From New York Times bestselling author Lisa Jackson comes a powerful new medieval romance in which a secret betrayal ignites unbridled passion between a lord and his lady...
Kiera of Lawenydd couldn't believe what she'd done. Owing her sister a favor, Kiera promised to pose as Elyn on her wedding day. The ruse was to last just one night, but the following morning Elyn was nowhere to be found! Surely Kiera wouldn't have to spend the rest of her wedded life to the baron picked out for her sister, a man to whom she could never admit the depths of her deception--even as her desire for him grew impossible to resist.
It was obvious to Lord Kelan of Penbrooke that something was amiss with his new bride. But despite his misgivings, he couldn't deny that he was falling in love with the dark-haired beauty. Until he uncovered exactly what she was up to, Kelan would keep the mysterious woman by his side--all the while keeping the fierce stirrings of his heart a well-guarded secret...
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March 31, 2003
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Excerpt from Impostress by Lisa Jackson
The Forest Surrounding
Tower Lawenydd, North Wales
Darkness had descended when Kiera awoke on the cold, wet earth, mud and leaves clinging to her face. She had no idea how much time had passed, but the moon was high in the night sky and the forest was silent and still, not even a breeze rustling the branches. She ached all over--every bone in her body jarred, every muscle seeming bruised--and for a moment she couldn't remember how she'd ended up here in the night-darkened forest alone.
She'd been riding, she thought, and touched the coarse clothes covering her body. Yes, that was it, she'd disguised herself as a stableboy and . . . and had taken Obsidian out through the castle gates, and oooohhh. Her head pounded and throbbed, seeming too tight for her skull. Rubbing her forehead, she felt a knot over one eye. Obsidian! Somehow she'd lost her father's prized steed. She remembered the faint image of the black beast racing riderless through the murky undergrowth as she'd nearly been knocked unconscious. "God's teeth,'' Kiera muttered. "Obsidian! Come back! Obsidian!'' But the horse was long gone, having disappeared into the rising mist and trees minutes, perhaps hours, ago. "Damned thing.'' Struggling to her feet, she winced against the pain in her shoulder, then whistled long and hard.
She couldn't return to the keep without the valuable steed, but she heard no sound of hooves approaching, no crack of twigs or rustle of wet branches as the stupid beast returned through the darkness. "Come, boy,'' she called, as if the temperamental horse were one of the castle hounds.
But she heard no resounding echo of hoofbeats.
She'd lost him.
Angry with herself, she took a few steps forward and felt an eerie sensation, like the breath of the very devil, against the back of her neck. As if someone were watching her. Someone close, mayhap dangerous. Which was just plain silly. She was alone and several miles from the castle. . . . For the first time she realized that she might have more troubles than just a runaway horse. She whistled again and heard a faint echo of her own high-pitched call.
The blasted animal didn't return. And she couldn't find him in the darkness. The night was closing in, becoming thick. Mist collected on her skin as it began to rise from the ground.
"Bloody hell,'' she swore, kicking a clump of mud from her boot.
Stuffing wayward strands of hair into her hood, she started off in the direction in which the miserable beast had fled. She'd barely taken two steps on her wobbly legs when she felt it again--the heart-stopping sensation that someone was watching her.
She hazarded a glance over her shoulder. Was there a shadow, a movement in the mist?
Her heart froze. Her throat was suddenly dry.
Through the thin curtain of fog she spied a faint image of a huge, silent man astride a pale horse. Bearing down upon her.
Fear congealed her blood. A night bird warbled.
Had the rider seen her?
Of course he had.
And he'd heard her calling for her horse. Whistling and swearing.
Stumbling back a step, Kiera sensed that he was staring at her. Though she couldn't see his face, she knew in her heart that his gaze was hard. Sinister. Elsewise why, when he so obviously saw and heard her, would he not say something? Anything.
Swallowing back her fear, she tried to convince herself he wouldn't bother her. Even if he was an outlaw or thief or worse, what would he want with a scrawny stable lad? "I'm . . . I'm looking for my horse,'' she explained gruffly, hoping to sound like a young man. "Who are you? What do you want?''
"I think you know.''
"You don't fool me.'' His voice was low, gravelly, and tinged with accusation. As if he knew her.
"I'm not trying to fool anyone,'' she said, her voice still disguised. Liar! You deceived your father, the stable master, the guard at the gate . . . everyone. She tried a different tack. "I'm afraid I was riding and got thrown off and . . .''
He clucked his tongue and the buff-colored horse moved closer.
What the devil did he want?
". . . and I'm looking for my horse. A big black stallion. Mayhap you've seen him?'' She was backing up now, determined to run the second she thought she had a chance of disappearing into the fog and eluding him.
" 'Tis a silly disguise,'' he sneered, and her heart nearly stopped.
He knew she was dressed to fool people, yet she couldn't make out his features.
Her breath stilled and she didn't move. Couldn't. Surely he didn't recognize her as the daughter of Baron Llwyd. How could he? She wore ragtag doeskin breeches and a woolen tunic with a deep cowl. This miserable cur of a man wouldn't think to kidnap her and ransom her or worse, would he?
But even in the gloom she could see a flash of white teeth. "Didn't you know that I'd follow you here?''
"No . . . I . . .'' Then she understood. Her hand flew up and touched the gold chain surrounding her throat. When she'd been thrown from the horse, the jeweled crucifix had slipped out of the tunic's neckline, and now, even in the palest moonlight, it glittered against the leather laces and rough fabric. Her heart thudded as the stranger slowly dismounted.
"Where'd you get that?'' he demanded, his eyes centered on the crucifix she was trying vainly to hide.
She didn't answer for a second. If she admitted the cross was a gift from her mother as she lay dying, the outlaw would realize who she was. "I stole it,'' she said boldly, her voice low as she forced herself to edge closer to a dark thicket. "As well as the horse. From the baron.''
"So now you're a thief?''
He snorted. God, who was he? It seemed a deep hood covered his head, a dark beard his chin, but in the darkness, she couldn't be positive. "Surely you can do better than that.'' He was so close now she could smell him, feel his hideous heat, yet his face was hidden.
She had no weapon except a tiny knife in a pocket, but if he touched her she would surely use it--gladly jam it into his black heart. Carefully, barely moving, her heart beating frantically, she slid her fingers into her pocket. "Leave me alone,'' she warned, inching backward.
"You started this.''
How? By falling off the damned horse? "I did nothing of the kind.''
"Silly girl. You think you can fool me?''
Run! Now! While you still have a chance!
She didn't think twice. Whirling, she took off at a dead run, deeper into the woods. Dear God, why had she not sprinted out of sight before he dismounted, before he saw her, before-- Her toe caught in an exposed root. She pitched forward through the leaves and brush. She put out her hands to catch herself. With a painful snap, her left wrist buckled. Pain splintered up her arm. "Ouch!''
The bastard chased her. She heard his footsteps heavy in the forest. "Where the devil do you think you're going?'' he demanded, his voice so horridly close she cringed. Her wrist throbbed painfully. She saw his shadow, a dark, dangerous figure who grabbed her by the shoulder and jerked her roughly to her feet. "You can't get away.''
"Leave me alone.''
"I don't think so.''
Fear, cold as death, settled in her heart. She was alone with this . . . this outlaw. Far away from the castle. No one around to hear her scream. Strong fingers dug into her flesh.
"What do you think you're doing?'' Dear God, her whole arm ached. She could barely think.
"Teaching you a lesson.''
She thought he would try to rip the necklace from her throat. So be it. Slowly she reached into her pocket with her good hand. Her fingers found the tiny, wicked blade. Quickly she slipped the dagger into her palm.
"Thought you'd get away, did you?'' he snarled, and to her horror his mouth crashed down on hers. He was rough, his fingers digging into her muscles, his beard scratching her face. So this was it. Not only did he mean to rob her, but rape her as well.
She'd die first.
And so would he.
He groaned and yanked her closer. She pulled the knife from her pocket. Ignored the pain. His tongue pressed hard against her clamped teeth. Bastard! In one quick movement, with all her strength, she jammed her tiny blade into his side.
He yelped, let go. "What the bloody--?''
She stumbled backward and tried to run, but he caught her arm. Whirling, she slashed her wicked little blade frantically as he cursed and dodged.
"Let go of me, you miserable--oh!''
He twisted her arm back. Hot pain ripped through her shoulder.
"You little cur!'' Pain forced her to her knees. Her pathetic blade fell from her blood-sticky fingers to the ground.
"Don't, please . . . just take the necklace. Stop . . .'' She tried to wriggle free but he was strong, breathing hard, smelling of sweat. Blinding pain seared through her. It was all she could do to stay conscious. She was doomed. Without a weapon she was no match for him.
"The necklace?'' he demanded.
"Aye, the crucifix.''
"As if that would be enough!'' he growled as she nearly passed out again. "You know better.'' She saw his teeth glint an evil white in the darkness. "Now let's hear you beg.''
"Dear God, no . . .''
"You can do better than that.''
A twig snapped nearby.
The thug stiffened. "What the hell was that?''
Kiera's legs were like water, her brain fuzzy, the pain so intense she heard a high pitch in her ears.
"Who goes there?'' the outlaw demanded.
What was that?
"Ooowwhhh!'' His body jerked wildly as he screamed. His grip loosened as he fell with an earth-jarring thud to the ground.
Kiera scrambled to her feet. On wobbly legs she started running through the undergrowth, fear propelling her as wet branches slapped at her and her feet tangled in vines. She had to get away. Fast. Someone had become her savior--or had seen what was happening and wanted the cross for himself. She didn't wait to see which.
Hoofbeats thundered behind her. A horse crashed through the brush.
Her savior? Or the thug upon his horse again?
She ran desperately through the night, tree limbs clawing at her, thorns tearing at her clothes.
Could the horse behind her be Obsidian? She didn't dare hope, and crouching low, she scrambled through a thicket, her fingers scraping the bark, her shoulder and wrist throbbing in pain.
"Kiera!'' Elyn's voice slashed through the night.
Her sister was here? In the forest? Nay. Her mind was playing tricks on her.
"Kiera, for the love of St. Peter, where are you? Kiera!'' Elyn's voice rang with desperation.
What if the outlaw had somehow captured her sister? What if this was a trick?
"I can't see a bloody inch in front of my eyes. Where the devil are you?''
Either way, she couldn't abandon Elyn. She dropped to her knees quickly. Fingers scrabbling the forest floor, she found a rock and palmed it. A poor weapon, but the best she could find. "Over here,'' she said, tripping over a stick and picking it up with her good hand. 'Twas little against the menacing beast, but she would bludgeon him with it if given half a chance.
Crouching, she waited as the hoofbeats approached.
"For God's sake, show yourself!'' Elyn's words seethed with anger, and Kiera, making a sign of the cross over her chest, slunk from her hiding spot to a small clearing, where within seconds, Elyn arrived upon her sleek jennet. Small and compact upon her mare, she was leading the ghostly dun horse by the reins of its bridle. "Come on, let's go!'' she ordered furiously as she spied Kiera crouching in the shadows. "There is not much time. The beast who attacked you is not yet dead. He could survive and follow us!''
That warning spurred Kiera to the pale animal. "What were you doing out here?''
"Saving you,'' Elyn snapped as her horse minced and danced nervously. "What were you doing?''
"Dressed as a pauper--don't tell me, it was that stupid horse. You stole Obsidian again, didn't you?'' She glanced around the night-shrouded glen. "And where is he? Where's the damned steed?''
"Lost,'' Kiera admitted miserably.
"Lost? How do you lose a prized stallion?''
"He threw me.''
"Oh, wonderful. Father will flail you within an inch of your life.''
"Don't remind me,'' Kiera sighed. She knew her punishment would be severe. Even if the steed was found unharmed.
"How did you get him out of the stable? Orson would never . . . oh, don't tell me. Joseph helped you, didn't he?'' She sighed audibly. "Foolish boy,'' she muttered under her breath, then, with a glance at Kiera, said, "Come on. There's nothing more to do. No time to waste. Let's go!'' Elyn slapped the reins of the outlaw's horse into Kiera's frigid fingers while trying to control her edgy mare.
"Did you shoot him? The outlaw, I mean?'' Kiera asked, eyeing the bow and quiver slung over Elyn's back. Her sister didn't immediately answer, but 'twas folly to think anything else. They were alone in the forest. Alone with a cruel man who could be a rapist or worse. She shuddered.
"Of course I shot him,'' Elyn finally admitted, her words clipped with anger. "There was naught else to do. The bastard. Holy Mother . . .'' She caught herself and turned to her sister. "Now, Kiera, either you ride with me or I'll leave you here.''
"What about . . . ?''
"I think he can damned well rot in hell.''
" 'Twould be too good for him.'' Despite her useless arm and the fact that her skin crawled at being anywhere close to the vile outlaw, Kiera managed to climb upon his tall steed. As soon as Kiera was astride, Elyn kicked her mount. The jennet bolted, running fast as the wind, swift dark legs eating up the wet ground. Kiera followed after, clinging to the saddle's pommel and feeling the spray of mud as her own horse splashed through the puddles and bogs on this crooked path. She only prayed the horrid man who had attacked her didn't awaken and call to his horse. This stallion might heed his master's call and turn round.
Kiera shuddered at the thought. But the truth of the matter was that some animals obeyed better than that miserable beast Obsidian. She felt a pang of regret at the thought of the horse she loved so dearly. Biting her lip, she silently prayed that her father's stallion wasn't hurt and would somehow return to Lawenydd unscathed.
The path angled sharply and the forest gave way to the wide fields surrounding the castle. Elyn drew her horse to a stop, waiting for Kiera at the edge of the woods. Moonlight gave the wheat stubble a silvery sheen. Far in the distance, rising on a cliff overlooking the sea, Lawenydd stood, six square towers seeming to disappear in the inky sky.
Kiera tugged on the reins, forcing her mount to slow. The big horse responded, tossing his yellowish head and breathing hard.
Elyn was glowering at her. "Father will kill us both,'' she said, her features, so similar to Kiera's own, pulled into a dark scowl. Nearly sixteen, Elyn was the eldest by a year and a half. Kiera was next. Four years later Penelope had been born.
"You saved my life,'' Kiera said, not worried about their father's anger. Llwyd of Lawenydd was a blustery man who adored his wayward daughters and would punish them, yes, but in the end forgive them. But Elyn had truly delivered Kiera from a terrifying fate. At the thought of her attacker, Kiera trembled. Had not her sister arrived when she had, if her aim had not been true . . .
Elyn threw her a hard look. "You were foolish.''
"Yes, I know, but I owe you my life.''
" 'Twas fortunate that I was there.''
"Aye.'' Kiera studied her sister's frown. "What were you doing in the forest?''
Elyn hesitated, as if searching for the answer. "Looking for you. `Twas lucky I found you. As for Obsidian, let's hope he's smart enough to return to the castle.''
"I can't thank you enough,'' Kiera said, glancing at her sister. "I--I want you to have this,'' she added in a rush as she yanked the necklace from around her neck. Pain surged through her, but she ignored it. Urging her horse forward, she dropped the crucifix into her sister's hand. "Please, take it, and know that to repay you, I'll do anything you ever ask.''
"But Mother gave this to you. Before she died.''
" 'Tis yours now.''
"Hush. This is silly. Kiera, you don't have to--''
"Yes, yes, I do. Please, Elyn. I . . . I'm indebted to you for life,'' Kiera insisted, overwhelmed. "And . . . and whenever you wish the debt repaid, just give the necklace back to me and I'll remember this vow. I'll do anything for you.''
"Anything?'' Elyn asked, shaking her head as if Kiera was talking nonsense.
"I mean it. Whatever you ask me to do, I'll do it, Elyn. You saved my life. Of that I have no doubt. None. Now, please, take this and remember to ask me to return the favor. Please.'' She pressed the crucifix with its fine gold chain into her sister's gloved palm.
"Mayhap I should have my punishment from Father laid upon you,'' Elyn said, and for the first time Kiera saw a flash of a white--a bit of a smile--upon her sister's face.
"Yes!'' Kiera lifted her chin proudly. "Ask him.''
Elyn laughed a little, though the sound that rippled over the moonlit fields sounded hollow. "Nay. You'll suffer enough at his hand. I'll save calling in your debt for later, when I need a favor. Now, come on, we're already in trouble. Let's not make it any worse.''
"What will happen to . . .'' Kiera nodded toward the woods.
"The man who attacked you? And Obsidian?'' With a sigh, Elyn blew a strand of hair from her eyes. "Any form of torture would be too good for the outlaw and we should let him rot and die, but I suppose we'll have to tell Father the truth. All of it. The horse will have to be found and the thug attended to before being imprisoned.
" 'Twould be a blessing if he were to be caught and left forgotten in a dungeon, would it not?'' Elyn said, then glanced sadly up at the sky. "A blessing.''
"Yes.'' Kiera shuddered. "I hope I never see him again.''
"Me, too,'' Elyn said vehemently, in anger--or pain? She spurred her horse and the bay whirled, then shot forward across the silvery fields. "Me, too.''
"You can't be serious.'' Kiera was dumbstruck at her sister's request. "Have you gone daft?''
They were walking swiftly through the outer bailey, past the squealing pigs and bleating sheep. Wintry sunlight pierced through a thin veil of high clouds, and the smell of the sea gave a briny tinge to the odors of cook fires, burning tallow, and dung from the stables.
"You can't expect me to stand in for you . . .to pretend that I'm you and take your wedding vows!''
"Shh,'' Elyn whispered harshly as they slipped through the gates to the inner bailey, where displayed upon the chapel, the bans announcing Elyn's marriage to Baron Kelan of Penbrooke caught in the winter breeze. "Did you not promise to do anything I asked when I saved your life?''
"And when I tried to talk you out of it, did you not insist?'' She pulled Kiera around the corner of the carter's hut to a path between the garden and a wagon with a broken wheel. The spokes had splintered, and the wagon bed was tipped as it rested on its axle.
"Aye.'' Kiera nodded. "But this is madness! I cannot marry a man promised to you.''
"You're not marrying him,'' Elyn insisted, her full lips pulled into a knot of concentration. Her eyes, a shade of green identical to Kiera's, pleaded. "You're just taking the vows for me. You know as well as I do that what is important in this marriage is not me, but my name and position as firstborn.'' Elyn sighed. "If only the estate were not entailed upon me because we have no brother to be the heir. It's not fair. Father has just sold me to gain access to the river that runs through Penbrooke to further trade.''
"And you expect no one to tell the difference?''
"The chapel is poorly lit, and my veil is heavy enough that your face will be indistinct. You will whisper the vows and you will be dressed in my wedding dress.''
Kiera laughed nervously. "But the guests--''
" 'Tis a small ceremony,'' Elyn insisted. "And rushed! So rushed. Because the groom's mother ails, I am to wed so that I may hurry back to Penbrooke to see her before she dies. God's teeth, there is no time to do anything else!'' She sighed as if all the misery of the world lay upon her shoulders. "If there is any bit of a blessing in this, it is that Father knows I am unhappy about the marriage. He is afraid I will embarrass him in front of his friends, so there are few who will be there.''
"But those that are will see that I'm not you!''
"Nay, I've thought of that,'' she said, though she seemed vastly worried. "Most people, even our relatives, have trouble telling us apart. Remember we sometimes fooled Father, and now he is nearly blind with age, his eyes as white as milk these past few years. Hildy nearly raised us, so she won't give me away, Penelope will consider it a grand joke, and the priest is from Penbrooke. Father Barton or Bartholomew or something. He's never met me.''
"What about the baron?'' Kiera asked, not believing for a second that this plan had a chance of working. 'Twas idiocy of the highest order. "You know, the man you're supposed to marry.''
"He's never laid eyes upon me.''
"You're certain?'' Kiera was disbelieving and looked to the sky where a hawk was circling. "Could he not have seen you at a tournament or at a neighboring castle during the Christmas Revels or--''
"Shhh! No! There is a rumor that Kelan was disowned by his father for a time because of his wild ways, and only recently regained favor. I've heard the guards call him the Beast of Penbrooke when they think no one is listening. He has never attended proper functions.''
The carter rounded the corner, a dog limping behind him, and Elyn tugged on the sleeve of Kiera's tunic. "Come along,'' she said, smiling and nodding her head as the carter greeted them, then set to his task of removing the broken wagon wheel.
Elyn guided Kiera through the herb garden, where a few patches of thyme grew heartily within the clumps of rosemary and sage. The sisters sat on a bench that had once been their mother's favorite spot to work on her embroidery in the warmth of the summer sun.
"Penbrooke won't know you're not his bride,'' Elyn insisted as Kiera dug at a clump of weeds with the toe of her boot. "All you have to do is say the vows and beg off from the festivities, claim a headache. Everyone will believe it's a case of nerves. Then the next morning I'll return and take my place as his wife. It will not matter that it is you who has said the vows, for the marriage contract hinges on my name, which is all that is important in this mercenary union. I will be married to the man.'' She shuddered at the prospect, and Kiera understood why. Elyn hated the thought of being wed to a man she didn't love.
But then another thought occurred to her, a horrid thought. Kiera suddenly lost all interest in the stubborn weeds. "Wait a minute. The next morning?'' She gulped. "You've not mentioned the wedding night. What am I to do when the lord comes to my chamber and expects me to . . .to . . .''
"You mean, when he expects to bed you?''
"Not me. You,'' Kiera pointed out.
Elyn rested her chin on her fists. Her green eyes narrowed on a winter bird flying past. "You don't have to sleep with him . . .well, yes, you do have to do the sleeping part, but not the other.''
"And how am I to accomplish that?'' Kiera hissed. "I don't believe a headache or a case of nerves will be enough of an excuse on my wedding night.''
"Of course it won't. Besides, he has to think that you are--or I am--a virgin. There must be blood on the linens.''
Kiera shot to her feet. "Blood on the linens? Oh, now I know you've lost your mind. How could I possibly see that the sheets were stained without . . .without--well, you know." Horrified, she glared at her sister. If it wasn't for the gravity of Elyn's expression, she would have thought that her older sibling was toying with her, pushing a bad joke beyond its limits. "This is a daft plan. Daft! You must have left your mind in the stable, because it's certainly missing! I think you best find it and soon.''
"Just listen.'' Instead of anger, now Elyn seemed scared. She wrapped her fingers around her sister's wrist, touching that very spot that had broken on the night that Elyn had saved her life. A tiny bit of old pain shot up Kiera's arm. "I cannot marry the baron because I can't come to him as a virgin.''
Kiera's skin prickled with dread. She pulled her hand away, didn't want to think of that fateful night and her hasty, though heartfelt, vow to do anything Elyn asked. "Why not?''
"I've already given myself.'' Her cheeks, beneath her freckles, reddened.
"To Brock of Oak Crest?'' Kiera demanded, knowing the answer before it passed Elyn's tongue.
"Aye.'' Elyn was worrying her hands together, her teeth sinking into her lip. "I love him. I have from the first time I saw him at Tower Fenn. I was but thirteen years, yet smitten upon the sight of him. I have loved him ever since.''
"For the love of St. Jude, Elyn.'' Kiera thought little of the man who had so completely and stupidly captured her sister's heart. "Is he not betrothed to another?''
"Wynnifrydd.'' Elyn's nose wrinkled as if she'd just smelled rotten eggs. "Of Fenn. They are to be married soon.'' She sighed loudly, her shoulders slumping as if from a great burden. The first drops of rain began to fall and splatter on the ground. "Brock loves me, not that scrawny wench. I know it. He no more wants to wed Wynnifrydd than I do Penbrooke.''
"But you haven't given this a chance. As you said, you've never met Penbrooke. Mayhap you'll find him--''
"Attractive?'' Elyn snorted, shaking her head. "Obviously you've never been in love.''
"You know that Brock's a scoundrel. You've said so yourself.''
"Mayhap, but the heart knows no reason.'' Elyn stared into the storm as if she was searching for some kind of divine intervention, some kind of insight into her plight.
"Oh, please, stop it! I've heard you spout this romantic nonsense too often, and look where it's gotten you.'' Kiera felt a pang of something akin to pity. Her strong sister was such a fool when it came to love, but Elyn had always been a bit of a dreamer. "I know you don't want to marry Penbrooke. Have you not said as much every day since Father announced the agreement? But what you're suggesting is mad . . . absurd; it will never, ever work.''
"It will if you agree to it. Now, you'll not have to give yourself to him, not really.'' Elyn was blinking against the fat drops of rain falling from the sky. "You can give him a sleeping draft, and he'll fall asleep and I'll make sure there is a vial of blood--pig's blood--that you can spill onto the sheets, so that when he awakens, he'll believe--''
"And why cannot you do this? Why can you not make sure he falls asleep, then sprinkle the sheets with blood?''
"Because I am to meet Brock one last time.''
"What?'' Kiera cried. This was ludicrous! Insane!
"Please, Kiera, if I can steal one more night with Brock, I will feel as if I have defied the contract that keeps me from my love. It will make assuming the duties as the Baron of Penbrooke's wife bearable, and no one but us will know.''
" 'Twould only make things worse. Much worse. Nay, Elyn, this is crazy. I will do anything for you, I gave you my word, but this . . . I cannot.''
"You will not have to compromise your virginity.''
"So you say, but--''
"And everyone will think that he was with me. You lose nothing, Kiera. Nothing. And I will have one last night with my beloved.''
Kiera was thinking that her virginity wasn't as precious as she'd thought, not if it could be bartered with so easily. Though, of course, Elyn was right. Kiera would never give herself to the man. Yet she could not meet her sister's request despite her promise. Kiera knew the plan could not work. She would not do it. `Twas a fool's mission.
"This scheme will never work,'' she said, gathering her cowl over her head as the rain peppered the garden. "You must go to Father and talk him out of the marriage.''
"Don't you think I've tried? By the love of the Holy Mother, I've begged, screamed, cried, pleaded, and all for naught. Father will not listen to me.'' Her eyes darkened dangerously and her chin set in the same determination Kiera had witnessed a hundred times before. If Elyn had inherited anything from Llwyd of Lawenydd, `twas his damned pride and stubborn streak. Rain drizzled down her neck, but she didn't bother covering her head.
"Listen--'' Desperately, Elyn grabbed hold of Kiera's sleeve. "Have we not fooled our own cousins by pretending to be each other? Did we not trick our own father before?'' Elyn insisted, her fire returning. "Even when his eyesight had not dimmed? We look enough alike as to be twins, as to be one, even Hildy has claimed as much!''
Kiera paused for a moment. It was true that many often swore that Elyn and Kiera were nearly identical. Indeed, they shared many of the same features. Both had brilliant auburn hair, green eyes, and chins that ended in a distinct point. Kiera and Elyn had often confused household servants and, aye, even family members about their identities. Yet while they had often played tricks, the plan was simply too implausible and dangerous. "I'm sorry, Elyn, it is not going to work. I can't do it.''
Angrily, Elyn yanked on the necklace that encircled her throat. The fine chain broke, but she caught the glittering crucifix before it dropped to the ground. Rubies, emeralds, and sapphires glittered ominously in the rain. "Did you not promise me, Kiera? Did you not swear that you would return my favor by doing any thing I asked?''
"So now I'm asking, begging . . .'' she said, shaking her fist so hard that the bejeweled cross swung crazily from its broken links. "Are you not as good as your word?''
"Of course, but--''
"You vowed, Kiera, to me.'' Elyn hooked a thumb at her chest. Her eyes snapped angrily. "You insisted that you owed me this favor. 'Twas your idea, not mine.''
"Yes, I know I did, nonetheless--''
"So, now, sister, 'tis time to pay.''
Kiera's heart tore. She grabbed the cross and chain. "I'll do anything else, Elyn, but this . . . this I cannot. I cannot lie to Father. To Penbrooke. To God. I cannot pretend to marry the man. Elyn, please, go to Father. I'll go with you. Mayhap something can be worked out.''
"Would you give yourself to Penbrooke in my stead?''
"He would not want me because Father has entailed the castle to you, and Penbrooke wants access to the sea to expand trade, which Lawenydd provides,'' Kiera said.
"So you are a liar and a coward,'' Elyn said, her voice cold. "You know, Kiera, I really thought better of you.''
"Then you'll speak with Father.''
Elyn's lips barely moved as the purple clouds roiled overhead. "Worry not, sister,'' she said, turning toward the keep, "I'll do what I have to.''
This marriage will be little more than a sham, Baron Kelan of Penbrooke thought as he guided his horse toward the final rise and his doom. His mood was as dark as the cloudy sky, and his muscles were beginning to protest from a hard three days' ride with his pitiful handful of men, none of whom seemed to have lost their amusement that he was finally to be wed.
" 'Tis well past time,'' Orvis, one of Kelan's guards and a friend, had said with a chuckle as he'd raised a tankard of ale to his lips the night before they'd left Penbrooke. He'd wiped a sleeve over his ragged reddish beard. "Your days of sowin' wild oats are over.''
"Aye, and now maybe some of the ladies will look my way,'' Tadd had chimed in, his blue eyes full of devilment as he'd fingered his dark beard. Tadd was his brother. At twenty, two years younger than Kelan, Tadd was every bit as full of piss and vinegar as Kelan had once been.
"As if ye need more women,'' Orvis had grumbled, for he was fat and dull with the finesse of a blacksmith and the manners of the gong farmer who cleaned the latrine pits. Yet he was loyal and true, a man whom Kelan had known since his youth. "Ye need to be passin' a few my way, Sir Tadd, instead of beddin' 'em all yerself.''
Tadd had lifted a skeptical brow. "And what would you do with them, Orvis?'' he'd taunted.
"I know me way around a woman, don't you think I don't.'' Offended, Orvis had buried his bulbous nose into his mazer.
Kelan had paid the men no mind that night or any other. Their needling and jokes at his expense were to be expected, but he hadn't counted on the smug faith of Father Barton, an elderly priest who couldn't hide his pleasure that the wayward, prodigal son of Lord Alwyn was about to wed, and therefore change his heathen ways. Now that Kelan was the baron, he needed a wife. Or so thought the priest.
"Ye'll enjoy the sacrament of marriage,'' the old man had intoned less than an hour ago. With his thin white hair, hooked nose, and ever-pursed mouth, he had glanced at Kelan with sanctimonious piety. A bemused smile had dared to soften the set of his lips. He'd clucked to his mount, a docile grayish mare, as she'd plodded along the soggy, rutted road leading to Lawenydd. "A good woman and children, 'tis all a man can ask for.''
" 'Tis not what I asked for, nor,'' he reminded the priest, "what you wanted for yourself.''
"We all have different callings, my son. Yours is to wed and beget children. Sons.''
"So it seems.''
" 'Twill be a blessing.''
"How would you know? Have you ever been married?''
Father Barton had clucked his tongue. "I am married to God, my son.''
"And is He a good wife?''
"There be no need for irreverence.'' Those old lips had pursed again in tight disapproval, and the priest's good humor had vanished as surely as if it had been swept away by the salt-laden wind.
"Nor be there a need for unwanted advice.''
"Then think of your poor ailing mother.'' Father Barton had sketched a quick sign of the cross over his chest. " 'Twill make her happy.''
There was little doubt of that. His mother, too frail to make the trip, had made it known that all she wanted from him was that he take a wife and have children, preferably a son to become the next Baron of Penbrooke. She was dying. She wanted desperately to meet Kelan's bride, had begged her son to be quick with the marriage and return. Kelan had not the heart to deny her. But despite his dead father's schemes, the priest's talk of the joys of marriage, and his mother's desperate need to know the Penbrooke bloodline would continue, Kelan felt a cold dread at the prospect of this arranged marriage to a woman he had never seen and had heard little about.
Now, with his horse a good quarter mile ahead of the others and his gloved hands clamped over the reins, he fought the urge to spur his steed and ride fast and far from his fate. His jaw was clenched so hard it ached; every muscle in his body was rigid. Soon he would meet his bride. His stomach soured at the thought. This woman with whom he was supposed to live forever.
Marriage. 'Twas a fool's sacrament.
Were he not firstborn and were his mother not on her deathbed, Kelan would never have agreed to such a hideous convention. Never.
The union was the result of two old men's wishes. His father had wanted an ally to the south, one with whom he could share borders, men, weapons, and trade, a barony with access to the sea. Even more than that, Alwyn had wanted Kelan to sire a son, an heir that would someday become baron. On his deathbed he'd elicited a promise that Kelan would marry Elyn of Lawenydd, and Kelan couldn't go back on his word.
Nonsense! That's what it was.
Because of his dead father's wishes and his mother's continued, quiet supplication, Kelan had become betrothed to a woman--no doubt a withered old maid, she was almost nineteen for God's sake and should have been married long ago--whom he'd never met. The castles were not near each other, and as he'd been banished for a time, he'd never had a glimpse of his bride. Perhaps it was for the best.
Llwyd of Lawenydd had his own reasons for suggesting the marriage. He wanted protection from the north and use of the river that cut through Penbrooke on its way to the ocean. Though the baronies did not share a border, they would make a strong alliance and could, together, force the small, weaker baronies between to do their bidding. Baron Llwyd had no sons of his own, only daughters to be used as pawns, bartered and traded as if they were wheat or cattle or horses. So an alliance had been formed, one joined by two unwilling marriage partners, to be cemented by a male heir.
Kelan's chest constricted. Well, so be it. 'Twas not as if he believed in love, he thought as his horse crested the forested hill and trees gave way to the vast fields of Lawenydd.
Dried, wintry stubble covered the ground leading toward a tall castle constructed of dark stone. Across a wide moat, the gates to the keep were thrown wide. Farmers' wagons, a peddler's cart, horsemen, and people on foot were converging at the castle while high overhead, atop square towers, the yellow-and-white standards of Lawenydd snapped in the stiff breeze blowing off the sea. He heard the sharp beat of hooves and turned in the saddle to spy his brother riding at breakneck speed only to pull up beside him.
"Ahh . . . home of your beloved,'' Tadd observed, eyeing the keep as if it were a prize to be won at a cockfight. " 'Tis a bit on the humble side, but 'tis no matter . . . see over there.'' He hitched his chin to the town and the piers jutting into the swirling gray waters. Whitecaps and swells rolled with the angry tide. Two ships were at anchor, their sails furled tight, their spars pronging upward toward the ever-darkening sky as the hulls bobbed on the turbulent waves. "What better dowry than access to the sea?''
"You tell me.''
"Still not happy?''
Kelan's lips twisted. "Are you?''
"Aye. Often.'' Tadd slid a wicked glance in his brother's direction. "For though my fate is more lowly than yours, though I will not inherit the keep or anything of worth, I do have my freedom.'' His eyes were like ice as he said, "So you who reap the privilege must also suffer the consequence of being firstborn. 'Tis necessary that you produce heirs, whereas I can bed any wench I choose and father as many bastards as time allows.'' He crooked a dark eyebrow as he stared at the castle looming in the distance. "And time, it hastens by much too quickly. Come, brother, smile. 'Tis your wedding day!''