Ignoring the appreciative stares of the noblemen around her, she
whirled across the space directly before the sheriff. Dry rushes
scratched against her feet, an odd sensation. The pungent scents
of dried basil, fennel, and rosemary floated up from the floorboards.
Cool air brushed against her naked stomach. She fought the urge to cover herself.
Raising her lashes a fraction, she glanced at Linford. He was not watching! He conversed with Lord Darwell whose tongue, as she well knew from past feasts at Ickleton, always loosened after a few goblets of wine.
Disquiet swirled inside her. Curse Linford! Did the rumors not claim that he enjoyed eastern courtesans? Why, then, did he ignore her?
She spun in a graceful turn. Still, he did not watch.
Frustration bubbled in her throat. By the saints, she must distract him, otherwise Henry would not be able to slip into the sheriff’s solar to find the missive.
Too many lives depended on her. Most of all Rudd’s.
Rexana cast the musicians an urgent glance. Faster, her mind cried. As though sensing her urgency, the drummer nodded, quickening the pace. She threw out her arms and stamped her feet. The tiny bells at her ankles chimed.
Whirling even nearer the lord’s table, she thanked the holy saints that the poor lighting and dark cosmetics would hinder Darwell from recognizing her. As would the veil and head covering, she silently reminded herself. The musicians had commented earlier how thoroughly all her features, except her eyes, were concealed.
Spurred by a burst of confidence, she drew close enough to distinguish the sheriff’s deep, slightly rough voice. Close enough to see the tanned plane of his cheek and the hard, sensual curve of his mouth. Close enough to speak to him, if she dared.
“Look at me,” she whispered, “Look at me.”
Linford glanced up. Over the floating veil, she caught his gaze. His eyes were brown and shadowed by wickedly long, black lashes. His wary, perceptive gaze slashed into her with stunning force.
She stumbled, caught herself, and disguised her falter with elaborate turns. As she spun back to face the dais, she saw Henry edging his way to the stairwell.
Fear sharpened her breaths. Her gaze shot to Linford. He had not seen Henry. Laughing at a comment from Darwell, Linford turned the fig slowly in his fingertips. The sapphire ring on his hand glinted as he tossed the fruit into his mouth, then stared directly at her.
So, she had captured his attention.
A spark of satisfaction warmed her. With a smooth swivel of her hips, she dropped to the rushes. The drummer faltered, then resumed his frantic pace. Do not fail me, she prayed.
With catlike movements, she crawled across the coarse rushes. The tang of crushed herbs, rotting food scraps, and mildew filled her nostrils. Never in all her years had she been this close to a hall floor. Her mother would have swooned with horror to hear of such an occurrence.
A blush stung Rexana’s cheeks. Resisting the urge to scramble to her feet, she rose up on her knees, arching her spine to flaunt her bare skin. She must focus on her goal, not her fear. No one recognized her. No one would ever know of this incident. Once Henry had the missive, she could forget all about this eve.
Curving her arms in an elegant move, she straightened and rose to her feet. She peeked at Linford through her splayed fingers. His gaze met hers. He slid another fig between his teeth, chewed, then licked his bottom lip.
She glided toward him.
He resumed talking with Lord Darwell.
A scream burned for release. Stubborn, stubborn man. She had piqued his curiosity. Now, how did she keep him enticed? How did she hold the interest of a savage?
Heady anticipation shimmered through her. She must think like a barbarian. Act the part of an infidel courtesan. Play to his desires. Reveal the wildness trapped in her soul.
Closing her eyes to the faces around her, she focused on the tabor’s rhythmic beat as well as the plaintive melody. Reminded herself that Rudd’s life hinged upon this moment. Stretched her body and limbs farther than she ever had before.
The ankle bells tinkled.
Step. Whirl. Step. Sway.
Fear, anxiety, and longing bloomed inside her, feelings she had known well since childhood. The schooling of a titled lady left little time for chasing beetles or butterflies, or for picking bouquets of stringy wildflowers.
Her parents had expected her to accept her noble duty. She had done so. Bravely. Willingly. She had loved and trusted them. Now, they lay buried in the hard earth.
Dance, Rexana! Step. Whirl. Step. Sway.
He was watching now.
The silk brushed against her legs, a sensation similar to the breeze wafting through the grasses near her secret pool.
There, surrounded by the quiet majesty of trees and weathered rocks, she allowed the stifled voice inside her to cry out.
There, lifting her hands to the sun, she absorbed the power of the vast blue sky and the soil beneath her feet.
Surrendering to the passionate howl inside her, she danced.
She reached her palms upward. Aye, just like that.
Step. Whirl. Step. Sway.
Rexana dared another glance. Linford stared as though he could not look away. As though her dance seduced him.
She rolled her head and shoulders in a slow, sensual arc.
Exhilaration flooded her mind.
Her steps quickened.
The familiar cry hummed through her body. Heightened her senses. Infused her heart and soul with a heady blend of joy, confusion, and . . . yearning.
Her body arched.
She danced as she dared near the pool, where no one could see, with only her reflection to laugh at her folly. In those moments, she felt more alive than at any other time in her life.
As she whirled in wild momentum, she heard the music slow. The dance was ending. Too soon!
She would summon the musicians to begin another song. She lowered her arms. Blinking away the haze of bittersweet memories, Rexana dipped her head, then extended her arms in an elegant finale.
The last strains of the music stopped.
The hall fell silent.
Her breaths, obscenely loud, rattled in her throat.
Why had the chatter and merriment halted?
She raised her head a fraction. Her pulse kicked against her ribs. Darwell sat alone at the lord’s table, his cheeks flushed and his jaw gaping.
Not five paces to her right stood Linford, his arms crossed over the front of his tunic. Half masked by smoky shadow, his face revealed no emotion.
She rubbed her trembling hands over her belly. What had happened? Had Darwell recognized her? Had he told the sheriff her identity?
Fear shot through her. For herself. For Henry and the musicians. For Rudd.
Tugging her veil closer about her face she took two startled steps back.
“You will not run away.” Linford’s mouth tipped up in a half smile. He crooked a finger. “Come here, little dancer.”