"Maud!" he called.
She drew in her breath, for never before had he addressed her in such an intimate way. She felt as though he was reaching out to her, trying to draw her to him. She shivered, wanting to answer him yet fearful her voice would reveal her turmoil, her longing to go to him, to have him speak to her and her alone, to have him share his innermost thoughts with her and, she couldn't deny it, to have him touch her.
"Maud," he said again, his voice softer yet no less fervent, "come to me."
Without thinking, as though impelled by an inner need over which she exercised no control, she stepped toward him only to stop at once, shaking her head. No matter how much she longed to do his bidding, she knew she mustn't for, if she did, all reason would be overthrown and for her there would be no turning back. Ever.
He slapped his riding whip against his gleaming black boots, slapped it once, twice, three times, then hurled the whip impatiently to one side. He held out his hand to her. "Come to me, Maud," he commanded, his voice husky and intense.
For a breathless moment she wavered, poised between fear and desire, then she whirled away from him and ran. She ran across the moss-covered stones of the monastery floor, ran along the path from the crest of the hill to the cluster of trees where she'd tethered Juno, the horse whinnying as she neared her. Hurriedly leading the mare to one of the fallen granite stones, she used it as a mounting block, stepping to its top and pulling herself up into the side-saddle.
Glancing behind her, she could no longer see Lord Montrain. Relief washed over her while at the same time she felt a strong undertow of disappointment. A regret such as Lord Wellington might have experienced after preparing elaborate defensive fortifications only to have Napoleon's army fail to attack.
Urging Juno into a lope, she followed the track leading back to Twin Oaks, back to home, to her father, to the safety of the familiar, to a haven far from this hilltop where druid priestesses once performed their pagan rites.
Following the path into a woods, she found herself in a veritable tunnel burrowed through the enclosing trees. Branches thick with leaves met and intertwined to form a canopy above her head and, by denying entry to the sun, created a world of perpetual twilight below.
Juno's hooves thudded on the dirt, lush foliage rushed by her in a blur, birds shrilled their cries of alarm. A doe, startled, raised its head at her approach, then bounded from the path to disappear among the trees.
Hoofbeats thudded behind her. Glancing over her shoulder, Maud saw Lord Montrain astride a galloping black stallion. She gasped. It was Vulcan. How could she and Juno possibly outrun him?
Grasping her whip, she struck Juno's flank and felt the horse respond with a forward surge. Horse and rider burst from the grove at full gallop, leaving the shadows for the sudden blinding glare of sunlight, racing across a field white with daisies.
She heard Vulcan pound ever closer. The warm air tugged at her cap and hair, molded her skirts to her legs. Her breath quickened, she heard a sound and looked to her right; he was there, beside her. He reached for Juno's reins, grasped them in one hand and pulled back. Stifling a scream, she struck at him with her riding whip. Ignoring her, he reined in Vulcan, slowing and stopping Juno at the same time. Maud, holding to the pommel, slid from her saddle to the ground. She ran from the path into the high grass, through the daisies, her pulses quickening when she heard him running behind her, his footsteps coming closer and closer. Looking over her shoulder she saw he was almost upon her, his eyes glinting, his hair tousled. She tripped, reached out to catch herself only to tumble face down on the grass amidst the daisies.
She twisted around onto her back and looked up to see him standing over her with his hands on his hips, his chest rapidly rising and falling, his face expressionless. He was no longer Lord Montrain, he was the Black Knight of her childhood dreams come to rescue her from the tower, he was her knight errant ready to defend her honor on the field of battle, he was a highwayman about to carry her off to his forest fastness. He was all of these yet he was more since he was real.
Suddenly he dropped to his knees at her side.
"Why did you run from me, Maud?" he asked softly. "You know I'd never harm you. You do know that, don't you?"
She stared up at him. Yes, he was right, she did know without understanding how she knew. Intuitively. She nodded slowly, shyly, all the while wondering if he could hear the pounding of her heart.
He reached to her and she thought he was going to caress her face, but instead his fingers felt along the strap beneath her chin until he found the button. He twisted the button, the strap came loose and, with infinite care, he removed her jockey cap, allowing her brown hair to spring free and halo her face.
"You're so beautiful," he murmured as he stared down at her, slowly shaking his head as though he couldn't believe the evidence of his eyes. "You're my beautiful druid priestess."
Held in thrall, unable to speak, she was conscious of him and him alone, his black wavy hair, his dark brown eyes, the pleasing curve of his lips. The violence she'd sensed in him before was gone, replaced by an infinite tenderness. When he leaned to her, she knew he meant to kiss her. She held her breath.
His lips barely touched hers, glided over hers in the lightest, most delicate, most delightful of caresses. She closed her eyes...