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His Lady of Castlemora(5)

By:Joanna Fulford



She shook her head. 'He does not know.'

'He should keep a closer watch on you. It's madness for a woman to ride  this country alone. Anything might have happened; rape is the least of  it. You could as easily get your throat cut.'

Her cheeks burned, as much for the knowledge of her own folly as for the  justice of the rebuke. The stranger's expression was thunderous, his  strength frightening. When she thought of what he could have done, what  he might still do, her stomach wallowed. She just had to pray he'd meant  it when he said he'd never forced a woman.

Though she could not know it, much of his anger was directed at himself,  realising what he had so nearly done, what he would still like to do.  Imagination sent another surge of heat to his groin. With an effort he  controlled it. Then he bent and retrieved her clothes, tossing them to  her.

'Get dressed.'

She caught the garments awkwardly. He made no move to turn away. Annoyance mingled with fear.

'Are you going to watch?'

'It's a little late for modesty now, sweetheart.'

Biting back the hot reply that sprang to her lips, she hurriedly slipped  on the kirtle and let the linen towel fall before donning her gown. The  stranger's gaze never wavered. He handed her the woven girdle and  watched her fasten it. She turned away from him to put on her stockings,  tying her garters with shaking hands. Then she slid her feet into her  shoes. He surveyed her critically.                       
       
           



       

'A little dishevelled but decent at least,' he observed.

Isabelle glared at him. Ban smiled faintly, acknowledging her courage,  but his blue eyes held a dangerous glint. 'You are haughty for one who  reveals her charms so freely.'

Anger began to replace anxiety. 'I did not deliberately reveal myself to you.'

'The outcome might well have been the same. Fortunately for you, I have no taste for raping virgins.'

Virginity was a state long lost though she had no intention of sharing  the irony. If he thought her experienced he might well change his mind  and finish what he'd begun.

'No,' she retorted, 'only for gloating.'

He stared at her, incredulous. 'You ungrateful little vixen! I ought to warm your backside for that.'

'You wouldn't d-' Seeing his expression alter she bit the words off abruptly, recognising thin ice.

'Wouldn't dare? Try me, and you won't sit down for a week.'

Isabelle didn't care to put the matter to the test. She'd suffered quite enough humiliation at his hands.

'I'm minded to take you home myself and tell your father to thrash you,' he went on. 'It would teach you better sense.'

She paled a little, in fury now as much as fear. She'd experienced quite  enough thrashings at the hands of men who thought it their God-given  right to mete out punishment to the weaker sex. Resentment welled but  she repressed it. Caution was needed here. If her father found out so  would Murdo. The consequences didn't bear thinking about. No matter how  much it went against the grain it would be better to play the part of  the contrite, young virgin.

She lowered her eyes. 'Please, don't. I won't do it again, I swear it.'

Ban had no trouble believing that. She'd had a fright but the lesson had  been well learned. Now she seemed only young and vulnerable.

'I suggest you go home and stay there,' he said.

Taking her arm in a firm clasp he led her to the waiting palfrey. The  hold didn't hurt but it would not be resisted either. She could feel its  heat through the stuff of her gown. They reached the horse but he  didn't wait for her to mount. Lifting her with the same insulting ease  as before, he tossed her up into the saddle instead. Then he handed her  the reins.

'I doubt if we shall meet again, so I'll bid you Godspeed.'

She threw him an eloquent look and turned the horse's head. 'We shall not meet again. At least, not if I see you first.'

With that she touched the horse with her heels and it leapt forwards  from a standing start to a canter. Quite unexpectedly, Ban found himself  grinning. With grudging admiration he acknowledged her spirit, his gaze  following her progress until she was lost to view.

* * *

Isabelle urged the horse to a swifter pace and only when she had put  considerable distance between her and the stranger did she slow the  animal to a walk. Even though the initial shock had worn off she was  still trembling. When she thought of what might have happened she  shuddered. He had been so strong, could so easily have forced her. What  had stopped him? From his treatment of her it was clear he had taken her  for a slut. It didn't help to know she was responsible for that  misunderstanding.

Her cheeks flooded with hot colour when she thought of that passionate  embrace. His kisses burned: she could still feel the pressure of his  mouth on hers; her nakedness against his; strong warm hands on her skin.  He'd frightened her but the memory of that intimacy was not entirely  repellent even though it should have been. She quashed the realisation,  quietly appalled. There could be no place for such thoughts. They made  her feel like the slut he'd taken her to be. She'd had a lucky escape  and couldn't afford to be complacent about it. Neither her father nor  her brother must ever get wind of this. Above all, Murdo must never find  out.

* * *

Isabelle reached Castlemora without further incident and, thanking the  fates that the men were elsewhere that afternoon, threw her horse's  reins to a groom and hastened to the women's bower by the back route. In  her present state she dared not risk being seen. As she'd hoped the  room was empty at this hour and having reached its safety she swiftly  divested herself of the green gown, exchanging it for blue. Then she  began to comb her hair into order. It was quite dry now and the auburn  strands leapt beneath her fingers, fiery in the afternoon light. As she  was engaged in this process Nell bustled in.                       
       
           



       

'There you are, my lady. Wherever have you been?'

'I went out riding.'

'Alone again I'll warrant.'

Nell gathered up the discarded gown. Plump and grey-haired, she was in  her early fifties. Having known Isabelle since she was a baby, the older  woman claimed the privileges of a trusted retainer. One of these was  considerable freedom of speech. Nevertheless, she had a kindly nature  and, despite an occasionally critical tongue, was also genuinely  concerned. Seeing the younger woman's guilty look now she shook her  head.

'You shouldn't do it, my lady. In these lawless times it's not safe. All  manner of desperate rogues ride the border country and a woman alone  would be easy prey.'

Recalling the events of the afternoon Isabelle shuddered inwardly. More  than ever she was resolved not to ride out so far again. Only a fool  would risk that twice. The desire for solitude must be balanced against  the need for much greater caution.

'I'm sorry, Nell. I promise to be more careful in future.'

The tone was genuinely contrite. Surprised that she did not even try to  argue the point, Nell regarded her keenly for a moment. However,  Isabelle was apparently absorbed in removing a tangle from her hair and  thus avoided the knowing eye.

'It were as well you did,' the nurse went on. 'Who knows what you might suffer at the hands of outlaws or marauders?'

Isabelle's colour became a shade more pronounced and she concentrated harder on her task. Nell crossed the room towards her.

'Here, best let me do it.'

She surrendered the comb and sat still while Nell took over, braiding  the wilful mass into a thick plait and interweaving a ribbon to match  the gown.

'If Murdo finds out he'll compel you to take an escort next time,' Nell went on, 'and you know fine well who it'll be.'

'I will not let him force his company on me in that way.'

'Do you really think you'd be able to avoid it?' The nurse paused. 'His  power is second only to your father's now. No one dares to challenge his  orders or his actions for fear of retribution. His thugs swagger about  as though they own the place.'

'I know, but things will change when Hugh is Laird of Castlemora.'

'Your brother is full young. It remains to be seen whether he can be his  own man. In the meantime it's Murdo who will control Castlemora, make  no mistake about that. His ambitions don't stop there either.' Nell  paused. 'His interest in you has not abated.'

'I have none in him. He knows that.'

'He has spoken on the matter?'

'He has.'

Nell pursed her lips. 'The brute grows bolder.'

'I told him plainly that he could have no hope of me.'

'He's not a man who takes no for an answer.

The words were an uncanny echo of a former conversation, and Isabelle inwardly acknowledged their truth.

'You must marry again and soon,' Nell continued.

'By that you mean Lord Ban.'

'Who else?'

For a moment Isabelle saw the face of a stranger with tawny hair and  blue eyes. Resolutely she tried to banish it, but it was not so easy  when the memory of his kiss lingered on her lips. He had held her in his  arms. He had seen her naked. Again she grew hot with shame. It was a  mercy she would never see him again.

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