Faye hugged her arms to her chest, for the cold seeped beyond flesh and blood into the aching place in her soul. Oh, please. She could not bear this waiting. Any longer, and the strain would shatter her from the inside out.
Her pulse gave a sudden jolt. Did she wait at the wrong lakeshore? Nay. There was only one lake in this county with a string of rocks rising out of its depths like a mythical serpent. She had made no mistake.
Faye forced herself to inhale and then slowly exhale. The cold did not matter, nor did her tattered nerves.
Naught mattered, except Angeline.
The little girl was only eighteen months old. How cruel the circumstances that her life depended upon the outcome of today’s meeting. Faye shivered again, for the moment of exchange loomed with all the menace of the gathering storm clouds which smothered any last glimmers of sunlight.
If she failed to sway Angeline’s abductor—
Faye’s jaw tightened. She must not. She would not.
Her numb fingers brushed over the lump beneath her mantle. Thank the saints the object had not come untied from her belt during her journey from Caldstowe Keep to the meeting site. Something about the bold, controlled handwriting of the missive, delivered to her two days past, warned she dealt with ruffians who would never yield—or would do Angeline grave harm—unless Faye met their demands.
With a shaky sigh, she walked nearer the inky water. In the buffeting wind she caught the tang of impending rain. Behind her, the wind moaned through jagged boulders, the sound so eerily human, her belly twisted.
And then she saw him.
The rider, garbed in a flowing black cloak, sat astride a huge black destrier. He approached from the brush-fringed trees several yards away. An iron helm, of the older Norman style with a broad nasal guard, covered his head. Not only did it secure his cloak’s hood against the buffeting wind, but it hid his hair and a good portion of his face. A deliberate attempt to conceal his features.
He gripped his mount’s reins in one hand. His other hand rested upon his sword’s pommel, the weapon revealed by swept-back folds of his cloak. The horse’s bridle chimed like a handful of coins as the animal clopped toward her.
Faye felt the man’s gaze raking over her, from her mantle’s voluminous hood to its hem brushing her ankles. Thorough, deliberate, his assessing stare told her he was well aware of the painful emotions tangling up inside her, yet he would run this meeting as he wished.
Despite the gale, the thud of the approaching horse’s hooves seemed terribly loud. Her hand flew to her throat. Sleepless nights, along with days of worrying about Angeline and being unable to swallow even one mouthful of food, weighed upon her like a stone blanket. The lake blurred before Faye’s eyes. Blinking hard, she fought the urge to swoon.
Never would she reveal her fear to this knave. Fear, she had once been told, was a sign of weakness. Courage would steel her like armor, for she must not fail to secure the child’s freedom. She would never forget her tearful vow, pledged to Angeline’s dying mother, to protect the little girl.
Forcing her hand down to her side, Faye looked at the approaching rider. “Where is Angeline?”
He did not answer. His head tilted with undisguised arrogance. Then, she sensed his attention shifting from her to the rocks and trees behind her. Her bay mare, she remembered, was tethered there in the shelter of a gnarled willow.
Mayhap he suspected she had not come alone, as the missive ordered. The boulders were large enough for men to crouch behind. The clumps of brush, too, grew thick enough to conceal assailants. As though attuned to her perilous thoughts, his fingers slid down to his sword’s grip, preparing to draw the weapon from its scabbard if he sensed a threat.
Panic raced through Faye. She had done as the missive demanded. Aye, after she read it, anguish almost convinced her to ignore the note’s warnings. She longed to run to Torr, show him the parchment, and beg for a contingent of men-at-arms to arrest his daughter’s kidnapper at the arranged meeting. However, concern for Angeline’s well-being had stopped Faye like iron chains clamped around her ankles.
Worry again sluiced through her, but she fought the urge to raise pleading hands and swear she had obeyed his demands. This man would think such desperation foolish. Amusing, even.
Through chattering teeth, Faye said, “Where is she?” Despite the hood protecting her face, the wind snatched the words from her lips, but she refused to be deterred. “Why is Angeline not with you? The missive said she would be.”
The man halted his destrier barely an arm’s length away. The scents of leather and horse wafted to her. The lathered animal snorted a breath of white mist as the rider looked down at her.
This close, she saw dark brown hair had worked free of his hood. The strands were long enough to brush his neck. His lips were wide and full, his chin slightly squared. His taut jaw embellished her impression of angular features, as did the scar slashing across his right cheek. Her gaze traveled upward, to lock with eyes so cold and blue, she gasped. By the meeting’s end, would she see compassion in his gaze or the ruthlessness of a murderer?
He seemed to enjoy her scrutiny, for his lips curled up at the corner.
“Answer me,” she choked out. “Where is Angeline?”
“First, the silver.”
His voice sounded deep and velvety, akin to the softened ripple of thunder. Although he did not raise his voice, each word rang with command. From the roiling clouds overhead came an answering rumble, as if to warn her she must do as he bade.
Faye fought the desperate rage clawing up inside her. Of course such a knave would disregard the rules he had written in black ink. He did not care for the welfare of children, only his payment. Revulsion flooded her mouth with a vile taste as she bit out, “I have no silver.”
“Nay?” The hard smile that tilted his mouth vanished. “Why did you come, then?”
“Do not think to sway me with your beauty, woman’s charms, or tears. The agreement was clear. You chose not to obey it. No silver,” he growled, “no child.”
His tone held the frozen chill of a January blizzard. How ruthless he sounded. Images of such heartlessness had slipped into her dreams, transforming her snatched moments of slumber into nightmares. To think of Angeline held captive by such a man . . .
Lightning sizzled overhead, followed by thunder. The first drops of rain spattered on the lake’s surface as Faye’s fingers curled into fists. Equally vile to imprisoning a child, this knave thought she might ply her "woman’s charms" on him. Fie! She would rather eat mud.
The bridle chimed as the rider pulled on the horse’s reins, turning it to ride away. “Farewell, milady.”
“Wait!” Blood pounded hard at her temples. “We have not finished.”
He glanced over his shoulder. “Indeed, we have.”
“You have, mayhap,” she said, proud of her strong voice, “but I have not.”
A laugh broke from him. He sounded astonished by her audacity. As her hands slid down to her waist, parting the edges of her mantle to expose her green woolen gown beneath, his laughter darkened with distrust. “I warned you, I will not be swayed by charms or tears—”
“—and I offer none.” With stiff fingers, she unfastened the cord tied to her belt, and the stem of the gold cup melded into her palm. Arching an eyebrow, she raised the vessel into the grayed light. “I do not have silver, but gold.”
Brant Meslarches fought to hold back a startled cry. Gold? God’s holy blood. Of all the outcomes he had anticipated from the meeting, he never imagined this one.
Fighting the misgiving that knotted his gut, scrambling to decide how to proceed, he swung his mount back to face her.
As he did so, his meeting with Lord Torr Lorvais, two days ago in the snarl of woods by The Spitting Hen Tavern, raced through his mind. Pulling a shriveled leaf from a tree branch, Torr had told him, “Lady Faye Rivellaux is a penniless widow. Her husband died and after the sale of his estate and settling of debts, there was naught left. Since she had nowhere to go, I let her stay at Caldstowe Keep. I know she has no silver to bring.”
Brant could not resist a frown. Since his return to England a few months ago, he had deliberately stayed away from Torr’s controlling grasp. Using battle skills honed on crusade, which had seen him knighted on the desert sands by King Richard himself, he had competed in county fair archery contests and jousting tournaments to feed himself, his destrier, and his dog. Not rich living, but his life was his own.
Until the rainy morning, weeks ago, when he had raised his drunken head from a tavern table to receive Elayne’s letter. It had taken the messenger a week to find him.
Instantly sober, he rode to Caldstowe, only to learn she had died. Whatever Torr’s wife had wanted to tell Brant remained a secret.
Regret, splintered by forbidden fragments of longing, still pained him, but he had forced the emotions aside. “Why send the missive to Lady Rivellaux?” he had asked.
Torr laughed as if Brant had told a ridiculous jest. “You are to frighten her. Scare her. Bring her to screaming tears, if need be. Then you will ride away.”
Torr had spoken of deceiving the lady as though he discussed the lack of clouds in the wintry sky. With effort, Brant suppressed a surge of temper. “Who is this Angeline who has been kidnapped?” Torr had a young daughter of that name, borne to him and Elayne. Yet, despite Torr’s eccentricities, no father would abduct his own child.
Torr had waved a lazy hand. “Angeline is someone Faye knows.”
A vague, deceptive answer. “A relative? Friend?”
An irritated scowl twisted Torr’s brow. “It does not matter. You know what to do.” His mouth eased into a thin, smug smile. “You will not refuse.”
All warmth had suddenly vanished from the unseasonably mild day. Threaded through Torr’s words was the blatant reminder of what had transpired on crusade.
The vow Brant had choked out while, wracked with horror and guilt, he stood by his brother Royce’s body, the bloody knife still in his hand. The lie which had long ago strangled the life from his soul and bound him for the remainder of his hellish existence into Torr’s service.
A shudder, cold as death, now rippled down Brant’s spine. Hardening his jaw, he halted his destrier beside the lady, so close to her his scuffed boot almost touched her raised hands.
He stared down at her holding up the gold vessel like it offered salvation. Triumph gleamed in her green eyes the color of spring leaves. The wind had tugged her hood back a fraction, revealing her pale brow swept with coppery red hair. High cheekbones, more pronounced than he liked in his women, framed her slim face. His gaze slid down to her mouth. A captivating innocence defined the curve of her lips, although Torr had named her a widow.
Widow or not, she was a beauty. With the right smile, she could enchant any man.
Raindrops pelted Brant. A blunt reminder that here, now, he must do Torr’s bidding . . .