Sir Drogo LaForce has spent a lifetime chasing the family honor and wealth denied him by his bastard birth. A clever scheme to uncloak a traitor against the Crown finally promises to win him everything he desires...
Lady Isabel has been in hiding ever since an evil Norman lord killed her father and usurped her English lands. But her plot to avenge her father and free her people is threatened when a mysterious Norman knight abducts her with plans to use her for espionage.
Drogo’s fascinating captive is nothing like he anticipated. Outspoken but innocent, Isabel reluctantly submits to Drogo's tutoring in the spymaster's craft, as well as the art of making love. But their potent attraction nearly leads to disaster. In the end they must decide between their dueling appetites for riches and revenge...or love.
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A Knight of Her Own
Rogues of Rouen
By Oberon Wonch, Nina Bruhns
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2017 Oberon Wonch
All rights reserved.
England at the Scottish border Winter, 1072 A.D.
Lady Isabel of Wulflandt took a deep breath and pressed her seal into the wax on the missive Prior Wygood had composed. She had no choice. She was out of options.
In the wan light of predawn, she saw the scroll handed up to the friar mounted upon his mule in the abbey courtyard.
Her fingers twitched. She yearned to grab the treasonous document back. If it landed in the hands of the usurper Norman king or his agents, her head would surely be forfeit.
But such qualms had to be put aside. Her destitute people still counted on her, even after all her years of hiding, and she had to do something. What was more, the drive to avenge her father's bloody, needless death grew stronger with each passing day.
Thus, she allowed portly Brother Marcus to tuck the scroll into the folds of his robes for secret transport to her distant kinsman, Malcolm, King of Scotia.
"I pray thee Godspeed," she said to the friar, who sat amidst the many baskets strapped to his beast of burden.
He nodded solemnly. "My lady." With a heel to the mule, the brave soul was off, through the dilapidated gate and out into the snowy countryside.
Trying to quell the trembling in her hands, Isabel concealed her signet ring within a tiny pocket sewn into her bodice, then stood in a frozen, terrible silence, watching the friar depart.
"Let us pray this one earns reply," said her friend, the wizened, wiry Prior Wygood, who stood beside her.
"Aye," she whispered, too knotted with worry to say more. This wasn't her first letter to King Malcolm. Her earlier pleas that the Scots king take her and her retainers in, and her offer of her own hand in marriage to the Scotsman of Malcolm's choosing, had gone unanswered.
Not the least of her concerns was the gentle monk's safety on his long journey north. These were terrible times in England, and it was possible the other messengers had never reached their destination with her missives. Even if a traveler evaded wolf and tempest, he might be accosted by brigands, crazed indigents, or worse — Norman soldiers.
Such villains slaughtered barbarously and without reservation.
Yet Brother Marcus was not without protection. The flagons of mead and ale he carried — some laced with deadly belladonna — might serve as means to his safe passage, either as bribes, payment, or weaponry.
Besides, no one would expect an innocent-looking monastic to lie about his doings, which Isabel fully trusted Brother Marcus to do. All the monks at St. Swithun's had been lying for years.
"You'd best be getting back, then," the prior said at length. "Sunrise draws apace."
"Indeed. Thank you, Prior Wygood."
She turned toward the main building of the venerable but tumbledown abbey just as her sister exited the doorway.
"Quickly, Phoebe," Isabel said. "We must get back before daybreak."
Travel by darkness had become habit these many years they'd been in hiding. Isabel knew the woods and hidden trails as well as she knew how to make the morning porridge, and her bold little mare, Mercy, could trek by rote. "Did you bid farewell to Jamie for me?"
Her sister nodded, tears glittering on her eyelashes. "He tries to be a big boy, but I know he weeps. Oh, Izzie, he's our baby brother. He should be with us."
Isabel put a comforting arm around her sister. "You know he's safer here with the monks." Phoebe was a good head taller than she and her senior by four years, but Isabel was older in ability and sense. It had always been thus. Phoebe was good-hearted and kind but naive as a child. "We'll return in a fortnight. You'll see him then."
Phoebe sniffled, wiping her nose with the back of her tattered mitten.
Isabel reached up to her sister's face and brushed back a straggled lock of hair. "Let's go home."
Only for her sister's sake did Isabel call the hermit's cave where they dwelled home. The dark, damp place barely served as shelter, but it had passed as such for much of the five years since the Normans had butchered her father, Earl Bodewin, and taken over his fortress and their family estates at Wulflandt.
A league from the abbey grounds, their quiet mount picked her way through the woods, following an ancient deer trail that folk in the area had used since before the Romans came. So far, it had been a safe route. But it was only a matter of time before these latest invaders, the Normans from across the sea, learned of the track and all the others like it woven through the heaths.
"You're holding me too tightly," Isabel told her sister. Not only did Phoebe ride behind with her arms wrapped immovably about Isabel's waist, but the bigger girl had laid her head on the back of Isabel's shoulders, too, making a heavy burden that doubled the difficulty of the journey.
Phoebe made no effort to alter her position, and Isabel glanced heavenward with a groan.
A male voice nearby broke the silence of the frosty air, chilling her blood. She drew Mercy to a halt beside a dense bramble thicket. In the gray light, the puffs of steam from the horse's nostrils swirled like a ghostly veil.
Isabel listened intently, her heart pounding in her ears. There it was again. It had to be coming from the old stone road, which ran parallel to the path she'd been following, but a few yards off through the trees.
"Lady, are ye out there?" the voice queried. "I've fresh meat for yer blade, I do."
The language was her own, but the accent was strange. Neither Norman, Danish, nor Scots.
"A true prize," the person proclaimed. He sounded youthful, like a boy, even. "A Norman pig, no less."
A thud and a scuffle followed, accompanied by what sounded like a moan of pain.
Isabel nudged her sister with an elbow. "Get down," she whispered.
"What is it?" Phoebe asked groggily. She'd been asleep. No wonder she'd felt so weighty.
"Keep quiet and slide down. I must see what is up ahead."
They were both accustomed to furtive travel, so Phoebe did as she was told in utter silence. Isabel often had to stop, let Phoebe down, and go on ahead to ensure the path was safe.
"Stay here and don't allow anyone to see you. I'll be gone for just a bit. We might have to bide here until this churl moves on."
She urged Mercy forward until a break in the shrubbery allowed her a peek at the road.
The rising sun was a mere glow between the trees to the east, and in its weak light she could make out a small lad on horseback, in the road and facing away from her. A few feet in front of him, a man was on his knees, hanging his head. His arms were pulled behind him, bound at the wrists and wrenched upward by a rope attached to the saddle horn, amplifying the bulk in his beefy shoulders.
Isabel winced in empathy at the man's obvious discomfort. The boy had taken this man prisoner? But how? The man's size alone would have made such a thing impossible. Despite the humble position in which he knelt, his immensity could not be mistaken.
Neither could the power in his form. Amongst her father's housecarls and all the Norman warriors who had overrun the land, she'd never seen a man as fit as this. Not even the local English hero, Leofric, who still waged a covert war against the invaders, could match him in that regard.
The prisoner's sinewy forearms were exposed by the rolled-up sleeves of his iron-colored tunic, and his powerful thighs looked as if honed by the constant command of a restless stallion.
Isabel's grip on Mercy's reins slackened as a tremble slithered through her limbs. For a brief moment, assessing the stranger's strength rendered her weak with fear.
Then she tightened her fists.
Ruthlessly, she pushed away the feelings of powerlessness. No one would ever know her to be soft again, least of all herself. She ran away the night her father had lost his life defending their home, but as God was her witness, she would never run away again.
Still, caution was warranted. The smaller fellow had said he had a Norman in tow. Indeed, the captive wore his dark hair shorn close at the back and sides and thicker on top — in the fashion of Norman knights. He also wore spurs, a sure sign of a knight.
She stifled the urge to spit into the snow. She hated the Normans — especially the new lord of her father's lands, Wace de Belleterre. Hated them and what they'd done to her father, her folk, and her way of life. They were dangerous and bellicose, every one of them, and this warrior likely served de Belleterre himself.
But the man's clothing appeared spattered with mud — or was it blood? It was difficult to tell at this distance, and him with his back to her. He was constrained, possibly injured. What harm could he do her?
And the other person was only a boy. Little to be concerned about.
Neither fellow had detected her presence yet, concealed as she was behind an overgrown brier, but the lad called out to the landscape around him. "This one's ballocks'll outweigh 'em all, fer certain. They'll make a nice pair o' baubles to hang on a gilt chain 'round yer neck. Or weights fer yer loom, if ye got one."
Ah, so that was what the lad was about. He was seeking the mysterious Blue Lady of the Woods, Isabel's carefully constructed alter ego.
She nudged Mercy forward, out of the brush.CHAPTER 2
Still on his knees, Drogo LaForce muttered a curse. He never should have let the lad surprise him with that shove to the back, which had knocked him clear off his feet. While clever and realistic, the maneuver had left them both vulnerable to attack.
Drogo was about to spring back up, to warn his squire, Orlando, against further improvisation, when his flesh prickled. From the corner of his eye, he caught his stallion raising its head, nervously sniffing the air.
Someone was nigh.
A woman's voice from behind shattered the frigid air. "How is it you have managed to capture this hulking trophy?"
His head whipped about at the same time that Orlando twisted in his saddle. They'd both been taken unawares, though they'd been on the lookout since leaving Heathton Village. How had someone come upon them so suddenly, in such utter stealth?
Astonished at what he saw, Drogo squeezed his eyes shut. Then he looked again.
At the edge of the trees, barely thirty paces back, stood an elegant mare, milk-white and slender. The tip of her long tail brushed the earth when the breeze rose, and her silken mane fluttered. The horse was amazing in appearance — ghostly, fey, a beast from a child's tale.
Yet what really astounded was the maiden astride its back.
Aye, a maiden, in a sapphire-hued cloak with a voluminous hood that billowed over her shoulders. White-blonde curls rimmed her face.
A girl's face, rosy from the cold.
In the absence of response, the maiden said to Orlando, "You are too small a boy to have caught him alone."
It was a girl's voice but stout and bold.
"Are ye th-the Blue Lady?" Orlando managed to query. Fear had palsied him.
Drogo couldn't fault the lad for a momentary weakness. Their quarry, the Blue Lady, was credited with magical, bloodthirsty doings, beginning with her disappearance from Wulflandt Castle five years earlier in a ball of fire, just as the Norman host was closing in.
But her true infamy came from seducing King William's stoutest knights, only to deprive them of their manhood in a grisly butchering.
Seasoned warriors shivered to hear her name.
"I asked my question first," she said, nudging her mount closer.
Confident he and the lad had prepared thoroughly for this moment and that Orlando would conquer his diffidence, Drogo ignored the squire's fearful glance his way and instead feigned the appearance of a man who had just come from a reckless bout of drinking — vapid, inattentive, drowsy. He'd rubbed salt in his eyes earlier to make them bloodshot.
With his face dirty and his beard a few days old, the hiccup he added seemed just the right touch.
As the maiden came near, he evaluated her askance, noting her thick riding gloves, her calf's hide boots — high-status accoutrements for an English peasant, though the items showed wear. He'd heard the local people took as much care of the Blue Lady as they could, treating her to what meager luxury lay at their disposal. The Blue Lady was an emblem of their former English glory and of their hope to regain that glory by triumphing over their new Norman lords.
A vain hope, indeed.
But this girl? The terrifying Blue Lady? She could not be the experienced, mature seductress he'd been seeking.
Their informant had predicted they would find her near two great pines at the edge of Silver Loch, and two towering evergreens did stand imposing beside the forest road, with the leaden surface of the lake visible just beyond.
But this girl bore the semblance of a maiden in every sense, young and untried, not that of a symbolic legend who rallied her people by day and lured enemy warriors to their emasculation by night. Mud splattered her clothing and boots. A ragged tear marred the hem of her cloak. This was not the condition in which he expected to see a renowned temptress.
Curse the lass for getting in the way. He needed the Blue Lady.
His squire attempted reply. "Well, I — I ..."
"I asked how you came by this prize."
As Drogo had foreseen, Orlando mustered his bravery, puffing out his chest. "'Tis a matter of cunning over brawn, milady. If a lady you be, that is."
Adding substance to his boast, Orlando yanked on the rope, which forced Drogo's hands high up behind him. It hurt, but not much. The action served to ensure the manacles were exposed, to make him less of a threat.
Orlando went on. "After a fight with two of yer local churls, the sluggard celebrated his victory overmuch. I waited until he keeled over. Slipped 'em on before he could wink open an eye, I did."
Drogo heaved himself to one foot, then clumsily stood. He hung his head in feigned debility.
"Are you the one who got him drunk?" A smile touched her voice.
"Well, now, I can't spill all my secrets, can I?"
"Aye, we wouldn't want you to do that." Her humor dropped away. "You speak strangely. Whence do you hail?"
"Italia," she repeated, as if testing the sound on her tongue. "Is that in Normandy?" Distaste peppered her words.
"Nay, 'tis the Holy Empire, which be no friend to Normandy."
"What lord do you follow?"
"I follow only myself." Orlando might as well have thumped his chest with a fist as he made that proud statement.
And to think, last year this lad had been a throw-away child, found stealing apples for his dinner. Now he served as the staunchest of vassals, answering questions exactly as Drogo had instructed him to.
"I see." The girl nudged her chin Drogo's way. "What are you planning to do with him?"
"I hope to sell him to the Blue Lady. I hear she pays in silver. The bigger the bloke, the higher her price. An' this one's as big as they come."
The girl visually assessed Drogo. Her gaze connected with his. In one brief, stabbing moment, he thought she'd seen through his trickery.
He forced his stare to go vacant.
Her attention moved to his groin. "He may be Goliath in the flesh," she said, openly studying him. "But I heard 'tisn't the size of the bloke that matters to the Blue Lady. 'Tis the size of his stones. She has a scale of brass once owned by a Roman governor in Lundinium, which she uses to determine her payment."
"But that would mean —"
The girl smiled evenly. "Aye. She cuts them off first, then pays."
"But that won't do. I must know the payment ere I hand him over. There's a lord hereabouts who also buys Norman scum, but he wants them alive."
"De Belleterre." There was no mistaking the bitterness in her tone.
"Aye, the same. He's told me his price for this catch, but I will sell to the highest bidder."
The maiden scowled. "Take him away, then. What care I what you do with him?"
Drogo stifled a growl. This wasn't how it was supposed to go. He needed the Blue Lady, damn it! If this girl could lead him to their prey ...
His squire paused. "As you wish. To de Belleterre I go." With a severe tug on the rope, the lad began to turn his mount about.
Drogo fought the impulse to resist. If she allows us to depart —
"Wait." At the girl's shout, the white mare she rode tossed its head and whinnied. The girl slipped down from her saddle. "I will give you a price, and it will be higher than de Belleterre's."
"Are you the Blue Lady?"
"I'm the one you seek, curse you. Hold him still."
This was she. Drogo braced himself.
Excerpted from A Knight of Her Own by Oberon Wonch, Nina Bruhns. Copyright © 2017 Oberon Wonch. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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