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A Warrior's Lady
By Margaret Moore
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2002 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIn the great hall of the king's castle at Winchester, Lady Anne Delasaine delicately tore a piece of venison from the portion on the platter before her and held it out to the hound. His flanks aquiver with anticipation, the huge brown beast reached to take the tasty morsel from her fingers. He wolfed it down, then seemed to grin as he waited for more. She smiled in return and pulled off another piece.
The other courtiers supping there could be forgiven for assuming Lady Anne found assuaging the dog's appetite an amusing diversion that took all her feminine attention. In fact, however, she was listening to the conversation of her two dark-haired half brothers seated near her.
"I tell you, it is only a matter of time," the eldest, Damon, said firmly, his voice conspiratorially low. His brown eyes glittered beneath his heavy brows, which looked as if they had been parted by the sharp ridge of his prominent nose. "Henry must realize that he would be wise to listen to Eleanor and her kinsmen. We should be in their counsel."
As Anne fed the hound another scrap, she kept her dismay and disgust at Damon's arrogant tone and vaulting ambition from her face. After all, he was not discussing a minor noble family - he was speaking of the king and queen of England.
Young Henry had recently wed Eleanor of France, a political match that had already created more tension than it relieved. Anne and her siblings were distantly - very distantly - related to Eleanor through their late father, and Damon had lost no time using that tenuous connection to full advantage. He had insinuated his way into Eleanor's entourage and Henry's court. Not only that, he had managed to include the rest of his family in that entourage, albeit for his own purposes.
"If they don't see that, we'll make them," the younger and brawnier Benedict muttered. Holding his knife in his thick fingers, he raised it and split the apple before him as if he were a headsman wielding an ax. "Everyone knows Englishmen are all fools."
"This isn't the place to make such a remark," Damon growled. "In case you haven't noticed, the hall is full of Normans more loyal to Henry than the king of France."
"I don't care what they think, and tomorrow on the tournament field, they'll find out we are the better men."
"Shut your mouth about the English," Damon ordered, effectively commanding his brother's silence and his obedience as he had since the death of their father three years ago.
Benedict, as usual, retreated into sulky silence and the matter was apparently closed. Her attention still supposedly on the dog, Anne did not have to see Damon's face to imagine his arrogant smirk. She had seen it often enough when he chastised his siblings, for since their father's death Damon had every right to rule the family, just as Rannulf Delasaine had, and with just as heavy a hand.
"Well, wait until I get a chance with my new tournament sword," Benedict mumbled after a moment. "Blunted it may be, but I'll have bashed a few English heads before I'm through."
"You'd better not ruin it on too many helmets. I'm not paying for a blacksmith to fix it," Damon replied. "You would have been smarter to get something less costly if that was your plan."
"Who was it had to have a new shield, eh, when there was nothing wrong with the old one?" Benedict charged.
Anne stopped listening as they began to quarrel about the new and expensive items they had purchased before traveling to Winchester, for this subject could have little bearing on her life at court and her possible future, which Damon would never discuss directly with her.
She clenched her jaw, knowing well his reason: she was but a woman, so she must do as he commanded.
Next year at this time, she might already be married off to some noble of his choosing, and with child. It would be a match made solely to increase Damon's power and influence, and it would be the fulfillment of what he considered the only thing she was good for. She had been unhappily awaiting that fate ever since she had reached her twelfth year and Damon realized his skinny, gawky half sister with the big eyes was going to be a beauty after all. Ever since, he had guarded her as fiercely as their other valuable possessions, and treated her exactly the same way - as if she had no will or mind or heart.
With a weary sigh she let her gaze rove over the huge hall magnificently decorated to commemorate Saint Edmond the Confessor, whom King Henry had made his patron saint. Henry always celebrated the saint's special day, October 13, with a feast and merrymaking.
The tables were set with fine white linens and silver plates. Torches burned in sconces in the walls, and the flickering flames of beeswax candles added to the illumination. Bright banners hung suspended overhead, and musicians in the gallery played softly, the music nearly drowned out by the conversation and laughter of Henry's guests.
She surveyed the well-dressed ladies in their fine gowns and headdresses, the smartly attired men in their satins and velvets and furs, and the richly colored tapestries. She set herself to enjoying the music of the minstrels and the exceptional food prepared in a variety of new and startling ways.
Across the hall, a boisterous group of young knights, merry and probably more than half in their cups, were clearly having a marvelous time eating the king's food, drinking the king's wine and enjoying the attention of young ladies who seemed utterly captivated by them.
That wasn't so surprising, for they were a good-looking bunch, well built and attractive. The two with curling black hair were the best-looking. They were probably brothers, judging by their coloring and their similar noses and mouths. The other three, who shared brown hair in shades varying from light brown to a rich chestnut, strong jaws and lean features, were also probably related. They were as broad shouldered and muscular as the other two, but not so conventionally handsome. The tallest of these looked to be the oldest, for there was something aloof and imposing in his manner that the others lacked. The youngest of the group appeared little older than her younger brother, Piers, and he was fourteen.
They all seemed very well pleased with themselves. No doubt that went hand in hand with being the spoiled sons of rich men.
Excerpted from A Warrior's Lady by Margaret Moore Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.