The Bride Gift
Spring, 1153, North of England
Guy of Helston hated heights.
Dangling sixty feet from the ground and hanging on by his fingernails was not what he’d had in mind when he declared at the tender age of eight summers that come what may, he would one day win a title. Mayhap it was his just deserts for foolishly declaring to his brother, Crispin, he would stop at nothing to achieve his ambition.
Guy grabbed the next handhold. It had seemed such a good idea from the ground. Roger had made it sound like the logical course. For certes easier than lengthy explanations yelled at the gatehouse for all within earshot to hear. The earl had led him to the hidden postern gate and they’d slipped undetected through the curtain wall into the inner bailey.
The castle bristled with men at arms. A witch’s cauldron of trouble brewed around their lady. Change crackled in the wind with new rumours circulating faster than flies on a midden heap. The war between King Stephen and Empress Maude ripped through the land and threatened all.
An owl hooted. Roger’s warning.
Guy froze.A soft tramp of feet signalled the guard. Beneath him, two men at arms passed into view. All it would take was for one of them to glance up. The sentries stopped and changed direction. He counted a heartbeat more and continued his ascent.
Closer he climbed to the open casement. He forced himself to go slowly. One hand at a time, find the foothold before moving on. A slip now would mean certain death.
The casement inched nearer. He got his fingers over the edge and hauled his aching muscles onto the window embrasure. He rested with half his body hanging off the edge and his boots still wedged against the rough rock. The rope around his waist jerked.
“Jesu.” He glared into the shadows below him. Could he not just have a moment to catch his breath?
He slithered into the dark beyond the embrasure. Then stopped, his senses alert to discovery.
He jerked the line. The rope grew taut, and Guy braced his feet against the wall. Roger was many summers past the wall scaling age, but needs must. The rope strained across Guy’s back as Roger climbed.
Roger was a smaller man, but compact and muscular. Guy gritted his teeth, his muscles protesting the extra effort. He didn’t make a sound as he hauled, hand over hand, the rope hissing softly over the edge of the casement. He prayed Roger was right and the lady was not a light sleeper.
A fine tremor shook Guy’s arms.
Roger’s head finally popped over the lip of the embrasure. The earl was breathing hard, perspiration streaming in rivulets down his cheeks. He slipped over the edge and landed beside Guy.
“What did I tell you?” Roger whispered. “She has the place sewn up tighter than a duck’s arse.” He beamed with pride. “That is my Nell.”
Jesu, a woman ruling a keep. He’d heard some jests, but that was a good one.
Roger crouched beneath the embrasure, catching his breath. Rising to his feet, Guy undid the rope and placed it beneath the casement.
The shutters were open to admit the cool spring night, but it was still dark inside the solar. The warm air smelled of wildflowers, delicate and feminine. He stood out like a pair of dog’s ballocks with his large, sweating body.
Roger rose and waved Guy forward. He inched a foot out in front of him and located the soft edge of a carpet. It would mute their footfalls.
Outside the keep walls, his men were ready. They could stay out there until judgment day, however, unless the drawbridge was lowered and the portcullis raised. The king would have received the news by now and wouldn’t be far behind. Guy prayed his years of loyal service would buy him some clemency. Roger depended on it.
From just the other side of the door, people slept, talked and went about their business of getting ready for the new day.He scanned the interior. Darker shadows coalesced into the larger shapes of furniture. They were in luck; no servant shared the chamber.
Roger approached the huge bed, which dominated the room from a raised dais.
The draperies were opened, and Guy could just make out the recumbent form on the bed. He stayed near the foot, partially concealed by the bed draperies.
Hair streamed across the pillows in the predawn light. Roger had not exaggerated; it was a fair face. The clear line of her brows rose in a determined arch above the delicate bones of her face. Her mouth was ripe and full and tilted up slightly at the corners, lips made for kissing. In other circumstances, Guy might have paused a moment and availed himself of the opportunity.
Leaning forward, Roger placed a hand over her mouth.
She woke with a start, her eyes flying open and her nostrils flaring over the edge of Roger’s hand. Legs flailed beneath the bed linens as her hand shot forward.
Roger grunted softly when the blow connected with his shoulder. Her other arm arced toward his head, but he was quick enough to catch it. Her chest rose as she sucked in an enormous breath.
Guy tensed, his hand reaching for the sword strapped to his back.
“Nell. Do not scream.” Roger’s whisper was hoarse in the stillness of the room. “Quiet, Nell.”
She located her uncle and stilled.Roger carefully removed his hand.“Roger?” Her stare was fixed on the man by her side.
“Where, in God’s name, have you been?”
“Hush, Nell,” Roger hissed.
She scrambled into a sitting position, clutching the bedding to her chest. In the moonlight, she appeared too fragile for what awaited her. “What are you doing here? Why are you sneaking about in the dark? How did you get past the men at the door?”
They were all fair questions; Guy remained still and let Roger make the explanations.
“We climbed.” Roger drew his shoulders back. “We scaled the wall and came in through the casement.”
“I did not want to alert anyone that we were here.”
“But why?” Her forehead creased in a deeper frown. “They are all anxiously awaiting your return. We have worried ourselves to illness.” Anger crept into her voice. “We received the news from court four days ere that you have refused the king’s call to arms. And now I find you climbing the keep walls. Are you mad?”
“Nay, Nell, not mad but banished.”
“King Stephen has banished you?”
Roger hastily motioned her to lower her voice, lest an alarm be raised. “Aye.” He backed away from the bed looking worn and older than his years. Guy knew this banishment was like an open wound for the other man. “I—”
“You have been banished?” Her whisper grew more demanding. “How did you let that happen?”
Guy honestly didn’t believe Roger had been presented with any other choice. It wasn’t his place to say, however, so he kept silent.
“Now, Nell.” Roger attempted to take command of the situation.
“You knew the king was wroth with you. Why did you refuse his call to arms now?”
“It must end. You know that as well as I.” Roger’s whisper was rough with impatience. “‘Tis the same year after year, Nell. The king wants yet more men and yet more arms for this infernal war with Maude, and we bear the cost.”
She glared up at Roger, the line of her jaw firm and uncompromising. “Could you not dissemble?”
Roger wasn’t going to escape that lightly. His niece was a feisty one.
“Could you not feint?” She made a decisive slashing motion with her free hand. “Now you are banished. How could anything be worth that?”
“There is only so much a man can take.” Roger’s chin jutted out. As did his niece’s. They stayed locked in their silent battle for a long moment.
Her shoulders slumped suddenly, as if the weight became too much to bear. All the fight seemed to rush out of her on a sigh. “I have been so worried about you. I thought you might be dead.”
Her voice quavered on that last sentence, and Guy’s guts tightened. Sweet Jesu. Please, no tears. He couldn’t abide the tears.
“There now, sweet Nell.” Roger lowered himself onto the bed beside her. He gathered the girl into his arms. “Whist now, Nell. All is not lost and I came as fast as I could. Hush now, sweeting.”
Guy shifted his weight, uncomfortable at witnessing such a private scene.
Her eyes flew to him. Her mouth dropped open. “Who are you?”
Guy would as lief be strung up by his toes than answer her question. This was Roger’s idea, not his.
“Er, Nell.” Roger drew back from her gently. “May I present Guy of Helston?”
“The ‘Scourge of Faringdon?’”
Guy clenched his fists. The name was like a curse he never escaped.
“Nell,” Roger admonished, “he does not like to be called such.”
“Then he should not have earned it,” the lady snapped. “What is he doing in my bedchamber?”
“He is your . . . husband.”
“My what?” Helena’s mouth dropped open.
“We must make haste, Nell.” Roger rose to his feet again. “It will not go well for you if the king discovers I was here.”
His bluster was nothing more than a craven attempt to charge over any further need for explanations. Helena held fast to the edge of Roger’s tunic. “Explain yourself.”
“I have done so,” Roger huffed impatiently. He gestured toward the enormous, still shape at the end of the bed. “Guy is your husband.”
“He is not,” she replied. “I do not have a husband, and I do not have a husband because I am to wed Colin.”
“Colin!” Roger barked and then hastily lowered his voice. “Are you still gnawing that old bone to death?”
Helena glared back at him. Still gnawing that old bone, indeed. “I am going to marry Colin. You know it. He knows it. Everyone knows it.” If it weren’t for that shadow near her bed, she would be sorely tempted to box her uncle’s ears. “Colin is the perfect husband for me. You know why I must marry him.”
“Well, you cannot marry him now.” Roger leaned forward until they were almost nose-to-nose. “Because I have already married you to Guy. Do not speak to me of Colin. Colin is—” Roger swore beneath his breath.
“I love Colin.”
Roger ran impatient hands through his hair. Abruptly, his shoulders slumped as he resumed his seat beside her and dropped his chin onto his chest. His soft sigh cut the air.
A terrible feeling of dread churned in her belly. She shivered and crossed her arms over her chest to ward off the sudden chill.
Roger looked weary and defeated, and Helena wanted to reach over and shake him. She wanted him to bellow and thunder at her and then she could fight him.
“It matters not,” Roger murmured at last.
The man at the foot of her bed hung just outside of her vision, but his shadow seemed to grow until it cast its pall over her.
“I must go. I leave tonight for Normandy and Empress Maude. It is my only chance,” Roger said. “She welcomes those who oppose King Stephen with her.”
Helena opened her mouth to speak, but Roger gestured sharply. “There is no time and you must listen.” He turned toward the silent man. “I did what I thought was best, Nell. You must believe me.”
How could Roger think this was best for her? He must be addled.
“My last act as your guardian was to stand in for you and marry you to Guy.”
This is but a jest. She shook her head mutely. The words stuck in her throat.
Roger gripped her shoulders. His face grew fierce. “He is a good man, Nell, a noble man and a strong one. He will protect you, and you will need it in the days to come.”
“Nay.” She tried to free herself from Roger’s grip. None of this made any sense. Roger couldn’t be banished. He had trod this line with the king many a time. He couldn’t be sitting before her with this nonsensical tale of exile and marriage.
“Aye, Nell,” he insisted. “There was no time for it to be any other way. Guy has the king’s favour. The king will be wroth about this marriage, but Stephen will forgive him the next time he needs Guy’s battle hardened knights.”
“Nell.” Roger shook her hard enough to make her head snap back. “Ranulf knows of my banishment.”
“Ranulf knows?” Fear lanced through her.
“He petitioned the king for your hand. We had to act.”
Helena forced her hurtling mind to stop and plan. “The king cannot give me to Ranulf,” she declared. “I will shut the keep. I will fight him. I will never marry Ranulf.”
“Sweeting.” Roger cupped her cheek gently. “You will never marry Ranulf. Guy will see to it.”
“But Colin . . .” The words died on her lips. A dull ache throbbed beneath her ribs and it became laborious to draw breath. Oh, dear Lord, there was so much to take in. “We are betrothed,” she finished weakly. Silently she beseeched Roger to agree.
Roger shook his head. “Ah, my sweet girl.” An almost unbearable sadness creased his beloved features. “It was not to be. Colin could never stand against Ranulf and Ranulf knew it. I am done for. I cannot shield you any longer, but Guy can. In time, you will come to trust him as you do me.”
“I shall not.” Of this much, she was absolutely certain. She would trust no man but the one she had chosen for herself.
“You will be safe.” Roger tapped his finger to the edge of her nose as he always did when he wanted her to mind him. She turned from his touch. “King Stephen trusts Guy, he likes him and, more importantly, he needs his skills and his men. He will accept this marriage.”
“And me?” She didn’t care about the king or any of them. “What if I do not accept it?”
“You have no choice,” Roger murmured regretfully. “‘Tis done, and the king will have received word.”
“The church will contest—”
“Nell.” Roger bade her face him. “The church has already sanctified this marriage. You are wed to Guy of Helston. I came with Guy so you would know, for certes, this was my will for you.” He kissed her on the forehead. “You must accept this,” he whispered against her hair. “You must accept this marriage.” Roger gently disengaged her hands from his tunic and rose to his feet. “I must go. ‘Tis not safe for me to tarry.”
She ached for him to still hold her, but he was already stepping away from her.
“You take care of her.” Roger’s jaw clenched as he turned to address the silent knight. “On your honour, you take care of my Nell.”
The man clasped her uncle by the arm. Both men held the grasp for a moment before Roger nodded. He cleared his throat noisily and hesitated. The price of what he must do was writ clear across his face.
Pressure in her chest built until it threatened to shatter her heart. He couldn’t leave like this. She leapt from her bed, tumbling forward.
Strong hands steadied her, his touch burning through the thin fabric of her shift.
Helena shook him off. She couldn’t bear to look at him.
Her feet flew across the chamber. Her uncle turned and caught her to him. Helena clung, trying to take all of him in—the smell of horses and leather, the gruff burr of his voice, the scratchy wool of his tunic beneath her cheek. He had a small rent on his sleeve. Her heart squeezed into a tight ball. Roger was forever rough with his garments.
She tightened her arms. It didn’t seem possible that he would go and take it all with him. Since the day she and her sister, Bess, were orphaned, Roger had been their shelter against the world.
“I love you,” she sobbed, burying her face against his tunic.
“And I you.” His voice shook as he stirred in her embrace. “God be with you.”
He pried her arms from about his middle and stepped back.
The breeze through the casement chilled her skin and she shivered. The cold started at her feet and crept over her limbs until she could barely contain her trembling. When Roger left she would be alone, abandoned.
Helplessness clawed at her chest as her uncle strode to the casement and handed the rope to Sir Guy.
She wanted to yank it from his hands. Roger’s face seemed lined with the hurt he would not voice. Helena’s arms trembled with the need to reach for him. Tears blurred her sight as Sir Guy wound a rope around the post of her bed and then about his chest. She scrubbed her wet cheeks impatiently.
Sir Guy braced his stance and nodded to Roger. Her mind screamed in protest as her uncle glanced up at her one last time.
“All will be well,” he whispered, then slipped over the edge of the casement.
Helena ran to the casement. There. Roger’s fleeting shadow was nigh invisible against the grey stone of the keep as he dropped swiftly toward the ground. He made the bottom. The rope grew slack where it lay on the casement.
And Roger was gone.
Behind her, his breathing was hard from the effort, a harsh reminder of his unwelcome intrusion into her life.
Helena turned to glare at him. She hated his presence in her chamber. It was horribly wrong that Roger must flee, but this stranger was still here.
He paused in coiling the rope for a moment to look at her.
“You are not my husband.”
He resumed his work on the rope. The silence was unbearable. Her heart pressed against her ribs, a dull ache.
“Do you speak?” she demanded. She would never let him take her uncle’s place and she wanted him to know it.
“If I must.”
“Oh, you must.” Her laughter jangled harshly in the silence. “I will never accept you as my husband.”
He dropped the rope to the floor at his feet, his expression harsh. The air about him seemed alive with contained power. She wanted to hurl herself recklessly at his strength. Only then would she not feel so terribly lost and alone. She must fight.
“I heard you.” He folded his arms over his chest; muscle swelled beneath his light tunic.
The first stirrings of caution whispered in the back of Helena’s mind. “And?” she snapped.
“It matters not. We are wed.”
“I suppose you did it for the earldom,” she sneered, aiming to penetrate the calm surrounding him.
“Aye.” He nodded as if the answer were self-evident.
“You are truthful, at least.” She could see him clearly now. The light from the open casement fell across his face. Her husband. Her uncle had given her safekeeping, her future, into the hands of this man. The ‘Scourge of Faringdon.’The name fit, for he was a large man with broad shoulders blocking the rest of the room from view. In the scant light his face was all rough-hewn angles and hard planes. His pale eyes seemed colder than the stone at her feet. Helena shivered suddenly.
“So.” She tugged the sides of her robe closer together. “We are at an impasse.”
“Nay, my lady,” he replied with that infuriating calm. “Now we must open the gates.”
“Must we?” she taunted. Why did he not challenge her? She wanted him to demand she do his bidding so she could fling it back in his teeth.
“You do not speak much, do you?” she prodded.
He moved suddenly and Helena jumped. It was as if a tree had suddenly sprung to life.
He motioned for her to precede him. “Gates?” he reminded. His rough voice was more likely accustomed to yelling commands across a battle-strewn field, urging his men forward to murder and mayhem.
Helena raised her chin. “And why must I open the gates?”
“My men are outside.”
It was so absurd that she laughed. “I am not letting your men into my keep.” This game could be equally well played by two.
He strode toward her. She stepped back. Her foot stowed in the carpeting and she nearly lost her balance.
“My keep,” he rasped. “And my men. Open the gates.”
Her heart pounded so loudly she could barely speak. He gripped her arm firmly, but not hard enough to be painful. She tested its strength and found it secure. Her anger grew. This was not his keep. Lystanwold was hers. This mockery of a marriage changed nothing. Mutely, she held her ground.
He stepped closer until she could feel the heat from his body. “Be you willing or not, those gates are opening.”
“Do you plan to force me?”
“If I must.”
The silence stretched between them.
His steely glare seemed to bore a hole right through her head.“Lady?” he warned softly, an indication his patience wore thin.
“How do I know I can trust you?” she flung at him. “You could have deceived my uncle into trusting you and when I open the gates, your men will run havoc through my keep and her people.”
He frowned as if she had just said something so stupid, it pained him to consider it.
“You would not be the first to come here with false promises spilling from your lips.” Helena’s fingers curled into her palms. “How do I know you will not kill us all?”
“You do not,” he rumbled. “You have my word only.”
“The word of a hireling sword?”
His face held stern, unyielding. “Gates,” he insisted.
He was tall. She barely reached one powerful shoulder. It made her feel tiny by comparison. She was tiny by comparison. Her courage abruptly wilted. It made no difference what she believed or what she wanted. He could snap her in two, right this instant, before anyone in the keep was any the wiser. “If you force me, I will scream for help. My men will cut you down before you can rouse any noise.”
“They will try,” he responded, not in the least concerned by her threat.
“You are not that fearsome.” Helena tugged at his grip, but he held her firm, battering her resistance with his quiet certainty.
Her husband. Sweet Jesu.
Her breath stuck in her chest. Her mind spun in ever increasing circles. Do. Not. Panic. Think, Helena, think.
“I will not harm you,” he said. “Do not be afeared.”
“I’m not afeared.”
He raised his brow, a silent mockery of her boast.
Her shoulders slumped. She was beaten. If she didn’t open those gates, there would be blood, and on her hands.
“Open the gates,” he repeated.
“I do this under duress,” she hissed at him. She was vanquished for now, but she would fight again.
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