Authors: Jody Hedlund
He didn't immediately release meâinstead a slow grin worked its way up his lips, as if he'd sensed the direction of my thoughts. “Only if you promise that you'll stay and let me help you in whatever trouble you've gotten yourself into.”
“I won't promise that at all. Now put me down.”
“Can't you forgive me for the childishness of my past?” He fingered a strand of my hair. “I was an idiot. I love your hair. It's absolutely the most beautiful color in the world.”
My insides fluttered at his lavish praiseâpraise I wasn't accustomed to receiving. I twisted in his arms, knowing I had to put a safe distance between us. The motion forced him to lower me back to the mattress.
I quickly dragged the coverlet over myself and stared up at him.
He cocked his brow. “Well?”
I glanced at Mistress Higgins by the wardrobe. She'd discreetly turned her humped back on us and was arranging the gowns.
“Mistress Higgins is one of my most trusted servants,” Collin reassured. “She served as a lady's maid to my mother, and you have nothing to fear from her.”
I pursed my lips and crossed my arms. Surely he didn't think I was foolish enough to speak of my past in front of strangers.
Collin flopped down into his chair and reclined as though he didn't have a care in the world. “Very well. Mistress Higgins, will you be so kind as to give me a moment of privacy with our guest?”
The lady's maid hesitated, glancing from Collin to me and back.
Even though I lived and slept around men all of the time, Mistress Higgins insinuation made me realize that in this setting, in the world of the nobility, it would be entirely improper for me to be left unchaperoned with Collin. As if recognizing the same, Collin cocked his head at the door. “If you wouldn't mind leaving the door open and waiting just outside?”
She nodded, curtsied, and once she'd left us alone, Collin slipped from his chair and kneeled beside me. “Forgive me? I beg of you to forgive me and put me out of my misery.”
Something inside me wanted to reassure him. His charm made him almost irresistible. But I only had to think of Thatch, who'd been homeless for years, and Bulldog, who'd lost his thumbs trying to keep his son from starving to death, and all thoughts of peace with Collin Goodrich fled.
“I'll think about forgiving you for my childish grudge,” I said. “But you're a nobleman. And I can't ever forgive you for that.”
“What do you have against noblemen? Your father was one. And apparently you've forgotten that
are of noble birth too.”
“I've cut myself off from that lifestyle and will never rejoin it.” The resentment that had grown inside me over the past several years rose swiftly. “I loathe it and everything it stands for.”
Other than a raised brow, he didn't seem surprised by my outburst. In fact, if anything, the twinkle in his eye spoke of his amusement. “All the more reason to stay a week and let me prove that you don't need to loathe me.”
“A week won't change anything.” Although the tantalizing scents of bread and stew coming in through the open doorway of the chamber had grown stronger and beckoned me to stay too.
“I dare you to try.” His eyes narrowed in provocation, and the muscles in his face tightened.
Something in his expression irked me, as if he didn't believe I would be able to rise to his challenge.
“You're afraid you'll end up liking me by the end of the week,” he said.
“Oh yes, you will.”
“No, I won't.”
He grinned too self-confidently but didn't argue further.
“Besides, even if I wanted to take you up on your challenge,” I said, “too many people rely upon me. If I'm not there, they'll go hungry.”
“I'm sure they'll be fine without you. You'll have to stay for a few more days anyway, until you're stronger and steadier on your feet.”
I shook my head. If he wouldn't let me leave now, I'd wait for the cover of darkness and sneak out. By now, Thatch would be frantic with worry about what had happened to me. I had to get to him and reassure him I was fine.
Collin reached into his cloak and pulled out a red velvet pouch. He patted the bulge against his palm, creating a distinct jangle. “Will you stay if I promise you a purse of gold at the week's end?”
A purse of gold? My heart pattered fast at the thought of how many sacks of grain that would buy, and how much wool for spinning toward socks and mittens.
“What do you want in return?”
“Just one week of your time to prove that I'm not as despicable as you think I am. Be an honored guest in my home this week. Let me entertain you.” He nodded toward the open wardrobe. “And maybe wear one or two of those gowns.”
“Do you promise not to reveal my true identity?”
“I promise. As far as everyone else is concerned, you're merely an old friend who's come for a visit.”
I narrowed my eyes. He was right. My companions could survive a week without me. Bulldog and some of the other men would be able to find the game they needed. And if I swallowed my pride and stayed a week with Collin, I would be able to ride away with enough gold to feed my friends through the upcoming winter without having to resort to any more stealing.
How could I refuse the offer?
Maybe this was my chance to do something truly beneficial for all the people who depended upon me. Maybe I'd even have the chance to show Collin the error of his extravagant ways, to show him the reality of how much the peasants were suffering. In fact . . .
“If I accept your challenge to stay here in your castle with you for a week and act the part of a noblewoman,” I said slowly,
my mind spinning with a new plan, “will you accept my challenge to stay with me in the forest for a week and play the part of a peasant?”
“Of course.” He responded eagerly, as if I'd just invited him to a party.
“You'll have to leave your wealth behind.”
I clenched my fingers into a fist. “Living as a peasant is the furthest thing from fun you can imagine.” He was impossibly spoiled and pampered. All the more reason to drag him into my forest home and let him see firsthand the deprivation and squalor that threaded every aspect of our lives.
“I'm ready for the challenge.” His arrogant expression only aggravated me more. “But I'm not sure that you are.”
I pushed myself up on the feather mattress so that I was sitting. The pounding in my head returned with blinding force. The idea of acting like a noblewoman repulsed me, quite literally made me want to vomit.
But I couldn't back down now, not with that purse of gold awaiting me. And not with the opportunity to humble Collin Goodrich and expose him to the sad reality of life for altogether too many people.
I met his gaze head on. “Bring me one of the gowns.”
A slow smile spread over his lips. “Then it's a deal?”
“Yes, you have yourself a deal.”
Mistress Higgins bound the last lace at the side of
the gown and then stood back and smiled, the movement adding more deep grooves to her wrinkled face. “Lovely. Just lovely.”
I stared down at the folds of luxurious teal satin that swished around me. An equally lavish kirtle of gold damask showed through the slits down the sides of the skirt.
“Just look at you.” Miss Higgins held up a mirror.
I shook my head and turned away. “I trust that you've done a good job, Mistress Higgins.”
The lady's maid had spent the past hour dressing me in many layers of garments and arranging my hair so that it was fashionably plaited on the top of my head. With each passing minute, my stomach had cinched tighter until it was ready to spring shut like one of my traps.
I eyed the open, arched window again as I had a hundred times since Mistress Higgins had started her ministrations. 'Twas no fault of the servant's. The lady's maid had been angelic. If I didn't know better, I'd have guessed Collin handpicked his kindest servant to be my maid during my weeklong stay.
Even so, I was growing more anxious to make my escape and fly like an arrow as far away as I could. But I'd made a deal with Collin, and I couldn't break it after just one day, could I?
I fidgeted with the scooped neckline that revealed far more skin than I was accustomed to in my men's tunics.
After spending yesterday resting and recovering from my head injury, I'd finally risen that morning. Even though my head still ached, I'd been too restless to stay abed any longer. So I'd agreed to Collin's invitation to join him and the other guests in the Great Hall for dinner.
I had been tempted to hide in my room for the length of my stay. But a driving need prodded me to prove to Collin that I could handle anything he might ask me to do. I had to show him that none of his efforts could sway my dislike of the nobility.
But now that I was attired in the extravagant gown, with my hair piled on top of my head, I didn't know if I could go through with the bargain.
A soft rap upon the door sent a bolt of panic through me. “Is Lady Eleanora ready?” came Collin's voice from the hallway.
Collin had decided to call me Lady Eleanora Delacroix, after one of his childhood friends, a lady he'd known while living in the service of the Duke of Rivenshire. Since I was already accustomed to living under the guise of the Cloaked Bandit, I could surely play the part of someone new. I only hoped none of the other guests would know the real Eleanora.
Mistress Higgins started toward the door. Her footsteps, like the rest of her demeanor, were saintly. She was plain, with straight gray hair beneath her veil, and an austere tunic. She almost looked as though she belonged in a convent instead of a castle.
I glanced again with longing at the window. Had Thatch figured out who had captured me? That Lord Goodrich had tracked us down after our theft? Whether he knew or not, he'd probably returned to Bulldog with the news of my captivity. Somehow, I would need to send them word that I was alive and faring well.
Mistress Higgins swung the door wide. Collin stepped into the room holding one hand behind his back. The swirling teal-and-gold pattern of his tunic and trousers matched my garments, almost as if he'd planned it that way.
As my lady's maid stepped aside to reveal me, his ready grin disappeared and was replaced by astonishment, his greeting stalling into an open-mouthed stare.
My fingers fluttered first to my neckline and then to the tiny dangle of curls next to my ear. “Is something wrong?”
Collin closed his mouth and then swallowed hard.
“I can't ever remember a time when Lord Collin was speechless,” Mistress Higgins said with a knowing smile.
“Perhaps I should have chanced a glance in the mirror.” I took a step back. “I can only imagine how utterly silly I must lookâ”
“No,” Collin cut in, finally finding his voice. “You don't look silly at all. Far from it . . .” His attention shifted downward, taking in every inch from the neckline to the way the gown hugged my waist and then flared into a bell shape as it cascaded into a glossy river on the floor behind me. When his gaze lifted and met mine, awe rounded his eyes and revealed stark admiration shining in their depths.
I clasped my hands to hold back a tremble. I needed to stop acting like a spooked mare.
Collin started toward me, the rushes muting his steps. My heart thudded louder until I was sure he could hear it. He didn't stop until he stood directly in front of me. “You are stunning, my lady.”
Warmth pulsed through me, sending tingles to my toes, which were squeezed into long-pointed poulaines. I didn't know why his words should delight me so much, but they did. More than I wanted to admit.
He leaned closer until his mouth was near my ear. “You're so beautiful, Juliana,” he whispered, his breath brushing against the sensitive skin at the pulse in my neck.
At his nearness, the air caught in my lungs.
When he pulled back, the green of his eyes held none of the usual mirth.
I didn't know what to do. My own body betrayed me by reacting to him, by noticing how handsome he was too, enjoying his compliments, and wishing he'd whisper in my ear again.
“So I'm acceptable then?” I stepped away from him and tried to harden my voice. “Do I pass your test?” I had to stay in control. I couldn't let him sway me with his dazzling eyes and sweet words.
He reached for one of my hands, not letting me escape. A slow smile spread and the light in his eyes told me he could see past my gruffness. “You passed my test even when you wore a man's tunic.”
He brought his other hand out from behind his back and held out a necklace. It was simple but elegant, a single strand of diamonds with a larger teardrop diamond at the center. “For you.”
I held back a gasp. “I refuse to wear anything so extravagantâ”