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He stood with his back against the crumbling brick wall, fists clenched, his cowl falling against his perspiring cheeks. Once again, he heard the sound, a woman's low moan, quickly muffled. He took a deep breath and slowly leaned towards the corner of the wall, allowing himself to peer once and then pull back. In that moment, he saw the scene quite clearly under the eerie light of a full moon. A man, not one of the brethren, gripped a struggling woman.
For a moment, Brother Reynold Welles hesitated in disbelief. When he looked again, a second man had joined them, wearing the black mantle of the Benedictine brotherhood and carrying a flickering candle. This man gestured, and they moved off towards the cloister court, the heart of the monastery.
What brother would need to have a woman brought to him? In the past, Reynold had known a monk or two who'd left one night, and come back with more satisfaction than they felt the peace of the church could give them. Though Reynold well understood the lure of women, he could not so easily break his vows. But bringing an unwilling woman to St. Anthony's Priory was sheer folly--or desperation.
The promises he had sworn to God and his family warred within him until his head ached. Hissins still burned him, playing out over and over inendless nightmares. He should only care about hisown redemption, not a stranger's. But he couldpicture the woman, boundand alone, forced hereagainst her will. How would he live with himselfifshe died, adding another death to his conscience?
Lady Katherine Berkeley yanked her good arm free and tugged at the filthy gag covering her mouth. For her trouble shereceived a quick blow to the head, a tap truly, but one that set her ears ringing and almost knocked the blindfold askew.
A hot mouth pressed itself against her ear. "I don't want ta hurt ye, liedy. They tol' me not to, but I will if ye make me."
The offending mouth remained a moment too long, and Katherine cringed with fear. He had not hurt her so far, this brutal man who'd taken her as she rode near her father's hunting lodge just two days before. But two days seemed like a lifetime of humiliation and terror. She had ridden blindfolded on a horse with more bones than flesh, perched on the thighs of a man twice her size. Gagged into silence, she had to repeatedly clutch the man's arm for a moment's privacy behind a bush. And even then, she could not know if he watched.
She shivered in revulsion at the memory, as her silent captor dragged her forward. She was beyond exhaustion, beyond caring where she was. She only knew it was earth beneath her, not a galloping horse. They suddenly stopped, and her head bounced forward until her chin hit her chest. She heard a door open in front of her. A damp, sour smell assaulted her nose, and her eyes stung inside the wet blindfold.
"Here," an unfamiliar voice whispered.
"Ye're sure 'tis safe?"
"This place is falling into ruins. No one uses the undercroft for storage anymore. She'll keep safe enough long as she's gagged."
As Katherine was prodded forward, she felt the ground squish beneath her leather slippers. A whimper escaped the gag. The room seemed to stifle all noise except the skittering of tiny feet. When she was released, Katherine panicked, not caring that this was the same man who had so brutally abducted her. She sobbed in a hoarse, muffled voice, clutching at his sleeves.
"Bind her!" the new voice said.
Katherine frantically shook her head, falling to her knees to silently plead with them. Everything was dark and cold and foreign, except the man who had tried not to harm her. Yet now they yanked her arms behind her back, and though she feebly struggled for a moment, her will seemed spent. It was all too much for her. She wished she didn't know their secrets. She would have been safe at home, awaiting her betrothed. She had been so naive. Would they now kill her for her knowledge?
Katherine realized she was alone when the door latched shut. Lurching to her feet, she waited a moment, listening. The air was still and oppressive with silence. She shuffled forward, then stopped, hearing the echoes far above her head. Where was she?
She edged sideways, trying to feel the door with her arm instead of her face. She banged her elbow and barely noticed the pain as she turned her back to run her bound hands over the door. Solid old wood, set firmly into a stone wall. She kicked once with her foot but made little sound. She did it again, harder. Did they intend to leave her here indefinitely--bound and gagged until she died?
Katherine tugged hard at the ropes biting into her wrists, hating her weak arm. Sobbing, she pulled and pulled until the pain became unbearable and the blood trickled down her fingers. She staggered and fell, crying, until the world retreated for a while and she drifted into an exhausted sleep.
Katherine came awake with a jerk, then winced at the shooting pain in her shoulders. Her hands seemed numb and unresponsive. Frantically she sat up and began to wiggle her fingers, then sighed as sharp little prickles tormented her skin from inside.
With her head bowed, Katherine- forced herself to think through the last few weeks. She tried to tell herself she would have done something differently, but it wasn't true. Her life meant nothing when King Richard's life was at stake. She had learned of a plot against the king from a woman too terrified to publicly come forward. If Katherine did not escape soon, it would be too late. The king's enemies, whom he thought of as loyal friends, would turn on him. If only her chambermaid hadn't overheard her plans and told the kidnapper, betraying Katherine for a few coins. The Darkest Knight
. Copyright © by Gayle Callen. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.