In the resplendence of William the Conqueror’s London court, the lovely Saxon captive, Nicholaa is forced to choose a husband from the assembled Norman nobles. She chooses Royce, a baron warrior whose fierce demeanor can not conceal his chivalrous and tender heart. Resourceful, rebellious and utterly naive, Nicholaa vows to bend Royce to her will, despite the whirlwind of feelings he arouses in her. Ferocious in battle, seasoned in passion, Royce is surprised by the depth of his emotions whenever he caresses his charming bride.
In a climate of utmost treachery, Royce and Nicholaa revel in their precious new love—a fervent bond soon to be disrupted by the call of blood, kin and country....
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|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
What a great time it is for booklovers. There are so many ways for us to read books from our favorite authors these days. Until recently, I never left home without a book in my bag. Now, thanks to my e-reader, I can carry hundreds with me.
My contemporary novels have all been formatted as e-books, and I’m delighted that most of my earlier historicals can now be downloaded, too. I had so much fun writing these stories, and I hope you enjoy them.
I am often asked which of my books is my favorite. It’s difficult to pick favorites. Whatever book I am writing has my undivided attention, so my favorite characters are usually the ones I am spending the most time with. For that reason, I am most excited about Sweet Talk, which Dutton will publish in August 2012. So before you dip into this earlier book of mine, I have included the first chapter of Sweet Talk here. It is the only place you can get a sneak peek at my new book, and I hope you love these characters as much as I do. As always, I’m eager to hear your thoughts about all of my novels on Facebook or on my website (www.juliegarwood.com).
I am grateful that you have purchased this book, whatever the format. Happy reading!
Olivia MacKenzie was certain she would have been offered the job if she hadn’t punched the boss during the interview. But knocking the man senseless turned out to be a real deal breaker.
The CEO of one of the largest investment firms in the country, Eric Jorguson, was now being questioned by an FBI agent. He wasn’t cooperating. The agent had taken Jorguson to the opposite side of the terrace and was trying to get him to calm down and answer his questions. Jorguson was busy screaming at Olivia, threatening to have her killed and also sue her because she’d broken his jaw. She hadn’t done any such thing, of course. The man was exaggerating. She’d smashed his nose in, not his jaw. A waiter wearing the name tag TERRY pinned to his black vest stood next to her trying to soothe what he referred to as her extreme case of nerves. She wanted to punch him, too.
“You’re in shock,” he told her. “That’s why you look so calm. The guy tears your dress and gropes you, and it’s only natural for you to go into shock. Don’t you think? That’s why you’re not crying and carrying on.”
Olivia looked at him. “I’m fine, really.” Now please leave me alone, she silently added.
“Hey, look,” Terry said. “They’re arresting Jorguson’s bodyguard. What’s the guy doing with a bodyguard, I wonder.” A few seconds later he answered his own question. “He must need one. Especially if he attacks other women the way he attacked you. You think you’d like to go out with me sometime?”
She smiled to ease the rejection. “I don’t think so.”
“You’re still in shock, aren’t you?”
Olivia was angry, not hysterical. She stood by the table with her arms folded across her waist as she patiently waited for the FBI agent to get to her. She had been told it wouldn’t take long.
Terry tried twice more to engage her in conversation. She was polite but firm each time he attempted to get personal.
She watched the agents while she tried to figure out how she had gotten into this bizarre situation. Job hunting wasn’t supposed to be dangerous. She had already interviewed with three other Fortune 500 companies without incident. Before she had gone to those interviews, however, she had done quite a bit of research. She didn’t have that luxury with Jorguson Investments. Because the position had just become available, she’d had less than a day to study the company’s prospectus. She should have looked more closely before she agreed to the preliminary interview. Should have, could have, she lamented.
She hated job hunting and all the inane interviews, especially since she really liked her current job and the people she worked with. But there was talk of cutbacks. Serious talk, and according to some of the other employees, Olivia didn’t have seniority. She would be one of the first laid off. It was important to her that she stay in her current job until she accomplished what she had set out to do, but it didn’t look like that was going to happen. The only constant in Olivia’s life right now was the mortgage. It had to be paid, no matter what, which was why she had to have job options.
She had gone to the office an hour earlier than usual this morning, finished two case files by noon, and headed over to Seraphina, a lovely restaurant with a stunning view. The five-star restaurant overlooked a manicured terrace, with tables strategically placed under a canopy of tree branches. Beyond was the river. Lunch was going to be a treat. She’d never dined at Seraphina because of the expense, but she’d heard that the food was wonderful. Grossly overpriced, but wonderful. No peanut butter and jelly sandwich today.
The hostess showed her to a table on the south side of the terrace. It was such a beautiful day with just a slight nip in the air, perfect for lunch outside.
The preliminary interview with Xavier Cannon, the company’s lead attorney, had gone well, she thought, but he hadn’t answered some of her more pressing questions and had suggested instead that she ask Jorguson. Cannon also mentioned that, if Jorguson liked her, he would offer her the job during lunch.
Jorguson was waiting for her. She spotted him across the busy terrace. He held an open folder in his hand and was reading a paper inside it. As she drew closer she could see that it was her résumé.
For about twenty seconds she thought he was quite a charmer and a rather distinguished-looking man. He was tall and thin and had a bright, white smile.
He stood and shook her hand. “Bring the lady a drink,” he snapped impatiently to a passing waiter.
“Iced tea, please,” she said.
The waiter had already moved her chair for her, and she sat before Jorguson could come around the table to assist her.
Jorguson’s cell phone rang, and without offering an apology or an excuse for the interruption, he turned his back to her and answered. His voice was low and angry. Whoever he was talking to was getting a dressing-down. His vocabulary was crude.
So much for charming, she thought. She tried to focus on her surroundings while she waited. The linen tablecloth draped all the way to the ground, and in the center of the round table was a crystal bowl of fresh-cut flowers in every color. She looked around her and smiled. It was a really pretty day.
Jorguson finished his call. He slipped the phone into his suit jacket and gave her his full attention, but the way he was staring at her quickly made her uncomfortable. She was about to ask him if something was wrong when he said, “You’re stunning. Absolutely stunning.”
“You’re very beautiful,” he said then. “Xavier mentioned how pretty you were, but I still didn’t expect . . . that is to say, I wasn’t prepared . . .”
Olivia was horrified by his close scrutiny. His leering inspection made her skin crawl. Jorguson wasn’t just unprofessional; he was also creepy. She opened her linen napkin and placed it in her lap. She tried to turn his attention so he would stop gawking at her.
Typically she would have waited for him to lead the questioning, but the awkward silence and his inappropriate behavior compelled her to speak first.
“This morning I had a few minutes, and I pulled up your prospectus. Your company is quite impressive,” she said. “But there was a note that last year you were investigated by the FBI—”
He rudely cut her off with a wave of his hand. “Yes, but of course nothing came of it. It was simple harassment.” He continued, “They didn’t like some of my clients and wanted to make trouble, which was ridiculous. I should have sued, but I didn’t have the time.”
Sue the FBI? Was he serious or just trying to impress her with his power. His arrogance was overwhelming.
“You’re a brand-new attorney, aren’t you?” he asked.
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“Only two people ranked higher than you on the bar. I cannot tell you how remarkable that is. Still, you don’t have much experience with contracts.”
“No, I don’t,” she agreed. “How did you find out about my scores? That’s confidential—”
He waved his hand in the air again, dismissing her question. The gesture irritated her. She admitted then that pretty much everything about the man irritated her.
“There were quite a few others who applied for the position, and most of them have more experience than you, but when I discovered you were Robert MacKenzie’s daughter, I moved you to the top of the list.”
“You know my father?” She couldn’t hide her surprise.
“Everyone who’s anyone knows who your father is,” he replied. “I know people who have invested in your father’s Trinity Fund and have made a handsome profit. Very impressive,” he stated with a nod. “I’m considering adding the fund to my own portfolio. No one plays the market like your father does. He seems to have a knack for choosing the right investments. If you’re half as clever as he is, you’ll go far, young lady.”
Olivia wasn’t given time to respond. He’d already moved on. “You’ll be wonderful working with our clients. With that smile of yours, you could get them to sign anything. Oh yes, they’ll be as dazzled by you as I am,” he gushed. “And I have several powerful clients. Xavier will guide you. Now then, what questions do you have for me? I have a potential client meeting me here at one, so this will have to be a quick lunch.”
“Did the SEC investigate when—”
He interrupted. “No, the SEC will never investigate me,” he boasted. “I’m protected there.”
“You’re protected? How?”
“I have a friend, and he has assured me . . .”
Her eyes widened. “You have a friend at the Securities and Exchange Commission?”
Color crept up his neck. His eyes darted to the left, then to the right. Was he checking to make sure no one was listening to the conversation?
He leaned into the table and lowered his voice. “I don’t have any worries there. As I just said, I won’t be investigated, and since you’re going to be working closely with me, I don’t want you to be concerned.”
Working closely with him? That thought made her cringe.
“About this friend . . .” she began.
“No more questions about the SEC,” he snapped. He wasn’t looking into her eyes now. He was staring at her chest. The longer he stared, the more indignant she became. She considered snapping her fingers several times in front of his eyes to get his attention but, wanting to remain composed and professional, decided to ask a question about the investments he’d made.
Jorguson was slick; she’d give him that much. He danced around each question but never really gave her any satisfactory answers.
The topic eventually returned to the SEC. “Who is your contact?” she asked, wondering if he would tell her. He was so smug and arrogant, she thought there was a good chance he might. She also wanted him to assure her that everything he did was legal, and she thought it was odd that he hadn’t offered any such affirmation.
“Why do you want to know? That’s confidential information.”
He was staring at her chest again. She folded her napkin, smiled at Terry the waiter when he placed her iced tea in front of her, and handed him her menu.
“I won’t be staying for lunch.”
The waiter hesitated, then took her menu, glanced at Jorguson, and walked away.
Olivia was disheartened. The salary at Jorguson Investments was good, really good, but it had taken less than five minutes to know she couldn’t work for this man.
What a waste of time, she thought. And money. She could have worn one of her old suits, but she’d wanted to stand out, so she bought a new dress. It was expensive, too. She loved the fit and the color, a deep emerald green silk. It had a high V-neck, so there was no need to wear a necklace. Diamond stud earrings, which were so tiny you could barely see the sparkle, and a watch were her only jewelry. She wore her hair down around her shoulders and had taken the time to use a curling iron.
Olivia looked at Jorguson. The degenerate was still staring at her chest. And for this she had curled her hair?
“This isn’t going to work,” she said.
She tried to stand. Jorguson suddenly bolted upright, grabbed the top of her dress, and ripped it apart. The silk material tore, exposing her collarbone and part of her black bra.
Appalled, she slapped Jorguson’s hands away. “What do you think—”
“Are you wearing a wire? You are, aren’t you? That’s why you asked me who my contact was. That investigation stalled, sweetheart. It’s not going anywhere. The FBI’s been after me for two years now, and they’ve got nothing. I know for a fact they’re following me. They won’t ever get anything on me. They like to go after successful entrepreneurs. I’m an honest businessman,” he shouted into her chest. “Now where’s the damn wire? I know it’s in there somewhere.”
Olivia was so shocked by his behavior, she bounced between disbelief and outrage. She shoved his hands away, pulled her top together, and said, “If you try to touch me again, you’ll regret it.”
He tried again, and she retaliated. She heard a crunching sound when she punched him and felt a good deal of satisfaction. It was short-lived. A giant of a man with a thick neck and bald head appeared out of nowhere. He was wearing a tailored black suit, but he looked like a thug. He was at the other end of the terrace and heading toward her. As Jorguson was screaming and holding his nose with one hand, he was waving to the big man and pointing at Olivia with the other.
“Martin, see what she did to me?” he howled. “Get her, get her.”
Get her? Was he twelve? Olivia could feel her face turning red. She kept her attention centered on the bodyguard as she jumped to her feet. His suit jacket opened, and she saw a gun. He hadn’t reached for it, though, and was glancing around to see how many people were watching.
She was in trouble, all right. She thought about taking off one of her stiletto heels and using that as a weapon, but she decided she could do more damage with it on. She spied Terry watching from the doorway with a cell phone to his ear. She hoped he was calling the police.
“Do you have a permit to carry that gun?” she demanded of the bodyguard, trying to make her voice sound as mean as possible. Now, why, in God’s name, had she asked that? What did she care if he had a permit or not? She was slowly slipping her hand inside her purse to get to her pepper spray. She couldn’t find it and realized then that, when she’d changed purses, she’d left the spray at home on her bedside table. A lot of good it would do her there.
The thug named Martin, zigzagging around the tables, was getting closer. The man was built like a sumo wrestler. Olivia figured she was on her own. The other diners were already beginning to scatter. She stepped back from the table, dropped her purse into the chair, and waited for the man to reach her. If he touched her, she’d kick him where it mattered most, and if he blocked her, she’d go for his knee or his midsection.
Jorguson, holding his bloody nose, was backing away but still pointing at her and shouting. “How dare you touch me. You’re going to be sorry. I know people who will hurt you. You don’t hit me and get away with it. Don’t you know who I am and what I can do? One phone call is all it will take,” he screamed. “You’re a dead woman, Olivia MacKenzie. Do you hear me? A dead woman.”
Of course she’d heard him. She thought everyone within a ten-block area had heard him. She refused to give him any satisfaction by reacting, though, and that was probably why he was becoming more outrageous with his threats.
Her attention remained centered on the bodyguard. She thought he would do his best to intimidate her in front of his employer, maybe even try to get her to apologize to Jorguson—hell would freeze before she’d do that—but he surely wouldn’t touch her. Not in front of all these people.
Or maybe he wouldn’t care who was watching. Jorguson had shouted his intent to have her killed. Would this bodyguard try to top that crazy threat?
There was a wall of windows in the restaurant facing the river, and diners were crammed together, their faces plastered to the glass. Some had their cell phones glued to their ears; others were using the cell phone cameras to record the incident . . . for YouTube, no doubt. Certainly, most of them had witnessed Jorguson ripping her dress and then screaming after she’d punched him. The man had howled like an outraged hyena. Surely they’d heard his ridiculous threats, too.
The bodyguard took Jorguson’s orders to “get her” to heart. He lunged. He grabbed her upper arm and twisted as he jerked her toward him. Pain shot up into her neck and down to her fingers. His grip was strong enough to break her bone.
He glanced over his shoulder at the crowd before turning back to her. “You’re coming with me,” he ordered.
A woman rushed out of the restaurant shouting, “You leave her alone.” At the same time, two men in business suits ran past the woman to help Olivia.
“Let go of me,” she demanded as she slammed the heel of her shoe into the top of his foot.
He grunted and let go. Olivia got in a solid kick, and he doubled over. But not for long. He quickly recovered and, roaring several grossly unflattering names at her, straightened and reached for his gun. His face was now bloodred.
Good Lord, was he going to shoot her? The look in his eyes suggested that he might. Apparently, Martin had forgotten his audience, or he no longer cared he was being watched. His impulse control had vanished. He had the most hateful look on his face as he pulled the gun from the waistband of his pants. The two businessmen coming to her aid stopped when they spotted the weapon.
“I said you’re coming with me,” he snarled as he lunged.
“No, I’m not.” She threw a twelve-dollar glass of iced tea at him. He ducked.
“Bitch.” He spit the word and tried to grab her again.
“I’m not going anywhere with you. Now get away from me.”
The gun seemed to be growing in his hand. She backed away from him, and that infuriated him even more. He came at her again, and before she could protect herself, he backhanded her. He struck the side of her face, his knuckles clipping her jaw. It was a hard hit and hurt like hell. The blow threw her backward, but even as she was falling, she didn’t take her eyes off the gun.
She landed on her backside, winced from the impact on her tailbone, and quickly staggered to her feet.
She understood what the expression “seeing stars” meant. Dazed, she tried to back away.
The thug raised his gun again, and suddenly he was gone. Olivia saw a blur fly past her, tackling the bodyguard to the ground. The gun went one way, and the thug went the other, landing hard. Within seconds her rescuer had the man facedown on the grass and was putting handcuffs on him while reading him his rights. When he was finished, he motioned to another man wearing a badge and gun who was rushing across the terrace.
With one of his knees pressed against the bodyguard’s spine, the rescuer turned toward her. She suddenly felt lightheaded. She could have sworn she saw an ethereal glow radiating all around him and the sound of a singing choir echoing overhead. She closed her eyes and shook her head. The blow to her jaw must be making her hallucinate. When she opened her eyes again, the vision and the choir were gone, but the man was still there, looking up at her with beautiful hazel eyes.
“Who are you?” he asked as he hauled the bodyguard to his feet.
“Olivia MacKenzie,” she answered. She sounded bewildered, but she couldn’t help that. The last few minutes had been hair-raising, and she was having trouble forming a clear thought.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“Agent Grayson Kincaid. FBI. Are you all right?”
“I’ve been better.”
“Maybe you should sit down.”
The bodyguard finally found his voice. “I was protecting my boss.”
“With a Glock?” Kincaid asked. “And against an unarmed woman?”
“She kicked me.”
A hint of a smile turned his expression. “Yeah, I saw.”
“I’m bringing charges.”
“You attacked her,” Kincaid snapped. “If I were you, I’d be real quiet right now.”
The bodyguard ignored the suggestion. “Mr. Jorguson has known for a long time that the FBI has been tailing him and listening in on his private conversations. What you’re doing is illegal, but you people don’t play by the rules, do you?”
“Stop talking,” Kincaid said.
Another agent grabbed hold of the bodyguard’s arm and led him away. He didn’t go peacefully. He was shouting for a lawyer.
“Hey, Ronan,” Kincaid shouted.
The agent dragging the bodyguard away turned back. “Yeah?”
“Did you see it?”
Ronan smiled. “Oh yeah, I saw it all. After I put this clown in the back of the car, I’ll go get Jorguson.”
Olivia glanced around the terrace. In all the commotion she hadn’t seen him slip away.
Kincaid nodded, then turned back to her.
“The gun is under the table,” she offered.
“I’ll get it,” Kincaid said.
He walked over to her, and she flinched when he reached out to touch her. Frowning, he said, “I’m not going to hurt you. I just want to see how bad it is.”
“It’s fine,” she insisted. “I’m fine.”
He ignored her protest. He gently pushed her hair away from the side of her face. “Your cheek’s okay, but he really clipped your jaw. It’s already starting to swell. You need to put ice on it. Maybe I should take you to the emergency room, have a physician look at your arm, too. I saw the way he twisted it.”
“I’ll be all right. I’ll ice it,” she promised when he looked like he wanted to argue.
He took a step back and said, “I’m sorry I couldn’t get to him faster.”
“You got here before he shot me. He really was going to shoot me, wasn’t he?” She was still astounded by the possibility and getting madder by the second.
“He might have tried,” he agreed.
She frowned. “You’re awfully nonchalant about it.”
“I would have taken him down before he shot you.”
Her cell phone rang. She checked the number, then sent the call to voice mail. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a man rounding the corner of the building and glaring at her. He stormed toward her, just as Kincaid bent to retrieve the bodyguard’s gun.
“What the hell’s the matter with you?” the man shouted.
Since he was wearing a gun and badge, she knew he was also FBI. “Excuse me?”
“You ruined a perfectly good sting. Were you wearing a wire? Did you get anything we could use? No, I didn’t think so. You weren’t supposed to be here until one. We weren’t ready.”
The agent screaming at her was an older man, late fifties, she guessed. His face was bright red, and his anger could light fires.
He moved closer until he was all but touching her, but she refused to be intimidated. “Stop yelling at me.”
“She’s not with the FBI,” Kincaid said.
“How . . .” The confused agent took a step back. He looked at Olivia, then at Kincaid.
“I’d know if she was. Your undercover woman hasn’t shown up yet.”
“Two months’ planning,” the agent muttered. He pointed at Olivia. “Are you wearing a wire? Jorguson seems to think you are. Are you with a newspaper or—”
“Poole, leave her the hell alone,” Kincaid said.
Poole was staring at her chest. Uh-oh. Olivia knew where this was going.
“If you think you’re going to look for a wire, be advised. I’ll punch you, too,” she warned.
Distraught to have his investigation fall apart, Agent Poole stepped closer and said, “Listen, you. Don’t threaten me. I could make your life a nightmare.” He put his hand in front of her face and unfolded three fingers as he said, “I’m F . . . B . . . I.”
She smiled. It wasn’t the reaction he expected. “You want to talk nightmares?” she said. She put her hand up to his face and unfolded her three fingers. “I’m I . . . R . . . S.”
Table of Contents
A Note from the Author about SWEET TALK
Excerpt from SWEET TALK
More books by Julie Garwood
Teaser chapter for THE IDEAL MAN
About the Author
Published by Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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For my son, Gerry Garwood.
I saved this one just for you.
He never knew what hit him.
One minute Baron Royce was wiping the sweat from his forehead with the back of his leather-covered arm, and the next he was flat on his back on the ground.
She had knocked him off his feet. Literally. She’d waited until he took his helmet off. Then she’d swung the narrow strip of leather in a circle high above her head. The small stone nestled in the center of her makeshift sling had gathered speed until it wasn’t visible to the naked eye. The sound as the leather sliced through the air was like that of a disgruntled beast, half snarl, half whistle. Her prey had been too far away to hear the noise, though, for she stood in the frigid morning shadows of the walkway at the top of the wall, and he stood down below, nearly fifty feet away by her measure, at the base of the wooden drawbridge.
The giant Norman had made an easy target. The fact that he was also the leader of the infidels who were out to steal her family’s holding had sweetened her concentration, too. In her mind, the giant had become Goliath.
And she was his David.
But unlike the saintly hero of ancient stories, she hadn’t meant to kill her adversary. She would have aimed for the side of his temple if that had been her goal. No, she had wanted only to stun him. For that reason, she’d chosen his forehead. God willing, she’d given him a mark to carry for the rest of his days, a reminder, she hoped, of the atrocity he’d committed on this dark day of victory.
The Normans were winning this battle. In another hour or two they would breach the inner sanctuary.
It was inevitable, she knew. Her Saxon soldiers were hopelessly outnumbered now. Retreat was the only logical alternative. Yes, it was inevitable, but damn galling, too.
This Norman giant was the fourth challenger the bastard William of Normandy had sent to take her holding in the past three weeks.
The first three had fought like boys. She and her brother’s men had easily chased them away.
This one was different. He wouldn’t be chased. It had soon became apparent that he was more seasoned than his predecessors. He was certainly more cunning. The soldiers under his command were as inexperienced as the ones who’d come before, but this newest leader kept them well disciplined and at their task hour after relentless hour.
Victory would go to the hated Normans by the end of the day.
Their leader would be dizzy with his success, however. She would see to it.
She had smiled when she dispatched her stone.
Baron Royce had left his mount to pull one of his soldiers out of the moat surrounding the holding. The foolish soldier had lost his footing and fallen head first into the deep water. Because of his heavy armor, he couldn’t catch his balance and was sinking to the bottom. Royce reached down with one hand, caught hold of a booted foot, and lifted the young soldier out of the murky depths. With a flick of his wrist, he tossed the vassal onto the grassy bank. The racking coughs coming from the lad had told Royce he didn’t need further assistance. The boy was still breathing. Royce had paused to remove his own helmet, and was just wiping the sweat from his brow when the stone had found its mark.
Royce was thrown backwards. He landed a fair distance away from his stallion. He didn’t sleep long. Dust still clouded the air around him when he opened his eyes. His soldiers were running toward him to offer assistance.
He declined their help. He sat up, shook his head in an attempt to rid himself of the pain and fog that confused him. For a minute or two, he couldn’t even remember where the hell he was. Blood trickled from a cut high on his forehead, above his right eye. He prodded around the edges of the injury and only then realized a fair chunk of flesh had been torn away.
He still didn’t understand what had hit him. From the size of the jagged wound, he knew an arrow couldn’t have done the damage. But damn it all, his head seemed to be on fire.
Royce pushed his pain aside and concentrated on standing up. Fury came to his aid. By God, he would find the bastard who’d done this to him and give him equal measure.
That thought cheered him considerably.
His squire stood holding the reins of his mount. Royce swung himself up into the saddle and turned his attention to the top of the wall that surrounded the holding. Had his enemy aimed at him from that spot? The distance was too great for him to see even a glimpse of a threat.
He put his helmet back on.
Looking around, he saw that in the ten or fifteen minutes that had passed since he’d taken the blow, his soldiers had seemingly forgotten everything he’d taught them.
Ingelram, his temporary second-in-command, had the full contingent of men fighting in a unit near the south side of the fortress. Arrows rained down on them from the top of the wall, making advance impossible.
Royce was appalled by their ineptness. The soldiers held their shields up above their heads to ward off the arrows, and they were fighting a defensive battle again. They were in the exact position he’d found them in when he’d joined them for this nuisance duty this morning.
Royce let out a long sigh, then took command again.
He immediately changed tactics to prevent them from losing the ground they’d already secured. He pulled ten of his most reliable soldiers away from the wall and went with them to the small rise above the holding. With one of his own arrows he killed a Saxon soldier who was standing on top of the wall before his men had even had time to secure their own sightings. Then he allowed them to take over the task. In little time at all, the Saxon walls were once again unprotected.
Five of Royce’s men climbed the walls and cut the ropes to the bridge, lowering it. God help him, he’d actually had to remind one of the eager volunteers to take his sword with him.
Royce rode first across the wooden planks of the drawbridge, his sword drawn, though there really wasn’t any need. Both the lower bailey and the upper one were completely deserted.
They made a thorough search of the huts and outer buildings and discovered not a single Saxon soldier. It became clear to Royce that the enemy had left their holding by a secret passage. Royce ordered half his men to search the walls for such an opening. He would seal it the minute they located it.
The Normans secured the holding in William’s name a few minutes later when they hoisted the duke of Normandy’s banner, displaying his magnificent colors, onto the pole atop the wall. The castle now belonged to the Normans.
Yet Royce had completed only half of his duties. He still had to collect the prize and take her to London.
Aye, it was time to capture Lady Nicholaa.
A search of the living quarters of the keep produced a handful of servants, who were dragged outside and pushed into a tight circle in the courtyard.
Ingelram, as tall as Royce was, though he lacked the bulk and battle scars, held one Saxon servant by the back of his tunic. The servant was an elderly man with thin, graying hair and puckered skin.
Royce hadn’t had time to dismount before Ingelram blurted out, “This one’s the steward, Baron. His name’s Hacon. He’s the one who told Gregory all about the family.”
“I didn’t talk to any Normans,” Hacon protested. “I don’t even know anyone named Gregory. God strike me dead if that ain’t the truth,” he added boldly.
The “faithful” servant was lying, and he was feeling quite proud of himself for possessing such courage in the face of dire circumstances. The old man still hadn’t looked up at the Norman leader, though, but kept his attention on the overly eager blond knight who was trying to tear his tunic off his back.
“Aye, you did talk to Gregory,” Ingelram countered. “He was the first knight to take on the challenge of securing this holding and capturing the prize. It won’t do you any good to lie, old man.”
“He be the one who left with the arrow in his backside?” Hacon asked.
Ingelram glared at the servant for mentioning Gregory’s humiliation. He forced Hacon to turn around. The servant’s breath caught in the back of his throat when he finally looked up at the Norman leader. He had to tilt his head all the way back in order to get a decent look at the giant, who was covered in leather and steel links. Hacon squinted against the streamers of sunlight that reflected off the armor and into his eyes. Neither the warrior nor his magnificent black stallion moved, and for a brief minute, the steward imagined that he was looking at a grand statue made of stone.
Hacon held on to his composure until the Norman removed his helmet.
He almost lost his supper then and there. The barbarian terrified him. Hacon felt sick with the need to cry out for mercy. The look in the Norman’s cold gray eyes was frigid with determination, and Hacon was sure he was about to die. Yes, he’ll kill me, Hacon thought. He said a quick Pater Noster. It would be an honorable death, he decided, because he was determined to help his gentle mistress until the very end. Surely God would welcome him to heaven for protecting an innocent.
Royce stared down at the trembling servant a long while. Then he tossed his helmet to his waiting squire, dismounted, and handed the reins to a soldier. The stallion reared up, but one hard command from his master stopped his budding tantrum.
Hacon’s knees went limp. He fell to the ground. Ingelram reached down and hauled him back up to his feet. “One of the twins is inside the keep, abovestairs, Baron,” Ingelram announced. “She prays in the chapel.”
Hacon took a deep breath, then blurted out, “The church was burned to the ground when last we were under siege.” His voice sounded like a strangled whisper. “As soon as Sister Danielle arrived from the abbey, she ordered the altar moved to one of the chambers inside the keep.”
“Danielle’s the nun,” Ingelram volunteered. “It just as we heard, Baron. They’re twins, they are. One’s a saint, bent on serving the world, and the other’s a sinner, bent on giving us trouble.”
Royce still hadn’t said a word. He continued to stare down at the servant. Hacon couldn’t look up into the leader’s eyes very long. He turned his gaze to the ground, clasped his hands together, and whispered, “Sister Danielle’s been caught in this war betwixt the Saxons and the Normans. She’s an innocent and wishes only to return to the abbey.”
“I want the other one.”
The baron’s voice was soft, chilling. Hacon’s stomach lurched again.
“He’s wanting the other twin,” Ingelram shouted. He started to say more, then caught his baron’s hard stare and decided to close his mouth instead.
“The other twin’s name is Nicholaa,” Hacon said. He took another deep breath before adding, “She left, Baron.”
Royce didn’t show any reaction to this news. Ingelram, on the other hand, couldn’t contain his disappointment. “How could she have left?” he demanded in another shout as he shoved the old man back to his knees.
“There are many secret passages built into the thick walls of the keep,” Hacon confessed. “Didn’t you notice there weren’t any Saxon soldiers here when you crossed over the drawbridge? Mistress Nicholaa left with her brother’s men near to an hour past.”
Ingelram bellowed in frustration. In a bid to ease his anger, he shoved the servant again.
Royce took a step forward, his stare directed at his vassal. “You do not show me your strength when you mistreat a defenseless old man, Ingelram, nor do you show me your ability to control your enthusiasm when you interfere with my questioning.”
The vassal was properly humiliated. He bowed his head to his baron, then helped the Saxon to his feet.
Royce waited until the young soldier had taken a step away from the servant. He then looked at Hacon again. “How long have you served this household?”
“Near to twenty years now,” Hacon answered. There was pride in his voice when he added, “I’ve always been treated fair, Baron. They made me feel as important as one of their own.”
“Yet after twenty years of fair treatment you betray your mistresses now?” He shook his head in disgust. “You won’t give me your pledge of loyalty, Hacon, for your word isn’t trustworthy.”
Royce didn’t waste another minute on the steward. His stride was determined as he made his way to the doors of the keep. He pushed his eager men out of his path and went inside.
Hacon was motioned into the cluster of servants and left to worry about his fate when Ingelram rushed after his lord.
Royce was methodical in his search. The first floor of the keep was cluttered with rubble. Litter covered the old rushes. The long table near the far corner had been overturned, and most of the stools had been destroyed.
The staircase leading to the chambers abovestairs was still intact, though just barely. The wooden steps were slippery with water dripping down from the walls. It was a dangerously narrow climb. Most of the banister had been torn away and dangled over the side, and if a man lost his footing, there was nothing to prevent him from falling.
The landing on the second level was just as pitiful. Wind howled through a gaping man-sized hole in the center of the far wall. The air was bitter from the cold winter wind blowing in from outside. A long, dark corridor led away from the head of the stairs.
As soon as Royce reached the landing, Ingelram rushed ahead of him and awkwardly drew his sword. The vassal obviously meant to protect his lord. The floorboards were just as wet and slippery as the steps, however. Ingelram lost both his sword and his balance and went flying toward the gaping hole.
Royce caught him by the nape of the neck and sent him flying in the opposite direction. The vassal landed with a thud against the inside wall, shook himself like a wet dog to rid himself of the shivers, then picked up his sword and went chasing after his lord again.
Royce shook his head in exasperation at his inept vassal’s puny attempt to protect him. He didn’t bother to draw his own sword as he started down the hallway. When he reached the first chamber and found the door barred against him, he simply kicked it open, ducked under the low lintel, and went inside.
The room was a bedchamber in which six candles were burning. It was unoccupied save for a serving girl who cowered in a corner.
“Who resides in this chamber?” Royce demanded.
“Mistress Nicholaa,” came the whispered reply.
Royce took his time studying the room. He was mildly surprised at how Spartan and orderly the chamber was. He didn’t realize women could live without a clutter of possessions surrounding them. His experience was limited to his three sisters, of course, but that was quite enough to allow him to draw such a conclusion. Still, Lady Nicholaa’s room didn’t have a bit of clutter. A large bed stood against one wall, its burgundy draperies tied back. The hearth was on the opposite wall. A single low-fashioned chest made of fine, burnish red wood stood in a corner.
There wasn’t a single article of clothing hanging from the hooks to give Royce any idea of the woman’s size. He turned to leave the chamber, but found his path blocked by his vassal. A glare quickly removed the obstacle.
The second door was also barred from inside. Royce was about to kick it out of his way when he heard the sound of the latch being removed.
The door was opened by a young serving girl. Freckles and fear covered her face. She tried to curtsy to him but only half completed the formal greeting when she got a true look at his face. She let out a cry and went running across the large chamber.
The room was alight with candles. A wooden altar covered with a white cloth stood in front of the hearth. On the floor in front of the altar were several leather-padded kneelers.