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By Kris Kennedy
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
Chapter One Six months later, October 1152 London, two hundred fifty miles south of Everoot's principal castle, the Nest
The crush of people was enormous. Nobles they might be, but they were as noisome and unruly as a drunken crowd.
She wore a green gown. Woven of rare and expensive silk, it shimmered like an emerald waterfall. The bodice hugged tight, as did the sleeves, until they opened wide at her elbows and fell in graceful folds of silk. Ebony curls spilled down her back with loose sprays dancing by her cheeks. A thin circlet of silver clasped a light veil of palest green over her forehead. On the outside, she was a vision of proper breeding and improper beauty.
Inside, she was a simmering cauldron of nerves.
Guinevere de l'Ami, daughter of the illustrious Earl of Everoot, stood by the stone wall of the London apartment and clutched her empty wine cup so tightly it pressed her knuckles white. She smiled vacantly at a passing baron, who veered in her direction and smiled rather less vacantly, revealing a row of greyish teeth. Gwyn's heart sank. A young varlet carrying an ewer of wine passed next, and she leaned forward.
"May I?" she asked, smiling benevolently. Then she reached out and took the entire jug.
His unbearded chin dropped. He peered at his hand, then at her, but Gwyn was already weaving away through the crowd, pitcher tightly in hand. If anyone tried to take it from her, she'd crack him over the head with it.
Finding a small window alcove, she positioned herself beside the newest innovation, a fireplace, and tried to do two things at once: blend in with the stone wall and get smashingly drunk. Grimacing at the wine's oily flavour, she threw back a large swallow.
Fortification came in many guises.
There were few better places or, more precisely, more grand places, to fortify oneself with wine. This was the king's feast, hosted at the end of a grueling week of councils between the king and his mighty advisors. Men such as the wealthy Earl of Warwick and the powerful Earl of Leicester. Men with the status of her father. The few treasured loyalists amid these awful, bloody civil wars.
For sixteen years now, the English nobility had been cleaved in two. Families wrecked, friendships destroyed, legacies lost. Robbers ruled the roads and bandits sacked the villages. Underneath it all, the land had been gutted and raped. But now it was worse.
Already the news was spreading: the powerful Earl of Everoot had died. His heir, Guinevere de l'Ami, was a woman alone.
She quaffed another deep draught of wine.
The large great room of the London apartment was growing dark but, as the sun slowly set, a pale rosy hue streamed through the unshuttered window beside her, washing the room in a light reminiscent of fading roses and thinned blood.
Gwyn sloshed more wine into her cup, reflecting glumly on the sort of mind that went about creating gory metaphors of sunsets.
Losing one's beloved father not two weeks past might have such an effect, she supposed wearily.
Having one's castle besieged might better do the job. Even if one stood at a king's feast, two hundred and fifty safe, heartbreaking miles away.
She should have known.
When Marcus fitzMiles, Lord d'Endshire, spent the week following Papa's death doling out solicitude and concern like an almoner, she should have known something terrible was coming. Marcus fitzMiles was her nearest neighbour, her father's ally, and the most rapacious baron in King Stephen's war-torn realm, eating up smaller estates like pine nuts. And until Gwyn arrived in London last night, he was the only one who knew Papa had died. The only one who knew how undefended Everoot was. How undefended Guinevere was.
She should have known.
She lifted her chin and stared blindly across the room, eyes burning. She could not let it happen. Not so soon after Pap-. Not so soon-. Her throat worked around the tightness threatening to choke her. Not now.
Then again, she reflected miserably, she'd made a lot of deathbed promises she simply didn't understand. But one does not bicker with a dying father when he asks you to guard a chest of love letters between him and your dead mother or when he tells you he was wrong, dreadfully wrong (about what?), and begs you to "Wud. Guh. Saw." Whatever that meant. She'd knelt on the cold stone floor beside his bed and promised everything.
She swallowed thickly. Tension and fear and old, old shame flickered inside her belly like a curling red flame. She clutched her wine cup, fingers tight around its stem. Where in perdition was the king? Each minute gone was a minute more fitzMiles had to begin feeding on his largest platter yet, Gwyn's home.
She needed more wine. Spinning about, she plowed right into the chest of Marcus fitzMiles, Lord d'Endshire.
"Good heavens!" she screeched. A few baronial heads shifted towards the sound. Wine sloshed over the rim of her goblet.
"Lady Guinevere," Marcus said smoothly, taking the cup from her dripping hand.
"Give me that." She snatched it back.
A practiced smile inched up his mouth. He stretched his hands wide, all bemused innocence. "Indeed, you may have it, my lady."
"My thanks for returning what is already mine. Such as the Nest."
"Ahh." He inclined his head forward an inch. "You have heard."
Marcus swept a casual glance around the room. "Indeed. Heard. As will everyone else if you do not keep your voice down."
"Keep my voice down? Be assured, Marcus, my voice will be raised so loudly to the king-and anyone else who will listen-that your ears will burn."
He raked a cool glance over her gown. "Happens you might be the one burned, Gwyn."
Her eyes narrowed into thin, blazing slits. Curled around the stem of her wine goblet, her fingers turned white. Had the cup been a man, it would have died a gruesome death. "Me? Burned?"
"Are you to repeat everything I say?" he queried with just enough true curiosity to send her teeth clicking together.
"Then let us have you repeat what I say, Marcus, to ensure understanding," she said in a low tone, practically snarling. "You will never have the Nest."
He shook his head with a small smile, as if deigning to correct a child who had erred. "Nay, my lady, you misunderstand. I bethought your castle in need of reinforcements while you were away with so many of its knights."
"You sent your army to the Nest for my protection?"
"In truth, Guinevere, you yourself did seem well protected, with a score of soldiers to hand. A resplendent display, may I say, upon your entry into the city. And a wise choice, to assure any who might wonder on the strength of Everoot, with its lord so recently passed away. Nay, indeed, my lady, you seemed well protected." His mouth curved up in another smile. "'Twas your castle that was not."
Her hands balled into fists. The goblet in her hand turned upside down, spilling a stream of wine across the floor that went unheeded.
"The peasants and fools were mightily impressed by the show of force you came to the city with," he continued, then paused. "I was not."
"Which means you do not think yourself a fool, Marcus," she hissed, "but you err. I know what you intend to do and my king will hear of it."
"Recall, Gwyn, he is my king too."
That sounded distinctly like a threat. A crackle of tension jerked her head backwards an inch. Her lips barely moved as she replied, "I am certain King Stephen will listen to me."
"Perhaps he has already listened to me."
A buzzing started in the base of her skull. The room tilted slightly, sending the room and the contents of her belly at a distinct angle. "What do you mean? He has not agreed ... he will not let you just take my land!"
His mouth curled up further in that disturbing smile. "Perhaps he would have me start with your hand."
In undulating pulses came the wave, washing over her so loudly she couldn't hear anything but its slow, throbbing beat. "What are you talking about?" Her words were whispered, scant.
He quirked up a brow. "Your hand. In marriage."
The goblet clattered to the ground. "Never," she whispered, backing away in horror. "Never, never, I would never wed you."
"Not even if your castle were ... at stake?"
"God in Heaven."
"Of course, with my goodwill, lady, 'twould be a simple matter to see to your people's well-being." The smile dropped away, leaving his predatory eyes. "Which could be assured were my own well-being being seen to. By their lady."
"You're mad." She started backing up through the crowd. Startled faces peered down as they were brushed aside. "Whatever my father saw in you, 'twas a lie."
"He saw an ally, Gwyn. One most unwise to cross."
"I have sent my knights to fortify the Nest."
"I know. Which leaves you here. With me."
She threw her hand over her mouth, unable to believe this madness. All the blood ran from her face, racing down her body, until her knees wobbled. He watched her with hooded eyes.
Good God, he intended to wed her right here in London! He never meant to take the Nest by force, but by marriage. The siege had been a ruse to get her to do exactly what she'd done, leave her unprotected and at his mercy, never an overly large commodity in the best of times.
No, 'twasn't possible! Was he that cunning?
The answer came swiftly: most assuredly. This, and more.
She felt sick. Not again. Twelve years of self-imposed penance had wrought no change. Twelve years of denying every fickle intuition, bringing each emotion to heel, and still, in the end, they ruled her actions. Impulsive, reckless ...
How many more people must die because of her?
Swinging about, she moved only two paces before being brought up short by the sight of King Stephen.
He was headed directly for her, the crowd parting before him in a river of samite and silk. He strode past great nobles with faint smiles and rich burgesses with polite nods, intent on her. Gwyn's knees quaked, her mind whirled.
Reaching her side, Stephen of Blois directed a faint smile towards Marcus, who had somehow positioned himself behind her. She could feel coldness emanating like a frozen river at her back, knifing through her gown and freezing her blood. Before she could do more than stare like a dolt at her king, he had her hand at his lips.
What was she doing staring straight into his eyes? She toppled down into a curtsey.
"My lord King," she breathed reverently. Papa had spoken about this man for sixteen years, told of how he had taken the crown when the Old King died, how he'd held Mathilda, heir to the throne, at bay and bested the most skilled troops of England, how he had held sway over rebellious lords and money-hungry burgesses for almost two decades. Now he stood five inches away with his lips on her hand.
And Marcus at her back.
"Your gift was well-received," the king said, tapping a cluster of dried rose petals pinned to the inside of his vest. Gwyn had sent the rare, twice-blooming rose of Everoot along with her relief payment when her father had died.
She lifted eyes that had grown as round as the stopper on a flask. "'Twas well-sent, Your Grace," she stammered.
"It came with a message."
"Aye, my lord," she murmured, ducking her head again.
"Which spoke of the undying loyalty of the de l'Ami heiress."
She bowed her head further. "'Tis but a pale symbol of the devotion and constancy of your northern province, my lord."
"And a beautiful one, lady. One I will recall ere the need arises." He lifted her to her feet with a light touch on her hand. "Your father's loyalty was steadfast, and I will miss him. He was my friend."
"And so our name," she murmured.
"De l'Ami," the king mused with a faint smile. "A friend, and so he was."
"My father would have been honoured to hear you speak suchly. That he is gone brings me great pain, but the chance to do your will eases it, Your Grace. I am ever at your call."
The king's dark eyes regarded her bent head carefully. "I will remember that."
"My lord," Gwyn murmured. Her face was bleached white when she rose. There had been no chance to request an audience; he was already disappearing into the crowd.
She started to follow when Aubrey de Vere, one of the king's closest advisors, stepped into her path. Earl of Oxford, he was yet another with a chequered history of allegiances. Their fathers had been together on Crusade, though, and Gywn felt a small spark of hope that brightened when he grasped both her hands warmly in his.
"My lady, please accept my condolences. How sad I am to hear of your father's-"
"My lord Oxford," she interrupted, closing her hands around the edge of his palms, "I need an audience with the king. Now. Can you make it so?"
He squeezed her fingers back. "Surely, my lady," he said soothingly. "First thing in the morning, I'll review the king's schedule and-"
"No. I need to see him now." She pushed forward, craning to see around Oxford's huge shoulder. She pushed so insistently, in fact, that she might have completely pushed by, had he given even an inch.
"Ahh, but my lady," he said in a smooth, polished voice, designed to make her relax. It made the hair on the back of her neck stand up. "The king cannot. He has had too many demands on his time this evening."
"That is ridiculous," she snapped. "He is right there. It will only take ..." Her voice drifted away as she became aware of two things: one, the king was nowhere in sight; he'd hurried-or been hurried-away with astonishing speed; and two, the earl of Oxford and Marcus were holding each other's gaze over the top of her head. Oxford gave an infinitesimal nod.
Cold fear dripped down her spine. She stared without sight at the back of someone's blue gown, heart thundering in her chest. The earl lowered his gaze and bowed with a gallant flourish, his polished smile firmly in place.
"First thing in the morning, my lady, upon my word. Would you care to stay here at the king's residence, to ease your travel back in the morn? No? You needn't be startled, my lady; 'twas but a question. Well, then, in the morning."
He moved away through the crowd like a ship cutting through water. Gwyn's head spun. Shivers spidered across her skin, a web of tingling terror. This was not possible. St. Jude, this could not be happening.
Marcus's voice murmured by her ear, "You know, Gwyn, the king thinks your loyalty will hold me to his cause as well. Who knows but that it will? With such beauty to come home to"-he picked up a strand of her hair in his fingers-"mayhap I could find some measure of loyalty in my heart."
She stomped her heel on his boot and fled.
Only after he'd searched the crowd for her, after he'd poked his nose into every crevice and cranny for the green-eyed beauty, only then was Marcus fitzMiles forced to admit she had left. The little fool.
She thought to be rid of him so easily? Not with an earldom at stake. And more to the point, not with an estate once worth some two thousand marks annually clasped between those shapely thighs. Nay, be she a trull with eyebrows that met in the middle, the Countess d'Everoot would be worth the agony.
When Ionnes de l'Ami had died a fortnight back, a fact Marcus knew simply by virtue of being there when it happened, he swooped in immediately, deciding the raven-haired birdling in the Nest had simply become far too tempting.
And, to his surprise, found he had to bide his time. Lady Guinevere's wings may have been inexperienced but they'd never been clipped, and what she lacked in leadership, she made up for in her capacity to earn loyalty. Her knights were like attack dogs. Marcus found he had to cluck and pet them when what he wished to do was kick them from here to the Cinque Ports.
So he waited, standing at her side when her father was laid in the crypt, offered condolences which made her frown, extended administrative counsels which she shunned with an airy disdain-and which he tolerated with a smiling good grace that made his jaw ache-and waited. Biding his time.
But the waiting was over. De l'Ami was dead, d'Endshire soldiers were at her gates, and King Stephen was in disarray, unable to offer more than feeble resistance to the takeover, if indeed he offered any at all. The king had not agreed to his petition to wed Guinevere, fool that he was, but if the countess believed it, so much the better. It would be easier to convince her.
Excerpted from The Conqueror by Kris Kennedy Copyright © 2009 by Kris Kennedy. Excerpted by permission.
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