King’s Court – City of Lerwick , land of Ayr
Roland surveyed the huge banquet hall with the eyes of a predator stalking his prey, every where he looked were richly dressed men and women. Lords and knights mingled with ladies of all ages dressed in colorful gowns, so that they resembled a flock of multicolored birds. Roland normally avoided royal banquets like the plaque, preferring to eat in the guard room with the rest of the guards but he could no longer. He’d resigned his place as captain of the king’s Black guard, after thirty years of service and secondly the king had made him a duke. He no longer belonged with the guards men, but he also didn’t feel comfortable with the nobility.
Roland had been born the third son of a marquis and his mother had been the daughter of an Earl, his blood was as blue as any man present, but as a youngest son he knew he’d never inherit anything. He’d learned as a boy that whatever he wanted in life he had had to fight for. First it had been to prove himself as a half breed, that despite having a human for a mother he could hold his own against any pure blood shifter. As a boy he’d trained from morning till night honing his body into a killing machine that no man could beat, and earning the notice of the King.
Once in the King’s guard he’d had to prove himself again, prove he was the deadliest assassin that had ever lived. He’d succeeded, he had killed over two hundred men on the king’s orders, taking them all out with lethal efficiency and leaving no trace of his presence. He was a ghost, a phantom that killed neatly, efficiently and dispassionately. He’d once tried to assuage his guilt by saying the men he killed were a threat to king and country but at night when he closed his eyes he could see their faces. He was tired of lying to himself, of being the hand of death so he’d resigned his commission.
He’d feared the king would be angry with his decision, but the king had rewarded his years of loyal service handsomely and thanked him for his service. The king had not only given him a title but lands, a rundown keep on the southern border and six hundred acres of land. He was now a rich lord but his life was empty and flat, he needed, no wanted a wife and a mate. He was fifty three years old, by human standards he’d be middle aged but by his father’s people’s count he was still a young man. He was lonely, so very lonely that at times the loneliness was like a great black hole in his soul.
Roland was determined to find a wife this spring, so he’d come to the first spring banquet to be seen and to begin his hunt for a wife. The only problem was if the noble lords and ladies milling about the great hall knew that he and his men were all wolf shifters they would either run in fear or treat him with fear and disgust. Not even the king knew he was a wolf shifter, but then he didn’t tell his king everything.
Roland let his gaze travel around the room studying the women. There were tall women, short women, young women and old women. There were thin women and plump women, fair women and dark women, but most of the women had light blonde hair that was considered the latest fashion. Roland disliked the color though, thinking it too washed out. He liked women to have a bit of color, not to be pale ghost like things. He continued his slow perusal of the hall and a bright flash of color caught his eye. Two women had just entered the hall
and were making their way slowly down its length towards the head table. The women were young and short in stature, but what held his gaze were their bright hair. The women had hair the color of burnished fox fur, that gleamed like hot coals in the flickering lamp light. One of the women was slim, with a tiny waist and small firm breasts, the other was of sturdier build with a small waist and ample breasts. Both women were lovely but something about the fuller of the two women held his gaze.
“You have good taste cousin.” Roland looked over his shoulder to see his cousin Magnus stepping up to him.
“You know them?” Roland nodded at the two women.
“Yes, the smaller of the two is the lady Lorelei Markham, the other is the Lady Lenore Wolfenstein. They are cousins.” Magnus gave him a grin. “It is good to see you cousin, you usually shun the King’s banquets.”
“That was before I was made a duke.” Roland replied, his gaze returning to the two women. Inside him his wolf seemed to come awake, as interested in the women as he was. Roland frowned, unlike pure blooded shifters his wolf spirit and he weren’t completely integrated. The wolf spirit in him was more like a separate entity that shared a body with Roland, luckily Roland usually had complete control over his wolf. His wolf was now practically leaping in joy at the sight of the women, which was beyond odd, his wolf had never reacted to another woman this way before.
The women stopped as they came abreast of Roland and turned as one to look his way. Behind Roland he heard a sharp intake of breath, and remembered Marcus and Keegan were behind him.
“Gods blood they are lovely.” Keegan spoke, stepping closer to Roland.
“Aye, but I think Roland gets first pick, which ever one you don’t want I’ll happily take.” Marcus stated coming to stand on Roland’s right side.
“The lady Lorelei is wed, for the moment, but the lady Lenore is free.” Magnus stated, moving to stand beside Keegan.
“Wed for the moment? That makes no sense.” Keegan said.
“Lady Lorelei wed when she was nine, but her husband never claimed her. She is here to have the wedding annulled.” Magnus stated.
“Her husband is a fool.” Keegan murmured.
“Her husband is Lord Chase Stanhope, the demon killer.” Magnus replied with a chuckle.
“It is said he has bedded over three hundred women, but he has yet to bed his lovely wife. He is doubly a fool then. She does not look to be a shrew.” Keegan stated.
“She isn’t, she is lovely girl and intelligent as is her cousin.” Magnus replied.
Roland was only paying half attention to his friends’ conversation; his wolf was now fighting him for control, something that hadn’t happened since he was a boy.
“What a fine wolf you are, but you should be calm; it would not do to reveal yourself before all these people.” A soft female voice sounded inside Roland’s mind and his wolf instantly stilled, as if he were a dog that had been hushed by its master. Roland’s eyes snapped wide in surprise, only his cousin Marcus could mind speak him and that was because they were blood and had tried for years. Never before had a stranger mind spoke him, and never before to his wolf. His eyes locked with the lady Lenore. She gave him a smile, then looked away as her cousin spoke to her.
“What did you say the Lady Lenore’s name was?” Roland demanded.
“Wulfestein, it is an unusual name is it not. Her father was Baron Wulfestein from the Dark Mountains. Why are you interested in her?” Magnus demanded turning to watch the lady Lenore walk away.
Roland heard Marcus’s breath come out in a rush. “Did she just mind speak you.” He said softly so as not to be over heard.
“Aye she did, she spoke to my wolf.” Roland turned so only Marcus would hear him.
“My wolf was practically jumping for joy the moment I saw her.” Marcus inched closer to Roland, his eyes on his face.
“What do you know of the lady Lenore, Magnus?” Roland demanded.
“She is young, twenty three or twenty four summers. Her father is dead and she has two older half brothers who are the vilest kind of man you can imagine. The lady Lenore was abandoned by her family when she was a child but I don’t know the reason.” Magnus turned from watching the ladies to Roland. “She was taken in by her cousin’s father in law, Lord Markham. She and lady Lorelei are very close, Lady Lenore is well known as a gifted herbalist and apothecary. She would probably have many suitors, except she has no dowry, tis a shame really, such a lovely girl with no chance at marriage.”
“Why do you say that, she is pretty? Is she ill tempered?” Roland forced his gaze away from the lady Lenore. It was best not to let prey know it was being stalked.
“No, she and the lady Lorelei are all that is kind and gentle. She has no dowry and her brothers are vile drunkards. Her brothers cared more for drink and whoring than their home, their keep was captured by a neighbor while they were in the whore pits of Dalridia.” Magnus shook his head. “No man will marry her as she is poor. She is currently under the protection of the King as she is cousin to lady Lorelei, and lady Lorelei is the King’s niece. It is said that the king has received many offers for the lady Lenore, but none of them proper. It is only a matter of time before the King gives in and sells her to some lord.” Magnus sighed. “Would you like me to introduce you?”
Roland shook his head; he wanted to find out more first before he pursued his target. A good hunter was always prepared, as was a good assassin. No he would wait and watch the lady Lenore. “Nay not yet, it would be foolish to select my prey to soon when there are so many more women to consider.”
Magnus laughed loudly, then clapped Roland on the back. “I like how you think cousin, but don’t let the ladies hear you compare them to prey, you might scare them away.”
Before Roland could reply a loud bell sounded announcing the start of dinner. “Perhaps you could tell me about the single ladies here so I know who I should pursue.”
“I’d be delighted to, come let us take our seats, if you see a woman that strikes your fancy point her out. If I don’t know who the lady is it is easy to find out her name.” Magnus gave Roland a nod, then began walking quickly towards the long tables set up at the end of the huge hall.
“And how do you know so much Magnus, I never pegged you as a dandy.” Marcus demanded following close behind Roland.
“I am like Roland the youngest son; I have three older brothers that all enjoy good health. If I want wealth I will have to earn it or marry it. I am not as skilled a fighter as you and Roland, which means I will have to wed well to obtain a fortune. As such I know the names and standing of every single woman at court, and the names of all the bored wives. Sometimes appearing to be a dandy can be beneficial, come we can talk more over supper. I spoke to the King’s butler and had you seated beside me. We are half way down the side table, a position that honors your new rank Roland, but allows for the fact you are only recently a lord.”
“It matters not to me.” But Roland knew it should matter, such things were important to one’s standing.
Throughout dinner Roland found his gaze slipping to the lady Lenore, where she sat at the head table a few seats down from Prince William, the king’s youngest son. Several times their eyes had met over dinner and the lady Lenore rather than turning away had boldly returned his look, even lifting her goblet to him at one point. Roland had liked her boldness, had liked the fact she had met his eyes with her own. When he’d looked about the room hall and tried to capture the other women’s eyes they’d all blushed and looked away. He was not unattractive, so he didn’t think it was his looks that made the women look away.
“You’re scowling again, no wonder all the women look away.” Magnus’s voice startled him from his studying of an attractive dark haired woman further down the table. The dark haired beauty kept ducking her head and looking away as he watched her.
“I’m not scowling.” Roland protested. “I’m studying the women.”
“And scaring them all away.” Magnus replied.
“Ah, none of these women have back bone, they all seem as timid as sheep.” Roland stated with irritation. He needed a woman with some spirit, who would not be afraid of her own shadow. His new lands were on the border and far from civilization, he needed a woman who wasn’t afraid.
“The lady Lenore and her cousin aren’t sheep; I have seen them return your gaze more than once. The ladies are unusual though.” Magnus stated.
“And how are they unusual?” Marcus asked over his tankard of ale.
“The ladies own and run their own cloth business. They do everything from raising and sheering the sheep to dying and weaving the wool themselves. The lady Lenore in addition to being an apothecary and herbalist is said to be a dye master, and a very accomplished one at that. The ladies come to the capital only once a year, they come to the king’s spring celebrations and sell their cloth, then return home to their keep on the Emerald Sea.” Magnus looked down the table to where lady Lorelei sat at the head table.
“If the lady Lorelei is cousin to the king, then why does she need gold? Is she not richly dowered?” Keegan demanded.
“Now that is an interesting question. It would seem that while the lady is indeed richly dowered her husband’s family spent most of it already, what is left of her dowry is being held by the king till her twenty second birth day or proof that her wedding is consummated. Since her husband has refused to claim her.”
“She is poor.” Marcus finished for Magnus.
“Aye, it is said her husband left her with his mother and sister in law, in the family keep that was crumbling and in need of repair. Lord Stanhope married the lady as he was ordered to; he brought her home and left her with his family, while he left for the wars with his brother and her dowry. It is said that because of the ladies skill at weaving and dying they have managed to not only repair the once crumbling keep but turn it into a fine castle.”
“The lady Lorelei’s husband is doubly a fool.” Keegan murmured.
“If they do so well, then why doesn’t the lady Lenore have a dowry?” Roland asked turning to look at the lady Lenore with renewed interest.
“Perhaps she does, but compared to the other ladies it is a pittance.” Magnus replied.
Roland looked at the lady Lenore, studying her intently. She was a lovely young woman, and shapely enough to stir the heart of an old man. “Then the men here are bigger fools than I thought. Will you introduce me?”
“Aye, the meal has ended and they will have dancing next. It is now permitted to move about the hall and mingle.” Magnus replied pushing back his chair and standing.
Roland pushed to his feet, then took a moment to smooth down his black tunic. When he was sure he was presentable he nodded to Magnus.
“He is looking at you again.” Lorelei murmured, as she feigned interest in her plate of chicken.
“Is he I hadn’t noticed?” Lenore replied taking a bite of her succulent roast turkey, at home they usually ate fish caught from the nearby ocean, having roast turkey was an extravagance, so despite appearing unladylike like she was thoroughly enjoying a second helping of meat.
“You are a terrible liar Nora. He has been looking at you all night, and you know it. He caught your eye when we entered.” Lorelei replied taking a nibble of her roast chicken.
“He caught your eye too Lora. Besides I told you his wolf called to me.”
“I remember, his aura is still brown and red, but with a hint of black. Whatever uncle had him do affected him deeply.” Lorelei replied.
Lenore nodded; Lorelei’s uncle was the king and Lenore’s guardian. Lenore had no doubt the king had made lord Roland do many things that made him sad or upset. Lorelei and Lenore had first noticed the tall dark lord five years ago, when they had seen him slipping from the King’s privy chambers early one morning. With their combined gifts it had been easy to deduce who and what he was, the King’s personal assassin. Till today the dark lord had never noticed them or even looked their way, but today not only he but his wolf had noticed them. Lenore had been drawn to the dark lord the first time she’d seen him. He reminded her of a wounded animal, afraid yet in need of healing and a helping hand.
Lorelei had said it was the Sir Roland’s great height and broad shoulders and not his wounded soul that drew her. If truth be told she did find him handsome, very handsome but it was his wounded nature that drew Lenore. Perhaps it was the healer in her wanting to help save another, or perhaps it was because he was a shifter and she a beast mage that drew her. Whatever the reason tonight the man and his wolf had noticed her. Tonight there would be a lady’s choice dance, did she have the courage to ask the dark lord to dance though.
“Don’t look now but he is coming this way.” Lorelei said as she pushed her half eaten plate away.
Lenore pushed her plate away, a hovering servant grabbing it as she looked up to meet amber eyes framed by sooty black lashes. Once again Lenore heard the wolf spirit call to her and she sent it a quick thought to be quiet. When she did the amber eyes widened and lord Roland tilted his head ever so slightly, reminding Lenore of a listening dog, before either of them could speak Sir Magnus stepped forward giving Lorelei and Lenore a small bow.
“Lady Lenore, Lady Lorelei if you forgive my boldness, I would like to introduce my cousins Lord Roland Everard, sir Marcus Everard and their friend sir Keegan.” Sir Magnus said giving both Lenore and Lorelei a broad smile. “They are new to the city and hoping perhaps you could introduce them to some of the ladies, since of your close association with the king you know everyone at court.”
Lorelei gave the handsome lord a smile in return before turning her attention to Lord Roland and his companions. Sir Keegan was a tall muscular man, with handsome features and dark brown hair and eyes, Sir Marcus had features similar to sir Keegan with a devastatingly handsome smile, but while they were handsome it was Lord Roland who drew all of Lenore’s attention. She dropped Lord Roland a curtsey, all the while aware he was studying her.
Roland had felt the lady Lenore speak to his wolf again, he didn’t know how he knew it was the Lady Lenore only that he did. He also didn’t understand why his wolf was reacting to the lady as it was, or how the lady could speak to it. He meant to have answers, but in doing so he didn’t wish to frighten the lady Lenore, who was remarkably lovely up close. She had brilliant auburn hair that caught the light from the over head candles and eyes the color of spring leaves. Her nose was a small bump of a thing, and she had high cheek bones and a remarkable full and kissable looking mouth. Roland gave a fleeting smile to the lady Lorelei who was equally lovely, but of the two women it was the Lenore that held his gaze.
“Lord Roland, Sir Marcus, Sir Keegan.” Lenore said, meeting Lord Roland’s eyes with her own. Lord Roland was even larger up close, towering at least a foot or more over her slight height of five foot three. Long shiny black hair framed his face and made his large amber eyes all the more striking. He had a long, but attractive nose that from the bump in it had obviously been broken at least once.
“Ladies.” Keegan replied.
Roland felt Marcus elbow him in the ribs, and realized he was starring at the lady Lenore.
“A pleasure ladies.” Roland said.
“Gentlemen.” Lorelei replied, giving them a polite nod. “Lenore and I would be happy to introduce you to the court, but Sir Magnus if you wish our help you should not lie to us.”
Magnus blinked, then shook his head. “Lie my lady, you wound me, what have I lied about.”
“Your companions are not new to the city, perhaps new to court society, but definitely not new to the city. When did we first see Lord Roland and Sir Marcus Lenore?” Lorelei said with a half smile. “Was it four years ago or five?”
“It was five, it was the morning of my eighteenth birthday and we were going to see his majesty about allowing us to visit the Sacred Glade. Lord Roland and Sir Marcus were just leaving his majesty’s privy chamber, it was just after dawn.” Lenore replied.
“Why yes you are right, Gentlemen you are both too big to miss, and then there is the fact you always dress in black, when every other man goes about the court dressed like a peacock in full plumage. After that we saw you many times coming and going from Uncles chamber.” Lorelei stated. “But you need not worry we told anyone about you, or will tell anyone about you. We both know you worked for uncle, if we betray you we betray him, and that will never happen.”
“We saw Sir Keegan too on many occasions with you in the stables, you never noticed us though Lora and I are rather unremarkable.” Lenore added.
Roland stifled a curse and forced a smile, he thought his visits with the king had gone by unnoticed, how had two small females found him out? Even more puzzling was how they had remained hidden from both him and his men.
“I find it hard to believe that we never noticed two such lovely women before.” Marcus stated, breaking the awkward silence.
“You should save your charm for someone who will believe you, neither Lenore nor I are subject to false flattery. My soon to be ex-husband is famous for his glib tongue, we are both use to the insincere words of men who think us both so addle brained we will believe whatever fool thing they say.” Lorelei replied evenly. “Now that is all said Lenore and I would be happy to help you find your way into society and to introduce you to whomever you wish. While Lenore and I may not be among the elite, our business does give us entrée to many ladies solars and saloons, and gives us the ear of many ladies. Now once again, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance gentlemen.”
“I think I’m in love.” Keegan drawled giving Lorelei a wide smile.
Around them an army of servants quickly took away the plates, cups and tables, while pushing the chairs and benches against the wall, at the end of the hall, where the head table had been only moments before a group of musicians began assembling.
“Please forgive Lorelei’s bluntness gentlemen, we are use to doing business and spend most of our days with farmers, shepherds or merchants. Neither of us have any use for flowery speech, but we would be glad to help you. I’m guessing you are looking for wives. You have left his majesty’s services and are now thinking of settling down or am I wrong?” Lenore said quietly.
“I am definitely in love.” Keegan said with a chuckle.
At the end of the hall a herald announced the first dance as the strains of a country dance filled the air.
“Lady Lorelei would you do me the honor if a dance?” Marcus denuded.
“Nay, un fair I was going to ask her.” Keegan protested.
“If I am not mistaken the dance is a palming dance that allows one to switch partners, you could both dance with her.” Magnus offered.
Lorelei looked from one man to the other then nodded. “It would be my pleasure gentlemen. But I must warn you I have a slight limp that makes me clumsy from time to time; I might accidentally step on your toes.”
“I for one shall risk it lady.” Keegan said as he offered Lorelei his arm.
“Indeed Lady Lorelei you do not look too dangerous.” Marcus added offering Lorelei his arm as well.
“Well at least I warned you.” Lorelei said with a smile as she stepped between the men to take both their arms.
Lenore watched her cousin go with a mixture of emotions, she was happy for Lorelei that the handsome men were noticing her lovely cousin and slightly jealous no man had asked her to dance in ages.
“Roland, Lady Lenore if you will excuse me I see an old friend I wish to greet.” Magnus said, giving them each a nod he hurried away across the hall to a tall elegant looking woman in a dark gown.
Roland stifled a curse at being left alone with Lady Lenore, true he had wanted to ask the girl questions but was damn awkward to be left alone with her. The music swelled as people took the floor, forming two lines, one of men the other women. Roland watched with amusement as his friends stood on either side of the lovely lady Lorelei, making the only triple on the floor.
“Would you, I, mean, would you like to dance?” Lady Lenore’s soft voice startled Roland.
“Nay, I do not dance.” Roland replied tersely.
“I see, not even a little.” Lenore prompted.
“No.” Roland snapped and saw the timid smile on lady Lenore’s face fall.
“Very well my lord, I shall leave you be, you can go pursue your friend sir Magnus. I know when my company is not wanted.” Lenore had thought the dark lord had been interested in her earlier; she obviously had been deluding herself.
“What.” Roland murmured, and then cursed himself for a fool. Marcus, Keegan and Magnus had seen his interest in the girl and deliberately left him alone with her. He should have asked her to dance; instead he’d ignored her then snapped at her.
“Nay, damn it, I mean, no stay.” Roland growled. “Truth be told I can’t dance.”
Lenore paused, giving Roland a puzzled look. “You cannot dance?”
“Nay, I never learned, my father never thought it an important skill to know.” Roland turned his attention to the dance floor and watched men openly flirting with their dance partners, as they moved through the dance. His father had obviously been mistaken; dancing was an important skill at attracting a female it would seem.
“Oh, I thought, well I thought you did not like me.” Lorelei murmured.
“Why would I not like you?” Roland asked.
“Because.” Lenore stopped herself from blurting out that she was fat.
“Because why?” Roland demanded, seeing the girl was oddly nervous.
“Because I’m fat.” Lenore whispered.
Roland blinked, not sure he’d hear right and looked closely at the lady Lenore. She was far from fat; she had an ample bosom to be sure, but a trim waist over well made hips.
“Fat, who ever say’s you are fat is mad.” Roland replied.
Lenore felt herself flush. “Thank you, I was not trying for a compliment, merely stating a fact. I, well, I have received many comments about my, umm personage. That is all.”
“You must forgive my lack of social graces my lady; I have spent little time in polite company and less in the company of women.” Roland stated. He badly wanted Lenore to like him, which was odd, usually he didn’t give a damn what people thought of him.
“Yes, of course how thoughtless of me. There is nothing to forgive, I am just over sensitive. The next dance shall be a simple partner dance; it would be a good dance for you to start with. I can help you through it.” Lenore gave Roland a hesitant smile.
“You are right of course my lady, it is a skill I am long over do on learning. If I remember correctly I am to offer you my arm.” Roland offered Lenore his arm.
“Yes, thank you.” Lenore laid her arm on Roland’s and felt a moment’s tingle of excitement, Lord Roland’s arm was as sold as an oak tree under her hand. Lenore was use to men, her days were full of farmers and merchants but somehow Lord Roland was a cut above all the other men she knew. Then again he wasn’t completely human, he was far more than that, and that too intrigued her.
Roland felt an odd surge of combined lust and excitement when Lenore laid her tiny hand upon his arm. He looked at it for a moment noting the short, yet shapely fingers, and a small but work worn hand. The lady had not lied; she was use to work judging from her hands, and hard work too. He liked that about her, many of the ladies in the king’s keep did little more than sit about, gossiping, reminding Roland of bright pretty birds in gilded cages, lovely but utterly useless. The fact lady Lenore was use to hard work was another plus in her favor, he needed a wife who would not mind hard work. The keep he had been gifted had been abandoned for years and was in need of much work according to the king, a pretty bird would be of no use to him.
Lenore kept her word to help Roland through the dances and by the end of the fourth dance, a simple dance called the snake, which required holding hands with the person both before and after you, and being tied into a giant human knot, Roland was genuinely enjoying himself. He’d not thought that such frivolous activities would be fun, but he’d been wrong. The snake dance had ended with Lenore pressed tight against his chest, her left arm wrapped around his waist, her right hand in his. Keegan who had been holding her left hand released it and Lenore suddenly free stumbled, and would of fallen if Roland hadn’t suddenly grabbed her about the waist.
Lenore winded but happy looked up giving Roland a smile, conscious of his huge hands about her waist. Roland was struck by how lovely Lenore was, and he felt an odd sense of rightness about holding her. He wondered if he were to carry her off to some dark corner of the keep if anyone would notice or complain. He squashed his thoughts, it had been too long since he’d been with a woman, far too long and right now the lovely young Lenore was far too tempting. Behind him Keegan laughed, breaking the moment and returning him to his senses.
“Ladies that was the most fun I’ve had with my clothes on in years, another dance perhaps?” Keegan said, though his eyes were on Lorelei’s face.
“Soon sir Keegan, but I must rest first and I am quiet parched as I am sure Lenore is. Perhaps after some refreshments, I might manage another dance.” Lorelei replied with a smile.
“Yes of course, let me, I mean us escort you to the refreshment table.” Marcus said as Keegan gave him an evil glare.
Lenore watched Lorelei be escorted away by the two handsome men and smiled, happy for her cousin.
“Would you like something to drink lady Lenore.” Roland asked, perhaps he could still find away to lure the lady to a secluded spot and after asking his questions find a way to steal a kiss or two.
“Yes thank you.” Lenore took Roland’s arm and let him lead her towards the side of the hall and two a bench where she saw Lorelei being seated by her two new admirers.
Roland lead Lenore to the bench where her cousin was resting and holding out his hand helped her sit. His friends could be seen heading for a long table at the end of the hall, pushing their way through a throng of people. He silently cursed his friends for deserting him, then remembering his manners gave the ladies a nod. “I shall return soon my lady.” Then turning he hurried after his departing friends. He had managed to survive his first few hours of polite society unscathed so far. True his friends had been by his side, and he’d not had to converse with anyone but the ladies, but so far he’d managed to keep his temper and remain remarkable inconspicuous. Considering this was the first time he’d been in polite society in over ten years he was feeling rather proud of himself. Ahead there was a line of people before the table, where servants were ladling drinks into tankards from one of three huge glass bowls, at the end of the table was a large tray of tiny sweet buns. Roland smelled cider and something minty and ale, hell he hadn’t thought to ask what Lenore wished to drink or if she wished a treat. He turned back and saw a large man standing over the ladies. As he watched Lorelei suddenly stood up and tried to hurry past the man, who grabbed her arm, Lorelei began struggling to get free when Lenore gave the man a push sending him staggering and freeing Lorelei, who fled.
Then Lenore stepped before the man blocking his path. The man then reached out and grabbed Lenore by the arms trying to push her aside. Roland cursed under his breath as he spun to confront the fool who dared to put his hands on Lady Lenore.
“I can’t believe you danced with both of them.” Lenore said leaning against the cool wall and giving Lorelei a smile.
“And why not, they were both very handsome, and I said I wanted to be a little wild this time, besides how am I going to find a new husband, or even discover what kind of man I like if I am good all the time. Besides it was only dancing.” Lorelei replied.
“I’m not faulting you; I’m admiring your daring.”
“I know, it was terrible of me, but it was fun to be wild for a change. Besides what about you, you danced with Sir Roland.” Lorelei replied.
“Yes but he wasn’t interested in me, he hasn’t been at court in years and wanted help learning to dance so women will like him.” Lenore sighed.
“Is that what he said to you for I don’t believe it.”
Before Lenore could answer a shadow fell over her and she looked up to discover Lord Chase Stanhope, Lorelei’s estranged husband standing over them.
“Lorelei I would speak with you.” He growled.
“Well I don’t wish to speak to you.” Lorelei protested. “We had an agreement; you would leave me alone once we reached the capital. I told you I needed time to think.”
“Aye well that was before you made a fool of yourself flirting with other men and acting like a light skirt. You have had your fun, now it is time to return to your chamber.” Chase snapped.
“You accuse me of acting inappropriately; I have stayed true to my marriage vows unlike you. Now if you won’t leave I will.” Lorelei rose to her feet only to have Chase reach for her.
“Stay away from her.” Lenore said. “You gave her your word and in less than two days you break it, you have no say in her life you abandoned her.”
“Stay out of this.” Chase growled as Lorelei moved to get past him. Chase reached out and grabbed Lorelei’s arm, trying to drag her against him. Lorelei tried to pull free, put Chase was too strong.
Lenore lunged forward to give Chase a hard push that sent him staggering, in the process breaking his hold on Lorelei. Lorelei took the moments distraction to slip past Chase. Chase moved to follow Lorelei but Lenore quickly stepped before him blocking his path.
“Damn it Lenore, will you never cease your interference.” Chase snapped and wrapping his hands about Lenore’s arms tried to shove her aside.
“I am not interfering I am protecting my friend.” Lenore protested.
“She doesn’t need your protection she has me.” Chase replied.
“You are the one I’m protecting her from. You abandoned her to your hateful sister in law and absent minded mother; you never had a thought for her till your claim to her dowry was in jeopardy. Let her find happiness.” Lenore said seeing Chase’s normally handsome face twist in anger. Chase’s fingers dug painfully into her arms as he sneered down at her.
“Take your hands off the Lady Lenore.” A deep voice growled.
Lenore looked up to see Sir Roland a few feet away, with Sir Keegan and Sir Marcus flanking him, with an angry looking Lorelei hiding behind the three hulking men.
“I don’t know who the hell you are but this is no concern of yours.” Chase snapped keeping his hands wrapped about Lenore’s arm. “And you had best step away from my wife, we have things to discuss.”
“I am Duke Roland Everard and the lady you are holding is my friend. As for lady Lorelei she asked for our protection, now either remove your hands or I shall remove them for you.” Roland snarled stepping closer.
“I don’t care who you are, this is no concern of yours. The lady Lenore has been interfering in affairs that are none of her concern, and I will release her when I’m through with her.” Chase snapped turning to face Roland, while still keeping one hand about Lenore’s arm.
“Lorelei is my cousin and my friend, so it is my concern.” Lenore protested trying to pull free of Chase.
“Last warning.” Roland snarled, moving closer, he was enraged to see the large lord with his hands on Lenore.
“Hell Chase have you lost your mind.” A tall blond man appeared beside Chase and Lenore. “Release Lenore at once.”
With a curse Lord Chase set Lenore free, and she fled to stand beside Lorelei. “Forgive me Lenore, Lorelei there was no excuse for my actions. It is just I can’t stand this estrangement.”
“An odd comment from a man who abandoned his wife for ten years.” Lorelei stated. “I will see you tomorrow Chase as agreed and not before. Sir Keegan, Sir Marcus, I find I am suddenly very tired would you please escort me to the Maiden’s tower, I wish to retire.”
“Of course my lady we would be happy to.” Keegan replied offering Lorelei his arm.
“As would I.” Marcus stated offering Lorelei his other arm.
“Thank you gentlemen, Lenore please dance some more, I shall be fine.” Lorelei said, then giving her husband a dismissive look let the knights escort her away.
“You should be glad your friend interceded on your behalf lord Stanhope or I would have had to remove your hands myself, and when I say remove your hands I mean at the wrists.” Roland snarled.
“Do you know who I am, who you threaten?” Chase snapped.
“I do, but you obviously don’t know who I am, till yesterday I was the head of the King’s Black guard, and I would happily test my skills against yours on the practice field.”
“Please excuse Chases’ rudeness Lord Roland; he is simply upset at how things are going with his wife. I will take him outside and see that he cools off.” Chases’ friend, sir Liam stated. Sir Liam wrapped a hand about Chases’ arm and giving him a sharp tug began dragging him away.
“Thank you for coming to my aid sir Roland, it was very kind of you.” Roland heard Lenore’s soft voice and turned to look down at her.
“It was my pleasure, now I believe I owe you refreshments. Would you care to accompany me to the table?” Roland asked offering Lenore his arm.
“Yes thank you my lord.” Lenore slipped her arm through Roland’s trying to fight down the tingle of excitement that coursed through her.
Roland was pleased when Lenore readily accepted, he lead her to the refreshment table making careful note of her selections of mint tea, and two current buns, while he accepted a tankard of ale for himself. Taking her plate from her he escorted her out of the great hall and into the echoingly large entrance hall beyond. Benches and chairs had been placed against the walls of the hall giving couples private places to sit, eat and talk. Roland looked about quickly spotting an empty bench, he guided Lenore to the empty seat, then once she was seated handed her, her mug. Roland gave Lenore a nod before sitting beside her.
“You shall spoil me my lord; I’m not use to such attention.” Lenore said offering Roland a bun.
Roland paused a moment before accepting one of the buns. “I’m not sure I understand.”
“Stanhope keep is, well poor and we are far from town, most of the inhabitants are women, and a few old men or men too injured to fight in the wars any more. I’m not use to a gentleman paying me attention, much less being knightly.” Lenore said, before taking a nibble of her bun. “I spend most of my days working to dye and weave cloth or gathering materials to make dye, or weeding the vegetable gardens.”
“You work, every day? I thought ladies lives were more leisurely.” Roland gave his bun a cautious sniff before taking a bite, finding the bun pleasantly tart.
“Most yes, but as I said Stanhope keep is poor. If not for Lorelei’s idea to raise sheep and start a weaving business the keep would of likely fallen down by now and Lorelei and I living on the street or worse.”
“I was given to understand the lady Lenore was richly dowered.” Roland replied, washing down his bun with a drink of rich ale.
“She was, but Lord Chases’ brothers squandered the first part on new armor, men and horses before they rode off to battle. They left nothing behind for upkeep of the keep or to feed the household and servants, perhaps I should not tell you these things but it isn’t a secret to most at court.” Lenore took a sip of her mint tea. “I don’t mind the work, it is rewarding to make a new dye and see what beautiful cloth it makes, and Stanhope Keep has been my home these past ten years. If Lorelei hadn’t rescued me I shudder to think what would have befallen me.”
Roland frowned. “Rescued you from what?”
“It matters not, perhaps one day if we become good friends I shall tell you. Now enough about me, tell me Lord Roland what kind of woman do you seek?”
“I am not sure I understand?” Roland demanded draining his mug.
“Yes what kind of woman do you want? Sir Magnus hinted that you were looking for a wife, so what are you looking for.”
A flame haired, fearless little beauty comes quickly to mind Roland thought. “I don’t know. Looks are not as important as temperament, she must not be a shrew, and I am not overly fond of blondes.” Roland replied setting his empty mug down on the bench. Roland sensed a presence and looked up to see a hulking giant of a man, with hair so pale it appeared white striding towards them. Roland was preparing to rise when Lenore laid her hand upon his arm.
“It is all right my lord, it is merely Bjorn, he is captain of Stanhope Keep's guard and my dearest friend.” Lenore said.
The hulking giant stopped before them his eyes instantly traveling to Roland, who felt his hackles rise. The giant was more than just a man, but what was he? Not a wolf, no not that, but he was certainly more than human, beside him Lenore held her mug out to the man.
“Go on, it is sweet and I know you love sweet things.” Lenore said.
Roland watched as the giant took the mug, his hand engulfing it and downed the contents in one gulp. He gave Lenore a nod then set the empty mug down on the bench, his ice blue eyes never leaving Roland. Roland was glad the man was a friend, for Bjorn easily topped his height of six foot seven by a good eight inches and probably had a hundred pounds on him.
“I’m afraid I must go now Lord Roland, Bjorn has come to escort me back to my chamber, and to remind me I must work on the morrow. Thank you for the dances and the conversation.” Lenore rose smoothly, disappointed that her time with the dark knight was at an end.
Roland rose too, capturing her right hand he bowed over it. “The pleasure was mine Lady Lenore, may I see you tomorrow, we have not finished our conversation.”
“Oh yes, you need help finding a bride. I shall be at our stall in the market most of the day; you may visit me there if you wish. If you come we can discuss when I shall be free.” Lenore replied.
“Your stall?” Roland paused momentarily confused.
“Yes, we sell the less than perfect bolts of cloth as well as potions and tonics, our stall is near the center fountain.”
“Of course.” Roland hadn’t expected that the ladies actually sold the goods themselves, to find a titled lady working in trade was as rare as finding a gold nugget in a mountain stream. “I shall look for you tomorrow morning.”
“I shall look forward to it, good night my lord.” Lenore gave Roland a fleeting smile, then turned to walk away, Bjorn lingered a moment, studying Roland then he turned to hurry after Lenore.
Roland finished his ale in one long draught then retrieved Lenore’s plate and mug, before making his way back into the hall. He set the the mugs and plate on a passing servants tray and looked about for his friends, quickly spotting them in the back corner. Roland slipped along the edge of the hall, voiding the happy and often drunken dancers.
“And what of the lady Lenore?” Keegan demanded.
“She was whisked away by her guard.” Roland replied, feeling oddly disappointed, he’d wanted to question the lady more, to find out why she could speak to his wolf as well as steal a kiss. He wanted to tell himself his interest in the girl was because it had been years since he’d enjoyed a woman’s company, but that would be a lie, the lady Lenore fascinated him and puzzled him.
“Ah, but I was wondering what do you think of her?” Keegan asked with a smile.
“I liked her looks, if you aren’t interested I am. I like women with bountiful bosoms, and the Lady Lenore is far from lacking.” Marcus stated.
Anger flashed through Roland and he had to fight down the snarl that rose at the thought of Lenore in another’s hands. “You will stay away from the girl.”
“Easy Roland, I spoke half in jest. It is plain to see you like the girl.” Marcus replied holding up his hands.
“Like her, aye I guess I do.” Roland rubbed his jaw as he puzzled over his feelings. “She is clever, I like that. I like that she is not afraid to speak her thoughts like some noble women. She is also brave; she tried to defend her cousin from a man near twice her size, another good quality in a wife, and she is not afraid of work. She told me she likes to make dye and works in her vegetable garden. Having a noble wife who is brave, clever and not afraid of work is a plus. My new keep is said to be in disrepair, I need a wife that will not mind challenges or hard work.”
“Don’t forget that she is pretty with plentiful curves.” Keegan added.
Roland didn’t answer; he merely shot his cousin a dark look. “I need an ale, and the night is still young, there are more woman to sample.”
Marcus laughed loudly clapping him on the back. “I like how you think cousin, come there is more prey to hunt down.”
Roland nodded, but his wolf snarled in annoyance. His wolf wanted the lady Lenore, Roland now just had to find out why.