Authors: Julia Latham
To my fifth-grade teacher, Marilyn Reiser: even when
I was a child, I knew you and I would be lifelong
friends. You helped nurture my love of books and
taught me how to write. You know you have my
Lady Florence Becket stood in the lady’s garden of her…
Adam Hilliard, earl of Keswick, stood on the edge of…
Back at their encampment, when Adam lengthened the rope at…
They avoided a small village late in the day and…
Adam was not surprised in the least when Lady Florence…
For the first time, Florrie rode among the three men…
That evening, it was far easier to find a grove…
After two days journey through drizzling rain, they made camp…
Florrie stared at the mark of her family in confusion.
For the rest of the afternoon, Adam made sure their…
All the next day, they remained far west of the…
When they stopped to eat a midday meal, Adam stood…
Shocked, Florrie glanced over her shoulder and saw that Adam…
Florrie thought it was both difficult and easy to ride…
Adam tried to devote his attention to the dangers of…
They traveled as much as possible through the outskirts of…
Adam had never in his life felt so weak. Even…
Florrie did not know what was wrong with her, but…
Adam had never felt such peace before. He lay with…
Adam heard the raised voices in the corridor, as well…
Relief flooded through Adam at seeing Florrie safe. After capturing…
By sundown that same day, Florrie felt that she might…
A coach maneuvered sideways in traffic, blocking the road so…
Adam kept himself between Drake and the old man, fighting…
ady Florence Becket stood in the lady’s garden of her father’s castle, enjoying the oasis of privacy in the middle of the bustling center of the marquess of Martindale’s small empire. She hugged herself and rubbed her arms, staring out at the mountains beyond the walls, wondering if she’d ever again be permitted to ride those paths. On a horse she became one with the animal, flying on the wind, as if she weren’t deformed, as if she could walk without a limp like other people.
Her future home was out there, too. Was the convent nestled near woods and streams? Would she be able to walk as she communed with God, or would they keep her locked up, as if praying required four stone walls?
Florrie had watched as her three older sisters married, had known for many long years that there would be no husband for her. Her father
had been brutally honest when he’d told her there would be dowry money for her sisters, but only a little saved for her entrance into the convent—when her sisters no longer needed her.
She took a deep breath, and her usual optimism prevailed. There was education to be had for nuns. She would serve a purpose—and not just as her sisters’ servant. Perhaps someday if she worked hard, she could even become the prioress.
Her view of the mountains was suddenly disturbed; a horse-drawn cart was riding beside the half wall of the lady’s garden. Straw had been mounded high in the back. As the cart pulled to a stop, blocking the garden from the rest of the ward, she frowned up at the driver. He was hunched within a cloak and didn’t glance her way.
She only managed to call “I think—” when suddenly two large men emerged from the side of the cart, barely disturbing the straw. They vaulted over the wall, and before she could even take a step backward, they were upon her, stifling her scream with a gag. Terror stunned her, melting her bones, washing through her with a sick feeling of futility. Though she struggled, they tied her hands with ease, and when she tried to kick, one lifted her off the ground while the other bound her ankles. As she wriggled futilely, she saw that they didn’t hide their faces from her, and that frightened her more than anything else. They were two grim men, both black-haired and tall, and they maneuvered her as if she weighed nothing at all.
To her horror, they suddenly dropped her feet-first into a sack and pulled it up over her head. Her world narrowed to shadows that smelled of grain and must, and she felt as if she soon wouldn’t be able to breathe. They lifted her again, and her lungs emptied in a rush as she was flung across a broad shoulder. Everything around her jostled and upended as they shoved her onto the cart. The man holding her didn’t ease his grip, so she was unable to roll away. Instead she was shockingly aware that he wrapped himself around her to hold her still. His muscular arms were as strong as the ropes that bound her hands and feet. The light dimmed even further as another gradual weight pressed her down, and she realized that the other men were covering them both with straw.
God above, they were going to succeed with this audacious plan!
She used every bit of her strength to squirm and push, even butting her head, but the man held her too firmly.
“Be still, my lady,” he said at last in a low, gravelly voice. “Cease struggling and ’twill be easier to breathe.”
He was right—her panicked struggles were only making her more and more aware that she couldn’t take enough air into her lungs. She moaned, but went still just the same.
He said nothing more, and the cart began to move, jostling her in an uneven rhythm. She kept
waiting for someone to notice the strange man driving the cart and stop him, but no one did. She heard the blacksmith’s hammer meeting his anvil and the call of a goose girl herding her flock. The crash of metal and the grunts of men practicing their weaponry in the tiltyard strengthened as they drove into the outer ward, then faded as they reached the main gatehouse.
No one was going to stop a man hauling straw, she thought with despair, and her prediction came true as they left behind the sounds of the soldiers in the gatehouse. At last she sagged in her captor’s arms. She would have to see what fate had in store for her, or perhaps even rescue herself—unless these foolish men planned to demand a ransom for her return. She almost gave a tired laugh. As if her father would part with a large sum of money on her behalf. But she could never let her captors know that, of course. She would have to stall until…until what? Did she think she would somehow escape their notice and limp away through the unfamiliar countryside alone? If they only wanted a woman for base needs, surely for a penny or two they could have had someone willing.
Nay, the kidnapping had happened because she was the daughter of the marquess of Martindale, the only one unmarried, the easiest target.
In that terrible moment, tears of futility and fear stung her eyes, but didn’t fall, because Florrie was not a woman who let circumstances dictate her emotions.
“Not long now, my lady,” murmured the man’s voice.
He did not sound angry or triumphant; she did not understand what he was feeling. The only way to discover the weaknesses of her captors was to study them, look at their faces, and judge them by their actions.
And so far, their cowardice at kidnapping a helpless woman showed them in the vilest light.
“Not long now” seemed to go on forever. Florrie took shallow breaths, for the air was growing too hot and stifling. The sack rubbed roughly against her face. When the man relaxed his hold, she tried to move away from the heat of him, but wasn’t successful. Perspiration broke out on her skin. The cart seemed to angle ever higher, and she almost wanted to grunt a sarcastic laugh. Hadn’t she just been dreaming about roaming the mountains?
At last, the cart came to a jerking stop, and she groaned her relief. The man pulled her across the wooden bottom, then set her upright on the edge, legs dangling. Someone loosened the sack and slid it down her face. With relief, she breathed in fresh, cool air through her nose—
And looked up at the large man standing before her.
She noticed his eyes first, deep and brilliant as blue sapphires. Narrowed, they watched her solemnly, with no show of emotion, as if his re
sponse would only be dictated by her behavior. His lean face was composed of sharp lines, angling down until they met at a square chin with a cleft in the middle. Though his mouth was a flat line, he had generous lips. She wanted to think they were made for smiling, but everyone always told her she had too much foolish optimism.
His black hair, which hung neatly to just below his ears, was held in place by a peasant’s cloth cap. His clothing was just as nondescript, a tunic belted over wool breeches, with a cloak falling from his shoulders. The two other men, dressed nearly the same, stood behind him in a clearing that was shaded by immense oak trees. Though she could hear the sound of water nearby, she did not look anywhere else, for she guessed that this man was the one who controlled her fate.
He pushed the sack lower, until it puddled around her waist. Lifting her bound hands free, he calmly said, “I will remove the gag if you promise not to scream. As you can guess, we have taken you far enough away that no one will hear you regardless.”
She hesitated, wishing desperately she could somehow thwart him, but at last she gave a stiff nod. His long arms reached around her to untie the gag behind her head, leaving her to stare helplessly at the center of his broad chest. He smelled of warm man and wool garments, hay and horses.
Uneasy, she was glad when he stepped back and carefully pulled the gag from her mouth. She gasped as the dry cloth tugged free of her skin. Before she could even ask, another man stepped forward and held up a wineskin. He was just as tall and dark as the first man, but the blue of his eyes was as bright as cornflowers. His face was a little softer, broader, and younger—but with the same cleft in his chin. Surely they were brothers.
“My lady?” Brother Number Two said, offering the wineskin.
She nodded gladly, taking several deep sips. The respectful way they spoke to her showed that at least they knew whom they’d kidnapped. Perhaps they would not injure her—unless she proved uncooperative. As he stepped back, she could not stop her shudder.
“You are cold?” asked Brother Number One, with some incredulity in his voice.
His body brushed her knees as he stood before her. She understood his disbelief—after all, they’d been plastered together beneath straw, building even more heat on a summer’s day.
She swallowed again and spoke. “Can I not simply be a frightened maiden, sir? Who are you and why did you so cruelly take me from my home? When my father discovers—”
His blue eyes seemed to go dark with winter’s ice. “Your father, the marquess, is in London, my lady. It will be some time before he discovers what
has happened, and by then, we shall be far from here.”
“Then what is your purpose?” she demanded, trying not to tremble with her fear of the future. “Why so brazenly risk yourselves to kidnap me in broad daylight?”
She gasped as Brother Number One lifted her against him with one arm. She tried to rear back, but realized a moment later he was pulling the sack down her hips. As it collapsed to the ground, he set her back on the edge of the cart.
He put both hands on either side of her hips and looked into her eyes. She held her breath, staring up at him, feeling as if no man had ever really looked at her like this, with such intense focus.
“Lady Florence, my name is Sir Adam. Your capture was necessary, because I had to find a method to convince your father of my sincerity.”
Bewildered, she said, “But you just said it didn’t matter if he knew about this insane plan of yours.”
“Nay, you should listen more intently. I said it wouldn’t matter if he knew, because he couldn’t stop me. Nothing will stop me from issuing him a challenge of combat to the death. And if he needs more of a reason than an honorable challenge to face me, your captivity will provide it.”
She gaped at him. “You want to kill my father.” She could not be surprised at that. Her father had made many enemies, and acted however he wished, with no care about God’s laws, or man’s.
“I want to
your father. If it leads to his death, then that is God’s judgment.”
Sir Adam finally looked away from her, his mouth set in grim lines. “That is not your concern. Only know that a grievous wrong has been done by him, and I demand justice.”
“So you counter one grievous wrong with another?”
He glanced at her, and if she thought she saw a flash of regret in his eyes, she had to discount it, for he spoke coldly.
“Trust me, my lady, the wrong done to you in no way compares. And if you are obedient, nothing worse will happen, and this adventure will soon be over.”
She stiffened at his too casual words. “But if you have your way, my father will be dead.”
“You so easily discount his famed skills?” Sir Adam asked, arching a dark brow. “Even though he is a generation older than I, he yet enters tournaments and fights for his king. A battle between us might be legendary.”
Florrie looked away, afraid he might be able to read the truth in her eyes. Martindale
once a famed warrior, but his youth and strength were long gone, lost to age and illness. But he was so vain, so worried about showing weakness, that he made certain the world still thought him a knight of great renown. He had sworn his family and servants to secrecy, and no one dared cross
him. She would never go back on her oath to her father—nor did she want to give such information to a man who wanted him dead, a man who could use such a secret to his advantage, in whatever feud he pursued.
She lifted her chin and stared at him coolly. “So who does your bidding?”
He stepped aside, so that she could see the other two men. Already they’d been bringing saddlebags out of hiding in the trees, where she could hear the occasional neighing of horses out of sight. The men gathered wood against the encroaching twilight. Only then did she realize with dismay that night would fall soon, and she would be alone with her kidnappers.
“This is Sir Robert,” said Sir Adam, gesturing to the dark-haired man who looked like him.
But instead of wearing Sir Adam’s cold expression, Sir Robert grinned at her and doffed his cap to reveal hair that fell into waves. “My Lady Florence, ’tis a pleasure to meet you.”
She was taken aback by his easy charm, as if he’d come to court her instead of kidnap her. “And you agree with your brother’s methods that led to this introduction?”
Sir Robert met Sir Adam’s gaze, his grin fading into simple amusement. “You are observant, my lady. Aye, he is my brother, the head of our family. I follow him obediently.”
She thought she heard Sir Adam give a choked cough, but when she turned to him, he was still
regarding her impassively. Then she looked at the third man, redheaded, with freckles scattered across his tanned face. He was shorter than the two brothers, and as he squatted to put flint to steel to spark a fire, he only gave her a brief look of disinterest.
“And this is Sir Michael,” Sir Adam said.
“Another relation?” she asked.
“Nay, a loyal knight and companion. Do not think to turn him against us, for it shall not work.”
Sir Michael gave a faint smile and continued to prepare for the night.
All around her was wilderness and strangers. Though she’d always longed to leave home and travel, this was not how she’d anticipated seeing the world, bound and watched, taken hostage to persuade her father to do something she knew he never would.
What would happen if Sir Adam discovered her presence was useless? She’d seen his face and could identify his features—would he have to rid himself of her?
A sick feeling of nausea sank into her stomach, and she realized it had been many hours since she’d used a privy for her private needs.
She looked between the three men, feeling a little desperate and frightened. Surely they could not deny her something so basic.
“I—I have need to…I—I need a woman’s privacy.”