Excerpt: Beyond Temptation

Beyond Temptation: Book ONE of the Templar Knights Trilogy. Released by Avon Books in 2005

 “When I look back now, I cannot believe that any of us survived that day, no less the weeks and months that followed. It came to be known as Black Friday – and inky black it was when we finally claimed a moment’s rest from the evil that had been unleashing itself all around us since dawn.
Aye, it was as dark as a soul scorched in the raging fires of hell…”
                         — The letters of Sir Richard de Cantor, the year of our Lord, 1315

 

Prologue

The woodland just outside Montivilliers, France
Friday, October 13, 1307

Rain slashed down, the wind sounding an eerie moan as it swept over the leafy grove where Richard de Cantor crouched, gasping, next to the shuddering flanks of his horse. He waited for the others to reach him and seek shelter here as well. His head ached and his heart pounded, but nothing could ease the sick disbelief that flooded him anew with each breath. It came whenever he paused long enough to think about what had begun at the break of day this morning – what was still happening now.

They were being hunted like animals.

It was the same, it seemed, everywhere in France. The Templars were being hunted. He and his three closest comrades in arms – John de Clifton and Damien and Alex de Ashby – had been the only knights to escape St. Simeon’s Preceptory when the attacks by King Philip’s soldiers had begun this morn.

In truth, he had no idea why they were being set upon. As Templars they were the most renowned warriors, the most respected and feared military order in all of Christendom. It made no sense. None of it did. He’d wanted to face their pursuers and force an explanation. He’d wanted to do battle with them as his finely-honed instincts demanded, but there had been too many. There wasn’t a whisper of a chance at surviving those numbers, and Templar Law forbid him to try. For the terrible truth was that their enemies here were Christians, soldiers under the French king, and fighting other Christians for the sake of pride was a grievous sin.

As for surrendering…

A Templar Knight never surrendered; not while there was still breath left in his body to fight.

The swish of wet branches and cracking of underbrush drew Richard’s gaze, and he tensed, gripping his weapon’s hilt in readiness. John rode into the clearing, followed shortly after by Damien, who led a bound Alex behind on his mount. Cursing under his breath – an action which earned him a sharp look from Damien – John dismounted and approached Richard. Every now and again a slice of moon shone feebly through the rain, providing them with shadowy light.

“What now, Richard?” John rasped, turning as he did to look toward Damien, who was pulling his manacled brother from atop his steed. Once they’d steadied, Damien led Alex nearer to the other two, his expression tight in contrast to the anger sparking behind Alex’s eyes.

“That depends. How close are the gendarmes?”

“A mile – two at most,” Damien said lowly. “They will not cease their pursuit of us. The rain will help our cause, perhaps, as will the darkness, but it is likely that we have less than a quarter hour’s rest before they will be upon us again.”

“It would help our cause immensely if you unshackled me, don’t you think?” Alex grated. “Dragging me behind as the prisoner you’ve made of me since we left Cyprus does nothing but slow us down.”

Damien stood rigid; a muscle in his jaw twitched and his gauntleted hand clasped tight the chain leading from his older brother’s bound wrists. But he said nothing, keeping his attention on Richard in an obvious show of ignoring Alex.

“Of course your insistence on continuing to wear that damned surcoat does not help either,” Alex continued, clearly bent on being acknowledged by his brother. “They’re after us because we’re Templars, Damien, don’t you understand that? Blessed Christ, listen to me for once in your life! You might as well offer yourself up as a sacrifice to their arrows, with that scarlet cross emblazoned on your–”

“Enough!” Damien growled, swinging his dark blond head to glare at his brother. “You sin in using God’s name so, but do not suggest that I forsake Him as well by removing the visible signs of our calling. I will not do it.”

“Then you will likely die this night,” Alex muttered, “but I do not intend to go quietly along with you. Release me so that I can have a fighting chance.” He skewered Richard, then John with his gaze. “You know I am right. We have gone all day like this and we are losing ground.”

Richard met Alex’s gaze unflinchingly. His friend had a point, he knew, and yet they’d been placed under strict orders to deliver Alex to the Grand Master Jacques de Molay himself, to be judged for carnal transgressions committed during their time in Cyprus. But that had been before the madness of this day…before the entire Templar Brotherhood had come under attack.

As if he sensed his wavering, Alex added, “By the blood we’ve spilled for God and each other, Richard, release my bonds. Whatever my sins against the Brotherhood, I am not the enemy this night. The French are. Let me do my part in keeping us from their grasp.”

“He may be right,” John said in a low voice, glancing to Damien’s stony face for but an instant before fixing his gaze on Richard again. “We could use Alex’s skill if it comes to outright battle. The horses are tiring. We’ve pushed them as hard as we can, and who knows how much farther we will need to go?”

“The coast lies but a few miles beyond here,” Richard answered, jabbing his hand through his rain-damp hair. “And yet a few miles might as well be the length of France if we are caught before reaching it.” He paused, the thoughts flooding through him, swift and sharp. “If we are to survive this, we must do the unexpected.”

“What – surrender?” Damien rasped, heat palpable in his eyes. “Do not consider the thought, Richard; I will not do it.”

“Nay, Damien, not that, but something almost as surprising for Templar Knights. We must separate. Divide our force and make our way to the coast on our own, to board ships for England.”

“That is all well and good, except that I have no coin for a crossing fee, as well you know,” Alex said sharply. “Along with my surcoat, I was stripped of my status as Templar Knight. I haven’t a farthing to my name.”

“That will be remedied before we leave this grove. You will have enough to buy passage, never fear, Alex.” Richard met his fallen friend’s gaze. “You still need to answer for your crimes against the Brotherhood, make no mistake on it. But our survival must come first. I think we are all in agreement on that point, are we not?” He glanced first at John, who nodded, then at Damien, who looked angrier than before, but who nonetheless jerked his head in reluctant concurrence after a moment.

“It is settled, then,” Richard continued. “Once we set foot on English soil, we must needs make our way to safer ground to see what will transpire. Hawksley Manor lies not many days’ travel in-land; I had not intended to return to my former home in this lifetime, and yet it is our best choice for a safe haven right now.”

All of the men fell silent for a moment after he was finished speaking; the weight of the day’s events combining with the dire circumstances they faced now created an increasing sense of doom that would not be shaken. Trying to suppress the feeling, Richard approached his mount and pulled a pouch of coin from his saddle. He tossed it to Alex, who caught it with both bound hands. Nodding, Richard murmured, “Undo his shackles, now, Damien. We haven’t much time.”

Tight-jawed, Damien set to the task. In a moment, Alex was free. But as his brother rubbed his newly-freed wrists, Damien suddenly stalked back to his own mount, swinging astride and then reining it around to face the others for an instant.

“There is no need to dally longer here, then,” he called, looking at each of them in turn, though his gaze glanced more quickly off of Alex. “May Heaven grant us all safe journey to England.” With a jerk of his chin, he added, “Until we meet at Hawksley.” Before Richard could say anything in response, Damien wheeled his mount toward the entrance into the clearing, dug his spurs into its flanks, and bent over its neck as he galloped back out into the storm.

John was the first to break the stillness Damien left behind. “We should all go, before the soldiers are upon us,” he said, clasping Richard by his forearm. “Godspeed to you, friend.”

“Aye, to you as well,” Richard echoed, turning in the next moment with the intent of offering Alex the same sign of encouragement and alliance.

But Alex was already re-mounted, his expression enigmatic and his dark blue gaze seeming alight in the shadows. Thunder boomed, and Alex murmured to his skittish mount, barely keeping him under control. When he’d restored his balance, he called over the noise of the storm, “I cannot let that foolish brother of mine ride out without protection of some kind, Richard. I will stay far enough back to maintain separation, but near enough to watch his back. You understand, I’m sure.”

Without waiting for a reply, Alex raised his arm in salute and cocked his familiar half-grin, riding out of the clearing as he called, “To England, lads!”

John shook his head, looking serious as he mounted and headed in the same direction. Just before leaving the clearing, he met Richard’s gaze one last time; they nodded to each other, and then John galloped from the glen. Soon after, Richard left as well. The force of the rain slashed down onto him as he rode hunched over his steed’s neck; he managed to keep John’s shadowy form in his sights for a few moments until the black of the stormy night swept everything up in its embrace, blocking out all light and forcing him to give his destrier his head in leading them toward the coast.

And then he rode – rode hard and fast, blocking the shriek of the wind, the sting of the rain, and the relentless blackness from his mind by pure force of will – hoping that the plans he’d just made with his comrades in arms would bear fruit…and that he hadn’t just sent them all to face violent deaths alone, at the hands of the army that was even now breathing hellish flames at their backs and swinging sparking, gory blades at their heels.

 

Chapter One

Hawksley Manor, East Sussex – a week later

 

By all the saints, it was too soon to be happening again.

Another cry rang out, thin and desperate, echoing off the walls of the main chamber as Meg rushed from where Willa, the cook, had come to find her in the buttery.

The sobbing that rose up after that cry bit into Meg’s soul, and she hurried the remaining steps into the large hall. Aye, it was too soon for another spell. Eleanor’s last one had been but a sennight ago.

In the dim light it was difficult to locate her cousin Eleanor’s wasted form, but the sobs drew Meg to the spot soon enough; she crossed to where Eleanor was huddled, weeping and rocking in the shadows behind the massive, carved chest that held some of the family’s silver.

“Hush now, Ella,” Meg said gently, crouching down and wrapping her arms around the woman’s thin shoulders. “All will be well.”

But Eleanor continued to moan and fidget, and Meg saw with a start that her cousin’s arms were empty of their usual burden. Of course. Meg did a quick glance of the area to see if she could spot the bundled bit of rags and thread; there was nothing. She gathered Eleanor closer against her, wishing that the comfort would be enough this time. That Ella would calm and allow herself to be led back to her chamber. And for what seemed like the thousandth time since she’d come to this godforsaken manor two years earlier, Meg cursed the one who had been the start of all this suffering – a man she’d never seen but about whom she’d heard countless tales.

She didn’t need to have seen Sir Richard de Cantor to know the truth of what he’d done: he was a man like every other who did as he pleased without thought or care to the results.

White-hot emotion shot through her, startling her with its virulence, and she went rigid against the dull aching she knew would bloom afterward. When it passed, she silently berated herself for allowing her own long-buried pain to creep out into the light again…for allowing the shadows of her past to muddy the waters of what was happening to Ella here and now. Her own history had nothing to do with this and no real connection to Eleanor or the husband who had abandoned her nearly half a decade ago.

Reclaiming her sense of composure by force of sheer will, Meg directed her attention back to Eleanor and whispered words of comfort, stroking her cousin’s brow and brushing the tangled strands of her hair from her face. Eleanor’s eyes remained wild and unfocused, grief having etched premature lines of worry between her delicate brows.

Tight-lipped, Meg coaxed her to stand. Hugh would need to be called in to take the watch again. Eleanor’s last spell like this had come to near disaster; she’d broken free of her chamber to climb toward the danger of the crenellations, driven there by the ghosts in her mind. She’d almost flung herself over into oblivion then.

Perhaps it would have been a blessing to end to her torment so.

Meg sucked in her breath, stifling the sinful whisper. Nay, her cousin deserved far better, both in this life and the next. No matter how difficult the struggle of each day, they couldn’t risk such a possibility again.

“Peace now, Ella, there is naught to fear,” Meg murmured, supporting the woman’s fragile weight and pulling her close. At times like this it was difficult to remember that her cousin was the younger by two years; neither of them had yet reached thirty, but Ella’s bones felt as sharp and pronounced as an old woman’s to Meg’s touch.

Meg guided her to the corner of the stairs, tugging her along, at the same time sharing a look of pained understanding with Willa, nodding her head to the woman with a wordless command to continue looking for the poppet and bring it above stairs as soon as it was found.

Within a half an hour, she’d managed to help Ella swallow a draught of wine laced with valerian. Then she’d eased her out of her soiled bliaud and made sure she donned fresh robes before tucking her under a blanket in her favorite chair by the fire. With the bundle of rags returned at last to the crook of her arm, Ella had fallen asleep, though even in the peacefulness of that release a perpetual frown marred what remained of her once legendary beauty.

Sighing, Meg went out into the hall, latching the door shut behind her. She nodded to Hugh. He’d arrived a few moments ago to take up his old post at the door, his somber eyes kind. A simple man and a smithy by trade, Hugh had been one of the few, loyal villagers to remain on the land after Hawksley’s master had abandoned them. Ella would be safe from harm while he kept the watch.

Perhaps now she might finish the chores she’d only just begun when all this had started, Meg thought, as she made her way back down to the main level of the house. The cheese wheels needed to be turned and the bags of apples picked through for rot before Brother Thomas came and –

“Meg – oh, Meg! Hurry, by the Holy Savior, Mary and Joseph – you have to come quick!”

Meg had just taken the final step into the main hall when the cry rang out, bellowed by young James, one of the tanner’s sons. He’d come bursting into the hall from the back door near the kitchens, and now he gasped for breath, leaning over to brace his palms on his knees as he struggled to convey the remainder of his message.

“I tried to get here fast as I could fly,” he panted. “I wanted you to have some warning. A knight’s come to Hawksley…he rode up to the village gates a few moments past and came right through. A powerful big knight he is, bearing on his shield the cross of –”

James’s words were cut off by a rattling bang as the thick, oaken door opposite him swung in and creaked to a stop against the stone wall. Silhouetted in the sun-drenched opening stood a warrior of impressive height and bearing. Yet rather than a drawn blade, he held some kind of large leather sack in his left hand, knotted tightly closed at the top. Meg’s heart gave an erratic beat, her startled gaze taking in the chain mail, gauntlets, and cape that covered the imposing stranger. Even with his face cast in shadow from the streaming light behind him, she could see that his head was bare; dark hair brushed his shoulders and slid across the stubborn line of his jaw, sooty with a beard of several days’ growth.

Trying to appear far more confident than she was feeling, Meg mustered her own regal bearing and straightened, readying to snap out a command for an answer to this intrusion. But the knight suddenly altered his stance, jerking back a bit as if he would return from whence he came, before he finally strode across the threshold and into the great hall.

Meg stiffened even more than before, then, something about the full sight of this travel-worn warrior niggling at the back of her mind. He was familiar, and yet she knew she had never seen him before. Nay, she couldn’t have. She’d have remembered otherwise. His eyes were mesmerizing, making her think of misty green forests and sweet, dark honey, blent to a flawless hue.

Shame followed hard upon the thought; she knew better than most the penalty to be paid for indulging in such silly, romanticized notions. She buried the whim with ruthless zeal, preparing to remedy her unusual reticence with action. But before she could do anything, the knight came to a halt mid-chamber. He ceased his perusal of the hall’s other occupants to stare straight at her, stilling her breath under the force of his gaze. And when he finally spoke, his words threatened to stop her heart from beating altogether…

“It seems that you wear the mantle of authority here at present, lady, so it is you I must needs address. Answer me this, then: who in God’s name are you…and what have you done with my wife?”

#

The servants’ whispers rose in the moments following the dead silence that had greeted Richard’s question; he saw a latent shock of recognition sweep over the striking face of the woman standing before him, and it set off a strange, twisting sensation inside. She knew him, then. Or at least of him, which was nearly the same – and from her expression, what she’d heard had been less than complimentary.

“You are Sir Richard de Cantor?” she clipped out, her voice entirely too accusatory for his liking.

“Aye that is one name by which I am known – though I have also been called a Knight of the Temple of Solomon…and most importantly where you are concerned, Lord of Hawksley Manor.”

He watched her lips purse at that, feeling a sense of dismay when he failed to avoid focusing on their lush hue and fullness as she did. Pulling his gaze back up to her eyes, he raised one brow.   “I have satisfied your inquiry, and yet you have still not answered mine. I will have it now – tell me your name and the whereabouts of my wife.”

“You refer to Eleanor? A lady whom you have neither seen nor sought word concerning for nearly half a decade?”

Wrong though she was in that assumption, Richard nevertheless felt the sting of her barb, but he didn’t reply, instead letting the ice he’d become so adept at summoning these past years sift into his gaze. The woman responded accordingly, her look of condemnation altering to one tinged with wariness. Aye, that was better. It seemed she’d suddenly remembered the extent of his power as lord of this demesne – and the dearth of her own.

She glanced to the blade dangling at his side and then back up to his face before licking those full lips to respond, “I am Margaret Newcomb, youngest daughter to the Earl of Welton and Eleanor’s distant cousin. I serve as her companion here. At the moment she is above stairs, resting.”

Richard concealed a start of disbelief upon hearing the woman’s societal rank. Distant relative or nay, what in God’s name was an earl’s daughter – one who looked as if she should have been long ago overseeing the care of her own home – doing at his humble, fortified manor house? But the answer to that would needs come later, he reasoned, after he’d had a chance to gain his bearings. He steeled himself for his next question.

“Is Eleanor ill, then, to be resting midday, Lady Margaret?” he asked, using the title she deserved by birth but seemed to have deliberately left off when making her introduction.

She winced almost imperceptibly, he noticed. Then she glanced away.

“Eleanor has been…unwell for quite some time. It has been necessary for me to take over management of the household in her stead.”

The news sank like a stone in Richard’s gut. It was what he’d feared. But oh, God, he’d hoped – by all that was holy, he’d prayed every day in the best way he knew how, with his blood and body as the sacrificial offering – for Eleanor’s return to health in the time he’d served with the Templars. He had been encouraged by the dearth of painful detail within his brother’s letters during the past two years, but it seemed it had all been for naught; his sin had been too great to allow such a boon.

Suppressing that wrenching thought, he jerked into motion, giving Margaret a curt nod. “I will see her by the by, then, when she awakens. In the meantime, I would like to bathe away the dirt of my travels. Have warmed water sent up to the second best chamber for that purpose, as I do not wish to disturb her rest.”

“Nay – that cannot be done.”

Richard stiffened.

“I did not mean the bath, sir,” Margaret added hastily, her hands fluttering for a moment like bird’s wings before she squeezed them tightly to her bodice, “but rather that it cannot be brought to the second chamber. That is where Eleanor is sleeping.”

“Why there, instead of in her own room?”

“The first chamber is – it is difficult for her to rest there,” Margaret answered, her words halting and her face flushed, making Richard wonder just how much she knew of the dark and horrible truth behind his leaving and Eleanor’s madness. “Though it is smaller, she sleeps far more peacefully in the second chamber,” Margaret added, “so I had her things moved to accommodate her need.”

Richard nodded, his jaw tight. “I see. Send the bathing water up to the first chamber, then, within the half hour. I will settle my belongings there until further notice, so as not to disturb Eleanor’s comfort. And send word to Brother Thomas at the preceptory. He was appointed steward of this estate when I left England; he continues in that role, does he not?”

“Aye.”

He noted the tight edge to her voice in delivering that single word, but he was feeling too raw – too on edge right now to pursue why.

“Then bid him to come and sup; I have much to discuss with him.”

Lady Margaret flushed again and looked as though she was about to say something further, but she abruptly stopped herself and nodded in return.

Brushing past her, Richard made his way across the great hall, not looking right or left, though acutely aware of the weight of stares pressing upon him as he went. He gripped his leather bag more tightly, reaching the stairs leading to the upper floor in another six strides.

Once at the top of them, he at last approached the portal to the first chamber. Dark memories of the past had been pummeling him ever since he’d set foot onto Hawksley’s grounds. Now they surged up again with a vengeance. He gritted his teeth against their onslaught and pushed open the door, slipping into the dimly-lighted room and dropping his bundle to the floor before shutting out the rest of the world behind him. Only after he’d secluded himself did he allow a moment to acknowledge the pain.

Then he leaned back against the unyielding wood, holding himself rigid as he fought to bring his emotions under control. Blindly, he looked around the chamber, finding no respite there; it too was filled with old ghosts – images that flashed into his mind’s eye, taunting him, tormenting…memories in snatches of time and experience…of the sweet scent of violets and the gentle caress of the sun’s warmth on long, silky dark tresses…of tinkling, little girl’s laughter that played over his soul and left in its wake a sweet agony of loss and self-loathing…of much, much more that he could not bear to relive, but could not stop from coming anyway…

Closing his eyes, Richard tipped his head up, his breathing shallow and his heart aching. Resuming his old life as master of Hawksley Manor, even for a short time, was going to be a grand and horrible penance, he knew. One that promised relentless struggle and agony far worse than anything he’d endured on the battlefield, in dungeon holes, or under the baking desert sun during the past five years. But it was his duty to see it through. He had no other choice in the matter, he thought, clenching his jaw as he finally pushed away from the door.

God help him, he had no choice.

#

A half hour later, Meg stood outside Sir Richard’s door– her door she reminded herself – her mind swirling with dark thoughts. She’d presumed he’d have immediately stormed out, uttering commands upon seeing her possessions scattered about the room he’d chosen to occupy. But he hadn’t.

In truth, he’d remained unnaturally quiet and secluded inside, even when two of the kitchen boys came back and forth carrying numerous pails of steaming water up to fill the washtub. According to their talk, Hawksley’s lord had found the wooden vessel himself, turned on its top as was usual in the corner where Meg made use of it as a table between baths. He’d brought it out, flipped it over, and bid them to fill it. She hadn’t allowed herself to think beyond that point. It had been a deliberate decision; she couldn’t bear imagining in too much detail how his strong, masculine, very naked body would be filling her tub. It was far too intimate an image to entertain.

Now here she stood outside the chamber, wondering what she should do. It had been some time since the lads had carried the last jug of water into him, and yet still no sounds issued from the chamber. No splashing or knocking about. Was he waiting, then, for her to come and assist him?

As acting lady of the manor, it was her duty, she supposed, and yet she didn’t want to. She was furious at Richard de Cantor for barging into their lives like this without warning. He was an errant husband. A man who had caused great misery to his wife if the tales she’d heard were truthful, and she had no reason to believe otherwise. Not with Eleanor as tragic, living proof. But honor demanded that she fulfill her obligations to Eleanor by aiding him, whether she liked it or not.

Resigned to what she would have to do, Meg tightened her jaw and scratched softly on the door, gripping close to her chest the folded bundle of fresh linen towels and pot of softened soap she carried. A muffled answer came through the thick wood, and she held her breath as she lifted the latch-string and slipped inside.

The chamber was quite large, but she knew it well. A pang swept through her to see it; it had been her refuge and place of peace for nearly all of her time at Hawksley. It took only a moment to locate the tub in the far corner, opposite the curtained bed. Richard himself, however, was nowhere to be seen. The spicy scent of borage petals swirled up from water that still steamed with curls of heat, the fragrance of the herb spreading through the chamber from beneath the canopy that hung over the tub to ward off chills.

“Do you require something of me, lady?”

The quiet, masculine voice came from the shadows behind the bed, and Meg started, her gaze snapping to the spot. How foolish of her to forget about the door leading to the connected wardrobe chamber. Richard had apparently been inside the little storeroom.

Looking for contents of value, no doubt.

The thought came unbidden, and she knew she should chastise herself for the less than Christian thought. But she wasn’t sorry. He was a Templar, after all, and as such he was surely well-versed in the costliness of many goods, though forbidden by the vows of the Brotherhood from keeping anything of real worth. Still, she’d known many of the Order – knights, sergeants and clerics alike – who made a habit of bending such rules.   Brother Thomas, the Templar who had been placed in charge of Hawksley in Sir Richard’s absence, was such a one. In fact —

“Did you hear me, lady? Is aught amiss?”

Though she still couldn’t see him, Richard sounded less patient than before, and she realized she had yet to answer his initial inquiry. Still hugging the folded linens to herself, she pursed her lips and veered away from his voice toward the bathing vessel, trying to keep her attention on the task at hand. She set down the towels.

“Nay, there is nothing amiss,” she answered, adding the pot of soap to her little pile near the tub. “I’ve only come to assist you with your bath. It is my duty, since Eleanor cannot.”

“It is unnecessary.”

“Of course it is necessary and proper as well. You are the lord of Hawksley and you have been abroad for a goodly time. This service is your right as well as –”

“But I have already bathed.”

His voice was a warm rumble close behind her. Too close. With a gasp, she whirled to face him, her startled gaze meeting his. How had he reached her so quickly, and with nary a sound? But he’d spoken true; he was clean-shaven, wearing fresh garments, and his dark hair was still damp, its wetness waving down to his shoulders. When he stood so close, she was struck anew at how tall and powerfully built a man he was. Taking a step back in instinctive response, she bumped the back of her legs into the tub. The canopy wavered dangerously and water sloshed over the sides.

His expression enigmatic, Richard reached past her head to steady the draped covering and prevent it from collapsing on its poles into the drink. The movement brought him even closer to her…near enough that she could smell the delicious, spicy scent that lingered on him and feel his warmth against her in contrast to the chill of the room. Perhaps it is simply the moist heat from the tub, she reasoned. But she took a gulp of air nonetheless, dismayed to realize that she’d stopped breathing from the moment he’d lunged forward to aid her.

“Forgive my clumsiness,” she murmured, afraid to move again. “It is just that I – I did not expect you to be finished in so short a time.”

“I became accustomed to bathing quickly while in Cyprus. There was little time to indulge in pleasurable pursuits.”   He lowered his arm from the now-steady canopy to look down at her, and she couldn’t help noticing that his eyes were even more beautiful than she’d realized in the great hall.

At a loss for what to say, and feeling more than a bit disconcerted under the force of his attention, Meg cleared her throat. He took a step back, then, seeming somewhat ill at ease himself, and the tension in the air shifted. His head moved subtly to the side, his gaze indicating the sweep of the room. “It appears that I have demanded use of the chamber you had made your own.”

“It is of little matter. As lord here, it is only proper now that you’ve returned home. I will move my things before nightfall.”

“You seem to be quite concerned about doing what is proper, Lady Margaret.”

She tried not to wince again at the sound of her true name. Standing straighter, she answered, “There is no shame in doing right, Sir Richard. And as the issue has presented itself, I must tell you that I do not relish being addressed by my formal title. I have long asked that the servants of Hawksley Manor and those from the village refer to me simply as Meg.”

“Meg?”

He sounded incredulous, but she avoided his stare.

“Aye, it is my request.”

“But you are the daughter of an earl, are you not? You have just schooled me on the virtues to be found in following the limits of propriety. As a simple knight, I am of a far lesser standing than you. Such informality can hardly be construed as proper –”

“And yet it is the way I would have it,” she broke in, lacing her fingers tightly in front of her.

“Why?”

The question startled her, and she found herself unable to answer right away. The truth behind it all wouldn’t do, that much was certain. She would have to gamble that he would be gracious enough to accept the meager reasons she could voice. Evenly, she answered, “With the exception of Brother Thomas and the others residing at the Templar Priory to the west of Hawksley, the people of this demesne feel more at ease around me and I them when there is no chasm of title between us. This aids me in my role as Eleanor’s caretaker, for I often need to ask them for assistance. If you would be so kind as to honor my request, I would be most…grateful.”

Richard continued to study her, and she glanced up at him again, then, only to feel hard-pressed in deciding whether his hazel eyes held amusement or pique.

“Very well,” he answered at last. “I concede to your wishes – though it will be uncomfortable until I become accustomed to it.” His expression remained bemused as he added, “Naturally, I must require you to share in my discomfort. It would be ludicrous to maintain my title of address in our conversations, when you have forfeited your own. Agreed?”

She paused for just an instant, a tiny shiver slipping down her back; she’d never known any man to willingly forego a title owed him. Most were far too overweening to see the possibility as anything but insult. But without comment, she dipped her chin. “Of course.” Then, straightening her shoulders, she prepared to move past him. “Now, as it seems that the task for which I came is no longer required, may I leave? You must be weary from your journey, and I can return for my belongings after you have rested.”

“Nay. We must discuss something further before you go.”

Meg stiffened, willing herself to maintain her calm demeanor. Here it was, then. What she’d feared since he first appeared in the doorway below stairs; he was going to tell her that she was no longer needed to care for Eleanor. Now that he’d returned home she would be free to go, not only from this room but also from Hawksley altogether. He would release her.

And then…and then…

Her palms felt damp and so she twisted them in her skirts.

“You haven’t yet said where you intend to take your possessions,” he continued. “Unless you are willing to share the smaller chamber with Eleanor, the only other choice would be to bed with the servants below stairs, and that would not be prop–”, he broke off mid-word, flashing a glance of exasperation. “Such a circumstance would not be seemly for one of your birth. You are an earl’s daughter, whether or not you wish to use the title that accompanies that ranking.”

Meg flushed. If this was his way of trying to get her to offer to leave on her own, he was sadly mistaken. She’d bed down with the chickens first.

“Sharing the second chamber with Eleanor will suit quite well, my lord,” she answered sweetly, doing her best to hide her fear and animosity.

A scratch suddenly sounded at the door, making Meg jump. Frowning at the interruption, Richard called out for entry, and Willa shuffled in, looking both discomfited and fierce all at once. Meg felt a swell of gratitude toward this woman who, after an initial period of adjustment, had been more like a mother than a household servant to her during her time at Hawksley; it was clear that Willa had noticed the length of time she and Richard had been closeted in the bedchamber alone. Like a mama cat with her kitten, she had come in to make certain that all was well.

Richard looked at Willa in question as she took up a position near Meg.

“Pardon, sir,” Willa murmured, nodding in deference. “I came to tell you that your message to Brother Thomas has been received. He sent word back that he will be arriving as soon as is possible.”

“I am glad to hear it, mistress…?”

“Willa, sir. Just Willa.”

“Aye, that seems a common theme in this house,” he said under his breath, adding more loudly, “I do not recall having seen you before, Willa. What position do you hold at Hawksley?”

“I am cook and general housekeeper, milord, and have been for near three years.”

“I see. Then perhaps you can assist Lady Marg—I mean, Meg, in moving her belongings into the second chamber after the evening meal.”

“Into the second chamber?” Willa looked aghast. “With Lady de Cantor? But she cannot–”

“It is quite satisfactory, Willa.” Meg kept her tone even, though she threw the cook a sharp glance. “You shall help me to set up everything to ensure that my cousin is not disturbed by my arrival.”

“Why – is there some further difficulty of which I am not aware?” Richard asked, frowning again.

“Nay, all is well. The arrangement will suit just fine.” Meg knew her voice sounded tight, and she struggled to paste a bland smile to her face. But though Willa remained silent now, she glowered like a thundercloud before shaking her head enough to set her jowls jiggling. Then with a mumbled by your leave, she departed the chamber.

“If that is all, then?” Meg allowed her words to trail off and backed away from Richard to the door as she did.

He nodded his permission this time, still looking serious, his gaze piercing her with heat – with the warm, tantalizing brush of awareness…

Quickly, Meg slipped out into the hall, closing the heavy wooden slab behind her. Then she breathed a sigh of relief, sagging against the wall for a moment.

Hawksley’s lord had agreed to let her stay, and that was what mattered most. The rest would need to be worked out in time, for though residing in the same room with Ella was sure to prove difficult, it would at least allow her to stay. She would try to serve as a buffer between her cousin and this man; he seemed dangerous somehow, and not only because of the stories she had heard about him. Nay, it was more than that. Something akin to the way he made her heart race, the way her skin seemed to tingle and take on a heated flush when he was near. It was unsettling and unwelcome.

Glancing back over her shoulder at the door that concealed him from her sight, Meg tightened her jaw and set off with purpose down the hall. One thing was certain, she thought; she’d feel much better as soon as she got back to work…and put as goodly a distance between herself and the disturbing lord of Hawksley Manor as was possible.

#

Richard held himself very still as he watched Lady Margaret Newcomb – Meg, as he had agreed to call her, by all the saints – steal out of his chamber. He could do little else but remain so as he tried to regain his bearings. She had startled him, had shaken him from his usual sense of balance, not only with her forthright manner but also with the sharp pangs of desire her very presence had sent spilling through him; the feelings had been wholly unexpected and certainly unwelcome, but they were there.

When he had stood so close to her near the bath…when he had been forced to reach out to prevent the canopy from collapsing into the water, it had been all he could do not to allow his hand to brush against the softness of her hair instead. Even so, he had not been able to keep himself from breathing in the heady sweet and spice fragrance of her. Nay, he had been too weak. And for the first time in nearly a decade he had been gripped with the stark and raw need for a woman’s touch. For this woman’s touch. He had been possessed with a yearning to touch and embrace her as well – a sharp, biting ache that made his breath catch and his stomach drop in a way that was far too pleasant to be allowable.

He clenched his jaw hard, savoring the tightness….aware that it echoed the hollow throbbing of guilt that was even now churning in his soul. He was a married man by God, only newly returned home. A man married to a wife stricken with madness, it was true, but wed nonetheless. And even were that not so, he knew without a doubt that he was a man to whom no woman should find herself bound in any way, ever again. No female deserved that miserable fate. He had proven not once but twice that he was unworthy to know the bliss of a woman’s love and the comfort of a tender embrace. By this point he had thought himself well accustomed to that knowledge.

But that had been before the Lady Margaret Newcomb had stepped into his life.

With a grimace, he walked over to the table in his solar and sat down; then with much deliberation, he reached for the sack of Templar treasure he had managed to protect during his flight from France. As he sorted through its contents, Richard tried to forcibly direct his thoughts away from the maddening path they had been taking; achieving that goal was proving far more challenging than he cared to admit, but he would make it so. He had to, for he knew better than anyone the kinds of difficulties the coming weeks were going to bring.

Because when all was said and done, it was quite clear that he had more than enough to contend with here at Hawksley Manor without adding a dangerous and forbidden attraction to the mix…a temptation that could come to naught but heartache, to a heart that was already trampled under the boots of guilt and regret.

 

Chapter Two

Richard paced his solar, waiting for Brother Thomas to arrive.  The Templar priest had been delayed, missing the meal altogether – a result that was probably for the best anyway. Supper had been a strained affair, to put it mildly. Though his years with the Brotherhood had accustomed him to silence while eating, the dagger-edged stares coming at him from all directions were another thing altogether.

Eleanor would not be descending from her bedchamber to partake of the meal, Meg had informed him, a circumstance which he learned upon asking, was not at all unusual. The chilly exchange had only served to highlight more clearly to himself and everyone else in hearing distance he wagered, how precious little he knew about the stranger who had shared his name for the past eight years.

Not that he’d ever truly known Eleanor, he reminded himself.  He walked over the hearth and squatted down, warming his hands and staring into the twisting flames. The memories churned, and though they sent a renewed aching through him, he found that he couldn’t block them from his mind as he’d been able to when he was in Cyprus.

His thoughts reached back to the very beginning with Eleanor and the first time he’d seen her at court, all golden hair and wide, thick-lashed blue eyes. Even then she had been delicate and somehow ethereal, seeming beyond the realm of his understanding. He had no more been able to predict her moods or read the workings of her heart than he could say when the wind would blow. But she had needed him. It had been what had first drawn him into their marriage vows those many years ago.

There had been little else, he’d been forced to admit later. Aye, she was undeniably beautiful, but he had entered their union because she was a woman yearning for comfort, protection, nurturing – for many things. He’d fallen into the required role so easily…done his best to fill that emptiness for her. And in truth, she’d seemed content in him as her choice.

But in the end the woman he’d married had become a stranger to him, alternately cold and silent or weeping and inconsolable. It was what had driven him to join the Templars, desperately seeking redemption and a sense of peace he’d never found.

Now, after almost five years away, he didn’t know her at all.

 

Richard stood, his breath exhaling in a heavy sigh. He needed to go and see Eleanor face to face, much as he dreaded the moment; until she awakened, he was granted a reprieve, but he dreaded it nonetheless. Even more, he knew, than he did the discussion that was about to take place between himself and Brother Thomas, the Master of the local Templar Preceptory, who had been placed in charge of Hawksley during his absence.

Running his fingers through his hair, Richard walked over to the prie deux near the sole window of the chamber. Perhaps he should try to pray. He’d have felt far more comfortable driving himself to physical exhaustion with training, but at the moment such an outlet did not seem feasible. Besides, there was always hope, as unlikely as it was, that this time the praying would work. A voice brought him up short in the act of kneeling.

“Sir Richard, forgive my tardiness.”

So be it.

“It has been too long since last we met,” Brother Thomas continued, “though I confess that I had expected your return to Hawksley Manor nearly a year ago, after your official term as a Templar Knight was completed.”

Richard turned slowly from the prie deux to face the cleric, vaguely annoyed at the tone of the man’s censure. Brother Thomas stood in the shadows of the open doorway, and so, tipping his head, Richard indicated that he should come in the rest of the way. Though he didn’t voice the idea, he couldn’t help thinking that Brother Thomas looked rather more prosperous in his dress and bearing than he had the last time they had met.

“I saw no reason to give up my service so abruptly, Brother,” he answered aloud, “when it was clear I could continue to be useful to the Order.”

“And what of your wife?” the priest asked as he approached. “Did you not consider her?”

Richard paused for a strained beat before answering. “Letters from my brother led me to believe that Eleanor has been well cared for in my absence. I understand, however, that as of this moment she is…unimproved in her affliction and may very well not know me.”

“Aye, that is so,” Brother Thomas murmured, shaking his head. “Quite surprising, in view of your considerable sacrifice to God.”

The Templar cleric looked away then, and Richard couldn’t tell whether or not he’d offered the statement as additional censure. It didn’t matter. The implication of the truth that had greeted him upon his return to Hawksley was clear as water: his sin was so great that not even five years spent offering body and soul to God as a weapon of vengeance could expiate it. He hadn’t been punished enough. If he’d been forgiven, Eleanor would have been healed. She would be whole.

“But be that as it may,” Brother Thomas added, bringing him back to the task, “You should not tarry too long in your reunion. It would not be seemly.”

“And yet I do not wish to upset my wife by waking her from sleep to greet me after so long an absence. Her cousin made it clear she was resting and shouldn’t be disturbed.”

“Aye, well Lady Margaret is very resourceful in her protection of her cousin – perhaps too much so,” Brother Thomas clipped. “You would do well to curtail that woman’s influence here now that you’ve returned.”

Richard paused again, absorbing the hostility Brother Thomas seemed to feel for Meg – a woman who appeared nothing but devoted to Eleanor from what Richard had observed. He was careful to keep his voice neutral. “Do you know her story? It seems unusual for the daughter of an earl to waste her youth far from society to live as nursemaid on a distant relative’s country estate.”

“Just the contrary; she is fortunate to have a place here, sinful creature that she is.”

“Sinful? How so?”

“Not in a manner that would bring harm to your wife, rest assured,” Brother Thomas offered. “Lady Margaret is simply a true daughter of Eve.” He lifted his gaze to Richard.   “I received few details when she arrived here two years past, but I know prior to that she had engaged in an illicit union with a man of lower birth. The temptress willingly abandoned her virtue to him.”

Richard kept hidden the surprise that shot through him at the information. “What brought her to Hawksley, then?”

Brother Thomas made a noise deep in his throat. “As expected, the earl her father was none too pleased with her transgression. He secluded her in a nunnery as penance. It was only upon the death of Lady de Cantor’s former nurse that Lady Margaret was pressed into service here. The earl hoped that this humble position would go farther to teach her obedience and remorse for her licentious behavior.” He shook his head.   “It has done little good, I fear.”

“Aye, well, she does not strike me as particularly remorseful, I’ll grant you that,” Richard murmured, remembering Meg’s passionate words and fiery glares.

“Precisely. She is far too proud, considering her circumstances. But under your authority, I trust her demeanor will improve, and that you will make progress where I could not. My journeying to Hawksley each week to administer her correction has been less than ideal I will admit.”

Richard felt another lance of surprise. “I am not sure that I understand what you mean.”

“Lady Margaret’s physical penance, of course,” Brother Thomas said, sounding confused in the face of Richard’s query. “Weekly mortification of the flesh in effort to expunge her soul of the dire sin she brought upon herself. It is common in cases such as hers – a blessed and wholly sanctioned way of bringing oneself back to God after grave transgression.” He fixed Richard with his gaze, his brows knit with consternation. “As a fellow Templar, you cannot be unfamiliar with the practice.”

Richard didn’t answer at first, instead walking over to the hearth again to stir the coals and add more wood to the blaze. His chest felt tight with memories of exactly what Brother Thomas had just described…regular beatings delivered at a preordained time by the Master of the Preceptory to cleanse the soul of sin. Sometimes the penance was delivered in sharp blows to the back or palms with a wooden rod, other times, it involved strokes with a biting lash. He wondered which Meg had been made to bear, and he was unable to keep his fists from clenching at the thought that she’d been forced to suffer either.

Glancing over to the cleric, he struggled to bring his reaction under control. “The practice is familiar to me, of course, Brother. I just did not realize that Lady Margaret had been consigned to it. She has been here already for two years; it seems a long term for such atonement.”

“Her failing was severe, placing not only her immortal soul in reach of the flames, but also depriving her father of the fortuitous marriage he had arranged for her. It was he who recommended the penance to the abbess with whom she was originally placed, and I was instructed to uphold the practice upon her arrival here.”

“I see.” Tossing a final log on the fire, Richard straightened and stood with his back to the hearth. “It appears, then, that I must oversee this…duty. And yet you should be aware that I do not know how long I will be remaining at Hawksley. I have not received instructions from the Grand Master concerning my future activities, nor have I been officially released from my service with the Templars.”

Brother Thomas frowned anew. “The Grand Master…aye…he is another matter which I had hoped to discuss with you further today.”

“Have you heard anything, then? Was he able to escape France?”

“There has been some news. Just yestermorn, in fact.”

“What is it?”

“To my great sorrow, I was told that Jacques de Molay was brought into custody on the morn of October thirteenth, along with nearly six thousand other Templar sergeants, preceptors, knights, and brethren, all taken before nightfall.” Brother Thomas’s expression flickered almost imperceptibly as he added, “Though your reputation for unmatched skill with blade and shield is widely known, Sir Richard, it nevertheless seems that you were very fortunate…one of only a handful of brethren, whether warriors or otherwise, to escape France on that day of infamy.”

Richard looked away, his jaw clenched as the dark memories rose up again, painful flashes of his storm-swept flight through Normandy. They pricked at him, renewing his feelings of anger and impotence.

“The Grand Master’s arrest on the thirteenth was a double injustice,” Brother Thomas continued, “perpetrated only one day after he had been granted a position of honor at the funeral of King Philip’s sister by marriage, Catherine de Valois.”

Richard bit back the curse that rose to his lips at that, forestalling it to grate out the question that had been burning inside him since the black day of the arrests. “But why the Templars? On what charges?”

“Heresy and the immorality of the Order as a whole.”

“What?”

Brother Thomas shook his head again, moving toward the solar’s window to look out. “I know…it is beyond belief, and yet it is so.”

“Has not the Pope stepped forward to demand an end to this?” Richard asked hoarsely. “No earthly king has authority over the Templars. Why has His Holiness not condemned King Phillip’s actions against the Order?”

“He has, but the charges are vast…shocking in content.” He turned his face from the window to meet Richard’s gaze. “Clouding the matter, some of those in custody have already admitted guilt in the crimes charged against them, no doubt thanks to the ingenious means employed by those appointed to extract their confessions.”

“Torture.”

Richard uttered the word more as a statement than a question, but Brother Thomas responded with a vehemence that revealed his anger over the truth of it – and perhaps his dread.

“Aye. The French king has placed no limits. It is profane, and yet, if more Templars capitulate, the tide will continue to rise against us…and perhaps spread to our shores.”

Richard fisted his hand where it rested on the mantel.   All of this news was not unexpected, and yet to hear it said aloud made it that much more difficult to stomach.

“What in heaven’s name will we do, if our own King Edward takes up the call of France’s monarch? He is young and new to the throne…mayhap he will be too easily swayed to join in the outcry against us,” Brother Thomas murmured after a moment, his gaze haunted. “The vast number of brethren in England, myself included, are not of the warrior class. We have never wielded a weapon in our lives. It was the same in France, and they fell as lambs before the wolf. What will become of us?”

Richard remained silent, coming to the realization of the answer only an instant before he spoke. “I can only say what my own course will be, Brother. I fled once in order to protect some of that which belongs to the Templars – and to preserve myself, I confess it freely. I will not flee again, even should the Inquisition march to the very gates of Hawksley.”

That seemed to shock the priest from his stupor; he flashed a pointed stare at Richard’s clean-shaven jaw. “And yet you have chosen to rid yourself of the beard required of those in the Order. Perhaps your mind will change about leaving England as well, as the evil tide laps closer…?”

Richard fought a surge of shame. Shaving his beard had been an unwelcome but necessary action, taken in an attempt to buy a little more time to reach the coast after separating from Damien, John, and Alex on the night of the arrests.

“As you have already pointed out,” he said, suppressing the emotion, “my mandated term with the Templars ended a year ago. Nevertheless, my commitment to the Brotherhood remains strong. My Templar comrades and I did what was necessary to keep our freedom, and in truth we had more than our own lives to protect. We were charged with the safekeeping of goods given us by the Preceptor of Normandy himself, Geoffrey de Charnay. He was traveling toward Paris to greet the Grand Master and was with us when the arrests began. I and my three friends only just managed to escape with what he handed over before King Philip’s soldiers were at the door.”

“I see.” A gleam lit Brother Thomas’s gaze for an instant before he looked away. “There has been much talk of the Templar treasure in France being spirited away before the arrests. Might that comprise some of the goods of which you speak?”

“I do not know.”

“Did you not look at the items you were handed?”

“Aye, though that was of little matter at the time.” Richard leveled a hard stare on him.   “We were simply fulfilling our duty by attempting to carry the sacks to safety.”

Brother Thomas nodded, seemingly unaware that he had sounded so avaricious. “I ask for no other reason but that I intend to offer use of the preceptory for storing the treasure –” he broke off, looking apologetically at Richard and tilting his head in deference, “—if indeed you would qualify the contents of the sacks as such. ‘It would be far safer on Templar property.”

“Hawksley Manor is Templar Property – it became so upon my acceptance into the Order.”

“Only half of it. You entered for but a fixed term, and as a married man; the rights to the remaining half of the estate must be retained for the sustenance of your wife,” Brother Thomas reminded him.

He was correct in that, Richard knew, but it didn’t change the fact that in his own mind he’d consigned Hawksley Manor to the Templars long ago. He rubbed his hand along the cool, smooth wood of the finely carved mantel, savoring the feel of it. Giving over Hawksley had been another sacrifice, an attempt to aid in expiating his sins. The estate had been a gift from the king himself…a reward that he’d later learned had been earned at too great a cost.

Brother Thomas shook his head again. “Nay, Hawksley Manor is not the best place to store Templar of valuables should the arrests begin in England. If it goes the way of France, the soldiers will surely claim right to goods found on any properties associated with the Brotherhood.”

“Then how will the preceptory provide a safe-haven?” Richard asked, moving away at last from the warmth of the hearth. “An official Templar holding seems far more suspect and likely to be ransacked. We saw many such preceptories in France suffering that indignity on our flight from the countryside to England, but few secular houses.”

“Ah, but I haven’t told you all. Long ago I discovered an alcove near our burial grounds. None know of it but myself and another of the retired brothers – the man who was it with me when I stumbled upon it. There was little in it but some scraps of cloth and a few broken chalices, but it is a sturdy recess in the earth, lined with stone. It rests where a grave would be. Any Templar fortune would be safe there. Even the Inquisitors, unholy as they are, would never think to desecrate burial ground. In fact, after hearing of the arrests in France, I took all monies and valuables from the preceptory’s main house and secured them in that very spot.”

Richard paused, his arms crossed over his chest. As much as he wished he could refute it, Brother Thomas might have a point. And the man was surely harmless, as far as the actual safety of the valuables went; many Templars were deeply concerned with matters of goods and finance, Richard knew. The holding and transferring of secular property for any who wished to partake of the service – for a fee, of course – was a mainstay of the Brotherhood.

“I would only need to know how much space is required,” Brother Thomas went on, apparently assuming Richard was in agreement though he hadn’t spoken his decision yet. Brother Thomas tapped his finger to his lips as if mentally calculating the amount of treasure to be secreted.

“You needn’t fear on that account,” Richard said, feeling somewhat bemused at the man’s continued preoccupation. “There is but one small sack to concern ourselves with at the moment.”

Brother Thomas seemed startled. “There were others, then?”

Richard nodded, rocking back on his heels. “Aye, there were. But I and two of the knights with whom I escaped France divided the whole between us when we were forced to separate. I have but one sack with me now. My comrades agreed to make their way here to Hawksley with the goods entrusted to them, if they are able. I anticipate their arrival, God willing, within the next few weeks.”

Silence fell then, Brother Thomas’s lips pressed tightly together. Finally he spoke. “I see. It seems that in the meantime we can do naught but pray for their safe deliverance.”

Whether the “they” Brother Thomas referred to was the men or the bags of goods they carried was impossible to tell, and Richard cleared his throat, preparing to find out. But before he could speak further, there was a scratch on the door, followed by its swinging open, though no call for entry had been made. He twisted to see what person would be so bold.

It was Meg, of course.

“I regret the intrusion, my lord,” she murmured to him, looking down, though her voice and expression showed that she felt little if any such reluctance, “but I thought it best that you be told that Eleanor has awakened, should you desire to commence your reunion with her.”

When he didn’t answer immediately, Meg’s gaze lifted for a brief instant to his, and he would have sworn he saw a glimmer of softness – sympathy, perhaps? – in her eyes, accented by the deepening pink of her cheeks. But then Brother Thomas stepped forward to speak, and any vision of softness disappeared.

“Greetings, Lady Margaret,” the preceptor murmured, his voice tight with thinly-veiled disapproval. “While it is good to see you prior to our prescribed time of meeting each week, I cannot help but wonder at your interruption. Surely the news you brought could have held until Sir Richard and I were finished?”

Meg flushed more deeply, but whether her discomfit was the result of embarrassment or anger, Richard couldn’t discern at first. In the next moment he decided it was the latter. She lifted her gaze, defiance crackling from every graceful inch of her; he watched, possessed suddenly by an urge to smooth with his thumb the tightened line of her lush mouth. Heat of a very inappropriate kind shot through him, and the realization of it shocked him into motion, causing him to step forward as an instinctive buffer between her and the cleric. But that didn’t stop her from beginning to deliver a biting response.

Richard cut off her rejoinder by saying, “I welcome the interruption, Brother to be sure, for it is news I am very grateful to receive.” In the same moment, he lightly touched her arm to coax her toward the door, steeling himself against the pleasure that slight caress afforded him. He had been without a woman for too long, he thought ruefully. Far too long, to take notice of such a simple touch – and one he had no right to enjoy.

She seemed as if she would resist him, her rigidity belying her continuing anger. But then she shifted her weight to walk stiffly with Richard, approaching the portal first as he stepped aside to let her pass.

He paused long enough to look back to Brother Thomas. “We can conclude the details of our discussion later, if you’re willing. As you cautioned earlier, it would not be seemly to tarry longer in apprising my wife of my return to Hawksley. Perhaps you can partake of some warmed ale while you wait.”

Unable to refute his own warning, Brother Thomas nodded once, curtly, and Richard followed Meg through the door, pulling the heavy slab of wood shut behind them as they left. She still looked wound tight, as if it were taking all of her strength not to let a stream of curses fall from her lips.

They hadn’t proceeded far down the hall before Richard cast a sidelong glance at her. “While I am observant enough to realize that there is no love lost between you and Brother Thomas, you were nevertheless quite sharp with him in there. Why?”

“Because he pretended ignorance about something he knows full well, and it irritated me,” she answered, keeping her gaze trained in front of her as they rounded the corner toward the second chamber.

“Concerning Eleanor?” Richard asked, acknowledging the swell of pain that rose with the question, even as he nodded to Hugh, who was still standing guard outside Eleanor’s door.

The blacksmith returned a respectful bow and then gave way, leaving his post to turn toward the stairs. Meg paused with Richard in front of the chamber, giving him a look that was half exasperation, half pity. “Aye, concerning Eleanor,” she said. Her voice was soft, yet it apparently echoed louder than she’d expected within the hollow length of the hall, for she winced and lowered her tone even further when she spoke again. “It has been a long time for you, perhaps, and yet before you enter this chamber and see her again, you need to understand something, my lord. Eleanor is not –”

She paused, pressing her lips together for an instant and looking away, as if trying to find the right words. She looked back at him again, her fingers threaded tightly in front of her. “Eleanor is lost in a world of her own making much of the time, driven by demons that no one else can see.  When she is calm and peaceful, it is but a fleeting moment, sometimes no more than an hour in a day. And even then her emotions are precarious. She –”

“I know, lady.” Richard broke in, unable to bear a further recitation of Eleanor’s haunted existence. “Far too well, I know.” He fisted his hand at his side, his mouth twisting with grief and bitterness as he spoke. “My wife is a weeping child one moment and a stone-faced statue the next. At other times she sits and rocks, humming wordless tunes with no end. It is a pity beyond bearing. I had hoped to find her healed after my time away, but such was not to be.”

He saw Meg unsuccessfully try to conceal her surprise. Did it seem so strange to her, then, that he knew – that he cared – about Eleanor’s loss of peace?

The thought stung. He knew he shouldn’t concern himself with anyone’s unflattering opinions of him. It affected naught but his pride, and God knew he had little room for that any longer in his life.   Still, it rankled nonetheless.

Tamping it down with ruthless force, he directed his energies to the here and now. There was one more question he needed to ask before he could steel himself to face Eleanor again. “Tell me, lady, does Eleanor still cling to her poppet of rags?”

Meg’s gaze snapped to his face at that. Something she found there must have satisfied her, for her expression softened and at last she answered huskily, “Aye, she keeps it with her always and becomes quite distressed if it is misplaced, even for a few minutes.”

Richard’s jaw tightened and the sick feeling in his stomach intensified. “Perhaps it is best that I see her now, then, before her mood shifts.”

He uttered the statement with finality, but he found that it was difficult to push his voice past the lump that seemed to have settled at the base of his throat. Lifting the latch at the door, he added, “Accompany me inside, if you will. Eleanor may not react well, and you are a familiar face to her.”

A slight frown marring her brow, Meg nodded silently, falling into place behind him as he pushed open the portal that had hitherto concealed his wife from his sight.

And then he forgot all else. His gaze took in the small, dimly lit room with its single, barred window; Eleanor was curled in a chair at the far end, facing away from him. She didn’t turn to look as he entered – but the haunted shades of his past did. In his mind’s eye they seemed to come more alive than ever before, lifting their shapeless heads, fluttering toward him in a dark, swarming mass…fixing their burning stares on him as he stood there in the doorway.

He gritted his teeth, his chest burning as the guilt began to twist deeper, deeper inside him. Goaded by the pain, he stepped resolutely across the threshold…

And straight on a path to his own personal hell.

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