Curiously, Gwyneth felt no real fear, perhaps because she was too stunned, perhaps because she’d already sunk so low. Somewhere, she realized she should be very frightened, that danger of kinds she couldn’t even imagine surrounded the black hooded figure emerging from the smoke.
But mostly, she was aware of relief. “There is a way out!” she exclaimed.
“There is always a way out,” her visitor answered. His voice was deep, low, almost sepulchral, sending shivers down her spine. “It is just a matter of finding it. And being prepared to take it.”
He moved through the smoke and bent toward her, stretching down his hand. It, too, was black, encased in a long gauntlet. Dazed, Gwyneth took his fingers before she meant to and was drawn to her feet. He smelled of rich earth and smoke. His hand seemed to engulf hers, burning her skin even through the thickness of his glove. And yet the effect was not unpleasant. Perhaps because he’d given her hope.
She peered into the darkness of his cowl. Somewhere in its depths, two eyes glittered, but she could make out nothing more. He stood still and silent, not yet releasing her hand. She had the feeling she was being assessed. Well, no one had ever complained about her looks.
She drew in her breath. “I’ll take it,” she said fervently. “If you would be so good as to show me the way.”
He released her hand, turning his head to look around the straw-filled room. “What exactly is your problem?” he inquired.
“I’m locked in. I can’t get out. And in the morning, the king will execute me.”
The cowl returned to face her. “Does he think you’re some kind of animal, to surround you with bales of straw?”
A breath of laughter escaped Gwyneth, just when she thought she’d never laugh again. “Believe it or not, I’m supposed to spin this straw into gold. If I can’t—and obviously I can’t!—I am to die.”
“So you want a way out. And would do anything for life.”
“It will be a difficult life,” she acknowledged. “I’ll have to run away, go into hiding with nothing, perhaps try to escape to another country, but I’m a hard worker and will soon pay my way.”
“A hard worker,” he repeated, and she thought he was studying her borrowed dress and jewels. Once more, he reached out and took her hand, turning up the rough palm and fingers. Ashamed, she tugged it free. “You are a woman of contradictions. Fortunately, you intrigue me.”
“Then you’ll show me the way out?” Gwyneth said eagerly.
“I’ll show you a way out, if you wish it. But you must be aware, there is always a price.”
I’d give anything…
She swallowed. “I’d give you this necklace, these rings, but the jewelry isn’t mine. It belongs to the king.”
“I don’t want his jewels.”
“Then what will you take?”
The cowl moved. Two gleaming eyes held her gaze. She thought she could see a flash of teeth, the movement of lips. “For turning all this straw into gold that you might go free and return to your life?”
Gwyneth’s mouth fell open. “You can’t do that. No one can. It was just a silly, ill-conceived boast of my father’s!”
“But if I could, would you want it?”
“Is that my only way out? To perpetuate the lie?”
“Can you think of another?”
“I could escape the way you came in.”
“Where I go, you would not wish to follow.”
“I’m tough,” she pointed out eagerly. “And spry.”
He seemed to be considering her desire to go with him, then suddenly shook his head. “I would not take you under these circumstances. Besides, is the life of a fugitive so attractive?”
“No,” she admitted, longing with unexpected strength to scrub some more wren droppings off her father’s porch. She smiled a little tentatively. “The truth is, I doubt your ability to spin straw into gold. I don’t see how it can be done.”
“I’ll show you. For…” The whiteness of teeth gleamed again. “For a kiss.”
She blinked. “A kiss?”
“But I don’t know you,” she blurted.
His breath came out in a rush. He might have been laughing. “I suspect that by the time you’ve spun all this straw into gold, you’ll imagine you know me well enough to give me your lips for a few moments. Is it a huge price to pay for your life?”
“N-no,” she admitted.
“Then what’s the matter? Haven’t you been kissed before?”
“No,” she said again. “I slapped the last boy who tried.”
“Well, you can slap me, too, if you want, but I will insist on the kiss.”
Gwyneth became aware that the butterflies in her stomach were far from unpleasant. She admitted to curiosity, about kisses in general and this mysterious stranger’s in particular. However, though she may have been innocent in practice, she was far from naive in theory.
“Just a kiss?” she demanded.
The cowl moved, as if he was silently laughing at her again. “I won’t ravish you, if that’s what you mean. I ask for a kiss, and that is exactly what I will take. On your lips,” he added, as though to quell any further doubts.
Gwyneth’s body began to flush. She’d never imagined he meant anything else, but now that the idea was in her mind, it ran riot. Kisses on her throat and shoulders, on her breasts, which had begun to ache inexplicably.
“Well?” her visitor prompted.
She blinked to dispel the unwanted images in her mind, and took a deep breath. “Yes, please,” she said.