Blurb: During a daring raid to rescue prisoners he was hired to free, Lord Jeoffrey Blaisdell discovers Lady Rosalind Hamilton. To secure her own release as well, she agrees to his price, though she knows she cannot pay it. When he learns of her deception, Jeoffrey offers her an alternate price for rescue…
The payment is to be reaped by Lord Jeoffrey in his bedchambers—swiftly, immediately, and all night long.
“…a fascinating story about love and honor, passion and duty. Katherine Kingston writes with an honesty that is refreshing and entertaining, giving the reader plenty of reasons to keep the pages turning. …darker than many historicals, but it is true to the medieval times.” ~Julie Shininger, Escape to Romance
4 1/2 Stars! “The characters are unique to that particular time period, with the hero not only brave but compassionate and willing to share his feelings with his lady almost from their first meeting and the lady understanding and embracing the new house she finds herself in without trying to change its ways. My compliments to Ms. Kingston on this unique and wonderful story.” ~Amy Turpin, Timeless Tales
4 Hearts! “Katherine Kingston makes you laugh and cry with the tale she weaves… Her characters come to life and deal with choices of honor and loyalty. The characters…are sensual and passionate, making you look at chivalry with a whole new perspective. She takes a doomed love and turns it into a triumph. Ms. Kingston will surprise you with twists and turns, giving you the unexpected in a most delightful manner. I was impressed.” ~D. Sullivan, The Romance Studio
An enormous cockroach scurried across the stone floor of the cell.
Lady Rosalind Hamilton shivered as she watched it race toward the shelter of a tiny crevice in the stone wall. She drew around her the thin blanket that failed to deliver any warmth. At least she could see the insect right now, but soon she’d only be able to locate her small roommates by sound. The thin gray light from the single, high, barred window was fading, and the guards provided no candles. A cloudy night meant thick darkness, a blackness so complete it pressed on her body and invaded her soul.
In the depths of the blackest nights, she asked herself why she didn’t just accede to Sir William’s demands and yield herself to him. But it was also in those soul-searing hours she remembered her father’s head rolling on the floor several feet from his body. She saw again her older brother’s sightless eyes and the blood soaking his clothes. Heard her mother’s screams as William’s men dragged her to another room. Her shrieks of pain sank gradually to despairing moans. Then, even those stopped, leaving an empty silence.
Rosalind knew she would likely die here, but better so than give the monster anything of herself. How could he think he would get anything from her but hatred?
Even his efforts to “convince” her to do his will were despicable. He’d tried to bribe her with fine clothes and jewels, exotic foods and sweets, the best accommodations in his keep. When those failed to move her, he went the other way and consigned her to the laundry rooms. She cringed remembering how the other servants, no doubt at Sir William’s instigation, gave her the foulest items to wash, slopped and splashed her with rank-smelling water, and once nearly knocked her into one of the caldrons. Her scalded arm had burned for days.
The monster would not have her.
But she didn’t want to die in this God-forsaken cell. She’d tried the window, standing on the rickety cot that was the only furnishing. The bars refused to yield to her tugs and pulls. Even her full weight hanging from them hadn’t produced so much as a wiggle. Her fingertips were scraped raw from trying to dig around the mortar holding the bars in place. She’d investigated every square inch of the cell for weaknesses and found none. The door was solid wood, six inches thick with a tiny little window and no flaws or cracks.
Rosalind sat on the cot and prayed. It would take a miracle to free her.
The corridors of the dungeon echoed the scraping of his men’s rushing feet and the prisoners’ desperate flight to freedom. Lord Jeoffrey Blaisdell frowned as he strained to decipher another sound he thought he heard.
“Jeoff, come on. We’ve got to get out of here. The time grows short!” Sir Philip de MontCharles demanded.
Lord Jeoffrey held a finger to his lips, over the hood that shrouded his face, and hissed, “Silence.” He glared at the speaker, though Philip was, in truth, his closest friend. “There’s someone else here.”
“The captain of the guard, I should imagine,” Philip whispered, his voice muffled by the fabric concealing his features. “Coming to check on the prisoners.”
“No, it’s a woman’s voice.”
A moment later they both heard a plaintive cry. “Over here. Please.”
Jeoffrey looked both ways down the dank, smelly corridor of the dungeon. The call had come from his left. He turned to look the other way. “Are the others all off?” he asked Philip. “Aye,” Philip said. “All but we two.”
The female voice captured their attention again. “For pity’s sake, help me.”
“Go,” Jeoffrey said. “Get the others away. Leave my horse, and I’ll join you later.”
“Jeoff, no. You’ll risk all our work. We have everyone we came for. Whoever she is, she’s not our task. The captain will be coming to make his rounds in just a few minutes.”
“That’s my problem. Go,” Jeoffrey urged him. “Get the others away.”
“Your damned sense of chivalry will be the death of us all.”
“Only if you don’t stop arguing. Now, go!” He put as much force as he could behind the word without raising his voice.
Philip hesitated only another second. “Don’t be long,” he said, meeting and holding the other man’s gaze for a moment.
“I’ll be with you anon.”
Jeoffrey turned and headed down the corridor. He didn’t think the smell-a composite of damp earth, rotted food, and human excrement-could get any worse, but it did the farther along he went.
He stopped and listened. This part of the dungeon couldn’t be much used. It was far too quiet. Then the woman’s voice called again, “Please, help.”
The sound came from a door just ahead and to his left. He peered through the small, high window and saw, dimly, since the cell had no light of its own, a disheveled young woman sitting primly on a rickety cot. The key scraped in the lock as he turned it, making him wince. Then the mechanism gave and he pulled the door open.
Jeoff thrust the torch he carried forward before he entered the small space. The young woman looked up at him, hope warring with apprehension in her expression. She had wide, yearning brown eyes, large and heavily lashed. Their stare went to his heart like a dagger, and he only just kept himself from flinching. This was a danger he didn’t need. But he couldn’t leave her now. Aside from the glorious eyes, he couldn’t tell much about what she might look like beneath the grime and greasy lank hair, but her clothes, though patched and mended, had once been of good quality. The figure filling them was slim but rounded enough to set off a stir in his nether regions. He didn’t need that, either, right now.
“I know you took the others out. Please take me with you, too.” she begged.
“How much is it worth to you?” he asked, making the words a harsh demand
She gasped. “I don’t- A thousand crowns.”
He nodded. “Be quiet and come with me.”
She hesitated only a moment before grabbing a small bag on the cot next to her and moving toward him.
Jeoffrey led the way down the corridor and up the stone staircase to ground level. He paused when he heard the tromp of heavy boots, rolled the torch on the floor to extinguish it, and drew back into a shadowy niche with the girl pushed in behind him. The heady rush of danger and the feminine hip and breast pressed against his back combined to set his senses aflame and his lower regions alight. A heavyset guard ambled by, which meant the alarm would shortly sound. As soon as the man was out of sight, Jeoffrey pulled the girl with him to a secret door that had been left unlocked for him.
Once they were through, he dragged a huge breath of cool, clean, fresh air into his lungs before turning to make sure the door was secured. In the darkness of early evening he nearly stumbled a couple of times, but finally got to the rock where they had tethered the horses.
His mount calmly chewed grass as he waited. Jeoffrey tossed the girl up into the saddle and mounted behind her. She reeked almost as badly as the dungeon that had been her late abode. He vowed she’d get a bath first thing they arrived at his manor.
Once they were well away, she twisted so she could see his face. “Thank you,” she said. “I thought I’d rot forever in that cell.”
“I didn’t do it for thanks,” he said. “You promised a thousand crowns for the service. I expect to be paid. I presume you have some family who’ll be glad of your return.”
She sighed. “I fear not. They were all killed when Sir William de Railles took my father’s manor.”
“You’ll have an inheritance from them, though.”
She didn’t answer. After a minute he looked down and realized she was dozing off, leaning against his chest. He sighed and concentrated on keeping the horse to the road, which was lit only by the radiance of the newly risen moon. When the way grew broader and flatter, he increased the pace until he caught up with Philip, his other men and the former captives they’d rescued.
A merry party returned to his manor. He handed the young woman over to a housemaid to be put to bath and bed in that order before he stripped off hood and cloak and joined the others in a late meal and celebration. He served up the best brandy in his cellar in honor of the occasion. Jeoffrey retired in the early hours, well satisfied with the outcome of his mission.
He considered going to see how his last charge was doing. He admitted a desire to know what she looked like cleaned up, since his veins still pulsed with the desire she’d engendered. The slender lines of her figure had been so inviting. The arm he’d wrapped around her had brushed against a soft breast. But he’d best not warm himself with thoughts that would go nowhere. She’d likely buy her way forward and be gone within days.
At first light in the morning several messengers set out, carrying the news of the rescue to various family members of the captives. The young lady still slept, and clearly she needed the rest, so he let her be. Another messenger could be dispatched later for her ransom.
Rosalind roused but chose not to wake fully just yet. The unaccustomed luxury of a soft bed and clean linens on her scrubbed body felt so delicious she had to revel in it for a while before she would face the problems attendant on her unexpected rescue. But once those thoughts entered her head they wouldn’t be chased away again. She couldn’t help but consider her situation.
She wasn’t in Sir William’s dungeon anymore. The fact was both a wonder, coming so unexpectedly as it had, and a quandary, for she’d told her rescuer she could pay him and she’d lied.
She didn’t like having lied. It was dishonest and dishonorable, and her father had always stressed to her the importance of dealing honestly with others. It left a sour feeling in her stomach. At the time, though, she simply couldn’t face staying another moment in that cell when an offer of rescue was at hand.
He might have taken her anyway, even if she’d admitted she couldn’t pay him. She had no way to judge the kind of man Lord Jeoffrey Blaisdell was. She knew him to be strong and brave and clever, just from the fact that he’d managed to make his way into and out of De Railles’ dungeon. The rest remained to be seen.
From her brief glimpse by the uncertain light of the torch, she’d been able to see little of the face hidden by a hood with small holes cut out for eyes, nose, and mouth. His form was tall and muscular, and he moved with lithe grace. The body she’d pressed up against while they hid from the guard and then shared a horse had been strong, straight, and hard under leather and linen garments, with an aroma that was enticingly male. And his voice, rough and dark, had made her shiver, not entirely from fear, when he asked her about her family.
His looks mattered naught, though. Nor did the strange effect he had on her. It concerned her more to know what he would do when he learned she couldn’t pay him the price they’d agreed on.
The door creaked, interrupting her unhappy thoughts, and a maid addressed her. “Miss? Ah, so you’re awake. I’ve tea and bread for you. And my lord wishes to see you as soon as you’re ready.”
Rosalind conceded and sat up on the side of the bed.
An hour and a half later, washed, dressed, fed and groomed, she steeled herself to face Lord Jeoffrey Blaisdell.
The same maid who’d brought her breakfast led the way down a flight of stairs and along two chilly corridors before she stopped at and knocked on a closed door.
The deep voice Rosalind remembered from the previous evening called, “Come in.” Shivers crawled up and down her spine.
As she entered, the man rose from a padded chair behind a trestle table bearing a pair of quills, an inkwell and a stack of papers. He was bigger than she’d remembered, almost a full head taller than herself. A plain green tunic over a white shirt draped from broad shoulders along a strong chest. His narrow waist was circled by a wide leather belt. Tan hose clung to long, lean, muscular legs.
His face drew her attention and held it. Prominent cheekbones and the brightest, most penetrating gray eyes she’d ever seen dominated lean, finely shaped features. The stern, almost harsh, expression just emphasized the clean, hard lines of the handsome visage. Wavy blond hair was drawn back and caught in a leather thong at his nape.
Her breath caught in her throat and her heart pounded against the constraints of her chest. He was both the most beautiful and the most heart-stoppingly male creature she’d ever seen in her life. Terror warred with fascination as she watched him, waiting for the question she dreaded.
He studied her in silence for a while, and she could judge nothing from his expression. When he spoke there was little emotion to be read in his tone either, despite the complimentary words, “You’ve cleaned up more spectacularly than I expected.”
“My lord…” She didn’t know how to react to that. “Thank you.”
He nodded off-handedly. “I expect there’s a man somewhere who’d give a great deal for your return.”
She drew a long breath and chewed at her lip before she answered, “I fear not, my lord.” “You’re not married, or at least betrothed?”
“Why not? Who is your family, by the way? Your name? I presume you’ve been informed that I’m Jeoffrey Blaisdell.”
“Aye, my lord. I’m Lady Rosalind Hamilton. My father was the Earl of Highwaith until Sir William de Railles took it and slaughtered my family.”
“But he spared you.”
“He wanted me.”
“I’m not surprised. He threw you in his dungeon when you refused his suit.”
She drew a deep breath to control the fury that roused every time she remembered. “He massacred my entire family. I’d as soon mate with his horse.”
A grin crooked one corner of Lord Jeoffrey’s mouth, revealing a wickedly attractive groove in his cheek. “A damned uncomfortable coupling I should imagine.”
She blushed but answered calmly, “The dungeon was not commodious either.”
“But you’re now free of it.” The grin faded and his face took on the harsh cast again. “Which brings us again to the question of payment. Since you’ve no family and no betrothed to reimburse me for my rescue efforts, I presume you will draw on your own personal fortune.”
She kept her back straight and her head high. “My lord, about the payment… I fear I cannot pay quite as much as I offered last night. Desperation made me forget how much diminished my personal resources are.”
One handsome blond eyebrow crooked. “How much do you believe you can offer?”
“How much do you normally ask in these cases?”
“It depends on the value of the persons to those who wish their return.”
“And how much do you suppose I should be worth to myself?”
“Only you can truly answer that, my lady. But I should regard you as nearly priceless, were you mine.”
“Indeed that is how I view myself. Priceless.”
He saw the trap and avoided it. “Yet I fear business and my reputation demand we put a price on your rescue,” he said. “I could accept eight hundred crowns.”
She gasped. “Eight hundred?”
“I realize it greatly undervalues you, my lady, but we must be realistic.”
“Realistic,” she repeated. “Nay.”
“Nay?” he asked. “Nay, it’s not realistic, or nay, you will not pay?”
She drew herself up straight. “Both. It’s not realistic. And I cannot pay it.”
“How much might you offer, then?”
She had to take a deep breath. “I cannot pay you anything in gold.”
The same blond eyebrows rose. The shiver that went down her spine this time held an element of fear as well as admiration.
“Last night you claimed you could,” he said.
“I was desperate to be free of that cell,” she admitted. “But I’ll pay in any way I can.” A cold light sparkled in the narrowed gray eyes. “Money is the coin of exchange I deal in. That is what you promised me last night.”
“And I thought you an honorable man last night,” she countered. “One who would understand a woman’s desperation. One who could value a human life over any amount of money.”
His expression didn’t change. “I regret, my lady, I don’t have the luxury of such sentimentalities. The money I earn from risking my life and those of the men who serve me supports my estate, the people who work on it, myself, and my king.”
Rosalind bit her lip briefly and drew in a long, hard breath. “I would willingly pay you with my service.”
He looked her up and down. “What kind of service can you offer, my lady?”
She eyed the papers on his desk. “I can read, write and cipher. My father and mother relied on my skills in managing the household.”
“But I already have people performing those duties.”
“I can cook,” she offered desperately.
“Not as well as my present cook, I’d warrant.”
“Then what would you have from me?”
He drew a deep breath and let it escape slowly as he considered. “If you cannot offer the money you promised, there’s only one other thing I might accept from you. Your personal service. One night and a day only. I believe it a fair bargain. Freeing you from the dungeon for one day of your time.” He looked at her. “Are you yet a maiden?”
“I am, my lord.”
“Sir William didn’t…force you?”
“He hadn’t. He yet believed he could gain my agreement. I doubt not he would have come around to taking me by force ere long.”
“Think you not, then, that a day of your person, given voluntarily, would compensate for saving your from that fate?”
Rosalind hesitated. The bargain might be a fair one, but it put her future in jeopardy. If it were known, she’d have great difficulty making any advantageous marriage. Of course, she was now without friends, family, lands or dowry. Her odds of any marriage at all were virtually nil. And if she chose to take the veil, her status as maiden would be of little consequence.
“Perhaps. Should I refuse, would you return me to Sir William’s dungeon?”
He stared at her, the light in the gray eyes hard, almost cutting in its intensity. “Nay, lady, that I wouldn’t. But I would be forced to ask you to remove yourself from my estates immediately.”
“I see. And should I agree to your proposal, what would be my position tomorrow?”
“Ah, now that is yet to be seen. But I would offer you my promise of whatever assistance was in my power in finding an appropriate refuge.” His lips and eyes narrowed as another thought occurred to him. “But, of course, we have to deal with the fact of your lie as well.”
“‘Deal with’, my lord?”
v”You lied when you promised to pay me for taking you from the dungeon. I do not countenance lies in my household or from those I do business with. I can do nothing at all for you until that has been set straight.”
Her heartbeat kicked up again and her chest got tight. A trickle of perspiration slid down between her breasts, tickling as it went. “Set straight, my lord?”
“Set straight,” he repeated. “The error atoned for.”
“And what, in your view, would be the proper atonement for my lies?”
“In this household, the usual penalty for lying about an important matter is a dozen cuts with the birch.”
Rosalind felt the blood rising in a flush on her face, and her chest, already tight, nearly closed down completely. Shock made her feel disoriented and off-balance, but she straightened her back, refusing to give in to it. “But, my lord, I’m a lady. Surely that makes a difference.”
“Not in my home. Discipline is applied equally to lord, lady, cook, housekeeper, all the way down to the lowest scullery maid. Justice and fairness prevail here.”
“Does that include yourself, my lord?”
“I’ve taken my stripes when I’ve failed in my duties,” he answered.
Rosalind searched for a chair to settle in. Shock and fear made her light-headed. This wasn’t at all what she’d expected. The seat she found was hard and straight, providing no comfort but some support.
“You, my lord?” she asked faintly.
“You believe me not?” He drew a breath and bellowed, “Ferris!”
Moments later an elderly man opened the door and walked in. “My lord?” he said.
“Ferris, this is Lady Rosalind. Tell the lady what happens in this household when someone is found to have lied.”
“About a serious matter, my lord?”
“About a serious matter,” he confirmed.
The man turned to Rosalind. “The usual punishment is a dozen strokes with the rod, my lady.”
“And if the lord of the household was found to have lied?” Lord Jeoffrey prompted.
The man’s faded blue eyes flicked to his master. “He would get a dozen strokes.”
“Has it ever happened?”
The man’s brow crinkled as he thought. “I recall not you’ve ever been accused of lying, my lord. But there was the time a few months back when you accused Martine of lying and punished her for it, and it turned out you had been mistaken.”
“Indeed,” Lord Jeoffrey said. “What chanced then?”
“You took two dozen strokes,” the man said. “Took them quite well, I must say, my lord.” “Thank you, Ferris,” Lord Jeoffrey said. “That’s all.”
The man nodded, bowed to his master and to Rosalind, and left.
She just stared at him, more stunned than she’d ever been in her life, more astonished even than when Sir William demanded she cede herself to him.
Lord Jeoffrey looked to Rosalind again. “I run a strict and orderly household, but I strive for fairness. No matter what the rank of those committing them, wicked deeds are punished.” His bright, sharp gaze seemed to bore into her.
“And if I decline to accept this?”
“I told you earlier. You’re to leave my premises immediately. From there on your fate is no longer my concern.”
“Would you at least provide me an escort to the nearest convent?”
“Nay, lady. I would not.”
“You wouldn’t help me at all?”
“One who would make a promise she knew she couldn’t keep and then refuse to accept the consequences of the deed is not such a person as I would deem worthy of my assistance.”
Rosalind settled back, struggling to push aside her emotions so she could consider her choices rationally. It wasn’t easily done, however. And in making the attempt she discovered another, unexpected emotion forming: admiration for Lord Jeoffrey and a desire for his good regard. She couldn’t help but be drawn to his strength and good looks. Even more though, here was a man in whom bold courage and daring appeared to be mixed with a fundamentally fair and honorable nature. Under other circumstances he’d be exactly the sort of man she would wish to join herself with.
His demands of her were no more than just by his own code. She had lied to him. Had a servant done so in her own household she’d have ordered a similar punishment without a second thought. But as the daughter of the lord, she’d always been exempt from such justice. Her father had adored his daughters and could hardly bear even to raise his voice to them when they behaved in unacceptable ways. She’d certainly never been subject to anything as severe as the penalty he proposed. But she had lied to him, and allowed him to risk his life thinking she could make it worth his effort. An effort he indicated he put forth to help support his lands and people. She couldn’t convince herself she didn’t deserve chastisement.
She had a real choice in the matter, though. It would challenge her to make her way cross country to the nearest convent while avoiding Sir William’s troops, roving marauders, robbers, and other natural perils; but she considered herself resourceful enough to do it. Had she thought him unreasonable or unjust, she’d attempt it without a second thought. Well, maybe a small regret for what might have been.
But he wasn’t unfair. Nor was his price all that high, measured against her probable future had he left her in the dungeon.
And then there was the man himself. It shouldn’t weigh in her decision that he was the most attractive man she’d ever met. It shouldn’t, but it did. In all likelihood, there would be no future with him beyond the night and day he asked, even if she agreed to his terms. But if he kept his promise, there would be some kind of life ahead for her, and perhaps even a chance for a reasonable marriage.
The truth was she didn’t want to commit herself to the convent and the veil. She felt no call from God toward that life. Meeting Lord Jeoffrey, weighing her reaction to him made her realize that more strongly then ever. She admired the man, and she wanted his good regard. Wanted it enough to take some risk with her future, as well as a punishment she probably deserved.
She looked up again at the man who sat watching her, waiting patiently for the outcome of her deliberations. If he cared which way she chose, nothing of it showed on his face.
Rosalind drew a deep breath and cleared her throat before answering him. “I agree to your terms.”
His expression didn’t change as he watched her silently for a moment, then asked, “Why?”
“Why did I agree?” She rubbed together hands suddenly gone cold and shaky. “Because it’s right. I was dishonest with you and I want to set it right.”
“And because you have no alternative?”
“I could make my way to the nearest convent on my own should I feel it the right thing to do.”
“You’re quite sure.” His tone mixed astonishment with an amusement that didn’t show on his face.
“Then I honor you for the decision you’ve made.”
“May I ask a favor then?”
“Ask, and I’ll honor it if I can.”
“Can we do it quickly? Have it over?”
“Normally punishment sessions are held after dinner in the great hall. Since you’re not a member of this household, yours will be administered privately, in my chambers. We’ll begin the time of your payment to me immediately thereafter.” He looked down at his desk. “There’s work I must finish before I can take the time for you. When it’s done, I’ll summon you.”
She couldn’t keep her voice from quavering when she said, “As you will, my lord.”
He nodded at her, turning his attention once again to the papers before him.
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