Arabella of Byrum’s stunning beauty is a blessing and a curse. It drew the brutal Elias of Woolford to make an irresistible offer for her hand in marriage, and it fueled the jealous rage that made Elias break that bond—leaving Arabella with an infant Elias refuses to acknowledge as his, and a shattered reputation.
Despite the slanderous rumors about Arabella, William of Dunashie wants her when no other lord will. In his arms, Arabella discovers what the true power of love is, and can only hope that power will keep her safe as she searches a shadowy labyrinth of evil intrigue for the way to clear her name.
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Woolford, Cumberland: April 20, 1132
"Aidan! You must flee, and quickly!"
"Wha — what?" Still dazed from sleep, the young man sat up slowly from his straw pallet. The girl before him thrust his tunic into his hands. Baffled, he stared at it for a moment. "Should not be up ... ought to be abed," he mumbled thickly. "Your babe ... Elias ..."
"There is not time to explain. Sweet Mary, but can you not hurry?" As she leaned over him, the veil fell away from her bruised face.
"God's blood, lady!" His eyes widened, and he came awake fully. "Who ... ?" But even as he asked, he knew it had been Elias. "Jesu," he muttered.
"Get you dressed," she whispered, turning away.
"But why? What did ye to deserve this?"
She shook her head. " 'Tis the babe. He would kill you for it, and naught I can say ... Dear God, there is not the time — you must go now, sir! And you would live, you must leave now!"
Ignoring the urgency in her words he stared still, unable to comprehend. "Me? But I have done nothing, and —"
" 'Tis enough that he believes you have sired my babe," she answered bitterly. " 'Tis enough that you have smiled at me — that you have shown me kindness here."
A look of utter incredulity passed over his face. "He thinks what? By the rood of God, nay!" As her words sank in, he hastened to pull open the neck of the garment, diving into it. "Nay, but 'tis beyond belief! Who dares to carry such a tale?" His voice was muffled as he tugged the tunic down over his naked body. Moving quickly now, he pulled on his chausses and tied them at his waist. When he would have reached for his garters, she shook her head.
"There is not the time, and you'd leave alive."
"But I canna understand how 'tis he could think that I ... that ye ..."
"The babe is not whole, and Elias would have one to blame for it." She looked up, toward the sound of the shouting men above them. "Go with God, Aidan." She picked up his sword and handed it to him.
"But 'tis a lie!" Even as he said it he girded his sword belt about his waist, then bent to pull on his boots. "Nay, I'd face him, and tell him that whoever accuses me lies."
"Think you he cares for that? Mine own innocence protected me not!" She bit her bruised and blackened lip to still its trembling, then she dared to touch his muscled arm. "Nay, but I'd not have your blood on my soul!"
He cursed himself inwardly, for had not his lord's own son warned him that Elias of Woolford was blindly jealous of his young wife? But he'd done nothing beyond show her kindness.... Nay, 'twas not true, and he knew it. He'd dared to admire her openly — he'd dared to speak with her when others would not. For the briefest moment, he'd even allowed himself to touch the softness of her hair. If there had been any sin 'twas his, for he'd dared to dream of the old man's wife. Now, he looked on her battered face and felt an intense anger toward Elias of Woolford.
"Nay, but I'd nae leave ye to face him alone, lady. I'd tell him you are blameless."
"He'd kill you ere you spoke a word," she cut in flatly, "and 'twould serve nothing."
And now even as he tarried, the grizzled Elias emerged from the stairway above, calling out, "There is the whore's son! Afore God, I'll hear from his own lips that he has lain with my wife! We have caught them together!"
Still Aidan hesitated until she pushed him, hissing, "Now! Save yourself whilst you can! They'll hang you and you do not go!" Hating himself for it, he made the decision to run, heaving his body out the narrow arrow slit and dropping to the ground below, then breaking into a run for the stable.
To gain him time, Arabella moved to face her drunken husband. Clenching her hands for courage, she dared to beg for the borderer's life. "Nay, my lord, but I swear by the Blessed Virgin that we are blameless! Put me aside if 'tis your will, but I pray you will not kill one who is innocent!"
Elias of Woolford reeled unsteadily. "Innocent!" he snorted derisively. "Innocent! Mine eyes have seen his innocence! God marks your babe for your sin!
Behind him his sons glowered at her, and Donald muttered, "Ye can tend to her later. 'Tis Ayrie as escapes."
She dropped to her knees before Elias and held out her hands. "I am willing to swear on the True Cross that I have been naught but a good and faithful wife to you, my lord."
"'Tis not my babe you have borne me, Arabella of Byrum," Elias growled. "'Tis the devil's changeling you would have me claim, and I'll not do it! Woolford wears the horns for no man!" He reached to shove her aside, cursing as Aidan rode from the stable. "After the whoremaker!" he shouted furiously. "One hundred pennies to the man who takes him!"
In desperation Arabella caught at his sleeve, hanging on. "Nay! Sweet Mary, but are you so blind that you cannot see the truth? Is there no proof I can offer?" she cried.
He shook free of her, casting her roughly against the stone wall. "When I am done with Aidan of Ayrie, wife, I will punish you also," he promised. "There'll be none other to want you when I am done — I swear it!"
Screaming and cursing, he followed his sons down the winding stairs, leaving her to watch helplessly at the slit. But as Elias reached the courtyard, Aidan leaned to strike furiously at the frayed ropes that held the drawbridge, cutting them with his sword blade. And before the wooden platform banged against the pilings on the other side of the flooded ditch he had spurred his horse onto it, forcing the beast to jump to the slippery bank. For an awful moment the animal seemed to lose its footing, but then it struggled up and pawed its way onto solid ground. Before the others could gain their mounts, Aidan of Ayrie had disappeared into the foggy rain.
Forgotten in the din of men scrambling for mounts, Arabella clung to the cold stone for support. "God aid you, Aidan, for a smile was your only folly," she whispered. "If there was any sin 'twas mine, for I wished for your kindness, and more." And as she spoke the cold rain mingled with her tears, streaking her battered face. She did not move until her tiring woman came after her.
"Och, and ye ought ter be abed, my lady," Ena chided. " 'Twas a hard birthing and a hard beating," "What difference does it make?" Arabella asked dully. "The babe is not whole, and he means to kill me for it."
As the rain continued to beat steadily against the shuttered arrow slits that served for windows, Arabella smoothed the soft, downy hair on the small head that lay at her breast. Looking down on the wee, sleeping face, she felt a surge of tenderness for this babe, for her less-than-perfect son. But she was alone in that, for she'd not missed the furtive glances, nor had she missed the number of servants who'd made the sign of the Cross when they thought she would not know it. Even the stout village girl who'd been brought in to wet-nurse the babe had recoiled when she'd seen him, and Arabella had sent her back, saying she would give suck herself. And Ena, for all that she had served her, would not hold him until he'd been wrapped and his deformity hidden from sight.
"The Devil's mark," indeed. If anything, her son's twisted, useless leg had been caused by all the beatings Arabella had endured at her husband's hands. She could not count the times she'd wanted to send to her father and her brothers for aid, but she'd known what Nigel of Byrum would tell her: that it was a woman's lot to be obedient, and a man's right to chasten her when she erred. But she'd not erred, and it had made no difference. Elias had chastened her for every glance, every kind word she had dared to bestow, until finally she was isolated from every man at Woolford. And still the beatings had not stopped.
But the matter of Aidan of Ayrie was more serious than any other, for her son's birthright was now being questioned. Were it not for that, she'd have welcomed being set aside. But now there was no possibility of that, for Elias' pride would suffer. Nay, but he'd beat her to death without reason, then pay a fine to her father for it. And she dared not think what he would do to her poor, innocent babe.
They were gone for many hours, for so long that night waned into dreary dawn and finally into yet another grey, rainy day, and all the while Arabella sat there, holding her son, praying that an innocent man would escape her husband's unreasoning wrath. But she had little real hope of that, for the burns that lay between Woolford and Ayrie were flooded with two weeks and more of the ceaseless rain.
She looked up to see Father Bertrand standing before her, his hands clasped over the crucifix he wore. His gaze dropped to the babe at her breast, and he cleared his throat.
"I thought mayhap you would want to name him," he said quietly. "I have brought water from the River Jordan."
She caressed the soft hair again, and nodded. "I'd name him James, for my mother's father." Lifting her eyes to his again, she added, "I am innocent —'tis Woolford's son I have borne." "Aye."
"Ever have I tried to please the husband I have been given," she continued bitterly, "but I cannot."
"Aye." He opened the small vial he'd concealed in his palm and held it out for her to see. " 'Tis sacred — I had it of a man who traveled to the Holy Land." Even as he spoke, he leaned over her to drip several drops of the precious water onto the babe's forehead, letting it course downward. At first the slate-colored eyes blinked, then the tiny face screwed into an expression of outrage and the babe wailed indignantly. Wetting his thumb in the water, the priest made the sign of the Cross over the small head.
"I baptise thee, James of Woolford, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, that you may serve Him in this world and the next. Amen."
"And may He cause His countenance to shine upon you with His mercy, wee Jamie," Arabella murmured softly, as she leaned to kiss the wet face.
As the old priest looked down on her bent head, he felt a great sadness for her. It was not right that Nigel of Byrum had given her at fifteen to a man of fifty-four, and so Bertrand would tell him if ever he saw the lord of Byrum again. Aye, as Elias' fleshly abilities had begun to wane his jealousy had soared until it knew no bounds, and he had beaten her far too often for her imagined transgressions. And now, having convinced himself that he had not sired this lame child, he would probably kill her — after he tortured Aidan of Ayrie into confessing to that which had not been done. And at best he would let the babe starve.
Not that he did not blame young Aidan for what had happened. The fool had been incautious in his admiration of his lord's wife. And more than once, despite a dozen warnings, he'd dared to lavish praise on the girl in the presence of Elias' sons. Indeed, had his father not been Duncan of Ayrie, Aidan would have been sent away long ago. Now Elias was too blinded by unreasoning fury to spare him.
At first Bertrand thought 'twas the sound of harder rain he heard, but then he saw Arabella stiffen. "Mayhap if he were to see you in chapel on your knees ..." he offered helplessly. "Mayhap ..."
"He would take it as proof of my guilt," she said tonelessly. Rising, she held her son close for a moment, then laid him within the cradle Elias had commissioned before the babe had been born. "He'd say I prayed that Aidan of Ayrie might escape. And that at least would be the truth."
Bertrand fingered the Cross at his breast nervously. "Would you that I stayed with you?"
"That he could accuse you of lying with me also? Nay, I —"
There were trampling footsteps on the stairs, then the door burst inward to admit Milo of Woolford, Elias' youngest son from the earlier marriage. "Father," he addressed Bertrand breathlessly, "I pray you will come! Donald would have you shrive Papa, though he is dead."
"Dead?" Arabella asked faintly, sinking into her chair. "Elias is dead?"
Without looking at her, Milo nodded. "Ayrie's whelp swam the flooded river, but Papa's horse reared, throwing him into the water."
"Sweet Mary. And Aidan of Ayrie?" she dared to ask also. "For now, he has escaped capture."
Relief washed over her with the realization that Elias of Woolford had come home for the last time, that no longer would he humiliate and beat her. He was dead. Aware that Milo finally had turned to her, she bowed her head to murmur, "May God show Elias the mercy that he showed me."
"Amen," he agreed, not understanding her meaning.
Pleading the exhaustion of childbed, Arabella did not witness Elias' interment beneath the chapel floor at Woolford. It did not matter: His grown sons behaved as though she were not there now, anyway, as Donald assumed the lordship of the keep. It was not until nearly a week after the funeral mass that all three of Elias' surviving sons climbed to the solar to see her.
Hugh, the middle one, walked to stand over young James' cradle, peering intently at the blinking babe. "I don't know.... Mayhap ...," he ventured finally.
"It matters not," Donald snapped. Without preamble, he turned to Arabella to announce, "We are here to decide how best to provide for you, madam."
For an awful moment she felt a cold sickness descend. Had there been no child she would have been sent back to her father, but now ... now Donald could choose to send her to a convent. And he would be expected to keep Jamie.
His eyes swept the tapestries that blew against the walls of the solar. "'Tis time I slept here," he decided.
"Aye." She clasped her hands tightly in front of her, not knowing how best to appeal to him. There was too much of Elias in him to risk setting him against her. "It is your right as lord here." That pleased him. A faint smile crossed his mouth, then fled. "And your sire does not require your dowry, you may return to him."
She ought to have known he would not want to send her to the nuns, for then he'd be expected to endow the convent that took her. But he'd not mentioned Jamie. "And James of Woolford ...? And my son ...?" she dared to ask.
The brothers exchanged brief glances, then Hugh looked away. "Your bastard goes with you," Donald answered. "I've no use for a lame brat."
"He is not my bastard," she responded evenly. "He shares the blood of Woolford with you. Whether you believe it or no, I have never lain with any but your father."
"Aye," Hugh agreed, "there's none —" He stopped, quailing beneath the look his older brother gave him.
"I say he is Aidan of Ayrie's bastard," Donald stated flatly. "And you would take him with you, you'll not dispute it."
He walked closer and lifted the blanket from the babe, staring downward on the tiny leg that turned so much the stubby foot lay over. His lip curled in disdain, and when he looked up Arabella could see Elias in his eyes. "I share no blood with this," he declared contemptuously.
"Nay, you'll not deny him. I will ..."
Donald's eyes narrowed. "Would you make me keep him for you?" he demanded. "And you do, the brat will come to hate you for it. And you do, he'll not prosper here."
The threat was clear: If she made any claim on Woolford for her son, Donald would treat him cruelly. And if she did not, it was as much as admitting to the falsehood that her babe was Ayrie's bastard. While she considered the impossible choice, he looked again to her babe. "Nay, but my sire never got that of you," he said contemptuously. "This brat's Devil-born. And 'tis witchcraft to consort with the Devil, madam," he added ominously. His eyes met hers and held, waiting.
"Then try me for it! You cannot accuse both the Devil and Ayrie!" Hugh moved between them and laid a hand on her arm. "And you leave with the babe, we'll not accuse you."
"I cannot deny my son's birthright of Woolford."
"Birthright?" Donald snorted. "You behold three others before him, and I am possessed of two sons. And he were born of my sire, I'd not spare more than a hundred marks for him! 'Twould be the Church, and they'll not take that!" She turned to Hugh. "And you: Will you not hold for my son? Will you not protect one of your blood?" For answer, he looked away. "And you also, Milo?" she asked softly, seeking the youngest. "Do you deny your father's flesh?"
There was only silence in the room. Finally, she sighed and nodded. "Aye, I'd not leave him amongst you. All I ask is escort to Byrum for myself and my son."
After they'd left, she sat staring into the embers that glowed in the brazier. It was done — her awful, terrifying marriage to Elias of Woolford was done. She had survived the countless beatings, and she was free. Not even the knowledge that she returned home to a father who would not want her, who would be angered when he saw Jamie, could dampen the surge of exhilaration she felt. She was free. And God willing, she would never have to submit to the cruelty of a husband again.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Winter Roses"
Copyright © 1992 Anita Mills.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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