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The Last Champion
By Deborah Hale
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNorfolk, England, 1143
Armand Flambard is alive.
The realization quivered along Dominie's veins as she caught sight of Breckland Abbey, its cloister walls standing tall and austere between a swath of orderly tilled fields and a tangle of wild green forest.
Armand, alive? Was it possible? Dominie De Montford had asked herself that question a hundred times since setting out three days ago on the risky, roundabout journey from Harwood. Or had Father Clement seen some sort of bizarre vision while accompanying her mother on a pilgrimage to Breckland's holy well? Dominie could not afford to be absent so long from her family estates, chasing a will-o'-the-wisp of futile hope.
And yet ...
If it were true, if she did find Armand Flambard here at Breckland, it could mean the difference between survival and starvation next winter for her family and vassals. Those people were her responsibility now, but they had once been his. Before he'd forsaken them ... and her.
A rustling sound in the tall grass behind her drove those bitter memories from Dominie's mind, sending her diving for cover into a small copse of hazel and beech trees. Her pulse pounded so fast and loud in her ears, she half feared the holy brothers of Breckland might hear it while at their prayers.
When a small grouse took to the air from out of the heath, Dominie exhaled a shaky breath. After three days traveling through the English countryside in stealth, she found her senses tuned to a quivering pitch. So was her appetite.
A faint breeze from the direction of the abbey tormented her with the aroma of roasting meat. Dominie's mouth watered and her stomach let out a piteous growl. Dropping to her haunches, she rummaged in the cloth pouch attached to her belt and pulled out a hard heel of bread. As she gnawed at it, she tried not to think about the hungry winter everyone at Harwood and Wakeland would face if they failed to keep the wolf from their door.
Eudo St. Maur. Former Earl of Anglia. Wolf of the Fens.
Please let Armand be here! Dominie begged, though she knew better than to hope God would heed her desperate plea. Perhaps, as some impious folk claimed, he and all his angels were asleep. If they had been awake and heedful, surely they would not allow such wickedness and strife to stalk the land.
Just then, a bell pealed from the tower of the abbey chapel, summoning the monks of Breckland from prayer to work. Not long after, the cloister gate swung open to let out a party of brothers and lay brothers in rusty black habits. Each one carried a hoe, spade or other farming tool.
Though her hunger was barely dulled, Dominie dropped the remainder of the bread back into her scrip. Step by stealthy step, she made her way through the stand of trees, drawing closer to the abbey work party. Her gaze ranged over each man in turn, fastening at last on the tallest.
He had the firm, spare build she remembered of Armand Flambard, and the brisk, purposeful stride. His head was not shaved in a monk's tonsure, which must mean he had not taken his final vows ... yet.
Perhaps God had stirred in his sleep and heard Dominie's desperate prayer, after all.
Without a word, the men dispersed among the various fields and garden patches to begin their hours of labor. The tall one moved steadily in Dominie's direction, as if drawn by her intense scrutiny. Or possibly nudged by some unusually obliging higher power.
When he reached the edge of the garden, the lay brother hefted a billhook and began to tend the hedge fence, cutting new saplings and bending them down to weave among the others. He was still far enough away, with his head bent over his work, that Dominie could not be certain his was the face she remembered.
Get on with it! she chided herself. One way or the other, she must waste no time finding out. Yet something made her hang back. Fear, perhaps, that this last hope might be snuffed out, like so many others.
Gathering her courage, Dominie stepped from the shelter of the trees and walked toward the fence. Intent on his task, the lay brother paid her no heed, until nothing separated them but the narrow barrier of felled brush.
"Armand Flambard?" Her words erupted in a hoarse croak, for she had not spoken aloud in the three days of her journey, and her last drink had been some hours ago.
The man's head snapped up, and the stroke of his billhook fell awry, contradicting his gruff answer. "You'll find no man here by that name, lad."
Lad? For an instant the word bewildered Dominie as much as Armand Flambard's denial of his identity. For when he'd looked up and spoken, her heart had given a giddy lurch of recognition.
To be sure, he had changed a little in his appearance since she'd seen him last. His face was more deeply tanned than it had once been, and any suggestion of boyish roundness had been hewn away by the years, leaving a profile of rugged, masculine beauty.
His shoulders were as broad as ever, his limbs lean and hard as iron. His hands looked larger and more powerful than Dominie remembered them. Yet his fingers moved with a deft, virile grace that had once caressed haunting music from a lute ... and soulful sighs from a certain maiden.
Thrusting that bedeviling image from her mind, Dominie took stock of her appearance. No wonder Armand had called her lad!
She pulled the Phrygian cap from her head, letting a thick, tightly braided plait of dark auburn hair fall down over her shoulder. "Look at me again, and see if that does not jog your memory ... brother."
In their younger years, she had sometimes called him that. Only in jest, of course. Though he'd been fostered at Wakeland, with the De Montfords, she had never felt the least bit sisterly toward Armand Flambard. Nor did she now.
When he glanced her way again, Dominie forced herself to smile, the better to help him recognize her. Though she could neither forget nor forgive what he'd done in the past, her people needed his help now. Whatever she must do to gain it, she would.
"Dominie?" The billhook slipped from his slack fingers, falling to the ground with a soft thud. "How did you find me? Why have you come here?"
So he did recognize her. Dominie tried in vain to subdue the foolish rush of pleasure that surged through her.
"Father Clement came to the abbey on a pilgrimage not long ago. He thought he recognized you, so I came to see if it was true. We'd heard you were dead, Armand." Dominie could not keep a sharp edge of rebuke from her voice. "Killed at Lincoln, like my father and Denys."
Excerpted from The Last Champion by Deborah Hale Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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