Damn her Stonegate neighbors. This was the third attack in a year.
She narrowed an eye and took aim from her perch on the tower wall. The arrow hit the scaffolding but didn’t stick, glancing off and falling to the bailey below. She repeated the action, shooting again. Yes! She pumped her longbow in the air when one of the posts on their attackers’ wheeled climbing structure burst into flames.
Where in God’s name was Sir Aelbert, the knight she’d contracted for the next year? He should have arrived weeks ago with troops to defend her castle.
A rope with an iron hook on the end landed next to her and then slid to the tower wall, where it stuck. She cursed, watching a man climb across the rope toward her tower. Desperate to unhook the anchor-like device before the invader reached the tower, she tugged at the iron, but with his weight it wouldn’t budge. Her dress tangled at her feet and she kicked at it impatiently. If there had been even a moment’s notice she would have found a boy’s clothing and armor to wear, but as it was she was out defending her castle in the cursed gown.
“A sword—cut this rope with a sword!” she cried. She didn’t carry a sword herself—archery was the only battle skill she’d put to use in the eight years since her husband Lord William had left her alone here whilst he served the king in his holy war.
Sir Thomas rushed over and swung his blade. It slashed through the rope, and the would-be invader fell with a cry. She sighed, half with relief, half with exasperation. How desperate had things become that only old Sir Thomas, the aged knight who’d served Falconworth for twenty years, defended her now?
She’d managed well enough until her retained knight inherited his father’s title and left her undefended. She’d sent word to Lord Morholt, her overlord, to send men to protect her in the meantime, but he hadn’t replied. Not that she was too anxious to involve him. She’d been hiding the fact that her husband was dead for six months now. If he knew, he’d marry her to his lecherous nephew.
She cursed again—an unladylike trait, but gratifying in moments like these. The Stonegate curs had extinguished the fire on their scaffolding. More of the anchors landed all around her. The sound of the gate splintering under their battering ram mirrored the shattering of her hope.
They were going to fall.
This time, despite their best efforts, the castle would fall. Her throat closed and her head swam. All was lost. She could not save her castle or her vassals. She should have taken Father Bernard’s advice and secured a marriage with the neighboring Lord Elwood. Curses and curses again!
Bugles sounded. Her head jerked up and she scanned the area outside their gate. Another troop had appeared behind the attackers, and they looked ready for attack. Her heart leaped—could it be Sir Aelbert had finally arrived? It must be—the men moved in to attack the Stonegate troop.
Praise the heavens.
“Cease fire,” she shouted to the archers and the wielders of hot oil, lest they injure the wrong party. She, however, fit another arrow in the bowstring. Her aim was better than any man in the land, and if she saw a good shot, she would take it.
Sir Aelbert led his men well—she detected an order and method to their attack. The frontrunners fought on huge destriers, swords gleaming as they swung at their targets. Their horses proved as brave as the men, rearing up to batter their enemies with their hooves.
Blood splattered. Bodies fell. The newcomers advanced, pushing their way into the bailey.
“Retreat!” The outnumbered Stonegate ruffians followed their cowardly leader, fleeing at a run.
She almost laughed, but it had been too close a call for humor.
Sir Aelbert did not follow them. He sat upon his horse and watched them depart, then turned his head and looked straight up at her, as if he’d known she stood watching the entire time. Though she could see nothing of the man—he was in full armor, peering through the slit of a helmet—a shiver of attraction ran through her. His presence was larger than any other man on the field—sending signals of power, leadership, and male virility.
She shook her head to clear it. She should not be thinking of her new hired knight in such a manner. She broke gazes with her rescuer and turned to hurry down the stairs and give him a proper welcome and thanks.
“We’re saved, Tola!” she called to her younger sister as she traversed the corridor through the upper chambers. “Sir Aelbert has finally arrived and Stonegate tucked his tail and ran!”
Tola burst out of their chamber—where Camilla had instructed her to stay during the battle—and threw her arms around Camilla’s neck. “Thank God!”
“Aye. Come, let’s thank Aelbert!”
The outer gate had been completely destroyed and Sir Aelbert and his men were clearing a space in the ruins of it to allow their horses passage. She waited at the doors to the castle, flanked by Sir Thomas and a large group of servants.
Sir Aelbert took his time dismounting and allowed her manservants to lead the horses to the stable, giving them instructions she could not hear.
“Sir Aelbert!” she cried when the large man approached.
He removed his helmet and shook his head, revealing a clean-shaven square jaw and aquiline nose that matched his demeanor—bold, confident, and devastatingly handsome. She heard some of the serving girls sigh. Her pulse quickened… not that she had any interest in him.
“Nay, lady, you have mistaken me. I am Sir Balen.”
She froze in dismay. “Sir Balen, the Savage Sword?”
His lips curled into a tight smile. “You’ve heard of me.”
“What business do you have here?”
His face darkened and the smile grew tighter. “Is that the manner you welcome the party that just saved your keep?”
“Forgive me, sir, I am grateful for your help,” she said carefully, “but not if you have the same intentions the Stonegate men did.”
His brows snapped together. “Is that what you’ve heard of me? That I ransack English castles?”
“Nay, sir, I admit I have not heard such a thing.”
“Yet you dare accuse me of it?”
She eyed him warily, still not convinced. “I have heard you are ruthless and that you’ll fight for any side, so long as they pay well enough. You’re a mercenary. How do I know you have not come to claim Falconworth?”
Sir Balen made a sudden gesture of impatience, which caused her to step back, though she already stood out of his range. “I have not come to claim Falconworth. I will, however, be offended if you will not offer your hospitality to me and my men after what we have done to assist you today.”
She flushed, satisfied at last with his answer and consequently ashamed at her lack of graciousness. She dropped a curtsy. “Forgive me my suspicion. Please come in, sir. My servants will bring refreshments immediately.” She gave orders to the servants and ushered the troop of men into the great hall, where they removed their armor and sat at the large wooden tables that had been so little occupied of late.
The kitchen was unprepared to serve anything other than the fat and boiling water they’d been heating all morning for the defense of the castle. She went to offer direction, instructing a quick stew be made from salt meat and vegetables. There would be no bread, but they did have fresh berries, which would make a fine treat for dessert. She sent the serving wenches with jugs of ale for the men and took one herself to serve Sir Balen, as a show of gratitude.
She stopped short when she saw him. He sat at the head of the table, as if this were his castle and he was the master. Worse still, Tola—her innocent sister—sat to his left, smiling up at him as if he were the king of England. Irritation burned through her veins like fire. Rather than serve him, she handed the pitcher to a serving wench and plopped down on the bench to his right.
“You are sitting in my husband’s place,” Lady Camilla hissed through clenched teeth. The lady’s high cheekbones were accented with a flush of anger and her cornflower blue eyes flashed with annoyance. He found her stunning—no less so when given to ire. In fact, he admired her pluck, although perhaps on most women he would not. This one was not only plucky, but she wore the visage of an angel. Dark hair fell in ringlets down her back, uncovered, and her lush, full lips looked damn kissable. As lovely as her face was, the embroidered neckline of her green wool gown plunged to a point between her breasts, making it difficult for him to keep his eyes from wandering there.
Unfortunately, she noticed, her frown deepening.
“Am I?” he asked innocently, goading her. Her mistrust grated on him more than it ought to. She was right to be cautious, yet it rankled him not to have her esteem and gratitude when he’d gone out of his way to defend her. “Where is your lord, anyway?”
“Fighting in the holy war,” she said, her eyes darting to the priest at the end of the table.
He followed her look, wondering what it meant. The man was old—surely not a lover. He turned back to the lady. “And who is Sir Aelbert?”
“The knight I have retained to my service for the next year.”
Sir Balen looked casually around, though he had already assessed every man in the keep. Other than the elderly knight, it appeared she had only a handful of men at arms and serfs to manage the place. She was sorely unprotected. The sight of her atop the tower during the battle, without a single piece of armor or chain mail for protection, had disturbed him. That alone had given him reason to enter the battle instead of riding on. He’d been fascinated by her courage and the striking figure she cut as she issued orders and aimed her arrows. She’d brought out a desire to join her, to protect her and those she loved. It was a new and odd experience for him. He’d wanted to meet such a woman in person, but moreover, he had to be certain nothing happened to her.
“Where is your retainer knight?”
She ground her teeth. “He left,” she said shortly.
Sir Balen lifted his eyebrows. “I see.” He studied her openly.
He smiled, enjoying her blushes. It showed an innocence despite her authoritative command of her castle. Or mayhap it showed an interest in him. He rather hoped for the latter, despite the fact that she was a married woman.
“Lady Camilla, do you think your husband would approve of his wife shooting arrows from the top of the tower during a battle?”
She stiffened. “I think my husband would be grateful that I’ve managed to keep Falconworth defended all these years without him.”
“How long have you been alone here?” he asked, even more intrigued by her now.
“Eight years. Four since my father-in-law died and I’ve run things on my own.”
“And Lord Falconworth has been gone the entire time?” His eyes swept over her body, looking for signs that she’d had children. She couldn’t have been married long before the man left, because she didn’t appear to be much older than five and twenty.
Her eyes narrowed, noticing his perusal of her body. If he were a better man, he would be ashamed of himself for ogling her like a squire barely in whiskers.
“Why do you ask, sir?” she snapped.
He shrugged. “I am interested, that is all. I will tell you this, Lady Camilla. I doubt any husband would like his wife to be in the midst of a battle, particularly without armor or mail to protect her. I admire your courage, but if you were my woman, I’d take you over my knee and spank you soundly for putting yourself at such risk.”
Some of his men chuckled. A flush spread across her alluring chest and then up her neck to her cheeks. She stood abruptly. “It’s a good thing you’re not my husband, then. Enjoy your meal, Sir Balen,” she said curtly and marched away.
His lips stretched into a slow smile as he watched the sway of her ample hips below a narrow waist as she departed. If she were his woman, he’d spank that sweet arse until her sharp tongue turned soft. He’d spread those long legs and taste… He shook his head to clear it before his cock grew even harder.
“If you’ll excuse me.” The sweet voice of Lady Camilla’s young sister cut into his thoughts and made him start with guilt.
“Of course,” he said, standing as she stood to get up from the table. She was pretty—not as beautiful as her sister, but mayhap that would come with time. But he found no attraction to the sweet, demure type. Nay, it was Lady Camilla who’d piqued his interest. A woman who shot arrows from a longbow in the midst of a battle—a woman who managed her own demesne alone—God’s teeth, he wanted a woman like her.
After the meal, for which Lady Camilla did not join them, he ordered his men back outside to look into fortifying the castle for the night. Lady Camilla’s servants joined them, and he sent them to fetch as much large timber as they could find. The main gate had been smashed to pieces and still smoldered in places. He set his men to clear the debris, salvaging any larger pieces and chopping the smaller ones into firewood.
On two occasions he glanced toward the castle and saw Lady Camilla standing in the doorway, watching. The second time, he raised his hand to her.
She curtsied in response and he smiled.
Despite all the wood the men brought, it seemed Falconworth didn’t have enough timber on hand to complete a new gate by nightfall. He surveyed the large opening and uttered a low oath. Iron might have served them better, but that couldn’t be fashioned in one afternoon, either.
He called to several of his men. “Come with me, let’s see if we can find something else to fill the gap for the night.” Back at the castle doors, he tipped his head back and sized them up. “Aye, these will do for the night, anyway. Take them off their hinges and carry them out to use for the front gate. Mind you don’t damage either the wood or the hinges, understand?”
“Aye, sir.” His men set to work hammering the pegs from the hinges.
Lady Camilla appeared at the noise. “What on earth do you think you’re doing?”
“Moving the doors to use for a front gate for the night,” he answered without looking at her. “Your men can’t find enough large timber to fashion a new one and I’d rather we all slept cold in the great hall tonight than leave the gate open and unprotected.”
Lady Camilla hesitated for a moment, then nodded. “Agreed.”
His lips quirked at her authoritative manner. He hadn’t been asking her permission. She needed him and his help or her castle might not survive another night.
“Thank you, Sir Balen. For everything.”
Ah. She finally realized it. During the entire conversation, he’d kept his eyes on the task at hand, but now he turned and gave her his attention. She chewed on the inside of her cheek, looking uncomfortable. He gave a curt nod and turned back to his work.
“Yes, Lady Camilla?”
“I had not thought you would sleep in the Great Hall. I’ve had a room prepared for you upstairs.” She nibbled her lip. “That is… unless you’d prefer to sleep with your men.” Her eyes darted in the direction of his troop. “I-I had a bath readied for you as well.” Her gaze lowered to his chest, then shot back to his face and she blushed an enchanting shade of pink.
Was she thinking about seeing him naked? His skin prickled with heat. He found himself inordinately pleased by the effort she’d made on his behalf. After the suspicious way she’d greeted him and the way he’d offended her by saying she deserved chastisement, he had not expected much from her hospitality.
She dropped a tiny curtsy and looked at him, half wary, half expectant.
“Thank you, Lady Camilla. I should enjoy my own chamber and a bath, though it may not be until quite late in the night that we have the keep secured.”
She flushed even deeper. “I-I am truly grateful to you for this,” she said, her voice much smaller now. “I will see that you are attended to, no matter how late.” Her eyes met his and, for a moment, his breath stilled in his chest. As he stared into their vivid depths he felt subtly pulled toward her, unable to look away. They were the most spectacular shade of blue, rimmed in a shade of blue-black. Her lashes framed them, long and dark.
She wore the look of an animal caught in a trap—not of fear, but of surprise. Did she feel it, too? She must have.
He drew a breath. “Thank you, my lady,” he said softly, still locked into her gaze. His mind blank, he could think of nothing else to say to keep her there, looking up at him with her dazzling face.
She broke it, though he’d swear it was reluctantly, and gave him a quick curtsy before turning away.
He felt curiously alone without her presence. God’s bones, why did he have to become entranced with a married woman? Why not her sweet little sister, or one of the countless maids who had thrown themselves at him over the years? Nay, they had never interested him beyond a tumble now and again. Never in his life had he wanted to wed, but now he realized it was because he hadn’t known ladies like Lady Camilla existed.
One of his men chuckled and realized he was staring after her again. He shook his head and brought his focus back to repairing the gate.
They were able to remove the doors from their hinges without inflicting damage, which was no small feat considering the heft of the doors. They carried them down to the gap in the curtain wall and stood them up. They were not large enough, but if they fastened one to each side and then used planks to truss up the center gap it should be secure for the night.
It was an enormous job and, as he’d suspected, it took half the night. By the time he sent his men up to the castle, they were famished and dead tired. It seemed the inhabitants of the castle had waited up, though. Instead of the customary light supper fare of bread and cheese, Lady Camilla served his men a second dinner, far better than the first, of roast goose and root vegetables.
The men brightened considerably. “Well, that’s a better welcome,” one of his men said loud enough for Camilla to hear and though earlier he’d been rude himself, he shot his man a warning look. His troop took notice, sensitive to his direction, and began to sing her praises and offer their thanks. They ate heartily and lifted their mugs to Lady Camila in appreciation.
For him, it was the sight of the lady herself, striding purposefully toward him, that cheered his mood.
“Is it too late for a bath, Sir Balen?” she asked the knight after he’d consumed the meal she’d sent out for him and his men.
For a brief moment, she saw something lewd about the way he looked at her, but then it vanished. She had a hard time not imagining what the knight would look like undressed. She half-envied the chambermaid who would serve him if she got to look upon those broad shoulders and that muscled chest unclothed. It had been a long time since she’d seen a man naked, and she hadn’t thought she’d missed the sight. But mayhap the right man hadn’t come along to inspire those kinds of musings before. Too bad this one was such an arrogant ass.
He nodded his head. “I should like a bath, Lady Camilla.” He unfolded his long legs from the bench and came to stand, towering over her.
She stepped back, involuntarily, and caught the glimmer of a smile on his lips.
He gave orders to his men to take shifts guarding the castle gate and then he and his two squires followed her up the staircase to his chamber. She felt self-conscious walking before him. He disconcerted her—she wasn’t the blushing maid type, but she somehow felt wrong-footed in his presence when she wasn’t furious with him. Part of her still mistrusted him, while the other part felt ashamed for the lack of graciousness she’d shown him, considering how much goodwill he had already offered to Falconworth.
But that comment about taking her over his knee! And the way he’d sat at the head of the table… Apparently he’d missed the lessons in chivalry that were essential for becoming a knight.
But she had to admit he was extremely capable. He had summarily saved Falconworth from capture and his diligent work in securing them for the night went beyond what she’d expect from even a knight in her employ. His troop seemed loyal and well-disciplined, a sign of good leadership. Then there was the fact that he was the most beautiful man she’d ever seen—good-looking enough that nearly every female in the castle had commented upon it and the serving wenches had nearly tripped over themselves to serve him.
She opened the door to his chamber and stood aside in the threshold for him to pass. He stepped directly into the doorway and paused there, his body so close she felt the heat from it. He looked down at her and she was horrified to feel herself blushing again. His chest was eye level, hard muscles outlined underneath the tunic and linen undershirt. The thought of running her fingernails through the hair on his chest flashed through her mind and she blinked it away, swallowing. “Shall I send a maid to attend to you?” she asked, her voice cracking.
For a moment, she swore she saw that lewd look again, but all he said was, “No, that won’t be necessary, Lady Camilla. My squires will attend to me.”
She backed away from him, bumping into the squires and drawing a deep breath as she moved out of the range of his presence. “Should you need anything, do not hesitate to send any servant for it,” she said breathlessly, still retreating backward.
A smile twitched on his lips. “I shall do that,” he said, his eyelids low, his voice deeper than she’d remembered. She turned and nearly fled to her own chamber, the imagined vision of her fingers on his chest again slipping into her mind, unbidden.