Out today at http://www.total-e-bound.com/ is the second in my medieval romantica series, FOR HER HONOUR, starring a hunky Crusader turned diplomat for King John of England.
Problem for Will Dunwick is that the widow he must take to her new husband is a luscious piece he craves for himself.
What is a loyal king's man to do?
Here is a nibble for you:
1210, The Western Marches, England
Men did not mesmerise her. Ever.
Yet, William Dunwick, the Earl of Greystone, was so much more man than Blanche Bergeron had been told to expect that she had to snap her mouth shut at his appearance. Indeed, he was so huge, so much more handsome than the rumours of his glory that she found herself agog at his appearance here in her great hall. To collect her dignity, she had to sit taller, smile like a gracious hostess and bid him approach her. Amazement—she scolded herself as she settled back into in her dais chair—was not the emotion she wished to convey to this emissary from their ruthless King John. True, she’d heard it said that their regent’s loyal adviser was tall and broad. Blond and ruddy. Impaired by the loss of his left eye. Yet suave as a troubadour with men, and seductive as an oriental sultan with women. Blanche had steeled her mind against him. After all, he was sent by that tyrant John to carry her off to marry a man she was too wise to want and too old to need.
But to gaze upon John’s emissary—this legendary Crusader and adviser—was to admit to herself that, in some things, her assumptions could be wrong. And her tactics to save herself from Greystone’s charms, she knew now, must change from obstruction to some other course that might escape this wise man’s piercing sight and perception.
“Good day, my lady.” Greystone walked forward with the magnetic self-possession that truly powerful men exuded. Clad in his black tabard emblazoned with his own stag crest and Crusader cross on one shoulder, he wore on his chest the Anjevin leopards rampant to denote the sovereign he served. He filled her vision with the breadth of his shoulders, the symmetry of his jaw, the black leather patch over his left eye and a dancing light in his remaining sea blue one. “You do us honour.” He bent a knee to her.
“My lord, you are welcome,” she lied as she extended her hand.
He took her fingertips with his warm ones and led them to his mouth.
At his familiarity, she held her breath as he reverently brushed his soft lips upon her nails. She shivered in the warmth of September. Such frivolities are for younger women, Blanche. Women who sigh at a comely man’s regard and know not how boring they will be in bed.
He smiled up at her, his one blue eye assessing her as if she were a sweetmeat. “I am most grateful for your kind reception of me and my men,” he told her in a voice so low she felt her breasts bead in silly long–dead desires.
She tore her gaze from him towards the four men arrayed behind him. Like their lord, they were of enormous size. Meaty hands and arms, they had impossibly huge chests in black tabards bearing only Greystone’s chest and, underneath, chain mail. With tree trunks for thighs, they flanked their master, standing astride like giant Norsemen. Surely, she could not allow the five of them to carry her off to London for she would never escape their strength. Or their determination.
“I am happy to welcome you, Lord Greystone. We are simple people here in the marches but we do try to match the etiquette of London.”
“I have been told of your hospitality, my lady Bergeron.” He rose to his full height. Even now, one step below her, he was taller. Such presence she had never seen in a man. Her dead husband had been a head shorter than she. Shorter still in other myriad ways. An unsatisfying collection of skinny bones, thin intellect and tiny wit, Mortimer Bergeron had also possessed a penis of such insignificant size that she marvelled she had conceived two children. What does your cock measure, William of Greystone?
His mouth curved into a knowing smile. “May my men be shown to their accommodations?” he prodded her from her reverie in a hushed voice.
“Aye!” She raised her right hand to summon her steward form the back of the hall. “Alfred, take Lord Greystone’s retainers to the knights’ quarters. Forgive us, we are not quite ready for you. We expected you to arrive in a fortnight or more.”
Her serf hastened forward and beckoned to the four men. Only when Greystone nodded his consent at their leaving, did they turn, prepared to go.
Blanche stopped them by calling to her steward. “You may also show Lord Greystone to his room.”
“Nay, my lady,” Greystone pivoted to fix her with his one good eye. “I wish an audience with you.”
The breach of protocol was novel, too. To kiss her hand was one pretty thing, but to counter her in her own home was a bold opposite.
She brought herself up into her full imposing stature. “You should rest, my lord.” Her gaze descended over his splendidly fit body. His pale gold curls dipped over his brow, framing his face and scraping his collar. His chain mail and short breeches bore the dust of the roads he had travelled. His boots were worn and caked with mud. “And you must wish a bath and a bed.”
“I do, Madame.” He leant towards her and she caught a scent of manly sweat that made her nostrils flare in rare appreciation for male musk. “But nothing is more important than that we talk.”
“We shall this evening over supper.”
“Nay.” He took a step towards her. Again, his personal odour swept over her and added to the imperious effect of his demand. “Now.”
Her serf watched. So did his men.
She had never been so countered in her own home. Not since her husband died eleven years ago and she became the lady who controlled the largest fief on the western marches of John’s kingdom. Power had its privileges. It also had its responsibilities. And proprieties.
“We shall talk then. Briefly.” She waved her man Alfred away with Greystone’s four and rearranged the fine azure linen she had donned when she’d been told the Earl of Greystone stood at her gates. “What will you, my lord?” she asked him when the thick wooden doors to her hall finally thudded closed.
“May I sit, my lady?” he asked, tipping his head towards a chair at her left hand.
She inhaled. “Nay. This interview will not be long, my lord. I have a harvest to direct. I pray you, say quickly what you wish to me. We know what it is you want, without the conversation, don’t we?”
“There is no need, my lady, for rancour between us,” he offered in a voice that flowed over her like warm honey.
Her nipples chafed against her gown. Then rose to reach out to him. Her mind rebelled at the attraction. “You think not?” She flung out a hand. Licked her lips. She was letting her temper rule her—and she despaired her loss of control. What was wrong with her? “I apologise, my lord. It is my nature to command here. I find it rare that I am contradicted.”
“So, I see,” he said with earnest commiseration in his tone. “I wish not to make your life more difficult.”
“By your very nature, you turn my life to rubble!” She rose from her chair, her long red hair escaping her netting and spilling over her shoulders. “You come to me early. You come with four giants as your guard. And you come demanding an audience in my own home in front of my own servants.” She bent over, her face so much closer to his damn handsome one, that she sensed his minted breath and even white teeth. She pulled away, astonished at her attraction to him even amid her outrage. “I will not brook your impertinence again like that, my lord. Tonight, you will become a grateful guest. Compliment our food and our fine beer. Talk gaily with me of nothing consequential. And as days go on, we will speak of substance.”
He nodded, flowed closer and fixed her with his eye. “Forgive me, Madame, if I seem an ungrateful guest in your domain. I will repair what I can in that regard. I do not wish to tarnish our relationship with any such behaviour. Nor do I wish to damage your reputation with your minions. My goal here is to accomplish my king’s intent and to do so quickly.”
Her natural fire consumed her. She was mistress here! “Without regard to me and what I want!”
He frowned. “Not entirely true.”
Fists on her hips, she leaned over him, closer still to the power that attracted her and frightened her with its strength. “Tell me, please, what say I have in this plan of your lord and master, John Plantagenet? Bah! He’d do me the dishonour to wed me to a man twelve years younger? A mere child with less land and weaker blood bonds to his majesty’s royal family than I own?”
“I understand your anger, Madame,” this diplomat offered with equal parts compassion and finesse.
“Do you?” she challenged him with rough despair. “Have you any idea what I have done here?”
He tipped his head once. “I have heard the tales.”
“Really? Of what? A red–haired harpy who flogs her serfs to plant and sow and reap with regularity?”
“Nay. That is not you.”
But she was in high dudgeon. “A witch who uses herbs and plants to tend her serfs, heal them of their boils and headaches, their childbirth and the frailties of their aging bones?”
“No witch does that.”
“Aye! I wager you have not heard of the fifteen–year–old who came here as a bride to lie down in a bed of filthy straw because her father and her king demanded it. Nor have you heard how I improved this aged keep with demands for cleanliness and warm fires. How I fought my husband’s slovenly neglect. How I developed the wheat and barley crops and made the best beer in the marches. How I bore with his whining and gambling.”
Greystone stared into her eyes, his countenance serene. “Aye, my lady, I have heard all that of you and your husband.”
“And still you think I will come willingly to marry a pimple–faced youth of eighteen?
A boy who is reputed to prefer wine to work and men to a woman?”
“I am not here to ask what you prefer, Madame.”
His composure had her seething. Not the way to dissuade him from his course, Blanche. She whirled away and ran her fingers through her hair. The netting came loose and in a fit, she tore it off and cast it to the rushes. She ticked off a minute’s time to chill her blood. She was getting nowhere with this man, so cool, so controlled in all his glorious containment. She squeezed her eyes shut to find some resolve and once more faced him.
“Hear me, my lord. You and your retainers are welcome here to rest and repair. My serfs are at your convenience. My larder is open to your appetites. My stables, too, for your horses. But you will leave here as you came. In two days’ time. Without me.”
Greystone got a hard gleam to his eye. “You think to thwart the will of his highness the king of England?”
“My lady Bergeron, ‘tis folly of the highest order.”
“I will not let you take me from my own home. To marry me to another who will squander what I have built. To shame me with his decadence. For what? To please a man who dares to call himself king?”
“John aligns you with a family who has been loyal to him.”
“And I am repayment? Absurd! Let John pay his own debts.”
Greystone set his jaw. In the move, a cleft in his chin appeared and she stared at his face, overcome with a mad need to press her lips to his perfection there. Was she mad? She dared for fight here for her life and livelihood with a man whom she’d known for five minutes. A Norse god whom she coveted between her thighs.
“My lady,” the man crooned to her, “you must know that John cannot pay his debts. He has fought too many wars.”
“He has coveted too many women and plied them with jewels and silks.”
Greystone pursed his lips. “My lord king is in constant need of money. He can only gratefully acknowledge service to himself by using what rights he does have as a sovereign.”
“He is not sovereign here,” she pointed out.
“But he is your sovereign, Madame. By right of inheritance from your husband, you are John’s liege. He will have you marry Hugh de Morency and do so in six weeks time. You are to come with me with whatever baggage and your household serfs you wish to bring.”
“And did your noble lord also decree who will administer my estate while I make my way with you to London and wed this child?”
“Nay, Madame. He said you would know best whom to place in charge.”
She blew a gust of air out of her mouth. “The one true thing John can mutter.” But there was no one here who could replace her. No one with the knowledge. Or the dedication. Or the power. Everything she’d built here, every convenience, every prosperity, would wither with her departure. Her serfs were good folk, but lazy left alone. Without her prodding to tend the fields, without the profits from the sale of Bergeron’s good beer, they would soon die for lack of food and money with which to buy from others.
She fisted her hands at her sides. She surveyed once more William of Greystone, diplomat, courtier, earl and wealthy landowner. Loyal to a king who had proven how disloyal, how ignoble he could be to his subjects. Including, and especially, women. “My lord,” she whispered in a beseeching tone, unnerved by Greystone’s implacability and her own attempt to bribe him, “what may I offer you to excuse me from this curse?”
His features fell to a lax sorrow. “Nothing, Madame.”
She expected that answer. Still, it riled her. “Noble lord Greystone, who has never been bought. Never been false to his king. Never been left idle from the performance of another and yet another errand of John’s perverse mind. Do you not find service to him beneath your vaulted honour?”
He blinked, his lush mouth thinning at her persistence. “Madame, were I able to loose you from this marriage, I would. Trust me, I have tried. My liege is adamant. You shall wed de Morency. With haste, if not with grace.”
“And if I don’t?”
“I vow you will.”
“I must find a way,” she murmured, caught like a mouse in a trap.
“None exists, Madame,” he said with sorrow. “Have you heard the tale of what happened to his niece the heiress, Lady Esme Montague?”
Blanche rubbed her upper arms. “Aye. She refused to marry John’s choice and ran off with her lover.”
“John caught the man and had him castrated.”
“Then John put Esme into a dungeon at Corfe, where she withered and, five years later, died.”
“Blanche,” this man seemed to be pleading with her, “do not underestimate John’s resolve. Marry the boy. Return here with or without him. Resume your duties. Live your life.”
“Or lose it.”
“My lady, we are all creatures of our circumstances.”
“Even you, my lord? The most honourable man to serve his king will do his will despite the dishonourable nature of it?”
Greystone seemed unpricked by her barb. “Aye. My work for eleven years has been to bring my king to a just rule. I work where and when I can for justice for all. But in some instances, I am powerless to change his mind.”
Her gaze locked on his and in that moment, she knew the truth of what he declared.
“I have argued for you, Madame. To no avail. I know when to concede. And when to press. In this matter, I have failed to change my liege’s thinking or his dictum. And you will become the Countess de Morency within six weeks. Prepare yourself. We leave in two days’ time.”
(Copyright 2010, all rights reseved to Cerise DeLand.)