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Beauty and the Beast
By Hannah Howell
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 1992 Hannah Howell
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEngland, 1365.
"Fell off his mount. Snapped his neck."
Gytha blinked, then stared closely at her father. She saw no sign of lying in his round, plain face, although he did look strangely uncomfortable. She waited to feel grief for the loss of her betrothed, the handsome and gallant baron, William Saitun. A pang came and went. She had seen little of him, after all. What puzzled her now was why the wedding preparations continued. If William was dead, then surely the wedding could not go on? A moment later her mother revealed that her thoughts had followed the same path.
"But what of the wedding? The feast is being prepared even now." Bertha's ever-rounding figure trembled as she grew increasingly upset. "The guests are arriving. Should I turn them away?"
"No need to do that, Bertha, loving."
"Papa, I cannot marry a dead man."
"Of course you cannot, dearling." John Raouille briefly covered his daughter's delicate hand with his thick, calloused one.
"Then the preparations must be halted." Gytha frowned in confusion when her father still did nothing.
"Now, my sweet child, the agreement made with my good friend, Baron Saitun, God bless his soul, was that you would marry the heir to Saitun Manor."
"And that was William."
"True, true, but there are other heirs. The one following William was Thayer."
"Then, are you saying I am now to marry Thayer?" She was not sure she understood the arrangement her father spoke of.
"Alas, nay. He died in France."
Either she was cursed or the Saituns were an ill-fated lot, she mused. "Am I to be wed or not, Papa?"
"You are. The third heir is Robert. He is the one you will wed on the morrow. I believe you have met the fellow."
Her memory was something many admired her for. It was quick and very exact, even the smallest details clear and precise. She put it to good use now, but what was called forth left her feeling little joy. If she had not been gifted with such an acute memory, she knew Robert Saitun would not have lingered in her mind. He had been William's shadow and had spent most of his time trying to avoid being kicked or cuffed by William or his own uncle, a rather unpleasant man who had exerted complete control over Robert.
"Aye, I did. Is it not-well, disrespectful to William to wed another man so soon?"
"Er-William died a while back. He was far afield, so you could not be called to his side."
Or told, she mused. "As was the second heir? This Thayer I have never met?"
"I told you, daughter, he died in France. I do not mean to be unkind, but mayhaps 'tis just as well. He was not the man for you, Gytha."
Removing the woman's hand from where it rested in the mat of flame red curls adorning his broad chest, Thayer Saitun sat up. "Morning is here, woman. Time for you to be on your way."
Taking his purse out from beneath his pillow, he extracted a few coins and tossed them at her. She caught them with ease. His smile was tainted with cynicism as he watched her weigh them in her hand before smiling at him. It had ever been so. He was weighted with honor, his name respected-even feared-by men, but women needed to see the glint of his coin before they showed any interest.
Flopping onto his back and crossing his arms beneath his head, he idly watched her dress. He grew weary of nameless whores, but at least there was an honesty about them, and they could not afford to show any displeasure with his size, his plain looks, or-he grimaced as he glanced down at himself-his redness. While his skin had none of the ruddy hue that often cursed redheads, he knew few people really noticed that. Flamered hair and freckles too often hid the color of his skin. Even his large size worked against him, for it simply provided a greater area for the wretched flame color to display itself. The sound of the door opening pulled him from his self-denigration.
"Do you mean to spend the day abed?" drawled Roger, his right-hand man, as he let Thayer's night's entertainment slip out of the room before shutting the door.
"Nay." Thayer sprang to his feet, then moved to wash up. "A revel awaits us."
Roger settled his slender frame on the rumpled bed. "Your position as heir will soon end."
"Aye. William will soon breed an heir. I have no doubt of that. He has proven his skill at that many times over."
"You sound little concerned that you will remain a landless knight or become some lordling's castellean."
"It troubles me little. Only a fool would think a man like William would never wed or sire an heir. Far better that the chore falls to him than to me. 'Tis a duty I would be hard set to fulfill."
"You belittle your worth. I have never seen you lack for a wench to warm your bed."
"They check the value of my coin first."
Thayer ignored Roger's cluck of disapproval over the bitterness he had been unable to fully hide. Roger did not see him as a woman did. He saw a valued fighting companion, a friend and someone who was like a brother to him. Roger found nothing wrong with the wealth of flame-red hair. In a man's eyes, the mat on his broad chest, the healthy tangle of curls around his loins, and the furring on his strong forearms and long, muscular legs were merely signs of manliness. Men also saw his large, robust frame as something to envy. Many a man would like to stand head and shoulders over other men. They did not understand that dwarfing many a pretty young lady inspired more fear than admiration.
Neither would Roger see what was wrong with his face, a visage as strongly hewn as his body. Years of living by the sword had begun to turn Thayer's lack of beauty towards ugliness. When Roger saw how several breakings had left his strongly angled nose faintly crooked, the man simply recalled the battles that had caused it. Thayer knew that possessing all his own teeth was something to take pride in, yet that pride was dimmed by the knowledge that his thin-lipped mouth was beginning to show scarring from all the times it had been split. Idly he fingered the ragged scar that marred his high-boned cheek. Here too Roger would see little fault, recalling only the glorious battle that had caused it.
He tried to put some order into his hair, which had the unfortunate tendency to curl. Even if Roger was right-that he could capture a woman's heart-it did not matter. He had no place to house it. If he found love, he would only see the woman given over to another. Few men wanted to give their daughters to a landless knight.
"Come, Roger, help me truss my points. We must soon be away. I am eager to see the one William calls an angel."
Gytha slammed the door behind her as she strode into her room. Flinging herself upon her bed, she began to curse, colorfully and continuously. Her full red mouth, so often praised by her suitors, spat out every foul oath she knew. When she ran out of ones she knew she made up new ones. As always when she indulged in such a venting of her temper, she finally mouthed one that struck her as funny. Chuckling softly, she watched her door open and grinned when her cousin Margaret cautiously peeked inside.
"Are you done?" Margaret slowly entered the room, easing the door shut behind her.
"Aye. I just put a curse on every man in the kingdom. Then I thought on what could happen if it took hold." She giggled again.
"There are times when I feel you ought to be doing a great penance." Smiling faintly, Margaret placed an elaborately embroidered gown on the bed. "Your bride's dress. 'Tis finally done. Let us see how it fits."
Sitting up, Gytha gently touched the gown, recognizing and appreciating its beauty but not very pleased to see it. "You must be the best seamstress in the land. You could be dressmaker to the queen." She smiled faintly when her cousin's pretty face turned pink.
In fact, she mused, Margaret was not only pretty, with her wide hazel eyes and light brown hair, but nearly eighteen. She too ought to be wed. While it was true that Margaret could not reach too high, it did not mean the girl lacked all prospects. Her uncle had endowed Margaret, his only bastard child, with an admirable sum as a dowry. Perhaps, Gytha thought, there would be a suitable man for Margaret amongst her husband's entourage. She would have to look into the matter.
"Nay, Gytha, you will cease making plans for me. Right now."
Attempting to look innocent and knowing she failed, Gytha murmured, "I would never be so impertinent."
"Humph. Cursing and now lying. Your sins grow. Shall we try on this gown?"
"I suppose we must. The wedding is tomorrow, after all." Gytha did not move but continued to stare blindly at the gown.
Sighing, Margaret collected a hairbrush, sat behind her cousin, and began to brush out Gytha's thick, honey-gold hair. Even pouting, Gytha was beautiful, yet the girl was never vain. Margaret felt her cousin deserved better. In truth, she really believed that a girl like Gytha should be allowed to choose her own mate, to marry for love.
Gytha's beauty ran to her soul. While her wide, brilliantly blue eyes, perfection of face, and lithe yet sensuous figure could leave men gaping, Gytha's loving spirit softened even the most cynical. Along with her stunningly handsome brothers, Gytha saw her beauty as a gift from God, something to be briefly appreciated then set aside as something of no great importance. Quite often, after escaping the arduous pursuit of some lovestruck swain, Gytha saw her looks as more a curse than a blessing. What Gytha needed was a man who could see beyond her lovely face to the real treasure. Margaret felt certain Robert Saitun was not that man.
Shaking free of her sulk, Gytha murmured, "Somehow it seems wrong to wed William's heir so speedily."
"I am not sure 'tis so speedily. I think William died some time past. Even so, to halt all the preparations now would cripple your father's purse." Helping Gytha stand to remove her gown, Margaret asked, "Do you know Robert at all?"
"Nay. Why do you think I spent so long here cursing all and sundry? I am unprepared for this."
"Many would have said Lord William needed little preparing for."
"True, he was fair to look upon, strong and steeped in honor. Howbeit, marriage is a large step. Some time to think on it is best. In but a day's time, I must wed a man I know not at all. I know nothing of Robert's character."
"You were lucky to know William as well as you did. Few women have such an advantage."
"True enough, but it seems a monstrous way in which to conduct the business. A woman is kept sheltered and pure all her growing years. One day she is set before a man, marched up before a priest, and told, 'Off you go to do all we have told you naught of with this stranger who is now your husband, your lord and master.' I fear I shall do something very silly due to nerves. Mayhap I shall even swoon."
A soft laugh escaped Margaret. "You never swoon. I daresay you never will."
"Pity. It would relieve me of a great deal of awkwardness."
"Surely Aunt Bertha spoke to you. You must know what to expect."
"Aye-I think. She did talk to me. Howbeit, t'was monstrous difficult to understand her. All those blushes, hesitations, and flutterings."
Again Margaret laughed. "I can just see it. Poor Aunt Bertha."
"Poor me. Still, the matter that most occupies my mind is that I must disrobe. I cannot like the sound of that."
Concentrating on doing up the laces on Gytha's wedding dress, Margaret hid a grimace. She did not like the sound of it either. Gytha's figure was of a style to set a man's lusts raging. Although Gytha was apparently unaware of it, that was one of the reasons she had been so fiercely sheltered. Somehow Gytha managed to be lithe and slender as well as voluptuous and sensual. More times than she cared to count, Margaret had seen a man's eyes grow hot at the mere sight of her cousin. So too had there been incidents, despite careful watching, when Gytha had had to make a hasty retreat to preserve her virtue. Placing a naked Gytha before any man was highly dangerous, let alone before one who knew he had all right to her. Poor Gytha could find her wedding night a violent and painful experience.
"He must disrobe as well," Margaret finally muttered. "There." She stepped back from Gytha. "Ah, you will make such a lovely bride."
"'Tis a lovely dress." Gytha turned around slowly before the mirror. "It needs no adjusting. The girdle sits perfectly. Have you ever seen Sir Robert?" She smiled a little at Margaret's startled look, knowing she had changed subject without warning, a habit she found hard to break.
"Aye, and so have you. The young man acting as squire to Lord William on his last visit?"
"Aye, I but sought your opinion."
"Well, he is slim and fair. Quiet."
"Mmmm. Very. As unobtrusive as possible. I cannot help but wonder when he was knighted and why. I cannot say he gives much honor to the title now. Most of his time was spent being cuffed by William or by his own uncle or desperately trying to avoid both." She sighed. "Ah, well. At least I need not fear he will be a brute."
"There is a lot to be said in favor of that." Margaret helped Gytha get out of the gown.
"Mayhap without his cousin or uncle about he will show a better side to his character."
"There is a very good chance he will."
It was not long after Robert arrived that Gytha began to think there was no chance at all. Robert's uncle, Charles Pickney, stayed close by at all times. All she did discover was that she could not like Charles Pickney, not in the slightest, no matter how hard she tried. As soon as she had the opportunity she slipped free of her husband-to-be and his shadow to seek out Margaret, dragging her cousin off in search of flowers.
The day was sunny and warm, the fields beyond the manor covered with blooms. Gytha's mood was swiftly improved. She loved the springtime, loved its promise of life and bounty. Laughing and dashing about with Margaret helped her forget her worries. In no time at all, she looked more like a rough, unmannered girl than a lady on the eve of her marriage, but she did not care. For just a little while she intended to forget Robert, his uncle, and the wedding.
Thayer spotted the two maids romping in the field and reined in a few yards away from them. He quickly signaled his men to do the same, knowing that the more impulsive of them would charge towards the maids like bucks in rutting season if he let them. Despite the girls' tossled state, he knew they approached no peasant wenches. The gowns were too fine. Not wishing to frighten the maids, he started towards them carefully, his men following suit. Their approach was soon spotted. As he reined in near them, Thayer felt himself struck hard by the beauty of the little blond.
"Hallo, mistress." The smile she gave him took his breath away. "Do you gather these pretties for the bride?"
"Aye. Do you ride to the wedding, sir?" Gytha found it easy to smile at the big red man, even though he towered above her as he sat atop his massive black destrier.
"That we do. 'Tis my cousin who weds on the morrow."
Openly flirting with the two maids, Roger asked, "Does it promise to be a revel worth the journey?"
"It most assuredly does, sir." Gytha held sway over the conversation, for Margaret was apparantly struck dumb. "The wine and ale promise to flow like a flood-swollen river. The food is plentiful and unsurpassed in flavor. There are minstrels who play as sweet as any lark might sing." She could not fully restrain a laugh over her elaborations.
"'Tis fitting, as my cousin claims he weds the angel of the west." Thayer caught his breath over her sweet, open laugh.
"An angel is it?" Gytha glanced at Margaret, who had emerged from her stupor enough to grin. "I could not really say." She grasped Margaret by the hand. "We will see you at the manor," she called as she raced off, towing a laughing Margaret after her.
"'Tis a shame we cannot follow their path." Roger glanced at Thayer. "This fête becomes more promising by the moment."
Thayer felt the heavy weight of depression settle over him. Every part of him had been drawn to the delicate maid with the thick hair the color of sunlight. Her response to him had been more than he had gained from a gently bred maid in many a year. He knew she would go no further, however. Not with him. He began to dread the festivities ahead. It was a struggle, but he conquered the sudden urge to bolt. William was his favorite amongst what few kin he had, and he would not allow a tiny maid with wide blue eyes to keep him from attending William's wedding.
"The little blond had many a smile for you," Roger said as they started on their way again.
"She was polite, nothing more." He urged his mount ahead of Roger's, curtly ending the conversation.
Excerpted from Beauty and the Beast by Hannah Howell Copyright © 1992 by Hannah Howell. Excerpted by permission.
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