The Promise
(formerly Alonsa's Choice)

By TJ Bennett

In a dangerous world, sometimes the greatest risk is love ....

[Excerpt]

“I’ve waited so long,” Günter muttered.  “So long ....”

The sound of metal pots clanging outside the tent reached Alonsa like a distant alarm.  Abruptly, Günter’s face changed.  Shock slackened his features as he looked down at his hands on her, her hands on him.  He released her as though burned, and her skirts slid back into place.

She felt bereft at his withdrawal, and she took a step toward him.  He threw his hands up between them, and she saw that they shook.

“Nay,” he rasped, gesturing toward the tent flap.

He seemed incapable of more than one word at a time.  His chest heaved; his forehead gleamed with sweat.

Slowly, she became aware of her surroundings.  She had forgotten everything: her honor, her virtue ... Dios mío, Martin!  Her hand flew to her mouth and shame seeped through her bones.  She had forgotten even him!

“Martin.”  He said the name first.  A look of self-loathing crossed his face.  “The day we buried him ....”  He gazed around the tent and shook his head.  He let his head fall forward.  “I’ve dishonored my friend.”

“We,” she whispered, “have dishonored him.”

She more so than he.  Günter would hate her, not want her like this, if he knew how she had caused Martin’s death.  Yet, if Günter were to reach for her again, she would be unable to deny him.  What she had felt, what they had done confirmed even more the vow she had sworn.

Her fear returned twice fold.  She must leave.  She must.  For she knew with all the certainty of the heat still pounding through her body that Günter would not survive if she stayed.

With a sob, she turned away.  “Go,” she begged.

“Alonsa, wait.”  She felt his hand on her shoulder.  “It isn’t as bad as it seems.  Martin would have understood—”

She jerked away.  “Por favor, go!”

He sighed from behind her.

“This is not how I would have wished it, true.  I would like to have let you mourn a bit.  I would like to have honored his memory for a time before ....”  He stopped.

When he spoke again, she heard the wry tone in his voice.

“Before leaping on you like some wild animal.  Still.  It is obvious to me now that Martin understood something I did not.”  He circled around to face her, and lifted her chin so that he looked into her eyes.  “Alonsa, you must listen to me now.  I have something important to ask you.”

She looked up at him and the intensity of his expression made her heart pound with anxiety.  Please do not ....

“Will you be my wife?” he asked softly.  “When the time is right?  Say yes, and you will fulfill the wishes of two men.”

She backed away from him, panicked at the thought.  “No!  How can you ask such a thing of me?  I could never marry you!”

He flinched, and she could tell she had hurt him.  She had not intended that, only to warn him.

His features settled into a cold mask, his tone icy when he spoke again.  “Why not?  What is wrong with me?  It cannot be that I am a soldier.  Martin was a soldier.  He seemed good enough for you.”

His eyes narrowed into points of emerald fire.  He reached for her, wrapped a warm hand around the nape of her neck beneath the loose braid that lay damp against her skin.

“You have someone else in mind, mayhap?”  His words cut into her.  “Has some rich old merchant in the baggage train offered his jewels for your pretty neck?  Has some young noble dazzled you with his shiny, untried armor?”

His thumb traced hot circles in the shallow dip just below her ear.  His eyes flashed fire at her, and at their depths lay a passionate yearning that nearly undid her.  “Tell him you’ve changed your mind.  You belong to me.”

His possessiveness frightened her, and yet it excited her as well.  Goosebumps rose along her skin in response to both his touch and his intensity.

She broke away.  “Do not be ridiculous.  When would I have made such plans?”  She clasped her hands around her arms and tried to erase the shivers he had caused, turning her back on him.  “I have no man in mind.  I think now only of God.”  She turned to him, straightened her back.  “I have decided to consign myself to a convent.  I intend to become a nun.”

His eyebrows flew up.  “What?” he roared.

“Shhh!  You will arouse the entire camp with your bellowing.”  She glanced anxiously over his shoulder at the open tent flap.

“No more than you did with your moaning, Sister Alonsa,” he observed.

She felt the heat of a blush cover her entire body.  “You confused me!  You—”

“Do not say I forced you,” he softly interrupted, but she did not miss the steel in his voice.  “We both know the truth.”

Her eyes locked with his.  Tension vibrated between them.

She sighed and looked away.  “Yes.  To say otherwise would be a falsehood.”  She stared at him then, willed him to understand.  “It is not my intent to injure your pride or your feelings, Günter.  I simply do not wish to marry you.  Nor any man.  It is for your sake that I refuse, not my own.  Please do not ask me to explain further.”  Because if he had thought her mad before, he would certainly think her so if she told him the entire truth.

He stared at her for a long moment.  He stepped closer, then, towering over her.  She drew back.

“Don’t be afraid.”  He spoke in a soft voice, as though he sought to gentle a trapped but injured animal he wished to aid.

Do not be afraid?

From Alonsa’s vantage point, Günter seemed as imposing as a mountainside.  She noted the sharp planes of his face, from the sensual slash of his mouth to the ruffled dark-blond hair that she had tangled in her fingers just moments ago.  She could not look away.  She clenched her trembling hands behind her, stared at his mouth, and cursed her own weakness.

“I do not fear you,” she denied feebly.  Just your kisses and your touch ....

 “I have always known you belonged to me.”  His eyes roamed over her face.  He moved closer still, until his chest brushed her breasts.  “Always.  Mayhap before we ever met.”

“Now who speaks as one insane?”  Her voice sounded husky, as though she had just arisen from his bed after a night of ardent lovemaking.

He smiled slowly.  “I want you to speak to me like that after the first time I take you,” he said in a gravelly whisper.  “Low and soft, like a woman well-pleasured.  Which you will be.”

Her hand moved of its own accord.  The slap rang out in the quietness of the tent, her palm stinging from the force of it.  Though it left a red welt across his cheek, he did not react.

He stared at her, his proud nose flaring, his green eyes narrowing to slits.  He slid his hand once more around her waist and pulled her to him.  She resisted the draw, pushed with her palms against his chest.  He leaned into her, and she thought he would kiss her again.  Instead—to her surprise—he buried his face in her hair and inhaled deeply.  His hand rose and fisted there for a moment, but he released her.  She almost fell backward from the sudden loss of his strong arms encircling her.

Günter’s jaw clenched.  Then the corner of his mouth lifted in a provocative smile.  He made a loose fist with one hand and gave her chin a light tap.

“Fight me, then.  Run, if you must.  Hide—if you can.  But you will not escape your fate.”  He pinned her with the heat of his gaze.  “I am your fate,” he vowed, and turning on his heel, walked out of the tent.

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