London, England July, 1467
“Your Majesty.” Keran, seventh son of the Duke of Bristol, bowed low before his king. “You sent for me?”
King Edward IV of England looked up at the man standing next to him. It was not often he had to look up to a man. At six-foot two inches tall, most men looked up to see their king. Yet, Keran of Bristol topped him by a good three inches.
“How fare you these days?” The king grabbed an arrow from a quiver and loaded his bow. He eyed the target and let the arrow fly, hitting the bull’s-eye dead center.
“Very nice shot, Your Majesty, and I am fine. Thank you for asking.”
“Still landless?” The king smiled, and expected to see a frown on the older man’s face.
Instead, Keran laughed. “Indeed. Unless someone starts killing off my brothers, I fear I might stay so, Majesty. As the youngest son of a duke, I get the leavings of the others, and by the time my father had given to the six elder sons, I am afraid there was nothing left for me.”
“Hence the reason you have never married.” Again, he expected the man to bristle. Instead, he just grinned. Edward let loose another arrow.
“I have looked, Majesty, believe me. But so far, I have not found a suitable wife.”
“It is a good thing that you have a king for a friend, then.” Edward watched Keran’s shoulders stiffen for the first time, then drop back into a relaxed posture.
“Indeed? Have you found a wife for me?”
“I have, and lands to go with her.”
This time the interest in Keran’s eyes was genuine. “I am at your service, Your Majesty.”
“You will leave tomorrow for a keep near the Scottish border called Mardoon. Its lord, Richard, has been dead for some seven months now.”
“Seven months? Forgive me, but you are just now hearing of it? Did the man have no sons to take over his legacy?”
“No. Three daughters. One of them is the daughter of a woman who was friends with my wife’s mother. The mother died in childbirth, and the girl was raised by her stepmother, who married Lord Richard soon after his wife died. It is the eldest daughter you will marry. Her name is Sidony or Sibylla, or something that begins with an S.”
“If I may ask, sire, how old is she?”
“She has seen more than twenty winters,” the king replied. “Some of my father’s advisors tell me that the mother was a beauty, so I can only guess that the daughter will be also.”
“A boon, to be sure.”
“Yes, having a pretty bedmate is always a good thing,” the king said with a laugh. “The keep is well off, and the people are happy, or least they were when Richard was alive. I expect it to stay that way, and for the area to stay loyal to me. I have enough problems without worrying about a keep.”
“Of course, Your Majesty.”
“Well, before you answer so quickly you should know I may be sending you into trouble. One of your first duties will be to report to me on why it took me so long to receive this.” He pulled a paper from his pocket and handed it to Keran. “I received this yesterday from a member of a traveling troupe. Written in Richard’s own hand. It seems he feared his wife would do his eldest daughter harm, and he sent this as a precaution to alert me to his death. I want to know why the wife did not write me to inform me of her lord’s passing. If there is treachery there, I want it dealt with. Immediately. You have full authority on my account.”
Keran bowed again, his head low. “You have my gratitude, Majesty, and my loyalty. No matter what.”
“She’s probably a cousin to your horse.” Keran frowned at his friend, Patrick Dunkirk. “Your children will be little stallions.”
“All the better to run over you,” Keran replied. “And I will thank you to remember that I am Lord Keran now, of Mardoon.”
“Yes, Lord Keran of the frozen north, sent away from the pretty ladies of court to wed and bed someone you have never laid eyes on. What if she truly is a horse, maybe not in looks, but in manners? After all, she has never been to court. Why would that be, unless her father was ashamed of her?”
“Perhaps she is just so beautiful that she would have started a riot,” Keran said with a smirk. But, his smirk did not reach his heart, or his head. He’d been thinking much the same thing for the past three weeks, and the thoughts had grown more worrisome the closer they had come to Mardoon. They would be there within the day. It had taken him a while to settle his affairs at court, and then to hand pick a battalion of men to take with him so he would have loyal friends to fight for him if the occasion presented itself.
He prayed it would not come to that, but he was not exactly sure what he was getting into, either personally or in the ways of the castle that now belonged to him.
First, the king’s offer had sent him into fits of pleasure. He would have his own keep, with his own wife, his own lands and children. Then Patrick had started asking questions, questions that Keran should have thought about himself before he had agreed to wed someone he had never even set eyes on just for the sake of owning lands.
Still, he was twenty-seven years old, and it was high time he settled down and had children. He had always thought he would find his future bride at court, that some father would offer his wayward daughter to him in hopes that Keran would take his disgraced daughter to wife and farm some obscure part of his land.
Was that not what was happening now, in essence? Except it had been the king to offer him the lands, and it was not a disgraced daughter, but the oldest daughter of a lord. He was not so worried about her looks. Well, maybe a little. What concerned him was Patrick’s comment about her manners. What if she had none? What if he could not stand to be in the room with her for more than five minutes? Then what was he supposed to do?
And then there was the little matter of the note. Why was Richard so worried about what his wife would do to his eldest daughter? And if he were so worried, why did he not send her to court before his death to protect her? It all came down to that, did it not? Why she was kept from court?
Still, he needed sons now that he had lands to pass on, which meant, no matter what, he would have to learn to spend time with his new bride. He just hoped she had a brain.
“Perhaps, if she is not to your liking, there will be ladies about who can warm your bed. Some of these country lasses are born for that purpose, warm and willing.” Patrick waggled his tongue and his eyebrows.
Keran laughed. “You are terrible. What sort of husband would I be, to marry, and then take a mistress right afterwards?”
“A normal one,” Patrick replied. “Just do not forget your options.”
They topped a hill and Keran held up his hand for the group to stop. His new home sat in the valley below.
“Not exactly a royal castle,” Patrick said. “But a castle just the same. The boy you sent ahead yesterday should have already told them of your imminent arrival.”
“Yes, there should be food ready and fires lit. It will be nice to sleep in a warm bed tonight.”
“Take your new bride to it, unless she is a prude and must wait until the wedding. If that is the case, find yourself a willing servant. A bedding will make you that much easier to live with.”
“Are you saying—”
“I am saying you have been a bear the last few weeks. I think a good tumble will improve your outlook on life.”
“Suck in your gut.” Elizabeth of Mardoon slapped her daughter on the shoulder, then pulled on the laces around the girl’s waist.
Leora took a deep breath and held it, letting out a loud oomph when her mother fastened the laces. “I cannot breathe.”
“You don’t need to breathe, you twit. You need to impress your future husband.” Elizabeth stepped back and frowned. “I suppose it will have to do, but you must remember to forgo the sweets this month, or you will not be able to fit into the wedding dress that is being made.”
“You could always let it out,” Leticia said. “Or let me wear it. Since we are pulling the wool over his eyes, what does it matter which one of us weds him?”
Elizabeth wheeled on her daughter. “Leora is the oldest, and therefore will wed first.”
“Is she? I thought Syndra was the oldest.” Leticia turned her gaze to her stepsister, who stood nearby with her eyes lowered. “Of course she would need a bath. And some new clothes.”
“And you would do well to keep your mouth shut, as would Syndra,” Elizabeth admonished. “She is not a member of this family, is she?”
Leticia opened her mouth as if to object, then closed it quickly and shook her head. “No, Mama.”
Syndra kept her defiant gaze on the ground. When her stepmother called her name, she gave her what she hoped was a contrite look.
“I am sorry; I did not hear the question.”
“Pay attention, you stupid girl. I said, you know what is at stake, do you not?”
“How could I forget?” Indeed, how could anyone forget? Her stepmother had told the entire household that Syndra’s friend, Alma, would die if anyone let on that Syndra, and not Leora, was really the firstborn daughter of Mardoon.
“You will make yourself useful by cleaning and by keeping quiet.” She turned back to Leora. “You, go downstairs and greet your new lord when he comes inside the keep. Make sure to appear submissive and meek. Understand?”
“Yes, Mother. I just hope he is handsome.” Elizabeth snorted. “I just hope he is stupid. Now go.” Leora and Leticia quickly quit the room, and Elizabeth turned to Syndra. “You should be happy I am saving you from a life of bowing to a man.”
“Why, so I can bow to you instead?”
“Watch your tongue.” Elizabeth narrowed her eyes. “As I have told you, your shape is not pleasing to a man. You hold too many pounds hostage on your body. Leora will keep our new lord happy, and with any luck, I will keep him under my thumb.”
Syndra waited for her stepmother to keep talking, but she did not. She again cursed her father, though she loved him, for leaving her in this position. When he had fallen ill, he had promised her he would see she was cared for, and would not have to stay with Elizabeth, whom he knew loathed his daughter.
Syndra had hoped that meant he had arranged a marriage, or left her some monies or jewels. Elizabeth had torn the house apart looking for anything of value, and nothing had been found. Syndra knew her father would have kept his word and she had searched as well, to no avail, for the key to end her misery.
Her father had been dead for eight months now, and she had yet to unravel the situation he had left her in when he passed. Part of her wondered if she ever would find anything, or if she were destined to live out her life under the control of a woman who hated her.
When they had received word from the king that he was sending a husband for Syndra, she had been ecstatic—until Elizabeth had slapped her and said Leora would marry the king’s choice, not Syndra.
“No daughter of mine will be put behind you.” The look of pure hatred on her face still made Syndra shiver. “You will end your life as someone’s whore, but you will never be the mistress of this keep. Never.”
Syndra had cried heartily that night, burying her head in Alma’s shoulders as they slept in the rushes. The next morning, burly friends of Elizabeth’s current bedmate had taken Alma away, and she had not seen her friend since. She had no doubt her stepmother would kill Alma if Syndra misbehaved in any way.
Noise drifted up from the courtyard, and Syndra looked toward the window.
“Stay up here,” Elizabeth ordered. “And remember, if you see the new lord, to keep your eyes downcast and your mouth shut.”
She swept from the room and Syndra hurried to the opening, leaning over to watch the proceedings three floors down. There were more than two-dozen men in the courtyard now, all of them milling about and studying the landscape. Two men stood toward the front, talking with Leora, and Syndra knew one of them would be the new lord of Mardoon.
Both of them looked to be large, handsome men. One had dark, shoulder-length hair and massive shoulders. Even from her vantage point, Syndra could tell he was taller than any man she’d ever seen. The other man’s body looked as massive, but he stood a few inches shorter and had lighter, ginger-colored hair.
She fought the need to rush downstairs, to throw herself at their feet and confess all. Only the thought of Alma, locked away somewhere with the threat of death hanging over her head, kept her rooted in place. Elizabeth knew beating Syndra would not produce the results she wanted. She knew Syndra was too strong-willed for that. So, she’d attacked her from a different angle. By putting those she loved in peril.
“Alma,” Syndra whispered, then closed her eyes and said a silent prayer that her friend was at least being fed and given a bit of sunshine every day. When she was done, she opened her eyes and watched as Elizabeth rushed into the scene, dropped into a deep curtsy and took the hand of the dark-haired man.
That would mean he was the new lord, and therefore had dominion over Elizabeth. Syndra smiled at the submissive position Elizabeth was in. It was good for the witch to bow down to someone, to be beholden and answerable for her actions. And while Elizabeth and her daughters were busy with the new lord, Syndra could continue her search, and hopefully find a way out from under Elizabeth’s authority.
“Not too bad,” Patrick whispered to Keran as they made their way inside the keep. “You will not have to keep your eyes closed when you bed her.”
Keran snorted and nodded. Indeed, the woman who had been presented as his bride was pretty enough. Her mother was a shrew, though, that much was certain. Keran could almost imagine her as a snake, slithering on the ground, and causing panic wherever she went. He had to find some way to subtly let her know that he was in charge now, not her.
Her docile curtsey did not fool him in the least. He’d met women like her before, wanting to appear meek, but seeking to control their men. It wouldn’t happen here. The sooner she figured that out, the better.
Inside the great hall, he stopped and examined his new holding.
“We have some rooms for your men in the main house, of course,” Elizabeth said. “But perhaps some of the outlying houses would—”
“Perhaps you should let me worry about that, after we have had a chance to catch our breath. We would like some food, and a little bit of comfort away from the elements.”
“Of course, my lord.” Elizabeth curtsied again, but Keran did not miss the scowl on her face. He knew his arrow had hit home, and was not welcomed.
“Leora, fetch your future husband food and drink.”
Leora dipped low, then scurried from the room. Keran took the time to look around. The rushes appeared to be clean, and the castle at least smelled good. He sniffed his nose and nodded at Patrick.
“It is lavender, milord,” Elizabeth said. “I find it lingers, and leaves a fresh scent.” The room soon filled with servants bearing trays of ale, cheese and bread. Leora rushed in, a tray full of food in her hands. Behind her was a servant with a tray full of large tankards of ale. She offered it to him, and Elizabeth beamed.
Keran smiled at her as he took a healthy bite of bread. He swallowed quickly, then nodded his thanks to her. She really was not so bad, he thought. Maybe this would work. He took another bite, then turned his gaze to Elizabeth.
“I trust you have vacated the main chamber?”
“I have, milord. My daughter can move her things into the room tonight, along with yours, of course. She can take care of you tonight, milord.”
Keran, who had been in the middle of a drink of ale, coughed. The room, which had been buzzing with talk as servants walked about offering food and drink to their new residents, grew quiet.
Keran finished his drink, then licked his lips. “Tonight? You have a priest handy?”
Elizabeth bristled, and he hid a smile. He knew he must marry the girl, but her mother’s push for a bedding made him weary. He would rather take a little while, and allow himself to settle here before he took Leora to wife.
“No, milord. But, since she will be your wife, there is no need to stand on ceremony, do you not agree?”
Keran narrowed his eyes. “You would have me bed your daughter without the sacrament of marriage?”
Something was not right here. Mothers seldom offered their daughters’ maidenheads before marriage. Or perhaps the girl was not a virgin. Maybe she had rutted with a stable hand or two. Maybe Elizabeth thought he would be too weary from travel to notice the lack of blood or the unblocked entrance to her daughter’s womb.
“We are a simple people, milord. Since you will be married anyway, I thought perhaps— ”
“When can the priest be here?” Keran took a longer drink, then locked gazes with Patrick, who lifted his brow in confusion.
“Not for a few weeks, I am sure,” Elizabeth replied. “We had a priest here, but he died, and the king saw fit not to replace him. But, as I said—”
“Then we will wait,” Keran interrupted her. “It will allow your daughter time to adjust to me, and I to her. And I will thank you not to malign the king’s good name.”
“My apologies, milord. I will send for the priest immediately. Now, if you will excuse me.” She backed away, then stopped and a look of fury came over her face. Keran followed her gaze to a doorway where a woman was trying to stay hidden behind a male servant who stood in front of her.
Elizabeth snapped her fingers, and the woman, who could not be much older than twenty, scurried back up the stairs.
Keran frowned. The feeling of unease he had about his future mother-in-law grew. The girl had been dressed as a servant. Why would she raise such ire in Elizabeth?
He turned to Patrick, who had also noted the exchange. Patrick stepped closer and took food from Leora’s tray. Then he leaned in and whispered in Keran’s ear.
“Shall I find out who that is?”
Keran nodded, then took some cheese from the tray. He swallowed it, then turned to Leora. “Perhaps after I have rested you can show me the grounds?”
“I would be happy to, milord.” She blinked at him seductively, dipping low enough to show him a good bit of her abundant cleavage.
Keran waited for his cock to respond. It did not, and he sighed to himself. She was pretty enough, true, but she did not stir his blood. Perhaps in the next few weeks that feeling would change. He could only hope that would be the case.