Authors: Angela Johnson
â¦I'm not going to let him hurt you. I promise.”
“How can you make such a promise?” Rose shuddered, blue eyes haunted. “The man will be my husband in two days' time. No one could protect me from Bertram, and no one can protect me now.”
Rand clutched her head between his hands and forced her to gaze into his eyes. His eyes blazed with conviction. “Listen to me. I know I failed you before, but I am going to make it right. I swear to you, Sir Golan will never have the opportunity to hurt you again.”
“Why should I believe your promises after you lied to me?”
“Because despite what you think, I care about you. I do not wish to see you forced to marry a man I now know is a danger to you.”
“What are you saying, Rand? Edward insists I marry; there is naught you or anyone can do to sway the king when he has decided upon a course.”
Rand took a deep breath. “I shall marry you instead.”
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
In the year of our Lord 1276
Fifth year in the reign of King Edward I
“The lady who shall be my next wife shall have no reason to find fault with my lineage.” Sir Golan de Coucy chuckled. “Indeed, 'tis no boast when I say that the de Coucy's are endowed with certain attributes women greatly esteem in a spouse.”
Sir Rand Montague, escorted into King Edward's chamber by a dark-robed clerk, glanced at the knight speaking amongst a group of lords.
Hazy light filtered into the long, narrow room through three glazed windows on the longer east wall. Opposite this, a table was pushed up below a map of the world painted on the plaster wall. Rand approached Lords Warwick and Pembroke, and de Coucy standing before the table.
Sir Golan was tall, of broad muscular frame, with dark brown wavy hair that swept back from his smooth forehead. At court, rumors abounded about the comely, well-sought-after knight who was searching for a new bride. The gossip mainly revolved around the knight's prowess with the opposite sex and the tragic story of how his first wife died giving birth to their stillborn son.
But another dark rumor claimed Golan had had a hand in his wife's demise.
Rand truly despised the courts' ruthless preoccupation with other people's personal affairs. He knew firsthand the destructive force of speculation and innuendo. His cousin Kat was nearly destroyed by scurrilous lies spread by vicious nobles who reveled in court intrigue.
Rand greeted each man with forceful slaps on the back all around. On the long board were what appeared to be a large rolled-up map, and a lighted branch of candles, a flagon of wine, and several jewel-encrusted drinking vessels.
Golan passed Rand a chalice of claret, or rosÃ©. “I believe I have boasted enough for the nonce,” he said, grinning broadly. “Rand, tell us about your mission to Gascony.”
The Earl of Warwick added, “Aye. I had not heard you'd returned to England. Was your journey successful?”
Rand patiently answered all their questions, savoring his claret. He recognized the excellent vintage from his family's Bordeaux vineyards that he imported in his cargo ship.
“My lords, well come we meet,” King Edward intoned behind them.
In unison with the other lords, Rand spun round and bowed low before his sovereign liege lord. Edward waved a negligent hand for them to rise, then moved to the table. They gathered round the king, who unrolled the map, which was a very detailed representation of Wales and the western border of England. Without preamble, the king began discussing war plans.
“Here and here,” Edward said, pointing to the Welsh Marches along the English border, “if it comes to war, as I expect it will, is where I plan to cross into Wales. These troops will advance into the south and central regions of Wales, but I'll send the bulk of the troops into Llewelyn ap Gruffydd's territory in Snowdonia in the north, harrying him and any resistance we meet.” A red flush crept up Edward's face as he continued, “If the man does not come to pay homage to me as his overlord, I intend to crush and subdue him.” He rapped his knuckles on the table, punctuating his statement. “No man, prince or otherwise, shall defy me without retribution.”
Rand listened with half an ear as Edward discussed his plans. With war appearing imminent, he could not help but worry about Rosalyn Harcourt, Lady Ayleston, and her young son, Jason.
Staring at the map, his eyes strayed to the cartographer's mark that indicated the town and port of Chester near the Welsh border. The manor of Ayleston lay in the Marches five miles southwest of Chester, making it vulnerable to Welsh raids once hostilities broke out. It was too dangerous for Rose to remain at Ayleston without proper protection. But Rand did not think she would listen to him if he tried to reason with her. She ought to move to one of her dower manors farther inland for the duration of the war.
“Well, cousin. I have lost you, haven't I?”
Startled, Rand glanced up at the king.
Several inches taller than him, Edward had long golden hair and a drooping left eyelid. The king slapped him on the back good-humoredly. “Come. Tell me what troubles you.”
Rand glanced around, realizing he and the king were alone. Consternation filled him at his breach of etiquette, but Edward, seemingly unperturbed, moved to the table to pour more claret into his chalice. Rand followed suit, taking a big swill of his wine.
“Now. I would hear what had you so distracted earlier that war plans could not hold your interest. Most unusual for you, cousin.”
been feeling rather out of sorts of late. The pride and satisfaction he usually took in being a trusted and highly valuable knight in the king's household no longer fulfilled him as it once had. Something was lacking in him, but for the life of him he could not deduce what.
“'Tis Lady Ayleston, Sir Alex's sister.”
Edward chuckled. “Ah, of course. I should have guessed. After warring, you are renowned for your amorous conquests.”
Rand chuckled. “Nay, Sire. My interest in Lady Ayleston is not of a prurient nature. Verily. My concern is her proximity within the border of Wales, war with Llewelyn appearing inevitable. As Alex is my friend, I cannot help but feel it is my duty to keep her safe from harm.”
Rand shrugged, grinning as though his apprehension was naught but a trifle.
“Ah, Rand, you are a good and dutiful friend. But let me set your mind at ease on that score. The good Sir Golan has offered to marry the lady, and offered a hefty sum to acquire the wardship of the lands of Lord Ayleston's heir. He shall make a worthy protector of Lady Ayleston.”
Rand's stomach felt as though it had dropped to his knees. He knew it was inevitable she would marry again. But thinking of Golan caressing the delicate perfection of Rose's bodyâkissing her soft, luscious lipsâwas too awful to bear.
Rand took several deep draughts of wine. It burned a path down his throat, clearing the images from his mind. “Has the lady given her consent to the marriage?”
“Nay. I have not informed her yet, but Lady Ayleston will do as she is told. As you have noted, the seat of the Ayleston barony is in a strategic location near the border between our two countries. It also has a total of thirty-two knight's fees, and fifty men-at-arms and archers. Ayleston will need a strong leader to rally her fighting men under one banner.”
Perhaps just as importantly, Rand thought, silver from Sir Golan's purchase of the wardship would flow into Edward's coffers and help pay for the war.
Edward quirked his blond head at him and a twinkle of humor flashed briefly in his eyes. “Have you given some thought to seeking a bride yourself? 'Tis time you married and saw to the begetting of heirs.”
“I have not thought about it, Sire. I have plenty of time yet before I need concern myself with siring heirs. Besides, I doubt any lady with good sense would have me,” Rand said good-naturedly.
“Nonsense. Any lady would be proud to have a knight of your renown to claim as a husband.”
Nay, there would be no wife for him. Rand turned to stare blindly at the portrait of Queen Eleanor above a cold fireplace. What he did not tell the king was that he would never marryâfor everyone he ever loved died. The waking dreams of his sweet, vivacious little sister were a constant reminder.
A pain throbbed at the base of his skull as the memory returned.
The river's current tugged Rand under, and he sputtered, choking up water even as he gripped Juliana tighter. “Rand!” she cried out in desperation moments before they were dragged under again. The water's embrace drew them deeper and deeper into the dark depths of the river. Holding his breath, lungs bursting, he couldn't breathe. A bright light burst inside his head.
. Rand released Juliana. Her narrow arms slipped from his neck and she floated down.
Suddenly he kicked his legs and shot straight up. He burst free to the surface, gasping for breath. His mouth opened wide; a long, agonized wail of grief ripped from his throat until his voice was sore and raw.
“â¦you are to escort Lady Ayleston to court without delay.” King Edward's commanding voice pierced his waking vision. “Certes, keep your counsel regarding her marriage to Sir Golan. I shall inform the lady of her duty when she arrives at court.”
“Sir Rand.” The same dark-robed clerk as before appeared at his side, his arm extended toward the door by which Rand had entered.
Reeling, Rand bowed and then exited the chamber. His agitated footsteps echoed down the torch-lit corridor, while it felt as though a vulture pecked at his exposed innards. Not only would he have to watch Rose marry another man, but now the king had tasked him with delivering her into that man's hands.
When he finished his distasteful task, it was time to consider his position in the king's household. He'd risen to knight banneret, yet still he was not content. Perhaps he was destined for dissatisfactionâguilt was his burden and his curse.
Juliana's death was not all he had to atone for. His mother's violent, painful death was on his conscience, as well. Rose, he had wronged her, tooâ¦But she made him swear never to speak of it and he honored her request.
Rising at daybreak, Rose exited the Keep down a set of steep stairs, and went round back to the kitchen garden. She dug her fingers into the moist earth, weeding the medicinal herbs she grew for treating the various wounds, ailments, and diseases of the dependents of Ayleston Castle. It was a responsibility she learned at her mother's side, and one in which she took immeasurable comfort in, easing the ills of her people.
Entering the kitchen by the back entrance, she met with Cook to plan the meals for the following week. Then after instructing Lady Alison on the supervision of the servants in clearing and replacing the rushes in the Great Hall, she went to her steward's office.
A corridor off of the Great Hall's entrance led to a chamber. When she stepped inside the small room, David ap Qwilim rose from the stool behind the table and bowed. “Good morrow, my lady.” He smiled in greeting. A hank of his thick, dark auburn hair flopped on his broad forehead.
“Good morrow, David. Has a message from the Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield arrived for me yet?”
In addition to the table, a number of open cupboards on one wall were stacked with parchment rolls full of estate records.
“Aye, milady. Bishop Meyland's messenger arrived early this morrow.” David searched the rolled parchments on the table until he found the bishop's sealed missive. He came around the table and handed it to her. “I insisted the man wait while I informed you of his arrival, but he refused and departed hastily.”
Rose broke the wax seal, unrolled the parchment, and read the untidy Latin scribble. A quiver shot to her stomach, but she did not reveal her distress. She had learned well at Lord Ayleston's hands how to suppress her emotions.
“The bishop informs me that his annual progress has been delayed, yet again, and he will not be able to travel to Ayleston for some while.” She looked up from reading the message and met the steward's concerned black gaze. “Well, David, if Bishop Meyland cannot come to me, I shall go to him. Ready an escort for me for the journey to his residence in Lichfield. We depart on the morrow, at dawn.”
Rose left the chamber, her steps calm and measured, a counter to the pressure building in her chest. Anxiety spread its wings inside her, a feeling of imminent doom growing that no amount of mental reasoning could calm. She exited the castle in search of Edith and Jason, the heat of the sun already foretelling another sweltering day.
She found Edith on a bench overlooking the orchard, keeping a watchful eye on Jason. Crouched on his haunches, Jason, large for a boy nearly three summers old, dug for worms with a stick beneath the sheltering branches of an apple tree.
Rose raised the missive in her hand and waved it at Edith. “The bishop has cancelled his trip to Ayleston, again. I wonder what can be keeping him?”
Edith set one of Jason's hose she was mending down on the bench beside her. She rested her right arm, bent at an awkward angle, in her lap. “Milady, calm yourself. I am sure there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for his delay.”
Rose smiled at her former maidservant's observation. Rose could not be any calmer outwardly, but Edith knew her very well and understood her agitation.
“I cannot help feeling something is amiss. Not till the bishop takes my vow of chastity will I feel safe. I shall
marry again,” she swore, a dark thread of conviction drawing her voice taut.
Rose plopped down on the bench beside Edith. Jason tugged a worm from the earth and squealed in delight, his cheeks dimpling. Rose's gaze softened as she watched him.
“Are you sure you wish to take such a drastic measure? A vow of chastity is irrevocable. Perhaps you will want to marry again one day.”
Rose jerked her head to Edith. Jason's nurse gazed at her, eyes shadowed, her left hand rubbing her crippled arm.
Guilt reared. Rose reached over and began massaging the shrunken muscles and tendons of Edith's forearm. “Oh, forgive me, Edith. Here I am rambling on about my troubles when you are in pain.”
A significant pause, then Edith whispered, “'Twas not your fault, milady.”
“If only I had been obedient and dutiful, Bertram would not have broken your arm and forbidden me to set it properly for you.”
Rose gazed off in the distance, her thoughts returning to the past. Rose had been spoiled and indulged as a child, and her father, Lord Briand, had taken an unusual step in allowing her to choose her own husband, provided the man was of equal or greater rank than she. But Rose had chosen unwisely, to her everlasting shame and regret. When she threatened Bertram that she would return to her father and tell him of Bertram's perverse sexual proclivities, her husband struck out at Edith instead.