Cedric did not expect he would have to chase her as far as he did.

Kraaia had the longer legs and the head start, but Cedric had not expected he would have to chase her as far as he did. Kraaia had so often chased him that he had not imagined she might not want to be caught.

Though she had the doors to open along her way, she led him all the way to the tower stairs, and he began to fear what would happen if she obliged him to follow her to her bed. As she slowed to mount the stairs, however, he managed to catch her arm and sling her against the wall.

He swung her around to hurl her against the wall.

“What did you do?” he snarled.

He had never felt less awkward in his life. He had never felt any passion as perfect as this pure rage, nor dreamt that his small body could swell with such strength. The edges of his vision had blacked out, but he saw the center with the crystalline clarity of a prism – and the world was red, as though the sight of that blood would be forever before his eyes.

The sight of that blood would be forever before his eyes.

“You tripped her!”


“I saw you!”

“No! I didn’t mean to make her fall!”

Something made him grab her arms and shove her away – some sense of the rightness of grabbing and shoving. “What did you mean to do?”

As soon as he released her, she collected herself and focused her panic into a look of fury. “Rip her dress!” she hissed. “Rip her stupid dress!”

“What for?”

“Because it’s so stupid! Because she thinks she’s so special!

'Because it's so stupid!'

Cedric could find no words to protest the absurdity of this argument, so he shoved her again. His perfect, passionate strength nocked itself so neatly into her feminine weakness, it was self-​​evident they were made to meet in precisely this way.

Kraaia grunted as her back hit the wall, but she panted defiantly, “She’s probably glad I did! Everyone’s down there fussing over her and paying attention to her, and that’s all she ever wants!”

“Everyone’s down there trying to stop the bleeding! Everyone’s scared out of their wits! Did you see what you did to her?”

'Everyone's scared out of their wits!'

Kraaia attempted a cruel laugh, but it quavered anxiously at the end like the last sound he had heard from Gwynn. While the wounded girl’s frightened bleating had made him want to throw himself before her and defend her with his teeth, Kraaia’s made him want to leap upon her and rip her to pieces with his hands.

“What if you knocked her tooth out, did you think of that?” he snapped and slavered. “What if you tore open her face or blinded her eye? What if she has to go around for the rest of her life scarred because of you?”

“It would serve her right!”

'It would serve her right!'

“For what?” he howled. “For dancing with me?”

“For thinking she’s so pretty and precious and perfect!”

“She is!”

Kraaia gasped and sucked in a sharp breath, and another, and another. “You like her!” she accused, with a shrill, strange note of triumph in her voice. “You like her!”

Cedric opened his mouth to protest, but his breath leaked out of him in a squeak. Was that what it was?

Was that what it was?

He felt himself faltering, his perfect rage collapsing into a steaming heap. His vision dimmed until Kraaia’s panting mouth might have been any girl’s – and still he thought he would not have mistaken it for Gwynn’s red bow, with the lower lip that was so pretty when she pouted and so precious when she smiled…

This time Kraaia’s cruel laughter did not falter. “Well, she doesn’t like you!” she crowed. “Forget that! She only likes big calf-​​witted men with balls for brains! And I hope she gets one too! And sees how she likes a big sweaty dumb Cear–bull rutting about between her legs!”

'And I hope she gets one too!'

Cedric’s perfect rage billowed up higher than him, and he was overwhelmed by his own strength. He slammed his shoulder into her chest and knocked her into the wall with all his weight.


Once uttered, he found the name so delicious on his tongue that he spoke it again and again, ripping off great mouthfuls of the forbidden word with his teeth and spitting them at her whole.

“Bitch! Bitch! Jealous bitch!”

She squealed and struggled with him, but in the last year thick pads and ropes of muscle had begun to grow over his chest and shoulders and upper arms, and the battering of her hands was only a rabbit’s futile kicking against the tightening snare.

'I've had it with you, Kraaia!'

“I’ve had it with you, Kraaia! You don’t own me! I’m not your sweetheart!”


“I shall dance with whomever I please! And that means no more with you!”

“No!” she sobbed. “With me!”

“What do you want from me?” he howled. “I danced with you first! What more do you want from me?”

'No!  With me!'

“I just want you to pay attention to me!” she blubbered.

“How can I not?” he wailed. “You never leave me alone!”

For reply she only squinted up her face and squirmed.

Into the silence spilled Colban’s soft voice, tainting Cedric’s pure and perfect rage with its purling, “Give her what she wants… and then more…”

“What do you want, Kraaia?” Cedric murmured. His own voice had gone husky and unfamiliar, and he tried it again. “What do you want, Kraaia?”

'What do you want, Kraaia?'

His vision clouded, and he saw only a panting mouth behind a red haze. It was not the sweet mouth of a modest young lady, but the vicious, venomous mouth of a jealous bitch. The rightness of grabbing and shoving paled before the rightness of kissing those lips until they swelled and bled.

Not a hundred Christmases of mistletoe kisses could have prepared him for this: his first real, passionate kiss. Not a thousand shyly stuttering candles could compare to this roaring fire.

Not a hundred Christmases of mistletoe kisses could have prepared him for this.

With his strong arms he held her still and kissed her in every way he could imagine, smashing her lips this way and that, sucking them between his teeth, and shoving his tongue between hers when she opened her mouth to squeal.

He was free to do anything he liked to her, never wondering whether he was doing it well, never caring whether she was pleased – for was he not trying to repulse her? Was he not trying to rid himself of her forever?

He thought he could have laughed at the giddy glory of it.

He thought he could have laughed at the giddy glory of it, but it seemed he was hearing himself growl. Kraaia’s squeals and whimpers in his mouth were the most delicious things he had ever tasted. He thought Colban might have been right: perhaps he would be sorry if his plan worked too well.

Then he heard a growl that came from outside of their meshed mouths; and two hands that did not belong to any of their intertwined limbs grabbed their shoulders and ripped them apart.

'Here I find you!'

“Here I find you!” the Duke snarled.

Cedric threw up his arms, expecting a blow, but Alred only shoved him against the wall. Kraaia squirmed past him, squealing like a piglet lifted by its heel.

'Here I find you!'

“As God is my witness,” Alred panted, “I did not think it of you!”

Cedric heard Kraaia’s squeaking sobs trailing up the stairs, and he blurted the first thing that came to mind in a heedless attempt to offer her the head start of a distraction.

“She didn’t want to!”

'She didn't want to!'

“Then you must be very convincing, young man!” Alred cried. “Finn says she deliberately tripped her!”

“She didn’t mean to make her fall!”

Alred grabbed a fistful of Cedric’s tunic and slung him back against the wall again.

“Then what did she mean to do?”

“Just rip her dress!”

Alred clenched his teeth and drew back his fist, and Cedric cringed. For the space of that instant he believed it was his last, and his clearest thought was that he could not die unknowing.

His clearest thought was that he could not die unknowing.

“Is she badly hurt?” he whimpered.

Alred let his breath out in a strangled howl. “No! Praise God! But all the rest of her days she may wear the mark of your depravity on her brow! That innocent lamb!”

Cedric sobbed. Hot tears spilled down his cheeks and into the rapidly cooling wetness smeared all around his mouth. He swayed with an overwhelming nausea, horrified at himself, like a man possessed by demons waking with the blood of his nocturnal feasting still slick upon his face.

“For the love of your mother I invited you here,” Alred breathed. “But I thought I could trust you to behave like a gentleman.”

'I thought I could trust you to behave like a gentleman.'

Cedric had never heard such chill hatred on any voice beside his father’s, and he was petrified with terror.

“More the fool am I!” Alred muttered. “I should have known you had grown up lacking any example of how a gentleman behaves.”

Cedric blubbered, “My mother!” He wanted to see her – and yet he did not think he could bear to face her again.

'Not tonight!'

“Not tonight!” Alred barked. “You shall go without taking your leave! Out of my castle!”

He grabbed Cedric and shoved him towards the door with all the strength of his small body in its pure and passionate rage.

“And stay away from my daughters!” he howled.

'And stay away from my daughters!'