Stolen from the convent!
Kidnapped by a masked horseman, Lady Rowena despairs. Her cloistered convent life is in tatters, her reputation surely ruined. Until she discovers her abductor is her father's favored knight…
Loyal, honorable Sir Eric of Monfort has done as Rowena's father commanded. And though his body might crave her, he will not bed an innocent maiden. But as danger circles, there is only one way for Eric to protect Rowena — by making her his lady in every sense!
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May 1175Jutigny Castle, near Provins in the County of Champagne.
It was some time since Sir Eric de Monfort had visited Jutigny Castle and it was strange to be back. As a boy, the place had once been his home. Leaving his horse in the capable hands of one of the grooms, Eric crossed the bailey with his squire, Alard, and headed for the steps leading to the great hall.
Jutigny hadn't changed much, the keep towered over everyone just as it always had done, and the pale gleam of new wood on the walkway up on the curtain wall proved that Lord Faramus de Sainte-Colombe was keeping his defences in order. There was the familiar string of outbuildings, the chapel, the cookhouse
Sir Macaire, the castle steward and an old friend, was standing in the hall doorway, talking to a castle sergeant. His face lightened. 'Eric, thank God you're here! Lord Faramus is getting impatient, you can go straight in.'
'I need a mug of ale first,' Eric said, going to a side table and picking up the ale jug. 'I've been at the fair in Provins all morning and I'm parched. Lord Faramus didn't mention that the matter was urgent. What does he want?'
Sir Macaire grimaced. 'I'm not at liberty to say, lad, but your ale will have to wait. Lord Faramus and Lady Barbara have been waiting for you up in the solar for nigh on an hour and as you know, the count is not known for his tolerance.' Sir Macaire threw a dark glance in the direction of a knight sprawled on the bench nearest the stairwell. 'Besides, if you don't go up straight away, I've orders to send in Sir Breon. And that would be a travesty.' He shook his head. 'A travesty.'
'A travesty?' Eric searched the steward's face. That was surely a curious choice of words. Pouring ale into a mug, Eric took a quick draught. Eric knew Sir Breon from his time at Jutigny and he'd never much liked him. Not that Eric could level anything specific against the man. Sir Breon had a bullying manner and he was crude, but then so were many knights. What was odd was that Eric couldn't recall Sir Macaire being troubled by Sir Breon before this. 'Macaire, what in hell is going on?'
'It's not for me to say.' Sir Macaire jerked his head at the stairwell. 'For the love of God, Eric, hurry straight up.'
'They're in the solar, you say? Doesn't Lady Barbara usually reserve the solar for herself and her ladies?' Eric was becoming more intrigued by the moment. Sweat was breaking out on Macaire's brow and his manner Macaire looked decidedly panickedwas mysterious, if not downright worrying. 'What's the problem?'
'The solar, lad. Get to the solar and you'll have your answers.'
* * *
In the solar, Lord Faramus was pacing in front of a low fire, pulling at his beard. His eyebrows were drawn into a deep frown. His wife, Lady Barbara, was sitting beneath the window, long white fingers gripping a scroll of parchment.
Eric had fond memories of Lady Barbara, who had always treated him with kindness. Her usually clear brow was crossed with lines and her face was pinched with worry. She looked deeply distressed. A pang of sympathy shot through him. Had she and Lord Faramus quarrelled again?
'Good morning, my lady, my lord,' Eric said, bowing.
Irritably, Count Faramus waved the niceties aside. 'Where the devil have you been? I've been waiting for you all morning.'
'I've been at the fair in Provins, my lord.'
'The fair?' The count's expression lightened. 'Oh, yes, I remember. You are looking for a stallion, as I recall. Did you find one?'
'Not yet, mon seigneur' Eric wanted a brood mare as well as a stallion, thus far he hadn't found either. At the Provins fair he had learned that he might find both at Bar-sur-Aube. Given that horses with good breeding lines were almost impossible to track down, Eric had wanted to go there directly from the fair. And then he'd remembered the count's summons. Eric felt a certain loyalty to his former liege lord and he'd felt bound to come to Jutigny first. As soon as this meeting was over he would set out for Bar-sur-Aube.
'My apologies if I kept you waiting, my lord. You have something to ask me, I believe?'
Eric found his gaze returning to Lady Barbara. She was not usually present when her husband discussed his affairs with his household knights. Come to think of it, in his time at Jutigny Castle, Eric's orders had invariably been issued in the great hall or the armoury. What was going on?
Lord Faramus sucked in a breath and Eric caught an exchange of glances between man and wife. 'Eric, Sir Eric, before we get to the meat of the matter, I should like your word that what is said between these walls will remain confidential. At least for the moment.'
'As you wish, my lord.'
'Eric, this concerns my daughter, Lady Rowena. You remember Rowena?'
Alarm tensed every muscle in Eric's body. This was about Lady Rowena?
Of course Eric remembered Lady Rowenaas Lord Faramus and Lady Barbara's only child, how could he forget her? Lady Rowena was a shy, fair girl, a handful of years younger than he. Until Lady Rowena had professed a desire to become a nun, she had been heiress to the Sainte-Colombe acres and every eligible knight in Champagne had been suing for her hand. At times it had seemed as though Jutigny Castle was under siege. Count Faramus had eventually come to terms with Count Gawain de Meaux, but there had been some scandal and the marriage had never gone ahead. Eric didn't know the details. 'I heard that Lady Rowena entered the convent outside Provins?'
'St Mary's Abbey.' Lord Faramus's mouth was grim. 'Aye, so she did.'
Count Faramus had made no secret of his displeasure at his daughter's decision to take the veil. But Lady Ro-wena was the king's goddaughter and once the kinghimself a religious manhad endorsed her wish to become a nun, there'd been little the count could do about it.
The skin prickled at the back of Eric's neck, he was beginning to feel very uneasy.
'Sir Eric, I am well aware that I am no longer your liege lord and I cannot command you, but I do have a favour to ask.' His fingers curled into a fist. 'A very large favour. It's a task I believe you will find distasteful.'
'SirEricI want you to get my daughter out of that convent. Take her to your manor at Monfort. Hold her there until she agrees to marry you.'
Appalled, Eric drew his head back. He must have misheard. 'I don't think I understand you, my lord.'
Lord Faramus made an exasperated sound. 'I want you to ruin Rowena. Get her out of that convent and seduce her. Make love to her. Make it so that she has no choice but to marry you'
'My lord, I can't do that!' No wonder Lady Barbara was so ill at ease!
'Why the devil not?'
Eric stepped closer. 'It would be wrong, my lord. Your daughter has a religious calling, I cannot come between her and her vocation.'
'Rowena thinks she has a religious vocation,' Lord Faramus said curtly. 'It is not the same thing, not the same thing at all.'
Firmly, Eric shook his head. 'I will not do it.'
The count's jaw worked. 'For pity's sake, you have to, it's the Visitation of Our Lady next week.'
Eric gave the count a bemused look. 'My lord, I do not see the connection.'
Lady Barbara leaned forward. The parchment rustled. 'Eric, Rowena is to make her preliminary vows that day.'
Lord Faramus cleared his throat. 'De Monfort, Ro-wena's about to become a novice. You have to get her out of the abbey before that happens.'
Eric stepped back and bowed. A tight knot formed in the pit of his stomach. 'My lord, I am conscious that I owe you and Lady Barbara a great deal, but in all honour I am afraid I must refuse you.'
The count's expression darkened. 'De Monfort, I feel sure you are forgetting how lucky you were to end up at our gate.' He gestured at this wife. 'Who else but my Barbara would have taken in a half-starved child? Who else but Sir Macaire would have taken youa complete unknownunder his wing and trained you the way he did? Lord, I myself knighted you. And you have the gall to refuse me?'
Eric held firm. 'I shall never forget the kindness I have found in your household, my lord, but all that you taught me did not include seducing virgins! It would be wrong to abduct Lady Rowena. She has a calling.'
'Like hell she does.' Lord Faramus narrowed his eyes on Eric. 'Don't you want more lands? Marry Rowena and you will be count yourself one day.'
Eric huffed out a breath, he couldn't believe what he was hearingLord Faramus was asking him to ruin his daughter. To force her into marriage. To say the least, it was a desperate plan. And to make matters worse, the count seemed to be ignoring the fact that if Lady Rowena were to marry him, the king ought to agree to the match first.
Had Lord Faramus lost his senses? Of course it was beyond flattering to think that the count would welcome him as a son-in-law, not to mention that it was temptation beyond his wildest dreamshim, to become a count one day!but he couldn't do it.
He glanced towards the lady sitting by the window. He couldn't read her expression, she had set aside the parchment and was bent over some needlework. Surely Lady Barbara didn't condone this foolhardy idea?
'The king himself has approved Lady Rowena's desire to enter the convent,' Eric said, mildly.
'Well, I am her father and I do not. Stop quibbling, de Monfort. Get her out of St Mary's and get her to marry you. I don't care how you do it, just do it. It might inspire you if you tell yourself that when I die, you will be Count of Sainte-Colombe.'
'I am truly sorry to disappoint you, my lord, but I will not do it. It simply would not be the act of an honourable knight.'
'Eric, we chose you because we recalled that as a child you were kind to my daughter.'
We? So Lady Barbara was in on this ridiculous plan, was she? Eric felt a muscle flicker in his jaw. 'As I recall, my lord, you warned me about being over-familiar. In fact, you forbade me to speak to her.'
Lady Barbara's needle stilled. 'Sir, you are referring to the time when you and Rowena were found in the plum tree. You must forgive my husband for that. He tends to be over-protective and hasty in his judgements. And you must not forget that you were, at the time, young and untried. You were unproven.'
'And now I have won a manor and a few acres you consider me proven?'
Lord Faramus looked him straight in the eye. 'De Monfort, I trained you myself, I know you are an honourable man.'
'What you ask me to do is dishonourable!'
Lady Barbara made a sharp movement. 'Please, sir, you have to help us.'
'My lady, I am sorry, I will not do it.'
The count's shoulders sagged. 'Very well, de Monfort, you may leave.' He waved a curt dismissal. 'On your way out, send Sir Breon up.'
Lady Barbara's eyes filled with anxiety. The knot twisted in Eric's stomach. What would happen next? Telling himself it was none of his business, Eric was halfway to the door when he remembered Macaire muttering about how it would be a travesty if Sir Breon went up to the solar. Obviously, Macaire must be aware that the count was determined to get his daughter out of the abbey and he didn't like the idea of her being handed over to Sir Breon.
Lady Rowena's face as Eric had last seen it, beautiful in its innocence, flashed into his mind. The idea of that sweet child being forced in to Sir Breon's companyfor lifewas utterly repugnant. Eric had always had the impression that she was afraid of the man. Lord, his stomach turned at the thought. That child with that lout it simply would not do.
Sir Breon might refuse to agree. He might.
Briefly, Eric closed his eyes. He was deluding himself, there was no way that Sir Breon would turn down the chance to wed the heiress to the Sainte-Colombe acres.
Lady Rowena, that lovely girl, forced into marriage with Sir Breon?
Rather me than him.
Eric stopped in his tracks, turned and looked intently at his former lord. 'You would foist Sir Breon on Lady Rowena?'
'Since you are clearly not the man I took you for, yes. Sir Breon knows where his loyalties lie. I feel confident that he will be less of a disappointment.'
'My lord, you cannot be serious.'
Lord Faramus glowered. 'Someone has to marry her. I'll be damned before I see my lands fall into Armand's hands.'
'Sir Armand de Velay, a distant cousin.'
Eric was beginning to understand. With the count's only child taking the veil, the County of Sainte-Colombe would fall into this cousin's hands. Unless Rowena married.
'My lord.' Eric forced himself to speak calmly. 'It is natural for a man to want his lands to go to his child, but I cannot think that force is the way to achieve it.'
Lord Faramus's mouth thinned. 'Do you think we haven't tried persuasion? Rowena is the most stubborn wench in Christendom. She will not see reason.'
Eric had never seen Lady Rowena's stubborn side. It came to him that even if she were stubborn she was only taking after her sire. Wisely, he held his tongue on that score, saying merely, 'My lord, in my view Lady Rowena mislikes Sir Breon.'
Lord Faramus lifted an eyebrow. 'So? Sir Breon will get her agreement.'
Eric shook his head, frowning. 'Aye, he probably will, Sir Breon is not a gentle man. My lord, have you thought about the methods he might use to persuade her?'
'Sir Breon will do my will. Send him in.'
'Mon seigneur, Lady Rowena wants to become a nun.'
''Tantpis. She will marry one way or the other.' With a sigh, Lord Faramus clapped Eric on the shoulder. 'No hard feelings, de Monfort, I won't hold this against you.'
'Wait.' Eric put up his hand. He wasn't sure why, but the thought of Sir Breon forcing himself on Lady Rowena was unbearable. Naturally, the thought of one day being count of Sainte-Colombe was tempting, but it was the thought of Lady Rowena in Breon's hands that pushed him to accept. 'I'll do it.'
Lady Barbara gave him the tiniest of smiles. If Eric had blinked he'd have missed it. Oddly, her smile gave him heart. It made him realise that he was her choice, Lady Barbara wanted him for her daughter. Lord knew Eric had never looked to force any woman into marriage, let alone Lady Rowena, but if he didn't agree then Sir Breon surely would. Eric must spare her that.
The count's eyes glittered. 'You agree?'
'Aye.' Eric thought fast. Agreement would buy time. Clearly, Lord Faramus hadn't had time to accept Lady Rowena's decision to enter the convent. That much was understandable, the realisation that his cousin would inherit his lands rather than his daughter must be hard to swallow. Given more time, Lord Faramus would surely come to his senses.
Eric had to admit it was flattering to think that Lord Faramus and Lady Barbara had chosen to put their extraordinary proposal to him first. It showed a measure of trust. Of approval. Lord Faramus was a hard man, hard and determined, but he must love his daughter.
And there sat Lady Barbara, smiling that small smile. Eric looked directly at her. 'I will keep your daughter safe,' he said. He wouldn't marry her though, he couldn't. It would be sacrilege to come between Lady Rowena and her calling.
'I know,' Lady Barbara murmured.
'I am not sure she will remember me.'
'She will.' Lady Barbara bent over her sewing.