Honoring His Lady (ebook)
Honoring His Lady (ebook)
A knight who will do anything for his lady—except let her go.
As a boy, William de Vere knew two things truly—that he loved the land, and that he and Alice de Courcy would one day marry and have a family. But his plans are thwarted when Alice is betrothed to another.
As the only daughter of ambitious parents, Alice is used mercilessly as a pawn in other people’s games and learns she can trust no one. To protect herself she creates a beautiful, cold façade to hide behind. It’s a place where no one can hurt her, or touch her, not even those she loves.
Can William not only rescue Alice from her parents’ schemes, but find in her the girl he once knew, even if it means he has to let her go?
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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Autumn, 1205, Norfolk
William cantered into the bailey yard at Wanham Castle and jumped off his horse. God’s bones, he was hot. He squinted up at the blue sky where high clouds were beginning to form and was thankful his day’s work was done. It would rain later. He felt it. He’d been out on the land since sun up, making sure that the last of the harvest had been brought in before the heavens opened.
He tossed the reins to the stable boy and walked across to the pump, pulling off his shirt as he went. One of the maids quickly detoured from the pigsty where she had left some kitchen scraps, dropped the basket, and primed the pump for him.
They exchanged a smile, while the stable lad glowered behind them, as he obediently took William’s horse to water. William shook his head.
“You should marry him and put him out of his misery, Mary.”
She glanced casually at the back of the lad in question. “Simon? He’s but a lad.” She took William’s shirt from him. The water began to flow into a bucket, and William took both handles and waited for it to fill.
“And you’re naught but a lass, so you’ll be well suited.”
“I’d be better suited to someone taller and stronger, methinks,” she said, blatantly eyeing his chest. It swelled as he took a deep breath, readying himself for the shock of cold water against his heated skin. It wasn’t the only thing to swell. Mary’s gaze could raise the dead, and he certainly wasn’t that. Her gaze slipped lower, and her mouth tweaked with merriment. She raised lusty eyes to his. “Anytime you’d like a roll in the hay, Sir William, let me know.” He shook his head and flung the bucket of cold water over his head. He gasped as it poured over his hot, sweaty body. And so did Mary, whose ripe bosoms swelled with a big sigh as her eyes swept him from head to toe once more.
He’d lain with wenches but had always made sure that they weren’t Wanham wenches. He was destined for another, and one, he was sure, who wouldn’t take kindly to hear of his exploits in bed. Or in the field, come to that.
He tossed his head back, sending droplets of water flying into the sultry air. He thrust his fingers through his hair and slicked it off his face. “I thank you for your offer, Mary. But I have eyes for another.”
She shrugged. “Don’t you fret. Lady Alice need know nothing about it. Besides, she’s a lady, and what do ladies know of tumbling?”
William didn’t know the answer to that. His sister-in-law, Kezia, had seemed to take to tumbling very well with his brother, Rufus. And, although she hadn’t been raised a lady, it turned out she’d been born one. He hoped that his Alice might show the same interest in coupling as Kezia.
William jerked his head to the stable. “Wed Simon, that is my advice to you, Mary.”
He plucked his shirt from her hands and dried off the excess moisture before running up the steps to the castle’s Hall, leaving Mary scowling behind him. He pushed open the heavy oak door and breathed in the smell of beeswax and fresh herbs. His sister, Katherine, now the lady of the castle, made sure to continue to adhere to their mother’s high standards. The morning sun streamed through the open shutters, revealing the luster of the well-oiled table upon which Katherine worked.
“You’re back early and washed already!” exclaimed his sister, Lora, looking him up and down. “It’s not yet past the middle of the day! What ails you, Will?”
“You’d have me work all the hours God sends?”
Lora shrugged. “You always do. What’s so different about today?”
He didn’t want to answer and so, instead, feigned interest in Katherine’s accounts. She looked up and absently rubbed the ink from her fingers. William noticed shadows beneath her eyes. The eldest of his sisters had borne the brunt of the work since his mother’s death. “Is the last of the harvest brought in?” she asked.
“Aye,” he said. “And it’s been a good one, despite the men we diverted to fight for the de Courcy castle.” He accepted a glass of ale.
“It was necessary and successful,” said Lora. “Alice and her mother are back living in their home. Shame her father didn’t live to see it.”
“Aye. That last battle proved too much for him.”
“But I hear Sir Bayard of Wrotham is living at the castle again. Apparently, Lady de Courcy invited him.” Lora sniffed. “That man is as slippery as an eel. One minute he’s fighting against the de Courcys—and us—the next he’s ingratiated himself back into their home.”
“Aye, well, hopefully not for long,” said William. He’d never liked Sir Bayard, but now, at least, his dislike had been vindicated. The man was a turncoat traitor.
“Why?” asked Celestria, his youngest sister. “Do you know something we don’t? Because I heard he was helping Lady de Courcy find a match for Alice.”
William looked up sharply. “And why would he do that?”
Celestria shrugged. “I know not. I’m merely repeating what I’ve heard.”
“Well, don’t,” said Katherine, with uncharacteristic ill humor. “You’re obsessed with marriage.”
“It’s natural,” replied Celestria, unperturbed by the scolding. “You should be too.”
“What is it, Katherine?” asked William. “Nothing wrong with our trade, is there?”
Katherine rubbed her neck. “It could be better. It’s not as good as when Mother was alive. Her name made things happen. But some have stuck by us.”
“And why would they not?” William asked. “Our word is good. You worry too much, Kat. You’ll see. All will be well.”
Katherine twisted her full lips into a rueful smile. “And you always see things too simply, Will.”
He put his hand on her, willing his strength to travel to her slender shoulders, which always took on more of a burden than they should. “That’s because they are simple.”
Celestria, who had been playing with one of the dogs, looked up sharply. “Then why is it you are not married yet?”
William ignored the barb. Unlike his brothers and Lora, he and Katherine didn’t rise to Celestria’s sharp tongue and quick wit. He exchanged a glance with Katherine, but for once, his reliable sister didn’t brush off Celestria’s comment.
Katherine pushed the papers away, stood up and smoothed down her skirts. “Celestria has a point, Will. There’s nothing to stand between you and Alice now.”
William held out his cup, and a maid replenished his ale. It gave him time to think because, for once in his life, he’d determined upon a course of action which he wasn’t willing to share. “Now that Alice’s mother no longer wishes her to marry Rufus?”
Celestria gave a sharp laugh. “That was never going to happen. Anyone who’d heard Rufus and Kezia at night would know that.”
“Celestria!” reprimanded Katherine. “And how would you know of such things?”
Celestria rolled her eyes. “I have ears, sister—ears to hear Kezia’s cries of passion.” She dramatically hugged herself, imitating actions that William hoped she knew nothing of. “And ears to hear the servants’ gossip.” She stepped closer, her beautiful eyes wide. “Did you know that often, Hawise said—and she would know because she lay closest to their door—that Kezia made the sound of passion all night until dawn came.”
“Celestria!” Both William and Katherine’s voices combined.
Celestria flung her hands in the air. “What? It is only natural.”
“It might be nature, but you are a lady and should behave like one,” said Katherine.
Celestria grunted in disapproval but knew not to speak back to Katherine. For all her quietness, Katherine retained a quiet dignity that everyone respected and depended on, including William.
William watched as Celestria surveyed the Hall and wondered where her quick mind would alight next. It was soon apparent. “I don’t see what you’re waiting for, Will. I’d want any man of mine to come and claim me immediately he was free!”
“Alice isn’t you,” he said briefly, hoping that would end the conversation. He turned to Katherine. “I thought I’d check on the far fields this afternoon before the rains come.”
The corners of Katherine’s lips tweaked slightly, but she didn’t meet his gaze. He could rely on Katherine. “I think that’s an excellent idea, Will. You might want to ride over to where our lands border the Abbey’s first.”
Celestria called the dog over and flounced away. “That’s all you two think about—land, land, land.”
“It is the land that feeds you,” said Katherine quietly.
“And the land which keeps me,” said Celestria, disconsolately rubbing her dog’s head while looking out the open door. “Without a decent dowry, Sir Geoffrey d’Anvers will never have me. And he’s so handsome and so rich! Savari said all the women are wild for him at court.”
Katherine didn’t meet William’s eye again, but he knew her thoughts on the subject of Celestria’s affianced. They were the same as his. They had sufficient dowry but didn’t want a man such as him in their lives. There had been some kind of tenuous arrangement between the two families when their father had been alive, but they’d let it drop. And Sir Geoffrey appeared to have no qualms doing the same. Especially as his charm had ingratiated him with the King, opening up more ambitious marriage plans, no doubt.
“We will find someone worthy of you, Celestria, never fear.” Someone, he didn’t say, who he hoped could cope with Celestria’s barely tamed nature and sharp intellect. “I must go.” He glanced up at the sky. “It is time.”
Celestria’s eyes narrowed slightly. William knew the warning sign. She thought she was on to something. “Time?”
Katherine cleared her throat. “Time to get back to work, as you should be doing. Have you finished your lessons?”
As Celestria prepared to demonstrate, no doubt correctly, that she needed no further lessons from the tutor, William stepped outside, into the busy bailey yard. He surveyed the scene quickly and nodded in quick satisfaction. His father and mother might be gone, his brother settled in Sicily with his new wife, but, between him and Katherine, Wanham castle and its lands were doing well. More than well. Especially with the trade that his mother had established and which Katherine had so ably continued.
He crossed the yard, sending a chicken squawking into a pile of clean hay. Mary appeared from the stables with a self-satisfied smile, plucking some hay from her hair. She’d obviously followed his advice. William didn’t regret turning down her offer. It wasn’t that he was immune to the seductions of the flesh, but there had only ever been one woman for him. One woman. The woman he would marry. The woman he would have a yard full of squabbling children with. A woman to whom he could now lay claim.
His horse was already saddled awaiting him. For he’d made plans, plans his sisters knew naught of—although Katherine suspected and had given him advice on where he might find Alice—because he knew Celestria was right. It was time to claim what he wanted.
Lady Alice de Courcy took a calming breath as the gates to the Priory clunked shut behind her. She didn’t turn around. There wouldn’t have been any point anyway. The gatekeeper’s disinterested gaze was always the same no matter upon whom he looked—his only interest was in discerning danger. And Lady Alice presented no threat to anyone, only herself.
She tried not to think of the haven she’d left behind. She knew from experience that dwelling on what she could not have was not the way forward. She flicked the reins of her white palfrey, who didn’t appear to have the same focus as herself, distracted by the berries on the bush—lush and ripe—which had somehow escaped the nuns’ attention.
She and her maid and guard rode silently alongside the Priory walls. Peeping over the top were the sun-scorched tips of the espaliered pears, their leaves withered and ready to fall as autumn advanced steadily across the land. And, like the fruit which had been harvested, Alice also felt the advent of autumn, as she faced her own fate—marriage.
She had tried everything, but her guardian was adamant—no more delays. Even the persuasion of the Abbess had come to naught. All Alice’s work in creating medicines based on Islamic texts, translated by French scholars, which had helped the Priory become known for its healing, appeared to mean nothing to her guardian. He saw in her only a means of securing more wealth and prestige. The uncertain times had seen more than one suitor disappear, either falling out of favor because of the ever-changing preferences of the King, or dying, rarely from natural causes. And so her life had continued—spending her days doing worthwhile things at the Priory, and her evenings trying to bolster her mother’s spirits since her father’s death. She’d managed to hold out until now. And now, it seemed, her time had run out. Her guardian—her father’s cousin—Sir Bayard of Wrotham, had returned and refused her plea to become a nun. Instead, he insisted she marry. While the thought terrified her, living with her Sir Bayard scared her more.
She took another calming breath, breathing in the warm autumn air, rich with crushed fruit, the buzz of bees, and the smell of dried grass. She could face whatever came to her. She was so deep in thought that to begin with she didn’t hear her guard call her. It was only after a further call that she turned to him.
“My lady! A rider approaches.”
Alice snapped her head around and suddenly heard the trot of a horse’s hooves upon dry packed earth. She’d been facing the wrong way, of course. Her deaf left ear was not picking up the rider’s approach; her good right ear was attuned to the sounds of nature coming from the other side of the Priory walls, her senses tuned inwards, as usual.
Her guard took his place in front of her. But Alice recognized the heavy beat of the horse upon the packed earth. Her mother had often accused her of being a witch for knowing what she knew without hearing. But since she’d been struck by deafness, Alice had become more aware of things around her. Besides, she trusted the acute sensitivities of her mare, whose ears now perked up as she strained to greet the oncoming rider.
“Nay, hold back. It is William.”
Outwardly, she knew there would be no sign of her response to William’s approach, but inwardly her heart increased in time to the horse’s canter. When he came around the corner of the Priory wall, she managed not to over-react to his warm smile.
Instead, she smiled politely, even as she took in every inch of his face, scanning it for difference, and relieved to find it the same. Mayhap a few more lines around the eyes, where his face creased into his nut-brown skin, a lighter shade of his dark brown eyes. Eyes, she’d once thought, she could sink into, but not now.
“William,” she said, with a scarce nod of her head.
His smile wavered a little, but she didn’t allow any warmth to leach into her chill greeting. There was no point, and there was every reason to discourage him.
“Lady Alice,” he greeted, swinging down from his horse with the graceful ease of a fit man. He walked up to her and held on to the reins of her palfrey. Her horse dipped her head and whinnied in pleasure as William stroked her nose and patted her neck. Alice was pretty sure she’d have done the same. She cleared her throat, willing the errant thought to disappear from whence it had come.
“Sir William.” She licked her lips as her mind raced, trying to say things other than what she felt. “You are far from your land this afternoon.”
“Aye. I have other errands to do this day.”
Her heart skipped a beat. “At the Priory? I believe the Abbess will be at prayers now.”
“Nay. Not the Priory. I came to see you.”
For a fraction of a second, they were as they’d been years before, the understanding between them complete. There were only the two of them, his kind, safe eyes searching hers, and she about to respond. In the old days, she would have. She’d have laughed out loud, able to hear everything people said to her. She’d have teased him for his unerring reliability, and they’d have talked of their future. But that was then.
She gave her head a short, sharp shake, as much to rid it of its memories, as to negate his speech. “Me?” She gave a light shrug. “How can I help? Does Katherine need medicine?”
His brows lowered, and a shadow fell across his face. His eyes, as dark and as steady as an oak tree in winter, were hidden now. “Nay. Katherine needs no medicine. We are all well. Mayhap she is more tired than usual.”
“She takes on too much.”
“She takes on her own duties, as well as those of lady of the manor. But she won’t need to do these soon. Not when I’m married.”
It was as if a dagger had pierced her, pushing its sharp blade deep inside. She only just stopped herself from pressing her hand to her gut, where the pain had come to rest.
“You mean to marry?” she asked dully.
He nodded. “I do.”
She tried out a smile, but her lips failed to respond. “So, I shall be able to congratulate your new wife soon.”
His brow contracted further. “Why do you speak so?”
She glanced uneasily behind her. “We must continue,” she said to her guard. She looked back at William. “My mother expects me.”
He released his hold, and his frown deepened. “Then I will escort you to the castle.”
“There’s no need.”
“The mere fact that you say that shows me there’s every need.” He nodded to the guard and her maid. “Ride ahead and inform Lady de Courcy that I will be paying my respects shortly.”
Alice bit her lip and looked from William to her maid and then back to William.
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible. My mother has company this evening.”
William waited, but she didn’t elaborate. She didn’t want William to know his identity. He grunted. “Well, another day, perhaps.”
She nodded, knowing her days at the de Courcy castle were numbered.
“But mayhap, you’ll at least allow me to escort you home, give leave of your companions to return ahead of us?”
She couldn’t resist. A short time in which she’d have William to herself. This might be the last time. She turned to her guard and maid. “Go ahead.” Alice waited until they’d cantered off before turning back to William, who’d re-mounted his horse. “And how are your sisters?”
He raised an eyebrow as they walked their horses side by side, their pace slowed as if by mutual consent. “They are well, as you know. You saw Katherine yesterday, did you not?”
“Aye.” She bit back her words.
William pushed away an overhanging bough from her path. “Then,” he said, squinting up into the sun, rather than look at her, “why do you ask?”
“I am…” She hesitated. “Making conversation. As people do.”
“As people do,” he repeated slowly, plucking a stray piece of tall grass which grew from the bank and chewing it. “And we are simply ‘people’ to each other?”
Alice blinked, not knowing how to answer.
Their horses moved a half-dozen steps while their riders said nothing. Her horse began to walk alongside his, seemingly responding to his magnetism as women did. But not her, never her, not now. She swallowed and drew herself a little taller in the saddle. It was William who broke the silence because Alice knew not how.
“You do not answer, Alice.”
“That is because I cannot.”
Casually he leaned over and took hold of her horse’s reins. It stopped immediately. She had no choice but to look up into his face. “Cannot, or will not?”
She shook her head in confusion as a wave of fear filled her. Fear for what she was about to lose. His brows beetled, and then something happened for which she wasn’t prepared. She saw the fear reflected in his own eyes.
“What is it, Alice? What has happened? I know we have not been close for a long while. But we had no chance. And now, with Rufus gifting the lands and title to me, surely your mother will no longer object.”
She held up her hand. She had to make him stop. “Enough, William.” She wrenched the reins from his hands and urged her horse onward.
He allowed the reins to slip through his hands, giving her the ability to move forward. Her heart wrenched a little. It surprised her. She didn’t know she was capable of feeling anything anymore.
She heard him mutter something under his breath before cantering ahead of her. There, he reined in his horse, forcing her to stop.
“I would have you listen to me, Alice de Courcy. You have known me long enough to consider me as something more than a mere acquaintance. Then, I had nothing to bring you, and I kept my distance. But now everything has changed. What I need to know now is what has wrought this change in you. Have your feelings toward me altered from what they were when you were a lass?”
Alice felt the blood surge to her cheeks. She’d never heard William speak so many words at one time, nor such important ones, nor ones which devastated her to the core. The world around her ceased to exist. Her usually vivid perceptions of everything bar sound focused on that one person. She allowed herself one lingering look at his face before she lied.
“That was a long time ago, William. I am a lass no more. Time has changed everything.” It seems she couldn’t bring herself to lie to him entirely.
“You did not answer my question.”
She met his gaze steadily, waiting for her heart to harden. She took a deep breath. “Am I so hard to understand?”
“When you speak in riddles, yes. Tell me, have your feelings toward me changed?”
In the distance, she heard the thrum of horses’ hooves. It would be the guards come looking for her. It was enough. “They have.” There, the lie had been uttered.
His gaze narrowed and hardened, but he did not look away from her. Instead, he drew closer, and her breath snatched from her throat. He inclined his head toward her, watching her response, her flushed cheeks, and rising chest. “I never knew you to lie before, Alice. Something is amiss.”
She shook her head. He must not become involved.
He pushed a stray lock behind her ear. “There’s no point denying it.” He glanced toward the approaching horsemen from the castle and settled back into his saddle. “I will talk with your mother this day and settle the matter.”
She reached out to him in a panic. “No!” She shook her head. “You cannot.”
“Give me one good reason why not.”
“Because…” She hesitated. “Because, William, there is little point. My mother will not agree to a wedding between you and me.” She avoided naming her guardian, who she knew William despised.
“Why not?” There was a sense of menace in his voice she hadn’t heard before.
“Because she is not the woman she once was. She is ruled by…” She hesitated, but could no longer avoid naming him. “Sir Bayard. They wish me to marry someone else.”
“I know not, truly.”
“Then I shall call upon them before it is too late. So long as your feelings haven’t changed toward me, Alice, then I shall ask for your hand. I won’t let anything come between us now.”
Her heart leaped and she forgot what had happened to her in the intervening years. Maybe she could persuade Bayard to have a change of heart about her marriage? Perhaps she could forget the damage which had been wrought to her body and soul in the last six years? She chewed her lip. With William beside her, she suddenly felt anything was possible.
“Come tomorrow. I will speak with them both.”
William’s brow eased, and the familiar warmth shot into his eyes again. “If that is what you think best. I am content for now knowing what is in your heart.”
She nodded as the familiar doubts and fears began to crowd at the back of her mind. “Aye. But…”
He took her hand and robbed her of her breath. “No buts, Alice. It is time.”
Before she could speak, he pressed her hand to his lips. For one long moment, she was only aware of the heat of his lips sending flames of a long-dormant fire along her skin, and deeper inside of her to parts of her she never wished to think about.
Then he looked up at her with eyes much darker than usual, and flicked the reins of his horse to turn away.
She pressed the back of her hand against her flaming cheek, lost for words against this onslaught of feeling. He reined in his horse who danced beneath him, ready to speed away. “It is time, Alice,” he repeated, before turning and cantering along the dusty lane, leaving her breathless with desire for him. But as soon as he’d gone, the familiar dread sized her once more.
It spread like ice over water, freezing her, turning her to stone for all the world to see. And making her believe, until this moment, that she was stone. But the dread deepened because now she knew she wasn’t. And she also knew that that would only make everything so much worse than it already was.