Read A Royal Marriage Online

Authors: Rachelle McCalla

A Royal Marriage (11 page)

BOOK: A Royal Marriage
10.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

But the man before him staggered. Was it a strategic move, meant to distract him and land another point? For the first time, he tried to look the man in the eye, to guess what his opponent was playing at.

Torch light flickered, casting deep shadows over his adversary’s masked face. John noted the very fine armor and expensive chain mail his rival wore. How very odd. It gave the man an almost feminine silhouette.

Rather than be distracted, John kept his sword up, jabbing forward. His rival seemed to be growing tired. Each block landed a fraction of a second later. Detecting a weakness, John increased the frequency of his jabs.

He landed a point on his opponent’s hip, surprising the man, who emitted a sudden cry.

A decidedly feminine cry.

His earlier doubts renewed, John looked afresh at the man who faced him, whose upturned head now caught the light. Through the narrow eye slits in the armor, John caught sight of stitches.

And the blue eyes of the emperor’s daughter.

Fear and fury surged through him.

“No!” He lunged his sword, point down, into the hardened courtyard soil.

The walls shook with the cries of the crowd, but John ignored them and turned away.

That was why he’d smelled roses! That was why he hadn’t seen Gisela in the windows.

He started to stomp away when the crowd changed its tune to one of frightful alarm. Bits of exclamations penetrated his anger, and he spun around.

Gisela had fallen.

Chapter Nine

J
ohn pushed his way through the crowd that had surged forward on Gisela the moment she’d gone down.

“What happened?” he demanded, furious about everything. He’d fought her. She was on the ground. Everything was wrong, and she looked so pale under her mask.

“Was she injured earlier? Did someone strike her?”

“I think she fainted,” Renwick answered.

John scooped her up from the ground and plowed through the parting crowd toward the great hall. He burst through the double doors with one kick and sent the heavy wooden doors swinging open. A roaring fire burned at one end, ready to host a banquet when the tournament was ended. He lowered Gisela onto the soft animal-skin rugs near the light of the leaping flames.

His fingers fumbled as he lifted off her helmet and untied her leather mask.

“Gisela? Can you hear me?” He cradled her head in one hand as he peeled away her mask to reveal a face of ill pallor.

Her chest rose and fell.

She lived. But why had she fallen?

Footsteps sounded on the stone floor behind him. “Keep the crowds out,” he barked to whatever guards might be among them. His eyes didn’t leave Gisela’s face.

Her cheeks felt warm. Feverish?

Knowing full well the risk he was taking, John nonetheless pressed his lips to her forehead, reading far more accurately than his sweaty palms could the degree of her fever.

Warm. Far too warm.

“What happened to Gisela?” Bette shrieked as she entered from the back way.

“You knew she was fighting? You knew I was fighting her? Why didn’t you warn me?”

“Didn’t you recognize her?”

“I looked only at her blade. Fetch her a drink. That might revive her.”

Bette hurried over with the nearest cup from the laid table.

The liquid sloshed against Gisela’s leather pants as John hastily took the cup from his sister. He scooped the princess up to almost sitting and held the cup to her lips. “Here. Drink.”

Pouring mere drops between her lips, he waited for a reaction.

Nothing.

Fearful for her condition, he tipped the cup back again, pouring more this time, letting her head tilt backward as though to slosh the reviving liquid down her throat.

She sputtered and coughed, but her eyes didn’t open.

Relief welled inside him along with a desperate prayer that she’d pull through. He’d saved her life once to prevent a war. But her survival had begun to mean more to him than its political repercussions. He couldn’t lose her. Not now. Not after waiting two days longing to see her smile again.

“Come on, Gisela. Wake up.”

* * *

She could smell his calming woodsy scent. He was near. Had she only imagined it, or had he held her again?

“Wake up, Your Highness. Please. Are you injured?”

That was King John’s voice. So she hadn’t imagined that he was near. And yet, he sounded so far away.

“The crowds want in. There’s to be a banquet.” Elisabette’s voice. “I see no sign of blood.”

“If she’s not injured, then why did she faint?” John’s hands smoothed the hair away from her face. “I’ll take her to her room. Host the banquet without me.”

“Won’t you come down?”

“We’ll see. I’ll not leave the princess’s side until I’m certain she’ll pull through.”

He cradled her against him, and Gisela sank against the hard wall of chain mail. With a flurrying activity, her memory of her duel with the king returned.

How had she stayed on her feet so long? She’d even won a point.

Then he’d recognized her. She’d seen it in his eyes the moment he did and the absolute fury that followed. He’d been so angry. But why?

Tears leaked from her eyes. She’d planned the tournament to please him. His furious reaction had snapped the last thread of determination that had kept her upright, and she’d fallen.

He lowered her onto a couch.

She gripped his arms. If he left, she might not have a chance to apologize, though she wasn’t entirely sure what she was apologizing for.

He cupped her hands in his. “Your Highness, can you speak? Are you injured?”

Was she? She wasn’t sure. “I’ve angered you.” She tried to think what had done it. The king had given his blessing to the tournament. John’s reaction befuddled her. His demeanor had changed so completely the moment he’d recognized her.

She reached for his face. “I apologize for whatever I’ve done. Is it because I fainted? You would have rather triumphed over a more worthy opponent?” The rough stubble on his cheek prickled against her hand. “Please, explain it to me. I wanted only to please you.”

* * *

John felt his fury subside in waves like the ebbing tide. Gisela’s soft, pleading words wore away at his hardened heart. As much as he wanted to be upset with her, he couldn’t possibly.

“I fought you,” he explained. “I raised my sword at you. I could have injured you.”

“I’m not injured.” She’d assessed her condition as she’d lain there and determined as much. “Just tired and feverish. I tried to do too much too soon after my infection. It’s a horrible weakness of mine. Hilda might have warned you.”

“She didn’t. Nor was I warned that you’d try something so unbecoming as to pick up a sword—”

“Boden told you I fence, didn’t he? That’s how I hurt my eye, saving the ship from the Saracens.”

“But in a tournament?”

“Much safer than fighting pirates, actually.”

John tried not to smile as she looked up at him, her wide eyes begging him not to be angry. Regret squeezed his heart. Had he overreacted? “I hit you with my sword. You cried out in pain, and then I recognized you. What would you have had me do? Keep fighting?”

“Yes! You would have won. I was too tired to go much longer. If Tertulio had advanced instead of you, I’d have withdrawn.”

“I should hope so!”

“Why?”

“The man was an animal. He’d have chopped you to bits.”

“He only beat me by two points when I met him earlier.”

“You fought Tertulio?” John couldn’t keep the possessive note from his voice. “You could have been killed.” He’d had his arms on her shoulders since delivering her onto the couch, and now he pulled her tighter against him as though he could shield her from the barbaric swordsman or anyone else who might have fought her.

A groan of regret escaped his lips, coupled with visions of what could have happened. “I would never knowingly raise my sword against a woman. I would never threaten violence against you in any way.”

“In many corners of the world, men use violence to subdue their women.”

“They are barbarians. No real man would ever threaten a woman, let alone strike her. God created man to shield and protect women, to defend and cherish them. It is not in my nature to fight a woman, least of all a princess like you. But I fear I have insulted you by ending the fight.”

Gisela buried her face against his shoulder. “You were only upset because you feared for my safety?”

“I fear for it still.” He clung to her, the fear of what could have happened locking his arms into place around her. He pinched his eyes shut and tried not to think about how his heart had plummeted within him when he’d turned to find her fallen in the dust.

His feelings for her were far too strong. They hadn’t cooled in the slightest while he’d been at the border meeting with his brother.

* * *

Gisela held on to John’s shoulders and breathed in deep breaths of his comforting scent. He’d not let her hold on to him this long, not since her fever had been at its worst a week before, and she guessed he’d tear himself away at any moment. She clung to him and prayed for time to pass slowly.

He feared for her safety. Well, of course, if she died that would entangle Lydia in an increasingly complicated political situation. But he hadn’t mentioned the political situation. And he didn’t hold her like a man who was thinking about politics.

He held her as she’d never been held before. She knew it would be far too easy to feel more for this man than she ought. Perhaps her feelings were already inappropriately strong, given her unavoidable pending nuptials with Warrick. But the tournament had drained away her strength, and she couldn’t muster the will to pry herself away from him.

“Princess—” his arms shifted slightly around her “—have I insulted you? My reaction was quite strong. All I could think of was—” he pulled back far enough to cup her cheek with one hand “—what if I’d hurt you? I’m sorry if my words insulted you. They weren’t intended to. Obviously you’re perfectly capable of defending yourself. I’ve never known a woman like you.”

“Is that a bad thing?”

King John groaned softly. He bent his head until his forehead nearly touched hers. Then he winced as though experiencing deep pain. “The only bad thing is that you’re—” His words broke off and he pulled away.

“I’m what?”

He balled his gloved hands into fists, then extended his fingers before fisting them again, grasping at the empty air as though the answer lay somewhere near, if only he could seize it without it slipping away.

Gisela could see he was fighting a battle within himself. There was much she still didn’t understand about the kingdom of Lydia and their relationships with their neighbors. There was much she didn’t understand about King John, but she wanted so much to know him better. To ease the sorrow in his heart she’d seen in tiny glimpses. To repay, to whatever extent she could, the debt she owed him for saving her life.

King John didn’t turn around. “You’re promised to Warrick, son of Garren.”

“Yes.” She’d grown to resent the fact, but she couldn’t deny it.

“Is there any chance you could peacefully annul the agreement?”

Having recently wished that there was, Gisela let out a disillusioned laugh. “Hardly. Not without incurring the wrath of my father and quite a few prominent Illyrians.”

“Then my feelings don’t matter.”

Stunned by his words, Gisela didn’t even call after the king as he fled the room.

* * *

John didn’t go to the banquet. He was in no mood to face anyone, least of all his little sister or any of the courtiers who might ask him what had happened. He found Hilda hovering in the hallway outside Gisela’s suite and informed her that the princess needed rest, as well as food and drink.

Then he stomped off to his own room, still chafing at all he’d said that he shouldn’t have.

He flung off his leather fencing gloves. They landed on his dressing table, rattling it against the plastered stone wall. He sat and tugged off his boots.

It didn’t matter that she was promised to another. Politically it mattered, yes, but that wasn’t the greatest impediment between them, no matter how he’d inferred so to the princess.

He’d told himself for the past three years that he would not wed. He would not ask another woman to risk her life attempting to bear him a child. So really, it made precious little difference whether Gisela’s pledge to Warrick was breakable or not.

He had no other arrangement to offer her.

His heart squeezed as he heaved his heavy chain-mail jerkin over his aching shoulders. The image of her lying prone in the dust would not leave his mind. What if she’d died there? What if he’d lost her?

“Dear Lord in heaven.” John sat and clutched his head in his hands as he prayed. “I did not ask to ever find love again. Why have You sent this woman to torture my wounded heart?” He panted, yearning to understand.

There was no getting rid of Princess Gisela—not until her father sent a ship back for her, and that would still be another fortnight or two, at least. And there was no denying the intensity of what he felt for her.

And there would be no acting on those feelings.

“Dear Lord,” he prayed again, “if this is some trial, I do not see how I can succeed. Grant me strength.”

* * *

Gisela stared at the doorway through which John had disappeared and nearly jumped when Hilda walked in.

“The king said you needed food and drink. Shall I fetch you some, or do you need my assistance here first?”

“Food first, thank you, Hilda.”

The woman left, and Gisela was alone with her troubled thoughts.

What had the good king been saying? He’d asked about ending her agreement with Warrick. Why? For political reasons? Did it have to do with his father’s death or Rab the Raider or the message she’d sent to her father at Rome?

Her heart burned inside her, denying each possibility as quickly as it occurred to her. No, she knew how it felt to be in his arms. She knew how much she’d longed to see him again and how her attention had been riveted on him once she’d found him sparring in the courtyard.

Did he feel for her anything like what she felt for him? Neither of them could act on those feelings without encroaching on the terms of her father’s agreement with the Illyrians.

If she’d had the strength to move, Gisela might have gone after John to learn what he’d meant by his comments. Because even if she was right—even if he wanted her as she wanted him—that didn’t begin to explain what he’d meant when he’d said that it didn’t matter.

“I’ve brought your supper!” a feminine voice chirped from the doorway. It wasn’t Hilda’s voice.

“Elisabette? I thought your brother asked you to host the banquet?”

“You mean the rowdy rabble in the dining hall? They’re in such a state I feared for my well-being. No one will notice my absence, and if they do, they won’t care.” She placed a tray of food on the side table and moved it closer to the couch where Gisela reclined. “I believe this is the last of the dessert.”

“It’s a large piece. Share it with me?” Gisela reached for the full cup instead and drank deeply, feeling her strength return somewhat as the fluid coursed through her. “Have you spoken with your brother?”

“Not since he carried you out of the hall.” Bette picked delicately at the honey-soaked pastry. “Have you ever seen him in such a fit?”

“No.” Gisela almost laughed that Bette would ask her such a question, when the girl obviously had been familiar with the king far longer than she had. “Have you?”

“Hardly. I’ve seen him upset—he was livid with the Illyrians after Father’s death. But when he stopped fighting you and sank his sword into the soil, I thought my heart would stop.” Bette placed one hand upon her chest as though checking to be sure the organ was still going after all. “Do you know why he did it?”

BOOK: A Royal Marriage
10.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Highland Light by Cherime MacFarlane
Chosen by the Alpha by Carter, Mina
Witness by Rosalie Stanton
The Cavalier by Jason McWhirter
Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
Alaskan Fury by Sara King
Below the Root by Zilpha Keatley Snyder