CONQUEST OF THE HEART

Marilyn Grall

ISBN 1-891020-68-4 Copyright 1999 Marilyn Grall Cover Art by Rickey Mallory New Concepts Publishing 4729 Humphreys Rd. Lake Park, GA 31636 www.newconceptspublishing.com

OTHER NCP TITLES BY MARILYN GRALL: Taming the Lion In Search of Amanda

DEDICATION

To Gabe, because without him, there would be no romance. I love you, honey.

CHAPTER ONE

Kent, England, late March, 1067

“They have come, Mama! They are here!” Panting out breaths, the urchin ran toward his mother, tugging on her worn skirts, then pointing toward the hill. The woman gasped, pulling the child closer to the meager protection of her thin body, her breath billowing out in the frosty morning air. One by one, more heads turned, more manor folk pointed and stared. Their quiet life was about to change...and none knew if that change would be for better, or worse. The new Lord of Almswick had just arrived. Atop the hill, Sir Stephen Dubois watched the child, and the others, carefully noting their reaction to the twenty mounted, mailed knights who had accompanied him to claim his prize. “They have seen us, mon ami,” the man riding beside him said. “Do you think they will roll out the red carpet in welcome?” Stephen turned to his companion. It had been a long, hard winter. Even now, with the advent of spring, icy patches still clung to the muddy road. The morning was bitter cold, the horses shivering beneath saddles and caparisons, and Stephen’s royal blue and gold pennants flapped in the steady, frigid breeze. “No,” he answered, with just the hint of a smile. “They’d most likely rather scald us in oil than welcome us to Almswick, Henri.” But, in truth, Stephen wasn’t overly concerned about the manor folks’ reaction. They would accustom themselves to their new lord...in time. This was his dream, and it was about to materialize. Nothing mattered but that, not even the wretched cold. He’d known far worse weather than this during his years as a mercenary soldier; anything from burning deserts to frozen wastelands. The English countryside was as tame as a demure maiden when compared to some of the places where he’d fought--and won--so many campaigns. But he wouldn’t be fighting today. Almswick Manor was Stephen’s possession now, by decree of King William...as was Almswick’s heiress, Mary, though she didn’t know it yet. Henri snorted at Stephen’s comment, sounding so much like his own warhorse, Stephen smiled again. Sir Henri of Tours was an exact opposite to Stephen in coloring and build. Blond-headed, blue-eyed, fair-skinned and slightly cherubic of face and form, Henri had a great love of food, and some of that fondness showed quite clearly in his stocky frame. In contrast, Stephen was lean and tall, his hair and eyes dark as a raven’s. But the two fought well together, had saved each others’ lives on countless

occasions. And Stephen was closer to Henri than he was to his own brothers; they were the very best of friends. In fact, Henri was the only man Stephen ever allowed to see beyond his stern, domineering facade. It wouldn’t do for anyone else to realize that beneath the firm, decisive disciplinarian was a man yearning for naught more than a hearth and home, a wife...and heirs. “Shall we risk that possibility and descend, then?” Henri asked in his native French. “Scalding with oil might be preferable to this damnable cold--” “In English, Henri,” Stephen interjected, turning his mail-clad head toward his friend again. “I want no doubt in anyone’s mind that the new Lord of Almswick understands the commoner’s tongue.” “But of course, mon ami,” Henri replied, switching to English with a typically Gallic shrug. “In that way the peasants will know they cannot--how do you say?--conspire against you in their own language, eh?” “Oui,” Stephen rejoined, smiling grimly this time. Henri’s accent left much to be desired, but he was completely correct. Stephen had no intention of allowing serfs, freedmen or Almswick’s household knights--what was left of them--to conspire behind his back due to a language barrier. Consequently, knowing he was to be rewarded with an estate, Stephen had become fluent in the Anglo-Saxon language since the successful Battle of Hastings last October. The battle that had ultimately brought such changes into his life. Stephen was the third son of the Comte Dubois and as such had known from his youth that he had no hope of gaining a title or land, unless he earned them for himself. With that thought in mind, upon reaching his majority and receiving a generous portion from his father, Stephen had formed an elite mercenary band--the finest in Normandy, it was rumored. He and his men had fought campaigns for anyone with enough gold to afford them, be they sultans, kings, noblemen or even wealthy merchants. Whoever could pay the price. Ah, but his finest decision in the past eight years of constant fighting had been to join Duke William-who was now King William--in his attempt to wrest the throne of England from King Harold. And a bit of luck hadn’t hurt any, either. That day of the battle at Hastings, Stephen and Henri had been among Duke William’s personal guard. Who could have known that one of William’s so-called trusted men was in reality an assassin? No one, not even Stephen himself. Not until he saw the flash of steel. Not until the knife was within an inch of his liege lord’s back. And even then, Stephen had acted on instinct, using skills honed by his many disciplined years of fighting. The assassin had fallen to Stephen’s sword, and as a direct result of that momentary battle, and William’s ultimate success in conquering Harold, Stephen had been given a manor in Kent--Almswick. It was his now...home. Henri quieted his restive mount with a pat to his sweaty neck and soothing phrases spoken in a strange combination of English and French. Looking down the gentle valley toward the manor, his smile broad, as it always was, he said, “‘Tis a very fine piece of property, no?” “Actually, no,” Stephen said ruefully, seeing even from here Almswick’s state of disrepair. The fields were still fallow, the orchards still winter-barren, but that was only natural after such a cold, harsh winter. What distressed Stephen, even though he’d been forewarned, was the condition of the manor itself and the surrounding small village. The outer wooden wall of the manor was sagging in places, its gates looked like they would no longer

even close, and many of the rooftops in the village were sorely in need of new thatching. Huts that should have been whitewashed regularly were gray and unappealing to the eye, the manor folk warily awaiting them dressed in little more than rags. Warm, clean rags he had to concede, well patched and made of thick wool, but rags nevertheless. Having Almswick would mean a great deal of hard work, but Stephen welcomed the challenge. Refurbishing Almswick might be a challenge, but obtaining a wife was a foregone conclusion. Stephen couldn’t help enjoying the thought. He’d been preparing to leave King William’s court when the decision was made. Stephen had known he was to be the new Lord of Almswick for several weeks, and a messenger had been dispatched to the manor announcing his imminent arrival, but until that fateful morning three days ago, he’d had no idea he was to be given Almswick’s heiress as well. The decree was King William’s. Lady Mary had been promised to a neighbor, Lord Albert of Tidwell, a man who had sworn fealty to William, but even so, the king had decided that Almswick Manor would be better served by marrying its heiress to Stephen, and he had set the betrothal with Lord Albert aside. Lady Mary didn’t know this yet, and she might well have a thing or two to say about the decision, but it wouldn’t matter. Women very seldom had any choice about whom they were to wed, and Lady Mary would be no exception. As far as the original betrothal contract, that had been written by Ralph of Almswick, Lady Mary’s father, and since he was considered a traitor for his support of the ill-fated King Harold, the contract held no validity in King William’s new court. Lord Ralph had, in fact--along with his two sons--paid the ultimate price for supporting King Harold. They had all died during the fateful Battle of Hastings. Soon after that, Mary’s lady mother had died, and now Mary, along with her two little sisters, were the only family members left at Almswick. And Mary of Almswick would soon become Stephen Dubois’s lady wife. There had been no need to dispatch another messenger with the king’s decision when Stephen was already on his way--which was why the lady had no idea her life was about to change. Stephen would be glad to tell her himself. Willing or nay, the lady would wed him. Stephen had never seen Mary of Almswick. He’d not even seen the manor until this moment. But he didn’t care if his bride was fair or dark, tall or short, fat or thin. He only cared that she was seventeen--a prime age for bearing his children, his heirs. He had great plans for Almswick, despite its poor condition. It would be his home now, after all. The fortune he had garnered during his mercenary years would see to the needed repairs, and his own knowledge of animal husbandry and farming would turn the manor not only into a self-supporting estate, but a profitable one as well. An infusion of monies was needed, of course, but it would be returned at least ten-fold. By year’s end, Stephen intended to have a healthy crop of fruits and grains, a herd of sheep large enough to sell off surplus wool for profit, and enough pigs and cattle to ensure an ample supply of preserved meat during the winter. From what he could see from this hilltop, the serfs of Almswick hadn’t seen an overabundant supply of food during the winter just past. Noting his friend’s pensive expression, Henri couldn’t help saying, “Do you suppose Lady Mary, at least, will welcome us gladly?”

“She will have no other choice,” Stephen quietly replied, his voice all the more dangerous for its soft tone. Raising a gauntlet, he signaled his men to begin their descent down the hill. Henri grimaced as Stephen’s demeanor changed, becoming stern, forbidding and closed. His friend was no longer smiling, even the littlest bit. Gone was the man with such a deep yearning for a home and family. In his place was the stern, unsmiling knight who had won his way in the world with the skill of his sword and uncompromising discipline. Discipline of himself as well as of his men. The man whose fighting skills had become almost legendary was about to claim his manor--and his bride. But Henri couldn’t help smiling again as the column of men and horses, along with several baggage wains filled to the brim with weapons, booty and gold, began descending the gentle slope to Almswick. Doubtless, the next few weeks would be quite interesting. Manor folk who probably did not want a new lord, a bride who did not know she was to be one yet, and a tumble-down estate badly in need of repair. Aye, Henri thought, gently spurring his spirited mount, the next few weeks would most certainly be interesting.

CHAPTER TWO

Mary of Almswick heard the commotion in the courtyard just as Hilda, her maidservant, rushed into the room, wringing her plump hands. “The soldiers are coming, milady,” Hilda declared, her normally placid face pinched with fear. “What should we do?” Summoning every ounce of decorum she’d ever been taught, Mary rose gracefully from the embroidery frame where she’d been working. Needing time to gather her thoughts, she did not answer her faithful servant immediately. Instead, she crossed to the window and opened the shutters. Cold air swirled into the room, billowing her skirts and loosening tendrils of hair from her tightly-woven braid. She shivered, but not from the sudden gust of cold air. Nor was it from the sight of mounted men now approaching the gates, easily seen from this second-story vantage point, not when Sir Stephen Dubois’s colors were as easily apparent as the number of his men. She’d been expecting the man, after all--the new Lord of Almswick. What sent shivers down Mary’s spine was a sudden memory.

This was the very window her lady mother had leapt from months before, ending her life. Mary had been the one to find her mother’s body, after hearing a horrid scream and rushing into this chamber...only to find the shutters open on a cold winter night. Only to lean out this window and see her mother’s twisted body lying in the snow, crimson blood marring the pristine white below her smashed skull. The moon had been full that night, and the picture was just as fresh in Mary’s mind now as it had been in reality then. Mary had flown down the winding wooden steps to the great hall, desperately calling for help as she ran. But even before throwing open the oaken doors to the manor house and rushing to her mother’s side, she had known Lady Evelyn was dead. It was what the lady had wanted, after all. It was really no great surprise that she had finally succeeded in killing herself... “What should we do, milady?” Hilda repeated, wrenching Mary from her morbid remembrances. Mary took a deep, calming breath, pushing aside the memories of her mother’s insanity and ultimate death. That was in the past, and her people needed her in the present. They needed her strength, not her weakness. And they would get it, she vowed. They would get every morsel of strength she could muster. Squaring her shoulders, she took one more look at the royal blue and gold pennants announcing Sir Stephen’s arrival, then turned to face her servant. Very calmly, she said, “We should greet the new lord, Hilda, that’s what we should do.” “Or we could fight him instead,” a deep, booming voice declared from the solar doorway as Sir Harold, Mary’s steward, clomped into the room. “He’s not breached the gate yet, milady. We could still fight him.” Mary took another deep breath, then lifted her chin, looking directly into Harold’s eyes. With her diminutive height, and being so much younger than the burly man-at-arms, a bold gaze was her only hope of displaying firm authority. “Nay, Harold, we will not fight him,” she said. “We could close the gates and--” “The gates no longer close,” Mary interjected. “We still have good men, milady, and weapons,” Harold persisted. “How many men, Harold? Twelve?” “Aye, twelve.” Harold’s shoulders slumped. “And Sir Stephen probably has twenty,” Mary continued determinedly. “Twenty men who have been well fed all winter, twenty men who have superior weapons, and, most importantly, twenty men who serve the man chosen by the new king as the lord of this manor.” “Aye, William, the damned conqueror, chose this man,” Harold groused.

“William, the damned king,” Mary corrected. Seeing Harold’s defeated posture and the lines of fatigue, hate and concern etched into his craggy face, Mary stepped up to him and placed a hand upon his arm. “You share the old king’s name, Harold, and your loyalty to him is admirable, but he is gone now. Long gone, just as my father and brothers are gone. There is naught we can do about any of that.” A lump of emotion closed her throat, but she swallowed hard and pressed on. “Even if we defeated Sir Stephen and his men, King William would only send another in his place. Should we risk the remainder of our men, and the health and security of our manor’s people simply to fight a battle that cannot be won?” Harold smiled sadly. He hadn’t missed the stark emotions she’d quickly banished. “Nay, milady,” he finally conceded. He couldn’t help admiring the lady--really not much more than a child. For all her youth, she had spoken wisely. A battle would be useless. He knew it, she knew it. He just didn’t like it one damn bit. “I’m glad you agree with me, my friend,” Mary said softly. “Will you stand with me as I greet Sir Stephen?” “I am ever your loyal man, milady,” Harold replied, straightening his stance, “just as I was your father’s man. Of course I will stand with you.” He placed his work-hardened hand over her delicate one, feeling its childlike fragility, and a frown creased his forehead. “Are you sure you want to meet this new lord in the courtyard, milady?” he asked. “Wouldn’t it be better to wait here in your solar and let me bring him to you?” “Nay, good steward,” Mary replied with a definite shake of her head. “Our people need strength, and I will show them strength. ‘Tis what my father would have done. ‘Tis what he would expect me to do.” Harold nodded solemnly, then led the way out of the solar, knowing she would not be dissuaded. Once again, he admired her--and truly regretted she would not be the Lady of Almswick for much longer. Not because of Sir Stephen, although that was certainly a consideration, but because she was betrothed to Lord Albert. She would be leaving the manor within a matter of weeks, taking her sweet little sisters with her to her new home. But all that was in the future, and Lady Mary was right. The people of Almswick needed strength. Strength to survive whatever this new lord might demand of them; strength to survive the debilitating effects of the long hard winter and an appalling lack of funds. As they reached the great hall, a servant met them, with two small children in tow. Mary knelt before the little girls, kissing each golden head. “Take them to the nursery, Anna,” she said to the nursemaid. “The new lord has just arrived, and I’ll not have my sisters frightened by all the commotion.” “Aye, milady,” Anna replied, lifting two-year-old Mae, then holding out her hand. “Come along, Lily.” “Must I, Sissy?” Lily asked in her small voice. “I would so much rather stay with you.” “Aye, you must, little one,” Mary answered, rising to her feet. She squeezed Lily’s shoulder. “I’ll come up to see you and Mae just as soon as I can. You know I love you both, but this is something I must do alone.” Lily opened her mouth to protest again, but Mary laid a gentle finger to her lips. “Go with Anna now,”

she said kindly but firmly, and Lily puckered her lips, frowned, then finally nodded and gave her hand to Anna. Mary smiled at the child’s reluctant obedience, then watched her sisters and their nursemaid move toward the stairs. Suddenly, Lily broke free and ran back to Mary, hugging her almost desperately. “I love you, Sissy,” she cried. “Please don’t ever leave me. You’re all I have left!” Tears sprung to Mary’s eyes, but she blinked them away. Mae was too young to understand very much, but at seven years of age, Lily was all too aware that her mother was dead, along with her father and brothers. ‘Twas a terrible burden for such a young child, and Mary wanted to weep for her. But there was no time for weeping. Not now, perhaps not ever. Life was unfolding as it would, and one could not fight fate, or God, or whomever it was that had decided Mary would raise her little sisters--that she would be the only adult family member left after that horrible Battle of Hastings. Mary kissed her little sister, reassured her they would always be together, then sent her back to her nursemaid, all the while wishing for the thousandth time that she could have undone her mother’s madness. Or that she could have at least saved her life...for the sake of the children. Her mother--frail, beautiful Lady Evelyn--had been a victim of the Battle of Hastings every bit as much as Mary’s father and brothers. Leaving the manor house and crossing the courtyard with Harold, Mary couldn’t help remembering again that last night of her mother’s life. It had been in the dead of winter, a bitter cold night. The peat-fueled brazier in the solar had done very little to offset the frigid chill in the room, and Mary had piled blankets and furs over her mother’s terribly thin body as she sat in a chair simply staring at a tapestry on the wall. A tapestry depicting a battle scene, one worked by Mary’s great-grandmother many years ago. Lady Evelyn’s posture that night was not new. She either sat and stared at that tapestry or paced the room, searching for some way to escape unbearable mental anguish. It had been thus ever since Sir Harold and twelve other survivors had returned from Hastings, bringing news of Lord Ralph’s death, as well as the death of his sons. On hearing the news, Lady Evelyn had turned white, all color draining from her face; then she’d become as still as stone. She’d never left the solar after that day, had even refused food and water unless they were forced upon her. She had been slowly dying, by increments, and Mary knew it. Everyone knew it. She was willing herself to die through starvation. Lady Evelyn hadn’t spoken a coherent word since her husband’s death, only keening wails of grief and insanity. At first, Almswick’s priest had prayed over her for days on end, but to no avail. Frustrated, Father Michael then lectured Lady Evelyn sternly, admonishing her for weakness. Finally, he’d simply given up and declared her mad. But Mary didn’t give up. She remembered her mother before the madness, remembered her laughter, her beauty, her love, and her absolute devotion to her husband and sons. Not that Lady Evelyn hadn’t loved her three daughters. She had...but in a different way. Simply put, Lady Evelyn had needed the strength of men, perhaps to offset her own frailty. Once the men in her life were gone, her three daughters simply ceased to exist in her tormented mind. Mary didn’t want to leave her mother that night, not even for a moment. Lady Evelyn was restless, more agitated than usual, and Mary feared for her safety.

But something called her out of the room--she never could remember what; some silly emergency needing her attention since she was by then, for all intents and purposes, the lady of the manor--and she left the solar, unwittingly giving her mother the opportunity she must have wanted. If only she had left a servant in the room. Someone. Anyone. But she hadn’t. Most of the servants were already asleep on their pallets in the great hall, before the blazing hearth. She didn’t have the heart to awaken one of her tired, faithful people on that bitter cold night, so she’d left her mother alone--for such a short time! But long enough. Then she’d heard that blood curdling scream... Mary wrenched her thoughts from those awful memories yet again. Nothing could be done about that. Lady Evelyn was dead, long since buried in unhallowed ground, and remembering that horrid night wouldn’t change a thing. It wouldn’t even save Lady Evelyn’s soul. And besides that, the future was fast approaching. The Normans had just entered the courtyard. Sir Stephen was easy enough to identify. His bearing was totally arrogant. Aye, he was the leader; the one in control. If only, Mary couldn’t help thinking again, as the tall, grim knight approached her on his massive destrier. If only her father and brothers had not died. If only Lady Evelyn hadn’t died, if only... But it was useless to think that way, she firmly reminded herself. They were all dead, and she was the only one left...she and Lily and little Mae. Only Mary had received the message that Almswick had been confiscated by the new king; not an unusual turn of events in a conquered land. Only Mary had been left to see to the well being of Almswick’s people, trying to do so in spite of nearly empty coffers, storage sheds down to their last meager supply of grain, and wood piles which were dwindling faster than trees could be felled to replenish them. Thank God for the peat fuel abundantly available in the low-lying areas of Almswick. If not for that, some of the manor folk surely would have frozen to death. Mary had swallowed her pride and applied to the king’s mercy, begging his aid, but he had only sent word that a new lord would be dispatched to her manor...and that she would have to make do, like everyone else, until then. Mary sighed deeply, watching Sir Stephen ride closer. There was only so much a woman could do, and she had already done all that she could. Almswick’s future now rested in the hands of this man...this Norman knight...this enemy. She was almost glad she would soon be leaving Almswick, and that Lily and Mae would be going with her. Tidwell. The neighboring estate’s name flitted through her mind as Mary watched the formidable Norman knight draw rein only a few feet from where she was standing. Tidwell Manor would be her new home in a matter of weeks. Lord Albert had contracted for her hand just before the fateful battle that had ultimately killed most of her family. Lord Albert was the only bright light in this whole disastrous affair. Mary would become his wife. And she would be a good, dutiful wife, accepting the marriage bed and her duties as chatelaine without

complaint. In fact, she fancied herself in love with Lord Albert, perhaps not with the heart-stopping kind of love she’d once dreamed of, but certainly in a respectful way, certainly in a way that would make her wifely duties palatable. Lord Albert had been courting her since the betrothal was signed, had even shared some grain with her people, though she had to admit it was of the lowest quality and full of weevils. Admittedly, Lord Albert was not an overly generous man, but he had agreed to take Lily and Mae into his home, and that had balanced the scales for Mary. She loved Lord Albert...truly she did. And she didn’t think she could tolerate living at Almswick when it was in the hands of an enemy. A Norman. A conquering Norman. Fie on them all! They were the ones who had killed her family. At least Lord Albert’s estate had not been confiscated, as he had not fought in support of King Harold. If she could just get through the next few weeks, if she could somehow ensure that this new lord would care for her childhood home--and its people--then she could go to Tidwell a happy bride. And she could start a new life, never having to think of the Norman enemy again. Mary of Almswick was quite sure her future had already been decided--her future as the Lady of Tidwell Manor, Lord Albert’s wife.

CHAPTER THREE

As Stephen entered the courtyard, he’d been more than a little surprised to see the obvious lady of the manor awaiting him. Her clothing identified her as such, being more costly than the garments of those surrounding her, but even Lady Mary’s clothes were well worn and mended. She was a small woman, surely not standing more than an inch or two over five feet. In all honesty, she was not a great beauty, her face a simple oval and her nose just a little too short. But her eyes were quite pleasing, a rich, warm brown, and her hair was a light golden brown, the neat braid lying over her shoulder reaching all the way to her knees. Stephen couldn’t help thinking how beautiful that hair would look unbound. And her lips. Her lips were her crowning feature. Ruby red, full and generous. Utterly kissable. He wondered how that mouth would look wearing a soft smile...or a seductive pout as she lay in his bed, begging attention. With a connoisseur’s eye, Stephen continued his perusal, his gaze moving downward. He felt his breath hitch a little as his eyes settled on her breasts. Full, round...magnificent, even confined behind the modest gown.

Aye, Stephen decided, wedding and bedding Mary of Almswick would be no unsavory chore. ‘Twould be quite pleasant, in fact. And despite her petite size, her hips seemed adequate for childbirth, and those wonderful breasts would undoubtedly nourish many a babe. He was well pleased. His pleasure diminished a little as his gaze moved back up to her face. She was blushing--as any good maiden would under a man’s appreciative gaze--but her beautiful mouth was set in a firm, uncompromising line. A defiant line. He realized then that he had met a quietly determined foe. Lady Mary’s demeanor was polite, but the firm set of her mouth told a different story: He was the enemy, and she was not at all happy to see him arrive at her manor. He was, however, quite impressed with the fact that she had not called her men to arms. Even though she saw him as the enemy, she was not willing to risk her people on a useless fight. He admired her for that. It spoke of true courage. Such courage would beget fine, strong sons. “Lady Mary, I presume?” he said, still atop his huge destrier, his voice firm, his face purposely devoid of expression. This situation did not call for politeness or gallantry. It called for firm determination and control. Ruthless control if need be. “Aye, my lord,” Mary replied with a sketched curtsy. Her voice was breathless, a little shaky, and Stephen nodded. She obviously felt intimidated, and that was just as it should be. But he could also see she was quite determined to control her fear. His admiration for the diminutive woman inched up another notch. At that moment a maidservant hurried to Lady Mary, carrying a rabbit fur-lined mantle. It was then that Stephen noticed Lady Mary was shivering. Evidently, she had forgotten her cloak in her determination to meet the enemy head-on. His admiration climbed again, as well as his desire to wed the lady. Mary of Almswick knew what was important, and she carried out her duties to her people without flinching, without even a thought to her own comfort. Doubtless, she would carry out her duties as a wife just as conscientiously. He nearly smiled at the thought. As the servant Lady Mary addressed as Hilda arranged the warm mantle around her lady’s shoulders, Stephen let his gaze stray to the man standing beside her. This man was not even trying to hide his dislike behind a polite facade. He was a burly fellow, with a barrel chest and massive hands. Hands that bore many battle scars. A formidable foe here, Stephen realized. But also one who seemed completely determined to protect his lady. Not a bad combination, really. Not unless he turned against his new lord. “This man is my steward, Sir Harold,” Stephen heard Mary say, and he swung his gaze back to her. He hadn’t failed to notice that her voice was strong and clear now, all trace of breathlessness gone.

“Does he know his job well, my lady?” Stephen asked. “Aye,” Mary replied. “Sir Harold is a fine steward, and a fine man.” “Then he shall retain the title...for now,” Stephen allowed, purposely watching the reaction of the lady and her knight to this statement. He would establish his dominion from the very first. Harold grumbled something under his breath, but Stephen ignored it. He was used to the ways of men. He’d forgive this warrior his grumbling. The man was merely salving his pride. Looking up, Stephen surveyed the motley crew of household knights who had gathered behind their lady. No more than twelve men, he noted, and they were gaunt of face, with weapons and armor sadly in need of repair. Nevertheless, those weapons could do considerable damage. Stephen gestured to Henri. As Henri rode to his side, Stephen raised a gauntlet to gain attention. “Hear me,” he said in a deep, stentorian voice, his breath visible in the frigid air, his fierce dark gaze raking each of the knights and many of the manor folk. “I now claim Almswick Manor in the name of King William.” He didn’t miss the murmurs of discontent that statement evoked. Undaunted, he continued. “From this day forth, I am the Lord of Almswick. If you obey me without question, your needs will be met. If you disobey me, you will be punished.” The crowd that had gathered shifted restlessly, mothers pulling their children closer to their skirts, shabbily clothed fathers putting too-thin arms around their wives. After giving just enough time for his threat--as well as his promise--to sink in, Stephen pressed on. “No man, woman or child is to have a weapon on Almswick, until you have proven your trustworthiness. This decree includes all household knights.” The grumbling increased, and two war-hardened men raised fists in the air. Stephen ignored them and gestured toward Henri. “This man is Sir Henri of Tours, my second in command. He will be in charge of confiscating all weapons.” Henri immediately dismounted. “You may begin disarming yourselves now,” Stephen concluded. He heard Lady Mary draw in a sharp breath. “Nay, my lord,” she declared, causing Stephen to look down on her with mild surprise. “The women must have knives for cooking, the men their bows and arrows for hunting and tools for farming. Would you have us starve?” “Nay, my lady,” Stephen quietly stated. “I would not have you starve, though it seems you’ve come close enough to it this past winter.” He heard her draw in another sharp breath, obviously insulted. “Sir Henri will assign a man to dole out necessary implements,” he explained. “And as far as hunting, my lady, your men will continue to do so...with an escort.” “We don’t need no Norman nursemaids,” one man called out, “and we need our weapons. How else can we protect our lady?”

“Your lady will be protected by my men,” Stephen quietly rejoined, “and by me.” He pierced Almswick’s assembled knights with a stern look. “You men will all be assigned duties, but protecting your lady will not be one of them. Once you have proven your loyalty to me, your weapons will be returned. Until then, only my men will be armed.” Almost in unison, the men turned to Lady Mary. Stephen saw her nod, and with that one small gesture, these underfed but still well-muscled warriors began removing their weapons, laying them at Henri’s feet. Again, Stephen was well pleased. Men who would obey their lady without question would obey their new lord as well...in time. True to form, Henri evidently felt a bit of humor was needed in this tense situation. “Not so close to the toes,” he quipped, jumping back nimbly from the growing pile of weapons, despite his portly size, then bellowing in mock pain as a heavy broadsword crossed his foot. “Sorry,” Stephen heard the fellow responsible mutter, but there was a small smile on the man’s weathered, bearded face. Stephen merely shook his head. Only Henri would dare such a thing, attempting to lighten the fearful, tense mood of these people. To Stephen’s amazement, though, by the time the pile of weapons had grown to a considerable size, with every possible weapon on the manor having been laid down, Henri’s occasional interjections of humor had softened more than one face in the crowd. The children seemed far less frightened now, too. Stephen nodded to his friend. He had nothing against good humor...as long as it was tempered with respect. The procession had taken more than an hour, and in all that time Stephen had remained mounted. He knew very well that with his own height and that of his warhorse, he made a formidable picture. Which was just what he wanted. Henri could afford to display humor--he was second in command. The new lord of a conquered manor must remain disciplined and in control at all times. He could not allow himself the luxury of laughter. Now, with the weapons confiscation finally accomplished, and a passing fair wench even offering Henri a shy smile and a gourd of water, Stephen finally dismounted, handing his reins to a stable lad who looked as though he might blow away in the slightest breeze. Striding to Mary, Stephen said, “I will see the manor house now, my lady.” Mary had watched the pile of weapons and implements grow, never once taking her eyes from the spectacle. At Sir Stephen’s words, she finally tore her eyes from the unbelievable sight...only to see one almost as daunting. Sir Stephen, in chain mail and blue and gold tunic, stood before her. He was a giant. There was no other word for it. The man had to be nearly seven feet tall in his stocking feet. She had to bend her neck back just to see his handsome, saturnine face. Starkly defined cheek bones, an arrogant though somehow sensual mouth and hawk-like features. All these things described Sir Stephen, and he was the largest man she had ever seen. She felt like David to Goliath. If only she had a stone... “I will see the manor house now, my lady,” Stephen repeated. “What of your men...your things?” Mary asked, her voice growing breathless again. She hated herself for that show of weakness, but the man was intimidating, far, far too intimidating. Gathering her

strength and squaring her shoulders, she added, “Our stables can house your men’s horses, but I have no storehouse large enough to hold your possessions. Where would you have me put them, my lord?” The lady was stalling, Stephen realized. She didn’t want him inside her home just yet. No matter its state of disrepair, it was a castle to her. He could understand her feelings, and he felt a surge of sympathy. His own lady mother would have reacted in much the same way. But he quickly quelled that momentary lapse of emotional discipline. Compassion had no place in a situation like this, even if Henri seemed to think it did. Over the past three days, Henri had tried to convince Stephen that kindness and sympathy might be very effective tools for handling Lady Mary, but Stephen had disagreed. He disagreed even more now, after meeting the lady. Nay, firmness and discipline were imperative. Lady Mary was far less than pleased with his arrival. Doubtless, she would be even less happy with her impending betrothal to him. Aye, firmness and discipline. Those were the tools he had used to make his way in the world, and those were the tools he would use here at Almswick...and with Lady Mary herself. With that thought in mind, Stephen said quite firmly, “Sir Henri will see to all the necessary details regarding my belongings and men, your steward will assist him, and you, my lady, will lead the way to my new home without further delay. Is that clear?” “Quite clear, my lord,” Mary answered just as firmly, then turned on her heel in a swirl of cape and gown, her back arrow straight, her strides determined as she did indeed lead the way to the manor house. Stephen understood exactly what she was doing. She might have to obey his orders, but she was determined to show him no further weakness, not even resistance to opening her beloved home to him. She nodded to Sir Harold in passing, who had obviously overheard the conversation, and now that he had his lady’s approval, the steward immediately joined Henri with his pile of weapons. Stephen noticed this silent exchange, but he let it pass. He suspected the burly Sir Harold felt quite naked without his sword and dagger, and Stephen doubted the man would have lain down his weapons without Lady Mary’s agreement. It mattered little, though. Sir Harold could probably kill a man with his bare hands, if need be. He bore close watching. With the slightest gesture of one hand, Stephen signaled Henri, who simply grinned in reply. Stephen shook his head again, momentarily closing his eyes. His rather rotund friend could be exasperatingly cheerful at times, but he was also loyal to his very bones and extremely efficient. Stephen’s belongings would be stowed...somewhere...and the men who had chosen to accompany him would be shown their new lodgings. At least housing them would pose no great problem. The quarters for Almswick’s men-at-arms were probably more empty than full after the Battle of Hastings. After nodding acknowledgment to Henri, knowing the Frenchman would stay as close to Sir Harold as a flea on a dog, Stephen followed the lady who would soon be his wife.

Holding up the frayed hem of her overgown, Mary climbed the dozen stairs to the manor house, thanked the servant opening the massive oak door, then entered Almswick’s great hall. She was well aware that Sir Stephen was following her, which was bad enough, but the last thing she needed right now was to see Lily running toward her, Anna and Mae close on her heels.

“I’m sorry, milady,” Anna said breathlessly, trying to catch up with her charge. “She couldn’t wait any longer. I was bathing Mae, and Lily ran out of the nursery.” Mary took one look at Lily’s pinched, frightened face and knew immediately that the child had witnessed the scene in the courtyard, from the nursery window. Any thoughts about Sir Stephen’s invasion of her home quickly left Mary’s mind. She scooped Lily into her arms, which caused Mae, wearing naught but a warm linen bathing towel, to hold out her arms and whimper. Mary opened her other arm, and Anna handed the toddler to her. “Hush now,” Mary crooned, already heading for the winding staircase, both children cradled in her arms. “There is no reason to be frightened, little ones. I am here, and I will keep you safe.” She turned to Anna. “Have Cook send up some warm goat’s milk and honey cakes, will you Anna? I think my girls need a small treat.” She heard Anna mutter, “A small treat, indeed. More like a Christmas feast the way things are right now,” but she didn’t admonish the servant. The statement was true enough, but the children needed comforting. Food was a good choice, even scarce as it was. Anna turned toward the kitchen hut to carry out her lady’s orders, and Stephen was left to his own devices while Lady Mary saw to the children. He could have ordered her to stay in the great hall with him, of course, but seeing how close she was to the little girls had given him an idea. He wanted to think through his admittedly ruthless plan while still alone. By King William’s decree, the lady was to wed him, so she really had no choice in the matter. However, a lot of needless contention could be avoided with the right tactics. And Stephen was, above all else, a brilliant tactician. He smiled grimly scant moments later, his decision made. Then he frowned as he noticed the condition of Almswick’s great hall. The room was clean enough, with fresh rushes strewn on the floor and every possible surface newly scrubbed, the walls adorned with tapestries sewn by loving hands, but a chill wind seeped in through cracks in the wooden walls. Sealing those leaks would be the first chore he would assign Almswick’s weaponless knights. Wattle and daub were easily available on the estate, and if anything must be purchased, that could easily be done, too. Money was no obstacle to Stephen’s plans for Almswick. The next problem was the room’s furnishings. A scarred, very old table sat upon a raised dais, and the dismantled trestle tables used only at meal times lined one long wall, but other than rough benches and two carved armchairs at the lord’s table, there was no place to sit. Unless you considered the pile of pallets neatly stacked against another wall. This room boasted no padded settles, like his own mother’s hall, and the servants obviously slept right here, in front of a hearth large enough for Stephen’s horse to fit quite nicely. ‘Twas unfortunate that the chimney drew poorly, making the large room rather smokey. Chore number two. Clean debris from the chimney. Or replace it entirely. Stephen began a mental list. By the time he heard Mary’s light footsteps on the stairs, he’d decided the entire manor house should be razed. The lady probably wouldn’t like that idea one little bit, but it needed to be done. The place was a rotting shambles. A stone castle in the Norman style would be far more sensible...and far easier to defend against enemies. “I pray your forgiveness for the interruption, my lord,” Mary said politely upon reaching him, sketching

a quick curtsy. “The children were quite overwhelmed by all the activity in the courtyard.” Stephen admired her infallible manners--if one discounted the firm set of her pretty mouth--and mentioning the children reminded him of his plan. “Your apology is accepted, my lady,” he said, then added, “Is there somewhere a little more...um...comfortable where we might talk?” The discussion they were about to have should be private. “My solar is quite comfortable,” Mary answered, blushing. “I realize the hall leaves a little to be desired, my lord, but funds have been short...” Her words trailed off. She was obviously embarrassed at having made that admission to the enemy. Raising her chin, she finally said, “If you will follow me, sir.” Knowing no one was watching, Stephen allowed himself the luxury of smiling as he followed Mary’s swaying hips up the winding wooden staircase. Such a prickly little wench. How could so much fortitude be encased in such a small body? A delightful small body, he had to concede, his smile widening as Mary’s hips tilted from one side to the other with her ascent. A very delightful small body. The sooner this marriage business was settled the better, Stephen decided, following her down a dimly lit corridor. Stephen had been without a woman for several days now, and the need for some fleshly comfort was growing imminent. Perhaps a willing maidservant could serve the purpose, but the thought of bedding the indomitable little woman now entering her solar was tempting indeed. He was a Norman, after all, and Normandy had adopted some delightful French customs since becoming a duchy of France. Certainly the most delightful of those customs was the Frenchman’s propensity for frequently making love. Taking pleasure from a woman--and giving it--came as easily to Stephen Dubois as breathing. His groin tightened at the very thought, and only years of self-discipline allowed Stephen to push all lustful thoughts aside. There would be time for carnal pleasure soon enough. For now, he suspected the battle between himself and Mary of Almswick was just about to begin.

Mary closed the oak door once Sir Stephen had passed through the portal. He’d actually had to duck a little, so great was his height. Not sure what he wanted to speak with her about, Mary could not help feeling nervous. This was her private sanctuary, had always been her family’s private place. She should never have brought the Norman enemy here, even if it was by rights his solar now. Needing to do something while Sir Stephen circled the warm and comfortable torch-lit room, looking it over closely, Mary found herself walking toward the shuttered window again, just as she had earlier this very day. Why had she done that? she wondered upon reaching it. This window held such terrible memories... “Is this where it happened?” Sir Stephen’s deep voice startled her. “Is this where you lady mother met her death?” Mary turned to him quickly, her eyes wide with surprise. “You know about that? About my mother’s...” “Suicide,” Stephen finished for her. “Aye, my lady, I know everything about Almswick’s recent history,

both good...and bad.” Mary swallowed hard. “Yes, this is where it happened,” she answered, but her voice was brittle, near breaking. There was no use denying what he apparently already knew, but dear Lord it was hard to talk about Lady Evelyn’s suicide. To Mary’s mortal embarrassment, tears suddenly filled her eyes. Her guilt over her mother’s death was tremendous. Two tears rolled down her cheeks and she turned away again, more embarrassed than ever. Another show of weakness, and she simply could not help it. If only she’d been able to help her mother. “It wasn’t your fault.” This time his words startled her, instead of his deep voice. How could he know she felt responsible? Had the wretched tears betrayed her feelings of guilt? She paused before responding, her shoulders slumped, eyes glued to the closed shutters before finally saying, “It was my fault. I should never have left my mother alone that night, even for a moment. I knew she was not...well.” Sympathy crept into Stephen’s heart again. She looked so vulnerable, much more child than woman in her dejected pose, no longer a prickly, determined wench. He was standing beside her now, and the tears on her pale cheeks tore at his heart. He was sorely tempted to turn her to face him, brush those tears away, then kiss her tenderly. But necessity forced him to push the impulse aside. Tenderness was for the bedchamber, not the battle ground. And no matter how vulnerable she looked right now, he suspected this solar truly would be a battle ground ere long. Delaying the inevitable would gain him nothing, and he was losing tactical ground by even considering tenderness at this point. His mind made up, he said, “Lady Mary, I want you to turn around and look at me.” She reluctantly complied, and Stephen placed one hand on each of her shoulders, his grip gentle but uncompromising. “I will say this only once, lady, and I want you to listen carefully.” She met his gaze squarely, tears still glistening in her deep brown eyes. Stephen drew in a breath, ignoring the tears. “You were not responsible for your mother’s death, Lady Mary,” he continued, his tone firm. “A parent may be responsible for his child’s actions, and a husband is certainly responsible for his wife’s behavior, but a daughter is not responsible for her mother.” His grip on her shoulders tightened. “Leave go of your guilt, as it is a useless emotion. I want you to do so right now, lady. I need your undivided attention for things we must discuss, and this useless guilt can do naught but harm you...as well as harm those little girls you must raise.” “You are right, sir,” Mary conceded with a heavy sigh, “at least as far as my sisters are concerned.” He had removed his gauntlets, and his large hands felt very warm on her shoulders. She swallowed hard. The feeling was not unpleasant, and this disturbed her as much as her feelings of guilt ever had. She should not be responding to this man in any way. She was promised to another...and Sir Stephen was the enemy. Remembering that undeniable fact helped Mary firm her resolve. Raising her chin, she continued. “My sisters do need me very badly right now, my lord. They need me to be strong, not wallowing in guilt. I shall try very hard to take your advice and let go of that useless emotion, as you so aptly called it, but it will not be easy.” He loosened his grip, nodding approval of her agreement. Mary crossed to two comfortable, padded chairs set close to the brazier, taking this time to compose herself. She could still feel the warmth of his large hands, a most disconcerting feeling, and she brushed

at the remaining tears on her cheeks to gain a little more time. Surely she had imagined the sudden sense of loss she’d felt when he’d released her shoulders. It was only her tattered nerves. Everything was happening so fast, and she wanted so very much to be strong for her people...and for her family. Aye, that was it, she convinced herself, now gesturing toward the chairs. Momentarily, she had enjoyed the feeling of a man’s warm, strong hands on her person. It was naught more than that. Simply an understandable, human weakness, a need to be touched... Wishing to go no further with that thought, she said, “Shall we sit here, my lord?” “As you wish, my lady,” Stephen calmly agreed, folding his long frame into a chair. He hadn’t missed Mary’s reaction to his hands on her shoulders. He smiled to himself. On the surface, she might be determined to show strength, but underneath she was a woman needing the touch of a man. This discussion might go better than he’d first envisioned. On the other hand, it might be a battle royal. Only time would tell. “What was it you wished to discuss, my lord?” Mary asked, seating herself and lifting a pitcher of water from the table beside her, then filling two goblets. Blushing again, she added, “I’m sorry I cannot offer you anything more substantial than water, my lord. Our supply of ale and wine ran out a fortnight ago. Last year’s crops were not very good.” Stephen grunted at that but accepted the water with a nod, acknowledging her explanation. How could the crops have been good when every able-bodied man on Almswick had been called into service for their ill-fated king? Many of those men were now dead. This year’s crop would be better, he vowed. The remaining household knights, weaponless as they were, could certainly do farm work. Good, hard work had never harmed a knight; Stephen could attest to that truth himself. And working the soil tended to instill a sense of pride in a man. Almswick’s men certainly needed a new sense of accomplishment, since they had failed in battle. They might argue the point that farming could instill new pride, but Stephen knew from experience that opinion would change. Even if it didn’t, his goal would be met. Almswick would have ample food next winter, and ale, cider and wine as well. “The discussion, my lord?” Mary prompted, breaking into Stephen’s momentary reverie. Evidently, she was anxious to get this encounter over with as soon as possible. He swallowed the cool, clear well water, tucking his future plans to the back of his mind. The water was truly refreshing to his parched throat. He thanked Mary, held out his goblet for more, then drank the new portion before finally saying, “I believe in coming straight to the point, my lady.” “And what point is that, my lord?” “You are not going to wed Lord Albert of Tidwell.” Mary stiffened. “Why ever not?” she asked. “Because,” Stephen said, leaning forward and resting his massive hands on equally massive, muscled thighs, “you are going to marry me.”

CHAPTER FOUR

Mary’s water spilled as she sprang to her feet, her goblet clattering to the floor. “No,” she gasped. “I’ll not marry you, my lord. I am promised to Lord Albert. The betrothal was signed months ago...many months ago.” “It has been set aside,” Stephen calmly rejoined. “By whom?” “By your king, lady.” “Nay, he cannot do that,” Mary declared. “A betrothal is binding in the eyes of the law.” “The betrothal was contracted by your father, Lady Mary,” Stephen quietly stated, “and any documents your father authored are not considered binding in King William’s court.” “Because my father is considered a traitor by your Norman king,” Mary said in barely a whisper, sitting down again. “Aye,” Stephen admitted, “and William is your king now, too.” Mary stood again and began pacing the floor. “I don’t care what your king thinks about my father,” she declared, hugging her chest with both arms. “The betrothal is still binding. And besides that, I love Lord Albert.” She turned to Stephen, lowering her arms to her sides, clenching her small fists, her entire body set in lines of hostility and defiance. “You may have confiscated my manor, Norman, but you will not have me,” she said. “You are the enemy, and I will never marry you.” That thought was totally repugnant, impossible. “I am promised to Lord Albert, and I will marry him. I must marry him.” Because he is the key to my future. I cannot possibly live here, in the enemy’s camp, she added silently, willing herself not to cry at the thought of leaving Almswick forever. “Have you lain with Lord Albert?” Stephen suddenly asked, standing to tower over her. “Is that why you must marry him? Have you already given this man what is rightfully mine?” “It is not yours!” Mary shouted, losing control of her temper. She quivered with indignation. “And of course I have not lain with him. I am a lady, sir, not a strumpet.” She tilted her head back and glared into his dark eyes. “How dare you accuse me of such a thing?”

Even in the midst of this battle--and battle it was--Stephen couldn’t help admiring her. He’d seen huge men quail under his fierce stare and full height, but not Mary of Almswick. Oh no, not this opponent. She was ready to bare her claws and fight him like a tigress. And her righteous indignation was very believable. Obviously, she had not sullied herself before marriage. Pleased with that thought, his anger dissipated considerably. Anger would serve no purpose in any case. It only gave one’s opponent the upper hand. Forcing his emotions back under control, Stephen moved back to his chair, then turned and said, quite calmly, “I apologize for insulting you, my lady. Shall we sit down again and continue this discussion like civilized people?” “There is nothing to discuss, Norman,” Mary persisted, still standing. “I will not marry you.” Stephen sighed deeply. He really didn’t like using his hidden weapon, but if he must, he must. “You are quite attached to your little sisters, are you not, Lady Mary?” he asked, now comfortably seated. Cool calmness exuded from every pore. She would not gain the upper hand by angering him again. The question caught her off guard, which was just what he wanted. She sat down abruptly before saying, “Of course, my lord. I love my sisters.” “And you would like to see them raised right here at Almswick, would you not?” Stephen continued. Mary bristled. “Under other circumstances, yes, my lord, I would have liked to see them raised here, where I was raised. But now, because of what has transpired, they must leave Almswick. They will go to Tidwell with me. Lord Albert has already approved that decision. You will have a manor, Norman, but you will not have a family to control.” “Ah, but I will, lady,” Stephen said, leaning forward just the littlest bit. “You see, my dear, Almswick belongs to me now. Completely. Just as you belong to me, just as your little sisters belong to me.” He watched the color drain from her face. “What use could you possibly have for two little girls?” she asked, her voice hoarse with emotion. “I have no use for little girls whatsoever,” Stephen lied. He sincerely hoped he would have some lovely daughters someday, but that was not the point at the moment. Winning was. “But they could be raised in a convent in France just as easily as on a manor in England, Lady Mary,” he continued, then simply left her to form her own conclusion. Mary understood immediately. If she fought this marriage in any way, Sir Stephen would send her sisters away. Forever. Oh, God! “You are heartless,” she murmured, stunned. “Completely,” he affirmed, inclining his head. “And if I...if I...wed with you...my sisters will remain here, at Almswick?” “Aye,” Stephen said simply, then added, “And I will see them properly dowered when the time comes. Are we agreed now, lady?” Mary hugged herself again, leaning forward and gasping. The pain was nearly physical. How could she

wed the enemy? How could she lay with this man, bear his children? And yet, what else could she do? She felt doubly ashamed now for having responded to his hands on her shoulders, if for only a moment, but she couldn’t even think about that betrayal of Lord Albert on top of everything else. Lord Albert was no longer even her betrothed... Mary looked up then, sat up and uncrossed her arms. Her face paled even more as the enormity of the situation sank in. She was no longer promised to Lord Albert! All her plans...her future...had been quite effectively destroyed by the damned conquering king. Not to mention what Sir Stephen had just threatened to do. And Mary knew then that she had been defeated--utterly defeated. Her shoulders slumped momentarily, but she squared them again almost immediately. She might be defeated, but she would show this enemy no more weakness, she vowed. No more weakness. She would be strong. She must be strong--for the girls’ sake. She decided to stall for time. Precious time. Perhaps with time, the Norman would change his mind. There were much prettier girls than her on the nearby manors, after all. Even younger girls. Girls who might be very pleased to marry the Lord of Almswick. Yes, all she needed was time to convince Sir Stephen that he was making a mistake. And then mayhap she could marry Lord Albert after all. Marry him and remove herself and her sisters from Almswick forever. That thought saddened her--as it always had--but nothing would stop her determination now. “If I agree to wed with you, my lord,” she finally asked, “will you grant me a small boon?” Stephen cocked his head to one side. “I suppose that depends on what the boon is, my lady,” he said. “I would ask that we remain betrothed for a full six months, my lord,” Mary said, her words a little rushed. “If I must wed, I would like to know the man I am to marry.” That seemed a perfectly plausible reason, and Mary congratulated herself for quick thinking. By the saints, she would win this battle yet! He quickly disavowed her of that notion, however. Sitting up very straight, his dark eyes narrowed, he said, “No,” quite succinctly. Mary opened her mouth to argue further, but he held up a hand. The look on his darkly handsome face would brook no defiance. Wisely, she closed her mouth again, hands clenched so tightly in her lap, her knuckles were white. “I have no wish to wait, my lady,” Stephen continued. “I want heirs, and wedding and bedding you is the quickest way to get them. Nay, lady, I shan’t wait six months. You can get to know me as any other maiden does her husband. In the bedchamber.” A light blush of embarrassment stained Mary’s cheeks at his blunt words, but she was fiercely determined to succeed. She decided to try a new tactic; to tell him just what she had been thinking. “There are other girls much prettier than I in this area, my lord,” she said. “Surely one of them would make you a fine wife. I would happily introduce you to...them...” Once again, Stephen held up his hand, but this time he allowed his gaze to rake over Mary’s face and form, paying particular attention to her mouth and breasts. It was this arrogant perusal that had stopped her words more than anything else, and Mary flushed hotly.

“Now I understand, lady,” Stephen said quite calmly, leaning across the small space between them and cupping her chin. “You think that if I give you these six months, I will change my mind about wanting you.” Mary gulped. And Stephen continued, brushing his callused fingers across her soft lips. “You are wrong, lady. I will not stop wanting you.” His hand lowered until he gently cupped a breast through her gown. “While you are no great beauty, my lady, you are passing fair,” he said, running his thumb across her nipple while Mary sat completely still, shocked by his audacious behavior. “You have everything I need in a wife,” he added, then leaned even closer and kissed her lips, just once, very lightly. “I will not be dissuaded, my lady. Not in six months, not ever.” Suffused with blushes now, Mary was still determined. She must have time. Everything was happening too fast. Her world--her plans--were slipping away... “Three months,” she countered breathlessly. Stephen sat up straight again. So much for tenderness, Henri, he thought. “Two,” he said, standing to tower over his intended bride. His ire was rising. He was actually giving in to the vixen, negotiating her surrender! Pulling Mary up to stand before him, grasping her shoulders just as he had earlier, he said with iron firmness, “Two months, lady, and do not push my patience any further. The betrothal documents will be signed on the morrow.” He was tempted to kiss her as she needed to be kissed, to possess her mouth until she was trembling in his arms, gasping with pleasure--but he restrained himself. Lust and anger were close allies, and he couldn’t be certain he wouldn’t take her right here on the floor if he so much as touched those sweet lips again with his own. Stephen had never committed rape, and he certainly wasn’t going to do it this day...or any other, for that matter. Two months...Mon Dieu, but that was a long time to wait. “Two months and not a day more, Lady Mary,” he reiterated through gritted teeth, shaking her slightly. “Is that understood?” “Aye,” Mary answered reluctantly, and Stephen released her shoulders, then flexed his own in a vain attempt to ease the burden of chain-mail armor weighing them down. This discussion was over, and he had won--more or less. Now he wanted nothing more than to be divested of his armor and to settle into his chamber. A hot bath would be quite welcome, too, after three cold days on the road. “Will you show me to the master chamber now, my lady?” He asked, giving her a rare smile. “I believe our discussion here has come to a satisfactory end.” Not quite satisfactory, Mary thought, as she led the way to the master bedchamber. But at least her sisters were safe, and two months was better than nothing. Sir Stephen could still change his mind.

He was evidently rather surprised by the relative luxury of her father’s chamber, once they reached it. The room boasted a stone fireplace, which was really quite unusual. Most manors had only two hearths-one in the great hall, the other in the kitchen hut--all other rooms being heated by braziers, but Mary’s father had liked his comfort. He’d also been a fairly tall man, and the bedstead had been built to accommodate his frame. Sir Stephen was obviously pleased by this, too, as he walked around the bed, gauging it’s size. The scent of lavender wafted from the firmly stuffed feather mattress, and beeswax candles also scented the room. Someone had apparently prepared this chamber for the new lord. “Your servants are quite efficient, my lady,” she heard him say, then watched as he pulled his sword from its scabbard, stood it against the wall behind the bed, then removed his sword belt. He removed his blue and gold tunic, agilely pulling it over his head, revealing the full length of his chain-mail vest, then carefully folded the tunic and laid it upon the bed. He finally pulled off the head piece of his mail, revealing thick, raven-black hair, laying the head piece atop his tunic. Mary watched all this, fascinated. He was certainly an orderly man, much more so than her father or brothers had been. His actions spoke of firm inner discipline, and Mary grimaced. This man would be very hard to defeat. He strode to the hearth, warming his hands before the blazing fire. Over his shoulder, he said, “Your servants must have begun preparations on this chamber as soon as I entered the courtyard. I am really quite impressed, my lady.” Mary nodded absently, still wondering how she might dissuade him from marrying her. But there was a duty to be taken care of right now; she would have to think about the marriage problem later. Approaching Sir Stephen, who had turned back to the fire, she replied to his comment. “Hilda directs the housemaids--you met her when she brought me a cloak--and she is indeed quite efficient. I must admit, though, that she did this on her own, my lord, out of polite habit, I expect. My mind was occupied with more important matters than the new lord’s comfort.” Stephen grunted at that. “Doubtless, you would have rather seen me sleep in a tent, Lady Mary,” he said. “I shall have to reward Hilda’s thoughtfulness appropriately.” “I suspect your Sir Henri is very efficient, too, my lord,” Mary replied, smiling just a little. Enemy or not, Sir Henri had been a bright spot in this otherwise dismal day. Still facing the fire, Sir Stephen made a sound that was almost a laugh. “Aye,” he said. “Henri’s efficient. When he’s not eating, wenching or jesting, that is.” Mary smiled again in response to his short chuckle. He had ruthlessly stopped himself from laughing outright, she noticed, but even so, the sound had made him seem more human. And she’d just learned something valuable, perhaps something she could use to her advantage. Sir Stephen was evidently quite close to his second in command. His comment had shown the rough affection of camaraderie. Mayhap she should make friends with Sir Henri. He might help her cause... As these thoughts traveled through her mind, Mary was standing behind Sir Stephen, stretching to reach the top closure of his chain-mail armor. A little exasperated by his height, she finally said, “You will have to bend a little, my lord, if you want me to unfasten your mail.”

He whirled to face her, surprise evident in his dark eyes. “You would help me divest, my lady?” he asked. “I had not expected that.” Mary blushed. “Of course, my lord,” she answered, lowering her eyes in embarrassment. Speaking to his booted feet, she said, “I saw no squire, and I helped my father and brothers disarm many times.” She raised her eyes again, needing to clarify her reasons. “‘Tis only polite to help a guest, my lord. ‘Tis a chatelaine’s duty, naught more.” “But I am not a guest,” Stephen quietly replied, studying her intently. “I will be your betrothed husband on the morrow, and I am already your lord.” That was true enough. Mary nodded and chewed her lower lip. “You are right, though, my lady,” he continued. “I have no squire. The young man who served me died from a fever two weeks ago. I have not replaced him as yet. Your help is quite welcome.” Then he bent, giving her easy access to the top closure. Mary quickly released the first fastening and then the rest, and before long he was free of his armor. She tried to accept the weight of the chain-mail vest as it left his body, but she nearly lost her balance under the great weight. Reaching out to steady her, Stephen smiled just the littlest bit. “Such a tiny woman, but so determined to carry out your duties,” he said, causing Mary’s cheeks to burn with embarrassment again. He easily lifted the mail from her hands, crossed to a large chest, then carefully laid the vest across its lid. Mary joined him there, quickly inspecting the armor for any needed repairs. This, too, was a chatelaine’s duty, but the repairing of chain-mail links had fallen by the wayside at Almswick, for lack of supplies. Besides that, their armorer had died at Hastings. Remembering that--remembering that this new lord had actually robbed her men of their weapons-Mary bristled. Almost sarcastically, she said, “There are several loosened links on your vest, my lord, but I fear they cannot be repaired. Our armorer was killed by your fellow Normans--or you yourself, for all I know--and we have no supplies for repairing the mail in any case.” She could tell she had stirred his anger with her disrespectful tone of voice--he was not the type of man to allow such behavior from a woman--but then something awful occurred to her, and her face drained of color. Before he could chastise her in any way, she turned and ran toward the door. She must get away from him! She’d nearly reached the door when a strong hand grabbed her shoulder, stopping her in her tracks. Pulling her about to face him, he said, “What is it, Mary? Tell me what’s wrong.” How could she tell him what had just occurred to her? How could she tell him that recalling the armorer’s death had raised a terrible question in her mind? Could Sir Stephen have been the very soldier who had killed her father and brothers? Her gut clenched, and her knees nearly buckled. How could she marry the man who might have been directly responsible for the decimation of her family, even Lady Evelyn, in effect. How could she allow him to... Oh Lord, no. She couldn’t allow him to do that, could never allow him to touch her intimately. Not this monster...this devil who had killed her family. It could have been him. It truly could have been him!

Desperately, Mary tried to pry Sir Stephen’s fingers from her shoulders. She was not thinking anymore...merely reacting to unreasoning fear. In her mind’s eye she could see him cleaving her father and brothers in two with the very sword that now rested near her father’s own bed. She clawed more desperately than ever, her heart racing, pounding, her breathing reduced to gasps. But he was so tall, so strong, and his hands were like iron. She couldn’t budge them. Even without his armor, he was still the most intimidating man she had ever known in her life. He was the quintessential warrior, all firm sinew and muscle...immovable muscle. A small whimper escaped Mary’s throat, her breaths mere pants now. She could not release his grasp, no matter how hard she tried. He could hold her for as long as he wanted, do anything to her that he wanted...even kill her, like he might have her father and brothers. Her lips began tingling, her breaths coming even faster. It was all too much! Too much... The room dimmed, and Mary slumped in Stephen’s arms, physically defeated, too frightened for words. Dear God, what would he do to her now? she wondered as her body went limp as she fainted, her world shrinking to a small pinpoint of light...then nothing. Stephen scooped Mary up in his arms before she could fall, cursing softly. He had no idea what could have caused this sudden change, this fierce reaction to...what? Was it something he had done? He hoped not. Firmness was certainly called for with an unwilling bride, but had he already been too harsh, too ruthless? Henri would think so, he realized, and grimaced, remembering his behavior of only a short time ago. The threat against her sisters was certainly ruthless, even cruel, but he never would have carried it out. ‘Twas merely a battle tactic. Surely that hadn’t caused this faint. Nay, not that. She had seemed so strong, so resilient, even after that threat...until now. True, she had suffered emotional pain from his words, and he’d honestly hated causing that, but then she’d squared her shoulders and actually bargained with him. No, this was something else entirely. So what had caused this reaction? That he simply could not fathom. Settling into a chair with Mary cradled on his lap, Stephen considered what he should do now. He’d had vast experience with women, of course, but as a lover...not a comforter. ‘Twas a woman’s place to nurture, not a man’s, after all. And yet Mary was so pale, so still. He must do something. Slowly, he pressed her head to his shoulder. She smelled of roses, and he smiled into her hair. ‘Twas a very pleasant fragrance, and it suited her. Simple, not the most exotic and beautiful flower, but still lovely nevertheless. Aye, roses suited this passing fair maiden with utterly kissable rose-tinted lips. Soft lips. Inviting lips. He couldn’t resist the temptation. Tilting Mary’s chin up, Stephen closed his mouth over hers. Her lips were trembling slightly, and cold. He wanted to warm them. Moving his mouth against hers with exquisite finesse, he felt her begin to respond to his kiss, her lips becoming warm, pliant. He didn’t press her to open those generous lips. Not that...not yet. If he parted her lips and caressed her tongue with his own, he might not be able to stop... A sudden burst of energy from the woman on his lap nearly startled him. She had come back to herself quite suddenly, and now her tiny fists were flailing at his chest, her feet kicking vigorously as she tried to free herself from his embrace, from his mouth.

He raised his head and looked down into blazing brown eyes. His mouth twitched with amusement. She looked like a spitting kitten now. Nay, a vixen--or a tigress--and she scrambled off his lap, her eyes still blazing, her body rigid with anger. He nearly laughed. Obviously, the lady’s fearful reaction was over, whatever had caused it. He’d have to remember that a simple kiss could bring the little vixen back to her senses quite effectively...and quickly, too. She swiped a hand across her mouth, obviously trying to remove all vestiges of his kiss. “How dare you?” she hissed. “How dare you kiss me when I was...when I was...” “Indisposed?” Stephen offered, quirking one dark brow. He was enjoying himself. He shouldn’t be, God knew. He should be maintaining a firm stand, but he couldn’t help it. She was so fierce right now, and the image of a spitting, scratching kitten sprang to mind again. He could almost see fur standing straight up on her back. Jesu, how he’d like to pull her back down on his lap and tame her... “You kissed me when I was not myself,” Mary countered through gritted teeth. How could she have let him hold her like that? It all came back then. The horrible supposition, her collapse in his arms. God, how embarrassing. Now that she was rational again, she had to admit that her fears had been unreasoning. This man had no reason to kill her. There was just so much happening all at once. A determination to be strong could only take a woman so far. A woman. Dear God, a woman helpless and vulnerable in a warrior’s arms. He could have...he could have done far worse than simply kiss her when she’d lost her senses. “Rape and pillage” were terms she’d heard frequently over the past months. Somehow the fact that Sir Stephen hadn’t harmed her was a comfort to Mary. He hadn’t even taken advantage of her faint, not really. In fact, he’d obviously been trying to help her. Why? she suddenly wondered. There was only one way to find out. “Why did you take me onto you lap just now, my lord?” she asked. “‘Twas not the act of a conqueror...unless you had ulterior motives.” Mayhap she’d awakened just in time, she couldn’t help thinking. Evidently he understood her implication. Rising to his full height, he said, “Aye, my lady. I had fully intended ravishment while you were unconscious. Now that would be the act of a conqueror, would it not?” His tone became distinctly sarcastic. “Why, in only another moment, I would have tossed up your skirts and--” “Cease, vile beast!” Mary screeched, flinging out a hand and slapping his face as hard as she could. “I’ll not suffer your crude words any more than I accepted your vile kiss!” She was panting again, in anger this time instead of fear. He was the most exasperating, loathsome man she had ever met! Marry him? Never! Somehow she must avoid that at all costs, yet still protect her sisters. “Vile kiss, was it, madam?” Stephen rejoined, his face dark with anger. She could see the print of her hand on his cheek. “And vile beast?” he continued. “I really should have been the beast you accuse me of being and taken you right there in the chair, by God, instead of displaying incredible restraint! You’re a vixen, madam, a prickly wench in dire need of a good bedding, and perhaps a good spanking as well.

Mayhap you’ll get both before leaving this chamber!” Backed against the door now, Mary groped for the latch. She suspected she might have gone too far, challenging his manhood with that carelessly tossed remark. Now all she wanted to do was run. He descended upon her before she could turn and work the latch, trapping her with one large hand on either side of her head. “I’ll show you just how ‘vile’ my kisses can be, vixen,” he growled, then lowered his head. He was mere inches from raping her mouth when Mary heard a sharp rap on the very door they were both leaning against. Cursing under his breath, Stephen stood straight again. “We are not done with this, woman,” he hissed, then backed away from the door and said, “Enter.” Mary moved from the door, too, and Henri swept into the room, his perpetual smile firmly in place. He was followed by a gaggle of servants bearing several chests--Stephen’s personal belongings. “Where do want your things, mon ami?” he asked. Stephen merely glowered. Noting the flushed look on Lady Mary’s face and the pink hand print on Stephen’s cheek, Henri’s smiled widened. Ah, yes, he thought, the battle had truly begun.

CHAPTER FIVE

Stephen took one look at Henri’s grinning face and cursed softly again. “Over there,” he said, indicating the far wall, while at the same time pushing a hand through his dark, tousled hair, manfully trying to regain some semblance of control over his raging emotions. Mon Dieu, he was no green lad, and yet he had come incredibly close to ravishing his soon-to-be wife. Speaking of whom, he noticed with very little surprise that Mary had escaped the chamber just as soon as Henri had opened the door. He couldn’t blame her for that. What maiden wouldn’t try to escape the clutches of a “vile beast”?

Stephen’s audible groan drew Henri’s attention. “So, it is not going well, eh, mon ami?” he said, grinning. “The little lady, she has flown the coop, no?” “She has flown the coop, yes,” Stephen replied, plopping down in a carved chair and staring at the cheerful flames on the hearth. “I’m afraid I acted rather badly, Henri.” “You, act badly? No, non, surely not, Stephen. You are the most likeable fellow I know.” “If you insist on rubbing it in, Sir Henri,” Stephen grumbled, “you may find yourself sleeping with the horses instead of in a nice warm chamber here in my home.” Henri shrugged in his usual Gallic way. “‘Twould not be the first time you have asked me to leave your exalted presence, sire,” he quipped with a deep bow. “I am well familiar with your temper.” “Aye, so you are, Henri,” Stephen said with a sigh. “And now, so is Lady Mary.” “Which might explain the small pink hand print on your cheek,” Henri replied. Stephen traced the evidence of Mary’s violence with his callused hand. He couldn’t help smiling. “She packs quite a wallop, especially for such a tiny woman. She could barely reach my face, and yet she smacked it quite effectively.” “An act you no doubt deserved,” Henri said, approaching the only other chair in the room. The servants had already left--fled, to be more exact, Stephen noticed. Then he heard Henri say, “Do I have your permission to sit, sire?” He was perched just above the chair. Stephen grimaced and then frowned, finally gesturing to his rather irritating friend. “I must maintain firm control at all times, Henri,” he finally said, watching his second in command settle into the chair. “Surely you understand that. These people have been conquered. They are far less than happy about my arrival.” “Ah, yes,” Henri said. “Firm control. I believe we’ve discussed this before, my friend.” “Many times,” Stephen admitted, “and we’re still disparate in our opinions, I gather.” “Not completely, Stephen. It’s just that...well, a little goodwill can go a long way.” “Goodwill toward the lady or goodwill toward the manor folk?” Stephen asked. “Both,” Henri replied. Stephen stood and began pacing the room. “I have no intention of doing anything but good here at Almswick, Henri,” he said. “This is all I’ve ever dreamed of...a manor, a wife...a family. But I cannot allow them to realize that, Henri. Not yet. ‘Twould make me seem weak, when I must be strong. Very strong.” “And don’t forget ruthless,” Henri retorted. “Ruthless always works quite well when trying to intimidate serfs and ladies alike.”

Stephen turned and stared at Henri as if the garrulous Frenchman had just read his mind. “How did you know?” “Know what?” “How did you know what I did to Mary?” “I don’t know what you did to the lady. Perhaps you’d like to tell me, hmmm?” Stephen claimed his chair again, stretching his long, muscled legs out toward the fire. “I threatened her,” he said simply. “You threatened Lady Mary?” Henri repeated, truly surprised. “Well, not her, really. I threatened to send her little sisters away--to France--if she would not agree to marry me.” Silence reigned for several moments, then Henri finally said, “That was a bit low, Stephen, even for a man bent on victory at all cost.” Henri had been Stephen’s conscience for the past eight years. Only he could see through whatever walls Stephen put up...to the man beneath. Stephen appreciated that. He appreciated Henri’s honesty above all else. “I know,” he said quietly. “Would you have done it, Stephen, if she had refused anyway?” “Nay. ‘Twas only a threat, naught more. I could never break her family apart...not after all she’s already suffered. Her mother’s suicide hurt her the most, I think. She feels responsible.” Henri nodded his blond head, solemn for once. “Madness and suicide. Aye, that would be very difficult for anyone to deal with, much less such a young woman. You must help her with that, Stephen. You are, after all, to be her husband. Her welfare should be your first concern.” “Yes,” Stephen agreed. He smiled slightly, touching his cheek again. “But she can be a trying wench. I’ve already learned that much, Henri. She even dared to bargain with me. We are going to wait two months before marrying--at her insistence. Actually she wanted six months, but I refused that preposterous idea.” He leaned forward. “That lady can bring me to anger quicker than anyone I’ve ever met, Henri, even you. I’ve also learned that over the past hour or so.” “Hence the stinging cheek, I’ll wager,” Henri observed. “Well, more or less,” Stephen replied. “Mary became frightened by something--I don’t know what--and then she fainted. I kissed her while she was still in her swoon, and that brought her back to her senses quickly enough.” “And she slapped you for it.” “We fought first, but aye, she slapped me for the kiss and some rather crude remarks. I’m afraid I lost all control of my temper. If you hadn’t come in when you did, the marriage would have been a mere formality. I came very close to forcing her to my will--as well as bending her over my knee.”

Henri straightened in his chair. Stephen was the most honorable of knights. He’d never--not even once-allowed any of his men to rape, regardless of bloodlust or whatever other excuse so-called knights often used for forcing an unwilling woman. In eight years of nearly ceaseless fighting, not one maiden had been ravished by one of Stephen’s men--or by Stephen himself. Suddenly, Henri smiled again. Stephen had considered ravishment--which was completely out of character for him--and he had threatened to spank the lady, which was another thing he had never done before, to Henri’s knowledge. There was something very strong burning here already. Anger on the lady’s part; loss of self-control on Stephen’s side. Henri had suspected there would be sparks between the two, but this might be even better. Once they finally got down to sharing conjugal bliss, they just might end up with a very happy marriage. If they didn’t kill each other first, that is. “Why the smile, Henri?” Stephen asked. “Have you enjoyed playing my confessor, is that it?” “Well, yes, now that you mention it, Stephen,” Henri replied with a broad grin. “But I was also thinking about...other things.” Henri decided to keep his thoughts to himself. The lady and Stephen needed to find their own way, if they were to become successful together. Of course, a little nudge in the right direction might not hurt... A rap on the door interrupted Henri’s thoughts, followed by the words, “Might I come in, my lord?” “The Lady Mary, I believe,” Henri said, rising. “I suppose you two might want to be alone. She still has a second cheek to slap, or a bottom to be spanked, one or the other.” Stephen gestured for Henri to remain, obviously ignoring his tongue-in-cheek jibe, then said, “Enter, my lady,” as Henri relaxed in the chair again. The lady who rushed into the room was a far cry from the one who had so recently escaped, Henri thought. Gone was the angry--or frightened--wench. In her place was a lady whose face was wreathed in smiles, her eyes glistening with tears of happiness. “How can I thank you, my lord?” Mary asked, coming to stand before Stephen and dropping a quick curtsy. “How can I thank you for all the food? My God, I’ve never seen so much cured meat, sacks of grain, dried fruit, ale, wine. The list goes on and on. Cook is ecstatic. I think she’d marry you herself right now.” Stephen seemed nonplused for a moment--and then angry. Henri could understand that. Had Lady Mary really thought he’d do any less for Almswick? “You’re welcome, my lady,” Stephen finally said, his voice clipped. “Almswick is my home now, and I have no intention of allowing anyone here to go hungry.” “No, no, of course you don’t, my lord,” Mary quickly demurred, but her happiness seemed deflated. “‘Tis just that my people will finally be able to eat, really eat, for the first time in months. For the first time since...the...battle.”

Those words quite obviously killed the rest of her happiness, and Henri grimaced. She was so young to have such grave responsibilities, and the Battle of Hastings had decimated her family. He sighed, wishing he could help, then heard her say very quietly, “If you will excuse me now, my lords, I will see to the preparation of supper for you and your men.” “Make it a celebration, my lady,” Stephen replied. “I will announce our upcoming betrothal at supper tonight. I want all of the manor folk to hear the happy announcement, including your household knights.” “As you wish, my lord,” Mary said. She raised her chin. “Although, personally, I do not consider it a happy announcement, I will, of course, comply with your demands. The decision of where my sisters shall live depends upon my cooperation, after all.” “Aye, lady, it does,” Stephen said simply, and Henri nearly groaned. Apparently, Stephen had no intention of telling Lady Mary that he would never carry out his threat. Henri could understand that from a tactical standpoint, if not an emotional one, but he would keep his own counsel. So much for any thought of a peaceful evening, though. Sparks would undoubtedly fly again.

The meal was far more peaceful than Henri had anticipated, though the soon-to-be betrothed couple were just the slightest bit cold toward each other, which was a gross understatement. The looks they had been exchanging for the last little while would go a long way toward freezing hell, actually. But Henri was content. His own parents had always had quite a contentious marriage; their arguments invariably ending up in the bedchamber. Which might easily explain Henri’s thirteen brothers and sisters, he thought with a grin. The food was wonderful, Cook obviously being quite talented and already won over to her new lord’s side. Nothing could more quickly change an enemy into a friend, at least for a cook, than an amply stocked larder. The rest of the manor folk were not so easily swayed, however. Suspicious was the best way to describe how they seemed to feel. And Almswick’s household knights were all gathered together at the bottom of one table, grumbling quietly among themselves but nevertheless eating with gusto. Stephen’s announcement--made just before the meal began--had been met with stunned silence at first, and then murmurs, head shaking and in general looks of utter sympathy toward the unsmiling Lady Mary. Once they began eating, however, the manor folk seemed to accept the idea a little more easily-all the manor folk, that is, except Lady Mary herself. Of the hundred or so serfs, freedmen and household knights--not to mention Stephen’s twenty men-only Lady Mary was not eating. Not one bite.

She had excused herself shortly after the announcement, ostensibly to see that her little sisters in the nursery were properly fed, but even upon her return, she had refused to eat. Stephen, of course, had gallantly offered to share a trencher with her, but Lady Mary had simply clamped her lips together, staring coldly at him, arms folded across her chest. And so it began--the frozen wasteland of Almswick’s great hall--which was growing a little colder with each passing moment. It was a fitting celebration, Henri supposed, for a betrothal that the groom wanted, but not the blushing bride. Ah, amour, he thought, spearing yet another piece of juicy pink ham. What would the world do without it?

Stephen was just about at the end of his patience. The only parts of Mary’s body with any weight at all were her breasts, and yet she was refusing to eat, of all things. Stubborn wench. And to think she had been grateful for his largess--at first. He didn’t know exactly what had changed her mind, but he intended to find out. Right now. “My lady?” he ventured, and when she refused to respond, he said, “Lady Mary, answer me.” Still nothing. Then Henri said, “Perhaps she has gone deaf, Stephen. I’ve heard that can happen quite suddenly in very rare cases.” Mary smiled just the tiniest bit in response to Henri’s suggestion, but she still sat motionless. And stubborn. “Nay, she’s not deaf, Henri,” Stephen said, “just childish.” And with that he grasped her chin and forced her to look at him, willing or not. “And now, my lady, I would like to know why you won’t eat. Why, for that matter, you turned so quickly from being a grateful young woman and a remarkably responsible chatelaine into a stubborn, ill-mannered child.” That was enough. Mary wrenched her chin free of Stephen’s grasp, stood up and simply left the hall, never saying one word. Childish, was she? Well, perhaps a bit, since she was truly hungry, but she refused to share a celebration meal for an upcoming betrothal that should not even take place. Just like everything else in her life, she, of course, had been given no choice in the matter. Had she asked, at the tender age of seventeen, to be given the responsibility of running an entire manor by herself? Or to raise two small children before she’d even become a woman herself? Of course, Sir Stephen would take care of that soon enough--after her two-month grace period, by God, and not before, as might well have happened this afternoon if Sir Henri had not intervened. Mary knew she’d pushed Sir Stephen too far on that occasion, and she vowed to be more careful in the future, but she did not, absolutely did not, have to eat with the man. He wanted to know why she’d changed from being grateful to childish? Well, mayhap she would tell him. It might take the arrogant lord down a peg or two to realize that even his wonderful food could not change her opinion of him, at least not for very long.

Mary reached her solar, quickly stoked the brazier, lit a brace of candles and plopped down behind her embroidery frame. Needlework might calm her senses and improve her bodily humors. She certainly hoped so. She was still sorting colorful silk threads when the door opened--without a knock--and her nemesis strode in, carrying a platter of food. She should have gone to the nursery instead, Mary decided, watching Sir Stephen set the platter on the table near her chair, then return to the door, close it--and throw the bolt home. The girls were long since asleep, but she could have talked with Anna... “I’m in no particular hurry, Lady Mary,” Stephen said quite calmly, seating himself exactly where he’d been earlier. “If this takes all night, so be it, but you will eat, lady. Every morsel, in fact.” He gestured to the array of ham, bread, dried fruit and even a flagon of wine on the nearly overflowing platter. Mary drew in a sharp breath, finally finding her voice. “I could not possibly eat that much, my lord,” she croaked. Was he insane? She would burst, simply burst with that much food in her stomach. “You should have thought of that earlier,” Stephen replied. “Now you will simply have to obey.” Mary sat up very, very straight, then slowly placed her embroidery basket on the floor. Struggling to hold her temper, she said, “I am not required to obey you until after the wedding, Norman. Kindly bear that in mind.” “That might be true of most maidens, Lady Mary,” Stephen said, his voice still calm, “but not of you. As the lord of this manor, I am your guardian as well as your future husband. Do you know what that means?” Mary blanched. She knew quite well what that meant, and she hadn’t thought of it until this very moment. Sir Stephen might not be her husband yet, but he already held absolute power over her life. She had to know, however. “And what will you do if I refuse to obey you anyway, my lord? You cannot very well force the food down my throat.” “Couldn’t I?” Stephen asked, cocking one brow. “Would you like a demonstration of what I can do, lady?” Perversely, his very calmness angered her, and Mary rose to her feet. “I need no demonstration from you, Norman,” she hissed, then pointed to the door. “Guardian or not, I want you to leave, sir. Leave this chamber right now!” He stood, and for a moment Mary thought she had won. He soon proved that notion naive, however-and wrong. Reaching her in two strides, he scooped her up in his arms, then sat back down again. Despite her struggles and vehement protests, he easily secured her hands behind her back in one brawny fist. Then he speared a piece of ham and brought it to her mouth. “Open,” he said. Mary turned her head to the side. She would not be forced to eat! But her nemesis was quite determined. He simply set down the food--and then she felt his free hand lifting her skirt. He caressed her foot, her ankle, her calf. He got all the way to the garter above her knee before Mary gasped out,

“Please...stop...I’ll eat!” Her breasts were heaving with agitation, her face was flushed, and she felt a peculiar tightening low in her belly. If he had moved his hand any farther up her leg... She couldn’t think about that. “I’ll eat,” she repeated, and the beast smiled his triumph, then brought the ham to her lips again. She ate the entire meal that way--sitting on Sir Stephen’s lap--being fed one bite at a time. He fed her the bread with his fingers, and Mary shuddered when her tongue accidentally touched his thumb. She was crimson with blushes by the time the meal was finished, including a healthy portion of rich, red wine. Finally, feeling slightly dizzy from the potent wine--and from tingling emotions she couldn’t quite define--she said, “The meal is finished, sir. Will you release my hands now?” They had grown numb in his grip. Stephen said, “Of course, my lady.” But he lifted her chin and kissed her lightly on the mouth before loosening his hold. Mary winced as her hands were freed, but she had no intention of telling the vile beast that she was feeling a considerable amount of pain as the numbness quickly receded. Her wrists would probably be bruised by the morrow. “May I leave now, sir?” she added, needing to escape this chamber before he decided to kiss her again. Between the wine, and everything else, his kiss had felt...wonderful, and she didn’t want it to feel that way. She didn’t want him to kiss her at all. “Not quite yet,” Stephen replied. He felt no guilt for what he had just done. The lady needed food, after all, and she must learn to obey. Now there was something he wanted to know. “Before you leave, Lady Mary, tell me why you changed so drastically this afternoon. Not the first change; I understood that well enough. You fled the room after my admittedly rather crude advances--and threats--then came back happy and smiling after discovering the food. What confuses me, lady, is why you then changed yet again. What happened from one moment to the next?” He was still holding her around the waist, and he felt her stiffen, then struggle in his embrace. He allowed her to stand, then watched as she looked down at the floor for a time, obviously gathering her thoughts. Finally, she raised her head and said, “My lord, I shouldn’t really have to answer that, for in truth you actually seem reasonably intelligent, and I would think you could have figured it out for yourself.” She took a deep breath. “Your countrymen were responsible for the death of my family. For all I know--and this is what caused my horrid fear this afternoon--you yourself may have wielded the sword that killed my father and brothers. When I discovered the food, I was ecstatic, for my people have been hungry for so very long.” Her eyes misted with tears, and her voice cracked a little, but she pressed on. “Then I remembered why they had been hungry, that all my father’s money went to defending King Harold’s claim to the throne, and that my people had not eaten a single decent meal since the Battle of Hastings, and all the joy went out of my day. It was like the sun had suddenly set, and all I wanted was to get out of that room, or to get you out of my life, which would have been preferable.”

Stephen started to speak, but she held up a small hand. “Nay, sir, let me finish,” she said. “You wanted to hear this, and now you shall. All of it.” She took another deep breath. “The worst possible thing you could have said at that particular moment was that you wanted to announce our betrothal tonight. And yet you said just that. After which I simply could not bring myself to eat with you--to share in your celebration. Of course, my refusal is a moot point now, since you have just forced me to eat the entire meal, humiliating me quite effectively in the process. And now, sir, if that answers your question, I would like to take whatever shreds of dignity are left to me and leave this room. Will you allow it?” Stephen was stunned. Not so much because of her hatred of Normans--he could easily understand that-but because of her fear that he might have actually been the one to kill her father and brothers. Worst of all, it could be true. He had no idea where Sir Ralph’s regiment was during the battle. It was remotely possible that he had actually been the one to kill Mary’s relatives. Stephen doubted anyone could say for sure who had killed whom during the Battle of Hastings. War was simply that way, but that fact didn’t help very much right now. No wonder she had fainted this afternoon. What a horrid thing to wonder about one’s intended--whether or not he had personally killed your family. For the first time in his life, Stephen regretted what he had had to do to make his way in the world. He took no joy from killing, hated it, in fact, but there was little else for a third son to do if he wanted to attain position and wealth. Sighing heavily, regretting everything, Stephen crossed to where Mary was standing and gently grasped her hands. “I am truly sorry for your losses, my lady,” he said quietly, “and I wish I could tell you that I understand exactly how you feel, but I cannot. My parents are still living. I cannot even imagine what it would feel like to lose them, much less my two brothers.” He caressed her hands with his thumbs, wanting to comfort her, knowing how much his next words might hurt. “I also wish I could tell you emphatically that I was not the one who killed your family, but I cannot be certain. ‘Tis the way of war, Mary, and there’s naught a soldier can do about it.” Mary shivered a little, but she nodded, and Stephen continued. “Of course you may leave now, my lady. And while my actions tonight might have caused you some embarrassment, I will tell you now that I only wanted to ensure your continued health”--he cocked one brow--“and you cannot tell me being hand fed was really such an awful ordeal.” Mary smiled--just a little. “No, I suppose not,” she admitted, but then her smile faded, and she pulled her hands free of Stephen’s. “There’s one more thing I want to say, though, my lord.” She raised her chin. “I appreciate your trying to understand the pain of my losses, but you cannot possibly understand how much I do not want to marry you.” Stephen stiffened, but Mary went on relentlessly. “I was to be Lord Albert’s wife, and I still love him. You are forcing me to marry you by using my little sisters as weapons against me, and because of that I will do your bidding. But do not fool yourself, Norman. I will obey you, but I doubt that I will ever truly respect you, and I most certainly will never love you, as I have already given my heart to another. If you

can live with that, then so be it, but I truly hope you will change your mind--preferably before our betrothal becomes official on the morrow.” And with that said, Mary simply left the room, leaving Stephen shaking his head and saying, “Never, vixen. I will never change my mind.” He wondered then if he already loved the feisty little wench, but he shook his head again. Love had nothing to do with this arrangement, but the lady would most certainly become his wife, willing or not. He needed a wife to warm his bed and give him a comfortable home, and Mary was perfectly suited to the role. He also wanted heirs, and the thought of parting her thighs and planting his seed deep in her womb made him groan, simply groan. She was the final part of his plan. Nothing--and no one--would dissuade him from marrying her, not even the prickly little vixen herself. Just like Almswick’s knights, she would come around, in time.

CHAPTER SIX

Mary awoke before dawn in the small chamber that had been hers for most of her life. It was a simply furnished room, but the bed was comfortable and oh so very familiar. The chamber was still dark, of course, save for the single flame of the night candle, but Hilda had already stoked the brazier. With a sigh, Mary decided she had no choice but to throw back her woolen covers and face the new day. As she did so, she winced, then looked down at her wrists. They were indeed bruised, each bearing a circle of light blue marks, and they were tender when she moved them, and tender to touch as well. She moved the covers more carefully, then sat up and swung her slender legs to the cold wooden floor. The room was still frigid despite the brazier, and a thin layer of ice covered the water in her wash basin. This was nothing unusual, however, so Mary simply broke through the ice and began her morning ablutions, gratefully noticing that gentle movement reduced the soreness in her wrists. She removed her simple linen shift, then cleansed her body thoroughly with a soft cloth and a precious sliver of attar of roses soap. She couldn’t help wondering if the supplies Sir Stephen had brought included the makings for soap. Almswick was indeed a needy place, though she hated to admit it. She most especially hated to admit

that Sir Stephen could change all that--was changing all that already, in fact, as evidenced by Almswick’s now ample supply of food. The thought of Sir Stephen came, perversely, just as she was washing her right leg, and Mary gritted her chattering teeth, cursing under her breath, then blushing hotly. The memory of what he had done to force her compliance--caressing her leg--filled her senses. Her belly tingled, and her nipples puckered, but not from cold. She scrubbed the leg furiously. How dare he do that to her! How dare he force-feed her as if she were an unruly child! Why, the nerve, the damned arrogance of the man! But she had felt like anything but a child while held, caressed and kissed. Remembering that, Mary blushed hotly again. She didn’t want to be attracted to Sir Stephen--and yet she was. She couldn’t deny that damnable fact. She was attracted, at least in a physical way, to her enemy. At that very moment, Hilda entered the room, holding a foul-smelling tallow lamp in one plump hand, a tray with food to break Mary’s fast in the other. Mary watched as Hilda set down the tray, used the tallow lamp to light two wall torches and then approached her. She heard Hilda gasp when she saw the bruises, and momentarily Mary tried to hide her wrists, then extended them for inspection. “He didn’t mean to do it,” she said while her servant examined the marks, though she could not fathom why she was defending Sir Stephen. “I refused to eat, and he...held my hands behind my back and fed me.” She blushed yet again, knowing she was not telling the entire truth. But she couldn’t admit what else he had done. That was far too embarrassing. She would not tell Hilda about his caresses and kiss. Hilda seemed to sense the truth, however, and Mary suddenly changed her mind. “He’s a vile beast, Hilda,” she cried, pulling her hands free, then flinging herself into the ample woman’s arms, deciding to tell her everything. Hilda had been as much a mother as Lady Evelyn during Mary’s young life. “He not only forced me to eat, Hilda, he...he touched me and kissed me. I don’t think I can face him again, and yet we are to be betrothed this morn. What should I do, Hilda? What can I do?” Hilda sighed and stroked her lady’s soft hair. She had known Mary since the moment of her birth. At that time she had been a mere nursemaid--Mary’s nursemaid. Now, of course, she held a position of respect in the household, but in rare moments like this one, she still remembered the tiny babe she had held and suckled at her breast. Her own brood of children were no more beloved to Hilda than Lady Mary herself. She had seen Mary grow from an infant into a child, and finally into a woman, but she was still a child in many ways. Seventeen was such a tender age. Old enough to marry, certainly, but still in all terribly young to have the responsibility of an entire manor on your shoulders. By necessity, Mary had grown up quite quickly six months ago, after her father and brothers were killed, not to mention the final severance from childhood caused by her lady mother’s illness and death. All in all, she had done a remarkably good job of it, but there were still many things the lady needed to learn. One of those things, obviously, was how to handle a man. “Come, child,” Hilda said, gently prying Mary’s arms from around her thick waist. “Come back to the

bed and let us sit for a little while. I think we need to have a mother-to-daughter talk, so to speak.” Mary nodded, accepting the warm bedrobe Hilda held out, then sat on the edge of her bed, and Hilda joined her there. Hilda took a deep breath, her ample bosom rising and falling with the effort. Where to begin? In truth, she had to admit that since meeting Lord Stephen, her worries for Almswick’s future had been laid to rest. True, he was a formidable knight, stern and uncompromising in his discipline, but he had also already provided the entire manor with food. And his decision to disarm the people was merely a practical precaution, not meant to strip Almswick’s men of their importance. It didn’t hurt that he’d given her a single precious coin for her efforts in preparing his chamber, either. Generosity with money was a very good sign in a new lord. Hilda was on his side. Now, the question was how to get Mary to accept her “enemy” lord. Lord Stephen might have been a little less than wise in forcing the girl to eat, but Hilda could understand his reasons for that, too. She had no doubt that he’d had no intention of hurting Mary’s wrists. As far as the caresses and kiss? Well, a man will be a man, and Mary needed to understand that. “Milady,” she began, “just how much did Lady Evelyn tell you about men?” “Naught more than that a husband is to be obeyed in all things,” Mary answered, reaching for a piece of dried apricot from her breakfast tray. Despite the full meal forced upon her last night, she was ravenous this morning. “Nothing at all about a man’s pride, about his need to be the one in control?” Hilda continued. Mary bit into the succulent fruit. “Ummm, this tastes wonderful,” she said, then grimaced. “I suppose it came from his supply of food?” “Naturally, my dear, but you haven’t answered my question yet,” Hilda said gently, patting Mary’s hand. Mary slid a sidelong glance to the plump woman, noting that, as usual, her graying hair was working its way free of her tidy linen cap. She finished the apricot before answering. “I understand about pride, Hilda. I have quite a bit of it myself.” She sighed. “I suppose what you’re trying to say is that a man’s pride is even stronger than a woman’s, hence his need to control--everything.” “Aye,” Hilda replied, reaching for a cup of watered-down wine and offering it to her lady. Mary took the cup and drank it down immediately. It, too, tasted wonderful. “Lord Stephen is no different than any other male in that regard,” Hilda continued. “The trick is knowing how to handle a man.” “I’d like to handle him,” Mary muttered. “After what he did to me, I’d like to--” “Boil him in oil?” Hilda suggested, smiling. “Thoughts of retaliation will gain you naught, child. He was only exercising his rights as your guardian--and you’d earned what was done, in any case.” “W-what?” Mary stammered. “You mean you agree with his...with his...” “Forcing you to eat?” Hilda helped. “Oh, yes, child, I fully agree. ‘Twas not seemly, your refusal to share your lord’s celebration meal.” Mary began to protest, then frowned in concentration and listened

again. “You have great courage milady, and strength,” Hilda continued, “especially for one so young, but in that instance you forgot the manners you lady mother taught you, and I think you know that yourself.” Again, Mary wanted to protest, but she didn’t--because Hilda was right. Her behavior last night had been childish. Somehow, Sir Stephen brought out the worst in her. “I suppose you’re right, Hilda,” she finally said, then added, “But that still doesn’t excuse the threat he made against my little sisters. The man’s a vile beast. Nothing you can say will change my mind about that.” “What threat?” Hilda asked, sitting up very straight. “He said he would send them away--to a convent in France--if I didn’t agree to marry him.” “Oh, is that all,” Hilda replied, letting out her breath in obvious relief. “Is that all?” Mary exclaimed. “Hilda, he threatened to send them away forever.” Hilda sighed deeply, then finally said, “Lady Mary, do you really have any choice in this matter? Could you truly refuse the man our new king has chosen for you?” Mary frowned at the mere mention of the king. But once again, Hilda was right. “Nay, I suppose not,” she said. Hilda nodded. “Then surely you understand that Lord Stephen’s threat was merely a battle tactic? I must assume that you waged a small war with him once he’d announced his intention to marry you.” “Indeed,” Mary said ruefully. Then she raised her head, her deep brown eyes widening with surprise. “Are you saying he didn’t mean it, Hilda? That he wouldn’t actually send the girls away?” “Well, now, I didn’t exactly say that,” Hilda temporized. “The man’s fiercely determined to wed you, milady, and a determined man can be very ruthless. But, nay, I do not believe he’d actually hurt you that way.” “He cares naught for my feelings, Hilda,” Mary emphatically declared, deciding he did indeed mean every word he’d said. “But I suppose the threat doesn’t really matter now. We shall be betrothed this very morn--unless he changes his mind--so the girls are safe.” “He’ll not change his mind,” Hilda said, laughing a little. “He’s already dressed and pouring over documents with Father Michael--the betrothal contract authored by the king himself, or so I’ve heard.” “I was afraid of that,” Mary sighed, then said, “Oh, Hilda, what can I do? What of Lord Albert? I still love him, you know. Truly I do.” Hilda merely snorted. She didn’t think much of Lord Albert. He was far too old for Lady Mary, for one thing, and his son, Edgar, was loathsome to boot. She’d never approved of Mary’s father betrothing his daughter to the man, and she sincerely doubted that Mary loved the old lecher at all. ‘Twas only that she was too young to know any better. Hilda was actually very glad the betrothal had been set aside. Lord Stephen would make a far better husband for Mary than Albert of Tidwell ever could.

At length, she answered her young mistress. “You need do nothing about Lord Albert, milady. I’m sure the king has sent him a message, and politeness requires naught more from you. The man will simply have to find another young girl to deflower. That’s all a man his age could want from a marriage. He already has an heir, useless though Edgar might be.” Hilda’s blunt words brought a new rush of heat to Mary’s cheeks, but she couldn’t deny the older woman’s wisdom. Even though Mary loved Lord Albert, she had to admit that during their courtship, he had mentioned many times how much he was looking forward to their wedding night. She shuddered a little at the thought. He was not an ugly man, but the thought of coupling with him was somehow repulsive. She’d always discounted that feeling as maidenly fear...until she’d met Sir Stephen. No matter how much she loathed the new lord, he was a terribly handsome man, utterly male and virile. The thought of lying with him brought a different kind of shudder, though she would never admit that to anyone--especially not him. “Lady Mary, you asked me what you should do about Lord Stephen, but I don’t think my answer will please you,” Hilda said. “Why ever not?” Mary asked a little absently. She was still thinking about Lord Albert--and his son, Edgar. Hilda was right about him. Edgar was loathsome, and he smelled bad, too. Not anything at all like Sir Stephen’s clean male scent. Where had that thought come from? She pushed it aside immediately. She certainly didn’t want to think about her unbidden attraction to Sir Stephen right now. “Please, Hilda, continue,” she said, pulling her attention back to the present conversation. ‘Twas much safer ground than thinking about the male attributes of her new lord. “Milady, you must at least seem to defer to Lord Stephen in all things,” Hilda said. Mary was shocked by that statement, but Hilda pressed on. “I knew you wouldn’t like that idea, my dear,” she said, “but that is the way it must be nonetheless. ‘Tis the only way to handle a strong-minded man, milady. He must believe he has the upper hand at all times.” He’d certainly had the “upper hand” last night, Mary thought mutinously, looking down at her bruised wrists and remembering his caresses yet again, but what did Hilda mean by “seem to defer”? “Do you mean I should only pretend to obey him, Hilda? And then continue doing things my own way?” “No, no, child, that’s not what I mean at all,” Hilda said, raising a hand to her heart. “That would only anger him. He would undoubtedly see through the farce and know just what you were doing.” “Then what do you mean, Hilda? How should I handle him?” “A wise woman lets a man believe an idea is his own--when it is really hers. In that way she gets what she wants or needs, but the man still believes he is the master in his home.” “Ah,” Mary said, finally understanding. “I think I can do that. I did it with father often enough.” Hilda nodded. “Aye, you did, and it worked quite well. Just remember that when dealing with Lord Stephen, and your marriage will be a happy one, I’m sure.” Her plump hand patted Mary’s slender one. “And now, child, we’d best prepare for the ceremony. We’ve less than an hour left, and I have a surprise for you.”

Childlike, Mary smiled with delight. “I love surprises, Hilda,” she said. “What is it?” Hilda crossed to a small chest, then carried it back to the bed. “Open it, milady,” she said with a smile. “‘Tis a betrothal gift from your lord.” That thought dampened Mary’s delight considerably, but curiosity finally won out, and she opened the lid. Then her mouth formed an O of pleasure at the sight before her eyes. The gown was beautiful...perfect. The overgown was made of the softest pale yellow silk she had ever seen, and the long-sleeved knit undergown, which was the color of early spring leaves, was so finely woven even touching it brought tears to Mary’s eyes. She lifted the clothes from the chest, and beneath them sat delicate silk stockings, yellow garters with embroidered butterflies and a shift so thin it was nearly transparent. These were clothes fit for a queen. She’d never seen anything like them before in her life. To top it all off, there was a garland of silk daisies to crown her hair, and a pair of kid slippers that looked just the right size; in fact, the entire ensemble looked as though it had been created just for her. Stunned, she asked, “How did he know what would fit me, Hilda? And where did all this come from?” Hilda chuckled, drawing Mary to her feet and dispensing with the bedrobe. “Our new lord had more goodies in his baggage wains than I’ve seen anywhere, even at the King’s Vale marketplace, milady.” She shrugged. “As far as knowing what would fit you, an experienced man just knows these things, my dear.” Mary understood that implication--she was not entirely naive--and she bit her lower lip, forcing herself not to blush. Then another question occurred to her as Hilda slipped the diaphanous shift over her head. “Wherever did you store everything, Hilda? I saw the chests with Sir Stephen’s personal belongings, but I’d not thought about the rest until now.” “I didn’t store the goods, milady,” Hilda answered, easing Mary down to the bed and reaching for the silk stockings. “Sir Henri took care of that. Mostly, the goods are in tents right now, but some are in our storehouses, some here in the manor house, and, of course, the larder in the kitchen hut is bursting at the seems, not to mention that every man, woman and child on Almswick has been given ample provisions as well--including material for new clothes and leather for boots and shoes.” Mary was impressed. How could she not be when Sir Stephen was taking care of her people--just as he’d promised in the courtyard even before dismounting. He’d also threatened punishment for any disobedience, though, and that thought tempered Mary’s burgeoning goodwill toward the man. She’d already had a small taste of his discipline, if being forced to eat could be called such a thing. She shuddered just a little. What would he do if she was ever truly disobedient? She must do as Hilda said, she decided. She must at least seem to defer to his wishes in all things, but it wouldn’t be easy. With the stockings, garters and slippers in place, Hilda eased Mary into her lovely new gown. The bodice was form-fitting, laced tightly up the back, and the snug sleeves of the undergown came to delicate points on her slender hands. No matter what else Sir Stephen was, he was certainly a man with excellent taste in women’s clothing. An experienced man, Hilda had said. Mary didn’t doubt that in the least.

“Your hair should be worn unbound, milady,” Hilda said, picking up a carved wooden comb, “as befits a maiden.” Mary agreed, of course, and the efficient maidservant soon had her hair unbraided and suitably tamed. The golden-brown tresses fell all the way to Mary’s knees. She had never cut her hair, not even once, believing it to be her only gift of true beauty. Once the daisy garland was in place, Mary was ready. She gulped. There was no turning back now. Hilda was already opening the door--and Sir Stephen was already waiting on the other side. “Good morrow, my lord,” Mary said, suddenly shy. She sketched a tiny curtsy. “I must thank you for the clothes. They are truly beautiful.” She was blushing again, and she hated it. She also hated the way her heart was pounding. If only he’d change his mind at the last moment! She didn’t want to marry him, didn’t want to be attracted to him--not in the least. He was her enemy. “You look lovely, my lady,” Stephen replied, meaning it. Jesu, she was lovely, he thought. The yellow silk was perfect for her coloring; the tightly laced bodice, though modestly high-necked, displayed her generous breasts to perfection. And the silk daisies were perfect, too. Young and innocent, just like Mary herself. Her hair, though, that was the crowning touch. Even in the dim light of this corridor, Stephen could see those wondrous tresses falling all the way to her knees. Mon Dieu, but he wanted to push his fingers through that hair, to see her curtained in nothing but hair, with perhaps her nipples peeking through... He remembered caressing her slender leg last night and he groaned silently. These thoughts needed to stop immediately--he had become painfully hard beneath his newly laundered blue and gold tunic with just the thought of possessing the lady--so Stephen concentrated on her face instead. Not surprisingly, she wasn’t smiling. Her lips were set in that grim line of defiance he’d already come to know so well, but today it just didn’t matter. Soon, they would be officially betrothed. And in two more months, she would be his...completely. “Shall we go, my lady?” he finally said, offering her his arm. “Sir Henri and Father Michael are already waiting in the chapel, and Mistress Hilda,”--he gestured to the maidservant--“will serve as our second witness today.” Mary wanted to declare her maid a traitor, but she couldn’t find the words. Besides that, she knew Hilda truly believed this was all for the best, and so she simply said, “Aye, my lord,” and slowly began walking toward her fate. The ceremony was brief, spent mostly on their knees, with Father Michael expounding on the duties of marriage. The portly cleric didn’t say much about Sir Stephen’s role--only that he was to produce heirs for the further glory of God--but he spent an inordinate amount of time lecturing Mary on her duties. She thought if she heard the word “obey” once more, she just might retch. Quite naturally, Sir Stephen seemed well pleased with the ceremony. As well he should. Obedience was not mentioned even once concerning his role in the soon-to-be marriage. Every male in the world was arrogant, Mary decided. They were the ones who had written all the rules. The betrothal documents were signed and duly witnessed. That part was simple enough. The papers had

indeed been authored by King William himself, and to put it bluntly, they virtually gave Mary--body and soul--into Sir Stephen’s keeping. She gulped at the thought, but no one seemed to notice--or care. Finally, it was all over, and Mary suddenly found herself alone in Almswick’s small chapel with her newly betrothed husband. “‘Tis done now, my lady,” Stephen said softly, grasping Mary’s hands, “except for one thing.” “And what is that, my lord?” Mary asked, breathless. She was sure that was only because of the rather strong incense burning in the chapel--not because she already suspected what that “one thing” was. “The betrothal kiss,” Stephen answered, and Mary gulped again. She’d been right, of course. He drew her into his embrace, holding her gently but firmly with one hand about her waist. With his right hand, he removed the daisy garland, then speared his fingers through her hair, finally grasping the nape of her neck, still gently, but with full male determination, and Mary’s heart began pounding again. “You have beautiful hair, my lady,” he said. Then he tilted her head, and his mouth descended. His lips were warm, firm and exquisitely gentle, kissing first the corners of her mouth, each side in its turn, then molding the full length of her lips to his, moving against her mouth, the kiss deepening a little more with each passing moment. “Open your lips, ma chère,” he finally whispered against her mouth. “I want to taste you.” Mary’s heart nearly pounded out of her chest. With a small whimper, she obeyed, parting her lips as if she were incapable of anything else. Up to this moment, the kiss had been wonderful--so different from Lord Albert’s kisses and far more enjoyable, she had to admit--but Lord Albert had never demanded that she open her mouth to him. As Stephen’s tongue swept into her mouth, caressing every corner of the velvety recess, Mary heard him groan low in his throat. Or had that been her? She wasn’t quite sure, but dear Lord, this was far different than anything she had ever experienced before. He was possessing her mouth--utterly and completely--and she was letting him. Not only letting him, but raising her hands and burying her fingers in the thick dark hair at the nape of his neck. She was leaning into him, too, pressing her breasts against his chest and whimpering again as her nipples immediately hardened and something warm and wet blossomed between her trembling thighs. Dear God, this was heaven, she thought distantly, for the moment not caring in the least that she was kissing the enemy. Then his thigh gently wedged between hers, and he pressed up against her womanhood in a rhythmic motion. Mary gasped against his mouth, her body becoming rigid with pleasure, her toes curling in her pretty kid slippers. Suddenly he stopped the motions of his thigh, and Mary felt a moment of desolate loss. She had been close to something...something...so very close...but now the feeling was quickly fading away. “Say my name, vixen,” Stephen said, kissing the corners of her mouth again. “Say my name, ma chère. I need to hear the sound on your lips.” “Stephen,” Mary said breathlessly, her arms still around his neck. “Oh, Stephen,” and his tongue

possessed her mouth once again, as he did indeed groan low in his throat. “Are you sure you want to wait two months before we marry, vixen?” Stephen finally said, breaking the kiss. His eyes were molten with desire. “Do you really want to wait two months before achieving what you came so close to just now?” Mary blushed hotly, immediately understanding what he meant. So there was something more she had yet to experience... “Two months is a long time, vixen,” Stephen persisted. “We could simply call the priest back in here right now.” “Stephen, don’t do this...please don’t do this,” Mary said weakly, laying her hands against his chest. “I need...I need...time. You’re...you’re the enemy. I just can’t...I cannot...” “Hush, my pet,” Stephen said as her words faltered. He gently stroked her hair. “You may have the two months if it is so important. I want to take care of you, Mary, not harm you. Don’t you understand that yet?” “I’m trying to, Stephen, truly I am,” Mary replied. “But Lord Albert...my plans. I had the future all worked out, you see...” Stephen suddenly stood up to his full height, causing Mary’s hands to drop to his abdomen. She shivered. His muscles were as hard as iron. Then his mouth became a harsh, intimidating line, and he drew in a deep breath, obviously trying to control his temper. “I am sick unto death of hearing that man’s name, Mary,” he gritted out between clenched teeth. “We were talking about us, not him. I do not want to hear his name again. Is that clear, woman?” The spell was broken, utterly broken, and Mary stiffened her spine, her kiss-swollen lips curling into a snarl as her anger quickly matched his own. “I will talk about the man I love whenever and wherever I want, Norman,” she hissed. “You cannot control my words--perhaps my eating habits, but certainly not my words.” She twisted free of his embrace, intending to escape his vile presence, but Stephen was too quick for her, grabbing her arm and hauling her back to his chest so fast her breath came in on a gasp. “I can control anything I want about you, vixen,” he growled, grasping her wrists tightly. “Or have you already forgotten the lesson you learned last night?” Mary winced uncontrollably and bit down on her lower lip. His harsh grip was hurting her bruises. She saw a shocked expression cross his face as realization set in. He released her wrists, then gently pulled back the sleeves of her undergown, revealing the evidence of what he had done last night. Then he actually paled, and his jaw sagged in utter amazement. Seeing all this--seeing his regret--Mary couldn’t help saying, “The marks do not hurt all the time, Stephen. Only when someone touches them.” “My God, Mary, I didn’t mean to mark you,” Stephen declared, using her own word. He brought her hands to his lips and gently kissed each wrist. “Forgive me...please. I had no intention of harming you.”

Mary swallowed hard. For someone determined to be a firm disciplinarian, he could certainly be tender at times. ‘Twas truly confusing...and it touched her heart. “I forgive you, my lord,” she said softly, her anger suddenly gone. “I know you didn’t mean to hurt me.” Stephen nodded. “My thanks, lady,” he said, his voice hoarse with emotion. Then he turned her hands over and gently kissed each palm. “Shall we call a truce, Mary?” he added, smiling just a little. “You’ll get your two months, and I’ll no longer have to hear Lord Albert’s name?” Mary bristled, wanting to argue, but then she sighed. “Aye,” she agreed. What difference did it make, anyway? The deed was done. She was betrothed to Sir Stephen now--her enemy--and barring some unforeseen miracle, she would most definitely become his wife. What was the use of fighting with him? He seemed relieved, then said, “Cook is planning a fine breakfast feast for us, my lady. We shall eat as a family in the solar, just you, myself, and your little sisters. Oh, and Henri, of course.” “Sir Henri is family?” Mary asked, trying to hide a smile. “Funny, you don’t resemble each other in the least, my lord.” “He’s close enough to family for this celebration,” Stephen replied. He had been guiding her toward the door, one hand under her elbow, but he suddenly stopped and turned to face her again. “You will eat today, won’t you, my lady?” Impulsively, Mary said, “And if I won’t, Norman?” He raised one brow. “Then I will feed you on my lap again, vixen,” he said with calm authority. “But this time I will bind your hands with the softest silk. Would you like me to do that in front of your sisters...and Henri?” Mary flushed, biting her lip again. Was he serious? That would be mortally embarrassing. Stephen continued. “I may be sorry for bruising your wrists, ma chère, but you must learn to obey me without question.” He circled her waist with his large hands. His fingertips nearly met. “And God knows you shouldn’t miss any meals.” His hands moved up to subtly caress the underside of her breasts. “Most parts of your body could stand a little more meat.” Scalding heat. Mary’s cheeks were flaming. Dear Lord, she had blushed more since Stephen’s arrival than ever before in her life. She knew exactly what he was intimating. Her breasts were a source of embarrassment. They were almost too large for her small frame. “Well, my lady?” Stephen pressed. “Will you eat...or shall I feed you again?” “I’ll eat,” Mary promised, breathless. He was cupping her breasts now, and her nipples instantly tightened. “Very good, my pet,” he murmured, then one hand gently pinched a nipple while the other tilted her head. She thought he would kiss her mouth, but instead he nibbled her earlobe. She shivered, her nipples completely erect, then heard him whisper, “There are far more pleasant things I’d like to do with you than bind your hands and force you to eat.” He bit her earlobe, and she whimpered. “Much, much more pleasant things,” he added--and Mary finally pulled back from his embrace.

Her breathing was erratic. She wanted those “pleasant” things--wanted them badly. “Now is not the time for such behavior, my lord,” she said as primly as possible, before her own needs betrayed her. “Shall we proceed to your feast? I promise to eat every bite--without help.” He laughed outright--the beast! He’d been playing with her, just as he had last night! Forcing her compliance through seduction. She’d almost rather have more bruises than give in like this. Then, unbidden, her earlier thought occurred again. What would he do if he were truly angry with her--if she were truly disobedient? She shuddered. That was something she didn’t want to find out. “There’s hope for this betrothal, my lady,” he said then, offering her his arm. “I think we shall do well together.” He patted her hand. “Very well, indeed.” Mary wasn’t so sure, but there didn’t seem much point in arguing. For better or worse, she was betrothed to the Norman. Now she would just have to accept that fact and get on with the rest of her life. At least she wouldn’t be leaving Almswick--nor would her little sisters. That thought gave her a measure of comfort. Perhaps if she could learn to handle this man, the future wouldn’t be so bad, after all. She could only hope.

CHAPTER SEVEN

The truce begun in the chapel lasted exactly three days. Mary did indeed eat the celebration feast--after insisting that Harold and Hilda be included in the meal, as they were as close to family for Mary as Sir Henri was to Stephen. Amazingly, Harold and Sir Henri seemed to have formed a friendship in the short span of a single day. Mary could not fathom why, as she listened to them talking while she helped Lily and Mae with their portions. The jovial Frenchman and the stoic Saxon had virtually nothing in common, but an alliance had been formed nevertheless. Perhaps Harold was merely being polite for her sake, but Mary suspected he had truly come to like the Frenchman. She couldn’t really blame him for that. In many ways, she liked Sir Henri, too. Mary could not possibly know how pleased Stephen was by this turn of events. In his usual inimitable way, Henri had won over the most important of Almswick’s knights. ‘Twas a good omen for the future of the manor, he decided, sipping his wine and watching Mary help her sisters with their food. Surely

the other household knights would soon follow suit. The afternoon of that first day of the peaceful interlude was spent with Mary and Sir Harold showing Stephen his new manor and lands. He toured the winter-barren orchards, the fallow fields and every building of Almswick, including the mill, the brewery and even the kitchen hut and laundry. Trying to keep his mind on the land and buildings, instead of on Mary, was a true test of Stephen’s selfdiscipline. She rode a sorrel mare for the outing, and her wonderful breasts bounced gently with each motion of the horse. Ever since those provocative moments in the chapel, Stephen had felt a fierce desire to bare those perfect breasts and suckle them. He wanted to taste her nipples, knowing they would be as sweet on his tongue as the warm, wet recesses of her mouth had been. ‘Twas a rather uncomfortable ride, all in all, but Stephen held to his self-control, wishing more than once that he’d never given in to the two month waiting period. The vixen had gotten her own way in that, but ‘twould be the last time, he vowed. On the second day, Stephen sequestered himself with Sir Harold in the steward’s small office, carefully going over the ledgers. Stephen was truly amazed that Mary had kept her people from starving, considering Almswick’s abject poverty over the past few months. The evidence of hardship in those ledgers was bleak indeed. All provisions would have run out in another week or two. He had obviously arrived at Almswick just in time. The morning of the fateful third day was remarkably sunny and warm, and Stephen was in a good mood. The chores he’d assigned Mary’s men were being accomplished with less grumbling than he’d expected, the lady herself was smiling at him on occasion, and spring was finally in the air. Stephen decided to put the warm weather to good use. He assembled his men in the courtyard, intending to drill them, and Mary’s household knights--the ones who weren’t sealing leaks in the manor house walls or repairing the chimney--watched from beside the field as the practice session progressed. Stephen was never quite sure what brought his attention to the red-headed knight, but the flash of steel in his belt was unmistakable. The man was armed. Stephen’s good mood vanished instantly. Stephen was sparring with Henri at that particular moment, and he’d worked up a healthy sweat under his protective leather jerkin. His blood was already heated with the lust of combat--Henri was a formidable foe for all his cheerful nonsense at times--and when Stephen saw that knife, it took considerable self control to quell a rush of molten anger. He also knew just exactly what he must do. “Hold, Henri,” he said, easily using his shield to parry the Frenchman’s next thrust, and Henri sheathed his sword, breathing heavily and nodding. Stephen didn’t bother sheathing his own broadsword. He simply strode to where the red-haired man was seated on a rough wooden bench, lifted his sword and placed the tip against the surprised man’s throat. Mock battles stopped immediately, the sounds of sword-meeting-sword suddenly absent, as every man watched to see what would happen next...and Mary chose that most inopportune moment to enter the courtyard herself. Stephen didn’t know Mary was watching, but it wouldn’t have mattered in any case. He had a duty to perform, and perform it he would. His voice low and ominous, he said, “Are you a half-wit or merely

defiant, Sir John?” His sword tip pressed a little harder into the man’s throat. “Answer carefully, man, for a half-wit might be forgiven; a defiant knight will not.” Sir John rose to his feet--Stephen’s sword following his motion--and he fairly hissed, “I’m no half-wit, just a knight unwilling to obey a piece of Norman offal.” Then he spit on the ground, nearly hitting Stephen’s boot. Stephen saw red. This was worse then simple disobedience. An example must be made of this man. His initial thought of a bread-and-water diet and confinement for the troublemaker quickly became a far harsher sentence. Everyone in the courtyard was watching. One misstep here could lose Stephen the respect of his men and give Almswick’s knights the wrong message entirely. With a single gesture, Stephen summoned two of his men, who immediately flanked Sir John, holding his arms in a brutal grip. Stephen very calmly removed the knife from the man’s belt. Stephen surveyed the courtyard, his eyes finally coming to rest on a sturdy pole obviously used for administering discipline. His gaze swinging back to Sir John, he looked him straight in the eye and said, “You will receive ten lashes for disrespect and disobedience.” Sir John paled slightly, then merely nodded stoically, accepting his punishment--but Mary shouted, “No!” Stephen cursed softly, finally realizing she was witnessing the event. The last thing he needed right now was interference. He turned to her, and she grabbed his arm. “You cannot do this, Stephen,” she cried. “Sir John wasn’t using the knife, simply carrying it. I cannot allow you to flog him!” Stephen looked down at the slender hand on his arm, then back up into Mary’s face. Very quietly, he said, “Remove your hand, Mary, and leave the courtyard. This does not concern you.” “This bloody well does concern me, Norman!” Mary exclaimed, tightening her grip on his arm instead of loosening it. “You will not harm my man!” A jaw muscle worked in Stephen’s cheek. With one clench of his powerful arm, he freed her grip, then said, “You will go to my chamber, Mary--not your chamber, but mine--and await me there. I will deal with your disobedience once I have dealt with his.” He nodded toward Sir John, who was standing straight and tall yet sweating profusely, obviously dreading what was to come. “Nay, Norman, I will not. You cannot force me to--” “You will await me in naught more than your shift, woman,” Stephen continued, cutting off her words. He knew the look on his face was fierce, uncompromisingly stern. Wisely, she merely closed her mouth. Satisfied, he nodded, then added, “I will expect a hot bath when I arrive in the chamber, lady. Now go.” He gestured toward the manor house. “Go right now.” She blushed crimson from his declaration--made in front of the men--but then she denied her own embarrassment, raised her chin and said, “I’ll obey you, Norman...on one condition.” Stephen raised a brow. “You will reduce Sir John’s punishment,” she continued. “Surely flogging is not necessary for a first misdemeanor.”

“Aye, lady, it is,” Stephen quietly replied. “Even Sir John knows that, and ‘tis not something a woman should witness. Obey me now.” Even as he said the words, Stephen couldn’t help admiring Mary’s courage. Standing no taller than his breastbone, she was still willing to argue in defense of her knight--misplaced defense, to be sure--but it took true courage to challenge him, nonetheless. Mary looked to Sir John, saw his slight nod of agreement, and she sighed, finally giving in. How could she fight if the man actually agreed with his sentence? A proud man, Sir John had made his point, and now he was willing to suffer the consequences. Confused, but knowing there was naught more to be accomplished, Mary turned on her slippered heel, back straight, chin raised, and slowly walked toward the manor house. But at the top of the stairs, she turned back...and tears coursed down her cheeks. Sir John was already receiving his punishment, and it was being administered by the Norman himself.

Mary paced Stephen’s chamber, clad only in her shift. A steaming tub had been prepared for his damnable lordship, and now she had naught to do but await his arrival. Circling the room for the umpteenth time, she tried to calm herself. On the one hand, she understood what Stephen had done--her own father would have flogged a knight for gross disobedience--but on the other hand, she was greatly distressed. What if Sir John’s wounds festered? What if he died as a result of that flogging? And what was taking Stephen so long? It had been nearly an hour since she’d watched that terrible punishment, despite Stephen’s saying she should not. She hoped he hadn’t noticed that small defiance. She was in enough trouble already... “I know you were watching, Mary.” She heard his deep voice with her back still turned, then whirled around to face him. Was he a mind reader, too? This was the second time he had accurately discerned her thoughts--first about Lady Evelyn’s death, and now about watching Sir John’s punishment. “Aye,” she finally said, since it was useless to deny it. “I watched the whole thing.” If that admission angered him, well, like Sir John, she’d just have to accept the consequences. But Stephen wasn’t angry; he was torn between what he knew he must do and what he wanted to do instead. Mary looked so vulnerable, standing there in her shift, tiny hands clenched into fists at her sides. Her breasts were heaving in agitation; he could see the faint outline of her nipples. He wanted to take her in his arms and comfort her, to assure her that Sir John was just fine. The man’s back was like leather, and Stephen had wielded the whip with considerable mercy, only breaking the skin in two places. He himself had seen to the man’s care afterward. The punishment was finished, and an herbal poultice had already been applied. Sir John had even apologized to Stephen--of his own volition--after the lashing. Stephen had actually won a good deal of respect from Mary’s knights today, though he doubted she would understand that.

Strength was imperative for winning respect, and Stephen had exhibited strength today. He seriously doubted any other man would disobey his decree against weapons, and that’s just as it should be. Now, what to do about the lady? He couldn’t comfort her, no matter how much he wanted to. That was simply out of the question. He must, in fact, punish her, too--for interfering with his duty. He had chosen humiliation as her punishment, thus the decree that she await him in her shift. That command also had a practical purpose, considering what he intended to do. “Is Sir John...is he...all right?” Mary asked, biting her lip. “Aye,” Stephen replied, calmly unfastening his leather jerkin, stripping it off, then removing the sweatsoaked linen shirt beneath. “He took his punishment like a man--without complaint. Now I shall see if a woman can do the same. Come here, Mary.” He sat in the carved oak chair. “Come here and remove my boots.” “Nay, sir,” she said, stiffening. “I will get a manservant to help you instead.” She reached for her gown, obviously intending to do just that, but Stephen’s next words stopped her. “You are to be my servant today, Mary. That is your punishment for interfering in the courtyard. You will help me bathe.” Heat rose in Mary’s cheeks again--damn the man! ‘Twas not unusual, of course, for a chatelaine to aid a male guest with his bath, but as Stephen himself had pointed out, he was no guest. He was the new lord-her lord--and he was doing this simply to humiliate her. Dear God, and it was working, too. He was just sitting there, taller than the back of the chair, arms crossed against his massive bare chest, the muscles in his upper arms boldly developed and iron hard. Added to all that, with every breath he took his chest expanded, becoming even larger, more intimidating than ever--and more appealing than ever, too. Mary had never seen such stark masculinity so blatantly displayed, and she gulped. “The boots, lady, and then the chausses,” he said then, uncrossing his arms and leaning forward, “or do you expect me to bathe with my clothes on?” “I cannot, Stephen,” Mary whispered, shaking her head. “I know ‘tis not an unusual request, but we are to be...married.” She gulped again. “I simply cannot, my lord. ‘Twould be unseemly.” “Surely no more unseemly than being in my chamber, wearing naught but your shift, Mary. And yet you obeyed that command. Why?” Mary blushed all the way to her hairline--she could feel it--and she cursed herself for showing such weakness. “I...I thought perhaps you’d intended me to return your lovely gown, my lord, as punishment,” she finally stammered. She had been wearing the yellow silk this morning, her betrothal gift from him. “‘Twould look rather ridiculous on me, vixen,” Stephen softly countered, his mouth twitching--and Mary very nearly cursed aloud. He was enjoying this! Then his face took on a stern look again, and he said, “The gown is yours, Mary. Now, come and remove my boots.” What would Hilda do? Mary thought, slowly approaching him. A wise woman lets a man believe an

idea is his own. Hilda’s words played through her mind in answer, and she smiled. “Do you have soap and a clean cloth for washing, my lord?” she asked, standing before him. “I noticed an entire crate of sandalwood soap among your stores in the cellar,” she continued, her words rushed. “‘Tis such a masculine scent, sandalwood. I would be glad to fetch some for you, my lord--along with a soft linen cloth.” He ran a hand along his smoothly shaved chin, considering her offer, then finally shrugged his shoulders. “Very well, my lady,” he said, “you may fetch the soap and cloth.” Mary felt sweet triumph, and quickly pulled on her clothes, struggling only a little with the lacings. “I shall return shortly, my lord,” she promised, then quickly took her leave of the chamber. Stephen waited until she was well out of hearing, then threw back his head and laughed. Silly wench. She undoubtedly thought he would shed his clothes and get into the tub whilst she ran her little errand. Calmly, he sat back and crossed his arms over his chest again. She would learn a thing or two about him this day, he vowed. She returned to the bedchamber--arms laden with goods--and a look of utter dismay crossed her face when she saw him simply sitting there, waiting for her. “Shall I help with the laces, my lady?” he asked, not moving a muscle. “Or can you strip down to your shift again without my help?” She literally threw the sandalwood soap into the now-cooling water, then yanked her gown off with jerky motions. “His own idea, Hilda? Huh!” he heard her mutter while kneeling down before him. “Vile beasts have no rational ideas, Hilda.” She began pulling on his left boot. “I’ll have to remember that in the future.” The boot slipped free of his large foot, and she went to work on the opposite side. “What is that you’re saying, lady?” Stephen asked, watching her work and hiding a smile. “Are you talking to yourself? Hilda does not seem to be in the room.” Mary gifted him with a scornful look. “‘Twas nothing, Norman,” she said sweetly, “just the ravings of your most humble servant.” The boots now removed, Stephen stood up to his full height. “The chausses now, little servant,” he said. “I believe you will find the drawstring quite convenient for removing them.” Evidently, she was too furious to be embarrassed any longer. She simply reached up, untied the knot at his waist, then pulled the chausses over his hips and legs, averting her face to avoid actually seeing his nakedness. “Raise your left foot, my lord,” she hissed, and he did. “Now the right one.” Again he complied, and soon the chausses were in a crumpled pile by the chair. That task accomplished, she simply closed her eyes and sat back on her haunches, and Stephen nearly laughed. He could almost hear her daring him to say anything--to force her to watch him stride naked to the tub--but he didn’t say one word. At least not until he’d lowered his long frame into the bath water. Then he said, “Come here, my humble servant. You may begin with my chest.” She rose, crossed to the wooden tub and then resumed her kneeling position. Apparently, she had no intention of talking to him, but conversation wasn’t necessary--only the humbling punishment. At least

she probably now understood why she was wearing naught but a shift. The silk gown could have been ruined during her efforts. Silently, she held out her hand, and Stephen gave her the soap and cloth--the very ones she had fetched herself while trying to manipulate him. Her mouth grim, she lathered the linen square, then reached for his chest. He heard a little whimper of dismay and saw her nipples tighten as she began washing him, obviously more affected by the menial task than he’d thought she would be. He sucked in his breath as her sweet, soft hands washed his taut stomach--his groin tightening painfully--and he saw her shudder, bright red spots appearing on her pretty cheeks. She washed each arm then, averting her eyes, and Stephen let out his breath, grateful for the momentary reprieve. His erection was full now, thick and throbbing. He needed to either move her behind him--or pull her into the tub and take her virginity right here and now. “Wash my back, Mary,” he ordered, his voice strained. This was not supposed to be a sexual exercise, and yet it had become one. He wondered briefly who was being punished here--the lady, or himself. She shifted around until she could reach his back, and then she paused...following which she scrubbed his back with almost vicious intensity. Stephen knew exactly what Mary was doing. She might not have been able to stop him from carrying out a well-earned measure of discipline against Sir John, but she was determined to pay him back for the man’s suffering--in her own way. His skin was burning now, but he couldn’t help smiling to himself. One had to admire the lady’s spirit. Dauntless to the end, she would lay his back raw if he didn’t order a halt to her fierce ministrations. “Enough, vixen,” he finally said. “I think you have made your point.” She stopped immediately, but he could hear her breathing heavily. She’d literally worn herself out punishing his back. Then he heard a strangled sob, and she gasped out, “You didn’t have to flog him, my lord. I will never forgive you for that!” He turned in time to see her scramble to her feet, tears streaming down her cheeks. Then she grabbed her clothing and fled the chamber, evidently not caring if anyone saw her underclothing. She had only one thought in mind--to get away from him. Stephen sat back in the tub, wincing a little when his back hit the wooden slats. Then he shook his head, sighing deeply. Sir John would be up and about tomorrow, and a better man for having learned a valuable lesson. Why couldn’t Mary understand that? The bath water went cold as Stephen simply sat there, contemplating what he should do now.

CHAPTER EIGHT

In the end, Stephen did nothing. ‘Twas naught more than Mary’s tender youth that had caused her reaction, he decided. Even as he entered the great hall for supper that night, he sensed a difference in the demeanor of Almswick’s household knights--Mary’s knights. They were no longer grumbling at the far end of the lower table, instead having taken their usual places much closer to the raised dais. More than one gave Stephen a deferential nod, one man even touching his forelock in respect. Sir John was not there, of course, but Sir Harold was seated beside Henri, and even he nodded--a silent message that he understood his new lord’s actions. Henri was his usual jovial self. The meal was really quite pleasant, with Stephen’s men comparing stories with Almswick’s knights; war stories and bawdy adventures alike. Stephen was well pleased, except for one thing. Mary was nowhere in sight. She had pleaded a headache and taken the meal in her room. Stephen decided to let that small defiance pass. He seriously doubted she truly had a headache, was more likely trying to punish him, but they had an entire lifetime to share meals together. At least she was eating. He reached for a mug of ale and laughed outright at a particularly ridiculous sexual adventure related by Henri. Aye, he thought, listening to the other men laugh at Henri’s colorful rendition, the day had gone quite well, all in all.

The next morning, Mary was amazed to discover what Stephen had already learned the night before. Almswick’s knights--her own men--were happily carrying out rather menial tasks. And Stephen’s men were working right beside them--as well as Stephen himself. She frowned. What had happened since yesterday, when her men had grumbled through their work, intentionally keeping themselves separate from Stephen’s men? Wattle and daub were still being applied to leaks in the manor house walls, the great hall chimney was literally being dismantled and rebuilt from scratch, and even the gates to Almswick were undergoing repair. More than that, everyone seemed quite satisfied with the tasks they’d been assigned. Mary was truly amazed. The men were working together like...friends...even Sir John, who seemed no worse for wear! She headed toward Sir John, intending to have a word with him, but changed her direction when she noticed an elderly woman, stooped by age and crippled joints, slowly approaching Stephen. Mary moved close enough to hear their conversation. Mistress Agnes was the eldest member of Almswick’s “family.” She wanted to hear what the wise elder had to say. “Milord, may I have a word with you?” Agnes began.

Stephen had stripped down to chausses and boots, Mary noticed, as the morning was quite warm. He was unloading a cart filled with field stones near the half-repaired chimney, tossing them effortlessly, but he stopped what he was doing upon hearing the woman and turned to face her. “Of course, Mistress,” he said, smiling. “How may I help you?” Mary was shocked. Was this the same fierce disciplinarian who had flogged her man just yesterday? This man was as gracious as a courtier. She was more than perplexed. Mistress Agnes said, “‘Tis my cottage, milord. I’ve a brawny lad who will patch my roof, but I haven’t the materials. Could you provide them, sir? It leaks so much, there’s no hope of staying dry in wet weather. And these old bones need to stay dry, milord. They’ve seen many a year, you know.” Now Mary was astonished. Agnes had not told her about the leaky roof. But then, what could she have done about it? Nothing--before the Norman’s arrival. She listened again. “I will do better than that, Mistress,” Stephen replied, gently placing one large hand on her stooped shoulder. “I will have your entire roof replaced. That will most assuredly keep you warm and dry.” And with that promise, Stephen turned to several men and issued his orders. Within a matter of minutes, bundles of thatching material had been brought from Stephen’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of goods, and Mistress Agnes’s roof was indeed being replaced, with Stephen himself directing the crew. Mary followed the procession to the old woman’s hut, and she watched for a time as Stephen and three of his men began the rather strenuous chore. Her frown was still in place. She simply could not understand how Stephen could go from fierce warrior to kindly lord. Or was that the crux of the matter? As long as he was getting his own way, well then, all was peaceful, but let anyone disobey the damnable lord and... “He’s a fine man, milady.” Those words startled Mary out of her reverie. It was Mistress Agnes, and she was standing beside her now, watching the work, too. Mary was disinclined to agree, but she listened politely as the woman continued. “I’d not asked for a whole new roof, you see, but I’m getting one anyway. Have you seen my new shoes, milady, and my new kirtle?” Mary looked closely at the old woman for the first time. It was true. Mistress Agnes was clad in new garments from head to toe--just as Mary was herself. The yellow silk had only been the first of Stephen’s gifts to her. Now the chests in her bedchamber were fairly bursting with clothes. Mary shook her head, finally saying, “Aye, Mistress Agnes, he is a fine man.” When he wants to be, she added silently, then bid the woman farewell and returned to the manor house. After changing her gown, she headed for the patch of dirt where she would plant her annual kitchen garden. She needed the feel of good, rich soil between her fingers...and time to think.

And that’s just where Stephen found his lady late that afternoon. She had taken the mid-day rest period in her chamber--refusing to eat even a small repast with him--and he was fast losing patience. Intending

to clear the air, whether or not the conversation became another battle, he’d begun looking for Mary, eventually locating her near the kitchen hut. She was digging in dirt finally thawed by the warm spring sun, planting several varieties of vegetables; leeks, carrots, cabbages, among others. And she was not alone. Lily and Mae were happily digging beside her--and around her, and over her, in the case of the grubby toddler. Mary was infinitely patient with the little girls, he noted, handing them seeds or seedling plants and showing just how to place them, invariably telling them what kind of wonderful vegetables would soon grow from their efforts. Stephen cocked his head to one side and smiled at the sight. These precious seeds were not from his stores. Mary had obviously culled them carefully from last year’s crops, saving them for spring. She was an amazing woman in many ways, he realized, as he stood in the shadows where she couldn’t easily see him. She was smiling and laughing, digging and teaching, and giving loving care to her little sisters at the same time. She was also covered with dirt, evidently having changed into an old, frayed gown to complete this task. He was impressed, more than impressed, really. Mary had no qualms about getting a needed job done, no matter the cost to her own pretty hands, no matter that she’d had to toss aside the fine clothes he had given her to accomplish this menial chore. And she was happy; he could see that, too. Truly happy right now. He fervently hoped she would be happy like that with him someday. Lily noticed him then, giving him a shy smile, but Mary was too busy watching Mae create a delicious mud pie to notice his presence just yet. Stephen put a finger to his lips, and Lily nodded. They were conspirators now, friends sworn to a secret pact. Stephen was pleased. He would be raising these children, after all. He did not want them to fear him--despite the ruthless threat he’d used to gain their sister’s acceptance of his marriage proposal. He had been watching for several minutes when Mary sensed his presence. Her back stiffened, and her mouth turned down. He felt his own smile fade, and he sighed. So much for her happy mood, he thought. “‘Tis time for your baths, my little urchins,” Mary said to her two small siblings, and their nursemaid, Anna, materialized from the opposite side of the kitchen hut, apparently having been listening for those very words. The girls were taken away with quiet efficiency--despite their protests--then Mary finally rose to her feet, shaking the dirt from her skirts and wiping her hands on a clean linen rag. She didn’t want to talk to Stephen right now, but it probably couldn’t be avoided. She hadn’t come to any conclusions about him--especially after the children had joined her in the garden--except for realizing that yesterday’s events had somehow won him the respect of her men. She couldn’t understand that, but ‘twas true nonetheless. Even Sir John had said so when she’d spoken to him. Men certainly were strange creatures. “My lord?” she finally said, once her hands were relatively clean. “Did you need me for something?”

“I need you for a great many things, Mary,” he answered softly, gently grasping her hands and turning them over, then back again. “And I see you’re no stranger to hard work.” “Aye,” Mary agreed, her voice a little breathless. His callused hands felt so warm, so very large on hers. “Just as you yourself are no stranger to hard work, my lord,” she added, trying to pull her hands free. His touch was making her tingle again, low in her belly, and she didn’t want that. Nay, not at all. Stephen held her hands a little tighter instead of allowing her freedom. He cocked a brow, then said, “So you were watching me today...just as I was watching you.” He massaged her hands with his thumbs. “You are very good with your little sisters, my lady. You will make a fine mother.” Mary said nothing, but the tingling in her belly increased. This time she tried to wrench her hands free. She did not want to respond to this man! There was only one way to become a mother, after all, and she most definitely did not want to think about that. It was far too tempting, if truth be told. She definitely did not want to think about making love with her enemy lord. Stephen did free her hands then--but only to grasp her about the waist and draw her close. He was still bare-chested, his chiseled muscles on open display, and his skin held the combined scents of sandalwood and clean male sweat. Mary shivered. Surely he wouldn’t kiss her...not here...not publicly. But he did. He lifted her chin, then lowered his mouth to claim her, his lips moving against hers, his tongue seeking entrance along the seam of her mouth. Mary pressed her lips together, determined not to give him what he sought. If she did, she might melt in his arms. Dear Lord, she was becoming a wanton! Then he cupped her right breast, and she opened her mouth on a gasp of pleasure...and outrage. The beast actually chuckled! Then his tongue swept into her mouth, and she whimpered, grasping the iron hardness of his upper arms with both hands. He kissed her for as long as he wanted, in any way that he wanted, finally releasing her trembling lips and saying, “There is more than one way to breach your fortress, ma chère. Do not try to avoid me. ‘Tis a betrothed husband’s right to kiss his woman.” “Aye,” Mary said weakly, leaning against him and trying to calm her senses. He had taken her to the edge of oblivion again with his kiss, damn him. But she couldn’t let him win. Finally she pulled back, looked up at his devilishly handsome face and said rather tersely, “Have you had enough submission now, my lord, or do you feel the need to accost me further?” She saw him grimace, as if he knew he’d lost this particular round of their ongoing war. Then one side of his mouth quirked up. “For the nonce, madam,” he said, “but you will share my table tonight.” “We shall see, my lord,” Mary answered primly, pulling free of his embrace and promising nothing. “We shall indeed see.” Stephen threw back his head and laughed as Mary walked away. This battle was a draw, he decided, but considering they’d been betrothed for only four days--had only known each other for five--he felt that things were coming along quite nicely.

The lady might be a prickly little wench, but she responded to his kisses with unquestionable passion. Mary could deny it to her dying breath, but the truth was that she wanted him. Wanted him as a woman wants her man. Yes, he thought, following her stiff little back. His first week at Almswick was going quite well.

CHAPTER NINE

While Stephen was enjoying thoughts of success, Albert of Tidwell was pacing his own great hall. Tidwell Manor was the nearest estate to Almswick; the two manors even shared one border. Tidwell had been in Albert’s family since the days of the great Saxon king, Egbert, and until this very day Albert had been happily anticipating adding Almswick’s lands to his own. A message from King William’s court quite effectively killed that notion. Albert crushed the parchment in his hands and flung it into the fire, causing his son, Edgar, to laugh uproariously. The parchment smoked, curled and finally burned while Albert stared at the flames, and Edgar continued to laugh. Bent double with hilarity now, Edgar gasped out, “All your plans have been foiled by the new king, Father...and to think you supported the man. Oh, this is just too rich!” Albert, a strong man of middle years and graying brown hair, finally realized what his worthless offspring was doing. With two strides, he was at Edgar’s side, and one swipe of his meaty paw sent the laughing youth to the floor. The laughter stopped abruptly, and Albert returned his gaze to the smoldering fire. The vaulted, huge room was dimly lit with smokey torches, but even in the poor light, Edgar could see his sire’s grim countenance. He decided that perhaps laughter was a poor choice of taunts at the moment...but there were other more subtle means of taunting his father without risking the man’s wrath. Hauling himself off the floor and into a chair, Edgar straightened his soiled tunic and wiped his hands on his greasy trousers. Even he could smell his body odor, but he shrugged. The stench never seemed to bother the wenches. Why should he bother bathing and changing clothes two or three times a day like his fastidious father? The one thing Edgar did take pride in was his raven black goatee, topped by a thin, well-shaped

mustache. His clothes might be slovenly, his dark hair in need of washing, but he kept that goatee and mustache trimmed and clean at all times. Stroking that beard now, Edgar finally said, “At least the messenger’s arrival explains a rumor I heard at King’s Vale, Father. There is to be a wedding at Almswick within two months...but it won’t be yours.” Albert turned to his son, piercing gray eyes narrowed. Was the boy mocking him again? He wasn’t quite sure, but it didn’t really matter right now. There were more important things on his mind than his twenty-year-old offspring. By the saints, Mary of Almswick was supposed to be his, not the property of that wretched Norman, Sir Stephen Dubois! Albert knew all about Sir Stephen, now Lord Stephen, damn the man. He knew of his successful mercenary career and also of his bravery at Hastings, how he had actually saved William’s life. He had even borne the man some respect...until now. Now all he wanted was to see him dead. The plan had been coming together so nicely until Sir Stephen’s arrival. Albert’s first wife had died the year before while whelping yet another dead son. That’s all the lady had ever spawned--except Edgar. With her demise, Albert had approached Mary’s father, Sir Ralph, who had accepted his suit with little fuss. Sir Ralph had needed money very badly at that point, and Albert had literally bought the lady Mary’s hand. The two men had had differing opinions about William of Normandy’s claim to England’s thrown. Sir Ralph had been utterly convinced that Harold would win; Albert had not. And as it turned out, Albert was right. He’d backed the winning side, and in so doing--thanks to the convenient death of Ralph, his sons and even his lady wife--Albert had become the betrothed husband of Almswick’s heir, Mary. ‘Twas a delightful turn of events for a man who coveted the rich, fertile soil and ample orchards of Almswick Manor for his own. What Almswick needed to return it to a state of profit, in Albert’s opinion, was a taste of harsh discipline for its lazy peasants. Albert could have easily provided for Almswick’s people this past winter, but he’d chosen to help only a little. He’d wanted Mary needy and dependent. And hungry, ragged manor folk were far easier to control than well fed ones to Albert’s way of thinking. And those two brats Mary was raising would come in quite handy, too. He could sell the little girls in marriage within five years for the older one, ten for the younger--just as he had bought Mary from her father, until the king’s interference. Older men willingly paid a premium price for pretty little virgins. Albert had courted Mary with restraint and finesse, demanding nothing more of her than chaste kisses, while at the same time frequently reminding her how much he was looking forward to their wedding night. Even now, his groin tightened at the thought. Aye, he’d been looking forward to piercing the lady’s virginity...and now the damned Norman would have that privilege. Albert’s plans were falling apart. Almswick would have been his--completely his--as would Lady Mary. With a few public executions, mutilations and beatings, Albert was quite sure he could have whipped Almswick’s peasants into shape. This year’s crops would have been tremendously profitable--just as

Tidwell’s always were under his harsh methods--but now all those lovely plans were over. Killed by King William’s damned missive. The letter had been quite succinct. While King William appreciated the fact that Albert had pledged fealty to him, he also felt Sir Stephen Dubois had earned Almswick--and Mary--for his unfailing support and his bravery at Hastings. Such a short message, only three or four lines written on parchment and sealed with wax. And now Albert’s plans were dead. “‘Tis really a shame, Father,” Edgar said from his chair, unable to resist any longer. “Dubois will have the lady’s maidenhead and plant his seed in her belly. I hear he’s a handsome devil, a young, handsome devil, and undoubtedly quite virile. He’ll probably reap a crop in the lady’s womb along with the crop he reaps from her fields and orchards. I can see it now, Father,” he continued, closing his eyes and smiling. “I can see Lady Mary’s lovely little body sprawled naked on her lord’s bed. Her thighs are spread wide, her arms outstretched, her soft lips parted--” The blow caught Edgar square on the chin, sending him toppling to the floor again. But he came up on his elbows laughing, blood dripping from his mouth. He hated his father, and taunting the man was simply too much fun to resist--no matter the cost. He’d been beaten every day of his life. A few more blows made little difference. He knew just how far to push the old man...and when to play the dutiful son. It was a fine line he walked, but Edgar was used to it. Tidwell would be his someday. All he need do was wait. “Of course I wanted the lady’s maidenhead, stupid lout!” Albert snarled, “but that cannot be helped now.” He said nothing more, simply turned to the fire again, obviously deep in thought. “Do you have a new plan, Father?” Edgar said then, still propped on an elbow. As much as he hated his father, he had to admire the man’s devious brain. “Have you thought of a way to have Almswick after all?” “Aye, mayhap,” Albert finally replied. “But ‘twill take time. These things must be planned carefully. It must look like an accident--or the treachery of his own men.” Edgar sat up. “What will take time?” “Why, killing Dubois, of course,” Albert answered quite calmly. “‘Tis the only possible solution, and even then I shan’t be the first to enjoy the lady...unless...” Edgar smiled as his father offered him a hand. The look on his sire’s face was purely malevolent. In this, at least, they were wholly alike--evil to the core. “Get up,” Albert said, pulling Edgar to his feet. “I need your help. We have plans to make. If my idea works, the lady’s virginity may be my prize after all.”

The next morning, Edgar approached Almswick dressed as a peasant, blending in with the folks coming and going through the open gates. His costume was nothing new. He’d posed as an itinerant peasant many times, simply for amusement--and as a way of meeting willing wenches. One juicy morsel at Almswick had been his whore for the past several months. The silly wench believed he might actually marry her someday and so held his true identity secret and did absolutely anything he wanted in a

convenient hayloft. He couldn’t count how many times he’d humiliated and abused the naughty little kitchen maid, but she was such fun bed sport. He felt no guilt for his rough handling of the girl. All women were useless sluts, meant only for the amusement of men. She was loyal, though, he had to admit. And now, at his father’s behest, that loyalty would be put to the test. Her name was Gwynneth. Her figure was voluptuous, her hair coppery curls, and she had the most talented, obedient little mouth... His groin twitched as he quietly approached the kitchen hut, a hooded cloak obscuring his face. Ah yes, Gwynneth would do whatever he told her. Even giving Lady Mary a message from his father.

Gwynneth of Almswick heard a familiar bird call, and she smiled, quickly dusting flour off her hands and reaching up to fluff her hair. Edgar was here. Her lover. The master of her heart. She knew just what to do. ‘Twas always the same. Edgar gave her the “signal,” and within scant moments she would meet him in the hayloft of a little used, rickety barn at the far end of the courtyard. Today would be no different. Gwynneth stole a glance at Cook, who was bent over her venison stew, humming happily. Hopefully she wouldn’t notice Gwynneth’s absence for a little while. Just in case, though, Gwynneth grabbed a loaf of day-old bread. She could always say she was taking the bread to old Mistress Agnes, who was confined to her bed this day. Even the new lord of the manor liked the old woman. No one would fault Gwynneth for doing her a kindness. Within moments, Gwynneth arrived at the hayloft, finding Edgar already there. “Oh, my lord,” she said as she topped the ladder, then crawled toward him. “I have missed you so these past days. Have you missed me, my lord?” Her voice was shaky, a little desperate, Edgar noticed, and his mouth curved in a cruel smile. Perfect. She was very, very ready to do anything he wanted. “Take off your clothes, wench,” he said, opening his homespun breeches. “Then I’ll show you how much I’ve missed you.” Gwynneth obeyed him immediately, of course, soon kneeling in the hay completely nude, her eyes respectfully downcast, thighs spread wide and nipples erect. “How may I serve you, my lord?” she asked, blushing hotly, and Edgar smiled again. He’d taught her this slave-like behavior--among other things. She was a very apt student. “With your mouth, I think,” he calmly replied, feasting his eyes on her nubile charms, thoroughly enjoying her humiliation. He leaned back on his elbows. “And be quick about it, girl. I haven’t got all day.” The little tart bent to her task, servicing him just as he’d taught her to do, whimpering softly when he held her coppery head still and grunted with pleasure, completing the act. “Swallow,” he growled. She did, then sat back on her heels, wiping her mouth. “May I dress now, sir?” she asked. Edgar’s cynical smile returned. She was such an obedient little slut.

He’d often forced her to pleasure him, giving her no pleasure in return. She obviously thought he would do that today, but he had other plans... “Revive it, wench,” he answered coldly, grabbing her hair and pulling her back down to his groin. “I’m not through with you yet.” She quickly complied, and when his member was fully engorged again, Edgar ordered her to her hands and knees. Then he used her in the most painful, humiliating way possible, smiling cruelly at her throaty gasps of distress--and her ultimate moans of pleasure and surrender. Slapping her buttocks after a very satisfying release, he said, “Now you may dress, wench, and do so quickly.” He calmly laced his breeches. “I have something to tell you, and I shouldn’t risk staying here much longer.” While Gwynneth pulled on her clothes, Edgar jumped down to the barn floor. There were chests and sacks he hadn’t seen here before, and he wanted to investigate. “What is all this?” he finally asked as Gwynneth climbed down the ladder. “Oh, don’t touch anything, my lord...please,” Gwynneth pleaded, obviously frightened. “These are Lord Stephen’s belongings. I had forgotten some of his things were being stored here.” Ignoring her, Edgar ran his long, slender fingers over the soft wool cloth in one chest, then closed the lid. Reaching for a sack, he opened it and scooped up a handful of grain, then quickly replaced it and drew the sack closed again. So, Almswick’s fortunes were rising. His father would certainly want to hear about this. ‘Twas just more to sweeten the pot. If Albert’s plan worked, Almswick would become part of Tidwell after all, and eventually it would all be Edgar’s. He liked that thought. “Please, Edgar,” Gwynneth said, her voice desperate. “Please don’t touch Lord Stephen’s things. We could be caught.” Edgar turned to her, grabbed her by the hair, and slapped her hard. She had used his given name without permission, and she must be reminded of her place. He smiled, caressing her reddened cheek. “Don’t question my actions, puss,” he said quietly, then slapped her again. “Not unless you want me to stop coming here.” “No, no, I won’t,” she promised, duly chastised. “I’d do anything for you, my lord. You know I would. I love you.” “I’m glad to hear that, sweet puss,” Edgar replied, “because I have a specific task for you today.” He caressed her cheek again, enjoying the mark he’d left on her face. Too bad it was already fading. “What do you need me to do, my lord?” “I need you to take a message to Lady Mary, that’s all. ‘Tis quite simple, really.” Gwynneth smiled and timidly lifted her lips, begging his kiss. “Of course, my lord,” she said. “I can do that.” Edgar kissed her savagely, ruthlessly, then said, “I knew I could count on you, Gwynneth. Now, here is the message. I want you to memorize it exactly...”

CHAPTER TEN

Stephen looked up from the plans he’d been creating when a kitchen maid named Gwynneth came into the hall. ‘Twas not unusual for the maids to come and go from the hall throughout the day, but something about this particular girl drew his attention. He’d been sitting at the main dining table, parchment, ink and quills spread out before him, planning the castle he would eventually build. He’d already chosen the location; a slight rise of ground beyond the east side of the courtyard, a place easily defended, with a pleasant view of fields and orchards as well. There was a stream at the base of the small hill, and Stephen could picture Mary’s kitchen garden nestled beside the gurgling water. ‘Twould be a better location than the one she was using now. All thoughts of building and gardening slipped to the back of his mind, however, as Stephen continued watching Gwynneth. Why did she seem so nervous, biting her lip and looking about like a thief? Deciding he needed to find out, Stephen waited until she had passed his table and turned into a back corridor, then quietly followed her.

Gwynneth’s heart thudded painfully in her chest. She knew she was acting guilty, but she just couldn’t help it. She was quite sure Lord Stephen would not like what Edgar had asked her to do, and yet she felt she had no choice but to carry out Edgar’s command. She loved Edgar. In her foolish dreams, she even believed he might marry her someday, though in more rational moments she knew that was impossible. The heir to Tidwell would never wed a peasant. But she needed Edgar in a way she couldn’t explain, whether or not their union would ever be blessed. She’d certainly been no virgin when he’d first taken her to that hayloft...but the things he would do to her...the way he would make her feel... Gwynneth felt her nipples hardening at the very thought. He was harsh and cruel at times, and so utterly demanding. But she craved what he did to her. Everything he did to her. It didn’t matter if he humiliated and abused her, not only because she found his treatment perversely arousing, but because she felt it was just penance for her one terrible sin. Not lust, nay, a sin much more terrible than that. Her soul was already condemned for what she had done last winter...she couldn’t think about that now. Regardless of all that, she loved Edgar, and she would obey him. She had been told Lady Mary was in a small storeroom. Quietly entering the chamber, and indeed finding her, Gwynneth said, “Milady? May I speak with you for a moment?” She looked around furtively, grateful to find no one else in the room. Stephen was standing just beyond the partially opened

door, but Gwynneth didn’t realize that. Heart pounding, she added, “I have a message for you, milady...a message from Lord Albert.” As Mary’s eyes widened in surprise at Gwynneth’s words, Stephen’s eyes narrowed. He could see both women quite clearly from where he stood. For a moment, he was sorely tempted to rush into the chamber and confront the guileful little serf. She had obviously been in contact with someone from Lord Albert’s estate--probably another serf--and was undoubtedly being paid quite well for this treachery. Then he thought better of it and decided to simply listen. How would Mary respond? Would she be loyal to her new lord--her betrothed husband? Or would she betray him? Mary simply stared at Gwynneth for a time, her own heartbeat increased. She’d been cataloging some of Stephen’s more valuable belongings, and Gwynneth’s arrival--and her words--had startled her badly. She’d thought Hilda was right, that she would have no need of further contact with Lord Albert, but now the kitchen maid was saying she had a message from him. What should she do? “Milady, please,” Gwynneth persisted, crossing the room. “I have a message for you, and I don’t want to be...caught.” Mary saw the abject fear on the girl’s pretty face, and she felt immediate sympathy for her plight. Stephen’s demand for obedience had been very clear. If he learned of this message, the girl could be punished. She gulped, remembering Sir John’s lashing, then finally nodded and said, “Tell me the message, Gwynneth.” Gwynneth took a deep breath and closed her eyes, trying to remember exact words, Mary supposed, then said, “Lord Albert would like to meet with you one hour past sundown tonight, milady. He will be waiting in the apple orchard, the one on the border shared by Almswick and Tidwell.” Mary chewed her lower lip. She had not expected this. Lord Albert actually wanted to meet with her--in secret. “Will you go, milady?” Gwynneth asked. Mary didn’t answer immediately. Hugging her arms, she paced the floor. She felt torn, confused. Honor dictated loyalty to Stephen, but the love she still held for Lord Albert directed her down a different path. Stephen didn’t even want her to mention Lord Albert’s name. What would he do if he found out she’d actually met with the man? She shuddered at the thought, then shook her head, He mustn’t find out. He simply mustn’t. If she decided to go at all, that is. But her decision was already made, and she knew it. Lord Albert had been her betrothed. Now she was to wed the Norman. She couldn’t change that fact, but she could most certainly take this one opportunity to say goodbye to the man she loved. And she did love Lord Albert, she convinced herself yet again. Truly she did. “I’ll meet with him, Gwynneth,” she said at last. “I’ll go to the orchard. Are you supposed to relay that message, too?” “Nay, milady,” Gwynneth admitted, sighing her relief. “I just wanted to know if you’d do it, that’s all.”

Mary grasped Gwynneth’s shoulders. “You mustn’t tell anyone else of this meeting, Gwynneth,” she said a little desperately. “I think you know what the consequences might be if Lord Stephen found out about this.” Stephen’s eyes narrowed, and his jaw tensed. He’d witnessed the entire exchange, of course, and now knew just what his treacherous fiancée was planning. Aye, there’d be consequences all right. The vixen would not be alone with Lord Albert in that orchard tonight, though he had no intention of letting her know that until it suited his own plans. He backed away from the door, swiftly and quietly returning to the great hall. By the time Gwynneth crossed through the hall, he was seated at the table again, seemingly engrossed in his parchments. Stephen smiled grimly. The wench didn’t make a very effective spy, apparently not even realizing she’d already been caught. Stephen didn’t particularly care who Gwynneth’s contact from Tidwell had been. He only cared about what would take place tonight. He would be there, just as he’d been in the hallway. Mary didn’t play the role of spy very well, either...but she would be the one to ultimately pay those consequences she’d spoken of with Gwynneth. Aye, Mary would pay. He wasn’t quite sure how just yet, but she would pay for this betrayal. She must learn that such behavior would not be tolerated. Did she simply want to say goodbye to her former betrothed, which he could understand, or did she want something more? Perhaps she had decided to take Lord Albert as a lover, giving him the ultimate gift of her virginity. A muscle worked in his jaw at the thought. Nay, he wouldn’t allow that, even if he had to kill the damned lecher. Easing his dagger from the scabbard at his waist, Stephen examined the blade. Nay, Albert of Tidwell would not lay with Mary this night, but unless that turned out to be the man’s plan, Stephen had no intention of letting the couple know of his presence. If Mary needed enough rope to hang herself, then so be it. One way or the other, tonight he would find out who owned the vixen’s loyalty, Lord Albert...or himself.

The day seemed endless for Stephen and Mary alike. Stephen found it hard to concentrate on the plans he’d made for the day, and Mary spent most of her time in the nursery with her sisters, evidently avoiding him. Stephen knew just why Mary wished to avoid him, but Henri was a bit confused. As he found Stephen deep in thought in the courtyard, staring off in the direction of the far apple orchard, he said, “I’ve not seen Lady Mary very much this day, Stephen. Is something amiss?” “She’s in the nursery,” Stephen replied rather curtly, not even turning toward his long-time friend, but every muscle in his broad back was tense, and Henri nodded. “‘Twas another fight, I take it,” he said, raising one sandy brow.

“Nay, not a fight, just...” Stephen began, then clamped his mouth shut. “Just what, Stephen?” Henri persisted. “Nothing,” Stephen gritted out, finally turning around. “Just leave it be, Henri,” he continued. “For once in your meddling life, just leave it be.” And then he was gone, stalking into the hall and leaving Henri to wonder what had happened this time. In the next moment, however, Henri gave a Gallic shrug and sauntered toward the kitchen hut, in search of the thing he loved almost as much as the ladies--food. ‘Twas not his business what had transpired between Stephen and his lady, and besides that, the facts would come out soon enough. Neither Stephen nor Lady Mary seemed to hide their feelings very well for very long. He smiled at the thought. Where there was smoke, there was fire, and those two were burning for each other. They just didn’t know it yet. There was never a boring moment at Almswick, Henri decided, entering the kitchen hut and smiling at a pretty, red-headed kitchen wench who seemed to be making up for lost time as she furiously kneaded a mound of bread dough. He wondered at that for a moment but then shrugged again, his thoughts sliding back to Stephen and Lady Mary. He’d almost miss the sparks once those two finally settled down to wedded bliss. “Good morrow, Cook,” he said then, placing an arm around the woman’s round shoulders. “Have you a spare bite for a starving Frenchman?”

The evening meal was strained, to say the least. Henri and Harold were sharing a pitcher of ale. They’d taken each other’s measure that very first day and had come to the conclusion that peace was better than fighting. Their first reluctant truce had turned into friendship, and now they shared many duties without complaint. For a Saxon, Harold really wasn’t a bad fellow, Henri thought. “They’ve been fighting again,” Harold said, gesturing toward Stephen and Mary. “They’ve not said one word to each other during this entire meal.” Henri smiled. “‘Tis up and down with them, mon ami,” he said, moving his hand in a wave-like motion. “Just like a ship on the sea. One moment calm, and the next”--he shrugged--“churning and heaving on the waters of life.” Harold chuckled, the sound deeply resonant in his throat. He liked the poetic Frenchman, and he had to admit that Lord Stephen had won his respect, too. The man had already made so many badly needed improvements at Almswick. Harold knew their situation could have been far worse. They could have, for instance, ended up under the lordship of Albert of Tidwell, whose reputation for cruelty far outweighed Lord Stephen’s firm hand. Aye, he thought, watching the two silent hosts of this meal, he was well pleased with the new Lord of Almswick. And, as Hilda was fond of saying, surely ‘twas only a matter of time before Lady Mary realized their good fortune, too. Mary, for her part, was exceedingly quiet because of her own churning emotions. Henri couldn’t possibly have known just how accurate his analogy was, for Mary felt like a ship buffeted by stormtossed waves. She was going to meet with Lord Albert tonight...and yet she shouldn’t be meeting with him at all.

If Stephen ever found out...No, she couldn’t think about that. She must hold to her resolve. Lord Albert deserved a proper farewell. That’s all she would do, Mary promised herself, simply tell him goodbye and hurry back to the manor house. No one need ever know of the meeting. At long last, the meal was finished, and Mary breathed a sigh of relief. Sitting beside Stephen had been very difficult, sharing his trencher and wine, but saying nothing. She hadn’t uttered one word, afraid that she’d blurt out the truth if she did. Thankfully, Stephen had not pressed her for conversation, and now he seemed quite content to join in a dicing game with his men. Mary felt a surge of hope. Surely she could leave the hall now without being noticed. She crept from the dining table, toward the back hallway, where she’d hidden her dark cloak. Quickly donning the warm garment, she looked over her shoulder once more, then slipped through the small door which led to her kitchen garden. The kitchen hut itself was only a few yards beyond the garden, and Mary couldn’t help wondering if Gwynneth was still hard at work in the hut. She wondered briefly about the girl who had delivered the message but then pushed the thought aside. What difference did it make how she had come by the message? It had been delivered, and that’s all that really mattered. An owl hooting in a tree startled Mary, and her hand flew to her heart. Then she shook her head and laughed nervously. ‘Twas naught but a normal eventide occurrence, certainly not some threat to her safety. Or an indication that she was about to be caught. After carefully skirting the garden, Mary headed toward the deep shadows of the courtyard wall. In a matter of moments, she slipped through a seldom-used small door in the wall, thankful that Stephen hadn’t yet discovered this avenue of escape. She had no idea that Stephen not only knew of that particular door, he had purposely left it unguarded this night. He was following close behind her, his own cloak as black as midnight, his soft-soled boots as quiet as death. The pathway to the far orchard was rather difficult to make out, as a misting fog had settled over the land, shrouding the countryside, but Mary picked her way carefully, and exactly one hour past sundown, she arrived at her destination, wholly unaware that Stephen was less then twenty feet behind her. “Over here, Lady Mary.” The words startled her, even though she’d been expecting them, and Mary peered through the swirling mist, trying to find a body to match the voice. A hand reached out and grabbed her arm, and she shrieked, only to have another hand clamp over her mouth. “‘Tis only me, my lady,” Albert said, immediately loosening his grip on her mouth when she nodded. “There’s no reason to be afraid, but we must needs be quiet. We wouldn’t want anyone to know of this meeting.” Mary had to agree with that, and she turned to face her former betrothed. He looked older than she remembered and...cruel. There was no better word for it. Had his gentlemanly behavior during their courtship been a mere facade? Before she could say anything, Albert grasped both her upper arms and pulled her into a suffocating embrace. His mouth descended, and he forced his way between her startled lips, literally raping her mouth with his tongue.

Revulsion swept through Mary at the hot, wet invasion, and rage boiled through Stephen’s veins as he watched from his shelter of trees. He couldn’t tell that Mary was fighting off the uninvited embrace, could only see her small hands flexing against Lord Albert’s shoulders while she seemingly returned his heated kiss with abandon. Anger, hot and sharp, tainted Stephen’s good sense. That was his woman kissing another man, and he was just reaching for his dagger when Mary pushed back from Lord Albert’s chest. Stephen’s breath was coming in deep, angry rasps now, but he decided to watch...and listen. “Lord Albert, please, you mustn’t,” Mary pleaded in a hoarse whisper. “I didn’t come here to kiss you. I came here to--” “You came, my lady,” Albert said, cutting off her words, “and that’s good enough for me. You don’t want to wed Dubois, a man you must surely consider your enemy. Your coming tonight has proven that to me better than anything else ever could.” Mary faltered. That statement was true enough, but she still had her sisters to consider...and her honor. She had knelt in the chapel and promised to marry Stephen. No matter her own feelings, she couldn’t back down now, and she was helpless to change the situation anyway. Watching from the shadows twenty feet away, Stephen saw Mary hesitate. He couldn’t quite hear what she was saying, but Tidwell’s voice carried well enough. Stephen’s mouth thinned into a grim line as Albert continued. “Admit it, Mary. You don’t want to marry your enemy.” He shook her slightly. “Admit it, woman, you don’t want to marry the Norman.” Stephen saw Mary nod, and he gritted his teeth...but still he waited and listened. Let her dig her own grave, he thought, good and deep. Albert pressed on. “I have a solution,” he said, grasping her tightly by the shoulders. “A way in which we can still be married and join our estates together.” Mary nodded again. In truth, she wasn’t agreeing. She was simply too confused and numb to speak--not only from Lord Albert’s words, but from his forceful kiss. He’d never behaved that way before, and she’d hated his invasion of her mouth. ‘Twas nothing at all like Stephen’s kisses... “We can kill him, Mary,” Albert continued. “It must look like an accident, of course, or the treachery of his own men, but if you’re willing to help me, surely we can kill the Norman, and then King William will allow us to wed after all.” Mary’s confusion turned to shock. She simply nodded yet again, acknowledging Lord Albert’s words, but Stephen interpreted her nod as agreement with the man’s plan. He saw red. Not from fear--he could deal with Tidwell easily enough--but from more anger than he’d ever felt in his life. Mary was agreeing to murder. He wouldn’t have thought her capable of such hatred, but apparently she was. “Will you help me, Mary?” Albert asked. “Will you help me kill Dubois? We could use poison, I suppose, or a fire. House fires are common enough. Mayhap if you snuck into his chamber and set the linens ablaze while he slept...”

Overcoming her momentary shock, Mary’s mouth fell open as Lord Albert’s latest words sank in. What was he saying? Fire? Poison? Kill Stephen? Sweet mother of God, what was she doing here? She tried to leave without even answering, tried to pull free of Lord Albert’s embrace, but he crushed her against his chest and forced another kiss upon her mouth. This time she nearly vomited from the assault. He was crushing his pelvis to hers in a grinding, lewd motion. “You want it, Mary. You know you do,” she heard him say. “I think I’ll take you right now. Once you’ve squirmed beneath my possession, you’ll come around to my way of thinking.” He held her by the hips, forcing her to feel his rigid maleness. “You were supposed to be mine, Mary, and Dubois must die. We cannot let him stand in our way.” Revulsion swept through Mary again, and she simply stood there, her eyes wide with disbelief. This was the man she loved? For the first time, she sincerely doubted she loved Lord Albert, doubted she had ever truly loved him. He was determined to commit murder, and for what? Simply to possess her body? Her estate? Were those things worth more to Lord Albert than a man’s life? Until this moment, it had never occurred to her that Lord Albert was her enemy, too. He had supported William of Normandy’s claim to the throne. At least Stephen had brought supplies and food to Almswick. Lord Albert had given her precious little over the long, hard winter. Of a sudden, everything became quite clear. Stephen was her enemy, certainly, but Lord Albert was no better. He wanted her estate, and he wanted her virginity, just like Hilda had said. Love had nothing at all to do with it. All his kind words during their courtship had been lies. At least Stephen had been forthright from the beginning. He already had Almswick. All he needed from her were heirs. Disgust at Lord Albert growing by the moment, Mary stepped back several feet. She didn’t want him to touch her again. Stephen watched all this, trying to understand what was happening now. Mary’s face was shrouded in swirling mist, and he couldn’t read her expression. Was she backing away from Lord Albert, or simply inviting him deeper into the orchard for an illicit tryst? Hand on his dagger, Stephen took a single step forward, intent on thwarting her harlot’s plan, but then suddenly Mary spoke, her voice loud and clear. “I must go back now, my lord,” she said. “I will consider all you have said tonight, but Lord Stephen will miss me soon, and I must return before that happens.” Albert nodded, sighing regretfully. “Aye, lady,” he agreed, “you must go back now, to avoid suspicion.” He grasped her shoulders again. “But we are not done with this, woman,” he added. “You will be mine. One way or another, Mary, you will be mine.” Mary wanted to shout, “No, no I cannot be yours!” but those words would not come. If she could just get away from this orchard, she could simply refuse to ever meet with him again. The simplest thing was to agree. Raising her chin, she said, “I understand, Lord Albert, but now I must go.” She even allowed him to kiss her again, an embrace which Stephen watched with growing fury. He had no way of knowing that Mary was simply trying to humor the man. >From Stephen’s vantage point, Mary had willingly played the harlot.

And he knew then just exactly how she would pay for her treachery.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Mary returned to the manor house as quickly as the deepening fog would allow. Her skin was chilled, her braid in disarray by the time the house came into view, and Mary brushed at stray tendrils of hair as she climbed the steps to her home. All she wanted now was to be alone in her chamber. She didn’t want to think this time. Nay, this time she wanted to forget. Forget Lord Albert’s forceful embrace, his repulsive kisses...and his threats against Stephen. She wanted to forget that most of all. Surely the man wasn’t serious. Nay, he couldn’t be, she decided, gratefully reaching her bedchamber. And even if he were, she wouldn’t help him. Surely that would put an end to his hideous plans. Slightly comforted by that thought, Mary stripped off her damp cloak and then her equally damp gown. Dressed only in her shift, she sat on her bed and began unbraiding her hair. She gasped when the door to her chamber flew open, revealing Stephen filling the doorway. He was furious. She could see that, even in the dim light of a single wall torch. His wide chest was rising and falling in agitation, massive fists clenched at his sides. He stood there for only a moment, then slammed the door shut, threw the bolt, and stalked toward her. Feeling like a child about to be thrashed, Mary quickly retreated to the top of her bed, pulling her knees up and shrinking against the headboard, her eyes wide with fear. But if Stephen noticed, he obviously didn’t care. He just kept coming. Stephen was beyond angry now. Just as Mary had surmised, his emotions were well into raw fury. Even so, he had decided to confront her with only a part of her treachery. He would tell her that he had followed her to the tryst with her damned lover, but he would pretend ignorance of what they had said. If Mary were truly going to act against his life, he had no intention of letting her know he was well aware of the plan. And if she was innocent, surely she would tell him about the conversation on her own. He was amazed that he could actually think of tactical maneuvers at a time like this, but his soldier’s training took precedence over emotion--even an emotion like rage. He smiled grimly as he reached her, grasped her by an ankle and pulled her down in the bed. As far as consequences for her actions? Aye, there would be consequences. Her two month grace period had just ended. She was going to learn right here and now just whose property she was--and who was lord and

master at Almswick. Without saying a word, Stephen placed both hands at the neck of her thin undergarment and ripped it open to the waist. Then he lowered himself over her body, holding her still with his strong thighs, and grasped one round, bare breast in each hand. “Has Lord Albert seen these magnificent tits?” he asked crudely. Not waiting for her answer, he added, “I followed you to the orchard tonight, Lady Mary”--the title was a slur--“and I saw you kissing your damned lover.” She simply lay there, obviously shocked at having her treachery discovered, saying nothing in her own defense. Gently rolling each nipple between finger and thumb, Stephen said, “Too guilty to answer, harlot?” then smiled darkly as she gasped beneath his fondling hands. Volatile emotions roiled in his mind--fury and arousal. His manhood was throbbing, urgent with need, and yet he was angry enough to kill. With a low groan, he bent his head and took a pink nipple into his mouth, sucking strongly, ignoring Mary’s whimpered protests and the small fists beating against his shoulders. He raised his head long enough to appreciate the tight, wet crown his tongue had created, then moved to the other breast, giving it equal attention. Many moments passed before Mary’s soft, pleading words finally broke through to his fevered brain. She was begging him to stop. Not because she didn’t want his attentions--her taut nipples betrayed her arousal--but because they were not yet wed. Hearing this, he did stop, raising up on his elbows. The look on her face told him more clearly than anything else that she had never been bared and suckled before. Her face bore a combined expression of maidenly shock and wanton desire, and he felt his anger diminish--not completely, but enough to allow clear thinking again. Eyes brimming with tears, breasts heaving with emotions, Mary whispered hoarsely, “Please, Stephen, not like this. Not until we’re married.” He saw her throat working as she held back a sob. He cursed softly, then rolled off her trembling body and gently pulled the edges of her shift back together. Propping himself on one elbow, he simply looked at her, his own emotions in turmoil. On the one hand, he wanted to take her right now, to thrust into her sweet depths and release his seed, marking her as his woman once and for all. On the other hand, the stark emotions in her soft brown eyes touched him deeply. Evidently she had never allowed Lord Albert to touch her intimately. He was relieved at that thought, and yet his anger was still a palpable presence, throbbing in his temples as surely as lust still throbbed in his groin. And the unanswered question of her loyalty was still there between them. Did she truly want to see him dead? He didn’t know, and he wasn’t going to ask. She would prove--or disprove--her loyalty soon enough. He had no fear of dying. He knew he could defeat Albert of Tidwell, and Mary herself, if need be, especially since he was aware of Tidwell’s plan. There was one thing he could do, however; the plan he had decided upon and fully intended carrying out. More than punishment, it was a necessary step. Mary needed to accept her fate. Her future was with

him--not Lord Albert. Willing or not, tomorrow she would become his wife. “Mary,” he began quietly, “I do not share what is mine. And you are mine, lady. Do not mistake that fact.” She swallowed hard and nodded, chewing her lower lip. Stephen continued. “I will apologize once again for doubting your virtue, lady.” His gaze dropped to her barely-covered breasts. “‘Tis quite apparent to me now that you have not been bared to any man but me, but your actions tonight nevertheless bordered on wantonness. I repeat, Mary, I do not share what is mine. We shall be wed on the morrow. That is the price you must pay for meeting Lord Albert tonight.” She gasped, then sat up, holding the edges of her tattered shift together with one trembling hand. “You promised me two months, my lord, and ‘tis only been one week,” she said. “Nay, sir, we cannot wed on the morrow. The banns must be posted--” “To hell with the banns!” Stephen growled, pulling her back down to the bed and looming over her, starkly male and threatening. “The king himself ordered this marriage. If Father Michael won’t wave the banns, then he can leave Almswick. I doubt the good priest will want to lose his bed and board over a trifle.” His voice dangerously soft, he added, “And if my wife ever meets with Lord Albert again, I will have her flogged, just like Sir John. Is that clear, woman?” He saw her blanch, then heard her whisper, “Aye, my lord.” Satisfied, he nodded. “Lord Albert will never kiss your provocative little mouth again, vixen.” His gaze dropped to her moist, parted lips. “Only I own that privilege, Mary. You belong to me.” He bent to claim her mouth, but she pushed against his chest, holding him back, her small fists grasping his tunic. “Don’t fight me, vixen,” he growled softly, seeing the fear in her tear-moistened eyes, whether from his threat or the thought of his kiss, he didn’t know, but it didn’t matter. Surely she would obey him now, so the threat was a moot point. “I am going to kiss you, Mary. I’m going to kiss you like you need to be kissed. Not like that great boor in the orchard did, but like your husband, your lord, and you aren’t going to fight me. You’re not even going to try.” He did kiss her then, claiming her mouth with fierce, savage passion, growling again as he forced her lips apart and thrust his tongue into her sweet, moist recess again and again, his loins thrusting against the soft mound of her womanhood in the same devastating rhythm. His need was fierce now, his lust nearly out of control. A dark part of his mind truly wanted to force her submission. With a guttural curse, he forced himself to stop, then got up from the bed. He had gained his objective. He had no intention of committing rape. He heard a soft gasp as he stood beside the bed. She had noticed the blatant erection beneath his clothes. When her eyes flew back to his face, her cheeks flaming, he said, “Tomorrow, vixen. Tomorrow I will claim you as mine...in every way.” Mary drew a trembling hand over her kiss-bruised lips as Stephen turned and left her chamber without

another word. She knew what she had seen beneath his tunic. In the most primitive sense, it was the proof of his dominance over her. And he would use that instrument of male rights tomorrow night, piercing her virginity and claiming her as his own, just as he’d said. “Oh God,” she whispered, clamping her thighs together on a sudden rush of maidenly fear, “What have I done?” But she knew exactly what she had done. She had met with Lord Albert, and now she must pay the consequences for that single act of foolishness. Would Stephen really carry out his threat to have her flogged if she should ever meet with Lord Albert again? Aye, he would, she answered herself. ‘Twas not an unusual punishment for a disobedient wife. Father Michael would even commend him for doing so. A husband was directly responsible for his wife’s behavior. Wife. Mary shuddered again. She would indeed be Stephen’s wife by this time tomorrow. He would not be put off any longer. On the morrow, their vows would be spoken. Then she would be his property, his chattel, his to use any way he saw fit. His to chastise and punish by the church’s decree. But that wasn’t what disturbed her the most, not really. ‘Twas every woman’s fate to become the property of her husband, after all, and a woman spent the years before her marriage as the property of her father. Nay, what bothered Mary most was that she was marrying her enemy, her Norman conqueror. She turned her head into the soft pillow and wept.

At the hastily arranged wedding the next afternoon, no one seemed to notice Mary’s bloodshot eyes or pale face. To her chagrin, most of Almswick’s folk seemed quite satisfied with this new turn of events-even Father Michael, who saw absolutely no problem with waving the banns. Hilda had helped her don the same yellow silk gown she had worn for the betrothal ceremony, and once again her hair had been worn unbound. Wisely, Hilda had said nothing about the torn shift, merely offering her motherly advice about the inevitable event to take place tonight. Now, with the ceremony over, Mary was suffering through yet another celebratory meal--this time sharing a trencher with her new husband--and her emotions were churning so fiercely that she knew she would vomit if Stephen forced her to eat. The ring he had placed on her finger less than an hour ago felt like it weighed at least ten stone; she could almost feel it burning her flesh like a brand. And her people were happy about the marriage. To Mary, that was the worst thing of all. Almswick’s knights and Stephen’s men were no longer discernible from one another as such. Many of her men had already adopted his royal blue and gold colors, and at least half her knights were now wearing their weapons again. They had become Stephen’s men. They were no longer solely hers. There were a few holdouts, of course, men like Sir John who had given Stephen their respect but still refused to swear fealty to him, but their number was dwindling on a daily basis.

The manor folk were happy. The knights were happy. Was Mary the only one who felt utterly miserable tonight? Anna appeared then, with Lily and Mae in tow, and Lily suddenly broke free of her nursemaid and scampered up onto the dais, golden hair flying out behind her as she ran. Reaching Stephen’s side, she came to an abrupt halt, tugged on his sleeve and said, “May I call you Papa now?” and Mary felt her heart fall through the floor. Surely Stephen would rebuff the child, and Lily had been hurt so much already. Besides, the title wouldn’t even be official. Stephen was Lily’s brother by marriage now, not her father, or even her step-father. But Mary could understand the child’s need for this fantasy. To her vast amazement, Stephen scooped the little girl onto his lap, patted her golden head and said, “Aye, little one, you may call me Papa if you wish.” Then he raised a dark brow at Mary’s slack-jawed expression. “You have kept your part of the bargain, my lady wife,” he said softly. “Now I will raise your sisters as if they were my own.” Mary felt a lump of fierce emotion in her throat. Stephen was accepting her sisters as his own children. Could she be wrong about him? Was that stern facade he wore so often merely that...a facade? No answer came to her, but as Stephen welcomed Mae onto his other knee, kissed her gently and then quietly admonished her to remove her thumb from her mouth, Mary came to the stark realization that he never would have sent her little sisters to France. Hilda had doubted it, and now Mary knew it was true. The threat had been a bluff--a battle tactic--and she had fallen for it. She felt embarrassed, angered, and yet deeply touched at the same time. This new Lord of Almswick would take very good care of her family. She knew that now, and it gave her a great deal of relief. She even began to eat. Sir Henri of Tours hadn’t missed one single emotion on the raised dais. Seated on Mary’s other side, he raised his goblet in a silent salute, then quaffed the wine. Smiling, he said, “Stephen will make a fine father for the children, my lady. Surely you must agree with that now.” Mary looked at the smiling Frenchman and suddenly realized another very important fact. “You knew all along,” she said quietly. “You knew he wouldn’t send my sisters away.” Henri shrugged. “‘Twas not my place to say so, my lady, but, aye, I knew he’d never hurt you that way. Stephen is often bent on victory, but he is not a cruel man.” Stephen was still occupied with the children, so Mary decided to take this opportunity to continue the conversation, hoping Stephen wouldn’t hear her over the din in the hall. “He has a great need to win, Sir Henri, I understand that--” “Henri. Please, my lady, just call me Henri.” He smiled warmly. “Everyone else does. Why should you be different, eh?” Mary nodded, smiling herself. He was such a likable fellow. “Very well, Henri,” she agreed. “Now, will you tell me something in all honesty?” “If I can, my lady, of course,” Henri replied. “Stephen’s need to dominate, his need to control...is that simply a facade? A way to hide his true feelings from those around him?”

Henri didn’t answer, instead looking over Mary’s shoulder, and she stiffened, suddenly realizing that Stephen had heard the question despite the surrounding chaos. She felt her face flush hotly, even more so when Stephen said firmly, “‘Tis time to go and prepare yourself, my lady wife. I will join you shortly.” She wanted to tell him it couldn’t possibly be time already, but Stephen was busy handing the children back to Anna, and then suddenly there was no more time for argument. Several goodwives descended upon her, drawing her to her feet, and half a dozen maidservants joined the group, laughing and leading her toward the winding stairs that would take her to the master bedchamber--the chamber she would now share with her husband--and Mary gulped. ‘Twas too soon, too soon! she told herself, reluctantly climbing the stairs. She didn’t want to go to Stephen’s room. She suddenly wanted nothing more than to follow Lily and Mae to the nursery--to be a carefree child again. How could she face this? How could she give herself to the enemy? Sweat broke out on her brow as the cheerful group reached the large oak portal, pushing it open and pulling her inside. Oh God, she thought, as they stripped her and helped her into the steaming tub. There was no help for it. She was to be bathed, perfumed, placed naked in a bed and then deflowered--before witnesses. She nearly fainted at the thought. Please, God, she prayed, give me strength.

Stephen climbed the steps two at a time, accompanied by a raucous group of men who had already managed to strip him down to his chausses. ‘Twas all in good humor, though, and he’d downed enough wine to feel in high spirits himself. Those feelings diminished considerably as he entered his chamber, followed closely by the rowdy men and their bawdy jokes. Mary was already in the bed, obviously naked, with a sheet drawn up to her bare shoulders for modesty’s sake. She was clutching that sheet for dear life, and her eyes were moist with unshed tears. Stephen felt his heart lurch. She was terrified. She was trying valiantly not to show it, but she was terrified nonetheless. Tradition demanded that the first bedding be witnessed. ‘Twas the best way to prove the bride’s purity, but Stephen decided in that moment to break with tradition. No one would watch, he vowed. He simply could not allow Mary to suffer that kind of utter humiliation. With a few stern words, the room was immediately cleared. Only Henri had enough nerve to raise a brow at Stephen’s orders, but then he simply shrugged and pulled the door closed behind him--which Stephen then bolted shut. “Thank you, my lord,” Mary whispered when they were finally alone. She was trembling from head to

foot. “I don’t think I could have borne it if...they all...witnessed...” Her words trailed off in obvious embarrassment. “Hush, my lady,” Stephen said, slowly approaching the bed. More than anything, he wanted to ease her nervousness, and the last thing in the world he wanted to do was hurt her, though he knew a certain amount of pain was inevitable. “We don’t have to rush this, Mary,” he added, slowly unlacing his chausses. “We have all night to accomplish what must be done. Try not to worry.” Mary appreciated his soothing voice as much as his kind words. He was trying to help her, and she felt a tightening in her chest. He could have simply demanded his rights in a brutish fashion--in front of everyone. In fact, she’d expected him to do just that. And yet now he was trying to comfort her, even turning his back while he removed his clothes. He slid the chausses down his lean hips, revealing taut buttocks and heavily muscled thighs, then eased the garment off one long leg and then the other, finally turning to face her again. She saw the great length and width of his aroused maleness for only a moment before he quickly snuffed the candle, then climbed under the sheet beside her. She realized that this, too, had been done for her comfort, and when he gently pulled her against his naked frame, she shuddered only a little. He was helping her all he could, and by God, she would be strong. They were married now, and ‘twas a wife’s duty to ease her husband’s need. Honor demanded it, and above all else, Mary was honorable. Honor. Suddenly Mary remembered the meeting with Lord Albert, and for the first time since Stephen had confronted her the night before, she wondered if he had overheard that conversation. Not only that, but honor demanded that she tell him of Lord Albert’s threat if he had not heard it for himself. A fierce emotion she couldn’t yet define pierced Mary’s heart at the thought of Stephen’s possible death, and she pushed against his chest. She must tell him of the threat! She must tell him now. “Stephen,” she whispered desperately. He was kissing her bare shoulder, running his large hand down her back. He didn’t seem to hear her. “Stephen,” she repeated, pushing harder against him. “Stephen, you must stop. There is something I must tell you.” He raised his head from her shoulder, then speared his fingers through her unbound tresses. “You have lovely hair, ma chère,” he whispered, then bent to her lips, intent on claiming them. “Nay, Stephen,” Mary said, turning her head. “You must listen to me. ‘Tis about last night...’tis about Lord Albert.” She felt him stiffen, then watched as he left the bed. Without a word, he lit the bedside candle again, then used it to light others, even the wall torches. He seemed totally oblivious of his nakedness now, no longer trying to hide it from her. With the room brightly lit, Mary pulled the sheet over her own naked form, wondering fearfully what her new husband was planning to do. She chewed her lower lip, belatedly realizing she should not have mentioned Lord Albert in bed. Stephen himself wasn’t exactly sure what he wanted to do right now--other than the obvious. He’d

wanted Mary to confess her treachery, had even hoped she would, but by the saints, this was a poor time to do it. Nevertheless, he wanted to see her expressive face very clearly for the next little while. Then he would know the truth. “I’m sorry, Stephen,” Mary said, sitting up against the headboard, drawing the sheet with her. “‘Tis just that Lord Albert threatened your life last night, and I simply couldn’t let you...” She blushed hotly. “I couldn’t let you continue without telling you about that threat. It just wouldn’t be right to not let you know.” Stephen pushed a hand through his tousled hair, seeing what he’d wanted on her pretty face--absolute sincerity. “I know he threatened my life, Mary,” he finally said. “I heard most of the conversation, at least Lord Albert’s part of it. I didn’t tell you that because I wasn’t sure of your involvement with the plot.” Mary gasped, clutching the sheet to her heart. “You mean you thought I would...that I would actually agree with his vile plan?” Tears filled her eyes. “Henri said you weren’t cruel, my lord, but now I think he was wrong. How could you accuse me of having so little honor?” In all honesty, Stephen had never considered a woman’s honor before now. Men had honor. Men were bound by honor. But honor in a woman? Then he thought of his own lady mother, and he knew he’d misjudged Mary very badly. She was so like his own mother--loyal to a fault--and honorable. Wholly, completely honorable. He felt like a heel. And a fool. “I’m sorry, Mary,” he said, approaching the bed. “I heard Gwynneth give you that message, and then I followed you to the orchard, where you kissed Lord Albert--more than once. My senses were reeling, Mary, and all I could think was that you had betrayed me. ‘Twas a small leap of logic from there to the thought that you might not be opposed to killing me.” “Oh, Stephen,” Mary said softly, “now I understand your anger last night. How could you not have been angry if you thought me capable of such treachery?” She reached up to touch his arm. “I didn’t want this marriage, but I’d never be a party to murder, my lord--not even yours.” She smiled just the littlest bit. Stephen returned her smile, then sat down beside her. With one issue resolved, his thoughts were quickly returning to more pleasant diversions. “‘Twas just a misunderstanding, little vixen,” he said, his voice husky. He eased the sheet down, baring her breasts. “Let’s call it forgotten, and begin this wedding night again.” She blushed under his first caress, then said, “Please, my lord. I need to know one more thing--about Gwynneth.” Her nipples peaked as he gently teased them. Admiring their quick tightening, wanting to lick and suckle them, he said rather absently, “What about Gwynneth?” “Will you punish her for delivering Lord Albert’s message?” Intent on his purpose, Stephen bent to those tempting nipples. “Nay,” he said, licking one tight pink bud, smiling as Mary gasped. He suckled for a delightful moment, then sighed and sat up, continuing. “The wench was naught but a messenger. Have no fear, my lady. I’m not a completely cruel man. I’ll forgive the girl her misdemeanor”--he paused significantly--“but I don’t think I have to remind you that you are never to see Lord Albert again.” He looked into her eyes, totally serious now. “It might not be safe,

Mary. Promise me you’ll never meet with him again.” She paled slightly, obviously remembering his words of the night before. “You made a very effective threat, my lord,” she said, raising her chin in a show of bravado. “I would be a fool to risk a flogging just to see my former betrothed.” Stephen nodded. “I’m glad we understand each other, lady.” Wanting no further discussion on that particular topic, he grasped the linen sheet and pulled it off completely, leaving his bride entirely nude, ignoring her attempts to cover herself. He had no intention of telling her he would never carry out that threat--he still needed leverage to keep her from Lord Albert. ‘Twas for her own safety. She was too innocent to sense true evil, but Stephen had sensed it last night in the orchard. Nay, she should never see Lord Albert again. She whimpered as he eased her down in the bed, then lay beside her, gently stroking her thighs, her belly, her breasts. “No, Stephen...please...not yet,” she stammered, blushing hotly again. “There’s something else--” “Enough, woman,” he interjected, kissing her throat. “We’ve shared enough words. ‘Tis time to do something far more pleasurable than talk.” “The candles, the torches,” she whispered, her cheeks flaming. “Please, Stephen...there’s too much light.” “Shhh,” Stephen answered, stroking her hair. “There’s no reason for shame. Your body is lovely, and surely by now you’ve grown accustomed to our nakedness.” He kissed her gently. “‘Tis time to give up your maidenly shyness, Mary. I want to enjoy my wife.” She nodded slowly, and Stephen smiled again. He’d tried to be considerate, but now it truly was time to move on. He lifted her hand, placing it against his chest. She shuddered at first, then slowly pushed her fingers through his chest hair. She seemed to like the texture, moving her small hand through the dark, springy curls again and again. Her cheeks were still pink, but as he explored her body, she began exploring his, as well. His manhood tightened almost painfully when gentle fingers brushed his abdomen, then touched his thighs. His innocent bride was driving him mad, and he sucked in a deep breath. It was time to go further--much further. He kissed her softly, lingeringly, then moved his hand to her thighs. “Open your legs, ma petite,” he whispered, then kissed her again. “I must prepare you for my entry.” She whimpered and stiffened, her maidenly fears evidently rushing back to the surface, but she obeyed, parting her thighs. He stroked her lightly, gently, and she gasped at the intimate invasion. He knew the sound was part pleasure and part fear, and he stroked her lightly again. “You’re doing just fine, ma chère,” he reassured her, kissing the corners of her mouth. “Try to relax. Your enjoyment will be far greater if you don’t fight me.” He slipped a finger into her tight virginal depths, intending to stretch her slowly, gently, but quickly realized she was nowhere near ready to receive him. She was trying so very hard to obey, trying to relax, but she was still fever dry, her passion submerged beneath fear.

Stephen had spent some memorable nights in the East during his mercenary years, and he knew of one technique guaranteed to quickly bring a woman to orgasm. With fulfillment, Mary would be moist and soft, receptive to his penetration. Her pain would be greatly diminished by her own pleasure. A half smile curved his lips as he made his decision. ‘Twould be quite enjoyable for him, as well. Shifting until he was kneeling between Mary’s legs, he bent her knees and spread her thighs wide. Before she had any notion of what he was planning, he raised her hips and lowered his mouth to her virginal sweetness, expertly flicking his tongue over her tiny bud of sensation. He heard her shocked gasp and murmured protest, felt her hands trying to push him away, but he continued relentlessly. In a matter of moments, her flesh became moist, the tiny pink nubbin swelling and throbbing beneath his tongue. He eased a single finger inside her again, then two, as he tongued that sweet bud, stretching her opening ever so gently. Her arousal peaked, and she shattered, attaining her first climax. Stephen smiled as he raised his head. She was panting, gasping, her face flushed as she tried to understand what had just happened. “Stephen,” she whispered hoarsely, “what have you done?” Rising to his knees, he bent to kiss her parted lips. “I have prepared you for my entry, ma chère,” he said, “just as I promised.” Sitting back on his heels, he enjoyed the sight of her fully-aroused body. There was nothing more beautiful than a woman in climax. Her breasts were full and swollen, her nipples erect, her womanhood deeply pink, still throbbing with sexual joy. She was utterly beautiful, her sensuality finally awakened. Then he frowned, looking at the tiny pink cleft he had just pleasured so thoroughly. His gaze dropped to his erection, and his frown increased. At nearly seven feet tall, Stephen was a very large man, and his aroused shaft reflected that size. How could he take this tiny, delicate woman without causing her terrible pain? Restraint, he decided. Restraint was the only way. Adjusting his position between Mary’s thighs, he supported his weight on his elbows. “Mary,” he said, his voice serious. “You must listen to me now.” She nodded, but her eyes were closed. She was still in that dreamy lassitude which follows orgasm, obviously unwilling to speak. He stroked her cheek tenderly, trying to draw her full attention. When she finally looked at him, he said, “There will be pain, Mary. Even though your body is aroused, there will be pain. I’m sorry, ma chère, but it cannot be helped.” “I know,” she answered in a bare whisper, trembling slightly. “Hilda told me about the pain.” Stephen nodded. “Grasp my arms, Mary. Aye, just like that. Now hold on tight.” Stephen had had a great deal of experience with loose wenches, jaded widows and such, but very little with innocent maidens. In truth, Mary was the only virgin he’d ever deflowered, and for the first time in his life he felt insecure with a woman.

Cursing softly, knowing there was no other way, he guided himself to her tight feminine channel, then penetrated quickly, rending her maidenhead with a fiercely restrained thrust. He heard her gasp, saw tears fill her eyes, but then she bit her lip, determined not to cry out. She had grasped his arms at the moment of penetration, grasped them so tightly he might well sport bruises on the morrow, but she was incredibly brave, this wife of his. She had taken the pain without a whimper of complaint. He was very proud of her in that moment, and he kissed away her tears, moving within her very, very gently, stretching her a little more with each slow thrust. Her breathing gradually slowed to normal, and he knew her pain was easing. Still moving within her carefully, gently, gradually increasing his pace, he felt her body respond. She clutched his shoulders, arched her back, then moaned, returning his kisses with heated abandon. Then she moved her hips in an instinctive motion, trying to deepen his thrusts. He’d only given her half his length, fearing he might hurt her, and he tried to restrain her hips. But she resisted his attempt, obviously lost in her own need. Murmuring something unintelligible, she lifted her legs and encircled his waist, pulling him deeper into her newly-opened depths. He nearly lost control. He was imbedded more deeply than he’d intended with this first mating, and yet she was receiving him gladly, moaning softly each time he penetrated her sweetness. She felt so wonderful beneath him, hot and silky and yet so tight she was like a second skin. Then she nipped his earlobe with her small, white teeth and murmured a wicked phrase, and Stephen growled low, his restraint finally shattered. He thrust nearly all the way to the hilt. Lifting her bottom in both hands, he drove into her with long, deep thrusts, finally giving her every inch of his great length, just as she’d requested. He closed his eyes, groaning, fully immersed in unbearable pleasure, mindless to anything but the primitive need for release. Taut buttocks flexing and contracting, he pumped into her again and again...harder and harder...over and over...until he heard her scream. Stopping abruptly, sweat pouring off his body, Stephen thought for one heart-stopping moment that he’d actually torn her asunder. Dear God, what had he done? He’d known she was too small to take his full length this first time! Then he felt the strong convulsions of her womanhood, and she began kissing him ecstatically, even as she continued to spasm. Her exuberance pulled him over the edge, and he spilled his seed in fierce bursts of pleasure that he thought might never end, kissing her lips, her forehead, her cheeks, almost laughing with relief that he’d brought her to pleasure a second time instead of hurting her. She was an amazing woman, he decided, finally collapsing beside her, gasping for air. A truly amazing woman. As soon as his breath returned to normal, Stephen turned to Mary, wanting to tell her how very much she had pleased him. She was already asleep, warm and rosy from being so thoroughly loved, her sweet lips slightly parted, her hair a tousled golden-brown halo around her head. He swallowed a lump of emotion. Mary of Almswick was just what he’d always wanted, a woman fully capable of bearing and raising his children--and of warming his bed with incredible passion. He smiled. Surely he’d won another victory tonight. Reaching for the covers at the foot of the bed, then pulling Mary into a warm embrace, his last conscious thought was that he was incredibly pleased with this little vixen--his wife.

CHAPTER TWELVE

Mary awakened to the sound of rumbling thunder. At first she thought she was alone in her own small bed, but then realized she was totally unclothed, lying spoon fashion against a very warm, very large body. Memories rushed into her mind, and she blushed. Chewing her lower lip, she carefully moved the muscular forearm encircling her waist, then scooted to the edge of the bed. Stephen grumbled in his sleep, then flopped over onto his back, the arm Mary had moved flung above his head. The motions dislodged his covers, nearly baring him completely, and Mary quickly averted her eyes. After a few moments, her gaze returned to the man who was now her husband. She couldn’t stop herself from looking at him. Only the night candle was lit now--Stephen had apparently doused all the others--but even in the dim light, the magnificence of his male physique was starkly evident. A crack of thunder boomed beyond the shuttered windows, the sound so loud Mary’s hand flew to her heart, immediately followed by the drumming sound of pounding rain, but her eyes never left Stephen. She was tempted to touch that wide, muscular chest, to push her fingers through the curling black hair that covered it, thinning to a line on his flat belly and then widening again at his groin. But she didn’t. She was tempted to touch the beard stubble on his strong jaw, to trace the chiseled lips that had given her such incredible pleasure--especially in her most intimate, secret place--but she did not do that, either. Her thoughts were as tumbled as the spring storm raging outside her window. How could she have given her body so wholeheartedly to the enemy? She knew he was a good man. The way he had accepted her sisters, and the way he truly seemed to care for her people proved that. She really had no choice about accepting him as her lord and husband, but he was the enemy. And she had played the harlot in his arms. Still chewing her lip, Mary watched Stephen sleep. He mumbled and turned his face toward her, and she couldn’t help smiling just the littlest bit. He looked far more innocent asleep than awake. Dark, thick lashes lay against his high cheekbones, and a lock of tousled, raven-black hair touched his forehead. His mouth was soft and relaxed, demanding nothing of her--not even a kiss.

She shivered. Dear God, how she loved his kisses. But she shouldn’t love his kisses--or his lovemaking. He was the enemy, the Norman enemy. Her father and brothers might have even died by his hand. The pain of losing her family freshened inside Mary, feeling like a sharp knife to her heart, and she bit back a sob. Even her mother’s suicide had been in effect caused by the Normans. How could she have so willingly given herself to this man? Mary rose from the bed, ignoring her nakedness, and crossed to the shuttered windows. She flung one open and let the rain come in, wetting her face as she breathed in the clean smell of the springtime storm. Lady Evelyn would still be alive today if not for the events at Hastings last October. In a very real way, the Normans had caused the eternal damnation of her soul, because of the suicide. She was buried in unhallowed ground, ignored by Father Michael, forgotten by the God-fearing folk of Almswick. Salty tears mingled with the rainwater on Mary’s face. She should have resisted Stephen. He had forced her into marriage, but he certainly hadn’t forced his way into her body. She sobbed again, guilt washing over her in stronger torrents than the rain battering the countryside. She had even asked him to give her everything, to take her without restraint. “Mary, come back to bed. ‘Tis not even dawn yet.” The deep, sleepy voice startled her, and Mary whirled back toward the bed, her hand at her throat. “I didn’t know you were awake, my lord,” she rasped. “I’m sorry if I disturbed your sleep.” Stephen propped himself up on one elbow, pushing back his tousled hair. He had awakened to the sound of a storm and a definite rush of cool air, immediately feeling the loss of his wife’s warm little body. She was standing at the open window now, with rain wetting her face--or were those tears? He couldn’t tell from this distance, but he needed to know. “Come here, Mary,” he said, the words gentle, yet firm. He saw her reluctance, but then she slowly closed the shutter she had opened, blocking out the storm once more. She turned back to him and padded barefoot across the dimly lit room, lovely in her nudity, her pink nipples peeking through a curtain of long, long hair--just as he’d once imagined they would. But she was obviously embarrassed that he was seeing her in a state of undress. Silly, really, after what they had shared last night. Stephen tamped down his burgeoning lust as a possible reason for her tears suddenly occurred to him, and he frowned. “Are you in pain, Mary?” he asked, swallowing hard. She had received him so sweetly, so eagerly. Had he hurt her after all? “Nay,” Mary whispered, reaching the bed. He saw her gaze fall to the spatters of virginal blood on the sheet, and her cheeks flamed. Then she pulled her hair over one shoulder and eased into the bed, saying nothing more. Stephen breathed a sigh of relief and drew her into his arms. At least he hadn’t hurt her, but why, then, was she crying? With a callused thumb, he traced the tears on her cheeks. “Why do you weep, my lady?” he asked.

“‘Tis naught of importance,” she answered, but he knew she was lying. Something was bothering her terribly, and he had a sudden suspicion of what it was. He felt the bitter taste of defeat. And he thought he’d won a victory last night? “You lie, lady,” he quietly stated, drying her tears with the edge of the sheet, “and I will not suffer lies from my wife. Now, tell me the truth. Why do you weep?” She tried to turn away, but he gently grasped her chin and held her gaze. Sighing in resignation, she finally said, “I am wed to the enemy.” Stephen nodded. ‘Twas just as he’d thought. Then a small stab of anger tightened his belly, just as thunder rolled again outside the chamber. Perhaps she was still lying, at least in part. “Mary,” he said, his voice tight, “I want the entire truth. Are you crying because you are wed to me--or because you cannot possibly marry Lord Albert now?” Her warm brown eyes filled with new tears, and her lower lip trembled. “‘Tis not that, my lord,” she finally said, her throat working as she fought for control. “I am your wife now, and I accept that. ‘Tis just that I...responded...to you, and I should not have done that.” She was telling the truth. He could see that, and he felt sweet relief. ‘Twas not a terrible problem. Surely all maidens felt some measure of guilt for responding lustily in bed. His mouth curved into a half smile. He knew exactly how to diminish that guilt, too. “Of course you responded, ma chère,” he said sincerely. “If not, you truly would be in pain right now. ‘Tis just nature’s way of protecting you, certainly nothing to feel guilty about.” The color in Mary’s cheeks heightened again, but she nodded. “I understand,” she said softly. And she did understand. She had no choice about submitting to her husband, but the sexual act would be quite painful if her body was not aroused. She felt comforted, her guilt lessened. She had not played the harlot to her enemy. She had simply protected herself from physical pain. Her burden eased, she fell asleep in Stephen’s strong arms--for the moment forgetting just how enthusiastically she had “protected” herself.

Mary awoke the second time to soft kisses on her temple. “Your bath awaits, my lady,” Stephen said, and Mary opened her eyes to see him sitting on the edge of the bed, clad only in breeches. Her eyes shifted to the steam rising from the large, brass-bound wooden tub, and she instinctively pulled the sheet up to her chin, covering her nakedness. Stephen chuckled. “Fear not,” he said, kissing her lightly. “I summoned the servants, but none glimpsed your lovely young body, and we are alone now. Come,” he added, holding out a hand, “whilst the water is still warm.” Reluctantly, Mary placed her small hand in his massive one, shivering a little at the way his hand completely surrounded her own. He could snap her in two with those strong hands, she knew. He could also caress her into mindless passion with those long, lean fingers--not to mention his mouth--and she

shivered again, remembering. Thoughts of her harlot’s response pressed down on her once more. Never again, she silently vowed. Stephen led Mary to the tub, watched her settle into place with a soft sigh and then quickly stripped. He heard her gasp sharply, then heard her say, “Surely you do not want to bathe with me, my lord!” In answer, he merely climbed into the large tub and eased his tall frame into the steaming water, directly across from her. “Of course I’m going to bathe with you, my lady.” His grin was unrepentant. “Why should I waste this hot water?” “Must you?” she croaked, and his smile broadened. She blushed so easily, so prettily. A small demon in him loved making her do it. “Aye, I must,” he affirmed, picking up a chunk of rose-scented soap and a small linen cloth. “‘Tis a husband’s privilege to bathe his bride.” His voice husky, he added, “I intend to wash every delightful curve of your sweet body, my dear wife--after which you will wash me.” Ignoring her whimpered protests, he soaped her breasts in a slow, seductive rhythm, paying special attention to her nipples, and her breath caught in her throat. Stephen couldn’t help smiling again. She was obviously embarrassed, but also increasingly aroused. Her breathing ragged, she tried to push his hands away and cover herself. “Nay, lady,” he murmured, grasping her hands and pinning them in her lap. She was so perfect sitting there, with her nipples taut and her glorious hair lying over the edge of the tub, reaching all the way to the floor. Perhaps she was not a classic beauty, but the sight of her just now pleased him immensely. His manhood swelled, throbbing insistently. He knew he must have her again. Slowly, despite her resistance, he moved her hand to the sweet essence of her own womanhood. Her eyes widened as he gently forced her to stroke herself, to learn the essence of her femininity, and he heard her gasp softly as passion rose inexorably, uncontrollably. When her breaths were coming in short little pants, he released her hand, then continued lathering her breasts and aroused nipples. He washed her arms and hands, then her belly and legs, finally pressing the cloth to her sweet core, heightening her arousal as he cleansed her thoroughly with soft, sure strokes. Her breath broke on a soft sob. He continued the erotic assault until she was on the very brink of climax, then suddenly withdrew his hand from between her thighs. “You may wash me now, lady,” he said, then watched with pleasure as she slowly opened her passion-glazed eyes, trying to understand his words. Mary’s mind felt muddled, but she whispered, “Aye, my lord.” She did not want to accept what had just happened--partly by her own hand!--but she understood her duty as a wife. Sitting up a little, she reached for Stephen’s sandalwood soap. Sucking in her breath, determined to quell the disquieting feelings deep in her belly, Mary began washing Stephen’s broad chest. She soaped the muscles and the dark, curling hair, amazed to see his nipples tighten under her ministrations, just as hers had under his. Chewing her lip, she drew the cloth along his iron-muscled upper arms, then his forearms, finally cleaning his hands, mimicking what he had done to her. She reached for the soap again, lathering the

cloth, delaying the inevitable, but then slowly began washing his upper belly and each long leg. She purposely avoided his groin until he said in a taut voice, “All of me, Mary. Wash all of me.” Oh God, must I? she asked herself, but the dark light in his eyes answered her question. Aye, she must. Slowly, reluctantly, she drew the cloth down to the essence of his masculinity, gasping softly when she realized it was fully aroused, thick, impossibly long and throbbing with stark male need. Sandalwood fragrance drifted to her nostrils as she enclosed that huge tumescence within the linen cloth. Holding her eyes tightly shut, she smoothed the cloth up and down his shaft, then washed the tight sacs below it. Stephen’s control snapped. As Mary’s soft little hands soaped his testicles, he nearly erupted. Grasping her wrist, he said in a deep, rasping voice, “Turn around and lean against the side of the tub, Mary. I need to take you right now.” She obeyed, her own need clearly unbearable now. He ran his hands over her sweet bottom, then quickly slipped into her from behind. “Am I hurting you?” he rasped, thrusting gently, determined to pull back if he was, praying he wasn’t. “Nay,” she whispered, then gasped as he penetrated deeply, fully. He could feel her softness stretching to receive him, and her gasp became a moan of pleasure. Her hair was over one shoulder, trailing on the floor. He gently bit her enticingly exposed neck, and she moaned softly again, arching her bottom to meet his next deep thrust. “Mon Dieu,” Stephen groaned, biting her again. “Mon Dieu,” he repeated, then began thrusting rhythmically, strongly, pumping into her and ignoring the water sloshing out of the tub. He was quickly approaching exquisite ecstasy. Then he heard her sharp cry of delight, felt the convulsions of her orgasm, and he shuddered, releasing his seed in a fierce, pulsing rush. Heart thudding, he finally collapsed around her, careful to keep his weight off her back. In the aftermath, he shifted in the tub and pulled Mary onto his lap, kissing her gently. She was limp and sated, he knew she had received as much pleasure as he had--and yet tears were filling her eyes again, slowly rolling down her flushed cheeks. Perplexed, he said, “Why do you weep now, my lady?” “I truly am a harlot,” Mary replied on a sob. “You are my husband, my lord, my master, but you are also my enemy. I do not want my body to respond so wantonly to your lovemaking, and yet it does. ‘Tis a sin, I fear, a grave sin against my dead family, and I don’t know what to do.” Stephen knew what she should do. She should give up the ridiculous notion that he was her enemy. But he didn’t say that. In fact, he said nothing at all, simply held her and rocked her gently as the water gradually cooled. Thunder rumbled again, and Stephen smiled wryly. ‘Twas a fitting first day of his married life--to a woman who didn’t want him at all.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

“Why not simply attack Almswick and kill the Norman?” Edgar asked calmly from his comfortable chair as Albert paced the floor. “Ever since Gwynneth told me about the wedding, you’ve been chomping at the bit to do something. Why not an all-out attack? Surely our men are as good as Dubois’s.” Albert stopped pacing and shook his head. “Nay. Attacking Almswick might bring down the king’s wrath, Edgar. Dubois should be killed by someone other than me. I want King William to see what a perfect husband I would make for the poor, defenseless widow.” Edgar smiled cruelly. “As, yes, the widow. But before she can become a widow, a woman must be a wife--which Lady Mary now is.” His smile became a leer. “I wonder what it felt like to deflower her, Father. Dubois must have had a glorious wedding night.” Albert reddened with anger, his nostrils flared, and his breath hissed out between clenched teeth. “Shut up, Edgar,” he snarled. “I don’t want to hear another word.” Pacing again, Albert pushed a hand through his graying hair. By God, Mary was supposed to be his, and now she was the Norman’s. The bloody lout had taken her innocence. Even now, three days after the wedding, he was probably plowing that lovely young field on an hourly basis. Albert would be doing just that if he were in the man’s place--even if he had to tie the wench to the bed. The thought of seeing her writhing and struggling, completely helpless, appealed to him greatly. His loins tightened as he pictured the scene in his mind, and he groaned low in his throat. Would he ever have an opportunity to use her that way? Edgar was still smiling, and Albert knew then that his words had been intentional. He’d wanted to drive his father to aroused distraction. Albert wasn’t surprised in the least when his son’s leering gaze settled on a pretty young wench busily laying new rushes. Edgar said, “Mayhap deflowering a different wench would take your mind off Lady Mary, Father. Perhaps that sweet morsel over there could help ease your...problem.” The young girl looked up, her eyes widening with fear. Albert enjoyed that. He liked being the cause of her trepidation. If he wanted to use her, she’d have no choice but to comply. Female servants were meaningless chattel, meant for the master’s amusement and pleasure. And yet there were other more important things on his mind right now. “Perhaps later,” he finally said, watching the girl tremble. “But what we need now is a new plan, Edgar.” He lowered his voice so only his son would hear. “I had hoped Lady Mary would help us kill her bloody lord, but since that’s

obviously not going to happen we must needs devise another way to rid Almswick of Dubois.” Edgar seemed thoughtful for a time, stroking his goatee. Then he said, “I may know of a way to kill the Norman without ever going near him, Father.” Albert returned his son’s steady gaze, noting his cruel, feral smile. He had a feeling Edgar was thinking of more than just how to kill Dubois. The boy was more useless than not, but sometimes he actually came up with a creditable plan--and he had managed to learn much about Almswick through that slut, Gwynneth. Anxious for any answer to his dilemma, he said, “How?” “There’s a Saxon rebel who might do the job for us--if the price is right.” Albert took the seat opposite his son. “Tell me more.” “The man’s name is Ranulf. He lost his manor to a Norman, but in this instance the holding was attacked and seized. Ranulf’s wife and daughter were raped and killed. His son was simply executed. All of this was done while Ranulf was away. He had survived the Battle of Hastings, and, for the safety of his family, had intended pledging fealty to King William. He was on his way to London to do just that. Needless to say, he was a little disheartened by the attack on his manor. Since then, he has collected a hodge-podge of dissatisfied men--mostly dispossessed knights like himself. They spend their time causing as much trouble for the Normans as possible. Surely you’ve heard of him?” “Aye, I’ve heard the name,” Albert admitted, “but how do you know so much about the man? Do you know where he is now?” Edgar crossed one booted leg over the other and leaned back in his chair. “I know where he is, or at least where he might be. As far as knowing all about Ranulf? I quite enjoy posing as a commoner, as you well know, Father. One can learn quite a bit when not wearing the trappings of wealth.” Albert grunted at that. Edgar’s slovenly habits had already proved useful, gaining him easy access to Almswick. Mayhap they could prove useful again. “Can you speak with this Ranulf?” “I could,” Edgar replied. His cruel smile returned full force. “But I, too, have a price.” Albert frowned. “What kind of price? Having Almswick would be to your benefit as well as mine. What more could you ask?” Edgar looked at the young girl again, and Albert followed his gaze. The wench was standing very still now, helpless with fear. Albert had an idea what price his son would ask, and it would certainly be a small one if he was correct. “What price, Edgar?” he repeated, impatient to get on with it. “The wench, Father,” Edgar answered calmly. “I want to watch you deflower her. She’s ripe enough, but quite young. Surely she’s still virginal; if not the deal’s off. I have a yen to watch a virgin squirming beneath you, not a harlot who would undoubtedly welcome your attentions.” Albert stiffened. He’d expected Edgar to demand use of the girl for himself. The idea of being watched really was quite appealing, though, and he could play out his fantasies about Lady Mary. Perhaps once Mary became his wife, he’d allow Edgar to watch that possession, too. Smiling, he said, “You are despicable, Edgar.”

“I am your son,” Edgar replied, inclining his head. “Aye, that you are,” Albert retorted with a hearty laugh, slapping his thigh, “that you are indeed. Very well, I shall meet your price.” He gestured to the young girl, who immediately came to stand before him, obedient despite her obvious fear. “Have you been touched yet, wench?” he asked bluntly. “N-Nay, milord,” she stammered. Two tears rolled down her cheeks. “I’m still a virgin.” Albert raised a brow, and Edgar nodded, satisfied. Rising from his chair, Albert crossed to an ironbound trunk and produced several long, thin pieces of leather, then gestured for two guards in the room to attend him. “Take the wench to my chamber, strip her, and tie her to the bed,” he ordered. Edgar laughed as the guards took the sobbing girl away. “Tying her to the bed, Father? I’m impressed,” he said. “I didn’t know you enjoyed such delightful diversions.”

Later, after his “price” had been paid, Edgar’s thoughts turned to Ranulf, the Saxon rebel...and how to reach him. He also had a secondary plan in mind. Once Dubois was dead, Edgar had every intention of hiring Ranulf to kill his own father. Then Tidwell Manor would be his, and what was to stop him from petitioning King William for Lady Mary’s hand? Nothing. Nothing at all. Almswick could be his, too. Edgar knew of a tavern Ranulf often used for meetings. The tavern was in King’s Vale, the closest township to both Almswick and Tidwell. Would the knave be there anytime soon? That Edgar didn’t know for sure, but he was going to find out. He would hire the man for two killings. He smiled, enjoying his plans.

Two days later, a well cloaked figure slipped into the back room of the Boar’s Head tavern in King’s Vale. The man felt relatively safe, despite his outlaw status. Several members of the tavern owner’s family had been killed by the Normans; the owner was only too pleased to help the rebels any way he could. He would sound an alarm if ought went amiss, so the rebel leader, Ranulf, had agreed to this meeting with a stranger. The smell of unwashed bodies mingled with those of cooking and wood smoke as Ranulf closed the oak door, then seated himself, taking the measure of the man already in the room. Always cautious, Ranulf simply studied the stranger for a time, not saying a word. The man’s rank body odor and filthy clothes identified him as a commoner, but his dark goatee beard was suspiciously well groomed for a simple peasant. Ranulf suspected there was more here than met the eye. Mayhap the man was a merchant in disguise. “Why have you been looking for me?” he finally said. The man quaffed his ale before responding. “I have a proposition for you.” “What kind of proposition?” Ranulf asked quietly. His face was impassive, neither admitting nor denying anything.

“A very profitable one,” the stranger replied. “I want you to kill a Norman.” Ranulf casually slid a glance to the stout oak door, reassuring himself that it was tightly closed. Sounds of raucous merriment could be heard beyond the door, but he and his companion were completely secluded. “What makes you think I’d want to kill a Norman?” “Possibly because ‘twas a Norman who killed your wife, daughter and son,” the man rejoined, smiling. Ranulf let out a sigh. This stranger obviously knew who he was--and yet no guards had come pounding on the door; no alarm had been sounded by the tavern owner. “All right,” he said, deciding to trust the man, at least for the moment. “Who is it you want killed?” “Sir Stephen Dubois--the new Lord of Almswick Manor.” Ranulf’s brows drew together as he searched his memory. Finally, he nodded. “‘Twas Sir Ralph’s holding.” “Aye,” the stranger agreed. “Will you kill the man?” Cautiously, Ranulf countered with his own question. “And your name, sir?” he asked. He felt no need to answer the first question until he knew more about this man. “My name doesn’t matter,” the man answered, stroking his goatee. “Only the gold in my purse should matter to you.” Ranulf merely grunted at that, not unduly surprised by the man’s insistence on anonymity. Then he leaned forward, placing both elbows on the scarred wooden table. “How do I know you’re not a Norman spy?” he asked. “You don’t,” the man said. “I guess you’ll just have to take your chances.” He laid the pouch of gold on the table. “You’re quite used to taking chances, though, aren’t you, Ranulf?” “True enough,” Ranulf admitted, reaching for the purse and testing its weight. “Judging from the amount of gold here, you must want this Sir Stephen dead quite badly.” “Let’s just say it’s a...personal family matter,” the stranger answered evasively. “Do we have a deal?” “Aye,” Ranulf agreed, making his decision. He’d certainly taken worse chances than this in the last few months. Tucking the purse in his frayed brown tunic, he asked, “How quickly do you want the job done?” “Not too quickly,” the man said, leaning forward himself. “It should look like the result of battle--not a hired killing--if at all possible. I want no suspicion attached to Dubois’s death.” Ranulf nodded. That made perfect sense. “‘Tis simple enough to accomplish. I’ll just stir up the countryside around Almswick for a time--troublesome raids, small fires, lootings, that sort of thing. I have no taste for killing my fellow Saxons--and I won’t--but they’ll know who’s behind the raids. Undoubtedly, word will get back to this Norman, and he will come looking for me. When he does, I’ll kill him.”

Then Ranulf became thoughtful. “This will also give me the opportunity for a long overdue revenge of my own,” he finally said quietly, intensely. “Aye, sir,” he affirmed. “I will gladly take this assignment.” The commoner inclined his head, obviously liking Ranulf’s words. “If you do this job well, I’ll have another for you, Saxon,” the man said. Another small...family matter. I wouldn’t really call this second job murder, more like simply helping an older man to his heavenly reward. And for this second assignment, I will pay twice that amount of gold, as the help rendered will solve quite a few problems for me. Interested?” Not fooled by those words, Ranulf suspected the man was planning his own father’s murder. He felt a chill at the very thought, but then shook it off. ‘Twas none of his business. “I’m always interested in earning more gold, sir,” he said softly. He stood, strode to the door, then turned back for one final comment. “I lost everything to the Normans, even my family.” He sighed, the sound weary and regretful. “That old life is long gone. I’m an outlaw now. All I’m good for is looting...and killing.” As he lifted the latch on the door, Ranulf heard the commoner say “Wait.” He turned to face him again. “I have a mistress at Almswick. A sweet little whore who will do anything I ask. Would it help you to know when Dubois sets out to find you?” “Oh, I’ll know when he comes,” Ranulf replied. “I have ears all over the countryside. Believe me, I’ll know when the man is ready to die. He’ll fall into my trap like a ripe plum. Have no fear, sir. I’ve been living the life of a rebel for months now, and I haven’t been caught yet. Sir Stephen Dubois will be killed...and then we can discuss this other small matter you have in mind.” No matter how despicable it is, he added silently, then left the tavern, thinking no more about the man who’d had an inordinately large amount of gold for a commoner.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN The raids began sporadically, midnight attacks intended to terrorize more than destroy property. An occasional abandoned hut was set to the torch, an occasional animal was stolen, but, curiously, the animals taken were the old or the very young, never the more valuable breeders. Two Norman holdings were attacked, the first being several leagues from Almswick, having formerly belonged to a Saxon named Ranulf. The manor house on that estate had been burned to the ground during the king-sanctioned assault months earlier, and thus the new lord, Nathan de Rouen, had been living in a large tent while unwilling workers built his new home. In the pre-dawn hours of a morning in early May, Nathan de Rouen’s throat was cleanly cut, and his

wife was raped. Later, on relaying the events of that night, the lady admitted her assailant had been fairhaired and tall and that he had whispered, “An eye for an eye, my pretty Norman wench, ‘tis only fair,” while forcing her submission to his will. Even that event was unusual, as the lady was not beaten into submission, since no horrid, pain-filled screams had come from the tent, and she was not given to all the raiders, as was the usual case with the “spoils of war.” Only the leader had used her, emerging an hour later, grim satisfaction evident on his handsome face. The village adjoining the estate was spared, and not one Saxon life was forfeited in the attack. In fact, the village folk seemed to be hiding something, some knowledge, but even on fierce questioning, they would not say what that information was. The second Norman holding was completely destroyed, but this time the Norman lord was left beaten but alive, having been told to report to Sir Stephen Dubois that his turn was coming. Sir Harold was the first to hear of this latest attack. His feelings were mixed. He could understand the blond Saxon rebel and his attacks on Norman holdings...and yet, if Almswick were attacked, what would happen to Lady Mary? Would she be raped like Lady De Rouen? She was the wife of a Norman, too. And besides that, Sir Stephen had won the respect of Almswick’s people. Shuddering at the thought that Lady Mary could be assaulted, and grudgingly respectful himself of Almswick’s new lord, Sir Harold reported what he had heard to Stephen and Henri of Tours. The three men were discussing the situation in Almswick’s great hall when Mary came into the room. Stephen immediately gestured the others to silence. He had no intention of discussing the Saxon raider in front of Mary. Her loyalties were far more Saxon than Norman. She could conceivably warn the man some way if she heard about plans for his eventual capture or death. He could tell by the stiffness of her back that she was very determined about something. Undoubtedly something he wouldn’t like. In the several weeks since their marriage, while the countryside bloomed with spring, his wife seemed determined to remain winter cold. They were fighting a continuing battle of wills--a battle he had no intention of losing--and so he set his face in stern lines and said, “What is it, my lady?” She raised her chin. “I have a request, my lord.” Stephen leaned back in his chair, picked up a tankard of ale and took a drink before replying. “Another boon, my lady?” She blushed, evidently remembering the outcome of the first boon she had asked. They had not waited two months to marry, and she had responded with lustful eagerness to his lovemaking--at least that first night. Then she smiled with little sincerity and said, “I would like to improve your comfort, my lord. Your supply of sandalwood soap is running low, and I’ve not the scent to make more. I’ve heard there’s a merchant coming to King’s Vale this week who might have the essence I need.” Stephen studied her quietly. He knew very well she was trying to manipulate him; what he didn’t know was why. Then a slow smile curved one side of his mouth. She had no desire to purchase scented oil; she simply wanted to visit the King’s Vale marketplace.

Under normal circumstances, he wouldn’t have objected to that in the least. His own lady mother thoroughly enjoyed her excursions on market day. ‘Twas a typically feminine desire to scour the stalls and search out delightful, if frivolous, trinkets, hair ribbons and such. Not to mention fresh, net-caught ocean fish swimming in barrels of salt water, exotic items from other parts of the world, and yes, even perfumed oils for soap. Unfortunately, with Saxon raiders loose in the countryside, he could not allow his lady wife to leave the safety of Almswick. For a moment he considered telling her his reasons--that her safety was of the utmost importance to him-but then he decided against it. Mary was his wife. She must learn to simply obey. “May I go to King’s Vale on the morrow, my lord?” she asked. “Nay, lady, you may not,” he answered firmly. He almost smiled when her back stiffened even more. ‘Twas almost as if her spine had been strapped to a lance. “May I ask why not?” “You have no need to understand why your lord makes a decision, lady.” His voice was cool. “Your only need is to heed his words.” He heard Henri groan after that bald statement. Undoubtedly the Frenchman thought Stephen should explain about the rebels, but Stephen was determined now. The lady would obey. “But there are things I wish to purchase, my lord,” Mary countered. “Things for Almswick, as well as for you.” She was obviously determined to press her point, but Stephen stood up, gesturing around the nicely refurbished hall. He had not told Mary his decision to raze this house after building a far more suitable castle. There would be time enough for that battle once the Master Builder arrived. But building a castle would take many months, even years. With that long to wait for his new home, he’d set about improving his current dwelling. And he’d already improved it considerably. Even his prickly little vixen couldn’t deny that. A large, beautifully woven, Persian carpet now graced the hall, and he had hired craftsmen to build sturdy new settles, providing comfortable seating before the hearth. Mary herself had sewn and embroidered the cushions. Another carpet graced the master bedchamber, and a sumptuous fox fur spread now covered their bed. In truth, every room in the moldering old house had been improved in some way. “I have provided well for you, my lady,” he said. “There is naught you truly need at King’s Vale.” Mary grimaced. That was certainly true, but she hated defeat. With sheer calculation, she said, “Your largess is apparent, my lord, but all of these things were chosen by you.” She, too, gestured around the hall. “Am I to be a prisoner in my own home, not allowed to choose merchandise for myself, despite the generous household allowance you have given me? If so, I shall apologize and not bother you with my foolish request again.” He cursed softly, cocked his head to one side to study her again, then finally said, “Very well, my lady.

You shall have your trip to King’s Vale.” Mary’s smile was triumphant--until he added, “But I shall accompany you.” Her smile vanished. She had hoped to have some time alone away from the manor. Didn’t she see Stephen often enough as it was? Must he lead her to market like a favored pet? She was seething inside when she gritted out, “That will not be necessary, my lord. My own men can escort me quite well. Do not trouble yourself. Please.” He bowed mockingly. “‘Tis no trouble, my lady,” he said. “I will be at your disposal on the morrow-along with several of my men.” Flushed and angry, Mary opened her mouth to launch a counterattack, just as Stephen’s new squire--a strapping lad named Owain from Almswick’s village--entered the hall. He was seeking his master, and Stephen held up a hand, stopping Mary’s tirade before it began. Still seething, she closed her mouth, promising herself she would not remain quiet for long. “What is it, Owain?” Stephen asked. “Lord Albert of Tidwell is here, milord.” Mary’s jaw dropped open again. Then Stephen grasped her arm and pulled her away from the others. “Why has Tidwell come here, madam?” he growled. “I-I don’t know,” she stammered. “How could I know?” “Mayhap you invited him,” Stephen said, still gripping her arm. “He was your precious betrothed, after all. Have you missed him, vixen? I know you’d rather be married to him than me.” Incensed, Mary simply glared at him. “Answer me, woman!” Stephen insisted, grasping both arms now. “Did you invite him?” How could he believe that of her? Mary wondered. Lord Albert had threatened his life, and now he thought her capable of inviting the man to their home? Angered beyond reason, she snarled, “Aye my lord. I invited him here so we could plan your murder. Are you satisfied now?” Then she wrenched free of his grasp, crossed the hall and gestured for a manservant to open the heavy oak doors. Lord Albert was standing just on the other side--alone and unarmed. Obviously he was no threat to Stephen right now, so Mary decided to treat him as an honored guest-perhaps even a bit more. ‘Twas what a good chatelaine would do, and besides that, it would serve Stephen right! How dare he accuse her of planning this visit? Stephen’s eyes narrowed as he watched Mary curtsy to their guest. He seriously doubted now that she’d invited Tidwell--not with her angry response and that ridiculous statement about planning his murder. She wasn’t capable of something like that, but was she capable of another kind of betrayal? She certainly wasn’t objecting to Tidwell’s visit. Was she hoping to take him as a lover if she could not be his wife? His expression showed no emotion as he studied Mary intently, trying to delve into her soul. Every time he possessed her sweet young body, she would fight release until her own passionate nature forced her

to yield. She never initiated their lovemaking, and after her inevitable capitulation, she would lay in his arms, stiff and silent, obviously ashamed of her carnal behavior. How would she react to Tidwell’s lovemaking? Would she kiss him, touch him, squirm with delight in his embrace? Stark, raw fury blossomed in Stephen’s mind at that thought, and yet his face remained impassive. Forcing himself to retain a cool demeanor, he nodded to his nemesis. Albert kissed Mary’s hand, then said, “Good day, Dubois. I have come to welcome you and offer congratulations on your recent marriage. Although my heart was crushed by the king’s decision, I can see Mary is happy, and that’s all that matters to me.” “Welcome, Tidwell,” Stephen said through clenched teeth. He didn’t believe a word of the man’s prattle. “Won’t you sit down?” “I believe I shall,” Albert replied, taking a seat on a cushioned settle. “‘Tis a rather dusty day. I am fair parched from the road.” Mary immediately ordered wine. When it was brought, she poured two goblets--one for Tidwell and one for herself. Had she purposely ignored her own husband? Stephen wondered. He wasn’t sure, but as she handed a goblet to their guest, their fingers touched, then hers stayed on Tidwell’s just a little longer than necessary. Stephen cursed silently, his anger mounting. ‘Twas becoming harder and harder to hold an impassive expression. “‘Tis our finest wine, Lord Albert,” he heard Mary say as she finally stopped touching the man’s hand. Her smile was bright, inviting, and she sat down beside Tidwell. “But neighbors should share their very best, should they not?” An embarrassed maidservant poured Stephen’s wine, and he nodded his thanks. His own wife had failed to attend him. Was she merely playing the polite chatelaine, seeing to her guest’s comfort first, or was this the first step of her betrayal? She was smiling at Tidwell continually--she seldom smiled at all for Stephen--chatting gaily about the warm spring weather and her hopes for bounteous crops this year. Innocuous comments to be sure...and yet Stephen felt his ire rising again. He directed the maidservant to refill his wine. The afternoon progressed much the same as it had begun. Henri joined them, and he and Stephen exchanged glances in between moments of stilted but polite conversation with Tidwell. Even Henri seemed taken aback by Mary’s behavior. When Mary suggested Lord Albert should stay for the evening meal, Stephen had no choice but to nod his approval. Politeness required such hospitality, and Tidwell had been the very soul of decorum. Stephen was quite sure Tidwell’s behavior was a mere facade. Beneath the veneer, there lurked true evil. He was certain of that. But it was Mary’s behavior that had him grinding his jaws by the time the evening finally ended, and Tidwell was shown to the door. Once the hall was empty save for Henri, Mary and himself, Stephen said curtly, “Go to our chamber, woman. I will join you shortly.” She gulped, obviously seeing his anger. He couldn’t hide it any longer. All evening, he had watched her blithely dancing attendance on Tidwell. Now that it was time for her comeuppance, she bit her lip, tears filling her eyes.

Stephen was beyond sympathy. “Go, woman,” he said sternly. “Go right now.” She stifled a sob, then scurried from the hall as fast as her slippered feet would allow. Stephen turned to Henri, who was still seated in a carved chair by the fire. “Was that what I think it was?” Henri’s normally cheerful countenance was somber. He quaffed his wine before answering. “I don’t know, Stephen,” he finally said. “I simply don’t know. I would never suspect Lady Mary of dishonorable behavior, and yet...” his words trailed off and he shrugged. “And yet she was practically flirting with her former betrothed,” Stephen finished for him. He set down his own goblet so fiercely, the rich, red wine splashed onto the table. “I believe ‘tis time to have a word with my wife.” His voice was quiet, dangerous. “She may have forgotten whose possession she is, but by morning she’ll know it true enough.” Henri stood up. “Stephen,” he said, grasping his arm. “She’s so very young...inexperienced...she probably didn’t realize what she was doing tonight.” “Aye, she’s inexperienced,” Stephen retorted, pulling his arm free. “But mayhap she’d rather gain experience in Tidwell’s bed than mine.” With that said, Stephen stalked from the hall, leaving a saddened Henri shaking his head.

As Henri climbed the stairs disconsolately, heading for his own chamber, Lord Albert of Tidwell left Almswick wearing a triumphant smile. His sole purpose for the visit had been to divert suspicion from himself. The Saxon rebel was laying his plans. Soon the trap would be sprung, and Dubois would die. The evening had gone very well. Mary had certainly been friendly enough...perhaps too friendly. He frowned, then smiled again, cruelly spurring his horse. Albert preferred his women docile and silent, speaking only when given permission. But he would take great pleasure in teaching Mary proper behavior--once he owned her body and soul.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

“Take off your clothes. All of them.”

Standing in the middle of the bedchamber, Mary blanched, then shook her head. “Obey me, woman,” he said with quiet menace, hands on hips, legs parted. His fury was evident. “The laces...I need Hilda,” Mary stammered. Her lower lip trembled. Why oh why had she taunted him? How could she have been such a fool? “Please, Stephen. I need Hilda.” “Turn around.” Mary turned. Almost immediately, she felt his hands on the lacings. Then her gown fell to the floor in a crumpled heap. He turned her to face him again. “Remove the rest of them now, Mary. Take off your clothes.” The room was well lit by wall torches and the golden glow of the crackling fire. Humiliated, Mary stripped for her lord while he calmly watched, arms folded across his massive chest. When she was completely nude, she stood silently, eyes downcast with embarrassment, awaiting his further command. What else could she do? Her choices were very limited at the moment, but she vowed silently to never goad him to anger again. Then she felt his hands on her braid. He freed her tresses, then pushed the hair over her shoulders. It tickled her back all the way to her knees, and Mary shivered, causing her nipples to tighten. Instinctively, she tried to cover herself. “Put your hands behind your head.” She heard him, but her body simply did not want to obey. He repeated the command in a low, dangerous voice. Trembling, Mary complied. Would he beat her now? He had warned her what he would do if she sought Lord Albert again. She had not--Lord Albert had come here. But Stephen was so angry, that small detail might not matter. She shuddered again. Helpless, vulnerable, Mary closed her eyes--then gasped when he cupped her breasts. She had not expected this. He thumbed a nipple with one hand, his other exploring her hips, her belly, the curls of her womanhood. Instinctively, her clenched her thighs. “Spread your legs.” His growl was menacing, and Mary obeyed. She had never seen him like this before. He was intimidating at the best of times, but now he was truly frightening. She felt like a doe caught by a hunter. She was completely at his mercy. He stroked her intimately, expertly, then bent his head to suckle her breast. His fingers found her bud of sweet sensation, and she whimpered. “No,” she cried softly as her body moistened, inviting his touch. “Please, no.” Shame, horrid shame, swamped her entire being. She was responding to his hands, mouth and tongue. Just like a harlot, she was welcoming this forced seduction with wanton joy. “No...please,” she repeated, choking back a sob, but her hips moved of their own volition, undulating against his hand, her nipples as hard as acorns beneath his laving tongue.

Then he scooped her up in his massive arms, crossed the room and lowered her to the sumptuous fur spread covering their bed--all without a single word. He pushed her hands back into position behind her head, then bent over her, kissing her throat, her shoulders, her breasts, sucking her nipples to wet, red peaks. Completely ignoring her protests, he licked his way down her belly, then pushed her thighs wide apart. His tongue found the tiny nubbin he had aroused so much already, and then his teeth gently closed, just as two fingers slipped into her depths. Mary whimpered, inaudible words escaping her parted lips, her head thrashing from side to side on the bed. Pride was useless. He had mastered her, and she was nearly there, to that glorious peak he’d brought her to so many times before...but then he stopped. Beyond shame now, needing so badly to find release, Mary finally opened her eyes. Stephen was above her, supporting his weight on one elbow, his dark eyes fiercely intent. He unlaced his breeches, freed his huge shaft, then teased her swollen cleft with maddening strokes. She felt the head of his manhood against her wetness, so close and yet so far, and she moaned, arching against him. “Beg for it, Mary,” he growled in her ear. “Beg to be possessed by your lord and master.” Realization dawned. She knew exactly what he was doing now. He was staking his claim. Primitively. Savagely. Demanding that she voice acceptance of his ownership...as punishment for her behavior with Lord Albert. And worst of all, she couldn’t stop the words from tumbling out of her mouth. Dear God, she couldn’t stop now. “Please, my lord,” she whispered. “Please...take me.” He smiled cynically, his eyes narrowed. “You are mine, Mary,” he growled, thrusting deeply. “You are my possession, my wife. You belong to no other man...and you never will.” His hard lips closed over hers, plundering her depths with his tongue, possessing her mouth as deeply as he possessed her womanhood. His strokes were fierce, deep, conquering her senses--and Mary shattered, breaking into a million pieces. But he didn’t stop there. He forced her to climax again and again...three times, four times...she lost count. By the time he finally took his own release, she was a mindless puddle of erotic joy, arching her back, her hips writhing madly, her legs clamped around his lean waist. And then it was over. With a smile of triumph and no tender words, Stephen rose from the bed to remove his clothes and douse the torches. Then he climbed back in bed and pulled Mary to him, her buttocks resting against his loins. Her body was sore from the fierceness of his possession...sore and throbbing from climactic excess. A tear slid down her cheek. She had been used, marked as his property, mastered, punished. She’d never known a woman could be punished with ecstasy, and yet that’s just what he had done. She was exhausted, and sleep beckoned. Then he whispered in her ear. “Never again, vixen. You will never flirt with Tidwell again.” Mary could only agree.

In the morning, well before dawn, Mary disentangled her limbs from Stephen’s and crept from the bed.

She didn’t even take the time to wash; simply threw on her clothes and slippers, grabbed a warm cloak, and left the chamber as quickly as possible. She needed time alone to think. No one was awake yet, not even Hilda, and she passed through the great hall, stepping around pallets where servants still slept, making her way to the front doors and then out into the foggy spring morning. Almswick’s gates were still closed and manned by guards, so Mary bided her time until dawn, when the gates would be opened for the day. Hiding in the shadows, the warm, hooded mantle obscuring her identity, she waited and waited as Almswick slowly stirred to life. As soon as the gates creaked open, she scurried through them, her escape masked by the villagers coming the other way. Once free of the gate, Mary headed east. She had no real destination; she just wanted to walk and walk...and think. Her behavior with Lord Albert last night had been truly foolish, even unseemly. She knew that. She’d known it even while doing it. Stephen’s reaction to that foolishness was not unwarranted. In fact, she counted herself lucky to be able to leave her bed this morn. Many husbands would have beaten their wives soundly for such a display; she’d thought Stephen might do so, too. But instead he’d humiliated her, forcing her surrender to his will, in word as well as deed. Her body held a memory of his fierce possession, a tiny ache where he had pounded against her, and she still bore the musky scent of his seed. She shivered, her woman’s flesh helplessly sensitized by the memory, then pulled the mantle closer about herself and walked on. Why was it so easy for him to bait her, to drive her to actions she would not ordinarily do? Just as when she’d refused to eat and he’d forced her, just as when she’d challenged his disciplining of her man in the courtyard and he’d demanded she bathe him...last night he’d punished her quite effectively for her foolish behavior. Again. Sighing, Mary’s footsteps slowed down. Would it be so awful to simply try and get along with the Norman? she wondered. That’s what Hilda would advise. That’s what Henri would advise, too. Why couldn’t she let go of these foolish actions and simply try to love her husband? Love him? Had she really thought that word? About Stephen? Nay, nay, her mind countered. ‘Twas just a mental slip. She could never love her enemy. She simply could not. Mary walked on. The dawn was beautiful, shrouded in swirling fog, the rising sun blurred in shades of red and gold behind infinitesimal drops of water. Birds chirped merrily in the trees, and everything in nature was budding, coming to life with spring. ‘Twas a wife’s duty to obey her husband, but no one could force her to love him, no matter what the marriage vows demanded. Love, honor and obey...She could obey, she could honor--even last night she had thought of Stephen’s safety before her childish flirtation with Lord Albert--but she could never love Stephen. He might even be the one who had killed her father and brothers, and even he had admitted that

he didn’t know whether he had or not. With the thought of her family’s decimation, Mary finally realized where she was. And with that realization, sobs choked free of her throat, and she fell to her knees, beating the ground with both fists. She hadn’t intended to come here of all places. She hadn’t intended to come to her mother’s grave. In all the months since her mother’s death, she had never come here. Not since watching her mother’s burial in this unhallowed ground. “Why, Mama? Why?” she cried fiercely, beating the mound of dirt that bore no marker. “Why did you have to kill yourself and condemn your soul?” Wrapping her arms around her body and rocking, her next words were a strangled whisper. “Why did you have to leave me to face my future alone?”

Stephen came over a small hill just as Mary began rocking back and forth, intermittently sobbing and choking out words he couldn’t understand. He’d awakened to find her gone from their bed. The loss of her sweet warmth had brought him to awareness, but then memories of the night before assailed him, and he immediately rose and donned his clothes, intending to find his wife. She was nowhere in the manor house, not even in the kitchen hut. As worry mounted, he searched the stables. Her gentle palfrey was still there, so surely she hadn’t gone very far. But she wasn’t anywhere in the courtyard, not even her kitchen garden, and he’d finally questioned the guards at the gate. On reflection, one man had seen a cloaked figure leaving instead of entering at dawn, but he’d thought nothing about it. Folks moved freely about Almswick during the day. That’s when Stephen became truly worried--and laden with guilt. Last night he’d behaved in a truly bestial manner, intent on punishing his wayward wife and accomplishing his goal perfectly. Perhaps too perfectly. Had she set out on foot, wanting to mask her escape by leaving her horse behind? Dear God, what if she’d been abducted by the Saxon raiders? He didn’t stop to consider the fierce pain in his gut with that thought. He simply pressed on, widening his search, not wanting to sound the alarm and embarrass her needlessly if she had merely sought time alone--away from him. And when he came over that hill and saw her abject misery, Stephen felt as if God himself had struck him down--just as he deserved. His guilt was tremendous. Mary was nearly folded in two, rocking and crying...and it was his fault. Why had he felt such intense jealousy last night? And that’s what it was, he had to admit. The green monster of jealousy while she’d smiled prettily at Lord Albert, while she’d cheerfully seen to all his

needs. She was too young, too inexperienced to understand just what she was doing, Henri had said. Aye, mayhap, Stephen thought, but no matter her motives, she’d really done very little beyond the realm of a conscientious chatelaine. And yet he’d punished her for it. Feeling jealous was a new experience for Stephen. Before Mary, there had been so many women. So many that jealousy had never before entered his mind. He and Henri had often shared a harlot’s lusty wares. He’d certainly never felt jealous of Henri. But with Mary...ah, that was different. Because she was his wife, bound to him through vows of matrimony? He just didn’t know, but seeing her with Tidwell had sent him over the edge, just as it had that night she’d met Tidwell in the orchard. Could he love her? Stephen wondered. Was that the reason for this insane streak of jealousy he’d never experienced before? Nay, not that. How could he love a woman who wanted nothing to do with him? ‘Twas better to bury that thought and simply go on as he had, seeking a warm bed and a passionate bed partner, heirs and a comfortable home. And nothing more. But for the moment, some amends were certainly in order. He’d never meant to hurt her...

Mary heard the footsteps behind her, but she was still too lost in misery to realize who was helping her to her feet, enfolding her in a comforting, warm embrace, laying her head to his chest and saying, “Shh, shh, ‘tis all right, ma chère. Everything will be all right.” She knew who it was now, but he was offering comfort, safety. And she needed that, needed it very badly. She poured out her heart against Stephen’s chest, thoroughly soaking his tunic, cleansing her soul. In all her life, she’d never understand her mother’s actions. She could never, ever take her own life, could not ever understand how another could do such a thing, even if she were mad. And Lady Evelyn hadn’t been truly mad, Mary thought. She’d been tormented, overwhelmed with grief. But she hadn’t been truly mad. In time, she would have come back to herself, Mary was certain. She’d only needed more time. But then she’d killed herself. Mary just couldn’t understand, and yet she still felt responsible. If only... Mary’s sobs gradually lessened, eventually becoming soft gasps and hiccups, and Stephen drew a small linen square from his tunic, lifted her chin and tenderly wiped the tears from her reddened cheeks. He held the cloth to her nose and said “blow,” and she did. He smiled briefly, tucking the cloth in his belt, but his smile faded as soon as he remembered he’d caused this awful reaction. “Mary,” he said softly, pulling her head back to his chest. He simply couldn’t look at her while he apologized; ‘twas hard enough to do without seeing her tear-ravaged face. “Mary, I’m so sorry.” His voice was husky. “I never meant to hurt you this way.” Through the fog of her lessening pain, Mary realized what Stephen was talking about. He thought she

was crying because of last night. She was touched in a deep part of her soul that he’d actually apologize for his beastly behavior, and yet she felt honor bound to free him of this burden. ‘Twas not the punishment that had made her cry. She was more angry and shamed by her own body’s traitorous reactions than by what he had done. Nay, she could not let him bear the burden of her tears. She pushed back in his embrace, placing both small palms against his muscled chest. “‘Twas not last night that caused me to weep, my lord,” she said softly. “‘Twas because...” Her words trailed off, and her gaze dropped to the grave at both their feet. He lifted her chin. “Your mother?” he quietly asked. There was unmistakable sympathy on his face--and stark relief that he hadn’t been the true cause of her misery. “Aye,” Mary admitted, meeting his gaze. “I did leave the house because I was...upset...about last night, but not unduly, my lord,” she hastened to add when he opened his mouth to apologize again. “I simply wanted some time alone to contemplate my own foolishness.” She smiled, just the littlest bit. “You do seem to bring out the worst in me, Stephen.” Stephen smiled, too. “As you do me, vixen,” he said. Mary backed away then, going to a nearby tree, an ancient, gnarled oak, and leaning against its strength. “I had no intention of coming to my mother’s grave, Stephen,” she said hoarsely, “but suddenly I found myself here anyway.” She swallowed hard. “The painful memories sent me to my knees.” Tears welled again, and Stephen immediately moved forward, but Mary held up a hand. “Let me speak of it now, my lord. Perhaps it will help.” He nodded, keeping his distance, and Mary continued. “Everyone thought Lady Evelyn was mad, and I suppose she was in a way, but I cannot help thinking she would have overcome her grief, that she would have regained her senses in time.” Stephen nodded again. “‘Tis a reasonable conjecture,” he said. “I’ve seen many battles, and the effect of those battles on loved ones. Your mother would not have been the first woman to be maddened by grief for a time and then return to her normal condition.” Mary brightened. “You do understand,” she said, greatly relieved that at least one person agreed with her. “Aye, I understand,” Stephen said, then added soberly, “but Lady Evelyn did not give herself time to heal. She killed herself instead, and that truly wasn’t your fault, Mary.” Those words should have crushed her again, but, amazingly they did not. For the first time since her mother’s death, Mary had someone to speak with about it, and speak she would. “That’s the problem, Stephen,” she said, gesturing toward the grave. “My mother was so very fearful of God’s wrath. ‘Tis impossible to believe she would bring that wrath down on her soul by taking her own life--mad or not.” Had she really said that? She’d thought it before, she knew, but only now did the thought, spoken aloud, become quite real. Mary looked up at her husband. “Sometimes I wonder if she wasn’t pushed, and yet I know that’s impossible,” she finally said. Stephen frowned. “Tell me about that night, Mary,” he quietly ordered. “Tell me every detail of the

night your mother died.” Mary related the facts with as little emotion as possible. She told him most of the servants were already asleep, leaving her alone with her mother, and then some minor crisis had drawn her away from the solar. She told him about Lady Evelyn’s terrible scream, and then about finding her crumpled body below the window. The telling was cathartic. By the time the last detail had been relayed, Mary felt lighter in spirit than she had since that awful night. Stephen’s spirit didn’t feel light. It felt heavy, suspicious. Why would a woman intent on killing herself scream so loudly while she fell to her death? This whole situation needed investigating, he decided, but he also decided not to tell that to Mary. She was bearing enough burden as it was. How would she feel if she discovered Almswick was harboring a murderer? He would investigate quietly, on his own. “My sole reason for having you relate the details of that night was to help you feel better, Mary,” Stephen lied benignly. “Has it worked?” Mary answered that she certainly did feel better. “And are you ready to return to the house now, my lady?” he added, grasping Mary’s hand, glad that she wasn’t asking questions he would not answer...at least not until he had those answers. “Aye, my lord, I’m ready,” Mary replied, wiping away the last of her tears. “‘Twould not do for the servants to think that you had made me cry. I have my pride to consider, after all.” “Aye, vixen,” Stephen agreed. “You have pride in abundance, as have I. Mayhap that’s why we find ourselves so often at odds.” He cocked an arrogant brow. “Perhaps if you would become a docile, meek little wife, we would no longer have to suffer events like last night.” She bristled--as he’d known she would, as he’d intended she would to keep her distracted from her mother’s death--but then she smiled. “I seriously doubt my pride will simply fade away, my lord,” she said, then added, “I suppose you are still intent on escorting me to market?” “Oh, aye,” Stephen admitted, offering his arm, which she took. “I will definitely escort you to King’s Vale.” His lips curved into a half smile. “A man is well advised to keep a careful eye on his wife when she’s a willful little wench.” She had no idea, of course, that his true purpose had nothing at all to do with willfulness. He would escort Mary to King’s Vale to keep her safe from a blond-headed giant of a man, a Saxon obviously intent on killing him, who might well be intent on raping her, as well. That would never happen, Stephen vowed fiercely, silently. Mary was his, and he always protected his own.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

The horses snorted and shifted, anxious to be on their way. Mary patted her sorrel mare’s neck and soothed her with gentle words while Stephen gave instructions to his men. She couldn’t help admiring his physical presence on the huge, dapple gray destrier. He was such a proud man, fully armored in mail, his impossibly heavy sword sheathed at his left side. No woman with any sense of her own femininity could help appreciating his muscled shoulders, broad back or lean hips...or those incredibly strong horseman’s thighs. Mary chewed her lower lip, quickly looking away. She didn’t want to think about Stephen’s male attributes. She wanted to be cool and aloof in his presence, wanted to show him he held no power over her traitorous body, even though he did, and she knew it. Her reactions last night had proven that only too well. Needing a distraction, her gaze slid to Henri of Tours. The sight of the stout Frenchman brought a smile to her lips. Henri, along with six men-at-arms, was accompanying them to King’s Vale, and Mary was glad. Mayhap she could converse with Henri along the road, thereby freeing her mind of disconcerting thoughts about Stephen. She simply could not let him get the upper hand again. Her pride demanded it. Somehow she must resist his next assault on her senses. Stephen had completed his commands, and Mary noticed he was nodding with approval, his gaze on a newly-tilled field, where workers were busily planting crops. Other fields had already been planted with barley, wheat and rye, but in Mary’s distraction over her new life with Stephen, she had taken no note of who was actually doing the farming work--until now. With a gasp of surprise, she realized the workers included many of Stephen’s men, as well as her own. He must have heard her gasp, and he knew just what had caused it. “Shocked, my lady?” he asked. “Astounded,” she replied, still staring at the unlikely scene. “I’ve never seen trained knights doing menial farm work.” In a gesture wholly reminiscent of Henri, Stephen merely shrugged. “Hard work is good for the soul. It instills pride in a man,” he said, then added, “and you must admit, lady, that your supply of brawny male farm workers was mostly depleted...last year.” Mary’s mouth turned down at the corners, and her chin raised. Seeing those very familiar signs, Stephen was sorry he’d mentioned--or nearly mentioned--the battle where so many of Almswick’s men, whether trained in arms or not, had lost their lives, blindly following their lord into war. Bodies had been called for by King Harold, and bodies were what he got--boys more used to farming than fighting, as well as trained guardsmen and knights. And now most of those men, young and old, were dead. Mary raised her chin another notch. “And by whose fault are they dead, Norman?” she asked, bitterness clear in her voice.

Stephen turned away from her, sighing heavily. “By the fault of men seeking power, lady,” he said, then turned to gaze at her again. “If I’d been a knight in England instead of Normandy, I might well have fought on your King Harold’s side instead of William’s. If I had died in that battle, and we’d never met, would you be happier now?” He wanted to add married to Lord Albert, but he did not. Mary had been receptive enough to him at her mother’s grave this morn, but since then, she’d shown him a very cool demeanor. He really didn’t want to start another battle of wills right now, but something perverse in his nature wanted to know if she would truly be happier if he hadn’t come into her life. Mary thought about his question for a moment. She knew very well what he’d not said, that she might have been happier with Lord Albert. That was no longer true. Over the past few weeks, she’d learned enough about Lord Albert’s dealings with his own manor to know he would have made a terrible lord for Almswick, and probably a horrid husband as well. But Stephen didn’t need to know that, so she only answered, “Mayhap,” smiling at his deep frown. Obviously, that was not the answer he’d wanted. A sound drew Mary’s attention back to the nearby field, and her brow puckered in confusion, then smoothed out as she realized what she had heard--the dull clank of scabbarded swords hitting wood as two of Stephen’s men wrestled a large sack of seed from a cart. She had to smile at that, and she said, “Farm workers are very seldom armed, my lord. You methods are quite innovative.” Stephen returned her smile, happy to see it if truth be told, then chuckled. “Aye, lady, but most farm workers don’t have the added assignment of defending their home. Working in the field or not, my men are prepared to battle any foe of Almswick on a moment’s notice.” He didn’t add that with the threat of Saxon rebels, every man at Almswick was now armed to the teeth, whether they’d sworn fealty to him and his overlord, King William, or not. The suspension of the ban on weapons was a practical measure. And besides that, only two or three of Mary’s knights were still holding back from swearing their loyalty to Stephen. Undoubtedly, Mary had heard gossip about the raiders, but Stephen had no intention of telling her anything specific. He would protect her at all cost, even if she didn’t know it, or wouldn’t believe it if she did. She became pensive, watching the men laboring at their tasks. He knew what she was thinking. The farm was being worked; no one would go hungry at Almswick this winter. Finally, reluctantly, she turned to him and said, “You have done a fine job here, my lord. I will grant you that.” Stephen felt absurdly happy to receive a compliment from her, reluctant or not, but he didn’t show it. His face impassive, he merely nodded, then said, “I believe we are ready to leave, my lady.” To Mary’s chagrin, Stephen stayed at her side as the small troop left the courtyard. Henri was riding behind them, seemingly engrossed in conversation with the man riding to his left. Mary sighed. She would have preferred Henri’s cheerful company to that of her husband. As they reached the western edge of Almswick, the apple orchard where Mary had met with Lord Albert came into view. The trees were in full blossom now, fragrant and beautiful, soft white flowers fluttering lazily in the cool breeze. She couldn’t see the honey bees, whose job it was to pollinate the flowers, but she knew they were there. That, too, had been Stephen’s idea. At times, his knowledge of farming methods truly amazed her. For a mercenary knight, he knew a good deal about producing plentiful crops. She supposed he’d been raised on a farming estate. Sometime, she’d have to ask him about that-or more likely, she would ask Henri.

Almswick was in better condition now than it had been in years. Even before King Harold’s call to arms, Mary’s father had been at best a mediocre manager of his estate, and more of his money had gone toward hunting, hawking or gambling than for the upkeep of Almswick. Stephen was so very different from her father. He took his responsibilities much more seriously. Impulsively, she said, “Tell me a little about your life in Normandy, my lord.” The softly-spoken words brought a frown to Stephen’s face. He was a very private man. Sharing details of his past, even with his wife, was more than a little difficult for him. Besides which, some of those details were simply not fit for a lady’s ears. “There’s really not much to tell,” he began. “I was raised on a country manor, surrounded by family.” He shrugged. “Having two older brothers, I had no choice but to make my own way in the world, so I became a mercenary soldier.” “Ah, but he’s not telling you just how fine a regiment he formed, Lady Mary,” Henri suddenly injected, having ridden up to the couple. Mary was obviously intrigued. “Pray, sir, please go on,” she said. Stephen glowered; this was the last thing he needed. But Henri merely grinned in response, then said, “Shall I tell her about the old Dane lord who hired you to steal him a bride from a neighboring stronghold?” Stephen’s glower deepened. “Not that one, eh?” Henri quipped, grinning like a madman. “Well then, mayhap I can relate the valiant story of how you saved that sultan’s entire harem from being stolen by that scoundrel...what was his name...Kadir? Aye, that was it, the bloody bounder.” “Oh, yes, please tell me that one,” the little vixen insisted. Stephen had the distinct feeling she was enjoying his discomfort. “I’ve never heard a story about a real harem before,” she continued. “Is it true that one man might own hundreds of women in the East?” “Oh, aye,” Henri answered. “Hundreds, at least, mayhap thousands.” His blue eyes were twinkling. Evidently, he was enjoying himself, too--at Stephen’s expense. “I wonder how one man can possibly...” Mary began, then blushed hotly, unable to complete the scandalous question. Henri had no such qualms, however, Stephen noticed. He didn’t even need the rest of the question. “One woman at a time, my lady,” he answered, grinning. “Or mayhap two or three...” “Enough!” Stephen roared. “Henri, ride to the back of the column and keep a watch on our backs. You’re here to protect the lady, not add to her education.” Henri had heard that tone of voice often enough to know when not to push his luck. In any case, Stephen was right. He should be guarding the rear, just in case, although he’d certainly seen no sign of outlaws thus far. The group was just now gaining the dusty road which would lead to King’s Vale. Smiling and offering Stephen a rather mocking salute, Henri departed.

As Henri left, Mary smiled sweetly--falsely, Stephen thought--then quirked one golden brow and said, “Must you always be such a boor, my lord?” He bristled. He hadn’t always been a “boor.” There’d been a time when his life was carefree and happy, when his biggest worry was whether or not he would best another squire on the practice field, or whether or not he would find a willing wench to share his pallet that night. But those days were long gone. Blood and death had changed him over the years...and yet the vestiges of that carefree youth were still there. He had wanted so badly to find a relatively peaceful life, except for his required service to his overlord, or when protecting his own domain. And now he wondered if he ever would find peace for his battle-weary soul. Almswick’s people had accepted him, but Mary had not. He sighed, finally saying, “What would you expect, my lady? A soldier’s life is not fun and games.” Mary felt confused. There had been a look in Stephen’s eyes for a moment that she could not understand. It had been so different from his normal expression. Almost winsome...lonely. Lonely? How could a man who kept so much to himself feel lonely? And then, on the other hand, how could he not? She wondered about that. She also wondered why such a man would have as his best friend a cheerful, irreverent soul like Henri. She didn’t understand Stephen at all, she realized. Somehow, she’d have to get below his stern exterior, and find out what the man beneath the facade was really like. The thought startled her. Why should she care what Stephen was hiding? He’d been arrogant, possessive, wholly domineering for all the time she had known him. Why should she care if he had a different, gentler side, one he possibly only showed to Henri? Memories suddenly flashed in her mind. Memories of Mistress Agnes and her leaky roof--which Stephen had had replaced, doing much of the work himself--memories of Lily and Mae clamoring for his attention at the wedding feast--and getting it--memories of being held by him herself in a cooling tub of water while she cried over the reactions of her traitorous body. And a memory of how very sorry he’d been this morning when he’d thought he’d caused her tears. He certainly was a puzzle, she decided, and the rest of the ride to King’s Vale passed in silence. Like so many other times since she’d met Stephen, Mary needed time to think.

The King’s Vale township was a bustling community nestled along the edges of a rain-swollen river. Springtime blossoms flanked the dusty road; daffodils, early roses, budding honeysuckle bushes with their heady fragrance, and now and then a blossoming lilac tree gave off its own delicious perfume. All of this wonder, and then the ordered chaos of a busy town as they entered the gates of King’s Vale. The smells were not so pleasant once inside the gates. Crowded streets full of people and animals alike gave off heady fragrances of their own--this time of unwashed bodies, manure and garbage rotting in the warm spring sunshine, not to mention the privies. And yet, as they neared the marketplace, wonderful smells once again assailed Mary’s nostrils. Freshly-baked pies, roasting meat, the spicy scent of mulled wine and the more bitter aroma of ale. And the marketplace was a feast for the eyes, as well. Stall after stall had been set up in the township’s main courtyard, as happened every Thursday of every week, Battle of Hastings, conquered people or not. It had been that way for as long as Mary could remember, and she was very glad to see that nothing had changed.

Merchants hawked their wares, catpurses scuttled through the crowd, hoping to catch the unwary, and girls who seemed far too young to be in such a profession offered comfort to men--for a price. Tables laden with silks, velvets and brocades vied for space with booths of baked goods, fishmongers abounded with their smelly wares, and far away from that awful odor, soap and perfume dealers hoped to catch the eyes--or the noses--of ladies of quality. Mary was delighted. She had missed this place sorely during the past many months. Along with the temporary stalls, there were, of course, permanent businesses. Taverns, inns, public stables, wool merchants, bootmakers, and the King’s Vale goldsmith shop, whose owner was also the mayor, to name but a few. The goldsmith establishment was a solid, slate-roofed structure, unquestionably the richest building in town. Mary was not unduly surprised to see that this business still flourished. Even conquering kings needed goldsmiths. Their money had aided the rise and fall of nations since time immemorial. If the new king was wise, he would tread gently on England’s moneylenders. Apparently the king did have at least that much sense, Mary mused, as she watched Master Gulbreath step out into the busy street for a breath of fresh air, quite obviously as prosperous as ever. He was a pompous old fellow, but Mary had known him all her life, and so she tugged on Stephen’s sleeve as they passed on foot, having long since relinquished their mounts to the grooms accompanying them on this trip. “What is it, my lady?” Stephen asked, looking down at her smiling, upturned face. His breath caught in his throat. She was so lovely like this, her eyes alight with interest in her surroundings, her ruby-red lips slightly parted to speak. His only regret was that her glorious hair was hidden beneath a modest linen wimple, as was only right in such a public place. He swallowed a lump of emotion. He wanted very much to see her smiling and happy at home--with him--but he had no idea how to accomplish the feat. “Could we stop for a moment, my lord?” Mary asked. “I should like to pay my respects to Master Gulbreath.” She gestured toward the elegantly garbed, older man. “He is the goldsmith, as well as being the mayor of King’s Vale.” “Of course, my lady,” Stephen answered. “I, too, should like to make the acquaintance of such an important man.” Henri, who was standing on Mary’s other side, said, “Mayhap he needs a loan, Stephen. God knows you have more gold at Almswick than you’re likely to need in one lifetime.” Stephen merely smiled, ushering Mary toward the gentleman. He had some very definite plans in mind for his gold, which had naught to do with moneylending. The Master Builder he’d contacted would be arriving at Almswick within a fortnight. Henri was merely jesting, as usual. He knew of Stephen’s plans for the new castle...although Mary didn’t. Stephen decided he’d have to rectify that very soon, though he grimaced a little at the thought of her reaction. ‘Twas likely to be a battle royal, but then what wasn’t with his little vixen? Just as the trio reached Master Gulbreath, a sweet young girl of mayhap sixteen or seventeen years, surely no more, came out of the establishment, immediately catching Henri’s eye. She was pretty and plump, laughing at something even as she crossed the threshold. Her golden curls

bounced merrily beneath a tiny linen square atop her head for modesty’s sake, and eyes the color of a summer sky smiled up at Master Gulbreath, as she handed him a tankard of ale. Within an instant of seeing her, Henri was madly in love. He listened with one ear to the ensuing introductions and conversation. Apparently, Gulbreath was only too happy to make friends with the new Lord of Almswick, a man he’d obviously learned held the purse strings to a significant amount of gold. And Lady Mary was chattering happily, catching up on old news and town gossip. With his other ear, Henri was listening for something else. He wanted to hear that the lovely young miss was unwed, unattached, and ready to be courted. Hopefully by a suddenly besotted Frenchman. Within moments, Mary turned to Henri and formally introduced him to the goldsmith--and to his daughter, Evie. Henri produced his brightest, most charming smile. The girl was the man’s daughter--not his wife. One question answered and one more to go. “And has any young swain claimed your heart yet, ma petite?” he asked, gallantly kissing her proffered hand. He held his breath, awaiting the answer. “Not at all, kind sir,” the pretty Evie laughingly replied, and Henri soared with the birds. He’d found the woman of his heart at last. Now to convince the father... “Father, would you allow me to show Sir Henri our finest inn?” Evie asked, pushing Henri’s happiness up another notch. “He must be thirsty after protecting milord and lady on the road from Almswick.” Hearing this, Stephen raised a single brow, but Mary squeezed his arm beseechingly. She hadn’t failed to see the twinkle in Henri’s blue eyes. If the Frenchman had taken an interest in Master Gulbreath’s daughter, well then, she wanted to encourage the relationship. In her heart of hearts, Mary liked Henri very much. She wanted to see him happily settled, rasing lots and lots of towheaded, cheerful youngsters. To her vast relief, Stephen said nothing at all to Evie’s outlandish comment, and before very long, Master Gulbreath had given his permission--with a servant along as chaperon, of course--and Henri was being led down the dusty lane toward the Double Swan, the finest and most respectable inn at King’s Vale. As Stephen and Mary took their leave of Master Gulbreath, Mary was in a decidedly good mood. Young love and springtime. What could be better? And then she saw Lord Albert exiting a nearby tavern, and her happy thoughts of Henri and Evie quickly faded. Please, God, don’t let him notice us, she prayed silently. Things had been going relatively well on this outing. She hadn’t been able to maintain cool aloofness with her husband, but on the other hand, she’d caught a glimpse of something in his eyes--something she wanted to learn more about. Lord Albert could ruin this day. He could ruin it completely. But he did notice them, immediately altering his direction and striding to where they stood. He bowed politely, the epitome of good manners. “How nice to see you again, Dubois, Lady Mary,” he said with

practiced finesse. “I must thank you again for your fine...attention at Almswick yestereve.” Stephen stiffened at Mary’s side, and she knew he hadn’t missed Lord Albert’s slight pause. Aye, Stephen was remembering her kind attention last night, of that she was certain. God, what a fool she’d been, but never again. Reluctantly, she offered her hand to Lord Albert, as was only polite, then cringed inwardly as he kissed it. For his part, Albert was delighted with this turn of events. Mary’s behavior at Almswick had pleased him immensely. And now to find the couple in King’s Vale...What better way to reinforce his friendship with them? By the time Stephen was killed, no one would ever suspect Albert’s complicity in the act. With that plan in mind, he said, “How propitious that we should meet today, for I’d very much like to extend an invitation to Tidwell Manor to you both. Sadly, I forgot that duty last night.” He crossed one hand over his heart, still holding Mary’s with the other, looking truly repentant. “Please allow me to correct the oversight now. After all, we are neighbors, and neighbors should get to know each other very well, don’t you think?” Mary was amazed, and her jaw dropped open. Was this the same man who had threatened Stephen’s life in the orchard? She didn’t understand what was going on here, not at all. And then a comforting thought occurred to her. Perhaps Lord Albert’s words that night had been merely the rants of an embittered man, angered at the loss of her hand--and estate--in marriage. Perhaps Lord Albert no longer wished Stephen harm. Oh, please, she thought, let that be so! There had been enough war and strife. Peace was so much better. Was it possible that Lord Albert really wanted to accept Stephen as a friend and neighbor? He certainly hadn’t said anything untoward or threatening at Almswick. Yes, Mary decided, perhaps he was serious in this overture. Up to this point, Stephen had said nothing at all to Lord Albert, not even acknowledging his greeting with anything more than a curt nod. He certainly didn’t seem willing to answer the man’s invitation, Mary thought. He was holding her elbow, and she looked up at him. His face was nearly expressionless, but that didn’t worry her overmuch, since it usually was. At least he wasn’t furious. Truly, it would be better if these men were not enemies. Mayhap she could help smooth the way. Turning back to Lord Albert, she said, “I’m sure we’d love to accept your invitation, my lord. It’s very kind of you to invite us to your home.” The pressure on her elbow increased significantly, but Mary gritted her teeth behind her smile. Couldn’t Stephen see that she was trying to help? Albert lifted Mary’s hand and kissed it again, then said, “Perhaps if your husband is terribly busy, you could come to visit by yourself, dear lady. I have known you all your life, after all. Surely it wouldn’t be unseemly to visit such an old friend.” “No.” That single word was so fiercely spoken, Mary jerked her head around, unable to believe Stephen’s lack of courtesy. She opened her mouth to protest but then closed it again, seeing his face. His features were like granite now; stern, forbidding. “My lady will not be visiting you, Tidwell,” Stephen ground out, continuing. “She has many duties to

perform at Almswick, and children to raise. She does not have time for gossiping with neighbors.” “Well, perhaps he’ll change his mind, my dear,” Albert responded, oozing politeness and patting Mary’s hand again before releasing it. When hell freezes over, Stephen vowed silently. Mary said only, “Aye, mayhap,” and Albert bowed again and took his leave.

Without a single word, Stephen led Mary to a nearby alley. Once there, he said, “Pray tell, madam, what was all that about?” He ground his teeth so loudly, Mary could hear the sound. “What in hell did you think you were doing accepting an invitation to Tidwell Manor in my name?” “B-but I didn’t accept it in your name, Stephen,” Mary answered. “I accepted it in our name.” Her eyes narrowed with anger. “Or am I not to be allowed even that much lenience, my lord and master?” she demanded. “Can I not even accept the invitation of neighbors, as I would have before your damned king destroyed my life?” Stephen’s anger mounted in direct pace with Mary’s. He didn’t need to answer that question. Surely even someone as naive as Mary could understand Tidwell wasn’t a mere neighbor. He was an enemy and more than likely presented a very real threat. Stephen was furious. Mary had acted friendly toward the man. Again. ‘Twas so much like last night, he felt his blood simmering, coursing through his veins like red-hot coals. He wanted to hit something. Not her, of course, but he wanted to hit something badly. Almost without conscious thought, he acted upon his wish, sending his fist into the nearest wall hard enough to crack the wood...and Mary gave a startled gasp, backing away from him, now as frightened as she was incensed. “Beast!” she exclaimed, taking another step backward. “Just as I said before, you are a vile, barbaric beast! I was only trying to bring peace into our lives, my damnable lord, and what do you do? You attack a wall, undoubtedly wishing it was me you were hitting instead.” She raised her chin, offering a target. “Go ahead and hit me, then. Knock me to the ground if it will end this insane jealousy once and for all!” Stephen rounded on her with both hands clenched in tight fists. “I am not jealous,” he gritted out. “Oh no?” Mary retorted. “And just what drove you to treat me like you did last night? Love? Tenderness? Ha! ‘Twas jealousy, my vile lord, pure and simple green-eyed jealousy. And what’s more, I’m glad I roused you to it.” She nodded emphatically. “Aye, I’m glad I caused your jealous rage by being kind to Lord Albert.” And then the most damning words of all fell from her mouth. “Mayhap I’ll accept his invitation to visit Tidwell Manor alone. Lord Albert might know how to treat a lady, unlike you.” Stephen grasped her arms and shook her. His voice dangerously low, ominously quiet, he said, “Have you forgotten what will happen if you seek out Lord Albert ever again, woman?” A bark of humorless laughter rent the air as he watched her blanche, saw her face drain of color and felt her knees go weak against his grasp. “Aye, I see you do remember, lady,” he said, running his hand

down her back and feeling her shudder. “‘Twould be a shame to mark your lovely flesh with a whip, but I promise, if you act the harlot, you...will...be...punished.” Upon hearing those last words, stated as cleanly and sharply as a sword edge, she collapsed against his chest, trembling from head to toe. And Stephen felt like a bastard. Why had he done that? If he were inclined toward beating women, he would have landed his fist on her chin moments ago, just as she’d wanted. He swore under his breath, holding her steady until the trembling ceased. The little vixen had done it to him again. She’d driven him over the edge of reason, into...insane jealousy. Jesu, what a mess. “I was lying, Stephen,” Mary said at last, the words muffled against his chest. “I had no intention of accepting Lord Albert’s invitation. I’m not a complete fool. You just made me so angry, I couldn’t help what I said.” Stephen nodded. He could understand that kind of anger well enough. He looked down at her. Now that his anger was spent--and hers--one thing she’d said during her tirade had him rather confused. “What did you mean when you said you were trying to bring peace into our lives, Mary?” Mary took a deep breath and pushed away from his chest. “I meant peace between you and Lord Albert,” she answered. “Tidwell has no idea I’m aware of his desire to see me dead, so what peace is there to make?” She sighed. “Stephen, don’t you think he could have changed his mind about all that? He was certainly polite today, as well as last night. All I wanted to do was encourage neighborly peace, for all our sakes.” Stephen nearly laughed at her innocence. She had no earthly notion that Tidwell’s polite behavior was a mere facade--a ploy to win their trust. Stephen had been in the harsh world a few years longer than his wife, however, and he had no doubts about the man’s true intentions. He didn’t know exactly why Lord Albert wanted to pretend friendship, but pretense it was. He was certain of that. He shook his head and lightly placed his hands on her slender shoulders, this time with no threat intended...or received. “Mary, you are far too naive to understand a man like Tidwell,” he said. “The man has no intention of becoming my friend. ‘Tis a ploy, Mary, naught more.” She studied him quietly for a time, then finally said, “Mayhap. But why, Stephen? Why pretend if there is no truth to the gesture?” “That I cannot tell you, my lady,” Stephen replied, gently turning her toward the mouth of the alley, wanting to leave the foul-smelling place. As they reached the clean, open air again, he turned to her once more. “No matter how sincere you think he is, Mary, I must warn you again that I will not tolerate your seeking him out. I do hope we are clear on that matter.” She turned pale again. “I hear you, my lord,” she said, the words a hoarse whisper, “and I will obey.” Stephen nodded, accepting her word. He’d purposely reinforced his threat of punishment. ‘Twas cruel perhaps, considering how she’d reacted to his anger, but ‘twas necessary, to keep her safe. He had a very strong feeling that Albert of Tidwell was up to no good. And Mary would stay away from

the man--even if she had to believe in a threat that, in truth, didn’t exist at all.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Hours later, Stephen stood in the solar at Almswick, running his callused hands over the windowsill where Lady Evelyn had met her death. He was alone in the small chamber; Mary had pleaded exhaustion and was already abed. The ride home from King’s Vale had been rather quiet and subdued--except for Henri, who was bubbling over with enthusiasm for his newly-found love. Mary had certainly been quiet on the ride home. Stephen didn’t know if that was because of their argument or because of his insistence in believing Lord Albert’s apparent reversal was a lie. At any rate, she’d seemed truly fatigued by the time they reached Almswick. Stephen hadn’t argued the point when she’d wanted to retire early. The shutters on the window were wide open, allowing a cool breeze into the room. He leaned forward, gauging the distance to the rocky ground. Mayhap twenty-five feet, or thirty. Certainly enough to insure instantaneous death. Straightening again, he closed his eyes and tried to imagine Lady Evelyn’s thoughts before her death. She was grieving--mad with her grief. Had she really decided to fling herself from this window on a cold winter night? Or had she been pushed? Opening his eyes, he calculated the strength it would take to accomplish such a task. The lady had been starving herself for months. Judging by the fact that she was Mary’s mother, her stature was probably quite small to begin with. By that fateful night, she probably hadn’t weighed more than seven stone; Mary herself weighed only eight. Even a woman could have “helped” her over the ledge to her death. Which would explain the horrid screams that had brought Mary rushing back to the solar. And yet Mary had also told him that most everyone had retired for the night by the time of her mother’s death. Could someone have come into the solar after Mary left? Surely Mary would have seen anyone using the winding stairs leading down to the great hall--or anyone in the hallway leading to the solar. There had to be another answer, if Lady Evelyn truly had been

murdered. Leaving the window, Stephen paced the solar, looking for something, anything that would help solve this mystery. A small door, mostly hidden by a tapestry, caught his attention, and he reached the portal in four long strides. Pulling the tapestry back, and opening the creaking door, he discovered a dank, musty staircase. A servant’s staircase, mayhap? Intrigued, Stephen grabbed a tallow lamp and descended the rickety wooden stairs. Cobwebs tangled in his hair, and the dank air carried the sounds of scurrying vermin. Evidently this staircase had not been in regular use for a very long time. An idea struck him, and he turned and lowered himself to one knee, examining the rotting treads closely with the aid of the lamp. His own footprints were in the dust, of course, but there was a second set of prints--these considerably smaller than his. That proved nothing in particular, since many a man had a smaller foot than his own, but these prints definitely could belong to a woman. He had left the door to the solar open, and an eerie wailing sound suddenly broke into his thoughts. For only the tiniest moment, Stephen felt chills run up and down his spine--this was a perfect place for a ghost, after all--but then he shook the feeling off and realized he was hearing a child. Instinctively, even after only a few weeks as her “Papa,” he knew that the crying child was Lily. Climbing the stairs again so quickly the tallow lamp wavered crazily, nearly going out, Stephen gained the top in a matter of seconds. After shutting the door again, since the rotting staircase was unsafe, Stephen quickly made his way to the nursery down the hall. He saw Lily the moment he walked into the chamber, still holding the tallow lamp. She was thrashing on the bed, her golden curls tangled and damp, sobbing and crying in the throes of a nightmare. He had no idea where Anna was, perhaps in the privy, but without any further thought, he set down the lamp and scooped Lily into his arms. Mae slept in the same wide bed as her sister, but she was lost to a toddler’s deep sleep, her rosebud mouth greedily sucking her thumb. Cradling Lily close to his heart, Stephen crooned nonsense to her, having no idea what he was saying-or what he was doing for that matter, since this was his first experience at soothing a child’s nightmare. But in an amazingly short time, Lily quieted in his arms. He sat down on the bed, holding her on his lap, assuring himself that she was over the dream, then finally slipped her beneath the covers, pulling them up to Mae’s chin, too, and gently releasing her thumb from her mouth. After kissing each of them on their tousled golden heads, he rose again and turned toward the door--only

to find Mary standing in the doorway. Mary stood totally still, holding a small candle. She couldn’t quite believe what she had just witnessed. Lily’s cries had awakened her--the child had had more than one nightmare since losing her parents and brothers--and Mary had immediately come to offer comfort, solace. She would have done so even if Anna had been in the room. The sight of Stephen soothing the child was the very last thing she had ever expected to see. Amazingly, even in the dim light, she could see a faint flush of embarrassment color her husband’s cheeks. He had been caught in an act of tenderness. Evidently he was not comfortable with that idea, not in the least. “You may return to bed, my lady,” he finally said, straightening to his full height and trying very hard to look forbidding. “The child’s caterwauling has ceased. I simply could not abide the sound, and as you can see, Anna is elsewhere.” Mary studied him quietly for a moment, her head cocked to one side. Then she approached him, placed one small hand on his chest and said, “Sometimes I think your bark is far worse than your bite, my lord.” And with that, she turned and left the nursery, leaving Stephen cursing softly, wondering if he had just lost all control over his little vixen. Would she believe his “threats” anymore if she could see through his bluster? The thought was more than a little disturbing. Not only was she foolish enough to believe Lord Albert’s ruse, and thus possibly endanger herself, but Almswick could very well be harboring a murderer in its quiet, gentle midst. Someone had used that back staircase--possibly after pushing Lady Evelyn to her death. Cursing softly again, he returned to the solar. He doubted that he’d get very much sleep this night. There was much to consider. Who would have wanted Lady Evelyn dead?

The next morning, Mary slept later than usual and awoke feeling nauseous. She had no idea when Stephen had finally come to bed, but at least he hadn’t demanded her unwilling passion last night--nor had he this morn. Wondering about that, and feeling a sense of loss she didn’t want to admit, Mary accepted watered wine and warm, savory bread with honey from Hilda. Her initial nausea had been replaced by ravenous hunger by the time she’d completed her morning ablutions. With Hilda’s help, she donned a simple blue wool kirtle with an undergown of soft ivory and made her way to the solar, intending to catch the early morning sun on her embroidery frame. For days, she had neglected the piece she was currently working on, as embroidery was not her favorite task, but now

wanted to make amends for that lack. The moment she opened the door to the solar, a startled breath caught in her throat. Stephen was already there--asleep in a chair. He looked rather uncomfortable with his head on one shoulder and his usually straight posture slumped. The beard stubble on his face and the errant lock falling over his forehead gave him an endearing, boyish appearance. For a moment, Mary was sorely tempted to caress his face, to awaken him with a kiss on his bristly cheek. Ridiculous, she told herself, squaring her shoulders. And then she remembered what he’d done with Lily last night, and her shoulders sagged. Would she ever understand this man--this enemy? How could he threaten to have her flogged and then cradle a tormented child to his heart later the same day? She’d told him last night that his bark was worse than his bite. Aye, mayhap, but still...His fierceness in the alley at King’s Vale had been all too real. Mary shuddered in remembrance. As far as seeing Lord Albert went, Stephen was as hard and determined as ever. She didn’t dare cross him on that. Deciding she should call Stephen’s squire, Owain, to attend him, Mary turned toward the door. “Good morrow, my lady.” The words stopped her in her tracks. Turning back, she saw that Stephen had awakened, was in fact sitting straight and bright-eyed, all semblance of sleep suddenly gone. How did he do that? she wondered. “Good morrow, my lord.” As if reading her mind, Stephen said, “A soldier must awaken at the faintest sound.” He smiled crookedly. “Even a fair maid’s quiet breathing.” Mary flushed hotly. So, he had been aware of her momentary perusal of his face and form. Well, no matter. She raised her chin. “Shall I fetch Owain, my lord? You seem to have slept in the chair.” “Nay,” Stephen said, rising. “There is something I would speak with you about first.” He crossed to a tapestry, then pulled back the material and opened the revealed door. “Tell me about this staircase, Mary,” he said. Startled for a moment, Mary approached him slowly. She hadn’t thought about that old stairwell in years. “‘Twas originally an easy way for servants to access this solar,” she said, reaching him and looking into the dark passage. “But my father ordered it closed when the stairs began rotting. He couldn’t see any reason to repair it when we had another perfectly good staircase, even if it was less convenient for the servants.” Stephen became thoughtful. Mary had the distinct impression he was mentally drawing a picture of the floor below them. “This staircase ends very close to the door leading to the kitchen hut, I believe,” he finally said. “Aye,” Mary agreed. “Directly beside it, my lord, though the staircase door is behind a wall hanging.” She couldn’t imagine where this was leading.

Stephen picked up a wall torch, lit it, then said, “Follow me, madam. There is something I wish to show you.” Mary nodded and followed him into the dank, musty space. The wall torch brightened the passage considerably, and Stephen placed it in a wall bracket, leaving his hands free to guide Mary. “Keep very close to the wall, my lady, but descend a few steps with me,” he said, and Mary quirked a brow. He was acting very mysterious. What could all this be about? Several steps down, he urged her to turn around, and they both fell to a knee, leaving a good two feet of tread between them. “Do you see the footprints, Mary?” he asked, pointing. “Can you explain them on a staircase that hasn’t been used in several years?” Mary studied the prints; then a sudden thought occurred to her. She jerked her head toward Stephen. “Do you think...are you saying that these prints might have been made the night my mother died?” she asked, breathless. Was he truly taking her suspicion that seriously? She swallowed hard. If so, he must have been thinking about this ever since yesterday morning, at her mother’s grave. He may have even lost sleep over her conjecture. Why did he continually do things that confused her? Acting the stern disciplinarian one moment, and then the caring husband the next? Interrupting her thoughts, Stephen said, “Aye, lady, I am.” Grasping her elbow and helping her rise, he added, “Let us return to the solar. These stairs are not safe.” Mary agreed with that, of course, but as she took the first step, Stephen’s hand firmly on her elbow, the rotting wood gave way beneath her slippered foot. If not for Stephen’s firm hold, she would have lost her balance, possibly even falling down the rest of the stairs to her death. She heard Stephen curse. Then, taking the lead, he carefully gauged the strength of each step before allowing her to ascend. Mary was badly shaken by her near mishap. If what she had begun to suspect was true, she could have killed more than just herself on those stairs. But she couldn’t think about that now. Right now she wanted to know more about Stephen’s discovery of the dusty footprints. Easing into a chair, her knees still a little shaky, she said, “Please, Stephen, tell me what all this means.” Stephen took the seat across from her, holding her trembling hands in his large, warm ones. “First, Mary, I want to know if you are all right. You nearly took a very bad fall.” His eyes darkened as he added, “And it would have been my fault.” “I’m all right, Stephen, truly I am,” she hastened to assure him, touched more than she wanted to admit by the obvious concern in his eyes. “What led you to the staircase?” He nodded, accepting her insistence that she was indeed all right, then rose to his feet again. Crossing to the open shutters, he ran his hands over the windowsill. “You may be right about Lady Evelyn, Mary,” he said quietly, turning to face her. “She may have been murdered instead of taking her own life. ‘Twould not have taken much leverage to push a thin woman out this window.” Mary hissed in a breath, stark memories raging through her mind...Lady Evelyn’s scream...her smashed skull on the blood-soaked snow beneath the window... Stephen was at her side in an instant, pulling her up and into his arms. “Shh, shh,” he said, holding her close, even as another sobbing gasp broke free from her throat. “I had no intention of hurting you, ma

chère. I know your memories of that night are horrid, but you must face them.” He raised her chin and kissed her gently. “We can face them together, Mary. I want to help.” Mary nodded mutely, her emotions tumbled, and Stephen kissed her again. He was being so tender, so kind...just as he’d been to Lily last night. And he was offering to help her. Dear God, she simply could not think of him as the enemy right now. “I accept your offer, my lord,” she finally said, backing away from him as she felt a disconcerting stab of desire. “Perhaps we should go over that night in careful detail...no matter how difficult it might be for me.” Over the next hour, they did just that; going over the details again and again, determining where everyone in the household had been, discussing who could have possibly come to the solar after Mary left. There were three possibilities that hadn’t occurred to Mary until now. As steward, Sir Harold occupied a private chamber on this floor, close to the nursery. He could have easily come into the solar while she was gone. Hilda knew about the old staircase, and might have chosen to use it, though Mary couldn’t imagine why, and Gwynneth, the kitchen maid, was often on this floor, bringing meals to Lily, Mae and Anna. Mary seemed to remember that Anna had requested warmed milk for Lily that night. Was it possible that one of those three had murdered her mother? Mary shivered at the thought. Why? What possible purpose could Lady Evelyn’s death have served? In the midst of what seemed almost useless conjecture, a soft rap on the door drew their attention, and Henri popped into the room, blithely announcing that he was returning to King’s Vale today, to ask formal permission of Master Gulbreath to court his daughter, Evie. “I trust I have your kind permission to leave, my lord Stephen,” he said with a mocking bow and a mischievous light in his blue eyes. “Else I will have to--how do you say?--um, fly the coop, for my heart will break until I have the gentleman’s permission, n’est-ce pas?” Stephen chuckled, then frowned. “You have my permission, Henri. But first there is something I want you to see. Come with me, please.” Mary rose to follow, knowing exactly where Stephen was going, but with one raised brow, he urged her back to her chair. Apparently, she was not to be allowed near the rickety stairs again. Laying a protective hand to her abdomen, she decided not to belabor the point. ‘Twas just possible that she was already carrying Almswick’s heir. Even if Almswick’s lord was a Norman, this estate would one day belong to her son. She hugged the thought to her heart, hoping against hope that she was right. A babe could bring so much love into her life. Henri and Stephen came out of the stairwell, and within another few minutes, Henri had been informed of Stephen’s suspicion. ‘Twas a very serious matter, and the look on Henri’s face reflected that seriousness by the time Stephen was finished. The penalty for killing a lady of the manor was execution, even for a well-respected knight like Sir Harold, or a well-loved servant like Hilda. As far as Gwynneth? None of the three, save Mary, knew the wench very well, but Stephen couldn’t forget that she had been the one to deliver that message from Lord Albert. Was there any connection between the two events? That he would have to find out.

Incensed at the thought of Lady Evelyn actually having been murdered, even though he’d never met the lady, Henri suggested bringing the matter to the king’s attention, but Stephen renounced that idea. King William would more than likely turn the truth-seeking over to his torturer. The thought of Sir Harold, Hilda, or even the little kitchen wench, Gwynneth, being racked until one of them confessed was a little more than even he could stomach. Two of those people, possibly all three, were innocent, after all. Nay, he wanted to investigate the situation right here at Almswick, carefully and quietly, raising no undue suspicion in the household. ‘Twas still possible the lady had simply killed herself. Henri took his leave soon after, promising that he, too, would quietly find out all he could--then reminding Stephen that he’d be gone for a good part of the day--and Mary couldn’t help smiling wistfully. The Frenchman’s mind had already returned to thoughts of his new lady love. “I’m not sure Henri will be of great help in solving this mystery, my lord,” she finally said to Stephen. “His mind is much more occupied with thoughts of Evie Gulbreath than with possibly catching a murderer.” “If there is indeed a murderer to be caught,” Stephen replied. Stroking his bristled chin, he added, “I’d best bathe and change, my lady. There is much to be done this day and naught more to be accomplished here right now.” He turned to go, but Mary stopped him, touching his arm. “Thank you, my lord,” she said, meaning it. “Whatever the outcome, I’m very grateful for your help.” “How grateful?” he asked huskily, suddenly pulling her into his arms, his hands sliding down her back to caress her bottom. “Grateful enough to come willingly to our bed?” Mary gasped as a surge of wanton lust pierced her to the core. God help her, but she had missed Stephen’s loving last night. “Very grateful, my lord,” she finally breathed, though one part of her mind-a very small part at the moment--still fought a losing battle for control. Growling low, Stephen lifted her completely off the floor, his hands still holding her bottom, then kissed her open-mouthed and hungrily before heading straight for the bedchamber. With a curt command, he cleared the chamber of Owain and a maidservant, then lowered her to the bed. As Mary watched, he quickly removed his clothing, but then removed hers very slowly, kissing each part of her flesh that he bared. He was behaving so differently from his last possession of her body--that forceful seduction, intended as punishment, two nights ago--that Mary felt a lump of stark emotion in her throat. Once again, he was an enigma, one she might never understand. She moaned softly when he caressed her breasts, then gently sucked her nipples, his long fingers stroking her moistening cleft at the same time. She suddenly wanted to touch him in return, but his patience had ended. Lifting her hips, he thrust deeply, filling her completely and groaning with fierce satisfaction. He took her with slow, deep strokes, loving her tenderly, but, oh, so very thoroughly. And for the first time in her married life, Mary felt nothing but joy when he brought her to a startling, shattering climax, then released his seed in bursts of passion she felt all the way to her womb. In this moment, he was her husband, her lover, touching the very core of her heart with his own. And in the aftermath, as she fell asleep in his strong arms, she wondered dazedly if he was her enemy at all.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

The riders came out of the trees just as Henri entered the King’s Vale forest. He’d had his mind on Evie, and on the thought that her father would more than likely find him too lacking in substance to allow his suit, when he should have been remembering the threat of Saxon rebels. Too late, Henri reached for his sword, cursing fluently in French at his own stupidity of insisting on making this trip alone. He’d been in such a hurry to get to King’s Vale...and now he might pay for that impatience with his life. Within moments, he was disarmed, his hands bound to his own saddle. He was blindfolded, then led through the forest, his destination unknown. At least they didn’t seem intent on killing him...yet. Eventually the group arrived at a cleverly hidden encampment in the very heart of the forest. Henri blinked as they removed his blindfold. He was helped from his horse and offered refreshment, though he was also bound to a tree after being allowed to relieve himself. This whole situation was rather strange. Why were they treating him so decently if their intention was to kill him? He was left to his own thoughts for several hours, and then a blond giant of a man finally approached him. “Sir Henri of Tours, I believe,” the man said, then gave a mocking bow. “I am your host, and I have come to welcome you to my humble home.” Henri merely nodded, knowing immediately that this was the man who’d been wreaking havoc on the countryside for the last several weeks. The Saxon continued. “How fortunate for us that you were alone on the road today.” He raised a blond brow. “If I had to wager a guess, I’d say you were on your way to see a pretty little wench named Evie.” That got a reaction, and Henri struggled against his bonds as he said, “What has she to do with this? Have you kidnapped her, too?” The Saxon threw back his head and laughed heartily. “Ah, I should keep you in the dark,” he taunted, “mayhap even let you believe the lovely little morsel is now my whore.” Henri’s face reddened, and the man held up a hand. “Fear not, Frenchman,” he conceded, “I have no interest in the fair maiden. She’s safe at home with her papa.” He dropped to his haunches before Henri. “But I am interested in your lord, Stephen Dubois. I’m going to kill him, you see...and you will be my bait.” Henri blanched, then quickly regained his composure. At least Evie was safe. But there was something else he needed to know. “Why did you not simply kill him on the road yesterday? You, or at least your men, obviously saw us, though God knows they were well hidden, if you know so much about my visit

with Evie.” “Aye, my men saw you all right,” Ranulf, the Saxon rebel, admitted. He became contemplative before continuing. How could he explain that with all he’d learned of Sir Stephen Dubois, he’d come to realize murder was too dishonorable a way for the man to die? Dubois might be a hated Norman, but he was without a doubt the best of the lot. Sometimes Ranulf honestly regretted having taken the commoner’s gold at King’s Vale. Over the last several weeks, Ranulf had developed a certain respect for the Lord of Almswick. But the deed was done, and even outlaws had their honor. Regrettably, the Norman must die. “Having him killed by my men is not what I want,” he finally told Henri. “I want to face him myself, one-on-one, man-to-man, with both of us armed.” Henri quirked a brow. “Why?” he asked again. This was getting more interesting by the moment. Ranulf shrugged. “Call it pride, if you will. I want to best the man myself.” “And then claim Almswick for your own?” Henri asked. At least that would make a modicum of sense. “Nay,” Ranulf replied with a shake of his shaggy mane. “This forest is my home now. I have no desire for Almswick, nor for the Lady Mary, if you’re worried about that. She is a Saxon and therefore protected from me. I would not ravish one of my own countrywomen.” He rose to his feet, signaling an end to the discussion. “Make yourself as comfortable as possible, Sir Henri,” he said. “I intend to keep you here for several days before sending a message to your lord. I want him chomping at the bit to get his best friend back before I invite him to meet me--alone, of course.” With that said, he turned and left Henri to his own company. And Henri had to admire the man in a way. He must have a very efficient network of spies. He even knew of Henri and Stephen’s close friendship. No longer worried, Henri settled back against the tree. If he was here for the duration, he might as well get comfortable, as his captor had said. His last thought before closing his eyes for a little nap was that it really was a shame the Saxon would soon be dead. Stephen would see to that, Henri had no doubt. And with a soft snore, he slept. Six days later, Stephen was pacing Almswick’s great hall when a scraggly deaf-mute child arrived, a missive held in his dirty little hand. Taking one look at the message, and then another at the painfully thin child, Stephen merely ordered him bathed, fed and put to some kind of work he could understand. The missive was from the leader of the Saxon rebels, but the child couldn’t possibly know anything more than that he’d been paid a coin for playing messenger. Even if he did know anything, he couldn’t relate the knowledge. And, judging by his condition, he certainly had no loving parents worried about him. What was one more mouth to feed? The child would stay at Almswick. The message was expected. It hadn’t taken Stephen more than one day to discover that Henri had never arrived at King’s Vale, and he’d suspected the Saxon rebels were behind his disappearance. They wanted Stephen, after all. What better bait to use than his best friend? He and his men had been scouring the countryside, to no avail, and his suspicion that Henri was very much alive and a victim of kidnapping had grown with each passing day. If not, surely by now they’d have found his body. Now he knew he was right.

The rebel’s instructions were explicit. Stephen was to come to a designated spot in the King’s Vale forest no later than noon on the morrow. He was to come armed, and he was to come alone. And he and the rebel would face each other--in a fight to the death. Stephen smiled. At least the Saxon had some sense of honor--unless it was a trap. He would go, of course. Stephen had never backed down from a fight in his life, and he certainly wouldn’t start now. Not with Henri’s life at stake. Rustling parchment drew his attention, and Stephen turned to the oak dining table on the raised dais. Monsieur LeClerc had arrived two days ago. A Norman Master Builder of no little fame, he was now busily scratching out some of Stephen’s plans, nodding at others, and adding a few of his own. Stephen grimaced as he remembered Mary’s reaction to the man’s arrival. Things had been going so smoothly until then. Ever since he’d shown his concern over her lady mother’s possible murder, she’d opened up to him more than ever before, at least in the bedchamber. By day, she still insisted on keeping her distance, but at night her responses had become sweetly eager, her cries of abandon thrilling him to his soul. And they hadn’t fought even once--until two days ago. Monsieur LeClerc’s arrival had changed all that. Stephen had tried to explain the horrid condition of the manor house, even showing Mary the rotten foundation beams deep in the bowels of the house. Nothing had worked, not even reminding her that such a poor structure could pose a danger to Lily and Mae. She was the most exasperating, stubborn wench he’d ever known, this little vixen of his. And now she wouldn’t even speak to him unless absolutely necessary, much less lay with him at night. He could force her, of course, but the thought was repulsive. After what they’d shared for a few purely pleasurable nights, the thought of forcing her submission was deplorable. “If I may ask, who is the child being bathed in the courtyard, my lord? Apparently, he cannot tell me himself.” At the cool, softly-spoken words, Stephen finally noticed Mary’s presence. She could be so incredibly quiet at times, her slippered feet making no sound, her soft wool skirts silent. She was a picture of innocent beauty today, wisps of hair escaping her braid, her cheeks pinkened by the warm spring weather. He wanted to kiss her--wanted to do far more than that, actually--but he said only, “The child is a deaf-mute, my lady. He brought me a message, and I have decided he will stay here with us.” Mary nodded, accepting that explanation. ‘Twas not unusual for an imperfect child to be abandoned to whatever meager life he could eke out for himself. Doubtless, life at Almswick would be a great improvement over his former living conditions. She almost forgave Stephen in that instant. He was once again showing his concern for others, showing that tender core she’d come to realize he strove very hard to hide. And yet, she could not forgive him-not yet. He was taking her home away! Nothing could dull that pain, not even the full knowledge that she was indeed carrying his child. The last few days had made it quite apparent; Hilda had confirmed it with a few motherly questions. True enough, Mary had not had a monthly flow since her wedding. She was pregnant, but she hadn’t told Stephen yet. Another thought occurred to her then, and color flooded her cheeks. With her own dilemma, she’d not

thought to ask what the missive was about. Could it pertain to Henri’s disappearance? Stephen was convinced he’d been kidnapped. Was there at last a ransom demand? How could she have placed her own troubles before thoughts of dear Henri’s situation? “The message, my lord,” she said, her voice no longer cool. “Is it about Henri?” “Aye, lady, ‘tis about Henri,” Stephen replied and then paused, wondering how much he should actually tell her. Mary certainly bore him no love, but should he worry her needlessly by telling her he would face the Saxon in a duel to the death? Nay, he decided. She might not love him, but she’d shown in the last few days that she at least cared for him a little. There was no need for her to know of the fight soon to come. “Well?” Mary persisted, wringing her hands. “Do they want a great deal of money?” “Aye,” Stephen lied benignly, grateful for this easy way out. “I am to bring the gold myself. I will be leaving early tomorrow.” “Alone?” Mary asked then, and Stephen had to smile at her obvious distress at that idea. Mayhap her foolish anger was nearly gone. Deciding it was best not to distress her any further, he said, “Nay, lady, I will take ten of my best men along for escort.” Those men would wait several miles from the designated spot, but that fact was neither here nor there at the moment. Mary looked relieved, finally saying, “It will be so good to have him back, my lord. Kidnapping for ransom is common enough. Surely they won’t have hurt him in any way.” That was most likely true. In fact, Stephen had an inkling the Saxon rebel had no intention of harming a single hair on Henri’s head. If he had, he could have sent a severed finger, with Henri’s favorite ring attached, or something equally as gruesome to convince Stephen that he, indeed, held the Frenchman. No, Stephen was convinced on the morrow he would fight a fair fight--and after the battle, the Saxon would be dead, and Henri would be free. As he made his plans during the rest of that day, a thought kept troubling him, though. Why was the Saxon so intent on killing him in the first place? True, the rebel had murdered one Norman lord and raped the man’s wife, but only one. And that Norman had been a particularly brutal beast who had raped and killed the wife and daughter of a Saxon lord named Ranulf, and he had also executed the Saxon’s son. Perhaps the rebel had felt compelled to commit that particular retribution--perhaps his true identity was even that of the dispossessed Saxon lord, which Stephen highly suspected. But why was he singling out Stephen to further his revenge, when Stephen himself had never killed a Saxon, except in fair battle? As one thought led to another, he came to the conclusion that there was only one man who wanted him dead so much he might even hire a man to do the deed--Albert of Tidwell. ‘Twas a coward’s way out, but then who’d ever said Tidwell was not a coward?

The next morning, as Mary watched Stephen leave Almswick, fully mailed and accompanied by ten heavily-armed men, she breathed a sigh of relief. Not only because she had absolute confidence that Henri would be released unharmed, but because Stephen would be gone for several hours, mayhap even

‘til morning, and she needed some time without his overwhelming presence. He’d wanted to make love last night, but she’d still refused him. Amazingly, he hadn’t forced the issue. In fact, since that one night when he’d stripped her, caressed her to mindless passion and then forced her to beg, he’d been the most tender and kind of lovers. That was the problem, of course. This new-found tenderness of his was something she couldn’t quite understand. How could he be so kind, so gentle in the bedchamber, and then turn right around and make unreasonable demands in the light of day? He’d done so this very morn. He knew very well that this was market day, and that she was sorely in need of certain supplies. She’d asked permission to go to King’s Vale--with a full escort, of course--and yet he’d flatly refused, adding that she was not even to leave Almswick’s courtyard, not even to go so far as the village to visit Mistress Agnes, which she had been planning to do. Mary had no way of knowing that Stephen’s reason for the confinement was fear that the Saxon rebels might be laying a trap for him along the road to King’s Vale--the very road she would have to travel if he had given her permission to go. Adding that she must stay within the courtyard was merely an additional measure of safety, since he himself wouldn’t be there to protect her. Mary didn’t know any of this, only that her plans had been thwarted. Feeling very tempted to stamp her slippered foot like a child, Mary instead turned on her heel and headed toward the kitchen garden. Mayhap pulling weeds would calm her anger. Not an hour into the task, Mary was interrupted by a frantic servant, a girl she barely knew, as she wasn’t one of Almswick’s folk. “Milady, milady,” the young servant gasped, panting, obviously having run a long way. “Please, you must come. Maggie says you are the only one who might help her now.” Maggie? That was a name she knew. The girl was a young widow who had married for a second time, this time wedding a man from Tidwell Manor, with the permission of Mary’s father, of course. She now lived at Tidwell, and, if Mary was counting right, she should be very great with child by now. This was the woman’s second confinement. The first child had died from strangling on its own cord, and Maggie had been terribly despondent after the babe’s death. Against her father’s and mother’s wishes, Mary had attended that first birthing, which had taken place at Almswick, helping the midwife all she could because she and Maggie had always been close. “Is it the babe?” she asked, rising and dusting off her hands on her skirts. “Aye, milady,” the young girl answered. “The midwife’s taken lung fever and cannot come. Maggie’s begging for you, mistress. She’s certain only you can save her babe.” That was probably ridiculous, but Mary could understand Maggie’s panic. After losing one child, she wanted her friend near at hand for the birth of this one. And Mary simply could not refuse. She gave scant thought to Stephen’s terse instructions to stay within the courtyard--nor to his threat to have her flogged if she ever sought out Lord Albert--while gathering some herbs she knew would be of help with the birthing, if needed.

Within moments, she was ordering her sorrel mare saddled, and asking Sir Harold to accompany her. Surely one guard would be enough. She was only going to the neighboring estate, after all. Sir Harold tried to dissuade her, as did Hilda, each of them well aware of how Stephen felt about Albert of Tidwell, but Mary was adamant. She would go on her own if Harold refused to accompany her. With that unpalatable option, Harold obeyed his lady’s orders, and very soon three people were riding away from Almswick--Mary, Sir Harold, and the little servant who had come to fetch her, nervously riding pillion with the burly knight. Mary’s one truly uncomfortable moment had been when Hilda asked what she should tell Lord Stephen if he returned while she was gone. Dear heaven, Mary hadn’t thought about that. “Simply tell him I’ve gone to Tidwell, Hilda,” she’d finally said. He couldn’t very well accuse her of seeking out Lord Albert when she would be in a farmhouse attending a birth.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

The flowering countryside was deceptively calm as Stephen approached the huge rock designated as his meeting place with the Saxon. Who would suspect that a battle was soon to be fought among this serene natural beauty? Stephen had left his men far behind, hidden in a rocky valley with orders to remain there until he returned. He wouldn’t even consider the thought that he might be killed. He heard his name called and turned in the saddle, sword already drawn. It was Henri, trussed as tight as a captive about to be sold in a slave market, but otherwise apparently unharmed. “‘Tis good to see you again, mon ami,” Henri said, smiling despite his ridiculous posture. “Aye,” Stephen answered, warily noting the man holding a sharp knife to the Frenchman’s throat. “Don’t make any quick moves, Henri, else you might have a very hard time eating your next meal.” The outlaw guffawed, showing rotted teeth. The laughter was good, Stephen decided. No need to antagonize the captor.

Another man emerged from the trees; this one well-muscled and blond. The Saxon rebel, Stephen surmised, and he took the man’s measure with one swift glance. He was at least Stephen’s own height, mayhap an inch or two taller, but Stephen had more bulk. This, too, was good. Tiring the rebel’s sword arm might be his best tactic before moving in for the kill. The Saxon smiled. “You may dismount, Dubois,” he said. Stephen did, soon facing the man and readying his stance, preparing to fight. “You are at a distinct disadvantage, Lord Ranulf,” he chided, purposely using the name. “You wear no mail.” “Armor is for knights, milord,” Ranulf replied. “And I no longer bear that honor, being a mere outlaw. But the name Ranulf is true enough, and the title was mine, in another life.” Stephen nodded, his suspicions confirmed. Then, with amazing speed, Ranulf made his first move, thrusting his sword in a perfect arc that caught Stephen’s left arm, cutting him even through the mail with the force of the blow. Ranulf had drawn first blood. Wincing from the searing pain, Stephen executed a similar move. Ranulf went down on one knee-momentarily--his own left arm covered with blood. Now each truly knew the measure of the other. The fight began in earnest. Henri watched it all, trying not to gulp and thus rub against the knife held to his throat. Stephen had the advantage in brawn, but Ranulf was exceptionally graceful, despite his great height. He’d evidently been superbly trained; his footwork was impeccable. The battle raged on. Thrust, parry, circle, withdraw, thrust again. The two were so evenly matched, Henri began praying for Stephen’s immortal soul--just in case. And then with one sudden thrust, the fighting was done. Ranulf fell to the ground, his chest covered in blood. Stephen knelt by his opponent’s side, lifting Ranulf’s head and resting it upon his own knee. “Were you hired to kill me?” he asked quietly, regret clear in his voice. This magnificent warrior should not meet his end as an outlaw. At least his demise would be the result of his own wish--a fair battle to the death. “Did Lord Albert of Tidwell hire you?” Ranulf coughed, blood spewing from his mouth. His hazel eyes were glazed with pain, but he shook his head. “I...do not...know...who hired...me,” he gasped out. He spat blood again, and then suddenly Henri was on his other side, offering Ranulf a drink of water. Turning to look, Stephen understood. The other outlaw had cut Henri loose and fled into the forest, probably just as soon as Ranulf fell. Apparently, the Saxon had given that order beforehand. Honor, indeed. The man dying before his eyes was a remarkable man. His death would be a terrible waste. Ranulf gulped water, slaking his thirst, then said, “I can tell you...this much. The man...who hired me...was no lord. At least...he didn’t look like one.”

Stephen cursed softly. Tidwell would never lower himself to pose as a commoner; he was sure of that. But who else could it be? Ranulf gasped, then clutched Stephen’s arm. “You fought...well...Norman,” he rasped. “I’m almost glad...I...didn’t...kill...you.” Then his grasp loosened and without another sound, the giant quit moving. Stephen sighed heavily, crossed himself, then pulled a rolled blanket from his saddle and covered the Saxon. “He died as a warrior, in fair battle, with honor,” he said to Henri. “I think that’s what he wanted.” Nodding, Henri agreed. The ride back to Almswick was sober. There was no joy in killing such a fine specimen of a man, and Henri had been kept in seclusion for the most part during his six days with the outlaws. He could probably identify one or two of the men, if it ever came to that, but Stephen suspected they were already scattering to the four winds, now that their leader was dead. They were a loyal bunch, though, Stephen had to admit. By the time he and Henri had brought back a detail of men to bury the rebel, his body was already gone. The Saxon’s outlaw band must have gathered the remains for burial themselves, Stephen surmised, and he allowed a reasonable length of time for that ritual before sending his men into the forest looking for stragglers who might be brought to justice. Even so, Stephen didn’t expect to learn anything more about who had hired Ranulf to kill him. It made no sense, really. Why would a commoner--or a man who looked like a commoner--want to kill him? It made just about as much sense as Lady Evelyn’s murder--if murder it was--and he hadn’t learned anything more on that score, either. His arm was burning, and he knew it would need stitching. By the time they rode through Almswick’s gates very dear sundown, Stephen was more than ready to have his wound tended, to quaff a tankard of ale, and then seek his bed for a good night’s sleep. He wondered fleetingly if Mary would be more receptive to him tonight. He hadn’t really expected to see Mary waiting on the steps to the manor house, but the sight of Hilda, wringing her hands and obviously worried, brought a tenseness to his chest that had naught to do with fatigue or injury. Was Mary hurt? He didn’t even dismount before asking, “What is it, Hilda? Where’s Mary?” “She went to Tidwell, milord...hours ago,” Hilda admitted, and before she could add the words to help with a birthing, Stephen had turned his mount and was galloping toward the gates of Almswick again, Henri following close behind.

“Where is my wife?” were the first words out of Stephen’s mouth as he stormed into Tidwell Manor’s great hall. Albert, sitting nonchalantly before the fire, said, “In my bedchamber, of course.” So, the gauntlet had been thrown. Stephen wanted to kill the son of Hades, but Tidwell wasn’t even

armed, damn the man. “I’m merely jesting, Dubois,” Albert said, gracefully rising from his chair. “Your lady has not set one pretty foot in my home...yet. She is aiding a poor, sniveling goodwife while the woman attempts to spawn a babe, and your steward is guarding her virtue.” Stephen let out a giant whoosh of air. “Where?” he said simply. At least she hadn’t been foolish enough to actually come to Tidwell Manor alone. “In a farmhouse out there somewhere,” Albert said with a negligent gesture. “I never can remember which poor fool lives in which house.” “Try harder,” Stephen gritted out. “I want to find my wife.” Snorting disdainfully, Albert said, “Surely someone in my village can tell you. As far as I know, there’s only one babe being born right now.” Realizing he would get nothing more from the man, Stephen nodded curtly, then turned to leave the hall, his mantle swirling with the angry motion. As the cloak billowed open, revealing the bloody, damaged mail on Stephen’s left arm, Albert said, “Have you suffered an accident, Dubois?” Stephen turned back. “Nay, sir,” he said softly. “I received slight injury while killing a Saxon rebel--a man apparently hired to kill me. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you Tidwell?” With perfect aplomb, Albert said, “Of course not. Why would I?” but Stephen thought he saw a slight tensing of the man’s jaw. “No reason, I suppose,” Stephen replied, unwilling to make accusations he couldn’t back up with facts. Another man came into the hall, and Albert said, “May I present my son? Edgar, this is Stephen Dubois, Lord of Almswick. Dubois, this is Edgar, my heir.” Tidwell’s obviously feigned politeness grated on Stephen’s nerves, especially after his “jest,” but he couldn’t do anything about that, either. He’d not been aware that Tidwell had a son. The boy couldn’t be more than twenty years old. He was tall and lanky, and he literally reeked with body odor. Now here was a lordling who could pose as a commoner, Stephen thought. This situation would certainly bear further consideration--once he’d found Mary. Edgar the unkempt could have been the one to hire Ranulf. Stephen nodded, acknowledging the introduction, then strode from Tidwell’s great hall. Henri had been waiting outside, at Stephen’s insistence. This was a matter between Tidwell and himself. He’d wanted to confront the man alone. After a few simple questions, they located a farmhouse before which Mary’s sorrel mare and Sir Harold’s bay gelding were placidly munching wild meadow grass. Sir Harold, fully armed, was leaning against a tree. With a curt nod to the steward, Stephen said, “I assume you have an explanation for allowing Mary to leave Almswick against my wishes?”

“She would have gone alone, if I hadn’t accompanied her,” was Harold’s honest reply as he straightened from the tree. Then he turned to Henri, grasped his shoulder and said, “Welcome back, my friend.” Stephen smiled wryly. Of course Mary would have come alone, the little vixen. Would she ever learn to obey? He doubted it, and anger rose in small increments with each moment that passed. He was tired, hungry, and he needed his arm tended. Why couldn’t she have simply stayed at home, where a wife belongs? Of course, being men, Stephen, Henri and Sir Harold were not allowed into the laboring woman’s house, despite Stephen’s insistence. They were finally given ale and stale bread by a gnarled old crone who came out of the house momentarily, and then advised to be patient. The babe would be born in its own good time, she told them, and Lady Mary was not inclined to leave her friend’s side until then. With that, she disappeared into the cottage again, leaving Stephen slack-jawed and more angry than ever. Hours later, Mary finally did emerge from the house, stopping to stretch with hands placed to her lower back before approaching Stephen. Just as she’d thought, the successful birthing had had little to do with her presence, though no one could convince Maggie of that. She’d begged Mary not to leave, not even for a moment, suspecting that if she did, Lord Stephen would spirit her away, which was probably true. The same old woman who had told Mary that Stephen and Henri were waiting outside--she’d smiled her relief on learning that Henri was indeed safe--had served quite well as a midwife. Maggie’s baby boy was now nestled happily at her breast, the proud father sitting by his wife’s side. Even the herbs Mary had brought hadn’t been needed. The birth had taken many hours, but it had been completely normal. And the look on Stephen’s face, even by torchlight, was quite apparently anything but happy. Deciding to put off the inevitable confrontation for a moment longer, Mary greeted Henri effusively, hugging him hard and telling him how very glad she was that he had returned unharmed. Henri returned her hug, and then Stephen said, “Enough, woman. You have wasted enough time here for one night.” He knew he sounded churlish, but his arm was throbbing with pain, and the poorly-brewed ale he’d drunk was burning in his belly. “I have wasted enough time, my lord?” Mary repeated. “Would you rather I’d have left a woman who was sorely in need of my comfort?” She snorted disdainfully. “Aye, you probably would.” Hands on hips, she continued. “I have not been wasting time. My friend has just now been delivered of her child. I barely wasted a moment before coming out to greet you. If you could think past the obvious haze of ale in your brain, you might realize that, Norman.” “You disobeyed my orders, madam,” Stephen retorted, his anger building at her wholly sarcastic words. “Not only did you leave Almswick, but you came to Tidwell.” He paused for emphasis. “And I think you know what that means.” He nearly added, It means I’ve been standing here with an arm badly in need of tending, drinking foul ale, awaiting an errant wife who should be taken to task for leaving the safety of her home. But when he saw her face drain of color, he decided he’d probably said enough already. He had no desire to frighten her, merely to make his point. She was right about one thing; the ale was muddling his mind.

Misinterpreting his words, Mary’s face had indeed gone quite pale. He wouldn’t, she thought. He couldn’t! She hadn’t gone anywhere near Lord Albert! How could he carry out that awful threat when she was merely helping a friend? She had visions of being tied to the bedpost, stripped and then flogged by some nameless, hooded torturer while Stephen watched, grimly satisfied to see his threat carried out. No, no! she thought, as Stephen helped her mount her horse. It cannot be true. Surely he wouldn’t really be that cruel...not when I’m innocent. Dear God, I am innocent, aren’t I? I never even saw Lord Albert... Her thoughts swirled chaotically as the foursome rode through the dark night, returning to Almswick. By the time Stephen helped her dismount, then guided her into the house and up to their bedchamber, his hand firmly beneath her elbow, she was totally convinced she would soon suffer a terrible punishment...justified or not. “Please remove your gown, Mary,” Stephen said almost absently. “Blood might spatter from what must be done, and I wouldn’t want your gown ruined.” Woodenly, Mary obeyed. He was really going to do it! She couldn’t believe it. Oh God, how badly would it hurt to be flogged? Blood might spatter. She nearly fainted. Stephen removed his chain-mail hood, threw his cloak open over both shoulders, then began unbuckling his sword belt, and Mary’s eyes widened. The belt was a good hand’s width in thickness, made of supple leather. This would probably hurt worse then the lashing Sir John had received. Suddenly losing her courage, standing there in naught but her shift, Mary finally cried out, “You cannot beat me, my lord. I am with child!” Unbuckled, the belt fell to the floor. What had Mary just said? You cannot beat me... The rest simply didn’t register in Stephen’s brain. She truly thought he was going to beat her with his sword belt! He approached her quickly and grasped her shoulders, despite her wince and attempt to pull away. “I’m not going to be beat you, Mary,” he said gruffly. “Wherever did you get that idea?” Mary was panting, barely able to catch her breath. “But you said...you told me if I ever sought Lord Albert, you would have me flogged.” She gulped and took a deep breath. “What else was I to think when you told me blood might spatter, had me remove my gown and then unbuckled your belt?” “Mon Dieu,” Stephen said softly. “Mon Dieu, this is all my fault.” He sobered completely as he suddenly remembered his threat. “I would never do that to you, Mary,” he quickly admitted, finally telling her what he should have long ago. “I foolishly let you believe a threat that was not real. I only wanted to keep you from doing something truly dangerous, like going to Tidwell Manor by yourself.” Mary sagged against him with relief, muttering against his chest, “But what about the blood?” Stephen had to chuckle at that. Jesu, what a misunderstanding. “I fought with a man today, Mary,” he said, and she immediately pulled back to look at him closely. “I sustained slight injury to my left arm,” Stephen continued. “It needs tending and stitching. That’s all I meant. Not that your blood might be spattered...but that mine might be.”

“Dear Lord,” Mary breathed, “let me see.” In a very short time, she had divested Stephen of his cloak, tunic and chain mail, as well as his leather undertunic and linen shirt, and she was clucking over the four inch rent in his upper left arm, which had begun oozing blood again. Swiftly taking charge, she sat him in a chair and immediately began scrubbing his arm with water and strong soap, carefully removing debris from the wound. After the arm had been thoroughly cleansed, she took several stitches, closing the wound quite efficiently, trying very hard to ignore Stephen’s grimace of pain. Finally finished, having tied a length of clean linen around the neatly tended wound, she had to laugh, looking down at her own shift. It was indeed speckled--if not spattered--with blood. “You were wise in at least one thing, my lord,” she said. “Removing my gown definitely was a good idea.” Stephen drew her between his legs and softly nuzzled her breasts, enjoying the immediate tightening of ripe nipples--nipples which seemed larger, breasts which seemed fuller than when they’d married. Then he finally remembered what else she’d said. Looking into her face, he saw a secret little smile. “Did you say what I think you did a while ago?” he asked. “Are you with child?” Mary nodded, then chewed her lower lip, suddenly shy. Stephen wasn’t shy. He was ecstatic. Scooping her up in his arms, he whirled her around in a circle, happier than he could ever remember being in his life. A son--or a daughter--either one. They were going to have a child! “Your arm, Stephen!” Mary gasped out. “You’ll hurt your arm this way.” “My arm be damned,” Stephen growled, stalking to the bed. “My lady has just told me she is enceinte, and I fully intend to celebrate--in the best possible way.” Pausing suddenly, he looked down at her intently. “Are you willing?” he asked. “Aye,” Mary answered, “I’m willing, my lord.”

Hours later, their passion sated, Mary said, “Stephen, couldn’t you have simply trusted me to obey instead of making empty threats?” She was held in his arms, lying beneath a cool linen sheet, the scent of their lovemaking still in the air-and she felt him stiffen. “Aye, lady,” he finally admitted. “I could have.” “Then why didn’t you?” she asked, pulling free of his embrace. “I’m not a child, my lord. A threat of physical punishment was not necessary.” He pulled her back down to his chest, then kissed the top of her head. “Just let it be, vixen,” he said. “‘Tis over now, and no harm was done.” Mary was not appeased. “Nay Stephen,” she countered, pulling away again. “You at least owe me an explanation.”

Stephen sighed, wondering how much he should admit. Henri had told him countless times that his domineering facade was unnecessary at Almswick--he already held the respect of the manor folk--but he’d become very used to the role. Now his wife was demanding explanations for his behavior, and he wasn’t sure he liked that at all. On the other hand she was his wife. Surely she deserved to know his motives. “Strength is imperative, Mary,” he finally said. “A man must show strength at all times or be considered a weakling.” Mary merely snorted at that, and Stephen turned on his side, facing her. “You disagree, madam?” he said. “Not completely,” Mary admitted, then added, “but there is more than one kind of strength, Stephen.” She propped herself on one elbow, the sheet falling to her waist, totally unaware of how seductively beautiful she looked in the pose. “The strength to feed hungry people, or to comfort a child are among them,” she continued. “Not all strength comes from stern behavior, or a sword.” Stephen shrugged. “Mayhap,” he said, then reached for a tempting bare breast. Mary pushed his hand away. “Are you going to make any further idle threats?” she asked, arching a golden brow. “Nay, lady,” he answered, suddenly pulling her to him again and lightly smacking her bottom. “From now on, my threats will be real.” She giggled, and he spanked her again. “Do you doubt me, madam?” he asked. “I don’t doubt what you’re doing right now, my lord,” she replied through tinkling laughter, “but somehow I don’t equate being spanked with the threat of being flogged.” She wiggled against his hand. “The one is really quite enjoyable, whereas the other would be horrid.” Stephen released her then, grimacing. “I suppose you’ll never believe my threats again,” he said. “Probably not,” she agreed, then became serious. “Stephen, there’s something I need to tell you.” “Hmmm?” He was smiling and stroking her hair. “I...I no longer consider you the enemy,” she finally said, her words halting, “at least not as much as I used to. You’ve done so much for Almswick, and I’m carrying your child. If only I could be sure you hadn’t been the one to kill my father and brothers...” Her words trailed off, but Stephen understood. He became thoughtful, searching his mind, then said, “Mary, when Sir Harold returned from Hastings, did he tell you about the battle?” “Yes,” she answered. “Mostly just that the tide suddenly turned when they thought they were winning.” “And did he mention fighting anywhere near King William himself?” “Oh, no. I would have remembered that. As far as I know, Harold has never seen the new king.” “Mary,” Stephen said then, gently squeezing her hand. “You can put your fears to rest. Henri and I were

part of William’s personal guard. If Harold never saw him, and he was fighting directly by your father’s and brothers’ side, then there’s no earthly way I could have been the soldier who took their lives. I should have thought of this before now. I wasn’t anywhere near them, Mary. I was no more than an arm’s length away from William the entire time. It wasn’t me who killed your family.” Mary buried her head in his throat and cried; tears of relief, tears that cleansed her weary soul. It felt so wonderful to be free of that terrible burden. Stephen was indeed not her enemy at all.

Mary awoke the next morning to the caress of a feather on her breast. Deciding to feign sleep, she kept her eyes closed, and the feather moved from one bare breast to the other, tormenting them, circling the nipples. Her breath caught in her throat. She heard a soft chuckle, and the feather moved downward, touching her navel, her mons, her inner thighs. Seemingly against her own wishes, her legs fell open, seeking the maddening caress. Fingers gently parted her moistening nether lips, and then the feather touched that tiny nubbin of feminine joy. Mary gasped softly and her panting increased, but still she kept her eyes closed. It had become a game now, and she was determined to win. The feather moved relentlessly. Then Mary felt a tongue laving her nipple and a cool breath blown against the pebble-hard peak. It was all she could do to keep her eyes closed, but she persevered. Knowing fingers replaced the feather between her legs, and Mary cried out softly, arching against the mouth still sucking her nipple, seeing flashes of rainbow color behind her closed eyelids. She was nearing the pinnacle of ecstasy. “Open your eyes, Mary,” she heard him say, his breath now warm on her face. “I want to watch your eyes when you come.” A faint mewling sound escaped Mary’s throat. She was so very near that wondrous peak. She heard his command repeated huskily, and she obeyed--at the very moment of orgasm. Her eyes widened, her body convulsed, and she saw her husband’s triumphant smile as he relentlessly held her gaze while wave after wave of ecstasy washed over her from head to toe. He mounted her then, still holding her gaze, and his deep penetration drove her to a second peak even before the first one abated. She cried out and circled his lean waist with her legs, joyously accepting his seed when he finally stiffened and shuddered, attaining his own release. They lay side by side afterward, regaining strength and breath, and a sudden, mischievous thought entered Mary’s mind. Where was that feather? she wondered, then began searching the tumbled bed linens, finding it before Stephen realized what she was planning to do. Turning to him, she brushed the feather across his male nipples, but, unlike hers, his eyes flew open at the first erotic contact and he growled low in his throat, reaching for her. “Nay, my lord,” she said, smiling, and pushing his arms back down. “You had your way with me, and now I shall have my way with you.”

She saw a glint of amusement in those dark, dark eyes, and then a faint shrug. “Do as you will, my lady,” he said lazily. “I think I shall just close my eyes and take a short nap.” Hearing his challenge, Mary became very determined. She knew less than nothing about the power a woman could have over a man, had only touched Stephen intimately that one time in the bathing tub, and yet she wielded that feather with pure precision. She caressed the corded muscles of his belly, caressed his thighs, and at the same time bent to lave his nipples with her tongue, just as he had done to her on countless occasions. To Mary’s surprise, she found that male nipples responded much as her own. Under her mouth’s caress, they became pebbly and firm, and the throaty sounds Stephen was trying not to make told their own story. Encouraged, she bent to lick and kiss his muscled belly, slowly moving down his body. She heard his sharp intake of breath when her mouth neared his groin, and she couldn’t help noticing he was fully engorged again. With a triumphant smile of her own, she brought the feather to the glistening head of his shaft, tormenting it with incredibly light strokes. A drop of pearly fluid appeared under the feather’s caress, and Mary felt a shiver of primitive delight, her own body moistening, readying itself for mating again. That drop of fluid held life-giving seed, she knew, the same kind of seed that had blossomed in her womb, producing the babe she already loved with all her heart. Impulsively, she bent to kiss the pearly drop--and Stephen’s hips reared up off the bed. Shocked, Mary raised her head and looked into his eyes, which he no longer held closed. He was definitely not taking a nap. In fact, his gaze was intent, searing, and his jaw was clamped tight, almost against a question he dared not ask, or a command he was unwilling to give. But somehow Mary understood, and after holding that searing gaze for another long moment, she lowered her head and took him deeply into her mouth. She felt his hands in her hair, heard his low moan, almost of distress...and she felt immense power. That her small mouth could do such devastating things to him delighted her to no end. But it would end soon. She could feel the increased tension in his massive length, tasted more and more of the pearly essence against her swirling tongue. And she wanted him to lose control, waited for him to lose control. It would be a victory unlike anything else a woman could achieve with a man. Lost in her own goals, she didn’t realize what was happening until she found herself lifted and shifted into a straddling position. A deep gasp escaped her parted lips as he penetrated her fully, more deeply than ever before. “Nay, my lady,” Stephen said gruffly, pulling her mouth down to his own demanding lips, conquering her with a masterful kiss. “You’ll not win that way--at least not today.” Then he lifted her bottom, bringing it back down on his shaft, repeating the motion again and again as Mary whimpered with wanton delight. He took her fully, driving her to incredible heights of ecstasy, finally allowing her a release that was nearly as powerful as his own. Lying against his furred chest, Mary said, “I concede, my lord. You have indeed won the game.”

An hour later, they were still not dressed, this time sitting in a large, carved chair, with Mary cuddled in Stephen’s lap. Almost absently, he caressed her bare breasts, and she burrowed her face against his neck, saying, “Nay, my lord. I’m exhausted. Please, not again.” Stephen laughed softly and began stroking her hair instead. “Very well, vixen, I will heed your wishes-this time.” Then he lifted her chin and kissed her gently, adding, “We really should leave this chamber anyway. There is something I want to show you.” Smiling into a face that was becoming more dear by the moment, Mary quipped, “Shall we leave just as we are, my lord? I fear the servants would be shocked by our lack of proper attire.” “Little minx,” Stephen retorted, chuckling, then tightened his arms around her. The action brought Mary’s attention to the bandage on his left arm, and she said softly, “Tell me about this man you fought, Stephen. Did you have trouble securing Henri’s release, even after paying the ransom demand?” Stephen shook his head, then sighed. “The man wanted no ransom, Mary,” he admitted. “I only said that to save you needless worry. What he wanted was to take my life in fair battle.” He saw her blanch. Holding her close, he continued. “The man’s name was Ranulf, and he was hired to kill me, Mary, probably by Lord Albert’s son, Edgar, and probably at his father’s behest.” Mary stiffened in his lap, sitting up straight. “I’ve never liked Edgar, though I’ve only met him once or twice.” She pushed a hand through her tousled hair. “‘Tis hard to believe Lord Albert would do such a thing, and yet, after what you’ve just told me, I’m sure he did hire this man. Who else would want you dead?” Holding Stephen’s gaze, she asked softly, “Will there be more killing now?” “Not unless I can prove my suspicions against Lord Albert and his son,” he answered. “As yet, I have naught more than that, just as we suspect someone killed your lady mother. I will not act without proof, Mary,” he added. “‘Twould not be honorable.” Mary nodded her agreement, then said, “I remember a lord named Ranulf. I think I met him once with my father at King’s Vale. Could this man you defeated have been that lord?” “Aye,” Stephen replied. “He had been dispossessed and had become an outlaw.” He sighed again. “His death was a terrible waste.” Lifting his hand, he stroked her cheek. “I don’t like waging war, Mary. I want you to know that. I’ve had to do it for many years, but now I want peace. Do you believe me?” “I believe you,” Mary said softly, meaning it. How could she not believe him when she could see the sadness in his eyes for having taken the former lord’s life? “You mustn’t blame yourself, Stephen,” she added. “Ranulf sent for you after kidnapping Henri. You did not seek him on your own.” “Nay, I didn’t,” Stephen admitted. “But his outlaw band would have met the swords of my men, as well as my own, if we had found them.” His mouth turned down. “Killing is necessary at times, Mary. ‘Tis the way of the world.” His sincerity touched Mary deeply. He truly did want peace, and he cared a great deal about people. How could she have ever thought him merely arrogant, domineering, uncaring? Nay, Stephen was the

most honorable of men...and he deserved happiness. The Battle of Hastings was long past. Now Normans and Saxons would have to learn to live together--in peace--including Stephen and herself. Wanting to move toward that goal, she said, “What was it you wanted to show me, my lord?” He smiled, lifting her from his lap, then patted her bottom fondly. “Call Hilda and see to your clothing, my lady,” he said. “Then I will show you something I hope you will learn to like.”

A short time later, Mary discovered what Stephen had planned. He held her hand tightly as they stood on a rise beyond Almswick’s courtyard--where excavation had already begun for his castle. His enthusiasm was nearly palpable, and she bit her lower lip. This was not where she wanted to be...and yet, somehow she just couldn’t tell him that, not after all they had shared in the night, and this morning. “The great hall will be over there, Mary,” he said, pointing. “And the kitchen will be within the castle, instead of in a drafty hut. ‘Tis a new manner of building gaining favor in Normandy.” He squeezed her hand. “There will be an ample nursery on the third level, one large enough to shelter Lily and Mae, as well as a houseful of our own children.” Mary blushed, but he continued anyway. “Our chamber will actually be an apartment, with a solar, a bathing room, dressing rooms and bedchamber.” He turned her to face the other direction, then said over her shoulder, “And your kitchen garden will be there.” Mary saw where he was pointing, and a lump of emotion filled her throat. The spot was perfect. Soft, rich soil with a gurgling stream nearby. She wouldn’t even have to carry buckets of water from the well. Something broke loose in her heart, and she turned in his arms, burying her face against his chest. She found it hard to believe he’d thought so much about her happiness. A house was nothing but a pile of sticks, but a home was so much more. It was vitally important; a place for family--and love. Suddenly, in that moment, Mary realized she had come to love Stephen. He was her family now, along with Lily and Mae, and the child she was carrying. Her heart fluttered in her chest. Should she tell him? Nay, she decided. He didn’t love her. He only wanted her estate--and heirs. She simply could not say the words I love you, but she could say others. “Thank you, my lord,” she said, lifting her chin and holding his gaze. “Thank you for thinking of my garden. I think I shall be very happy in your new castle.” Stephen crushed her to his chest, then kissed her deeply, not caring who witnessed the public display. His lady had accepted his plans for the future. Perhaps someday she would accept his heart...

CHAPTER TWENTY

Spring passed quickly. Soon the full, lush greenery of summer covered the countryside. In July, Stephen and his men were called into service by King William. By the time he returned in mid-August, Mary’s belly was no longer flat, but gently rounded with his child. Unlike the night he had returned with Henri, as Stephen rode into the courtyard, hot and bone-weary, Mary was waiting for him on the manor house steps. She ran lightly down the stairs as he dismounted, then directly into his arms. Mon Dieu, but he had missed her. He squeezed her to his heart, then scooped her into his arms and carried her to their bed--thoughts of fatigue pushed aside by more insistent needs. Even in battle, he hadn’t been able to keep Mary out of his mind. What was she doing? Was she still suffering morning sickness? She’d had quite a bout of that before he’d left on campaign. As he undressed her, he bent to kiss the gentle swelling of her abdomen. “I’ve missed you, vixen.” “And I have missed you, my lord,” she whispered. He kissed her mouth. “Don’t go away.” Leaving her nude on the bed, he left the chamber, then came back divested of armor. Quickly pulling off his clothes, he joined her on the bed. She hadn’t moved at all while he was gone, had awaited him in her nude glory. She parted her thighs, and he groaned. He wanted to possess her completely, wholly, to mark her as his own in the most primitive way. She didn’t love him, but she belonged to him, and after more than a month away, he needed to prove it. Lifting her hips, he impaled her deeply, and she whimpered. He took her with full, deep thrusts, delighting in the sight of her taut nipples, her parted lips, her passion-glazed eyes. Coming to release very quickly, he withdrew, then pushed her thighs wider apart. Her nether lips were swollen, glistening with his seed, and he smiled. Aye, she was his. Then he made love to her all over again, slowly this time, tenderly, bringing her to culmination three times before releasing his need, then pulling her into his arms. “God, but I’ve missed you, vixen,” he said, kissing the top of her head. She snuggled into his embrace, and he sighed his contentment. There was nothing better than holding her like this, enjoying the quiet lassitude of sexual satiation. “Did you speak with King William about Henri?” she asked after a time. “Aye,” he answered. Henri was still courting Evie Gulbreath, but her father was disinclined to allow the suit of a landless knight. Stephen had left Henri in charge at Almswick while on campaign with William. He had forwarded Henri’s request for permission to buy a small manor. Henri wanted to settle down and raise a family with Evie, and he had saved a fair amount of gold himself during the mercenary years. Stephen could understand Henri’s need to settle down--he had the same need himself--but with Henri, it was a little different. His intended bride clearly loved him already. Stephen couldn’t help wondering if Mary would ever love him that way. He shook off the thought. It mattered little. She was already his--as he’d just proven quite nicely--and at least she no longer thought of him as the enemy. He could be content with that, he told himself. Absolutely. “Well, what did the king say?” Mary pressed.

“He said he’ll take Henri’s request under advisement,” Stephen answered, pushing his uncomfortable thoughts aside. “That doesn’t sound very promising.” Stephen shrugged. “William works at his own pace, Mary. There’s no use trying to rush his decision. Henri will just have to learn patience.” Mary chuckled. “Somehow I doubt Henri will be pleased to hear that. He truly loves Evie, you know.” Aye, Stephen knew. Henri already had the one thing Stephen did not--the love of his woman. He sighed, then eased Mary to her back and entered her yet again. He might not have her love, but at least he had this. And she was carrying his heir. It was enough, he decided, thrusting deeply. It would have to be enough.

As predicted, Henri was less than happy to learn he would have to learn patience. Mary was calmly sewing a tiny garment in the great hall while Henri paced before her chair. She and Stephen had spent two glorious days in their chamber, but had finally emerged this morn. She sighed, taking another tiny stitch. Their mating was wonderful. If Stephen loved her, everything would be perfect. “I’ve been courting Evie for months,” Henri said, pushing a hand through his tousled blond hair. “Her father has made it quite clear he will not allow us to marry until I have land.” He turned to Mary. “And now I must be patient? Mon Dieu, that’s a tall order. How am I supposed to do that, eh, mon ami?” Mary’s tinkle of laughter filled the hall as she set her sewing aside, rose to her feet and hugged Henri. They had become so close over the past months. Henri was more like a brother to her now than her own had been. “I shouldn’t laugh, my friend,” she said, noticing his frown. “But surely this will all work out, and you’ll have years and years with your beloved Evie.” She patted his cheek. “Take heart, Henri. Patience is a virtue. It won’t hurt you to learn it.” “I agree,” Stephen said, looking up from his ledgers, spread across a writing desk placed near the hearth. He dipped his quill in ink, made a new entry, then looked up again, adding, “Impatience for something you want gains you naught, believe me.” Mary felt his gaze on her, and their eyes met. She frowned. What did that mean? She was about to ask him when Hilda came into the hall, carrying a goblet. “Oh, no,” Mary said, her thoughts instantly diverted. Stephen approached her, and she looked at him beseechingly. “Please, my lord, tell her I have no need of further tonic.” She lowered her voice as he reached her. “It tastes simply awful.” Stephen laughed, then kissed her gently as Hilda held out the cup. “The tonic is for your health and that of the babe,” he said, still smiling. “You will indeed drink every drop, my lady, no argument allowed.” Grimacing, Mary accepted the tonic and reluctantly began drinking it. The look on her face caused new laughter between Henri and Stephen. Hilda merely smiled and nodded in her motherly way.

As Mary drank her tonic, Gwynneth was preparing the lord’s table for the afternoon meal, and she overheard the conversation. She had known Lady Mary was with child, of course, but hadn’t known the lady needed a strengthening tonic to assure good health. Then she shrugged her shoulders and continued her work. ‘Twas none of her business. She would rather think about Edgar anyway. Mayhap he would come to her today. She shivered at the thought. He’d beaten her during his last visit. The pain had been terrible, but what he’d done afterward made up for it. And she deserved to be punished. No amount of beating could ever remove that one terrible sin from her soul. Sometimes she thought guilt was eating away at her sanity. Aye, she hoped Edgar would come today. When he beat her, her guilt lessened for a time, and she needed that, needed it badly. Lost in her thoughts about Edgar, Gwynneth finished her chore, then quietly left the hall, unaware that Stephen was watching her carefully, just as he had watched Hilda and Sir Harold over the weeks before he’d gone to serve his king. He was still unwilling to confront anyone about a crime that may never have been committed, but through a carefully placed spy, he had decided the most likely suspect was the kitchen wench, Gwynneth. The only thing keeping him from forcefully questioning her was the fact that she seemed to have absolutely no reason for having killed Mary’s lady mother. But he had set a plan into motion. The wench might need nothing more than enough rope to hang herself. Knowing anything new would be reported to him, Stephen dismissed the matter for the moment and turned back to Mary, who had finished her tonic. “Very good, vixen,” he said, then arched one brow, his dark eyes amused. “Perhaps you’ll learn docile obedience after all.” Mary very nearly threw the goblet at him, but instead smiled sweetly and handed it back to Hilda.

Edgar was waiting in the shadows of the kitchen hut as Gwynneth approached. As usual, no one had questioned his presence during Almswick’s busy day. People saw what they expected to see, and no one expected to see a nobleman dressed as a peasant. He chuckled to himself, very pleased with how well his disguise had worked for so many months. Of course, he only came to Almswick once every week or so, and then only stayed long enough to make good use of his whore. Could he help it if Almswick’s folk were all stupid, most especially the Norman lord himself? Gwynneth rounded the corner, and Edgar grabbed her by the hair, painfully hauling her back into the shadows with him. “Go to the hayloft, slut, and await your lord’s pleasure,” he snarled, then immediately released her, knowing she would obey. Neither of them noticed a young man cleaning weapons beneath a nearby shade tree. As Gwynneth approached the seldom-used barn, soon followed by Edgar, the young man rose to his feet and quietly trailed them. Once in the barn, Edgar removed his belt, gave Gwynneth the beating she’d been craving, then used her quickly and painfully. After finishing, he wrenched her arm behind her back in a torturous grip, then said, “Tell me the latest news of Almswick, whore.” For months, he and his father had done nothing toward their goal. His father had felt quite intimidated

by Dubois’s single visit to Tidwell Manor. He had decided Edgar should do nothing but gather information for now. Gwynneth could be forced to talk easily enough, but naught of great interest had been relayed of late, other than the fact that Lady Mary was pregnant, which they already knew. His father had been livid on hearing about the pregnancy. He still had every intention of owning Almswick and Lady Mary, and the idea of raising a child of Dubois’s was totally repugnant to him. “Lord Stephen has returned,” Gwynneth gasped. Edgar added a painful twist. “Surely you can think of something more than that, slut,” he sneered. “I know Dubois has returned. What else of interest has happened since I was last here?” She cried out in agony and perspiration dotted her brow. “Lady Mary needs a tonic to ensure good health for herself and the babe. That’s all, Edgar. Honestly, that’s all!” Edgar released Gwynneth’s arm, then grabbed her by the hair and slapped her repeatedly for using his given name without permission. Then he mounted her again, but his mind was on other things than the whore squirming beneath him. So Lady Mary was using a tonic, was she? His father would be very interested in this new information. A new thought occurred to him as he attained his release, and he smiled. Why not poison the tonic? Poison it with herbs meant to rid a woman of a babe? That would certainly please his father--which Edgar didn’t particularly care about--but the very idea of killing an innocent babe aroused him so much, he took Gwynneth a third time. Fucking a kitchen wench with great regularity certainly was convenient. Gwynneth could place the poison in the tonic. Of course, she’d never do such a thing if she knew it would harm her lady’s babe. No matter how loyal Gwynneth was to him, Edgar felt she could only be pushed so far. That could be easily handled, though. He would just convince the little slut that the herbs were for the lady’s own good. Leaving Gwynneth sprawled in the hay, panting, sated, but cradling her punished arm close to her chest, Edgar left the barn and made his way toward Almswick’s gates. There were plans to be made.

“He was here again, my lord,” the young man said to Stephen in a quiet corner of the great hall. “Very good, Owain,” Stephen replied to his squire, who had turned out to be a very capable spy. “And what did you learn?” Owain’s young face pinched with disgust. “The only thing she told him was about my lady’s tonic. The rest of her time was spent suffering Lord Edgar’s brutality.” He shook his head. “I don’t understand it, my lord. Why would a wench want to be harmed by her own lover--again and again?” Stephen had no answer to that, but ‘twas the very reason Gwynneth was his most likely suspect. She had been meeting with Edgar of Tidwell--of all people--about once a week for at least the spring and summer months, and possibly even before then. If the wench could do something like that without compunction, she was far more capable of committing a crime than either sweet-tempered Hilda or the stalwart and tremendously loyal Sir Harold.

When he’d first set Owain and Henri to quietly investigating, the reports on Hilda and Sir Harold had come back just as benignly as he’d thought they would. Then Owain had discovered the trysts in the hayloft between Gwynneth and a “peasant” not of Almswick, and pieces of the puzzle started falling into place. Edgar certainly could dress as a peasant, and Edgar--as well as his father--had the greatest to gain by spying on Almswick. The fact that the “peasant” wore a goatee was the final deciding factor. The man was Edgar of Tidwell. Stephen had allowed the affair to continue, subtlety feeding Gwynneth bits of unimportant information. If Edgar and Gwynneth believed they were safe, their guard would be down, and then perhaps they would say something within Owain’s hearing that would prove one or both of them guilty of crime, either Lady Evelyn’s murder or the hiring of Ranulf. Stephen wanted irrefutable proof before confronting Lord Albert and his son. If a crime truly had been committed against Lady Evelyn, Gwynneth could be dealt with through Almswick’s own justice, but Stephen wasn’t about to hang the wench until she’d proven herself guilty of more than being a pawn to Edgar--and obviously a willing victim, as well. “I don’t know why Gwynneth would willingly suffer cruelty, Owain,” he said, his hand upon the youth’s shoulder, “but continue to watch them as often as you can without being noticed. Remember, we are looking for evidence of crimes against myself and possibly Lady Evelyn. As sad as it is, the perverse nature of their mating really isn’t at issue here.” “Aye, my lord,” Owain replied, then quickly left the hall to return to his chores. As Stephen himself left the hall, intent on checking the progress of his castle, which was coming along quite well, one thought began troubling him: What would Edgar do with this new information about Mary’s tonic? A sudden chill crept up his spine, almost as if he’d felt the shadow of death. Shaking off the feeling, he continued toward his castle, but he decided Edgar and Gwynneth would indeed bear close watching. Without knowing why, he felt quite certain they would soon prove their guilt--on both counts.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

“Are you sure this will work?” Albert asked the old woman. “Oh, aye,” the hag replied. Her gnarled fingers touched the small pouch in Albert’s hand. “‘Tis a

powerful combination of herbs which will cause almost immediate contractions of the womb. The wench should be rid of her babe within an hour of swallowing the potion.” “It won’t kill her, will it?” Albert had no desire to see Mary dead. That would be inconvenient to his plans. The hag shrugged. “Probably not. ‘Tis no more dangerous than a woman losing a babe through nature’s decision alone. In fact, unless you tell her so, the woman won’t even realize she was poisoned--only that she’s had the sad misfortune of losing her babe.” Satisfied, Albert nodded, paid the woman for that potion and one other which he might find quite useful, then left the squalid hut in King’s Vale. Edgar was waiting outside. “You know what to do, Edgar,” he said, handing him the pouch. “I want you to stay at Almswick until the deed is done and then report back to me.” His fists clenched. “Sooner or later, Mary will be mine. By Hades, I won’t have her giving birth to my enemy’s brat.” Edgar tucked the pouch in his belt. “I may have to kill Gwynneth when this is finished, Father,” he said, stroking his goatee as he contemplated the thought. “She might eventually realize what part she played. She could become a risk to our plans.” Albert swiped the air in a negligent gesture. “‘Tis no matter,” he said. “Kill the wench if doing so will give you pleasure, but do it in a way that will look accidental. I still want no suspicion attached to my name.” “The fools at Almswick don’t even know of my visits with the slut,” Edgar said, smiling. “I’ll snap her neck as I use her for the last time.” He shrugged. “Then I can simply throw her down the hayloft ladder. There will be no suspicion attached to anyone’s name--just a terrible accident befalling an innocent maid.” Albert nodded. approving his son’s plan. “Once Gwynneth is dead, you’ll have to find another ally at Almswick. Before long, we need to move against Dubois. I’m losing patience waiting,’tis been long enough. Any suspicions about our hiring Ranulf, if there were any, should have ended by now.” “I’ve been thinking about that too, Father,” Edgar said. “Poisoning Lady Mary’s babe will only solve half the problem. Mayhap we should poison Dubois as well.” He gestured toward the hut. “Surely that old witch can concoct something to mimic food poisoning.” Albert narrowed his eyes. “How would we get this poison into Dubois’s food?” “That’s the best part of my plan. You’ve already been to Almswick once, and you were treated as a guest instead of an enemy. Mayhap a week or so after killing the babe, you could show up again--with sincere condolences for Lady Mary’s loss, just at dinnertime, Dubois will be honor bound to invite you to share the meal. Then all you need do is slip the poison into his ale--even putting a pinch of it in your own ale. Dubois will die, and you will become ill. That way, no one will suspect your guilt.” Albert rubbed his chin, deep in thought. “It might work,” he finally said. He clapped Edgar on the back. “You are truly my son. We’ll come back here tomorrow and see what the hag can do.” Edgar nodded. “Aye. Very soon now, you will have what you wanted, Father. Dubois will be dead, and Lady Mary will be in shock over the loss of her babe--and her husband. Moving back into her life

should be easy enough. She might even agree with your petitioning King William for her hand.” Albert smiled broadly. His son had proven very useful--much more so than he’d once thought. He had no idea that Edgar had no intention of letting his father live to a ripe old age. A second food poisoning death within a year or two would serve Edgar’s plans just fine.

“I don’t understand, my lord,” Gwynneth said as Edgar handed her the small pouch. She was standing in the hayloft, entirely nude. “Why should your father want to aid Lady Mary? She’s not his wife, after all.” Instead of answering, Edgar slapped her hard enough to send her sprawling. “Are you questioning me, slut?” he snarled, grabbing her by the hair, then slapping her again. “N-nay, my lord,” Gwynneth managed, struggling to her knees, the pouch still grasped in her hand. “If you say these herbs are for my lady’s good, then I will see them put into her tonic.” She cringed as he lifted his hand again. But instead of hitting her, Edgar gently caressed her throat, his thoughts moving on to the moment he would kill her. “Good girl,” he murmured, lifting his other hand, then gently closing both hands around her throat, smiling in anticipation. Her eyes widened. “Run along now,” he said then, releasing her. “I’ll wait here for your return. I know ‘tis nearly time for Lady Mary’s tonic, and my father wants to be sure his good deed has been done.” Gwynneth gathered her clothes and quickly dressed. She was very uncomfortable with what she’d just been asked to do, but how could she refuse her lover? Perhaps since Lord Albert was Lady Mary’s former betrothed, he was merely concerned for her welfare. Aye, she decided, descending the ladder. That must be the answer. And what better way to ensure the lady’s good health than to give her the tonic--laced with these strengthening herbs--herself? Gwynneth started for the kitchen hut, gaining confidence with each step. Perhaps, in some small way, helping Lady Mary with her pregnancy would pay for the sin Gwynneth had committed against her lady mother. Her steps faltered. She couldn’t think about that now. Murder. Nay, nay, not murder. She’d truly thought Lady Evelyn wanted to die. A small sob escaped her throat, but then she shook her head and began walking again. No, she wouldn’t think about that terrible mistake--that unforgivable sin--just now. Right now she had a mission to accomplish. Edgar would be so proud of her for thinking of giving Lady Mary the potion from her own hands! Hilda was preparing the tonic in the kitchen hut. Approaching her, Gwynneth said, “May I take the goblet to Lady Mary, Mistress Hilda? It would please me so much to be of service to her. She has always been so very kind to me.” Hilda laughed merrily. “I doubt the lady will thank you for bringing her tonic, child. She sorely hates the taste of the stuff, but, aye, you may take it to her. Just be sure and bring the goblet back here when she’s

finished.” Truly happy to be performing this task, Gwynneth smiled, carefully carrying the full goblet out of the kitchen hut. In the deep shadows by the manor house, she stopped and added the contents of Edgar’s pouch to the tonic, stirring it with her finger. How wonderful it felt to be doing something so helpful! She had to wonder why Edgar and his father wanted this kept a secret, but then she shrugged. It didn’t really matter, probably had something to do with the hatred between Lord Albert and Lord Stephen. Everyone knew about that. How sad, really, that Lord Albert couldn’t openly help his former betrothed. Entering the great hall, she noticed Lady Mary seated before the cold hearth, humming softly and sewing yet another tiny garment. Lord Stephen and his squire were standing to one side. They seemed to be having a rather serious discussion, and then Owain saw her, and his eyes widened. “My lord,” she heard him say, “why is Gwynneth bringing your lady’s tonic?” Stephen turned to Gwynneth, and a horrible thought entered his mind. Poison. He’d never know where the thought came from, but in four swift strides, he was at Gwynneth’s side, grabbing the goblet out of her hands. One sniff of the tonic confirmed his fears. “Fetch Hilda,” he gritted to Owain, then grabbed Gwynneth’s arm in an iron grip. Owain nodded and left. “What is it, Stephen?” Mary asked, setting her sewing aside and rising from the padded bench. “Has Gwynneth done something wrong?” Gwynneth was pale and trembling, but she said nothing at all. Stephen said, “I think she has indeed done something wrong, but I want Hilda’s confirmation.” Hilda scurried into the hall, Owain following close behind. “Is something amiss?” she asked, her voice strained. “Check this tonic, Hilda,” Stephen said, holding out the goblet. “I think something’s been done to it.” Hilda took one sip of the brew and immediately spit it out. “Pennyroyal,” she whispered, shocked. “I don’t know what else has been added, but this tonic has definitely been laced with pennyroyal.” She turned to Mary. “Drinking this could have caused you to lose the babe, my lady. ‘Tis a stimulant, used to encourage contractions of the womb--for abortion.” A trembling hand flew to her heart. “And I’m the one who mixed the tonic! How could this have happened?” Mary wanted nothing more than to soothe her loyal maidservant. As she approached the woman, intent on giving her a hug and assuring her no damage had been done, Gwynneth suddenly wrenched free of Stephen’s grip and turned to flee the hall. “Stop her!” Stephen cried, but Mary and Hilda were blocking the way. By the time he moved around them, Gwynneth was running full out toward the main doors, which were wide open to the cooling breeze, Owain in fast pursuit. Without ever breaking stride, Gwynneth grabbed a dagger from a work table near the door, then she was through the portal, running faster than she ever had in her life. They were gaining on her, Gwynneth knew, but she couldn’t let them catch her now. How could he? her mind cried. How could Edgar have used me to try and harm Lady Mary’s babe?

With mad fury pumping through her veins, Gwynneth reached the barn where Edgar waited, still ahead of her pursuers. She vaulted up the ladder. Before Edgar even realized what was happening, she’d plunged the short dagger into his chest. “Liar!” she screamed, stabbing him again and again, oblivious to the blood streaming from his wounds, covering her hands, oblivious to his gasps of shock and pain. “You said the potion was to help her!” she screeched, thrusting the knife one final time. Sobbing hysterically, she slumped back on her heels, hands covering her face, crimson blood dripping from her fingers. Nearly suffocating with guilt and remorse, her voice strangled, she said, “You wanted me to commit murder--again.” Edgar made no reply. He was apparently quite dead, the knife buried in his chest. “Again?” Stephen asked quietly from behind her, and only then did Gwynneth realize that her lord had scaled the ladder. “What do you mean by again, Gwynneth?” Stephen repeated from his precarious perch. Gwynneth turned her back on Edgar, her eyes wide with shock and frenzied grief. “I killed Lady Evelyn,” she gasped out. Tears streamed down her cheeks. “I thought she wanted to die.” Now that the confession had finally started, she wanted to continue--needed to continue. Holding her lord’s gaze, her chin trembling, she said, “I had just taken a small repast to the nursery. Lady Evelyn was wailing and keening in the solar.” She took a shuddering breath. “I had seen Lady Mary go down the stairs, so I decided to try and comfort Lady Evelyn myself.” Her bloodied hands curled into fists in her lap. “She had thrown the shutters open, my lord. Even on the coldest night of winter, she had opened the window.” She stopped talking for a moment, sobbing into her hands. “Go on,” Stephen said quietly. He looked over his shoulder while Gwynneth regained her composure. Mary had followed him to the barn. He knew she was hearing this confession, and his heart ached for the renewed pain she must be suffering. But it was time for the truth to be told--once and for all. Gwynneth pressed on. “Lady Evelyn’s arms were raised, and she was literally beseeching Lord Ralph to come and take her away. Those were the first coherent words she had spoken in months, and I was shocked.” She moved closer to Stephen and grasped his arm. “You must believe me, my lord. I truly thought I would be doing milady a kindness by helping her achieve her goal. Lord Ralph couldn’t return for her, but I could help her...die.” Her grip tightened on Stephen’s arm. “Go on,” he prompted again. “I p-pushed her, my lord,” Gwynneth stammered, choking on the words, then swallowing. “I pushed Lady Evelyn out the window.” Her hand fell to her lap again and her head bowed. “‘Twas only when I heard her horrid scream that I realized my mistake. She hadn’t really wanted to die...and yet I’d killed her. I escaped down the old staircase, frightened out of my mind...and I’ve been living with this horrendous sin on my soul ever since.” Her last words were a mere whisper. Stephen nodded, releasing a sigh. ‘Twas done. Looking over his shoulder again--and noting Mary’s pallid face--he said, “Fetch the guards, Owain.” A sharp gasp wrenched his attention back to Gwynneth. He realized what he was seeing, but his footing

on the rickety ladder was so precarious, he nearly fell. Struggling to regain his balance, he could only watch as Gwynneth frantically tried to reach something behind her back. Her eyes widened, futility clear in their depths as she locked her gaze on Stephen. “Forgive me, my lord,” she whispered, then began falling--straight toward him. Everything happened so quickly. One moment Stephen was realizing that Edgar had been merely stunned--not dead--and that he had just stabbed Gwynneth in the back, and then her lifeless body was toppling toward him, causing his own painful fall to the ground. He hit the dirt floor with a thud and a whoosh of breath. Struggling to pull air into his lungs again, then pushing Gwynneth’s body off his own, he rose to his feet--and the worst possible sight imaginable met his eyes. Wounded and weak, but desperate, Edgar had jumped from the loft...and he now held Mary in a death grip, the bloody dagger that had killed Gwynneth already drawing blood from her throat. “One move and she dies,” Edgar growled, then gasped for breath. “I’m no fool. I know I’m dying, but I’ll not pay for this crime alone. You’re going to listen to me, Dubois. You must listen!” He sucked in another breath, and frothy blood dribbled from his mouth. Stephen nodded, swallowing hard. Even near death, Edgar could kill Mary. The thought sent a stab of emotional pain straight to his heart. A pain so terrible, it nearly sent him to his knees. He couldn’t lose Mary. He couldn’t! “‘Twas my father who bought the herbs in King’s Vale,” Edgar rasped. “‘Twas my father who provided the gold to hire Ranulf.” The hand at Mary’s throat trembled, causing another tiny cut. Stephen winced. “He wants you dead, Dubois,” Edgar continued. “He wants Almswick, and he wants your lady.” He laughed then, the sound horrid. “And I want him dead, too.” His breathing became more labored. He gasped raggedly, his eyes clouded, and the knife simply dropped from his limp hand as he collapsed. In less than a heartbeat, Stephen pulled Mary into a strong embrace. “He’s dead, my lord,” Owain said. Stephen nodded, then eased Mary to the floor. She was so pale, he feared she might faint. Tears misted his eyes as he cradled her to his chest, but he didn’t care that he was showing “weakness.” Mary had said there was more than one kind of strength--and now he knew she was right. The strength of his love was overwhelming. He could have lost her just now. He could have lost her, and she would have died without ever knowing that the very next beat of his heart depended on her existence. He loved her with a soul-deep intensity that mere words couldn’t hope to convey. But he had to try. “Je t’aime, mon coeur,” he said, rocking her gently. “Je t’aime, je t’aime.” He didn’t realize he’d spoken in French until Henri, who had just come into the barn, touched his shoulder. “In English, mon ami,” Henri said softly. “She cannot understand your words.” Stephen lifted Mary’s chin and kissed her very gently. He could see in her tear-bright eyes that while she

may not have understood the words, she had understood their meaning. “I love you, my heart,” he softly repeated, heedless of the growing crowd, stroking her cheek with a trembling hand. “I love you. If you had died, you would have taken my heart with you. Thank God you’re all right.” He kissed her gently again, and tears streamed down Mary’s face. “And I love you, Stephen,” she admitted, raising her arms to circle his neck. “I love you as much as my own life, as much as this babe I’m carrying.” Stephen rose to his feet, holding Mary tightly in his arms. He would have to confront Tidwell, of course, but first he wanted to settle Mary in their chamber. Her color was already returning, but she was his heart, his life. And she loved him! Her welfare was paramount, of the utmost importance. Only after she’d been turned over to Hilda’s capable hands would he confront Tidwell--and kill him. As Henri watched the couple leave, he grinned broadly. “‘Tis about time, mes amis,” he said to no one in particular, then sobered and turned to the task of preparing Edgar’s body for return to Tidwell Manor-and Gwynneth for her grave. Bending, he gently closed her sightless, staring eyes. “Rest well, little maid,” he said, saddened by the waste of such a young life. “May the Lord give you peace.”

Albert paced his great hall. What had happened to the boy? he wondered. Edgar should have been back long before now with very good news. He heard a commotion in the courtyard, then one of his men-at-arms ran into the hall, his face pale. “They’ve killed him, my lord!” the man declared. “They’ve killed Lord Edgar!” Albert wasted no time strapping on his sword belt. He didn’t need to hear who had killed his son. He was quite sure he already knew that. Worthless as the youth had been, he had had his uses. Now Albert would avenge his death--and gain a clear road to Almswick in the process. Surely King William would award him Almswick and Lady Mary once he learned that his precious Sir Stephen Dubois had died in fair battle--after having committed murder. Albert had no intention of losing. Before slipping his sword in its scabbard, he reached for the second potion he had purchased at King’s Vale--the venom of a snake known to kill instantly with even the slightest cut. He’d had no idea he’d be using the stuff so quickly, only that the venom was valuable enough to pay the hag’s price. He didn’t particularly care that one of his men was witnessing the act of coating his sword with the venom, using a thick linen cloth for his own protection. He even explained just what he was doing, and the man merely laughed. Whatever worked in battle was fair enough in Albert’s mind, and his men fully agreed. None of them would ever tell the truth of how Dubois had died. Exiting the hall, Albert faced a sight most fathers would find heart-rending. His son’s body lay in a cart, dried blood all over his chest. The boy wasn’t even covered. ‘Twas a despicable way to treat the dead, but then Edgar had been despicable, so Albert couldn’t argue with that.

“Dismount, Dubois,” he said coldly, barely sparing a glance to the rest of Stephen’s men. “We will fight, and you shall die as the murderer you are.” “‘Twas not I who killed your son,” Stephen answered, but he did indeed dismount, his sword drawn. “‘Twas Mistress Gwynneth who killed her lover, but I’ll be happy to fight you.” A ring of men formed around the two, composed of Stephen’s men and Albert’s alike, and Stephen moved closer. “You see, Tidwell, Edgar confessed your part in trying to poison my lady--as well as your part in hiring Ranulf to kill me. Raise your sword, Tidwell, ‘tis time you returned to Hades, where you belong.” Henri had also dismounted, along with Sir Harold. The rest of Stephen’s men followed suit. Henri and Harold circled behind Lord Albert’s men with swords drawn, their intent merely to ensure a fair fight. Then Henri heard the words “snake venom” from one of Lord Albert’s men. Moving closer, he listened carefully. “...I watched him coat the sword. All he need do is draw first blood, and the Norman won’t be lifting his sword again.” The man speaking chuckled, totally unaware his words had been overheard. “It won’t be a fair fight, by any means, but ‘twill be a victory and that’s all that counts.” Upon hearing those condemning words, Henri suddenly broke through the circle, into the center, where Stephen and Albert had already crossed blades. “Hold, my lords,” he said loud enough that the two combatants turned to him in unison. “I believe we have a small matter to determine before this fight should continue.” Albert’s men grumbled, but Stephen’s men closed in. Since they outnumbered Tidwell’s nearly two-toone, the grumbling ceased abruptly. “Lord Albert,” Henri said, moving closer. “I would ask you to do one simple thing, if you wouldn’t mind.” “What is this about, Frenchman?” Albert groused. “Slink back to the sidelines where you belong, and watch your lord die.” “A simple thing, my lord,” Henri persisted. “Merely prick your finger with your own sword blade.” He shrugged. “After that I seriously doubt Lord Stephen will have to fight at all.” Albert paled, then looked around frantically, guilt written all over his face. “I’ll do no such thing!” he blustered. “Then I will,” Stephen said calmly, and before any of Albert’s men could make a move, Sir Harold and Henri were holding Albert between them, with Stephen easily taking the sword from Albert’s sweating hand. “Why have we done this, Henri?” Stephen asked once the sword was in his possession. “I heard one of his men talking about snake venom, Stephen,” Henri replied. “The sword has been coated with it, and ‘tis apparently capable of killing a man with a single show of blood.” Stephen nodded grimly. He’d heard of this venom. Some desert heathens were known to use such

trickery. Seemingly intent on drawing blood, he lifted Albert’s hand and lowered the tainted blade to his skin. “No, please, no!” Albert cried in desperate fear. He lost control of his bladder. “Please don’t cut me, Dubois,” he begged, falling to his knees in a puddle of his own waste. “I confess everything. I did have Edgar hire Ranulf, but it was his idea! And killing your lady’s babe was Edgar’s idea, too!” He didn’t even notice that Stephen had released his hand, not until he brought both hands together as if in prayer. “Please spare my life, Dubois,” he cried piteously. “Please, please spare my life.” Then he fell to the ground, crying like an infant. Stephen turned away from the mewling babe in disgust. “Bind him and take him back to Almswick,” he ordered. “We’ll let the king decide what to do with the coward.” Desperate not to have that happen--knowing what King William would probably do to him--Albert struggled to his knees again as Stephen began walking away. He grabbed at Stephen’s tunic, fear freezing his voice, then just by chance grabbed the poisoned sword, cleanly slicing his own palm. The venom worked instantly. Albert fell back to the ground in violent convulsions. For all the world, it looked like an apoplectic fit, but those watching Albert of Tidwell’s death knew this was no natural event. “Perhaps ‘tis best this way,” Stephen said quietly when it was over, still holding the poisoned blade. “Burn the body and the sword with it,” he told his men, carefully handing the weapon to Harold. “I want no risk of anyone else touching that venom.” Henri approached, and Stephen looked up. “Thank you, my friend,” Stephen said, clasping Henri’s arm. “Without your intervention, I could have died.” Henri shrugged and lifted his hands in a typically Gallic gesture. “‘Tis what friends are for, non?” he asked. “‘Tis what friends are for, yes,” Stephen replied.

Mary paced the bedchamber, clad only in her shift, worry creasing her brow. Stephen loved her, and she loved him. They had admitted it, finally. But now he was gone--fighting Lord Albert. Her throat closed. What if he died? What if she never saw him again? “Dear God, no!” she cried. “Not when we’ve just admitted our love! Please, please bring him back to me!” She fell onto the bed, sobbing. He’d already been gone for hours. He could already be dead. He’d done so much for her...for Almswick, for everyone. They all needed him--she needed him. She knew that now. Strong hands touched her shoulders, and she gasped. “Hush, ma chère,” Stephen said, turning her over and pulling her into his arms. “‘Tis all right now. ‘Tis finished.”

“Stephen...Stephen,” Mary rasped, still sobbing, gulping in air. She clutched his tunic in her small fists. “I love you so much, Stephen. I--I thought you might be dead...” “Shhh,” he soothed, rubbing his big hands up and down her back. “How could I die when I have everything to live for?” His hand moved to the gentle swell of her belly, and suspicious moisture misted his eyes. Blinking it away, he crooked a finger, then lifted her chin, kissing her tender eyelids, each in its turn. “‘Tis over, my lady. You have my word on that. You and the babe are safe in my arms.” He kissed her mouth then, deeply, passionately, ensuring her of his continuing life in the best possible way. She parted her lips and accepted his tongue, whimpering softly as he opened her shift. In moments, her breasts were freed, and he bent to suckle each ripe nipple. “My babe will be doing this soon enough,” he said huskily, and Mary moaned, arching her back. “Love me now, Stephen,” she whispered. “Please, love me.” “I do love you, my heart,” Stephen replied, but he knew what she meant. Rising from the bed, he stripped off his clothes, then returned, easing the shift from her body. Laying her back, he parted her thighs, then guided himself to her moist entrance. Barely inside her, he entwined her fingers in his, placing her hands on either side of her head. “Hold on tight.” She obeyed, then gasped as he thrust deeply, filling her completely, withdrawing, then filling her again. He watched her face as he loved her, holding her gaze. This was what he’d wanted. To see her eyes filled with love--and passion. She was his heart, his life mate, the missing part of his soul. And as he drove her to climax, then emptied himself on a guttural moan, he knew there was nothing more he could ask of this world. He had a woman to love, and she loved him. And she was carrying his child. He’d found the peace and happiness his soul had been seeking at last. Hours later, Mary snuggled deeper into Stephen’s embrace, smiling sleepily at his robust snores. She laid her hand over his strongly-beating heart, feeling content, safe and loved. Just as she drifted to sleep again, the babe within her quickened, kicking for the first time, and Mary smiled in her sleep. Aye, all was well.

EPILOGUE

Two years later...

Mary watched quietly as men with grappling hooks and rope finally succeeded in pulling down one wall of the old manor house. She sighed. Stephen had decided her former home must be destroyed. Mary understood his reasoning--she even agreed with it. A village child had fallen through a rotting floor in the old house, breaking his leg. Aye, it was time for the structure to be destroyed. But she’d felt compelled to watch the process, at least for a little while. She had come to say goodbye. The infant cradled in her arms startled awake as swearing, sweating men eased the wall to the ground. Mary lifted the babe to her shoulder. Patting her back and crooning softly, she lulled her daughter back to sleep. From where she stood, Mary could easily see both her homes--the one being destroyed and her new home, Stephen’s castle. Starkly white and commanding, it towered over the countryside, and Mary smiled. Much like its master, the castle was strong and uncompromising, yet offering comfort, warmth and loving protection to those within its embrace. And both her children had been born there. Patting her daughter’s tiny back, Mary considered all that had happened at Almswick since the fateful Battle of Hastings nearly three years ago. A lifetime of things had happened since then. Almswick was flourishing now. This winter--as with all the winter’s since Stephen’s arrival--the manor folk would be warm, well fed and happy. Mary couldn’t ask for much more than that. And he’d given her two beautiful children to love. Even a third child, though he didn’t know it yet. Lady Evelyn was buried in hallowed ground. With proof that she hadn’t committed suicide, Father Michael had allowed that honor. And Mary knew in her heart of hearts that her mother was with her father now, in heaven. She placed flowers on the grave nearly every day. And Henri--dear Henri--had gotten his heart’s desire. He’d married Evie Gulbreath, but they hadn’t moved very far away. King William had given him Tidwell Manor as a fitting reward for his discovery of Lord Albert’s treachery. A fair battle was one thing--using exotic poison to kill your opponent was quite another. Even after two years, Mary still shuddered at the thought. Thank God for Henri. She smiled again. Henri and Evie already had three children, towheaded twin girls and a son the same age as the babe cradled in Mary’s arms. The sound of children’s laughter drew her attention, and Mary turned toward the castle. Lily and Mae were scampering down the hill, Stephen close behind them, holding a chubby, dark-haired toddler in his arms. Lily was nine years old now--nearly ten, actually--and Mae was four. Her smile widened. This was her family. “What are you doing here, Mary?” Stephen asked as he reached her. She heard the censure in his voice, but she ignored it. Invariably, Stephen became domineering if he was worried about her safety. But Mary had learned over the years that his bark was indeed far worse than his bite. And besides that, she and her daughter were perfectly safe. They were too far from the old house to be in any danger. “I’m saying goodbye,” she answered simply.

He studied her quietly for a time, then nodded. “It had to be done, Mary. You know that,” he said. Aye, Mary knew that. Life must go on. She saw Anna topping the rise, obviously in search of her charges. Mary surrendered her tiny daughter to the nursemaid, and Stephen surrendered their son. With a promise of honey cakes, Lily and Mae happily followed the nursemaid as she turned back toward the castle, leaving Mary and Stephen alone. Stephen placed his arm around her shoulders, but he was watching the workmen. “‘Tis just a house, Mary,” he said. “Naught more than boards and mortar. What makes a home is love, and family, and we have that in abundance.” He looked down at her, his dark eyes concerned. “Don’t be sad, ma chère. I couldn’t stand it if I caused you unhappiness.” Sighing, Mary turned into his embrace. She knew that about her husband. He truly couldn’t tolerate causing her unhappiness of any kind. How different he was now from the man who had come to claim Almswick--and her. His soul was at peace, and it made all the difference in the world. He was a wonderful father to Lily and Mae, and to Henry and little Beth, their children. She couldn’t ask for anything more. And he was right. She’d come to the realization years ago that love and family made a home--not mortar and boards. Perhaps it was time to tell him her news. “I’m not sad, Stephen,” she said, looking up. “In fact, I’m really quite happy. There’s something I need to tell you.” “And what is that, my heart?” Stephen asked, smiling, stroking her hair. “I’m with child again.” His hand froze in her hair. Then he simply scooped her up in his arms and headed toward the castle with determined strides. “I’ll not have my pregnant wife endangered,” he growled. Mary circled her hands around his neck. “But are you happy about the child, Stephen?” He stopped in his tracks, looking down at her. Then he grinned and kissed the tip of her nose. “I’m the happiest man in the world, sweet vixen,” he said. “But you’ll still insist that I return to the castle.” “Aye,” he answered, walking again. “No arguments, now. I’m not putting you down ‘til we reach our bedchamber.” Mary snuggled against his chest, her lips curved into a secret smile. He was overprotective, but it didn’t bother her in the least. She felt loved, cherished, when he acted this way. Surely nothing could ever harm her if he were close by. As he started climbing the rise to the castle, Mary looked over his shoulder at her former home. A second wall was being pulled down now, accompanied by the grunts and curses of men. She chewed her lower lip, said, “Goodbye, old friend,” then turned her gaze toward the future. Life does indeed go on, she thought. But she had no regrets.

Looking up at Stephen, she said, “I love you, my fierce Norman. You have attained your goal completely--the conquest of my heart.”

THE END

****COMING IN JUNE, 2000**** A SAXON’S LOVE

Dear Reader, If you enjoyed CONQUEST OF THE HEART, don’t miss A SAXON’S LOVE, the story of Ranulf the Outlaw. Here’s a sneak peak excerpt from A SAXON’S LOVE. Marilyn Grall

A SAXON’S LOVE

CHAPTER ONE

Kent, England, 1070

He should have been dead. In fact, for all intents and purposes, he was. Dead and buried in the forest near King’s Vale. But Ranulf of Ravenwood hadn’t died that day three years ago. He’d come damnably close, but the sword thrust taken in a fair fight with Sir Stephen Dubois had not ended his life. “Whoa, boy,” he said, pulling back on the tired horse’s reins. The wagon shuddered to a halt; iron, copper and tin pots clanging their complaint. Ranulf was home. Ravenwood Manor might be in the hands of a Norman, but it was still home to Ranulf, and he’d come back to reclaim his birth right. All he needed was a workable plan. Ranulf’s destination lay just ahead on this mist-enshrouded road -- Ravenwood Village.

Adjusting the leather mask hiding his face, Ranulf clucked to the old horse again, setting the tinker’s wagon in motion. He had spent the last many months learning the pot menders’ trade, and now he would put that training to use. What better way to spy on his own home, and devise that plan, than as a lowly worker, a traveling tinker seeking warm shelter for the coming cold months? Ranulf’s eyes narrowed, his emotions torn between guilt and anger. Being this close to Ravenwood brought back more than memories of home. It brought back one particular remembrance -- a memory of searing ecstasy and ravaging rage. Three years ago, in a heedless need for revenge, he had forced a woman to his will at Ravenwood, making her his own on a bloody, hellish night of retribution -- the night he had executed her husband for heinous crimes against his own wife and family. That woman was Brenna de Rouen, the Norman who now held Ravenwood. The mist began lifting as Ranulf reached the village. A wizened old man looked up from his tiny garden patch, and Ranulf took a deep breath. Now it began. If he could fool old Matthieu with his leather mask disguise, then perhaps the first part of his plan would work. He needed all the information he could gather. Spying on Ravenwood -- and learning its weaknesses -- was a very necessary step toward success. Matthieu looked up as the wagon came to a halt. “Are you in need of help, stranger?” he said. Ranulf let out the breath he’d been holding. The old man did not recognize him. “Does this village have a hut I might use for the winter?” he replied, his voice casual. “I am a skilled tinker. Mayhap the manor folk could make good use of my services.” Matthieu scratched his chin, covered in bristly gray hair, and Ranulf nearly smiled. ‘Twas a signal the man was thinking, pondering the situation. Ranulf had known Matthieu all his life. The mayor of Ravenwood’s village would never deny shelter to a needy man. “Old Widow Maven just went to her reward,” Matthieu finally said. “I expect you could use her cottage. What should we call you?” “Tinker,” Ranulf said simply. Matthieu nodded. “Fair enough.” He led the way to the widow’s hut. The hut was simple, a one-room structure with a central fire pit and scant furnishings, but Ranulf didn’t care about the lack of luxury. He’d lived in far worse conditions since the Normans had stolen Ravenwood and changed his life forever. He began unpacking the wagon, while Matthieu started a fire to warm the room. “Lady de Rouen has given me some fine herbs for boiling,” Matthieu said conversationally. “The brew warms chilled bones and soothes the aches of travel. I’d be glad to share some, if you like.” Ranulf turned sharply. Brenna de Rouen -- the Lady of Ravenwood. His fists clenched tightly and anger surged that Matthieu had mentioned her name so easily. The old man should hate her! Brenna de Rouen was the wife of the man who had slaughtered Ranulf’s family... Calling on all his willpower, Ranulf took a deep breath and reined in his anger, his white-knuckled fists

going slack at his sides. As a traveling tinker, he shouldn’t show any reaction at all to the woman’s name. “Aye,” he finally answered. “The drink would be most welcome.” Matthieu nodded, then headed toward his own cottage, and Ranulf followed him out the door, ducking to avoid the low lintel. Almost involuntarily, his gaze swung to the left. Nothing was there now, naught but a fallow field. But on that night three years ago, that field had held a large tent -- the temporary lodging of Nathan de Rouen. Unexpectedly, tears filled Ranulf’s eyes, and the anger he’d just reined in became a burning, silent rage. He couldn’t help reliving the Norman destruction of his life... King Harold had been killed at Hastings, and Ranulf had been on his way to London to pledge fealty to the conqueror. The battle was over, the Normans had won. More than anything, Ranulf wanted peace for his family. His wife...his daughter...his son. Several of Ravenwood’s men-at-arms had caught up with him. And from that moment on, nothing in Ranulf’s life had been the same. The ghastly tale they told changed everything forever. Nathan de Rouen had attacked Ravenwood, with the blessing of William, the new Norman king. De Rouen had pulled Ranulf’s wife and young daughter into the courtyard, then personally raped and killed them both. As if that wasn’t enough, he’d then executed Ranulf’s son, calmly slicing the boy’s throat from ear to ear while the horrified villagers watched. As a final sacrilege, de Rouen burned the warm, comfortable manor house -- the home of Ranulf’s family for more than one hundred years -- stating he wouldn’t live in the barn of Saxon swine. Ranulf had wanted to gallop back to Ravenwood, to seek righteous vengeance for these hideous crimes. But the men from Ravenwood dissuaded him. What good would it do? Had they escaped the Norman themselves, risking all to warn their master, just to go back and fight a lost cause? The Norman king had given Ravenwood to de Rouen. Nothing, no amount of bloodshed, would change that now. After spending a sleepless night, Ranulf had to agree. A dozen men-at-arms had fled Ravenwood after the massacre, just to warn their master that de Rouen wanted him dead. He couldn’t repay their loyalty by forcing their return to Ravenwood. There was nothing left there for Ranulf in any case. His family was dead, but he still had loyal men whose very survival now depended on him. So he’d become an outlaw, an infamous Saxon rebel, instead. For months, Ranulf and his outlaw band -- which had grown to more than fifty men -- wreaked havoc on the countryside, causing as much trouble as possible for the Norman conquerors. And then one night he’d finally gotten his revenge on Nathan de Rouen. He’d walked into de Rouen’s tent, pulled the man outside, then calmly slit his throat from ear to ear in righteous recompense for the way de Rouen had killed Ranulf’s son. Returning to the tent, he’d pulled de Rouen’s startled young wife into his arms, bluntly telling her she was a widow now, and forcing her to yield -- but not painfully. Nay, even in his fierce bloodlust, Ranulf had found he could not physically harm the girl. Instead, he’d forced her complete surrender, arrogantly deciding that that would be an even worse punishment for having married the monster, Nathan de Rouen. With cynical enjoyment, he’d listened to her whimpers and moans of pleasure during her own ravishment, using her thoroughly in fair retribution for the rape of his own beloved mate. It wasn’t until several hours after the forced mating that guilt had set in, and by then he and his men had been far afield from Ravenwood. Never in Ranulf’s life had he defiled a

woman! And the worst part of all was that the wench had stayed in his mind from that moment on... He wanted her again, and that only caused him anger, and further guilt. She was the hated wife of his hated enemy! Nay, he did not want her! Or so he kept telling himself... Weeks after that fateful night, Ranulf had challenged another Norman, Lord Stephen Dubois, to a fair fight. That was the fight that should have cost him his life, but it hadn’t. And now Ranulf was back at Ravenwood. The burned manor house had long since been replaced by a stone monstrosity, but at its heart, the estate was still the same. It was home. Ranulf would claim his birth right again -- and he would purge his soul of Brenna de Rouen. *** The soft, sweet sound of a lyre floated through the dry autumn air. Leaves swirled lazily to the ground from nearly-bare branches, and Brenna de Rouen sighed. She wasn’t sad, not really. ‘Twas just a touch of melancholy. She often felt this way when the glorious colors of autumn turned brown, when cold, dark winter loomed on the horizon. With no one to hold close during those cold winter months, a woman could be chilled to the bone. Brenna shivered, then laughed wryly at her own foolishness. King William would gladly find her a new husband. She was the one who had pleaded for him to wait. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to marry again. It was just that... She stopped, futilely trying to push the thought aside. What was the use of wishing for a man who was dead? Of yearning for the man who had most likely saved her life? His name was Ranulf, and he’d once been the lord of this very manor. That was before his outlaw days...before he’d come back to Ravenwood one fateful night, seeking revenge... Perhaps she wouldn’t have died that night, but surely before very long. Nathan de Rouen, her brutal husband, had been impotent ever since his victory over Ravenwood. Brenna secretly thought that was God’s own punishment for his cruelty, but on that night, as on many others, he had blamed her for the problem, never himself. She couldn’t count how many hours she had spent on her knees, trying to coax his flaccid member to life with her mouth. Or how many times he had beaten her senseless when nothing happened. And then Ranulf of Ravenwood stormed into her life, and the nightmare she’d been living abruptly ended. Of course, they hadn’t known the outlaw was Ranulf, not at first. But as he’d stripped Brenna’s clothing from her body, as he’d forced her to his will on the small sleeping cot, he’d said, “An eye for an eye, my pretty Norman wench, ‘tis only fair.” Later, that phrase had made perfect sense. Ranulf had been avenging the rape of his wife. But he’d done something else that night. Ranulf the Outlaw had changed Brenna...forever. No matter that she had been the spoils of battle, mating with him had been the most incredible experience of her young life. The world would call what he’d done rape, but to Brenna, it had been something far different than that. She’d never known a woman could feel that way -- so tight and full she thought she would shatter, and then that shimmering, quivering, glorious sensation of release. Three times.

Brenna sighed again, reliving the memories. It had been the very first time she had ever been taken without awful pain, the very first time she had experienced pleasure during the sexual act. God help her, but she was not sorry that her brutal husband had been killed that night. If anything, she was grateful to Ranulf for the execution. And there was something else she was even more grateful for, something else that had changed her life. Ranulf the Outlaw had left Brenna with child that night -- something Nathan de Rouen had been unable to accomplish in five years. At nearly two and twenty years of age, and having thought herself barren, Brenna de Rouen had found herself pregnant. Now, three years later, the delightful imp born of that union was the sunshine of her life. Strumming the lyre, Brenna looked across the low garden wall, toward Ravenwood Village. Her home sat on a rise, and she could see the village quite clearly through the open, but guarded, manor gates. Other than Niel, her son, it was the manor folk that brought joy to her days. She truly loved the people of Ravenwood. Her eyes narrowed in concentration when she noticed a wagon being unloaded at old Widow Maven’s hut. Then, seeing the man’s unique tools, Brenna smiled. “A tinker,” she murmured, standing and setting the lyre aside. The man’s leather mask didn’t bother her in the least. Many men wore such things to hide hideous scars. Her cook would be well pleased to hear of the tinker’s arrival. Gathering her skirts and picking up the lyre, Brenna headed for the manor house, intent on sharing the good news. She had no way of knowing that just as she turned to leave the garden, Ranulf looked up and saw her, his eyes narrowing, too. She looked different, he conceded, more mature than she had that night wearing naught but a shift, wide blue eyes startled -- but somehow grateful -- golden hair unbound. Now she looked regal, golden tresses hidden beneath a modest veil, her clothing rich velvet. She looked like the Lady of Ravenwood. Ranulf cursed softly, then reached into the wagon for another parcel. Brenna de Rouen. Against his will, his loins tightened, throbbed. Could he purge the wench from his soul? He smiled grimly. Aye, he could -- by wresting Ravenwood from her dainty hands... ****A SAXON’S LOVE, COMING IN JUNE, 2000 FROM NCP**** www.newconceptspublishing.com

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