She winced at the sunlight and rolled to her side, a blanket tangled between her legs. Still thick with sleep, she noted a dagger lying atop a cracked leather pack, vaguely wondering why she’d left it out in the open. The moment she stretched, a cry escaped her throat. Every part of her hurt. Slowly pushing aside the blanket, she sat up, her gaze darting from the dagger to the smoldering ashes of a fire, then to where she lay atop a bed of leaves. Her breath quickened. Was this a dream? A breeze whispered through the clearing, whisking the sudden sweat on her brow. “H-hail thee?” The only answer, a squirrel chattering from a distance as if telling her to stop interfering in its peaceful existence. Her breath caught. A cold sweat crept over her body. Try as she might, she could not fathom why she woke in the midst of a forest. Or recall her name.
The crack of a branch wreaked havoc with her heartbeat. She dove for the dagger, nearly rolling into the hot coals. “Who”—she cleared her throat—“who goes there?”
The unmistakable nicker of a horse just beyond the tree-lined clearing spun her attention forward. Sweat trickled down her face, stinging one side, but she ignored the pain, too frightened to look away. “Make th-thyself known!”
A black stallion, resplendent with rippling muscles, broke into the clearing. Upon the saddle, a man raised his eyebrow and shook his head. “Put that away. I am not a foe.” He dismounted, still locking eyes with her.
She tried to decide what startled her most. Was it the man’s immense bulk or the fact that he didn’t seem surprised to see her? Dizzy with pain, she shook her head, refusing to lower her weapon.
“Come now.” Wisps of ebony hair brushed his broad shoulders and fell into his blue eyes as he dismounted. With a slight shake of his head, he cleared it from his brow and turned his sun-bronzed face her way. “I ordered you to put that away.” A shadow of a beard lined his angular jaw and dipped into the cleft on his chin, somewhat softening his surly expression. Each muscle pulsated with strength when he placed his hands on his narrow hips, as if waiting for her to cower.
She gripped the dagger tighter, hoping he did not detect her tremble.
As if to show certainty of how little a threat she posed, he calmly untied two rabbits from his saddle. “Hungry? We shall discuss everything as we sup, starting with why you are still pointing that at me.” He sighed. “Now sheath it.”
Her palms sweated so much she feared dropping the dagger. Thoughts shot like arrows, one splitting the next. Not a foe? She inhaled sharply when he smiled at her, though it failed to reach his eyes. Gods! He was trying to trick her. Mayhap he was her captor and… Wait. Hadn’t she wakened at liberty to move about? Why could she not recall anything? What had he done to her?
“All is well, lad.”
Lad? She nearly looked behind her, but then realized he didn’t know she was a maiden.
He approached and she jabbed the dagger in the air. Her whole body seemed to vibrate from the inside out. She countered his steps with a backward one, relieved when he stopped. The moment she chanced a glance over her shoulder to assure nay other was about, she spied him slipping the quiver of arrows from his shoulder and she cried out.
“Easy.” With a quick nod, he held the arrows to the side.
She kept her stance as he hung the quiver and bow on the saddle, and tried to calm herself. Mayhap he believed she shook from the morning chill, and not fear. She hoped as much, for she detested the fact he witnessed her trembling at all.
“I understand your wariness, but I have done naught to harm you. You have but a moment to obey. Relinquish the weapon on your own, or I shall take it.” His eyes narrowed. “Now.”
His steady advance vibrated through her boots. The hairs on her arms stood. “Stand fast or I shall—” Her voice cracked as she swung.
In one swift motion, he avoided the blade and wrenched the weapon from her. He snatched both of her wrists with his free hand and jerked her arms above her head. Pain shifted through her body as her feet left the ground. The man was immense. Damn the bastard, handling her so roughly.
“Ungrateful fool!” he shouted in her face.
“Unhand me!” She kicked him in the shin, then smashed her forehead into his nose, nearly rendering herself unconscious. He let her drop. She fell hard, bursting into tears.
“You deserve a thrashing for your idiocy.” He wiped his bloodied nose, then flung the dagger into a nearby tree. The thud of the blade’s impact shattered what was left of her resolve.
“Cease your blubbering. God alone kept me from jabbing that dagger into your blasted chest. Get up!”
She stared at him.
His fury seemed to dissipate as quickly as it came. “Come now.” He bent as if to assist her in standing. She scrambled away on her bottom, then bolted to her feet. Dizziness collided with pain, nearly sending her back to the ground.
He grabbed her arm. She jerked away. He swiped his hand across his face and wiped the blood on his breeches. “I did not intend to frighten you, lad, however—”
“I am not a lad, you oaf.” Though she should not have dwelt on anything but her safety, something within her rankled about a man so undeniably masculine mistaking her for a lad. A flicker of confusion teased his face, but it was gone so quickly she wondered if she imagined it. He raised a single eyebrow, mirth filling his eyes. Odd it may be, but the motion infiltrated her fear, dousing it a bit. Nonetheless, she dared not trust him.
“Your attire.” He gestured toward her, but spoke not another word.
What of it? She glanced at her tunic and breeches, and stifled a gasp. Blood-spattered. Tattered. And masculine.
He bowed, his shoulder-length hair momentarily curtaining his face. “Milady, might I offer a plea of forgiveness for my oversight?”
Something gave her the notion he was jesting. When she spied his crooked grin as he rose, she was convinced. She dearly wished to deliver another swift kick, this time higher than his shin.
“Daren’t attempt it,” he said, his smile still intact.
Damnation, the man had read her thoughts! “I attempt naught, brute.”
He was silent for a moment. “I am Sir Galeron of Ramstone. Far from the brute you identify me as.”
Was he waiting for her to respond? She crossed her arms.
“Your name as well?” When she failed to heed his request, he extended a scarred hand. “I assure you, your trust is safe with me.”
Pulse throbbing in her throat, she raked her bottom lip across her teeth. A part of her wished to take his hand and draw comfort from his touch.
“Ah, no name then.” He shrugged.
Alas, if he sensed the truth in that statement. She shook her head and a lock of red hair escaped from the confines of her hood. When she brushed it from her cheek, her breath escaped in a small whimper.
“Aye, I can tend to that. While you were unconscious, I—”
She took several steps back. Hell’s teeth! What had he done to her?
He shook his head. “Have I not proven I mean nay harm?”
His tenderness seemed genuine, and quite unsettling. She leaned back when he reached for her face. “Daren’t touch me.”
“As you wish.” He snatched the rabbits, strode a few paces and sat on a log.
She slowly traced a welt on her forehead then feathered across a gash on her check. He drew a dagger from his belt. Fear seized her breath until he began skinning the rabbit.
“Why am I here?”
He slowly met her gaze, his hand poised. “As I said, I found you unconscious.”
“You did not say that! I feared I was your…” She bit her lip.
After a pregnant pause, he said, “My what?” He raised a single eyebrow. “My attacker?”
She clenched her fists. “Your captive.”
He stared at her a moment. “I know not why I would choose that.” He let out a laugh.
Did he fail to see her alarm? Mayhap ’twas fortunate he did not. She changed the focus of the conversation and eyed the fresh kill, her mouth watering at the promise of food. His smirk betrayed his awareness of how she was all but drooling.
“Pray tell, is there something worthy to smile about?” Mayhap the fact that she looked like a lad. She delivered the most evil squint she could muster, holding it until he resumed preparing the kill. Hunger aside, she eyed the horse, calculating an escape.
“Daren’t attempt it.”
She swung to face him. His eyes remained downcast. Was he a sorcerer? Had he clouded her memory and could now read her thoughts? She twisted the bottom of her tunic so hard it stung her fingers. ’Twould explain why she remembered naught. She glanced at the dagger still embedded in the tree.
“Daren’t attempt that either.” Her hackles poised, and she was unsure whether to flee or stay—unsure of anything at all. “You are pale. Sit before you fall to the ground again.”
“You tossed me to the ground. I did not fall.”
“True.” He pulled the skin from the rabbit and started gutting the next one. “I tend to react aggressively when someone attacks me.”
Sardonic arse. I held every right to attack. She looked away, but her gaze drew back to Galeron, as if her eyes had a mind of their own. However, he has been naught but kind since then. A rustle above distracted her. On a branch directly above sat a crow. Instinctively, she reached for her arrows, only to find them gone. “Where are my quiver and bow?”
He snorted, but his mirth vanished when their eyes met. “Ah. I see you are quite serious.”
She jerked her head toward the bow and quiver he had hung on the saddle earlier. “Are those mine?”
“I trust you should wait before touching another weapon.”
She sorely wished for her dagger back and dared a glance to where her blade remained plunged into the bark of a great oak. Would she have the strength to remove it should she reach it before Galeron? She glanced back in his direction, then flinched at his nearness. When had he approached?
“Perchance ’twould do well to lie down until your confusion passes.”
“Stand fast!” She backed away, her bit of trust dashed. “Perchance divulging the whereabouts of my weapons would ease my confusion. Or mayhap ’tis due to the fact you drugged me? Or cast a spell.”
“I—what?” He took another step toward her.
“I said stand fast!”
He stopped midstride and it seemed everything else halted as well. The stillness of the moment teetered, as if weighing who would speak first.
“What is this place?” Her question echoed in the dense forest and she realized she was still shouting and lowered her voice. “Why am I here?”
“’Tis but a clearing in the woodlands.” After a moment he added, “Do you not recognize it?”
She shifted from one foot to the other, unsure of which way to run—or why the need to flee reared its head. Sweet angels in heaven, the woodsy scent of the man made her want to draw nearer. His manner, gaze and that damn raised eyebrow made her wish to confide in him. “I must take leave.” Before she made an utter fool of herself. Why with all that was wrong, did she wish to stay? “Now.”
“Ah, I see.” He cleared his throat, motioning toward his tethered stallion. “There is enough cover just beyond those trees.”
She had not the need to relieve herself until he suggested it, and now cursed him for the reminder. Heat infused her cheeks. “’Tis not what I—” With a huff, she stomped deep into the trees.
Tears bubbled up and she finally allowed herself a solid cry while relacing her breeches. She crept to the stallion to untie the reins. She prayed the Lord would forgive the sin of theft and understand the need to escape. Galeron’s broad hand covered hers and she inhaled a scream.
“Daren’t attempt such a fool thing. You shall be thrown off without my presence in the saddle.” He stated the words without emotion but his anger was evident by the vein throbbing at his temple.
“I needed…” Shamed, she pulled her hand from his grasp.
“Very well.” He blew a sigh. “You can ride with me. Where do you wish to go?”
Alas, if she only knew. “I shall go alone, though your offer is kind.” She strode to the makeshift bed and rolled the blanket to hide her growing confusion. She would be safer with this—she glanced up at him—brutally handsome knight. Ah, if she could but trust him. The way he eyed her was disarming. Mayhap ’twas herself she must be wary of. She blinked hard. Fight the spell he has certainly cast.
“You have yet to give your name,” he said. “I should have one perchance someone enquires about a maiden in lad’s clothing, with nay sense in her lovely head.”
Whether ’twas in jest or not, it raised her ire just the same. Though he did call her lovely. Truly hating herself for such vanity, she dismissed the thought immediately. With newfound resolve, she secured the blanket with her leather belt and slung it over her shoulder. Though the strap barely grazed her neck, she winced, wondering how many bruises she had.
He sat on a log and crossed his arms. “You have nay mode of transportation.”
Pompous, milk-livered…muscular, comely—argh! “I shall traverse by foot.” She sensed, more than witnessed, his gaze follow her path to the dagger. Every part of her ached while she worked it out of the tree, but she did not intend to leave without it.
He rose to his feet when she freed it. “Wait. The dagger—”
“Fret not. I shall tuck it safely away.” A slight grin tickled her lips as she picked up the sheath, slipped in the dagger and secured it in her boot. Aye, ’twas wise for him to be wary. She’d nearly sliced his gullet with it. She notched her chin a bit higher and turned away. “Fare thee well, Sir Galeron.”
She set off without a destination in mind. Though foolish, anywhere else was preferable to here. With him. It did little good to add the undeniable feelings invading her body and mind. Could he sense it? ’Twas best she be on her way before he did. Something was wrong with her. Terribly wrong. How long would his spell last? Her identity should be uppermost in her mind, not confusing thoughts about this man.
Galeron stepped into her path just before she entered the trees. Her musings shattered.
“I cannot permit your departure.”
She attempted to sidle past but Galeron took a side step, once again blocking her path. “Allow me to pass!”
“Be at peace. I merely wish to ensure your safety.” He put out his hand. “I also need my dagger.”
Only one thought came to mind. Without a weapon, she was defenseless. “Your dagger?”
“Of course. A maiden would not possess one.”
She bristled at his comment, yet slapped the blade into his palm. His hand closed over the sheath. He stood so close she could feel his warmth. She wanted to melt into it and forget her worries—or add to them. Her reaction to him was disquieting. Gaze fastened to the weapon, she took a step back, the underbrush slapping against her boots. Did she dare continue on? She released a sigh, wondering what had happened to her weapons, finding it odd she recalled ever having them when she could remember naught else.
“Can you loan me a weapon?” she blurted, surprised at the calmness in her voice.
“A breech-clad maiden who carries a weapon. Quite extraordinary.” He grinned.
She glared at him, biting the inside of her cheek to still the curses wishing to spill from her lips.
“I jest. Douse that ire.” With a grin, he cradled her elbow, leading her back. She took a few steps, savoring his touch. Savor? Had her sensibilities taken leave with her memory? She pulled free and trudged the opposite way, shoving branches from her path.
“You cannot venture out alone,” he called.
“I can do as I wish.”
“’Tis not safe, fair one,” he said quietly. The tenderness in his voice brought her to a standstill. She clenched her eyes and tensed at the crunch of his footsteps on the forest floor.
“Return with me,” he said, just behind her. “I shall keep you safe.”
Galeron’s deep voice stilled her insides and she almost sighed. Slowly turning, her nose nearly brushed his broad chest, but he did not step back. Surprisingly, neither did she. She looked up, and whispered, “Safe from what?”
He cleared his throat and stepped aside. “Dare I remind you of wild animals and unsavory travelers?”
“If that is an attempt to make me feel safe, ’tis a lame one.”
He made a sound between a growl and a chuckle. “At the least, stay and eat.”
She drew her teeth over her bottom lip and considered his offer. Hunger gnawed at her indecision, but dared she stay? Why was she so untrusting? If he had wished to harm her, he would have done much worse when she had attacked him.
He raked his fingers through his hair. “I give my word. I shall take you to your home after we have eaten.”
She threw up her hands. “I know not where my home is.” Sudden hope struck her. “Do you?”
She grew concerned when he simply questioned with a crook of his brow. She could become accustomed to that endearing quirk. She met his gaze, waiting…hoping.
“What village are you from?”