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Sweeter than the winds of heav'n is my lady's breath,
Her voice the melodious cooing of a dove,
Her teeth are snowy steeds,
Her lips sugared rose petals,
That coax from my heart promises of love.
Holly smothered a yawn into her hand as the minstrel strummed his lute and drew breath for another verse. She feared she'd nod off into her wine before he got around to praising any attributes below her neck.
Which might be just as well.
A soulful chord vibrated in the air.
The envy of every swan is my lady's graceful throat,
Her ears the plush velvet of a rabbit's
Her raven curls a mink's delight.
But far more comely in my sight–
Holly cast the generous swell of her samite-clad bosom a nervous glance, wondering desperately if teats rhymed with rabbit's.
The minstrel cocked his head and sang, "are the plump, tempting pillows of her–"
"Holly Felicia Bernadette de Chastel!"
Holly winced as the minstrel's nimble fingers tangled in the lute strings with a discordant twang. Even from a distance, her papa's bellow rattled the ewer of spiced wine on the wooden table. Elspeth, her nurse, shot her a panicked look before ducking so deep into the window embrasure that her nose nearly touched the tapestry she was stitching.
Furious footsteps stampeded up the winding stairs toward the solar. Holly lifted her goblet in a half-hearted toast to the paling bard. She'd never grown immune to her father's displeasure. She'd simply learned to hide its effects. As he stormed in, she consoled herself with the knowledge that he was utterly oblivious to the presence of the man reclining on the high-backed bench opposite her.
Bernard de Chastel's ruddy complexion betrayed the Saxon heritage he would have loved to deny. Holly's trepidation grew as she recognized the seal on the wafer of wax being methodically kneaded by his beefy fist.
He waved the damning sheaf of lambskin at her. "Have you any idea what this is, girl?"
She popped a sweetmeat in her mouth and shook her head, blinking innocently. Brother Nathanael, her acerbic tutor, had taught her well. A lady should never speak with her mouth occupied by anything other than her tongue.
Flicking away the mangled seal with his thumb, her papa snapped open the letter and read, "'It is with great regret and a laden heart that I must withdraw my suit for your daughter's hand. Although I find her charms unparalleled in my experience'"–he paused for a skeptical snort–"'I cannot risk exposing my heir to the grave condition Lady Holly described in such vivid and disturbing detail during my last visit to Tewksbury.'" Her father glowered at her. "And just what condition might that be?"
Holly rid her mouth of the sweetmeat with an audible swallow. She briefly considered lying, but knew he'd hear of it soon enough. Brother Nathanael was also partial to lurking behind tapestries in the gleeful hope of catching her in just such a wicked fable.
"Webbed feet," she blurted out.
"Webbed feet?" he echoed, as if he couldn't possibly have heard her correctly.
She offered him a pained grin. "I told him the firstborn son of every de Chastel woman was born with webbed feet."
Elspeth gasped in horror. The minstrel frowned thoughtfully. Holly could imagine him combing his brain for words to rhyme with duck. Her father wadded up the missive, flushing scarlet to the roots of his graying hair.
"Now, Papa," she soothed. "You mustn't let yourself get so wrought up. You'll work yourself into an apoplexy."
When he had gathered enough composure to speak, his voice resonated with a false and dangerous calm. "A fortnight ago you informed Baron Kendall that the full moon provoked murderous madness in every other generation of de Chastel women, yet your own mother was meek as a lamb."
Holly nodded. She rather thought that one of her more imaginative ruses. Elspeth was signaling frantically toward the bench, but was too timid to interrupt her father.
"A sennight ago," he continued, his voice rising with each bitten off word, "you feigned crippling blindness and set fire to the plume in Lord Fairfax's favorite hat with a flaming pudding."
"How was I to know it was his favorite hat? He didn't trouble himself to–"
"And only yesterday," her papa's voice climbed to a roar, "you painted spots on your face and intimated to Sir Henry that an unfortunate case of the pox contracted from the seat of a poorly scrubbed garderobe had endered you barren!"
The swell of masculine laughter from the bench drained the color from her father's face. His complexion went bilious as a slender man garbed in black and silver arose, chuckling and wiping his eyes. "'Tis a boon to discover my rivals for Lady Holly's affections dispatched with such celerity. The explanation is simple, my lord. Your charming daughter is saving herself for me."
"Montfort," her father whispered, realizing he'd just defamed her before her most eligible suitor. "I had no idea . . ."
"Obviously. Although I must confess webbed feet might be just the thing for paddling about the moat."
Holly found Eugene de Legget, the baron of Montfort, by far the most infuriating of her suitors. His lands bordered their own and she'd done much of her growing up beneath his piercing dark eyes. He had first petitioned her papa for her hand when she was only twelve. When the earl rejected him, pleading her youth as his excuse, Montfort had sworn to someday possess her. His impassioned vow hadn't stopped him from taking a thirteen-year-old bride to his bed while he waited for Holly to reach maturity.
Possessed of a keen intelligence and a wicked wit, he parried each of her tart rejections with renewed vigor. A master of the hunt, he seemed to savor the thrill of the chase with almost unholy pleasure. Holly shuddered. He struck her as the sort of man who would take delight in toying with his quarry once it was cornered.
"I'd ask you to join us, Papa," she said hastily, "but the baron was just making his farewells. "Wasn't he, Elspeth?"
"On the contrary." Montfort's smooth rejoinder stifled Elspeth's murmured agreement and drew a glare from Holly. His dark eyes glittered with mischief as he lounged back on the bench, hooking one lean leg over its elaborately carved arm as if he, and not her flustered father, were the host. He took a lazy sip of wine, emptying his goblet. "My minstrel was just performing a chanson I composed as a tribute to the ample charms of the future Lady Montfort." His gaze hovered at the level of her bodice, paying its own lascivious tribute to her "charms."
Holly grit her teeth behind a gracious smile. "Before your minstrel proceeds with his homage, my lord, might I entice you to partake of some more wine?"
"Why, I'd be delighted."
Before Elspeth could rise to serve him, Holly closed fingers numb with anger around the delicate handle of the silver ewer. Eugene held out his goblet with a flourish. Tipping the ewer three inches past his cup, she poured a waterfall of steaming wine into his lap.
"God's breath, woman!" He sprang to his feet, trying vainly to pull the clinging velvet of his hose away from his skin.
"How clumsy of me. 'Tis fortunate the wine had cooled somewhat." She gave his bulging codpiece a scathing look. "I doubt you'll suffer any permanent damage."
Her father's horrified scowl warned her she had gone too far this time. "You must forgive my daughter, sir. She's been troubled by a slight palsy since childhood." He hastened to add, "Nothing hereditary, of course," before flapping a fringed kerchief at the baron like a flag of truce.
Eugene shoved the offering away, his posture rigid with offended dignity. His eyes had lost their sparkle, going cold and flat like extinguished embers. For the first time, Holly paused to wonder if her rash impulse had not only discouraged an unwanted suitor but earned her a dangerous enemy.
"It appears I've overstayed my welcome. Good day, my lord," he said, drawing his cloak around his narrow shoulders. His eyes caressed Holly's face in unspoken challenge as he snapped open a silver brooch and secured his cloak with a vicious stab. "Till we meet again, my lady."
After he had departed, his minstrel dragging at his heels like a chastened pup, a shroud of appalled silence fell over the solar. Holly eased from her seat as if an economy of movement could somehow render her invisible.
"Sit!" her papa barked.
Holly sat. Elspeth edged toward the lancet window. If her father hadn't replaced the ancient wooden shutters with colored glass the previous spring. Holly was convinced her nurse would be perched on the ledge.
The earl paced to the hearth, bracing his splayed hands against its stone hood. He rocked lightly on his heels, as if even unmounted he could feel the rhythm of the countless steeds that had bandied his squat legs.
Holly considered bursting into tears, but quickly dismissed the notion. The merest hint of moisture in her limpid blue eyes had been known to drop both knaves and princes to their knees, but her father hadn't lived with her for eighteen years without learning to resist such ploys.
When she could bear his unspoken reproach no longer, she wailed, "He said I had ears like a rabbit!"
Those ears rang as her father swung around and roared, "Montfort has the king's favor. He can say you have ears like a jackass if it so pleases him!"
"And we all know how he curried His Majesty's favor, don't we? By overtaxing his poor villeins. By purchasing rotten foodstuffs for their tables and barren seed for their fields. By outlawing their precious feast days and spending the profit to buy the king's ear."
Realizing too late that her ire was a match for his own, her papa raised a placating hand. "That does not mean he would make you a poor husband."
"He made that unfortunate heiress he married a rather poor husband. Especially if you recall that the child tumbled out a tower window only hours before my eighteenth birthday. Are you that eager to see me wed?"
He rubbed the top of his head, ruffling his sparse hair. "Aye, child, I am. Most girls your age are long wedded and bedded, with two or three babes at the hearth and another on the way. What are you waiting for, Holly? I've given you over a year to choose your mate. Yet you mock my patience just as you mock the blessing of beauty our good Lord gave you."
She rose from the bench, gathering the skirts of her brocaded cotehardie to sweep across the stone floor. "Blessing! 'Tis not a blessing, but a curse!" Contempt thickened her voice. "'Holly, don't venture out in the sun. You'll taint your complexion.' 'Holly, don't forget your gloves lest you crack a fingernail.' 'Holly, don't laugh too loud. You'll strain your throat.' The men flock to Tewksbury to fawn and scrape over the musical timbre of my voice, yet no one listens to a word I'm saying. They praise the hue of my eyes, but never look into them. They see only my alabaster complexion!" She gave a strand of her hair an angry tug only to have it spring back into a flawless curl. "My raven tresses!" Framing her breasts in her hands, she hefted their generous weight. "My plump, tempting–" Remembering too late who she was addressing, she knotted her hands over her gold-linked girdle and inclined her head, blushing furiously.
The earl might have been tempted to laugh had his daughter's tirade not underscored his terrible dilemma. Holly serene was a sight to behold, but Holly in a fit of passion could drive sane men to madness. Not even fury could mar the angelic radiance of her profile. Her black hair tumbled down her slender back like a nimbus of storm clouds. His heart was seized by the familiar twin pangs of wonder and terror. Wonder that such an exquisite creature could have sprang from the loins of a homely little troll like himself. Terror that he would prove unworthy of such a charge.
He bowed his head, battling the pained bewilderment that still blamed Felicia for dying and leaving the precocious toddler to his care. Holly had passed directly from enchanting child with dimpled knees and tumbled curls to the willowy grace of a woman grown, suffering none of the gawkiness that so frequently plagued girls in their middle years.
Now she was rumored to be the fairest lady in all of England, all of Normandy, perhaps in all the world. Strangers came from leagues away in the vain hope of catching a glimpse of her, but he allowed only the wealthiest, most reputable noblemen the boon of an audience. 'Twas not concern for her complexion that kept her locked within the castle walls, but his deep and abiding fear of abduction. His secret conviction was that some man would carry her away and defile her innocence without troubling to obtain the rightful blessing of both he and his God.
The obsession gnawed at him until he awoke in the still, dark hours between dusk and dawn, reeking of stale sweat and quaking like an old man in his bed. He was an old man, he reminded himself without pity. Nearly fifty. His bones creaked in complaint when he mounted his destrier. Old wounds earned battling both Scots and Welsh in the king's defense throbbed a dirge at the approach of rain. He'd done as well as he knew how by his only daughter. 'Twas past time for him to relinquish the burden to another man. Before he grew too feeble to stand between her and the avaricious world clamoring outside the castle walls.
"I've arranged for a tournament," he said without preamble.
Holly jerked her head up. Tournaments were common enough affairs, she thought. An opportunity for knights and noblemen to flex their brawny arms and secretly compare the size of their swords. So why had a gauntlet of foreboding closed steely fingers around her heart?
"A tournament?" she said lightly. "And what shall be the prize this time? A kerchief perfumed with my favorite scent? The chance to drink mulled wine from the toe of my shoe? A nightingale's song from my swanlike throat?"
"You. You're to be the prize."
Holly felt the roses in her cheeks wither and die. She gazed down into her father's careworn face, finding his gravity more distressing than his anger. She towered over him by several inches, but the mantle of majesty he had worn to shield him from life's arrows since the death of his beloved wife added more than inches to his stature.
"But, Papa, I–"
"Silence!" He seemed to have lost all tolerance for her pleas. "I promised your mother on her deathbed that you would marry and marry you shall. Within the fortnight. If you've a quarrel with my judgment, you may retreat to a nunnery where they will teach you gratitude for the blessings God has bestowed upon you."
His bobbing gait was less sprightly than usual as he left Holly to contemplate the sentence he'd pronounced.
"A nunnery?" she echoed, drifting toward the window.
"No one would gawk at ye there, my lady." Elspeth emerged from her own self-imposed exile, her hawkish features softened by concern. "Ye could cover yer fine hair with a wimple and take a vow of silence so ye'd never have to sing at someone else's bidding."
Dire heaviness weighted Holly's heart. A nunnery. Forbidding stone walls more unscalable than those that imprisoned her now. Not a retreat, but a dungeon where all of her unspoken dreams of rolling meadows and azure skies would rot to dust.
Sinking to her knees in the stone seat, Holly unlatched the window, gazing beyond the iron grille to the outer bailey where the quadrangles of her father's lists lay like a lush green chessboard. Soon warriors bearing their family standards would come pouring into those grassy battlegrounds, each prepared to lay down his life for nothing more than a chance to offer her his name and protection. But would any one of them dare to offer her his heart?
What are you waiting for, Holly? her papa had asked.
Her gaze was drawn west toward the impenetrable tangle of forest and craggy dark peaks of the Welsh mountains. A fragrant breath of spring swept through her, sharpening her nameless yearning. Genuine tears pricked her eyelids.
"Oh, Elspeth. What am I waiting for?"
As Elspeth stroked the crown of her head, Holly longed to sniffle and wail. But she could only cry as she'd been taught, each tear trickling like a flawless diamond down the burnished pearl of her cheek.