Title: Flight of the Raven
Author: Judith Sterling
Genre: Medieval Romance
How eager would the bridegroom be if he knew he could never bed the bride? Lady Emma of Ravenwood Keep is prepared to give Sir William l’Orage land, wealth, and her hand in marriage. But her virginity? Not unless he loves her. The curse that claimed her mother is clear: unless a Ravenwood heir is conceived in love, the mother will die in childbirth. Emma is determined to dodge the curse. Then William arrives, brandishing raw sensuality which dares her to explore her own. William the Storm isn’t a man to be gainsaid. He’ll give her protection, loyalty, and as much tenderness as he can muster. But malignant memories quell the mere thought of love. To him, the curse is codswallop. He plans a seduction to breach Emma’s fears and raze her objections. What follows is a test of wills and an affirmation of the power of love.
The bedchamber walls closed in on Emma as she stared at the platter of food. Apples from the orchard, cold duck, cheese, and fresh bread. To wash it down, there was ale. The supper might appeal...if her stomach stopped churning for two seconds together.
She could feel William’s gaze on her. Perhaps he was right and she was running away. She’d never thought of herself as a sexual being. The curse saw to that. So she’d channeled her passion into helping others, unaware that same passion could lead to physical need.
Frowning, she turned toward the hearth, where eager flames licked firewood and kindling with equal ferocity. In front of the blaze sat a round, wooden tub lined with cloth. Twin brothers—blond, blue-eyed teens who were their mother’s pride and joy—filled the tub with hot water, while Tilda placed soap, washrag, and drying cloths on the ground beside it. The handmaiden sent her a sympathetic look over the rim of the tub, then returned to her work.
Too soon, the servants left the chamber, and the door shut behind them with a clunk. William bolted it, then crossed to the tub with long, leisurely steps.
Emma wiped her sweaty palms on her tunic and cleared her throat. “Aren’t you hungry?”
“I will be.” He ran his fingers over the white cloth that lined the tub’s edge. “Later.”
“Later,” she echoed.
His smile held a hint of mischief. “Will you undress your husband, or shall I do it myself?”
Her heart fluttered. “You can do it.”
He nodded and reached to undo his leather belt.
Her gaze fled to the window’s closed shutters and followed the curving design carved into the oak boards. “Shall I open the window?”
“ʼTis cold out. Would you have me ill and in bed again?”
“Not ill,” she said, still looking away.
“But in your bed?”
She rolled her eyes. “I see your humor has returned.”
“How can you see anything with your back turned?”
“I’m waiting for you to get into the tub.”
“Ah, you dare not look the dragon in the eye.”
Despite her nerves, she giggled. “You call it a dragon?”
“When common names fail, one looks to legend.”
She snorted. “I suppose it breathes fire.”
“It will,” he said, his tone suddenly potent, “if you want it to.”
An awkward silence followed. She rolled up her sleeves with studied care. Behind her, the swish and rustle of clothing seemed ridiculously loud. At last, she heard the swash of bathwater.
“ʼTis safe to turn around,” he said.
She turned...and stared.
Framed by the writhing fire and the water lapping at his ribs, he looked at once fiendish and unbearably handsome. She meant to walk forward, but her legs seemed to have lost their mobility.
He grinned. “Does your silence indicate approval or censure?”
She blinked and found her voice. “Neither.”
His dark eyes glittered. “Fear not. I promise to behave.”
“Behave? I’m afraid to ask your definition of the word.”
“ʼTis similar to yours, I assure you.”
She forced her feet to move. Her gaze locked onto his and refused to let go, even as she circled the tub.
“Make yourself comfortable,” he said.
She made a face and knelt on the pillow beside him. The fire warmed her right side and invaded her cheek.
William leaned back and rested his long arms on the edge of the tub. The bandage on his bicep caught her attention, and she was grateful. It allowed her to assume the familiar role of healer.
“We’ll leave this on,” she said, ensuring the dressing was tight. “I’ll wash around it.”
“As you wish.”
“By morning, the wound should be ready for cleansing and a new bandage.”
“I’m in your hands.” His grin deepened.
She pursed her lips but said nothing.
He arched an eyebrow. “Wouldn’t you like that?”
She averted her gaze. “Shall I start at the bottom?”
“To which bottom do you refer?”
The fire’s heat hounded her, and she began to sweat. “Your feet.”
“Oh well. ʼTis a beginning.”
She mumbled a string of Saxon oaths and dipped a clean rag into the water. With her other hand, she scooped soft, lavender-scented soap from a jar on the floor. She spread it over the wet cloth, then began to wash his toes.
“You use a different soap,” he remarked.
She paused. “I’m surprised you noticed.”
“I notice everything.”
“Well, I thought you’d rather smell of lavender than of roses.” She scrubbed the ball of his left foot. “You have big feet.”
He chuckled. “True.”
She switched to the other foot. “My father had big feet...but a small heart.”
“And no sense, if he preferred Gertrude to you.”
“Gertrude can be harsh. I doubt she’d bathe you so gently.”
“I’d never give her the chance.”
Emma slid the washcloth along his left calf to his knee. “A wise decision.”