Authors: Teresa Medeiros
FAIREST OF THEM ALL A Bantam Book / June 1995
All rights reserved.
Copyright © 1995 by Teresa Medeiros.
Cover art copyright © 1995 by Michael Sternagle.
Published simultaneously in the United States and Canada
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PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
No knight in shining armor, however valiant, can compare to a husband who does the grocery shopping while his wife is on deadline and who was always the first to say, “Let’s eat out tonight, honey.” You’re the best, Michael, and this one’s for you.
To the good Lord for turning all of my curses into blessings.
Wales 518 A.D.
His body burned for her. Burned with a flame hotter and brighter than the lust for victory that had consumed him as he faced his mortal foe on the battlefield. His hauberk was spattered with the rust of blood, yet the satisfaction of a battle well fought, an enemy well slain, eluded him. His loins still surged with the same rhythmic thunder as the beast clasped between his legs. The beast that would carry him home to her arms.
Sinuous and sweet Sly and tender. Mocking and irresistible.
He had found her in an ancient forest much like the one he drove his mount through now. A fey creature, darting from birch to willow, her hair glimmering in a snarl of spun gold. She had taunted him, teased him, enticed him to pursue her until he thought he would go mad for want of her. Only when he’d stumbled and fallen heavily to his knees, only when he’d buried his face in his hands in dark despair, had she come to him.
She had threaded her fingers tenderly through his hair and pressed his bearded face to her naked breasts, crooning his name, fierce and sweet He had never dared ask her how she had known his name. Known his heart Known his very soul. His braies had fallen away beneath the coaxing of her fingertips, and she had straddled his rigid staff, mating him with inhuman abandon until the roar of her name from his lips resounded like thunder through the forest.
He spurred the stallion onward, indifferent to its heaving flanks, the sweat lathering its neck, the gouts of steam puffing from its flared nostrils. He would drive both himself and the beast beyond endurance and let kingdoms fall for nothing more than a taste of his Rhiannon’s lips.
As he topped the crest of a steep hill furred with conifers, the thatched roof of a cottage came into view. The cottage where he and his mysterious lady had frolicked naked for a fortnight like naughty children enslaved by some sensual spell, indulging every appetite, both natural and unnatural, until they lay exhausted, but never sated, in the cocoon of each other’s arms.
A glimpse of gold through the cone-laden boughs whetted his eagerness. The men he commanded would have never recognized the joyous smile that split his dark visage. That smile faded as the trees parted, giving him a stark view of the clearing below.
Rhiannon standing in the embrace of another man. Rhiannon, her head thrown back, the crystalline chimes of her laughter wafting on the wind. That innocent tableau distorted itself in his mind. He saw pale, naked limbs spread upon the grass; faces contorted with unholy pleasure; Rhiannon mounting a stranger, her generous body milking the seed from a staff as swollen and bewitched by her charms as his own had been.
Without slowing, without thinking, without counting the cost of this madness to his soul, he drew his sword from its scabbard and raised it high over his head. Through the haze of blood in his eyes, he caught a glimpse of a man’s shocked eyes, a swirl of gold around a woman’s face bleached of both color and hope. The man sought to shove her behind him, but she resisted with inhuman strength, throwing herself in front of him, her arms outflung as if to plead for mercy.
An unearthly roar of rage and betrayal shook the clearing as he brought the sword down, plunging it through her treacherous heart, impaling both she and her lover upon its blade with a single mighty blow. Blood gushed from her snowy breast as they fell as one into the grass.
He wheeled the rearing horse around at the edge of the clearing, an icy chill seizing his heart as he realized what he had done. Clenching his teeth against a spasm of grief, he slid off the horse and walked back to where they had fallen, each footfall a whisper of dread in the unnatural silence.
A man lay crumpled in the grass, a sword protruding from the narrow cavity of his chest. No, not a man —a boy, his whiskerless jaw still bearing a hint of baby fat, the fine gold of his hair now pale and lank around his lifeless face.
The voice came from behind him, a virulent hiss ripe with contempt. “My brother, you faithless fool. My mortal brother.”
He spun around. Rhiannon stood a few feet away, garbed in robes of shimmering white, her breast unblemished by the kiss of death.
“Mortal?” he croaked.
“Aye, for I am faerie. And you, sir, are a murdering bastard.”
A gust of warm wind whipped through the clearing.
He took a step toward her. If he could only touch her. If he could only stroke the wheaten silk of her hair, bury his lips against the satin of her throat, beg on bended knee for her forgiveness. He stretched out his hands, beseeching her silently.
Her scream excoriated him. He fell back with a bellow of terror. The wind gathered force, whipping the writhing tendrils of her hair away to reveal a face as terrible and beautiful as God’s, yet utterly without mercy.
She lifted her arms as if to bestow upon him an unholy benediction. Her chiming voice swelled with a grim finality that mocked the paltry rage of man with the damning wrath of a woman wronged. “You sought to bind with your blade what I would give you freely. My heart. My loyalty. My love. May God curse your soul, Arthur of Gavenmore, and the souls of all your descendants. From this day forward, let love be your mortal weakness and beauty your eternal doom.”
With a final surge of desperation, he lunged for her, preferring eternal damnation to the unthinkable prospect of never holding her in his arms again. Never drinking the honeyed nectar of her lips or hearing the husky velvet of her voice ripple across his skin in the darkness of night.
His grasping hands sought the softness of her flesh, but closed on naught but air. Last to fade were the mocking notes of her laughter, tinkling like invisible shards of glass in his ears.
Desolation buffeted him. He fell to his knees, this Arthur of Gavenmore who would someday rule all of Britain until a beautiful queen would prove his doom, buried his face in his hands and wept like a baby.
Who is she that looketh forth as the
morning, fair as the moon . . : ?
Song of Solomon
Rarely do great beauty and great
virtue dwell together.
Sweeter than the winds of heaven is my lady’s breath; her voice the melodious cooing of a dove. Her teeth are snowy steeds; her lips sugared rose petals; that coax from my heart promises of love.
Holly smothered a yawn into her hand as the minstrel strummed his lute and drew breath for another verse. She feared she’d nod off into her wine before he got around to praising any attributes below her neck. Which might be just as well.
A soulful chord vibrated in the air.
The envy of every swan is my lady’s graceful throat; her ears the plush velvet of a rabbit’s Her raven curls a mink’s delight But far more comely in my sight—
Holly cast the generous swell of her samite-clad bosom a nervous glance, wondering desperately if teats rhymed with rabbit’s.
The minstrel cocked his head and sang, “are the plump, tempting pillows of her—”
“Holly Felicia Bernadette de Chastel!”
Holly winced as the minstrel’s nimble fingers tangled in the lute strings with a discordant twang. Even from a distance, her papa’s bellow rattled the ewer of spiced wine on the wooden table. Elspeth, her nurse, shot her a panicked look before ducking so deep into the window embrasure that her nose nearly touched the tapestry she was stitching.
Furious footsteps stampeded up the winding stairs toward the solar. Holly lifted her goblet in a halfhearted toast to the paling bard. She’d never grown immune to her father’s displeasure. She’d simply learned to hide its effects. As he stormed in, she consoled herself with the knowledge that he was utterly oblivious to the presence of the man reclining on the high-backed bench opposite her.
Bernard de Chastel’s ruddy complexion betrayed the Saxon heritage he would have loved to deny.
Holly’s trepidation grew as she recognized the seal on the wafer of wax being methodically kneaded by his beefy fist.
He waved the damning sheaf of lambskin at her. “Have you any idea what this is, girl?”
She popped a sweetmeat in her mouth and shook her head, blinking innocently. Brother Nathanael, her acerbic tutor, had taught her well. A lady should never speak with her mouth occupied by anything other than her tongue.
Flicking away the mangled seal with his thumb, her papa snapped open the letter and read, “ ‘It is with great regret and a laden heart that I must withdraw my suit for your daughter’s hand. Although I find her charms unparalleled in my experience’”—he paused for a skeptical snort—” ‘I cannot risk exposing my heir to the grave condition Lady Holly described in such vivid and disturbing detail during my last visit to Tewksbury.’” Her father glowered at her. “And just what condition might that be?”
Holly rid her mouth of the sweetmeat with an audible swallow. She briefly considered lying, but knew he’d hear of it soon enough. Brother Nathanael was also partial to lurking behind tapestries in the gleeful hope of catching her in just such a wicked fable.
“Webbed feet,” she blurted out
“Webbed feet?” he echoed, as if he couldn’t possibly have heard her correctly.
She offered him a pained grin. “I told him the firstborn son of every de Chastel woman was born with webbed feet”
Elspeth gasped in horror. The minstrel frowned thoughtfully. Holly could imagine him combing his brain for words to rhyme with duck. Her father wadded up the missive, flushing scarlet to the roots of his graying hair.
“Now, Papa,” she soothed. “You mustn’t let yourself get so wrought up. You’ll work yourself into an apoplexy.”
When he had gathered enough composure to speak, his voice resonated with a false and dangerous calm. “A fortnight ago you informed Baron Kendall that the full moon provoked murderous madness in every other generation of de Chastel women, yet your own mother was meek as a lamb.”
Holly nodded. She rather thought that one of her more imaginative ruses. Elspeth was signaling frantically toward the bench, but was too timid to interrupt her father.
“A sennight ago,” he continued, his voice rising with each bitten off word, “you feigned crippling blindness and set fire to the plume in Lord Fairfax’s favorite hat with a flaming pudding.”
“How was I to know it was his favorite hat? He didn’t trouble himself to—”
“And only yesterday,” her papa’s voice climbed to a roar, “you painted red spots on your face and intimated to Sir Henry that an unfortunate case of the pox contracted from the seat of a poorly scrubbed garderobe had rendered you barren!”
The swell of masculine laughter from the bench drained the color from her father’s face. His complexion went bilious as a slender man garbed in black and silver arose, chuckling and wiping his eyes. “ Tis a boon to discover my rivals for Lady Holly’s affections dispatched with such celerity. The explanation is simple, my lord. Your charming daughter is saving herself for me.”
“Montfort,” her father whispered, realizing he’d just defamed her before her most eligible suitor. “I had no idea . . .”
“Obviously. Although I must confess webbed feet might be just the thing for paddling about the moat.”
Holly found Eugene de Legget, the baron of Montfort, by far the most infuriating of her suitors. His lands bordered their own and she’d done much of her growing up beneath his piercing dark eyes. He had first petitioned her papa for her hand when she was only twelve. When the earl rejected him, pleading her youth as his excuse, Montfort had sworn to someday possess her. His impassioned vow hadn’t stopped him from taking a thirteen-year-old bride to his bed while he waited for Holly to reach maturity.