Authors: Kathryn Loch
blinked at Rose in shock. His knife hand bucked as if to chase her, but Brynmor’s roar diverted his attention. He looked up as Brynmor dove, his body fully extended. The man’s face lost all color as he saw death coming for him.
Rose cried out as Brynmor collided with the man and broke his grip on her. She leapt to her feet and spun. Brynmor rolled on the ground and gained his feet in an instant, hauling the man up with him. The man tried to bring his knife to bear, but Brynmor moved with amazing speed. He blocked the man’s attack, then set his feet, cocked back his right arm, and let fly. His massive fist slammed into the man’s jaw with such force Rose heard a distinctive pop and knew Brynmor had snapped the man’s neck. His body crumpled to the ground, his dead eyes staring at nothing.
Brynmor stood over him for a moment, his fists still clenched and his chest heaving as he fought to catch his breath. “No one touches my lady,” he growled.
His commoner’s burr was so thick she could barely understand him. His gaze traveled to her and his rage vanished. “Rose,” he murmured and reached for her.
She found herself enveloped in a strong embrace, as if a massive wall of power suddenly surrounded her. She choked on a sob
, shaking to the core of her being. “My knight,” she whispered in his ear.
His arms tightened around her. “Aye, little one, I will always be your knight.”
She battled the sobs rising within her but one broke free and with it came the flood. God, what was wrong with her? She was safe, in his arms, but here she was falling apart and unable to stop crying.
Rose sobbed against him, her tears hot against his bare skin. Brynmor gently soothed her, his hand stroking her silky hair. He drew a ragged breath into his lungs and the last of his rage left him. His only concern now was the beautiful woman crying in his arms.
stepped next to him. “Well done,” he said softly.
Brynmor inclined his head at the compliment.
Montgomery looked to Rose, gently tugging her hair from her face. “Rose, my sweet, are you all right?”
She nodded but did not move away from Brynmor
; her sobs did not ease.
“Take her above-stairs,”
Montgomery said. “No doubt her exhaustion is making this even more difficult.”
“Aye,” Brynmor said. “But I fear I may know the reason why we have not heard from Longshanks.”
“The message may have fallen into Llywelyn's hands,” Montgomery said. He shook his head. “What did the daft fool think he would gain, grabbing her in the middle of an active bailey?”
“I wondered the same.”
“Still, we must be cautious about laying blame too quickly.”
“Aye,” Brynmor replied, but he could not help but think his worst fears had been realized and this was only the beginning.
“Go ahead and take her above-stairs. I'll deal with this sod.” Montgomery shoved at the body with the toe of his boot.
Brynmor gathered Rose in his arms. As he pushed through the crowd of onlookers
, Gwen fell in step beside him.
“Rose, are you sure you're all right?”
Rose nodded again but she didn't stop crying.
“I fear she needs more than an hour or two of unbroken sleep,” Brynmor said.
Gwen nodded. “I will prepare a sleeping draught for her. It will calm her so she can rest.”
“Bring it to my solar,” Brynmor said tightly. He looked down and noted Gwen's shocked expression. “
’Tis the safest room in the keep,” he added. “Until I know if there is a plot against her, she will stay there.”
Gwen smiled up at him. “A wise choice, Brynmor.” She hurried inside while Brynmor strode up the stairs, taking them two at a time.
Brynmor sat in a chair beside his bed, his fingers lightly stroking Rose's hair and face. Her eyes grew heavy and she finally drifted off to sleep
, but to his surprise, her grip on his free hand did not ease; she still clung tightly to him.
A soft knock sounded on the door and
Montgomery opened it. He looked at Rose and then to Brynmor. “A word with you,” he whispered.
“Aye,” Brynmor said. “A moment
nodded and closed the door.
Brynmor tried to disengage his hand but Rose's grip only
tightened. He leaned forward. “’Tis all right, Rose. You are safe and I will not be far.”
, her grip relaxed on his fingers.
He pressed his lips to her forehead, grateful she was not awake to witness him act like such a saphead. He donned a clean tunic and wrapped a belt around his waist, then joined
Montgomery in the corridor.
Brynmor turned to the guard he had posted at the door. “Only myself,
the earl, or Lady Gwen are allowed in that room.”
“Aye, my lord,” the guard said.
“A herald bearing Edward's livery has just arrived, requesting to see you,” Montgomery said.
Brynmor fell in stride with
Montgomery as they descended the stairs. “Then it is doubtful the message fell into Llywelyn's hands.”
“Aye. But we are sending refugees out in droves,
’tis possible rumor has reached him.”
“Or Dafydd,” Brynmor said tightly.
“But despite my differences with Llywelyn, I find it difficult to believe he would order a woman slain, no matter how much he wants this marriage stopped.”
“’Aye,” Montgomery said. “I do not know Llywelyn
, but I have never heard rumor of him acting dishonorably in regard to a woman. It is possible the sod simply took matters into his own hands.”
They reached the great hall and Brynmor quickly spotted the herald. The man stared at the wounded in wide-eyed horror.
My lord,” he said. He bowed and offered a scroll case. “I bring word from our mighty liege, King Edward.”
Brynmor took the scroll case, noting the
king's seal remained intact. Finding his courage, he broke the seal and withdrew the parchment. He read, gritting his teeth against his stumbling Latin. But he gathered Longshanks approved of the union with House Montgomery and welcomed him as an ally. He also acknowledged that Brynmor would swear fealty to him at a time and place of the king's choosing.
But Brynmor decided to err on the side of caution and handed the scroll to
Montgomery. Montgomery quickly read it and nodded, a smile coming to his lips. “I dare say ’tis time to plan a wedding.”
My lord,” the herald said softly. “What has happened here?”
Brynmor looked at him then motioned to him to follow. “Come with me.” He led the herald deeper into the great hall, the floor still covered with wounded souls. Gwen, without Rose to assist her, worked double duties.
Sweet merciful Mother,” the herald muttered and crossed himself.
“Since we had to remove the tables, I have a pavilion erected in the bailey. We can sit th
The herald nodded and followed him out.
Brynmor sat with Montgomery, the herald across from him. The herald’s gaze traveled over the crowded bailey. Wounded could be seen sitting against walls, under wagons, in any available space.
A servant filled their cups and left a plate of bread and cheese. Brynmor broke the bread and offered a piece to the herald
, who accepted it. He ate and drank from his wine cup, but his gaze scanned the bailey.
“Longshanks has not
yet moved in answer to Dafydd’s attacks,” he whispered, then looked at Brynmor, his face losing all color. “Are these wounded from the attacks on Hawarden and Shropshire?”
“Aye,” Brynmor said, watching his expression closely. “Many are English who managed to escape
, but the majority are Welsh commoners—folk who found themselves in the way of armies passing through and unable to find safety behind castle walls.”
“But why are they all here?”
“I am the only one who will open my gates to them. My nobles, uncertain of King Edward’s intentions, keep theirs barred.” He paused and inclined his head toward the scroll Montgomery still held. “With King Edward’s approval of our alliance, I pray my nobles will open their gates, for when Edward lifts his sword, many more commoners will pay the price.”
“Aye,” the herald replied and speared a piece of cheese with his eating dagger. He brought it to his mouth but hesitated, then gazed at the bread and wine before him. Once again he looked to the people in the bailey. Those who were able handed
out bowls of watery stew to others. It was all Cook could muster now to feed everyone.
The herald ate the cheese
, but Brynmor had the distinct feeling he did so in order not to offend him by wasting food. “I see that your keep is greatly taxed.”
“Aye,” Brynmor replied. “I turn away no one in need.”
“Allow me to tell the king of this. No doubt he will be most pleased to hear of such a charitable act from an earldom as great as yours. Surely he will assist you with supplies.”
“Supplies would be most welcome,” Brynmor said. “I fear now that I have allied myself with Longshanks,
Llywelyn will turn his eye toward me. We currently guard Longshanks’s back. I do not wish to see that defense weakened.”
“Wise words,” the herald said
, nodding. “If I could impose upon you for a fresh horse, I shall leave immediately. Longshanks will most likely move northwest. I would endeavor to reach him as quickly as possible.”
“Of course,” Brynmor said and summoned his steward.
Rose awoke to darkness, terror pounding through her, and she sat up sharply. Where was she? The last thing she remembered was Brynmor carrying her up the stairs.
“Peace, Rose,” a deep voice rumbled through the darkness.
She heard an odd noise then saw a spark of flame. Brynmor, sitting in a chair beside the bed, lit a taper then used it to light a candle on the table next to him. The golden glow highlighted the handsome planes on his face but she could see little else, his hair as black as the night around them.
The flame on the candle strengthened and Brynmor extinguished the taper.
“Where . . . ?” she looked around in confusion. This was not her room.
“You’re in my solar, little one,” he said gently, taking her hand in his
. He frowned. “You were supposed to sleep all night.”
“I never do what I’m supposed to.”
He chuckled softly and kissed her fingers. He gazed at her a long moment, his smile fading. “Rose, a herald brought a message from Longshanks. He has approved our marriage. But . . .”
At first her heart soared but it suddenly crashed.
It was her worst fear. He truly did not wish to marry her. “But what?” she asked softly, dreading his words.
Today proved to me that by becoming my wife, you will be a target, Rose. I vow I will stand between you and every threat . . . but all it takes is one mistake on my part. I can’t bear to fail you.”
She blinked at him
; the medicant Gwen had given her still muddled her thinking. “What?”
His gaze dropped to the floor. “The sod today
. . . if he had hurt you . . . if he had slain you—”
“Nay,” she said, stopping him. She leaned forward, caressing his cheek then running her fingers through his hair.
He caught her hand and pressed her fingers firmly against his lips, squeezing his eyes closed.
Rose stared at him in shock. Earlier she had seen the warrior rouse, now she witnessed the man.
Compassionate but vulnerable and . . . worried. “Brynmor, what’s done is done. Longshanks will not understand if you retreat from the alliance now, even if your reasons are simply to protect me.”
She leaned forward and touched her lips to his. “We shall answer each challenge . . . both of us together . . . just like today,” she whispered, then she kissed him fully.
Brynmor groaned against the riot of sensation that exploded within him as Rose took the initiative in their kiss. A forbidden thrill ran through him and for an instant he sought to pull away, but Rose did not retreat.
I never do what I’m supposed to.
At that moment, Brynmor knew he was fighting a war his heart had already lost. He wanted her to be his wife. Aye, he understood he did not deserve her, but that knowledge did not change his deepest desires. Damn him to hell, he wanted her, and by God he would have her.
His arms tightened around her and he could not help himself as he took
command of their kiss, deepening it, the passion within him threatening to leap from his control. He pulled her closer, almost from the bed and into his lap. She was his betrothed, the Church would not claim it a sin if he bedded her now.
A realization struck him like
a blow to the face. In truth, they were not betrothed yet.
He cupped her face in his hands and gently but firmly pulled away. “Rose,” he growled, fighting to catch his breath. Dear God, he had to stop now. If this continued he wouldn’t be able to and he would never do anything to hurt her or sully her reputation. He held a station he did
not deserve, he was nothing more than a freeman farmer, but he wouldn’t trifle with her.
Rose blinked up at him, her blue eyes unnaturally wide
, and even in the dim light of the candle he could see her lips were reddened from his kiss. He took a savage hold on his desire.
“We are to be married,” she murmured.
He nearly groaned as his entire body shook with the lust pounding within him. He reminded himself that she was still feeling the effects of the sleeping draught.
Longshanks had approved their union
, but they were not officially betrothed until they voiced their desire to wed and echoed the vows of marriage before a priest.
“Aye,” he growled, “and upon the dawn I will rouse the priest. We shall have our betrothal, Rose, at the steps of the chapel in the bailey
, as is proper.”
She studied him a long moment, then sighed. Resting her head on his shoulder, she leaned heavily against him. “Aye,” she whispered.
His fingers stroked through her hair and he pressed his lips to her forehead. “Rest now, little one, dawn is not far away.”
Rose couldn’t deny her nerves were in tatters as Gwen helped her dress in a fine ivory gown with delicate gold embroidery. It wasn’t as fine as what her wedding dress would be, but Rose hoped Brynmor would find it pretty just the same.
Gwen then turned to her hair, braiding ribbons and flowers into it
, but Rose clenched her teeth. This was taking an eternity!
She barely remembered her conversation with Brynmor last night
, but she clearly recalled his kiss and his promise. He had roused the priest at dawn and announced to all there would be a betrothal ceremony that morn.
Yet the morn aged
, and Rose battled not to fidget like a child.
“Be still, Rose,” Gwen said.
Apparently, her battle was unsuccessful.
Gwen chuckled and patted her shoulder reassuringly. “I know,” she said in understanding. “Just one more.” Finally
, she allowed Rose to escape the chair.
Rose faced her. “How do I look?”
Rose smiled at her.
“Perfect,” Gwen said, grinning at her. “That smile rivals the new dawn.”
“Thank you, Mother,” Rose said and gave her a kiss on the cheek. She turned to leave the room.
“Rose, wait. You’re forgetting something.”
She hesitated and turned back.
Gwen lifted a narrow, intricately carved wooden box about half the length of her forearm. “Your gift to your betrothed.”
Rose felt her blus
h grow bright. Of course! The rings would be exchanged at their wedding, but at the betrothal, they simply exchanged gifts.
“Forgive me,” she said and took the box.
“Nay,” Gwen said, her smile growing. “I was even more nervous than you when I was betrothed to your father, and the wedding . . .” she paused and rolled her eyes. “I thought I was going to fly apart at any moment.”
“I don’t remember much of the wedding,” Rose said, and gazed at Gwen a long moment. “But I do remember
Papa was so happy. I cried because he had been sad for so long . . . the joy in him on that day was something I never thought I would see.” Her eyes misted with tears at the memory. “I just hope I can make Brynmor happy.”
Gwen stepped forward and gripped her shoulders firmly. “You will, Rose. You and Brynmor care deeply for each other. There is a powerful bond between you. Trust in that.”
“But will he love me?” Rose winced. She had not meant to voice that thought, but she had to finally admit that she longed for her husband to love her as much as her father loved Gwen. That was another reason why she had never found her match in a noble suitor, she suddenly realized.
Gwen’s smile grew. She turned Rose to face the door and gave her a gentle push. “Go on now, don’t keep him waiting.”
Rose dismissed her foolish worries, summoned her courage, and descended the stairs.
In the great hall, at the base of the stairs, Brynmor awaited her. Rose nearly stopped short, her heart rattling in her throat. He wore his best finery
: an elegant blue tunic over a longer white one, both trimmed with striking silver embroidery. But her mouth curved as she realized that instead of wearing hosen, he had donned snug-fitting braies of black doeskin. Finely made, cross-quartered leather boots ascended to his knees and gold spurs gleamed at his heels.
long leather belt wrapped around his waist but another belt also hung low over his lean hips, this one bearing a long, two-handed sword, its hilt gold and adorned with jewels. A ceremonial piece, Rose quickly realized. A thick gold chain descended from his neck, but unlike her father who wore a pendant with the heraldry of his earldom, she thought it curious that Brynmor’s chain did not have the same.
Her gaze fell on his face as he stared, seemingly unseeing
, at the ground before him. His long black hair remained unbound, streaming straight over his shoulders and falling to his waist, only a narrow golden coronet keeping it from his brow. The image of him at that moment, unmoving, lost in thought, would remain permanently emblazoned on her memory.
Someone cleared their throat and broke the spell. Brynmor looked up
and saw her on the stairs.
Rose ground to a halt. His blue-green eyes appeared deeper in color than she had ever seen
them. How was it possible that the graceful angles of his face seemed even more beautiful at that moment? His eyes widened as he regarded her and he swallowed hard. Slowly, his movement graceful, he bowed then straightened and extended his hand to her.
Rose forced herself to step
forward even though she was suddenly terrified she’d trip or do something daft to make an absolute fool out of herself. She smiled at him as she descended the stairs and accepted his hand, which he immediately pulled to his lips.
“My lady,” he murmured, “you are most exquisite this day.” She heard nothing of the commoner’s burr in his speech.
“Thank you, my lord,” she murmured and lowered her head, dropping into a deep curtsy. She straightened and smiled up at him.
She noticed he carried a small, flat box
in his other hand. He offered his free arm to her. She placed her forearm over his, her hand resting lightly on top. Brynmor allowed a small smile to play on his lips as he escorted her from the great hall and out of the door of the keep.
The stairs leading to the door of the keep were necessarily narrow in order to prevent an enemy from ascending two abreast. Brynmor changed position
so he was in front of her, gently holding her hand in his as he walked almost sideways, assisting her down the precarious stairs. Her skirts, longer than those she normally wore, threatened to tangle her, but Brynmor, as solid as ever, made certain she descended safely.
As her foot hit solid ground, Brynmor again offered his arm as before and she accepted. Cheers resounded through the bailey as people pushed closer, held at bay by men
-at-arms. But not everyone voiced their approval. Many stood back, simply watching. A few scowled at her.
A handful pushed forward sharply
, and for the barest instant, terror shot through her that another attack was imminent. Rose sucked in her breath and instinctively moved closer to Brynmor. How many of these people hated the Englishwoman who was to be betrothed to their Welsh prince?
Brynmor’s gut clenched as he watched Rose’s face drain of color. Her blue eyes were wide, staring at the crowd around them. The people cheered their arrival and one would think he and Rose were Llywelyn and Eleanor in the flesh with the way the crowd pushed and shoved against the men-at-arms holding them back. Brynmor cursed himself for not realizing Rose might be fearful after what had happened yesterday. He glanced over his shoulder and saw Montgomery right behind him, also watching Rose with concern. Brynmor handed the small box he carried to Montgomery and covered Rose’s hand.
“Peace,” he whispered, stepping so closely her body pressed against his. He felt her shaking.
Her gaze snapped from person to person in the crowd as if expecting someone to slip through and try to kill her. Of course that’s what she expected. Brynmor’s gaze found his steward. “Petran,” he growled. “Move them back . . . now.”
“Aye, my lord,” the man said and barked the order.
More men-at-arms surged forward, helping to control the crowd and give the betrothal party a little breathing room. With the widening of the path, Brynmor stepped forward, moving toward the chapel with a purpose.
Rose, still pressed against his side,
relaxed slightly as they walked. They reached the base of the steps to the small chapel and Brynmor stopped to look at Rose.
The color appeared
to return to her face and she looked up at him. “Forgive me.”
“’Tis all right, Rose
,” he murmured and could not resist brushing her cheek with the back of his fingers.
She smiled up at him and his heart took wing.
Montgomery cleared his throat and returned the box to Brynmor. Brynmor faced the steps and looked up at the priest waiting for them at the doors of the chapel. Suddenly, those simple stairs seemed to grow in size and length. Brynmor could not imagine the steps leading to the door of Westminster being any more intimidating. He drew a deep breath into his lungs. He was going to give his oath before God and every man, woman, and child in this castle—a promise to marry an angel bestowed from heaven. He lowered his head and squeezed his eyes closed. An old fear rose so powerfully within him it almost brought him to his knees, a terror from his childhood buried deep in his heart, its poison infecting his soul. “Please, God, do not take her from me,” he whispered.