The look of a little girl lost had faded, and the temptress was back. The temptress who had tantalized him months ago and then allowed herself to be betrothed to his brother like a mare sold to the highest bidder. And yet Alessio still wanted her. He wanted her with a desire so outrageously exorbitant that he could feel the heat consuming him.

Strega. You are a witch, Bianca.” Instead of letting her go, his hands shifted up from her shoulders and into her hair. As they fisted in the wind-tossed strands, he lowered his mouth to hers.

Her gaze still signaled a sultry invitation even as she turned her head aside.

“Why so coy today, madonna?” he demanded, his eyes turbulent.

“Let me go, Alessio,” she demanded even as she hungered for him. For a mad, heady moment, she could imagine giving in to him. Now. Here. But then a voice she had never heard before seemed to call to her. Because the voice spoke of danger and dishonor, she began to struggle against him in earnest, not quite understanding why she felt compelled to fight him when she wanted to give in so badly.

“You forget that I belong to your brother.” As she spoke the words, she was struck with the thought that she was speaking a lie. She might be betrothed to Alessio’s brother, but she belonged to him.

Alessio felt his fury, which she seemed to provoke so effortlessly, rise another notch. Yes, it troubled him that he so desperately wanted this woman, who would, in a few months’ time, be his older brother’s wife. It troubled him far more than he cared to admit. There was no love lost between Ugo and himself. But did an honest man dishonor his own flesh and blood for a woman, no matter how desirable?

Perhaps not for any woman, he thought, as his gaze traveled over Bianca’s face with its stunning, imperious features. The eyes so dark that they were almost black, with their tiny flecks of gold that made them look like live coals. The lush mouth the color of poppies promising all the pleasures of paradise. Perhaps not for any woman, he repeated, but for this woman he would sell his immortal soul to the devil. Perhaps he already had. An ache wound through him. An ache that had nothing to do with the ache in his loins.

“You belonged to me long before I touched you for the first time. When you looked at me from the tribunal after the tournament, we both knew you were mine as if we were already lovers.”

Startled that his words mirrored her thought so precisely, Bianca wanted to look away. Because her pride demanded it, she kept her gaze steady on his.

Instead of taking her mouth, he brushed his lips over hers once and then again. For some reason, it seemed important that she give him what he could so easily take.

“Open for me now, Bianca,” he murmured. “and let me kiss you.”

His hands were gentle where they had been rough before. His lips coaxed where they had demanded. Bianca took a deep breath, drawing in his scent—horseflesh and leather and aroused male—and her senses began to swim. Another moment, and she would surrender. Instead, she seized control and took Alessio’s mouth.

She kept her eyes on his as she teased his tongue with erotic invitation. When he moved, it was not to respond to her kiss. Instead, he slid his hands down, down and filled them with her breasts.

For a moment, Bianca stopped breathing with the sheer pleasure of his touch, as if the barriers of satin and linen were gone, and she was naked. The last rational thought fled her mind, and her body took over. She placed her hands over his and pressed them into her satin-covered flesh.

Alessio stilled. Then, knowing that now, they were both the vanquished, both the victors, he dove into the kiss.

They feasted on each other until they were drunk with the pleasure of it. Their nerves humming, their breathing ragged, they pulled apart, the terrible knowledge in their eyes. They had shared much more than a kiss. They had possessed each other. Possessed each other as surely, as completely as if they had shared the ultimate embrace.

Coming Summer 2021 from Nina Beaumont