Kilburn Pembroke rose unsteadily from the chair in front of the cold fireplace. On his first step, he staggered and grabbed at a table for balance. He would not call himself drunk, but he had consumed enough liquor to be light-headed.
"Sir Kilburn?" The feminine whisper disturbed him.
His housekeeper, Missus Bevy, had her instructions. No visitors. So why had she let this particular woman into his domain?
"Get out!" he snapped from his darkened corner of the Great Hall.
"Sir Kilburn, I had hoped to talk to you about--"
The sweet lilt of each word threatened the tenuous hold he had on his emotions. "You weren't invited in here," he said, uncomfortable. Didn't he recognize that voice? "Leave."
"I brought Lady Rachel home."
At the mention of his cousin, Kilburn spun around. "What do you mean, you brought Rachel home?"
His poor cousin had more than her share of problems. After she had been abducted and cruelly used by men, she'd gone mad. She wandered off if no one watched her. He had delegated the duty of looking after her to Missus Bevy, but she still slipped away.
Her affliction depressed him with a guilt he could not master. Years ago his uncle, her father, Lord Stanwyck, had given him a place in their household. He had trained him as a squire, and Kilburn earned a knighthood. He owed Lord Stanwyck a very great deal, including protecting his daughter. For that, he felt a failure.
Kilburn walked toward the doorway to confront the intruder, and his chest tightened at the sight of Juliette.
Over the years, how many times had he tried to imagine the very contours of her jaw and her nose, or the vibrant color of her golden hair? But her beauty had not been as important to him as her nature. When Juliette had been around, he knew only happiness.
Juliette gazed at him with a puzzled expression. He had asked her a question. But what had he said? All he could think of, all he could see, was her alabaster skin, her perfect lips, warm and appetizing, as she spoke.
"I was riding Saran as usual this time of day and found Lady Rachel swimming in the pond."
He remembered Saran, the Arabian stallion his brother Ware brought home from one of the Crusades and gave to him. The last Kilburn recalled, Saran had been in the stables at Stanwyck. How did Juliette come to have his horse? And how had she found his cousin?
"Swimming...?" he asked.
"Yes. Fully clothed." Juliette's breath floated up and caressed his face.
The warm stroke aroused his buried lust to a dangerous level. He had always wondered how her heart-shaped mouth would feel on his.
"Where is she now?" He turned from the allure of Juliette's beauty and glanced at the closed door.
"Missus Bevy took charge of her. I would assume she's in her chamber, changing into dry clothes."
Kilburn looked back at Juliette. She was wet and shivering. Goose bumps dotted the bare skin on her chest to the edge of her tight bodice. The lightweight green fabric clung to her womanly curves, outlining a tempting treat for a man starved for sex. Under the sodden clothes, her breasts pointed. He licked his lips, savoring the image he formed of them exposed. She was fair-haired, and from experience with other women, he knew her nipples would be a pale, rosy pink.
Once young and forbidden to him, Juliette had matured. Even more desirable than she had been then, she made his blood race through his veins.
"You're very nicely packaged." He slid his hands to her shoulders.
Her brow wrinkled as if she was puzzled, possibly frightened. He inspected her anyway, then twisted a wet lock of her sun-touched hair and tugged the tendril, making her step closer.
She stared at the scar on his face, her eyelids fluttering in apparent sympathy. He put his hand against the jagged line that ran down his cheekbone, the mark of a savage battle where a dragon's talon had cut him.
"Afraid of what you see?" He fingered her smooth cheek. It was free of anything so ugly.
She shook her head, which he took as an invitation. He slipped his arm around her waist and hauled her body up against him.
"Let go," she whispered. Nervously, he thought.
His gaze dropped to her tempting mouth. Memories of their past assailed him. He had always wanted her, but when he left, she had been a child. Nevertheless, he had always held close to his heart little things about her--her generous friendship, her laughter when he made a joke, and her endearing gaze of adoration. There wasn't a single feature about Juliette's body, heart and mind, that hadn't attracted him in some way. He had pushed the beautifully maturing girl away so no one would see how deep his affection for her was growing.
Juliette used to watch when he practiced riding the dragon his brother had given him. She loved the creatures just as he did, and a bond formed between them he still did not understand. His friends--other squires seeking knighthoods too--hadn't appreciated her. They thought her plain, inconsequential, and made her an object of their youthful taunts. At times, he joined in on their teasing, but as the years passed and his love for her grew, he stopped participating. He had wanted to be her champion, but guilt over his illicit love made him look away.
"Kil, you're holding me too tight," she protested.
Or did he hear a hint of surrender in her tone?
Reason told him no.
Desire, hard and hot, told him she wanted what he did. He lowered her to her feet, placed a hand behind her head, and kissed her soft, supple lips. They were as delicious as he had imagined all those years ago. She kissed him back with a soft moan, and his chest burned as if it were on fire. Her mouth sought his kiss, moving with his in perfect unison, pressing and twisting as if passion was the ruling force. Her fingers on his arms inched upward to his shoulders in more than surrender. In acceptance.
He drew back in disbelief. Surely she humored him with her compliance, mocked him by not putting up a fight. He held her away and searched her eyes. Nothing there suggested she was laughing at his weakness. No. Instead of the mockery he feared, there was the same adoration that had made him sick with longing to relive his past and right the wrongs. If he could go back and change his decisions, he would have worked hard to amass a fortune, an estate, and everything necessary for a rich life. He would have gone to Juliette's father and arranged for a marriage when she came of age.
But there was no way to turn back time. Unworthy of her affection, he looked at her in shame. He had failed, over and over and over.
Her lashes lowered until the dark crescents lay on her cheeks. Her submissive quietness extended an invitation. He rushed to claim her, if only for a few seconds more. He held her face, feeling her wet hair against his palm.
"Look at me," he whispered, afraid what he thought was her wanting him was actually her indifference.
She opened her eyes and gave him that same expression of desire. Her hands glided over his tense shoulders and up the sides of his neck. Soft, entreating.
Kiss me. She leaned into him with a come-hither enticement.
Caressing her jaw, he pushed back the damp locks. She tilted her head to the side, rubbing her cheek into his fingers. He caught her ready mouth with his. Her lips parted to the push of his tongue...a little...then a lot, and he tasted her saliva as he explored the recesses of her mouth. Her gasps and hums of pleasure streamed into him. She was agreeable, and he took advantage of her willingness. With an eager, restless need to connect to the woman who had been his heart's desire when he was young, he sent his hands to roam the contours of her slender waist, curvy hips and firm, plump buttocks. She swayed into his touches with enthusiasm. He fingered the lacing of her gown, intent on having her out of it. Her hands dropped off his shoulders, skipped down the outside of his arms and hung at her sides.
Her surrender came too easy.
And yet he didn't question her sanity or his. He unlaced the ties of her bodice, shoved her gown open, and pushed one sleeve off her shoulder. His limbs trembled. His insides quaked. Kissing the skin across her neck to her arm intensified the ache in his body. He paused to think what he was doing.
"Don't stop," she implored, and her plea ruled him.
Her fingers tunneled into his hair and slid over his head. She guided him lower. Lost in the moment, he dropped to one knee, kissing over the chemise, nipping at the bump her nipple made behind the cloth.
"Kil," she whimpered with a coaxing hum.
He tugged her gown lower. Her breast swelled against his lips. He tasted decadence as he had never experienced. Dropping his other knee to the floor, he tried to ignore the way his cock strained against the inside of his breeches. Beads of sweat broke out across his forehead, and the salty moisture trickled into his eyes, stinging to the point he shut them. She trembled, though not as much as he'd been shaking since she walked into the room.
"Juliette," he murmured her name. "Sweet, Juliette."
Her fingers dug into his hair, holding on, almost guiding him to her rigid nipple. He opened her chemise and drew it down her arms. Her succulent breasts hung ready for him to savor. He buried his face between the warm mounds of softness. Kissing his way upward, he circled a spiraling path to one delicious tip.
Her stuttering moan faded. He looked up and grasped her head, and she stared back into his eyes. Her beauty overwhelmed him, and her aroused gaze penetrated his very being. He pulled her down to claim her mouth, renewing the sounds of her pleasure humming into his lungs.
He kissed her, showing all his lust and desire, exposing all his heart to her. He had waited years to know her intimately, and his moment for happiness had come.
Releasing her mouth, he gave free play to the lust he had for her body. He lifted a breast in his hand and squeezed the pendulous globe, fattening the nipple with his intense suckling. By the force of his grip on her sleeve, he yanked the garment even lower.
He nipped her soft flesh, feeling her shudder, hearing her moan. She accepted him, and her acceptance kept him from stopping. Her tantalizing whimpers fueled his cravings. The raging hard erection of his deprived cock added to his reasons to drag the young woman under him and release the fire of his soul.
He hiked up her skirting and undergarment. He rubbed his hand along her thigh. With a slow glide of his fingers, he caressed her cautiously, aware that she might stop him. Smooth and silky, her skin quivered. He pushed a little farther, testing the boundaries, exploring between the supple limbs.
"Open your legs," he urged her with the pressure of his hand.
Juliette shifted, widening her stance with no sign of hesitation. She whimpered at his touch so close to her vagina. A purr rippled out, and her rapid breath gave him more approval.
The scent of her sex invigorated him, taunted him with visions of her letting another man touch her. How chaste was Juju? Years apart made them strangers. Perhaps she was more mature and bold than he imagined. He held up her gown and chemise, exposing the juncture of her legs, baring the ringlets of dark gold. He kissed her thigh, sampling skin that had a flavorful hint of pond water. Dragging his lips across her pelvic area, he nuzzled his nose into the apex of his pursuit.
"Oh God," she whispered.
He ran his tongue through the soft curls and parted her labia. From the opening oozed an essence of her body's release. He flicked his tongue at the gap and felt her shudder.
She mindlessly twisted his hair with an agitated twirl of her fingers. "Kil, what are you doing to me?"
Her innocent, quivering voice startled him from his dazed journey over her body, affecting him as it had done years ago when he wanted to protect her from everything bad, even when he had been the one who upset her. He leaned away and released her skirting. The wet hemline fell to the floor.
"Nothing," he said, rising to his feet, struck by his loss of control and stunned by her lack of propriety. "I'm giving you leave to get out of here."
She placed her hand on his chest and moved closer. "I'm not ready to go." Her short strokes burned through to his heart.
"How many men have you been with?" he asked hoarsely.
She looked up. "Men?"
"How many have you not stopped from doing what I was doing?" Anger wracked his insides at the thought of her in the clutches of any lust-driven man other than himself.
Tears rose along her lower eyelids and cascaded over the edge. "Kil, talk to me, please." She bowed her head and rested it against him.
How could he tell her he didn't want her there when he had always dreamed of it?
He had failed to protect her from childhood taunts and failed to live up to the code of honor of his knighthood. The only thing he had managed to do right was drink himself into a stupor and dull the guilt inside him.
"Where have you been all these years?" She was sobbing. "Where's your dragon?"
Her question was natural. His answer was not so simple.
"Dead," was all he managed to get out.
"Drayken is dead?" The sadness in her voice worsened his mood. She'd loved his dragon as much as he had.
He couldn't tell her how his dragon had suffered for him in battle or how the poor creature had died of his wounds and exhaustion. Better no one knew the harrowing details of getting Rachel back.
Kilburn tried to push Juliette away, but her clinging fingers dug deeper to grip his sleeves. Did she have no friends to latch onto? He wasn't the person she remembered. The energy to engage with her vivacious free spirit had left him long ago. Sadly, tragically, he had nothing left in him to make Juliette as happy as she deserved to be.
Anger and bitterness seeped into every vein in his body. If there was ever a moment in time to go back to, he would have chosen his home right after his brother married the Lady Irisa Mansfield. Newly knighted, he and his brothers, Henry and Ware, would have become the greatest dragon fighters in the kingdom's tournaments. When his uncle sent word that Rachel had vanished, he set those plans aside. Ever since then, his world had spiraled downhill.
He raised his hand against Juliette's lower back, tempted to give in to his desire to hug her one more time. Instead, he pulled up her bodice, dragging it into place along with her chemise.
"Get out," he demanded again, trying to step free of her clinging grip. "I'm not in need of any maiden of mercy."
"Kil, please." She cupped his face, unaware how appealing she appeared with her clothing barely hanging from her shoulders. "How were you hurt? Why were you gone so long? What happened to Rachel?"
He grabbed her wrist and moved the caressing touch away. The pulse beating against his fingertips stopped him from letting go. Hurting her was the furthest thing from his mind, but she left him no choice. "Go home." He thrust her arm aside.
"Fine. Don't talk to me. Hide yourself in this castle forever. What do I care?" She swatted the tears from her cheeks as if they were pesky flies.
He resisted the urge to glance down at her fingers swiftly fastening the bodice together. Now was not the time to show her more of his weakness.
A few simple loops and ties, and she had recovered a semblance of modesty.
Then she spun and pulled the door open. "If you speak to Missus Bevy, tell her I'll come by soon to visit Rachel," she said over her shoulder.
"I don't want you to come here ever again." He stormed toward her, hoping to frighten her away permanently.
"I do as I please, Sir Kilburn."
"Juju...." He lifted his hand to his throbbing head, obviously too fast because she flinched. To think she could believe he would hit her was disheartening.
"You have nothing to threaten me with, Kilburn Pembroke, unless you intend to kill me."
Shocked by her comment, he stumbled over his words. "Y-you...you don't know me anymore, Juju."
"Stop calling me that silly name," she said vehemently. "If you can't remember my real one, perhaps you shouldn't address me at all."
He couldn't believe she meant it. When he first came to Stanwyck Castle, he had stuttered badly over certain sounds. Juliette's name had come out Ju--Ju--Juliette. Years younger than he, she had been generous and told him she didn't mind.
Over time, his stutter went away, but Juju became his pet name for her.
The memories were killing him. He grasped her arm at the elbow and escorted her from the Great Hall. Nothing would ever be the same for them. "Take this as a warning, Juliette. If I find you in my presence again, I may not be so lenient in letting your virtue go unscathed."
He shoved her away and slammed the door between them. It removed her from his sight, but he knew deep down he would never be able to cut her from his heart.