Authors: Her Norman Conqueror
To Steve, for always knowing that it would happen and for doing dishes, changing diapers and eating take out along the way.
And to Cindy, Justine and Kay: bow will I ever do it again without you?
“A touching warmhearted read from cover to cover. This one has it all.”
“Cyne.” It was a breathless sound, nothing like how she had meant to say it. Her fingers moved of their own accord, skimming his side.
He put his hands over hers, laughing, and she realized she had tickled him. She laughed herself, only it wasn’t a happy sound. To her mind it sounded as if someone was torturing her.
And he was.
Trailing his finger behind her ear and down her jaw, he leaned toward her, kissing her cheek lightly, his full lips warm against her skin. She trembled, her hands reaching up to curl around his forearms.
Truly, Aleene could not believe her luck in finding Cyne in her forest. He was the key to everything she wanted, and yet she yearned for more. A more she didn’t understand.
Another feather-light kiss teased the corner of her mouth. Holding tightly to Cyne’s arms, she moaned, relaxing toward her husband. She wanted to surrender to him, have him comfort her, take care of her.
The next kiss came down on her lips . . . A deep kiss.
“Save me, Cyne,” she said.
hall we have the prisoner killed, milady?”
Aleene kept her back turned toward her steward. “No.” She fingered the heavy tapestry that hung on the wall of her chamber.
“Surely you don’t wish him tortured.”
“Of a sort, Cuthebert.” She brushed the pads of her fingertips against the silk threads, knowing she shouldn’t handle the beautiful piece so. “I shall marry him.”
“Marry?” Her steward’s voice cracked in the middle of the word. “But, milady, Aethregard and the king . . .”
“Will not succeed in their quest to control me.” She turned slowly, keeping her shoulders squared, her spine straight. “Bring the priest and collect the prisoner, Cuthebert. We must do this before Aethregard returns.” Her steward swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing in his throat. She waited a full second, then blinked once. Her gaze, she knew, was icy.
“Milady, he is but a lowly poacher. A simpleton at that!” Cuthebert’s face had turned a mottled red.
“Cuthebert,” she said, “I have not asked you to expound on my decision. Bring the prisoner and the priest.”
Her steward shook his head. “You cannot, milady! Your betrothal has been accepted by the king. And Aethregard will expect . . .”
Aleene cut off his words with a slice of her hand. “Now!” She did not yell, but Cuthebert stopped in midsentence, his eyes bulging.
“You shall incur the wrath of powerful men, milady,” he said, anger straining his voice. He turned on his heel and left.
Aleene waited until she could no longer hear Cuthebert’s retreating footsteps before she allowed herself to let the air out of her lungs. Clenching her fists, she stilled the tremor that radiated down her arms. There was always that split second before her servants obeyed her when Aleene was sure that they wouldn’t. And what would she do then?
She went to the massive chair that had been her father’s and sank into it. She hated the doubt that ate at her tenuous self-esteem. She hated it so she hid it from all. Now, alone, Aleene dropped her head into her hands, as the shaking she thought she had mastered overtook her. Her entire body trembled as if she had just come from a sound dunking in
the icy waves that splashed against the cliffs below. She did not allow tears, though. Never tears. Others would never know she had succumbed to her fears for a few still moments just so long as she didn’t cry.
Her thoughts turned to the dirt-encrusted prisoner she had seen being led from the forest that morning, and she felt her stomach heave. She must do this! It was her only hope. She had hired professional soldiers, house-carls, which usually only earls had, she had bought ships and readied her coveted castle for attack. All this to show King Harold that she needed no man, yet still he wanted to wed her to Aethregard. Still he felt the jewel that sat at the mouth of Pevensey Harbor would be better controlled by a man.
When the knock at her door sounded, she had once again found control. She stood facing the massive doors of what had once been her father’s bedchamber and bid Cuthebert enter.
He did, looking twenty years older than he had when he left. The priest followed him, clutching his book of prayers like a lifeline. Behind this sorry troupe came the prisoner, shackled and dirty. The entire room suddenly reeked of manure. Aleene did not allow herself even to wrinkle her brow.
She turned to the priest. “You may proceed, quickly.”
He stared at her, misgivings written clearly in his lamblike eyes. Aleene put every ounce of disdain she could in the look she settled upon him. He did not speak his discontent.
He motioned for Cuthebert to bring the prisoner forward. The man shuffled in deference to the chains about his feet. Or, perhaps, that was how he walked normally. Aleene could not have known. She had seen him only once before, when her men had brought him from her forests where he had been caught poaching. He had been trussed up and ready for the dungeon then as well. He looked at her now as he had then, blankly. He blinked once, then twice. He scratched himself and stared.
Aleene turned toward the priest and nodded.
The priest opened his prayer book quickly, his fingers clumsily going through the pages.
“Dispense with the trivialities, Father Bartholomew, get this thing done quickly,” Aleene ordered in her haughtiest voice.
The priest nodded, his eyes darting from her to the book in his hands. He gulped loudly and began to read. Aleene watched as fat beads of perspiration emerged from the edge of the priest’s tonsure and slid down his pale, rounded cheeks. His girth jiggled beneath the coarse robes he wore, as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
Aleene stood erect, not allowing herself to blink.
Cuthebert breathed heavily behind her.
The prisoner stood a sword’s length away from her, staring blankly out the window. She would lie with him this night, and through every night that stood between now and Aethregard’s return. The thought of allowing another to touch her brought terror, but she pushed it aside. She would not allow her stepbrother to annul this marriage, and so she had to be with child, soon. Aleene controlled the shudder that stirred at the base of her spine.
“Milady?” Father Bartholomew looked at her, his brows raised in hopeful question.
Aleene berated herself for letting her thoughts wander. She tried to think of what the priest might have asked, then understood suddenly. “I will,” she said.
The priest’s brows dropped in a crestfallen expression. He continued.
Aleene clenched her hands in the fabric of her gown, only then realizing that she wore
one of her oldest kirtles, and it covered an equally old tunic. Her mind reached back to memories of her early childhood. She had dreamed often of her wedding. She would wear silk and jewels. She would sing and be merry. Her husband would be tall and strong.
An almost unbearable sweep of longing crushed through her defenses. She might have even let out a small gasp. The priest looked up quickly, but Aleene saved herself. She immediately stiffened, and stared down her nose at the short, fat man.
He averted his eyes, and continued.
Aleene stole a glance at the flesh and blood husband beside her. Even with his shoulders hunched forward he was tall, taller than her, which made him taller than most men. His straggly, long hair, so matted with dirt and who knew what else she could not tell what color it was, hid most of his face. His blank stare turned to her then, and she studied him in return.
His eyes were blue. They might have actually been a startling feature had any intelligence glowed there.
Aleene looked away, the longing for her childhood dreams of happiness that had crushed her before now threatened to bring her low, but she stood straighter and gritted her teeth together. There was no avoiding what she must do.
The priest moved suddenly, and Aleene realized it was over. She had married the half-wit poacher. Cuthebert’s breathing had escalated to an alarming rate. She feared he might succumb to a faint. As she turned, she had a hysterical need to laugh. Life really was quite hilarious in a sick kind of way.