The knight Alric of Hawksmere has endured years of war and survived dozens of battles in the service of the king. A new challenge awaits him when he returns home to renew his bond with a childhood friend. Alric instead discovers she is now a spirited woman of rare beauty whose kiss makes his blood burn. But the lady Cecily de Vere has been offered in marriage to another man, and Alric‘s duty is to escort her to the wedding.
Cecily wants to behave as a proper lady. But she yearns for her childhood flame and knows he shares the same desire. When a sudden twist of fortune puts Cecily in mortal danger, Alric takes an unimaginable risk to rescue her. Left alone in the wild, Alric and Cecily must make a choice that will change their lives forever.
Copyright © 2016
Cover design by James T. Egan,
Edited by Amanda Valentine,
At dawn, a damp, clinging
mist rose above the manor, obscuring the clear blue sky above. Sensible people would be huddling in their beds, or near a fireplace.
Instead, a crowd gathered in the courtyard as soldiers and squires and servants prepared to ride out on the chilly January morning.
Cecily de Vere watched from her window on the upper story of the manor, her light gold hair still loose and blowing across her face. She did not care for the scene at all. She was fourteen years of age, and therefore a young lady, but at the moment she wanted to howl like a little babe.
they go?” she asked, already knowing the answer.
“They must,” said her nurse Agnes, quickly putting Cecily’s hair into a tidier arrangement. “It is their duty to go to war. Some are born to command and others to obey. This is the order of things, both in heaven and on earth.”
“Then it’s a stupid order,” Cecily muttered, though under her breath, so no one would chastise her for blasphemy.
“Come, child. Let us go down.”
Cecily turned on hearing the voice of Pavia. The older lady was her companion and chaperone. Though three times Cecily’s age, she seemed much younger due to her frequent laughter. Today, though, her expression was serious.
“If you hurry, you’ll have a little time to speak with your friends,” Pavia went on. “You would not want them to ride off with no word of farewell from their lady, would you?”
Cecily nodded and hurried out of the bedchamber ahead of Pavia, her long woolen skirts trailing behind her like a green mist. She wanted to say goodbye to nearly a dozen people she knew well, but most especially Alric, one of her dearest friends.
She’d known him for years, ever since he’d come to foster with her family’s household, just as many noble boys did. Though older than she was by several years, and in training to be a knight, Alric always found time for her. Cecily couldn’t count the number of games they played, or the afternoons spent exploring the manor and grounds, the picnics, the chess matches, the endless pranks on grown-ups. She couldn’t imagine life without him nearby.
When Cecily reached the courtyard, she saw Alric beside his horse, making final preparations, checking buckles and straps, making sure his armor and weapons were absolutely secure. The heavy chain mail was folded tidily in a thick canvas bag. Alric didn't even need to see it, since he could smell the pungent oil used to keep rust away. He did examine his sword, though. The blade flashed morning sunlight at his face, still looking as sharp and deadly as on the day he'd received it from his family.
Then he straightened up, standing tall among the crowd of people. He was dressed for travel in a new traveling outfit that made him look every one of his nineteen years, she thought. He always looked grown up to her, though—and handsome, especially when he smiled, making his eyes crinkle at the corners. She stared for a moment, feeling an odd little flip in her belly when she looked at him.
She was spotted then. Alric called out, beckoning her to join him.
Cecily pushed away her sadness and advanced, waving as cheerfully as she could.
Alric was flanked by his constant companions, Luc and Rafe. They all were fostered here together, brothers in spirit if not blood, and were thick as thieves. She knew them all well, and tears threatened to fall as she watched them joke around.
They all acted like it was a lark, naturally. Boys always pretended fighting was a game. These boys were now young men, in truth, but their mood still seemed to be childish, as if they were going on a grand adventure.
“This is exactly what I’ve been waiting for,” said Rafe, when she reached them. He was the most excited for war, because he believed himself to be a consummate knight, skilled at riding and swordplay and stealing kisses—what else was there in life? “A little skirmish to show the king what I’m capable of, and it will be over this summer! I bet he’ll grant me lands in recognition of my deeds. Perhaps some of the very lands we recapture!”
“You dream,” said the other young man, his bright blue eyes sparkling. Luc was the son of a powerful baron, and was aware of his place. “It takes years to prove yourself. This isn’t a tournament where you unseat your opponent while the ladies watch.”
“How would you know, Luc?” Rafe snapped, pushing hair away from his undeniably attractive features. “You’ve fought in no more wars than I have.”
“True, but I listen to our instructors, and I listened to my father’s stories. I know what to expect.”
“All very well for you,” Rafe muttered, looking away. Unlike the well-born Luc, or even Alric, who was the son of a knight, Rafe’s parentage was uncertain. The issue of his birth had always been a sore point with him. “Some of us will have to take what we want. We can’t simply wait for it.”
“You’ll get your chance for glory,” Alric said, his own voice mild. He was used to cooling Rafe’s temper, and to reminding Luc that not everyone appreciated his lectures. “We simply have to watch out for each other.”
“And if your luck holds,” Cecily said. “As I pray it will.”
“Oh, that reminds me!” Rafe said, leaning toward Cecily and puckering up his mouth. “Kiss for luck?”
“Ooh, no, get away!” Cecily made a face and darted to the left, putting Alric between her and Rafe. “Eww!”
The boys all laughed, Rafe included.
Cecily made a show of disliking kisses, but in truth she was just old enough that the idea had become intriguing rather than nasty. She knew some girls tried to get as many kisses as they could. Cecily had been kissed by a few of the manor boys, but as she was the heiress of Cleobury, they knew better than to press too much attention on her.
“Seems you’ll have to do without Lady Cecily’s luck!” Luc said.
“I’ve got enough,” Rafe admitted with a smirk.
Alric shook his head. “Yes, we heard.”
Then he turned to look at Cecily. “You can come out now. Rafe won’t try anything while we’re here to defend you.”
“Aye!” Luc grinned and tapped the hilt of his sword. “Though Rafe’s my sworn brother, I’ll knock him flat on the ground if you ask, my lady.”
“Or even if you don’t!” Alric added.
Rafe put his hands up to indicate defeat. “Look at us! No different from the day we all came here!”
“No,” Alric corrected. “We began our training at Aldgate. Don’t you remember?”
Though unintentional, his words cast a pall over them.
Cecily remembered all too well. Aldgate was the manor where she’d been born. Until she was seven years old, it was the only place she’d ever known, and the place where the three boys had come to be trained as knights. But then a massive fire broke out and destroyed Aldgate. The fire also took her father’s life.
When her uncle assumed the title and acquired all the lands in her father’s name, he moved all the survivors to Cleobury. A fresh start, he’d said. He didn’t want to rebuild Aldgate—and he didn’t want to live in his older brother’s shadow.
Thus, Cecily and Alric and the other boys spent the past several years at Cleobury. The boys continued their knightly training here, while Cecily learned how to be a lady.
Rafe glanced guiltily at Cecily. Perhaps he was sorry he’d brought the topic up, however inadvertently. “Of course I remember. We all do. I just meant…well, one day we all stood in a courtyard, greeting each other. And now we’re doing the same, but saying farewell.”
“Not for long,” Luc said quickly. “After all, it’s just a little war.”
“If it’s so little, I still don’t see why you
have to leave,” Cecily said.
“Because King Stephen decrees it.” Alric smiled at her. “Should I send a letter to the king?” He mimed writing a letter, and read out the imaginary words, “My apologies, sire. I can’t obey you because the lady Cecily de Vere, daughter of Rainald de Vere, will be bored without all her playmates. Good luck on the battlefield, my liege!”