“Set me free. Say I escaped, or that you never found me.”
Kidnapped heiress Lady Aline of Leavingham has surrendered any hope of rescue when a mysterious figure casts her assailant aside. But it’s soon clear Aline’s savior has no intention of setting her free—he’s sworn to deliver her to the Duke of Roxholm, her family’s enemy!
Sir Hugh of Eardham has never seen anything quite like Aline’s beauty and fighting spirit. There’s no doubt he’s tempted more to protect her than keep her bound. But could this loyal knight ever break his oath of allegiance for Aline’s sake?
Free Preview of Falling for Her Captor
Aline was dragged slowly back to wakefulness from dreams of violence and fear. Her stomach was on the point of revolting, her head felt heavy, and her limbs were tender and bruised. She opened her eyes but closed them again hastily as a sharp spasm of pain burst across her brow. She swallowed with difficulty through a throat that was dry and raw.
A steady rocking informed her that she was in a moving vehicle, though she could not tell what. Gritting her teeth in readiness for the anticipated pain, she forced her eyes open again. It was less painful this time, and when her vision cleared she pushed herself with shaking arms to a seated position. Immediately an icy wave of nausea crashed over her. She lunged forward and vomited into a bucket that someone had thoughtfully placed within her reach, clutching the rim as her stomach emptied itself violently.
‘Rock poppy juice will do that to you, milady.’
The voice was male, and at the sound Aline’s memory attacked her with images. Instinctively she hurled herself back into a corner with a gasp, her hands curling into fists.
‘Who…? Where…?’ Aline asked in a voice far from controlled. She bit down hard on her lip in an attempt to control her chattering teeth.
A young man sat on a wooden chest, a short sword lying across his lap. He looked no more than eighteen, his hair cropped short in the manner of a soldier. His face was not the one she feared to see, and Aline felt her legs go weak with relief.
‘Would you like something to drink?’ the boy asked nervously, passing her a leather-covered bottle.
Gratefully Aline gulped the weak ale, taking in her surroundings as she did so. The vehicle was a small cart, long and wide enough for a couple of tall men to lie comfortably. The upper half was covered with fabric stretched over a wooden frame. The only light came from a gap in the rough spun curtains at the rear. It was not the sort of place anyone would think to look for her.
You…you aren’t helping me, are you?’ Aline asked, her heart sinking.
‘I’m sorry, Lady Aline, but no,’ the boy replied. ‘We have orders to take you to Roxholm.’
Aline sagged back down onto the mattress as she attempted to make sense of her memories. Her stomach heaved with mounting disgust as she felt again the weight of Dickon’s body on hers and the scraping of his mouth over her throat and breasts. She rolled onto her side and drew her knees up to her chest, wrapping her arms tightly about her body with a soft groan.
‘Are you cold, my lady?’ the boy asked kindly.
Aline shook her head, but her stomach lurched and another cold sweat enveloped her. An image flashed before her eyes of two men fighting. Was this boy her rescuer? It seemed unlikely somehow.
The boy stuck his head through the curtains. ‘She’s awake,’ he called.
Presently the cart jerked to a halt. The boy jumped down from the cart, leaving Aline alone. After a few minutes a grey head appeared through the flaps of the curtain and with a curt nod motioned at her to come out.
Aline climbed out on shaky legs to find three men waiting. Two were dressed in rough brown tunics and leather cloaks: the young man who still held his sword, and an older man who must be at least fifty and was holding a crossbow pointed at her. The third man was clad in a black leather greatcoat. He held no weapon but stood with his legs planted apart and arms folded. Dark brown hair fell in a mess of tangled waves about his face, the ends brushing against the collar of his coat.
‘Lady Aline, I was starting to fear you would never wake!’
His voice was deep and unexpectedly refined. When his blue eyes met her own Aline felt a jolt run through her body as though she had been slapped. The memory that had eluded her finally dragged itself into her mind. This was the man who had wrenched Dickon off her.
‘We’re stopping here for a while,’ he said. ‘The horses need water.’ He rummaged in a basket strapped to the cart and produced a small loaf of bread. He held out a chunk in her direction. ‘Eat this—you’ll feel better with food inside you. Stay where you are and don’t move.’
The older guard brushed past her into the cart and returned with the bucket and a bulging sack that he passed to the young guard. ‘Get the chicken plucked,’ he ordered. He walked over to the stream and began to swill out the bucket. The boy stared at Aline nervously, then pulled a scrawny fowl from the sack and turned his attention to it.
Aline sat on the step of the cart and nibbled the bread, surreptitiously studying her surroundings. Faint sunlight barely broke through the trees, so they were deep in the woods, though on a rough track. The sun was low in the sky, so she reasoned they had been travelling for an hour or two. With luck they were still within the borders of Leavingham. Maybe she could hide in the woods and evade discovery, then she might be able to make her way back home, or at least wait until rescuers came. Surely she would have been missed by now? Or would Dickon delay his discovery to allow his accomplices longer to escape?
Aline finished her bread and stood up. She stretched, arching her back and rolling her head. Out of the corner of her eye she could see the young guard had paused in his task and was watching her. She put her hands to her head, as if dizzier than she truly felt, then with a weak cry staggered slightly, allowing her knees to buckle. If she seemed anything other than weak and helpless her plan would not work. The boy dropped his bird and moved forwards anxiously to catch her before she fell. He helped her to sit down again.
She cast her eyes downwards modestly and with a shy smile whispered to him, ‘Please sir…’ a nice touch, she thought ‘…I need to…umm…I have to…the woods…’
The lad’s forehead wrinkled in confusion and then, as he understood what Aline meant, he blushed deeply. He glanced over to where the older guard was filling the bucket in the stream. The man in black was standing by the horses, poring over a parchment, and had his back to them both. The young guard nodded in the direction of the undergrowth. Aline walked to where he had indicated but to her dismay the boy followed close behind.
With her best attempt at an innocent smile she turned to the lad. ‘Oh, thank you, but you don’t have to come with me. I will not faint again. I don’t want you to get into trouble for not finishing your task in time.’
He looked back to where the half-plucked chicken lay and relief crossed his face. ‘Be quick,’ he said.
Aline walked into the bushes, swaying slightly for effect, then lowered herself onto her hands and knees and crawled slowly away. She moved as quietly as possible in what she hoped was the direction they had come from, keeping the track in sight. Every moment now meant the difference between freedom and recapture. If only she could reach a village she might be safe.
Aline crawled to the edge of the woods and then ran along the track. When she reached a bend in the road an idea occurred to her. With fumbling fingers she unclasped her necklace. For a moment she hesitated, clutching her mother’s keepsake tightly, but her necklace was so distinctive that someone searching for her might spot it and know she had come this way. She carefully looped the necklace over a low branch. The silver glinted in the sunlight and surely could not be missed.
She walked back towards the undergrowth into the trees, then hesitated. It might be better to stay on the road; there would be less cover but it would be faster to travel and with luck her captors would not suspect her of leaving the forest.
‘I wouldn’t advise heading into the woods, my lady. Who knows what wild animals or bandits you might find there?’
Aline turned at the voice, a yelp of surprise bursting from her. The man in black was leaning against a tree, arms folded. He cocked his head to one side and smiled. ‘A creditable effort, my lady. I’m impressed, truly,’ he said. ‘However, I have orders to obey and I can’t let your escape attempts stand in the way.’
She hurled herself into the woods without caring which direction, only knowing she had to get away. Branches and thorns tore at her dress and hands. With a stomach too empty and a throat too raw, every breath was becoming harder to take. Her strength was fading, but still she pushed on. Her pursuer stalked after her, moving at an almost leisurely pace and yet gaining ground with every step.
The trees started to thin out and she found herself in a clearing. Frantically she looked around for anything that might serve as a weapon. Her eye fell on a fallen branch and she picked it up, her other hand grasping at a handful of dirt and leaves. As the man came between the trees she held the branch out as though it were a sword.
‘Stay back!’ she shouted.
The man threw his head back and laughed, deep-throated and with genuine amusement.
‘What will you do if I don’t, my lady? Give me a splinter?’
‘I mean it,’ Aline spat, using all her will to keep her voice firm. ‘I’ll scream.’
‘Scream all you like, Lady Aline. The only people who can hear you are my men, and that would hardly be to your advantage.’
He moved towards her and Aline thrust the branch forward sharply. Her opponent took a step backwards, then abruptly lunged and knocked the branch sideways. Aline threw the handful of dirt in his face, and when he instinctively covered his eyes she ran again.
She had barely reached the other side of the clearing before the man recovered. Picking up the branch, he hurled it hard at Aline. It caught her behind the knees and she jerked forward. Her legs tangled in her skirts and she landed heavily, palms outstretched. Before she could stand the man was on her. He rolled her over and pushed her back, one knee across her stomach, pinning her to the ground. She struggled to push him off, blindly clawing at his face with her nails. Her fingers pulled at the dark mane that flopped over his face, and she screamed all the obscenities she could recall.
Astonishment showed in her assailant’s face at the fierceness with which she fought him. With one fluid movement he twisted to kneel astride her, his legs gripped tightly at either side of Aline’s waist, pinning her firmly. At a leisurely pace he reached a hand beneath his leather coat and removed a knife from the scabbard at his belt.
A sob burst from Aline’s lips at the sight of it. She did not want to die—not here, not like this! But instead of slitting her throat, as she’d expected, the man reached for Aline’s skirt. With one swift movement he cut it open down the side. Aline’s stomach almost revolted as the memory of Dickon’s assault flashed through her mind. She redoubled her efforts to escape, beating against his chest with both fists and flailing wildly with her legs.
‘Don’t touch me!’ Aline screamed, grasping at his knife. ‘I will kill myself before I let you have me!’
Her attacker sat back, genuine surprise flickering momentarily across his blue eyes. His mouth turned down with distaste at the implication of Aline’s words.
‘You rate your charms very highly, my lady! Don’t fear—I prefer my partners to be willing.’
An unbidden sob of relief burst from Aline’s throat and her body sagged.
The man’s smile faded, replaced by a softer expression. ‘I promise you, your honour is safe,’ he said solemnly.
Without waiting for a reply he cut a strip of cloth from Aline’s dress and, lifting the pressure of his body, rolled Aline onto her front. He pulled her hands behind her back and bound them tightly. Though she dug her feet into the ground, Aline was unable to resist as the man put his arms about her waist and pulled her to her feet.
‘Walk,’ he instructed curtly. He gave her a gentle prod in the centre of her back.
Hoping to surprise him, Aline launched her body backwards, knocking him off balance. She lashed out wildly, kicking the heel of her riding boot into his kneecap for good measure, and ran screaming as he doubled over with a satisfying grunt of pain.
She had not run more than six paces before he caught her from behind by the neck of her dress. He knelt down and pulled her backwards against his body, his arm across her chest and throat. She felt the scratch of his beard against her neck. With the blood pounding in her throat, she writhed and twisted against the controlled strength in his arms. She had fought her hardest and he had barely raised a sweat!
The man cut another strip from Aline’s skirt and bound her ankles together. Aline let fly another volley of curses, bucking wildly. In response the man laughed, unwound the cloth from about his neck and gagged her. He sat back against a tree, cross-legged, and folded his arms as Aline lay writhing angrily on the forest floor. She glared at him, hoping hate was clear in her face.
The man did nothing, indifferent to her anger and clearly prepared to wait as long as necessary for Aline to surrender. She lay still as misery crept over her.
‘Good. You are beginning to see sense.’ He unwound himself and heaved Aline over his shoulder as if she weighed no more than a bundle of straw. Whistling to himself, he carried her through the woods to the track, seemingly oblivious to the double-footed kicks she aimed at his chest.
After an undignified journey for Aline they reached the cart. Relief flooded the faces of the two guards as the man in black strode towards them. Aline saw that the young guard sported a livid red mark across his cheek.
‘Duncan, explain,’ Aline’s captor said questioningly. The older guard saluted smartly.
‘He was stupid. He won’t be again,’ he answered gruffly.
‘Then it’s done with,’ the man in black said curtly to the youth. ‘But if anything like that happens again you answer to me.’
The boy cast a reproachful look at Aline, then mumbled an apology. The man in black climbed into the cart and put Aline face-down on the mattress, turning her head towards his.
‘May I suggest you use this time to realise the foolishness of trying to escape, my lady?’ he said. He climbed down from the cart. ‘Move off,’ he shouted, and after a few moments they lurched forward.
Waves of nausea washed over Aline. She strangled a sob, shut her eyes and concentrated on not vomiting again. She silently cursed Dickon for his betrayal, cursed herself for falling for it and for her clumsy escape attempt, and finally cursed the dark-haired man whose face swam before her eyes.
She did not know how, but she swore that one day the man would pay for his treatment of her, and she consoled herself by picturing myriad deaths and humiliations for the arrogant swine.
You can buy Falling for Her Captor at the online bookstores listed below.