In medieval England, Gloriana, Lady of Kenbrook, awaits her husband, Dane St. Gregory--to whom she was married as a child--only to be stunned when he returns with a betrothed, and finds herself thrust seven centuries into the future, with the strength of her and Dane's love as her only hope.
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Linda Lael Miller is the author of seventy historical and contemporary romance novels, many of which are set in the American West. She was awarded the Romance Writers of America's prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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.
Gloriana rode astride the small, spotted horse Gareth had given her at Easter, bent low over the animal's back, her copper-gold hair a wild, tangled banner in the gentle breeze. Her kirtle, dark blue and richly embroidered at collar and cuff, was smudged and hiked halfway up her calves, revealing her bare, dirty feet. She laughed as Edward, her young brother-in-law and closest friend, drew up beside her on his own mount, a dun-colored gelding called Odin.
"God's blood, Gloriana," the boy shouted, "will you pull up?"
There was an agitated expression in Edward's pale blue eyes that went beyond the loss of yet another race, on yet another summer afternoon. Concerned, Gloriana drew back on the bridle and brought her lathered pony from a gallop to a trot and then to a walk.
"What is it?"
Edward shoved a hand through his mane of shaggy brown hair and then pointed toward the hill rising beyond Hadleigh Castle. "Look," he said, tight-lipped.
Gloriana did so, and saw a gaggle of men descending the trail on horseback, their gleeful shouts little more than a pulsing echo in the fragrant air, because of the distance. "Visitors," she said, turning her curious gaze back to Edward. His eyes were slightly narrowed, and his freckles stood out on his pale skin in complicated constellations. "How grand. They've come to pay you honor and celebrate your splendid achievement. Perhaps they will have tales to tell."
Edward stood in the stirrups of his saddle, which had belonged to both his elder brothers in turn before coming down to him. Gloriana had bought him a lovely new one at the summer fair, and it was hidden away in her chamber. Two days hence, when Edward and several other young men were to be knighted, she would present it to him as her gift. Now sixteen, he had worked toward his goal from the age of eight, and Gloriana, knowing the true measure of his accomplishment, was proud of him.
"Not visitors," he said, when some moments had passed, in a quiet and somehow odd voice. "Do you not see their colors? Green and white. These are Kenbrook's men, Glory -- your husband has returned."
Gloriana's heart fluttered, for she had heard stirring tales of her mate's exploits for years; even troubadours sang of his bravery, his chivalry, his strength of heart and mind. She resisted an urge to smooth her hair and straighten her torn and rumpled garments. She had long dreamed of Kenbrook's homecoming, of course, and in her imaginings she was always clad in an imaculate gown of malachite-green velvet, wearing a circlet of gilded oak leaves in her hair and delicately embroidered slippers upon her feet. Her present state of grooming was sadly at variance with the fantasy, and a little cry of dismay bubbled into her throat and swelled there as she shaded her eyes and peered at the oncoming party.
Dane St. Gregory rode well behind his rowdy army, his pale hair, a legacy of some Norse ancestor, gleaming brighter than burnished gold in the sunlight. There was about him an air of dignity and power and danger that gave weight to the many legends of his prowess.
With another exclamation, Gloriana spurred her patient mount off the road, skirting the gaping village gates for the orchard of apple tress that grew along the ancient wall. With Edward galloping behind her, shouting in annoyance, she rode hard for the postern leading into the garden behind her father's brick house.
It was hers now, she thought with a pang of grief as, ignoring Edward's bellowed protests, she bent from the mare's back to work the stubborn iron latch and push the gate open. A great many things were Gloriana's, for Cyrus the wool merchant and his wife, Edwenna, had perished a twelve-month before, when a fever swept through London Town. Their legacy was extensive.
Edward caught up just as she was urging the pony through the narrow passage.
"Blast it," he fumed, "this gate should have been sealed years ago. Suppose our enemies were to learn of it!"
"They would surely pass through," Gloriana said, in a tone full of dark and dire portent, "and skewer us all with their swords!" Leaving Edward to close the postern, she crossed the overgrown garden where she had played so happily as a little girl, when she and Edwenna were down from London Town, and hurried through the village proper. As she mounted the drawbridge, the first of Kenbrook's men were arriving at the inn, abandoning their horses in the dooryard and brawling among themselves as they made for that establishment, where passable wine and ale could be had.
"No control over his own men," grumbled Edward, who had caught up with Gloriana by then. "That's Dane for you."
Intent on a bath and fresh clothing, Gloriana ignored the comment and galloped past smiling guards into the third and outermost bailey. At last, at last, Kenbrook was home. Gloriana, now twenty, had begun to fear, secretly of course, that she would be too old to bear children by the time her husband returned from his travels. She'd had nightmares in which she was a shriveled crone, grown over with warts like a garden taken by weeds, when Dane St. Gregory finally came back to England to claim his bride.
Her heart hammering with a mingling of panic and glorious anticipation, Gloriana crossed the middle and innermost baileys and was off her horse and running toward a side entrance to Hadleigh Castle in almost the same motion. She streaked across the great hall -- the stone floor was bare of rushes and servants were sweeping and scrubbing -- and along the broad passage leading to her private quarters, a sumptuous apartment that had once belonged to Lady Elaina, the absent mistress of the household.
Along the way, Gloriana collided with Gareth, her elder brother-in-law and master of Hadleigh Castle, for his private chambers lay in that direction. He laughed and grasped her upper arms to steady her.
"Does the devil pursue you?" he teased. "You flee as if he does."
"Dane has come back!" Gloriana sputtered. Beyond, Edward could be heard, bursting into the great hall. There was a clatter, and one of the servants berated him good-naturedly for overturning her scrubbing pail. "I can't let Lord Kenbrook see me like this!"
Gareth's blue eyes twinkled. He resembled Dane in some ways, even though he was almost twenty years older and neither so tall nor so broad in the shoulders, and his hair, while thick and fair, had darkened to a butternut color. "Dane has come home at last? A surfeit of good news. No doubt my brother is hungry for the sight of his bride -- as well he should be after so much time has passed. My guess is, he will not care overmuch if said wife looks rather more like a wood nymph than a baroness."
Gloriana pulled free of Gareth's grasp, with a murmured and quite incoherent apology, and fled down the passage and into her own apartments. There, she flung herself into the process of hasty transformation.
In the courtyard of Hadleigh Castle, Dane dismounted and then helped Mariette down from her horse. His hands nearly spanned her waist, and it seemed that she weighed no more than the goose he'd bought at Christmas as a gift for his men. For a moment it troubled him that she was so small; even stout women ofttimes perished while giving birth to a child; the last Lady Hadleigh had died whilst bearing Edward. What chance had a creature as fragile as Mariette, when St. Gregory sons were known for their great size?
It seemed, just briefly, that a cloud passed over the sun, blotting out its light.
Dane spoke to Fabrienne, in French, but his gaze still rested upon Mariette's face, with its translucent, milk-white flesh and delicate bones. "Take ...
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