Authors: Kathleen E. Woodiwiss
Kathleen E. Woodiwiss
In everlasting gratitude, this book is dedicated
to all of Kathleen’s beloved readers
AUGUST 24, 1135
She knew his name was Raven Seabern, that he was here at Westminster Castle in the service of his king, and she was aware of something else as well, that the tall, raven-haired Scotsman was staring at her again. But she was the Lady Abrielle of Harrington, daughter of a late Saxon hero of the Crusades, stepdaughter of a Norman knight who had also gained high esteem for his brave years of service in the Holy Land, both to be honored here tonight, and she would give the man’s attention the lack of regard it deserved. For here, at the court of King Henry, she was being paid the admiration of so many men. She turned away quickly and nodded to her mother’s soft-spoken praise of the interior grandeur of the great hall of Westminster Castle. Two massive hearths dominated the room at each end, with flames roaring higher than a man. Tapestries kept out the chill drafts and depicted scenes of men in battle or men at the hunt. The stitcheswere colored in royal crimson and gold, the deepest blue of a king’s robe, the startling green of dark forest. Never had Abrielle been in a castle so magnificent in its display of wealth and power. And she had been invited by the king himself.
She wanted to savor this happy occasion, as nights such as this had become sadly rare in her life since her father’s death and her stepfather’s recent difficulties. It was hard to be at ease, however, much less concentrate, with the Scotsman’s vivid blue gaze following her with an intensity to which she was not accustomed. And as if his staring were not unsettling enough, the man seemed to possess some mysterious power over her own traitorous gaze, as time and again she found it straying in his direction, despite her resolution not to reward his attention in any way. Thus far, she’d caught herself before indulging in anything more than a swift sideways glance or guarded perusal from beneath the sweep of her long, dark lashes, but in fact she had no need to look his way simply to confirm the fact that he was watching her yet again. It was as if his keen appraisal were tangible; she could feel it, the heat and weight of it, as surely and distractingly as if he were trailing a silken feather over her skin.
He was but one of the many men who had shown interest in her in recent days. Ever since her arrival in London with her mother, Elspeth, and her stepfather, Vachel de Gerard, Abrielle had received the overwhelming regard of noblemen looking for a suitable wife. Though Vachel did not yet have a title, it was assumed that King Henry this night was ready at last to confer such honors on a man known for his heroic deeds on the great Crusade. As a title brought with it lands and income, all knew that afterward, Abrielle’s dowry would increase substantially. During her short stay in London, men had come and gone from her stepfather’s apartments within Westminster Castle, presenting themselves first to her parents, then to her.
Those who had done so were men of honorable intentions, which it would seem the Scotsman was not, as for all his apparent fascinationwith her, he kept his distance. Even now he stood beside King Henry on the other side of the great hall. Tall and powerful, decked out in bonnet and plaid, he was of an age perhaps a score and ten, mayhap two or three years beyond. But it wasn’t only his height and impressive display of muscle and sinew that caused him to stand out from the rest of the noblemen gathered by the king to converse and await the announcement of dinner. There was about him an air of confidence that he wore as easily as he did his colors.
Or so it seemed to Abrielle, who could hardly judge for certain when she’d never heard him utter a single word or seen him without the distance and clamor of a crowded hall between them. Other men spoke to her of the fine evening air, or pointed out the treasures and paintings displayed beneath the light of thousands of candles, but not the Scotsman. It troubled Abrielle that his reserve caused her even a slight twinge of disappointment. She should not expect more from a stranger, a foreigner born, a man serving as emissary to King David of Scotland, one whose loyalty lay with those who had so often through the centuries ravaged the northern English lands in which she was born and bred.
He was the very last man she should be wasting her time thinking about, especially on a momentous eve such as this. For tonight she was concerned with matters of far more import, as the king’s words would seal her fate, determining whether life held for her despair or joy. Sufficient largesse toward her stepfather would bring the maiden a boon dearly sought but rarely won, gained only with a very large dowry. ’Twas the gift of choosing her husband from among the best of the land.
She turned away and back to her stepfather and mother, whose excitement suffused her with pride. So much would be happening this night—reward for Vachel, a loyal servant of the king, but also a poignant ceremony that evoked a heartrending memory for Abrielle. Recognition for Berwin of Harrington’s efforts in the Crusade wasscheduled to take place this very evening, and King Henry was in agreement that some esteem should be shown to her late father as well as others who had fought in that campaign. At the Norman court, many Saxons had gathered, after spending countless months striving to have some homage bestowed upon their friends and kinsmen who had fought in the Holy Land, especially since the death of Lord Berwin of Harrington. It had been their way of throwing their own gauntlet at the feet of the unsavory Norman who had gone out of his way to provoke her parent and then, upon accepting his angry challenge, humiliate him for his lack of skill in defending himself. To their regret, the Norman had deftly delivered a deathblow that had left Berwin’s family and friends grieving over his loss.
Although her stepfather of three years, himself an honorable Norman knight of the realm, had escorted her and her mother to the palace for the event, Abrielle knew the honors that were to be bestowed upon her father’s memory were at first tantamount to a glove being flung across Vachel’s cheeks. For he had been assured by others among the knights that at last it was his turn for recognition from the king. He had spent nearly a decade defending Jerusalem and been deemed a hero by many.
Abrielle knew numerous individuals who were as deserving of the honor that was to be bestowed upon her father’s memory, not just Vachel but also her late betrothed, Weldon de Marlé, another Norman who had proven himself to be among the noblest of heroes during that campaign. Shortly after his return home, he had begun building a keep, during which time he had petitioned her stepfather for her hand in marriage. Sadly, after completing his keep, he had fallen to his death the day before they were to be married, leaving her as bereft as a widow true, but without the sweet memories of love to sustain her.
Dearest Weldon could not be here to see Vachel’s reward for service well done, but sadly, his only kinsman, Desmond de Marlé, hadsomehow managed to be present. How he had done so was difficult to fathom, as he had a repugnant air, being lecherous in the extreme, with eyes full of greed and lust within his too-round face. She could only believe that he had convinced some errant page or servant to accept a generous sum for allowing him access. Several months before they were to be married, Weldon had introduced her to his only kinsman, and thereafter the most unpleasant Desmond had been inclined to dog her heels. Since Weldon’s death, the ogre’s propensity to intrude into her life had increased by an alarming degree. Little had she imagined after receiving word of Weldon’s accident that she would then find herself contending with his dastardly half brother on a fairly frequent basis. Although Desmond had been in dire financial straits before Weldon’s death, he was now basking in the wealth her betrothed had left behind and obviously using it in order to get close to her. Now in the heat of the king’s great hall, his face glistened with sweat, his overlarge eyes watched Abrielle with a fascination that unnerved her.
She knew she had much to be thankful for in the support of her lifelong friend, Cordelia of Grayson, who with her family was attending the London festivities. Cordelia, a great heiress, received her own share of attention from the men in the hall, and Abrielle hoped that together later this night they would relive the evening and discuss all the men they’d met.
Cordelia watched with great satisfaction as the men of king’s court became enthralled with her truly beautiful best friend, one whose appearance was bested only by the kindness of her nature. Her very favorable translucent blue-green eyes, rosy cheeks, and swirling reddish curls made her irresistible to a goodly number of men. Although Lord Weldon had been nigh to two score and five years of age when he had asked the lady to marry him, he had nevertheless been totally smitten by her beauty and eager to wed her. Having known her friend as long and as well as she had, Cordelia was convinced that Abrielle had beengenuinely pleased by their betrothal and been looking forward with eager anticipation to their wedding, only to suffer grievous remorse when news of his death had come. It was encouraging to see evidence that her companion had recovered from the tragedy enough to show some interest in other handsome men.
As a blast from a horn announced the serving of the great feast, Abrielle and her parents and Cordelia and her parents, Lord Reginald Grayson and the Lady Isolde, moved to their table just below the king’s dais. Abrielle, on display to many, felt that she looked her very best for the ceremony honoring her late father. Although the gown had originally been made for Elspeth for her wedding to Vachel a trio of years ago, after that event it had been carefully wrapped and stored in a coffer. The iridescent beads and bejeweled embroidery of deepest blue delicately adorning the gown from ornate collar to hem made no less than a stunning work of art that had taken numerous servants untold weeks to finish.
That had been when coins and servants had been fairly plentiful. However, in the family’s present dire circumstances, it was a rare occasion indeed when mother and daughter could garb themselves in beautiful attire and attend elaborate functions. Prior to his death, Berwin had provided for them very well, and so had Vachel before his father, Willaume de Gerard, had broken a promise he had made to his younger son prior to accepting financial assistance from him in the form of both money and goods. Although Willaume had sworn to return such to his son at the earliest moment possible, he had obviously failed to remember from whom he had received such help, for he had left everything to his elder son, Alain, who had been responsible for his father’s financial straits in the first place.
Before tonight’s recognition, Vachel had been forced to consider just how dire his own family’s future was going to be if he didn’t recover some of the help he had also extended to his knights. Like him, they had returned to England to find many of the nobles refusing togive out honors and titles lest the kingdom be impoverished, yet whenever he saw others basking in the wealth and titles they had managed to glean from frivolous deeds, Vachel was wont to resent their refusal to give him a title. Elspeth was everything he had ever hoped to have in a wife, especially since his first one had been less than pleasant and had died in childbirth cursing his name. In view of their deepening impoverishment, he feared he would eventually lose Elspeth’s love and respect. But at last tonight would come a reckoning, a reward from the king for his years of hazardous service.
Much to Abrielle’s amazement, she recognized the Scotsman among the men talking and laughing with the king, at a place of honor at the head table. As they were awaiting the servant’s approach with a warm bowl to wash their hands, Cordelia nudged her. “Aye, there is a man fine to look at.”
Abrielle quickly looked away from the head table, feeling a flush bloom in her cheeks. “The king is too old for me to even—”
But Cordelia only laughed and slyly whispered, “You cannot fool me, my dear Abrielle. You are not the only woman looking at that handsome Scotsman, for every last one of us here by now knows that his name is Raven Seabern, and he is an emissary for his majesty, King David of Scotland, an ambassador for his country to this Norman court.”
“There is a Scotsman at the head table?” Abrielle asked innocently, then gave a faint smile when Cordelia only rolled her eyes and covered her mouth against escaping mirth. “Cordelia, if there is any man not even worth thinking about, it is one such as he. King Henry may have married King David’s sister, and given rise to the peace between our two kingdoms, but you and I both know the deep resentment experienced by our own kinsman in the north. Terrible deeds have been done in the name of both countries on the borderlands, and both you and I are well aware that people do not easily forget.”
Cordelia cocked her head, her eyes impish with delight. “Oh, Idon’t know, Abrielle. Can a woman not look at a handsome man and forget where he comes from? Do not a pleasant brogue and a masculine smile make for a warm summer’s evening?”
Abrielle sighed at her friend’s playfulness, but inside she experienced a feeling of unease that would not go away. Would tonight’s festivities be interrupted by the arguing of prideful men? She saw more than one of her father’s neighbors here to honor him, yet giving the head table narrow-eyed looks of anger that could be directed only at the Scotsman.
“Cordelia, I cannot even imagine taking such light pleasure in something so serious,” Abrielle said, leaning into her friend so that their parents could not hear. “Even looking at him makes me feel disloyal. There is strife enough in our land betwixt Saxon and Norman; I need not marry someone who might well add to the tension felt by many.”
“Did I say anything about marriage?” Cordelia asked.
Abrielle frowned at her, then reluctantly began to laugh. “Nay, you did not. And this only goes to show you that I have been too deep in my cares. Tonight is for enjoyment.”
“Then enjoy it, Abrielle,” Cordelia replied softly, touching her friend’s arm. “You of all women deserve it.”
As the dinner was served, the two young women gaped in awe at the stuffed peacocks carried over the servants’ heads as they paraded about the hall, still looking like live birds floating in a river. Every course of the meal brought such satisfaction to their mouths and stomachs. They ate more than they spoke, and Abrielle felt a nervous tension thrum through her for the rest of the evening’s ceremonies. They could not be certain what would happen, and for the first time since Weldon’s death, she felt full of possibilities. She glanced at her mother and stepfather, saw their own hope in the loving looks they gave each other. If Norman and Saxon could come together as they had, then she had to believe that there was a chance for her own happiness.
To her surprise, she could hear much of what went on at the high table, and Cordelia nudged her when a nobleman asked Raven Seabern how he had come by his given name. The deep, gravelly tones of the Scot’s voice caused the strangest of shivers across Abrielle’s flesh. She knew she should not listen in on the conversation of others, but he so openly played to the crowd that he obviously meant his story to be heard. His voice was sonorous, its rough burr evoking the fierce, wild land from which he’d sprung. She had no choice but to listen.
“When my mother was expecting me, she awoke in the middle of the night ta the sound of pecking on her window. It persisted, it did, until she got out of bed and opened the shutters. In came a raven, as bold as ye please, and cocked his head at my mother.” Slipping into a deep brogue, he quoted her. “‘Saints alive,’ said she, ‘ye act as if ye belong here,’ whereupon the bird flew out and returned a moment later with a tiny branch he had plucked from my mother’s rosebush. Considering that my da hadn’t returned home, she was a-frettin’ he may’ve been thrown from his horse or waylaid by brigands. She had a servant hitch up a cart and drive her along the lane that my da usually took upon his return home. The raven flew ahead, he did, and ta my mother’s surprise, he led them straight ta my da, who’d been crossing the river when the planks fell through the bridge, dropping his steed inta the chilly water and himself firmly betwixt two rocks. My da was nearly frozen from the crisp winds, but our servant pulled him free and started rubbing some life back into his limbs. Thereafter, my mother found good reason ta be thankful for ravens, and decided when I was born ta name me Raven in appreciation.”
Everyone within hearing chuckled, including Abrielle, but her soft laugh caught in her throat when, as though hearing her laugh through the chorus of others, Raven suddenly swung his gaze to her and held her in its dark blue depths. Suddenly she was the captive of those fathomless midnight eyes, and while doubtless those around them went on breathing and speaking normally, Abrielle felt as if she andthe Scot were alone in the world. Though ’twas most definitely not a feeling to which she was accustomed, some burgeoning feminine instinct deep within her recognized the fiery gleam in his eyes and understood that he felt the same.
“So what happened to the raven in the story?” someone called out, as from a great distance it seemed to Abrielle. Still, it was enough to break the spell.
“Oh, my mother had him cooked for her vittles the very next day,” Raven replied, still holding her gaze.
Abrielle’s jaw dropped in astonishment, causing Henry’s hearty laughter to reverberate throughout the room. The king could not have helped noticing where Raven had been looking and she found herself the object of the royal stare. His Majesty slapped a hand upon the planks of the table. “The lad’s teasing you, my lady, never fear.”
Abrielle now found herself the focus of even more inquisitive stares. At her side, her mother glanced at her with interest, and her stepfather, on Elspeth’s far side, gave her a frown. She knew he was distracted and wished nothing to go wrong this evening.
Abrielle could see the sudden way that Raven’s smile changed from open humor to something more guarded, and she was uncertain of its meaning. Had he, too, realized that she was not one for a man such as he? He clasped a lean hand against the folds of plaid that lay across his black-garbed chest and spoke with a more cautious air. “Forgive my teasing, my lady. The raven stayed with us and was as watchful over my da as a dog over a bone. We never knew the reason for the bird’s attachment, excepting my da had a twin who drowned a year earlier. He had a raven that would fly alongside his cart. In any case, the bird stayed with us until he died of old age. So ye see, with the proper incentive, even a bird of prey can be tamed.”
Abrielle was relieved when he deliberately turned away from her to respond to something spoken softly by the king. But beneath her relief was an uneasiness she couldn’t quite place.
At last the meal was over and the king rose to his full height, presiding over his silent hall. Hundreds of noblemen, knights, and their families waited for what the king would announce. Abrielle saw that Vachel took her mother’s hand and squeezed gently, as if in support and courage.
The king spoke ringingly of the great deeds of the Saxons who fought in his name, especially honoring Berwin of Harrington, leaving Abrielle feeling proud of her late father. Her mother had tears in her eyes, and Vachel, unlike other men, showed no jealousy. He obviously loved Elspeth enough to share her with her memories. At last the king came to what affected Abrielle’s new family and their future.
“There are thousands of men, both Norman and Saxon, who fought in our name against the Infidels overrunning the Holy Land. The crown extends its deepest gratitude and wishes that every man could have every reward due, but we must balance the good of several men against the good of an entire kingdom. England must remain strong, and her treasury with her. So for now our soldiers have our humblest gratitude and the reward of knowing their service was invaluable. Tonight let us celebrate their accomplishments in song and dance.”
The king raised his hand and his minstrels began to play a rousing song on pipe and lute, but Abrielle sat numb, full of disbelief. The king’s treasury could no longer afford to be depleted, so there would be no reward for Vachel’s long years of service? Where others before tonight received wealth and titles, he would have nothing? The lump in her throat felt as if she would never swallow again, and her eyes, so strangely dry one moment, stung painfully the next. She knew others at the long trestle table were staring at them, muttering to each other, discussing her family’s future. To avoid their eyes, she fixed her attention on the goblet before her, a gift from her beloved father, presented to her mere months before his untimely death. Fashioned of silver, itbore runic Saxon writing in a band encircling its center. She clasped her right hand around this family legacy, drawing comfort from the reminder of both her late parent and the noble Saxon heritage she shared with him, as well as strength. For now her thoughts could return to her mother and stepfather, and she turned her aching neck to look at them.
They still held hands, as if frozen together. Elspeth’s eyes did not glisten with tears; she was too proud for that. Her chin was lifted with hauteur, and her flashing eyes dared anyone to make remarks. Vachel’s grim expression said all. This was a blow he had not expected, and her grief for the man who’d saved her and her mother was intense and painful. How would he bear this new burden?
Vachel himself could barely think, so confused were his thoughts. The honor due him at last would never be; the reward he’d justly earned had gone to others, and now there was no more to be had. The king did not look at him, but he could feel the eyes of dozens of others, speculative, curious, even grimly amused, as if his woes served only to mark another tragedy that one could relate to the next gossip avid for another’s misery. Though he had been at pains to keep secret the true extent of his problems, the fact that he and his small family were close to impoverishment would fairly soon be known to one and all. He would not be able to compensate his knights, nor even to afford the running of a household. Far more devastating to his pride, and to his heart, was the knowledge that his beloved Elspeth and her daughter would be forced to share the grim consequences of his misfortune, consequences that would be immediate and unavoidable. Everyone present there would realize at this moment that Abrielle would not have the great dowry formerly anticipated and the most worthy of those men seeking wives, those best able to provide the standing and security Abrielle deserved, would turn their attention elsewhere in search of a maiden who would bring wealth with her. His stepdaughter would be undeservedly forced to lower her expectations. Worse,she would be ripe for pursuit by unscrupulous men seeking to use her for her beauty, rather than treating her with the dignity a wife deserved. And it was all too possible the maiden would not find a husband at all, bringing more humiliation and heartache to both her and her mother. For who would want to marry a girl with so little to bring to the union?
How was he to stay in Westminster Castle after this? All he could think of was leaving, absorbing his own pain in peace.
Abrielle took a deep, tight breath, watching blankly as the servants cleared away the remains of the feast, dismantling the trestle tables so that the dancing could begin. Only hours ago, she had been the one men flocked to, the one treated as the great heiress. But men and fate, it seemed, were equally capricious, though men were buffeted about by fate, and she by the fate of men. First her father had died before his time, then her noble betrothed, and now the deeds and decisions of her stepfather and of King Henry himself had shaken the very ground on which she stood, taking from her the one thing that could have given her a hand in making her own future, the right to choose her husband. As she stood with her parents, the men who’d once flocked to her for a morsel of kindness now avoided even her gaze. There were true heiresses to fawn over, and she was no longer one of those. Deep inside her something shifted, and a new insecurity rose to engulf her, though she tried to thrust it away. Was there something wrong with her, that only wealth mattered in taking her to wife?
Cordelia was asked to dance by a young man who only yesterday had remained outside Abrielle’s door for hours in hopes of catching a glimpse of her. Cordelia’s face was a mask of misery as she glanced at Abrielle, barely holding back tears, but Abrielle did not want her to suffer. She sent her dear friend off with a brilliant smile that stabbed her own heart.
She felt her mother’s hand slide into hers, and turned to the woman who bore her, who now suffered as equally for Abrielle’s pain as forher own. She grieved for both husband and daughter, and Abrielle had to do what she could to alleviate her mother’s suffering.
“Mama, how is my stepfather?”
Elspeth sighed and spoke over the cheerful notes of music echoing through the great hall. “He will not speak to me now, not when others can see. But I know the grief and suffering in his heart. This unfairness to him causes me great sorrow. And as for what it does to you—”
“Speak not of it, not here,” Abrielle said, giving her mother a brittle smile that she feared might separate her face. “Everything will work out for the best, and this painful evening will soon be forgotten.”
But Elspeth’s expression was full of doubt, and Abrielle could look at her no longer without feeling the insidious threat of tears. She looked back at the crowd of dancing men and women, keeping her chin lifted as if she had not a care in the world.
And she saw Desmond de Marlé watching her with open interest that he no longer couched with simpering fawning. Nay, he was not one of those men who looked at her for her wealth; he stared with a lustfulness that sickened her to her soul. She quickly looked away lest he think her gaze an expression of interest.
Was he the only type of man she could attract now? A man who would own her like a rare tapestry and hang her about his great hall for all to view and envy?
And he wasn’t the only one, she saw with a quiet feeling of growing horror. Men who skulked about the edges of the hall now moved nearer, as if they were rats after only one small piece of cheese.
Yet Vachel stood guard over her, his face impassive, his eyes watchful, and she knew a feeling of temporary relief. But how long could it last? How could he protect her, when he had so little consequence at court?
And then she saw that Cordelia, who’d been given from one dance partner to the next, was now approached by Raven. Inside, Abrielle felt a tightening she couldn’t explain, but quickly asked herself why onearth she should feel slighted that the handsome Scot would choose to dance with a wonderful woman like Cordelia? And Cordelia was not just any woman, but the very one who also happened to be her oldest and dearest friend. Later, in the privacy of her chamber, she would sort out her feelings, but for now, she fashioned a dazzling smile so that no one would suspect the turmoil inside her. She also felt true concern for her friend, as Raven had not yet been introduced to Cordelia, yet approached her nonetheless; such behavior did not speak well of his intentions toward her, for he should have presented himself to her father first.
As she continued to smile and pretend to be enjoying the festivities, she realized that Cordelia and Raven were not dancing, but speaking, quietly and with great absorption, occasionally casting a furtive glance in her direction. Unless her instincts were entirely mistaken, they were discussing her, and when the two suddenly turned to look at her, Abrielle was the one caught staring as her dear friend smiled and the Scotsman frowned. Abrielle held her breath as she wondered what they were about. She had to caution her headstrong friend to be more careful as well, for the Scotsman seemed to be overly bold.
They began to move toward her through the crowd, and with each step she felt dread mixed with a strange chilling excitement that she didn’t want to feel. To her horror, Cordelia was doing her the great favor of persuading a man to dance with her, and not just any man, but one whose manner of approaching both young women was questionable. It was true a part of her would not mind a dance with the handsome Scot, only under more appropriate circumstances.
She glanced toward her parents, only to see that they were, quite understandably, speaking intently between themselves. She was obviously doing nothing to attract the Scot, but to her he came, his long stride marked with easy grace and an air of quiet power that made others instinctively move from his path. As he drew steadily closer, Abrielle could not help noting how perfectly his traditional garb fithis frame. It stretched taut across his broad shoulders and chest, and emphasized his lean hips and long legs, as if very talented hands had stitched it with him inside.
It was not his clothes that commanded her attention as he came within a stone’s throw, however. An infinitely more gifted artist had chiseled the man himself and she was mesmerized by the raw beauty of his countenance: full dark brows curved above alert blue-black eyes filled with awareness, a slight bump where it had once been broken only added to the appeal of an otherwise perfectly configured nose, and high, sharp cheekbones provided a thrilling hint of the fierce predator. Only his mouth, full and exquisitely shaped, added a touch of softness and…and then he stopped before her.
Cordelia’s smile was full of a subtle nervousness that only Abrielle could see. “Abrielle, this gentleman has requested an introduction to you.” Neither of the friends spoke aloud about the fact that this was not, could not be, a formal introduction, but they were indeed young women, and eager to learn more of the world, especially when the lesson involved such a devastatingly handsome, devastatingly masculine male. “May I present…”
Raven swept into a bow and spoke solemnly. “Raven Seabern, my lady.”
Abrielle managed a curtsy. “I am Abrielle of Harrington,” she said, thinking that he was even more skilled at hiding his true feelings than she was. Anyone looking on would believe Raven really had sought to dance with her, rather than being wheedled into so doing by the kindhearted Cordelia.
“And your late father is one of the braw men we honor this night?” Raven asked.
She nodded, not daring to look at Vachel, who also deserved such honor; she was relieved, as well, that her parent had other things to think about in the wake of the king’s announcement. Her stepfatherwould be concerned that she was meeting a man whom he did not know, who had not presented himself to Vachel as custom required. Would he consider it an even deeper dishonor to have a Scot speak to his stepdaughter?
Cordelia placed a hand on her arm. “I asked if there were more like him at home, but he insists he has no brothers.”
Raven smiled faintly at Cordelia. “Only my da, but he’s become set in his ways since my mother passed on. Ta be sure, lass, ye’ve the looks that could quicken his heart ta a loud drumbeat were he here.”
Abrielle blinked in surprise, not knowing whether to feel affronted. Was Raven flirting with Cordelia brazenly in front of her? She felt greatly comforted when her friend actually giggled in response to the Scotsman’s gallant words. “You must understand, sir. I wasn’t necessarily asking for any particular purpose.” She lifted her shoulders, offering a reason for her question. “I was merely curious.”
Abrielle could have groaned at her friend’s remark, but just at that moment the musicians began another dance. It was this that Abrielle was truly dreading, as Raven no doubt would feel obligated to dance with her. To refuse outright would publicly dishonor him and herself, but her fierce pride ached to do precisely that. Her fortunes may have changed in the past hour, but she refused to be the object of any man’s pity and was frantically searching for a way to balance honor with pride when his deep voice intruded.
“May I have this dance, my lady?”
Abrielle lifted her chin, keeping her voice low so only he could hear. “You honor me with your request, sir, but surely you would enjoy the dance more with your first choice of partner.” She gave the slightest of nods toward Cordelia, who’d been drawn into conversation with an older woman on her right.
“I couldna agree more,” replied Raven. “Which is why I stand before ye, my lady, hoping beyond reason your kind heart will move yeta take pity on a clumsy Scots oaf and keep him from appearing a total clod amongst the local talent.”
Abrielle couldn’t help smiling at how cleverly he’d turned the tables, as she’d been chafing at being the object of his pity and he’d very openly and charmingly made a plea for hers. The man might not have a talent for dancing, as he claimed, but his persuasive skills were of the highest order. Clearly he’d been born to be a diplomat, and when he held out his hand to her, Abrielle couldn’t have resisted if she wanted to.
The moment the beautiful young woman was in his arms, Raven Seabern knew he’d made a terrible mistake. He was leading her by the hand into the quickly forming circle as couples young and old merged together. The steps were simple enough to follow as others began to demonstrate their talents and abilities in time with the music, doing a sprightly jig or a tapping of a toe and heel as they moved around in a never-ending wheel of cavorting dancers. Henry’s booming laughter evidenced the pleasure he was savoring as he watched his guests enjoying themselves. To be sure, those who had been inclined to think the banquet would be a dull, solemn occasion came quickly to the realization that it had changed into a very lively affair indeed, obviously the sort His Majesty preferred over more somber events such as the one that had just been concluded.
But rather than watching the earlier dancers, Raven had been watching Abrielle far too much this evening, for she was the most stunning creature he had ever seen. From the moment he’d first seen her tonight in the great hall, he’d found it nearly impossible to keep from openly staring. Her red-gold hair tumbled freely as a maiden’s should, a shining, flaming glory to the torch that was her beauty. Her pink lips had called to him for kisses; her smooth, creamy skin, glowing beneath the softness of candlelight, had beckoned his trembling fingers to touch and caress. Never before had he felt such a response on merely seeing a maiden.
It was because he’d been watching her so intently that he’d seen the change in her. He’d seen the light of exhilaration so suddenly and utterly extinguished and how, for a fleeting moment, it was replaced with a look of total desolation. It was the sort of look that could break even the hardest heart. It had taken everything in him to avoid her after the banquet, to watch her stand between her parents with quiet courage when no young lords asked her to dance. And that was when he’d realized that her stepfather must have felt it was his time to be honored, and the king’s decision had dealt him a blow, thereby affecting this sweet maiden. But how? What secrets did this small family conceal? So taken by her was he that he approached her friend and then her without having been formally introduced to either young woman.
Her young friend Cordelia of Grayson had obviously wanted to help her by presenting Raven as a dance partner He watched her watching him as he approached and saw her every thought reflected in her translucent eyes. Interest, uncertainty, suspicion, dread. All girded with that dauntless pride of hers. She was not the sort to take pleasure in a man trammeled on her behalf and served up to her on a platter…not even by a friend with the best intentions. She clearly had not wanted his attention, and where with another woman he would have felt merely challenged, if he felt anything at all, Abrielle’s rejection, delivered with that sweetly slashing smile, cut dangerously deep. Raven rarely encountered an unwilling woman, and rarer still were those occasions when he bothered to exert himself to change her mind. But a man like Raven Seabern got what he wanted, and dance with her he would.
And dance they had, separating as the pattern required, coming together, and joining hands repeatedly. Each time it was as if he were burned, scorched by her beauty and softness. He didn’t like feeling as if his own control meant naught. At one point, he lifted her high, his big hands spanning her fragile rib cage. It was then that he saw thetinge in her face and sensed her breathing stop and felt a momentary wonder: Could she, too, be feeling the lure of deep attraction?
The dance was over too soon, and all he could do was escort her back to her parents. Her mother gave him a smile, her stepfather a simple nod, and Abrielle a deep curtsy. And then she wouldn’t look at him. After that moment they’d shared on the dance floor, he was even more intrigued by her reticence. He wondered what it portended, though he doubted whether he would ever know for sure, for on the morrow he was yet again to be off in the service of his king, was not even cognizant of when he would return to his beloved highland home.
He left her with a quiet farewell and yet found himself unable to stop watching her. Though he knew her stepfather more than capable, it was obvious the man had an air of distraction this evening as he considered his own future. And unsavory men continued to watch Abrielle. One in particular, squat and overweight, approached Abrielle and bowed to her. When Vachel stepped forward to confront the man, Abrielle laid a hand on his arm and went with the stranger quietly, though it was obvious his touch distressed her. Raven would have to keep watch this evening over this one he perceived as a threat to the maiden.
The difference in dance partners was stark, Abrielle realized in dismay. Raven had moved with the gracefulness of a knight, a man used to wielding a sword as he circled an opponent. Desmond de Marlé, her late betrothed’s half brother, lurched through the sweet rushes scattered over the floor. His wet, hot hand gripped hers too hard, and when the dance called for him to touch her waist, she could swear he squeezed as if he were checking the tenderness of a piece of fruit. His eyes devoured her with greed, and she would have run from him, but she did not want Vachel to feel compelled to defend her.
“I will call on you tomorrow, my lady,” Desmond said in a confident voice.
“I—but you cannot, my lord,” she said, scrambling for appropriate reasons. “My stepfather may have plans that he has not shared with me.”
“I know what happened to him tonight,” Desmond said, not bothering to lower his voice.
Abrielle cringed, wondering who could overhear his loud voice. “Please, my lord—”
“He might need the friendship of a man of influence such as me.”
His insistence on pushing himself on her only served to strengthen her courage. “My lord, I must insist that you speak with my stepfather.”
“Oh, believe me, girl, I will.”
When the music ended, he left her on the dance floor instead of escorting her back to her parents. When she made her way to them, her mother began, “Abrielle, that horrid man—”
Vachel interrupted with a stern voice. “My lady wife, speak not a word that others may hear.”
Biting her lip, Abrielle moved back into her place between them. Oh, how she wanted this evening to be over, but that would not put an end to their troubles. She would continue to see worry in her mother’s eyes and cold pride in Vachel’s. A hollow sickness inside Abrielle could not be appeased.
And to make matters worse, Raven was watching her again. There was no look of flirtation in his eyes as he gave so many other women, confirming her suspicion that their dance had meant nothing to him, but then, why should it have, as she was no longer worth his notice. He had focused his attention on her when all still thought she would soon have a great dowry, then made her acquaintance inappropriately once Vachel’s hopes for a title had been dashed; she had to ask herself what the Scots emissary knew of her stepfather’s dashed dreams. Nonetheless he had danced with her, but seemed to have judged her unworthy after having spent some time with her; truly men werebeasts, for only a beast could show such interest in her, then withdraw it so cruelly after deeming her of insufficient value without property.
She tried to distract herself by watching His Majesty, who bade a servant to crisscross a pair of swords on the floor before directing the musicians to play an appropriately swift ditty on the lutes. To her surprise, Raven allowed himself to be drawn reluctantly forward. What could he be about?
After a sweeping bow to the king, he began a high-stepping dance over the swords. It was a dazzling display of footwork as Raven struck toe and heel to the floor with amazing quickness, weaving his way over and around the weapons, the clicking of shoe leather on stone its own kind of music. A clumsy Scottish oaf indeed, thought Abrielle, enthralled, and she was not alone, for the performance drew an ever growing audience, including many young maidens whose sharp, feminine gasps were interspersed with delighted giggles whenever his kilt flew dangerously high.
“My goodness, I don’t think he’s wearing anything underneath it,” Cordelia gasped in shock as she joined Abrielle within the circle of spectators. In spite of the fact that the fair-haired woman’s cheeks were evidencing a deepening blush, she was closely attentive to the swishing movements of the wool.
Abrielle backed away, allowing others to swarm in front of her, confused by the rising feeling of warmth and excitement brought on by watching him. Raven only put on a display to shock the court, not her personally. She thought Cordelia would remain near to watch the entertainment, but instead her friend drifted with her, biting her lip.
“So just tell me what is on your mind,” Abrielle said patiently, recognizing Cordelia’s pensiveness.
“I saw you dancing with Desmond de Marlé.”
Abrielle’s only answer was a shudder.
“I heard people talking about him. Do you know he’s had two wives, both of whom died in childbirth?”
“Those poor women,” Abrielle murmured.
“In more ways than one. It seems he received money from each wife, and then when Weldon was killed falling down the stairs of his newly finished keep, Desmond inherited his true fortune. Doesn’t that seem suspicious to you?”
Abrielle searched her friend’s face, feeling ill. “Do people think Desmond had anything to do with Weldon’s death?”
Cordelia shrugged. “It is only speculation, but he did benefit the most.”
“And I lost my future,” Abrielle added with a sigh. Then she took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders. “But I cannot live in the past. A new opportunity will come, I am sure of it.”
Cordelia’s expression was too sympathetic, and Abrielle had to look away before tears threatened again.
At last her mother and stepfather approached with the intention of retiring. An evening that began with joyous expectations had plummeted into one of numb despair. Cordelia and her family left the castle, and even Elspeth and Abrielle found themselves alone in their chambers when Vachel expressed a need to walk off his frustrations.
Abrielle stood hugging herself as her mother sadly withdrew into the bedchamber she shared with Vachel and began to undress. Abrielle suddenly realized that she had left behind the drinking goblet given to her by her father. It had to be somewhere in the great hall. She gave no thought to her own safety in her panic at losing such a precious memento. Anxious to retrieve the item before it was forever lost to her, she dashed out of their chambers, in her haste failing to inform her mother that she would be returning to the great hall. Once she reached it, she felt relief to see the goblet where the servants had placed it when taking down the trestle tables so the attendees could dance. With it once again in her grasp, she hurried toward the stairs, not feeling the presence of another until it was too late.
Like a wily serpent, Desmond leapt from his makeshift lair and promptly muffled Abrielle’s screams beneath a sweaty palm. Dragging her writhing, kicking, and with arms flailing about in an attempt to claw him or do him some other injury, he swept her into one of the chambers off the great hall and promptly pressed her down upon the chaise. In mounting fear, Abrielle clawed at his face and tried to turn her own aside, but he dug his fingers into her jaw and, with his foul-tasting tongue, ravished the depths of her mouth.
Abrielle had never been kissed by a suitor before, not even by Lord Weldon, nor had she ever been mauled. The fact that she was being held against her will by the horrid rapscallion Desmond de Marlé was not only thoroughly frightening to her, but immensely revolting. The looming possibility that she’d soon find herself a victim of his lust caused her to fight with every measure of resolve she could muster. Clasped within his tightly confining arms, she bit, clawed, and gouged in a frantic attempt to regain her freedom.
Panic was soon joined by wild instinct as she struggled to free herself, but his sweaty weight and the swathing folds of her own skirtwere against her. When at last she managed to free one leg and began to kick blindly, de Marlé didn’t budge, but she dropped the goblet so precious to her and it hit the floor, the sound reverberating loudly.
Desmond immediately tightened his grip on her jaw, causing Abrielle to cry out in pain.
“Quiet, you little fool,” he ordered, his tone harsh, his overbright eyes terrifying. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll lie there and…”
His words were lost in a sudden swirl of plaid and a feral growl rent the air, and as quickly as she had been waylaid, Abrielle was freed. She had a fleeting impression of Desmond’s beady eyes widening in sheer terror as his big soft body was lifted straight up from hers and swung aside as effortlessly as if he were stuffed with feathers instead of lard. It was only then that she realized who it was doing the lifting and swinging, who it was who’d caused the awful terror in his eyes, and who was even now—judging from the sounds being emitted from a cowed de Marlé—causing even worse pain.
Raven, his dark hair whirling about his shoulders, held Desmond up by the scruff of the neck with one hand while the other fist pummeled his face, actions that engendered in Abrielle feelings of both horror and blessed relief. For what seemed to the maiden an infinite amount of time, she remained unable to move, then she gathered herself enough to sit up and try to smooth her skirts, now bunched beneath her and leaving her thighs and a goodly bit of hip exposed. She managed to tug the fabric loose, but not quickly enough to escape Raven’s notice.
His attention was snagged by her motion and he froze mid-pummel. As he slid his gaze from Desmond to her, the look of abject fury on his face gave way to something else, something equally dark and dangerous, but in a very different way. The sly Desmond took full advantage of his distraction and wrenched free, but Raven let him go in order to hand Abrielle an embroidered throw from a nearby chair, earning from her a murmured “Th-thank you.”
Honor, both his and hers, decreed that he avert his gaze and turn away, and after a few moments more, he did so, allowing Abrielle to cover herself quickly and stand.
He turned then, reaching out with one hand, tentatively, as if wanting to prop her up, or soothe her, or touch her, but she was left to wonder which as his hand dropped back to his side.
“Are ye hurt, my lady?” Raven queried as Abrielle sought to cover her reddened breasts with the throw.
The best answer Abrielle could manage was to shake her head in denial and then she, too, fled the hallway. Racing toward the chambers in which her mother was ensconced, she dared not pause for even an instant. In her absence, Raven noticed her goblet lying upon the floor near the chaise where Desmond had dragged her. Picking it up, he made his way to the landing above the stairs, where he waited for some moments, for doubtless the frightened maiden was even now telling her parents what had just taken place and he must give them at least a bit of time to collect themselves. After a decent interval, he rapped his lean knuckles lightly upon the portal.
“Who is it?” Elspeth called out as she leaned near the door.
“’Tis the Scotsman, Raven Seabern.”
The door opened a meager degree, allowing the woman to meet his gaze. She offered him a trembling smile, grateful that he had been on hand to save her daughter from the horrible monster their entire family loathed. “I fear my daughter is unable to come to the door to thank you properly, and her father will be returning soon, but if you would kindly accept my undying gratitude, you surely have it. If not for you, I truly fear that evil man would have had his way with her.”
“I found your daughter’s goblet after she left,” Raven murmured, holding the item where the woman could see it.
Drawing back the portal, Elspeth felt no fear as she accepted the item from the Scotsman; indeed, she even managed a small smile, forher daughter would feel relief to learn that the valued vessel had been returned to her. “I thank you truly, kind sir, for ’tis something both she and I hold quite dear. ’Twas her late father’s, and that of generations of Harringtons prior to Berwin. Before his untimely death, her father gave it to her, and when Abrielle discovered that she had left it behind her, unthinking she rushed back to fetch it. Of course she had no idea that she would be set upon by that horrible man. I’m not sure just how much you know about my daughter, but she was once betrothed to Lord Weldon de Marlé. Since his lordship’s death, Desmond seems inclined to follow her about.”
“Ye say that ye expect your husband to return shortly, my lady? Mayhap I should keep watch out here on the landing till he does, just ta make certain ye and your daughter are safe. If ye feel a need, brace a chair against the inside of the door.”
Upon realizing she was still shaking from the incident involving her daughter, Elspeth managed a tremulously grateful smile. “I do think Abrielle and I would feel more secure if you would keep watch until my husband returns…just in case Desmond tries to force his way into our chambers. He seems to have his mind fixed on having my daughter, and there is no one Abrielle loathes more. But as for when he’ll return, I do not know. Thank you again for your protection…and your kindness,” she murmured as she fought back grateful tears. “You’ve proven a godsend tonight, not only by coming to my daughter’s rescue, but for watching over us when you barely know us.”
“Aye, ’tis true I hardly know ye, my lady, but I’m well acquainted with the sort of rascal who attacked your daughter. I didna think the man was ta be trusted when I first set eyes upon him. Ta be sure, my lady, I’m more inclined ta favor the ones who find themselves beset by such a man. Now I’ll be saying good night ta ye. Rest yourself, if ye can.”
Upon closing the door, Elspeth entered the adjoining bedchamber, where her daughter had flung herself across the bed and was stillsobbing. Even a handsome individual could evoke a horrible memory were he to resort to the vile tactics the squire had just employed. In view of the rampant disdain Abrielle had felt for the man before his attack, her aversion to him had likely been compounded.
Gently stroking her daughter’s back, Elspeth sought to soothe her fears. “Raven Seabern will be keeping watch outside our rooms until Vachel returns,” she murmured, wondering when that would be. A long moment passed as she thought of their protector. “The Scotsman gives every indication that he is a man to be admired…a very handsome gentleman…even more so than Lord Weldon. But then, I must remember that his lordship was nearing two score and five years of age when he fell to his death.”
Memories of his lordship’s demise evoked a lengthy silence that neither woman seemed willing to break until Elspeth heaved a pensive sigh. “I know it isn’t proper for a lady to speak of such things, but for some time now, I’ve been thinking…even more so since this latest incident, that if Desmond were threatened with violence after daring to approach you, mayhap he’d learn to keep his distance.”
“I wouldn’t be inclined to think so,” Abrielle muttered against the coverlet. “Just leave it be, Mama. We will be leaving London soon.” She almost told her mother what Cordelia had told her about the suspicion of Desmond’s part in Weldon’s death, but how could she further upset her? She didn’t want Vachel challenging the man to a contest to the death. Her own father had died in the same senseless way. And after all, Desmond had been stopped in time. She shuddered.
OUTSIDE, A SAFE distance away, Desmond licked his wounds and made plans. After pulling free of that arrogant, meddling Scot, he’d dashed toward the nearest portal, frantic to make good his escape. The rapidity of his flight had been clearly evidenced by the sound ofhis clattering heels echoing back through the halls. He never halted until he had escaped from the castle and dragged himself onto his shaggy steed. Even then, he thumped his heels frantically against the animal’s heaving sides. He’d been thwarted and made the fool this night, but there would be another night, and he would not forget Raven’s possessiveness of Abrielle.
IT WAS LATER that night when Vachel returned to the castle and began to slowly climb the stairs to the chambers wherein his family was ensconced. He was in a foul mood, having repeatedly mulled over in his mind his limited choices for the future.
Upon nearing the landing, Vachel was taken aback when he espied the Scotsman sitting with his back braced against the far wall. “Why are you here?”
Raven pushed himself to his feet with a single, graceful movement. “Desmond de Marlé took it inta his head ta force himself on your daughter.”
Vachel’s heart went cold with dread. “Is she all right? Did he do anything to her?” Though reluctant to ask and have his suspicions confirmed, he had to know the truth. “Has the girl been…sullied?”
“She would’ve been had I not been there ta send the rat scurrying off ta his hole,” Raven replied. “I told your wife that I’d watch till your return. Although ye’ll likely be thinking ’tis none of my concern, ye need ta watch over your family whilst that filthy toad is in the area…just ta keep them safe.”
Vachel needed no one, especially a stranger, telling him that he had seriously erred by leaving his family alone. His frustration during the evening had risen to an intolerable degree when he had seen the very same lords who had courted Abrielle now after the scent of richer quarry. His guilt for not being there to protect her caused him to wonder if he wasn’t deserving of the situation in which he presentlyfound himself. Even so, in the mood he was in, he found it difficult to accept the Scotsman’s counsel. “I can take care of my family well enough without your interference.”
In response to this less-than-gracious remark by Abrielle’s parent, Raven only arched a dark brow, then bowed and took his leave of Vachel.
Deeply ashamed by his earlier lack of caution in seeing to the welfare of his family, Vachel turned his back and stepped through the door.
Elspeth was anxiously pacing about their chambers, awaiting his return as he stepped through the portal. Sobbing in relief, she flew into his arms. “I thought you’d never return!”
“Tell me what happened,” Vachel urged, feeling her trembling against him, and she did so, her voice shaky, ending with these words: “I am so grateful the Scotsman was guarding our door until you returned, for there is no telling what Desmond might have done had he found us here alone.”
“The despicable actions of that beast have clearly upset you, Elspeth, with reason, but I cannot imagine that coward Desmond being brave enough to force his way…”
Elspeth’s ire rose. “Do you think I make too much of his assault upon my daughter?” she demanded, her eyes flashing with sudden ire. “I tell you, Vachel, that despicable man will not rest until he has violated Abrielle. Indeed, he was intent upon doing that foul deed this very evening. If not for the Scotsman’s interference, he would have ravished her.”
“I apologize for leaving you and Abrielle alone,” Vachel replied in humble tones. “Obviously this incident would never have happened had I stayed here with you, but there’s nothing I can say or do now that will rectify that matter.” He heaved a laborious sigh. “If you don’t mind, I’ve had very little sleep since I came here, and I’m very tired at the moment. Perhaps we can continue this discussion on the morrow.”
Seeing vivid evidence of his dispirited dejection, Elspeth took pity on him as she rubbed his arm. “Let’s not quarrel. I’m sure in time something better will come our way. We need only wait.”
ABRIELLE LAY ON her bed, listening to the muted voices of her parents. She could not hear the words, but she understood the emotions, for she, too, experienced the bitter depths of them. Her trembling had finally eased, but she kept playing the terrible attack over and over in her mind, remembering the loathsome feel of Desmond’s hand on her innocent flesh.
And then her feeling of grateful relief when Raven had stormed into the chamber, his face a mask of cold fury. She would be forever grateful for his timeliness in coming to her aid and forever in awe of how effortlessly he had dealt with the loathsome Desmond. But she felt something else, too, something more, and somewhere deep inside, she mistrusted her own feelings, for her gratitude felt too much like desire.
God above, every time she saw Raven Seabern, a part of her yearned for him. What was happening to her? Were despair and distress making her mind vulnerable to her basest impulses? Why could she not see Raven and feel only simple gratitude? After all, he’d only rescued her and guarded their chambers out of duty. He’d spent the evening avoiding her except when they were forced to dance, as if she were beneath his notice now that her family circumstances had changed. He was a Scot, for heaven’s sake, looked on with suspicion by all she knew, and yet her treacherous body yearned for him, as a woman yearned for a man.
A MONTH HAD passed since the event honoring the Saxon heroes of the Crusades had been held at Westminster Castle. Since then,Abrielle’s thoughts had returned fairly often to Raven Seabern and the troubling emotions he had awakened within her. As much as his brilliant blue eyes, leanly chiseled nose, and the charmingly wayward grin had evoked her interest, she was unable to ignore the distressing situation in which their small family presently found itself. What they were now facing would likely force her to make a decision that she would despise for the rest of her life. She couldn’t blame her stepfather for the concern he had shown for his men and his father upon his return home from the tumultuous conflicts raging in foreign lands. Willaume had been the one who had gone back on his word by not returning the funds that Vachel had so kindly permitted him to use before his death or mentioning them in a statement to be read after that event. Even now, Vachel was unwilling to condemn his parent as he offered the excuse that Willaume hadn’t been thinking too clearly before his death. Unfortunately, because the elder had failed to consider or remember the funds that Vachel had extended to him in an effort to restore his flagging wealth, the latter was now faced with ruin. Vachel’s only chance to escape impoverishment was now in Abrielle’s hands, and the decision she made would affect all of their lives, but most especially hers.
Desmond de Marlé had approached Vachel and asked for Abrielle’s hand in marriage, and now she stood in her stepfather’s private solar, facing the two people she loved above all else, knowing they loved her and grieved for her decision, but they let her have her peace while she paced and thought.
Desmond had offered a sizable stipend to be paid for Abrielle’s hand upon the execution of the agreement, plus guarantees in writing that upon his death she would inherit most of what he owned except for another stipend to her stepfather and to Desmond’s nephew. Although Desmond had been Weldon’s half brother and had barely known his lordship, he had been Weldon’s only heir. That fact had served to make Desmond an immensely wealthy man uponhis lordship’s death, so rich that he could now afford to be generous if it meant he’d be getting what he had been yearning for since first espying Abrielle in the company of her parents at Weldon’s keep. Abrielle couldn’t help wondering why, if there was a nephew in the family, he had not inherited anything from Weldon, who had been a generous man.
Little had Desmond realized when he had offered to buy his bride just how close Vachel was to ruin. As it stood now, all the latter had to do to replenish his coffers was to accept Desmond’s request for Abrielle’s hand in marriage. Unfortunately, the squire’s proposition failed to assuage the rapidly mounting qualms of all three members of the family, perhaps Vachel most of all, because the girl would be giving up all hope of marrying someone she loved in order to save the family for which he was responsible. He could not be the one to take her future from her.
Elspeth’s elegant brows gathered in fretting concern as she watched her husband pacing about. “Vachel, I know we are desperate…” she began, but the look on his face forestalled her frantic pleading. She instead approached her husband and rested a gentle hand upon his arm, caressing it unconsciously. Although she was aware that he could be obstinate at times, she had little doubt that she had made the right choice when she had accepted his proposal of marriage. As far as his tendency to make decisions contrary to her preferences and wishes, it had recently dawned on her that she preferred to be challenged by one of his manly disposition and intellect rather than to be bored to the marrow of her bones by another who might have readily complied with her smallest request. Although Berwin had considered her advice when she had offered it, he had not always followed it, as he had proven the day of his death. She had to believe there was some way out of their predicament without laying it all upon her daughter’s shoulders. To burden a young woman with the likes of Desmond de Marlé as her husband seemed a cruel blow indeed.
Straightening to his full height, Vachel thrust out his meticulously bearded chin in vexation. Normally his amber eyes glowed with a mesmerizing radiance of their own, but at the moment they seemed as cold and lifeless as stone as he stared across the room. He could rally no hope for the future, knowing that his family faced nothing but bleakness unless he accepted Desmond’s offer.
Elspeth knelt on the rush-covered floor beside her husband’s chair and folded her hands in her lap as she looked up into his frowning face. “Vachel, if you would please consider Desmond’s reputation, you would know that he isn’t a suitable husband for Abrielle.”
“By all that’s holy, woman, what kind of a monster do you think me?” he demanded, distraught at the idea that she would think he would barter off her daughter to provide for their family. “I could never live with myself if I were to force Abrielle into such a union. That decision is entirely hers to accept or to reject, but please consider that Desmond now has all the wealth and lands that once belonged to Weldon, enough to guarantee that his offspring will never lack for riches and position. That’s more than I can say for that small league of suitors who’ve been wont to offer themselves since all at court learned of my low standing with the king. I’ve seen starving hounds drool less over a meaty bone than the besotted buffoons who slaver in lusting eagerness after your daughter. But then, you witnessed that very thing yourself before we were married, so I needn’t try to describe the zeal her admirers have been wont to evidence.”
“Vachel, I understand how troubled you are by our dilemma,” Elspeth said in a quiet voice. No less distressed than he, she sought to find some ray of hope in a painfully dark future. “Do you know of anything else we can do to alter our present unfortunate state?”
His laughter was brief and harsh. “I fear without the occurrence of some miracle, my dear, there is no hope.” Noticing the pooling of tears in his wife’s eyes, he heaved a sigh, quickly lamenting his callousness. “I fully understand Abrielle’s aversion to Desmond,” he stated.“’Tis no less than my own. Nevertheless, what he has recently offered appears to be our only hope. Although I will try to find a suitor more acceptable to all of us, I fear there is none who has as much wealth as Desmond now has. I truly wish we had some other choice.”
Her mother’s sudden sob of despair wrenched Abrielle’s heart, and she turned aside in an effort to hide the rush of tears that quickly gathered in her own eyes. They streamed down her cheeks, forcing her to wipe them away surreptitiously. As much as she disdained Desmond, she could see no option open to her now but to accept his proposal of marriage. It was either that or see her loved ones suffer. Even so, if Desmond wanted her so much, then he would have to be willing to extend far more generous terms than he had thus far offered. If she were going to be miserable, then she would have to be generously compensated for having to endure that repugnant wretchedness.
And after all, with no dowry, there was no guarantee that she could even find a worthy man to love her. And she shuddered at the thought that, without Vachel’s knights and the protection they offered, perhaps a man wouldn’t even feel the need to take her to wife.
Approaching her parents, Abrielle managed a tremulous smile as she claimed her stepfather’s attention. In an effort to hide the fact that her hopes for happiness and a worthy future with a man whom she loved seemed to be dying beneath the grievous weight of the situation in which they presently found themselves, she tried to speak with some semblance of enthusiasm. “The choice is mine to make, and I will do what I must to help,” she stated, hating the quavering weakness that hindered her voice. “I cannot…will not allow our family to live in poverty…”
“No!” Elspeth cried, thoroughly distraught by her daughter’s words. “We’ll find another way! Please…oh, please…no!”
“I’ve decided there is nothing else that can be done,” Abrielle replied, steeling herself against her mother’s desperate pleading. Uponfacing Vachel, whose dejected appearance evidenced a serious lack of relief, she quickly laid out her intentions. She had no real idea how Weldon had actually met his death, whether it had truly been an accident as had been supposed or if it had been carried out by design by the very one who had stood to inherit his wealth. Nevertheless, the premise seemed fairly simple to her that if Desmond wanted her so much, then he would likely be willing to pay a sizable sum…perhaps even a goodly portion of what had once belonged to her betrothed in order to get her. “Considering the vast riches that Weldon once had, I urge you to demand far more than Desmond may be willing to offer. I care naught for the fact that he may have been kin to Weldon. He isn’t deserving of anything that once belonged to his lordship.”
“And if Desmond complies with all of your demands, what then?” Vachel asked, fully agreeing with her on all counts. Even so, the idea of such a dastardly man reaping so fine a bride left him feeling more than a little nauseous. Unfortunately, at the moment there seemed to be no other way for the family to survive.
“Then I shall wed the man,” Abrielle replied with a serious lack of enthusiasm.
Elspeth moaned in despair as she clasped a handkerchief over her mouth and stared at her daughter with a profusion of tears welling in her eyes.
Vachel could not ignore his wife’s deepening dismay and was led to question Abrielle again as to the extent of her commitment to make such a sacrifice. “Your marriage to Desmond may be more horrible than you can imagine. I’ve been hearing rumors that have led me to believe that the man has been rather despicable to the serfs he recently inherited from Weldon. Once you exchange vows with him, you’ll no longer be able to dismiss him from your life. He will become a part of you…your spouse. You’ll have to conform to his way of life, his wishes, his demands, and with all seriousness, I must warn you that it may be more than you can imagine or will be able to tolerate in the future.”
“As far as I’m concerned, the matter is already settled,” Abrielle replied, steeling herself against the fears he had evoked. “Desmond wants me for his wife, and that is what he shall have…for a sizable price. If I’m going to marry him, then it will be for no less than what I demand, so refrain from giving him the idea that he can haggle for my hand. When the price is sufficiently generous and you’re nearing the end of your negotiations, then you must seek my approval before the terms can be finalized, but you must not allow him to know that you intend to discuss them with me. As far as Desmond is concerned, I will have had nothing to do with the negotiations and it will be a matter that you will personally be deciding.”
“Very wise,” Vachel replied, pursing his lips and nodding his head in approval. Clearly Abrielle had benefited from being so close to her late father, who’d permitted her to listen as he conducted his business affairs. “Very wise indeed. You will be absolved of all blame should he begin to resent the price he paid for you.”
On any other occasion Abrielle would have smiled in pleasure at her stepfather’s praise, but she feared the bargain they would be making with Desmond was equivalent to forming an agreement with the devil himself, and the idea of that frightened her. “I may very well regret it all once the vows have been exchanged,” she admitted, trying to subdue a shiver at the thought of allowing the loathsome man to touch her, much less be intimate with her. “And if you could spare a few prayers for me, you might begin to offer them now lest I be tempted to run away and hide.”
Although Vachel knew his wife was deeply distressed over what Abrielle was planning, he couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by the girl’s willingness to sacrifice her own happiness for the family’s welfare. Although his men had been disposed to risk their lives to fight alongside him in numerous conflicts, the like of which even now seemed to still be raging on that same foreign soil, they had always nurtured the hope that they would all survive and be the better for it.This thing that Abrielle was willing to do to save him from impoverishment was tantamount to tying herself forever to a hateful fiend whose first and subsequent thoughts were entirely for his own gratification.
He knew what Abrielle had directed him to do was not to Elspeth’s liking, and yet, with Abrielle’s willingness to sacrifice her own happiness for them, he couldn’t help but feel as if a heavy burden had been lifted off his chest. As anxious as he had been to find some viable escape from his poverty, her proposal was to him as refreshing as a breath of fresh air to a smothering man.
Vachel reached out and threaded his lean fingers through his wife’s as he peered at her. He tried to find some reason to be hopeful about the union. “Marrying Desmond de Marlé should make Abrielle a very rich woman,” he stated in a subdued tone. Receiving no encouraging response, he tried again. “Should Desmond expire, she’ll be able to choose another to meet her own admirable standards. It wouldn’t surprise me if a lofty title would be in the offing should she so desire it. Considering how wealthy she will likely be, she’ll be able to dictate her future as few women have ever done. She’ll want for nothing.”
Elspeth was so disheartened by the thought of her daughter marrying the repulsive man that she could manage no better response than a meager twitch of her lips. Even so, she knew if it hadn’t been for Vachel, Abrielle would have likely suffered the consequences of being uncommonly beautiful and totally bereft of the protection she would need.
Berwin’s death had engendered a difficult situation wherein many of the older Norman lords had begun laying odds on the rake of their preference who, in their opinion, was handsome and charming enough to be the final victor in the growing collection of bachelors intent upon stripping away Abrielle’s innocence without benefit of a betrothal or wedding vows. After all, many of them were overheard chortling, she was of Saxon lineage and without sufficient dowry, therefore suitableprey for the conquering heroes, that fine collection of youthful Normans who had been spawned well after their fathers or grandfathers had landed on English shores. Thereafter, when Abrielle had turned an eager gallant on his ear with a hotly spoken rejection, the stakes had been sharply elevated. It had proven a highly amusing game for the collection of lords wagering on the outcome, for it had evoked much laughter and deepened others’ interest in the sport until many could foresee a weighty purse being divided among the winners once viable evidence of her deflowering was presented by the debaucher responsible.
To stave off the seemingly ever-increasing horde of young men vying to strip away her daughter’s virtue, Elspeth had deemed it beneficial to accept Vachel de Gerard’s proposal of marriage. Since then, his presence as head of the family had been sufficient to keep the lusting lords at bay and, deservedly so, to frustrate the greed of those who had been laying heavy purses on the outcome of the game they had invented.
In retrospect, Abrielle was thoroughly convinced that Vachel would have defended her to the death if it had come to that, for he had stood his ground numerous times before prominent nobles who had warned him not to interfere because of the heavy purses they had riding on the outcome. What mattered most to her was the fact that he had given every indication that he was genuinely smitten with her mother and would do almost anything to avoid seeing her distressed. Considering his deep regard for her parent and for herself, how could she not sacrifice a measure of her own happiness to help him, and in so doing help her mother?
Elspeth gazed compassionately upon her offspring. No stranger staring into those silkily lashed, bluish-green eyes would have ever guessed that underneath that softly feminine breast there beat a heart as passionately loyal to her family and to her king as any devoted knight of the realm. Sadly, it seemed those qualities were of littlebenefit to a young woman. Nevertheless, Abrielle was selflessly evidencing her noble spirit in her willingness to sacrifice her own happiness to assuage the tenuous position in which their small family was presently entrapped. How could a mother not be moved to tears by her gallantry?
The wedding was only three days away, and Abrielle was grateful that she had her dear friend Cordelia with her in this time of fear and worry. She needed someone to confide in, someone to distract her from her cares. She was to wed Desmond immediately after the annual de Marlé hunt, so she had no wish for the entertainment to be over quickly.
“According to the men, the signs point to a good hunt,” Abrielle remarked dismally as she and Cordelia ventured forth from de Marlé’s keep.
Cordelia cast a glance awry toward the crowded courtyard whence they had just made their departure. “With so many of Lord Weldon’s friends and previous participants protesting Desmond’s new regulations and threatening to leave if the previous ones aren’t reinstated, ’twill be surprising if there even is a hunt.”
Abrielle shuddered at the thought of the wedding taking place even earlier.
Already several hunters who had been Weldon’s closest friends had stalked out in an outraged huff over the new rules that Thurstan,Desmond’s nephew, had presented. Among the men who had remained, many had become embroiled in angry squabbles with Desmond’s cohorts, who had shown up in large number. All had been presided over by Thurstan, a haughty, cold young man who looked upon Abrielle with a distaste she found curious.
“A more insufferable group I’ve never met in my entire life,” Cordelia remarked derisively. “I’m fairly certain they’re representative of the dregs to be found mucking the bottom of a cask of wine. ’Tis always best to throw the residue out.”
If only that were possible, Abrielle thought wistfully, and not for the first time. Unfortunately she had not that choice, nor any other to rid herself of Desmond and his odious associates. Her future, such as it was, as well as her family honor, rested on a successful union between them. The marriage agreement might as well be a dungeon cell without a door for all the hope she had of freeing herself.
As much as Abrielle and Cordelia had sought to remove themselves from the numerous arguments that were even now being provoked within the courtyard, they glanced knowingly at each other as several more of Weldon’s friends left the structure and stalked down the length of the drawbridge, where they promptly motioned for their horses to be brought forth. In a few moments, they had taken their departure. It was just another example of the ire that Desmond, his companions, and his nephew had managed to cause since the first hunter had arrived. They had changed so many rules, from who decided the winners—once an impartial group of elders, and now merely Thurstan—to the obscene size of the purse needed to enter.
“Abrielle, you know there could be another reason that so many noblemen are leaving,” Cordelia said slyly.
Abrielle winced at her friend’s less-than-subtle reference to the food served at the keep under Desmond, and regretfully conceded in a small voice. “It is rather…plain and unappealing.”
“Promise me you’ll do something about this when you’re the mistress here. The older cook seems especially cantankerous, and by the looks of her, I’d be willing to wager she wields a war ax as well as any brigand and eats a goodly amount of her own cooking.”
Abrielle spread her hands in a helpless gesture. “Frankly, I have no idea why Desmond tolerates the cooking. For a man trying to move up in the world, he’s not trying very hard to impress anyone in that area.”
Indulging herself in the autumn-scented breezes wafting across the drawbridge, Abrielle sighed and paused a moment to look around. After being confined within the smoke-filled courtyard much longer than she had thought she could tolerate, the fresh air seemed especially invigorating.
She could fully understand why Weldon had chosen to build his keep in this area, for the scenery was no less than breathtaking. Some furlongs upstream, a tributary branching off from the river wound its way through thick forests before flowing beneath the drawbridge upon which they now stood. The stream not only supplied the moat surrounding the keep, but also continued on a winding path beneath the smaller bridge that led to the serfs’ dwellings, easily providing the families there with an abundance of fresh water.
The keep had been well conceived by Weldon de Marlé, under whose supervision it had been meticulously constructed with the intent that it would serve him, his family, and their descendants as an impenetrable fortress well into the future. From its numerous battlements and parapets, a defensive response could be launched from a vantage point of some safety to counter any attack that came against it. Drawbridges fore and aft could be raised to provide a refuge for its inhabitants if enemies were to attack. Weldon had been not only a valiant warrior but also a man of great vision and intelligence. Providing sufficient provisions were stored within its walls before an army laid siege to it, the keep had the potential to offer protection for several months for those living within the confines of its exterior walls.
Still, as much as Abrielle could appreciate the security of the keep as well as the serenity and beauty of its surroundings, the knowledge that she would soon be residing within its stone walls with an odious husband did much to augment the melancholy that had been cruelly assailing her spirit since she had offered her freedom in exchange for her stepfather’s. The fact that she was now committed to marrying such a repulsive individual was enough to bring her threateningly close to retching.
Although many of her Saxon kin had yet to arrive for the wedding, Abrielle had already sensed that those who had were maintaining a cool reserve in the midst of their less-than-genteel host and his odd assortment of vulgar companions. She could certainly understand her kinsmen’s annoyance with the situation in which they found themselves. Most of Desmond’s acquaintances were strongly prejudiced against Saxons, as if they were themselves notable figures with impeccable lineages instead of undisciplined rowdies lacking prestige, titles, or wealth.
Most of the elderly women had removed themselves fairly quickly from the crowded courtyard and had gathered on an upper floor of the keep near the warmth of a hearth. Along with Cordelia and some of their distant cousins, Abrielle had lent an arm to those forced to limp along on wobbly limbs or climb stairs with the aid of gnarled walking sticks. Upon reaching their destinations, a mischievous gleam had come into the eyes of the ancients as they shooed the younger women away, threatening to exchange spicy tales about them in their absence. There, in softly muted, deeply worried tones, the elders did indeed discuss the forthcoming nuptials as they offered a variety of conjectures on the questionable fate of the young bride, if she’d fare any better than the squire’s previous two wives, or if, in view of her youth and quick mind, she’d actually be the one to survive him.
Cordelia glanced around as she heard ponderous footfalls on the drawbridge behind them and then mentally groaned as she espiedtheir portly host scurrying toward them. It took no mental feat of logic to determine that Desmond de Marlé was absolutely delighted with what he had managed to arrange for himself, for he was beaming with joyful enthusiasm.
Surreptitiously Cordelia leaned near to whisper a warning. “Behold, yon lecher hastens to his beloved.”
Abrielle issued a muted groan, realizing her nightmare was already coming to fruition. Dipping her head as if espying something of interest in the stream, she hurriedly pleaded beneath her breath, “Stay with me, Cordelia, please, I pray. Otherwise, I shall panic and be tempted to run away.”
The flaxen-haired woman heaved a laborious sigh as if reluctant to be anywhere within close proximity to the man. “Desmond repulses me to the core of my being,” she admitted in a muted tone. “Nevertheless, I’ve always prided myself in being a truly loyal friend, so I shan’t desert you.”
To say that Abrielle felt trapped by the swiftly approaching man would have definitely been an understatement. Even so, she gathered what aplomb she could muster and faced her intended with a smile that in spite of her best efforts was hopelessly strained.
Striding almost on the squire’s heels was the tawny-haired nephew, Thurstan, who had earlier aroused her ire as well as the anger of many of Weldon’s friends. He seemed fully aware of himself, for his nose was held at a haughty elevation as he glanced about. In spite of the fresh autumn breezes, his nostrils seemed pinched, as if he detected something foul in the air. A full head taller than the squire, he was quite lean and muscular. His clothing and accessories were stylish and well made. The neckband and sleeves of his black gown were accentuated with a woven green braid. Black suede boots were trimmed with appliqués of green leather resembling the fronds of a fern, a design that also embellished his dagger’s sheath and the money pouch that hung from a belt worn at a fashionable angle over his narrow hips.
His stylish appearance contrasted sharply with the deplorable condition of the serfs who were scurrying about the keep or in the compound beyond the narrow footbridge traversing the stream. Although they had seemed clean, well fed, and very cheerful while Weldon was alive, Abrielle had seen enough serfs during her present visit to realize a sinister change had occurred since his death. There were now many thin, gaunt features and lash marks across arms and faces of a goodly number of them. Indeed, most of them seemed fearful of Desmond and his nephew.
For one purported to have inherited great wealth from his half brother, Desmond didn’t seem averse to a vast number of serfs wearing filthy rags and going about their duties unwashed, to the extent that a scented handkerchief was now required to block the stench of their bodies as they came near to do some service. At least when she became mistress, there would be much she could do to remedy that situation. She might not be able to improve her own dismal lot, but she would find what happiness and satisfaction she could in helping these other wretched souls. She would insist that everyone who worked within the confines of the keep bathe and have suitable clothing with which to maintain a tidy appearance. But most important, she would see that they were all well fed, from the youngest to the oldest, regardless of their ability to work.
“My dear Lady Abrielle,” Desmond gushed, holding out his pudgy hands, as if fully expecting to receive hers with equal zeal as he halted before her.
“Squire, how goes your day?” she asked, unable to ignore the quavering weakness in her voice.
“Very well indeed, my dear,” Desmond responded. “But how could it not be when I see before me an exquisitely beautiful and wondrous young lady who is about to make me the happiest person alive? At such a moment, a man is wont to think everything in the world suits him.”
Managing to present some semblance of a cordial smile, Abrielle grudgingly complied with his unspoken request by settling her fingers within his grasp. She found his puffy hands nauseatingly soft, strongly hinting of a slothfulness that was likely thriving since so many serfs attended his every need. In the next moment, a rising panic swept through her as Desmond clasped both her hands and, in an eager display of affection, began to cover them with moist, greedy kisses, evoking within her a shuddering revulsion that threatened to send her flying to the nearest convenience to throw up her latest meal. Far more difficult to suppress, however, was the sickening feeling in the pit of her stomach that had much to do with the realization that once they were married, she’d have no right to withhold herself from the man.
Abrielle quickly averted her gaze from the rotund squire, only to find herself confronting Thurstan’s probing gaze. His eyes were a strange yellowish green, fringed with brown lashes and shadowed by thick, tawny brows. His high cheekbones, straight nose, and equally crisp chin seemed sharply chiseled, yet his mouth was overly soft and expressive, as evidenced by the sardonic smile that drew up a corner of his lips. If she could ascertain anything from his smirk, she could believe that he was also a very perceptive individual who had recognized her repugnance for what it was and seemed highly amused by it.
Resentful of the younger man’s close scrutiny, Abrielle took herself mentally in hand and deliberately turned aside without acknowledging the man. Upon facing her intended, she said, “I was beginning to wonder if you were even aware that I was here, Desmond. You seemed so involved straightening out numerous details for the hunt that I was beginning to feel slighted.”
Desmond chortled in amusement. “Banish such an inconceivable thought from your lovely head, my dear. I assure you with all sincerity that I did not dismiss you from mind. Be assured that I am counting the days and hours that must pass ere we are wed. If I were able to hasten them on their way, I would surely do so.”
In spite of his averred enthusiasm, Abrielle preferred to think of that event not at all. Without issuing a yea or a nay, she swept a hand about to indicate her lifelong companion. “I believe you’re acquainted with the Lady Cordelia of Grayson. Lord and Lady Grayson have accepted your invitation to attend our wedding and are at this very moment visiting my parents in the chambers you have so graciously provided.”
“Of course! Of course!” Desmond cheerily responded, bending his plump body forward several times in a manner that clearly evidenced his delight in being in the company of those with fine lineage. “Although this marks the first occasion of our actual introduction, my lady, I can assure you that I’ve been distantly acquainted with your parents for some time now.”
Cordelia smiled gingerly and dared to lift a brow. “And they you, Squire.”
The innuendo within her friend’s reply made Abrielle wonder if she had erred by insisting that Cordelia remain beside her. Although they were in full accord with their mutual abhorrence of the squire, there were occasions when Cordelia wasn’t nearly as subtle around people she disliked as caution might have dictated. But then, Abrielle reminded herself, her friend did not have the same need to be cautious.
Cordelia, unlike Abrielle, had not lost a most worthy betrothed to fate, and her beloved father to his own overabundance of stubborn pride, leaving her in a most precarious position in a world where a man’s protection was not merely a luxury for a woman, but a matter of survival. It did not rest on Cordelia’s pampered shoulders to save her stepfather from ruin and her mother from public humiliation. Not that Abrielle would wish any of that on her dear friend, not for a single moment. She desired only that fate had had a different future in mind for her…one in which she did not have to sell her heart to save the family she loved, one that did not have her destiny quite so entwined with the misfortunes of men.
Were the place where she found herself other than what it was, it wouldn’t have bothered Abrielle in the least to have her friend sparring with the man, since he was no match for Cordelia intellectually, but any tiff between the pair would likely cause tensions to rise in her own family, especially since Elspeth disdained Desmond as much as Cordelia did.
It seemed excellent timing that a fish flipped into the air from the water beneath the drawbridge. Considering the fact that most drawbridges traversed moats notoriously stagnant and overgrown with an abundance of weeds, Abrielle was relieved to have something she could boast about while Desmond was in their midst. “Cordelia, did you see that? Imagine having a moat filled with fish so near at hand!”
Though another might never have discerned the subtle change in her friend’s melodious tones, Cordelia readily sensed Abrielle’s nervous tension. She could hardly blame her for being anxious. For some time now it had seemed that whenever Desmond was afoot, strangely perplexing events were wont to happen, not the least of which dealt with the disappearances of people strongly opposed to the man as well as the theft of jewels, paintings, silver plates, golden goblets, and other costly treasures. No evidence yet had confirmed the possibility that Desmond was guilty, but that didn’t mean he was innocent of any of those deeds, only devious enough to get away with them. Lest she blunder on in her avid abhorrence of the man, Cordelia deemed it necessary for the sake of her friend to distance herself from the couple, and crossed to the far side of the bridge.
Abrielle was thankful that Cordelia was not only intelligent but also keenly perceptive in a variety of ways. It was now necessary to be wary, considering that she would soon be Desmond’s wife. Weldon’s death had served to make Desmond a very rich man, far more than those of his first two wives had done, but all three deaths had greatly benefited her repugnant betrothed, which often left her wonderingnow if their passing had been something deliberately planned by the very one who had profited from it.
Avoiding the steward’s gaze, Abrielle reluctantly bestowed her attention upon Desmond and somehow managed to quell the nausea as she posed a question in sweetly muted tones. “Did you wish to speak with me about some particular matter, Desmond?”
Her use of his given name brought a smile of pleasure to his lips. “I was certainly hoping to, my dear. As you may be aware, Sir Vachel has presented the last draft of our marriage agreement for me to look over and sign. Except for several clauses here and there, I see nothing untoward to hinder the events that have thus far been planned for our wedding. Thurstan keeps my business affairs in order and is far more astute than I am in determining the practicability of such a contract. In this instance, he advises only a few minor changes ere the agreement is fully executed…”
“Does this mean that you’re now suffering doubts about the terms that you and my stepfather earlier agreed upon?” Abrielle asked, wishing she could rejoice, but feeling a cold dread at the thought of a future without this match. She would have to bluff her way through this. “If so, then I shall have to carry this news posthaste to my parents, since there is so little time remaining before the nuptials. We were under the impression that you were in full accord with everything that had been laid out when you finalized it with your personal seal and announced that we could be married after the hunts. It seems a poor late hour indeed to bring up other issues after the pact has been sanctioned by both parties. I can only wonder what you are now expecting.”
“Actually, there are only a few minor changes that need to be made ere the wedding,” Desmond hastened to assure her. Chortling, he tried to brush off any cause for concern with a casual wave of a plump hand. “I’m sure any differences your father and I may have over the actual wording of the agreement can be easily settled and anotherdocument written within the next pair of days, well in time for our wedding.”
Abrielle certainly wasn’t going to encourage the man by suggesting that a correction so near to that event would be easily tolerated, especially by her or her stepfather. “If you haven’t already noticed, Desmond, then you should be made aware that my stepfather has become rather adamant about this matter, so if you’re now of a different persuasion, then he should be informed posthaste.” She risked an outright lie, hoping to force the man to back down. “I have no doubt that before Sir Vachel takes up the matter with you again, he will be speaking with several petitioners who’ve recently come forth to express their own interest in having me as their wife.”
“Perhaps that would be wise—” Thurstan began in a gracious tone.
She felt a chill of fear that the nephew might be able to sway his uncle, leading to Vachel’s ruin.
But Desmond interrupted the man with an abrupt, slashing gesture of his hand as he tossed an angry glower toward him. Forcing a smile as he turned to her again, he hastened to assure her, “There is no need for that, my dear. The terms are acceptable as is.”
Abrielle barely withheld her sigh of relief. She had no way of knowing who had cautioned the squire on the generous sum the marriage agreement would require him to bestow upon her once the vows were exchanged, not to mention the sizable fortune she’d reap upon his death. She could only conclude by Thurstan’s attempt to urge her to consider other proposals that he may have been the one to broach the feasibility of a less lucrative stipend, which in turn caused her to wonder what he expected to personally gain from it. As Desmond’s only relative, did he want more of the wealth that was now promised to her family?
If Desmond had failed to consider all aspects of the agreement beforehand, then she could only believe that he was not as astute as aman of properties should be. After all, his wealth had come to him through the efforts of others and was nothing he had actually earned through prudent deeds or foreign ventures as a soldier of the realm. Perhaps he was wont to let wealth sift fairly quickly through his fingers.
“Uncle, may I speak with you for a moment?” Thurstan requested in a muted tone, looking gravely concerned. “I truly believe the agreement needs to be clarified for your benefit. You need to reconsider—”
“I’ve made up my mind,” Desmond stated resolutely, punctuating his statement with a quick, slashing gesture. “No changes will be necessary. You may go.”
The lean features of the younger man stiffened noticeably as he was curtly dismissed. Beneath lowering brows, the yellow eyes seemed to shoot flinty shards at the older man. Abrielle could hardly mistake Thurstan’s resentment at being brushed aside so callously.
Thurstan stalked back along the drawbridge to the inner courtyard, dismissed as if he were a servant, and his hand itched to draw his sword and be done with his uncle once and for all. How dare the man be the second de Marlé to deny Thurstan his proper inheritance! Weldon had promised such to him, and then died before having the chance to change his will. And now Desmond was freely throwing money at some chit of a girl, when it only took a real man to show a woman what she was worth. Thurstan vowed silently that he was not through manipulating his uncle.
If Desmond was aware of the younger man’s exasperation, he gave no indication that he cared one way or the other, directing his attention to Abrielle. “Have I told you how sublimely lovely you are, my dear? Definitely the most winsome lady I’ve ever seen.”
Abrielle felt her stomach convulse. “Please, Desmond, such extravagant praises embarrass me. To be sure, I feel so unworthy.”
“Oh, but you are worthy, my dear. Infinitely so! In all my travels I’ve never seen a more beautiful woman.”
Abrielle feigned a coyly skeptical laugh. “Then I shall have to question the extent of your travels, sir, for I fear the distance may have been extremely limited.”
Desmond was wont to silently agree, but would never have openly admitted it. His half brother had been the clever, ambitious one in the family, venturing as a crusader far beyond his homeland, not only returning a valiant hero but also with greater wealth and fame than when he had left, no doubt the difference a devoted mother could make in the life of her offspring. From what Desmond had overheard from neighbors in his youth, Weldon’s mother had been an imposing lady whose lineage had reaffirmed and strengthened the dignity and honor of her husband’s house. Not so the wily chambermaid who had sought by devious methods to assuage the father’s grief over his wife’s mysterious death, the result of a witch’s potion that had later been used again, only in smaller portions, to muddle the mind of the father.
By such schemes, his mother had brought about the birth of her bastard son and had then managed to shame the befuddled man into marriage by claiming that he had raped her during his delirium. She had even been inclined to brag on her accomplishments to her son. She had unleashed the last of her secrets as she lay dying of a vile, torturous disease.
Using the knowledge his mother had spilled that night, Desmond had learned much in the way of changing one’s destiny by the use of strange, ofttimes hallucinogenic and poisonous concoctions. Thereafter, he had used the secret potions on those who had possessed what he had coveted or had unwittingly stood in his way as he strove for greater riches and gain. He could not now name how many he had poisoned throughout his lifetime. They had slipped from his memory as easily as dark shadows moving past him through the night.
And in all of this he was assisted by his half sister, Mordea, who’d been raised among the witches who had been his mother’s friends. Noone knew of his relationship to Mordea, and he’d been able to hire her as the castle’s cook, keeping her close enough to take advantage of her knowledge—and close enough to make sure she didn’t reveal any of his own secrets. She kept promising to expand her knowledge of cooking, but he had to tread lightly where she was concerned.
After being saddled with his first wife, he had been greatly relieved when he had found the right occasion to dispense a potion to relieve himself of her during childbirth and, later, after marrying his second wife, disposing of her in much the same manner, in each case making certain that he alone could claim their possessions.
He was proud of the fact that no one had yet discovered how he had been able to dispense with his half brother. A few droplets of a particular potion in Weldon’s wine had allowed him to push the much taller, stronger man down the stone stairs beyond his chambers. It had amused him to watch the imposing figure tumbling down the steps, knowing if the fall didn’t kill him, other measures certainly would. To ensure that he had an alternative plan in case his first attempt failed, he had carried a heavy cudgel tucked within his robe. As it turned out, it hadn’t proven necessary once Weldon’s head struck the stone barrier buttressing the stairs. Even now, he was wont to chuckle over how smoothly everything had gone that singular evening. It had certainly meant a new, more profitable beginning for him, and further confirmed in him the steadfast belief that he was in full control of his own destiny and would now have whatever he desired.
Shall we join Cordelia?” Abrielle asked Desmond as she swept a slender hand about to indicate her friend, surprised and relieved that the trepidation, nay the revulsion, she felt to her very core did not cause her to tremble. She was more than willing to allow her friend to serve as a human bulwark between them. She could only wonder who would function in that capacity after they were wed, and to hope against hope that she could continue to conceal the feelings of dread and impending doom that never ceased threatening to rise up and consume her.
Upon reaching the far side of the drawbridge, she stared down into the moat as she struggled to create an impression of serene pleasure. Tolerating a kiss on her cheek proved another test of forbearance that made her wonder what could be found to treat his horrible breath. Although she knew she had no choice but to face the fact that she was now destined to become Desmond’s wife, she began to fear that her badly flawed pretense would soon be dashed asunder and she’d run sobbing in remorse to the spacious chambers that she and her parents had been given. Regrettably, the commitment she had made wasdragging her down into a pit of despair whence she feared there would be no escape.
When Desmond begged a moment to go speak with a nearby servant, she gladly granted him her permission. Cordelia stood quietly while Abrielle braced an arm on a buttressing rail and settled her chin glumly upon the heel of her hand. “I wish I could look forward to the nuptials with as much enthusiasm as the men are evidencing for the upcoming hunt.”
Cordelia hesitated, and then softly asked, “How can you marry a man you’re unable to trust? A man whom you and all others loathe? When you wrote about the wedding, I must confess that I was shocked.”
Abrielle glanced over her shoulder to make sure the squire was still well occupied. “It was either that or see my family come to ruin. Vachel has been brought to impoverishment due to his generosity to his late father and to his knights,” she admitted.
Cordelia gasped. “What are you saying? That you must marry that ogre because of your stepfather’s ill-considered actions?”
“The fault was not his.” Abrielle hurried to explain the injustice done by Vachel’s father. “Vachel was willing to face destitution rather than force me to accept Desmond’s proposal. I chose to spare him, and my mother, that shame.”
Cordelia clasped her friend’s hand as she looked with tear-filled eyes into the blue-green orbs. “And some people think only knights have such noble traits.”
“Say nothing of this to anyone,” Abrielle urged. “Vachel would not take it well if people thought his father had been unfair. He’d be hurt by any criticism they’d be wont to bestow upon the elder. Considering that he was a little addled toward the end, he might not have been aware of what he was doing.”
“If you would permit me, I will only speak of this to my parents, who truly have the highest regard for Vachel. ’Twill be in tribute to him that I will share this with them.”
“To them and no other,” Abrielle agreed. Thoughtfully she stared off into the distance as the softly wafting breezes lifted her kirtle.
“What are you thinking now?”
A doleful sigh slipped from Abrielle’s lips. “Though I’m ashamed to admit my feelings after accepting Desmond’s proposal of marriage, I do disdain the man more than anyone I’ve ever known.”
Cordelia recognized her friend’s loss of hope in the overly restrained way she conveyed her lack of regard for her future husband, and laid a gently consoling hand upon Abrielle’s sleeve. “Ofttimes, when one approaches the unknown, circumstances may look the bleakest and most threatening. From experience, I know you have a valiant spirit and will rise above your fear. Did you not rescue me from a horrible drowning when we were children, though you were terrified of going into the icy waters after me?” Freshening tears welled within Cordelia’s green eyes as she added, “If not for your valiant spirit and victory over your own qualms, I would not be here today.”
Abrielle’s own vision grew misty as she recalled their childhood and the frightening incident that had sent prickling shards of terror coursing through her being. Her own fear had seemed as painful as the icy slush she had been forced to tread to reach her friend. If not for the goading dread that she was about to lose her dearest companion, she might never have found the courage to go into the frigid depths after her.
“I know I must take heart,” Abrielle admitted, and then heaved a dismal sigh as she considered what she would soon be facing, “but at the moment, my future looks so bleak that even drowning in an icy stream seems preferable. Truly, the horrors I’ll be facing as the wife of such a despicable creature seem so overwhelming that I have to wonder if I’ll be able to endure them.”
Cordelia turned aside in an attempt to calm her own troubled spirit. She could only wonder what she would do in Abrielle’s stead. Mulling over her companion’s abhorrent plight, she did not notice thesmall company of mounted men approaching until they were halfway down the lane leading to the drawbridge. There were six horsemen in all, but Cordelia felt no inclination to move her gaze past the handsome gray-haired man astride the black stallion prancing in the lead. The horse’s smooth-flowing gait was a perfect complement to the proud, majestic bearing of his rider, a Scottish gentleman of an age nearly threescore years. In spite of the man’s maturity, Cordelia was certain she had never seen such a magnificent individual or a more admirable mount anywhere within Henry’s realm.
Leaning near her companion, Cordelia urged in a hushed whisper, “Abrielle, glance behind you discreetly and tell me if you’ve ever seen these gentlemen before. If my opinions haven’t been led astray by wagging tongues, I could almost swear your future husband detests Scots as much as he loathes our kinsmen, the Saxons. In view of that possibility, ’twould seem these men have ventured into Desmond’s pilfered realm without being fully cognizant of the danger.”
Abrielle swept the surrounding countryside with a leisurely gaze before honing in on the approaching retinue, and once she did so, everything inside her froze. Then, with a distinct lack of caution or subtlety, she whipped her head around toward Desmond, relieved to find him still flailing his arms as he berated the cowed servant, and it was clear to her that he had not noticed the new arrivals. “Cordelia! Quick…look closely at the second man in the party. Unless my sight fails me, ’tis Raven Seabern!”
Abrielle’s heart was pounding so loudly she was certain it must be echoing off the castle walls for all to hear, pounding with alarm, she told herself, alarm and dread, and not at all with excitement. What was the man thinking to come galloping onto de Marlé’s property as if ’twere his God-given right to be there, as if he would be welcomed with open arms? Did his brashness blind him to the fact that his very presence, not to mention the fact that he was flanked by a company of Scotsmen, was sure to rile every nobleman within miles?
Stiffening her shoulders in an effort at least to appear composed, she turned and managed to keep her gaze off Raven long enough to glance at the similarly tall, brawny Scot who’d dismounted to stand at his side. The older man took note of her interest and stared back at her with a teasing twinkle in his brilliant blue eyes. When he succeeded in causing a blush to redden her cheeks, his smile deepened into a charmingly wayward grin, revealing gleaming white teeth beneath a massive mustache, the well-groomed ends of which reached past his chin. A deeply chiseled cleft, similar to the one her erstwhile protector possessed, punctuated the elder’s cleanly shaven chin. Although the man was well past a youthful age, he wasn’t above looking her over in a roguish manner, starting with her slippered toes and ending at the top of her head. Upon completing his assessment, he gave her a flirtatious wink and was rewarded by her startled gasp.
Having witnessed the exchange, Cordelia ducked her head in an effort to hide her amusement from the elder. “He’s a bold one, that he is. Do you think he is the elder Seabern?”
Sourly, Abrielle said, “The only difference betwixt the two seems to be their age and the color of their hair.”
Continuing to grin, the Scotsman cocked a hoary brow and canted his head at an angle as he peered back at the two women as if wondering what had evoked their interest in him. Then he glanced at Raven and Abrielle felt her own gaze drawn reluctantly in the same direction. She’d managed to avoid meeting Raven’s eyes directly until now, fearing not so much what she might see in them as what she herself might feel at the mercy of that intense regard she remembered so vividly, a concern that was well founded. True, with her intended close by, he did not indulge in gazing as boldly as he’d done when they met last. Rather, his mesmerizing blue eyes narrowed in a look of lingering speculation that was still more than enough to cause a heated flush to sweep over her.
A dozen questions raced through her head, all pertaining to hisreason for being there, and she was forced to ask herself if the man had lost his senses entirely, or merely just his recollection of that night at the palace when he’d thwarted Desmond’s forced tryst with devastating ease, and sent the cowed man scurrying into the shadows like the spineless creature he was. An even more interesting question was whether Raven had knowledge of her betrothal to Squire Spineless, a possibility that made Abrielle’s throat constrict as she wondered if that might have had something to do with his sudden appearance.
She drew a deep breath and pulled sharply on the reins of her imagination. Now who was taking leave of their senses? It was one thing for Raven to be passing in the castle hallway, hear her screams and struggles, and come to her rescue; ’twould be quite another for him to travel a distance out of his way, to a place he was not wanted, in order to…what? Abrielle was certain of only one thing; he was not there by invitation. After the humiliation he’d delivered the squire, Raven Seabern would be the last man in all Christendom to be invited. Most likely, she decided in an effort to calm herself, he was there on a matter of import to his king. Whatever his business, it was none of hers, though she would dearly love to know why he’d seen fit to bring along his father.
Cordelia peered at her friend as a mischievous grin bowed her lips upward at the corners. “’Tis my opinion that a young lady should behave herself and not take advantage of that poor, elderly Scot. Why, he’s old enough to be your grandfather, and there he is with his heart on his sleeve.”
“Whose heart is upon her sleeve?” Abrielle challenged as she cast a meaningful glance askance at her friend. “’Twould seem you’re far more taken with this Scotsman.”
Cordelia was unable to deny the fact that the man had evoked her interest. “Well, he is very handsome…”
“Then perhaps you should have Raven Seabern introduce you,” Abrielle said, trying for a lightheartedness she didn’t feel. “The man does owe you the favor of an introduction, after all.”
As the shock of Raven’s sudden appearance eased, Abrielle felt a wisp of sorrow. For reasons she could not name, seeing him gave rise to thoughts she’d been valiantly struggling to avoid, thoughts of what her life might have been, what it should have been, a full and happy life with a good man and a family of her own. It was the life she’d once looked forward to sharing with the kindly Weldon de Marlé, a girlish dream that had died when he did. There was no longer a place in her life for daydreams and romantic notions, and to wish it were otherwise only added to her misery. Far better to accept that her union with Weldon’s brother would be the cruel opposite to anything a young woman would hope for in her marriage, and turn her attention elsewhere. Soon she would have the mundane affairs of a squire’s wife to fill her days and occupy her mind, soon, but not yet, and as hard as she resisted, she could not help wondering what it would be like to be married to a man like Raven Seabern. Though she told herself her question arose solely from intellectual curiosity, she had to concede that such a marriage would be exciting and perhaps not entirely unpleasant.
Not that Abrielle could now seriously entertain the idea of marriage to one other than Desmond, as she’d committed herself to saving her family, and she was not one to go back on her word, no matter how loathsome she found the consequences. Besides, the priests said a betrothal contract was as legally binding as a marriage, and she had to acknowledge that her grim future was set.
After they exchanged words among themselves, the new arrivals walked toward the women, leading their horses. And for all that she’d just sworn off wishing for the impossible, Abrielle found herself wishing for all she was worth that she could hitch up her skirts and run from the confrontation. She wished it nearly as much as she wished she’d never met a Scotsman with the name of a predator and the face of a fallen angel, an annoying, arrogant, enticing man with the power to make her feel nervous and feverish and sad all at thesame time.
Scarcely a moment before the group of Scots reached them, Desmond suddenly appeared beside Abrielle and Cordelia. Considering how his last encounter with Raven turned out, Abrielle had expected him to be outraged when he recognized the men in the party. But although she detected a hateful gleam in his eyes, it was offset by a forced smile and a strange air of satisfaction that she could not help but think boded ill.
The elder Scot’s eyes were even more vividly blue up close, and their twinkle of quick and unquenchable wit even more apparent. But he’d tethered his flirtatious charm and for the moment seemed entirely dedicated to politely claiming the squire’s attention. Not so his descendant. Raven was paying no heed to his host and making no effort to hide his interest in the young women by his side. Abrielle grew warm as she became the center of his focus. She had not seen him since the night he’d rescued her, when fear and awkwardness—and the revealing state of her torn clothing—prompted her to make nearly as hasty a retreat as her attacker. Despite the fact that he had shown a most improper interest in her that evening, she knew that she had not properly expressed her gratitude to him. Her concern was how it might be received once he learned she was betrothed to the very villain from whom he’d rescued her, if he did not know already. Would he think her a fool who cared only about wealth, and that her gratitude was tainted by her greed? At the thought, Abrielle bit her lip and had to wonder what was wrong with her, for she was a betrothed woman, for pity’s sake, a desperately betrothed woman. And while his opinion of her should not matter, she knew that it did, just as she knew that that must change. At her first opportunity she would thank him for his gallantry and that would be the end of it.
Raven and the older man bowed to the two maidens, then turned to face Desmond.
“Squire de Marlé,” the elder Scotsman rumbled cheerily in a deeplyresonating voice, revealing one more difference betwixt father and son, that Raven’s parent spoke in a much heavier brogue. Laying a hand upon his chest, he inclined his bonneted head in an abbreviated bow. “Ye’ve truly honored us by inviting us ta your keep.”
Abrielle swallowed a gasp of surprise at hearing the Scotsman say that he and his son had been invited to the keep, but then, perhaps it was not such a surprise after all. The only possible reason for Desmond to extend an invitation was so that he could have the last laugh by waving her beneath Raven’s nose, for of course he would want to be certain Raven saw and understood who was the true winner in this contest. It was Desmond who’d won the prize he’d sought; he’d won full and lasting rights to her heart, her mind, and her body, Lord help her, a thought that made Abrielle feel ill inside. It mattered little that his victory had been secured with gold rather than valor or worthiness, for the agreement was duly settled and soon the deed would be done. And besides, she reminded herself, the memory like a small stab to her heart, Raven had been in no hurry to court her even when he had the chance.
Desmond was gleeful to welcome the latest arrivals, for several reasons. It never hurt to be associated with respected and influential men…even if they were Scots. Far more important, however, he had a score to settle. Since that unfortunate incident at the castle he’d been busily gathering information. In talking with knowledgeable people cognizant of individuals living within the northern climes of Scotland, he’d learned the elder Seabern had for years been a close confidant of Scottish royals and had, in fact, served as second-in-command of the last king’s forces. As for his son, he had been serving nearly five years as an important envoy for King David.
You would think being entrusted to carry missives to and fro would have taught him not to stick his nose where it didn’t belong, but such was not the case. And so Desmond himself would teach the Scot that lesson and relish every moment of it. He would parade hisbetrothed before Raven and his esteemed father until he’d driven home the message that he owned her, before man and God, that he alone had the right to touch her, whenever and wherever he pleased, and that no man would ever again dare challenge that right. It would be most satisfying to demonstrate to two such confident and accomplished men how little power they had to control the fate of one beautiful woman.
He could hardly keep from rubbing his hands together in anticipation as he greeted them. “’Tis you and your son who honor me this day by joining me and my guests for the hunt, Laird Seabern.” Desmond spared no effort in appearing the cordial host. “I’ve heard there are no finer hunters in these northern climes than the pair of you. Many of my guests have come here hoping to match your best feats. Indeed, they have begun wagering on the outcome, and I’ve been told many generous purses have been collected, and more are being added hourly. ’Twill be rich prizes awaiting those who fell the finest stag and the largest boar. Now that you are both here, I’m sure the stakes will be raised significantly. Thus the reason for your invitation to my keep.”
Abrielle barely contained a snort of derision, for she doubted if anyone could believe that.
“But I am being remiss in my duties as host,” Desmond conceded, and turned briefly to Abrielle and Cordelia. “My ladies, you no doubt remember the Scots emissary from the festivities held within His Majesty’s castle, but I believe you haven’t yet made the acquaintance of his father, Laird Cedric Seabern.”
A lopsided grin stretched across the elder’s lips as he clasped Cordelia’s slender fingers within his and bestowed a kiss upon the back of her hand. “I’ve na seen a more winsome pair of lasses in many a year,” he claimed. “Ta be sure, ye’ve brought the beauty of the heavens down ta us mere mortals, and for that, ’tis greatly heartened I am that such splendor exists even for such as I.”
Cordelia’s fair cheeks warmed with a vivid blush as she smiled back at the elder. “I know the Celtic bards wove magic out of words, kind sir, and ’tis in my mind that you must have inherited the silver from their tongues.”
Cedric threw back his hoary head and chortled in delight. “Aye, lass, and if I could steal more, I truly would, just ta make ye smile.”
Cordelia swept a hand aside to indicate her companion. “Have you made the acquaintance of my friend Lady Abrielle?”
“Another of fine, rare beauty,” Cedric claimed as he rubbed his palms together in glee. “By heavens, if the sights are so wondrously fair so near ta this keep, then I’ll be moving in and making myself at home.”
Abrielle laughed nervously, preferring the safety of Cedric Seabern’s teasing to the unsettling and intense gaze of his son, a look that spoke of only one thing—possession. His regard evidenced the arrogance and boldess he had so clearly displayed at the banquet in London. “I must warn you, Laird, there are many Normans presently housed behind those walls. Were I you, I wouldn’t enter lest you’re familiar with sword and buckler.”
There was an awkward pause, as all present reflected on the past hostilities between their respective countries.
He winked down at her. “Then I guess I’d better be finding some weapons for myself and my son, for ’tis there I think we’ll find our chambers.”
Stepping before Cordelia, Raven drew her hand to his lips and placed a light kiss upon her fingertips. “I’m pleasured ta see ye again, my lady. I am sure that my da would agree, we’ve not seen such beauty since we last saw ye at Henry’s palace.”
Cordelia smiled and swept a hand about to indicate her companion. “Mayhap you’ll remember my friend the Lady Abrielle.”
Abrielle wanted to wince, for she had not confided in her companion about Desmond’s attack or Raven’s heroic deeds. Cordelia had noway of knowing just how well Raven was sure to remember her, or why. To her relief, he gave no hint of what had transpired, responding to her friend’s query with a respectful nod.
“Of course. ’Tis also a pleasure ta see ye again, Lady Abrielle. Squire de Marlé is truly a fortunate man ta have claimed such a wondrously fair bride for himself. I canna but imagine the ardent swains who’ll be left languishing over their loss.”
Raven sensed de Marlé’s beady eyes studying him and told himself it was for that reason alone he reached for Abrielle’s hand. After the briefest of hesitations, she placed it lightly atop his outstretched palm. He felt her slight tremble as he curled his fingers around hers and slowly drew her hand to his mouth.
Raven would have to have been a dullard not to know the real reason for his invitation; the squire wanted to watch Raven’s reaction to seeing him with his bride-to-be, seeing him touch her, dance with her, hold her. He resolved that first he’d give the fat little cockroach something worth watching.
He bent his head to her hand and then purposely stopped with but a hairsbreadth between his mouth and her pale silken flesh. He glanced up, holding her gaze, his senses thrumming with awareness of the feel and scent of her, and the way she caught her breath even as he used his own warm breath to caress the back of her hand, delighting in the resulting gooseflesh along her slender arm. He hoped the squire was watching closely, for it took a master of the art to draw so much from a woman by doing so little, and Raven knew he was a master. He allowed the contact to stretch for another silent second, then another, and then he quickly touched her hand with his lips and let her go.
Abrielle’s hand drifted bonelessly to her side as her whole body tingled, as if from hundreds of bee stings, and her head was spinning. And still she could sense the tension between Desmond and Raven. “Thank you for your generous compliments, Sir Raven,” she said, hoping to strike just the right balance between cordial and reserved that would cause Desmond to cease glowering and wipe a bit of thesmugness from Raven’s face. “Your tongue is as gilded as the setting sun, noble sir.”
“Now my da, here, can assure ye that he raised me up ta be a man of truth, my lady, and so I am. Ye can take me at my word when I say that ye and the Lady Cordelia are rare gems of great beauty. As a man, I find myself much in awe of ye both.”
But not, thought Abrielle, so much in awe he’d been moved to favor her with such a kiss when it might have mattered.
Cordelia dared not admit her own appreciation of such a handsome man, yet she was quite mischievous and couldn’t resist questioning him in front of de Marlé, even though she already knew the answer to her query. She would delight in having Raven’s status underscored in the presence of the rotund squire, who himself was doubtless already cognizant of the Scotsman’s privileged position. “How came you to be at the palace for Lord Berwin’s dedication? Or should I ask such a question?”
“Alas, my lady, I am usually but a stranger ta such lofty places, except when I serve as ambassador for my own king, David of Scotland. Then I must travel hither and yon, wherever the need takes me. ’Tis not often that my duties afford me the opportunity ta indulge in the company of such winsome lasses as I see before me here.”
As Cordelia had thought, the exchange greatly annoyed their host, and both she and Abrielle could readily surmise that Desmond’s patience was at an end. “Kindly make yourselves known to my steward. He will show you and your father to your chambers. Tonight we’ll feast and make merry in the banquet hall. Come early morn, the men will gather for a stag hunt, and the following day, boar. Those who bring back the most impressive trophies will be honored that same evening. On the third day hence, the Lady Abrielle and I will be exchanging our wedding vows and celebrating our union with a banquet later that same evening. Of course you’ll both attend as special guests of mine.”
He might as well have spoken his true purpose aloud, Abrielle thought, but he was wasting his time if he hoped to get a rise from Raven. The Scotsman had never shown serious interest in her, so why would he care whom she married? It was only she who was being hurt by this cruel joke.
“Ta be sure, we’ll be marking each occasion with our presence,” Raven assured the man, laying a hand upon the folds of plaid across his chest as he inclined his head and retreated several steps. “We’re honored ta be among your guests.”
In response to the remark, Desmond nodded perfunctorily.
Straightening to his full height, Raven cast his gaze about as though admiring the scenery surrounding them, but only Abrielle had his attention. He was not surprised by the realization that he had remembered the lady in infinite detail. But then, no other woman had even come close to ensnaring his heart as she had done during their initial meeting. She was watching him, too, although he sensed a coolness about her. She was a woman betrothed, of course, but she also seemed to be taking great pains to avoid his gaze, the reason for which he could not fathom.
Desmond held forth an arm in silent invitation to his bride-to-be. It was impossible not to compare the gesture with Raven offering his hand in similar fashion only moments before. If ever she had been whisked from fantasy into harsh, morbid reality within the passage of a moment, then Abrielle was convinced such an occurrence took place the instant she laid a trembling hand upon the squire’s sleeve. She loathed touching him, yet she found no viable escape and was forced to feign a smile in spite of the fact that she felt as if a ponderous weight was now crushing her heart. If only Raven hadn’t accepted Desmond’s spiteful invitation. She wouldn’t now have to look at him and imagine herself married to someone like him, handsome and bold. Why did she always have to force herself to remember that hehad had his chance, that he clearly hadn’t even wanted to court her properly, to present himself to her stepfather at the apartment Vachel had taken in Westminster Castle for their stay in London? She could only assume he was looking for a wealthy bride, and in her despondence, she truly wondered if that’s all a man cared about. Bitterly, she knew she was no less guilty, for it was the only reason she was marrying the squire.
Desmond preened with pride as he paraded her past the Scotsmen, nodding to each in turn before leading her away. As they entered the open courtyard, the guests occupying the area came forward to offer salutations and wishes for a joyous union. Abrielle heard only half of what was being said and, when presented a question, could only smile with a dull sense of numbness as de Marlé answered in her stead. He readily assured them that she was as anxious to wed as he, and although her silence seemed to convey a mutual accord with his claims, inwardly she felt as if she were a spiritless puppet with a fixed smile painted on its face and its strings being manipulated by the man at her side.
Continuing on by a ragged scrap of lackluster resolve, Abrielle traversed the inner courtyard with that same fake smile pasted on her face. The feeling of being emotionally empty inside was almost more than she could bear. Had there been a moment of freedom wherein she could have found a hidden niche, she would have fled to such a place and sobbed out her heart in unrelenting anguish until she had no more tears to spill. Nothing she had ever experienced before had seemed more akin to the horrors of a dark netherworld than the bleak, empty passages of time through which she was now passing, all because she was destined to become the bride of a despicable ogre. Had she been walking a stony path toward an ominous block upon which she’d be required to rest her head and awaiting her there was a hooded executioner clasping an ax, she would have felt no less dismayed.
LATE INTO THE night, Abrielle lay in rigid repose upon a narrow bed in the small room adjoining the chambers her parents were occupying. Staring fixedly at nothing more significant than the silken panels draped around the tester, she found it difficult to even breathe, much less sleep. A morbid heaviness lay over her spirit, a feeling no doubt evoked by the fact that only a few, paltry days separated her from the ceremony that would forever bind her to Desmond de Marlé. Whenever she considered what she would have to submit to in order to fulfill her wifely obligations, it seemed a prelude to another descent into a pit of despair. If not for fear of waking her parents, she would have succumbed to the overwhelming sobs that were threatening to burst free. She had committed herself to a hell on earth by giving her word, and not only would she not take it back, she could not.
Unable to bear the conflict within her, she finally tore herself free from her narrow bed and fled into the outer hall in a burgeoning quest to find absolute solitude for just a few moments so no one would hear the sobs that were threatening to break free and overwhelm her. When she finally halted, she found herself in a corridor leading to the tower stairs. Her nightgown clung to her, and her bare feet were nearly frigid against the stone floor. Her long hair tumbled in wild disarray around her shoulders and over her bosom, providing a mantle of warmth against the chill pervading the hall.
The only light came from the moon shining through a lofty turret. The leaded panes of glass cast their muted colors and reflection upon the stone floor. In spite of her mood of utter hopelessness, Abrielle took comfort in simply being alone in a place where she could cry aloud if need be, and tears were increasingly shed as her wedding day grew closer. Her peace of mind was brief; after only a few moments of solitude she had the uneasy sense that someone was nearby. Alarmed, she peered intently into the surrounding blackness and wonderedwho might be watching. Desmond? Since their arrival, it seemed he was always lurking about, hiding in some nook or cranny…that is, hiding as well as a man of his girth could hide. He was obsessed with spying upon her. ’Twas yet another in an ever-growing list of reasons she prayed God might send a miracle in time to stop the wedding.
Had Desmond followed her tonight, hoping to catch her unaware the way he had at Henry’s castle? Was he so greedy for her flesh he would seek to deny her a few final hours of peace and privacy? Anger and revulsion coursed through her. Of course there was also the possibility it was someone unknown to her skulking in the shadows. It hardly bode well for her future that she could not say whom she would most detest encountering in the middle of the night in this dark isolated corner, her betrothed or a total stranger.
A scraping sound by the tower steps, like boot heel on rough stone, brought her conjecturing to a hasty halt.
“Desmond?” she called out, thankful her steady voice betrayed none of the trepidation she felt, for it would do little good to give in to her fear. Even if someone were to hear her screams, Desmond’s word was law here. And it would be foolhardy to hope for a conveniently passing gallant to again come charging to her rescue, especially considering the distinct dearth of gallants in her life these days. She could honestly name only one, and even so foolhardy a Scot might be reluctant to intervene a second time.
She had but one recourse and that was to rescue herself. After all, she’d gotten herself into this predicament, hadn’t she? She was convinced her stalker was Desmond, in spite of the fact that he hadn’t answered when she called his name. It would be like him to remain silent just to prolong her misery. The little toad was probably hoping that if she were sufficiently frightened she would collapse in his arms with gratitude when he finally showed himself. Abrielle nearly snorted at the thought, for the odds were better that she would flap her arms and fly out of there than that she’d cozy up to him of her own free will.
She would wait him out, knowing he had to step forward eventually, and when he did she would remain calm and make him see it was to both their advantage for him to respect her family’s dignity—as well as a gentleman’s duty to invited guests in his home—and restrain himself until they were officially wed. If that failed, she was prepared to hoist her skirts and bolt before he could lay hands on her. God help her, she would not surrender her body to that lecher one second sooner than required by the terms of the devil’s bargain they’d struck.
The silence stretched until Abrielle was certain her nerves would shatter. Finally there was the sound of footsteps, slow and deliberate, and a shadow fell across the patch of moonlight at her feet. She still could not see well enough to make out who it was and instinctively she grasped the fabric of her gown, poised to flee for her life. “Desmond?” she demanded more forcefully. “Is that you?”
The shadow moved, and a voice too deep, too masculine, and far too appealing to belong to the squire said, “Nay, Lady Abrielle. I can only pray ye’re not overly disappointed.”
It was not disappointment she felt, but something else, something she could not yet name, as she realized it was Raven, the moon bathing him in shadows and a pale glow, revealing enough for Abrielle to recognize him, but not enough for her to see clearly the expression on his face. So, her intruder was neither squire nor stranger, and she knew she ought to feel relieved, but she did not.
Caution and propriety dictated she leave his presence immediately, but something else, something far less familiar, kept her rooted to the spot. It was as if the damp evening fog had seeped into her brain, making her forget everything and everyone save the handsome man who was once again watching her with bold, unguarded interest. What strange power did he hold over her that a mere glance or a small curve of his mouth could set her senses reeling this way? The very sight of him should send a betrothed woman scampering for the safety of her chamber; instead Abrielle felt more powerfully drawn to him than ever, her body reacting in the age-old way a woman responds to a man.
He shifted his weight slightly and a shaft of pearl light illuminatedthe loose, long-sleeved white shirt he wore with his kilt and soft leather boots. “So,” he said quietly. “Are ye?”
Are ye? Abrielle frowned in consternation. Was she …what? It was no easy matter to concentrate with one’s heart racing and an army of butterflies assaulting from within and she struggled to recall his words to her.
“Disappointed,” he prompted before she had to ask. “Assuming, of course, it was your intended you slipped from the warm safety of your bed ta meet with in this…” He glanced around. “This perfectly dark and dank spot for an assignation. I freely confess ta being a poor substitute for the man ye seek, mayhap the poorest ta be found the world over. Perhaps ye’ve noticed how very little I have in common with the man of your dreams.” When she blinked in confusion, he added, “Our gracious host.”
Abrielle tossed her loosened hair over her shoulder. “I fear ’tis you who’ll be disappointed, sir,” she told him.
“Truly?” He ambled a few steps closer, regarding her with deliberation. “I cannot think how, when the heavens above have seen fit to reward my own nighttime rambling with a glimpse of the fairest beauty ever sent to earth.”
Though she roiled inside, she feigned control, rolling her eyes in seeming humor. “Indeed you are your father’s son, a Seabern through and through. But since there is no one here you seek to impress, you may as well save your pretty words. I was referring to the disappointment you will surely suffer when you realize how very wrong you are. You see, I’ve no assignation planned for this evening, with our gracious host or anyone else.”
He took another step, and Abrielle was very aware that the closer he came, the softer and lower pitched his voice became, and as he moved closer still, she felt a frisson of velvet shivers along her spine. “Are ye so sure ye know me well enough ta know whom it is I seek ta impress?” he asked.
“I am sure I do not need to know you any better than I do,” she told him.
“Ah,” he said, with an unmistakable trace of amusement. “In that case, my lady, I acknowledge my poor judgment, and can only wonder what causes you ta wander through the keep, dressed so poorly against the chill, and at an hour most happy brides would be sound asleep, dreaming sweet bridal dreams.”
Abrielle hugged herself as if she were cold, thankful he could not know how very warm she’d grown these past moments. “I marvel at your intimate knowledge of brides, sir. Speaking only for myself, I could not sleep, and thought some crisp night air might bring those sweet dreams you refer to. In my restlessness, I wandered farther than I intended.”
Abrielle tensed as he came closer still, and reminded herself it was past time for her to take leave of him, and assured herself she would soon, but not just yet. She had to ask herself what was wrong with her, for if ever there was a time in her life when she ought to be erring on the side of caution, it was surely now. Instead, with so much at stake, not only for her, but for those she loved most in the world, the troublesome reckless streak she’d shared with her father and had thought she’d outgrown, or at least learned to suppress, suddenly chose to make itself known.
“It is easy ta wander too far in a place such as this,” he assured her, now very near, his closeness forcing her heart to beat even more rapidly than before, something she would not have thought possible.
She lifted her chin, vowing she would not let him see her fear, and forced herself to dissemble. “Yes, you’re right, I find I’m much further from my chamber than I’d thought. One must cope with one’s nerves as best one can, and a wedding causes so much happy anticipation…”
The words nearly stuck in her throat, but she would not have him know the extent of her family’s desperation. She had lost much, her dear father, her first betrothed, her safety and peace of mind, even herdreams for the future, and soon even more would be taken from her, but she would not surrender the battered remnants of her pride.
Raven arched a dark brow. “‘Happy anticipation’? Forgive my impertinence, my lady, but I seem ta recall that the last time I saw ye with de Marlé, he was accosting ye. Is it that which inspires such happy anticipation? Or was my judgment also faulty that night at the palace? Mayhap ye were not in need of rescue.”
Abrielle bristled, especially at the fact that he seemed to relish every moment of her discomfort. “What happened that night was a…misunderstanding between the squire and myself,” she told him. “One since rectified.”
His expression changed, becoming harsher, and his voice changed also. It was clearly full of anger, and his tone was deadly quiet, and she took a step back. “A misunderstanding, was it? The squire perhaps misunderstood that he had not yet formally presented for your hand, much less had his suit accepted by your stepfather, and that no agreement had been reached, no bond formed, nor banns published. Did he also misunderstand the fact that he had no better right ta waylay and manhandle ye, ta touch and paw ye…”
Abrielle determined to keep her composure, though the effort cost her dearly, and offered only a shrug and halfhearted murmur. “I believe it was more a matter of the squire simply being too eager.”
She could see that the anger she’d heard building in his voice had become etched on his face, turning the already hard lines and angles to granite, as he responded to her words. “I can only hope ye don’t truly believe that rubbish, or worse, have it in your head that such ‘eagerness’ is normal for a man. An honorable man knows what is his and what is not, and he acts accordingly…no matter how badly he wants—” He broke off sharply. “An honorable man understands there are things in this world worth the waiting.”
For no good reason, a warm melting pleasure spread through Abrielle. Everything about him, from the stubborn set of his jaw to thefervor in his tone, revealed that Raven was such a man and she recoiled from the prospect of defending de Marlé to him. She fumbled for a response of some kind, finally settling for a halfhearted obligatory, “I trust you do not mean to imply that my betrothed is not honorable.”
“It matters not at all what I think. What matters is what ye think of him.”
She looked into his eyes, fully prepared for a knowing gleam and instead finding understanding, and it was too much to bear.
“Oh, for pity’s sake,” she exclaimed, “if you think so poorly of him, why on earth did you accept his invitation?”
“Ta be honest, I was curious.”
“About his motives?”
He smiled sardonically and shook his head. “No. He’s not that complicated; his motives were obvious. He wanted me here so he could flaunt his conquest of ye.”
She inhaled sharply. She’d had the same thought, but Raven did not have to know that. “The castle is in near proximity to your country,” she reminded him. “Perhaps he only hoped to show his goodwill to your King David.”
“Then he should have invited King David,” he said drily.
“Do you already so regret coming here?”
His hesitation was long, and the tension rising between them was something new and unmistakable. “Nay, my lady, for the chance ta see ye again, I would have braved far worse.”
There was no one but her about to hear his pretty phrases, leaving no doubt he meant them for her alone. There was a husky intimacy in his voice that was also all new to Abrielle. Her feelings of uneasiness blossomed into yearning—followed quickly by fierce anger. Surely he knew what he was doing, tempting a woman about to be married.
“Do not speak so to me,” she hissed, “or I will know who lacks honor.”
She whirled about and retreated, intent on reaching the closest safety, her parents’ bedchamber, and not stopping until she did.
Raven followed at a distance, then waited directly outside the heavy door until he detected the sound of the wooden bar being eased into place on the other side. Her safety mattered to him more than it ought, certainly more than was wise.
He ran his hand down his face with a soft groan. Why did he lose all sense of restraint when he was near Abrielle? He’d promised himself he would handle all dealings with her as befit a distant acquaintance.
Then he saw her standing alone in the moonlight, a fairy princess with curls the color of sunrise tumbling about her shoulders, her lithe graceful form more tempting in her soft cotton gown than any woman he’d ever seen dressed in velvet and jewels. And he’d seen his share of women, dressed and undressed; more than enough not to respond to a glimpse of pleasing curve or hint of enticing hollow like a green boy yet to steal his first kiss. Yet somehow simply looking at Abrielle robbed him of caution, and perhaps—as she suggested—a bit of the uncompromising honor he prided himself upon.
God, the woman was right about him, and he despised his weakness where she was concerned. If he were half as smart as he was proud, he would do as he’d sworn before coming and stay as far away from her as possible for the duration of his visit. If he were just a bit smarter than that, he would leave now, in plenty of time before the wedding ceremony itself, which he fully expected to be an exercise in torment. He did not need to see Abrielle before the church doors in her lace and finery to know the sight of her could make his knees want to buckle and slam his heart into his ribs so hard it hurt. Or that seeing her given to de Marlé, before man and God, would make him want to bellow an ancient war cry and steal her away at sword point.
Damn, he should leave tonight, this very moment, he thought, knowing he had no intention of following his own good advice. Leaving would be cowardly and Raven Seabern was no damn coward. Nay, he would stay and give the sniveling squire his petty satisfaction. He would stay and do something that would take more guts than any battle or brawl or beating that went before. He was a royal emissary, trained to keep even the most riotous emotions in check, a skill that in his world could mean the difference between blessed life and certain death; he would stand in silence and watch the only woman who’d ever touched him to his very core, without so much as placing a gloved fingertip on him, marry another man.
THE NEWLY RISING sun glimmered through the lower branches of the trees lining the hills along the eastern horizon, with its rosy glow tingeing the heavily swirling mists drifting eerily over the marshy terrain that partially surrounded the keep. Within the enclosed courtyard of the well-fortified edifice, serfs with lackluster eyes and cheeks noticeably sunken scurried about in anxious haste as they laid heavily laden trenchers before the hunters. When the trays were whisked away, many of the serfs were seen hurriedly cramming whatever meager scraps were left into their mouths.
More than a score of hunting hounds were creating an underlying cacophony of pleading whines and snarls as they sought to keep close to their masters. A well-placed boot or the heavy end of a sturdy staff evoked sudden yelps and usually sent the dogs scurrying off in every direction, whence they soon ventured forth again to lick up whatever scraps of meat had fallen from overflowing platters being borne by hastening serfs.
Sitting among those whose greed set their minds aflame with various schemes to seize whatever prizes they could pilfer were men of quieter, subtler natures who took the hunt seriously and were confident of their own abilities. Leaving others to their wily wrangling and overloud boasting of past pursuits, these men silently inspected thestraightness of their spears and arrows. The pair of Scotsmen was firmly a part of this latter group.
Raven casually honed several spears to a sharper point in preparation for the boar hunt on the morrow. The fact that he and his father knew no one in attendance had been expected. In spite of the fact that his friends in the highlands had been wont to question his rationale for accepting an invitation to attend the nuptials of one who would likely prove a treacherous enemy, Raven hadn’t been able to forget the bonny lass he had rescued, nor could he ignore the fierce desire he felt to possess her. She seemed to him a delicate flower whose beauty was beyond measure. To mature into a full-fledged woman, she would have to be gently nurtured, and there was scant chance of that happening in the hands of a fiend like de Marlé. Raven feared she would not long survive under his abuse.
Cedric pursed his mustached lips as he contemplated the blade he had been honing and then elevated his gaze to meet his son’s. “We hadn’t a chance ta talk of this earlier, so I’ll be asking ye now. I warned ye that de Marlé might be craving revenge, and now that I’ve seen the look in his eyes, I believe it even more so.”
Raven glanced at his father. “Ye don’t find his sudden camaraderie convincing?”
Cedric snorted. “Lad, would ye mind telling your old da why ye insisted upon venturing inta this trap like some blind beggar?”
Raven bestowed a wry grin upon his parent. “I know ye’ve na been a widower so long that ye canna admire a pretty face right along with the rest of us, Da. Ye’ve seen for yourself how bonny the lass is.”
“Please tell me ye mean the Lady Cordelia.”
“Nay, ’tis Abrielle who’s struck her arrow deep in my heart.”
Cedric sighed and shook his head. “I was afraid of just that when I saw the keen way you looked at her yesterday, and that’s before I took note of the way the lady was looking back. Didna I hear some wild rumor whirling about on the winds that the lass is spoken for? Wasthat not our reasoning for venturing ta this here keep, ta attend the nuptials betwixt de Marlé and his lady fair?”
The younger man shrugged. “If ye’ll remember, Da, I didna ask ta be invited. The good squire did that on his own. It’s true I would have preferred the poor lass not be tied ta such a man, but the contract’s been signed and I have to accept it.” Even as he said it, everything in him roiled in protest. To distract himself as much as his father, he turned to a different subject. “Of course it does make me wonder even more what he’s about. It might be far-fetched ta suppose he means ta do us both ill, but then again, ’twould prove interesting. Might be I could add some excitement ta the occasion.”
“I’m not sure Abrielle would consider violence breaking out in the middle of her wedding ‘interesting.’” Cedric slowly waggled his gray head. “Aye, ta be sure, lad, ye’d then have a right ta defend yourself. Still, taking inta account the poor man’s nearly twice your age and weight and no taller than your shoulders, any altercation ye’d be starting betwixt the two of ye wouldna seem entirely fair ta that brood of vipers he calls his friends.”
“Oh, I dinna intend ta invite it, Da,” Raven assured his sire. “And the lady has made it obvious she wants no help from the likes of me. Yet I feel…guilty.”
“There be no need for that, lad. Ye dinna even ken the reasons she chose such a man.”
“Desperation, Da, what else could it be?”
“Whatever it is, ’tis not our concern.”
Raven made a noncommittal sound, thinking those words weren’t any more convincing coming from his father than they had been when he said them to himself.
ABRIELLE SPENT THE first day of the hunt with the women. They’d all gathered to see off the men, cheering and shouting and wavingtokens of their affection. She could not help but notice that wherever the two Scotsmen rode, the crowd quieted, as if they did not want to encourage the enemy. Desmond’s cohorts took to jeering in a most dishonorable manner, and Abrielle did not want the celebration of her marriage to turn ugly and have someone hurt. When at last Desmond looked at her, she gave him an appealing glance, and with a wave of his hand, he quieted his raucous men. The two Scotsmen rode forth in dignity, but Abrielle knew the uneasy quiet did not bode well. And she saw Desmond glance at her again, his small eyes narrowed.
That night, when the hunters brought back their spoils, it was obvious that Cedric had claimed the honor of bagging the largest and most majestic stag, and would win the first purse. So large was the stag that even Thurstan could not claim another the winner, though Abrielle thought he hesitated enough over the carcasses.
At supper, no one wanted to share the trestle table with Raven and his father. The two men ate heartily as if they had no concerns, but how could they miss the tense resentment from both Saxon and Norman alike? Cordelia and Abrielle exchanged a worried look.
“It is most unseemly that guests are treated so,” Abrielle murmured to her friend.
Hesitantly, Cordelia said, “You are not yet the mistress of this keep.”
“I know, but these men are behaving as if the Seaberns personally attacked our lands in times past. They’re Highlanders, not the men from just over the border. And if a melee breaks out, will that not ruin everything?”
“If it delays the wedding, will you not be grateful?”
“Cordelia!” Lady Grayson gasped, looking around, but no one had overheard them.
“I do not want to delay the wedding,” Abrielle said firmly, wishing her stepfather didn’t look so despondent as he hunched over his tankard of ale. “But if this will soon be my home, Desmond’s friendsmust understand common decency. Now they are like a pack of dogs, allowing themselves to be all riled up. And if fighting breaks out, do you not think our fathers will feel forced to become involved?”
As Cordelia blanched, Elspeth leaned toward her daughter. “Abrielle, you are correct in your concerns. You and I both know how men can behave when they’re past thought. Remember how your late father felt compelled to accept that challenge that took him from us forever.”
Abrielle shuddered. “I cannot let that happen again.” She rose gracefully to her feet and began to walk across the great hall, stepping through rushes that had not been swept out in months.
Raven stopped eating when he saw Abrielle moving through the raucous crowd. She was like the proud bow of a boat, leaving ripples of quiet in her wake. Such was her beauty that men stopped eating to stare at her, and Raven knew he was no different.
“Close your mouth, lad,” his father said with amusement. “Och, soon ye’ll be catching flies that way.”
Abrielle stopped at table after table, her smile sweet, her melodious voice soothing. They could not hear what she said, but more than one guest gave a last glance at the Scotsmen and sank back onto their benches.
“What is she doing?” Raven murmured, frustrated that he could only watch and wonder.
“Calming her guests,” Cedric ventured.
As intent as he was on Abrielle, Raven made a point of also watching de Marlé’s reaction. At first, when it seemed Abrielle was coming to join him, the squire’s expression was full of pleasure, but as she stopped at more tables along the way, he began glancing at Raven’s table with increasing displeasure. Raven did his best to ignore what was going on, but it wasn’t easy when he was so captivated by the woman’s slightest movement and every hint of emotion that flickered across her face. He couldn’t stop looking at her, and every time he did, he wantedto touch her, to hold that wondrous body against his and assuage his need with her softness. He had been unable to wipe her from his mind this last month, and now being in the same keep with her only made his desire stronger. At that moment he was very grateful for the diplomatic experience that enabled him to sit there expressionless, revealing none of the thoughts and feelings rioting inside. De Marlé might seem like an ignorant man, but he was no fool. His cunning was of the malicious sort, and Raven knew that if the other man’s glare were a sword, his head would have rolled clear across the hall by now.
To Raven’s great relief, Abrielle did not come to his table, but went instead to her betrothed and gave him her sweetest smile. Raven wished he were free to challenge the man for the right to stare into those lovely blue-green eyes. As if sensing his restlessness, his father touched his thigh briefly in warning, and Raven, still as restless, went back to pretending to concentrate on his meal.
Desmond gladly took the hand of his beautiful betrothed and held it high before planting a kiss on it. There were good-natured calls now about the wedding night, and he saw Abrielle’s face redden in a virgin’s blush.
But he could not forget the way she’d calmed his guests, all for the Scotsmen. His plan to avenge himself against Raven Seabern by parading his bride before him wasn’t turning out as he’d planned. True, he knew the Scot still burned for her, but so did every man here, and Raven was doing better than most at keeping his desire submerged.
Worst of all, he saw how deliberately Abrielle kept her gaze from Raven, as if she was afraid to look too close, afraid of what she might feel.
And Desmond could not stand for that. His plans would have to be altered. His nephew Thurstan had men held in reserve in case a show of strength was necessary. It was time to call them into action. An attack by thieves would be more believable than having two healthy men suddenly succumb to poison.
DUSK WAS NIGH as Raven and his father reined their mounts along the far bank of the meandering river some distance from the keep, very near the place where the fast-flowing water rippled over rocky shallows. On this, the second day of the hunt, father and son had glimpsed several boars, none of which had seemed worthy of being pursued, although Cedric had commented that any fresh boar would only improve the castle’s menu. With the number of huntsmen wandering hither and yon, in the process making enough noise to send a variety of animals scurrying off to hidden niches, the more commendable game had been difficult to find.
Raven and his father had decided to venture farther afield in the opposite direction, not only to seek their quarry in an area to which others would unwittingly drive theirs, but also, hopefully, to stay out of harm’s way from errant arrows and spears. The combination of hilly terrain and fast-flowing streams posed no difficulty for those nurtured throughout their lives within the highlands of Scotland. ’Twas not long before those who trailed in their wake desisted in their attempt and retreated to a more level area of ground closer to the keep.
The sun was sinking beyond the uppermost pinnacles of the lofty trees when father and son found themselves on the trail of a boar that promised to challenge another record. Moments earlier they had descended to an area near a fast-flowing stream where Raven espied the animal scurrying off into a thicket deeply shaded by towering trees. Silently gesturing to his father, he brought Cedric’s attention to bear upon the animal’s tracks and a freshly broken branch near the base of a larch. Raven leaned from the saddle and, with his spear, brushed aside the lower boughs to reveal an enormous boar, complete with massive curved tusks, taking shelter near the trunk. Immediately an angry squealing rent the silence as the quarry raced forth, leaving thelower fronds swaying wildly in its wake. As the boughs raked his bristly hide, the animal danced aside and thrust about with his tusks in an effort to find his phantom foe.
Very much in a temper, the boar squealed as it charged into the clearing. At its approach, Raven touched his spurs lightly against his stallion’s flanks, turning the steed to allow him to face the smaller animal directly. The boar fixed its eyes upon this menacing presence looming before it and snorted threateningly as it began tearing up the ground with its tusks, hurling thick tufts of grass helter-skelter. Then, thrusting back upon its hind legs, it launched itself in a forceful race toward the stallion.
Raven promptly reined his mount aside, allowing the prey to race on past. A moment later, the boar ended its furious charge beneath the wide-spreading boughs of another larch no more than a stone’s throw beyond the place where Raven had halted. The lower branches of the towering tree swayed wildly to and fro as the animal tore through them in a vicious temper.
Upon emerging from the lower boughs, the boar rushed forward, only to find the man awaiting him with lance held at the ready. With a mighty thrust Raven sent the spear toward its target, promptly skewering the boar on its shaft. Squealing in agony, the animal twisted this way and that in a frantic attempt to free itself. Gradually its movements slowed and became awkward as it staggered haphazardly in retreat. There, the animal collapsed upon its short legs.
Raven rose in his stirrups, intending to dismount, but from out of nowhere a spear whizzed past, opening a tiny gash on one cheek. Blood drops flew without his notice. Instinct and knowledge gained from his father’s relentless tutoring over the years took over and he followed the path of the weapon to where its jagged point lodged in the trunk of a tree. From behind came the splashing sound of riders crossing the stream and he quickly reined his stallion about to facethem, eager to do battle with an enemy who attacked without warning or provocation.
Raven looked from the riders back toward the tree and with a quick nudge of his spurs sent his stallion racing in that direction. Without slowing, he grasped the weathered shaft of the brigand’s spear and jerked it from the trunk, tossed it briefly into the air to claim a better grip on it, and with its shank firmly in hand, again reined his steed around. His sire turned as well and together they faced the pair of cloaked, helmeted riders spurring their huge, shaggy steeds toward them.
Their thundering hoofbeats seemed to echo through the forest glade as one of them reached behind his back and drew forth a heavy battle-ax. Its bearer lifted the weapon high above his head, and though his dark eyes were barely visible beneath the visor of his crude, battered helm, they fixed unswervingly upon the younger Scotsman.
Drawing the spear back over his shoulder, Raven bided his time, closely eyeing the pair advancing toward him. Cedric sent his own steed racing forward as he sought to intercept them before they could do harm to his son. Upon espying him, the nearest brigand wheeled his warhorse about and dispatched the animal in a straight line toward the elder. Glimmering through the eyeholes of the mask, the gray eyes never strayed from the older man, the brigard’s widening, black-toothed grin conveying a grim promise of death beneath the crudely finished headgear as he slowly swung the heavy mace he clasped to and fro.
The elder’s gleaming claymore sang richly as it was drawn forth from its scabbard. Facing the oncoming charge squarely, Cedric touched his spurs to his stallion’s flanks. Clods of greensward and leaf-matted turf flew helter-skelter as both steeds raced toward each other across the narrow expanse of land separating them. Raising a war cry that widened the eyes of his adversary, Cedric swung his claymore in a circular motion high above his head as he guided his mount merely bythe pressure of his knees. The two steeds met, the smaller one easily whisking alongside the huge warhorse as the elder rose in his stirrups. In the next instant, the claymore rang with a note of deathly clarity as it whipped about with a deft stroke, clanging briefly against the crude helmet before separating the brigand’s head from his cloaked form.
The heavy mace plummeted from a lifeless hand, but Cedric took no notice of the decapitated body’s tumbling descent as he whirled his steed about to see what further assistance he could be to his son. Another moment more, and he would have failed to witness the skewering of the stranger on Raven’s spear.
Cedric eyed his offspring for any evidence of injury and, upon seeing none, rumbled in the chiding tones of a parent, “It took ye long enough ta finish off that brigand, lad. Didna I always tell ye ta be punctual in the face of danger?”
Cocking a dubious brow at his sire, Raven gave as good as he got. “I was averse ta shaming ye by finishing off the man afore ye took care of the one ye went after. Besides, if ye’ll remember, I had ta retrieve the brigand’s weapon afore I could enter the fray.”
“Fine excuse ye’re giving me,” Cedric chided. Though conveying a lighthearted mood, this most recent attempt upon his son’s life left him seething with a burning hatred for the man who had invited them for such a diabolical purpose. “Might ye be knowing the names of these beggarly souls we’ve just killed, laddie? And might ye be explaining your thinking as to the man behind them?”
Dismounting, Raven tied the two shaggy warhorses to a pair of trees, proceeded to remove the helmet from the man he’d killed, then shook his head and shrugged. “I’m guessing they’re simple soldiers. Who put them up ta this foul deed is what we’ll have ta determine…should there mayhap be a wee chance the culprit is someone other than Squire de Marlé.”
Cedric shook his head sadly as he surveyed the carnage. “Betwixtthe two of us, lad, I’d say there’s no mistaking the wily toad who put this pair up ta killing ye. De Marlé had no reason for inviting us, except ta serve us up as meat for his dogs.”
“Aye, that and his preening arrogance.” Raven’s gaze narrowed. “Still, it’s hard to believe even a sorry excuse for a man like de Marlé would be contemplating murder only a day before he’s to exchange wedding vows with a woman as fair and winsome as Abrielle.”
“Ye shamed him, lad, that ye did, not only by saving the bonny lass from his foul purposes, but by showing him ta be a coward his own mother wouldna own up ta birthing.”
Raven smiled. “I canna think it helped him warm ta me when he saw how his betrothed went ta the trouble of quieting an entire hall in our defense at the banquet last eve.”
“I saw the look he gave ye and I didn’t like it,” admitted Cedric.
“But does he question the lass’s loyalty so much that he would kill?”
“I’d be more likely to question her eyesight,” his father retorted. “The thought of the bonny lass about ta marry that man would make a stone weep.”
“So now ye agree she’d have ta be desperate ta make such a choice? If, indeed, he was her choice. I think there’s more ta the arrangement than anyone knows, something so dire Vachel had no choice but ta agree ta the match.”
“So what do ye intend, seeing as how we’re guests of the murdering rascal?” Cedric asked, peering at his offspring speculatively. He waved a hand about to indicate the gory scene around them. “If we stay, we’ll be facing more of what we’ve just encountered.”
“And it’ll end the same. I speak only for myself, Da, I’ll be staying, and past the nuptials as well. If something should go awry, the lass will be needing protection.”
“That doesn’t mean it has to be your protection,” Cedric pointed out.
Raven squashed any further protest with a sideways glance. “I’m staying.”
“Ye can be sure de Marlé willna be waiting long ta find another ta kill ye,” Cedric warned. “Once we bring back these men, he’ll be even more set ta see ta your death.”
Raven canted his head thoughtfully for a long moment before meeting his father’s gaze. “Whatever comes, I mean ta deliver these men ta the keep ta let him know ’twill take more than two soldiers ta dispense with us. Mayhap the sight of these poor beggars will sour his gut or cause him ta fear for his life. After that, I’ll be biding me time, but one way or the other, I’ll be having it out with the man. What’s between him and his lady may not be my business,” he said with another quick glance at the dead men, “but this surely is.”
Cedric whisked a knuckle beneath his bushy mustache. “Mayhap the toad’ll have a seizure when he sees what we’ve bagged for ourselves.”
Raven snorted in contempt. “I wish he would…a permanent one ta lay him inta his grave. Then the Lady Abrielle would be free.”
“Free ta be choosing another, ye mean?” Cedric responded, cocking a brow curiously as he peered at his son.
Raven slowly grinned as he met the elder’s blue eyes. “Ye know, Da, ye’ve always been so clever at reading me thoughts, making me wonder at times why I even bother voicing them.”
“Mayhap ye’ll be having the same canny sense of your own in a few more years.” Cedric harrumphed, as if trying to clear his throat. “Till then, just follow my lead if ye think the matter is worthy, otherwise see ta yourself.”
“I intend ta,” Raven said, his amusement fading.
Upon arriving at the far end of the drawbridge, Raven dismounted and, with a casual wave of his hand, bade his parent to wait beside the shaggy destriers bearing the remains of the two culprits and the boar. Several guests espied the tightly bound carcasses and immediately came rushing out to see what had happened. Raven ignored them. There was only one man with whom he was interested in discussing the matter. And should that discussion turn into something more vigorous, he thought, clenching his fists as he strode across the keep, so much the better.
Soon after being circumvented by Raven, Sir Colbert, a young man of Norman lineage, stalked down the length of the drawbridge as if he were the lord high sheriff of the area. He had already been conveying an attitude of authority among his friends in view of the fact that he was a distant relative of the squire. He had also been evidencing a strong disdain for anyone who wasn’t of Norman lineage, the only exception being the young bride, whom he eagerly declared was the most beautiful Saxon he had ever seen. Having been nurtured from youth by parents who had encouraged friends and family alike todisdain the Scottish clans who had fought against their kinsmen, he stepped before the elder and promptly ordered him to lay the slain men out on the drawbridge where they could be seen.
“We shall have a look at what you bloody Scots have trussed up like so much grain. If your victims prove to be our friends, then we’ll teach you the folly of your murdering ways. To be sure, ere the day is out your Scottish heads may well be adorning a pair of pikes.”
“Aye, that’s telling him, Colbert!” another young man shouted, beckoning for their companions to join them. “Let’s give this bloody Scot a harsh lesson in manners right here and now.”
Cedric’s hand settled almost casually upon the hilt of his claymore as he directed a question toward the youth who had suggested the like of such tutoring. “And who do ye think will be helping ye, laddie? I’ll be warning ye kindly, ’twill take more than ye and your young friends ta best this old man.”
The second young man lifted his chin in haughty arrogance as he gave the elder a chilly stare. He glanced around at the score or more of his acquaintances and kinsmen who had gathered close around him. “Surely Colbert and I are not the only ones outraged by this unprovoked slaughter of innocents. What say you, lads? Are there not among you a goodly number who disdain these loathsome Scots as much as we do? Let’s deal with them as they rightly deserve! The same as they dealt with this pair they murdered.”
Having been the first to confront Cedric, Colbert assumed authority as he demanded, “What do you have to say about this matter?”
The elder cocked a dubious brow as he scoffed, “Naught ta you, I’ll wager, nor ta these young bumpkins collecting like a bunch of goats behind ye.”
“You will answer for your crimes,” Colbert railed threateningly, “or, by heavens, we’ll see the pair of your heads stuck on pikes right here and now!”
Summoning the full force of his companions with a wave of hisarm, Colbert smirked in pleasure as they surged forward to do his bidding. He could easily foresee the lot of them serving the aging man his just due long before the younger Scot returned from the courtyard.
This time the heavy claymore sang a different steely song as it was slowly unsheathed. Indeed, the elder seemed to take his own time clasping the hilt and settling into a fighting stance as he braced his legs firmly apart. His broadening grin evidenced an unswerving confidence in his own abilities as he arched a hoary brow and challenged his youthful adversaries to a contest of arms. “Now, who’s ta be the first ta feel this blade?”
His audience of hotheaded young men glanced at one another warily. The more astute among their group were fairly quick to comprehend that this was a warrior who loved a battle, whereas the best the lot of them had ever achieved was to joust in an open tourney with thick pads protecting them from tip of toe to top of head. Whatever expectations they had briefly savored of teaching the Scot a harsh lesson faltered as quickly as their flagging courage. Of a sudden they were of a mind to retreat before this threat.
“Take heart and stand fast!” Colbert railed at his companions in mounting frustration as they began to sidle away, much like lapdogs facing a savage wolf. “If we stand together against this old man, surely he won’t be able to defeat us all!”
“I wouldn’t be too sure about that” came a reply from the second young man, who was already scurrying toward the courtyard. By the time he reached the outer doors of the keep, he was nearly breathless and didn’t bother closing them behind him as he rushed in. Upon espying the younger Scot, who had been followed by several curious youths, he pressed back against the outer curved wall, where, with a modicum of safety, he could watch what transpired between Raven and the rabble.
Thurstan had been seated with several older men at a trestle tablewhen Raven pushed his way through the gathering. Upon settling his yellowish eyes blandly upon the Scotsman, Thurstan lifted a brow, leaned back on his elbows, and stretched out his legs. “Were you looking for me?”
Raven halted directly in front of him. “Nay, I was looking for your uncle, but ye’ll do.” The mere sight of de Marlé’s nephew made his hackles rise, and the look of smug disdain on the young cur’s face all but proved his suspicions were on the mark. The urge to lash out with tongue or sword or both was strong, but he was a master at keeping them tethered until the moment was right.
“My da and I brought back two dead men,” he said simply, his tone level. “They’re tied onta the back of their mounts at the far end of the drawbridge, if ye care te take a look.”
“And why would I want to do that?”
“For appearances?” Raven suggested with only the barest hint of sarcasm. “It occurs ta me your uncle might want ta at least feign concern that a couple of henchmen took it inta their heads ta kill his invited guests.”
“Why should the squire care about the doings of two thieves?” Thurstan asked coldly.
Raven’s dark brows lifted. “Did someone mention thieves? These men were equipped as soldiers, not thieves.”
Thurstan shrugged. “So, what you’re saying is some of my uncle’s men took it upon themselves to attack guests?”
Without taking his gaze from Thurstan’s face, Raven swung out hard with one boot and knocked the younger man’s negligently crossed ankles apart so forcefully he had to scramble to hold his seat. “Do try ta listen more closely. What I am doing here is distinctly not saying it.” Why should he, Raven thought, when the words a man didn’t speak could be so much more effective?
The penetrating coldness in Thurstan’s expression continued to convey his loathing for the Scotsman. As much as he would’ve enjoyedordering the pair to bury what they had killed, he suddenly realized he ought to maintain a proper decorum with the eyes of so many respected guests upon him. “I will see them.”
Raven casually followed Thurstan as he stalked outside to the drawbridge, then bent down to begin untying the bodies.
Desmond shouldered his way through those who had paused near the end of the drawbridge and, upon arriving at the fore of a youthful audience, found himself facing the Scotsmen. He had realized that they would be hard to kill. Even so, these soldiers had been chosen on Thurstan’s promise of their cunning—and the threat to murder their families if they didn’t comply.
The Scotsmen returned Desmond’s slack-jawed astonishment with unwavering stares as he made a desperate effort to reclaim his aplomb. He failed to a great degree before he turned his attention to his nephew. A harsh frown drew Desmond’s bushy brows sharply together.
“What’s the meaning of this commotion?” he demanded, and then, upon espying the slain men tied to the backs of their huge steed, he whirled upon Cedric. “What have you done?”
The laird’s chortle was seriously lacking in humor. “I was just going ta ask ye the very same question, Squire. Do ye ken these men who tried ta murder us whilst we were out hunting?”
“Did you provoke them?” Desmond asked curtly.
“Only with our presence,” Cedric said. “Ta be sure, we had na ken they were even in the area till they charged across the stream with weapons drawn.”
“My wedding is on the morrow,” Desmond cried, “and you’ve brought the brumes of gloom down upon us with this senseless killing.”
Raven scoffed. “Senseless? I dinna ken about that. Where I’m from, when faced with a man who’s got it in his head ta kill ye, it makes perfect sense ta separate that head from his body before he has thechance. This pair were clearly of a mind ta kill us. With that settled, all that’s left to discover is their motive. Since me da and I knew them not at all,” he continued, his tone becoming cold and speculative, “we thought ye be knowing what reason they had ta seek us out?”
“The promise of a fat purse, perhaps,” Thurstan said drily. “I still say they’re thieves.”
Over the squire’s shoulder, Raven espied Abrielle, Cordelia, and their mothers venturing out onto the drawbridge. Upon facing Desmond again, he warned in a muted voice, “Your guests are approaching.”
Promptly turning, Desmond scurried toward the four as he advised them, “My ladies, I must urge you to return to your chambers. There has been some trouble…the Scotsmen have brought back two bodies, and though I’m reluctant to frighten you, I’d be remiss in my duties if I failed to think of your safety before looking into this matter more thoroughly. I must urge you to return to the security of your chambers and to stay there until we’ve managed to make some sense of this dreadful matter.”
Abrielle had had a terrible feeling all day, and now she could see the anger from Desmond’s cohorts directed at the Scotsmen. Raven and his father had been forced to kill two men? She could only believe it was because they were attacked first, but then, she didn’t know him very well. She could not let a handsome face mislead her into assuming he was honorable. But Raven was watching her now, standing at his father’s side. There was no appeal in his expression, as if he would never beg her to believe him.
“But who has been killed?” she asked Desmond, noticing too late that he’d been watching her when she’d been thinking about Raven. What had her expression revealed? she wondered, feeling a chill of mounting concern. She had to be more careful.
“I cannot yet explain how this tragedy happened,” Desmond said, “only that two men are now dead. So I must urge you to retire to yourchambers until this dreadful matter has been looked into more thoroughly.”
Though she wanted to resist being ordered about so, Abrielle inclined her head slightly in assent to placate Desmond. “Then we shall leave you to deal with this problem as well as you can.” She laid a hand briefly upon her friend’s arm and then touched the older women’s as she turned back toward the keep. “Come, ladies. Let us return and allow the men to deal with this horrible tragedy.” She would find out the details later, when she was not so on display.
Thurstan faced Raven as the Scotsman drew near. “Perhaps I should have a look at the slain men to determine if they’re known hereabouts. Then I would suggest that we remove them from sight lest some of the other ladies venture out and espy them.”
“And you should have a look, too, Squire,” Cedric said, motioning to the man.
Beyond the end of the drawbridge, Raven and Cedric laid out the two carcasses in the midst of the tufts of dried grass. More men had come forth from the keep, including Vachel and Reginald, who watched the proceedings with stern frowns.
When the severed head was placed within close proximity of its former body, Thurstan said, “I have never seen these men before, neither here in my uncle’s home nor at my own manor several leagues away.”
“And I haven’t either,” Desmond insisted, looking away from the bodies quickly.
Cedric questioned several older serfs who had gathered around them. “We’d be obliged ta know if any of ye recognize these men and can tell us where they belong.”
While Thurstan and Desmond were there watching the proceedings, the small group seemed wary. None admitted that the two had come from the squire’s lands, and they continued to shake their heads at nearly every question presented to them, frustrating the Scotsmen’sattempts to find out exactly where the dead men had come from. Finally Cedric waved them away, allowing them to return to their duties.
“So your contention is that they’re merely thieves,” Raven said slowly, “who happened ta intrude on your hunt and randomly decide ta kill two well-armed men.”
“Are you suggesting there could be another reason?” Desmond demanded, puffing out his chest like a rooster.
“Should I?” Raven queried in return, the dead calm of his demeanor more threatening than any display of choler.
“And do you have proof of any accusations you might make?”
“Then just bury these men and be done with it before their deaths ruin the festivities that have been planned,” Desmond said, trying to sound reasonable. “If they were trying to kill anyone, then they’ve paid for the deed with their lives.”
“Very well,” Raven said, “but in case they have kinsmen here, ’tis only fair ta let them know what has befallen these two.”
Thurstan scowled. “Neither my uncle nor I recognize them, but if you will not be satisfied with that, then lay out the bodies in the midst of the serfs’ huts. If no one claims them, then at least they’ve been seen. After that, I’ll have men see to their burial.”
Sensing victory, Desmond could not let it go, but threatened more by Raven than by his parent, he addressed his remarks to the father. “I seriously doubt more will be discovered, considering that you have managed to kill the only two who could have adequately appeased your desire to know why they sought to kill you…if that is what they did. Of course we have only your word for that, yours and your son’s.”
“I dinna lie,” Cedric rumbled, settling his hand once again upon the hilt of his claymore as his brilliant eyes flashed with a flaming fury.
Desmond flung up a hand, conveying his disinterest in the elder’s declaration. Upon turning about, he stalked back to the keep. It incensed him beyond measure that the two fools had failed so miserably to accomplish his directive. Because of their bungling efforts to comport themselves as warriors, he would now have to find another who would be more competent at the task of dispensing with the Scotsmen. No doubt he would have to promise a lucrative fee, but if it would mean that he could forget the pair thereafter, he would be willing to placate the assassin…at least until the deed was done.
After witnessing their host’s departure, Vachel returned to the keep to abide by his earlier promise that he would tell his family everything that had transpired. He was certain both would be extremely distressed over this latest occurrence and fearful that Desmond was somehow involved. If he could, he had to placate their qualms and reassure them that Abrielle’s betrothed couldn’t have been involved in this attempt on the Scotsmen’s lives. Even so, it was the strange, intensifying coldness around his own heart, a feeling that had served him well throughout his efforts in the Crusades, that was warning him to be extremely leery of the squire. He hated to lay the whole ugly burden on Abrielle, for he knew she was far too fine and noble for the likes of Desmond de Marlé. But the betrothal contract was signed and binding, and he knew that man could not sever it, and he doubted God would.
REACHING UP WITH trembling fingers, Abrielle closed and latched the stained-glass window overlooking the drawbridge where the Scotsmen had briefly lingered after Thurstan’s departure. She was grateful that the younger firebrands had dispersed to prepare for the event to honor the hunters. No doubt many would be lamenting the fact that the highland pair had captured both trophies, leaving none for the rest of them to garner.
And then her thoughts returned to what she had trouble facing: Could Desmond really have made an attempt on the Scotsmen’s lives? Was she legally bound to a man who could murder to get what he wanted? She would be spending the rest of her life treading delicately for fear of upsetting such a man.
Abrielle was worried about the continued well-being of the Scotsmen. It was beyond her ability to understand their reasoning for daring to remain in the area, for she could only believe they were inviting similar attempts by staying.
Oblivious to the colorful aura created by the lowering sun glimmering through the leaded panes of stained glass, Abrielle stared across the room at nothing in particular as she tried to imagine herself going through the wedding ceremony as if nothing untoward had happened. At the moment it seemed an impossible feat. Indeed, had she fallen into a dark pit of despair whence there would be no escape, she would have felt no less miserable than she did now.
A light rapping on the outer door of the chambers evoked a sharp gasp from her, for she couldn’t help but be fearful that Desmond had come for a visit. Dutifully progressing to the portal, she paused in an effort to collect her wits. If it were he, then she would have to give the excuse that she wasn’t feeling well, and that would be no lie. Merely the possibility of having to entertain the man would make that premise a matter of fact.
Leaning near the barrier, Abrielle asked in a muted voice, “Who is it?”
“Cordelia,” came the softly murmured response.
Greatly relieved, Abrielle swung open the heavy door before hurriedly motioning her friend into her parents’ chambers. Cordelia cast a cautious glance up and down the hall before complying, and then closed the portal securely behind her before following her friend into the sitting room. Although Abrielle took a seat upon the chaise and patted the cushions to invite her to do the same, Cordelia chose instead to claim her full attention by placing a small bench directly in front of her.
“So do you think that Desmond had something to do with the attack on the Scotsmen?” Cordelia asked in a low voice.
“I don’t want to believe it of a man I am soon to marry. I know there is little proof, but it seems as if no one else has a motive. Who else would bother?”
“There is Thurstan.”
“I think Thurstan is angry because my family and I are to receive most of Desmond’s fortune, one way or another. But that has nothing to do with the Seaberns.” She gave a heavy sigh. “This is all my fault. Little did I imagine when Raven Seabern rescued me that night from Desmond’s vile intentions that his life would thereafter be in serious peril.”
Cordelia canted her head curiously. “Mayhap you’d care to appease my curiosity by telling me about that occurrence. Thus far, you’ve failed to mention anything that happened after we left you that night. What prompted Desmond to resort to such despicable measures?”
“After you and your parents left for home, he sought to have his way with me in the palace, but Raven heard our scuffling and intervened before Desmond could accomplish his objective. Desmond managed to escape before being harmed, so ’twould seem he’s angry because Raven intruded on his plans to ravish me. ’Twould be better by far if the pair returned to their homeland this very hour rather than attend the festivities marking the end of the hunt. If they delay much longer, they may well be killed in their beds.”
“And that was the whole reason he extended them an invitation to the wedding? How cruel!”
“I’m not certain that Desmond meant to have them killed at first. I assumed when the Scotsmen first arrived that Desmond only invited them to show Raven that Desmond had won me in the end.”
Cordelia tapped her forefinger thoughtfully against her chin. “IfDesmond is truly intent on dispensing with the Scots, it probably doesn’t matter who is killed as long as he gets his way in the end. Obviously, he’s of the opinion that simple soldiers are to obey his every command, even if it’s to murder another individual he despises. Could he think that Raven somehow means to have you for his own?”
“But we have a betrothal contract! It cannot be put asunder. His jealousy has no purpose.”
“You must remember, ’tis Desmond of whom we speak.”
Abrielle sighed. “There has to be some way to prove to him that Raven is not interested in me. Then Desmond’s jealousy—murderous or not—might be appeased. Mayhap if Raven were shown to be interested in someone else…you, perhaps?”
Cordelia straightened. “You mean to make him pursue me somehow?”
“Nay, but if he were shown to be flirting with you, that might soothe Desmond’s suspicions.”
“And how would we convince him to flirt with me?”
“Why…you’d initiate it, of course, tonight at the banquet. He is entrusted with the business of kings, Cordelia, so I’m certain he would realize the purpose soon enough.”
“Shouldn’t you explain to him—”
“No!” Abrielle protested too forcefully. “I cannot risk being alone with him.”
“Do you not trust yourself?” Cordelia asked slyly.
Abrielle gasped. “You make light of what could mean death for both Scotsmen, and others, should the blood of young men run too hot, as too oft is the case.”
Cordelia laid a hand on her shoulder. “My dearest companion, I only mean to ease your concerns, to somehow lighten the load you bear. Do not mistake my teasing for anything but that. You know I will do anything to help you, and that you can rely upon me to distract Desmond where Raven is concerned.”
Abrielle hugged the other woman fervently.
“’Tis a noble thing you’re doing, saving your family in this way, though dear indeed is the price for doing so,” Cordelia told her with heartfelt sympathy. “I certainly don’t envy you. Truly, ’tis far more reasonable to imagine Raven Seabern as your suitor than that contemptible beast of a man you’re pledged to marry.”
“For pity’s sake, Cordelia,” said Abrielle. “Neither of us truly knows Raven. Desmond is fully revealed in his face and form, but the Scotsman has looks, grace, and charm that may indeed be only weapons he uses to get what he wants. In spite of his gallantry, and the intensity of his gaze when turned toward me, I cannot forget that he did not attempt to court me before my betrothal to Desmond, that he never even sought from my stepfather a proper introduction to me. It sorrows me to confess this thought to you, but I believe that he is seeking a wife with a rich dowry, with property to offer him, that he would but dally with a woman of my circumstances. I alone, without riches to accompany me, am not enough.” Here, in spite of her strongest efforts, her eyes filled with tears. “Oh, Cordelia,” she cried. “Why am I not enough?”
Most of the hunters entered the great hall that evening with their wives, relatives, or in the company of long-established companions or newly found friends. Shortly after settling themselves at the garland-bedecked tables, guests were served goblets of wine or tankards of ale, depending on their individual preferences. A table placed within close proximity of the head table was held in reserve for the champions of the hunt.
Although most of the hunters were arrogant and greatly resented being bested by a pair of Scots, there were a rare few with more gracious dispositions who readily paid tribute to the laird and his son immediately upon their entry into the hall. Rising to their feet, two hunters lifted aloft their tankards of ale in a rousing toast. When no one else around them followed suit, the embarrassed men quickly sank back onto their benches.
These two toasts greeted Desmond much like a slap across the face as he strode into the great hall, garbed in clothing as costly as any great lord of the realm might have worn. Jealousy as foul as his black heart made him lament his failure thus far to dispense with the Scots.Throughout the evening, he found it impossible to think of anything but savoring his revenge upon the pair.
Thus, when Desmond espied both of the Scotsmen being escorted to their designated table, his animosity intensified to an even greater degree. He was plagued by the rather bizarre notion that they had somehow connived to claim those seats merely to taunt and irritate him with their presence.
An appreciative murmur arose from the guests seated at the far end of the hall. Espying the group of ladies progressing ahead of their male escorts through the aisle, Desmond was taken aback by their beauty. Admiration promptly replaced anger, and he found himself smiling in appreciation. When the younger two inclined their heads graciously to acknowledge his presence, his buoyant mood was promptly restored. He was certain he had never seen a pair as fair.
In continuing on toward the squire’s table, Abrielle, her parents, and their close friends Lord and Lady Grayson and their daughter, Cordelia, claimed the unswerving attention of those in attendance. The younger gallants evidenced a rapidly burgeoning awe of the maidens, yet, in all truth, Elspeth and Isolde drew as many stares from the older men, a fact which seemed to tweak the ire of their husbands until Cordelia urged the pair to consider the stares as a compliment to their own refined tastes.
Abrielle’s gown had been created by combining numerous layers of a translucent golden fabric, trimmed with delicately bejeweled ribbons, as if she were clothed in a cloud that flowed in shimmering waves around her slender body. Its beauty had most of the women staring agog with envy, whereas the men were more wont to gape at the lady who wore it.
Softly shimmering layers of creamy-hued silk flowed in mesmerizing waves around Elspeth’s slender form, causing at least one who had earlier held aspirations of marrying the comely widow to lamentthe fact that she had chosen another. If anything, he was even more envious of Vachel de Gerard than he had been before.
With her blond hair and bright, pale blue eyes, Cordelia looked very much like her mother, the Lady Isolde. Clothed in garments as beautiful as those of the other members of their party, they drew almost as many admiring stares as the bride. From Lord Reginald Grayson’s broad smile, it was apparent he was very proud of his small family.
When Desmond caught sight of his intended bride, she was strolling beside Cordelia, slightly ahead of their parents. Much in a manner of one stricken dumb, he leaned back in his chair and gaped at them. A full moment passed before he realized his own slack-jawed astonishment and, in some discomfiture, cleared his constricted throat. Upon sweeping a surreptitious glance about the hall, he realized to his relief that most of the men were now staring at the four women in much the same manner.
Raven was no less awed by Abrielle’s beauty than any other man in the hall; he was simply more skilled at hiding it. Unfortunately he was not nearly as good at concealing his feelings from himself. To be sure, his pounding heart readily affirmed his deepening infatuation. His desire to have Abrielle for his own was so great he was not at all deterred by thoughts of the havoc he’d create were he to follow his gut impulse to sweep the lady into his arms and abscond with her to the highlands of Scotland. Given the slightest sweet look of encouragement, he would be on his feet and by her side before de Marlé had wedged himself from his gilded chair. But her blue-green eyes never turned his way.
Approaching his future bride with an arm outstretched in invitation, Desmond smiled as the young beauty settled a slender hand upon his sleeve. “You’re far more ravishing than any lady I’ve ever beheld, my dear,” he assured her. “I can only consider the depth and breadth of my good fortune. Once I take you as my bride and the bonds between us are secure, no man will be as privileged as I.”
Abrielle shuddered to think of those precise moments. Unable to make a befitting response, she turned silently and allowed him to lead her to the trestle table where he had been sitting. As much as she doubted her ability to manage even an evanescent smile for Desmond and his guests, she made every effort to force her lips into compliance.
As the feast was served, Abrielle could see the sagging shoulders and depressed miens of men and women who could not even look forward to a true feast. Once again, the food was of the plainest sort, and all one could say about it was that it was edible. If there was one thing she was looking forward to, it was finding a superior cook so that the people of the castle would be better served.
Upon the conclusion of the meal, the trenchers were taken away, and Desmond rose to his feet, raising both his arms to claim the attention of his guests. He had decided to evoke some animosity toward the Scottish pair and was eager to progress toward that goal. “Normans and Saxons alike, give heed to my words. As all subjects of King Henry know by now, he chose his daughter, Maud, to become rightful heiress of the kingdom he rules after the tragic drowning death of his son many years ago in the White Ship disaster.”
Though his words seemed badly slurred to his guests, Desmond was convinced he would have given the best orator in the king’s service cause to stand in silent awe. By now, he thought, the Scotsmen would likely be expecting a boring discourse on the royals.
“Should our liege lord expire in the years to come, the Empress Matilda—or Maud, as some of her subjects have been wont to call her—shall claim the throne. So far, all his nobles have signed pledges of fealty to support her should his majesty be laid to rest. Considering his age, one has to consider that he will not live forever. It has also been acknowledged that her uncle King David of Scotland has given his oath to uphold her as divine ruler of this land should His Majesty pass on. By Henry’s edicts, we should all pledge her our troths and bebound in unity after his death. Of late, however, I’ve been wont to wonder if recent rumors being bandied about are actually true, that King David has been secretly nurturing aspirations of seizing England’s throne for himself rather than allowing his niece to succeed her father.”
Many of the guests nodded and spoke in murmurs to one another, eyeing the Scots dubiously.
Raven rose to his feet, claiming the attention of those within the hall. “I’ve no knowledge of my sovereign lord ever coveting the English throne,” he stated forthrightly, sensing the squire’s ploy to evoke ill will toward the Scottish clans and their king. “For what it’s worth, ’tis my belief that King David intends ta assist the empress in whatever capacity she may require during her reign and ta bestow as much homage upon her as he has thus far extended ta King Henry. After all, Malcolm Canmore was her grandfather, a man much beloved and respected in our country. The Scots could do no better than ta swear allegiance ta her. And if ye do indeed sense any undermining of the empress’s sovereign right ta claim the throne, then mayhap ye should look closer ta home for such culprits rather than condemn the clansmen of Scotland as treasonous. ’Tis fallacy ta think we’d go against her.”
“Are you actually claiming that you would remain loyal to the Empress Maud once she claims Henry’s throne?” Desmond prodded with a distasteful sneer.
“My loyalty will always be ta Scotland,” Raven stated without hesitation. “Much remains ta be seen, but I dinna anticipate havoc for our clans coming from Empress Maud. We’ve always considered her one of us.”
“You Scots have your own way of lending careful regard to a notion and, when the time pleases you, turning your backs upon the very ones you’ve previously claimed to admire.”
“Scots usually speak their minds whether you and your sort are able ta or not,” Raven retorted.
“Are you calling me a liar?” Desmond railed, making an effort to rise from his chair in spite of the fact that at present the whole hall seemed to be dipping and swaying unnaturally around him. Clasping a nearby tankard, he tried to bring it to his mouth, but alas, it promptly slipped from his hand and went reeling across the trestle table, showering those sitting to his right before they could scurry out of its path.
Desmond was incognizant of the christening he had given many of his guests. He was far more interested in bestowing a glower upon the younger Scotsman. Even in that effort, he fell short of his objective. Having consumed more wine and ale than most of his guests, he was hampered by the very disturbing possibility that there were now two of his adversary, whereas a moment earlier there had been only one irksome rogue by the name of Raven Seabern.
“Did you jus…call me…a liar?” Desmond demanded again thickly.
Raven replied simply, “If the name fits, Squire, then I’d advise ye ta call it your very own.”
Repulsed by the squire’s drunken state, Raven rose to his feet and was promptly joined by his father, who spoke for himself and his son. “If ye’ll excuse us, Squire, we woke early this morning, and have become increasingly weary as the day has progressed. Mayhap ye’ll allow us ta finish this discussion at a later time.”
Chortling, Desmond sought to make light of the pair’s inability to endure the rigors of a hunt with the same depth of stamina as his other guests had. If he had cared to join in the sport, he was certain he would’ve shown the two up as poor comparisons to his unwavering endurance. Mimicking Cedric’s Scottish burr, he chided, “Ye have a son who dinna seem ver-ry robust. Have these frosty English climes chilled your luster?”
The elder just ignored Desmon’s drunken taunts, and Raven smiled blandly, refraining from the temptation to enlighten the overstuffedsquire as to his early-morning baths in an icy stream flowing near his family home in Scotland. “Ye should remember, Squire, I’m from the highlands. There, every morning would chill the luster of a stranger, whether it be a Norman or Saxon, who’s ventured inta our frigid climes without due caution. Or mayhap ye’ve no ken that we’re straight north of ye.”
Deliberately avoiding further comment, Raven turned crisply on a heel and followed his father in striding from the hall. The wedding guests stared after them in tense silence for a long moment.
“Wait!” came a sudden cry.
Abrielle realized too late that Cordelia had jumped to her feet and was following the two Scotsmen. What was she about? Did she not realize their plan to deceive Desmond could no longer work?
“What is she doing?” Lady Grayson demanded of Abrielle in a whisper as she watched her daughter come abreast of the Seaberns and begin to speak with them.
Abrielle groaned and put her face in her hands. At last she said, “We had made plans to…distract Desmond from his obsession with the Scots. But this evening has ended so badly, it should never have gone forward. I never thought she’d—”
“Abrielle,” her mother scolded, “you should never have tried to put yourself between the two men.”
“But, Mama, don’t you see, I already am? At least in Desmond’s mind,” she added glumly.
“And in your mind?” Vachel asked quietly.
Abrielle looked at him somberly. “In my mind my duty is as clear as ever.”
Dismay flashed over his features, until he replaced it with an impassive mask. Elspeth put her hand on his and he allowed it, but Abrielle guessed his thoughts were of the past, and what he might have done differently. She grieved for him so much that she, too, placed her hand on his, beside her mother’s.
At the same time she watched Cordelia closely. Her friend spoke brightly to the two men, evoking their eventual smiles and the restoration of their good humor. At last she curtsied as they left her to depart the great hall. Abrielle slanted a glance at Desmond, hoping their plan had worked after all, but to her dismay, he was so busy eating and drinking, he hadn’t even noticed Cordelia with the Scotsmen.
Cordelia returned to their table and began to eat her dessert as if nothing had happened.
Into the uneasy silence of both their families, she said, “Hmm, this isn’t half bad.”
“It’s hard to ruin fresh fruit,” Abrielle answered dourly.
Reginald rolled his eyes at his daughter’s antics and hushed his wife, who began to speak with Elspeth.
Abrielle leaned toward her friend and whispered, “You shouldn’t have gone, but since you did, what did Raven say?”
“He was a gentleman, of course, but I really wasn’t flirting with him. That father of his is hard to resist.”
Abrielle groaned and closed her eyes.
“But I made it look as if I had been flirting with Raven, didn’t I?”
“Aye, you did,” Abrielle responded grudgingly. “My thanks for your efforts.”
“Though Raven smiled at my words to his father, I received the impression that he wasn’t so happy with our plan.”
“Of course not,” countered Abrielle. “He’s the sort of man who believes he’s invincible and can confront alone any circumstance that presents itself. My only hope is that his father will be able to talk some sense into him, and make him see that he is vastly outnumbered and ’tis time for them to go.”
Cordelia smiled broadly. “Having made his father’s acquaintance, I can only say that what you desire most likely will not occur, for both men are proud, and clearly fierce fighters in the way of their Celtic ancestors.”
IT CAUSED ABRIELLE a great deal of consternation that it took a very long time before she was able to stop fretting about all the ways Raven might come to harm, and drift off to sleep. A great part of her discomfort about her thoughts arose from something she could not understand. As she had told Cordelia, his action in not courting her before her betrothal evidenced his lack of interest in taking her to wife, a view she strongly felt was due to her inability to provide a large dowry; why then, did she worry about him so? And once sweet sleep had finally embraced her, she had no respite, for her dreams were filled with Raven…the look and feel and fresh-air smell of him when he was close…things she should not know and would be better off forgetting and wanted to remember for the rest of her life. She tossed and turned upon her pillow, smiling when her dream Raven brushed a stray curl from her face and sighing when the back of his fingers stroked her cheek, and then going from hot to cold to hot again when she realized that dream Raven was the man himself. Raven Seabern was leaning over her bed, lit only by moonlight, and her hand was curled around the back of his neck, his smooth and very warm neck, as if…as if…
Her eyes went wide and her gasp of pure, abject shock ended before it began when he covered her mouth with his big hand and shook his head. His callused palm was pleasantly rough against her soft lips, sending a shiver dancing along her spine.
“Speak in the softest tones, my lady, unless ye wish ta bring the whole household down on us.”
When at last he freed her mouth, she jerked her hand away and sat up, pulling the coverlet to her chin. “How dare you invade my chamber, sir! And on the night before my wedding!”
He sat back on his heels beside her bed to look solemnly at her. “I dared because ye dared this evening ta try and help me—ye andLady Cordelia. I wanted ta return the favor by warning ye na ta risk so much again.”
“I did not do it for you!” she countered quickly, too quickly, she knew. “An outbreak of violence will make matters worse for everyone. I could not just sit back and see you and your father at the mercy of Desmond when the numbers and advantages are all his.”
“So ye came to my rescue this time.”
She shrugged and looked away. “I simply did not want your pigheadedness and spilled blood to ruin my wedding day.”
One corner of his mouth lifted as he pressed his hand over his heart. “I am deeply touched, my lady.”
“Don’t be,” Abrielle snapped. “And do not underestimate Desmond…he is far too jealous a man to trifle with.”
“Aye, and he’s done much ta prove it these past days,” Raven added.
Abrielle thought of the dead bodies tied to the horses. “I am so sorry you and your father were attacked. When I think of how badly you might have been injured, or…worse…”
“’Twas only two men,” he said, his tone matter-of-fact.
“Against two men.”
He grinned. “I’d gladly square off against two dozen ta see that soft look in your eyes.”
“You need to leave.”
“I am in no danger. Me da is watching outside in the corridor.”
“I mean leave my room…and the castle! Tomorrow…or tonight…Now! Before anything worse happens!”
“Do ye want me ta go, lass?”
Rather than moving to leave, he leaned closer. His voice was soft and guttural, a rumbling that made something primitive stir deep inside her. She wanted to immediately affirm her wishes, but found the words wouldn’t leave her throat. She kept looking at him all bathed in the white glow of the moon, his dark hair shining, his blue eyes full ofa peace she had not known in so long. Why was he doing this? Was there some reason he was trying to help her?
She forced herself to remember what was at stake. “Aye, go,” she said coldly. “I do not want your death on my conscience.”
“Nor do I,” he assured her. “I am, however, less concerned with how your conscience will deal with this.”
Without warning or hesitation, he bent his head and brushed her parted lips with his own. Abrielle’s mind went blank and then exploded with sensation. His kiss was slow, hot, sweet, thick honey pulling her under, to someplace far away and deep inside, someplace new and exciting.
He didn’t rush or push or force. When the tip of his tongue touched hers, her lips opened a little more without any direction from her or urging from him. Some part of her that needed no direction or urging wanted more, but Raven simply let his mouth linger a few heartbeats longer and then pulled away, gently disengaging the hands she hadn’t realized were gripping his shoulders.
He rose to his feet, towering over her in the small chamber. “I’ll go now, lass, but I willna be leaving tomorrow. ’Tis a matter of pride now.”
Abrielle, her senses still spinning, wasn’t sure which bothered her more…that he dared to kiss her or that he seemed so unaffected by it.
“Pride or arrogance? You dare too much, sir. I could scream and—”
He cut in. “Ye could, but ye havena. And ye won’t. Ye might take a moment—before returning ta whatever sweet dream I interrupted—ta ask yourself why that is.”
He bowed and left her chamber. It would serve his reckless soul right if he got caught, she thought, even as she held her breath until she knew he was safely through her parents’ sitting room and into the corridor. Only then did she release a loud sigh and flounce backward,staring up at the wooden ceiling and hoping he had left her dreams as well as her chamber.
YEARS AGO, THE heavily embroidered, mauve gunna had regally clothed Elspeth for her first wedding; now it would serve her daughter in that same capacity. The fact that it fit so wonderfully well, as if it had been made especially for the younger woman, would surely have brought pleasure to the parent had the groom been a gentleman worthy of her daughter. As it was, Elspeth could only heave a deep sigh of lament as she imagined her only offspring trapped in Desmond’s arms. The fact that she had come to suspect that the man was as evil as a poisonous viper disheartened her for the task ahead.
All the necessary preparations had been done to present the bride at her best. The reddish, hip-length hair had been gathered at the nape of Abrielle’s neck and then braided with a wealth of narrow ribbons of the same hue as her gown. Upon her head lay a finely wrought golden crescent from which flowed a shimmering mauve veil, the delicately embroidered hem of which fell softly around her slender shoulders and down her back. The fact that the bride’s cheeks were unusually pale and her slender fingers shook uncontrollably escaped everyone but her mother’s attention.
New tears welled within Elspeth’s eyes and were nigh to overflowing as she considered her daughter’s valiant efforts to appear calm. It amounted to an impossible feat for both of them. “I pray for a miracle,” she whispered to her only offspring as she made a pretense of adjusting the veil. “I cannot bear the thought of you in Desmond’s arms, and yet I have no idea what can be done at this late hour to save you from that horrible wretch. Vachel hopes you’ll be happy once you realize the extent of your wealth, but I fear that will mean little to you while you’re married to Desmond.”
“Mama, please don’t cry,” Abrielle whispered softly as a gatheringwetness blurred her own vision. “If I see you weeping, I shan’t be able to endure this evening without succumbing to my own tears. We must both try to be brave and calm.”
Sensing the approach of their friends, Elspeth swept a handkerchief hurriedly across her cheeks and offered the other women a trembling smile.
“Please take heart,” Isolde urged in a softly compassionate tone as she laid an arm about her friend’s shoulders. “The day is not over, Elspeth, and, as you well know, on rare occasions miracles have been known to occur. I pray that you and Abrielle will be able to enjoy God’s mercy in this matter, but whether it comes swiftly or takes years, I’ve no doubt that you will both be able to endure what comes and revel in a miracle of mercy whenever it should happen.”
Elspeth smiled in spite of her misery. She had never before realized that her closest companion could be so optimistic. “I know I must try to take heart, my dearest, dearest friend, but with so little time remaining ere the wedding vows are exchanged, ’tis difficult to believe a reprieve will come in time. As much as Vachel may need what Desmond is offering, I loathe the idea of that ogre claiming my daughter as his bride. He’s so despicable!”
“I’ll be fine, Mama. Truly, I will be,” Abrielle stated valiantly as she clasped her mother’s slender hand against her cheek and feigned a smile. “There is really no need for you to fret so much. I’m sure Desmond will treat me kindly.”
Elspeth bestowed a trembling smile upon her daughter, but failed to find any strength in her voice. She could only whisper, “’Twould seem the time has now come for us to join the others.”
Isolde laid a gentle hand upon her friend’s arm. “Cordelia and I will go ahead. Reginald is awaiting us in the chapel.”
Elspeth squeezed her hand. “We’ll be there shortly.”
Isolde swept her arms briefly around each of them and then waited as Cordelia did the same. Tossing back meager smiles over theirshoulders, the pair wiped away the tears that streamed down their cheeks and sadly took their leave.
Vachel was awaiting Elspeth and Abrielle in the adjoining room and, upon seeing his wife’s face, had cause to wonder if he had been wise in allowing his stepdaughter to make such a sacrifice for the family.
“You’re looking very lovely, my dear,” he said softly, clasping Abrielle’s hand within his.
“Desmond is no doubt wondering where we are,” she murmured, trying to convey some semblance of enthusiasm. She kept her voice firm, her body from trembling, for she knew how this day was hurting her stepfather.
Vachel glanced aside at his wife in time to see her press a lace-trimmed handkerchief to her trembling mouth. If ever in his life he had felt like a beast, then surely this was that moment. Yet he knew what his small family would suffer in poverty; their lives would be unbearable, with consequences far more grievous than even her marriage to Desmond promised to be.
What was he to do? What could he do? He felt as if his back was to a stone wall and a knife was pressing into his throat, waiting to drain him of his life’s blood. The joyful union he had come to savor with all of his heart would likely never again be the same, with his wife pining away in misery for her daughter.
Elspeth touched his sleeve as she reminded him, “We should go now, Vachel. Desmond is waiting for us.”
Vachel heaved a despondent sigh. At the moment the squire was the last person he wanted to see. “I have no doubt.”
Abrielle suppressed the overwhelming urge to run screaming from the chapel in rising panic. She knew that to all but a handful of onlookers, she appeared calm and elegantly regal, and that was as it must be. The miracle she’d prayed would stop the wedding had not arrived, but she counted it a minor miracle of sorts that she had managed to repeat the vows that would bind her now and forever to the grotesque man at her side.
At last, and far too soon, the priest pronounced them man and wife. Abrielle laid her hand upon her groom’s arm. Even that scant intimacy made her want to recoil and she wondered how she would make it through the coming hours, much less the dreaded night that would follow. A small, tight knot formed in the pit of her stomach and remained as she and her new husband traversed the banquet hall to greet their guests. Lords and ladies alike rose to their feet and toasted the occasion with uplifted cups and a wealth of good wishes intermingled with hearty banter. Abrielle concentrated on maintaining an appearance of happiness and was successful until she happened to turn her head and caught a glimpse of a man all but hidden withina shadowed corner of the stairs. Instantly the knot in her belly became tighter, and bigger.
Raven stood with arms folded across his broad chest, watching the proceedings with a hard, somber expression. Nothing in his face indicated the path of his thoughts, yet Abrielle felt the weight of his unrelenting gaze as surely as if it were a hand upon her shoulder. She told herself it was only natural that being stared at in such a dogged manner should pull her gaze back in that direction, again and again, no matter how diligently she steered it elsewhere. She assured herself it had nothing at all to do with how magnificent Raven looked in his black plaid, the impeccable white of his shirt a flattering contrast to his long dark locks. Nor did it have to do with what had transpired the night before or the buzzing in her head and tingling of her bottom lip whenever she thought about the way his dark head had slowly bent and…
She would not think about that. Not tonight, not ever again. What was done, was done. But she was a married woman now, she reminded herself, ignoring an inner shudder; she was honor bound to act accordingly…and see to it that Raven did the same.
To that end she put her back to where he stood. She forced a smile and lingered in mindless conversation and counted to one hundred before allowing herself a fleeting glance beyond the gathered revelers to find him still watching. Abrielle looked away, smiled at comments she barely heard from people she didn’t know, and looked back to find his attention just as rapt. And inscrutable. Really, what was the man thinking? And what was she thinking to allow his audacious behavior to distract her on this of all nights.
There was much toasting of the bride and groom throughout the wedding feast, and with each tankard of ale or goblet of wine he emptied, Desmond grew increasingly inebriated and less and less bearable to his young bride. On numerous occasions, Abrielle’s costly raiment received a liberal dousing, causing her bridegroom to chortle inamusement as he wiped vigorously at the spills that dotted her breasts and lap. Sitting dutifully quiescent beside him proved almost more than Abrielle could bear. It was even more difficult to tolerate his sticky lips brushing her cheek and his teeth nibbling at her throat. His attentions reminded her of some evil serpent searching for a place to begin his meal.
Once she was in the master’s bedchamber, Abrielle tried to subdue the violent tremors that beset her as she sought to prepare herself mentally for that moment when her bridegroom would arrive at their chamber door. She found herself reassuring her mother, when her mother was trying to console her.
Elspeth’s lips trembled as she wavered on the verge of fresh tears, but upon taking in a deep breath, she forbade herself to cry any more than she had already, knowing that if she started sobbing, it would benefit no one. Seeking to discipline herself, she straightened her trim back and lifted her chin. Even so, it was a lengthy moment before she could trust herself to speak without her voice faltering.
“I never once dreamt that by accepting Vachel’s proposal of marriage I would also be ushering you into a union with Desmond de Marlé. I’m so very, very sorry, my dear. When I chose to follow my own heart, I failed to consider the arduous trials that you might be facing because of my selfish actions.”
Slipping her arms around her mother, Abrielle held her closely, fighting back encroaching tears as she met her parent’s gaze. “You’ve always told me to look ahead with hope toward the morrow, Mama, and that’s what I must do now…trust that some good will come from my marriage to Desmond.” Though her heart was heavier than she seemed able to bear, Abrielle forced a smile, feeble though it was. “I shall pray that in time our union may prove beneficial. Now find your bed, Mama, I’ll be fine.”
No more than a half hour later, Abrielle’s qualms were magnified tenfold as Desmond staggered drunkenly through the anteroom intothe bedchamber where she awaited him. His bloodshot eyes seemed to protrude even more than usual from his pudgy face as he stared at her lying upon his bed clothed in nothing more than a gossamer gown. As if he were already savoring a luscious sweetmeat, his tongue flicked slowly over his lips.
In spite of her ongoing efforts to assure herself that she could tolerate whatever happened during her initiation into wedlock, Abrielle hardly imagined that her bridegroom would throw himself upon her, and she screamed in sudden fright. Fear reached spiraling heights as he tore open the lace bodice of her nightgown and thrust a hand inside, evoking a pained whimper as he seized her breast. She bit into her bottom lip to keep from screaming and promptly tasted blood.
She feared she wouldn’t be able to survive the night, much less their first conjugal mating. Considering Desmond’s cruelty thus far, she could only wonder what further harm she’d be subjected to if she were to stay with her besotted bridegroom one moment longer. The way he was progressing, the threat of being cruelly raped seemed very, very real. Abrielle knew she would have to flee from the man for the sake of her own sanity, if not for her very life.
Loosening his grip on her, Desmond began throwing aside the coverlets. Recognizing that this would likely be her only chance to escape, Abrielle hurriedly rolled away from her drunken bridegroom and leapt from the bed. At first she had no real destination in mind, only a goading desire to flee to a place of safety.
Desmond’s furious bellow lent wings to her bare feet, and in rising panic, she raced toward the antechamber, snatching up her dressing gown from the chair where she had left it as she passed. Flinging wide the door, she dashed into the corridor in spite of the fact that she was still having difficulty dragging on her robe. She glanced to the left, whence she could foresee no help emerging, for there were no other chambers along the corridor. Promptly she whirled in the opposite direction, knowing the passageway would lead her fairly quickly tothe stairs to the lower floor where her parents’ chambers were located. It seemed the only place she could seek refuge.
She heard uneven footsteps on the floor, readily affirming the fact that Desmond was giving chase. Abrielle dared not even consider what he would do to her if he managed to catch her. Indeed, her life might well be forfeited if she allowed him that advantage.
Racing down the passageway with a zeal born of desperation, she gave no heed to the hazards of trying to find her way in a poorly lit and totally unfamiliar corridor. She chanced a brief glance over her shoulder and was relieved to find her bridegroom panting heavily as he stumbled through the hallway behind her, at times momentarily running a hand along the stone wall as if seeking much-needed support. She prayed fervently that he wouldn’t have the endurance to follow her to her parents’ chambers or, if he did, that her stepfather would be far more worried about displeasing her mother than his host. In view of Desmond’s drunken condition, that premise was not at all far-fetched. Vachel was not known to have much patience with those who imbibed beyond acceptable limits.
“Abrielle, come back here!”
To her surprise, his voice was soft, as if even in his inebriated state, he realized that being discovered chasing his bride would make him look the fool.
“If you don’t stop, then by heavens I’ll see you locked away in the depths of this keep. Then you can be assured I will make you pay for what you’re doing. Believe me, your back won’t look so fine and lovely after a cat-o’-nine-tails has marred it! Once you’ve had a taste of its wicked tongues, you’ll beg for mercy and come crawling to me on your hands and knees.”
His warning sent icy shards of dread shivering through every fiber of her being. In spite of the fact that she believed her bridegroom to be completely capable of beating her senseless or even worse, she could not bring herself to yield to his demands. If she halted, she had nodoubt that she’d have to endure the forced consummation of their marriage, and that act seemed far more heinous to her than any painful torture or horrible beatings.
Abrielle chanced a glance behind her in an effort to gauge the distance between herself and her besotted groom. In the next instant, a cry of pain escaped her as she stubbed her bare toe on an uneven stone. Stumbling awkwardly about as she tried to regain her balance, she careened into the wall, nearly knocking herself senseless.
Desmond sprang forward, much faster than Abrielle would have imagined for one so roundly proportioned and well into his cups. The realization that she was in danger penetrated the enveloping fog in which she found herself, causing her heart to leap in sudden fear. The horrible dread of being trapped again in her groom’s malevolent clutches quickly prodded her to her senses, and she whirled away, frantically trying to avoid his outstretched hand. His fingers caught in her long, loosely swirling hair, but in a desperate quest for freedom she snatched free, in the process sacrificing more than a few meager strands to his unrelenting grasp. She raced onward with frantically beating heart, all too keenly aware that her life was in serious peril.
The way of escape was barely visible just ahead, softly illuminated by the moonlight streaming downward through the narrow windows in the lofty turret high above the stone steps. If she could manage to make her descent to the lower level without Desmond actually gaining on her, perhaps she’d be able to reach her parents’ rooms before he could catch her. Vachel might even be able to reason with the squire and convince him to be patient with his new bride.
Abrielle chanced a glance over her shoulder in a quest to see how far away her besotted groom was. To her dismay, he was much closer than she had dared to imagine, barely leaving her enough time to swing around the newel. Unless she laid out a ploy to lure him beyond the stairs or to confuse him, her flight would be in serious jeopardy. She was afraid he would then take malicious delight in locking hisstubby fingers into her hair again, especially since her scalp was already throbbing. But if it meant escaping her besotted bridegroom, she’d just have to take that chance.
Forcing every fiber of strength she was capable of mustering into her limbs in a desperate attempt to lengthen the distance between herself and her groom, she raced onward through the passageway and then, upon reaching the end of it, whirled to face the besotted ogre.
“Yu’ll never be able to escape me now, Abrielle,” Desmond boasted confidently in spite of his thickly slurred words and wheezing efforts to breathe. “The wall is to yur back, an’ yu’ve only one path ye can go…and that is past me.”
Sweat dappled her bridegroom’s brow and ran in heavy runnels down his flushed cheeks. He pressed a hand to the side of his distended belly, as if trying to ease the pain of exerting himself, and then smirked confidently as he waddled toward her.
She tensed as she awaited the arrival of the moment when she might be able to flit past him. Her nerves seemed to stand on end as he sauntered toward her with all the confidence of a tyrant. The closer he came, she reasoned nervously, the better her chances of slipping past him. If too much space were left between them, he’d have enough time to realize what she was about and block her path.
Desmond was no more than an arm’s length away when she shot through the opening as if her very life depended on it. Her bridegroom flung out an arm in an effort to catch her, but to no avail, for she spun about like a whirling dervish, easily avoiding his grasp. A foul curse exploded from Desmond’s lips.
Racing toward the stairs, she forced every measure of strength she possessed into her limbs. The threat of being caught by her drunken bridegroom proved a very strong incentive indeed.
“I’ll catch yu yet,” Desmond wheezed irately as he stumbled along behind her, “an’ when I do, be assured, I’ll teach yu to run from me.”
The wan glow of moonlight streaming in from the turret allowedher to see the stairs that were just ahead. She was greatly encouraged to have had her ploy work as well as it had, but she knew she was far from safe. She could hear the plodding footfalls of the oaf behind her, slower than before, but nevertheless persistent.
An instant after facing forward again, Abrielle ran full force into a wall, a tall, warm, firmly muscled wall. She stumbled backward, her senses reeling, and then strong hands caught her up by her elbows, gently steadying her. Befuddled, she lifted her head and found herself staring into a pair of all-too-familiar blue eyes.
She gasped and tried to pull away. “Oh, Raven, nay, get thee gone from here. You must not interfere!”
“Yu vile, dastardly cur! Take yur hands off my wife!” Desmond de Marlé snarled. He was wheezing heavily, having exerted himself well beyond the limits of his usual slothfulness, and in the gloom, his sweaty, reddened face seemed far more bloated than usual. “Yu impu-dent Scottish rogue,” Desmond slurred thickly, his words now liberally punctuated by hiccups. He shook a balled-up fist threateningly beneath the noble nose of the taller man and continued his tirade. “Yu’ve intruded…far too often…in my affairs…An’ this time…yu’ve gone…too far. I’ll have yu thrashed…till yur bones show! This is my wife…my keep…filled with my friends…an’ countless men…who owe their allegiance to me.”
Raven easily knocked aside the pudgy fist with the back of his forearm. There was a dangerous edge of contempt in his soft laugh. “Men ye send out ta do your foul deeds, like the last two who lost their lives, and for what? A promise of a mere pittance as their reward? Or is it true that this allegiance ye brag of is secured not with coin but threats, vile threats against not just their lives but those of innocent wives and children as well. Was that the payment that awaited those men if they didna kill me?”
“That’s no business of yurs,” mumbled Desmond, his drunken smirk growing as he thought of something that would more adequatelyappease his deepening desire for retribution. “Truth be, yu bloody Scotsman, I’d enjoy seeing yur severed head stuck upon a pike beyond the drawbridge of this very keep! Then every time I’d ride past yur putrefying skull, I’d be able to laugh at the memory of yur futile efforts to seize Abrielle for yurself.”
“If ye believe ye can do better than those poor men ye sent ta die upon my sword, I canna think of one more prone ta idiocy than ye.”
The taunt caused Desmond’s bulging eyes to flare, vividly attesting to his mounting rage.
Abrielle stood at a loss, despairing of this confrontation ending well. For now, at least Desmond was distracted from her, but she couldn’t leave Raven here to take the brunt of Desmond’s foul temper. Raven was setting himself up to be murdered, what with all of Desmond’s friends still housed within the keep, ready to kill any Scotsman.
An amused half smile curved Raven’s lips as he further taunted, “Still, if ye should be of a mind ta try ta kill me yourself, then I’ll gladly give ye leave ta choose the weapons we’d be using. Or is it your wont ta murder me in me sleep whilst no one is around ta see your deeds? Ye’re like a fat old rat what comes out of his hole at night, skittering here and there ta see what foul mischief he can get inta whilst others are sleeping. But I’ve ways of dealing with the likes of such vermin. Feeding their carcasses ta the cats would surely save burying them.”
“Yu filthy Scot-tish beggar! I’ll show yu who’s lame-witted!” Desmond railed. “Mark my words, ’twill be yur remains the cats’ll be feasting on this very night!”
“If ye’re set on accomplishing that feat yourself, Squire, then ye’d best bear in mind what your men failed ta consider. Afore I ever became an emissary, I was trained ta be a warrior, so ’tis a rare occasion that I dinna fight back. But then, I expect ye’ll be remembering that from our encounter in His Majesty’s palace. Ye ran off then with yourtail tucked betwixt your buttocks. Had ye any courage ta claim, ye’d have led your men inta the forest yourself instead of merely telling them where me da and I could be found.”
The taunt was too much for Desmond to bear with any degree of calm prudence. Whatever logic he had been able to lay claim to prior to the wedding had for the most part flown after guzzling copious tankards of ale. He was thoroughly incensed, goaded beyond the core of reason, which at the moment was most fragile.
A foul, guttural oath issued forth as Desmond lunged toward the taller man with fingers curled into claws. Come what may, he intended to tighten them around his adversary’s throat until he was thrashing about on the floor in the throes of death. A second before Desmond reached his antagonist, the Scotsman stepped deftly aside, allowing the squire an open path to plow on past.
A sharp, fearful gasp was promptly snatched from Desmond’s throat as he saw before him the stone stairs down which he had deliberately pushed his half brother to his death months ago. Desperately he strove to untangle his stumbling feet and dig in his heels, but to no avail. A thumping heartbeat later he was teetering on the brink of that very same precipice whereon his lordship had wavered, experiencing firsthand the sudden stark terror that he had once fantasized his elder brother would feel prior to setting into motion his murderous deed. His short arms flailed wildly about in a frenetic attempt to halt his forward momentum. Alas, he couldn’t recover his equilibrium, no matter how desperately he strove to stop himself from falling.
His wildly thumping heart pounded in his ears and against the inner wall of his chest. In an expanse of time that spanned the chasm between life and death, an eternity flashed before his mind’s eye. Precipitous views, perhaps comparable or mayhap totally dissimilar to those his elder half brother had glimpsed in the swiftly fleeting moments prior to plunging to his death, filled Desmond’s mind with a swiftly burgeoning dread. His breath caught again in a ragged gaspas terror cauterized his very being with his own expanding visions of what seemed his hellish doom. There was only darkness at the bottom of the stairs, yet he had sat through enough burial services for those he had killed to have committed to memory many of the dire warnings in those messages. All too vividly he recalled the tormented ravings of his own mother who had writhed in abject terror of what her delirium had created. Like her, Desmond felt as if he could see demons writhing beneath him in a twisted, indistinct mass and, in the midst of their agony, lifting their arms in plaintive appeal for some sublime angel of mercy to release them from their torment. Other specters from that dark, foul abyss seemed to beckon to him and await his presence with evil, leering grins, as if they were the doomed gaolers of that despicable place. Then, as if the horror he was experiencing weren’t enough to cauterize his very being with terror, whitish vapors seemed to pass before his mind’s eye, forming an image that reminded him of his half brother. Shaking his head sadly, the ghostly apparition pointed downward toward the dark chasm opening up beneath him.
“I never meant to push you down the stairs, Weldon,” Desmond blubbered as drool dribbled unheeded down his chin. “It was an accident! You have to believe me, brother! I adjure you not to take revenge upon me for what happened that night! You must have mercy! You must let me live! Please have pity!”
Raven and Abrielle both experienced a strange tingling along their napes as they looked at each other. Never before had they heard so much terror evident in the cries of a person facing death as they were now hearing in Desmond’s desperate pleading.
Desmond tried mightily to find something to hang on to to halt the momentum that was swiftly building. Briefly, in passing, he braced his forearm against the buttressing stone wall, but his flabby muscles could not sustain his weight for even a fleeting moment. Of a sudden, he was plummeting head over heels in an awkward, flopping descentof the stairs, during the course of which muffled grunts escaped his throat. Then his head slammed into the wall, knocking it strangely askew his neck. Though his tumbling descent continued on unchecked, no further sound issued forth from his flabby throat. Finally his rotund form came to rest beside the newel post on the lower level, and there he lay, his limbs sprawled wide, his mouth gaping open, his eyes staring vacantly upward.
It seemed an uncommonly long passage of time that he lay sprawled at the bottom of the stairs where he had come to rest after flopping face up on the stone floor. Only a wan glow from flickering candles cast from some distance away lent a vague hint of where Desmond’s body lay. From where they stood on the landing, neither Raven nor Abrielle could see into the murky gloom well enough to determine if he had been knocked unconscious by the fall or if his silence was merely a ploy to draw them near, much like a spider waits for its victims to become entangled in its web before pouncing on them and inserting its deadly venom. If the situation was indeed the latter case, then surely Desmond intended to exact harsh revenge, if not on both of them, then surely on his young bride, ere the night had passed.
The night had exacted a heavy toll upon Abrielle’s composure, to the degree that she was now shaking uncontrollably. She remembered Desmond calling out his brother’s name…
Had he seen Weldon’s ghost? Or had that merely been his past murder haunting him?
Even as Abrielle crept cautiously down the stairs behind Raven, her trembling legs seemed so unreliable that she feared any moment they would collapse beneath her and send her tumbling headlong down the stairs into her bridegroom’s arms. It didn’t matter whether Desmond was alive or dead. The thought of that possibility raised nettling hackles on the back of her neck, the like of which she was sure she would never forget.
“Please be careful,” she urged Raven shakily, noticing the lower half of Desmond’s right arm was hidden beneath him. Rampant distrust of the man spurred her trepidations to an even higher level. “He may have a dagger hidden within his clothing and is merely waiting for you to draw near. He will surely kill you if he can.”
Wary of deception, Raven paused on the step just above the squire and, with the toe of his boot, nudged the elder’s hip in an effort to evoke some reaction. There was none, not even a groan, only a rippling effect of his body, much like a dead asp being wiggled by its tail.
Stepping across the grotesquely sprawled form, Raven went down on a knee and pressed two fingers against the flabby throat in an effort to find a throbbing beat. After a moment he decided his search was futile, for if the man had been alive, he certainly wouldn’t have been able to hold his breath long enough to continue any kind of ploy. Yet Raven was wont to consider the many ramifications that Desmond’s death would likely provoke and how best to protect the lady from ugly suspicions being cast her way.
Sitting back upon his haunches, he lifted his head and peered up at Abrielle. “If I’m na mistaken, my lady,” he said in a softly muted tone, “ye’ve naught else ta fear from the squire. I’m thinking his neck may’ve been broken during the fall.”
A shocked gasp escaped Abrielle as she clutched a trembling hand over her mouth and sank against the stone wall, sliding bonelessly until she was sitting inches from Raven. Not only was she shaking to the very core of her being, but her heart was hammering so wildly that she couldn’t seem to breathe, much less think.
“What am I to do?” she queried in a desperate whisper. All she could think of was the financial agreement that would leave her a very rich woman and, at the same time, cast all manner of suspicions upon her as well as on her stepfather.
“What am I to do?” she repeated, a dozen or more discordantthoughts streaking through her brain. “What will I say happened?” She pressed her clenched hands to her breast. “Surely Desmond’s friends will think I am somehow to blame…how can they not when he only just joined me in our chambers and now we are out here…with him lying dead on the stairs? What if someone saw me running away from him through the halls? How will I ever be able to explain?”
“Ye’ll explain nothing,” Raven replied.
Seeing her in such distress tore at his heart, but not so much that he had not already assessed the situation fully. It was unlikely anyone had witnessed what had just transpired. Desmond’s nephew Thurstan had shut himself up in his quarters, as if sulking in protest over the squire’s marriage or mayhap merely biding his time until he could turn the two Scots out on their ears. All the other guests had either left or withdrawn to their own chambers. Raven was in a position to know that since he’d meandered through the halls, seeking to release some of his bitterness after watching the innocent Abrielle pledge to love and honor de Marlé. Her sweet innocence and utter vulnerability had been driven home to him last night when he’d make the mistake of kissing her and he hadn’t been able to sleep knowing how she would be spending this night. It was no accident he had been close by to hear her cries.
“Explain nothing? How can I not explain?” demanded Abrielle, deeply distraught. She hugged herself tightly, blinking through a blur of tears. “I must think on what to do.”
Raven reached for her clasped hands and held them in the warm haven of his own as he dragged her to her feet. “Do not think. Just listen. You will return ta the squire’s chambers and remain there till someone brings ye news of his demise.”
He squeezed her hands. “Shh. Just listen…and trust me.” He saw the way she bit her lower lip and added, “At least trust me for this onenight. Considering the squire’s lengthy delay in making his way ta ye, ’twould na be unreasonable for anyone ta suppose ye’d fallen asleep waiting for him ta join ye. Just be assured, my lady, ye’ve done nothing for which ye should feel any shame. De Marlé’s own drunkenness and his hatred of me led ta his death, nothing more. Ye’re innocent of any wrongdoing. Can ye believe what I’m telling ye?”
She was nearly frantic with fear of what might happen should the circumstances surrounding Desmond’s death be found out. “But I ran from him. I couldn’t bear to be with him. I was afraid…”
“Ye had good reason ta be fearful, my lady. The man was despicable, caring nary a whit for anyone but himself. He sent out men ta kill us, though they lacked the skill ta appease his murderous bent. What did he care if they didna return alive? All he wanted was my death, and he didna care if they lived or died, as long as the blame was cast elsewhere. He could as easily have killed ye in a fit of temper had ye na fled his chambers. As for that, didna he threaten ta do ye harm whilst he was chasing ye? Who knows what injuries might’ve happened ta ye had ye stayed with the man. By the way he called Lord Weldon’s name, perhaps in the end he cried out in guilt for his part in the man’s death.”
His words made sense, and she latched on to them with relief. Yet in that frozen moment, she truly considered Raven. Why had he been roaming the halls on her wedding night? He now knew the terrible deed she’d instigated by running away from her lawful husband—would Raven want something in exchange for his silence? She remembered the way he’d flirted with her even though he knew she was almost a married woman. Worse, she remembered his kiss and her own weak protest, and her stomach tightened in worry and shame until she felt truly ill.
“But what of you? What will you do?” she queried. “Who will you tell?”
“No one.” He held her gaze through the shadowy gloom. “I’ll bedoing the very same…returning ta me own chambers and awaiting the dawning of a new day. Now go.”
Abrielle turned and hurried toward her late bridegroom’s chambers, feeling as if a thousand eyes watched her from every dark corner. Raven’s words about the dawning of a new day echoed in her head with each step she took. She was as cold as the death that Desmond had just descended to. She was going to keep her silence to protect herself from suspicion. She hadn’t done anything wrong, so why did such guilt fill her? She should be relieved, for she was free of Desmond de Marlé. Yet she still didn’t know how the castle guests would take the discovery of the body—and what they would suspect her of.
And what was she to do about Raven Seabern? She wished he would depart, that when the new day he spoke of dawned, he would simply be gone, taking his knowledge of this dreadful secret with him. At least part of her wished it. For all the good wishing was likely to do. For better or worse, she knew enough of the man to suspect he would not be so easily dispensed with.
A frantic tapping on the chamber door snatched Abrielle abruptly awake after a fretful night of tossing and turning. In light of the many trepidations to which she had mentally subjected herself after her panic-stricken flight through the halls of the keep and, perhaps more acutely, after forcing herself to occupy her bridegroom’s chambers, she had reason to wonder if she had closed her eyes for longer than a moment. Throughout the torturous night, the frightening reenactment of Desmond’s fall had kept running over and over in her mind, plaguing her mercilessly. When she considered the consequences she would suffer if anyone had witnessed her desperate flight or, later, her terrifying confrontation with Desmond in the hallway, she could foresee a trial of demonic proportions taking place in the very near future.
She’d have no viable defense against the accusations that could be hurled against her. With the possible exception of her mother, Cordelia, and other close friends, everyone in the keep would likely be of the opinion that as a new bride, she should have submitted herself dutifully to her bridegroom, no matter how loathsome and vile she had found him to be.
But if she had merely dreamt that her bridegroom had been killed tumbling headlong down the stairs, then her torment would surely begin anew. Better she die now by some merciful stroke of fate than be constantly subjected to Desmond’s mental and physical abuse the rest of her life. That would indeed be an earthly hell whence there’d be no escape, at least until one of them died.
Even as far-fetched as it was for her to fear that Desmond was still alive after Raven had pronounced him dead, she was plagued by images of the man stumbling through the chamber door with blood trickling down the side of his face. She would not find any reprieve, of that she was sure, for he would then be intent upon beating her senseless for having run away from him.
Such ominous thoughts sent shards of prickling dread shivering down her spine. Thus, when a frantic rapping of knuckles actually sounded upon the portal, Abrielle was so startled that her heart nearly leapt from her breast. It wasn’t difficult to imagine why she had trouble finding her voice in the following moments.
“Yes, who is it?” she finally called out in an unusually high-pitched squeak, the best she could manage under the circumstances.
“M’lady, m’ name is Nedda. I was brought here ta the keep yesterday ta be yer maidservant, but alas, I fear I’ve come this mornin’ bearin’ grave news. Do I have permission ta enter yer chambers, m’lady?”
Abrielle slumped back upon the pillows as her heightening tensions began to wane to a more tolerable level. Grave news could only mean one thing: affirmation that Desmond was dead. As much as she might have been appalled by her own callousness weeks ago, she felt as if an enormous weight had just been lifted from her mind. Indeed, she likened the announcement to a reprieve from a sentence of death. Who but her own mother could have possibly understood the overwhelming relief she was presently feeling at the realization that Desmond was now dead and that she would not have to submit herself to hishateful dictates or, perhaps more important, to his brutal husbandly attentions?
“Yes, Nedda, of course. Please come in,” Abrielle replied, thankful she had had the presence of mind not to place the wooden bar across the portal to secure her privacy. The maidservant would have considered it strange indeed had she bolted the door while awaiting her bridegroom.
After scurrying through the antechamber, an older woman as much as twoscore and five or so years of age, garbed in a black gown and a wimple, entered the bedchamber and approached the canopied bed wherein her new mistress reclined against several pillows. Having tugged a sheet beneath her chin, Abrielle peered at the servant warily, wondering whether she’d prove a friend or a foe. The gentle empathy evident in the soft hazel eyes and smile readily assuaged Abrielle’s brewing fears. Indeed, if the compassion the maidservant evidenced counted for something, then she could believe she was a very kindly individual.
“M’lady, ’tis sad I am ta have ta bring ye such news so soon after yer weddin’ vows, but I fear the brumes o’ gloom were wont ta visit this keep durin’ the night,” the older woman announced in a soft, solemn voice. “No sooner were ye wed than yer poor husband was taken…”
“My poor husband?” Abrielle hated falsehoods, but knew it was needful to cast suspicion away from herself as well as from others. She was shaking uncontrollably as she clasped a trembling hand to her throat and stared at the elder. In spite of the lengthy moment in which she sought to find the nerve to trust her voice, she finally managed to ask, “Dear Nedda, what are you trying to tell me?”
The servant heaved a forlorn sigh, collecting her wits for the task the steward had given her. “M’lady, sometime durin’ the night, likely whilst he was makin’ his way ta these very chambers, yer bridegroom…Squire de Marlé…took a dreadful tumble down the stairs.There he was, poor man, decked out in his wedding finery, lying knotted up near the bottom step. The ones what discovered him say he likely tripped and struck his head against the stone wall afore tumblin’ ta the bottom, seeing as how there was blood smeared on the stones higher up and his temple had a horrible-lookin’ bruise and an open gash…”
Abrielle had the presence of mind to throw back the covers and swing her legs over the side of the bed as she sought to leave it. “Then, by all means, Nedda, we must see to the squire’s wounds.”
Holding up a thin, wrinkled hand to forestall her mistress, Nedda solemnly shook her head and looked at her compassionately. “Nay, m’lady, I fear there be no need for haste now.”
Pausing in response, Abrielle managed to convey a perplexed frown as she searched the elder’s face. “But why not?”
“’Tis terribly grieved I am ta be the one ta tell ye, mistress, but Sir Thurstan gave me no other choice. It seems when Squire de Marlé…fell, he not only struck his head on the stone but, mayhap at the same time, broke his poor neck. From what I’ve been able ta glean from the rumors making their way about the keep this early morningtide, he died in much the same manner as his lordship did months ago. The serfs are sayin’ Lord Weldon was found in the very same spot, all crumpled up at the bottom of the stairs early in the mornin’.”
Abrielle’s hackles rose as she recalled Desmond crying out his brother’s name. Had that only been his mind evoking haunting memories of his murderous deeds? Or should she believe that there was a chance that the ghost of Weldon de Marlé had finally taken revenge?
“Cruel as it may seem ta a new bride,” Nedda continued, “there’s naught else that can be done for the poor squire but ta bury him. I fear ’tis the black of mournin’ yer pretty self ’ll be wearin’ in the days ta come, mistress. Ye’re no longer a bride but a widow.”
There, it had been said, and simple though the words might be,Abrielle said them again and again silently to herself: “no longer a bride but a widow.” ’Twas no dream or nightmare or any other flight of fancy, but the truth of what had been wrought over the course of her wedding night.
In spite of her best efforts, Abrielle could not summon forth a single tear with which to feign even a meager amount of sorrow. Desmond was dead and she was free and the best pretense she could convey was to clasp her hands over her face and pass a lengthy moment in silence, which she truly hoped Nedda would accept as a suitable response for a young widow.
“My parents must be told,” she stated at long last, and heaved a trembling sigh as she lowered her hands into her lap. She dared not glance up, for fear the woman would detect her lack of remorse.
“After learnin’ of Squire de Marlé’s fate, I took it upon meself ta inform yer parents afore bringin’ ye the tragic news. I thought ye’d be needin’ their comfort as soon as they could get dressed. They should be comin’ any moment now ta offer ye solace.”
“Thank you, dear Nedda, for your thoughtfulness and concern,” Abrielle murmured, carefully avoiding the servant’s gaze. Though innocent of any wrongdoing, she felt as if she were guilty of the most diabolical subterfuge known to man and had to wonder if her conscience would ever be cleansed of that dark stain. “’Twas very considerate of you.”
No sooner had the servant given her a dressing gown in which to meet her parents than a soft rap of knuckles sounded upon the portal. Without waiting for a verbal response, her mother called through the oaken door, “Abrielle, my dearest child, Vachel and I have come to be with you in this difficult hour. Are you able to see us now?”
“I pray but a moment more to make myself presentable, Mama,” Abrielle replied, and hurriedly wrapped her robe about herself as she left the bed. While smoothing her hair into some reasonable order, she had cause to wince as she was painfully reminded of the patch ofhair that Desmond had torn from her scalp. Though the wound was extremely tender, it seemed a small price to pay to be free of that brutish monster. It definitely made her grateful that she had fairly thick hair, for she wouldn’t have to worry about hiding the spot. “You may come in now, Mama.”
Elspeth’s tears were ones of joy as she folded her daughter in her arms, and Abrielle shuddered and gave herself up to her mother’s comfort. “Oh, Abrielle, Abrielle,” was all Elspeth could manage.
Abrielle did feel some of the relief her mother felt, but in the back of her mind lingered thoughts of Raven, the man who knew her secret. How would she feel when she saw him by the light of day? For just a moment she considered relieving her burden by telling her parents everything. But she did not want them to bear the guilty secret. No one should have to suffer the pangs of conscience but herself. And if someone had seen her—planned to accuse her? How could she allow her parents to be implicated?
If anyone had been saddened by the news of de Marlé’s demise, Abrielle knew that her stepfather was not among them. If anything, Vachel appeared to have some difficulty curbing his delight over the way things had turned out. After all, he had been instrumental in arranging the fortune she would now be inheriting as Desmond’s widow. No doubt he had also gained concessions for himself that would likely put him in the league of other wealthy men.
Abrielle was far too relieved to have escaped Desmond’s amorous attentions to consider making much of a bereavement that was nonexistent. On the other hand, she had little difficulty appearing solemn and respectful toward the dead or even dressing the part of a widow. The main impediment with which she was forced to contend centered mainly on the hauntingly persistent memory of Desmond’s body thumping down the stone steps and the spine-tingling cries for mercy he had made while confronting his brother’s apparition. Though she tried to banish that frightening recollection from her mind, shecould not long escape its frequent repetition, for its memory proved persistent.
THE WINDING SHEET in which Desmond had been wrapped for burial readily evidenced his short, portly form as the serfs lowered his body into the grave. Standing with her family and the Graysons beside the open grave, Abrielle watched as one transfixed. Her last morbid view of her bridegroom prior to his body being wrapped for burial seemed permanently scored into her brain. As much as she sought to banish the memory of his milk-white face, the wrinkled brow strangely elongated by a hairline evidencing a purplish bruise on his temple, and his clawlike fingernails that no amount of scrubbing had been able to whiten, she knew she would not be able to banish such sights overnight. Being a virginal widow, she had been loath to view his maleness and had been grateful when Vachel had discreetly bade the priest to leave the lower half of Desmond’s body covered for her benefit. Staring down at her bridegroom with something approaching paralyzing horror, she knew she could not have calmly borne the sight of his nakedness. Even covered by a sheet, his figure had appeared oddly grotesque, for his large belly had protruded much like an oversize mushroom beneath the shroud.
In a gesture of farewell, Abrielle tossed upon Desmond’s breast a single rose from a bush that a kindly servant had carefully nurtured throughout the cooler months and, in quiet empathy for a newly widowed bride, had presented to her with softly murmured condolences. Staring at the bloodred petals lying scattered upon the white bindings swaddling Desmond’s form, Abrielle was inundated once again with persistent visions of his falling to his death and the horror and fear she had experienced after Raven announced the squire’s death.
Hardly a moment had been allowed to pass after the priest had cast a symbolic handful of dirt into the grave and murmured the words“Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust,” than Abrielle found herself barraged by a bevy of bachelors and widowers conveying their condolences for her loss. Still very much in a stupor, she listened as they offered to assist her in whatever capacity she might require or desire either now or in the near future. She thanked them graciously, but assured them that their services wouldn’t be needed since her stepfather would likely be helping her to sort out her affairs.
Beyond assuring her that she had his deepest empathy and respect, Raven maintained a discreet distance, as did his father. Yet bluish-green eyes were wont to meet those of deep blue fairly often, and Abrielle tried to look stoic and strong. Some deep part of her mind protested her concern that, now she was an extremely wealthy widow, Raven might well try to press his advantage. She knew she had to remember the very words of caution she had so recently uttered to Cordelia: What did she truly know of him beyond a handsome face and smooth words?
To alleviate the possibility of any unkind soul becoming suspicious, Abrielle deemed it prudent for all concerned to lend her attention primarily to the other guests. In a solemn yet gracious manner, she listened to the condolences offered by her kinsmen and the hunters and their families, many of whom had felt no more liking for Desmond than she had. The rowdy rabble that had attached themselves to the squire in an effort to enjoy their share of the fortune he had inherited had obviously seen no further profit in remaining at the keep in the midst of the bride’s Saxon friends and relatives and the Normans who had disdained them. To the relief of many, they soon took to the path down the road.
Throughout the solemn service, her parents, Cordelia, Lord Reginald, and Lady Isolde remained near her side. Their nurturing presence proved more of a comfort to her than the vast majority of guests. Most of the men had only come for the hunt and were naught but strangers to her. Even so, many of the bachelors were wont to leavemementos and beg assurances that she would not forget them, promising to visit her in the near future. Though she smiled as if to convey her consent, she soon realized how benumbed her poor beleaguered mind truly was, for in the space of a few moments she had trouble distinguishing one keepsake from the next or the face of one young gallant from all the others who had stepped near.
Shivering inwardly from the gruesome recollections that were wont to prey upon her mind, Abrielle decided that she must find a new way to view the life that she would now lead. In so doing, she realized that as mistress of the keep, she now had the authority to correct some very irksome situations she had become privy to shortly after the death of the two men who’d attacked the Seaberns. Having acquired full possession of the keep and the lands upon which it had been built through the agreement Vachel had insisted Desmond sign in his quest to have her, she could now set aright many wrongs that had been done to the serfs.
Graciously she invited the guests who had been wont to stay beyond the graveside service to dine with her in the main hall later that evening. Upon assuring the Graysons, Cordelia, and her own parents and relatives that she’d be seeing them later at sup, she begged their indulgence to allow her to take care of some pressing matters. As people drifted back toward the castle, talking together in twos and threes, she saw Raven standing as still and tall as an oak, watching her. A skittering of nervousness and something else moved up her spine. She wished she could shoo him away, make him stop watching her. If only he didn’t know what had happened last night—yet she tried to imagine what she would have done had he not appeared to distract Desmond from his pursuit of her. She was torn in her feelings about him, from gratitude to suspicion. But he was not her main concern today.
Upon approaching Thurstan, who had remained at the grave site to direct the serfs laboring to fill in the hole, she halted beside him and then waited a lengthy moment before he deigned to meet hergaze. The coldness in his eyes surprised her, and she was taken aback that on the day of his uncle’s funeral, he could spare her so much animosity. She began to wonder when he would return to his own lands, but could not imagine cruelly asking him to leave.
“I apologize for interrupting you, Thurstan, but could you possibly spare me your attention at this present time?” she queried in a pleasant tone. “I understand that you greatly assisted your uncle in the management of the castle. If I am wrong, I can always seek out the steward…”
He folded his arms over his chest. “You may speak freely to me.”
“Thank you, Thurstan. I do have some matters that have been plaguing me for several days now, yet, until now, I’ve had no authority to do anything about them. Since circumstances have taken an unexpected change by the squire’s death, ’tis my desire to remedy various problems that have become evident to me.”
He said nothing, just continued to watch her in a way that made her uncomfortable. The more bothered she was by his lack of graciousness, the more firm she became in her convictions.
“I shall be initiating new standards to which those with any authority here must abide. The new principles are to benefit those who have no voice, and as for the timing of these initiatives, I mean to set them into motion this very day.”
“What vexing matters are those, my lady?”
She sensed sarcasm in his tone and clenched her jaw. She should have gone directly to the steward, for she knew Thurstan was no friend. She remembered how he had advised his uncle to change the terms of the betrothal contract. He certainly must resent that the contract had given her so much. In fact she began to wonder, by his barely subdued animosity, if he would receive much at all in his uncle’s will. But that was not her concern.
She swept a hand about to casually indicate the direction in which she desired to go. “I will be touring the area where the serfs’ huts arelocated. Since you seem to know your uncle’s concerns, I’m giving you the opportunity to join me. If not, I can always go to the steward.”
His pale brows came together in a fleeting frown. “That will not be necessary. I can assist you as I did the squire.”
Without further comment, Abrielle lifted the hem of her black gown as she led the way across the secondary bridge traversing the stream, on the far side of which stood the serfs’ hovels, which had been built fairly close together in a wide circle, in the center of which large stones surrounded a glowing bed of coals whence a few meager flames flickered upward. As Abrielle halted beside the dwindling fire, Thurstan peered at her questioningly.
“Would you please call out the serfs who are here,” she asked. “I wish to speak with them directly.”
“My lady, if you would only tell me what this is about, I will have your wishes carried out.”
Abrielle inclined her head graciously. “Thank you, Thurstan, but my wish is to speak with the serfs directly and explain what I will be expecting from them henceforth as their new mistress. If in the future they should have any complaints, then they’ll suffer no uncertainty that I am the one who issued the directives.”
Without another word, Thurstan crossed to a large metal disk which hung from a sturdy wood frame on the far side of the fire. Dangling beside it was a hide-covered metal disk attached to a heavy wooden handle, with which he applied three strokes to the gong. Returning to Abrielle’s side, he clasped his hands behind his back and stood tall and rigidly aloof. As they waited, she could not help but notice that Raven had followed them from the grave site, and now stood silently near the trees, as if he’d appointed himself her bodyguard. She frowned at him, but could do nothing more, because the serfs came scurrying out of their dwellings, causing Abrielle to groan inwardly at the sight of them. She had never seen so many frail-looking human beings with thin, gaunt faces and lusterless eyes peering back at her from the half circle that they had hurriedly formed on the far side of the fire. A sudden breeze made her aware of the inadequacy of their paltry garments, for she saw many huddling together as if seeking to escape its sharp talons. She could only believe that many of them would die ere winter was full upon them, for they would not likely have the stamina to withstand the maladies and diseases the season seemed to spawn. In spite of the fact that Weldon had cared for them with as much compassion as a loving father, it was obvious that Desmond hadn’t cared how many lived or died as long as there were enough to see to his personal needs.
“I am Lady Abrielle, your new mistress,” she stated as she began to stroll in a wide circle around the fire. As she came closer to the serfs, she was surprised that Thurstan did not stay near her, but only waited, as if he didn’t care what happened to her desperate people.
As a whole, the serfs seemed utterly frightened of what lay in store for them. Nevertheless she progressed within the perimeter they had formed and, with a warm smile lighting her eyes, was wont to reach out a hand and, in a compassionate manner, lay it upon an elder’s arm, smooth a child’s tousled curls, or squeeze a young mother’s hand as she paused beside them. There were precious few who didn’t evidence an abject dread of Thurstan and were hesitant about peering upward even when she halted before them. Though she slipped a hand beneath the chins of several and compelled them to meet her gaze directly, it was always toward the steward they first glanced, in so doing displaying a kind of frenetic fear of the man.
Upon facing them again, Abrielle found many of them readily lending her their attention. “As you may be aware, I visited the keep fairly often while Lord de Marlé was alive. Yesterday, I exchanged wedding vows with his lordship’s brother, Desmond de Marlé. Early this morning, he was found dead. Henceforth, as the new mistress of this keep, I shall be setting forth some favorable changes, which you will likely welcome. You will be expected to learn skills to help support this keepand provide for new structures that will soon be built to house you.” She knew Thurstan was openly scowling, but she ignored him. “New skills will also be taught to enlist your services in other tasks that may well prove lucrative, such as the carding of wool shorn from sheep on these lands as well as in the use of spinning wheels and the making of furniture. You’ll start off by making your own clothing and tanning leather for your shoes and other items. Until you become proficient at such crafts, sufficient clothing will be provided to keep you warm and in good health through the approaching winter.”
A thin, barefoot toddler garbed in loose sacking waddled toward her on wobbly limbs, evoking a smile from her as she threaded her slender fingers through his matted hair. His mother rushed forward, anxiously pleading for her forgiveness and then, with a quick curtsy, whisked the babe up into her arms.
And suddenly Abrielle imagined herself as the poor girl, with no way to feed her child. She turned to Thurstan, so incensed that she could barely keep her voice from shaking with anger. “From what I am seeing here in this place, ’tis apparent these serfs have not been given adequate provisions since Lord Weldon’s death. That may well have been Squire Desmond’s mode of doing things, but he is now dead and buried. Thus, commencing this very day, whatever it takes to feed, clothe, and warmly house these serfs, it will be done or I shall know the reason why. Do you understand what I’m telling you, Thurstan? You and I will speak to the steward together so that he understands my intentions. I or someone I trust shall be inspecting this area on a regular basis. I will be expecting to see evidence of much progress being made.”
She suspected he was much in collusion with his uncle in causing the condition of these poor people, and she was appalled. She could not look upon him for another moment, so after giving a warm smile to the people she now considered her responsibility, she strode toward the bridge—and found Raven Seabern blocking her path.
Her response to his closeness was as unwanted as it was lightning quick. She felt a hot pull of attraction deep inside that could not lead to any good, for now, knowing the truth of Desmond’s death, he was more dangerous to her than ever.
She sidestepped him with a nod and kept walking, not the least bit surprised when he turned gracefully and fell into step beside her.
“Lady de Marlé, might I have a moment of your time?”
His use of her wedded name made Abrielle flinch.
“Of course,” she replied, then lowered her tone to a whisper to add, “Speak quickly, for it would not look well should we be seen together as we approach the castle.”
“And why not?” he asked, his expression quizzical.
“You know why,” she retorted.
“I know your husband is gone. And that I am hardly the first man ta speak with ye this day. I’d have been blind not ta see the many tokens of affection ye’ve already received from men who want your consideration.”
“Is that your purpose in waylaying me, sir? Do you seek to present me with your own token of affection?”
“I believe I already have,” he countered. “But if m’lady desires, I am more than willing to…”
Even if he hadn’t moved dangerously closer, she would have understood the “token” he had in mind and her cheeks heated. She stopped walking and faced him. “The lady most definitely does not desire anything of the sort.”
“Really?” He tilted his head and regarded her intently. “Because I’ve some small experience in the matter and it did seem to me that—”
“Enough,” she interrupted, and glanced around cautiously. “What exactly is your goal, sir?” she demanded, unable to banish her fears of discovery. “You have no reason to be here now and I believe it would be best for all that you leave. You are no longer in danger, and no longer is Desmond trying to prove himself the winner over you.”
“Then ye knew why he invited us.”
Abrielle shrugged and resumed walking. “’Twas not something I was told, but what I surmised.”
“Then surely ye must also be clever enough ta deduce why it is that I canna leave. Why I willna.” His voice had gone low and deep, almost hoarse. “Since the first moment I saw ye, I’ve yearned to have ye as my very own.”
She gasped, feeling hot and cold all at the same time, and looked about her in fear. They were at the bridge now and she leaned over the rail as if fascinated by the stream below. She wished she could stare him in the eyes, but knew she would be unable to control her heated emotions. How could he just lie to her so blithely, when the truth was that he had not even tried to court her when she was penniless?
“How dare you, sir!” she cried softly, feeling the pain of knowing that he had deemed her unworthy until now, when she was wealthy beyond most others. Raven Seabern was no different from any man lured by money. Her disappointment should not shock her, but somehow it did, and deeply. Again, she felt the pangs of a woman who did not know if any man could love her just for herself. “You did not vie for my hand before I was betrothed.” The full force of the emotions roiling within her now burst out, and she was full of pain and anger. “You are no different, sir, from any other man who ever claimed to want me, including Desmond de Marlé. Just stay away from me.”
Raven watched her go in silence, his warrior instincts stirred by the depth of his passion for her, his desire to possess her now stronger than ever. The battle to win Abrielle might well turn out to be the fiercest of his life, but win her he would, no matter the cost.
During the midday meal, the mood in the hall was far more subdued and cordial after the burial of their late host, especially since the squire’s rather questionable cohorts had promptly taken their leave after the funeral, swigging down ale as they went.
Although many of the hunters had left prior to the wedding, those who had stayed over for the banquet and the nuptials had brought along their wives or other family members. Now that the squire was no longer there to vent his outrage, in particular upon the pair of Scotsmen and, to a lesser degree, upon the Saxons whom he loathed, the guests as a whole proved to be in far better spirits and lingered with members of their families to converse with the new mistress and her relatives. The Scotsmen still found themselves regarded suspiciously by the various lords and landowners in attendance, but all seemed to be following a truce of peace for the new widow. Upon making their departure, many of the guests extended their sympathies to the erstwhile bride and were wont to assure her surreptitiously that she would likely find a finer gentleman to marry in the months or years to come, one with whom she’d have more in common.
Cordelia approached Abrielle as the latter left the trestle table where she had been sitting with her parents. “I’m afraid Papa’s not feeling very well,” she explained. “The food here has been difficult for him to tolerate. I suppose once we’re at home, it will be curds and whey for him or something just as tasteless until he’s feeling better. In any case, he is wanting to return home and retire to his own bedchamber, where he can lie abed during his misery.”
“Thank you for remaining as long as you have,” Abrielle replied, squeezing her friend’s fingers. “I couldn’t have borne these last few days if you hadn’t been here to listen to my complaints and allowed me to express my frustration so freely. You’ve always proven to be a dear, dear friend, especially when I’m in dire distress.”
“When I return, my visit will likely be for a much longer period of time,” Cordelia assured her. “Until then, my dearest friend, take special care of yourself. You will need to, especially after what has just come to pass.”
“I shall surely miss not living close to you and your family,” Abrielle assured her. “’Twould now be a goodly jaunt to reach your home, but what is that distance between close friends?”
“Unfortunately, I fear such a visit will have to be seriously delayed now that you’re lady of this keep,” Cordelia replied as she heaved a sigh of lament. “As mistress of those bone-thin serfs, you must remain here until you have set into motion your rules for governing this place. Only then will you be able to leave and feel confident of doing so.” Eyeing her companion, she continued, “I needn’t remind you that you’re no longer under the authority of your stepfather. You are capable of setting the problems aright and extending authority to those who will closely adhere to your directives. I shall be expecting great changes to occur during my absence…which, of course, doesn’t give you much time, considering I shall likely be visiting you ere you even think of leaving here.”
Abrielle laughed. “I’ll try not to disappoint you.”
“I suffer no doubt that you have the fortitude to succeed in whatever task you undertake,” Cordelia stated confidently, and then heaved a sigh of lament. “I do wish Laird Cedric didn’t live so far away. ’Twould be nice if he lived close enough to visit us, too.”
“For shame, Cordelia,” Abrielle scolded in laughing amusement. “Why, the man is old enough to be your grandfather.”
The young woman raised her nose in the air and tossed her head, giving no heed to her friend’s reproof. “Me grandfather never looked half as handsome as himself. And there I be, talking like the man. Ta be sure, not even me own da looks as fit, fine, and trim as the old laird, Cedric Seabern.” In her normal voice, Cordelia continued softly, “And then there’s the son. He’s as handsome as his sire. ’Tis plain to see they both came from fine stock.”
Abrielle looked away in discomfort. “He is not a man I give much thought to.”
Cordelia frowned at her in surprise. “Nay? He does seem to be watching you rather closely.”
Abrielle could only shrug. “Far too many men are watching me closely today. He is just one of many. And he’s a Scotsman, too. Do you see how my kinsmen and neighbors regard him with suspicion? I’ve asked him to leave, and I hope he will do so soon.”
“Abrielle, I do not understand why you would do so, why you would act in a seemingly discourteous manner, for I have never seen you be other than kind and thoughtful,” Cordelia said slowly. “And if I but had time to question you…”
“There’s no reason for that,” Abrielle said, giving her friend a smile. “Do not worry for me. The life I thought of as bleak has surely taken a turn for the better.”
IN SPITE OF the necessity of being ensconced henceforth in her late bridegroom’s spacious chambers, Abrielle made a concerted effort tothrust aside the haunting memories of the previous night and find some genuine peace for her weary mind as she burrowed deep beneath the covers. She had no real reason to fear her future—except for her next marriage, for marry she must, and soon. It was obvious to her that men would be vying for her and her fortune, a strange twist of fate for a woman who was all but ignored at court only months ago. But Abrielle was determined that this time, she’d earned the right to control her own fate. But how would her stepfather react to such a thing? He would want to see her safely with a man of whom he approved. Now that she had most of Desmond’s wealth in her possession, Vachel would likely seek to find her a spouse with a lofty title. It was what most fathers wanted for their daughters. In his case, she could imagine that, if truly motivated in that direction, such a desire might have arisen from his own frustration after his requests for a title had been rejected.
Still, if Vachel’s ambitions could be realized by the very thing he had earlier been seeking for himself, that being a worthy title for his own exceptional achievements, then he would likely be content. Vachel was an honorable knight who had served valiantly during foreign campaigns and, for that reason, was rightfully deserving of recognition from his king. Lord de Marlé had been honored by Henry for his heroism after returning home. As a reward, he had been given the vast area of land upon which to build this very keep. So might Vachel be honored if she were to remind His Majesty of her stepfather’s bravery and daring feats during those years he had loyally served beneath the king’s banner. The king just needed to be reminded that there was still a knight whose daring feats had long been forgotten. And now that Vachel had wealth of his own again, the title was more important than taking more money from the treasury.
Abrielle’s heart began to sink as she realized she might offend Henry if she were to plead for a few moments of his time to suggest the possibility of bestowing a worthy title upon her stepfather. But perhaps her newfound wealth would bring her more royal notice.
Glumly she stared at the flickering flames dancing atop the stout candles nestled within the heavy sconces, wondering if she should attempt to approach any of the lesser lords with her request. No, with so difficult a task, she’d have to find an individual who was permitted fairly often within His Majesty’s presence…
Of a sudden, Abrielle gasped and sat upright in bed as the realization dawned on her. In spite of her needless fretting, she was well acquainted with one who could perform such a feat without evoking the king’s ire. He was none other than Raven Seabern! It would be a fairly simple matter for the Scotsman to carry her missive to Henry when he was once again called upon to deliver a message to His Majesty from his own King David.
And how better to rid her own keep of the Scotsman’s presence, for he would not dare to return after she’d made clear he was no longer required. All these churning emotions in her breast would depart with him, and she would be able to logically think of who would make the best husband.
Snuggling back into the downy pillows, Abrielle smiled in satisfaction as she folded her hands atop the coverlet and stared at the embroidered scene on the canopy above her head. On the morrow, she would begin the day by composing a letter to His Majesty. Truly, if Vachel were given a title and lands as a reward for his own notable achievements, perhaps he would then feel satisfied with what he had managed to accomplish during his lifetime rather than be wont to find a nobleman who’d be interested in taking his wealthy stepdaughter to wife.
AFTER MASS AND breaking her fast, Abrielle went to the lady’s solar, her own private chamber. A weaving loom stood in one corner, and a long trestle table was laid out with servants’ livery in various stages of being cut and sewn. She sent the maidservants away andwaited for Nedda to bring Raven to her. She’d been over and over her little plan, searching for flaws, and found none. It was most clever, if she did say so herself, and she truly did not see how it could fail. She would rid herself of the Scot’s very disturbing presence and lessen her stepfather’s need for a noble son-in-law at one and the same time. So delighted was she that she was smiling when the maidservant announced Raven.
He stood just inside the door wearing what could only be a mask of composure, for which she could hardly blame him after their last meeting. When Nedda curtsied and withdrew, closing the door behind her, his surprise was obvious.
As Abrielle stood cool and composed, he nodded politely. “Ye sent for me, my lady?”
“I did, sir. I desire your help with a personal matter. ’Tis a delicate task I have in mind, one to which you are perfectly suited.”
“You need but tell me what it is, my lady,” he said, walking toward her, “and it is done.”
Abrielle held up her hand, hoping she hid the alarm she felt as he drew nearer. “You need come no closer.”
“There are needs, and then there are needs,” he said softly, still moving, not stopping until he was but two feet from her. “What is this task with which I am so favored?”
She extended her arm between them as if she were gripping a metal shield rather than a parchment missive, rolled and tied with a ribbon and sealed with the wax imprint of the de Marlé house. “When next you have business with King Henry, please give this to him for me.”
He didn’t reach for it. “I have na idea when next I will be in London—or Normandy, for I think that is where your king resides for now.”
She frowned, for this was hardly the response she’d expected. “Surely you will need to be dispatched soon for King David.”
“Nay, he does not require me at present. I will be staying here.”
“But this missive must reach the king,” she countered, frustrated to find there was a flaw in her plan after all, namely that its success rested entirely on Raven’s acting as she’d thought he would.
“Then so it shall,” he declared, moving another half step closer to take it from her with a smile that belied the refusal to accede to her full desire that was expressed in his eyes.
Managing to squelch a sigh of relief, Abrielle offered a simple smile of appreciation. “Thank you.”
“One of my men is an excellent courier, as trustworthy as they come. I will send him forth without delay.” He watched her smile fade. “Or is my word na good enough for ye?”
“I know not how good your word is. I know nothing of you.” This time she realized her words were not reasonable, for she indeed knew he was a trusted royal courier, but his response to her plan had thrown her off course.
“Know this, and never doubt it,” he said solemnly, holding her gaze with the intensity of his own. “My word is my bond, and I pledge it ta ye. You can rest assured your missive is as good as in the king’s hand this very instant.”
“Thank you,” she said with resignation, wishing she could think of a legitimate way to force him to take the letter personally. It was hard to think clearly with him so close, looming over her, so big and male in this small chamber used only by women.
“And how do ye fare, Lady Abrielle?”
Distractedly, she said, “What do you mean?”
“Ye’re newly a widow, with many decisions ta make. I imagine the responsibilities are vast.”
“Truth be told, only one person dares to threaten me at the moment,” she said pointedly, her hands on her hips, leaving him no doubt to whom she referred.
“Since it is nowhere in me ta threaten a woman, I can only think it must be your peace of mind I threaten.”
“Perhaps intimidation is a better word. Do you seek to intimidate me, Scotsman?”
“So ye feel intimidated, Abrielle?”
“Please do not call me by my Christian name alone, and no, I do not feel the least bit intimidated by you,” she lied.
“Good. I prefer a fair contest.” She wasn’t aware of him leaning toward her until he straightened and it was suddenly easier to breathe. “If ever I do make ye feel threatened or intimidated, ye can be certain ye are misunderstanding my concern for your welfare.”
“You are too concerned, sir, you and every other man who thinks to win a quick fortune.”
“And a beauteous bride,” he added, his smile quick and disarming. “I canna speak for any other, but ’tis the only prize I seek.”
His honeyed words elicited an exasperated groan from her, and she pointed to the door. “Please excuse me now. I’m sure you can well understand how pressed I am in light of recent events.”
She turned her back on him, not wanting one more smile or head tilt or glimpse of his overwhelming male presence to complicate her already muddled feelings. She assumed he would leave, but suddenly she felt his breath caress the back of her neck, causing gooseflesh to prickle along her skin. Before she could move away, his warm hands curled over her shoulders, gentling her in place.
“I lie not when I say I was captivated by your beauty from the moment I saw ye,” he whispered, his lips dangerously close to her ear.
Abrielle refused to turn around, refused to look into his eyes and be swayed by what he wanted her to feel.
“But beauty alone—even beauty such as yours, beauty that blinds a man to reason and steals his soul away forever—beauty alone would never be enough ta challenge my own code of honor. That happened when I saw your courage and the way ye held yourself when your stepfather was denied his rightful reward for his service in the Crusades. Had I taken my leave beforehand, I would have carried away thememory of your loveliness. But it was that instant when your true beauty was branded onto my heart and I knew there was no other, and no turning back.”
Lies, all lies, she told herself, childishly wanting to cover her ears against this seduction that was proving too potent. “You have said your piece. Please leave.”
She felt a chill when he moved to do as she bid, but only when she heard the door close did she sag into a chair. She’d barely caught her breath when the door suddenly opened again, and she whirled about, only to see her mother peering at her with curiosity.
“Abrielle?” Elspeth began as she closed the door. “Was that Raven Seabern I saw leaving this chamber?”
Elspeth put a hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “And you met with him…alone?”
“It is not what you think, Mama,” Abrielle said, already tired of the renewal of the husband hunt, when she’d only been a widow for a day.
“And what should I think, daughter? There are many young men within this keep who would like to be alone in a chamber with you, to press their advantage.”
“That is not what Raven was doing.”
“Then why does he not leave?”
Abrielle opened her mouth, but she didn’t know how much to reveal. “He…declared himself to me,” she said softly.
Elspeth’s eyebrows rose. “I cannot say I am surprised, considering the way he has looked at you.”
Abrielle groaned and shoved to her feet, not wanting her mother to see the anguish in her expression. “It is only the way they all look at me,” she said, waving a hand to encompass the entire keep. “I am only the newest prize to be won.”
“You are more than that, my dear.”
“I am so tired of it, Mama,” she whispered, surprised at how close to tears she was. “Yet I know it is my duty to find a man worthy of the responsibilities he will take on when he weds me.”
“Should he not be worthy of you, rather than the responsibilities?”
“How can I think of that when there is so much at stake? I will have to make a decision based on many reasons, not just whether the man appeals to me.”
“And does Raven appeal to you?”
“He’s a Scot,” Abrielle said forcefully. “Do you not see how Englishmen, both Saxon and Norman alike, mistrust his people?”
“And is that a reason to mistrust an honorable man, one who has rescued you without thought to himself?”
Abrielle bit her lip, knowing she had plenty of private reasons to mistrust Raven. “I will keep an open mind, Mama, but he is only one man among many.”
THAT NIGHT AT dinner, Abrielle was surprised to find Thurstan seated at the head table with her family. He was conversing with Vachel, and she could detect not even a hint of a sneer. When he saw her and her mother approach, he rose to his feet with the other men in the great hall and gave her a small bow. Throughout the meal, he was solicitous about her first day’s experiences as mistress of the great keep. He told her some of the duties he’d had the steward begin to oversee in the serfs’ training. Abrielle could not understand why he was suddenly being kind to her, when all along he’d treated her as almost a rival for his uncle’s attention. Unless…it was what all the men were concerned with now—her wealth and the power it brought.
After supper, he approached her where she sat before the massive hearth with her parents. “My lady, might I have a private word with you?”
Elspeth and Vachel exchanged a glance, and as if reading Abrielle’s mind, Vachel said, “There is no need for you to leave your comfortable place, Abrielle. Your mother and I will leave you both alone.”
She nodded to her parents gratefully, and then waited until they had moved away. She could not help noticing that several of the young bachelors were watching her, as if waiting their turn. Raven was speaking with his father, but he made no move to join the others. He settled for an occasional glance, regarding her with that calm confidence she found irritating and slightly ominous and, she had to admit, more than a bit intriguing. Was he really so confident he could win out over all these other decent Englishmen? Or was it that he felt that knowing her darkest secrets gave him the upper hand?
Thurstan took the bench her mother had been using, and she forced herself to concentrate on him.
“My lady, it strikes me that the terrible tragedy of my uncle’s death does not have to be the end of the relationship between our two families.”
She blinked at him in surprise. “This keep is now my home, Thurstan, and you live not far away.”
“That is not what I mean,” he said, with a hint of impatience in his voice. “You were married to my uncle; does it not make sense to keep the connection by marrying me?”
She barely kept her mouth from dropping open in shock, so much did he surprise her. “Thurstan…are you proposing to me?”
“I think the marriage would solve all the problems caused by my uncle’s sudden death. I have been assisting him in the management of this keep since he inherited it. I could continue to do the same.”
“And that is enough reason to marry?” she responded incredulously. “I have been under the distinct impression that your feelings for me were not fond.”
To her rising disgust, he looked down her body. “I could not allow myself to feel anything for you when you were to become my uncle’swife. And the most important thing to bring to a marriage is respect.”
“Respect?” She heard her voice rise, knew she should stop herself, but his gall proved too much. “Sir, you admit you were involved in the management of the keep and all its surrounding lands. Did I not just see the terrible condition of the people who were entrusted into your care?”
His mouth tightened. “My uncle—”
“Aye, I know, it was his land, his serfs. But you should have seen to those poor people who depended on you. I had no choice in marrying your uncle, but I would never willingly tie myself to your family again, after having seen how you treat fragile human beings.”
Those yellowish-green eyes flashed at her, revealing the seething hatred he had kept banked inside him. “Then keep your virgin marriage vows,” he said angrily.
She was grateful that there were so many people about, or she would have been terribly afraid of what she heard in his voice. As it was, she forced herself to meet his gaze with cool composure.
“But understand that Desmond de Marlé had monetary agreements that preceded your marriage contract,” he continued.
“What agreements, sir? Are you saying that the contract, which was examined by advisers to both parties, was entered into falsely?”
“He did not honor the agreements made by Weldon to me, agreements that Desmond vowed he would finish in his brother’s place.”
“You mean a larger inheritance than what he has put in writing?”
Thurstan seemed furious and upset, as if he expected her to surrender to his anger. But Abrielle was tired of being a pawn in other people’s games.
“He meant to—”
“I care little what you say he meant to do,” Abrielle interrupted coldly. “It is only your word, if nothing is in writing.”
“And do you doubt my word?” he demanded, his voice beginning to rise.
“I am sorry that you feel entitled to more than—”
“I do not want your pity!” he said, loudly enough that several heads turned at tables scattered through the hall. “Understand that your position is tenuous here, my lady,” he said through gritted teeth.
“I am the Lady Abrielle de Marlé.” She emphasized her late husband’s name, then continued, “My position here is not ‘tenuous’ at all.”
“’Tis only a note of caution. If you do not have my protection—”
“I have the protection of my stepfather, his men, and the soldiers of my dead husband. Are you saying even they are not loyal?”
But Thurstan did not go so far, only meeting her accusation with silence.
“As far as I’m concerned, sir,” she said, “we’ve settled this matter, and that is the way it shall stand until I’m shown viable proof that would lead me to decide differently. Whatever my husband inherited from his half brother months ago does not rightfully belong to any of Desmond’s kinsmen, including you. My husband never once addressed any issue pertaining to his having heirs, especially anyone who should be duly considered now that he is dead. ’Tis a well-known fact that Desmond’s previous wives died without issue. If you or any other men have an argument with the legality of the agreement Desmond signed of his own free will, then I would suggest that you cease your efforts to frighten me and take up this matter forthwith with my stepfather. Vachel de Gerard can convince you of the validity of the documents that he drew up with Desmond. I should further explain that if anything happens to cause my death, whether accidental or deliberate, all the wealth, holdings, and possessions that I am to inherit shall be transferred to my kinsmen without due recourse, that being my mother and stepfather. I’m sure if there are any threats made against them that Vachel shall be able to gather a force of men to protect them.”
Thurstan rose to his feet. “You speak of murder as if our discussion threatened such a thing. It is not so.”
The fact that he was backing down should have appeased her, but he reminded her of a snake biding his time before striking.
“I only seek to give you the facts, Sir Thurstan, so that we understand each other.”
“’Twas my purpose as well, my lady.”
They were so intent on staring at each other, neither realized someone had approached until a voice spoke. “Lady Abrielle, do ye wish assistance?”
Raven stood nearby, hands clasped behind his back, looking as if he merely wanted to join in on their conversation. Abrielle was annoyed that he felt he had to help her, and she watched as the evil flame died within Thurstan’s eyes.