The king turned to Rufus. “Oh, go, get out of my sight. You are too dull for me.” He groped for Maud’s knee and squeezed it. “Take your girl, or boy, whatever it is under those clothes, and make sure you bed it.”
Knowing resistance was useless, Rufus decided retreat was the only option and he took the girl’s arm and pulled her out of the hall. There he released her and thrust his fingers through his hair. “By the Holy Mary, I should never have come to this damned place.”
“You and me both, sir. But ’tis done. And we must pacify the king.”
“Aye, but how?”
“Come,” she said. “I know of a quiet place where we can wait until enough time has passed to satisfy the king.”
He nodded. He had no other idea how to act in this accursed place. He followed her to a little-used chamber and closed the door. He leaned against the door and watched as her cat’s eyes scanned the room, searching the shadows for danger. Finally, they returned to him, evidently satisfied that the only danger lay without these walls. He grunted and shook his head. He refused to be caged like an animal, waiting to be destroyed by the monster who ruled their kingdom. He turned and gripped the handle, about to twist it open.
“No, sir, don’t go yet, or else they’ll believe the deed isn’t done.”
“Of course, the deed isn’t damn well, done. Don’t tell me you want it done?”
“No, my lord.” The girl’s eyes were wide. “But—”
“If we appear to have done the deed, then mayhap the king will be satisfied.”
Rufus looked closer at the girl. Those cat eyes were wide and looked up at him with bright energy, revealing the intelligence which lay beneath, and not a little of their beauty. He tilted her chin up to the light. For a moment it distracted him from his predicament, capturing his interest. “You are clever, girl. That I understood when you came to me last night. But it seems you are also comely. ’Tis a wonder you’ve managed to hide your beauty from the king.”
The girl reddened and looked away. “I am no beauty, sir, and I know not why you say it.”
It wasn’t often that Rufus was surprised, but he was now. It appeared the girl was unaware of her comeliness. He shrugged. “I speak what I think. However, ’tis not your beauty which will be of use to us here, but your cunning. And that, I believe you will not gainsay.”
She turned back to him. “Indeed.” She smiled, and something inside him melted a little, warmed as if caressed. It surprised him more than anything else had done that day. “If we re-arrange our clothing,” she continued, “we might be believed.” She pulled her robe away from her shoulder, and he caught a glimpse of white skin beneath. He swallowed and felt himself stir. What was he doing, becoming roused by an innocent?
“That will work.” His hand reached out to her, and he saw her flush, but not flinch, as he hitched up her clothing a little. “But I think ‘twould be wise not to show too much.” He stepped away again. “Now, there is only one more thing to do.” He heard her sharp intake of breath and stepped from her, not wanting her to misunderstand his intent. “And that is to wait,” he added, taking a stance by the window embrasure, looking out into the white, snow-laden woods. He purposely kept his gaze fixed outside, giving the girl time to recover.
“Thank you, my lord,” she said quietly. He looked at her. Close now, he could see the fine texture of her skin, and her unusual almond-shaped eyes, which surely spoke of a foreign heritage.
“There’s no need to thank me.” He smiled and was rewarded with a brief smile in response before her bewitching eyes turned their gaze to the wintry weather outside the castle walls once more.
“I believe there is. You are most unlike the other men here.”
He considered her words. “Like anything else, it only takes a few bad ones to sour the barrel.”
Her mouth twitched as if she were about to say something but changed her mind.
“What is it, girl?”
“Will you stay in the castle?”
“Nay. I came on a fool’s errand. And I shall return home as soon as I can.”
She nodded. “’Twill be safe to travel on the morrow. I can feel the change in the air.”
“A castle lass who knows the seasons?”
She cast him an astute look and hesitated only briefly before answering. “I’m no castle lass. I came here to find someone.”
“Did you succeed?”
A darkness shadowed her face as she looked away. “I found what happened to her, and that is all I can do. Her name was Ethelinda, and she took her own life rather than continue to be abused by the men who took her from us.”
He’d seen too many grieving people not to recognize heartache when he saw it. Except this time it was controlled by this pretty lass, whose ability to hide herself in plain sight had kept her safe, until now.
“And what will you do next?” For the first time in a long time, he was curious about someone, touched by her quiet bravery and firm purpose.
“Leave,” she said, in a hushed tone. If he hadn’t been so close he’d have thought she’d simply exhaled. She turned her face to him. “Leave,” she repeated, with more emphasis this time. “And never return to this hell.”
He nodded, sensing a kindred spirit. “Return to where?”
She pressed her lips together. He’d obviously asked too much. Before he could ask her further, there was a knock at the door and Savari entered the chamber. Music, shouts and raucous laughter drifted up from the great hall.
“Ready?” he asked Rufus. Savari glanced briefly at the girl, noted her re-arranged clothes and nodded in approval. “Then come.” When the girl hesitated, Savari added, “both of you.” As they returned to the great hall, along the corridors, the girl appeared to shrink back into herself again, become anonymous. Rufus marveled at her ability, no doubt borne of necessity.
Savari tried to lead them back to a place away from the king, but it appeared the king hadn’t done with his sport yet.
“Here!” he commanded. “Come here and let me look at you.” His beady eyes ranged over them both. “Hm, what think you, Gilbert? Do you think he’s had this wench?” The king went to make a grab for her, but Rufus pulled her behind him.
“Only I can answer that, my lord,” said Rufus.
“And have you?” A hush fell over the hall.
Savari shot Rufus a warning look which he ignored. “I have not.” He glanced behind him to where the girl hovered, trying to look inconspicuous. “As I said, I do not take women unwillingly.”
“What’s wrong with you man? Bothered by your morals? Ah, of course, you came here to be married, did you not?” His eyes sparked with humor.
Rufus exchanged glances with Savari. “Aye, my lord.”
“Then, I would hardly be the perfect host if I didn’t grant you your wish.”
“My lord,” interjected Savari. “’Tis very kind of you to—”
“Enough, Savari. I am addressing your brother. Rufus, I offer you a wife.”
Rufus ground his teeth and glanced at Maud, who looked equally displeased with the prospect. One glance at Savari’s stony mien focussed him. If the king had decided to rid himself of Maud, then the marriage could proceed and they could leave this God-forsaken place. And, what did it matter what kind of wife he married? His heart was dead to the world. “Thank you, my lord. I’ll be happy to take Lady Maud’s hand in marriage.”
“No,” said the king and indicated to his men at arms to take the wench and bring her forward. “Not Maud. I find I have more use for her than I’d at first imagined. No, she will stay here with me.”
“But you, yourself, my lord,” said Savari smoothly, “have approved the match between my brother, eldest in our family, and the Lady Maud.”
“That was before I met her, and I find I like her too much to part with her. She satisfies me… for now.” He trained his dangerous gaze once more on Rufus. “And, now I have met Rufus, I’ve decided that he is no longer worthy of Lady Maud. She’s proved most… versatile. Unlike you,” he addressed Rufus.
“But it will also be in Lady Maud’s best interests to marry my brother,” said Savari.
Lady Maud appeared terrified at the idea she’d lose her status of mistress to the king and end up in Norfolk with a man she despised.
The king patted her hand. “Nay, lady, do not be afeared,” said the king. “Your family needs not the Wintertons. You can rely on your king to support your family’s claims to the Winterton land.” He turned back to Savari. “The Winterton usurpers, should I say?”
“I have no wish for her, anyway. You can keep her,” Rufus said stubbornly. Savari closed his eyes briefly in disbelief.
The king’s eyes narrowed to a sapphire glitter under the stuttering candles. “If you truly have no wish for an advantageous marriage, then you will not object to a disadvantageous marriage, will you?”
Rufus narrowed his eyes and shot a look at Savari whose tense expression revealed equal confusion.
“Yes,” said the king, sitting back in his chair with satisfaction. “’Tis another match I wish you to make. You have displeased me, Rufus. You have failed to entertain me with conversation and deprived me of amusement. I would see you punished for this. And I would have you take this punishment home to your lady mother. Yes, I have quite decided, you must be married, and today.”
Savari was the first to recover. “Another match, my lord, but to whom? There are no other unmarried ladies in the castle.”
“Ah, but there are. You’re just not seeing them.” The king gave a sly grin as if he were treasuring a joke known only to himself.
Savari frowned. “My Lord?”
“You shall marry the maid whose morals you cherish so much.” The king paused and looked around but was met by stunned blank faces. “Mayhap I should be plainer in my intentions.” He took the cat-eyed girl’s wrist and pulled her to Rufus. “This is the wench for you.”
She looked around in panic and tried to shrink back into her usual obscurity, without success.
“I do not want her, sire.”
“You do not want her? I had no mind that Norfolk knights were so choosy.” The king looked the girl up and down, her form was scarcely visible under her drab garb and hunched demeanor. “But I’m not surprised for I know not for sure if she be a wench under those clothes. That can be something for you to discover later.”
Roars of laughter filled the hall. The king turned to his priest. “Priest. There will be a wedding this afternoon. If I cannot hunt, I must get my pleasures elsewhere.” The musicians struck up a celebratory tune and the people laughed and cheered, all except three: Rufus, Savari and the girl. They stood frozen in expression and limb.
A warrior without a heart, a lady without a name, forced into a marriage which will ruin them all.
England, 1204...With his heart turned to stone after years of fighting, Rufus de Vere has returned from the Crusades to protect his family by marrying the daughter of their enemy. But, instead, the King forces Rufus to marry a gypsy nobody knowing it will ruin his family. Everyone agrees the marriage has to be annulled and that the gypsy, Kezia, must desert Rufus to secure the de Vere family’s future.
What begins as a simple plan becomes more complicated when Rufus and Kezia find they cannot resist each other and Kezia discovers a home in the flat Norfolk lands that she’s always wanted. Kezia might not have a name but her forest ways soon make her invaluable as the Rufus prepares to fight for his family’s lands.
But when tragedy strikes at the heart of the de Vere family, Kezia has to decide whether she loves Rufus enough to leave him…