Read an Excerpt
The Knight's Conquest
By Juliet Landon
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
Copyright © 2003
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
The announcement of intent to marry, though softly spoken, provoked more or less the reaction expected by the lovely
young woman from her elegant white-haired father, Sir Crispin de Molyns, Deputy Keeper of the King's Wardrobe.
"Well," he said, pinching the bridge of his nose,
"I've heard of killing two birds with one stone, Eloise, but this is ridiculous. A lady of your standing doesn't marry
her steward, for heaven's sake. You don't have to marry the man to retain him for another period of office, you know.
I've never had to marry mine so far."
His attempt at flippancy went unnoticed by Lady Eloise Gerrard whose defences had been rehearsed almost constantly
during the two-day journey from her manor in Staffordshire to her father's home in Derbyshire. Even so, her retort was
not as well chosen as it might have been. "I don't have to marry anyone, Father."
Predictably, Sir Crispin recognised the blunder and studied her from beneath snowy eyebrows. "You do, Eloise.
You must know that," he said, gently.
"Well ... all right ... I do." Eloise began to pace the large sunlit solar of Handes Castle as if to recall her lines,
a phrase for each step. "I've been widowed for a year ... and the king has sent for me ... we all know what for ... and
I mean to tell him ... that I've decided on a husband ... thank you very much."
Her father was unimpressed, knowing the king as well as he did. "Well, if you think he'll allow you to marry your
steward, my lass, widowed or not, you'd better think again. He won't. You're a tenant-in-chief, Eloise, and he doesn't
allow wealthy widows in his gift to give themselves away to nobodies. There's many a knight who'll pay him
handsomely for the privilege of marrying a de Molyns woman who's just inherited Gerrard's property, too. He'll not
allow all that to be passed on to the progeny of a mere steward, however well born he may be."
"There won't be any progeny, Father." That was something else she had rehearsed, but somehow it had emerged too
soon in the scene.
"Oh, lass! Now you are talking nonsense! You're far too young to be embarking on a marriage of convenience, if
that's what you have in mind." He could have said 'too beautiful' also. As the elder of his two daughters, Eloise had a
regal loveliness that made men fall silent and follow her with their eyes, weaving her into their daydreams. He had
At almost twenty-three years old, she had reached a tall willowiness that had bypassed the clumsy phases of adolescence
and filled out into the ripeness of womanhood with a natural grace that set her apart. Her abundant deep auburn hair
was plaited loosely into a thick rope that hung well down past her waist, the last two days of uncomfortable travel
having given her little opportunity to do more than keep it out of the way. But even the casual adoption of a
maiden's hairstyle, which had earned a frown of disapproval from her waspish sister-in-law, could not disguise the fact
that here was a woman who knew her own mind and was not afraid to fly in the face of convention.
Her eyes, some said, were her best feature, being a changeable hazel, green in some lights, brown in others, but rimmed
with thick dark lashes that made each blink an enchantment. Some insisted that her mouth excelled, wide and gently
curving over white pearly teeth. Others said it was her skin, honey-toned and flawless. She herself said that whatever
good points she had had so far done little for her, with a string of disasters to her credit and a widowhood after only
three months of marriage. The cynicism that had accumulated over the past few years could sometimes be seen as a
fleeting expression by those who loved her, and they at least were in agreement that it was hardly surprising, after
all she'd been through.
Eloise had hoped that, of all her family, her father would have understood her reasons for choosing to marry her
steward rather than accept a man of the king's choosing. "Other widows have done it, Father," she said, knowing that he
would not allow that to pass unchallenged.
"Yes, old dowagers well past breeding age," he retorted. "Of course they have, in the past, but not in the king's
reign. Edward the Third doesn't release his property without expecting a good return on it, and you are his
property, like it or not."
Eloise disliked the label. As a tenant-in-chief, her estate belonged to the king, obliging her to keep it in good and
profitable order and to supply him with a specified number of men to fight in his army each year. She would not be
allowed to remain unmarried for long while heirs were required, or while men queued for the honour of adding everything
she held, and was likely to inherit, to their own estates. For this, they would be expected to pay the king generously.
For permission to remain unmarried, Eloise would have to pay the king a heavy fine which would undoubtedly be so great
that she would find it impossible to survive. Either way, the king would gain and she would lose. The alternative was
to remove herself entirely from the degrading marriage-market and return to the sisters at Fairwell Priory who had done
their best to educate her.
The notion of marrying her own loyal steward had seemed like a good one only a week ago, but now she felt an
uncomfortable shift of the ground beneath her feet at her father's lack of understanding. "If I'd known I was going to
be left in this position quite so soon, Father, I'd not have ..."
Sir Crispin studied her, watching her flounder.
"You were in plenty of hurry to marry Sir Piers, lass," he said. "Regretting it now, are you?"
She was silent, affirming what he already suspected.
"Aye," he said. "I know. It was the other one you'd have had if pride had not got in your way. And now you're set to do
the same again, even before you have to meet each other once more."
"I don't have to meet him, Father. And you're mistaken: I care nothing for the man. I'm marrying Stephen atte Welle
because we both need the security of marriage and because we have what each other needs."
"Except the need for bairns."
"I don't need bairns."
"Don't expect me to believe that, lass. And you do have to meet him."
Excerpted from The Knight's Conquest
by Juliet Landon
Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd..
Excerpted by permission.
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