Roger wanted to jab his dagger into his eye. He despised failure, hated it, yet judging by his intended bride’s reaction to his courtship performance, he and failure now shared a bed. Love and war, with a clear plan, a man could manage one in much the same manner as the other. Hadn’t a lifetime under the guiding hand of Sir Arthur of Anglesea set this lesson into Roger’s marrow?
Except, Roger’s courtship had veered from the battle plan.
Lady Mathilda had accepted his flowers with her sweet, lovely smile and even moved her skirts to make place for him beside her. Since then, his plan had moved from disarray into rout. Lady Mathilda should be sighing by now, at least peeping at him from beneath thick dark lashes. He’d watched William turn a woman sweet a hundred times.
In her haste to put distance between them, she inched her curvy hips down the bench, almost tipping onto her pert ass. She pressed a fluttering hand to her throat. “Five sons, Sir Roger?”
“Aye.” He softened his tone. A woman would not enjoy being bellowed at like a man-at-arms. “My mother had four, and the two girls. I wager we could do better.” He gave her a tiny nudge. “Aye?”
Agape, Lady Mathilda shook her head. Her nut-brown hair made a silky swish on the bench.
Too abrupt? Perhaps. He should have refrained from the nudge for certain, but desperation crept through him with each passing moment. “Of course, that is if you are willing, my lady.”
Gentle, his mother had urged. Woo her with sweet words and smiles. Roger smiled.
She stared at him with huge eyes, dark like aged walnut, and gave him her flawless profile.
Mother had chosen well. Lady Mathilda boasted the sort of beauty that would make any man want to strut and crow like a barnyard cock.
“Your lips.” He gave it another try. Please let the spirit of his brother, William, dwell within him now. “Are as ripe as...apples. Red apples, not green. Not the red and green ones either. All red, like...” Jesu, give him strength. Even he could do better than that. “I mean cherries.”
“You are most kind.” Her chest rose and fell with her quickened breathing, and while a man tried not to look, or get caught looking, she filled out the front of her bliaut with a tasty, ripe bounty.
Roger balled his hand into a fist, tempted to punch his own face with it. He made a dog’s ballocks of this. Give him a keep to tear down, a young soldier to train, a horde of marauding Scots. Anything but this.
Still, he’d vowed to marry, and marry he would. Time to do his duty as the heir. At his feet, his favorite bitch peered at him and whined. She understood him, never needed pretty words from him. Why couldn’t women be more like dogs? Only, with not quite so much fur and the bad breath. There must be something they could speak of. He waded into the oozing silence. “Dogs?”
Lady Mathilda clasped her hands in her lap, fingers white about the knuckles. “Dogs, Sir Roger?”
“Aye, dogs. Do you like them?”
He should talk about her. That last bit of counsel from older sister, Faye. “What do you like?”
“Me?” She started. A flush stained her peachy skin.
Mother had certainly found him a girl to rival Faye in looks. “Aye.”
“I like flowers.”
There, he had done one thing right. “Flowers are nice. And?”
“Um...” She stroked her skirts over her knees. “Silk. I like silk.”
“Then I shall be sure to clothe you in silk for the rest of your days.”
Her head snapped up and she went taut beside him. “The rest of my life?”
“Indeed.” The rest of his life seemed to stretch in front of him like an endless road to nowhere. Did Lady Mathilda perhaps sense his reluctance to marry? “I am sure we will be very happy together.”
Lady Mathilda sprang to her feet. “Aye.” Retreat bellowed from every taut line of her as she scurried away.
Roger received the message clearly. Lady Mathilda did not favor his suit.
Her full hips rocked with the speed of her flight.
It was a pity for her, then, that Roger of Anglesea had decided he would wed Mathilda of Mandeville. Will she or nil she.
Kathryn stuck her head around the screens at one end of Anglesea’s hall and tried to signal her sister. Matty charged straight into hell with all Kathryn’s carefully conceived and executed plans. Why could a person not run a courtship like a battle? It would be so much simpler that way.
Matty stared at Sir Roger like the man had sprouted two heads. Blast! What ailed her sister? Sir Roger fit Kathryn’s requirements to perfection. Not much for prayer, Kathryn had spent hours on her knees asking for just such a husband for Matty. They’d been at Anglesea for two days now, and Kathryn’s relief when she met Sir Roger had made it easy to encourage Matty to welcome the match.
She could not fathom, why today of all days, the usually biddable Matty had taken one of her huffs into her head. Lord above knew, they did not happen often, but when Matty took one of her stands, there would be the devil’s work to sway her. The wedding contracts remained unsigned, on Sir Arthur’s behest, until Roger and Matty both agreed they would suit.
Sir Roger tugged at his tunic neck as he shifted on the bench beside Matty.
If only the man had a touch more address. To be fair, however, Kathryn had not aided his courtship because of his honeyed words and pretty gestures. She had explained all this to Matty.
Matty rose and near ran for the door.
Fists balled by his sides, wide shoulders taut, Sir Roger watched her go.
Matty rushed past and Kathryn dropped into step beside her. “What happened?”
With a shriek, Matty leapt away from her. “Kate?” She pressed her hands to her bosom. “You near scared the life out of me. I thought you were him.”
“Nay, him.” Matty jerked her head toward the hall. She glanced back. “Does he pursue me?”
Sir Roger stood, much as Matty had left him, with a tremendous frown on his handsome face.
“Nay.” Kathryn lengthened her strides to keep up with Matty. “What happened?”
Matty stopped, one foot on the bottom stair. “Did you see him?”
“Aye, I did. Great comely fellow that he is.” Kathryn suffused as much enthusiasm as she could into her words. Not as pretty as his brother, William, but Kathryn preferred Sir Roger’s more rugged looks.
Matty shuddered. “He is a brute.”
“Brute?” Kathryn followed her sister up the stairs. “Nay, Matty, but he is a warrior, which is why we agreed you should marry him.”
Matty spun and glared. “We agreed to nothing. You and father said I should marry him.”
“Matty.” It was the first and last time Kathryn would probably agree with their father. “We spoke about this. Remember?”
Matty drooped. Her eyes filled with tears. “I cannot marry him.”
“But why not?” Kathryn climbed closer to her sister. “He may be big and rough, but I enquired everywhere about him. They say he is tough but fair, and kind to his people. Men like this do not come about like the village peddler. We must snap him up while we can.”
“I cannot.” On a soft cry, Matty ran up the stairs.
“But you must,” Kathryn whispered to the empty space. “How else am I to keep you safe?”
Kathryn dug her heels into Striker’s flank and urged him faster. The quintain sped closer, and Kathryn fixed her aim dead in the center. Her sword snug in her hand, she leaned to the side. Striker shifted his weight to accommodate her.
A hit! Dead center and the arm whirled around. Kathryn ducked low to Striker’s neck to avoid the sandbag as it came about. She halted Striker before they plowed into the low wooden rail fence surrounding the practice yards.
After her failed conversation with Matty, she had gone straight to the stables and saddled Striker. Her intention to ride until she could formulate a new plan had been subverted by the Anglesea practice yards. Sir Arthur of Anglesea certainly kept a good yard for his men. Here amongst the predictable action of thrust and parry, the fine but exact joust against the quintain, she could think. Plan.
This marriage must happen. Everyone, from the stable hands to the village midwife loved Sir Roger, extolled his virtues. Could Matty have seen something in Sir Roger all Kathryn’s clandestine enquiries had missed? She wiped her sweaty sword hand on her tunic. She would have preferred a lance against the quintain, but none lay about, so her sword would do.
“Get off that horse,” Father bellowed.
Striker pranced to the side.
Father stomped across the practice yard toward her, ruddy with ill temper. His black stare bored holes straight through her tunic.
She’d disobeyed both parts of Father’s decree. She hadn’t stayed out of sight as much as possible, and even worse, she’d engaged in manly pursuits. Kathryn’s belly tightened, but she hid her reaction behind a blank mask. Like a mad dog, her father sensed fear and fed on it.
She had last seen him happily ensconced in the armory with a mug in one hand and a buxom wench on his knee. It had augured well for a couple of hours out of his sharp notice.
She slid to the ground beside Striker. Sweat trickled down her sides.
“What did I tell you?” He grabbed her upper arm and yanked.
Kathryn stumbled forward.
His beefy hand engulfed her arm and tightened.
Searing pain shot up her arm. She refused to let the hurt show. Instead, she raised her chin and held his angry gaze. “There is nobody about. The men are all out.”
“Lucky for you, you stupid girl.” Spit dotted his thick lips and hit her face. “I warned you.” He would leave bruises a mile wide on her arm. “You will not destroy your sister’s chance at this match.”
Matty’s chance? His chance he meant. Her father was randy as a rutting buck for this alliance. Anglesea meant money and power, both of which the old cur would whore his soul for. Instead, he whored his youngest daughter.
“Forgive me, Father.” She managed the words past her clamped jaw. “I will put Striker away and change before anyone is the wiser.”
“Not this time.” He shook her. The yard dipped and swirled as her head jerked this way and that. “This time you will learn. I will have that horse carved into dog meat.”
“Nay.” Kathryn tried to step closer to Striker. She had raised him from a foal, trained him herself. Death would come before she lost him. “It will not happen again.”
“You are right it will not.” Her father pushed his face closer to hers. “Because when we return to Mandeville Castle, that horse will be dead.”
A deep voice came from behind Father’s heavy shoulder. “That would be a shame.”Tall as a tree and just as wide, Sir Roger stood with one booted foot on the bottom rail of the fence surrounding the practice yard. The wind toyed with his dark hair. “That is a fine animal.”
“Sir Roger.” Father gave a turd-sucking grin. “I did not see you there. Were you not whispering sweet nothings to our Mathilda?”
“Lady Mathilda was called away,” he said.
Or ran away. Whatever the reason, he seemed disinclined to tattle on Matty. Another excellent quality in his favor. She would get Matty to see reason.
“What a pity.” Father rubbed his hands together. “Such a fine pair you make.”
“Speaking of fine pairs”—Sir Roger strode closer—“your daughter and that horse are as well-matched pair as I have clapped eyes on. It would be a terrible shame to separate them.”
“Separate them?” Father slapped Striker’s withers. “As if I would. Nay, I am merely funning with the girl.”
Relief made her dizzy. Father would never risk his displeasure. She wanted to fall at Sir Roger’s feet and thank him.
“Is this your oldest daughter?” Sir Roger loomed above her, his direct gaze on her. Dark hair, blue eyes, and a pair of shoulders that looked as if they could swing a battle-axe with ease.
A flush crept over her cheeks. His intense scrutiny disconcerted her. She felt small and delicate before him and, for the first time in her life, she felt the girlish urge to giggle.
“Indeed.” Father shoved in front of her. “This is Kathryn, but I beg you to pay her garb no mind.” He sidled closer to Sir Roger. “She is a bit of a strange one. There is one in every keep, is there not?” Hearty laugher gushed from him as he nudged Sir Roger.
“Indeed.” Sir Roger stepped away. “I taught my youngest sister to fight with a dagger. A woman should know how to defend herself.”
Kathryn dropped her head to hide her surprise. Not many men thought as he did. He grew in her estimation.
“Aye.” Father bobbed his head.
“I have never taught a woman to joust, however.” Sir Roger smiled at her.
Kathryn’s mind emptied. Her feet rooted to the spot. Handsome in repose, when he smiled...dear Lord. The man had a smile to bring the birds from the trees. It crinkled about his eyes and softened the stern lines of his mouth.
“Women do not joust.” Father gaped at him.
“Come now, Sir Royce.” Sir Roger clapped Father’s back.
Father staggered two steps forward. A full head shorter than Sir Roger, but wide through the girth, her father bore considerable meat on his bones.
“You have two charming daughters. Allow a man the pleasure of both their companies.” Sir Roger winked. “Let me get to know my sister by marriage, at least.”
Father tugged his ear. “There will be time enough for that once you are wed to our Matty.”
“You are right.” Sir Roger threw his arm about Father’s shoulders. “But an ally in Lady Mathilda’s camp could not hurt.”
Clever man, making the one argument that would weigh with her father. Was his intervention deliberate or merely a fortunate coincidence?
Father huffed, and shifted his feet. “I would not want her to cause offense. I have told her not to concern herself with men’s matters.”
He shot a glare at her.Her blood ran cold. Sir Roger’s presence had merely delayed her punishment.
“I am not in the least offended,” Sir Roger said. “I find it rather...endearing.”
Endearing? That might just be enough to save her a beating. Sir Roger seemed a little more perceptive than she had suspected.
“Very well then.” Father threw his hands wide and forced a chuckle. “Amuse yourself with our little Kate, whilst I go and find your bride.”
“A splendid idea,” Sir Roger said.
Her father shuffled across the practice yard sand toward the keep.
“So, you enjoy manly pursuits?” Sir Roger shifted closer to her.
Kathryn knew not what to make of him, and she trod carefully. “Aye.”
“I have yet to see a woman joust,” he said.
“That does not mean they cannot,” she said.
Sir Roger crossed his arms over his wide chest. “Not very well.”
“I hit the target dead center.”
“Aye.” He shoved his hands in his belt and shrugged. “But you hit a wooden shield with a sword. A lance is much longer and more unwieldy.”
“I do not have a lance.”
“And a man’s chest is much denser to pierce and doesn’t hang there like a ripe plum for you to skewer. The way you hung off your horse like a rag poppet would have seen your ass in the dust.”
Father looked behind him before he entered the keep. Even from there, his scowl burned into her.
“I suppose you could do better,” she said.
Sir Roger merely chuckled. “You know I could.”
“Do it then.”
He raised his brow. “Is that a challenge?”
“Accepted.” Sir Roger approached Striker, careful not to startle him. He stroked Striker’s forelock, murmuring to him. “Will he bear me?”
“Of course he will.” Striker was the best horse in the Kingdom. “Unless, of course, you do something stupid and then you will find your ass...I mean, yourself in the dust.”
Sir Roger cantered Striker back to the far end of the yard. He drew his sword. “This is more difficult with a lance,” he called.
Braggart. Kathryn sat on an overturned bucket.
“Hah!”Striker shot forward, ears pricked, hooves beating a muted tattoo on the sand.Sir Roger seemed part of the horse beneath him, smooth, fluid, and graceful. He had an excellent seat, controlling the horse with his thighs, making those tiny adjustments to keep his fine fit in the saddle.
He hit the quintain with a crack. It whirled in a blur, the swing arm heading straight for the back of his head.
Kathryn nearly shouted a warning, but he kept riding, sitting straight in the saddle, and the swing arm passed within a hair of him.
“Now”—he drew Striker in front of her and dismounted—“climb on this fine steed of yours and I will give you a fast lesson.”
A real knight giving her instruction, an opportunity too good to be overlooked. “You will?”
“Up you go.” Sir Roger clasped his hands for her to mount.
Kathryn sidestepped his hands and leapt into the saddle. Without touching the stirrup. Let him tell her any squire could best that.
“Good.” He nodded, and ran a hand down Striker’s shoulder. “You have a fine horse here.”
“I trained him myself.”
His harsh features softened as he caressed Striker’s coat. “You did well, Lady Kate.”
“Thank you.” Kathryn grew breathless as he stared at her. “Kathryn. I do not like to be called Kate.”
“I do not care for it.”
“Kathryn it is then.” His eyes, at first so cold, glowed warm and inviting. “You are not married?”
“Nay.” She backed Striker up. “My sister is far more suited to make a wife. A man would be lucky to have her.”
He looked at her, his expression inscrutable. “Your horse is not a tool. He is your partner, your helpmate, and together you enter the list.”
His words warmed her heart, and she stroked Striker’s neck. They were a pair, the two of them.
Sir Roger stepped back and crossed his arms. “Take your friend back there and show me what you can do.”
“Aye, Sir Roger.”
“And by all that is Holy, stop calling me Sir Roger. Roger will do nicely.”
“Right you are...” It seemed so intimate to use his given name, but right somehow. He did not appear to be a man puffed up with his own importance. “Roger.”
He grinned. “Now, ride!”
Kathryn rode Striker back and turned. She took aim and dug her heels into Striker.
Again, they hit the target square on. Let Roger tell her she foundered at this now. Why, the swing arm went round and round as if struck by the hand of God.
“Understand something first.” He rested his elbows on the top rail of the fence behind him. “When you tilt, you ride fast, ride hard, and hit hard.”
She already knew that and opened her mouth to tell him so.
“Which brings me to the second thing you need to understand. The force of your blow relates to how fast you ride and how much weight you put behind your blow.” He pushed away from the fence. “As a woman, you are at a size disadvantage. One hit and you’re in the dust.”
“I would not be—”
“Your opponents will be bigger, but that does not mean you will always lose. You ride like a girl, however, and you will need to correct that.”
“Your timing and your aim need to be perfect as well, because everyone gets hit.” He took hold of her bridle and stroked Striker’s neck. “In your case, you need to mitigate against the force of that hit.”
She still burned to correct him about the riding like a girl, but he had just voiced her biggest concern. “And you know how I can do that.”
“I know it is not by sweeping across your target.” He raised his brow. “Aim for the target, from the moment you begin your approach. The horse moves beneath you, and if you bring your sword down and then attempt to aim, your opponent will be past you before you can blink. Or have their weapon planted in your chest.”
“Aim for the target?”
He patted Striker’s shoulder. He had big hands, calloused from work, nails short and blunt. Capable hands. “Keep your eye on it.”
Kathryn turned Striker and rode back again. “I do not ride like a girl.”
His chuckle followed her. “Do not drop too early. Judge the speed of your mount and his. Bring your weapon down in one smooth motion, right on target.”
Kathryn skipped to Matty’s chamber with an extra spring in her step. Her nethers ached from Sir Roger’s instruction the evening before, but nothing could dim her happiness. They had stayed in the yards until Anglesea’s Nurse called them in to get ready for dinner. Nurse had not seen anything amiss with her mannish pursuits either, merely reminded her to get the smell of horse off her before she sat at table.
Roger had excused himself to bathe in the barracks. A hard taskmaster, but Roger rode like a dream, and he handled a sword as if it formed part of his arm.
Matty would marry the perfect man for her and finally be safe. She couldn’t ask for better. With Matty safely tucked away in Anglesea, Kathryn need only concern herself with Mother. Still no apparent solution, short of burying the old cur ten feet under, had presented itself, but one step at a time. Matty’s marriage represented a massive stride toward Kathryn’s goal.
Perhaps Roger would allow Kathryn to spend time here at Anglesea with Matty. He had seemed to like her well enough yesterday, and she could make herself useful. She hunted well, tracked better than most men, and most assuredly did not ride like a girl. Indeed, she only need stay until he taught her how to handle a sword as he did. The world beckoned. Adventure. Freedom.
A serving maid smiled at her in passing. “Good morrow, Lady Kate.”
“Kathryn.” She softened the correction with a smile. “I prefer to be called Kathryn, and it is indeed a good morrow.” Holding the girl’s hands, she gave her a quick spin. “It is the very best of mornings.”
Giggling, the girl danced away down the hall.
“Get up, Matty.” She threw open the door to her sister’s chamber. What a marvel Anglesea was, with its separate sleeping chambers. The views of the sea on three sides robbed her of breath every time she strode near a casement. Aye indeed, she would do her best to endear herself to the Anglesea folk. Perhaps she and Mother could spend the winter months here. Did the sea freeze like the lake beside Mandeville? “Matty?”
Matty must have risen already, and had left her linens in disarray. Matty despised mornings, but the prospect of her wonderful groom must have gotten her up and about early this morn.
They’d spoken long after dinner last night. Matty had proven surprisingly stubborn, but Kathryn had worn her down, made her see sense. She could not stay at Mandeville.
Kathryn picked up a discarded wimple. Matty should make an effort to keep her room tidier. Lady Mary had seen Matty and her housed in lovely chambers. Though small, the bright, cheery fabrics and gleam of fine wood furnishings made them feel like visiting princesses. Bright embroidered florals ran across Matty’s bed hangings in a glorious tangle of green and yellow. At the foot of the bed stood Matty’s clothes chest. Open and empty.
Thieves! Matty had been robbed, and right in the midst of one of the strongest keeps in the kingdom. A well-guarded stronghold that shut its gates at night and had men who walked the halls whilst the residents slept.
Kathryn paused before she opened the door and cried foul.
Matty’s wedding bliaut hung from the clothes tree beside the casement. Morning sunlight glinted off the gems sewn across the bodice. Mother had labored for months, each gem stitched with care.
The bliaut stood ready, lonely for the absent bride to don it.
Warning prickled Kathryn’s nape as she strode to the chest. What sort of thief took only the most common day raiment and left the gem- encrusted wedding bliaut?
The fabric alone could have kept a family fed for the year. The cost of the gems? Kathryn shuddered to consider. Father kept a tight fist about his coins, but even he would not send his daughter to one of the richest families in the land looking like a pauper.
Beside Matty’s wedding gown, where her heavy traveling cloak should have hung, the clothes tree stretched an empty wooden arm into the room. Kathryn’s knees weakened, and she perched on the edge of Matty’s bed. Matty was gone.
The door opened. Ella crept into the room and slammed it shut behind her. Matty’s maid braced her slim back against the door and released a shuddering breath. “Lady Kathryn. I did hope it would be you.”
“Where is Matty?”
Ella’s pallor frightened Kathryn. She looked a breath away from crumpling into a heap on the floor.
“You must tell Sir Royce. Lady Matty said you would.” Tears trickled down Ella’s soft cheeks. Her hands twisted in her apron. “I cannot tell him, Lady Kathryn. I am afeared.”
With a cry, Ella tossed her apron over her head.
Kathryn wanted to shake the girl, but more than that, she wanted answers. “What has happened, Ella?”
“She is gone.” Her apron muffled her voice.
“What do you mean, gone. Has someone taken her?”
Ella shook her head. She buried her covered head in her hands and wailed. “I cannot tell Sir Royce. You must not make me tell him, or I shall die.”
“Never mind Sir Royce.” Kathryn ripped the apron from her head, and gripped Ella by the shoulders. She towered over the smaller, frailer woman. “Tell me where my sister is.”
“I do not know.” Ella collapsed in a heap.
Dear God, grant her patience not to slap the girl into next year. “But you must know something.”
“She begged me to help her.” Ella hugged her knees to her chest. “I did not want to do it, but she cried so and I feared she would make herself ill. ‘Save me, Ella. You are the only one who can help me,’ she said.”
“Help her? Why?” Kathryn needed to think, understand what the bedamned, blighted hell had happened. “Ella, if you do not stop crying, I will give you something to cry about.”
Ella whimpered and scuttled to her feet. She edged toward the door.
Kathryn blocked her way.
“Dear God, help me!” Ella raised her hands to the sky. “God save me.”
“Stop that! And do not move from there.” Kathryn wrestled her temper down. She stood before Ella, and kept her tone gentle. “Ella, I need to know what happened.”
“You will whip me.”
“Nay, Ella, I will not whip you. I merely need to know where my sister is.”
“You said you would make me cry.” Ella sniffled.
Kathryn dug her nails into her palms. “I spoke in anger. Nobody is going to raise a hand to you.”
“Your father will.”
True enough. Father would beat the hell out of everybody if they did not find Matty and find her soon. “I will protect you from my father.”
With a big sniff, Ella scrubbed her apron over her cheeks and peered at her. “She left, Lady Kathryn. Lady Mathilda said she could not marry that great oaf of a man and she took her bits and left.”
“Left?” Her worst fear. Kathryn plopped onto her ass on the hard stone. “Why? Where did she go?”
“That is all I know.” Ella stood and straightened her skirts. “She did not tell me more. You can try to beat it out of me, but I know nothing more.”
“Oh, Matty.” Kathryn dropped her head into her hands. “What have you done?”