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     Book One





Winlow Castle

Herefordshire 1414


            "I’d sooner wallow with swine!" La Belle screamed at her father’s back.

             The earl wheeled around, eyes narrowed, nostrils flared, mouth pulled tight.

             Shit! Squared her shoulders, fisted trembling hands.

             "Damn all to hell!" His words boomed about the hall. "You'll not dishonor the St. Gaunts! This marriage proceeds or by the saints!" Spittle flew from his lips. "I’ll disown you!"

             Gasped. Disown? Clutched her stomach. May as well’ve struck her.

             He growled out breath, turned back to the table, snatched up a pitcher, poured a drink.

             She caught movement beyond his shoulder—her brothers backed away. Geoffrey shrugged. Alexander raised his brows, pursed lips as though exhaling—his words of earlier still pricked. Rather be a gnat on a horse’s arse than standing in your boots.

             Glared at them. Mouthed 'cowards.'  Least they could do was stand with her before their father—flicked her gaze on him. Implore him to see reason. God’s mercy.    

             Never so boldly defied him. But what to do? Loved him to the depth of her bones, but marry… she would not. Temples thumped.

             "So I’m cast off—given over to this stranger for his…" Throat ached, she swallowed. “Pleasure.” Tears welled blurred her vision. “Latched to a foreigner!” She shuddered.

             His shoulders drooped, she sniffed, briefly glanced away, swiped her cheeks. He muttered something as he turned—she inhaled, raised her chin.

             "William de Beaufort is no foreigner to my house girl." He looked away. "If you seek to spoil this day with your willful antics—by God!" Flicked his dark gaze on her. "I’ll lock you in your chamber till he comes to take you!"

             Snapped her mouth shut, balled hands, fired off a nasally scream as she wheeled away. "I won’t marry!" Bolted for the courtyard door, ignored her mother who stood in the portal with a squire.

             Richard gulped his ale, bellowed as he spun to the nearest hearth, hurled the tankard. "Goddamn intemperate female!" Glared about his hall, spotted the Countess striding toward him. Ground his teeth, flicked his gaze heavenward, hissed out breath.


Same day


             William sat rigid on his sweating destrier, stared at the blue Marches sky, struggled to recall the child betrothed to him a month past his twelfth year celebration. Exhaled long, heated the inside of his helm.

             “Christ!” Snapped up his visor, squinted as cool wind blew into his face.

             Of no mind to be shackled so what in hell to do? Three days'd past since his pére’s messenger caught him in Surrey returning Margaret Longsley from Lebanon to her family. "God's life." In hindsight he’d’ve refused the mission and hefty purse to’ve remained out of England forestalling this goddamned day.

             Yanked the comte’s writ from inside his gauntlet, perused it again. She is eight and ten come the twenty and fourth day of March. Two days after which you wed…

             Snarled, glanced up, scanned the rolling hills sectioned by low stone walls and scruffy hedgerows into the greenest pastures he’d seen in a long while—sheep grazed the slopes with lambs nudging for milk.

             Found little charm in this sweep of pastoral tranquility. Was as though a death knell tumbled glum and black over the land. "Fuck!"

             What of his army? Scanned the horizon. His reputation? Black Dragon of Normandy, husband to a meek mousy creature. Spat at the ground. "God's rod." What of England’s fucking King?

             Hard thump at his shoulder toppled his thoughts. Stuart reined his destrier about.

            "Found your stones!"

             William scowled, stared ahead, not of a mood for his cousin’s quips—crumpled the parchment. "She’ll be afeared of me." Wedged it beneath his breastplate. "Take one look. Run for her fucking chamber."

            Stuart lifted his visor. William eyed his cousin who grinned as he perused the army lined along the ridge. "In all likelihood."

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