Conrad Saint-Clair, Earl of Licheford, may have started a rebellion against the king, but he is powerless against the woman he loved and lost.
The Order of the Broken Blade finally has the support it needs to succeed, to curb King John’s outrageous behavior, or so Conrad hopes. They have waited all winter for the king to respond to their demands. With their rebellion on the cusp of success—or utter failure—the last thing on Conrad’s mind is romance. Which is why he is completely blindsided when the only woman he’s ever loved, his friend’s sister, shows up on his doorstep.
Years ago, Cait Kennaugh was brutally attacked by a king’s man at the Tournament of the North. Her brother Terric and three other young men banded together to save her.
Conrad, then a handsome earl’s son, wielded the sword that killed her attacker.
A bond formed between the boys that day, one that culminated in their rebellious order, but it wasn’t the only connection forged by the traumatic experience. Cait and Conrad began corresponding, unbeknownst to her brother, opening their hearts to each other in their letters—until Cait stopped writing.
Fear drove Cait from the man she loves, and she’s desperate to reclaim him.
But will the earl risk opening his heart to her again, while his rebellion hangs in the balance?
WARNING: Conrad and Cait's second chance at love story will melt your heart. If you have a weakness for second chance romance, proceed with caution.
Release date: January 7, 2020
Publisher: Altiora Press
Print pages: 216
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Licheford Castle, England, 1215
“Nude becomes you, Lady Threston.”
Conrad, as always, told only the truth. She was quite handsomely formed for a woman of two and thirty or, more accurately, for a woman of any age.
“Jeanette,” the blonde widow corrected, not for the first time that evening. Or since they’d met the month before. It peeved her when he used her courtesy title. “Come back.” She bent one leg up slowly, giving him a view sure to entice most men.
But not him. Not now.
Conrad could have told her his steward awaited him. Or that he was so anxious for word from his friends and co-conspirators at Dromsley Castle that he felt the need to keep a near-constant lookout. He’d not heard from any of them in more than a fortnight. But taking her into his confidence in such a way would deepen their relationship, something he had no intention of doing. So instead he said nothing and continued to dress.
“I spoke with your guest, Lady Sabine, today.” Jeanette lowered her leg, though she did not attempt to cover herself, another attribute he quite liked. Her lack of modesty became her. “She speaks to me as she would any other widow of my station.”
“I’m glad for it.” Conrad finished wrapping the laces of his boots and stood.
Unfortunately, he seemed to have missed her point. Jeanette’s perfectly arched eyebrows turned downward, but she did not comment.
Conrad relented, if only slightly. “Jeanette?”
He stood by the bed, waiting.
“I am not simply any widow at Licheford.”
Ahhh. She wanted him to openly acknowledge her. That was something he could never do, not for her or any woman. He had been clear about his limitations that first night, but Conrad had suspected for some time now that Jeanette wanted more from him. They would obviously need to have a talk. On another day.
“You are a most entertaining bed partner.” Conrad leaned down, kissed her, and stood to leave. “But one who must do without her earl for the evening. We will talk more on the morrow.”
Surprisingly, she held her tongue, although she was clearly unhappy with his dismissal.
He should not have come to her.
But the waiting . . .
Making his way from Marchette Tower toward the keep, Conrad looked for Wyot. Thankfully, his steward’s red hair should be easy to spot, even in the crowd dispersing from the evening meal he had missed.
“I’d not have expected you back so soon.”
It was Guy’s voice. If anyone was more impatient for news than Conrad, it was Guy. As a mercenary who had also been raised by a mercenary, he was accustomed to moving from place to place. The months he’d stayed at Licheford, waiting for word—from their friends, from the king, from anyone—would likely have driven him mad if not for Sabine. Although his friend had once spurned marriage, he had found the one woman who suited him.
He turned toward his friend, fully expecting a joke about his failure to make an appearance at the meal.
“Oh?” he asked. Then, because he couldn’t help himself, he added, “Any word?” He’d asked Guy that very same question just before his short visit to Jeanette.
Guy rolled his eyes. “Aye, in the very few moments you’ve been gone—a fact that does not recommend your manhood, my friend—we have indeed received word. A missive from Dromsley.”
His mocking tone said otherwise, but Conrad decided to play along.
“And what, pray tell, did the missive say?”
The sound of childish laughter drew his gaze to a couple of young children playing with a pup in the corner of the courtyard. Conrad would fight to preserve their innocence, their smiles and laughter. The king’s unjust policies and cruel taxes and reprisals, all to fund a war no one wanted, had taken a toll on the country he loved. They had not touched Licheford yet, but if King John went unchecked, they would. He and the other members of the order had set out to stop that. They, along with the twenty or so barons who’d joined their cause, had taken the unprecedented step of presenting the king with a list of demands. He had indicated he would treat with them, but they’d heard nothing else. All winter they’d waited for a response.
It was enough to drive a man mad.
“It was quite surprising, really,” Guy continued. “It said your continued vigil for a missive is likely to drive away your friends, your steward, that lusty widow, and all those who come into contact with you.”
Conrad crossed his arms. “I do not fare well with all this waiting,” he admitted.
“I had not noticed.”
Wyot pulled on his bushy red beard as he approached them, a sure sign he had something important to impart. The steward bowed to them, his back slightly hunched with age, a habit he persisted in despite the fact that Conrad had long ago entreated him to stop.
“A party approaches,” Wyot said.
Conrad waited for more information, his heart beating out of his chest, but the steward didn’t seem to be inclined to offer it. “Who?” he finally asked, running his hands through his hair.
“We do not know yet.”
Conrad had waited all winter, preparing the men. Preparing to defend Licheford against siege or an attack.
Preparing for war.
Perhaps he was foolish, but he would wait no longer.
“I will meet them,” he said, striding toward the door that would lead to the first floor and outside the keep. He could feel Guy’s presence behind him, but Conrad did not slow his pace.
Finally, the waiting had come to an end.
This was the moment Cait Kennaugh had been thinking about, dreaming of, for so many years.
Though two tall, well-built men approached the gatehouse, first on horseback and then on foot, she knew which one was Conrad before their faces came into view. She would have recognized him anywhere. The young man of ten and nine was now less than one year shy of seeing his thirtieth summer. But his features remained the same.
A slightly squared jaw and thick eyebrows, now furrowed in confusion. Even back then he’d approached her as if the entire tournament were his for the taking. She may have thought him the King of England himself if the king were but twenty years younger. Cait had never actually seen the man, or the Scottish king either, for that matter, but she had always imagined royalty would walk that way.
More than ten years later, his gait was still the same. As if he’d been given a divine right to rule over others.
Aye, she’d know him anywhere. Conrad had stopped to speak to her brother, but he was looking at her.
“Are you well? The color has gone from your cheeks.” Roysa said in an undertone after she greeted Terric and came back to check on her.
Cait could have lied, but there was no use for it. Her friend had only to look at her hands, visibly shaking even though they were gloved and gripping the reins, to know she was anything but well.
Tearing her gaze from him, Cait directed her attention to her sister-in-law instead.
“Of course. I had not considered . . .”
Trailing off, Roysa looked back to the men, who were now greeting each other like brothers. Which they were, of a sort. Friends bonded by an event that had forever changed their lives.
Roysa had become the sister Cait had always wanted, having been raised with two brothers. She’d considered telling her friend the truth about why she’d come to England, but something had always stopped her. Even now, faced with his presence, she couldn’t find the words.
The hero who had saved her life.
The only man she had ever loved.
“Is that the mercenary with him?” she asked instead.
Roysa stood on her toes. “I cannot see whilst on foot.”
Cait had only met Sir Guy once, that same life-changing day, but from the warmth with which her brother greeted Conrad’s companion, she suspected he was indeed the fourth member of the Order of the Broken Blade.
“Roysa,” Terric called to his wife, motioning for her to join him again. But she stayed where she stood, staring at Cait with concern in her eyes.
“Go. I am fine,” she lied.
“Nay, you are not fine. I will be back.”
She tried to argue, but Roysa had already walked away. Cait watched mutely as Terric introduced her to Conrad. They spoke for a moment longer and then all turned toward her.
Panic seized her throat and squeezed.
She’d asked, nay begged, to be here. Both of her brothers had wanted to keep her safe from the danger that danced around them, and yet she’d insisted on being here. She’d come to Licheford for one reason, and now that she was here, Cait simply could not do it.
She couldn’t speak to him just yet. Even seeing him from this distance . . . she struggled to control her own heartbeat. Struggled to breathe.
I should not have come.
When her brother mounted, preparing to ride through the gatehouse and onto the castle grounds, she assumed Roysa would do the same. Though she’d never been to Licheford Castle, it was obviously larger than most. It would be quite a distance yet to the keep.
“I ride with you,” Roysa said, walking toward her with purpose in every step. “A squire will lead my horse.”
Cait hardly had the opportunity to move her foot from the stirrup before Roysa used it to hoist herself up, lifting her arm for Cait’s assistance, and slid onto the saddle behind her.
As she seemed to do each day, Cait gave silent thanks to the saints for having brought Roysa into Terric’s life. Her brother was extremely lucky to have such a wife, but she considered herself just as lucky. Roysa knew her well enough by now that she did not ask any further questions.
“Is all well?”
The question came from Roysa’s sister, Idalia, who’d ridden up alongside them. Idalia was married to Lance, another member of the order. Without them, Roysa and Terric would never have met. Although Cait didn’t know her as well as she did Roysa, she was grateful to her for that fact alone.
“Aye,” she answered.
“Nay,” Roysa answered at the same time.
Idalia looked back and forth between them and said nothing. Although she might press Roysa for details later, she must have seen something in Cait’s face that had silenced her. None of them spoke as they rode across the drawbridge, its moat deep beneath them, the clanking of horses’ hooves all around.
Grateful for the sisters’ companionship, and slightly calmer for it, Cait allowed herself another glance. His back was to them now. Even so, she could not look away from the long, muscular line of it. How many times had she lain awake at night imagining how he had changed? Or how he might react were they ever to meet again?
The timing could not be worse. They were in the midst of a rebellion. One missive away from war with the King of England and his many supporters. Her brothers, this once, had been right. Cait should have stayed at Bradon Moor. Stayed safe in Scotland.
Pleased her mother. Married Colin MacGregor.
She should have done many things, but instead Cait was here, riding toward an uncertain future, painfully aware how little her presence was needed.
I should not have come.
“It must be difficult,” Roysa whispered.
She nodded, allowing her to assume that seeing Conrad had brought back memories of that day. Which of course it had. Just not that memory.
Fourteen years earlier
“Terric mentioned his sister had made the journey.”
Conrad bowed even though his station did not require it. There were so many sights and sounds competing for attention, from the clanging of practice swords around them to the flags of every color flapping in the wind atop the tents, that Cait pretended to be unaffected by the Englishman and his pretty manners. But it was just that, a pretense.
At ten and five and a Scottish noble, Cait had met many handsome men, potential suitors, at Bradon Moor, and none had dared to look at her quite so boldly as this Englishman. Maybe because they were too afraid of her father and brothers to approach her with confidence.
Indeed, Terric made his displeasure known immediately.
“He mentioned other things as well”—her brother cleared his throat, not so subtly chastising the earl’s son—“about the sister.”
Accustomed to her brother’s protectiveness, she ignored Terric’s clear warning.
“Oddly, he said nothing of you,” Cait lied, smiling. Indeed, it had been the opposite. The year before, her brother had returned from his first Tournament of the North full of tales of English knights and bloody melees. And he’d spoken of one young man in particular—an earl’s son who had come to his defense against the inevitable slurs his countrymen had made against the young Scot. Never mind that the purpose of the yearly tournament was to bring the two sides together.
She’d heard of Terric’s new English friend many times, in fact, and when her father had finally relented, allowing her to attend her first tourney, Conrad Saint-Clair, was one of many sights she’d looked forward to seeing in the south.
And see him she did. It would have been difficult for any girl to miss him. Unlike her brother, who looked very much his age, the earl’s son appeared as if he were already a man fully grown. Neither was she the only girl at the tourney to notice him.
“Then I will strive to ensure your memory of me proves stronger than your brother’s,” Conrad said, his voice thick and deep. The look he gave her then prompted her brother to later proclaim she could not be alone with the Englishman—and it prompted her to seek him out despite Terric’s decree.
It was that look that had told her, for the first time, that Conrad liked her.
And Cait very much liked him back.
Opening her eyes and cleaning memories of the past as her mount slowed to a stop, Cait forced herself not to recall what had happened next. How the sweetness of those first moments had soured so quickly.
When they reached the stables, Terric stalked toward them, already on foot. So he’d noticed. She’d thought he might. Terric could be strangely perceptive, after all, and he knew both her and Conrad well enough to have sensed the strangeness of the look they’d shared. He offered his hand to her.
“Cait,” he said.
“Brother,” she replied evenly. “You may wish to assist your wife in dismounting first.”
Roysa had already grasped Terric’s outstretched hand, but for the first time since they were married, he barely seemed to notice his wife. His glare was fixed on Cait.
“Your turn,” he growled.
Reluctantly, she took his hand, his firm grasp yet another indication that he intended to give her a talking-to.
“It seems we have much to discuss,” he said for only Cait to hear. Roysa, perhaps sensing the tension between them, had stepped away to speak with her sister.
“Indeed,” she agreed, although she had no intention for that conversation to happen just yet.
There was someone else she needed to speak with first. And Cait could wait for it no longer.
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