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The troop of soldiers rode smartly north-west out of Gloucester, the promise of a warm homecoming at the Fitz Osbern castle in Monmouth luring them on to get in out of this thrice-damned persistent wind and rain. Unlimited ale and hot food. The soft stroke of a woman's hand. Even the proximity of hot water would not be sniffed at They had been on the road for a long time in the worst of weather after a sharp campaign across the Channel to Anjou, where Gervase Fitz Osbern held a number of strategic castles.
Gervase Fitz Osbern set a fierce pace. The Channel crossing had been bad; he shuddered at the memory of being tossed and drenched and vilely ill for twenty-four hourssea voyaging was not for himbut now they were on firm ground. He raised his head, much as his hound at his heels, scenting the air. Home was within easy distance as he caught the outline of the dark ridge of the Black Mountains through the ever-swirling mist.
But when a group of travellers approached along the road, bringing with them one item of news, it was enough to make Fitz Osbern change his plans.
'Rumours in the March. The Earl of Salisbury, William de Longspey, is dying.'
It was enough to shorten his breath, to drive a fist into his gut.
'Do we go on, my lord?' Watkins, his troop commander, all but nudged him into action as he sat in the rain in the middle of the road, brows drawn into a ferocious frown, his gaze focused on some distant place not altogether pleasant.
Fitz Osbern raised his head, refocused, gathered up his reins and signalled to his men to move off, the decision made. 'We stop overnight in Hereford.' The authority of their lord, coupled with the obvious lure of thefleshpots of Hereford, had the desired effect and put a halt to any murmurings of dissent. 'And in Hereford,' Gervase Fitz Osbern added, quietly, face settling into stern lines, 'I shall make it my business to discover William de Longspey's state of health.'
Meanwhile, some distance away in the prosperous town of Salisbury, Rosamund de Longspey was in a fractious mood. But then, who would not be? Approaching twenty-four years, with no husband on her horizon, no betrothed, and made fatherless for the second time in her life. No matter how good her blood, how attractive her faceand she could not deny thather future looked less than secure.
So Rosamund, justifiably irritable, joined the family members of the household as they met together on the occasion of the death, from a malingering ague, of William de Longspey, Earl of Salisbury. He was no blood relation of hers, which might account for her lack of grief on this sorrowful occasion, merely a stepfather who had shown brief interest in and even less affection to her as she grew from child to a strikingly attractive young woman. A daughter of the Earl's wife, Countess Petronilla, from her first marriage to John de Bredwardine, Rosamund had taken her stepfather's name on her mother's remarriage, and now had a very personal interest in Earl William's will. In this room, within the hour, her entire future would be disposed of, with or without her consent.
There were no surprises when Father Benedict, the de Longspey chaplain, presented the terms of the late Earl's will. His family by his first wife had been well provided for. The de Longspey title and main inheritance in Salisbury, the bulk of the estates scattered throughout the country, passed to Gilbert, the heir, who looked smug. Walter and Elizabeth were not forgotten. The Dowager Countess Petronilla would retain the lands and income from her original dowry. If she chose, she could live in the castle in Salisbury as an honoured guest for the rest of her life. If not, the castle at Lower Broadheath was now hers, a pretty estate in gentle countryside. Earl William had been generous and even-handed.
'My lord thought that you would perhaps wed again.' Father Benedict smiled benignly on the widow who showed no hint of tears at her loss.
Lady Petronilla silently inclined her head, but Rosamund was not fooled. If Rosamund read it right, her mother had no intention of seeking another marriage, no matter how wealthy or superficially attractive the lord. She was now free to do as she chose. Two husbands in a lifetime and both of them unsatisfactory, Lady Petronilla had been heard to say in private moments, were quite enough for any woman.
I would just like the chance at one! Rosamund forced her fingers to unclench. For there was one matter here that had not been touched upon.
'Father Benedict.' Rosamund fixed her direct gaze on the cleric. 'What provision has been made for me? I shall at least need land suitable for a dowry.'
'Ah Yes, Lady Rosamund ' Father Benedict cleared his throat. 'The Earl saw fit to grant three strongholds.' He nodded at Rosamund with an encouraging smile, entirely false, she decided. 'Three fortresses,' he repeated, 'and the income from the land and manors attached to them. For your own enjoyment and for your dower, Lady Rosamund.'
The fortunate lady raised her brows. 'And where are these three fortresses, Father Benedict?' Her voice was low, a little husky, usually with great charm, if not as on this occasion infused with deep suspicion.
'On the border, my lady.'
'The Welsh border? Be more exact, if you will, Father.'
The chaplain cleared his throat again with a quick glance toward the new Earl, who nodded in agreement. 'You have possession of the castles and lands of Clifford, Ewyas Harold and Wigmore in the Welsh Marches, my lady.'
'As you sayalong the very border with Wales.' Rosamund looked down to where her hands had just re-clenched in her lap, face smoothly unreadable, but her mind clearly engaged. 'And will these three fortresses attract a husband for me?'
There was a loud guffaw from Earl Gilbert, hastily smothered. Walter did not even bother to hide his grin.
'There's no need to concern yourself, Rose,' Gilbert replied heartily. 'You'll not be left destitute and unwed.' She saw something like naked cunning in her stepbrother's broad face before he lumbered to his feet and walked across the room to her, to take and pat her hand consolingly. 'My father was remiss in this. Never fear. I am in the process of arranging all to your comfort, with three such valuable fortresses to attract attention from a suitable husband.' He chuckled unnervingly. 'No one will ever say that a de Longspey was left unprovided for.'
Behind Rosamund's grateful smile, anger simmered. By the time she was alone with her mother in the privacy of the solar, it had become a surge of pure passion.
'So I am now an heiress! With three castles to my name in the depths of the Welsh Marches, any one of them to be my home! It would be,' stated Rosamund, green eyes flashing, all attempts to govern her temper abandoned, 'like being buried alive. I have decided. Nothing will persuade me to go there.'
Rosamund's decision did not outlive the day. Barely had the mid-day meal been cleared than she was summoned to the new Earl's private chamber. She eyed him warily. Gilbert, in the magnificence of his father's accommodation, looked even more pleased with himself if that were possible, and addressed her with obnoxious good humour as soon as she appeared in the doorway.
'Rose. Some excellent news, as I promised you. This is a day for developments, it seems. Did I not tell you to leave everything in my care? The messenger has arrived.' He flapped a travel-worn document in her direction. 'Your marriage. I have in mind a knight who will take you for the castles you hold. It will be a most advantageous match.' Sure of his argument, he held her gaze at last. 'You've remained unwed far too long.'
Rosamund took a breath, a premonition heavy in her belly. So that was it. Set a trap to catch a prize on the Welsh border as she had suspected. And she was the bait in the trap. Now she knew the reason for Clifford and Ewyas Harold and Wigmore. She breathed out slowly.
'Who is it?'
'Ralph de Morgan of Builth. Quite a landowner in that area.'
'Ralph de Morgan?' He was a not infrequent visitor to the de Longspey household. The name instantly conjured up an image of the knight. Rosamund's palms grew damp against the skirts of her robe as that image became a weight on her heart. 'But he's older than Lord William was!' Possibly an exaggeration, she admitted, but not by much.
'He's an important man, Rosamund.' Gilbert leaned forward to make his point, preserving his smile. 'And newly widowed. He wants a bride who will increase his holdings within England. And for my benefit, he'll help to hold the March secure. I doubt you'll do better. He offers a substantial settlement.'
'I can imagine!' Who would not to wish to consolidate a connection with the powerful de Longspeys?
'You have no choice in the matter, dear sister,' stated the Earl as if he could read the rejection in her mind. 'It's arranged. Ralph has agreed and the terms are acceptable. He'll come next week to renew your acquaintance, as a suitor for a bride.'
Rosamund controlled her reply magnificently. 'Very well, Gilbert.'
Gilbert eyed the quiescent lady doubtfully. 'Hear me, Rosamund. You'll not antagonise him.'
'No, Gilbert. How could you think it?' She smiled serenely.
But I would not wager my new jewelled girdle on it!
Escape to Clifford suddenly seemed an object of desire.
One meeting with Ralph de Morgan was enough to convince her of all her fears and to drive Rosamund into open rebellion. In a cloud of resentment she burst into the widowed Countess's bedchamber, where that lady was supervising her maid Edith in the packing of her possessions for the journey to Lower Broadheath.
'That's settled it. I can't do it.'
Lady Petronilla abandoned the silk mass of the rich green over-gown she was folding. She eyed her daughter with a painful mixture of sympathy and resignation. 'So I thought when Iwas presented with marriage, but sometimes, dear child, there's simply no choice.' The widow smoothed her dark skirts, her hands quick and restless, then stepped to the chest, which held cups and a flagon of ale. Not over-tall, her figure was well proportioned, her eyes grey-green and aware, her hair fair, untouched by grey, worn in a neat plaited coronet. She moved with capable, energetic movements as she poured and returned to hand a cup to her daughter.
'No choice? How can there be no choice! Ralph de Morgan,' Rosamund announced, not mincing her words, 'is gross and balding. His clothes are rank with heaven only knows what! Did you see? He wiped the sauce from his fingers on his tunic. When his hands last came into contact with warm water I know not. And as for his breath when he kissed my cheek ' She whirled in a circle, her hair within its ribbon confines flying, and punched the bed hangings with her fist. 'He's disgusting!'
'Ralph is not a pleasant prospect, I agreebut your brothers are determined'
'Brothers? They are no blood of mine! I've had enough of self-opinionated men telling me what to do and what not to do. What will be good for me and what I would be unwise to consider. I will not do it!'
'No. Ralph is not an attractive man. So portly!'
'Portly? He is fat! I would rather wed the poor ragged creature, filthy and scabbed, who sits daily outside the Cathedral and begs for alms.'
'No, you wouldn't. And I don't think the beggar would actually want you!' The two ladies considered the dubious prospect for a short moment. 'But, dearest Rose, you need a husband,' Petronilla advised. 'You should have been married years ago.'
'I know. I agree that there could be advantages. But I want ' In her mind's eye Rosamund saw the man of her childhood dreams, lingered over the much-loved image. 'He must be young. Handsome, of course, fair haired. Gentle and courteous, who will treat me with honour and consideration. A knight who is civilised and cultured, can read and write, and will not harry me into actions I have no wish to take.' For a moment she lost herself in another improbable outcome. 'And he must at least have an affection for me,' she added finally. 'I do not ask for love, but I have no desire to simply be a hapless pawn in a power struggle.'
'Hmm. Now there's a list.' Lady Petronilla arched her brows, returning to the silk gown that slithered unmanageably under her hands. 'But does such a paragon exist? A man who would let you have entirely your own way ? Well, I don't know And would you be happy if he did?'
Rosamund considered the matter. Marriage had not brought her mother much contentment. Why should her own experience be any different? Of course, there had been that one man Now there was a memory to stir her to her very soul. Rosamund turned away so that her mother should not read the sudden sharp desire that closed like a hand around her throat.
Her Wild Hawk. Her Fierce Lord.
Gervase Fitz Osbern.
That one man Some four years since now. The memory of him came easily into Rosamund's mind, as if it had slid there before, at regular intervals, along a well-worn path. The man who had descended on Salisbury in the foulest of humours to hold a dangerously fraught interview with the Earl. She had never known exactly why. But a bucketful of bad blood had existed between Fitz Osbern and Earl William from the very beginning, obvious in the crackle in the air and the imminent threat of drawn blades as they exchanged views. And the Earl had planned to smooth the waters, to entice this enemy into an alliance. So he had offered Rosamund to him, to lure him into taking a Longspey wife.
She remembered as if it were yesterday being summoned so that the lord might look her over.
But he had not looked her over. He had barely cast an eye in her direction, after that first vicious stare when she had entered the room. He had not even done her the courtesy to appraise her merits as a bride. And after all her mother's efforts to turn her out at her best, threading emerald ribbons through her braided hair. What an arrogant appraisal it had been before he turned his shoulder, one brief raking glance from head to foot that had all but stripped the clothes from her body. Even now at this distance she re-lived the moment that had brought a rush of unflattering colour to her cheeks and an edge to her temper. Not that he had noticed. The formidable knight was too busy refusing Earl William's offer to consider her appearance or her feelings at being so summarily rejected. She had been dismissed almost before she had set foot in the room.