Equally annoying, she had sagged into the stranger’s arms like a swooning maiden. Her cheek pressed against his warm chest.
Elizabeth took a steadying breath, calmed by the rhythmic thud beneath her ear, the pulse of life. This man did not deserve her anger, but her gratitude. He had risked himself great harm to save her from a painful death.
“Kind sir, I owe you my thanks,” she said.
His arms, curved around her waist, relaxed. He must have sensed her strength returning. “A moment more, and you would have been crushed beneath the wagon’s wheels,” he said. “A pity, indeed, if such a fair damsel were broken like a child’s toy.”
His breath stirred the hair at her forehead. Goosebumps shot down her arms. She did not like the sensation, or the trace of humor warming his voice.
“I did not see the wagon,” Elizabeth said.
“Nor did you heed my warning.”
He spoke in the same tone as her father when he told her of her betrothal, but her sire had gentled his words by insisting the arrangement was for her safety, to ensure she and Wode never fell into de Lanceau’s clutches. She scowled. Her whole life it seemed of late was governed by this rogue de Lanceau.
She tipped up her chin. Her savior was a tall man. Shoulder muscles stretched his gray wool tunic. She steeled herself against his enticing, musky scent. “You are bold to speak to me in such a manner.”
“Not half as bold, milady, as you appear to be.”
Elizabeth groaned, for he spoke true. Her hands curled into his tunic. The ribbon poked between her fingers.
“Or half so bold again,” he continued with a velvety drawl, “as if I had stolen a kiss from your sweet lips.”
Her breath caught in her throat, trapped like a robin in a hawk’s talons. She wrenched free of his hold. The ribbon slipped from her grasp and drifted toward the ground.
“You would not dare kiss me.”
The stranger chuckled, and Elizabeth glared up at him. Her gaze locked with eyes the color of cold steel. Magnificent, captivating eyes, framed by dark lashes. His gaze glinted with amusement. And challenge.
Unease shot through Elizabeth. Where were her guards?
The stranger’s stare did not waver. His eyebrows arched with unquestionable arrogance, and her heart beat like a frantic bird’s wings. Why did he not lower his gaze and show her due respect? He must realize her position. Her sky blue gown was tailored to the latest court fashion and sewn from the finest English wool, unlike his plain, homespun gray tunic and hose.
“You are a fool to challenge me,” she said, hoping to hear the loud roar that signaled the end of the jugglers’ act.
The stranger smiled. “I am the fool? I did not run into a wagon’s path.” His grin widened to reveal straight, white teeth without a spot of decay. “Mayhap your attention was claimed by more important thoughts, such as the whispered endearments of an eager suitor?”
She gasped, aware that curious townsfolk gathered around them. Insolent knave. How dare he mock her before an audience, and her father’s people? “Do you not know who I am?”
“A lady, forsooth.” His gaze traveled the length of her cloak. “Come to market to buy a pretty trinket?”
Pride warmed her voice. “My father is lord of the keep which stands upon yonder hill, and the lands surrounding it for many leagues.”
Surprise and anger flashed in the man’s eyes. “You are Brackendale’s daughter?”
She had expected awe, not the fury and stark pain that ravaged his features. He looked wounded, cut to his soul. She wondered at the source of his anguish, even as the emotion vanished and his lips thinned into a bitter, controlled smile.
Over the crowd’s murmurs, she heard shouts and the thunder of approaching footsteps.
“Your faithful guards, milady.”
Elizabeth smothered a relieved sigh. “Good. My father will enjoy meeting a rogue who thought to kiss me.”
“Alas, I must miss that meeting, and bid you good day.”
Without warning, he caught her fingers. He bent at the waist, an elegant movement better suited to a chivalrous knight than a knave, and shiny brown hair fell over his face. Light as a feather, his lips brushed the back of her hand.
Heat skittered across Elizabeth’s skin, spiraled through her arm, and pooled in her belly. The odd sensation was both exciting and frightening.
She yanked her fingers free, and he smiled.
“Until we meet again, milady.” Without the slightest attempt at a bow, he turned and strode into the crowd.
A hand clutched Elizabeth’s arm. “By the blessed Virgin,” Mildred said, wide-eyed, her wrinkled fingers at her throat. “Are you all right?”
Elizabeth nodded. Her flesh still tingled, as though his mouth continued to ply its sensual wickedness upon her.
Indeed, her whole body tingled.
“The man who saved you—”
“A rogue.” Elizabeth glared at her guards. “Find him.”
Drawing his sword, one of the men-at-arms hurried off in pursuit. The other bellowed for the throng to disperse.
As Elizabeth forced her breath to slow and fought the heat in her cheeks, the stranger’s parting words spun through her mind.
Until we meet again, milady.
Were the words a promise? Or a threat?