Authors: Margaret Mallory
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Historical
When the bishop greeted the bold young woman on the drawbridge, William realized this was Lady Rayburn herself. Since he knew
what the bishop had to tell her, he shut out the bishop’s words and lost himself in contemplation of the woman.
Of course he hoped she would be attractive, though it made no difference to his decision. Luck was with him. While she may
have the soul of a snake, Lady Rayburn appeared—at least from this distance—to be young and exceedingly pretty, with a lithe,
He was jolted to attention when she dropped to her knees, crying out, “Praise be to God!” It took him a long moment to comprehend
she was thanking God for her husband’s death. How could the woman weep on her knees with joy at the news of her husband’s
death? Even his mother was not as heartless as that.
When he heard her liken her prospective marriage to him to a prison, his shock turned to outrage. She should be grateful to
him for saving her. Instead, she was ridiculing him! Edmund grabbed his arm, but William threw him off and spurred his horse
onto the drawbridge.
As he rode toward them, the bishop took several steps backward. But the woman did not move, even when his horse was snorting
above her. Haltingly, she raised her eyes, as if taking in every inch of horse and man. When her gaze finally reached his
face, their eyes locked.
His heart stopped.
It was her. He was almost sure of it.
Her eyes lost focus, and she swayed on her feet. With a quickness learned in battle, he swung down from his horse and bent
to catch her before her head hit the ground. Her fair hair fell free of the mesh net and spread in silken waves over his arm
and the rough wooden boards of the drawbridge.
Chaos swirled around him. But William saw nothing but the young woman in his arms. It was her. The girl he dreamed of.
Before he could lift her, a weight slammed onto his back. Small fists beat him as a high-pitched voice wailed in his ear,
“Let go of my mother! Let go of her!”
“Get the boy off me!” William called to the nearest man.
The man pulled the boy off and held him with outstretched arms as the boy kicked furiously at the air. He was a dark-haired
boy who looked to be only three or four.
William held the boy’s eyes. “I will not harm her. I promise you.”
The boy nearly succeeded in kicking him in the head.
No sooner was the boy lifted away than a face as round and pink as a fat friar’s was before him, shouting, “My lady has been
in bed with a fever these last five days!”
William leaned back to see who was chastising him so harshly. It was an older woman, clearly a servant of some kind.
The woman put her hand to the pale cheek of the lady in his arms. “What have you done to her?” she wailed. “My poor mistress!
God save us!”
William stifled a curse. Through clenched teeth, he said, “I have come to save the lady, not harm her.”
The edge in his voice should have sent the woman running. It did not, but at least she ceased her yowling.
“Show me where I should take her,” he said, making an effort to speak calmly. “We cannot leave her here in the middle of the
The woman blinked at him and then hoisted herself up with astonishing speed. She picked up her skirts and bustled past him,
calling, “This way, this way!”
William got to his feet with the lady in his arms and walked through the gates of his castle. He followed the plump servant,
who glanced over her shoulder every two or three steps and waved her hands about. He heard the murmurs and knew the servants
dipped their heads and stepped back as he passed.
But he did not truly see any of them.
All his attention was on the warmth of her body against him, the feel of slippery silk fluttering against his hand. She weighed
almost nothing. When a breeze caught her hair, the scent of wildflowers filled his nose, sending him back to a moonlit night
by a river.
Before he knew it, he was climbing the steps to the keep. Just then, the boy broke free of his captor and wrapped himself
around William’s leg.
“Do you want him to drop your mother, you foolish boy?” Before any of his men could move, the plump servant charged back and
grabbed the boy by the scruff of the neck.
“I shall see to your mother, child,” she said as she thrust the squirming boy into the arms of another servant. “Be a good
boy and Mary will take you to the kitchen for a sweet bun.”
William signaled for his men to remain behind in the hall and followed the woman up the circular stair to the family’s private
“I am Alys, the housekeeper,” the woman informed him as she puffed up the steps before him. “I’ve known Lady Catherine since
she was a babe.”
The woman in his arms stirred. Forgetting himself, he bent down to shush her and almost kissed her forehead. He gave his head
a sharp shake to remind himself that this woman, who seemed so fragile in his arms, argued with bishops. And worse.
At the entrance to the solar, he paused to survey the elegantly appointed room, with its dark wood furniture, rich tapestries,
and lovely window seat overlooking the river. This was his. No more having a home at the pleasure of another man. His children
would grow up knowing where they belonged.
With a start, he realized the woman he carried was the one who would bear those children.
He looked down at her. Though her eyes were closed, he saw the pinch between her brows. Just how long had she been awake?
“In here, m’lord,” the housekeeper called from one of the bedchambers that adjoined the solar.
He carried the lady into the chamber and carefully laid her down on the high bed. As he stepped back, he caught sight of his
blood-smeared surcoat. What he must look like to her, coming straight from the battlefield. No wonder she fainted.
He took Alys by the arm. “I need to wash,” he said as he walked her out of the bedchamber, “and my men need food and drink.”
“I’ll see to it at once, m’lord.” Alys turned to leave, but he kept his hand firmly on her arm.
“I know you care for your mistress.” He could tell by the spark in her eyes that she was pleased he saw this. “So you must
help her understand.”
Alys looked up at him, her expression serious. “Understand what, m’lord?”
“It is the king’s wish that she and I marry this very day.” He ignored Alys’s sharp intake of breath and continued. “It will
not be safe for her if we do not. That is what you must make her understand.”
Alys pressed her lips into a firm line and nodded.
“I will return within the hour to tell her how it will be done,” he said. “Now, where can I have my bath?”
illiam recovered his senses as he scrubbed himself clean of battle grime. Over and over, he reminded himself of what he knew
about the woman he was about to wed. She spied on her husband, delivered him to his death. Without a shred of regret or pity,
she betrayed the father of her child, the man she shared a bed with for five years.
These were truths. What were dreams to these?
Either she had changed since she was that girl in the stable or he was mistaken about her then. How long were they together
that night? An hour? Two? What could a man know in that time? Especially a young man driven to distraction by the nearness
of a beautiful girl in the moonlight.
He learned about the nature of women at his mother’s knee. The only time he forgot the lesson was with the girl in the stable.
She was as beautiful as ever, so he’d have to be cautious.
He felt ready to take charge when he returned to the solar, dressed in his finest. Thank God the bishop had insisted he retrieve
his best clothes from his packhorse before they rode off. He lifted his hand to knock, then stopped himself. He needed no
one’s permission to enter here.
When he pushed it open, he found Lady Catherine and Alys sitting at a small table near the window. Alys toppled her stool
leaping to her feet. Lady Catherine, however, watched him steadily through the steam rising from the cup she held to her lips.
She did not flinch a muscle.
Without taking her gaze from his, she set the cup down and said in a clear voice, “Alys, go ask the bishop to join us.”
William wondered what she was up to but figured he would find out soon enough.
Alys gave her mistress a look that said she did not think it wise to leave her alone with him. But when Lady Catherine nodded,
Alys did as she was told.
Alone for the first time, he and his soon-to-be wife assessed each other for a long moment. He did not see even a flicker
of recognition in those vivid blue eyes. Wisps of memory whipped through his head. He could not reconcile those brief, intense
memories of the girl with what he knew of the woman before him. But then, she was so very lovely, he was finding it difficult
to think at all.
Her smooth porcelain skin held a faint touch of color now. “I am glad to see you are not so pale as before,” he said.
“I do not usually faint,” she was quick to assure him, “but I have been ill.”
“I hope you are feeling better, for we must settle matters between us now.”
Something about the set of her jaw told him she had used the last hour to assess her situation and make a plan. It made him
glad for the negotiation skills he had learned in the service of Northumberland.
“It was kind of you to agree to marry me,” she began.
So, her opening gambit was a blatant attempt to appease him.
“You did not seem to think so upon first hearing it.” He meant to convey amusement, but a trace of anger showed in his voice.
Ignoring his remark, she continued. “I understand the king gave you a choice.”
Her slight emphasis on the word
was not lost on him.
“In sooth, he did not,” he said with a shrug. “I could not have it on my conscience that a lady might be unjustly imprisoned
when I could prevent it.”
“Many men in your position would not make the same choice.”
Only if they had not laid eyes upon her. Any man who looked upon that face would not find the choice a difficult one. Desire
burned in him, hot and demanding, at the thought that he would have her in his bed this very night. The knowledge that she
betrayed her first husband and loathed the idea of marrying him did not dampen his ardor at all.
Desiring her was one thing. Trusting her, quite another.
“Will you flatter me by saying you prefer marriage to me over imprisonment, or do you yet see the two as equal?” Again, he
was unable to keep the edge from his tone.
She had the grace to blush. “My objection was to another marriage and so soon,” she murmured, dropping her eyes. “Not marriage
to you, in particular.”
“Well, it is about me, is it not?” he snapped.
His instinct for masking his feelings had been honed at an early age. Why did it fail him now? Exasperated with himself, he
got up from the table and stood with his back to her, looking out the window. Hell, he would have married her, regardless
of his own desires. But now he wanted her. Badly. Very badly. He hoped she had not seen it.
Her next words brought him sharply back to the conversation.
“I will agree to marry you on one condition.”
He turned and raised an eyebrow at her. “You believe you are in a position to bargain?”
The firmness in her tone told him she had seen the naked desire in his eyes and realized the power it gave her.
“Your safety, your home, your position—these are not sufficient reasons for you?” he asked.
“If you cannot also promise me this,” she said, unmoved, “I will choose exile or prison, rather than wed you.”
He could not believe his ears. She
prison to marrying him. “What is it, then, that you must have from me?”
She took a shaky breath, giving away how tense she was beneath her outward calm. Still, she looked directly into his eyes
as she made her demand.
“I must have assurances about my son. You must promise me that you will not harm him. More, that you will protect him and
his interests.” She cleared her throat. “That is my price.”
He told himself she did not know him, could not know how much her words affronted him. Taking a deep breath, he sat down beside
her and placed his hand on top of hers on the table. She flinched but did not attempt to remove it.
“I will do these things,” he said, holding her gaze, “and I would have done them without your asking.”
She hesitated, then gave him a faint smile.
At that moment, the subject of their discussion burst into the room. Lady Catherine did not chastise the child for interrupting.
Instead, she enveloped the boy in her arms, kissing the top of his dark curls. The love between mother and son was so palpable
that William felt warmed by his nearness to it. His throat felt tight, and he knew he wanted this also for his own children.
The bishop entered the room at a slower pace.
“I asked you to come, Your Grace,” Lady Catherine said, “because there are certain promises that must be included in the marriage
So that was her purpose in calling for the bishop. His oral assurances made in private were not sufficient.
William was not offended. On the contrary, he admired the lady’s determination—and her cleverness—in finding a means of binding
him to his pledge. He hoped she would be as fierce in protecting the children they would have together as she was her firstborn.
“The contract is already drawn.” The bishop touched his fingertips together and shifted his eyes to William as he spoke. “I
assure you, all matters of importance are covered.”
William held his hand up. “I will give your clerk the necessary changes. We’ve no more time to waste, so let’s be done with
The bishop made a sour face. “As you wish.”
The door banged behind him.
“Come, Jamie,” Lady Catherine said, sounding exhausted now. “Mother must rest now.”
Her son kissed the cheek she offered and scampered out of the room. As soon as he was gone, she slumped against the back of