He was here. In her home.
Elizabeth peered around the woolen blanket that separated the sleeping quarters from the rest of the meager cottage. He stood with his back to her, but there was no mistaking his identity. Micah Bleddyn, overlord of all of Maelgwn, towered head and shoulders above her father, who shifted nervously near her pallet.
Countless black braids fell over Micah's broad, muscled shoulders to hang to the middle of his equally muscled back. Several weeks ago, she'd seen him swimming in the river. She'd watched, fascinated, as the water coursed in rivulets over his creamy, cocoa-colored skin. He'd stood waist-deep in the middle of the river, the current flowing around him as if he were an immovable boulder.
For long moments, she'd stared at him, tracing the planes of his chest and abdomen with her eyes. She couldn't say what prompted the thought, but she'd longed to taste the water directly from his skin. She'd followed the path of hair from his chest as it narrowed over his stomach only to thicken again as it disappeared into the river.
With dark eyes shining, he'd beckoned her toward him, as if he knew her thoughts. Though she'd thought herself well hidden behind the willow that bent gracefully over the bank, he'd known she was there. When she didn't move, he'd taken several steps toward her, more of his body becoming visible in the shallower water. She'd ached to see what lay beneath the surface, but when he'd held out his hand to her, she'd turned and run. His laughter had followed her through the forest.
Since that time, she'd dreamed of him--waking with her blood thrumming through her veins and her skin too sensitive to touch. The worst was the damp ache between her legs that throbbed for the want of a man. Not just any man. Micah.
That same ache caught her unaware as she listened to the rumble of his voice as he spoke to her father. A cold knot of fear coiled in her stomach. Why was the country's ruler here? Could he be here to bring her to the temple? Once she'd passed her last birthday, she'd assumed she wouldn't be chosen as a consort, which was fine with her. No matter the tales of physical pleasure at the hands of the guardians, she had no wish to be passed from man to man until she bred the next generation of magic users.
From what she'd heard, the women were well treated. Those who conceived were kept at the temple and allowed to raise their sons. However, if they birthed a daughter, the child was sent to the village to be reared. The mother had the choice of going to the village to raise her daughter or staying at the temple and trying for a son.
Elizabeth was always surprised by the number of women who chose to abandon their children. She couldn't imagine giving away a baby she'd created. Her dearest friend, Fiona, had chosen to stay with her little girl. The guardians had gifted her with a handsome dowry and arranged a marriage for her with a kind man.
Serving the temple guardians was a great honor. Fiona considered her time there blessed, promising that Elizabeth would enjoy it, too. But, now, at twenty, she was too old to be chosen.
Which brought her back to her original question. What did the overlord want with her family? Had her father failed to repay his debts again? Or had he done something worse?
Since Micah had returned from the battlefield a few weeks earlier to assume the position of overlord, she'd often seen him ride past her home. She'd assumed he'd been patrolling the borders, overseeing the strongholds that protected Maelgwn from the threat of Cadeyrn raiders. Perhaps he'd had another reason to venture this way. He'd never spoken to her or even stopped. But he'd watched her. He'd watched her with those burning eyes that heated her skin and forced the air from her lungs. And now, he was here. In her home.
"Where is she?" Micah demanded.
Elizabeth startled at the deep timber of his voice. She? Perhaps he sought her sister, Maureen. After all, most of the men of Maelgwn had. Jealousy poked at her. Since when was she envious of Maureen? Since she imagined her with Micah--that's when.
"She's gone to forage for herbs," her father answered.
Elizabeth placed her carefully gathered basket of yarrow and wood sorrel near her feet and crept closer. Obviously, the man was looking for her but why? Panic flared in her stomach. Had someone seen her practicing spells deep within in the forest? She'd taken great care to make sure her activities remained hidden from prying eyes.
Magic was forbidden to women. All of the men of realm had some ability, but only the most powerful became temple guardians. In addition to helping to advise the overlord, they were permitted to manipulate the unseen forces of nature, helping to protect Maelgwn from the constant threat of the Cadeyrn.
Women discovered to possess magical abilities were punished--some more severely than others. The greater the power, the greater the punishment. Though she could no longer remember her face, Elizabeth could still hear her mother's piteous cries as the flames had taken her.
Since the old overlord, Micah's father, had died, Elizabeth couldn't remember a woman being put to death for using magic. However, the last two mates of Micah's brother had been killed because they hadn't been able to conceive an heir. Several months ago, Collin, along with his third mate, had vanished.
There were rumors the woman had enchanted the ruler and convinced him to take her to safety. But Elizabeth had known the young woman. If she'd had that kind of power, Elizabeth would have sensed it. Intuiting others' ability was one of her more recent gifts.
Her powers continued to develop at a startling pace. While she could hide her spell work, she couldn't control the visions. So far, she'd been fortunate. They'd only revealed themselves when she was alone. However, lately they visited her with alarming frequency. She feared it was only a matter of time before her sedition was discovered. Perhaps, that time had come.
"I'll find her," her father vowed.
Elizabeth snatched up her basket and darted outside. She needed to discover why Micah sought her before she allowed herself to be seen by either man. Creeping around the perimeter of the cottage, she poised to escape into the forest should the need arise.
Her father called her name, his voice ringing through the still air. It sounded as though he headed in her direction. She inched around the side of the house and realized she was beneath the bedroom window. Unable to resist, she peered inside.
Darkly handsome, Micah seemed to take up all the space in the small area. She watched, mesmerized as he lifted her nightgown from her bed. Slowly, he crushed the fabric in his huge hands and lifted it to his face. Closing his eyes, he inhaled.
Elizabeth gasped as the ache between her legs returned and intensified. Though she'd made barely a sound, his eyes snapped open, and he pinned her with his deep-brown gaze. His firm, almost full lips curved in a knowing smile.
"Mine," he mouthed.
Her father's voice galvanized her into action. With a last glance at Micah, she raced into the trees surrounding her home. Branches tore at her skin and dress as she crashed through the brambles. He must know of her treasonous behavior and meant to punish her.
She would not die in agony like her mother. If she could get far enough upstream, she might be able to disappear into the catacomb of caves. If she were lucky, she could survive there until the search had been abandoned. Unless Cadeyrn warriors found her first. Distantly, she wondered where the temple guardians were. They'd been present when the former overlord had taken her mother.
The crashing of branches sounded behind her. She glanced around. The only person she saw was Micah. His long, powerful legs closed the distance between them. Desperately, she tried to run faster, but he kept up with her. Leaping over a fallen log, she dodged a patch of briars. Her lungs burned as she forced air in and out.
"Stop!" he yelled. "I command you to stop!"
He was getting close. Too close. She pushed a whip-like branch aside, letting it fly free as she passed. Satisfied with the resounding thwack and the bellow of rage that followed, she turned west.
The sacred oak grove lay on the other side of a deep ravine. If she could reach it, perhaps she could scramble up a tree and hide until he ceased searching for her. She spared a glance over her shoulder. The branch hadn't slowed him as much as she would have liked. The anger seething in his eyes brought back memories she'd submerged until now.
Fifteen years ago, on a day much like today, Elizabeth had cried as the overlord tore her from her mother's arms. He'd dragged the chained, sobbing woman from her family. Now, at twenty years of age, it seemed Elizabeth's fate would be the same. She consoled herself with the thought that she wouldn't be leaving behind two young children.
She struggled to keep her legs moving through the blazing pain that shot through her muscles. A dense copse of trees spurred her on. She needed to find a hiding spot and catch her breath. If not, she'd die of exhaustion long before the flames seared her skin.
Micah's harsh inhalations sounded in her ear. How had he'd gotten so near? Sensing his movement, she turned to the right. It wasn't enough. His fingers tangled in her hair, and he yanked her back against his heaving chest. Despite her struggles, he wrapped his arms around her torso, holding her immobile. His hot breath burned a trail across her cheek as he tightened his grip, nearly crushing the remaining air from her body.
"You will never run from me again."
Tears burned her eyes, but she refused to respond. Gripping her chin, he positioned her head so he could look into her face. Up close, she could see the flecks of gold and green that seemed to swirl through his brown irises. Startlingly long lashes framed his eyes, softening the harsh masculinity of his features. His neatly trimmed beard brushed across her skin, sending tingles of awareness through her limbs. She stiffened and tried to twist from his grasp.
She should be terrified, and to be honest, she was. But his nearness roused other, more unwelcome sensations. As if he knew what she felt, he chuckled, the sound rasping against her taut nerves.
"You are mine now, Elizabeth. Never forget that."
"Your father," he interrupted, "has been informed of my decision."
Staring at the ground, she swallowed hard and forced the words from her lips. "What decision?"
She tried to keep from trembling as she waited for him to list her transgressions against the realm and the torturous death that awaited her. At least, she'd be with her mother again. The thought didn't do as much to reassure her as she'd hoped.