Her Gallant Knight
A humiliating childhood incident made Lady Amelia Bainbridge vow to avoid Lord Ryder Stanbury. Yet, years later, Ryder comes to her rescue. Shocked to recognize her ring, he realizes she’s connected somehow to the Templar treasure he and fellow knights brought back to England—riches that not only bring him and Amelia a second chance at love but perilous secrets.
Read an Excerpt
Her heart pounding, Amelia clung to the seat of the jostling carriage. Each of her breaths felt wrenched from her lungs, and she was acutely aware of the musky scent of dog wafting from Honor sitting on the floor by her feet.
Clinging to the opposite seat, Nanette, Amelia’s thirteen-year-old lady-in-waiting, moaned.
Over the thunderous rumble of the carriage wheels, Amelia heard the clang of swords outside. The captain-of-the-guard shouted orders.
Other men—strangers—were shouting, too.
The outlaws had been waiting, hiding in the forest, until—
Thump. Something hit the carriage’s rounded roof.
Freeing her right hand from its white-knuckled grip on the seat, Amelia reached across the interior and squeezed Nanette’s fingers. “’Tis going to be all right.”
The young woman’s eyes were wide with terror. “I hope so.”
Amelia hoped so too, but the boxy carriage, with its sturdy walls and straw-padded seats, had been built for her late brother’s comfort on long journeys, not for outmaneuvering attackers.
Moments ago, trying not to fall on Nanette or step on Honor, Amelia had risen and slid the windows on either side closed. The interior of the carriage had plunged into shadow, pierced by light from cracks and joins in the wood.
Closing the windows kept arrows from flying in. Yet, the situation seemed even grimmer now that they could only hear what was happening on the road, not see any of it.
She thought of Gladwin, also on his way to the town of Lynborn. They’d arranged to meet for a midday meal, and then she and Nanette were going to shop for new gloves and shoes. A dear friend who was also a Templar knight, as her brother had been, Gladwin had been a great comfort to her since Tilden’s death—
A man screamed in agony. One of her guards? How Amelia longed to open a window a crack and peer out, but she didn’t dare.
“We are going to die,” Nanette wailed.
“Nay, we are not. We are going to survive this attack and recover with a lovely afternoon of shopping. Now, we must both be brave.”
Nanette sobbed. “I have not even fallen in love.”
Neither had Amelia, but she wasn’t going to admit to that, or the fact that of all of the young lords she’d met and courted in her twenty years of life, only one—Ryder—had ever lingered in her thoughts, made her skin tingle, and caused her to feel giddy. Why she should feel that way about him, she couldn’t quite say. She had, after all, successfully avoided seeing him since leaving Merringstow six years ago.
“I have never felt a lover’s embrace,” Nanette continued, clearly drowning in regrets. “Or a man’s passionate kiss.”
“You will,” Amelia said firmly. “You are young, beautiful—”
“If we are to fall prey to outlaws, I would rather be hideous!”
“Once they have had their filthy hands all over us and ravished us, no man will want us.” Nanette’s pretty face crumpled. “We will die unwed. Unloved. Alone.”
Before Amelia could reply, the carriage tilted hard to the right. Screaming, the young woman catapulted into Amelia. Poor Honor, thrown against the seat, scrambled to regain his balance, his claws scrabbling on the floorboards.
The lady-in-waiting untangled herself from Amelia. “Sorry. Are you all right?”
“I am. You?”
With a nod and the rustle of silk, Nanette wilted back on the seat. When she drew a handkerchief from her sleeve and pressed it over her mouth, Amelia sucked in a deep breath, for she also was fighting to keep her morning porridge down.
Raised voices came from outside. The rumbling of the carriage suddenly changed pitch. The jostling eased.
“W-what is happening?” Nanette asked.
“We are slowing.” A ghastly chill rippled through Amelia. They wouldn’t be stopping unless the captain-of-the-guard and the four armed riders who had been assigned to escort the carriage had been defeated.
Nanette shuddered. “W-why—?”
“Is your dagger within easy reach?” Amelia’s late mother had insisted a lady should keep a knife concealed in her garments at all times, and ’twas a rule Amelia never failed to follow.
“I do have my knife, but I am no warrior.”
“Today, you need to be.”
The carriage ground to a halt.
Honor rose on all fours. Staring at the door, the wolfhound growled.
Rising as well, Amelia slipped her fingers down the front of her bodice to take out the small, thin knife she’d tucked between her breasts earlier. Nanette also retrieved her dagger from her cleavage. They stood in silence. Waiting.
Amelia strained to hear the words being exchanged outside.
“You, inside the carriage,” a man called. His gravelly tone didn’t sound natural; he was attempting to disguise his voice. As she wondered why—Had he recognized the coat of arms on the carriage and believed the occupants might know him?—he shouted, “Come out. Now.”
Nanette moaned and glanced at Amelia.
She shook her head. “We are safer in here.” They not only had knives, but they had Honor. The big dog was extremely protective.
“I will not ask again,” said the outlaw.
“Eat toads, you coward,” Amelia said under her breath.
Knife at the ready, Nanette giggled nervously.
One heartbeat, two, and then the carriage door flew open, admitting a flood of sunshine.
Amelia squinted against the light. A man wielding a sword stood outside. He wore a bulky, brown woolen cloak, a garment sold in most town markets and worn by commoners. A leather mask covered his head and face down to his neck.
Honor snarled and barked.
The outlaw’s eyes, visible through slits in the mask, gleamed as his gaze shifted from the dog to Amelia, and then Nanette. “Good day, fair ladies.”
“Leave us alone.” Amelia thrust her knife at him. “We will not let you rob or harm us.”
“Leave you alone? After stopping your carriage? I think not, Lady Bainbridge.”
The outlaw knew her name. The attackers had indeed recognized the carriage’s coat of arms.
Yet, a more horrifying realization formed in her mind: The man with the sword wasn’t low-born. He spoke too well. He wasn’t a town merchant, then, from whom her brother had purchased goods. Nor was he a tradesman. He was a nobleman.
The outlaw suddenly glanced away.
Amelia also heard the noise: Hoofbeats.
* * *
A breeze sighed through the tree boughs overhead and scattered fallen leaves and sunlit shadows across the forest road. All quite pleasant, but as Ryder rode through the woods with his fourteen men-at-arms, on his way home to Brindston Keep, he could not find any enjoyment in the journey.
After helping an ally capture thieves, he’d taken the long route back to his fortress, which had been awarded to him by the crown in honor of his fighting on Crusade. He’d inquired at five jewelers’ shops, in hopes of finding the ring that had been stolen from him—a ring he had to recover, for he’d vowed to protect it for the Templar Order.
None of the jewelers had seen the ring.
He’d failed to get it back it. Again.
The golden hues of the shadows ahead drew his thoughts back to the East….
“Why have we been summoned here?” the bearded knight standing beside Ryder asked, his gaze shifting to Gladwin, Stephen, Tilden, and the other Templars gathered around the table.
“I will show you,” said Edsel. Candlelight gleamed on the riches he tipped out of the leather bag onto the table: a dagger with a jewel-encrusted hilt, gold necklaces and rings, silver goblets, and cloak pins. Ryder knew ’twas but a very small portion of the riches given to the Templars by folk who’d undertaken pilgrimages to the Holy Land; ’twas all that could be quickly brought by Edsel that night, to avoid arousing suspicion.
“Why show us these riches?” the bearded knight asked.
“The Saracens are a resourceful foe. We cannot let them capture these treasures,” Ryder said. He, Edsel, and several others had already decided the items couldn’t simply be hidden at Acre; ’twas all too likely they would be found by the infidel.
“The riches also must not fall to the king’s other enemies,” Tilden said quietly.
“Other enemies?” a Templar asked.
Ryder nodded. “Warriors who fight in these Eastern lands for King Richard, but who want his brother to take the English throne.”
“You speak of treason.” The bearded man sounded uneasy.
“Regrettably, I do. The traitors could carry riches like these back to England, sell them, and use the coin to incite rebellion.”
“What will you have us do?” the bearded knight asked.
“We must each take a piece of treasure. Other trusted Templar knights will also take riches. ’Twill be our avowed duty to keep safe what we take. When a good hiding place has been found in England, we will be called upon to reunite our piece with the rest of the hoard.”
Silence stretched in the chamber.
“If any man does not wish to take part, he must speak up now.”
Edsel turned to Tilden and handed him a quill and ink. “Make a list of the treasure received by each man. We will start with you, Ryder. You will take this gold ring…
He’d gotten the ring safely to England and protected it for months, but then had decided to resign from the Order. He’d sent a missive to the Master of England by way of the Temple Church in London, and had promised to surrender the ring, along with his Templar weapons and trappings. After sending the resignation, he’d shaved off his long Templar beard.
And then, the jewel had been stolen.
By God, he would get it back. He would fulfill his duty—
Ryder’s focus returned to the forest, for sounds carried from the road ahead: the rumbling of a hurtling wagon, frantic shouting, and the clash of weapons. There was no mistaking what he was hearing: An attack.
This particular stretch of woods had been relatively safe until now. The outlaws were growing bolder.
Anger boiled inside Ryder. If he could spare today’s travelers the torment of being robbed, he would do so.
“Be ready to fight,” he called to his guards then spurred his destrier to a gallop. He raced down the road, his men-at-arms close behind.
A carriage with a rounded top and four lathered horses hitched to the front came into view. The vehicle had halted near the weed-choked verge. Men stood nearby, some wearing leather masks that covered their heads and faces but had slits for them to see through. Others were lying injured or kneeling on the dirt, their weapons on the ground.
Ryder recognized the coat of arms painted on the side of the carriage. He’d ridden in the contraption not long after Tilden had purchased it.
Was she inside?
If Amelia was in the vehicle, chivalry required that he ensure her safety before his own…although she’d likely prefer to perish than have to accept his help. She’d avoided him for years, after all, even though he’d tried more than once to see her.
Several outlaws ran toward Ryder and his men. A thug reached for the carriage door and yanked it open. A dog barked inside the vehicle, the sound ferocious. Protective.
Ryder wondered if the dog could be the wolfhound he’d given Amelia, while he signaled to his men to intercept the approaching outlaws. He’d conquer the thug at the carriage.
Suddenly, a gray wolfhound leapt out and sank its teeth into the thug’s left forearm.
The man cried out in pain; lashed out with his sword.
“Nay!” a woman within the carriage shrieked.
The dog, unharmed, let go of the man.
The thug bolted.
“Surrender, outlaws,” Ryder yelled, “or you will be killed.”
Several of the kneeling men, clearly taking advantage of the distraction Ryder and his men had provided, lunged to their feet. Fists flew. Swords clanged together.
“Retreat,” an outlaw yelled.
The thugs fled.
“Follow them,” Ryder bellowed, sending all but four of his men into the forest in pursuit. Those remaining he ordered to tend to the wounded, including the captain-of-the-guard, whom Ryder recognized.
“Milord,” the man said with a grateful nod.
Ryder nodded in return. He dismounted close to the carriage and strode to it, dirt crunching beneath his boots. The wolfhound stood guard in the doorway. Ready to attack if necessary, the dog watched him approach.
“I am very glad we were not ravished,” a woman said from inside the vehicle.
“I told you all would be well,” another female answered.
Ah, God, he’d know her voice anywhere; he heard it in his dreams.
“You did indeed say all would be fine,” the woman he hadn’t met before answered, “but I did not—”
The wolfhound growled at Ryder.
“Honor,” he scolded.
The dog hesitated then barked.
Ryder slowly stretched out his hand so the animal could sniff it. As the dog’s damp nose touched his fingers, he said, “I am a friend. I promise.”
“Oh, God. Nay.” Amelia’s hushed words were just audible.
“What is wrong?” the other female whispered.
“I know that man.”
Ryder resisted a grin and carefully lifted his hand to touch the dog’s head. The wolfhound allowed him several pats before the tip of his shaggy tail swished to and fro.
A gasp carried from inside the vehicle. “Honor, you traitor!”
While he continued to bestow affection upon the dog, Ryder looked up into the carriage. He didn’t recognize the blonde who eyed him with equal measures of relief, wariness, and interest. As his attention shifted to Amelia, memories of her at Merringstow rushed into his mind: yearnings and thoughts that had been most unworthy of a pious Templar who’d taken vows of chastity.
Turmoil stirred within him once again, for he’d always thought her beautiful. Yet, she’d matured into a willowy, chestnut-haired siren. While wisps of hair had come loose in places from her waist-length braid, and her silk gown appeared rumpled, she was still the most fetching woman he’d seen in a long while.
Misgiving gleamed in her eyes, but he’d expected to see distrust. Mayhap one day, she’d gaze upon him with an expression other than suspicion or resentment.
“Are you both all right?” he asked.
“We are fine, milord,” the blonde said with a brilliant smile. “Are you responsible for our gallant rescue?”
“I am ’Tis an honor to have been able to help, milady.”
The blonde fluttered her eyelashes at him, and he executed an elegant bow. As he straightened, his gaze locked with Amelia’s.
“Ryder,” she murmured.
“Amelia. What a pleasure to see you again.”