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Authors: Margaret Mallory

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Historical

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BOOK: Knight of Desire
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When she stood up again, bright sparkles crossed her vision. She’d never fainted in her life, and she could not permit herself
to do so now. She would meet her duty to protect her household.

She waved the others back and went to stand alone in front of the gate. At her nod, the men dropped the drawbridge over the
dry moat with a heavy thud.

Through the iron bars of the portcullis, Catherine could see the men on horseback on the moat’s other side. They had a hard
look to them, as though they had seen much fighting and were prepared for more.

She turned and gave the order. “Raise the portcullis, but be prepared to drop it at my signal.”

The iron chains clanked and groaned as the men turned the crank and slowly raised the portcullis.

As soon as it was high enough for her to pass under it, she stepped out onto the drawbridge. She sensed the waiting men’s
surprise. They stared at her, but they remained where they were, just as she intended.

As they rode toward Ross Castle, William Neville FitzAlan’s thoughts kept returning to the traitor’s wife. The traitor’s widow
now. Lady Rayburn’s last message to the prince led to her husband’s capture and execution. Rayburn deserved his fate. But
what kind of woman could share a man’s bed for years and yet betray him to his enemies?

William wondered grimly if she had been unfaithful in other ways as well. It seemed more than likely. In his experience, fidelity
was rare among women of his class. The knightly ideals of loyalty and honor certainly did not guide female behavior. Perhaps
it was desire for another man, then, rather than loyalty to Lancaster, that led her to expose her husband’s treachery.

Regardless of her motive, both he and the king had cause to be grateful. The lady, however, now presented a political problem
for the king.

With his hold on the Crown precarious, King Henry needed to give a strong message that traitors
and their families
would be severely punished. The powerful families needed this message most of all. As the wife of an English Marcher lord
who turned against the king, Lady Rayburn should be sent to the Tower—a place where “accidental” death was a common hazard.

On the other hand, Prince Harry insisted it was Lady Rayburn who had sent him the anonymous messages about rebel forces. However,
few of the king’s men believed it, and the man who delivered the messages was nowhere to be found.

The king was keeping his own counsel as to what he believed. The truth, in any case, was irrelevant. In the midst of rebellion,
the king could not leave a border castle in the hands of a woman. The Marcher lords who were supposedly loyal were nearly
as worrisome as the rebels. If one of them took Ross Castle—whether by force or by marriage—the king would be hard-pressed
to take it back. The king wanted it in the hands of a man of his own choosing.

William was the man the king chose. His loyalty had been proven through the severest of tests. Even more, the king understood
that William’s hunger for lands of his own was so deep that, once he had them, no one would ever take them from him. Ross
Castle would be safe in his hands.

William led the attack that morning, catching the enemy unprepared. At the king’s command, his guard executed Rayburn on the
field. The traitor’s head barely left his shoulders before the king declared his lands and title forfeit and granted them
to William.

William rode straight out from the battlefield to secure his property, the blood of the enemy still wet on his surcoat. But
there was one last price he had to pay for it.

The king put the fate of the traitor’s widow in his hands.

The choice was his. He could send the lady to London to be imprisoned in the Tower for her husband’s treason. Or, he could
save her—by making her his wife. The king sent the bishop along to grant special dispensation of the posting of banns in the
event William chose to wed. The king knew his man.

The prince would be enraged if Lady Rayburn was imprisoned. While the king could disregard the prince’s feelings, William
could not. Young Harry would be his king one day. William would have wed the widow regardless. It was not in him to let harm
come to a woman or a child if it was in his power to prevent it.

His thoughts were diverted from the problem of the woman when he crested the next hill. Pulling his horse up, he stopped to
take in the sight of his new lands for the first time. Lush green hills gave way to fields of new crops surrounding the castle,
which stood on a natural rise beside a winding river. The castle was an imposing fortification with two rings of concentric
walls built around an older square keep.

Edmund Forrester, his second in command, drew up beside him. “On the river, easy to defend,” Edmund said approvingly.

William nodded without taking his eyes off the castle. All his life, he’d wanted this. In his father’s household, he was provided
for, but he had no right, no claim. His position was always precarious, uncertain. Now, at long last, he had lands of his
own and a title that declared his place in the world.

If only John could be with him on this day of all days! Four years since his brother’s death, and he still felt the loss keenly.
John was the only one with whom he shared a true bond. Still, he was glad to have Edmund along. They had fought long years
together in the North. There were few men he trusted, but he trusted Edmund.

William spurred his horse and led his men in a gallop down the path to the castle, his heart beating fast with anticipation.
Although the lookouts should have seen the king’s banner as they rode up, the occupants of the castle took their blessed time
opening the gates. He was fuming long before the drawbridge finally dropped.

As the portcullis was raised, a slender woman ducked under it and walked out alone onto the drawbridge.

William squinted against the sun, trying to see her better. Something about the way the young woman stood, staring them down
with such self-possession, caused his men to shift uneasily in their saddles.

Her move was so daring that William smiled in appreciation. Clearly she intended to give the guards opportunity to drop the
portcullis behind her, should he and his men prove to be enemies. There was one flaw in her scheme, however: The castle might
be saved, but the lady most surely would not.

Chapter Two

atherine scanned the soldiers on the other side of the dry moat as she waited for one of them to come forward. They wore armor
and chain mail, and their horses looked as if they had been ridden hard. A lone churchman rode with them, his white robes
bright in a sea of burnished metal.

She watched as the churchman dismounted and walked onto the drawbridge.

“Father Whitefield!” Fortunately, her father’s old friend did not hear her exclamation. Recalling his quick rise in the church
since Henry took the throne, she dropped to a low curtsy.

“ ’Tis good to see you again, child,” the bishop said, holding out his hands to her.

“What is this about, m’lord Bishop?” she whispered. “Why does the king send armed men here?”

“I bring you a message from the king,” the bishop said in a voice that echoed off the castle walls.

What sort of message required a bishop and armed men?

“I am sorry to tell you this, my dear,” he said, patting her hand, “but your husband was killed today.”

“Praise be to God!” Catherine cried out and fell to her knees. Squeezing her eyes shut, she clasped her hands before her face.
“Praise be to God! Praise be to God!”

“Lady Catherine!” the bishop roared above her. “You must beg God’s forgiveness for such sinfulness.”

Catherine knew it was a sin to wish her husband dead. But God, in his infinite wisdom, had answered her prayers and removed
Rayburn from this world.

Praise God, praise God, praise God

“… shameful behavior… unwomanly…”

She was dimly aware the bishop was still speaking. She ignored him and continued praying.

“Mary Catherine!”

When he shouted her name, she opened her eyes.

“Get up, get up,” the bishop said, jerking her up by the arm. “There is more I have to tell you.”

He pulled a parchment from inside his robe, broke the seal, and unrolled it. Holding it out at arm’s length, he gave her a
solemn look over the top. Then, he began to read. “All lands… forfeit to the Crown… grant these same… for faithful service…”

Catherine could not take in the words. Her head spun as the bishop droned on and on.

“In plain terms,” he said as he rolled up the parchment, “the king declares Rayburn’s title and all his property, including
Ross Castle, forfeit. He grants them to the man who defeated your traitorous husband in battle today.”

The breath went out of her as if she had been punched in the stomach.

“Why would the king do this to me?” she asked in a whisper. “After all I have done for him? After the risks I took?”

The bishop leaned forward and narrowed his eyes at her. “You should have foreseen this from the moment your husband raised
his hand against the king.”

did not raise my hand against the king!” she protested. “It was the king’s decision, not mine, that I should marry Rayburn.
You know that very well.”

“Mind your tongue,” the bishop warned, his face red with anger. “ ’Tis not wise to criticize your sovereign.”

“Does the king say what I am to do?” she asked, panic welling up in her. “Where Jamie and I shall live?”

The bishop cleared his throat. “All is not lost, my dear.” He paused to give significance to what he was about to say. “With
the king’s blessing, the new lord of Ross Castle has agreed to take you as his wife.”

“The king wishes me to marry again?” Her voice was rising, but she could not help it.

The bishop’s steady gaze told her she had not misunderstood him.

“Nay, he cannot!” She backed away from him, shaking her head from side to side. “He cannot ask this of me again!”

The bishop grabbed her arm and whispered ferociously in her ear, “This is the only way the king has of saving you.”

She covered her face. “I will not do it! I will not!”

“Catherine!” the bishop shouted. “Stop this at once!”

“You must ask the king to spare me this,” she pleaded, clutching his sleeve. “Please, Your Grace, you must ask him!”

“Come to your senses, woman,” the bishop said, taking her by the shoulders. “You have no choice.”

“What if I refuse?” She felt the anger rising in her chest.

“That would not be at all wise,” the bishop said, his voice quavering.

“You must tell me, Your Grace,” she pressed.

“The king will have you imprisoned.”

The blood drained from her head as she finally understood. Why did she not see it before? Henry was fighting rebellions on
both borders. His hold on the throne was weak. If he did not move quickly to put her estates into the hands of one of his
own men, one of the Marcher barons would take it.

“You should be grateful this FitzAlan will have you,” the bishop spat out. “The king did not require it of him.”

Through clenched teeth, she said, “Perhaps the Tower would be a better choice for me.”

“Think of your son. What will happen to him if you are imprisoned?”

The bishop hit his mark squarely. There was nothing she would not suffer to save her son.

“How long do I have,” she asked weakly, “before I must make my choice of prisons?”

When her head was clearer, when she did not feel so ill, perhaps she could find a way out of this.

The bishop’s nostrils flared. “The marriage is to take place at once.”

“At once?” she asked, stunned. “Am I to go from one hell to another with no reprieve!”

Her burst of anger left her feeling drained and light-headed.

“When?” she asked, fixing her gaze on the wooden planks of the drawbridge beneath her feet. “When will he come?”

Please, God, let it be weeks and not days

“He is here now.”

She looked up to find the bishop peering over his shoulder. In her distress, she had forgotten about the others.

The soldiers at the front moved aside to allow a single rider on an enormous black warhorse to come forward. Unable to move,
Catherine watched in horror as the huge animal bore down on her. Its hot breath was on her face before the man reined it in.

She swallowed and forced her gaze slowly upward to take in the man. Her eyes rested first on his hand, grasping the hilt of
his sword as though he sensed danger and was prepared to meet it. She followed the line up his arm. When she reached his chest,
her stomach tightened. His surcoat was streaked with blood. Blood of his enemies, blood of the vanquished.

Her eyes were drawn inextricably upward toward his face. She saw grime and blood and matted hair. Then her gaze met the raging
fury in the beast’s eyes, and she fainted dead away.

BOOK: Knight of Desire
3.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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