I Command you to marry the bearer of this letter. Lady Alice Martinswood has no choice but to obey her dead father’s final instruction. His choice is his champion, the mercenary Simon Paton. To Alice, the handsome, arrogant Simon is a dangerous, seductive stranger.
Bewitched in turn by Alice, Simon is appalled when he discovers that Alice’s father disowned Henrietta, her younger sister, when Henrietta fell in love and eloped. Simon promises Alice that he will help her find her sister.
Still having nightmares after witnessing the sack of Constantinople, Simon misunderstands Alice’s tears of joy on their wedding night. Swearing not to hurt her again, he decides he must not touch her—a promise he finds impossible to keep, especially when Alice vows to beguile him…
Meanwhile Simon and Alice trace Henrietta to medieval London, wandering together through the perilous, exciting streets. Will they find Henrietta? Will they find true love with each other?
Genre: Historical Romance
Length: 22,984 words
Excerpt (Chapter One)
BRIDE FOR A CHAMPION
Copyright © 2014
Summer, England, 1204.
I command you to marry the bearer of this letter. This is the man, the one I told you of, Alice, the one who saved me. My champion Simon Paton, come all the way from Constantinople. Marry him, bear him a son and heir and forget Henrietta. Do your duty by me.
Lady Alice, crouching on her knees with a cleaning rag and a ribbon of her missing sister’s in one hand and her father’s last letter in the other, knew she did not look her best. But what did that matter? Her father was dead and the dead no longer care for appearances. Since the loss of Henrietta, she did not care, either.
She glanced at the man’s travel-stained cloak and mud-splattered boots without looking up into his face. Her steward should not have brought the fellow into her presence, should have given her time to compose herself and greet him in the great hall, but she sensed Simon Paton had ordered otherwise.
And my steward obeyed him. Already my people take orders from him, because he is a man.
“Forgive my appearance, Lady Alice,” said the stranger in a deep, faintly accented voice, clearly indifferent to whether she forgave him or not. “I had business to attend to in London. I have come as soon as I could.”
Alice dropped the yellow ribbon back into her sister’s clothes chest. She had been searching the chest again for any sign that would point to where Henrietta had been taken and by whom, but her father’s last letter contained a devastating order. Marry him.
The letter shook in her hand. Swiftly, she dropped it into the chest and closed the lid. “Your name, sir?”
“I am Simon Paton. Your father’s champion.”
The bearer of the letter. The man I am commanded to marry. “You were with my father in London?” She almost choked on her next question but she had to know. “At the end?”
“I was, my lady. Your father died well and at peace.”
Alice wished she could cry. She longed for some relief. When word had come ten days ago of her remaining parent’s death from fever she had expected to feel something. Instead her heart felt numb. Her beloved younger sister was lost to her and her father—their father—had disowned Henrietta weeks before. Henry Martinswood had always demanded absolute obedience from his daughters and, by her elopement, Henrietta had failed him. Yet now, by letter, he orders me from the grave. Marry this man. Give him sons. Do your duty. Always obedience and no word of love. Our father never loved his girls.
Still without looking at Simon Paton directly, Alice reluctantly clasped his fingers and allowed him to draw her to her feet.
“My lady, you may be assured that your father died and is buried as he wished, in London.”
Beside the longed-for son that his London mistress had borne him, Alice guessed, wondering how this new knowledge did not pierce her soul. She had never met the young Henry, her father’s namesake, but when the child had died two summers back Henry Martinswood had become still more cold and grim toward his daughters.
“Lady Alice. Look at me, Alice.”
Hearing her name said so gently, she looked up for the first time and stared, forgetting the tingling pins and needles in her legs, forgetting everything.
He was big, this Simon Paton, tall, well-made and starkly-handsome, black-haired and with a head-full of straggling, fierce curls. Tanned from many eastern suns, he was dressed in a mantle that was strange to her, very dark and at the same time glossy, like the plumage of a raven. His clean-shaven, pox-free face, as lean as a hermit’s, thrust at her like the prow of a great ship.
He was smiling, or at least a shadow of a smile hovered round his full lips—though not his eyes. Simon Paton’s eyes—a dark blue, almost black, ringed with curling black lashes—gazed at her in a coolly intense, measuring way, as if judging her. He had a contained energy in him, as if he was ready to wrestle with angels, yet at the same time found the challenge distasteful. An unhappy man, she thought, yet also a striving one.
The woman to win his heart will be most lucky. The idea—more a feeling than a thought—flashed through her and was gone, dashed aside by his next words.
“Alice, I understand your father’s last wishes. I applaud them. Before he died, he spoke to me of them. When we are married, you will be safe. I shall protect you.”
Thoroughly disconcerted, Alice wrung her hand from his. “He discussed my marriage with you?”
“To ask my consent.”
Yes, you are asked but I have to obey. It was the way of the world but she did not have to like it. “And my consent?”
He waved that aside. “You need a man to be safe. I agreed, subject to my seeing you.”
Alice clenched her teeth together, too proud to ask if he approved of her. Simon Paton was clearly enjoying her discomfiture.
“Shall we take a glass of wine or tisane together, my lady?” he went on smoothly. “Toast our nuptials tomorrow?”
So soon! Alice dipped her head, afraid her face might show her alarm. “Will you call my maid Beatrix, to serve us?” she asked this tall stranger—my husband to be—thinking he could be useful at least.
“Such duties are for a woman,” came back his curt response. “I will await you here and we shall plan how best we shall manage together.” His dark eyes gleamed as she jerked her head up. “How you will obey me.”
“You may be sure I shall be most agreeable,” Alice snapped, aggrieved afresh. “I shall fetch a tisane.”
She withdrew, her head high and her heart hammering within her.
If he is so keen to marry me, might he also help me to find and recover Henrietta? Or will he be only too keen to gorge himself on my father’s lands? Will this Simon Paton be thrilled with my dowry and delighted to keep me in my place? Such thoughts horrified her and she shivered. Would I were a man, in command of my own fate!
* * * *
Simon watched Lady Alice stride from the chamber, kicking her long skirts and apron out of her way, much as she probably wanted to kick him. He almost called her back to make some apology but then he thought of the dead, deflowered, crushed womenfolk he had seen in Constantinople, women who would have wept to be as safe and pampered as this one. Fetching and serving little cups was women’s work.
“Yet she is very fine,” Simon said aloud, surprising himself. “Uncommonly pretty.” Just in need of management, which is scarcely surprising, since her father is dead and she has no uncles or brothers. In Constantinople the Lady Alice would have learned to be more modest. But Constantinople was fallen, a smoking ruin, and he had been unable to save it, or its women, or the children, those frightened screaming babies…
The reek of the destroyed, fired city hit him again like a spear thrust and he rocked briefly on his heels, glad that there was no one to see his weakness. Sharp Alice with her moss-green eyes would spot it, though, so he must beware.
“My sister Henrietta is prettier.” She had returned and he had not heard her light footsteps, only her tongue, which could take a courtesy and twist it. Without thought, he struck back.
“How is that possible, my lady? Will you tell me?”
Her green eyes darkened and her cheeks were suddenly tinged with a pale rose. Seeing her thus he felt ashamed of his unkindness but she answered him roundly, counting off the points as she handed him a cup of something hot and sweet-smelling off a wooden tray.
“First, my sister is younger and men always prefer young flesh. Second, she is taller and more ripely formed, with gold not brown hair and bright brown eyes, not old-leaf green. Third—” She paused as she set the tray on top of an ancient chest and accidentally spilled some of the liquid in the flagon onto the lid of the chest. “Henrietta is far less clumsy.”
She had changed what she had been going to say, he was sure of it, but she also smiled for the first time and he realized how young she was, surely no more than twenty. She was a little too thin and had shadows beneath her eyes that should not have been there, but she was still a youth. From the perspective of his seven and twenty and his seasons of war and trouble she was a child, a slender, very pretty girl but still an infant.
And she has a younger sister, Henrietta. Why did my lord never speak of her? Where is she?
“Tell me of your sister,” he said. “And what were you going to say just now?”
For an instant a gleam of teasing shone in her face, making her seem younger still, then she shrugged. “Only that she is beautiful, uncommonly beautiful.”
Which may mean that the sister still has all her teeth. Simon took a sip of the tisane. To his surprise it was excellent and the fresh scent of strawberries drew him back to simple boyhood pleasures, before Constantinople. “Good!” he remarked.
“Will you have bread and cheese also?” Alice asked, clearly falling into an accustomed role as hostess.
“The cheese,” Simon agreed, testing to see if the wench would obey him. “I have a liking for cheese, so hurry along.”
“At once,” she answered, in a voice of frost. Certainly she was not clumsy in anger. Instead, in a fluid, graceful motion, she sped past him to the door again, her eyes glittering like a cat’s. He met her stare for stare, wondering why he was troubling to tease—to break a girl’s will was nothing.
But, lady or not, she should heed me. She needs a man to guide her.
“When you return you can tell me of your sister.” Why had his lord never mentioned this Henrietta? Another daughter and the old man had never spoken of her.
From the edge of his sight he saw Alice stop on the threshold, her shoulders and spine stiffening. She wanted to linger and talk now, he guessed, but she should learn to heed him.
“My cheese?” Simon waited for her to leave, but she twisted round like a spinning top, her long brown plaits flying, and said, very sweetly, “I have news of Henrietta, something I learned this morning from going through her chest.”
“Nothing useful, I am sure,” Simon replied bluntly, wanting her to know he had seen through her obvious feint.
She smiled at him, her lips as lush as ripe cherries, and inclined her head, though she had not yielded yet. “Perhaps, sir, you will escort me to the kitchen, then we may both return and tell all together?”
Her wish to have her own way amused him and he found himself happy to placate her. “Aye, aye, I will go along with you,” he remarked, stretching his arms over his head. “Let me see if you are a good little housekeeper.”
The girl’s look of dismay at these words and more especially at his joining her in truth had Simon stalking to the threshold, where he held the door open. “After you, my lady.”
The instant she stepped through and they were away from the chamber she barred the way through the narrow corridor with outstretched arms. “What are you doing?” she hissed.
“I am your kitchen escort. Tell me, do you often wander alone and unattended?”
She ignored the question. “You want cheese no more than I do, so why, really, are you here?”
“To ensure you are obedient, as a wife should be.”
In the dimly-lit, wood-paneled corridor he heard her snort, unless it was the passing hunting dog that sneezed.
“You dislike me?” Leaning against a wall, he allowed her to stop him for the moment. She was small and slim, brown as a sparrow, but for all that she was most gladdening to look on, with a beautiful face that could have graced a statue in Constantinople. “Do you find men distasteful?” he added, to keep her still a little longer. If she truly dislikes me and dislikes all men we shall have to reach another way of living together. I will not have her ground down. His sudden sense of protectiveness toward her surprised him.
Her expressive, mobile face at once became unreadable. “I do not know you, so how can I say?”
“Yet you think me arrogant.” Still, she does not flinch from me, so that is a start. He played with the thought of leaning down and kissing her, to reinforce that idea, but knew that he stunk of horse and dusty roads.
Her breath stopped, as if she caught scent of him, or stifled a tart reply or a laugh—he was not sure which. She surprised him then by nodding her head and saying, in a considering way, “Perhaps not, not for a champion.
“But,” she went on, “whatever your opinion of me or my house-keeping, you will not keep me out of the search for Henrietta. She is my sister, not yours. I will not give up the search for her.” Because of you was her unsaid thought, driving between them like a blade of steel.
Exasperated—he did not give up on others, either—he stepped closer, remembering other women, soft and vulnerable like this one, so defenseless at the last. “You need protection.”
“And you need a woman’s eye.”
“How is it I have never heard of Henrietta?”
She blanched at the question but answered promptly, “My sister fancied herself in love and eloped, but since then I have had no word from her. Our father disowned her. He said she was dead to him.” Her voice dipped even lower. “Henrietta is but fourteen.”
The old man disowned his fourteen-year-old child? Was he mad?
“I have to find her. I know my sister and how she thinks.”
“Do women think? And surely, if you know her so well, should you not have foreseen her elopement?”
Again, though, he spoke too harshly, as he might to men in a barracks. She flinched, as if struck, and he was sorry when tears misted her eyes. “Alice, I am—”
He spoke to empty air. She had turned and left him, speeding along the corridor and clattering down the stairs so that he had to jog to catch her. On the final step she whirled about and faced him. “You will not bully me!”
Because he had clearly hurt her he raised both hands in a truce.
“Are we agreed?” she persisted.
“That you should be involved in her search and recovery? Not a bit,” he replied cheerfully, for how could he agree to that?
She pointed to his belt where his sword would be. “No one is invulnerable, not even you, my lord.”
In the brighter light from the great hall, where even now servants and others were gathering, preparing for the later midday meal, her light brown hair was picked out with tiny flames of red, like threads of garnets. He savored the pert curves of her breasts rising and falling as she breathed her indignation. For an instant he wished he was like the earlier mercenaries of Constantinople and could Viking her away. He wished he had kissed her in the upper corridor, too, for was that not the reason he was here, to wed and bed this pretty nag?
“God is, I believe,” he replied mildly, amused as she clapped her hands together in sheer irritation and strutted off toward the kitchen block, the swing of her hips revealing her as very much a girl, whether she liked it or not.