Read an Excerpt
Hetherston Castle, Northumberland, 1366
"He does not want you, Alys. No one expects you to honor —"
Alys of Camoy shoved past her cousin. "He is here now. I shall have a husband." Twice she had been denied that by death and circumstance. Even had she possessed a choice when betrothed, she could not have fared better this time. And her knight was home. "There will be a wedding."
"So say you. But if he did not come to claim you before..."
"Hush, Thomasine, and let go my arm. I must hurry if I am to greet him in the courtyard."
"Let him wait!" her cousin admonished. "He has kept you waiting long enough!"
Her kinswoman, newly arrived from London, grasped at Alys's sleeve again to slow her progress. "Do not fly to him this way. You should cry off it, Alys. The entire court makes sport of you for clinging to a ten-year contract with that half-Scottish lout!"
"One whom the king holds in high regard!" Alys snapped. Her betrothed had been taken prisoner by the Spanish usurper Trastamere while saving the king's son, Lancaster, from capture. That selfless act should endear John to the entire royal family.
Though delighted to have word by Thomasine that John was still alive and had recently arrived from Spain, Alys wished her cousin had remained at court. Thomasine reported that John cursed anyone who dared come near him there, even the king's own physicians. Untrue, of course, for that was not the genial knight she knew and loved.
She had no time to argue further. "Cease your prating and wait here," Alys ordered. Though she used a commanding voice sparingly, she could exhibit authority when need be.
Thomasine scoffed. "Go then!Act the eager pup and wriggle at his feet! I warn you, any man will take advantage if you —"
Alys did not hear the rest and did not wish to. Thomasine did not know John. She had not grown up as Alys had, feasting on the stories of his youth fed to her by his mother or glorying in the tales of his courage told by his father. No, and Thomasine had not been there at the betrothal ceremony. She did not know him.
The gates opened wide just as Alys reached the bottom step of the great stone keep. She took pride in the way she had managed since the baron's death. John would not be disappointed in her care of his estate.
Their larders were better stocked than most after a harsh winter. A generous welcome feast tonight should present no problem and there was plenty in store for the wedding celebration. Fish hatched in the holding ponds. The swine were increasing, as were the cattle. Planting had begun.
The moat had been cleaned only weeks ago and had refilled with the spring rains. She had insisted the grounds be raked and leveled regularly and had timely repairs on the buildings made. "He can find no fault with me in that respect," she assured herself as she brushed at the wrinkles in her skirts.
Only then did Alys stop and think of how she might appear to her future husband. Last he had seen her, she was only eleven years old, dressed in a swathe of rich blue brocade and wearing a ringlet of spring flowers over her long blond hair. What would he think of her now?
This day she wore a plain gown of pale camlet with an un-trimmed surcoat of green linen. Her hair had darkened to near brown save for streaks the sun kept light. Caught up in a day cap that refused to hold it all neatly, her errant locks did nothing to enhance her appearance.
She hastily tried to tuck the stubborn curls out of sight and tied the ribands of her cap under her chin. "La, he'll think I've become a maid of all work," she muttered, straightening her shoulders and marching on out to meet him. Too late now to mind her looks. Gallant as he was, John would surely understand.
The spiky portcullis inched its way up, creaking with each tug of the ropes. Should she have opened it sooner to signal immediate welcome? Or would he have seen that as a foolhardy measure, inviting a possible attack? Hetherston was very near the border and outlaws roamed. None had dared since she had lived here, but she thought it best not to offer them the temptation of an open door.
Alys bit her lips and moistened them, then arranged a smile upon her face. The jingle of harness and creak of leather ensued as the riders filed into the courtyard. The small party consisted of only about a dozen men.
Which one was he? Her gaze flew hither and yon, from man to man. Would she know him still? Had he changed?
How handsome he had been that day when they plighted their troth before his beaming parents and their many guests. Newly knighted, he had worn Lancaster's colors for the first time, red and black.
She remembered how he had towered over her at least a foot, resplendent with the shiny sword and golden spurs he wore. But more distinctly, she recalled the merry smile that bared his perfect white teeth. She remembered the deep blue eyes inviting her to share happiness. His dark lustrous hair had waved just so, teasing the top edge of his silver gorget. Other details of his features had faded over the years in her mind. Would she know him?
One of the men quickly dismounted and approached her. This could not be John. The fellow was nearly as short as she was. And as rotund as Father Stephen. On closer inspection of his raiment, she determined he was no knight.
"Greetings.You are well come to Hetherston," she said. The castle folk were gathering, forming a wide arc around the riders, likely as curious as she to see the returning son of the house.
"My name is Simon Ferrell, I am Sir...I mean Lord John's squire."
John had inherited his father's barony upon the old lord's death a half year past, so he was no longer merely a sir. He was lord here now. Lord Greycourt of Hetherston.
She had resumed her scrutiny of those still mounted when Ferrell cleared his throat to regain her attention. "Have you a bed prepared?"
Alys grasped the man's forearm. "Is he very ill then? She cast about for a litter but saw none. "Where is he?"
"Here," a voice growled from atop a horse nearby. He had been leaning forward in the saddle so she had not yet seen him. Now he walked his mount closer. "Where is my cup, woman?"
Alys's gaze flew to him, relishing the sound of his voice, not caring that its tone bore pique. Speechless, she took in the pallor of his skin, the dark shadows beneath his eyes and the tightness of his lips. Was he in pain?
Oh lord, she had not even thought of the stirrup cup. What sort of wife would she make if she couldn't do this least of services to a returning husband. "I shall fetch it!" she declared, turning to do just that.
"Hold!" he ordered, slipping from his saddle with some effort. "Leave it be. I would as soon take the wine in the hall." Ferrell rushed to support him.
"As you will. Here, allow me," Alys said, hurrying to lend him her shoulder on the opposite side from his squire.
He pulled back and shot her a forbidding look. What was wrong with him that he would not accept her help?
Unfortunately, little Walter chose this moment to make himself known. The towheaded imp dashed up and danced around them like a jongleur, tugging once at the hem of John's tunic. "I'm Walt!" he announced. "You must be Johnny!"
"Walter, go inside now," Alys ordered, kindly but firmly, pointing to the keep. "You may speak with him later when he has rested. Mind me well or no pudding at supper!"
The boy cartwheeled twice, showing off his newest trick, then raced away laughing. Alys shook her head, hands on her hips, as she fell in step beside the men. "Do forgive him, my lord. He's only excited to see you, as we all are. It is so good to have you home."
"Who is he?" The question sounded gruff, disapproving even, as his frowning gaze followed the child.
"Why, Walter, of course. Did you not receive your mother's letter giving you news of him?"
"Nay. Stand aside, girl, lest you trip me," he muttered, sounding distracted, as if putting one foot before the other now commanded the major part of his concentration.
Once inside the keep, he had to deal with the steps leading up to the hall, so Alys remained silent, pretending not to notice his difficulty. Though he did not limp or gasp for breath, he did appear gravely weakened.
She rushed to the table not yet cleared from the noon meal, poured him wine and returned. He gulped it quickly as if his thirst had overcome him.
Alys watched the working of his throat with fascination, then stared at his moistened lips when he had finished. He licked them and glared at her as he handed back the cup.
When their fingers touched, it was as if he really noticed her for the first time. The sharp blue gaze raked her head to toe, then returned to her face. His expression turned quizzical, but he said nothing, not even to thank her.
Alys forgave that. He was obviously ill and travel weary. "Perhaps you would like a bath now and a meal in your chamber?" she asked, keeping her voice bright. "I will have the hot water fetched and be up to attend you when the tub is filled."
"My squire will see to the bath."
"But I...very well." She forced a smile. He was surely being considerate and only thought to spare her sensibilities, Alys decided. She was, after all, still a maiden. How could he know she had assumed the duties of his mother long ago and saw to the bathing of all guests of any import? "If you require anything else, you have but to ask."
"I am no guest here, woman. Who are you and where is the child, Alys? Is she here?"
He cast a narrow-eyed glance toward the hearth. Thoma-sine sat there with her embroidery, obviously pouting, definitely observing them from the corner of her eye. Did John think she was the one? The blond and comely cousin suddenly assumed the role of rival.
"I am Alys, John."
His head swerved with a jerk and his eyes flared. "Alys?" The word emerged in a whisper. "You?"
She grinned, amused by his surprise. "Aye. I thought you knew me. But how should you since I am much changed from the child you would remember?"
She spread her arms and looked down at herself and laughed. "And dressed no better than a goose girl, how could you guess who I am? Apologies for that and a belated greeting," she said sincerely. "I am so relieved that you survived your captivity and overjoyed that you have arrived. You can see that we did not expect you so soon."
Then she realized how bittersweet this homecoming must be for him. She had had time aplenty to come to terms with his parents' sad absence. It would take time for him to adjust to it as well. Small wonder he was out of sorts, when she had not yet offered condolences. "John, I do so regret —"
His dark eyebrows met. He grabbed on to his squire's shoulder and turned to the stairs. "We will speak later," he muttered, ostensibly to her. Then, his voice even weaker, he addressed his squire. "Get me to my chamber, Simon."
"Rest well!" Alys called after him. "The water and victuals will be up in a trice."
She watched for a few seconds as he leaned even more heavily on his man. How badly was John hurt? The war or captivity had wounded more than his body, she would guess.
This was not the young knight she had stood beside ten years before. John was a man in need now, in need of sympathy and a woman's care. Her care, if he would ever allow it.
She twisted the silver ring he had placed on her finger at that time and felt the tightness of it pinch more than usual. She had outgrown it over the years, moved it to her smallest digit and even there it no longer fit. Was that perhaps an omen?
"Nonsense," she muttered under her breath. "He is simply not himself after the grueling ride in his condition. Who could expect civility?"
"There are things to be done," Alys reminded herself sternly. Food to be got and hot water to pour. With a shrug, she moved to order them from the kitchens.
Never mind that he was obviously disappointed in the way she had turned out. He had not seen her to best advantage and that was her own fault.
All she had to do was to make him glad to be home and help him regain his strength. When rested he would recover his good nature, she was certain of it. John was ever kind and considerate, a perfect knight. His current mood troubled her, but she knew it to be temporary. Meanwhile, he would have naught but smiles from her, no matter how dour his words or acts. Her future depended on it.
Her happiness hung upon it, as well. Every waking moment for ten long years, she had thought of nothing but this wonderful man and their making a life together.