Evil is everywhere, and General Constantine Gerard has witnessed more than his share. Yet he never dreamed the ugliness that darkened the castle at Chastellet would cost him his wife and child. Now he has nothing left to lose—and nothing to live for, save the vengeance he vows to unleash on Glayer Felsteppe, the man who destroyed his family.
Theodora Rosemont, too, has suffered at Glayer’s hands. When Constantine finds her, she is barely alive, and desperate to find her baby, who was snatched away by Glayer’s men mere moments after his birth. Bonded by their common enemy, Constantine and Dori embark on a treacherous journey, determined to rescue the child and vanquish the father. But as emotions run high and secrets are revealed, passion could compromise their quest, leaving more than just their hearts in peril . . .
Praise for Heather Grothaus’s Valentine
“Readers will enjoy getting to know these characters and look forward to finding out more about Valentine’s three friends in future installments.”—Library Journal
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By Heather Grothaus
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Heather Grothaus
All rights reserved.
March 1182 England
Dori came awake with a gasp and then gave a weak cry as the side of her head banged into a hard surface. Her neck was too weak to hold herself erect in time to avoid the next rocking blow and she tried to throw out her hands in the churning darkness as her lungs struggled to draw sufficient breath. Oh, God, she must be in hell — a cold, damp, black hell that was trying to shake her bones from her body and deafen her with its roar.
She spun her fear into strength and lunged forward, praying she wouldn't launch herself into an eternal descent. "Help me," she croaked, her arms flailing in the darkness.
But someone caught her. "There now," a stern voice cautioned, taking firm grasp of her left forearm and right shoulder, pushing her backward once more but so that she sat aright. "You must come to your senses, Lady Theodora. Light the lamp, boy; perhaps if she can see, she will not be in such a fright."
Dori's lips felt half numb, blubbery, so that the words she struggled to speak were little more than humming mumbles. Panic wrapped around her heart like an icy fist. Where was she? Why was she so frightened of this dark place? And why did she feel as though she had been dunked in the frigid spring river running past Thurston Hold? Cold, so cold ...
A searing, yellow-white flash blinded her; she hadn't known for certain her eyes had been open. Now she squeezed them shut and tried to turn her head away from the explosion of brightness, rewarding herself with another blow to the side of her face as the seat beneath her lurched and sent her into what was possibly a wooden panel.
Then the roaring sound filtered through her panic: wheels on a road. The rocking, jostling — she must be in a carriage. It was night. But why was she wet? And what was that dreadful smell, rich and fecund, like —
Blood. She was smelling her own blood.
And it was in that moment she remembered: her baby. They had stolen her baby. She'd heard the weak cry through the haze of her stupor and then it had gone. They must have poisoned her again to keep her docile. And now she was in a carriage traveling in the night to ... where?
But she was not alone, and the voice of her chaperon was all too familiar. Dori opened her eyes the tiniest crack, tears flooding and blurring her vision as she struggled to confirm the identity of the person across the short space from her. The damned priest, Simon, whose presence had turned what should have been the happiest moments of her life — her wedding, the birth of her child — into nightmares, was in the opposite seat, along with a young boy who was carefully hanging the lamp on a hook next to the carriage door. The servant lad showed no interest in her at all as he sat back against the seat, his face turned toward the curtained window.
"How do you fare, my lady?" Simon asked matter-of-factly, as if he was doing nothing more out of the ordinary than greeting her in the morning.
Dori tried to blink away the nonsensical water from her eyes — she wasn't crying, yet the tears continued to flow. "Where is my baby?" she croaked, feeling as if her throat was lined with blades and tasting the film of old vomit in her mouth. She felt a prickling deep behind her ears.
The priest swallowed. "He is safe. He is with your husband."
He — a boy. She'd borne a son.
"Then he is not safe. Take me to him. He needs me. He needs to feed."
"His needs will be attended to."
The rocking carriage caused the bile to rise in her throat and she strangled for a moment, fighting the urge to vomit. "I'm ill," she managed to choke out in warning.
Father Simon rapped on the ceiling of the carriage with his walking stick, the sharp sound sending slivers into Dori's brain. But the conveyance lurched obediently to a halt and the priest was seizing her arms, hauling her through the door the boy held open for them.
Theodora vomited on the side of the road, feeling that her insides were being expelled from her as her skirts were drenched with more blood and Simon gripped her arms from behind.
"The potion will wear off soon," he said from somewhere over her head. "Your bleeding will hopefully slow." The priest pulled her aright and then reached into his cassock as if searching for something. "You will likely recover, but you must try to be as still as you can manage for the next several hours. It will be a challenge, considering —"
Theodora didn't wait to see what he would have retrieved, but reached up with clawlike hands to grab at Father Simon's narrow face. "What have you done with my baby?"
"You must go away now," he insisted calmly, ignoring her question as he pushed her weak fingers away. "Far away. This carriage shall take you to a ship."
"No! Not without my baby!" Dori sobbed now, each breath searing her throat like a torch as she struggled to free herself from the priest's grasp that both restrained and supported her. "He's mine and you know it! They've stolen him! You stole him!"
"Listen to me!" Simon gave her a sudden shake and, for the first time since she had known the priest, she heard a thread of fear in his normally emotionless voice. "I have committed a great sin. One that I cannot undo. There is no hope for me beyond God's mercy."
"You are the devil," Theodora accused.
"He told me to kill you," the priest said, shaking her again as if desperate that she should understand him. "That I will not do. And I cannot give you your son. But there is someone who can perhaps help you. You must go there quickly and you must leave tonight. If he finds that you are still alive ..."
Theodora only sobbed, clutching at the priest's robes as he let the thought go unfinished.
"There is a ship at the docks, leaving tonight. In only hours," he said with urgency. "You must see its journey to the end. Up the Danube to the town of Melk, where there is an abbey. Give this to the abbot there — Victor. Tell him who you are and what has been done to you. If there is any help to be had for you ..." He broke off again, and Theodora felt him peel away one of her hands and then press a small disk-shaped object into it. "There is a sack of some of your belongings and what coin I could spare inside the carriage."
Dori went very still, feeling the warm, round disk in her hand, like a little ember compared to the cold, wet spring air blasting past her heavy skirts but not moving them, sticking together and to her legs as they were wet with congealing blood. Simon wanted her to go away. He wanted to forget she existed. Of course he did. Likely he hoped she'd die before reaching whatever made-up destination of which he spoke.
The priest continued. "If you do as I say, there may still be hope for you and your child."
"But not for you," Theodora whispered, feeling a strange vibration coming from the road through the soles of her heretofore numb feet, frozen in her thin, sticky slippers. It was like a thread of lightning coursing through her, and she felt strength spreading to her legs, her spine, her arms, her heart.
She realized then that it was not lightning sizzling through her body but a fiery rage, rousing her fully from her torpor at last. And Dori welcomed it.
"You will burn in hell for this," she continued in a low voice, hardly noticing that it had lost most of its rasp.
"Perhaps," the priest acquiesced, and there was a tremble to the word when it passed his lips.
"You may as well go tonight." Theodora raised both hands and shoved Simon with a sudden burst of furious energy, sending the priest backward down the rocky embankment past the edge of the road. His body disappeared into the darkness, taking his echoing shouts of surprise and pain with him.
She stood there swaying drunkenly on her feet, relishing for a cold moment the thought of the priest's bones being broken and snapped, his head crushed on the stones below. But then she remembered she was not alone on the road and turned her head as quickly as her flagging strength would allow to find the servant boy. He stared back at her apathetically.
"You would attack me now, I suppose?" she asked with as much bravado as she could muster, her fire having burned out quickly. He seemed to be perhaps ten years of age, but stocky, likely from the physical exertion placed upon him by the menial labor he performed. Dori knew he could easily overtake her at that moment.
But the boy shook his blond head before looking toward the edge of the cliff where Simon had disappeared. "No, milady. I'll fetch Father back up to the road if I can and take him back to the house." He met her eyes again.
Theodora frowned, but she would not let the boy take advantage of her weakened state. She could afford no sympathy for any child save her own. "What will you tell them when you return?"
He looked back at the embankment, as if so disgusted either by her actions or her appearance that he couldn't long stand the sight of her. "That a woman tried to kill Father Simon. That she left in a carriage for a ship."
"You little spy," Dori accused. "You would betray me even knowing the evil that has been done to me?"
He shrugged, still avoiding her gaze. "I'm not a spy. If I'm turned out, I've nowhere to go." He glanced at the carriage. "You should go yourself, if you would. Before the driver comes inquiring. He expects only one of us to disembark at the docks any matter."
Theodora's hand raised from her side before she knew she was moving it, her fingers pinching the edge of the coin given to her by the priest as if it were an odious thing. "Here," she said curtly. "Perhaps this will change your mind about what you saw tonight. Use it to buy food or something."
The boy opened his palm and accepted the gold, only now daring to glance into Dori's face. "Are you certain, milady? Father said this is the only way you —"
"I trust nothing that viper said. I certainly am not getting into a carriage bound for who knows where so that someone with marginally fewer morals can do the job he was too much of a coward to complete." Besides, the mere thought of getting back into that rocking conveyance made her feel like vomiting again. "You must only tell me: In which direction is Thurston Hold?"
But the boy was now staring at the carriage as if mesmerized.
He blinked and then turned to point behind Dori, away from the rear of the carriage and down the dark road that disappeared into the black of the night.
If they had been on the way to the docks, she must be standing on the old Roman road to Chatham. Dori looked all around her, and then up into the clear, cold sky, feeling for any clue as to how far away she was from her home. But she may as well have been stranded in a foreign land rather than standing beneath the sky that had sheltered her since the moment of her birth. The stars seemed to be turning slowly above her, the black bowl of sky rotating as if balanced on a spindle. ...
The faint moaning of the priest from the abyss near the road startled her back to her predicament. He wasn't dead after all.
Theodora began limping toward Thurston Hold, her steps mincing, dragging, gentle. She paused when she heard the carriage door open and turned in time to see the boy calling up to the driver as he stood on the threshold of the opening.
"We're off," he said. "Don't stop until you reach the ship. The passenger will see himself disembarked." He turned his head to look at Dori as the carriage began rolling away into the darkness. "My thanks for the coin, mistress," he called past his cupped hand. "I hope you get your baby back. A boy needs a mother, even if she's not a good one."
"I am!" she tried to call after him angrily, but her voice had given out again, allowing only a creaky rasp to escape her throat. The carriage disappeared into the black, its jingle and rumble already fading. "I am a good mother," she croaked, and now the wetness that came from her eyes welled from the sorrow she was still trying so desperately to suppress. "I would be. I will be."
"Help me, boy," Father Simon called out from beyond the cusp of the road, his voice breaking as if he struggled physically. "My arm — I think it's broken. Boy? Boy, are you there?"
In an instant, Dori's despair turned into a hard pebble of determination, dropped from the night sky into the storm-tossed sea of her broken heart, endless glittering, concentric ripples of rage radiating from it. She glared toward the chasm, feeling heat pour from her eyes as surely as any rays of light from the sun that would not shine for hours and hours on this cold, dark road.
Perhaps, for Dori, it would never shine again.
She began backing away down the road once more, ignoring the pulling in her abdomen, the freshened wetness on her thighs, the void that consumed not only her body but also her soul.
Theodora Rosemont would get her son back, no matter what she had to do. And she would see those who helped take him from her — who stole her very life — pay dearly.
Especially her husband, Glayer Felsteppe.CHAPTER 2
Constantine left the road some distance before the village, choosing instead to navigate the steeply rounded hill on the edge of the wood, slick with new grass and dewy in the setting sun. April had turned the land to green velvet, and the familiar smell of the heavy, cool air teased his nostrils and twisted his heart. He'd sold the black horse upon which he'd ridden away from Melk long ago, but he was glad he wasn't now sitting up high on a mount, forced to look around and ahead at what was one of the largest and wealthiest estates south of London, gazing out across Kent toward the sea.
He was glad, because the breeze carried no sounds of busy planting, no rumble of cart wheels on the road or jingle of harness in a frantic, last-minute rush to get in another quarter hour's work before the sun set. Nay, the squares of fields around Benningsgate lay tousled and wild with many winters' growth. There was no one left to plant for, and so those who planted had gone. Most of them any matter; as Constantine hitched around the mound of the village he heard the occasional bark of a lonely dog, the shout of a woman calling someone to supper. He wondered for a moment if he knew any of the stragglers who had remained in the village, but then he decided it didn't really matter. He wasn't anyone's lord anymore. He wasn't anyone at all. He kept his gaze downward, his rough hood pulled over his head, delaying the first sight of what was left of his home for as long as possible.
His boots seemed to find their way back around to the road on the far side of the village on their own, and soon Constantine walked in the grassy ruts where once hard-packed earth had marked the way to the castle. No carts or riders came beyond the village now. There was no reason to. And so the road was little more than shallow, parallel ditches up the slope. It would curve to the right soon — yes, just here. His feet followed the path, his legs marched in a steady rhythm, his breath hissed and shushed in and out of his nostrils. The sun setting through the blooming trees to his left cast a crackle of black shadows across his route, as if the land had been broken, shattered.
Just like Constantine's heart, his life.
It was four months since he'd left Melk in the night. Four months without the three men who had become like brothers to him at his side. Not an evening passed that he didn't think of Roman Berg and pray for his safe return from the Holy Land. Constantine had heard no rumors on his journey of the king of Jerusalem's murder, and so he hoped the huge stonemason had not sacrificed his own life to save Baldwin.
He thought of Adrian and was glad for the softening of his heart upon marrying Maisie. He wondered if Aid was still content at the abbey, with his duties and his studies.
He thought of Valentine and pondered how long the wily Spaniard would withstand such a mundane life, even with the beautiful Lady Mary and little Valentina to think of. Piracy ran in his blood after all.
God, he missed them all so much. They had become like family when he had still thought to one day return to his own wife and son. And then they had become his only family, because Patrice and Christian were dead.
Excerpted from Constantine by Heather Grothaus. Copyright © 2017 Heather Grothaus. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Great book, great characters, great series…loved it! I have wanted to know about Constantine from the beginning. He is a leader of men, tormented and mysterious. My attention was caught in the first few pages and it did not wane till the end. Of the four books I do believe this one is my favorite. Theodora “Dori” Rosemont is one of my favorite female characters – ever! She has true grit and a sense of purpose that I admire. I found her to be a person I would like to call a friend. She is not an easy person but she is gutsy, determined and never gives up. Her encounters with Constantine never let me down. Constantine has a heavy burden to carry. He has lost everything and has made a vow to murder the man who has done him wrong. He wants blood vengeance for the betrayal of Chastellete and for the murder of his wife and son. When he discovers Dori in what remains of Bennington, his estate, he overpowers her, realizes who she is, begins to feed her and then begins to know her. His aversion to her husband is intense – and so is hers. Their story is intense and compelling and one I could not put down. There is so much in this book that is wonderful that it is hard to synthesize it into a review. I loved the way the other three men and the women they ended up with made appearances in the book and how their lives will go forward in the future. I enjoyed the surprise for Constantine that happens just before he faces off with the villain. I will also say that I thoroughly enjoyed this book that kept me up reading into the wee hours of the morning because I HAD to know how the story ended. Thank you to NetGalley and Kensington Books for the ARC. This is my honest review.