Excerpt: To Kiss in the Shadows

Excerpt: To Kiss in the Shadows

The de Piaget Family

Chapter One

‘Tis said that in a woman’s solar the course of wars and the fate of countries is decided.

‘Tis also said that therein is determined the fate of men and the manner of their course to a woman’s bed.

Lianna of Grasleigh suspected that a woman had said the former and a man the latter, for ‘twas a certainty that no man she knew would have accorded a woman the cleverness to determine the destiny of his realm. But if any man had heard the plotting and scheming going on behind her, he would have perhaps thought differently. At the very least, he would have quivered in fear for the fate of his own poor soul.

“Bind him,” suggested the first of the other women in the solar.

“Nay, lure him,” said the second.

“Help him slip into his cups, lure him, and then bind him,” said a third. Then she gulped in surprise, as if that thought were too bold a one to voice.

Lianna let the peat smoke, perfumed oils, and stratagem flow over her. She had no stomach for joining in the talk–not that the ladies behind her would have allowed it. A member of court though she might be by command of the king, she was not accepted by that court. It had troubled her at first, that shunning, but she had grown accustomed to it. Besides, ‘twas better that she keep to the work under her hands. Let the tapestry of the court be woven without her single thread running through it. She had her own pattern to see to.

She tilted her frame to catch the final shaft of sunlight that bravely entered the chamber despite the daunting thickness of the walls. To have fully succeeded in seeing her work, she would have had to run her face to the women behind her, but that she could not do. Instead, she was with her back to the chamber and made do with less light than was needful.

Much as she did in her life.

“Lie in wait for him,” said the first. “In the passageway, where he must speak as he passes.”

“Lie in wait in his bed,” corrected the second with a lusty laugh, “and then see if he can pass on such an invitation.”

“I would lie anywhere,” said the third breathlessly. “Mayhap he would tread upon me.”

“He will not be trapped by such simple ploys,” said a fourth voice in a tone that cut though the speculation like a sword through living flesh.

Silence descended, silence broken only by Lianna’s needle as it pierced the cloth again and again. She was powerfully tempted to look over her shoulder and see the looks the other women–save the one who had spoken in the end, of course–were wearing fixed to their no-doubt quite pale visages. But drawing their attention would only draw the attention of their sharp tongues as well, so she forbore. Perhaps listening to what she was certain would be a severe rebuke would be amusement enough for the afternoon.

“Kendrick of Artane will not be trapped by foolish gels who have no head for strategies,” Maud of Harrow said, and she said it so decidedly that only a fool would have dared argue with her. “He is cunning and shrewd. To catch him, one must be his equal in stealth.”

“But,” said the woman who had spoken first, sounding rather hesitant, “would he not find it unpleasing to have a woman as full of wit as he?”

Lianna stitched contentedly. Adela was certainly lacking in wit, so that would not be a problem for her.

“I still say it matters not what wits you have, if you have enough of them to find yourself betwixt his sheets,” said Janet, Adela’s sister, whose most heartfelt desire seemed to be to find herself betwixt sheets–anyone’s sheets–as often as possible.

“I agree,” said the third timidly. She was Linet of Byford, and of the women behind her, the least vicious, to Lianna’s mind. At least Linet flinched when Maud’s tongue began to cut. “Surely,” Linet continued, “his preference is a woman warm and willing in his bed.”

“Many women have tried,” said Maud, “but he refuses them all. Nay, the way to have him must come from a more subtle attack.”

And how would Maud know? Lianna wondered. Perhaps she had given the matter much thought in an effort to find a diversion from her own terrible straits. And why not, given the life she had? The woman was wed to a man with a tongue so cruel few could bear him. Lianna shuddered. Had she been wed to such a man, she soon would have been reduced to cowering in the corner, of that she was certain.

Maud never cowered, not even before her lord. Then again, her tongue was as sharp as his. Lianna knew this because she’d listened to Maud use that weapon on her vile husband more than once. And, of course, she’d felt the bite of it herself–which was part of the reason she placed herself with her back to the chamber. There was little to be gained by giving Maud or her companions a constant view of her ruined visage. Maud tormented her enough while facing naught but her back.

But none of that explained how Maud knew so much about Kendrick of Artane’s habits. Had she tried to have him in the past and failed? Did she intend to try again now? She was at Henry’s court whilst her husband was off on an errand for the king of France. Mayhap she considered this a perfect time to trot out a new strategy.

“We might have more success with his brother,” Linet offered timidly. “The one still free. The youngest.”

The numerous swift intakes of breath were startling. Then there was absolute silence for the space of several heartbeats.

“Jason of Artane?” Maud asked. Her voice could have been full of what another might have termed fear.

Lianna was so surprised, she ventured a look over her shoulder. To her astonishment, Maud looked as frightened as the rest of the women.

“He isn’t of Artane,” Linet said. “Well, he was. But now he is of Blackmour.”

And the women, as one, crossed themselves.

Lianna wondered if she might have passed too much time during her youth with her face pressed against linen to judge its usefulness for her stitching purposes. Obviously, she had missed several delicious rumors.

“The Dragon of Blackmour’s squire,” Adela agreed.

“You’re a fool, sister. Jason de Piaget is the Dragon’s former squire,” Janet corrected. “He’s his own man now. And likely as full of evil habits as the old worm himself.”

“I hear he’s handsome,” Linet ventured.

“He was trained by Blackmour, who we know is a warlock,” Maud said crisply. “No doubt Lord Jason, as fair of face as he might be, mastered many dark arts at his master’s hand. Would you sell your frivolous souls to such a man in return for his deadly kisses?”

There was a bit of low murmuring, as if the other women considered it. Lianna was spared further speculation by the abrupt bursting open of the door.

“He’s here!” a body announced breathlessly.

“Jason?” Linet asked with a gasp, sounding so terrified that Lianna could only assume she had reflected a bit more on Maud’s words.

“Nay, Kendrick,” the third voice from the door said. “He’s here!”

“Have you seen him?” Maud demanded.

“Nay, but I heard tell–”

Apparently, that was enough for the women, even Maud, though Lianna wondered what Maud’s husband would say when he returned from his journeys and found out his wife was pursuing one of the most sought-after knights in the realm. For herself, Lianna was unsurprised by Maud’s actions. She had ceased to be appalled by wedded women hunting desirable, unwedded men, even though in her home such a thing would have been unthinkable. Her parents had been devoted to each other. The thought of her mother having looked at a man other than her father never would have occurred to Lianna.

Of course, that was before, before her family had been slain, before she had been fetched by the king’s courtiers and brought to court, where she had seen many thing she never would have believed possible. ‘Twas little wonder she passed most of her waking hours in the queen’s least-used solar, hiding from the intrigues and horrors of court, and trying desperately with needle and thread to recapture some of the beauty she’d lost.

The door banged shut, and the excited shrieks of the women faded. Silence descended swiftly, leaving Lianna with nothing to face but her own thoughts. She looked over at the window and marked with dismay the waning of the daylight. Dusk meant she would have to descend to the great hall and take her place at the king’s table. How she loathed evenings! A pity she couldn’t hide herself in some darkened corner of the hall. Nay, her place was determined by the vastness of her father’s holdings.

She often wondered why Henry hadn’t kept those lands for his own, but perhaps he had enough to fret over without them. Far better to sell her and her soil to a man who could manage both of them. The king had need enough of allies, and she, after six months at court, had few illusions about what her fate would be. Her only surprise was that she hadn’t met that fate yet. Surely her freedom wouldn’t last much longer. Even she was old enough, and wise enough, at a score to understand that.

But even though her holdings and her station guaranteed her place at supper, they didn’t guarantee her freedom from stares and smirks.

Would that they could.

The door behind her opened softly. She sighed but didn’t turn her head. That was something else she’d learned at Henry’s court: to hide her face. Tongues were cruel and never more so than when gazing on her poor visage. Better a knife in her back than words to pierce her soul.

There was a substantial pause, then a soft footfall that came her way. Lianna ducked her head. A long form settled across from her on one of the stone benches set into the wall. Lianna glanced up long enough to see that it was a man, but not dressed in the trapping of a lord. Given his clothing, he was nothing more than a squire, and a poor one at that. She had nothing to fear from such a man. She could dismiss him easily.

She bent her head to her stitchery. “You shouldn’t be here,” she said firmly.

“Aye, there’s a goodly bit of truth in that,” he said with feeling. “The saints preserve me from the intrigues of a woman’s solar.”

Given that such had been her thought as well, she risked a look at the man facing her. And the beauty of his visage, even cast as it was in the last rays of sunlight, was enough to make her catch her breath.

His breath caught as well, and a small sound of dismay escaped him. But that brief flash of pity was gone so quickly, she almost wondered if she’d imagined it. He smiled a smile that would have felled her instantly had she not been so firmly seated on her chair.

“The pox,” he noted. “I had it, too. I’ll show you my scars, if you like.”

She blinked at him.

“They aren’t on my sweet visage, as you can see.”

She made a strangled noise of denial, hoping fervently that the man wouldn’t feel the need to strip down to his altogether to ensure her comfort.

His smile turned into a mischievous grin that had her smiling in return–regardless of any desire she might have had to do otherwise.

“Your maidenly eyes are safe,” he promised with a wink. He stretched out his long legs. “Who are you?” he asked. “And where are your fellows?”

“Lianna of Grasleigh,” she answered promptly, then realized that perhaps giving an unknown man her name wasn’t wise. “And the ladies are coming back immediately,” she added hastily.

“Off hunting, are they?” he asked.


“Aye,” he said easily. “I know their kind. Always after some poor fool or other.”

“The poor fool for the afternoon is Kendrick of Artane,” she said with a scowl. “The handsome, wealthy, apparently infinitely desirable Kendrick of Artane.”

“You seem to know much of him.”

“I’ve been forced to listen to a listing of his virtues for the past se’nnight.”

“But surely you must believe the reports,” he said.

“How could one man be so perfect?” she asked. “I daresay the tales are magnified far beyond the truth.” She listened to herself and was surprised to find that her courage was magnified far beyond its usual bounds. Speaking so freely to anyone not of her family wasn’t her habit. Perhaps her tongue had reached its limit in patience.

“And what are those tales?” he asked, looking quite interested. “I’ve always a ready ear for ladies’ gossip.”

Lianna jabbed her needle into the cloth with vigor. Why not? If he had nothing better to do than listen, she had little better to do than talk. Besides, he wasn’t laughing at her, nor was he insulting her. For that alone he deserved to be indulged. Perhaps he, too, sought only a respite before the torture of supper.

She let her needle fall and watched as the thread untwisted. “They say,” she said, picking the needle back up, “that he has a visage to rival an angel’s and a smile to set an abbess swooning into his arms.”

“Sounds unlikely.”

“Aye,” she agreed. “Of course, that is but the beginning. They say he has seduced so many women to his bed that he’s lost count and skewered so many of their lords on his sword that the blade won’t surrender the bloodstains.”

“Poetic,” he said with a sigh. “Truly.”

“That he has bedded so many?” she asked sharply. “Or that he has slain so many?”

“The latter, surely, but the first is more interesting.”

“How so?”

He shrugged. “A man does what he must in matters of love.”

“Better that he had denied himself now and again.”

The man lifted one eyebrow. “The pleasures of a woman’s bed? Think you?”

“If he has no control over his passions before he weds, how will he have any after he weds? Should he manage to distract some daft wench long enough to drag her before a priest, that is.”

The man laughed. “You’ve given his bride much thought, I see.”

“Aye, poor girl.” She pursed her lips. “Surely she would expect more from him than so many indiscretions.”

The man looked at her thoughtfully for a moment or two, then shrugged. “For all you know, tales of his prowess are false.”

“Are they?” she asked skeptically.

“Tell me the tales, then let me judge. There are more reports of his antics, aren’t there?” he asked hopefully.

“Aye. Enough to nauseate you for days.”

“Tell on, then. I can hardly wait to hear them.”

Who was she to deny this poor fool his little pleasures? She picked out the last handful of stitches she’d put in awry, then carried on with the gossip she’d heard over the past handful of days.

“’Tis said,” she continued, “that he consorts with all manner of odd folk, from faeries to warlocks. He has unholy skill with his blade. He escapes from impossible perils and emerges from all battles unscathed.”

The man laughed. “By the saints, what a fanciful bit of fluff. Now, if bogles and ghosties are your fancy, rather you should concentrate on his younger brother. ‘Tis Jason who consorts with warlocks and other such horrors. I daresay Kendrick, poor lad, hasn’t the stomach for such things. Rather, he no doubt finds himself more comfortable in the pleasant and undemanding company of women.”

“Then he’d best not come here,” Lianna muttered, “for this collection of shrews is anything but undemanding.”

“Perhaps with luck he’ll avoid them,” he said. “And you, lady, are you able to avoid them?”

Lianna wove her needle into the cloth to hold it, then rubbed her eyes with a sigh. “If only I could–”

A sudden commotion at the door made the man spring to his feet and pull the hood of his cloak close around his face. Lianna looked over her shoulder to find Maud and her companions sweeping back into the chamber as if they’d been royalty. And royalty, Lianna knew, was what they most certainly were not. Indeed they were lower in station than her mother had been–making them lower in station than she herself was.

Yet another reason for them to hate her.

Maud looked at Lianna’s companion. “This is a woman’s solar, you fool. Who gave you permission to enter?”

“’Twas a mistake, my lady,” the man said, bobbing his head respectfully.

“Or did you invite him?”

Lianna realized Maud was glaring at her only because she felt the heat of the other woman’s gaze. Perhaps the gossips had it wrong. Jason of Artane might have consorted with witches and warlocks, but he was likely just a man and possessed no unearthly powers. Maud, however, seemed to be fair burning a hole in Lianna’s head with her gaze alone, which led Lianna to wonder about whom the woman really consorted with in the dead of night.

And by the time she’d thought that through, she found Maud’s clawlike grasp encircling her wrist. Maud hauled her to her feet.

“How one as ugly as you could entice a man, I don’t know,” Maud said harshly, “but you’ll not sully my solar with your whorish ways. This will teach you your place.”

Lianna watched as Maud’s other hand came toward her face. She’d never been struck in her life, and she could scarce believe it was going to happen to her now. The other thought that occurred to her was that this wasn’t Maud’s solar. It was the queen’s solar, but since the queen was not at the keep, the right of the place likely should have gone to the woman of highest rank.

Which, as it happened, was Lianna herself.

Maud’s hand continued toward her face. Lianna winced in anticipation of the blow.

A blow which never came.

Lianna opened her eyes, realizing just then that she’d closed them, only to find Maud’s hand caught in another larger and stronger grip.

“Do not,” commanded the man.

“And who are you to stop me?” Maud spat.

The man flipped his hood back with his other hand and smiled pleasantly.

“Kendrick of Artane!” squeaked Linet. “By the saints. Maud, ‘tis him!”

“Silence, you silly twit!” Maud hissed. “I know that.”

Lianna’s first act was to gape at him in astonishment. Then she latched onto the urge to slink back into a corner and hope that Kendrick would forget her and everything she’d said about him in the past quarter-hour. She pulled her other hand from Maud’s slackened grip and backed away, feeling her cheeks grow suddenly quite hot. By the saints, she had thoroughly insulted the man–and to his face, no less!

She was spared the humiliation of having to look at him, however, because he stepped in front of her and spoke to the other women.

“Perhaps I might escort you ladies to supper. I understand His Majesty plans to lay an uncommonly fine table tonight, and no doubt you’ll want to seek your places early.”

“But,” Maud protested, trying to step around him and finish what she’d started.

Indeed, Lianna saw her hand still twitching, as if it itched to slap her.

“There is nothing here that warrants your further attention, Lady Harrow. Aye, I recognized you from your sapphire-like eyes, didn’t you know? Tales of your beauty precede you wherever you go.”

Maud snorted in frustration, but Kendrick seemed not to notice.

“Let us be off,” he said. “I can see nothing here that either you or I need mark any further, can you?”

Lianna wondered if she should be stung by his words or expect them. But as he with one hand dragged the women from the chamber, he was with the other giving her a friendly wave behind his back.

She watched them leave. The solar door shut firmly behind them. The relief that flooded through her was enough to weaken her knees. She sank into her chair, grateful and not a little bemused. She had just thoroughly insulted the most eligible knight of the realm, yet he had accorded her the gesture of a conspirator. And he had also rid her of her banes–at least for the moment. A pity she could not find such a man to wed her, that she might be forever without such scourges.

The thought of Kendrick of Artane wedding with such a one as she sent renewed color to her cheeks. He was too brilliant a start in the firmament. Even had she possessed her beauty still, she could not have borne him as a husband. She wanted to be far removed from court, from pitiless tongues wagging at her, from being forced to attend a king who had no use for her except that she was connected to her land.

Ah, that a man might come and rescue her, free her from the king’s wardship, and take her home. A pity she could not find one who was even uglier than she, that he might be grateful to have her.

She looked at her stitchery, then ran her fingers over her work, over the dark threads that depicted the scene laced with shadows. At least in those shadows made of thread there was somewhere to hide. Perhaps that was all she dared hope for herself, a piece of shadow somewhere where she could hide and forget her ruined visage.

But if she hid in the shadow, how would any man find her?

She pushed her work aside, surprised at the foolishness of her thoughts. It mattered not whether she hid or stood in full sunlight; no man would ever want her. The poor fool who would eventually be forced to wed her would like think his nuptials the blackest day of his life.

She rose, turned toward the door, and put her shoulders back. Dinner called and ‘twould go worse for her if she were late, for then she would be noticed more.

She left the solar with her head down.