Derbyshire, 1192: Sir Crispin of Huntington’s love for his ex-fiancée, Lady Aubrey of Morley, is matched only by his hatred of the Derbywood Bandit. Unbeknownst to him, Lady Aubrey and the Bandit are one-in-the-same. Also unluckily for him, Aubrey has a crush on Ethan of Windale. When Ethan returns suddenly from the crusades Crispin must prove his love and loyalty and win Aubrey away from his arch rival. Aubrey must continue her quest as the Bandit while helping Crispin summon the strength to use his power for good. But when a wild gamble throws Aubrey into Crispin’s arms just as he learns the truth about the Bandit will his love survive or will he lose Aubrey to Ethan forever?
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Aubrey pressed against the castle wall as rain and wind lashed her. It grated on her nerves that she had had to sneak out in the dead of night to meet with Ethan, just as it set her teeth on edge that all Ethan wanted to talk about was his grand design for disrupting the Council of Nobles. Rescuing her friends, rescuing her from marrying Crispin, were afterthoughts. She dashed across the courtyard and into the castle with a bitter smirk. Here she was, risking detection as the Bandit by dressing in chausses, when what she should really be wearing was her most low-cut kirtle. Maybe that would snag Ethan’s focus.
The castle had long since gone to bed and she was able to rush through the halls and to her room without being noticed. She pulled the wet cloak from her shoulders, dropping it in the middle of the floor. Unbuckling the sword from her belt she tossed it on the bed, stripping off her wet Bandit clothes and changing into her nightgown with a scowl.
A knock at the door startled her.
“Aubrey, it’s me,” Crispin’s baritone made the hair stand up on her neck.
“Just a second.” She lunged to her wet clothes and pushed them behind a heavy chair, jumped towards the bed and shoved the sword under her pillows. A large damp spot stood out on the stones in front of the fireplace. There was nothing she could do about that except to keep Crispin from entering the room. She grabbed the robe that lay over the foot of her bed and threw it around her shoulders before answering the door.
The set frown on Crispin’s face melted at the sight of her. For a heartbeat Aubrey caught something primal in the depths of his eyes as they raked over her. She shivered in spite of herself. “Aubrey, are you well?”
“I’m fine.” She hoped he couldn’t see her heart beating through her skin. “It’s late, Crispin, very late. Do you need something?”
Crispin stood too still. His eyes followed the line of her neck as it dipped under the soft fabric of her robe. Aubrey wondered how it would feel if his hands followed his eyes. When he shook himself and let out a breath she blushed with shame at her disobedient imagination. “Would you like to see your friends?”
She wasn’t sure she heard right. “My friends?”
“Buxton has ordered their room be cleaned.” The softness of his jaw and the weariness in his eyes made her heart thump harder. “I’ve had them moved to the library while the servants are working.”
“But it’s the middle of the night. Why would they clean the room now?”
Crispin stared at the floor. “Buxton doesn’t want you to know they’re not in their room. He wanted it cleaned while you were asleep so that you wouldn’t try to see them.”
“Then why are you here telling me about it?” Their eyes met. Realization hit her. Her whole body burst into tingles against her will. She stepped out into the hallway, pulling her door shut with a quick shake of her head. “Crispin, you’re taking too big a risk.” She marched past him along the hall.
He fell into step behind her. She could feel him as if he were a breath away. “Your hair is wet.”
His whispered observation made her already flushed face burn. “I took a bath before going to bed,” she lied.
“I’m sorry to have woken you.”
“I wasn’t asleep.” She glanced up at him as caught up to her, frowning. “Are you sure this isn’t too much of a risk? Buxton wouldn’t approve.”
“Buxton has been in bed for hours now. As long as the servants are quiet he’ll stay there.”
Her eyebrows shot to her hairline. “What if he finds out?”
He paused as the stairs let out into the main section of the castle. “Are you going to tell him?”
Was he teasing her? Aubrey let the barest hint of a smile play on her lips. “No.”
They continued side-by-side to the castle library. It was small compared to other libraries she had seen. There was only one shelf of carefully bound volumes and a long table with mismatched chairs around it. The table was nothing more than a huge oak blotting pad where generations of scholars had spilled ink. Sister Bernadette sat in a chair at the head of the table under a tall, narrow window that Madeline stared out. The rain and wind still beat the castle walls with an occasional clap of thunder but Aubrey ignored all of it. She rushed forward to throw her arms around Madeline. Madeline let out a squeal as she hugged her back.
“What are you doing here?” she held her at arm’s length, mouth gaping.
“Crispin brought me.”
“Sir Crispin? Oh Aubrey, we’ve heard the most horrible accusations! That you are to marry him!”
Aubrey’s gut seized. She turned back to the door and was surprised when she saw that it had been shut behind her and Crispin wasn’t there. He’d left them alone. “It’s not an accusation, Madeline.”
Sister Bernadette rose from her chair as Madeline gripped Aubrey’s arms harder, trembling. “How can it possibly be true?”
Aubrey took a deep breath. “I have a plan. Crispin said he would let you go on the day that I marry him.”
Madeline blanched, eyes wide. “Aubrey, no! You can’t sacrifice yourself to save us.”
“I’m not sacrificing myself,” she waved her to silence. Her eyes flickered to Sister Bernadette. The older woman wore her usual serene smile. “The wedding will be at Windale,” she turned back to Madeline. “I’ll ask that you attend. They’ll have to let you out of the castle to do that. You’ll escape and Ethan will come and rescue me.” It felt so good to finally tell someone the plan she had been mulling over for weeks now that a genuine smile lit her face.
“We can’t just escape like that.”
Her smile faltered. Madeline wasn’t supposed to question her, she was supposed to congratulate her for the brilliant plan. “Ethan said that he would save me from marrying Crispin and ….” She wanted to say that she believed him but the words wouldn’t cross her lips. She cleared her throat. “Jack is in on it. He’ll be there to take you to safety.”
“We cannot leave without the Madonna.” Sister Bernadette’s solid declaration made Aubrey blink.
“What?” She’d forgotten the statue entirely.
“We will not leave without our treasure.”
“But it will be hard enough to whisk you out of the castle as it is.”
Sister Bernadette was unmoved. “We came here with one purpose only and we will not abandon that purpose.”
Aubrey sighed and threw up her hands. A rumble of thunder underscored her growing temper. She rubbed her aching forehead, jaw clenched, as she scrambled for a way to talk the stubborn nun out of her plan. “I just don’t think it’s possible.”
“With God all things are possible.”
“Alright, fine,” Aubrey huffed and dropped her arms. “We’ll think of something.” Why Jack loved nuns was beyond her. As far as she was concerned they were a bunch of troublemakers.
“It will work out Aubrey, you’ll see,” Madeline stepped forward and circled her arms around Aubrey’s rigid body. “I have faith. In you and,” she flickered a glance to Sister Bernadette then whispered, “and in Jack.”
Aubrey couldn’t help but give her friend a weak smile. “Thank you for that,” she hugged her back. She set Madeline on her feet again and turned to take Sister Bernadette’s offered hand. “I have to go, but I’ll do everything I can to make sure you escape with your treasure.”
“God be with you, my child,” Sister Bernadette squeezed her hand. “And with your betrothed.”
Aubrey fought not to roll her eyes as she turned to leave the room.
Crispin paced the hall outside of the library. Every noise spiked his nerves. He was a fool for being skittish over shadows. The risks he took now were for Aubrey’s sake. His breath caught at the memory of her standing in her doorway, robe loose around creamy shoulders. She hadn’t even tried to cover herself. If he didn’t know better he would have said she had let him look, look at the curve of her hip, the rise of her breasts. His body ached for her. He could imagine making love to her for hours.
The thump of footsteps on the other side of the door made him stand straighter and clear his throat. She burst out into the hall, her expression troubled.
“Did you have a good conversation with your friends?” he cursed the gravel in his voice.
“Oh, yes, brilliant. Thanks.” She raked him with a glance then marched down the hall.
She was agitated. He kept his mouth shut, matching her pace and watching her as she stormed back to her room. Her robe skewed across her shoulder with each step she took, exposing more of her flesh. With the fire in her eyes at that moment he figured he could throw her up against the wall and take her right there and she would love it. Frustrated by the heat that pounded through him he turned away.
“You’re awfully quiet,” she broke the silence when they were in the stairwell.
He cleared his throat in vain. “I have nothing to say.” He didn’t want to say anything.
They continued up the stairs and along the hallway. When they reached her door Aubrey entered and tried to shut it behind her. He stopped it and stepped inside.
She turned, crossing her arms. “I did not invite you in.”
“I thought you didn’t have anything to say.” One eyebrow quirked up over flashing eyes.
He left the door open as he approached her. The smooth line of her shoulder stood out in sharp relief against the lightning-split sky. “Buxton has agreed to our marriage. He has set a date. Next Saturday.”
He searched her eyes for panic, fear, rejection. He found steel. “Buxton has given his consent.” She repeated his statement with a flat stare.
“Buxton.” She blew out a breath and shook her head.
Her damp hair spilled over her shoulder, one curling lock settling between her breasts. He couldn’t remember what she had said. “Is something the matter?”
“Do you have to ask his permission to piss?”
The question withered the coil of heat in his gut. “He gave me land and a position of power and respect.” He couldn’t meet her eyes as he gave his worn excuse.
She took a step towards him. “That’s the past. What about now?” He backed away. She didn’t give him time to gather his raging thoughts into an answer. “Could the Council of Nobles really vote to take Windale away from you?”
His eyes snapped up to meet hers. Suspicion constricted his throat. “The Council could overturn any decision Buxton has made if they have the support of the crown. But it isn’t likely. Buxton has most of the nobles in his pocket.”
“And what about you?” She took another step towards him. The fire in his blood flared again. “Does he have you in his pocket?”
Yes. He did. The truth twisted his stomach. “No,” he answered firmly, stepping closer. She was a breath away, eyes flaring. The heat of her anger sparked the air between them. “Buxton does not control me.”
“Then do something!” She gripped his arms as if she could steer the course of the world through his muscles. “Stop placating him. Set my friends free whether he gives his permission or-”
His mouth crushed down over hers before she could finish. He pulled her fully against him, one arm tight around her waist while the other cradled the back of her head. Her body was rigid as he tasted her, curled his fingers in her hair. She shuddered and her fingers dug into his biceps as he softened his kiss, teasing his tongue across hers, nipping at her lips. The hand around her waist caressed lower, splaying on the contour of her bottom, between her legs, pressing her hips up against his. He tugged her head gently, tipping her chin up, and lowered his hungry mouth to her neck. Her nails burrowed harder and the groan from the back of her throat snapped him to his senses.
Gasping he stepped back, pressing the back of his hand to his mouth and whipping away from her. “I’m sorry,” he panted, “That was inappropriate.” His voice was gruff with shame as he tore past her.
“Crispin-” He barely heard her call his name as he fled into the hall, slamming the door behind him.
Aubrey staggered to her bed as the door banged and grabbed the post to hold herself up. Her legs were weak and liquid fire sang between them. Her lips still burned with the taste of him. She was sure she had a molten handprint on her backside. She closed her eyes and forced herself to breathe to steady herself. She had no idea what had just happened. It had been her intention to pry information out of him, to test him to see if he would free her friends without Buxton’s permission. The last thing she expected was to become a part of him for one blinding moment. Ethan had kissed her plenty of times and it had been nice. Crispin had ignited her soul. She glanced helplessly to the door, biting her lip and wildly hoping that he would come storming back into the room to throw her on her bed and finish what he’d hinted at.
She gasped at herself and stood rod straight as if someone had thrown a lewd suggestion at her. Bitter guilt washed over her. She loved Ethan. If she was going to work herself into sizzling knots over anyone it was going to be Ethan. Crispin was her pawn, nothing else. She pushed away from the bedpost and staggered to the rain-drenched window. Throwing it open into the waning storm she thrust her head out into the night. She wouldn’t have been surprised if steam curled off of her skin.interesting page you read on the web.