AT HER SERVICE out today! New and expanded and here is your nibble of my cherry!
Cumbria, The Marches, England.
Elise picked at the rope wound tightly around her wrist. Lashing her to the iron ring on the wall in her nurse’s alcove had not been wise. Yet her father had commanded it. Little did he know of her perseverance. Because she was small in stature and slight of build did not imply she was weak of mind or ingenuity.
She smiled to herself as she plucked at the fraying hemp. She would not—nay, could not—miss Simon’s departure. He would take it amiss if she failed to wish him Godspeed on his journey to join their good King Richard in Italy. Simon de la Poer was her life, her breath. Only months older than she, Simon had fostered with her family. He’d learned the arts of swordsmanship and the finer points of archery from her father’s men. A friendly boy, Simon had won the loyalty of her only brother, Maurice, and the two had grown to consider each the other’s shadow. When that was cut by the cruel death of Maurice from dysentery last spring—and Simon’s own estates had been gobbled by raiding Welshmen—all in the family had thought enough tragedy had befallen them and de la Poer. God would not take more from them.
But they were wrong.
Tears dribbled down her cheeks as she remembered the horrors of the last few months. Her mother’s death days after Maurice’s. Her father’s rage when he discovered Elise in the arms of Simon. His decree that Simon leave their castle. And then the worst, when he betrothed her to an ancient man.
She caught back a sob, wiped her tears from her cheeks and returned to working the strands of hemp.
She cocked an ear. She heard them in the courtyard, the horses’ hooves clattering on the cobbles, the shouts of men hailing each other.
“Hurry, hurry,” she urged herself.
Her fingers sore from the pricking of the rough hemp, she bit back the pain.
And the rope came free.
She pushed to her feet. Headed for the door.
Her head spun. She’d risen too quickly. A hand to the stone wall, she shut her eyes and prayed for strength to go on. She’d been ill these past few days. Morning until midday, she’d not been able to eat or drink. And she had worried that her nausea came not from a flux that had killed her brother and mother—but from the rapture of lying in Simon’s arms.
She swallowed her fear of her father’s censure and focused on her despair of missing Simon’s departure.
|Debuts August 11!|
Putting an ear to the wooden door, she heard no sounds on the stairs. Slowly, she pulled the heavy thing open and peered out.
Smiling, she eased her slim body out the door and listened again for anyone who traveled the stone steps.
She glanced down. No, she dare not hurry down these main tower stairs. Her maid, her father’s retainers would travel them. She must take the set hidden in the far corner of her mother’s solar. The secret ones few knew of would be best. Quick too.
She picked up her skirts and took the winding steps at a run.
At the next landing, she pushed open the solar door and slid inside. No one was here. Her father refused to sit here since her mother had died. Only she had found any comfort in this room since that day her mother had breathed her last.
She pushed the door shut and rushed to the far corner. The slim door creaked as she pulled it open and she winced at the sound. But no one came—and she flew down the sharply winding stairway as if the devil pursued her.
At the bottom, she halted again. Her back to the wall, her ear to the crevice, she listened for sounds in the buttery. No laughing maids, no surly baker, no irritable cook seemed in evidence.
Were they outside, too, bidding adieu to her Simon?
She pressed her forehead to the cold stones, inhaled and yanked open the door.
No one was about.
And she scampered through the kitchen and the scullery to skid to a halt at the threshing room.
Two, three, four men talked together in the yard. Their voices were young, lacking timbre—save for one. She peered around the edge of the door.
There he stood. Taller than the others, broader of chest and kinder, sweeter than any boy she’d ever met. Even her brother Maurice could not compare to the beauty of her stalwart Simon.
Dare she run to him now? She maneuvered this way and that to view as much of the courtyard as the slit through the door might permit, but chance was everything.
And so was valor.
She flung wide the door and grabbing up her skirts, she ran like one afire.
She hurled herself into his open arms.
Still, he put her back to her feet. “Don’t, Elise. Your father will come soon.”
“I care not,” she told him and did not temper her tone. She loved him and her father was sending him away. “I had to see you. Bid you farewell.”
“I am humbled by your kind wishes, my lady.”
Oh, he was so courteous. But then he’d always been in the presence of others. Aware of her status as his liege lord’s daughter, he had often told her he could not compare. He’d told her that as a lowly baron’s second son, he’d been proud to be fostered here in her family as companion to Maurice.
“I want you to return to me, Simon.” She clutched his wool tunic. The black of it matched the glistening black of his hair and contrasted with the bright silver in his eyes. “Promise me.”
“I fight the Infidel with Richard, my lady.” He grasped her hands and tore them from his garment, but in his gaze stood fierce tears.
“Kill them. Take Jerusalem. Come back to me.”
“Listen to me, my lady—”
“Call me by my name, Simon. None of this politesse for us.”
|Debuts AUGUST 18!|
“Aye.” He shook her, his expression gone to stone. “I know not when I return.”
“But when you do, I will be here.”
“You are promised to another, my sweet girl,” he whispered, but his voice broke.
“I will not go.”
Simon set his jaw. All compassion in his demeanor died. His friends strode away, looking back at them, frowning and feigning care of their horses’ bridles.
“I tell you, Simon, I will not wed him.”
“You must. You will.”
“Nay. Return to me and take me as your bride.”
“Sweet girl, your father will not allow it, and I would not defy him. Not any more than I already have when we…”
She sank against him. The warm wall of his chest was a bulwark against all horrors of this world. “What if I carry a babe? Yours?”
His silver eyes stared into hers. “Say this is not so. I would curse myself if this were true.”
The bellow of her father’s voice echoed around the courtyard.
“Leave her, de la Poer! “
Simon’s tight grip on her wrists numbed her hands. “Tell me you lie.”
He grimaced. “Then marry the man your sire names for you, Elise. Do it quickly. Never think of me again.”
Shocked at his dismissal, she stood helpless, hopeless. What had she expected him to do? Carry her away to the Crusade?
She stared while he turned to do his duty and bowed to her father.
Her sire was a burly man of round belly and staunch constitution. Always jovial, he’d become somber of late. Deaths and illnesses in the castle had robbed him of his good nature. Discovering his fifteen-year-old daughter naked in the arms of the seventeen-year-old whom he loved as well as his natural son had robbed him of the remaining cheer in his soul.
Elise stepped backward.
He stood before the four young men and nigh unto sneered at Simon. “Get you gone, de la Poer. Our good king needs your audacity to reclaim Jerusalem. May you fight like a heathen and reclaim the purity of your soul. But as you value your life, never come near my daughter nor me again.”
Simon glanced from her father to her and back again. “Aye, my lord. For your kindnesses to me lo these many years, I thank you, sir. Someday I hope to assuage your anger toward me with a good deed you may applaud.”
“I doubt it, Simon. Go. Your name is henceforth banned in my home.”