One Knight Under the Mistletoe
Kissing Lord Renfred de Vornay, her late brother’s best friend, under the mistletoe was the last thing Lady Liliana Thornleigh ever expected days before Christmas. Seven years have passed since Ren played his foolish prank on her, but she hasn’t forgotten that humiliating incident—and neither, it seems, has he. Now a wealthy and respected lord, Ren has important information for her father, but Liliana is suspicious of Ren’s reasons for spending Christmas at her sire’s castle. As dangerous secrets come to light, will her hatred of Ren intensify, or will she finally put the past behind her and accept Ren’s love?
Read an Excerpt
Maddlestow Keep, Lincolnshire
December 22, 1194
“Well? What do you think?” Brushing fir needles from her hands, nineteen-year-old Liliana took several steps backward, her gaze traveling along the mortared stone wall before her. The soles of her shoes crunched on the dried rosemary, thyme, and rushes strewn across the floor of Maddlestow Keep’s great hall.
Averil finished tying a red ribbon bow on a swag of greenery made from fir branches interwoven with ivy and tied with bunches of holly, then moved to Liliana’s side. “I think it looks absolutely beautiful, Lil.”
“So do I.” Liliana smiled, for just as she’d imagined, the garland looped from the bottom of one wrought iron cresset, holding a burning reed torch, to the next. She and Averil had secured the garland around all four walls of the great hall, even draping it across colorful wall hangings. They’d decorated the massive hearth, too, with larger branches of fir and more beribboned sprigs of bright red holly berries. The pungent tang of fir lingered in the air and mingled with the smells of burning wood and crushed herbs; an inviting, festive blend of scents.
Father hadn’t wanted decorations in the hall the past few Christmases. In truth, those years Liliana hadn’t felt much like celebrating, either. They’d had too much sadness to bear. In 1190, Haddon and Ren had joined King Richard’s Crusade to free eastern lands from the grip of Saladin, and three winters ago, having just returned to England, Ren had delivered the news of Haddon’s death. Haddon had been lauded as a hero; however, that glory was little comfort to her, having lost her only sibling, or her sire, who’d lost his only son and heir. The news of Haddon’s passing had sapped the last of her ill mother’s strength and she’d died early in the spring of 1192.
This year, though, Christmas would be different. For the first time in a long while, the excitement of the season tingled inside Liliana. She couldn’t quite say why, but she knew ’twas nigh time to shake off the gloomy cobwebs that had settled in the shadowed corners of the hall. With Averil and her precocious two-year-old daughter Rosabelle visiting, this Christmas was certain to be special.
Liliana looked at the arched entrance of the forebuilding. The stairs within led down to the door opening into the bailey, so ’twas one of the busiest stairwells in the keep. “Do we have enough greenery left to go around that entryway?” She glanced at the remaining ivy, holly, and fir scattered on one of the oak trestle tables behind her.
Averil shook her head. “There are only scraps left. We will need to gather more fir from the forest, but Rosy will be waking from her nap soon. We might have to leave that till the morrow.”
“All right. Well—”
“What about this?” Averil held up the oval-leafed mistletoe they’d taken from thriving plants growing in the apple trees in the keep’s orchard. Averil had a mischievous glint in her eyes. “’Twould be the perfect spot for mistletoe.”
“Are you certain ’tis wise? Who knows who might walk underneath and whom you will have to kiss?”
“Me?” Clearly trying to look shocked, Averil said, “What about you, Lil?”
“I will avoid this stairwell.”
“Really? How will you do that? ’Tis the main route down to the bailey.”
Liliana laughed and shook her head. Indeed, ’twould be difficult. Likely impossible.
In truth, she wasn’t opposed to a few kisses on the cheek. ’Twas all harmless fun. However, Burton, the castle steward, was fighting a heavy cold, so she’d offered to help him with the arrangements for Christmas. She’d seen the list of guests who’d be arriving within the next few days, and one name had made her whole body go numb with shock.
She couldn’t imagine why her father had invited Renfred de Vornay to spend Christmas at Maddlestow. Ren had been granted an estate by the crown after his return from Crusade. Over the past few years, through sound management of his lands and a fortuitous marriage arranged by the king’s ministers, he’d become one of the wealthiest, most influential lords in all of Lincolnshire. While Ren’s wife had died in childbirth last year, and he was one of her sire’s strongest allies, Liliana had no desire to see him back at the castle, sharing in their celebrations, when her brother was dead.
Averil’s wry chuckle broke into Liliana’s thoughts. “Why do you suddenly look grim? You are not afraid of a few kisses, are you, Lil?”
Averil was grinning most vexingly—as if she was already plotting to ensure lots and lots of kisses for Liliana. At least Averil was smiling. She’d suffered a terrible tragedy last April with the death of her lord husband. He’d been thrown from his horse while inspecting fields on his estate and had died two weeks later.
If Averil wanted mistletoe over the stairwell, she would have it.
“Most certainly, I am not afraid of kisses,” Liliana said. After all, she was a noble lady, daughter of a rich and well-connected lord; no guest or castle servant would take liberties to which they weren’t entitled.
She walked to a chair by the hearth, pushed it across the floor to the top of the stairs, and then took the mistletoe from Averil’s outstretched hand.
Averil followed Liliana to the chair.” You do know I speak of a kiss on the lips, not a quick kiss on the cheek.”
Misgiving rippled through Liliana. Her dearest friend still had that awful ability to read her mind; she had indeed been planning that any kiss she experienced under the mistletoe would be delivered on the cheek.
“Who knows?” Averil murmured. “Thanks to that mistletoe, you might meet the lord of your dreams.”
Trying to find a level spot on the uneven floor, Liliana adjusted the position of the chair. “You believe I shall meet my own chivalrous knight? A gallant hero worthy of the chansons, who is destined to win my love?”
Liliana snorted. “’Twould be a divine miracle.”
“Miracles do happen at Christmas.”
Liliana fought a surge of remorse. The only Christmas miracle she wanted was her brother, alive and well. She missed Haddon so very much. Yet, that heartfelt wish could never come true, no matter how much she wanted it.
Lifting the hems of her floor-length woolen gown and chemise, Liliana stepped up onto the chair. The apex of the entranceway was still slightly above her reach. Holding her breath, she stretched up on her tiptoes.
The chair wobbled.
“Oh, Lil, be careful,” Averil said. “Shall I hold the chair for you?”
“Do not bother. I will be fine.”
She needed only a moment more to shove the stem of the mistletoe into the broken gap in the mortar.
An icy draft suddenly gusted up the stairwell and stirred her gown. Someone had opened the door at the bottom of the stairs.
“Lil,” Averil urged.
“I know. I will hurry.” Liliana shivered in the cold draft. With a firm push, she shoved the mistletoe in place. It didn’t go all the way in; the stem was too long. It needed one last, wiggled push.
“What do I see ahead of us?” The curious male voice echoed in the stairwell. “Milord, ’tis the bottom half of a lady.”
“Indeed, ’tis,” a second man answered. His voice was warm, with a slight huskiness, and the fine hairs at Liliana’s nape prickled. She’d never forget that voice.
Oh, mercy. Surely not—
“Um… Lil?” Averil sounded nervous now.
The mistletoe was secure in the mortar. Liliana hurried to step sideways off the chair. She couldn’t bear to face him. Not today. Not now.
Her shoe caught in her gown’s hem.
The chair wobbled.
Liliana shrieked. She tried to grab the carved chair back, but her hand closed on air. Oh, God, she was falling…
Averil shouted. Footfalls pounded on the stairs.
Strong arms caught Liliana about the waist. Gasping, she acknowledged the sudden halt to her fall and being pulled against the broad torso of her rescuer. Her hands brushed the front of his wool cloak the gray of a stormy sky. The smells of crisp wintry air, leather, and soap—a tantalizing mix of scents—clung to him and filled her nostrils.
He set her gently upright. Her shoes touched the floor and she expelled a shaky breath. The man’s arms still encircled her, thank goodness, for her legs were unsteady. Her heart pounded wildly against her ribs, and not just from her near fall. She knew who held her, knew without the slightest doubt. Wicked yearning stirred within her, as if long ago were only yesterday. All of the embarrassment and confusion she’d locked away broke free and her face flooded with heat.
A red-haired young man stood beside her rescuer. “Are you all right, milady?” he asked.
“I am. Thank you.”
She didn’t want to meet her savior’s eyes, didn’t want to acknowledge him—she’d vowed never to see or speak to him again—but he had just saved her from a nasty injury.
A hard lump lodged in her throat as her focus rose from her savior’s squared chin to his straight nose, then up to his thickly-lashed brown eyes. Their gazes locked.
Her breath froze. His eyes… So much registered in those brown depths, including the familiar, roguish hint of mischief.
Liliana managed a smile. “Thank you, Ren.”
* * *
Ren grinned down at Liliana. He couldn’t help it, for she was in his arms as he’d once dreamed. She smelled wondrous, like sweet summer blooms tinged with lavender. She was no longer the young girl he remembered so vividly, but a woman, her features even more lovely than before.
He studied her upturned face, taking in her smooth brow, high cheekbones, and the flawless ivory of her skin. Even before he’d met her gaze, her cheeks had turned bright pink. Her beautiful eyes blazed with mortification, and he sensed from her a contradiction of emotions: astonishment, relief, and dismay.
His focus shifted to her lips, full and slightly parted to reveal her straight, white bottom teeth. A tremble raced through her. As much as he longed to lower his mouth to hers and kiss her, to soothe the anxiety of her near fall, he knew she wouldn’t allow it. More likely, she’d slap his face and storm away. Not the way he wanted to start this visit, especially when circumstances had forced him to arrive two days earlier than planned.
Exhaling a puff of air from between her teeth, she pulled back in his arms. He didn’t want to release her just yet. She’d managed to keep clear of him during his last visit to Maddlestow, when he’d arrived to deliver the news of Haddon’s death. Lady Thornleigh was ill in bed, and Liliana had stayed at her mother’s side, tending her. He’d had no more than a couple of glimpses of Liliana as she’d hurried through the hall on her way to complete tasks. While he’d admired her tender care of her mother, Ren was quite sure that Liliana had deliberately avoided him. If she planned to do the same again, and this was a rare chance to see and speak with her, he mustn’t waste it.
“Are you truly all right? Are you certain you are not hurt?” he asked.
“I am,” she said, her words almost whispered. She sounded breathless, the way she’d sound if he caressed her, his hand trailing over her naked skin—
Wrenching his thoughts back to safer territory, he said, “You look well, Liliana.” He smiled at Averil, standing beside her friend. “So do you, milady.”
“’Tis kind of you to say, Ren,” Averil said with a smile in return.
Liliana’s mouth opened, as though she intended to answer back. Then, as if steeling herself against the impulse, her lips pressed together. “You look well, also,” she finally said, somewhat reluctantly, her gaze skimming over the neckline of his cloak and the gem-studded silver pin holding it closed. “We were not expecting you, though, until Christmas Eve.”
“Aye.” He gentled his tone, trying to defray the resentment in her eyes. “I regret arriving two days early, but there are important matters I must discuss with your father. I hope your steward will still be able to find chambers for me and my squire.” He tipped his head to the man at his side. “This is Guy de Provence. He is a bit of a knave, but has promised to be on his best behavior while at Maddlestow.”
As he’d hoped, Guy dropped into an elegant bow. “Lady Thornleigh.”
“Best behavior?” Averil giggled. “As well behaved as you were while living in this castle, Ren?”
He laughed. Hell, he’d been an undisciplined fool all those years ago. He didn’t need Averil’s reminder, though. He had only to look down at Liliana; she was frowning now.
“Was Father aware you were arriving today?” she asked.
“I sent him a missive yesterday. I trust he got it?”
“He did not mention it to me.” Liliana’s frown deepened. “However, he was away from the keep most of the day yesterday, attending to matters of estate. He left again this morning.”
“He probably did not have the chance to tell you, Lil,” Averil said, her gaze flicking to Ren’s. A silent acknowledgment passed between them. Lord Thornleigh might have deliberately not told his daughter of Ren’s imminent arrival.
“He has been very busy,” Liliana agreed. Her enticing bosom pressed against Ren as she drew in a deep breath, and a shiver of sinful pleasure rippled through him. “Never mind,” she continued. “I will ask the steward to prepare chambers for you.”
“Thank you,” Ren said.
Clearly expecting their conversation to end, Liliana pressed back against his encircling arms, the end of her braid brushing his wrist. “I am sure, if you have traveled today, you would like some ale or mayhap some mulled wine.”
“Aye, indeed, milady,” Guy said with a grin.
“’Twould be most kind,” Ren answered, still holding Liliana firm.
“You will have to release me, Ren, so I can summon the servants.”
He savored her expression that was a blend of annoyance and forced politeness. “I will. Once we are done here.”
“Done here?” Confusion shadowed her eyes.
He fought not to grin like a smug tomcat. “I believe we have an obligation to fulfill.”
“Oh,” Averil murmured.
Ren pointedly glanced up at the mistletoe dangling in the air above them then back down at Liliana. Her eyes widened. Her throat moved with a swallow.
“I-I really should call the servants,” she said. “They are busy with preparations for Christmas, and—”
“Come now,” he coaxed. “We cannot ignore the tradition of mistletoe.”
“Not at this time of year,” Averil agreed.
Liliana shot her friend a sharp look; no doubt she’d expected Averil to help her escape her predicament. Ren fought a hearty chuckle. Liliana’s expression was now a fetching blend of resignation and horror.
God above, he’d never imagined that today, he’d be kissing Liliana. Years ago, to have kissed her would have been his most heartfelt dream come true. He’d yearned for the taste of her lips, longed to show her how much he admired and desired her. Now here she was, warm and quivering in his arms. He wasn’t going to deny his incredible good fortune.
Clearly sensing his determination, she went rigid in his arms. She was obviously scrambling to think of a way to deny his kiss. “’Tis just one kiss, Liliana.”
“Let us be done with it, then.”
Annoyance tingled through his veins. He struggled to keep the unruly emotion under control. Kissing wasn’t arduous. ’Twas not a chore or an act to be viewed with disdain. Kissing was a pleasure. Mayhap she hadn’t been kissed well enough, or thoroughly enough, to realize that.
Hellfire. Now he wanted to know about all the other men she’d kissed.
Jealousy, as hot as a glowing ember, burned in his gut. No matter how many others had kissed her lush mouth, his kiss would be the best she’d ever had.
With the fire of resolve urging him on, he dipped his head and pressed his lips to hers. Her closed lips were soft, warm, beneath his. A shocked little gasp broke from her—an acknowledgement of unexpected pleasure—and he deepened the kiss, the gentle plying of his lips coaxing hers to kiss him back.
She tasted incredible. His arms tightened to draw her even closer. A groan rumbled in his throat.
He was vaguely aware of Averil giggling and clapping.
“’Tis some kiss,” Guy said.
Ren drew his mouth from Liliana’s. Her face flushed, she stared up at him, her expression dazed.
“Shall I continue?” he asked with a grin.
“What?” she whispered.
A frigid gust of air rushed up the stairs behind him. Someone had opened the outer door.
“Rachooo!” The violent sneeze echoed in the forebuilding.
Liliana jumped in Ren’s hold. He wanted to hold her fast, to quell her rebellion with an even more passionate kiss, but with a grudging sigh, he let her go. She took several steps back, halting just out of reach, her hands fisted at her sides. Her defiant posture stirred a memory from long ago: her retreating from him at the well, after she’d confronted him over her stolen clothes. With effort, he brushed the memory aside.
Sniffles sounded in the forebuilding, along with plodding footfalls.
“’Tis Burton, the steward,” Liliana said. “I will ask him to make the necessary arrangements.” Each word was crisply polite, as if they hadn’t just been in each other’s arms.
“You are most kind, milady.” Ren willed her to look at him, to acknowledge the intimacy they’d just shared, but she didn’t meet his eyes.
A tall, wiry, gray-haired man with red eyes and a swollen red nose appeared at the top of the stairs. “Bilady,” he said, bowing.
“How is your cold?” Liliana asked.
“Buch the same, but I thank you for asking. Bilady, Byles asked me to inform you that Lord Renfred de Bornay and his squire have just arrived, but I see you have already bet our guests.”
“Indeed, I have. Burton, may I introduce you to Lord de Vornay and Guy de Provence.” Liliana gestured to them. Her manner was exquisitely courteous and what Ren expected from a lady of her noble status, but he guessed she was counting the moments until she could flee.
“Good day, Burton,” Ren said.
The steward bowed to them. Then his face wrinkled with confusion. “Bilords, are you staying this eve? I thought you were not arriving for another couple of days.”
Ren drew a breath to answer, but Liliana spoke first. “They are here early due to important matters to discuss with Father. Please make up chambers for their stay. After their travels, they would also like light fare and a drink.”
“Of course.” The wiry man drew a handkerchief from his sleeve and wiped his nose. “Also, bilady, would you bind going to the kitchens? The cook has some questions about the Christmas Day feast.”
“I will go straight away.”
Again, Ren tried to catch Liliana’s gaze, but she pointedly refused to look at him.
“Until we meet again, milords,” she said with a low, perfect curtsy. Then, grabbing hold of Averil’s hand, she pulled her friend into the stairwell and they vanished from view.
* * *
Outside in the crisp afternoon sunshine, Liliana slumped back against the keep’s stone wall, tipped her head back, and blew out a sigh. Holy Mother of God! What had just happened? How had hanging a bunch of mistletoe ended up with her being kissed by the one man she despised?
“Lil,” Averil whispered. “You kissed Ren!”
A renewed blush heated Liliana’s face. She was warm all over, from her scalp to her toes. Her stomach was unsettled also, as if she’d swallowed a mug of hot mulled wine too quickly. The breathless, floating sensation she’d experienced when she’d stood by the well years ago and Ren had gently fingered hair away from her face… That had returned, only stronger this time, and accompanied by a dull ache in womanly places she didn’t wish to contemplate right then.
How unbelievably wicked that Ren could stir up such intense desires within her. Those sensations tempted with such sweet promise. He’d so easily besieged her emotional defenses, when she should have stayed detached. ’Twas most unnerving.
Averil grinned. “Well?”
With a playful swat on the arm, Averil said, “How was the kiss?”
Exquisite. Wonderful. To my astonishment, the most deliciously breathtaking moment of my entire life. Forcing down the unwelcome rush of delight—she should not feel enthralled by Ren’s attentions—Liliana eased away from the wall and shrugged. “’Twas fine.”
“Really.” Averil crossed her arms, a sure sign she wasn’t done talking about kissing. “Just fine.”
Three lads grooming horses by the stables looked toward the keep, no doubt wondering what Liliana and Averil were discussing. Other servants in the bailey going about their errands were stealing glances at them too.
“Please, Averil,” Liliana said, keeping her voice hushed so it would not carry. “I do not want to discuss Ren’s kiss right now.”
“Why not? It looked like a marvelous one,” her friend said, not budging. “He certainly knew what he was doing. Indeed, I was almost jealous.” Leaning in, lowering her voice, Averil asked, “’Twas your first?”
God’s teeth! “If you must know—”
Averil’s eyes sparkled. “I must!”
“’Twas my first like that on the lips.”
Squealing, Averil grinned. “Oh, Lil. How wonderful.”
“Not wonderful.” Sighing, Liliana closed her eyes. “I do not like Ren. I would never, ever have kissed him—”
“—if not for the mistletoe,” Averil finished with a knowing nod. “What brilliant luck that you thought about hanging the mistletoe when you did.”
Brilliant luck? How about awfully rotten luck? Liliana sensed Ren wasn’t going to let her forget what had happened between them. The wretched knave would remind her of that kiss every single day of his visit and mayhap for years afterward.
Faint voices sounded from the forebuilding, the closed wooden door only a few paces to her right. Burton was probably heading back down to the bailey to show Ren and Guy where they’d be sleeping. She sprang into a brisk walk. Ren was not going to catch her swooning and still trying to recover from his kiss. She’d never hear the end of his bragging.
With the gritty scrape of shoes on hard-packed dirt, Averil caught up to Liliana. “Do not mistake my teasing, Lil,” she said gently. “I am happy for you. You deserve to be courted by an eligible young lord.”
“I do not want to be courted by Ren, ” Liliana muttered.
“Why not? He is young, he is very handsome, and he is available. Plus, he is a good kisser.”
Rolling her eyes, Liliana approached the open doors of the kitchens. Steam wafted out into the bailey, along with the scent of baking currant tarts. “One good kiss does not make up for Ren’s past misdeeds.”
“At least try to think more kindly about Ren?” Averil asked, a plea in her eyes. “We did agree that miracles can happen at Christmas.”