Why? Because Ursula, my warrior princess and heir to the High Throne of The Twelve Kingdoms is a total badass. Points to support this:
Enter Harlan—foreign mercenary, Captain of the Vervaldr, and a musclebound mountain of a man. He’s got the brawn to meet Ursula in a fair fight and the infinite patience to wear down her many prickly defenses. For them, their relationship is an ongoing duel, both of wits and of physical exchanges. Which means that, in order to seduce her, he must get inside her guard—one way or another.
“You’re buzzing like a lightning storm, Ursula—you’ll never sleep when you’re this worked up.”
“You think you know me so well.” Though he had a point.
His laugh rumbled low, his thunder to my lightning. “I’m beginning to, yes. You’re not so difficult to decipher. A bit of study and my strategy seems clear.”
“I’m not some castle for you to besiege.”
“An intriguing metaphor. I’ve scaled your walls—the lower ones—and penetrated the outer courts. Now, how to find my way into the heart of you?”
“If you’re planning to make me talk, you’d have done better to bring the wine.”
“To extend the analogy, a heavy-handed method like a catapult will not work in the close quarters of the inner courtyards. That requires a more delicate approach.” He stopped in a clearing ringed by trees. Unbuckled his sword belt and set it aside.
I cleared my throat of the rattling nervousness. The overwhelming tide of desire I’d felt earlier had receded, leaving sharp rocks behind. This was delicate? “Harlan, I, ah—”
He stopped me with an annoyed look. “I don’t plan to throw you to the ground and have my way with you, Ursula. Give me some credit. And take off your sword.”
“We’re going to spar.”
I laughed. I couldn’t help it. “You must be the most single-minded man under Danu’s gaze.”
“Yes.” In two strides, he had his hands on my hips, unbuckling my sword belt. “I’ll have your respect, Your Highness. If only as a fighter.”
Unbalanced, I braced myself on his muscled shoulders. “I respect you.”
“Not enough.” He pulled the daggers from the sheaths, tossed them carelessly aside, and ran his hands up my waist, down over my hips, then settled, flexing. “Not the way you need to. What other blades do you wear?”
Taken aback by his ferocity, my heart accelerated. The way I needed to? “Will you strip me of all my weapons?” My voice came out throaty.
“Not possible. You need not tell me, then. It shall be my pleasure to search you.”
Firmly, thoroughly, he ran his hands over my hips and down each leg, removing the short blade I strapped to my left thigh and the set of throwing knives at my right ankle. Bemused, I let him draw off one boot, then the other, so I stood barefoot on the dew-damp grass. Away from the lamplight, the stars above glittered diamond sharp, a dazzling array of light and color as bright as moonlight, such as I’d never seen, lending to the unreality of the moment.
Working his way back up, he loosened my shirt and smoothed hot fingers over the skin of my back, then over the material down my arms, finding the second set of throwing knives at my left wrist and discarding them. Back to my shoulders, he slid calloused fingers of one hand behind my neck and set the other in the hollow of my throat, holding my gaze and pausing there for a long moment while my breath accelerated. Preparing for the match to come, I told myself.
The thrill, though, of his finger slowly trailing downward over my breastbone had nothing to do with fighting.
“Anything else?” His pale eyes glinted in the starlight.
“No.” I could barely speak for the tightness of my lungs as he caressed the skin at the opening of my shirt, down between my breasts. They weren’t something I thought about much, except to bind them, to keep my sword arm free. But now they ached, tight and full Ppart of me wanted his big, rough hands on them, but somewhere inside I tensed, afraid of that very thing.
He seemed to read that in me, because he stopped, the hand at the back of my neck kneading the tendons there with that magical deftness. Then he stepped back, handing me a blunt-edged practice dagger. “Ready?”
I was. He called it correctly—the tension and emotion of the day begged to be burned off.
I’d spent enough time assessing his reach to situate myself well outside it. I picked my spot, level ground without loose rocks or limbs, and moved my weight into the balls of my feet. The restlessness and worry settled into keen anticipation. Weighing the light bronze in my hand, I found its balance and planned my strategy. “What are the rules?”
“You take me down, you win. I take you down, I win.” He pulled off his shirt and kicked off his boots, then flexed, muscular chest rippling as he settled into a ready stance.
“And the forfeit?”
He grinned, sending a bolt of answering desire through me. “I think we both know that.”
He launched himself at me.
I spun, easily dodging the expected move. Men nearly always tried to grab, and I’d paid attention to how he wrestled. I hadn’t expected him to spend any time waiting for my blade to find him. His best bet lay in grappling me, and mine would be slicing him before he could get there. I evaded him, moving out and away, but—faster than I’d anticipated—he turned his momentum, rolled and grabbed me by the ankle, taking me down. He’d been watching me, too, to know where I’d plant that weighted foot.
Changing my fall into a dive, I reversed and neatly twisted out of his grip, arcing over to come up behind him. I’d done it fast enough to get the blade up near his throat, but he’d anticipated me in turn, rolling so his meaty shoulder deflected the blade, then continuing to surge to his feet, dodging the undercut I’d thought to bring under his guard and dancing back with surprising grace.
“So fast, my hawk,” he said in admiring tones. “Come a bit closer.”
I laughed, blood humming. “Not a chance, rabbit.”
“You don’t know the hares of Dasnaria.”
He leapt. How a man that size could spring so far, I’d no time to contemplate. Inside my perimeter in an unexpected flash, he seized me, pinning my dagger arm to my side in an unbreakable bear hug, taking me down and rolling so my head spun. He’d miscalculated—or been too soft on me—by taking the brunt on his shoulder and flattening onto his back instead of crushing me beneath him.
It gave me enough room—barely—to get the blade between his heavy thighs to press the flat against his man jewels. Not a killing strike, but one few men could fight through. Feeling it, he stilled.
I allowed myself the moment of triumph and smiled at him. “I win.”
Before he finished the words, he’d broken the grip, clamped his hand over my wrist, flipping me and simultaneously pinning the knife hand over my head, crushing me as he should have to begin with. I didn’t bother to fight it. With an opponent of his strength and bulk, I’d truly lost the moment he managed to pin me.
“If I’d had my sword, you’d never have gotten close enough,” I panted. Oddly out of breath, given how quickly the match had ended.
“Had you used the dagger as you meant to, I’d have been in no condition to trap you like this,” he conceded. “As it is, I believe you’ve lost and are now my prisoner.”
“Do you plan to interrogate me?”
“No.” He stared into my eyes for an endless moment. “I plan to enjoy the spoils of war.”