William of Brinlaw's demands that Henry II restore his birthright fall on deaf ears -- until the mysterious death of Brinlaw's current lord. Eager to maintain his hard-won peace, the new king deeds the estate to William, provided he marries his enemy's daughter. Bearing a false proclamation that their union was her father's last wish, William journeys home, where he is unexpectedly bewitched by his bride. Lady Alista stuns him with her trust and burns him with the fire of her kiss. And though he knows she will soon despise him, he weds and beds her before she can learn the truth.
Grief-stricken, Alista opens her heart to Will only to see their future threatened by treachery and the unnatural call of a heritage she can neither understand nor deny. Haunted by visions, she is drawn to the ruins of Falconskeep, where the women of her bloodline find their destiny. It is there Will must go to save her -- if he can find the faith to battle a force that defies a warrior's sword yet may yield to the power of love.
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Jayel Wylie lives in Chester, South Carolina, her hometown. In addition to her fiction writing, she works for a local solicitor, i.e., district attorney, as a legal assistant for narcotics and juvenile crime cases. When she isn't writing, working her day job, or recovering from both by lying on the couch watching cable, she enjoys needlework, painting, and traditional Southern cooking. So far she isn't married, but she revels in spoiling her friends' children rotten and intends to have a family of her own just as soon as she can find the time and a suitable sweetheart. An avid believer in true love as a reality as well as a concept, she figures it's only a matter of time.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Alista grew up, and her father did keep her safe, with Brother Paolo always nearby to watch over her as well. When King Stephen finally managed to drive his cousin Maud back to Anjou and her husband, he drove many of her supporters among England's noble class as well, and the home and holding of one of these, Brinlaw, was given to Mark as compensation for the loss of Falconskeep. By the time she was eighteen years old, Alista barely remembered any home but Brinlaw.
The bloody civil war was finally ended. Maud's son, Henry, had won many battles, while Stephen's son had died, so the beleaguered king made the peace by making Henry his heir. As one of Stephen's strongest and best-liked retainers, Mark first became the target of a certain amount of espionage, which he neatly avoided, and a great deal of charming diplomacy, which he returned in kind, doing much to reconcile the rest of the nobles to the prospect of a king born in Anjou. Now Stephen was finally dead; Henry was to be crowned; and Mark was leaving Brinlaw once again for the coronation in London.
"Tell me honestly, Papa, why must you go?" Alista asked, standing knee deep in snow beside her father in the courtyard as the final packing was finished. "I know how little you care for ceremony, and Henry has already heard your pledge. Geoffrey said he said as much himself before he sent the invitation. It's the middle of winter -- "
"So he's Geoffrey now, is he?" Mark teased, trying to change the subject. "Not 'Sir Knight' or even 'the King's cousin' any longer?"
"As if I should remind him," she retorted. Geoffrey of Anjou held no title of his own, but he missed no opportunity to mention his blood kinship to England's new king. "And you didn't answer my question."
"Didn't I?" he answered with a sigh. "Your friend Geoffrey also said that Old Brinlaw's son was back in London, renewing his friendship with Henry."
"What of it?" A groom led her father's horse into the courtyard, and she went and took the reins herself. "Why is that reason enough to leave us without you for Christmas?"
"Because in future I would prefer to keep my Christmases here," Mark answered, swinging into the saddle with an ease that belied his years. "Now that Stephen is gone and Maud's pup is to be on the throne, the boy means to reclaim his father's forfeit title, and I would think this castle with it." He patted the destrier's neck to calm his prancing. "'Tis what I would do in his place."
"But he can't!" Alista protested. "Henry couldn't -- "
"Of course he could; he is King." He swung the horse about, trusting Alista to get herself out of the way. "Particularly if I'm not there to remind him how dearly I do love him myself."
"And so you will be there." She stroked the horse's mane, trying to push her disappointment away. In all her eighteen years, she could remember only two or three times she'd had Christmas with her father, and now there would be one less, but she wouldn't whine and raging wouldn't help, not this time. "You don't really think we could lose Brinlaw, do you?"
"Not for a moment." He smiled down at her, this strong, young creature he loved before all else in the living world. "Go inside and tell your Geoffrey to make himself seen, or I'm leaving for London without him."
"Will you not go back inside to say good-bye to Druscilla?" she asked. Dru was her father's mistress, a beauty barely older than Alista herself, and she had been weeping piteously in fits and starts since Henry's messenger had arrived.
Mark suppressed a weary sigh. "I think best not," he answered. "Hurry, girl, before it starts to snow again."
Inside the Great Hall, all seemed to be chaos, but she knew it for a well-practiced ritual. Men-at-arms were being sorted into who would go to London and who would stay to guard the castle; cooks were packing enough hampers of food to supply a manna-less flight from Egypt; maidservants were running up and down the stairs with compresses and sweets to comfort the miserable Druscilla. All the regular business of a December midmorning continued on apace. Yesterday's rushes were being raked up and discarded by a team of boys while another team of women spread the new. The dog boy was frantically trying to keep Mark's hunting hounds from devouring Druscilla's ill-tempered spaniel bitch, perched on a cushion on the hearth bench and taunting them shamelessly with high-pitched yelps. Last night's guards, long delayed by preparations for their commander's journey, were finally breaking their fast with cold meat and bread, some near to nodding off in their cups of ale, others still fresh enough to pester the women with voices rubbed rough in the winter wind on the battlements. Alista looked around the teeming human hive with a sudden sentimental pang. What if her father was wrong and Henry did mean to give this holding to the traitor's heir? She knew all these people by name, had been cared for by them as a child and as a woman cared for them in turn. It was unthinkable that she should leave them, unimaginable that she could ever feel anything but misery anywhere else. But hadn't she felt the same at Falconskeep? She had known those people, too, as well as she knew herself, yet now she couldn't remember a single name or more than a single face from the life she'd led there. Even her mother's image had become little more than a dim shadow in her mind that only came clear in dreams. She remembered the horrible days she'd spent at Stephen's court before they came to Brinlaw, she the motherless mite pitied and ignored by the ladies charged with her care while her father rode away to war. If Brother Paolo had not been with her, she would almost certainly have grieved herself to death.
"Alista?" Brother Paolo was so near in her thoughts, his voice couldn't capture her attention. "My lady?" he persisted, shaking her arm.
Her eyes snapped back into focus, her mind coming back to the present. "Forgive me, Brother," she smiled. "I was thinking again."
"Of something very sad from what I saw," he answered, studying her. For a moment, every trace of childishness had flown from her face, and it made him feel old to see her so, a woman deep in contemplation. "What troubles you?"
"Nothing," she insisted. "Have you seen the Angevin knight?"
His heart sank even further. "Why?" he asked suspiciously. "What use do you have for him?"
"Little if any at all, but Papa sent me to find him." The hounds broke free of their attendant for another barking pass around the hall, scrambling over Alista's feet and tangling themselves in her skirts as they went by. "Peter, why don't you drive them outside?" she complained to the boy flying after them.
"Pardon, my lady," Peter begged, red-faced. "But if they should see his lordship on his horse, 'twould break their hearts when he left them behind."
"Aye, so it would," she relented, refastening her mantle. "Come, we'll take them out back." Druscilla's maid passed on her way to the stairs. "Jane!" Alista called, stopping the girl in mid-trot. "Tell Dru that if she wants to bid my father farewell, she must pull herself together and come down at once. And send someone to find Sir Geoffrey." She turned back to the Franciscan with a smile. "You need have no fear for me, Brother," she promised. "I have no real call to be sad."
Together she and Peter were able to herd the pack through the narrow pantry and out into the deserted back garden where they broke free, baying joyfully as they plowed through the night's fresh fall of snow. She had first come to Brinlaw in an early summer, and this garden had been magnificent, thick with colorful blossoms, many of which even Brother Paolo couldn't name. But Mark's servants were not the careful gardeners that whoever had planted the garden had been, and many of the plants had died before the next spring. For years only soft, gr
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