SUNLIGHT STREAMED THROUGH the narrow casement, flooding the chamber with light. Ciaran groaned and pulled the coverlet over his head, trying to postpone waking just a little longer so he might linger in the sweetness of his dream: Evaine, fragrant as a flower, nestled in his arms, her breath soft as a summer wind caressing his cheek. Enfolded in her loving embrace, he wanted nothing more than to immerse himself in the languorous pleasure of flesh against flesh. How long since they had been able to get close to each other? Too long, he thought, too damn long.
Casting aside the previous night’s dark encounter with the lord of Caer Blaen, Ciaran vowed to get them out of here soon, so they might finally begin building a life together. His heart beat faster imagining the possibilities. What might their child look like? Would he be dark, like his mother? Or pale, like his father? Father! Christ, now there’s a thought! It’s enough to set a man back a pace or two.
He felt giddy, lying beneath an embroidered quilt with the sunshine streaming over him on a crisp fall morning and his head full of tomorrows. The sparkling sun and his own high spirits prompted him to abandon the comforts of bed and confront the task of dressing himself.
He found his boots next to the fireplace. The hose and linen shirt he had slept in would have to do for the rest. His cloak hung from a peg near the door. Getting dressed proved more arduous than he had expected, as his cracked ribs allowed minimal bending and tugging, but he ultimately managed, after a prolonged battle, to get his feet into his boots. He decided not to bother donning the cloak for now; strange, how something he had done every day of his life without ever giving it the slightest thought now seemed far too complex a chore.
He spit into his hands and did what he could to smooth back any outlaw strands of hair from his face and then bravely tackled the heavy wooden door. After several failed attempts and as many impious remarks he eventually dragged it open wide enough to slip his slender frame through to the corridor.
A heavily mailed guard stood a few feet away, armed with a short-handled axe and stone-faced indifference. Ciaran strode briskly past him, nodded impassively and, as if he were late for an important engagement, continued down the long, dimly lit passage. Upon reaching the far end, he quickly disappeared into the shadows of the tower, spiraling his way up the narrow, stone staircase to the upper landing.
Gratified he had successfully slipped past the sentry and survived the grueling thirty-two steps to the next level, Ciaran paused a moment to catch his breath and then rapped lightly on his lady’s door. Even though he had seen her just the day before, his heart raced as he waited for her. The clandestine nature of their meeting produced a surge of excitement, but the mere thought of being near again her inflamed his soul.
A plump, freckled maidservant, brown as a wren, greeted him at the entry. At the sight of Ciaran, her olive-colored eyes widened. She curtsied, immediately lowering her gaze. “Your pardon, my lord, who shall I say is calling?”
“Tell her it’s her husband,” he said with a nod. Then, with an elvish smile, he added, “Her true husband.”
The girl ushered him into a small reception area. Ciaran took a seat on the single wooden bench and stared absently at a worn floral tapestry covering the opposite wall. He suddenly wished he had thought to bring her a token of some kind. She’d forgive him the oversight, of course, but he still regretted not having thought of it earlier. From behind the arched doorway, he heard Evaine shriek and then came the bright, irrepressible sound of her laughter. The maid returned a short time later to show him inside.
The moment he stepped through the door, Evaine was in his arms. She seemed every bit as rapturous as he, floating on air, luminous with love and optimism.
“You look beautiful,” he said, noting her change of clothing from the plain nun’s habit to a deep red gown with flowing skirts, a fitted bodice, and long, embellished sleeves. She glowed with freshness and vitality. “God’s blood, I’ve missed you. I’ve missed touching you.”
She smiled up at him and sighed. “I know it’s only been a few days,” she said. “But it feels like years!” She glanced toward the chambermaids hovering nearby and sent them away with a graceful wave of her hand. “How ever did you escape the clutches of the ‘Evil Overlord?'” she asked in a conspiratorial tone once they were gone.
Ciaran laughed. “After threatening me to within an inch of my life, he stalked off as if he were the injured party! Pompous ass! He keeps trying to accuse me of working some sort of demon-magic on him, which is on-its-face absurd.”
“Not entirely,” said Evaine. “I thought you’d enchanted me, at first.”
“Yes, but I was in love with you. What possible motive could I have to bewitch the lord of Caer Blaen?” He aimed for an appropriately serious expression but found himself unable repress a silent snicker.
“It is baffling,” Evaine agreed. “I almost pity him.”
Ciaran scoffed. “You would. I find him insufferably condescending, not to mention vain, self-serving and entirely too presumptuous.”
Evaine laughed again, delightful, musical laughter that seemed to run up and down the scale. “You’re awfully hard on poor Lionel. I’ll admit, he is a bit overbearing, but flattery seems to win him over every time. And look how readily he shares his largesse,” she emphasized, calling attention to the elegantly furnished chamber. “I had no idea he had such exquisite taste, did you?”
“Why are you taking his side?” accused Ciaran, wounded by the ease with which she showered praise on the man. He gave her an intensely hurt look. “I can’t believe you’re defending him.”
Genuinely perplexed by his reaction, Evaine wasn’t sure whether or not to take him seriously. “I’m sorry, my Heart. Surely, I didn’t mean to upset you.”
Ciaran dismissed the subject with a toss of his head. “I didn’t come here to debate the character of our so-called host,” he remarked. He pulled her closer “Are we alone?” he inquired in low, buttery tones.
“Ciaran ap Morgan,” Evaine scolded. “I swear you have only one thing on your mind, no matter what the time or circumstance.”
He did not dispute the accusation. “My love, look around you. When have we had the luxury of a private room, a bed, and the prerogative to bar the door?” Evaine giggled, burying her face in the folds of his shirt. He took her chin, gently lifted her face and bent to kiss her, wincing at the tenderness in his ribs. He toyed with the laces of her gown while covering her face with kisses. “You are everything to me,” he said tenderly. “You are the reason for my existence. When I’m apart from you, I’m cold and hollow. Only in your company do I feel alive.”
“Dear my lord, you are a most eloquent liar,” she declared. She wrapped her arms tightly around his waist, inadvertently inflicting a stab of pain.
Ciaran winced, sucked in his breath and shrank into himself.
“Oh, my love, I’ve hurt you!” Evaine cried. “Forgive me, darling, I forgot – ”
“All’s well,” Ciaran assured her, making a sterling effort to mask his discomfort. He forced a smile and leaned back against the edge of the bed, holding out his arms to her.
“I’m always hurting you,” she said with a look of anguish, her dark eyebrows drawn together and her lips thrust out in her little pout.
“I can take it,” Ciaran insisted valiantly. “Come here. Just try not to squeeze so hard next time.”
Evaine encircled his neck and rested her forehead against his. “My sweet prince,” she said, “I have no pretty words to tell you how I feel; I’m not gifted with poetry as you are. ‘I love you’ doesn’t begin to describe the fullness in my heart.”
“Beloved. Look at me. You don’t have to say a word; the joy in your eyes and your delightful laughter are all the poetry I need. Your love radiates from you like sunshine. It’s nourishment for my soul.” He drew her fully into his arms, thrusting his fingers into the thick, dark coils of her hair. He kissed her deeply and affectionately and leaned back against the mattress, pulling her towards him and undulating against her. “Sweet God, you are irresistible,” he panted, cupping and squeezing her breasts.
“Not so hard,” she pleaded. “They’re very tender lately.”
Ciaran grinned. “I think I know why,” he said slyly.
“Do tell,” said Evaine, wresting his hands away.
“You’re with child, Love!” He laughed. “Due to the delicate condition in which we both find ourselves, we shall have to treat each other with the utmost care.” He lifted her hair and nuzzled the back of her neck, already beginning to swell at the mere sight of her. Growing impatient, he reached up under the hem of her skirts.
“Not so fast!” Evaine protested, squirming out of his grasp. She pulled her skirts down, smoothing and arranging the drapes and folds. This, of course, only drove his urgency, fueling the fires of pent-up lust. “Please, Evaine, my God! I’m in a hell of desire.”
“That is abundantly clear,” she said. “But I’m not there yet. Can’t we just hold each other for awhile first?”
Hold each other? Sweet Christ! he thought feverishly. If she doesn’t hurry it will be too late! Struck with sudden inspiration, he loosened the lacings of her bodice and spread wide the front of her gown. With feather-light touches and soft wet kisses, he focused on the magic peaks he knew would open the floodgates. He teased and coaxed and suckled until at last, she threw her head back, baring her smooth, slender neck and arching her spine in an ecstasy of pleasure. She was ready now, of this there could be no doubt. He slid his hands up under her skirts and began stroking her thighs and kneading her round, firm buttocks, hoisting her up so she could straddle him. “There you are,” he said in that warm, sensual baritone he used for love-making. Deftly freeing himself from his constricting codpiece, he pulled her legs around his waist and leaned back just enough, gliding effortlessly into the velvety gateway that would transport them both to paradise.