"I was surprised when I did not see you at mass. Tell me you are not a pagan, or excommunicated for some dire reason."
"I attended mass this morning," she informed him in a prim voice. Her brows drew together in a frown. "You looked for me at the mass?"
"I searched for you everywhere." He said that with such ease that she felt certain he teased her. He studied her face for a moment and seemed to read her thoughts. "You do not believe me?"
The exaggerated look he gave her was one of such wounded feelings that she smiled, aware that she smiled into the face of danger. This one could charm snakes, did he put his mind to it. "You cannot search for someone you do not know, Baron."
"I know more about you than you might think. You are only half Italian, on your father's side, and your mother was Baron Lonsdale's sister. Five years ago, you and two brothers came to England after the deaths of your parents. Your brothers left soon after, but you remained at Lonsdale and earn your keep as a seamtress. 'Tis all I know of you at present, yet I would like to know more. Much more."
His gaze moved over her face and settled on her mouth. Probably because it hung wide open. She snapped it shut. "How do you know so much about me?"
"It is in my best interests to know everything I can about Baron Lonsdale and his family. I came here to make a contract with your uncle, and I never enter into a contract without knowing all I can of who I bargain with." He propped his hands at the edge of the bench behind him and stretched out his legs to cross them at the ankle. He looked every inch a nobleman at his leisure. "What would you like to know about me?"
"What would I--" She took a deep, steadying breath. "I have no need to know anything about you, Baron. Perhaps you should have this conversation with my uncle."
"Ah, but I am here with you now." His roguish grin made her pulse race. "Are you not the least bit curious? Is there nothing you wish to know about me? I will answer any question you pose."
"Why would you pay so much for a keep worth so little?"
The question left her mouth before she could think better of it. She shouldn't question him at all, but now that she had, she grew bolder. " 'Tis said you intend to purchase Halford Hall, that my uncle asked a fortune in gold florins, yet you agreed to his price without hesitation. Why would you agree to such a poor bargain?"
He looked away from her and studied his boots. She could tell from the downward tilt of his lips that he had little liking for the question, but true to his word, he answered it.
"Halford belonged to Montague a long time ago. My father signed it over to your grandfather when I was still a boy. My mother grew up there, and I want Halford Hall under Montague rule once more."
"You are sentimental about your mother's childhood home?" The notion that this powerful man might be sentimental seemed incredible, yet she could think of no other reason he might want a keep so insignificant. "You wish to honor your mother's memory by reuniting your estates?"
He seemed to find some grim amusement in her observations but it soon faded. "I wish to save my cousins from starvation. They still reside at Halford and will not leave their land. Your uncle's stewards tax and tithe all that Halford can produce, then they claim every beast and bag of grain we send them. My people grow old with ease at Montague, while my mother's people starve each winter. Your uncle guessed right enough that I would hear of their plight. He even sent word to Montague that he would be willing to part with Halford. For a price. I expected him to ask twice what he did for Halford Hall, and I would have paid it to see this business at an end."
Claudia couldn't believe he'd answered the question in the first place. She'd never expected him to reveal so much. "You should not tell me this, Baron. My uncle would delight in this information. It is not in your best interest to tell anyone within Lonsdale so much."
"I feel I can trust you, Claudia." He said it so surely that she felt an odd glow of pride. "I also know that you and your uncle are not close. Why does he dislike you?"
The glow of pride died a quick death. She began to brush at a few smudges of dirt on her gown. "My grandfather arranged my mother's marriage to a man Uncle Laurence never liked. He says I am the image of my father in looks and temperament." She concentrated on a grass stain, unable to look him in the eye but willing to repay his honesty. "I do not speak your language as well as I should after five years in this country. My uncle says it offends him even when I speak, that he must hear my father as well as look upon him whenever I enter a room. 'Dislike' is a mild word to describe what my uncle feels for me."
He said nothing for a long time. She'd probably disgusted him by blurting out her family problems.
"Your life here must be very difficult, Lady Claudia."
His voice was so soft, so very gentle that she wanted to cry. She forced a smile instead and gazed out over the gardens. " 'Tis not so bad. Lonsdale is a large fortress, and I can avoid my uncle's company most of the time. Indeed, there are days when I believe he forgets I exist."
"You must see him at mealtime each day."
"Oh, nay. Ofttimes I eat in the kitchens, or else in my chamber." Her smile dimmed. She was making herself sound pathetic. She didn't want this man's pity. "I prefer to be alone. There are so many people within the castle that I feel lucky to have a chamber I can call my own. I like to work in this garden as well, for only the priest and immediate family
are allowed its sanctuary without permission." She pointed toward the wall beyond them. "I helped plant those vines three years ago. Soon they will cover the wall. I plant and tend the herb plots each year as well. The work I do here is very rewarding."
"But you would rather live somewhere else?"
That remark made her think of her brother, Dante, of the fine Welsh keep he mentioned in his last missive. If all went well with Dante, someday she would have a garden of her own, in a home where she could be happy again. "Yes, I would rather live somewhere else."
He startled her when he placed his fingertips beneath her chin and turned her face toward his. "Do you have a suitor, Lady Claudia? Some man who longs to make you his wife?"
She laughed aloud. "Nay, Baron. I doubt any man in England longs for one such as me. Most can understand no more than one of every three words I speak, and I am beyond the age when most maids marry." She shook her head and held her hands with the palms upward to show them empty. "Most men long for a wealthy heiress, but what you see here is my dowry. Only a fool would wish for such a wife."
His expression grew more intense. "I am well acquainted with a fool."
She didn't know what to make of that strange remark nor what to do when he gathered his legs beneath him and moved toward her. "What are you doing, Baron?"
"I would like you to call me by my given name." He leaned closer, his eyes as deep and mysterious as a fathomless sea.
Panic rose fast inside her. She slid away until she sat on the edge of the bench, but had to lay her palm against his chest to hold him at bay. "You should not look at me this way, Baron!"
"Guy." He captured her hand beneath his and held it against his heart. "My name is Guy."
The moment he touched her hand, Claudia forgot why she'd placed it there in the first place. She felt dizzy and disoriented as if every thought had suddenly emptied itself from her head. He continued to move toward her, yet she didn't realize his intent until his lips touched hers. And still he watched her, with eyes that had somehow turned to blue fire.
Claudia didn't know what to do. She closed her eyes. That didn't help. The dizzy, ringing sensation in her ears grew stronger. She couldn't seem to maintain her balance, yet now she couldn't open her eyes, either. If one strong arm hadn't wrapped itself around her, she would have fallen off the edge of the bench. She was soon surrounded by his warmth. His lips began to move against hers, brushing back and forth but never leaving her, pressing closer and closer until her mouth was moving with his and against it at the same time. She found herself focused entirely on the feel of his kiss, the hard, masculine lips that somehow managed to be soft at the same time. No man had ever kissed her, although she'd sometimes wondered what it would be like. Now she knew. It was like being drunk on thin air. She wanted it to go on forever. It seemed as if it would. She wanted--
She was sitting on his lap!
Claudia stiffened and tried to push away from him. First she would have to unwrap her arms from his neck. How did they get there? How did he manage to kiss her in the first place? She placed her hands on his shoulders and shoved backward as far as his arms would allow. "Baron! Y-you forget yourself!"
"Guy," he murmured, pressing one last, lingering kiss against her lips. He lifted his head and looked into her eyes, as if he were searching for something. At last he smiled. "You must learn to call me 'Guy.' " She tried to scoot off his lap, but his grip on her tightened. "Hold very still, Claudia."
"Release me, Baron."
He shook his head. "Never."
She tried not to panic. He'd turned into a madman. A lust-crazed madman. That was the source of the strange light in his eyes.
Before they kissed that light had fascinated her.
Now it frightened her. She lifted her hand and slapped him, not hard, but hopefully hard enough to bring him to his senses.
Guy blinked once very slowly. When he opened his eyes again, they no longer burned with passion. He looked confused. "Why did you do that?"
"Why did I--" Claudia pressed her palm to her own cheek and released a shaky sigh. He was wooden-headed as well as crazed. "I thought it might return you to your senses, Baron. You did not come here to kiss me."
He lifted one hand to her temple and his gaze moved to the stray wisp of her hair that he rubbed between his fingers.
"I suspected rightly enough that you wanted to kiss me. There seemed no reason to delay the matter."
Claudia pushed the lock of hair from his grasp and tucked it behind her ear in one harsh movement. He looked as if she'd just slapped him again. "I don't know why I let you kiss me, but it will not happen again. What we did--what you are doing now is--is sinful."
"Perhaps." He didn't look the least disturbed by the possibility. "Perhaps not. You are right about Halford Hall. The bargain does seem unbalanced in your uncle's favor."
"What do you mean?"
He was staring at her mouth again. His voice sounded distracted. "I must discuss the matter with Baron Lonsdale before I can tell you anything more." He shook his head as if to clear his thoughts. "Indeed, I have said too much already."
A feeling of dread settled over her. "My uncle will be furious if you refuse to go through with the contract for Halford. You are in his fortress, Baron. Within his power. If you think to refuse his offer, you would be wise to make that refusal from the safety of Montague. Make any excuse you wish to leave the fortress, but do not speak a word of what you have told me to anyone else while you are within these walls."
"I am not the fool you must think me, Lady Claudia. Baron Lonsdale expects a bargain that will make him a wealthy man. In that, he will not be disappointed." He stood up and brought Claudia to her feet with him. His hands rested on her hips, his hold on her far from intimate, yet the firm pressure made her skin tingle. Everywhere. "Was that your first kiss?"
He did know how to make her head spin. This man could exasperate a saint. More likely, he was related to the Devil.
She didn't know what made her answer the foolish question, yet he seemed pleased when she did. "Aye."
He lifted her hand and pressed another sensuous kiss against her wrist. "Good. I hoped I would be the first." He glanced toward the path that led to the bailey, and his mouth became a straight line. "I must leave you, Claudia. 'Tis unlikely we will have another opportunity to speak alone again before tomorrow." His lips brushed against hers in a kiss so brief that it was over almost before she realized it began. "Do not kiss anyone else until then. I want you to save your kisses for me."
Excerpted from Betrothed by Elizabeth Elliot. Copyright © 1996 by Elizabeth Elliot. Excerpted by permission of Fanfare, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.