She had sworn never to marry, never to allow any man to claim her or her lands. Nevertheless, Lady Adelaide fended off fortune hunters aplenty when she arrived at the king's court. Yet when dark whispers in castle corridors threw her into the arms of a valiant knight seeking a wife, the beautiful heiress began to rethink her solemn vow.
To ransom his captive brother, Armand de Boisbaston had great need of a wealthy--and willing--wife. Fate sent him the lady Adelaide instead. A woman who claimed she wished to avoid the marriage bed, yet whose lips told a different tale. Now dangerous intrigues forced them into a match as inescapable as the burgeoning passion that grew between them....
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"Keep your eyes open, Bert," the burly foot soldier ordered his younger comrade-in-arms at the gate of Ludgershall Castle. "I don't like the looks o'this fellow."
Bert, skinny and with spots on his youthful face, stopped watching the approaching rider to regard Godwin with surprise. "He's all by himself, ain't he? He can't be thinking o' attacking this castle singlehanded. He'd have to be mad when we're up to our arses in soldiers with the king stayin' here."
"Fools and madmen have caused trouble before this," Godwin warned, "and this knight looks like he could finish off a dozen men before he fell."
"How d'you know he's a knight?" Bert asked.
"Where's his men? His squire? His page? He's got no servants or baggage. He's probably another one of them routiers the king's hired."
Bert spat in disgust. Like most soldiers bound to his lord by land and loyalty, he detested mercenaries, and those King John employed were the worst of the lot.
Godwin shook his head. "Not him. Look at the way he's sittin' that horse. The nag ain't much, but only a well-trained knight rides like that, as if he's as comfortable in the saddle as a lady at her sewing. And he's got mail on, ain't he? And a sword, and unless I'm going blind, that's a mace tied to his saddle."
"Plenty of men carry maces," Bert replied, "and sit up straight when they ride. Besides, what kind of horse is that for a knight? It ought to be pullin'a hayrick. His surcoat's seen better days, too. And look at his hair" what knight has hair down to his shoulders? Fella looks more like aViking or one of them Scots from the north."
"Trust me, that man's a knight or I'm a nun."
"Well, supposin' he is," Bert allowed, "what's the worry? We've had plenty o'knights coming and going."
"Not like this one," Godwin replied, stepping out of the overhang of the massive barbican to call out a challenge.
As the stranger obediently drew his sway-backed nag to a stop, Godwin studied the man's stern, angular visage and the grim line of his full lips. No, this was no ordinary man, whether mercenary, knight or lord.
"It's Godwin, isn't it?" the stranger asked, his voice deep and husky.
At the sound of the familiar voice and a closer look at the man's lean face, Godwin gasped with recognition. He immediately lowered his spear and a wide grin split his face, making the scar on his chin curve, too.
"Forgive me, my lord!" he cried with both joy and relief. "What a surprise"a good one, mind. I was right happy to hear you wasn't dead."
"I am happy not to be," Lord Armand de Boisbaston replied as he swung down from his horse. He eyed the second guard, who still had his spear at the ready.
"Am I to be allowed to enter Ludgershall or not?"
Godwin gestured for Bert to out up his spear. "This is Lord Armand de Boisbaston, a good friend of the earl's. He was last here, what? Three years ago, my lord?"
As the knight nodded, Bert did as he was told. "Sorry, my lord. That was before my time."
"No matter," Lord Armand replied. "You were wise to deny me entry until you knew I wasn't an enemy, especially if our beloved sovereign is within."
Godwin's eyes narrowed ever so slightly. Beloved? If what he'd heard was true"and he had no reason to doubt it"Lord Armand de Boisbaston had no reason to love the king, and every reason to hate him.
"Which way to the stable?" the nobleman inquired.
"It's along the west wall inside," Godwin answered. "Bert here can fetch a."
"No need," Lord Armand interrupted as he reached for his horse's bridle. "I'll tend to my horse myself. The last time somebody else tried to brush him down, he got a kick for his trouble."
"Will your squire and servants be coming along with your baggage, my lord?" Bert asked. "We ought to know in case they don't get here before the changing o' the guard."
"My squire is dead, and everything I possess is in that pouch tied to my saddle."
Neither soldier knew what to say to that, so they didn't say anything.
"Is the earl within, or out hunting?" Lord Armand asked.
"He's in Wales, my lord," Godwin said, "on the king's business. He's not expected to be away for long, though."
"And Randall FitzOsbourne?"
"Oh, he's here, and a fine young gentlemen he is, too, I must say. Not like some of them courtiers who come with the king."
"Thank you," Lord Armand replied. "It's unfortunate the earl is away, but as it happens, I have business with the king, too." He started to lead his horse into the barbican. "It's good to see you again, Godwin."
"You, too, my lord," Godwin replied as he watched Lord Armand de Boisbaston, once rich and powerful, now neither, disappear beneath the heavy wooden portcullis as if he were a wraith newly risen from the dead.
Lady Adelaide D'averette slipped into the dim stable. Breathing in the air scented with hay and horse, she listened for voices, but heard only animals munching their hay and moving about their stalls.
Sanctuary! she thought as she pulled the door closed behind her.
That choice of words brought a smile of wry amusement to her lips, although it was true. She'd had enough of what passed for wit that morning, and more than enough of the fawning flattery of the men of the king's court. They must think she was a simpleton or vain beyond all reckoning if they believed she accepted anything they said as sincere, or that they wanted something other than her body in their beds.
As for the ladies, she was equally weary of their sly looks and snide, whispered remarks. She couldn't help being beautiful any more than they could help being devious and ambitious, seeking powerful, rich men for husbands or lovers.
Despite their treatment of her, she couldn't fault them for their plans and stratagems. In a world where men ruled, their husbands would determine if their futures were happy or sad, prosperous or impoverished.
Please, God, though, not her or her sisters, either. If they could prevent it, they would let no man have such power over them.
In her mind, she again heard the harsh, drunken voice of her father as if he were standing right beside her. "I'll marry you all off as soon as I can to the man who pays me the most. And if he wants to examine the goods before he makes me an offer, I'll strip you naked myself."
Shoving away that terrible memory, Adelaide found an empty stall and sank down upon a pile of clean straw. She removed her heavily embroidered cap, veil and the barbette that went beneath her chin, unpinned her hair and shook it loose.
A tiny mew at the far corner of the stall caught her attention. There, nestled on what looked like a bit of old blanket, lay a cat nursing her kittens, all save one. Apparently less hungry or more adventurous than its siblings, that one was moving toward Adelaide.
It was a cute little thing, mostly white with a black back, as if it wore a cloak. There was a black smudge on its nose and another just beneath its mouth, like a sort of beard.
Not wanting to distress the mother, Adelaide stayed where she was, content to watch the kitten explore its surroundings. It seemed quite fearless as it came toward her"and then she realized it was making for the veil lying on her lap. She returned her cap to her head and was putting the veil behind her when the kitten suddenly sprang for the end of it, landing in her lap. Laughing, but not wanting her silken veil torn, Adelaide shoved the veil and barbette behind her and petted the little kitten while keeping a watchful eye on its mother.
Another of the kittens"this one mostly black, with a white breast and white feet"romped toward her.
The white kitten began to wiggle free of her lap. At the same time, the large stable door creaked open and the unmistakable sound of a horse being led in from the cobbled courtyard broke the silence.
Not sure who it might be, and fearing it might be Sir Francis de Farnby or some other gentlemen of the court, Adelaide decided it would be wise to leave.
Before she could move, however, the white kitten leapt onto her shoulder like some kind of bird. The black kitten jumped into her lap, clearly following its sibling regardless of where it went. With a meow, the white kitten moved farther behind her head. She gasped as it dug its needle-sharp little claws into her back below the nape of her neck while the black kitten scampered back to its mother.
Her head bent, Adelaide twisted and turned and tried to get hold of the kitten, to no avail. Her cap tumbled to the ground while the kitten held on tighter, its claws digging into her skin, as well as her gown of scarlet damask.
"May I be of assistance?"
This was no groom, and certainly no stable boy. Judging by the man's refined accent, he had to be a nobleman, although she didn't recognize his deep, husky voice.
She tried to raise her head, and the kitten clung on tighter. "Ouch!"
"Allow me, my lady."
A pair of scuffed, worn and muddy boots appeared in her line of sight and the weight of the kitten mercifully disappeared, if not the sensation of the painful little claws digging into her flesh.
"Please, be careful," she pleaded, her head still bowed in a position both awkward and embarrassing.
"Otherwise the kitten might tear my gown."
"We can't have that," her rescuer agreed, his voice intimate and amiable, making her blush as if this were the sort of clandestine encounter she so assiduously sought to avoid.
She raised her eyes, hoping to see a bit more of the man standing in front of her. His gray cloak was made of wool and mud-spattered, and there was a hole in the hem large enough to stick her finger through.
"Come now, little one," the man murmured as he worked to free the kitten's claws from her garment.
Even as she tried to ignore the stranger's proximity, his deep voice and the warmth of his breath on the nape...Review:
"Colorful and compelling details of life in the Middle Ages abound." -- Publishers Weekly on Hers to Command
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Book Description HQN Books, 2007. Mass Market Paperback. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # DADAX0373772289
Book Description HQN Books, 2007. Mass Market Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # M0373772289
Book Description HQN Books, 2007. Mass Market Paperback. Book Condition: New. Never used!. Bookseller Inventory # P110373772289
Book Description HQN Books. MASS MARKET PAPERBACK. Book Condition: New. 0373772289 New Condition. Bookseller Inventory # NEW7.1926309