The Warrior’s Forbidden Virgin

She stood on the battlements, while heavy rain spattered upon the stones. The woman whose heart he had no hope of winning, Lady Katherine of Ardennes.

Sir Ademar of Dolwyth stood at the doorway, watching her. He couldn’t understand why she was alone on a night such as this. The darkened sky had unleashed a downpour, and yet she stood with her hands clenched. A torch sputtered in an iron sconce, flickering its light upon her pale face before it died out.

He could hardly form two words together when she was near, for she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever laid eyes on. Black silken hair, and eyes so deep blue they were almost violet. Innocent of the world, too, though she would soon enough become a wife. Her father had decreed it so.

And though the Baron of Ardennes had invited him here, along with the other suitors, Ademar knew Lady Katherine would never consider him for her husband. She was so far above him, it was like reaching for moonlight.

He should leave her to her thoughts. She wouldn’t want him here, stumbling idiot that he was. But the low rolling of thunder caught his attention. It was dangerous for her to remain out of doors. Especially alone.

The summer rain was cold, dampening his hair as he stepped onto the stone walkway. As he drew closer to her, he rehearsed his words, over and over. All he had to do was suggest that she come inside for shelter. Nothing more.

She turned toward him, and anger flashed in her eyes. “I’d rather be alone just now.”

There’s a storm, Ademar wanted to warn her. But his tongue grew thick in his mouth as he tried to form the words. He could only shake his head, the warning tangling up inside him.

He was a man of few words. He’d never been much for speaking, and when he did have something to say, it was an ordeal to get the words out. Often he stammered or spoke words he’d never meant to say. Were it not for his strength in battle, men would have mocked him. Even his father loathed the sight of him.

At last, he took a deep breath.

“It-it’s raining.”

As if she didn’t already know that. What kind of a fool did she think he was? Heat warmed his cheeks, and he started to leave, but she called him back.

“Wait, Sir Ademar.”

He froze, almost afraid to see the pity that would surely be upon her face.
Katherine let out a heavy sigh. “You can stay. I’m just not in the mood to converse.” She folded her hands upon the stone merlon while staring out at the inner bailey below.

Neither am I, he thought. Keeping a safe distance from her, he leaned a hand against the back wall, feigning an interest in the soldiers patrolling the castle. A length of black hair slid from beneath her veil and rested against her neck. The forbidden glimpse led his imagination into places it should never have gone. Her cream-colored bliaut molded to her breasts from the rain, and he could almost imagine what it would be like to touch her.

With effort, he snapped his gaze back to the bailey.

“He doesn’t want to marry me,” she half whispered.

He didn’t ask whom she meant. Lady Katherine had lost her heart to Ewan MacEgan, the brother of an Irish king. He’d seen the infatuation in her eyes, and he’d known that she would never look at him in that way.

But what in God’s name did she mean, the Irishman didn’t want to marry her? Only yestereve, she had announced her desire to wed MacEgan.

Had the man refused her?

Ademar didn’t voice the question, for it was clear she didn’t want to discuss it. He wanted to tell her that the man was a fool, to offer her sympathy in the selfish hope that she might look upon him differently. Instead, he removed his cloak, and handed it to her.

Lady Katherine met his gaze as she accepted the garment. She wrapped the wool around herself, and he supposed it was as close to an embrace as he’d ever get. “You don’t have to stay,” she said quietly.

“I want to.” It was the truth. And though he didn’t know how he dared come closer, he moved beside her. He rested his own palms upon the wet stone wall, wishing he had the courage to say more.
But he would only sound like a stuttering fool. And so he held his tongue.

“My sister is going to wed Ewan MacEgan now,” Katherine said softly. She kept her gaze averted from his. “I suppose she told you.”

He shrugged. Though he’d briefly entertained the idea of marrying Honora St. Leger, Katherine’s older, widowed sister, his courtship had lasted only a few days. Honora had been visibly embarrassed by it, claiming she didn’t want to wed any man.

“I was never the…the sort of man she wanted.” He shielded any expression on his face, for he didn’t want Katherine to pity him. Though he’d admired Honora, she’d been unable to go through with the betrothal. At least she’d had the honesty to break things off between them, apologizing for what she’d done.
He should have resented her for it. But he felt nothing. Only a strange sense of relief.

A cold hand covered his, and he almost jerked away in surprise. Lady Katherine ventured a chagrined smile. “We are a pair, aren’t we? Both of us cast off by the ones we loved.”

Out of rough instinct, his fingers closed over her small palm. Like a delicate shell, one he could crush without thinking. He felt ham-handed, awkward. And yet, he didn’t want to let go of her.

Katherine glanced down at the stones below. Frustration tightened her features. “Which of us should jump first?”

An unexpected laugh escaped him. “It would be a mortal sin to take our own lives.”

“They’ve been ruined anyhow,” Katherine muttered. She started to pull her hand away, but his fingers couldn’t quite let her go.

Palm to palm, skin to skin, he grasped her other hand. And Katherine didn’t pull away.

From the story “The Warrior’s Forbidden Virgin”
Copyright © 2009 by Michelle Willingham
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The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
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