Maiden bride, p.1

Maiden Bride, page 1

 

Maiden Bride
 



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Maiden Bride


  Table of Contents

  Cover Page

  Praise

  Excerpt

  Dear Reader

  Title Page

  Books by Deborah Simmons

  About The Author

  Dedication

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Epilogue

  Copyright

  Praise for

  Deborah Simmons

  other works

  Taming the Wolf

  “…funny, challenging and exciting…5s”

  —Affaire de Coeur

  “…thrilling,…a breathless love story…41/2”

  —Romantic times

  The Vicar’s Daughter

  “…absolutely wonderful!…You won’t be able to put it down!”—Affaire de Coeur

  “this one has found a place on my shelf for keepers.”

  —Rendezvous

  The Devil’s Lady

  “Deborah Simmons guarantees the reader a page-turner…”

  —Romantic Times

  the Squire’s Daughter

  “…a priceless gem…warms the heart and cheers the spirit…”

  —Affaire de Coeur

  “If he has done more than hold

  your hand, I will kill you both,”

  he promised, his voice a guttural bark.

  His gaze never left her, bright and probing and denying her innocence. “Perhaps you did not realize that ‘tis not wise to be alone with a man!” He spat the words out as if they tasted foul upon his tongue.

  “We were talking, nothing more!” Gillian protested, alarmed by the look in his glittering depths. “Trust you not your own guard?”

  “Nay! I trust no one when it comes to you!” Nicholas growled, taking a step toward her.

  Comprehension dawned slowly, laced with so much disbelief that Gillian shook her head, as if dazed. Regarding him with wide-eyed wonder, she whispered the truth. “You are jealous.”

  He flinched, but did not deny it. “You are mine, body and soul, and you had best remember it!”

  Dear Reader,

  Whether writing atmospheric Medievals or sexy Regencies, Deborah Simmons continues to delight readers with her romantic stories, be they dark and brooding or light and full of fun. In this month’s Maiden Bride, the sequel to The Devil’s Lady, Nicholas de Laci transfers his blood lust to his enemy’s niece, Gillian, his future wife by royal decree. Don’t miss this wonderful tale.

  Fans of Romantic Times Career Achievement Award winner Veronica Sattler will be thrilled to see this month’s reissue of her Worldwide Library release, Jesse’s Lady. We hope you’ll enjoy this exciting story of a young heiress and her handsome guardian who must survive the evil machinations of her bastard brother and a jealous temptress before they can find happiness.

  Beloved Outcast by Pat Tracy is a dramatic Western about an Eastern spinster who is hired by a man with a notorious reputation to tutor his adopted daughter. And our fourth book this month is The Wager by Sally Cheney, the story of a young Englishwoman who reluctantly falls in love with a man who won her in a game of cards.

  We hope you’ll keep a lookout for all four titles wherever Harlequin Historicals are sold. Sincerely,

  Tracy Farrell

  Senior Editor

  Please address questions and book requests to:

  Harlequin Reader Service

  U.S.: 3010 Walden Ave., P.O. Box 1325, Buffalo, NY 14269

  Canadian: P.O. Box 609, Fort Erie, Ont. L2A 5X3

  Maiden Bride

  Deborab Simmons

  Publisher Name

  Books by Deborah Simmons

  Harlequin Historicals

  The Fortune Hunter #132

  Silent Heart #185

  The Squire’s Daughter #208

  The Devil’s Lady #241

  The Vicar’s Daughter #258

  Taming the Wolf #284

  The Devil Earl #317

  Maiden Bride #332

  DEBORAH SIMMONS

  Deborah Simmons began her writing career as a newspaper reporter. She turned to fiction after the birth of her first child when a longtime love of historical romance prompted her to pen her own work, published in 1989. She lives with her husband, two children and two cats in rural Ohio, where she divides her time between her family, reading and writing. She enjoys hearing from readers at the below address. For a reply, an SASE is appreciated.

  Deborah Simmons

  P.O. Box 274

  Ontario, Ohio 44862-0274

  Special thanks to Linda Hoffman, Laurie Miller and

  Jennifer Weithman for their insistence upon and

  assistance with Nicholas’s story

  Chapter One

  Nicholas de Laci leaned against the wall of the great hall, brooding over a cup of ale. He was not drunk; he never drank too much. It dulled the wits, and he had honed his to a razor sharpness. As if to prove his skills, he lifted his head at a sound from the arched entranceway, his eyes alert for any sign of danger, but it was only his sister, Aisley, and her infant son.

  Hexham would not pass this way again.

  The thought slipped into his mind like a dark phantom, despite his iron-hard discipline, and for just a moment Nicholas let himself dwell upon it. His enemy was dead. The neighbor who had waylaid him in the Holy Land, abandoned him there and returned to try to steal his lands had been cut down in this very hall by Aisley’s husband, Piers, who had deprived him of his revenge in one fell swoop.

  Nicholas glanced toward two heavy chairs near the front of the hall. That was where they said it happened, by Aisley’s seat, but the tiles had long been scrubbed clean, and Hexham’s blood was gone. Forever. Nicholas would never see it spilled, never know the satisfaction of vengeance in the depths of his hungry soul.

  He had tried other killing in the year since, hiring himself out as a soldier, but the deaths of strangers meant as little to him as the coins he received in payment. Nicholas already had great wealth and a prosperous demesne to call his own. Built by his father, Belvry was a modern castle and the envy of his peers, and yet it gave him no pleasure, either. And so he had returned here, to the scene of his bitter disappointment, vainly searching for a respite from the gnawing emptiness that had become his life.

  Nicholas’s fingers tightened around the cup that held his ale. In truth, he found contentment nowhere, for nothing held meaning for him anymore. His sister was so much changed over the five years he had been in the Holy Land that he knew her not, and he resented her husband for taking what he had most wanted: Hexham’s life.

  “Nicholas! I did not see you there against the wall. What are you about this afternoon?” Aisley asked, with that half welcoming, half wary smile that he had grown accustomed to seeing directed toward him. His lovely fair-haired sister was not sure what to make of him, but that hardly surprised him. Nicholas was no longer sure what to make of himself.

  “Nothing,” he answered, brushing her query aside with a flick of his eyes. He nodded toward a long bench, and Aisley sat down, baby in her arms. “Look, Sybil, ‘tis your uncle Nicholas,” she cooed. “Uncle. Uncle Nicholas,” she babbled, crooning in a way Nicholas would never have thought possible.

  The Aisley he ha
d known had been an aloof childwoman, a skilled chatelaine, but certainly not the sort to lavish affection upon anyone. Now, instead of handing the infant over to a nurse, she dragged it around with her most of the time, carrying on over it in a way he found hard to fathom.

  A sound from the entranceway drew his swift attention, and Nicholas saw Piers stride into the hall. A huge man, Aisley’s husband was capable of intimidating others, but rarely did so. Instead, he seemed to take infinite delight in the world around him, from which he had been briefly cut off during a bout with blindness.

  “Piers!” Aisley’s voice rose in excited pleasure. “Look, Sybil, ‘tis your father!” she said, waving the baby’s tiny fist toward the great knight. Perhaps something about the birthing process had damaged her wits, Nicholas wondered, not for the first time during his visit. “Here, go to your uncle while I greet your father,” Aisley cooed.

  To his utter horror, Nicholas found the infant thrust into his arms. It was small and fat and bald, and it smelled, with an odd sort of milky, soapy odor. He had known it to reek more foully. The thought made him rise to his feet and glance down suspiciously. If it soiled his tunic, he might have to strangle it. Cup in one fist, babe in the crook of his arm, he glanced helplessly toward his sister, but she was already beyond his reach.

  With a happy smile, Aisley threw herself at her husband’s tall form, while Nicholas watched in amazement. He would never get used to that behavior. The two of them kissed passionately, just as though they were in their own chamber and not standing amid the rushes of the open hall. Nicholas found the display positively sickening.

  He would have thought that Piers only indulged his daft wife at such moments, but for the fact that the knight sought her out with the same enthusiasm. Perhaps Piers’s sightlessness had left him sadly addled, too.

  “Waaah!” The babe in Nicholas’s arms seemed suddenly to realize where she was and started screaming shrilly in protest. Nicholas’s gut churned in response to the hideous noise, and he wondered if he ought to depart Dunmurrow soon. He felt apart and alien among this strangely happy threesome who made his own life seem even more barren and aimless.

  “Here!” he said, standing abruptly and holding out the child to its mother.

  “There, there, Sybil, ‘tis time for your nap, perhaps?” Aisley whispered, and Nicholas stared, astounded at the way she talked to the thing, just as if it might understand her. His sister was beyond him now, as was everyone, everything, everyplace…His stomach twisted, reminding him that he ought to eat something, but food held no interest. Instead, he focused on the giant blond man who would call him brother.

  “Nicholas!” Piers greeted him with the warmth that continued to annoy him. How dare the Red Knight eye him with that knowing look, as if seeing right through Nicholas’s skin to his hollow insides? How dare he tender advice, when his keep was shabby compared to Belvry?

  Dunmurrow was old, and its residents were far from wealthy, and yet they seemed to possess some treasure that Nicholas lacked, which only frustrated him further. The ache in his belly clawed at his vitals until he nearly winced, but he did not waver under Piers’s steady regard.

  “I came to find you, brother,” the older knight said. “A messenger from the king has arrived, seeking you.” Nicholas glanced quickly behind his sister’s husband, to where a man sporting Edward’s device stood not far away. How had Nicholas missed him? His attention had been diverted by babes and amorous displays, that was how! Deflecting his anger inward, Nicholas calmly placed his cup upon the great table and stepped forward to greet the stranger.

  Finally. It had been a year since Hexham had made war upon neighboring Belvry, and all this time the fate of the bastard’s lands had remained unresolved. Piers claimed that Edward would decide in Nicholas’s favor and award the property to Belvry’s heir in reparation, but Nicholas had a deep-seated mistrust of kings and princes, gained in a folly called a holy war. It would not surprise him if Edward confiscated Hexham’s demesne for the crown.

  Nor did it matter to him. Hexham had no issue, so either way, the land would leave the man’s line forever. That was small satisfaction for Nicholas, but he took it. It was all the revenge left to him.

  “You are Nicholas de Laci, baron of Belvry?” the king’s man asked.

  “I am,” Nicholas said.

  “I have a message for you from your sovereign.”

  Nodding, Nicholas gestured for the man to take a seat on the long bench beside the great table. As the messenger found a place, Nicholas caught a glimpse of Aisley’s anxious face and realized that his sister and her husband wanted to hear the news, too. Their interest startled him. Was it curiosity? He supposed they had little enough excitement in their dreary keep.

  “Shall I fetch some refreshment for you?” Aisley asked hopefully, and Nicholas was again amazed by the transparency of her thoughts. The Aisley he had known would never have shown emotion—or felt it, either. ‘Twas the birthing, no doubt, he thought again. It had changed her, and not for the better.

  “That would be most welcome, my lady,” the man said. “But my message is brief. Care you to hear it first?” he asked Nicholas. His gaze traveled from Nicholas to the lord and lady of Dunmurrow, and Nicholas felt a smart of annoyance at those who sought to know his business. He had kept his own counsel for years, and had learned to rely solely upon himself, because it was necessary. It was the only way to survive.

  To hasten his audience’s departure, Nicholas gave Piers an inquiring look, but he received a flash of warning from the Red Knight’s blue eyes in response. Piers coddled his wife, and he seemed to feel that Nicholas owed Aisley something for her wardship of Belvry. Nicholas did not care for the debt, nor for the reminder of it, and he stiffened slightly. He had the feeling that someday, for all Piers’s attempt at friendship, the two of them would come to blows.

  This time, however, Nicholas gave way. What was the harm in them hearing, after all? It was a matter of little enough importance to him. “This is my sister, and you have met her husband, Baron Montmorency,” Nicholas said with cool disdain. “You may speak freely before them.”

  The man glanced again toward Aisley, as if seeking the resemblance between the delicate lady with the silver-blond hair and Nicholas’s tall, dark form, but he said nothing. Presumably he was too eager for his supper to care.

  “I have come about the dispensation of the lands adjacent to Belvry, property of Baron Hexham, now deceased,” the man said, and both Piers and Aisley nodded, worry apparent in their eyes. Did they hide nothing from the world? Nicholas thought with contempt. And what did it matter to them what happened to Hexham’s land? Had they not had the pleasure of watching the villain die?

  Nicholas felt the familiar clenching of his stomach at his lost vengeance, and pushed the thought aside, concentrating on the messenger instead. He was reading from a royal decree, couched in fancy wording, about Edward’s desire to bind people to their lord with strong ties and to cement loyalties through marriage whenever possible. Yes, yes, Nicholas thought, impatiently. Getonwithit!

  “As Baron Hexham has been found to have a living female relation, a niece, it is our wish that you take this woman, Gillian Hexham, to wife, thereby joining the two properties and taking lordship over all.”

  Although the man continued reading, Nicholas heard him not, his interest focused solely on one piece of information: Hexham had a living relative. Nicholas’s blood, long dormant, surged through him at the knowledge, and the hatred he had nursed so bitterly sprang to life once more, filling the emptiness in his soul with renewed purpose.

  “A niece? Hexham has a niece?” Aisley’s voice, oddly strained, pierced the haze of blood lust that gripped him. “I knew of no niece.”

  “Apparently she is the daughter of his younger brother, long dead,” the messenger said. His words fell into a silence so heavy with tension that the very air seemed to vibrate with it, and he shifted uncomfortably, glancing anxiously at the stunned faces that surrounded hi
m.

  Nicholas paid him no heed, for he was consumed once more with thoughts of the revenge he had been forced to abandon. It was Aisley who broke the quiet, a soft sound of agitation escaping from her slender throat. “Nicholas…” she whispered. “Oh, Nicholas, please…”

  He glanced over at her in surprise. She was still standing, her daughter in her arms and her husband beside her, and she wore a stricken expression at odds with her cool beauty. “I know what you are thinking, but do not even consider it,” she begged.

  “You know what I am thinking?” Nicholas echoed, his tone heavy with contempt for her audacity, his eyes daring her to go on. But he had forgotten how strong she was, and she reminded him by meeting his cold glare and holding it until he turned away, revolted by her entreaty. Even that outright dismissal did not stop her, however.

  “This poor woman is not to blame for her blood,” she said. “Indeed, she has probably already been punished for it, by Hexham himself. Think of how he would destroy all those he touched. Think of his own wife, locked away in her tower!”

  His sister was babbling now, and even through the primitive heat raging through him, Nicholas noticed it. So unlike Aisley, he thought dispassionately, and vowed that he would never display himself so openly.

  “Why, this innocent girl has probably been locked away, too, else why would I never have met her?” she asked. Growing desperate now, she whirled toward the king’s man, and the baby in her arms began fussing. “She cannot have stayed with him, for we would have heard something of her. Where has she been all this time?”

 
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