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They said Guy St Edmond was the spawn of Satan. They said he was as tall as a tree and that he could slay a man with a single stroke of his sword. There were darker tales still in his shadowed past, rumours that Guy St Edmond was the despoiler of innocents, that he ate the f lesh of his victims and that he devoured everything in his path.
Battle after battle he led his troops to victory after victory. The king and hardened warriors granted him their respect and deferred to his opinions, and by the time Jane was seventeen years old he was already a legend in Cherriot Vale. It was said he had never lost so much as a skirmish. His name was a password for victory and it was rumoured he only had to appear on the horizon for the enemy to turn and flee.
The mere mention of his name made little children cling to their mothers in terror and hide their faces in their skirts. But as far as Jane knew, no one had ever dared confront him to find out if all of this was fact or legend.
Yes, she thought as, with a thundering heart and almost suffocating with fear, she peeked through the foliage to look at the demonic spectre who was one of the young King Edward of York's most favoured and most formidable knights, Guy St Edmond might well be all those things, but no one had said how handsome he was, that he was a devastatingly masculine male, with a certain air about him that could not help but intrigue and attract every female eye. How could he be all those terrible things? Was that what the wars had done to him, or just his nature?
Power, danger and bold vitality emanated from every line of his towering physique as he rode ahead of a small entourage of knights and squires. Some wore his red-and-black livery. They had evidently been riding hard for some considerable distance for their clothes were dusty and their faces streaked with dirt and sweat. With a jingle of harness and a noise like thunder, the stately chargers came at a gallop in a swirling cloud of dust and earth, looking unreal in the small clearingyet Guy St Edmond had the God-given right to be there, for was he not the Earl of Sinnington, the lord of Sinnington Castle, to have and to enjoy the lands and revenues to be reaped from his domain?
There were ten horsemen in all, but Jane felt no inclination to move her gaze past the imposing man astride the black steed prancing in the lead. It was huge, a war-horse, high, wide and broad in proportion, with a hint of wildness in its eyes. It had its ears back, its head well up, its smooth-flowing gait a perfect complement to the proud, majestic bearing of his rider. His leather boots were silver-spurred and he wore a sword and a long dagger attached to his belt.
The earl rode with a purpose that was impressive. Tall and powerful, he was of an age perhaps a score and ten. But it wasn't only the height and the impressive display of bulging muscle and sinew that caused him to stand out from the other horsemen. There was about him an air of confidence and intelligent command that he wore as easily as he did his sword. Everything about him spoke of control. Or so it seemed to Jane, who could hardly judge for certain when she'd never seen him before or heard him utter a word.
As if sensing he was being watched, Guy St Edmond snatched at the reins. Wrenched to standstill, his horse stood up on its hind legs, the following riders wheeling and coming to a jarring stop, metal clanking against metal as they cursed at the sudden halt. They were close to where Jane was hiding. The sun sent shafts of light through the high trees and softly crept through the clearing. At closer range she noted Guy St Edmond's hair was unruly and very dark, almost black, curling round his neck. His skin on his hawk-like face was bronzed above the black beard.
Displaying a coat of arms on his tabard, he was clad in a leather tunic and leggings. It showed his strong limbs and thick torso. He turned in the saddle to speak to his men. He laughed as they shared a joke. It was a deep rich sound that made Jane think of clotted cream. She shuddered. It would seem the formidable Earl of Sinnington had a sense of humour. As he turned back to the light, she made out the fascinating tone of his eyescould they really be so blue and so bright?
Suddenly the voices of the children she was hiding from as they played their game of hide-and-seek could be heard in the woodland behind her. Ears attuned, his body alert, Guy St Edmond's smile turned from open humour to something more guarded. His thick black brows lowered and his eyes narrowed as they searched for the source of the disturbance. Jane could see he was used to weighing up new situations quickly.
Suddenly the unsuspecting children burst into the open, accompanied by Jane's maid, Kate. Confronted by these awesome, terrifying strangers, the children abandoned their game and clung to Kate, whose protective arms went round them and held them close. Blanche, Jane's ten-year-old sister, stared in mute terror, while Alfred, Jane's thirteen-year-old brother, simply stood and looked with wide-eyed awe, craning his neck up the better to see the man on the horse.
Half in fear and half in concern for her siblings, emerging from the shadows, Jane moved to stand a few paces away from the cowering children, tall and graceful with her long-legged stride. Her skirts of myrtle green moulded her fine limbs, flowing out above her brown leather slippers in soft, yielding folds. The waist gathered beneath the rounded young breasts was caught with dark green ribbons emphasising her shape. Then she raised her eyes, indifferent to all, in morbid curiosity desirous only to look at the man bearing the manner of a warrior about him.
As the daughter of Simon Lovet, an English cloth merchant, and younger sister of Andrew Lovet, who had been killed in battle fighting for the Lancastrian cause and the rightful King Henry and his wife, Guy St Edmond would look on her as a traitor. But Jane, having grown heartily tired of strife, was beyond loyalty to anyone but her family and herself. She stood and waited for him to speak, while terror screamed through every pore of her quaking body.
With the clean, heady scent of spring clover and newly budded flowers in the air, and a blackbird happily singing its heart out, Guy watched the girl watching him as he approached and saw her every thought reflected in her eyesinterest, uncertainty, suspicion, dreadbut no fear, thank God.
Unbeknown to him, it was not false bravado that made Jane show no fear. She felt it deep in her bones, but she was a Lovet and a Lovet never admitted fear of any man. She had heard that time after time from her father and her dead brother, and she had adopted their creed for her own.
As he halted his horse in front of her, all the breath suddenly seemed to have left him as he was struck by a jolt of unexpected lust. She stood for a moment in silence, contemplating him. The girl was as ravishing a creature as one could imagineyouth and springtime incarnate.
She had affected him, Jane knew that. Her apprehension increased. Here she was, being stared at by a magnetic, thoroughly compelling man, a man whose direct and confident gaze made her heart beat fasterthough that, in small part, might have been due to dread.
For a long moment he gazed right into her eyes with a look that blazed, heating them until they glowed like molten coals in his bearded face. They were hard and inscrutable, as if she knew a secret that he had to know, as if they had known each other for ever. She was unsettled by his look, but she could not look away. A modest woman would lower her eyes, but she stood tall, astonished at herself, staring like an ignorant peasant. She found she could not take her eyes from his, eyes which were burning her where she stood.
Guy was not quite sure what to make of it. Either she had not heard, isolated in Cherriot Vale, that he was the Devil incarnate, or was too starved of male company to care. He found himself strangely moved by her candid look. Fancifully, he thought her like a beautiful half-wild creature of this emerald gladeor a wondrous rare forest animal that did not know enough of the world to be afraid.
She was totally innocent.
Though they were at least twelve paces apart, Jane felt his gaze penetrate her heart. Nudging his horse forwards, he circled her, his smile set in a grim line across his darkly handsome face, examining her like a horse at the fair.
Guy's eyes roved approvingly over her lithe figure, stopping at the swelling breasts and tiny waist, then strayed back to the soft tresses of honey-gold hair that escaped the confines of her green velvet cap. Her nose was upturned, a nose bespeaking curiosity and impishness. Her lips were full, parted and hinted of secret, of a hidden sensuality as her tongue flicked nervously over them. The chin was not weak, not strong, argumentative perhaps, but not intransigent. Her skin was creamy white and glowing. Her eyes green, into which one might wish to dive, to be willingly lost for ever, glowed with an inner light and hinted of the woman hidden beneath the child-like innocence of her face.
She was the loveliest creature his eyes had seen in many a day.
'Well, well, and what have we here?' Guy St Ed-mond murmured in a voice that was deep and rich and full of unexpected beauty, still looking at her. Her eyes flickered over him, clearly interested, but perhaps intimidated by his size and the bruiser's build that he had inherited from his father. 'I don't bite,' he said with a cynical half-smile.
'No? I have heard to the contrary.'
He laughed, a deep, booming laugh as his horse did a full circle. When he faced her once more, already regretting her impulsive words, Jane stared up at the stranger and despite her efforts a soft flush crept up her cheeks. Without lowering her gaze, she sank into a curtsy as gracefully as she knew how and her trembling limbs would permit. In an attempt to alleviate her siblings' fear, she smiled, showing teeth that were white and even and beautifully shaped. 'I am Jane Lovet,' she said, 'daughter of Simon Lovet, who is a trader in fine cloth here in Cherriot.'
'And the father of a Lancastrian, if I am not mistaken,' he said in such a way that made Jane's blood run cold in her veins. 'And do you and your family follow your brother's inclinations as loyal Lancastrians, Jane Lovet, though much good it did him? Are you loyal to King Henry?'
Jane stared at him. Every merchant in London was Yorkist to a man, throwing their support behind the young, strong and intelligent King Edward. Being an exacting, ambitious man, her father's every thought was directed into making money and the elevation of his family, and as such he had no particular leanings for either side. But he had been unable to forgive Andrew his support for Henry, which had turned the majority of merchants against him.
'My brother's support of King Henry cannot be denied, but my parents accept the rule of King Edward.'
He nodded. 'A sensible move, since Henry can no longer raise a decent army to continue the fight.'
'So we have been told, and since the king himself has recently married an impoverished widow from the enemy camp, a woman whose own father fought against him, we can be assured of his leniency.'
Guy's eyes narrowed as they focused on her upturned face, caught somewhere between anger, amazement and admiration for her defiant courage. 'Your words are boldly spoken, Jane Lovet. But I warn you to have a care what you say in the future. Do you live hereabouts?'
She nodded. 'In the manor house at the end of the village close to the river.'
'So we are to be neighbours.' His eyes did a study of Alfred and Blanche and the comely Kate. 'And are these people kin of yours?'
Jane glanced at the threesome. Alfred was tall like his father, while her younger sister, Blanche, was a few inches less, and still growing. They were similar in looksboth had light-brown curly hair and green eyes with brown flecks.
'Kate is my maid, and Alfred and Blanche my siblings. Are you to reside in the village long, sir?'
'As to that, we shall have to wait and see.' His arrogant mouth softened and, leaning down, he cupped her face with his big hand and looked deep into her eyes. 'Never have I seen a face so fairor eyes so unafraid. Do you not fear me, sweet Jane?'
Jane knew she should draw back and state her objections at this uncalled-for bold familiarity, but she held her ground and endured the feel of his strong fingers and the warmth of them touching her flesh. 'Do I have reason to fear you, sir?'
'Maybe you do. Do you know who I am?'
'Everyone in these parts knows who you are.'
'And how can they possibly know that when they have not set eyes on me in almost a decade?'
Jane stared at him, temporarily speechless, relieved when he dropped his hand and sat up straight in the saddle. His looks were spectacular, but they were not the most important thing about him. Now she could see that his face had an uncompromising ruthlessness and strength which marked him as an adventurer and gambler. In spite of the fact that he was a nobleman, he was a man free from bonds and ties.
'You are Guy St Edmond, the Earl of Sinnington. You are to take up residence at Sinnington Castle. People have talked of nothing else these past weeks.'
Guy St Edmond cocked a brow and canted his head at an angle as he gazed into her eyes, holding her in his blue depths. Suddenly Jane was the captive of those fathomless eyes and, while those around them went on breathing, Jane felt as if she and Guy St Edmond were alone in the world. Though it was not a feeling she was accustomed to feeling, some feminine instinct deep within her recognised the fiery gleam in his eyes and understood that he felt the same.
'Then since we are to reside close to each other, Mistress Lovet, I shall look forward to seeing you again. I have noted your grace and your beauty and that they are but hints of other talents. What else should I know of you?'
'Sir, I do not know what else I might tell you, except that I am soon to be betrothed and when I am wed I will be leaving the village to take up residence with my husband's family in the next village.'