Excerpt: The Bride of Windermere
Book One: The Medieval Brides
Northumberland, England Late April, 1421
Damn the man! Damn that fool, Baron Somers!
Wolfram Gerhart Colston strode through the forest, toward the lake, away from his men. How could Somers possibly think hecould defy the king’s orders? Who in kingdom come did he think he was? The monarch had sent Wolf to fetch the man’s stepdaughter and fetch her he would! He was damned if he’d go back empty-handed, and there was little time to waste. It didn’t matter how hard Somers tried to withhold the girl, Wolf would get her to London.
The huge knight deftly sidestepped a fallen branch in the dark and continued on his route to the lake, hoping for a few moments of peace near the dark water. It was near midnight and he’d been unable to sleep, so annoyed was he with the recalcitrant baron, a mean and lazy drunkard. Edith, his lady wife, was just as bad with her cloying ways and batting eyes.
Wolf had to admit he was more than a little exasperated by the entire situation. What in God’s name could King Henry V possibly want with little Kathryn Somers? Henry had only recently returned from France with his bride, Catherine of Valois;Wolf could not understand what was so important about this one girl in Northumberland. What’s more, Wolf resented the fact that he had been the one sent to this remote county to collect the child.
Wasn’t Wolf known for his cold precision, his prowess in battle and his immunity to all the superfluous nonsense that went on at court? There were so many more important duties for Henry’s lieutenants, who had just recently returned to England, that Wolf resented having his talents wasted this way.
Wolf hoped this wasn’t one of Henry’s ridiculous practical jokes. On second thought, that was doubtful. Since inheriting his father s throne, Henry had become respectable and a whole hell of a lot more responsible than he’d been in his reckless youth. No… this was no joke.
The one and only consolation to this trip was that Wolf now traveled as the king’s emissary. Before delivering young Kathryn to London, Wolf intended to visit Windermere Castle and meet his cousin. Philip Colston, the current Earl of Windermere.And Wolf would make every effort to see that the fraudulent earl was unseated.
The knight was certain that Philip was responsible for the violent deaths of Wolf’s father, Earl Bartholomew Colston, and of his older brother, John. It was twenty years since they’d been killed. Twenty long years, and Wolf intended to travel to Windermere in order to unearth whatever evidence was necessary to expose Philip’s treachery.
The only complication to Wolf’s plan was Lady Kathryn. She was the reason why he’d been unable to travel to Windermere directly from London. And now, he’d have to take the child to Windermere with him, as well as to any other estates or manor she visited. There were hints and rumors that the Scots might try to steal the girl, and Henry said he wanted her safely in Wolf’s hand.
* * *
It was still a bit too cold for swimming, but Kit Somers immersed herself in the chilly lake and washed quickly, before old Bridget could realize she was gone. It wasn’t that she was ungrateful for Bridget’s concern, but Kit was twenty years old now,well beyond the age of needing a nurse and Bridget did hover so.
The old woman, a distant cousin who had also been her mother’s nurse and companion, was her only ally against the loneliness and brutality of the last fifteen years since her mother’s death. But Bridget had become such an infernal worrier.
Now she had taken to fretting about the smattering of King Henry’s soldiers camped out in the fields beyond her stepfather’s manor house.
A quarter moon hung over the lowest of the trees and a hazy mist hovered over the ground, giving the forest an otherworldly appearance. The lake was the perfect place to be alone and try to devise a plan of escape. It was a puzzle, though. She had no desire to comply with King Henry’s order to appear in London, but Kit knew she couldn’t openly defy him. However, if she happened to be away and never received the royal command, she couldn’t be accused of ignoring the king’s order. Unfortunately, she was certain the damnable escort would somehow manage to ferret her out of any hiding place. She had seen their leader at a distance, a huge, well-muscled knight with a head of dark, untamed hair, and he didn’t appear to be a man who would easily accept her refusal to accompany him.
Perhaps she could just keep him on the run, she thought. She was as good on horseback as any man in the vicinity, and her skill with a bow was better than most. There wasn’t any reason why she couldn’t stay in the forest and evade the king’s soldiers for weeks at a time. Yet thinking of the dark knight, she had to admit, she might not succeed.
And what of her stepfather? If he ordered her to go and she openly defied him… Kit shuddered. His reprisal would be swifter than that of the king. It was better not to think about those consequences just yet.
Kit left the deeper water and walked back towards the shore. She stood up in the shallows and unpinned her light-blond curls to let them fall where they may. How she loved the cold air hitting her naked body like this. She stretched her arms out, then overhead and reveled in the primitive pleasure she derived from the frigid air.
Perhaps a solution to her dilemma would come to her while she slept that night. Even better, maybe Rupert would return from his duties in London. After all, it was possible—all right, she admitted to herself, remotely possible— for him to arrive and rescue her from whatever fate King Henry had in mind for her. As one of Henry’s knights, Rupert might be able to intervene on her behalf.
Against her optimistic nature, Kit had to recognize the fact that few things had ever gone in her favor, and she had better quit hoping for a neat rescue. She was better off relying on her instincts and her unpredictable nature to see her through. She had managed to avoid countless beatings by her stepfather by keeping him off balance, doing the unexpected to divert his attention.
She wondered what the baron would expect her to do now.
Wolf sat on a fallen log at the edge of the wood facing the lake, lost in thought. He believed that Philip Colston had arranged for his family to be ambushed as they journeyed to Bremen to join Lady Margrethe, Wolf’s mother. Earl Bartholomew and his son, John, were savagely killed before Wolfram’s eyes, along with all but one of their attendants. Of their entire party, only Wolf and a young squire, Hugh Dryden, had survived.
Furthermore, in case the ambush failed, Philip managed somehow to implicate Bartholomew in an assassination attempt against King Henry IV. Philip quite tidily ensured that his uncle’s name would be dishonored, and Bartholomew Colston would have been outlawed in England by some miracle if he or his sons had managed to survive the attack.
Philip and his co-conspirator father, Clarence, had no idea that anyone had survived the ambush in Europe. To their knowledge, all of Bartholomew’s entourage had perished. However, not only had Wolf survived the attack in Germany, his identity was kept secret through the years to protect him, as well as to give him the advantage when he was ready to return and unseat Philip.
Wolf was so absorbed in his ruminations that he didn’t notice another presence nearby until he’d been sitting awhile. When he looked up toward the water, he thought the pale moonlight and mist were playing tricks on his eyes. Coming from the depths of the lake was a maiden, like one from the old tales he’d heard as a child. His feelings of annoyance and bitterness dissolved instantly, and he was intrigued.
The maid’s skin shimmered in the filmy light and her hair, as she loosed it around her, seemed made of the finest golden silk. The night was cool, and Wolfram thought he could almost see the goose bumps rise on her. The tips of her well-shaped breasts had certainly risen, and Wolf’s palms fairly itched with desire to touch her.