My Lady’s Treasure
The moment widowed Lady Faye Rivellaux sees the tall, commanding warrior riding toward her, she senses the danger in him— a powerful sensuality that she has never experienced before, especially not in her marriage bed. Fighting her unexpected desire, she clings to her promise to rescue the kidnapped child she loves as her own. When he demands a ransom she cannot meet, she offers her one last hope: a gold cup.
Former crusading knight Brant Meslarches never expected the widow he was ordered to meet to be a tempting beauty. Nor did he expect to see such a chalice. Worth a small fortune, it’s proof that a lost treasure of the legendary Celtic King Arthur does exist—as Brant’s murdered brother believed. Of all things, the lady has offered Brant the one means to redeem his terrible past.
He makes her a deal: he will help her find the little girl, if she will help him locate the treasure. Faye is uneasy about an alliance with the handsome, scarred rogue, especially when he stirs up strong yearnings within her. Yet, she has no other way to find the child. Risking all, Faye joins Brant’s quest, and as the passion they’ve both denied flares between them, they find a treasure worth more than gold.
Reviewer’s Choice Award, Love Romances
Winner, Historical Category, Southern Magic RWA’s 2008 Gayle Wilson Award of Excellence
Finalist, Romance Category, 2008 Next Generation Indie Book Awards
Read an Excerpt
England, Early December, 1192
The kidnapper had not yet come.
Had something unforeseen happened?
Oh, God. Oh, God.
With trembling hands, Lady Faye Rivellaux pulled her hooded mantle closer about her body. Still, the afternoon gale, hissing over the gray, mist-wreathed lake before her, slipped icy fingers inside the garment. Even the skeletal trees at the water’s edge shuddered.
Faye hugged her arms to her chest, for the cold seeped beyond flesh and blood into the aching place in her soul. Oh, please. She couldn’t bear this waiting. Any longer, and the strain would shatter her from the inside out.
Her pulse gave a sudden jolt. Was she waiting at the wrong lakeshore? Nay. There was only one lake in this county with a string of rocks rising out of its depths like a mythical serpent. She had made no mistake.
Faye forced herself to inhale and then slowly exhale. The cold didn’t matter, nor did her tattered nerves.
Naught mattered, except Angeline.
The little girl was only eighteen months old. How cruel the circumstances that her life depended upon the outcome of today’s meeting.
Faye shivered again, for the moment of exchange loomed with all the menace of the gathering storm clouds which smothered any last glimmers of sunlight.
If she failed to sway Angeline’s abductor—
Faye’s jaw tightened. She must not.
She would not.
Her numb fingers brushed over the lump beneath her mantle. Thank the saints the object hadn’t come untied from her belt during her journey from Caldstowe Keep to the meeting site. Something about the bold, controlled handwriting of the missive, delivered to her two days past, warned that she dealt with ruffians who would never yield—or would do Angeline grave harm—unless Faye met their demands.
With a shaky sigh, she walked nearer the inky water. In the buffeting wind she caught the tang of impending rain. Behind her, the wind moaned through jagged boulders, the sound so eerily human, her belly twisted.
And then she saw him.
The rider, garbed in a flowing black cloak, sat astride a huge black destrier. He approached from the brush-fringed trees several yards away.
An iron helm, of the older Norman style with a broad nasal guard, covered his head. Not only did it secure his cloak’s hood against the buffeting wind, but it hid his hair and a good portion of his face. A deliberate attempt to conceal his features.
He gripped his mount’s reins in one hand. His other hand rested upon his sword’s pommel, the weapon revealed by swept-back folds of his cloak. The horse’s bridle chimed like a handful of coins as the animal clopped toward her.
Faye felt the man’s gaze raking over her, from her mantle’s voluminous hood to its hem brushing her ankles. Thorough, deliberate, his assessing stare told her he was well aware of the painful emotions tangling up inside her, but he would run this meeting as he wished.
Despite the gale, the thud of the approaching horse’s hooves seemed terribly loud. Her hand flew to her throat. Sleepless nights, along with days of worrying about Angeline and being unable to swallow even one mouthful of food, weighed upon her like a stone blanket. The lake blurred before Faye’s eyes. Blinking hard, she fought the urge to swoon.
Never would she reveal her fear to this knave. Fear, she’d once been told, was a sign of weakness. Courage would steel her like armor, for she mustn’t fail to secure the child’s freedom. She would never forget her tearful vow, pledged to Angeline’s dying mother, to protect the little girl.
Forcing her hand down to her side, Faye looked at the approaching rider. “Where is Angeline?”
He didn’t answer. His head tilted with undisguised arrogance. Then, she sensed his attention shifting from her to the rocks and trees behind her. Her bay mare, she remembered, was tethered there in the shelter of a gnarled willow.
Mayhap he suspected she hadn’t come alone, as the missive ordered. The boulders were large enough for men to crouch behind. The clumps of brush, too, grew thick enough to conceal assailants. As though attuned to her perilous thoughts, his fingers slid down to his sword’s grip, preparing to draw the weapon from its scabbard if he sensed a threat.
Panic raced through Faye. She’d done as the missive demanded. After she’d read it, anguish had almost convinced her to ignore the note’s warnings. She’d longed to run to Torr, show him the parchment, and beg for a contingent of men-at-arms to arrest his daughter’s kidnapper at the arranged meeting. However, concern for Angeline’s well-being had stopped Faye like iron chains clamped around her ankles.
Worry again sluiced through her, but she fought the urge to raise pleading hands and swear she had obeyed his demands. This man would think such desperation foolish. Amusing, even.
Through chattering teeth, Faye said, “Where is she?” Despite the hood protecting her face, the wind snatched the words from her lips, but she refused to be deterred. “Why is Angeline not with you? The missive said she would be.”
The man halted his destrier barely an arm’s length away. The scents of leather and horse wafted to Faye. The lathered animal snorted a breath of white mist as the rider looked down at her.
This close, she saw dark brown hair had worked free of his hood. The strands were long enough to brush his neck. His lips were wide and full, his chin slightly squared. His taut jaw embellished her impression of angular features, as did the scar slashing across his right cheek. Her gaze traveled upward, to lock with eyes so cold and blue, she gasped. By the meeting’s end, would she see compassion in his gaze or the ruthlessness of a murderer?
He seemed to enjoy her scrutiny, for his lips curled up at the corner.
“Answer me,” she choked out. “Where is Angeline?”
“First, the silver.”
His voice sounded deep and velvety, akin to the softened ripple of thunder. Although he didn’t raise his voice, each word rang with command. From the roiling clouds overhead came an answering rumble, as if to warn her she must do as he bade.
Faye fought the desperate rage clawing up inside her. Of course such a knave would disregard the rules he’d written in black ink. He didn’t care for the welfare of children, only his payment. Revulsion flooded her mouth with a vile taste as she bit out, “I have no silver.”
“Nay?” The hard smile that tilted his mouth vanished. “Why did you come, then?”
“Do not think to sway me with your beauty, woman’s charms, or tears. The agreement was clear. You chose not to obey it. No silver,” he growled, “no child.”
His tone held the frozen chill of a January blizzard. How ruthless he sounded. Images of such heartlessness had slipped into her dreams, transforming her snatched moments of slumber into nightmares. To think of Angeline held captive by such a man . . .
Lightning sizzled overhead, followed by thunder. The first drops of rain spattered on the lake’s surface as Faye’s fingers curled into fists. Equally vile to imprisoning a child, this knave thought she might ply her “woman’s charms” on him. She would rather eat mud.
The bridle chimed as the rider pulled on the horse’s reins, turning it to ride away. “Farewell, milady.”
“Wait!” Blood pounded hard at her temples. “We have not finished.”
He glanced over his shoulder. “Indeed, we have.”
“You have, mayhap,” she said, proud of her strong voice, “but I have not.”
A laugh broke from him. He sounded astonished by her audacity. As her hands slid down to her waist, parting the edges of her mantle to expose her green woolen gown beneath, his laughter darkened with distrust. “I warned you, I will not be swayed by charms or tears—”
“—and I offer none.” With stiff fingers, she unfastened the cord tied to her belt, and the stem of the gold cup melded into her palm.
Arching an eyebrow, she raised the vessel into the grayed light. “I do not have silver, but gold.”
* * *
Brant Meslarches fought to hold back a startled cry. Gold?
Of all the outcomes he’d anticipated from the meeting, he had never imagined this one.
Fighting the misgiving that knotted his gut, scrambling to decide how to proceed, he swung his mount back to face her.
As he did so, his meeting with Lord Torr Lorvais two days ago in the snarl of woods by The Spitting Hen Tavern raced through his mind. Pulling a shriveled leaf from a tree branch, Torr had told him, “Lady Faye Rivellaux is a penniless widow. Her husband died and after the sale of his estate and settling of debts, there was naught left. Since she had nowhere to go, I let her stay at Caldstowe Keep. I know she has no silver to bring.”
Brant had frowned. Since his return to England a few months ago, he’d deliberately stayed away from Torr’s controlling grasp. Using battle skills honed on crusade, which had seen him knighted on the desert sands by King Richard himself, he had competed in county fair archery contests and jousting tournaments to feed himself, his destrier, and his dog. Not rich living, but his life was his own.
Until the rainy morning when he’d raised his drunken head from a tavern table to receive Elayne’s letter. It had taken the messenger a week to find him.
Instantly sober, Brant had ridden to Caldstowe, only to learn she had died. Whatever Torr’s wife had wanted to tell Brant remained a secret.
Regret, splintered by fragments of forbidden longing for Elayne, had still pained Brant, but he’d forced the emotions aside. Holding Torr’s gaze, he’d said, “I do not understand. If Lady Rivellaux is penniless, why send the missive to her?”
Torr had laughed as if Brant had told a ridiculous jest. “You are to frighten her. Scare her. Bring her to screaming tears, if need be. Then you will ride away.”
Torr had spoken of deceiving the lady as though he discussed the lack of clouds in the wintry sky. With effort, Brant had suppressed a surge of temper. “Who is this Angeline who has been kidnapped?” Torr had a young daughter of that name, borne to him and Elayne. Yet, despite Torr’s eccentricities, no father would abduct his own child.
Torr had waved a lazy hand. “Angeline is someone Faye knows.”
A vague, deceptive answer. “A relative? Friend?”
An irritated scowl had twisted Torr’s brow. “It does not matter. You know what to do.” His mouth had eased into a thin, smug smile. “You will not refuse.”
All warmth had suddenly vanished from the unseasonably mild day. Threaded through Torr’s words was the blatant reminder of what had transpired on crusade.
The vow had Brant had choked out while, wracked with horror and guilt, he’d stood by his brother Royce’s body, the bloody knife still in his hand.
The lie that had long ago strangled the life from Brant’s soul and bound him for the remainder of his hellish existence into Torr’s service.
A shudder, as cold as death, rippled down Brant’s spine as he drew near the lady. Hardening his jaw, he halted his destrier, so close to her that his scuffed boot almost touched her raised hands.
He stared down at her holding up the gold vessel like it offered salvation. Triumph gleamed in her green eyes the color of spring leaves. The wind had tugged her hood back a fraction, revealing her pale brow swept with coppery red hair. High cheekbones, more pronounced than he liked in his women, framed her slim face. His gaze slid down to her mouth. A captivating innocence defined the curve of her lips, although Torr had named her a widow.
Widow or not, she was a beauty. With the right smile, she could enchant any man.
Raindrops pelted Brant. A blunt reminder that here, now, he must do Torr’s bidding.
Sweat beaded on Brant’s forehead, chilling where his skin pressed against the metal helm. He ignored the urge to yank off the helm and wipe away the discomfort, for to do so would fully reveal his face. In this disgraceful mission, he wanted a measure of anonymity. “Where did you come upon this gold, milady?”
Her victorious smile wavered. “A friend . . . found it.”
“You mean, stole it. From whom?”
As she wiped rainwater from her cheek, her lips flattened. “’Tis not stolen. ’Twas a gift . . . from the earth.”
He snorted. “A likely tale.”
“I speak true.” Her determined gaze didn’t waver. Not a trace of pricking conscience clouded her eyes, even when he folded his arms across his chest.
The droplets clinging to her damp hood shimmered like pearls. How luminous her skin looked against the drab gray wool better suited for a matron than a young woman. She must have interpreted his silence as disbelief, for she said, “I do not lie.” She turned the vessel in her slender fingers. “See? There is the dent where it lay crushed against a rock.”
A hot-cold tingle of anticipation ran through him. “You found it near here?”
She gnawed her bottom lip, then nodded.
Brant’s hand shook as he curled it into a fist. His older brother had believed a vast treasure lay hidden in the earth, riches of an ancient king named Arthur whose feats were immortalized in legend.
The quest to find the hoard had consumed Royce’s every waking moment. It had forged into a passion that had outshone his duties as the first born son who would one day become lord of his father’s lands. He’d skipped mornings in the tiltyard to talk to villagers with tales of long ago, had sprawled in the long grass and daydreamed of the find, while keeping detailed notes in a leather-bound journal.
If she’d found the riches Royce had sought . . .
If Royce’s dream, lost with his last dying breath, could still come true . . .
“What else did you find?” Brant demanded.
“Naught.” As though sensing that she’d trapped him with her golden lure, she gave a sly smile. “That does not mean there is no more.”
Reaching out his hand, he said, “Give me the cup.”
She shook her head. “I am no fool. You will ride away with it.”
“I wish only to see it.” He couldn’t keep the excitement from his voice.
Pressing the vessel against her rain-soaked mantle, she said, “Come down from your horse. Then you may inspect it.”
An admiring chuckle welled in his throat. She was cunning, this Lady Rivellaux. Dismounting put him at her eye level, at a disadvantage to his current position. Yet, he’d already determined she had come alone, and a willowy young woman posed him no threat.
“Very well.” Swinging his leg over, he dropped to the ground.
Standing a hand’s span away from her, he caught her faint, floral scent. A combination of lavender, rose, and . . . woman. Memories of Elayne, curled in his arms in a flower-strewn meadow, her golden hair shimmering in the sunlight, teased their way into his thoughts.
He hardened his heart to the echo of Elayne’s coy laughter and reached for the vessel.
With a hint of reluctance, Lady Rivellaux slipped it into his hands. The gold was warm where her fingers had touched. He traced the dent in the smooth metal with his thumb. Raising the cup to his mouth, he pressed it to his teeth.
In his hand lay proof of Royce’s dream.
Ah, God. This cup was salvation indeed.
“I will trade you this vessel for Angeline.”
Brant’s gaze met hers. This close, the lady’s heavily-lashed eyes looked even greener, her mouth more enticing. There were dark smudges under her eyes, though, suggesting she hadn’t slept in days. There was a strained harshness to her delicate features.
Worry, no doubt, for her friend, Angeline.
Guilt ate at Brant’s conscience, even as he squared his shoulders. The rain was falling in a steady stream now, and he raised his voice to be heard. “This gold pleases me. However, the decision to release her is not mine.”
The shock in the lady’s eyes struck him like a slap. Yet, he wouldn’t admit he was unprepared for this situation. Neither would he confess that she, a mere woman, had bested him.
Her surprised gaze sharpened with fury. Rain beat on her cloak, plastering her sodden hood to her head, but she made no move to brush away the water running down her face.
Brant held her furious stare. He’d surveyed the meeting site before she had arrived, and after he’d watched her ride down to the lakeshore. While he hadn’t seen anyone else, ’twas possible Torr had sent one of his men-at-arms to ensure Brant followed through with his part of the arrangement. If this lackey had seen her with the gold, her life could be in grave danger.
No way in blazing hellfire would he have another death on his conscience.
Forcing the words through his teeth, Brant said, “I will take the gold. You will be informed of the decision.” He turned to drop the vessel into his saddlebag.
Her white-knuckled hand clamped on his arm. “Nay!”
“’Tis the only way.”
“Thief! You will ride off with the cup. I will never see it—or you—again!”
What a wretchedly tempting thought. However, he couldn’t break his vow to Torr. To do so would obliterate the last tattered threads of knightly honor by which he lived his life.
With a gentle but firm shove, Brant broke free of her hold. The leather ties of his saddlebag were soaked, the knot tight beneath his rain-wet fingers. Drops splashed on the gold, making it slippery in his grasp.
“The agreement demanded silver. I brought gold!” she shrieked over a wailing gust of wind. “I did as you asked.”
Curse Torr. She didn’t deserve such torment.
Unable to shield the bitterness from his tone, Brant said, “If you wish to see Angeline again, you will obey.” At last, the saddlebag’s ties slipped loose. He dropped the vessel inside and cinched the bag shut.
He swung back to face her. She stood with her arms folded across her stomach, despair etched into her ashen face. A violent tremor racked her. She moaned, a sound that seemed dragged from her very soul. The hair on his nape prickled.
He couldn’t stop himself reaching for her.
She recoiled as though he’d handed her a hissing adder. Her voice painfully thin, she said, “The missive was a trick, wasn’t it? Why? To get the gold? How did you learn of it? ’Twas our sworn secret. No one else knew.”
Her anxiety gouged like jagged steel. “Milady—”
As though the last of her resolve snapped, she lunged at him, sobbing, her desperate hands clawing at his cloak. “Where is Angeline? Please, where is she?”
The lady careened into him. The force of the impact knocked him backward two steps.
His arms closed instinctively around her, but his left boot connected with a slick stone. His horse, the rocky lakeshore, the sky suddenly blurred.
With a startled grunt, he shifted sideways and managed to break his fall.
Still struggling, the lady slid from his arms.
Swiping rainwater from his jaw and chin, Brant straightened.
A shrill scream echoed.
The sound abruptly stopped, as though snatched in midair.
Brant spun on his heel. The lady sprawled facedown amongst the rocks, the fingers of both hands splayed as though she’d tried to keep from hitting the ground.
She didn’t answer. She didn’t stir. Water pooled in the folds of her mantle.
Brant dropped to one knee, then pushed her wet hood from her face. Her eyes were closed, her lips slightly parted. She had fallen against a rock. He pressed his shaking hand against her mouth. Thank God, she still breathed.
Through the soaked wool of her mantle, he felt along her arms and legs. On crusade, he’d learned much about broken bones and how to splint them. When his fingers slipped down to her right ankle, relief coursed through him. No limbs broken. But he couldn’t say for her ribs or pelvis.
He carefully lifted her, turned her over, and rested her head back against the stone. With awkward fingers, he nudged aside the hair stuck to her face. Blood oozing from a gash on her cheekbone smeared her right cheek and ran into a thin line, as stark as his own scar, across her delicate skin. His mouth twisted on an oath.
Under his breath, he prayed her loveliness wouldn’t be permanently disfigured. He deserved the ugly mark on his right cheek, a reminder of his sin he must live with for the rest of his life. She didn’t deserve such a blemish.
Pressing his hands to her belly, he searched for obvious injuries. Her mantle, of fine quality but obviously much worn, hindered his efforts.
He well knew all the enticing dips and swells of a woman’s physique, but, as his fingers crept lower in a thorough yet impartial examination, a strange tension plagued him. For one unsettling moment, he felt like a clumsy, green youth, venturing into forbidden territory.
Forbidden indeed. If the lady woke to find his hands upon her, she would no doubt scream to raise the dead in the graveyard four leagues away.
His gaze flicked up to her face. Her mouth remained slack, her eyelids closed and still above the sweep of her lashes.
By now, she should have stirred.
Concern kindled the unease burning in his gut like red-hot embers. Focusing again on his task, tilting his head down to better see past the nasal guard, he moved his hands over the curve of her hips, the slim expanse of her waist, up to the base of her ribcage.
A scowl knitted his brow. Even through the added layer of her gown beneath, his fingertips traced the bump of her ribs. Too slender by far, this lady.
His hands edged higher, toward her breasts. Before his thumbs grazed their rounded softness, he drew away.
Shaking rainwater from his hands, he sat back on his haunches. No broken bones that he could tell, but only by taking her to a warm, dry place and stripping off her garments could he examine her body properly and know for certain—a liberty he had no desire to take.
He did not want the burden of a wounded woman. Not when by morn, with the gold cup safely in his bag, he aimed to be hunting for the rest of the treasure. Anticipation of the quest whispered inside him with wondrous enticement.
He couldn’t leave her here, however, alone and unconscious. Ruffians might prey upon her. She could die of a chill. Torr would blame him for her murder, and her death would mire Brant into even deeper servitude to the manipulative bastard.
Nudging her shoulder, he made one last attempt to rouse her. “Lady Rivellaux.”
Her head lolled from side to side like a cloth doll’s. Her eyelids fluttered before her face contorted on a whimper.
She was waking. “Milady, can you—?”
Her body tensed, then went slack.
Bowing his head, he stared at his hands.
The wind shrieked, sounding like a frightened old crone. Rain slammed against him. As he wiped water from his eyes, a flash of lightning preceded the distant, terrified whinny of the lady’s horse that had become untethered. Tossing her head, reins dangling, the mare disappeared into the deluge.
There was only one choice left to him.
Brant slid one arm under the lady’s torso, the other under her legs. He lifted her into his arms. The mass of her wet hair tumbled back over his arm, while her head listed back to expose the creamy smoothness of her throat. Her scent rose to him, sweet against the storm’s earthy tang.
“Damnation,” he muttered through clenched teeth.
Drawing her closer against his chest, his mouth a grim line, he strode toward his horse.