Excerpt Letter to Reader Title Page About the Author Dedication Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Chapter Thirteen Chapter Fourteen Chapter Fifteen Chapter Sixteen Chapter Seventeen Chapter Eighteen Chapter Nineteen Copyright
What a silly little fool Mina had been for thinking that Roger de Montmorency might be any different from every man she had ever known.
She had been a dolt to feel anything for him.
The idea that Sir Roger could make her swoon with ecstasy without even trying was enough to make her grind her teeth in anger. The boastful, vain, pompous creature! No doubt all the women he had made love to so far had been serving wenches or peasants who believed there was something special about a nobleman, or who wanted something in return, like money or advancement.
Well, she knew better. Noblemen were men first, and seldom noble. If her betrothed thought he could Just crook a finger and find Mina Chilcott waiting patiently in the nuptial bed, he would soon learn otherwise....
Kathe Robin of Romantic Times had this to say about award-winning author Margaret Moore’s new Medieval, The Norman’s Heart: “A story brimming with vibrant color and three-dimensional characters. There is emotion and power on every page.” We hope you enjoy this delightful story of the marriage of staid Sir Roger de Montmorency and the willful Lady Mina Chilcott.
Taylor Ryan’s first book, Love’s Wild Wager, was part of our popular March Madness promotion featuring talented new authors. With her second book, this month’s Birdie, she returns to Regency England and Ireland to tell the touching story of a woman of noble blood who was raised on the streets.
Our two other titles for the month include Man of the Mist from Elizabeth Mayne, the sweeping tale of a Scottish officer who finally returns to claim his young bride, now a grown woman.
Whatever your taste in reading, we hope Harlequin Historicals will keep you coming back for more. Please keep a lookout for all four titles, available wherever books are sold.
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The Norman’s Heart
Prior to embarking on her writing career, Margaret Moore studied English Literature at the University of Toronto, taught basic military training in the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve and worked for every major department store chain in Canada.
Margaret is married to a man whose eyes really change color. They have two children and live in Scarborough, Ontario.
To the independent Warren women and the
self-confident men who married them.
Rain pelted against the stone walls of Montmorency Castle and drummed on the closed shutters. The wind moaned softly about the battlements, and heavy clouds scudded across the full moon.
Inside the hall, Sir Roger de Montmorency paced impatiently, ignoring everyone, including Sir Albert Lacourt, who leaned against one of the many trestle tables, his arms crossed and his head bowed as if deep in thought. An occasional sharp glance at Sir Roger betrayed some anxiety on his part as well.
A huge fire burned in the new hearth, and most of the wedding guests huddled near it, awaiting the lavish evening meal intended to welcome Sir Roger’s bride. The bright banners of the visiting nobility hung from the walls; fine beeswax candles burned upon the linen-covered, flower-strewn tables, and in honor of the festive occasion, fresh herbs had been sprinkled over the rushes on the floor.
Dudley, the steward, a Saxon who had been in the service of the de Montmorencys his whole life, looked about to have an apoplectic fit as he scurried between the kitchen corridor, the tables and the door. The maidservants, idly waiting to serve the food, stood near the corridor and whispered among themselves. Dudley signaled them to hush before he peered again into the rain and the dark of the night, running his hand over the few remaining white hairs on his nearly bald head. The question in his eyes and the unspoken words on the tip of his tongue were obvious to all present: What was keeping the bride?
Sir Roger, his usually inscrutable face full of annoyance, suddenly stopped his pacing. “We have waited long enough,” he announced. “Everybody sit down.”
The wedding guests glanced uncertainly at one another, for this was a serious turn of events that did not bode well for the future alliance between the de Montmorencys and the Chilcotts. On the other hand, they had been waiting for some time and were very hungry, so they moved to their respective places. The movement of the crowd revealed an elderly and frail priest who was sleeping slouched on a stool, his back against the wall.
“Father Damien, give us your blessing,” Sir Roger called out as he strode to take his place at the high table on the raised dais. When the priest did not respond, Sir Roger bellowed his name again.
Dudley hurried to the priest and gently shook him awake. “The blessing, Father,” the Saxon said quietly and respectfully, although he glanced uneasily over his plump shoulder at Sir Roger. “It’s time for the blessing.”
“What’s that? Is she here at last?” Father Damien asked, peering about myopically. “Where? I don’t see anybody.”
“She’s not here, but we will not wait,” Sir Roger said loudly.
“Ah, my son,” Father Damien said in his high, cracking voice, “shouldn’t we wait—”
Everyone in the room jumped a bit and Father Damien immediately started to mumble a brief blessing.
His duties finished, the priest moved to his place at the table with surprising alacrity, and Sir Roger turned to his oldest friend. “You sit here, Albert,” Sir Roger said in a tone that would brook no denial as he indicated the seat that was to have been his bride’s.
Sir Albert did as he was told with obvious reluctance.
The servants also moved swiftly, and Dudley seemed to relax somewhat as the first course arrived, apparently none the worse for the delay.
Albert looked at Roger, an expression of condemnation in his usually mild brown eyes. “Your guests could be delayed by the storm, Roger, and—”
“And if that is so, they should have sent a messenger on ahead to tell us.”
“I understand your impatience, Roger. I, too, would be far from happy if my future bride was delayed. However, let us hope they have stopped at an inn to wait out the storm.”
“That would be the sensible thing to do,” Roger said as a roasted capon was set before him by a buxom serving wench whose shapely lips fell into a pout when he ignored her.
Roger stabbed the meat angrily. “Unfortunately, Chilcott is not a sensible man. They could be anywhere between his estate and mine.”
“At least he has the sense to pick a fine husband for his half sister.”
Roger snorted with unsuppressed contempt. “Save your flattery for someone else, Albert. He might have made no end of trouble over his broken betrothal to my sister if I had not agreed.”
“So why did you not insist that Madeline marry him? You could have stopped her marriage to that Welshman. He impersonated Chilcott, after all. I must confess I expected you to kill the fellow, Roger, right there on the steps of the chapel. When you offered to knight him—God’s blood, I almost dropped dead myself. It’s a good thing he refused. Think what Baron DeGuerre would have said!”
“If the Welshman had sworn fealty to me, the baron would have been appeased. Besides, I wanted the guests to enjoy themselves after I had gone to such expense for the feast. They were all sitting there like statues until I made the offer. But it doesn’t matter now.” Roger wiped the trencher in front of him with a piece of bread. “For the first—and last—time in my life I acted like a softhearted fool.”
“Or as if you had a heart,” Albert mumbled under his breath as he pulled the wing from a roasted duck.
“What did you say?” Roger demanded.
“I understand your predicament,” Albert replied. “Still, Baron DeGuerre will be pleased that this alliance is going to come about after all.”
A foot soldier appeared at the wide doors of the hall. Because Roger had heard no cry of alarm, he assumed that the matter was some minor household trouble. Dudley hurried toward the man and listened to his words.
For a moment, Roger felt some pity for his steward. Dudley was not a young man, and between the anxiety over the preparations for his lord’s wedding, which he had planned with as much care as if Roger were the king, and this unaccountable delay, he had aged considerably.
Roger’s anger at Chilcott grew even more. It was an insult to him and to his steward that Chilcott didn’t have the courtesy to arrive on time.
Dudley came bustling toward the high table as fast as his plump legs would carry him. “My lord!” he said, looking as if he feared the castle were about to fall down around his head, “they are here! In the inner ward! Lord Chilcott and his half sister and their retinue!”
Albert gave Roger a censorious look, which grew deeper when Roger made no move to get up, let alone leave the hall, but Roger didn’t care. “Have the servants show them to their quarters,” he ordered brusquely. “They can have wine and fruit there.”
Dudley wrung his hands and chewed his lip. “Forgive my impertinence, my lord, but should you not greet them? Or at least invite them into the hall to dine? They have journeyed a long way, and—”
“Arrived too late. If they wish more to eat, they may join us at the table. Or not, as they please. I am not interrupting my meal for latecomers who do not have the courtesy to advise me of any unexpected difficulty.”
With a baleful look at Albert, who gave a slight, resigned shrug of his shoulders, Dudley nodded and hurried out of the hall, wringing his hands with dismay.
“Just what do you hope to gain by this discourtesy?” Albert asked quietly.
“Are you accusing me of incivility?”
“Yes. There could be many reasons for their tardiness. If you had only waited a little longer—”
“I don’t care to hear their excuses.”
“She is your bride, after all.”
“You don’t have to remind me.”
“Aren’t you curious to see her at all?” Albert asked, impatience creeping into his voice.
Roger looked at his friend with some surprise. “Not in the least. I daresay she’s like that popinjay Chilcott, a vain, overdressed, affected young lady whose spending habits will cause me some grief before I train her out of them. Nor do I intend to encourage tardiness from my future wife, now or at any time. If you’re so interested, why don’t you go and greet her?”
“Because I am not the groom,” Albert replied.
“And because it’s raining hard enough to put dents in the stones,” Roger added laconically.
Albert grinned slightly, then frowned. “It still doesn’t make it right for you to be rude.”
“I’ll be seeing the woman for a long time to come,” Roger said in a tone that signaled the end of the discussion. “And this meal was too expensive to be ruined with delay.”
Lord Reginald Chilcott, knight of the realm, lord of several manors, whose ancestors had sailed with William the Conqueror himself, stood shivering in the dark courtyard of Montmorency Castle gazing mournfully at Sir Roger’s steward. Rain dripped off his bedraggled velvet cloak; his once finely perfumed and dressed hair hung limply about his narrow shoulders, and he wiped his aquiline nose, which was now dripping from within and without. Behind him, his men muttered discontentedly and his wagons were soaking. The smell of damp horse was nearly overwhelming.
“Not coming to greet us?” Chilcott repeated incredulously for the fourth time. “You are absolutely certain?”
“Yes, my lord. You must understand, the hour grew late and Sir Roger does not like to be kept waiting. If you had sent a messenger—”
“We did not realize Sir Roger keeps his bridges in such poor repair that a summer’s storm would wash them away, or we would have,” a woman’s voice interrupted. Dudley tried to see past Lord Chilcott to what appeared to be a cloaked and hooded woman mounted on a rather inferior beast.
“Mina!” Chilcott chided, his tone between a plea and a warning as he turned toward the woman.
The woman dismounted. “It is true, Reginald, and you know it.”
She faced Dudley, who tried to see beneath her hood without being overly obvious. “My lord has told me to show you to your quarters, where wine and fruit will be brought to you,” he offered.
At that moment, one of the servants left the hall. The light from the open door poured into the inner ward and was reflected in the many puddles. Simultaneously they heard the chatter and raucous laughter of those assembled in the hall, as well as the clatter of wooden dishes and metal goblets, no longer muted by the heavy oaken door.
Mina Chilcott slowly turned toward the steward. “The evening meal is not yet finished,” she observed.
“No, my lady,” Dudley mumbled, not quite sure what to do.
“We cannot go into the hall looking like this!” Reginald Chilcott said in a voice that was almost a screech. “We’re soaked to the skin! My clothes are nearly ruined, and your skirt is covered with mud.”
“Surely that is not unexpected, given the weather. Nevertheless, Reginald, I will go to the hall of this most courteous knight,” the bride said with what sounded suspiciously like sarcasm.
This did not seem the type of gentle, soft-spoken woman able to win any man’s heart, let alone Sir Roger’s, Dudley thought despondently.
“I would suggest, Reginald, that you tell the men to stable the horses, then go to the kitchens and make sure they are fed before bedding down for the night wherever this fellow says. Your name, sir?” she suddenly asked.
“Dudley,” he replied, taken aback by the unexpected courtesy in her voice. “I am the steward here.”
She nodded, then tilted her head up. “It’s stopped raining,” she noted, and threw back her hood.
Finally Dudley saw her face, and he wanted to moan with helplessness. The baron could not have chosen a more unsuitable bride for Sir Roger if it had been his intention. Why, this woman had red hair—not auburn, not red gold, but brilliant red, like the barbarian Irish—and, worse, freckles! Above all else, Sir Roger liked an unblemished complexion. She was tall, too, nearly as tall as her intended husband himself.
“Thank you, Dudley,” she said, turning to face Lord Chilcott, who was sniffling again. “This place is smaller than you led me to believe, Reginald. Still, what is that saying? Beggars cannot choose? And I daresay Sir Roger sets himself a good table. Since I am hungry, I am going to eat.”
“But Mina,” Reginald spluttered, “you cannot simply walk into Roger de Montmorency’s hall unannounced!”
“Do you not believe my betrothed will be pleased to see me?” she asked with an undisguised sneer. Without waiting for an answer, Lady Mina Chilcott turned on her heel and went toward the hall.
Dudley let out a low whistle, which he cut short when he realized the lady’s relative was still there.
“Exactly,” Chilcott muttered. He faced his men. “Do what she says, oafs, before you catch your death from a chill!”
“What do you wish to do, my lord?” Dudley asked deferentially.
“Follow her, of course, to make sure she doesn’t ruin everything,” Chilcott said helplessly. Then he glanced down at his wet garments. “After I change my clothes, of course.”
Mina stood uncertainly inside the entrance of the hall of Montmorency Castle. It wasn’t as large as her father’s hall, yet it was very brightly lit, warm and decorated with pennants and flowers. Several well-dressed nobles were sitting at long tables, eating. The smells greeting her made her mouth water, and she took a step farther inside.
Then she realized the handsome man sitting at the center of the high table was staring at her. From his position of importance, she knew he must be Sir Roger de Montmorency, her betrothed.
But such a look! Cold, appraising, arrogant. He must know who she was, yet even now, he did not rise to greet her. He simply sat and stared at her with those dark, forbidding eyes.
Did he think he could intimidate her with that look? She was no spoiled young girl raised in sheltered gentleness. Nor was she a peasant to be overwhelmed with any nobleman’s rank and wealth. She was Lady Mina Chilcott, and she could be just as self-confidently arrogant as any man. Her father had raised her to be that way, even if that had not been his intention.
So she stared back. Her betrothed was extremely well formed, with muscular shoulders and a broad chest that narrowed to a slender waist. He wore a simple tunic of dark green with no ornamentation of any kind, nor did he wear any jewelry. It struck her that he had no need for extra adornment.
Surprised by this observation, her gaze returned to his undeniably handsome face. Unexpectedly, he did not wear his hair in the conventional Norman manner, cut around the ears as if a bowl had been overturned on his head, the way Reginald did. Instead, he wore his hair long, like the wilder Celts. Indeed, he seemed to have more in common with those brazen warriors than Reginald or the other noble Normans she was used to.
Despite her bravado in the inner ward, her refusal to be alarmed and her very real hunger made worse by the abundance of food around her, Mina wondered if she had made a mistake by not taking the steward’s advice to go to her quarters.
No, I am in the right, she thought resolutely. He should have greeted them in the courtyard and offered them the hospitality of his castle. Instead, he had left them outside as if they were merchants or traveling performers, not honored guests.
With that thought to bolster her courage, she took a deep breath, lifted her chin and reminded herself she was the legitimate daughter of a knight, even if her mother had been a Saxon. Then she marched straight down the center of the hall between the tables.
The gray-haired nobleman on Sir Roger’s right rose, a welcoming smile on his pleasant, careworn face that warmed her as much as the blazing fire. One by one the other men and women who were gathered in the hall fell silent, waiting expectantly. Only an elderly priest seemed not to notice the interruption as he continued to eat.
Still Sir Roger only looked, although his brow lowered ominously. What would he think of a woman who dared to embarrass him in front of all these people? No matter how she felt about the arranged marriage, Mina had given her word. Was it wise to anger her future husband?
Mina slowed her steps and lowered her eyes demurely. When she reached the dais at the far end of the curved hall, she made a deep obeisance. “Forgive my intrusion, Sir Roger,” she said softly. “I fear, however, that no one informed you of our arrival.”
Finally, finally, Sir Roger de Montmorency got up, still fixing her with his dark, measuring stare. His thigh-length tunic was belted about his waist and exposed long, lean legs. She noticed that his hands were slender and sinewy, obviously strong and surely capable of handling the heaviest weapons with ease.
“You are late and sent no word,” her betrothed said in a voice as unfriendly as his expression. “We could not wait the supper.”
“The bridge not five miles from here has been washed away... my lord,” she added, with just enough of a pause to give her time to glance up at him. Let him see her eyes, too. Let him realize that she knew he had been unforgivably rude to herself and to her half brother, who was of a higher rank.
A vein in Sir Roger’s forehead began to pulse, and she surmised she had scored a hit. “I’m sure it is not your fault,” she said sweetly. “Underlings are often all too anxious to take advantage of a kind and generous lord.” What a lie! she thought as she waited for him to respond. She could well imagine how he would treat his tenants. They would probably all welcome a mistress who understood what it was like to be mistreated.
Sir Roger made no answer, nor did his expression alter.
A particularly colorful curse rose to her lips. How could he continue to be so rude, with all these people watching? Was he that sure of himself that he did not fear their censure?
Looking at him, she thought he probably was.
“May I sit?” she asked, though it was not a request.
“My lady, please, take my chair.” The gray-haired knight moved quickly aside. He smiled again, a kind but knowing smile. “I am Sir Albert Lacourt. Naturally we are delighted by your arrival, but you are quite wet through. Are you certain you would care to—”
“I was most anxious to meet my future husband,” Mina interrupted calmly as she came around the table, removed her cloak—and suddenly realized that her soaking dress was clinging to her body like a second skin. She felt her face flush with embarrassment, and a quick glance at the assembly proved that she was making a spectacle of herself. Even the ancient priest was looking at her as if he had never seen a woman before. Considering she might as well be naked, perhaps that was not so far from the truth.