Leona sighed at the memory. Dear, kindhearted Twig. Overprotective, irritating Twig. She should have brushed past him, slipped out into the corridor, and headed to a shadowed corner of the tavern, where she’d help keep watch for the man de Lanceau sent to collect the pendant. No one would recognize her as a noblewoman, hidden by the ragged cloak that covered her from head to ankle. Moreover, she was no fragile maiden who depended upon others to defend her.
She’d started to tell him so, when shouting erupted in the main tavern.
“If ill befalls you,” Twig had said quietly, “who will care for Pryerston?”
Sadness deepened his voice and, in that moment, the defiance inside her had melted away. For he spoke true. Her father, drunk every day since her mother’s tragic death that past spring, could barely tend to his own needs. Leona had had no choice but to take over running the keep, working alongside the servants and seeing to the necessary decisions, asking, however, that her efforts be kept a secret. As lord, her sire deserved his subjects’ respect; he was still the castle’s ruler.
That is, before the baron and Veronique arrived.
Thinking about them roused a surge of fury so intense, she’d clenched her teeth. “Very well. I’ll wait.”
Twig had smiled in that gallant way of his. “Thank you.” And then he and Sir Reginald had left, shutting the door behind them.
Turning around, she paced back across the floor, past empty ale barrels and a wooden crate stacked with candles. While run down, the tavern—located roughly halfway between Branton and Pryerston keeps—was the perfect site to trade the stolen pendant for the reward de Lanceau offered. Paying a traveling musician to deliver the missive she’d written about the exchange was Twig’s idea, and a good one, for the man had no connection to Pryerston.
She’d never met de Lanceau, but from all she’d heard, he was no fool. If she’d sent one of the keep’s servants, he or she would have been promptly arrested, questioned, and forced to reveal how the jewel came to be at Pryerston. As much as Leona wanted to be rid of the pendant, she wouldn’t risk implicating her father as a traitor.
Moreover, she reminded herself, the offered reward money was desperately needed to replenish Pryerston’s coffers so overdue repairs could begin about the keep. And, at last, there’d be coin for Leona to buy Adeline, the young daughter of Pryerston’s cook, specially made shoes to help straighten her legs bowed from her difficult birth. In time, Adeline would walk without hobbling, and would run as fast and well as other girls her age.
Some of Leona’s happiest memories were of racing Ward through the meadows near Pryerston. What child—peasant or noble born—wouldn’t want that freedom?
Crash. Leona jumped at the sound, which came from the main part of the tavern. She swiveled on the heel of her worn leather boots and retraced her steps, hoping Twig wouldn’t be too much longer.
Oh, Father. No matter what you have done, I still love you.
Two knocks rattled the chamber door.
Leona’s hand instinctively flew to her bosom. Her fingers brushed the oval-shaped ruby, about the size of a robin’s egg and set in a delicate gold framework, hidden beneath her garments. The jewel hung on a gold chain and rested just above her cleavage, under her linen chemise. Safe against her bare skin. The pendant couldn’t be snatched without her knowledge. Or consent.
Two more knocks, slightly louder.
De Lanceau’s man was approaching.
Her pulse became a drumming thunder. She longed to draw the dagger from her right boot, for an extra measure of security, but de Lanceau’s man might interpret that as a threat. She didn’t want any misunderstandings to delay the exchange.
With trembling fingers, she checked the hood of her cloak, drawing it as far down as possible to fully conceal her face. Perspiration moistened her palms. Her legs shook, as they had that summer day when she stood on the forest pool’s rocky edge, trying to ignore her brother’s teasing while she prepared to jump into the deep water, even though she wasn’t sure she could swim to shore.
Footsteps sounded outside the door. Fabric brushed against the rough-hewn panel.
Leona drew a steadying breath.
I do this for you, Father. Because I love you, and will not let you destroy your life.
The door creaked inward. Hazy light spilled across the dirt floor.
Straggly-haired Twig stood in the doorway. Behind him, his hand poised to draw his sword, Sir Reginald stared at someone just out of her view.
Twig set his hand to his brow—he obviously tried to make her out in the dim room—before he bowed and strode in. “This way,” he said, motioning for the person following him to enter.
Leona buried her unsteady hands in the folds of her cloak as bold footfalls sounded behind Twig. A tall man dominated the space outside the door, his right boot a hair’s breadth from the threshold. One hand on his sheathed sword, he glanced inside, then scrutinized Sir Reginald, before looking back into the shadowed room.
Misgiving tingled through her. He was familiar, somehow. She couldn’t quite say why.
His gaze shifted, like a hawk assessing the landscape before him. Fie, but he was an imposing man. His cloak’s hood covered the crown of his head, yet his blond hair grew long enough to slip from the gaps where his hood met his shoulder. No doubt he preferred a full, unhindered view of his surroundings, for his face wasn’t concealed.
He took another step forward, causing light to fall upon his features.
What a face . . .
Austere. Beautiful. A visage so handsome, she’d remember it for the rest of her days. Angular cheekbones and a strong jaw were offset by his slender, noble nose. His eyes were blue. Not the warm blue of a young, inexperienced fighter eager to please his lord, but the frosty blue of a winter sky. A warrior’s gaze hardened by cunning and resolve.
When his head tilted, and his attention slid to the far corner of the room, she recognized traces of someone she knew.
When they were children.
Her breath caught, as if his cold stare pierced her. God above. Could she be mistaken? Could this man be someone other than Aldwin?
She hadn’t seen him since the accident years ago. Hadn’t wanted to see him ever again. Heard of him, aye. Who didn’t know the popular chanson de geste telling of the great battle in which he shot Lord Geoffrey de Lanceau with a crossbow bolt from many yards away? The almost impossible shot was recounted with awe and horror. Most men would have died from such a wound, but ’twas said de Lanceau’s true love for Lady Elizabeth Brackendale gave him the strength of spirit to overcome his grave wound and live.
The chanson was all she’d known of Aldwin through the years.
Until today, when their lives had touched again.
Her mind reeled, resurrecting hurt and anger from years ago. Being bound to the tree. The bee stings. The river.
As though sensing the shock welling inside her, the man’s gaze settled upon her. Standing at the back of the room, with the candle’s light behind her—deliberately so—and the hood covering her features, Leona doubted he could make out her face.
Still, she couldn’t stop her stomach’s awful fluttering. She had to know if this man was Aldwin. For if he was, and he recognized her, all would be lost; she wouldn’t have to say one word to cast suspicion upon her sire.
Yet, would Aldwin remember her features, swollen by bee stings the last time he saw her? She looked naught like the eight-year-old girl she once was.
He stood utterly still, as though assessing the level of threat. She, too, waited. Sweat pooled inside her boots. She mustn’t give herself away. How, though, did she get this exchange over with as quickly as possible? The sooner she and Aldwin went separate ways, the better.
Twig huffed a nervous breath. “Please, come in.”
The man’s mouth tilted in the barest smile. “In good time.”
“What you desire is in here.”
“So you say.” He glanced back at Sir Reginald. “However, I will not be bashed about the head and rendered senseless. Or stabbed by an unseen assailant.”
As clever as the Aldwin you met before, Leona’s conscience said. Beware.
“We will do you no harm. Come.”
The man’s intent gaze returned to her. “You, sirrah, can see me. You remain in shadow. An unfair advantage. I will see the knave in whom I am placing my trust.” He gestured to the threshold. “Step forward.”
Twig’s eyebrows twitched. “Milord—”
At his growled command, concern shot through Leona. Then, indignation. Aldwin had talked to her in that authoritative way years ago, and she’d hated it then. This man would treat her with respect now.
“Heed my man,” she said with icy calm, “or walk away.”
Surprise flitted across the blond man’s features, and she smothered a flare of triumph. He hadn’t anticipated dealing with a woman.
“Who are you?” he muttered.
“A question I ask of you.” If he identified himself as Aldwin, she’d know for certain.
Suspicion darkened his expression. “You are not Veronique. Her voice is quite different. So, I imagine”—his gaze flicked over Leona’s worn cloak—“is her figure.”
Leona bit down on her lip. What did he mean? Had he managed to assess her through the layers of her cloak, gown, and chemise? She’d thought the cloak too loose and plain to reveal much about her, but mayhap she’d underestimated him.
She’d only met Veronique twice, both times at Pryerston Keep. Veronique seemed very much aware of her voluptuous body and its effect upon men. She hadn’t hesitated to bend over to display her breasts almost bursting out of her bodice, or walk with an inviting sway, or bestow her crimson-painted smile upon every male around, even with a bawling child in her arms.
This man obviously was familiar with Veronique’s charms, a fact that irritated Leona in a most peculiar manner.
“Veronique may have sent you, though,” he said, “to do her bidding—”
“What is your name?” Leona cut in, more sharply than she intended.
In a voice akin to stone grating against steel, he said, “I am Aldwin Treynarde, loyal servant of Geoffrey de Lanceau, lord of Branton Keep and all of Moydenshire.”
His last words became a muzzy blur. Aldwin.
Her gut instincts were right.
To be facing him again . . . Her throat tightened on a painful swallow.
“I have given you the courtesy of my name.” His mouth eased into a thin smile. “I ask again. Who are you?”
A woman who wishes she’d never met you, for she loathes your very name.
When she didn’t immediately answer, but let the silence drag, Aldwin’s stare sharpened with determination. Twig also glanced at her, his gaze mirroring the knowledge of what had happened in her childhood, when he helped her father carry her out of the river.
“If you are the Aldwin of the chanson,” Twig said, a clear attempt to divert Aldwin’s attention, “you are very skilled with a crossbow.”
“True.” Aldwin’s stare didn’t shift from Leona.
“Thus, you should be well able to defend yourself, if you are under threat. Which you are not.”
“If I am to believe what you say.”
Leona tried to restrain a shudder. He was trying to manipulate the situation to his control.
In that instant, she knew she couldn’t simply hand over the pendant, take the reward, and send him on his way with a pleasant “good day.”
He wouldn’t let her go that easily. . .
A Knight’s Temptation. . . Available Now!