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Authors: Lynette Vinet

Tags: #Romance

Knight's Caress

BOOK: Knight's Caress
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This is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogues are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system — except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews — without the written permission of publisher or author, except where permitted by law.

Cover Art by Amanda Kelsey of
Razzle Dazzle Design
.

Copyright ©
1993 and 2013
by
Lynette Vinet

First Kensington Zebra (Heartfire) Edition: 1993

First Steel Magnolia Press Publication: 2013

 
Chapter 1
 

 

Woodrose Keep

England, 1067

 

“I pray for the Lord to send misfortune to the murderer of my son. I pray that Tedric, the barbarian Saxon, knows no peace, that his tongue rots in his mouth—”

“Lady Julianne! Please, that is enough,” a flustered Father Ambrose told the middle-aged woman, and nervously wiped the palms of his hands on his coarsely woven brown robe. “You mustn’t pray for these things; vengeance is wrong. Look into your heart for forgiveness.”

Clearly that was the wrong thing to say, and the priest was immediately quieted when Lady Julianne de Fontaine, a dour vision in black, rose threateningly to her feet. “Forgiveness?
Mon
Dieu,
but you’re like every fainthearted priest I’ve ever known, always preaching forgiveness. I forgive nothing and no one.” Julianne sent a frosty-eyed glance in the direction of her daughter-in-law, who sat seemingly composed on the window bench. The dark-haired young woman glanced up from where she sat, stitching a linen headdress, aware of the older woman’s attention.

No one would guess the depth of emotions within Amberlie de Fontaine at that moment. From earliest childhood, she’d been schooled by her parents to mask her feelings and be obedient to her elders. Neither Father Ambrose nor Julianne was aware that Amberlie’s stomach muscles were bunched into knots, or that her mouth hurt from tightly clenching her jaws together for the last half hour, the length of Julianne’s tirade. Instead they saw only her calm and pretty demeanor; the turmoil was inside, hidden behind doe-brown eyes.

Each day for the last six months Amberlie had been witness to Julianne’s all-encompassing grief for Henri, and to her vindictiveness, directed against Henri’s murderer. Amberlie had been forced to listen to the venom and dutifully, quietly agree that the Saxon named Tedric, formerly of Woodrose Keep, who’d lived within the very rooms which they now inhabited, should suffer for his crime. If not for the renegade Saxon, Henri would still be alive to flatter his mother and to impregnate Amberlie with the much-longed-for heir. But Henri was dead, and now Amberlie had done the unforgivable in Julianne’s eyes. She had rescued this same Tedric’s dim-witted sister from ravishment by one of Julianne’s Norman soldiers. Such an action was tantamount to treason in Julianne’s eyes, and Amberlie now steeled herself for the woman’s expected onslaught.

Julianne pointed an accusatory finger at her. “Even my son’s wife has forgotten him, Father. My Henri is dead barely six months, killed by the hand of a barbarian, and what does his widow do but protect his sister. I cannot bear such treachery—”

“Maman!”
Amberlie burst out in her native French tongue before Julianne had finished speaking, startling herself and Father Ambrose. She was not about to apologize for helping Edytha, the Saxon girl after her capture. “I hate Tedric of Woodrose! I care not for Tedric’s sister, nor have I forgotten Henri. But allowing a knight to attack an innocent girl won’t avenge my husband’s death. Edytha is barely more than a child in years though she has a woman’s body, and—and—you must realize her mind has not matured with her body; otherwise, she’d not have returned of her own volition to Woodrose.” Amberlie faltered beneath Julianne’s contemptuous sneer, wondering where the courage had come from to contradict her mother-in-law openly.

Julianne was a hard, cruel woman who’d never loved anyone but Henri. No matter how earnestly she’d tried, Amberlie hadn’t won the woman’s affections, and now she didn’t wish to try any longer. She disliked Julianne, and always had, but she was under Julianne’s authority, and that of Julianne’s stepbrother, Guy de Bayonne, until King William could choose a new husband for her.

The hatred congealed on Julianne’s face, and Amberlie sensed that the woman would erupt again, so she tried a new tack, one which not even Julianne could fault. “‘Tis our duty,
maman,
to protect this Edytha. She is a captive, and King William would insist she be treated with the fairness due all captives.”

As Amberlie had realized, Julianne couldn’t argue with such logic since it would never do to incur William’s wrath. Too much rested on gaining his good grace; they must do so if Amberlie was to make a favorable marriage after her days of mourning had passed. A favored alliance would certainly bring more lands and heavily filled coffers for Woodrose Keep. If there was one thing which Julianne valued as much as her late son, it was wealth.

Julianne breathed deeply before turning her simmering gaze upon Father Ambrose, forgetting Amberlie. “I will have my revenge, I swear on my son’s grave!” she declared, and rushed from the solar with her black bliaut swishing about her.

The priest smiled weakly in Amberlie’s  direction. “I fear the Lady Julianne spends too much of her time worrying about things she can do naught about. Henri is gone, but alas, ‘tis a pity she has no grandchild to worry over.”

Amberlie tensed and tightly clutched the mending needle.
“Oui,
a child would have occupied Julianne’s time,” she conceded softly as a slight flush colored her peach complexion and forced her to drop her dark-eyed gaze to the stone floor. Father Ambrose wasn’t being intentionally cruel about her childless state, that she knew, for he was a kind and considerate man. But she was well aware that part of Julianne’s dislike of her centered on the very issue of her barren state. God knows how much she’d have welcomed a child, especially now that she was in this strange and barbarous land without Henri and the parents whom she’d adored. She’d been married to Henri for five years before his death, and not once had she conceived. Despite Henri’s youth, he’d been lusty in bed, so the fault couldn’t have been his. It had to be hers. And this was one point to which Julianne constantly alluded: She hadn’t done her duty to Henri and the de Fontaine family by providing an heir; she’d been a poor wife to one of King William’s most noble knights. Clearly, she was to blame.

Ambrose gently touched her on the shoulder. “Forgive me, milady. I meant no disrespect to you.”

Bestowing a gentle smile upon the priest, Amberlie nodded. “I know, ‘tis only that
maman
stretches one’s patience.”

A laugh lighted up his face before it dissolved into seriousness. “Where is Edytha? I trust she shall come to no harm.”

“I’ve placed her with Magda in the weaving room where she’ll be safe. None of the soldiers will bother here there, not with Magda nearby.” Magda was a serving woman who’d lived at the keep and served its former masters. She was also a large, formidable woman who’d guard her charge with her life, and Amberlie trusted Magda to keep the girl away from the knights.

“Good, good. The Lord shall bless you for rescuing her, pagan that she is.”

Amberlie smiled tightly. “Will He, Father? Somehow I believe that the Lord is punishing me. My parents both succumbed to a fever within days of each other last year, and my husband was brutally murdered before I could conceive a child. If I’m not being punished for something, then He has forgotten me.”

“Have faith, milady. The Almighty works in wondrous and strange ways.”

“Strange, yes, I agree. But wondrous, no, Father, I don’t believe; otherwise, I’d not have been left to Julianne’s and Guy’s mercy.”

“But—but —you aren’t,” Ambrose objected, clearly puzzled. “I’d thought Woodrose Keep was yours, now that Henri has died. King William gave the castle to him, didn’t he, as a favor for joining his forces? The property passed to you upon his death, I’d assumed.”

Amberlie laid aside her mending and nodded,
“Oui
, but though I own the keep and the lands surrounding it, I have no power. Julianne controls the coffers and her brother controls the knights. The servants barely listen to me for they’re so frightened of Julianne that they obey her without question. I am useful to my family only as a pawn. They hope to persuade William to marry me off to the richest of his noblemen by using my property as the bait. After all, what man would wish to marry a woman known to be barren without such a lucrative inducement?” She lifted a hand to push a dark wisp of hair away from her face. “So you see, I have riches but no value in myself.”

Ambrose stroked his chin in thought. “You underestimate yourself, milady. Perhaps it is through your property that you’ll find true happiness, and the Lord’s plan for you will come to fruition.”

Amberlie laughed in amusement and rose to her feet. “My father once said that all clerics were soothsayers. I believe he was right.” The priest grimaced, but bowed to her as she headed out of the solar and went to the weaving room to see how Magda was keeping Edytha occupied.

The serving women momentarily ceased their chores, glancing at Amberlie for barely a second longer than was necessary before realizing that the unwelcome intruder wasn’t Julianne. Then they continued their work. Amberlie headed toward where Magda sat on a stool, attempting to instruct the very pretty Saxon girl in an intricate embroidery stitch. Edytha knelt beside the old woman, but appeared more interested in a tattered cloth doll she held in her arms than in learning anything about needlework.

“Now, now, Lady Edytha, ‘tis important to know how to mend and embroider a garment, for one day you’ll marry,” Magda softly cajoled, and placed the needle in Edytha’s hand. “Your husband will not want his clothes frayed.”

Soft waves of blond hair swirled gently around Edytha’s shoulders as she shook her head and raised large blue eyes to Magda. She clutched the doll tighter to her breasts. “Nay, ‘tis only my Mercy I want to mend.”

“And who is Mercy?” Amberlie asked, stopping near them. She smiled at Magda, though she knew the woman wouldn’t return the smile. But Edytha sidled away from Amberlie and grasped Magda’s hand when Amberlie made a movement toward her. Edytha’s wariness disappointed Amberlie, for she’d hoped the girl would begin to trust her and, perhaps, they might be friends —which was a ridiculous notion since Edytha was a prisoner and not quite normal in mind, though she was perfect in body; the young girl was full-breasted and lushly pretty, with masses of pale blond hair hanging past her waist.

“‘Tis her doll,” Magda replied without a hint of friendliness in her voice. Amberlie sensed that the portly woman didn’t like her or regard her as mistress of Woodrose Keep. Most probably she didn’t care for Julianne either, but since Julianne was the one who ran the household staff, and the person who meted out the punishments, no one dared to cross her or be openly hostile. However, none of the servants placed much value in Amberlie’s commands, and at times they openly disobeyed her. But she never wished to berate them; cruelty wasn’t in her nature. Still, she did regard the Saxons as barbarians and held them responsible for Henri’s death. So why did she feel a need to win Edytha’s affection when it was the girl’s own brother who had murdered Henri?

“Your doll is very nice. I’d like to hold her sometime if you’d let me,” Amberlie said pleasantly to Edytha, but gained no response. Apparently Edytha didn’t remember that Amberlie had been the one to save her from the knight’s unwanted attention.

“Lady Edytha is not a child,” Magda stiffly reminded Amberlie. “One day she’ll be forced to give up her cloth baby for real ones. I’ve looked after her from the moment she entered this world. ‘Tis my duty to steer her along the right path, now that her family no longer lives here. If not for the doll”—and here Magda shot a disparaging look at Mercy, who was still clutched in Edytha’s hands— “then my Lady Edytha would never have wandered back to the keep on her own.”

So the doll was the reason that Edytha had returned to Woodrose only to be captured. Amberlie had wondered why the girl had wandered away from her family and wherever it was they were now hiding.

“Is her family far from here?” Amberlie inquired, hoping somehow to break down Magda’s silence. “If not, we can return her to them.”

“I know not where they are, my lady,” was Magda’s icy but courteous reply as she turned her attention back to Edytha. Amberlie realized Magda was close-mouthed and much too loyal to the keep’s former owners. Seeing that Magda had dismissed her, Amberlie left the weaving room only to encounter Guy outside the doorway. He smiled at her, as if he were genuinely pleased to see her.

A tall man, taller than Henri had been but not as stocky, Guy wore his dark hair, sprinkled with gray, brushed forward in the Norman style, while the back of his head was shaved to ear level. Though this style originated with King William and was worn by William’s loyal knights, Amberlie thought Guy looked as if he wore a bowl atop his head. His red tunic covered muscular arms, indicative of his prowess with a sword. Each day Guy practiced in the bailey, easily besting his opponents, each of whom, in his mind’s eye, was Tedric the Barbarian.

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