PrologueChepston Hall, London – December 1281
It was the first time in two bitter months of damp, drizzle and rain that Fiona could remember feeling warm, or full with food and drink, or clean from the unheard of luxury of a bath. Soft garments caressed her skin, and her hair hung unbound in waves down her back, already dry after having been washed and brushed out until it shone.
But despite all that, she knew deep in her bones that something was wrong here. Very wrong…
She was supposed to begin work this day as a scullery maid, Mama had told her. It was good, honest, labor; a position that would take her away from the hunger and cold of the streets – from the difficult life Mama herself endured as a common woman of the stewes, available to any man who paid for the night with her. It would be a fresh beginning, Mama said. The answer to their prayers.
Fiona suppressed a shiver, clenching her fingers into the folds of unfamiliar, silky fabric that clung to her body and slid across her thighs. It was light as gossamer, this gown she had been given. A magical creation, worth a fortune, surely, and more than Mama could make in a thousand nights of her demeaning work. So fine and delicate.
Not the dress of a scullery maid.
“Come, girl,” the older woman next to her said gruffly, taking her by the elbow and leading her toward the carved, wooden door that loomed ahead down the hallway.
They had reached the top floor of this imposing keep, the main building of a rich, walled-in estate that stood a goodly way up-river across from the stewes. A man had slipped some silver coins – advance salary he had said – into Mama’s palm. Then, as she had stood with Fiona, teary-eyed, outside the alehouse, he had hurried Fiona into a carriage and brought her the distance. But rather than leading her through the kitchen, as she had expected, she had been taken into the main hall, then off to a little room where the heated tub was waiting; she had been bathed in scented water, dried, pampered, and fed all she could eat before being dressed in this crimson gown, chosen for her by the master himself, she had been told.
It was a mistake, she was sure. A terrible, awful mistake. She had tried to voice her protest. Hungry as she was, she had tried to deny the food they had put before her, fearful that she would be made to pay for it all, once they discovered their error in treating her so well. But her worries had been ignored. And so she resolved to try again to make this stern, silent woman who was leading her along this darkened corridor listen to her, before the panic and disbelief that had risen higher in her throat with every step suffocated her altogether.
“Please, mistress, ‘tis wrong, me bein’ here,” she whispered, more frightened than she had ever been in all of her fifteen years. “Me Mam told me – I am to be washin’ pots and scrubbin’ vegetables. I do not belong above stairs…”
“Hush, child,” the older woman said, not unkindly. “I know well enough why you are here, and you will too, before long, I dare say.” They had reached the massive, carved door. The woman drew up next to it, her lips pursed and her back as straight and unyielding as the wooden slab before her. Another shiver raced up Fiona’s back, though this time not from cold or the sweep of silken fabric against her skin. She swallowed and twisted her fingers tighter into her gown, her gaze straining to read the meaning behind the woman’s resolute expression.
“What is behind that door?” Fiona forced herself to utter, though the question seemed wispy and almost soundless, lodged as it was in the tightness of her throat.
“You are to meet with the master.” The woman reached out and scratched the wood, and a muffled voice gave an answer of admittance. Reaching down to the drawstring hanging from the tiny hole, she lifted it and pushed the door so that it slowly creaked open, revealing the entrance to an enormous chamber.
Fiona hesitated. Every instinct in her screamed to turn away, to flee, and never look back. Through the portal, she saw a fire burning in an enormous grate that encompassed half of one wall; the flames writhed and twisted, reaching up, ever up, and Fiona knew suddenly that whatever was inside that chamber was as menacing as the fire-shadows playing upon the massive bed that filled the far corner. She could just glimpse a man standing there, tall and well built, dressed in a dark, hooded cape that hid his face from her view. Everything within the chamber looked lush and rich, and warmth billowed into the corridor, carrying with it the scent of roses.
Sweet, red roses…
Taking in a gasping breath, Fiona lurched backward, wanting to run away, back to Mama and their bitter life on the streets. To make her quell this fear that was even now shredding her heart with every tumultuous beat. But the woman gripped Fiona’s elbow tighter, leaving no hope of escape.
“On with you now, missy,” she said, nodding to the opening as she nudged Fiona across the threshold. “There is no turning back. The master has bought and paid for you, and he does not like to be kept waiting.”
Chapter OneHampshire, England, April 1292
Braedan de Cantor, eldest son in a family known as noble justices to the king, stood in the middle of Thistle Lane and shook his head, sending forth a spray of icy droplets. Then he cursed aloud. Were he a betting man, he would wager all his sodden garments that he would never be warm again. The blasted rain had soaked into his cloak, clear through to his tunic and breeches, making him feel like he had slogged through the Thames before making the journey to this city’s walls with the wind pushing at his back.
So now in addition to the countless other pains wracking his body, he was damned cold. Colder than he could remember ever having been, even when he had lived without shelter for weeks, traversing the continent on his way to Saint-Jean-d’Acre to join the fight against the Saracens. It did not help that he had been forced to keep to the woods during every day of his travels this past week; he had not even dared to make a warming fire when night fell. Nay, it would have proclaimed him an easy mark to the bands of outlaws that roamed the forests near every major thoroughfare leading out of London.
Outlaws like him.
Suppressing that bitter thought, Braedan tilted his chin up off his chest and squinted through the driving particles of rain toward the sign that swung wildly over the shop’s entrance; the wooden plank careened in the gusts, but he could still see the images painted onto it. A needle and thread. It was the place, then. It had to be. He had traveled a miserable path to get here, led on by the assurance of information purchased with his last two pieces of silver at a building in the stewes across the river from London. The growling in his stomach gave weight to that truth.
It had better damn well be the place, he thought – and Giselle de Coeur, notorious courtesan and infamous bandit that she was, had better be nestled safely within these walls.
Scuffing his feet against the lip of the doorway, to remove what mud he could, Braedan leaned his shoulder into the solid, wet wood and pushed, feeling the slab give easily. It was unsecured.
Did the woman not fear intruders, then?
It was possible, he supposed. If all he had heard about her was true, she possessed the ability to neatly dispatch any would-be prowlers with her dagger…and that skill, he had been told, was rivaled only by her powers of seduction. Aye, if the blade did not work, she might choose to stand before her perpetrator in one of the distinctive crimson gowns she favored, a graceful concoction of silk that clung to her every luscious curve and hollow; and when she turned her head so that her golden-red tresses shimmered in the light, to direct the full impact of her gaze on her masculine prey, the unfortunate would be brought to his knees with the swiftness of a stone sinking in water.
Or so he had been told.
Braedan felt his lips twist into a rare smile. Jesu, he must be more tired than he had realized. Giselle de Coeur was not a sorceress capable of disabling men with a look; she was only a woman, and a fallen one at that.
He proceeded without trouble through the darkened chamber just inside the door he had opened; it seemed to be a work room, with tables and tools for measuring and cutting. But he had gained entry into the shop with nary a whisper of breeze to tell of his entrance. For all her celebrated skills in the arts of dagger wielding and carnal satisfaction, the woman seemed to share a similar lack of foresight with other members of her gender concerning the dangers lurking outside her door.
Braedan could not help but feel a twinge of disappointment in realizing it. Perhaps she was not suited to help him, then. Perhaps this entire journey had been for naught, and he was no better off than he had been when he had first managed to escape his uncle’s—
“Who are you and what are you doing in my shop?”
Stiffening, Braedan turned toward the clear voice; a woman faced him from an inner doorway nearly ten paces away, though the slender shaft of light that illuminated her from behind cast her face in shadow. Never turning her back to him, she touched the tallow candle she carried to several rush torches on the wall. After enduring the gloom and rain outside for the past few days, he squinted in the room’s sudden brightness, trying to detect any sign that this was the woman he sought.
It was difficult to tell. The Crimson Lady, by his knowledge, was six and twenty – mayhap a year more or less – yet this woman’s age was difficult to determine. Her hair was hidden beneath a wimple, the fabric circling under her chin to cover her throat and meeting the neckline of her kirtle so that not even a finger’s-width of skin showed. In fact, except for her face, she was completely draped in yards of dark cloth.
It was an imperious face, to be sure, fine-boned, smooth-skinned, and young enough, perhaps, to be that of the famed courtesan. Her lips were a trifle full, lending a sensual impression and her brows swooped in a graceful curve over almond-shaped eyes, but he was too far away to see whether or not those eyes bore the tell-tale, tawny hue he had been told to expect. His gaze slipped lower, and his initial hopeful feeling withered. She seemed rather…large. Not at all the sleek temptress he had anticipated, though with all of those layers of gown and mantle, he could not be quite—
“Perhaps you did not hear me,” she said more sharply, pulling his stare to her face again, even as his mind observed the cultured, modulated accent she used. “I asked what you are doing in my shop. It is well past closing time, and no hour to be about the business of buying or selling.”
In the silence that followed her statement, Braedan heard the water dripping from his clothing, making soft plopping sounds as it hit the wooden floor. He pushed his sodden hair back from his brow. “I am looking for someone,” he answered at last, keeping his voice low.
“This is an embroidery shop you are in, not an alehouse,” she answered, just as calmly. “If you seek someone, go there.” She nodded toward the street door through which he had entered the shop. “You can see yourself out.”
Braedan might have felt a sense of admiration at her quick response if his mood was not as black as the weather beyond that door. “I am afraid that is impossible. I seek a specific person. A woman named Giselle de Coeur; I was told that I would find her here.”
He watched her carefully as he spoke, trying to perceive any indication that she recognized the name. She remained as motionless as before. He took a few steps toward her – close enough to see her eyes, had she been looking at him – but as he came nearer he realized that she had averted her gaze, centering it on his chest.
“Are you she?” he asked quietly, pausing in his approach and keeping his arms hanging loosely at his sides, trying not to appear threatening. “Are you the Crimson Lady?”
Now she shifted, lifting her hands and slipping them into the open ends of her sleeves as she crossed her arms over her waist. “You are mistaken, sir. My name is Fiona Byrne,” she intoned, her voice unreadable as before, her gaze still fixed to his chest. “I am a widow and the owner of this shop, as you would have discovered, had you made inquiries in town before so rudely intruding upon my peace here.”
“It is unusual for so young a woman, widow or nay, to own such an establishment, is it not?”
“And yet it is mine, purchased some three years past,” she said, still refusing to look up past his chest. Her lips pressed together, and she shifted her weight back, leaning away from him. “If you will not leave peacefully, I shall have to shout for one of my apprentices to come to my aid. It will be the worse for you, then, I assure you. You will face the town justices come morn.”
Braedan resisted the urge to grimace at the irony of her threat to bring him before the justices. Whatever shred of honor he still possessed made him loath to step closer to her, made him hesitate to do what he knew he must if he was to confirm her identity. But he had no choice; other lives depended on his action. “I must find Giselle de Coeur, madam,” he said at last, insistent. “If you are she, reveal yourself. If not, I ask your aid in finding her.”
“I do not know of whom you speak, and I demand that you leave. Now.”
“That I cannot do,” he said regretfully. Without further warning he lunged toward her, gripping her arms and twisting her against him with a smoothness borne of years of brutal combat and bloodshed…at the same moment that she slid a dagger from her sleeve, lifting it with almost blinding speed.
Braedan stiffened, and all motion between them ceased. But in the instant he had grabbed for her, her head had jerked up, the heat of her stare locking with his. His breath stilled, and his gaze melted into her tawny one now, soaking, it seemed, into the dark honey and butter swirl of color – a hue so remarkable that it pulled him in even as he watched rage crackle beneath, lighting her eyes with flecks of gold.
“Giselle de Coeur, I presume?” he asked in a low voice, still not releasing her and trying to ignore the hint of sweet vanilla that wafted up to fill his senses.
“I ask again. Who are you, and what do you want?”
As she spoke she fair trembled with some strong emotion. Fury, his mind supplied, and his relief at finally finding her, the one person who might be able to help him, flagged a little under the realization of her anger. It would be more difficult to coerce her to his will when she felt so. Her jaw looked rigid, her eyes flaming into him with almost palpable heat. Then she shifted her arm a bit and Braedan felt the slick, cold edge of her blade bite into his neck.
He gripped her ample form tighter in response and had the satisfaction of hearing her slight gasp and seeing her eyes widen before they as quickly narrowed again upon him. Cocking his brow, he inclined his head as much as the edge of her dagger allowed. “My name is Braedan de Cantor, and I have come on a matter of life and death.”
“De Cantor?” Her arm slackened a bit, and Braedan took the opportunity to twist out of their locked embrace and back away from her weapon. When she realized her mistake and made a move with it toward him, he raised his palms in a gesture of peace.
“As I am a gentleman you have naught to fear from me. You may put away your blade without risk to yourself.”
She did not take him at his word, he noticed, but she did retreat a step, continuing to hold the dagger between them and fixing him with a wary stare.
He studied her. She presented an interesting figure, to be sure. Not at all what he had expected. She smelled delicious, the delicate fragrance she wore far more tempting than the exotic, spicy scent he had assumed a woman of her repute would favor. And along with her almost matronly looks, she sounded refined and behaved like a trueborn lady; yet he knew that could not be.
He had learned much about her these last weeks, adding to what he had been told by his father, God rest him, when the law was first hot on her trail a few years past; that accumulated information had been what had led him to come seeking her. She had had numerous clashes with both the sheriff and his father when she had been part of a group of bandits near Alton, and that had been only after earning her reputation as one of London’s most expensive, sought-after courtesans. Either occupation would have precluded her from the ranks of gentility, he would guess. Yet regardless of her background, he would gain nothing from her if he could not entice her to talk.
“You seemed distracted when I spoke my name,” he said, hoping to draw her out. “Do you know it, then?”
“Aye,” she admitted. “The de Cantors have administered the king’s law near London for generations.”
He nodded. “My father was the Chief Justice of Wulmere Forest. In truth he had mentioned your various…activities to me in letters.”
“Is that why you have come here, then?” she asked quietly, a flicker of something dark stirring behind those eyes. Her hand went white-knuckled around the hilt of her dagger. “Those days are far behind me. I conduct honest trade now in this town and have for three years past. If you are the gentleman you claim, then do not attempt to disrupt my life because of my former deeds.”
“Former misdeeds, perhaps,” he murmured. But to his amazement he found himself stifling an urge to reach out and comfort her, a notorious courtesan and former member of one of England’s most infamous bands of thieves. He shook his head and concentrated instead on the reason he had come here. “But nay, lady. I am not here to arrest you. I couldn’t even if I wanted to.”
“Why not?” She snapped the words, her question heavy with the knowledge that common law would allow such a thing of any citizen in good standing.
Braedan paused, meeting her stare and struggling to absorb the dull, relentless ache that bloomed inside of him every time he allowed himself to think of the events that had brought him here. Of all that he had lost…
“I cannot arrest you, lady,” he managed to answer finally, “because I too have recently been named a fugitive to justice.”
He watched her expression shift from surprise to doubt. But it was the truth, much as it rankled. Little more than a month ago he had been branded an outlaw with a hefty price on his head, and neither he nor anyone he knew had the power to change it. Not yet anyway. He needed proof of his uncle’s corruption first, and that was where Giselle de Coeur – or Fiona Byrne, as she apparently called herself now – would become useful to him.
“It is rich, I will give you that,” Fiona murmured. She took a deeper breath than he had seen since she had discovered him in her shop and studied him, from his muddy boots, up his muscular warrior’s form, to the dripping hair atop his head. He met her gaze unflinchingly, as she added, “And yet I never thought I would live to see a de Cantor on the other side of the law.”
Biting his tongue at the retort that rose to his lips, Braedan watched her slide her dagger back into her sleeve, though he noticed that she kept enough distance between herself and him to retrieve it again, should she decide it necessary.
“But if what you say is fact,” she continued, “it would behoove you to do as I have asked. I have seen how the justices here do their work. They do not deal kindly with criminals or wanted men. It will go worse for you once they learn that you’ve broken into my shop, which is exactly what I will tell them if you do not turn around, pretend you never laid eyes on me, and leave.”
“I did not break in. The door was open.”
She choked back humorless laughter. “Even if that was true—”
“You know it is.”
Now she glared. “Even if it is, it will not matter. I will tell the justices that you entered here against my wishes. They will believe me over you; they have known me for over three years, while you are a stranger to them.”
“Do they know you are the Crimson Lady?” he countered dryly, the remnants of his nobler instincts cringing just a bit at her stricken expression. When she remained silent, he added, “As you have said, de Cantors are known throughout the land as keepers of justice. None will believe you if you claim me a fugitive. I will deny it and tell them I have tracked you to this city to arrest you after three long years of searching for you – a former common woman who became a notorious outlaw, wanted for theft and the kidnapping of good citizens as they traveled the roads near London.”
“You would lie, then, about your purposes?” she demanded, her face stony.
“No more than you would, lady,” Braedan retorted. “Know this: I will do what I must to make you listen to me. I have told you already, I have come on a matter of life and death.”
“Ah, I see…not only are you a de Cantor on the opposite side of the law, but one with tarnished morals as well. Quite a rarity,” she jibed, folding her arms in front of her and leaning into the table at her back – a fine work table, from the looks of it, with lengths of embroidered ribbon and colorful thread piled neatly at one end. “I suppose I should feel honored to meet you.”
Braedan resisted the urge to cross the room and shake her into listening to him. “Enough of this,” he muttered. “Will you help me, or not?”
“That depends,” she answered with equally annoying coolness, “on what exactly it is that you want of me.”
“I need you to teach me how to live as an outlaw. I require coin to resolve the difficult matter I spoke of, and yet in order to gain it I must first learn to navigate the underworld and mingle with other fugitives without losing my life for my pains.”
“Ah, it is death you fear, then, at the hands of the evil masses you and your kind have spent your lives hunting down,” she said, her expression mocking.
“Death holds no dread for me,” Braedan said huskily. “I just cannot fall beneath the stroke of his blade yet.”
Fiona looked at him, silent, as if measuring the truth of his answer.
“And yet training me as an outlaw will not be the limit of what I require from you.”
Again she did not respond, only lifting her brows in question.
He paused and glanced away from her as the second part of his mission here – the most important part, and the reason he had come seeking her above all others – gnawed at him, twisting his insides. “I need you to lead me into the deeper workings of the stewes across the Thames at Southwark,” he finished. “Not as a buyer, but to gather information. I must get beneath the surface in a way that one like me could never hope to do on my own. I need your knowledge of those places in order to find the right people to question about a woman—”
“Nay,” she broke in, her face ashen. “Teaching you how to thieve is one thing; going back to the stewes is another entirely. I will not do it.”
“You must. A life is at stake.”
“Aye. Mine!” she retorted. “I have come too far, and I will not risk losing everything to go back there again.”
“But you will lose all you’ve worked to build if you do not go back,” Braedan countered harshly. “I have no choice in this. I must find my foster-sister, Elizabeth. She was brought to one of those hellish places in the stewes; it is all I know of her whereabouts. I must remove her from that disgrace, but I have no coin to do it, not to mention the fact that I cannot very well walk in freely and announce myself as I look for her. Not now, as a fugitive, which is what the man who betrayed both me and Elizabeth knew when he declared me an outlaw.”
“Appeal to the king, then,” Fiona answered, her desperation almost palpable. “Your family has lived only to please the Crown for generations. Surely he would not deny you in favor of a stranger’s charge against you?”
“It is not so simple as that.”
“Because the one who charged me is not a stranger. He is my uncle through marriage, an appointed justice and man of law in his own right.”
Braedan pushed back his hair from his forehead again, weary and drained, feeling every muscle in his body strung tight enough to snap from his bones. “Christ’s Blood, woman, do you not see? As unsavory as I find all this, I cannot falter. I require what you alone can give me if I am to be successful. If you will not aid me freely, then I must force you to it. And I will do whatever is necessary, do not mistake me.”
“Then you are a bastard,” Fiona whispered in a raw voice.
“I have been called by many names in my life, lady, but bastard is not one of them,” Braedan said, struggling to rein in his temper. “It is precisely because I am not that I must do this. The last time I saw my foster-sister, she was a child of eight, waving farewell to me at the start of my journeys. That was nearly ten years ago. When I returned home two months past, it was to find most of my family dead or missing; my father and a brother had succumbed to the fever, my mother was secluded behind the walls of an abbey, and my fifteen-year-old brother, Richard, was being kept under lock and key at my uncle’s estate, his ward by decree of the king. I was assumed dead in battle, thanks to my long absence without message. When I was finally able to meet with Richard, it was clear that he was living miserably under our uncle’s influence, yet he managed to whisper to me of what had happened to Elizabeth.”
Braedan paused, his gaze sweeping over Fiona, taking in her milky pallor, the emotions that seemed to be at war in her eyes. “My foster-sister was sold into ignominy, lady. Into the kind of shameful life that I believe you know too well; I must find her and free her from it.”
The silence stretched between them, Fiona’s body taut with whatever emotion she was forcing herself to contain. “You might almost sound like an honorable man, Braedan de Cantor,” she answered at last, her words echoing hollowly. “And I might almost be fooled into believing you, were you not dangling my life before me as the stick with which to beat me to your will.”
Another pang of remorse shot through Braedan, but he smothered it. “I am not heartless, lady. I realize that this may be difficult for you—”
“You know nothing about it.”
“I know that I wish you no harm. In truth, I am prepared to do what I can to help you, once this is over.” He took a step toward her, realizing with a sense of shock that he was himself gripped tight in the clutches of desperation now. “I vow that I will protect your secret in this town and ensure your continued prosperity here once you return. If it is possible I will even try to secure a pardon from the king for all of your past crimes, but I must have your help first. Only after Elizabeth is found and released can I pursue my own case and seek vengeance against my uncle. I will not risk arrest and a long imprisonment awaiting a grand assize while she suffers further. Her freedom must come first.”
“So you say,” Fiona answered at last, her tone, her posture, everything about her sending frigid waves of anger and distrust billowing out toward him, “And now pray tell, Lord Tyrant; is there anything more that I should hear before I make my decision? Any other part to this story that is supposed to help me to forget I am being threatened with the loss of all that I have if I do not comply with your demands?”
“Nay,” Braedan answered, refusing to be baited. “It is simple. Teach me to survive as an outlaw, help me to save Elizabeth, and I promise to do everything in my power to ensure your safety and security when it is over.”
“Somehow, I am not overwhelmed with confidence,” she muttered, crumpling her gown with fisted hands.
“And yet it is the truth,” Braedan responded quietly. “You need not—”
“Mistress Byrne? Are ye all right, mistress?”
The voice that rang through the chamber cracked on the question, and Braedan swung his gaze to its owner, standing, now, in the doorway. A youth of about six and ten, he would guess. Fiona looked at the lanky boy as well, her mouth tightening into that severe line that made Braedan want to kiss it to lush softness again. The jolt of that realization shot through him and rendered him speechless long enough so that the lad, brandishing a broom handle, took a threatening step toward him.
“Stuart,” Fiona chided gently, “what are you doing? It is too late to be about. All is well; go back to bed, now.”
The youth did not answer her; instead, he advanced a few more paces toward Braedan, who held his ground, unable to quite smother his grim look of disbelief as he faced down this clearly loyal protector of London’s most tarnished woman; the boy must be daft. Tired as Braedan was, it was still painfully obvious that he could disable the lad with little more than a look if need be.
“It is all right, Stuart,” Fiona said again in a low voice, stepping closer and raising her hand as if to soothe an agitated child. “Everything is fine. But we must keep quiet or we will wake your mam; then she will be cross, and perhaps there will be no sweet buns come morn.”
“No sweet buns?” Stuart croaked, stopping short with a stricken expression. “Oh, I keep quiet, mistress, me promise!” he called, wincing, apparently, when he realized how loudly he had made the vow. Lowering his voice to an exaggerated whisper, he added, “I not wake mam. Mmmmm, mmmmm, mmmm, I not,” he repeated, clamping his lips tight and shaking his head emphatically.
Braedan narrowed his gaze, taking a closer look at Stuart. The boy turned his head to glower back at him, and Braedan suddenly understood why Fiona was behaving as she did. Stuart was a simpleton, by accident or birth it was impossible to tell. But it was clear that he possessed the mind of a child.
Stuart continued to stare at Braedan before noticing, apparently, his sodden, travel-worn condition. “Why, yer all wet!” he blurted, seeming to forget his stick weapon; he let it swing to the side so that one end clattered down to the wooden floor. “And yer drippin’ on Mistress Byrne’s fine oak boards! She not like that – no, not one bit, she don’t.”
“It is all right, Stuart. I can wipe it up later,” Fiona said gently. “Now why do you not—”
“Who you, and what you doin’ in here talkin’ to Mistress Byrne so late in the eve?” Stuart demanded, keeping his scowl fixed firmly on Braedan.
“That is a very good question, Stuart, and one that I would be happy to answer,” Braedan murmured, glancing at Fiona. “You see, I am a knight, only recently returned from the wars abroad. I am also the son of a king’s justice, who in turn was the son of an appointed sheriff, and I am here because I am afraid that I have to—”
“Because he has had some unsettling news to tell me, Stuart,” Fiona broke in, taking a few steps closer and tightening the triangle that had formed between them. She avoided Braedan’s gaze, focusing only on the young man as she added, “It seems that a relation of mine has fallen ill. That is why this knight has come here so late, to tell me so.”
“A relation – sick?” Stuart asked, frowning.
“Aye,” she answered calmly, the lie slipping from her tongue with a skill borne of years’ practice, Braedan could not help but think.
“Because of it I may need to take a little journey,” she continued. “To see this…relation and make sure she is all right.”
Stuart’s face crumpled as the import of her words sank in. “You be going on a trip? Without me and mam?” He shook his head, the motion reminding Braedan of a bear cub trying to escape a persistent, stinging bee.
She cast a dark look at Braedan. “I am afraid I must. But it will only be for a short time.”
“Wh-when you go?” Stuart’s voice cracked again.
“Tonight,” Braedan interrupted firmly. “We will be leaving tonight, just as soon as your mistress can gather her things for the journey.”
She shot him another glare, before gentling her expression for Stuart again. “Aye, perhaps tonight would be better,” she murmured, though Braedan saw the tension in her face and her jaw as she spoke. “I think it would be best if you woke your mam after all, Stuart. In will need to leave the shop in her care while I am away.”
Stuart nodded slowly, the broom forgotten now, clattering to the floor as he clenched the fingers of one hand against the other. Turning stiffly, he mumbled to himself and shuffled from the chamber to complete the task assigned him.
Fiona moved crisply away from the portal once he had left, stalking past Braedan without sparing him a glance; she stopped near a table behind him, rummaging in a drawer until she found a ledger she had apparently been seeking. Withdrawing it, she slapped it onto the table and split it open, poring over what was written on the pages as if he no longer existed to her.
He stood in silence for a moment, watching her. He was grateful that she had finally agreed to his plan, yet he still felt a vague sense of unease at the method he had used to obtain her cooperation. Coercion, even of a woman of such obviously questionable morals as the Crimson Lady, was not his way. Her back remained stiff in her position bent over the papers, and again he was struck by the seeming sturdiness of her. No slender-waisted nymph, this lady. Nay, she looked as solid and substantial as the most well fed peasant lass he had met on any of his journeys.
She had a striking face and eyes, it was true. And who knew what carnal tricks she had learned after years of trade in the stewes. That had to be what accounted for her popularity as a courtesan, he decided. It could be little else. Men had not sought her out for her figure, he would wager. Or her light demeanor. Nay, she seemed far more intelligent and resolute than many of the vacuous beauties whose charms he had sampled in the past.
The painful bent of his thoughts was interrupted by the sound of Fiona slamming the ledger shut. She spun to face him, her expression still cool and calm. All except for her eyes; they glowed with the same golden flames of rage.
“Your intrusion here is more than inconvenient,” she said, her words precise and delivered like arrow shots. “It will take me some time to go over the accounts with Stuart’s mam, as well as discuss what must be done in my absence. And I need to prepare some clothing for the journey and afterward if we are to make efforts to rejoin those with whom I worked before.”
“I will wait.”
Her mouth twisted. She looked as if she might say something more but then turned away from him deliberately and walked to the door, taking the two torches from their holders as she went, so that the chamber was left flickering in shadow behind her. Yet just before she disappeared through the portal, she called over her shoulder, “I will take what time I need to prepare, Braedan de Cantor. Know that I will not be rushed, by you or anyone else.”
“Somehow I do not doubt that,” he murmured in response, but she had already left.
The sweet fragrance of vanilla lingered after her, and he found himself shaking his head, trying to dispel the strange effect that it – and the woman wearing it – had on him. The Crimson Lady was an enigma to him, far more than he had anticipated, and that would make the quest they were about to undertake much more difficult than he had planned. Were it not for Elizabeth, he would have foregone all of this and simply found his way to the king, throwing himself at his sovereign’s mercy, even if it meant suffering a long imprisonment until the whole mess with his uncle could be sorted out. But that was not a consideration now. Not with Elizabeth’s honor hanging in the balance.
Braedan breathed in deeply and leaned back against the counter, sparing another glance at the darkened and quiet corridor beyond the portal. It was as still as a grave.
He might as well get as comfortable as his bruised and aching body would allow him, he decided. He sensed that the Crimson Lady was going to make this wait and all that came after, as drawn-out and painful for him as possible, for as much as he was the seeming captor and she the hostage in this sordid affair, he had no doubt that she would take control of the situation if she could; she wanted to make him pay for what he was forcing her to do, he knew.
Right here and now it had begun, as he cooled his heels in this darkened chamber, at her mercy until she deemed herself good and ready to grace him with her presence. He shook his head again and sighed, tipping his chin up to stretch his stiff neck, and closing his eyes as he did. Aye, she was going to do this her way.
And so, blast it all to heaven, he would wait.
The steady rhythm of their horses’ hooves might have lulled Fiona to sleep had she not been jolted to full awareness time and again by the animosity pricking at her. For what must have been the twentieth time in the past two hours, she turned her head to glare at the bedraggled example of manhood riding next to her. He seemed oblivious to her stare, hunched over as he was, his hood drawn up over his brow and looking as if, even riding, he might fall asleep astride his mount.
A mount supplied with her coin, she fumed.
Gritting her teeth, she tried to make herself dwell instead on the chill beauty of morn stretching damp and luminous fingers out all around them. Whether or not Braedan had promised to return the money once he had earned enough to do so had mattered little. It was adding insult to injury, as far as she was concerned, to make her furnish their transportation, and she liked it about as much as she relished the night-time trek he had ordered them to take.
But it had not gone as he had planned, at least; she could take comfort in that. They had left her shop and traveled only a few hours before the rain had forced them to find shelter off the main road. Any latent fear of being accosted by bandits had dissipated long before that in the face of the foul weather unleashing itself all around them. The terse words they had exchanged while making the decision to stop had been their only conversation since she had first succumbed to his bullying tactics.
In the end they had rested for a few hours, wrapped in cloaks and tucked under the branches of a huge tree – completely separated from each other by their steeds and the small cart containing her trunk and a few provisions – until the worst of the rain had passed and he had insisted that they push on.
Now he was paying for his ridiculous tenacity, she thought, allowing herself a flare of satisfaction. Though it had been years since she had had to go a whole night with so little rest, she still appeared to be in far better shape than Braedan; he looked ready to topple at any moment, and if she wasn’t mistaken, those muffled growls of complaint were not coming from his mouth, but rather from the depths of his clearly empty stomach.
But then he coughed, and Fiona swung her gaze to him again, her smugness faltering a bit. Frowning, she studied him more closely. That had not sounded good. Nay, not good at all.
She was readying to say something to him when the cough resounded again from deep in his chest, harsh and racking. She narrowed her eyes, peering at what she could see of his face beneath his hood. He looked flushed. Could he have taken ill?
It was possible – and if he had, then perhaps she would be finding herself free of him sooner than she had thought.
The renegade idea wound through her mind, and her tattered conscience struggled to suppress the hope that filled her. If he fell ill she might be able to sneak away without worry, leaving him to whatever the fates intended. She could flee back to her sewing shop and pack up, moving to a new city much farther to the north, perhaps, where she could take on another name and begin again—
“We need to stop soon for food and to dry out. An inn sits not far from here that will do.”
The clarity of his words yanked her from her baleful reverie, and she looked over at him again, finding herself caught, suddenly, in the calm, cool scope of his gaze. It was directed right at her, and though his face still looked flushed, there was nothing cloudy about his eyes. They were blue and piercing, seeming to see inside her secret soul to the dark thoughts that had been lurking there. To her surprise, she felt her own cheeks heat under his perusal.
“I am not hungry.”
Her peevish answer came from somewhere unbidden. It was a lie, of course; her stomach, too, had begun growling not long after they had taken to the road again from their brief respite.
“That matters not. You must eat, as must I.” He turned his face forward again, relieving her of that penetrating gaze of his. “We will stop.”
An answering burst of resentment swept through her. How dare he order her about as if she were his chattel? Panic churned below the surface with that thought, bringing back with it too many painful memories. Remembered years of powerlessness and despair; she pushed the old terror down, determined not to give breath and life to it again. Not now. Not ever, if she could help it.
To mask her sudden weakening, she let her stare bore into him once more, snapping, “Just how do you intend to purchase victuals and time before a drying fire? Have you thought of that – thought of anything beyond your addle-minded scheme to track me down and force me to your bidding?”
“Aye,” he replied calmly. “We will use your funds to buy some meat and drink, just as we did when we acquired the horses. I will replace what you spend and then some once I have managed to procure my own supply of coin.”
“And if I refuse to allow you further use of my money?” she countered, unable to contain the spite in her tone.
He turned his head to look at her again, the motion weary, though his expression glowed intense. “We have already discussed this, woman. Do not test me further. If you will not cooperate, then so be it; I will bind you and drag you back to Hampshire to face prosecution for your past crimes. It is not what I would choose, but it is what will happen if you continue this obstinacy. Then I would needs find another to assist me. One who is certain to be less skilled and far less knowledgeable than you in the two pursuits most necessary for me to understand if I am to free Elizabeth: The arts of thieving and whoring.”
Cheeks still burning, Fiona stifled a gasp and snapped her gaze forward again, struck dumb as the sick sensation she had almost forgotten bloomed in her belly. Anger had helped to mask it before, but now it reared up, dark and relentless. It was accompanied by that old voice inside of her, the one filled with self-loathing, whispering of her sinfulness, her worthlessness. Braedan de Cantor had just named it outright and there was no escaping it; he had sought her above all others because she was a notorious whore and thief, the most tainted woman he could find – a paragon of wicked skill that surpassed every boundary.
Aye, she was that; she could not deny it. She had stolen from many as part of a group of bandits well known for their criminal success. And long before that, her innocence had been purchased for the price of a few coins, after which she had been trained in all manner of unholy acts at the whim of her master. He had used her for his own personal pleasure before forcing her to ply those skills with other men – wealthy, powerful nobles who sought out the services only she could provide, thanks to the infamous repute her master established for her as The Crimson Lady.
This powerful mercenary knight, born to a family who lived only to uphold the law, would never understand the lasting scars she bore from that cursed time. And it would make no difference if he did. It did not change the fact that she was ruined, her virginity stolen, her body and soul corrupted.
And yet in these past years, she had almost managed to pretend it was not so. Wrapping one arm around her waist, Fiona squeezed her fingers into a fist against the bulky padding beneath her bliaud and cloak as her mount jounced down the rutted and muddy road – clinging to the disguise she had worn for nearly three years to help her believe the lie she had created for herself. And it had worked until this vengeful warrior had come bursting into her life, dragging her sordid past into the light of day again and making her remember everything, making her despise herself all over again…
“Bear in mind,” Braedan broke into her thoughts, his voice raspy from his recent bout of coughing, “that I ask the temporary use of your coin not for myself but for my foster-sister’s sake – a woman who needs the help you can provide by assisting me. Think on it that way, if it is easier to swallow.”
She remained silent, the confused emotions inside of her swirling in a queasy jumble. The plight of Braedan’s foster-sister did tug at some deeply buried part of her, but it did not make what he was doing to her any easier, she thought. Nothing made it easier.
What in God’s name was she thinking, letting this man lead her willingly along on a journey back to a hell she had sworn to have forsaken forever? Eyes stinging, Fiona lifted her face to feel the caressing warmth of the morning sun, her desperate gaze taking in their surroundings. Her heart thundered an uneven beat. They were nearing Alton. The bend in the road ahead was familiar, as were the groupings of trees, with their rain-dampened branches gnarled and crooked low to the ground, the moss hanging from them in tattered swaths.
In another few minutes they would reach Whitbow Crossing. Once over that, they would approach the inn and go inside…then money would change hands, questions would be asked, and information would need to be gained to find the hiding place most lately favored by Will and his company, so that she and Braedan might attempt to rejoin them. And though Braedan did not know it, when that time came, the life she had savored as a plain and hard-working, honest embroidress named Fiona Byrne would end abruptly.
She shuddered. Aye, it would end just as swiftly as if Braedan de Cantor had lifted his blade and laid a vicious stroke to sever her head from her neck.
Braedan took another swallow of the bitter brew that the serving wench had placed in front of him, trying to ease the burning in his throat. It had gotten worse in the hour that they had been here, even though the warmth inside the rough-hewn walls of this establishment had dried him, and his belly was pleasantly full from the mutton stew on which he had supped. It was almost too warm where he sat, he thought, rubbing his hand across his brow; he had chosen a shadowy corner of the main chamber, away from the majority of the patrons and far from the heat of the blaze behind the grate, yet still the atmosphere oppressed.
The sounds of conversation, swinging from muffled to raucous, continued on around him, accompanied by the clanking of cups on the tables and the giggling squeals of the women when one of the more drunken patrons reached out to sample their rounder parts.
Braedan shut his eyes; they felt like hot coals in their sockets, and he was more than a bit wobbly. Shoving the cup away, he grimaced. Perhaps he had better forgo any more ale himself.
Letting out an exasperated sigh, he turned to look once more at the door that led to the sleeping chambers above the inn. Where was Fiona, damn it? She had been up there nigh on the entire hour since their arrival. Having had his share of experience with women and their need to stroke their vanities with excessive grooming, he had prepared himself for her to take some time before descending again to sup, but it was getting ridiculous.
The people in this inn would be the only witnesses to any fussing over her appearance. Whom did she hope to impress? Not him, surely. They were to gather information, eat, and rest for a bit, nothing more. She had assured him that they would learn the whereabouts of her former band of thieves here. It was close enough to their old haunts in the forest that someone at the inn would know, as long as no men of law were hanging about, she had added, instructing him to scrutinize every patron to ensure that no justices or sheriffs were present.
He had done as she had asked, but damn if it would do them any good. Grimacing, he decided to neglect his former decision to cease drinking by tossing back the remainder of his tepid ale. They would get nowhere with her out of sight, arranging her wimple or donning another of those singularly unattractive black kirtles she seemed devoted to wearing. By God, nothing would happen as long as she cloistered herself up there.
Unless she was not above stairs after all.
Blast it, he had not even considered that. What if she had decided to do something foolish and attempt to flee from him and his demands on her? Gathering all of his waning strength, Braedan pushed himself to his feet, preparing to go and find out if his suspicions were true. But he swayed a bit as he stood, knocking his cup to the floor.
God’s bones, it must be a potent brew. The thought wiggled through his brain like a heat-slicked worm, elusive and boggling, leaving him feeling even more confused than before. Rubbing his hand across his brow again, he shook his head and squinted. A dark shape filled the doorway, and he swayed backward again.
The whisper of vanilla cooled his senses as Fiona swept toward him, keeping in the shadows along the wall so as not to attract attention. She stopped in front of him and the newly brimming cup of ale, which had been placed on the table by a buxom wench with flaxen hair, who had been glancing at him from across the room with a half-smile every time she caught his gaze. The woman had sidled back toward the other patrons with Fiona’s entrance, he noticed, apparently pouting over the fact that the return of his female traveling companion would make it unlikely for him to respond to any additional interest she might show him.
Dismissing the woman and her carnal disappointments from his mind, he redirected his attention to Fiona, subduing the relief he felt at her return by eyeing the long, hooded cape she wore.
“Why the devil are you wearing that inside? We are not going anywhere soon.”
She did not answer, instead reaching for the cup and lifting it to drink.
He sat down again, adding wryly, “I take it you are thirsty.”
She only kept drinking, pulling the cup away for a moment to breathe before tipping her head back again and draining the last of it. She set the vessel down when she was done, delicately wiping her mouth with her fingers.
He scowled at her, becoming annoyed at the way she continued to ignore him. “Enjoy that, did you?”
She looked askance at him this time, her face still shadowed in the folds of her hood. “I have not tasted public ale in a long while, but it is as awful as I remembered.”
He did not possess the strength to ask why, then, she had gulped it down like it was elixir. He closed his eyes for a moment, determined to work through this fog that seemed to be settling over his brain. She still had not answered his first question about her cloak, he realized, and he wanted an explanation. Her severe, matronly gowns and wimples had been bad enough, but this garb could attract unwanted notice that might hamper their purpose in being here.
Grimacing again against the damnable scratchiness in his throat, he said, “It is passing strange to see a woman so shrouded within doors; I ask you once more, why are you dressed so?”
“You will know in a moment,” came her cryptic reply, though he saw that she glanced furtively from beneath the cowl to allow herself full view of the inn chamber. “Have you noted any men of law about? Any justices or constables among those here?”
“Nay,” Braedan answered. He looked up at her from his seated position, feeling more irritated with each passing second, whether from her secrecy or his own unsettling shakiness he was not sure. He only knew that he was not in the mood for games. “Your requirements have been met, Fiona, so let us get on with learning the whereabouts of your former thieving partners.”
“Your eagerness to take up a criminal’s life inspires me, sir,” she answered quietly, refusing to meet his gaze again, as she continued to look carefully around the room. “And yet perhaps it will not be so when reality settles in – which will be in the next few moments, unless you agree to reverse this foolish path you have set us on, and release me from my part in your plans.”
A surge of denial rose in him, urged on by Elizabeth’s need. He shook his head in refusal, though the movement made his skull ache even worse than before.
She paused, the silence tight, before she said, “As you wish, Braedan de Cantor. But know you that from this moment on, there will be no turning back.”
“So be it,” he rasped.
“Aye, so be it,” she echoed.
She remained still for a moment, then, taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes, and he saw in profile how her lips moved as if in some sort of silent prayer before she reached up to the fastening of her cape. He watched her, amazed, as she took a step forward and eased the hood back from her face, letting it fall onto her back; when she shrugged her shoulders the entire cloak followed after, sliding to the floor with a muffled swish.
The image that greeted him then hammered through his fever-beleaguered brain in a molten tide, maddening and tantalizing. Standing in front of him was a temptress – a woman completely different from the one he had met in the tailor’s shop. Her voice was the same, but by the Rood, this lady was as unlike the matronly shopkeeper as the glorious sun was to a blackened stone. It was a mortal shame that she was a fallen woman, he thought, struggling with his sense of shock, for in other circumstances he would have been hard-pressed not to try to win her for himself.
She wore no wimple now. Nay, her hair shone in the rush-light, pulled back from her brow by a delicate circlet to fall unfettered in glossy waves down her back. Its fiery-gold hue took essence from the crimson gown she wore – an elegant confection that looked as if it had been crafted just for her. It was seductive…long-sleeved but scooped low on her shoulders, clinging to the sweet curve of her breasts and the slender length of her sides, down to her hips. From there the fabric fell in loose pleats, flowing to a long train that she had apparently been holding up, concealed, beneath her cape.
In short, she was stunning. There was no other way to describe her, and no way to deny the effect her beauty had on him.
The inn began to fall silent as the patrons noticed her standing there. Braedan knew he gaped as well, yet he could not seem to stop himself; if he had not already been sitting, he would have slumped to the nearest bench he could find, so overwhelming was his reaction to the vision standing before him.
When he could find his voice, he croaked, “By all the saints, Fiona, I—”
“It is Giselle,” she broke in quietly, turning her head a little to look at him. “Giselle de Coeur.” Her eyes glittered at her utterance of that name, and the coils of desire that had been winding through his feverish body were suddenly tempered by the conflicting emotions he saw churning in the depths of her gaze.
“Fiona is gone,” she continued. “Destroyed by your command.”
An aching pit opened in his belly as she looked away again and began to walk slowly toward the center of the chamber. She was perfection, Braedan thought absently, the idea floating into his consciousness. The embodiment of pure, emotionless beauty, at once both scorching and icy.
He swallowed hard, his throat hurting from more, now, than just the raw sting of fever. He had done this to her. Aye, he had. For whatever secrets this woman had to hide, whatever pain was buried beneath the disguise she had used to conceal herself, it was clear that he was forcing her to bring it all into the light again. But it could not be helped. There was no other way for him to carry out what needed to be done. She was the absolute fulfillment of all he had hoped to find when he had conceived his plan for rescuing Elizabeth. Aye, she was the one. For a little more than two weeks ago, he had come in search of the Crimson Lady, the most desirable courtesan and notorious thief in all of England…
And it seemed that today, he had finally found her.