Authors: Kinley MacGregor
For the four most important men in my lifeâKen, Madaug, Cabal, and Ian.
For Monique in appreciation of all the hard work you do, your keen insights, and the never-ending laughter you give (and for being a sane voice on the phone when I need a good pick-me-up)âyou're the greatest and I adore you! For Nancy who is a wealth of encouragement and sage advice, and who is just plain wonderful through and through!
For my dearest friends without whom I would be forever lost: Rickey, Deb, Cathy, Laura, Diana, and Rebecca. And a special thank-you to Varlerie Walton at IEI.
And of course there's my most wonderful mom to whom I owe the greatest debt of all. Thanks, Mom, I love you.
I am truly blessed to have all of you in my life!
“He is the devil!”
“All a woman ever needs know about men isâ¦
The wee hours of the morn found Emily aloneâ¦
Just before dusk, they entered the bailey ofâ¦
Emily had just sat down to break her fast withâ¦
In the black of night, Draven made his way upâ¦
To Draven's amazement, they actually made itâ¦
“Do you think me foolish?” Emily asked asâ¦
With Alys trailing behind her, Emily cameâ¦
Emily stared in disbelief at Christina'sâ¦
Stunned by his question, her body still inflamedâ¦
Draven actually groaned as she came near him,â¦
Emily rode the rest of the way to Ravenswoodâ¦
Later that night, Emily sat upstairs with herâ¦
For days Draven drifted in and out ofâ¦
Draven wanted to spend the rest of the dayâ¦
“Why do you weep?” Hugh asked as Emilyâ¦
“Milady, the king requests an audienceâ¦
Morning came too slowly to Draven, who metâ¦
e is the devil!”
Draven de Montague, the fourth earl of Ravenswood, snorted aloud at the conviction in Hugh's voice as they stood before the throne of King Henry II, while Draven's brother and one of Hugh's men stood a few feet behind them. 'Twas an epitaph he'd heard more times than he could count.
His lip curling in wry amusement, Draven quickly agreed. “Spawned of hell and suckled on the teat of a demon. I make no claims to anything else.” It was, after all, his reputation they spoke of. And in this land of chaos, Draven was the undisputed champion.
Two guards, who stood as still as statues, flanked the throne where the king sat. Dressed in a dark mulberry with his gold crown shining in the torchlight, Henry looked less than pleased as he darted his gaze between his two noblemen. Even though Draven had shed his own blood, and spilled even more to secure Henry's crown, he knew the limits of his monarch's tolerance, and at this point, the king had been pushed too far.
Hugh took a careless step toward Henry's throne. “I want him to leave my lands alone, Majesty. Surely he has enough land to pacify himself with that he can leave off Warwick.”
Henry Plantagenet was not a man one approached recklessly. He was a man made by his own determination and raw courage, a man who had much in common with Draven, and better still, he was a man indebted to Draven.
The look on Henry's face was one of hell wrath and brimstone.
Finding a moment of sanity, Hugh stepped back and cast his gaze to the cobbled floor.
Henry looked to Draven and sighed. “We do not understand how this conflict started. Draven, you say he attacked you, and Hugh, you say he attacked you, and neither of you claims to have instigated the matter. This reminds us of two illbred children fighting over a toy while they both scream injustice. We particularly expect better from you, Draven.”
Draven did his best not to show the anger coiling through him. He had served Henry faithfully for more than half his life. Even so, he was no man's fool or pawn, and he answered to no one save himself. Henry had long ago learned that fact, and it was what made Draven such a valuable ally to him. Their alliance had been forged in battle and in blood.
His rage simmering, Draven dared to meet the king's gaze as an equal. “As you well know, my liege, I do not cower, nor will I bow down before this man as he attacks my peasants and raids my fields. If Hugh wants a war, then by God, I am definitely the one to deliver it to him.”
Henry looked upward as if seeking the holy saints to aid him. “We grow weary of our lords battling amongst themselves. We realize the years under Stephen were lax, but those days are gone. 'Tis I, Henry, who rules this land, and we shall have peace in it.” He looked straight at Draven. “Do you understand?”
“Aye, my liege.”
Henry's look then turned to Hugh, whose gaze still examined the floor at his feet. “And you?”
Henry's stern features relaxed a degree. “'Tis good then. But since we know better than to trust two mice left afield while the cat is occupied elsewhere, we must set this deal in a more permanent fashion.”
A sick feeling of dread settled in Draven's gullet. He knew Henry well enough to realize this would not be to his liking.
Henry continued, “Since neither of you seems wont to admit who attacked first, we shall implore the wisdom of Solomon. If you both have possession of something the other cherishes, then mayhap you'll think twice before committing any further hostilities.”
“Majesty?” Hugh asked, his voice carrying the weight of his own trepidation.
Henry stroked his auburn beard. “You have a daughter, do you not, Hugh?”
“Aye, sire, I have three still living.”
Henry nodded, then looked to Draven, who met his gaze with impertinent directness.
“And what of you, Draven?”
“I have a wastrel brother I have longed to be rid of for years.”
Said brother sputtered in indignation from ten paces behind him, but wisely kept his silence before his king.
His face perplexed, Henry thought the matter over. “Tell us, Simon,” he directed to Draven's younger brother, “what does your brother hold dearest on this earth?”
Draven turned slightly to see Simon squirming beneath the attention of his king. With his head sedately bowed, Simon spoke, “In truth, Your Majesty, 'tis his honor only that he treasures. He would die to protect it.”
“Aye,” Henry said thoughtfully. “We have seen the limits to which he would go to see his honor held. Very well, we demand Draven swear on his honor that he will not raid or harass Hugh, and Hugh is to hand one of his daughters over as pledge for his good conduct.”
“What!” Hugh bellowed so loudly that Draven half expected the rafters to fall down around them. “You cannot be serious.”
Henry directed a heated glare at Hugh. “Sir, you forget yourself. 'Tis your king you address and treasonous ground you tread upon.”
Hugh's face was redder than the crimson surcoat Draven wore over his armor. “Your Majesty, I beg you, do not ask this of me. My daughters are gentle creatures unused to hardship or the company of men. My eldest is to marry a few weeks hence, and her sister is a nun sworn to St. Anne's. Surely you cannot demand that they relinquish their oaths to be held hostage for an indefinite term?”
“You spoke of a third daughter?”
Complete and utter horror was etched on Hugh's long, withered face. “Sire, Emily is the gentlest of all my daughters. She quivers at the slightest scare. An hour with Ravenswood and she would die from her fear. I beg you, please do not demand this.”
Henry narrowed his eyes. “We wish the two of you had left us with a choice. But alas, we grow weary of the constant complaints and accusations of our lords. Indeed, on the morrow I am bound to Hexham to settle yet another matter between two barons who can't seem to mind their own lands. All we want is peace!” Henry bellowed.
The king's glare intensified. “Hugh, you are the one who beseeched the crown to intervene in this matter. We have given you our solution, so let it be done, and pity to the reckless soul who dares cross this crown.”
Henry appeared to calm a degree. “The Lady Emily is to be handed over to Draven for safekeeping.”
A lady in his home! Draven could feel his lip starting to curl at the thought. It was on his tongue to tell Henry to forget the whole matter, but one look and he knew better than to question the king's dictates.
Then the most incredible thing happened. Hugh went down on his knees before Henry's throne. His yellow and white surcoat billowed around him in a puddle as he bowed down and touched his forehead on the stone floor.
“Please, Majesty,” Hugh begged, his voice quivering. “You cannot take my daughter and then ask only for Ravenswood's oath. I beg you. Emily isâ¦she is my life. You may have my lands, but please leave my daughter be.”
For an instant Draven almost felt sorry for the man, until he recalled the village that had been burned in the dead of night. The women who had been raped and butchered in their beds.
Had it not been for Henry's summons, he would have besieged Hugh's castle over the deed and seen the earl's walls torn asunder.
But the king owed a blood debt to Hugh's father, and as the king's champion, Draven had been bound not to harm Hugh without royal decree.
Like it or not, Draven knew that only the presence of Hugh's daughter in his home would guarantee Hugh's benevolent behavior toward Draven's people. And as always, he would protect his people and do as his king bade him.
Henry stroked his beard in thought as he listened to Hugh continue to implore his mercy. “On your feet, Hugh.”
Hugh stood, his eyes shining bright from unshed tears.
“We hear your plea, and we can assure you Draven takes his oaths most seriously. We have seen him execute his duty to us with acts of unquestion able loyalty. However, since you have been known to recant your oath, we must ensure that this time peace is kept.”
The king referred to the fact that Hugh had once promised to support Henry's claim to the throne, only to turn around two months later and join King Stephen's forces.
Hugh was not one to be trusted. Ever.
“If Your Majesty so doubts my loyalty, then why do I still have my lands?” Hugh asked.
Henry's nostrils flared. “You have your father to thank for that, and rather than ask our motives, you should be grateful for our continued mercy and should act with appropriate gratitude. Draven shall hold her for one year. If in that time you have shown yourself honorable, she shall be returned to you.”
Hugh's face turned to granite. “You act as if I am the one who instigated this matter,” he muttered. “Why am I to be punished while heâ”
“Silence!” Henry roared. “Another insolent word from you and I shall see you stripped of
you hold dearest.”
Hugh wisely held his tongue, but his eyes glowed with pure malice.
Henry motioned for his scribe to write down his decree. “Should you attack Draven or any of his people or lands in the coming year, your daughter will be his to do with as he pleases.”
Hugh slid his gaze to Draven. “And if he should harm or shame her, sire?”
Henry's face hardened. “As the right hand of the crown, Draven knows firsthand what we do to traitors. We have trusted our life to Draven, and we will accept his pledge on the bones of St. Peter that he will not harm her. To allay your fears, Hugh, I shall send one of my personal physicians to inspect your daughter now and again in one year to ensure she is returned to you in the same condition in which she leaves your protection.”
Then to Draven Henry said, “Lady Emily will be considered our ward. Any harm done her will be done to us. We trust you will guard her accordingly?”
“Aye, Your Majesty. I shall guard her with my life.”
“'Tis good then. Now go and make preparations. Draven, seek out our priest and make your oath.”
Henry directed his gaze to Hugh, then spoke ominously, “Draven will ride home with you to secure your daughter. Should our royal messengers return from Ravenswood with news she is not there, we will not be pleased.”
Simultaneously, they bowed and walked backward from the throne room.
Once the heavy wooden doors were closed behind them, Hugh whirled on Draven. “One way or another, I shall see you dead over this,” he hissed.
“Is that a threat?” Draven asked with a hint of amusement in his voice. The last thing under heaven Draven feared was death; indeed it would come as a welcome relief.
Simon grabbed Draven and pulled him back from Hugh. “The king lies within hearing,” he whispered furiously. “Does either of you wish for another conference with him?”
Hugh's eyes flared, and then he spun on his heel and stalked off.
“Fear not, Hugh. I shall make your daughter most welcome.”
A curse echoed in the hallway, but Hugh never looked around, and it was only after the earl was out of his sight that Draven allowed his face to show just how ill he felt inside.
No lady had been inside Ravenswood in almost a score of years. Closing his eyes to blot the memory, Draven wished he could also block out the screams of terror and pleas for mercy that echoed through his head.
And now another lady was coming.
“It's only for one year,” Simon whispered.
Draven locked gazes with him. “Need I remind you, brother, of the curse?”
“You are not your father.”
He arched a brow. “You think not? Am I not his equal in speed and battle? Does not everyone remark that I am truly his image?”
“You are not your father,” Simon repeated.
But Draven didn't hear it that time either. For he knew the truth. He was his father's son, and unlike Simon, the curse of that man's fetid blood beat through his veins.
To bring a well-born woman to Ravenswood was to sign the order for her execution, and Draven was about to swear his holy honor on a lady's welfare.
Fate was indeed a cruel bitch, and she was laughing mightily at him this day.