Excerpt: If I Had You

Excerpt: If I Had You

The de Piaget Family


England, 1215

The young girl stood at the door of the healer’s quarters and looked out over the courtyard, eyeing the dirt and flat-laid stone that separated her from the great hall. Judging the distance to be not unmanageable, she released the doorframe she had been clinging to and eased herself down the three steps to the dirt. And then she grasped more firmly the stick she leaned upon and slowly and painfully began to make her way across the courtyard.

Sunlight glinted off her pale golden hair and off the gold embroidery on her heavy velvet gown. Though it was much too hot for such a garment, the child had insisted. It hid the unsightly splint that bound her leg from hip to foot.

She looked up and saw that the hall door was closer than it had been. No smile of relief crossed her strained features; she had yet far to go.

“Ugly Anne of Fenwyck!”

“Thorn in Artane’s garden!”

The voices caught her off guard and she stumbled. She caught herself heavily on her injured leg. Biting back a cry of pain, she put her head down and quickened her pace.

They surrounded her, not close enough to hurt her with anything but their words, though those were surely painful enough. Pages they were, for the most part, with one notable exception. A young man joined in the torment, a freshly-knighted soul who should have known better. They circled her as she hobbled across the smooth stone path leading to the great hall, taunting her mercilessly. The knight folded his arms and laughed as she struggled up the stairs.

“Why the haste, gimp?”

The maid had no time for tears. Safety was but four steps away. She ignored the laughter that followed her and forced herself to continue her climb.

The door opened and the lord of the hall caught her up in his arms and held her close. Her stick clattered down the stairs but she had no stomach for the fetching of it. She clung to her foster father and let his deep voice wash over her soothingly as she was pulled inside the hall. The lord reached out to close the door, paused, then frowned deeply before he pushed the wood to.

Had the girl looked out before the door was closed, she would have seen a dark-haired, gray-eyed lad of ten-and-four standing on the front step of the healer’s house, having come to take his own exercise for the day. And she would have seen the rage on his face and the clenching of his hands at his sides; he had witnessed the last of the tortures she’d endured.

And had she been watching, she would have been privy to the events that followed. The lad shrugged off his brother’s supporting arm and called to the young knight in angry tones. The knight sauntered over, his mocking snort turning into a hearty laugh when he heard the lad’s challenge.

There was no equity in the fight. The boy still recovered from a fever that had kept him abed for half a year. The knight was five years his senior. And the knight had no qualms about humiliating the lord’s son each and every chance he had.

It was over before it had begun. The dark-haired lad went face down in the mud and muck. The last shreds of his strength deserted him, leaving him wallowing helplessly. His brother stepped forward to defend him and earned a pair of broken fingers for his trouble. The knight sneered at them both, then walked away, the older lads in his entourage snickering behind their hands as they followed him, and the younger ones slinking away full of shame and embarrassment for the lad who had no strength to rise to his feet.

The girl witnessed none of this. She was gently deposited inside the camber she shared with her foster sisters, and had the luxury of shedding tears of humiliation in private.

Her young champion shed his tears in the mud.


Chapter One

England, 1225

The young woman sat atop her mount and looked down the road that separated her from the castle. She had traversed its length many times over the course of her ten-and-nine years and felt reasonably acquainted with its dips and swellings. She was, however, eager to be free of its confines and, as a result, off her horse, so she viewed it with a keen eye. Judging the distance separating her from her goal to be not unmanageable, she took a firmer grip on her reins and urged her horse forward.

Her destination could not be reached quickly enough to her mind. Behind her rode her matchmaking father, his head likely full of thoughts of the half dozen men he had left behind him at Fenwyck, men desperate enough for his wealth to take his daughter in the bargain. Before her lay her foster home, the home of her heart, the home she had left almost half a year earlier only because her father had dragged her bodily from it. She had despaired of ever seeing it again.

But now she was released from her father’s hall, if only briefly, and Artane was but a short distance away. That was enough. It would have to be. It might be all she was allowed to have.

“By the saints, I’m eager to be out of this bloody rain,” her sire complained as he pulled up alongside her. “How is it, Mistress Anne, that I allowed you to enlist me in this fool’s errand in this blighted weather? My business with you is at Fenwyck, not here!”

Anne looked at her sire. A weak shaft of autumn sunlight fell down upon his fair hair and glinted on the gold embroidery adorning his surcoat.

“You look well, Father,” she said, praying she might distract him and knowing a compliment could not go astray.

“As if it served me to look well, given the circumstances!”

“It was kind of you to bring me to Artane,” she said, keeping to her course. “I very much wished to bid Sir Montgomery a final farewell.”

“It will be too late for that, I should think,” her sire muttered. “He’ll be dead by the time we arrive.”

But Anne could only assume by the way he began to straighten his clothing and comb his hair with his fingers that he was seeking to present the best appearance possible, even if such an appearance was only to be made at a burying.

She turned her mind back to more important matters, namely staying in the saddle until she could reach the castle. Her leg had not borne the rigors of traveling well. Though but four days’ slow travel separated Fenwyck from Artane, she suspected she might have been better served to have walked the distance. She wondered if she would manage to stand once she was released from the tortures of her journey.

Despite that very real concern, Anne felt her heart lift with every jarring clomp of her horse’s hooves. The stark stone of the castle rose up against the gray sky, a bulwark of safety and security. By the saints, she was glad of the sight. Though her sire continued to curse a variety of objects and souls, Anne let his words wash over her and continue on their way to more attentive ears. She was far too lost in her memories to pay him any heed.

She remembered the first time she had come to Artane. The castle had been little more than branches marking the place for the outer walls and twigs outlining the inner buildings. The construction had seemed to take but a short time, likely because she’d been passing her days so happily in the company of the family she’d come to foster with. There had been a sister for her, just her age, and brothers too, though she paid them little heed at the time. The lord and lady of the yet-to-be-finished keep had treated her as one of their own and for that she had been very grateful.

And then had come the time when she had first noticed the lord’s eldest son.

He’d been hard to ignore.

He had announced his presence by putting a worm down her dress.

A particularly jarring misstep by her mount almost made her bite off her tongue. Anne gritted her teeth and forced herself to pay heed to her horse. Perhaps her memories did her more disservice than she cared to admit, especially when they went in that particular direction, for indeed there was no purpose in thinking on the lord’s eldest son.

She looked up and realized she was almost in the inner courtyard. She had rarely been more grateful for a sight than she was for the view of the keep before her. She had the captain of Artane’s guard to thank for the like, as the summons to Montgomery of Wyeth’s deathbed had been the one thing which could have freed her from Fenwyck’s suffocating walls.

Anne wended her way carefully through the crowded courtyard. Artane was a busy place with much commerce, many fosterlings, and numerous lordlings continually looking to curry Artane’s favor. She supposed it was pleasing to Lord Rhys to find himself in such demand, but she herself would have been happier had the castle been a little less populated. It certainly would have made the negotiation of her way toward the great hall a good deal easier.

She suppressed a grimace when her horse finally came to a halt. The beast was well trained, thankfully, and spent no more energies moving about. Anne stared down at the ground below her mount’s hooves and wondered how best to reach it without landing ungracefully on her nose. She took a deep breath, twisted herself around so as to keep hold of the saddle, then slid to the ground.

“Anne!” Geoffrey exclaimed with an accompanying curse. “I told you I would aid you.”

“I am well, Father,” she said, forcing herself to remain upright instead of giving into the urge to lean her head against her horse’s withers and weep. The pain in her leg was blinding, but she supposed she had no one to blame for that but herself. She had been the one to shun the cart her father had wished her to ride in. She had also been the one who had declined the numerous halts her father had tried to force upon her.

“I begin to wonder why I ever sent you here,” Geoffrey said curtly. “I vow they bred a stubbornness in you that I surely do not possess. Mayhap you had been better off to remain at Fenwyck.”

Anne had no acceptable answer for that, though her first thought was “the saints be praised you sent me away.” She was too old at ten-and-nine for such childish responses, but there hadn’t been a day she hadn’t been grateful for her fostering at Rhys de Piaget’s keep. She suspected, however, that she had best keep such observations to herself.

“We may as well go inside,” her father said, sounding as if it were the very last thing he wanted to do. “He’ll come to fetch us if we tarry here.”

“The lady Gwennelyn will be glad to see you,” Anne offered.

“Aye, but that objectionable husband of hers will be there as well. What joy is there in that for me? It only serves to remind me that she chose him over me.”

“As you say,” Anne said, wincing at the protests her leg was making as she put weight on it.

“Gwen did want me,” Geoffrey said. “And sorely indeed.”

“Of course, Father,” Anne agreed, but her mind was on other things–namely trying not to sprawl face-first into the dirt.

She looked at the great hall. The distance separating them was greater than she would have liked, but not unmanageable. She took a deep breath, then pushed away from her horse. She carefully crossed the flat stones she’d walked over for the greater part of her life and let the familiarity of them soothe her. By the saints, she had missed this place. How had she survived Fenwyck the previous half year? How would she have endured her childhood there? The saints be praised she had never been forced to have the answer to the latter. She suspected that ‘twas only recently that she truly understood how fortunate she had been. Gwennelyn of Artane had lavished love and attention on her that she never would have had at her father’s hall.

Of course, none of it would have come about had the lady Gwennelyn not had such a long acquaintance with Anne’s sire. It had never become more than that, for there had been little love lost between them–despite Geoffrey’s boasts to the contrary.

There had been even less affection between Geoffrey and Rhys de Piaget, though Anne knew the two men counted each other as staunch allies. Anne had heard tales enough of their early encounters to know how things were between them, though neither the lord nor lady of Artane had disparaged her father. Her father, however, had certainly never been so polite in return. Fortunately, his relationship with Artane had continued to be amicable enough for Anne to have found herself deposited inside Artane’s then unfinished walls, and for that she was grateful.

“Come on then,” Geoffrey said, taking her by the arm and starting toward the hall. “We may as well go inside.”

Anne felt her leg tighten with each step she took and she came close to begging her sire to stop. But that would have led to a recounting of her childhood follies, Rhys’s lack of attentiveness in allowing them to happen and a host of other things she knew she could not bear to listen to. She looked up the steps and cursed silently at the number of people coming and going. Well, she had no choice but to make her way through the press if she wanted to find herself a chair. So she gritted her teeth and counted the steps that remained until she could enter the great hall and sit in peace.

And then a form blocked her path. She looked up and flinched before she could stop herself.

“Why the haste, lady?” the knight asked. “Surely your journey here has been arduous.”

Anne suppressed a grimace. Of all the souls she could have encountered in this crowd, it had to be the lout before her.

“Well, here’s a man with a goodly bit of chivalry,” Geoffrey said, pushing Anne out of the way in his haste to clasp hands with the man. “I believe I should know you, shouldn’t I?”

The knight bowed politely. “Baldwin of Sedgwick, my lord. I am well acquainted with your daughter.”

Aye, there was truth in that. His acquaintance with her included naught but torment and she had no stomach for any more of it. Anne knew he wouldn’t dare insult her before her sire, but that hardly made being in his presence any less unappealing.

Her sire turned to look at her pointedly and she could just imagine what he wished to say. Look here, you stubborn baggage. Yet another man who might be induced to wedding you for enough gold in his purse. Anne looked past her father to Baldwin. She was unsurprised to see him wearing his customary look of disdain. Perhaps he would be bold enough to mock her within earshot of her father.

But when her sire turned again to face Baldwin, there was naught but a polite smile there to greet him.

“Are you wed?” Geoffrey asked bluntly. “You are heir to Sedgwick, are you not?”

“Nay, my lord,” Baldwin said, shaking his head, “my brother is. And he has just recently been blessed with a son, William. So as you can see, I am well removed from any chance of inheriting.”

Geoffrey grunted. “Well, there’s much to be said for a little hunger for something better. My daughter’s not wed, you know. She has her flaws–”

“A weak leg,” Baldwin supplied.

“Aye, that,” Geoffrey agreed.

Anne could hardly believe they were discussing her so openly, and she had no desire to hear more. The saints only knew how blunt her father had been with all the other men he had invited to his keep for a viewing of her and her dowry. And as far as Baldwin went, she knew he would only become nastier in his discourse regarding her, for she knew with exactness what he thought of her. Hadn’t she heard the like for as long as she had known him?

She pushed past her father and walked away, though it cost her much to do so without limping overmuch.

The hall door opened before she reached it and Rhys himself stepped out into the crisp autumn air. Before Anne could say aught, Rhys had descended the handful of steps and pulled her into a sure embrace. The relief she felt was almost enough to make her knees give way beneath her. She was safely home. Perhaps beyond all hope she would manage to stay.

She heard her father’s complaining long before he came to stand behind her.

“It was foolish to come,” Geoffrey said, “but she insisted. She shouldn’t be traveling with that leg of hers.”

Anne gritted her teeth. Rhys never would have continued to remind her of her frailty, nor would he have hourly warned her to have a care. Nay, he would have let her push herself to the limits of her pride, then merely picked her up and put her in a chair. Rhys was the only reason she had spent months learning to walk again after her accident; his approval was the reason she struggled each day past the limits of her endurance.

Or so she told herself. Her true reason for wanting to overcome her limp was something so painful she rarely allowed herself to think on it. The approval she sought was from someone who never looked at her twice when he could help it, who had earned his spurs early then gone off to war. Nay, his approval she would never have.

A pity his was what mattered the most to her.

Anne felt Rhys give her a gentle squeeze before he pulled away. Anne suspected that she’d never been gladder to see a soul than she was to see the one man who might possibly be able to save her from her sire’s ruthless marital schemes.

“A long journey, my girl,” Rhys said. “But the sacrifice means much. It grieves me though, to give you the tidings I must.”

“See?” Geoffrey said pointedly. “I told her ‘twould be for naught.” He snorted in disgust. “All this way for but a burying.”

Anne felt the noose begin to tighten about her neck.

“And not even for that,” Rhys said grimly. “We couldn’t wait any longer.”

“Then we surely won’t be staying long,” Geoffrey said. “I have plans at home, Rhys.”

Anne closed her eyes and prayed with all her strength. Would that some saint would take pity on her and provide her with some means of staying at Artane. Her fondest wish was to be watching her father ride back to Fenwyck from the security of Artane’s battlements. To be sure, she had packed an extra gown or two for just such a happening.

“Montgomery was very fond of Anne,” Rhys said. “I’ve no doubt it would have comforted him to see her again.”

“I don’t think–” Geoffrey began.

“Aye, well, ofttimes you don’t,” Rhys said shortly. “Go inside, Geoffrey. Gwen will want to see you.”

Anne watched her father hesitate, then consider. Apparently the lure of lady Gwennelyn’s beauty was still a powerful one, for he grumbled something else under his breath, but went inside the hall without further argument. Anne took a deep breath, then looked up at her foster father.

“Are you well, my lord?” she asked.

Rhys smile gravely. “Well enough. Montgomery was a good friend and he will be missed. He would have been pleased you came home, though.”

She was relieved he was bearing the loss well. Sir Montgomery was the last of Rhys’s original guardsmen to have succumbed to death’s grasp. He’d lost twins named Fitzgerald not two years earlier and that had been a grievous blow to him. To lose Montgomery as well had to have grieved him deeply.

“I am sorry to come so late,” she said.

“You couldn’t have known.” He tucked her hand under his arm and turned toward the stairs. “Now, what foolishness did your sire press upon you to keep you so long from your true home?”

“Suitors,” Anne said with a shudder.

“Poor girl. I can’t imagine he presented you with much of a selection.”

“He didn’t.”

“Leave him to me,” he said. “I know how to redirect his thoughts.”

Aye, to scores of bruises won during a wrestle, she thought, followed closely by Ah, that you could. But she said nothing aloud. She was but three steps from the warmth and comfort of the hall and that was task enough for her at present.

Once the last step was gained, the hall entered and the door closed behind her, Anne could only stand and shake. She looked at the distance separating her from the hearth with its cluster of comfortable chairs and stools and thought she just might weep. Her pride was the only thing keeping her from falling to her knees. Rhys didn’t move from her side. She knew he would merely wait patiently by her side until she regained her will–and from that she drew strength.

But before she could muster up any more energy or courage, a whirlwind of skirts and dark hair descended into the great hall and ran across the rushes. Anne braced herself for the embrace she knew would likely knock her rather indelicately onto her backside.

“By the saints, finally,” were the words that accompanied the clasp and kiss. “Anne, I vow I feared your sire would never let you from Fenwyck!”

Anne held on to her foster sister and sighed in relief. “To be sure, ‘twas nothing short of a miracle that I am here,” she agreed.

Amanda of Artane pulled back and rolled her eyes passionately. “What dotards did he have lined up for you to select from?” she demanded. “None worthy or you, I would imagine.”

“And that sort of imagination,” Geoffrey said from where he appeared suddenly behind Amanda, “was, and no doubt continues to be, your mother’s undoing. You might be well to curb the impulse in yourself.”

As Amanda turned to face him, Anne suppressed the urge to duck behind her, lest the inevitable argument come to include her. Amanda was painfully frank and had no sense of her own peril. Anne was torn between telling her to be silent, and urging her on. Perhaps Amanda could convince Geoffrey that Anne was of no mind to wed as yet–especially to any man of his choosing.

“My lord Fenwyck,” Amanda said, inclining her head, “’tis a pleasure to see you, as always.”

“You’ve your mother’s beauty,” Geoffrey grumbled. “Unfortunately, you’ve her loose tongue as well.”

“Gifts, the both of them,” Amanda conceded. “Now, about these suitors…”

“I have chosen several fine men–”

“Likely twice her age–”

“You know nothing of it,” Geoffrey returned sharply. “And you, mistress, are well past the age when any sensible man would have taken you and tamed you.”

“As if any man could–”

Anne waited for blows to ensue, but she was spared the sight by Rhys stepping between his daughter and Anne’s father.

“Enough,” he said sternly. “Amanda, see Anne to the fire. Fenwyck, come with me. You’ve had a long journey and I’ve warm drink in my solar. You can take your ease there.”

“He could better take his ease at Fenwyck,” Amanda muttered.

Anne bit her lip to stifle her smile as she watched Rhys lead her father off, but she couldn’t stop her small laugh when Amanda turned and scowled at her.

“Oh, Amanda,” she said with a gasp, “one day you will say too much and find yourself in deep waters indeed.”

Amanda flicked away her words as she would have an annoying fly. “Did you but know all the things I think but do not say, you would find me to be restrained indeed. Now, come and sit by the fire. You’ll tell me all your sorry tales and I’ll weep with you. Then Mother will come, we’ll tell them to her again and she’ll speak to your sire. You know she can convince him he’s a fool.”

Anne suspected that such a thing was even beyond the lady Gwennelyn’s powers, but a maid could still hope. At the moment, though, she sorely needed warmth and to sit, so she leaned on her companion, hobbled over to the fire and sat with deep gratitude on something that didn’t move.

As Amanda had ordered, Anne’s tale was first told for her ears alone, then others joined to hear the horrors she had endured. The murmurs of displeasure, the cries of outrage and the threats directed at her father were sweet to her ears and she found herself smiling for the first time in weeks.

She was with those dearest to her and, for the moment, she was free from undesirable suitors. The morrow would see to itself. After all, she had been released from her father’s hall and that was something she had been certain would only happen should she find herself leaving it thanks to an unwanted husband. Yet there she was, sitting comfortably by the fire in the company of those souls dearest to her heart.

It was as sweet as she’d known it would be.

* * *

The evening passed uneventfully, with the family having moved to gather about the fire in Rhys’s solar as was oft their custom. Anne went with them and counted that a privilege indeed. Though others fostered at Artane, Anne found herself the only one of those so drawn into Artane’s intimate family circle. That was just another of the reasons Baldwin of Sedgwick loathed her, of that she was certain. He was Rhys’s kin, yet he remained without the solar door. Baldwin was, however, not the soul that took it the hardest. His sister, Edith, also had come to live at Artane and Anne suspected that such denial into the lord’s confines and pleasures ate at her the most deeply.

But for now Anne need worry neither about Baldwin nor his sister, nor anyone else for that matter. She was home, for the moment, and that was enough. She sat in a chair next to Amanda and looked about her in pleasure.

Her foster parents sat close together, hands clasped, seemingly as content as they had been the first time Anne had seen them together. Their happiness was plain to the eye, as was their pride in their children. And why not? Between those they had laid claim to through adoption and those of their own flesh, they had a brood to be envied.

Anne looked at their eldest girl child, Amanda, and felt her customary flash of envy. But by now, it was a gentle sort of yearning that somehow she herself might have been born with the beauty Amanda possessed. And it wasn’t only Amanda’s beauty that Anne couldn’t help but wish for herself; Amanda had a fire and spirit that Anne knew few women could hope to call their own. But long years of watching her foster sister had shown Anne that such spirit did not come without a price–namely Amanda’s rather vigorous disagreements with Rhys about how her life should progress. It was not an easy path Amanda trod, but Anne loved her just the same and was grateful for her friendship.

Miles was next to Amanda not only in terms of age, but where he sat. He looked very much like his sire, which meant he was powerfully handsome indeed. Where they differed, though, was that where Rhys was generally cheery in his outlook, Miles was brooding. Anne, however, found Miles very much to her liking for though his moods might have been gloomy, his wit was fine. She was happy he was home now that he’d won his spurs. She suspected he wouldn’t remain long, but she would enjoy him while she could.

Mile’s younger sister, Isabelle, was Amanda’s likeness in visage, but not in temperament. She was very sweet and as tractable as could be expected from having passed all her time in Amanda’s company.

The youngest children were twins, male-children. Fortunately for the rest of Rhys and Gwen’s children they had come last, else Anne suspected none of the other children would have been conceived. Their mischief was nothing short of breathtaking and she suspected that they had given Rhys most of the gray in his hair.

But even with the children there, the scene before her was incomplete. Missing were Artane’s two eldest sons, but that was nothing unusual. Robin and Nicholas had squired at another keep, then come home briefly after earning their spurs at the tender age of ten-and-nine. Then had come the decision to join the crusade. Nicholas had never truly wished to, but Robin had convinced him ‘twas their duty. The time spent had been fruitless as they had arrived just in time to find the defeated knights returning home. Robin’s exact reasons for having wished to go were still a mystery. All Anne knew was that she hadn’t seen Artane’s heir in over five years.

Though that could change at any time. Anne knew Rhys had sent for his son three months earlier. The saints only knew what was keeping him away. Anne had heard the servants speculating that afternoon about the like; the reasons bandied about were everything from him being prisoner in some angry father’s dungeon–for having despoiled his daughter, no less–to his having traveled to the Holy Land to collect himself a harem. Anne cared for none of the speculation, so she had quickly retreated from the kitchens.

All she knew was she probably wouldn’t have one last sight of Robin before her father sold her to some man likely twice her age who cared nothing for her.

Anne shifted as her leg began to pain her. At least there no one gaped at her as she did the like. At Fenwyck, sharp eyes marked her slight limp, men stared at her, as if they couldn’t believe her ugliness was so apparent, her father’s wife and her daughter treated her as if she were helpless, far too helpless to do anything but sit in the solar and sew. Coming to Artane was a relief, even though it meant coming back to the site of former disgraces and back to stones that whispered childish taunts as she passed. She could ignore those well enough, especially if she managed to avoid Baldwin of Sedgwick. What was more difficult was not being able to go anywhere inside the walls without knowing that Robin had been there before her. His ghost haunted her, awake or dreaming.

She wanted it to stop.

Or did she?

At present, she wasn’t sure what would be worse. But what she did know was that even if she were forced to spend the rest of her days with memories of Robin tormenting her, it would be a more tolerable fate than to find herself packed off with her trunks to some unknown lord.

But that would come later. For now it was enough to be home and to listen to the familiar sounds of the family with whom she had grown to womanhood. Far better to think on what was happening around her than to speculate on what might be happening in France. The saints only knew what mischief Robin was combining at present. It likely entailed some woman or another and the sounds that would result from that were ones Anne had no desire to hear.

She opened her eyes to find her father staring at her. He pursed his lips and shook his head meaningfully. Anne had no trouble understanding the unspoken message.

o not accustom yourself to this, my girl.

Anne felt Amanda’s hand on her arm. Her foster sister leaned over and whispered I her ear.

“I vow we’ll see him thwarted before a fortnight is out.”

Anne nodded, grateful for the distraction. She knew that not even Amanda could manage such a feat, but at least thinking on it allowed her to turn her thoughts away from Robin.

But she hoped in whatever bed he found himself at present, he loitered with several handfuls of happy, persistent bedbugs who would cause him to cry out with anything but pleasure.