It had not entered her mind to fear him. Why did she not back away, shout for help? ’Twas no insubstantial romantic dream that stood before her, but a very solid man who had scaled a tree with such swiftness that he could surely overpower her in an instant if he wished to. Was it wise to trust from a single chance meeting that he would take no advantage of her now?
Especially when nothing in his voice betrayed a memory of her. The shadows of the chamber closed in around them, shading the features she had committed to heart, but a flicker from the sputtering fire flashed against his scarlet tunic and dully lit the rough, threadbare cloak that he had tossed over it.
“Ah,” he murmured, “I thought you lovely in the village, and dazzling in the hall all dressed in gold, but to see you thus, clad in white like some angel ... ”
His hand jerked up, stretching half-way across the space between them before she saw his fist clench and drop quickly back to his side. He had almost touched her. She could not have stopped him. His restraint encouraged her. She realized that she had allowed the blanket to grow slack, revealing more of her white nightgown than was proper. Proper! An ironic little laugh rose up in her throat. There was nothing proper about being alone with a minstrel in her bedchamber! She should command him to leave and scream if he refused. Had it been anyone, anyone else— But it was him, and instead of screaming, she found herself fighting a temptation to inch closer and comforting herself that at least he remembered gazing at her across a dusty village road.
The ironic laughter quenched on a lump of frustration. It was not enough. She did not care that she had only been a child, that it was unreasonable to expect him to see in a seventeen-year-old woman the ten-year-old girl who had helped him all those years ago.
She tugged the blanket back into its modest place and masked her hurt by demanding coldly, “What, pray tell, is your name, sir?”
“’Tis Robert Marcel. I brought my lute should you crave a song.”
She refused to let his playful tone disarm her resentment. “I have heard that verse you sang tonight dozens of times.”
“And yet it made you smile such a smile as to send a man’s head spinning. Still, if you like it not, I know many another tune.”
In truth, she could not have recited a single word of the verse, for his own flashing grin had sent everything out of her mind except him. She shifted her position to force him to turn so that the firelight fell across his fiercely handsome face, a face worthy of a man reckless enough to climb an oak tree to invade a lady’s chamber. The same jolt of attraction that had pounded through her in the village and again a few hours ago in the hall, blazed through her again. She tried to distract herself with the instrument slung over his shoulder, shrouded in the same supple cloth covering that would never have protected it from the warping surge of a river. Almost she felt its weight in her hands again. And the other. What had become of the other bundle she had carried?
Her heart tripped afresh when he launched softly into verse.
“How merry the summer while it lasts,
With bird song and the mirthful stream,
And lover’s heart that’s true.
The memory warms in winter’s age,
When song is gone and streams are still,
And love has passed away.”
This little poem she well knew, too. She had heard it sung merry, melancholy, sardonic, even bitter, but never in such fluid tones as his, or to a melody so plaintive that it hung shivering in the air, a poignant reminiscence for moments after his voice had ceased.
“Does that please you better, my lady?”
Did he banter again? She could not tell what he thought from his impassive expression or the low spoken words.
“Why are you here? What do you want?” She wished to chill him again with her dignity, but the questions instead came out barely more than a whisper.
“To see you. To talk with you. To—” His voice snagged as the truth swept the impassive mask from his face. “Oh, heaven forgive me, to kiss you!”
His hand reached out again, then hesitated, hovering just below her chin. Instead of rebuffing him, she felt herself sway towards him ever so slightly. His fingertips, calloused from his lute’s strings, brushed against her cheekbone. Then her cheek cradled gently in his palm and the midnight eyes, no longer veiled, gazed into hers with a longing that took away her breath.
“I have thought of nothing but you since you gazed at me in the village today.” His voice shook slightly as the words spilled out in a rush. “Then when you smiled at me in the hall, I knew I was lost. I cannot hope to court you. I am only a poor minstrel, and you are betrothed to the Earl of Saxton. But one kiss—just one!—I would cherish to the end of my days. Just one, if you will grant it—and then I will be gone.”
Gone? Let him go now, when she had only just found him? Heaven could not be so cruel as to ask her to send him away so soon! If it took a kiss to bind him—
He must have taken her silence as assent, for he pulled her against his chest. He held her firmly, yet so gently that the embrace brought no pain to her back. Marguerite had never been in a man’s arms before. Her heart raced so hard a pleasurable little buzz of dizziness hummed through her mind and body. He did not look like a man who often hesitated to take what he wanted and yet when he bent his head towards hers, he checked himself just short of her lips. It was that instant of uncertainty in him, briefer than a heartbeat, that nudged her leap of faith in his honor and lifted her willing mouth and drifted shut her eyes.
And then she felt his mouth on hers, gentle, warm, strong, yet somehow cautious, as if weighing something in her, as if waiting ... for what? Outrage on her part? Resistance? Oh, heavens! If Marguerite had felt dizzy before, her senses now swam in earnest, and she wound her arms around his neck and let her body melt against him and kissed him back as if all her future hung on this one moment.
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