It was her wedding night.
A breeze from the river teased the flame of a cresset lamp, and the shadows in the room flickered. Having been conducted to the nuptial chamber by a host of besotted castle folk, Lianna stood listening until their bawdy chants faded.
She gathered a robe about her shoulders and went to sit in a window alcove. Absently tapping her chin with one finger, she listened to the lapping of the river Somme against the stone curtain walls. The dancing, the feasting, the salutes from Chiang's cannons, the endless rounds of toasts to the newly wedded couple, had left her a weary but triumphant bride.
She considered the marriage her greatest victory. Not because her husband was handsome, which he was, nor because he was wealthy, which he wasn't. Nor even because she had found the mate of her heart. Love and romance, she knew, existed only in the whimsical gesso paintings on her solar walls.
Still, triumph rang through her veins. Her marriage to Lazare Mondragon, a Frenchman, shielded her from the English noble who was on his way to wed her at the command of Henry, King of England and pretender to the throne of France. Her life hadn't been the same since King Henry had set his sights on Bois-Long, the gateway to the kingdom of France.
She felt no regret at having defied the English usurper's orders, no shiver of fear when she considered the consequences of her rebellion, because the sovereignty of France was at stake. Besides, a more immediate matter faced her.
A scratching sounded at the door. She jumped, then calmed herself and glided to answer it. Clutching the doorjamb, the caller sagged drunkenly into the room.
"Nom de Dieu," Lianna said with mingled amusement and annoyance. "Look at you, Bonne."
The maid grinned crookedly, her pretty face flushed to ripeness. "Aye, look at me, my lady." Wine-scented breath rushed from her mouth. "Sainte Vierge! That devil Roland, he has torn my best bliaut!" Bonne indicated the gaping garment, her big breasts nearly spilling from the bodice.
Her red-rimmed eyes widened as Lianna stepped into a pool of light from the cresset lamp. "By the head of St. Denis, you're already prepared for bed!"
"Somehow, Bonne," Lianna said dryly, "I knew you wouldn't be much help to me tonight."
The maid stamped a slippered foot; the motion made her lurch. "You should have summoned me."
"I hadn't the heart to pull you away from
" She tapped her chin, thinking. "Whose lap ornament were you tonight? Ah yes, Roland."
"My first duty is to you," Bonne said, then hiccuped softly. "Roland would wait a hundred years for me, anyway," she added matter-of-factly. "At least let me do your hair."
Bonne drew Lianna down to a stool. With the overcautious motions of a drunk, she fetched an ivory comb and freed Lianna's hair from its coif. "Spun by the angels, I always say," she said, pulling the comb through the silvery curtain of straight, fine locks.
"I'd as soon have it cropped by the hand of man," Lianna said, grimacing as the comb snared in a tangle. "Chiang nearly set my head aflame when we were testing those new charges."
"Chiang." Bonne spat the name. "You're too much in the company of that odd Chinaman, my lady. I trust him not."
"You've been listening to the men-at-arms," Lianna chided. "They're jealous because they know Chiang's gunnery can defend Bois-Long better than their swords."
"I know naught of defending a castle. But I do know of pleasing a man. Tonight you'll play the lady instead of dabbling in warfare like a soldier. Perhaps a woman's pleasures will turn you from a man's pursuits."
Lianna sat still as Bonne unstopped a bottle of fragrant oil and anointed her, secreting the scent of lilies at her nape and temples, between her breasts and at the backs of her knees. Despite her drunken state, the maid's hand was steady as she imbued Lianna's lips and cheeks with a discreet mist of rouge.
Bonne stepped back and gasped in admiration. "By St.
Wilgefort's beard!" She took up a polished-steel mirror and angled it toward Lianna. "You look like a princess."
Lianna frowned at her image. The pale robe fluttered against her willow-slim form; her hair hung in drifts around her oval-shaped face. Her customary look of arrogance, worn to hide the intrepid dreamer deep inside, made her delicate features seem hard tonight, hard and bloodless.
"How can you scowl at being so favored?" Bonne demanded.
Lianna shrugged and eyed her maid's ripe bosom and bold smile. "In sooth, Bonne, you have the looks that turn heads. Besides, an agreeable face doesn't win a kingdom, nor does it endure."
"Happily for you, your beauty has endured into your twenty-first year, my lady. You look far younger. I was beginning to think your uncle the duke would have to drive you to the altar at sword point. Think you he'll approve of your Lazare?"
Lianna swallowed. "My uncle of Burgundy will send his spurs spinning into oblivion when he learns what I've done."
"Aye, I've always thought he wanted better for you."
Privately Lianna agreed. She'd often wondered why Uncle Jean had never pressed her to wed, but was too content in her spinsterhood to question him. Now King Henry had forced her out of that comfortable state.
A burst of noise from the hall drifted in through the window, along with a breeze tinged by the smell of the river and the lingering acrid odor of Chiang's fireworks. Bonne put away the mirror. "I'd best leave you to your husband. My lady
you must be biddable and patient with him____"
Flushing, Lianna raised a hand to forestall her maid. "Don't worry, Bonne." Women's talk made her ill at ease; she had no interest in secrets whispered behind a damsel's hand. She propelled Bonne toward the door. "I daresay I'll survive my wedding night. Go and find your Roland."
The girl swayed down the narrow spiral of stairs.
Lianna returned to her solar to ponder that mysterious, much-lauded act that would solidify her marriage to Lazare Mondragon. With a stab of loss, she thought of her mother, long dead of drowning. Dame Irène might have guided her this night, might have prepared her to receive her husband.
Glancing at the gesso mural, Lianna watched the firelight flicker over a detail of a young woman reading to a child from a psalter. Again Lianna searched her memory for her mother but found only a whisper of rose-sweet fragrance, the ghost of a cool hand against her brow, the soft tones of a female voice. She might have told stories to me, Lianna mused.
Shaking her head, she tossed aside the useless sentiment. She had no place in her life for pretty stories and games. Fate had left her to learn on her own, to approach every task with calculated logic.
She faced marriage in the same dispassionate manner. When the English king's envoy had arrived three weeks earlier ordering her to marry a baron who styled himself Enguerrand of Longwood, she'd begun a swift, methodical search for an eligible Frenchman who didn't fear her powerful uncle. In Lazare Mondragon, she'd found him. Sufficiently needy to be dazzled by her dowry, and sufficiently greedy to flout the duke, Lazare had proved instantly agreeable. The castle chaplainaging, senilehadn't insisted on a lengthy reading of banns.
The door swung open. With stiff movements Lianna inclined her shining head. "Mon sire."
Lazare Mondragon stepped inside. He was resplendent in his wedding costume, from the velvet capuchon on his graying head to his narrow pointed shoes. The shimmering cresset flame lit his handsome featuresa strong nose, angular chin, and dark, deep-set eyes. Taking Lianna's hand, he brushed it with dry lips.
The brief contact ignited a flicker of trepidation in her. She snuffed it quickly and said, "Is all well in the hall?"
"My son Gervais and his wife have won the hearts of the castle folk, Gervais with his bold tales and Macee with her pretty singing." Lazare's voice rang with fatherly pride.
She studied his lined face. The shadowy eyes looked world-weary, the eyes of a stranger she'd met only six days before. He lacked the eagerness of a new bridegroom. She pushed aside the notion. Of course he wouldn't look eager. Lazare was a widower, her senior by twenty-five years. But he was French, and that was enough for Lianna.
She poured wine into a mazer and handed it to him.
"Thank you, Belliane," he said absently.
"Please, Lazare, I do go by my familiar name."
"Of course. Lianna."
Smiling, she filled another cup and lifted it. "A toast, to the deliverance of Bois-Long from English hands."
A frown corrupted the smoothness of Lazare's brow. "That's what you wanted all along, isn't it, Lianna?"
The bitterness of his tone sparked a flash of understanding in her. Crossing to his side, she laid her hand on his arm. "I never pretended otherwise."
He shook her off and turned away. "I was quite cheaply bought, was I not?"
"We were two people in need, you and I. That our marriage answered those needs is no cause for shame." She faced the window and looked out at the beloved, moonlit water meadows surrounding Bois-Long. "We can be well content here, Lazare, united against the English."
He drank deeply of his wine. "Longwood could arrive any day now, expecting a bride. What will he do when he finds you've already wed?"
"Pah! He'll turn his cowardly tail back to England."
"What if he challenges us?"
"He's probably old and feeble. I have no fear of him."
"You're not afraid of anything, are you, Lianna?" It was more an accusation than a tribute.
Nom de Dieu, he did not know her at all. Soon enough, no doubt, some loose-tongued castle varlet would tell him of her soul-shattering terror of the water, that childhood nightmare that plagued her yet as an adult.
"I fear some things. But I won't waste the sentiment on this Baron of Longwood." With distaste she recalled his flowery missive, scented with roses and sealed with a leopard rampant device. "In fact, I look forward to sending him on his way." She touched her chin. "I've been thinking of saluting him with Chiang's new culverin, the one on the pivoting gun carriage
"It's all a damned game to you, isn't it?" Lazare burst out, his eyes flaring. "We court the disfavor of the two most powerful men in all Christendom, yet you talk of cannon charges and fireworks."
Although dismayed by Lazare's mood, Lianna bit back a retort. "Then let's talk of other things," she said. "It is our wedding night, mon mari."
"I've not forgotten," he muttered, and poured himself another draught of wine.
She almost smiled at the irony of the situation. Wasn't it the bride who was supposed to be nervous? And yet, while she faced her duty matter-of-factly, Lazare seemed distracted, hesitant.
"We've bound our lives before God," she said. "Now we must solidify the vow." Dousing a sizzle of apprehension, she went to the heavily draped bed and shrugged out of her robe. Naked, she slipped between the herb-scented linens and leaned back against the figured oak headboard.
Lazare approached, drew back the drapes, uttered a soft curse, and said, "You're a beautiful young woman."
Her brow puckered; the statement was not tendered as a compliment.
Cursing again, he jerked the coverlet up to her neck. "It's time we understood each other, Lianna. I'll be your husband in name only."
The sting of rejection buried itself in her heart. Ten years without a father, seventeen without a mother, had left scars she'd hoped her marriage would heal. "But I thought Is it King Henry or my uncle? Are you so afraid of them?"
"No. That has nothing to do with it."
"Then do you find me lacking?"
"No! Lianna, leave off your questioning. The fault doesn't lie with you." Lazare's eyes raked her shrouded form. "You are magnificent, with your hair of silk and sweet, soft skin of cream. Were I a poet, I'd write a song solely on the beauty of your silver eyes."
The tribute stunned and confused her. He laid his hand, dry and cool, upon her cheek. "You've the face of a madonna, the body of a goddess. Any man would move mountains to possess you!"
The stillness between them drew on. A faint crackle from the fire and the hiss of the ever-shifting river pervaded the chamber.
Lazare jerked back his hand. "Any man
" He laughed harshly. "Except me. One of the wenches downstairs will have to do as a receptacle for the unslaked lust you inspire."
Lianna shivered. "Lazare, I don't understand."
He leaned against a bedpost. "This marriage is one of mutual convenience. No children must come of our union."
"Bois-Long needs an heir," she said softly. And in her heart she needed a child. Desperately.
"Bois-Long has an heir," said Lazare. "My son, Gervais."
A cold hand took hold of her heart and squeezed. "You can't do this to me," she said, clutching the sheets against her as she sat forward in anger. "The château is my ancestral home, defended by my father, Aimery the Warrior, and his kinsmen before him. I won't allow your son to usurp"
"You have no choice now, Lianna." Lazare smiled. "You thought yourself so clever, marrying in defiance of King Henry's wishes. But you overlooked one matter. I am not a pawn in your ploy for power. I'm a man with a mind of my own and a son who deserves better than I've given him. My life ended when my first wife died, but Gervais's is just beginning."
"My uncle will arrange an annulment. You and your greedy son will have nothing of Bois-Long."
Lazare shook his head. "If you let me go, no one will stand in the way of the Englishman who is coming to marry you. Your uncle of Burgundy has been known to treat with King Henry. He may force you to accept the English god-don. Besides, you've no grounds for annulment. We are married in the eyes of God and France."
"But you yourself have decreed that it is to be a chaste union!"
"So shall it be." With a smooth movement, Lazare drew a misericorde from his baldric. Shocked by the dull glint of the pointed blade, Lianna leapt from the bed, shielding herself with the coverlet. Lazare chuckled. "Don't worry, wife, I'll not add murder to my offenses." Still smiling, he pricked his palm with the knife and let a few ruby droplets of blood stain the sheet.
Lianna bit her lip. In sooth she'd never quite understood where a maid's blood came from; it was destined to remain a mystery still.
"Now," he said, putting away the misericorde, "it is your word against mine. And I am your lord."
She clutched the bedclothes tighter. "You used me."
He nodded. "Just as you used me. I'm tired, Lianna. I'll pass the night on cushions in the wardrobe, so that no one will look askance at us. After a few days I'll be sleeping in the lord's chamberalone."
"I'll fight you, Lazare. I won't let Gervais have BoisLong."
Giving her a long, bleak stare, he left the solar. A river breeze snuffed the lamp. Lianna crept back into bed, avoiding the stain of Lazare's blood, and lay sleepless. What manner of man was Lazare Mondragon, that he would not take his bride to wife on his wedding night? Her wedding night.
Moonlight streamed into the room, casting silvery tones on the pastoral scene painted on the wall. Beyond the woman and her children, a richly robed knight knelt before an ethereal beauty, gazing at her with a look of pure, mystical ecstasy.
An artist's fancy, Lianna told herself angrily, turning away from the wall. An idealized picture of love. But she couldn't suppress her disappointment. The whimsical dreamer she so carefully hid beneath her armor of aloofness had hoped to find contentment with Lazare.
Instead, she realized bitterly, the sentence of a loveless, fruitless marriage hung over her. No, she thought in sudden decision. Lazare was wrong to think she'd relinquish her castle without a fight. She wrested the wedding ring from her finger. "I am still the Demoiselle de Bois-Long," she whispered.