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By SARAH BROPHY
Kensington Publishing Corp.Copyright © 2007 Prue Brophy
All right reserved.
Chapter One"You don't mean to tell me that you have dragged me halfway across this frozen wasteland of a country to farm rocks amongst starving peasants? Because, if you have, Boy ..."
Robert smiled absently, his mind concentrating on the deceptively repetitive horizon, but about two days ago he had stopped listening to Matthew's constant whining.
Ideally, he should have left the old man and his endless steam of complaints back in the London inn that they had been calling home, but he had no idea how such a thing could have been achieved. After all, as he hadn't invited him to come along in the first place, there was no way he could really have invited him to stay behind.
From many years of hard experience Robert had learnt that nothing in the mortal realm moved Matthew one inch unless the cantankerous old man wanted to be moved. Just because the man called himself squire didn't mean that he actually took orders at any point.
Which was also only logical, Robert thought with a wry smile, considering that the position itself was entirely self-appointed.
It had happened in Robert's first battle as a knight when he had been forcefully removed from his horse. He was hacking his way to a certain doom when he had heard a yell from the skies. Matthew had jumped from a nearby tree and cut down the man who had been about to fatally attack Robert from the rear. For the rest ofthe bloodbath they had fought back-to-back till their retreat had been called.
When they were safe, Robert had tried, clumsily, to thank the man for his timely intervention. Matthew had just looked him in the eye and said, "God may look after the stupid, but obviously he's handed you over to me for a little closer attention."
And so Matthew had become his squire and had stayed with him ever since. Robert couldn't help but view the association as something of a mixed blessing. While he knew that there was no more loyal and trustworthy squire to be found in all of England, that sometimes couldn't make up for the fact that more often than not Matthew treated Robert as a wayward, slightly backward son. Time had taught Robert when to listen to the old man and when not to. As Matthew didn't do anything he didn't want to, Robert felt he could safely ignore his complaining now as an exercise in contrary-mindedness only.
Besides, he had far more important things to dwell on right at this moment.
Absentmindedly he reached down and ran a hand over Dagger's graying mane. He had worried how the old stallion would withstand such a long journey over indifferent roads in the middle of winter, but all in all he was holding up very well. Still, Robert would be pleased to see journey's end even if just for his old friend's sake.
Journey's end-Robert knew he should be looking forward to it. After all, it was the fulfillment of all his dreams, his reward for years of hard labor. If only it was all that simple, he thought, and let out a disgusted sigh.
It had seemed simple enough when he had been making his plans. All he had wanted was land, something that the changing fortunes of war couldn't take away from him. He may have come into this world with nothing, but he would be damned before he left it the same way.
Well, he had that land now, but to claim it, he had to marry Lady Imogen. Robert clenched his teeth as he tried to quash the anger that rose every time he recalled how the king and his lover had manipulated him. Now that the deal had been struck there was nothing to be done about it. He would be married by sunset tomorrow and the very land beneath Dagger's hooves would be his.
The winter snows lay over everything like a blanket and the trees were bare of leaves. It was a spectacle of seasonal desolation, but strangely Robert could feel his soul expanding as he took it all in. The closer they got to their destination, the more entranced he had become with this alien world.
Indeed, everything would be perfect if only Matthew would stop moaning and see the beauty that surrounded him. But Robert knew there was no more chance of that than there was of Dagger taking flight.
The old man sat slumped in his saddle, burying himself deeply into the enormous pile of furs he had procured from one of the towns they had passed. It left visible only his wizened hands, blue with cold, and his condemning eyes. From a distance, he looked like a heap of rags that had been dumped randomly on a horse.
If only he would be as silent as a pile of rags, Robert thought wistfully. However, the old man showed no sign of stopping his steady stream of spleen.
"So tell me, Boy, why did you drag me up here?"
Robert sighed loudly. "I didn't drag you anywhere. Only the will of the Almighty himself might be able to drag your sorry bag of bones anywhere against your will, and I actually doubt even He can do that."
"But you have to admit that this land seems to be worthless for anything save for the breeding of surly peasants."
Robert ran a hand through his black hair, his heavy brows drawn together thoughtfully. "They do seem to be getting a little less friendly the further north we go, don't they?"
"That is an understatement." Matthew snorted, trying to bury himself farther into the furs. "I thought Lady Deformed was to be your punishment for irritating the king with your excellence, but now having met some of the locals, I'm not so sure."
"Don't call her that. She is Lady Imogen Beaumont." Robert's voice was hard and cold and Matthew looked over at him inquiringly. Robert turned his concentration back to the road.
"She ain't no Beaumont. Not yet," Matthew said gently. "And why so defensive, Boy? You haven't even met the lady, much less given her your name."
"It matters not why. She is to be my wife and her honor is now mine." Robert refused to meet the old man's eye. Matthew's brow was raised questioningly and Robert couldn't even begin to answer the unasked question when he didn't understand it himself. After all, he'd never been one of those mindless fools who would willingly die in the name of honor. He'd always been too cynically attached to life to worry about such things, managing to brush aside all of the small slights he'd ever encountered.
And yet suddenly, here he was not only prepared to defend his nonexistent honor, he was also attaching that honor to Lady Deformed, a woman he didn't even know. Even Robert could see that it was irrational, and was relieved that for once, Matthew wisely allowed the silence to claim his skepticism. The only sound to be heard was the crunch of the horses' hooves through the crisp snow and Robert gritted his teeth, irritated by his own illogical behavior.
He regretted his terseness. He knew Matthew had meant no slight and they had now been too long together to start being precious about each other's sensibilities. They had always talked without boundaries; been free with their thoughts and opinions.
Now, Imogen, Lady Deformed, was something that he didn't want to discuss with anyone, not even faithful Matthew.
Lady Deformed. How he had come to hate that name. To hear it sent a shaft of pure rage through his body and created a creature in him that he barely recognized. A creature comprised solely of pride and honor.
As a bastard and a mercenary, what could he claim to know of personal honor? He had spent the last five years killing for a man he despised. He had always lived his life to his own code and had never cared that the rest of the world couldn't understand that code. And had never felt the need to justify his actions to anyone but himself.
But right now, even he didn't understand himself. He was jumping to the defense of a woman he had never met. More than that, he became a rabid beast, and could only be amazed at his anger, at his protectiveness.
It was the protectiveness that was the most perplexing. He had never considered himself callous, but the life he led never left room for such sentiment, and he couldn't honestly say that he had missed it. Now, strange, dark emotions were raising their heads, emotions he didn't even recognize, and they seemed to have a single focus: the poor creature that was trapped in these cold lands so far from her warm southern sun. To hear her insulted in any way started a battle rage deep inside him.
"I hate to bring you back to the real world, but I think that pile of stones up ahead might be yours."
Robert's mind instantly shifted.
It stood tall and bleak against the winter sky. It did indeed look a little like a pile of stones thrown together by chance. Robert raised his brows, their earlier conversation forgotten.
"I didn't know that the Conqueror's building program had stretched so far north, but surely the Saxons never used stone."
"I don't think they did," Matthew said thoughtfully. "No, that pile of stones looks new, but also totally uninhabitable."
"Are you calling my new home uninhabitable?" Robert asked with a smile.
"No, Boy, I'm calling that pile of stones uninhabitable. I'm sure your home will be a habitation fit for a great warrior."
Robert threw back his head and laughed. "Don't snivel, Old Man. It doesn't become you."
"Who's sniveling?" Matthew asked derisively. "This is just basic survival. If I compliment you a little, stroke that formidable ego of yours, I just might be able to get out of this blasted cold at some point."
"Then there is no time to waste. Yah!" Robert spurred on his horse and streaked out ahead at a full gallop. Matthew sighed and muttered something about being young again and, with a creak of leather and old bones, tried to catch Robert.
The closer they got, the stranger the lone tower seemed. It jutted out of the forest in a harsh, unnaturally straight line. New, but already it seemed to be falling apart, littering the land with silent, gray stone corpses.
Robert frowned. "This can't be Shadows-end Keep, Old Man."
"No, Boy," Matthew yelled back as he drew even with Robert, "but I can see smoke from those trees. Looks like a fair-sized chimney."
Robert squinted in the direction Matthew had indicated, only just making out the thin wisps of smoke rising slowly and disappearing into the patchy gray winter sky.
"Let's go and talk to more unfriendly peasants, Old Man," Robert bellowed, trying to be heard above the wind in his ears and galloped toward the smoke.
As he maneuvered his horse expertly into the small courtyard of a wooden Keep and swung down in one fluid movement, his eyes quickly scanned the clutter of buildings, trying to take in everything at once. A thick blanket of snow covered everything except where the fires warmed the roof sufficiently to keep it clear. The buildings themselves were dilapidated, but at least they looked lived in.
"Ah, now, this is better. This looks like it just may have one warm corner to rest these cold bones," Matthew murmured appreciatively as he slowly dismounted his horse.
Everywhere he looked, Robert could see where things were in urgent need of repair, where things had been incompetently repaired and where things had been repaired just enough to barely keep them useable. But it wasn't all bad. Three or four brave chickens scratched hopefully through the snow and the smell of wood smoke gave the insubstantial Keep a surprisingly warm air of welcome.
"It would be impossible to defend, of course," Robert said as he walked briskly to the double doors, trying to keep the excitement out of his voice.
"And whom are you envisioning defending it against?"
"The world," Robert said to himself as he rapped his gauntlet-covered knuckles against the timbers. The two men heard the scurry of feet, but the door remained resolutely shut. Robert tried again, rapping his knuckles harder.
"We've nothing left to give. Clear off!" The screeching voice carried well into the courtyard.
Robert looked at Matthew. The older man's face split into a grin. "Not so badly defended at all, it would seem. Your hallowed portals would seem to be protected by a savage crone."
"Behave," Robert murmured, then lifted his voice to what Matthew called his combat roar. "It's Robert Beaumont out here, freezing on his own doorstep, and he has no intention of clearing off from what is rightfully his."
A satisfyingly comic volley of noise followed the stunned silence inside the Keep.
Within seconds the door flew open to reveal an old woman. She was surprisingly small, considering the amount of noise she had been making. Her hair was scraped back into a kerchief, giving her face a stretched look.
"Sor-sorry, my lord, but we weren't expecting you, and ... and you can't be too careful nowadays, not with all these Norman brutes wandering about attacking innocent folk." She stared openmouthed for a second, flushed scarlet, and then slammed the door shut.
"Would you like us to storm the door, Sir Knight, or just burn it down?" Matthew asked with an unholy amusement in his voice.
Robert crossed his arms over his chest, exasperation beginning to tell on his nerves.
"Don't tempt me, Old Man." He took a deep breath, preparing to bellow his way to Hades, when the door flew open once more, this time wide enough for them to actually enter.
Neither he nor Matthew hesitated, afraid that this offer of warmth might suddenly disappear again.
They found themselves in the main hall with the doors being shut quickly behind them. It took a second for Robert's eyes to adapt to the gloom. The room had no windows and light came from the guttering candles and the fire that burned sluggishly in the hearth. The enormous stone fireplace took up one entire wall and Matthew let out a groan of ecstasy as he rushed over to it, releasing the smell of stale rushes with every step. He thrust his hands to the small blaze and closed his eyes blissfully. Robert remained near the door, taking full stock of his new home.
It took Robert a moment to locate the person in the shadows who had finally allowed them in.
She stood so that the candles illuminated only one side of her face, leaving the rest in shadow. It was a harsh effect, seeming to magnify the lines on her face and the steel in her gray hair.
By her dress it was clear that she was a servant, but she held her back straight and met his gaze squarely as if they were equals.
Robert had spent years relying on his instincts, and wasn't entirely surprised when his body eased automatically out of its wariness. It was clear that this woman wasn't a threat, for all her apparent severity.
He gave her a small smile, which she didn't return.
"Greetings, my lord, and welcome to Shadowsend," the woman said stiffly. "I apologize for Alice, but you did startle her, although we have been expecting you. At the moment, the Keep is only being served by nigh on ten women, but if you ask for me, I'm sure that we will manage to serve most of your needs, Sir Knight."
"What is your name, and what exactly are your duties here?"
"My name is Mary. I'm principally my lady's companion, but I also function as a chatelaine in the absence of someone else more suitable."
Robert nodded, only a little wiser than before. What he knew about the running of a castle, keep or cottage was insignificant, and he had only the vaguest of notions as to the function of a chatelaine. Hopefully it meant that she could run everything without any help from him.
"You may go about your duties," Robert said in what he hoped was a confident manner, feeling large and clumsy in a domestic setting. Give him a meadow and twenty unseasoned soldiers and he moved with confidence. Present him with one self-assured servant and he was almost ready to eat the rushes. He tried to hide that uncertainty by turning his back in dismissal, but changed his mind abruptly, catching the woman midcurtsy.
It was a clumsy return to standing, and Robert felt a little more at ease in the face of this small imperfection.
"Wait. Why isn't Lady Imogen greeting her guests?" Even he was aware that the basic rules of hospitality demanded that the lady of the house see to her guests' comfort.
For a moment Mary looked disconcerted. "My lady, uh ... sleeps and I was asked not to disturb her."
Excerpted from Midnight Eyes by SARAH BROPHY Copyright © 2007 by Prue Brophy. Excerpted by permission.
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