“Would you like more wine?” Gareth’s velvety burr ended the silence between them. He had addressed her directly, and she could no longer protect herself by pretending he wasn’t there.
She turned to see him holding a flagon toward her cup solicitously, as if she hadn’t been carefully ignoring him for most of the evening. His gaze on her was a living thing, like the fire licking at the wood in the hearth.
“You are the visitor here, Your Lordship,” she said, trying to keep her voice even-keeled. The consummate hostess. “It is I who should be serving you.”
His eyes went dark at her words.
“Do you wish to serve me?” he asked in a low voice, leaning closer to her. “Because I do not require a wench to do my bidding. What I desire is that which would give you pleasure. If this wine gives you pleasure, I will pour it. If there is something else you would ask of me, it is yours.”
“Gareth.” His reminder cut her off, and she was glad of it because she knew not how to respond.
“Gareth, what do you want of me?” she asked.
“Perhaps more than is advisable,” he said, studying her face. He placed the flagon down on the table. “I told myself that I came to this tourney simply to benefit my people, but that was a lie. I admit, before you came to my keep, I was intrigued by the tales of my fellow clansmen of the rare beauty who parlayed like the veriest statesman at the behest of the king. I was supposed to be searching for a bride, but instead I sought to learn more about you.
“Then I saw you with James’s retinue and I had no choice in the matter, really. I wanted you, and a dance wasn’t enough. When I heard about the tourney, I thought it was a sign.” He shook his head, flashed her a smile that seemed to strike her a direct blow, stealing her breath away. “It is entirely foolish, and I’d laugh at myself if I weren’t in such agony. Did you feel it, too, all those months ago?”
“I know not of what you speak,” Agnes said, looking away from him before he could catch her untruth. Her heart pounded and her dress suddenly felt too small around her chest, constricting her breath.
“For weeks after we danced, I believed the rumors that you were a changeling,” he said in a low voice, pitched only for her ears beneath the tumult of the evening’s festivities. He took her hand in his, and Agnes trembled at the intimacy of the act. “I dreamt of you. I longed for your scent, which laced my jacket, to perfume my bed sheets. I believed it had to be some Sidhe curse to need a woman so badly.”
“Need?” Agnes repeated. The word felt foreign in a way that Gaelic did not, that English did not, although neither was her mother tongue. It could mean many things, this simple word. She had expected that he would want her or desire her; need was a different thing entirely. It was what spurred a surge of envy when she saw how smitten James was with Margaret. It was what left her feeling hollowed out and empty when she clambered into her lonely bed every night.
“Your Lordship, I think you mistake simple infatuation for something more,” she said, unable to meet his intense gaze. She knew if she looked at him she might believe him, and she could not afford to lose herself so easily.
Gareth’s hand grazed her chin, nudging her head up so that she was looking him full in the face. “Do I look like a man who is easily mistaken?”
Agnes’s senses took leave of her. She was like one of the king’s guard, whose vision was restricted to the thin slit in their armor that allowed them to see the road ahead; she feared what obstacles lay just outside her view if she chose to believe Gareth’s words. What could become of such a pairing? Had Gareth given any thought to what his people, and the world, would make of them?
“The poet Dunbar recited some verse yesterday evening after the meal,” she said quietly. “Were you privy to his words?”
“No,” Gareth said, obviously confused. “I find Dunbar is not quite my taste. What poem is this, that captured your attention?”
“‘Why were you blinded, Reason? Why, alas!’” she began, trying to say the words with ease, as if she were simply recounting the poem to any visitor to the court. She pulled her hand from his. “‘And made a hell appear as my paradise, and mercy seem where I found no grace.’”
“Hell? You fear I do not speak truly.” Gareth gave her another assessing look and his features softened. “Or perhaps you are more afraid that I do?”