Scotland, the Borderlands, circa 1475
She was walking while reading again.
Roland Demhain wiped his sweaty brow with a scrap of cloth and leaned his sword against a tree, taking a brief rest from training. Pulling out a strip of Cook’s dried beef, he chewed slowly as he watched Lady Belle de Berwick circle the moat surrounding the castle, one of the estate’s few books pressed against her nose as she strolled. Roland suppressed a smile and shook his head; it was a wonder the girl could read the words at all with the pages so close to her face.
“Come now, Roland,” said his sparring partner, David de Caoraich, nudging him with the point of his sword. “Stop focusing on your stomach. Or are you seeking an excuse to moon over the lass?”
Glowering, Roland shoved the last bite into his mouth and snapped his attention back to his work. He lunged, answering David’s parry with one of his own. “Belle is a child,” he growled as steel met steel. “I am not mooning.”
“Nay, of course you aren’t,” David said with a mocking bow.
“Save your breath for your swordplay, princeling,” Roland said through gritted teeth, advancing on David. “En garde!”
Roland had David cornered in a copse of trees within a few clever moves. He was about to deliver the fatal blow when a high-pitched cry rent the air, followed by a splash.
Roland whipped his head in the direction of the sound. While his attention was divided, David took a swipe at his knees, causing him to trip and sprawl on his arse. His fellow knight laughed heartily, ribbing him for his clumsiness, but Roland ignored his jests and scrambled to his feet.
Where was the Lady Belle?
Roland raced to the shore of the moat, scanning the perimeter. Ripples tumbled upon the surface of the water, but Belle had disappeared from sight. Saints! The girl must have tumbled into the moat.
“What’s happened?” David called out, his face grim as he rushed toward him.
“Belle’s fallen in,” he clipped out.
Dropping his sword, Roland scanned the surface of the water for bubbles, waiting for her to emerge. Nothing. He dove into the murky, frigid waters. In those heavy skirts, she would sink like a stone. Mercifully, he located her right away; the hem of her dress was caught on one of the jagged rocks that jutted up from the moat’s craggy bottom. Wasting no time, Roland tore the material, then hoisted Belle out of the water and tugged her onto the grassy bank.
His breath came in gasps as he hovered over her unconscious body. With two fingers, he drew her pale lips open and blew into her mouth to stimulate her breathing. It seemed an eternity before she choked and spit a mouthful of swampy water into his face.
“Are you hurt?” he asked, dripping onto her stunned visage. He ran his hands briskly up and down her arms to warm her as she shivered. A wound near her temple oozed with blood and he touched the cut with gentle fingers.
“My book,” she moaned on a panicked gasp, rushing to sit up. “Did it fall in the moat? Is it all right?”
“Lady,” he said, pressing her back down to the ground, “be at ease. There is a gash on your head, you nearly drowned, and all you care for is the state of your book?”
David laughed, the sound gentle and relieved. “I can see you’re both well enough if the conversation has already shifted to reading material. I’ll go see about blankets, bandages, and dry clothing.”
Roland nodded his thanks to David as his friend hastened to the castle, and returned his attention to Belle. Her lower lip began to tremble and her earnest blue eyes widened. “I borrowed that book from your papa’s solar,” she whispered.
“So you found the one book in our entire castle?” he teased. “Perhaps the only one in all of Scotland.” That coaxed a small smile out of her. Satisfied that she was all right, Roland rocked back on his heels, pulling her up to a seated position. “Aye,” he said, locating her book a few feet behind them in the dirt. “Your treasure is safe.”
“Thank you for saving my life, Roland,” she said, still clinging to the front of his drenched tunic as they sat on the ground. “Oh dear,” she said, releasing the fistful of soggy material. “I’m afraid you’re quite rumpled now.” Belle bit her lower lip, and then erupted into giggles.
“Indeed,” he said, grinning at her laughter.
She clapped her hand over her mouth to stifle the sound. Soaked to the skin with her chestnut ringlets plastered against her forehead, she was utterly enchanting—a bonny little urchin. But beneath the innocent, girlish exterior he spied a glimpse of the beautiful woman she would become.
He tore his eyes away from hers to glance down at his chest, then at her slender white legs, now bared to mid-thigh. He gulped and reddened, relieved when one of the lady’s maids scurried forward with a thick woolen blanket. Although he had known Belle since she was a babe-in-arms and he a lad of fourteen, it was improper for him to see a lady—any lady—in a state of undress. He wrapped the blanket around her quivering limbs and stood, offering his hand to help her stand up.
“I think, to commemorate this occasion, I shall call you Rumple from this day forward,” she declared, placing her small, damp fingers in his. She rose on trembling legs, and then staggered under the weight of her waterlogged skirts. He grabbed her around the waist, keeping her from taking a nosedive back into the marshy grass.
“Rumple?” he repeated, turning the strange nickname over on his tongue. It seemed to suit him, though he had no idea why. He bent down to retrieve her book. “The Goblin Prince, eh?”
“Oh, it’s the most wonderful, tragic story.” Belle clasped her hands and her eyes took on a dreamy haze. “A sorcerer transforms a prince into a goblin and each night he walks upon his castle’s battlements, wailing for his True Love. Only when the prince and his lover share honesty of the heart will the spell be broken.”
“Sounds like a riveting tale, Lady Bookworm,” he said, tapping her nose.
Belle’s hands flew to her hips as she opened her mouth to reply to his teasing, but she was interrupted by the sound of an excited voice.
“Roland!” Laird Malcolm Demhain’s light feet seemed to float along the ground as he hurried in their direction. “Lad, where are you?”
“My father,” he murmured to Belle, hiding the book behind his back as his father pranced and danced his way to where they stood.
At his side, she nodded stiffly, her back ramrod straight.
Roland could hardly blame the lass for her reaction. Rarely were interactions with his papa pleasant.
Possessing the attitude and mannerisms of a spoiled child, his sire was a selfish, pleasure-seeking ruler. It was a complete mystery that Demhain and Belle’s father were friends at all. He rather suspected that Maurice de Berwick tolerated his Scottish counterpart as a concession to their border kingdoms, the alliance key to ensuring peace between Scotland and England.
Demhain was a greedy, manipulative bastard, but he was far from stupid.
“There you are. And the Lady Belle is with you. Splendid! I need to speak to both of you.” Demhain said, the triumphant gleam in his eyes hardening. He looked them up and down, assessing their soaked forms, and frowned. “Assuming you’ve finished playing in the water?”
“It was my fault, my lord,” Belle said, eyes downcast. “Please forgive my clumsiness. I fell in the moat, but Roland rescued me.” She did her best to curtsy with the heavy blanket draped over her sodden gown.
“So gallant,” Demhain said, his disdainful sniff illuminating his opinion of chivalry. The elder Demhain waved Belle’s apology away and clapped his hands twice with childish glee. “Now for my news.”
Roland sent a nervous glance in Belle’s direction. His restless father was forever concocting harebrained schemes to add gold to their collection and land to their kingdom. His heart began to race, wondering what machinations his father could have in mind that involved both he and Belle. “Sir?”
“Lady Belle is now your betrothed,” his father announced with a satisfied smile. “Lord de Berwick and I have come to an understanding and all is arranged. Belle brings a handsome dowry and will keep our coffers filled for many years. What do you think about that?”
Seven Years Later
Roland guided his horse, Copernicus, back to the stables, his breath labored after an exhilarating morning ride across the lowlands. He’d hoped that greeting the dawn on the gelding’s back would clear his head, help him forget. Tomorrow, Belle and her family would arrive to finalize plans for their wedding. The ceremony was meant to be a fortnight from today. To Roland’s mind, marriage should be a joyful occasion, but his heart was heavy.
Was there anything worse than being pledged to marry a woman who dreaded her wedding day?
Roland brushed Copernicus’s mane, each stroke of the brush punctuated by a memory of his father’s reminders of why Berwick’s only daughter was an excellent match for him. Handsome dowry. Plentiful property. A foothold into England.
Money and power were all that his father, God rest his wicked soul, had cared about. Kingdoms stood or fell on the principle of might over right, and alliances of survival and convenience were the way of things.
Love was a frivolity few could afford, true, but Denhaim’s coffers were plentiful. Their people were healthy and well, and Roland was content with his wee bit of sand by the sea.
Besides, what about Belle’s feelings? Her desires, her interests, her choices? She had spoken of traveling the world—of visiting Europe, the Far East, and the Highlands—ever since she was a little girl. Now, with his father dead and buried, the care of the kingdom rested on Roland’s shoulders. He had little time to squire his would-be bride to exotic destinations.
Not that she wanted to travel with the likes of him, anyway.
Flushing with embarrassment, Roland recalled the day seven years ago that his father had announced their engagement. Still dripping from her foray into the moat, little Belle had drawn herself up to her full height, stomped her foot in the mud, and informed his sire that marriage was out of the question. “No one decides my fate but me,” she had declared, her eyes as fierce as the waves that crashed against the outer wall of the castle citadel. “I will never marry—not Roland nor any man.”
Mortified by her abject refusal, he had begged his father and Belle’s to reconsider. Though they refused to void the marriage contract, they did make two concessions. The first, that the marriage would not take place until after Malcolm Demhain’s death; the second, that Belle’s dowry would be immediately available to their kingdom. Later that evening, after conferencing with her parents for several hours, Belle emerged from her chambers pinched and white-faced. She offered a stiff apology to his sire and said she would agree to the marriage.
Roland hadn’t spoken of the betrothal to Belle since that trying day, and he’d tried to forget the sting of her refusal. Through the years leading up to his father’s death, they’d fallen into a casual friendship, keeping conversation to safe topics—food, foreign lands, the weather—but the marriage contract was a subject they’d carefully avoided.
In those seven years, Roland had watched Belle grow up, transforming from a precocious child into an intelligent, stunning woman. His betrothed possessed a quick wit and an even quicker tongue. She was literate—an accomplishment unheard of among women of the peerage. She could ride. She could shoot. No doubt she could run a household with a precision and grace that rivaled noblewomen twice her age.
And each day he spent in her company, he’d fallen a bit more in love with her indomitable spirit and keen mind.
Roland knew Belle thought well of him, liked him even. Mayhap she felt indebted to him for saving her from drowning. The logical part of his brain knew her refusal of his suit wasn’t personal. Yet his heart ached with sadness. She didn’t love him, and that painful truth kept him awake many a night, pacing the castle’s battlements when he should have been abed.
He patted Copernicus’s nose and shined an apple on his overtunic, taking a bite before offering it to his companion. Why couldn’t women be as simple as horses and men?
“Woolgathering, my lord?” someone asked from behind him.
Roland gulped. He knew that voice as well as his own. Belle was here. Today. Now.
The sneaky bit of baggage had caught him unaware. He wanted to panic, to flee to his private chambers and hide. But that wasn’t an option. A knight didn’t turn tail and run away from confrontation.
Pasting a pleasant smile on his face, Roland whirled around to greet her. “Lady Belle! You are a welcome sight. We didn’t expect you and your parents until tomorrow. How is it you’ve arrived already?” He grasped her hand and feathered a kiss against the backs of her fingers.
The first sight of her nearly knocked him to the ground. Belle was stunning in a deep green riding gown that draped pleasingly over her curves. Framed with dark, thick lashes, her wide blue eyes sparkled with some emotion he could not define, and for a moment he forgot how to breathe.
“Hello, Rumple. I rode ahead,” she said with a smile, then whistled for her mare, Phyllis. The obedient beast trotted into the stable and Belle led her into the stall next to Copernicus. “Do you have any more of those apples?”
“What do you mean, you rode ahead?” he asked, his protective instincts flaring to life. Roland tossed her a piece of fruit. With great effort, he crossed his arms over his chest to keep from reaching for her. She was maddening! After less than 60 seconds in her company, his desire to shake sense into her was already at war with his desire to hold her close. Instead he bit out, “You know the dangers of riding across the open plains without a guard, lady. You could have been beset by ruffians…or worse.”
She narrowed her eyes. “I’m a strong rider.”
“It isn’t you I doubt, Belle,” he said, leaning forward to tap her nose with his finger. “But there are enemies lurking in the woods around these lands who would use you as a pawn to demand a ransom. If something happened, your parents would be frantic with worry.”
“And you, Roland?” She peered at him through guileless blue eyes. “Would you be worried?”
“Aye, of course.” He cleared his throat, her beauty and nearness making him jumpy. She couldn’t mean she wanted him to worry? “Did you at least stop at the monastery en route to my castle to terrorize the holy men?” he teased, trying to lighten the charged atmosphere. “I’m surprised that didn’t delay you for at least a pair of days. More illuminated manuscripts!” he said with a high-pitched chortle, then pulled a whip from a tack in the wall and struck the ground with a grin.
“Do not imitate me, Rumple, you do it ill,” Belle said with mock severity. “The monks prefer to transcribe religious texts, though I have wrangled the occasional story out of them. I do love books.” Her eyes danced and a dimpled grin lit her features.
“An understatement, lady,” he said, and his heart hammered in his chest as she giggled.
He did so love to hear Belle laugh.
“Papa and Mama began making preparations to leave as soon as we heard the news, but I did not want to delay seeing you, my friend.” She laid a hand on his arm. “I am sorry about your loss, Rumple. Despite the strife between you, he was still your papa.”
It seemed she was determined to be serious today. That and she was touching him. Touching him and calling him her friend. His heart felt soft and squishy, like a wet sponge. He cast about, searching for an appropriate response to her condolences.
“My father was a conniving, selfish bastard,” he said bitterly. But those were only words, words to cover up the gnawing ache of never being enough for Malcolm Demhain, or for anyone, really. Belle was right. Even with their complicated relationship, losing his father had shaken and saddened him.
“Laird Demhain was rather…opportunistic,” she said, nodding.
“A kind descriptor,” Roland said with a smirk.
“But then, I suppose you are Laird Demhain now,” she said brightly, reminding him of his duty.
“Aye.” He swallowed past the lump in his throat. The kingdom. The castle. The army. The serfs. All were his to command and care for. Not to mention his most important duty—seeing to the happiness of his future wife. Assuming she hadn’t accosted him in his stables to call off the wedding.
But he wanted so much more than duty and to fulfill a bargain between their sires. He wanted love. Love with a woman who loved him in return.
“Do you remember the day we became betrothed?” Belle asked, glancing at him from beneath lowered lashes as she stroked her mare’s nose.
He froze as an image of Belle stroking him with the same devotion she showed to her horse sprang unbidden to his brain. But she had asked about the betrothal. He tugged at his ear, wondering if he’d heard right. He and Belle not spoken of their marriage since the day their fathers had signed the contract.
“How could I forget?” He winced, reluctant to remind her of her loud and insistent pledge to never marry him. “You were such a brave lass. Making off with my sire’s book. Reading it and asking provocative questions, while he blustered and boasted like a child, pretending to have read it.”
“That was the day you saved my life,” she said. “After I stupidly tripped and fell into the moat.”
“You were only a child,” he said, leaning against the stable wall. “It wasn’t your fault.”
“I’m not a child anymore, Roland,” she said, lifting her chin.
“Nay,” he agreed, trying to stop his knees from knocking together. This was it. This was the moment she backed out of the marriage. It was her right to buy her way out of the betrothal agreement if she wished. He curled his palms into fists, bracing himself for the crushing blow to his ego, the bad news he’d been expecting every time he’d seen her in the past seven years.
Had he enough courage, he’d have ended the betrothal himself. Yet it was more than cowardice and a contract that kept him from giving her an out.
He loved her.
He just had a terrible, gut-twisting sensation that she didn’t feel the same.
Belle’s shoulders were slumped as she walked to the beach, the thick and salty sea air burning her nostrils. Settling down by a crop of rocks, she sank into the sand and pulled a book from her satchel. She ran her fingers over the etched cover of The Goblin Prince, the title she’d stolen from Rumple’s papa years earlier on the day she had fallen in the moat. Despite her terrible behavior, Rumple had let her keep it, saying the inhabitants of the castle would never miss it.
She’d grown to cherish that volume, partly because she loved the story, but mostly because she had grown to care for the man who had given it to her.
Belle, you imbecile.
Today had been another in a long line of graceless, failed attempts to tell Roland how she felt. That she was happy to be marrying him. That she loved him. Not as a friend, but as a woman loves a man.
She’d tried to bring up the betrothal, to find a way to pick through layers and years of conversations and apologize for being a bratty thirteen-year-old who’d humiliated him in front of her parents and his father by refusing a suit that hadn’t even been his idea.
The moment she’d seen him in the stables today, his shoulder-length hair wild from being whipped by the sea winds, her mouth had gone dry.
Though he was a battle-hardened warrior, strong in every way that mattered, he was only a hand taller than she was. She could gaze into those warm, intelligent chocolate eyes without craning her neck. She could step into his embrace and tuck her head under his chin; press her nose against his throat to inhale his spicy scent of sandalwood and clove. She could leap into his arms and smother his cheeks and aquiline nose with kisses.
But she hadn’t done any of those things.
Always the perfect gentleman, the chivalrous knight, the gracious lord, Roland was nothing if not polite and she enjoyed his good-natured teasing. Her future husband’s intelligence, dry humor, mastery of weapons, and appreciation for the arts were sterling qualities that Belle loved and respected. But she wanted more. She wanted his passion, his desire, to be the one person on earth who could make him come undone. But he was so obviously not attracted to her, and the fact made her want to weep.
When she could no longer bear his disinterested benevolence, she’d left the stables, making some ladylike excuse about needing to rest after her long journey. Instead, she’d headed here to the beach to sulk in private.
Settled on her favorite blanket, she opened her book, but her thoughts were consumed with Roland and the words on the page were blurry and nonsensical.
“I thought I might find ya here,” said a familiar voice.
“Will Scarlet!” Belle flung her book into the air and put a hand to her chest. “You scared ten years off my life. What in God’s teeth are you doing here?”
Wearing a hopeful grin, the knight fell to one knee and dangled a daisy in front of her face, but his smile faded when she turned toward him.
“I followed you,” he said, placing the flower in her lap when she didn’t take it. Stubbornness hardened his jaw. “It’s my duty to see to your safety.”
Belle sighed. Will was nice enough. A good warrior and a kind man. And as captain of her father’s guard, he took his responsibility of seeing to her safety seriously. Too seriously.
If Will had proposed marriage to Belle once, he had proposed half a dozen times. And on each occasion she reminded him that she was happily betrothed.
“I’m quite safe here with Laird Demhain, I assure you,” she said, laying the flower aside. She dusted the sand off her lap and rose to her feet.
Will made a show of scanning the shoreline for Roland. “Aye? Where is he, then?”
“I came to the beach for some air.” She looked at him pointedly. “Alone.”
“Belle, I don’t understand why you’re marrying him.” Will nodded toward the castle.
“Besides the fact that it’s completely improper for you to be here when no one else is about, Sir William, that comment is impertinent,” she snapped.
“Forgive me, Lady Belle,” Will said, staring at the ground. “I mean you no disrespect. And I hold you in the highest esteem and seek only your happiness.”
“I know that,” Belle said softening. “Your concern is appreciated, but it’s unwarranted. I am marrying for love.”
At least that much was true. She did love Roland. She simply needed to summon the courage to tell him.
Ronald fisted his hands at his sides, reeling from the exchange between his soon-to-be-wife and the young, handsome knight who’d fallen to his knees before her. He rubbed his own aging knees and scowled. Though he’d been too far away to hear their conversation, the situation was quite clear. The bastard was smitten with his Belle, and she didn’t appear averse to his attentions. Will Scarlet was a fine example of courtly love, and a better match for his lady in many ways. He was young and virile; he was trusted by Belle’s sire; and best, of all, he didn’t have the responsibility of running a keep, freeing him to escort Belle to all the exotic places she’d always wanted to go. Jealousy burned in his gut, yet the eyeful of mutual pining he’d received was what he deserved for spying.
Roland cracked his knuckles and stomped away from the beach, heading back toward the lists by way of the kitchens. Exercise was what he needed. Someone he could pummel while pretending it was the dashing, earnest, eager-to-please whelp Will Scarlet.
Where the hell was David, anyway?