A Knight’s Persuasion
Knight’s Series, Book 4
When Edouard de Lanceau, son of Moydenshire’s great Lord Geoffrey de Lanceau, finds an unconscious wounded woman lying in a river, he’s shocked to recognize Lady Juliana de Greyne, to whom he was once almost betrothed. The previous year, his bet with a friend to win her kiss went awry, and the commitment to her never proceeded. When Juliana’s sister deceived him into betrothing her instead, Edouard became honor-bound to wed her; yet he still desires Juliana. Taking her in his arms, he vows to discover who would want her dead—and why.
While riding to an important meeting on behalf of his ill father, Edouard must face Lord Geoffrey’s enemies, who have returned to Moydenshire to destroy him. Taken prisoner and chained in a tower, Edouard must fight not only for his life but for Juliana’s as well. When Juliana wakes, she has no memory of who she is or what happened to her. She only knows she’s captive in a chamber alongside a man in chains who insists he knows her.
For reasons unknown, her feelings for this stranger run strong. Were they once lovers, or is he a cold-blooded killer? Determined to regain her memories and know the truth, Lady Juliana discovers that nothing can vanquish love or the power of a knight’s persuasion.
Read an Excerpt
Sherstowe Keep, Moydenshire, England
“There she is, at the bottom of the stairs.”
Nineteen-year-old Edouard de Lanceau glanced in the direction his good friend Kaine Northwood had pointed, toward the wooden staircase descending from the castle’s upper level, the area where Lord de Greyne and his family resided. Edouard tried to ignore the lurch of his pulse. Soon he’d see for the first time the young lady his father, Geoffrey de Lanceau, lord of all of Moydenshire, thought might be a good match for Edouard.
“As you know, Lord de Greyne is one of my most loyal knights,” Edouard’s sire had said in a private meeting before this morning’s horseback ride to Sherstowe. “He shares my concerns about King John’s rule. He, too, resents the instability his wars with France and his ruthless taxes have brought to England.”
His father had seemed so grave, Edouard had laughed. “You look as if you have discovered that nasty past lover of yours—Veronique, I believe she is named?—is one of King John’s advisors.”
Edouard had hoped for a grudging smile. Instead, his sire had looked even more grim. “Do not jest about her. If befriending the king would further her ambitions, especially her goal to destroy me, she would find a way to get that alliance.”
Edouard had barely resisted a groan. “I was jesting.”
“I am not.” Anguish had touched his sire’s gaze. “Until the day I die, I will watch for her and that bastard son she claimed years ago is mine. The unsettled circumstances in England provide the perfect opportunity for her to return and try to wreak her vengeance. ’Tis yet another reason why I want this alliance.”
Veronique hadn’t been sighted in these lands for years. She sure as hellfire wasn’t going to be a reason for Edouard to marry Juliana de Greyne.
“Listen, Son. King John continues to persecute noblemen he believes are no longer loyal to him, whether his information is true or not. I know of lords whose castles have been seized by the crown or destroyed. One day, he may challenge my right to Moydenshire. We need to secure strong allies now, for the day that happens.”
Raising a hand, his sire added, “A union by marriage between our household and the de Greyne’s would ensure their many relatives will fight for us, as we will for them.”
Anger had sucked the breath from Edouard. “You expect me to marry a woman I have never met before in order to protect Moydenshire? You are a rich and powerful lord. You have many allies and command large armies.”
“True.” A grudging smile tilted his father’s mouth. “No bond of loyalty runs deeper, though, than that of families. You are well of an age to wed.”
Fury had threatened to choke Edouard. “You cannot ask this of me! I do not want to marry.”
“All I ask for now, Son, is that you keep in mind what I have told you and meet the lady.”
Forcing thoughts of that conversation aside, Edouard strained to see past the noblemen gathered closest to the stairs. He fought the awful pressure in his throat. He’d rather lick mud from a stone than become betrothed to this woman he considered a stranger.
Kaine’s elbow jammed into Edouard’s side. “Did you see her?”
“Nay.” Edouard resisted a smug grin. Could he possibly go the entire day without meeting Juliana? With the crush of noblemen, women, children, and servants at the feast, it might be possible. If only he could escape outside, but the stairwell into the hall was clogged with arriving guests.
Shoving overlong hair from his eyes, Kaine frowned. “Wait a moment. When the noblemen move, you will see her.”
Rolling his eyes, Edouard glanced at the nearby tables. Servants were pushing aside vases brimming over with brightly colored wildflowers to set down earthenware jugs filled with wine or ale. One of the maids was rather fetching; a luscious roundness to her bottom and bosom.
Which reminded him, once again, how he didn’t want to be married. Life offered too many exciting, pleasurable adventures for him to be shackled by the responsibilities of a wife. Just because other noblemen’s sons his age were burdened with betrothal didn’t mean he had to be, too.
The king hadn’t remotely threatened Moydenshire, thus there was no urgency for Edouard to wed.
He’d told his father that during their discussions. His sire, of all indignities, had shaken his graying head of brown hair. “’Tis my honor-bound duty, as lord of Moydenshire, to consider all that might come to pass. I will not fail to protect these lands and the lives of the good folk living under my rule. Or to protect you, Son.” Before Edouard could say a word, his sire had smiled. “You would feel differently about marriage if you met the right lady.”
“A woman like Mother, you mean?” Nigh everyone in Moydenshire knew of Geoffrey de Lanceau and Lady Elizabeth’s love, in part from chansons telling of the pivotal battle at Wode years ago that his sire, driven by vengeance for past misdeeds, had fought and won. He’d survived a mortal crossbow wound from the fight because of his lady love’s devoted care.
Yet Edouard knew enough married lords who were so miserable they took courtesans to their beds, to know his parents’ loving relationship was exceptional. Moreover, their relationship had no bearing on the matter of Edouard’s betrothal—and that, too, he’d told his sire.
Still smiling, his father had spread his hands wide. “Come with me to Sherstowe to meet Juliana. One afternoon. Surely ’tis not too much to ask of you?”
And so, here he was, wearing his finest wool mantle, tunic, and hose, wishing to be anywhere but this noisy hall garlanded with enough wildflowers to color a meadow.
“Now your Juliana is walking to the left of the dais.”
“She’s not my—”
Kaine whistled. “Beautiful.”
Edouard muttered an oath. His friend had a wicked sense of humor. She might well resemble the whiskered fish they caught in the lake.
With an impatient huff, Kaine jabbed Edouard again. “Look. She is wearing a dark green gown. That girl behind her is her younger sister.”
Sighing reluctantly, Edouard looked. He caught a glimpse of a woman through the gap in the throng heading to the dais to pay their respects to their host, Lord de Greyne. Her dark brown hair, swept up around her pretty, oval face, was cleverly tied with a green ribbon in a style that accentuated her fair skin and fine-boned features. He stared, entranced for one awed breath, before a nobleman walked in front of her and she was again lost to Edouard’s view.
She was lovely, aye, but . . . His pulse did a peculiar kick against his ribs, as though the emotional chains binding him to this visit and his looming responsibility tightened by a link.
How he hated the sense of entrapment. More than ever, he wanted to retreat outside.
“Come on,” Kaine said.
Before Edouard could protest, his friend shoved him forward, almost knocking him into an elderly lady shuffling toward one of the tables.
“My apologies.” Edouard bowed to the frowning woman before striding past. He glared at Kaine, strutting a few paces ahead. “Do not do that again. If you were not my friend, I would wallop you.”
Kaine grinned. “I did not realize that old crone would be in the way.” He winked. “I know you want to meet your lady.”
Edouard’s jaw tightened. “In truth, I would rather—”
“Kiss her, aye. You shall have more chance of that after the meal. Mayhap during the dancing.”
“I do not want to kiss her. Would you listen to me? I—”
The pretty maidservant rushed into the space between Edouard and a table. Catching her gaze, he winked in the brazen way he’d been taught by the stable hand at Branton Keep, who’d given him several blunt lessons on seducing women.
The girl blushed and smiled before she resumed her duties.
“Hurry!” Kaine called, darting back to grab Edouard’s sleeve.
Edouard turned on Kaine and propelled him back against the stone wall, close to a tapestry depicting a Norman battle. As Kaine’s back hit the stone, his flailing arm knocked a garland of wildflowers draping from an iron sconce beside the tapestry. Edouard caught the earthy tang of daisies. He fought a sneeze.
When he clenched his fist into the front of Kaine’s tunic, Kaine laughed and held up his hands in surrender. “All right. We will meet her when you wish.”
“Good.” Edouard’s grip tightened. “You will stop your talk about kissing.”
Mischief glinted in Kaine’s eyes. “Why? Are you afraid to kiss Lady Juliana?”
“Of course not.”
Hearty chuckles rippled from a nearby crowd. Although he knew the laughter wasn’t directed at him, Edouard scowled.
“I think you are afraid.” Kaine glanced past Edouard as though to find Juliana and catch her attention. “I dare you to kiss her.”
Edouard ground his teeth. Why was Kaine so persistent?
“On the lips.”
“Wait just a . . .” As Edouard glowered at his grinning friend, a sudden sense of understanding crept over him. Kaine was getting Edouard back for their bet several weeks ago, which Edouard won; Kaine had to relinquish his favorite dagger as well as a nighttime stroll with the busty, blond kitchen maid they both lusted after.
“If you leave today without kissing Juliana,”—Kaine’s grin turned sly—“you owe me that nice leather knife belt the village tanner made for you. You will also return my dagger.”
Edouard snorted. “I do not have to heed you.”
“True. The dare, though, has already been offered. If you refuse to accept . . .” Kaine shrugged. “Our friends will enjoy hearing how you were too much of a coward for a kiss. And from your almost betrothed.”
Anger brought a hot flush crawling up Edouard’s neck. The blatant challenge, combined with his sire’s reasons for Edouard to attend this feast, seemed to weigh down upon him like a monstrous boulder. How Edouard yearned to haul Kaine down to a quiet part of the bailey and wrestle him into the dirt until they were both panting, exhausted, and ready to settle a truce over a pint of ale.
But that wouldn’t resolve the matter of the dare.
A kiss? Fine. He’d kissed many young women; he counted himself fairly skilled at such. But he’d have to be sure there were no witnesses, apart from Kaine. If Edouard was caught kissing Juliana, others could interpret that as his promise to marry her.
One quick brush of his lips, bestowed upon Juliana in private, and he’d have met Kaine’s challenge. He’d also get to keep the knife belt, which the tanner had made exactly as Edouard desired.
Kaine’s gaze bored into Edouard. “Well?”
Edouard managed a reckless grin. “I accept your dare. If I win, I get sole rights to that maid for the next month.”
Kaine’s mouth gaped.
“What is wrong, my friend? Are you a coward?”
A bawdy chuckle broke from Kaine. “Very well. I agree to your terms.”
“Good.” Edouard loosened his hand from Kaine’s tunic. “Now—”
“Get ready for that kiss, Edouard.” Kaine pushed away from the wall while running his hands over his tunic. “Lady Juliana is headed our way.”
* * *
Weaving through the throng, Juliana suppressed a sigh. If only her sixteen-year-old sister Nara, gliding close behind, would stop chattering like an anxious bird; she’d twittered on and on for days about Geoffrey and Edouard de Lanceau’s visit. Most exhausting.
While Nara had fussed, preened, swooned, succumbed to fits of tears, and drunk calming infusions whilst lying abed and mopping her face with cool cloths, Juliana had worked with the cook and servants to coordinate the hall decorations, seven course meal, and entertainment. She’d planned every detail to culminate in a celebration worthy of a visit from Moydenshire’s famous lord.
How Juliana wished that she could have arranged the festivities with her mother, who loved to be part of such events, but Mother was very ill from her last stillbirth. Responsibility for the feast had fallen entirely to Juliana. She hadn’t objected; ’twas important for Mama to focus on resting and regaining her strength, so she’d be well again.
Juliana looked for her father among the guests. She hoped he was pleased with the arrangements. Later, she must find Mayda, her dearest friend, who’d recently become betrothed and who’d be attending with her sire—
A sharp tug almost tore Juliana’s sleeve. “Are you listening to me? I said the de Lanceaus arrived a short while ago.”
God’s teeth, Nara. “You have told me that three times now,” Juliana said over her shoulder, and then smiled at a noblewoman she recognized from a feast last winter.
“The two of them are in this hall somewhere. I have enormous goose bumps all over my arms. The lumps are as big as gooseberries!” Nara tittered. “Oh, how exciting.”
For you, mayhap, chirpy nuisance of a sister. For me—?
“I cannot wait to meet Edouard de Lanceau. He may soon be one of our relations.” Nara sighed with enough theatrics to draw the curious gazes of the nearby noblewomen. “Oh, Juliana! How incredible, that he is considering you, of all women, to be his wife.”
“Mmm.” Juliana wiped her brow, throbbing from the noise in the hall, and desperately wished for a respite. Some of the cook’s soothing mint tea would be wondrous right now. Glancing through a gap in the crowd, she looked over the trestle tables—what she could see of them, anyway—arranged to accommodate the guests for the meal. All the preparations seemed to be to plan. The wine and ale were flowing, the meal’s first course would be served soon, and then—
Another pull on her sleeve. “Do you remember what Father said about Edouard de Lanceau? What color is his hair? What about his eyes? Is he handsome? Is he tall, or—?”
Juliana spun around. Wide-eyed, Nara halted. Her embroidered yellow gown, designed to accentuate her small waist and slender figure, floated to stillness about her ankles.
“Nara, will you stop? Please?”
Nara’s gaze slid to a point behind Juliana. “But . . .”
A daisy petal drifted from the wildflowers in the nearby sconce and Juliana flicked it away. “At this moment, I do not wish to be reminded of Edouard de Lanceau.”
Nara’s mouth dropped open. Her hand fluttered to her throat. “Juliana.”
“Neither do I wish to be reminded of my possible betrothal. I do not care that he is here. I do not want to get married, to him or anyone else. As far as I am concerned, he can—”
“Good day to you, fair ladies.”
Dread skittered down Juliana’s spine. Snapping her mouth shut, she turned to see two young men standing less than three paces away. The shorter one with sparkling eyes and light brown hair dropped into a chivalrous bow. The other, slightly taller and broader of shoulder, smiled before he also bent at the waist while sweeping aside his black mantle.
The way the man moved . . . Her breath fluttered in her ribcage, for she’d never before seen such controlled elegance. Controlled in the manner of a clever warrior who knew his weapons, including those of sexual seduction; the kind of man Mama had warned her to beware. Elegant in a way that bespoke noble breeding and years of cultured tutoring. The combination made her faintly giddy, for ’twas appealing in a most dangerous, exciting way.
How shocked Mama would be, if she knew Juliana’s thoughts.
Juliana tried to look away, but couldn’t. Light from the wall torches flickered on his silky, shoulder-length brown hair. As he slowly rose from his bow, sweat dampened the soles of her feet, suddenly leaden in her best leather shoes. Oh, God. Oh good God. Surely he was not—
“Kaine Northwood,” the shorter man said before gesturing to his companion. “May I introduce my friend, Edouard de Lanceau?”
Nara squealed and clapped her hands to her cheeks.
Heat swept across Juliana’s face. Fighting the odd trembling deep within her, she dropped into an elegant curtsey fit for the highest courts, just as she’d been taught from girlhood.
She sensed the men’s stares upon her, traveling over her in lazy assessment. Were they deciding if she was worthy of a great lord’s son? Especially after overhearing her words to Nara?
Oh, Mother of God, they were probably ogling her cleavage, displayed to shocking advantage by the low-cut gown her father and Nara had insisted she wear. The fitted bodice made her breasts look enormous. Face burning, she pressed a hand to her bosom and rose as swiftly as etiquette allowed.
“Lord de Lanceau,” Nara said with breathless delight. “Lord Northwood. What a pleasure to meet both of you.”
When Juliana straightened, her gaze came level with Edouard’s tanned throat. Even that bit of him looked enticing. Torchlight caught the embroidery along the neckline of his blue tunic. Magnificent work. But of course, ’twould be; his sire owned the largest and most profitable cloth empire in England. Some said Geoffrey de Lanceau was richer even than King John.
The weight of Edouard’s stare forced her to look up. Their gazes met. His eyes were a bright, piercing blue and shadowed by thick lashes. The glint in his eyes . . . A jolt of unfamiliar sensation ran through her, and that wicked sense of danger stirred again. Her lungs suddenly felt impossibly tight, and she could scarcely draw a breath. She prayed she wasn’t going to gasp like a landed trout.
As though attuned to her discomfort, his smile broadened, accenting his strong cheekbones. He looked even more the handsome rogue who only compromised when he knew ’twas to his benefit to do so. The careless tilt of his wide, full lips—a beautiful mouth—suggested he didn’t have to compromise very often, because he knew just how to coax a woman to do exactly as he wanted—
Juliana blinked. God above, she must get control of her thoughts.
“Oh, Lord de Lanceau.” Nara shoved past Juliana in a rustle of silk. “We are very honored to meet you. When Father told us you would be visiting our humble keep, Juliana and I were so thrilled. We could not stop talking about it, for we have admired your sire’s many accomplishments in these lands. That you are visiting us today is, well,” she giggled, “almost too exciting to believe.”
Juliana bit her lip. Even Edouard’s voice was beautiful. Smooth and rich like a sumptuous confection.
She clasped her sweaty hands together and wondered how to excuse herself and slip away. Quite apart from being mortified, she had matters to attend—such as tasting the sauce to be served with the roasted quail, since the cook sometimes made it too spicy.
“—and we worked many long, tiring hours on this magnificent celebration planned for you today,” Nara was saying. “A delicious feast, some fine musicians.” Her voice raised on a flirtatious laugh. “There will be dancing later.”
“I love to dance,” Edouard said with a lop-sided smile. “And you, Lady Juliana?”
Struggling to quell her rising anger—how could Nara claim credit for the work without a glimmer of guilt?—Juliana glanced at Edouard and, somehow, roused a smile. “I enjoy dancing.”
“May I request a dance with you?”
An invitation to dance. Was it a prelude to a betrothal? If so, how did she graciously decline?
Before Juliana could reply, Nara said, “She would be delighted to dance with you.”
Edouard’s eyes narrowed a fraction. “I am pleased to hear such. Lady Juliana?”
After a sharp glance at Nara, who was beaming like a giddy fool, Juliana met his gaze again. She tried to formulate an appropriate reply that wouldn’t encourage his courtship. “I would—”
“Milady.” A petite maidservant curtsied at Juliana’s side. With a twinge of alarm, she recognized the young woman she’d assigned to care for her mother that day.
Juliana faced the maidservant. “What is wrong?”
“Yer mama is suffering pains. I have summoned the healer, but I thought ye should know.”
Juliana touched the woman’s arm. “Thank you.”
With a hesitant smile and curtsey, the maidservant hurried away.
A frown creased Nara’s brow. “Of all moments for Mama to be unwell.”
Barely holding back the fiery words filling her mouth, Juliana clenched her hands. How could Nara be so insensitive? Would her sister ever think of aught but herself?
Blinking away the sting of angry tears, Juliana dropped into a curtsey before Edouard. “Please excuse me, milord. I must see to my mother.”
As she rose, he caught her right hand.
“Oh!” Nara gasped, and then giggled.
Juliana swallowed. Edouard’s warm, callused fingers held hers so gently. Did he clasp every woman’s hand with such tenderness?
Of course he did. He was a rogue. He’d mastered the nuances of that gallant gesture and knew how to use it to get his way.
Juliana sensed the stares of several esteemed guests nearby. Unease rushed through her. She didn’t want to offend Edouard, but she also didn’t want to imply interest in a relationship between them. Yet before she could discreetly draw her hand back, he pressed a light kiss to the backs of her fingers. How deliciously warm his lips felt against her skin.
A shiver rippled through her. Beware this rogue, Juliana.
“Until our dance, then,” he murmured.