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“What union is he referring to, my lord?” she asked Damon again.

“This matter does not concern you, woman,” said Longchamp arrogantly with a cautious look to Damon.

“I think it does,” she countered, giving him a frown. “You spoke of a union for the Lady Solange.”

“So?”

Damon was up and out of his seat already, but he couldn’t reach her in time. Even Godwin was attempting to catch her attention. She spared them both a wary look, then faced Longchamp with her hands on her hips.

“I am the Lady Solange. Tell me your news.”

Chapter Ten

Y
ou are the Lady Solange?” Longchamp dropped the royal parchment to the stone floor.

All hell erupted in the hall. Everyone was talking at once, some shouting to be heard, while Longchamp had risen to his feet, staring at Solange with an open mouth.

Damon and Godwin reached her at the same time, both of them taking her arms and trying to get her to leave before the noise died down and Longchamp could question her further.

“What is happening?” Solange tried to shake them off.

“A little time, my lady,” Godwin pleaded.

“Go back to your chambers, Solange, and I will come up and talk to you when this is settled.” Damon was practically dragging her away.

“No, you will talk to me now, my lord! Or I will talk to the emissary myself!” With a quick twist she wrenched free of them both and whirled around, headed back to the center of the room.

“My lady! My lady!” Longchamp’s voice could now
be heard above the roar. The men calmed almost immediately, all wanting to hear what would happen next.

Godwin looked at Damon and shrugged. Damon walked to stand beside Solange, his look flinty.

“Do you mean to tell me,” Longchamp was saying incredulously, “that
you
are the Lady Solange, Countess of Redmond?”

“I am.”

“Daughter of Henry, late Marquess of Ironstag?”

“That is correct.” Impatience tinged her voice.

Longchamp shook his head. “This is beyond anything. Lockewood, do you comprehend the sin you have committed? You’ve taken another man’s wife! Openly! Shamelessly!”

“It wouldn’t be the first time,” said someone from Damon’s side, and muffled laughter wound its way around the room. Longchamp turned beet red.

“I am no one’s wife,” Solange called out. “I am a widow, visiting an old friend on the way to my father’s estate.”

Damon sighed, partly with relief. It was all over now, he supposed. He took Solange by the hand. “My lady will agree to the terms of Edward’s decree, as will I. There is no need for force.”

“What terms?” she demanded.

The countess did not look pleased with the turn of events, Longchamp noticed. Perhaps she was not enamored of Lockewood after all. If he were lucky, she would resist the marriage, and he would have the pleasure of her company all the way back to London. It would be small pittance against what Lockewood had put him through, but better than nothing.

She was quite lovely. And if she was willing to share her body with the Wolf, then why not with him too? After all, Longchamp thought, he possessed a certain masculine charm that pleased the ladies, or so he had been told. Yes, it could be quite a diverting trip.…

Damon looked down at his future bride and decided to answer her question. “Marriage,” he said succinctly. “King Edward has decreed that you and I shall be wed. Would you care for some breakfast?”

“What!”

“My cook sets a very fine table. You must be famished. Your last meal was lunch yesterday. Allow me, my lady?” Without giving her a chance to respond, he pulled her to his table, bending his head low to whisper in her ear. “Don’t fight me now, Solange. Just let me get this man out of here and I will tell you everything.”

“Marriage,” she repeated aloud. “Marriage to you?”

“Breakfast for the countess,” Damon instructed a nearby serving girl. “Yes, to me. May I suggest a special tea to accompany your meal? I blended it myself.”

“My lady, have you any children?” inquired the emissary hopefully.

“No. No, I don’t. Would someone please explain to me what is going on?”

Godwin was there, reassuring. “Our astute and good king has decided my lord would make you a fine husband, my lady. He has sent his man to tell us so himself.”

Damon handed her a mug of steaming tea. “Take a sip,” he encouraged.

She put the mug down. “But this makes no sense. Why would the king bother with me?”

Longchamp gathered the parchment and his cape
together. If he couldn’t have the woman, then the least he could do was to see to it that Lockewood would have to fulfill his sentence as soon as possible. “I think it far past the time you were wed, Marquess. We wouldn’t want anyone to cast aspersions on the countess’s honor, would we?”

“Anyone who did that would be a dead man as soon as I discovered it,” Damon said silkily. “But I am in full agreement with you for once, Longchamp. Fetch the priest, by all means.”

“The priest?” Solange echoed faintly.

Damon held the mug up to her lips. She stared down into the steamy contents and saw the reflection of a frightened sixteen-year-old girl, a girl who had been sold off into marriage in a manner much like what was happening to her now. But that girl had been an innocent, nothing more than a pawn between two pitiless men.

That was nine years ago. The woman today pushed the mug away from her face. “I will not be coerced like this.”

“Then I shall be forced to take you to London with me, my lady, to meet with King Edward himself. And he will be
most
unhappy to see you, I am certain.” Longchamp stomped back to the table with the mutton on it and slapped the meat back over his eye.

“He cannot make me go with him?” She made it a question to Damon.

“Aye, he can. Edward granted him that power. I believe you heard that part of the reading.” He placed the tea in front of her and covered her hands with his own.

This couldn’t be happening to her again. She wasn’t
ready for this. Never in her most fanciful dreams had she imagined that Damon would take her to bride. Even after last night she had not expected it. Things were unfolding here too fast. Damon had no real idea of what he would be getting with her. She needed time to consider what would be best.

“I shall go to Ironstag. I shall seek protection there.”

Longchamp let out a laugh. “Ironstag is no haven for you, my lady.”

“What does that mean?” She frowned at the emissary.

“Ironstag is not yours, Lady Solange,” he said condescendingly. “It now belongs to the Marquess of Lockewood, who would not be so imprudent as to allow you to go there against the wishes of our king.”

“Dammit,” said Damon.

Solange turned a bemused face to him. He dreaded having to explain the loss of her ancestral home to her. She was so tenderhearted, it was bound to wound her. He cursed Longchamp inwardly again for blurting out the news. “Your father didn’t want the earl to inherit. He entailed Ironstag over to me instead.”

She was shocked, it was plain to see. “I had no hand in this, I swear,” he continued defensively. “Your father gave no indication that these were his plans.”

“Redmond cannot have it?” She appeared confused.

“He would not have had it were he alive,” Damon clarified.

Incredibly, he saw the faintest smile inch across her face.

Longchamp stood up again. “My lord, if you please! I need an answer for His Majesty now! Will you or will you not wed this woman?”

Damon leaned down to her. “They won’t allow you to leave. If you try, they will follow you and then take you to Edward anyway. You will have to explain to him why you fled Du Clar.” He ignored the stab of guilt he felt when he saw the fear in her eyes. “This is for the best, Solange. Trust me, it is not wise to cross the king. He has no patience for such things.”

He gave her such a warm and tender look that she recalled her dream suddenly, vividly, the anguish she had felt when he rejected her, the desolation of being alone again.

Here was the man in the flesh, willing to sacrifice himself for her, to save both of them from the inexplicable whim of a sovereign she didn’t know. To spend the rest of her days with him, every night beside him, building a future together—it was too good to be true.

If St. Peter had descended from heaven’s gate and asked her the one thing she wanted most in her heart, ever, she could not ask for more than what she was being offered right now.

Damon raised her hand to his lips. He deliberately used the words she had asked him in France, but it seemed like years ago now.

“Wilt thou have me?”

It was a command from the king.

But it was a request from her love, and she knew that. Of course she would give in. She was not virtuous enough to let him go a second time.

“Yes,” she said quietly. “I will marry thee, Damon Wolf.”

“Excellent!” Godwin clapped his hands on both of their shoulders, then approached Longchamp. “Did
you know, my lord, there is a monastery not more than a few hours’ ride hence, and I am positive they will have a priest to spare us …” He led Longchamp and a core of his men away to the courtyard, while the rest settled down to break their fast in the hall. A regular din ensued, the sounds of men rehashing what they had just witnessed for the retelling again and again. It was the next chapter in the legend.

“How is the tea?” Damon asked Solange. “I remember how you enjoyed your tea at Ironstag.”

“It is delicious. I haven’t had tea for a long time.”

And there it was, the first of the many questions that popped into his mind when they referred to the past. Why not? he wanted to ask. What stopped you? Who stopped you?

But he was loath to erase the half-smile she wore, sipping delicately from the mug. A single lock of hair was slipping from the silver comb. Without thought he captured it and put it back, adjusting the comb in the heavy tresses. She held motionless for him, as if it were the most natural thing for him to perform this personal service to her.

After breakfast she agreed to adjourn to her chamber to wait for the priest to arrive. Damon explained he had a few details of the castle to catch up with, and wouldn’t she like a warm bath, a chance to rest an hour or two?

She said she would, and left gracefully enough. He sent a group of maids after her with instructions to provide her with a tub of hot water and whatever else she needed. And then he sent a guard to watch her door.

Just in case.

The maids reported the countess was relaxing in her bath and that she had requested to bathe in privacy so that she could align her will with God’s in order to be married in peace and absolution.

Damon sent another guard up.

The priest arrived at midday with the rest of the party. He was a quiet young man who nevertheless took immediate charge of the planning. Damon pointed him in the direction of the castle chapel and was told to be ready within the hour, as both the priest and Longchamp’s party were eager to ride.

He went up to his room and knocked on the connecting door.

“Yes?”

“They’re ready for us,” he said.

“Oh. I will be out soon.”

He tried to analyze what he heard in her voice. Was that trepidation? Nervousness? Acceptance? He was driving himself mad, jumping on clues that didn’t exist. Behind the door he heard faint footfalls, the rustle of cloth, and then humming. She was humming! That had to be a good sign, the buoyant little tune that reached him.

He didn’t know what to wear. He had never used a valet, and most of his clothing was either serviceable or court wear. He had no idea where the trunk with the court wear would be. He hadn’t been to London in over a year. In the end he kept what he already had on, but combed his hair back into a small queue, tied with a leather thong. He wondered if she was ready yet. Probably not.

He knocked anyway. “Almost done,” she said. “Don’t come in.”

This was extremely trying. He paced his room aimlessly, examined his collection of herbs, studied the view from the window he had memorized from the first night he had spent here. It wasn’t that long ago. It had taken him six years to make it back here, and another three to rebuild the castle, retill the soil, restock the sheep, and repopulate the village. It had been an uphill struggle from the beginning, even with Edward’s public blessings.

Ironically enough, getting rid of the encroaching lords on his lands had been the easiest part of all. None of the lords had wanted to infringe on the Wolf of Lockewood’s rights, none of them wanted to risk the mythic wrath it was said he carried with him. When news of his arrival at Wolfhaven sped over to them, he had received apologies aplenty, gifts of grain and gold, and all of his lands back in his control within a sennight.

It was what he had set out to do. But that young man who boldly charged to London had never anticipated the tests ahead of him. It was a blessing. He might have never gone forward had he known what lay ahead. Or maybe he would have. He didn’t know. It was over now anyway. The price had been exorbitant, but the prize …

Behind him the door between the chambers opened. Solange was framed in the archway, standing still as a portrait as she greeted him shyly.

BOOK: Shana Abe
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