Lord Duinel only returns home once a year, when something savage rides across his lands under a moonless sky. He’s resigned to the curse — until he meets Nimae, a young woman at ease in the stables and the woods. She intrigues him; she makes him laugh. And although she’s been marked as the dark hunter’s next prey, Duinel’s determined not to let her be taken.
A fantasy erotic romance story of 8,000 words.
Released March 2013.
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The knight rode into Morahan at sunset, and found waiting in the stables no grooms, only a young woman sitting with a distracted expression on her face as she studied something on her palm: seed pods, he saw, shaped like quails’ eggs. He coughed and she leapt to her feet, cheeks blazing scarlet.
“My lord,” she said, and although straw clung to her clothes and her hair was all askew, he noticed that she had kept hold of the seeds, which she slipped into a pocket. “I’ll see to your horse.”
“I’ll stay to make sure he behaves. He doesn’t take well to most people.” Kir, his stallion, snorted as though to agree.
But she came to Kir fearlessly, somehow both forthright and gentle in her manner. “I know horses, my lord.” She took something out of her other pocket—an apple—and cut out a thin slice with quick movements. Kir accepted her offering, and even tolerated her touch as she ran her hands down his legs and picked up his feet to check for stones.
“I can see that you do,” he said in wonder. “What are you, one of the wood-fae, to so effortlessly charm animals?”
He caught only a glimpse of her laughing eyes before she bent to brushing Kir’s hindquarters. “No, my lord. I work in the stables; that’s all.”
“You weren’t here when I came last year.”
She shook her head; more hair fell out of the hopeless, failing knot she’d made of it at her nape. He resisted the urge to pull the rest of it free. “I came to work here almost exactly a year ago, when I needed a place to keep Imri. She gets board, and I get to be near her everyday.”
He looked where she gestured: the corner stall. He walked over and saw a fine mare standing within, who gazed at him with a sleepy but intelligent eye. She was built for speed, for dancing on winds. She was no stable-girl’s horse.
“How did you come by her?” he asked.
Her back stiffened. “I didn’t steal her. She was gifted to me, by a knight I found injured near my cottage. His name was Lord Euwain. I tended to him in his last days. He had no kin, he said, so he told me to keep what I wanted of his, except his sword, which he wanted returned to the lord of Morahan. That’s how I came to be here—the steward gave me a place once he heard my tale.”
He was quiet a moment, thinking of his fellow knight lingering near death. “I didn’t mean to insult you,” he said, and her tense shoulders eased a bit. “I’m glad one of my comrades found peace under your care.”
“I wish I could have done more,” she said. “But I only know a small bit about herbs and healing. I’m trying to learn as much as I can.”
“Those seed pods,” he said, remembering.
She smiled. “Yes. They’re from the royal balsam plan. If you flick them open”—she demonstrated by pulling one out and tapping it hard with her fingernail, whereupon it split open—“they’ll scatter their seeds, which are useful for clearing fevers when ground and boiled with water. But if you manage to coax them open…” This time she stroked the felted skin with a delicacy that made him suddenly wish she was stroking something else. The seed pod slowly unfurled like a shy maiden blossom. “Then the seeds can be used for clear sight, which is often just as useful, if not more so.”
There was something about her delight in the discovery that drew him in as well. He’d known ladies of argent blood and peerless beauty. This disheveled stable creature intrigued him even so. “What’s your name?”
“Nimae,” she said, blinking.
“I am Duinel,” he said. “And the stallion you see to is Kir.”
“He’s beautiful,” she said, stroking Kir’s neck. Then she gave Duinel a sly look. “How did you come by him?”
She surprised a laugh out of him. “We’ve been companions for a long time, ever since he was born a foal here.” He patted the stallion’s muzzle affectionately.
It took her a moment to absorb this. “You’re the lord of Morahan.”