A Knight and His Rose
Wanting a few moments alone to gaze at the stars, Lady Violetta Molineaux sneaks onto the estate of her enemy, Lord Osric Seabrook, to reach an ancient stone circle. There she’s discovered by a bold knight, but convinces him she’s a commoner and hurries away, only to fall into a mysterious underground tunnel on Seabrook lands.
Osric can’t forget the beautiful woman he met at the ancient site. Could she be Violetta? He’d met her years ago but not since his return from Crusade. When he finds her trapped and hurt in the tunnel he didn’t even know about, he rescues her and takes her to his castle. He soon confirms her identity but plays along with her ruse of being common-born. Yet, when shocking secrets are unearthed in the tunnel, Violetta must tell Osric who she really is—and they both must acknowledge generations-old truths that will change their lives forever.
Read an Excerpt
Lady Violetta Molineaux hurried along in the moonlight. Waist-high summer grasses, dragging against her plain woolen cloak, rustled.
After several days of heavy rain, the sky tonight was blessedly clear. Moon glow washed the high stone wall a few yards ahead in a silvery sheen, making it easy for her to see handholds.
Grabbing onto a jutting bit of stone, Violetta set her right boot on a slight ledge and heaved herself up, her leather gloves rasping on the mortared rock.
As she climbed higher, her excitement tinged with unease, as it did every time she readied to go over the barrier between her father’s lands and the Seabrook estate. Her parents would be horrified to know about her secret excursions. Highborn maidens did not go out alone, especially at night, or scale walls. Moreover, there was always a chance she’d be discovered on the other side, and that could be disastrous, since the Molineaux and Seabrook families had been bitter enemies for years.
She’d heard the Seabrook heir had returned from fighting on Crusade with King Richard several sennights ago to inherit his late sire’s castle. Violetta shivered in the night breeze, for she’d met Osric Seabrook once, when they’d been children, and he’d been an arrogant fool. No doubt he’d grown up to be as hot-tempered as his late father had been.
Volatile temperaments had been partly responsible for the animosity between the Molineaux and Seabrook families. So had the civil war years ago. Violetta’s relatives had supported the Empress Matilda, daughter of King Henry I, in her attempts to take the English throne after her father’s death. Some of Violetta’s ancestors had fought in armies led by the Empress’s half-brother, Robert of Gloucester. The Seabrooks, though, had supported the claim of king’s nephew, Stephen of Blois, who became sovereign.
After an argument between a Molineaux and a Seabrook had ended in a near-deadly fight, her ancestors had started building the wall, using stones from an old Roman fortification. Outraged, the Seabrooks had swiftly begun wall-building as well, until a barricade had separated the two estates. Despite the civil war having ended long ago, the barrier, and the enmity, remained.
Reaching the top, Violetta sat and looked over the field on the Seabrook side. In the distance, pinpoints of torchlight glowed along the crenellated ramparts of Coltingstow Keep: Osric’s lair. No one in her family had seen him since he’d taken over the castle, although she’d learned from her father that Osric had met with the local sheriff and some of the merchants in the nearby town. Right now, he was probably in his bedchamber, drunk and seducing a maidservant; his late sire had certainly indulged in drink and wenches.
No reason to worry, then, about running into him tonight.
Even if she did happen to run into Osric or any of his men, she was dressed in the homespun garments she wore when she helped her mother tend her rose garden. They’d never know who Violetta really was.
Then make the most of your night of freedom.
“I will,” Violetta murmured. Pushing her garments out of the way, she shifted sideways and started down the wall’s other side. The toes of her boots scraped on the rough stone and then she jumped the rest of the way down. With a muffled thud, she landed in the long grass and wildflowers and headed for the stone circle situated on a slight hill.
When she approached the enormous standing stones—a larger circle of them surrounding an inner smaller one—a familiar sense of wonder stirred within her. The circle had been abandoned long ago by the ancient folk who had built it, and some of the monoliths had fallen over and thus no longer reached toward the sky, but the site was still awe-inspiring.
In truth, ’twas her favorite place to be.
She strolled into the circle washed in pale moonlight and dark shadow, sat on one of the horizontal monoliths, and pulled off her right glove to flatten her bare palm against the cold, weathered stone. Shutting her eyes, she invited the aura of her surroundings to spread through her.
How many other folk, through the centuries, had touched the same stone before her and even sat in the same spot?
Opening her eyes, she tipped her head back to study the heavens. The black-as-ink sky glittered with stars.
The breeze brought a faint metallic chime: the sound made by a horse’s bridle.
The fine hairs at her nape prickled. She wasn’t alone.
Had someone spotted her going over the wall? She couldn’t outrun a rider on a horse; not unless she got a good head start.
Violetta rose, her heart pounding, while her right hand slid inside her cloak to grip the handle of her dagger, tied to the embroidered girdle at her waist. She’d never had to wield the knife before, but she would use it tonight if she had to.
The breeze gusted again, causing her eyes to water. Violetta blinked to clear her vision while she started backing out of the circle.
Move as quietly as possible. Do not give yourself away.
If only she could see the rest of the standing stones opposite her, but two of the inner ones had long ago fallen in on a third lying horizontally, and they blocked her view.
She caught the jangle of the bridle again, followed by the thump of boots hitting the ground.
The rider was on foot now. Better than him being on horseback, but she still was far from safe. Nearing the outer circle, she yanked her glove back on. With luck, she’d get safely over the wall before—
A tall man wearing a long woolen cloak and a sheathed sword belted at his left hip walked out from behind the fallen stones. Spurs gleamed at the heels of his boots, indicating he was a knight and likely also a nobleman.
He seemed unaware of her. His expression pensive, he gazed out between the monoliths. The wind tousled his dark, shoulder-length hair, and he reached up to push the strands back from his face.
Could he be Osric? He looked to be the right age: about twenty, like herself. He didn’t resemble the wiry, freckle-faced boy she remembered, though. Mayhap this man was one of the knights from Coltingstow’s garrison?
She took another backward step, and her foot bumped a stone. The rock rattled away, the noise loud as the breeze died down.
The knight’s gaze locked on her.
Violetta turned to flee.
“Wait,” he called.
The plea in his voice made her hesitate. Was she foolish to stop? She might be far wiser to run.
Her breath lodged in her throat, she glanced over her shoulder. He stood with his arms by his sides, his stance far from threatening.
“I did not mean to frighten you,” he said. “My apologies.”
A startled laugh bubbled within her. He was apologizing to her? Rather odd, when she was the one who’d trespassed.
She wore common clothing, though. If she acted the way a woman of humble birth would when conversing with a lord, mayhap she could persuade him that she lived in the nearby town, and he’d let her continue on her way…at least until she could scale the wall.
Lowering her gaze, she dropped into a curtsy. “You did not frighten me, milord. I was just leaving. I wish you a good night.”
She straightened then again headed out of the circle. The wall was still some distance ahead of her. If she ran she’d reach it faster, but that might make him suspicious. He might take up pursuit.
Violetta’s palms began to sweat inside her gloves.
“Go, then,” the man called to her. “I was merely going to invite you to look at the stars with me.”
Oh, how tempting. She hadn’t had much of a gaze at the heavens tonight, and she’d rather not return home yet.
She slowed then faced him. He smiled, and in the curve of his mouth, she caught a hint of mischief. Her pulse fluttered wildly.
“I promise, I will ask no more from you but to sit with me. In silence, if you so wish.”
He sounded sincere, but was obviously trying to convince her to stay. Why? And why, of all things, did she long to agree? Annoyed by her own weakness, she said, “Why ask me to sit with you, milord? Do you fear spirits in this ancient place?”
A terse laugh broke from him. “I do not believe in spirits.”
Surely he’d heard the stories about the stone circle? She knew quite a few, including one about a blacksmith who, years ago, had seen a shadowy figure rise up out of the ground one night. When more townsfolk, including a clergyman, claimed to have witnessed the same, the site had been declared haunted and off-limits. After many months had passed, folk had dared to return to the stone circle again, but the tales of it being haunted persisted.
“If you are not afraid of spirits, then are you afraid of being alone?” she asked.
His dark brows rose, as though he found such a question impertinent. Of course he would; he was a grown man and a knight. Even as she wished she could take back her words, he said: “I actually came here to be alone.”
“I will be on my way, then.”
“Finding you here, though, was a pleasant surprise.”
A tingle of delight trailed through her. She’d had many suitors through the years, who’d flattered her with gifts and compliments—including Melvin, the young lord to whom she’d been betrothed. None of them had made her feel as she did now.
Still, mayhap she should run while she still could?
“Please,” he said. “Stay. Even just for a little while.”
The breeze sighed through the standing stones. He waited, unmoving, but his keen gaze held hers across the distance between them.
After a silence, she said, “I must warn you, I have a knife. If you intend to harm me—”
He raised his hands, palm up. “I would never hurt you. I promise, on my knight’s honor.”
This man has taken vows of chivalry and pledged his life to help the king, crown, damsels, and others in need. He’d be very foolish to break such vows, whether he is Osric or not.
And,the wicked little voice inside her whispered, you need only stay until you’ve seen all you want of the stars. Why not satisfy his wishes as well as your own?
“Fine. I will join you.”
* * *
She was, quite simply, the most captivating woman he’d ever met.
Osric had told her he didn’t believe in spirits, but in all honesty, that’s what he’d imagined her to be when he’d first seen her: an apparition. A ghostly maiden rendered in silvery light and grayed shadow. She’d bumped a rock with her boot and made it move, though, which had helped convince him she was flesh and blood.
How beautiful she was. The way the moon glow shimmered on her waist-length braid, lit her eyes, and illuminated her fair skin….
Who was she? A lady, he’d guessed from her refined way of speaking. Mayhap even Violetta Molineaux, whom he hadn’t seen since he was eight years old. He’d been told, however, by a gossipy shopkeeper in the nearby town, that Violetta was still living at Darringsleigh Keep with her parents. When he’d expressed surprise—most ladies her age were married and bearing babes—he’d learned she’d been betrothed, but her husband-to-be had died after being gored by a wild boar during a hunt. ’Twas a terrible thing to have happened, even if Osric’s family and hers were rivals.
Yet, no noblewoman he knew would venture out in the dark without armed guards. Nor would Violetta be so bold as to trespass on Seabrook lands again, not after the way he’d scared her off years ago.
As the young woman crossed to him, he saw her garments were smudged with dirt and torn in several places. Her very ordinary boots were scuffed. Doubtful, then, that she was a lady or Violetta.
At some point she may have worked in a nobleman’s household. ’Twould explain her refined bearing.
When she neared, Osric gestured to the fallen monolith nearby. She sat, smoothing the drape of her cloak and gown. When he also settled on the fallen stone, she scooted farther away from him.
Regrettable, that she didn’t trust him, but he’d make the most of however long she stayed tonight. He’d like to ask her name, but he must earn her trust first. He’d also said they’d sit in silence. Osric was a man of his word.
She sighed, curled her gloved hands over the edge of the monolith, and looked up at the sky. He studied the heavens as well, although he was curious to know why she wore gloves on a summer evening. Would her hands, being smooth and unblemished, reveal that she was indeed a lady, pretending to be a commoner? Or was her skin chapped and broken from long days of toil? If the latter, he’d ask Coltingstow’s healer for some soothing ointment to give her.
“The stars are breathtaking, aye?”
“Aye,” he agreed, not shifting his attention from the sky. She, though, was also breathtaking. “Do you often come here to study the heavens?” he dared to ask.
“Now and again. When I have been able to get away from work,” she swiftly added. “My job….” She gestured to the town; the cottages on its outskirts were just visible at the far end of his field.
“You live close by, then?”
“The town is pleasant. The folk are friendly.”
“They are indeed.” She stole a glance at him, before she once again studied the stars.
He reminded himself to be patient, to wait a bit before speaking to her once more. Osric searched for patterns in the alignment of the stars that he’d found many times before. He’d seen them from many different places: the wind-scoured battlements of the castle where he’d served as a page and a squire; the outskirts of Acre, while he’d waited in the darkness with his fellow soldiers for the order to attack the city; the prow of a ship as it spliced the white-capped waters between France and England and brought him home from war. Finding the patterns in the stars had always helped to calm his restless mind.
“Your words, milord, implied you are new to this area.”
He linked his hands together while mulling how best to answer. He didn’t want to reveal too much about himself—not until he knew more about her. “I grew up here, but was sent away when I was a lad, so I could train to become a knight.”
“’Tis the way of things for most young lords,” she said.
Ah. Was that remark intended to lure him into admitting he was lord of Coltingstow? He fought a grin, for he would keep her guessing. “After years away, I returned to Wiltshire a short while ago. Not surprisingly, few of the townsfolk recognized me until I introduced myself.” He’d made a point of visiting most of the town officials with his steward and placing orders for candles, spices, inks, and other supplies with local shop owners—rather than having such items shipped from Lincoln or London, as his late father had preferred. With political unrest simmering in England, and longtime foes as neighbors, ’twas vital for him to have good connections amongst the local folk. “How about you?” he asked. “Have you lived in this area for long?”
“All of my life.”
He mentally filed the useful tidbit away. “I know who to ask, then, to find the best local tailor or cobbler.”
Smiling, she tucked a wisp of hair back behind her ear. Her glove whispered against her tresses, and he yearned to lean in, gently kiss her cheek, and inhale the scent of her skin. But he mustn’t.
“I could at least tell you some of the stories about this place,” she said. “Then you would be as informed as the other locals.”
A chill crawled down Osric’s spine, for he was all too familiar with one particular tale. When he’d been but a boy, his sire had threatened that if Osric didn’t do as he was told, he’d face the ghost of the thief who had supposedly tried to bury stolen riches on the ancient site and been crushed by a toppling monolith. Growing up, Osric had suffered nightmares about encountering the tormented spirit, but thankfully, he never had.
“Are you truly unaware of the old stories?” They were obviously a source of fascination for the woman, since she’d mentioned them several times.
“I recall one that I heard when I was a child. But, I have not lived here for a long while, remember?”
“Well, curious things do occur at this site.”
“Indeed they do. Knights and damsels meet unexpectedly and end up watching the stars together.”
She chuckled. “I certainly was not expecting to meet anyone here tonight.”
“Nor was I.” Resisting the tug on his conscience that told him to beware, he reached out and set his hand upon her gloved one. “I regret I do not even know your name.”
Her eyes widened; in them, he caught a hint of fear. She swiftly withdrew her fingers from beneath his. “I do not know your name, either.”
Suspicion flared. A commoner—especially a woman—would never be so forward as to challenge a man of higher social status in such a way. Even as the thought settled in his mind, her lashes lowered and she shook her head. “I have been overly bold. I…had no right.” She abruptly stood.
The maiden appeared ready to flee, so he reached out and caught her hand.
Squeezing her gloved fingers, he smiled in the roguish manner that usually made women blush. “Surely you are not leaving? If you would rather not tell me your name, so be it. But, I will be disappointed if you go before sharing your tales with me.”
“Mayhap another night,” she said, stepping backward.
How frustrating, that his charms hadn’t worked, but he didn’t let his smile slip. “With much anticipation, then, I look forward to us meeting again soon.” Reluctance crossed her features, even as he added, “May I offer you a ride into the town? My horse is tethered close by.” He’d be sure then that she’d reached home safely, and he’d also learn where she lived.
She glanced across the field bordering the town. “I…’twould be best if I made my own way home.”
His suspicion intensified, but he merely nodded.
“You must not follow me, either.”
Had she read his mind? “Not even to watch over you, until you get home?”
She shook her head.
Osric frowned. “Why not?”
“You will get me into trouble.”
“From whom? Your family?”
“Please, I cannot—”
He rose, unable to sit still a moment longer. “As a knight, I am honor bound to protect you.”
“As I told you before, I have a knife. I can look after myself.” Resolve gleamed in her eyes. “Dare to follow me, and we will never meet again.”
* * *
The knight released her hand. Despite her inner sense of dread that urged her to run, fast and far, Violetta curtsied then hurried between the closest standing stones and out into the field. She must head toward the town, continue her ruse until she was certain he no longer watched her. Only then could she climb over the wall.
How keenly she felt his gaze upon her. ’Twas akin to a touch, coaxing her to slow down, turn around, and go back to him.
Her whole being, too, seemed intensely aware of sensation: the brush of her linen chemise against her bosom; the earthy scent of grasses trampled under her feet; the coolness of the night breeze against her flushed cheeks. Oh, mercy, but what she’d felt this eve, for him, was astounding, but also dangerous, especially if he was Osric Seabrook.
The more they’d talked, the more she’d suspected he was indeed the Seabrook heir. Yet, Osric’s late father, like her own sire, had built up the number of knights in his garrison. He’d recruited the youngest sons of lords who owed fealty to him as well as battle-hardened soldiers who’d returned from the East and needed employment.
Somehow, she must find out for certain the knight’s identity. Mayhap she could convince her father to let her visit the town for an afternoon and she’d make inquiries.
A tremor raced through her, for she was far enough away now that she dared to slow down. Violetta yielded to the temptation to glance over her shoulder. The knight was no longer by the fallen stone.
Had he followed her after all?
Movement drew her gaze to the far side of the ancient site; he’d swung up onto his horse and gathered the reins. His back to her, he tilted his head, as though he’d become aware of her watching him. He wheeled his horse and waved to her. Warmth blossomed inside her as she waved back, and then he spurred the animal in the direction of Coltingstow Keep.
Her shoulders lowered on a sigh. She continued on through the field until she was certain he was too far away to see her any longer then ran back to the stone circle. She usually climbed over the wall farther up the field, but she saw good handholds in the section of barrier nearest her and she was eager to be back on her father’s estate.
The ground yielded a bit under her boots as she headed for the wall; the earth must still be damp from the recent rains—
Her right foot sank into the ground. She squawked, waved her arms to try and stay upright, but the soil crumbled away.
She plunged into blackness.