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PRAISE FOR NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR LYNN KURLAND
“Clearly one of romance’s finest writers.”
—The Oakland Press
“Both powerful and sensitive . . . a wonderfully rich and rewarding book.”
—#1 New York Times bestselling author Susan Wiggs
“A sweet, tenderhearted time travel romance.”
“A story on an epic scale . . . Kurland has written another time travel marvel . . . Perfect for those looking for a happily ever after.”
—RT Book Reviews
“[A] triumphant romance.”
“A perfect blend of medieval intrigue and time travel romance. I was totally enthralled from the beginning to the end.”
—Once Upon a Romance
“Woven with magic, handsome heroes, lovely heroines, oodles of fun, and plenty of romance . . . just plain wonderful.”
—Romance Reviews Today
“Spellbinding and lovely, this is one story readers won’t want to miss.”
—Romance Reader at Heart
“Breathtaking in its magnificent scope.”
—Night Owl Romance
“Sweetly romantic and thoroughly satisfying.”
“A pure delight.”
—Huntress Book Reviews
“A consummate storyteller.”
—ParaNormal Romance Reviews
“A disarming blend of romance, suspense, and heartwarming humor, this book is romantic comedy at its best.”
“A totally enchanting tale, sensual and breathtaking.”
Titles by Lynn Kurland
STARDUST OF YESTERDAY
A DANCE THROUGH TIME
THIS IS ALL I ASK
THE VERY THOUGHT OF YOU
ANOTHER CHANCE TO DREAM
THE MORE I SEE YOU
IF I HAD YOU
MY HEART STOOD STILL
FROM THIS MOMENT ON
A GARDEN IN THE RAIN
DREAMS OF STARDUST
MUCH ADO IN THE MOONLIGHT
WHEN I FALL IN LOVE
WITH EVERY BREATH
TILL THERE WAS YOU
ONE ENCHANTED EVENING
ONE MAGIC MOMENT
ALL FOR YOU
ROSES IN MOONLIGHT
The Novels of the Nine Kingdoms
STAR OF THE MORNING
THE MAGE’S DAUGHTER
PRINCESS OF THE SWORD
A TAPESTRY OF SPELLS
GIFT OF MAGIC
THE CHRISTMAS CAT
(with Julie Beard, Barbara Bretton, and Jo Beverley)
(with Casey Claybourne, Elizabeth Bevarly, and Jenny Lykins)
VEILS OF TIME
(with Maggie Shayne, Angie Ray, and Ingrid Weaver)
(with Elizabeth Bevarly, Emily Carmichael, and Elda Minger)
LOVE CAME JUST IN TIME
A KNIGHT’S VOW
(with Patricia Potter, Deborah Simmons, and Glynnis Campbell)
(with Madeline Hunter, Sherrilyn Kenyon, and Karen Marie Moning)
TO WEAVE A WEB OF MAGIC
(with Patricia A. McKillip, Sharon Shinn, and Claire Delacroix)
THE QUEEN IN WINTER
(with Sharon Shinn, Claire Delacroix, and Sarah Monette)
A TIME FOR LOVE
“TO KISS IN THE SHADOWS” from TAPESTRY
Table of Contents
The young girl stood at the door of the healer’s quarters and looked out over the courtyard, eyeing the dirt and flat-laid stone that separated her from the great hall. Judging the distance to be not unmanageable, she released the doorframe she had been clinging to and eased herself down the three steps to the dirt. And then she grasped more firmly the stick she leaned upon and slowly and painfully began to make her way across the courtyard.
Sunlight glinted off her pale golden hair and off the gold embroidery on her heavy velvet gown. Though it was much too hot for such a garment, the child had insisted. It hid the unsightly splint that bound her leg from hip to foot.
She looked up and saw that the hall door was closer than it had been. No smile of relief crossed her strained features; she had yet far to go.
“Ugly Anne of Fenwyck!”
“Thorn in Artane’s garden!”
The voices caught her off guard and she stumbled. She caught herself heavily on her injured leg. Biting back a cry of pain, she put her head down and quickened her pace.
They surrounded her, not close enough to hurt her with anything but their words, though those were surely painful enough. Pages they were, for the most part, with one notable exception. A young man joined in the torment, a freshly-knighted soul who should have known better. They circled her as she hobbled across the smooth stone path leading to the great hall, taunting her mercilessly. The knight folded his arms and laughed as she struggled up the stairs.
“Why the haste, gimp?”
The maid had no time for tears. Safety was but four steps away. She ignored the laughter that followed her and forced herself to continue her climb.
The door opened and the lord of the hall caught her up in his arms and held her close. Her stick clattered down the stairs but she had no stomach for the fetching of it. She clung to her foster father and let his deep voice wash over her soothingly as she was pulled inside the hall. The lord reached out to close the door, paused, then frowned deeply before he pushed the wood to.
Had the girl looked out before the door was closed, she would have seen a dark-haired, gray-eyed lad of ten-and-four standing on the front step of the healer’s house, having come to take his own exercise for the day. And she would have seen the rage on his face and the clenching of his hands at his sides; he had witnessed the last of the tortures she’d endured.
And had she been watching, she would have been privy to the events that followed. The lad shrugged off his brother’s supporting arm and called to the young knight in angry tones. The knight sauntered over, his mocking snort turning into a hearty laugh when he heard the lad’s challenge.
There was no equity in the fight. The boy still recovered from a fever that had kept him abed for half a year. The knight was five years his senior. And the knight had no qualms about humiliating the lord’s son each and every chance he had.
It was over before it had begun. The dark-haired lad went facedown in the mud and muck. The last shreds of his strength deserted him, leaving him wallowing helplessly. His brother stepped forward to defend him and earned a pair of broken fingers for his trouble. The knight sneered at them both, then walked away, the older lads in his entourage snickering behind their hands as they followed him, and the younger ones slinking away full of shame and embarrassment for the lad who had no strength to rise to his feet.
The girl witnessed none of this. She was gently deposited inside the chamber she shared with her foster sisters, and had the luxury of shedding her tears of humiliation in private.
Her young champion shed his tears in the mud.
The young woman sat atop her mount and looked down the road that separated her from the castle. She had traversed its length many times over the course of her ten-and-nine years and felt reasonably acquainted with its dips and swellings. She was, however, eager to be free of its confines and, as a result, off her horse, so she viewed it with a keen eye. Judging the distance separating her from her goal to be not unmanageable, she took a firmer grip on her reins and urged her horse forward.
Her destination could not be reached quickly enough, to her mind. Behind her rode her matchmaking father, his head likely full of thoughts of the half dozen men he had left behind him at Fenwyck, men desperate enough for his wealth to take his daughter in the bargain. Before her lay her foster home, the home of her heart, the home she had left almost half a year earlier only because her father had dragged her bodily from it. She had despaired of ever seeing it again.
But now she was released from her father’s hall, if only briefly, and Artane was but a short distance away. That was enough. It would have to be. It might be all she was allowed to have.
“By the saints, I’m eager to be out of this bloody rain,” her sire complained as he pulled up alongside her. “How is it, mistress Anne, that I allowed you to enlist me in this fool’s errand in this blighted weather? My business with you is at Fenwyck, not here!”
Anne looked at her sire. A weak shaft of autumn sunlight fell down upon his fair hair and glinted on the gold embroidery adorning his heavy surcoat.
“You look well, Father,” she said, praying she might distract him and knowing a compliment could not go astray.
“As if it served me to look well, given the circumstances!”
“It was kind of you to bring me to Artane,” she said, keeping to her course. “I very much wished to bid Sir Montgomery a final farewell.”
“It will be too late for that, I should think,” her sire muttered. “He’ll be dead by the time we arrive.”
But Anne could only assume by the way he began to straighten his clothing and comb his hair with his fingers that he was seeking to present the best appearance possible, even if such an appearance was only to be made at a burying.
She turned her mind back to more important matters, namely staying in the saddle until she could reach the castle. Her leg had not borne the rigors of traveling well. Though but four days’ slow travel separated Fenwyck from Artane, she suspected she might have been better served to have walked the distance. She wondered if she would manage to stand once she was released from the tortures of her journey.
Despite that very real concern, Anne felt her heart lift with every jarring clomp of her horse’s hooves. The stark stone of the castle rose up against the gray sky, a bulwark of safety and security. By the saints, she was glad of the sight. Though her sire continued to curse a variety of objects and souls, Anne let his words wash over her and continue on their way to more attentive ears. She was far too lost in her memories to pay him any heed.
She remembered the first time she had come to Artane. The castle had been little more than branches marking the place for the outer walls and twigs outlining the inner buildings. The construction had seemed to take but a short time, likely because she’d been passing her days so happily in the company of the family she’d come to foster with. There had been a sister for her, just her age, and brothers too, though she’d paid them little heed at the time. The lord and lady of the yet-to-be-finished keep had treated her as one of their own and for that she had been very grateful.
And then had come the time when she had first noticed the lord’s eldest son.
He’d been hard to ignore.
He had announced his presence by putting a worm down her dress.
A particularly jarring misstep by her mount almost made her bite off her tongue. Anne gritted her teeth and forced herself to pay heed to her horse. Perhaps her memories did her more disservice than she cared to admit, especially when they went in that particular direction, for indeed there was no purpose in thinking on the lord’s eldest son.
She looked up and realized she was almost in the inner courtyard. She had rarely been more grateful for a sight than she was for the view of the keep before her. She had the captain of Artane’s guard to thank for the like, as the summons to Montgomery of Wyeth’s deathbed had been the only thing which could have freed her from Fenwyck’s suffocating walls.
Anne wended her way carefully through the crowded courtyard. Artane was a busy place with much commerce, many fosterlings, and numerous lordlings continually looking to curry Artane’s favor. She supposed it was pleasing to Lord Rhys to find himself in such demand, but she herself would have been happier had the castle been a little less populated. It certainly would have made the negotiation of her way toward the great hall a good deal easier.
She suppressed a grimace when her horse finally came to a halt. The beast was well trained, thankfully, and spent no more energies moving about. Anne stared down at the ground below her mount’s hooves and wondered how best to reach it without landing ungracefully on her nose. She took a deep breath, twisted herself around so as to keep hold of her saddle, then slid slowly to the ground.
“Anne!” Geoffrey exclaimed with an accompanying curse. “I told you I would aid you.”
“I am well, Father,” she said, forcing herself to remain upright instead of giving into the urge to lean her head against her horse’s withers and weep. The pain in her leg was blinding, but she supposed she had no one to blame for that but herself. She had been the one to shun the cart her father had wished her to ride in. She had also been the one who had declined the numerous halts her father had tried to force upon her.
“I begin to wonder why I ever sent you here,” Geoffrey said curtly. “I vow they bred a stubbornness in you that I surely do not possess. Mayhap you had been better off to remain at Fenwyck.”
Anne had no acceptable answer for that, though her first thought was “the saints be praised you sent me away.” She was too old at ten-and-nine for such childish responses, but there hadn’t been a day she hadn’t been grateful for her fostering at Rhys de Piaget’s keep. She suspected, however, that she had best keep such observations to herself.
“We may as well go inside,” her father said, sounding as if it were the very last thing he wanted to do. “He’ll come to fetch us if we tarry here.”
“The lady Gwennelyn will be glad to see you,” Anne offered.
“Aye, but that objectionable husband of hers will be there as well. What joy is there in that for me? It only serves to remind me that she chose him over me.”
“As you say,” Anne said, wincing at the protests her leg was making as she put weight on it.
“Gwen did want me,” Geoffrey said. “And sorely indeed.”
“Of course, Father,” Anne agreed, but her mind was on other things—namely trying not to sprawl face-first into the dirt.
She looked at the great hall. The distance separating them was greater than she would have liked, but not unmanageable. She took a deep breath, then pushed away from her horse. She carefully crossed the flat stones she’d walked over for the greater part of her life and let the familiarity of them soothe her. By the saints, she had missed this place. How had she survived Fenwyck the previous half year? How would she have endured her childhood there? The saints be praised she had never been forced to have the answer to the latter. She suspected that ’twas only recently that she truly understood how fortunate she had been. Gwennelyn of Artane had lavished love and attention on her that she never would have had at her father’s hall.
Of course, none of it would have come about had the lady Gwennelyn not had such a long acquaintance with Anne’s sire. It had never become more than that, for there had been little love lost between them—despite Geoffrey’s boasts to the contrary.
There had been even less affection between Geoffrey and Rhys de Piaget, though Anne knew the two men counted each other as staunch allies. Anne had heard tales enough of their early encounters to know how things were between them, though neither the lord or lady of Artane had disparaged her father. Her father, however, had certainly never been so polite in return. Fortunately, his relationship with Artane had continued to be amicable enough for Anne to have found herself deposited inside Artane’s then-unfinished walls, and for that she was grateful.
“Come on then,” Geoffrey said, taking her by the arm and starting toward the hall. “We may as well go inside.”
Anne felt her leg tighten with each step she took and she came close to begging her sire to stop. But that would have led to a recounting of her childhood follies, Rhys’s lack of attentiveness in allowing them to happen and a host of other things she knew she could not bear to listen to. She looked up the steps and cursed silently at the number of people coming and going. Well, she had no choice but to make her way through the press if she wanted to find herself a chair. So she gritted her teeth and counted the steps that remained her until she could enter the great hall and sit in peace.
And then a form blocked her path. She looked up and flinched before she could stop herself.
“Why the haste, lady?” the knight asked. “Surely your journey here has been arduous.”
Anne suppressed a grimace. Of all the souls she could have encountered in this crowd, it had to be the lout before her.
“Well, here’s a man with a goodly bit of chivalry,” Geoffrey said, pushing Anne out of the way in his haste to clasp hands with the man. “I believe I should know you, shouldn’t I?”
The knight bowed politely. “Baldwin of Sedgwick, my lord. I am well acquainted with your daughter.”
Aye, there was truth in that. His acquaintance with her included naught but torment and she had no stomach for any more of it. Anne knew he wouldn’t dare insult her before her sire, but that hardly made being in his presence any less unappealing.
Her sire turned to look at her pointedly and she could just imagine what he wished to say. Look you here, you stubborn baggage. Yet another man who might be induced to wedding you for enough gold in his purse. Anne looked past her father to Baldwin. She was unsurprised to see him wearing his customary look of disdain. Perhaps he would be bold enough to mock her within earshot of her father.
But when her sire turned again to face Baldwin, there was naught but a polite smile there to greet him.
“Are you wed?” Geoffrey asked bluntly. “You are heir to Sedgwick, are you not?”
“Nay, my lord,” Baldwin said, shaking his head, “my brother is. And he has just recently been blessed with a son, William. So as you can see, I am well removed from any chance of inheriting.”
Geoffrey grunted. “Well, there’s much to be said for a little hunger for something better. My daughter’s not wed, you know. She has her flaws—”
“A weak leg,” Baldwin supplied.
“Aye, that,” Geoffrey agreed.
Anne could hardly believe they were discussing her so openly, and she had no desire to hear more. The saints only knew how blunt her father had been with all the other men he had invited to his keep for a viewing of her and her dowry. And as far as Baldwin went, she knew he would only become nastier in his discourse regarding her, for she knew with exactness what he thought of her. Hadn’t she heard the like for as long as she had known him?
She pushed past her father and walked away, though it cost her much to do so without limping overmuch.
The hall door opened before she reached it and Rhys himself stepped out into the crisp autumn air. Before Anne could say aught, Rhys had descended the handful of steps and pulled her into a sure embrace. The relief she felt was almost enough to make her knees give way beneath her. She was safely home. Perhaps beyond all hope she would manage to stay.
She heard her father’s complaining long before he came to stand behind her.
“It was foolish to come,” Geoffrey said, “but she insisted. She shouldn’t be traveling about with that leg of hers.”
Anne gritted her teeth. Rhys never would have continued to remind her of her frailty, nor would he have hourly warned her to have a care. Nay, he would have let her push herself to the limits of her pride, then merely picked her up and put her in a chair. Rhys was the only reason she had spent months learning to walk again after her accident; his approval was the reason she struggled each day past the limits of her endurance.
Or so she told herself. Her true reason for wanting to overcome her limp was something so painful she rarely allowed herself to think on it. The approval she sought was from someone who never looked at her twice when he could help it, who had earned his spurs early then gone off to war. Nay, his was approval she would never have.
A pity his was what mattered the most to her.
Anne felt Rhys give her a gentle squeeze before he pulled away. Anne suspected that she’d never been gladder to see a soul than she was to see the one man who might possibly be able to save her from her sire’s ruthless marital schemes.
“A long journey, my girl,” Rhys said. “But the sacrifice means much. It grieves me though, to give you the tidings I must.”
“See?” Geoffrey said pointedly. “I told her ’twould be for naught.” He snorted in disgust. “All this way for but a burying.”
Anne felt the noose begin to tighten about her neck.
“And not even for that,” Rhys said grimly. “We couldn’t wait any longer.”
“Then we surely won’t be staying long,” Geoffrey said. “I have plans for her at home, Rhys.”
Anne closed her eyes and prayed with all her strength. Would that some saint would take pity on her and provide her with some means of staying at Artane. Her fondest wish was to be watching her father ride back to Fenwyck from the security of Artane’s battlements. To be sure, she had packed an extra gown or two for just such a happening.
“Montgomery was very fond of Anne,” Rhys said. “I’ve no doubt it would have comforted him to see her again.”
“I don’t think—” Geoffrey began.
“Aye, well, ofttimes you don’t,” Rhys said shortly. “Go inside, Geoffrey. Gwen will want to see you.”
Anne watched her father hesitate, then consider. Apparently the lure of the lady Gwennelyn’s beauty was still a powerful one, for he grumbled something else under his breath, but went inside the hall without further argument. Anne took a deep breath, then looked up at her foster father.
“Are you well, my lord?” she asked.
Rhys smiled gravely. “Well enough. Montgomery was a good friend and he will be missed. He would have been pleased you came home, though.”
She was relieved to see he was bearing the loss well. Sir Montgomery was the last of Rhys’s original guardsmen to have succumbed to death’s grasp. He’d lost twins named Fitzgerald not two years earlier and that had been a grievous blow to him. To lose Montgomery as well had to have grieved him deeply.
“I am sorry to come so late,” she said.
“You couldn’t have known.” He tucked her hand under his arm and turned toward the stairs. “Now, what foolishness did your sire press upon you to keep you so long from your true home?”
“Suitors,” Anne said with a shudder.
“Poor girl. I can’t imagine he presented you with much of a selection.”
“Leave him to me,” he said. “I know how to redirect his thoughts.”
Aye, to scores of bruises won during a wrestle, she thought, followed closely by Ah, that you could. But she said nothing aloud. She was but three steps from the warmth and comfort of the hall and that was task enough for her at present.
Once the last step was gained, the hall entered and the door closed behind her, Anne could only stand and shake. She looked at the distance separating her from the hearth with its cluster of comfortable chairs and stools and thought she just might weep. Her pride was the only thing keeping her from falling to her knees. Rhys didn’t move from her side. She knew he would merely wait patiently by her side until she regained her will—and from that she drew strength.
But before she could muster up any more energy or courage, a whirlwind of skirts and dark hair descended into the great hall and ran across the rushes. Anne braced herself for the embrace she knew would likely knock her rather indelicately onto her backside.
“By the saints, finally,” were the words that accompanied the clasp and kiss. “Anne, I vow I feared your sire would never let you from Fenwyck!”
Anne held on to her foster sister and sighed in relief. “To be sure, ’twas nothing short of a miracle that I am here,” she agreed.
Amanda of Artane pulled back and rolled her eyes passionately. “What dotards did he have lined up for you to select from?” she demanded. “None worthy of you, I would imagine.”
“And that sort of imagination,” Geoffrey said from where he appeared suddenly behind Amanda, “was, and no doubt continues to be, your mother’s undoing. You might be well to curb the impulse in yourself.”
As Amanda turned to face him, Anne suppressed the urge to duck behind her, lest the inevitable argument come to include her. Amanda was painfully frank and had no sense of her own peril. Anne was torn between telling her to be silent, and urging her on. Perhaps Amanda could convince Geoffrey that Anne was of no mind to wed as yet—especially to any man of his choosing.
“My lord Fenwyck,” Amanda said, inclining her head, “’tis a pleasure to see you, as always.”
“You’ve your mother’s beauty,” Geoffrey grumbled. “Unfortunately, you’ve her loose tongue as well.”
“Gifts, the both of them,” Amanda conceded. “Now, about these suitors . . .”
“I have chosen several fine men—”
“Likely twice her age—”
“You know nothing of it,” Geoffrey returned sharply. “And you, mistress, are well past the age when any sensible man would have taken you and tamed you.”
“As if any could—”
Anne waited for blows to ensue, but she was spared the sight by Rhys stepping between his daughter and Anne’s father.
“Enough,” he said sternly. “Amanda, see Anne to the fire. Fenwyck, come with me. You’ve had a long journey and I’ve warm drink in my solar. You can take your ease there.”
“He could better take his ease at Fenwyck,” Amanda muttered.
Anne bit her lip to stifle her smile as she watched Rhys lead her father off, but she couldn’t stop her a small laugh when Amanda turned and scowled at her.
“Oh, Amanda,” she said with a gasp, “one day you will truly say too much and find yourself in deep waters indeed.”
Amanda flicked away her words as she would have an annoying fly. “Did you but know all the things I think but do not say, you would find me to be restrained indeed. Now, come and sit by the fire. You’ll tell me all your sorry tales and I’ll weep with you. Then Mother will come, we’ll tell them to her again and she’ll speak to your sire. You know she can convince him he’s a fool.”
Anne suspected that such a thing was even beyond the lady Gwennelyn’s powers, but a maid could still hope. At the moment, though, she sorely needed warmth and to sit, so she leaned on her companion, hobbled over to the fire and sat with deep gratitude on something that didn’t move.
As Amanda had ordered, Anne’s tale was first told for her ears alone, then others joined to hear the horrors she had endured. The murmurs of displeasure, the cries of outrage and the threats directed at her father were sweet to her ears and she found herself smiling for the first time in weeks.
She was with those dearest to her and, for the moment, she was free from undesirable suitors. The morrow would see to itself. After all, she had been released from her father’s hall and that was something she had been certain would only happen should she find herself leaving it thanks to an unwanted husband. Yet there she was, sitting comfortably by the fire in the company of those souls dearest to her heart.
It was as sweet as she’d known it would be.
• • •
The evening passed most uneventfully, with the family having moved to gather about the fire in Rhys’s solar as was oft their custom. Anne went with them and counted that a privilege indeed. Though others fostered at Artane, Anne found herself the only one of those so drawn into Artane’s intimate family circle. That was just another of the reasons Baldwin of Sedgwick loathed her, of that she was certain. He was Rhys’s kin, yet he remained without the solar door. Baldwin was, however, not the soul that took it the hardest. His sister, Edith, also had come to live at Artane and Anne suspected that such denial into the lord’s confidences and pleasures ate at her the most deeply.
But for now Anne need worry neither about Baldwin nor his sister, nor anyone else for that matter. She was home, for the moment, and that was enough. She sat in a chair next to Amanda and looked about her in pleasure.
Her foster parents sat close together, hands clasped, seemingly as content as they had been the first time Anne had seen them together. Their happiness was plain to the eye, as was their pride in their children. And why not? Between those they had laid claim to through adoption and those of their own flesh, they had a brood to be envied.
Anne looked at their eldest girl child, Amanda, and felt her customary flash of envy. But by now, it was a gentle sort of yearning that somehow she herself might have been born with the beauty Amanda possessed. And it wasn’t only Amanda’s beauty that Anne couldn’t help but wish for herself; Amanda had a fire and spirit that Anne knew few women could hope to call their own. But long years of watching her foster sister had shown Anne that such spirit did not come without a price—namely Amanda’s rather vigorous disagreements with Rhys about how her life should progress. It was not an easy path Amanda trod, but Anne loved her just the same and was grateful for her friendship.
Miles was next to Amanda not only in terms of age, but where he sat. He looked very much like his sire, which meant he was powerfully handsome indeed. Where they differed, though, was that where Rhys was generally cheery in his outlook, Miles was brooding. Anne, however, found Miles very much to her liking for though his moods might have been gloomy, his wit was fine. She was happy he was home now that he’d won his spurs. She suspected he wouldn’t remain long, but she would enjoy him while she could.
Miles’s younger sister, Isabelle, was Amanda’s likeness in visage, but not in temperament. She was very sweet and as tractable as could be expected from having passed all her time in Amanda’s company.
The youngest children were twins, male-children. Fortunately for the rest of Rhys and Gwen’s children they had come last, else Anne suspected none of the other children would have been conceived. Their mischief was nothing short of breathtaking and she suspected that they had given Rhys most of the gray in his hair.
But even with the children there, the scene before her was incomplete. Missing were Artane’s two eldest sons, but that was nothing unusual. Robin and Nicholas had squired at another keep, then come home briefly after earning their spurs at the tender age of ten-and-nine. Then had come the decision to join the crusade. Nicholas had never truly wished to, but Robin had convinced him ’twas their duty. The time spent had been fruitless as they had arrived just in time to find the defeated knights returning home. Robin’s exact reasons for having wished to go were still a mystery. All Anne knew was that she hadn’t seen Artane’s heir in over five years.
Though that could change at any time. Anne knew Rhys had sent for his son three months earlier. The saints only knew what was keeping him away. Anne had heard the servants speculating that afternoon about the like; the reasons bandied about were everything from him being prisoner in some angry father’s dungeon—for having despoiled his daughter, no less—to his having traveled to the Holy Land to collect himself a harem. Anne cared for none of the speculation, so she had quickly retreated from the kitchens.
All she knew was she probably wouldn’t have one last sight of Robin before her father sold her to some man likely twice her age who cared nothing for her.
Anne shifted as her leg began to pain her. At least here no one gaped at her as she did the like. At Fenwyck, sharp eyes marked her slight limp, men stared at her, as if they couldn’t believe her ugliness was so apparent, her father’s wife and her daughter treated her as if she were helpless, far too helpless to do anything but sit in the solar and sew. Coming to Artane was a relief, even though it meant coming back to the site of former disgraces and back to stones that whispered childish taunts as she passed. She could ignore those well enough, especially if she managed to avoid Baldwin of Sedgwick. What was more difficult was not being able to go anywhere inside the walls without knowing that Robin had been there before her. His ghost haunted her, awake or dreaming.
She wanted it to stop.
Or did she?
At present, she wasn’t sure what would be worse. But what she did know was that even if she were forced to spend the rest of her days with memories of Robin tormenting her, it would be a more tolerable fate than to find herself packed off with her trunks to some unknown lord.
But that would come later. For now it was enough to be home and to listen to the familiar sounds of the family with whom she had grown to womanhood. Far better to think on what was happening around her than to speculate on what might be happening in France. The saints only knew what mischief Robin was combining at present. It likely entailed some woman or another and the sounds that would result from that were ones Anne had no desire to hear.
She opened her eyes to find her father staring at her. He pursed his lips and shook his head meaningfully. Anne had no trouble understanding the unspoken message.
Do not accustom yourself to this, my girl.
Anne felt Amanda’s hand on her arm. Her foster sister leaned over and whispered in her ear.
“I vow we’ll see him thwarted before a fortnight is out.”
Anne nodded, grateful for the distraction. She knew that not even Amanda could manage such a feat, but at least thinking on it allowed her to turn her thoughts away from Robin.
But she hoped in whatever bed he found himself at present, he loitered with several handfuls of happy, persistent bedbugs who would cause him to cry out with anything but pleasure.
Robin of Artane was not a man to take the enjoyment of his pleasure lightly.
So as he wallowed in the aftermath of a well-earned bit of the same, he savored it as fiercely as he had the first time he’d felt the like. He closed his eyes and relished the sweat pouring down his face, his limbs trembling, and his heart beating so hard in his chest, he thought it might burst free. The mighty sense of victory won, of challenge vanquished, of his considerable skill used to its fullest; truly, could there be anything more satisfying? Could he have but fallen asleep at that moment, he might have found a decent rest for a change.
A pity he found himself but standing in the middle of the lists with three layers of mud and dung on his boots, and not abed with a handsome wench.
Unfortunately, such a sorry state seemed to be the extent of his good fortune of late.
But Robin wasn’t a man to shun what fortune came his way, so he kept his eyes closed and enjoyed the smell of sweat, leather and dung. Things could have been much worse.
The savoring, though, never lasted as long as he might have liked, for there was always another conquest to be made and his pride would not let him rest idle. He dragged his sleeve across his eyes to wipe away the sweat, then looked at the cluster of men standing near him. At least he had a clutch of them where they couldn’t scamper off across the fields. Such, he supposed, was the happy part of loitering at his brother’s keep in France. The less-than-pleasing ingredient in that stew was that since Nicholas found himself comfortably ensconced in one of his own halls, he was reluctant to leave it to seek out the pleasures of warring. Robin had given that his best efforts cajoling, bullying and brandishing his sword—but to no avail. Nicholas had his feet up before the fire inside, several handsome wenches attending his every need and a soft chair beneath his backside. Robin suspected he might have more success prying an entire complement of nunnery inhabitants from their clothes than managing to separate his brother from his comforts.
Damn him anyway.
Robin knew he could have made his own way at any time, but Nicholas was, after all, his family and there was something to be said for having family about.
Even if it came at the price of a good battle or two.
He scowled. There was no sense in complaining, for it would serve him not at all. He turned his mind back to the matter at hand and hoped it might be enough to soothe his foul mood.
“Another,” he said hoarsely. Perhaps he had spent too much of the afternoon shouting at the fools in his brother’s garrison. His own men had been exhausted much earlier in the day. As a result, there were few men left to stand against him. It did not bode well for a successful evening. “Sir Guy, come face me and let us see if you are as womanly as your fallen comrade.”
Sir Guy drew his sword and came at Robin with a curse. His skill was great, but Robin kept him at bay easily. Years of fighting, either for his king or for himself, had honed his instincts until he likely could have fought with his eyes closed and his mind numb from drink. He countered each of Guy’s strokes without thinking, watching his opponent closely, waiting for the first show of weakness or hesitancy. He waited longer with Guy than he had with Guy’s predecessor, but the moment came eventually and Robin took full advantage of it, knocking Guy’s sword from his hand and putting the point of his own sword over Guy’s heart.
“Peace,” Guy said heavily.
Robin stepped back. “Another.”
And so it went until there was no one left for Robin to fight. He looked about him and swore in frustration. It looked as if he might be finished for the day. But at least he had aught to hope for on the morrow. Despite his chafing at his confinement, he did enjoy the luxury of constant training more than the uncertain sport of war. Battles were never as consistent as he would have liked. There was too much time spent traveling from place to place, waiting for the sieges to flush the quarry out, listening to his men celebrate afterwards and not having the stomach to celebrate with them.
Robin resheathed his sword and turned his thoughts toward supper. Perhaps a quick meal would give at least one or two garrison knights time to recover. He might have a bit more sport yet before he sought his bed—alone, as seemed to be his lot.
It was truly a pathetic state of affairs.
He strode back to his brother’s hall. He realized he’d flattened his squire only when he stepped on him by mistake.
“Mindless babe,” Robin said, hauling the lad of ten-and-six to his feet. “Watch where you’re going.”
“Aye, my lord.” His young cousin, Jason of Ayre, backed up a pace and bowed hastily. “Forgive me, my lord. Lord Nicholas waits within with a message from Artane. I believe ’tis from your mother and the tidings are evil—”
“Evil?” Robin echoed. He pushed Jason out of the way, unwilling to wait for his squire to divulge more. He ran to the hall, leaving Jason to follow or not, as he would. His heart tightened within his chest painfully. The saints only knew what sort of disaster had befallen his family. He never should have stayed away so long. There was no good reason for him to have remained in France.
Actually, there were two good reasons for the like, but those were things he never thought on if he could avoid it.
Robin slammed the hall door behind him and looked for his brother. Nicholas stood near the fire with a piece of parchment in his hands. Robin strode over to his fair-haired sibling and took the letter away.
“I wasn’t finished,” Nicholas protested.
“You are now,” Robin muttered.
He read the epistle only far enough to learn that Montgomery was grievously ill before Nicholas snatched it back from his hands. Robin didn’t fight his brother. Whatever else was to be read there was likely concerning the family and those were tidings Robin had no stomach for at present.
It was guilt, he knew, that pricked at him so fiercely so as to keep him from reading about home. After all, it would have behooved him to have made the occasional appearance at Artane so that the villagers might recognize him if something were to happen to his sire. Even worse was that his father had been sending for him repeatedly over the past few months. He should have gone back before now.
But return he hadn’t and that left him with little heart for tales of home. He preferred to let Nicholas pass on what news he deemed important.
He had heard, through Nicholas’s reading of their mother’s previous letters, that Montgomery had been wounded. Robin had assumed the men would recover, but apparently he’d been mistaken. Though his parents would likely survive the loss well enough on their own, perhaps it was time he returned home for a small visit. He would pass a bit of time with his father and see how his family’s keep had withstood the wear of the past few years. He could also see to his own holdings. Aye, there were several things he could do whilst he tarried for a few days in England. Perhaps the sooner he went, the sooner he could leave.
“We should go,” Robin said with a sigh. “And likely within the fortnight.”
Nicholas didn’t look up from his reading.
“Oh, make haste with the bloody thing, would you?” Robin demanded.
Nicholas ignored him.
Robin clasped his hands behind his back and stood with his backside to the fire. At least he might be warm for a moment or two whilst he contemplated the many mysteries of life and how he seemed to be caught up in a goodly portion of them.
There was, for instance, the mystery of his brother. Robin looked at his sibling and scowled. How sweet it must be to have so little weighing upon one’s mind. Robin watched as his brother stretched his legs out and sprawled in his chair, looking as if he hadn’t a care in the world. And just what cares could he possibly have? He wasn’t the eldest son.
Nor did Nicholas’s parentage seem to trouble him. If he fretted over the fact that his father was heaven-knew-who and his mother a servant girl, he never showed it. And why should he? He was the beloved adopted second son of one of the most powerful lords in England. He had his own keep in France and other holdings in England that had made him a very rich man indeed. Women panted after him by the score and Nicholas somehow managed to avoid leaving any bastards behind him. Robin couldn’t understand it and couldn’t help but be irritated by it.
Robin’s worries were so many, he couldn’t bring them all to mind in a single sitting. Even though he had been adopted by Rhys de Piaget just as Nicholas had been, he was heir to Artane and all that came with it. It was no secret that his sire was actually the late baron of Ayre. After Ayre’s death, Robin’s mother had married the captain of her guard, Rhys of Artane. For Robin there had been no question whether or not he would accept Rhys as his sire. From the time he could remember, he had wanted to belong to Rhys de Piaget in truth. Even so, with that claiming had come heavy responsibilities, responsibilities Robin hadn’t shunned.
He was constantly being watched by his men, other nobles, whatever royalty happened to be about—all waiting for his first misstep, his first sign of weakness, his first failure in the lists. It had always been that way and would likely continue to be that way far into the future. Not only did his own honor rest upon his performance, his father’s honor rested there too.
It was a burden Nicholas felt not at all. If Nicholas didn’t show well in a tournament, which rarely happened, he shrugged it off and contented himself with a handsome wench. Robin could never be so casual about it. Every confrontation, every encounter meant the difference between success and shame. He couldn’t fail. He wouldn’t fail. He would die before he was laughed at again.
“Now,” Nicholas drawled, “this is interesting.”
“What?” Robin asked, wondering just what his emptyheaded sibling might find to be noteworthy.
“Mother sent word to Fenwyck.”
Robin frowned. “Fenwyck? Why? It isn’t as if Fenwyck had any love for Montgomery.”
“I doubt it was Fenwyck himself she was giving the tidings to.”
“Who else there could possibly care?” In truth, Robin as well couldn’t have possibly cared, but Nicholas seemed determined to pursue this course to its end.
“Why,” Nicholas said, looking up at Robin and blinking, “Anne, of course.”
“Anne? What about Anne?”
Nicholas continued to blink owlishly, as if he just couldn’t muster up the wits to speak with any intelligence at all. “I’m sure Mother sent word to Anne at Fenwyck.”
Robin felt his belly begin to clench of its own accord. Hunger, obviously. He should have eaten something before he began to listen to his brother’s foolishness.
Anne at Fenwyck? She must have returned for her yearly fortnight. Odd, though, that she would have left if Montgomery had been failing. She was fond of the old man.
“Didn’t I tell you?”
“Didn’t you tell me what?” Robin asked. Odder still that his mother would have had to send word that Montgomery was failing. Anne would have been returning shortly just the same.
“Anne’s been at Fenwyck since before spring.”
Robin looked at Nicholas. It was all he could do to manage to smother his look of surprise. “Spring?”
“Didn’t I tell you?”
It was an enormous effort to keep breathing as if the tidings were fair to putting him to sleep.
“Spring?” he repeated, cursing himself weakly for being able to say nothing else.
Nicholas nodded, then turned back to his letter. “Her father is seeking a husband for her. He’s likely been showing her about like a mare at market, knowing him. Mother says that even if Anne is released to bid Montgomery a final adieu, she likely won’t be allowed to stay long. Fenwyck fair forced her from Artane with a sword at her back before—”
Spring? Then Anne had been captive at Fenwyck for nigh onto half a year. ’twas nothing short of a miracle that she hadn’t been wed already.
And then another thought came at him with the force of a broadside.
Anne had been at Fenwyck for half a year and Nicholas had said nothing.
Robin tore the parchment from his brother’s hands, flung it aside, then hauled the dolt up and shook him.
“When did you plan to tell me?” he shouted.
“Tell you what?” Nicholas asked calmly.
“I thought she was at home, you fool!”
“I suppose,” Nicholas said slowly, “that I didn’t think it mattered to you.”
Robin suppressed the urge to slap himself. By the saints, what was he doing? The last thing he needed was to provide his lackwit brother with fodder for his romantic notions! He forced himself to unclench the fistfuls of his brother’s tunic he’d grasped, then took great care to smooth the fabric back into something resembling the flat business it had been before it had been assaulted. Robin stepped back and took a deep breath.
“It doesn’t,” he said. “It doesn’t matter at all.”
“Doesn’t it?” Nicholas asked.
“It doesn’t matter to me where she is,” Robin continued. “It merely angers me that you haven’t told me all that Mother put in her letters.”
There, that sounded more reasonable.
“Well,” Nicholas said with a slight smile, “I suppose there is aught else I have neglected to tell you.”
Robin braced himself for the worst. “Aye?”
“I haven’t been as detailed as Mother has been in her demands to have us come home.”
“No doubt,” Robin muttered.
“She’s threatened to come to France herself and prod you from the lists with her blade.”
Robin shuddered at the thought. His mother could heft a blade, ’twas true, and at times she managed to get it pointing in the right direction, but inevitably she came close to dismembering anyone she so hoisted a blade against. But Robin knew his mother very well, and knew her threats were not idle. Perhaps ’twas time he returned home, lest he force her hand.
Indeed, there was no sense in not making every effort to return to England as quickly as possible and see how things progressed at Artane. Aye, no sense in not doing that as quickly as possible. Who knew what sorts of adventures he might stop his mother from having? His sire would surely thank him for it. ’twas yet another reason to leave with all haste.
Nicholas started to sit back down, but Robin snagged him by the tunic before he managed it.
“Pack your gear. We’ll leave immediately.”
“Why the hurry?”
“Mother will have need of us.”
The corner of Nicholas’s mouth began to twitch. “Thinking to rescue Anne from her unsavoury suitors, brother?”
“Father will likely have need of us as well,” Robin continued, ignoring his brother’s grin. “And I don’t like to dawdle whilst I travel.”
“We’ll likely return home too late to see her, you know,” Nicholas said. “Unless we make great haste. And look you what great haste you seem determined to make.”
Robin would have thrown his brother to the rushes and stomped that bloody smirk from his face, but that would have only added fuel to Nicholas’s pitiful blaze. “Hurry,” Robin commanded, then he strode across the great hall, ignoring what he was certain was naught but more witless babbling.
Robin took hold of his squire on his way through the doorway.
“Bid the men ready themselves. We leave within the hour.”
“Aye, my lord,” Jason said, nodding with wide eyes. “As you will.”
Robin went back to the lists. Jason would see to their gear and Robin suspected he might be better served to stay out of the way. He began to run. He liked the way his body burned as he loped along the outer bailey wall. The blood thundering in his ears pleased him as well, as it almost succeeded in drowning out all his troubling thoughts. The saints only knew he would have little luck finding any wench to aid him in the task; his temper seemed to drive them all into Nicholas’s arms.
He ran until he couldn’t catch his breath. Then he stopped and stood hunched over with his hands on his thighs, and sucked in great gulps of air. He didn’t want to go home, but he knew he had to. His mother would have need of him, his father too. Montgomery had been dear to them both. He hadn’t managed to get himself home to see anyone else buried in the past five years; perhaps it was time he made the effort now.
Besides, the sooner he arrived, the sooner he would be of service to them both. A ship could be convinced to deposit him and his brother as far north as possible. That would save them the time of trying to ride north from Dover. Aye, that was sensible enough. If he decided to stay longer in England, his gear could be sent for.
But he suspected he would only stay a fortnight or two, long enough to assure himself all was well, then hie himself off to court. Perhaps he would be exceptionally fortunate and avoid having to clap eyes on Baldwin of Sedgwick, who was no doubt still strutting about Artane with the same arrogance that had irritated Robin when Robin had been but a lad of ten-and-four. Aye, Baldwin would likely be wearing the same smile Robin had seen him wear when he’d reached out and broken two of Nicholas’s fingers. Robin could remember the smile surprisingly well, given the fact that he’d seen it through the mud dripping down his face and into his eyes.
He consciously unclenched his fists, trying to ignore the fact that he’d tightened them in the first place. He could hardly help himself. He didn’t think on that afternoon when he could help it, but at times it caught him unawares.
Unfortunately, his feud with Baldwin of Sedgwick had lasted much longer than a single afternoon, and he suspected that was why it pricked at him so. Baldwin had arrived at his father’s gates almost at the very moment those gates had been finished. Baldwin’s uncle had sent him along to foster, though at the time Robin couldn’t understand why he’d bothered, as Baldwin had been nigh onto winning his spurs. But come he had, and he’d been as unhappy to arrive as Robin had been to see him at the gates.
There had been instant animosity between the two of them and in his more logical moments, Robin had realized that Baldwin hated him for his birthright. Robin would be, after all, Baldwin’s liege-lord in time. Rhys had no use for Sedgwick, or its inhabitants, so their cousins had little need to worry about losing their beds at the moment. Robin had never seen the place, but he’d heard tales enough of its wretched condition to have wished to avoid it as well.
But even had he possessed the glibness to say as much, he suspected Baldwin wouldn’t have heard it. The miserable brute had taken every opportunity to goad and annoy Robin until Robin had been relieved to escape his home and go off to squire with another lord. He’d gone off, glad to be free of torment and determined to acquire skill with the sword that would leave Baldwin stumbling in surprise the next time they met.
Robin straightened and sighed deeply. He’d trained himself well, he’d become a man and now perhaps ’twas time he put his childish memories to rest. Baldwin would not best him. He could avenge himself easily of any slight. Perhaps he would go home, walk the paths of his youth, and do his damndest not to think on memories that still afflicted him. He could avoid Baldwin easily enough.
And perhaps he could also avoid that other soul that continually haunted the edges of his thoughts.
He didn’t want to think on her. He didn’t want to see her in his mind’s eye. And he surely didn’t want his pulse to quicken at the thought of being in the same keep with her.
By the saints, he’d never expected that her father would snatch her away so unexpectedly.
Though why it should have come as a surprise, he didn’t know. She was ten-and-nine, surely old enough to have been wed a time or two already. He should have done something about that, but he hadn’t. He couldn’t have—for more reasons than he cared to admit.
He began to run again, forcing his legs to pump hard against the dirt. He shoved away his thoughts, praying the exercise would tire him enough to escape them until the business of travel could consume him. Home he would have to go, but the less he thought about it ahead of time, the easier it would be for him.
Or so he hoped.
Anne made her way carefully down Artane’s passageway, doing her best to avoid her father. She hadn’t seen him about that morning and for that she was grateful. Perhaps he would become distracted by other issues, forget about her and leave. Perhaps Rhys would persuade him that he would do better to spend his energies training his stepdaughter’s husband in how to look after Fenwyck’s holdings than seeking an already-trained lord for Anne to wed. Perhaps a handsome nobleman would stumble through Artane’s gates, look on her and profess undying love.
Perhaps she would grow a new leg and enough beauty to hold such a man.
She sighed and paused before Rhys’s solar. With any luck Artane’s lord was within and hoping for a bit of conversation. There wasn’t a queue of souls waiting without to see him, so perhaps she might have her desire. There was much she could discuss with him. ’twas possible he might have knowledge of a place in which she could hide herself until her sire forgot he had a daughter for sale.
But she hadn’t put her hand up to knock before Rhys’s angry words cut through the wood as if it hadn’t been there.
“Why?” Rhys demanded. “Why do you persist in this, Geoffrey?”
“Persist in what?” Geoffrey answered. “Finally finding a husband for her?”
“Aye,” Rhys said. “Her future is here!”
“With whom?” Geoffrey asked shortly. “Robin?”
“Then where is he?” Geoffrey demanded. “Where was he when she was twelve and of a marriageable age? Where has he been the past seven years when he could have made her his bride? Where is he today?”
“He is off—”
“Aye, off,” Geoffrey snarled. “Off doing the saints only know what whilst my daughter grows older by the hour.”
“She belongs here,” Rhys insisted.
“As what? Dowager aunt to Robin’s score of children sired on anyone but her? I will not give her to a second son, Rhys, nor a third or fourth. The heir she will have, and ’tis obvious yours is uninterested!”
“If you would but give the matter more time—”
“She must marry, Rhys, and the duty falls to me to find someone who will have her.”
“Many would take her, and gladly,” Rhys said angrily. “If you could just see past—”
“See past what? A crippled girl with little beauty and a youth that fades with each passing day—”
Geoffrey’s words were abruptly silenced. Anne suspected Rhys had just planted his fist in her father’s mouth, for there was a bit of garbled noise, then a great amount of cursing from both parties. Furnishings made great sounds of protest as they were apparently trodden asunder. Anne knew that such unruly behavior would bring along the lady of the house, and Anne could not bear to see Gwen at present.
She turned and fled back down the passageway as quickly as she could manage. What she wanted to do was walk along the seashore until her hurt receded. Unfortunately such a journey was far beyond her capabilities after the rigors of travel, so she settled for the battlements. The climb there would be taxing enough.
No guard stopped her as she slowly mounted the steps, nor did anyone deny her access to the walls. She crept along the parapet, clinging to the stone. Her balance was less than perfect on the ground; being that far above the earth was greatly unnerving. But it was much less unnerving than being below and listening to others discuss her, so she suffered the unease.
She stopped at a likely spot and turned her face toward the sea. The wind blew her hair back over her shoulders and whipped itself against her cheeks. It was only then that she realized her face was wet. She hadn’t meant to weep. Indeed, there was little to weep over. She knew her father hadn’t meant to be cruel. She suspected that his concern for her warred with his desire to see his holdings pass to a suitable son-in-law. But it was never pleasant to have her flaws noted and considered so openly.
What hurt the most was knowing that he likely spoke the truth about Robin. She knew he did not love her, despite what his father might have wanted him to do. Fool that she was, she couldn’t help but wish things were different. Perhaps if she had been beautiful. Perhaps if she had two straight, serviceable legs. Perhaps if she had looked more like Amanda than she did herself. The only thing she could say in her favor was that she didn’t possess the gap in her front teeth that her father sported. But that was small comfort when faced with the truth of things.
Robin could have wed her years ago if he’d wanted to.
But he hadn’t.
And that left her with a path before her that grew more intolerable by the footstep.
She drew her sleeve across her eyes and stared out over the water. The wind blew fiercely, but the chill was a welcome one, for it brought some semblance of calmness to her soul. Perhaps her sire had no choice but to look beyond Artane. ’twas a certainty he had to find someone to manage his holdings. The man to whom his wife’s daughter was wed could not manage his gear, much less any lands. She was the only hope of holding Fenwyck and perhaps her sire was only doing what he must.
Ah, but the foolish dreams of her heart. It was the letting go of those that pained her the most. Anne stared out over the sea, watching it wash in against the shore ceaselessly. She wondered if her heart’s desire watched the same thing and what the thoughts were that consumed him. Was it possible he spared her even a brief thought now and then?
Nay, she decided grimly, it was not. His thoughts were of war, bloodshed and bedding as many women as possible. She’d heard more tales than she could stomach of the swaths he cut through not only England but Normandy and the whole of France. He likely spared her no thought unless it was one of relief that he must needs not endure her presence.
“The dreams of my heart,” she whispered, “are too foolish even for me—”
That shout almost sent her toppling. The curses that followed left her with no doubt that her father had found her.
“What do you here?” Geoffrey demanded. “And talking to yourself as if you were mad? Bloody hell, girl, think! Would you have that gossip preceding you to every hall in the north?”
“Come below,” Geoffrey said curtly, but his hand on her arm was gentle. “We’ve aught to discuss.”
Anne waited until she’d reached the upper passageway before she put the only ruse into play she could.
“I feel faint,” she lied. “Might I hie myself to Amanda and Isabelle’s bedchamber for a time, Father? I will join you once I’ve recovered.”
Her father looked momentarily confused, as if she had upset his finely laid plans. Anne took advantage of it and put her hand to her forehead, hoping to affect a look of true suffering.
“Very well,” Geoffrey said reluctantly. “We’ll talk later.” He walked her down the passageway, then deposited her in front of the bedchamber. “Come to me when you’ve recovered.”
And that will require at least a fortnight, Anne thought to herself as she sought refuge behind a closed door. She put her ear to the wood and listened to her father’s footsteps recede. Once she knew she was safely sequestered, at least for the moment, she rested her forehead against the door and sighed deeply.
Perhaps it was time she had a good look at her plight and resigned herself to the truth of it. The desires of her heart made little difference when she could no longer deny that Robin wasn’t going to thunder up on his black steed and rescue her from a clutch of greedy suitors. Her choices seemed to be either to wed where her father willed it, or find a way to remain at Artane as something other than a daughter-in-law.
She pushed away from the door with a deep sigh and hobbled over to the bed. She sat, then lay back and stared up at the canopy. She would have to wed. There was no other choice. Her father’s lands were too many and her dowry too rich a prize for her to escape her fate. The only thing she might possibly control was the timing of her journey to her matrimonial prison. Her father had had her at his mercy for nigh onto half a year with no success in finding her a mate, for she had done her best to discourage the lot of them. Perhaps she could barter with her sire for a remaining half year at Artane if in turn she gave him her most cooperative self when she returned to Fenwyck.
She suspected her sire could care less about her willingness to behave, or lack thereof.
But it was worth a try. And until she thought of a way to persuade him to her way of thinking, she would avoid him.
And she would pray for a miracle.
• • •
It was well past sunset before she forced herself to leave the chamber. She shunned supper and company below, and made her way to the lady of Artane’s solar. She had passed innumerable hours there and the memories were warm and pleasant ones. Surely a new idea or two would occur to her there. Her sire likely wouldn’t look for her there either and that added reward was too powerful a lure to resist. And with any luck, she would find that chamber empty as well. Unfortunately, Gwen had a number of ladies and foster daughters who lingered there, so the chances of it were slim.
Gwen’s ladies Anne could have borne, as well any number of other maids, but she had to admit as she made her way upstairs that she would be less than pleased to see Edith of Sedgwick. It wasn’t that Edith was particularly unpleasant. It was that Anne felt sure Edith envied her her place in Artane’s family. As Anne wasn’t certain how much longer she would enjoy that place, she couldn’t bear the thought of having it frowned upon.
The passageway and stairwell were dark as Anne passed through them, but that was not so unusual. The keep was a drafty place at times with the winds from the sea assaulting the walls continually. Torches often went out. Anne made her way down the passageway from memory and stopped before the solar door. She frowned. It was usually kept closed yet it stood ajar.
And then she heard a faint jingling sound.
The hair on the back of her neck stood up and she stifled the urge to bolt. She quickly entered the solar. It was empty, but somehow that didn’t please her as much as she’d thought it would. Then again, perhaps quiet was just what she needed. She turned to shut the door.
Then she paused, her hand on the latch. Best to leave it open, perhaps, while she brought the fire back to life. Then she would make certain the chamber and passageway were empty.
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She was home. No harm would come to her. She walked to the hearth where embers still burned weakly. Kneeling on the floor, she leaned over and blew, trying to bring the fire back to life. She sat back after a moment or two, looking about for a bit of wood or peat to toss on the flicker of fire she’d coaxed out.
The door slammed shut. Anne heaved herself to her feet, then spun around, wishing frantically she had a sword and the skill to use it. What had she been thinking to come here alone?
“Who’s there?” she called, cursing the tremble in her voice.
No one answered. She let out her breath slowly. As if she should have expected an answer.
Then reason returned to her. The torches had been out, hadn’t they? ’twas naught but the breeze. Doors closing with vigor was a common thing in the keep.
She brushed her hands on her dress. Coming here had been a mistake. What she needed was to be abed, not wandering about the keep like a restless spirit. She took her courage in hand and crossed the chamber with as sedate a pace as she could manage. She left the solar and started down the passageway.
And she could have sworn she heard the same tinkling sound.
Perhaps ’twas nothing, but her imagination more than made up for it. She gasped, pulled up her skirts and limped for the stairway as quickly as she could. Voices coming up from below were like a light beckoning at the end of a tunnel. Anne stumbled down the stairs, wincing each time she had to put her weight on her leg. How she hated autumn with its chill!
She tripped over the last step and would have gone sprawling had strong arms not been there to catch her fall. Rhys set her back on her feet, then frowned as he saw her face.
“Anne,” he said, “what ails you, daughter?”
“Nothing,” she said weakly. “I think I’m overtired.”
Rhys hesitated, then nodded and bent to kiss her forehead. “Off with you then, girl. A good night’s sleep will serve you well.”
She nodded and limped down the corridor to the chamber she had always shared with Amanda and Isabelle. She closed the door behind her, leaned back against it and sighed. What she wanted to do was lay abed for the next fortnight. Unfortunately, she knew that would only make matters worse. As unappealing a task as it seemed, she would have to rise each day. If she didn’t, her leg would tighten and take her days to have it be useful again. She walked across the chamber and sat down carefully on the bed.
And all her troubles had come about because she, at the tender age of nine, had been dared to ride an unbroken stallion and she’d done it, just to silence Baldwin who had called her uncomely. The memory of being flung down in the lists was still very fresh in her mind. She could still see the horse stumbling and stepping on her leg, shattering the bone in her thigh. Ah, the agony of not being able to faint . . .
The door opening startled her. Anne turned around to look at Amanda. “Aye?”
“Merciful saints, what befell you?”
“Nothing,” Anne said. “I’m merely weary.”
Amanda came and sat next to her. “’Twas a hard day for you, Anne. Come, let me put you to bed.”
Anne didn’t protest. She allowed Amanda to help her into bed and tuck the blankets up to her chin as if she’d been a small child.
“I’m glad you’re home,” Amanda said with feeling. “These have been the longest months of my life.”
Anne smiled dryly. “I’m sure they haven’t been. The race for your hand is on, Amanda. Even the men my father has brought to inspect me can do nothing but babble about your beauty.”
“Then they are fools,” Amanda said. “They view me as naught but a necessary evil they must endure simply to have my dowry. Guy of York was here a month ago and I vow I thought him ready to check my teeth and ask Father how much feed I would require each day.”
Anne laughed. “He did not.”
“Aye, he did. I called him a horse’s arse and bid him look for a mare in some other stable. They tell me they do not care about the lands and gold, but I can see them counting in their heads even as they cut my meat for me at the board. I’ll not be considered a mere bargaining piece.”
“At least you have the luxury of thinking thusly,” Anne said with a sigh. “I daresay even the vastness of my father’s holdings doesn’t compensate for my ugliness—”
“Cease,” Amanda exclaimed. “Anne, the last time you peeped into a polished mirror was when you were but ten-and-three. That was six years ago, sister. No one is fetching at ten-and-three.”
“Oh, Amanda, you know that isn’t true. You were as beautiful then as you are now. And look at Isabelle. The garrison knights can hardly breathe when she walks by them.”
Amanda looked at her helplessly. “Anne . . .”
Anne blinked back tears of humiliation. “I beg you not to speak of this more.”
“Foolishness,” Amanda said, but her tone was gentle. “Anne, I grew up envying your pale hair and green eyes, thinking you the most lovely creature I ever saw. Time has only increased your fairness. Your features are nothing short of angelic, your humor is ever sweet and your goodness shines from you like a beacon. And if you’ll know the reason men have not offered for you in the past, I’ll tell you. Father has ever demanded the right of choosing your husband and your sire has always refused to grant it to him. Still they argue over this—”
“I am ten-and-nine,” Anne exclaimed. “Old enough to be wed years already!”
Amanda leaned over and kissed Anne’s cheek. “Sleep, sister, and think no more on it. Father had new stone laid in the garden this summer and ’tis smooth and fine. We’ll walk there tomorrow.”
Anne nodded as Amanda rose. Perhaps she had it aright and it was best not to think more on such matters. What sense was there in it? She had learned much at Gwen’s hand and had at least a few bits of knowledge and skill to offer a husband. She still had not mastered her temper, but perhaps she would be lucky enough to find a man who would not provoke her and would not expect a woman who was beautiful.
It was unfortunate that the only man she had ever wanted did not fit that description at all.
She sighed and rolled over, tired of chewing on her troubling thoughts. Movement didn’t help. Amanda and Isabelle making ready for bed didn’t distract her either. There was something nagging at her and she could not seem to discover it nor ignore it.
When it came to her, her heart pounded in her chest so loudly and so rapidly, she was sure Amanda would wake up and bid her be silent. All hope of sleep fled. She was lucky to be alive. Bloody lucky. She was not so big a fool that she did not realize that a door would only slam shut when wind from an open window forced it shut.
There had been no open window in the solar that evening.
Edith of Sedgwick stood in the northeast tower chamber at Artane and watched deepening twilight through the arrow loop. It took little time for the darkness to envelope the sky over the sea, so she waited patiently until the gloom had descended truly. Waiting was never a burden for her, for patience, she had to admit modestly to herself, was her second greatest virtue. Indeed, could anyone doubt it, should they but examine her circumstances? Hadn’t patience been what had won her a place at all at Rhys de Piaget’s hall? She’d planted the seed in her father’s mind that she really should be going north with her brother. It had taken years until the seed had borne fruit, but she had enjoyed the fruits of her waiting.
Of course, she hadn’t been welcomed with particularly open arms, for she was, after all, of Sedgwick and there was no love lost between Artane and her kin. But even that would change, of that she was certain. Weren’t her present straits a perfect example of the lengths she was willing to go to in order to have her desire? Instead of the comfort of Artane’s solar, she conducted her business in a drafty guard tower.
But did a body but know the truth, he would have to agree that while patience was something she possessed in abundance, her greatest virtue was her ability to plan an intrigue. Unfortunately, her plots of late stood to be ruined by the silly child standing before her. Edith looked at her and struggled to smother her annoyance. She was greatly tempted to slap the girl—and several times at that. Her fear, however, was that by so doing, she might dislodge whatever wits remained the wench. And Maude of Canfield had few enough as it was. Edith took a deep breath to regain her composure.