Authors: Anna Markland
Rhodri took great pride the next morning in showing off his fortress. As the tour progressed he regaled Rhoni with details of her mother’s long captivity many years before—though he referred to it as her ‘
. Ronan sensed his admiration for Countess Mabelle de Montbryce and noted how moved Rhoni was by his reminiscences.
She was a woman whose face betrayed her feelings. She seemed guileless, like Mary, but was more outgoing than his wife. He supposed it was because she was a Norman raised in a household of people who deemed themselves superior to everyone else. Yet there was no arrogance in Rhoni, and from Rhodri’s tales of Mabelle de Montbryce, she was not an arrogant woman either. His curiosity about Ram de Montbryce grew.
It was a daunting prospect, reaching out to a Norman Earl for help, particularly given his gruesome appearance. But he had no choice.
He followed in Rhodri’s wake as the prince escorted Rhoni to her place at the midday meal. Ronan was invited to sit next to her on the dais. Grateful for the opportunity and the honour, he nodded his acknowledgement to his host as he took his seat.
Rhoni smiled at him shyly and as usual that was all it took for his body to react. During the tour of the fortress, most people seeing him for the first time had gawked at his eye patch and noted his limp. Rhoni seemed oblivious to those defects. Despite his effort to remain serious, the corners of his mouth edged up in response. “You have a beautiful smile, Lady Rhoni,” he whispered.
Now he sounded like a lovesick swain. He did not want her to think he was wooing her, because he wasn’t, he must not. He had to make it plain he needed her family’s help, but there would be no future for him until his vengeance was complete.
Rhoni blushed, intensifying the ache in Ronan’s loins. “So do you,” she murmured. “You should smile more often.”
She had not spoken with any sarcasm, but her innocent remark brought home to him sharply how quickly his life had changed. Perhaps as a foil to his father’s morose demeanour, Ronan had always enjoyed laughter. He had hoped to fill the lives of his wife and children with it.
He took a deep breath and dug his nails into the palms of his clenched fists. Rhodri had been momentarily distracted by his twin sons. Ronan seized the opportunity. “I met your mother only briefly at Llansanfraid. She is an impressive woman and from what Lord Rhodri has shared with you, you have been fortunate in your mother. I barely remember mine.”
She looked up from her trencher, her eyes full of sympathy. He could drown in those brown depths, smother himself in her beautiful breasts.
“I am lucky to have loving parents and brothers. Robert and Baudoin are both fine men, and my father is a great man, a famous hero.”
“So I gather. Though Rhodri is his enemy, he has only good things to say about your father.”
She glanced up at him sharply. “What is your interest in my father, Lord Ronan?”
This young woman was not as naive as he assumed. “You must know, Lady Rhoni. I am in need of a strong ally. I hope your father might be that man.”
Rhoni’s heart fell into her boots. The only thing Ronan saw in her was her father’s power, a power he needed to regain his lands and exact his vengeance on those who had wronged him. She could not look at him. The juicy roasted chicken suddenly tasted like parchment. Would words come if she spoke?
“I would not presume to speak for my father, Lord Ronan. He is a powerful warrior. I am a woman with no knowledge of war or alliances, and no influence in such matters.”
To her consternation, Ronan put his hand on hers. Heat surged through her belly. The food stuck in her throat and she feared she might retch. Perspiration trickled down her spine. She wanted to flee, but decorum dictated she stay at Rhodri’s head table.
Heat emanated from Ronan’s thigh inches from her own. The inexplicable urge to peel off his patch and kiss his blighted eye possessed her again. Rhodri had returned to his seat, but she had no idea what he had said to her on his return, though he had seen Ronan’s hand on hers.
Coherent thoughts refused to form. She looked into the unfathomable black of Ronan’s good eye and for a moment thought it was a cat that held her in his all-seeing gaze. “I—”
Ronan leaned close. “My dear lady Rhoni, I do not seek to take advantage of you. I crave only a chance to approach your father with my petition for his aid.”
Rhoni teetered on the edge of a precipice more terrible than any she had seen this morning from the ramparts of Cadair Berwyn. What to believe of this man who held her heart in his hands? She had been a mere girl at the time of their meeting scant days before. Now she felt like a woman with an incredible weight on her shoulders. It was frightening how protected she had been from the realities of the world in which she lived, a world she had blithely breezed through until now.
Her world had changed the moment she had laid eyes on Ronan in the waterlogged coracle and known in her heart the seal had saved him. She had a choice. If she spurned Ronan and refused to allow him to accompany her to Ellesmere, Rhodri would ensure his compliance.
But what would become of him then, an Irishman cut adrift in Wales, forever an exile. She would never see him again. The prospect was unbearable. He felt nothing for her, yet she would be content to have him near.
She might convince her father of the rightness of his cause. He had been severely wronged and Ram de Montbryce believed strongly in the rule of law and order. He would not think highly of the Norman accomplices to the crimes taking place in Ireland.
She took a deep breath. “I will allow you to accompany me to Ellesmere Castle, Lord Ronan, but you should harbour no illusions about my father’s willingness to help you.”
Ronan brushed his lips across the back of her hand. How she wanted him to kiss her mouth and other unmentionable parts of her body instead.
“I thank you, Lady Rhoni. You have thrown me a lifeline in this sea of despair.”
If she did not leave the table she would give in to the urge to throw her arms around his neck. Cravings she had never experienced before thrummed through her body and dampness slicked the apex of her thighs. She stood abruptly. Ronan and Rhodri both came to their feet. Ronan touched her elbow. Did he feel her tremble?
“I am suddenly tired after our tour this morning. Lord Rhodri, please excuse me.”
Ronan increased his grip on her elbow. “I will accompany you to your chamber.”
, that is not necessary.”
She pulled her arm away and hastened out of the hall.
Ronan inhaled deeply as he regained his seat. The scent of Rhoni’s arousal lingered, mingling with her usual intriguing perfume, wreaking havoc on his senses.
Rhodri clasped a hand on his shoulder. “Take care, Lord Ronan. You may be playing with fire. You do not want to make an enemy of the Earl of Ellesmere.”
Ronan rubbed his chin. “She has agreed that I may accompany her to England.”
“So I heard. Again, I warn you to be careful. It is obvious there is a strong alchemy between you and Rhoni de Montbryce.”
Ronan bristled. “I assure you my motives are solely political. There is no room in my life for another wife. I have nothing to offer, and regaining my lands is my priority. It would be unreasonable to expect a relationship between me and Rhoni.”
Rhodri chuckled. “My friend, the heart can have its own reasons that have nothing to do with reason itself.”
Ronan folded his arms across his chest. “Lord Rhodri, I would remind you my wife was only recently murdered. My first loyalty is to her and my unborn child. My heart died with Mary.”
Rhodri chewed his chicken silently for a few minutes. He wiped his mouth, then his eating dagger with a napkin. “I understand the need for retribution. It has ruled my existence. But a man needs love in his life too, lest he drown in bitterness. Seek your vengeance, but don’t destroy yourself and Rhoni in the process.”
Ronan pointed to his blighted eye. “Look at me. Why would a beautiful woman like Rhoni be interested in a man like me? She can have any man she wants. She no doubt has many suitors.”
Rhodri shook his head vigorously. “I have known Rhoni only a short while, but she is no practised flirt. I sense she is as confused about her emotions as you are. I am also a great believer in destiny, my friend. Celtic blood flows in your veins. You know there is no escape from destiny.”
Ronan came to his feet. “My destiny is to win back my lands and exact my vengeance on Lorcan and Fothud MacFintain. If the Earl of Ellesmere is not the man to help me I will search for another means of achieving my goal. Forgive me, I have need of air.”
Rhodri waited until he reached the door, then called to him. “I will advise Rhoni to be ready to leave for Ellesmere in a sennight.”
Fothud MacFintain drained the last swig of
from his tumbler, seething with resentment that his brother had sailed off to England to meet with their Norman confederate, leaving him behind.
Lorcan had insisted it was his fault Ronan MacLachlainn had escaped, but how was that possible? They had both been too drunk to stay awake, but Lorcan seemed to think it his younger brother’s responsibility since he had passed out first.
That was the trouble with Lorcan—forever lording it over Fothud because he was a scant year older.
Bring me ale, Fothud.
Fetch me a wench, Fothud
No you can’t have that one, Fothud. I want her.
Anyone would think Lorcan was the bloody High King of All Ireland the way he carried on.
Fothud banged his empty tumbler on the table until a serving wench appeared, fear oozing out of her. He snickered. At least someone respected him. “More whiskey,” he belched.
She scurried off to do his bidding, returning with a jug. She poured whiskey into his tumbler with trembling hands. The chamber was spinning, but Fothud was convinced this was the girl Lorcan had taken to his bed on the eve of his departure.
Fothud chuckled as his arousal swelled. Lorcan probably thought this wench was his property to do with as he pleased.
Well brother, you’re not here. Gone off to hobnob with the Norman gentry.
He pinched the girl’s bottom hard, startling her. She dropped the jug, spilling the contents over Fothud’s feet. She stood like a statue, seemingly rooted to the spot, her eyes fixed on the wet boots.
Fothud stepped out of the puddle and grabbed her by the hair, yanking her head back so she had no choice but to look at him. “Sooner see blood spilled. You’ll have to be punished for that, my girl. But before we away to my chamber, let me see you lick the
off my boots.”
Lorcan did not like or trust the Earl of Chester. The arrogant man put him in mind of a big, fat wolf. He waited nervously in the Earl’s antechamber, aware the Norman would be angry he had come, and angrier still when he learned of MacLachlainn’s escape.
He worried about his brother back in Ireland. Mayhap leaving Fothud in charge was not a good idea. There may only be a year between them, but Fothud was such a child. No use fretting on that now, he had his own challenge to deal with.
The doors banged open, rousing the snake coiled in Lorcan’s belly. The Earl waddled in, accompanied by a small bearded man, clad in the robes of a scribe.
“Why are you here, Irishman? I warned you specifically not to come to this castle. We deal only through intermediaries. Have you brought coin, at least?”
The scribe translated.
Lorcan bowed low and offered a purse to the scribe, aware it would be deemed inadequate. “Forgive me, my lord. I had to come.”
The scribe counted the coin. Chester sneered when he learned the amount. “I trust this enormous sum did not weigh you down too heavily as you crossed the Irish Sea?”
Lorcan dug his finger into the collar of his doublet and cleared his throat, uncertain as to whether he should laugh at the Earl’s jest. “There have been problems at Túr MacLachlainn, or Túr MacFintain as we call it now.”
The Earl strode to within an inch of Lorcan’s nose. His breath reeked of onions. Lorcan had hated onions since childhood.
“I am not interested in problems. I have provided you with enough mercenaries to solve problems.”
Lorcan struggled to ignore the snake that now slithered up his spine. “’Tis true, my lord, you have been generous, but your men demanded more money for a search.”
He screwed up his courage and switched to Norman French, hoping he would recall correctly the exact words the mercenary commander had used. “They claimed it was not in the purview of their role.”
Chester frowned, squinting at him. “Search?”
Lorcan swallowed hard, wondering what the consequences would be if he retched on the Earl’s velvet slippers. “The Baron MacLachlainn escaped.”
Chester arched his brows. “Escaped from what?”
Lorcan must have explained how they had tortured and blinded the lord of Túr MacLachlainn, then returned to finish him off only to discover he had escaped, but his wits had turned to mush and suddenly there was naught but silence while the Earl considered what he had apparently said.
“Fools,” the Earl mumbled.
Lorcan remained silent, studying the floor, understanding, though the scribe had not translated.
“And the search failed to track a scourged and half blind man? What became of him?”
Lorcan cringed at the quiet menace in the Norman’s voice. An uncontrollable tic worried his left eye. “We presume he drowned. No other explanation, my lord.”
Chester rubbed his chin with his thumb and forefinger. “You had better hope so, MacFintain. Dispossessed and tortured men tend to hold grudges. They seek revenge. I cannot be implicated in any way in this bungled seizure. My men will be withdrawn immediately, if I get wind that MacLachlainn lives. I advised you of the strategic importance of that Tower. It is incumbent upon you to secure it, then we can both profit from its fertile fields.”
He waddled out, the scribe following in his wake like a baby duckling after its mother. Lorcan wiped his sleeve across his brow and breathed a sigh of relief he had said nothing about the death of MacLachlainn’s wife, nor the missing son of the dead steward. At least he hoped he had not.