Read an Excerpt
August 1486 England
Braesford was finally sighted in late afternoon. It stood before them on its hill, a walled keep centered by a pele tower of massive proportions that loomed against the gray north sky. Rooks wheeled and called above the turret, soaring about its corbelled and battlemented walkway. A pennon topped it to show the master was in residence. That sturdy fabric of blue and white fluttered and snapped in the brisk wind as if trying to take flight.
Isabel Milton would have taken flight herself were it not so cowardly.
A trumpet sounded, indicating their permission to enter. Isabel shivered despite the latesummer warmth. Drawing a deep breath, she kicked her palfrey to a slow walk behind her stepbrother, the Earl of Graydon, and his friend Viscount Henley. Their mounted party approached Braesford's thick stone walls with their ragged skirt of huts and small shops, clipclopping over the dry moat, beneath the portcullis and through the gateway that gave onto a barmkin where the people of the countryside could be protected in time of trouble. Chickens flapped out of their way and a sow and her five piglets ran squealing in high dudgeon. Hounds flowed in a blackandtan river down the stone steps of the open turret stairway just ahead. They surrounded the arriving party, barking, growling and sniffing around the horses' fetlocks. Lining the way to the turret entrance was an honor guard of menatarms, though no host stood ready to receive them.
Isabel, waiting for aid to dismount, stared up at the great central manse attached to the pele tower. This portion was newly built of brick, three stories in height with corner medallions and inset niches holding terracotta figures of militant archangels. The ground floor was apparently a service area from which servants emerged to receive the baggage of the arriving party. The great hall, the heart of the structure, was undoubtedly on the second floor with the ladies' solar directly above it, there where mullioned windows reflected the turbulent sky.
What manner of man commanded this fortress, which rose in such rugged yet prosperous splendor? What combination of arrogance and audacity led him to think she, daughter of a nobleman and an heiress in her own right, should wed a mere farmer, no matter how wide his lands or impregnable his home? What rare influence had he with the king that Henry Tudor had commanded it?
A shadow loomed inside the Roman arch of the turret doorway. The broad shape of a man appeared. He stepped out onto the cobblestones. Every eye in the bailey turned to fasten upon him.
Isabel came erect in her saddle as alarm banished her weariness from the long journey. She had been misled, she saw with tight dread in her chest, perhaps through ignorance but more likely from malice. Graydon was fond of such jests.
The master of Braesford was no mere farmer.
He was, instead, a warrior.
Randall Braesford was imposing in his height, with broad shoulders made wider by the cut of his doublet. The strong musculature of his flanks and legs was closely defined by dark gray hose and high boots of the same color. His hair was black, glinting in the pale sunlight with the iridescence of a raven's feathered helmet, and worn evenly cropped just above his shoulders. His eyes were the dark silvergray of tempered steel; his features, though well cast, were made somber by the firm set of his mouth under a straight Roman nose. Garbed in the refined colors of black, white and gray, he had not the faintest hint of court dandy about him, no trace of damask or embroidery, no widebrimmed headgear set with plumes. His hat was simple, of gray wool with an upturned brim cut in crenellations like a castle wall. From the belt at his lean waist hung his knife for use at table, a fine damascene blade marked by a hilt and scabbard with tracings of silver over its black enamel.
It was no wonder he was a close companion to the king, she thought in fuming ire. They were two of a kind, Henry VII and Sir Rand Braesford. Though one was fair and the other dark, both were grave of feature and mien, forbidding in their strength and obvious determination to bend fortune to their will and their pleasure.
At her side, Viscount Henley, a veritable giant of a man on the downside of forty, with sandy hair and the battered countenance of those who made a pastime of war and jousting, swung down from his courser. He turned toward Isabel as if to assist her dismount.
"Stay," Rand Braesford called in the firm command of those accustomed to being obeyed. He advanced upon her, his stride unhurried, his gaze keen. "The privilege is mine, I believe."
An odd paralysis gripped Isabel while a hollow sensation invaded her midsection. She could not look away from Braesford's dark eyes, not even when he paused beside her. They were so very black, with shimmering depths that beckoned yet defended against penetration. Anything could be hidden there, anything at all.
The low rumble of his voice had a vibrant undertone that seemed to echo inside her. It was as intimate and as possessive as his mode of address. My lady. Not milady, but my lady.
His lady. And why not? Soon she would be his indeed.
Aware, abruptly, that she was staring, she veiled her gaze with her lashes, unhooked her knee from her pommel and turned more fully toward him. He reached for her waist with hard hands, lifting her from the saddle as she leaned to rest her gloved hands on his broad shoulders. He braced with his feet set, drawing her against him so she slid slowly down his long length until the skirt of her riding gown was drawn up and crushed between them and her booted toes barely touched the ground.
Her breath caught in her chest. Her future husband had no softness about him anywhere. His body was so unyielding from his chest to his knees that it was more like steel armor than living flesh. The sensation was particularly evident in the area below his waist. She jerked a little in his grasp, her eyes wide and fingers clenched on his shoulders, as she recognized that heated firmness against the softness of her lower belly.
He cared not at all that she knew, or so it seemed. His appraisal was intent behind the thick screen of his lashes, which seemed to permit her the same right of inspection. His eyes, she saw, carried a gleam in their depths like honed and polished silver, and thick brows made dark slashes above them. Lines radiated from the corners, perhaps from laughter but more likely from staring out over far distances. His jaw was square and his chin centered by a shallow cleft. The firm yet wellmolded contours of his mouth hinted at a sensual nature held steadfastly in check.
"Well, Braesford," her stepbrother said with the rasp of annoyance in his voice.
"Graydon," the master of the manse said over his shoulder in acknowledgment. "I bid you welcome to Braesford Hall. And would do so with more ceremony if not so impatient to greet my bride."
The words were pleasant enough, but carried an unmistakable note of irony. Did Braesford refer, most daringly, to his appreciation for her as a woman? Did he mean he was otherwise barely pleased to make her acquaintance, or was it something more between the two men?
This knight and her stepbrother had known each other during the Lancastrian invasion of the previous summer that had ended at Bosworth Field. Braesford had earned his spurs there, becoming Sir Randall Braesford. It was he who had found the golden circlet lost by the usurper, Richard III, and handed it to Lord Stanley so Henry Tudor might be crowned on the battlefield. Graydon, by contrast, had come away from Bosworth with nothing except the new king's displeasure ringing in his ears for his delay in bringing up his men. Braesford no doubt knew that her stepbrother had waited until he was sure where victory would fall before lending support to Henry's cause.
Graydon, in keeping with his dead father before him, preferred always to be on the winning side. Right was of little importance.
"A brave man, you are, to lay hands on my sister. I'd think you'd want her shriven first."
Isabel stiffened at the suggestion. Her future husband did not spare her stepbrother so much as a glance. "Why would I do that? " he asked.
"The curse, Braesford. The curse of the Three Graces of Graydon."
"I have no fear of curses." Rand Braesford's eyes lighted with silvery amusement as he smiled into hers. "It will be done with, betimes, when we are duly wed and bedded."
"So that's the way of it, is it?" Graydon gave a coarse laugh. "Tonight, I make no doubt, as soon as you have the contract in hand."
"The sooner, the better," Braesford agreed with deliberation. Setting Isabel on her feet, he placed her hand upon his arm and turned to lead her into the manse.
It was a moment before she could force her limbs to move. She walked with her head high and features impassive, leaving behind the winks and quiet guffaws of the Graydon and Braesford menatarms with the disdain they merited. Inside, her mind was in shivering chaos. She had thought to have more time, had expected a few days of rest before she need submit to a husband. In a week, or possibly two, reprieve could easily appear. It was years since any man had dared brave the curse of the Three Graces, so long that she had come to depend on its protection. Why should Braesford be the one to defeat it?
He meant to prove it false by a swift home strike. It was possible he would succeed.
Turning to look back, Isabel instinctively sought the familiar face of her serving woman, Gwynne. One of her stepbrother's menatarms had helped her from her mule and she was now directing the unloading of their baggage. That Gwynne had heard the exchange along with everyone else seemed clear from the concern in her wise old eyes that followed her and her future husband. An instant of communication passed between them, not an unusual thing as the woman had been her mother's body servant and had helped bring her and her sisters into the world. Bolstered by Gwynne's silent support, Isabel faced forward again.
The curse was a fabrication if Braesford but knew it, a thin defense created from superstition, coincidence and daring. It had been Isabel's inspiration, begun in hope of some small protection for her two younger sisters that she had helped rear after their mother died. To guard them in all ways had been her most fierce purpose since the three of them had been left with a brutish, uncaring stepfather. She had feared Cate and Marguerite, so lovely and tenderly nubile, would be bedded immediately at fourteen, the age of legal marriage following betrothals made in their cradles. By fate and God's mercy, the three of them had, between them, escaped from ten or twelve such marital arrangements without being joined in formal wedlock or losing their maidenheads. Disease, accident and the fortunes of internecine warfare had taken the lives of their prospective grooms one by one. A malignant fate surely had them in its keepingor so Isabel had suggested to all who would listen.
Mere whispers of it had served well enough for three or four years.
Then Leon, King Henry's handsome Master of Revels, who had traveled with him from France the year before, had taken up the tale out of mischief not unmixed with kindness. Well, and for the challenge of seeing how many credulous English nobles he could persuade to believe it. Dear Gwynne had helped it along among the serving wenches and menservants at Westminster Palace. The supposed curse had become akin to holy writ, a universally believed truth that death or disaster must overcome any man who attempted a loveless union with any one of the Three Graces of Graydonas Leon had styled them in token of the classical Roman fervor sweeping the court just now.
It had been a most convenient tale, regardless of the notoriety attached to it. As the eldest of the Graces, Isabel had been grateful for its protection. She had enjoyed the freedom it allowed, the endless days of peace with no one to order her except a stepbrother who was seldom at home. To be stripped of it through such an obvious misalliance as the one before her would be near unbearable. Yet how was she to prevent it?
The arm beneath the slashed sleeve of her future husband was as hard as the stone of his keep walls. Her fingers trembled a little on the dark wool that covered it, and she gripped tighter in the effort to still them. Did this man have none of the superstitious fear that ran rampant through those who prayed most mightily before every altar in the kingdom? Or was it only that he, like Henry VII, had known the Master of Revels in France?
Braesford glanced down at her with the lift of an inquiring brow. "You are cold, Lady Isabel?"
"Merely weary," she said through stiff lips, "though the wind was somewhat chill for summer, especially during the last few leagues."
"I apologize, but you will grow used to our rough weather in time," he replied with grave courtesy.
"You think, mayhap, to escape it." He led her into the tower, keeping his back to the curving wall as they mounted the narrow, winding treads so she might retain the support of his arm.
"I would not say that, but neither do I look forward to a long life spent at Braesford."
"I trust you may change your mind before the night is done."
She gave him a swift upward glance, searching the dark implacability of his eyes. He really meant to bed her before the evening was over. It was his right under canon law that recognized an official betrothal to be as binding as vows before a priest. Her heart stumbled in her chest before continuing with a more frantic beat. There must be some escape, though she could not think what it might be.
The staircase emerged in the great hall, a cavernous room with dark stone walls hung with banners and studded by stag horns. A dais lay at one end with musicians' gallery above it, and trestle tables were spaced in a double row down its length. The mellow fragrance of fresh rushes mixed with lavender and cedar hung in the air from the newly laid carpet of them that softened the stone floor. Overlaying these was the wafting scent of wood smoke from the fire that burned low on the hearth of the huge fireplace against one wall, taking the dampness from the air. As they entered, menservants were already laying linen cloths for the company.
"You will wish to retire to your chamber before the feasting begins," Braesford said as he surveyed the progress in the hall through narrowed eyes, then glanced back at the male company crowding in behind them. "I'll see you to it."