Margaret Moore - [Warrior 13], page 5
Queen Eleanor fixed her steely gaze upon him, reminding him why the men in Henry’s council feared her and her influence upon the young king. “Did you not take advantage of her?” she demanded. “Did you not treat her as if she were a serving wench and not a noble lady of my court? You made a serious mistake, Sir Reece.”
“I did, and for that I am truly sorry,” he replied, his contrition sincere—but so was his need not to marry Lady Anne, who was sitting so still, she might be a corpse.
Except for her vibrant eyes. He could feel their gaze every time he spoke, and try as he might to focus only upon the royal couple and find a way out of this dilemma, an image persisted in dancing about the edges of his rational mind: Anne Delasaine in his bed, in his arms, her naked body clasped to him as they passionately made love.
“But Majesty,” he continued, his voice steady despite the tumult of thoughts and images flashing through his head, “to make us marry will certainly cause some people to think that there must have been some truth to the Delasaines’ charge.”
“So does the sight of your bruised face,” Eleanor retorted. “It looks as if they duly punished you for a base crime. Or do you accuse my kinsmen of being savages?”
Even Henry looked rather shocked at his wife’s stern question before he again addressed Reece. “I will not have the Fitzroys feuding with the Delasaines. However it came about, this is a dangerous situation, and I will have it remedied before it worsens to poison my court like a festering wound.
“Therefore, Sir Reece, you may decide. Marry this lady—and without a dowry—or face a charge of attempted rape in the king’s court in London.”
Reece’s heart seemed to stop, and he knew he was trapped. That the king would even consider such a threat proved how determined he was about this marriage.
Henry turned his gaze onto Anne. “If you think to protest, my lady, know that I will also charge your brothers with attempted murder for their attack upon Sir Reece. They should be mollified by the lack of a dower payment.”
He regarded them both with all the majesty befitting a king and spoke with firm decision. “Unlike my father, I will have peace in my court, one way or another.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Reece saw Lady Anne rise and approach the king, as serene and lovely as an angel. Although he noted her apparently humble attitude, there was something about the tilt of her chin suggestive of defiance—a defiance he felt but did not dare to voice.
Not that he intended to accept the king’s decree as his unalterable fate. He could not marry any woman related to the notoriously vicious, untrustworthy, ambitious Delasaines. Given his own ambitions, he must not be tied to such men in any way.
As his father had taught him long ago, when the first plan of attack seems impossible, figure out another. And another, if need be, until you come up with one that works, and that was what he must do.
Anne knelt before Henry and bowed her head, as humble now as she had been resolute only moments ago. “Sire, naturally as I am your loyal subject, I must and shall obey your command,” she said. “However, I have a request, or a wedding gift to beg, if you wish to think of it that way.”
Then she smiled, and her beauty simply dazzled. There was no other word for it.
Not surprisingly, for Henry was a man, he returned her smile and cocked an inquisitive brow. A swift glance at Eleanor showed that she was not nearly as impressed, yet she was equally curious to know what Anne was going to say next.
“Well, Lady Anne, what would you have?” Henry asked.
“Sir Reece’s father is Sir Urien Fitzroy, is he not?”
As Henry inclined his head in agreement, Reece tensed, confused as to what his father had to do with this. She did not look as if she was about to complain that she could not wed the son of a bastard, even one who had raised himself in the world by skill at arms.
“I would ask that my younger brother, Piers, be allowed to train with Sir Urien, who is noted for his abilities in that regard.”
Reece relaxed, although he wondered if this other brother would be like the older ones. If so, he would rather invite a viper into his parents’ home.
“A most excellent idea, Lady Anne, and another way to mend this most unfortunate rift.”
The king sounded very pleased, so once again, Reece did not venture to voice any objection to this scheme, either.
Besides, surely one lone boy couldn’t cause that much trouble. His father had dealt with recalcitrant lads before; his reputation also stemmed from the way he was able to train even the most incorrigible and spoiled of youths. Surely he could handle Piers Delasaine, if need be.
Better than his son had handled the other Delasaines.
Reece fought to ignore the chiding of his shame. Indeed, he should be trying to think of ways to avoid his forthcoming marriage.
The king rose and held out his hand to Eleanor. “I shall leave you two alone to discuss the nuptials tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” Lady Anne gasped, as shocked as Reece.
“Tomorrow,” the king confirmed. “I would have this business concluded with all haste, before relatives and friends try to delay it.”
Or the bride or groom, Reece suspected.
“At noon, as is traditional. Since this is my command, we will provide the wedding feast, of course.”
If it truly comes to pass, Reece thought as he made his obeisance, for he was not yet willing to concede that the marriage was inevitable.
Henry and Eleanor departed, leaving him alone with his bride-to-be.
He had a hundred things to say to her, but he hardly knew where to begin, until he faced her and saw how pale she was.
“Are you ill?” he asked, as worried again as when she had fainted, and instantly recalling the sensation of her body in his arms.
She shook her head. “No. I did not really swoon. I wanted to speak to the king without the entire court listening.”
She had tricked the king? God’s wounds, she was an astonishing woman.
“I confess I was very relieved that my ruse worked.” She made a little smile. “Thank you for cushioning my fall. I could have injured myself had you not caught me.”
And held her in his arms, her body warm against his.
He fought the urge to clear his throat, for it seemed a lump had settled there. “And your brothers? Did they punish you?”
She shrugged her shoulders, and even that gesture was graceful. “I went a day and a night without food. It was no great hardship. I have fasted thus many times before.”
She apparently thought little of it, but he would add this to the Delasaines’ list of crimes and mete out a suitable punishment when the time came.
“It is good of you to be so concerned, Sir Reece.” Again she smiled, and again, he felt dazzled, or as bashful as a lad trying to steal his first kiss.
But he had even been too bashful for that, afraid any of the village girls or serving wenches or young ladies who came to visit his home would laugh in his face if he tried. He was not like Blaidd and Kynan, who would probably laugh with them. He would have wanted to die from shame.
He hadn’t kissed a woman until the Earl of Beaumonte’s daughter had backed him into a dark corner one Christmastide. She had done more there, too.
Then a plan came to him, one that did not depend on delaying the marriage Henry was so keen on. It was not an easy solution, but given how little time they had before the wedding, it might be the only one that had any chance of succeeding.
He drew himself up, like a guard on the gate, and commanded himself to concentrate on what must be done to get out of this predicament.
And it was a predicament, no matter how attractive he found Anne, or how he hated to think of her with such brutes for brothers.
“Lady Anne, I deeply regret following you and speaking to you,” he said, stiff and formal and very proper. “I did not foresee this most unfortunate consequence.”
She cocked her head to regard him and he realized how very g
He stiffened. He didn’t want her pity, or a reminder that he had been ignominiously beaten.
She reached up and touched his shoulder. It was a simple act, and he had been touched in a hundred more intimate ways by other women after Claire, but never had the simple pressure of a hand upon his shoulder hit him with such force. Heat, tingling and exciting, spread outward from her hand, all the way below his sword belt.
No, his plan was not without some serious faults, if he ever forgot his ultimate goal and gave himself over to the desire coursing through him even now.
“Sir Reece, my half brothers are as responsible for this as you are,” she said, the gentle words issuing from her full, soft lips. “If they had behaved as knights should, following me would have been nothing more than a charming encounter after a feast.”
Charming? She found him charming, as women found Blaidd and Kynan Morgan charming?
He had feared his feelings alone could jeopardize his plan. Perhaps he should come up with another…if he had more time, and the king had not made such a terrible threat, and she was not looking at him with those brilliant green eyes.
“Regrettably, Damon will not see it that way,” she continued. “He will be angry and blame you.”
She spoke as if he must be afraid of Damon, or fear his wrath. “I am not afraid of him, or any man.”
Yet what did her opinion of him matter, after all? He simply could not be married to a Delasaine for the rest of his life.
“My lady, since neither of us desire this marriage, I have a plan to free us from it.”
She remained enigmatically silent and slowly crossed her arms. Her action drew attention to her shapely breasts beneath her lovely green gown. Desire—unbidden, yet strong as a mighty blow—threatened to rob him of rational thought, and never had there been a time he more needed to be rational.
He walked toward the king’s chair, away from her and her shining eyes and luscious body. When he was sure his passing excitement had been conquered, he faced her again.
“Given the king’s insistence, we must go through with the ceremony,” he began as calmly as he could.
She sounded as composed as he wanted to be.
“However, there is no need to stay married.”
Her shrewd, intelligent eyes remained fixed upon him as she patiently waited for him to explain.
This was torture, but he had to speak if he wanted to reveal his plan. He would not think of her as a beautiful woman, but one of the soldiers under his command.
Might as well try to believe he was the king of France.
“After a time,” he said, not meeting her gaze, “when tempers have had a chance to cool, especially the king’s, we can seek an annulment.”
“How? On what grounds?” she asked, the only indication of surprise the slight rise of her shapely brows—or perhaps she was hopeful that he had found a solution to their mutual problem. Or was her tranquillity as shallow as his, a mere gloss upon more turbulent waters? “Will you bribe some clergyman to discover that we are, in fact, related and thus the marriage forbidden by consanguinity?”
What she felt, or did not feel, was unimportant, so long as she agreed to his plan. “I would have no relationship between our families of any kind, real or false, so the dissolution must be for another reason.”
Her expression darkened. “What other reason?”
This time he was sure it was surprise that flashed across her face. “So we must marry but not make love?”
Resolutely determined, he nodded.
“You think the church will grant an annulment although we wed at the king’s behest?”
“I see no reason they should not.”
“Except that the king may not wish it.”
“Yes, that is the greatest hurdle,” he replied. “However, while my father may lack power and influence at court, he has powerful and influential friends. I’m sure Henry can be brought to realize that it would not be good to have them upset with one of his decisions. That may persuade the king to see that this was not his wisest idea. I’m sure your half brothers will agree. They’re probably as angry about this marriage as we are, even if they don’t have to provide a dowry. Therefore, Henry may not be spared the conflict he so evidently wishes to avoid. He should come to understand that it would be best if our marriage was dissolved. In the meantime, all we need do is obey his command, and have patience.”
“And not make love.”
“A clever plan.”
Clever or not, it was the one he had come up with.
“For how long must we resist temptation?” she asked softly.
“For as long as we must,” he answered. “I think it would be best if we leave for Bridgeford Wells at dawn the day after we are wed.”
“My family’s home.”
“Ah. Of course.”
“We should not stay at court, under Henry’s watchful eye, or those of prying courtiers, either.”
“Very well, Sir Reece,” she murmured, lightly laying her hand on his forearm. “I shall tell my brother to be ready, too.”
He had forgotten about Piers Delasaine, and something of his curiosity about her petition regarding him must have shown on Reece’s face, for she said, “I care a great deal for my brother, Sir Reece. I’ve been a mother to him since our own died giving birth to him. I want only the best for Piers. That’s why I asked the king to let him come with us. Damon and the others are no fit teachers or examples for him. I would have him learn from the best of men, not the worst.”
Pleased by her compliment to his father, he covered her slender hand, so light upon him, with his own. He owed it to her to have her sure of the truth. “Yet what your brother said was true, my lady. My father was born a bastard. I am but one generation removed from the gutter.”
Her eyes flared, the sudden fierceness catching him off guard. “I am not a fool to judge by birth, Sir Reece. If noble birth was all it took to be chivalrous, my half brothers would be paragons, but most peasants are more chivalrous than they.”
As her eyes blazed with spirit and fire, all the trouble that had brought them together drifted away. He became a man looking at a lovely woman of intelligence and compassion, remarkably free from the prejudice that tainted many a noblewoman.
He wanted to tell her so, or say something of how she impressed him, but the words would not come.
She pulled her hand free and glided to a door that, he realized, could not lead back into the hall where his brothers, his friends and her half brothers would be waiting, no doubt informed of the king’s decision by Henry himself. They would surely all be anxious to speak of it and offer their advice, welcome or not.
He couldn’t blame Anne for leaving by another exit, and he decided to follow her example.
After she was well away.
Gervais stared at his injured brother as if Reece had suddenly declared he was entering the priesthood. “You gave up? You agreed? You will wed that woman?”
Reece’s gaze swept over the others assembled in their chamber after they had returned from the king’s hall. Blaidd Morgan leaned on the windowsill, arms and ankles crossed with deceptive nonchalance. Blaidd’s brother Kynan sat on one of the cots, his elbows on his knees and fingers laced, also deceptively calm, and Trev was seated on the floor, his legs folded like a nesting bird. Trev’s expression, like Gervais’s, spoke plainly of what he was thinking: that his elder brother must have been temporarily deranged to agree to marry Lady Anne Delasaine. Reece didn’t doubt the Morgans thought so, too. They were merely better at keeping their opinions from their faces.
“I had no choice,” he answered. “Henry was adamant, and he is the king.”
The others exchanged glances.
“What, you a
He had them there.
“I did protest,” he continued, “but Henry was in no mood for dissent, and I thought it wiser to agree to do as he ordered.”
“You could have said you could not wed without your father’s approval,” Blaidd remarked.
“As though I am Trev’s age? I think not.” Reece crossed his arms over his broad chest. “I never said I was pleased with the situation.”
“Glad I am to hear it!” Kynan cried with a Welsh lilt as his face lit with a grin. There was undeniable relief in his brown eyes, too. “Worried I’ve been about you, boy, that you had fallen under the woman’s spell. First you follow a woman you don’t know from the feast like you were Trev’s age—” he ignored Trev’s muttered protest “—then you let yourself get knocked to the ground and then you get yourself betrothed to a Delasaine.”
“I made a mistake, I grant you.”
“A mistake?” Gervais cried. “That’s a mild word for it.”
“And I am paying for it, not you.”
“If you marry a Delasaine, we’ll be tied to those louts,” Gervais pointed out.
“Don’t you think I know that?” Reece demanded, his hands balling into fists as he tried to keep hold of his temper. Gervais, younger than he, was making it sound as if Reece must not have realized all the ramifications of his betrothal.
As if Gervais thought, like Kynan, that he had weakly fallen under a woman’s spell. “However, I will not stay married. I will have the marriage annulled as soon as possible.”
The others, not surprisingly, looked stunned.
Trev was the first to give voice to his bafflement. “Annulled?”
“Legally ended. Dissolved,” Reece clarified.
“So you’ll marry her and then have it annulled?” Blaidd repeated, as if still trying to comprehend the plan.