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Dane St. Gregory, fifth baron of Kenbrook, raised one gloved hand in a gesture of weary command. At his back, the remains of his private army came to a clattering, snuffling, and decidedly graceless halt. His charger, Peleus, an agile, muscular beast with a hide as black as the deepest fold of Lucifer's heart, planted wide hooves on the stony soil of the ridge and, nickering, tossed his massive head. Dane had bought the animal just a fortnight ago, at a horse fair in Flanders, and he'd spent a great many deniers in the process — so many that the purchase had all but emptied his purse.
The expense was well justified in Kenbrook's mind, for such sturdy mounts, full of stamina and thus ideal for fighting, were rare in England. He had only to breed the stallion to the best mares at Hadleigh, and over time, the enterprise would yield a herd of such steeds. The profits, he knew, would be substantial.
Dane drew a long breath and released it slowly, fixing his attention on the landscape. Far below, the lake glittered pale green, like a misshapen jewel, capturing the late summer afternoon sunlight, sending it dancing over a windswept surface in glimmering shards. Hadleigh Castle, that grim and ancient fortress, boasting three baileys and twice as many towers, loomed upon the southern shore. At the base of its drawbridge, which spanned an empty moat, but still within the outermost walls, huddled the small, shoddy village, also called Hadleigh. It was a community of huts and hovels, with sheep and swine and chickens choking the narrow lanes, but there was an inn with a tavern and a humble church boasting one stained-glass window — a modest depiction of St. George slaying the dragon.
The grand house of Cyrus the wool merchant stood a little apart from the others, a sturdy structure of red brick, with a tiled roof, gardens, and a small courtyard. Doubtless, Dane assured himself, his child-bride, Gloriana, would be eager to return to that gracious haven. Neither Hadleigh Castle nor Kenbrook Manor were half so hospitable, despite their august histories and their many rooms.
Dane shifted uneasily, aching in all his old wounds. The merchant would be furious on hearing the news he bore, and not without cause.
He set his jaw and leaned forward, resting one forearm on the pommel of his saddle and surveying the pleasant vista spread before him. The marriage to Gloriana was meaningless — the chit had been a mere seven years of age when their vows were said, after all, and he a callow lad of sixteen. Neither of them had even been present for the ceremony; the little girl had stayed in London Town, attended by her doting mother, while Dane himself had already set sail for the Continent, there to learn the lucrative soldiering trade. The match was loveless on both sides, he reasoned, quite unlike the one he meant to make with Mariette, and therefore, Gloriana had no cause for heartbreak. Indeed, she might well be overjoyed to find herself free of him.
The idea, for all its vast convenience, was somehow unsettling.
He let his gaze sweep beyond the village gates, and there, of course, was the crumbling abbey, just a quarter mile along the rutted road that curved around the lake like the languid arm of a lover. The lane disappeared into a dense forest of oak and emerged, at length, before the gates of Kenbrook Manor.
Dane smiled. Built on the site of a Roman fortress and boasting one squat tower, that forbidding pile of stones had been in steady decline for centuries. The roof had collapsed here and there, and in winter, icy winds swept the passageways, extinguishing lamps and torches. There were ghosts prowling about, it was said, truculent ones lacking all charms and graces. On occasion, the wolves got in and made a den of the place.
For all its shortcomings, the manor was Dane's by right, and he had always loved it. He would set about making the place habitable, and by the time he was free to take Mariette to wife, Kenbrook would be restored to its original glory. Dane meant to sire sons within its walls and raise the lads to be knights, stout fighting men to take up the cause of justice and make a father proud. He hoped for daughters, as well, pretty, accomplished girls who might make fortuitous marriages.
With a sigh, he turned to look down into the exquisite face of the young woman beside him. Resplendent upon her small dapple-gray palfrey, fresh and unruffled despite several grueling days on the roads and the turbulent crossing from Normandy before that, Mariette de Troyes favored him with a sweet, demure smile. Then she lowered her eyes, lashes fluttering.
Dane's heart swelled with pride and an emotion he reckoned to be pure adulation. "Look, Mariette," he bid her quietly, pointing toward Kenbrook Manor. "There stands our home."
Mariette adjusted her elaborate headdress, a pristine wimplelike affair that hid her hair, her crowning glory, from everyone except her servingwoman and Dane himself. Although he had not been intimate with Mariette — she was gently bred and had passed her tender years in a French nunnery — he had caught illicit glimpses of those lush ebony tresses on occasion. One day soon, when His Holiness had granted the proper decree, thus dissolving the sham marriage to Gloriana, it would be Dane's privilege to see and touch that splendid mane of silk, to run his fingers through it and bury his fare in its fragrant softness, night and morning.
"It seems a place of sorrow," Mariette ventured to say, in a timid voice.
One thought having led to another, Dane had become so intent upon the various prerogatives of a husband that, for a moment, he didn't know what she was talking about. Following her gaze — her eyes were a soft shade of hazel — he saw that she was surveying the hall.
He felt the vaguest twinge of disappointment, far down in his belly, and disregarded the sensation immediately. "Yes," he said, rather solemnly, thinking of his unborn sons, forgetting for the moment that a score of men were rallied behind him with their ears cocked. "There has been much grief at Kenbrook over the centuries, but that time is now past. We shall fill the place to its beams with children, Mariette — our sons and daughters."
The blush in her cheek made a fetching contrast to the snowy white cloth of her headdress.
Dane took her reaction for maidenly virtue and wheeled his glistening charger about, that he might face his men. They were grinning now, a gap-toothed lot, covered in grime from the tops of their shaggy heads to the soles of their soft leather boots and smelling worse than their horses. Dane felt heat climb his neck, but he gave no other indication that he regretted speaking of personal matters within their hearing.
"A welcome awaits you at Hadleigh Castle," he told them, in a voice raised to carry. "Avail yourselves of it, but mind your manners. My brother is master there, but the rules of the company still hold, and you flout them at your peril."
The men nodded in accord and, at a signal from Dane, wheeled their mounts round and plunged — whooping at the prospects of ale and women — down the steep trail that joined the castle road below. Only one man lingered. Dane's friend, a red-haired Welshman called Maxen, was the best swordsman in the company, but for himself, and he wisely held his tongue.
Maxen and Mariette's servingwoman, Fabrienne, brought up the rear of the small procession, while Dane and his future bride led the way.
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