Authors: Mary Wine
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Copyright Â© 2015 by Mary Wine
Cover and internal design Â© 2015 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover art by Gene Mollica
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The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.
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Also by Mary Wine
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The Trouble with Highlanders
How to Handle a Highlander
The Highlander's Bride Trouble
A Lady Can Never Be Too Curious
A Captain and a Corset
London, July 1189
Ramon de Segrave ignored his growling belly. The dawn was just beginning to break, the horizon turning pink as fingers of light stretched across the land, chasing off the shadow of darkness. The mosaic glass window in the front of the sanctuary began to glow with the light stretching across the pews and himself, driving away the chill of night.
A firm hand landed on Ramon's shoulder, gripping it with increasing strength until Ramon abandoned his focus and looked up.
“You've done your duty, my friend. Let us go tend to the more mundane chores of life. Such as breaking our fast.”
Because he was still on his knees, Ramon turned his head and ducked his chin to offer deference to his king. Richard the Lionheart chuckled and slapped him on the back.
“Come, Ramon, enough piety for one night,” the king insisted. “You and I are the only ones still here.”
There was a note of disappointment in Richard's voice, but Ramon was more interested in the flicker of approval in his king's eyes. It was hard enough to come by, which left no room for Ramon to pity those who didn't earn it. Richard was not a man easily impressedâit was a quality Ramon admired about his king.
Ramon stood, his knees protesting with shooting pains because he'd been on them all night. It was a small discomfort compared with the surge of achievement moving through him.
Ramon looked at the window again. “It is just now dawn, Sire.”
“And you are ever a man to be just, even when those who wish to share the same honor I bestow upon you do only the minimum required of them.” The king nodded, dark circles ringing his eyes belying the fact that he had also spent the night in the sanctuary. The cross he wore over his robe was something the king held sacred. Richard had earned the right to wear it, just as any other knight under his command, by performing the required nights of devotion on his knees and lending his sword arm to the Crusade.
The king grinned as they walked through the doorway and left their duty completed behind them.
“So, my new baron, now that you have taken your noble title with humility, what is next?”
Ramon lifted one eyebrow in response. “One night of prayer is hardly something I would call humility. I did not expect you to bestow such an honor upon me, Sire.”
“Which is why I did it.” Richard made a slashing motion with his hand. “You have earned the honor. I wish half the men who serve me understood as well as you what nobility truly means. They plead with me for honors and station, yet cry their excuses when it is time to follow me into battle.”
“Aye, Sireâ¦honor is earned.”
“That it is, my friend.”
Richard spoke loudly, his voice echoing off the stone that made up the hallways. Servants lowered themselves the moment they heard the king coming, most dropping their gazes in reverence. For this was the king. The man so often talked about but rarely seen inside his own realm. Ramon kept pace with his king, accustomed to the bold way Richard continued talking to him, without a care for who might be listening. Such was the nature of the king. He often led charges himself and was known for walking among his soldiers to hear what they had to say when they felt at ease. He was a man who craved being immersed in life.
And craved controlling it.
Richard clapped his hands, the sound echoing between the walls. “It is time to discuss what I need of you.”
Ramon held back a frown. They entered the main hall and several servants dropped their plates in surprise. The king strode determinedly toward the dais that held his table and chair while his personal servants hurried to attend him. There was always a crowd of men waiting for the king to notice them. The king's scribe followed them on silent steps with his assistants holding rolled parchments.
Ramon waited until they seated the king. It wasn't an easy task, controlling the urge to ask the question that was gnawing at him. The king glanced at his scribe, but summoned Ramon forward instead. Ramon took the seat next to the king.
“There is no question of what I am going to be doing, Sire. I shall accompany you on the Crusade.”
Richard was back in England only long enough to call up a new army, which he planned to march on Jerusalem.
“This Crusade is necessary to wipe my past sins away, but I must strip every resource out of this country to outfit my army.”
Servants began to place the first meal of the day in front of them. Bowls of steaming porridge were set down and, since it was the king's table, there were also bowls of fresh summer fruit, a small pitcher of cream, and even costly lumps of sugar. The king frowned.
“Take the luxuries away.” He flattened his hand against the tabletop. “We have come from praying the night through and will greet the morning with a meal befitting the humility every Christian soul should observe while our holy city is held captive by the Moors.”
The servants hustled to obey, and Richard winked at Ramon. “We'll need a reason now to celebrate, my friend. Tonight we shall feast in honor of your coming wedding.”
Ramon ground his teeth. Richard laughed, tilting his head back and roaring at the ceiling.
“You should see the look on your face, Segrave! I swear you look like a beardless lad facing a bride who is old enough to be his motherâ¦yet still eager for the consummation.”
“The look on my face is born of a man's experience with marriage.” Ramon didn't flinch in the face of the hard glare Richard sent him. That steadfastness gained him a grunt of approval from his monarch. “Forgive me, but I would keep my own counsel when it comes to choosing a bride. On that matter, I suggest you confine your opinions to who is in your bed.”
A servant looked up, her eyes wide with shock. The king slapped the tabletop with mirth.
“You know something, Segrave? I am going to miss having your honesty by my side. Too many of these knights are greedy bastards at heart. They fear to tell me anything that might upset my delicate disposition.”
Ramon's lips twitched. “You haven't a delicate bone in your body, Sire.”
Richard took a fresh round of bread and tore it in two. The king bowed his head and offered up a prayer of thanks. The scent drifted on the morning breeze, making his mouth water, but Ramon remained focused. The king was in a controlling mood; his own empty belly could wait. Once Richard made a decision, it was set in stone. Even ones he made while breaking bread.
“I would accompany Your Majesty on the Crusade as I have done for the last decade. To serve you is my greatest honor, and the only life I know.”
Richard bit off a chunk of bread and chewed it before answering. “Ayeâ¦aye, and that is exactly why I need you to remain here in England.” Another section of bread disappeared into the king's mouth, so Ramon had to wait to hear the king's reasoning. He didn't care for the tension that knotted his neck.
“The Welsh persist in their rebellion against me, while my own brother covets my throne in this miserable country.” He stopped and pointed at Ramon. “I need you to stabilize the government here, which is why I elevated you to the station of baron. My dear brother John will have a barons' council here to keep him in his place. You will be one of those men, Ramon. One I can rely on to rule justly and keep the law. You will be a member of the highest council in this kingdom.”
The king nodded and wiped his lips with a cloth lying on the table.
Ramon frowned. “I am a knight. I belong beside you.”
“Now, you are a baron,” Richard declared firmly. “A new duty with an even greater challenge. You will rule according to the law, not by drawing your sword.”
Ramon was forced to hold his tongue. Richard didn't miss the effort it took to not argue.
“Make no mistake, living in England will be a battle worthy of a knight such as you. You won't be sitting by the hearth and warming your backside.” The king chuckled ominously. “But to secure this country, you will need a property that is positioned just right.” Richard lifted his hand and snapped his fingers. His scribe was well accustomed to waiting for the king's command, and quickly brought forward a rolled parchment. Richard pushed aside the dishes in front of him and spread out the paper.
“Here, along the Welsh border, is Thistle Keep. It is owned by a young widow.” The king turned his head and grinned at Ramon. “But she has no way to defend her land because her garrison owes me service. I sent for them three days ago.”
Ramon wanted to argue, but there was a look in his king's eyes that he recognized too well. Richard was set on his plan to leave Ramon behind in England. The country was riddled with unrest and Ramon's loyalty was unquestionable. It was a compliment, even if it was one he did not covet.
“If it is your will that I remain here to keep order, I shall, Your Majesty, but I do not require a wife to do so.”
“Are you truly afraid of one lone woman, Ramon?”
Richard chuckled at the deadly look Ramon gave him in response. He tapped the parchment with his index finger.
Ramon peered at the map, his irritation growing. “The lady has a great deal of marshland. It is little wonder she is unwed. That land is useless.” Hence, the widow was poor.
“But her people are fat and her taxes paid.”
Ramon frowned and Richard nodded. “That widow is clever. She's managed to turn her marshes into a breeding ground for geese. I need those feathers for my archers, and I need the keep held against the Welsh.”
“Two things that can be accomplished without marriage.”
The king flattened his hand on the parchment. “You are the bravest man I know, but I swear at this moment, you tempt me to call you a coward.”
Ramon stiffened, but the king waved his hand in the air between them. “Fine then, I am not ordering you to wed the widow, but I need that land secured. She has no knights, they are marching with me. Her land is coveted by her Welsh neighbor, so I am sending you to fortify Thistle Keep with your men. What you do with her personally is your choice. Yet if it were me, I would want to know more about a woman who can manage her estate so well on her own. She is no timid miss, you may be certain of that.” Richard looked at the map once more and stabbed a finger at a section of land bordering the widow's. “This land belongs to the crown. It will be yours.”
The king's tone told Ramon that the matter was decided.
“Thank you, Your Majesty.”
“I know you are not pleased. Give it time. Go and meet the widow, see if she raises yourâ¦interest.”
Richard chuckled. Ramon tilted his head and grinned at his king. “A pleasant enough task.”
The king nodded.
“The land I've bestowed on you is good crop land, but there is no keep and no timber or stone to build one. Yet it will farm well and be an excellent addition to Thistle Keep if you see the logic in wedding the widow.”
“A good suggestion.”
His words were given grudgingly, carrying a little too much relief for his own taste. Richard didn't miss either emotion. The king sighed.
“Think ill of me if you like, Ramon de Segrave, but my own position would be more secure if I had sons. It is time for both of us to trust enough in a woman to beget a few heirs. There's something for you to dwell upon on your march to the borderland. Besides, that widow has geese, and I need more feathers. Her flock is the only one for twenty miles. I don't know how she managed to send me so many feathers and still keep her geese. See if you can discover her secret.”
Ramon stood up and bowed. “As you command.” He meant it sincerely. Serving his monarch had always been his primary goal. He turned and struggled to mask the distaste for his king's order.
Women were not to be trusted.
He'd learned that lesson through bitter betrayal. He was not interested in wedding again so another wife might place the horns of a cuckold on his head. Being disgraced once was enough.
Yet such an opinion left him without a true direction for the first time in his life. He had always been a knight, always looked forward to riding for the Crusade. In truth, he had spent little time in his wife's company. It was simply the way life was.
But not anymore. Which left him looking toward the future in wonder.
His captain raised an eyebrow when Ramon joined him at the edge of the high ground, where Ambrose had been forced to wait by the king's personal guard. Together, they descended the steps of the high ground and left the king and his court behind.
“Pleased, are you?”
Ramon shrugged. “In truth, I am not certain.”
Ambrose St. Martin cut him a questioning glance.
“It appears we will be riding for the bordering land, to meet the widow residing at Thistle Keep. Richard is leaving me here to keep the peace and hold the border against the Welsh.”
Ramon shrugged. “That part was not a command.”
Ambrose chuckled softly. “With Richard, suggestions are best minded.”
Ramon felt his temper strain. “Aye.”
It was a solid truth and he'd be wise to remember it. There was also truth in the fact that his land had no keep, which meant his men would be exposed.
He might wed her and secure the land as his own. Such was the common practice for a knight such as himself, having spent so many years in the service of his king. There were plenty of knights who had pillaged their way through the same service, but he was not one of them. The Code of Chivalry forbade it, and his honor was the only thing that meant something to him.
Marriage was one thing he might consider to increase his holdings without tarnishing his honor. Richard was correct in saying it was time to consider having sons, and the widow, Isabel of Camoys, would be a good match. United, they would have an estate that might provide everything they needed, but only if he decided to risk marrying the woman. The men that were needed to secure her land might also be the means for her to shame him with when she took a lover from among his ranks. Everything he had earned over the last ten years would crumble because his men would see him as too weak to control his wife.