Authors: Emily Woods
2016 Emily Woods
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ady Rosamund looked
from beyond the curtains, hardly able to suppress the smile that was threatening to break free of her rigid composure. Her father had allowed her to attend the wedding celebration of her favorite cousin, Lady Catherine. She had not seen Catherine in a long time and she was in dire need of female companionship.
At an early age, Rosamund had lost her mother to an illness that had swept over the castle. Her parents had sent her away to live with Lady Catherine and her family and the two girls had remained the very best of friends even after she was summoned back to her father’s side.
Lord William looked on at his daughter with affection. If all daughters were just like his Rosamund, fathers all over Europe would have no cause for worry. She was a quiet little thing with piercing blue eyes that reminded him of his beloved wife every time he looked into them. She also had her mother’s wit and, despite the reserved nature she often portrayed before company, he did so enjoy their banters over every subject under the sun.
One such subject he had broached delicately was the subject of marriage. Among the nobility, it was not uncommon for marriages to be arranged in order to secure alliances. Lady Rosamund was aware of this but as a father, he worried that she might harbor some romantic ideas regarding marriage as some young women were prone to do. His wife’s brother had already expressed concern that Lady Catherine grew even more melancholy as her wedding approached.
“Lady Catherine is getting married to Baron Ingram in the summer,” he’d mentioned casually as they played chess after dinner one evening.
“Cathy is of marriageable age,” Rosamund had replied as she made a move. She smiled a little and glanced at her father. “Most girls dream of being wed and I have heard many good things about Baron Braxton. They say it is a good match.”
“Your uncle worries for her. She has taken to eating less lately.”
The truth of the matter was that Lady Catherine had remained in her rooms for nigh on a month and refused more food, relying mostly on fruits for sustenance. Henry had mentioned that his daughter was becoming a ghost before his eyes and he feared that a slight chill would prove fatal for his third daughter.
“She must be excited,” his daughter surmised. “It would be difficult to stomach anything, should that be the case.”
He moved his knight and checked his daughter’s facial expressions. Rosamund was the picture of serenity as she surveyed the chessboard.
“Would you be as anxious if you were in her place?”
Rosamund smiled. “Have I any cause to be anxious? I am certain my father will find a man who will be a good match for me in every way. He is quite a wise man.” She made her move and raised an eyebrow delicately. “Checkmate.”
ord William sighed
as he escorted his daughter out of the carriage and into the castle where Henry and his wife were waiting to welcome them. The strain of the wedding celebrations seemed to weigh heavily on them both so much so that they seemed to be attending a funeral rather than a festive occasion.
Nonetheless, they received him and Rosamund warmly. A glassy shine came over Lady Lucinda’s eyes as she clasped her niece’s hands.
“Catherine will be so happy to see you,” she said hoarsely.
Rosamund glanced questioningly at her father but an imperceptible nod from him had her turning her attentions back to her aunt.
“I am quite excited to meet her again as well,” she said with a smile. “Would she mind it so terribly if I visit her now? I do not mean to intrude upon her preparations but I feel that I must at least give her my warmest wishes.”
“Nonsense!” Lucinda laughed, a sound that seemed a little too shrill. “She would be ecstatic to see you. Come, I shall take you to her right now! Heaven knows that girl needs someone her age at this moment.”
Rosamund felt a heavy feeling settle in her gut, which intensified when her aunt led her to her cousin’s rooms. It had taken every bit of her composure to bite back the gasp that would have escaped her lips at the sight of Lady Catherine, the bride, sitting in the sunlight by her window.
Gone were the bright golden curls on her head or the rosy warmth of her cheeks. Two gray eyes peered at her from a gaunt face that looked much older than her sixteen summers. Her dress, a jaunty yellow affair, hung loosely from her thin frame so much so that it seemed that the fabric would swallow her cousin whole.
She pressed a kiss on a cheek that seemed more parchment than flesh and smiled brightly at her cousin.
“Catherine, it is wonderful to see you again,” she murmured.
“I will leave you two girls to chat,” Lady Lucinda choked as she closed the door behind her.
The moment the heavy oak panel shut close, Lady Catherine broke into a fit of sobs in her cousin’s arms. Rosamund instinctively held her cousin’s thin frame, afraid that if she let go, the force of Catherine’s sobs would tear apart her frail body.
“There now,” she whispered soothingly. “I had no idea I was missed so much!”
“It’s terrible! This entire affair is so terrible!” Catherine heaved. “If I had known it would hurt this much, I would never have ventured out from my rooms!”
My cousin must be going mad
, Rosamund thought in alarm.
“What is so terrible that it takes the light from your eyes and the glow from your cheeks?”
“Rosie, dear, never fall in love! The bards, the poets, they’re all wrong!” Catherine exclaimed wildly. “It hurts so much that I cannot eat. I cannot sleep. I cannot even breathe!”
“But you are getting married, dearest Catherine,” she said in puzzlement. “Surely, this is cause for happiness, getting married to the one you love.”
“That is where you are wrong, cousin.”
Rosamund watched the brief excitement disappear from her cousin’s eyes as she clambered back to her cushioned chair. No doubt, Lady Lucinda had placed the pillow there to soften the friction between Catherine’s scrawny frame and the hard wood.
“It was almost a year ago,” her cousin said wistfully as she stared out into the bustling courtyard. “I had gone to one of the fairs with Mother to buy some ribbons and fabric to make a new dress. He had been so handsome and so kind, I liked him instantly.”
She watched as her cousin related to her the love story that was slowly murdering her. Apparently, Catherine had fallen in love with a merchant’s son and he, with her. They had courted in secret, aided by her maid, Joanna, through missives and correspondences. They had even kissed, much to her cousin’s consternation.
“I swear I will die without him, Rosie. I will,” Catherine declared emphatically. “Without Harry, there will be no sun in the sky, no stars in the night. All life will go out and I will be left in a world that will never know happiness again.”
Rosamund gaped at her cousin. “But think about your mother and father! You cannot think this is the end of your world, Catherine. Surely you will come to love the baron as well. If you die, your entire family will be in disgrace, not to mention you will offend the baron!”
“If you are so concerned for Baron Ingram, why do you not marry him yourself!” her cousin huffed, turning away from her. “Leave me be, Rosamund. If you will only talk so disparagingly of my sorry state of affairs, then I have no need for your company.”
She watched as Catherine shut the world around her away once more and her eyes filled with tears. What madness had possessed her cousin so much so that she would forsake her family and her family’s honor for a mere boy?
Her hand fell away and she stood up. She smoothed her skirts and fought to regain her composure, although it was proving to be so difficult after watching her cousin fall apart.
“I only meant to offer my counsel, Catherine, nothing more,” she kissed her cousin’s cheek once more and left the room quietly.
Every noblewoman knew that very seldom were marriages arranged for love. No, they were meant to secure allies and borders. Sometimes, love crept into the equation and sometimes, it did not. Nonetheless, they lived in a world were nobles waged war for the slightest offense and it was better to forge alliances than sacrifice much for a hollow victory.
This much, Rosamund knew.
Yet, the vacant look in her cousin’s eyes, interspersed by the wildness she witnessed when she talked of her great love for this merchant’s son, instilled a fear in her heart that she could not shake off so easily. She teetered for a moment, using the walls to steady her balance as she made her way to the rooms that were both familiar and foreign to her.
Better to never know love than have it slowly murder you as you breathe
, she thought sullenly as she reclined on the mattress.
Later that night, Rosamund awoke to a loud wail that she vaguely recognized as her aunt’s. She started to bolt for her doors when her father’s silhouette came into the frame. His merry blue eyes had lost their familiar twinkle. Something was amiss.
“Go back to sleep, daughter,” he said quietly.
She nodded in obedience and pulled the covers over herself even as feelings of dread stole into her mind. She slept in fits and when morning finally came, she awoke to a household in mourning.
Catherine had jumped out of her window in the middle of the night. Instead of a wedding, Rosamund would be attending a funeral.
ord Stephen considered
himself a rational being.
At the age of sixteen, his father had fallen ill as a result of a lifetime of vices and Stephen had sworn to himself that he would not allow his subjects to shoulder the upkeep of his estate by levying taxes that would bury them further into the ground. The moment the senior Count Braxton was confined to his rooms, Stephen had taken it upon himself to revive Braxton Hall, carefully avoiding matrimonial pursuits until he deemed his estate prepared to receive a bride.
In the first year of his management, he managed to pay off most of his father’s debts. He had staggered first upon receiving the statement of his father’s accounts. By sheer good luck and perseverance, he had managed to save Braxton Hall from collapsing on itself and burying him alive with it.
The next three years, he had worked to bring back the glory of the hall with businesses and frequent visits to the villages that supplied the hall. He talked to the farmers, the weavers, the smiths and the merchants. Taking advantage of the routes of traders, Stephen boosted the income of his subjects by encouraging business with passing merchants. Slowly, Braxton Hall began to shine like a jewel that any man could be proud of.
Unfortunately, as with any other jewel, it began to attract the covetous eyes of some of his neighbors. In an effort to strengthen his defenses, he looked for allies on his western border. Lord Fitzhugh had three daughters and the youngest was yet unwed but of marriageable age.
Stephen grimaced at the memory of that affair. His betrothal to Fitzhugh’s daughter had not gone well and he had very little desire to settle down with another noblewoman of such delicate constitution.
“Lord Braxton, the men report seeing a caravan approaching the northwestern border.”
Stephen looked up from the papers on his desk and nodded briefly before dipping his quill into the bottle. “Please see to it that the caravan arrives safely in Braxton Hall.”
He looked up when he felt a heavy hand on his left shoulder. The old knight smiled grimly at him. “You seem quite grim for a man about to be married, milord.”
“My experience with matrimony has not exactly been ideal, Sir Bram,” he replied.
Sir Bram guffawed. “Milord, that was not an experience at all.”
“By all accounts, Lady Rosamund seems quite agreeable,” he said quietly. “Her father assures me she is amenable to the union.”
His mentor nodded and stroked his beard. Although he owed allegiance to the younger man as a knight in his service, Bram had looked after Stephen like his own favorite nephew when the young lord’s father lost his mind with grief after the death of his wife. He had tutored the heir of Braxton Hall in swordplay and the tactics of war, all the while hoping his liege lord would never have to experience such devastation.
When the other lords began to eye Braxton Hall, he had subtly suggested to the young lord to seek allies where he would find them.
“Agreeable may not necessarily be a good thing, milord,” Sir Bram told him gently. “Women are mercurial creatures who would change their minds at the drop of a hat. She may be agreeable to her father and loathe you in secret.”
“What do you suggest I do then, Sir Bram? Bend her to my will?”
The old knight grinned at him. “Woo her, milord. Women like a good wooing. Appeal to her softer side.”
“Considering that she was hardly consulted on the matter,” Stephen said wryly, “I doubt the good lady will be receptive to any advances from my side. Although…”
“Although what, milord?”
Stephen smiled slowly. “Is Lady Rosamund aware of the state of the finances of Braxton Hall?”
Bram frowned. “Almost everyone in the kingdom is aware of the rise of Braxton Hall from the ashes, milord.”
“Which may be the only reason why the good lady is agreeable to this union in the first place,” he said grimly. “As it stands, Braxton Hall is in need of the hand of a woman to maintain its upkeep. However, I find that not any woman will do for the job, alliances or no. Lady Rosamund must first prove herself worthy of Braxton Hall before we accept her as its mistress.”
“What do you suggest, milord? That we make her go through a series of tests before you wed her?”
Stephen straightened himself. “Braxton Hall did not achieve its current status by being rich all the while. We had resources, yes, but it took a great amount of effort for this castle to become what it is now. I would require a woman who is not so delicate in constitution that she would faint at the first whiff of trouble or worse, run back to her father.”
He paced his study, his brow wrinkled in thought. “Your suggestion that I woo the lady is commendable, yes. I agree we must appeal to her softer side. However, we must also ensure that Lady Rosamund would not abandon us at the first sign of trouble. Braxton Hall has already garnered the envy of at least three lords. I will not have my wife, its mistress, betray us should a skirmish between the other lords arise.”
Bram frowned as he watched the young lord pace. Stephen was given to these thoughts. His liege lord was most likely to think out of the box, which was why the restoration of Braxton Hall had been so unexpected and quick that even its subjects were amazed. However, at times like these, Lord Stephen was also wont to leave his subjects scratching their heads. In the end, they have all learned better and trust in his unorthodox ways.
Stephen smiled suddenly and opened the door, instructing a posted knight to summon a certain Sir Gregory to his study.
“If you do not mind me asking, milord,” Sir Bram started. “I would like to at least know what it is you are up to.”
Stephen grinned when Sir Gregory stepped into the room. “Ah! Just the man we need.” He went over and stood beside Sir Gregory. Both men were of about the same height and build. Both were also possessed of thick, wavy brown hair and green eyes. “What say you, Sir Bram?”
The reality of what his liege lord was proposing left Bram astounded. “You cannot possibly mean to have him take your place, milord?”
“Precisely!” he affirmed. “Sir Gregory will stand in my place throughout the ceremonial activities of this affair. I shall take his place as Sir Stephen, a knight in the service of the Lord of Braxton Hall, tasked to keep the lord’s betrothed safe.” He looked Sir Bram in the eye. “This will give me enough time to be in the presence of the lady without it being unseemly. I will be better able to judge her character, as well as woo her with romantic tales of Lord Braxton.”
“You are out of your mind!”
“Which was what you first said when I set into motion my plans for Braxton Hall nigh on eight years ago, Sir Bram.” He placed a hand on Sir Gregory’s shoulder. “I trust that three days will be enough time to learn the ways of a liege lord, Sir Gregory?”
The knight knelt on one knee. “I am ever at your disposal, milord.”
“Rise, Sir Gregory,” he grinned. “You and I have a lot to learn from each other in three days.”
“I must advice you against this, sire,” Sir Bram started. “For one thing, your betrothal hangs in the balance. I cannot guarantee the Lady Rosamund will take lightly to being made a fool of by her betrothed.”
“Hence, we learn of Lady Rosamund’s character before we are tied together until death do us part.”
“Second of all,” Bram continued, “How will you manage to run Braxton Hall while you run about escorting your betrothed all over town?”
Stephen regarded him coolly. “Which is quite the same if I spend time wooing her. The only difference is that I shall be under the guise of a lowly knight.”
“This is not a game, sire!”
“On the contrary,” Lord Stephen grinned for the first time in days, “all of life is a game. What matters most is how ‘tis played and I intend to play to win.”