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The Mark of the Vampire Queen (Prologue)

Centuries Ago . . .

The vampire hunters had been swift, their numbers consider- able. Despite their foolish decision to launch their attack just before dusk, their commitment had bordered on fanatical, making them dangerous. The day might not have gone in Lady Lyssa's favor, but a knight had charged out of the golden desert sands still shim- mering with the day's heat, his bloodcurdling battle cry reminding her of the wildness of the Irish moors. When the clash of weapons and the spilling of blood were over, he'd turned the tide against the attack. "I wish to thank him, " she commanded her retainers. "Bring him to me. " They'd obeyed her quickly, as they always did. The knight hadn't seen her at first when the lackey guided him just inside the flap of her tent. The first notes of his voice had curled pleasantly in her stomach like warm blood. "I am not presentable for your Mistress. I should prepare myself first. " "But I desire the audience now. " He turned as she materialized out of the shadows. The servant retreated. She noted that the knight's tunic and mail still bore the blood of those he'd vanquished. So did the gauntlets he pulled off to reveal callused, capable hands. Sweat had dampened the hair on his head, but there were hints of true red in the brown. When he found her, those blue, blue eyes and the pale lashes with the same hint of auburn on the tips gave her steps a pause. The power of his gaze washed over her like a familiar embrace. She'd thought she'd share a goblet of wine with him. Perhaps even hypnotize him into being her dinner tonight and then send him to a bed with several of her maidservants to reward him for his trouble on her behalf. Only two hundred years old, she nevertheless wasn't impetuous. But the idea of dismissing him melted away as she sent a mental compulsion to her staff to bring the precious bathwater to her tent instead of setting up a guest quarters. He bowed. "My lady. " "Sir Knight. " Composure reclaimed, she stepped to the carafe of wine and began to pour her best vintage into a goblet. "I find myself in your debt. " "The chance to rescue a lady of such fair countenance suggests just the opposite. " She turned, raised a brow. "A deft tongue. Far more appealing than my countenance. " Particularly if he was equally deft with it in other ways. Her gaze lingered, apparently communicating her thought well enough that the first hint of desire rose in his eyes. However, some- thing else was in his expression as well. Speculative awareness. "It was an odd attack,my lady. These men seemed to be seeking your death specifically. Not a ransom. " "Men fear what they do not understand. " She finished pouring the wine. "I have enemies. That is my business, not yours. I'm simply grateful you were willing to put your sword into my ser vice. " "Mmm. " As he made the noncommittal noise, she offered the goblet, cupping the bowl with both hands. When he reached for it, she didn't relinquish it. He studied her, then put his hands over hers, lifting the goblet to his lips, allowing her to move two steps closer, the tips of her slippers just inside the span of his boots. As he drank deeply, she watched his throat work. He was not mannerless.

While he thirsted, he showed restraint. He didn't spill it on himself or the rug beneath his feet. She almost wished for one red rivulet to run from the corner of his mouth down the side of his throat to give the lust in her belly more to stir it. Though in truth, watching him drink seemed to be enough. He paused, pressing his moistened lips to- gether, distracting her. "When the battle was over, I'd killed many. But not as many as were lying on the ground. " "My servants are not untrained, " she said, wondering how he would taste if she lifted on her toes and pressed her lips over his wine-stained ones. "While they are not all warriors, I would have been ashamed if they hadn't been some assistance to you. " "They were. With pike and sword. Even your cook wields a pot well. " A light smile touched his firm mouth, but didn't reach his eyes. "As stout of heart as they all were, I didn't see any of them who looked strong enough to break the neck of a full-grown warrior, or snap his back like a rotted branch. " When he lowered the goblet, she was aware his grip had tight- ened perceptibly on her hands, keeping them overlaid with his own. "One man . . . I pulled my sword out of his gut just as his comrade came upon my back. He would have run me through; I've no doubt of it. There was a wind like a passing spirit, on what has been a cursedly breezeless dusk. I felt a softness, much like the brush of a maiden's hair on my face. " His gaze traveled to her raven tresses, tied loosely back on her shoulders with a twisted trio of ribbons. "The man spun away from me, so violently his feet left the ground. When he landed, his back was broken, his head wrenched back. " "I think you have been out in the sun far too long, Sir Knight. " "Perhaps you've never been in the sun at all, my lady. Your skin, like the palest cream, " he murmured. "What manner of creature are you? Should I fear you as well?" He looked more curious than apprehensive. Almost . . . Amused. Disturbed, she drew her hands from beneath his and stepped away, reclaiming her haughty reserve. "Do you fear me?" Her retainers slipped in, bearing a washtub and full water buckets.

Rather than answering, he noted them, his brow raised. "You are pre- paring to bathe, my lady. I should leave you your privacy. " "I am preparing to bathe you, Sir Knight. " At his surprised look, she tilted her head. "A traditional courtesy, is it not? The lady of the house attending to her guest's bath?" She saw the significance of that flash through his expression and wondered if he could imagine it in as great detail as she could. His muscular, naked body glistening with water, the beads of it tempting her to suck on his tanned, sun-soaked skin. He shifted, swallowing. "My lady . . . " "Do you intend to insult my hospitality, Sir Knight?" She could almost hear the snick of the trap, and from the charm- ing amusement in his gaze, she knew he could as well. "No, my lady. " "Then please remove your weapons and clothing and I will have my servants see to their cleaning. " That gave him pause for different reasons. She stepped toward him. "You may certainly keep the weapons with you here, if it reas- sures you. Or perhaps it's just that you've been wearing them for so long you've forgotten how to remove them. " Another step, and she was right in front of him again. The way those piercing blue eyes seemed to be contemplating her mystery roused things in her. It seemed as if he understood her fully, even as she played with him in this way. She reached out and fingered the trailing end of his sword belt, beginning to work it out of its loop, very conscious of what other delights waited under the skirt of the tunic. While he didn't move, his expression maintained an intriguing blend of curiosity, desire warring with caution. He was obviously no fool. Since he held the goblet, only one hand was free, but she sus- pected he was capable of putting up a good defense to stop her if he wished to do so. When she freed the weapon, she stepped closer to pull the belt away and bring it around to one hand, letting the tunic fall loose at his waist. She handed the sword, dagger and belt to a retainer.

"Please see that the blade is properly cleaned and sharp- ened, and the scabbard well-oiled. " Heaven knew, her scabbard was getting well-oiled, just from this brief touch. He stank of blood and sweat, the heavy musk of days of travel, and yet she wanted nothing more than to be the hands that scrubbed all that off his skin, as if unwrapping a gift for herself. She took the goblet from his hands then. "If you'll remove the rest and step into the tub, we shall attend to your bath. " Making herself turn away and cross the tent, she heard him shift,rustle, telling her he was removing the tunic and undergar- ments, untying the mail and handing it to the outstretched hands of her servants. She wondered at his willingness to give up his weapons, but then she realized the tent was well decorated with her own ar- maments. He could outfit himself if needed, and if she was telling the truth, she was saving him the time of preparing his weapons for his next battle. Even so, she suspected he was not a man who easily trusted another to do that, and that uncomfortably suggested he might be feeling some of the same strong pull toward her she was feeling toward him. Setting aside the goblet, she heard him step into the tub and her servants quietly depart, leaving her alone with her prey. Her dinner. Her pleasure. She turned. Holy God . . . And she meant it in the most reverent sense. Even crusted with blood and grime, it was obvious his body was God's creation. Muscled haunches, broad back, long arms, wide chest and a cock already semierect, giving her a mouthwatering idea of its size and thickness when fully aroused. It had already lengthened at her regard, even as he obviously tried to look any- where but at her. Perhaps he was thinking he shouldn't presume she was trying to seduce him, since she'd yet to make any direct over- tures that way. But oh, that was fully her intent. She was hungry on two very vital levels. She'd sent her marked human servant ahead to make arrange- ments for their stay, but there was something about this man that told her even if she'd had a meal readily at her fingertips she'd have sent it from her presence in favor of this one.

She wanted to bid him stand still as she poured the water over him, watch it sluice over hard muscle, taking away the dust and making his skin gleam in the candlelight. As she approached, she cast her eyes down, ostensibly a modest maiden, but really to get a better view of that impressive organ. De- spite his best efforts to be chivalrous it was still rising, particularly when she took her time raising her gaze, letting it linger on all the terrain from thigh to throat. She was close enough to reach out to graze his flat abdomen with her fingers and she did, her nails scrap- ing him. "My lady. " He caught her wrists. She was surprised to look up into a face that, while avid with a man's desire, was also filled with male laughter. "You are teasing me. " She smiled. "I am. I find myself ravenous, my knight. As you have suggested, my hungers are rather unusual. I wouldn't presume upon you to fi ll those hungers, because you have saved my life and the lives of many of my people tonight. But I admit I tend to be a self- ish creature. " Studying her, he lifted a hand to cup her face. The sheer impact of that touch made her go still. Her eyes closed of their own accord, her mind wondering at her trembling response as he stroked along her temple. When his thumb passed over her lips, she drew it into her mouth and bit. He started a little, but didn't draw back. She wasn't using any compulsion at all, and yet she felt him just watching her curiously, tightening his grasp on her other wrist. "My mind tells me what you are, " he whispered. "It tells me I should have helped them end you. But my heart tells me I would give the last drop of my blood to protect you. Is it a spell? Are you using your beauty to cloud my eyes to truth?" She kept her gaze lowered, lashes fanning her cheeks, and sam- pled his blood. Finding it to her liking, she drew his thumb in far- ther, licking the welling drops away, suckling at him in a manner suggesting how she would like to suckle other parts of him. She heard him mutter a curse. When her eyes rose at last, he was still watching her draw the tiny trickle of sustenance from him.

After she let him go, he looked at his thumb, bemused, before lowering the hand to her hip, drawing her closer to him, her shins pressing against the edge of the standing tub. "You are a mystery, my lady. I ask myself why I'm not running from the temptation of you, so great that fighting in a dozen Cru- sades wouldn't eradicate the sin from my soul. " "You never answered my question. Do you fear me, Sir Knight?" He smiled, and this time the response reached his eyes, lighting them like sapphires in the firelight. It astonished her. He sensed what she might be, and yet he truly did not fear her. "I will die in these lands, but not by your fair hand. Though I think it would be a far better death to die with my head in your lap. " It cast a shadow over the moment. Imagining such a thing both- ered her more than it should for this man she'd just met. "I forbid you to speak of such nonsense. We'll wash such thoughts away. " When she bent to pick up the first bucket, he touched her elbow, stopping her. "That's far too heavy, my lady. Please, let me. " She could lift him on the flat of her palm, but the gesture sent a wave of pleasure through her. He tipped the bucket over himself, wetting his hair and letting the flow run over his body, though spar- ingly. Enough to dampen him, but not wasting anything. A man who'd obviously been in the desert lands awhile, if the bronzed cast of his face hadn't told her that already. When he set the bucket down and straightened to use the sponge to spread the water over himself for the soap, it was she who stopped him. Instead of allowing him to slick back his wet hair from his head, she did it for him. Rising on her toes, she let her fingertips fol- low the lines of his eyelids, feathering over his lashes to collect the water so he could open his eyes again. When she drew her hands back, her thumbs caressed his lips, his throat. His clear blue eyes stared at her now, an obvious struggle going on in their depths. "My lady . . . I . . . You know you owe me nothing, yes? I demand nothing from you, even your hospitality. " "Deny hospitality to a traveler in the desert? Something rarely done to a mortal enemy, let alone a person who saved my retainers' lives and possibly my own?"

"It was a ser vice I'd gladly perform a hundred times, so your beauty would grace the world another day. " "Or night, " she murmured. "A lady such as you, " he continued doggedly, "surely has a hus- band waiting. I'll not bring dishonor to you. You owe me nothing. " She had to bite back a smile at his persistence, even as she felt his heat rising at her sultry teasing. "I do not have a husband, Sir Knight. I am a very wealthy, very independent creature and I do as I please. Right now, bathing you is what pleases me. " She bade him turn then with her lathered hands. "If I wish to compensate you for your time, that's my business and none of yours. You may find I've asked far too much of you as it is. " She ran the soap across the wide, muscular area between his shoulders. She wished she was home where she could have bathed him in a tub large enough for them both, but that was a pointless wish since he hardly would have been called to rescue her in her for- tress. Flattening her hands on the small of his back, she fanned out her fingers and ran them over the curves of his buttocks, making sure she dipped in between, rubbing him intimately and lower. "Be still, " she said quietly as he started. "Or I'll restrain you with ribbons from my hair to allow me time to please myself. " Her touch moved between his parted muscular thighs and gripped his testicles, lathering the heavy sac, and then down the length of the leg to where it met the water just below his knee. She did it to the other leg, taking another opportunity to fondle his balls, tease the crease of his back- side. "Turn. " When he did, she dwelled appreciatively on his erect member before she began to lather it as well. He rocked toward her, closing his eyes, but he clenched his hands at his sides and did not touch her as she ran her hands up his belly, over his nipples and back to his neck. "You show restraint, Sir Knight. I like that. Your cock says it wants me, but your mind stays in control of your lust. "

"My lady has not indicated whether she wants me to touch her. " He opened eyes of blue fire, like the flames that licked through her blood at his words. But she merely nodded to the next bucket.

He raised it to rinse himself and she helped, spreading the flow of water over him, run- ning her hands back through those delicious crevices under his gen- itals and between his buttocks, bringing herself close enough that the water splashed down her arms and wet her front before she with- drew enough to fan her hands across his chest. Though she knew his desire was high, it had become a game by his own unintentional voicing of it. He would not touch her until she commanded it, and she would delight in teasing him to raging be- fore she gave him that command. But beneath his lust there was something else, in the way he watched her, something that kept her alert to the shifts in his mood, as well as to her own unusually strong reaction to him. "You're a sorceress, " he said huskily. "A beautiful sorceress, deter- mined to lead me to damnation. " She didn't respond to that, just moved close enough to step into the tub, her wet feet on top of his, her dress floating in the small space of the basin. As she lifted up on her toes to reach his lips, his hands circled her waist, her clad body against his naked, aroused one, his cock pushing into her belly and lower as he raised her. His wet hair tangled in her fingers as she let her lust rise as well. Her grip tightened on the edge of bruising, her breath in the kiss becoming a low growl. "Like a lion cub, " he whispered against her. He surprised her by lifting her in his arms. Stepping out of the tub, he took her to the tumble of cushions that was her bed. He squatted beside her, casu- ally immodest as a soldier was. As she lay back, she watched him toy with the front lacing of the corset she wore over her dress. His jaw was set in an attractive line, rigid with desire like the rest of him. Every muscle hard, his erection damp with viscous fluid at the tip. "It has been a while, my lady. I wish to be gentle. " "Don't be. I will not be gentle with you. I promise I will make you serve me over and over tonight, drain you well before dawn. "

Be- cause she could resist no longer, she grasped his cock, hot steel cov- ered in silk, the pulse of it seeming to match the pulse in her womb. He exhaled sharply at her touch, his hand gripping the pillow by her head as she stroked him, her nail scraping the underside, her fingertips teasing his balls. Gods, but he was a finely equipped man. His hand moved to her thigh, and he began to raise her skirt, gathering it slowly, gauging whether she was pleased or not. The touch of his fingers through the fabric burned. She wanted his hands fully on her. When the skirt was bunched under his large palms and he let his fingertips graze her thigh, she arched up as if he'd slid into her. His expression became more intent, and his attention shifted down to the slick lips of her cunt, already glistening for him. She didn't want to be patient. Restless and almost on the verge of anger, she abruptly wanted to attack him for the way he made her feel. Longing for things . . . For this mere human. She levered herself up and had him on his back before he could resist, though she noted he caught her arm a split second before she did it, as if anticipating her move, even if he couldn't counter her strength or see the speed of her movements. She straddled him on the floor of the tent, hands pinioning his wrists, her thighs gripping his torso securely and toes planted inside his knees, locking his legs down. However, her skirt was caught between them, denying her the full contact of his cock against the aching emptiness between her legs. "So you still do not fear me?" He put some serious effort into lifting his arms, subsiding a few moments later as she gazed down at him, expressionless. Except when she curled back her lip to let him see her fangs elongating. His eyes widened, but then he shifted to her face, studied some- thing there she suspected was different from what she intended him to see. "No, my lady, " he said at last. "But I sense there is something you fear about me. Let my hands go, lass. Let me touch you and give you pleasure. I won't abuse your trust. " His voice became thicker, deeper. "You're wet enough to slide right on my shaft, and I'm sizeable enough to take you deep and hard. Just let me take you. "

Who was seducing whom? She released him but rose. With a short gesture, she bid him stay still as she crossed the tent. He rose up on his elbows as she refilled and retrieved the wine goblet. When she came back she moved over his body, straddling his thighs, sitting on his knees so she had an un- impeded view of his aroused member. Lifting the goblet, she tilted it over him, watched the stream of crimson fluid run along the length of him. His stomach tightened at the stimulation, a pleasurable response, but her eyes lingered on the trail of wine covering him. She bent, her breath hovering over him, and licked delicately at the underside, the broad head of his cock. His hands fisted in the pil- lows on either side of him, giving her delicious visions of what it would be like to restrain and torment him like this for hours. Slowly she covered him with her mouth and went all the way down, taking the taste of his skin and seed with the fermented grape. She savored it, sucking on him as his thighs trembled, a powerful man restrain- ing himself to let her have her pleasure. Little did he know that if she desired it, he would have no choice. But she'd always preferred sub- mission like this, a willing choice in the end, though she couldn't deny the predator in her was equally provoked by the fight up to that point. Releasing him, she raised the goblet again, trailing wine up his belly. Lapping it from his navel, she rubbed her breasts against his arousal. Spilled wine over his chest, over his throat. Licked at his nip- ples as he jerked in response. There she paused, inhaling him. She'd been tempted by the thigh, but somehow for this man, the throat, the flood of life pounding hard behind it like a waterfall, was more than she could resist. He knocked the goblet from her hand and seized her by the waist, dragging her up his body with sheer animal strength. His ur- gency had a gentle power to it she found difficult to resist. When he touched his lips to the cleft of her breasts rising over the top of her neckline, the barest press of his mouth sent a shudder through her. She watched, paralyzed by her own desire, as he opened the cor- set, untied the neckline of her dress and cupped her bare breasts in either hand. Sitting up with a ripple of stomach muscles to hold her straddled on his lap, he teased her with his cock, rubbing the cleft of her buttocks with the skirt in between while he captured a nipple, began to suckle.

"Oh . . . Oh. " Her body was moving of its own accord, grinding urgently against him, but he was of a mind to take his time, God bless him. Suckling with soft, moist noises. Something she would have thought coarse, but the sound of it made her hips move in sen- sual undulations, straining for more of the feel of that organ trapped behind her. "What is it you want, my lady?" He said it against her flesh, his tongue stroking, curling. Her hand caught in his damp hair, found his nape. "Tell this knight what he must do to serve you best. " "Your cock, " she whispered. "Inside me. I want to feel . . . " Taken. Immersed. Impaled. He moved her skirt out of the way and obeyed, bringing himself into line with her, lifting her and then lowering her slowly, slowly onto him as she cried out with the stretching pleasure of it, the fiery sensation it burned to the core of her. It had been far too long since she'd indulged herself in the plea- sure of a man's body. A body like this. A man like this. She grasped his jaw as he anchored her on him with his hands gripping her hips, fingers pressing into her buttocks. She didn't pause or ask permission. He was hers. She would do as she liked, not ques- tioning why the need was so savage with this human who should be just a pleasant diversion. Dinner. When she sank her fangs into his neck, he pushed her down even harder, growling as his hips jerked, pumped into her. She drew his essence into herself, the swirl of his blood on her tongue, a nourish- ment unlike anything she'd tasted before. Except once . . . Her samurai guard. The memory interjected itself unbidden into this moment. Her stepfather, her mother's servant, had Lyssa bite each of her guards, not only to bind them to her, but so Lyssa would know how to bind a hu- man and could practice locating them around the grounds. Jun had been first. She'd been nervous, but he'd put his arm around her, held her to reassure her she wasn't hurting him.

It had been a very different moment from this, but the sense of overwhelming acceptance and love was uncanny in its sameness, despite the fact Jun had been her childhood bodyguard and she'd just met this man. While intense circumstances could provoke a certain amount of intimacy, it couldn't explain a level this high. Her body was gathering under the sensual assault of his. It had been a while since an orgasm had been more than just a release. This was magic. Powerful energy, almost a sorcery of its own, capable of altering her world. When they went over, it would be a little death in truth, where they would end up rising together as a new being. A phoenix created by two souls. An odd thought for something she'd intended to be only physi- cal. Coupling with her food was always a sensual experience, but solitary. She merely absorbed the reaction of her prey. But she felt linked with this man. He was riding the tide, holding her hand, be- ing carried through the waves with her. Banding his arms about her waist to cinch her closer, he kept his head to her bosom, suckling harder as he built to his own climax. Because her hips jerked more violently in reaction, she had to relin- quish her hold on his throat as her own release crashed down on her. He brought his head up, palmed the back of her skull and kissed the blood from her lips, raw, hungry, as his seed jetted into her and he growled into her mouth. It took her by surprise, the suddenness of it, the power, the sheer feel of it rippling over her, pleasure for pleasure's sake that shud- dered outward and seemed to make everything else disappear, carry- ing her to another peak with him. When at last she came down, she felt the stickiness of him be- tween her thighs, warm and wet. She reveled in it, in his cock still inside her, hard and hot, while his eyes traveled her face, as if memo- rizing every part of her. He put her fingertips on the wound where she'd bitten him. Placing his hand over hers, he held her hand se- curely, obviously wanting her touch to staunch the blood. They studied each other for some time. She didn't feel he was uncomfortable with the silence. Nor was she. In fact, the power of the past few moments eschewed any conversation.

When at last he lay back on the pillows, giving her the wry smile that told her he was experiencing a man's typical reaction to an overwhelming cli- max, he moved her by drawing her down with him, curling her into his arms so she could lay her head on his chest, feel his heartbeat beneath her fingertips. She tilted her head to study his profi le, the straight nose, firm, sensual lips that were perfectly shaped for a man. He had a tough chin, sloping cheekbones with facial hair that had stroked her so deliciously her skin still tingled with the mem- ory of it. Men did not typically think of her as someone to hold in their arms in this protective, sensually possessive manner. Most rightly realized they should maintain some distance, some wariness, an unconscious survival instinct warring with their lust. Or even that it was inappropriate to assume such intimate familiarity with her, no matter what carnal lusts they indulged at her behest. She wouldn't have tolerated it herself, not from her usual dinner choice. But with him, she was content to lie there, smiling a little at the low rumble in his chest which told her he'd dropped into a post- coital, postbattle doze. Well, the man had been traveling on his own for some time, had fought a ferocious battle on her behalf and then pleasured her better than any man or vampire had for some time. She could forgive him a nap. She did some of that herself, at ease with him until the dawn started closing in. As lightly as she slept, she was surprised to wake and find herself curled in the pillows alone, a light sheet tucked over her to protect her from the morning desert chill. He was already dressed, buckling on his sword, watching her coiled,naked form. The impact of him leaving hit her on several levels, surprisingly intense. "What did you mean, you would die here?" She sat up, push- ing her hair out of her face. He shook his head, a slight smile crossing his face. Coming to kneel by her, he put a hand to her brow, her cheek. "You take care of yourself, my lady. I would suffer much to know any harm had be- fallen you. " "You could stay and see to that yourself. "

She hadn't intended to say such a thing, but she knew suddenly, fiercely, it was what she wanted. What she would command. He was not going to leave her. If he tried, she would compel him to stay. He shook his head again, a look of regret there. "My heart wants to stay more than anything. Nay, even down to my soul. " A look of wonder crossed his face at the startling realization of it, a mirror of her own amazement, she was sure. "To protect you. To lie with you. To find out what makes you laugh. " He reached out again to trace her lips, putting some slight pressure on one corner as if to make her smile. Miraculously he was successful, even as she swatted his touch away. Catching her hand, he lifted it to his lips. "But I made a prom- ise, my lady. I promised a friend I would come to his aid, help with this battle he prepares to wage. No matter how senseless I believe it to be. " But you are mine. Sworn to my service. Where such a preposter- ous thought came from, she didn't know, but it baffled her. What made no sense had a tendency to irritate her. "Very well. " She with- drew her hand from his touch. "Go play your silly war games. I cer- tainly do not need to beg a man to stay with me. " It wasn't so much the stinging of her ego that hurt as what she saw moving in his eyes. She wanted to lash out at it. She had many commitments, much to do, but he'd fallen into her lap overnight, a treasure she sensed was beyond measure. One that wouldn't come again, perhaps for a very long time. Perhaps never. She wanted to squelch the absurd romance of such a thought. "Are you still here? Go and serve your foolish honor. " She curled away from him, turn- ing her face into the pillows. "If I've offended you, my lady, it wasn't my intention. " She was startled when his lips touched her rigid shoulder, lingered as she lay there stiffly. He even arranged the sheet back over her body before he rose. She heard him rise and move away toward the opening of her tent, a tent that, without windows, had seemed a sanctuary from the whole world for the past few hours. With her speed she was able to wrap the sheet around her upper torso and make it to the opening of the tent before he took more than one stride outside of it.

She reached past the flap and caught his arm. The dawn sun struck her shoulder and the length of her arm. The full strength of it hit the top of her hand, but she held on as he turned, something much worse than the sun's light searing her in- side. "Sir Knight, " she said, "take care of yourself as well. If . . . If you can come to me at another time, I would be pleased to see your face. " "I doubt it will be in this lifetime, " he said, real regret in his voice. With an oath, he abruptly surged forward, crowding her back into the safety of the tent. "By the Blood of the Cross, woman. I no more than tell you to take care of yourself . . . " He cradled the scorched hand in his, his gaze covering the lesser burns on her arm, but she impatiently grasped the collar of his mail with the other hand. "Why not this lifetime? Why are you so sure you will die?" He pulled his attention from the damage and looked at her in that intent way that made her want to stand still as if he were touch- ing her with his fingers. "I've dreamed of my death in this campaign, and sometimes I know what will happen. " Now he did touch her, tracing an eyebrow. "I do hope we might meet again, some other place. But no matter what happens, I could not have imagined such a treasured gift for my last day on earth than you. They shall have to send me to Hell, because nothing in Heaven can match you. " "Your blood is within me, " she said abruptly, desperately. "I'll know where you are, always. " I'll know when you die. "I like that idea, " he said, with a thoughtful nod. "Perhaps you'll come visit my dreams in this wasteland one more time or two. Give me a breath of coolness, the green of your eyes. " He brushed his lips across her hand then, studying the flesh that was starting to heal on her arm. Then his eyes were back on her face, so focused she couldn't think beyond the powerful hold of them. Her lips parted, for some reason tears gathering in her eyes. She, who never cried. With an oath, he yanked her to him fully for another kiss, hold- ing her as a man would hold a woman he loved, as she'd seen it done but never experienced for herself. She had one blink of time in God and the Devil's universe to savor the feel of his body, his mouth, the brush of his hair, and then he was gone.

Out of the tent, striding into the sun-seared world where she could not hold him without turning herself to ash. She'd never even asked him his name. Three days later, she knew he was dead.

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