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The Countess Bride
By Terri Brisbin
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLincolnshire, England August, 1198
She knew that the blood of six young noblewomen would be on her hands. And she knew that she would sinfully enjoy strangling the very life and breath out of each one. If they continued repeating the completely inane comments of the last hour, she would be forced to kill them all.
Catherine de Severin pulled a handkerchief from her sleeve and blotted her forehead. She did not suffer the heat well and the day had turned hot after the noon meal. Trying to be discreet, she lifted her hair from her perspiring neck and attempted to cool off before her discomfort was noticed.
"Catherine? Are you unwell?" Emalie Dumont, Countess of Harbridge and her benefactress, leaned over and whispered to her. The softness of her voice did not hide her concern.
"I am well, my lady."
Catherine heard the soft snickers that moved through the small group of women watching the men fight in the tilt-yard. Lady Harbridge had, as well, for her expression was one of distaste. Standing, the countess motioned to those seated to follow her.
"I fear this heat is too oppressive for me today. Come, let us seek a cooler place to gather, and something cool to drink to refresh ourselves."
No one could remain sitting, or not obey the orders of the countess and the hostess of this keep. Catherine gathered her fan and handkerchief and stood. Before the small entourage could leave the yard, a loud, deep voice called out to them from across the yard.
Catherine watched as the countess approached the fence and spoke quietly to her husband. The women had been watching the earl and some of his men practice their fighting skills in the yard as an amusement. But knowing that the younger Dumont was on his way here to choose one of them for a wife made the group nervous and excited. The mindless chatter had made the swordplay difficult to enjoy. Catherine turned and observed the earl and countess's exchange of words.
"Twas times like this when she could see a softness in the earl's face, an expression of love, that kept her from hating him as much as she knew he hated her. A man who loved his wife as much as the Earl of Harbridge did could not be all bad. When, in his conversation with his wife, he raised his eyes to glance over at her, the coldness filled his gaze once more and Catherine knew that Lady Harbridge had mentioned her name.
A tightening began in her stomach and grew stronger. Unease filled her as his gaze passed over her once more. She had prayed for acceptance of her fate. She had prayed for understanding. And she had prayed for the gratitude that should fill her for the earl's sponsorship. "Twas all for naught.
Her weaknesses in character threatened to overwhelm her. Her fears and her inability to carry on conversations in the romantic style of the court forced her to the background in most situations. Her lack of standing and lack of relatives to offer the support usually given to young women of marriageable age were appallingly obvious to those here seeking that honorable state. Even drawing on her inner reserve of practiced quiet and calmness did not lessen her anxiety when faced with outsiders whom she knew not.
The urge to return to the convent, nay, to run to the convent, nearly overpowered her for a moment. Taking in a deep breath, she tried to clear her thoughts. The countess approached and held out her hand. Taking it, Catherine walked next to the woman who offered her everything she lacked, without ever making demands on her time or on her soul.
"My lord has suggested that I seek my chambers and rest there until our evening meal. Catherine, will you join me and bring your prayer book?" Everyone present knew the lord had ordered her to her room. Gossip would begin immediately after Lady Harbridge left their presence.
"Of course, my lady."
"I fear that this babe makes me sensitive to the heat. My lord is concerned that I not spend so much time outdoors in it." Her whispers were loud enough for all to hear.
Catherine knew exactly what the countess was doing, and would have kissed the hem of her gown to thank her for it. But that would undo the good being done on her behalf. By announcing the news that she once more carried a babe, another heir for her lord, she drew the attention to herself.
The group behind them fell silent, but Catherine could almost hear the questions and thoughts in their minds. This would be the countess's third child in just over three years of marriage. Catherine knew those here who sought marriage to the countess's brother-by-marriage were wondering if he would be as demanding in the physical part of marriage as his brother was. And if they would be as fruitful.
They reached the keep, where Emalie guided Catherine in one direction while the others entered the great hall. The consummate hostess, Lady Harbridge would have servants a plenty waiting to serve her guests whatever they needed.
Catherine followed the countess up the stairs in one of the towers until they reached the earl and countess's chambers. The countess did not stop yet, but led her through a doorway and up another flight of stairs until they returned the battlements. Walking along the top of the wall that surrounded the entire keep, Catherine could see the lands around Greystone Castle, almost to the sea in the east. The countess stood at her side, eyes closed, facing into the breezes that buffeted them.
"If I could spend my days here in the wind, I would, dear Catherine."
"Aye, my lady. "Tis much more pleasant than the heat of the bailey." Catherine remembered hearing some gossip about the amount of time the earl and his countess spent high up on these walkways, and she could feel a heated blush climb onto her cheeks. It was even rumored, if one wasted time listening to that kind of talk, that the child carried by the countess had been conceived here one stormy spring night.
"They can be cruel, Catherine. I urge you not to take their words to heart."
Excerpted from The Countess Bride by Terri Brisbin Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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