The king has charged Sir Thomas Carlwick with learning what became of Baron Groswick. No one has seen or heard from the man for more than a year. Thomas’ inquiries have so far turned up no sign of the Baron. When he goes to Groswick Keep, he gets a mixed reception. Young, lovely Lady Juliana welcomes him graciously, but that evening someone tries to kill him by firing a crossbow at him. Juliana apologizes and tends his injury. She also tells him she has no idea what happened to her husband, but she’s beginning to accept that he’s dead.
Thomas is attracted to Juliana, finding in her everything he’s wanted in a woman. Despite a past that was nearly destroyed by a woman’s lies, Thomas is ready to settle down again, and he believes Juliana is exactly what he’s looking for. As soon as he can prove Baron Groswick is dead, Juliana will be free to marry him.
But he may not want her anymore when he learns what really happened to Baron Groswick.
“Sir Thomas? Are you sure a messenger was sent to Groswick to inform them of our coming?”
Thomas shook himself out of an exhausted half-doze and followed his squire Ralf’s line of sight straight ahead to where their destination loomed. The reason for the question was clear.
The place looked incredibly forbidding, inhospitable, and unwelcoming.
The huge, dark, stone fortress had a four-story main keep surrounded by a two-story wall. The remote setting, with the keep hedged in on two sides by hills and accessed by a road through a narrow pass to the gate, contributed to the feeling. Even as they approached, an enormous portcullis remained adamantly closed over a heavy wood door. No movement or greeting of any kind indicated they’d been spotted or would be welcomed.
Thomas was used to being greeted with courtesy, and sometimes even with elaborate pomp and ceremony. He didn’t favor excessive display, but the complete lack of welcome here dismayed him. This mission had already taken too much time and too much travel.
“The herald said his message had been delivered.” Thomas sighed and rubbed at his throbbing head. He just wanted to be done with this Groswick affair. He was close to thirty, getting too old for this, though his friends would laugh did they ever hear him say so. His tired bones wanted rest. But even more, his spirit craved a place to call home. Not so much a place, though, he realized, probing feelings kept long buried as one would test a damaged tooth to see how much pain it could cause. He wanted family, people he could settle with and become close to. He longed for peace, order, a secure and comfortable place to lay his head at night.
Once before, he’d had all that, but a woman’s lies had torn apart and destroyed it. Now, however, after two years spent watching his closest friends find comfort and happiness in marriage to extraordinary ladies, the seed that had lain dormant for so long sprouted and began to unfurl. He wanted what they had, or at least some reasonable shadow of it.
Both of his closest friends had found unusual and special women to fill their hearts. Women who could love and submit freely to their husbands, yet still be strong, brave, and intelligent. They’d had to be. Lady Rosalind and Lady Mary had each survived terrible things and come through desperate tests, emerging stronger and wiser from them.
He sighed and set those thoughts aside. For now he faced the problem of entrance into this dreary and shuttered keep. He expected at any moment to see the portcullis rise in acknowledgement of his arrival. No one could think one knight traveling with only his squire and one other vassal represented any threat. But though they rode up close to the gate and stopped there, nothing happened.
The drizzle turned into a full-bore rain as the gray remains of the day faded into twilight. Thomas watched the wall around the gate and the guard tower over it. He caught periodic flashes of movement. The place wasn’t deserted, and their presence must have been noted.
After waiting a good while, Thomas rode forward, signaling his companions to remain behind. He stopped just below the gate.
“Greetings! I am Sir Thomas of Carlwick. I come in peace, in the name of the king.” He shouted, trying to make the words as forceful as they were loud. “Open for the king’s representative.”
He backed away, rejoining Ralf and Bertram. Again they waited, expecting that the order would bring quick action. It didn’t.
His helmet kept most of the rain off his face, but the moisture still leaked beneath his chain mail byrnie and soaked his undergarments. Daylight was fading quickly, and he had no wish to spend the night camped out on the plain.
When his patience wore out, he rode forward again. “I am Sir Thomas of Carlwick. I represent the king. Admit me or risk the king’s wrath and the weight of his might on you.”
On the rampart above the gate and in the guardhouse, figures scurried around. After another pause long enough to set him grinding his teeth, a metallic screech finally signaled their impending admission. Nonetheless, they still had to linger another fifteen minutes in the drenching rain while the portcullis creaked upward and the heavy wood gates swung ponderously open.
He was in no good humor when they were finally able to enter the grounds. They stopped in the bailey. A groom and a pair of stable boys came forward and assisted them to dismount, then took charge of their horses.
A man in livery appeared at the top of the stairs that clung to the side of the keep wall, standing at the main door, waiting to invite them in. Weary to the bone, they climbed the steps and stood before the servant.
“I’m Sir Thomas of Carlwick,” he announced again. “My squire Ralf and my man, Bertram.” The servant bowed.
“Enter and be at peace, Sir Thomas,” the man invited. “I’ll announce your arrival to Lady Juliana.”
Instead of letting directly into the main hall, the door gave into an anteroom, where Sir Thomas removed his helm and shook rain off his cloak. Perhaps it was the gloomy weather outside or the fact that only two torches in high brackets illuminated the area, but the tall, undecorated stone walls of the entranceway loomed forbiddingly and the whole had an air of mourning or despair.
The man led them into the great hall, announcing Sir Thomas’s arrival as they entered. Here the atmosphere lightened. More torches brightened the area, assisted by the blazing fire, which burned in an enormous fireplace on a side wall. The aromas of roasted meat, fresh-baked bread, and ale assaulted him and set his stomach rumbling. For all that, though, no more than two dozen people occupied a room which could easily have held a hundred or more. The table on the dais at the far end was empty.
A woman rose from the center of the side table where most of the people gathered and approached him. Her clothes were of good quality cloth, though plain, and she wore a simple cap on her head. She was young, very pretty, and carried herself with regal grace.
“Sir Thomas,” she said, dropping into a deep curtsy. “Welcome to Castle Groswick. I’m Lady Juliana. I regret we kept you waiting so long in the rain, but I fear we were unprepared for visitors, and the guards on duty have little experience. They knew not what to do and perforce needed to confer with their superiors prior to making a decision to admit you.” Her voice was sweet, but had a surprisingly rough, hoarse undertone.
She looked at him closely, no doubt noticing how the rain plastered his hair to his head and dripped off his nose and armor. “Please come close to the fire and dry off, Sir Thomas. Your men, also. Quarters are being prepared for you even now, but as we were not told the date of your coming, it will be some time yet before they’re ready.”
She moved toward the large fireplace, and he followed, with Ralf and Bertram behind him. The warmth washed over and soothed him as they approached the blaze. It mitigated some of his anger. Thomas stripped off his gauntlets and rubbed his cold hands together near the fire.
“I’ve sent for mulled wine and food for you as well,” the lady said. “As you see we’re a small household, but we do try to receive guests hospitably.”
A servant appeared bearing a tray with cups and a pitcher of steaming liquid. The aroma-the tang of wine laced with cinnamon and other fragrant spices-hit him forcibly in the gut.
Lady Juliana poured out the mixture into a cup, which she brought to him.
Their hands met as he took the cup from her. Warmth flowed from the clay vessel into the palms he wrapped around it, a blessed, welcome heat. Something else flowed into his fingers in the places where they touched Lady Juliana’s, a warmth of a different kind. It sparked and tingled, sending a river of fire through his veins and into his loins. His cock took notice and stood immediately to attention.
Thomas smothered a groan as he fought the reaction. He’d gone years with no more than the occasional meaningless joining. Only once since Margaret’s betrayal had he felt the stirrings of anything beyond physical need, and the woman who’d provoked it was married to his closest friend. Was he doomed to be roused only by those beyond his reach? This lady was married as well, and any attraction to her could only complicate his mission and his life. But she was a lovely woman, with a slender, graceful figure, and glossy, dark brown curls escaping from her cap to give her a winsome air.
He drew a deep breath and looked down into the cup before he sipped, watching the way the darkish liquid swirled as he tipped it. He took a drink and didn’t have to feign enjoyment or relief. The flavor matched the aroma, a sharp brew of fermented fruit laced with the taste-pleasing enhancements of the spices. It warmed his mouth and spread the heat all the way down as he drank deeper. Tense muscles, especially in his shoulders and back, began to loosen and relax.
He closed his eyes for a moment to relish the taste of the liquid and the feel of the warmth. When he opened them again, he made the mistake of meeting Lady Juliana’s gaze directly.
Her eyes were an unusual light blue/green shade, large, clear, and direct. They sparkled with her smile of welcome for him, but… Surely it was his imagination that led him to think he saw another world of emotion just below the surface. Yet he would swear he found in her gaze an innate strength, endurance, courage, shades of sorrow or grief, and more… Oh, no, he didn’t need or want to see that. He could admire the passion she held in firm check, but he would have to take care to avoid it. She belonged to another man-if that man were still alive, something he had begun to doubt.
He pulled his gaze away from her eyes and let it roam the rest of her face. Her fine, clear, pale skin bore a few light freckles, mostly around her slim nose. They didn’t damage her looks at all. The scars did, unfortunately, though the beautiful line of cheek and jaw drew attention away from them and almost nullified their effect.
The uglier of the two was a line that curved from just above her left cheekbone to her temple. Even though it showed tiny circular marks on either side of the scar where it had been stitched closed, it was still almost a quarter-inch-width of whitish flesh. The other was a narrower, straighter line from almost the middle of her chin up and across to an inch or so beyond the corner of her mouth. The pinker coloration suggested it was a more recent addition.
Oddly, he found they increased rather than destroyed her attractiveness. The newer one bracketed her lips and emphasized their lovely curve and rich pink color. They marked her as a woman who’d experienced some of life’s darker side rather than a naïve young girl.
He didn’t think he’d shown any reaction to the scars, but after a moment her lips tightened and some of the sparkle faded from her eyes, so apparently she’d noticed something. The scars looked like many he’d seen on men following a battle, which made him wonder how they came to be on the face of a young and otherwise lovely woman. Something about her bearing said she would not want to talk of them.
He took another long drink of the mulled wine. Moments later more servants approached bearing platters of food.
“Sir Thomas, if you and your men will have a seat, the food is here.”
Platters of meat sliced from a roast fowl, salted pork, and freshly baked bread were placed before them along with bowls of roasted tubers and boiled greens. The aromas emanating from them had his stomach rumbling and mouth watering long before the first bite hit his tongue.
“Pass on my compliments to your cook,” Thomas said around a piece of meat so savory he couldn’t remember when he’d last eaten anything so good. The lady ran her household well if the quality of food and service were any indication.
Lady Juliana nodded and went to talk to a servant for a moment. When she returned, she sat down on the opposite side of the table from him.
“I trust you’re feeling somewhat better now, Sir Thomas,” she said.
He looked up and nodded. She drew a deep breath as though getting ready to speak, but she let it out again on a long sigh. He watched her pick up a cup of wine and put it down when her hands shook so hard she couldn’t keep the liquid from sloshing over. Was it just his presence that made her so nervous? Unexpected guests? Or did she feel the same sense of connection he’d noticed when they’d touched?
An older woman toddled into the room and straight to his side. She was short and hunched over, with a wrinkled face and rheumy eyes whose color might once have been the same as Lady Juliana’s.
“I heard we had guests just arrived,” the old woman said, staring hard at Thomas. She was very close and her eyes narrowed in a squint, so she probably couldn’t see very well anymore. Her breath came in harsh, wheezing pants. “Who be you, sirrah?”
“Mother!” Lady Juliana drew a sharp breath. “This is Sir Thomas of Carlwick, come here from the king. Sir Thomas, may I present my mother, Lady Ardsley.”
Thomas stood to bow to the lady, and found himself towering so high over her, he was looking down on the top of her head until she craned her neck to stare up at him. “Lady Ardsley,” he acknowledged.
“Sir Thomas, is it?” she asked. The old lady nudged the occupant of a nearby chair and the young man obliged by sliding down to the next seat, giving his place up to her. “Carlwick… Are you not related to the Dunstons?”
He nodded as he lowered himself back into his seat. “My mother is niece to Lord Dunston via her mother.”
“Ah. You’re Lord Carlwick’s heir?”
Thomas worked to repress a laugh at the catechism. “Nay, lady. I’m his third son. My brother Walter is the heir.”
“Aye, I had heard something of that sort. Where did you foster?”
“With the Earl of Pennington, my lady.”
She struggled to catch a breath before she could speak. “Good man, the Earl. Have you traveled much lately? Were you on the Continent? Have you met the Black Prince?”
Juliana drew a sharp breath as her mother fired questions at him. “Mother! If you please! Sir Thomas has just arrived. He’s tired and has yet to eat his fill. Give him a few moments of rest before you quiz him.”
Thomas did laugh out loud this time. Juliana looked shocked, while her mother chuckled. “I can answer your questions quickly, my lady.” He looked at the older woman. “I have traveled a great deal lately. I have been on the Continent and have indeed met the Black Prince, but in London, not on the Continent.”
The old woman grinned. “Thank you, Sir Thomas.” She went on to pepper him with a series of questions about his life, training, thoughts on various subjects, and marital status, stopping only long enough to catch her breath occasionally. Thomas answered them all as courteously as could, deflecting those he didn’t wish to say much about. Lady Juliana’s discomfort at her mother’s brazen curiosity showed in her rising color as he admitted he was a widower, but steered the topic away from the question of how his wife had died.
“And what is your business here with us?” the older lady asked, reaching what he suspected was the true goal of the catechism. “We are of no great importance to the king.”
He felt his grin fade. “You are of more importance than you realize. But I believe my business will have to be discussed with Lady Juliana in private. I think, though, it will wait for tomorrow. I’ve had an exhausting journey and my mind is far from clear.”
He feared offending the old lady, but after looking taken aback for a moment, she grinned slyly. “Aye. Of course, Sir Thomas.” The suggestive way she said the words made him uneasy, but then she was an elderly, somewhat eccentric, and probably quite ill woman.
She grabbed her cane and hoisted herself to her feet again, emitting a series of creaks from joints in the process. Once upright, she took a moment to catch her breath again. “With your permission, Sir Thomas, I believe I shall retire now. I need my rest.”
He stood to acknowledge her. When he sat again, he looked across the table at Lady Juliana. He had expected amusement or the continuation of her exasperation. Instead he saw fear in her eyes.
She masked it quickly when she realized he looked her way, putting on a show of rueful amusement. “Please forgive my mother, Sir Thomas. She means well, truly, though her manner is somewhat forward.”
“There’s naught to apologize for, my lady. Mothers are allowed much by virtue of the lifetime of sacrifice and care they’ve given their children. Are you her only child, since she lives with you now?”
“Aye. I had an older brother, who died young, and several other brothers and sisters who died at birth.” The lady’s expression softened in sympathy and love. “She has suffered much. And now her body is failing and she suffers with that. Yet never does she voice any complaint.”
A manservant approached and waited for her attention. Lady Juliana nodded to him and the man drew close and leaned over to say something to her, speaking so low only she could hear. After a moment, she nodded. The servant withdrew a bit, though he waited nearby, and she looked back at him.
“Your quarters are ready for you, if you wish to retire, Sir Thomas.”
He’d stopped eating a few minutes past. His full belly combined with the effects of an exhausting journey and the potent ale to bring him to a point of having to expend all his energy to prevent his head from drooping onto the table.
“My lady, I cannot tell you how pleasant is the prospect of sleeping this night in a warm bed. I am more grateful than I can say for your hospitality.” He stood, noting with some embarrassment that his own knees creaked as he did so.
“If you’ll follow Daniel, he’ll show you the way.” She nodded toward the waiting servant.
Thomas hoped he wouldn’t disgrace himself by tottering or falling over in his exhaustion. He made it to his feet without incident and bowed his goodnights to the lady.
“Good rest and sound sleep find you, Sir Thomas,” she returned.
Ralf and Bertram followed behind as they trailed the manservant along a corridor, up a flight of stairs, and then along another corridor.
Exhaustion couldn’t account totally for his lack of alertness. Some of it also came simply from not expecting any threat in this place. Only a mixture of instinct and luck kept him from being killed or seriously injured.
The sound of a footstep well behind roused his awareness at some deep level. He was already turning when he recognized a faint clicking noise behind him as the sound of a crossbow bolt being released. He threw himself back and to the side, knocking both Ralf and Bertram into the wall.
The bolt whizzed past him, close enough to tear the sleeve of his shirt at his wrist, just below the edge of his chain mail hauberk, and scrape across the flesh. He noted the sting as he whirled to go after whoever had fired the bolt. The torches were widely spaced in this corridor, leaving several recesses in deep shadow. He went to the one he thought closest to where he’d find the shooter. A door there opened at his touch, but it gave onto a steep stone staircase going down. He raced down the steps, but found no one in sight in the corridor that led off it.
Thomas sighed and gave up. Too many doors offered places the shooter might have ducked into. And clearly his assailant knew the keep far better than he did. He wouldn’t find him.
As he neared the top of the steps again, a crowd of excited people met him head-on. Ralf and Bertram led the group. “Are you well, my lord?” Bertram asked.
At the same time, Ralf asked, “Did you find him?”
“Nay,” he said, answering the second question first, and added, “I’m well. The bolt merely grazed my wrist. Did someone retrieve it?”
“I have it here, Sir Thomas.” The servant who’d led them thus far spoke from behind the group, which parted as all turned to stare at him. The man looked shaken, his eyes very wide, his face pale. He held out the crossbow bolt. Sir Thomas took it from him, then grimaced in disgust. It bore no markings or distinctive shape that would tie it to a specific individual.
A group of ladies, drawn by the commotion, hurried down the hall toward them, a pair of maids, and Lady Juliana herself. She ran ahead of the group when she saw him.
“Sir Thomas, what has happened?” She gasped out the words between panting breaths. She looked down at his sleeve and her breath caught on a sharp gasp. “You’re injured!”
He noticed the sting at his wrist again for the first time since he’d taken off after the wielder of the crossbow. A red stain spread on the fabric above.
He shook his head. “It’s naught. Just a scratch. I’m more concerned with who fired the bolt. And why?”
Her eyes widened as she looked at his arm then up looked up to meet his gaze. “A bolt? A crossbow bolt? Was fired at you?”
He nodded toward the manservant still holding the bolt on his outstretched hands. “Had I not heard him a moment before he fired, ’tis likely I’d have been killed.” He stopped and considered. “Unless ’twas not I that was the target. Yet I cannot imagine why anyone should want to kill Ralf or Bertram or your manservant. In truth, I know not why anyone should be bent on my murder either. Is your household always given to such violence, my lady?”
She sucked in a sharp breath. “Nay, Sir Thomas. I…I know not what to say. I’m beyond words.” And for a moment, it appeared she was. “Never before, to my knowledge, has a guest been threatened or harmed within these walls. I’m mortified that it should happen now. May I see it?” She nodded toward the bolt.
He handed it to her. She called one of her ladies, who bore a torch, to move closer to allow her a better look at it. She turned it over in her hands several times before she sighed and gave it to one of her maids. “I see nothing on it to indicate who it may have belonged to. Save that in my chest, Avice.”
She turned to Thomas and reached for his sleeve. “A scratch this may be, Sir Thomas, yet does it need cleaning and possibly stitching. In your quarters, please.” She signaled the manservant to lead the way again.
“You needn’t concern yourself with it, my lady,” he said. “I barely feel it. I doubt it needs stitching.”
In truth he wasn’t so sure, but he did know that the lady’s presence was doing things to him he could scarce bear. In her concern for the attack on him, she appeared to have forgotten that she’d removed her overgown. The shift she wore now did little to conceal the curves of her lovely figure. He could see clearly beneath the fabric the outline of her breasts and the darker tips pressing against the fabric. He desperately wanted to reach out and touch them, test whether they were as soft as they looked. She’d removed her cap as well, and her hair hung loose around her face, a fall of thick, glossy brown curls halfway down her back.
She looked smaller this way, and younger, yet the strength of her will and authority forestalled all argument, and he allowed her to accompany them to his quarters without demur.
While Ralf and Bertram helped him remove sword and mail, she sent her maids for water, clean linen, and salve. When he stood in his shirt and breeches, she took his hand and pushed the sleeve up from his bleeding wrist. She used the sleeve to wipe away the blood, promising to have the shirt repaired and laundered.
As he’d told her, the wound was little more than a scratch. He heard her sigh with relief as she realized it as well.
Still she washed it carefully, holding his hand in hers to steady it, then smeared salve across the injury and wound a length of clean linen around the wrist. Her hands shook the entire time, whether from fear, anger, or something else, he couldn’t judge.
When she’d finished, she continued to hold his hand a while longer. Her gaze ran up his sleeve and paused a moment at the opening where his partially unlaced shirt showed his chest and throat. Her hand tightened around his, though he was sure she wasn’t aware of it. She slowly looked up from his throat to his jaw, his mouth and then met his eyes.
He stared back at her, meeting the blaze that lit her light, greenish eyes. There was much more within this calm, sweet-seeming lady than could be read on the surface. Deep, raging emotions boiled inside her, held in check by her strong will. Among them, he was sure, was a passion she just barely contained. And his presence roused it in her. Her eyes widened. Moist, glistening lips parted.
How could Lord Groswick leave a lady such as this alone for so long a time? She was so lovely, so warm and welcoming. It raised a deep anger and even deeper doubt in him. A man surely wouldn’t leave the side of such a lady for any length of time without desperate reason. Were she his, it would take some truly grave need to force him from her for more than a few days.
His men must have put more wood on the fire. His body was blazing. The warmth gathered and settled in his groin, making him hard and needy. He dared not let it show and fought with all his will to contain the raging inferno that fired his blood.
The lady abruptly realized the danger. She closed her eyes, lowered her head, and took a deep, noisy breath. Her breasts bounced as she let the air stream out again. It took her a moment to get control, but then she opened her eyes and released his hand.
“Sir Thomas, I apologize. None of this should have happened.” She rose to her feet. “Every measure will be taken to discover the culprit and ensure he’s punished.”
He suspected her apology was intended to cover more than just his injury.
“I trust you will, my lady.”
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