PrologueChâteau du Étoile, outside Montivilliers, France March 1308
Darkness fast approached; there could be no further delay.
Shadowy tendrils stabbed through the crimson light creeping in at the shutters of the turret, but Lady Alissende of Surrey remained motionless, her fingers clenched and her heart rebellious under the weight of this decision she was being asked to accept. Breathing deeply, she lifted her troubled gaze first to her widowed mother, the still beautiful Lady Blanche, then to her recently-ordained second cousin and adored companion of childhood, Father Michael, seeking some berth from the emotions churning inside of her.
There was naught but bleak acceptance in their expressions. That and perhaps the expectation that she should concede to the necessity of what they had placed before her.
Another burst of defiance flared in Alissende’s breast, fueled by her desperation. She shook her head, almost choking on the words. “I cannot do this, Michael! Please…there must be another way—”
“There is not, amie,” he broke in, his voice heavy with regret. He lifted his gentle gaze to hers, his brow furrowed. “There is no time to seek another. You know my brother. Hugh will not be content to relinquish his claim to you unless he is compelled by law to it. We were fortunate to gain these few days by fleeing to your mother’s holding here, but it is a temporary sanctuary at best.” Father Michael lowered his chin, his gaze fixing her, resolute. “You must marry again, Alissende, and now, before we return to England – before Hugh has another opportunity to act again in his pursuit of you. Taking Sir Damien in proxy marriage is the only plausible solution.”
Alissende closed her eyes briefly as his name stabbed through her, the sweetness and sting of it blending together. It washed over her along with the image of one still and hot summer afternoon long ago, of sun caressing golden skin…of his face above hers, strong and handsome, his expression intense with the agony of pleasure.
Swallowing back the bittersweet memory, she opened her eyes.
“And what of his wishes?” she asked huskily, incapable even now of saying his name aloud. “You can be sure that he would not relish the thought of binding himself to me in any way after all that passed between us those many years ago.”
“Sir Damien de Ashby is in the hands of the Inquisition and has been for nearly half a year. Believe me when I tell you that such matters mean little to him at the moment,” Michael answered, his voice laced with some dark emotion.
Unwilling – unable for her own sanity – to think too deeply on the true meaning behind her cousin’s ominous words, Alissende glanced once more to her mother, who looked as though she would gladly take on the burden of her pain if she could. But no one could help her now. No one, it seemed, but the one man on earth she could not bear the thought of seeing again, no less marrying.
“Mon Dieu, but I would as soon take the veil as go forward with this,” she murmured.
“That cannot be,” Michael countered. “The king would never allow it. As it is, his majesty will be angered that you fled to France and remarried without his consent. But praise be to God, he is a much softer man than was his sire, and he is more like to forgive an act of disobedience if the reason behind it seems to be one of the heart. The very public history of youthful love you shared with Sir Damien makes him the perfect choice for a union undertaken with such haste. He is here in France and in no position to decline. You need the protection to be gained by a marriage with him. It is the only way.”
A reason of the heart. Alissende’s thoughts fixed on the phrase; if she could have called forth her voice at that moment, it would have sounded strangled at best.
“And yet even if the king’s reaction were not a concern,” Michael went on, clearly intent on persuading her, “my brother continues to remain so. You are too rich a prize for him to concede. Should we attempt to seclude you in a convent either here or in England, Hugh would take you by force, as he tried to do at your own holding at Glenheim but a month past.”
“Of that I have little doubt,” Lady Blanche murmured, her elegant mouth frowning.
“It will not come to such if we accept this boon that has been laid at our feet,” Michael reminded them. “It has been years, it is true, but Damien is one of the few men I have seen who might be capable of defeating Hugh in combat; I have been told that after leaving England, he served as a Templar Knight within the Brotherhood’s most elite circle of warriors, and his skill with the blade is nearly unmatched. However, the danger that he will be lost to us mounts with each hour he remains in the hands of the Inquisition. A choice must be made.” He fixed Alissende with his gaze once more. “Only you can decide, cousin, for it is your welfare that rests in the balance.”
Nausea filled Alissende. That Hugh would not rest until something, or someone, made him cease his pursuit of her was indisputable. She had known him all her life, and though he and Michael were brothers, they were as alike as innocence was to decadence. Hugh was possessed of a violent and grasping nature, and it was clear that his ascension to the Earldom of Harwick vacated by his late father had made him bold enough to believe that he could simply take her at his will, removing all obstacles, it seemed…including even Godfrey Claremont, Earl of Denton – the difficult man who had been her lawfully wedded husband for four years. It frightened her beyond measure.
And yet the alternative was no less frightening in its own way.
“Perhaps I am mistaken in your feelings, Alissende,” Michael murmured in response to her long silence. “If accepting Hugh has become more agreeable to you, then –”
“Nay!” she interrupted, sure in that, at least.
Michael nodded, a knowing expression in his kind eyes. “Then you must consider Sir Damien. Through my office as a priest, I could more swiftly arrange the proxy documents. It would not be without risk, of course, but I could see them drawn up along with what will pass, pray God, for a Writ of Absolution from the Inquisition so that Sir Damien will be protected from re-arrest once he arrives in England. We would need to send word to the king, declaring the marriage legitimate, and then prepare to move among your estates here and in England to avoid Hugh until Damien can take his position at your side.”
As he said the last, Alissende knew that Michael glanced away for an uncomfortable moment, though she was not looking directly at him.
Finally raising her gaze from her clenched fingers once more, Alissende locked her stare with her cousin, heat burning the backs of her eyes and her heart pounding with dread at the enormity of what taking this unorthodox step would mean.
She only need give her consent and it would be done. The proxy documents would be drawn up, the Writ of Absolution forged, and a sum of her prodigious fortune prepared to pay the men who would steal Damien away from his captivity. Eventually, he would take his place at her side as her husband. As her husband, God help her. It would be so easy to say yes, and yet…
Michael must have sensed her wavering, for his gaze flooded with understanding before his mouth tightened as he offered the final statement that he had to know could not help but seal her doom.
“I had hoped to spare you the fullness of this, cousin, but I can see that it must be said to aid you in making your decision,” he said lowly. “You must consider that the Inquisition in France has never been known for compassion in its methods of extracting confession from accused heretics – and with King Philip the Fair’s call to prove the entire Templar Brotherhood guilty of such sins, the French Inquisitors seem to have exceeded all previous bounds of cruelty.”
Alissende’s breath caught and a sickening sensation twisted in her belly. “I did not realize…” She shook her head, anguish filling her. “I – I had thought talk of the Inquisitors’ brutality to be naught but rumor, spread by those unfaithful to the Church.”
“I only wish it were so. But I have seen the results of their interrogations with my own eyes,” Michael continued, his words raking at her without mercy, “and the difficult truth is that Damien is suffering, Alissende. More than many a man could bear and still live; he has been tortured ruthlessly by his captors. Even if we are successful in freeing him, he may not survive his rescue.”
A bubble of shock seemed to fill Alissende’s chest, blocking out all but the gasp that escaped her as she pressed her trembling fingers to her lips.
“But if he dies, then where will that leave Alissende?” Lady Blanche asked, her eyes filled with concern.
Michael frowned. “No worse than she fares right now. At the very least, creating this proxy marriage will gain us valuable time in finding another suitable protector who will be willing to stand up to Hugh and his aggressions.”
He must have realized how calculating his statement sounded, for he glanced to Alissende and added more gently, “But pray heaven it will not come to that, and we can liberate Damien in time to restore him to his former strength and vitality.”
Alissende’s eyes closed again, this time of their own accord against the hot swell of liquid that came forth unbidden at the mere thought of the kind of torment Michael had described being applied to Damien. Oh, God.
She possessed means of stopping his pain; it was irrefutable. That Damien himself would surely despise the very thought of her mattered little in the face of that awful reality. Aye, it had to be done. When the time came, she would bear up under his scorn the best that she could. If he survived…
With a jerking nod of her chin and a sharp intake of breath, Alissende opened her eyes once more and murmured her agreement in a voice almost inaudible, for the tightness constricting her throat. “So be it, Michael. I give my consent to your proposition. Undertake what must be done.”
The sensation of coolness swept over Damien’s face, accompanied by the curling embrace of blessed fresh air around his body. He struggled to open his eyes, even as he felt strong hands gripping him, bearing him up. Dimly, his mind locked onto the knowledge that he was being carried somewhere. Somewhere away from the stench and darkness and pain of his cell. But where? And why?
That his captors saw fit to move him now after all this time spent in fetid misery could mean nothing good. Any brief respite he’d been granted before had always been followed by infliction of even greater pain.
Aye, at the other end of this little journey waited naught but more wicked cruelty, worse than what had come before. That thought twisted through him, stealing his breath. He could not imagine any agony more intense than those he had already known. He wouldn’t, lest he go mad from thinking on it.
But he need not go quietly to it, either.
And so with whatever strength he still possessed, he fought back against his oppressors’ progress. He heard a grunt of reaction and knew the satisfaction of having inflicted some discomfort on one of them. Then he braced himself for the retribution that was sure to come, hoping that this time it would be strong enough to release him from this everlasting hell.
But nothing happened, other than the same, gently rocking movement as before.
Determined to force them to action, Damien sucked in a heady breath of air and coiled the last of his energy into one final act of defiance, lashing out with his arms and legs – demanding reprisal. When his power was spent, he went still. But instead of gut-wrenching punishment, he was shocked to feel the brush of warm breath against his cheek.
“Peace, man,” a low male voice murmured, close to his ear. “Cease your struggles. There will be no further harm to you with us.”
No further harm?
The phrase echoed through Damien’s brain, mocking, surely false.
He wanted to ask why…to question those who carried him away from the torment he’d lived in for so long. But he could not find means to utter the words – had not even the ability to open his eyes to look at those who bore him on through the unending night.
Perhaps he was near death, then. The thought lanced through him, bittersweet. Aye, perhaps it was time, and they knew it, having witnessed it so oft in the plying of their wicked trade. He wished he had the ability still to mock the sickening pride they took in such matters. But at least he could go to his end knowing that he had never cowered to them. Death could do naught but force him to finally lay down the burden of this once powerful body, now little more than a vessel of agony.
Someone stumbled, the movement jarring him painfully and reminding him that he should try to rest during this temporary reprieve he’d been granted. Taking another breath of air into his lungs, he savored its sweetness before gradually exhaling, his heart slowing and his head feeling heavier.
The rocking motion of his travel continued as they carried him onward, always onward. Making himself remain still, Damien concentrated on conserving his ebbing strength. For no matter what awaited him at the end of this journey, he knew he would not surrender to them. He would resist their unholy torments no matter how they tried to break him…
Aye, he vowed, he would fight them unto his final breath.
Chapter OneA cottage along the coast of England, three weeks later
Heat pressed down, the sun glinting through the branches of trees to caress Damien’s skin. He was hot. Exhausted, too, but in a pleasing way. He rested on his back, lazy, replete, one muscled forearm shielding his eyes from the brightness…though not from the sight of her, just visible through that slit of space between his brow and arm.
She was so beautiful sitting beside him, with her long, dark hair curling over her breast, her hands busy with something.
“What are you doing?” he asked with a lazy smile, amazed that she could do aught after what had just passed between them. He shifted his shoulder a bit to see her better.
She offered that impish look of hers before glancing to him with an expression in her violet-blue eyes that set a new blaze of heat uncoiling through him. But she did not speak, only opening her palms to reveal handfuls of bruised, pale green leaves.
The scent of mint teased his senses an instant before she brushed her hands over his naked chest, and he made a low sound of pleasure at the cooling sensation left in the wake of her touch on his sun-heated skin. So good, that feeling…so good…and after a moment he reached up to her to pull her close, rolling her beneath him again to take her mouth with his, fully and deeply…
Light stabbed into Damien’s eyelids, jerking him away from the sweetness of his dream. He frowned, his lids aching with the effort as he forced them open. Through the hard-won crack of vision, he noted the blurry outline of a long-robed form pushing open a shutter of some kind. Even brighter sunlight flooded the room, then, blinding him, and he made a noise in his throat, turning his head away, trying to lift his arm to block the glare. He could not. His wrists were bound to the frame of padded platform upon which he lay.
Nausea swept through him. Dark, impotent sickness at the memory of such bonds on him before. So many times before, with so much pain that followed…
With a strangled growl, he wrenched at the straps that held him, needing to break free, determined to keep from suffering under their diabolical hands and fiendish instruments again. In his struggle, his only covering – a length of cloth or blanket that had been thrown across the lower half of his body – began to slide away, but it was of no matter, for he must free himself…he had to break free this time or die in the trying…
“Be still, Sir Damien, or you will tear the stitches I labored so long to put in for you.”
The low voice penetrated Damien’s mind, along with the sliding, welcome sensation of the cloth being draped over his legs and groin once more. Something about that voice triggered a memory. It was the same one from before, from the night he was carried away from his cell. Peace, man, there will be no further harm to you with us…
The voice echoed in his thoughts again, and, ignoring the renewed hurts that seemed to sweep through his body with the effort, he raised his head as much as he could, squinting anew to make out the owner of those soothing tones. Slowly, the chamber came into focus. It was a roughly-hewn cottage, from the looks of the wattle and daub walls and bare window holes; the raw-cut square openings were protected by naught but the shutters that had only recently been pushed open.
Finally, he could see the chamber’s other occupant. It was a man, though somewhat older than he’d expected from the youthful lilt of his voice. He looked to be two score or a little more perhaps, tall but not overly slender; in fact he was built like one who handled weaponry, though with short-cut reddish hair and a smooth-shaven face that precluded him from being among the ranks of the Templar Order.
So it was not his former brothers-in-arms who had liberated him, then.
“Where –?” Damien tried to rasp past tongue and throat that felt as if he’d eaten a handful of sand. He swallowed, shaking his head before lifting it up again to demand hoarsely, “Where am I – and why bound?”
“Easy, man, you have just awakened at long last…one question at a time. They will be answered before long,” the stranger said, taking a seat next to him and helping him to a sip of cool water from a beaker that stood near a pitcher on the table. It felt like heaven, that coolness sliding down his parched throat, and Damien gulped at it, until his caretaker tipped it away and set it back on the table with a clicking sound of his tongue.
“Too much so quickly will make you ill. You will have more soon,” he added with a reassuring nod in response to the avidity he apparently saw in Damien’s eyes. “First, let us dispense with these bindings, shall we?” he murmured, leaning over to untie Damien’s wrists from the pallet’s sturdy frame. “You have been thrashing about in your fever these many days, and so I was forced to secure you like this to keep you from tearing your stitches, or from dislodging the poultices I’d applied to your burns.”
Rubbing his wrists once he was free of the ties, Damien deliberately kept his mind from traveling to the place of memory at how and when those still-throbbing injuries had been inflicted upon him. He remained silent, watching the man beside him shake his head and make that clicking sound with his tongue again, while he leaned over and prodded with gentle fingertips, checking some of the stitching he’d just mentioned.
“It was all I could do to bring you back to the land of the living, I do confess it,” the man murmured. “When I first examined the extent of your injuries after your deliverance, I feared your inquisitors had done their worst.
Damien’s barely audible assertion echoed with such dark finality that the man’s gaze jerked up to meet his, a look of surprise passing over his face before it dissolved into a sympathetic smile. “Ah, it is good to hear you respond to my ramblings. It has been so long with no other voice but my own ringing in my ears that I am grateful for the sound.”
Damien’s words came out more in demand than as a question, but his companion did not seem to mind.
“Not quite a month. We are in England, just inland from the Dover coast.”
Damien’s mind was swimming with questions, but weariness also plagued him with ever increasing weight, forcing him to direct all of his concentration toward forming the remaining two questions it was most important for him to ask, before exhaustion claimed him again.
“Who are you…and how – why did you free me from the Inquisition?”
His caretaker paused in the act of getting up, turning back toward Damien and giving him a kind look as he pressed his palm atop the back of Damien’s hand.
“I am Fra Benedictus – though my brethren are usually content in calling me Ben.”
Damien’s body tensed in response to hearing the man’s religious title, his reaction almost involuntary; but Fra Benedictus simply nodded in understanding, compassion blooming anew in his gaze. “You need fear nothing with me, Sir Damien. There are many of us in God’s service within the Holy Church who decry the methods employed by the Inquisition in France.”
Before Damien could say aught in reply, Fra Benedictus brought the cup to him again, encouraging him to drink. “Praise be to heaven that you were spared your inquisitors’ final cruelty. The work will be challenging, but God has been merciful in assuring that no permanent damage was done to you. You will regain all the powers you wielded as a Templar Knight of great renown, Sir Damien. It will not take long; you will see.”
Damien did not respond at first for the priest’s words had unleashed a flood of black, seething anger he did not know he possessed; the root of these emotions was dangerous to feel, no less voice, in any Christian land…but his sufferings and remembered wish for the peace of death made him reckless. Let this man who had dragged him back from the door of hell know the full extent of the darkness that lived in his soul, if indeed he had one at all.
Meeting his gaze head-on, Damien rasped, “I have no use for the Templar Brotherhood any longer, cleric – or for God, either. Both are dead to me.”
Fra Benedictus seemed taken aback, his face paling before it flushed once again. “That is of no matter, Sir Damien, for I can assure you, God has use for you – else you would not be here, capable of drawing the breath necessary to speak such blasphemy.”
In the next moment, though, his expression softened and his brow wrinkled with worry. “And yet while I may grant you latitude in uttering such sacrilege in view of the ordeal you have recently endured, others will not. A Writ of Absolution has been obtained for you that will provide some protection from re-arrest by the Inquisition in any land, but I advise you to use caution in voicing your disdain for God’s Grace in the future, Sir Damien, else you will likely find yourself confined to a cell again, even here in England.”
“I will…consider your counsel,” Damien said, grimacing again at the raw burning that commenced in his throat with speaking. “But you still have not answered all.”
“What is that—?” Fra Benedictus’s brows knitted together for a moment, before his face bloomed in happy understanding. “Ah, yes…you also asked why I freed you from the Inquisition and brought you out of France.”
Feeling his grasp on awareness ebbing under the rising tide of a bone-numbing fatigue, Damien only managed a jerky nod. Yet just before he slipped into the abyss of sleep, Fra Benedictus’s soothing voice echoed into his ears, as if from afar…
“The answer to your question is this, Sir Damien: it was not I who freed you from France – it was a lady. Aye, she paid for your rescue, and in doing so gained the protection she sought…that of your name in proxy marriage.”
Alissende paced from the solar into the corridor, then down the stairs of the small, fortified manor home where she’d taken refuge for the past week and a half, before opening the door into the courtyard. Her gaze fixed on the stable, seeking the dark-robed form of her cousin Michael, who had ridden up through the gates a few moments past. He bore news for her; she was sure of it. News of what, remained to be seen.
“Is something amiss, Alissende?”
Lady Blanche’s voice sounded close behind her, her tone gentle, though she knew her mother had been worn to near collapse these past six weeks. They had traveled from her estate in Montivilliers to the family’s second residence in Le Havre, then to Alissende’s dowry home here in Fécamp, and the constant upheaval had taken a heavy toll on her.
“Nay, Mère all is well. It is only that Michael has returned.”
Lady Blanche only nodded, her mouth tightening. Alissende reached for her mother’s hand and squeezed it. A lance of anger stabbed through her at the thought of her mother’s suffering like this, and all for the sake of overweening masculine pride and greed. Pray heaven that Hugh had grown tired of sending his men in pursuit of them at last.
“I will go and see what news he bears,” Alissende murmured, giving Lady Blanche’s hand a final clasp before she tightened her cloak against the cool April breeze and crossed the courtyard. But before she reached the stable door, Michael strode out, his dark hair wind-blown and his cheeks ruddy from the chill. His face lit when he saw her, and he covered the remaining distance between them in a few running steps.
“I see that you witnessed my return, cousin,” he said, pulling her into a hug that was uncharacteristic for the fierce joy it conveyed, even before he swung her around in a circle.
Smothering her laugh, Alissende clutched at the sleeves of his dark robes until he set her down. “You are in a fine mood, Michael. I hope it is because you have learned something favorable about our resistance against Hugh, for I do not know how much more of this fleeing and watching my mother will be able to bear.”
“Ah – well, there may indeed be good news in that quarter, for our ruse to lead him to believe us returned to England appears to have been successful. But that is not what I have come to tell you.”
Alissende slipped her hand into the crook of Michael’s arm as they began to walk back to the manor house, trying to keep her expression bland and to slow the way her pulse had jumped with his words – knowing, somehow, what he was readying to say.
“It is about Sir Damien.”
Alissende’s heart did leap into her throat, then, and she swallowed hard. “Aye?” she managed to ask.
“I have received word from my friend Fra Benedictus…Damien’s fever has broken. He has much to do on the way to recovery, but he will survive.” He pulled a folded parchment from his cloak and thrust it at her, his smile reaching to light his brown eyes. “Here, read for yourself. Is it not wonderful news?”
She stopped walking, half-turning to Michael. As she took the letter, her fingers trembled. Inside this parchment was news of Damien…the Damien of here and now, not just the phantom man of all her regrets, longings, and dreams. The Damien who would live, it seemed, to take his place beside her as her husband. She looked away to maintain her composure, reminding herself to breathe. “Has he been told – of me, I mean?” Her voice sounded small and thin in the crisp air, the words hanging on a thread of hope she could not keep herself from feeling.
Some of the light went out of his expression. “Nay, amie. I thought it best to keep your identity hidden for now.” He tucked her hand back under his elbow, trying to look encouraging for her sake, she knew, as they continued the rest of the way back to the house. “But he was told of the proxy marriage,” Michael added, “and according to Fra Benedictus’s missive, he did not seem unduly upset by the information. In time I am sure Damien will feel grateful to the person who arranged for his release from the Inquisition’s torment – even if that person is you, Alissende.”
“We shall see,” she murmured, not nearly as certain about Damien’s reaction once he learned that she was the bride to whom he was bound. She had known him far better than Michael had – had tasted the single-minded passion he could give in love, and had known the aching absence left behind when he forsook all tender emotion.
“Aye, we shall, see,” she repeated more softly, trying to still the wishful, desperate voices inside of her with the cold reality she faced. Her fears and yearnings mattered naught, she knew, for either way it was done. Damien was going to live. He would learn that she was his proxy bride.
And there was no going back from that now.
Chapter TwoGlenheim Castle, Surrey, England June, 1308
Damien reined in his gelding behind Ben, pausing outside the gates of what looked to be a very prosperous holding. It belonged to her, he had been told, the unknown woman who had purchased his freedom for the price of bondage in marriage. As they waited for the sentry to give them permission to enter, he forced himself to lift his gaze, taking in the fine stone turrets and the scarlet pennants flapping against the blue of the sky – struggling as he did to keep the bitterness from rising into his throat.
At last the gates creaked open. With a click of his tongue, Ben set his mare to a lumbering walk, and Damien gritted his teeth to ride after him. He had vowed to see through this morn’s events, knowing that he owed Ben at least that. For though he was feeling anything but charitable at the moment, he could not deny that during these past months the friar had become more a friend to him than a caretaker; he had used his herbs and poultices to restore Damien’s body to its full strength again, and had worked with him through all forms of weaponry, sparring with him out in the field to aid him in regaining his notable combat skills.
He had even tried with great diligence – though to no avail – to restore the spiritual faith Damien had forsaken. Aye, Ben had dragged him unwillingly back to this world, coaxing him, pushing him, until Damien could feel the driving force of life pumping through his veins for himself.
But for all that, Ben had pled ignorance about any but the barest details concerning the matter they were riding to confront here today. He claimed to have been told only that the woman in question was a young and wealthy widow who had needed to remarry swiftly, and to a man of imposing physical stature and superior training in sword-fighting and battle.
The whys of it – why she sought a skilled warrior, why such a hasty union…why him of all men, when he had been tainted by the charge of heresy and half in the grave already from torture – he had been unable to learn.
And so it was that as he rode through the gates of the lady’s estate he reviewed everything that he planned to say to the stranger who was his proxy bride, the most important being that he could not accept the role of husband she had thrust upon him.
He would not.
Nay, when he met with her for the first time he would demand release from this union that needed only the utterance of public vow and consummation to make it lasting. Marriage was not for one such as him. He had learned that hard truth long ago, when he was a newly-knighted youth, still pure of heart and innocent to the darker side of love.
All that remained was to inform the lady awaiting him of that insurmountable truth, and to establish what kind of payment he could offer in exchange for the union she expected.
It did not take long for the sentry to escort him and Ben into the large, cool hall, down a series of corridors, and through several chambers. All who met them along the way stared with open curiosity, and Damien’s back tensed. After the time he’d spent isolated from human comfort in the Inquisitors’ dungeon and then with none but Ben for company during his recovery, it was almost painful to be surrounded by so many people – especially people who gaped at him so frankly. And yet in all logic, he could not hold them to blame, for they knew him only as the former Templar Knight their lady had bought for a husband…a curiosity to behold, even if the kingdom wasn’t embroiled in the mounting call for the Brotherhood’s dissolution. That he had asked for none of this rankled, and it was all he could do to keep from scowling as he strode onward, following the sentry.
At last they approached an elegantly carved door that he suspected would open to the castle’s solar. If the opulent rooms he had seen thus far were any indication, this chamber would prove to be as spacious and welcoming as the others had been, free of dust, and richly scented by the costly beeswax tapers he had seen in staggering abundance throughout the keep.
Ben seemed to have been accurate in his depiction of the woman as wealthy: she must be to afford the kind of luxuries that surrounded them. Jaw aching with tension, he fixed his gaze on his friend, who was just now turning to face him. Ben’s expression was kind, and for some reason it caused the lance of resentment to stab deeper.
“Are you ready?” Ben asked.
“Nay. And yet I would wager that matters not at all.”
Ben looked surprised before irritation flashed in his eyes. “As unfortunate as that is, there is no need to be belligerent about it.”
“You would be, were you in my damnable position.”
Lips tight at Damien’s use of the curse he had asked him on numerous occasions to forbear, Ben retorted, “Were I you, Damien, I would endeavor to sweeten my voice and my tongue. You will recall that the bee flies more readily to the honey, than it does to the vinegar.”
Damien was readying a rejoinder detailing his thoughts on that sentiment, when the sentry’s scratching for entrance at last resulted in the door creaking open. Still clenching his jaw, he flashed Ben a final, dark look before striding past him into the chamber. He’d as soon turn and flee as be led into this room like some sort of prize for the lady’s inspection.
The chamber was large, as he’d imagined it would be, but he hadn’t been prepared for the sumptuous effect of the light that filled it. The room fairly glittered with the sun streaming in through an astonishing array of glazed, diamond pane mullions on both sides. However, as he approached the center, his steps slowed and finally stopped altogether. There was no lady present. There seemed to be no one at all, in fact, aside from the serving boy who had pulled open the door.
In the next instant he realized he had been mistaken. A young man stood in silence at the far end of the chamber, within the shadows near the empty hearth. He had escaped Damien’s notice at first because of his dark clothing. The garb of a priest. That realization sent a ripple of discomfort through Damien. Unlike Ben, who dressed in the simple gray robes and corded belt of a Franciscan friar, this man wore a floor-length black cassock buttoned down the front; it was cinched at the waist with a matching strip of finely woven faille cloth, the entire ensemble complimented by a rosary of glossy, obsidian beads.
The crucifix that dangled from that string of beads drew Damien’s attention, and without warning a wave of nausea engulfed him. He broke out into a sweat, his eyes closing for an instant at the image that flashed into his mind of another, similar crucifix swinging into view as his Inquisitor moved in to question him. He’d been stretched upon the rack, almost senseless from the agony of it as he watched the dull gold pendant sway before his eyes, to and fro, to and fro…
Breathing in deeply to dispel the memory, Damien clenched his fists and strode forward, closing the distance between himself and the dark-robed cleric. This man had no connection to the zealots who had tortured him. In fact most of the inquisitors had been Franciscans, like Ben; he could not forget that. Right now all that mattered was that this man likely possessed the answers that Damien needed concerning the lady who had arranged the proxy marriage, and he intended to hear them.
But the nearer he came, the more something about the priest niggled at the back of his memory, like a whisper not fully audible. When at last he reached the end of the chamber, the man nodded his greeting, and Damien nodded back, narrowing his eyes to study him, and trying to place where he had seen him before.
Yet before they could exchange any words, the man’s face brightened, and Damien realized that he’d caught sight of Ben, who swept past Damien to clasp him in a hearty embrace. The two gave each other a few resounding thumps on the back before they pulled apart, grinning.
“Ah, Father Michael,” Ben said with a laugh, “by the blessed saints, but it has been too long!”
“Aye, friend, that it has…that it has. You’re looking well, though. The ocean air must have agreed with you.”
Michael. Damien turned the name over in his mind, the whispers growing louder as the images began to converge in his mind.
Michael…aye…young Michael de Valles, third son to the Earl of Harwick – that was who this was. Little Michael, grown into manhood…
The priest’s identity crashed upon him in the same moment that the man himself directed a more searching look to Damien again, asking, “Do you recognize me then, Sir Damien? I was hardly more than a lad when last I saw you, and it has been nearly six years.”
“Aye, I know who you are,” Damien said quietly, his discomfort and the prickling awareness of what this all might mean increasing with each breath.
“You have done well, Ben,” Michael said, shifting his gaze once more to the friar who had spent the past several months at Damien’s side. He smiled. “I do not recall if I’ve told you before, but I once yearned to become a knight because of Sir Damien; when I was a boy at court, he was a nearly matchless champion, consumed with righteous fury when battling an opponent, but at the same time so pure of heart, that those who knew him dubbed him ‘Archangel’.”
Michael glanced back to Damien, then, the smile of fond memory still warming his eyes as he added, “Time has been kind to you, sir. You look much the same as you did then.”
Damien didn’t respond right away; the dangerous emotions that had been at play as the pieces here began to fall into place prevented him from speaking at first. Instead he met Michael’s gaze head-on, feeling a surge of dark satisfaction as the young cleric seemed to recoil, his cheerful expression fading in response to the warning he clearly read there.
“I may look much the same, Father Michael,” Damien at last answered in a deceptively mild tone, “but you will soon discover how deeply I have changed if you do not cease with these niceties and tell me who is behind this proxy union that has been foisted upon me.”
Michael paled even further and Ben looked taken aback, yet before either man could do or say anything, Damien heard a whispering of silk behind him. He stiffened, his gaze shifting just slightly away from them. Yet he could not bring himself to turn around and face the person who was approaching them. He would not.
Holding himself as still as he might, Damien braced himself. He struggled to maintain some semblance of control, aware even as he did so that it wouldn’t be enough. Nay, not for what he realized, now, was coming.
The light tread of footsteps came closer, closer…and then the delicate scent reached him, a subtle, enthralling blend of sweet woodruff and ambergris sweeping up to fill his senses. It grabbed at his gut, and he closed his eyes, the power of the memories it unleashed twitching through him, tender and aching to the point of pain. Sweet Jesu…
He did not need to turn around to know it was her.
“Please, Damien, you must not threaten Michael. You will learn all that you wish to know.”
Alissende’s melodic voice echoed, strumming his soul as it had in the thousand dreams he’d endured in the years since last he saw her. He opened his eyes, and stiffly, he turned his head, trying to call up a stronger blaze of anger to combat the tide of feelings he knew would stab deep when he looked upon her once more. But it did no good.
He met her gaze and his breath stilled with the intensity of what swept through him. Alissende, who had been both his lover and his curse…the woman who had made him want her with a fierceness that had nearly killed him – standing before him now in a seeming mockery of all that had come before.
Damien grasped at the threads of his bitterness and disillusioned anger, subduing the hurt by dint of pure will as he forced a sardonic smile to his lips, embellishing it with a slight nod. He noted that her mother stood just behind her, but he made himself continue gazing upon Alissende in the same way he might constrain himself to keep still through the agony of cauterizing a bloody wound. She was as exquisite as ever, with her skin of cream and roses and that rich, dark hair, the sheer veiling she wore over it powerless to conceal its luster in the wash of sun spilling through the chamber.
But it was her eyes that plucked most at the wounded shreds of his heart. Her gaze pulled him in, drowning him in violet-blue depths that were full of anguish, longing, and something more that he would not allow himself to contemplate if he was to remain strong as he must.
As he must, heaven help him…
“I am the one to whom you are bound in proxy marriage,” Alissende murmured, her expression open and vulnerable.
Damien rasped the word before he could stop himself. But she knew what he was asking…she knew better than anyone. What had happened between them at court five years ago made this circumstance nigh on impossible to comprehend, and yet here he was, reeling with the truth she had just offered: she was his proxy bride. She, Lady Alissende de Montague, who had shown him what it was to feel love beyond all reason and then left him bleeding and broken in the aftermath.
“The reasons are…complicated.” She frowned slightly, he noticed, and struggled not to break her gaze with him.
He could not find his voice to respond, found himself paralyzed by it all, even though he had once allowed himself countless reveries about what he might do and say – about how he might feel – if he chanced to meet her again. His spine felt stiff and his neck ached, as he finally managed to say, “Do not concern yourself with expounding upon them, lady, for in truth, I do not need to hear them. I cannot be bound in marriage to anyone, and I had already resolved to tell the one responsible as much. That the person in question is you makes no difference.”
His mouth tightened with the lie, but he pushed on. “This proxy union cannot proceed without my participation in the remaining steps that would sanctify it. And as I must decline,” he nodded once more, managing to execute a gallant, if rigid, bow in the style of the charm he’d once possessed, “you will allow me to bid you adieu.”
He straightened and had half-turned toward the door, intending to escape the chamber before his memories and Alissende’s wounded gaze froze him like ice to the smooth wooden floor, when Michael called in challenge, “What, sir – will you allow your pride to govern you and flee before you hear the full truth of what brought you here?”
Damien stiffened at the barb. Every muscle in him screamed for the release to be found in dealing out a satisfying dose of bone-crunching violence to anyone misguided enough to continue trying to stop him, but somehow he found means to restrain himself. For the time being, at least.
The leashed anger radiating from him, however, was apparently sufficient to make the young priest’s voice crack as he finished, “If nothing else, my cousin’s actions on your behalf have earned her the right to be heard in full this day. You owe her that, at least.”
“He is right, Damien,” Ben echoed. “You should hear what brought this all about before you make any final decisions.”
“You knew more about this than you let on, I see.” Damien shifted a stony glare to the man he had considered his friend.
“Only a little,” Ben admitted, “but I remained silent for fear of the very reaction you have shown here today.”
“Oh, enough,” Lady Blanche broke in, waving her hand at them all imperiously. “Let us simply admit that what we face here is unsavory for everyone involved, and be done with it.”
Wonderful…now her mother was stepping into the fray as well.
Damien realized that he felt like a cornered animal as he looked round at the three conspirators hemming him in: Ben, Lady Blanche, and Father Michael. But not Alissende. Nay, she remained in the background looking restrained and somber.
Though it was almost painful to do so, he allowed his gaze to linger on her a bit longer than was necessary, noting that her face was pale and that she was keeping her gaze trained to her hands, now, clasped tightly in front of her. If he didn’t know better, he might be deceived into thinking she was as uncomfortable with this little reunion as he was.
“You should know, Sir Damien, that my daughter resisted our efforts to initiate this proxy with you,” Lady Blanche continued, both startling him and pulling his attention back to her again. “In fact, until Michael made it clear that you might well perish under the questioning of your Inquisitors, she would not hear of it.”
Damien paused as the import of that information sank it. When he made response, his jaw felt tight. “Michael was correct in what he told you, lady. However, I do not recall asking to be saved from it.”
“And yet you were saved, Sir Damien. Because Alissende needs you.”
That last comment slammed like a fist into his gut, the irony of it coming now, after all this time, almost too much to bear. He raised his brow and found himself grounding out the one word that from the moment he had laid eyes on Alissende again he had vowed he would not utter…the tiny opening he knew he should not grant them and yet could not stop himself from offering anyway.
Lady Blanche proceeded to do just that, while Alissende stood a few steps distant, watching Damien with a kind of painful awareness flooding her; she studied the rigidity of his powerful back, the twitching cords of muscle along his cheek, and the battle-honed contours of his arms that led to fisted hands. Along with him she heard once more the litany of Hugh’s crimes against her – of his aggressions and evil deeds, the whole of it punctuated by her cousin’s assurance that his brother, Hugh de Valles, the new Earl of Harwick, was an unstoppable, dark force, protected in part by his carefully cultivated position of favor within the royal household – but she said nothing herself.
She could not. Nay, not a word. All that she was feeling had risen up, thick and hot, to fill her throat, keeping her mute.
She had been readying herself for this meeting for weeks, ever since Michael received word that Damien would survive. She had rehearsed over and over again how she might feel, what she would say, the memories she would need subdue when she looked into the stunning blue eyes that had once burned with love for her.
But she had been beyond foolish, she realized, for nothing could prepare her for the reality of this. This was Damien standing before her, as magnificent as he had been the first time she had noticed him when she was but a young maiden and he a hot-blooded new knight at court…gentle, sweet Damien – the breathtaking warrior of velvet and steel, tenderness and fire, who had loved her with such devotion that she had become intoxicated with constant longing for him. Being near him had filled her with joy, and she had believed with every fiber of her being when he had gazed into her eyes and vowed that even death itself would have no power to come between them.
But she had changed that. God help her, she had changed it.
She had thought time would mend the gaping wound she had dealt to both their hearts the day she had cast him away…had hoped against hope that he might heal, even if he could not forgive.
But he had not healed, any more than she had. She could see that now. The bitter truth of it had been there like a blade in her heart as soon as their gazes met but a few moments past. She had been swept up in the storms raging in his eyes, knowing she would have to make peace with that if her mother and cousin managed to convince him to stay.
Aye, that and much more.
Silence settled over the chamber, and Alissende realized that the explanations were finished at last. Damien stood, silent and motionless as before, except for the shallow, even breaths he took. When at last he spoke, it was in a voice that sounded hoarse from restrained emotion.
“Thwarting Lord Harwick seems to be a necessary action, if all you have told me it true, but I still fail to understand why I must be the one to undertake it.” He made a sound of disbelief. “There are skillful warriors aplenty throughout England, and many titled noblemen besides who would consider themselves blessed beyond measure to wed a young, widowed heiress such as—” He stopped short, inclining his head slightly as he finished, “Such as your daughter. Why did you not seek out one of them?”
Alissende felt the jab, not only of his carefully worded insult, but also of his deliberate omission of her name. He had not uttered it even once this day, she realized of a sudden, and it cut her to the quick.
“Because we were in France when it became clear that extreme measures must be taken to prevent Hugh from seizing Alissende by force,” Lady Blanche said, not unkindly. “And so were you, in dire circumstances of your own. It seemed an honorable exchange: your life for Alissende’s safety. More importantly, you are not a stranger to us. What we knew of you was in your favor, and so the proxy was created to make you Alissende’s husband.”
“You must have been truly desperate, then,” Damien answered darkly, “for it is no secret that I was judged to be deficient for that role five years ago. Naught about me has changed since that time, except for the worse – for now in addition to being a poor and landless knight, I am also a tarnished former Templar and an accused heretic to boot. If the feigned Writ of Absolution you have procured for me is discovered, then I and anyone connected to me will be subject to arrest and interrogation.”
He laughed again, a joyless, sharp sound. “Nay, I am not the man for this duty. Seek another, for I intend to serve no master but myself and am bound for the freedom of Scotland to sell my skills to the highest bidder as a mercenary knight. I have naught to offer anyone as a husband.”
He seemed as if he might glance to Alissende, then, but he appeared to stiffen in the act, preventing himself at the last moment. “If there is no more to this than what you have told me, then,” he continued, “I will needs—”
“If you must know the full truth of it,” Alissende interrupted, forcing his gaze to her at last, “you were chosen of all men, Damien, because you are the one man of all who once loved me.” Heat filled her cheeks with the admission, but she was bolstered by the steadying dose of irritation that had finally begun to seep through her embarrassment and despondency; it allowed her to tip her chin enough so that she could meet his stare head-on, as she said, “That is no secret either, is it?”
The shadowy array of emotions that swept across his face in the charged silence that followed might have made another woman sink to the floor at his feet, begging forgiveness. But Alissende had lived through far too much of her own pain and disappointment to indulge that kind of visible weakness. She kept her back stiff, never taking her gaze from his.
His eyes glittered down at her in the wash of sunlight, cool blue and filled with a stunning blend of anger and pain; then that sardonic tilt lifted the corner of his sinfully handsome mouth again, sending a stab of desire through her as he murmured at last, “I do not think you wish to explore the fullness of that question now, lady, and in front of this company.”
“And yet it is the true reason my family urged me to accept this proxy.” she allowed, her voice husky with all she was holding back. “That you and I share a public…history together,” she felt herself flushing again, “presents a better appearance to the rest of the world, permitting the possibility that our match was undertaken in sincerity rather than for simple expedience.”
“My brother was training in France when you served at court, Sir Damien,” Michael murmured from off to the side, though Alissende noted that Damien did not shift his gaze away from her to look at him, “so you know aught of him from your own experience. But you must understand something about Hugh’s grasping nature to fully comprehend the gravity of this.”
“And what would that be?” Damien uttered the question lowly, still keeping his attention only on her, the force of his stare unleashing unwelcome ripples of emotion she would not – could not – allow herself to feel again.
“Hugh has spent considerable energy cultivating a position of favor with our new king,” her cousin continued, “and it was well-known at court that he intended to make Alissende his own, once the official mourning period for her late husband ended. That my brother might have been complicit in the hunting accident that took Lord Denton from this world seemed of little consequence within the royal circle, for Hugh applied his influence to smooth over any concerns.”
Damien scowled, looking at Michael at last. “One of my Templar brethren, Sir Richard de Cantor, served the king as a weapons’ trainer many years ago. He confided concern that the new sovereign’s judgment might prove weak in matters of friendship.”
Michael nodded. “King Edward has not shown himself as shrewd as many would wish in the time he has held the throne, preferring to honor his favorites at the cost of the kingdom’s barons and lords. My brother has ingratiated himself to the king in this fashion and had all but persuaded His Majesty to support his marriage to Alissende at the time we fled with her to France. That was why we needed to act immediately, before my brother’s increasingly violent attempts to claim our cousin for himself became a royal decree.”
Michael walked over and took Alissende’s hand in his own, trying to comfort her, and Alissende squeezed gently back, grateful for his concern. “As it stands, “ he finished, “the king is not pleased with what he perceives as Alissende’s impetuous action with this proxy, but he has come to accept it in the belief that it was made out of a love long denied by time and circumstance.”
“The proxy has been declared officially at court already?” Damien grated, looking to her and then back to Michael. “By God, but you assume much. You did not even take into account the possibility that I would refuse your plan.”
“Oh, but we did, Sir Damien,” Lady Blanche broke in once more. “And yet we trusted that you would be moved by the justice of this and agree to aid us. Alissende has freed you from your tormentors, and now we ask that you do the same for her.”
Damien’s fists clenched. As if preparing to ward off a blow…as if he yearned with everything in him to reject outright any obligation to her. The phrase slipped into Alissende’s thoughts, but before she could attempt to come to terms with it, Lady Blanche continued to argue her position, undaunted.
“That Hugh will attempt to lay claim to Alissende again, proxy or nay, is a certainty, and there is no other who would be able or perhaps even willing to undertake the charge of her safety in this. You have much to gain, not only in the life that has been restored to you, but also in the lands, wealth and power that are tied to this union. For the sake of what you once felt for each other, will you not consider it?”
Once felt. Nay …
The words echoed mockingly through Alissende’s heart, underscoring the heart-wrenching truth that for her, at least, the feelings had not truly changed. She had never stopped loving Damien. And no matter how much it hurt, she knew that she likely never would.
She watched him wage his internal struggle, feeling all the while the renewed stabs of misery shooting through her. This was exactly what she had feared would happen…what she had wanted to avoid at all costs. This outcome was not unexpected, but she could not suppress the flare of resentment that rose in her nonetheless, reminding her why she had yearned for the peace of a nunnery, where she could know blessed protection from all the intrigues, decisions, and whims of men.
Damien would reject her now, coldly and in front of these witnesses – an action that she could not refute was but a shadow of the public humiliation she had dealt him five years ago. It did not matter that she had regretted that decision through every moment of the endless time that had followed; what was done was done, and she had little right to blame him for seeking his retribution now that the chance had presented itself.
And so it was that when he pushed his hand through his hair and let out his breath, looking from Ben, to Michael, to her mother, and finally to her, she was stunned to see that something else had replaced the acrimony in his expression. He wasn’t content by any means, but it seemed that he had come to a decision. It only remained to hear what it was – and he did not leave her waiting long.
“I cannot deny that, whether asked for or nay, your efforts to liberate me from France deserve some kind of recompense. What little honor I still possess compels me to try to meet that obligation in some way.”
“It does?” Michael sounded surprised, and Alissende glanced at him, wondering how he had managed to sound so convinced of this plan all along, when he clearly harbored such serious doubts.
“Aye,” Damien said evenly, also glancing to him, “and so I will consent to do my part in this proxy, provided you permit certain additional terms that I wish to set forth.”
Michael’s expression seemed both hopeful and cautious. “Name them.”
Alissende’s heart slowed to a deep, heavy cadence in preparation for what Damien might say next, her emotions in turmoil at the thought that he had agreed to aid her at all.
He stood there, tall and powerful, no longer a man besieged, but rather a finely-honed warrior who knew full well his worth in the matter before him. “The first of these terms is the most important one,” he answered, “for if it cannot be agreed upon, then naught else can follow.”
He shifted his gaze back to Alissende then, pausing anew and making her breath catch at the expression burning in his eyes. And when he spoke, each word landed like a tiny hammer on her wounded heart.
“I will take on the role of your husband, Alissende – but for the space of no more than six months. After that time I demand to be released of it, without penalty or tie, to live as I choose for the rest of my days.”