enough to me just now."
"I was enjoying the sensation of the warmth. Such commonplace things are like new to me."
She understood what he meant, but her instant comprehension annoyed her. She did not want reminders that they had shared this experience. She did not want the empathy born of his illness to continue. "If you need help washing, I will send for Ascanio. It is his duty."
The lights in his eyes turned mischievous. "It has been recently, but was not always."
He could not know that for certain. He had been unconscious when she tended him thus. Or so it had seemed. It horrified her that he might have been aware of all of it.
She pulled her hand away. He was teasing her, and toying with the silly way he could fluster her. He kept acting as if they shared a special familiarity. They did, but he had survived, not died, and it was time to put that behind them.
Fortunately, once he moved to the keep he would be distracted by more appealing women and could test his resurrected powers on them.
"Either do for yourself, or wait for Ascanio."
He grinned, pulled the pail closer, and cast aside the blanket. She turned on her heel to leave him to it.
At the entry she glanced back. Morvan sat, wiping one outstretched arm. Water glistened off its taut muscles. His eyes burned with contentment and triumph as he felt and watched the rag's progress.
She understood, too completely. He was reveling in being alive.
Surviving the plague humbled most people. Morvan Fitzwaryn looked like he thought it meant he could conquer the world.
* * * *
He let the warm rivulets drip, relishing the meandering sensations. He took his time, and tasted it fully while he could. This sharp awareness of the little things would not last. Already it had begun to pass.
Old things had been made new. Smells and touches. The beauty of a flame's dance. The confusion of a woman unsettled by a man's gaze.
That would pass too, if Anna had her way. For the last few days she had been almost officious in her dealings with him. But her curt instructions could not hide her discomfort, and her impassive expression could not mask the reactions that he sensed more than saw. Inside the dutiful lady of the manor was one very uneasy girl.
When he stepped out of this shelter today, she would be waiting. She would escort him back to the world of the living. And she would expect him to pretend that nothing had passed between them.
It would not happen that way. He could not undo it, anymore than she could be a stranger with Ascanio after her own fight to live.
He finished washing, and pulled over the garments. They were lordly enough, but old fashioned. He dragged an undertunic on, and a long cotte, and reached for the hose.
Light split through the shadows, then disappeared. He turned to the entry, expecting to find Ascanio. Instead a different blond haired man walked over, grinning. It was John, the other knight in his troop.
"I see that God has blessed you, Morvan. It is being said that the lady's prayers brought the angels here."
"Since two others perished on that other cot, John, I do not think the angels came."
"Still, you appear hale and fit for one who almost died."
Morvan continued dressing, and waited for John to explain why he had come. They were not friends, and John would have not mourned his passing.
John moved the chair closer, and sprawled in it. "Her lordship says we can leave in three days."
"The men will be glad for it. I will not be fit for travel yet, however, and will follow later."
"I have been thinking it might be better to stay here too. For all of us."
Morvan did not reply. He finished with the hose and pulled on his boots.
John glanced to the entry and pitched his voice as lowly as possible. "I have been speaking with the servants. There are two poorly defended outlying fiefs. The land goes east for miles."
Morvan gazed at the young knight, and waited for the rest.
John smiled slyly. "There is no lord and a weak defense. We are inside already, and getting weapons should not be hard with guards as green as this. Fortunes have been made thus, and there is enough for us all."
"How many are with you?"
"With me dead, perhaps, but not now, unless I approve it. Most will not stand against me, which is why you are here."
John shrugged a grudging acknowledgment of that.
"You describe thievery, and a violation of the lady's hospitality and help."
"She will not be harmed, I swear."
"Put this idea out of your head. Anna de Leon is under my protection. If you try this, my sword will be waiting. If you do anything to put her in danger, I will kill you."
John's face twisted into a mask of annoyance. He rose. "You are ever the fool. If you want that giantess, I would gladly let you have her. You could be the lord here, and truly protect her. Think about what I have said. Fortune led us here, and offered this gift. It is all ours for the taking." He strode out muttering a curse.
Morvan rose, and threw a short cloak around his shoulders. John had spoken so boldly because the two of them had one essential thing in common. They were both landless. Marrying property was unlikely. They could either buy it with war booty or take it through force.
He crossed the shelter and stepped outside. The light blinded him and the crisp air shocked his skin. He adjusted to the raw reality, and surveyed the yard and keep, and thought of the forests and farms beyond.
John's temptation worked on his mind despite his attempts to keep it away. Vague considerations crystallized into an inner debate. Right here, within reach, was the answer to fifteen years of prayers. With an estate like this as his base, he could plan to regain his family's honor. He could get Harclow back, and restore the nobility of the Fitzwaryn name. He could undo what fate had wrought so brutally all those years ago.
He had not needed John to point out the possibilities. He had been aware of them since he first rode in the gate, and learned the situation here.
Servants were bringing fresh water to the camps' edges. Anna was lending her strength to the chore, taking the pails and delivering them to the individual men.
You could be the lord here, and truly protect her.
There was that appeal too. She was very vulnerable, and La Roche de Roald was a tempting prize. How long could she hold the world back? He doubted this lawless country would let her return to the abbey as she intended.
But even if she changed her mind about the abbey, she was not for him. If she did not take the veil her duke would give her to one of his barons in a political match.
Except that the young duke was in England, and those barons were at war. He was here.
He could make it happen before the outside world could stop it. He could claim her.
It would not take the conquest of a castle, like John planned. He need only breach one woman who blushed whenever he wanted her to.
That woman noticed him, and joined him at the shelter.
"Can you walk on your own, or should I call for some men?"
"I will do it."
She fell into step beside him. Close enough for him to smell the soap that she used to wash. He looked at her profile, and the eyebrow shaped like a falcon's wing. He glanced down to the woman's form hidden beneath the man's cotte and cloak.
Memories from the shelter loomed in his mind. His awareness, even in his delirium, when it was her hands that bathed his body. Her eyes widening in surprise at the pleasure of a touch. Her lips trembling beneath his kiss. The glow of firelight on the half hidden swell of a woman's breast...