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Once He Loves
Ivo de Vessey half smiled as Sweyn murmured a joke in his ear. A serving girl paused before them, filling their tankards with more warm ale, and returned Sweyn's grin. Outside the late summer evening was fading into darkness, drawing shadows down upon the city of York, but here in Lord Shelborne's hall the company was jolly and the food good, and Ivo had drunk far too much.
Ivo had come north with Lord Radulf, in response to yet another skirmish within the northern lands of Radulf's wife, the Lady Lily. The north of England seethed with subversion like a many-headed monster, and despite King William's brutality in putting down each rebellion, no matter how small, there was always another to take its place.
Sweyn, a fellow mercenary, had accompanied Ivo, and along with a large troop of Radulf's men, they had reached York as the bells for Vespers began to toll. Lord Radulf, missing his wife and best left to his own company, had retired, but Ivo had been in favor of going at once to the castle and asking the garrison for information on this latest act of lawlessness. Before he could set out, a messenger had arrived at the door with a request for Lord Radulf and his men to come and feast at the hall of Lord Shelborne. Sweyn had promptly set about persuading Ivo to bathe and change his travel-stained clothing, and attend Lord Shelborne's hall instead of the possibly dubious repast they would find among the soldiers of the garrison.
"The invitation is for Lord Radulf," Ivo had argued.
"Aye, but he is like a surly bear tonight and best left undisturbed. Awarning, my friend, never let a womanmake her home in your heart."
"I need no warning," Ivo had retorted. "But will this Lord Shelborne not think it strange that we have left Lord Radulf behind?"
"Not if he saw him, Ivo. He would be grateful we had not brought him." Sweyn strode impatiently to the door. "Come, there will be time enough for talk of rebellions tomorrow! Enjoy yourself tonight, my friend. Lord Shelborne's messenger says there will be dancing and singing, and one of the women has the voice of an angel. An angel, he says, who can heal a sick man, and make a broken man whole. And there will be dice, Ivo! I am desperate to replenish my coin."
Ivo had snorted. "Do you think of nothing but women and dice, Sweyn?"
Sweyn had stopped and pretended to consider. "No."
So Ivo had laughed, and allowed himself to be bullied into going to Lord Shelborne's hall. And Sweyn had been right, Ivo admitted it now. There was such a thing as being too dedicated to one's tasks, too serious, too willing to forgo pleasure for the sake of duty. Tomorrow would be soon enough to apply themselves to Radulf's problems in the north. Surely even a disgraced knight was allowed an occasional evening of leisure.
Ivo had been sipping his ale, deep in his thoughts, and it was a moment before he became aware that all had gone quiet. An expectant hush. He glanced up, and as he did he heard the voice.
It was low and slightly husky; deeper than that of the women he was accustomed to hearing sing. The timbre of it brushed over his skin, soft as fur, warm as blood, making him instantly aware. His body tightened, hardened, as if he were preparing for battle, every sense alerted. Ivo narrowed his eyes and turned his head, searching for the singer in a room made smoky from ill-drawing fires and shadowy from candles that flickered in the many drafts.
And found her.
She sat upon a small dais, and as he stared, the vapor in the hall seemed to clear from before his eyes.
Long chestnut hair lay smooth and heavy over her back and shoulders. Too heavy for her pale and piquant face and wide, slanting eyes. She was a small woman, slender, but with a voice at once powerful and moving. The notes she sang vibrated through him, caught like a small fist in his chest, and made his heart ache.
Dear God, what was this?
Ivo blinked, and stared at her, and realized then that the woman was gazing directly back at him. As if she were singing for him, and him alone. He took a shaky breath.
Beside him, Sweyn leaned over to whisper in his ear. "The messenger had it aright, Ivo. She is an angel."
"Aye," Ivo said, wondering if he sounded as bemused as he felt.
Was he sick, to be healed?
Mayhap, but he doubted even she could heal him. As that voice soared and dipped, filling the quiet room, permeating it like rich, heady wine, Ivo wondered if he was alone in his abstraction, or whether every man and woman here felt the same. Her voice was drawing emotions from him that he had thought -- hoped -- forgotten. Love and happiness, sorrow and pain, inextricably mixed. Emotions, memories, he had long ago put aside. For how could a disgraced knight and a mercenary lay claim to such luxuries as feelings?
How could he dare?
Ivo gritted his teeth, forcing the rapid beating inside his chest to calm, forcing the heat in his blood to cool. Look again, he told himself. 'Tis but a woman, singing. A small woman in a dark gown with her chestnut hair loose about her and her pale hands clasped in her lap. 'Twas nothing amazing.
He realized, as he fought off the spell, that there was a harpist accompanying her. He stared at the instrument, as if that would help rebuild his barricades, and saw 'twas one of the small harps used by the Welsh. The harp was being played by a girl with hair of a darker hue and a taller figure than the songstress ...
Once He Loves. Copyright � by Sara Bennett. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
The foregoing is excerpted from Once He Loves by Sara Bennett. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022