Book One

ENGLAND

 

One

 

Winlow Castle

Herefordshire 1414

 

            “I’d sooner wallow with swine!” La Belle St. Gaunt screamed at her father’s back.

             The Earl wheeled around, eyes lit for battle.

             She inhaled, squared her shoulders, fisted trembling hands.

             “Damn all to hell!” his voice boomed about the hall. “The marriage proceeds or by the saints…” spittle flew from his lips, “I’ll disown you!”

             She gasped, clutched her stomach. Disown? He may as well’ve struck her.

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

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

             Clenched her teeth, drew a ragged breath. Cowards. They should’ve stood with her before their father—flicked her gaze on him—implored him to see reason. Christ’s mercy.    

             She’d never so boldly defied him. But what to do? Loved him to the depth of her bones, but marry… she would not. Her 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 swiping her cheeks. He muttered something as he turned—she raised her chin.

             “William de Beaufort is no foreigner to my house girl,” said narrowing his eyes. “If you seek to spoil this day with your willful antics—by God! 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 door to the courtyard, ignored her mother who stood in the portal with a squire.

             Richard gulped his ale, spun to the nearest hearth hurling the tankard with a bellow. “God damned intemperate female!” Glared about his hall, spotted the Countess—ground his teeth, flicked his gaze heavenward, hissed out breath.

#

Same day

 

             William de Beaufort sat rigid on his sweating destrier, stared at the blue Marches sky, grappled to picture the precocious four year old betrothed to him a month after the celebration of his twelfth year. He exhaled long and hard heating the inside of his helm.

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

             Of no mind to be shackled so what in hell to do? It’d been three days since his Pére’s messenger’d caught him up in Surrey returning Lady Margaret Longsley from Lebanon to her family.

             Snorted. She was no fucking lady—clenched his jaw. In hindsight he’d’ve refused the mission and the hefty purse to’ve remained out of England forestalling this God damned 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 as he glanced up, scanned the rolling hills sectioned by low stone walls and scruffy hedges into the greenest pastures he’d seen in a long while—sheep grazed with early lambs. Found little charm in this sweep of pastoral tranquility. Was as though a death knell tumbled glum and black over the verdant land.

             “Fuck!” What of his reputation? His army? Years building after departing the Guardian in Ireland. What of England’s fucking King?

             Scanned the horizon. The Black Dragon of Normandy reduced to husband, plowman, for a meek, mousy creature—exhaled a heavy breath. “God’s life.” Didn’t bear thinking about.

             A hard thump at his shoulder toppled his dark thoughts.

            “Found your stones?” Stuart shouted reining his destrier about.

             William scowled, stared ahead, in no mood for his cousin’s quips—he crumpled the parchment. “She’ll be afeared of me.” Turned away, spat as he stuffed it beneath his breastplate. “Take a glance…” briefly clenched teeth, inhaled, “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.”

#

             La Belle burst from the western bailey gate on her Andalucian, eyes watering in the cool wind. Snarled. “Marriage.” Bent low over her stallion’s withers, pushed at his neck, dug heels in his sides—hooves beat time with snorted breaths. Her hems blew up, she tucked them under her knees, wiped a sleeve across her nose, sniffed.

             Several horses gave chase along a stone wall abutting the road, they halted at the edge of their paddock.

             Flared her nostrils. The Earl’ll be livid his prized yearlings charged about. Hissed when Jewel flicked an ear back at their excited whinnies.

             A glance over her shoulder—no one followed—she reined him off the road as her hair whipped loose.

            By time they crested a hill above the southern meadow he was drenched in sweat—she breathless, fury soured her belly. Pulled him up, hurled from his back, hiked up cote and chemise as she sprinted off screaming her frustration down the long hill toward the wide stream at the bottom.

             Skidded to a teeth-jarring halt near the water’s edge, caught balance, doubled over, her hair spilled to the ground, hands on knees, gasped for breath, squeezed eyes shut at the white hot pain knifing her side.

             That she should suffer him, this unknown felon, this foreign gorse. “Aaaahhhhh!” Uncoiled, swept hair back, dug deep for breath, tilted her face skyward. “Wretched life! I’m a pawn!” Gulped air, flung her arms wide as she turned in a circle. “A tool! Bartered chattel!” Let loose a single dry sob.

             It wasn’t just. Her life stolen at the whim of a dead king. Cursed the day she was born a girl, glanced up heaving for breath—wind roiled the conifers across the stream. “A rotting pox on you! You bastard! You son of a—leprous donkey!”

             Chest, temples, thumped. Rivulets of sweat tickled down her forehead—swiped at them with a growl, couldn’t recall a time she’d been this utterly betrayed. How to change her father’s mind? What devices could she employ to make him see reason? God’s life! Lidded her eyes. “Hopeless… hopeless.” Shuddered as sweat rolled down the small of her back.

             The stream chattered by in a languid kind of disorder, blinked her eyes open—it seemed to beckon. She bit on her inside lip, glanced about. The Earl’d turn as red as a mid-summer nose burn. “By God let him.”

             Lifted her hem—snapped up, narrowed eyes as she scanned the forest at the far bank. Curious. Sounded like a collective murmur.

             Concluding it wind in the trees she drew her cote over her head, tossed it, unlaced her boots, shook them off. Strolled to the water’s edge, inhaled, fisted hands as she stepped into the stream, sucked a breath. “Shit!”

             She waded to where water flowed above her knees, pinched her nose, fell back into its freezing, breath-snatching fury. Floated with the current a few seconds, caught her feet on the stony bottom, sprang up screaming a laugh, skin burnt like she was stung all over. Brushed water from her face, swept hands over her hair, turned up stream with a shudder, cupping, squeezing her breasts. Exhaled a squeal as she flung hands through the water firing spray to the bank then dove into the oncoming current.

             By time she clawed out on all fours her teeth chattered, limbs almost numb—she fell groaning onto her side in the grasses, rolled over and over, howling, yelling, chemise twisted about her thighs.

             Came to a halt on her back, flung arms overhead, chills peeled off in waves, she blinked water from her lashes, gazed at the sky. A pair of falcons soared in wide circles.

             Sniffed. “God that I knew your freedom.” Watched, waited. They disappeared beyond the treetops.

             She rose to her knees, glanced about picking bits of grass from her face as breezes flattened the chemise against her skin—shivered, goose-pimpled, leant back, caught balance and stood. Shook her head, sniffed, bent over flipping her hair forward, ran fingers through the wet curls, picked grass from some of the tangles then snapped upright sending it flying over top of her. Rubbed her breasts smoothing her hardened nipples, hugged herself as she looked about for her cote.

             Once dressed and boots pulled on, she ambled along the bank fluffing her hair in the breeze before twisting it like a rope over her left breast.

             Wind gusted into the conifers stirring the branches. She glanced that way. God’s love. Would miss all this, most especially the forest where she and Frederick and their friends’d pretended their way through the early years.

             Kicked a stone into the stream, scooped up a couple. One was flat. Threw it—it skimmed across the water. Her gaze caught, drifted with the current—she tugged the inside of her cheek. It was of no matter now. “I’ll never again be free to run… ride…” Blinked, tilted her head back. “God—to climb old Gawain—to think for myself.” Tears pooled. “All because of you…” snarled out breath. “William de Beaufort.”

             Clenched her fists, glanced down as she opened her left hand. “Oh that I could plant this missile in your bastard head.” Tossed it up, caught it in her right palm, wheeled around, hurled it into the trees with a screamed exhale.

             Ting!

             “Awww!”

             Snapped up gasping. “Shit.” Found her balance, squinted, scanned the tree line as she straightened—a black-plumed head appeared from the shadows. She lurched, exhaled. A hoof hit the stream, a second, a third. Water exploded in every direction.

             Wrenched from foggy disbelief she snatched up her skirt, wheeled away, bolted for the hill, cold chemise stuck to her legs.

             Clanking steel resonated across the meadow, heavy hooves thudded over the ground, snorted breaths beat the air behind her. She glimpsed back, skin vented. Oh Christ! Hell’d opened.

             Legs leaden trapped in clinging cloth, dropped her skirt, shoved fingers in her mouth… tripped, reeled, hit the ground belting out breath. Clenched into a ball, covered her head, squeezed eyes shut, braced for massive hooves. Be swift. Gulped air. “Merciful God. Oh God death be swift.” Body pounded, head throbbed. She panted. Waited. Nothing.

             Jumbled thoughts began to clear, hair spilled over her face heated by her breath, mouth dry—at a distance, heavy breathing, snorting, chomping against metal. Blinked eyes open. God’s life. Black legs. Hooves.

             “Get up girl!”

             Skin prickled at the muffled, accented voice ripe with impatience. Not a sprig of compassion in the tone.

             “Do you speak to me?” Deep male laughter rippled over her on a shiver—armor clanked, saddles squeaked as seats shifted. Merciful God.

             “Non. I speak to a whore in the next shire.”

             Whore?  He said whore… Scrambled to her feet. “Whore!” Teetered as light flashed in her sights, caught balance, focused, dragged in breath, froze. Massive armored horses stared, ears pricked forward. On their backs’ men in armor, blacker than a moonless night—some leant on their pommels.

             Chest thumped, narrowed her eyes, guardedly scanned them right to left. Are they amused? Ground her teeth. Barbaric swine. Squared shoulders, lifted her chin. “Who speaks for you?” No answer. Waited, watched for some sort of signal. A couple of them sat back.

             “I am he.”

             Snapped her head left on a sharp inhale, eyes cast down. That voice. Goose-pimpled. Of course you’re behind me. As she turned the cold chemise moved on her skin, pressed a hand to her thigh.

             A banner snapped in the breeze above them. “God’s life.” A black dragon, red viper locked in battle, a sword impaled the pair. Swallowed, scanned the black helms—gut churned, gusts scattered hair at her temples—nothing but soft snorts, clack of bits against teeth. Fought to master her rising fear.

             “Clear my path. You’ve no authority…” Locked gazes with the one brute who sat rigidly straight. Damp fear swept her skin, raised hairs on her arms. “To detain me.”

             Cold, unblinking eyes shone from behind the helm, a wide long nose bridge snaked out over his face like flames.

             Inhaled over the dry ache in her throat, chest pounded. Would that he spoke and revealed his nature. He didn’t move.

             A violent need to scream at him exploded through her like metal-hammered sparks. Flared nostrils for breath as she fingered the bulge of her knife strapped high on her thigh. Should she retrieve it? It’d be a comfort in her hand, but would it provoke him?           

             William stared at his winded captive. Christ! Couldn’t score the sight of her wet breasts from his mind—and when she crawled from the stream on all fours… Fuck! Briefly lidded his eyes. Who in hell was she?

             Never witnessed a woman run with such vigor, knew of no gentlewoman who’d strip in a meadow to swim. Everything about her denoted an inferior birth—her appearance, being horseless, without guards, having a mouth as foul as a public-house slattern. And he’d never seen a lady hurl a rock after the fashion he witnessed and land it squarely in his knight’s chest.

             The wench stared at him with boldness, clearly lacked even plain sense. That she appeared unafraid amused him but something else simmered close to the surface—madness or anger—couldn’t settle on one. She was, without question, striking—eyes deep blue like the evening sky over the Alps, cheeks pink from exertion, full lips parted for breath. Long, dark auburn hair hung wet, loose, a few dry strands at her temples whipped about her face conveying an untamed, natural air. Truth was she could not’ve looked more thoroughly ridden. God damn—that fucking mouth. 

             Snarled, his cock cramped needed to adjust himself—moved his seat instead with little relief. She yanked up her skirts.

             “Fuck!” Breath hammer-slammed out, his men murmured—long, bare, flawless legs, a knife attached at the thigh.

             He sucked air, leant forward, fierce hunger fired his blood. Christ! To feel those legs gripping his hips, chest pounded—gripping his head. Briefly scanned his knights, narrowed his gaze back on her thigh, stretched his jaw—eat his way up those legs to her soft flesh…

             She jerked the weapon from its sheath, held onto her skirt—he blinked, glanced up—she released the hem, a smile played about her full lips.

             Hissed breath through clenched teeth. Toying with me. Brazen fucking wench. It’d been months since he surrendered to his flesh. Adjusted his seat again, sacs like rocks, flicked his tongue over salty moisture beading his upper lip.

             “Where resides your modesty wench?” She raised her chin. “Your sire approves this,” indicating her with a derogatory wave of his hand, “parading in a loose manner before your betters?”

             La Belle’s hackles spiked. Betters! Gripped her knife, raised the point, assumed a fighting stance. “My knife bids you come stranger—come,” motioned with a hand, “taste my loose manner.” Snorted softly. “But mind you don’t mistake,” turned away slightly, gaze fixed on him, spat at the ground, “my sire approves his daughter’s ways.”

             He stared. You have no answer. He glanced about at his men. She knew this trick—he sought to distract her. Flared her nostrils. She’d not been raised with older brothers for nothing. “What business brings you on this land?”

             Turned his cold gaze back on her, she quirked a brow.

             William’s blood boiled. From the moment she’d stripped he’d fucked her five and ten different ways. Were it not for his armored state she’d be clinging to a tree. Clenched his teeth, incensed at where his thoughts took him, that a serf had undone him in less time than it takes to piss.

             He yanked Zeus’ reins. As his destrier backed out of the circle her eyes rounded—tilted his head back. Don’t look so cock sure now. This’d be a much needed distraction before meeting the mouse.

             Dismounted. With her locked in his sight he jerked off his gauntlets, threw them to the ground.

             La Belle drew a harsh breath. He strode toward her. “Shit.” Skin prickled, chest hammered. “Oh shit.” Squeezed the knife hilt, fisted her other hand. He slapped the flanks of the two destriers he passed between causing several horses to snort, sidestep. God’s life! He was big, appeared a head taller than she and a breadth of chest rivaling Alexander.

             “What business brings me on this land?” His accented words dripped condescension. He circled her as he closed in—she turned keeping him in sight. “What business is it of yours wench? What reckless churl set you on this day,” she gasped, “that you stiffen our ears?” He pointed at someone. “You assault my man.” Stepped toward her, she held ground snarling as fear melted away. “You blight our ride in this shire!”

             No one called her father reckless, a churl. “Baaastaaard!” She charged, aimed for the base of his helm, swung—recoiled, stinging pain, knife flew from her hand as she cried out—he snatched the back of hair.

             “Awwww!” Grabbed for his arms as he slammed her against his armor fisting tighter at her nape. “Naaaay!” Struck him, struggled, hair ripped from the base of her skull, stung, eyes watered. “Bastard!” Lunged up, spat at his helmet.            

            William snarled, fisted her throat, dug fingers in her hot flesh, she clawed, thrashed about.

             “Dragon!” Tore his gaze from the struggling wench, Stuart pointed a sword at him.

            “Look at her.”

             The warning registered briefly but he was in no mood for games. He had been looking at her, damn near devoured her pale skin, wet breasts, lips, what she hid between her thighs. God’s stones. He’d hunt this fucking wench to ground at first opportunity and teach what it meant to spit in the face of the Black Dragon. Shoved her away, she clasped her throat, gasped for breath.

             Flared his nostrils. “Get gone from my sight woman,” ground out in French. “When I fall upon you again—I’ll spread your thighs…” Leant toward her, she panted, rubbed her throat. “And fuck you.” 

            She reared back, stared at him, cocked her head slightly, cast an indolent glance down his body, a slow smile lifted the corners of her mouth. “The Barbarian…” he blinked, “is exceedingly sure of himself.”

             Christ! She speaks French.

             She flicked her gaze up, eyes seemed to simmer, looked him over again. “My father and brothers will hunt you down you cowardice dog,” narrowed her eyes, “and I’ll watch them castrate your unholy flesh.”

            God’s rod! Who was this serf that she dared make such threats to him? There was no backing away now.

             Raised his arms, she flinched, he halted satisfied with her reading of his action, albeit incorrect. This lesson’d be instructive, not painful. Lifted his helm, tossed it, pulled back his coif, shook his head. Sweat flew in all directions, into her face, she snapped back, raised hands, quickly dropped them, appeared to freeze.

            La Belle’s breath lodged in her chest. White-streaked blond hair settled around his face, spilled over his shoulders to below his armpits, damp locks clung to his neck and temples. Granite-cold eyes, a blue-flecked grey narrowed as he looked her over. Oh shit. Flared his nostrils, a tic beat in his cheek, mouth turned down, blinked heavy lids. Christ! Going to strike me.

             As she reared back he grabbed her arm. “Nay!” Hauled her against his breast plate, her breath whooshed out, an arm snaked about her back, he caught her hair, yanked her head back, crushed his mouth down on hers with a savage growl—she thrashed against his weighted grip.

            He bit down on her bottom lip, she stiffened, panted into his mouth, chest pounded, hot breath blew over her face—he watched her, eyes like liquid metal. God’s life. Never been this close to a man—damp hair brushed her cheeks, she inhaled, rolled eyes back, moaned softly, insides oozed.

             He labored for breath, his grip at her back eased, slowly released her lip, pulled back, stared, eyes glassy. With a soft growl, dropped his mouth over hers, tore across her lips like a brand, his tongue thrust into her mouth.

             Fire blew through her belly, a blazing ache, she whimpered. Never in her short life had anyone kissed her with such intense, feral possession.

             He smelt of the earth, the outdoors—wind, leather, horses, his sweat—she struggled to draw breath. Roiling, molten heat shot from her loin to breasts, he pulled her to him, she moaned into his mouth, core pulsed—he grasped the sides of her face, his mouth anchoring them.

             A violent impulse to bite him swirled with a need to touch his skin. He turned his head,  noses dueled, pressed, breath beat at her cheek. Sunk teeth into his lip—he grunted, dug fingers along her scalp. God’s blood. A furious storm, immediate, demanding, wild.  

             Her gut ached, skin ablaze where she pressed to him—seized his hair, threaded fingers into the damp strands fisting a handful, drove her tongue into his mouth. He opened for her, groaned, bore into her, sucked her flesh, nipped, hands grazed over her buttocks, fastened, lifted her from the ground, crushed her to him, she groaned into his mouth.

             William rolled eyes back, cock rigid—traced her curves like a starving man, moaned at the utter fucking pleasure of her body, not a shred of duplicity in her response. Christ. Needed to lie with her, felt the depth of her sheath in his head, fought to keep his knees from buckling. Fuck! Blood pounded through him, nausea cramped his belly. Christ! What fucking stupidity. What in hell was he thinking? She smelt of new spring flowers, tasted of honey—all of it like talons ripping his flesh.

             Aware he teetered at the abyss he let go, pulled back. She clung to him, her lush body pressed to his armor, arms wrapped like steel bands about his neck—she sucked his tongue like a fucking whore. Christ. She’d be a fierce ride.

             Glanced up, his men’d de-helmed. Romell shook his head, looked amused, next to him Teal grinned.

             Gripped her arms, unwound them, dropped her to the ground, pressed his wet lips together, clenched teeth, dragged in a heavy breath—her eyes’d glazed over, panted breaths hit his face, she licked her moist lips. He stared at her parted mouth, seeing her on her knees, his body pounded, blood molten, sacs gathered, blinked, shook his head. Fuck!

             In that moment she’d done what no other had. With her lithe body, soft sighs, she’d subjugated him before his army. Seethed at his folly, determined to track this fucking wench down, taste her in full before he left England.                                     

             Fisted her jaw, drew down in her face with a sneer. “Slut! Little better are you than a bitch panting to breed.”

            La Belle gasped, his grip painful, angry words confusing. He glared, panted, nostrils flared, cold eyes filled with something akin to disgust, cords of his neck bulged.

             She cried out as she swung at his arm, was released before making contact. “Bastard!” Shoved him in the chest—he stumbled back as though propelled by greater strength. Swiped at her mouth, wheeled away caught sight of the breach. Bolted toward it. Destriers backed up, snorted. She shot between them.

             Disoriented, hot tears scalded her face, put fingers to lips, whistled shrill notes. The un-tethered destrier bolted into the stream as the distant sound of a screaming whinny pierced the air.

             “Go after Zeus!” someone bellowed in French behind her.

             From the hill’s crest Jewel galloped into sight, dark mane flying, tail pointed up, ears pricked forward, he bolted down the slope toward her—she sprinted to meet him amid horses’ whinnies and shouts. He skidded to a halt between her and the army, sent clods of dirt flying.

             Grasped his mane. In a burst of panicked strength vaulted onto his back ripping her chemise, wheeled him around kicking, hissing—he gathered, lunged, took the hill in huge snorting leaps.

             Reined him in at the top, he heaved under her, fixed her eyes on the Barbarians. They’d all turned to watch, their leader stood where she’d left him. Shuddered at his incursion, left her exposed, foreign, lips swollen—swiped an arm across her mouth to erase the scoring throb of his kiss.

             Jewel backed up, reared. She turned him north, dug in heels desperate to place ground between herself and the French-speaking dog whose sweat clung to her body.      

             William watched her disappear, part shocked, part awed. Christ! She’d mounted that monster like a warrior, galloped off as though the devil charred her heels.

             There’d been a check in his chest when she glanced up at him—a fleeting look as though dazed. Shit. As though innocent. Flared nostrils for air, inhaled long and slow, clenched teeth as he attempted to adjust his cock. By all that was holy she could not be of gentle birth. No noble woman would conduct herself in such a manner.

             Spat, wiped an arm over his mouth, un-amused, aggravated, blood running hot. Endeavored to dismiss the flickering notion that this wildly brazen thing, whose hair the sun lit with fire, could in any way be a St. Gaunt. Not a sliver of lady there. So what in hell was a French-speaking serf doing with a mount like that?

            Turned away, retrieved her knife, glanced at it then back up the hill. “Fuck.” Tossed the weapon to Teal. Scooped up his gauntlets as Henry delivered Zeus. Mounted his destrier, eased onto the saddle. God’s stones! His sacs’d climbed into his lower belly, the ache wasn’t abating.

            Stuart pulled up on his right side, Henry and Teal halted at his left.

             Growled under his breath. “I want her.”

             Teal chuckled. “That was clear,” said in French, those within hearing laughed. “We’ve all seen her tits—I say we watch him fuck her.”

             William glanced over, raised a brow. “They were stunning—”

             “Made quite an impression.” Stuart said thumping his arm with his helm before handing it over. “She’ll not soon forget you.”

             Grunted, yanked up his coif—a trace of her clung to him. Inhaled, savored it. God’s life. Could roll like a dog in her scent.

             “The horse…” Henry cut through his thoughts, “bit costly for a serf.”

             Turned to his captain aware of what was insinuated. “Noble women don’t strip in meadows nor do they swim in freezing streams.”

             “Pity,” Teal said grinning, the others laughed. “The horse was stolen.”

             “Didn’t act stolen,” Henry said.

             Stuart nodded. “Came directly to her when she whistled.”

             “Enough!” He tired of their banter. “Teal—find out who she is—where I may find her.” Dropped the helm over his head. “If you’re done killing my cock I’ve a mouse to meet.” Glanced up the meadow. “And a betrothal to break.”

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