After glimpsing a softer side to the stern Sir Roland of Dunborough, Mavis of DeLac is filled with hope for their arranged marriage. So when the wedding night explodes with an exquisite passion, she dares to dream that their newfound bliss will last forever.
But the following morning, convinced he could never make this beautiful woman truly happy, Roland becomes cold and aloof once again. And as the newlyweds journey across England to protect Roland's birthright, it's up to Mavis to prove him wrongand unlock the compassion this noble knight has buried deep inside.
"Moore. Moore. Moore. Fans will love her newest medieval romance." RT Book Reviews on Castle of the Wolf
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Surrounded by wooden chests packed with dower goods, two young women faced each other in the chamber they once shared. One was dark-haired and dressed in soft, doe-brown wool. The other, fair and lovely, wore her finest gown of green silk, for this was her wedding day.
"You don't have to marry him, Mavis," Tamsin said to her beloved cousin. "Whatever your father's told you, or however he's threatened you, you have the right to refuse. Neither he, nor the church, nor the law can force you to marry against your will. Rheged and I will be happy to offer you sanctuary or take you anywhere"
"No, please, that won't be necessary," Mavis interrupted, smiling as she shook her head. Tamsin hadn't been in the solar when her father had proposed the marriage between his daughter and Sir Roland of Dunbor-ough. Because she had, Mavis spoke with confidence. "I gave my consent to marry freely, Tamsin, and was pleased to do so. I think you're wrong about Sir Roland.
I know what his father and brother were like, but he's not the same."
"How can you be certain?" Tamsin asked. "You've only just met him."
"When we were in the solar with my father, Sir Roland asked me if I would marry him. He gave me the choice, Tamsin, and I'm certain he would have released me from any agreement my father had made if I had requested it. More than that, he wasn't looking at me like a merchant wondering if he'd made a good bargain, or with triumph, as if he'd won a prize. He was almost wistful."
"Wistful?" Tamsin repeated warily. "Sir Roland?"
"Whatever one chooses to call it, I saw something that makes me certain he's not like any other man I've ever met, and that we can be happy. Oh, Tamsin, I realize that to most people he appears hard and cold and arrogant, but when we were in Father's solar, he wasn't arrogant or vain. He was kind, even gentlevery different from the way he is in the hall and vastly different from his father and brother."
"Have you ever been alone with him?"
Mavis couldn't meet her cousin's unwavering gaze. "No, we've never been alone."
That wasn't precisely true, but the one time she had been alone with Roland, he hadn't seen her. He'd been in the stable, talking to his horse in a low, soothing voice, and she'd been hiding.
She had never told anyone about that early morning when she'd been preparing to flee rather than marry at her father's command. That memory was a sweet thing, a secret only she knew, and she didn't want to share it. Nor, did she think, would Sir Roland be pleased if he learned that she'd told anyone he talked to his horse.
Tamsin took her cousin's hands in hers and held them tight as her gaze searched Mavis's face. "You met Roland's father twice and elder brother only once, and here, where they were on what passed for their best behavior. My husband's spent time at their castle. He knows them better, Mavis, and he told me how cruel Sir Blane was to everyone, including his sons. He laughed when Broderick and Gerrard mocked Roland, and called Roland a host of terrible names when he wouldn't strike back."
"But he didn't strike back."
"That's why Rheged considers him the best of the family. But he can fight, too. Rheged saw him in a melee, and while his twin brother fought boldly, almost joyfully, Roland fights to win."
"Surely there's nothing wrong with that."
"Not in battle, I suppose. Yet there is more to consider. Sir Blane openly encouraged the rivalries between his sons, and their animosity. He wouldn't even say which one of the twins, Roland or Gerrard, was born first. That way they would never know who would have the right to inherit should something happen to Broderick." Tamsin looked down a moment before continuing, obviously still dismayed by what she'd done, even though she'd acted to save the man she loved. "As it did."
"Someone must have known, though," Mavis protested, and hopefully, turning her cousin's thoughts from Broderick's death. "A secret like that couldn't be kept in a large household."
"In that one it could, for their mother died in childbirth and the midwife slipped on the steps after attending to her. She died of a broken neck. Some say Sir Blane killed her just to keep the secret, and there are plenty who believe it. Even if it was an accident, if people can believe such a rumor, what does that tell you about the family?"
Mavis pulled her hands free. "There are always rumors about noblemen, and I'm well aware that Sir Blane could be cruel."
"Cruel and lustful. You saw for yourself how Sir Blane and Broderick treated women. What if Roland is the same?"
Mavis flushed, for she'd more than seen how Sir Blane and Broderick treated women. The memory of Broderick's lewd, leering threats were fresh, and the mention of his name alone was enough to fill her with disgust. Nevertheless, she held to her first impression of his brother Roland. "I'm sure Roland's a better man than his father and brothers. You fell in love with your husband quickly, didn't you? Just as you thought you could be happy with Rheged shortly after meeting him, I believe I can be happy with Roland. Otherwise, I would have refused the betrothal, no matter what my father ordered, or any threats he made."
"Then I suppose I must trust your judgment," Tamsin said with a wry, yet sorrowful, little smile, "but if"
A furious pounding rattled the chamber door. "My lady!" young Charlie called on the other side. "They're waiting for you in the chapel!"
"We're coming!" Tamsin replied before she hurriedly embraced her cousin. "Promise me that if you're wrong about Roland, if he makes you unhappy or hurts you in any way, you'll come to us at Cwm Bron. There'll be no recriminations, no censure, from me or anyone else."
"I will," Mavis vowed, telling herself she was right about Sir Roland of Dunborough, so there would be no need.
* * *
Sir Roland stood straight as a lance as he awaited his bride in the chapel of Castle DeLac. He kept his expression stoic and impassive, although he had never been so anxious in his life. He could all too easily believe that the bride might not appear. He was, after all, his father's son, and that alone would be enough to scare a woman away, even if she'd agreed when the marriage had first been proposed.
Indeed, he'd more than half expected her to refuse. Yet she'd readily accepted, and, even more surprising, had looked at him not as if considering only his title and his wealth, but as if she'd like to be his friend.
Never in all his life had anyone, male or female, sought his friendship. Nor had he sought anyone else's, not since he was a small boy. He had learned early that to seek affection from any creature was to make himself open to loss and pain, and might cause suffering for the object of his affection. He had found and nursed a sick black-and-white kitten back to health, keeping it hidden in the barn, until Broderick had found it and tormented the poor thing. He had pleaded with his older brother to stop, to leave Shadow alone. Broderick had responded by beating Roland until his nose bled and his eye was swollen shut. Shadow had fled the barn and never been again.
After that, he had never outwardly and publicly shown any affection for any person or animal. He hadn't even spoken to the lads of the village, or the sons of the servants, lest they suffer, too.
Gerrard's teasing and mockery hurt far worse than any beating and lingered longer. "Is the little baby going to cry?" he'd said then, and many times after. "Is Rolly going to sob like a girl? Better fetch him a dress!"
And there had been more. "No woman of any worth will ever want a cold stick like you. No woman will ever love you unless she's paid. You have no wit, no charm, nothing to recommend you to anybody except our father's wealth and title."
Now he nearly smiled, envisioning Gerrard's surprise when he returned to Dunborough with his beautiful bride, especially if a woman of such worth wanted him for more than wealth or power. That would truly be a triumph and the fulfillment of a dream he'd scarcely allowed himself to harbor.
"What's keeping the wench?" Lord DeLac muttered, leaning his bulky body against Roland and reeking of wine. Not even his expensive, long blue tunic and gold-linked belt sitting below his belly, or the equally thick gold chain about his neck, could hide the man's coarse nature.
No doubt the lady would be glad to be out of her father's household and it was tempting to think of himself as a hero from a ballad who had come to save a lovely damsel from a monster.
"Women!" DeLac grumbled, a frown creasing his wide, bearded face. "Nuisances, the lot of them."
"Even your own daughter, my lord?"
"Well, she's a woman, isn't she?"
Yes, she was very much a woman, Roland thought as he scanned the chapel without moving his head. Although hastily assembled, given that it had been less than a sennight since he'd arrived and the marriage agreed upon, there was the usual assortment of guests one could expect at the union of two powerful families, including the nobles and hangers-on who'd come to any feast. Also among them would be those who wanted to be noticed and those who would be noticed regardless of their station, like Sir Rheged of Cwm Bron, the husband of his bride's cousin. Few men were as tall as Roland, but he was. Fewer men wore their hair to their shoulders, as they both did. Even fewer were Welshmen, or had that aura of power and command Rheged possessed. Such a man could be a valuable ally, or a dangerous enemy.
No one from Roland's family or household was there, of course. Even if he had wanted his twin brother in attendance, there hadn't been enough time.
His gaze drifted to Sir Rheged again.
He well recalled Sir Rheged's prowess in tournaments. Nobody had been more delighted than he when Rheged defeated his boastful braggart of an older brother, and nobody was more grateful that Rheged's wife, that slender slip of a woman, had rid the world of Broderick. After Broderick had disgracefully attacked and killed an old man, he had then fought and nearly killed Rheged, even though the man was so sick he could barely stand. Tamsin had killed him in the struggle to save her wounded husband.
Rheged had surely spoken of him to Mavis. Perhaps he also owed Rheged for her good opinion.
"If I have to send someone to fetch her again," her father muttered, "she'll regret it!"
"If someone needs to fetch her, I will go," Roland said. And if he found she'd changed her mind, he would leave DeLac at once.
Fortunately, and to his vast relief, the sound of the crowd of villagers, soldiers and servants gathered outside in the courtyard began to grow louder, like the dull roar of ocean waves in the distance. Everyone in the chapel turned expectantly toward the opening doorsand there was Mavis, her white veil not quite covering her golden hair that shimmered in the autumn sunlight, a smile on her beautiful face.
A fierce hunger that was more than lust seized him as his bride walked toward him with slow deliberate steps, her head high, a smile on her luscious lips, her shining, bright blue eyes holding his. Friendship, much as he desired it, suddenly seemed a weak and feeble thing compared to what her smile promised.
"Thank God," Lord DeLac said under his breath.
Roland didn't reply. His happiness had diminished, for he saw that despite her smile, his bride's lips trembled, making him fear she wasn't as confident and happy as she was trying to appear.
That was probably so of every bride, he told himself, and given his family, some trepidation should surely be expected. Once they were wed, though, he would do all he could to make her see that he was not like the rest of his family. He was the dutiful, honorable son of Sir Blane of Dunborough, not the cruel, greedy Broderick or a wastrel like Gerrard.
Joining them at the altar, Mavis stood between Roland and her father as Father Bryan appeared from the sacristy and began to bless their union.
Roland scarcely breathed throughout the entire ceremony. He dreaded someone suddenly objecting or Gerrard bursting through the doors. Mercifully nothing untoward occurred before he put the ring on the bride's finger and the priest spoke of sealing their vows, then looked at him expectantly.
The kiss. He was supposed to kiss his bride.
No woman of any worth will ever want a cold stick like you.
Roland was no novice, no lad about to kiss a lass for the first time. He had been with women, albeit only when natural urges threatened to distract him from his duties, and even then, the coupling had been a simple transaction, money for service provided.
This was his wife. His beautiful, desirable wife, who could make the gods jealous, let alone Gerrard, andbest of allwho had agreed to the marriage.
He took Mavis in his arms and kissed her, and it was no perfunctory, public kiss. It was a kiss to show them allincluding Mavisthat he knew how to love a woman.
Until she slid her arms around him and parted her lips. Thrilled, excited, he forgot everything except her and deepened the kiss. He would have kept kissing her had not Lord DeLac loudly cleared his throat and muttered that he was starving.
Roland drew back and was even more delighted when he saw that although Mavis, blushing with suitable maidenly modesty, looked down at the floor, there was a little smile playing about her lips that made him wish the wedding feast was over, so they could be alone.
And in the bridal bed.