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Authors: Rebecca York

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BOOK: Hero's Welcome
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He had almost given up hope when the door slid open, and she stepped into the room. Stopping, she shielded her light-sensitive eyes, took a step back.

“Don’t go.”

“The light—”

“I need to see you.”

He held his breath as she hesitated in the doorway, then felt the air trickle from his lungs as she crossed the space between them.

She was dressed in a short gown, not unlike her daytime tunics. As he watched, she opened a small medical kit and took out the salve. Easing gingerly onto the bed, she kept her eyes down as she began to work on his leg, the medicine and her touch bringing that same deep, healing comfort. This time, though, the sensation soon became more than mere comfort. With the absence of the pain, he was helpless to stop the response of his body to hers.

He sat there, feeling the heat gather in his loins as her hands worked their way down his leg and up again toward his thigh. And he knew the precise moment that she realized how her touch was affecting him.

Uttering a strangled cry, she scrambled off the bed.

“Kasi.”

The name from their childhood stopped her. Still, she stood warily, poised to flee.

He gestured downward. “I’m not going to run after you. By the time I attached that pitiful excuse for a leg, you’d be gone—to wherever it is you hide during the day.” He made a sound that was almost a laugh. “Or I could hop after you. I haven’t tried that yet—don’t know how fast I’d be at it.” Nor had he joked about the leg, he thought with a kind of detached amazement.

Her features contorted.

“Kasi,” he said again, very gently.

She held herself stiffly, as if she might break in two, and the question that had been gnawing at him for days worked its way to his lips and came out in a half-strangled growl. “The Dorre soldiers who came to Renfaral—did they find you?”

Her whole body jerked as if he’d slapped her, and he felt a sudden pain in his gut, like the twisting of a knife.

“Did they catch you?” he managed, praying he was wrong.

Her head gave the smallest of nods. When she spoke, her voice cracked. “In the woods. They didn’t know I was Laster’s daughter, so they didn’t kill me.”

The look on her face told him more than the words. He clenched his jaw to keep from roaring his outrage. He had heard soldiers bragging of catching Farlian women and teaching them a lesson in obedience to their new masters.

“I would never do anything to hurt you,” he said, struggling to speak around the fist-sized obstruction in his throat.

“When I touched you, you got . . .” She stopped, gulped.

“Hard,” he finished for her, then went on to admit, “I was aroused. Do you know what that means?”

“That you want to have sex with me.”

The stark look on her face pierced though his chest to his heart. “That’s only a small part of what I feel. When you touched me and talked to me, you made me feel things I didn’t think I’d ever feel again. Good things. Things I thought had died inside me.”

She stayed where she was, her gaze searching his face.

“Kasi, I would never hurt you,” he repeated. “I swear that. On the altar of Atherdan.”

Her head came up. “On Atherdan? The sacred place of your people.”

“Yes.”

Her small white teeth worried her lip.

“I can’t get up. You have to come back here, so we can talk.”

The breath froze in his lungs as he watched her stand unmoving. Then, in a rush she came to the bed and perched on the side, just out of reach, her face turned away from him.

“Can you tell me about it?” he asked.

“I haven’t told anyone,” she said in a ragged voice.

“Last night you made me face things I didn’t want to face. And this morning I felt better.”

“What happened to me was . . . bad.”

“I know.” He wanted to reach for her, take her in his arms. He kept his hands flat against the mattress.

“Four of them caught me,” she choked out. “And they dragged me into the old tool shed.”

She told him things, then, that he didn’t want to hear, things that made bile rise in his throat, though he listened until she was finished, until she began to weep, until he wept with her. Finally, when he couldn’t stand it any longer and reached for her, she slid away. When he called her name, she slipped out of the room.

And he was left alone on the bed with only his troubled thoughts for company. He had come to this place feeling sorry for himself, for what he had endured. But his wounds were of the flesh. Hers were of the soul.

Still, she had summoned the courage to tell him her secrets. He would do the same. If she was still there in the morning.

As tired as he was from his work in the fields, Link remained awake for a long while before sleep finally claimed him.

To his surprise and vast relief, he found Kasi the next morning, sitting at the table in the galley. Her eyes were red, as if she’d spent the whole night crying, and her hands were clenched tightly in front of her. But she was there.

He propped his hips against the counter, meeting her gaze with a steadiness that belied the pounding of his heart.

“So what do you think of me now?” she asked. “Kasimanda of Renfaral. The woman who served four Dorre soldiers against her will.”

The calmness of her voice frightened him. He sensed he could lose her with a single wrong word. “I think you’re as brave as any war hero, Dorre or Farlian,” he answered from the depths of his heart. “Brave enough to keep going after you lost your whole family. Brave enough to go through what must have been hell to get yourself here. Brave enough to face me and my anger, and to take care of my leg, when I know what you
wanted
to do was run away.”

She stared at him as if she couldn’t believe the appraisal.

He ran a shaky hand through his hair, and fear made his words come out stiffly. “Kasi, when I first saw you here, I couldn’t face what I felt. That’s why I acted angry. I was terrified that you were going to hurt me.”

Her lips parted, and her huge, gorgeous eyes opened wide in astonishment. “Me? Hurt
you
?”

“Oh, yes. The way you did that night seven years ago when you ran away from me in the garden.” He swallowed, tried to gather some courage of his own to match hers. “Kasi, I have loved you since I was ten. A crazy, hopeless love. But now—” He gave a little laugh. “Now I guess I’m willing to wait for you until I’m a hundred, if that’s what it takes.”

Wildly conflicting emotions chased across her features.

“No pressure,” he said, relieved that he had finally confessed the truth. “No demands or requests. No real expectations.” He was lying, of course. Through his teeth. He had expectations, all right, enough to last several lifetimes.

Turning so that she couldn’t see his face, he poured himself a mug of coffee. Then, without another word or even a glance in her direction, he grabbed a grain cake and headed for the fields.

She was waiting for him when he came in for dinner. While they ate the food she had prepared, they talked quietly about growing rokam and about the supplies she needed for the house.

He made his first wordless request when they were reclining on wide loungers beside the empty swimming pool. Moving his leg, he gave a small groan.

Her head swung quickly toward him. “Is it bad?”

He shrugged elaborately.

“You need more of the salve.”

“I think you’re right.” He considered his options—his bedroom where she would be nervous, or out here where he would feel defenseless without his prosthesis. He chose her comfort. “We could use the lounger.”

“Yes,” she answered on a rush of breath that told him he’d made the right choice. Still, his gaze slid away from her as he pictured himself taking off the leg. He wasn’t ready to do
that
in front of her. Standing, he steadied himself against the wall. “I’ll be back in a minute.”

The sun had set by the time he returned. Overhead, stars winked in the black velvet of the sky, and the smallest of the four moons cast a blue radiance on the fields beyond the house.

He looked around anxiously for Kasi, afraid that she might have changed her mind. Then she moved, a shadow detaching itself from the wall of the house, and he watched her silhouette glide toward him. She was tall like most Farlian women, almost his height. But the blue light gave her a fragile, indistinct look. Long ago she had told him how things appeared to her in the moonlight. To her radiation-sensitive eyes, the light was soft and pink, giving objects a warmth he couldn’t see.

Wearing a pair of short pants, with the folding crutch replacing his prosthesis, he limped slowly toward the lounger. He was rather amazed with himself, that he’d let her see him this way. But then, he decided, maybe it gave him an advantage.

The twisted logic brought a low chuckle to his lips.

“What’s funny?” she inquired.

“I was thinking—how frightened can you be of a cripple?”

“Link, I can’t think of you as crippled.”

He snorted, disbelieving.

“You’re a war hero.”

“I’m no hero,” he denied.

“Do they give rich holdings like this one to all the troopers?”

“No. But they knew my father was training me to run an estate, so they figured I had a better chance at producing rokam for them than some store clerk.”

“It was more than that. They knew you had the will to succeed.”

There was no point in arguing, he thought as he eased onto the cushioned lounger. Neither of them spoke as she sat on the edge of it and began to rub the healing medicine into his injured flesh. It wasn’t long before her innocent caresses once again made his body grow hard.

He felt her touch falter, heard her breath catch.

He lay very still with his eyes closed and his arms at his sides, his fists clenched. And when he made no move to reach for her, she kept up her ministration.

“Thank you,” he whispered, when she had finished. “Kasi, you’ve changed my life with that salve—given me new hope. But I’m not good at speaking the things in my heart. Words aren’t enough. I can’t tell you how I feel unless I touch you.”

He heard her breath catch and went on quickly. “I’ll keep my hands flat on the cushions. I just . . . I just want to kiss you. On the cheek.”

She didn’t draw back as he pushed himself up and brushed a whisper- soft kiss against her tender flesh. When she stayed where she was, he stroked his way down to her jaw line, then back up to the corner of her eye. He felt a little shiver go through her.

He turned his head, moved his mouth gently against her lashes, feeling them flutter at the touch, feeling his own body tighten painfully in response.

He wanted more, but he was ready to deny himself further pleasure. “Thank you.” He drew away from her, but she stayed where she was, her eyes closed.

“Would you . . . do it again?” she whispered, her voice shaky.

“Yes,” he breathed. “Oh, yes.” This time he nibbled gently at her neck, feeling her skin heat and her breath grow thready, and he had to grip the lounger beneath him to keep from reaching for her. Raising his head, he planted small kisses on her chin and cheeks. Her lips were moist and parted. He wanted to devour them. Instead he stroked the curve of one beautiful brow.

“Link.” His name was a breathy sigh. For long moments she sat very quietly, then tipped her face toward him. “Do you know, no man has kissed me on the mouth,” she whispered.

He felt something catch in his throat.

“If you kiss me the way men and women kiss, it will belong only to the two of us.”

He couldn’t speak, could only nod as she slid millimeters closer to him. He kept his hands at his sides, leaning forward until his mouth touched hers.

He felt the tension in her. Slowly he brushed his mouth back and forth against hers, increasing the pressure by slow degrees, until her lips were sealed to his.

Heat leaped inside him as he felt the yielding softness of her, heard the low, purring sound in her throat. Yet he kept his hands where they were, the only contact point his mouth on hers as he opened her lips and gently probed the warmth and softness beyond.

When he lifted his head, her breath was ragged, and her eyes were soft and pleading.

“I want . . .” she whispered, the sentence trailing off.

“Anything,” he answered, offering her his soul.

“I’m afraid of what I want.”

“You don’t have to be afraid. Not with me.”

“I know. At least, part of me knows. The other part is terrified that you’ll grab me and . . .”

“I won’t.”

“How do I know?”

“Because a man doesn’t get any more aroused than I am right now,” he grated. “But the part of me that frightens you doesn’t control my actions. My brain does. And my brain knows that anything worth doing with you is worth waiting for.”

Her gaze went to his face, searching. He kept his own gaze steady.

She laid her head against his shoulder, and they sat silently in the darkness.

When she began to speak, her voice was wispy. “Do you remember the day I put my pet palistan in a boat and it drifted out into the lake?”

“I found you standing on the shore crying,” he answered thickly.

“And you jumped in and towed the boat back to me. Your father came along and found you all wet, and you got a whipping.”

He nodded, remembering.

“That was the day I fell in love with you,” she breathed.

He stared at her, wondering if he’d heard correctly.
She loved him
?

“Until then you were just the big boy who was the leader of all the young people on the estate. That day, I lost my heart to you.”

He started to reach for her, and her lower lip trembled though her eyes were soft and warm. Then her expression suddenly changed to deep alarm.

“What? Did I frighten you?”

“No. I saw something.”

He turned, looked in the same direction, detected nothing but the blue moonlight on the stark hills. “What?”

“A man.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.” Her gaze stayed trained on the rise of ground as she sucked in a little breath. “Two men. Three. Dorre. Crouching, using the rocks for cover.”

“How do you know they’re Dorre?”

BOOK: Hero's Welcome
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