While her sisters are tall and beautiful, Celestia Montehue is the misfit in a royal familypetite, with one green and one blue eye. The only thing she has in common with her ancestors is her magical healing ability. Fearing no one will ever accept her, she vows never to marry. Meanwhile, Nicholas Le Blanc, a haunted man, was trained as a knight but his childhood has convinced him he is a bastard. He is captured while on crusade and eventually forced to kill for his freedom. An arranged marriage between the two does not bode happiness, nor does Celestia's new homea broken-down keep haunted by the ghost of Nicholas' mother. Soon a curse is set upon them, and they must decide if their love will save them or, ultimately, doom them.
About the Author
Traci E. Hall is the current president of Florida Romance Writers, a chapter of Romance Writers of America. She lives in Jupiter, Florida.
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By Traci E. Hall
Medallion Press, Inc. Copyright © 2008 Traci E. Hall
All right reserved.
Chapter One Montehue Manor England, 1192
"I don't feel well," Celestia Montehue said the instant before the bailiff threw open the twin wooden doors to the large main room.
Celestia looked up from the long dining table on the raised dais. The family was just finishing their midday meal of sliced duck breast in almond sauce and wedges of eel pie. Eel pie, she thought with dismay, pushing at her trencher.
Taking a sip of watered wine in an effort to calm her belly, she wondered who might be coming, as no company had been expected. A troupe of entertainers, mayhap. Preferably acrobats and jugglers instead of minstrels, who sang their silly songs of court gossip and love. A chill started at the base of her spine and raced upward, settling at the nape of her neck.
Briefly touching her temples, she tried to ascertain from whence the chill came. It could be a draft that had followed the bailiff in like a wayward pup.
It could be a premonition.
Celestia shivered, then pulled her thin woolen shawl tight around her shoulders. She wished she were better at discerning these strange feelings that warned of desperate trouble, or a spring rain.
"Is something amiss, 'Tia?"
She startled when her sister Galiana tossed a bread crumb at her nose. "Hmm?"
"You have that odd look on your face, the one you get before you sneeze," Galiana laughed.
"But then you do not," her youngest sister, Ela, held a finger below her cute, upturned nose. "Sneeze. You say something strange instead."
"I can't help it," Celestia defended.
"So? What did you see in that head of yours?" Galiana, who at sixteen was a renowned beauty, crossed her bright green eyes and stuck out her tongue. "The man you will marry?"
Ela snickered, a most unladylike sound. "I liked it when you predicted wild geese flying through the stables. I won a halfpence off of Abner the stable boy because of that."
Bemused, Celestia blinked. "You must not gamble. And you both know I'll not marry." Squeezing her eyes shut, she focused on the foggy vision in her mind. "It makes no sense. A monk riding a sway-backed nag? Wearing only one sandal?" She rubbed her forehead as her stomach rolled. "Ridiculous."
The bailiff blew his horn, and a group of men, all dressed in blue and gold, stepped into the large hall.
Celestia immediately noticed the large blond man with handsome sideburns and a trimmed beard. He wore his colors proudly, and the scabbard at his side shone with obvious care.
The other knights stood behind him, as if shielding something. Blue and gold were the Baron Peregrine's colors. Why had he sent his men? Her dislike of the baron didn't matter; he was her family's liege lord and they owed him fealty.
Leaning forward, her stomach fluttering with nerves, Celestia braced her hands against the table.
"Announcing Sir Petyr Montgomery with a missive from Baron Peregrine."
Her father got to his feet, his features deceptively calm. "Welcome, Sir Petyr. Come forward."
Her family had to be remembering that the last time the baron sent men, they'd raised the rents-on behalf of King Richard and his religious quest, of course. Celestia could not turn her eyes away from the comely knight, who looked exactly the way her dream man would look, if she cared about those things. She sensed that he was not her destiny, more the pity.
He came to the front of the dais and held out a scroll still sealed with the baron's insignia. "I apologize for interrupting your meal, Lord Robert," Sir Petyr said, including all of the family with a quick glance, but pausing for a second longer on Galiana. Her sister had that effect on men.
"Would you join us for a bite?" Whipping his eating knife from the loaf of bread, her father used it to break the seal on the letter.
"Nay, my thanks." The knight's posture remained formal, and Celestia surmised that the missive didn't contain happy news. The baron went through wives and babes like melting snow in the sun. Mayhap he'd lost another? Or was this about her younger twin brothers, fostered at the baron's castle?
Her father's ruddy cheeks grew even more mottled as he read.
"Aloud-will you read it so that we all may hear?" Her mother tugged at Lord Robert's green sleeve, her lack of manners a sign of agitation.
"What is the meaning of this?" Lord Robert demanded.
Sir Petyr did not pretend to misunderstand. "It is the Baron Peregrine's most urgent desire."
Leaning down so that his face was in Sir Petyr's, her father ground out, "Is it an order?"
The knight swallowed audibly. "Aye."
Lord Robert slammed the scroll down to the table, knocking over a goblet of red wine. Like spilled blood, it dripped to the rushes below.
Celestia pressed her fingers against her lips, understanding without being told that her brothers were fine, and this somehow concerned her.
"Why? I received special compensation when I swore allegiance to him nigh on twenty years ago. My daughters are not to be pawns in the marriage mart."
The talk of marriage chilled Celestia inside and out. Had the baron decided to marry one of his vassal's daughters? Perhaps he thought, wrongly, that by marrying a healer he could keep a babe. Her grandmother had mentioned once that the baron's seed was cursed.
Her mother grabbed the scroll and read it for herself. Lady Deirdre stood, her red hair bright against the paleness of her skin. "Nay. I forbid it."
"My lady," Sir Petyr said in a low voice. "There are consequences if you do not obey."
"Aye, and you ask that we pay them all, and why? My mother is a healer, my daughter is a healer, what need of a wife has this broken man?" Her mother shook the scroll.
Celestia exchanged frightened looks with her sisters, but they dared not breathe a word. Her mother, by calling the baron "broken," was saying too much already. Sir Petyr's hand dropped to his sword hilt at the insult, and Celestia felt the press of Ela's fingers in hers. She would not be surprised to see her father turn Viking on the baron's knight, killing the man with his own sword, if he did not take a step back from the dais.
"Your eldest daughter is to marry. Not the baron," Sir Petyr said, dropping his hand away from the sword, excusing the slur.
Gasping, Celestia's knees went weak. Marrying the baron would have been a death sentence. But to wed a stranger? Even worse. She could not be a wife. If she married without love, her healing magic would wither and die. No matter the obvious differences she bore when compared to her family, her healing gifts marked her as a true descendant of Boadicea. Her eyes strayed to the group of men left standing by the bailiff.
If she wasn't to marry the baron, then who?
Sir Petyr bowed his head, as if acknowledging the Montehue's angry disbelief. "Baron Peregrine has his reasons for breaking the oath he made. His son."
"Son? Baron Peregrine has no living son." Her father's eyes narrowed, then he tossed the knife in the air, catching it by the handle before slamming it back in the bread.
"Aye, he does have one. A brave man, Sir Nicholas is in need of both healing and a wife. Your daughter, Lady Celestia, is of marriageable age and," Sir Petyr nodded in her direction, "seems healthy. The baron demands that the wedding take place immediately."
"Healthy? Wedding?" Unable to keep silent for even a heartbeat longer, Celestia shot to her feet. "There can be no wedding. I have an infirmary to operate. Who will take care of the people? They need me!"
The full force of Sir Petyr's gaze leveled her, stopping her chatter. The man was deadly serious, and she had a sinking feeling there was nothing anybody could do about it. "I am sorry to be the bearer of such news," he said.
"Sorry!" She knew that she should act the docile female, but she could no more hold her wayward tongue than a butterfly could walk. "You do not understand at all, sir. I am a descendant of Queen Boadicea,"
"The Warrior Queen?" He eyed her up and down, which, thanks be to her short stature, did not take long.
She flushed, but continued. "Aye, and I am a healer. We cannot marry without lo-"
He dismissed her, turning to her father instead. "Your twin sons are being fostered with the baron, is that not correct?"
Lord Robert was so furious the air around him crackled. "Aye."
"They would be elevated in status, no doubt, once there is a babe of this union."
"Babe? Are you crazed?" Celestia grabbed the closest weapon she had, which was a dish of watercress. "I will not marry," she looked to her parents and beseeched of them, "I cannot, as well you know."
Galiana quickly took the bowl from her hand. "Hush, 'Tia, let us listen to everything the knight has to say."
Sir Petyr had treated her with scorn, as if she did not matter, damn him. To him, she was no more than a helpless twit. Her hand fisted at her hip.
Ela slipped an arm around Celestia's waist. "Keep your temper, 'Tia," her youngest sister whispered. "It will go worse if you shame Father."
Swallowing hard, Celestia peered at the huddled group of knights left near the bailiff. "Do any of them have the look of Baron Peregrine?"
Galiana, her eyesight as perfect as her skin, said, "Nay. Not a hooked nose among them. Although I wonder what they are hiding."
With a mounting sense of dread, Celestia pushed her sisters aside and walked down the three stairs that elevated the dais from the rest of the hall. Chin tilted, she deliberately relaxed her fingers and folded her hands together primly at her waist. Her slippers had tiny bells that rang with each step she took, announcing her arrival as if she were a collared cat instead of the charging lioness she wanted to be.
She curtsied before the group of men, her mouth suddenly dry. "Good day to you." Her mother said that a lady should always be polite. Even if she wanted to scream.
"Good day," they chorused nervously.
"What have you, behind your backs?"
They flushed various shades and stammered incoherently.
She picked one knight out from the rest. "You, sir, what is your name?" He was young for a knight, mayhap twenty, barely older than she, no doubt.
"Forrester, my lady." He was so nervous that his eye twitched.
Filled with sympathy, she put her hand on his bare forearm, sending soothing and calming thoughts despite her own upset. "What have you, Sir Forrester?"
He swallowed, his throat moving visibly. "Sir Nicholas, my lady."
She stilled, nerves knotting her entire body like a leg cramp. Inhaling through her nose, she dipped her head in a regal motion, and the knights parted.
Revealing one very unkempt man, dressed in a monk's brown, rough wool robe, with a rope belted around his slender waist. He looked almost emaciated, and she glanced at the knights with questions she could not possibly ask in polite company.
Sir Forrester, taking pity on her, whispered, "He is the baron's son."
She slowly looked down, and yes, the man was only wearing one sandal.
His other foot had none.
This was her destiny.
More the pity.
Tears burned at the back of her eyes, but she would not shed a single drop in front of anyone. She'd longed for a blond man, a kind man, a generous man.
The stench of sour ale floated beneath her nose, and she added, a sober man.
Two of the knights had been propping him up between them, and now that the secret was out, they let her get a good look at the man she was expected to marry and waste her ancestors' gifts upon.
There it was, she noticed, the hooked nose that pronounced him a Peregrine.
His skin, waxen and damp. His hair, ebony and curled with wet-wet?
"Why is he wet?" she asked.
Sir Forrester answered, "We dumped him in the trough, my lady, in an effort to wake him. He's ill. Your bailiff saw us and demanded that we be announced immediately-his duty, I know, but it was not our intent to cause you embarrassment." His skin flushed and he hastily looked away.
Why couldn't this boy be the one, she railed against Fate. She locked her gaze on Sir Nicholas's bare foot. "And his shoe?"
"Lost, my lady. It was a long ride from Crispin Monastery."
She nodded, not comprehending at all. "Baron Peregrine wants me to marry a monk. Is that not against the rules?"
"He is no monk; he is a hero, a returned Crusader, my lady," Sir Petyr's slick voice whispered in her ear.
Her head could not make sense of what was happening. "A drunk, crusading monk." Tapping her toe, and setting the tiny bells to jangling, she raised her brow in question.
Sir Petyr sighed heavily. "I can explain. He is very sick, and the only way we could get him his herbs was in his ale. Lots of ale. He did not want to come, you see. We had to tell him that he was going to ... Bertram, where did he want to go?"
"Yes, Spain, my lady."
The chill spread through her veins. "You deliberately drugged his drink and told him he was going to Spain."
"On pilgrimage," Sir Bertram added helpfully.
"For his soul?" Celestia peered at the man's thin, gaunt face. He certainly looked as if he needed divine intervention.
A thought occurred, along with a stomach cramp so strong she almost bent over. But, no, it could not be. Who could force a grown man to do something against his will? "Does he know why he has been brought to Montehue Manor?"
The knights grew quiet. The silence within the manor was so total that if Celestia dropped but a needle it would have echoed throughout the hall, and still not one of the men dared to answer her question.
Sir Nicholas chose that moment to rouse from his stupor, and he struggled against the knights who were holding him. "Where are we?" he demanded huskily. "Petyr!"
"I am here."
Celestia grew alarmed at the green tinge Sir Nicholas's skin was taking on.
"I ... I don't feel well," he said, opening his eyes and echoing her own sentiments exactly.
She was stunned by the depth of black despair he'd hidden behind those blue-veined lids. Her heart flickered like a candle's flame, and somehow she was drawn to this man with one sandal. His pain was hers. She reached out, her fingers trembling. She had to touch him, she had to ...
"My lady!" Forrester shouted before grabbing her by the waist and lifting her up.
And out of the way, as her betrothed vomited all over her family's hall.
* * *
Nicholas Le Blanc felt the pounding of his head in rhythm with the stabbing pain of his heartbeat. His chest thudded with an irregular tempo, and he wondered, briefly, if he were dying just when he'd made the decision to live.
And to kill the bastard who had sent him on crusade, betraying King Richard and Saint James for coin. He gritted his teeth, which sent a slicing jolt up his jaw. The pain meant that he was alive.
Gnawing fire in his gut made him wary of how long he might continue to draw breath. By all the saints, he'd not give in until he ripped Baron Peregrine's innards to shreds with a dull blade.
The unexpected touch of a cool hand against his forehead startled him into stillness. Feminine. Soft. He had no illusions that those hands could be equally cruel and dangerous.
His time as a prisoner in the Saracen desert, kept for a ransom that never came, and then kept ... his mind shied away from memories more awful than he could stand. Baron Peregrine would pay dearly.
Fingers trailed down his jawline, prying his mouth open. A lukewarm liquid slid down his abused esophagus, soothing and slick. It didn't make him want to puke, which was the most important thing.
Nicholas used his considerable willpower to separate lids that felt as if they'd been sewn shut. Two girls wearing wimples and five chins, five chins? He blinked, bringing the girls, no, one girl, into focus.
A heart-shaped face stared down at him, pink lips pouting together without a hint of a smile. Brows so fair it was no wonder she didn't follow the custom of shaving them. They arched over eyes that tipped up at their oval ends. Odd eyes. One green, one blue, framed by golden lashes. This was not a girl, but a woman.
"Are you a witch?" he croaked, not caring one way or the other. "Save me," he ordered.
The question, or demand, brought an annoyed frown. "No. And I am not in the habit of letting my patients die."
Nicholas felt drawn to her warm voice, despite the bite in her tone.
"For you, however, I might make an exception." She pointed her chin in the air, challenging him to ask why.
"We have never met before, I am certain of it. You have the advantage over me." His voice sounded hoarse, yet he attempted a smile. It felt like a grimace. At least the fire in his stomach no longer burned as hot.
She held his gaze, but her expressions changed so fast that Nicholas wasn't sure what she was thinking. He saw curiosity and disappointment-but not a hint of fear.
With women, one had to tread carefully and read their eyes, rather than listen to the words that fell from their soft, lying lips.
Attempting to sit up, Nicholas's stomach protested with a sharp stab. "What did you give me?"
Excerpted from Love's Magic by Traci E. Hall Copyright © 2008 by Traci E. Hall. Excerpted by permission.
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