Bound by His Kiss
On her way to visit Lord Bramwell Hawksley days before they will marry, Lady Miranda de Vornay is taken captive by forest outlaws. Held hostage by their leader, she fights her shocking desire for the bold, handsome rogue she should despise—especially when he insists he is Bram, and that her betrothed is his corrupt half brother. Uncertain what to believe, Miranda must find out the truth. She will love only one man: the lord to whom she’s bound by his long-ago kiss.
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Nottinghamshire, England, 1192
“Something is amiss.” Lady Miranda de Vornay’s grip tightened on her mare’s reins as she glanced into the forest that crowded the narrow dirt road she traveled.
The ten armed riders escorting her closed their formation.
“’Twill be all right, milady,” said the grizzled knight beside her, his voice carrying over the clop of hoof beats. “We will soon be through these woods.”
His words were clearly meant to comfort her. His hand, though, had settled on the hilt of his sheathed sword.
How she’d looked forward to riding to Dreyswell Castle, home of her future husband, Lord Bramwell Hawksley, on this glorious spring day. ’Twas her last visit as an unwed maiden. They’d be married on the church portico in three days’ time.
For countless nights, she’d dreamed of him, the squire she’d kissed at her father’s keep three years ago while visiting her family. When she’d returned to her uncle’s castle, where she was being fostered, she’d lost contact with Bram—until last month. He’d returned from fighting on crusade with King Richard to claim his inheritance, which included Dreyswell Castle.
Joy had glowed inside her to see Bram again. Somehow, he’d seemed different than she remembered, but he would have changed. He’d become a knight, a man, while she’d grown to womanhood. Once they became reacquainted, especially as husband and wife, they’d enjoy again the fiery passion they’d once shared.
Today, as she’d ridden into the forest that was part of Bram’s estate, she’d thought back upon the day they’d become betrothed, and their thrilling kiss years ago. Her excitement had quickly turned to unease.
Glancing again into the woods, she said, “I sense we are being watched.”
“Outlaws.” The knight beside her scowled.
Miranda pressed her hand to her throat, over the costly brooch fastening her navy wool cloak.
“Do not be frightened. These woods harbor men who hold no loyalty to King Richard or those governing for him while he is on crusade, but you are safe with us.”
The knot of unease inside Miranda grew. The sensation of being intensely studied, as though someone scrutinized her from her braided hair coiled about her head to the toes of her embroidered shoes, made her palms dampen on her reins.
Her father’s men were well trained in case of an attack. She’d keep her head held high and her gaze fixed straight ahead. She’d think about finally kissing Bram on the mouth again, on their wedding night, as they pulled off each other’s clothes, kisses greedy and—
With a sharp hiss, an arrow streaked past her left shoulder. She jumped with a shriek as the arrow embedded in a tree behind her.
“Draw weapons!” the knight beside her yelled. More arrows whistled through the air. Shouts broke out among the men-at-arms, along with the rasps of swords being drawn and the whinnies of horses.
Heart hammering, Miranda reached for the dagger concealed within her cloak. She’d never used it before, but at least she had some way to defend herself.
“Protect the lady,” a man-at-arms ordered from up ahead.
As the riders moved to encircle her, scores of armed outlaws ran out of the undergrowth, some wearing leather hoods with eye slits, others wearing masks that concealed the top half of their faces. More arrows flew. Swords clashed. A knight screamed in agony.
The outlaws were closing in.
As Miranda struggled to control her spooked horse, a tall, broad-shouldered man with a drawn sword strode out of the forest. He looked straight at her, his eyes blazing through the openings in his mask. His unflinching stare and purposeful strides toward her implied he meant to . . . take her.
Terror raced through her, chased by a shocking tingle of excitement. Somehow, he seemed vaguely familiar. A wisp of indistinct memory brushed her fear. How could she know an outlaw? She couldn’t. Her senses were tricking her.
Seeing a gap in the throng of fighting men, Miranda gestured to her knight who was battling several outlaws. “There!” she cried.
“Go!” the knight yelled. “I will be right behind you.”
With a kick of her heels, Miranda spurred her mount forward.
“Not this day, milady,” a rough voice growled. She shivered as her gaze locked with that of the man who’d spoken: the tall rogue, claiming the last yards between them.
She urged her horse onward again, but outlaws swarmed in upon her, grabbing for the reins and pulling the wild-eyed animal to a halt. The rogue she’d seen earlier approached.
Miranda cast a frantic glance at her escort. Surrounded, they were being forced to relinquish their weapons.
Her breaths harsh, she brandished her dagger. “Stay back,” she shouted to the thugs surrounding her.
Laughter rippled through the outlaws. The rogue reached her side and looked up at her. His mouth, not hidden by the mask, tilted into a wry grin. “Give me the dagger.”
“Step away.” How proud she was of her fierceness. “I warn you—”
“And I warn you. If you wish your men to remain alive, you will sheath your knife and hand it to me. Then, you will dismount. I will not repeat my demands.”
As Miranda stared down at him, anger burned within her, along with a sense of helplessness.
The rogue extended a hand, a silent demand for the knife. Her movements stiff, Miranda removed the leather sheath from her cloak, shoved in the knife, and handed it down to him, shuddering at the brush of his callused fingers against hers.
The roughness of his hands bespoke a man used to fighting. He might be a mercenary. Oh, mercy, what did he want with her?
He secured the knife in his belt and raised both arms, an offer to help her down. A ridiculous show of chivalry. She’d never accept the help of an outlaw rogue!
Ignoring him, Miranda slid down from her horse and smoothed her garments into place. His height forced her to raise her chin to meet his stare. This close, she saw shiny, dark brown hair escaped from the edge of his mask, the strands the same color as the stubble darkening his jaw. His eyes were brown, too, his stare bold and possessive, and she fought the urge to cower.
“Why did you attack us?” she asked, focusing her anger into her biting tone.
The rogue’s smile broadened, revealing a strong, even set of teeth.
“What is it that you want?” she demanded.
His hand lifted to capture a strand of hair escaping from her braid. “What I want, milady, is you.”
* * *
“Me?” Miranda’s eyes, as bright and blue as he’d remembered, widened. She jerked her head to the side, causing him to lose hold of her honey-gold hair as it slipped like silk against his fingertips. “What do you mean?”
Her nervous breaths caused her full, pink lips to part, her generous bosom to rise and fall beneath the drape of her cloak. She was beautiful, more so than he’d expected. In the years since he’d last seen her, she’d grown from a spirited young girl to a woman. One who’d snare the interest of any hot-blooded male. Including those who didn’t deserve her.
Lust raced through him to settle in his hard loins. Now was not the time to indulge in her loveliness; he had more important priorities. “Later, there will be time for questions.” He signaled to one of his men, standing at her horse’s head.
Her gaze flicked to the man who approached, drawing a coil of rope from his belt.
“Nay.” She pushed back against the horse’s belly. “How dare you! I will not be tied.”
“Milady!” her knight called from several yards away, followed by the grunts and thuds of a struggle.
“Your safety, and that of your escort,” the rogue said, “depend on how fast you do as I say.” Ignoring the fear in her expression, he took the rope, uncoiled it, and grabbed her left wrist. She struggled, but he quickly caught her right hand and bound her wrists together in front of her, noting, as he did so, the softness and creamy whiteness of her skin, further proof of her gentle life. With a twinge of remorse, he hoped her skin wouldn’t be bruised or cut by the ropes, necessary as they were.
Dropping her bound hands, he met her stare, challenging the indignation blazing in her eyes. “I am sorry for the bonds,” he said. “However, I will not let you injure my men, nor escape.”
Her chin jutted higher. “You tied me because you are a coward.”
Rage spiked within him, as keen as his lust. “Far from a coward. You would be wise to remember that.” Turning on his heel, he addressed his most trusted men. “You know what to do.”
They nodded, motioned others to follow them, and joined the outlaws already surrounding her escort.
“Wait! You said my men would be safe if I obeyed you.”
He half-turned to assure her that she need not worry; her escort would be released, so he could use them to inform his lordship at Dreyswell of her abduction. But even as the words formed in his mouth, he realized the wisdom of withholding that information. He well remembered how willful she could be. Fear for her men’s well-being would make her cooperate.
“That is correct,” he said. “The fate of your men lies with you.” As her face whitened, he gestured to the woods and the deer trail barely visible through the undergrowth. “Now, you will walk with me. If you refuse—”
Her lips set in an angry line, she marched forward, her silk gown rustling.
He caught her arm, his hand sliding down to lock around her wrist. With just that simple touch, desire leapt within him, feeding the hunger focused in his groin. “There is one more thing you will do, milady.”
She glared at him, a hint of fear in her eyes, while he took a spare hood from one of his men and held it before her. When confusion touched her gaze, he said, “You will wear it so the eye slits are at the back of your head.”
“Why? So I will not see where we are going?”
“Exactly.” He smiled. “Neither can you run away.”
* * *
Miranda walked along, fallen leaves crunching beneath her shoes. With her eyes covered by the snug hood, she saw only blackness.
A hostage of that darkness, though, her senses awoke in ways she’d never felt before. She was intensely aware of the sweetish smell of the soft leather against her skin, the voices of the outlaws farther away in the woods as well as those surrounding her, and the warmth of the rogue’s hand on her arm as he led her forward. His firm grip, while guiding her, also prevented her from reaching up and pulling off the hood.
She shivered, for she loathed him walking so close that his leg brushed her cloak. His scent, too, teased her, for its mix of leather and soap seemed odd for an outlaw who called the damp, earthy forest home. She wished she hated the way he smelled. To her shame, his scent enticed her and left curious warmth in her lower belly.
His manner of speech, too, was far more refined than she’d expected. His flawless French hinted at an educated, noble breeding.
Was he a lord turned mercenary? He might be a rogue nobleman with a grievance against Bram, who’d taken her hostage to blackmail her betrothed or demand a ransom for her release. Her innards clenched. She couldn’t bear to think of her beloved Bram being coerced into negotiations with dangerous outlaws to win her freedom.
Her foot knocked a fallen branch. She stumbled, throwing out her bound hands to break her fall.
“I have you.” The rogue’s voice rumbled close to her ear, sending a spiral of wicked heat down her spine as he drew her upright and forced her to continue walking.
Anxiety cut through the relief that he’d caught her. The fact he looked after her meant she was valuable to him, as a pawn for ransom.
She’d never forget the way he’d looked at her, with such sensual hunger, her breath had frozen in her lungs. He obviously desired her. Had he taken her captive to ruin her before her wedding night?
Terror raced through Miranda, quickening her pulse to a sickly pounding. That would not happen. As soon as possible, she would escape.
“Get the door,” the rogue said.
Footfalls beside Miranda quickened, telling her that several thugs hurried on ahead. Even as she made a mental note that they’d soon enter a building, shock wove through her. The lackey had called the rogue ‘milord.’
A creak sounded, and the rogue drew her into an area that smelled of wood smoke. A door thumped shut behind her, and he released her arm. He was nearby, though. She sensed his stare prowling over her, while he spoke in hushed tones to others with him.
Unease licked through her. Whatever his intentions, she wouldn’t stand here, hooded like an obedient falcon, awaiting his command.
Reaching up her bound hands, she yanked the hood from her face and looked about. She was inside a dirt-floored cottage, sparsely furnished. Her gaze flicked over the scarred oak table with benches on either side, the stocked cupboard with its doors hanging ajar, and, across the room, several straw pallets. The rogue stood beside them, speaking with four of his men.
Miranda spun to face the door, desperate hope pounding inside her. She might be able to get out the door and run . . .
As she reached for the handle, a broad arm looped around her waist and jerked her back against a hard body that smelled dangerously familiar.
The rogue’s snarl rumbled against her ear. “You are mine now.”
His? Never. She belonged to Bram.
Tears burning her eyes, she kicked out at the rogue and thrashed in his arms, even as two more men moved in front of her and sliced her bonds. Before she could strike out at them, the rogue grabbed her wrists and pulled her arms behind her, tying them again with a swiftness that brought a scream of frustration wrenching up in her throat.
Pulling her backward by her hands, he forced her to sit upon the bench, the lower half of her cloak sliding to her sides to reveal the blue shimmer of her gown. He leaned in behind her, and his hands brushed against her lower back. Through her cloak, the feather light touch caused a hot-cold shiver to trail through her.
“Do not touch me!” Miranda cried. Even as she fought anew, he caught hold of her ropes and pulled her hands slightly backward. Oh, mercy. He was securing her to the table leg.
He stepped away, tugging down his tunic sleeves, and waved his men away. They left, shutting the door behind them.
She was alone with him.
Swallowing down a frightened moan, she looked up at him, standing before her with his hands on his hips. As their gazes locked through the slits of his mask, he smiled.
“You smile now,” she said. “My betrothed will find me. When he does, he will kill you.”
* * *
Defiance blazed in her beautiful eyes which glinted as hard and bright as gemstones. This was the Miranda he remembered.
A fresh stirring of desire whipped through him. With it came intense rage toward the man she called her betrothed. She spoke of him as if he were an honorable knight who’d ride to her rescue, not a soulless, murderous thief.
He claimed the distance between them, aware of her sharp intake of breath, the hardness of her knees pressing against his shins. Catching her face with his hand, he forced her chin up. “He will kill me for forcing you from your horse and taking you captive?”
“Aye,” she bit out.
He slid his thumb along the warm silk of her jaw, feeling her tremble. How he longed to caress her naked skin, to nibble the tender spot behind her ear, to finally make her his. “He will kill me for touching you.”
Leaning toward her, he said, “Then he will certainly kill me for kissing you.”
She tried to wrench her face away, but he held her firm. Covering her mouth with his, he slid his tongue over the plump softness of her lips. When she gasped, he claimed the warm wetness of her mouth. Again and again he thrust his tongue, hungry for her sweetness, starved for her shocked little whimpers that made his manhood as hard as stone.
He stepped back, forcing out a breath on a hiss.
She stared up at him, eyes huge, looking dazed. “I-I promise you, Lord Bramwell Hawksley will—”
A growl tore from his throat. How foolish, that he’d thought that kiss would tell her who he was. She’d obviously forgotten him long ago.
Reaching around his head, he unfastened the ties of his mask and yanked it off. “I am Bramwell Hawksley.”