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Secrets of the Knight
By Julia Latham
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Yorkshire, six years later
Aching with the cold of winter, Tom Bannaster and his small party of men had been traveling north from London for several weeks, and only the promise of looking over a potential bride made him keep going—and the fact that his cousin, King Henry, had "suggested" he take the journey to meet this particular woman. That in itself made Tom uneasy. But he was a loyal subject, and through the last six years—and four different kings—he'd managed to choose the right path. Not without several stumbles, of course, but when a man had to relearn an entire childhood's worth of lessons, some mistakes were inevitable.
The town of Richmond was a welcome sight to men who'd been urging their mounts ever higher into the flat, hilltop moors of the Pennines. Tom had three men-at-arms with him and they all grinned at each other when they could see the lights of the town on the River Swale, glittering in the distance against the snowy patches of ground.
The tavern they chose overlooked an ancient stone bridge that arched over the river. There was cheerful company, a huge stone hearth that warmed the room, and a plentiful supply of ale.
As Tom bit into a dripping lamb pasty, he thought of the woman he would soon meet. Cicely Winslow was reputed to be a true beauty, the sister of a baron. That theking had suggested her gave Tom pause, but then his cousin understood that he hadn't had good luck persuading a woman to be his wife. By the devil, it had taken Tom a long time to even understand how to treat a woman after his unusual upbringing, and he'd made some foolish mistakes in the last year.
Tom took a swig of ale to hide his wince. He'd thought for certain he could persuade Lady Elizabeth Hutton, daughter of the earl of Alderley, to marry him, joining two great houses and settling Gloucestershire after his cousin's ascension to the throne. But the situation had deteriorated, and before he knew it, he had kept her confined in her tower bedroom at Castle Alderley until he could confer with the king. And even then, she'd switched places with her maid to outwit him. Perhaps he should have relieved his steward, Milburn, for suggesting the plan. But Tom had to bear some of the blame, for he had gone along with him willingly enough, feeling desperate.
And now Tom wondered if his foolish mistakes had only earned him the chance to woo the daughter of a baron in the remote North Riding. Yet . . . Tom had been able to repair some of the damage to his reputation by assisting the king last summer in the delicate matter of traitors to the Crown. Perhaps Cicely Winslow was even a reward, of sorts, a beautiful woman easily won to wife. He wanted heirs, children to love and treat better than he'd been treated. He had thought he would never have a wife or children of his own, and the promise of companionable nights with his family drove him. For even though he'd renounced the priesthood six years ago, and spent the occasional night with a willing woman, his new life had gradually seemed lacking. He wanted to feel . . . close to someone, to feel loved and to love in return.
He thought he was finally ready to put the past behind him. After six years, the suspicion of his people had faded, if not entirely disappeared. But at the beginning of his rule, it had been a different matter. He had been the one with the most to gain from his brother's death, although there was no proof that he'd committed the crime. It had taken several years of hard work and proof of his determination to be a decent leader to win the sympathy of his people.
But the king's court was another matter. He knew there would always be men who thought he'd killed his brother out of greed and ambition. And for a long time, their suspicion forced him to pretend to search for his brother's murderer. But although the maidservants had shared suspicion with him, no one had been identified. Even he hadn't seen the girl's face, for he'd been staring at his dead brother while she'd pulled her hood forward to disguise her features.
Perhaps the king thought a happy marriage would further his acceptance at court. Yet it was hard to persuade a noblewoman that he was nothing like the rumors about him. Maybe Cicely Winslow would be different.
Or maybe she just wanted to escape this frigid corner of Yorkshire. Tom drained another tankard of ale, feeling his toes begin to unfreeze at last. He tapped his foot in time to a patron's lute and smiled as several women began to dance. The crowd grew raucous, clapping a beat and roaring approval as the women dipped and swayed their hips. Their garments clung tightly to their breasts, and Tom watched with hearty appreciation. After so many years of being unable to even look at a woman, now he found that he could stare at their graceful forms like a starved man. When one of the women ended up in his lap, he'd had just enough ale to agree to her whispered proposal. He followed her out of the public room and up to the chamber he'd paid for.
When the door closed, he reached for her, but she stepped away, laughing as she plopped a horn of ale on the small wooden table.
"More drink, milord?" she said, swaying, a lock of her dark red hair loose at her shoulder, her smile full of promise. "The night is far too cold."
He grinned. "Then let me warm you."
When he reached for her waist, she eluded him, uncorking the horn and taking a sip before passing it to him. The wench was right, he thought, drinking deeply. His belly burned with warmth, though the fire in the hearth was meager, and the shutters rattled with the wind.
Excerpted from Secrets of the Knight by Julia Latham
Copyright © 2008 by Julia Latham. Excerpted by permission.
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