She knew she was unskilled in such matters. What good was it that she could read and write? No one would ever know of her unusual ability, as it was highly unacceptable for a woman to have such schooling. Why, the majority of noblemen could not write their own names. They relied on the holy men to do such meaningless tasks for them.
Madelyne certainly didn't blame her uncle for her lack of training. The dear priest had taken great pleasure in teaching her all the ancient stories. Her favorite was the tale about Odysseus. The mythological warrior had become Madelyne's companion when she was a young girl and terribly frightened all the time. She'd pretend Odysseus was sitting beside her during the long, dark nights. He helped her ease her fear that Louddon would come and take her back home.
Louddon! Even his black name made her stomach tighten up. Aye, he was the true reason Madelyne lacked all the skills necessary for survival. She couldn't even ride a horse, for God's sake. He was to blame too. Her brother had taken her riding a few times, when she was six years old, and Madelyne still remembered the outings as clearly as if they'd taken place the day before. Why, she'd made such a fool of herself, or so Louddon screamed, bouncing around the saddle like a clump of hay barely tied in place.
And when he realized how frightened she was, he'd tied her to the saddle and slapped the horse into racing through the countryside.
Her terror had excited her brother. It wasn't until Madelyne finally learned to mask her fear that Louddon stopped this sadistic game.
For as long as she could remember, Madelyne knew her father and her brother disliked her, and she tried every way she knew how to make them love her just a little. When she turned eight years old, she was sent to Father Berton, her mother's younger brother, for a short visitation that turned into long, peaceful years. Father Berton was the only living relative on her mother's side of the family. The priest did his best to raise her, and he constantly told her, until she almost believed him, that it was her father and her brother who were lacking, not her.
Oh, her uncle was a good, loving man, whose gentle ways spilled over into Madelyne's character. He taught her many things, none of them tangible, and he did love her, as much as any real father could love his daughter. He explained to her that Louddon despised all women, but in her heart Madelyne didn't believe him. Her brother cared about his older sisters. Both Clarissa and Sara had been sent to fine manors to gain their proper education, and each had an impressive dowry to take to their marriages, although only Clarissa had married.
Father Berton also told Madelyne that her father wanted nothing to do with her because she looked so much like her mother, a gentle woman he'd married and then turned against almost as soon as the vows had been exchanged. Uncle didn't know the reason for her father's change in attitude, but placed the blame on his soul all the same.
Madelyne barely remembered the early years, though a warm feeling filled her when she thought about her mother. Louddon hadn't been there very often to taunt her, and she'd been well protected by her mother's love.
Only Louddon held the answers to her questions. Perhaps he'd explain it all to her one day and then she'd understand. And with understanding would come the healing, wouldn't it?
Lord, I must put these dour thoughts aside, Madelyne decided. She scooted off the boulder and then walked around the campsite, keeping well away from the men.
When she turned and went off into the dense forest, no one followed, and she was able to take care of her body's demands. Madelyne was on her way back when she spotted a small stream. The top was crusted over but Madelyne used a stick to break through the ice. Kneeling down, she washed her hands and her face. The water was frigid enough to make her fingertips wrinkle, but the clear liquid tasted wonderful.
Madelyne felt someone standing behind her. She turned, so quickly she almost lost her balance. It was Duncan towering over her. "Come, Madelyne. 'Tis time to rest."
He didn't give her time to answer his command but reached down and pulled her to her feet. His big, callused hand enveloped both of hers. His hold was firm, yet his touch gentle, and he didn't let go of her until they'd reached the opening of his tent, a strange-looking affair consisting of wild animal skins braced into an arch by thick, unyielding branches. The skins would block the rising wind. Another gray fur had been placed on the ground inside the tent, obviously meant to be used as a pallet. The glow from the nearest fire cast dancing shadows on top of the skins, making the tent look warm and inviting.
Duncan motioned for Madelyne to get inside. She quickly complied. She couldn't seem to get settled though. The animal skins had absorbed much of the ground's dampness and Madelyne felt as if she were draped upon a block of ice. Duncan stood there, his arms folded against his massive chest, watching her try to get comfortable. Madelyne kept her expression contained. She vowed she'd die before offering him one word of complaint.
All of a sudden Duncan pulled her to her feet again, very nearly upsetting the tent in his haste. He took her cloak from her shoulders, knelt down on one knee, and spread the garment on top of the animal skins.
Madelyne didn't understand his intent. She had thought the tent was for her, but Duncan settled himself inside, stretching out to his full length, taking up most of the space. Madelyne started to turn away, infuriated over the way he'd claimed her cloak for his own comfort. Why hadn't he just left her back at Louddon's fortress if he meant to freeze her to death, instead of dragging her halfway across the world?
She didn't even have time to gasp. Duncan snared her with lightning speed. Madelyne fell on top of him and let out a groan of protest. She'd barely gotten fresh air and new outrage back into her chest before Duncan rolled to his side, taking her with him. He threw his cape over the two of them, trapping her inside his embrace. Her face was up against the base of his neck, the top of her head caught just under his chin.
Madelyne immediately tried to get away, horrified by such an intimate position. She used every ounce of energy she possessed, but Duncan's hold was too strong to be broken.
"I cannot breathe," she muttered against his neck.
"Yes you can," Duncan answered.
She thought she heard amusement in his voice. That infuriated her almost as much as his overbearing attitude. How dare he decide if she could breathe or not?
Madelyne was too upset to be frightened. She suddenly realized her hands were still free of restraint. Madelyne slapped his shoulders until her palms were stinging. Duncan had removed his hauberk before entering the tent. Only a cotton shirt covered his massive chest now. The thin material was stretched snugly over his wide shoulders, outlining his thick muscles. Madelyne could feel the strength radiating through the soft fabric. Lord, there wasn't an ounce of fat to grab hold of and pinch. His skin was as inflexible as his stubborn nature.
There was one distinct difference, however. Duncan's chest felt warm against her cheek, almost hot, and terribly inviting to snuggle up against. He smelled good, too, like leather and male, and Madelyne couldn't help but react. She was exhausted. Aye, that was the reason his closeness was having such an unsettling effect on her. Why, her heart was racing.
His breath heated the side of her neck, comforting her. How could that be? She was so confused; nothing was making sense to her anymore. Madelyne shook her head, determined to shake the sleepy feeling invading her good intentions, and then grabbed hold of his shirt and began to pull on it.
Duncan must have become bored with her struggles. She heard him sigh just seconds before he trapped her hands and slid them under his shirt, flattening her palms against his chest. The thick mat of hair covering his warm skin made her fingertips tingle.
How could she feel so warm when it was so cold outside? His nearness was an erotic, sensual pull to her senses, flooding her with feelings she hadn't known she possessed. Aye, it was erotic, which certainly made it sinful, obscene, too, because his pelvis was smashed up against the junction of her legs. She could feel his hardness there, nestled so intimately against her. Her gown proved inadequate protection against his manhood, and her inexperience gave her no protection at all against the strange, bewildering feelings he provoked. Why didn't she feel sickened by his touch? In truth, Madelyne didn't feel sick at all, only breathless.
A horrid thought entered her mind and she gasped out loud. Wasn't this the hold a man used when he coupled with a woman? Madelyne fretted over that thought a long moment and then discarded the fear. She remembered the woman had to be flat on her back, and though she wasn't certain of the exact way of it, she didn't believe she was in real danger. She'd overheard Marta visiting with the other servants and remembered that the coarse woman had always begun every lusty adventure with the remark that she had been flat on her back. Aye, Madelyne recalled with acute relief, Marta had been most specific. "Flat on me back I was," she always began. Madelyne regretted now that she hadn't stayed to hear the rest of the woman's bold tales.
Lord, she was lacking in that area of her education too. She got angry then, for a decent lady shouldn't have had such a worry anyway.
It was all Duncan's fault, of course. Did he hold her so intimately just to mock her? Madelyne was close enough to feel the strength in his powerful thighs trying to flatten her own. He could crush her if he had a mind for it. Madelyne shivered over that picture and immediately quit her struggles. She didn't want to provoke the barbarian. At least her hands protected her breasts. She was thankful for that much. Her gratitude was short-lived, however, for as soon as she thought to be appreciative, Duncan shifted his weight, and then her br**sts were plastered up against him as well. Her ni**les hardened, shaming her all the more.
Duncan suddenly moved again. "What the devil…" He roared the unfinished question against Madelyne's ear. She didn't know what caused his outburst, only that she was going to be deaf for the rest of her life.
When Duncan jumped, muttering an expletive she couldn't help but catch, Madelyne moved away. She watched Duncan out of the corner of her eye. Her captor had lifted himself up on one elbow and was searching for something underneath him.
Madelyne remembered the squire's dagger she'd hidden in the lining of her cloak just as Duncan lifted the weapon.
She couldn't help but frown.
Duncan couldn't help but grin.
Madelyne was so surprised by his spontaneous smile, she almost smiled back. Then she happened to notice his smile didn't quite reach his eyes. She decided she'd best not smile after all.
"For a timid creature, you're proving to be resourceful, Madelyne."
His voice was so mild. Had he just given her praise or was he mocking her? Madelyne couldn't make up her mind. She decided not to tell him she'd forgotten about the weapon. He'd certainly think her foolish if she admitted that truth.
"You're the one who captured me," she reminded him. "If I've proven to be resourceful, it is only because I am honor bound to escape. 'Tis the duty of a captive."
"Does my honesty offend you, milord?" Madelyne asked. "Then perhaps it would be best if I didn't speak to you at all. I would like to go to sleep now," she added. "And I'm going to try to forget you're even here."
To prove she meant what she said, Madelyne closed her eyes.
"Come here, Madelyne."
The softly issued command sent a tremor of dread down her spine, and a knot settled in the pit of her stomach. He was doing it again, she decided, scaring the breath right out of her. And she was getting sick of it. Madelyne didn't believe there was much fear left inside her. She opened her eyes to look at him, and when she saw the dagger was now pointed in her direction, she realized she still had quite a store of fear left after all.
What a coward I am, Madelyne thought as she slowly moved closer to Duncan. She rested on her side, facing him, just a few inches away. "There, does that please you?" she said. She guessed it hadn't pleased him much at all, when she suddenly found herself flat on her back, with Duncan looming over her. Why, he was so close, she could actually see the silver flecks in his gray eyes.
Eyes were supposed to echo the thoughts of the mind, Madelyne had heard, yet she couldn't tell what Duncan was thinking. That worried her.
Duncan watched Madelyne. He was both amused and irritated by the confusion of emotions she unwillingly showed him. He knew she was afraid of him. Yet she didn't weep or plead with him. And Lord, she was beautiful. There was a sprinkle of freckles on the bridge of her nose. Duncan thought the flaw most appealing. Her mouth was appealing too. He wondered how she'd taste to him and could feel himself becoming aroused just by the thought. "Are you going to stare at me all night?" Madelyne asked.
"Perhaps I will," Duncan answered. "If I wish to," he added, smiling at the way she tried not to frown at him.
"Then I'll have to look at you all night," Madelyne answered.
"And why is that, Madelyne?" His voice was soft and husky.
"If you think to take advantage of me while I sleep, you're mistaken, Baron."
She looked so indignant. "And how will I take advantage of you, Madelyne?"
He was smiling at her now, a true grin it was, reflected in the depths of his eyes.
Madelyne wished she'd kept silent. Lord, she was putting obscene ideas into his head.
"I'd rather not discuss this issue," she stammered out. "Aye, forget I said anything, if you please."
"But I don't please," Duncan answered. "Do you think I'll satisfy my lust this night and take you while you rest?"
Duncan lowered his head until he was just a scant breath away from Madelyne's face. He was pleased to see her blush, even grunted his approval.
Madelyne was as still as a doe, trapped by her own worries.
"You wouldn't touch me," she suddenly blurted out. "Surely you're too tired to think of such… and we are camped out in the open… nay, you wouldn't touch me," she ended.
And just what did that mean? She saw the mysterious gleam in his eye. Was he gaining true pleasure over her obvious distress.
She decided she wasn't going to be taken advantage of without giving him a good fight. With that thought in mind, she struck him, aiming her fist just below his right eye. Her mark was true, but she thought she received more pain than he did. She was the one who cried out in pain. Duncan didn't even flinch. Lord, she'd probably broken her hand and all for nothing.
"You are made of stone," Madelyne muttered.
"Why did you do that?" Duncan asked, his tone curious.