Read an Excerpt
A Lost Touch of Bliss
By Amy Tolnitch Medallion Press, Inc.
Copyright © 2005
All right reserved.
Chapter One Wareham Castle, Cumberland, 1196
"Please come to Falcon's Craig," the note read. "I am in need of your unique services. I own Villa Delphino on the Italian coast. It is yours if you will aid me." Amice de Monceaux read the Earl of Hawksdown's boldly scrawled letter for the second time and crushed the vellum in her fist.
Then she started shaking. How could Cain ask this of her? Tempt her with the one thing he knew she had always dreamt of ever since her brother told her stories of the sun-drenched land. And why did he own the villa? That was her dream.
Her stomach churned with memories, too many, too clear even now. After five years, she could still feel Cain's arms around her. And could still hear his calm voice saying, "I am betrothed," before he walked away.
The door to her chamber opened slowly. "Amice, dear? Are you in here?"
"Aye, Mother." Amice stuffed the vellum under her mattress and crossed the rush-covered floor to take her mother's arm.
Lady Eleanora pulled free and paced across the chamber, her pale fingers fluttering like butterflies in a meadow. "I cannot find Beornwynne's Kiss. Your father, the whoreson, must have hidden it again."
Amice took a deep breath, no longer startled by her mother's language. And, truth be told, she accurately described her late father. "Mother, the necklace is right here." She opened a trunk and lifted out a carved box, placing it in her mother's hands. " 'Tis safe, as always."
Her mother sat on the stone ledge in front of the window slit and opened the box. She gathered up the heavy gold and amethyst necklace in her gnarled fingers.
Amice laid a hand on her mother's shoulder and felt bones, as if she held a tiny bird beneath her palm. "Would you like to go sit in the garden, Mother?"
Her mother's brow furrowed, and she tilted her head to stare at Amice. "Where is Isolda? I told her to get my blue gown ready for the feast tonight."
"Mother, Isolda died last year." Amice kept her voice even, though she wanted to scream at the loss of the vibrant person who had been her mother and friend.
Blinking quickly, her mother looked around the chamber, as if she expected Isolda to pop out from behind the bed at any moment. "Aye, of course." She gave a small laugh. "I was confused for a moment. Poor Isolda. How I miss her."
Amice squeezed her mother's shoulder and took a deep breath. "Come with me outside. 'Tis a beautiful day."
"What were we talking about?"
"Of course. I ... forgot." Her mother dropped the necklace, grabbed Amice's hands and squeezed tight. Too tight. Amice felt her mother's frail body tremble.
"Mother," she began.
Her mother's gaze clouded. "Beornwynne's Kiss will protect me, see me safe across the river when I die."
"And you have it."
When her mother looked up at her, her gaze was far away. "Is this it?" she asked, her lips trembling.
Amice stared down at the top of her mother's head, the strands of silver hair mixed with white, and her heart splintered. "Mother, all is well."
Her mother patted Amice on the hand and rose. She wobbled and caught herself for a moment with her hand on the seat, waving Amice away with the other. "I believe I shall go down to the kitchen and see if Cook has prepared any meat pies."
"'Tis a good idea." Amice watched her mother's departure with a heavy heart, the knowledge that she was dying an aching lump in her belly.
The only reason Amice remained at Wareham was to care for her mother. And by Michaelmas, her brother, the Earl of Wareham, would be wed to a woman who made it clear Wareham would have only one mistress.
Soon, she would have no place.
She closed her eyes and envisioned soft sand, a sparkling blue sea, and golden sunlight. Yes, there she could find peace. Take what Cain offers, her inner voice urged. Take it and flee to warmth and beauty.
How simple it sounded, but in her heart she knew it would take every scrap of strength and pride she possessed. Five years ago Cain Veuxfort had nearly destroyed her. Had taken her heart into the palm of his hand and then crushed it in his uncaring fist.
Her mouth curved in a wry smile. Now, it appeared he had a troublesome ghost who would not leave him alone. He needed her, the Spirit Goddess. She would be a fool not to take everything she could gain from Cain Veuxfort. Aye, he would give her what he offered and more.
And she would be free.
* * *
Cain strode into his solar, wiping sweat from his forehead. He unbuckled his sword belt and poured a cup of ale, which he downed in one long swallow.
"Any survivors, my lord?" his seneschal, Nyle, asked.
"Geoffrey is improving, but he still swings like a maid." He sat and leaned his sword against the wall. "How are the figures, Nyle?"
Nyle rubbed his eyes and looked at the columns of numbers running down the parchment. "Good."
"Well done. What do you think of-"
The door to his solar suddenly crashed open. "There you are!" His Uncle Gifford blew in, closely followed by Cain's brother, Piers. Gifford carried a jug with him and spared not a glance for Nyle.
Gifford and Piers came to an abrupt halt in front of Cain. His uncle gazed at him with twinkling eyes. "Is the ..." his voice dropped, "Spirit Goddess coming?"
Cain gave him a stern look. "I am attending to important matters here. And that ... title is supposed to be secret."
Piers waved a hand in dismissal. "You are always attending to important matters."
Gifford took a swig from the jug, plopped it down on an empty space on the table, and sat on the remaining stool. "Well, answer my question. Is she coming?"
"Aye. Lady Amice shall arrive soon."
"Ha! Wonderful news. Go on now, Nyle. We need to speak to the lord about something truly weighty."
"Some might judge keeping a roof over our heads and food on the table of concern," Cain suggested.
"Pah. Time enough for that later. Now, we want to know about our guest."
Giving up, he nodded to Nyle. "Go. When these two release me, I shall send for you."
Nyle's lips twitched. "Good luck, my lord."
He exited quickly, and Piers grabbed his vacated stool. His brother drummed his fingers on his thigh and gazed at Cain expectantly. "When will she be here?"
"I do not know exactly."
Gifford rubbed his hands together. "We shall put her in the rose chamber. It has a lovely view of the ocean and, of course, the garden. We want her to feel welcome."
"Gifford, the only reason she is coming is to get rid of that damned ghost," Cain reminded them. God knew, he reminded himself of that fact twenty times a day.
Piers elbowed Gifford, who reluctantly handed over the jug. "Wonder what the girl looks like."
"Visited Wareham once," Gifford commented. "Cannot say I remember the girl. Her father, though." He shook his head. "A brute of a man."
Cain's own memory surfaced and he nodded. "Aye, that he was." His uncle peered around the solar and lowered his voice to a near whisper. "Got to be a sad case, what with not marrying and engaging in this ghost business." He blinked at Cain and snatched back the jug.
"Amice de Monceaux is the most comely woman I have ever seen." At the flash of suspicion in Piers's eyes, Cain realized his slip.
Piers leaned forward and there was a brief tussle between his uncle and him for the jug. "Give it to me, you old sot."
"I brought the jug. Get your own."
Cain watched them go back and forth and shook his head, wondering how his life had gotten so out of control. All the scene needed now to make it complete was an appearance from the ghost of Falcon's Craig. "Enough," he barked.
The two looked back at him like guilty boys caught stealing custard tarts from the kitchen. "Sorry, Cain," Piers said with a sheepish grin.
Gifford coughed. "So, how well do you know the wench?"
For a moment, Cain could not answer. It was a simple question, but impossible to answer. Did he know her? He had thought so once, but he was not sure he ever truly had. And knowing was far too mild a term to describe his tangled feelings for Amice. "She is a lady, not a wench. And when I fostered at Chasteney, Amice was there as well."
Piers took a pull from the jug and glanced sideways at Gifford. "Uncle, I sense a tale here. What do you think?"
Gifford settled back and crossed his thin legs. "My boy, I believe you may be correct." He stared at Cain. "Well?"
Cain was beginning to feel besieged. "As I said, Amice was at Chasteney the same time I was."
"And? Did you bed her?"
He fought a flush. His uncle was never one to hold his tongue. Had he bedded her? Oh, aye, though rarely in a bed. Five years had not dimmed his memory one bit. Or his guilt. Heat puddled in his stomach and raced down to his groin. He shifted on his chair and gave Gifford a stern look. "I am not answering that question."
"What does she look like?" Piers asked with a gleam in his eyes.
"You shall not try to add Amice to your collection of women." Piers was the kind of man women fought over. His boyish good looks and lighthearted view toward life drew women in like the tide to shore.
Cain just looked at him.
"Ah, so that is the way of it. Brown, blonde, or red?"
Making a vain attempt to smooth down his white hair, Gifford noted, "I prefer red on a woman, myself."
"Brown, blonde, or red what?" Cain asked.
Gifford slapped a hand on the table. "Hair, of course."
Cain rolled his eyes. "Dark brown hair."
His brother leaned forward. "And? What else?"
For a moment, he let himself remember. "Big dark eyes. Tall, slender, with the longest legs I have ever seen on a woman."
Piers stared for a moment, then said, "Damn. Are you sure I-?"
Gifford started cackling and reached for the jug. "You just answered my question."
Well, hell. Cain shrugged.
Piers made a pass at the jug, but Gifford clutched it tight. Turning back to Cain, he asked, "What happened?"
He drew a mantle over his expression. "You know what happened. Mother saw fit to tell me I had been betrothed to Luce. Honor demanded I marry her." He silenced Piers's protest with a raised hand. "It was my duty as the earl. To keep both of you in home and," he paused, "ample drink."
Gifford gave another snort and passed the jug to Piers. "Luce. Naught but a twisted bit of fluff. Why Ismena liked her is beyond me. God rest both their souls, of course."
"Mother liked Cain's wife because she could deliver Styrling Castle," Piers reminded him. "And enough coin to pay the King's amercement."
"Not right," Gifford muttered.
Cain rubbed the back of his neck. He refused to think of his late wife, let alone discuss her. "None of it matters now. Luce is dead. As is whatever Amice and I might have shared." How he managed to utter the last with such certainty he could not fathom.
Piers's gaze narrowed. "Some things have a habit of lingering."
"Like that demented wraith who keeps mucking up my experiments," Gifford groused.
"Which is why Amice is coming here. She shall rid us of the ghost for good."
Gifford popped up and started toward the door. "I shall make sure Hawis gets the chamber ready."
"I have already spoken to her, Uncle."
Half turning, his uncle said, "I had better make sure." Opening the door, he muttered to himself between swigs from his jug.
Piers gazed at Cain and lifted a brow. "I have always wondered why you bought Villa Delphino."
Cain gritted his teeth. "I like Italy."
"Hmm. But you have only visited once."
"I am busy." He kept his gaze blank. It would only encourage Piers to learn the truth, that the villa only reminded him of what could have been. He had seen Amice everywhere at Villa Delphino, imagined her in every room. It took only once to convince him he should never have bought the place, never tried to keep a memory alive.
"You have been alone too long, Brother."
"I like being alone."
"A man alone shall forfeit the sweetness of life."
Cain scowled. "More of your nonsense."
"You have an obligation."
Heirs, he meant. "Why don't you legitimize one of yours?"
Piers shook his head. "I am too careful to sire bastards. And you are the earl."
Cain stood and placed his hands atop the old, scarred table. "I married once. 'Twas a farce."
"Not all women are as corrupt as Luce. Perhaps, this Amice-"
"Nay!" He shook his head, mentally crushing an unruly surge of hope at the thought. "Nay, Piers. Put it from your mind."
"Very well." His brother's expression said the topic was far from forgotten. "I shall be in the stable. Pleasance is nearly ready to foal."
"Good." Cain watched his brother depart, and he dropped back into his chair, burying his face in his hands.
What had possessed him to send for Amice de Monceaux?
Just as he gave in to the thought, his inkpot went sailing into the air, landing with a wet plop on top of Nyle's carefully written accounts. As he watched the black ink drip across the parchment, he knew he had no choice.
Amice would rid him of the ghost. He would happily give up Villa Delphino and return to his life. Naught more. He was the Earl of Hawksdown now, not a young man swept away by beautiful eyes, a sweet mouth, and the body of a goddess. I am strong, he reminded himself.
"I am in control," he said aloud.
The inkpot rose from the parchment and did a little twirl in the air.
Cain grabbed up his sword and strode out of the solar.
* * *
The next morning, Amice and her companion, Laila, were mounted in the bailey bidding farewell to Amice's brother, Rand, when a shout rang out.
"Who is it?" Rand called up to one of the guards.
A bellow rolled in from outside the castle, and Amice cringed. She knew that voice. Lugh MacKeir of Tunvegen, Highland laird and frequent visitor to Wareham.
Rand started laughing at the expression on her face.
"Rand, please. I must go."
Her brother looked up at the guard and ordered, "Raise the portcullis. 'Tis a friend."
With a heavy, grinding sound, the iron portcullis slowly lifted, and a huge, roan destrier pounded into the bailey, blowing air from its nostrils. The MacKeir easily balanced atop the beast, clad in his green and black plaid and an impressive collection of blades. Behind him rode a troop of his Highlanders, all nearly as massively built and armed as if they approached the greatest battle of their lives.
The MacKeir came to a halt and gave her a graceful bow. "Lady Amice, you are even lovelier than last I saw you."
"Thank you, my lord." She smiled in what she hoped conveyed a cool distance.
He gestured with an arm like a tree trunk. "Is she not the most beautiful woman you have ever seen, men?"
Caught between the temptation to blush or laugh, she watched as ten battle-hardened Highlanders all bobbed heads in unison, chorusing, "Aye." One of the men shouted out, "Make a fine bride for you," and she wanted to press her heels to her horse and flee.
"I have decided 'tis time, my treasure." The MacKeir glanced down at Rand and nodded an acknowledgment.
"Time for what?" And why in the world was he calling her his treasure? She frowned down at her brother, but Rand just stood there grinning.
"Why, to claim my bride, of course." The MacKeir's smile broadened, and he inched his mount closer to hers. He seized one of her hands in a meaty grip. "Your wait is over. The MacKeir has come for you at last."
She stared at him in astonishment. He clearly expected her gratitude. True, she was well past marriageable age, but still. "What ... what are you talking about?"
Before he could answer, Rand loudly cleared his throat. "Chief MacKeir, I do not recall having an agreement for Amice."
"Details, my friend. I shall agree to whatever you require for the privilege of possessing this rare jewel."
She tried to pull her hand free but it was like trying to escape a lion's paw. "Rand?"
"Chief MacKeir, Lugh, please come into the hall and share a cup. You must be thirsty from your travel."
With a last squeeze, The MacKeir released her hand and leapt from his horse.
Excerpted from A Lost Touch of Bliss by Amy Tolnitch Copyright © 2005 by Amy Tolnitch. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.