England/Scotland border, 1292
ady Sarra Bellecote crumpled the missive and flung it to the chapel floor. “He can go to the devil!” She swept past the aged bench and halted before the stained glass window.
The angry slap of the January wind against the crafted panes matched the fury pounding in her heart. Her home, her decision to marry was being torn from her. She closed her eyes against the rush of betrayal.
How dare her guardian issue her such an ultimatum?
She inhaled deeply, a hint of frankincense and wood filling her breath. After a moment, Sarra regained a measure of calm and opened her eyes.
The stained glass portrait of the Blessed Virgin, crafted within the blue, pearl, and gray panes, stared back at her. Calm and reassuring at a time when she didn’t know whom to trust.
her mother’s voice of long ago whispered in her mind.
Bitterness curdled in her throat. As if after all of these years God would choose this moment to offer a token of hope?
Sarra clasped her hands tight before her, but she did not pray. Her belief in God, as in most things in her life, had long since fled.
Soft footsteps sounded behind her, accompanied by the swish of vestments.
“My child.” Father Ormand’s gentle entreaty spilled through the brittle silence.
For a moment the child whose faith had once guided her responded to his entreaty. Then, like her hope over the years, any remnants of her youthful beliefs flickered and died.
“Why should I yield to my guardian’s request to marry his son or forsake my holdings and be exiled to a nunnery?”
Father Ormand cleared his throat. “Lady Sarra, your guardian knows not your feelings about—”
She whirled, aware her action bespoke poor manners toward a revered man of God, but at the moment hurt overrode decorum. “As if Lord Bretane would care?”
Thick lines sagged across the cleric’s brow as his solemn brown eyes studied her. “Your father would have wished this, my lady.”
“A marriage based on threats and conditions is not a union my father would have sanctioned.”
“Lord Bretane was your father’s best friend,” the priest said quietly, as if she did not remember. “He was a godparent to Lord Sinclair, the man you are to wed.” Father Ormand shook his head as his worried gaze searched deeply into hers. “Arranged marriages are expected. Feel blessed that your guardian, a man your father trusted enough to leave your keeping to, chooses your husband. With the wealth of your holdings, the king could have easily intervened and selected your betrothed.”
A part of her acknowledged that she should be grateful. King Edward’s matches often served his own gain. But her guardian’s writ commanding her to wed his son by Midsummer’s Eve was a directive she loathed to obey.
The past rose up in horrifying detail. For a moment, Sarra was again a child. She pressed trembling fingers against her temples as grisly images of her murdered parents flooded her mind. With their deaths her hopes and dreams had crumbled one by one. To think her last desire, to marry for love, would be lost because of a forced marriage to a Scot was unacceptable!
A shudder rippled through her as youthful images of her betrothed, a dark-haired child smashing falcon eggs, scraped through her mind. “Drostan was a contemptible lad.”
“Lord Sinclair was but a child when you knew him,” Father Ormand offered. “Boys make mischief, but boys turn into men. Ten and one years have passed since you have seen Lord Bretane’s son. ’Tis unfair to judge what we cannot see.”
Mayhap, but beneath Drostan’s title of baron lay the blackened ugliness of his ancestry.
Lawless raiders who pilfered, raped, and murdered. The border savages who had attacked and killed her parents.
And for what?
The paltry pieces of gold they carried.
Wisps of hair slipped from her braid and the sunlight pouring through the stained glass illuminated the pale strands of gold. Sarra worked the wayward locks into the tight plait, her own life as confined by convention as the tresses she fought daily to keep within their bounds.
“Come,” Father Ormand urged. “Lord Bretane’s escort is expecting your reply. We have kept them waiting overlong.”
However much she wished to send the priest to deal with the entourage of Scottish knights in the courtyard, as mistress of Rancourt Castle, ’twas her duty.
With a nod, she walked toward the exit. Determination and pride had allowed her to persevere since her parents’ tragic death. The same resolve would serve her well in her upcoming confrontation with her guardian.
She abhorred the thought of the arduous travel ahead at this miserable time of year. For her sanity, she must believe the man she remembered, who had bounced her on his knee and had offered warm smiles during her childhood, would never condemn her to a life with someone she could never love.
Angry clouds boiled overhead, spitting fat flakes of snow. Wind, sharp and brutal, tugged at Giric Armstrong, Earl of Terrick’s cloak. He remained motionless astride his destrier, positioned before his small contingent of men.
Through thick, black lashes, Giric scanned the courtyard of the English fortress. He took in the well-maintained grounds, the sturdy walls, and the skill of the knights training in the practice field as the clash of steel echoed throughout Rancourt Castle.
Envy shot through him at the quality of the swords they wielded. He smothered his discontent. The gold he would earn for this simple task would make great strides toward rebuilding Wolfhaven Castle, feeding his people, and furnishing his knights with sturdy blades of steel. With a grimace, he secured a loose strap on the side of his saddle. He was done proving himself to a dead man’s ghost.
The slamming of the door to the keep at the far end of the castle caught his attention. A gust of wind swirled up, billowing into a white cloud thick with snow blocking his view. Two cloaked figures emerged through the wintry haze. Another icy burst exposed a hint of vestments worn beneath the black cloak of the larger form.
A priest? Giric studied the smaller figure lost within the rich folds of a burgundy cloak. The hem of an ivory gown peeked from the border. Lady Sarra Bellecote? He frowned. Aye, he’d expected the lady of the castle, but accompanied by her guard. Why would she require the aid of a priest? Only one reason came to mind—she’d refused the match and had requested sanctuary from the church.
Giric dismissed the notion, confident his desperation for coin spawned such dismal thoughts. Many reasons could exist for the vicar’s accompaniment. Mayhap a devout Christian, Lady Sarra sought the blessing of her priest.
He relaxed in his saddle. ’Twould make their journey easier if his ward was a softly spoken maiden of God.
The pair closed on his entourage.
Several paces away, the woman motioned toward the priest. The vicar halted, yet the slender figure continued. A length before Giric, she stopped.
Wind tugged at the hood of her cloak as the woman slowly raised her head. Framed within porcelain skin, eyes as gray as a winter storm locked on his clan brooch, darkened as they cut to him.
Giric’s breath stumbled in his throat. Draped within the oversize cloak, most women would appear nondescript within the numerous yards of wool. This woman’s regal bearing, as well as the mix of innocence struggling against the fear in her eyes drew him.
With a muttered curse, he squashed his awareness. He was hired to escort the lass to her betrothed.
“I am Lady Sarra Bellecote, mistress of Rancourt Castle. You are in charge of these men?”
Her sultry voice flowed over him like peat-warmed air. “Aye,” Giric replied, irritated this one slip of a woman, an Englishwoman at that, evoked such a deep response.
“Until I give further instruction, you and your men are offered shelter within Rancourt Castle.” After a perfunctory glance over the rest of his party, she started toward the keep.
Dismissed! He bit back a string of oaths. With him staring at her like a green lad, ’twas nay wonder she treated him with such disregard. “My lady!”
Her pace remained steady, the whirl of snow consuming her with each step.
Never, in all of his years, had any dared to ignore him so deliberately. Giric dismounted in one controlled move. “Lady Sarra, I—”
“Sir Knight.” The priest intercepted him, then shot a concerned look toward the mistress of Rancourt Castle before facing Giric. Wind tugged at his cloak, and he drew his hood tighter. “Please, you and your men come inside the keep and warm yourselves. Lady Sarra will speak with you once you have eaten and rested.”
Giric started to correct the priest of his improper address, then remained silent.
With his lingering status as an outlaw in the Western Marches and the shame of serving as an escort to earn gold, he’d decided to conceal his title of Earl of Terrick during this task.
Now, he must play the part.
The priest frowned at the exiting woman.
Curious at the cleric’s reaction, Giric studied the fading figure through the whirls of snow. Escorting Lady Sarra to her betrothed in Scotland was to be a simple deed. Yet ’twould appear the bride was displeased by the match. “My thanks for your hospitality.”
The priest signaled toward the stable.
A lad ran from the structure and halted before Giric’s horse. “I will take your mounts.”
After one last glance toward the keep outlined in the increasing fall of white, Giric waved for his men to dismount. Warmth and food were his first priority. There would be time to speculate on Rancourt Castle’s intriguing mistress later.
Three days later, Giric sat down to supper with his men at the trencher within the great hall. He kept his hands clasped together, his head bowed, and waited until the priest finished the blessing. But the hearty fare of venison, onions, and sage did little to ease a temper that had grown shorter with each passing day.
While rich tones of a prayer echoed throughout the great hall, he covertly glanced toward the dais. Lady Sarra sat rigid in her chair and stared straight ahead. As during every other blessing before the meal, she neither bowed her head nor pressed her hands together in a show of faith.
Her indifference troubled him. If she was displeased by the match, ’twould seem she would seek answers in prayer. Yet, her lips remained still and naught about her countenance portrayed a hint of divine appeal.
If she indeed shunned the church and its beliefs, then why had she sought out the priest to accompany her during their initial meeting? Whatever her reason, it did nae excuse her poor manners. Each morning since their arrival, he’d sent her a request for an audience, all of which she’d ignored.
Though they’d yet to speak, her cool looks when he caught her glance served to aggravate his temper. He again looked toward her, damning his body’s tightening as he took in her slender frame, porcelain skin, and rich golden hair. She was a task, nay more.
His respect for the priest who dealt with the mistress of Rancourt Castle on a daily basis rose a notch. The day Giric delivered his wary charge to her betrothed in Scotland would be one to celebrate.
After making the sign of the cross, the priest ended his blessing.
The servants stepped to the tables with bread as a page sliced off portions of venison roasting over the fire.
Another lad carrying a large platter of food halted beside Giric. “Sir Knight?”
Giric nodded and the lad placed a hunk of meat upon his trencher. Then he scooped onions and carrots alongside.
Once finished, the boy stepped to his right where a large man with whisky-colored hair sat. “Sir Knight?”
Colyne MacKerran, Giric’s longtime friend and the Earl of Strathcliff, nodded.
The page filled his trencher then moved down the table.
Colyne speared the meat with his dagger, took a bite, then swallowed. “’Tis fine fare.”
How could he let Colyne join him in this mayhem? Blast it, both of them nobles, yet playing the roles of knights. The matter was his to take care of, but Colyne had insisted on coming along. “Better than gruel.”
Colyne lifted a brow, then laughed. “Aye, ’tis at that. Though with your surly temper, you would be deserving such.”
With a grunt, Giric carved another bite.
Colyne reached for his goblet. “If asked, I would say your foul mood began with the arrival of Lady—”
“I did nae ask.”
Humor flickered in his friend’s eyes. “You did nae, but it has been overlong since I have witnessed a woman who has sparked more than a brief glance from you.”
“My interest is in the coin this task will provide, naught more.” He had enough to do in rebuilding Wolfhaven Castle. He didna need a wayward heiress to keep reined in as well.
“She has a fine figure.”
Giric stabbed his dagger into the tender venison. “And the warmth of ice.”
“I have known you to melt a few maidens’ hearts in your days,” Colyne said with lazy enjoyment.
“Even if the lady in question appealed to me, which she does nae, she is betrothed.”
A glint of mischief sparked in his friend’s eyes. “Betrothed, aye, but she could be wooed for a wee kiss.”
“You are a blasted pain in the arse.” His appetite gone, Giric shoved away the trencher. “I have nae figured out why I brought you along.”
With a hearty laugh and his dimples giving a fine show, Colyne raised his cup in a toast. “Why, to keep you out of trouble,
At his friend’s emphasis on his title, Giric’s irritation fell away. Indeed, ’twas best to remember the humility of his position until he’d delivered Lady Sarra to her betrothed.