Destined for Love (Medieval Runaway Wives Book 3)
Book 3 in Alexa Aston's new Medieval Runaway Wives has arrived!
A lazy, jealous brother banished Sir Drake Harcourt from his home once their parents died. Drake comes to Mallowbourne, home to the Baron and Baroness of Gaynesford, and makes his mark with superb combat skills and a kind heart.
Lady Faylinn d'Albert wed her father's close friend, a man more than three decades older. After ten years of marriage, her husband dies—and Faylinn finds herself with child. Her bitter stepdaughter shoves Faylinn down the stairs, hoping it will kill her and the babe, so she can offer herself to the king as a bride for the new baron and remain in her beloved home.
Drake finds the injured Faylinn and learns of the threat she faces, nursing her with skills learned from his mother, an exceptional healer. Faylinn pretends she doesn't remember the attempt on her life, trying to buy herself time. But when her stepdaughter poisons Faylinn's wine and Drake prevents her from drinking it, he knows her life is in danger and spirits her away.
On the journey to her brother's estate, the pair fall in love but their future is uncertain. If Faylinn births a daughter, she is free. If she delivers a son, she must return to Mallowbourne and raise the next baron—and wed a man of the king's choice. Their fate hangs in the balance, even as new threats appear.
Will Faylinn and Drake find happiness—or will they be torn apart forever?
Each book in Medieval Runaway Wives is a standalone story that can be enjoyed out of order. Read FREE in Kindle Unlimited!
Runaway Medieval Wives:
Song of the Heart
A Promise of Tomorrow
Destined for Love
Release date: October 20, 2020
Publisher: Dragonblade Publishing, Inc.
Print pages: 250
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Destined for Love (Medieval Runaway Wives Book 3)
Wakefield Castle, Devon—May 1333
Drake Harcourt stood in the late afternoon sunshine with his arms crossed as he watched the exercises in the training yard from the raised platform. Standing next to him was his father, Manfred Harcourt, the Earl of Wakeland. As captain of the guard, Drake constantly supervised the soldiers’ training, often walking through the pairs of men and taking the time to demonstrate small changes to them that would make them more effective fighters. Though the civil wars had ended and England remained stable with King Edward on the throne, Drake still wanted Wakefield’s knights and soldiers to always be prepared. Defending their home and protecting their liege lord’s family and tenants was only part of their role. He believed that trouble brewed between the Edward and France—which meant the Earl of Wakeland would need to provide soldiers for that fight. Wakefield men would go where they were needed.
And Drake would go with them.
Usually, tradition held that the captain of the guard remained behind whenever troops were sent to fight. Staying at Wakefield was the last thing he would do. As a knight, he was pledged first and foremost to king and country and would go into battle when called upon. Of course, that meant someone would have to see to Wakefield’s defenses during his absence. His father might observe training exercises every now and then but he was too old to lead the castle’s defense and certainly too old to fight in the king’s army.
That would leave matters in Baldwin’s hands.
While Drake was the apple of his father’s eye and had done everything Manfred Harcourt asked of him in his five and twenty years, his half-brother was the opposite. Baldwin had never achieved his knighthood, finding the demands too harsh. He’d left the castle where he fostered and returned to Wakefield before he reached a score. And did nothing. Drake was unclear how Baldwin spent his days. Sometimes hunting or fishing. Sometimes sleeping. Even whoring before their father thought it might help his older son mature and settle down if he wed.
Baldwin had married a shrew named Gunnora. While comely, Gunnora had a quick temper and even quicker tongue. She had no fondness for Drake or his mother, Matilda. He often caught his sister-in-law studying him with malice. If Gunnora had been a man, he would have challenged her to a fight and been done with it. As it was, she was female, meaning his hands were tied. So, he, too, watched and waited while she did the same. What they waited for was anyone’s guess.
“That one,” his father grunted. “To the right.”
Drake’s eyes swept across the right side of the yard. Immediately, he saw the problem his father indicated.
He turned to the earl. “His stance is too wide. I’ll see to it.”
His father touched Drake’s arm. “No. Let me. It’s not often I have the opportunity to teach something to a young pup.”
With that, Wakeland hopped from the platform and weaved his way through the pairs of fighters until he reached the squire in question. Drake watched as his father stopped the action and spoke to the young man, a lad of six and ten. He nodded several times and then adjusted his feet. The earl stepped back and watched the boy swing his sword again a few times before he stopped the pair from resuming action again.
This time, his father borrowed the sword of the squire’s opponent and faced off against the boy. Drake watched with interest as his father parried and thrusted. Pride swelled within him to see how accomplished his father remained. Several men surrounding them stopped to watch the pair spar. They cheered as their liege lord landed several strong blows, backing the squire up.
“Fight back, Boy!” shouted the earl.
The squire swallowed, obviously aware of so many eyes upon him, and made an aggressive move. The two men fought for several minutes until the earl called a halt to their swordplay and handed the weapon back to its owner.
“Good lad,” the earl said, patting the boy’s shoulder, and starting back toward Drake.
He grinned at his father and caught the smile playing about his father’s lips, knowing the older man was pleased with himself and the progress the squire had made. Then an odd expression crossed the earl’s face and he froze as if his feet would no longer move. Puzzled, his gaze met his son’s and Drake saw panic forming. Suddenly, his father crumpled to the ground.
He leaped off the platform and rushed to the old man, rolling him face up. Dirt clung to the sweat along his brow. Drake shouted for a stretcher to be brought. Several stood available, as training accidents occurred often. Within a few seconds, one had been brought and placed next to the earl. Two knights lifted their liege lord onto it and carried him from the yard, which had fallen eerily silent.
Drake looked to a page. “Run to the keep. Tell the countess the earl collapsed and have the healer brought to the solar,” he ordered.
The boy took off running on chubby legs as Drake rushed to the stretcher. He clasped his father’s hand and accompanied him back to the keep. The earl’s eyes remained shut even as his son encouraged him.
“You’ll be fine, Father. You’ll see.”
His words rang hollow to his ears. His gut told him his father’s time on earth had drawn to a close. He couldn’t imagine his life without this man. His father was stern but loving and had taught Drake everything he knew. He was the man he was because of his father’s lessons and influence.
As they came in sight of the keep, he couldn’t envision Baldwin leading the people of Wakefield. His half-brother was nothing like his father—and yet if he died, Baldwin would become the new Earl of Wakeland.
His mother appeared at the top of the steps and rushed down them, her eyes on her husband. She took Manfred’s other hand as they brought the earl inside the keep and up the stairs to the solar. They crossed through it and into the bedchamber, where the two soldiers placed their liege lord on the bed.
By now, the healer and priest had arrived, followed by Baldwin and Gunnora.
“What happened?” his mother asked as she knelt at the bedside, holding her husband’s hand in both of hers and kissing it over and over.
“We were in the training yard,” Drake explained. “Father went to demonstrate a move to a squire and sparred with him briefly. He walked several feet away and then collapsed.”
“He never should have been out there,” Baldwin said sharply. “He’s too old to be fighting.”
Matilda’s eyes hardened but she said nothing. Though she had raised Baldwin from infancy, he’d always looked upon her with contempt.
The healer examined the earl carefully. Drake watched as a sick feeling spread through his belly. His father hadn’t opened his eyes since he’d collapsed and wasn’t responding to anything said to him.
Finally, the healer stepped away, sorrow blanketing her features, and said, “There is nothing I can do for Lord Wakeland.”
“Not even to make him more comfortable?” his wife asked anxiously.
“Nay, my lady. You should know. You have a great knowledge of herbs and healing, even more so than I.” She paused. “Say your goodbyes for he won’t last the night.”
Drake knew his mother possessed more knowledge than any healer he’d met and she’d passed down a good deal of that knowledge to him. Matilda had come to Wakefield Castle as a healer, accompanying her older sister, who wed the earl. When Lady Wakeland died after giving birth to Baldwin, Matilda had stepped in as the earl’s new wife. Though eventually another healer was engaged, Matilda cared for many of the tenants’ ailments, concocting various remedies from her herbs.
Baldwin sighed loudly. “If nothing can be done, so be it. The evening meal will occur soon. Come, Gunnora. It will be good for us to appear in the great hall and assure our people that nothing will change with the death of their lord.”
Drake’s hands balled into fists. It took all his willpower not to charge Baldwin and pummel him until he was a bloody heap. He watched as his half-brother and sister-in-law left the room. Neither had spoken reassuringly to the earl, much less thought to kiss him goodbye. The healer followed them, leaving Drake with his mother and the priest, and the deathbed vigil began. Drake retrieved a chair for his mother and went to the other side of the bed as they both held fast to the hand of the man they loved.
After a few hours, his father’s breathing grew labored. The priest announced it was time to perform the last rites. Wife and son stepped back in order for that to take place. Drake wrapped his arm around his mother’s shoulders and drew her close. Once the sacrament ended, they resumed their positions on either side of the bed. Less than half an hour later, the Earl of Wakeland passed away, his loved ones holding his hands.
The priest said a prayer over him and then spoke a few words of comfort to mother and son before he left.
“Why don’t you try to get some sleep, Mother?” Drake said. “I know how difficult this has been for you. I’ll stay the night with Father. He won’t be alone.”
“I loved him so,” she said, her voice breaking.
“Go rest in my old bedchamber,” he suggested. “I never use it anymore.”
She gazed at him with watery eyes. “I know you prefer sleeping in the barracks with your men. Manfred admired you for that. He loved you so very much, Drake. You were the light of his life.”
“As were you.”
“I’ll see you in the morning.” She kissed his cheek and drifted from the room.
He worried about her. His parents had been extremely close. A true love match. They spent many hours together, happy in one another’s company. He only hoped she would not despair at her husband’s death.
Drake sat all night at his father’s side, reminiscing aloud about everything and nothing. He recalled events from his childhood. Horses they’d trained together. Learning how to hold a sword properly. The eagerness he felt when his father came to retrieve him each time from the nobleman Drake fostered with. He spoke of holidays and the harvest. People who had come and gone. In the end, through his tears, he knew his father had led a good, satisfying life and prayed to the Virgin that they would one day be reunited in Heaven.
He now sat in the darkness, the candles long having extinguished themselves, praying to find peace and asking Christ Almighty for the strength it would take to deal with Baldwin in the months and years to come.
The door opened and his half-brother appeared, holding a candle. Gunnora followed him into the bedchamber, her features unreadable.
“Is he gone?” Baldwin asked bluntly as he came toward the bed, his eyes skimming over the still body.
Again, he restrained himself from reacting to Baldwin’s uncouth behavior. “Yes. Father went peacefully several hours ago. I sent Mother to get some rest.”
“What should we do?” Baldwin asked his wife, uncertainty in his voice.
With that one question, Drake understood just how weak his half-brother was—and that Gunnora was the true power in the family now.
“Servants will need to prepare the body for burial,” she said calmly. “I will also notify the steward. He will see that word spreads. We will delay morning mass until all of the tenants have broken their fast and the body lies in the chapel.”
“A coffin will need to be constructed first,” Drake pointed out.
Gunnora looked at him with contempt. “I gave word for that to be done hours ago,” she said pointedly. “There’s no sense delaying the inevitable. The funeral mass will be said and life at Wakefield Castle will go on.”
With that, she wheeled and left the room. After a few moments of hesitation, her husband followed her.
“Oh, Father.” Drake shook his head. “What will become of Wakefield?”
Drake’s grasp tightened on his mother’s hand as the priest spoke the funeral mass. Many of the soldiers, tenants, and servants were in tears, visibly distraught at the death of the Earl of Wakeland. Manfred Harcourt had been a strong leader. A fair man. A good lord to his people. He would be sorely missed by all at Wakefield.
When the mass ended, everyone waited as Drake escorted his mother from the chapel. Baldwin and Gunnora followed them. The couple returned immediately to the keep, while Drake and Lady Wakeland stood outside and spoke to each person. They received condolences from all and warm handshakes and embraces from many. Drake knew his father was respected—even admired—but the depth of emotion that poured from the people of Wakefield touched his heart.
Once everyone had left, the priest came to them and said, “Are you certain you wish to witness the burial, my lady?”
Matilda nodded. “I will be with my husband to the end.”
“As you wish.”
The priest signaled several soldiers standing apart from them and they proceeded to enter the chapel again. Moments later, they emerged bearing Lord Wakeland’s coffin. Drake and his mother stood on either side and she placed her hand atop the wood as they slowly walked to the burial site. A fresh grave had been dug in the rich, dark earth and the men lowered the coffin into the hole. The priest said a prayer and then his mother knelt beside the graveside.
“I have loved you many years, Manfred. I will go on loving you until we are joined in Eternity.”
Her hands grasped clumps of earth and she tossed the handfuls of dirt into the grave, weeping softly. Drake took her elbow and raised her to her feet. He nodded solemnly at the men standing nearby and led her back to the keep, no words spoken between them.
As they entered, he said, “I think you should rest, Mother.”
She nodded sadly. “I fear I will never be at rest again, my son. My life was your father’s. It will be difficult seeing your brother step into his position as Wakeland. I worry what will become of Wakefield under Baldwin’s leadership—or lack of it.”
Matilda never referred to Baldwin as Drake’s half-brother. She hadn’t liked to distinguish that small difference between the pair but Drake had never looked upon Baldwin as a true brother. He’d done everything he could for years to build a bond between them. Baldwin had ignored every attempt. Finally, Drake gave up.
“Let me escort you to the solar,” he said, not wanting to discuss what Baldwin would do now that he was the new earl.
“I know of the animosity between you,” she said softly. “Try your best to get along with him, Drake.”
“I will hold fast to what I do. As captain of the guard, I will ensure Wakefield is safe from harm. That its soldiers are well-trained and its defenses able to withstand any attack. I know how you feel, Mother, but I don’t look upon Baldwin as family. He is merely my liege lord now. He will receive my protection. I will uphold my responsibilities. I don’t expect anything to change in our relationship. Not that we have one.”
As they started down the long corridor leading to the solar, Drake saw two servants emerge, clothing draped over their arms. As both approached, they lowered their eyes and hurried by. His belly tightened. He wouldn’t ask them what they were doing. Wouldn’t accuse them of wrongdoing. Wouldn’t protest their actions.
Because he knew who was responsible.
They arrived at the solar and stood in the doorway a moment. His mother gasped.
“No, move that aside,” Gunnora directed a servant. “Place it over there. And that table. I don’t like it where it is now. Move it away, as well.”
Drake entered and went to his sister-in-law. “What are you doing?” he ground out, fury racing through him.
She sniffed. “What does it look like I’m doing? I’m making the solar comfortable for my husband and me. It’s ours now.”
More servants appeared from the bedchamber and Drake realized the clothing they carried was his father’s.
“Are those Father’s clothes?”
“Yes,” Gunnora said. “Lady Matilda’s things have already been moved.”
“Where?” Matilda said, tears streaming down her cheeks as her eyes surveyed the solar.
Gunnora snapped her fingers and all activity ceased.
“You may all leave. Lord Wakeland and I need to speak privately with Sir Drake and Lady Matilda.”
The solar quickly cleared as Drake fumed. Baldwin emerged from the bedchamber, sporting a cloak that had belonged to his father.
Preening, he said, “I’ve always been fond of this cloak. How do I look in it, my dear?”
“Marvelous, my lord earl,” his wife responded. “Come here, dearest. We must have that talk that we spoke about.”
Baldwin glanced to Drake and Matilda and took a seat. Gunnora did the same. Neither offered Drake or his mother one and they remained standing. He seethed, wishing to strike the smug smile off his half-brother’s face.
“I would have something of Father’s,” Drake said firmly. “A small token to remember him by.”
“I don’t think so,” Baldwin said, his gaze meeting Drake’s. “I am the Earl of Wakeland now. Everything within the keep belongs to me. Every room. Everything within each room. That includes the earl’s clothing. Books. Weapons. Nothing is yours. As the eldest son, I receive everything. The title. The lands. You are left with nothing.”
Matilda slipped her hand around his arm and squeezed gently. Drake forced himself to keep motionless and remain silent, knowing if he moved or spoke, he would regret what was said or done.
“You’ll both be leaving Wakefield,” Gunnora announced. “In the morning.”
His mother’s grip tightened on his arm.
“You are usurpers,” Baldwin said. “Father’s first marriage was his true one.”
“You can’t do this,” Drake said, feeling his face grow flush with anger.
“Can’t I?” Baldwin’s evil smile sent a chill down Drake’s spine. “I’m the new earl. I have the power to do whatever I wish on my land and inside my keep.”
“You don’t know anything about this estate. Its tenants. Its defenses.”
“I’ll learn,” Baldwin said with airy confidence. “I’ll have others to guide me.” He reached across and took his wife’s hand. “Including my beloved Gunnora. She is the wisest woman I know. Her counsel will be what is most important.”
“Where are we to go?” Matilda asked.
Baldwin turned his attention to her. “You’re being sent to a convent.”
“You can’t thrust Mother from her home,” Drake protested.
“You aren’t the head of this family, Drake. As earl, I make these decisions for all Harcourts. In fact, I have already sent word to the nunnery. It’s a day’s ride away. They are expecting Matilda tomorrow evening.” He smiled again. “Drake can escort you. Of course, you may take nothing with you.”
“What about my jewels?” Matilda challenged. “I brought some into the marriage and they are mine. Not yours.”
“You are wrong about that,” Baldwin stated. “You will go with only the clothes on your back.”
“The good sisters will not take me in without coin or jewels being offered for my keep.”
The earl shrugged. “That’s not my concern.”
By now, Drake’s anger permeated every pore. “I won’t have you treat Mother this way.”
“She’s not my mother,” Baldwin said, his eyes narrowing.
“Of course, she is!” Drake shouted. “She raised you. She loves you—though only God knows why she would.”
Baldwin leaped to his feet. “My mother carried me in her womb. Not this woman. My mother died giving birth to me. At this woman’s hands. For all I know, Matilda wanted to be the countess and did her sister in so she could become Countess of Wakeland.”
Drake lunged at Baldwin as his mother shoved him away.
She faced her stepson. “I loved my sister,” Matilda said. “I would have died for her. When she passed birthing you, I didn’t know if I could go on. But you were there, Baldwin. All tiny and wrinkled and crying. I knew she would have wanted me to care for you. Love you. Treat you as my own child. And I did. You never accepted me, though. You pushed me away every chance you got. I have done everything I could to show you tenderness. I held you in my arms. I raised you. Yet you have rejected me at every turn.
“I still love you, Baldwin. I always will. But I have never liked you. You have something evil lurking within you. You’re nothing like either of your parents.” Matilda turned and glared at Gunnora. “Your wife has watered this seed of evil within you. She is the one who is encouraging you to exile me from Wakefield. And what of Drake? Will Gunnora cast him aside, as well?”
Baldwin glared at her. “I don’t care where Drake goes. He can sell his services. Find a new liege lord. Neither of you will ever be welcomed again at Wakefield Castle. You will never set foot on my lands in life or death.”
“You go too far, Baldwin,” Matilda warned. “It’s my right to be buried next to Manfred.”
“No,” Baldwin said. “Never. My mother rests next to him. As his true wife should.”
“You’re jealous of Drake,” Matilda said. “You know he is the one who has the admiration and love of the people, something you’ll never gain no matter how hard you try.”
“Get out!” roared Baldwin. “Stay far from my sight until you leave in the morning.”
Drake shrugged off his mother’s grasp and closed the gap between him and his half-brother. Gripping the man’s tunic, he yanked Baldwin close until their noses almost touched.
“You are a bastard, Baldwin. A horrible, terrible man. You shame the Harcourt name with your despicable behavior. May you and your wife rot in the bowels of Hell.”
He released Baldwin and shoved him hard. Baldwin stumbled back and fell into his chair.
Drake wheeled and caught his mother’s hand, pulling her from the solar as both the earl and countess loudly cursed them. He hurried his mother down the hall, stopping at his former bedchamber. Opening the door, he had them enter and closed it behind them.
Matilda’s face had gone stark white, as if all the blood had been drained from her. He embraced her, hugging her tightly, trying to offer some small comfort after Baldwin’s tirade. She sobbed, gripping his shoulders, her words unintelligible.
Finally, she quieted and he released her.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “Baldwin has all of the power. I had no idea how deep his resentment ran for both of us.”
“Something within him is broken,” she said. “Gunnora encourages it.” She touched his cheek. “It will be all right, my son. I think it best that we will be gone from Wakefield. I don’t think either of us would care to see what becomes of the estate under Baldwin’s hand.”
“I promise you won’t be in the convent forever, Mother. I will find a way to provide for you. I am a gifted knight, with rare skills. I will find a new liege lord to serve. Somehow, I will earn enough coin to give you a new home.”
“No, Drake. I am old. Most of my life has been lived. You still have yours ahead of you. Once you leave the convent tomorrow, we will part ways.” She cradled his face in her hands. “Know I will always love you and that I pray for you. I hope you will have a good life.”
The next morning, Drake waited for his mother outside the chapel. It would be the last mass they would attend at Wakefield. He wasn’t a sentimental man but home pulled at his heart. No matter where he went, Wakefield would always be home. Baldwin and Gunnora could never take away his memories of the time he’d spent here with a loving father and mother.
The last stragglers filed in and the doors to the chapel began closing. Somehow, he must have missed his mother’s arrival. Mayhap she had come earlier to pray for their safe journey to the convent today and what would come in both of their futures.
Drake slipped inside the stone edifice as mass began and walked along the edge, skimming the crowd as he searched for her. He doubled back and did the same on the other side of the chapel but she was nowhere to be found. He found it odd. His mother never missed mass. Her devout faith was the cornerstone of her life.
His uneasiness grew as the mass continued. He wondered if, while everyone at Wakefield was here, she might be taking a last walk through the corridors of the keep, saying goodbye to the place of her heart. He left during the final prayer, eager to get ahead of the crowd who attended before they made their way to the great hall to break their fast and begin their day.
Entering the keep, silence struck him. He rushed up the stairs and went to his old bedchamber, rapping lightly. When his mother didn’t call out for him to enter, he slipped inside, thinking she might be in prayer. A lone candle burned low next to the bed, allowing him to see her shape in the bed. Drake breathed a sigh of relief having found her and went to the bed. In sleep, her face looked years younger. He hated to disturb her peace but knew they must get on the road if they were to reach the nunnery before nightfall.
“Mother?” he called gently and took her hand.
Shock rippled through him. For a moment, he froze, unable to move. Then he released her hand and cradled her cold cheek.
Matilda, Lady Wakefield, was dead.
Anger poured through him. Drake knew she’d died from grief. Losing her beloved husband. Banished from her home. Facing an uncertain future. Worried about her only son. Fearful of what would happen to her people under Baldwin’s hand. Drake blamed his half-brother for this death. Hurt and grief mixed with his anger, knowing he’d lost both parents now and he was alone in the world. His father had been a giant, the biggest influence in Drake’s life, but it had been his mother and her gentle, guiding hand that had also played a substantial role in making him the man that he was.
Bending close, he brushed his lips against her cool, pale cheek, suddenly feeling as if he were aimlessly adrift at sea. He raised his head and spied a folded parchment on the pillow next to her head, his name scrawled across it in her impeccable handwriting. His gut clenched. With trepidation, he opened the page and held it close to the candle. He’d always struggled with reading and writing and dreaded what the words before him held.
My dearest Drake –
From the beginning, you were a wise, old soul. I would look into your eyes and know you understood the world in a way few others did. The foolish decisions made by Baldwin will be hard for you to accept. I know Wakefield runs in your blood but you must put aside your love for it and its people and carve a new path for yourself.
I couldn’t have you worrying about me and I know those thoughts would have dominated your days and nights, changing the course of your life. Your life should be your own, Drake, lived for you. Not for me. Besides, I wanted to go and be with your father. We were never separated for a single day in all the years of our marriage and I cannot bear the thought of us being apart even for a short while. I go to him now, Drake. I promise that we will always watch over you.
I’ve passed along my knowledge of herbs to you and can assure you that my death was painless. I merely slipped into a deep sleep.
Please don’t worry about me, my darling child. Most of all, don’t seek revenge. Forgive Baldwin and his ignorant wife. They focus on all the wrong things, material possessions and prestige. I beg you to keep your honor and courage and take the high road.
My greatest hope is that you will someday find a woman to love with your entire heart and soul, one who will love you in return as much as your father loved me. That will be the gift which will make your life sweet and give it meaning.
I go now, Drake. Know that I am at peace because I am with Manfred for all Eternity.
He read it twice. It was as if she’d rammed a sword straight through, gutting him. The agony of losing her and his father, along with his home and friends, was almost too much to bear. Grief mingled with loneliness and hurt. His life would never be the same. He no longer wanted to be tied to this place. Too many memories lingered. Whether he knew it or not, Baldwin actually did Drake a favor by sending him away.
Taking the parchment, he held it to the flickering candle before it sputtered and died. The page caught a spark and slowly burned. He must protect the secret. That her death was by her own hand. If known, she wouldn’t be given a funeral mass or be allowed to rest in hallowed ground. As the paper disintegrated, Drake thought his life did the same.
He kissed her brow, grateful that he’d had this woman in his life. With that, he marched down the stairs and into the great hall, where Baldwin and Gunnora sat upon the dais breaking their fast.
“My mother is dead,” Drake said. “She has died of a broken heart.”
Mallowbourne Castle, Somerset—March 1336
Lady Faylinn d’Albert, Baroness of Gaynesford, left the training yard, satisfied with what she had seen of today’s exercises. She crossed into the bailey and stopped to talk to the smithy and his son before making her way toward the keep. She’d become more involved in the running of Mallowbourne during the last two years, due to her husband’s age. At three score and two, Amaury was showing many signs of slowing down physically. He also proved to be forgetful and repeated himself constantly. It made Faylinn wonder when his end would come.
And what would happen to her.
She’d come to Mallowbourne almost a decade ago as a bride of seventeen, a capable young woman who’d overseen domestic affairs at her father’s castle. Her mother had died after Faylinn’s birth, having already delivered three sons previously. From an early age, she had taken up the duties of a noblewoman, wanting to please her father. When his good friend, Amaury, lost his second wife in childbirth, Faylinn was sent to be Amaury’s new bride and mother to his seven-year-old daughter, Sabelina.
Taking over the running of the keep proved easy. Faylinn was used to managing a large castle and implemented many practices she’d used at Ashland, her childhood home. She came to know their tenants, delivering their babes and celebrating harvests alongside them. On Judgment Days, she sat on the dais with her husband, listening to the cases brought before them. Usually, she had some knowledge of what would be presented since she spoke to so many at Mallowbourne. It allowed her to advise Amaury on the problems that might be set before him. They would talk of possible solutions prior to the cases being presented. On the rare occasion when some new issue presented itself, Amaury had learned to provide refreshments to those petitioning while he withdrew to consider the matter. He would ask Faylinn in private what she thought was the correct course of action before rendering the same decision and calling it his own.
For the past two years, she’d also become more involved with their steward and the estate’s business. Amaury had at first seemed to lose interest in discussing the harvests and what profits had been earned. Then she realized that he no longer understood everything the steward told him. When she confronted him, Amaury admitted the numbers no longer made sense to him. With the steward’s death last month, Faylinn had also taken up those duties until they could find a man she trusted to lead the estate.
She’d also become a frequent visitor to the training yard and met often with Sir Stephen, the captain of the guard, to discuss the men. Sir Stephen had encouraged her to hire a few additional knights and Faylinn had done so. Three of them proved to be good soldiers but the fourth, Sir Drake Harcourt, had been a welcomed addition. The knight could fight equally well with either hand, using a sword or mace, and quickly had taken on a role of leadership in the training. He’d proved popular with the men but, more importantly, Sir Drake treated all with genuine courtesy and respect. Faylinn knew this was one knight who adhered to his code of chivalry and would do what it took to protect Mallowbourne and its people. She realized Sir Stephen would need to be replaced in the near future, due to his advancing age, and hoped Sir Drake would take on the role of Mallowbourne’s captain.
She started toward the steward’s office and stopped when she saw Sabelina coming down the stairs. Now seventeen, her stepdaughter was even more spoiled than when Faylinn had arrived. Even worse, she acted flirtatiously toward every soldier she encountered, disregarding her stepmother’s advice to act in a more demure manner suited for her station.
“I thought you were supervising the candle making this afternoon.”
Sabelina gave her a sullen look. “I did for a while. Resa shooed me away. She said I was no help at all.”
Faylinn knew Resa was right. Sabelina did little to no work at the castle. She’d whined worse than any child about duties given to her and had grown surly as she’d gotten older. Faylinn believed her stepdaughter deliberately did things wrong or too slowly so that she would be excused from doing anything at all. Though she’d tried from the beginning to be a good stepmother to the girl, Sabelina had let Faylinn know she was no replacement for her own mother. The girl’s resentment of Faylinn had grown over the years until their relationship was less than cordial, each trying to avoid the other’s presence whenever possible. Even Amaury had given up trying to reconcile the pair.
“Your father will be in from the training yard shortly. Go to the kitchen and ask that water be heated for him to bathe.”
She could see her stepdaughter was reluctant even to run a small errand such as this and only hoped Sabelina would do as asked.
Faylinn entered the study and saw a scroll lying on the desk. Curious, she went to it and as she picked it up, she heard someone clear her voice behind her.
Turning, she saw Resa. The woman was head over all the servants within the keep and Faylinn depended upon her a great deal.
“The rider came from Newbury Manor,” Resa told her.
Faylinn frowned. “I don’t know this place. Did the messenger mention who sent the missive?”
Excitement filled her. While she’d lost touch with her two oldest brothers many years ago, Ashby corresponded with her regularly. She smiled. At least she wrote him lengthy letters once a month. Her favorite brother, three years her senior, answered three or four times a year, always short notes scrawled in an almost illegible hand. Still, she was happy they stayed in contact, even though she hadn’t seen him since her marriage. Ashby, who’d fostered at Stanbury in Sussex, had chosen to remain there in service to Lord Garrett, Earl of Montayne, once he achieved his knighthood. Lord Garrett was Ashby’s closest friend, more a brother to him than his true blood ones, and he handled many business affairs for the earl. Ashby’s last brief message to Faylinn some months ago had told her that the nobleman was sending him to France to do business regarding his vineyards in Bordeaux.
She wondered if Newbury Manor was in France. The name didn’t sound as if it would be located there. It occurred to her that Ashby had mentioned Lord Garrett had wanted to award him a manor house for his loyal service to the family. Mayhap this Newbury Manor was it.
“I think I will go to the solar and read my brother’s missive.” She paused. “Dare I ask how Sabelina did with the candle making?”
Resa snorted. “That one loves to be idle. Her mother was just the same. I pity the man who must wed Lady Sabelina.”
Faylinn agreed but kept silent on the matter. Instead, she said, “I am sorry she wasn’t very helpful to you.”
The servant shook her head. “She only knows how to help herself. And Lord Amaury doesn’t see her faults at all.”
“Resa,” she warned. “You are treading where you shouldn’t.”
“The sooner you can find a husband for her, my lady, the better. Mallowbourne will be a more pleasant place once Lady Sabelina is gone.”
Resa left. Faylinn knew she should be stricter with the servant but it was hard when everything Resa said was true. Sabelina was lazy. She had a sharp tongue and little compassion. Faylinn supposed it was time to address finding her stepdaughter another betrothed since hers had died from a fever two years ago. Amaury doted on his only child and was reluctant to let Sabelina go. Still, the girl was seventeen now, a good age to wed. A strong husband might curb Sabelina of her ways.
Taking the scroll, Faylinn went to the solar and poured herself a cup of wine. She unrolled the parchment, eager to read what Ashby had to say, and surprised to find the entire page filled.
My dearest, most favorite sister (you are, you know—even if you are my only one) –
First, I know you’ve already scanned the page and seen just how much I’ve written. Yes, more than my usual four or five lines, but everything has changed in my life for the better and I need to share it all with you.
You know that Garrett sent me to Bordeaux. I spent some time at Chateau Branais, where Madeleine’s parents live and manage Garrett’s vineyards. I learned much about the grape, which seems to be all-consuming and the topic of many conversations in Bordeaux. Afterward, I went to the neighboring estate, Monteville. There I learned even more, especially new ways to grow and process grapes. But more importantly, I found the love of my life.
Yes, Faylinn—I’m deeply in love—and now wed to my darling Marielle. I hope you were sitting down as you read this. If not, I’m certain you’ve collapsed into a heap. Ashby fitz Waryn, your wayward brother who has dallied with countless female hearts, had his own stolen by a beautiful French noblewoman. Marielle is lovely, both inside and out, and loving her has made me a stronger, better man than I ever dreamed of being.
I will leave out all of the details of how we met and the adventures that ensued—merely to entice you to come to Newbury Manor, which is but a day’s ride east of Stanbury (so we will see Garrett, Madeleine, and the children more often than not). Surely, your curiosity (of which I remember greatly) will get the better of you and you will come in haste to meet my loving wife and view our small but efficient estate. I’d written to you that Garrett wanted to give me one but it’s not from him. It was bestowed upon me by a French cardinal. Hah! Now, I have your attention and know you will come to see how an English knight did a favor for a man of the cloth—and earned a place to call his own.
Seriously, Faylinn, we both want you to come. I know it’s been years since we’ve seen one another, I’m thinking a decade or more, but you are my treasured sister and the link between my past and present. We know it’s a long way to come but we’re begging you to do so. I want you to see Newbury and meet Marielle. Of course, Lord Amaury is also invited but if he chooses not to come such a long way then let me know and I will send a guard for you.
I will close with a bit of joyous news. Marielle has told me that we are to have a child. Can you imagine a little me running around, getting into mischief? I’m actually hoping for a girl, one who is calm and patient and as beautiful as her mother.
Please come, dearest sister. Whenever you can. I look forward to hearing from you. Alas, my hand tires after writing so much, more than I have in a year. I am—and always will remain—
Your loving brother,
Ashby fitz Waryn
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