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Is their passion strong enough to break her chains?
Andalucía Spain, 1489: Innocent Beatriz is desperate to escape the threat of a miserable marriage to a cruel Marquis. Forced into the betrothal by her ruthless merchant papá, her only hope is to conceal her identity and become a servant in a nearby castle—a life drastically different from her comfortable upbringing.
Tomás doesn’t know what to make of his well-spoken new servant girl. Her beauty and charm captivates the military hero; her mysterious nature intrigues him. And the desire she ignites burns brighter with each glance, as does his longing to claim her for his own.
Beatriz can’t resist Tomás’ passion nor deny the heat of her own. But neither the lush countryside nor the walls of the opulent Moorish castle can entirely protect her—and if he were to discover her secret, she could be torn away from him forever. Yet how can she sustain his love if she’s living a lie?
Tomás slumped in his chair. A lone candle barely illuminated his desk, leaving his study in shadows. The hour was late, moon high, silvery rays bleeding around the window screen. His guests were finally in their bedchambers, asleep or devising plans to trap him.
He hardly cared anymore. To have these few seconds without them was a relief, though he didn’t want to be alone, and wouldn’t be for long if history proved him correct.
He relaxed as much as he could, waiting, wanting.
Light tapping sounded in the hall. Beatriz’s footfalls, as he’d expected.
Each workday before retiring, she came to his study to dust and straighten up. At least he supposed that’s what she did in here. He’d always waited in another chamber to hear her leave. Once she had, he’d return, hoping to catch her clean scent.
Sometimes he did. Most often, he did not.
Knowing her schedule, he took to straightening up before she arrived, hoping to ease her burden so she could go to bed sooner. Even with his efforts, she often spent close to an hour in here. Perhaps curled up in his chair, napping, because she preferred his study to the servant quarters or she might have simply roamed the room, touching the fine leather, books, and other items she’d never have.
The silver door handle lowered. Tomás sat up. She slipped inside and closed them in, secluded from everyone else on earth.
He held his breath.
Candle and dust cloth in hand, she crossed the space, glanced his way, and stopped abruptly.
He smiled, aching to see her return his greeting the same as she had earlier at the window. What a moment. No riches or position could replace the desire, acceptance, and pure joy he’d seen on her lovely face then.
Gone now. She was back to being a servant, curious or cautious as to why he was in his own study at such an odd hour.
“Forgive me for startling you. I had things to do in here.” He wasn’t about to explain what they might be.
For him to admit he wanted to be her friend, as he’d considered earlier, would be reckless. She might laugh or think him mad. Best he approached the subject carefully. “Go on, tend to your duties.” He lit five more candles so she could see easily. “If you need me to move from my desk, say the word. I shall obey your command immediately.”
She lowered her face though not before he caught her smile. His mood soared.
“I can return later.” She pivoted.
He stood. “If you leave, so will I. Do you want to drive me from my work?”
She stopped, but didn’t face him. “Never.” After putting down her candle, she hurried to the bookcase and swiped at the shelves. “If you want me to stay, I will. Whatever you wish.”
Ah, more wishes. Tomás sank back to his chair. If only she knew what he had in mind for them, past friendship, of course. Evenings, afternoons, and every morning filled with the most wanton delights, them naked, laughing, loving.
She looked over.
He grabbed a book from his desk and flipped a page. The moment she resumed her work, he turned the book right side up. He read the first line several times not understanding a word and gave up.
She dusted the bookshelf, removed a volume, scanned the other spines then inserted the book she held in another location.
Where the text should have been from the start.
She’d done so effortlessly, without pause or forethought. The same as him, not an illiterate servant.
He considered the titles he had on the shelves. “You come in here every night you work, no?”
She nodded, her back still to him.
“I seem to have lost one of my volumes.” He stated the title. “Have you seen the book in here? I looked earlier, but have yet to find the thing anywhere.”
“Here it is.” She pulled the edition off the shelf and had nearly reached him when she stopped, her face horrified at what she’d revealed.
Tomás wagged a finger playfully. “You can read. I thought so.”
She put the book on his desk and backed away. “Only a few words. Titles mainly.”
“Of Spanish history?” He gestured to the volume she’d brought to him. “And agriculture?” He pointed to the book she’d relocated on the shelf. “How odd you learned those things, not merely a few passages from the Bible as most would.”
“I must return to my work.”
“Wait. I insist.”
She faced him but squared her shoulders, her stance surprisingly defiant.
He had no idea why. He wanted to talk to her, hopefully kiss her, not fight. “Who taught you to read? Your secret is safe. I promise never to tell anyone.”
She certainly hadn’t. At least not in this castle since he would have heard about her skill from Nuncio in the most negative way possible. Odd that she’d keep such an ability hidden. Not that Tomás intended to question her. With her previous fight gone, she reminded him of a frightened doe, ready to dart away.
“Come.” He pulled a box chair over and patted the leather seat. “Sit. Tell me about your teacher.”
“I have nothing to tell. My father taught me before he passed.”
“Your father from the same village where your mother resides?” All of them supposedly peasants, yet they knew how to read.
She twisted her cloth. “He was a baker with a small amount of money to his name. He loved to read and taught me the skill even though I have no use for such things.”
“Do you read in here after you dust?” Surely, books were what had kept her inside the room so long. “Tell me which volume you like best.”
She made a sound somewhere between a whimper and a moan.
“I promise never to tell anyone. Come, sit. Talk to me.”
“Will I still have my position here if I do?”
“Of course. Dust never goes away for long as you well know.”
She laughed softly and sank into the chair, but remained perched on the edge.
“Go on and lean back.” He gestured encouragement.
She remained where she was. “Señor Nuncio would rail at me if he saw this.”
“Me sitting in one of your chairs.”
“Better than the floor, no?”
She worked her mouth trying hard not to smile.
He wished she would. “I have no plans to tell Nuncio anything that might give him another gray hair, wrinkle, or push him closer to the grave. Do you?”
She laughed. “I think not. The volume I enjoy most is Cantar del Mio Cid.”
Tomás couldn’t have been more delighted. The epic poem detailed Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar’s exploits during the early days of Spain’s Reconquista. “The book is my favorite too. We can share his adventures together. Where did you stop in his tale? Wait. Have you finished the story?”
“Not at all. I was about to begin the part where El Cid plans to conquer Valencia.”
“We shall do so together.” He fetched the poem and offered the volume to her. “Read to me, please.”
She took the book reluctantly. “I can only manage titles.”
He laughed at her teasing, liking her ready wit, the way she already treated him as a friend. He brought over two candles to give her enough light. “Pretend every line is a title. Your duty now is to read to me.”
“For how long? I still have to dust.”
“After we finish with El Cid, I can help.”
She laughed throatily.
“You doubt my ability?” He feigned insult. “How can you? I have the combined skill of three dozen servants, the stamina of twenty men, and the dedication of every zealot on earth.”
“Someone should write an epic poem about you.”
He laughed so hard his belly hurt, tears stinging his eyes. “Go on.” He gestured. “Read.”
She did, flawlessly, her skill as great as his, a nobleman. Or her father’s, the baker.
Tomás had never met one educated in anything other than making bread, cakes, and such, along with having the most elementary knowledge of reading and mathematics to operate a business.
However, since he’d spent most of his days battling Moors, his understanding of those who lived in the villages was limited, even the ones he now owned. In years past, the only time he’d stepped foot in those places was after the Moors had raided them. With the destruction he and his soldiers had faced, there hadn’t been time to get to know the people.
He wouldn’t make the same mistake with Beatriz.
Her lashes cast shadows on her cheeks from the candlelight, the glow adding a touch of gold to her complexion. Her lips caressed the words she read, the movement bewitching, beckoning him to taste her mouth.
She turned the page. Her hands were lovely and quite pale, despite the work she did here. She bore no healed burns from hot pans in her father’s bakeshop, nor had washing pots there left her skin red and raw. Tending a feeble mother hadn’t harmed her beauty either.
With Beatriz here, her mamá had no one to care for her, unless another relative handled the task or Beatriz paid someone. Given her reading skills, she should have gone to one of the large cities, rather than staying in the countryside. In a more populated area, she might have found work as a tutor for a prosperous family, earning far more.
He might never have met her.
She was here now, tending to him, reading a story they both loved, sitting close. He touched her arm.
She stopped reading.
He smiled softly, unable to help himself, his soul and heart bared to her. Although she was one of the loveliest women he’d ever known, he liked her as a person, enjoying her voice and laugh, how she looked at him with wonder and desire, no different than his passion for her.
He cupped her face. The book slipped from her grasp and hit the floor. He brushed his mouth over hers. She inhaled sharply, her hand on his chest.
He slanted his mouth over hers and parted her lips with his tongue, entering her, tasting sweet moisture, reveling in the clean, fresh flavor. The finest food had never been better. He had to have more and angled his mouth for greater penetration, his tongue probing deeper.