A Knight to Remember
Jewel Series, Book 1
When widowed Lady Aislinn Locksmeade finds a naked, unconscious man in the forest, she wonders if he’s Hugh Brigonne, her first and only true love. When he wakes, he can’t remember who he is or what happened to him. Does she dare to love the roguish stranger, or is there far greater danger to Aislinn than risking her heart?
Read an Excerpt
Nottinghamshire, England, 1201
“Saints above! Is that a naked man?” Lady Aislinn Locksmeade drew her mare to a halt on the shadowed forest road. Her pulse leaping in her throat, she squinted down at the nettles and dock plants growing along the grassy verge to her right, in the shade of towering trees.
Two men-at-arms behind her, part of her armed escort to the weekly market in the town of Crannley, also halted their horses. Their hands moved to their sheathed swords. The other two guards, riding ahead, continued on with the rumbling, horse-drawn wagon.
Aislinn leaned forward in her saddle, craning to see the man in the forest, her embroidered silk gown and burgundy wool cloak rustling with the movement. ’Twas difficult to see through the thick vegetation. However, where a stream of sunlight hit the ground, she did indeed make out the muscled flesh of a man’s back, as well as his bare arse. He appeared to be lying on his left side, turned away from the road.
Something stirred deep in her breast: curiosity, compassion, morbid fascination…she couldn’t quite say. Yet, she couldn’t wrest her attention away from the man.
She couldn’t ride on, not without seeing that he was all right.
“If ’tis a naked man, you should not be staring with such enthusiasm,” muttered Gilbertina Miller, Aislinn’s gray-haired lady-in-waiting. Refusing to look at what had captured Aislinn’s interest, she halted her horse and smoothed the folds of her pewter-gray cloak. Raising her head, she watched the wagon.
“Milady, we are falling behind.”
“He is just…lying there. Not moving.”
“No doubt he is drunk and sleeping off his ale.”
“Or, he is exhausted after a lusty tryst with a strumpet.”
“I do not believe that is so, Gilly. No one else is lying near or with him.”
“That we can see. He could be trying to trick us. He might be pretending to be drunk or wounded to make us stop on the road.” Gilly’s widening gaze darted about. “Outlaws live in this forest. What if they are watching us right now? Plotting to swoop down and attack us?”
Just as Aislinn parted her lips to speak again, one of the men-at-arms pointed to the dirt near the verge. “The road is churned up, milady. It looks like there was a fight.”
Aislinn held the man-at-arms’ gaze. “The poor soul could be injured, then. Even dying.”
The man grudgingly nodded. “’Tis possible.”
Gilly’s plump cheeks expanded, and she blew out a sigh. “Or, he and his cutthroat friends are waiting for us to go and have a look, and then—”
“Please,” Aislinn said to the man–at-arms. “Ride ahead. Tell the others to halt.”
“What?” Gilly’s hand flew to her throat. “Milady!”
The man-at-arms spurred his horse forward with a gritty clatter of hooves. “’Tis my order,” Aislinn said firmly to Gilly. Aislinn focused again on the man on the forest floor. He hadn’t stirred, or acknowledged their presence in any way, which made the concern inside her twist tighter. Whatever had happened to him, she must know.
The rattling wagon ground to a stop. While one man-at-arms remained with the wagon and its driver, the other two returned to Aislinn. Tilford, one of her most trusted guards, drew alongside her, his horse blowing and tossing its head.
“Where is the man, milady?” His gaze scanned the vegetation.
Tilford frowned. “’Tis impossible to tell if he is a lord or an outlaw. Or, if he is alive or dead.”
“I know. We must find out for certain.”
Tilford’s frown deepened. “If you say so, milady. Stand watch,” he said to the other guards, and then dismounted. Drawing his sword, he strode onto the verge, his boots crunching through the nettles.
As the shadowed quiet of the road settled around them, Aislinn shivered. Gilly’s concerns about stopping in the forest were valid. ’Twas well known that thieves and cutthroats lived in the woods. Some of them were rogue lords who’d lost their homes and lands to the crown because they couldn’t keep up with King John’s ever-increasing taxes. Always, there was money owed to the king to ensure his control over Normandy, Aquitaine, Brittany, and his other French holdings. She’d heard through local gossip that taxes had gone up in the last year to help cover the castles, lands, and thirty thousand silver marks the king had granted to King Philip of France to establish peace between the two warring kingdoms.
While King John had the divine right to enforce such heavy taxes, his actions had stirred great discontent throughout England. Hungry, angry, desperate men meant the forests were far less safe than before. Indeed, the sooner Aislinn settled her concerns about the man in the woods and ordered her party to continue on to Crannley, the better.
She dried her damp palms on her cloak and dismounted.
Gilly’s mouth gaped. “Milady! You cannot mean to—”
“Leave the matter to Tilford.”
“I want to see the man for myself. Do not fret. I doubt he will suddenly wake and lunge at me.”
A disapproving huff broke from Gilly. “What about outlaws?”
“None have emerged. Moreover, our men-at-arms are standing guard and are well trained in case of an assault.”
“You are not going alone.” With a loud grunt, the older woman shifted her substantial girth and slid from her horse. Her leather boots hit the ground with a thud.
Aislinn walked toward the man, who was lying exactly as when she’d first spied him. The nettles and dock slid against the hem of her cloak, making a soft hissing sound. Her view was partially blocked by the greenery, but he was clearly a broad-shouldered, well-muscled fellow. No doubt he fought for a living, whether as a knight or an outlaw.
Nearing him, her eyes traveled the expanse of naked flesh, mottled by the sunlight filtering though the boughs overhead. Blotchy red patches covered his arse. Her focus shifted, running up the curve of the man’s spine. His back was also dotted with red spots—places where he’d been stung by the nettles, she realized.
His sun-bronzed flesh also bore the scars of long-healed wounds. Such marks were common for a man who’d trained from an early age to first become a squire, then a knight, and who’d fought in battles. The torso of her late husband, Matthew, had borne many scars, most from local skirmishes or weapons training. The marks on this man in the forest could have come from wounds he’d gotten while on Crusade in the Holy Land with England’s late king, Richard the Lionheart.
Of course, he could also be a mercenary, a killer who fought for money.
Tilford emerged from the trees. “He is alive, milady, although badly wounded.”
His sword held ready for attack, Tilford headed back into the undergrowth.
Aislinn’s gaze settled on the tangled mass of the injured man’s chestnut-brown hair, then slid to his left arm, reaching out as though he’d tried to fend off attackers. Around him, plants lay crushed. A tremendous struggle had taken place. A tingle of admiration, of gladness that the man hadn’t fallen easily, raced through Aislinn. Ridiculous, since she had no idea who he was, but the emotion was still very real and poignant.
“God’s bones,” Gilly whispered. She stood behind the prone figure of the man, her gaze on his bare buttocks.
Aislinn walked down the length of his body to his feet, then up the other side of him. The man was a magnificent creature, his skin satiny and bronzed, his arms and legs bulging with muscle. A large, ugly bruise darkened his right hip, as well as his right forearm.
She dropped down in front of him. His eyelids didn’t flicker, his breathing didn’t change, and he didn’t stir or give any other sign of being aware of her. He had strong features—high cheekbones, a prominent nose, a bold jawline darkened with a day’s growth of stubble. His lashes, where they lay against his face, were long, dark, and thick. His features held a harshness that suggested his life hadn’t been easy or kind.
Disquiet raced through her. His face wasn’t one she recognized. Twelve years ago, when she was just ten and five, she’d known—loved—a young lad with hair as dark and silky as this man’s, and with a mouth as wide and sensual. She brushed away the memory of Hugh Brigonne and the accompanying anguish, for ’twas unlikely this was the same man but twelve years older. Indeed, ’twas about as likely as a hard frost in July.
“Mercy,” Gilly said, reaching Aislinn’s side. The older woman wiped her brow on her cloak sleeve. “He is a large man.”
“Mmm,” Aislinn said, seeing that his shoulders were also reddened from the stinging nettles. Her gaze drifted down his right arm to his fingers, lying close to his man’s parts. His manly bits were equally impressive, she noted.
“Mother Mary.” The older woman sounded close to a swoon. Her gaze, Aislinn realized, was also on the man’s privates. “Look at the size of his—”
“Enough,” Aislinn said quickly, snapping her gaze away.
“I was speaking of his bruises, milady,” Gilly said. “What did you think I meant?”
Fighting a blush, Aislinn shook her head. “Never mind.” Her attention returned to his face and the hair stuck to his neck. Was that sweat? Or blood? Tilford had said he was badly wounded.
Unease slid through her as she reached out to touch the hair. A red smear stained her fingertips. “Blood,” she murmured.
“Oh, dear,” Gilly said.
Aislinn skirted the man, knelt behind him, and eased aside his hair. A bloody, swollen lump covered the back of his skull.
“Is it grave, milady?”
“Aye. Someone tried to kill this man.”
“His attackers likely robbed him and left him for dead. Or they could have hit him first and then taken his clothes. ’Tis more the like.”
“I agree,” Aislinn said. “He would not have yielded his possessions willingly.”
“Especially his clothes,” Gilly said. “No matter how proud he might be of the manly parts God gave him—and I dare say he got more than most men—he would not want to be found naked. Imagine his shock, when he rouses and learns he was discovered by two ladies.” She sniffed. “Well, one lady with sharp eyes.”
The bushes nearby rustled, and Tilford emerged. “No others are in the woods, milady.” He gestured to the injured man. “What shall we do about him?”
“He needs a healer, as quickly as possible,” Aislinn said.
“I will send one of the men to Crannley. He can fetch the healer and bring her here.”
Aislinn rose to standing. “We are headed to the town anyway. We will put him in the wagon and take him there ourselves.” Larina, the healer, treated the ailments of the folk at Aislinn’s castle and had worked tirelessly through Matthew’s illness last November to try and cure him. When ’twas clear he was dying, the healer had made his last days comfortable. Larina would know what to do for this wounded man.
“Is it wise to take him with us? With respect, milady—”
“He is injured.”
“He could be a wanted criminal,” Tilford cautioned.
Gilly’s eyes widened with alarm. “Do you believe he is?”
“He is a fighting man, of that I am certain,” Tilford said. “He looks bloody strong and well capable of taking on the four of us men-at-arms, if he woke up and wished to do so.”
“He might not wish that at all. ’Tis possible he is a knight and a titled lord,” Aislinn countered. “He might just be an unlucky traveler who tried to thwart thieves.”
“He might be an outlaw,” the man-at-arms said.
“Oh, God,” Gilly moaned.
Aislinn sighed. “Until we know for certain who he is, we will proceed as if he is a man of excellent character who needs our help.”
Gilly wiped fresh sweat from her brow. “’Tis just like you, milady, to think well of a stranger.”
Aislinn’s gaze fell to his face. Pity coursed through her. “We may not know his identity, but someone does. He is someone’s lord, someone’s son, brother, or even…lover.”
Tilford raised his brows. However, in a brisk voice, he ordered his men to help load the injured man into the wagon.
* * *
Pain seared into the darkness in his mind. The hot, sharp agony lanced through him, wrenching him from the cocoon of blackness.
A cry echoed, sounding far away, the urgent sound careening into the shadows. Was that his voice, or someone else’s? The pain… Intense. Overwhelming. He was drowning in agony, even as he tried to slip back into the soothing blackness.
Sounds rattled inside his mind. Voices. Words. They sounded far away, blurred, as if spoken through water. The voices persisted, cutting into the darkness, growing louder, as though to lure him out of hiding.
Fear hovered at the edge of the shadows. Was he in danger? Was he safe? He didn’t know. He fought to think, to remember… The shadows in his mind remained thick and unyielding. Panic, cold and mocking, taunted him.
The blackness suddenly shifted, turning to gray. A faint light glowed. The brightness seemed far away, but it raced toward him. His pain throbbed, merciless and unrelenting.
As the brightness filled his mind, a sense of urgency pressed upon him. Something was missing. Something important. He had to…find…what? A dull ache joined the pain, this new anguish far worse than the other. He ached as though the best, most precious part of his soul had been stolen. Lost. Forever.
One of the voices grew more distinct. A woman’s voice. A tiny flare of hope warmed him.
Heedless of his agony, he struggled toward the light.
* * *
Crouched on the ground beside the naked man, Aislinn touched his cheek. “Can you hear me?”
She stared at his slackened features, aware of the men-at-arms hovering close behind her. They’d secured a linen cloth around his loins, giving him some modesty. When they’d attempted to lift him, the wounded man had stirred—only for the briefest moment, but he’d cried out, a horrible, hoarse sound that had set the hairs at her nape prickling. Then his eyelids had flickered open, revealing brown eyes glazed with pain.
Hugh had had brown eyes. Aislinn brushed aside the thought.
“He is oblivious again,” Gilly murmured.
Aislinn nodded. “When he roused a moment ago, I had hoped…”
“He is too weak,” Tilford said. “Do you still wish us to put him in the wagon, milady?”
“I do. We are not leaving him here. Put a few blankets in the wagon bed to make it more comfortable. Also, cover him to keep him warm.” A box of pewter items, a rolled tapestry, a small wooden chest, and other objects she’d gathered from the castle were stacked in the wagon, ready to be sold to a shopkeeper in the village. “Be sure to move the boxes, so that none of the items will fall on him.”
One of the men-at-arms ran to the wagon to see to her orders. Tilford and another man-at-arms reached together and hefted the wounded stranger, who remained senseless. His head lolled forward between his broad, muscled shoulders, the smeared blood at the back of his neck more obvious when exposed to the sunshine. With him braced between them, the two men dragged him to the wagon.
Aislinn brushed a strand of hair from her eyes. As her attention shifted to the trampled plants where the man had lain, her gaze sharpened. Beneath the vegetation, metal glinted.
She crouched. There, under a patch of crushed nettles.
“I hope we will soon find out who he is,” Gilly said.
“Mmm,” Aislinn replied, half-listening. Gold winked under the nettles. She gingerly reached under the mangled plants and pulled out a long, gold-link chain. Attached to it was a large rectangular emerald. The stone was set into a delicate framework of gold.
“That emerald!” Gilly whispered.
“’Tis the size of a goose egg.” Aislinn cradled the beautiful pendant in her palm. Deep inside, as it caught the light, the stone seemed to change color. Was that a hint of gold and pink?
“A lady’s jewel,” Gilly said.
“An expensive piece, too.”
“Do you think it belongs to him? That stranger, I mean.”
“I expect so.” Aislinn smiled. “’Tis all the more reason to believe he is a nobleman. Only a wealthy lord could afford so fine a jewel.”
The older woman’s lips pursed. “He could have stolen it from some unsuspecting lord, who then pursued him and took his garments, knowing the emerald was somewhere on his person.”
“A good guess,” Aislinn said. “However, the lord would have searched his clothes while the stranger was still wearing them. Why would a rich lord need to take another man’s garments? That does not explain the stranger’s nakedness.”
“Ah! But, not finding the jewel in the thief’s clothes would have made the lord angry. Enraged, he would have demanded to know the emerald’s whereabouts. When the thief refused to comply, the lord ordered his men to hold him at sword point and strip him to humiliate him. Then, his lordship told his lackeys to beat him senseless.”
Aislinn looked down at the jewel. “’Tis possible.”
“More than possible,” Gilly said, triumph in her voice.
“When he wakes, we can ask him about the emerald.”
Eyes narrowing, the older woman added, “We will also make sure there are no valuable objects nearby. No sense putting temptation within his reach.”
Aislinn laughed. “Gilly—”
“Ready, milady,” Tilford called from the road.
Aislinn slipped the gold chain over her head and tucked the emerald out of sight, under her gown. “The sooner we see the man’s wounds tended, the sooner we will have answers.”
The older woman shook her head. “If he does not survive the journey—”
“He will,” Aislinn said firmly. “He has to.”