Versallet Castle, on the Hampshire/Wiltshire border
June in the 12th Year of our Sovereign Lord, Edward III (1338)
He’d been a fool—an abject fool.
The force behind the mace thudding into his leather shield buckled Alaun’s knees. Dragging in an agonized breath, he pressed exhausted muscles to his bidding and hauled himself upright—just in time to meet the next punishing blow.
The sound of the blows was becoming monotonous, but he could do nothing to stem the tide. Sweat trickled beneath his armored skull-cap, stinging his eyes. Blinking as he positioned himself to meet the next Herculean blow, he glimpsed his opponent’s eyes.
Henry de Versallet was enjoying himself.
At just over forty, Henry was heavy and barrel-chested, with arms like rough-hewn oak, yet what he’d lost to the years in speed and agility he more than made up for in skill. He wasn’t in any hurry to bring the beating to an end.
Alaun’s shield shuddered again; the impact jarred his shoulder plates. He swore, wishing he’d been wiser. He’d suggested the bout, confident his advantage in height and reach would be decisive. Instead, Henry was having the time of his life, doubtless grinning from ear to ear behind his visored helm.
Strength waning, Alaun braced himself for the next mighty wallop. His broadsword hung useless from his fist; he was too weak to raise it. Knowing Henry would favor the mace, he’d worn both plate and mail, while Henry, with only the blunted edge of his tournament broadsword to deflect, had appeared clad in mail hauberk and surcote alone. Without the additional weight of plate armor, the older man had a telling advantage, provided the bout revolved on endurance.
Henry had made sure that it had, refusing to offer a blow until Alaun had been wild with impatience and half-exhausted to boot. Then the thrashing had begun.
Alaun staggered. Had it been any other man, he’d have yielded long since, but nothing—no amount of punishment—would ever be sufficient to make him cry quarter of a de Versallet. He’d never fully understood the long-standing, somewhat subtle enmity that had brewed for generations between their two families—some insult over the de Versallets’ pure Norman ancestry as opposed to the de Montisfryth blood, tainted by Irish Norse, Celt, and Saxon, had reputedly started it. The countering response was the success of his family, appointed by the Conqueror as Marcher lords, all-powerful in their domains.
Pain shot up his left arm; he gritted his teeth. His unwise challenge was about to come to an inglorious end. Still, while Henry might win Alaun’s late father’s stallion, no one could take from him his pride.
He didn’t see the blow that felled him; he hardly felt it. The horizon suddenly tilted and spun, then the dust of the arena enveloped him. His last coherent thought was that it was lucky the wedding was but a few hours away; there were no ladies and only a few nobles present to witness his ignominious defeat.
Blessed blackness engulfed him. With a sigh, he surrendered, honor intact.
Mailed legs planted wide, his mace gripped in one ham-like fist, Henry de Versallet stood over his opponent, staring down unmoving, until, assured de Montisfryth was beyond further chastisement, Henry harrumphed and raised his visor.
Squinting through the glare, he scanned the arena. Catching sight of an appalled face above the de Montisfryth livery, he roared, “You, boy! Come tend your master!”
Thus abjured, no fewer than five white-faced de Montisfryth retainers rushed out to attend their young lord. Inwardly reflecting that that was just as well, for the boy, young and lanky though he was, doubtless weighed a ton, armor and all, Henry grunted and turned away.
It had been a most satisfying morning.
Raising his eyes to the battlemented keep of his castle, two hundred yards distant across the tournament ground, his smile broadened. The morning had gone well, and the afternoon would crown his day.
Pulling off his gauntlets, he joined his old friend Albert d’Albron at the entrance to the arena.
“Was that really necessary?” Albert, a fine-boned aesthete with a forked black beard, his thin frame enveloped in the billowing folds of a red-and-green checkered houppelande, eyed Henry with resigned disapproval.
“An excellent way to start the day, teaching the young some manners.” Henry handed his helm to his squire and drew a deep breath. The morning air was crisp, spiced with the tang of wood smoke spiraling upward from the village cottages. He tossed his gauntlets to the squire. “Check on Lord de Montisfryth and report to me. And be sure you pick up that stallion.”
“Aye, m’lord.” The squire grinned.
Henry narrowed his eyes. “I want no fighting between retainers, mind.”
The squire’s grin faded. “No, m’lord.”
With a snort, Henry started for the castle. “That’s the last thing I need—scuffles disrupting the wedding feast. Elaine will be at me enough as it is.”
Albert’s brows rose. “I wouldn’t have thought you’d tell her.”
“I hadn’t intended to.” Raising a hand to his left shoulder, Henry winced. “But be damned if I don’t need some of that magical salve of hers.”
Albert’s brows rose higher. “I thought it was you did the teaching?”
Henry growled. “That whelp has enough damned weight behind his arm to sheer a statute in two. Just give him a few years to grow into that body of his and he’ll be a match for any man.” Henry grinned wickedly. “I’m just glad I caught him in time.”
About them, the morning mist rising off the River Bourne, flowing steadily southward on their right, thinned as the sun rose triumphant above the royal forest of Chute, to the east beyond the river. Behind them, the tournament field lay peacefully serene, the pavilions of the competing knights planted like jeweled blooms on the green slope beyond, identifying pennons snapping in the breeze. The curtain wall of Versallet Castle rose before them; a stream of country folk delivering produce requisitioned for the festivities hurried along the road, jostling as they crowded across the drawbridge and on through the castle’s gate tower. With respect tinged with awe, they gave their lord a wide berth.
“What do you plan for the stallion?”
Albert’s question had been idle. Henry’s answer was not. “I’ll breed from him. Had my eye on him for years, but de Montisfryth—the last—would never have parted with him.”
“Aha!” Albert glanced, narrow-eyed, at his friend. “You’re an evil man, Henry de Versallet. You may have gulled young de Montisfryth into believing he challenged you, but you had it in mind all along.”
Ferociously smug, Henry grinned.
Albert snorted. “You should be ashamed of yourself. Your time in purgatory has doubtless just doubled.”
“Fear not.” Henry’s grin deepened. “I’ll endow another chantry with the profits I’ll make from having a Montisfryn stallion at stud. The Good Lord, I’m told, makes allowance for such things.”
Albert snorted again.
The outer bailey was alive with scurrying humanity, ants provisioning a mound. The carter had brought a load of wood; lads hurried back and forth, unloading the logs. An army of women were scrubbing the church steps. Amidst the country drab, the gaudy clothes of lords and ladies invited to witness Henry’s daughter’s nuptials glowed brightly, declaring their owners’ gentility. Henry paused, viewing the scene with open satisfaction.
“I take it de Cannar accepted your terms?”
Albert’s question sliced through Henry’s distraction. “Oh, aye—eventually.” Henry resumed his progress toward the keep. “The income from half his estates as jointure against the dowry I offered.”
Albert’s brows reached his hairline. “He must have been keen to secure the alliance.”
“Keen as a Saracen’s blade.” Henry frowned. “The man’s got his eye on quick advancement and he doesn’t expect to die along the way. I’d say I’ve got my girl well-settled.”
“And what of Eloise? Does she approve your choice?”
Henry shrugged. “She’s easy enough. I’ll give my lady that—she’s never encouraged any silly notions in the girl, even if she did insist that I sent Eloise to that blessed convent. Cost a small fortune, but the outcome’s been satisfactory.”
“So Eloise gets security, de Cannar fills the only vacancy as son-in-law to the de Versallets, and you—” Albert broke off. “What do you get from this, Henry?”
“Buggered if I know. De Cannar’s wealthy enough, but his lands don’t march with mine and he’s Warwick’s vassal.” Henry’s frown matched his growl, then he brightened. “The Montisfryn stallion, perhaps? Who knows—perhaps God was rewarding me for my selfless act in providing so handsomely for my daughter.”
* * *
Five hours later, Albert d’Albron was one of the many nobles who danced at Eloise de Versallet’s wedding feast. In the ornately carved chair at the center of the lord’s table, raised above the rest of the hall, Eloise saw her father’s old crony and smiled and nodded politely. Her elbows on the table, hands cupped about the golden wedding goblet, she forced herself to take a slow sip.
Around her, the revelry was scaling new heights. The great hall was overflowing with guests. A smoky haze hung low, rising from the central hearth to veil the hall’s massive beams. The aromas of rich food and spilled wine overlaid the freshness of the new rushes on which the extravagantly garbed guests, as colorful as peacocks, strutted and posed.
Noise blanketed the shifting scene; the strains of a pipe and the rhythmic thump of a tabor were buried beneath it.
“Aye! An excellent win—that stallion will be worth a fortune at stud! Be interesting to see if de Cannar shapes up as well!”
Her father’s bellow was greeted with salacious laughter and ogling glances; Eloise ignored them. Her sire was in fine fettle; she wondered if marrying her off was really such a feat. The settlements had been explained to her, but she’d yet to divine what her father gained. Something, she was sure. She might be his daughter, yet he’d never given her reason to believe she was anything other than an encumbrance, a dependent he needs must dower and establish.
Perhaps that was it? Her marriage would get rid of her, and seal an alliance with the wool-wealthy de Cannars.
The point was no longer of any great relevance given she’d married Raoul de Cannar that day. Eloise caught her mother’s eye. Elaine of Montrose, lady de Versallet, sat beside her lord, her calm face betraying no comprehension of the increasingly ribald comments flying about her ears. Equally composed, Eloise returned her mother’s smile, then allowed her gaze to drift over the knights, squires, ladies, and maidens who milled before her, some dancing, others chattering, a fluid, jewel-hued tapestry carpeting the hall.
Soon it would be time to retire.
Suppressing a shiver, she reiterated, yet again, the arguments with which she’d resigned herself to her fate. As the daughter of a noble, her marriage had been arranged for worldly considerations; her family gained by the connection, as did de Cannar’s. In addition, he gained her sizeable dowry and the use of her body in which to plant his seed, while she gained security and position, which, to a lady of noble birth, was all.
Or should be. Unfortunately, she’d yet to convince herself of that. But on returning from Claerwhen, the convent she’d attended for the past five years, she’d been presented with a fait accompli—the settlements had been signed, her only role to play her prescribed part.
“It’s natural to feel hesitant,” her mother had said, “but from all we’ve learned, de Cannar will make you a good husband. He’s inherited his father’s estates, and he’s not, so I hear, unattractive.” Her mother had paused to snip a thread, then had added, “At twenty-six, that’s a reasonable recommendation. Who knows? With the right management, he might even turn out as well as your father.”
Eloise had smiled and accepted her lot with equanimity if not enthusiasm—until two days ago she had come face to face with Raoul de Cannar. Her misgivings had returned with a vengeance. Her mother, when appealed to, had listened, not without sympathy. Even though she had reassured Eloise that de Cannar would treat his wife with all due respect, her mother, too, was uneasy.
Eloise forced down another sip of wine.
Beside her, in the carved chair matching hers, Raoul de Cannar lounged, his heavy warrior’s body imperfectly disguised by the blue velvet of his fashionable jupon. Replying to a ribald jest offered by one of his knights, Raoul grasped the moment as the knight moved on to turn to his bride. Raoul’s dark, sharp-featured face would have done justice to a satyr; his eyes, of a color that was no color at all, narrowed as he considered his new acquisition. As he watched her sip, the ends of his thin lips lifted.
Eloise appeared calm, serene, her ready smiles those of a young wife pleased with her new position. Her composure was faultless, as were her features, smooth, ivory cheeks barely touched by the sun, a broad forehead without line or wrinkle to mar its perfection, her lips full of promise despite her youth. Not even the graceful arch of her fine dark brows gave a hint of her underlying tension.
Raoul’s smile deepened. He knew that tension was there. Her eyes gave her away. Dark, lustrous, fathomless, they held too much intelligence, looked on the world with too clear a vision to fit the mold of unwary innocence. So large and wide they should have imparted a doe-like vulnerability, their startling vitality left the careful observer with an impression of unchartered depths.
A subtle change rippled through Raoul, distorting his handsome façade. His lips twisted, his expression momentarily one which, had she seen it, would have shaken Elaine of Montrose. But neither Eloise nor her mother had yet seen him clearly; Raoul had made certain of that. The taking of Eloise de Versallet to wife was a goal he would not jeopardize. The haughtiness of those females descended from Montrose was a byword throughout the kingdom. It was there in Eloise—an indefinable quality that showed itself in her carriage, in the set of her head, in the regal sway of her slim hips.
Raoul ached to crush it.
Smoothly, he leaned forward and ran a blunt fingertip down the back of Eloise’s hand, molded about the wedding goblet.
Eloise didn’t jump; her control held firm, despite the rigidity that gripped her.
She turned to face Raoul, her lips curving, her eyes wary. “Yes, lord?”
Pale, almost opaque eyes held hers. “How now, wife?”
When she made no reply, Raoul reached for the goblet. Lifting it from her hands, his unnerving eyes holding hers, he drained the goblet in one gulp. Setting it aside, he returned her smile. “Tis time to retire. Summon your lady mother and do so.”
Eloise knew, then, that her amorphous, ill-defined fears were not groundless. The coldness in her husband’s eyes promised some terror she couldn’t comprehend beyond the fact that it frightened her. But never would she show him or any man fear; she inclined her head in an unconsciously regal manner. “As you wish, lord.”
As Eloise turned away to catch her mother’s eye, Raoul’s expression hardened, but he was smiling good-humoredly when the ladies, with light laughter and smiles, stole her from him. The men closed about him, eager and raucous.
Eloise allowed herself to be led upstairs. She let her mind flow into the chatter of her mothers’ ladies and the high-born guests who had been invited to take part in the ritual.
In the bridal chamber, she stood silently as they removed her headdress and unplaited and brushed her long hair, then removed her wedding gown, the gold embroidered surcote trimmed with ermine and pearls and the tight-fitting silk cote. There were giggles as her garters and hose were rolled down; the giggles died as her chemise was removed and she stood naked, tall and slender, her body not yet fully formed.
Her fifteenth birthday was a month away; while her bones had finished growing, flesh had yet to soften the contours. She was painfully aware of her adolescent body; a soft blush tinged her cheeks. Then a fine linen nightrail, embroidered by her mother, was dropped over her head and pulled down.
Soft hands urged her into the big bed plumped high with featherbeds and covered with satin and furs. She moved in a daze, distanced from the proceedings. Mayhap if she held fast to her mental sanctuary, the nightmare lurking in her husband’s eyes wouldn’t reach her.
The touch of her mother’s lips on her forehead, the unexpected sight of tears in the dark eyes so like her own, forced her to return to earth. She managed a weak smile.
The door burst open.
Chaos invaded, along with a host of drunken knights who had carried her husband, stripped to nothing more than his braies, up the stairs. It was plainly their intention to deposit him beside her, but to her surprise, he broke free, and, aided by her father, turned the rowdy crowd, ladies and all, from the room.
The melee retreated, leaving Raoul leaning back against the door. Seeing a bolt beside his head, he slid it into place, then straightened.
His pale eyes found Eloise, sitting primly against the pillows.
Raoul let his lips curve cruelly; he was no longer restrained by the need to ensure the wedding took place. Eloise was his now—his to tame, his to break.
Coldly viewing her, he untied the girdle of his braies, then stripped off the linen folds. Flinging the garment aside, he stalked, naked, across the room. He halted a yard from the bed, hands on his hips, feet apart, legs braced.
Eloise could not tear her eyes from him. With four brothers and the run of a castle packed with warrior males, she’d seen naked men aplenty, but few had been as aroused as Raoul de Cannar—none as menacing. She forced her gaze upward, over his chest, broad and covered with a pelt of black hair, to his hard, shadowed jaw, to his contemptuous smile. His eyes were as cold as a winter’s fog.
“Get out of bed.”
The words were steely, the command inflexible. Eloise obeyed, as she’d vowed that very afternoon to do. Slipping from beneath the covers, she stood before him. With an effort, she kept her head high.
That action sealed her fate.
Rage welled behind Raoul’s dark mask, but he’d learned to control and conceal his emotions. Every instinct impelled him to sink his fingers into the rich mahogany tresses spilling down Eloise’s back, to rip her nightrail from her and take her as violently as he wished; her screams would be heard, but no one would intrude, not even her family, the haughty de Versallets. The satisfaction would be great—the idea was sorely tempting.
But Raoul needed this alliance. If her family ever learned that he had mistreated her, he would receive none of the military support he was counting on. If he showed her less respect than they expected, then went out on a limb, they would let him hang. He hadn’t gambled half his income for that.
Plumbing the dark depths of Eloise’s eyes, he allowed his features to contort with the lust he no longer needed to conceal. “Take it off.”
Eloise blinked then obeyed, forcing her stiff fingers to the laces. The tension gripping the dark body towering before her was palpable. Raoul didn’t move as she tugged the fine shift off over her head and laid it on the bed. Inwardly quivering, she turned back to face him, pale, composed, her gaze distant.
Raoul’s gaze touched hers, then he looked down, boldly assessing.
Eloise held herself proudly, the fine bones of her shoulders and long limbs outlined beneath her delicate skin. Her breasts were small, mere suggestions of what was to come. Her waist was indented above slim hips, not narrow so much as unformed. The long sweeps of her thighs were sleekly muscled; she was tall as women went. Overall, her figure was boyish, yet distinctly feminine.
The sight pleased Raoul immensely. With a smile of brutish anticipation, he raised his eyes. “Turn around.”
From behind her came silence.
Eloise’s senses pricked wildly, trying to gauge Raoul’s intentions. Oddly, the sight of her girlish body had, if anything, aroused him further. It was a struggle to keep her limbs from shaking—to keep breathing—yet she refused to give way to her fear.
Hard, calloused hands reached around her, capturing her breasts.
Eloise suppressed a shocked start.
Raoul kneaded firmly, then with thumbs and forefingers captured her nipples and squeezed. She frowned. Before she could decide on any comment, he released her nipples; hands surrounding her breasts, he pressed against her.
She sucked in a breath. With a powerful motion, he ground his hips against her, his thrusting manhood, hard and hot, riding in the cleft of her bottom.
Taut, tense, her thoughts chaotic, Eloise stood stiff and unmoving.
To her relief, Raoul stepped back; she drew in a quick breath. His hands shifted, one lowering to splay across her belly; with the other, he gripped her nape, then, slowly, traced callused fingertips down her spine.
Eloise’s eyes widened, then she let her lids fall. Fists clenched, rigid yet quivering, she forced herself to suffer her husband’s touch.
Coldly, clinically, Raoul appraised the smooth, ivory globes of his wife’s bottom, fondling, probing. His lips lifted in a satyric leer. She would serve him well. He would get heirs on her; she would also give him great pleasure. Satisfied, he looked up, and noted her clenched jaw; his eyes gleamed.
Smiling coldly, he released her. “Get into bed.”
Eloise complied. She reached for the covers; rounding the bed, Raoul pulled them away.
“Not yet. I want to look at you.”
Stiffly, Eloise lay back and wondered if she dared close her eyes. Raoul sprawled beside her, then came up on one elbow to examine her. After a long, thorough inspection, his eyes lifted to hers, his gaze penetrating, then he flopped back on the bed. “Go to sleep.”
Slowly, Eloise turned her head. He lay on his back, one arm across his eyes, the other at his groin. Caution suggested she obey unquestioningly, but she had to ask; she couldn’t bear not knowing. “You wish to sleep first?”
He raised his arm. His eyes searched hers, then he lay back, his arm once more screening his face. “I’m not going to take you tonight. I’ve decided to train you first.”
“I’m a demanding lover. I’ll teach you what I expect before I take you.”
Eloise lay back and stared at the canopy. Gradually, it dawned that, given the choice, she’d rather lose her maidenhead tonight, knowing her mother would be near in the morning. Tomorrow, they were to leave for Cannar Castle, many miles distant. Besides, she’d been keyed up to play her part, to lie dutifully beneath him regardless of whether he pleasured her or not. “It won’t do. What about the sheets?”
Her calm question drew Raoul from his absorption. After a moment, he heaved a sigh and rose. Crossing the room to where his squire had left his clothes for the morrow, he located his belt knife. On the way back to the bed, he noticed a songbird tethered to a perch. “Perfect.”
In a second, the songbird was dead.
Stifling a cry, Eloise scooted back against the pillows, watching, horrified, as her husband held the dripping carcass so that blood artistically splattered the sheets.
“There.” Raoul strode to the window, pulled back the shutters and flung the dead bird into the blackness outside.
Eloise thought her heart would choke her. She watched Raoul stride to the chest, swiping up a towel to wipe his hands and knife. Struggling to breathe, she reminded herself she’d never liked songbirds, not tethered ones, anyway. By the time Raoul returned to the bed, she’d stifled her reaction sufficiently to ease down, avoiding the bright red splotches on the sheets. She made no further attempt to argue his intentions.
When he fell back in the same position as before, and said nothing, Eloise risked closing her eyes. Subduing her inner trembling was imperative.
Raoul had left the shutters open; a cool breeze wafted in, raising goosebumps. Cracking open her eyes, she spied the covers tangled at the foot of the bed. Half sitting, she reached for them.
“Not yet. I’m not finished.”
Finished? Eloise glanced at Raoul. The hand at his groin was curved about his thick member, moving rhythmically up and down the turgid length. For a moment, Eloise simply stared, then her cheeks flamed.
From under his arm, eyes agleam, Raoul watched her.
Wrenching her gaze away, Eloise lay down. Rigid, her arms at her sides, she stared at the canopy.
Raoul laughed; the harsh sound shredded the silence and echoed through the chamber. His hand left his groin; he reached for her hand, then hesitated.
Grinning coldly, Raoul changed hands, lowering the one he’d used to shade his eyes to his groin, while with his right hand he reached for his wife’s delectable bottom. She went even more rigid, but, as he’d expected, she made no demur. Feeling her flesh beneath his hard fingers, he closed his eyes and gave himself up to his quest.
Her crimson cheeks pressed to the pillow, Eloise suffered his pleasure in silence. He didn’t hurt her, but his probing fingers filled her with shame. Even when, with a deep groan, he achieved his release, his fingers didn’t leave her, but continued to play until, finally, apparently satisfied, he turned over and went to sleep.
One by one the candles guttered; blessed darkness blanketed the room. Even so, it was many hours before, exhausted, Eloise fell asleep.
A single question had dominated her mind.
What manner of marriage was this?
Late August, nine years later
“By all the saints! What’s wrong with dancing girls?” William de Versallet, broad as a destrier’s rear and equally uncompromising, planted his feet on the battlements and glared at his sister.
Eloise glared back. “I am trying,” she enunciated witheringly, “to ensure the celebrations in honor of your marriage maintain an appropriate tone.”
“Tone?” William looked thunderstruck. “There’s nothing amiss with the tone of dancing girls—it’s what the men expect.”
“Aye—what the men expect. But what of the ladies?” Eloise whirled to include the woman standing behind her. “What do you imagine your wife thinks of dancing girls?”
William glanced down at the pale, sweet-faced child he’d married a month before.
Suddenly finding herself at the center of this typical de Versallet dispute, and not being a de Versallet but a much more timid sort of mortal, Julia wrung her hands. Like a startled fawn, she stared at her huge husband.
William smiled perfunctorily. “You see nothing wrong with having dancing girls at the banquet tonight, do you, Julia?”
Blue eyes darting from one overpowering de Versallet to the other, Julia blinked. “I…that is…” She swallowed. “If that is what you wish, my lord.” Submissively, she bowed her head.
For a long, silent moment, Eloise stared at that down-bent head, at the sheen of blond hair showing through Julia’s veil. She resisted the urge to grind her teeth, and remembered to relax her fingers from the fists they’d curled into before turning back to her brother. She met his gaze coldly. “I’ll tell Sir John to hire the troupe presently in the outer bailey.”
William beamed. “Good.” Still grinning, he added, “You won’t be disappointed.”
The glare Eloise hurled him sizzled. Chuckling, he lumbered off.
Lips compressed, Eloise turned to her sister-in-law. “Truly, Julia, if you’re to make any mark in this castle, which, one day, will be yours to run, you must start acting as its lady. You know you will not enjoy seeing the men ogling and pawing the dancing girls.”
Julia lifted a face so disarmingly mild not even the devil could remain irate. “Oh, but…if it pleases my lord…”
Smothering a snort, Eloise refrained from further expostulation. Chiding Julia was pointless. She would let William clomp roughshod over her as long as that was the easiest course, then, years from now, she would carp and complain that he paid her wishes no heed. Julia’s future was Julia’s concern—Eloise had a castle to run.
“I must find Sir John.” Sir John Mattingly, her father’s steward, would not be surprised by her order. Eloise left the castle-side of the battlements, but instead of heading for the stairs, she glided to the northwest corner, to where the rising expanse of Salisbury Plain hid the distant Welsh hills.
Timidly, Julia followed. “You often look out that way—what can you see?”
“Tis the direction in which my old convent lies.”
“Aye—in the shadow of the Black Mountains, in the valley of the Dore.”
“Do you pray for assistance?”
“Nay.” Eloise smiled wryly. “Merely for strength.” Patience, actually, but then, these days, that was often the same thing.
“You spent years there, didn’t you? After your husband died, I mean?”
“Aye, twas my sanctuary.” A place to heal and grow. To recover from her month-long marriage, a marriage ended when the saints had heard her prayers and had released her from purgatory in the only possible way. With a lightning bolt, they had removed Raoul de Cannar from this earth, and had set her free. As free as a woman could ever be. “As a wealthy widow, there was much they could yet teach me, and I was eager to learn.”
So she could remain free, and retain control over her own life.
Leaning on the battlements, she gazed at the distant horizon. “There was also the matter of my jointure—my husband’s family tried to deny it me, but Claerwhen came to my aid.”
Faced with a writ and the threat of a Chancery suit, the de Cannars had capitulated. For the past nine years, Eloise had received half the yearly profits of their extensive estates. As the brother who had succeeded Raoul had proved remarkably talented in commerce, her accumulated wealth—much to the de Cannars’ disgust—now approached the legendary.
Almost enough to make her forget the month she had spent with Raoul.
Her expression blanking, she straightened.
Julia was still frowning. “But you must have been quite young—did not your parents wish you to return here?”
“Aye, they did.” But Eloise had been too wary to risk it—to risk being given in marriage again, used as a pawn to cement some other alliance. “But I wished to remain in the peace of the cloister.”
Julia’s glance was shy. “You must have loved him very much.”
Eloise didn’t answer.
“And you only came back when your mother died?”
“Not immediately. But when my father came and begged me to return, I could not say him nay.”
That still surprised her. Her mother’s death five years ago had rung in the changes. Eloise had already begun questioning her continued presence at Claerwhen. The peace and quiet had grown monotonous; a curious restlessness had gripped her. Her studies were long completed and there was nothing to fill the void. Even so, she had ignored her father’s and brothers’ written pleas. Then, unheralded, her father had arrived. On seeing how deeply her mother’s death had affected him, and hearing how sincere was his plea, she could no longer deny him. She had returned to Versallet Castle.
“And you’ve been chatelaine here ever since.” Julia made it sound like the triumphant ending to a tale.
Her expression hardening, Eloise inclined her head. Despite William’s marriage, despite her father remarrying two years ago, she was still chatelaine of Versallet Castle.
The fact filled her with no joy—neither Emma, the new lady de Versallet, nor Julia, she of fawnlike fright, could stand up to her father and four brothers. She, on the other hand, could, and did. She might lose a few battles, such as the one this morn, yet overall she managed the castle much as she wished.
As her mother would have wished.
Elaine of Montrose had had very definite ideas, frequently and clearly stated ideas, on how far the male of the species could be allowed to run amok before the sobering hand of a lady was brought to bear. Eloise had discovered that she was very much her mother’s daughter.
Glancing at Julia, she ventured, “Once you’re ready to take up the reins, I’ll gladly pass them on.”
“Oh! Nay!” Eyes wide, Julia all but flapped. “You do such a…a remarkable job—why, no one would want you to stop.”
Eloise grimaced. That was true. Everyone, from her father to the villeins in the fields, turned to her, and, far more than she, would resent any incompetent replacement. “Twill have to happen someday. As I told you this morn, you—and Emma, too—must learn to treat with your men. I’ll allow they are oftimes thickheaded, but if you insist, they’ll come to terms.”
Leaning against the battlements, she frowned sternly at Julia. “It may be an effort, but it must be made if you’re to forge a partnership—tis the only true measure of successful marriage.” Her mother had been her father’s right hand, and, to give the devil his due, he had always treated her as his queen.
“But there’s no real need.” Julia smiled placatingly. “While you’re here, everything will run smoothly.”
Eloise bit her tongue. Something would have to be done. Unfortunately, it was now impossible for her to live at the castle and not be its chatelaine. Perhaps it was time to return to Claerwhen.
Straightening, she drifted along the battlements to glance down at the bustle in the courtyard below. Julia trailed after her.
This time, Claerwhen could not be the answer, not permanently. She was not cut out for the cloister; that much she knew. Unfortunately, thanks to Raoul, the only other acceptable career for a noblewoman was no longer a possibility for her.
Once, she had dreamed of being the lady of a castle, her children about her, a strong husband at her side.
Her dreams had turned to dust.
With a brisk shake of her head, she resettled her veil. “Come—I must find Sir John.”
Together, she and Julia headed for the stairs, nodding to the guards as they passed. Eloise led the way down.
She had vowed she would let no man take her dead husband’s place.
Her lips curved, cynical humor returning. Adhering to that vow had cost her no pain, and had provided hours of entertainment through the years.
Raoul’s private legacy to her.
Pausing by an arrow slit, she peered down, and drew a determined breath, forcing her mind from the memories that still haunted her, dwelling instead on the amusement she felt at the continuing interest in her as a bride, and the bewildered frustration she delighted in placing in so many men’s eyes.
Amidst the bustle in the courtyard, she spied her father striding through the melee, bellowing orders right and left. His harassed steward scuttled in his wake. Turning from the sight, she continued down the stair.
To give her sire his due, he hadn’t pressed her to remarry. Neither had her brothers. They continued to introduce the subject along with potential suitors, but she only had to shake her head and they would retreat. Puzzled, but accepting.
Julia murmured an excuse and parted from her, heading for the solar.
Smiling wryly, Eloise stepped into the hall. She suspected her brothers thought they were doing her a favor by offering up all the eligible males they could find. They couldn’t fathom how she, their sister, could stomach a celibate life. They, poor souls, driven by their apparently unrestrainable urges, simply couldn’t understand her.
But she understood them. Very well.
She knew that the service of the castle whores was not restricted to the de Versallet men-at-arms, but, on occasion, was solicited by their masters. To her mind, if neither Emma nor Julia felt inclined to protest, then she could hardly do so. Her father and brothers were only men, after all.
Men. She could see that they might serve some purpose in the greater design of the cosmos, but, for her, they were largely redundant. There was very little she needed of them. Yet women of her station had to pander to their whims, and today their whims meant dancing girls.
Halting at the top of the keep steps, she saw her father still bending his steward’s ear. Rather than expose herself to her sire’s innumerable questions on duties she had already performed, she summoned one of the pages.
“Tell Sir John I wish him to hire the troupe of dancers waiting in the outer bailey.” Absentmindedly, she pulled the young page’s jupon straight and settled his girdle more levelly. “The usual rates. We’ll need them immediately the last course is cleared.”
“Aye, lady.” The page suffered her ministrations with resignation, flashing her a smile when she released him with a nod.
Eloise watched him wriggle through the crowd. Hands rising to her hips, she surveyed the noisy courtyard. The tournament announced by her father to celebrate his eldest son’s nuptials, formalized a month before at Julia’s father’s keep, was due to start tomorrow. The guests would roll up through the afternoon; she had already organized the evening banquet. The rooms were prepared; dinner had been served and cleared. There was nothing more to do, to oversee.
Glancing at the sun, Eloise estimated that it was just after midday. The notion of sitting with Emma and Julia in the solar, quietly embroidering until the sound of arrivals summoned them, did not appeal.
With a last glance around, Eloise turned inside.
Twenty minutes later, garbed in nondescript brown, she nudged her palfrey through the postern gate. She had avoided her father and brothers; they would insist she take a full escort even though she wasn’t going far. Her drab cote was sufficiently like those of merchants’ daughters to pass without comment; her telltale hair was hidden beneath a simple wimple and veil. Her palfrey, of course, bespoke her station, but she wasn’t trying to fool anyone, just avoid notice. The guards at the postern knew her too well to question her.
A plank bridge had been rolled out to ford the moat, giving the serfs bringing in produce easier access to the bailey. Within minutes of leaving the castle, Eloise was cantering along the ride leading south along the Bourne, skirting the outliers of the forest.
There was another, more practical reason for her drab clothing. She had recalled that the swineherd had gone to round up his charges. The main herd with the fattening pigs had been taken to pannage in the forest, an annual treat. Rounding up the piglets was a game for many; most of the castle children would be helping the swineherd today. There would be laughter and plenty of innocent play.
She felt sure that, by the time she found the herd, she would have invented a reason for joining them.
* * *
Deep in the forest where the boughs of old oaks intertwined overhead, a group of horsemen plodded along, followed by three swaying wagons.
“There.” Alaun de Montisfryth, first earl of Montisfryn, pointed to where the stream they were following widened into a deep pool.
“Perfect.” The rider alongside him craned his head to look. “Sweet water to wash away the dust.” Roland de Haverthorne slanted a glance at his cousin. “Of the road and, perchance, from your memory?”
The party dismounted, tethering their palfreys close by the pool. Within minutes, all ten knights had stripped and plunged into the clear water. Their squires scurried about, collecting discarded clothes and laying out their masters’ armor.
With smooth, powerful strokes, Alaun swam to the pool’s center, dove, then resurfaced, and slicked back his wet hair from his face. The water was cool on his sun-warmed skin. They’d ridden hard from Amesbury; the wagons and destriers, sent out before dawn, had been overtaken on the road. Now, with his party gathered, he was intent on ensuring they presented a suitably imposing spectacle when they rode through the gates of Versallet Castle.
Looking around, he saw the squires, their chores completed, hanging back in groups. “You, too.”
The order was greeted with dismay, but obeyed instantly. Noting the reluctance with which his own squire, Bilder, a veteran of numerous campaigns, stripped off his short cote, Alaun shook his head. “Why is it that a man has to reach knighthood before he’ll willingly bathe?”
“The saints only know,” Roland returned, stroking past. “Still, the poor bastards have been up half the night polishing our armor until it gleams, so perhaps you should let them off lightly.”
“They can have an early night tonight.”
“What? And miss the banquet and all the excitement?”
“Why, the excitement that’s bound to ensue when you challenge someone, or run someone through, or whatever it is you have in mind to pay back old Henry Hardnose for beating you into the dust nine years ago.” Eyes half closed, Roland tensed, waiting for some response to that taunt.
But Alaun merely humphed and turned to float on his back. “It’s just a tournament.”
“Ah, I see. Just a general, run-of-the-mill tournament, which just happened to hold sufficient attraction for you to turn aside from our long-awaited journey home—to your estates, which, as you well know, are crying out for your attention. This despite the fact that you, not to say we, have had a bellyful of tournaments in the recent past, having had to sit through a year of siege in company with a king who reaches for a lance on the way to the garderobe.”
A rumbling chuckle vibrated through the water. “Edward’s not that bad.”
“I’ll remind you you said that when you receive your next royal summons. How long do you imagine that will be after our esteemed sovereign returns to these fair shores?”
Alaun groaned, but didn’t open his eyes.
When his liege lord remained silent, Roland prompted, “Just to appease my curiosity, are you going to challenge de Versallet?”
Alaun sighed. “Why do I put up with you, Roland?
“Because I amuse you,” Roland replied. “And because you know you can rely on me to cover your back.”
Rolling over, Alaun met Roland’s eyes, then turned and stroked for the shore. Roland followed. As they rose, water coursing down bodies hardened by two years of almost constant campaigning, let alone the years before that, Alaun stated, “I have no plans to challenge de Versallet. I’m not even sure I’ll enter the lists.”
Roland accepted the rough towel his squire, also naked and dripping, hurried to hand him. These days, Alaun frequently sat out from tournaments, his experience and enormous strength making him a formidable opponent at even the highest levels of chivalry. No one in their right mind would look him in the eye and call him coward for it. Yet Roland would have sworn that competing was the purpose behind their present excursion.
They’d landed in England four days ago, having departed for France more than a year before. As Earl of Montisfryn and one of the Marcher lords, Alaun had joined Edward in most of his recent campaigns, this last proving no exception. The Montisfryn banner had flown to the left of the Prince of Wales’s standard at Crecy, the commanders in charge of the Prince’s battle having specifically requested Alaun to take that position. As their request had been followed by an essentially identical one from the Prince’s father, an old and valued friend, there they had been, in the thick of it.
While at Crecy the result had been glory for all, Roland, for one, considered his cousin’s pre-eminence a mite hazardous. That had proved true when Edward had moved on to lay siege to Calais. While many of the other commanders of rank had been allowed to retire from the field, Edward had requested—such a diplomatic way of describing it—Alaun and a number of his similarly experienced vassals to remain and provide the mainstay of his besieging force.
A full year spent outside Calais had tried their courage in ways battle never had. In the end, however, even boredom and sickness had been defeated, along with the burghers of Calais. Even Edward had had a change of heart, dispatching Alaun back to England immediately the town’s gates had been opened and the booty distributed.
Roland hadn’t believed it until he’d learned that Edward, as canny as ever, had realized that, with Roger de Mortimer a mere lad of sixteen, with Alaun still away, there was a large section of the Welsh border defenses which had been without strong leadership for nearly two years. The Welsh border was not a district it was safe to leave poorly tended for long.
So they had commandeered four ships and set sail, the cogs wallowing deep with the weight of their accumulated booty. The saints had smiled and the crossing had been peaceful. From Southampton, they had commenced their long trek, a line of heavy wagons rumbling between detachments of archers and men-at-arms. With over one hundred knights and men-at-arms, and more than five hundred archers, together with the inevitable camp-followers of assorted trades, their cavalcade resembled a small army.
They’d camped outside Amesbury last night. A squire, released to visit the town, had returned hotfoot with the news of a noble tournament, open to all comers. Alaun had shown little interest—until the squire mentioned the name of the castle hosting the tournament. Then, of course, the orders had come; no drawing straws this time, just the pick of Alaun’s knights.
Handing his towel back to his squire, Roland accepted his braies, then his hose. He was shrugging on his shirt when the first shrieks drifted through the trees.
Every man in the clearing froze.
The shrieks continued, high-pitched, feminine, clearly shrieks of enjoyment.
Roland glanced at Alaun. His cousin, still bare-chested, slowly rose from the rock on which he’d been sitting. Hands on his hips, he listened to the sounds of high-flown revelry percolating through the forest. Every one of his men was watching him.
Alaun slanted a questioning glance at Roland.
Roland sent the glance right back.
Alaun’s lips curved. Shrugging lightly, he headed for the festivity.
His men were right behind him.
* * *
In a forest clearing two hundred yards away, Eloise held her aching sides as yet another of the swineherd’s rowdy helpers landed on their backs. While the heavy sows were placid and easily herded, the piglets were running amok. Every time one struggled free, squealing at the top of its lungs, it spurred the others on to greater efforts. Despite the sizeable force the swineherd had assembled, the pigs were winning.
Just then, a pink bundle on tiny legs streaked in her direction. The cobbler’s son, in hot pursuit, tripped over his own toes and went sprawling. Infected by the gaiety, Eloise dispensed with dignity and pounced on the piglet. She trapped it between her skirts, which it had tried to run right through.
Within seconds, she discovered why it was taking so long to capture a few piglets. Every time she tried to gather the squirming bundle to her, it wriggled out of her arms. Determined to conquer, she bent over the piglet; bracing her legs, trapping its undulating body between her feet, she gripped its front trotters.
She was about to straighten and hoist her captive into the air when a very large, definitely masculine hand stroked slowly, leisurely, and all too knowingly, over her bottom.
Eloise shot upright, pig and all. Her breath stuck in her throat—she couldn’t even gasp. Furious, panicked, and a great deal more, she rounded on her attacker, purposefully swinging the piglet before her. As she completed the half circle, she let go.
Alaun barely had time to register a pair of flashing dark eyes, and the fact the woman was uncommonly tall, before thirty pounds of squealing piglet slammed into his chest. Instinctively, he caught the beast, stepping back with the impact.
His heel caught in a tree root; the piglet heaved.
The next thing Alaun knew he was measuring his length on the forest floor, a virago—she was definitely his vision of a virago, her hair tumbling loose from beneath her veil, rippling in a dark river all the way to her hips, with lightning in her eyes and scorn on her lips—standing over him, hands on her hips, pointedly inquiring, “One of your relations, I presume?”
With that, she swung around and stalked off.
Eloise marched a good ten paces before what she’d seen impinged on her brain.
She halted, raised her head. She blinked, then swung around and stared.
The piglet, released, ran off, squealing, to join its fellows. Slowly, her attacker sat up. Muscles rippled under golden skin stretched over a stomach resembling one of her serving women’s washer boards—ridged and rock-hard. Her gaze traveled upward across what seemed acres of tanned flesh, a generous dusting of golden hair gilding the smooth contours. His shoulders seemed impossibly large. Her palms prickled. The thews of upper arms and thighs were all in proportion, yet, for all that, he did not seem overly muscled. She decided he was just plain huge. He was wearing braies and mailed hose, which observation answered several questions. He was doubtless a knight on his way to her father’s tournament.
Suddenly realizing what she was doing, she jerked her gaze up to the stranger’s face.
His body had stopped her in her tracks. His face hit her like a blow—she couldn’t have breathed to save herself. His forehead was broad under a mane of wavy, golden-brown hair. His nose, and the set of his mouth and chin, informed her that he was no mere knight—this man commanded. His eyes, well-spaced under straight brows, were tawny golden, too.
They were watching her, a speculative glint flaring in their depths.
As the full impact of his presence registered, Eloise watched one tawny brow rise.
A slow, thoroughly suggestive smile softened the line of his lips.
Eloise stiffened. She let fly with a scorching glance, then turned on her heel and stalked off.
She’d tethered her palfrey out of the way, beside a fallen tree close by the edge of the forest. It was the work of a minute to regain her saddle. Her composure would take much longer.
Muttering curses beneath her breath, she swung her horse toward the ford. Minutes later, she was cantering across open ground heading straight for the safety of the castle.
From the shadows of the forest, Alaun watched her go. Predictably, Roland materialized at his elbow, chortling uncontrollably.
“One of your easier conquests?” Roland eventually managed.
Alaun turned and met his gaze. “One of my more intriguing conquests.” Without another word, he headed back to the stream.