Lincolnshire, England 1198 A.D.
She knew that the blood of seven young noblewomen would be on her hands. And she knew that she would sinfully enjoy strangling the very life and breath out of each one. If they continued repeating the completely inane comments of the last hour, she would be forced to kill them all.
Catherine DeSeverin pulled a handkerchief from her sleeve and blotted her forehead. She did not suffer the heat well and the day had turned hot just after the noon meal. Trying to be discreet, she lifted her hair from her perspiring neck and attempted to cool off before her discomfort was noticed.
"Catherine? Are you unwell?" Emalie Dumont, countess of Harbridge and her benefactress, leaned over and whispered to her. The softness of her voice did not hide her concern.
"I am well, my lady."
Catherine heard the whispered snickering that moved through the small group of women watching the men fight in the tiltyard. Lady Harbridge had as well, for her expression was one of distaste. Standing, the countess motioned to those seated to follow her.
"I fear this heat is too oppressive for me today. Come, let us seeking a cooler place to gather and something cool to drink to refresh ourselves."
No one could remain sitting or not obey the orders of the countess and the hostess of this keep. Catherine gathered her fan and handkerchief and stood. Before the small entourage could leave the yard, a loud deep voice called out to them from across the yard.
Catherine watched as the countess approached the fence and spoke quietly to her husband. The women had been watching the earl and some of his men practice their fighting skills in the yard as an amusement. But knowing that the younger Dumont was on his way here to choose one of them for a wife made the group nervous and excited. The mindless chatter had made the swordplay difficult to enjoy. Catherine turned and observed the earl and countess's exchange of words.
'Twas times like this, when she could see a softness in the earl's face, an expression of love, that kept her from hating him as much as she knew he hated her. A man who loved his wife as much as the earl of Harbridge did could not be all bad. When, in his conversation with his wife, he raised his eyes to glance over at her, the coldness filled his gaze once more and she knew that Lady Harbridge had mentioned Catherine's name.
A tightening began in her stomach and grew stronger. Unease filled her as his gaze passed over her once more. She had prayed for acceptance of her fate. She had prayed for understanding. And, she had prayed for the gratitude that should fill her for the earl's sponsorship. 'Twas all for naught.
Her weaknesses in character threatened to overwhelm her. Her fears and her inability to carry on conversations in the romantic style of the court forced her to the background in most situations. Her lack of standing and lack of relatives to offer the support usually given to young women of marriageable age were appallingly obvious to those here seeking that honorable estate. Even drawing on her inner reserve of practiced quiet and calmness did not lessen her anxiety when faced with outsiders whom she knew not.
The urge to return to the convent, nay, to run to the convent nearly overpowered her for a moment. Taking in a deep breath, she tried to clear her thoughts. The countess approached and held out her hand. Taking it, Catherine walked next to the woman who offered her everything she lacked, without ever making demands on her time or on her soul.
"My lord has suggested that I seek my chambers and rest there until our evening meal. Catherine, will you join me and bring your prayer book?" Everyone present knew the lord had ordered her to her room. Gossip would begin immediately after Lady Harbridge left the women's presence.
"Of course, my lady."
"I fear that this babe makes me sensitive to the heat. My lord is concerned that I not spend so much time outdoors in it." Her whispers were made loud enough for all to hear.
She knew exactly what the countess was doing and would have kissed the hem of her gown to thank her for it. But that would undo the good being done on her behalf. By announcing the news that she once more carried a babe, another heir for her lord, she drew the attention to herself.
The group behind them fell into silence, but Catherine could almost hear the questions and thoughts in their minds. This would be the countess's third child in just over three years of marriage. Catherine knew those here who sought marriage to the countess's brother-by-marriage were wondering if he would be as demanding in the physical part of marriage as his brother was. And, if they would be as fruitful.
They reached the keep and Emalie guided Catherine in one direction while the others entered the great hall. The consummate hostess, Lady Harbridge would have servants aplenty waiting to serve her guests whatever they needed. She followed the countess up the stairs in one of the towers until they reached the earl and countess's chambers. The countess did not stop yet, but led her through a doorway and up another flight of stairs until they entered the battlements. Walking along the top of the curtain wall that surrounded the entire keep and inner bailey, Catherine could see the lands around Greystone Castle, almost to the sea in the east. The countess stood at her side, eyes closed, facing into the breezes that buffeted them.
"If I could spend my days here in the wind, I would, dear Catherine."
"Aye, my lady. 'Tis much more pleasant that the heat of the bailey." Catherine remembered hearing some gossip about the amount of time the earl and his countess spent high up on these walkways and she could feel a heated blush climb onto her cheeks. It was even rumored, if one wasted their time listening to that kind of talk, that the child carried by the countess was conceived here on one stormy spring night.
"They can be cruel, Catherine. I urge you not to take their words to heart."
"Aye, my lady." What else could she say?
"Geoffrey should arrive by this evening. He will enjoy seeing you as he always does."
"And I, him, my lady."
Lady Harbridge gave her the strangest look and then patted her hand. "You may seek out whatever diversions you'd like this day, Catherine. I am truly headed for my chambers now."
"As you wish, my lady," Catherine was still trying to figure out the meaning of her glance when Lady Harbridge continued.
"This babe makes me hungry and tired and I battle between both feelings now. Could you seek out Alyce and have her send food and drink to me?" At her nod, the countess continued. "It will be an arduous task to suffer the company of these empty-headed ninnies and their mothers over this next week, so get some rest to prepare yourself."
She laughed with the countess at her words. They were her exact thoughts about this group of visitors. Catherine curtsied and turned to leave. The countess spoke once more.
"Geoffrey will be pleased to see you here."
Geoffrey will be pleased to see you here.
The words swirled around inside her head as she sat in the cool stillness of the stone chapel. This was her one place of safe haven within Greystone. Not many of its inhabitants were spiritual in nature so most times she had the quiet church to herself. Even old Father Elwood was absent now.
Wrapping her shawl tighter around her shoulders, Catherine paced the back of the chamber. Although marriage was never part of her accepted future life, she knew that it was a must for Geoffrey. Between the two Dumont brothers, they had much land and many titles to protect, both here in England and back in Aquitaine.
She knew the French king was constantly testing the borders of his lands and that of the Plantagenets and the Dumont lands sat between. Only an established marriage and an heir would serve to settle some of the tension. The current earl had supplied both as was appropriate, but most did not know that Geoffrey stood as heir to all the earl's Aquitaine possessions and titles.
Catherine had discovered much about the Dumont's unusual arrangements with King Richard while here at Greystone and back at the convent. A second son did not expect to inherit the family estates and titles, but Geoffrey would. Upon marriage, a marriage that required the consent of his brother, Geoffrey would take over control of Chateau d'Azure and all the Dumont holdings on the continent. And, he would be invested as le Comte de Langier.
If these 'empty headed ninnies' as the countess called them had knowledge of his true worth, they would have been after him long ago. But, the earl kept these arrangements quiet and he kept Geoffrey under control. Until now. She longed to speak with Geoffrey to discover what had changed to make marriage now necessary.
Geoffrey. Her best friend. And now soon to be married. She had not laid eyes on him in almost a year, although his letters kept her entertained and informed of his progress in overseeing the workings of the many Dumont estates. When she last saw him he was maturing at an alarming rate and Catherine could only imagine how handsome and tall he would be now.
Catherine sighed as she struggled to accept what was to come. Her heart was heavy with the knowledge that this would be the last time she saw him. For once the question of his marriage was settled, she would begin preparation to take her vows.
The small group of travelers reached the crest of the hill and Geoffrey called a halt. This was his favorite spot to stop and survey the Castle Greystone and its surrounding lands. With summer full upon England, the richness of the land and forests was evident. Lifting off his helm, he savored the view for what promised to be the last time in many months.
"Your lands are just as rich, my lord."
Geoffrey turned to face the man who was his own steward and noticed the man's self-assured expression. Was Albert now reading his thoughts as well as managing his properties?
"Oui, Albert, they are that. Or shall we say they will be when they are mine?"
Albert nodded and waited on him. 'Twould be unseemly to appear grasping when his brother's generosity was without limit or question. And, once the business here was finished, he would hold the title and properties of the Dumont family. He shook his head, still fearing to believe that a younger son could attain so much. But then nothing in the last four years went according to the way things should go.
"One more task, my lord. And this one is not so onerous?"
Geoffrey smiled, torn by the one thing that stood between him and all he stood to gain. Marriage. Marriage with his brother's consent. And then all would be his.
"Not so onerous, Albert. A necessary one at that."
"I am certain that your brother will help you to choose wisely."
The subtle leering in Albert's glance belied the man's calming words. Geoffrey's somewhat colorful past with women both here and in France was well-known. His brother would try to find a bride to match him in spirit as well as titles and lands. Wouldn't he?
"Come then. Let me meet my fate while I still have the courage to do so."
— Order at Amazon.com
— Return to Top