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Diana's Books

Defending His Lady (ebook)

Defending His Lady (ebook)

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A warrior without a heart, a lady without a name, forced into a marriage which will ruin them all.

England, 1204...With his heart turned to stone after years of fighting, Rufus de Vere has returned from the Crusades to protect his family by marrying the daughter of their enemy. But, instead, the King forces Rufus to marry a Romani nobody knowing it will ruin his family. Everyone agrees the marriage has to be annulled and that the Romani, Kezia, must desert Rufus to secure the de Vere family’s future.

What begins as a simple plan becomes more complicated when Rufus and Kezia find they cannot resist each other and Kezia discovers a home in the flat Norfolk lands that she’s always wanted. Kezia might not have a name but her forest ways soon make her invaluable as Rufus prepares to fight for his family’s lands.

But when tragedy strikes at the heart of the de Vere family, Kezia has to decide whether she loves Rufus enough to leave him…

--Norfolk Knights--
Book 1--Claiming his Lady
Book 2--Seducing his Lady
Book 3--Awakening his Lady
Book 4--Defending his Lady 
(full length novel)
Book 5--Honoring his Lady 
(full length novel)


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Leicestershire, late spring 1204

Kezia glanced around the great hall and knew it was now or never. She had to strike while it was quiet.
There were few signs of life. She spotted a group of men playing dice and swilling the king’s wine like it was ale. And a dog looked up at her hopefully with big brown eyes from his place by the fire amidst the greasy, bone-strewn rushes.
Unlike the dog, the men took no notice of her as she slipped by in her drab servant robes, carrying empty ale jugs destined for the kitchen. But then she’d made sure she’d gone unnoticed during the weeks she’d been serving at the king’s hunting lodge. It hadn’t been hard. In a place where King John and his court dressed like gaudy popinjays, the undyed, coarse robes of a lowly maid rendered her virtually invisible. She’d also darkened her fair hair with ashes from the fire and prevented any remaining curiosity by covering her head with a veil, so stained it had been discarded by the other servants. And, most important of all, she’d learned to keep her eyes cast downward and to stay in the shadows. She knew what happened when women became visible to men. And no more so than here, a place where King John and his men did precisely as they pleased.
She turned to the lone man who lay slumped over the table, snoring into a half-finished dinner, his goblet overturned and his hair trailing into a pool of red wine. It had been easy enough to make sure Sir Gilbert de Montmorency hadn’t joined the king’s hunt. She’d brought herbs from the forest for that very purpose.
Her gorge rose at the sight of him. Even if she hadn’t known he was responsible for the kidnapping of her beloved Ethelinda—sister, mother, guardian, all rolled into one—she would have hated him for his cruelty to anyone beneath his rank, which included just about everybody except the king. Everything she’d come to know about him in the three weeks since she’d arrived at the hunting lodge had confirmed what she’d heard: that this bear of a man had taken Ethelinda away from their forest home to this castle where she’d disappeared. Kezia was determined to find out once and for all where she was.
She tilted her head into his line of vision, but the man’s drunken gaze slid away as if she weren’t there. Kezia cursed under her breath. She’d seen other girls seduce men with a simple wink of the eye but, it appeared, she’d learned to go unnoticed only too well. Either that, or she’d overdone the potion she’d added to his wine.
She glanced around, but there was no sign yet of the king and his entourage returning from the hunt, and the group of men playing dice had eyes for nothing but their game as the stakes grew higher. No one was looking, so she took a deep breath and loosened the ties of her gown. She pulled down her chemise, so her shoulders and the tops of her small breasts were revealed. It went against her every instinct of survival, but she had more to consider than herself if she wanted to find Ethelinda. She stepped closer and placed her hand on his thigh, swallowing the bile which rose in her throat as she forced her hand higher still. His eyes opened wider as her fingers touched his manhood, and she lowered herself so that his eyes were in direct line of her breasts. Suddenly he was wide awake.
Before his great hand could paw at her, she stepped away. She forced herself to look him in the eye and lick her lips. She’d seen other girls do this and men immediately understood. She hoped she simply didn’t appear dry-lipped on this cold night that threatened snow.
She lifted her skirts in one last desperate attempt to make Sir Gilbert follow her. He rose unsteadily and stumbled toward her, sending a chair flying onto the soiled rushes. The dog scampered away, a half-eaten bone in its mouth. A couple of servants looked around, grinning, as she fled into the shadows, re-tying her laces as she went. Her plan was risky as her ability to blend into the background had been her only defense against the debauchery of the king’s court. But no other opportunity had presented itself to get the man alone, to make him tell her what had happened to Ethelinda.
She waited for Sir Gilbert with a thumping heart. Had she lost him? Then he turned a corner, saw her, and came stumbling after her. Timing was everything; she knew that from her life with the Romani in the forest. She gripped the iron handle of the door and waited until she was sure he was coming before she ran outside to a quiet corner of the deserted bailey.
He lumbered toward her, his bear-like body made clumsy by drink, his eyes bloodshot, angry that he’d been made to run after her to shaft her.
Her breath formed clouds in the freezing air, and she had to force herself to stop and face him. She slipped the knife from her sleeve and gripped it in her hand behind her back. As he advanced upon her she couldn’t help recoiling; her body pressed against a frozen rosemary bush, its scent filling the air. She could hear horses’ hooves pounding on the frozen ground—the king and his men were returning from the hunt, so she had to be quick.
Sir Gilbert stumbled forward to kiss her, and she held in a cry as he placed one large greasy hand on her breast, the air now filled by his alcohol-laden breath. She couldn’t help ducking to avoid his lips, and brought her hand around to push him off, the hand with the knife in it. She pressed it to his gut.
He didn’t realize at first and lifted her skirt with a grunt. She pushed her skirt back down and brought the knife to his neck where he could see it.
“What the—”
“You brought a woman from the forest four weeks ago. Where is she?”
He gave a low roar as he tried to seize the knife, but she wrenched his arm, twisted it around and sent him flying to the ground with a resounding thud. She stamped her foot on his throat.
“Answer me, where is the woman you kidnapped from the forest?”
He wrested her foot from his throat. “Let me up, damn you, wench!”
She crouched, her knife at his throat, nicking his skin so blood flowed. “I will when you tell me where the woman is.”
“I know not of whom you speak.”
“Comely. Raven hair. Of early middle age.”
“I wouldn’t take a woman of middle age.”
“Her you would. She is very beautiful.”
She knew the moment he understood of whom she spoke. His mouth slackened into a loose smile, and the dazed look left his eyes. He looked at her direct—the danger having banished his drunkenness—a slight smile playing on his lips as if he didn’t realize she was serious. “Let me up, and I’ll tell you where she is.”
She shouldn’t, but she’d spent every hour of the last three weeks working up to this point. And her hand shook with the effort of keeping the knife in place. She needed to know.
She stepped away. “You may rise, but you must tell me what I need to know. Otherwise…” She brandished the knife.
But Sir Gilbert was more agile than she’d imagined. He jumped up with one swift movement and slammed her against the wall, the knife falling without a sound onto the grimy slush that was heaped against the flint walls of the castle keep. He had surprising strength for a man who spent most of his hours, when not talking poison into the king’s ear, whoring and drinking.
“Bitch! I’ll take you first, and then I’ll kill you.”
She knew she was dead, but she wanted to die knowing. “I need to know about the woman,” she said between gritted teeth.
He tore at the laces of her robe, revealing the leather pouch she wore hidden under her clothes.
“And what have we here? Some kind of treasure?” He gripped both her hands in one of his and opened the pouch to reveal a brooch. “What have you been thieving?” He took it and put it in his pocket. “I’ll take this.” He pressed his face against hers. “And you.”
Even the loss of the only link she had to her past was nothing compared to the loss of the person dearest to her in the whole world. “Tell me… what happened to Ethelinda.”
As he fumbled with his breeches, he gripped her throat and pushed her against the wall. “You know this woman, do you? Or should I say, did you? Because she’s dead. By her own hand. Seems she’d rather be dead than—”
He never got to finish the sentence because grief and fury gave Kezia the strength she needed to bring up her knee with a swift, well-placed jerk which had him reeling backward. She tried to reach for the knife, but he recovered quickly and slammed her once more against the wall and lifted her skirts.
She struggled in vain, biting and scratching, trying to do whatever she could to rid herself of this monster, when a man’s roar made them both turn to see a dark shape, lit by fire. Kezia muttered a protective oath under her breath as the shape, outlined with the sparks from the fire of the brazier behind him, descended upon them and lifted the man from her. He threw him to the ground, knocking him senseless with an ease of movement and power which she’d never before seen. This man knew how to fight.
The shape drew closer to her and Kezia wondered if it were a god of the woods whom the ancients worshipped, come to life to save her. But as he shifted and the light shone on his face, she saw it was a man, a mortal man, albeit with a blind rage in his eyes. She stepped away. Had he come to finish off what the other had started?
As soon as she moved away, the fury left his eyes. “Don’t be afraid, maid. I will not harm you.”
She pulled her hood over her head and narrowed her eyes. “Keep away.”
He made no move toward her. “I mean naught, girl, merely to free you from that man.”
“I can free myself.”
She walked over to where Sir Gilbert lay groaning on the ground. Then, with a glance at her savior to make sure he didn’t come closer and attack her, she drew back her foot and kicked the prostrate man where it hurt most. He curled up into a ball, clutching himself and muttering foul oaths. She retrieved her brooch and picked up her knife. She was about to plunge it into him when the stranger stepped forward and held her hand with a grip of iron, forcing her to relinquish the knife which fell to the ground.
She grunted both in pain at the man’s grip and frustration. “Let me kill him.”
“Nay. If you kill him, it’ll be worse for you. Let him sober up out here and stay clear of him. The state he’s in I doubt he’ll remember you.”
“You don’t know what he did.”
The stranger glanced at Sir Gilbert on the slushy ground who rolled over and vomited. He looked at her. “No more than any of the rest of us, I reckon. Go now, while you have your chance.”
She tore her hand from his grip, tears of frustration and anger and grief filling her eyes. She shot one last glance at the stranger who stood frowning at her, then opened the small door which led to the kitchen and slipped once more into the shadows.
She closed the door behind her, her heart hammering, sick to the stomach. She gasped for breath as she tried to contain a sob which rose from the deepest place in her soul. Quickly she fumbled with her gown and lowered her head. She had to become invisible once more until the weather cleared, when she could leave this place of evil. But it was harder now because she also had to hide her grief. She held the sob tight in her throat as she responded to the cook’s command to take food through to the hall. The king and his men had returned from the afternoon’s hunt. She pushed the grief down into the pit of her stomach. Her head was spinning with nausea and pain, but she had to remain unobserved. Because once people noticed her, she’d be dead. Just as her beautiful Ethelinda had died—kidnapped from their forest home because of a man’s lust. Dead because she was desired.

Rufus de Vere, Earl of Winterton, watched the lass disappear into the castle and shook his head. She was barely more than a child. He turned to the man who lay unmoving and picked up a bucket of icy water and threw it over him. The man gasped and sat up groggily.
Rufus nudged him with his foot. “Get up, man, unless you wish to freeze to death.”
The man rose uncertainly and felt his head. “Damn you.” He stumbled toward Rufus, but Rufus didn’t move.
“I’m damned already and need no help from you. Return inside and leave your whoring to those who are willing.”
“Rufus!” His brother’s shout came from the stable. “What keeps you?”
It was a timely reminder as to the reason he was here. Rufus walked over to his brother, Savari, who’d led his horse into the stables, leaving the other man cursing as he re-entered the castle.
“What was that all about?” Savari asked. “I thought you’d turned around and fled home, brother.” Savari put his arm around Rufus. “Then again, I know you better than to leave without your horse.”
Rufus took his horse from Savari and muttered an Arabic expression to calm it. He removed the reins himself and with a handful of straw proceeded to wipe down his prized Arabian horse. “Someone trying to rape a wench.”
“So my gallant brother goes to the rescue, eh?”
He glanced at Savari, who’d lived a very different life to his own. “If you’d seen as much as I have of men forcing themselves onto women, your heart would sicken as mine does.”
“Mayhap. But there is no time to save wenches; we have more important things to attend to this night. Leave the horse to the stable boy. The king is expecting you.”
Rufus patted his horse’s neck, his coat gleaming under the flickering lights of the stable. “Take care of him,” he said to the stable boy. “He needs a cover this chill night and make sure you feed him well.”
Rufus fell into step with Savari as they walked across the bailey toward the great hall.
“You’re looking well, brother,” said Rufus.
Savari opened the door to the Hall, and a cloud of steam emerged into the frigid air, along with the smell of roasting pig, and unwashed and sweating men.
“I wish I could say the same to you,” his handsome brother said, his cool, intelligent eyes surveying Rufus under the light which spilled out from the great hall. “You’ve aged.”
Rufus looked at him askance. “And despite your so-called diplomacy, your manners are unchanged.”
“I reserve my silky tongue and compliments for where it matters. You”—he looked at Rufus with a critical eye—“require honesty.”
“Honesty? A rare commodity.”
“Indeed. Especially at court. It’s worth more than gold, and that is my gift to you,” Savari said wryly.
“Well, thank you for your insults, then.”
“Nay, they are no insults,” Savari said. “Our family has need of what you can do here. And for that, you need to know the truth and to whom you can speak it.”
“And who is that?”
“Only me, brother. Only me. For you must act with care here, not your usual impetuous performance like the one just given. You must be on your guard, like never before.”
Rufus scoffed. “I’ve spent these past ten years in battle. You don’t need to tell me about keeping up my guard.”
His brother leaned closer to him. “That was straightforward combat. This”— he indicated the court—“is not. Ready?”
“I’m ready, but for what?” he asked, entering the great hall. No one looked up upon their entrance. The food had just been served, and the wine was flowing freely. The shouts and laughter of men, enjoying the comforts of the castle after their day’s hunt, competed with the drums and pipes of the musicians.
Savari led them to a table close to the king’s empty table and wine was poured into cups. Rufus took a sip and grimaced.
“You surely cannot find fault with the wine, brother?”
“Indeed not. I simply wish it could be drunk as freely outside the king’s court. The only time I tasted anything as good was during the last smuggler’s moon—a haul from France.” He continued to eat and drink sparingly—he needed his wits about him, even if no one else did. “So this is the company you now keep.” He glanced at his brother. “I know not how you stand it.”
“That’s because you’re a heathen who thinks one thing and says one thing only. I, brother, play a subtler game.”
Rufus searched his brother’s face for information which he knew was being withheld. Savari had been raised in France and Rufus had his suspicions about where Savari’s loyalties lay. Savari was not saying, and Rufus knew better than to ask.
“A more dangerous game, mayhap. Whatever. It is well one in our family is subtle. Because all this”—he indicated with a sweeping glance of the room—“defeats me.”
“Aye,” said his brother with his usual austere grimness. He positioned his mouth behind his fists. “Our lord king does the same to the country as he does to the beautiful women at court.” He took a sip of wine. “Rapes it if it’s not willing and helps himself to its finest if it is.”
“I would not have put it so nicely.”
“You must learn to, if our mother and sisters are to have any kind of future at all.”
“So, brother, where’s the lovely Maud who’s lured me here?”
“She’s around,” Savari said evasively.
Rufus looked at his brother carefully. “You’re hiding something. That’s not like you.”
Savari met his gaze with an uncharacteristically grim look. “All is not as it seems, Rufus.”
At that moment the door behind the dais opened, and the king entered the room. He was immaculately dressed, his beard trimmed short, and his sharp, clever eyes roved the room, before settling on Rufus, his lips curving into a smile. He pulled someone whose hand he was holding, and the woman entered Rufus’s field of vision. Lady Maud de Montmorency. The woman to whom he was betrothed. The woman who was to be the salvation of his family’s fortunes.
Her headdress was in disarray. The king sat and pulled Maud into the seat beside him, the seat which should, by rights, have been where his queen sat. But Queen Isabella was nowhere to be seen. John called over a servant who immediately filled their silver goblets. He brought Maud’s goblet to her lips and she drank from it.
Rufus looked away. “He’s bedding her,” he said blankly.
Savari nodded grimly but didn’t meet Rufus’s eyes.
“He’s bedding the woman I’ve come here to marry,” Rufus repeated. He gripped Savari’s shoulder and forced him to meet his gaze. “And you and my mother still wish me to wed her?”
Savari sighed grimly and turned to face him. “You have no choice, brother; we have no choice. It is Lady Maud de Montmorency as your wife or our family faces ruin. We have become vulnerable since Father died. The Montmorencys have taken the de Courcy’s castle, and now eye our lands. They are claiming their ancestors held the area a century or more ago and they deserve to hold it again. We must unite with them, or be beaten by them.”
“Aye, it is why I returned.” Rufus looked across at his future wife and felt… nothing. After years of fighting the Saracen armies, he’d returned home alive, but dead inside.
“You will do it, Rufus?” asked Savari. “You will marry her as you promised Mother?”
“Aye, I’ll do it.”
He’d promised his mother and he’d keep that promise because the only thing that now touched his heart, hardened by so much warfare, was the thought of his vulnerable younger sisters. He’d do anything to keep them safe, even marry a woman whom he despised.

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