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Authors: Michele Sinclair

The Christmas Knight

BOOK: The Christmas Knight
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THE KNIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS

Bronwyn narrowed her gaze and smiled icily. “I may have been one of many women who felt a fleeting desire to kiss you, but you will never have to worry about me being one of them again.”

Catching her chin between his thumb and forefinger, Ranulf turned her head so that he could read her eyes. And there, reflecting in the darkening cobalt depths, was the truth. She wanted him, and her feelings were just as strange and startling to her as his were to him.

“I don’t believe you, angel. I think you wanted to kiss me and desire to do so again.”

Then his mouth came down on hers before she could even think of resisting.

Bronwyn heard a sound and realized it was coming from her. His lips held her spellbound and the light touch of his fingertips was transporting her into a realm where all realities and concerns drifted away.

“More…” she heard herself beg just before his mouth again sought hers in another kiss…

Books by Michele Sinclair

THE HIGHLANDER’S BRIDE

TO WED A HIGHLANDER

DESIRING THE HIGHLANDER

THE CHRISTMAS KNIGHT

Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation

The
C
HRISTMAS
K
NIGHT
M
ICHELE
S
INCLAIR

ZEBRA BOOKS

KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.

http://www.kensingtonbooks.com

To John,
who gave me invaluable insight into
the world of single-sighted vision,
and his wife, Jessica,
who shared a little bit of their life,
revealing the spouse’s side of their love story

Prologue

F
RIDAY
, D
ECEMBER
10, 1154
T
HE
E
NGLISH
C
HANNEL
,
S
OMEWHERE
J
UST
N
ORTH OF
N
ORMANDY

Wide spacious ships with single mast sails were the primary means of traveling short distances. Ships transporting large quantities of goods drifted slowly at the speed of approximately a knot per hour. The distance between Fécamp, Normandy, the closest port to Rouen, the capital of the Duchy of Normandy, and Southampton, England, which served as the primary port for Winchester, the medieval capital of England, was nearly 130 miles, or approximately five days by sea in good weather. Travel by land depended upon horses, type and condition of the terrain, and the quantity and size of goods being transported. Journeying from Westminster to the wilderness of Cumbria crossed more than 275 miles and typically took nearly two weeks, but the trip could be made in less than five days if one traveled very light and by horse.

Deadeye.

That’s what they called the man Laon had been chasing since spring. And it was appropriate. For the famed dark-haired knight refused to wear a patch. How he lost his left eye was a mystery, and if anyone did know, they were not saying. Rather all the mumbling aboard the ship was about Laon and how he had found—more like unwillingly caught—the only man who had refused to become a lord.

The small fleet of ships had been traveling to England for two days and the seas had been exactly as expected this time of year—unwelcoming. The weather continued to fight their northwesterly course, dramatically slowing their voyage with fierce wind, creating uncomfortably large white-capped waves that constantly slapped at the wooden oak planks of the Viking-designed cog.

Laon studied the lone imposing figure standing by the ship’s side, staring at the rolling sea. The newly titled, reluctant lord was impervious to the enormous swells that made nearly everyone else on board seek the ship’s rail for temporary relief. Only today had Laon felt well enough to study the battle-beaten knight and prepare some kind of defense or explanation. But he could fabricate not a one, for Laon regretted nothing he had done. The difficult man had left him little choice. A new lord was needed, and Ranulf de Gunnar—whether he wished it or not—was the only viable Anscombe heir.

Laon did not expect to be pardoned for his actions, but he did hope for understanding. Loyalty between a man and a king was important, even necessary, but the loyalty exchanged between a knight and his liege could mean the difference between life and death. Especially in Cumbria, the remote hills of northwestern England.

So when the previous Lord Anscombe had lain dying, needing someone to find his elusive nephew and ensure he assumed his responsibility, Laon had gone, never imagining Anscombe’s heir, a favored commander of England’s new king, would be so hard to find…or to persuade. And in the end, Laon couldn’t.

So he had resorted to shrewd means to not only find, but bind the solemn knight to a life the man had made clear he did not want.

Sir Ranulf de Gunnar was the next in line to the Anscombe title and forfeiting that right would be ruinous for an already struggling people. The resulting vacuum would tempt not only northern marauders determined to steal and plunder whenever prosperity became possible, but those enemies who lived close by, waiting for a chance to gain even more land and power.

A voice cried out by the ship’s mast and a young boy dressed in several layers of rags to keep warm rushed across the deck carrying what appeared to be a heavy coil of rope. Unable to see in front of him, the lad collided into the large knight’s back and would have fallen if it had not been for Ranulf’s quick reflexes and accurate timing. He gently righted the cringing boy, who avoided looking at him before taking off again.

Laon fought the urge to move back into the shadows as Ranulf turned to scan the forecastle. His single umber-colored eye quickly inspected the activity of the bow. The evidence of the eye’s missing mate was hidden beneath a closed, flaccid lid, concealing the empty wound. Most probably thought the injury was the result of an unlucky encounter with a sword, but only someone familiar with the fiery depths of hell would recognize the probable cause behind the mottled scar disfiguring the left brow and cheek. Laon was one of those few.

Moving back into the shadows, Laon attempted to covertly study his new liege lord. But as if the man understood just what Laon intended, the hard figure returned his gaze to the sea so that his back was once again all that was visible. He had given no evidence in his expression that he was aware of Laon’s scrutiny, but Laon was certain nonetheless that the newly titled lord was fully cognizant of who was around him and what they were doing. A skill he had employed shrewdly in Normandy.

Finding him had been difficult, but eventually achievable. Speaking with Ranulf, however, had proved near impossible. He moved from one battle to another, attending the duke’s court for only brief periods of time before setting out for a new location, training field, or battle. At first, Laon had believed it to be just bad timing causing him always to be where the elusive knight was not. But when it became obvious Deadeye was cleverly and intentionally avoiding him—and would continue to—Laon realized the truth. Ranulf was well aware of his cousin’s death and he had no intention of accepting the Anscombe title or the responsibility.

So Laon had done what his new lord no doubt considered underhanded, devious, and far from honorable…but it had worked. And now there would be consequences for using such tactics. Just what those were, however, Laon was having difficulty discerning.

Ranulf de Gunnar was far from young and had long mastered the ability to appear disconnected from all that was around him. It was not surprising. If one survived the wounds caused by a fire, the experience did more than just damage the skin, it changed a person inside. The pain of recovery either broke their spirit or made them stronger. That the new lord was made of the latter was obvious, but whether he had become wiser or bitter was impossible to distinguish from afar.

The wind caught the collar of Ranulf’s tunic and flipped it up, slapping him on the side of his face. He pivoted and flicked it aside. His expression remained what it had been since the inception of the voyage. No anger, no remorse, no self-pity…no warmth. Emotions were not something the man displayed. His nickname “Deadeye” led one to believe hatred and wrath marked his life’s path, but Laon suspected there was much more to the one-eyed knight than the outward shell revealed. Long-distance observation would divulge nothing more than what Laon already knew, leaving only one way to determine the makeup of Cumbria’s future.

He must talk to him.

 

Ranulf ignored the old knight who had single-handedly ripped his simple, but livable life away and replaced it with one only a fool would want. His previous life may not have been pleasant, but as a prized commander to the duke of Normandy, who in a few days would be crowned the king of England, it had been very lucrative and—most important—isolated from the general populace.

The old man advanced another step and shifted his stance to counter the movement of the ship. He was standing on Ranulf’s left just outside of his limited range of vision, but that didn’t mean Ranulf could not hear where the aged knight was and just what he was doing. Ranulf had learned to perpetuate the myth of full sight with an acute sense of hearing, which let him know exactly where the old man stood. Close, but far enough away to step out of reach if Ranulf decided to physically assault him, and yet, just near enough for conversation. Something the old man obviously hoped Ranulf would initiate.

If the scheming knight had been anyone else, Ranulf might have been inclined to talk, if only just to order him away. But he was no longer naïve to the lengths the old man would go to achieve his desires. Few men had the audacity—let alone foresight—to seek out the duke and duchess of Normandy and convince them of their cause. And yet, Sir Laon le Breton had displayed a surprising amount of audacity by doing just that. Of course, fortuitous timing had helped. Henry had just learned of King Stephen’s untimely death and his rightful succession to the throne, making the stability of England—especially in the remote areas of the country—of high importance. Having loyal noblemen overseeing distant regions would be critical to securing Henry’s reign. So Ranulf had been ordered north to his new home, his new title, and his new responsibilities…his own feelings on the matter noted, but ignored.

“Mind if I join you?” The deep and even voice boomed across the short distance, cutting through the wind.

Ranulf fought the urge to look at the man and continued staring at the rolling sea. The knight’s commanding tone had been unexpected and had almost caused Ranulf to react instinctively in a deferential manner. Almost. Instead, it served as a reminder that the old man was far more than he appeared. “Better than staring at me.”

“So you did see me.”

“Studying your hard-earned prize from afar? Yes, I knew. I make it a point to know where my enemies are,” Ranulf replied, keeping his focus on the afternoon horizon. Detachment, not animosity, laced his tone.

Quiet followed and Ranulf wondered how long the battle-wearied knight was going to blatantly continue to assess him, when Laon deliberately walked around so that he stood on Ranulf’s right, and in his line of vision. Damn man was far too observant.

Ranulf shifted his jaw but remained silent, hoping Laon would take the hint. Unfortunately he did not.

“Now you can study me,” Laon offered coolly, “although I believe you have already been doing so for some time. And though you call me your enemy, you do not really consider me to be so. Otherwise, I would be dead.”

Ranulf fell to temptation and stole a side glance at the bold, candid man, who had just surprised him…again. Shoulder-length brownish-gray hair was thicker than it appeared at a distance and blew straight behind him as he faced the wind. Unusual slate blue eyes were enhanced by his pale complexion, which possessed the pasty look of someone who did not enjoy traveling by ship. But aside from the knight’s pallid skin tone, the man projected a commanding presence. They were of similar height and body build, except Laon was naturally leaner. Ranulf suspected the sinewy muscular form belied the old knight’s true strength.

Sir Laon le Breton might no longer have been practiced at wielding a weapon, but Ranulf was on his guard nonetheless. The man dominated his surroundings by controlling both conversations and situations. No wonder the duke had taken a liking to him. Another time and circumstance, so would have Ranulf, but the knight needed to understand that today he was manipulating no one. “You may not be an enemy, but you are certainly someone I don’t trust,” Ranulf clarified.

Laon shrugged his chin and nodded his head. The man was brutally candid, but Laon had a message of his own. “Unfortunate for you then that I am also your one and only noteworthy vassal, my lord.”

Ranulf closed his eyes and took a deep breath before exhaling. He was still not used to hearing the title in reference to him. Learning of Lord Anscombe’s death—a distant cousin he had never met—and discovering that his father and elder brother were no longer among the living had been too recent to fully digest. In that one moment, his life, his future had changed. And Sir Laon le Breton had ensured it was a future Ranulf was forced to embrace. In doing so, the old knight had uprooted Ranulf’s comfortable life—and he wasn’t ready to forget that just yet.

“Keep your fealty. I have my men.”

“From what I have learned, the majority of your men won’t arrive until spring. Until then you have the support of what? A couple dozen soldiers? While they are no doubt able men, I question if any of them will be very helpful in running Hunswick Castle. Have they—have
you
—ever had to deal with questions about candle making? Or determined what to do when the dovecote is raided by five-year-old mischievous little boys?” The old man smiled as if he knew Ranulf’s weakness. “Perhaps the fealty of an old, interfering knight somewhat knowledgeable about such things would not be so useless.”

Now that Laon had moved to his right side, Ranulf could see him patiently waiting for a response. Ranulf was unwilling to give him one. Instead, he clinched his jaw, refusing to agree or disagree. Giving up, Laon shrugged unperturbed and turned to face the sea. “You are far too young to be so severe and serious.”

“I’m a serious man,” Ranulf replied, forcing his voice to remain level and devoid of any prideful anger at the man who dared to criticize him.

“Maybe, but wearing a perpetually solemn expression does not necessarily make a man wise. Nor does it qualify him as a leader.” The tone was light, conversational, but the subject matter hinted at the gravity to which the old knight felt.

Ranulf turned to blatantly reassess his newly acquired, yet unwanted mentor. This time it was Laon who looked out to the sea and ignored him. Ranulf could feel his pride churning, twisting inside him in a way he had not experienced in years when he realized that was exactly the old menace’s aim. The man was intentionally trying to provoke him, not to arouse anger, but to gain something else—he wanted to understand just whom he was going to serve. “Have you decided upon my character, or do you need more time?” Ranulf challenged.

Laon’s misty blue gaze surveyed the rolling waves for several seconds before he turned to reply, this time his demeanor and expression solemn. “Your temperament is obvious for the world to see.” He paused for a moment as if he were trying to decide whether he should refrain from further explanation or continue. The latter was chosen. “You are neither kind nor giving, and your manner can best be described as impersonal. When you do engage, you are rather gruff, although I wonder how much of that is habit or intentional. However, you are fair and respectful, even to those you know little or not at all,” Laon finished, pointing at the young deckhand Ranulf had assisted earlier.

BOOK: The Christmas Knight
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