Helena Pryce seizes a chance to explore the Archangel Earl's derelict castle. After midnight, concealed in the minstrel's gallery . . .
Of a sudden, she could not bear to spy on him any longer. Nor could she leave, not until he did. She looked up, watching the shadows play across the ceiling as his movements stirred the air and the candle flames. Even that was too intrusive. She closed her eyes.
And saw him in her imagination, alone in a circle of light, ferociously doing battle against his demons. Against himself.
Her legs had been curled under her on the icy floor, and while her attention was directed toward the earl, they had gone numb. Now, as she tried to think of something other than him, she became aware of sharp pins and needles in her feet. As gently as she could, she eased her legs out from under her, moving a little sideways to straighten them and rock her feet backward and forward.
It didn't help. Teeth clenched, she tried various motions to shake out the cramps, but they had taken root. Tears sprang to her eyes. She wiped them away and gazed up at the ceiling. Pale golden light washed over it like a winter sunset, smooth and still.
No shadows. No flickers! Perhaps he was gone, and she could make her escape. She lowered her head and peered through the balusters to where he had been. It was all a little tear-blurred, the circle of candles and mirrors, and he was not inside it. She nearly wept again, this time with relief.
Turning a little, she pushed up onto her hands and knees. Then she saw him.
He was standing at the edge of the wooden flooring, his head lifted toward the gallery, his sword pointing in her direction. The Archangel Lucifer, luminous with anger, had caught out a rat.
"Come here, Miss Pryce." A soft, masterful command. "Now."
She never considered disobeying. When her legs consented to do her bidding, she made her slow way downstairs and to the heavy, iron-studded doors that had been locked that afternoon. They were wide open, and straight ahead of her, waiting for her, stood Lord Varden.
He was exactly where he had been, but relaxed now, the sword point blessedly touching the floor next to his stockinged foot. He was too far away for her to read anything in his expression.
Her woman-of-business stride had no place here. She kept herself from slinking across the wide space between them, which seemed to her a great accomplishment, and was pitifully glad that he couldn't see her eyes.
A curtsy would be out of place as well, she decided, halting just beyond sword's reach. She stood there for a moment, arms at her sides, chin lifted. Let him have at her, then. She would endure the assault with grace and dignity.
No assault. No change in his calm demeanor. He simply looked at her, the way he might look at a mildly interesting bug that had scuttled into the room.
"You wish an explanation, I suppose" she said when the silence became unbearable.
"Not at all. I recognize prying. You were meddlesome, disrespectful, insolent, ill-bred, incorrigible, and rude. Have I left anything out?"
"Foolish," she said. "Presumptuous. Pig-headed. Oh, a score of disparaging adjectives, all of them quite accurate. I am ashamed, sir. You have my most earnest apology for intruding on your privacy."
"Nicely spoken." He didn't seem in the least impressed with her display of humility. "Now, how did you get in here? And how long were you up there in the gallery, snooping?"
"I've a copy of the papers I brought you. Old Holcombe's sketches of the castle. But I never meant to use them to spy on you, my lord. It was you insisted I stay here tonight. I couldn't sleep, and when I looked out the window, I saw light coming from the windows of the Great Hall, which had been locked up earlier, when I tried to-- "
"How long, Miss Pryce?"
"Since shortly before you came in with the sword case."
His jaw tightened. "And you remained all this time?"
"I've an interest in fencing, sir."
"You saw precious little of it. Or are you entertained by watching an amateur stumble around, making a great fool of himself?"
"I saw nothing of the sort." She felt starch gathering at her spine, stiffening her will. "I saw an expert right-handed swordsman training himself to work with his left hand, and going about it in all the wrong ways. Well, some of the wrong ways. You require a fencing master."
"No doubt. But in the Mendips, fencing masters are not thick on the ground. The one I employed in London set me to the exercises you observed, and while you may not credit it, there has been progress, if only a little, in the last few weeks. And now, young woman, you may as well toddle off to bed. The performance is over."
This time she did curtsy, a great sorrow pressing her down, making it difficult to rise again. On leaden feet she moved back the direction she had come, to the edge of the gleaming floor where the wooden case lay open. Inside it, she saw the twin of the sword he was holding.
Stopping, she took a deep breath and looked back at him. "I could show you."
"How to fence? I'm not sure, Miss Pryce, that it would be wise to put a weapon in your hand."
"I've not held a foil for nearly a decade, sir. Even if I wished it, I could do you no harm. But perhaps I can demonstrate why you are having so much difficulty. If you will only change your methods, progress is sure to be rapid."
"You are a menace." The sound of weary resignation. "And devilish hard to get rid of."
"I've been told that before." She lifted the sword from the felt bed on which it rested. "This grip is unlike any I've used. Italian?"
"The fencing master recommended I try it. The crossbar provides a firmer grip and ease of manipulation, which I require for my left hand. It lacks the strength and flexibility I enjoyed with my right."
"So far. It will improve." She fumbled with the unfamiliar guard. "I think you must show me how to hold this."
When he failed to come to her, she crossed into the light, searching his face for his mood. She saw only a polite aristocrat enduring a temporary unpleasantness. But he stowed his own sword under his right arm and beckoned her closer.
"Like this," he said, hooking the first joint of her middle finger over the crossbar. "The thumb flat, just here."
She barely noticed his instructions, all her senses focused on where he touched her, and on the beauty of his hand. Long-fingered, slightly browned and roughened by work, it was at once graceful and wholly masculine. When he laid it over hers, to curl her fingers around the sword grip, her skin went on fire.
Helplessly, inadvertently, she looked up. He was looking back at her, eyes glinting with an awareness that matched her own, although he surely couldn't tell. Not through the glasses. But her face was flushed, she knew, and her lips, of their own accord, parted.
She snapped them closed. Bent her head, studied the sword grip while he placed her index finger in position.
"This provides support from underneath. Your thumb and index control the foil. The others provide a firm grip. How does it feel?"
Like I am dissolving.
But he had stepped back, meaning her to try the sword, so she obliged him by swishing it back and forth. The feeling, like all the other feelings clamoring for her attention, was unfamiliar. At least she had a little control of the sword. Unlike her body, which had begun galloping off in every direction.
"What is it, then, you wish to show me?"
She dragged together a few thoughts. Saluted him with the foil and smoothly went en garde. He was a second behind her, no more, moving without hesitation or thought.
Simple attacks. Straight lunge in his fourth line. Cutover in his sixth line. Moving slowly at first, she proceeded to compound attacks. Feint with direct thrust, and against parry of fourth, deceive and lunge. Press in sixth, extend, lunge.
Then she stopped announcing her moves and simply went from one to the next. He parried easily, made the expected counter, disengaged. After a time, he inaugurated an attack, and then another. Nothing complex, for she was long out of practice, and he was not yet ready to attempt an advanced pattern.
As they circled, she sometimes found herself looking at six Lord Vardens, the real man and the five reflections, all of them graceful, sophisticated, and intense. They were dancing, she thought, a courtly minuet, their swords an extension of their hands, their gazes locked on her.
"You were right," he said, pulling back for a moment. "The motions, after the first two or three times, come almost automatically. Why?"
"Before, you were trying to direct your body with only your mind and will. Now, by watching me, you have another cue to give it. Your experience has taught you to anticipate and meet your opponent’s moves. With your eyes and instincts joined to your mind and will, you can overcome the body’s wish to move as it formerly did."
"And how did you know this would happen?"
"It seemed logical." She gave a small shrug. "I was guessing."
Another of those looks from him. It felt like a touch.
"En garde, Miss Pryce."
She barely countered his attack, retreated, and found herself defending against a series of attacks against the blade, non-threatening but assertive. He had got back his confidence, and if his form lacked the elegance he would achieve with practice, it didn't seem to matter. It was the precision he sought, the mastery.
She circled, fending him off, a little breathless with exhilaration. No minuet for them now, no refined dance. Like gypsies around the fire, sheened with perspiration, they clashed and recovered and clashed again, the metallic beat of their swords resonating off the stone walls and ceiling.
He was smiling a little, toying with her. She tried to disengage, but he was quicker, forcing her to retreat. Then their swords met again, his on the inside, forcing her arm back, his gaze intent on her face. She knew better than to yield. He pushed, not hard but inexorably, until both sword arms were extended to the fullest degree.
She thought it was over, that he would permit her to withdraw. Instead, in a motion so unexpected she hadn't a chance to react, he stepped forward, wrapped his right arm around her waist, bent her a little backward, and brought his lips to hers.
A bare, quick breath before his mouth covered her mouth, before his breath became her breath. Her sword clattered to the floor. His sword came up behind her, cool against her back, hard against the back of her head. Imprisoned, unresisting, she felt his unshaven chin press her cheek as he slanted his lips, slid his tongue between her lips and over her tongue, an intimate fencing match that set her blood roaring in her ears.
"I want you," he said on a breath, and claimed her mouth again. His body covered hers. If he released her, she'd have fallen. But she was safe in his arms, protected by his determination, by a possessive embrace that demanded more of her.
A new dance altogether, and she was not unwilling.