ABOUT THE BOOK...
A knight's victory will be the lady's undoing...
Sir Michael Devereux has fallen for his childhood friend, Lady Elena. In return she has also given him her heart. However their love is not to be. Lady Elena is whisked from their homeland of Wexford, Ireland to marry the malicious Earl of Kent in England.
Suffering greatly Elena pleas for Michael to come and be her savior. At long last an opportunity arises in the form of a tournament. Winner becomes Kent's Captain of the Guard—and closer to the Lady Elena.
But with victory comes tragedy… When stealing kisses in the dark leads to something more, and the sinister ambitions of people in their midst threatens their safety, Michael and Elena will have to make a choice. That choice could mean life or death and has them asking, does love really conquer all?
“Either our history shall with full mouth,
Speak freely of our acts, or else our grave…”
Speak freely of our acts, or else our grave…”
Shakespeare’s, Henry V, Act 1 scene 2
Mist curled around her ankles as Elena picked her way through the woods in search of Michael. Dawn had barely broken, and pink and orange hues reached their way through lustrous trees to dance in magical light upon the dew covered ground.
She lifted her skirts to keep them from dragging and snagging on fallen branches. The hem was already damp, and her slippers not much better.
She couldn’t help a deep breath or the smile of excitement that was etched permanently on her face.
Today was going to change everything. And not just because it was her day of birth.
“My love…” Michael’s soft, husky voice came from behind.
Hesitating in her steps, she whirled around to see him leaning against a tree. Soft brown leather boots encased his lower legs to just below his knees. Light colored breeches showed off the strength of his legs to mid-thigh. His shirt of dark green brightened the indigo in his blue-green eyes. His arms were crossed over the broad expanse of his chest, reminding her of how he trained as a knight throughout the day and evening. A shiver rushed through her, just as it did each time she saw him.
He pushed off the tree, his hands outstretched toward hers. “You came.”
She nodded, loving the sound of his English accent against that of her Irish brogue.
“Indeed I did.” She placed her hands in his, feeling small and delicate.
“I confess I had my doubts.” He winked to cover up the true fear flashing in his eyes.
“Why would you doubt me?” She stepped closer, feeling the heat of his body reaching out toward hers.
“’Tis not every day that a lowly knight as myself would be handfasted to a lady as beautiful as you.” He brought one of her hands up to his lips and kissed her knuckles.
Warm tendrils rippled through her arm. She loved his touch. Loved him!
“’Tis my dream, Michael. For us to be together, to love one another freely.” She bowed her head. “Alas, your words ring true… My father swears he will never agree. So we must do so in secrecy.” She was ashamed that they had to hide their feelings, but she knew, after having loved Michael since the moment she’d met him some nine years ago at the tender age of nine, that she could never be with another. “Know that as long as I live, I will never give myself to another.”
A sad smile crossed over Michael’s lips. “I know. I too vow to be yours forever in this life and eternity.”
Elena reached up and threaded her fingers through his soft, dark hair. “I wish it did not have to be this way,” she whispered.
Michael had broached the topic of marriage with her father, but he’d shot him down. No knight training in his guard would ever be allowed to touch his daughter—despite whom Michael’s own father was—a titled lord in service of their king.
“Me too…” Michael’s hand came up to cover hers, and he turned his face into her palm, lightly kissing her tingling flesh.
She sighed as fear and desire warred within her. “At least we shall know we are together. Our souls one, and soon we shall break through my father’s disavowal of our commitment to one another and be married in truth.”
“Until my last breath I will not stop until you are mine, princess.”
Her heart soared at his vow and the charming endearment he’d called her since she was a girl. “How many times should I have to tell you, I am not a princess.”
“You will always be my princess, and today you are a birthday princess.” With that said, his hands slipped around her waist and he pulled her close.
The length of his body molded against hers, and sank into him just as his mouth closed over hers. He brushed his lips gently back and forth—a whisper-soft caress that left her trembling. Elena pressed closer, wanting more. Her fingers tangled in his hair, her nails gently scraping his scalp. She felt him shudder against her.
“Not yet…” Michael murmured against her lips, before sliding his kiss to her cheek and then her forehead. “First we plight our troth.”
She sucked in a deep breath of excitement, her gaze catching his. From inside the V opening of his tunic, he pulled out a long length of embroidered linen. Recognition hit.
“Aye, the token you made me for my very first tournament.”
She beamed. “You kept it all these years?” The strip of linen had to be at least five years old. She remembered how giddy she’d been, staying up until the candle burned through the wick, just so she could give it to him on the following morning as he made his way to the lists.
“As I have each token you’ve given me since.”
He took her hand in his, and with his free hand wrapped the strip of fabric around their hands three times. With their hands clasped tightly together, they gazed into one another’s eyes. Elation and fear of the unknown bubbled up in her throat, made her breath come quick and shallow.
“Elena, my love, to thee I plight my troth. Forever shall I be yours. I will honor you, protect you, see that you are happy for all the days to come. And when the time arises, we shall be married in truth, of that I swear.” Michael’s eyes were solemn, serious, his mouth set in a determined line.
Elena’s heart soared. She smiled through tears of joy. Everything he said to her meant so much. Did he have any idea of how much he affected her? With a deep breath, she gave him her own vow.
“My love, Michael, to thee I plight my troth. Though there be no witnesses here to uphold our promises, God and we, too, know that our words ring true and our hearts are pure. Forever, I am yours. I will honor you” —she cast him a mirthful smile— “protect you, and see that you are happy for all the days to come. I will petition my father daily to allow us to be together in truth, and I swear to all that is holy, one day we shall see ourselves married before all.”
With the last words spoken, Michael’s gaze intensely bored into hers. So much emotion—love, fear, desire, promise—was held in their depths. She swallowed hard, knowing each of them would never stop until they were together as man and wife under the eyes of the law.
“Then I say to the trees, we are man and wife.” Michael sought out her lips once more for a deep kiss. Claiming her mouth, her soul, before nature. His tongue swept over the crease of her lips. One of his hands stroked up her ribs, to her shoulder and then he stroked his knuckles over the sensitive flesh of her neck.
“You will always be mine,” he murmured.
“Always,” she answered.
The sound of an approaching horse had them pulling apart, although their hands were still tightly clasped and bound by the linen.
“What the devil?” Michael said harshly as his man, Fletch, burst through the trees.
“You must come back to the castle straightaway. They’re looking for you both.”
“What? How?” Elena suddenly felt as if all the air had left her lungs.
“There’s a visitor.” Fletch shook his head, his eyes catching the length of fabric handfasting them together. Pity softened his gaze. “You may wish to run away now. I’ll give you my horse.”
“We won’t run,” Michael started, but then stopped, catching the pleading look in Elena’s eyes. “We have to face them. We must tell them what has happened here today. They can’t take it away.”
Elena shook her head. “Mayhap it won’t be necessary.” She turned to Fletch. “Does my father suspect we are together?”
“Then we shall tell him.” Her voice was surprisingly strong for how weak she felt inside.
“Together.” Michael squeezed her hand and smiled—although behind his bright eyes lurked the same fear she’d seen earlier.
“You risk much, Michael.” Fletch’s brows were drawn together. “The earl won’t take kindly to you disobeying his orders.”
“I needn’t the reminder.” He turned to Elena. “Where did you leave your horse?”
“I’ll accompany you both.” Fletch turned his mount, but before he could leave, Michael gripped the reins.
“No. Go on without us.”
Elena feared the reason he wanted Fletch to go ahead was because he thought this might be the last moments they’d have alone. But she refused to believe that her father would do anything but accept. They had disobeyed him, but what was done was done. They’d plighted their troth. They would be married. She would plead with her sire to see reason.
The worst that could happen was that he would banish them. They could make their way. Michael was a hard worker, she could sew. They’d find a way to survive.
Dark clouds rolled over the early morning horizon creating a gloomy sense of foreboding.
“Michael?” Her lips trembled slightly.
“Be strong, princess. This too, we shall overcome.”
She swallowed. “With you by my side, I shall.”
They reached the bailey, the stone walls of her father’s castle penetrating the clouds in the most intimidating way. Before she could dismount, the large threatening figure of her father burst from the castle doors, his long grey hair whipping around his head with the force of his pace. He stormed toward them, an angry scowl marring his features.
“Where the hell have you been?” he demanded. “Get off that horse.”
Elena dismounted, keeping her eyes lowered, focusing on a small rock jutting from the dirt. “I have been with Michael, my lord.”
She felt, rather than saw, Michael beside her. She desperately wanted to reach for his hand, but knew her father would not be impressed.
“Get. Off. My. Land.” Her father spoke to Michael through gritted teeth and from her position, she could see his hands flexing and unflexing.
He was seething, in a murderous rage, but why she could not fathom. How could he banish Michael? She wouldn’t let him. Elena glanced up, her gaze rocketing back and forth between the men, panic seizing her chest.
“No, Father, you cannot!” she half-shouted, half-choked.
“I can do as I please,” he sneered in her direction before turning his hate-filled gaze back to Michael. “Now get back to your Sassenach father, boy! You have deliberately disobeyed me. Most likely stolen my daughter’s virtue. I should flay you alive!”
“My lord—” Michael started but her father cut him off with a loud, bone-cracking punch to the jaw.
Michael fell backward, eyes closed in unconsciousness. Elena rushed to his side, only to be ripped away by her father. He gripped her tightly on the upper arm, and dragged her up the stairs and into the keep. All of her wrestling against him might have been for not, for he seemed not to notice one twist or yank from her.
“How dare you threaten your people by rutting with that knight!”
Threaten her people?
“Without your marriage to the devil-English Lord Kent, we wouldn’t survive another winter, not with the way the bastard Sassenachs are taxing us.”
Marriage? Her mouth went dry. She tried to speak, to protest, but no words came from her lips. She swallowed. And swallowed again. Her throat was tight, her vision blurred.
“Lucky for you, I warned him you most likely weren’t pure because of some lecherous knight looking to bed an Irish lass.”
Finally her voice managed a strangled, “What?”
“You are to be married. Today. Now.”
They burst into the great hall, filled with servants, knights and a white-haired man with evil black eyes. He glared at her with disgust, and sneered before turning to spit into the rushes.
“My Lord Kent, may I present to you, my daughter, Lady Elena.” Her father thrust her forward, and she nearly stumbled over the hem of her gown which got caught beneath her slippers.
“Let us get this over with.” Lord Kent snapped of his fingers.
Their priest stepped forward, uttering words to which both Kent and her father answered. When the priest looked to her she shook her head. “No, no, no…” she repeated.
This couldn’t be happening. Elena looked around for anyone who might come to her aid, but all she had sought comfort from once, kept their gazes averted.
“Say, aye,” her father gritted out, squeezing her arm.
“Do not embarrass me,” Kent threatened under his breath. He too gripped her arm in a painful pinch.
“I can’t,” she whispered. “I am—”
“She will,” her father said to the priest, cutting her off.
“Or it will be your head,” Kent added.
The priest nodded, fear making his knees shake. He left off the rest of the ceremony, pronouncing them man and wife, right then and there.
“No! I did not consent!” she shouted. But she was ignored by all, especially Kent.
He snapped his fingers again and a man who looked like he ate children for breakfast, stepped forward, picked her up, hauled her over his shoulder and started to exit the great hall.
“We ride to the shore tonight. I cannot stand the stench of Irish soil,” the evil lord—her husband!—grated out.
Elena screamed, beat her fists against the monster’s back. The last thing she saw before someone hit her on the temple, knocking her mercifully from consciousness, was the anguished face of her father as he slumped to the floor.
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