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"I do not think it wise for you to make the journey alone," Owain Davies said. "There are many lawless bands roaming the country, my lady, and they would not hesitate to take you prisoner and hold you to ransom. I do not think that Lord Whitbread would be pleased if that happeneddo you?"
"He would be very angry," the lady Melissa of Whitbread said. "But it will not happen if you are with us, Owain. I must get to the Abbey, because I may never have another chance. You know that I have been kept almost a prisoner for the past several months since" Her voice broke and she lifted her head, hiding her pain. She didn't want anyone to guess how she had suffered these past months, not even the man she trusted most. "My father is determined that I shall marry a man of his choosing and I would rather die."
"That is foolish talk, my lady." Owain's eyes narrowed. He had not been in the castle when Robert of Melford had been sent away and he did not know her true feelings on the matter for she had not confided in him.
"Foolish or not it is how I feel. I have decided to beg my aunt for sanctuary. If she grants it, I may live at the Abbey in safety and perhaps take the veil."
"You should do so only if you have a calling," Owain replied, his eyes thoughtful as he looked at her face. He knew that her life had been hard these past years, and sometimes it was as much as he could bear to stand by and watch as she was ill-treated.
"Are you willing to risk your father's anger, knowing that he may punish you again?"
"Yes, because there is no other way. Besides, she is my aunt and the only link to my mother," Melissa said, her eyes dark with sorrow for a mother's love she had never known. "I would speak with her, ask her about my mother if she will tell me. She has always refused to talk of her sister, but she may relent this time if she understands how unhappy I have been"
Her look was so wistful that Owain could not refuse her request, though he knew he ought not to allow this madcap idea. Lord Whitbread's anger would know no bounds when he returned to find her gone.
"If you wish it so much, I shall escort you," Owain said. "But we must return on the morrow. If we are gone no more than a day, it may be that your father will never know."
Melissa smiled at him. She had known he would help her as never in the years that he had served her had he failed her. He had been the father she lacked, helping her in so many small ways that she had lost count. Yet she felt a little guilty for not having told him the whole truth. It was true that she wanted to ask her aunt about her mother, but it was not the only reason for her flight from Lord Whitbread's manor. * * *
It was a warm afternoon, but the canopy of ancient trees sheltered the traveller from the fierce heat, the stillness broken only by the heavy pounding of the destrier's hooves and the sound of a thrush trilling from its secret hiding place. Suddenly, a woman's screams rent the air; shrill and desperate, they sent a flock of birds winging into the sky, destroying the peace of the forest.
Robert Melford was riding hard, leaving his train lagging behind in his anxiety to reach his home on the borders of England and Wales. He had lately been at the Castle of Angers in France, where he had pledged his father's affinity to Henry Tudor, Earl Richmond. Descended from the great John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford, through Margaret Beaufort, Henry Tudor had a slender but legitimate claim to the English throne, and was even now gathering an army. Rob had gone to Richmond's court with his father's good wishes, for the wars that had plagued the country for nigh on thirty years were not yet done. The English crown sat uneasily on the head of King Richard III, who had seized it, in the opinion of many, from King Edward IV's heir by treachery.
Now Rob was returning ahead of Henry Tudor's army in order to gather support in the lush valleys and lowlands of the Marches. Even as he had prepared to leave Angers, a message had reached him that his father had been struck down with a dread illness and Rob's haste was not so much on behalf of his promise to Richmond as his fear that he might be too late.
However, despite his impatience to be home, Rob was too much the chivalrous knight to ignore a woman's cries for help. When he came to the clearing and saw the three ladies being attacked by a band of brigands, his first thought was to aid them. Drawing the trusty sword that he carried slung across his body, always at the ready, Rob rode directly at the brigand attempting to subdue a young woman. She was fighting for all she was worth, struggling against the superior strength of the great brute that had his hands on her, but it was the other two women who were screaming.
Rob leaned down from the saddle of his mighty steed, swinging the heavy sword and delivering a blow that cut deeply into the shoulder of the brigand, sending him staggering away to fall bleeding to the ground. Wheeling about, his destrier snorting with the lust of battle, Rob rode down another of the brutes and sent him flying, trampled beneath his horse's hooves. Seeing that they were facing a powerful knight, who was trained for war, the other three robbers fled in panic.
Rob laughed in triumph as they disappeared into the forest, dismounted and turned to the woman who had fought so valiantly against her attackers, sweeping her a courtly bow.
"I hope you are not harmed, lady," he said, and turned to her, smiling at her in a way that had charmed many a lady at Angers despite the disfiguring scar that marred one side of his face. Robert Melford was well formed, his shoulders broad, his legs long and powerful. He was also handsome, with his dark hair worn long, and his eyes as blue as the cloudless sky above their heads in this sunlit clearing. However, the humour left his eyes as he stared down into the face of the woman he had sworn to forget. "You!" he exclaimed, his gaze fixed on her like a hungry wolf, ravenous and menacing.
"Rob" Melissa said, the colour draining from her cheeks as she looked at him. His was a strong face with well-defined bones and, despite his stern expression, a soft mouthbut she could see only the terrible scar on his left cheek. "I What happened to your face?"
Rob reached up to stroke the scar. It was no longer a source of terrible agony, though it had given him weeks of sleepless nights. The thick welt of red flesh was unsightly, for it had been crudely sewn and had never quite healed as it ought, though the blow to his head had recovered well and there was only a thin scar beneath his thick hair. Her question made him angry and he could barely restrain himself, his hands clenching at his sides.
"You dare to ask?" he said harshly. "This was your parting gift to me, lady. Your brother laid my cheek open to the bone to remind me not to look above my station in the matter of a wife."
"No" Melissa felt the sickness in her throat as she stared at Harold's work. "I knew that my father had told himbut that is so cruel" She closed her eyes for the realisation of what he must have suffered had washed over her, making her faint. "I feared the worst and wondered if you were dead."
Although a wimple covered her head, a few strands of red-gold hair had escaped to curl waywardly about her face. Her complexion was fair, her eyes more green than blue. Rob's eyes dwelled on her beauty, anger stirring as he understood that she still had the power to move him.
"As you see, I am not," Rob said coldly. "I am sorry to disappoint you, lady, but your brother did not finish his work and I live still."
Melissa opened her eyes and looked at him. "You think that I wished for" She turned away from him, fighting her tears. She must not give way to weakness. "No matter. I am innocent of the sin you would place on me, sirbut I shall not beg for your understanding. You have come to my aid, though perhaps you wish now that you had not?"
"I have not said it," Rob growled. "You may be faithless, lady, but your women deserved my help." He looked around him. "Where are your men? Why has your father allowed you to ride out unprotected in these uncertain times?" His gaze narrowed. "Or does he know that you are here?"
Melissa raised her head proudly. "I go to the Abbey to visit my aunt who is Abbess there. She wrote some weeks ago to say that she was unwelland I took the opportunity to visit her while my father was away."
"As I thought," Rob said, looking down at her. What was it about her that affected him so? He had every reason to distrust and hate her, and he had made up his mind to put her from his thoughtsbut seeing her had brought the pain and anguish of her betrayal rushing back.
She affected him as no other ever had. She was surely the most beautiful woman he had ever seen! He experienced a surge of fierce desire that made him long to sweep her up in his arms and ride off with her. But he fought it, listening to her explanation in silence.
"My groom accompanied us, but he lies dreadfully wounded a little back there." She pointed in the direction she had come from, which was opposite to that Rob had taken to reach this clearing. "I believe he may well be dead." A little sob escaped her. "Owain was loyal and kind and I will blame myself for his deathas you say, I ought not to have come without men-at-arms to guard me. It will be my fault if he dies because he was against this journey."
"Your will prevailed as always," Rob said scornfully as the memory of her scorn stilled the surging desire. She was false and not to be trusted, so even if his body still burned for her, his mind rejected all that she was. "Show me where you left the manwe should go and see whether his wound is fatal. You have been foolish and wilful, lady, and we must hope that the loss of your serf is the worst that befalls you."
"Owain is not a serf," Melissa said, and her eyes flashed with fire as she was aware of his scorn. "He is his own man but chooses to give his affinity to me."
Rob knew that he was right to distrust her, for plainly she was as haughty and proud as she was beautiful. "To you, lady?" he asked, raising his brows. "It is more usual for a man to offer his affinity to a nobleman for his good lordship."
"Owain was my mother's kinsman," Melissa said. "When she died in childbed, he gave his loyalty to me. He asks for nothing more than a roof over his head and the food he eats."
"And wears your father's livery no doubt?"Rob said, mocking her in the hope of some reaction. She did not fail him, her eyes sparking as she raised a hand to strike him a blow. He was too quick for her, seizing her wrist and holding it in an iron grip. Against the fairness of her skin, his was dark toned and bronzed by the sun of France.
"Let me go, you devil!" Melissa blazed at him, feeling angry now. He hated her for what had been done to him, and perhaps he had the rightbut his scorn pricked her and her anxiety for Owain had brought her close to tears.
"Let you go?" Rob asked, wild thoughts of revenge in his mind. He could take her now, ride off with her to his home and teach her what it felt like to know despair, and yet her beauty moved him and he smiled oddly. "No, no, lady, let us not come to blows. I shall take you up with me since your horse has been lost. If your ladies wait here my men will arrive at any moment and they may follow us to the Abbey, bringing your horses if they can be found nearby. If your faithful kinsman still lives we shall take him there for the monks to nurse. If he is slain my men will bury him and a candle shall be lit in the house of our Lord and the priest paid to say a mass for his soul."
"You are kind, sir," Melissa said, her manner proud and reserved, for she had seen the mockery in his eyes. "I do not know why, because you have been served ill by my family."
"The cruellest blow of all was yours, Melissa," he told her. "Yet I shall not take foul advantage for it would not set well with my honour."