Excerpt: Forbidden Warrior
Wherein our heroine begins an adventure by way of a handful of wild strawberries.
Rose Citadel, 1993
Cassia sat in her father’s box, quite properly, when she felt a stillness arrive beside her, on the other side of the low barrier that separated the reserved boxes from the general stands.
She peeked out the corner of her eye. A little shiver of recognition moved through her. It was the man from the gates.
He sat alone. Eating a strawberry. Raw.
He noted her attention and nodded. She angled her face a quarter-turn away and pretended she hadn’t been watching him.
“’Tis a fine, large morning,” he said by way of inappropriate greeting.
She ignored him and his lack of manners and his beautiful, dangerously raw strawberry.
“Which one’s your favorite?” he asked, quite as if they knew each other. As if he had a right to be speaking to her.
Which did nothing to explain why she replied, albeit with a sniff to show she did not wish to be speaking to him. “I haven’t one.”
He nodded, then lifted his hand and pointed with one of the strawberries. “Don’t cheer for that one. He’s a bit wobbly in the saddle.”
Voice dripping with disdain, she turned to him. “I’ll have you know that is Sir Albert. He won three jousting tourneys last summer alone.”
“Aye? Good for him. Do you think he cheats?”
The shock of the question made her turn fully in her seat to examine him. “How dare you say such a thing? Of course he doesn’t cheat.”
He nodded, as if glad to hear it. “Good. Wouldn’t want any cheating among noblemen.”
She looked away, determined not to speak to him again.
He was quiet a moment too, then continued the conversation she did not wish to be having.
“’Tis simply he doesn’t look the sort to win three championships in his entire life, let alone one summer.”
“I beg your pardon?”
His eyes held hers. They were quite blue. “He hasn’t a good seat on the horse. Aye, the saddle will hold him in for a bit, but…” He shook his head sadly. “That’s not enough. You need some strength in here.” He tapped his broad, calloused hand—and the luscious red strawberries held in it—against his chest. A chest that looked as though it had a great deal of strength.
She should not be noticing such things. Especially about impolite rogues who spoke to ladies they should not be speaking to.
Cheeks hot, she slid her glance back to the arena field, making a solemn vow to ignore him. She would not say one more word.
Before she could ignore him sufficiently, though, he continued his unwanted commentary by aiming his strawberry-fisted hand in the direction of Sir Bennett.
“Now that one, he looks like he could do some damage. Too bad his legs are spindly.”
Her jaw fell.
“And his armor is parted just there, behind his left shoulder—”
Unable to resist, she examined Sir Bennett’s left shoulder, then spun in indignant anger. “That is Sir Bennett of Carlisle and he is one of the greatest tourneyers of our age.”
He gave a low whistle. “Our entire age, is it?”
She sniffed. “He has won more tourneys than almost anyone here. He is confident, skilled, unbeatable in fact, and he may well be my betrothed in a sennight.”
“Ahhh.” It was a low sound that could be comprehension or flat-out mockery. “Well, you might want to tell him about the armor.” He angled his hand over his own shoulder to indicate the area.
She stared down her nose at him, as much as she was able to. “Who are you?” she demanded.
His ice-blue eyes met hers. “No one, my lady.”
She felt the presence of this “no one” like heat from a fire. Best to keep her distance.
She turned her face decidedly away, then, unable to resist, whipped back. “You look to be of sound body, if not mind, sirrah, yet I don’t see you out there, braving anything.”
“Oh, I’m not brave,” he said comfortably.
She was almost dizzy at his escalating impropriety.
And still she did not get up.
Instead, she retorted acidly, “Of course you are not. Else you would not be sitting in the stands being inappropriate with a lady above your station. You’d be fighting like a real man.”
He gave a bark of laughter. “Fight?” he said incredulously. “For what?”
“For honor. And chivalry—”
“That’s not what these men are fighting for, lady.”
She looked at the silks and colors and parading knights and thought him quite mad.
“Then why are you here, if not to fight? In fact,” she looked around, “how did you get in here at all, Sir No One, if you are neither noble nor a fighter?”
“Who said I am not noble?”
She looked at his dull armor and simple tunic and gave him an almost pitying look. “Are you saying you are noble?”
“I did not say that, did I now?”
The way these particular words flowed out, the cadence of them, made her brow furrow in surprise. “You are not English.”
A muscle along his jaw rippled. “Never.”
“You are…Irish,” she announced her discovery triumphantly.
“That I am.”
She turned toward him, eager for the newness. “We do not meet many Irishmen here.”
“Oh, aye, I’m a rare bird.”
She smiled. She had no idea why this fact pleased her, except that Irishmen did not belong here.
But why that should please her, she had even less notion.
But when he smiled, a slow, half-formed smile, lifting one side of his mouth, denting the hair-roughened cheek, she felt the heat of him again—this time inside her. A swirling thread of excitement through her belly…and lower down.
Entirely not proper.
It was enough to prompt her to gather her skirts and get to her feet. Time to leave the rogue behind.
“Would you like a strawberry?”
His question rumbled out behind her. She froze mid-rise and cast a hesitant glance over her shoulder.
On his palm sat a small, friendly huddle of berries. They were rosy-colored, dimpled, and gorgeously plump. In the hot morning sun, they seemed to glisten with water.
“Where did you get them?” she exclaimed, taking her seat again without realizing. ”I saw none in the market square.”
“These are not from the market, lady.”
“They are wild,” she murmured, looking at their glistening pink redness.
The fat little berries rolled around in his palm, tiny green stems poking out the top. She thought of all the dishes served at the feast last night, course after course of frumenty and custards and cheeses and heavily spiced fish.
And now…this simple clutch of red-ripe strawberries.
She cast a surreptitious glance behind her, up the walkway behind the seats, where her father stood, near Lord Yves’s box. His head was bent, deep in conversation with a few other noblemen.
She looked back at her seatmate, the rogue with blue eyes and a clutch of strawberries on his palm.
In a rush, she extended her hand. With a faint smile, he tumbled them into her palm. She picked one up delicately between her thumb and forefinger and bit into it.
♥ ♥ ♥
Cassia, what are you doing??? Everyone knows you seal your fate when you eat fruit. Raw, no less. Dangerous stuff.
Cassia knows very well that fruit & heiresses are best when properly prepared.
Nevertheless, she ate wild fruit from this handsome, exciting, improper rogue, and now the little adventure she wanted is about to get Very Largely out of hand.