Read A Daring Sacrifice Online

Authors: Jody Hedlund

A Daring Sacrifice (10 page)

“My lady,” I said in mock surprise, returning her smile. “That's not true. You have
stolen
my heart. And when you leave, you shall take it with you.”

At my reference to stealing, Juliana's smile moved to her eyes, turning them a warm brown.

“If you must leave so soon,” Irene said, “then we shall have to do our best to entertain you while you're here with feasting, dances, and parties of every kind.”

All traces of mirth vanished from Juliana's face. Before she could say something foolish to Irene—about extravagance or how much others were suffering—I spoke. “We're having an archery contest tomorrow.”

Juliana's expression sparked with sudden interest.

“Collin is accomplished at the longbow as well as the crossbow,” Irene added. “I'm sure you'll be quite impressed by his skill.”

“Do you expect to win the contest?” Juliana asked me.

“No one has been able to beat him yet,” Irene answered, tying a knot in her embroidery thread.

I had no reason to boast about my ability. For I doubted there was a nobleman in all the realm who would be able to defeat me. I'd worked for years to perfect my archery skill.

“If you're such the expert, my lord, then maybe I shall have to challenge you.” The glint in Juliana's eye already challenged me.

Before I could answer, Irene gave a soft snort of condescension. “Such a display would be most unseemly, perhaps even scandalous.”

I picked up the quill pen and twirled it, attempting to quell my eagerness to accept Juliana's challenge. “My sister is right.”

“I think you're merely afraid of being defeated by a woman,” Juliana said. “That would indeed be scandalous.”

“Oh, I'm not afraid,” I responded, unable to temper the arrogance in my voice. “Not in the least.”

“Then if you don't mind a little unseemliness, I shall join your contest.”

Irene protested again. But Juliana merely strode across the room and out the door without another word.

Even though I knew I ought to add my protest, I couldn't. The thought of an archery contest involving Juliana was too appealing to resist.

Chapter
8

“Perhaps Irene's judgment was correct.” Worry
flashed across Collin's features as we strode toward the center of the field. “Perhaps you should sit with the ladies.”

I fitted my bow over my shoulder and kept pace with his long steps. I had to carry the drawstring arrow bag since it certainly wouldn't look proper for me to don a belt and let it dangle at my waist as I was accustomed to doing. “I think you're just afraid I'll beat you.”

The bright sunshine turned Collin's wind-tousled hair the color of warm butter. I tried not to look at his face, at his eyes that would be equally as warm—and disarming.

“I'm certain you're quite good,” he said under his breath. “But after pondering the matter, that's why I don't think you should do this. Your skill may arouse suspicion.”

I glanced to the tent where the other ladies were sitting. The canopy above them provided a cover from the sun, protecting their perfect complexions.

With my freckles and tanned skin, I was already different. Even if I had unblemished skin, I had absolutely nothing in common with the other ladies—not anymore. They flirted, and batted their eyes, and spoke of things that held no interest
to me. I'd much rather participate in the archery contest with the men.

But Collin was right. I had to be careful to play the part of a noblewoman, though I detested it. I couldn't afford to draw attention to myself.

I stopped before reaching the men who'd gathered near the targets and were eyeing the brightly painted circles suspended from posts. My fingers twitched with the need to participate in the competition and show my skill, to show that I could shoot as well as any man.

“Maybe just a couple of shots?” I asked.

He hesitated. “You know I can't resist you. Not when you look at me like that.”

“Look at you like what?”

“With your eyes so wide and pretty.”

I felt an unbidden smile grow on my face.

He leaned closer and brushed a stray curl from my forehead.

“Lord Collin.” One of his servants approached from behind. “I beg your pardon, my lord. This won't take but a moment.” The young man slumped his shoulders and bent his head, as if waiting for a rebuke for interrupting. But instead of irritation, Collin clamped the man's arm in friendliness.

I took a step away and fidgeted with the hemp string and the nocking point on the bow while Collin conversed with his servant. His voice was kind as he patiently answered the servants' questions regarding details for the picnic they'd planned after the contest.

Maybe I could fault Collin for being a nobleman, but I couldn't find much else wrong with him. Since meeting him, he'd proven to be as good and kind as any of my friends back in the forest. I could honestly say I'd enjoyed his company yesterday when he'd taken me on a tour of his home, the stables,
and some of the surrounding land. He'd regaled me with tales of his adventures during boyhood, as well as when he was a page with the duke. He'd made me laugh at his childhood antics and hold my breath at his dangerous deeds. And for just a little while, I'd forgotten about my other life and had been content simply being with him.

When the servant bowed and scurried away toward the shaded grove, where other servants were assembling the picnic, Collin returned to me.

“My lady.” He held out his arm. His smile, his good manners, his sweetness—they were all endearing. Part of my mind rang out a warning that I ought to spurn him, to keep my distance, to push him away. But no matter how much I tried to dislike him, I couldn't. In fact, the longer I was with him, the harder it was to hold my childhood grudge. For today, at this moment, I merely wanted to enjoy the contest and perhaps forget again for a few moments that I was a hunted criminal.

With a return smile, I slipped my hand into the crook of his arm and allowed him to lead me toward the men.

Some of the contestants smirked when they noticed the bow and quiver full of arrows I was holding. I was tempted to slap their mirth away. But Collin joked with the men good-naturedly, and soon he convinced them to allow me to have a turn.

I waited at the end of the line, letting the fall sunshine caress my cheeks. I tried to not to dwell on the thought that while I was out in the open and free, somewhere not too far away my friends were still in hiding, with no life at all except to hunt, evade my uncle's men, and keep from getting caught.

Collin was the last of the men to shoot, and his arrow flew fast and hard, hitting the center of the target with a precision that was impressive. I didn't clap as the other ladies did, but when he turned and grinned at me I nodded my approval. “Well done, my lord.”

“Nice of you to say so, my lady.”

“Have your servant remove your arrow,” I said as I took my position at the line. “And I shall bore mine into the same spot.”

One of Collin's brows arched and was quickly accompanied by the laughter of several noblemen.

“Or at least I shall try,” I amended, although it pained me to act more helpless than I was.

Collin bounded toward me. “If you're determined to match my shot, then you'll need a lesson or two from me.” He winked at his friends, and then took position behind me. “Already I can see that you're holding the bow all wrong.”

I could hear the men snickering, and my fingers tightened against the string. I'd show them. I'd let two arrows fly before they could blink.

Collin's steady hand wrapped around mine, stopping me. “Careful,” he murmured against my ear. “Remember. You're Lady Eleanora Delacroix. Not the Cloaked Bandit.”

His arm pressed against me, and he readjusted his fingers over mine so that he gave the appearance of helping me pull the string.

“I don't need a lesson.” Even as I spoke the words, I couldn't keep from leaning back into him just slightly until I felt the gentle pressure of his chest.

“You might have more to learn from me than you think,” he whispered. His voice near my ear and the warmth of his breath made my heart tumble like a pebble down a cliff.

“And perhaps you have something to learn from me too.”

“I have no doubt I do.” I could hear the smile in his voice. “In fact, I think my education began the moment I saw you.”

At the teasing calls from several of the men, Collin tossed a flippant comment over his shoulder. “Don't rush me. She's quite the novice and has a great deal to learn.”

His remark brought a chorus of guffaws from his friends.

“A novice?” I knew I ought to be insulted by his comment, but I couldn't think about anything except his hand upon mine and the gentle pressure of his arm. I was surrounded by him, and it was all I could do to focus on the target.

“In fact, I think I should like to give you archery lessons every day,” he murmured, settling in closer.

I wanted to tell him I wouldn't object, but my breath had caught in my chest, and I couldn't speak past the tightness his nearness caused. His nose nuzzled in the hair above my ear, and then he dragged in a shaky breath. Was I affecting him the same way he was me?

“Come, Lord Collin,” called a nobleman with a laugh. “Save the cuddling for the picnic. This is a serious contest.”

Embarrassed heat slid around my middle. I pulled back on the string the rest of the way and then let go. At the same time, Collin leaned into my hair again and let out a large breath. Though my hair was thick, the heat from his exhalation soaked into me, taking me by surprise. I jumped and my bow swerved. The arrow flew forward with half the strength I normally exerted and barely hit the outer line of the target.

Collin released his hold, but didn't step away. “Looks like you'll need more target practice, my lady. And of course, I'm a willing teacher.”

Amidst the chortles of his companions, Collin winked at me.

“Very well, my lord.” I slipped another arrow out of the quiver standing next to me on the ground. Then with a mere glance, I notched, drew, and shot—this time with all my strength. “When would you like to give me another lesson?”

The arrow thumped into the target, and I knew I'd hit it dead center—hopefully in the same hole Collin had made. From the vanishing smiles of the noblemen and their gaping mouths, I guessed I'd come fairly close.

“What?” I asked with pretended innocence.

Collin gave me a slow grin. “ 'Twould appear you have amazing beginner's luck.”

Only then did I glance at the target. My arrow protruded from a hole right next to the one Collin's had made. Frustration slithered through me. How had I missed?

Perhaps I'd allowed Collin's attention to distract me more than I'd realized.

“Or maybe I'm just a great teacher?” he asked, his eyes beseeching me to play along with him.

Denial sprang to my lips. But at the silence from the direction of the women's tent, I nibbled my bottom lip instead. They all wore stunned expressions—except Lady Irene. Her eyes had narrowed, and she stared at me with the same intensity as yesterday, when I'd spoken with her in the solar. She certainly suspected all was not as it seemed. Although I doubted she knew my true identity, since we hadn't seen each other since we were little girls, and then only in passing.

Once this past year, while hiding in a tree, I'd seen her riding with my cousin, Sir Edgar. I'd heard rumors that Sir Edgar was aspiring to win her hand. With such a large dowry, Uncle probably thought to gain even more with Edgar's union to Lady Irene.

Whatever the case, I knew I had to play my role as Lady Eleanora with as much authenticity as I could. I gave an inward sigh. “Don't praise your teaching skills too highly, Lord Collin,” I said loud enough for the ladies to hear. “ 'Tis surely only beginner's luck.”

My teasing drew the laughter of the men and titters from the women. Only Lady Irene remained unsmiling as though she saw past my charade. The survival instinct I'd honed over the years told me to flee—now, while I could. That if I waited, I'd only get into trouble.

But the soft touch of Collin's fingers upon my arm stopped me.

I turned to find his beautiful green eyes peering down at me with the usual humor I was coming to expect, along with something else, something that made my heart thump against my chest with a strange rhythm.

And suddenly, I realized I didn't want to leave. At least not quite yet.

Chapter
9

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