A Legendary Love
Tavis de Rowenne doesn’t believe in curses. However, when a freak accident almost causes Lady Helena Marlowe, his intended, to drown, he wonders if his ancient cloak pin just might be damned. Helena vows never to see or speak to Tavis again, but when her father falls ill, Tavis might be the only one who can save him. Does she dare to trust the roguish Scot with dangerous secrets, especially when he’s determined to win her heart?
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Cumberland, Northern England, 1204
“Tavis, you could at least pretend to be enjoying yourself.”
Standing on the sidelines of the keep’s crowded great hall, fourteen-year-old Tavis de Rowenne tightened his grip on his mug of ale and glanced at his blond friend, a fellow squire in the service of Lord Anthony de Verre. “I never was any good at pretending.”
Godwin tapped his foot in time to the jaunty tune played by musicians at the opposite end of the vast chamber. Their lordship, in a generous mood, had granted the pages and squires a day’s reprieve from their duties, and had requested entertainment and plenty of wine and ale to be served while his guests arrived. As Godwin’s gaze traveled over a willowy young lady nearby, he said, “’Tis a grand feast his lordship has arranged. I plan to celebrate his son’s birth to the fullest and take advantage of every opportunity presented to me this day.” His sly gaze slid to Tavis. “Since you are not betrothed yet, you should do the same.”
Scowling, Tavis downed another mouthful of the strong and bitter ale. He normally loved a good feast with plenty of drink and the chance to woo a pretty woman or two. Today, though, he’d rather be anywhere but in this chamber, waiting to catch his first glimpse of the lady—a year younger than himself and a specially invited guest—who might one day become his wife.
Resentment simmered like a hot fire in his gut.
Damned noble duty.
Damned inconvenience that he’d been born into a privileged Scottish family and that because of his esteemed birth, he had little say in one of the most important decisions of his life: who he’d take to be his spouse.
Clenching his jaw, he looked over at a laughing group of noblemen. Light glinted off the cross-shaped pin, inlaid with blood red glass, fastened to Tavis’s cloak. His sire had given him the jewel, which had come into the de Rowenne family through a Frankish ancestor more than three hundred years ago, and was engraved with a Latin palindrome: in girum imus nocte et consumimur igni. The Latin loosely translated to we go in circles at night and are consumed by fire, a reference to moths being drawn to encircle an open flame, only to be consumed by it.
The pin had been passed down to second sons and was rumored to be cursed, to bring death by fire upon the wives of the de Rowennes who inherited it. Tavis had never believed such nonsense, especially when the brooch had brought his parents together and they were still happily married after many years.
Tonight, though, Tavis could only hope there really was some kind of damned curse, one that would prove that he and Lady Helena Marlowe weren’t destined to wed for any reason—especially not because their fathers wanted a union of their two families to help protect their lands from the warmongering, ever-conspiring King John.
Cheers erupted near the forebuilding stairs, and a silver-haired man in a fur-trimmed brown cloak, accompanied by two burly men-at-arms, strode into the chamber, to be greeted warmly by several other lords. Tavis narrowed his eyes, for he’d never met Lord de Verre, but had heard he had graying hair.
“’Tis the lady’s father.” Godwin tipped his head at the newcomer.
“How do you know?”
“When I was a young boy, he visited my sire’s castle. Some matter of estate. I do not remember exactly.”
Tavis didn’t take his gaze from the forebuilding. If Lord Marlowe had arrived, so had Helena.
Tavis’s whole body tensed in anticipation of his first glimpse of her. Sweat dampened his palm pressed against the earthenware mug. “Was Helena with him on that visit?” he asked, forcing the words through stiff lips.
“She was not. I asked a friend about her earlier today, though, and was told she has a comely enough face.”
Hardly much of a description of her. Not that Tavis cared whether her ladyship was lovely or not. He wasn’t going to marry her.
As Lord Marlowe moved away from the forebuilding, Tavis released a pent-up breath. An odd mingling of hope and disappointment lanced through him, for Helena hadn’t emerged. Had she decided not to accompany her sire, after all?
’Twould be just his bloody rotten luck. Attending this feast had meant that he’d had to miss the tournament in the town a few leagues away. The letter he’d received from his sire days ago had been very clear that Tavis was to meet Helena—whether he wished to or not.
Tavis clenched his jaw tighter, heedless of the ensuing stab of pain, for he was skilled enough with his sword that he’d had a good chance at winning one of the purses of silver offered as prizes at the tournament. He’d planned to save the coin for when he was ready to buy chain-mail armor and a horse, both essential for when he became a knight. He had deserved to win that silver, and he would have done, if he hadn’t had to meet her.
He downed more ale, his gaze sliding over a fetching blonde who caught him staring and smiled shyly return—
“God’s teeth!” Godwin murmured.
“What?” Tavis asked, reluctant to break eye contact with the blonde.
“Helena. Has to be her.”
Tavis followed his friend’s stare. A tall, slender woman had strolled out of the forebuilding, followed by an armed guard wearing the same color of livery as those who had accompanied Lord Marlowe.
A giggling couple moved into Tavis’s line of view, and with an impatient huff, he stepped forward to better see. Helena’s hair, as fiery red as Tavis’s own mother’s, was drawn back in a fashionable braid pinned around her head. Her sage-green cloak, fastened at her throat with an engraved silver pin, enhanced the creamy paleness of her skin and the rosy flush of her cheeks. She wasn’t just comely. She was an exquisite beauty.
A keen flare of interest tingled in Tavis’s gut; he mentally shoved the inconvenient emotion aside.
Helena hesitated several steps inside the hall and glanced about the crowd, mayhap searching for her father or someone else she knew. As Tavis watched, she frowned slightly then wove through the throng toward her sire, who was talking to a beaming Lord de Verre.
Tavis grunted as Godwin elbowed him in the ribs. “Are you still miserable that you have to meet her?”
“I have not actually met her, only looked upon her,” Tavis answered. She might be lovely as well as highborn, but he doubted she’d compare favorably to his own mother, whose strength of will and intelligence made her an equal to Tavis’s sire. Hellfire, when she was younger, his mother had helped make weapons in the forge at Lincluden. For all Tavis knew, Helena might have a sharp tongue and be terrified of ladybugs. Most of the ladies he’d encountered lately had been cosseted, vain, weak-willed creatures. He wasn’t going to become betrothed to a woman like that.
“Tavis,” Godwin said, “I believe you are being summoned.”
Through the milling throng, Tavis met the gaze of Lord de Verre, still standing with Lord Marlowe. As his liege beckoned, Tavis’s heartbeat became a hammering in his chest.
God’s bones, but he wanted to run, to escape to a remote part of the castle where he’d have the freedom to do whatever he pleased. Instead, he shoved his nearly empty mug of ale at Godwin.
“Godspeed,” his friend said as Tavis brushed past.
Gritting his teeth, Tavis drew near to the two lords and Helena. She waited beside her sire, her hands clasped in front of her, her sumptuous cloak brushing the rushes and herbs strewn across the floor.
“Milords.” Tavis bowed to each of them and then Helena. “Milady.”
“May I present Tavis de Rowenne, son of Matthew de Rowenne.”
As Tavis straightened, he again longed to run—to escape,—especially when Lord Marlowe’s sharpened gaze trailed over him. Was he assessing whether Tavis, a Scot, seemed to be a suitable match for his well-bred English daughter?
She was discreetly looking him over, too. He felt her scrutiny as if she’d lazily trailed a finger over his skin, and he silently cursed that she could affect him so.
Run. Run! his conscience cried. However, Tavis knew better than to disgrace himself or his liege by bolting. His sire wouldn’t be pleased, either, by such behavior, especially when he’d used his connections among his noble peers to get Tavis a spot at the fortress of highly respected Lord de Verre, whose garrison housed some of the finest-trained knights in all of England.
With a polite but cool smile, Tavis resolved that he’d be honorable and endure his meeting with Helena but, once the Marlowes had left, he’d send a missive to his sire saying she wasn’t the woman for him.
Indeed, he’d reiterate that he wasn’t prepared to wed until he was in love, just as his parents had done, or until he wanted to make that binding commitment. No matter how insistent or furious Tavis’s sire might be, Tavis wasn’t going to yield.
“I remember meeting your father during one of my visits to Galloway,” Lord Marlowe said, taking a goblet of wine from a tray carried by a maidservant. “’Twas a few years ago now, but I recall his commanding manner and his love of Scotland.”
“Scotland is indeed a magnificent country.” Tavis refused to temper the pride in his voice.
“You are the second-born son?”
“I am. My brother James is my father’s heir.”
“Helena is two years younger than her brother, and is also second-born. Already you two have something in common.” Lord Marlowe slid his arm around Helena’s waist and gently drew her forward.
Tavis bowed again—hardly necessary, but he wouldn’t be faulted for a lack of chivalry. “I hope you will enjoy your visit today, milady.”
“Thank you, milord.”
Her voice was melodic, but not at all meek. As he straightened, their gazes locked. She glanced away, her attention snared by a burst of laughter from a group of ladies, but he’d still caught the gleam of resentment in her green eyes.
He suppressed a wry smile. She wasn’t happy about this visit, either. He barely knew her, but they already had two things in common.
“I would like you to be a good host to Lady Marlowe today, Tavis,” Lord de Verre said.
The longing to run flared again, for his lordship’s order was clear: Tavis was responsible for Helena during her visit. “Of course, milord,” Tavis managed to say. Gesturing to the table where wine and ale were available, he said, “Would you like a drink, milady?”
She dipped her head in acknowledgement, a movement of such elegance and refinement, Tavis caught his breath. Irritated by his momentary weakness, he curled his hands into fists as she walked ahead of him toward the table.
A maidservant rushed forward with a large, steaming pot of stew to set on one of the dining tables. At the same moment, two noblemen turned toward the drinks table, clearly unaware of both the maidservant and Helena. In his mind’s eye, Tavis saw the men bumping into the maid, causing the pot to jostle, and stew splashing down Helena’s cloak. ’Twould not bode well if she suffered such misfortune.
Tavis swiftly slid his arm around her and pulled her out of harm’s way. Her wide green eyes flared as she was drawn into his embrace, and her shaky breath warmed the side of his neck. Her scent—sweet almond oil blended with brisk lavender—teased him and he inhaled again, savoring the unusual but enticing fragrance. He shouldn’t indulge such fancy…and yet, he couldn’t help himself.
“You were in danger of the stew.” As the words left his lips, he inwardly winced. Could he have sounded any more ridiculous?
“The stew?” Her startled gaze slid to the flustered maid with gravy dripping down her gown. A wolfhound had ventured out from under a table to gobble what had landed on the rushes, while noblemen called over more servants to help clean up the mess. “Oh. I see now,” Helena added. “You were very brave to have saved me from such peril.”
His mouth twitched with a faint smile.
So did hers.
Still in his embrace, she met his gaze. A hot spark jolted through him, as if her stare held the power to touch straight to his soul. “T-thank you,” she said then drew out of his reach.
How foolish that he missed her body pressed against him. Yet, he didn’t want to draw any more attention from the surrounding guests who were staring. As she smoothed her cloak, he said, “I was glad to help, milady.”
“To rescue a helpless damsel, you mean.” Her words held annoyance, as though she liked to think she was perfectly capable of taking care of herself in all circumstances. Pushing her shoulders back, head held high, she continued toward the drinks table.
Fighting not to grin, Tavis followed, until they both stood looking over the offerings of wine and ale.
Frowning, she pressed her hand to her forehead and rubbed, as if she was in discomfort.
“Are you all right?” he asked. While her face was turned to him in profile, she did look a bit pale.
“Regrettably, I have a headache. ’Tis from all the noise.”
The hall was indeed noisy. The hum of conversation alone was akin to the drone of bees in a hive.
“Truth be told, I do not like big gatherings,” she said, stealing a glance at him.
“Nor do I,” Tavis admitted. Again the urge to escape tugged at him, bolstered by a flare of impulse. “You might feel better after some fresh air. Why do we not go for a walk, milady?”
She wrinkled her nose. “Please, call me Helena. ’Tis not a name I would have chosen for myself, but ’tis what I was given.”
“All right, I will call you—”
“Still, I would much rather you call me Helena than milady, which makes me feel absolutely ancient,” she said. “And I do apologize for talking before you have finished speaking. ’Tis a terrible habit of mine, especially when I am a little…well…nervous.”
He smiled, for he understood her being nervous. “Helena,” he repeated. He liked the musical sound of the name, the way it rose and dipped with its vowels and consonants.
She must have liked the way he’d said it, for she smiled back, a hint of genuine pleasure in her eyes.
* * *
Tavis wasn’t what she’d expected.
With her father’s keep situated a few leagues from the border between England and Galloway, she’d met quite a few Scottish lords. Some were opinionated, obstinate men who drank far too much and found great entertainment in belching and passing wind, but from what she’d seen so far, Tavis was as gallant and refined as the English suitors who had courted her at her sire’s castle.
Her hands linked together in front of her—the proper way for a lady to walk, her tutor had insisted time and again—Helena strolled across the hard-packed dirt of the bailey alongside Tavis, listening to the tale of how his father had overseen the construction of Dumfries Castle in Galloway.
Truth be told, while she’d asked about the keep where he’d grown up, she wasn’t really listening to Tavis’s account. The history of the fortress was undoubtedly important, but the tale of one castle was much like another to her. However, she was happy to listen to Tavis talk, so she could savor the sound of his words. He had a most delicious voice: slightly husky in tone, deeper than her sire’s, and thick with an accent that was very different to her English one. A little shiver rippled through her, for when he’d said her name, her stomach had swooped in a most scandalous way. Just by reading a list of goods to purchase at the market, he could make a woman swoon.
She discreetly studied him, the lord who might become her husband. Tavis’s silky, shoulder-length dark brown hair was overly long, and yet the unruliness of it suited him; it complemented the roguish gleam of his blue eyes and the mischievous curve of his full mouth when he grinned. She liked his smile—they way his eyes softened, the way his lips drew back to show his straight, white teeth.
Her teeth were a bit crooked on the bottom, like her late mother’s had been, but that couldn’t be helped.
“Of course, my father wanted only the best for Dumfries,” Tavis continued, opening a wrought-iron gate and motioning her through, “And so…”
Nodding, pretending to be intrigued, she went through the gate and smoothed back the strands of hair that the brisk wind had loosened from her braid. Her gaze discreetly slipped down to Tavis’s broad shoulders, defined by his cloak and the well-cut black tunic he wore underneath that matched his black hose. The blood-red glass of his cloak pin glinted in the sun, as though ’twas illuminated by fire from within.
Her gaze slid lower, down his broad torso and to his muscular arms. He was a handsome, strong-looking man. Her younger sister would be pleased to hear that, for she’d expect a full description of his appearance—among countless other details—once Helena returned home.
Light glinted off his cloak pin again. Did the jewel bear an inscription? She thought she saw engraved lettering, but might be mistaken. She wanted to ask him about the jewel, but she didn’t want to be rude and interrupt him again, so she’d let him finish his story. She’d promised her sire, after all, that she’d be on her best behavior during this visit, for Matthew de Rowenne was one of her father’s allies. Her sire had insisted that alliances between lords were crucial, especially when great discontent was spreading throughout England.
She didn’t understand much of English politics, but she did know King John wasn’t well liked. One night last week, her father had been upset and had stormed off to the solar without finishing his meal. Later, her ear pressed to the door’s keyhole, Helena had heard him telling one of his trusted knights about a lord whose estate had been seized by the King for no sound reason, the whole family dishonored and forced out. Her father had also scorned the King’s unwarranted imprisonments and increasing taxes. Dangerous, treacherous words, but she’d never repeat them to anyone; she loved her father and would never betray him.
Still, she couldn’t help feeling somewhat upset about her current situation, for if her sire loved her as much as he said, he wouldn’t have involved her in his alliance with the de Rowennes. Why couldn’t he and others opposed the King sort matters out themselves? Why did she have to be forced to consider marrying?
She wanted to wed because she was so deeply in love, she’d simply perish without her beloved, just like the ladies in the chansons—not because her sire believed ’twas advantageous to unite her family with a Galloway lord’s.
She slowed as they approached the tiltyards and set her hand on the rough-hewn fence. Inhaling a steadying breath, she forced her discontent aside. When she returned home, she’d talk again with her father. Somehow, she’d convince him she shouldn’t have to become betrothed yet, even if that meant asking him what her mother would have wanted. It pained him to discuss Helena’s mother who’d died three years ago in childbirth, but from what Helena remembered of her parent, she wouldn’t have agreed with a marriage that Helena opposed.
“You are awfully quiet,” Tavis said, leaning both arms on the fence.
“I have been listening to you.” As he chuckled, her gaze settled on a clump of thistles swaying in the breeze. Pointing, she said, “Thistles are common in Scotland, are they not?”
“They are. My mother likes to pick them and hang them upside down near the hearth to dry. If I may ask, how is your headache?”
“Much improved.” Indeed, she’d felt better upon leaving the hall, where she’d felt suffocated by the crowd and the expectations thrust upon her.
“Good.” Tavis smiled. “I was worried I had bored you with my tale.”
“Not at all,” she said brightly. Gesturing to the empty tiltyard, she said, “Do you ever wonder about all of the men who have fought in this field?”
His dark brows rose. “All of the men?”
Her words had sounded rather shameful. A flush warmed her face. “Well, not really the men, but all of the fights that have taken place here. How often have you jousted in this tiltyard?” Surely he, like most young lords, would be eager to boast of his fighting skills.
He shrugged. “I have trained here several days a week, ever since I arrived at Bremworth.”
“How long ago was that?”
“Almost two years ago. I would have been happy to stay and train at Dumfries, but my parents felt I would benefit from living and training in an English lord’s household.”
“I see.” How disappointing that he hadn’t rambled on about his triumphs; then she could have enjoyed more of his wickedly appealing voice.
“I am intrigued to see the tiltyards in London, where I hope to be moving in a couple of months.”
“London?” Her heart fluttered with excitement.
His piercing blue eyes met hers. “Have you ever been there?”
“N-nay, but I would love to go.”
“Then you must,” he said, folding his hands. His palms bore calluses from long days using weapons, while hers were smooth, nourished each night with heavy creams so they’d stay unblemished, as was expected of a lady.
Helena stared out across the windswept field, longing burning within her. Tavis spoke of her going to London as if ’twas simple to arrange; and yet, despite her pleading, her sire had refused to take her with him when he’d gone to the city on business matters last autumn. He’d insisted ’twas a long journey on horseback and that London was no place for a young lady of refined sensibilities. When she’d protested, he’d refused any further discussion.
For years, she’d wanted to see more of England than the heavily guarded grounds of her sire’s keep. She’d love to see where the sailing ships docked in London to unload the costly spices, luxurious silks, and other exotic goods they’d brought from French and far off Eastern lands. The city streets would be filled with interesting folk, and the shops would offer all manner of items she’d never seen before. ’Twould be a marvelous experience, filled with new sights, sounds, and smells—if only she could get to London to have that adventure. “Why are you moving to the city?” she asked, trying not to sound at all envious.
“Bremworth’s captain of the guard says I have skill with a sword. With Lord de Verre’s permission, the captain wrote to a friend in London, asking if there is a place for me in the garrison there. I would train with a nobleman who has tutored many of the King’s personal guards.”
Tavis shrugged again, but she saw pride in his eyes. “My father encouraged me to accept the offer when ’tis made, since I plan to become a knight.”
“You might become a warrior as legendary as your sire.”
“I see no reason why not.”
Arrogance threaded through Tavis’s words, as though nothing—or no one—would stand between him and knighthood, not even the woman he married. Helena struggled to tamp down rising annoyance. She wasn’t going to wed him; it didn’t matter what he did with his life.
“I wish you the best of luck with your ambitions,” she said.
“Luck?” He snorted. “’Tis not a matter of luck, but of hard work and skill.”
True, in part. His sire’s reputation, though, would surely help Tavis get that position in London.
“My father didn’t become the man he is because of good fortune,” Tavis continued. “His skill at commanding armies, his ability to fulfill the King’s orders, earned him impressive rewards, including Dumfries and its surrounding estate.”
“So you intend to have a castle of your own one day?”
Tavis’s mouth tilted in a lop-sided grin. “All knights want to be awarded rich lands and a keep—”
More arrogance. Her irritation bloomed again.
“—as well as a beautiful bride.”
His tone softened on the word bride, and his gaze dropped to her mouth. Helena went still, for heady warmth suddenly hummed in her veins, as if his gaze held the power to enthrall. When his attention wandered down to the embroidered, scooped neckline of her modest but well-fitting gown, her breath lodged in her throat. Why was he looking at her so intensely? Judging by the smoldering heat in his eyes, he admired what he was seeing.
She’d always thought she was rather plain in looks. Certainly not as lovely as her sister, who’d inherited their mother’s curly brown locks and delicate features.
Helena’s body seemed to understand Tavis’s gaze, even if her rational mind did not. Anticipation skittered through her. Her skin tingled, the sensation curious but also wonderful. The wind sighed around them, and she longed to cross her arms, but she simply couldn’t have moved if she wanted to. Her whole being was caught up in a captivating sense of waiting for something new…and magnificent…
His gaze narrowed and flicked away, an unspoken dismissal. Shock rushed in to knock the breath from her lips. Embarrassment swept through her, followed by confusion, and her hand tightened on the fence.
What had just happened between her and Tavis? Judging by his expression, he didn’t care to acknowledge that something—however subtle—had transpired.
Heat filled her face again, and she bit down on her bottom lip. She hated blushing. Her face always turned so very red, and she loathed that she couldn’t stop it. Yet, she especially resented that she hadn’t understood what had just occurred, but sensed that Tavis had.
She wasn’t going to ask him for an explanation.
With the swish of silk and wool, Helena spun away from the fence and started back toward the keep.
“I hope you will be very happy with your castle and your bride,” she said over her shoulder. Tears threatened, but she had no idea why. Oh, but she wanted to go home.
Tavis caught up to her, and his strides matched hers. “Have I offended you?”
“Nay, milord.” Staring straight ahead, she kept walking.
“Milord.” He laughed roughly. “I had hoped you would call me Tavis.” When she didn’t answer, he added, “’Tis what my friends call me.”
She abruptly halted and faced him. “I am hardly your friend. As you surely must know, I am here because our sires believe there is benefit to uniting our families through marriage. Our marriage.”
Anger hardened Tavis’s gaze. “I am aware of the reasons for your visit.”
“We hardly know one another,” she went on, the biting words tumbling from her lips, “but you must have guessed by now that I resent being offered to you like a piece of chattel, without any consideration at all as to my wishes or what I want to accomplish in my life.”
Strong sentiments, but it felt gloriously good to voice her frustrations.
Tavis studied her, his expression thoughtful.
“To be perfectly honest, I have no wish to wed anyone,” she continued.
“No interest at all?” He sounded surprised.
“Not at the moment. Not until I fall thoroughly and completely in love.”
Relief spread across his features. “I feel the same way.”
“Aye. I do not want to wed either, but my sire insisted that I meet you. Even in his letters, when he insists in that forbidding way of his…” Tavis shook his head. “I had no choice but to obey him.”
A pang of sympathy wove through her. “My father can be awfully formidable, too.”
“Of all ironies, we share a reluctance to disobey our sires.” Tavis’s mouth curved in a wry smile.
She grudgingly smiled back, even as mischief glinted in Tavis’s eyes.
“So. Would you like to see more of Bremworth?” An odd note underscored his words, almost as if he hoped she’d decline.
Refusing to acknowledge a glimmer of disappointment, she said, “To be honest, Bremworth is not all that different from my sire’s castle, and—”
“Would you prefer to return to the great hall?”
She’d rather eat raw slugs. “Well…”
He chuckled, the sound low and warm. “Judging by your expression, I am guessing your answer is nay.”
She sighed. “I probably should return to the festivities. My father is rather protective, and will be wondering where I am. However—”
“—we can delay a little longer if you wish.” Tavis reached out and, so very gently, tucked stray hair back behind her right ear. “Would you like a bit of an adventure, Helena?”
A delicious shiver raced through her. “W-what do you mean?” What kind of adventure was he offering her? If he was a mischievous rascal like her brother, he’d probably end up taking her on a tour of the dungeon. Frowning, she said, “Are you teasing me, Tavis? If you are—”
He rolled his eyes and grabbed her hand. “Come on.”