Thank you all so much for your wonderful reviews and the love you've shown this story. To make up for my utter fail in the 'review reply' department (life's been a little crazy I'm afraid), I decided to write an outtake/future-take to show my appreciation. I hope you enjoy it.
Thanks, as ever, to the wonderful Katmom and NKubie for their awesome beta skills and suggestions. You make my writing so much better. I'm a dreadful 'tweaker', so all errors are mine.
Gripping the longsword with her sweaty palms, Bella hefted it into a defensive position. It wasn't heavy, weighing less than five pounds, but the longer she fought the more difficult it became to lift the darn thing. It felt like she was dragging the blade through a barrel of molasses.
Rolling her shoulders to try and ease the tension, she eyed her opponent warily. He had no trouble wielding his much larger blade. Its sharp edge glinted in the sconce light, as it cut through the air like a hot knife through butter. Seeing it heading straight for her head, Bella dug into her reserves and swung her sword just in time to block the killing blow. Her attacker's brows rose in surprise, and she rewarded his distraction with a shove that would have sent him flying . . . if they were of equal size. They were not. Far from it. Her efforts yielded only a few inches of space, but it was just enough for her to squirm away and spin out of his reach. Once assured there was a safe distance between them, she pointed her wavering sword at his chest. Fleeing wasn't an option, as his long legs would surely outrun hers before she reached the end of the deserted corridor and the door to safety.
His patronising tone riled the blood pumping through her veins. Narrowing her eyes, she didn't bother with a reply but angled her sword in readiness for the next brutal strike. It would be nice to go on the attack, to surprise him as she had several times during their encounter. But with her breath now coming in harsh pants, defence was the wiser option.
Bella was stronger than she looked, courtesy of years spent scrubbing floors and chopping firewood. But a month had passed since she'd been required to do any manual labour, a month of pampering as was her due as the kingdom of Volterra's newest princess . . . or so she'd been informed on the occasions she'd dared lift a finger to fend for herself in any regard. While it was pleasant to have others wait on her, it wasn't something with which she was entirely comfortable. She was used to being active, productive. Now that winter had descended in a cloak of icy white, putting the gardens out of bounds, wandering the halls of the castle was her only form of exercise. Well, other than what occurred in her marital bed.
A smile curved her lips at the memory of the surprisingly strenuous escapades she and Edward engaged in when they were left in peace for the night. Hidden behind the partially drawn curtains of their bed, they loved each other passionately, energetically, tenderly . . . a myriad of ways that left their naked bodies shimmering in the candlelight, their hearts racing. Most mornings, Bella awoke with welcome aches in muscles she'd not previously known existed. Unfortunately, those newly toned muscles weren't of much use when it came to defending herself against a much larger opponent wielding an enormous, steel sword.
While weaving her weapon back and forward, Bella tried to read her opponent's next move. He was eyeing her with bemusement, but she'd show him she was not to be trifled with.
He feinted left.
She matched his footing.
He swung his sword in a complicated pattern.
She rolled her eyes at the typical male tendency to show off.
He lunged forward, thrusting his sword in a test of her defences.
She blocked, their blades sliding against one another in a screech of steel until the hilts crashed together. The position brought him close enough for her to feel his hot breath on her cheek.
"You think to conquer me?" She flicked a loose strand of hair out of her eyes with a toss of her head.
"Oh, I shall have your surrender, my lady. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind."
His lips curled into a smirk, but his gaze lowered to where her thick braid had come to rest against her breast. Her tunic had been borrowed from a pageboy, the shoulders too broad and the body too tight, causing the fabric to stretch snugly across her chest.
What had she been told?
Use every advantage against the enemy. Fight to win, to survive. There's no such thing as fair play when your life is on the line.
Stepping back, she made a show of lowering her sword. "Very well then." Sighing in apparent defeat, she shrugged, a move that caused the wide neck of her shirt to slide off her shoulder. Her attacker's eyes fixated on her bared flesh, and she feigned distress.
"You would ravish a fair maiden?"
"Maiden?" He quirked a brow.
"A lady of the court then." She stifled a huff, hiding her disgruntlement along with her intentions.
He shrugged and sheathed his sword. "To the winner goes the spoils."
"Oh good." Bella drew in a deep breath and swung her sword around in an arc, just managing to bring it to a halt with the tip resting against his neck. "What did you have in mind for my reward? You seem to have a rather large bulge in your breeches. A bag of gold, perchance?"
"Bella!" Edward pushed her sword aside with his leather clad arm. "You could have taken my head off."
Spying a drop of blood just beginning to trickle down the side of his neck, her conscience twinged. "Sorry?" She let him push her back against the wall, for once appreciating the coolness radiating from its grey stones. "But you did say in case of attack I should use whatever means I had at my disposal until help arrived."
His emerald eyes flashed with indignation. "You would use your feminine wiles against an assassin?"
"It was an effective distraction." She shrugged again, and her shirt slid even lower . . . along with his darkening gaze. "At least it worked on you."
"It would work on any man." Edward lowered his head to burrow against the exposed curve of her shoulder. "But I'd rather you left that particular weapon out of your arsenal, my love." His lips vibrated against her skin, sending shivers tingling down her spine. Pressing forward, he rubbed his growing erection against her belly, and a whimper escaped her lips. Bella would prefer his heated flesh to a bag of gold any day. Her heartbeat, which had begun to settle, picked up its tempo, and she pushed her hips forward to meet his slow thrusts, more than ready to acquiesce.
The hallway was dark, quiet, and she half expected him to lift her skirts and take her up against the wall. It wouldn't have been the first time, though neither had dared admit as much at confession. Father Benedict was most forgiving of their newly-wed status, but there were limits to even his understanding.
"Is this what you want?" Edward whispered against her ear as one of his strong, muscular thighs easily inserted itself between her legs. Showing her exactly what he meant, he rocked against her in a way guaranteed to reduce her to a quivering mess of hot, wet need.
"Don't make me wait," she pleaded. Defences erected out of religious guilt stood little chance of surviving against her husband's skilled offensive. The onslaught of his hands and lips and tongue and thighs banished her misgivings. "I want you here . . . now."
"So do I," he growled against her neck, "but you're not suitably attired."
Bella had forgotten she was wearing breeches and knee length boots, her response to Edward's initial refusal when she'd pleaded with him for instruction in self-defence.
"There is no place for a lady in a fight, Bella," he'd insisted.
"But I'm not any smaller than some of the squires being tutored, and you can't deny I'm equally flexible . . . probably more so."
Edward had rubbed the back of his neck, unable to deny her argument.
"And I heard you and Lord Jasper encouraging his pupils that with skill and agility, one can defeat a much larger opponent."
"Not while attired in a full length gown."
Refusing to be discouraged, she'd convinced one of her maids to acquire the outfit she was now wearing. Edward's eyes had widened in shock upon seeing her dressed in tight-fitting breeches and a short tunic. Then, just as she'd hoped, they'd darkened with desire. Using his distraction to her advantage, she'd convinced him to tutor her. It hadn't been as difficult as she'd expected, as her arguments were quite compelling. The palace was in an uproar with news reaching Volterra that a spy . . . or spies . . . had infiltrated the castle walls intent on assassination.
"I hate the idea of being helpless," she'd said, and Edward's resolve had weakened. Either that, or his plan all along had been to teach her a different lesson than the one she'd hoped to receive. If he'd set out to prove how ill-equipped she was to defend herself against a skilled opponent, he'd succeeded.
"Maybe sword fighting isn't the best way for me to protect myself," she admitted with a grimace. "For one thing, I doubt an assassin will allow me the time to change into suitable attire, and it's not like I can roam about the castle with a sword strapped to my thigh."
Edward met her gaze with a determined look. "Since you shall never again 'roam about' unescorted, or be left unprotected in our quarters, there's no need for you to be concerned."
This time, her sigh of defeat was genuine.
"Can you not understand how dreadful it is never being granted a moment's peace? I'm not a child, Edward, and I don't want constant supervision. I'm used to having time to myself occasionally."
"And you shall." He cupped her face with his hands before leaning in to softly brush his lips over hers. "Just with guards stationed outside the door of your chambers or at a suitable distance when you leave them. If it's true that Caius's people have infiltrated the palace, then an attack could come at any time. I won't leave you unprotected, Bella."
"But I want to be able to protect myself." She assumed her most entreating expression. "What about teaching me some of those clever moves I saw Jasper using the other day when he was training the men in the covered courtyard? The man he was wrestling was twice his size, but he had him begging for mercy in a matter of minutes. I realise some strength is required, but I'm not a complete weakling."
Both Edward's brows rose, and Bella huffed a breath. Placing her free hand on his chest, she pushed . . . to no avail. He didn't budge an inch, not even when she dropped her sword and used both hands and all her might. The show of strength was disconcerting, making her aware how careful he must be with her at other times. He could hurt her easily if he wanted to.
"You've proved your point." Her shoulders sagged and she let her hands drop. "I'm not strong enough to defeat a man in a wrestling match."
"Nor will you ever have to, sweetheart. It's my job to keep you safe. I couldn't bear it if anything were to happen to you."
"Nor I you." Bella wrapped her arms around his middle then leaned back so she could still see his face. "Which is why I still want to learn how to defend myself, to fight, or at least not to be a hindrance if there is one. I'm worried you'll be so focused on protecting me, that you could get hurt." He opened his mouth, clearly intent on arguing, so she rushed to add, "Also we don't know who the spy is. What if it's a member of the guard? After what happened with Demetri, you know it's possible."
"But highly unlikely, as I've personally vetted each and every man who's been assigned to protect you."
Bella's lower lip protruded in a pout, something she knew he struggled to resist. She didn't like the idea of manipulating him, of using her recently discovered "feminine wiles" against the man who'd captured her heart. But this was something she felt strongly about.
As she'd hoped, Edward groaned and then ran a hand through his hair. The tousled bronze locks were barely damp after their mock battle, while Bella's tunic was clinging to the wet patches on her back and between her breasts. He might be a prince, a crowned one at that, but Edward refused to be indulged or cosseted, training regularly with his men. While Bella enjoyed the results of his efforts, her husband's long limbs and muscled torso highly toned, she'd not considered how important they were until now. The thought of him going to war, of being engaged in battle against the enemy, filled her with dread, but the likelihood was growing by the day. At least she could be confident his abilities were not lacking, that his stamina would not fail him.
Having had a small taste of what it was like to fight, she could understand why the young soldiers were schooled for hours at a time, and the knights practised daily. Still, having no skills with which to defend herself bothered Bella.
"What about teaching me how to use a knife? I could keep a small blade concealed in my skirts, so at least I'd not be completely helpless in case of an attempt on my life."
Rather than seeming annoyed by her persistence, Edward cocked his head in thought.
"That's not a dreadful idea," he conceded before his expression turned sheepish. "And at the same time I could show you some moves that don't require brute strength to bring down an opponent."
"Ones a woman could use against a man?"
He nodded. "Not that it will ever be required of you." A violent shudder shook his body, and Bella felt bad for distressing him with all this talk of her being attacked.
"Better safe than sorry?" She went up on her toes to press a kiss to the lips he'd flattened into a grim line. "I appreciated the lesson, Edward. I know it wasn't easy for you."
"You did well," he admitted with a look of grudging respect. "But I think that's enough for today."
Bella agreed. Wanting to recapture his earlier mood, she smiled saucily. "Why? Did I wear you out?"
"Wear me out?" He tugged her closer. "I wasn't the one panting for breath. Well, not until you began revealing your delectable flesh at the end there."
"Only then?" Bella wriggled out of his arms and turned around, one hand placed strategically on her backside. "Seeing me in breeches didn't affect you? You looked a little flushed earlier, and I was sure I saw you taking some extra deep breaths."
"Bella . . ." Edward's eyes narrowed, and a thrill of excitement coursed through her. Instinctively, she took a step away, not that she had any desire to run. "Oh, no you don't." He spun her around, picked her up, and threw her over his broad shoulder . . . gently.
Squealing, she gripped the waistband of hisbreeches, her face mere inches from his toned backside. "What are you doing?" she asked as he began striding down the hallway towards their chambers.
"Winner takes the spoils, remember?"
"But I thought I won?"
"Sweetheart, I banished the servants for the entire afternoon so there'd be no witnesses to our antics." He looked past his hip to meet her upside-down gaze, his eyebrows waggling. "Believe me when I say we are both going to enjoy me claiming my prize."
Just a bit of fun, but I hope you enjoyed it. Part two will be posted on Thursday. :)
My published stories, Innocence and Protection, are on sale until August 6th for only 99c each on Amazon. Here are a few reviews -
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"I flew through BOTH books in The Forbidden Love series because they are that good!"
Kristen Chandler, Shelf Life Book Reviews
"The romance, intrigue, scoundrels, and miscommunications kept me enthralled from the first page to the last... I applaud Elise de Sallier for once again giving us a novel to fall in love with."
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If you haven't read them, now is the time while the price is so low. :D
Thanks for your support. I'll see you Thursday.