Read an Excerpt
Hawksley Manor, East Sussex
A week later
By all the saints, it was too soon to be happening again. Another cry rang out, thin and desperate, echoing off the walls of the main chamber asMeg rushed from where Willa, the cook, had come to find her in the buttery. The sobbing that rose up after that cry bit into Meg's soul, and she hurried the remaining steps into the large hall.Aye, it was too soon for another spell. Eleanor's last one had been but a sennight ago.
In the dim light it was difficult to locate her cousin Eleanor's wasted form, but the sobs drew Meg to the spot soon enough; she crossed to where Eleanor was huddled, weeping and rocking in the shadows behind the massive carved chest that held some of the family's silver.
"Hush now, Ella," Meg said gently, crouching and wrapping her arms around the woman's thin shoulders. "All will be well."
But Eleanor continued to moan and fidget, and Meg saw with a start that her cousin's arms were empty of their usual burden. Of course. Meg did a quick glance of the area to see if she could spot the bundled bit of rags and thread; there was nothing. She gathered Eleanor closer against her, wishing that the comfort would be enough this time. That Ella would calm and allow herself to be led back to her chamber. And for what seemed like the thousandth time since she'd come to this godforsaken manor two years earlier, Meg cursed the one who had been the start of all this suffering a man she'd never seen but about whom she'd heard countless tales.
She didn't need to have seen Sir Richard de Cantor to know the truth of what he'd done: He was a man like every other, who did as he pleased without thought or care to the results.
White-hot emotion shot through her, startling her with its virulence, and she went rigid against the dull aching she knew would bloom afterward. When it passed, she silently berated herself for allowing her own long-buried pain to creep out into the light again . . . for allowing the shadows of her past to muddy the waters of what was happening to Ella here and now. Her own history had nothing to do with this and no real connection to Eleanor or the husband who had abandoned her nearly half a decade ago.
Reclaiming her sense of composure by force of sheer will, Meg directed her attention back to Eleanor and whispered words of comfort, stroking her cousin's brow and brushing the tangled strands of her hair from her face. Eleanor's eyes remained wild and unfocused, grief having etched premature lines of worry between her delicate brows.
Tight-lipped, Meg coaxed her to stand. Hugh would need to be called in to take the watch again. Eleanor's last spell like this had come to near disaster; she'd broken free of her chamber to climb toward the danger of the crenellations, driven there by the ghosts in her mind. She'd almost flung herself over into oblivion then.
Perhaps it would have been a blessing to end her torment so.
Meg sucked in her breath, stifling the sinful whisper. Nay, her cousin deserved far better, both in this life and the next. No matter how difficult the struggle of each day, they couldn't risk such a possibility again.
"Peace now, Ella, there is naught to fear," Meg murmured, supporting the woman's fragile weight and pulling her close. At times like this it was difficult to remember that her cousin was the younger by two years; neither of them had yet reached thirty, but Ella's bones felt as sharp and pronounced as an old woman's to Meg's touch.
Meg guided her to the corner of the stairs, tugging her along, at the same time sharing a look of pained understanding with Willa, nodding her head to the woman with a wordless command to continue looking for the poppet and bring it above stairs as soon as it was found.
Within a half an hour, she'd managed to help Ella swallow a draught of wine laced with valerian. Then she'd eased her out of her soiled bliaud and made sure she donned fresh robes before tucking her under a blanket in her favorite chair by the fire. With the bundle of rags returned at last to the crook of her arm, Ella had fallen asleep, though even in the peacefulness of that release, a perpetual frown marred what remained of her once legendary beauty.
Sighing, Meg went out into the hall, latching the door shut behind her. She nodded to Hugh. He'd arrived a few moments ago to take up his old post at the door, his somber eyes kind. A simple man and a smithy by trade, Hugh had been one of the few loyal villagers to remain on the land after Hawksley's master had abandoned them. Ella would be safe from harm while he kept the watch.
Perhaps now she might finish the chores she'd only just begun when all this had started, Meg thought as she made her way back down to the main level of the house. The cheese wheels needed to be turned and the bags of apples picked through for rot before Brother Thomas came and "Meg oh, Meg! Hurry, by the Holy Savior, Mary, and Joseph you have to come quick!"
Meg had just taken the final step into the main hall when the cry rang out, bellowed by young James, one of the tanner's sons. He'd come bursting into the hall from the back door near the kitchens, and now he gasped for breath, leaning over to brace his palms on his knees as he struggled to convey the remainder of his message.Beyond Temptation
. Copyright © by Mary Reed McCall. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.