Excerpt from The Banished Bride

     
     Clouds obscured all but the brightest stars and a dampness in the air hinted at an approaching rain. Still, the cool breeze felt good against her cheeks, chasing away the last vestiges of her overheated imagination. Aurora stood very still and tilted her head back, listening to the faint rushing of water over the granite rocks, punctuated by the low hoot of an owl.
     "I would have thought you would have welcomed the opportunity for uninterrupted sleep."
     She whirled around at the sound of the soft voice.
     "What about you, sir?" she countered.
     Alex stepped from the side of the cottage. "Perhaps a bit later."
     "You think it necessary to stand guard?"
     "I think it prudent." He came to stand by her side, close enough that she could breathe in the faint scent of bay rum, smoke and peated malt, with an earthy undertone that was distinctly male.
     Her fingers tugged at the corners of her wrap. "Now why is it that 'prudent' is hardly the adjective that comes to mind when I think of you, sir?"
     In answer, a low chuckle rumbled somewhere deep in his throat. "Dare I inquire as to the other possibilities?" he asked. "Aside from 'bumbling', 'odious', and 'insufferable'. I may have missed a few of the other ones you muttered under your breath."
     Not a one! Grateful that the darkness covered the embarrassed twist of her features, Aurora searched for some appropriately pithy reply.
     As if sensing her exact feelings, he chuckled again. "Don't worry. I've been called far worse things over the years." His hands clasped behind his back and his gaze strayed to the dark tangle of trees beyond the field. "And no doubt deserved them."
     "Well, you are remarkably honest, and forthright," she murmured. "Hardly adjectives that come to mind when speaking of men in general."
     In the pale wash of moonlight, Aurora could see his lips twitch in amusement, then settle into a more pensive expression. "I suppose you have seen enough of our foibles to speak with some authority. Still, I'm sorry you have come to hold such a low opinion of us."
     "It's hardly your fault," she murmured.
     "It's my fault that you were dragged into this dangerous affair. By now you could be safely home rather than stuck here in the wilds with a total stranger—two total strangers."
     A strange shiver ran down her spine. Somehow the prospect of home seemed rather more empty than it did several days ago. Before she could make a reply, his jacket came around her shoulders.
     "Sir!" she protested. "You've sacrificed quite enough of your garments for my comfort today."
     "But not nearly enough for mine." His eyes were twinkling just like the stars. "That is, not counting the brief interlude after my bath."
     "You are incorrigible, sir! Do you flirt so shamelessly with anybody who wears a skirt?"
     He took a moment to stare up at the heavens. "No."
     It was not the answer she expected. The teasing tone was gone, replaced by an deeper note that rung of melancholy or perhaps regret. Her head started to jerk around, only to find itself drawn down against his shoulder. She could feel the heat of him through the rumpled linen, and hear the steady beat of his heart. A good deal more steady than her own at the moment. Such intimate contact should have drawn a sharp rebuke, but for some reason, the protest died on her lips and she made no attempt to pull away.
     "Do you see Orion?" he asked abruptly, pointing up at the stars. "According to Greek mythology, he was a hunter, pursued by the Goddess Diana. When she accidentally killed him, she begged the Gods to immortalize him in the night sky." He paused." If you follow the line of his belt, it leads you to the North Star. There. Do you see it?"
     She nodded.
     "No matter where you are in the world, you can always find your way by using the constellations."
     "A sad story." She shifted so that cheek rested against the base of his neck. "What is it that you are hunting, Alex? And are you often lost?"
     There was a flash of vulnerability in his eyes. "More times than I care to admit."
     Aurora watched as the clouds scudded across the night sky, changing the pattern of winking lights with every passing second. "It is not always easy to discern the right path." The crescent moon was visible for an instant, only to disappear just as quickly. "The life of a soldier must not be an easy one. Why, many times, the choice is not yours to make."
     The wry smile was back on his lips. "Perhaps that makes it the easiest life of all." His hand sought hers, enveloping it in his warmth. "And what of you, Aurora Sprague? Do you march along with steadfast steps, undaunted by any obstacle that may arise in your path, until you have arrived at your chosen destination?"
     She wasn't sure how long they stood there in conversation. Like the clouds above, each of them revealed only random glimpses of their past lives. The words were cautious, guarded, intent on keeping many things well hidden, but by the time the first rain drop fell, they were no longer mere strangers.
     "You had best go in, before you take a chill," murmured Alex.
     That was quite unlikely, she thought, not with the warmth of his hand on hers, and heat emanating from his chest. She found she was loath to give them up, but the wind kicked up and the drops began to fall with greater regularity.
     "You must take shelter, too."
     He walked her to the threshold. "I will, in a minute." His fingers slipped away. "Good night, Aurora."
     "Good night, Alex." There was a moment of hesitation before she blurted out, "Nice."
     His face betrayed his confusion. "What?"
     "You asked me what other adjectives come to mind regarding you. 'Nice' is one."
     As were 'thoughtful,' 'perceptive,' 'wise' and 'humorous,' though she refrained from saying them aloud. The list could have stretched on quite a bit longer, for during their rambling conversation he had revealed more of himself than he might have guessed. Perhaps most surprising was the fact that he saw his own flaws and, indeed, could laugh at them.
     In her experience, precious few people—especially men—possessed the strength to admit to weakness.
     "You are a nice man, Alex Woodmore. And quite admirable, really. It seems that at heart, you are a good deal less cynical than you would have people believe—including yourself." Without waiting for a response, she ducked her head and hurried inside.
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