Authors: Kinley MacGregor
He failed miserably.
“I think you should ask your daughter if it is always her habit to attack any man who annoys her with a chicken,” the handsome knight said with a hint of amusement in his voice. His face, however, showed nothing.
“Silence, Ravenswood,” her father snarled. “You know nothing of my daughter, or her habits.”
“That will change soon enough.”
Emily cocked a brow at the comment. Whatever did he mean by that?
She wouldn't have thought it possible, but her father's face turned even redder, his eyes darker. It was only then she caught the handsome knight's name.
Surely he wasn't
Draven de Montague, earl of Ravenswood; the man her father had gone to the king to have Henry censure?
Why on earth would they be riding together? Given her father's hatred of the earl, she couldn't imagine it.
Something odd was afoot here, and she couldn't wait to get her father alone to find out just what was going on.
Her father's eyes softened as he looked at her. “Did Theodore hurt you, Em?”
Theodore stiffened. “I would never harm a lady.” His eyes, however, told another story. She could see pure malice there, and she silently vowed to make sure he never caught her alone again.
Still, Emily was never one to be intimidated. She could handle him well enough, with or without a chicken.
“I am fine, Father,” she assured him.
“'Tis the chicken he terrified,” the earl said wryly.
Emily bit her lip to keep from laughing again as she looked past her father's shoulder to see that the earl's face bore no trace of humor.
Her father's nostrils flared.
Emily threw her arms around her father and hugged him tightly. The last thing she wanted was for him to be angry the instant he came home. He'd spent far too much time brooding and being miserable. Besides, she hated to see anyone unhappy. “I'm so glad you're home. Did you have a pleasant journey?”
“A journey to hell would have been more pleasurable,” he muttered.
Her father cast a feral glare back to the knights on horseback. “You might as well stay the night. You can leave first thing on the morrow.”
The earl of Ravenswood narrowed his gaze on her father. “I make it my habit not to lie down with my enemies. We shall camp outside your walls.” His gaze turned even icier. “We will leave at first light. I would counsel you to have everything in order.”
And with that mysterious warning, the earl wheeled his massive warhorse about and led all but two royal messengers and her father's three knights from the bailey.
Theodore excused himself and made a dripping trail toward the stable.
Emily looked to her father. Something wasn't right about any of this. “Father?”
He sighed and draped a weary arm around her shoulders. “Come, my precious Em. I needs speak with you alone.”
Draven and his men found a small clearing just beyond the castle's gate where a small stream provided fresh water. Left alone as was his preference, he brushed his horse while his men prepared tents and his brother, Simon, started a fire.
Still, he couldn't get the sight of Hugh's daughter from his mind. All he had to do was close his eyes and he could see her as plainly as he had when she'd stood before them, her face alight and smiling, and her dark green eyes shining in mischief.
And the chickenâ¦.
He almost laughed. Until her smiling face drifted before him again and tormented him with a fiery groin.
Grinding his teeth, he tightened his grip on the brush.
The Lady Emily wasn't the typical beauty milksops sighed over. She held a strange exotic quality to her that almost defied his abilities to name her essence or her charms.
But what had held his attention most were her large, catlike eyes that burned mischievously while they took in the world with an astounding boldness.
She was slender with a wealth of curly blond hair that fell to her hips. He doubted if the very angels in heaven had a face that was so soft and alluring. No wonder Hugh had balked at the thought of letting her go. A treasure so priceless should be guarded with care, and in spite of himself, he felt a tiny degree of respect for a man who would try to protect his child.
Goliath reared his head and snorted.
“Sorry, boy,” he said as he realized he'd been brushing the same spot far too long. Draven gave a gentle pat to the horse's flank to soothe his thoughtlessness. It wasn't like him to be careless with his animals, and he hoped he hadn't caused a sore spot with his daydreaming.
Pushing the girl from his thoughts, he continued his chores.
He was adding oats to his horse's feed sack when Simon approached.
“Not what you expected?” his brother asked.
“The feed sack?” he responded in a deliberate effort to keep his brother from broaching a most disturbing subject. “'Tis the same as it ever was.”
Simon rolled his eyes. “I have no interest in the sack as well you know. 'Tis the lady I speak of. Can you believe the daughter of Lord Big Nose was so comely? I can't recall the last time I saw a lady so well formed.”
“She is the daughter of my enemy.”
“And the woman you've sworn to protect.”
Draven looped the sack over the horse's head. “Why do you bother me with trivial facts I already know?”
Simon had a devilish look about him, and if it were any man save Simon, that teasing quality of his would have been laid to rest long ago. But for all the annoyance, Draven loved his younger brother.
Simon grinned at him. “You know, I so seldom get to see you squirm that I rather enjoy the novelty of it. It makes you seem almost human.”
Draven stroked Goliath's forehead, then moved to retrieve his saddle and saddlebags from the ground before heading back to his men.
He paused by Simon's side. “Whatever humanity ever existed in me, I can assure you it was beaten out long ago. You of all men should know that. I will protect her because my king ordered it. Beyond that, she will not exist for me.”
“As you say.”
Draven narrowed his gaze. “It is as I say.” He headed toward the fire.
“One day, I hope you learn, brother, that you are not a monster born of hell.”
Draven ignored Simon's words. In truth, he envied his brother's optimism. It was a rare gift their mother had given her younger son. But he had not been so lucky, and fate had never been kind to him. Holding on to dreams and hopes only emphasized just how vacant his life had always been. He wasn't a fool to think anything would change.
It never had and it surely never would. This was his lot, and he would survive it just as he had always survived every blow dealt him.
he wee hours of the morn found Emily alone in her bower with her sister as they finished packing Emily's things. Disbelief still filled herâat long last, and for the first time in her life, she was leaving home.
“I can't believe you'll be gone in just a few hours,” Joanne whispered, her voice filled with tears.
“Nor I,” Emily breathed. “I know I should be afraid, butâ”
“You're excited,” Joanne finished for her. “I would be too. Imagine”âshe glanced around the tapestried walls surrounding themâ“leaving this place for an entire year. I know how much you've always wanted to.”
Emily nodded, her heart pounding at the thought. “I had always hoped it would be my husband who led me away. But I fear I lacked your courage to force Father's hand.”
Joanne's face became a mask of horror. “You should be grateful for your good sense. I daresay I thought Father would kill the two of us after he found us.”
Emily knew her words for fact. Their mother and two elder sisters had all died in childbirth, and since her sister Anna had died nine years past, her father had sworn that no man would take the life of another of his girls.
From that day forward, he had locked his gate against any man who would play suitor to them, forcing her sister Judith to join a convent to escape his watchful care.
Niles had been allowed inside only because their father had assumed she and Joanne would never find the baron attractive. In truth, Emily didn't know why Joanne had taken a fancy to him, other than the fact he wasn't married.
Niles was a bear of a man with a cruel tilt to his mouth, who seemed to enjoy bullying those around him. Many times she had confided in Joanne her thoughts, but Joanne dismissed her as foolish, saying that Niles treated her with only the greatest regard.
Still, Emily couldn't shake her misgivings about the man.
Not that it mattered. Joanne was determined to have a husband, and Niles seemed determined to have Joanne's dower property, which bordered his own outside York.
Joanne reached out and touched her hand. “I know Father is difficult. But it is only his love for us that makes him so protective.”
“Loves us so that we are treated like the birds in his mews. Forever kept locked in a cage without hope of freedom.”
Joanne squeezed her hand. “He is a harsh, unyielding man, but his heart is good. You can't fault him for that.”
Emily cocked an eyebrow at her sister's words. “This from the woman who railed against him just weeks ago when he refused Niles's offer for your hand?”
Joanne smiled sheepishly. “You are right. I hated him then, for I knew if Niles got away, there would be no other man to offer for me. I am long past a marriageable age.”
“And I am fast passing it myself. How many men would have a bride at a score and two years?”
“Not many,” Joanne agreed.
“Aye, not many.”
They sat in silence for several minutes while they finished packing her last trunk. Emily allowed her thoughts to drift.
All her life she'd had but one dreamâto be a wife and mother. Her father's adamant refusal to see her wed had long vexed her. But for the coming year, she would be out of her father's direct control, and if sheâ
“What?” Joanne asked, her voice thick with apprehension.
Emily blinked at the intrusion on her thoughts. “What what?” she repeated.
“What were you thinking?” Joanne asked. “By the look on your face, I would say 'tis not something you should have been thinking.”
“I know that look, Em, 'tis the same one you had just before you locked poor Godfried in the garderobe.”
“He deserved it,” she said defensively, even though she took pride in the memory of the deed. Her cousin Godfried had been in residence only a sennight when they had declared war on each other. In those days, she hadn't cared much for him, and to have him fostered at her home where he had been free to mock her at willâ¦
Well, his two-hour stint in the garderobe had taught him well she wasn't one to be picked on with impunity. He had treated her much more kindly from that day forward.
“'Tis also the same look you had just before you set father's prized gyrfalcon free.”
Now that had not turned out so well. No older than five at the time, she still swore she could feel the sting of her father's hand across her backside. He had not been happy when he learned she had felt sorry for his caged falcon and set it loose.
“Every time I have seen that look upon your face, mischief always followed. I can only shudder at what it heralds now.”
Emily dismissed Joanne's words with a wave of her hand. “Perhaps it heralds a way to have what I have always wanted.”
“And that is?”
Emily looked askance at her. “Do you think the earl of Ravenswood is as evil as Father claims?”
Joanne frowned. “What are you thinking?”
Emily shrugged away her concern. “I was thinking that Lord Draven might be the rose I've been seeking.”
“Oh, sister, please I beg you. Do not think that which I know you are thinking. You have heard the stories same as I. They say he killed his own father just for pleasure.”
“Perhaps that is just a rumor, like the one calling Father a barbarous traitor. You said yourself that Father is a harsh man with a kind heart.”
“Harsh, aye, but I have heard the earl of Ravenswood is mad. You have heard such tales yourself. That he is a demon who never sleeps. They say the devil himself has cleared a spot to the right hand of his throne in expectation of the day Lord Draven will join him.”
Emily felt her hopes deflate as she considered it further. “Nay, you are right. 'Tis a foolish idea. I shall spend a year with a madman, then return here to finish out my life in solitary company.”
A single tear fled down her cheek.
Joanne reached out and brushed the tear away. “Don't cry, Em. Someday your rose will come for you on the back of his white charger. He'll face Father's wrath and triumph, then take you away from here just as Niles is doing with me.”
“But I want children,” she whispered. “If he waits much longer, I shall be too old to enjoy them, or else see them grown. It's so unfair!”
Joanne pulled her into a tight hug. “I know, little sister. I wish I could spend the year in your place. But the time will pass, and I promise when it does I shall beg Father to let you come stay with me for a time. We will find you a husband then. I promise you.”
Emily hugged her sister tightly. “Just promise me it won't be Theodore.”
Joanne laughed softly.
They sat in silence for several minutes, until Emily heard footsteps shuffling outside. “I will kill him, if it is the last thing I do! I shall gouge out his eyes and grind them to dust. No man shall have my Em!
“By God's right arm, she is all I have left and I will not see her gone. Do you hear me?” he shouted angrily. “No one will take my youngest babe from me! Never!”
Emily's throat grew tight as her father made his way to the garderobe.
Closing her eyes, Emily realized how futile it would be to hope her father would wait out the year. There was no way under heaven he would ever leave her in the clutches of his enemy with nothing more than that man's oath to secure her welfare. He loved her too much and trusted Draven too little.
They locked concerned gazes.
“What are we to do?” Joanne asked fearfully.
Emily bit her lip as she tried to think of something. “I will have to find some way to get Lord Draven to marry me before Father attacks him,” she said slowly.
“You can't do that!”
“I have to.”
“But nothing, Joanne. If Father attacks, he'll lose everything. Including your dowry.”
Joanne covered her mouth with her hand as the full horror dawned on her. “We'll be outcasts,” she whispered. “Niles will cast me aside without my dower lands.”
“Aye, and we'll have no one to shelter us. Already the king hates Father for what he did under King Stephen's reign. I should think he'd like nothing better than to see us all out on our ears.”
“Oh, Lord, Emily. This is too frightening to contemplate. You can't marry a madman.”
“What choice have I?”
Joanne shook her head. “There must be another way. Besides, why would Lord Draven want you?”
Emily dropped her jaw, offended to her very core at her sister's words.
“I didn't mean it that way,” Joanne said quickly as she folded Emily's underkirtle. “But you know what father says of him. The man has never married, and to my knowledge no woman has ever caught his eye. It does bear mentioning that he may not be bent to feminine company, that he prefers other men. Indeed it could be that very reason that King Henry didn't order him to marry you as opposed to just being his ward.”
Emily shook her head. “Nay, I don't think so. Not from the look he gave me this afternoon. Besides, Father said the king refused the marriage solution lest it cause more war between them. Henry tried that settlement last year between two other nobles and it was disastrous.”
“Which brings up my next point; you are the daughter of his enemy,” Joanne continued. “Not to mention that if Lord Draven touches you the king will have his head for it.”
Emily considered it for a moment. “Do you believe the king would kill him for touching me?”
“Why should I doubt it? Henry is a man of his word.”
“Perhaps, but would he dare take the life of one of his champions over a mere dalliance? Father betrayed him far worse than that, and the king did nothing more than fine him and confiscate part of his holdings. Do you not think Lord Draven could petition the king for my hand and be forgiven?”
“The king did more to Father than just a little fine and confiscation, Em.”
“I know, but the point is, the king didn't kill Father for his actions. Or harm him beyond repair.”
Joanne sat back on her heels as she thought the matter over. “I don't know if the king would forgive him. 'Tis possible, perhaps.”
“What choice do we have?” Emily asked.
“But Em, do you understand the full impact of what you're thinking? Lord Draven is an enemy to Father. To the father who has sworn he'll never allow you to marry and leave him.”
“Aye, I understand. But I want a husband and I want children.”
“And if Lord Draven wants no wife?”
“Then I will make him want one.”
Joanne gave a short laugh. “You are so very stubborn. I pity Lord Draven for having to contend with you. But promise me one thing?”
Joanne's face grew taut and serious. “If you see he is cruel, then I beg you rethink this scheme. I know how much you want children, but the last thing I would have is you married to a man who beats you. Better I should be thrown to the streets of London than see you sacrificed to a monster.”
Emily nodded gravely. “I promise.”
Dawn came all too soon to Emily, who met it with a mixture of tiredness, hidden tears, and excitement for the unknown. She entered the great hall where her father waited still awake. Drunk, but awake.
'Twas the first time in her life she had seen him in his cups. At this moment, his face bore all the traces of a man who had lived a warrior's hard life.
She approached his chair, where he sat on the raised dais. “I'll kill him!” he slurred as he focused a bloodshot gaze on her. The stench of ale overwhelmed her. “If it's the last thing I ever do I will tear down his walls and hang him from the tallest tree I can find. I'll carve his heart out and feed it to theâ¦the wolvesâ¦or maybe mice.”
He hiccupped and looked at his favorite hound, whose head rested in his lap. “What would hurt more? A mouse or a wolf? If a wolfâ”
“You need to get some sleep,” she said, interrupting him.
“I won't sleep until you return to me where I can keep you safe.”
He reached out a gentle hand to touch her face, and she saw the tears spring into his eyes. “I can't lose you, Em. You look just like your mother-fair.” He touched her hair and his eyes grew even mistier. “'Twould be like losing Marian all over again, and I could never survive that. Had it not been for you girls, I wouldn't have survived her passing.”
“I know,” she whispered. Never in her life had she doubted the fact that her father loved his daughters, or the fact that he would die to protect them. She just wished he had learned to let them go.
Joanne entered the room from the small door to the right of the table. She held a large basket in her hands, and her eyes were red and bright from her tears. None of them had slept, and Emily wondered if her own eyes had the same purple ring beneath them.
“I know 'tis only a day's ride, but still I packed you something to eat for the trip.”
Emily smiled at Joanne's kindness as she took the basket from her. She was quite sure her sister had shown her usual diligence and prepared enough food to feed a small army. “I shall miss you terribly.”
Joanne hugged her close as Emily held on to her. She and Joanne had never been apart before. They were closer than just sisters, they were best friends.
“It will be all right, Joanne, I swear it. You shall see, in a year we will laugh over this.”
“I hope so,” Joanne breathed. “It won't be the same without you here.”
Tears stung the back of her eyes, but Emily refused to let them fall anymore. She must be strong for her family. Though the youngest, she was the one who had always been strong for them all.
“Just think,” she said in an effort to cheer Joanne, “in a few weeks you won't even be here to miss me. You'll have your own household to run. Now, please, make Father go to bed.”
Joanne nodded, then pulled back. Tears streamed down her face again, and she could tell her sister had passed the point of being able to speak.