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Authors: Marsha Canham

In the Shadow of Midnight

BOOK: In the Shadow of Midnight
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“WOULD YOU
LIKE
ME TO FIND YOU DESIRABLE?” HE INQUIRED SOFTLY.

An odd, giddy rush of hot blood flooded Ariel’s limbs as she found herself staring up into eyes as dark and turbulent as the sky overhead, at a mouth that offered no compromise.

“I … want nothing from you, sirrah,” she stammered.

“Nothing?”

Ariel was stunned by the contact, stunned by the bold intimation of his hands and body. She tried to turn her head, to wrest it out of his grip, but he held firm. He crowded her even closer to the battlements, his torso an immense, overpowering wall of muscle and brawn.

His head bent toward her and she flinched back, but there was no escape. His mouth, surprisingly warm and supple, brushed over hers, taunting her with the promise of further outrage to come. She gasped again, intending to rail at him for his audacity, but before a word or breath could be uttered, her lips were no longer being merely brushed, no longer being taunted. They were being crushed, devoured, plundered by a mouth that was suddenly as ruthless and arrogant as the man himself….

High praise for
Marsha Canham,
winner of the
Romantic Times
Lifetime Achievement Award,
and her best-selling novel
Under the Desert Moon

“Under the Desert Moon
is such an exciting piece of work…. The talented Ms. Canham has created a fast-paced, action-packed story that kept me hanging on every word. The characters and subplots left me hoping that she will continue the saga in another novel. Great work, Marsha!”

—Affaire de Coeur

“Extraordinary!
… With the vivid prose, vibrant descriptions, a delightful cast of characters, fast-paced action and a strong story (to say nothing of the wonderful romance), readers will be spellbound. Ms. Canham demonstrates the rare ability to breathe life into characters and situations in every historical era and setting. Yippee!”

—Romantic Times

“Under the Desert Moon
has all the excitement and adventure of an old Western. In addition, it brings a heroine reminiscent of the time—women fearlessly facing the future, leaving home and family to pursue their dreams…. You’ll love this fast-moving book. It will hook you from the first sentence and hold you until the last.”

—Rendezvous

“Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, the characters shed their masks and become more entwined than ever before. This has everything a good Western should: adventure, murder, mystery and love. What an unbeatable combination!”

—Heartland Critiques

Through a Dark Mist, and
winner of the
Romantic Times
Reviewers Choice Award
for Best Historical Romance of 1992

“Ms. Canham has set quill to bow and struck directly into the heart of every swashbuckling adventure lover’s soul…. The action doesn’t stop until the final paragraph with no questions left unanswered. Gadzooks! I love a good romp!”

—Heartland Critiques

“A medieval novel with rare authority, weaving a rich tapestry of atmosphere, action, and romance. This book is a wonderfully satisfying love story that I would recommend to anyone.”

—Anita Mills

“Swashbuckling adventure. Sweeping pageantry. Lusty passions. Clever dialogue. A thoroughly engrossing love story.”

—Nan Ryan

“Infectious characters, witty dialogue, thrill-a-minute intrigue and intense conflicts of the heart—Marsha Canham gives you all this and more. If you like romance; if you like adventure; if you like first-rate fiction, you’ll love
Through A Dark Mist.”

—Elaine Coffman

“A legend is brilliantly brought to life on the pages of
Through a Dark Mist
… unfolds with all the adventure, rollicking good humor, wildly exciting escapades, cliffhangers, and, most of all, smoldering sensuality any reader could desire. Once you begin this mesmerizing tale there is no way you will put it down until the very last page and then you can only wish for more.”

—Romantic Times

“Well-written, passionate adventure … you’ll love
Through a Dark Mist!”

—Affaire de Coeur

Dell Books by Marsha Canham

Swept Away
Pale Moon Rider
The Blood of Roses
The Pride of Lions
Across a Moonlit Sea
In the Shadow of Midnight
Straight for the Heart
Through a Dark Mist
Under the Desert Moon
The Last Arrow

This too, and always, is for The Chief.
It was one wager I did not want to win.

Prologue

Le Citadel, Rouen, April 1203

H
e had deliberately cut the pad of his thumb open on a sharp edge of stone, then pushed tiny bits of gravel into the bleeding wound so that the slightest pressure would send sharp pains up his arm, commanding his full attention. He was exhausted, ill, weary beyond words, but he could not afford to let his concentration slip. He could not appear weak or intimidated in his uncle’s presence. He could not allow the accumulated filth, stench, and despair of these past nine months of imprisonment show him to be unworthy of the noble Angevin blood that flowed through his veins.

He was Arthur, Duke of Brittany, Geoffrey’s son and heir, and by right of blood succession, heir to the throne of England upon Richard the Lionheart’s death.

It was said that all Angevin spawn were descendants from the witch Melusine—a sorceress who had escaped the fiery waters of the river Styx and come back to earth half-woman, half-serpent.

From the devil they came and to the devil they would return.

Yet they had been handsome men—Henry of Anjou, his sons Richard and Geoffrey. They looked the way kings were supposed to look: tall and powerfully built, as blond and bright as gold, with blazing blue eyes. Only John, the runt of the devil’s brood, was set apart from the others. Stout and bullish, darker than Satan, with a sly, vulpine face, he made up in greed and ambition what he lacked in stature and appearance.

After years of living in the shadow of his warrior brother, the great Lionheart, John, as the last surviving son of Henry II, had placed the crown of England on his own head at Westminster. He had already ruled as regent for almost a decade while his brother was off leading armies and fighting Crusades, and those who supported John’s continued, corrupt rule turned a blind eye to the fact that there existed another claimant, a Plantagenet prince who was as blond and blue-eyed and regal
of bearing as the revered Pendragon king for whom he had been named.

Unfortunately, Arthur had been a mere boy of fourteen when Richard fell to an archer’s arrow at Chalus. He was no match in terms of military strength or cunning for his uncle, Prince John. Moreover, Arthur had spent his entire life in Brittany. He had never set foot on English soil and the barons of England, even those who feared John’s excesses, were more wary of the influence the French king, Philip II, had had on the young and impressionable Arthur. Even William the Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, who loathed John with the same passion as he had loved Henry and Richard, decided it was better to deal with the devil they knew than with a boy who boldly displayed the fleur-de-lys on his coat of arms.

As expected, the domains of Brittany, Anjou, Maine, and Touraine had risen in support of Arthur. Normandy’s barons, those who had the strongest ties with England, supported the wisdom of William the Marshal. The Aquitaine, the rich and vast province that had come under England’s rule with the marriage of Henry and Eleanor, was still and ever loyal to the dowager queen, who, though seventy-eight years of age when she had cradled the golden head of her dying Lionheart, had also known that in order to avoid a bloody civil war, she must support her son over her beloved grandson.

Rejected and betrayed, Arthur had fled to Paris to live under Philip’s protection. At fifteen he had been knighted by the French monarch and wed to the dauphine, Marie. At sixteen, with the might of his father-in-law’s army behind him, Arthur had marched on Normandy, declaring his intention to reinstate himself as a claimant to the throne of England. Foolishly advised, his first point of attack had been the dowager’s castle at Mirebeau. Eleanor, by then a bent, frail figure who walked the ramparts with the aid of a cane, collected her defenders around her and held the castle until John arrived to relieve the siege. Arthur, who had advanced on Mirebeau with less than a third of his forces, was surprised by his uncle’s swift and deadly response. Surrounded and vastly outnumbered, he had no choice but to surrender. He had been taken prisoner
and held at Falaise; more recently moved to Rouen to await John’s decision as to what to do with this bold and handsome young prince who reminded him all too painfully of the two great kings who had gone before him.

“Two years ago,” John said evenly, “when you realized the barons of England and Normandy would never support your feeble claim, you whimpered to me on bended knee, as I recall, and pledged homage …
swearing
your allegiance and loyalty in exchange for my not stripping you of your rights as Duke of Brittany.”

Arthur squeezed his thumb and forefinger together. In the tomblike silence of his donjon cell, he could hear the soft
pat pat pat
of blood dripping from the end of his thumb, but his face remained expressionless.

“For that I do thank you, Uncle,” he said calmly. “Without those rights, I should not have been able to add to my army in Brittany.”

“Army? You call that handful of ill-trained rabble you had capering about you … an army? Your own captain of the guard, M’sieur
des Roches”
—he spat the name with the contempt it deserved—“deserted at the first sight of armoured men along the Seine.”

Several more drips were added to the crimson stain at Arthur’s heels as his fair complexion turned ruddy. The air was dank and chilled, the stench of mold on the walls was ripened by the stench that came from the overflowed slops bucket in the corner. The cell was small, lit by a single smoky candle. It boasted the comforts of one scarred table and one x-chair— which his uncle now occupied—and a lumpy pile of months-old rushes that served as Arthur’s bed. He had not seen the sun or filled his lungs with clean air for better than three months.

“I could have you killed,” John said matter-of-factly, picking at a weal on his chin. “As a vassal rebelling against your king, your life is legally forfeit in the eyes of any court or country. I could have you killed and not a brow in the kingdom would be raised in approbation. Moreover, you attacked your own grandmother. My mother. The beloved dowager queen of England. You laid siege to an old, frail, defenseless woman—
dried teat that she may be—and by doing so, earned the scorn and condemnation of every knight in Christendom.” He chuckled and flicked away the bit of pustule he had collected under his nail. “I could have you executed and not even be challenged to justify the deed.”

“Then order it and be done, Uncle, for I weary of these games.”

“Games?” John launched himself out of the chair—something he had been reluctant to do since the boy was a full head and neck taller. “You call it a game to decide your fate?”

“Uncle—” The title was used disdainfully, accompanied by a hard glint of shrewdness in the crystalline blue eyes. “You decided my fate the instant Richard drew his last breath. You decided it before the barons took their puppet vote, and long before my mother bartered a few sweaty hours in your bed for the
privilege
of permitting me to pledge homage.”

“I showed you mercy,” John seethed.

“You showed me arrogance, greed, and blind ambition. You showed me a man so twisted with corruption and jealousy he could barely wait until his brother’s blood had cooled before he was racing to count the coins in the royal treasury. You showed me a man with a soft sword who would pay homage to a French king instead of recognizing him as an enemy and driving him from the land with force, as your father did before you, and his father before him. Softsword … is that not what your loyal subjects call you now?”

“Traitor
… is that not what your subjects would call you for making your bed under Philip’s roof?”

“There is a difference,
Uncle
, between cultivating an ally to pacify him, and constantly testing an enemy to invite him to destroy you.”

The king swayed slightly under a rush of hot anger. He bunched his fist and swung out sharply, catching Arthur’s cheek and tearing the flesh on the edge of one of his gold rings. The duke staggered back a step, but did not fall. He straightened immediately, his eyes burning brightly, his jaw clenched so stiffly the blood oozed from the fresh cut and ran in a jagged streak down his neck.

“Six months ago, when I threatened to have you blinded, I should not have allowed myself to be swayed by compassion. I should have had the irons heated then and there and your eyes seared from the sockets, ridding me once and for all of your insolence. You begged me then, boy. You begged me in the name of pity to withhold the irons.”

“You will not enjoy the pleasure again, Uncle,” Arthur said through the grate of his teeth. “Take my eyes. Take my hands and my limbs. Take anything you wish piece by piece and see how quickly the tide of condemnation would turn. Kill me, aye, and you remove an enemy from power. Torture me, blind me, cripple me, and every knight in the realm would see you for the yellow cur you are.”

“You plead an increasingly good argument for death, boy.”

“By killing me, you announce to the world that you were afraid of a sixteen-year-old stripling. If my death would make such a coward out of you, then I welcome it.”

John’s hands were trembling with the fury that coursed through him. He turned and paced the length and width of the small chamber, his rage pounding in his temples, his vision blurring under sharp jolts of pain.

If he had hoped the deprivations of the past few months would humble his nephew, he had been mistaken. If anything, the boy had found new strength in his spine where there had been sinews lacking. Even worse, all of Brittany, Touraine, Poitou, and Normandy were demanding clemency for the brave, but misguided young princeling. Philip was using Arthur’s continued imprisonment as an excuse to push his army deeper into English territory. The barons were outraged at their king’s inability to drive Philip back into France, yet not so enraged that they would send another man or spare another denier to fight the French plague. John’s ancestors were Norman and had conquered the English Isles, yet here he stood, on the verge of losing all of the Norman domains to a poxy French king who had been a mere vassal himself a decade ago.

Arthur. Arthur was the root of all his troubles. Arthur had tested the loyalty of the English barons, and had incited rebels into calling for a civil war, not once, but
twice!
If he was allowed
to go free, the arrogant young upstart would only join forces with Philip and unite the armies of France with those of Brittany, crushing Normandy between them. Even if he kept the boy in prison the rest of his life, there would always be the threat of some malcontent breaking him free and stirring up trouble all over again. Blinding him had been an inspired notion. Whether his claim was viewed as legitimate or not, the people would never rally behind a blind king. Unfortunately, however, the moment of inspiration had passed and maiming the fool now would earn only the disgust of his nobles.

What he needed was for the boy to humble himself in front of a vast audience of witnesses. He needed the
boy
to earn the scorn and derision of his peers, to subject himself to such public humiliation that no sane man in the kingdom would look to him again as a leader or a king.

Straightening himself, forcing his anger back under control, John walked to the cell door and yanked it open. He nodded once, brusquely, to someone waiting outside and a soft bloom of yellow light came forward, the splutter of a torch preceding the low whisper of velvet skirts dragging over the rough floor.

Arthur closed his eyes. He knew who it was without looking. He knew simply by the glow that radiated long after the torch was withdrawn, by the scent of sunlight and rosewater that not even the effect of grinding his thumb could overpower.

“Arthur? Dear God … Arthur …?”

The warmth of pure sunlight came closer and Arthur averted his face. It was a cruelty beyond belief to bring such beauty into such squalor. It was the cruelest offense of all that she should have to see him like this.

“Arthur …” Cool, gentle fingers brushed his jaw and forced him to turn back, forced him to face a torment almost greater than he could bear. He braced himself and looked down into clear blue eyes that were a mirror reflection of his own. The face itself bore a startling resemblance, with the same fine, straight nose, the same noble cheekbones and generously shaped mouth. In his sister, however, the fair complexion
only added to her ethereal beauty; the spun gold hair became a cascade of luminous, rippling silk.

Eleanor was eighteen months older than Arthur, but equally as foolhardy, for she had insisted upon riding by her brother’s side when he had marched through Brittany. She had also insisted upon remaining with him even though she had known surrender and captivity would be her only reward for loyalty.

“Dearest brother,” she whispered and rose on tiptoes, pressing the clean, smooth surface of her cheek against his.

“Do you not mean ridiculous, foolish, asinine brother?” John said, pacing in front of the door. “Tell him. Tell him, by God, and we can end this matter once and for all.”

Eleanor retreated haltingly, sinking back onto the soles of her feet, leaving only her hand cradled to her brother’s cheek. The threat of tears was in her eyes as she noted the open sores on his skin—rat bites that had gone untreated and were festering. He was thin. So very thin. His eyes were sunken deep into their sockets, smeared with dark purple circles beneath. His hair hung in lank, greasy strings and his clothes were in tatters, crusted in filth, stained with blood and vomit. Whether by jest or torment, those clothes still included the azure blue tunic he had worn so proudly and defiantly at Mirebeau. The device of lion, griffon, and unicorn was boldly emblazoned on his chest, though all three creatures were sadly tarnished.

BOOK: In the Shadow of Midnight
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