‘The only part of my marriage which was good was finding that little girl.’ She shook her head. ‘I won’t lose these lands. They were part of my dowry.’
‘Why do you blame yourself?’ Valdar asked. ‘Gode told me about how you saved the estate.’
‘Gode is biased.’
‘You give yourself too little credit.’
Her anguished gaze met his. Valdar’s insides twisted. Here was a woman who was trying to do the right thing.
Without thinking, he pulled her into his arms. For a brief heartbeat she rested her head against his chest. He hated how right she felt and he knew in his heart that his dream about kissing her had been real.
She wasn’t looking for anyone. She had made that very clear. And it would be wrong to start anything. Alwynn was not the sort of woman you took for one night. She was the sort of woman who needed more than he could offer.
‘Why would Lord Edwin want to foster Merri or take your lands?’ he asked against her hair, which smelt of sunlight, wild flowers and her.
She lifted her head and he forced his arms to fall away. He had no right to hold her, no right to ask anything of her. Once she knew who he truly was, any desire would fall away. She stepped away. ‘I refused an earlier offer of his. A less-than-honourable offer.’
It was easy to guess what sort of offer it had been. An unaccustomed surge of anger and jealousy swept through Valdar. He wanted to run his sword through the man. Instead he concentrated on breathing steadily.
‘I see,’ he said when he felt he could control his emotions. When he was a boy, his father had taught him that a good warrior does not give in to his emotions. It was only through detaching himself that he could fight effectively. Uncontrolled emotions had no place in his life. He had to put duty above everything, including any woman. The gods had given him a second chance when they had washed him up on these shores. But their purpose had been so that he could right a wrong done to his friends, not to end his family’s curse.
‘I hope you do.’ Her direct gaze met his. ‘I am not in the market for becoming some man’s plaything. I have worked too hard to give up my independence...for any man. The one good thing about my husband dying is that I have gained a sort of freedom. I am not about to give it up. I’ve no intention to remarry or to be forced into a convent.’
‘In my experience, it is best to wait to be asked.’ He made a bow. ‘In case the other party takes offence.’
‘Our relationship must be chaste.’ She tugged at the neck of her gown. ‘What happened just now...me in your arms. It can’t happen again. Ever.’
‘What did happen? I held a woman in my arms who was upset because she’d been betrayed and needed comforting.’ Valdar tightened his jaw. Alwynn was rejecting him as surely as Kara had done. At least she was being honest about it, but there had been something about the way her eyes darkened when she was in his arms. ‘I would do the same for any woman. My sister-in-law, for example.’
‘Or the healer?’
‘She doesn’t need my help, not any more,’ he said far too quickly as he waited for the ache which always came when he spoke of Kara these days. He silently cursed. The ache was a tiny niggle, almost unimportant, but certainly not the great empty ache he was accustomed to. He had carried the weight of it around for so long that it had become a part of him and now it had gone.
‘Are you sure about that?’
‘Her husband became a friend after he saved my life in battle,’ he explained. ‘She followed her heart and chose the right man for her. It took me a little while to see it, but she comes alive when her husband is nearby in a way she never did around me.’
‘I see. I apologise for speaking bluntly, then.’ She made a mock curtsy. ‘I doubt I will need any comforting. Our customs are different from yours. In my country it is unusual for a woman...for a woman to behave as I did. I didn’t want you to get ideas. At court they whisper that I am as cold as stone. But I have only done what I had to do to protect my stepdaughter and her inheritance. That is my sole focus now.’
He caught her arm. A tremor went through him, rocking him with its intensity. He concentrated on breathing steadily. Cold as stone? Hardly. Heat as intense as a blacksmith’s fire rushed through him.
The family curse was real—he always fell for women who could not return his affection.
But he had learnt his lesson; he would slay the curse by never giving his heart, by doing what the gods had given him a second chance for. Avenging Horik’s murder and bringing Girmir to justice.
‘No need to apologise. Know that I would do nothing to dishonour you. I’ve pledged my sword to you and your family. My duty comes first.’