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by Gayle Callen
Book 2 of the "Knight" trilogy
(The books do not have to be read in order.)
He was her father's enemy, and now he was her husband by the king's
decree. But that didn't mean Lady Isabel Atherstone planned on
honoring James Markham, Earl of Bolton, with her love. She only hoped
that her hasty marriage would bring her closer to the revenge she
sought and finally restore her family's name. But then, the willful new
bride hadn't counted on what would happen when her handsome husband
took her to the marriage bed.
James Markham was thunderstruck. Though an age-old family rivalry kept
his new wife at arms against him, she quivered with desire beneath his
touch. Now the newly married earl wondered if his passion would be his
undoing. For though the lady swore she'd never love him, her eyes told
another tale--one that made the earl vow to possess her completely.
"Gayle Callen cements her place as
one of the fresh, new voices of Medieval romance."
Romantic Times Magazine
(The following is the property of the author and Avon Books, and cannot
copied or reprinted without permission.)
The dowry rested uneasily on James
as he rode through the forest towards home. Though hidden away in his
pack, the money could get him killed--not that it would matter to his
At the crack of a branch, he whirled in
the saddle, expecting
to see his soldiers. But the path was empty, dwindling away into
as the day crept towards its end. The senses he had honed in battle
though they had lain dormant through his long debauchery at court. He
the trees above him, searching for any unnatural movement. His ears
up every rustle of leaves. Something wasn't right.
Suddenly, a man dropped from the trees
into James and sending them both tumbling from the rearing horse. James
onto his back, digging in with his heels, pinning the man beneath him.
he could reach for his dagger, a sword appeared at his neck. He went
and looked up the thin length of steel, past the arm that steadily held
He almost laughed at the mask that covered the upper half of his
face, until he saw the long, wild, black hair of a woman. He took a
breath and didn't fight the arms gripping him from behind.
They remained silent, the three of them
caught in a strange
moment in time. James was so overcome with fascination that the
of peril receded from thought. He could see little of her face, but she
stunning, with her hair untamed and flowing in dark curling streams
the cloak that covered her body.
"Your purse, sir," she said, her voice
James grinned. He felt suddenly more
alive than he had
throughout the months of drunken lethargy and self-pity. Then the sword
his neck and he flinched.
"Do you think this a jest, sir?"
"No, my dear. Is this a whim on your
part?" Though he
tempted much, he couldn't resist taunting her. He wanted to hear the
low tones of her voice. His arms were jerked back harder, and he
"Your money," the man's voice hissed in
his ear, spraying
spittle in a hot wave across his jaw.
"At my waist, you fool."
The woman pricked the tip of her sword
beneath his ear.
Her dark eyes never wavered. "I have no qualms about killing you. I am
desperate woman, and you are nothing to me."
"Very convincing, my dear." He felt the
new flow of blood
seep into his collar. He resisted glancing at his horse, for fear
search it, too. "Your plight so moves me that I fear I must warn you.
men are not far behind."
Her eyes betrayed her and she glanced
back down the path.
James barely felt her accomplice pawing at his belt. His gaze was drawn
the smooth line of her throat, then up to her full lips compressed into
thin line. Her eyes were black as the depths he'd lived through so
She'd slashed crude coloring beneath her lashes, and he thought perhaps
wore paint on her skin.
"I have it," the man said, then
abruptly threw James
to the ground.
James rolled over and the woman brought
her boot down
on his neck. The sword danced bare inches from his eyes.
"Search the horse."
He clenched his teeth. The dowry money
from his failed
attempt at marriage was all he had to restore his estates.
"But his men--"
"Do it now, quickly." Her low voice
rang with authority.
Her hooded cohort untied the saddle
packs and staggered
beneath their weight. James sighed heavily, waiting for her grin of
She showed nothing.
He had trouble swallowing beneath the
pressure of her
foot. Her cloak swirled above him, offering glimpses of feminine legs
"I will find you," he whispered.
She gave a faint smile, almost a
grimace. "You may try.
But you reveal your foolishness, sir. I could easily kill you."
He reached for her boot. As she lost
her balance, the
sword slashed his cheek, deeper this time. She steadied herself,
even more pressure to his throat. The sword shook in her hand and blood
its point dripped onto his shirt. Her face betrayed its first
She staggered back.
James lifted himself to his elbows and
the sword returned
"Do not tempt me, sir." She looked up
at her partner.
"Let us be gone."
The man came forward with a rope in his
James's calm vanished as he realized
she might actually
succeed with her theft. Knocking the sword aside, he lunged off the
and reached for the woman. She whirled towards him, but before he could
her, a blinding flash of pain exploded through his head. The last
he saw were her black-rimmed eyes.
A dull pounding invaded James's dreams,
and it seemed
a long time before he realized it came from his head. Slowly, he opened
eyes. The room was dark, with no windows. By the dim light of a fire,
could see a prickly thatched roof. Where was he?
Suddenly, the fire roared higher, and
James noticed a
squatting man tending it, his face covered by a hood. The robbery had
He remembered the woman then, and
turned his head until
he saw her. She was watching him through the slits of her mask. The
inside his skull rose and ebbed, and he gritted his teeth. "You have
my money. What more could you want of me?"
She came out of the shadows into the
a man's short, black doublet, and hose beneath. Her legs were fine and
her waist narrow but not fragile. Wild hair curled and clung, wrapping
insidiously about her arms and waist. Of her face, he could only see
eyes and lips, and knew for certain that she had painted them. He saw
intelligence and purpose in those eyes, and knew instinctively that she
"My lord, your head is badly bleeding,"
"I could not leave you to die."
James stared at her. "Why not? Then I
would not be a
witness to your crimes."
"I have a wealth of witnesses, and one
more will be of
She propped her foot on the pallet
beside his head and
leaned over him. She smelled of earth and greenery, and James could
her kneeling naked in the forest. He smiled.
She leaned closer. A black curl teased
his chest. "Do
you find me amusing, my lord?"
"A thief with shocking tenderness for
her victims? Yes,
you amuse me. You do other things to me as well." He lifted a hand, and
sword reappeared at his throat like lightning.
"Beware, my lord. I could change my
Her accomplice moved closer.
James swallowed carefully, feeling the
sharp blade at
his skin. "You won't. Just return my money, and I'll leave."
She straightened and returned the sword
to her side.
"A large amount you carry, my lord. I'll have to keep it."
James was finding it hard to keep his
eyes open. His
head pounded with each heartbeat, and he had to concentrate to follow
words. "You could be noble and return it."
"And you could be noble and understand
that you are aiding
a lady in distress."
He chuckled, sensing a lie, yet
intrigued by it. "A lady?
I have known few ladies who dress as you do."
She whirled before him and gave an
"I need to ride astride."
James looked her up and down, as a slow
grin moved across
his face. "I'm sure you do."
Her cohort kicked the pallet, and
James's aching head
rocked side to side. The woman eyed him.
"You are unusual, my lord. Though you
have lost a fortune,
you have not lost your humor."
She hesitated, and James found his gaze
drawn to her
mouth. The sudden slow burn that swept through his body had nothing to
with fever. Why should he be so affected? She was a thief, a masked
with no scruples. Yet, he sensed something beneath the surface, at odds
what she showed the world.
Over her shoulder, she said to her
watch in the forest. Tell me when his soldiers approach."
"I cannot leave you alone with him,"
the man said in
a rasping voice.
"He is wounded, and I am armed. I can
James blinked sleepily and managed a
grin. "Please do."
After her accomplice had closed the
door, the woman silently
studied him. James returned the favor, wishing he could see more
her bulky doublet. Who was she, and why had she resorted to theft? She
well-bred and healthy. Surely she should be tending children by
keeping her man warm at night.
"You stare hard, my lord."
James shrugged, then grimaced at the
pain that shot through
his head. "Just contemplating your identity."
"Then I'll keep you in suspense no
longer. I am the Black
"Your mother must have had a sense of
humor. Such an
"Turn your head and let me look beneath
He did as she asked. He considered
going for her sword,
but he still thought he could escape peaceably, with his money.
She untied the cloth from around his
head and peeled
away the bandage. James closed his eyes, fighting the sickness that
his stomach. And fighting the rush of sensation her skin ignited in
"The bleeding continues, my lord," she
He felt the warmth of her breath
against his neck. "Why
do you do this?" he asked, turning suddenly until their faces were
She remained still, looking at him.
"You've smeared blood
on the pallet."
He caught her arm and pulled her
against his chest. He
heard the quick intake of her breath, but saw no fear in her eyes. If
cold anger lit her from within. Her hair tumbled about them, filled
the elusive scent of the outdoors.
"Release me, my lord," she said calmly.
Her heart seemed to betray her,
hammering wildly against
his chest. Instead of escape, James found himself thinking of her lips.
"You had best not hesitate," she
whispered. "My sword
might damage the part of your anatomy you most treasure."
His head was growing foggy, but he
couldn't miss the
weight across his hips. He chuckled and closed his eyes. "Ah yes, you
go right to the heart of the matter. Very well, my lady thief, what are
"You may release me."
He opened his eyes. "Why ever for? I
haven't held a woman
in, oh, days."
She put a hand against his chest and
arms fell away weakly and he looked at them in bemusement. "That was
easy, wasn't it?" He wearily closed his eyes. "Perhaps I'll sleep now.
can discuss my money at a later time."
"You do that, my lord," he heard her
say, as if from
Once again he felt her hands at the
back of his head,
but soon, even that sensation disappeared.
"Lord Bolton! Lord Bolton!"
Someone shook James's shoulders.
Awareness came to him
slowly, and he felt the hard earth beneath his back. Had the Black
actually left him to be found by his own men?
"My Lord Bolton, thank heavens above!"
James cracked open his eyes. Everything
distorted by the pain that blazed through his head.
"My lord, you were hurt. Is it serious?"
With a groan, he lifted his arms, and
hands helped him
to a sitting position. Three of his men-at-arms bent over him, their
worried. One man stepped aside, and a bolt of reddish sunlight blinded
He covered his eyes.
"How late is it?" he rasped. His head
throbbed and his
stomach shifted queasily. "Where are the rest of the men?"
"'Tis close to dusk, my lord," said
unacknowledged leader of the three. "The others are a league behind,
for you. After we were...separated, we found your horse, and we have
looking for you ever since." He spoke slowly in his usual attempt to
the accent of the nobility.
James found he could barely support his
weight. He dropped
back on his elbow. "I was robbed, hit over the head. Strange as it
the thieves took pity and tried to stop the bleeding. But they have all
dowry money." He sighed. "Whose idea was it to pretend we carried
"Yours, my lord," Wiggins answered.
James rubbed his head. "I thought so."
A cheerful Mort squatted down beside
him. "Good to see
The boyish good looks of his most
deadly archer were
more annoying than ever. "Where the hell have the three of you been?"
Their heads bowed in unison.
Wiggins coughed. "We have searched for
for many an hour."
Mort threw his arms wide. "Covered near
the whole forest,
we did." His shoulders slumped. "We woulda been with ye for the attack,
but...Riley saw a butterfly."
James groaned and rolled his eyes. The
dark giant, Riley,
held his silence as usual. One big boot scuffed lines in the dirt.
had never spoken while in James's employ. But he was too good a fighter
dismiss for something as trivial as not speaking. Between Wiggins and
James usually heard enough pointless blathering. "Don't tell me any
James squinted into the forest. "Do we still have enough light to make
"My lord, your head," Wiggins
reproached. "I do not believe
you can ride."
"Can we reach it before dark?"
Mort gave a sunny grin. "Aye, milord.
But we must see
to your head first. Riley?"
The giant took something from his
saddle pack, but James
was in too much pain to care. He submitted to Riley's examination,
his jaw at each probe of the massive, delicate fingers. He swayed once,
Mort caught him. The young soldier's face had turned grim.
"Milord, ye've lots of blood on your
shirt, and not enough
in your head. Your skin's a mite hot to the touch."
James gritted his teeth. His skull
pounded with waves
of pain. But still he thought about the woman, and remembered the feel
her breasts against his chest, and the flutter of her heart. He was too
"Riley is doing as best he can, but ye
need rest and
medicine. We should make camp--"
"No," James interrupted. "We press on
to Bolton Castle
for aid. The thieves must not escape."
Riley stepped in front of him, tying a
new cloth around
his head to hold the bandage in place. He finished the knot, put his
on James's shoulder, and looked down into his eyes with a grim
"Yes, I know," James said, giving
Riley's arm a quick
squeeze. "The wound must be deep--my head feels like it's going to
Wiggins stepped closer. "Allow me to
help you mount,
my lord. Or perhaps I should make a litter?"
"Nonsense! I can--" But he couldn't
quite get to his
feet. Wiggins offered a strong shoulder, and James stood up, then
into the saddle. He held his breath, praying he wouldn't retch.
"My lord, will you be able to ride?"
Wiggins asked. "Perhaps
we should wait for the others."
"The sooner I get to the castle, the
sooner I can rest."
The three men mounted in silence,
eyeing James as he
swayed in the saddle.
For a few minutes, they trotted through
the forest, two
by two. James's head pounded out each beat of the horse's hooves.
"Must of been a lot of thieves,
milord," Mort ventured.
James lifted his head, giving him the
blackest look he
could muster. "Two."
"Ahh." Mort nodded thoughtfully and
looked away, a shaky
whistle escaping his lips.
From the rear, Wiggins called, "One
must have been quite
a swordsman, my lord. That slash across your face--he could easily have
"Beg pardon, Lord Bolton?"
James swung around, then clutched the
saddle as dizziness
overwhelmed him. "She. The swordswoman."
Wiggins shrank away and mumbled, "Oh."
James turned forward again, swallowing
back the contents
of his stomach. In his mind he saw her, dark eyes, red lips, wild, wild
A branch slapped him across the face
and he cursed.
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