Journeying to Dunborough to learn the truth about her sister's murder, novice Celeste D'Orleau dons a nun's habit for safety. But seeing her childhood hero Gerrard of Dunborough makes her dream of pleasures that will be forbidden once she takes her final vows.
Gerrard wrestles with his desire for the innocent beauty. After striving to redeem his wicked reputation, he won't seduce a nun. Yet as Celeste's mission draws them closer together, it soon becomes clear their passion is stronger than any vow!
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November night had fallen, but inside Sir Melvin's hall, warmth and light dispelled the cold and gloom and provided a welcome shelter for the young woman dressed in the habit of a nun. She had been traveling many days, and it had been a long time since Celeste had enjoyed such comfort.
A fire blazed in the long central hearth and several torches lined the gray stone walls. Two beeswax candles in silver holders graced the trestle table covered in linen on the dais. Behind the high table where Celeste and the plump and prosperous Sir Melvin sat, a tapestry of knights and finely dressed ladies swayed. His wife, the calm and competent Lady Viola, was seated to his left. Servants male and female moved among the other tables, where the steward, a priest, retainers, senior servants and household guards prepared to eat the evening meal.
The elderly priest, who put Celeste in mind of Methuselah, finished the grace. Serving maids brought trenchers of stale bread to hold a thick beef stew. More bread sat in baskets on the table, and wine was poured into bronze goblets that gleamed with the reflected glow of the firelight.
"It's kind of you to offer me shelter and such a fine meal," Celeste said to her host, her voice soft and sincere.
"We're delighted to have you stay the night, Sister," Sir Melvin said with hearty good cheer and a broad smile. "Delighted!"
"We'll be happy to provide you with an escort for the rest of your journey," Lady Viola offered.
"I thank you," Celeste replied, "but I have not far to go. I should reach Dunborough tomorrow."
"Dunborough?" Sir Melvin couldn't have sounded more astonished if she'd announced she was going to the devil and happily so. "Why are you"
He caught his wife's eye, cleared his throat and began again. "Dunborough, eh? I know the lord there. Sir Roland. He and his bride stopped here on their way from her home to Yorkshire. Lady Mavis of DeLac, she is."
Celeste stopped reaching for a small brown loaf from the basket of bread on the table. "Sir Roland is lord of Dunborough and he's married?" she asked, doing her best to hide her astonishment.
"His father and older brother died a short time ago and he is recently wed," Lady Viola supplied.
Celeste had to believe her, and yet she still found it hard to imagine.
"A fine fellow, a fine fellow!" Sir Melvin cried, picking up his eating knife to carve a piece of beef from the roasted loin a neatly dressed servant set before them.
"Quiet and a bit stern for my liking," he continued, "but I'm not the bride. Our byre caught on fire when they were here and she lost all her dower goods. He never asked for a penny in compensation."
"And he led the efforts to put it out," his wife noted.
"He's not in Dunborough now," Sir Melvin continued, unaware of the relief he was giving his guest with that information. "He's at DeLac. He was"
Lady Viola touched her husband's arm and shook her head.
"Well, that's not a fit subject when we have a guest."
Celeste wondered where Roland was and why, although it didn't really matter. Her business was not with the lord of Dunborough.
"Have you been to Dunborough before?" Sir Mel-vin asked.
"I lived there until I went to the convent," she admitted.
"Ah!" Sir Melvin cried. "So you'll have seen Sir Roland. Grim fellow, isn't he?"
"Rather," she replied. Indeed, she remembered him very well, and his brothers, too. "He had a twin brother, too, I believe."
"Oh, yes, Gerrard." Sir Melvin's pleasant face darkened with a frown. "Quite a different sort, he is, even though they're twins."
Gerrard had always been very different from Roland.
"It's too bad he's a wastrel and a lecher, like his father, or so they say," Sir Melvin remarked. "From the stories I've heard, old Sir Blane was as bad as they come."
Worse, Celeste silently supplied. She could have told him stories about Sir Blane that would have made her host's beard fall out from shock.
She also could have told him how Sir Blane had raised his sons to hate each other and compete for any crumb of praise. He'd even kept the knowledge of which of the twins was the elder from everyone, including them, using it to goad or torment them, always dangling the hope that one of them could be the heir someday, should anything happen to their older brother, Broderick, before he married and had sons, as it had. Blane had made the twins bitter foes and rivals in a constant competition.
She could have described how the younger brothers had fought and quarreled and come to blows more than once when they were boys, and that only their stubbornness and their features were alike. Roland was hard, cold, stoic, a stickler for rules and duty. Gerrard was bold, merry and exciting.
As for what had happened to Gerrard in the years since she'd been gone, Celeste had only gossip and tales told by girls who'd arrived at Saint Agatha's for information. One story had been particularly upsetting. Es-merelda had claimed that Gerrard had lured her into the woods with a promise to meet her there. He'd failed to arrive and outlaws had found her instead. Esmerelda had barely survived. Her maidenhead had not.
"Have you family in Dunborough?" Lady Viola asked, bringing Celeste back to the present and this comfortable hall and the reason for her journey.
"Not anymore," she answered, turning away to hide her face before the sudden rush of sorrow became visible.
"I'm sorry, Sister," the older woman said sympathetically.
Clearly, Celeste realized, she had been too slow to keep her reaction from her features.
"It's all right," she replied, giving her hostess as much of a smile as she could muster. "My mother died shortly after I went to the convent and my father some years later. My only sister passed away recently. I have no brothers, so I'm on my way to Dunborough to see to her things and sell my parents' house."
"Oh, dear me! How sad!" Sir Melvin exclaimed. "Your sister must have been very young. Sickness is a terrible thing, a terrible thing!"
"She was murdered."
The moment the harsh and horrid truth escaped her lips, Celeste regretted saying it. She need not have used the same words with which the mother superior had informed her of Audrey's death and the manner of it. "Forgive me for being so blunt. I have only my weariness for an excuse."
"It's quite all right," Lady Viola hastened to assure her. "We're so very sorry about your sister."
"We'll speak no more of it," Sir Melvin said, his usually booming voice hushed with respect as he shut the door on any more talk of murder.
Or anything else to do with Dunborough and its inhabitants.
Shortly after noon the next day, Gerrard of Dunborough pulled his snow-white horse to a halt outside the stone fence surrounding the yard of the house that had belonged to the D'Orleaus. The soldiers of the patrol returning with him likewise reined in, exchanging puzzled glances at this sudden and unexpected halt.
"Seen something amiss, sir?" young Hedley asked the tall, broad-shouldered commander of the garrison.
"It may be nothing," Gerrard replied as he slipped from the saddle, "but the door to the house is open."
A few of the men gasped and more than one made the sign against ghosts and evil spirits. They all knew what had happened in that house and that it should be empty.
Gerrard did not believe in ghosts or evil spirits. He did, however, believe in outlaws and thieves drawn by rumors that money and jewelry were hidden inside the D'Orleau house.
"Take some of the men and search the stables and outbuildings," he said to Hedley as he drew his sword. "Quick and quiet, though, so no warning given."
The young man nodded and Gerrard walked swiftly toward the house that had been built by Audrey D'Orleau's father, a prosperous wool merchant. The air was chill with the approach of winter, the sky gray as slate. Rain would come soon and wind from over the dales, bringing more cold and perhaps turning the rain to snow.
Gerrard's steps slowed as he neared the front entrance. No ordinary thief or outlaw should have been able to pick that lock, yet only a foolish one would have left the door visibly open while he pillaged inside.
Gerrard eased the door open farther with the tip of his sword and listened. Nothing. Not a whisper, not a sound, not even the soft scurrying of a mouse. It was as if the house, too, had died.
He stepped over the threshold. Still all was silent.
He continued to the main room. The last time he'd been in that chamber, many of the furnishings had been broken and strewn about, obvious signs of the struggle between poor Audrey and her attacker. Since then, the unbroken furniture had been righted, if not returned to its proper place, and the ruined pieces taken away. The horrible bloodstain, however
He wasn't alone.
Someone else was there, swaddled in a long black cloak and standing still as a statue, looking down at the large, dark stain upon the floor, as if Death itself was brooding over the spot where Audrey's murdered body had lain.
Gripping his sword tighter, Gerrard moved closer, making a floorboard creak.
The intruder looked up.
It wasn't Death, or even a man. It was a woman in a nun's habit, her skin as pale as moonlight, the wimple surrounding her heart-shaped face white as his horse, her eyes large and green, her lips full and open in surprise. Her nose was straight and slender, her chin pointed
"Celeste!" he cried, his hand moving instinctively to the collarbone she'd broken years ago.
Audrey's younger sister regarded him warily. "Who are." Recognition dawned. "It's Gerrard, isn't it? Or is it Roland?"
"Gerrard," he answered, hiding his dismay that she hadn't been able to distinguish him from his twin. She had always been able to tell them apart when they were younger.
He reminded himself that ten years had passed since they had last been together and in that time more than their height had changed.
He was about to ask her what she was doing there when the obvious answer presented itself. She was there because Audrey was dead, and she was Audrey's only family. "We thought to see you days ago."
He saw the flicker of anguish cross her features, yet when she spoke, her voice was calm and even. "I was on a pilgrimage."
"An odd time of year for traveling."
"I came as soon as I was informed." She turned away and added, "Of course I would have come sooner had I known."
Silently cursing himself for speaking without thinking, Gerrard said, "If you'd sent word you were coming, I would have met you and escorted you to the castle. You need not have come here."
"I wanted to see," she replied, sounding exactly as she had when they were children and one of the hounds had caught and worried a badger to death. Gerrard had tried to keep her away, but she'd gotten past him and then stood staring at the torn and bleeding body, silent and white as a sheet, the same way she'd been staring at the floor moments ago.
"And now you have seen," he said with quiet compassion, nevertheless determined to get her away from this place with its blood-soaked floor and unhappy memories.
"How did Audrey die? The mother superior would only say that she'd been murdered."
God help him! He didn't want to have to describe what had happened to her sister. He didn't want to remember, either. "You don't need to know more than that, do you?"
"I would rather hear the truth, however terrible, than have my mind run wild with speculation. Some of the furniture is missing, other pieces are not in their proper place, and there is that," she said, pointing to the stain.
She regarded him with pleading eyes. "Please, Gerrard, tell me what happened here, or I will imagine a thousand awful things, each worse than the last."
He well recalled Celeste's vivid imagination. There had been times she'd frightened them all, even Roland, with tales of ghosts and demons, ogres and monsters.
Besides, she was Audrey's only relative, so he supposed she had a right to know. And she would likely hear the horrific details from someone else, anyway.
Better, perhaps, that he should tell her and as gently as he could. "She had a bodyguard, a Scot named Duncan MacHeath. Apparently the man was in love with her and fiercely jealous. One day when her servants were out of the house something happened between them and he attacked and killed her. She fought for her life, but in the end she lost it."
"Not easily, then," Celeste replied, with a catch in her voice. She bowed her head. "Not quick."
"No," Gerrard said softly.
After a moment of heavy silence, Celeste raised her head and looked at him with unexpected composure. Perhaps the knowledge of what had happened to Audreythe main details of it, at leasthad indeed brought her some peace.
"What of the bodyguard?" she asked. "Is he imprisoned, or has he already been hanged?"
That, fortunately, was an easy question to answer. "He's dead, drowned in the river after he was wounded attacking Roland."
Her green eyes widened. "He attacked your brother, too?"
"Aye. He thought Roland was Audrey's lover."
"Roland? That's ridiculous!" Celeste exclaimed. "Audrey didn't even like."
She fell silent and her cheeks colored with a blush.
Gerrard had often wondered how Audrey really felt about Roland. Now he knew.
Nor was he particularly surprised. Roland was hardly the sort of man to appeal to Celeste's older sister, at least until he'd been named heir and lord of Dunborough. "Aye, Duncan was wrong about that, but he nearly killed Roland just the same. Roland wounded him and Duncan fell into the river afterward, trying to flee, and drowned. Too easy a death for a man who'd "
Gerrard hesitated and looked away, but not fast enough.
"There is more," Celeste said with certainty. She walked toward him, her steady, determined gaze holding his. "This MacHeath molested Audrey, didn't he? A man angry enough to kill would be angry enough to forcefully take what a woman would not willingly give."
Gerrard was sorry she was so perceptive, or his features so revealing. "If there is justice in the next life, he will burn in hell forever."
"Did no one see any signs that she should fear him?"
"He was a fierce-looking fellow, but nobody ever thought Duncan MacHeath would hurt her. Surely she didn't, either, or she would have sent him away."
"Then there was no sign of his feelings for her? No hint that he might be jealous?"
"The man gave no sign of any feelings at all. He was a silent, sullen fellow."
"Where did my sister meet him? How did she come to hire him?"
"York, I believe. I don't think she ever told anyone here in Dunborough how he came to be in her employ."
Gerrard braced himself for more questions that would be difficult or uncomfortable to answer, but fortunately, Celeste seemed satisfied. She began to move around the room, putting the remaining furniture back in place. With a sorrowful sigh that touched his heart, she ran her hand over the unfinished needlepoint on a stand beside the window. Audrey had been skilled at needlework, among other things.
He wondered what Celeste planned to do now. The burial had been weeks ago. "I suppose you'll be returning to Saint Agatha's."
"Not for a few days," she replied. She made a graceful sweeping gesture. "I shall have to deal with all of this first."
Of course. The land was held by the lord of Dunbor-ough, but the house and its contents were hers, with a portion to go to the overlord. "Roland might waive the heriot, considering."
"What should be paid will be paid, and the rest I shall give to the church."
"You're welcome to reside at the castle for as long as necessary."
She shook her head. "I thank you for the offer, but I don't wish to impose."
"I assure you, you won't be." He gave her a smile. "I'm happy to offer the hospitality of Dunborough to an old friend."
"Again I thank you, but I would rather stay here until the house is sold."
"You brought servants with you?"
"No, I need none."
"You came alone?'''
"What the devil was your mother superior thinking?" he demanded, appalled. The roads and byways were dangerous for a woman alone, especially a beautiful one, even if she was a nun. "Did she have no fears for your safety?"