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Son of the Morning (Chapter 22)

GRACE WOKE THE NEXT MORNING TO THE SOUND OF THE KEY grating in the lock. She sat up in her plaid nest, pushing her hair out of her face. She had merely dozed for most of the night, until fatigue had finally taken its toll and toward dawn she had finally slept. Niall stood in the doorway watching her, his face expressionless, and she rose creaking to her feet. She was stiff and sore in every muscle but her legs in particular didn't want to cooperate.

"Come wi' me," he said, holding out his hand, and she limped to the door. She reflected that if he had only said those same words the night in Huwe's dungeon, she wouldn't now be aching allover.

He led her to his chamber, ushering her inside with a big, warm hand on the small of her back. A fire leaped merrily in the big fireplace, dispelling the early-morning chill. A large round wooden tub had been placed before the fire, and steam rose gently from the water that filled it.

"For you," he said, indicating the tub. "For all ye knocked my feet from under me last night, I saw ye moved with care. Ye've a sore arse, I suspect."

She took a deep breath, staring at that wonderful hot water. "I do."

"Then get ye in the water, lass, afore it cools." He reached out and untied the scarf from about her waist. Grace slapped his hand, backing away. "I can undress myself," she said warily. "But I won't do it with you in the room."

Those expressive black brows rose. "Ye saw me naked," he pointed out. "And it isna as if there's no been any intimacy between us."

She flushed. Having a sword swung at her head the night before had distracted her from the embarrassment she expected to feel, but now he'd been kind enough to remind her. "That was a mistake," she said evenly. "It won't happen again."

"I'm no of the same opinion," he said softly, his gaze sliding down her body. Remembering how thin the kirtle was, she turned away from him, her blush growing hotter. He chuckled, and though she didn't hear him approach he was suddenly right behind her, so close she could feel his heat. With one fingertip he lightly stroked the side of her neck, the tender underside of her jaw.

"I'll give ye privacy to bathe," he murmured. "ThenAlice will bring your porridge, and we'll talk."

Grace shivered as he left the room. The first two things sounded wonderful; the last terrified her. Talk? Seduction had been in his voice, in the small touches, the way he had stood so close to her. For whatever reason he hadn't tried to take her to bed last night-anger, surprise, suspicion – this morning he had evidently decided that reason no longer held sway.

He wanted her. The thought made her knees watery as she quickly undressed and slid into the hot water, moaning aloud as the heat soaked into her sore muscles. Underlying all his suspicious questions was that sharp animal awareness between them, forged during months of shared dreaming. He had been fully aroused during that devastating kiss. He had the same memories she did, of those dreams. Just as she knew how it was to lie beneath him, he knew how it was to mount her. Yin and yang, she knew the inward thrust that stretched her around his erection, he knew the hot, moist inner slide and clasping. She knew the hardness of his hands; he, the softness of her breasts.

How could she resist that? For Ford's sake, how could she not?

She distracted herself by vigorously washing, first her hair and then the rest of herself. Just as he finished, the door opened and a sturdy gray-haired woman came in, carrying a wooden platter on which rested a covered bowl, a spoon, and a cup.

"Such hair!" she exclaimed, hurrying to the table and setting the platter on it. Lifting a heavy ewer, she came to the side of the tub. "My name isAlice ; I manage the household for Lord Niall. Stand up, then, lass, and I'll pour the clean water o'er ye."

Grace felt her face heat again, but she stood up out of the protective water.Alice poured the water over her head, rinsing away the last of the soap. She was given a sheet of linen with which to dry herself, and another, smaller one to wrap about her head.

Alicemade a clicking sound with her tongue. "Ye need meat on yer bones, lass. I'll keep ye fed, now ye're here. Sit ye down, now, and eat while the porritch is hot."

Wrapped in the linen cloth, Grace sat down on the bench and dipped the spoon into the porridge. It tasted nothing like the oatmeal she had eaten before, being rich with butter and milk, and having a salty taste. She ate all of it, and drank the water in the cup. "That was wonderful." She sighed. After a year's absence, her appetite seemed to be making a reappearance.

Alicehad sat quietly while Grace ate, but now she bustled into action. Soon Grace found herself dressed in a soft linen smock, looser than the cotton kirtle and with short sleeves, and then a plain brown overdress was dropped over her head.

Clean stockings were provided, and ill-fitting leather shoes that had been made to fit either foot. Her hand-sewn moccasins were set aside to be cleaned. ThenAlice set to work on Grace's hair, sitting her down on the bench before the fire and slowly drawing a wooden comb through the wet strands. "What's yer name, lass?" she asked comfortably.

"Grace." The motion of the comb in her hair was soothing. Grace's eyelids drooped almost shut.

"Ye've lovely hair, so thick and shiny and smooth. Takes a bit to dry, though, aye?"

"I braid it while it's still wet, sometimes," she said in answer.

The door opened behind her, and she recognized the booted footsteps. "I'll finish,Alice ," Niall said, taking the comb from her hand.Alice took the wet linens and the platter with her when she left.

"Turn," Niall said, and Grace swiveled on the bench, turning her other side to the fire. He was as skilled asAlice with the comb, sliding his muscular forearm under her hair and lifting it, letting the heat of the fire dry it more evenly.

Her heartbeat had speeded when he entered. Though she sat quietly while he combed her hair, the sedative effect had vanished. Instead that feeling of being hypersensitive had seized her again, tightening her skin, sending twinges through her nerve endings.

Panic began to tighten her stomach. She had been braced for a full-scale seduction. This subtle gentling was far more dangerous to her resolve.

"Ye asked for food yesterday, in the kitchens," Niall said conversationally. "Ye were weak wi' hunger, having not eaten for two days, ye said. Then ye vanished, and no one saw ye for hours, until ye came into my chamber. Where were ye?"

"I told you last night," she said, her tone as even and without heat as his. "I hid, and I fell asleep."

"Where did ye hide?" "In an alcove." She turned her head to glance at him over her shoulder. "Or did you think I turned myself into a bat and perched in your belfry?"

"Creag Dhu doesna have a belfry," he said in amusement. "Tell me where ye've been for two days, if ye left Hay Keep hard on my heels. Why did ye come here? Creag Dhu is for broken men and outlaws, not lovely lasses with hands soft as a bairn's."

"I couldn't escape right away," Grace explained. "I had to hide in the granary for several hours, until everyone slept again. I stole a horse, but there was fog… I got lost." She turned around again, this time to glare at him. "If you hadn't left me behind, I wouldn't have gotten lost."

"Sit still," he commanded, turning her back. "Ye'll pull your hair." The comb resumed its strokes through her hair. "As for why I didna' bring ye with me, the reason is the question I just asked, and ye didna' answer. Why did ye comehere? Last night ye said for food, and shelter, but when ye got here ye didna' even try to ask those things of me."

She was silent, searching for a plausible answer. She couldn't say because of the dreams, because for the most part they had been so blatantly sexual in nature, and yet she had rebuffed him not an hour ago.

"Also," he continued softly, "there was other shelter, closer than two days' ride, if that is truly what ye wanted. And once ye were here, all ye had to do was ask for me, instead of tricking your way into the castle. If ye thought I would refuse ye, lass, then your insistence on coming here is no verra logical. I still have the same question. Why Creag Dhu?"

He was relentless, and he hadn't missed any of the holes in her logic. She hadn't come to this time expecting everyone to be ignorant barbarians, easily outwitted, but still she was dismayed by the sophisticated nature of his reasoning. Niall wasn't at the disadvantage here; she was, tripped up by her own actions. He was right; simply approaching the gates and asking for him would have been far less suspicious.

She bowed her head, looking at her hands twisting together in her lap. She fingered her wedding ring, and for once deliberately tried to bring up Ford's image in her mind. She needed him now, sitting here before the fire with Black Niall's hands gentle in her hair. But it was difficult to concentrate, and she couldn't pull the details together.

"I was too embarrassed," she blurted. The comb paused. "Were ye, now?" The deep voice was little more than a murmur. He slid his hand around her neck, under her hair, and she jumped in surprise. He crooned something soothing in Gaelic, and his thumb began to rub the nape of her neck. "Because I gave ye pleasure, in the dungeon? I'll admit to a bit of surprise, but then I greatly enjoyed it. A man likes for a lass to shiver and moan in his arms."

She shivered now, in response to both the memory and the caress of his thumb on her neck. He moved his hand just a little, so that he rubbed and massaged the cords that joined neck and shoulder, and she bit back a moan. Desire pooled deep in her belly, between her legs, and her breasts tightened. It was a dangerous man who knew the sensitivity of a woman's neck, where a caress was like a bolt of lightning through her body. A touch on her breast was more intimate – but a touch on her neck was more seductive. Niall knew well what he was doing.

She tried to control her breathing, which was coming in short, erratic spurts. "I haven't � I mean, there's been only… we had just met!"

He laughed, the soft sound totally male and self-confident. "That isna true. Ye've been in my bed many times."

She gathered herself, tried to inject a note of firmness into her tone. "Those were dreams, not reality."

"Were they not? When I wake wi' my seed spurting from me, it feels verra damn real to me." The words were full of masculine wryness.

Her breath caught on a surge of yearning so abrupt and intense it felt like pain. She wanted to feel him come inside her, wanted to feel that powerful body surge and convulse while she held him close, wanted to watch his face.

"Ye like that thought, do ye? Your wee nipples ha' gone as hard as berries."

She wasn't the only one aroused; she could hear it in the slight thickening of his accent. She closed her eyes and for a moment the only sound was that of their breathing, fast and erratic.

The comb was tossed aside and he stepped over the bench to stand in front of her. His hands slid down her arms, lifting her to her feet. She stared at the pulse throbbing in the base of his strong throat.

"Come lie wi' me on the bed," he murmured, rubbing her back now, each caress subtly urging her closer and closer to him. Her nipples tingled in anticipation. Closer… their bodies touched, and she swallowed a gasp.

"No-I… " Her disjointed refusal trailed off, lost as his arms closed around her, lifted her on her toes to bring them together more firmly.

"I willna hurt ye." His breath was hot on her ear as he nibbled the lobe, and licked the small hollow beneath.

She knew he likely would, though not deliberately. She had seen him naked, though she had tried not to dwell on it; she hadfelt him in their dreams. His size wasn't limited to his height. To her dismay, the thought of such intimate discomfort wasn't the deterrent she would have preferred.

Her hands were flattened against his chest, and she had to clench them into fists to keep them from sliding around his neck. Even that small a surrender would be the one step too far, because they were both trembling, Amazed, she felt the quivering of that strong body, the result of fierce need tightly leashed.

"Lass… " His mouth slid across the underside of her jaw, planting small kisses as it went. His hands knew no boundaries; they cupped her bottom, lifting her to even closer contact. His erection pushed hard against the juncture of her thighs.

Ford.In despair Grace wrenched herself away and fled to the other side of the table, a flimsy barrier he could dispose of with one flick of his hand if he chose, but she knew he wouldn't force her. Seduce her, yes, with his devastatingly successful technique of alternating subtlety with boldness. He wasn't a man who found force either desirable or necessary.

He was very still, watching her from beneath heavy lids. She clenched her hands together, turning her wedding ring around and around, using the small symbol to remind her of both loyalty and betrayal. The ring was so loose now she worried about losing it, and had developed the habit of checking to make certain it was still there.

He was waiting. "I'm a widow," she said, forcing out the word. Her throat constricted, and she swallowed. "My husband is the only man I've ever-" She stopped, and couldn't say more. She didn't need to.

"Did ye love him, then?" She swallowed again at his swift understanding. "Yes, I do." The words were almost inaudible.

He walked around the table. She stood her ground, though she wanted to flee. Niall cupped her face, a hint of a smile on his firmly molded lips, understanding in his dark eyes. "'Tis new to ye, wanting another man. Ye think it a betrayal of him that yer body, which has known only him, should quicken against mine."

"It is," she whispered. "And yet ye came here, knowing how it is between us. Your body is ready. Your mind needs a bit more time." He leaned down and kissed her forehead. "I'll not force ye, lass, but I'll no leave ye for long in an empty bed. Ye like my kisses, and my touch, while your thoughts settle."

She thought he would kiss her then. Her lips parted in anticipation of the pressure, the taste, the wildness. Instead he dropped his hand and strolled to the door, his tall, muscular body as graceful as a dancer's. "I would like to think you came to Creag Dhu because of me, and what we both want." He spoke now in precise English, the easy burr of his Scots accent gone. "But gratitude did not make me a fool, nor does lust. Until I know your true reason for being here, you'll not be allowed freedom within my castle. Someone will be with you at all times during the day, and at night you will be locked in either your chamber-" He paused, black eyes glittering. "Or mine."

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