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Kiltorren Castle, Ireland
Burke de Montvieux crested a rise, reined in his destrier, and stared at the scene spread before him. He had ridden hard for three days, pushing his steed to the limits of the beast's endurance, Brianna of Tullymullagh's challenge in his ears.
'Twas true enough that Burke had not departed upon the bride quest Brianna had issued to the three brothers Fitzgavin with the enthusiasm the lady thought her command deserved. Nor had he brought her a gift that he truly believed would win her heart--because Burke had no desire for Brianna's affections.
For 'twas Alys of Kiltorren who haunted Burke's dreams.
Burke's guilty awareness of his unchivalrous behavior had taken him back to Tullymullagh, only to find Brianna happily wed to his elder brother, Luc. It had seemed to Burke that matters would end there, but Brianna was not so readily satisfied with a mere apology--she not only demanded the truth, but insisted he set matters to rights.
Brianna had sent Burke upon his own bride quest, not only to seek the lady who still held his heart but to win her hand.
Now his objective lay before his very eyes and Burke's heart pounded in trepidation of what he might find. He paused and surveyed the estate he had not seen these two long years.
Castle Kiltorren clung to the craggy west coast of Ireland, its moss-encrusted stone walls rising from the rock as if they always had been thus. With the fey moodiness of early spring, clouds swept in from the west to blanket the sky in pearly silver as the air turned chill. The sun hung low over the horizon, an angry red glow that pierced the clouds and painted thesea with a ribbon of light.
It had been two years since Burke had last seen the squat tower of Kiltorren, three years since a maid's sparkling eyes had captivated his heart beneath that tower's shadow. Twice he had been here, twice he had found naught but heartache at Castle Kiltorren. A deluge of memories swept over him.
The summons to tournament could not have come at a better moment, for a decade beneath his father's command had left Burke prepared for a new challenge. He was in need of frivolity, yet he was not alone in answering the Lord of Kiltorren's call.
Burke was, however, alone in noting that lord's niece, Alys of Kiltorren.
The lord Cedric and his lady wife, Deirdre, were arrayed in their finest to meet the arriving party of knights, jewels flashing on every finger in the summer sunlight. The way they pushed their two daughters forward made their true objectives more than clear, although those two young women were scarcely worthy of note.
One had been spared no indulgence in her garb and was ornamented far beyond her family's station, her tiny eyes taking greedy note of the calibre of each knight's steed and entourage. The second seemed terrified to be singled out thus and spent the better part of the ceremonies staring at her hands.
But one lady was there, standing to the back of the party, not part of the servants yet not of the family proper. She stood with the dignity of a queen, her proud pose in marked contrast to the way the family ignored her very presence.
And once he drew near and looked upon her, the lady's gentle beauty snared Burke's interest fully. Her heart-shaped face was as sweet as that in any bard's tale, her full lips looked in dire need of a smile. The unadorned indigo of her fitted kirtle showed her slim curves to advantage, for she was as tall and slender as a keen blade. An errant curl of her wavy blond tresses had escaped her veil and danced against her cheek in the breeze, as if 'twould beckon to Burke.
But a single glimpse and Burke knew he must know more of this lady. Impatient with introductions, he nodded hastily to Lady Deirdre, her daughters Malvina and Brigid, then turned his finest smile upon Lord Cedric when that man appeared to have said all he intended.
"Is this lady also of your family?" Burke asked smoothly, and gestured to the beauty behind.
The lady in question flushed in a most beguiling way. Lady Deirdre's eyes flashed. Malvina--the spoiled one--grimaced.
"She is but a niece," he declared. "A mere ward of the family, devoid of dowry and unworthy of note."
Burke thought precisely the opposite and did not take pains to hide his conclusion. "Surely 'tis not too much to ask the honor of making her acquaintance?"
Lord Cedric scowled, then turned a fierce glare upon his niece. Her eyes widened slightly, and, too late, Burke saw that she would be the one to bear the burden of his curiosity.
Then she stepped forward and Burke cared for naught else.
"My niece," Lord Cedric supplied testily. "Alys of Kiltorren." His wife sniffed in ill-concealed disdain.
Clearly unused to such attention, Alys flushed and smiled when Burke kissed her knuckles. Her hand trembled slightly within his, and Burke resolved in that very moment to pursue this lady. He would know more of her, he would prompt her laughter, he would discover why her family thought her worthy only of disregard.
Burke sighed and rubbed a hand across his brow, wishing he had not been so young, so trusting, so certain that naught could stand between him and the course of love.
For he had sought Alys in every corner of the hall, each exchange convincing him yet further that she was a woman of merit. Burke had coaxed her laughter early and had felt a thrill of victory beyond that won on any field when her eyes sparkled at his jest. Those eyes were of the most wondrous shade, a marvelous golden brown flicked with specks of sunlight that seemed to dance when Alys laughed.
And her eyes had glowed when Burke had claimed his first kiss from his lady fair. But Alys had kissed the ardent knight back, and it took no more than that encouragement to see Burke smitten.
There had been more sweet kisses and more laughter, more stolen moments than Burke could name, each one putting him more securely beneath the lady's spell. For the first time in all his days, Burke had fallen in love.
And it seemed his regard was returned.
Until the day in the stables. Burke scowled at the distant keep, knowing he would never forget the fleeting moment that had changed all.
Burke found Alys in the stables that warm afternoon. 'Twas not by accident, for he had been seeking her, though he feigned that he but stumbled upon her. Alys, of course, saw through his ploy.
She was consigned to some ignoble labor, no doubt to keep her out of sight, but even in such circumstance, the lady shone like a jewel. She smiled at the sight of Burke but would hear naught of him taking the labor upon himself. Burke lingered; indeed, he could not tear himself away from her presence. Just the sight of Alys made Burke's heart pound, the barest glimpse of a smile made him long for another of her sweet kisses.
On this day Alys's hair was tied up and her kirtle worn thin. It gaped around the fullness of her breasts in a most intriguing way; her ankles flashed beneath the hem. 'Twas clear the gown was a remnant from years before the lady's figure bloomed to perfection. Burke hated that she must bear such indignity and knew there must be some way he could see matters set to rights.
When she made to heft a full bucket of slops, Burke could bear the injustice no longer. He strode to her side and swept the full bucket out of her grip. "Where do you take this?"
Alys's eyes widened. "Burke, you cannot! 'Tis unfitting!"
"'Tis more unfitting that you perform such labor," he said grimly. "You have but to tell me where."
"But you are a guest!"
"And you are a lady." His determination must have shown, for Alys shook her head and smiled.
She folded her arms across her chest and regarded him, a teasing glint in those golden eyes. "You, sir, are most stubborn."
Burke grinned and put down the bucket, taking a step closer. The lady's eyes gleamed as she evidently guessed his intent, and she took a playful step back.
'Twas clear she had no objections, and Burke grinned as he easily backed her into the wooden wall of the stall. "And you, my lady fair, are most fetching." He lifted one hand to the soft curve of her jaw, but Alys laughed aloud.
"In this?" She gestured to her tattered kirtle and wrinkled her nose playfully, then laughed anew. "Burke, is it your wits you have lost or your sight?"
"It is my heart that I have lost," he confided, trapping Alys within the circle of his arms. 'Twas not the first time he had cornered her thus, and Burke saw anticipation light her eyes.
"Incorrigible," she charged, a dimple appearing in one cheek. Her eyes sparkled merrily and Burke could see the flutter of her heartbeat at her throat. He touched her creamy flesh with a fingertip, liking well how she caught her breath, and let it wander along the edge of the ill-fitting kirtle.
"Tempted," he acknowledged, and ran that fingertip across the ripe curve of her breast when it tried to escape her kirtle. Alys gasped. Burke let his palm graze her nipple, and when she whispered his name, he could not resist her any longer.
Burke bent his head and captured the lady's lips beneath his own even as his hand slid beneath her gown to caress her bare breast. She surged against him, her hands slid into his hair, and Burke had caught her fully against him for the first time. She was all sweetness and softness, both strong and supple, and Burke wanted naught but to make this woman his own.
The recollection even now could make Burke's mouth go dry. He could taste Alys still, he could feel his heart hammering, he could smell the straw heated in a summer's sunlight. He could see the shine of wonder in Alys's marvelous eyes.
And he could feel the curve of her breast beneath his hand once more, the taut nipple jutting against his palm.
Yet that single sweet kiss had been their undoing. In that very moment, the stable door had been kicked open to hue and cry, lord and lady and half the household pouring in to demand an accounting. Burke closed his eyes against the recollection of their din. He hated the memory of his own failure to conjure some manner of suitable explanation.
He felt again his anguish when Alys flushed scarlet and--to Deirdre's muttered accusation "whore!"--fled the stables, clutching the front of her kirtle.
Little had Burke known that he would never see his Alys again.
Aye, he had tried to pursue her, but without success, for the family had barricaded him in that stall. Burke scowled with recollection. It had been nigh half a day before he broke free of their incessant questions, and that only because he roared he would wed the woman, if only to silence them.
His declaration had both silenced them and sent them away to consult among themselves. Alys, it seemed, was not interested in any such match, for the word came that evening that she would have none of his proposal. Indeed, 'twas said she refused even to see him again. Burke was sent from Kiltorren's gates, caught in an unfamiliar maelstrom of emotion.
An older knight had informed Burke he would grow to be glad that all had finished as it had. In his youth and uncertainty, Burke had dared to hope that Alys's choice might truly be for the best.
A mere year away from Castle Kiltorren had only proved the strength of Alys's grip upon Burke's heart. She haunted him, she occupied his dreams, he fancied he heard her laughter in the thousand murmurings of any crowded hall. Finally, Burke had returned to Kiltorren, newly determined to see the lady, either to destroy her hold over him or to hear rejection from her own lips.
But Lady Deirdre and Lord Cedric had confessed that Alys was gone, they knew not where. Burke's disappointment had nearly taken him to his knees, and he had left this place yet again with a heavy heart.
Now, as he eyed the village and the fields from the crest of the road, all those old feelings coursed through him. He noted that the holding had changed little, and certainly not for the better. Burke could not help but wonder whether all would be the same within its walls.
Could Alys have returned?
Could she yet be unwed?
Would a confession of love have earned a different response from Alys three years past? Brianna insisted 'twould make all the difference, her certainty giving Burke new determination to return and seek the truth from his lady fair.
Suddenly Burke heard the gatekeeper's cry of warning and realized that twilight fell across the land. His heart leapt and he gave Moonshadow his spurs, determined to pass beneath Kiltorren's gates before they closed for the night.
Indeed, the sun already dipped dangerously low.