The Warrior's Winter Bride
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‘Dunstan is no friend of Warehaven.’
She explained what he already knew.
‘Why would you deliver me to him?’
Her tone rose with each word.
He heard her inhale sharply before asking, ‘Who are you?’
He tightened his hold round her, lifted her feet from the ground and resumed their walk towards the beach. He was certain from the tightness of her voice that she’d already guessed the answer.
Dipping his head, so he could whisper into her ear, he responded, ‘Who am I?’ He brushed his lips along the delicate curve of her ear. ‘Why, fair maiden of Warehaven, I am Richard of Dunstan.’
She trembled against him. ‘Why are you doing this?’
‘Glenforde must pay for his crimes.’ Richard hardened his voice. ‘And you, as his intended bride, will ensure he does.’
Award-winning author DENISE LYNN lives in the USA with her husband, son and numerous four-legged ‘kids’. Between the pages of romance novels she has travelled to lands and times filled with brave knights, courageous ladies and never-ending love. Now she can share with others her dream of telling tales of adventure and romance. You can write to her at PO Box 17, Monclova, OH 43542, USA, or visit her website: www.denise-lynn.com
For Mom, with love.
Warehaven Keep—autumn 1145
Men were no better than toads, hopping mindlessly one way and then the next without warning.Before, she’d only wondered about it, but now she knew for certain it was true.
The cool night air did little to soothe her raging anger. Isabella of Warehaven shouldered her way through the throng of people crowded in her father’s bailey. She needed some time alone before returning to the celebration about to take place inside the keep.
Her betrothal and upcoming marriage to Wade of Glenforde had been painstakingly planned for months. Each detail had been overseen with the utmost of care. Every line of the agreement had been scrutinised with an eye to the future—her future.
And in a few moments’ time she would toss all of her father’s planning into the fire. Her parents would be so upset with her and she hated the idea of disappointing them, but she just couldn’t, she wouldn’t marry Glenforde. He could wed the whore she’d seen him kissing while he pulled the giggling strumpet into a private alcove.
Thankfully, her mother and father had given her, and her younger sister, Beatrice, the rare blessing of choice. And while she’d dragged her feet until her father, out of impatience, took it upon himself to find her a husband, Isabella was certain he would not force her to go through with this betrothal or marriage. Especially when she shed light on Glenforde’s unseemly behaviour.
Isabella picked up her pace as the recent memory renewed her rage. It was one thing for him to have a whore, but it was another entirely for him to so openly flaunt the relationship inside her father’s keep. And to do so on the evening of their betrothal was beyond acceptable.
Adding this indiscretion to the way he’d pushed her to the ground in anger earlier this afternoon when discussing her sister was more than Isabella was willing to accept.
If he acted in such reprehensible ways now, what would he do once they were wed?
She had no intention of discovering the answer to that question. She was certain that once she explained all to her parents, they would understand her misgivings about this arrangement and she’d never have to worry about the answer. They would more than likely be upset that they’d been so duped into believing he was a suitable choice by her aunt. Her father’s half-sister, the Empress Matilda, had insisted Wade of Glenforde was not just suitable, but the perfect choice all round: he was young, wealthy, available and, more importantly, supported her claim to the crown over King Stephen’s. To sweeten the pot, the empress had promised to supply Wade with a keep, demesne lands and a title worthy of Isabella. How could her parents turn down such an offer?
Fisting her hands, she lengthened her stride in an effort to get clear of the guests milling their way to the keep. Isabella nearly choked on the urge to scream.
The sound of a splash and the ice-cold wetness seeping into her embroidered slippers made the scream impossible to resist. ‘My God, what more ills will this cursed day from hell bring me?’
She slapped one hand over her mouth, lifted the long skirt of her gown with the other and then ran at an unladylike pace towards the stables at the other end of the bailey. No one would hear her curses there.
Quickly gaining the privacy offered by the stables, she ducked to the far side of the building. With her chest heaving from the effort and speed of her escape, she lowered her hand from her mouth. This far away from the keep no one would hear, or see, what was about to be one of her finest bouts of temper since she’d gained adulthood.
Isabella closed her eyes and took a deep breath before parting her lips. Only to have a large work-worn hand slapped firmly over her mouth.
She opened her eyes wide in shock as she swallowed the scream she’d been so eager to let fly.
‘My, my, what have we here?’ the man standing behind her asked softly over her shoulder.
He ignored her struggles to free herself to ask, ‘Why, I wonder, would Warehaven’s whelp travel this far from safety in the dark?’
He leaned closer, his chest hard against her back, his breath hot across her ear. ‘Unescorted and unprotected.’
The deepening timbre of his voice acted like a bucket of ice-cold water sluicing down her body, making her tremble as she suddenly realised the danger in which she’d placed herself.
She’d been a fool to have flown the keep so rashly. Alone, without protection, she had foolishly risked her life. Her family had repeatedly warned her about her rashness. They’d gone to great lengths to frighten her with terror-filled tales of what happened to headstrong maidens who cavorted about in such a thoughtless manner.
Was she now about to be killed—or worse—for paying no heed to their dire warnings?
His deadly soft chuckle served to increase her tremors. ‘Do you smell that?’ He inhaled deeply. ‘It’s the scent of fear.’ Pulling her closer against him, he stroked the flat edge of a blade against her cheek adding, ‘Are you afraid, Isabella of Warehaven?’
Of course she was afraid. It was a time of anarchy and unrest, when no one could truly be safe. With the great number of people who’d been invited to Warehaven for this betrothal ceremony, countless criminals—men who had no sense of honour or decency—would surely follow.
Cut-throats and pickpockets alike would flock to Warehaven simply to take advantage of the opportunity to line their pouches with gold, jewels and any other item that might garner them a goodly sum.
Her breath caught in her throat. Would not the lord’s daughter gain such a man much wealth?
The ground beneath her feet seemed to sway. She desperately tried to gasp for breath, but his hand over her mouth and nose prevented her from drawing in the air she needed. And his arm, now wrapped so tightly around her waist, made even normal breathing nearly impossible.
Isabella kicked back, frantic to free herself from his hold, and more frantic not to swoon. She had to escape. There was no telling what this unchivalrous knave intended.
* * *
Richard of Dunstan did his best to ignore the misplaced bit of guilt pricking at him as he held tight to Glenforde’s betrothed. He tamped it down, squashing it as one would a bothersome gnat. Useless things like morals and guilt were best left to those who still cared about the niceties of life.
Guilt had provided him with nothing more than a way to avoid doing what needed to be done. And morals had only held him back from exacting vengeance for what had been done to his family.
The only thing Richard cared about any more was satisfying his need for revenge—Wade of Glenforde had seen to that by his murderous actions on Dunstan.
With that solitary end focused sharply in his mind, Richard and one of his men had slipped into Warehaven’s bailey with the throng of arriving guests, intent on discovering a way to kidnap Glenforde’s bride-to-be after their betrothal ceremony.
He and his man Matthew had quickly stepped away from the throng to take a position alongside the wall and survey the lay of the bailey. That was where Richard had overheard two of the guards, on the wooden walkway above them, talking to each other about the bride-to-be. It appeared that the lady in question was currently alone in the bailey and the two men were debating if they should be overly concerned for her safety or not.
To Richard’s relief the older-sounding guard had set the other man’s worries at ease by asking what could possibly happen with so many of Warehaven’s armed guards on duty. Who, he had asked, would be daft enough, with so much manpower in evidence, to harm Lady Isabella?
However, he’d never seen either of Warehaven’s daughters, so he’d paid close attention to the guards’ discussion, hoping they’d supply the information he needed. It was imperative he seize the right daughter. Thankfully, it didn’t take long for them to provide enough detail for him to realise the richly dressed young woman rushing towards the stables was the woman he sought.
This had been an opportunity he couldn’t afford to ignore. And once the guards broke apart to go their separate ways, he’d put his hastily revised plan into action. With his prey so near at hand that very moment, it had made no sense to wait until after the ceremony. Certainly not when it had seemed to be divine intervention. It was as if God himself had blessed his quest for vengeance by placing this woman neatly in Richard’s hands.
Eventually, Glenforde would get the death he so deserved, but first he would suffer. He would be outraged that his bride-to-be had been taken. If he cared for the woman at all, he would suffer torment as he thought of the horrors his beloved might face.
And if Glenforde didn’t hold any feelings for her, he would still be in agony at the lost riches Warehaven’s daughter would have brought with her into their marriage.
Lord Warehaven possessed land and gold aplenty. He was aligned through blood with the royals on both sides of this never-ending war. There was little doubt that his daughter would bring not just wealth, but also political advantage to a marriage—the combination would be too much for Glenforde to willingly set aside.
Yes, Glenforde’s pride and greed would draw him to Dunstan. He would come intent on rescuing the woman and retaining a secure hold on his future. But success would be far from his reach. He would arrive on Dunstan to find his beloved already wed and instead would be greeted only by the sharp blade of Richard’s sword.
By luring Glenforde back to the scene of his heinous crime, the spirits of his innocent victims would have the opportunity to lead the blackguard’s worthless soul to the gaping mouth of hell.
The woman in his arms struggled yet again, drawing Richard’s attention back to his captive. Her apparent youth almost made him regret the future she was about to begin, but a fleeting memory wove through his mind. The vision of a perfect blonde curl resting against a lifeless, blood-streaked cheek chased away any regret.
Warehaven’s daughter would accept what fate decreed for her—or she would perish. That choice would be up to her.
He hadn’t come this far, or taken such a risk, to turn back now. For months he had set aside duty and responsibility, existing solely for vengeance.
Now that the key to his revenge was securely in his arms, he wasn’t about to let go. At this moment she likely thought him nothing more than a knave seeking to take advantage of her. Little did she know exactly what type of advantage he would take.
Against her ear, he warned softly, ‘We are leaving the keep and if you scream, if you so much as think to draw attention to us, I will slit your throat.’ He paused, allowing his threat to settle into her mind, then asked, ‘Do you understand me?’
Richard waited until she nodded before moving them slowly back towards the shadows behind the stable where his man waited.
A hand touched his back, bringing him to an instant halt. Light from a torch fell across them. Richard tensed, prepared to defend himself and somehow still retain his unsuspecting captive.
‘Lord Richard, all is ready.’
He relaxed his defences at the sound of Matthew’s voice. However, the woman in his arms stiffened. Richard tightened his hand over her mouth and placed the edge of his dagger against her throat. ‘Your betrothed thought nothing of killing an innocent, defenceless six-year-old girl. Rest assured, I can easily even the score if you so much as sneeze.’
He loosened his grasp over her face slightly, relieved that she kept her lips together. ‘You will live as long as you remain silent.’ He waited a moment to let his threat take hold, then ordered, ‘Nod if you understand me.’
She nodded. But something in the stiffness of her spine warned him that she wasn’t going to be as compliant as he’d hoped. He would deal with that later—for now he only required her silence.
Matthew held up a hooded cloak. ‘For the lady.’
As Warehaven’s daughter, she would be too easily identified. The long, dark woollen garment would conceal her form and features. Richard uncovered her mouth, grasped her shoulder and pulled her further into the shadows, away from the glare of Matthew’s torch, before releasing her. ‘Stand still.’
He draped the cloak around her shoulders, secured it in front and pulled up the hood. After tucking her hair inside the fabric, he checked to make sure there was nothing visible to mark her as Warehaven’s daughter.
Richard held his blade up, pointed towards her face and explained, ‘You are feeling unwell and as your concerned brothers, we are escorting you home. If you give warning of any kind, you will forfeit your life before the guards can take mine.’
To his relief, she nodded her understanding without being told to do so again. With one arm across her shoulders, he motioned Matthew to her other side. Richard pressed down on her shoulder. ‘Slump over as if you are ill.’
He could only hope she feared him enough to follow his orders. But when they took their first step, she tripped over the excess fabric of the cloak.
With a soft curse, he slid the dagger back into his boot and then swung her up into his arms.
She gasped, jerking away from him.
He held her tight against his chest. ‘I won’t warn you again. Rest your head against me and be silent.’ With a nod towards Matthew, he ordered, ‘Lead on.’
* * *
Isabella wasn’t sure who deserved her curses more. While she knew that Wade of Glenforde was far from a gallant knight, she didn’t think he’d stoop low enough to harm innocent children. But for whatever reason this man thought he had. So, Glenforde also deserved a portion of her curses.
And she was most certainly deserving of them—it was her own rashness that had got her into this situation. Or did the unkempt lout holding her deserve the curses more?
His man had called him Lord Richard. So, he was not a lowly cur as she’d first feared. He didn’t lack status, nor did he lack the ingenuity to be armed.
Most of the revellers—invited or not—had left their weapons in the tents they’d erected outside the walls of the keep. Since it was easier to control an overlarge crowd when they were unarmed, those who hadn’t stowed their weapons were relieved of the items upon entering Warehaven.
From the dagger in this man’s possession, at least one guard had lacked thoroughness with his given task. A serious lapse in duty of which her father should be made aware.
The man holding her tightened his grasp as they neared the gate. She understood the silent warning and hoped they wouldn’t be stopped. Not for a single heartbeat did she think the man wouldn’t carry through with his threat to kill her.
Isabella took a deep breath to keep her fear at bay. She knew this warrior—this knave—would interpret any tremors on her part as a weakness he could use to his advantage. She could only pray that he released her before she could no longer suppress the need to quake with dread.
To her relief no one paid them the least bit of attention. Yet, as they passed beyond the gates and towards the open field now littered with tents and larger pavilions, the man didn’t release his hold.
She thought he would hold her captive in one of those tents until Glenforde, or her father, came to claim her. But he kept walking and seemed to gather her even closer—impossibly close. His heart beat strong beneath her cheek. She felt the steady rise and fall of his chest with each breath he took.
His fingers pressing into the side of her breast drew an unrestrained gasp from her lips. Even through the layers of her clothing and the cloak, the heat of his touch seemed to scorch her skin before it skittered along her nerves, escalating her need to escape.
She twisted away and shoved at his shoulder, trying to lunge from his hold. ‘Where are you taking me? Put me down.’
Richard stopped at the head of the trail leading down to the beach. If she screamed now, they would be close enough to board his ship before anyone from the keep could come to her rescue.
And that was the whole point of this unorthodox kidnapping—he wanted Warehaven to know who had taken his daughter, but he did not want to get caught. More importantly, he needed Glenforde to know who had possession of his betrothed. Otherwise, if they didn’t know where to find the lady, this entire task could prove a waste in more ways than one.
He relaxed his hold on her legs and let her slide down the length of his body until she stood on her feet. But he had no intention of releasing her. ‘Where am I taking you? You are going to be my guest for a time.’
She frowned, rightfully confused by his statement. ‘Your guest?’
Anxious to be away, he ignored her to motion Matthew ahead with the torch. Then Richard turned the woman around so her back was against his chest and, with his arms wrapped about her waist, bodily forced her down the path.
Only then did he answer, ‘Yes. You are going to Dunstan.’
He wasn’t surprised at her cry of dismay or at the way she dug her heels into the ground in a feeble attempt to halt their progress. He’d expected some type of struggle from her, especially after he’d divulged the first part of his intentions.
‘Dunstan is no friend of Warehaven.’ She explained what he already knew. ‘Why would you deliver me to him?’ Her tone rose with each word. He heard her inhale sharply before asking, ‘Who are you?’
He tightened his hold round her, lifted her feet from the ground and resumed their trek towards the beach. He was certain from the tightness of her voice that she’d already guessed the answer. Dipping his head, so he could whisper into her ear, he responded, ‘Who am I?’ He brushed his lips along the delicate curve of her ear. ‘Why, fair maiden of Warehaven, I am Richard of Dunstan.’
She trembled against him. ‘Why are you doing this?’
‘Glenforde must pay for his crimes.’ Richard hardened his voice. ‘And you, as his intended bride, will ensure he does.’
She jerked her head back, most likely to slam it against his nose. He was quicker and easily dodged her attempt to injure him. ‘Come now, you can do better than that.’
However, her heels drumming sharply into his shins and kneecaps was a distraction he feared would send them both crashing to the ground. Unwilling to take a chance of either of them being injured, he lowered her to the path, with the intention of taking her hand to lead her to the beach.
Her scream, loud and piercing, changed his mind. By her glare of mutinous rage and fear, he quickly realised there would be no leading her anywhere. Instead, Richard hauled her over his shoulder and ran down the narrow path. He shouted at Matthew just ahead, ‘Move faster, before Warehaven’s men catch up to us.’
He was fairly certain they were far enough away from the keep that while her screams would be heard, just as he had planned, her plea for rescue would go unanswered long enough for him to reach his ship. But it was a risk he didn’t want to take.
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