Code of Honor (Knights of Honor Book 3)
Fifteen years pass, and the now-knighted Sir Michael Devereux serves Lord Geoffrey de Montfort at Kinwick Castle. He accompanies the nobleman and his family to a wedding, where Michael unknowingly falls in love with the bride before he even knows her identity.
Lady Elysande Le Cler is angry that her usually indulgent father went against her wishes and betrothed her to a stranger prior to his death. Now as her wedding day approaches, dread fills her—until she meets a dashing stranger who helps her deliver a foal. Elysande loses her heart to this knight, frustrated that they can never be together.
Join Michael and Elysande as they find fate has other plans in store for them.
Each book in the Knights of Honor series is a standalone story that can be enjoyed out of order.
Book #1 Word of Honor
Book #2 Marked by Honor
Book #3 Code of Honor
Book #4 Journey to Honor
Release date: March 28, 2017
Publisher: Dragonblade Publishing, Inc.
Print pages: 232
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Code of Honor (Knights of Honor Book 3)
As they crested the hill, Michael Devereux gazed with pride as he caught sight of his home. Sandbourne Castle stood in the distance, surrounded by rolling green hills. Cottages dotted the landscape. Animals grazed in the pastureland. A lump formed in his throat. He’d been away from home over a year and had missed his mother more than anyone. He couldn’t wait to entertain her with stories of his first year as a page fostering in Sir Lovel’s household.
He spurred on his borrowed horse, wanting to reach the keep as soon as possible after three long days on the road in blistering heat, accompanied by a knight Sir Lovel provided to see him safely to his parents’ doorstep. Michael differed from the other boys in this. They all had fathers or other close family members who escorted them home for their summer visit.
The Earl of Sandbourne wrote that he was too busy to dance attendance upon his only son, much less send one of his soldiers to see that the boy reached Sandbourne without any problems. Sir Lovel graciously provided Michael with an escort, much to his embarrassment. It only gave the other pages and squires something new to tease him about. They already taunted him unmercifully because he was so plump. His mother assured him as he grew older and taller, the extra weight would come off. For now, Michael tried to ignore the wicked names the other boys called him to his face and pretend he didn’t know how they talked about him behind his back.
Thank the Christ Geoffrey and Raynor had put an end to the harshest cruelty. The two squires, both seven years older than he was, had been gone when Michael first arrived at Sir Lovel’s to foster. When they returned, they put a stop to the worst of it, boxing a few ears and bloodying a few more noses to get their point across. Now the other boys simply called him Tol—which stood for Tub of Lard. Michael found it a tolerable nickname and so he endured it. He couldn’t let Geoffrey and Raynor fight all of his battles. He was eight, after all, and needed to learn how to stand up for himself.
But it still angered him that his father hadn’t spared the days it would have taken to come and bring him home for summer. Michael envied the joyous reunions he’d witnessed between family members as he lurked in the shadows of the great hall. Already, he’d been the only child fostering who hadn’t returned home the previous Christmas. His father told Sir Lovel that his boy needed to toughen up, so Michael had spent the holy holidays keeping mostly to himself. Sir Lovel had graciously included Michael in his family’s festivities, but he’d slipped away at the earliest chance during the many celebrations held between Christmas and Epiphany.
Why did his father hate him so much?
From Michael’s earliest memories, the earl never showed him any sort of affection. He never once referred to Michael by name. The nobleman was brusque with his only child, paying him little attention. Only his saintly mother spent time with him. Nurtured him. Taught him to read. Rode around Sandbourne with him and introduced him to its tenants. It was his strong desire for his mother’s company that had him eager to return home now. Without her, life seemed drab. She always invented creative stories to tell him and showered him with attention and love.
Michael gave a shout to the familiar gatekeeper, who opened the gates at his command. Michael assumed he was expected since Sir Lovel had sent news of his return to Sandbourne, but no one stood to greet them as they made their way toward the inner bailey.
Turning to Sir Oderic, his escort, he said, “We should ride to the stables. We can have someone care for the horses before we go into the great hall. I know you need to quench your thirst and Cook can provide you with a small meal.”
He did not miss the look of pity in the soldier’s eyes as the man spoke up after hours of silence on the road. “I’ll see to our horses, young master. I can also find myself food and drink without your help. Why don’t you go and find your mother? I’m sure she’ll be happy to lay eyes upon you after you’ve been away for so long.”
Michael threw a leg over the saddle and jumped down from the horse Sir Lovel had allowed him to ride on this journey home. He owned no horse of his own, which suited him since he had no fondness for the huge, intimidating animals. That would have to change because part of his training would include caring for horses once he became a squire.
Gratitude toward Oderic flooded him. The knight had always treated him with a good bit of kindness. “Thank you, good sir. I’m anxious to find Mother and speak to her.” He reached up and took his small bag of clothing attached to the pommel. “Will I see you before you leave Sandbourne? We could sup together tonight in the great hall.”
Oderic shook his head. “Nay, young man. I’ll wet my whistle and have a bit of bread, but I’ll return immediately to my liege lord’s estate.”
Michael heard in Oderic’s voice what the knight did not bother to express aloud. That he believed he would not be welcomed by the Earl of Sandbourne. That the nobleman would probably pound away, pumping the soldier for information about how his son’s training progressed.
And as an honorable knight who upheld the code of chivalry, Sir Oderic couldn’t lie. The answers he would give would not be ones the earl wished to hear. For Michael was the slowest of all Sir Lovel’s pages and lagged behind in every activity assigned to him. His chubby fingers made him clumsy. His thick legs saw that he finished last in every physical task, especially in delivering messages around the castle and its grounds. He was, for all intents and purposes, a miserable failure.
Yet Michael believed he would overcome these obstacles. He didn’t know how or when, but Geoffrey had told him that he, too, had been slow to grasp things at first. Geoffrey shared with Michael that he’d made a terrible page. And look at him now. Geoffrey de Montfort was the finest of all Sir Lovel’s squires. Even the nobleman himself said that Geoffrey was the bravest of them all and would be the first to be knighted amongst their group.
Michael gave Sir Oderic a curt nod. “Thank you for the safe conduct back to Sandbourne. I’ll see you when I return at summer’s end.”
The knight gave him a rare smile. “I’ll return for you in six weeks’ time. We’ll have much to discuss on our journey.”
He watched Oderic head toward the stables. So it had already been decided that his father would not accompany him back to Sir Lovel’s. The knowledge cut Michael to the quick, but he resolved to push it aside. He would find his mother and enjoy spending the afternoon with her.
And push the dread of speaking with his father into a dark corner of his mind. For now.
Michael entered the keep. He stopped a servant girl unfamiliar to him and inquired where his mother might be.
“So you’re the young master?” she asked pertly.
“I heard you were coming home.” She studied him a moment. “You’re not at all what I expected.”
He shrugged. What could he say? He was short. Pudgy. His stained clothes reflected three days of travel without being changed. He knew he looked less an earl’s son than most.
“You can try—”
He turned and saw his father’s long-time steward coming his way. Alarm filled Michael at having to see his father so soon.
“The earl is waiting for you. Follow me.”
Michael reluctantly fell into step behind the man as he mounted the staircase. So much for spending an enjoyable afternoon in the company of his beloved mother. Instead, he prepared himself for the tongue-lashing he would receive. Reaching into his pocket, he stroked his good luck charm, a pink rock he and his mother had found as they walked around the estate one afternoon. He always kept it within reach. His fingertips brushed against it now, as he willed the small stone to bring him courage for the encounter ahead.
They reached the door to the solar.
The steward paused. “Go on in. The earl is expecting you. He saw you ride through the gates.” He nudged Michael.
So his father had seen his arrival. Michael wondered why he hadn’t taken the time to come greet his son in person as he would any guest that graced Sandbourne. It made him question whether his mother even knew her boy was expected for a visit. It wouldn’t surprise him if the knowledge had been kept from her.
He pushed the door open, throwing his shoulders back and holding his head high. Preparing for the worst. Hoping for the best—though knowing that was unlikely.
His father sat in his favorite chair, holding a pewter cup, as he nibbled from fruit and cheese which sat on a platter on the table next to him. He glanced up. Already the earl wore a frown on his face, as if merely the sight of his son caused him great disappointment.
“Close the door,” he barked.
Michael did so and approached timidly.
“Don’t be such a mouse. You’re a man. Act like one,” his father commanded, as if simply uttering the words would make it so. In the earl’s world, it did. No one dared cross the nobleman. His orders had to be followed swiftly, without hesitation. And if the Earl of Sandbourne became displeased in any way?
Pity the soul who drew his wrath.
“You’re filthy, boy,” his father admonished. “Don’t even think of sitting down and spreading the dust that clings to you.”
Michael wished he’d had time to wash the stains of travel from his hands and face and change his gypon and cotehardie before this meeting occurred.
His father’s nose crinkled in disgust. “You haven’t lost any of that fat on you. I’d hoped Lovel would have worked it off you by now.”
What was he supposed to reply?
“I do work very hard in service to Sir Lovel, Father.”
The earl snorted. He stared at Michael without speaking, his eyes roaming up and down in judgment. “God’s teeth, but I believe you’ve actually gained weight!”
Michael shuffled uneasily. “I can promise you that I put my heart and soul into every task which I am assigned. And I eat no more than the other pages do.”
Michael hesitated, wondering if he should speak. He decided he would try to be the man his father expected. That would mean taking the initiative in their conversation.
“Would you like to hear about what I’ve learned so far, Father?”
“I know what you should’ve learned, boy,” the earl snapped. “How to curb your appetite, for one. How to polish armor till it gleams. How to sharpen a sword. How to deliver a message, quickly and quietly. How to sit a horse. Are you still afraid of horses? Or has Lovel stamped that fear out of you?” The earl’s eyes flashed in interest for the first time.
The mention of it caused the pit of Michael’s stomach to shrivel as memories flooded him. He’d been put on a horse at a very young age—and promptly fell off. Over and over. One aggravated horse stomped on his foot so hard that the animal broke it. Michael spent weeks off his feet as the bones healed. He’d finally learned to tolerate being around horses during his year away from Sandbourne, but they’d never be his friend. Once again, he had Raynor Le Roux to thank. The squire had spent numerous hours with Michael once he’d discovered Michael’s fear of the large beasts. Raynor’s teaching skills and patience paid off. Michael no longer was ridiculed by the others regarding his lack of finesse upon a horse.
“I ride as well as any boy that fosters with Sir Lovel,” he said, which was the truth. But he didn’t reveal how he still panicked each time he first sat in the saddle. How his heart raced. How it pounded so violently that he thought it might tear away and jump from his chest.
Then as he became used to the horse under him, the panic would slowly subside. He’d learned to control the animal with the reins and his thighs. Raynor had taught him that mastering being in the saddle was as much a mental game as a physical effort. Michael was proud of how far he’d come along in the past year. He would show his father how different he’d become. How much he’d grown up in such a short amount of time.
Summoning every bit of bravery he possessed, he said, “Mayhap tomorrow we can ride out together, Father. I’d love to see the land around Sandbourne and hear about what you’ve done this past year while I’ve been gone.”
There, he’d spoken up. Ventured to address his father in conversation instead of only waiting to reply to a question. Showed his interest in their property. After all, one day he would hold the title of earl. Geoffrey had told him ‘twas never too early to learn about the estate you would inherit.
His father eyed him with more interest now. “Mayhap Lovel is making something of you. I don’t remember you being so bold in the past.” The stern look the earl wore had Michael wishing the ground would open up and swallow him whole. “However, I am curious as to how you behave around a horse nowadays.”
The earl stood. “Let’s go to the stables. I want to see you saddle a horse. You do know how to saddle a horse?”
Without further conversation, his father strode from the room. Michael raced to keep up with him, sweat breaking out along his hairline. He knew the basics. What each piece did and where it should be placed.
But pages didn’t saddle horses—only squires did so. He’d watched Geoffrey and Raynor do it many times. Raynor was kind enough each time he took Michael out to ride to explain over and over what he did as he drew each piece mounted on the wall and affixed it to the horse. Raynor claimed the repetition would do Michael good and that he’d be able to saddle a horse in his sleep when the time came.
But that time would be sometime in the future. His father wanted to see his progress. Now.
Michael tamped down the reluctance flooding him and told himself to get control of the emotions rushing through him. He did so when the other boys teased him. His greatest skill had been learning to take their cutting words in stride and let them wash off him as water spilling from a bucket might. As they left the keep, he slowed his breathing so that it became deep and even—another thing Geoffrey had taught him to help calm himself when his nerves threatened to spin out of control.
I can do this.
Repeating those words over and over, he hurried after his father. The older man’s long strides kept Michael running as he tried to keep up.
They crossed the bailey, passing many people hard at work. No one spoke a word to them. ‘Twas so unlike Sir Lovel’s, where every person shouted a greeting and rewarded one another with a smile. Sandbourne ran efficiently, but Michael understood now that it wasn’t a happy place to live and work. He’d been out in the world a bit now and could see how his father’s oppression blanketed those who lived on the estate.
Michael swore in that moment that when he finally gained the title, everything would change.
They approached the stables and entered. He was glad to be out of the strong sunlight. By hurrying across the bailey, he could already sense the sweat gathering in his hair and drizzling down his back. His palms, too, had broken out as if he’d dipped his hands in the horse’s trough. Michael wiped them against his thighs. He wondered how he’d be able to lift a heavy saddle and hoist it on whichever horse his father selected, much less if he could hold on to it without it slipping from his grasp.
If only Geoffrey and Raynor were here to cheer him on. Their constant support had changed how Michael viewed himself. Others might see him as slow and fat, but Michael had learned he possessed a keen mind and a clever wit. Even Geoffrey told him that he spoke as well as one thrice his age. One day, the fat would melt away as his mother promised and his body would catch up. He would become one of the finest knights in all the land. Why, he might even serve in the king’s guard someday.
Michael heard voices and pulled himself from his reverie. Laughter came from one of the far stalls. His father stopped a moment and listened, then charged ahead like a foot soldier rushing into battle.
Alarm exploded inside Michael as the tinkling laughter sounded again. ‘Twas his mother’s gentle laugh, which always sounded to him like bells merrily pealing. He ran to catch up to where his father now stood, feet apart, glaring into a stall.
Michael stopped next to his father and looked inside. The stall held an ebony horse Michael had never seen before. Next to it stood his mother and Sir Thirkell, one of his favorite knights in his father’s employ. Thirkell and his friend, Sir Charles, had told Michael stories about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table from the time he was a babe. Michael had thought back on those stories during the nights he had trouble falling asleep. He used his fascination with the tales to push aside the taunts from that day.
“Michael!” his mother cried in joy as she caught sight of her son. “Do you like him? It’s your new horse, Tempest. Sir Thirkell just brought him home. We were feeding Tempest bits of carrot. He’s a greedy little thing.”
“My lord,” Thirkell said, acknowledging the earl’s presence before he looked to Michael. “Young Master Michael. ‘Tis good to have you home for your summer visit.”
His mother stepped behind the knight and stumbled as she squeezed by him in the narrow stall. Thirkell caught her by the waist as she toppled forth. She gave him a tentative smile as he righted her.
With that, his father exploded. “Get your hands off my wife!”
His mother took a step forward. “I only—”
The earl struck his wife hard. She spun in a full circle and fell to her knees, blood dripping from her mouth, her eyes haunted with fear. Michael knew it wasn’t the first time his father had injured her. He’d seen the bruises she tried to hide. He remembered the times she’d been bedridden for a week at a time, unable to walk after one of her husband’s beatings for the slightest infraction.
Thirkell gave his the nobleman a look that chilled Michael’s heart. The knight bent and lifted the countess to her feet and steadied her. He turned and faced his liege lord.
“I have sworn an oath to protect your family, my lord. That includes your lady and your son. I simply brought the countess to the stables to see the horse she wished purchased for Master Michael’s homecoming.” Thirkell paused. “I am sorry if I offended you by preventing her from falling.”
The earl’s eyes narrowed in a way that brought terror to Michael. “I’ve seen the looks you give one another when you think no one sees,” he said, his tone more menacing than Michael ever remembered. “I know the slut sneaks off to your bed.”
Thirkell’s brows shot up. “I sleep in the barracks with a hundred other of your men, my lord. No woman—much less the lady of Sandbourne—ever graces my bed. You dishonor your wife by claiming so.”
Michael saw his mother shrink against the stall’s wall as the knight spoke. Blood stained the front of her light blue cotehardie. He turned back to view his father. Michael knew his father would never back down from the accusation, no matter how outlandish it was.
“You dare to call me a liar?” the earl demanded.
Thirkell shook his head. “Nay, my lord. You are simply mistaken. Nothing untoward has gone on this day, or any other day. I am in your service and loyal to you and the Devereux name.”
Michael saw the blur as his father moved toward Thirkell. His brain refused to comprehend what happened so quickly.
Yet seconds later, he watched the knight’s eyes go wide. Thirkell’s hands flew to his throat, where a red gash angrily crossed his flesh. Michael glanced and saw the dagger his father always carried dangling from his hand. Blood dripped from the blade. Michael looked on as the knight crumpled to his knees. Thirkell tried to speak and then fell forward with a dull thud. Michael’s jaw dropped open. No words came out. He watched the blood begin to pool under the knight’s head, saturating the hay.
His father approached his mother, a gleam of madness in his eyes. Michael remained frozen in fear, unable to move.
“You have tested me, woman. Beyond what any man should endure. You’ve played me for a fool many times while you’ve dallied with other men. ‘Tis time I rid myself of you, a woman who pawned off a child on me.”
His mother took a step forward. Michael wanted to cry out for her to run away, but he couldn’t speak.
“I have never been unfaithful for a single moment, Husband,” she declared. “Michael is your son. No one else’s.”
His father moved with lightning speed and slapped his mother, knocking her against the wall. His fists pounded her face. Pummeled the soft flesh of her body.
Michael had to act. He must save her. Even if his father did the same to him as he did to Sir Thirkell. He had to be a man—for his mother’s sake.
The earl’s blows had forced his wife to the ground. He savagely kicked her now. Michael heard a rib crack and her gasp of pain. He slammed into his father, knocking him aside. Michael rode his father’s back and began to choke him as the earl tried to regain his feet. Distantly, he heard his mother wheezing, a pitiful sound that broke his heart.
Suddenly, his father pried away the fingers from his throat and tossed his son off. Michael hit the ground so hard it knocked the breath from him, as if he’d fallen from a horse. He tried to suck in air, but his lungs seemed to freeze up. Before he could breathe, his father grabbed him, fists bunching into Michael’s clothes as the earl lifted his son to his feet. Then an explosion of stars danced before Michael’s eyes because his father brutally backhanded him.
Pain rippled along his cheek. He brought a hand to his face and touched the blood. His father’s signet ring had sliced open his cheek.
Michael staggered to his feet and yelled, “Stop!”
The earl did so. It shocked Michael that his words had finally gotten through the fog of madness surrounding the man.
“No more, Father,” he ordered, his voice quivering.
The earl gave him a grim smile. “You’re right. I won’t put up with this any longer.” He glanced at his wife, now curled in a fetal position, her face already swelling. “Behold your mother for the last time, boy.”
Michael sucked in a quick breath. Would his father kill his mother right now?
“You and I will never see this slut again. She’s betrayed me for the last time. I’ll find witnesses to her adultery. Pay them if I have to. She can spend the rest of her days on her knees in a convent, thinking on her multitude of sins and hoping God will forgive her many betrayals. As of this day, she is dead to me—and to you.” His eyes shifted to the trembling, bloodied woman lying in the hay. “I won’t be humiliated by a whore anymore. I’ll see that you are locked away. That no one will ever know where you’ve gone. May God have mercy on you, for I have none left in my heart for you or your wanton ways.”
Michael gazed at the broken woman on the ground. Her lips moved, but no words came out. Their eyes met. In them, he saw relief. Michael realized she would be glad to escape her marriage to this monster and the frequent punishments he doled out for imagined offenses.
As their eyes remained locked, Michael hoped his mother understood what was in his heart. That he loved her. That no matter what his father said, her son would someday find her.
And when he became the Earl of Sandbourne, Michael would bring her home and reinstate her to the position of honor she so richly deserved after all of her suffering.
Michael ran and kissed her swelling cheek before the earl could stop him. He then drew himself up and latched on to Tempest’s mane. He willed himself to leap upon the horse bareback and surprised himself when he realized he sat atop the beast.
Looking down at his father, he declared, “You are a stranger to me and no longer my father. You’ve never called me by name. I have no love for you. I will never forgive you for what you’ve done this day. I’ll never set foot on Sandbourne land again until your body lies cold and rotting in the ground.”
Before the earl could stop him, Michael spurred Tempest on with a swift kick. The Earl of Sandbourne jumped aside. Michael hung on for dear life as he steered the horse out of the stables and galloped away from his home.
To a new future.
Merryn de Montfort took her fifteen-month-old son from Tilda and smiled as he babbled some nonsense. Knowing he had her attention, Hal then blew a bubble and laughed heartily. He was a sunny child and reminded her of how Geoffrey had been as a young boy, full of good cheer and light.
“He looks more like your brother, Hugh, every day, my lady,” the servant said. “I should know. I cared for Hugh from the day he arrived.” She paused and grinned at the babe. “I do see a bit of you in Hal, as well. You and Master Hugh looked fairly alike till you turned two. Then you went your own separate ways in your looks.”
Merryn laughed. “That’s nonsense, Tilda. Hal resembles his father. Look around his eyes. And his mouth. He is Geoffrey made over, from his coloring to his dark hair.”
The woman shook her head sagely in disagreement. “The little lord has the Mantel family mouth, my lady. Of that, I’m certain.”
Merryn bounced Hal slightly, causing his eyes to go wide before he giggled. No matter what her longtime servant said, she believed her boy would grow up to look like his father. Already, Hal reminded her of Ancel at that age. At almost eight years of age now, Ancel strongly favored Geoffrey.
She was happy Ancel would soon come home for his summer visit. Even though he fostered at Winterbourne, the adjoining estate to Kinwick, Merryn missed seeing her eldest son on a daily basis. She was grateful she and Geoffrey often received invitations from Hardie and Johamma to visit Winterbourne and catch a glimpse of Ancel performing his duties as a page to the earl. Even so, it surprised Merryn how much her sweet boy had grown in the past year.
“My lady! They’ve been sighted. They’re coming through the gate,” a servant informed her.
Joy filled Merryn’s heart as she hurried from the solar and down the staircase. She took care not to jostle Hal too much. While she missed Ancel, as any mother would, she ached every day from the pain brought by the separation from her daughter, Alys, who fostered with the queen at the royal court. For the first seven years of life, her oldest child had been her mother’s shadow. Alys aided Merryn in growing and picking herbs and had all the makings of a future healer. In fact, the girl proved more knowledgeable than Merryn at the same age. Since Alys lived in London, Merryn hadn’t seen her only daughter since the Christmas season. The bond between them was strong and she missed Alys more than words could explain.
Now, her daughter would remain at Kinwick for a longer period since she was not expected at her young age to go with the royal court on its entire summer progress. Merryn couldn’t wait for Alys to see how much Hal had changed in the last few months.
Catching sight of Geoffrey astride Mystery, peace washed over Merryn. Her husband was the best part of her world. She was happy to have Geoffrey home after he’d been on the road this past week. He’d been back at Kinwick two years now after their long separation and she loved him more with each passing day. He galloped across the inner bailey, a broad smile on his face as he spotted her. She blew him a kiss—and couldn’t wait for his lips to be against hers in a real one.
Other knights in the escort party followed closely behind him. Merryn spied Alys, sitting in front of Sir Michael Devereux. The knight had only been at Kinwick a year now, but he proved to be one of her favorites. His loyalty was beyond question and he had a way with all of the children on the estate. Hal seemed drawn to Michael like a moth to a flame and she had watched the two playing in front of the fire in the great hall many nights. Merryn wished that Michael would find a wife, for he would make a perfect father. Mayhap, she should begin to think of a woman to place in his path that would suit him.
She raised a hand in greeting, catching her daughter’s eye.
“Mother!” Alys cried, waving her dainty hand back and forth.
She smiled as Michael lowered her daughter to the ground. Alys took off running up the stone stairs leading up to the keep. Merryn watched her approach and returned the girl’s smile. Merryn could already see the budding beauty within Alys. One day she would steal men’s hearts.
Alys reached the top of the stairs and clung to her mother for a moment. They both shed tears of happiness at being together again. Hal began squirming in her arms, trying to get a glimpse of his sister.
“Oh, Mother.” Alys stroked the babe’s cheek. “He has grown into a little man.”
Merryn laughed. “He was barely toddling about when you were here at Christmas time. And now we have to watch him every minute of the day. He is faster than a comet streaking across the night sky.”
Alys held out her arms. “Hello, little brother.” She took the child and ruffled his dark hair. “Do you remember me? I’m your sister. The eldest child. Never forget that.”
Merryn laughed. “’Tis a good thing Ancel is not here. He hates it when you mention that. He should return from Winterbourne in time for the noon meal tomorrow.”
The girl sniffed. “Well, I am the firstborn. I arrived a good minute before Ancel did. I’ll always be the oldest de Montfort child.” Her eyes twinkled. “And I shall never let either brother forget it.”
Merryn found herself spun around and in Geoffrey’s arms. He pressed his mouth to hers in a lingering kiss. As always, just a simple touch from her husband melted her bones to liquid. Breaking the kiss, he gazed at her with love before brushing his lips tenderly against her forehead. Her husband always made her feel treasured.
Then he reached and snatched Hal from Alys’ arms. “How’s my boy?” He tossed the babe into the air and caught him. Hal squealed in delight. Geoffrey repeated the gesture several times before setting Hal on his feet. Hal bolted toward the doors where Tilda stood with a slice of cheese, his current favorite food.
Geoffrey put an arm about Merryn and Alys and drew them close. “’I’m glad to be at Kinwick, once again, with my two girls.”
“I’m a young lady, Father,” Alys sternly reminded him. “The queen says so.”
He laughed. “Far be it from me to disregard what Queen Philippa has said.” Geoffrey squeezed both of them again. “Come, let’s go inside. I know your mother wants to hear all about your time at court.”
They bypassed the great hall and headed upstairs. Alys stopped at her bedchamber to wash and change her clothes, promising she would hurry. Merryn and Geoffrey continued on to the solar, where he did the same. Though she couldn’t wait to hear what news Alys brought, Merryn felt a pang of regret as her husband doffed his clothes and changed into new ones. She wished they had some time to themselves.
“I see how you’re looking at me, Wife,” Geoffrey teased. He pulled his gypon over his head and laced it before drawing the rust cotehardie over it. “You wish to worship my body.”
Merryn placed her palm on his chest and felt his heart jump. “Mayhap you can worship mine later this evening, my lord,” she said saucily.
He yanked her close for a searing, possessive kiss. Much too short but ever so sweet. Then released her.
“Alys already chides us for all the kissing we do. I suppose we’ll need to behave ourselves.” He winked. “At least for now.”
The door flew open at that moment. Alys entered with a parchment in her hand.
“A missive has come. Tilda said the messenger was given something to eat. He told Tilda that he’s to wait for a reply.” Alys handed it to her father, curiosity written across her face.
“Hmm. ‘Tis addressed to Lord and Lady de Montfort in a hand I don’t recognize.” Geoffrey seated himself at the table and broke the seal.
Merryn came and placed her hands on his shoulders and peeked at the writing. She read:
To my dearest brother Geoffrey and his wife, Merryn –
It’s been far too long since we have seen one another, Brother. I know being a dozen years older than you meant that we never spent much time together, yet I still remember your sweet, mischievous face to this day. Having lived far in the north till a year ago has made us strangers in this life, but I wish to remedy that.
I have remarried at the king’s command and now reside at Hopeston Castle, only two days’ ride from Kinwick. My fondest desire is for you to come and meet your nieces, Elysande and Avelyn. Elysande, my older girl, is to be married in a week’s time. I hope you’ll choose to attend so she can meet her uncle and aunt and her cousins—if you’ve been blessed with children.
Please come as soon as you can, Geoffrey. I’m sorry we lost touch for so many years. I would have us spend some time together as a family before the wedding. Elysande, as I was, will become a bride to a man from the north. This might be the only chance for you to meet her.
I pray I’ll see you soon, Geoffrey. My best to you and yours.
Your sister, Mary
“This is a surprise,” Geoffrey said, looking over his shoulder at Merryn. “I haven’t seen Mary since she married many years ago. When I left to foster with Sir Lovel, she also left home to marry. My other sister, Eloisa, married and went to live in Wales the following year.” He paused, a thoughtful look on his face. “And to think Mary is now close to us.” He rested a hand atop Merryn’s. “What do you say, my love? Shall we attend my niece’s wedding and bring all our children with us so they may discover their cousins?”
“I am anxious to visit Mary.” Merryn grinned. “Who knows? She might have some wonderful stories to share about her baby brother.”
Her husband stroked her hand with his thumb for a moment before he rose. He brought her hand to his lips and kissed it tenderly. “You and Alys should pack, my love. I’m off to let Gilbert know what we’re up to and choose a group of soldiers to accompany us to Hopeston.”
Geoffrey left the solar and hurried down to the training yard, a spring in his step. The thought of reuniting with his older sister after so long a time and introducing Mary to his family brought him a great deal of happiness. His family meant everything to him.
Especially after the long years apart from them.
He reached the yard where soldiers dueled in pairs, his captain of the guard watching them compete with a careful eye. Geoffrey joined Gilbert and stood observing silently for a few minutes. It didn’t surprise him to see that Michael Devereux had already joined in the exercises, despite their long trip from London. Michael proved to be one of the most eager knights that had sworn fealty to the de Montforts, and Geoffrey was happy to have the knight’s service for as long as possible.
Michael fought against Hammond, another loyal knight who had been Kinwick’s most talented swordsmen—until a year ago.
Michael Devereux’s arrival had changed that.
Geoffrey watched the men battle one another. Stripped to the waist, the soldiers’ muscles flexed as they waged war. Though both proved swift on their feet, Michael’s movements were a shy more fluid. That gave him the advantage, which he now used to best Hammond. Applause broke out among the soldiers. Many of the pairs had stopped to watch the duel between Kinwick’s best.
“I wish I had a score of men with half their talent,” muttered Gilbert.
Geoffrey smiled at his captain. “You are a master swordsman yourself, Gilbert. You know how I value you and your way of teaching the men.”
Gilbert nodded at the compliment. “Thank you, my lord,” he said gruffly.
“I’ll need ten of the men to accompany me tomorrow for a visit to my sister’s. My niece is to wed in a week’s time, and we’ve been invited to the wedding.”
“Shall I choose which soldiers will make up the escort party?”
“Nay. I will do so myself. Carry on.”
Geoffrey walked toward Michael. Hammond had already gone to the trough and dunked his head in, shaking his hair out.
“Michael? A word?”
The young knight’s laughter stopped as he turned away from his companion’s antics. Seeing his liege lord addressed him, he stood tall. “Aye, my lord?”
“I know we only just arrived from London, but I would like you to lead an escort party to my sister’s home.”
Michael didn’t hide his delight in being asked to be in charge of the guard. He flashed a broad smile. “Of course, Lord Geoffrey. When would you like us to leave? And which knights will go?”
Geoffrey thought a moment. “I have great trust in you, Michael. I will allow you to select the men. Including yourself, I would like a guard of ten to bring myself and my family to Hopeston Castle, which we can reach in two days.”
“When do we leave, my lord?”
“After we break our fast tomorrow.”
Michael grew serious. “Then I will speak to the men at once and make the preparations for our journey.” He paused. “Thank you, my lord, for having faith in my abilities.”
Geoffrey gave the younger knight a fond smile. “You have come a long way since yours days as a page, Michael.”
Michael broke out in a grin. “I have, indeed, my lord. If you’ll excuse me?”
Geoffrey watched the soldier make his way toward Hammond. After a moment’s conversation, Hammond eagerly nodded in agreement. The two men slapped each other on the back, and Michael went to speak to another knight. Satisfied, Geoffrey turned back toward the keep, ready to spend time in private with his wife.
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