A Knight’s Redemption
Knight’s Series, Book 6
Six Christmases ago, after refusing his kiss, Lady Mary Westbrook was locked in the dungeon by Lord Holden Kendall, a squire at Branton Keep. When an attempted child abduction days before Christmas brings Holden back to the castle, Mary must confront again what happened between them.
Holden is a grown warrior now, and he resolves to not only make matters right with Mary, but finally win her kiss. Yet, as peril ensues, Mary must risk far more than a chance at true love.
Read an Excerpt
The Great Hall of Branton Keep
December 22, 1209
“I have news.” Seated on the opposite side of the oak trestle table, the blond squire grinned.
Chewing a mouthful of vegetable pottage, fourteen-year-old Holden Kendall tried not to seem too intrigued. Selden Brockley was, after all, a bit of an ass. He was always trying to prove himself more informed and better skilled than the rest of the squires. After a long-enough pause, Holden asked: “What kind of news?”
“’Tis about this Christmas’s Lord of Misrule.”
Holden cast a sidelong glance at ginger-haired Penley Fielding, the first friend he’d made upon arriving at Branton Keep last spring. Penley, also a squire, was his closest mate, and they always sat together for meals in the great hall.
With Christmas soon to arrive, they’d both noticed the sense of anticipation spreading throughout the fortress. Lord and Lady Brackendale, the father and step-mother of Elizabeth, the beautiful lady wife of their liege Geoffrey de Lanceau, had visited days ago, as they apparently did around this time every year. Since they lived reasonably close by, they’d be back to spend Christmas Eve and Day at Branton Keep, but their earlier visit had helped spark the feeling that the holiday was swiftly approaching.
Holden had heard from maidservants that the two ladies had spent much of the day crafting wreaths and garlands from pine boughs, holly, pinecones, and ribbons, while the lords had shut themselves away in the solar, likely to discuss matters of estate. Before the evening meal had been served, Holden and several other squires had been summoned to put up the decorations the ladies had made. Since then, whenever Holden had walked into the hall, he’d caught the scent of pine mingled with the earthier smell of smoke from the hearth blaze and wall torches.
The bailey smelled different too. The mouth-watering scents of mince pies and ginger cake wafted from the kitchens. Platters of the delicious treats accompanied meals, and folk talked with excitement of the grand subtlety, shaped like a goose, that the cook planned to make for the Christmas Day feast. And the men-at-arms, who liked to linger around the garrison’s fire in the evenings, had been sharing tales about the Lord of Misrule.
Holden had learned that just before Christmas, as part of the seasonal revelry, de Lanceau would appoint a man in his household to rule the castle for a short while. Two years ago, a stable hand had been given the honor; last year, a gardener. Whatever the Lord of Misrule commanded had to be done—just as if the fortress’s ruling nobleman had given the order. Without fail, mischief and merriment ensued.
While the Lord of Misrule had been originally been a tradition of clergymen, de Lanceau had adopted his own version at Branton Keep. It sounded like great fun, and Holden and Penley had lain awake for the past few nights discussing the tricks they’d play on their friends—especially Selden—if they were ever lucky enough to be appointed Lord of Misrule.
When the blond squire continued to tuck into his pottage rather than divulge his news, Holden sighed. “For God’s sake, what do you have to tell us, then?”
“Aye, Selden,” Penley grumbled around a bite of the coarse grain bread served at almost every meal. “You are cruel to intrigue us and then stay silent.”
“Fine.” The blond lad leaned in closer. “This afternoon, I overheard Lord de Lanceau talking to the captain-of-the-guard—”
“You eavesdropped on his lordship?” Unease racing through Holden, he glanced both ways down the table, to see if any other squires were following the conversation, but their colleagues were involved in other discussions. With the vast room full of men, women, and children partaking of the midday meal, and laughter and conversation creating ongoing noise in the hall, ’twas unlikely anyone at the nearby tables would have heard, either.
As Holden’s gaze returned to Selden, the squire shrugged, clearly not the least bit concerned by his transgression, and shoved more pottage into his mouth.
“’You do realize eavesdropping is dishonorable?” Holden said.
“Ah, Holden.” Selden grimaced. “Always so noble.”
Irritation crackled within Holden. He did strive to be noble, just like the bold, brave knights he admired. One day, he hoped to be as renowned as de Lanceau, who was lauded in chansons.
Selden, a firstborn son and heir, loved to point out that he was destined for far greater things than Holden. Once he inherited, Selden would help govern Moydenshire, while Holden, a fourth son, was not destined to gain titles or lands.
Unfortunately, the blond lad was also one of the most skilled squires at the castle. ’Twas no secret he strove to be the very best. But, Selden clearly needed a reminder that he must abide the rules of chivalry, just like everyone else. “We are training to become knights,” Holden said.
Holden almost choked on the fare he’d just put in his mouth. He forced himself to chew and swallow. “So?”
Penley slapped his hand on the table. “You two can argue later. What is the news?”
Selden dragged his spoon through his half-finished bowl of fare. “I am not certain now if I will share what I know.”
Eyes narrowing, Holden dropped his gaze to his pottage. Selden was acting the fool, but until he divulged what he knew, Holden wouldn’t challenge him further.
“Tell us,” Penley said eagerly. “Come on.”
After a delay—Selden clearly enjoyed drawing out the torment—he said: “This year, for the Lord of Misrule, de Lanceau will choose a squire.”
Shock raced through Holden, followed by excitement. He could hardly believe what Selden had said. He considered saying so, but he also couldn’t think of any good reason why his lord wouldn’t pick a squire.
What if Holden were chosen? He’d do all that he and Penley had talked about, including jumping out of the keep’s hidden passageways to scare the chambermaids. The castle folk knew about the passageways, but they were normally forbidden; they were only to be used if the fortress was under attack.
Holden would also order the kitchen staff to cook roast lamb, his favorite meal; make Selden complete all of his chores as well as clean out the privies; and even borrow his lordship’s sword to spar with the captain-of-the-guard.
Another, even more enticing thought teased him, and his gaze shifted down the hall to the table on the raised stone dais where Lord and Lady de Lanceau were dining. This morning, they’d welcomed some honored guests: a bearded nobleman who was the first to arrive, and then a stocky, gray-haired lord and his daughter. The brown-haired young lady, wearing a honey-colored silk gown, was eating with delicate refinement.
He remembered her stepping down from her sire’s carriage upon arriving at the castle. Holden and his fellow squires had been improving their close-combat skills with instruction from the men-at-arms. Smoothing her fur-trimmed cloak, her braided hair gleaming in the sunlight, she’d glanced about the bailey as though fascinated. No doubt she’d heard the chansons that recounted how years ago, de Lanceau, driven to avenge his sire’s killing, had kidnapped Lady Elizabeth Brackendale and held her hostage. He’d demanded that her father relinquish the great keep at Wode, which had formerly been ruled by de Lanceau’s ancestors—and how the forbidden love that had blossomed between Geoffrey and Elizabeth had helped reveal shocking secrets and changed many lives.
As the visiting lady had followed her sire and de Lanceau to the forebuilding of the keep, Holden had stared, unable to wrest his gaze from her. The distraction had cost him. He’d been knocked off his feet and had lost the match.
Longing to know more about her, he’d talked to some of the chambermaids. He’d learned her given name was Mary, and that she was the youngest of Lord Westbrook’s two daughters. Also, she was unmarried.
He had to meet her.
Twice since yesterday, he’d managed to catch her gaze, but she’d quickly looked away and hurried on, thwarting any chance to talk to her. Was she shy? Or mayhap, like some of the other ladies he’d encountered, she liked being coy, expecting him to send her little presents or romantic notes to show his interest.
If only he had the coin to buy gifts worthy of her. His sire, though, ruled an older castle that needed considerable repairs, and had made it clear that Holden was responsible for paying his own way, just like the other men in his family who’d never inherit. Holden had sold his spare pair of boots and eating dagger to raise enough money to reach Wode. He could read and write, but to pen missives, he’d need a quill, ink, and parchment, and at the very least, asking the captain-of-the-guard for such items would lead to awkward questions he’d rather not answer.
Yet, if he were the Lord of Misrule, he could easily arrange to meet Lady Westbrook.
He could even order her to kiss him.
“Has his lordship ever picked a squire before?” Penley was saying.
“Not as far as I know.” Selden sipped from his mug of ale. “He will choose me.”
Penley snorted. “What makes you say that?”
The blond squire’s expression turned indignant. “I am the most worthy choice. I won the most matches this week as well as last week, remember?”
Smirking, Penley said, “I hope Holden gets chosen.”
With a flicker of surprise, Holden met his friend’s stare.
“Him? Why?” Selden asked.
Seeing the teasing gleam in Penley’s eyes, Holden struggled to hold back the heat warming his cheekbones and sopped up the last of his pottage with some bread. Penley knew of Holden’s interest in Lady Westbrook, but he’d better not say a word—
“If Holden were Lord of Misrule, he could command a kiss from her.”
“Thanks a bloody lot,” Holden muttered.
“Her?” Selden’s eyes widened. “As in…?”
“The lady near the end of the table. Right?” The ginger-haired squire elbowed Holden in the ribs.
Holden glowered. “Why did you tell?”
“I just felt like it.” Grinning, Penley added, “You can kick my arse later, if I do not kick yours first.”
Mortification and anger knotted up inside Holden, and his face grew even hotter.
“Ha! He is blushing,” Selden shouted while pointing at Holden.
His face on fire, Holden popped his last morsel of bread into his mouth. If only he could rise and storm out of the hall, but he’d draw unwanted attention to himself. He didn’t want to have to explain to de Lanceau, whom Holden greatly admired, why he’d ignored protocol and left in the middle of the meal.
“Bastard,” he muttered to Penley.
His friend laughed.
“Do you really want to kiss Lady Westbrook?” Selden asked with a disparaging sniff. “She is not even pretty.”
Holden pushed away his bowl. “I think she is.”
“Her hair is an unremarkable color,” Selden said.
’Tis the hue of seasoned, polished leather.
“Her skin is too pale—”
’Tis the color of fresh, sweet cream.
“—and she is fat.”
Fat? Holden scowled. “Do not be mean.”
Selden had the gall to look affronted. “I am only telling the truth.”
“Her woman’s curves look fine to me,” Holden said.
“Well,” Selden smirked, “regardless how you feel, you are not going to get to know her any better than you do now.”
The blond squire shook his head. “I have heard Lord Westbrook is a cruel bastard. Even his own knights fear him.”
Holden had heard the same. Yet, he’d never been one to run from a challenge.
He might be landless and penniless now, but if he trained hard, became skilled with a sword, he could earn a decent living as a man-at-arms in a lord’s garrison or a mercenary. Moreover, he was of noble bloodlines. He was entitled to speak to Lady Westbrook and even sit beside her at the lord’s table, if he were invited to do so.
“Stop tormenting yourself, Holden,” Selden said before downing more ale. “You are not going to be this year’s Lord of Misrule, and you are not going to get anywhere close to her ladyship.”
Selden spoke with confidence, but he did not know everything—and Holden would not yield easily. No aspiring knight worth his mettle would.
Holding the blond squire’s gaze, Holden smiled. “Given the chance, I will prove you wrong.”
* * *
Sitting beside her father at the lord’s table, Mary bit into a slice of buttered bread. She barely resisted closing her eyes, moaning in pleasure, and cramming the whole piece into her mouth. Freshly baked bread was her favorite, and after being deprived of food for almost three days, she was starving.
Ravenous hunger aside, ’twas truly the nicest bread she’d eaten in a long while. Servants had delivered dark-crusted, grainy loaves to the folk eating at the tables below the dais, but the bread served at the lord’s table had been made from more finely milled flour; ’twas soft in texture, yeasty in flavor, and had a crisp golden crust. Another good thing, then, to add to the list she’d started after arriving at Branton Keep.
Aye, ’twas far better to dwell on the pleasant things about the visit than on what she couldn’t control—that at thirteen years of age, she must take a husband. She was lucky, her sire had said, that he hadn’t wed her off at a far younger age, as fathers had the right to do.
Bawdy laughter erupted, coming from men-at-arms hunched over tables halfway down the hall, but even that increase in noise didn’t drown out her sire’s voice as he talked with Lord de Lanceau and the bearded Lord Rowell, also a guest. Lady Elizabeth, seated to the right of her husband, was also engaged in the conversation.
A shiver crawled through Mary, for Lord Rowell’s son, whom she’d never met, was the reason her sire had ordered her to accompany him.
“Pack your finest gowns,” her father had said. “Since you are not blessed with your sister’s beauty, bring your best jewels, too, and ornaments for your hair.”
Mary had bitten her tongue to keep from saying that while she might not be as comely as her willowy older sister, she could read and write better than most folk she knew, including him. But then her sire’s gaze, raking over her, had stopped at her hands, laced over her stomach. “You are looking fat. No food, only broth, until we reach Branton Keep.”
Only broth? He’d demanded such of her before, and she’d felt sick and woozy from hunger. She didn’t want to get to Branton Keep only to collapse in front of Lord and Lady de Lanceau. His lordship was one of the most famous men in all of England; she could only imagine her sire’s response if she should embarrass him in front of such an important peer. “Father—”
“You will do as I told you. I should not have to remind you of your responsibility to our family.”
A bitter taste had flooded her mouth. How very much she’d wanted to say that his demands were unfair, and that she would not obey, but he wouldn’t tolerate her refusal.
His temper….’Twas terrifying. He’d never once hit her, or as far as she knew, her late mother. But, he’d never needed to use physical force. His words always hit upon her doubts and insecurities, cutting invisible wounds that lasted far longer than bruises ever would.
“If Lord Rowell is impressed with you,” her sire had continued, “he will invite us to meet his heir. They are a family of excellent bloodlines, with relatives in high positions in London. A union forged with them through marriage would bring us great privilege.”
Her father clearly valued the alliance more than whether Mary and the young Lord Rowell got along. Surely, her happiness should be considered? Shouldn’t she have at least some say as to whom she married, since she’d be expected to share the man’s bed and bear his children? She tried to find the strength within herself to speak out, but even imagining standing up to her father made her want to retch.
All hope was not lost, though. Last night, kept awake by hunger and anxiety, Mary had written a letter to Lady de Lanceau, pleading to be taken in as a ward. She’d managed to slip the note to a servant at the castle, but had no idea if her ladyship had read the missive yet or discussed it with her husband.
Was it wrong to so desperately want to get away from her sire? Was it selfish of her to want to be somewhat in love with the man she married? The tale of how Lord and Lady de Lanceau fell in love was legendary; a romance driven by breathtaking passion and fierce loyalties. Surely, her ladyship would understand Mary’s wish to find true love, too?
Her father would be angry when he learned of the letter, but ladies her age did become wards in other noble households before they got married—and there was honor in such a position. Her father wouldn’t be able to deny the prestige of her being a ward at Branton Keep.
Mary startled, for her sire’s arm had bumped hers. He must want her to join in the conversation. She glanced at him, but he seemed unaware he’d made physical contact; he continued talking loudly to Lord Rowell while drawing over the wine jug to pour them both more red wine.
Ignoring her gurgling stomach, Mary buttered and ate more of the delicious bread, savoring every bite. When she moved on to the pottage, also very tasty, she gazed out across the hall—hopefully soon to be her new home. Folk of all ages dined in the enormous room, while hounds sniffed at the dried rushes and herbs covering the floor in hopes of finding scraps.
Farther down the room, she recognized a few squires she’d seen in the bailey. She remembered one in particular. He’d tried to catch her attention—
Their gazes locked. Oh, mercy, but he was handsome: piercing blue eyes, chiseled cheekbones, and tousled brown hair that brushed his shoulders. He had the captivating good looks she’d always imagined of the gallant knights of lore.
Her face grew warm, and she swiftly looked down at her pottage. She’d been bold, holding his attention. Too bold—and not just because she was a maiden, taught from childhood that a lady was quiet, modest, and pure until her wedding night. She’d been brought to the keep for one reason: to win a meeting with Lord Rowell’s heir.
Hopefully her father hadn’t noticed. She didn’t want to get into trouble, or cause the squire to be punished, either.
A tiny, wicked thrill raced through her. She shouldn’t care, shouldn’t peek…but wondered if the lad was still eyeing her. What should she do, if he was? Racked by indecision, Mary stirred her pottage, swirling up lentils, cabbage, onions, and chopped herbs in the golden broth.
Go on. Steal a quick glance, a rebellious voice within her coaxed.
Her eyelashes flicked up.
Aye, he was still looking at her.
The fine hairs at the back of her neck prickled, as though he’d suddenly walked up behind her and with the brush of his fingers, had pushed aside her braid to expose her skin.
Stop staring. Father will—
“Mary,” her sire said.
Her heart lurching, she looked at him.
“Lady de Lanceau would like to show you the garden later. What an honor, for you to receive such an invitation.”
Anticipation tingled through Mary, for during the visit to the garden, she and her ladyship might discuss Mary’s request to become a ward. Leaning forward, she caught the gaze of Lord de Lanceau’s black-haired wife, whose curly, waist-length tresses were crowned with a circlet. “I would like that very much,” Mary said. “Thank you, milady.”
Lady Elizabeth smiled. “I look forward to it.”
Hope blooming within her, Mary smiled back.
Her sire’s gaze sharpened as he stared out at the hall, at the table of squires.
Beware. Do not look follow his gaze.
Mary reached for more bread.
“What did you do while I met with Lord Rowell and Lord de Lanceau?” her sire asked, his tone mild. Yet, she’d learned as a child never to trust the calmness of his voice.
“I went for a walk, since ’twas such a lovely day.” Pausing a moment, she added, “I did not think you would mind.”
Her father reached for his wine again. Brought the goblet to his mouth. Sipped. How acutely aware she was of his silence, while their surroundings resonated with sound. Goose bumps rose on her arms.
“Just a walk, Mary?”
“That young man was watching you.”
Oh, nay. Queasiness taunted her. “He is probably curious about us visitors, ’tis all.”
How keenly she sensed her father’s displeasure. “We are here to get a meeting with Lord Rowell’s son,” he growled, “not for you to entice squires.”
Entice? How awful of him to say such. Hurt knotted inside her, but ’twould be best for all if she stayed level-headed and eliminated his suspicions. “I promise, Father, I have acted as you would expect of me. I have not enticed anyone. I have not forgotten the reason for our visit.”
“I should hope not. Now, that squire. What is his name?”
“I do not know.”
Her father hissed. “Do not lie to me, Mary.”
“I am not! I swear—”
“Why is he still staring, then?”
“I do not know,” she repeated, anxiety welling inside her. As she struggled to think of an explanation that would pacify her sire, Lord de Lanceau rose, his chair scraping back on the dais.
“Quiet,” his lordship commanded. “All within the hall: Quiet.”
* * *
Sweat beaded on Holden’s forehead. The hall wasn’t warm; he’d found it to be cool even in the middle of summer. But, regrettably, Lord Westbrook had caught him looking at his daughter. Even across a distance, the man’s stare had been intimidating.
Thankfully, de Lanceau’s call for silence had distracted Lord Westbrook. Despite Holden’s unease, excitement hummed within him, for the moment had arrived: His lordship would announce who’d been appointed Lord of Misrule.
“Most of you know the traditions honored within these castle walls,” de Lanceau said. “For those who do not, a favorite one at Christmastime is the Lord of Misrule.”
Folk clapped and cheered.
“Shortly, I will say the name of a man who has pledged fealty to me. For a brief while, he will be entitled to every privilege I would enjoy.” More cheering, while his lordship glanced at his wife. “Well, almost every privilege. Lady de Lanceau is most certainly off limits to everyone but me.”
She laughed and shook her head.
“Without delay, the man I have chosen is—”
Lord Westbrook rose and touched de Lanceau’s shoulder. Tilting his head, his lordship listened to hushed words spoken by the other liege.
Misgiving crawled through Holden.
“What is happening?” Penley muttered.
“I am not sure.” Unable to keep from fidgeting, Holden bounced his leg under the table. Mary appeared even more nervous than when her sire had spoken with her moments ago—which didn’t bode well.
Lord de Lanceau nodded to Mary’s sire, who sat once more.
“At last,” Selden muttered.
A chill ran through Holden, for Mary’s sire was smiling, and not in a pleasant way.
“The Lord of Misrule is….”
Selden tensed, clearly readying to surge to his feet.
Hollering and clapping erupted in the hall.
Holden blinked hard. He had been chosen? God’s holy blood.
Selden glowered at him. “Bastard.”
As Penley and other squires at the table raised their fists in the air and shouted his name, Holden grinned, but disquiet gnawed at him. Had Lord Westbrook asked for him to be picked? If so, why? Was Holden being set up somehow, to be made to look like an idiot?
De Lanceau motioned to Holden. “Come.”
The bench he was sitting on wobbled as squires rose, grabbed his arms, and pulled him to his feet. “Go,” Penley yelled. “Go!”
Holden tugged down his tunic sleeves. His gaze shifted to Mary, watching him, her face pale, and resolve settled in his gut. Regardless of why he’d been chosen, he was not going to waste the opportunity. He was going to enjoy being the Lord of Misrule, and above all, use it to meet Mary.
If Lord Westbrook had a nasty reason for wanting Holden to be picked, Holden would find a way to outwit the man. Holden had, after all, on his own initiative, earned a position as squire to one of the richest, most powerful lords in England.
Heading for the dais, Holden strode past cheering men, women, and children.
“Hol-den. Hol-den!” they cried in unison.
They were cheering for him. Him!
Their voices were as loud and jubilant as if he’d returned from a knight’s quest, hailed by all as a hero.
Here, now, he was a hero.
Revel in the glory. Savor every moment. Penley and Selden would.
Holden’s strides slowed to a roguish swagger, and he winked at a pretty maidservant, who shrieked in delight. Emboldened, his focus shifted again to Mary. Her luscious bosom, so perfectly displayed by the v-shaped neckline of her gown, rose and fell on her startled breath. Ignoring her sire’s glower, Holden approached the dais, halted in front of her, and dropped into a low bow. More whistling and cheering carried through the hall.
He straightened then strode to the dais and stepped up onto it. Head held high, he walked behind Mary, her sire, and Lord Rowell until he reached the high-backed chair with intricate carving that was forbidden to all but his lord.
Setting down her goblet of wine, Lady de Lanceau smiled up at him. “Congratulations, Holden.”
“Thank you, milady.”
He clenched and unclenched his hands and glanced at Lord Rowell to his left, who acknowledged his victory with a nod. Holden then gazed out across the hall, where folk still celebrated his victory…and him. He couldn’t resist a triumphant grin. How many other rulers of Branton Keep through the years—centuries—had stood in the exact same place he was now?
De Lanceau, beside the imposing chair, motioned for Holden to sit.
God’s blood! He was going to sit in the lord’s chair!
If only his father could see him now.
Holden slowly sat, the chair creaking as it took his weight. De Lanceau picked up a crown wrought from twigs, mistletoe, and holly tied together with ribbon and set it on Holden’s head before stepping back.
Holden curled his hands on the cool, carved armrests and stared out at the excited folk below the dais. A hot fire burned within him; the glorious feeling of power.
His power, to use as he liked.
“Lord Kendall,” Penley hollered from the table of squires. “What is your first order?”
Holden stood and picked up de Lanceau’s engraved silver goblet. “To start, I want more wine!”
Hearty roars spread through the crowd. Maidservants hurried to the lord’s table to deliver filled wine jugs.
“What about us?” someone shouted. He recognized Selden’s voice.
“Wine for everyone else, too. Extra for that table,” he said, pointing to the squires.
His colleagues and friends bellowed, and the maidservants hurried to do his bidding. Holden laughed and dared to sip from the heavy, gleaming goblet that was probably worth more coin than he’d ever see in his lifetime. As he swallowed the mouthful of wine, he glanced at his liege, sitting beside his wife, his arm around her as he watched Holden with amusement.
“Your next order?” a woman yelled.
The noise in the hall diminished. Folk gazed at him expectantly.
His heart thundered. He’d only be the Lord of Misrule for a short while. Best not to delay what he really wanted, although in truth, he had little experience wooing the fairer sex, especially ladies.
He’d kissed women before, mainly at Christmas and because his brothers or friends had brought about the kisses with mistletoe. Most of what Holden knew of courtship, though, he’d gleaned from the men-at-arms, who enjoyed boasting about their conquests. He remembered one of them saying the fairer sex liked to be shown who was in charge.
As the Lord of Misrule, he was in charge of everyone at the castle, including her.
Holden’s hand tightened on the goblet. His gaze shifted to Mary. “You.”
“M-milord?” she said, wide-eyed.
Was she dreading what he’d ask of her? Since he was lord, she couldn’t refuse him. The marvelous feeling of power intensified. “Come stand beside me.”
She looked to her father, who frowned, but nodded once. She rose from her chair then walked to stand between Holden and Lord Rowell.
She was near enough that Holden caught her scent. Her sweet fragrance reminded him of a meadow filled with summer blooms. Before he could compliment her perfume, she dipped her head and curtsied.
The way she moved…. His mouth went dry. He shouldn’t ogle, but he couldn’t help it.
As she straightened, the slender column of her throat moved with a swallow. Her gaze slowly flicked up to meet his. Her eyes, framed by long lashes, were brown. Uncertainty shimmered in their depths, but also curiosity.
“’Tis a pleasure to make your acquaintance at last, Lady Westbrook.”
* * *
Holy Mother of God.
The squire was even more handsome up close. With his jaw lightly shadowed by stubble and his hair over-long and in need of combing, he looked a little wild, as if he’d be as content to race his horse across uncharted lands as he would to sup at a nobleman’s table.
Being so near to him was causing her to experience the oddest sensations: heat, shooting across her throat and bosom, as though from a fire throwing sparks; cold, as though unseen snowflakes battled to quell the warmth.
His mouth curved up at the right corner. His eyes, as blue as the shards of old Roman glass she’d found once, glinted, as if he knew exactly how he was affecting her.
The hall had become very quiet. Everyone seemed to be fascinated by her and Holden. Her father’s stare bored into her back, a reminder of why she’d accompanied him: not for this young man, but another.
Holden, though, with his unkempt hair and intelligent gaze, intrigued her. Aye, he unnerved her, but she sensed he might share her enjoyment of rainy days spent reading books, romantic tales, and chansons. No lad had stirred such astonishing, compelling feelings within her before, and she’d like to know why.
With so many folk bearing witness, though, she mustn’t upset her sire. If she didn’t meet his expectations, he could—and would—deprive her of food again, if not at Branton Keep then when she got home. Panic fluttered within her, but she forced it down.
Holden’s brows rose. He clearly expected something from her.
Oh! She hadn’t yet formally acknowledged him. “I am honored to meet you as well, Lord Kendall.” She curtsied again for good measure.
“Call me Holden.”
“Aye, as you—”
“Say my name.”
Swallowing hard, she wondered why he would insist on such, and in such a brusque tone. “Holden,” she murmured.
“Your given name is Mary.”
Surprise flickered—she hadn’t told him her name—but she nodded.
“How old are you, Mary?”
“Are you betrothed?”
Astonishment whipped through her, rendering her momentarily speechless.
Muffled snickering carried from down the hall, no doubt from the table where Holden’s friends sat. Indignation welled, but she resolved to remain reserved and polite, as she’d been taught.
“I ask again,” Holden said, more firmly. “Are you betrothed?”
His determined expression made her pulse quicken with both anticipation and dread.
Her sire made a sound of disapproval. “Lord Kendall—”
“Mary,” Holden cut in, “as lord of Branton Keep, I order you to kiss me. On the mouth.”
Roars and delighted giggles rippled through the hall.
Kiss him on the mouth? A lord and lady kissing in front of witnesses could be considered a binding promise of marriage.
Wood scraped on stone; her father had pushed his chair back and risen. “Wait just one moment. I will not—”
“I am the Lord of Misrule.” Holden glanced at Lord de Lanceau. “Do I not have the authority to command a kiss from her?”
An awful feeing of entrapment gripped Mary.
After a silence, de Lanceau said: “You are, indeed, entitled to such requests.”
Holden grinned, while Mary’s heart sank. She couldn’t kiss him. She simply couldn’t.
What was she going to do?
“With respect, milord, a kiss can be considered a promise of betrothal.” Her father’s voice crackled with fury. “I will not allow this lad to kiss my daughter then try later to claim her hand in marriage, all because of some Christmas tradition.”
Lord Rowell shook his head and set down his wine. “Under the circumstances, we can all agree the kiss is only a bit of fun—not any kind of commitment. ’Twill be as if they kissed under mistletoe, aye?”
Mary fought the cry welling within her. The men spoke as though she wasn’t even there. Why did no one ever care to ask what she wanted?
How tired she was of being hungry and anxious, of losing sleep, and of being helpless to determine her own life.
Triumph etched Holden’s features. “I will have your kiss now, milady.”
“Will you?” The words slipped out, impossible to stop.
Holden blinked, obviously surprised by her retort. Mary felt her father’s, Lord de Lanceau’s, and Lord Rowell’s startled gazes upon her. Muttering carried from the hall, as well as chortles.
The laughter clearly bothered Holden, for his expression hardened. “You will kiss me, Mary, or there will be consequences.”
She could not, would not, be forced to kiss him. Whatever the consequences, they couldn’t be worse than what her sire had done to her.
“Lady Westbrook,” Holden commanded.
Despite her trembling, she lifted her chin a fraction higher. “I will not kiss you.”