A Knight’s Temptation
Knight’s Series, Book 3
When Lady Leona Ransley sets eyes upon the bold warrior who enters the tavern room, she recognizes him: Aldwin Treynarde, the earl’s son who almost caused her death twelve years ago—and the only man who has ever kissed her. Shocked, she fights her emotions, determined to hand him the stolen ruby pendant, take the reward, and vanish.
Aldwin senses the husky-voiced beauty is more than she seems. She may know the whereabouts of his lord’s enemies. She also might be his means to earn what he wants most: knighthood.
Taking Leona hostage, he spirits her away. She fights him at every chance. Aldwin desires his captive more than any woman he’s ever met, and when he discovers who she really is, he has one last chance to protect her life. Only by resolving what happened between them years ago and by fighting side by side can Aldwin and Leona defeat the traitors and surrender to their greatest temptation: love.
Read an Excerpt
If hell were a place on earth, this might be it.
His right hand on his sword’s hilt, Aldwin stood in the shadows of an oak tree outside the Raging Bull Tavern. The night breeze whispered, and with his free hand, he yanked his cloak sleeve over his nose to quell the stench wafting from the stable a few yards away. The foul odor, combined with the smoke hissing from the wet logs on the fire outside the tavern . . . Whew.
Blinking against the smoky breeze, he focused on the laughter and voices carrying out into the night from the run-down tavern. Orange-yellow light poked out from the cracked wattle-and-daub walls; it streaked into the blackness like wisps of hair, giving the place the air of a strumpet desperately past her prime who struggled to still appear comely.
A roar erupted from the drunkards by the fire, who had not yet noticed him. Smoke snaked up around the group of mostly farmers and peasants while the firelight cast their faces in grotesque orange masks. None of the folk looked likely to possess the priceless ruby pendant he sought for his lord, Geoffrey de Lanceau. Still . . .
“Oy! I asked ye ta move aside,” one of the drunkards groused.
The teetering man beside him sneered. The two exchanged punches.
“Bets! Bets,” another sot yelled over the fighters’ pained grunts.
The others cheered.
“God’s blood,” Aldwin muttered. All he needed was to face a bloody brawl.
“Get the pendant and leave as quickly as possible,” de Lanceau had instructed at Branton Keep days ago, his steel-gray gaze grim. “The fewer who know of the missing jewel, the better.” Glancing away, his eyes shadowed with remorse. “I cannot disappoint my lady wife, Aldwin. Not when she endured such a difficult birthing to give me a beautiful daughter. Not when for weeks I promised my love a wondrous gift.”
“I understand, milord,” Aldwin said.
De Lanceau’s expression didn’t change. While Aldwin wondered if his lordship had heard him speak, de Lanceau’s face contorted with loathing. “As you know, the man who was to deliver the jewel to me from London is missing. I have heard whispers that Baron Sedgewick of Avenley and that conniving bitch, Veronique, are in this part of England. I do no doubt they will try to undermine my rule. They will destroy me for thwarting their murderous plans to seize control of Moydenshire years ago. They will do all they can to hurt my family. If they were to come into possession of the pendant . . .”
The way his lord’s words trailed off to silence made cold sweat bead on Aldwin’s brow. All too well he knew of the baron’s evil, manipulative nature; because of the baron’s lies, Aldwin had fired a crossbow bolt into de Lanceau’s chest three years ago, after the battle at Wode. He’d almost killed his lordship, a mistake Aldwin sorely regretted. He struggled to tamp down intense mortification.
If he completed this mission for his lord, might he at last be awarded knighthood? How Aldwin longed to become one of de Lanceau’s knights. To finally rise above the dishonor blemishing his past.
“Veronique and the baron will not get the jewel, milord,” Aldwin vowed. “I will do what I must to bring it safely to you, as you ordered.”
De Lanceau’s harsh gaze locked with his. Nodding, he said, “Take as many men-at-arms as you wish. Horses, weapons—”
“I go alone.”
“Alone?” De Lanceau frowned. “We do not know who sent word of the pendant to me here at Branton Keep.”
“By going alone, I rouse fewer suspicions,” Aldwin said.
“I will not have you fall prey to a trap.”
The concern in de Lanceau’s voice twisted Aldwin’s gut. To think he had almost killed this honorable man who’d brought peace and prosperity to Moydenshire . . . “I am well capable of defending myself, milord. Moreover, if this missive is a ruse, the sender—or senders—will be expecting a convoy of armed riders. Not a lone man who will slip into their midst, seize the pendant, and vanish.”
A faint smile touched de Lanceau’s mouth. “Very well. If you are not back within four days, I will send my army to find you.”
“I will not fail you, milord.”
De Lanceau’s hand tightened into a fist. “You must not. Many lives may depend on your success. Including my own.”
A cry snapped Aldwin’s attention back to the blazing fire. Four men were fighting now. Glancing at the two-story building, he mentally catalogued the entrances and exits, and then strode from the tree’s concealing shadows.
Skirting the fighters, he headed toward the tavern door. Smoke gusted around him, stinging his eyes. His garments would reek of smoke for the rest of the evening. He reached for the crooked door handle, no more than three weathered bits of wood hammered together.
Before his fingers connected with the handle, the door flew open with the creak of rusty hinges. Light and bawdy cheers flared out into the night, and a pock-faced drunkard staggered out. Aldwin slipped past him into the dimly lit interior.
The stench—bodies gone unwashed for months, rotting food scraps mashed into the dirt floor, and an ill-vented fire—made his stomach roil. Narrowing his watery eyes, he dragged a hand over his face to ward off a sneeze and sauntered forward.
Somewhere in this wretched place was the person who’d hand over the pendant.
Or, as de Lanceau warned, a trap.
Aldwin scanned the room, lit by the hearth in the opposite wall and candles crammed into holders. Heading toward the crowded bar, he indulged in a smile. Any man who thought to attack him would be in for hard fighting.
As he neared, several men leaned away from the wooden bar and cast bleary gazes over him. The barman, scrubbing the top with a grubby rag, glanced up. His gaze settled on Aldwin’s sword and his fat mouth quivered, as though he wondered why Aldwin had set foot inside his premises.
“A drink, milord?” the bar owner said. Sweat dotted his forehead, a sign of a guilty conscience. Did he believe Aldwin had come to demand an unpaid debt? Or, mayhap the lout was in on a trap.
“In a moment.” Aldwin stood at the best vantage point to assess the room and the tavern door.
“Just let me know.” The man managed a nervous smile before mopping his face with his rag. “I will have yer drink right up.”
Aldwin nodded his thanks. Chairs scraped across the room. Two men broke into raucous laughter, while a strumpet, squeezed into a linen gown, sidled toward a group of men motioning her over to them. She had a lovely figure; however, from the looks of her, she was old enough to be his mother.
“Hardly a wench for you, I would say,” said a male close by.
Aldwin discerned amusement in the low, faintly gravelly voice. His gaze slid to the wiry man standing beside the bar, who barely reached Aldwin’s shoulder. With uncombed, shoulder-length gray hair, a pointed nose, and bright blue eyes, the man resembled a creature yanked from books of lore.
A silent groan rumbled in Aldwin’s throat. The last thing he wanted was to be drawn into senseless conversation. Foolish chatter could prove a deadly distraction. A knife through his back, before he even sensed an assailant.
Distracting him could be the man’s purpose.
“Excuse me.” Aldwin pushed away from the bar.
The old man’s hand shot out. His gnarled fingers—surprisingly strong—clenched Aldwin’s cloak sleeve. “The woman you desire—”
Aldwin glared at the old man.
“—has lips as red as rubies.”
Aldwin tensed, then forced aside his astonishment. This old man might not know about the pendant. His words might simply be a coincidence.
“Rubies,” Aldwin repeated with a faint smile. “She sounds most tempting.”
An answering grin tipped up the man’s mouth, revealing the gap between his front teeth. He looked like a cheeky gnome. “Aye, milord, but she is.” He winked. “Exquisite.”
Anticipation tingled at the base of Aldwin’s skull. Either the man was trying to sell him the services of a whore—for an extortionate price he’d soon reveal—or he was indicating he had information on de Lanceau’s pendant. In either case, Aldwin had better not appear overly excited.
Pointedly glancing down at the wizened hand clenched into his cloak, Aldwin said, “I am intrigued, old man. I would like to see this . . . prize.”
The little man beamed. Dipping his wild gray head, he said, “I hoped you would.” He withdrew his hand, and then twirled it in a courteous gesture of encouragement. “Follow me.”
* * *
Leona stood in the tavern’s shadowed back room, sipping a mug of ale. Bitter, watered-down rot, but at least it dulled her nerves.
Tipping her head back, she downed another mouthful, cringed, and then set the chipped earthenware mug on the window ledge, next to the lit candle. She pulled her waist-length braid over her shoulder and fiddled with the leather thong. She should be doing something—anything—other than pacing this grimy room that smelled of damp kegs and moldy flour sacks.
Yet she would wait.
When the knocks came upon the door, she must be ready.
Sir Theodore Wrenleigh—Twig, she’d affectionately called him since childhood because he reminded her of a spindly tree—had slipped out some time ago, promising to report back as soon as he had any news. His fellow man-at-arms, Sir Reginald Themdale, would stand watch in the corridor outside.
“Milady, wait here. Listen for the signal.” Twig had thrust up his hand to stop her objections before she’d uttered one word. “’Tis a rough crowd in the main room. Not at all the place for you.”
He’d slapped his scrawny fist to the front of his cloak, his expression solemn. “Milady, these are unusual circumstances, and I am a man of my word. I made a promise before we left Pryerston Keep. I would rather cut off my own toes than see you come to harm.”
Leona sighed at the memory. Dear, kindhearted Twig. Overprotective, irritating Twig. She should have brushed past him, slipped out into the corridor, and headed to a shadowed corner of the tavern, where she’d help keep watch for the man de Lanceau sent to collect the pendant. No one would recognize her as a noblewoman, hidden by the ragged cloak that covered her from head to ankle. Moreover, she was no fragile maiden who depended upon others to defend her.
She’d started to tell him so, when shouting erupted in the main tavern.
“If ill befalls you,” Twig had said quietly, “who will care for Pryerston?”
Sadness had deepened his voice and, in that moment, the defiance inside her had melted away. For he spoke true. Her father, drunk every day since her mother’s tragic death that past spring, could barely tend to his own needs. Leona had had no choice but to take over running the keep, working alongside the servants and seeing to the necessary decisions, asking, however, that her efforts be kept a secret. As lord, her sire deserved his subjects’ respect; he was still the castle’s ruler.
That is, before the baron and Veronique had arrived.
Thinking about them roused a surge of fury so intense, she’d clenched her teeth. “Very well. I will wait.”
Twig had smiled in that gallant way of his. “Thank you.” And then he and Sir Reginald had left, shutting the door behind them.
Turning around, she paced back across the floor, past empty ale barrels and a wooden crate stacked with candles. While run down, the tavern—located roughly halfway between Branton and Pryerston keeps—was the perfect site to trade the stolen pendant for the reward de Lanceau offered. Paying a traveling musician to deliver the missive she’d written about the exchange was Twig’s idea, and a good one, for the man had no connection to Pryerston.
She’d never met de Lanceau, but from all she’d heard, he was no fool. If she’d sent one of the keep’s servants, he or she would have been promptly arrested, questioned, and forced to reveal how the jewel came to be at Pryerston. As much as Leona wanted to be rid of the pendant, she wouldn’t risk implicating her father as a traitor.
Moreover, she reminded herself, the offered reward money was desperately needed to replenish Pryerston’s coffers. Then, overdue repairs could begin about the keep. And, at last, there’d be coin for Leona to buy Adeline, the young daughter of Pryerston’s cook, specially made shoes to help straighten her legs bowed from her difficult birth. In time, Adeline would walk without hobbling, and would run as fast and well as other girls her age.
Some of Leona’s happiest memories were of racing Ward through the meadows near Pryerston. What child—peasant or noble born—wouldn’t want that freedom?
Crash. Leona jumped at the sound, which came from the main part of the tavern. She swiveled on the heel of her worn leather boots and retraced her steps, hoping Twig wouldn’t be too much longer.
Oh, Father. No matter what you have done, I still love you.
Two knocks rattled the chamber door.
Leona’s hand instinctively flew to her bosom. Her fingers brushed the oval-shaped ruby, about the size of a robin’s egg and set in a delicate gold framework, hidden beneath her garments. The jewel hung on a gold chain and rested just above her cleavage, under her linen chemise. Safe against her bare skin. The pendant couldn’t be snatched without her knowledge.
Two more knocks, slightly louder.
De Lanceau’s man was approaching.
Her pulse became a drumming thunder. She longed to draw the dagger from her right boot, for an extra measure of security, but de Lanceau’s man might interpret that as a threat. She didn’t want any misunderstandings to delay the exchange.
With trembling fingers, she checked the hood of her cloak, drawing it as far down as possible to fully conceal her face. Perspiration moistened her palms. Her legs shook, as they had that summer day when she’d stood on the forest pool’s rocky edge, trying to ignore her brother’s teasing while she prepared to jump into the deep water, even though she wasn’t sure she could swim to shore.
Footsteps sounded outside the door. Fabric brushed against the rough-hewn panel.
Leona drew a steadying breath.
I do this for you, Father. Because I love you, and will not let you destroy your life.
The door creaked inward. Hazy light spilled across the dirt floor.
Straggly-haired Twig stood in the doorway. Behind him, his hand poised to draw his sword, Sir Reginald stared at someone just out of her view.
Twig set his hand to his brow—he obviously tried to make her out in the dim room—before he bowed and strode in. “This way,” he said, motioning for the person following him to enter.
Leona buried her unsteady hands in the folds of her cloak as bold footfalls sounded behind Twig. A tall man dominated the space outside the door, his right boot a hair’s breadth from the threshold. One hand on his sheathed sword, he glanced inside, then scrutinized Sir Reginald, before looking back into the shadowed room.
Misgiving tingled through her. He was familiar, somehow. She couldn’t quite say why.
His gaze shifted, like a hawk assessing the landscape before him. Fie, but he was an imposing man. His cloak’s hood covered the crown of his head, yet his blond hair grew long enough to slip from the gaps where his hood met his shoulder. No doubt he preferred a full, unhindered view of his surroundings, for his face wasn’t concealed.
He took another step forward, causing light to fall upon his features.
What a face . . .
Austere. Beautiful. A visage so handsome, she’d remember it for the rest of her days. Angular cheekbones and a strong jaw were offset by his slender, noble nose. His eyes were blue. Not the warm blue of a young, inexperienced fighter eager to please his lord, but the frosty blue of a winter sky. A warrior’s gaze hardened by cunning and resolve.
When his head tilted, and his attention slid to the far corner of the room, she recognized traces of someone she knew.
When they were children.
Her breath caught, as if his cold stare pierced her. God above. Could she be mistaken? Could this man be someone other than Aldwin?
She hadn’t seen him since the accident years ago. Hadn’t wanted to see him ever again. Heard of him, aye. Who didn’t know the popular chanson de geste telling of the great battle in which he shot Lord Geoffrey de Lanceau with a crossbow bolt from many yards away? The almost impossible shot was recounted with awe and horror. Most men would have died from such a wound, but ’twas said that de Lanceau’s true love for Lady Elizabeth Brackendale had given him the strength of spirit to overcome his grave wound and live.
The chanson was all she’d known of Aldwin through the years.
Until today, when their lives had touched again.
Her mind reeled, resurrecting hurt and anger from years ago. Being bound to the tree. The bee stings. The river.
As though sensing the shock welling inside her, the man’s gaze settled upon her. Standing at the back of the room, with the candle’s light behind her—deliberately so—and the hood covering her features, Leona doubted he could make out her face.
Still, she couldn’t stop her stomach’s awful fluttering. She had to know if this man was Aldwin. For if he was, and he recognized her, all would be lost; she wouldn’t have to say one word to cast suspicion upon her sire.
Yet would Aldwin remember her features, swollen by bee stings the last time he saw her? She looked naught like the eight-year-old girl she once was.
He stood utterly still, as though assessing the level of threat. She, too, waited. Sweat pooled inside her boots. She mustn’t give herself away. How, though, did she get this exchange over with as quickly as possible? The sooner she and Aldwin went separate ways, the better.
Twig huffed a nervous breath. “Please, come in.”
The man’s mouth curved in the barest smile. “In good time.”
“What you desire is in here.”
“So you say.” He glanced back at Sir Reginald. “However, I will not be bashed about the head and rendered senseless. Or stabbed by an unseen assailant.”
He is as clever as the Aldwin you met before, Leona’s conscience said. Beware.
“We will do you no harm. Come.”
The man’s intent gaze returned to her. “You, sirrah, can see me. You remain in shadow. An unfair advantage. I will see the knave in whom I am placing my trust.” He gestured to the threshold. “Step forward.”
Twig’s eyebrows twitched. “Milord—”
At his growled command, concern shot through Leona. Then, indignation. Aldwin had talked to her in that authoritative way years ago, and she’d hated it then. This man would treat her with respect now.
“Heed my man,” she said with icy calm, “or walk away.”
Surprise flitted across the blond man’s features, and she smothered a flare of triumph. He hadn’t anticipated dealing with a woman.
“Who are you?” he muttered.
“A question I ask of you.” If he identified himself as Aldwin, she’d know for certain.
Suspicion darkened his expression. “You are not Veronique. Her voice is quite different. So, I imagine”—his gaze flicked over Leona’s worn cloak—“is her figure.”
Leona bit down on her lip. What did he mean? Had he managed to assess her through the layers of her cloak, gown, and chemise? She’d thought the cloak too loose and plain to reveal much about her, but mayhap she’d underestimated him.
She’d only met Veronique twice, both times at Pryerston Keep. Veronique seemed very much aware of her voluptuous body and its effect upon men. She hadn’t hesitated to bend over to display her breasts almost bursting out of her bodice, or walk with an inviting sway, or bestow her crimson-painted smile upon every male around, even with a bawling child in her arms.
This man obviously was familiar with Veronique’s charms, a fact that irritated Leona in a most peculiar manner.
“Veronique may have sent you, though,” he said, “to do her bidding—”
“What is your name?” Leona cut in, more sharply than she intended.
In a voice akin to stone grating against steel, he said, “I am Aldwin Treynarde, loyal servant of Geoffrey de Lanceau, lord of Branton Keep and all of Moydenshire.”
His last words became a muzzy blur. Aldwin.
Her gut instincts were right.
To be facing him again . . . Her throat tightened on a painful swallow.
“I have given you the courtesy of my name.” His mouth eased into a thin smile. “I ask again. Who are you?”
A woman who wishes she’d never met you, for she loathes your very name.
When she didn’t immediately answer, but let the silence drag, Aldwin’s stare sharpened with determination. Twig also glanced at her, his gaze mirroring the knowledge of what had happened in her childhood, when he’d helped her father carry her out of the river.
“If you are the Aldwin of the chanson,” Twig said, a clear attempt to divert Aldwin’s attention, “you are very skilled with a crossbow.”
“True.” Aldwin’s stare didn’t shift from Leona.
“Thus, you should be well able to defend yourself, if you are under threat. Which you are not.”
“If I am to believe what you say.”
Leona tried to restrain a shudder. He was trying to manipulate the situation to his control.
In that instant, she knew she couldn’t simply hand over the pendant, take the reward, and send him on his way with a pleasant “good day.”
He wouldn’t let her go that easily.
Chilling panic flooded through her. She should have drawn the dagger from her boot, after all.
You always warned me, Mother, that my headstrong nature would get me into monumental trouble.
Trying to quell her rising worry, she nodded to Twig. “This man is not interested in what we have to offer.” She glanced back at Aldwin. “Good day to you.” With a wave of her hand, she ordered Sir Reginald to escort Aldwin away. To remove the menace on the threshold who unnerved her in more ways than she dared acknowledge.
Before she could put more distance between them, she caught the creak of leather. A male scent, tinged with a trace of mint, wafted to her.
Aldwin had stepped inside.
“You will not shut me out.” A mocking lilt softened his voice. “Not when I do not even know your name. And when I have not yet taken what I desire.”