Chapter 1 England, SIR Guibert Fitzalan leaned back against the thick tree trunk, watching two maidservants pack away the remains of the picnic lunch. Wilda, the younger of the two servants, caught his eye just then. Her bold look made him look quickly away, heat burning his face. Spring was in full flower and Wilda was not the only woman to turn her eye on Sir Guibert appreciatively.
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SIR Guibert Fitzalan leaned back against the thick tree trunk, watching two maidservants pack away the remains of the picnic lunch. Wilda, the younger of the two servants, caught his eye just then. Her bold look made him look quickly away, heat burning his face. Spring was in full flower and Wilda was not the only woman to turn her eye on Sir Guibert appreciatively.
Nor was he the only man who received one of her hot gazes. Wilda was decidedly comely, with a sleek little nose and rosy cheeks. Her hair was a glossy chestnut, and she was equally blessed with a lush body. Even so, Guibert was a confirmed bachelor. Besides that, Wilda was too young for a man of two score and five years.
Why, she was as young as Lady Leonie whom they both served, and that lady was just nineteen. Sir Guibert thought of Leonie of Montwyn as a daughter. At that moment, as he observed her leaving the pasture where she had begun her spring herb gathering and disappearing into the woods, he sent four of his men-at-arms to follow her at a discreet distance. Leonie often asked them to pick plants as she pointed them out. Herb gathering was not manly.
Before this spring, three guards had been enough to accompany Lady Leonie, but now there was a new resident at Crewel, into whose woods Leonie entered to search for herbs. The new lord of all the lands of Kempston was a matter of great concern to Sir Guibert.
Guibert had never liked the old lord of Kempston, Sir Edmond Montigny, but at least the old baron had caused no trouble. The new lord of Kempston made endless complaints against the Pershwick serfs and had done so ever since taking possession of Crewel Keep. It helped not at all that the complaints might be valid. Too many of the serfs saw how upset I was and I fear they heard me wish a pox on Black Wolf, who now rules Crewel.
Not Leonie. She was too good, too kind, too quick to mend any ill, ease any burden. But then, for Sir Guibert, she could do no wrong. He doted on and spoiled her. And, he asked himself, if he did not, who would? The man was in no way her equal, but Sir William loved her—perhaps too much. Her death destroyed him, and he apparently could not bear the presence of his only child. Leonie, like Elisabeth, was small and slender, fair, and blessed with extraordinary hair of silver-blond and silver-gray eyes.
He sighed, thinking of the two women, mother and daughter, one gone, the other just as dear to him as her mother had been. And then he froze, pleasant musings shattered by a battle cry, a cry of rage coming from the woods.
Guibert was frozen for no more than a second before he was running toward the woods, his sword already drawn.
Deep in the woods, Leonie of Montwyn had also been stunned for a moment by the unearthly cry. She had, as usual, managed to put a good distance between herself and her four protectors. Now, she imagined some great demonic beast was nearby. Still, her inborn, unladylike curiosity urged her on toward the sound instead of back to her men.
She smelled smoke and broke into a full run, pushing through shrubs and trees until she found the source of the smoke. The woodcutter was staring at the smoldering remains of his home as five mounted knights and fifteen men-at-arms, also mounted, sat silently facing the ruined hut. An armored knight paced his great destrier back and forth between the hut and the men. He let out an explosive curse while Leonie watched and then she knew where the first horrible sound had come from.
She knew, too, who the knight was. She moved back into the bush, out of sight, thankful for her concealing dark green mantle. Concealment was jeopardized as her men came running behind her. Leonie quickly turned toward them, hushing them and motioning them back. She made her way to them silently, and they positioned themselves around her, then moved back toward her land. Sir Guibert and the rest of the men were upon them a moment later. He is in a fine rage. It would not do for her to be found near the burned hut with her men-at-arms.
How would she talk her way out of that? For now, Lady Leonie and the armed men had to be removed from the scene. She could ne ver tell Sir Guibert that, for she had disguised herself and sneaked out of the keep without his knowing, to go to the tourney at Crewel.
But he is huge, of that there was no mistaking. But get you safe inside the keep now. I will follow with the others and see the village guarded. She saw that she had not been firm enough in warning her people against causing more trouble with the Crewel serfs.
In truth, her heart had not been in the warning, for it gave her satisfaction to know the new lord of Kempston was being plagued with domestic problems. She had thought to soften the situation with her people by offering entertainments at Pershwick on the next feastday. But her anxiety over the Black Wolf and what he might do next made her decide against any gathering at her keep. They might, she knew, decide to plan something that could easily rebound on her.
No, if her villagers were going to plot against the Black Wolf, she would be better off if they did so far from her. She knew what she had to do. She would have to speak to her people again, and firmly. But when she thought of dear Alain, banished from his home, and poor Sir Edmond who had died so that King Henry could favor one of his mercenaries with a fine estate, then she found it hard to want peace for the Black Wolf, hard indeed. She waved away the bucket for rinsing and instead settled down in the large tub to take advantage of the soothing herb-scented water while it was still good and hot.
A fire burned in the hearth, taking the chill from the room. Outside, it was a mild spring evening, but the bare stone walls of Pershwick Keep created coldness that seemed never to lessen. And the ceiling of her room, open to join the great hall, allowed every draft to enter. Pershwick was an old keep, designed neither for comfort nor to accommodate guests. She shared the room with her Aunt Beatrix, more boards dividing the room in half to give each lady a little privacy.
The servants slept in the hall, and the men-at-arms in the tower, where Sir Guibert also slept. Rough though it was, Pershwick was home to Leonie, and had been for the last six years. Since coming here she had not returned once to Montwyn, her birthplace.
Nor had she seen her father. Yet Montwyn Castle was only five miles away. If Leonie could no longer summon a kind thought for her father, no one blamed her. From having a happy childhood and two loving parents to losing both parents in one stroke was a cruel fate, and wholly undeserved. She had once loved her father with all her heart. Now she felt very little for him. At times she cursed him. Those times occurred when he sent his servants to raid her stores for his lavish entertainments—and not only was Pershwick involved, but Rethel and Marhill keeps as well.
They, too, were hers. He never sent a word to his daughter, but he reaped the benefits of her hard work, taking her profits and rents. When he came calling with his list, her storerooms were nearly empty, her hoards hidden throughout the keep in unlikely places. So also she hid her spices and cloth bought from the merchants of Rethel, for Lady Judith sometimes arrived with the steward, and Lady Judith felt she could make free with anything she found at Pershwick.
But rather than give up the plan or confide her deceit to the Pershwick priest and ask his help, she convinced Father Bennet to teach her to read and write. That way, she was able to keep records of her maze of hiding places. Now her serfs no longer faced starvation, and her own table was full.
No thanks were due her father for any of that. Leonie stood for the rinsing and let Wilda wrap her in a warm bedrobe because she would not be leaving her room again that night. Aunt Beatrix sat by the fire with her embroidery, lost in her own world, as usual.
She insisted she liked it that way. Soon after, Leonie was cast on her vassal, Guibert Fitzalan, and Aunt Beatrix felt it her duty to stay and take care of her niece. More likely it was Leonie who did the care-taking, for Beatrix was a timid woman. Being one of the first children born to the late earl of Shefford, she had known the earl at his stormiest, whereas Elisabeth, the youngest, knew the earl as a mellow man and a doting father.
Leonie did not know the present earl, whose holding was in the north, far from the midlands. Aunt Beatrix had explained, kindly, that with eight brothers and sisters and dozens of nieces and nephews besides his own six children and their children, the earl would surely not concern himself with the daughter of a sister who had not married well and was now dead.
Leonie, fifteen then and closed away from the world, began to think she would never marry. After a time she began to think she might be better off without a husband. It was a unique and enviable position, she told herself after those first longings for romance had been stifled.
Most brides did not even know their husbands before they were wed, and were likely to find themselves the property of an old man, a cruel man, or an indifferent man.
When Love Awaits
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