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A woman with a hidden past, running from danger and pursuing a quest for justice
A disillusioned freedom fighter, being drawn into a rebellion he would like to avoid
Fate brings them together---and then threatens to tear them apart.
When a misunderstanding lands the pretty indentured servant in the stocks, Rhys becomes her unlikely savior. After the grueling ordeal, he tenderly cares for her bruised body and broken pride. But he longs to do much more-- to satisfy the fire that sparks between them the moment they are alone, and to claim the woman designed by providence to be his soul mate and lover.
Joan cannot deny her perilous attraction to the handsome mason and builder, but her oath to rebuild her broken life prevents her from accepting the passion waiting for her in his arms. Rhys speaks of discovering "what might be", but Joan dare not succumb to his seductive charm. She is hiding secrets that Rhys must never know, and carrying wounds that she believes his gentle care cannot heal.
FROM CHAPTER ONE
[Rhys has brought Joan to his house after she has spent a day in the stocks.]
He pulled the lacing down her gown. The crossing lines had probably once been silver ribbons, but now crude hide strips held the back together.
He tried to remain uninterested, but it proved impossible. Her condition made his arousal especially pointless, but undressing her affected him anyway.
She tried too. Her expression chilled into something half stern, half sleepy, and very distant. Still, her embarrassment was palpable. And provocative.
There was something practiced to her pose. He guessed that he was not the first man to disrobe her. That did not surprise him. She looked to be in her early twenties. It would be rare for a woman to reach that age without at least one man in her past.
He decided to leave her in her shift so they could pretend some modesty. Only the grey fabric gaped to reveal that she wore nothing underneath. A creamy stripe of skin glowed from her neck to the dimpled hollow at the base of her spine.
"Hand me the towel," she said, going very rigid.
He passed it to her. Turning away, she lowered the gown from her shoulders and unfolded the linen to shield her breasts. He found himself facing an elegant back, slender and lithe, with a subtle firmness that spoke of physical labor. It tapered nicely, then began a subtle flair at her hips. The bunched gown obscured the progress of those curves.
He rose and helped her to stand. The tattered gown slid down. Its slippery descent revealed the rest. Nipped waist. Rounded hips and bottom. Shapely legs.
His mouth went dry as her beauty unveiled in the candlelight. The goaler had been right. There were easier ways to get to heaven than this.
She turned quickly, clutching the towel to her chest. Its thin fabric molded to her curves and the lower edge fluttered along the top of her thighs. Stark nakedness would have been less erotic.
She eyed him cautiously, alert to her vulnerability. But something else passed between them too. It was in her eyes and her embarrassment and the vague parting of her lips. He knew women well enough to recognize the signs. Whatever else she thought or felt, she was not entirely indifferent either.
That made it harder. He suppressed the urge to splay his hand on the curve of her waist. Instead he bent and lifted her lovely, smooth nakedness in his arms. "You do not have to be afraid. I am not unmoved, but I am not going to try and do anything about it."
She clutched and stretched the towel to be sure it covered the essentials. "Because you would lose the grace of being a Good Samaritan?"
"Aye, and because you still smell." He carried her over to the bath and held her above its warmth. "You have to put the towel aside now. We want it dry for later."
"Don't you have another?"
"It is the only one here."
"Close your eyes then. Now, lower me in without looking."
"I do not think . . ."
"Put me in and then go around behind me."
"I will try, but you must sit on the bottom and it is deep. Steady now . . . you are not light, and doing this blind. . . . . don't . . . hell!"
Once she touched water she tried to release herself. In the confused grappling that followed she thrashed, he grasped, she sank, and he fell. He ended up braced above her with his hands on the bottom of the bath.
Water sloshed up to his armpits. Pretty breasts faced him a handspan away. Soft and round and gently full. The tips were rose colored in the way of fair women. Rosy and tight. He did not bother pretending that he didn't notice.
She instantly covered herself with her arms and sank down until her breasts were submerged in the dark water. The fire showed just enough ghostly, fluid femininity to keep his blood rumbling.
"Please. Behind me."
He grabbed the soap and threw it to her. Water dripped off his sodden shirt, making pools on the floorboards. He stripped it off, fetched a dipper and clean rag, and knelt behind that beautiful back.
"Leave now. I can do it."
He ignored her, because of course she couldn't. Using the dipper he poured water over her head. "Give me the soap."
She unplaited her long braid and he washed. She had a lot of hair, and it took a long time. The soap turned the water milky, finally obscuring her body. Except the top of her back. And the sinuous line of her shoulders and neck. And the bent knees popping up, catching the fire light.
She began washing. He could tell that it pained her to move her arms so much, but he knew that she would not let him do it for her. Just as well. Stroking those limbs, even to clean them, would not be a good idea.
He brought over one of the buckets of hot water. Using the rag, he made a wet pad that he pressed to her neck.
She startled, and recoiled from the heat. But the shock soon turned soothing and she accepted it. The protective hunch of her shoulders slowly dipped away.
"You said that you are alone, Joan. Are you widowed?"
"You husband still lives?"
"I was betrothed once. He is dead."
"You chose not to remarry?"
"I have no interest in finding a husband. Marriage can interfere with a person doing what needs to be done."
He understood what she meant. He had avoided it himself because of things that needed to be done. It was odd hearing a woman say it, though. He wondered what purpose had led her to reject a normal life.
He remade the compress and held it to her back, where her position in the stocks would have caused the worst knots. A little groan of relief escaped her. It sounded for all the world like a woman being pleasured. He kept applying heat where she needed it most, and her sighs began doing wicked things to his thoughts and his body.
He pushed her wet strips of hair out of the way so he could do the other side. "How came you to London?"
She slid up so he could reach better. She crossed her arms over her body lest he try to peek.
"My family died, except for Mark. We came here because I had met Nick Tiler a few years earlier where I lived. He had come to make pavers for a manor house in the region, and had let me play with the clay. I hoped that he would give me work, since he had said back then that I had a talent with it."
"Where was your home?"
"The western marches."
"We have more in common than crafting statues, then, since my family hails from there as well. You crossed the breadth of England? That is a long way for a woman and a boy to travel by themselves."
"I had no idea how long when I started. It took three months and the little coin I had. But Nick accepted me, so it was not a lost journey."
All the way from the marches with a young brother in tow. He was impressed. He had made that journey himself when he had been about Mark's age, with a father to protect him and enough coin for inns. Even so it had been hard and sometimes dangerous. He had been running from trouble and seeking a free future and only those goals had made it worthwhile. He doubted he would have done it just to find work in a tile yard.
He placed a hot compress on the edge of her back and pressed in to her ribs below her arm. His fingertips grazed the soft swell of her breast. She stiffened in objection, but the comfort of the heat defeated her.
"When I was a young apprentice, my master's wife used to do this," he explained. "After a few years my body grew accustomed to the work. If I had really hurt myself, she also did this." He placed his fingertips below her shoulder bones and firmly circled.
She arched in shock. "That hurts!"
"It becomes a good hurt. Stay still."
She accepted it, and then welcomed it. The anger and resistance melted out of her, and her head lolled on her knees.
It probably would help her legs too. And her arms. She would never permit that, but an image of it stuck in his head. He saw her lying naked on a bed while he slowly worked his hands over her entire body.
"This is a fine house," she said. "Wider than most in the city."
"Too wide for one person, is what you mean. I came into some money several years ago, and put it in land as most do. I built the house with an eye to selling it."
"But you did not?"
"I will someday, I expect. But there is a well, which is convenient, and a good size garden where I can work. I have grown accustomed to both luxuries. And it is the first city house that I planned, so I have an affection for it."
She raised her head and peered around the kitchen more alertly. "You built it yourself?"
"The stone work."
"You designed it too? Are you a builder?"
"I assisted a master builder for a few years, and began serving as one myself around the time I bought this property."
She twisted to see him. It pained her enough that she grimaced, but that did not stop her. Nor did the fact that her crossed arms hardly covered her breasts effectively. "Is that how you serve them? Mortimer and the Queen? As a master builder?"
Her blue eyes flashed with anger. She used the accusatory tone she had adopted when he walked her to the city gate that day.
"It is how I serve the crown."
"So you say, but it is really them."
"For now, it looks like it is."
"They spend the realm's wealth on their luxuries. Have you helped them in their extravagance?"
"There are many builders to the crown. My projects have been few, and not very extravagant at all."
"But you hope for more and better ones."
"It is my craft and my skill and how I eat. Aye, I hope for better ones."
He said it sharply. She was picking at something that he resented her broaching. Bad enough that he debated his choices in his heart. He did not need this woman forcing them into words.
"You said that day we first met that you do not work on their castle walls, but one day you will be asked to, won't you? Not to carve tracery, but to plan and design the keeps and the fortifications. When Mortimer steals an estate, he calls one of his builders to come and improve the defenses that failed in his assault. One day that builder will be you, won't it?"
"I doubt that. I am not one of his favorites."
"You tell yourself that, but you know the day will come. You are young for a master builder. That means that you are more skilled than most. When it comes to the walls that hold up power, skill is what matters."
"You do not know what you are talking about. Skill is rarely all that matters in this world."
She glanced with scorn over his face and body. "I think that you have already made your decision, in your heart. You will do whatever is asked if the coin is right, and say that you only further your craft. You will probably tell yourself that it doesn't matter, that it is not one man's decision that makes the injustice continue."
He resented like hell that knowing glance. A little fury whirled in his head. "If I tell myself that, it will be because it is true. I am a mason, woman, not a knight or baron. Masons build structures. Others build the power and the world."
"Masons are like the men who make siege machines. They may not lift a sword, but there can be no war, and no power, without them."
"You have an unholy anger about something far above you. Like all ignorant people, you see the world too simply, and voice stupid opinions too boldly."
"I am not so ignorant and stupid that I do not know a lackey when I see one."
"What you see is a man fast regretting an impulsive act of charity and growing sore angry at being insulted in his own house. Do not blame me for the injustice in this realm. If you think that a mason can change any of it, you are mistaken."
"Anyone with heart and resolve and change it. Masons and farmers and even . . ."
"And even tilers? If you believe that, you are worse than mistaken. You are a dreamer and a fool."
She reacted as if he had slapped her. "Better a fool than a willing victim! Better dreams that give purpose than resignation that deadens one's will!"
She looked half mad, almost desperate. He heard accusation in her cry, but also something else, as if she proclaimed this for her own sake rather than to insult him. Still the insult was there, and his anger rose in response.
Not a normal anger. It had been mixing with a spiking desire all during this argument.
He wanted to silence this bold, ungrateful woman who slung insults more scathing than she realized. Not with his hand or words, but with a kiss. He wanted to embrace her rebellious passion and transform it into a more immediate fire.
The image of a fevered taking entered his head while she glared at him. It did not help that the argument had made her indifferent to her nakedness. The clear view of her breasts and thighs only made his imagination more vivid. The hot, tumultuous fantasy defeated his control in a way the physical intimacies had not. Her challenging expression only inflamed the urges he had been battling.
He either had to reach for her and make it real, or leave.
By Design, copyright © 2001 Madeline Hunter