Slam Hardy is a mercenary warrior who doesn't believe in staying long in one place. Ruled by nobody, he lives his life exactly as he wants, with no responsibilities and nothing to pin him down.
Lady Apollonia D'Arbanville doesn't believe in love or in trusting a man. She is a rebellious woman who can take care of herself and, as far as she's concerned, Master Hardy is nothing but an "arrogant bastard" and a general pain in the behind.
Fortunately, these two opposites have one thing in common. They both believe in scratching a lusty itch. As long as a brief affair with the enemy doesn't distract them from their duties, why shouldn't they indulge? And it just so happens that a royal command and a friend's plea for help have given them both an excuse to set their verbal sparring aside. For one night, at least.
Solomon Hardicanute, disowned son of the Marquis of Charvignon, scourge of the mountain rebels, bane of the desert warriors, curse of the flatland tribes— and general "thorn in the arse" for most people— scratched his armpit and leaned back in the horse trough, enjoying his first all-over cleansing in some time. He was slightly drunk. Not as drunk as he would like to be, nor as drunk as he felt entitled to be after a job well done. But just enough to smooth the edges.
It was a pleasant evening, the air very warm and fragrant. Quite relaxing really, with the dirt floating off his aching muscles and the rhythm of water gently lapping up the stone sides of the trough whenever he moved. A man might get used to this "bathing", he mused, if he had some reason to be clean more often.
Solomon— known to most as Slam Hardy, simply because a longer name seemed too grand and there was seldom time to call him by it before he was gone again— began whistling a favorite madrigal as he sank farther under the surface. He propped both heels on the far edge of the trough and enjoyed the soothing caress of the water, which had been warmed to a good temperature by the sun on the stone that day.
For a man who had spent the last seven years fighting or traveling, this was a rare moment of peace and he had almost dozed off, when sudden steps approached from behind, walking at a brisk pace.
Only a woman would walk like that, he thought. A busy woman in a bad mood. On the warpath. And, unfortunately, he was directly in her way.
"That's a sight for sore eyes!"
The steps stopped abruptly, and he looked up to see the pretty blonde wench with the remarkable bosom— the one he'd been admiring earlier that day. She resolutely refused to smile at him, and he was intrigued by that. Challenged by it, he supposed. Although he'd only had a brief glimpse of her since he arrived in Ersadonia, it was more than memorable.
"Good eve to you, ma'am," he grinned, tipping his head back to take in the full length of her figure. "Care to join me?"
"I doubt there's room. Not with your swelled head in there too."
"Ha! I do love a wench with a sense of humor."
"That's fortunate. Any woman who spends time with you would need one."
Slam was not put off. He sat up. "What's your name, wench?"
"You can call me Not Likely."
"Ah, that's a cruel jab. Only trying to be friendly."
"Well, perhaps you could try being a little less friendly and remember this is a palace, not a brothel. I know, it's confusing for you and your friends, but there is a difference. Generally the ladies here at court are saved such sights as... this." She gestured with a wave of her hand at the trough and his body in it. "Bathing is done in private. Unless you're a horse."
"Perhaps I remind you of a horse, eh? A fine big stallion."
She folded her arms. "I suppose we should be grateful you bathe at all. You're the one they call Slam Hardy, are you not?"
"Aha! You've asked about me already." He was smug. "Wondering who I was."
"Wondering what you were."
He paused and then laughed heartily. She was simply too interesting, and much too pleasing on the eye for anything she said to insult him. Her cool blue gaze had skimmed the length of his naked body as if she expertly perused a carcass displayed upon a butcher's market stall, and her expression warned that she'd never be cheated into buying a lesser cut of meat. "I like you, wench. Sure I can't tempt you to scrub my back?"
"Positive." She picked up his leather chausses from the cobbles and tossed them at him. "Although at least now I know you don't have fleas."
"That's the trough they use for the flea dip," she added, clearly trying not to laugh.
With that she walked away, her shoulders trembling very slightly while she struggled to keep her haughty composure.
Sitting in the trough, clutching his chausses, Slam watched her disappear under an ivy-laden arch.
Now that, he thought, was a dangerous woman. Under no circumstances would he chase after that one. No indeed.
Because he had just told his friend Ramon Villaverde that he was done with women.
Unfortunately that wasn't the first time he'd made a similar promise. And he'd never before felt quite such a temptation to break it.
Must be the bath that made him so refreshed and awake when he should have been tired, he thought glumly. He'd always suspected bathing to be a fool's game. Sometimes a crust of dirt and sweat was the best armor a man had to protect himself. Wash all that off and he was exposed, liable to fall apart at the seams.