Malcom de Monde, Lord of Warwick, comes to court to find a wife—a biddable, quiet, unassuming wife.
When he arrives, he becomes reacquainted with the fiery-haired falconer Lady Judith, whom he knew years earlier.
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When he came into the Great Hall, dripping but not the least bit chilled, Malcolm found it just as he expected: filled with people everywhere, the space loud and close. Yet he hadn’t broken his fast and there was food to be had, so he tamped down his irritation and searched for an empty place among the trestle tables.
“Warwick!” someone called, and he turned to see Lady Judith.
For some unaccountable reason, his chest tightened and he meant to keep walking…but before he could force himself to do so, his feet turned and brought him over to her. It was rude, he told himself, to ignore a gentlelady’s hail.
She sat at a small table next to one of the lesser fireplaces, a chessboard arranged in front of her.
He swiped the long, sopping hair from his forehead, careful not to stand so close he’d drip all over her and the table as he gave a brief bow. “Good morrow, Lady Judith,” he said politely, noticing her own clothing was still damp.
Of course he’d seen her walking by the training yard earlier—how could one ignore that beacon of fiery hair, especially in a colorless morn such as this? Little wisps of it fell from her coiffure, settling over her shoulders in frizzing curls. She wore no veil this morrow.
“I beg of you, my lord—a game of chess?” she asked. He opened his mouth to decline, but as was Judith’s way, she barreled on, “I’ve taken two games already this morning from my opponents, and no one else is brave enough to challenge me. ’Twill be a long day cooped in here if I’ve naught to occupy my time, for the queen is locked away with her steward and has no need of me this morrow.”
Mal could think of a variety of ways she could occupy her time—dancing, jesting, flirting and talking with all of her friends, sewing and whatever else ladies did when they weren’t torturing men—but declined to mention them. Instead, he shook his head. “Nay, my lady, I dare not. I’m soaked to the skin and would be a poor opponent, dripping all over the table as I am.”
“But there is a seat for you right next to the fire,” Judith pointed out with a smile. “You’ll dry in a trice, and as I suspect you haven’t broken your fast, there will also be cheese and apples from the page who hovers just yonder.”
He looked down at her, realizing he’d been maneuvered quite neatly into doing her bidding. There was no honorable way out of the situation, and he realized it wasn’t such an unfortunate thing after all. “Very well, Lady Judith. But I trow, if you play chess as well as you’ve played me, I doubt I’ll have a chance for checkmate.”
She laughed merrily and he felt his own lips tugging into a smile. Like a bolt of sunshine, her good humor and vivacity were near impossible to resist, and he felt himself relaxing a little. “You’re too kind, Malcom—er, Warwick. But I challenged you because I hope for a good battle on this game, at the least.”
Before he was even settled in his seat, the page approached and set a goblet of wine and a small plate of white cheese and sliced apples nearby. Mal glanced at Judith, wondering if this too was part of her grand plan, then returned to arranging his chess pieces.
They made their first few moves, playing in silence for a while. Mal had the stray thought that it was unusual for Judith to be quiet for such a stretch, but when he glanced up and saw her coppery brows drawn together, he realized she was concentrating on her game. He grinned, determined to be the one to give her a good battle this day. And as she pondered her next move, he had the opportunity to look upon her without feeling awkward.
He noticed her slender hand, delicate and graceful as it hovered over her queen’s rook. There were scratches and one deep scar near the wrist and he wondered if it were from her raptors or some other mishap. Her skin wasn’t the same pearly white as that of most ladies, who spent much of their time indoors. Instead, her hands, throat, and face were a pleasing golden color, faintly brushed with amber and honey freckles.
Mal’s mind wandered, wondering if the freckles and sun-kissed coloring extended beneath her clothing, where he could see the curve of her breasts and well knew the shape of her hips, for they swayed enticingly as she walked…then when he realized his folly, he snatched his thoughts back to the game. Foolish, man.
She was not a suitable wife for him. She was too loud and energetic and, he sensed, she would demand much from any husband she might take. Attention. Conversation. Chess games.
“I saw you this morrow,” Judith said, taking his king’s bishop with a flourish. “In the training yard.”
“Aye,” he replied, considering his next move. She’d done what he expected, fallen into his own trap on the board…but he must decide whether to spring it yet, or lull her into a false sense of security. He grinned to himself. She was a worthy opponent thus far, however, causing him to rethink his strategy more than once.
“I believe you will make a fine husband indeed,” she said, startling him so his hand jerked. He nearly knocked over his queen and sent two other pieces awry.
“A fine husband?” he managed to say in a normal voice. But he didn’t have quite the courage to look at her, for he feared what she might see in his eyes. And yet, his thoughts flew to that secret desire, long tamped away and nearly forgotten until only yesterday when he’d seen her again. Mad. You are mad to even think of it.
“Yes indeed. Is that not why you are here? At court? To find a wife? That’s what you said last evening.” Her voice was amused—until she looked down and saw that he’d taken her bishop. “A pox on you, Mal! I had plans for that holy man!”
He couldn’t hold back a rumbling chuckle. “Well, then, mayhap you should put your attention on the game in the stead of my business, Lady Judith.”
“But I vow I could help you with your business,” she told him, chewing on a fingernail as she looked at the board. “I am well-acquainted with all the ladies at court, and many others. I have been known to help make many a match of them. And I could,” she added, looking up at him even as her face was angled toward the board, “help you determine which would be worthy of a man such as you.”
Mal was caught for a moment by those blue eyes, soft and warm and smiling. A man such as you. Something inside him creaked pleasantly.
“After all,” she continued, looking back down, thank the Blessed Lord, and grasping the head of her queen, “you are Warwick. You control near as much land in England as my cousin Gavin Mal Verne and Lord Salisbury, and you have the wealth to go with it. As well, you are quite a skilled warrior, as was evident in the yard this morrow, and would surely be able to defend any threat to you or your wife. And then there is the matter of the unfortunate young man named Rike.”
“Rike?” he said after a beat of a moment, comprehension catching up with his thoughts.
“Aye. I saw you speaking with him, working with him in the training yard. It was very kind of you, Mal—my lord. And you appeared to have done so with tact and care, so as not to mortify the poor boy. Check.”
Mal’s attention whipped back down to the game. How the bloody rood had she done that? Well, ’twas no matter. He could easily maneuver himself out of that threat and continue on. He shifted a pawn and replied, “The boy’s barely a squire and won’t make it to knighthood without some guidance. He’s as like to fall on his own sword than use it to defend himself.”
“I saw him too, and, ah, well…Mal, I was going to approach you and suggest the very thing. But you had already done so.” She was looking at him again with those warm eyes, only a game-board distance away.
“Because he reminded you of me, when I was such an age?” he asked, not quite able to keep a tinge of bitterness from his voice.
“Mayhap some trifle bit,” she replied carelessly, sliding her knight into place with a grand gesture. “But most of all because of who you’d become. Check, sirrah!”
“You hardly know who I’ve become,” he retorted, swiftly moving his king out of danger.
“’Tis true…but even as we sit here, I learn more of you. And all the ladies are asking about you, too, my lord; do you not allow yourself to think otherwise. Any new face at court—particularly one as pleasing as yours—will garner such interest. Because we are old friends, though, I wish only for the best for you. And therefore, ’tis my intent to drive you clear from certain potential wives…such as….”
She leaned over the table, her face coming so close that he could see that the single, dainty freckle on her eyelid was amber and not brown, “Gladys of Darvington and Winifred d’Alsineaux.” Judith’s voice had dropped to a husky whisper, and she held his gaze with hers. “Keep yourself far from them, my lord, I beg of you, and you will be much happier.” She grinned then as her hand swooped down and snatched up his queen, replacing it with her knight. She looked up at him with dancing, triumphant eyes.
He nodded gravely, reaching for the board. “Thank you very much for the warning, my lady. Check…mate.”
Her eyes popped wide and she nearly burst from her seat. “Nay! You did not!” But as she looked frantically at the board, her hand hovering from place to place as if to find some move to free her from the trap, her lips pursed in acceptance. “Fie! You are fortunate, my lord, for my very next move would have been to put an end to you myself.”
“I am well aware of that,” he replied, entertained by how quickly her mood had changed from earnest advice to mischief to irritation. “Nevertheless, you are a formidable opponent, my lady.”
“As are you, my lord.” He detected the bit of a pout in her tone and he couldn’t completely smother a smile. “Laugh at me all you wish,” she told him tartly, “but I vow our next meeting will finish quite differently.”
“I dare not laugh at you, Lady Judith,” he told her, doing just that—and was surprised with himself for doing so. And surprised that he had not taken her words as an opportunity to take his leave—for there was no reason to stay now that the game was finished. He was eager to be on his way. Yet, he did not rise. “Did you not beg me to play with you in order to offer you a better challenge than your last opponents?”
“Mmph.” She made a comical expression, then reached to pluck the last slice of apple from his tray. “Now that I have told you whom to avoid, my lord, mayhap you should tell me what you seek in a wife. Surely she must be beautiful and come with a large dowry chest or a fief of her own…but what more do you seek? Shall she have hair the color of honey or eyes as green as the heath-grass?”
“I care not the color of her hair or eyes,” he replied impatiently. “’Tis of no import to me. I care not whether she is homely or comely. But she must be modest and biddable. And she must know how to manage an estate, for I need a good chatelaine to oversee the household.”
Or so he thinks!
Find out what happens with Lord Malcom and Lady Judith in A Lily on the Heath.
(currently available only at Amazon)