Haunted by war, Sir Zander de Bricasse is no longer the idealistic youth who left his sweetheart to join the Crusades. Years have passed and he now fully expects to find Elaine married to another. Instead, he discovers she is in grave danger .
Fleeing from a murderous earl, Lady Elaine is rescued by a mysterious knighther beloved Zander! She's never forgotten his promise to wed her, but to restore their lost love she must help this brooding, tormented stranger heal the wounds of his troubled past.
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The knight stood in the middle of the field of carnage and looked about him at the dead and dying. Friends and enemies lay side by side, united in death, as they could never be in life. He had come here to this land called the Holy Land as a young man, filled with zeal and a burning desire to carry the Cross and bring the true faith to the heathen. All he had found was a terrible despair born of grief, pain and the disillusionment that comes from discovering that the king he had followed could on occasion be as cruel and unjust as the Saracen enemy. Indeed, at times the enemy seemed to be more merciful than the Christian knights who slaughtered prisoners without mercy.
As he found the youth he searched for amongst the fallen, Zander de Bricasse felt his sorrow deepen to the point where it became almost unbearable. The boy was a newcomer, fresh from his village in England where he had been recruited to fight the king's warsjust as Zander had been five years earlier. He had fought so many terrible battles and survived, but this lad Tom had died in the first brief moments of his first encounter with the enemy. His mother and sweetheart would wait hopefully for a letter or a message that he was safe and well, but they would wait in vain. Tom would never go home.
Zander scooped the boy into his arms and carried him away from the stench of blood, the heat and the dust. He could not take the lad home to his mother, but he would bury him with honour in a place of peace that he knew of and he would send word to England of his brave death in battle. And then what would he do?
Zander felt his cheeks wet and knew that he was cryingcrying for a boy he hardly knew. Or was he crying for the boy he had once been and a life he'd known so many long years ago? Into his mind came the picture of a beautiful young girl and the promise he'd made her to return and marry her once he'd made his fortune and avenged his father's cruel death.
Depositing his precious burden in the shade of an olive tree by a pool that never dried no matter how hard the hot sun beat down on the land, Zander began to dig the grave that must hold Tom's body. He would pray that the boy's soul went to heavenbut where was heaven and where hell? Surely if there was a hell it was here in this terrible sun-drenched land.
Zander was no longer sure if either existed. As he worked, his tears dried and his resolve grew. He was done with this war and the cause he'd thought so just. He was not sure that he even believed in God anymore. Perhaps the heathens were right in their beliefs and his people were wrong to try to impose their religion.
It no longer mattered to Zander. He felt empty, drained of all emotion but pity for the waste of life. All he wanted now was to go home and find peace.
Would Elaine still be waiting for himor would she have married long ago? He knew that he must return to England, to the home and the village of his birth. He was ready to seek the revenge that must be hisand then to claim the woman he loved.
As he rose from his knees after saying the words of prayer that the boy Tom deserved, Zander heard a yell from behind him. He whirled round even as the huge Saracen charged, sword in hand, arm raised to strike. Four others followed, sharp scimitars raised. Zander was unprepared, his sword abandoned for the spade to dig his friend's grave. He saw it lying beneath a treebut could he reach it before they cut him down?
Zander knew a moment of despair. 'Forgive me, Elaine,' he murmured, and it seemed that soon his blood too would stain this place of peace.
'You will do as you are told, Elaine.' Lord Marcus Howarth glared at his beautiful niece. 'Your father indulged you and allowed you to stay at home and wait for the return of a man who may already lie dead in Jerusalem. Now your father is dead and I am master here. The Earl of Newark has asked for you in marriage and I see no reason to refuse his offer. He is a powerful man and your marriage would make us stronger here at Howarth.'
'Please, I beg you, sir,' Elaine Howarth cried. 'Do not force me to this marriage. I dislike the earl and my heart belongs to Zander. If he is dead, I would rather go to a convent and spend my life in prayer. I gave him my word that I would wait when he left to follow the king and I shall not break it.' Her blue eyes flashed defiance at him. 'I refuse this marriage. No matter what you say I shall not wed a man I despisenor shall I break my word to Zander.'
'Indeed?' Lord Howarth towered over her. A tall thickset man, he was the very opposite of her gentle father, for whom she was still in mourning. 'We shall see about that, lady.'
The late master of Howarth Castle would never have forced his only daughter to marry a man she despised. He had married Elaine's mother for love and mourned her sincerely when she died in childbirth some seven years after her daughter's birth. Her babe had survived but a few hours after her and the then Lord Howarth had wept as he buried his son's tiny body with its mother. He had loved his wife too well and would not take another, though it meant his brother would succeed him. He had his daughter and that must suffice.
'Marcus is a just man,' her father had told Elaine as he lay dying earlier that year. 'You must follow his advice, my dearest child, for if you do not he may grow angry. My brother is honest, but he is not the most patient of men and he likes to be obeyed.'
Elaine had kissed her father's cheek and told him not to worry for her, but she had not given her promise. She had never liked her uncle and knew that he thought her spoiled and too proud. His wife Margaret was quick to obey him; indeed, she tried to anticipate her husband's every whim and was clearly afraid of displeasing him.
Elaine could not go to her aunt for help because she would tell her it was her duty to obey her uncle.
'I am an heiress in my own right,' Elaine said, looking at her uncle boldly. He was tall and strong and could break her with his hands if he chose, but she doubted that he would stoop to violence. She supposed that in his own way he was the honourable man his brother had thought him, but he believed that he knew what was best for herfor the family. 'If you will not allow me to wait here for Zander's return, allow me to go to my dower lands. I can live there and be no trouble to you, my lord.'
'Foolish girl!' Her uncle looked at her in exasperation. 'How long do you imagine you would be permitted to remain there without my protection? Your beautyyour wealthmakes you a target for every rogue baron in the country. Within six months you would find yourself a prisoner of some penniless knight and forced to wed him because he had disparaged you. I am offering you a match that will bring you prestige and wealth. Newark is a favourite with Prince John and will take you to court, where your beauty will be appreciated. You will have beautiful clothes, jewels and a respected name as his wife. Come, Elaine, give me your word and I shall send for him and the betrothal may be in a few days.'
'No ' Her heart raced as she saw the fury spark in his eyes, but her chin jutted and her head went higher. 'My word is given to Zander'
'A landless knight who can offer you nothing! Your father told him he must prove himself before you could wedand what did he do? He took the Cross and went to the Holy Land. Had he stayed here and won honours from Prince John, you might have been wed long since.'
Elaine bit her lip. In her heart she felt much as her uncle did, for she'd wept bitter tears night after night when Zander had left, but she knew that the man she loved would never have sought honour at Prince John's court. He would think the prince corrupt and despise the way he imposed fines and taxes on a people struggling to survive despite poor harvests and the poverty that so many endured.
There was no point in telling her uncle that she did not wish to go to the prince's court. All Elaine wanted was to be chatelaine of her own home. The dower lands that had come to her through her mother were fertile and situated on the borders between England and Wales, a distance of almost a hundred miles. If she left her uncle's protection she knew that she would become a target for unscrupulous knights, who might snatch her and force her to wed them for the sake of her fortune.
'Please, Uncle, for the love you bore my father, grant me a few more months. If Zander does not return by the Eve of Christ's Mass, I will accept my fate and marry the man of your choice.'
Lord Howarth stared at her in silence for several minutes and Elaine feared that he meant to impose his will. Rather than submit, she would run away, but she knew that if she did she might find herself in more danger. Unless she had an escort of armed men she might be kidnapped and either held to ransom or married against her will. Her best option was to wait for Zander's return, but it seemed that her uncle was impatient for her marriage. She knew that she was well beyond the normal age for marriage, which for girls of her lineage was often arranged by their twelfth birthday. Yet she would rather live as a spinster than marry a man she despised.
Why did it matter to her uncle whom she married? Surely he had nothing to gain either wayand yet perhaps he would rather the earl was a friend than an enemy. If Newark was angered, it might mean that he would try to take by force what he could not get another way.
Howarth's gaze narrowed. 'You will give me your solemn word, Elaine? If this rogue you've set your heart on does not return by the Eve of Christ's birth, you will marry the earl?'
'If it is your wish, sir, yes.' She crossed her fingers behind her back for nothing would make her marry that evil man. Somehow she would contrive to get away and seek sanctuary in a convent.
Her uncle inclined his head. 'Then I shall grant your wish. It is but two and a half months away. I am not such a hard man that I would force you just to please myself, niecebut this is for your own good. If you delay much longer, the chance will pass you by and you may have no choice but to retire to a nunnery.'
She would much prefer that to a marriage she did not like, but she said nothing of defiance, pretending to a calm she did not feel.
'I thank you for your patience, Uncle.' She lowered her head demurely so that he should not see the flash of temper in her eyes. Rather than marry a man she despised she would retire to a nunneryor, if driven to it, she would take her own life. There were poisons that were quick, though they caused terrible pain, but she would endure even that rather than submit to Newark. The way he looked at Elaine made her cringe inside and his thick lips made her shiver with disgust at the thought they might touch hers.
'Very well, my word is given. Go to your aunt now and see if you may help her. She was feeling poorly earlier and your skill with herbs may ease her.'
Elaine inclined her head. She had already tended her aunt, for the poor lady suffered with terrible headaches and lay prostrate on her couch. There was no point in telling her uncle that her aunt was now resting. He might visit her to investigate when all that gentle lady needed was a little peace.
Leaving her uncle's private chamber, Elaine walked through the great hall. The room was always filled with knights and servants going about their business. In winter and even on summer days a huge log fire was kept burning in the hearth, for the stone walls and high vaulted roof made it cold. Sunlight seldom penetrated the tiny slitted windows and it was often dark. Outside it was a glorious autumn day, but in the castle there were dark corners until the torches were lit.
Her dower lands did not boast a stout castle such as this one, merely a manor house, but it was much lighter and the deep windowsills made a perfect place to sit and look out at the gardens and fields that surrounded her mother's home. She had spent many happy days there in childhood and wished that she might go there now, but her uncle was right. Without a husband to protect her she would be vulnerable and at the mercy of ruthless barons.
'My lady, will you walk?' Marion, her companion and faithful servant, came up to her, a basket over her arm. 'We need herbs for the kitchens. I go to the woods. Will it pleasure you to come with me?'
'Yes, why not?' Elaine was already wearing her cloak, for she had intended to walk in the grounds of the castle, but on such a pleasant autumn day it would be enjoyable to go further. 'Shall we take Bertrand with us?'
'Bertrand waits for me in the courtyard,' Marion said. 'He said that I should not go alone to the woods for he heard of a band of marauding bandits in the area. We have always been safe on your father's land, but ' She glanced over her shoulder. 'Lord Howarth does not send out patrols as often as did your father, lady.'
'My uncle believes that his name is sufficient to deter those who would come against him. His neighbours are on good terms with him and I think we must be safe enoughbut I am happy to have Bertrand with us.'
Bertrand had been courting her lady-in-waiting for some months now. He was a soft-spoken man, tall, strong and pleasant in manner, but somewhat diffident in the presence of ladies. Although he had shown some preference for Marion, he had not asked for her. It would be a good chance for the pair to spend a little time together. Elaine would wander a little ahead of them, giving them the opportunity to speak what was in their hearts if they so chose. If they should ask for her permission to wed, she would give it, but she hoped that Marion would not leave her service, for she loved her as a sister.