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Authors: Cindy Holby

Breath of Heaven

BOOK: Breath of Heaven
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Breath of Heaven
Cindy Holby

LEISURE BOOKS   
   NEW YORK CITY

For Rob, who always believes in me.

And as always, I could not write a word without the constant support of my friends, Alesia, Barb, Eileen, Michelle, and Serena. Thanks, guys. I’d be lost without you.

“MINE.”

His lips claimed her. They branded her. His hand was splayed across the back of her skull so she could not move. She felt the steel of his blade and the heft of the hilt at her back as he wrapped his sword arm around her. Her arms were trapped between them. The leather of his hauberk pressed through her clothes. And she knew there would be bruises where the buckles touched. She felt the ridge of his erection as it pressed against her stomach, and her body lurched at the brazenness of his claim.

No man had ever kissed her. No man had dared to touch her, yet this man laid claim to her with the blood of his victims smearing his face as if he were a Viking chieftain of old. Ancient Viking blood ran in her veins, she felt the stir of it deep inside her like a wolf calling to its mate. Indeed she heard Llyr’s rumbling growl beside her as Rhys made his claim. She could not breathe, she could not move, but she did not want to protest. It was his right to claim her.

Chapter One

R
hys de Remy was not surprised when a hand snaked out from behind the velvet curtain and pulled him into an alcove within the upper hallway of the king’s residence in London.

“Marcella,” he said to the pale and willowy blonde clutching his sleeve. “Do you make it a habit of snaring unsuspecting men in dark hallways?”

“Sir,” she gasped. “You wrong me.” Her pale lashes fluttered over her light blue eyes as she turned her head away as if frightened by his proximity. Her body trembled as he moved his hands up the long sleeves of her bliaut until he could grasp her upper arms.

He knew her game and was more than willing to play it. He captured her jaw and covered her mouth with a kiss. Marcella enjoyed the chase as much as she enjoyed the conclusion. She swayed against him with her hands clutching at the thick leather of his practice tunic while his mouth moved down the exquisite line of her jaw to her gracefully arched neck. Her small breasts pushed against his chest when she sighed her surrender. As if he had been the one to chase her.

It was always so easy for him. It had been ever since the first time the lovely, generous, and most conveniently widowed Lady Sybille invited him to her chambers and showed him the wonders to be found in lying with a woman. He was just sixteen at the time
and a most eager student. Now Lady Sybille was once more married and no longer as lovely or as slender as she had been in her youth, but the things she’d taught the young squire still served him well. He remembered her fondly at times. Or as fondly as he would allow himself to feel toward anyone. He did not waste time with feelings. Rhys found it more practical to concentrate on physical things, such as the willing woman before him.

Rhys pushed Marcella against the heavy stone of the castle wall. Freezing rain pounded against the thick glass of the window beside them. The rattle was loud enough to cover any sound they might make. It would not do for one of the king’s wards to be caught in a tryst, even if she was a widow. Marcella would, along with all her property, eventually be given in marriage to some deserving servant of King Henry.

Rhys was not interested in marriage. Not in the least. Why buy a cow, he asked, when you could have the milk for free? And it seemed he was always supplied with plenty of milk no matter where he went. He had no desire for more land or riches, because with both came more responsibility. He had no heirs that he knew of, and no bastard had yet claimed him as sire. He was young enough and open-minded enough to think that someday he might change his mind about marriage, but for now he was content with his life. He served his own needs and those of the king and once a year he offered his right arm to the one man he owed a great debt. The man who’d saved his life. Lord Edward Chandler of Aubregate.

“You do love me,” Marcella whispered as Rhys raised her skirts and she wrapped her thin legs around
his waist. The heat from her pale thighs warmed his hips as he slipped his chausses down.

“Do I not constantly show you?” Rhys replied as he pushed inside her without ceremony. He caught her gasp as he covered her mouth with his. He was not worried about hurting her. She might appear to be delicate and fragile, but Marcella liked her sex play to be rough. She responded by trying to bite his lip, but Rhys pulled his head back before she could capture it and instead buried his face in her neck so that he would not have to look at her.

So he would not have to respond to her words of love.

Rhys lost himself in the moment. In the rhythm of their bodies. In the building cataclysm that he hoped would fill the emptiness inside him.

Despite the damp and the aching cold that leached through the window, their bodies grew slick with sweat. Rhys felt the pressure build and he held Marcella up with one arm so he could brace the other against the wall as he prepared for the tide of his release to wash over him. She clung to him in her own fervor but then let out a gasp as a blast of cold air caressed his naked backside.

The timing of their exposure could not have been worse, but at the moment he did not care. He let the tide come, let it blast through his body as he clenched and bucked against Marcella, who pushed against him in haste. He didn’t care. The damage was already done and he could not change it. It wasn’t until he heard a shriek and felt a hand grasp his hair that he realized who had discovered them.

“Jane,” he said calmly as she turned his head toward
her. He jerked his chausses up and dropped his chainse and jerkin back into place as Marcella’s skirts dropped down around her ankles. She staggered a step when he released her, and clutched greedily at his arm. Rhys shook her off and instead grabbed Jane’s arm as the lushly dark brunette swung an open palm toward his cheek.

“Cheat!” she shrieked. “Liar!” she added at a higher decibel. Rhys grabbed her about the waist and lifted her from the floor to keep her flying feet from connecting with his shins. Another woman stood in the hallway, along with Jane’s maid, who watched her lady struggle with something akin to glee on her face. “You said you loved me!” she added as she dissolved into tears.

“I never said I loved you,” Rhys stated clearly. He released Jane, confident that she would not attack him, only to receive a stinging slap from Marcella.

“Bastard,” she hissed. “You never said you loved me either.”

Rhys arched an eyebrow in admiration. Of the two he dallied with, he’d always thought Marcella the more intelligent. They both had qualities he admired—their willingness to enter into an affair with him being one and the fact that they were not virgins another.

“I never lied to either of you,” Rhys said. “You both heard what you wanted to hear, and you both got what you wanted.” He crossed his arms and leaned casually against the wall as if he were observing the drama before him, instead of the cause of it.

Jane sobbed in the arms of the woman who accompanied her while Marcella straightened her gown and adjusted her headpiece with several dramatic sighs. The
fashions of women. Rhys found them arduous and inconvenient. Especially the things that covered their heads.

“The king will not be pleased that you have used his wards so lightly, Lord de Remy,” she said. She patted the sobbing Jane, who had her head buried in her companion’s ample breasts. Indeed, they were so ample, Rhys feared Jane would disappear between them.

“I took nothing that was not willingly given.” Rhys tried to recall the woman’s name and position at court. She seemed vaguely familiar to him. “Nor am I the first to do so,” he said with a pointed look at Marcella.

Marcella gasped at the affront, gathered up her skirts, and marched off in one direction while Jane dashed off in the other.

“I shall speak to the king of your despicable behavior,” the lady assured him.

Rhys gave her his most courtly bow as she turned and followed Jane. Jane’s maid gave him a devilish grin as she dropped a curtsey and sauntered off. Rhys watched her go and wondered if he might seduce the wench. He was certain the mistress would no longer be bestowing her favors upon him.

He was not concerned about the woman’s threat to speak to the king. Since Eleanor had gone back to France some five years earlier, there was no queen overseeing the morals of the court. And Henry’s mind was occupied with the troubles of one Thomas Beckett, not the silly gossip of the women at court. Still, someone must supervise the wards, and Rhys suddenly realized that the woman who’d threatened him was indeed the one who did so.

There was no reason to worry. He would absent
himself from court until the talk died down. Mayhap he should pay a visit to his lands, if the king would permit it.

He would leave before the women had a chance to complain about his “mistreatment.” Rhys grinned ruefully as he made his way to the winding staircase that led to the lower levels and eventually the stables. Yes. He was running away. The subtleties and politics of court life tried on his patience mightily.

All this talk of love
…Why did women need to hear it? Did they think that it made the deed any less a sin if pretty words were attached? Love was a lie made up by the troubadours and balladeers and that was all it ever would be.

He had been on his way to meet his squire, Mathias, when Marcella had interrupted him. He knew Mathias would wait for him since Rhys intended to continue his lessons in swordsmanship. When he entered the main hall, he saw several pages standing about, waiting until they were summoned to run an errand for the lords and ladies of the court. Two of them were engaged in a mock sword fight with rolled parchments as some of the others cheered them on.

Interested, Rhys leaned against a table and watched the game for a moment. The play of children always fascinated him. There had been no such luxury for him in childhood. First, his grandmother had been intent on teaching him his obligation to his Lord and Savior who resided in the heavens above, his duty to the king, and his responsibility to his lands and vassals. He must be fit to rule Myrddin when he became a man. Time spent in frivolous play was time taken away from his prayers and his studies. Then he’d been
sent to his grandmother’s cousin Lord Allan, who immediately packed up his men-at-arms and went off to help the king secure his crown.

At a very young age, Rhys had seen the horrors of battle and the desperation of men. He’d often wondered how the God of peace that his grandmother prayed to could allow such things to happen. There was no one to explain such things to him. He was an unimportant lad who was not allowed to ask questions of men and squires who had important duties to attend. Lord Allan taught him to fight and not much more. Rhys soon learned from his experiences that no one cared if he lived. No one except one kind lord, Edward Chandler of Aubregate. If not for the generous nature of Lord Edward and his squire, Peter, who’d taught Rhys how to fight with his fists, he never would have survived those years, especially with the likes of Renauld Vannoy around.

As if conjured up by Rhys’s thoughts, Renauld entered the chamber from the opposite door and grabbed the arm of a page who was engrossed in watching the mock battle. He was not gentle with the boy; instead he seemed intent upon wringing the page’s arm from his shoulder. There was much gesturing upon the boy’s part as if he was offering some sort of explanation.

Rhys resisted the urge to cross the room and slam Renauld against the wall. Indeed, if he had his preference, he’d pitch the man from the top of the battlements. His resentment at the years of abuse he’d suffered at the older squire’s hands had not lessened in the years since Renauld had left Lord Allan’s care. Whatever the page said must have appeased Renauld,
for he left quickly and the page returned to watch the game, holding his arm as if it pained him.

Rhys remembered the pain in his own arm when Renauld would jerk him about, along with the bruises left by his tormentor’s pinching. He remembered shivering from cold and the empty hollowness in his stomach when Renauld either withheld blankets or made it impossible for him to eat. There wasn’t a deep enough hole in hell for Renauld Vannoy as far as Rhys was concerned.

“Milord,” Mathias said as he suddenly appeared beside Rhys. The boy had a knack for moving silently. He seemed to walk without placing his feet upon the floor and there was never any sound of his passage. It was a gift. One that actually might serve Rhys well. Mathias was his first squire, the son of the knight who held Myrddin for him. Mathias had only been with him a few months, and Rhys was already appreciating the boy’s talents. Discretion was one of them.

“Did you tire of waiting for me?” Rhys asked the boy.

“You bid me wait,” Mathias said. “But a messenger has come with a letter for you. He awaits you now in the stables.”

“Why did he not pass the message to you?” Rhys asked. “Is it not from your father and my holdings?”

“Nay,” Mathias said. “The man said he is from Aubregate. He brings you word from his master. His name is Han.”

“I know this man,” Rhys said. Every year since he was a boy, Rhys had written to Lord Edward, offering to repay the debt of gratitude he owed the man. And each year, Han had come to him and delivered a personal
response to Rhys’s letter. “Milord is happy to know you are doing well and will await news from you next year. He bids you to stay strong and true to yourself.” He always ended the message with “At this time milord does not require payment of your debt to him.” Fourteen years of the same response had come and gone.

In all that time, Han had not aged one bit. The passage of years had transformed Rhys from a skinny boy to a man full grown, but for Han it was as if time had stopped.

He had not changed since that memorable day fourteen years earlier when Lord Edward had saved Rhys’s life on the battlefield. The young squire had fallen from a bridge over a muddy torrent, and no one but Lord Edward had cared enough to save him. Rhys would never forget that one act of kindness, but he had not seen his benefactor since. He only knew of Lord Edward what he had heard through the years.

The king held the Lord of Aubregate in high regard. Edward had come home from France after the battle for Anjou to find his wife dead and his daughter motherless at the hand of Renauld Vannoy’s father. The king forgave Edward for killing the man, and bade him remain in peace upon his land to raise his daughter.

Lord Edward had not made an appearance in court for over fourteen years. Most of the younger nobles had no idea who the man was except that he was a great warrior who had once been called the Flaming Sword because of his bright red hair.

“Mathias,” Rhys said. “Do you know of Renauld Vannoy?”

“Only what I have heard,” Mathias replied. “None of it good.”

Rhys nodded. “See what you can learn of his purpose for being at court,” he said. “While I go see to the messenger.”

“Should I be discreet, milord?” Mathias asked.

“Always where I am concerned,” Rhys replied. “Find me as soon as possible,” he added. “I am not sure how much longer we will be staying at court.”

“Will we return home?” Mathias asked.

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