Authors: Margaret Mallory
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Historical
As he saddled the horses, he tried to ignore the voice in the back of his head telling him this was madness. God’s beard,
the king himself had a hand in arranging this marriage. If he was caught taking her out alone at night on the eve of her wedding,
the king would have him flailed alive.
“Keep your head down,” he instructed as they rode across the outer bailey toward the gate. “Make certain your cloak covers
your gown—and every strand of that fair hair.”
The guards remembered he arrived carrying messages from Northumberland, “the “King-maker.” They gave him no trouble.
William and the girl rode out into the cold, starlit night. Once they reached the path that ran along the river, she took
the lead. She rode her horse hard, as if chased by the devil. When at last she reined her horse in, William pulled up beside
her, his horse’s sides heaving.
“Thank you for this,” she said, giving him a smile that made his heart tighten in his chest.
His breath came quickly as he stared at her. She was stunning with her face aglow with happiness and her fair hair shining
all about her in the moonlight. When she flung her arms out and threw her head back to laugh at the stars, he stopped breathing
Before he could gather his wits, she slipped off her horse and ran up the riverbank. He tied their horses and followed. Pushing
aside thoughts of how dangerous it was for them to be here, he spread his cloak for her on the damp ground beneath the trees.
She sat beside him in silence, her gaze fixed on the swath of moonlight reflected on the moving surface of the dark river
below. As she watched the river, he studied her profile and breathed in her scent. He thought she had long since forgotten
his presence when she finally spoke.
“I will remember this night always,” she said, giving his hand a quick squeeze. “I will hold it to my heart as a happy memory
when I have need of one.”
He took hold of her hand when she touched him and did not let it go.
She fell silent again, and he sensed that her thoughts, unlike his own, were far away again. Experienced as he was with women,
he was surprised by his intense reaction to this girl. All of his senses were alive with the nearness of her—his skin almost
vibrated with it. And yet, he felt a profound happiness just sitting here with her and gazing at the river on this chilly
autumn night. He never wanted to leave.
When she shivered, he forced himself to break the spell. “You are cold, and we have been gone too long already. If someone
notices you are missing…”
He did not finish. She knew as well as he the disaster that would follow if she were caught. Resigned, she let him help her
to her feet.
They rode back at a slower pace, riding side by side this time, still saying little. William tried to fix it all in his memory:
the moonlight, the dark river, the gentle snorting of their horses. The girl, he knew, he could not forget.
The guards at the gate wordlessly let them in. When they reached the stable, William helped her dismount. The feel of his
hands on her slender waist as he set her down—closer to him than was proper—made his heart race and his head feel light.
Looking down at her, he felt a longing so intense it caught at his breath. His gaze dropped to her mouth. Only when she took
a step back did he realize he had been about to kiss her. It was wrong for many reasons, but he wished with all his heart
he had done it. With a sigh, he left her just inside the doorway and led the horses into the pitch-black of the stable.
When he returned, she whispered, “I am most grateful to you.”
“Lady, I would save you from this marriage if I knew how.”
He spoke in a rush, not expecting to say the foolish words that were in his heart. He was as good as any man with a sword,
but he had no weapon to wield in this fight. Someday, he would be a man to be reckoned with, a man with lands and power. But
as a landless knight, he could only put her at risk by interfering with the king’s plans.
“I will do my duty and follow the wishes of my father and my king,” she said in a strong voice. “But I thank you for wishing
it could be otherwise.”
He wished he could see her better. Impulsively, he reached out to trace the outline of her cheek with his fingers. Before
he knew what he was doing, he had her face cupped in his hands. He felt her lean toward him. This time, he did not stop himself.
Very softly, he brushed his lips against hers. At the first touch, a shot of lust ran through him, hitting him so hard he
felt light-headed and weak in the knees. He pressed his mouth hard against hers. Dimly, through his raging desire, he was
aware of the innocence of her kiss. He willed himself to keep his hands where they were and not give in to the overpowering
urge to reach for her body. If she had shown the slightest sign she had been down this path before, he would have had her
down on the straw at their feet.
He broke the kiss and pulled her into his arms. Closing his eyes, he held her to him and waited for the thundering of his
heart to subside. God have mercy! What happened to him? This girl, who trusted him blindly, had no notion of the danger.
Swallowing hard, he released her from his embrace. He could think of no words, could not speak at all. With deliberate care,
he pulled her hood up and tucked her long hair inside it. Then he let his arms fall to his sides like heavy weights.
“I did not want his to be my first kiss,” she said, as though she needed to explain why she had permitted it.
His gut twisted as he thought of the firsts the other man would have with her.
She took a quick step forward and, rising on her tiptoes, lightly touched her lips to his. In another moment, she was running
across the yard, clutching her cloak about her.
For many years, William dreamed of that night. In his dreams, though, he held her in his arms by the river in the moonlight.
In his dreams, he kissed the worry and fear from her face. In his dreams, he rescued her from her unhappy fate.
In his dreams, she was his.
England, near the Welsh border
ady Mary Catherine Rayburn sat on the bench in her bedchamber and waited for news. If the prince received her latest message
in time, the king’s army should have caught her husband with the rebels by now.
She pulled up the loose sleeve of her tunic and examined her arm in the shaft of sunlight that fell from the narrow window.
The bruises were fading; Rayburn had been gone a fortnight. She let the sleeve fall and rested her head against the stone
wall behind her.
Not once in all this time did her husband suspect she had betrayed him. But he would know it now. She had been the only one
in the hall, save for the men who went with him, when he disclosed the time and place of his meeting with the Welsh rebels.
She buried her face in trembling hands and prayed she had not made a mistake. What else could she do? Nothing short of discovering
Rayburn with the rebels would convince the king of his treachery.
If Rayburn escaped unseen, he would return and kill her. What then would happen to Jamie? It was unthinkable that her son
would be left alone in the world with that man.
The cold of the stone wall penetrated the heavy tapestry at her back, causing her to shiver. Her raging fever had only broken
the night before. She’d been the last to fall to the illness that had swept through the castle.
Exhausted, she closed her eyes. How had she come to this? She thought back to the beginning, before Rayburn’s betrayal of
the king—and before her betrayal of Rayburn.
The king had been so certain of Rayburn’s loyalty when he chose him as her husband. At sixteen, she had been quite the marriage
prize. She possessed that most rare and appealing quality in a noblewoman: She was her ailing father’s only heir. More, she
was heir to one of the massive castles in the Welsh Marches, the strategic border area between England and Wales. That made
her betrothal worthy of the king’s personal attention.
At the age of ten, she was betrothed to a young man whose family, like her own, was closely aligned with King Richard. The
match lost its luster the moment Henry Bolingbroke usurped the throne. Consequently, her father was pleased when, a short
time later, the young man had the courtesy to fall from his horse and break his neck. When the new king “offered” to select
a husband for her, her father was happy for the opportunity to demonstrate his new allegiance.
King Henry deliberated carefully, dangling her as a prize before powerful men he wanted in his debt. When her father fell
gravely ill just as the Welsh revolted, however, the king acted swiftly. He could not afford to leave Ross Castle and the
surrounding borderlands without a strong man to defend them. As her father lay on his deathbed, the king’s soldiers escorted
her to his castle at nearby Monmouth for her wedding.
She crossed her arms over her chest and rocked herself as the memories came back to her. She had known Rayburn to be a cold
man. She did not expect tenderness from him. Still, her wedding night had been a shock. He managed, just, to take her virginity.
Perhaps it was the novelty that made it possible that first time. He ordered her to put out every candle and wait in silence
on the bed. Only later did she understand that the sounds she heard in the dark were her new husband touching himself to prepare
for the task.
There were no kisses, no caresses. It was, at least, mercifully quick. As soon as he was finished, he left her. She cried
through the night, believing her life could not be worse.
How naive she had been.
He made weekly visits to her bedchamber, intent on getting her with child. She tried not to hear the foul things he said in
her ear or to feel the rough hands rubbing over her thighs and buttocks. When he succeeded, she forced her mind far away as
he pounded and grunted against her flesh.
Over time, it became increasingly difficult for him to do his duty. When he could not, he beat her. Sometimes the violence
excited him, for just long enough. He took to drinking heavily before he came to her. The drink only made him more violent.
By a miracle, she conceived. Her pregnancy saved her life. Rayburn still lacked any redeeming qualities, but he ceased to
terrorize her in the bedchamber.
Then, a few weeks ago, he decided he must have “an heir to spare.”
She had no regrets about what she did to save herself this time. And to save the Crown for Harry. One day, Harry would be
a great king, the one England deserved. Still, she was bone-weary from the strain of her deceit.
Her eyelids grew heavy as her mind drifted to the soothing childhood memories of playing with Harry at Monmouth. Those were
happy times, before her mother died and before her friend became prince and heir to the throne. She curled up on the hard
bench and let her eyes close.
“M’lady, what are you doing out of bed?” The maidservant’s voice roused Catherine from a troubled sleep.
“What is it?” she asked, sitting up.
“Men at arms approach the castle,” the woman said, her voice pitched high with tension.
“What banner do they fly?” Catherine demanded.
“The king’s, m’lady.”
The surge of relief that flooded through her was so intense she had to grip the bench to steady herself.
“What does it mean, m’lady?” the maid asked, twisting her apron in her hands.
“I do not know,” she said, trying to sound reassuring, “but we should have nothing to fear from the king’s men.”
If Rayburn was caught, why would the king send armed men here to Ross Castle? Perhaps Rayburn had escaped and they were looking
for him? Would he come here to hide? Panic rose in her throat. She forced herself to be calm.
Nay, if Rayburn’s treason was found out, he would hardly come here. Faced with the risk of execution or imprisonment, he would
flee to the Continent. She was almost sure of it.
“M’lady, the king’s soldiers are almost to the gate. The men are waiting for you to say what they must do.”
“Since they fly the king’s banner, we must open the gate to them,” she said. “But tell the men to wait until I come.”
“But, m’lady, you are too weak. You must not—”
Catherine silenced her maid’s objections with the lift of her hand. “Help me dress. I must know what news they bring.”
Holding the maid’s arm for support, she got to her feet. Her head swam at first, but the feeling passed quickly enough. She
nodded approval at the first gown the maid held out and let the woman dress her. Her mind was occupied with a single question:
Why would the king send his men here after the battle?
“There is no time for that,” she said when the maid brought out an elaborate headdress in blue brocade. “A jeweled net will
have to do.”
Ignoring the maid’s protests, Catherine twisted her hair in a roll and shoved it into the net. As soon as the maid fixed a
circlet over it to hold it in place, Catherine sent her running to the gate with her message.
She was relieved to find Jacob waiting outside her door. Gratefully, she took the arm the old man offered and smiled up into
his weathered face.
“Let me give your apologies to the visitors,” he said, his brows drawn together in concern. “I’ll tell them you are too ill
to greet them.”
“Thank you, Jacob, but I must do this,” she said. “They shall not set foot inside the castle walls until I assure myself they
are truly the king’s men.”
And until I know what it is they want
After so many days in the darkness of her bedchamber, the bright sun hurt her eyes when she stepped outside the keep. She
felt weak, but the fresh air cleared her head as they walked across the inner and outer bailey. Half the household waited
near the gate, anxious about the armed men on the other side.
As soon as her son saw her, he broke free from Alys and flung his arms around her legs. She knelt down to kiss him.
“Jamie, stay here with Alys while I go speak with these men,” she told him firmly. “Do not go out the gate.” She gave a meaningful
look over his head to the housekeeper, who responded with a quick nod.