Daisy gripped her sword, staggering under the weight of the chainmail. Her intent had been to join the fight to hold Hohenzollern but now Princess Susanna had run a white flag up after Lord Eberhard abandoned them. The sounds of splintering wood and the screams of the dying had stopped, for the moment.
Daisy struggled under the heavy war gear she’d just taken from the armory and donned over squire’s clothing as she climbed to the top of the turret to watch her lady negotiate with the sacking army. Below, in the bailey, Lady Natalia herded children, including the lady’s small stepdaughter, into the chapel.
Panic coiled in her belly, slithered up her spine and strangled her. Not again.
She knew too well the fate that befell women when a castle is sacked by mercenaries. She’d lost her two sisters and her own innocence because of what had happened the last time. It was the reason she’d disavowed men forever. She wished the fighting had not stopped. She’d rather go out there and die as a soldier than give those monsters one moment of lewd pleasure with her body.
The portcullis opened wide and soldiers streamed into the bailey and then through the castle doors, whooping and calling with the excitement of plunder. She set down the heavy sword and fit an arrow to her bow, but she couldn’t make her fingers release it. It was one thing to be willing to die to save Hohenzollern. It was quite another to take someone’s life in her name. And shooting a man was far different from hunting a buck in the woods.
Kill or be killed, she schooled herself. Do it. She sighted down the length of the arrow at the melee below.
A large burly knight caught sight of her from down below and boomed, “Stand down, squire! Your lady has surrendered.”
She bristled. Her lady may have surrendered, but she had not. She aimed the arrow at the knight. His armor would protect him. She let it fly, just for the satisfaction of defying him and his orders. It struck his chest plate, glancing off.
He did not roar or shake his fist. He levelled a stare at her that made her shift on her feet, somehow calmly conveying she had made a grave mistake. Fear tightened in her gut, but she held firm. He continued looking at her as he headed inside, presumably to come after her. Let him. Maybe she’d get lucky and he’d kill her before he realized she was female.
In just a few short minutes, the door behind her opened and the enormous knight stalked through. His helmet dangled from one hand and he made walking in heavy armor look easy. “I told you to stand down,” he said. “The princess has surrendered. Hohenzollern is ours.”
Daisy didn’t speak, because she didn’t want to give away the fact that she was female. Her helmet and chainmail should disguise her well enough. She gripped her sword with both hands and charged at the knight.
He didn’t even draw a weapon, he simply struck her across the chest plate with his forearm, causing her to fly backward and land on her rear end. “Come now, lad,” the knight said, his voice kind, “the fight is over. I admire your bravery, but it’s time to lay down your arms.”
Curse him for being so decent. Why couldn’t he just fight her? She’d rather he ended things quickly. She struggled to her feet, readjusting the helmet on her head. Her sword had flown from her hands, and she stooped to pick it up, hefting it in the knight’s direction.
“Enough, boy,” he said, not looking even slightly concerned by her attack. He knocked the sword from her hands with a quick chop to her wrists and cuffed the side of her helmet. The metal clanked against her skull, sending her staggering to the side. Retrieving the dagger from her boot, she charged, aiming the blade at his armor, not really wanting to hurt him.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” he lectured as he jumped out of her path and gave her backside a kick that sent her sprawling in one direction, the dagger flying off in the other.
To her horror, her helmet rolled off. She looked up to see surprise bloom on the knight’s face, followed by amusement.
“No,” she said quickly, trying to scramble back.
“What do we have here?” he asked, reaching down to offer her a hand.
Instead of taking his hand, she aimed her foot for his privates and let it fly.
The knight moved shockingly fast for a man his size. Before her foot reached its target, he snatched her ankle and yanked up, effectively dangling her upside down by one foot.
“Stop,” she yelled. “Let go of me. Let me down!”
He chuckled, a low rumbling that made her armor reverberate. “Not until you stop fighting, lady. The battle ended. Now, lay down your weapon. No one is going to hurt you.”
She didn’t believe that for a second. She reached for the floor with her fingertips, kicking her free leg.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Let me go.”
“I asked you a question, little one.”
She continued to kick and thrash, but when it became evident she could not escape his grasp, she grumbled, “Lady Daisy, sir.”
“Lady Daisy, will you promise to behave if I put you down?”
“No.” She gave a few more kicks for good measure. He couldn’t hold her up there forever; his arm would surely tire soon.
Instead of angering him, her refusal made him laugh.
He caught her other ankle and stalked to the edge of the turret, holding her out, beyond the edge. “Would you care to revise your answer?”
She looked down at the ground far below, her stomach hurtling into her mouth. Her mind may have wanted death, but her body went completely still.
“That’s better,” he said. He brought her safely back and eased her down, then lifted her to her feet. He stood and gazed at her with amused benevolence, his eyes glittering as if finding a woman in a squire’s costume was the best surprise of his day. He had a ruggedly handsome face. If she cared for men at all, she would have found him appealing, both in appearance and personality. But she did not care for men. Not at all.
She took a step backward.
“Fear not, lady. I mean you no harm.” His brows drew together. “Did I hurt you?”
She rubbed her forehead where the steel helmet had knocked when she fell. “No, mostly my pride.”
He continued to frown and stepped closer, reaching for her head.
She jerked back, but not before he caught her, cupping her skull. He tipped and turned it, examining the lump. She flinched at his touch, his huge hands covering most of her head. He stood close, the masculine smell of leather and sweat reaching her nose, his chest plate bumping against hers. Her knees buckled and she wobbled on her feet.
“Easy, lady,” Barrett said, catching the maiden’s elbow. “Are you swooning?” He couldn’t believe he’d struck a lady down, not once, but three times.
“No, sir,” she said breathlessly. She blinked up at him with her large blue-green eyes as if dazed. He hoped he hadn’t scared her too much by hanging her over the edge. Of course, he’d had no intention of harming her, but a little fear never hurt for gaining cooperation.
“Are you sure?”
“Please, sir,” she murmured, pulling out of his grasp. She looked adorable in the ill-fitting chainmail, like a child playing dress-up. She turned away, as if dismissing him from her presence, and looked down over the bailey. Letting out a gasp, she reached for the bow she’d used earlier. “Put down that harp,” she shouted down, fitting an arrow and aiming.
He wondered where and how she had learned to shoot. Sauntering to the wall, he leaned on his forearms to watch the entertainment.
Edgar, one of his mercenary soldiers, carried an enormous harp out to his horse.
“You there!” she cried. “Put down my harp or I’ll shoot.”
Edgar stopped and looked up at them. Addressing Barrett, he said, “Are you going to let her speak to me like that?”
He shrugged, entertained by the pluck of the maiden. “I might,” he said with a grin. Turning to the lady, he asked, “Do you play it, lady?” Ladies did not play harps—minstrels did. He did not know why she would have a harp.
She did not move her gaze from her target. “Aye. It’s mine and I play it. I’d rather die than let some oaf who can’t tell music from his own vapors carry it off.”
He chuckled. “Edgar, can you play a harp?”
Edgar looked exasperated. “No.”
“Then it stays with Lady Daisy. Penrod,” he called down to his squire. “Take that harp from Edgar and bring it to me.” As he offered the determination on the fate of the harp, he realized the future of the lady herself hung in the air.
She turned to him, grateful surprise softening her features into pure loveliness. “Thank you, sir,” she exclaimed and started to run toward the door. She didn’t make it far, as she tripped over her fallen sword, the armor making her clumsy so that she could not recover and toppled once more to the floor.
He bit back a laugh as he righted her and reached for the buckles under her arms. “Let’s get this armor off you, shall we?” he said congenially.
She flushed, allowing him to unfasten the armor, but looking uncomfortable. He shucked the heavy plates and chainmail and stood back, drawing in a breath. She wore boy’s clothing, her shapely legs outlined clearly in the leggings. Though she cut a slight figure, her well-proportioned body had soft curves in all the right places.
Penrod threw open the door from the castle, his breath short from running up the stone staircase. “The lady’s harp,” he said with a bow.
“Thank you, Penrod,” she said with a tiny dip. Her manners showed the grace of a true lady, which he’d seen lacking when she’d been hollering over the edge of the turret. The contrast of refinement with bravado fascinated him.
Gerhard of Bavaria, the man who’d led their army to attack Hohenzollern, lifted his voice from the bailey below. “Remember, any woman you touch, you marry! Take your time and choose wisely. We will line them up against the wall for the picking.”
The idea of Daisy joining the lineup made him clench his fists at his side.
Her eyes widened in horror at the pronouncement. She started toward the edge at a run, as if to jump off the tower.
He lunged forward and caught her about the waist. “Fear not, Lady Daisy, I’ll not allow you in that assembly. I will claim you as my own wife,” he said, deciding in that moment he would never trust her to anyone else.
Her face turned pale and she jerked free. “What?” she exclaimed, looking alarmed. “No! I cannot. I am meant for no man,” she said in rush.
“Oh, yes, my lady. Every woman will leave here with a man. The princess has bargained for the safekeeping of the women and Gerhard has promised her they shall all go as wives, not slaves.”
Her eyes filled with tears. “I cannot marry.”
He stiffened. “Do you already have a husband?” Why did that idea irritate him? He should be happy she had a man to look after her so he didn’t need to take her on.
“No. The princess and her father before her granted my freedom from marriage. I was never to wed.” She tucked her arms around her torso, shivering from the cold.
“You are a nun?”
“Yes!” she exclaimed, grasping onto the idea. “I’m married to our lord.”
He narrowed his eyes. “You may be skilled at archery, but lying is not your gift. I’m sorry, but you leave here today as a bride, whether to me or someone else.”
“I cannot,” she whispered.
The more she argued with him, the more determined he became to keep her. “My name is Sir Barrett. My birth was not legitimate, but I am the son of a prince and I serve as the commanding knight at Rothburg, where my half-brother rules. I also earn a living as a mercenary at times, so I have enough silver to keep you as you are accustomed and I will do my best to ensure your comfort and happiness.”
“He is a fair and kind master,” Penrod piped in.
He smiled at his squire. “Thank you, Penrod.”
The lady flushed. “Sir, I did not mean to question your suitability. I am sure you would make a most chivalrous husband. I just cannot marry a man.”
“Do you love another?”
“No, sir,” she exclaimed, so quickly that he had no doubt of the veracity of her words.
“Well, look around. If you see another man you prefer, I will release my claim.” His teeth clenched as he spoke the last words.
She cast her eyes out to the bailey, but gave her head a small shake. “Please, I will go as your servant, but I do not wish to be a wife. I will serve in your kitchens, or wherever you have need of me.”
He frowned. “No. You are a lady and you will be treated as such. You will come as my wife. Enough arguing, now. You are freezing out here. Let’s gather the rest of your things before they are taken like your harp,” he said, grasping her elbow and propelling her toward the door.
“Sir Barrett,” Penrod said, trailing behind. “Should I look for a wife?”
“I don’t know, Penrod,” he said, as they stepped down the spiral staircase. “It seems to me like you have just discovered the fun of rolling a serving girl in the hay. Are you sure you’re ready to care for a wife? It’s a big responsibility, and one I would not allow you to do poorly.”
“Why did you decide to take a wife now? You always said you wouldn’t.”
He felt Daisy’s eyes on him, waiting for the answer. “I would not trust her keeping with any of the other men,” he answered lightly. He couldn’t explain the other reasons because he didn’t understand them yet, himself. Daisy was special—he’d known it the moment he laid eyes on her. She was a bundle of contradictions—a refined lady who shot a bow and arrow and played the harp. His attraction went beyond her beauty or her courage. Perhaps it lay in the combination of it all—along with the underlying vulnerability that made him want to protect her to the death.
“Where is your chamber?” he asked when they arrived at the base of the stairs.
She darted a nervous glance at him and swallowed. “Over here,” she said, leading him to the main floor, then up the stairs of another tower. She opened the door to what must be the maiden’s room, an expanse of six pallets and trunks lining the floor. “This is mine,” she said, pointing to one of the trunks.
He shook his head. “We cannot bring the entire trunk. You’ll have to pick your favorite things and a dress to change into now.” Because he sure as hell wasn’t going to let her walk through the castle in those leggings. He’d be beating the men off her.
She opened the trunk and took out a few dresses, hair combs, and ribbons. “Is this too much?” she asked.
He left one of the dresses for her to wear and picked up the rest of the bundle, handing it to Penrod. “Take these and the harp. Wait outside the door.”
Penrod obeyed and Daisy stood looking at him uncertainly. She held the dress up to her torso. “Do you have to—would you mind turning around while I change?”
He lifted his eyebrows. She’d have to get used to showing herself to him sooner or later, but he didn’t have to push the point now. Folding his arms, he turned his back and began to remove his own armor. He heard a rustling, then a gust of cold air hit his back. Whirling, he saw her head disappearing as she climbed out the window.
He cursed and dashed to the window just as his lady screamed.
Daisy had lost her grip and clung to the windowsill by just the fingertips of one hand, her legs kicking wildly below her. Before he could grab her wrist, her fingers slid and she dropped. She screamed again and caught the water spout, which she clung to with both arms, her legs thrashing.
He snatched her up by the armpits and hauled her inside, his heart thundering. She’d nearly died there. The idea that she risked her life to escape him disturbed him. She had courageously defended the castle, but she seemed particularly afraid of marriage.
She shook in his arms, her breath coming in gasps.
He sat down on a chair and held her on his lap. “That was foolish,” he said mildly, stroking her back to quiet her.
“Yes,” she agreed in a shaky voice.
Sir Barrett’s arms enveloped her, his enormous body dwarfing hers. It felt odd and not altogether unpleasant to be held as if she were a small child. She did not look at Sir Barrett but she could feel his breath against her neck.
“I ought to punish you,” he murmured.
She stiffened as her imagination took flight. That’s right. Despite his courtly manners, he had laid claim to her. Unless she escaped, he would become her husband and master. How would the huge knight choose to punish his wife? What things would he punish for? Would he thrash her? A mixture of fear and something else slithered in her belly. Her entire body grew prickly and warm despite the open window.
She needed to make him understand she could not be a wife. She could not offer her body up night after night for that horrific act. She looked at the door, but remembered his squire stood just outside. Sir Barrett had dropped his armor and sword by her door, but a dagger hung from his belt, just within her reach. Could she use it on him? She doubted it. She shivered and he lifted her to her feet.
“Get dressed now, lady. We must to get on the road or we’ll not make it to Rothburg by nightfall.”
He moved to close the shutters to the window, which still stood open.
Desperation took hold. Without a plan, she lunged forward and snatched the dagger from his belt.
He whirled, his hand flashing out and snatching the dagger. He grasped her arm and slapped the flat of the blade to her backside. “Now you most certainly earned a punishment,” he said, not sounding the least bit angry or even disappointed that she had just attempted to threaten his life. In fact, he seemed almost amused.
Dropping the dagger into his scabbard, he picked her up by the waist and carried her back to the chair. She caught a look of merriment in his eyes just before he tugged her across his thighs and lifted her tunic up her back. His huge paw clapped down on her upturned backside and she jerked, closing her mouth to the squeal that rose to her throat. He applied his hand four more times then created a new panic in her by yanking down her leggings to expose her bare bottom. She struggled against his hold, but he held her fast with an arm around her waist.
He picked up spanking again, slapping one cheek then the other in rapid succession. “We’re going to have a hard time together if you insist on trying to kill one or both of us,” he remarked, sounding quite calm considering how hard his hand connected with her stinging cheeks.
“I wasn’t going to kill you,” she said, as sulky as a child. Her initial gratitude at being punished with nothing more than his hand faded as her buttocks grew sore under his continued assault.
“No? What were you going to do, my lady?”
“I know not! I just—”
He chuckled, his hand still slapping a steady rhythm. “I enjoy your pluck, little one. But you’ve proven yourself dangerous. I will have to bind your hands until I’m sure you won’t kill me or run off.”
She wiggled and bounced, trying to dodge his hefty palm.
When she kicked her legs, he said, “You earned this spanking, little one. Lie still and take it or I’ll use my belt instead.”
She froze, crossing her ankles together and squeezing them to keep from moving. The strange, squirming sensation in her belly returned. “Please,” she cried. “Please, just let me go.”
“Go where, sweet lady? I will gladly free you if you can prove to me you have a place to go where you will be safe and well cared for. Do you have such a place?”
She moaned. Of course she had no such refuge. And her poor bottom burned as if on fire now. More than that, she wanted out of the humiliating position. She imagined the picture she made with her leggings around her thighs and her bare bottom angled up for his view. And could he see… the other?
“Forgive me!” she cried.
He stopped spanking and lifted her to stand between his knees. “I do forgive you, little one. I know you’re just frightened about what your future will hold,” he said. “But I still cannot allow bad behavior to go unpunished.”
She could not bring herself to look at him, her eyes dancing around the floor. Her face burned nearly as much as her bottom. She bit her cheek to keep her lips from trembling. It would be foolish to cry from a simple hand spanking. Still, she did not know how to act after the humiliating punishment.
Fortunately he did not demand she answer to him eye-to-eye. Instead, he bent down and pulled her leggings to her ankles, then wrestled them off over her boots.
She tugged down her chemise, which had been tucked inside her leggings, trying to cover her intimate parts.
He stood and pulled her tunic off over her head, leaving her in just the chemise. “Bring me your dress,” he said. He sounded perfectly businesslike, as if stripping and dressing women was an ordinary activity for him.
Her face still burning with embarrassment, she darted to the trunk and picked up her gown. She didn’t bring it to him, though. Instead, she pulled it over her head as quickly as possible, anxious to cover her body. She sensed him behind her and whirled.
He picked up her wrists, one of her ribbons dangling in his hands. “Hold them together for me,” he said.
She considered resisting, but realized she wouldn’t succeed, and her bottom already smarted enough from the spanking. She didn’t want another one. She took deep breaths, trying not to panic as she held her hands out.
He wound the ribbon around and around.
She stood on trembling legs, her emotions brewing just beneath the surface. She hardly knew what to think or how to act after that spanking. She certainly wished it had never happened. Part of her wanted to curl up and cry, the way she had as a child, but that was foolish—it hadn’t hurt that much. Still, she felt quite chastised—ashamed of her foolish and desperate actions. She also experienced a curious fluttering sensation in her stomach. Not fear so much as… something else.
Her bottom clenched just looking down at the knight’s large hands. She stole a glance at his face. He had a rugged appearance with a large head and strong, square jaw. Smile lines around his eyes and mouth softened the look. He wore a bear claw on a cord around his neck and his barrel chest rippled with solid muscle under his tunic. Her skin prickled at being so close to him. Or was that his heat burning right through her dress to warm her skin?
He wrapped the entire length of ribbon before tying a knot.
At first she thought it might be easy to escape a simple ribbon, but he’d fastened her wrists so securely she could not twist or wiggle them at all. Grinning at her, he bent forward at the waist and caught her hips with his shoulder, heaving her up like a sack of potatoes.
“My lord,” she exclaimed. “Please… this is entirely undignified.”
“Sorry, lady,” he said, striding toward the door. “You gave up your right to be dignified when you tried to climb out that window.” He opened the door and stepped out in the corridor. “And you gave up your right to the free use of your hands when you reached for my dagger. For now, you must resign yourself to being at my mercy. And if I were you, I would remember there are consequences to your actions.”
His squire fell in behind them, looking amused, but Sir Barrett growled, “Not a word, Penrod.”
“Of course not, sir,” the young man said, his expression turning blank as he hurried to keep pace.