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Authors: Meriel Fuller

Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Romance, #Romance: Historical, #Historical

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BOOK: The Damsel's Defiance
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Her legs kicked vigorously against the weight of the waves; the buoyancy of the water imbued her with a strength and agility she couldn’t hope to possess on land. Whenever she swam, she felt whole again, transported to an idyllic time before her marriage to Giffard, before her father’s death. Despite the stinging cold, she revelled in the sheer fluidity of her body. Fear that her pursuer might be directly behind her lent her speed, her supple arms drawing her slender frame silently through the water with a practised, streamlined stroke. The few lights of Barfleur drew her, fronted by the lace frill of waves nestling the shore that pulled at her, beckoned her. And then a sound, a sense of something dark and relentless looming up behind, and then a hand on her back, grasping, bunching the tunic into the curve of her spine. God in Heaven! He had caught her! Her feet flailed and thrashed uselessly at the water, trying to lever herself away from the punishing grip. Hot tears sprang beneath her lashes as, against her best efforts, she felt herself being hauled, slowly and inexorably, into the boat. The fight drained from her limbs, the adrenalin that had spurred her on now replaced by a debilitating exhaustion. Sodden and weak, Emmeline slumped face down on the bottom of the rowing boat, breathing heavily, refusing to open her eyes, refusing to acknowledge what she already knew. The man in the boat was Talvas of Boulogne.

She should have been relieved; at least this man wouldn’t cut her throat. But her courage shrivelled; the urge to throw herself to the inky depths once more threatened to overwhelm her. Powerful hands grabbed her shoulders, turning her over roughly, knocking her head against the wooden bottom of the boat.

‘Come on, sit up!’ The harsh cadence of his voice bit into her as he shoved her to a seated position. As the moon came out once more from behind the swirling cloud, Emmeline’s delicate features were revealed. He sucked his breath in sharply. She had lost her hat in the jump to the sea, and now her braids clung to her scalp. As his gaze raked her frozen face, the proud set of her neat head, the slash of his dark brows drew together at the sight of her, shivering uncontrollably. For a moment he forgot where he was, what he was supposed to be doing, transfixed by the sight of this dishevelled water sprite, by the sight of the water-darkened braids tumbling over her shoulders, the pearl-like gleam of her neck against the stark white of the linen chemise. The deep ‘V’ of the chemise gaped at her throat, hinting at the sensual curves beneath as the wet material clung to her slight figure, highlighting the soft curves of her breasts. His groin tightened; he cursed under his breath, surprised at the physicality of his reaction to her. Not since…nay, he would not, could not think of that woman now!

‘Mayhap you would like to tell me what you are doing?’ he said softly, letting out his breath in a low whistle. ‘It’s not every day I pull a mermaid from the sea.’

‘It’s not every day I jump into it!’ she retorted, wishing that she was anywhere but here. ‘W-w-what in the name of Mary are you doing here?’

‘Maybe I should ask you the same question?’ Talvas responded. ‘You,
mam’selle,
have an uncanny knack of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.’ How dare he! He made it sound that it was all her fault that he was on her ship. Setting her mouth in a mutinous line, she refused to acknowledge her relief at seeing Talvas as opposed to some gap-toothed, snarling criminal with a knife in his hand.

‘I own that ship,’ she spluttered angrily, ‘and have a perfect right to be on it. You, however, have no such right!’

‘You misunderstand me,
mam’selle,
’ he replied slowly, as if talking to a dim-witted child. ‘Only a fool would have jumped into waters such as these.’ He began to row to shore with practised efficiency.

‘I’m no fool,’ she responded automatically, vaguely aware that she had lost all sensation in her feet. The oars dipped and plashed rhythmically.

‘Then why do such a thing?’ His tone smoothed over her like velvet, neither critical nor concerned. ‘The temperature is enough to finish a full-grown man, let alone a chit of a girl like you.’

‘I thought you were going to kill me! I thought you were a thief, a robber, or worse!’

‘And you didn’t stop to find out?’

‘I didn’t want to wait around and have my throat cut!’ Emmeline shook uncontrollably now, her teeth chattering loudly together. Hunching her limbs into the core of her body, she tried to warm herself. Talvas caught her movement.

‘You were in the water for too long,’ he muttered, almost to himself.

‘Through no fault of my own,’ she retorted. ‘I would never have jumped in, never swum away if you hadn’t been on board my ship. What were you doing there?’

He shrugged his massive shoulders, the wind riffling his short dark curls as he turned his head to assess his direction. ‘Just looking around.’ She sensed rather than saw the intense ferocity in his eyes as he stared at her. ‘I admit, I mistook you for a trespasser.’

Within moments, the boat had crunched up on to the shingle, and Talvas sprung out in a single, easy movement. With her cumbersome garments clogged around her, Emmeline tried to rise, too, impatiently throwing off Talvas’s cloak in a bid to move.

‘Nay, you must keep it on.’ He picked it up and draped it around her shoulders, before lifting her out of the boat. She fought to gain her balance on the slippery pebbles, aware that he still held on to her upper arm. ‘It is imperative that you take off your wet clothes. I’ll take you back to Geoffrey and Marie’s house.’

She nodded, not wanting to return to her own house at this hour. Lifting her head briefly to assess the distance between her and the line of warehouses along the waterfront, her body sagged slightly at the interminable extent she would have to walk in her present state. Talvas watched impassively as she sought to find a foothold on the treacherous pebbles. Her leg ached unbearably and her reluctance to place her full weight upon it made her hesitate.

‘Here, take my hand,’ he offered, somewhat impatiently.

‘I just need a moment,’ she snapped. ‘You go on, I can make my own way.’

‘What ails thee, mistress?’ he asked, suddenly. ‘Did you hurt yourself?’

‘Nay, it’s naught…a slight cramp in my leg,’ she lied. The last thing she wanted was his piercing scrutiny, his arrogant mockery of her disability. Suddenly he was at her side, hauling her slim frame up against the muscular length of his tall body, supporting her with one hand under her upper arm, helping her up the shingle.

‘Your mother might have something to say about your nocturnal activities,’ he replied, leading the way across the waterfront to the dark, shuttered houses.

‘Why? She takes no responsibility for my actions,’ she shot back, struggling to keep her breathing steady, her limbs wrung out with exhaustion.

‘Then it’s about time someone did.’ He laughed. ‘You,
mam’selle,
are a permanent liability.’

Chapter Seven

G
eoffrey and Marie were aghast to be woken at such an early hour by the shaking, dripping figure of their friend and the tall, commanding figure of Lord Talvas of Boulogne. As Emmeline’s saturated garments trailed dark speckles of sea water onto the uneven flagstone floor, Geoffrey and Marie, faces alive with curiosity, sprang into action. Geoffrey poured two glasses of mead from the earthenware jug on the scrubbed oak table, pushing them into their hands as he apologised profusely for not having the means to warm it. Marie bustled to stir the banked-up fire into life, poking at the peat turfs to release a lick of flame from the glowing embers. Once established, Marie suspended a cauldron of water from the iron hook above the fire.

Limbs trembling violently from the exertion of her swim, Emmeline stared at her friend, the numbness of her mind trying to form some words of explanation. Why had Talvas been on the ship? The brooding presence of the man behind her made her nervous and confused. She wished he would leave so that she could enjoy the kind ministrations of her friends in peace.

‘Marie, I’m so sorry for all of this, for waking you so early…’ Emmeline took one stiff step forward, uncomfortable in her wet clothes. A raft of pain stung her right leg. Marie set back on her heels, her voluminous linen nightgown spilling around her on the floor, and turned toward her.

‘What happened?’

‘Your friend seems to have an unfortunate habit of landing herself in trouble,’ Talvas’s strident voice cut across the room, not allowing her time to reply. ‘I caught her on board
La Belle Saumur
and she jumped into the sea in order to escape me.’

‘You caught me on board!’ Emmeline repeated sarcastically, as Marie clapped a hand over her mouth in shock. ‘I have a perfect right to be on board my own ship. You, however, do not!’

Marie fixed her hazel eyes on Emmeline. ‘You jumped into the sea? God in Heaven!’ Emmeline shrugged her shoulders, jutting her chin upwards in a gesture of defiance. It wasn’t her fault! It had been the sanest thing to do in the circumstances.

From his position by the door, Talvas viewed the truculent profile of the woman he had just dragged out of the water. She was a fine example of a woman out of control, a woman who did exactly as she pleased because she had no one to answer to. Yet her unpredictability drew him as much as it puzzled him. As her clothes steamed slowly in the ambient warmth of the kitchen, he caught the faint scent of her perfume. An exotic smell, a hint of the Orient in its tone. Idly, his eyes followed the tangled dark blond strands of her hair down her slim back to where the ends brushed the rounded flare of her hips. She turned toward him suddenly, huge green eyes fringed with lashes of black velvet fixed upon his own. His groin jolted.

‘Well? I’m waiting for an explanation.’ Drooping with fatigue, Emmeline tried to pull herself up to full height, conscious of Talvas’s large frame dominating the cramped
confines of the kitchen, his black hair, curling a little in the heat, almost brushing the ceiling. He made her feel small and constricted, his stifling presence surrounding her, enveloping her. Levering one massive shoulder against the door jamb, Talvas pushed himself into the room, draining the contents of his pewter mug and setting it on a nearby table. Emmeline watched him lick the last drops of the honeyed nectar from his wide, well-defined lips. He moved toward her, a looming shape lit by the flickering firelight; her mind swam. She swayed a little and groped for the edge of the table to give her some support. The cold in her bones seemed to have evaporated; it felt like her head had become detached from the icy wasteland that was her body.

‘I decided to look over the ship before we sail tomorrow,’ he explained.

‘In the middle of the night?’ Emmeline rapped out, green eyes flashing. ‘I don’t believe you, Lord Talvas. You’re up to something, I know it!’ His lean features seemed to blur and float before her eyes. She reached out an arm to grab hold of something, something to stop her falling…! Talvas caught her before she hit the floor, his thick arms enfolding her slender frame, as her pewter cup rolled to the floor, spilling its contents. Pressed up against his broad chest, conscious of his voice rumbling above her head, Emmeline wondered what had happened. Her mind seemed to have taken on a hazy, dreamlike quality and she wanted to sleep, sleep for a hundred days. She kept her face pressed into the warm chest, trying to garner some warmth from the body that held her.

Talvas, reluctantly relishing the feel of the soft, feminine curves against his own hard body, glared fixedly at the fireplace, irritated by his reaction to the maid’s closeness. Awareness jumped through his muscular frame like sparks from a falling log as Marie stepped forward quickly and pulled the
clammy woollen tunic over Emmeline’s head. Beneath her masculine garments, the curving neckline of her white linen chemise pulled his eyes inexorably downwards, a neckline that emphasised the graceful column of her neck, the contoured hollow at her throat, the shadowed domain of her bosom. The maid’s head lolled back; he shifted position so that it rested comfortably upon his shoulder. Her long spiky lashes fanned down over her pale cheeks, emphasising the neat delicacy of her face. Desire punched him in the gut, an emotion so unexpected, so swift that his head yanked back in shock. Dragging his eyes upwards, he focused on Geoffrey who was climbing down the wooden stairs that led to the sleeping quarters. In his arms he carried a bundle of garments and a thick bed fur.

‘These should fit her,’ Geoffrey announced brightly.

‘Aye, they should,’ Marie said. ‘But I need to take off her chemise.’ She looked up at Talvas, who smiled grimly.

‘I will wait outside.’

Shutting the door forcefully behind him, Talvas stood for a moment, drawing the crisp, sea air into his lungs, squinting in the early morning light. The urge to bellow at the top of his voice seized him; he wanted to yell and shout, to punch someone. Ever since he had dragged that little sea nymph away from the falling crane, ever since she had lain sprawled beneath him, legs and arms splayed out on the jetty, he had experienced a raging desire to have her, to possess her! God in Heaven, he had only met the maid three days ago—had he so little control? The services of a whore were needed, needed to assuage this overwhelming desire! Hadn’t he learned anything from his past? His desolate gaze swept the shore line, picking up the heavy movements of the dockside workers in the first faint streaks of dawn, then following a small craft out to sea, his hands bunching into
fists. Memories hurtled into his mind, too fast for him to prevent them.

He could have forgiven her for leaving him. His youthful ambition, his passion for the sea, had splintered the brief time they had had together and she, entranced by the lure of a rich lifestyle, had danced away. Yet he couldn’t forgive her for taking his child, to vanish with the babe so swiftly that sometimes it was as if he dreamed her existence. But he had held that warm, round baby in that first sennight together, feasted on the dark shock of hair, the pink waving fingers that curled so tightly around his own rough digits, listened to the lilting burble that wrapped his heart in utter contentment and love. Talvas stared out to sea, trying to quash the black thoughts that swirled about him. His chest constricted, immovable with guilt. He had tracked her down some months after her disappearance, only to discover that his baby daughter had died.

The oak door creaked behind him, and he turned toward Geoffrey, glad of the interruption to his thoughts. ‘How fares the maid?’ His face was shuttered, impassive.

The merchant smiled benevolently. ‘Marie’s dressed her, and we’ve settled her in front of the fire. She’s still out cold, though.’ Geoffrey looked puzzled. ‘Tell me, my lord…how far did she actually swim?’

Talvas looked out at
La Belle Saumur
riding gently on the calm water. ‘Just about the whole way.’

Geoffrey let out a low whistle beneath his teeth. ‘God’s teeth, I knew the girl could swim, but never such a distance!’

‘’Tis impressive…and unusual for a maid to swim at all,’ Talvas found himself commenting. Damn! He wasn’t interested in the girl!

‘Her father, Anselm, taught her. She’s been swimming since she was practically a baby!’ Geoffrey glanced pointedly at
Talvas’s soaked overtunic. ‘My lord, you are wet through! Forgive me for not noticing! Can I offer you a change of clothes?’

Talvas grinned ruefully. ‘I thought you’d never ask.’ He ducked his head beneath the thick oak lintel, following Geoffrey back inside.

 

A delicious sensation surrounded Emmeline, a blissful feeling of warmth. The downy pelt of a fur stroked the soft skin of her cheek as she gradually became aware of the comforting sounds and smells associated with domestic life: the low murmur of voices, the pouring of water, the yeasty smell of newly baked bread.

Uncertainty clouded her mind—one moment she had been arguing with that insufferable man, the next she had collapsed into his arms…senseless. Well, not quite. Her heart somersaulted strangely as she recalled the way his broad arms had held her light stature easily, remembering the enticing musky aroma of him, of leather and the sea.

Opening one eye a fraction, she wondered if he had left. Peering out surreptitiously from her cocoon of blankets and pelts, Emmeline saw Marie dividing the bread between large platters at the table, and Geoffrey was…

She gaped.

In a single heart-stopping moment, a thrill ripped through her stomach and chest, forcing all conscious thought to a liquid bolt that shot through her veins. Talvas! He stood with his back to her, dragging his soggy tunic over his head, followed swiftly by his undershirt. He began to dry himself with the rough linen square that Geoffrey held out to him. Emmeline watched, transfixed by the beautiful physique before her. Fully clothed, Talvas made an imposing figure, but stripped to the waist in her friend’s kitchen, he was devastating! She traced the strong indented column of his spine, banded on either side by well-
honed plates of muscle: evidence of hard, physical labour. There was nothing soft about him, no inch of spare flesh. Emmeline’s eyes ran down his spine until she reached the point where his damp skin, gleaming in the firelight, indented and met the top of his braies.

Needles of desire shot through her and she tried to quash them, dampen them down; they were too dangerous, too wilful to be released! She pushed her face in her hands, as if by trying to obscure the vision before her, she could stamp out her reaction, to scrub out these unwanted feelings!

‘Ah, methinks the maid had come around.’ Talvas’s deep voice growled into the room as he whipped his head around, pulling the tunic down.

‘You don’t sound particularly happy about it!’ Emmeline launched into him immediately, acutely aware of her own vulnerability. Fighting the weakness in her limbs, she forced herself to sit up straighter. Wearing no shoes or stockings, her bare toes peeked out from beneath her hem-line and she wiggled them against the cold flagstones, trying to regain some sensation.

‘I’m not happy about you coming to England.’ he assessed her ruefully, his lean fingers buckling the leather belt that slung about his taut hips. ‘How can I trust you not to do something as stupid as that again?’

‘Surely it’s my choice,’ she responded. ‘Remember, I take responsibility for my actions.’

He grinned, a wide smile breaking his face easily. It made him seem younger, more approachable somehow. ‘I doubt you’d find anyone else offering.’

‘Besides, you may find me quite helpful,’ she added, primly, crossing her ankles to try and hide their nakedness. She wondered whether Marie had gone to find her some stockings and shoes.

‘Hmm…that remains to be seen.’ Talvas raked his fingers through the seal pelt of his hair.

‘Well, I’m coming and that’s final. I must visit my sister.’ Throwing back the fur as if to emphasise her point, Emmeline rose abruptly, too quickly. Too late she realised her unsteadiness as her right leg collapsed beneath her, failing to take her weight, and she fell back into the chair with a hushed moan.

Marie, setting new bread upon the table, bustled to her side, her hands fluttering around her with anxiety. But Talvas moved faster. Before she had time to push him away, to deflect his interest, he had hunkered down and tugged back the embroidered hem of her
bliaut.

Time hung in the air, suspended for a moment.

Below Emmeline’s right knee, her calf descended into a welter of purple, reddish scars that marred and twisted into the smooth perfection of her white skin. Her right foot, although unmarked, seemed placed at an odd angle, warped.

‘God in Heaven!’ Talvas let out a low whistle, his azure eyes seeking hers. ‘How did you do this? Not this night, surely?’

She closed her eyes, defeated, shaking her head. ‘Nay, it’s an old wound.’ Her voice juddered with memory: the violent shove at her back, the rickety ladder that she had failed to grasp at before she landed in a heap at the bottom. Her husband’s face, his mouth wet with spittle, laughing manically down at her.

‘’Tis why you limp,’ he said, almost to himself. ‘I should have realised.’ he caught her hand, the ridges and calluses of his fingers pressing into her silken palm, a grip of steel so light that it dared her to pull away.

She flushed hotly under his intense gaze, a blue so deep she thought she would drown in it. Yanking her hand from his, she reached down, throwing her skirts back over the offending leg. ‘I never think of it.’ The last thing she wanted was his pity, his concern.

‘How did you do it?’ he asked again, mildly curious, aware of the thick tension in the chamber. Geoffrey and Marie knew, he could be sure of that.

‘I fell,’ she explained in a monotone. ‘I was clumsy.’

Rising, he considered her closed expression, the scarcity of her explanation and wondered what she hid. The skin of her fingers was taut and white as her hands clenched rigidly around the arms of the chair. A muscle jumped in his cheek. Lying in the chair, she looked like a broken doll, laced into a lichen-green
bliaut
that flowed around her soft curves, her narrow waist. All her vivacity, all her tempestuous spirit and determination had faded to nothing, leaving her defeated, crushed. His bright blue eyes bored into hers, concerned, knowing there was nothing more he could do.

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