Margaret Moore - [Warrior 14]

“Far be it from me to disappoint a lady—in anything.”

He strode toward her, reached out, took her hand and lifted it to his lips. He pressed a gentle kiss upon her knuckles, then raised his eyes to regard her. “You, my lady, are the most surprising young woman I have ever met.”

Her cheeks flushing, she tugged her hand away. “Hardly a compliment, sir knight. I’m not impressed.”

He lifted the corners of his mouth in the sort of lazy smile he gave a woman after they had made love. “I assure you, a man likes to be surprised by a woman, and a truly surprising woman is a very rare creature.”

For the briefest of moments her eyes widened with shock, and he wanted to shout with triumph.

But then her eyes flashed with scornful fire. “Creatures?” she demanded. “Is that what women are to you—creatures?”

 

In the King’s Service

Harlequin Historical #675

Praise for
USA TODAY
bestselling author MARGARET MOORE’S titles

The Overlord’s Bride

“Ms. Moore is a master of the medieval time period.”


Romantic Times

The Duke’s Desire

“This novel is in true Moore style—sweet, poignant and funny.”


Halifax Chronicle-Herald

A Warrior’s Kiss

“Margaret Moore remains consistently innovative, matching an ending of romantic perfection to the rest of this highly entertaining read.”


Romantic Times

M
ARGARET
M
OORE
IN THE KING’S SERVICE

Available from Harlequin Historicals and MARGARET MOORE

*
A Warrior’s Heart
#118

China Blossom
#149

*
A Warrior’s Quest
#175


The Viking
#200

*
A Warrior’s Way
#224

Vows
#248


The Saxon
#268

*
The Welshman’s Way
#295

*
The Norman’s Heart
#311

*
The Baron’s Quest
#328


The Wastrel
#344


The Dark Duke
#364


The Rogue’s Return
#376

The Knights of Christmas
#387

“The Twelfth Day of Christmas”

*
A Warrior’s Bride
#395

*
A Warrior’s Honor
#420

*
A Warrior’s Passion
#440

*
The Welshman’s Bride
#459

*
A Warrior’s Kiss
#504

The Duke’s Desire
#528

*
The Overlord’s Bride
#559

*
A Warrior’s Lady
#623

*
In the King’s Service
#675

Other works include:

Harlequin Books

Mistletoe Marriages

“Christmas in the Valley”

The Brides of Christmas

“The Vagabond Knight”

With many thanks to the astute and delightful Melissa Endlich.

Chapter One

S
ir Blaidd Morgan, knight of the realm, trusted friend of Henry III, champion of tournaments and reputedly able to whisper a woman into his bed, drew his horse to a halt and wiped his nose with the back of his gloved hand. Water dripped from the soaked hood of his woolen cloak, and his boots were spattered with mud. The scent of damp leaves arose from the wood on his left; on his right, some cows stood in a meadow beneath the shelter of an oak, looking as miserable as he felt. At least now, through the teeming downpour, he could make out a village and a castle just beyond.

“That has to be Throckton Castle, thank God,” he said to his equally drenched squire. “I was beginning to fear that we’d taken the wrong fork a few miles back and would have to bed down in the forest for the night.”

His squire pulled the hood of his cloak farther over his head. “I thought you Welsh were used to the rain.”

“Used to it, aye, Trev, I am, and because of your father’s ideas about training, too. But that doesn’t mean I like it.”

Blaidd and Trevelyan Fitzroy’s fathers were old friends, and Trev’s father, Sir Urien, had trained Blaidd in the arts of war, which included drilling in all kinds of weather.

Sixteen-year-old Trev nodded at the fortress looming in the distance. “I thought Lord Throckton wasn’t an important man, but that’s quite a castle.”

“It’s more impressive than I thought it would be, too,” Blaidd confessed.

On closer inspection—or as close as one could get from this vantage point through the rain—it seemed a massive creation, with inner and outer walls, an impressive gatehouse and a large keep in the center. Blaidd hadn’t seen many castles to rival it, and he wondered if King Henry would be equally as surprised to learn the extent of Lord Throckton’s fortifications, or if he already knew. That might explain the king’s suspicions.

“Not every important man goes to court,” Blaidd noted as he nudged his black gelding, Aderyn Du, to a walk. “Our fathers don’t. It’s likely to have some comfortable accommodation, though, thank God.”

“Do you think Lady Laelia will be as beautiful as they say?” Trev asked.

Blaidd gave his companion a brotherly grin. “Probably not, but there’s no harm in looking.”

“We’ve come all this way because you only want to
look?
” Trev asked, incredulous.

Blaidd wasn’t about to share the real reason Henry had sent him, so he grinned wider. “What else should a chivalrous knight do but look? I’ve heard enough tales of Lady Laelia’s beauty that I decided it was worth a journey to see if they were true. My mother is truly starting to despair that I’ll never find a wife and settle down.”

“So if Lady Laelia’s as beautiful as they say, you’ll marry her?”

Blaidd’s deep bass laughter sounded above the rain and the squelching of the mud beneath their horses’ hooves. “Beauty’s not the only thing a man should think about when it comes to marriage.”

“I suppose not,” Trev replied dubiously.

“Definitely not.”

“So you’ve thought about it before, then?”

Aderyn Du skirted a large puddle in the middle of the rutted road. “Aye, of course,” Blaidd said. “But I’ve never found the right woman.”

“Is that why you’ve been with so many?”

Blaidd slid the youth a wry look. “I haven’t
been with
that many. I’ll not deny I like women’s company, but I’m not quite the amazing lover gossip paints me.”

“But Gervais says—”

“Your brother has no more knowledge of what I do with my nights than you do.”

A more subdued Trev remained silent as they rode across a stone bridge leading into the village. Blaidd was rather glad of that. He didn’t enjoy discussing his
relationships with women with anyone, let alone a sixteen-year-old.

Because of the rain and the spring runoff, the river was high, the water frothing and splashing as it hit the bridge’s foundations. This bridge was a finer piece of engineering than Blaidd had expected to find in a place this far to the north and west of London, too.

Mercifully, the rain began to abate and he could better note the state of the village. It was comprised of several cottages of wattle and daub and thatch. Shops and stalls, many with living quarters above, lined the green.

He’d seen villages in worse repair, but he’d seen plenty better, too. The village church wasn’t much, either, leading him to suspect that little of Lord Throckton’s income from his tenants’ tithes was given away in charity. More likely it was spent on stones and mortar and master masons for his castle.

The green was deserted, but Blaidd felt he was being watched nonetheless. No doubt the unseen villagers were speculating about who they were and why they had come.

From Blaidd’s mount and his accoutrements, his bearing from years of training as well as the broadsword slapping his thigh, they would surely guess he was a soldier, at the very least. The presence of a squire and the device on his shield would reveal that he was a knight. Anything else would be pure speculation.

The rain stopped completely as they neared a larger building that looked to be an inn. Blaidd was thinking he wasn’t sure he’d fancy spending a night there any
more than on the open road, when a blowzy, dark-haired, unkempt woman appeared in one of the un-shuttered windows on the second level. She leaned so far out of the window that her ample breasts, barely covered by her loose shift, seemed likely to be completely exposed at any moment.

She brazenly grinned at Blaidd, then whistled. In the next moment, several other women, equally slatternly, appeared at the other windows.

“Ain’t he a fine, bold one now?” the black-haired one said in a loud voice. “I bet he’s bold in bed, too.”

The women cackled like chickens, and another declared, “Lovely weapon you’ve got, m’lord, I’m sure. I’d love to see it up close.”

“I like the pretty young one,” another called out.

Blaidd glanced over his shoulder. His face red as holly berries, Trev stared straight ahead. Blaidd stifled a smile that was both amused and sympathetic as they drew abreast of the building.

“I’m sorry, my dears,” Blaidd said, as if he were addressing the queen of England, “but my squire and I must decline your charming and generous offers.”

“Ooh, listen to him, will ya?” the black-haired harlot cried. “Ain’t that the loveliest voice you ever heard! Welsh, too. I’ve heard good things about them.” She made a gesture that demonstrated what exactly she had heard. “Come here, my buck, and whisper something naughty in my ear. It’s the least you can do if you ain’t gonna stay.”

Blaidd put his hand on his heart and bowed. “Alas,
I fear I cannot. I have business at the castle and must not tarry any longer.”

He again nudged Aderyn Du into a walk, but before they had gone, a young woman—probably not much older than Trev—came to stand in the doorway. Her blond hair was a tousled mess, her relatively clean gown clung to her shapely body and her eyes were a startling shade of green. But while she had the face of an angel, the way she leaned against the frame of the door and the leering smile she gave Blaidd told him that she was an old hand at this game. As he rode forward, he sighed for the loss of innocence, even if he understood that poverty offered many women few choices in life but this one.

He realized he didn’t hear Trev’s horse behind him, and twisted to look over his shoulder. Trev’s horse hadn’t moved, and the squire was staring at the young woman like a man bewitched.

Blaidd swore under his breath, then barked, “Fitzroy!”

Jolted by the explosive summons, Trev kicked his horse’s sides and was soon riding beside him toward the castle’s gatehouse.

“She’s a whore, like the others,” Blaidd said.

“I know that. I’m not a baby,” Trev muttered, not looking at him. “And I’ve got ears. I heard what they said.”

“Then you know you must forget about that girl.”

Trev flushed. “I’ve got money.”

“Whether you can afford it or not is beside the point. That’s not a fit place for you to go. Aside from
fleas and bedbugs, a lot of women in such places will gladly rob you blind, and it is a sad fact that most of them are probably diseased. A wise man stays out of stews.”

“You sound just like my father.”

“Thank you for the compliment,” Blaidd replied, keeping his voice light, “and I
am
responsible for you while you’re in my service. If your father found out I’d let you go to a brothel, he’d probably have a fit—but he’d still be able to break my head before he succumbed. I’m not about to risk that.”

“Have
you
ever been to a brothel?”

Blaidd was glad that he could answer honestly. “Never wanted to, never had to.”

Fortunately, they reached the gatehouse of Throckton Castle, effectively ending the conversation. He had a job to do here—one that had nothing to do with courting Lady Laelia—and he didn’t want to have to play tutor to Trevelyan in matters such as these, as well.

Blaidd studied the raised portcullis, a huge wooden grille with pointed ends. Sentries patrolled the wall walk above. At the other end of the gatehouse was a closed second gate that led to the outer ward. It was made of solid oak, inches thick and studded with brass.

Lowering his hood, Blaidd rode beneath the portcullis and into the gatehouse, passing under the murder hole. If enemies got trapped between the wooden grille of the portcullis and the solid inner gate, defenders could pour boiling oil or throw rocks through
that hole. He shivered, and it had nothing to do with the fact that he was wet with rain. He had seen a child accidentally burned by hot sheep’s tallow once, and the thought of a great vat raining such a doom from above was the stuff of nightmares.

Arriving at the inner gate, he pulled his horse to a halt and dismounted. Trev followed suit, and Blaidd handed him Aderyn Du’s reins.

Before Blaidd could call out a greeting, though, a panel in the right half of the door slid swiftly back. No doubt the sentries on the wall walk had notified the guards below that they had visitors.

A thin face wreathed in a rough, dark brown woolen hood appeared. The guard’s brilliant blue eyes regarded Blaidd as if he wanted to accuse him of cheating. “Who are you and what do you want?” a slightly husky voice demanded.

“It’s a woman!” Trev cried in what was meant to be a whisper, although it was loud enough to be heard twenty feet away.

After the first moment of astonishment had passed, Blaidd did what he always did when he met a woman. He smiled. “I wasn’t aware Lord Throckton had Amazons in his garrison.”

With an expression that looked suspiciously like scorn, the blue eyes surveyed him slowly, from the top of his soaked head, over his woolen cloak and leather jerkin, past his sword belt and breeches to the soles of his black boots. Then her expression changed to one of approval—because she’d caught sight of Aderyn Du.

Blaidd stiffened. Aderyn Du was an undeniably fine animal, but he wasn’t used to having his horse meet with more favor than he did.

Turning her attention back to Blaidd, the woman said, “I asked you who you were and what you want here.”

“He’s Sir Blaidd Morgan,” Trev declared incredulously, as if the whole world must know that.

Blaidd, however, knew that the whole world did not know of him, and it was very possible that his fame, such as it was, hadn’t traveled this far north of London and east of Wales.

“As my squire has said, I am Sir Blaidd Morgan,” he replied, once more his calm, genial self. “I’ve come to pay a friendly visit to Lord Throckton, provided you’ll let us through the gate.”

The woman sniffed. “You’ve come to court the Lady Laelia, like so many men before you. Well, good luck.”

“I do hope I have good luck, if Lady Laelia proves to be worth courting.”

“Well, well, no false modesty in you, sir knight, is there?” the woman replied. “It should be interesting to see how a Welshman fares. You
are
a Welshman, aren’t you?”

By now, Trev was fairly hopping with indignation. “Are you going to let her talk to you like that? Do we have to stand here like a couple of peddlers asking to come in?”

Blaidd continued to smile, and while he ostensibly replied to Trev, he didn’t take his steadfast gaze from
what he could see of the woman’s face. “As a matter of fact, since she is keeper of the gate, I
am
going to let her talk to me like that, and keep us waiting, if she likes.”

The woman laughed, a low and rather cynical chortle. “I’ll give you credit for your manners, Sir Welshman,” she said. “Enter, then, and be welcome.”

She slammed the grille closed, and they heard the sound of the heavy bolt being drawn back.

“And about time, too!” Trev muttered. “God’s blood, Blaidd, that’s the rudest—”

“Never mind, Trev. We’re here without a specific invitation, so we can hardly be offended if the welcome is less than warm.”

“I hope Lord Throckton is more polite.”

“I’m sure he will be. It’s a nobleman’s duty to extend hospitality to a fellow nobleman.”

His squire didn’t respond; nonetheless, Blaidd could fairly feel the annoyance shooting out of him.

In truth, he was a little annoyed by the woman’s brazen manner, too, but he had had more experience with disrespect. His father was not nobly born, and it had taken winning several tournaments, as well as the friendship of the king, before Blaidd was truly accepted at court.

So while this was far from his usual reception both at castles and with women, he wasn’t as quick to take offense as Trev. As for the woman, he was very curious to see the whole of her face. If it was half so fascinating as those vibrant blue eyes, his time here might be more interesting than he had anticipated.

Although he mustn’t lose sight of his true, and important, purpose.

The gates slowly swung open, and he and Trev proceeded through, entering a wide, grassy outer ward. Beyond was the inner curtain wall of the castle, with towers at the corners.

Several armed guards—all men—stood at attention beside the gatehouse. The blue-eyed woman shrouded in a long brown cloak waited closest to the gate, as if she had personally drawn back the bolt. Her face was thin, her skin pale, and her blue eyes seemed rather too large for her face. But her features themselves weren’t too bad, and when he considered her lips, the first thought that came to mind was kissing.

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