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A Lost Touch of Innocence
By Amy Tolnitch
Medallion Press, Inc. Copyright © 2007 Amy Tolnitch
All right reserved.
Chapter One "Wicked girl," the Abbess of Kerwick hissed. "How dare you befoul the walls of God's house with your unclean presence?"
"I did nothing wrong," Giselle insisted, her voice catching. She stood facing the Abbess in the courtyard of Kerwick Abbey, a gray drizzle of rain dampening her threadbare woolen bliaut, adding to her deepening misery. Though she knew it was likely useless, she turned to the Bishop of Ravenswood, her gaze pleading. "I had naught to do with Sister Anne choking. Please believe me."
The Bishop's gaze was empty of warmth, as it ever had been when he deigned to look at her. "It was inevitable that your dam's tainted blood would reveal itself."
Giselle reared back, her hand pressed to her throat. "But-"
"Silence," the Abbess snarled, before she slapped Giselle's cheek. "Your place is not to question."
Giselle instinctively moved her hand to cradle her burning cheek, though she scarcely felt the pain. Behind the Abbess and the Bishop, a group of nuns stood watching. As Giselle looked from one to another, each dropped her gaze. Sister Alice, who had patiently taught her about herbs and healing. Sister Elena, from whom she'd learned so much about embroidering the beautiful tapestries that helped keep the abbey going. Her chest ached when Sister Cecilia refused to look her in the eye. Sister Cecilia, one she'd called friend, one with whom she'd sometimes lowered the guard on her thoughts and emotions the Abbess had studiously whipped into her. Disgust and shame choked her. They were like a line of brainless, timid sheep, hovering over one who'd been judged unworthy of the herd.
She searched the crowd for Sister Gertrude, but the older nun was not there. No doubt the Abbess had sent her on some task, making sure Giselle had no defender, she thought with a rare burst of defiance.
The Bishop's eyes bored into hers with hard contempt. "Gather your things."
Giselle sucked in a breath. She was to leave? Simply to be thrown out? Fear coursed through her.
"Quickly," he barked.
"But, where shall I go?" Her voice wavered but she held his gaze, finding somewhere deep inside the strength to do so, and not bow her head in submission as she'd been taught. "Please, no. I belong here."
"I have tried to see to your welfare, guide you to a life of grace, but you failed me. Failed all of us." His condemnation rose in volume, his booming voice sounding as if he spoke with the Lord's own conviction and approval. "You have hidden a vile, unholy nature."
He glared at her with such naked hatred that Giselle took a step back. "You are no longer my problem." He waved a hand and Giselle found her arm snagged roughly in a strange man's grasp. "Take her to collect her belongings," the Bishop ordered. Another man came up beside her and the Bishop handed him a sealed packet.
"No," Giselle cried and tried to pull free. She ended up sprawled in the muck, peering up at the Bishop through the strengthening rain. "Please."
"Begone," he said in a cold, flat voice. "Your presence offends all of us."
"Wait," Giselle cried as a man yanked her up and dragged her away. "Where are you sending me?"
No one answered, but she caught the briefest glance of cruel satisfaction on the Bishop's face.
Within less time than it took her to say the Pater Noster, Giselle found herself clinging to the mane of a skinny old palfrey as they rode away from the gates of Kerwick Abbey, her small bundle of possessions tied behind her.
Kerwick Abbey. Her home for thirteen years, nearly all she remembered.
She looked back at the high gray walls, the ivy-covered gates, the old stone chapel, and wanted to weep. The peace and rhythm of each day, the sense of belonging to a place, a group of women apart from the world was all she knew.
A lone figure moved into the courtyard, barely visible through the rain, and Giselle's heart wept.
Sister Gertrude, who had been more a mother to Giselle than the birth mother she could scarcely remember.
Tears blurred Giselle's vision.
The only life she had ever known was gone, the only love she could recall swallowed by growing distance and teardrops from the sky. All of it, gone.
And she had no idea what awaited her on the outside.
* * *
Piers Veuxfort, indulged younger brother of the Earl of Hawksdown, stroked a hand up Clarise's soft belly. She gave a purr of pleasure. He grinned and continued his lazy exploration of her body. By the saints, the woman's appetite for bed sport nearly exceeded his own. Twice they'd joined, and from the sounds and scent of her, Clarise was ready again.
"Piers," she said over a moan. "Do not tease me so." Even as she spoke the words, she jumped at the stroke of his fingers.
"Ah, Clarise, you know I would never tease you without making sure your desires were satisfied." He positioned himself between her pale thighs.
"Piers!" a voice shouted, just before a fist crashed against the door.
"Go away," he called back, and slid Clarise up onto his own thighs.
Her eyes widened.
More banging ensued. "Piers, let the girl be!" his Uncle Gifford hollered.
Piers groaned and dropped his head. Damn Gifford for knowing him so well. "I am busy," he yelled over laughter. "Where is Saraid?"
"Welcoming your visitors," Gifford responded.
Reluctantly, Piers put Clarise aside and got up from the bed. "You'd best get dressed," he told her. "Gifford is not likely to go away."
Clarise laughed and swung her legs to the floor. "Nay." She quickly drew on her plain chemise and bliaut, and braided her hair in one long plait before opening the door.
Gifford stood there with a wide grin. "Good day to you, Clarise. My, do you not have the glow of health about you this day."
Piers coughed and shot Gifford a chiding look, which his uncle naturally ignored.
"Thank you, my lord," Clarise said, and sauntered past him.
"I believe Adela is seeking your aid in the kitchen," Gifford told her.
"Aye, I expect she is." Clarise continued down the corridor.
Piers let out a breath and pulled on clothing. Clarise would no doubt get a swat for her absence, but he knew she didn't care. Just as he knew he was not the only one to lure Clarise from her duties. "Who are these visitors? Is it about that stallion I inquired after?"
Gifford shrugged. "Not sure. Saraid sent me off to find you."
Piers ran his fingers through his hair and led Gifford down the curved steps toward the great hall. His mind was already on what foals he could breed if the Earl of Carbonneaux was willing to sell him his Arab stallion. Rumor was the horse was completely unmanageable, but that had never bothered Piers before. He was adept at gentling skittish creatures.
When he entered the hall, he found a group of four awaiting him. Three appeared to be guards and a fourth wore a hooded cloak that concealed his face. Piers sighed. Not about the stallion then, he thought. "Hawis," he called out, winking at the older servant. "Fetch me a drink, if you please. I've fair worn myself to a nub this day."
Hawis rolled her eyes, but went for ale.
He glanced back at the group and thought he saw the cloaked figure stiffen, but shrugged off the thought. After gratefully accepting a cup and taking a long swallow, he asked, "Now, what have we here?"
A sharp-featured man handed him a sealed packet. Piers frowned. Was that a smirk on the man's face?
His confusion deepened when he broke the seal and saw the top sheet of parchment was a letter from the Bishop of Ravenswood. As the unbelievable import of the Bishop's written lines slowly invaded Piers's, mind the man pushed the hooded figure in his direction.
"The Bishop said to tell you the wench be your problem now," the man said and gave the figure a second, and decidedly malicious shove.
It, or rather she, Piers's muddled brain corrected, fell onto her knees with a soft cry.
"By Saint George's sword, what is this about?" Piers demanded. He glanced at Gifford, who merely raised his palms before taking a gulp of ale from his ever-present jug. Beside him, Saraid's mouth was flat with concern.
The man's smirk deepened, as if he knew a secret, one Piers instinctively knew he would not like. "The girl is your responsibility now."
Piers tossed the letter aside and studied the document beneath. God in heaven, what had his sire done?
My dear friend, Annora, Please be advised of my kindest regards. Your news is sorrowful, indeed. It would please me greatly to betroth my son, Piers, to your sweet Giselle. Please come to Falcon's Craig. I shall see to the welfare of you both. Fondly, William, Earl of Hawksdown
Shock thudded through him as he reached down to pull back the kneeling girl's hood.
For a moment, Piers couldn't catch a breath. An angel stared back him with beautiful turquoise eyes. Her hair reminded him of spun silver, her face a smooth, creamy expanse of perfection. He blinked.
And took in the girl's expression of distaste.
"Who are you?" he demanded, his voice coming out much harsher than he'd intended. A damned betrothal was absolutely the last thing he needed at the moment, Piers thought with an inward curse.
The girl slowly stood, her gaze never leaving his. Her lips were pressed tightly together and she stared at him as if she'd just swallowed a piece of rancid meat. "I am Giselle," she said and lowered her gaze.
She shook her head.
Piers glanced at his father's letter. Its meaning was clear. But Piers was sure this Annora and her daughter had never come to Falcon's Craig. Certainly, he had not heard of his father's intent before this moment. "Where do you come from?"
Piers closed his eyes. Even better, he thought, barely resisting the urge to howl in denial. A girl fresh out of the nunnery. He opened his eyes to find Gifford holding the girl's arm and frowning at him.
"For God's sake, Piers," his uncle said. "Can you not see the girl is near dead on her feet?"
As if on cue, Giselle swayed against Gifford.
"We can sort all this out later," Gifford added. "I will see her to the rose chamber."
Piers nodded, too stunned by events to come up with words. The leader of the girl's small band gave him a taunting look. "We'll be takin' our leave now, my lord."
"Not just yet," Piers answered. "Hawis will bring food and drink. I have some questions for you."
The man shrugged. "Don't know nothin' to tell, my lord."
Piers watched Gifford guide the girl out of the hall, Saraid following. The girl did seem weary. Probably had developed a weak constitution with all that praying, he mused sourly with another twinge of dismay.
After the men accepted a cup of ale from Hawis, Piers crossed his arms and studied his visitors. Beneath the grime of travel, they were all fairly well dressed, their tunics free of holes or tears, their boots sturdy. They also were apparently well fed as none reached for the plate of meat and bread Hawis set on a nearby trestle table.
"Who is this girl?" Piers asked the leader.
"Like she said, her name's Giselle."
"Why did the Bishop order you to bring her here?"
Something flashed in the man's eyes before he shook his head. "You'll have to take that up with the Bishop, my lord. I just do as I'm told."
"Is she a nun?"
The leader shrugged. "I told you. We don't know nothin' about her."
"I think you do," Piers said in a cold voice as he took a step toward the men. Something inside him roiled with anger. "Why did she leave the convent?" He fixed the leader with a hard stare.
The man sighed. "I don't know."
"I heard," another of the group began, then halted at a glare from his leader.
"What?" Piers demanded.
The man took a long drink of ale. "Heard a rumour the wench did something to offend the Abbess. Don't know what it was though."
Piers rolled his eyes. "Miss a prayer time? Speak without being asked a question?"
The man slid the others a sideways glance.
No, Piers thought. It was nothing so simple as that.
The leader put down his cup and lifted his hands, palms up. "We do not know any more, my lord. Truly."
His gaze seemed honest this time, and Piers reluctantly nodded. "You are free to go."
The men filed out of the hall, obviously eager to leave Falcon's Craig, their package delivered.
What kind of package was she? Piers wondered as he stared after them.
One you are apparently beholden to marry, his inner voice mocked.
Piers cursed and went to find his brother Cain.
* * *
Giselle was so exhausted she was barely aware of where she was going. Over the last three days, she'd done little but grip her palfrey's thankfully full mane as they sped across the countryside. Her escorts were so anxious to get rid of her they barely stopped at all during the day, only when nightfall forced them to halt.
Dear Lord, aid me, she silently prayed.
The man at her side kept a firm grip on her arm, as if he sensed just how close to collapse she was. Three days with naught but an occasional bite of food, plain water, little rest, and no chance to wash had left her feeling much like a shattered piece of pottery.
"Here we are," the man said in a cheerful tone as he guided her into a large chamber. A woman walked in behind them.
"I ... thank you," Giselle managed to say. She fumbled with the ties of her mantle.
"Saraid, my sweet, can you aid the poor girl?"
The woman stepped in front of Giselle. She looked like the kind of woman who could have a warm smile, but her lips were pressed together and her blue eyes were vaguely disapproving.
Giselle tried to summon a smile but found it beyond her.
Saraid reached for the ties and quickly undid them, sweeping Giselle's mantle off and hanging it from a hook on the wall.
Giselle rubbed her arms, feeling exposed and uncertain.
"Are you hungry?" Saraid asked.
"I ... yes, I am, my lady," Giselle told her.
"Gifford," Saraid said.
Giselle glanced at him. He was studying her in between drinks from his jug. She looked away and wrapped her arms around her waist. Dear Lord, help me, she thought. What am I to do?
Saraid pointed to a fireplace. "Build up the fire. The girl is clearly chilled."
"Thank you, my lady," Giselle murmured.
Saraid gave her a short nod and left.
As Gifford stacked kindling in the fireplace, he said over his shoulder, "Rest, child."
Giselle looked around and finally saw the bed, really saw it. She gasped and hesitantly walked over to touch the coverlet. Never had she seen such luxury. Rich, rose-colored velvety hangings encircled the bed, which was covered with the same material. The mattress was easily three times the size of the thin pallet she'd had at Kerwick.
She pulled back the edge of the coverlet and found smooth linen sheets. I've landed in heaven, she thought, then revised her conclusion recalling the man her escorts had gleefully informed her she was to marry.
Even in her innocence, she sensed he'd come straight from a woman's bed. And made no secret of it. The sight of him had startled her so much she was glad to be hidden under the hood of her mantle. He had burst into the hall with a gleam in his golden brown eyes, his stride sure, a cocksure grin on his face that revealed dimples bracketing his mouth.
She was sure he had no problem persuading any woman he targeted into his bed.
Marry such a man? Giselle sat on the bed and watched the flames spark to life. Her belly clenched in protest of such a fate.
"There," Gifford said as he straightened. "That should be better."
"The chamber is beautiful," Giselle told him.
"Aye." He gestured to a wooden shutter. "That window overlooks the rose garden, and the other the sea. You should be comfortable."
"Thank you. I am very weary."
"Slip into bed, then, and take your ease. Someone will be here soon with food and drink." He eyed her with a curious expression, but didn't say more.
She was so tired she could only nod as he turned and left, pulling the door shut behind him. Though Giselle only wanted to crawl under the soft covers, close her eyes, and pretend her life hadn't just been turned inside out, habit took her to her knees.
She said her prayers by rote, the familiar pattern soothing. After she finished, she remained kneeling. "Dear Lord, show me the path back to your service. I pray to you, aid me." She swiped a tear from her eye. "Please take me back."
Stifling a sob, she rose and slid under the covers. Though her stomach grumbled and ached with hunger, she couldn't keep her eyes open and slowly succumbed to exhaustion.
Excerpted from A Lost Touch of Innocence by Amy Tolnitch Copyright © 2007 by Amy Tolnitch. Excerpted by permission.
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