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Lord of Seduction
By Paula Quinn
WARNER FOREVERCopyright © 2006 Paula Quinn
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTWELVE YEARS LATER ...
HE ARRIVED AT WINCHESTER CASTLE with the beginning of a storm. Tanon should have known when he entered the great castle doors that he had come to Winchester to change someone's life. When his men entered behind him, a gust of wind blew into the long corridor, swirling his long silken mane around his face. Garbed in a sleeveless doeskin tunic embroidered with a border of indigo, he looked like some fierce Celtic hero who had just stepped out of a bard's tale. Golden armbands wreathed the sleek sinew in his arms, and a matching golden torc ringed his neck. Something feral sparked his eyes, making them gleam like polished sapphires.
He swept those breathtaking eyes over Tanon as she descended the long staircase. His gaze softened and touched her like a curious caress. Then his lips slanted upward into a slow, decadently sensual smile.
Tanon stumbled on the last two stairs. He moved instantly to catch her, his broad, sure fingers closing around her waist.
"I have you."
His voice was deep, smoky velvet with an edge of steel. He captured her brief, mortified glance with his and held it just long enough to set her heart pounding.
"You're most kind," Tanon offered. She swept a nonexistent wrinkle out of her burgundy gown and hurried away.
She stopped at the entrance of Winchester Castle's great hall and pushed the stranger from her mind. Ladies did not gushlike mewling kittens over men-especially men who were clearly pagan. She drew out a quick breath and forged a pleasant smile before stepping inside.
It wasn't that she didn't like being here. King William's lavish castle was as familiar as her own dear home at Avarloch. But her father's high place at the king's table demanded courtly etiquette. She smiled at stuffy nobles and was polite to lords and ladies, even those she wasn't fond of. She would never bring shame to her family or give William cause for disappointment by behaving oddly. She was no longer a child.
She looked around, letting her gaze absorb the vast expanse of tapestry-lined walls gilded in firelight. Laughter permeated the air as knights lifted their goblets in salute to one another. Ladies giggled coyly or scolded children running around the tables like buzzing flies. A troubadour sat beside one of the great hearths singing a forlorn love song while calculating the tinkle of coin as it was deposited into the wide-brimmed hat at his feet.
Tanon swept a lone midnight curl off her shoulders before straightening them. She would need all the fortitude she possessed to face this night. Among the guests who had traveled to Winchester for the summer tourney was Lord Roger deCourtenay, Earl of Blackburn, the man she was promised to wed.
The union was not made through any choice of her own, of course. She was a noble's daughter, and if that wasn't enough to ensure her a proper marriage to a noble of no lesser title, then being treasured by the king of England was.
Roger was no longer the hellion who bullied her when she was six. He'd been sent to Normandy shortly after the summer he made her fall out of a tree. It was whispered that his time spent under the tutelage of the king's son Robert was punishment for his treatment of her, but Tanon had never told William of it, so she doubted the whispers were true.
He'd returned a changed man, or so the court believed. His time in Normandy had fashioned him into a man of great skill and had earned him the respect of the other nobles. But Tanon still didn't like him. She would marry him if she must, but she resented having to endure endless hours of her handmaidens tugging on her unruly curls, just to pin them up, and being fitted into layers of her finest wool to look pleasing for a man who preferred the more voluptuous, more scantily clad ladies of the court. She didn't care if Roger never looked at her, but she hated enduring such tedium for naught.
Still, she was more fortunate than most earls' daughters, who were doomed to marry men three times their age, or worse-Prince Cedric of Wales. She had tried not to look too relieved when her father informed her that Cedric had been exiled from his land after making an attempt on his uncle's life and their betrothal was canceled. She remembered from her childhood the quiet warning in Cedric's eyes. She hadn't known it then, but the Welsh held little affection for the Normans who kept them out of England.
She never saw her brave champion Gareth again after that summer in Winchester, but she had thought of him often, every winter, anticipating each coming spring. Then, as the years wore on and he never returned, she put away her childish daydreams. When she had heard that Gareth was killed in the northern regions of Wales last year, she said a prayer for his soul.
Tanon spotted her mother sitting with her uncle Dante at the far end of the hall. Lady Brynna Risande inclined her head, moving her ear closer to Dante's lips to hear him over the cheers coming from the table beside them. Standing a few feet away, Tanon's father, Lord Brand the Passionate, lifted two of his fingers to his lips and then held them aloft to her mother. As if he couldn't bear to be away from her for more than a few moments, he went to her. After exchanging a quiet word with his brother, Brand tossed his arm around his wife and drew her into his close embrace.
Tanon watched her parents, her heart clenching at the love that exuded from every glance they shared, every touch, every smile. Her mother never had to sit through hours of combing and dressing for Tanon's father to lose his breath at the sight of her. Here was what she had hoped for as a child, what she'd always envisioned for herself when she took a husband: love, friendship, passion, tenderness. She let go of that hope when she learned of her betrothal to Roger. She could survive a loveless marriage. Her gaze drifted to her nursemaid, Rebecca, sitting at her father's table. It was far better than one of the alternatives.
She looked to the dais where King William sat. Tanon smiled at the king. Oh, how she loved him, almost as much as she loved her father. She knew William had only her best interests in mind when he'd promised her to Roger. Lord Blackburn's family was wealthy, with lands in England and Normandy. Her king wanted to secure her comfort and safety. She couldn't fault him for that.
Poor William. He looked weary, but that was to be expected, what with the Danes always threatening invasion, not to mention the unrest with the border Welsh. She'd been taught a little about the politics of Wales, as it had been believed she would live there.
After years of raids by the Welsh along the borders separating England and Wales, William had appointed some of his noble vassals to guard the marches, or borderlands, giving his marcher lords free rein to subdue the savages in any way they saw fit. Some of these lords had pushed their armies farther into Wales, occupying much of the east and some of the south, and causing the people to revolt. Among Wales's warriors many rebels arose, but one in particular, called Wyfyrn, had caused considerable distress to the marcher lords over the years. Wyfyrn had slaughtered four of the Norman overlords and their entire garrisons.
Tanon shivered at the thought of such bloodthirsty barbarians and thanked the saints that her king had kept peace in England. Dear William, he'd even made amends with Hereward the Wake. The king needed another friend at his side. He spent much of his time in Normandy without her father, who often was away on the king's business or managing his own lands.
Tanon found her betrothed laughing with Lady Eleanor Fitzdrummond, a beauty whose mammoth breasts matched her enormous ego. Tanon didn't like her, and she didn't care for any man who did.
"A friend of yours?" A voice spoke behind her.
Tanon sighed without turning. "My betrothed."
Tanon finally turned to him, insult lifting her brow. "Pardon?"
A beguiling smirk quirked one corner of his mouth. "Him. Not you."
"Oh." Her thoughts scattered, taking Roger with them. Saints, it was the man who'd nearly caused her to break her neck on the stairs. Unfortunately, his effect on her hadn't changed. Her breath halted as she stared up into his captivating eyes. His smirk deepened into a smile so warm and familiar, it tempted her to smile back.
His face was bare save for a slight tuft of deep gold just beneath a full, sulky lower lip. A darker shadow along his jaw implied a hint of arrogance. His long hair fell like liquid over his shoulders and reflected the flickering light of the hearth fire. He exuded confidence and virility in waves. Tanon felt as if she were looking at a different species. This one was mesmerizing and wild like a magnificent, untameable horse. Scottish, she guessed, fighting back the heat threatening to color her cheeks. He'd probably arrived with one of the many clans to compete in the tourney. He hadn't said enough for her to place his lyrical accent, but she didn't need to hear it to know that he was foreign.
"Are you here to compete?" She knew she should excuse herself and hurry toward her father, but the spark of intelligence in his eyes piqued her curiosity.
"Aye." He glanced at her betrothed and then slid his gaze back to her. "I imagine I am. I was unaware of your betrothal, Lady Risande."
"No one is aware of it," Tanon told him, glancing toward Roger again. "My marriage was arranged to Lord deCourtenay just a few months ago. It is to be announced this night."
"Lord deCourtenay?" the stranger asked. He cut his gaze to William and dipped his brow.
"Is something the matter?" Tanon asked.
"Nay." He tilted his head back to her. "You care for him, then?"
Tanon would have laughed if there was an ounce of happiness in her. She shook her head. "Non," she answered honestly.
The stranger seemed to find some relief in that. His gaze on her softened.
Tanon angled her head at him. She felt as if she had seen him somewhere before, but she couldn't place him. "You have the advantage, my lord." She offered him a candid look. "You know who I am."
"Aye." The way his eyes searched her felt familiar, but when he lifted his finger to the crease in her cheek, she drew back from his touch, her heart pounding madly. Non, it couldn't be him. She felt a pang of disappointment. Gareth was dead.
"You were described to me in great detail by a mutual acquaintance a number of years ago. He said your eyes rival the verdant moors of Cymru." While the stranger spoke, he took Tanon's hand and lifted it to his mouth. "And that your nose crinkles when you laugh." He turned her hand over and pressed his lips to the inside of her wrist. His gaze brushed her face from beneath thick, dark lashes.
"Allow me to escort you to your father." His fingers caressed hers as he fit her hand into the crook of his arm.
Unable to breathe, Tanon took a moment to blink and slow her thudding heart. She had mastered keeping her emotions in check, especially here in the king's court. But her skin felt flush, her mouth dry.
Her betrothed was sitting a few feet away. It would be unseemly for another man to escort her on his arm to her father. She began to move her hand away from him.
"Thank you for your kind offer, my lord. But-"
"Come," he offered quietly, stilling her with his probing gaze and warm fingers atop hers. "Your father's table is but a few feet away. Grant me a moment to speak to you."
Although he looked feral, Tanon couldn't deny his courtly manners. She nodded, giving in with the first genuine smile she had offered anyone since arriving at Winchester. Another curl came loose from the maze of pins poking her head and fell over her brow. She blew it away. "Are you going to tell me your name?" she asked, oblivious to the amusement that made his eyes grow warm, while she frowned at the springy coil that defiantly found its way back over her eye. "Or shall I call you 'stranger' for the rest of the evening?"
"If you promise to spend the rest of the evening with me, then aye, I shall tell you my name."
She liked his boldness and the self-assurance that slowed his steps to a leisurely pace. He was in no rush to end their encounter, and despite her better judgment, neither was she. "I'm afraid I'm not permitted to bargain, my lord."
"Pity, then." He suddenly frowned, looking even more striking than before. "I shall have to concede." He turned to look behind him and nodded to one of the men who had entered the castle with his small entourage. The burly-looking brute slammed the end of a pole into the rushes and yanked on a small strip of leather. A banner unfurled, revealing the ruby image of a four-legged dragon.
Tanon's father and uncle were among the first to spring from their seats.
"What is the meaning of this?" King William bellowed over the sound of benches being pushed away from tables as the rest of his men, including Roger, stood up, ready for a fight.
Tanon looked up at the banner. Her eyes opened wide, recognizing the ruby dragon. Wales! When she met the stranger's rueful glance, she stumbled backward. Dear God, what were Welshmen doing in Winchester? She felt fingers shackle her wrist. Her father pulled her farther away and moved in front of her.
From her vantage point behind her father, Tanon lowered her gaze to the daggers protruding from the cuffs of the Welshman's boots, the thick belt around his slim waist. He stood arrow straight. His tightly honed legs were encased in tan leather trousers. The snug fit revealed more of his considerable male attributes than Tanon cared to think about. His trim body coiled taut with leashed energy. He looked as fierce as his countrymen were reported to be.
The man carrying the banner stepped forward and cleared his throat. "His Highness, Lord Gareth of Deheubarth, Prince Regent of Ystrad Towi."
Tanon's heart lurched. Gareth? She took an involuntary step forward as an old longing to reunite with her friend returned to her. Non, this couldn't be the little boy who had gallantly rescued her from Roger so many years ago. And Gareth died while fighting in northern Wales. She groped for her father's hand to steady her.
"Your Majesty." The prince turned to face the king. "Forgive my uncle for not sending word of my arrival."
"Gareth?" the king ventured as if he could not believe his own eyes. "I was told you were killed over a year ago." The king fell back into his seat. "This is quite a shock."
"Aye, it was for my uncle as well when he finally saw me," Gareth said, his voice calm despite the hundreds of well-trained knights standing ready to kill him if he made one move toward the king. "One of my men betrayed me in battle, and I was imprisoned in Prince Dafydd's holding in the north for near a dozen months." A grin crept over his lips. "I have his daughter to thank for my life."
Tanon stared at him. Could this be the same soft-cheeked boy who had become her best friend that summer so long ago? Oui, it was him. His silky hair had darkened a shade or two with the years, and his face was no longer soft but carved to rugged perfection. But his eyes were still as vividly blue as she remembered. Why hadn't he told her who he was earlier? Her eyes slid to the small group of men who had entered the castle with him and who now stood at the doors of the hall. All were armed, and each one looked more deadly than the next.
"How did you and your men cross the marches?" William cast Gareth a pointed look. Like Offa's Dyke, built centuries before to keep the warring Celts from entering England, so were the marches guarded by overlords.
"With careful planning, my lord." When William raised an eyebrow, Gareth said what the king wanted to hear. "Without bloodshed on either side."
Excerpted from Lord of Seduction by Paula Quinn Copyright © 2006 by Paula Quinn. Excerpted by permission.
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