Orphaned as a young girl, Brigitte de Marnier has learned to live by her instincts. Which doesn't explain why she accepts protection from a soldier in the service of the enemy crown. But something about Drem Ap Dafydd has her leaning into his strength, and surrendering to his intoxicating kiss, even knowing he is duty bound to destroy her . . .
As a newly appointed Knight of the Swan, Drem is eager to prove his allegiance to the English crown in the battle against France. But in his sheltering arms, beautiful Frenchwoman Brigitte arouses in him another instinct-to love, honor, and protect. Then Drem discovers his beloved has a price on her head and he must choose between his vow-and his heart's desire . . .
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Harfleur, France ~ August 1415
"Thief! Thief! Stop them!" The coarse voice, like nails scraping over cobbles, echoed through the alleyway.
Merde! Brigitte ran, skirts lifted, dodging the garbage tossed from the windows above. She tightened her hold around Piers's wrist and tugged the little boy past the refuse on the streets of Harfleur.
The place where the merchant's boot had struck her ribs squeezed with every ragged draw of breath. The throbbing promised an impressive bruise by nightfall. Instead of giving in to the stinging bite, she ran. Her throat burned. Another pull of the fetid air into her lungs made her want to gag.
"Bee!" Piers dug his heels into the cobblestone. "I can't go any farther —"
The urge to shout at the boy's foolishness soured her blood. It was his fault they were in this mess. She turned, giving him a cutting glare. They could not afford to give in to hunger, to make foolish mistakes. The others waiting in the Nest depended on them. Fear clutched her heart. By the looks of the boy's flushed cheeks, they didn't have much time before he fell over in exhaustion.
"Oui," she said. "We have no choice. I will not let them take us."
Piers jerked his head in a nod. The trust in his almond-shaped eyes urged her to move faster. She tucked away the harsh words. The tirade could wait until they were in the safety of their bolt-hole.
She prayed it would be soon and lurched forward. The corner of the brick building loomed in front of them. An opening to the alleyway might allow them enough time to lose the soldier.
"Bee!" Piers stumbled over the uneven stone in the alley. "Please!"
Brigitte glanced over her shoulder. The watchman following them had been more persistent than usual. But of course, the baker had been most adamant they catch the thief. His wagon had been pilfered three times that week. They must have been watching like a cat waiting to pounce. This time, the man had caught the little mite in the act of lifting a loaf of bread. And the soldier had come running with one yell.
"Bee." Piers's wet cough tore through his sobs. "I'm sorry. I won't do it again."
"Hush." She pushed down the pity that threatened to make her weak and blinked away her tears. The dingy alley was getting darker with every twist and turn. Panic roared through her veins. The sound of hobnailed boots striking the cobblestone came closer. A loud curse echoed against the buildings. She spun about, hooked the boy under her arm, and ran.
"We're going the wrong way!"
She ducked into the shadows and let the child slide from her hip. The pain in her ribs bellowed with each breath. They stood, pressed against the wall, amid rotting garbage from the kitchens and piles of human refuse. How has my life come to this?
Maman would be horrified to see her thus. But then, Maman was no longer with her. And Maman's plan to secure their future had failed as soon as her lover, the mysterious Monsieur le Faire, turned his back on his mistress. For years, her beautiful Maman had had the skill to keep her benefactor deliriously happy. Even after she'd delivered him a babe. The three of them had been a family. But then, as most things are wont to do, the happiness faded away. As did the sparkle in Maman's eyes.
Brigitte's stomach growled.
How long since their last bit of food? Judging by Piers's state of weariness, it might have been even longer for him. Master Alexandre had become miserly with the scraps for his fledgling thieves.
She tested the pain in her side by taking in a breath of air. Then drew in more. No broken bones. She would survive another day.
Piers pressed against her leg and looked up at her. Shadows deepened the sunken half-moons rising above his sharp cheekbones. He gripped her fingers as if she were the only thing standing between him and the evil chasing them. Snuffling, he hiccupped softly. She drew him close. His head rested on her hip, reminding her of his youth.
Brigitte swallowed. Though barely out of the nursery, he had already begun the task of thieving for the Nest. He should be too young to know gnawing hunger. Too young for the magistrate to order that he spend his life in prison. Or worse. With one quick stroke of the quill pen, Piers could be sent to his death. She had to find a way to feed the children and keep them all safe from the soldiers. And from the master.
Like so many abandoned children, until she had found the Nest, she had been without protection. But over the years, the pull for more power had been a heady drug, and Master Alexandre had become more willing to put the Nest in danger. All for a few coins. A fat purse.
Brigitte stroked Piers's head as she listened for the strike of hobnails against stone. The child's shoulders began to sag. His breathing was less ragged. The soldier's hobnails never came.
Only the telltale sound of scurrying rats cut through the alleyway's quiet. When the rodents returned to foraging, scratching and fighting for their stake, it would be safe to leave the shadows. When they came out, it would be safe for all.
The faint sound of hissing, the loser's squeal, signaled it was time to move. Brigitte picked her way along the stones. She took the second turn to the left. The lighting of the lanterns had begun. The streets bathed in their glow were brighter, making them more dangerous for people like them. It would take twice as long to work their way back to their nest, but Brigitte was not about to put the rest of the children in danger.
She stopped before entering the public square.
"Wait, Piers." She pulled out a piece of linen and lace, soiled and gray with age. "We mustn't let anyone notice your tears."
He nodded stoically and held still while she dabbed at his eyes and nose.
Satisfied with her work, she tucked the cloth in the pocket of her apron. "Now then, mon cher, please explain to me how you ended up in the market by yourself. Where is Master Alexandre?"
The boy scrunched up his nose and frowned. "I don't know. He told me to fetch the bread. I need to pay for myself. Since I'm small, no one would notice me." He sniffed and his head dropped down. "But they did."
Brigitte feared the tears were about to start again. "I will speak to Master Alexandre as soon as we return home. He should know better than to send a lad your age for something as dangerous as gathering our supper."
Piers shook his flaxen head as hard as a pup shaking off water. "Oh, no. Look here." He nudged the flap sewn into his shirt. Inside lay a slightly bent loaf of bread.
Brigitte fought the mixture of pride and fear that bloomed at the sight. He was so young. Younger than she had been when she found herself caught in Master Alexandre's refuge for waifs and pickpockets. He had ordered everyone to call the place the Nest. She kept waiting for the day when he decided to kick her out. Or let her leave.
Southampton, England ~ August 1415
Drem gripped the arms of the chair and grimaced. He fought the desire to demand to hear what was being said behind closed doors. Though demanding would do him little good. Now, thanks to his father's participation in the plot against King Henry, most of the men crammed in the Cottage by the Sea considered him a threat.
Drem thumped his fists on the armrest. Over the years he had made the most of his situation, learned all he could from the king and his knights, utilized his skill, and become the king's friend and confidant. Now, thanks to his father's treasonous acts, everything he'd fought for could be wiped away.
God's oath. For years he had protected his friend and king with his bow and arrows. He had fought by his side. He would freely sacrifice his life to protect Henry.
Even now, bandages covered the fresh burns that proved his willingness to protect both throne and king. The smoke from the fire aboard the king's ship still clung to his hair and clothing. The burns on his head and hands stung, reminding him how close the reaper of death had brushed against him.
He had been trusted. Only recently had the Knights of the Swan been explained to him. They had allowed him a glimpse of the inner workings of their secret brotherhood. He had to believe that at least his sister's beloved knight would step in. Mayhap Sir James would sway them to examine his history with King Henry.
The door swung open, bounced against the wall. Sir Darrick strode across the room, avoiding looking him in the eye.
Drem's skin crawled with a mixture of anticipation and fear. It was a toxic brew that came upon him right before the heat of battle. If they had allowed him the freedom, he would have dearly loved to pace the floor. Instead, he remained bound to the chair, awaiting judgment for a paternal mistake. Betrayed by his father. Outrage squeezed against his skull.
"Ye raven-headed bastard," Drem shouted at Darrick's back. "Do you think to shun me now?"
He flinched when a heavy hand touched his shoulder from behind. "Drem, he worries about the march on France and our friend's safety."
Drem twisted in his seat to see his face. "Henry was my friend before he was made king. Do you think I'd hold a grudge this many years?"
James came up and added, "Your father has."
"And I've told you, I'm not Dafydd ap Hew. Nor would I have abandoned my child to seal a bargain."
"I have myself to blame for not stopping it then." Sir James Frost squatted in front of him, his blade in his hand. The lantern's light caught the steely edges.
Drem tensed. His sister might have given her heart to the man, but the knight could easily slit his throat. Mindful to show no sign of fear, he snorted. "Then you're a bigger damn fool than I thought."
James looked up at him. His brows beetled. The dagger rolled in his palm. "That so?"
"Aye. When plans are put in motion by the nobles, there is naught one can do to stop their roll of power." He let his head drop, his chin resting on his chest. A stretched and bare neck would make an easy target. Less pain in the end. And yet, he could not silence the final jab. "To prove my point further, you left my sister waiting for your return. You dare not make her cool her heels much longer. Otherwise, our Terrwyn will find a new place to send her arrows."
Nathan chuckled. "Drem has the right of it, James. We've all heard of your woman's skill." He nudged his shoulder. "Best deliver your message before she finds you in her sights."
All humor washed from James's eyes. His mouth flattened in a thin straight line. He gave a quick nod.
The dagger hovered too close for comfort.
"Drem ap Dafydd, you are hereby released from bondage."
James sliced at Drem's wrists. The rope split. Then the hemp braid holding each ankle to the chair was cut, freeing him with a whisper of the knife.
Drem cleared his throat. "And after you've finished with your carving?" James rose silently and stepped back. The smile he had worn mere seconds earlier had not returned.
Nathan nodded to the men who began filing out of the hidden chamber. They surrounded him in a circle.
Drem searched their expressions for understanding. Then he searched for the nearest means of escape.
"The council has voted," James said. He sheathed his weapon. His cool gaze cut across the men. "There are a few who are not convinced of your complete innocence."
Sir Darrick held up his hand for silence. "However, given the most recent events of the Southampton plot and the execution of Sir Thomas Grey, the majority is persuaded that you, your sisters, and your brother are innocent pawns in your father's greedy plan."
"The others in the plot — they were captured?" Drem asked.
"Executed. Cambridge is buried in the chapel of God's House. As for Scrope?" Nathan shrugged as he held his gaze.
There was pain there. Drem recognized the pain in the taking of another life.
"There are but a handful of traitors who have not been found," Nathan said.
Sir Darrick added, "Drem, your father is among that handful."
"Aye." Drem swallowed, unsure of how they would use him. "I feared as much." Thoughts of his family raced through his head. Somehow he would find a way to protect them and right the wrongs his father had created.
"Drem ap Dafydd." James's smile had returned. "Not only are you no longer in bondage to that chair, but Henry releases you from your position as king's archer."
Sir Darrick stepped closer. "What say you, lad? Do you wish to leave King Henry's side?"
Drem struggled to comprehend the freedom he had been given. 'Twas something that occasionally entered his dreams as a child. He watched the men. Their demeanor spoke of things not yet said. "I thank you both for saying your piece to the council. And I accept the freedom I've been given. I'd be a damn fool not to." Noticing the tightening of their shoulders, he quickly added, "But I'll not thank you for removing me from attending to Henry's protection. If I have no other choice, I'd rather stay with the troops. You'll need as many archers as you can muster when you take France."
Nathan, the auburn-haired warrior, towered over Drem. He cleared his throat and folded his arms across his chest. "'Tis not an option now."
"God's bones!" Drem drew himself up. Standing gave him confidence. His height matched Nathan's and gave him the courage to stare down the knight. He turned, searching the men remaining in the cottage. "Who among you feels there are too many soldiers to see to the king's safety and bring victory to England?" He thumped his chest with his thumb. "Best archer he has. I challenge any one of you to stand against me. Discover for yourselves the type of man I am who stands for our king."
"Steady, Brother," James said. "We cannot leave you in the position you once filled because it goes against Henry's wishes."
Drem stepped forward, closing the space between them. "Spit it out ... Brother ... Where does my king order me to serve?"
"For God's sake." Sir Darrick pushed his way through the throng of men. "Quit playing with him."
Drem remembered the knight had held him with a critical eye ever since the role his father had played in the plot against Henry had been discovered. He waited. If anything, this man would cut to the truth, straight and clean. Or to his heart.
"Henry wishes you to carry an extra burden. One that will change your life." Sir Darrick hesitated.
"Speak it," Drem urged.
"If I should speak it, you'll have no choice but to accept. For it'll be as King Henry ordered."
Drem looked about the cottage. Everyone in the room had their attention on their conversation. These men held one thing in common: Their love of king and country brought them together as Knights of the Swan.
Drem nodded slowly. "Aye. Go on with it. Speak it and make it so."
"There's much you have to learn to be a Knight of the Swan."
Drem searched for the chair he had been so eager to leave and sat down. The words struggled to work their way through his brain. "Knight of the Swan. Truly?"
"Yes." Something sparkled behind Sir James Frost's blue-gray eyes. Terrwyn's beloved, and Drem's brother by marriage, added a warning. "'Tis not for the fainthearted. Best prepare to have your arse handed to you from time to time."
"Your training begins at once," Darrick ground out.
"But first," Nathan said, "instead of a hanging, 'tis call for a bit of celebration."
The men came, surrounding Drem with solemn good cheer and a pitcher of ale. He shook his head, praying he'd heard correctly. Somehow he would find a way to return the favor his king had shown him. Even if that payment involved the life of his father.
Left to his thoughts, Drem knocked back the last gulp of ale and set the mug down. Seagulls called from the bay as they circled over the king's fleet. James had already returned to Terrwyn's arms. The newlyweds would soon be headed to the Welsh borders to cut off any intrusions from the west.
Drem was hit with the realization that he had no idea what was to come next. He did not even know where he was to lay his head for the night. The hearth, though casting warmth from the fire, looked about as comfortable as sleeping in armor.
He groaned inwardly as Sir Darrick strode toward him. He fisted two mugs in one hand, a pitcher in the other. Drem itched under his scrutiny. He could tell, king's edict or no, the knight did not trust him.
Excerpted from "Knight Quests"
Copyright © 2017 C.C. Wiley.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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