Innocent's Champion (Harlequin Historical Series #1214)

Innocent's Champion (Harlequin Historical Series #1214)

by Meriel Fuller

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781460343784
Publisher: Harlequin
Publication date: 12/01/2014
Series: Harlequin Historical Series , #1214
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 332 KB

About the Author

Meriel Fuller spent her early childhood with her nose buried in books. After school, she would walk to the town library where her mother was head librarian and happily read her way through the historical romance section. Although Meriel had always written as a hobby, it was only when her youngest child was a toddler that she decided to write a historical romance of her own and was thrilled when Harlequin told her that her manuscript would be published: a real dream come true!

Read an Excerpt

Summer 1399—south-west England

'What is that? On the bottom of your gown? Actually, my gown.' Katherine's peevish tones emerged, shrill, from the shadowed interior of the covered litter. Striding alongside, Matilda slackened her brisk pace at the sound of her sister's voice, glancing down at the hem of her skirts. In the cloying heat of the afternoon, the heavily pleated silk bodice stuck to the skin around her chest and shoulders; the high neck, buttoned tightly around her throat to the pale curve of her chin, made her feel constricted, trapped. Her sister had insisted she wear the elaborate gown, with a light-blue cloak to match, indicating with turned-down mouth that none of Matilda's clothing were suitable for visiting the Shrine of Our Lady at Worlebury.

'Well?' Katherine addressed her shrewishly, peering out from between the patterned curtains. 'Oh, God Lord, stop bouncing me so!' she snapped at the servants who each shouldered a wooden strut of the litter, one on each corner, endeavouring to carry their lady as carefully as possible along the rutted track. Katherine sank back into the padded cushions, her face grey-toned and wan, the rounded dome of her stomach protruding upwards into the gloom.

Matilda twisted one way, then the other, trying to spot the problem with the gown. The smooth blue silk of the skirts billowed out from below a jewelled belt set high on her narrow waist. One of the knights in the service of her brother-in-law, riding up front on a huge glossy destrier, smirked beneath his chain-mail hood, before he snapped his gaze smartly forwards once more. Let him laugh, thought Matilda. She was used to being told off by her older sister and paid little heed to it. Katherine was suffering greatly in this late stage of pregnancy and this heavy, torpid heat wasn't helping matters.

'It's nothing,' she called to Katherine. 'A lump of sticky burr, snagged on the hem.' Reaching down, she pulled at the clump of green trailing weed, throwing it to the side of the track. The dark chestnut silk of her hair, firmly pulled into two plaited rolls on either side of her neat head, gleamed in the sunlight filtering through the trees. A fine silver net covered her intricate hairstyle, secured with a narrow silver circlet.

'Come and sit in with me, Matilda, please.' A nervous desperation edged her sister's voice as she stuck her head out between the thick velvet curtains that afforded her some privacy within the litter. Her face looked puffy, skin covered with a waxy gleam that emphasised the violet shadows beneath her eyes. Matilda glanced at the sun's position, thick light pouring down through the beech trees lining the route. The fresh green leaves bobbed in the slight breeze, lifting occasionally to send brilliant shafts of illumination straight down to touch the hardened earth of the track. It hadn't rained for weeks.

'If I climb in, it will only slow us down, Katherine,'

Matilda answered. One of the servants carrying the front of the litter mopped his face with his sleeve. 'We're almost at the river now. It's not far from there.' Guilt scythed through her as she saw the panic touch Katherine's worried blue eyes. 'Here, I'll walk closer, alongside you.' Matilda reached out and grasped her sister's hand, shocked by how cold and limp it felt. 'Are you quite well?' she said sharply.

The jewelled net covering Katherine's hair sparkled as she nodded slowly. 'I can feel the baby kicking inside me,' she whispered. 'That's a good sign, isn't it?'

'It is,' Matilda replied, with more conviction than she felt. The cold sweat from Katherine's fingers soaked her palm. From the haunted look in her eyes, Matilda knew her sister was remembering that awful time before. And the time before that.

'Do you think our prayers will work? Do you think I've done enough?'

Matilda nodded, throwing her sister a quick reassuring smile. She certainly hoped so. She wasn't sure Katherine could endure another fruitless labour, another baby born that failed to live, to breathe. John, Katherine's husband, had insisted they visit the shrine as often as possible, providing them with a litter, servants and two household knights as escort. He was determined that this pregnancy would be successful. He needed an heir. A male heir.

Worry trickled through her; she kicked at a loose stone beneath her leather boot, sending it spinning into the long grass at the side of the track. Although Katherine was four years older, and a married woman, Matilda often felt as if she were the more mature sibling, looking out for her sister, protecting her. All day she had watched Katherine, crouched awkwardly on the hard, iron-coloured stone of the chapel, muttering her prayers, calling on the Virgin Mary to grant her a successful labour, tears running down her perfect, beautiful face. Matilda had had to help her to her feet, almost dragging her away from the carved wooden effigy; it was as if Katherine wanted to stay there for ever, as if the longer she stayed, the more chance she would have of a successful labour.

Matilda reached out and touched Katherine's shoulder, a gesture of support. The raised embroidery of her sister's gown rubbed against her fingertips. 'Your baby will be born soon and he will be fine. You must stop fretting, Katherine…'

'What will John do to me if…?'

'You mustn't think like that.' Matilda gripped Kather-ine's fingers tightly. She must say the things that Katherine wanted to hear, even if she didn't believe them herself. 'John loves you.'

'I need to stop…now.' Katherine's voice had taken on a new urgency, her eyes flicking up, searching Matilda's face for understanding. She hunched forwards over her swollen stomach. 'Earlier…I had too much to drink.'

Matilda signalled to the servants to lower the litter, then grabbed Katherine's upper arm to haul her out. 'No, stay here,' she ordered the men, who, relieved of the heavy weight on their shoulders, stretched out their arms to alleviate the soreness in their tired muscles.

'My lady…?' One of the knights dismounted. 'I should come with you.' he offered dubiously, his gaze sliding quickly over Katherine's stomach bulging out beneath the waistband of her gown.

Honestly, these men, thought Matilda, noting the young soldier's reddening features. They treated pregnancy as if it were a disease! Something to be ashamed of, despite the fact it was the most natural thing in the world. She knew that the growing baby increased the amount of times Katherine needed to visit the garderobe, and when there was no garderobe available…well, the shelter of the trees and shrubs would have to do.

Leaning into the litter, Matilda seized her bow, shouldering the quiver full of arrows. She caught the glancing grin of a servant as he eyed the curved wood of her weapon. Let them think what they like, she thought irritably. It never hurt for a lady to know how to defend herself, especially one with her own precarious domestic arrangements.

'No need, we'll not be long. We'll go over that little bridge, into that ruin behind the trees.' Matilda pointed out a low-lying packhorse bridge spanning the river's swift flow and the tumbled stones of a collapsed tower. She tucked her arm through Katherine's and the two sisters walked together with a laboured, ambling pace through the soft, swaying grasses of the riverside.

Their progress up the steep cobbled surface of the bridge was slow; Katherine's face reddened, sheened with sweat. 'This heat, this heat affects me so,' she gasped, as she reached the apex of the bridge. Pausing, she bent forwards, pressing one hand against the rickety parapet, her scalloped-edge sleeve falling in a graceful arc against the warm stone.

'Why not take your cloak off?' Matilda suggested, eyeing the rectangle of red silk-velvet that fell back from Katherine's shoulders. It matched her own cloak of light blue, fastened across the neck with a fine silver chain and secured with a pearl clasp on one shoulder.

Katherine shuddered, fixing her sister with a horrified glance. 'To be seen in public without a cloak? Are you out of your mind? Really, Matilda, you have no sense of propriety!'

Matilda shrugged her shoulders. 'I only thought it would make you cooler,' she replied. 'You shouldn't be travelling at all, at this stage of your pregnancy. I'm surprised that John—'

'It was he that insisted upon it!' Katherine interrupted. 'You know what he's like.'

Yes, thought Matilda. She knew what John was like. Arrogant and overbearing, with a short, irascible temper, he was unbearable at the best of times and ten times worse if things didn't go the way he wanted. On his marriage to Katherine, he had made no secret of his joy at inheriting one half of the Lilleshall fortune: the castle at Neen and its vast tracts of fertile pasture. Now, it seemed, this was not enough for him; he had begun to drop very large hints about how he should be controlling the other half, the manor and estates of Lilleshall itself, still in the possession of Matilda and Katherine's mother.

As Matilda steered her sister carefully down the other side of the bridge and into the shadowed privacy behind the toppled stones of the tower, Katherine clutched at her arm, her long fingers surprisingly strong. 'You will stay with me, Matilda? Until I give birth? I need you to be there with me at Neen…do you promise?'

'Katherine, you know I have to return to Lilleshall. I cannot promise that I will be there all the time.'

Lifting her skirts above the fallen stones to pick her way through the jumbled mass, Katherine pinned angry eyes on her sister. 'Only because our useless mother refuses to do what she's supposed to do!'

'Katherine, that's not fair! You know how she's been since Father died.' Matilda raised one hand to an errant curl of dark chestnut hair, tucking it back behind her ear. 'I have to go back, to make sure the estate is running properly. You know that.'

'Aye,' Katherine whispered, her lumpy figure lurching with a curious side-to-side motion across the moss-covered stones. 'I'm sorry, I know how our mother suffers. It's only that I'm so worried about this baby.'

'I will stay with you as much as I can.' Matilda patted her hand. But to her own ears, her voice sounded hollow. There was so much to do at Lilleshall at this time of year; although the crops had been planted and were growing well in this hot weather, she now had to turn her attention to the early harvests.

'Can they see me?' Bunching her skirts about her knees, Katherine made her way awkwardly into the undergrowth behind the tower, bristly thistles scratching at the delicate embroidery of her skirts. Butterflies fluttered lazily through the wild, verdant growth: the feathery purple grass heads, red sorrel gathered in scrappy clusters, the yellow-fringed hawkbit flower.

'Wait. Let me check.' Leaving her sister, Matilda placed one foot on a crumbling staircase that ran diagonally upwards across a section of wall, and peeked out at their escort. Two of the servants had taken the opportunity to sit on the dried earth, setting their tired backs against the framework of the litter. One chewed idly at a piece of long grass, drawing the freshness from the end of the stem. She caught a ribald chuckle from one of the knights, his head bent as he listened to the other, no doubt telling some bawdy tale.

'They can't see us.' Matilda laughed softly, tripping gracefully back down the steps. 'We're well hidden here.'

Squatting down, Katherine closed her eyes in relief.

Matilda helped her to her feet and Katherine adjusted her gown. 'How do I look?' Katherine asked once she had straightened up, her eyes narrowing across the bulk of her belly.

Matilda set her head on one side, a teasing smile lifting the corners of her mouth. 'How do you look? You're asking me?' she declared in mock horror. 'Since when do you trust my judgement on appearance?'

Katherine drifted one wan hand across her forehead. 'Don't tease, Matilda. You know how John likes me to look my best. Is anything amiss?'

'You look perfect, as always,' Matilda reassured her. Her sister's sable hair maintained a neat, rigid parting, twisted into two identical knots either side of her head. All the buttons that secured the tight neck of her gown were in place, straight. Not a speck of dirt, leaves or travel dust stained the finely woven red material of Katherine's gown. It was a source of constant surprise to their mother that, despite being so physically similar, the two sisters could not have been more different in character and their approach to life. Where Katherine was neat, Matilda was messy, untidy. Where Katherine was demure, simpering, Matilda was argumentative, stubborn.

A shout split the air: the outraged roar of a man.

Shocked by the harsh, guttural sound, Matilda grabbed Katherine's arm, listening intently.

Then came a sickening sound of splintering wood, of clashing metal. From the other side of the river, the knights cursed, rough voices raised in alarm.

'Oh, God!' Katherine sagged in Matilda's hold, her eyes wide and fearful. 'What's going on?'

Through the dry, heavy air came the distinctive whirr of an arrow. Then another, travelling straight and true. Matilda knew the sound, was familiar with it. Icy fear slicked her heart.

'Wait here!' She skipped up the steps once more, cloak and gown trailing behind her, the lightweight silk dragging against the coarse-cut stone. From the vantage point at the top, leaves casting dappled shade across her pale, worried face, she watched in horror as one knight toppled sideways from his horse, gripping his shoulder in agony. Blood poured from between his fingers, soaking his sur-coat. Wheeling his horse around, the other knight drew his sword, flicking his eyes around, searching for their attackers. The servants, realising what was happening, started shouting and running around haphazardly, delving frantically in the litter for the one or two weapons they had brought to defend themselves.

'Matilda…? What is it?' Katherine was on her feet now, standing at the bottom of the steps, one arm bent protectively around her stomach.

'Ssh! Stay down!' A horrible weakness sapped the strength in Matilda's knees; her fingers drove into the shattered limestone of the tower, searching for purchase, for equilibrium. She spun away from the open space that had once been a window and flattened herself against the wall, heart thumping in her chest. 'The knights… They're being attacked!' she whispered urgently. 'Katherine, get away from here! You need to hide!'

'But you…?'

Matilda held up her bow. 'I will hold them off as long as possible. You must get away from here, Katherine. Now. Find somewhere safe.'

With a practised flick of the reins, Gilan, Comte de Cormeilles, slowed his gleaming destrier to a walk, urging the animal towards the group of knights gathered at the river's edge. Beneath the heavy metal breastplate, his skin prickled with sweat. He longed to rip it off. Steel plates dragged at his muscled arms; his fingers itched within his gauntlets. Pulling them off, he threw them to the ground, then lifted his hands to unstrap his helmet, resting it on the horse's neck. The quiet breeze sifted through his hair, lifting the bright, corn-coloured strands, cooling his hot scalp. His piercing, metallic gaze swept the area where they had stopped, eyes set deep within thick, black lashes.

'Fancy a swim?' Henry, Duke of Lancaster, strode towards him across the soggy, hoof-marked mud, his short, stocky body moving with an unexpected grace. Several knights had already divested themselves of their armour, the glinted steel discarded messily on the ground amidst the horses. Now they plunged into the fast-flowing river with shouts of glee, scooping up handfuls of clear, sparkling water and splashing each other, like children.

Gilan handed his helmet down to one of the soldiers. The burnished metal glowed in the afternoon sun. He frowned down at Henry. 'Are you certain we have time? There are still several hours of daylight left.'

Henry grinned. 'The men are tired, Gilan. Not everyone can keep going as long as you can. And by my judgement it will take only a couple of more days to reach our destination. Let's rest here tonight and move on in the morning.'

Gilan shrugged his shoulders, nodded. Whatever Henry's decision was, it made little difference to him. Eventually, he would have to go back to his parents' home, but he was happy to delay that return as long as possible. Unconsciously, he kneaded the muscles in his thigh, trying to ease the ache in the scarred tissue. He swung his leg over the horse's rump, dismounted.

'You push yourself too hard,' Henry said, clapping his friend on the back. 'Most of my men are not in as good a shape as you. I have to make sure you don't run them into the ground, so they are useless when it comes to finding King Richard.'

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