A slight breeze sends another shiver through to your core, and you decide you’ll just have to risk getting discovered. The fire is too tempting, and huddled in your thin cloak, you’re already cold and miserable. With light steps, you creep closer and closer, your eyes on the large bush near where the group has tied their mounts. You crouch down, taking your time as you near the horses.
“Easy,” you hush, putting a hand out when one particularly skittish horse shies two steps away from you. You sidle closer to rub its nose, the way you’ve seen Lane calm his horses. As you do so, you notice a couple blankets covering its back – they are a rough, scratchy wool, but surely the horse can do with one less.
You figure with the blanket, you can make yourself a little nest and you won’t need to be so close to these strangers. You ease one off the horse’s back, your heart pounding. It’s thicker than you were expecting, and you smile to yourself at your luck. You drape it over your arm and move to turn away, just as a heavy hand lands on your shoulder.
You feel yourself being spun around, and find yourself looking up at a tall, dark, and broad figure. “What’s going on here?” his deep, low voice growls.
“I… I’m sorry,” you stutter, dropping the blanket and pulling back. “I… I didn’t mean…”
The man’s hold on you is rough and hard, and you squirm to get away. He’s standing so close that you can feel the heat from his arms, bare in his short-sleeved tunic.
“What are you doing here?” he asks, his expression hard and guarded.
“I was cold,” you say, your voice small. “I was going to return it, I swear.”
“What have you got there, Rafe?” A short, jowly man with close-cropped hair steps close, running a finger down your arm. “Caught a little mouse, I see.” You cringe, a shiver running down your spine. Even though this man is so much less physically imposing than Rafe, you feel more threatened by his demeanor. “Where’d you find her?”
Rafe looks down at you, his dark eyes cold. “Trying to steal a blanket,” he says, stepping back and appraising you up and down. “Who sent you?”
Your forehead wrinkles in confusion. “Sent me? Nobody. I got lost and saw the camp.”
“Wandering around, alone in the woods? Tsk, tsk,” admonishes the short man with a leer. “Never know what trouble might find you. You looking for trouble?”
“I just wanted to borrow a blanket,” you say, your gaze shifting back and forth between him and Rafe. “I don’t want trouble. I was just cold.”
“I can keep you warm,” the short man snickers, running a rough finger down your cheek. You cringe, taking a step away. Your retreat brings you closer to Rafe, who swats the offending hand away.
“Leave her alone, Otis,” Rafe commands. While Rafe seems equally menacing, you prefer his protection to the lecherous advances of Otis. “Where are you from?” he asks, turning to you.
“I… I’m from Hartsbridge.”
“Hartsbridge!” Otis scoffs. “Bit far for a little mouse to wander all by herself. Where are you really from?”
“I swear I’m from Hartsbridge!” you say.
“Then tell me, who is the Lord of Hartsbridge Castle?” asks Rafe.
“Everyone knows that,” Otis says, disdain in his voice. “Doesn’t prove you’re from there.”
“I am!” you say, suddenly nervous of the consequences of being accused a thief and a liar. You frantically rattle on, “I lived there my whole life. The housekeeper, Gertrude, was my guardian. The steward is Merton, and… and Lane works in the stable, and… the blacksmith is Pawel.”
Otis glances at Rafe. “Pawel is the Hartsbridge blacksmith.”
“Yes, and he’s my friend. I can prove it!” you say, fumbling for the parting gift that Pawel just gave you that morning. “He gave me this dagger. Look right here, it has the Hartsbridge crest!” You thrust it into Rafe’s hand.
Rafe examines it, then hands it back. “So you walked all the way from Hartsbridge?”
You nod, relieved that they finally seem to believe you. Yet you still feel on edge, particularly with the way Otis is ogling you.
“Tasty little morsel, isn’t she? Young and innocent. Just how you like ‘em.”
“Mind your own business, Otis.” Rafe’s tone is sharp and commanding, and Otis takes a step back.
“Just looking, Rafe,” Otis says, leering. “I won’t touch. Unless… care to share?” You recoil, disgust and dread filling your throat.
“Get out of here,” Rafe growls, and you breathe out a little sigh of relief as Otis throws up his hands in defeat and backs away. You know nothing of Rafe, but you’d rather risk your chances with him than with that vermin Otis.
Your anxiety returns when Rafe picks up the blanket, takes your arm, and steers you away from the camp, into the darkness of the woods. “Where… where are you taking me?” you ask.
“Away from the others.” His tone is short and commanding, and you trail obediently behind him, much more willing to follow him than to take your chances running into Otis again.
Rafe strides ahead, seeming to ignore you, and you take the opportunity to examine him. He’s tall, well over six feet, with broad shoulders and thickly corded muscles in his arms. His long hair is jet black, falling in waves almost to his shoulder. He’s overtly masculine, moving with the easy grace of a seasoned warrior.
When you can no longer see or hear any signs of the camp, Rafe stops and spins to face you. He tosses the blanket at you, crossing his arms across his chest as he watches you wrap the scratchy wool around your shoulders.
By the light of the full moon, you can just make out the hard planes of his face – the prominent square jaw and chiseled cheekbones. In other circumstances you might have thought he was handsome, but out here, with the danger of your situation virtually palpable, his beauty is almost savage.
You stand for an uncomfortably long moment, neither of you speaking. His eyes, hidden in dark shadows, are impossible to read, and you shift nervously from foot to foot.
“You aren’t safe,” he finally says, making you jump. Your eyes widen, wondering if he’s referring to the woods in general, the other men from his camp, or himself.
“I… I have my dagger.” You hate the quiver in your voice, and you fight the urge to retreat when he takes a step closer to you.
“You think your dagger can protect you from me?” Rafe asks, his low raspy voice making your heart beat faster. You don’t know if your reaction is from fear… or from something else. You’ve never spoken to a strange man before, especially one so virile.
“Yes,” you whisper, but you know it is no match for this man. Even so, the unease he elicits from you isn’t one you want to run from. You can’t explain your fascination with Rafe – there is something dangerously enticing about this man, who is practically oozing with testosterone. A strange shiver of desire that you can’t control runs through your body.
Rafe takes another step forward, bringing him close enough for you to see the jagged scar on his left cheek. It extends up almost to his thick, dark eyebrow, and you can’t stop your hand from rising up to touch it. It’s as though you are hypnotized, with little control over your own feelings and actions.
As your fingertips gently brush the rough skin by his temple, Rafe hisses in a breath. “Be careful, little girl. You’re playing with fire.”
You blink up at him, not fully grasping his meaning. A muscle in his cheek twitches, belying his carefully maintained discipline. You suddenly realize how terrifying he can be. Despite his obvious strength and power, you want him to lose control. His body leans into yours, his heat searing, but you are unable to pull away.
All at once he is on you, his mouth devouring yours in a rough, demanding kiss. You gasp in surprise, your open mouth giving his tongue access. Kissing you savagely, he pushes you backwards against the nearest tree. You slam against it, groaning as the rough bark digs into your calves, your thighs, your back, your shoulders. A whimper escapes your lips, but he doesn’t relent – his hips push into you, his tongue licks crudely against yours.
He kisses brutally, his mouth crushing you, forcing your head back. His hard hands twist into your hair, and he tugs fiercely as his fingers tighten. His presence is overwhelming – he is overtly sexual and masculine and completely domineering.
You begin to struggle, weakly pushing against his chest, but you’re no match for his strength. You gasp again, ready to cry out, and again his tongue takes advantage of the opening and ravages yours. It’s frightening, this brutal attack. And yet some part of you wants to experience whatever it is he is going to do to you.
When he lifts his head to stare down at you, you arch yourself away from the tree, pushing your body against his. He presses his hips into you, and from your belly you feel his hard bulge through the fabric of his pants.
In an instant the blanket around your shoulders is gone, and Rafe’s strong hands are kneading your tender breasts. You gasp as he squeezes just a bit too hard, then he bends down to bite your nipple through your shirt. It’s almost painful, but at the same time it sends a lightning bolt of pleasure down between your legs. You arch again, pushing your breasts against his mouth as you cry out from the overwhelming sensations. He lifts his head, then bends down again to lick your lips.
You moan in his mouth, and he swallows the sound. Clutching his hard, hot biceps, you try to summon the courage to resist him. His mouth never ceases the assault on yours, but he loosens the tight grip on your tender breasts. He pins your lower body against the tree, and you feel his hard, rigid erection poking into you. You forget everything around you – your past, your journey, your fears. You are only aware of the severity of his touch, the harsh grabs, the biting, the kissing. You’re helpless.
He groans on your fragile mouth, seizing you once again. Gathering your wrists in one hand, he slides his free hand down to pull your skirt up to your waist. You moan as his strong palm strokes your bare ass.
You jerk, and he breaks the kiss. Staring into your wild eyes, he slips his hand across your ass cheek and around to your moistening mound. Brusquely, he digs his fingernails into the soft flesh of your inner thigh.
The tight, unforgiving grip makes you scream. You don’t know if you should fight or enjoy the sensations. It’s too much, too good, and you are caught like a fly in the turbulent web of his seduction.
“The things I’m going to do to you.” He bites your earlobe, his hand once again traveling across your body and between your legs.
You can only respond with a desperate whimper….
How will you respond to the savage passion of this mysterious man?