In this scene, our intrepid heroine Gelina O'Monaghan is rescued from an overamorous suitor by the very man sworn to be her enemy but destined to be both her king and her lover. Conn has no idea who the masked beauty in his arms is...
Gelina's eyes went by instinct to the soldier’s waist to find he wore no sword. She drew back her fist and drove it into his stomach with all of her strength.
He doubled over with a howl. She whirled to run and was so intent on peering over her shoulder to see if he would pursue her that she did not see the man who stepped in front of her until she slammed into his chest with enough force to stun her. She raised her eyes to stare at lion’s whiskers she had painted with her own hand.
She turned around, stepping on his toes and smoothing her hood forward. Her heart pounded in her ears, drowning out the rhythm of the drum. The soldier staggered toward them, rubbing his belly.
Firm hands rested on her shoulders; his voice was a deep and gentle whisper at her ear. “Does he trouble you, my lost beauty?”
Gelina nodded, not daring to speak or flee lest he follow and unmask her.
The soldier stopped short as he saw the man standing behind her. His mouth fell open.
“There are surely enough willing women to go around tonight, Liam. There is no need to prey on the unwilling. We are not savages.”
The soldier ran a sheepish hand through his hair. “I was just having some sport. I would not have harmed her.”
“I shall feel more assured of that when you are safe in your bed . . . soon.”
“Yes, sire. Forgive me.” The soldier yawned loudly and backed into the night. “‘Tis late. I am weary of the celebration, as I was just telling the young lass. I do believe I will . . .” His voice faded in the darkness.
Conn chuckled. Gelina could feel the heat of his hands on her shoulders through the velvet cloak and dress. His grip changed subtly; his fingers slid along her collarbone with strength and tenderness. She breathed a silent prayer of thanks for the darkness, knowing it would hide the color of her hair as he eased the hood back. A shiver ran through her as his broad thumbs stroked the smooth column of her throat, coming to rest against the pulse that beat wildly there. His warm breath stirred the curls at her ear.
“Your heart beats like a captive bird. Now that we are rid of him, beauty, will you come with me?”
He mistook her silence for surrender, and she had no choice but to follow him as he folded her hand in his and pulled her toward a door well hidden by a swinging curtain of ivy. She jerked the hood over her hair with a desperate hand as they ducked inside a long corridor. A crowd of laughing men and women rounded the corner. Before Gelina dared to protest, Conn slid aside a secret panel and pulled her into a deserted tunnel away from the prying eyes of the crowd. The tunnel curved far ahead of them like the belly of some great beast. A single torch sputtered low in its sconce.
Gelina balked as Conn pulled her inexorably toward the flickering light. She pressed herself to the wall, knowing he could see the curve of her flaming cheek in the half light. He leaned forward, his hands supporting his weight on either side of her. There was a deliberate grace to his movements that warned her he had drunk his share of ale on this Midsummer’s Eve.
His hand cupped her face but she resisted his gentle effort to tilt her face to the light.
“So shy and sweet,” he murmured. “You must not fear me.”
“I heard the soldier address you. I know you are . . . the king,” she said softly, not trusting herself to say his name.
“Today I was a king. Tonight I am only a man.”
His lips brushed hers. Her lips parted in a gasp, and his mouth closed on hers with gentle insistence, the taste of ale warm and sweet and dark against her tongue.
His mouth moved against hers. “I was afraid I’d never find you and the sweetness of your kiss would haunt me forever.”
His hand cradled her chin. His fingers coaxed her shy lips farther apart. His lips molded and tugged with teasing expertise until she was open and vulnerable to the full ardor of his kiss. His other hand slid down her arm and gently cupped her breast. Hot blood flooded her cheeks. The velvet that separated his thumb from the tingling peak of her breast melted to a shimmering conductor of his heat and will. The burning blood deserted her cheeks and rushed through her body in a dizzying current. She could feel the taking, entering motions of his mouth and hand on every inch of her flushed skin.
Her head reeled as he bore her against the wall with the strength of his kiss and his warm hands on her shoulders beneath the cloak. He pressed the hard length of his body to hers in a caress he would have never given an innocent girl.
He drew back and she struggled for breath, the faint light of the tunnel going dim before her panicked eyes. Only his arms kept her from falling.
“So you know who I am,” he whispered. “ ‘Tis only fair for me to know who you are. I cannot bear to lose you again.”
Before she could speak, both of her wrists were gently caught in one of his hands. He reached up to unmask her. Gelina did not have time to think of the consequences. She pressed her lips to his in a trembling kiss, feeling them part in surprise at the apparent fervor of her passion. With a muffled groan Conn forgot the mask and wrapped his arms around her, lifting her off the floor until every curve of her body was fitted to his. Gelina went weak as a tide of feeling as terrifying as it was exhilarating swept through her, danger and need a double-edged sword in the expertise of Conn’s hands.