Authors: Kris Kennedy
Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Adult
To my husband.
Through all our trials, a man who “gets it.”
Who cared more if I was happy
than if I cooked or cleaned or did laundry
on days the Muse was hot.
Or the days She was cold.
Because he loves me.
No swords or swinging from chandeliers necessary.
You can be my hero.
Barfleur docks, Normandy, France
1 April 1152
The ship’s captain looked suspiciously at the rough-hewn man before him. Rain slanted sideways on the empty Barfleur docks and it was dark, filled with echoing silence. Eerier still, though, was the way the man’s dark hood was drawn forward over his head, his grey eyes glowing like banked coals.
“More’n the likes of ye can afford,” the captain muttered and started to turn away.
A hand closed around his forearm. “I can afford more than the likes of you have ever dreamed of.” A bag of coin was shoved into his calloused hand. “Is that sufficient?”
The captain lifted a bushy eyebrow, then dumped open the bag. Gold and copper coins spilled out, clinking loudly in the wet silence of the docks. He glanced towards the tilting, swaying sign of a pub several yards down the quay, then shoved the coins back in the bag and lashed it shut. “It’ll do.”
A low-pitched, mocking laugh met this.
He slid the pouch under his mantle and squinted against the glare of torchlight reflecting on the slippery docks. The man’s cape blew in the misting rain; he was hard to make out as a figure of substance—he looked like black wind.
The captain fingered his grizzled beard. “How many did ye say there were of ye?”
He leaned closer, trying to discern a face amid the darkness of night and the hood the man wore. Even the man’s horse, standing a few feet back, was so pitch black he could have coated a torch. “Aye. A right unlucky number, to be doing unlucky things, no doubt.”
Bunched muscles lifted as the man—surely a knight—crossed his arms over his chest. “No doubt. But not as unlucky as you will be if you speak of this to anyone.”
The captain touched the lump under his mantle. “Aye, well, when my mouth is spilling with good food and wet ale—and wet women,” he barked in laughter, “it don’t feel no need to be spilling tales.”
The banked grey eyes regarded him levelly. The captain stopped laughing and cleared his throat. “Where to?”
“Half a league west of Wareham.”
He froze. “What? A school of fish couldn’t navigate that cove. Nay, I can’t be taking the risk—”
The knight uncoiled suddenly. Without seeming to move, his hand was inside the captain’s mantle, removing the pouch of money. “Someone else
take the risk, then. And the money.”
“Now, sir, all right and all right,” the captain mewed, licking his lips as he watched the bag hovering in the air between them. “I ne’er said I
, just that it’s unwise, my lord”—that phrase came from nowhere. What other than his manner bespoke this black, swirling shape as a lord of anything but trouble?—“and I can’t be answerable for any misfortune.”
He saw a gleam of teeth as the hooded figure smiled grimly. “I shall do many unwise things, captain, and not ask you to answer for any of them. At Prime, tomorrow, I shall be here with my men.”
the captain grunted, pocketing the money again with a sigh of relief.
The dark figure turned away. “And we have horses.”
The captain spun too late. “Well, what the—” He stopped, realising he was alone, left to stare at empty darkness.
Six months later, October 1152
London, two hundred fifty miles south of Everoot’s
principal castle, the Nest
The crush of people was enormous. Nobles they might be, but they were as noisome and unruly as a drunken crowd.
She wore a green gown. Woven of rare and expensive silk, it shimmered like an emerald waterfall. The bodice hugged tight, as did the sleeves, until they opened wide at her elbows and fell in graceful folds of silk. Ebony curls spilled down her back with loose sprays dancing by her cheeks. A thin circlet of silver clasped a light veil of palest green over her forehead. On the outside, she was a vision of proper breeding and improper beauty.
Inside, she was a simmering cauldron of nerves.
Guinevere de l’Ami, daughter of the illustrious Earl of Everoot, stood by the stone wall of the London apartment and clutched her empty wine cup so tightly it pressed her knuckles white. She smiled vacantly at a passing baron, who veered in her direction and smiled rather less vacantly, revealing a row of greyish teeth. Gwyn’s heart sank. A young varlet carrying an ewer of wine passed next, and she leaned forward.
“May I?” she asked, smiling benevolently. Then she reached out and took the entire jug.
His unbearded chin dropped. He peered at his hand, then at her, but Gwyn was already weaving away through the crowd, pitcher tightly in hand. If anyone tried to take it from her, she’d crack him over the head with it.
Finding a small window alcove, she positioned herself beside the newest innovation, a fireplace, and tried to do two things at once: blend in with the stone wall and get smashingly drunk. Grimacing at the wine’s oily flavour, she threw back a large swallow.
Fortification came in many guises.
There were few better places or, more precisely, more
places, to fortify oneself with wine. This was the king’s feast, hosted at the end of a grueling week of councils between the king and his mighty advisors. Men such as the wealthy Earl of Warwick and the powerful Earl of Leicester. Men with the status of her father. The few treasured loyalists amid these awful, bloody civil wars.
For sixteen years now, the English nobility had been cleaved in two. Families wrecked, friendships destroyed, legacies lost. Robbers ruled the roads and bandits sacked the villages. Underneath it all, the land had been gutted and raped. But now it was worse.
Already the news was spreading: the powerful Earl of Everoot had died. His heir, Guinevere de l’Ami, was a woman alone.
She quaffed another deep draught of wine.
The large great room of the London apartment was growing dark but, as the sun slowly set, a pale rosy hue streamed through the unshuttered window beside her, washing the room in a light reminiscent of fading roses and thinned blood.
Gwyn sloshed more wine into her cup, reflecting glumly on the sort of mind that went about creating gory metaphors of sunsets.
Losing one’s beloved father not two weeks past might have such an effect, she supposed wearily.
Having one’s castle besieged might better do the job. Even if one stood at a king’s feast, two hundred and fifty safe, heartbreaking miles away.
She should have known.
When Marcus fitzMiles, Lord d’Endshire, spent the week following Papa’s death doling out solicitude and concern like an almoner, she should have known something terrible was coming. Marcus fitzMiles was her nearest neighbour, her father’s ally, and the most rapacious baron in King Stephen’s war-torn realm, eating up smaller estates like pine nuts. And until Gwyn arrived in London last night, he was the only one who knew Papa had died. The only one who knew how undefended Everoot was. How undefended
She should have known.
She lifted her chin and stared blindly across the room, eyes burning. She could not let it happen. Not so soon after Pap—. Not so soon—. Her throat worked around the tightness threatening to choke her.
Then again, she reflected miserably, she’d made a lot of deathbed promises she simply didn’t understand. But one does not bicker with a dying father when he asks you to guard a chest of love letters between him and your dead mother or when he tells you he was wrong, dreadfully wrong
, and begs you to “Wud. Guh. Saw.” Whatever that meant. She’d knelt on the cold stone floor beside his bed and promised everything.
She swallowed thickly. Tension and fear and old, old shame flickered inside her belly like a curling red flame. She clutched her wine cup, fingers tight around its stem.
Where in perdition was the king?
Each minute gone was a minute more fitzMiles had to begin feeding on his largest platter yet, Gwyn’s home.
She needed more wine. Spinning about, she plowed right into the chest of Marcus fitzMiles, Lord d’Endshire.
“Good heavens!” she screeched. A few baronial heads shifted towards the sound. Wine sloshed over the rim of her goblet.
“Lady Guinevere,” Marcus said smoothly, taking the cup from her dripping hand.
“Give me that.” She snatched it back.
A practiced smile inched up his mouth. He stretched his hands wide, all bemused innocence. “Indeed, you may have it, my lady.”
“My thanks for returning what is already mine. Such as the Nest.”
“Ahh.” He inclined his head forward an inch. “You have heard.”
Marcus swept a casual glance around the room. “Indeed. Heard. As will everyone else if you do not keep your voice down.”
down? Be assured, Marcus, my voice will be raised so loudly to the king—and anyone else who will listen—that your
He raked a cool glance over her gown. “Happens you might be the one burned, Gwyn.”
Her eyes narrowed into thin, blazing slits. Curled around the stem of her wine goblet, her fingers turned white. Had the cup been a man, it would have died a gruesome death. “Me?
“Are you to repeat everything I say?” he queried with just enough true curiosity to send her teeth clicking together.
“Then let us have
say, Marcus, to ensure understanding,” she said in a low tone, practically snarling.
“You will never have the Nest.”
He shook his head with a small smile, as if deigning to correct a child who had erred. “Nay, my lady, you misunderstand. I bethought your castle in need of reinforcements while you were away with so many of its knights.”
“You sent your army to the Nest for my
“In truth, Guinevere, you yourself did seem well protected, with a score of soldiers to hand. A resplendent display, may I say, upon your entry into the city. And a wise choice, to assure any who might wonder on the strength of Everoot, with its lord so recently passed away. Nay, indeed, my lady,
seemed well protected.” His mouth curved up in another smile. “’Twas your
that was not.”
Her hands balled into fists. The goblet in her hand turned upside down, spilling a stream of wine across the floor that went unheeded.
“The peasants and fools were mightily impressed by the show of force you came to the city with,” he continued, then paused. “I was not.”
“Which means you do not think yourself a fool, Marcus,” she hissed, “but you err. I know what you intend to do and my king will hear of it.”
“Recall, Gwyn, he is my king too.”
That sounded distinctly like a threat. A crackle of tension jerked her head backwards an inch. Her lips barely moved as she replied, “I am certain King Stephen will listen to me.”
“Perhaps he has already listened to
A buzzing started in the base of her skull. The room tilted slightly, sending the room and the contents of her belly at a distinct angle. “What do you mean? He has not agreed…he will not let you just take my land!”
His mouth curled up further in that disturbing smile. “Perhaps he would have me start with your hand.”
In undulating pulses came the wave, washing over her so loudly she couldn’t hear anything but its slow, throbbing beat. “What are you talking about?” Her words were whispered, scant.
He quirked up a brow. “Your hand. In marriage.”
The goblet clattered to the ground. “Never,” she whispered, backing away in horror. “Never, never, I would
“Not even if your castle were…at stake?”
“God in Heaven.”
“Of course, with my goodwill, lady, ’twould be a simple matter to see to your people’s well-being.” The smile dropped away, leaving his predatory eyes. “Which could be assured were my own well-being being seen to. By their lady.”
“You’re mad.” She started backing up through the crowd. Startled faces peered down as they were brushed aside. “Whatever my father saw in you, ’twas a lie.”
“He saw an ally, Gwyn. One most unwise to cross.”
“I have sent my knights to fortify the Nest.”
“I know. Which leaves you here. With me.”
She threw her hand over her mouth, unable to believe this madness. All the blood ran from her face, racing down her body, until her knees wobbled. He watched her with hooded eyes.
Good God, he intended to wed her right here in London! He never meant to take the Nest by force, but by marriage. The siege had been a ruse to get her to do exactly what she’d done, leave her unprotected and at his mercy, never an overly large commodity in the best of times.