What She Wants Chapter Five

Willa was about to make a break for the woods when it struck her that such an action was most likely not behavior befitting a lady. That thought made her pause and the opportunity was lost. Realizing that Hugh was now too close for her to be able to evade him, she promptly turned back toward the river. She dropped to her seated position, forcing herself to appear relaxed as she awaited him. Appearances aside, however, Willa was not relaxed. She was as tense as Wolfy or Fen at the approach of strangers. She was painfully aware of the drum of his horse's hooves as he approached, the creak of leather as he dismounted, and the quiet sounds of his tying his mount to a nearby tree. Then there was a shuffling she could not identify. She gathered from the direction of the sounds that he was moving about in the area just beyond the tree where he'd tied his horse, but could not think what he would be doing. She was also reluctant to turn and look. As foolish as it might seem, she was afraid that one glimpse of her face might show him her lack of resolve, encouraging him to press his suit. It would be better if she ignored him entirely. Willa tensed as she heard the soft sound of his approach through the tall grass.

By a sheer effort of will, she managed not to start or shift nervously away when he settled on the grass beside her. They were both silent for a moment, Willa afraid to peer about at him, he apparently at a loss as to what to say to her. Then a rather sad fistful of flowers was suddenly shoved in front of her face. She blinked at the limp white blooms, then glanced at his face, but he wasn't looking at her. Hugh was staring fixedly at the river coursing by before them, his face flushed red with embarrassment.

"Er..." was all Willa could manage. For want of anything else to do, she took the pathetic little bouquet from his hand and stared at it. It explained what he'd been doing in the woods just now. He'd been plucking flowers for her.

"They are flowers," he announced. Apparently her lost expression made him think she didn't know what she held.

In actuality, they weren't really flowers. They were weeds, and half-dead weeds at that, but she wasn't going to say so. Besides, she supposed it was the thought that counted. And it had been a terribly sweet thought, she decided as she felt tears sting her eyes. No one had ever picked flowers for her before.

"They smelled good, so I thought I would pick you some," he added, his voice gruff. Willa ducked her head, aware that he was now peering at her.

"Jollivet said that women liked men to pick them flowers." He was beginning to sound a bit defensive, she noticed, so she gave a quick nod of agreement in the hopes of reassuring him. She wasn't sure, but he seemed to relax a bit. At least his thigh and arm suddenly brushed against her as if he had released them from a stiff stance. Then she heard him heave out a breath.

"I am not good at courting," he confided. "I have spent more time in battle than at court."

Willa managed another nod and buried her face in the limp flowers, inhaling their odd fragrance with a wrinkled nose.

He continued, "Now Jollivet, he spends lots of time at court. No doubt he would know just what to say to please you... or at least what to say to please your guard, since he prefers men to women."

Willa glanced up sharply at that added thought. He was again staring out over the water, but now his nose was twitching slightly.

"What is that smell?" His gaze dropped suddenly and landed on the two piles of meat she'd set out. A perplexed expression covered his face, only to clear a moment later. "Oh. For those wolves of yours. I suppose - "

He sat up so abruptly that Willa stiffened in concern. Then he was suddenly on his feet and urging her up as well. "Come. I must see you back to the cottage."

"To the cottage?" Willa echoed in bewilderment as she found herself hurried to his horse. He tossed her up on the beast.

"Aye. There is something I must do and - " He paused, reins in hand, and frowned. "But I vowed to guard you until - " He shook his head. "Baldulf will take my place briefly, but I shall return to guard you the moment my task is finished," he assured her as if she might be concerned about that. Then he was up on the horse behind her and urging it back up the path to the cottage.

Willa spent the ride in a confused silence. She was as bewildered by his sudden excitement and urgency as she was by her body's reaction to being near him. She had the decidedly unsettling urge to melt into him. Every muscle in her body seemed to be aching to wilt into his embrace. It was only through stiff determination that she managed not to do so. Even worse was the slightly breathless response she was having to the sight of his hands clasped before her. They firmly gripped the reins, occasionally unintentionally brushing the undersides of her breasts as they rode. Each touch set up a maelstrom inside her. It was a great relief when they reached the clearing and he slid from the saddle to help her dismount. He did not leave her right away, but marched her to the cottage and pushed the door open.

Eada had the new black cloth spread out on the table. Baldulf was sharpening his sword by the fire. Both of them glanced up in surprise at their entrance. That surprise only deepened when Hugh urged Willa to take a seat at the table, ordered Baldulf to keep an eye on her, then turned and left as quickly as he'd entered.

The three of them stared after him curiously for a moment; then the patter of rain on the roof returned. As if it were a cue, Baldulf shrugged and went back to his sword sharpening. Eada bent to her measuring once more. Willa's gaze slid affectionately from one to the other; then she stood and went to help Eada with the gown.

They managed to measure and cut the cloth as the rain poured. Willa would have helped Eada sew, but she had long ago proven herself useless with a needle, so Eada waved her away. With nothing else to do, Willa began to pace. It was a relief to all of them when the rain stopped and Baldulf suggested that he accompany her on a walk. Willa donned a cape, fetched some more meat for Wolfy and Fen, and moved to wait by the door. Baldulf's joints always pained him when it rained and so he was slower than normal. She watched him wince as he tried to pull on his boots, then frowned and glanced outside, immensely relieved when she spotted Hugh riding back into the clearing.

"Never mind, Baldulf," she said as she watched Hugh's friend Lucan approach and hail him. "Hugh is back and as he has pledged to guard me, there is no need for you to trouble with it."

" 'Twould have been no trouble," the older man lied through his teeth, but that was answer enough for Willa. He was content to stay by the fire in the hope that it would warm his old bones and ease his suffering. She flashed him a smile, then opened the door and slipped outside.

Pausing in the center of the clearing, Hugh turned his horse and waited a tad impatiently for Lucan to reach him. He had spent the last two hours traipsing through the rain, then crawling through the mud in search of the prize presently hanging in a sack from his saddle. He was eager to see if it pleased Willa.

"What news?" he asked as soon as Lucan had reined in facing him. "Surely the men are not returned from Claymorgan yet?"

"Nay." Lucan shook his head. "I do not expect them until later this evening at the earliest. If they should return before that I would wonder whether they had time to make the inquiries they were sent to ask."

Hugh nodded in agreement and arched an eyebrow. "Then what brings you out here now?"

Lucan promptly unhooked a sack from his saddle and held it out. "I was restless so I brought you more food. You did not finish your meal this morn."

"My thanks, friend." Hugh accepted the sack and opened it eagerly. He hadn't realized it until just that moment, but he was famished. The scent of roasted meat wafted out and nearly sent him into a swoon.

"You also did not have the chance to ask the hag what might please Willa this morning," Lucan went on as Hugh began to gnaw on a chicken leg. "So I did."

Hugh stopped chewing, and glanced up. "Did you?"

"Aye." Lucan looked rather pleased with himself. "And she suggested that the best way to please Willa is to please those she loves. I thought she meant herself at first, but she said no, the wolves. I think she is underestimating her own place in Willa's affections. The girl seems to bear great love for the woman and doing something nice for the old hag would, no doubt, please her well. But so would doing something for the wolves, I think. Why are you smiling?"

Hugh shook his head, but his smile widened even as he did. "Because that also occurred to me while I was sitting with Willa by the river."

"What did?"

"That doing something nice for her wolves would please her. And I have that something nice right here." He happily patted the sack hanging from his own pommel, then bit off another chunk of meat, chewing it with true enjoyment.

"What - ?" Lucan began, only to pause. His gaze narrowed and his mouth turned down in a frown as something beyond Hugh's shoulder caught his attention. "Uh... you had best..."

Following his pointing finger, Hugh peered toward the cottage just in time to see Willa disappear into the woods behind it. Alone. Cursing, he shoved yet another unfinished meal at Lucan and grabbed up his reins to go after her.

Willa was aware that Lucan had seen her and would no doubt alert Hugh. She fully expected him to come after her. She even wanted him to. She didn't wish Baldulf or Eada to worry. But she also didn't wish to spend any more time with Hugh at the moment. She found his presence disquieting, to say the least. To avoid his unsettling company, she broke into a run the moment she hit the woods, then shimmied up the first likely looking tree. Willa just managed to settle herself in its upper branches before Hugh rode past under her. She watched him go, knowing that he would search high and low for her ere thinking to revisit the cottage to see if she had returned. By her guess she had perhaps half an hour or so to relax ere she would have to go back to prevent his alarming Eada and Baldulf.

Willa waited several moments after Dulonget was out of sight before scrambling back down to the forest floor. She then struck out to the side, making a new path through the trees. She knew she had succeeded in throwing Hugh off her trail when Wolfy and Fen suddenly slunk from the woods to join her. The two wolves might have formed an attachment to her, but they were not friendly toward other human beings. They would not have joined her if anyone but Baldulf were nearby. Not that they were ever far away. They simply tended to melt into the surrounding underbrush and wait until they felt comfortable approaching. Even Eada's presence was enough to send them skulking into the trees.

Smiling at the beasts, she ruffled the fur on Wolfy's head, then scratched behind Fen's ear as she walked along. The animals brushed up against her legs in return, almost as if petting her back with their bodies.

Despite this more roundabout and difficult new path, it wasn't long before they came out at the edge of the river. Willa walked alongside it until she reached the spot where she had earlier left the meat for Wolfy and Fen. As she had expected, the meat was gone. She praised the animals, then retrieved the small cloth-covered bit of meat she had stuffed in her pocket before leaving the cottage. She divided it equally, then set it out for the two bright-eyed beasts and retreated to the rock Baldulf had sat on earlier.

Wolfy and Fen waited patiently until she was settled, then approached the meat she had brought them. Willa hadn't brought much this time. Just a snack really, and it was gone swiftly. Once they had finished eating, both animals settled on their stomachs to lick their paws clean.

Willa watched them, a soft smile curving her lips, then leaned back on her hands and let her head loll backward. The breeze was dancing across her body and blowing her hair gently about. It was soothing and she felt the stress of the last two days dropping away. Then, the drum of hooves made her stiffen. She straightened to glance around a bit wildly as Hugh broke from the trees and trotted toward her.

The fact that neither Wolfy nor Fen - who both had much keener hearing than she - had given a warning of his approach mystified her. Up until now they had only accepted Eada and Baldulf. Her confusion deepened when she realized that not only had they not warned her of Hugh's approach, but they had slunk off, leaving her alone.

"There you are."

"Aye. Here I am." She got warily to her feet as he dismounted. Willa wasn't at all sure how he would react to her deliberately running off. He did appear to have something of a temper and she suspected he would not care for her disobeying him. He hadn't actually ordered her not to leave the cottage unattended, but it had been implied.

However, Hugh didn't appear to be angry when he removed the sack from his saddle pommel and turned to approach her. In fact, she thought he looked rather pleased with himself.

"Where are Wolfy and Fen?"

Willa blinked. That question was the last one she'd expected of him and it took her a moment to find the correct response.

"Well, they... er... they were here a minute ago. No doubt they are still around." She glanced toward the woods rather vaguely, then turned back to eye him suspiciously. "Why?"

He grinned. "Because I brought them a gift."

"A gift?" Curiosity drew Willa forward to peer into the sack he opened for her. At first, all she could make out was a bundle of soft looking gray brown fur. Then, as her eyes adjusted to the dim interior of the sack, she could distinguish features such as long ears and whiskers. "A rabbit?"


She glanced up to see his pleased grin and then, unexpectedly touched at his thoughtfulness, looked down into the sack again. "That was very kind of you, my lord. I - 'Tis alive!"

He nodded eagerly. "Aye. And I cannot tell you what a difficult feat that was. I have hunted before, but never with the object of bringing the animal back alive."

"But - " She stared at him in horror. "Why alive?"

He seemed surprised at the question. "Why, because Wolfy and Fen will enjoy the hunt. It was seeing the meat you had set out for them that gave me the idea. No doubt they have missed the thrill of the hunt."

Willa shook her head. "Pray, excuse me, my lord. Are you saying that you intend for them to hunt this poor animal?"

Finally appearing to recognize that she was not pleased with this gift, Hugh frowned. " 'Tis what wolves do. They hunt. They chase and hunt and bring their prey to ground."

"When necessary, aye," Willa agreed. "But I feed them. I - "

"Aye. But this is their nature." He shook the bag slightly and it began to move as the rabbit kicked about inside. "They are probably missing the thrill of the chase."

She frowned at that and did wonder briefly if she were not somehow hampering Wolfy and Fen by removing their need to hunt. She'd begun feeding them out of necessity, but had continued because... well, she supposed she'd been treating them as pets when she knew they were not. Which had caused a bit of a problem now that she would be moving to the castle and, in effect, abandoning them. Then the rabbit began kicking desperately inside the sack and her gaze was drawn down to it. The animal's nose was twitching frantically, its eyes almost rolling in its head as it kicked futilely against the cloth around it.

Hampering Wolfy and Fen or not, Willa could not watch them rend this poor little creature to pieces. Bringing them raw meat that Baldulf had butchered somewhere out behind the stable was one thing. Watching them tear apart a living rabbit was quite another.

"Call Wolfy and Fen," Hugh suggested and Willa sucked in a breath of air.

"Nay!" she cried. Then Willa impulsively snatched the sack from a startled Hugh and made a run for the woods.

She heard his surprised shout, then a curse and knew he would be after her on horseback in a moment, but she wasn't concerned. Willa knew the woods around here intimately. It was a simple matter to lose him.

The arrival of Wolfy and Fen on either side of her once again assured Willa that she'd lost Hugh. It also presented a new problem. She could hardly let the rabbit go with them about. After a brief hesitation, she turned her steps toward the cottage and wound her way swiftly back home. She made sure to come out behind the stable rather than the cottage itself, in case Hugh was already watching for her there.

Much to Willa's relief, Wolfy and Fen were not overly concerned with the sack she carried, or its contents. They were content to drop back and let her slip out of the woods on her own. Willa made straight for the stable. Sliding inside, she left the door open so she could see what she was doing. She'd just let the rabbit loose in a small pen when someone stepped into the doorway, blocking the light.

Willa wasn't at all surprised to turn and find Hugh glaring at her.

"You - " he began, then paused abruptly as his eyes adjusted to the dimmer interior and he had a clearer view of his surroundings. The stable was actually larger than the cottage itself. The first half was taken up with four stalls, two on either side of the building. Three of them held horses: Willa's, Baldulf's and a third horse that was used when they needed to take the cart. The fourth and final stall had no gate to keep a horse in. It held a chair, a pallet and Baldulf's personal effects. Willa saw surprise cross Hugh's face as he spied this. It was followed quickly by respect as he recognized the depth of the old soldier's loyalty.

Willa found herself almost relieved when his gaze moved on to the second half of the stables. This was where the cart should have been housed, but what space there had been for that was now taken up with several small cages and pens, leaving the cart to sit out in the elements.

Willa watched his gaze move over the pens and cages, saw his eyes narrow as he caught sight of a falcon that sat eyeing him with disdain.

"That falcon is missing a wing," he observed. When Willa remained silent, he moved further into the stable. He looked more closely into some of the other cages. "And this thrush has only one foot."

He turned slowly, his gaze moving over animal after animal. Willa glanced around with him, seeing what he saw. A building full of animals. Some were missing body parts vital to their survival in the wild. Those she kept, knowing that they would not have a chance otherwise. But there were other animals in the process of recovering from injuries or merely sickly and in need of tending. Those she would set free as soon as they were able to fend for themselves.

Her gaze slid back to Hugh and she saw dawning horror on his face. She supposed he was concluding that presenting her with a rabbit for her wolves to tear apart had been the worst possible way to please her.

"You were doing better with your flowers, my lord," she said softly and his gaze shot to her.

Hugh stared at her helplessly for a moment. Then he growled in frustration, grasped her arms and drew her forward to press his lips to hers. For one moment, surprise made Willa go still in his arms. It was long enough for him to brush his lips firmly over hers, then slip his tongue out to urge hers open. In the next moment, she was breathing in his breath. The smell and taste of him overwhelmed her. The caress of his tongue ignited something inside her she had never experienced. It was as if she were suddenly burning up from the inside out, as if a fever were raging through her body.

Willa should have wished to get away from that fever, but instead the opposite was true. She found herself aching to experience more of it, to get as close to it as she could. She began to press against him, almost squirming in an effort to climb inside his skin. When Willa felt his hand slide down toward her chest, she thought he was about to urge her away from him. She moaned in protest. But he didn't push her away; instead that hand closed warm over her breast. She moaned again, this time with undeniable pleasure. The fever coursing through her seemed to coalesce there with tingling excitement added to the heat.

Hugh's lips released hers suddenly and shifted to her throat. She heard him groan her name against the soft skin and her body made a response she was unable to articulate in any way except to grind her lower body against his codpiece. That brought a rather startling, but wholly satisfying response from Hugh. The kiss, which had already been rather passionate, became almost violent and he suddenly rushed her backward until he had her pressed up against the wall. Pressing one knee between hers, he held her in place and leaned back to begin jerking rather desperately at his chain mail.

Willa watched him in bewilderment until he gave up the effort with a growl and grabbed her by the upper arms. Almost rough in his excitement, he dragged her against his chest for another fast and furious kiss. Willa was breathless and nearly brainless when he ended it... until he growled, "Marry me."

The words pierced her pleasure, bringing her crashing back to earth with a thud. Ducking her head, she tried to clear her poor, woolly mind. He destroyed her efforts by simply covering her breast with his hand again and squeezing encouragingly. Willa stared at the sun-darkened hand covering the mound and found it difficult to breathe.

"I - " She gasped as he released her and suddenly jerked the neckline of her peasant dress down. For one moment, her breast was vulnerable to the open air, her hardened nipple appearing unusually dark against her pale flesh. Then his hand covered it again, and this time the slightly rough skin of his callused hand was actually against her bare flesh. Willa closed her eyes against the erotic sight and tipped her head back. She panted softly as he caressed her.

"Marry me." This time the words were a whisper against her skin as his lips replaced his hand. He began to suckle her flesh, tugging her nipple as if he were a babe at his mother's teat. Willa's response was not maternal. Crying out, she arched into him, then cried out again in protest when he stopped and straightened.

"Do not stop," she pleaded, catching his face in her hands and trying to tug him back down. He resisted, waiting until he had her attention before repeating, "Marry me."

Willa went still in his arms.

"Marry me, so that I can do this to you again and again." He shook her slightly. "Marry me."

She stared at him, her mind in an uproar. One part of her wanted to scream, "Aye. Now. This minute." Anything to keep this unbearable pleasure from ending. To experience it over and over again through the long years ahead with the sanctity of marriage to make it sweeter. But that was the trick. If Eada were correct, it would not be over and over again through the long years ahead. If she agreed to marry him before he crawled to her on his belly, he would die within a month.


He gave her a gentle shake, drawing her gaze back to his and she bit her lip briefly, then murmured, "I do not suppose you feel like crawling around on the ground, do you?"


He looked utterly confused by the question and she took advantage of his muddled state to slip out from between him and the wall. Without a word, Willa turned and hurried from the building.

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