Authors: Heather Graham,Shannon Drake
Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Fiction
The worst part was feeling the noose around her neck, grating harshly against the tenderness of her throat, itching and bruising.
“Hang her,” a furious voice called out, and the chant was quickly picked up by those who wanted a show.
“Hold your peace!” the local magistrate cried out. He was silent as the crowd toned down again, and in that silence Ondine asked miserably, “What are they waiting for now?”
“Marriage offers. Tis custom. If a lad will step up and marry ye, girl, ye’ll be set free.”
Ondine stared about her at the crowd. There was not a man in sight who would not gag her if he touched her. And yet her heart had quickened, for in these seconds she knew how deeply she cherished life.
“Stop!” a voice in the crowd roared. It was deep and sure, accustomed to authority and brooking no opposition. The man it belonged to stepped forward. He was obviously of the aristocracy, but his face was … hard. Something about his eyes was chilling. “Release her so I may marry her.”
“What?” the magistrate shrieked, his fleshy cheeks puffing out. “But, my lord! The girl is nothing but a thief. A pretty piece, I’ll warrant, but—”
“Sir, the law reads that she goes free if a man takes her for his bride. I am a man. Now get that rope off her neck.”
“[A writer of] engrossing, sexy historical romance!” —
“Shannon Drake knows how to tell a story that captures the imagination.” —
“A writer of incredible talent!” —
Affaire de Coeur
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Copyright © 1997 by Heather Graham Pozzessere. Reprinted by arrangement with Charter Books.
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First Printing: February, 1997
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The Palace of Westchester
June 1678 The Reign of Charles II
A shimmering sun cast furious rays of heat and light upon men and horses alike. There was no fog, no hint of rain, nothing to cool the dead heat of the afternoon. As Warwick Chatham sat upon his restless horse he silently cursed the heat. He was not fond of pageantry or games, but this joust had been ordered by the king, and being honest with himself, Warwick had to admit that he was exceedingly grateful for the chance to do battle against Lord Hardgrave, viscount of Bedford Place. Hostilities had been rising between the two of them since they had been children. Both families had proclaimed for the old king, Charles I, but the Chathams had fought against Cromwell while the Hardgraves had allowed their loyalties to sway with the winds of fate. Then, of course, there had always been this dispute over border lands.
“Easy, Dragon, easy,” Warwick murmured to his mount, a massive chestnut stallion, bred for strength and speed from champion lines of the fleetest Arabians. Dragon was far more accustomed to the action of actual battle than to the niceties of the lists. So was Warwick. On his northern border lands he had grown up waging war against marauding Scots to secure his inheritance, fighting battles of life and death, not participating in pretty shows.
Warwick glanced to the stands. In the center box sat the king and his queen, Catherine. For all that Charles was a flagrant lecher, he was a gentleman, ever kind to the queen he so dishonored. At the moment Charles’s dark head was bent toward Catherine; he was giving her his full attention and holding up the joust for her to speak.
Row upon row of benches were filled. The closer seats to the jousts held the nobility in perfect rank and file, and beyond them were the lesser lords and ladies. The commoners did not have seats; yet they were out for this holiday with their “Merry Monarch.” They loved Charles, and they loved the pageantry. Banners were flying high in support for a favorite knight, and screams and cheers were rising high in abundance. Looking at the stands, Warwick smiled with faint amusement; the ladies—and the men— seemed to form one colorful rainbow. Silks and satins and velvets—and, even in the terrible heat, furs!—were in abundance. There was a holiday spirit and a holiday mood. After the jousts, there would be feasting; many of the poor would find their bellies filled this night.
Ah, but let’s have with it! Warwick thought. Dragon, lathered with sweat, began to prance in small anxious steps.
“Steady, steady,” Warwick murmured, but he was as anxious as the horse. Dragon was dressed in all his trappings. His blanket bore the gleaming blue-and-gold insignia of the ancient lords of Chatham; his insignia was the “forest” beast, a mythical creature created as a cross between a lion and a dragon. Warwick’s shield bore the same crest, and he was garbed in the same colors as the horse. His hose, beneath the steel of his armor, was a gold weave. His shirt and breeches were royal blue. And it was so damned hot that sweat was running miserably beneath his clothing. He thought with some humor that both he and Lord Hardgrave would rust if they did not move soon.
It was then that Charles raised a royal hand, and the trumpets came to life. The master of the joust rose to read out the dispute between the Earl of North Lambria and the Viscount of Bedford Place. They were commanded to come before the king.
Warwick had difficulty keeping Dragon down to a dignified pace as they observed etiquette in slowly approaching the Royal Box. Warwick and Hardgrave dismounted and knelt before Charles, muttering out, “For God and our sovereign, Charles!”
They were asked if they agreed that the joust would settle the dispute; they were warned that the joust was not to the death. Warwick glanced up to see Charles’s dark mischievous eyes upon him.
He grimaced and shrugged, then snapped his visor into place.
There would be only one more piece of pageantry before the joust began. Warwick mounted Dragon and pranced his way down the stands until he came to a certain lady. She was very blond and very lovely—delicate and pale as she sat in the lists. He smiled at her encouragingly. She stood, and his heart went out to her. She drew her scarf from about her hair and throat and stretched it out to him. Warwick nodded to her, smiled again, and gave Dragon free rein to race back to his position. The crowd roared loud with approval, for it was right and beautiful for a knight to wear his lady’s colors.
Jake—Warwick’s squire when the occasion warranted, his valet and coachman when it did not—came running to him with his shielded lance. “God is your right, my lord!” Jake called encouragingly.
“Let’s hope God does not require a large quota of blood for a pretty play,” Warwick returned. They grimaced and then parted.
Before the king’s box the master of the joust stood at the ready, banner bearing the Stuart crest raised high. There was a flash of color as the banner fell.
Dragon bolted, flying into the fray like a trained and ready warrior. Warwick felt the great strength of the animal beneath him, and that strength gave him a sense of flight. His lance was held straight and still as he raced along the lists. Beneath the horse the earth churned. The world—the cheering spectators, the colors, the vibrancy—was blurred. Cries on the air melded with the soaring wind as Hardgrave and Warwick came closer and closer.
Warwick saw only his foe. One more second …
The sound of his lance striking Hardgrave’s shield seemed deafening. Warwick’s arm, from the wrist to the shoulder, stung as if a thousand bees were on it. He was wrenched and tottering, but experience, strength of will, and the power of his thighs kept him horsed. His eyes were blurred with pain and the salt of his sweat, and it was not until he had run out the distance that he heard the roar of the crowd and knew that he had unhorsed Hardgrave.
Warwick pulled Dragon about, and the great charger reared and spun. Warwick dropped his broken lance, and Jake rushed up to hand him his sword. He raced along the length of the lists once more until he reached Hardgrave, who was now standing, his sword raised high in his hand. Warwick dismounted with a leap, a few feet from his enemy.
Warwick could see by his foe’s curiously blue, yet nearly colorless, eyes that Hardgrave was furious. That fury might well be his undoing, Warwick realized quickly. Hardgrave lunged for him immediately, and Warwick ducked the blow. Their swords met in a tremendous clash. Both sought a weakness that neither could find.
Their swords met again, and they came face-to-face as they struggled to untangle. “One day I will kill you, Chatham,” Hardgrave promised savagely.
“Will you?” Warwick queried. “I’ve seen little to fear yet!”
They broke. Hardgrave attacked too quickly, and Warwick found his advantage. Ducking the blow, he brought his sword upward against Hardgrave’s and sent it flying far out into the dirt. When Hardgrave tried to chase it, Warwick caught his enemy’s ankle with his foot. Hardgrave went sprawling to the ground, and Warwick quickly seized that additional advantage by bringing his sword point to his foe’s throat.
He saw Hardgrave’s eyes, filled with venom. But the king was standing, calling bravo, and complimenting them both.
Warwick pulled his sword from its threatening point at Hardgrave’s throat.
Hardgrave stood. Both men were tense as they clasped hands, then approached the king, kneeling down before him. “Well done, well done!” Charles claimed. “Lord Chatham, the disputed land is yours. Lord Hardgrave, you have promised to abide by the decision. I’ll see you both at the banquet.”
Warwick bowed. When he rose, he whistled for Dragon. He mounted his horse, turned, and allowed the stallion to race across the field.
He should have sought his tent to assess his wounds; instead, by whim, he rode until he reached the forest trails. The forest offered coolness and a certain peace.
He came to a brook where he paused. Sliding from his saddle, he tore his visor and helmet from his head and drank thirstily from the water. When he’d had his fill, he sighed and sank back on his haunches, tearing away his heavy armor. Stripped of it at last, he just sat, grateful for the cool feel of the earth and grass.
Nightingales were beginning to sing, the breeze was soft, and the trees rustled gently. Here was peace—so rare, even in moments. Here was bliss. He lay back, welcoming the forest. The sunlight played over his closed eyes and then faded. Dusk was coming, a time of twilight shadows that eased his mind. No worry, just peace. And in that peace he dozed.
Something interrupted his oblivion. He started and sat up, puzzled. There’d been a rustling across the brook. He frowned, narrowing his eyes against the coming darkness that cast everything into shadow. Was he dreaming?
Then he heard the woman’s voice, hushed by the heat of her fury. “No! No! Never—murderer!”
A man’s voice followed, low and threatening and filled with taunting laughter. “Ah, but you will, my heiress. Your father is dead now. My father will be your guardian—legally, in complete charge of the estates and of you. My father, who shields you now, yet can produce proof that you conspired with your father!”
“Forgeries, lies!” she choked out.
“But brought before a court of law, quite damning! You’ve two choices. One is my … protection. The other is a headsman’s ax.”
“You go to hell! I despise you!”
There was a silence then. Warwick, stunned, shook himself and stood, striding out into the water to cross the brook. He would demand to know what was going on. But before he could cross the stream, the woman screamed out a furious oath.
A second later there was a thunderous crash of brush and trees. Something flew out of the trees like a cannon shot.
It was the woman.
He could not see her face, only her form, a silhouette against the twilight. She saw him and started, standing as still as he. She was young, he thought quickly. The twilight touched her hair as it spilled about her in wild and beautiful disarray. It was shadowed with the night, yet it shimmered a rich burnished chestnut, or perhaps gold. There was little else that he could see, except that she was slim and tall and that her breasts were high and firm and heaving with her fury and exertion. He reached out a hand to her as she stood there oh the bank, but she gasped out a startled sound and ran, diving into the water.
“Wait, dammit, wench—I’ll help you!” he roared out, racing toward the point where she had disappeared. But she had vanished beneath the surface of the cool brook. Warwick dove after her, again and again. Frustrated and incredulous, he kept trying until he was panting and exhausted. The poor fool girl! It appeared that she had cast her life into the water.
Warwick came to the opposite shore and searched, but could find no one. At last, puzzled, he swam back to the opposite shore, collected his armor, and whistled for Dragon.
As he rode back he could not forget the girl. Or had it been a dream? When he neared the tents once again, Jake came running out to him. Warwick was about to tell Jake what he had seen, but Jake was brimming with news himself.
“Ah, my lord! You missed it. There was an attempt on the king’s life! What excitement!”
“Excitement?” Warwick queried darkly, frowning.
“His Majesty was not harmed! It was all settled quite quickly. I barely saw a bit of it myself. Seems an old lord who sat in the Parliament against His Majesty’s father was determined to end the life of the son. But he was suspect ere it could happen and slain himself. His Majesty seemed only sad at the death; he insisted that the feasting for the people go on.”
Warwick could not dismiss the thought of an attack upon Charles’s life so easily. Charles Stuart was a decent man, wise and keenly intelligent despite his humor and his open marital indiscretions. He was a good friend.
“What were you about to say, my lord?” Jake asked.
“What? Oh, nothing, nothing really.” The incident in the forest now seemed hazy, definitely an illusion. “Nothing but a dream. I saw a mermaid, perhaps.”
Jake stared at him with a worried frown. “Were ye hit in the head, milord?”
“No, no, Jake—never mind.” He was anxious to assure himself that Charles was all right. And, of course, Genevieve would be worried if he didn’t hurry to meet her.
“Come on, Jake. I’ve a few wounds to tend to before I see my sovereign—and my lady wife.”
Warwick limped slightly as he later entered the solar that adjoined the bedchamber assigned to him by Reemes, King Charles’s master steward at Westchester Palace. As he at last reached the carved chair before the fire, he grimaced, then sighed with ease as he sat, taking the weight off his twisted ankle.
If Hardgrave only knew how he sat now! Sore buttocks, wrenched shoulders—and the ankle. He had barely managed to limp unescorted to the solar!
But the day was at last at an end. Genevieve had tired quickly at the banquet and had returned before him. He had gladly stayed behind at Charles’s command, for he had seen that Charles was truly well. But he was sad, for Charles had no love of bloodshed.
Warwick tensed suddenly. Beyond the crackle of the fire, he had heard a rustle of sound. He made no move, but muscles that had sought relaxation tensed. When the furtive rustling sounded again, he spun about. His arms moving out with the speed of a shot, his long fingers became a shackle around the wrist of his secretive visitor.
“Warwick!” a feminine voice protested indignantly, and he was staring into the very beautiful but very petulant face of Lady Anne Fenton. He released her wrist instantly with a frown of annoyance, settling back into his chair.
“Anne,” he muttered dryly, “whatever are you doing here? Have you given up your quest for the king?”
Anne pouted prettily, batting jet-black lashes at him as she knelt by his booted feet. She leaned against the chair—not without a practiced and alluring expertise—so that her rounded cream bosom met the pressure of the wood. She looked very appealing indeed. “Warwick!” she reproached him, and then her voice became soft, sensually husky. “You know you have always been my first love!”