Authors: Traci E. Hall
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Western
“My lady!” Forrester shouted before grabbing her by the waist and lifting her up.
And out of the way, as her betrothed vomited all over her family’s hall.
Nicholas Le Blanc felt the pounding of his head in rhythm with the stabbing pain of his heartbeat. His chest thudded with an irregular tempo, and he wondered, briefly, if he were dying just when he’d made the decision to live.
And to kill the bastard who had sent him on crusade, betraying King Richard and Saint James for coin. He gritted his teeth, which sent a slicing jolt up his jaw.
The pain meant that he was alive.
Gnawing fire in his gut made him wary of how long he might continue to draw breath. By all the saints, he’d not give in until he ripped Baron Peregrine’s innards to shreds with a dull blade.
The unexpected touch of a cool hand against his forehead startled him into stillness. Feminine. Soft. He had no illusions that those hands could be equally cruel and dangerous.
His time as a prisoner in the Saracen desert, kept for a ransom that never came, and then kept … his mind shied away from memories more awful than he could stand. Baron Peregrine would pay dearly.
Fingers trailed down his jawline, prying his mouth open. A lukewarm liquid slid down his abused esophagus, soothing and slick. It didn’t make him want to puke, which was the most important thing.
Nicholas used his considerable willpower to separate lids that felt as if they’d been sewn shut. Two girls wearing wimples and five chins, five chins? He blinked, bringing the girls, no, one girl, into focus.
A heart-shaped face stared down at him, pink lips pouting together without a hint of a smile. Brows so fair it was no wonder she didn’t follow the custom of shaving them. They arched over eyes that tipped up at their oval ends. Odd eyes. One green, one blue, framed by golden lashes. This was not a girl, but a woman.
“Are you a witch?” he croaked, not caring one way or the other. “Save me,” he ordered.
The question, or demand, brought an annoyed frown. “No. And I am not in the habit of letting my patients die.”
Nicholas felt drawn to her warm voice, despite the bite in her tone.
“For you, however, I might make an exception.” She pointed her chin in the air, challenging him to ask why.
“We have never met before, I am certain of it. You have the advantage over me.” His voice sounded hoarse, yet he attempted a smile. It felt like a grimace. At least the fire in his stomach no longer burned as hot.
She held his gaze, but her expressions changed so fast that Nicholas wasn’t sure what she was thinking. He saw curiosity and disappointment—but not a hint of fear.
With women, one had to tread carefully and read their eyes, rather than listen to the words that fell from their soft, lying lips.
Attempting to sit up, Nicholas’s stomach protested with a sharp stab. “What did you give me?”
“Honey, lemon balm, and peppermint. Have you had this stomach ailment long?”
Nicholas crossed his arms over his gut. “It is nothing. A few chills.”
She stared down at him. “And fever. How long?”
He leaned back, closing his eyes. How long had he been ill? How long had he been poisoned? How long had Leah, deadly Leah, been feeding him the opium he’d grown addicted to? “Do not bother me.” Suddenly he was so tired he couldn’t move, yet there could be no rest until the Reaper’s debt was paid. Before he slid into sleep he instructed, “And don’t kill me, either.”
She sniffed. “Oh, I promise, you’ll live. For my brothers’ sake, if naught else.”
Her brothers? At sleep’s door, he heard another voice coming from the opposite side of the room. It was older, huskier. Laced with amusement.
“Celestia, are you badgering your patient?”
Celestia. An angel, not a witch.
“No, Gram. Are you worried I might kill him and be done with it?”
Nicholas should have been worried. Leah had tried to kill him, although she hadn’t succeeded, treacherous woman. But for some reason, mayhap the laughter he detected in the angel’s voice, he was not afraid that she would harm him on purpose.
Her bare hand dropped to his naked shoulder. Warmth, like a banked fire, spread throughout his body, almost reaching his frozen heart before he dismissed the feeling. He was a warrior, damn it all. A knight on a mission to murder his liege.
Nicholas deliberately brought out the painful memory of dark-haired Leah. The betrayal he’d known when she’d whispered that no ransom would be coming. Why would the man who had paid for the attack on the caravan carrying the sacred relic of Saint James
to have the only witness returned to England? Besides, she’d whispered seductively, her husband grew suspicious of her interest in his prisoner.
He’d begged for his freedom. In his semi-sleep, Nicholas squirmed with shame. He’d lost his pride after a few months of captivity. Pride did not feed him, or clean
him or give him opium. Pride was a cold bedmate.
Leah was not. “Shh.”
Roused fully by the whisper in his ear, Nicholas sat straight up, his heart drumming so loudly he was surprised his chest didn’t explode.
“You were having a nightmare,” the angel-witch said softly, her breath sweet. She smelled of oranges and cinnamon. “Now you are awake.”
The spiciness spiked his racing adrenaline, and Nicholas spun around, panicked like a wild thing. Stone walls, flickering candles, and oil lamps. Not a cell? He was in a dungeon. He jumped off the table he’d been lying on, searching frantically for a weapon. Any weapon. “Where am I?” His voice hardly shook as he lunged to the left and snuffed a tapered candle, fisting the solid candlestick like a dagger. “I’ll not be held captive.”
The pale young woman looked ethereal in the dimly lit underground. She should have been afraid of him, so why were her lips twitching?
That was her name.
“You are in my infirmary. At Montehue Manor? You came here with friends.”
“I have no friends,” he said, denying even Abbot Crispin. He was alone, which was the only way he could survive.
A brief glimpse of sympathy passed over her face before she reached for the linen cloth wadded up on the table where he’d lain. He didn’t like that look, but if he could use her pity to escape, he would.
She held out the cloth. “You have no clothes,” she
said, cheeks bright.
The realization that he’d been standing before her, naked, caused him discomfort. His manhood, something he hadn’t given any thought to since his escape, chose that moment to stir and lengthen.
Just another one of life’s betrayals.
Grabbing the cloth, he quickly wrapped it around his hips. “Thank you,” he managed in a tight voice. “Where are my clothes?”
She tilted her chin. “Burned.”
“They were filthy.”
He bristled. “They could have been washed.”
This time, both fists went on her hips. “I am a healer, not a laundress. Your rosary is there, by the table. Where is your pack? Mayhap you will have another robe inside.”
Nicholas pushed a thumb against his temple, feeling the return of a headache. Dreams and nightmares collided together. What was real, and what was not? “My pack? I don’t even know how
got to be
She clapped her hands together so that it looked like she was praying for patience. “You were sick. You came from Crispin Monastery. For certes, you don’t remember?”
He watched as she struggled for words. Intrigued, he noted when she gave up the idea of telling him the truth and chose to placate him.
“My talent for healing is well known around here. You were so ill they brought you to me. You will be safe.”
He lowered the raised candlestick, setting it back on the table. “I have never heard of you.”
“You have been away. On crusade?”
Choking back a bitter laugh, he snarled, “You make it sound like a pleasure voyage. It was no pleasure.” Without questioning why he wanted to ruffle her smooth feathers, he said, “I was captured and all of my men were murdered.”
Her eyes widened.
“I was tortured. Here.” He pointed to the ragged scar on his side, and the rope burns on his wrists. Then he touched the puckered scar at the base of his throat, a constant reminder of how close Leah had gotten to killing him.
Instead of weakening, the stubborn wench let her hands fall to her sides. “I assumed as much. I saw the lash marks across your back. You did not give in easily, I imagine. You are indeed a hero.”
The remembered sting of the lash made him wince, but he straightened his shoulders. He was far from heroic, and her empathy was catching him off guard. “I need to leave.”
“Aye.” He bit his tongue before he told her why. She had to be a witch, for he felt compelled to tell her things he would rather keep hidden. Suspicion laced his voice as he asked, “Where are the ‘friends’ you said I came with?”
He’d escaped the barren desert alone, trusting no other. It made no sense that he’d join a group.
Turning slightly, calculating a way to escape, Nicholas recognized the worn wooden cross dangling off the table’s edge. A flitting memory of a soothing voice and the light fragrance of warm apples gave him chills, and Nicholas rubbed his neck.
In the naïve rush of excitement to be a good knight for God and the baron, he’d forgotten the rosary at the monastery. It was the one thing he had left of a mother he couldn’t remember. It comforted Nicholas to warm the smooth wood beads between his fingers, and wonder if his mother had done the same during her prayers. He’d missed it most during during his captivity–mayhap it could have given him the courage he’d needed to be strong.
Unease weighted his shoulders as dark memories filtered through the murkiness in his head. “
“I’ll get them,” she said softly, and Nicholas wondered how she stayed so calm in the face of his madness. She walked toward a stone staircase, tiny bells singing from her shoes, and pulled on a dangling rope. A sound blasted, then a door opened and a husky voice called down, “Yes, ‘Tia?”
“Gram, Sir Nicholas is awake. And,” she cleared her throat, “he needs a tunic or robe, if you please.”
Turning back to him, she splayed her hands, palms up. “Although I do not think you are well enough to leave the manor just yet.”
Light footsteps clattered down the stairs, and a woman with bright red hair shot through with silver leaned over the wooden rail until her green eyes landed on him. Nicholas shivered beneath the gaze.
“How do you feel, sir? Surely, you are not ready for travel.”
He drew himself up to his full height, ignoring the line of perspiration cooling his back. “I appreciate your kindness,” he said pointedly. “But I am my own man.”
“Well, that may be,” the red-haired grandmother said with a chuckle. “But for certes, ye’ve the look of—”
His breath caught in his chest with a painful squeeze. “Who? I am a bastard born.”
“Being born out of wedlock doesn’t stop you from being the very image of your father.” Celestia smiled gently.
Nicholas eyed the candlestick. Mayhap it was not he who was crazy. He was on the verge of demanding answers, but the noise of several pairs of boots clomping on the wooden ceiling above kept him silent. The door crashed open.
“Sir Nicholas! Ye’re awake?” A blond giant of a man took the stairs at a fast clip until he stood at attention before him.
Nicholas held on to a vague memory teasing the edges of his mind. He tensed, remembering. “Sir Petyr?” The knowledge came back to him with the all of the ease of a raging sandstorm.
Fevered and ill, he’d crawled like a dog back to the monastery where he’d grown up. A bastard. Dead mother, no father, just God and the abbot. And then, later, his liege lord. Nicholas ground his back teeth together in impotent anger.
Nightmares had twisted with feverish ravings, and Nicholas told the abbot, in great semi-lucid detail, that Baron Peregrine would die by his hand. Abbot Crispin suggested that Nicholas pray for divine insight, but all he wanted was vengeance for the loyal men who’d followed him into a trap.
“The abbot hired you,” Nicholas said while taking Petyr’s measure; the steady eyes, the well-fitted blue tunic with gold edging. “To escort me to Spain.”
Petyr nodded once, his expression closed.
“In hopes that the saint would forgive me for losing the sacred relic to the enemy.”
Yes, it was coming back in bits and pieces. The concerned abbot, afraid for Nicholas’s soul, begging him to pray the stain of his sins away. Aye, he thought with regret, he must have, in his delirium, told his mentor everything. But surely Abbot Crispin would keep his secrets?
Tightening the cloth around his hips, Nicholas considered his new plan, and decided it was more to his liking. God had abandoned him for failing to protect the relic, and what better way to regain favor than to go after earthly justice? He would beg forgiveness once he delivered Baron Peregrine’s head to Saint James. A relic for a relic—it would be fair.