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Eloise Hamelin's boot heels clicked briskly over the passageway's plank floor, confident she could defend each of her recent purchases.
Maintaining a castle as huge and well-manned as Lelleford required certain purchases. Eloise spared her father the task of making mundane purchases, like spices and kegs of ale, sacks of various grains, barrels of salted fish-staples of the winter food supply-and other necessities. For her trouble he didn't begrudge her the occasional trinket.
Yesterday, merchants from all over England had attended the yearly village fair, making their goods readily available for her inspection and she'd taken full advantage. Her trinket consisted of several ells of utterly lovely, finely-woven wool, a purchase which she'd deemed vital, and likely the reason for this morning's abrupt summons.
Most of the wool would be sewn into winter tunics for her father. Even under ordinary circumstances she would be remiss to send the lord of Lelleford back to Westminster-to enjoy the grand festivities of the king's Christmas court-garbed in less than elegant fashion.
The remaining wool was for her own gowns, suitably styled and elegantly trimmed. She hadn't yet told her father of her desire to accompany him to court, waiting for the right moment to make her request without risking outright denial.
He simply must let her accompany him.
Eloise didn't doubt Father intended to contract another betrothal for her while at court. What better time to negotiate a marriage bargain than while mingling among the high-born men of the kingdom? 'Twas her destiny to marry well, and she accepted the duty.
Except this time she wanted a look at her intended husband first, to ensure him healthy and strong-unlike Hugh St. Marten, who'd fallen dead at her feet on the church steps before he could utter his marriage vows.
The horror had left her numb for days. Even now, two months later, the sorrow over Hugh's death lingered. She'd not known him well, but he'd been too likeable a man not to feel saddened that one so young should die so suddenly and ignobly.
People tried not to remind her of Hugh's death, but occasionally she'd see pity in their eyes and hear them mutter "poor Lady Eloise" when they thought she didn't hear, and she abhorred being pitied.
She paused outside the accounting room's door. With a flight of hands over her emerald velvet gown and a quick tuck of a rebellious strand of long dark hair back into her braid, she ensured her appearance without fault.
Spine straight, chin set, she rapped on the heavy oak door.
Her father's voice held a sharp edge, even though muffled through the door. Perhaps this wasn't the right time to make her request.
She heard the bolt slide. The door flew open into a small chamber that smelled of crisp parchment, pungent ink and beeswax candles. Before she could blink, he pulled her into the chamber.
Eloise gasped at the carnage, unable to comprehend why parchment scrolls littered the dark oak desk, or why an overturned bottle dripped indigo ink onto the brown robe of unconscious Br. Walter, who sprawled face down beside the desk.
Ye, gods! Was the monk dead? Nay. The young cleric breathed, though shallowly. Her hand trembled as she bent toward the bloody gash at his temple.
The door slammed, making her flinch.
"Leave him be!"
Too confused to do aught else, Eloise withdrew at her father's sharp command. Fury darkened his dove gray eyes to pewter, a near match to his thinning hair. Never before had she seen his barrel chest heave so rapidly, nor felt so fragile in his imposing shadow.
Desperate to make sense of the senseless, she ventured to ask, "What happened?"
He waved a meaty hand at the monk recently retained as his clerk. "Yon dolt proved unworthy of my trust. You can do what you will with him after I am gone."
"Gone where? Why?"
He strode toward the desk and shoved several scrolls into a black leather pouch.
"Best you do not know of my whereabouts." He glared at Br. Walter. "I have been declared a rebel, Eloise. Even now the earl of Kenworth comes to make the arrest."
Stunned, she could only stare at her father. Surely, there must be some mistake, but for the life of her she knew not where to place the blame.
He closed the flap on the pouch. "Show Kenworth no resistance. Allow him through the gate. Give him free roam of the castle. Feed him. Serve him our finest wine. By all the saints, give him no reason to seize Lelleford by force!"
Eloise snapped out of her stupor.
"Dear God, Father, what precisely have you been accused of?"
Her stomach roiled, her knees nearly buckled. A conviction on such a high crime demanded gruesome punishment. Hanged, drawn and quartered.
From a trunk in the corner he hefted a gold chest encrusted with rubies and set it on the desk. From the coffin he scooped two handfuls of coins into his money purse, then pulled the string taut.
"Sew some coins into the hems of your gowns and cloaks in the unlikely event you are forced to abandon Lelleford. By the grace of God, perhaps Julius is on his way home and can take charge on his return."
Julius, her eldest brother, had gone to Italy on pilgrimage. Useless to wish he'd walk through the door now.
"Father, there must be some way to resolve-"
"There is, but not with the earl of Kenworth. He and I have been at odds for too long. Do not send to Jeanne or Geoffrey for aid. There is naught either can do to assist me and the fewer of my children involved the better." He snapped up the leather pouch bulging with scrolls. "I will take Edgar with me. He should be readying horses."
Eloise now understood the squire's nervousness when he delivered her father's summons. Edgar must have witnessed whatever had occurred between John Hamelin and Br. Walter, possibly knew how the monk had been injured.
"What of Br. Walter?"
"The wretch will live. 'Tis probably best not to restrain him. All you need do is feign ignorance of my affairs and all should be well."
She'd never felt more ignorant or frightened in her entire ten and seven years. Panic battled with anger over his abandoning her to this perilous predicament.
Eloise wanted him to stay, but if he didn't go, he could very well be hanged in his own bailey with his own rope.
A lump formed in her throat, tears welled in her eyes. Damn. Now was no time for sentiment. Sir John Hamelin, a knight of the realm, a heretofore trusted advisor to the king, would find a way to dispute the charge and avoid hanging.
'Twas on her part in this calamity she must concentrate, fulfill her duty.
"Do you know when the earl will arrive?"
"Likely before evening meal."
Only a few hours away. Not enough time to prepare, but all the time given her.
"You had best hurry, then."
"I shall send word when I deem it safe. Do as I have told you and all will be well. I place great trust in you, Eloise. Do not fail me."
"Have I ever?"
He tilted his head; his expression softened. "Nay. Of all my children only you have shown unfailing loyalty. Have a care, daughter."
Eloise knew her father disliked overt shows of affection, didn't often reveal his softer side, and she would never do anything to embarrass him. But they were alone, and she might not see him for a very long while. She wrapped her arms around his barrel chest and squeezed hard.
Even before his arms came around her and pulled her in tight she could hear his heart thud rapidly.
"Do not despair, Eloise," he whispered into her hair. "All will come out right in the end."
Desperately wanting to believe him, holding back tears, Eloise reluctantly backed away. "Godspeed, Father."
He flipped up the latch and slowly opened the door, peering up and then down the passageway before he strode out.
Eloise leaned against the desk and took several deep breaths. She lacked time for either outrage or self-pity. What to do first?
Br. Walter sprawled on the floor, unconscious, the blood on his temple drying dark and garish against his pale skin. An untrustworthy man according to her father. The monk deserved whatever misfortune befell him for whatever part he'd played in her father's downfall.
Nay, not downfall. Merely a misunderstanding her father must put to rights. Treason? Unthinkable! Too often Father praised young King Edward's policies, and been effusive over Edward's military prowess. 'Twas against all sense for her father to betray the young sovereign he admired.
Do nothing. Feign ignorance.
Sweet mercy, did Father know what he asked of her?
Likely, because he'd seen fit to issue pointed instructions for her behavior.
The monk stirred, moaning.
The churl didn't deserve any show of concern, but show it she must if he were to believe she'd simply come upon him, found him wounded-didn't know he'd somehow betrayed her father.
She knelt and put a hand to his shoulder. "Br. Walter, can you hear me? Can you awaken?"
He opened his eyes, dazed. "L-lady ... Eloise, I-"
"Do not try to speak yet. You must have tripped and hit your head on the desk. Can you sit up?"
He braced on an arm and eased upright, shaking his head as if settling his brain into its rightful place.
Once he seemed balanced, Eloise moved away from the monk she'd dearly love to toss in the dungeon.
Br. Walter glanced around the room. Looking for Father?
She righted the ink bottle. "Tsk. Such a mess you made. I dare say Father will not be pleased if he sees his possessions in such disarray. But come, I will take you down to the hall and tend your injury before we attempt to tidy the room."
"Where is ... Sir John?"
"I know not." She swallowed the lump threatening to choke off her air. "Are you able to walk?"
The monk sighed. "I believe so."
Eloise watched him struggle to his feet, unable to muster any compassion. She'd ease his aches and stitch the gash if need be. Then needle information out of him?
'Twould be the hardest command to obey. Truly, she didn't understand why her father deemed it best to run from a confrontation. Why not secure the castle, place additional guards on the crenellated battlements, deny the earl entry?
From the time of the Conquest, Lelleford had withstood both outright attack and long sieges. With winter coming on, the earl couldn't keep his force in the field long without suffering many hardships. Lelleford's storage rooms bulged from the recently completed harvest; both wells were deep and flowing. 'Twould be the perfect time to take a defensive stance.
Even with the threat of hanging, running away seemed cowardly, and she'd never known her father not to stand his ground.
Eloise eased toward the door, giving the monk time to find his legs, deciding her father must be taking the right course of action. She had to trust he knew the best way to deal not only with the earl but with the charges against him.
So she'd feed the invaders, serve them wine, be the most gracious of hostesses-and pray she would give the earl of Kenworth no reason to take Lelleford by force.
* * *
Traveling with the earl of Kenworth compared favorably to traveling with the king- -both liked their comforts and provided commendably for those in their retinue.
Sir Roland St. Marten ate his midday repast in the large tent in the company of William, earl of Kenworth, and his knights. Outside, the squires and men-at-arms dined on hearty if less sumptuous fare.
One would think the company traveled for pleasure, not on serious business. Kenworth seemed in no hurry to reach Lelleford, take Sir John Hamelin into custody and haul the him off to Westminster for judgement.
Roland thought Kenworth misguided in his belief that, with surprise in his favor, the knight would allow the earl to enter the stronghold and give over peaceably to the arrest.
Except John Hamelin wasn't the type of man to roll over and whimper like a beaten dog. Having spent several days at Lelleford, Roland knew the fortress was strong and well-manned. Sir John could avoid seizure for months if he chose.
But capturing Sir John was the earl's problem, not his.
Roland was entrusted with taking charge of Lelleford in the king's name, to ensure the holding suffered no setback while its lord answered to the charge of treason.
He intended to remain neutral in this whole affair, the only sane position to take.
The earl popped the last bit of lamprey into his mouth and washed it down with a healthy swallow of wine. The ensuing belch complimented the cook and signaled the end of the meal.
Kenworth set his goblet on the table and grinned at the knights attending him. "Let us hope Lelleford's cook compares favorably to mine own. I should hate to come so far only to be forced to endure thinned stew and meek wine. Tell me, St. Marten, do the cooks at Lelleford make good use of spices?"
Since he was the only one of the company who'd been inside the keep, such inane questions were usually directed Roland's way. Would that the earl were more concerned with the keep's defenses, the size of the storage rooms, or the number of men Sir John could send onto the field.
Roland had learned immediately upon joining the retinue that Kenworth harbored no concerns over possible obstacles and didn't take kindly to people who did.
Keeping his opinion to himself when among the magnates had been among Roland's first lessons upon entering the king's service. The dukes and earls of the kingdom took counsel from only their trusted advisors and each other-and then did what they pleased anyway.
It pleased the earl to dismiss Sir John as no more than a thorn in his paw, easily plucked out and tossed aside.
"I found no lack in Lelleford's hospitality, either in the comfort of the beds or quality of the victuals served." At a hint of the earl's displeasure, he quickly amended. "You must remember I was at Lelleford when the Hamelins wished to make a grand impression on my family. No doubt the meals and company are not always so excellent and gracious as are your lordship's."
"I should say not." Kenworth leaned back in his armed chair. "A near miss, that. If Hugh-rest his soul-had lived, you would now be related to the traitor."
The shiver of revulsion Roland allowed to show was genuine. "I praise God for his intervention, though I wish He had done so in less mortal fashion."
To this day he could envision his half-brother's death, see Hugh's enchantment with his bride dim to pain, his eyes roll back in his head just before he collapsed. Hugh St. Marten had died an ignoble death, sprawled face down on the church steps at his bride's feet.
And the bride, Lady Eloise Hamelin, hadn't shed a tear over the man who worshiped her, who would heed no argument against his betrothed.
Excerpted from ONCE A BRIDE by Shari Anton Copyright © 2004 by Warner Books . Excerpted by permission.
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