Robrek was warm and comfortable and didn’t want to wake. He listened to the voices around him. There was a mutter of several male voices and two women. The first was Myst. The familiar scent of drying herbs confirmed he was in her cottage. He knew who the second woman sounded like, but it meant he had to be dreaming. He shut his eyes tighter to hold onto her voice, but then she laughed, and Robrek knew it was no dream.
He opened his eyes. She sat at the table. “Milady!” he cried, sitting up. The blanket dropped from his shoulders, and Robrek realized he was naked. He hurriedly covered himself.
“Robbie!” She smiled, and her eyes sparkled. “I was hoping you’d wake soon. You must be terribly hungry.” She picked up a bowl of soup and a hunk of bread and brought them to him.
Her hands touched his as she handed him the food. They were as warm and calloused as he remembered. “How is it you’re here, Milady?”
“You saved my mare’s life.” She smiled again, and Robrek’s entire body started to glow.
He grinned shyly. “I thought she seemed familiar. Are you okay, Milady? You must have taken quite a fall.”
“Just a slight bump on the head.” She pulled back her hair to reveal a red lump.
“Oh, Milady." He reached up, but drew back as he realized the impropriety of touching her, especially when he was naked.
The lady let her hair fall back over the lump. “I had quite a headache, but mistress’s tea worked wonders.”
“Mistress Myst is a rare healer.”
“And a very good cook, too. Eat up before it gets cold.” The lady fetched her own food and joined him on the hearthrug, sitting so close he could touch her hair if he dared. Holy Sulis, she’s beautiful!
He heard a grunt and looked up to see the other inhabitants of the cottage. There was the herb witch and two armed men--the archer who’d shot him and the scarred-face man from the horse fair. Just as at the horse fair, Scarface was glowering at him. Robrek pulled the blanket more closely around himself and couldn’t help wishing for his staff. He looked out the window to avoid the man’s gaze and noticed the gathering darkness. He swore softly. Remembering whose presence he was in, hestammered, “Forgive me, Milady.” He tried to get to his feet without exposing himself. “My father will be angry. I must go.”
“Your father’s been taken care of,” Milady said, and put out her hand to prevent him from rising. He settled back down. Her touch on his arm sent heat through his body and made him very aware of his own nakedness.
The second man at the table grunted; he at least fifteen years younger than the scarred man, but he was large and well-armed. He seemed nearly as dangerous. “I brought him word. A right unpleasant fellow, your father. Downright rude, in fact.”
“Bearach!” the scarred man snapped. “You forget yourself!”
“It’s okay, Milord,” Robrek assured him. “My father is rude.”
“It’s not ‘okay’ to insult someone’s kin in front of them, and I’m no one’s lord.” Robrek paled under the hostility in the man’s eyes.
“Look, Captain, I’m just saying I don’t know why he’d put up with him. My own father was only about half that bad, and I took off when I was fourteen, and I’m no damned amihealer. What he did with Milady’s horse was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. There’s not a lord in the land that wouldn’t take him. I’m sure he’d even be welcomed at the king’s stables, and to stay . . .”
“Enough!” the scarred man shouted, seeming far angrier than the occasion warranted.
Robrek stared at the archer who called him an amihealer. It shocked him to realize the man respected him, but what he said about the king’s stables had to be fantasy. Robrek looked away from the men and leaned back against the hearth to eat his soup and bread. His hand shook slightly, and he spilled a little soup on the blanket. The lady sat her own food down. “Myst told me how much energy healing takes. Let me help you.” She reached for his bowl. Her smile made his body respond in ways he feared would get him killed. He was glad the blanket completely hid his reaction.
She scooted closer until her thigh touched his. Only her dress and the blanket separated them. She held out a spoonful of soup, and they both laughed when she spilled far more of it on the blanket than he had. When she brought up a second spoonful, she was shaking so hard with suppressed laughter she spilled it all on him.
Feigning outrage, he reached for the bowl. “Let me take that. I’ll starve to death with you feeding me.”
“We can’t have that, or who would help with my horse problems?” She relinquished the bowl, but she kept her thigh pressed against his.
Even without seeing her for a year, Robrek felt as comfortable with her as he had when they’d danced together. “I guess I’ll have to hope you have a lot of horse problems,” he said, taking a spoonful and smiling when he didn’t spill a drop.
“Is your Horsetad here?” she asked.
Robrek felt for Wild Thing’s presence. “Yes, Wild Thing’s hanging around outside, not too far away. She wants to know if Apple Lady has any more apples.”
“Apple Lady? I wish I did. She is magnificent,” the lady sighed. “It’s too bad Roberta broke her leg.”
Robrek froze with the spoon half-way to his mouth. Roberta? Could Milady have named her horse after me?
The lady blushed when she noticed his reaction. “If you hadn’t been there, Darhour would have stuck me with another lady’s mare. I’m still amazed at how perfectly you understood her. Roberta flies across the fields. No horse in my father’s stable is her match. I would have loved to see how she could hold up in a race against a Horsetad.”
“I’m afraid Wild Thing would leave her in the dust.”
The lady hit him lightly on the shoulder and rolled her eyes. “Men. I wish I could make you either prove or eat those words.”
“I’d be happy to prove them any time you like. Give Roberta two or three weeks to make sure her leg’s strong enough, and you know where to find me.” Robrek was shocked at his own daring.
The lady laughed and then sighed sadly. “You don’t know how I wish I could. I’ve never had more fun than I did with you at the horse fair.” The lady reached over and pulled the ribbon she’d given him out from under the blanket. “I see you haven’t forgotten it either.”
He leaned closer, wanting to wrap his arms around her and touch her as he had when they’d danced together. “It was the best day of my life.”
A knock on the door interrupted the moment. Robrek jerked away from the lady, as the archer, with his hand on his sword, rose to answer it. Scarface was glaring at Robrek murderously. Robrek couldn’t believe that for a moment he’d forgotten the two men were there. When the door opened, another of Milady’s guards entered. This man was slightly smaller than the others, but he moved with the quick grace Robrek associated with Brazen’s illusions. Robrek glanced at the man’s sword, wondering how good he was with it.
“Your . . .” the man began, but stopped abruptly. “Milady, your horse is outside. She awoke, so I walked her down. She seems tired, but steady.”
The lady jumped to her feet. “Come with me, Robbie. I want to see her.” She reached out to help him to his feet.
Robrek blushed. “Perhaps I should get . . . .” He looked up at his clothes.
“Oh.” The lady blushed and put her hand over her mouth. “I guess that would be best. Hurry up, though.” She left the cottage, followed by her men.
Robrek got up, trying to keep the blanket around him. As he reached for his clothes, Myst frowned at him. “I should check on the horse, Mistress,” he said.
“Is it the horse or the lady you’re checking on?”
Robrek didn’t answer as he put his trousers on and reached for his shirt, which was ripped where the arrow had grazed him. Only Wild Thing’s sudden movement had kept that arrow from hitting his heart.
“My child, I’m worried . . . .”
“I’m not your child, and I can take care of myself.” He pulled the shirt over his head, pulled on his boots, and went outside into the early spring night. The white mare was near the garden wall to the right of Myst’s cabin. Milady was petting the horse’s nose and talking softly to her. Cold Eyes was standing between him and Milady as if daring him to approach. Milady turned and reached for him. Forcing Cold Eyes to move aside, she drew Robrek toward the horse.
“I can’t thank you enough for saving her. She means the world to me,” Milady said, seemingly oblivious to her men’s hostility. “I’m so sorry Bearach shot you,” she said, looking at his shoulder.
“It’s little more than a scratch, Milady.” Holy Sulis, I love you. Why do you have to be a lady? Bearach, Cold Eyes, and Scarface had surrounded them, wearing decidedly unfriendly expressions. He was relatively certain if he did what he wanted to, these men would see it as suspicious enough to merit a death sentence. He backed away and sat on the garden wall some distance from her, trying to control the beating of his heart and the part of his body that threatened to reveal his interest all too clearly now that he had no blanket to hide it.
The lady joined him on the wall, sitting entirely too close for his comfort. The men followed her, their hands resting on their sword hilts. Still, she seemed unaware of them. To break the tension, he asked her what she was doing in the Valley.
“I’m hurrying back to my father. I’ve had word he may be dying. I don’t know what I’ll do without him.” The lady’s eyes filled with tears.
“Milady, I’m sorry.” He couldn’t resist the urge to touch her arm. “You must love him dearly to risk travel at this time of year.”
She nodded, taking his hand and intertwining her fingers with his; heat passed through her fingers and traveled up his arm. “The herb witch seems to be an amazing woman,” Milady said, evidently not wanting to talk about her dying father. “Has she been your friend long?”
“She was a friend of my mother’s, but I didn’t know her until she healed me last spring.” He paused. “You see, I had . . . an accident . . . .”
Milady put her other hand on his thigh. “I’m so sorry. I never imagined someone would object to my dancing with you.”
Robrek tensed. “She told you?” He hadn’t wanted the lady to know how his brother had humiliated him. He glanced at her bodyguards. How can she want anything to do with me when men like these surround her?
The lady took his hand in both of hers. "I don’t want to be responsible for anything else happening to you. Myst warned me to leave you alone, and I’m sure I should.”
He grasped her hand tightly. "I wouldn’t want that, Milady.”
“I wouldn’t want it, either.” The lady smiled and looked away. She noticed for the first time how close her guards were. “I’m in no danger,” she told them. “Back away.”
“Milady,” Scarface said. “We know little of this boy, except that he’s powerful enough to be a threat even without a weapon.”
“You can’t think I’d harm her!” Robrek protested.
Milady silenced him with a touch. “I’m perfectly safe. You will back off and watch for real threats.”
The man didn’t look happy, but he nodded to the other two, and they moved a short distance away. They were still watching him rather closely.
The lady turned back to him. “It’s amazing you could heal Roberta’s leg. When I met you last spring, I didn’t realize you were that powerful.”
“I wasn’t. He wasn’t accustomed to admiration from anyone, but from Milady, the woman he loved, it was enough to send his soul flying high into the star-filled sky. “Myst only recently took me as her apprentice. She’s taught me how to see my energy, so I can use it more effectively. I can’t see it all yet. Just the barest edges of it. Myst says something’s blocking me, but she doesn’t know what. Our gifts aren’t the same. Maybe I need another amihealer to teach me.”
The lady shook her head. “I’m not certain where you’d find one. I’ve never known of anyone who can heal as you do, even in Murtaghan.”
Her lips were turned toward him, and he wondered if kissing her would cost him his life. He decided a kiss from her might be worth dying for.
* * *
Samantha felt the heat of the boy’s leg next to her own. She stared into his eyes and saw the sadness of his life reflected in their emerald-green depths. What can it hurt? None of his people are nearby. She leaned toward him and pressed her lips into his. He responded greedily, hungrily. “Ah, Robbie,” she breathed as she ran her lips along his cheek. She nibbled on his ear, and he buried his mouth in her neck. Who will it hurt to take him now? Do I have to save my maidenhead for a man I don’t love? She allowed her hands to roam freely.
Robbie kissed his way down her neck, and her body throbbed against his. His hand moved up her side and brushed her breast. “Yes, Robbie,” she whispered.
But he broke abruptly away and jumped off the wall. “I’m sorry, Milady. I don’t know what came over me.”
She jumped down and followed him. “It’s okay. I want you, Robbie.” She touched his face gently and leaned toward his lips. But he glanced at her men.
"Milady, I can’t.” He whirled away and ran into the darkness.
“Robbie, no, don’t go!” Samantha shouted. She heard a whistle, and then a horse galloping away. Please, don’t go! I need you! D