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Thrill of the Knight
by Julia Latham

A lady's deception

Lady Elizabeth Hutton will never succumb
to the ambitions of a neighboring lord--even
after his soldiers imprison the newly orphaned
heiress in her own bedchamber.  Ever
resourceful, the proud beauty has devised a
strategy to escape the devil who's determined
to possess her and her great wealth: she will
switch roles with her loyal maid so that she
can save herself and her people.

A knight's rapture

Sir John Russell's love of adventure has always
carried him to far-flung places and dangers--
and now he must ride to the rescue of the
noblewoman he hasn't seen since boyhood.
However, it is not his bride-to-be but her
bewitching servant who enflames his passion--
and Sir John's desire for the fiery beauty
threatens to undermine his sacred, sworn oath,
forcing a noble knight into the most devastating
choice of his life: between duty and honor...
or ecstasy and disgrace.

Book 1 of the "League of the Blade" series
(the books don't have to be read in order)
Thrill of the Knight

Excerpt Below!

"A bit of Shakespearean-style mayhem caused by switched identities, a few mishaps and a delightful ending, complete with an appearance from King Henry, bring happiness to all."
Romantic Times Magazine

Article about Gayle writing as Julia

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Excerpt

(The following is the property of the author and Avon Books, and cannot be copied or reprinted without permission.)


(Plot summary: Elizabeth was supposed to be held captive by a man who wants to marry her for her dowry and the earldom that comes with it. She trades places with her servant, Anne, to try to figure out a way to rescue herself and her people. John, her betrothed, whom she hasn't seen since childhood, is also in disguise as bailiff. He's trying to figure out a way to rescue the woman trapped in the tower, unaware that the maidservant, Anne, is really his future bride. They are traveling by cart, and John decides to stop for a meal.)

            Elizabeth remained perched on the bench of the cart, looking down on a confused Sir John.  It was too secluded here.  Trees grew protectively around a small stream, and she could hear its gentle babble. 
They were alone.  Truly and completely alone, no one within calling distance, no one to stop him should he try—

            What?  What did she think he would do to her?  After all, she'd known him only several days, and this fragile feeling of friendship that had formed between them could be an illusion.  Perhaps it was part of a wicked plot.

            A plot to seduce a maidservant?  Why would he bother, when with his face and good nature, he could have any woman he wanted? 

            "Anne?" Sir John said, reaching up a hand.  "May I help you down?"

            He was the one injured, a splint on his leg.  She meant to turn and put her foot on the wheel, but he caught her about the waist and lifted her off her feet.  Startled, she clutched his shoulders as she was lowered easily to the ground.  For a moment they stood thusly, their hands on each other while they stared.  She had felt the strength in him, the way the muscles in his shoulders bunched and moved.  His hands were large on her waist, making her feel delicate.  And for a woman who was considered tall, she didn't even reach his shoulders. 

            She took a step away, looking anywhere but in his eyes.  "So you brought us a meal?"

            "Of course."  He reached down within the cart and brought forth a stuffed satchel.

            "We could eat right here," she said, looking about the grass clearing.

            He smiled knowingly.  "I suggest beneath the trees, by the stream.  We'll be thirsty.  And we wouldn't want your fair skin to redden.  You unpack the satchel, and I'll see to the horse."

            Elizabeth gritted her teeth and turned away from him, striding toward the water.

            "You look as if you're marching off to battle," he called, amusement in his voice.

            She ignored him.  It was cooler back beneath the trees.  The stream flowed over a tumble of rocks, then wound down a hillside away from them.  Wildflowers peaked from beneath ferns and from within the stand of trees.  It was a peaceful place, and she felt her anger cooling, her dismay being replaced by resolve.  They would eat and leave.  There were still plenty of hours of daylight left for the journey home.

            Adalia had thought of everything when she packed the satchel.  There was a cloth to sit upon, and Elizabeth spread it wide and knelt down.  She set out a round loaf of bread, cheese, almonds, and strawberries.  There were two horns with ale in them.  Simple fare, but she found her mouth watering as she looked at the feast.

            She heard Sir John's uneven gait and looked up in time to see him coming toward her.  She almost thought she saw resolve on his face, but then he was smiling, and she forgot the strange thought.

            "You set a fine blanket, Anne," he said, as he dropped his crutch. 

He bent forward, braced his hands on the cloth, then turned and seated himself right beside her, rather than across the cloth, where she'd intended.  Nothing about this day was going as she'd planned, and she feared it could only get worse. 

"Almonds?" he said, surprised.  "Your cook thinks highly of you to spare such a luxury."

She nodded, hiding a wince.  Perhaps that had been foolish of Adalia.  She broke apart the bread and handed him a piece, only to see that her fingers were trembling.

He noticed it, too, for his smile faded, and he glanced up at her.  "Anne?  Is there something you fear, some cause for nervousness?  Tell me it is not because of me."

"Of course not," she scoffed, keeping her hands busy by ripping the bread into even smaller pieces.  "I have not been away from my mistress since she was held captive, and I worry what is going on at Alderley."

"If it eases your mind, I told Philip to pay attention to the tower as much as possible.  He's already befriending the soldiers, so I'm sure he'll be able to prevent anything from happening."

"But…why would he form friendships, and then risk that to antagonize the soldiers?"

Sir John shrugged, and seemed to attack a piece of cheese with too much eagerness.

"Is he doing this…for my lady?" she asked softly.

"Until both your bailiff and I are recovered, Philip and I will remain at Castle Alderley.  It only makes sense to help where we can."  Then his blue eyes focused on her.  "Because your mistress only has you to help her.  Bannaster seems determined to keep her alone and desperate."

She nodded, shredding a piece of bread in her fingers.  "And did you find another way to help?" she blurted out.

He stiffened.  "What do you mean?"

"Someone lowered a basket of food to the window from the top of the tower."

Wearing a frown, he said, "It was not me, nor my clerk."

She was almost disappointed, because at least if it was him, she would have known who their benefactor was.  But now…

"You look so sad," he murmured.

When she glanced up, he dropped back on one elbow, his head a little below hers.

And too close.

He reached up, and she froze in shock as he touched her cheek, letting his fingers skim it gently.  Instead of feeling soothed, it ignited a fire beneath her skin, as if it burned where he touched, but not with pain.  Something more focused and dangerous.  She shuddered, her breath caught on a gasp.  His gaze suddenly focused with clarity on her as he cupped her cheek, cradling it for a moment.  His skin was so warm against hers, his palm rough, but that somehow made him more attractive to her.

With just the pressure of his fingers sliding onto her neck, he slowly pulled her forward, her face over his, until she was forced to brace her hand on his chest or fall into him.  Her world had narrowed until it was only him—his blue eyes, his parted lips, his hand holding her in place.  Her resistance was token, fleeting, and then gone.  She wanted to know how this felt, to be desired as a woman.  It was a heady, strange, intoxicating feeling. 

She closed her eyes as their lips touched.  She kissed him gently, tasting strawberries and a heat that was all his.  His lips were surprisingly soft, surprisingly in command, moving against hers in a way that made her insides seem to heat and melt and coalesce into something new.  His hand on her neck held her in place, yet she did not resent the control; indeed, it was thrilling and wicked, allowing her to feel seduced.

When his tongue boldly threaded between her lips, she was so startled she granted it entrance without a thought, and the deepening of pleasure was a surprise she welcomed.  He turned her head so their mouths could widen and mate.  With only the slightest hesitation, she met his tongue with her own, and a battle of supremacy was joined.  He groaned into her mouth, pulling her closer.  Her hand on his body gave way, and her chest fell against his.  It was a pleasure-pain that made her breasts ache.  Somewhere inside she thought only he could give her what she needed. 

And with that, her doubts began a slow bubble back to the surface.

When his fingers slid from her neck and up against her wimple, she pulled back, breaking the kiss.  His head was still beneath her, his mouth wet, his breathing as labored as hers.

"I have never seen the beauty of your hair," he whispered.

She pushed away from him and sat back on her heels.  Contemplating uncovering her hair reminding her of all the secrets that she also kept covered.  "Nay, what was I thinking to allow such familiarity?"

He took a deep breath, eyes closed, his face pained.  "You will not kiss me again?"

"The day grows long," she said firmly, pointing to the west.  "I did not wish to stop for a meal, let alone—"  She broke off, embarrassed.  "Do not ask me for such intimacy again."

John stared at Anne, stunned by the vehemence of her reaction.  Hastily, she began to pack away the remains of their meal.  He had never met a maid who did not want his kiss, although he admitted that many were motivated by the promise of payment.  Sex had always been a part of it—whenever a virgin had caught his eye, the lure of adventure and the road had drawn him away before he could become entangled. 

Anne's anger puzzled him.  She had even said her parents wanted to see her married soon—would not a bailiff be more prestigious than a common farmer?  He had thought she would respond to his seduction happily, which of course would hurt her more in the end.

But this anger seemed…wrong, and it made him think about the other unusual things about her.  For a maidservant who had grown up in Castle Alderley, she seemed surprisingly remote from its people, as if everyone went out of their way to avoid her. 

Anne herself seemed a good-hearted woman; he could only conclude that her treatment by others was due to her mistress.  More and more it made him wary of the woman he was supposed to marry—the woman he was betraying by kissing her maid.

Nay, he was rescuing Lady Elizabeth.  Only Anne had access to the tower.  Anne, with the luscious mouth, with the heavy breasts that had pressed against him so fleetingly.  He felt a kinship with her, perhaps because she was as common as he'd been before his elevation to the title.

Mayhap it was time to tell her the truth, he thought. Only then would he be able to cease his flirtation with her.  She was heroic, after all, the only person between her mistress and Bannaster.  She'd braved Milburn's wrath to try to send a missive to the king.

But she was so angry with him right now.  After washing her face and hands in the stream, she patted water on the back of her neck as if she were overheated.  Was she angry with him—or with herself, for forgetting her mistress in a moment of pleasure?

And how could he know if he could trust her with his secrets, when her own people shied away from her?

He could not think of an answer now; he would talk to Philip for a rational opinion, because John feared he himself was no longer objective where Anne was concerned.

He came up on his good knee, his splinted leg out to the side.  The leg itself barely ached anymore, but he could not remove the splint without looking suspicious.  He braced the crutch under his arm and maneuvered himself to his feet.  When he'd moved off the cloth, she knelt down to fold it up and stuff it in the satchel.  Though he knew he shouldn't, he remained near her, watching her below him, wishing he could push her down into the grass and—

He had to get this desire under control, before its wildness turned back upon him and ruined everything.

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