Excerpt: His Forbidden Touch
Book Two: Stolen Brides Series
She stalked toward him and snatched the slim volume of poetry from his fingers. “You…you…” She seemed incapable of speech for a moment, as if she could not find words vile enough to describe him.
Then she found them. “You are a barbarian! Some sort of Mongol beast! How dare you come charging into my life, unasked, unwanted–“
“Hardly unasked, Your Highness,” he said calmly. “Your father–“
“Appointed you to serve as my protector. The important word being serve. Your position does not give you the right to flout all law and custom and even simple courtesy!” Her voice shifted to an icy, regal tone, her gaze glittering. “You and I, sirrah“– she emphasized the term, addressing him as if he were a servant–“need to come to an understanding. If we are to…enjoy–“
He suspected she had wanted to say endure.
“–each other’s company for the next two weeks, I must ask you to remember your place.”
He dropped the heavy sack on the ground, barely missing her dainty royal foot. “My place?”
“Aye. Though you have been gone from Chalons for some time, you are, in fact, one of my subjects. I must insist that you treat me with proper deference.”
His own pride ignited his temper. “You can insist all you like, Your Highness, but my place is wherever I want it to be. I am not your servant and I am not anyone’s subject. I have been a free man for four years. Your father saw to that.” He rudely turned his back and went to finish with Anteros’s saddle. The point about her useless belongings had been made. He would argue about it no more.
“My father? What do you mean?”
He choked out a humorless laugh, tightening the cinch. “There is no need to pretend you do not know.”
“Know of what? All I know is that four years ago, you disappeared from Chalons quite suddenly. Without saying farewell to anyone.”
Royce went still. His fingers clenched around the reins. “Your father never told you why I left?”
“Nay, he said naught to me. Or to anyone.” She paused. “Did my father have something to do with your disappearance?”
Royce could not move, could not even turn to study her face, to see if she was lying. He knew she was not. The way she waited so expectantly for an answer told him that.
By nails and blood, Aldric had said naught? To anyone?
Shock and disbelief slammed through him. All this time, he had believed that Aldric told everyone of his banishment and disgrace. That he had been made an example. Why would the old warhorse keep it secret?
He could think of no reason, except that the king did not wish to shame him publicly.
Struggling for breath, he finished buckling the saddle, trying to sort out his confusion. It was unnerving to learn that he had been mistaken all this time. Disconcerting that he could not puzzle out the motive behind Aldric’s silence.
But if the king had seen fit to keep the matter quiet, Royce saw no reason to drag his family name and honor through the mud. “I had…reasons for leaving.”
“And I would like to understand them. I wish you to explain.”
She did not phrase it as a question. Evidently, she had inherited not only her father’s tendency to be demanding and impossible, but his arrogance as well.
He turned and pierced her with a glare. “And what makes you think that your every wish matters so much?” he asked hotly. “Up in your palace on a mountaintop, milady, all of your wishes may have come true, but you are out in the world now–and those of us who live down here do not exist merely to satisfy your every whim! We have lives and minds and wishes of our own. You cannot simply hand down demands from on high and expect everyone to gleefully dance to your tune. You cannot treat people like puppets. You cannot ask the impossible and then destroy them when they fail to–“
He cut himself off abruptly, chagrined that he had almost given her the answer she had demanded. He was not going to discuss the intimate, painful details of his past with her.
Clenching his jaw, he held her gaze, daring her to press him further. “I left. Now I am back. My reasons are my own. Have you any other questions?”
She held his stare, then turned aside and set her books and mandolin atop the sack he had discarded. “Only one,” she bit out. “If you hold some sort of grudge against my father, why did you agree to serve as my escort to Thuringia? Why risk your life to protect me?”
“I should think that would be obvious,” he snapped, his temper making him less than careful in his choice of words. “You mean a great deal to me, Princess–a great deal of land, a castle and coin. I have been promised a generous reward. That is what I am risking my life for.”
She picked up one of the hats he had tossed to the ground, brushing snow from the delicate fabric. “Thank you for explaining,” she said frostily. “So kind of you to make clear exactly what sort of man you are.”
He spat a curse. “I would not expect you to understand. You, who have never had to worry about a place to sleep for the night or where your next meal is coming from. Your whole life has been”– he cast a scornful glance at the costly belongings piled around her–“books of verse and blue silk slippers.”
She lifted her gaze to his, her eyes still glittering. “Tell me, Sir Royce, are you this offensive to everyone you meet, or are your ill manners strictly reserved for royalty?”
“I have not been hired for my charming personality, Princess. I do not have to be pleasant to you. I do not even have to like you. And I certainly do not have to bow and scrape like one of your palace lackeys. All I have to do is get you to Thuringia in one piece and deliver you into the waiting arms of Prince Daemon.”
“Aye,” she said slowly. “That is what you are being paid to do.”
“Excellent, Princess. I am glad we agree on one thing.” Turning his back again, he finished tightening the saddle and securing his own belongings. “Because this is not going to be a pleasure trip or a summer cruise down the river in your royal barge. There are people out there”–he jerked his head toward the distant mountains–“who may want to kill you. I intend to prevent that from happening. Whether you like it or not, your father has placed me in charge, for your own safety. And if I am to protect you, I must insist that you obey my orders. Without question.”
“I will try to be…accommodating.”
It sounded as if the words had been pried from between her teeth. He had the distinct impression that she liked him even less than he liked her.
Which suited him fine, he decided. Let her despise him. It would be better that way. Safer. He needed barriers between them. A boundary that he would not allow himself to cross.
Not even for the sweet temptation of tasting those ravishing lips.
“Good.” He glanced up at the sun, high overhead. “Then gather up whatever you can fit in one of those bags of yours, and let us be on our way.”