One Knight’s Kiss
Days before Christmas, Lady Honoria Whitford buys a book at the market to add to her prized collection. Lord Tristan de Champagne, her brother’s best friend who will be spending the holidays with them, is Intrigued by her love of romantic tales but resents how enchanting he finds her, for he’s vowed never to risk his heart again.
As Christmas mischief under the Kissing Bough unfolds, so does the secret of the book—one destined to bring great peril but also ever-after love.
Read an Excerpt
The town of Wylebury, Hertfordshire, England
December 22, 1209
“Is that a book?” Standing at a merchant’s table laden with fragranced soaps, Lady Honoria Whitford leaned sideways to better see what appeared to be a leather-bound tome lying on a blanket spread on the ground just a few paces away. Market shoppers moved past with their baskets full of goods and blocked her view of the peddler and his wares.
Honoria set down the soap she held. Her pulse fluttered with excitement, for her collection of books was her greatest treasure. She’d frequented the shops at Wylebury since she was a girl, and ’twas rare to find a tome for sale. She must be quick, or someone else would buy it before she could.
Pushing back the hood of her woolen cloak, she tried to locate her older brother, Radley. He’d escorted her and a ward of their late father’s who lived at Ellingstow Keep, sixteen-year-old Lady Cornelia de Bretagne, to the town for the last market day before Christmas. They’d wanted to purchase gifts, to be given on Christmas Day, as had become the custom at the castle. Merchants had all kinds of lovely items for sale, including exotic spices to flavor holiday dishes, painted figurines, table linens, and beribboned bunches of mistletoe. The scent of freshly-baked mince pies wafted from the baker’s shop.
Radley had arranged to meet up with a nobleman named Tristan de Champagne, whom he’d befriended years ago when they were both squires at the same castle in Lincolnshire. They’d trained together to achieve knighthood. While Honoria had never met Tristan before, he’d be spending the holidays with them at Ellingstow.
Rising up on tiptoes, Honoria searched the throng for her brother. Some parts of the market square were obscured by smoke from fires where folk had gathered to warm themselves on the clear, wintry day. Radley had told her and Cornelia that for their safety, they should stay together at all times. One of the armed guards who had accompanied them on the day’s journey was near Cornelia, though; she was stacking soaps into a pile and wouldn’t want to leave her shopping to go with Honoria to see the peddler’s offerings.
If Honoria was quick, she could buy the book and be back before Cornelia even noticed she’d gone.
Honoria motioned for another Ellingstow guard, who was holding purchases handed to him earlier, to follow her, and went to the peddler sitting on the ground with his hodgepodge of wares. The man, his hair unkempt, his garments torn and stained, scrambled to his feet and bowed to her.
Her sire would have handed this poor soul a few coins to at least get some fare, especially at this time of year, when ’twas important to think of those who were less fortunate.
Oh, Father. How very much I miss you.
Forcing aside her anguish, Honoria reached past the earthenware candle holders, bent hairpins, and assorted wooden toys and picked up the book.
The plain, brown leather cover wasn’t at all remarkable. When she opened the tome, though, the piquant scent of parchment wafted to her: a smell that signified fascinating discoveries, grand adventures, and limitless knowledge. Joy tingled through her as she carefully turned the pages and glanced over the drawings and notes. The book contained the personal writings of a noblewoman who had managed a keep while her lord husband was away on Crusade with King Richard the Lionheart.
Feeling the weight of the peddler’s stare, Honoria asked, “How much for this book?”
“’Tis not fer ye, milady.”
“’Tis for sale, is it not?”
“I have money. More than enough, I vow.”
The peddler’s grubby fingers twitched, as though he was counting out coins. Then he scowled and held his hand out for the book. “As I said, ’tis not fer ye.”
Honoria simply had to have it; ’twould be the perfect addition to the small collection her sire had given her before he’d died. Also, she was eager to know more about the lady who had taken such care to document her life’s accomplishments. One day, Honoria hoped to marry, and then she would be responsible for running her husband’s fortress when he was away visiting other lords, inspecting his estate, or attending meetings in the great city of London; she could learn a great deal from another lady’s experiences. “Please,” she insisted. “Kindly tell me the price.”
“Fine. Thirty pieces o’ silver.”
“Robbery,” a man said from behind her. “Unless that book is penned in gold.”
Startled, she glanced over her shoulder. A broad-shouldered man with dark-brown hair that brushed his shoulders stood a few paces away. He was very handsome; as beautiful, she was sure, as the heroic knights in the book of romantic tales she’d inherited from her sire. The stranger was obviously a nobleman, for his black cloak was of fine quality. A sheathed sword rested at his left hip. As his steady, brown-eyed gaze held hers, a shiver trailed through her. Fighting an odd feeling of breathlessness, she focused again on the peddler.
“The book is special.” He held out his dirty hand again.
“What is so special about it?” The nobleman’s voice was deeper than Radley’s, and had a slight rasp that made Honoria think of a dagger grazing a whetstone. Yet, ’twas the deliberateness of his words that made her uneasy.
Had he recognized what a prize the book was? Did he want to buy it, too? Well, she wouldn’t let him; she’d seen it first.
Still holding the tome, she glanced about for her brother again, in case she needed his help. Relief washed through her when she saw him talking with her guard. She would have heard Radley’s voice earlier, but his conversation was being drowned out by men haggling with a wine seller.
“The book, milady,” the peddler insisted. “I will not change me price.”
The nobleman moved closer. “May I see it?”
Part of her immediately protested. Yet, the tome didn’t belong to her. Not yet, anyway.
She handed it to him. He opened it, the binding creaking slightly, and flipped through the pages. As he angled the book to better see a drawing, she saw that the cover had been damaged at some point and repaired; the leather buckled slightly along the back edge.
That didn’t matter to her, though. The damage was part of the provenance of the tome.
The nobleman shut the book. “While I am no expert on tomes, I see no reason for the extortionate price.”
Sweat beaded on the peddler’s brow. “I ’ave a livin’ ta make.”
“As do all merchants in this market. Overpricing of goods, however, is a crime. Shall I find the sheriff and tell him the price you asked of the lady? This tome cannot be worth more than a few pieces of silver.”
The peddler’s gaze darted away. Honoria followed the direction of his glance to see another man had stopped to watch what was going on. A puckered scar slashed down the onlooker’s face. Catching Honoria’s gaze, the man nodded in greeting and then stooped to pick up a candleholder.
“Please,” the peddler whined, “I do not want trouble.”
Honoria reached for the coin purse she wore on a long cord around her neck. “I will give you five pieces of silver for the book,”—she tipped money into her palm—“and five more, so you can buy food and clothes.”
“’Tis a generous offer,” the nobleman said firmly. “I suggest you take it.”
The peddler hesitated, what looked like fear in his eyes, but then snatched the money.
Smiling, Honoria tucked the tome under her arm. The book was hers.
* * *
The lady was clearly thrilled with her purchase. Happiness sparkled in her hazelnut-brown eyes.
A raw ache gripped Tristan, for Honoria’s winsome smile reminded him of his former intended’s. Lady Odelia Putnam had captivated him with her beauty, won his devotion, and then, three months ago, had crushed him as if their relationship had been a frivolous game—not the beginning of a lifetime together. While he hadn’t loved her with the all-consuming passion some couples experienced, he had cared for her, enough to ask her to be his wife, and her shocking betrayal had been akin to being stabbed through the heart.
Thankfully, his heart had been hardened by other experiences in his twenty years of life. Odelia had wounded him, but not destroyed him—and he’d vowed never to be that vulnerable ever again.
Aware Honoria was still smiling at him, he managed a smile back.
“Thank you, milord,” she said.
Tristan bowed; he might be bitter, but he’d always be chivalrous when in the presence of a noblewoman. “My pleasure, Lady Whitford.”
“How do you know my name?” Her eyes narrowed. “Are you Tristan?”
“I am indeed. Your brother pointed you out to me. When I heard your conversation, I felt obliged to step in.”
Setting his hand at her waist—a bold move, when they’d only just met, as her astonished expression conveyed—Tristan guided her away from the blanket. Working for the past four years as a bodyguard for a wealthy merchant in the town of Lincoln had taught him to rely on his instincts; they’d never failed him, and were warning him now to put distance between her and the peddler, as well as the man with the scar who was lingering nearby.
Tristan escorted her to the soap table, where Radley joined them. “I see you have met Tristan, Sis.”
“He was a lot of help moments ago.” Honoria gestured to the tome.
“Another book?” Radley groaned. “You already have four.”
“I plan to have many more,” she said with a cheeky grin. “A whole shelf of them.”
She was exquisite when she smiled. Dimples formed in her cheeks, and her creamy skin glowed…and Tristan damned well hated the interest stirring inside him. Once Christmas was over and he’d moved to London to become the personal guard of one of England’s leading goldsmiths, who was also close friends with King John, Tristan’s duties would keep him far too busy to fall in love again.
A pretty, blond-haired woman wearing a fur-trimmed cloak and holding a cloth bag turned away from the soap table. A faint scar blemished her cheekbone—an unusual injury for a young lady. “A whole shelf?” she asked. “Of what?”
“Books,” Radley told her. “What else would Honoria want?”
The younger woman rolled her eyes. “I should have guessed.”
“Oh, cease your teasing, you two,” Honoria said with a chuckle.
The younger lady noticed Tristan. Her blue eyes lit with interest, and her gaze wandered rather brazenly down the front of his cloak. “Forgive me for being bold, but are you Tristan?”
“I am.” Before he could bow, she thrust out her hand. He couldn’t ignore it, not unless he wanted to risk causing offense.
Taking her slender fingers and raising them to his lips for a quick kiss, he asked, “And you are?”
“Cornelia de Bretagne.”
Tristan tried to pull his hand free, but she curled her fingers around his. She held on far longer than was necessary or appropriate, before, with a coy grin, she finally released him.
“Well,” Tristan said, “I am delighted to have finally met the ladies Radley has told me so much about.”
“What did he say?” Cornelia mock-frowned. “You must tell us.”
“After a few goblets of wine, I might,” Tristan agreed, eliciting an indignant cry from Radley. “Truth be told, I am very much looking forward to spending Christmas at Ellingstow.”
“We are thrilled you will be joining us.” Cornelia fluttered her lashes.
Honoria frowned, as if she were growing weary of the banter. “Are we finished shopping at the market? If so, I suggest we start our journey home.”
“A wise idea,” Radley agreed. “I do not like to think of Mother fretting. Yet, after what happened to Father, she will be worrying about us until we ride back through the castle gates.”
Tristan had heard of the brutal attack on Lord Lewis Whitford, and how Radley had inherited his sire’s estates at a far younger age than he’d ever expected. Radley was intelligent and capable, though, and Tristan had no doubt he was managing his duties well.
Movement drew Tristan’s attention to the stall next to the soap table. The man with the scarred face was browsing the goods. He was close enough to hear what they were saying, if he wanted to eavesdrop.
Misgiving trailed through Tristan. Was the man listening in on their conversation? If so, why, and what did he hope to learn?
The man strolled on to the next merchant’s table, and Tristan shrugged off his sense of disquiet. He was probably overreacting—a consequence of his profession. Still, ’twould be safest if they left the market.
“Heading for Ellingstow sounds like a grand idea,” he said. “Radley, where did you tether your horses? I will fetch my destrier and meet up with you there.”