The Arrangement --
Volume 2 of the Noble Hearts Series
A country in turmoil, a family awash in greed and lovers enthralled by an unexpected yet undeniable attraction--will the Fates find a way to unite these two reluctant hearts?
Read on for a sample of The Arrangement
1176, Hexmoor Forest, Southwest England
The two men rode side by side down the narrow dirt road that cut through the heart of Hexmoor Forest. Although the sun shone high in the sky, little light penetrated the thick green canopy of oak and ash woodland, and the air felt oppressive and damp.
Lord Ranulf Audley eyed the man riding beside him with distaste. Hubert de Guildfry had been a disappointment almost from the day he'd married Audley's sister, Adele.
"When I generously settled a third of the border property on my dear sister as her dowry," Lord Audley said, "you agreed to pay to me a portion of all tariffs and taxes collected. Now I hear that you have thoughts of amending our agreement, yet have neglected to tell me directly."
Hubert de Guildfry shifted his gaze and peered into the thick woodland that edged the path as his horse ambled along. That very morning Lord Audley had rather stridently invited him to hunt on his land, an offer rarely extended to anyone, let alone to de Guildfry. He'd been suspicious of Audley's intentions at the time, and now the mystery was solved.
"I don't know what you've heard, but I assure you there is no truth to it."
Lord Audley feigned confusion. "And yet it comes from an extremely reliable source who also told me that you have on two occasions met with Aidan Blakeslee. Now, what could you, my dear brother-in-law, have to discuss with my staunchest rival?"
De Guildfry's horse pricked his ears at a rustling sound coming from the underbrush. Hexmoor Forest teemed with game, but the thrill of the hunt had suddenly deserted de Guildfry. He dragged a forearm over his perspiring brow. "I have no idea what you are talking about. What use have I of Blakeslee? He has no love for me, knowing my loyalty to you. You must believe that I am content in our original agreement."
Audley raised his long, narrow nose, as if he could sniff out de Guildfry's duplicity. "It will go better for you if you tell the truth. You are my sister's husband, after all. We are family. All I seek is that you confess your perfidy so that we can undo the damage and begin anew. As family, we are bound, are we not?" he added with a mild smile.
Guildfry scratched nervously at the side of his face. "Honestly, Brother, what would I possibly have to say to Blakeslee? Who is telling these tales against me?"
Ignoring the question, Audley turned his gaze back toward the road. "The King's right-hand man would want nothing more than to be handed the means to take me down. If Henry were to discover we had resumed communication with Lords Leicester and Mortrain, and are sympathetic to their cause, that would give Blakeslee the axe to separate my head from my shoulders. Tell me straight, have you spoken to Blakeslee of our dealings with the rebel barons? Have you said anything to him about the boy?"
"Of course not! I would hardly wish to join Leicester in the Tower!"
"Yet, perhaps you have ensured your freedom by turning against me."
"That's preposterous!" de Guildfry sputtered. "I demand to know who is spreading these lies! You know that my heart has always been with the rebel barons. King Henry reduced my lands by half when he ascended the thrown. I'd scarcely forget that. And you wouldn't even know the boy existed if it weren't for me."
Audley eyed de Guildfry. "I've also heard that Leicester is to be released soon. It may have taken him three long years since the battle of Fornham, but he has convinced the King that he has seen the error of his ways and desperately wants to make amends. Of course, we know that Lord Mortrain will settle for nothing less than the return of his ancestral castles and lands and a stake in the governance of England, and if it means toppling Henry in the process, all the better."
De Guildfry opened his mouth to respond when the horses began a violent dance. As Audley and de Guildfry struggled to calm their mounts, a wild boar bolted from the brush and charged onto the path.
De Guildfry's mount reared and whinnied with terror. The boar fled, its mouth foaming. De Guildfry toppled from his horse onto a downed tree. He cried out in agony as blood gushed like a fountain from his inner thigh, pierced by a broken branch.
"Christ's Blood!" he cried against the pain as he pushed his palm into the rip in his flesh. "Help me, man!"
Audley snatched a cloth from his bag, quickly slipped from his saddle, and advanced on de Guildfry. He knelt beside him, the cloth hovering over the wound. Audley stared into de Guildfry's eyes.
"Hurry! What are you waiting for?" De Guildfry made a grab for the cloth, but Audley held it just out of reach. De Guildfry gripped Audley by the neck of his tunic. The widening pool of blood engulfed them both.
"Brother," de Guildfry pleaded.
Audley's eyes narrowed. "Fate has stepped in. I fear that to interfere would be an arrogance."
"Ranulf! Help me or I shall die!"
Audley wrested his tunic from de Guildfry's grasp and backed away.
De Guildfry crawled toward him, trailing a swath of blood and calling his name. "Think of Adele," he whispered. "Will you make her a widow?"
But there was no turning back now. If he let de Guildfry live, he would never again be able to trust him. The benefit of controlling de Guildfry's lands and fortune through his widowed sister began to present itself. With de Guildfry out of the way, Adele would need guidance, and Ranulf, good brother that he was, would be there for her. As added benefit, he could again barter a prosperous marriage contract for her with a husband more reliable than de Guildfry.
De Guildfry reached out. Audley quickly stepped back to avoid de Guildfry's bloody fingers. If anyone asked, he would say that they'd separated to track a buck and when de Guildfry failed to meet up at their arranged spot, Audley had circled back to discover his cold, bloodless body. How bereft he would be when he returned to Audley Keep with de Guildfry draped lifeless over his mount. To think this terrible thing had happened on his own lands, when he had only wished to show his brother-in-law a convivial day of hunting, away from the exhausting responsibilities of their station.
When de Guildfry appeared to have breathed his last, Audley knelt down and turned him over to ensure he was truly and completely dead. Eyes that had shifted anxiously such a short time before now stared vacantly.
A hunting accident. Such a tragedy. But he would be there to comfort Adele, to see to his sister's every need during her bereavement, to guide her to a brighter future.
Six Months Later, The Three Barrels Tavern, Southampton, England
Kevin Blakeslee raised his tankard high, beckoning the barmaid.
"Maisie, darlin', another pitcher!"
Maisie flashed Kevin a smile and wove her way through the raucous crowd, a fresh pitcher held high above her head.
A boisterous mood filled the Three Barrels, with knights shouting out their finest tournament moments, challenging one another over who'd been the bravest and most daring in the melees. Kevin shook his head with a grin as each retelling became more and more outrageous. His friend Rowan, flush faced and glassy eyed, broke into an improvised bawdy chorus celebrating his own prowess, though not on the tournament field, and if Kevin knew his friend, the ditty had its roots more in wishful fantasy than reality.
Maisie reached the table, wearing a saucy smile, her blond curls bouncing. As she refilled Kevin's tankard, splashing ale over its rim, she leaned in just enough to present him with a fine glimpse of her voluptuous breasts.
"Anything more I can do for you, Sir Kevin? You know that wicked smile of yours could make a woman lose all sense."
Before Kevin could reply, Sir Rowan offered up his own cup for filling. "A man could die of thirst while you fawn over the likes of him. While here I sit, right parched from all my lovely singing."
"Patience, Sir Rowan," Maisie replied sweetly. "Good things come to them that waits."
"A kiss is a good thing," Rowan said with a hopeful grin. "How long, sweet Maisie, will you keep me waiting for one of yours?"
Maisie tapped him on his reddened nose. "Who knows what the future might hold, eh?" She topped off Rowan's mug, gave Kevin a wink full of promise, and spun back toward the kitchen, full skirts swirling.
Rowan sighed. "What I'd give to spend a few hours in your boots. Or out of them. I guess we all know where you'll be spending this fine evening."
"Aye, given half a chance." Kevin grinned and raised his tankard. "To fast friends, good spirits, and comely women!"
They drained their mugs and laughed heartily as they wiped the foam from their mouths.
Ale soaked Kevin's right sleeve, for it seemed enough pooled on the table to fill a pitcher, and his eyes burned from the haze of the badly vented fireplace. But he was content, his senses softened by the effects of the drink and warmed by the camaraderie of his friends. It was damn good to be back on English soil.
He set his mug on the table and ran a hand through his overly long hair--he'd be requiring a decent shearing once he arrived home.
"Now the tournaments have ended, what's next, friend?"
Rowan pulled a face. "What else but to beg room and board from that miserly brother of mine. Though it pains me to grovel before him, what choice have I?"
Kevin frowned in confusion. "What of your tournament spoils? Did I not see you yesterday, leading a cart filled with your opponents' chainmail and weapons, and three fine warhorses trotting behind?"
Rowan scratched the back of his head. "Aye. But sadly, that was one sunrise, one sunset, and numerous games of chance ago."
Willan Handley, a tall, lean, flaxen-haired knight, leaned in from across the table, almost scorching the sleeve of his tunic on a sputtering candle. "I've got a right fix for you, Rowan."
"And what's that?" Rowan picked up a few walnuts from the bowl and smashed them on the table with his palm. "I've not the nerve to turn highwayman, if that's what you're proposing."
"Nay, this proposition will not risk the hangman's noose. I've had word that Hubert de Guildfry died in a hunting accident six months past, leaving his widow with full coffers, a rich estate, and an empty bed. The mourning period has not yet concluded, but soon Lady Guildfry's suitors will be queuing up. We should travel there to make our case."
Rowan frowned while picking pieces of nutmeat from the shattered shell. "Lord Guildfry's wife? Why, she must be nigh on thirty years old."
Will shrugged his broad shoulders. "You'd only have to bed her once to seal the marriage, then never again worry about the certainty of your next meal. You'd be lord of your own estate. The keep must hold a fetching kitchen wench or two to warm the master's bed."
Kevin snatched up some of the walnut pieces before Rowan could swat away his hand. "Isn't she Lord Audley's sister?"
"Aye," answered Will, "the very same."
"Then no need to waste your time," said Kevin. "Audley will have chosen a husband for her, and it won't be some second or third son with no dower or prospects."
Rowan gave a wounded look and placed his hand on his heart. "Must you speak so harshly of our sad circumstances?"
The others laughed.
Will pulled thoughtfully on his blond beard. "Yet, as a widow, she has final say in whom she marries, if she chooses to remarry at all."
Kevin rubbed the smoke from his eyes with thumb and index finger. "So says the law, but how many daughters and sisters have you known to go against the dictates of their families? Man or woman, we are all groomed to do our duties. And like it or not, second and third sons are not in high demand."
"Need I remind you," Rowen replied indignantly, "that you are sitting right beside me in this boat we row."
"True enough, my friend," Kevin replied with a grin. "But searching out rich widows, I am not. Unlike you, I am perfectly content with my lot. My brother may have all of the family riches, but he also has all the obligation, which I will happily do without."
"And unlike me, you know you will always have a warm bed and a full stomach due to Lord Faringdon's generosity. My brother sees me coming and rushes to bar the gate!"
"Aye," Will replied sadly, "'Tis not much more welcoming at my uncle's keep."
Rowan refilled his tankard. "As I recall, Kevin, isn't there bad blood between Ranulf Audley and your brother?"
"Aye, bad blood doth continuously flow. They both sit on King Henry's council and without fail settle into opposite sides of an issue."
Kevin had met Ranulf on several court occasions. He was a reedy fellow with beady eyes and a large aquiline nose that he kept raised in the futile hope of looking aristocratic. If the grieving widow's appearance favored Ranulf, her new husband would indeed have his work cut out mustering the steel to consummate the marriage.
"Are you serious about the Widow Guildfry?" Kevin asked.
Will grinned. "As serious as a lance to the chest. I've got nothing else to occupy my time until the next tournament season. What say you, Rowan?" Will ruffled Rowan's head of sweaty chestnut curls. "How about we clean ourselves up and go a-courting?"
Rowan released a resounding belch. "Aye, you can count me in."
"What of you, Kevin? What can we say to convince you?"
"Don't beg the likes of him!" Rowan exclaimed. "We don’t need the competition!"
"Not to worry," Kevin replied, rising from the table. "I can't see giving up my freedom for the drudgery of running an estate the size of Guildfry. For my part, I cannot think of a better life than the one I lead. The Widow Guildfry is all yours."
He scanned the room, caught Maisie's eye, and gave a nod to the stairs leading to the upper rooms. He looked back to his friends with a grin. "See you lads in the morning."
Adele de Guildfry brushed a spot of dirt from her kirtle as she walked the short distance back from the village. The autumn breeze carried with it the scent of the nearby sea and the faint promise of winter, stirring the leaves in the beech and yew trees that edged the road. A few loose strands of dark auburn hair blew loose from the coil at the nape of her neck and danced around her face.
Adele looked to the sky, soaking in the sun's fading warmth. There would be time enough to think of winter's gray, cold days ahead. For now, she needed to spend her hours on practical matters, like the pesky problem of getting water from the river to the new field she planned to cultivate next spring. She also hoped to buy another ox before plowing season, and one of the walls of the keep needed repair. But she had to concede that a day like today could make a body think that a walk in the breeze held the higher purpose.
Perhaps she was too serious as her friend Gwendolyn often claimed. But the people of Guildfry depended on her, and now that Hubert was no longer there to disparage her and her ideas, all the while downing spirits and groping serving wenches, she couldn't wait to bring her plans to fruition.
Adele rounded the last turn and spied a young couple approaching. The man's arm draped easily around the woman's shoulder as she looked up at him adoringly. Adele recognized the couple as Gareth, the farrier, and his wife, Cecily. The intimacy in the attitude of their bodies, the easy bond between them as they shared a laugh, made her feel like an interloper on her own land.
For a brief moment, Adele indulged her heart. What might it feel like to be loved so, to be the sole focus of another's thoughts and dreams?
She summoned her pragmatism and chased the feeling away as determinedly as a housewife with a broom, shooing chickens from her doorstep. A woman of her station rarely found romance in the arms of a husband. And what if she were destined to live the rest of her days alone? Hard reality had taught her that being alone was much preferred to enduring an unhappy marriage.
As the couple neared, Gareth smiled and tipped his cap. "Good day, m'lady." Cecily paused to give an awkward curtsy.
"Good day," Adele replied. "Out for some air?"
"Oh, aye," Gareth replied, turning a proud eye to his wife. "And to show off me gorgeous bride, of course."
Cecily blushed prettily, and again Adele felt the tug of yearning for things she would never know. "Enjoy this fine evening," she said with a wistful smile.
She continued on her way, turning down the walking path that led to Guildfry Keep. Blackberry and raspberry vines lined the lane, the deep ripe color of the berries a temptation. She plucked a few as she passed, savoring their sweetness and hoping she wouldn't arrive home with berry juice staining her chin.
Guildfry Keep came into view through the leafy branches, and Adele was struck as she often was at its strength and beauty. Beyond the moat, the rectangular stone walls rose tall and straight and the timber roof, while in need of patching, still did an adequate job keeping the heat in and the rain out.
And now it was her home to do with as she pleased. Since Hubert had died in the hunting accident, she'd begun work on Guildfry's much-needed repairs and was investigating ways to double next season's crop yield. She had much to learn, but she knew that with hard work and the right resources she could make the property prosperous for her own security and that of the people who'd pledged their allegiance to Guildfry—although some less enthusiastically than others now that a woman ruled the holding.
When Adele had married Hubert, he'd insisted on retaining his housekeeper, Mistress Halloway, and had deferred to her in all matters concerning the running of the house. Adele's notions and wishes were of no concern to Hubert or Mistress Halloway, and soon the servants felt free to ignore Adele's direction. After Hubert died, Adele had sent Mistress Halloway packing, and now she struggled to gain the servants' respect. In truth, she knew not whom she could trust.
She crossed the bridge that traversed the moat, wrinkling her nose at the smell. Another item to place on her to-do list: inquire how to unstink a moat.
When she reached the outer stone stairway that led to the home's main entry, she heard the front door open. A moment later, Daniel, her steward, stood on the landing like a watchful buzzard, thin and hunched, a frown marring his usually inscrutable features. He'd been with her since childhood, keeping a watchful eye over her then, and accompanying her to Guildfry when she'd married Hubert at seventeen. He was her champion and confidant in a place where she'd been made to feel nearly invisible. And while she had never shared with him the fear and misery her marriage had brought her, the knowing sympathy residing in his gaze told her it wasn't necessary.
"M'lady, you have visitors. I regret to inform you that your mother and brother await you in the solar," the steward deadpanned.
Any good feeling that Adele had cultivated from her walk dissipated like water droplets on a hot skillet. "No mystery as to the purpose of their visit. Hubert is hardly cold in his grave and yet they continue to connive and strategize on who next will occupy my bed." Adele sighed and shook her head. "I'll be there directly."
"And one other matter. While you were out, a missive arrived from Lady Faringdon. She invites you to stay with her at your convenience, although, she added, the sooner the better."
Dear Gwen. They had last met a fortnight past at the nuptials of Henry Percy and Anne Wallace, where she and Adele had confided their joys and troubles to each other. A year ago, not long after the birth of her second child, Gwen had lost her beloved, elderly nurse, Meghan, who had been the only mother figure Gwen had known. She was still deeply grieving, but caring for her own two young ones lightened her burden. For Adele's part, she'd shared with Gwen her frustration with her family's incessant meddling. The Guildfry lands adjoined the Audley ancestral estate, and ever since Adele's husband's death, her mother and brother had been panting to find a way to seal the conjoining of the two properties and assume control.
Gwendolyn, always a woman of action, had immediately offered a troubles-free respite, encouraging Adele to leave her problems for a peaceful stay at Faringdon for as long as needed. As tempting as the offer had sounded, Adele had told Gwen that Guildfry needed her full attention. But oh, to do an about-face this very moment, run away to Faringdon, and leave the familial badgering—even if only for a few days.
"Thank you, Daniel," she said, turning toward the solar. "I'll prepare a response expressing my regrets and have it delivered to Faringdon on the morrow. Oh," she added, swiveling back, "one more thing—are there any berry stains on my chin? No need to provide my mother with yet another reason to chastise me."
The steward raised one brow, then narrowed his eyes as he surveyed her face. "M'lady, I pronounce you stain free."
"Thank you, Daniel," Adele replied with a tired smile. "Perhaps you can convince my disapproving relatives of that."
Adele turned to meet her fate, and when she reached the end of the hallway pushed open the solar door. The iron hinges creaked, announcing her arrival. She entered to find her mother settled on the fur-covered bench by the fire, her back rigid as an oak plank. Ranulf stood across the room, gazing out the window.
"Mother, Brother," she said, mustering an even tone. "What brings you to Guildfry?"
As if she didn't know.
Her mother's crystal blue gaze traveled from the top of Adele's head to her dust-covered shoes. "Dear Lord, where have you been, dressed like that?"
Adele glanced at her plain gray kirtle, feigning surprise. "Whatever could be wrong with the way I'm dressed?"
Ranulf turned from the window with a look of distain. "My time is far too valuable to spend it discussing the suitability of Adele's attire."
Adele felt a stab of regret. How had the sweet boy she had so lovingly tended while her parents busied themselves with politics and court intrigue turned into this humorless goat? Unfortunately, her middle brother, Richard, an archdeacon who'd kill to be made bishop, hadn't turned out much better. And sweet George, the youngest, the one dearest to her heart, taken from them in battle before he'd fully reached manhood.
She plopped down into a chair by the door, spreading out the skirt of her worn wool kirtle as if it were the queen's own silk, then smiled sweetly. "Why then did you come, Brother? If your reasons have anything to do with a marriage contract, you might as well march yourself right back down the hall and out the front door."
Her mother hardened her mouth. "You will not speak to your brother in that fashion. He is the head of our family and as such deserves your respect and obedience."
As always, her mother took Ranulf's part. Lady Audley's sole concern was the social and political position of the Audley name. She and Adele's father had spent their lives intent on every detail of Henry II's kingdom, manipulating whenever possible the rise and fall of the most powerful families as suited their purposes. Their single-mindedness had propelled the House of Audley to the heights of fame and fortune, transforming it into one of the country's most prominent families. After her father's death four years past, Ranulf assumed his seat on Henry's council where Audley influence could best be put to use. Adele's brothers were coin Lady Audley knew how to spend, but a daughter? What use a daughter, other than as bait to snag a well-connected husband?
"Sister, you'd do well to hear me out," Ranulf said. "I've been in negotiation with Edward Strong, Lord Sudeley, and am pleased to say he is considering an offer of marriage. In light of your advanced age, his station is far above what we might have hoped. Even you must see how highly desirable an alliance with the Sudeley family would be."
Adele frowned at Ranulf's jab at her age. It was true she'd be thirty next spring, but if her advancing age kept her from attracting a husband, she'd welcome her birthday with a toast and a jig.
"And there is also Phillip de Granville," her mother interjected, patting the bun at the nape of her neck to ensure that every white-blonde strand remained in place. "I've heard whispers of his interest."
"Yes, that is true," Ranulf replied, "but Sudeley is our man. He has all the required connections, is a rising star at court and, most importantly, follows my lead in all matters. He only lacks funds, and that's where he would find marriage to you appealing." Ranulf raised his beaky nose. "Yet," he conceded, "de Granville is also a good prospect, and a solid second place."
"And don't forget James Hartford," her mother added with a nod. "Also a solid contender."
Adele felt as if her head might split like an overripe melon on a hot summer's day. "James Hartford must be seventy years old!"
"Oh, he's hardly that," her mother replied. "Certainly not a day over fifty-five."
"He is an old man!"
"Yes, the sooner to die and make you an even wealthier widow," Ranulf added with a nod. "If you keep this going you may one day be the wealthiest woman in all of England. Yet, because Hartford is not as influential with the King, he must be our third choice."
"But it is not your choice. Neither of you is listening to me. Neither of you ever listens to me!" Adele rose, wanting to smash something, or kick a wall, or scream to the heavens. When would they see her as a grown woman with a mind of her own and the determination and fortitude to chart her own course?
She looked from one to the other. What cut the deepest was their complete lack of concern for her happiness. They must realize the ordeal that their past machinations had put her through. Had they been privy to Hubert's unnatural proclivities? Her mother had never offered sympathy or support, and Ranulf had never challenged Hubert or interceded on her behalf as far as she knew.
She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. She took another, willing calm and determination through every ounce of her being and resolving then and there that she would never again allow her family to bully her. Due to Hubert's untimely death, she finally had a way out. She turned back and planted herself two feet from her brother.
"I am not marrying anyone," she said in a steely voice. "My husband was buried but six months past. Even if I were inclined to remarry, which I am not, propriety would not allow it. This discussion is pointless."
Her mother looked from Ranulf to Adele with cunning blue eyes, eyes that Adele had for so many years longed to see softened by a mother's love. "You know your brother is friend to the King," she began as if explaining sums to a child, "and has his majesty's ear like no other. I am certain Ranulf could persuade the King and Bishop Pudsley to give you dispensation. It is imperative that you make a good match, and soon."
"Imperative for whom, Mother? I have spent my whole life taking care of people. First my brothers, for whom you and father had little time, and then my husband, whom I married out of duty to the family. In reality, it became a thirteen-year sentence as servant to a cruel and unfaithful lout of a man. I will never again allow myself to be tied to another."
Ranulf frowned as if sucking on a bitter herb. "Adele, I am not unsympathetic to your wishes, but you must be realistic. The King will want the Guildfry fortune in the hands of someone he can trust, and that will be a man whom I recommend and who will therefore be beholden to the Audley name and to my position at court."
Adele took a step towards her brother, searching his face for a shadow of the affectionate boy he once was. "Why cannot the King trust me? I want only to continue taking care of Guildfry as I have since Hubert's death. I have no political ambitions. If left alone, I know I can make Guildfry a secure and prosperous holding, which in turn will add coin to the King's treasury. Can't that be enough?"
Ranulf gave a patronizing shake of his head. "It is statements like these that reveal your naiveté, Sister."
Adele turned to her mother. "If I am naïve, it is only because I have never been taught. Teach me now," she implored, "so that I can steer my own course and that of Guildfry. I know that with proper training and support I can do it. Mother, please, I cannot bear to be subjugated to another man."
Her mother looked at her unblinkingly, and said nothing.
Ranulf stepped in, cutting the air with a wave of his hand. "The fact is that you are a woman and by nature unfit to see to the physical responsibilities of a property as strategically located as Guildfry. Add to that your admitted lack of interest in Guildfry's political standing." Ranulf walked to the window and braced himself on the stone sill. "Why am I wasting my time explaining to you what is so obviously evident?"
Adele stood tall, clasping her hands so tightly behind her back that her fingers began to tingle. "What is so obviously evident to me, dear Brother, is that as my husband's widow I am entitled to my husband's property in the absence of a male heir." Adele couldn't keep the hint of a smile from her lips, knowing this was a particularly scabby detail for both her mother and brother.
Lady Audley rose regally from the settee. "Child, I've heard all I can stomach. You are an Audley and have a duty to this family. Your brother and I have worked tirelessly to find you appropriate suitors. Marrying someone of our choosing will strengthen the family's influence. We must stay strong or be swallowed up by others less capable of determining England's future."
Adele looked from her mother to her brother, and back again. Their eyes fixed on her, but they did not truly see her. What they saw was no more than a spoke in the wheel they hoped could one day carry them to even greater power. With dawning recognition, Adele felt the fear and yearning of the child she had once been melt away, revealing a clarity of mind. She knew now, with a woman's heart, that her mother had never cared for the lonely child Adele had been, or what Adele had endured these past thirteen years, first as an abused wife and later as an invisible one. And she had no concern for what Adele's life would be as a pawn in their political maneuverings. Power and money were her mother's only true loves. And in that moment, Adele accepted it. It was her mother's failing, not hers.
"I won't do it," Adele said firmly. "You'll have to find another way to advance your ambitions."
"Interesting that you should make that suggestion," her mother said. "For it turns out there is another way, if you force our hand."
"I suppose you could have me murdered or declared insane and stuffed in a convent."
"That is a bit excessive," her mother replied. "Nay, we need not petition to have you declared insane. We merely need to lay the foundation that you are unfit to make decisions for the benefit and security of Guildfry. It wouldn't be hard to prove that you are prone to disabling fits of feminine emotion, rendering you unstable to lead your people."
Adele's mouth dropped. "You wouldn't."
Ranulf's gaze cut to Lady Margaret. "This is not what we agreed."
Lady Margaret raised her hand. "I will not take the chance of Adele marrying any fool that turns her head. There is too much at stake."
Adele's thoughts spun. Could they actually accomplish such a thing? Would her family truly turn against her? Now, when she'd finally found peace in her solitude, had begun to explore life on her own terms, could they arrange to have it all taken away?
Anger flared hot and unrestrained until she thought her heart might burst with it. "Get out, Mother," she said in a deadly whisper. "Leave my home now."
"Come, my dear," her mother said in a voice meant to placate, but her blatant insincerity only served to further stoke Adele's fury.
She raised her arm and pointed to the solar door. "Out now! Or I will call my guards." She held her breath, hoping that Ranulf wouldn't challenge her, for in truth she was not certain her guards would take her part over her brother's.
Ranulf looked at her with something akin to pity. "Come, mother. She's overwrought."
Lady Margaret nodded. "Remember this exchange when giving evidence of her instability." Her mother turned and glided from the room, looking like the queen she always thought she was born to be.
Ranulf turned to follow, but Adele grabbed his arm.
"Ranulf, please, give me the opportunity to show what I can do before you turn against me."
Ranulf's features seemed to soften. Perhaps he did feel some connection to her from all the years they'd spent with only each other and their brothers Richard and George for company, never getting the love and acceptance from their parents that every child needed and deserved.
"I do sympathize with your plight, Sister. Truly, I do, but what you ask is unrealistic. You have no power at court, no sway over the barons, and none over King Henry. Yet, I can marry you off to someone who does and increase our family's influence twice over. Why can't you see that taking the right husband will not only benefit our family, but it will be of personal benefit to you and your security?
"And how secure do you think I felt married to Hubert?"
"I am sorry Hubert was not to your liking. While I hope you will find your next marriage agreeable, you must accept that your happiness is secondary to the politics of the match."
Not to her liking?! Even after all this time, she struggled to keep thoughts of Hubert's depravities locked down in the farthest recesses of her mind where they could no longer torment her. She'd learned to retreat into herself when he'd come to her chamber. Eventually he'd grown bored with her unresponsiveness and had left her alone for the last years of their marriage. Still, one couldn't endure such terrors without them leaving scars.
"I will fight you both with everything I have."
"Do not push our mother, for she will make good her threat to lock you away."
"She would have a difficult time without your support."
Ranulf looked away, his mouth set.
Adele felt emotion building behind her eyes. "You never could stand up to her. Then go, join her. You are no better than she is."
Ranulf shook his head and, with a disgruntled sigh, turned to leave. Adele watched him retreat down the hallway, her chest heaving with the effort to fight back tears. Dazed, she walked back into the room and sank onto the bench. Feelings of rejection and abandonment snaked their way into her consciousness. Although she'd become accustomed to finding herself excluded from the family circle, she'd still had a family, even if their concern for her had been secondary to their ambition. But now they were no longer allies, but adversaries, set on taking everything from her and possibly even locking her away.
She needed to think. She needed to anticipate and block their next move.
Adrift in a sea of doubt, Gwendolyn's invitation to Faringdon rose in her mind like a beacon of refuge. Gwen had always been a good strategist, eager to consider all angles of a puzzle, no matter how implausible. She would help her sort this out. She hardly knew Gwen's husband, Lord Faringdon, yet she was aware that he was a rival of Ranulf's—which now, she supposed, made him her ally.
She rose and strode to the solar door. "Daniel!"
He appeared immediately. "Yes, m'lady?"
"I've changed my mind. I travel to Faringdon on the morrow. Tell Godfry and Elwin to have the horses ready at daybreak.
"Seeking reinforcements, m'lady?"
"Aye. Pray for my success."
"Let me accompany you. Godfry and Elwin can hardly be counted on to see to your needs."
"How I wish you could, but you are the only one I truly trust to take care of matters here. Especially now that I know my brother will be seeking ways to challenge me."
"Never fear, m'lady," Daniel said steadily. "He will not prevail. We will not allow it."
Never had Daniel's craggy face looked more comforting or endearing. If she let herself, she could cry a bucket of tears onto his competent, knobby shoulder. But she no longer had the right to a child's indulgence. As loyal as Daniel was and as good as his intentions, he did not have the wherewithal to stand against her brother. That was up to her and, as her family had made abundantly clear, to her alone.