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Lady of the Knife

Chapter One

"I think we should kill him!"

Thomas stopped working on his bonds and peered through the dark hair hanging over his eyes, listening carefully to the men gathered by the fire in the middle of the clearing. The burly one who'd spoken lowered his voice but continued to argue with his companions, none of who were disagreeing too strongly. Quietly, Thomas lowered his head and returned to rubbing the rope around his wrists against the rough bark of the tree behind him.

They were going to kill him. That wasn't much of a surprise. Since his abduction from his room at the inn the night before, he'd been tied to a tree, threatened with a beating if he made any noise, and given nothing but water. Clearly his welfare wasn't at the top of their priorities. If only he could get his hands free, find a weapon, he'd show them. Warrior trained, he was, and good at it, too.

Of course, that's how he'd gotten into this fix.

Six months ago he’d been on top of the world. He’d done so well at the Warrior’s tournament last fall, taken first position, almost set a new tournament record. The best warrior in Alanadon, that’s what he’d been named.

But with his glory had come marriage offers, all from women he’d never even met. Offers of money, position, the chance to father a child destined to inherit a great estate. All he had to do was agree to a marriage contract of less than two years. But he was nineteen; he had his whole life in front of him. Why should he want to get married, even temporarily?

But then came the final offer, just two weeks ago, the one his eldest sister, Carolyn, hadn’t been able to refuse. He’d stood, aghast, as she told him the ‘good news.’


“You’re selling me to her?”

Carolyn looked incensed at the accusation. “Selling? Don’t be so dramatic. You are betrothed to Lady Evelyn, Thomas, not sold.”

How else could he regard it? He hadn’t been asked if he wanted to marry the lady. But Carolyn was head of the family and responsible for meeting the debts their parents had raised. In Alanadon, both sexes were considered equal under the law, and this meant inheritance of an estate would go to the oldest member of the family, regardless of gender. Carolyn was head of the Alandale estate and responsible for meeting the debts their parents had left. Lady Evelyn of Silavale was offering a fortune for him, enough to get the estate out of debt and even have funds left over to help his younger sisters.

Carolyn argued and cajoled and in the end he’d agreed. Within the week he and his family had been headed south from Alandale to Silavale for the wedding.


Marriage. He’d thought there could be little worse than being dragged off to marry a total stranger. Well, being tied to a tree by a bunch of thugs was worse.

His captors numbered eleven men, unshaved, unbathed, their clothing ragged, but their swords bright and sharp. There had been two more of them, but those men had left a few hours before, presumably to collect a ransom for him. They hadn’t returned, and those left behind began to plot murder as a way to cover up their crime.

For what felt like the hundredth time Thomas scanned the edges of the clearing, hoping to see some sign of rescue. He thought he recognized one of the far trees, shaped like an upside-down vase, as being near the road they’d traveled on yesterday. Thomas had noticed it when Martin Landersom, the man Lady Evelyn had sent to escort him and his family to the wedding, had stopped to talk to him.

A tall, thin man with a scarred cheek, Martin gave the appearance of a servant much of the time. But, clearly there was more to the man than met the eye. At Alandale he’d spent hours with the books, finding problems that had existed for years. And then there was the incident yesterday on the trail. When Thomas fell behind the rest of the group, Martin rode back and insisted that he keep up with the others. Pointing to the woods, Martin had told him there was someone hiding within it.

“What do you mean? I see and hear nothing.” Thomas laughed. “It’s quiet as a mouse over there.”

Martin frowned. “Indeed, my Lord, that’s why I worry. It’s too quiet. There should be some noise, bird-song, the rustling of small animals. Someone hides there, quieting the birds. Keep watch, Lord, one hand on your sword while I take care of the front. I doubt they’ll attack us, we are too many and on horseback which gives us the advantage. Still it’s best to look vigilant.”

When Thomas had glanced back at the too quiet forest, he’d seen a glimpse of something like a face, in the brush at the base of the vase-shaped tree. He kept a constant watch on the woods for the rest of the afternoon.

There had been someone there, but it hadn’t been on the trail that they’d attacked.

After three days on the road, they were within a day of Silavale. That night, anxious about meeting his bride, Thomas had gone to bed early. As soon as he’d gone to his room, a man hiding within had clubbed him on the head. By the time he’d regained his senses he was gagged and bound to the back of a horse and far from the inn.

His family would have missed him this morning, and surely by now Martin would be looking for him. Maybe he’d remember the place where the birds were so quiet.

But it was getting very dark and there was no sign of anyone. His bonds were looser, but he still couldn’t slip his hands free. The grumbling from the fire got louder, as if his captors were working themselves into action. Convulsively he swallowed a surge of panic and worked extra hard on the loosened rope, ignoring the ache in his arms, the pain in his wrists. He might not have much time left to feel anything.

There was a small sound, a slight rustling in the brush next to him. He felt the touch of a finger on his wrist, and heard a whisper in his ear. “Be very still. I’m going to free you.”

He tried to keep from alerting the men around the fire as he felt his bonds slip away. Strong hands grabbed his and rubbed them, restoring the circulation. They tingled and he had to suppress a groan at the welcome sensation.

“How are you? Can you use a sword?”

The softly spoken question was a reasonable one. He’d been tied for hours and could feel the stiffness in his arms. But his hand ached for the feel of a weapon. “Just give me one and I’ll do my best.”

He heard an approving chuckle and the firm comfort of a sword hilt slipped into his palm. “As soon as you hear the signal, stand up and protect yourself. I’ll be by your side to help.”

He waited. Even warned, he startled at the sudden wolf howl from behind him. Dark figures burst in from all sides of the clearing, firelight reflecting off their drawn swords. The men around the fire scrambled to their feet and drew their own weapons to face the newcomers. Within seconds the battle was on.

Three of the brutes charged Thomas. He jumped to his feet and raised his sword to meet them. To his right a tall, slender figure in black appeared, wearing a mask, and armed with a sword in one hand and a long dagger in the other. The charging men faltered. One pointed to his rescuer and cried out, “The Lupa!” The other two began to back away.

Without thinking, Thomas drove forward and swung his blade at the nearest man. Too long he’d waited for this, tied like an animal. The bandit he attacked rallied and the fight began in earnest. His rescuer leapt with him, engaging the remaining two.

Sword clashed against sword. His opponent was older, a good fighter with the advantage of rest and experience. Never before had Thomas fought outside of a tournament ring, but anger and skill made him up to the challenge. Within a minute he’d slipped his blade under the man’s guard, and stabbed him deep in the chest. The outlaw’s face froze in shock and his sword slipped from his hand as he collapsed. Thomas stared at the blood pouring from the wound onto the ground.

He’s dead!

He’d never killed before. Staring at the body, he realized it was the burly man who’d argued for his death. In spite of that, a wave of nausea threatened to overwhelm him. He fought for control, to calm his outraged sensibilities. This one might be dead, but they weren’t out of danger yet.

A cry from the right snagged his attention. Next to him, his rescuer battled the other two men, swinging about, keeping both attackers at arm’s length. Slashing with the sword and parrying with the knife, the unknown gave an impressive display, and Thomas’s admiration for the warrior’s skill grew. Then the black clad figure stilled a moment, dagger arm thrown back. The warrior’s shirt tightened revealing small but splendidly shaped breasts.

A woman? His rescuer was a woman? He sprang to help her, but before he could, she twirled again, slashing the neck of one with the knife, burying her sword in the other. Both men fell at her feet.

As they both stood breathing heavily, he met her gaze over the bodies. Through the holes of her mask, black glittering eyes stared into his and an odd thrill went through him, settled briefly in his groin. She bent and with a casual gesture wiped the blood off the blade of her knife on the shirt of the nearest body. Once clean, she thrust it into her belt. Silver inlays in the black handle caught his eye. One design was too small to make out, but the other was the visage of a wolf, dark eyes glittering, not unlike the eyes of the lady herself.

Hand now free, she grabbed Thomas’s. Behind him he heard the sounds of the battle continuing, the clash of metal against metal, the groans of wounded men. She indicated the woods behind her. “Come!” She pulled him after her into the trees.

They ran for some time before she let him stop. They were in another clearing, not dissimilar to the one he’d been held in. He heard the sounds of horses nearby, nickering and moving about. Working to catch his breath, he took advantage of a small stream while she fetched a tall brown horse from a nearby thicket. The water tasted sweet to his parched throat and he drank as much as he could hold.

From a saddlebag she offered him bread and a flask of wine. Gratefully he took both. The wine relaxed and warmed him, settled his still testy stomach. He nearly sighed his relief. “Thank you lady, whoever you are.”

She chuckled softly. “You are most welcome, Thomas.”

Now he could hear her voice was melodious. When she’d spoken behind the tree, he’d thought she was a man, but now he heard the feminine richness in her voice. It made him wonder about the rest, if her face could be as fair as her voice. If only she didn’t wear a mask, he could see for himself.

She kept watch as he ate and he took the opportunity examine her. She wore pants and a shirt, both black. The shirt was loose in the chest, not quite hiding the most obvious signs of her sex. Slender as she was, her hips had a comforting wideness to them, again mostly hidden by the baggy clothing. She was tall, only a few inches shorter than he was and he was tall by men’s standards. She was very strong and in perfect shape. She’d run like the wind in front of him and breathed no harder than he did at its conclusion. All in all, she was a formidable woman.

Within the next few minutes, a number of men joined them, all dressed in black. With a start, Thomas realized one of them was Martin. The dark lady stepped up to Lady Evelyn’s man and clapped him on the arm. “Well done. Were any of ours hurt?”

To Thomas’s surprise, the normally grim Martin grinned at her. “None, Lupa. And those we left alive will think twice about pulling that kind of stunt again.”

She laughed. “That was the general idea.” She handed him a pouch that looked heavy. “See to it our friends are rewarded, and then return to the estate.”

“And him?” Martin indicated Thomas.

Lupa gave Thomas a measured look. “I will escort Lord Thomas myself. Tell his family he is safe and inform Lady Evelyn that I will see he makes it to the wedding on time.” Martin flashed another grin before leading the rest of the men off. A moment later, Thomas heard the sounds of horses galloping away then all was quiet again in the clearing.

“You know my name. Were you were sent by my lady to rescue me?” Thomas asked.

He watched her smile, the white even teeth gleaming in the dark. “Yes. Something like that. She heard of your abduction and the demand for ransom. My men and I were the result.”

“Why didn’t she just pay the ransom? Surely involving so many in a rescue would cost her more.”

She shook her head. “We’ve dealt with these kind of men before. They are not in the habit of returning prisoners alive, even after a ransom has been paid. Besides, the lady is possessive. She does not like it when someone lays hands on what she considers hers.”

Thomas took a swig of wine and chewed his bread slowly. That last didn’t sit well. “I am not quite her ‘possession’ yet,” he said with quiet defiance.

The dark lady sat down and considered him gravely. “No, I guess not. I hear that until they found the ransom note, there was talk you’d fled to avoid marriage to her.”

“I’d never do such a thing! I made a promise to wed her and I’ll honor it.”

Her smile was grim. “Yes, I understand honor. It will make us do many things that are distasteful.”

“I didn’t mean to say that I find marriage to her distasteful.” Thomas sighed. “I just wish I’d been given more of a choice.”

“You were forced into this? I didn’t know that.” Her voice was hesitant, bothered.

“Well, my family needed the money…” His voice trailed off.

“I see. Since you don’t know her, I suppose some reluctance is to be expected.”

“I did try and learn more, but all I know is that she was some sort of librarian before her brother died.”

“What makes you say that?” Her voice was laced with curiosity.

“I asked Martin about her. All he would tell me is that she used to work for the government, in the information business. I guessed it was the library.”

A long moment passed and then she laughed. The merry sound pealed out of her, like crystal bells. It tantalized him even as he flushed in anger. At his frown she drew her humor back in. She shook her head. “Well, I suppose that’s one way to describe it.”

“You know her well then?”

“Well enough. If I choose to, I could tell you about her. But not now -- I’d like put some distance between your captors and us. Some of them may have escaped my men.”

The mask bothered him. “Lady, do you have to cover your face?”

She hesitated then pulled it off, releasing her hair. Long, thick, and black, it fell down her back and around her face, a living veil. She was indeed fair: her complexion pale, her features delicate and lovely. The eyes he glimpsed through the mask were intense, black as her hair, black as the night. It was too dark to tell the color of her lips, but they were full. They made him wonder what it would be like to kiss her.

She smiled slightly at his examination. “Are you satisfied now, Lord Thomas?”

Self-consciously, he nodded.

Lupa mounted and Thomas climbed up behind her. There was barely enough room for both of them in the saddle. He settled behind her, but he had to press up close to her back, unable to put space between them due to the large bundle tied behind the saddle. The intimacy of the position made him intensely uncomfortable. Don’t let me embarrass myself.

“Put your arms around me, Thomas. I wouldn’t want you to fall off.” Her voice was cool with a hint of amusement.

Awkwardly he did as she asked, hands finding a purchase on her waist. The smooth firmness of her skin under the shirt felt warm and enticing and he had to stifle a groan of appreciation.

His tentativeness must have been obvious. “What is it, Thomas? Haven’t you ridden double before?”

“Yes, Lupa, but you don’t exactly feel like one of my sisters!” He felt as well as heard her answering laughter as they fled the glen.

They traveled swiftly for some time through the forest, the direction Martin and the others had taken. It was a quiet night. The only sounds were the small noises the forest creatures made as they went about their business. With Lupa riding in front of him, he found himself very aware of the fit of her body to his, the scent of her hair in his face.

Exhaustion warred with incipient passion and won. His eyes closed and he felt himself slip, nearly falling off the horse. Immediately, she halted the animal. “You are tired, and haven’t had the easiest of days. Perhaps we should rest here for a time.”

She pulled the bundle off the back of the animal, unfolded it to reveal a pair of blankets and small pack. Putting the latter aside, Lupa handed him one of the blankets.

He took it. “You come prepared.”

“Always, Thomas. I’m usually ready for anything -- part of what I was trained for.”

Following her direction he spread his on the soft moss under one of the trees.

She put her own a few feet away. “You rest, I’ll keep watch for a while.”

The moon had finally risen, but was only quarter full; it lit the glade dimly. Sitting against the tree, Thomas watched her settle on her own blanket, into a comfortable but alert position. Long experience was demonstrated in her pose. He wondered how old she was. She had more years than he, that was for certain, but they barely showed.

Tired as he was, he now found it hard to sleep. Tomorrow he’d meet his bride. From his pocket he pulled the small miniature that came with the marriage contract. It had become his habit over the last few days to view it before going to bed. The unsmiling face in the image was tiny, her features indistinct, a cap hid her hair. In the faint moonlight all he could see clearly were her eyes, dark and quiet. Eight years his senior, his lady librarian wife-to-be. The painted image lacked a smile, would the lady lack one, too, or would she have a sense of humor? He hoped so. The Lupa certainly did, he remembered her delightful laugh. Suddenly he wanted to know more about his mysterious rescuer. “Lupa, you said you would answer my questions.”

“You need to rest, Thomas.”

“I know, but I’m not sleepy.” She glanced over at him. “Well, I am but…”

“But you want some answers.” She pulled her knife from her belt and fingered the carvings on the hilt. “Very well, one question. Tonight I’ll answer one question only.”

“Lupa, who are you?”

“Me?” She sounded surprised. “I thought you wanted to know about your wife?”

“I do, yes. Tomorrow. Tonight I want to know about you.”

“What do you want to know?”

“Is Lupa your real name? Where did you learn to fight so well? What work do you do?” The words poured out of him.

He heard her rippling laugh again. “That’s three questions, Thomas, not just one.” She continued to play with her knife. “I will give a short answer to each. First, Lupa is the name I go by when I’m helping someone.” She shot him an amused glance. “Like a purloined bridegroom. Sometimes I help others as well. There are a lot of small gangs in Alanadon, since the war ended and the army was disbanded. Not every soldier had a home to return to and some find it more comfortable to steal than earn their bread. As to how I learned to fight…” Her voice became pensive. “When I was sixteen I had a falling out with my parents. I left home and joined the ISB. You know who they are?”

He did. “Intelligence and Solutions Bureau. They’re spies, aren’t they?”

“Yes. Being what I was, I was a perfect agent for them. Who would suspect a young girl like me? They trained me to fight, to kill. In return I infiltrated enemy camps for them, learned secrets. Stopped more than a few wars with our neighbors. Started a few as well…” Her voice trailed off. “Sometimes I was even an assassin.”

“An assassin?”

Her laugh was short. “If it makes you feel better, I never killed anyone who didn’t richly deserve it. Still, I’m glad that part of my life is over. I answer to no one now.” Her voice became firm. “No more excuses, you should lie down and rest.”

He was sleepy, now. As she kept watch he rolled up into his blanket. “Thank you Lupa, for rescuing me.”

“You are most welcome, Thomas.”


He woke to the smell of frying bread and eggs and the aroma enticed him out of his blanket. “That’s smells wonderful.”

Her smile welcomed him. “I decided to risk a small fire. It will do you good to have a hot meal.”

“Eggs?” He eyed the open pack, the loaf of bread and small bottle of cooking oil sitting on top. “I know you come prepared but surely you don’t carry those with you?”

She chuckled. “Wild chickens. I surprised a hen off her nest near the stream.” Using a forked branch she flipped one of them over in the pan. “They were very fresh.”

“Chickens? Maybe I could catch one for our supper?” He felt hungry enough to eat a whole bird himself.

One eyebrow lifted. “I don’t think so, Thomas. We’d need to pluck it and clean it and we don’t have time for that. Let’s leave the bird alone and content ourselves with her eggs.”

They ate in companionable silence. Thomas reflected that this was really the first time he had been alone with a woman other than one of his sisters. He watched as she ate, her manners could have been those of any noblewoman. Such a paradox: a woman with the manners of a lady, and the skills of a warrior. It was nice to be with her. He wondered if his wife would enjoy this kind of adventure, camping out under the trees. But she was supposed to be some sort of librarian. Probably not.

After he ate, he helped clean up, then leaned back on one of the blankets, and watched the branches sway overhead.

“We should get moving, Thomas. I need to deliver you to the estate by nightfall. Your wedding is tomorrow.”

He sighed. “In a bit. I’m not in that big a hurry. I enjoy being here with you.”

Lupa folded her arms, a pleased expression flitting across her face. “Very well, I suppose we have some time.” She folded her blanket and reclined in the pose he’d seen last night, relaxed but alert.

“Perhaps you could answer some of my questions now. About my wife-to-be.”

Her pose straightened and she looked less relaxed. “Why don’t you tell me what you already know first? Then I’ll know what to say.”

He thought for a moment. “Well, I know Lady Evelyn is older than I am, by eight years. She used to work in the government, I guess in the library since she did information gathering. That’s probably where you met her.”

“Oh, yes, I spent a lot of time in the library. Research for my missions.”

He glanced over at her. She didn’t look back but her lips twitched. Something was clearly amusing her. Maybe she’d tell him, eventually. “Martin said that she hadn’t intended to inherit Silavale. Her parents and older brother were killed a year ago in a carriage crash. It made her the heir and the reason she needs me, to father her bloodline child.”

Noble families had many responsibilities in Alanadon. First and foremost, they were expected to keep an estate profitable. Failure to do so could result in a royal decision to demote the family and give the estate to one of a ready supply of would-be nobles at the royal court.

Another way to lose an estate was to fail to meet the requirements of the bloodline law. An heir had to acquire a child of his or her own within two years of inheriting an estate.

Thomas’s marriage would save both Alandale for his family and Silavale for Lady Evelyn.

Lupa shook her head. “She has other needs for you, Thomas. But, go on, what else do you know?”

He shrugged. “Not much else. I don’t know what sorts of things we’ll have in common. I don’t even know what she looks like, all I have is a miniature of her.”

She seemed surprised. “You have a miniature? May I see it?”

Thomas handed it to her. For a moment Lupa stared at it, then laughed. “Martin must have found this at the house.”

“It isn’t a good likeness?”

She gave him a long sidelong glance, then shook her head as she handed it back. “It was done a long time ago.” Her lips twitched. “I doubt you could recognize her from it.”

Somehow that just depressed him more. Even the face in the picture wasn’t her true face. Glumly he put it away and returned to staring at the sky between the trees.

“Would you care if she wasn’t beautiful?”

“That doesn’t matter, I wouldn’t judge her on her looks. I don’t expect her to be as beautiful as you are.”

She was silent for a long time. “You think me beautiful?”

He turned to her. “You are beautiful, Lupa, but more important, you have a good heart. I can only hope that my lady is like you in that.”

She smiled. It lit up her face and without warning his groin stirred in response. She was so desirable…and so unattainable. With long practice he willed his body to relax.

“You say you wouldn’t judge her on her looks. Do you think that’s what she’s done to you?

“Maybe. After the tournament there were a lot of offers. The women I talked to seem to be most interested in my appearance. I don’t know why your lady chose me.”

“Then perhaps that’s what I should tell you, why you were her choice for a husband.” Her voice softened. “As you already said, Lady Evelyn came into her inheritance this year and could only hold her estate for a short time without marrying and having a child. So, like most ladies in this position she went to the Warrior’s Tournament to shop for a husband. And there she saw you.” She laughed and shook her head. “You were magnificent that day, the best of the men of any age. No one could beat you. I’m not even sure I could’ve beaten you.”

He had seen enough of how she could fight. “You flatter me, lady; I very much doubt I could best you.”

That earned him another laugh. She glanced at him mischievously. “Perhaps. Maybe someday we’ll find out.”

But what she’d said? “You saw me, Lupa? You were there as well?”

Her face turned guarded. “Yes, I was there.” Quickly, she went on. “But actually, Thomas, it wasn’t your looks or skills that made her choose you. Do you remember the match against Lord Guyae?”

Thomas nodded. “He was an older man. Very good fighter, but he slipped on some loose rock in the arena. The groundsman should have made sure the area was clear.”

“That’s right. You won the match, but insisted it not be counted. You pointed out the loose rock, and made them dismiss the score.”

He shrugged. “It was only fair, I shouldn’t win because of a mistake. It wasn’t his fault.”

“Yes, but it cost you the match and the points from it would have given you a tournament record.”

“But not a record I would’ve deserved.” His eyes narrowed as he tried to understand. “Are you saying you admire me for that?”

She dropped her gaze. “I’m saying you protected the rights of an opponent you’d most likely beaten anyway. That’s what impressed Lady Evelyn. The lady has known few men with your sense of honor and she decided she wanted that more than anything else. That’s why she selected you to be her husband.

“And yes, you are young and handsome, and that does figure into it as well. I think the lady cares for you, Thomas, more than you might expect. You will make a good husband for her, and father to the children she wants. That’s why you were her choice.”

Thomas felt a wave of relief. It felt good to know his wife-to-be valued him for more than just a man to give her a child; that she admired him for acting as he felt he should. There’d been many at the tournament contemptuous of him giving up that score. If the lady valued honor, possibly they would have more in common than he’d thought. Hope rose at that possibility.

Plus, Lupa had said ‘children.’ Maybe this could be more than a bloodline contract.

Still. “A man likes to have a choice too, Lupa. Particularly if it’s his first…” Abruptly he cut off. He hadn’t meant to say so much.

She stared. “His first what? His first lover, you mean? Thomas, are you saying you’re a virgin?” Humor mixed with the astonishment in her voice. It was obviously all she could do to not laugh out loud.

Never had he felt so humiliated. “I don’t think it’s funny.”

A wayward chuckle escaped her. “No, I guess you wouldn’t. Just how old are you?”

“Nineteen. I’m old enough.” Things couldn’t get any worse; he decided to explain. “I have five sisters, Lupa. Five of them, always around, and what one knows, the rest soon learn. When I took sword training, my sixteen-year-old sister, Ellen, trained alongside me. I learned bookkeeping at the university with Anne, who’s just a year younger than I am. They were all there during the tournament.” He shut his eyes for a moment. There had been a lovely, alluring -- and persistent -- young woman who’d tried several times to sneak into his tent. Carolyn and Emma, his second-eldest sibling, had taken turns running her off.

“What about your sisters’ friends? Surely one of them…” Lupa looked close to bursting from suppressed merriment.

“Sure, if I wanted everyone in the family to know about it. I did get close though, once. About a year ago I went on a picnic with Susan, one of Anne’s friends. It was perfect, she was very pretty, seemed willing, and we’d traded kisses on more than one occasion. We got to the perfect place, quiet, secluded.” He stopped, remembering the spot. He’d scouted it weeks in advance as a romantic hideaway. It wasn’t, in fact, too dissimilar from the glade around them. “We spread a blanket, sat close, and I was just about to put my arms around her when out of the bushes rides my youngest sister, Catherine, with a hamper of dessert on the back of her pony.” He shook his head in the frustration. “Of course, Susan had to ask her to stay.”

It was true. Five sisters were far too much for any man to cope with.

“I was hoping to find someone when I went for extra training this summer. Before all this happened. The truth is, this is the first time I’ve been alone with a woman in the past four years!”

All pretense of control disappeared. The laughter bubbled out of her, rippling, surging, filling the glade with merriment. The sound was infectious, and to Thomas’s surprise it no longer upset him that she knew his dark secret. He leaned back against the tree and watched her helpless mirth. His mood lightened and a wry smile crossed his face. “I guess it is rather funny, at that.”

Shaking her head, she managed to speak. “Someone else’s love-life is always entertaining, Thomas. In your case…” her voice trailed off into giggles.

He chuckled, in spite of himself. “In my case, my lack of a love-life is amusing. At least that’s one good thing about tomorrow. I have a wedding night to look forward to.”

“Indeed.” A quiet note entered her voice and her merriment died away. “But not with a woman of your choice.” He glanced over to see her meditative smile. “Thomas, you called me beautiful before. Do you think me desirable?”

The stirrings he’d felt before returned, stronger than ever. “Yes, Lupa. Very. If I wasn’t to wed tomorrow…”

Her smile was bewitching. “Tomorrow is tomorrow. You’ve taken no vows yet, Thomas. As you said earlier, you don’t belong to anyone, least of all Lady Evelyn.” She hesitated. “If you could, would you choose me to make love with?”

It took him less than a minute to find his voice. “Yes.”

She rose to her feet in a single fluid motion and moved across the short space between them. As she approached, her hips swayed and he found his breath keeping time to her rhythm. His heart pounded until he feared it would try to escape his chest. Again his groin swelled and this time no amount of relaxation seemed able to overcome it.

Kneeling next to him, she placed one hand on his face. “It’s your choice, Thomas.”

In answer he pulled her into his arms.