England, 1415. Ordered never to leave the lonely tower on her family estate, Lady Clarice Margrave is suddenly set free when her home is plundered. Now she is determined to discover the truth behind her father's alleged treason. But an act of daring only propels her into a new prison, with the very knight who destroyed her home as her keeper. Sir Ranulf, Lord of Sedgewic, is ruthless in his inquisition, though there is a searing tenderness in his touch. Is it possible her bold jailor is the Red Wolf of whom her father spoke-and the one man she might be able to trust?
As a knight, Ranulf never questions his troth, but his beautiful prisoner stirs his heart and mind like no other. Clarice is achingly vulnerable-and extremely closed-mouth about her possible ties to the plot against the king. Duty demands he keep his distance, though he yearns to take her to his bed and adore her until he discovers what lies within her heart. And he would-if he weren't in danger of losing his own . . .
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By C.C. Wiley
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 C.C. Wiley
All rights reserved.
England, Summer 1415
The gateman's urgent pronouncement echoed over Margrave Manor's bailey yard. Lady Clarice of Margrave looked up from the bed of herbs and wiped the sweat from her brow. The women beside her in the vegetable garden of meager crops paused in their work, weeds bunched in their fists.
"Maud," Clarice said. "See what has Nobbins in such a panic."
"Yes, my lady."
The servant rose slowly from the raised beds scented with flowers and herbs. Her longtime friend straightened her lower limbs with care. Once Clarice's nursery maid, Maud had become her closest companion over the years. Her heart ached with knowing their remaining time together was limited.
Clarice nodded to the women beside her to return to their labor. "Wait, Maud." She shook the dust from her skirts. "Stay here and rest whilst I question him."
"But 'tis my duty to protect you."
"Nonsense. You know as well as I 'tis a rarity for a stranger to pass this way." Clarice snorted with derision. "More than likely that ol' fool Nobbins snuck into the cellar and helped himself to the honey mead." She tapped her temple. "Visions from battles of old."
The clang of the watchtower bell tore through the air. "Riders!" Nobbins shouted again, his voice croaking with age. "Lower the portcullis."
The two women flinched as iron posts struck cobblestones and locked in place. Color drained from Maud's weathered cheeks. "My lady, I think 'tis best if you come away until we are certain the strangers are gone."
Clarice glanced toward the gate, ignoring the servant's insistent tug. "No. I —"
"We must heed Lord Margrave's orders."
With each pealing cry of the bell, a nervous shiver dug into Clarice's stomach. "I'm aware of my father's warnings, but —"
"Then promise me you will bide here until I learn who comes," Maud said.
Before Clarice could voice her argument, the servant rushed from the garden with a swiftness that belied her increasing years. Ripping off a handful of fragrant catmint leaves, Clarice worried them between her fingers and turned to comfort the women of the woods who had come to gather herbs and vegetables. They fluttered about like a flock of pigeons, running to hide behind the vegetation.
"Shush," she snapped. "Stay calm. You'll be safe here." Clarice prayed she was correct.
Torn between fear and curiosity, she palmed a rosebud and waited. Who rode to the manor? What news did they carry? The order to always remain hidden echoed in her mind. Her father and stepmother would be furious should they learn she had disobeyed. The land outside the wall was a dangerous place for a young woman without an escort. More important, Maud would be beside herself with worry.
What harm is there in a quick peek?
The temptation to know who had arrived at their desolate country manor became too much to ignore. Clarice let the rose petals fall to the ground and dashed toward the outer wall. The wooden panel door, hidden in the aging stones, protested against her shoulder until it gave way. Slipping through the narrow passage, she craned her neck to see beyond the wall. Her lungs caught at the sight of the advancing riders.
Destriers charged the arched bridge leading to the manor. A dust cloud swirled into the blue sky. Every hoof strike made the ground tremble. The air hummed with the jingle of iron rings and the creak of leather. Sunlight glinted off helmets and breastplates. Red and white banners led the way, announcing their allegiance. But they were still too far away for her to discern their symbols.
As the riders drew nearer, Clarice's fingers tightened around the edge of the door. Unable to turn away, she fought to draw in a breath. The men on horseback numbered at least threescore, and more followed behind. Soldiers reined in their mounts, shouting for the others to fan out to protect their flanks.
'Tis King Henry's banner of the red rose.
A destrier, dark and monstrous in stark comparison to the other horses, broke free from the field of men. Sitting tall in the saddle, the rider moved as one with his mount. The visor remained down, protecting his face. Auburn curls cut wavy lines against his broad shoulders.
"Hold!" Nobbins yelled from the gate. "What business 'ave you with Margrave Manor?"
Clarice leaned out, straining to hear the exchange over the roar of blood pulsating in her ears.
"I am the lord of Sedgewic. Upon the king's command," the rider barked, the timbre of his voice hoarse and grating. "We demand to cross this threshold."
"Present your orders. This gate won't open until you do."
Although the rider made no outward appearance of anger, nor did he order his men to advance, the air trembled with the man's impatience.
Slowly, as if fighting the decision, Nobbins lowered a bucket from the small opening in his watchtower. The lead rider withdrew a packet from his tunic and inserted it into the bucket. It inched up the wall, the rusting cogs complaining, counting out each crank of the handle until both missive and bucket tipped through the narrow window.
Moments passed. The gate remained down. Horses stomped the earth, feeling their riders' agitation.
Clarice could not turn away. She hoped, in some small way, that her presence at the wall helped Nobbins to keep the soldiers at bay.
The lead soldier struck the portcullis with his sword. The power behind his swing caused the iron to clang. "Open this gate." He pointed toward the mass of soldiers behind him. "Or know the king of England's wrath."
"My lady —"
Clarice clutched the wooden door to steady her balance and tore her attention from the intruders.
Maud stood behind her, bent over, gasping for air. She held out the missive. "You shouldn't be here. Come away quickly."
Clarice swallowed and broke the king's seal. The words, written with a heavy hand, blurred and danced before her. "They carry King Henry's orders ..." She glanced up. "They are to search the property, from cellar to attic, for my family."
Maud gasped, clutching her throat. "Lord and Lady Margrave? Your stepbrother, too?"
A sinking feeling formed a knot in Clarice's middle. "What has Robert done now?"
"My lady, please." Maud shook her head, doing her best to usher her charge to the shadows. "Come away. Hide before 'tis too late."
"This is madness," Clarice argued, digging her heels into the earth. "The Margraves have always enjoyed a place at the royal court. My father is one of Henry's trusted advisers."
Despite the heat of the day, a cold dread seeped into her back. A surge of anger slashed through the growing fear. Squaring her shoulders, she choked down the panic lodged in her throat and forced authority into her orders. "We shall inform the king's good men that neither my father, stepmother, nor their son, Robert, has been in residence for over a year. Make haste," Clarice fluttered her hands as if shooing a stray chicken. "Tell Nobbins I order him to draw up the portcullis."
"But how will we defend ourselves?"
Clarice lifted her sleeve, wiping the perspiration from her neck. "Our numbers are few. Would you pit two men and a handful of women against those soldiers?"
"My lady, I've heard stories of the destruction the king's soldiers leave behind."
"Indeed, but their fury will be greater if we do not bid them enter. What would you have us do? Pray that the portcullis will hold against their weapons and brute strength? For how long?"
"Lord Margrave's orders —"
"'Tis no time to argue." Demanding shouts continued to echo across the bailey. The dull thud of wood striking iron caught Clarice's breath. They were using a battering ram to gain entry. Her heart thundered against her bones and she rubbed the ache in her chest. "My father is not here and we haven't the defenses to hold against the king's force. Instead, we will be hospitable and pray they will leave peaceably."
Maud grasped her arm. "What of the women of the woods?"
Clarice's mind spun, searching for answers. How had she forgotten the small group of women huddled together in the garden corner? Their faces were milk white, their eyes wide with terror.
"Here." She grabbed a basket of beans and young onions, shoving it toward the women. "I fear your pitchfork and trowel will do little to sway them from their purpose. Go through the garden gate and head to safety. Be sure you aren't seen."
The women bobbed their heads. "Shall we send our men?" one asked.
"No, 'tis best we try for peace. Be sure to hide what livestock you have and store the food away from the buildings should the soldiers decide to scorch the earth."
Clarice flinched as the shouting at the watchtower grew. "Go. Make haste while you can."
She watched them run through the garden. An eternity later, they slipped through the hidden gate. Oh, how she wanted to flee with them. Instead she waited, giving the women time to get away from the wall. Then she pushed past Maud, striding toward the watchtower. "Nobbins," she shouted. "Open the gate before they tear it down."
"My lady —" Nobbins had climbed down from his tower. His cheeks flushed, he met her in the bailey. "But, my lady —"
"Do it," she ordered, gripping his forearm. "Let us pray we are in time."
Nobbins's rheumy eyes widened. Turning on his heel, he trotted to do her bidding.
Clarice braced her feet, defying the weakness that made her knees tremble. Relief came with the complaints of the cogs and wheels as they drew up the heavy iron chain. The portcullis began to rise.
But 'twas too late.
The first wave of foot soldiers advanced before the iron bars raised to its full height. The weathered oak panels of the inner port shattered on impact of the battering ram and the soldiers flooded the bailey.
Tom, the stableman, attempted to take a stand. Met with a fist to his head, he fell to his knees. The soldier struck again. Tom's mouth gaped and blood spilled down his chin as he tipped forward.
Stunned by the violence, Clarice stood in the open, unable to move, unable to stop the sob bubbling up. She clawed blindly as Maud tried to drag her away.
"Do you think to stop them by yourself ?" the servant hissed, yanking Clarice toward the shadowed corner of the garden. "They don't know nor care who you are. They'll strike you down the moment you stand in their path."
Foot soldiers marched through the bailey, swords drawn. They made short work of destroying the doors of the outer buildings. Then they turned their attention to the livestock.
"I let this happen." The contents of Clarice's stomach churned. "I've put us all in danger, haven't I?"
"They were entering, like it or not." Maud cupped her charge's chin. "Promise me, now more than ever, you will heed your father's orders and stay out of sight."
"I —" The sounds of devastation drew Clarice's attention. "No. No." She leaped to confront a soldier who was stealing the manor's milk cow. "Stop!"
Nobbins shouted, lunging toward the men, drawing them from the garden and away from the women. His rounded stomach met with a fist. Sucking in a breath, he struggled to remain upright. The soldiers braced their weapons, barring him from advancing. They jerked his arms behind his back, restraining him with a length of rope.
"What would you have us do with this one, Lord Ranulf?"
The lead rider remained seated atop his powerful horse, towering over all. His helmet on, the visor covered all but his eyes. "Where are the lord and lady of Margrave?" he demanded.
The gateman shook his head. "You'll not find 'em here. I'm kept on to mind the manor." He glared up at his captors. "And keep thievin' bastards out."
Clarice ached to know the demon on horseback. To see his ugly face. To make him pay. Maud's whispered reminder to stay hidden to protect the others kept her crouched in the garden. She slipped deeper into the shadows.
The commander braced his leather-and-steel-clad forearm on his saddle and lifted the visor to reveal a stony expression. Auburn curls captured the sun before settling over his broad shoulders. His jaw flexed, making the livid pink scar on his temple jump. "Lord Margrave is wanted for treason. I suggest every Margrave soul show themselves." His deep voice carried over the bailey. "Or I'll order the buildings torn down, stone by stone. This estate will be burned to the ground."
"I beg you." Maud hissed, placing a warning hand around her wrist. "My lady, our people will fare far worse if you present yourself now and give the soldiers reason to harm you."
"My father would never commit treason against the throne. He would never shrink from his duties. Nor will I." Her fingers curled into tight fists. "These are my people. My home."
"Think it through," the servant hissed. "There's nothing we can do for your father at this moment. But Nobbins and Tom? They would give up their lives to protect you. Do you wish for their deaths?"
At the shake of Clarice's head, Maud nudged her lady toward the tower doorway. "Now do as I say. I'll keep you safe. 'Tis my vow to Lord Margrave."
"My father —" Clarice fought the rising panic.
"— would want you to heed my guidance," Maud finished for her. "This is your home. But you must keep yourself hidden until the soldiers take their leave. 'Tis the only way to ensure the safety of the others. Your father will sort out the rest in due time."
Clarice searched for the stableman. The ground was stained with his blood, but he stood propped up by the milkmaid's shoulder. She glanced over to the spot where Nobbins had confronted the soldiers. Her throat burned and her chest tightened, squeezing. He had put himself in harm's way to protect her from her foolishness to save a cow.
Who was she to think she could persuade the king's men to turn away from this madness? Her father had placed Nobbins in the watchtower to keep intruders out. And keep her in. She should have kept to the shadows and let him do his duty.
She searched her old friend's face. "But what of you?"
"They won't want a broken-down woman. I'd be too much of a bother and mayhap die on the road." Maud led her through the tower entrance. "Go, my lady. Hurry and hide."
"No, I —" Clarice stumbled over the threshold.
"Hush, now." Maud put her weight against the door to push it shut. "If you must know, I intend to convince them that the plague has struck. That will explain why the family is not here, and why there are so few servants for them to corral." She paused, determination glittering in her old gray eyes. "Stay here 'til I come for you. Ignore the stench if you can."
Clarice pressed her cheek against the stone doorway. "And what if your plan does not work?"
"Then all is lost."
* * *
Nestled off to the side of the tavern, the king's men huddled in the enclosed alcove. The door to the small chamber remained hidden under a stained tapestry. If not for the swan emblem they each carried in some form or fashion, no one would know they had banded together as brothers. Knights of the Swan.
The amber glow of one small candle in the middle of the table did little to improve the light. The flickering shadows kept the room's inhabitants concealed in the shadows. Ranulf scanned the group of men. Some were familiar to the royal courts. Others were not. 'Twas a rarity for the brotherhood to meet together. Over the years, he had learned to recognize the voices and faces of fellow brothers. The others would remain unknown to him until the time came for personal contact.
Ranulf passed a thumb over his ring before placing a fisted hand on the table for all to see. He watched as each member brought out his own talisman. Whether simple or elaborate — an embroidered patch, a ring, a brooch, or a dagger from the Holy Land encrusted with an emerald — each bore the symbol of the swan. Ranulf noted there were a few missing. Logistics, ongoing missions, or death was the only explanation for their absence. Rarely did a man retire from the brotherhood.
King Henry's mother, Mary de Bohun, understood the intricacies of the royal court. Before her death, when Henry was still a child, Mary had gathered those she trusted to watch over her children. Using the emblem passed down through the de Bohun family, the swan had begun to appear in various ways. The first of them was Mary's silver ring, created with the tips of a swan's wings entwined, the head tucked in with a small emerald that winked from time to time.
Excerpted from Knight Secrets by C.C. Wiley. Copyright © 2017 C.C. Wiley. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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