Read Hearts and Crowns Online

Authors: Anna Markland

Hearts and Crowns

 

HEARTS AND CROWNS

 

BY

 

ANNA MARKLAND

 

 

 

 

©COPYRIGHT ANNA MARKLAND 2013

 

 

 

Cover Art by Steven Novak

 

 

Dear Reader,

If only my heroes and heroines had revealed their stories to me in chronological order, it would have made life much easier for you! If you prefer to read sagas in chronological order, here’s a handy list.

 

Conquering Passion
—Ram and Mabelle, Rhodri and Rhonwen

If Love Dares Enough
—Hugh and Devona, Antoine and Sybilla

Defiant Passion
-Rhodri and Rhonwen

A Man of Value
—Caedmon and Agneta

Dark Irish Knight
—Ronan and Rhoni

Haunted Knights
—Adam and Rosamunda, Denis and Paulina

Passion in the Blood
—Robert and Dorianne, Baudoin and Carys

Dark and Bright
—Rhys and Annalise

The Winds of the Heavens
—Rhun and Glain, Rhydderch and Isolda

Dance of Love
—Izzy and Farah

Carried Away
—Blythe and Dieter

Sweet Taste of Love
—Aidan and Nolana

Wild Viking Princess
—Ragna and Reider

Hearts and Crowns
—Gallien and Peridotte

 

 

DEDICATION
 

 

For my beautiful granddaughter,

 

Peri Lenore.

 

 

 

 

 

“Once bitten,

 

twice shy.”

 

 

PROLOGUE
 

Ellesmere Castle, Salop, England, 1125 AD

 

“Surely you did not think me a virgin?”

Struck dumb, Gallien stared in uncomprehending disbelief at the rumpled but unsoiled linens of his marriage bed, shivering as gooseflesh marched over his naked body. His heartbeat thundered in his ears.

He had made his way in the dark to the ewer, intending to lovingly cleanse his new bride after their joining. The light of the candle, lit with a spill from the dying embers of the fire, illuminated the truth of Felicité’s mockery on the pristine sheets. His gut clenched.

It came to him that in the throes of passion he had not felt the resistance men boasted of breaching, but he had never bedded a virgin and truly did not know what to expect.

His mind whirled. Was he trapped in a hideous nightmare? His eyes wandered to his sneering wife’s pouting breasts. She made no effort to cover her body, still sheened with his sweat. She twirled a finger in her hair, lying seductively on her side, head propped on one hand.

Since their betrothal he had itched to put his mouth to those dark nipples. The silky hair at her mons was exactly the color and texture he had dreamed it would be. But she had constantly rebuffed his advances as if he were a naughty child. “You must wait until our wedding night,
milord
Montbryce.”

An insidious dread wormed its way into his befuddled wits. His gaze fell to her belly. The drumming in his ears grew louder. His lungs refused to fill with air. He was drowning. Had his infatuation rendered him blind? He recalled too late her insistence the candles be snuffed before she disrobed.

“You are with child,” he rasped, though the voice seemed faraway, not his own.

Smoothing a hand over the slight swell of her belly, she said nothing, but the proud glint in her seductive eyes pierced his already shattered heart.

With a trembling hand, he set down the candle. A giant shadow loomed on the wall, disappearing as he bent to search for his wedding finery, scattered earlier with reckless abandon. Desperate to cover his nakedness, he resisted the urge to put his hands over his shaft. She must deem him a fool.

Someone had to answer for this travesty. “Is your father aware of your condition?” he asked, pulling a shirt over his head. He had insisted the tailor not make it too long. Now he wished it fell to his feet.

Felicité grinned, a wicked gleam in her eye. “Of course not. He would have sent me to a nunnery.”

His guts in knots, Gallien cast about for his leggings. “Then why marry me? Why not wed your lover?”

She looked at him as if he had lost his wits. “He is already married, silly.”

He pulled on his leggings, cursing under his breath when he lost his balance. He hopped on one foot, collapsing onto the edge of the bed. Tying the laces, he got to his feet quickly, lest the serpent in his bed bite him.

If he could only put his hand on a dagger he would plunge it into her treacherous heart. But he had not expected to need a weapon in his bridal chamber. He clenched his fists, itching to beat her. No one would censure him for it.

But Felicité had been clever. She knew he was not a man to raise his hand to a woman, no matter the provocation.

Trembling with rage, trapped by his own nobility, Gallien sprawled into his favorite chair by the hearth, chewing his knuckles. He pressed his palm against the knee of one leg that seemed to have fallen victim to the dancing plague. He wanted to howl like a wounded beast and tear the room apart. The glowing embers of the once hearty fire did nothing to warm his chilled heart.

His faithless wife had turned the comfortable chamber he loved into a place of torment. He had to flee, but wedding guests still made merry in the Great Hall. The lavender perfume that had enthralled him hung in the air, making his belly roil.

Married less than a day, he had already been cuckolded.

 

CHAPTER ONE
 

Two years later.

 

“A woman on the throne of England? King Henry has lost his wits!” Gallien declared loudly.

Baudoin de Montbryce, Second Earl of Ellesmere, cringed at his son’s treasonous outburst. He peered into the lengthening shadows of the Great Hall built by his late father almost three score years before.

Had anyone else heard?

To his relief, the liveried servants had finished clearing away the remains of the evening meal. Once the kitchen was scrubbed to Cook’s satisfaction, they would return to move the wooden trestle tables to the side wall and lay fresh rushes on the stone floor for those who slept in the Hall. For now all was quiet, except for the reluctant hiss of the last of the logs in the grate. Only he and Gallien remained at the head table. “It is fortunate there are none to hear,
mon fils
.”

Gallien came to his feet wearily, raking his fingers through his white hair. “But you agree with me. Henry has never been the same since his son, Crown Prince William, drowned seven years ago when
La Blanche Nef
sank. Now—”

Baudoin’s throat tightened. Mention of the disaster was a bitter reminder of their own profound loss. Like many noble families throughout England and Normandie, the Montbryces had lost loved ones that fateful night when hundreds had drowned.

The bodies of Baudoin’s half brother and his wife had never been recovered. Caedmon’s wish to be interred alongside their father in the crypt of Montbryce Castle would not be fulfilled. “I’d rather not speak of that,” Baudoin growled.

Gallien’s scowl softened. “I’m sorry, Papa. I know the memory is still difficult, but our loss pales in comparison to what others lost that night—especially King Henry.”

Baudoin grimaced. “It was England’s loss, and Normandie’s, as much as Henry’s—no son, no heir to the throne.”

Gallien snorted. “It’s ironic Henry has spawned illegitimate children aplenty, yet his only other legitimate child is Matilda, the brat. Excuse me, I mean
Empress
Matilda, or Maud as she styles herself now. I suppose
Matilda
is too common for her.”

Baudoin fisted his hands. It was a pity that at five and twenty, Gallien was too big to pummel. “Again you fail to curb your tongue in the Hall, where anyone might hear you.”

Gallien shrugged. “I speak only what is common knowledge. You resented Henry’s summoning you to Westminster last Christmas and demanding you pledge to his daughter as your future queen—as did every other earl and baron in the realm. Queen Maud indeed!”

Baudoin put his elbow on the table and rested his forehead on his palm. Gallien was right. He had forced down the bile rising in his throat as he’d made the pledge. “If only Maud’s first husband, the Emperor, had not died. Caedmon’s son-by-marriage, Dieter Von Wolfenberg, would curse me for saying this now that his patron, Lothar, is Holy Roman Emperor. However, if Heinrich were still alive, we would not be dealing with Henry’s latest ploy to secure the throne for his daughter.”

Gallien shook his head. “It’s hard to swallow that Henry has betrothed her to the son of
Comte
Fulk of Anjou. The Conqueror must be twisting in his tomb—his granddaughter married to a hated Angevin. What is it they call him? Geoffrey the Handsome? Saints help us!”

Baudoin shared his son’s outrage, but experience, and his late father, Ram de Montbryce, had taught him to guard his tongue, especially in the volatile morass of English and Norman politics. He hoped his impetuous and outspoken son would learn to be more circumspect before he assumed the mantle of Third Earl of Ellesmere. It was plain Gallien had inherited much of his Welsh grandfather’s Celtic blood.

“Marriage!” Gallien exclaimed, jolting him from his reflections. “It’s the only thing anyone ever talks about. I’ll never wed again.”

Baudoin took a deep breath. This was a familiar argument. “We have been over this ground before. You must marry and provide heirs. The succession of Ellesmere rests on your shoulders. I know—”

Gallien held up a rigid hand. “Enough!”

~~~

Gallien’s heart plummeted to his boots. He hated arguing with his father for whom he had great respect. “I’m tired of you reminding me of it.”

“Nevertheless—”

He gritted his teeth. “I appreciate that you and
Maman
were devastated by the disaster with Felicité, but your marriage to my mother has been a passionate love affair that endures to this day. Can you truly understand my torment?”

Baudoin put a hand on his son’s arm. “I’m aware your marriage to the treacherous woman brought you nothing but anguish. Look at your hair. It’s turned almost as white as mine.”

Gallien pressed his fingertips into his forehead. Did he have the courage to reveal details of that terrible night he had never confided before? He took a deep breath. “I can still hear the mockery in her voice at my outrage when I discovered she had not come virgin to our marriage bed. She was proud of the bastard she carried.” He closed his eyes. “To this day, I cannot believe I did not notice the swell of her belly before the wedding, so great was my fascination with her.”

His father sniffled, wiping his eye with the back of his hand. “She hid her condition well. I did not suspect either.”

Bitterness tinged with a certain satisfaction twisted in Gallien’s gut. “She was good at hiding things. She carefully guarded the identity of her lover, until the day at Henry’s court in Westminster when I caught her in the arms of Devlin de Villiers.”

His father brought his fist down hard on the wooden table. “But by God, his dalliance cost him dearly.”

Indeed it had. Gallien had severed the man’s hand from his arm in the sword fight that followed, and would have killed him but for the intervention of Henry’s guards. The coward had been borne home to his wife and six children.

Gallien had dragged his wife back to Ellesmere, mortified that others besides his family now knew his wife had cuckolded him. “You have no idea how tempted I was on the journey home to beat her. She hated me for de Villiers’ maiming, taunting me as if I were the one in need of forgiveness.”

His father made the sign of the crucifix across his body. “We must praise the saints that she and de Villiers’ bastard died on the birthing stool, and not at your hand. But bitterness has scoured your soul.”

Gallien inhaled deeply. “It’s ironic her name promised such happiness.”

His father carried on talking, full of pity and remorse as always for his part in arranging the doomed marriage, until Gallien deemed it time to interrupt the reasoned succession argument. “I know, I know. Sometimes I envy Étienne as the second son of this family.”

Baudoin came to his feet. “Your grandfather would not be pleased to hear you say that, Gallien Rambaud.”

Gallien bristled. “Were he still alive, Rambaud de Montbryce would not support this ploy of Henry’s.”

“You cannot be sure of that. My father was an able politician who always managed to keep our family on the winning side. But he never made rash decisions. We must plan our response carefully. And we will consult with your
oncle
Robert. As
Comte
de Montbryce, he is the head of the family. Normandie has suffered greatly from the barbarous sorties by French barons. We’ll do what is best for the Montbryce family and our holdings there. Those are our roots.”

Gallien was only too aware of his ancestry. Bearing the name of a great hero of the Battle of Hastings and being heir to a powerful Earldom was an awesome responsibility. He had a lot to live up to, and so far things had not gone well.

Gallien had a vague memory of his grandfather who had died when he was barely two years old. What had Ram de Montbryce thought of his son’s firstborn?

No matter his past mistakes, Gallien resolved to be true to his Norman roots. He thumped the table with his fist. “
Non
. I refuse to support this betrothal to an Angevin. Geoffrey of Anjou cannot sit on the throne of England, nor rule Normandie. I will rally other barons to oppose it.”

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