Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Just Released - The Saxon Bride by C.H. Admirand



Chapter 1



“The king awaits.”

The attendant’s words burned themselves into Lady Eyreka’s mind. Her hands trembled. She clasped them tighter together and nodded. Her mind whirled. Needing to concentrate and remember all she planned to say, she thought of her eldest son, Garrick, and his wife, Jillian. Their love had suffused itself into the very stones of Merewood Keep’s foundations and were at the very heart of her people’s existence.

This was her only chance.

“I cannot fail,” she whispered. Her family’s home was about to be wrested from their grasp and would be as if all Garrick and Jillian had gone through to rebuild was for naught.

She took a deep cleansing breath, and hurried to catch up to the young servant. For the second time in her life, she would bargain with the gods in exchange for those she loved. Would this Norman be as eager to accept her as part of the spoils of war as her first husband had?

Her stomach clenched. She was no longer the innocent young woman who had bravely ridden into their enemy’s embrace. She had three grown sons, and the scars to prove it. In a few months she would reach her fortieth summer.

As she walked along the corridor, she thought of all the reasons the Norman might accept her. The years had been kind to her. She still had all of her teeth and only a few wrinkles about her eyes. Looking down she frowned at the streaks of gray running through her hair.

Mayhap the years had not been as kind as she thought.

What man would want her, when he could have a much younger maid for a wife? Her footsteps echoed about her. Was her plan doomed before she had a chance to offer it? She clamped down on her traitorous thoughts when the attendant paused in front of a closed door. Before she could tell the young man she’d changed her mind, he opened the door with a flourish and bade her enter.

Fear speared through her, but she focused on the sight before her.

King William sat on a massive oak chair set on a dais. He was larger than she had imagined. His mien was arrogant; his very posture reeking of power. But it was not so much his size, as the fierce frown on his face that terrified her. This man had the power to grant her desire, or have the head lifted from her shoulders with the wave of his hand.

At his nod to enter, she inclined her head and prayed that her legs would cooperate. Though they wobbled, she hid that fact by walking slowly toward where he sat. At the edge of the dais, she sank to her knees in homage.

While she waited for him to recognize her show of fealty, her mind raced, caught up in a whirlwind of emotion. This man alone was responsible for the death of thousands of good Saxon thanes. Had he given the command to shoot the arrow that had ended her husband’s life?

She gripped her quaking hands together to still their movement while her stomach churned and a sour, bilious taste surged up her throat, thinking of the ugly wound the Norman arrow had left behind. Though strong threads closed the cauterized wound, ‘twas of no use, the arrow had pierced her husband’s heart. Helpless to do otherwise, she had held her dying husband in her arms, whispering words of prayer to her own Viking gods, and Addison’s Christian God for good measure.

Time stood still while she remembered the shared pain that connected her to Addison. Their love had made them well and truly one. His thoughts were her thoughts; his pain was her pain. She remembered feeling the sensation of icy cold hands clutching her aching stomach, while tears clogged her throat with each ragged breath she drew and he breathed his last.

“Lady Eyreka,” the king acknowledged her presence at last, motioning for her to rise. “You may speak.”

Heart pounding, her head shot up, as she forced herself to let go of the past. She rose to her feet, returning to the present. The words she’d so carefully rehearsed snagged in her throat. She swore she could hear the loud hammering of her heart echoing through the silence of the room.

“Well?” Impatience oozed from every pore in the ruddy king’s body. Temper simmered in the hard gaze he leveled at her.

I cannot fail. “I wish to discuss my home, Merewood Keep.”

William’s eyes flashed briefly, but he motioned for her to continue.

“My son, Garrick, has received your missive regarding his replacement as lord of our keep--”

“Then why has he not come before me?” the king demanded, his fist crashing down upon the arm of the chair.

“I...that is he...” she stammered, placing a hand to her breast. She felt Jillian’s amber pendant and clutched it tightly in her fisted hand. She said a quick prayer of thanks to her son’s wife for insisting she borrow it, and another to the ancient ones who inscribed the runes upon it.

Almost immediately a surge of warmth suffused her hand and traveled up her arm. She was filled with renewed confidence that her plan was going to succeed. Her gaze darted back to her king’s face, and the grim expression he wore. Recognizing the near end of the man’s patience, she hastened to get to the point.

“My son was making ready to leave, but was waylaid by a dispute between the blacksmith and the seneschal. He should arrive shortly.”

At his silent stare, she gathered the rest of her courage and plunged into the depths of her plan, not stopping for air.

“In the last year, my son has rebuilt our home, ‘tis far stronger now. The crops...we’ve had a good harvest--.”

“‘Tis why I have chosen to gift it to de Chauret,” the king interrupted. “He has gone too long without reward. Merewood is now worthy of him.”

“Aye,” she said, expecting his response. The Norman king had already divided up huge Saxon holdings and given them to many of his loyal followers, “But pray, bear with me a moment longer, Sire,” she pleaded.

The hard glint in William’s eyes softened slightly, and he nodded.

“‘Tis under my son’s direction and leadership that Merewood has become wealthy again. Our people respect him. They would lay down their lives for him. Without him as their lord, our people would flounder. The harvests would suffer.”

“Are you saying that Merewood’s people would not tend to their fields and flocks if a Norman were their lord?”

Eyreka felt the blood drain from the top of her head to the pit of her stomach.

Before she could answer, he continued. “Do your people not realize that by the grace of God and my word alone they still live in a well-constructed keep and not buried beneath a pile of stones? I could have the head of each and every Saxon who dares to challenge my decree!”

Rumors had not exaggerated the power or temper of their new king. The threat issued was not idle and part of the reason for her bold plan.

Dizzy from the rush of blood to her feet and her king’s words, she rasped, “Nay, Sire. Tis just that Garrick is heir to Merewood. It is in his blood. No one could possibly love the land more than he.”

When the king continued to stare at her she added, “‘Twould be to your advantage to keep him on as seneschal. He could continue to run things for Baron de Chauret, and our people would have immediate respect for your Baron.”

The king paused, stroking his chin with one of his massive hands. “Why would he stay on as less than master? What would he have to gain?”

Eyreka slowly closed the small gap that still separated her from the dais. A bead of sweat trickled down between her breasts, while her mouth went dry. She had managed to get through the hardest part, laying out the reasons for her next suggestion. Trying to focus on the rest of her plan, and not how easily the man’s hands would fit around her throat, she looked directly at her king and said, “I understand that Baron de Chauret is widowed.”

“Aye. What of it?”

“My husband has been gone for three summers.” Her stomach roiled and threatened to rebel. Had she eaten anything this morning, she would have surely lost it. “I would offer myself as wife to the baron. I am well respected as a healer and former mistress to our people.”

She watched the expression in William’s eyes go from surprise to calculating. “Mayhap ‘twould bear consideration.”

‘Twas but a chance he would listen, she had to take it. If he refused, her sons need never have to know of her proposed bargain. No one need ever know. “As mistress, I could guarantee that my people would respect my new husband as lord. With my son running the estate, the revenues would not slacken, but continue to grow. All would profit from this arrangement.”

William sat in silence, while she waited for him to deny her request.

Finally he rose, nodded, and reached out a hand to her. Lady Eyreka inclined her head and placed her hand on his forearm. He reached over and covered her hand with his. The familiar gesture made him seem less a king and more a man. It comforted her. If he could feel her trembling, he made no comment.

“Join me in the hall. I think Augustin would do well to hear your proposal.”

Eyreka drew strength from her king’s strong grip. He had not shouted his displeasure at her bold suggestion. He had not had her clapped in irons and hauled away. She reached up and touched the base of her throat. Aye, she thought, still intact. ‘Twould be all right, no one would have to leave Merewood. Odd, but she could almost feel his arrogant confidence suffusing her own doubt-ridden brain. Remarkably, her stomach calmed as he led her into supper.

“Augustin!” the king bellowed from the doorway.

“Aye,” came the equally loud reply from across the wide expanse of the hall.

“Come and meet your bride,” William proclaimed, “Lady Eyreka.”

At the king’s words, her heart skipped a beat. A hush immediately descended upon the crowded hall, servants and nobles alike falling silent, as they turned in unison to stare at her. The echo of booted footsteps filled the soundless void. The steps rang with confidence and determination, as they drew ever closer. Then they stopped.

Eyreka’s eyes grew wide with shock as she stared up at the warrior standing before her. By Odin, he was large. His shoulders were wide and thick with muscle. When he reached out a hand to grasp that of his overlord, those same muscles rippled, straining his tunic at the shoulders.

While the two men greeted one another, Eyreka took the opportunity to study the warrior, soon to be her husband by royal decree. His gray-streaked, chestnut hair was thick and wavy. Eyreka’s hands tingled, remembering another man and another time, when she had plunged her fingers into his sun-kissed hair. She shook herself free of Addison’s memory and let her gaze drift across Augustin’s high cheekbones, and the scar that arched across his chin, then on his eyes...his stormy gray eyes.

The room spun wildly, while the floor swayed and the walls closed in on her. He had Addison’s eyes.

***

Augustin watched the hint of color drain from the woman’s face and her eyes start to roll up in her head. He cursed roundly. As he swept her into his arms before she could slide to the floor in an unconscious heap, he knew why God made women so beautiful and enticing; they would have to be to balance out the havoc they wreaked wherever they went.

Her breath blew out soft puffs of air against his neck, breaking his concentration. When he looked down at her, a long-dead emotion tried to make itself known, but he clamped it back into the small tidy corner of his heart that belonged always to his wife.

Still unconscious, she stirred in his arms, pressing her rounded hip against his taut stomach. Awareness sliced through his middle like a heated knife. He caught his breath as unwanted desire for her coiled within him, ready to spring free. He ignored the feel of her and clamped down on his resolve to retain control.

Looking down at the woman, he guessed she was probably Saxon, given her coloring. He would not deny that he had been attracted to her cool beauty, though it was the complete opposite of his wife’s. Her white blonde hair was streaked with strands of silver. Her pale skin looked as soft as silk, and begged to be caressed. Though he may face the fires of eternity for it, he reached out hesitantly, and ran his fingertip across her cheekbone down around the curve of her jaw. Unable to resist, he traced the fullness of her bottom lip and breathed in her sweet scent, a haunting combination lavender and rain.

King William clapped a hand to Augustin’s shoulder, breaking the spell she had unknowingly woven about him, “She’s comely old friend.”

Shocked that he had let himself be attracted to the Saxon woman he held in his arms, Augustin ground out, “I do not need a wife.” His teeth ached from clenching his jaw to keep from shouting the words.

“I say you do. Lady Eyreka has a sound plan that would not affect the revenues Merewood currently produces, even with the change in leadership.” William’s hand pressed harder on the baron’s shoulder.

“I gave my word.” de Chauret swore under his breath thinking of Monique, feeling trapped, no longer in control of the situation. “I’ll not marry again.

“What if I command you?” William’s face began to mottle with rage.

Augustin recognized the look on his overlord’s face and felt the heat of his own blood surge up his neck all the way to his forehead. He hung onto his temper. Never before had he refused to honor a direct order from his liege. To do so now would not be wise. No doubt there would be another favored baron willing to wed the wealthy widow, in order to gain control of her vast holding.

But to have to forsake his vow to Monique was akin to taking a blade through the heart. He could feel the open wound. He shifted the woman in his arms until her weight rested fully on his sword arm; brushed a hand across his chest and looked down at it, checking for blood.

There was none.

“Mayhap--”

“Aye is the only response, my friend,” William interrupted.

Augustin’s grip tightened on Lady Eyreka, while he stared at the man before him. They were equal in strength and stature, but he had not the power of a country behind him. Their conversation the day before now made more sense. William was not looking for an estate to grant to him, he already had one picked out...and now a woman was part of the holding! Augustin’s entire body stiffened, physically trying to hold out against what he must do.

Eyreka stirred, and her eyes shot open. She appeared disoriented. “Addison?” she whispered.

“Nay, milady, ‘tis your betrothed, Augustin,” the king answered.

The overwhelming urge to find this Addison and plow his fist into the man’s face, whoever he was, caught Augustin by surprise, as did the unfamiliar jealously that snaked through him at the sound of another man’s name on her full lips. Though why he should care if another man’s name came to those soft, rose-tinted lips, he knew not.

“Please, release me,” she squirmed in his embrace.

Her sudden sharp intake of breath matched his own because when she shifted, she forced his left hand higher on her rib cage until it brushed the bottom of her breast. Her ice blue eyes deepened to sapphire, transporting him back to another time and another woman. Her face blurred before his eyes, until she transformed into the form of his beloved wife. He wondered if she knew that her eyes gave away her thoughts.

Passion that shimmered in their depths, calling to him, tempting him to taste, as he had so many times before. For a brief moment, he let himself imagine where he would begin that sensual foray, as his control started to slip away, the fog of memory cleared revealing the Saxon woman once more.

Momentarily confused, he wondered if it was the memory of his wife that aroused him, or the woman in his arms? He ruthlessly pushed the disturbing questions aside. She was but an armful of well-endowed woman. He had held others and not succumbed to the desire now raging through him. She meant no more to him than that.

“I do not need a wife,” he argued.

“Aye, you do.” Eyreka’s husky tones were echoed by the king’s baritone.

“Come.” William led the unlikely couple from the hall to his private chambers.

“I can walk.”

Augustin refused with the shake of his head. At least in this he felt a small bit of control. Besides, he could not say why he refused to set the lady back on her own feet. Mayhap ‘twas the fit. It had been a very long time since anyone felt so right in his arms.

Monique, his heart cried.

Is dead, his mind countered.

“I’ll leave you to get acquainted.” King William’s gaze swept over the two. He chuckled softly before closing the door behind him. The king’s amusement, coupled with his own lack of control over the situation, started a slow burn in his gut.

The brief thought of his beloved wife was sobering. He set Eyreka on her feet, bracing a forearm behind her until she gained her balance.

“Thank you.”

“Are you ill?”

“Nay,” she said slowly.

“You swooned.” He watched her closely for a reaction, a sign of guilt. Was it all part of her plan to lure him in to thinking she was weak?

“I am tired.”

She swayed slightly and Augustin tightened his grip leading her over to a chair by the brazier. She would not look up at him, so he studied the top of her fair head. His mind raced, trying to find the words to convince her that he would never marry again. Before they parted company, she would understand that he would not be swayed by her obvious charms. If he could not find a way to convince William that he had to return to Normandy, to his family holding, then he would have to convince her that she did not want to marry him.

Just as he started to formulate a plan, Eyreka looked up at him, her eyes beseeching him. He stared back, focusing on her, as if seeing her for the first time.

Mon Dieu, she had Monique’s ice blue eyes.

His plans evaporated. He knew no matter what she asked of him, he would be powerless to say nay.

“Mayhap we could begin again, Baron de Chauret,” Eyreka said softly, “I wish to tell you about my home.”



Reviews:

Historical romances are one of my favorite genres to read.

Well-written historical romances send me into a reading nirvana. I reached that and more with THE SAXON BRIDE. Having read The Lord of Merewood Keep, also by C. H. Admirand, I was well acquainted with some of the characters and found myself fully immersed in the story of Eyreka, Garrick’s mother. I loved her tenacity and faithfulness in The Lord of Merewood Keep and I have to say that she came into her own with THE SAXON BRIDE. I found her gentle but strong, and a force to be reckoned with. Augustin was my idea of the definitive warrior. Strong, gruff, and loyal to his dead wife’s memory, his capitulation to loving Eyreka was just magnificent. I couldn’t help but fall in love with Augustin myself.

THE SAXON BRIDE by C. H. Admirand highlights her talent as a writer. As both a reviewer and a fan, I love watching her writing evolve. Inxiouslyawait her next novel in this gripping and emotional series!



Reviewed by Natasha Smith

Romance Junkies

Blue Ribbon Rating: 5





Price: $6.50


To buy this book or read other great stories then visit www.thedarkcastlelords.com


Don't be afraid of the dark. EMBRACE it!


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