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Thrill of the Knight
By Julia Latham
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Julia Latham
All right reserved.
Gloucestershire, England, 1486
Lady Elizabeth Hutton lay curled in bed, half asleep, half awake, disturbed by the sound of pounding feet on the winding staircase that led to her tower bedchamber. Frowning, she opened her eyes to see her lady's maid, Anne Kendall, fling open the door and slam it shut behind her. She leaned back against it, breathing rapidly, her face pale.
Elizabeth sat up in bed, the coverlet falling to her waist. "Anne? What is it?"
Elizabeth groaned. "Is he still here? I was hoping that when I feigned illness yesterday rather than be introduced to him, he would realize the uselessness of his courtship."
"Then you feigned too well. He stayed."
"Does he not care that he looks a fool? I am already betrothed!" Although it didn't feel that way. She hadn't seen her betrothed since he was thirteen years old, and she eleven. And even then, it had been his brother she was first to marry. But William had died being thrown from his horse, the next brother was also dead, and she was down to John Russell. He had spent his adult life in Normandy. Had word even reached him that he was the newest heir of land and wealth—and a bride?
At least being betrothed had been aprotection of sorts. Until recently.
Anne came to perch on the edge of the bed. She had black hair and eyes framing the palest skin, and to see her looking even whiter gave Elizabeth the first inkling of fear.
"Elizabeth, his soldiers have apparently been hiding in the forest. They swarmed into the castle just now."
"Oh God, who has been killed?" she cried, flinging back the coverlet and coming to her feet. Her night rail was no protection against the early morning chill.
Anne reached to take her hand. "No one, thank God."
Elizabeth began to shake with relief. Anne handed her her dressing gown and Elizabeth gratefully wrapped it around herself. She could not take any more deaths.
"It was too overwhelming and sudden," Anne continued. "Your men were in the midst of changing duties, and no one anticipated such a maneuver. They are confined to the barracks for now, until Lord Bannaster determines what their next 'duty' should be." She hesitated. "He was still assigning guards to the base of your tower, so I was able to ascend before anyone saw me. I heard him say that he will be up to see you in one hour."
"He thinks he will be admitted to my private chamber?" Elizabeth demanded, trying to force a laugh of disbelief. She had been in command of Castle Alderley since her parents died of a fever six months before. She was not about to relinquish her control.
But Holy God, how she wished her father were here. The ache that never went away was beyond tears now. None of this would have happened if the Earl of Alderley still held the castle, if Elizabeth had any brothers to inherit the earldom. But the only family she had left were two younger sisters, sixteen and fifteen, both being educated with another family, as Elizabeth had been. She had friends and servants, people to help her, but the responsibility for them all was hers alone.
For a moment, she felt disoriented, weak, a woman caught in a situation not of her own making. Her parents were dead, her first betrothed, a man she'd worshiped from childhood on, was dead. She felt passed off to the next brother in line, and now taken advantage of by a nobleman who lusted after the earldom.
But she was not the type of woman to allow herself to feel overwhelmed. She always took matters into her own hands. After her parents' deaths, she had sent a missive to her betrothed alerting him to her situation, telling him that, although he had not planned it, he had to return to marry. She had vague memories of him always in the background being compared to the brilliance that was his eldest brother. But now he was the baron, and she had heard nothing from him. She was considered one of the greatest heiresses in the kingdom—was that not enough to lure him?
"I will let this villain speak, and then I will make whatever decision is necessary," Elizabeth said with determination. "Surely the king will not tolerate such an outrage."
"Lord Bannaster is King Henry's cousin," Anne said bleakly.
Elizabeth straightened her shoulders. "I care not. I am in the right here. He cannot force me to wed him, not when a betrothal is as binding as any marriage ceremony."
"Unless the king decrees otherwise."
Elizabeth threw up her hands. "Anne, I need no more pessimism!"
"Forgive me. I only know what you tell me, that the king is growing impatient with your maidenly status. Your unsettled estate weighs on his mind."
Elizabeth frowned at her.
Anne rose to pour water into a basin. "Let me help you prepare." But as she gathered linen and soap, she suddenly paused. Her expression turned distant, then determined.
"What are you thinking?" Elizabeth asked.
"You have never met Lord Bannaster," the maid said slowly. "Neither have I. You sent word to his lordship about your illness through another maidservant."
"Mayhap he didn't appreciate the slight," Elizabeth said with bitterness.
"Nay, that is not what I mean. I have an idea. If he keeps control of Alderley, you'll be trapped here, at his mercy."
"The king would not allow—"
Anne put up a hand. "It will be some time before the king knows what is going on here. Think you Lord Bannaster will permit someone to inform his mighty cousin? Nay, Lord Bannaster knows what he's doing is illegal. He must be counting on a few days' secrecy to conclude his plan, whatever it is."
"'Tis a good thing you were educated with me," Elizabeth observed wryly. "One of us has to show some intelligence."
Excerpted from Thrill of the Knight by Julia Latham Copyright © 2007 by Julia Latham. Excerpted by permission.
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