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Clare was in the convent gardens with Margaret, the Prioress of Saint Hermione, when word reached her that the first of the suitors was on the Isle of Desire.
“A grand company of men has arrived, Lady Clare. They are coming toward the village even now,” William called.
Clare paused in the middle of a detailed discussion of the best method for extracting oil of roses. “I beg your pardon, madam,” she said to Prioress Margaret.
“Of course.” Margaret was a stoutly built woman of middle years. The wimple of her black Benedictine habit framed sharp eyes and gently rounded features. “This is an important event.”
Clare turned to see young William hopping about in great excitement near the convent gatehouse. He waved his bag of gingered currants at her.
A plump, brown-haired, dark-eyed lad of ten, he was a good-natured combination of lively curiosity and unquenchable enthusiasm. He and his mother, Lady Joanna, had come to live on the Isle of Desire three years earlier. Clare was very fond of both of them. As her own family had dwindled down to nothing, leaving her alone in the world, she had grown very close to William and Joanna.
“Who is here, William?” Clare braced herself for the answer. Every inhabitant on Desire, with the exception of herself, had been eagerly anticipating this day for weeks. She was the only one who was not looking forward to the selection of a new lord for Desire.
At least she was to have a choice of husbands, she reminded herself. That was more than many women in her position got.
“’Tis the first of the suitors you said Lord Thurston would send.” William stuffed a handful of gingered currants into his mouth. “They say he appears to be a most powerful knight, Lady Clare. He brings a fine, great host of men-at-arms. I heard John Blacksmith say that it took half the boats in Seabern to get all the men and horses and baggage from the mainland to our island.”
A curious flutter of uneasiness made Clare catch her breath. She had promised herself that when the time came, she would be calm and businesslike about the matter. But now that the moment was upon her, she was suddenly vastly more anxious than she had thought to be.
“A great host?” Clare frowned.
“Aye.” William’s face glowed. “The sunlight on their helms is so bright, it hurts your eyes.” He gulped down two more fistfuls of the currants. “And the horses are huge. There is one in particular, John says, a great gray stallion with hooves that will shake the very earth when he goes past.”
“But I did not request a great number of knights and men-at-arms,” Clare said. “Desire requires only a small company of men to protect our shipments. What on earth am I to do with a large number of warriors underfoot? And all their horses, too. Men and horses eat a great deal of food, you know.
“Do not fret, Clare.” Margaret smiled. “Young William’s notion of a vast host of fighting men is likely very different from our own. Keep in mind that the only company of armed men that he has ever seen is Sir Nicholas’s small household force at Seabern.”
I trust that you are right, madam.” Clare lifted the fragrant pomander that hung from a chain on her girdle and inhaled the soothing blend of roses and herbs. The scent comforted her, as it always did. “Nevertheless, it will be a great nuisance having to feed and house so many men and horses. By Saint Hermione’s ear, I do not like the notion of having to entertain all of these people. And this is only the first of the candidates.”
“Calm yourself, Clare,” Margaret said. “Mayhap the crowd that has disembarked down at the harbor is composed of more than one suitor. The three or four you ordered may have arrived all at the same time. That would explain why there are so many men and horses.”
Clare cheered at the notion. “Aye, that must be it.” She dropped the small pomander so that it dangled once more amid the folds of her gown. “All my suitors have arrived together. If they have each brought their own entourages, that would explain the large number of men and horses.”
Another thought along the same lines struck Clare, one which immediately wiped away her momentary relief. “I do hope they will not stay long. It will cost a fortune to feed them all.”
“You can afford it, Clare.”
“That’s not the point. At least, not entirely.”
Margaret’s eyes twinkled. “Once you have made your selection from among the candidates, the others, including their men and retainers, will take their leave.”
“By Hermione’s sainted toe, I shall choose quickly, then, so that we do not waste any more food and hay on this lot than is absolutely necessary.”
“A wise plan.” Margaret eyed her closely. “Are you so very anxious, my child?”
“No, no, of course not,” Clare lied. “Merely eager to get the matter concluded. There is work to be done. I cannot afford to waste a great deal of time on this business of selecting a husband. I trust Lord Thurston has only sent me candidates who meet all of my requirements.”
“I’m sure he has,” Margaret murmured. “You were most specific in your letter.”
“Aye.” Clare had spent hours formulating her recipe for a new lord of Desire.
Those hours had been spent after she had wasted even more time concocting dozens of clever reasons why she did not need a husband. To that end, she had called upon all the skills of rhetoric, logic, and debate that Margaret had taught her. She had been well aware that if she was to avoid the inevitable, she would need to give Lord Thurston a truly brilliant excuse for refusing marriage.
Clare had tried out each finely reasoned argument first on Joanna and then on Prioress Margaret before committing it to parchment. Sympathetic to the cause, both of the women had considered the string of carefully crafted excuses one after the other, offering criticism and advice.
In the months since her father’s death, Clare had been developing what she was certain was an absolutely unassailable, logically graceful argument against the necessity of marriage based on the naturally secure position of the Isle of Desire when disaster had struck.
Her neighbor on the mainland, Sir Nicholas of Seabern, had wrecked the endeavor by kidnapping her while she was on a short visit to Seabern.
Furious with Nicholas because he had ruined everything by providing clear evidence of her personal vulnerability, Clare had proceeded to make life at Seabern Keep a living hell for him. By the end of her enforced stay, Nicholas confessed himself glad to see the last of her.
But it was too late.
Coming as it did on top of the increased predations of the robbers who infested the region, the kidnapping was the last stone in the sack. Clare knew that it was only a matter of time before Lord Thurston heard the rumors. He would conclude that she was incapable of protecting Desire and he would act at once to see to the matter himself.
Outraged and frustrated by events as she was, Clare had to admit she could not entirely blame Thurston for taking such a course of action. In his position, she would have done the same. The portion of the revenues to which he was entitled as Desire’s liege lord were too plump and healthy to be put at risk.
And Clare could not risk the lives of the men from the village who accompanied the shipments of perfume. Sooner or later, the robbers were going to kill someone when they attacked.
In truth, she had no choice and she knew it. She had a duty and an obligation to the people of Desire. Her mother, who had died when Clare was twelve, had taught her from the cradle that the wishes of the lady of the manor came second to the needs of her people and the lands that sustained them.
Clare knew full well that although she possessed the skills to keep Desire a fat and profitable estate, she was no trained warrior.
There were no household knights, nor even any men-at-arms left on Desire. The few who had once lived in the hall had dispersed over the years. Some had accompanied her brother Edmund to the tournaments and had not returned to the isle after he had been killed. Desire, after all, was not a very exciting place. It did not suit young knights and squires who were eager for glory and the profits to be made competing in the endless round of tournaments or by going on Crusade.
From the Paperback edition.