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At Her Service
By Shari Anton

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 At Her Service

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At Her Service
By Shari Anton
ISBN: 0446614653
Genre: Romance

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Chapter Excerpt from: At Her Service , by Shari Anton

Chapter One

England 1350

Ivy screamed as only a little girl can-loud and shrill. Within Lynwood Manor's great hall, Lady Joanna's hands stilled, the herbs she crushed with mortar and pestle momentarily forgotten as she paused to listen more closely to the sounds from outside.

On this early summer's day, the children were playing on the village green, chasing a ball and each other. Their mingled squeals of delight and groans of disappointment clearly signaled how their game progressed. Joanna's seven-year-old daughter was, as usual, among the loudest of the children.

Surely, Joanna thought, she imagined a hint of hurt or a taste of fear in Ivy's last screech. Then Ivy screamed again, her distress sharp-edged. Heart pounding, Joanna dropped the pestle and ran out of the hall's open door, joining other mothers in their dash across the dusty yard between the manor house and the timber palisade. She burst through the open gate and froze at the sight of three men on horseback, the riders bent forward and low, thundering up the middle of the green and coming straight at her. One had speared a goose, the poor fowl hanging limp and bloodied, a repulsive banner on the lance's tip.

The thieves. Her fury flared hot and bright. The thieves again raided the village, as they had several times before. However, unlike former raids, this time they arrogantly dared to reveal themselves during daylight, shamelessly displaying their prize, recklessly frightening Ivy and the other children.

Joanna desperately longed to search for her daughter, but as lady of Lynwood she stood her ground, studying the men's faces as they came closer to her. She didn't recognize them, but now knew the faces of her enemies. She concentrated on the man she judged the leader. Dark-haired and bearded, he bore an ugly, jagged scar on his forehead. He also wore an offensive smirk, as if he knew her identity and scoffed at her attempts to halt his thievery.

The beast! Joanna waved a fist and shouted, "Whoreson! Leave us be! Do you hear me? Leave us be!" If he heard her command, he gave no sign, merely veered right, leading his men around the palisade to escape into the woodland beyond.

Furious, Joanna spun to order the guards to pursue, but saved her voice when she heard Harold Long, the captain, shout for his men to mount up and give chase. Praying this time the manor's guards would find and capture the thieves, Joanna anxiously glanced about for Ivy.

In the middle of the green, near the well, mothers picked up and soothed their little ones, adding their outraged shouts to the children's cries. Joanna went cold at what she heard. The thieves had purposely terrorized the children with no regard for whether or not the little ones came to harm.

Fighting panic, Joanna shouted her daughter's name. "Here, milady!" answered the booming voice of the blacksmith, one of the few males not out in the fields. Donald Smith strode toward her, Ivy, seeming small and fragile, cradled in his meaty arms. Glistening tears flowed from Ivy's pain-filled blue eyes, streaking her dirty cheeks. Bright red blood dripped from a long, deep gash in her forearm, staining her short gray tunic. Joanna nearly swooned. She didn't deal well with blood, or sickness, which she'd seen too much of during the past few months.

"The h-horse stepped on m-me, Mama!" Ivy stammered through her sobs. "My arm h-hurts! It bleeds!" Joanna's hand shook as she pushed strands of golden hair from Ivy's forehead, struggling to banish the horrifying vision of Ivy tumbling on the ground beneath a horse's hooves.

"I know, dearest." She hoped her voice didn't reveal the extent of her horror. For Ivy's sake she must appear calm. "Be brave a few moments longer. Donald will take you into the manor." She looked up at Donald. "Have Maud bind the wound to stop the bleeding while I find Greta."

The blacksmith nodded and bore Ivy away.

Frustrated she couldn't take away the pain or spare Ivy the ordeal to come, Joanna fetched old Greta, the midwife, now the only healer in the village with experience in stitching skin. Along the way back to the manor, she sent the dairymaid out to the fields to inform Wat, the village reeve, of the raid.

Several moments later, seated on the edge of the bed in Lynwood Manor's bedchamber with Ivy draped across her lap, Joanna again struggled for composure. Terror lurked beneath Ivy's stoic expression. She bit down on a folded towel and buried her face in her mother's shoulder. Cradling Ivy's head, Joanna nodded at Greta, who held a sharp needle and strong thread in gnarled yet steady fingers.

Greta grabbed hold of Ivy's wrist. Joanna tightened her grip on her child's elbow. The moment the needle pierced the forearm's skin, Ivy jerked, gave a muffled scream, then mercifully fainted.

"Hurry," Joanna ordered, feeling her head go light from the smell of blood and her own upset. "Breathe, milady. Ivy is only cut, not dying." The midwife's thin voice gave reassurance, but having suffered the grief of burying two children in the days before last Christmas, Joanna held more tightly to her remaining daughter. To lose Ivy . . . Joanna halted the thought from fully forming, unable to bear the swell of grief.

"How long must the stitches stay in?" she asked, amazed her voice didn't tremble. Greta continued to work-a fourth stitch. A fifth. "A sennight, at the least. Ivy will have a scar, but has come to no lasting harm. Given a few days' rest, she will be fine."

Enforcing rest for even a day would be no easy task. Ivy could hardly keep her seat at table each morn, eager to escape to the village to play with the tenants' children. Despite the recent problems, Joanna had considered the village green a safe place for her daughter to play. No more.

The only way to ensure everyone's safety was to capture and punish the bastards responsible for this outrage- and Joanna was nearly at her wit's end over how to accomplish that feat.

True, she'd thought of one way, but it seemed extreme. Joanna peered into the pale face of the daughter she easily could have lost this morning. Perhaps an extreme solution was now called for.

After what seemed an eternity later, seventeen neat stitches puckered Ivy's arm. A rinse of the blood and wrap of white bandaging completed the process. As they finished, Maud, the manor's housekeeper, cautiously poked her kerchief-wrapped head into the chamber.

"Milady, Wat and Harold are in the hall. Are ye ready to speak with them?" If Harold was back so soon, then likely the thieves had escaped capture once more. Damn. "Inform them I will be with them anon."

Maud disappeared. Greta gathered up the bloodied towels and her basket of medicinals and followed. Joanna took a deep breath, kissed Ivy's forehead, and eased her onto the thick feather mattress, hoping the girl would sleep a while longer.

While fears over Ivy's injury eased, Joanna's resolve to set an untenable situation to rights did not. After a last reassuring inspection of her child, she left the room, leaving open the door connecting the chamber to the manor's hall, the better to hear if Ivy woke and cried out. The scents of rabbit stew bubbling in a black cauldron on the hearth, and of rosemary strewn among the rushes covering the dirt floor, helped mask the odor of blood drying on her brown, light wool gown. During her mad rush to find Ivy, Joanna's circlet and veil had flown off, and she hadn't given their whereabouts a thought until now, when the two somber men sitting at the trestle table in the middle of the hall turned to stare at her. Joanna forswore returning to her bedchamber to cover her braided blond hair. If either man thought her scandalous for the mere absence of a veil, so be it. But then, neither Wat Reeve nor Harold Long was wont to judge her harshly.

They occupied benches on either side of the trestle table. Now her trusted advisors, neither had been prepared to assume the positions of authority they now held. Joanna included herself among the unprepared. The plague of last summer and autumn had cut through both manor and village like a scythe wielded by an indiscriminate mower, taking whichever lives happened to cross the jagged path of the vile sickness. Nearly half of the populace had been lost, in some cases entire families. Wat Reeve, whom the villagers had elected to his deceased father's position of village reeve, unfolded his long, lank body to stand.

Sturdily built Harold Long followed suit. He now captained the sorely depleted garrison-chosen by the men for his skill at arms, approved by her for his ability to command.

Since her husband's death nigh on seven months earlier, both young men had provided her with good counsel and most often readily abided by her decisions, even when they didn't entirely approve. But, thus far, her decisions had been small ones. The thieves provided the first true challenge to her ability to rule Lynwood, and Joanna disliked the taste of failure.

She eased into the chair placed at the head of the table. The men sat but didn't relax. "How does the little lady?" Wat asked, his deep voice an odd match to his slight frame.

Likely the servants had already informed the men of the extent of Ivy's injuries. "She finally sleeps. The other children?"

"I visited all the families. The children are bruised and suffered a fright, but are otherwise unharmed, praise the Lord in his mercy." Wat rubbed weary eyes with his palms. "We were most fortunate. When I think of what might have happened . . ."

No one finished the reeve's thought. No one wanting to put the tragedy they'd escaped into words. Joanna glanced pointedly between the men. "These brutes who harry us must be caught and punished. I will not tolerate a repeat of this morning's incident. 'Tis unacceptable that our children are at risk while playing on the village green!"

Harold pounded a fist on the table. "We have hunted them since they first stole one of Margaret Atbridge's chickens. But with so few soldiers and the planting not yet done, and shearing time coming fast, I fear we will not have enough men available to hunt the ruffians properly for some weeks yet."

"We cannot wait weeks!" "I am aware of your concern, my lady. I share it! Where before the band struck under the cover of night, they now flaunt our vulnerability. We need more men, more horses and . . . nay, my lady, I do not know from where either can be hired or bought. The entire kingdom suffers the same hardships we do."

She didn't care about the hardships of the entire kingdom, only those in the small portion under her rule, a role thrust upon her without warning or mercy.

The pestilence had robbed her of Elias and Rose, both innocents she missed horribly. But the plague also rid her of Bertrand, whose soul-if justice truly existed in the afterlife-now resided with the devil in the deepest pit of hell.

Joanna gathered her courage to present her decision. As a courtesy, she would first give Wat and Harold a last opportunity to suggest other solutions. Indeed, she trusted their judgment, and hoped either one might offer a less extreme solution.

"This noon the thieves threatened the lives of our children. As you say, Harold, we have not the means to deal with them as we might like. Still, we need a solution, good sirs, and quickly."

Harold leaned forward, palm raised, expression earnest. "Mayhap another appeal to the abbot for assistance is in order."

Joanna didn't hesitate in her answer. Appealing to the Abbot of Holme, Lynwood Manor's overlord, didn't sit well.

"Our last appeal to the abbot gained us no more than Father Arthur. While we had need of a priest, he is helpless against these ruffians."

Indeed, the priest wasn't good for much of anything except spouting nonsense. The man didn't hold a good opinion of Lynwood or anyone who resided there. He had the audacity to wail and moan over the lack of holiness in the kingdom, claiming God had sent the plague to punish the wicked, impious hordes for their sins. Her toddling son hadn't been impious, or her infant daughter wicked.

"Are you still against an appeal to your brother?" Appeal to the brother who'd taken the first opportunity to be rid of her upon his inheritance? Who'd married her off to Sir Bertrand de Poitou despite her objections? She'd never again speak to her brother if she could help it.

"I am sure my brother suffers hardships, too. We must deal with this problem on our own."

Neither man would suggest she appeal to the de Poitou family, who'd irrevocably broken ties with Bertrand years before.

Wat shifted in his seat. "If I may take the liberty, Lady Joanna. These scoundrels must know we have no lord in residence, or they would not be so bold. I pray you reconsider your position on marriage."

Wat's suggestion not only pricked her ire but soured her stomach. The men knew she'd had two offers of marriage, both from landless knights seeking to improve their lot. She'd sent both men out the door with firm refusals. If she had her way, she would never marry again. Never place herself or Ivy at the mercy of a man.

Barely restraining her ire, Joanna once more stated her position on what Wat considered a convenient and desirable solution to all of the manor's travails.

"I will not take a husband simply to rid us of a few ruffians."

Wat's mouth tightened. "These ruffians are now more than a nuisance, my lady. In return for our pledge of fealty, the villagers are due protection. You must do whatever is required to meet that responsibility."

She was well aware of her duty to the villagers and manor folk, having witnessed both her father and her husband rule their holdings. Unfortunately, she had no practical experience in the matter because neither man had seen fit to give her the opportunity to try her hand. They'd both believed women were too softhearted and light-handed to oversee estates. Joanna meant to prove both men wrong, even if neither man was alive to witness her success.

"Certes, the garrison bears the burden of running the thieves to ground, but the villagers could be of aid. I believe a bit of cooperation is in order."

"We are farmers, not soldiers. Do you propose we abandon our plows to pick up swords?"

Joanna nearly shuddered at the consequences should they do so. Not only would some of the tenants hurt themselves beyond repair if given a sharp sword, but the planting must continue with due haste. Because of the plague, too much of last year's crop had rotted in the fields from lack of healthy hands at harvest. Without a bountiful harvest this autumn, all would face starvation next winter. "Nay, but I do expect everyone to keep a keen eye out for signs of the ruffians and give chase when possible."

"'Tis impossible for the villagers to overtake men on horseback. The responsibility for their capture must lie with the guards."

Harold took umbrage. "Think you we have not followed the louts? They vanish as if plucked from the earth by the wind, leaving no trail! 'Tis uncanny." Wat huffed. "No one on horseback vanishes without trace. Perhaps your soldiers take their duty too lightly and do not search too hard." Harold half rose from the bench. "You dare accuse us of shunning our duty?"

"Halt, at once!" Joanna stared at Harold until he reluctantly resumed his seat, then shot Wat a withering glare. "The soldiers do what they can. I have no complaint of them. Besides, what is past is done. We need a plan, good sirs, of how to proceed from now on."

After several moments of silence, Joanna hushed the errant thoughts of self-doubt, squared her shoulders, and forged ahead.

"Since we cannot seem to deal with the situation on our own, then we must find someone who is able. I intend to hire a mercenary to augment our garrison. His sole duty will be to rid us of these brutes." The announcement raised the men's eyebrows.

"Who, my lady?" Harold asked. "Logan Grimm, if he is available." Wat's head jerked back at the man's name, his eyes going wide. "Grimm?" he asked in a harsh whisper. She could almost hear the thoughts flitting through the men's heads.

Logan Grimm. Legendary mercenary. Reputedly the most fearsome fighter in the kingdom, Grimm charged a hefty fee, but he always won no matter the odds against him. Such a man could track down a band of thieves and dispatch them with ease.

Harold said nothing, only gave her a somber look. Wat found his voice again.

"Milady, is it wise to bring a man of his ilk among the innocent, God-fearing folk of Lynwood Manor?" Joanna stood up, unwilling to debate her decision further. "A man of his ilk will ensure that Lynwood Manor continues to exist. Harold, you will prepare to ride to London on the morn. I will give you direction and coin before you leave."

With that, she spun around and returned to the bedchamber to see to Ivy, hoping the gossip she'd heard in her father's hall about the legendary mercenary proved true.

'Twas said he was fierce, thorough, and completely loyal to whoever paid his fee. If Logan Grimm could rid her of this band of thieves, give her the peace and security she craved, then by the rood, she'd find a way to pay his fee-somehow.

Logan Grimm nursed an ale in the taproom of the crowded, crude dockside inn he called home while in London, a place he didn't visit often. Usually, he left the service of one lord only to head straight to another. 'Twas rare when he found himself without the prospect of work, rarer still when he suffered a wound from which he must recover.

The inactivity left him more surly than usual, but he admitted the rest had done his body good. The gash on his thigh healed well, if slowly, with the resulting limp easier to hide if he didn't overuse the leg. He would have a scar, but his body bore so many scars he no longer remembered whence they all came. All hazards of his profession. Luckily, up until this one all his scars came from light cuts. Unfortunately, this sword slice had required stitches. The damn wound still pinched and itched. The only good thing he could say about stitches was that they held the skin together.

As for work, something would come his way. It always did. Somewhere in the kingdom one lord wished to do battle with another lord, for righteous reasons or foul. Either aggressor or defender would seek out and hire Logan Grimm for his skill with a sword. He hoped not too many lords had learned of how poorly he'd fared on his last job. The dent to his otherwise flawless reputation bothered him more than the irksome stitches.

Habit shifted him on the stool when the door opened. The cries of fishmongers and the stench of muck-strewn streets invaded the inn as three men entered. The two sailors joined a boisterous group of their fellows. The third man perused the taproom before winding his way through the crowd to the bar. A merchant, Logan guessed, from the quality of his garb. No threat, no prospect.

Logan downed the last of his ale, intending to get up and walk around to keep his leg from going too stiff. He no more than put the mug down on the table he claimed and didn't share, when Abigail, the innkeeper's plump wife, headed in his direction with a flagon in hand. She was, in part, the reason he favored the Red Rooster. She kept his mug full and his bedding fairly vermin-free for a fair price.

He scowled at the woman. "No more, Abigail. If I do not get up and move, I will rot here." "Not on my stool, ye will not." She refilled his mug. "Man asking for you. Want to talk to him?" Another reason he liked the Red Rooster. Hugo, the owner, considered it a great privilege to act as Logan's go-between. A convenient and profitable arrangement for them both.

"Has the man shown coin yet?" "Enough to pay for his ale, and yours." "Say what he wants?" "Same as they all want. Healed enough yet?"

Logan shrugged. "Send him over." Abigail placed a work-roughened hand on her ample hip and narrowed her eyes. "You sure?" No man had dared to question Logan Grimm's commands for many a year now, for fear of finding himself staring at the tip of a well-honed broadsword. However, a man made allowances for the woman who picked lice from his blankets. "Send him over."

Abigail ambled back to the bar and pointed Logan out to the man he'd thought might be a merchant. Middle twenties or so. Garbed too fine for a messenger, too drably for a knight or higher lord. Somber. Wary, possibly frightened. Only loyalty to the lord he served, or the prospect of a reward, forced him to pass through the Red Rooster's door to find Logan Grimm. A quick judgment, but likely accurate.

Over the course of his nearly thirty years, he'd made few mistakes when judging the men who had hired him or those he fought against. Logan resisted the urge to rub at the wound reminding him of the humbling misjudgment of his last opponent. He'd won the day and earned his fee, but at a price to his pride and reputation. The man stopped a couple of feet away. "I am Harold Long, captain of Lynwood Manor's garrison. You are Logan Grimm?"

The man seemed too young to have risen to the rank of captain. Still, even given Harold's discomfort, Logan liked the solid tone of the man's voice. He waved Harold to a stool, not to put the man at ease, but because he didn't like anyone hovering over him.

"I am." Harold glanced around before lowering onto the stool. He leaned forward and folded his arms on the table. "I am most pleased to have found you so quickly. Can you be ready to leave on the morn?"

An urgent matter, then. Of course, when men sought his services the matter was usually urgent. "For the right price I can be ready to leave as soon as I finish my ale. Have you the right price?" From the leather pouch tied to his belt, Harold dumped several coins onto the table-a mix of pennies and groats. Logan would wager they added up to nearly three shillings.

"This now, the remainder when your services are no longer required."

Nearly a full week's fee in advance? How unusual. "How long might that be?" "As long as needed for you to complete your task. Are you free to hire on?"

Logan took a sip of ale, debating the wisdom of engaging in battle while his leg yet hurt. Damn wounding had happened nigh on a fortnight ago and should stop bothering him soon, he hoped.

"What must I do?" "Lynwood Manor is harried by a band of thieves. Her ladyship wishes you to dispatch them."

Ladyship. The hair on the back of Logan's neck prickled with warning. "You come at the behest of a woman?" "Lady Joanna, widow of Sir Bertrand de Poitou." Logan had no idea who either the lady or knight might be, but he didn't need to know. "Pick up your coins, Harold. I do not work for women, particularly widows. If you like, I can give you names of those foolish enough to do so."

Harold paled. "Her ladyship was most specific that I hire you."

"She does not get me. There are others-" "Surely her coin is as good as any man's." Logan glanced at the lovely silver on the table. The coin might be good, but not enticing enough to lure him into working for a woman, especially a widow. He'd done so once. Never again.

"I do not work for women." Harold gave a resigned sigh, his chin hitting his chest. "These ruffians grow bold. The last time they raided the village, they not only stole a prize goose but injured several children. If they are not caught, the next time someone might be killed."

Logan suffered a brief, sharp pang of what felt oddly like sympathy, an emotion a man in his profession couldn't afford. Perversely, his curiosity prodded him to ask, "Children were hurt?"

Harold's chin rose slightly. "Aye, four of them, including Lady Joanna's daughter. Took seventeen stitches to close the gash on Ivy's little arm."

The wound on his thigh required only ten stitches to close up, and he could still feel the jab of the needle on each one. Seventeen stitches on one of tender age and skin . . . no matter, wounded children or no, he wasn't taking this job.

"Perhaps the lady should apply to her overlord or her family for aid."

Harold glanced away, hesitating before answering. "My lady prefers to resolve the matter herself, if she can."

Logan knew he'd been lied to or, at the least, not given the whole truth. There were deeper problems here. Or was the woman simply mule-stubborn?

Compared to some of his past feats, this might be an easy job. Hell, he might not even have to draw his sword. Too bad a woman was involved.

Harold picked up one of the groats and twirled it through his fingers. "Could we not come to a bargain?" "Nay."

"Come with me to Lynwood Manor. Meet Lady Joanna. Judge for yourself the character of my lady and her need for your services." He put the coin back on the table. "Should you then decide you cannot accept her offer, these are still yours for your trouble." Logan arched an eyebrow. "Does your Lady Joanna know you squander her coin so foolishly?"

Harold rose. "Think on it, Grimm. I will return on the morn for either you or the money." Logan was sure he'd made his position clear. "I have decided. Take the damn coins with you!" Harold bowed as he took a step back. "Until morn," he said, then nearly ran out of the inn.

Logan scooped up a handful of coins, resisting the urge to fling them at the fleeing captain. He'd not keep the money, of course, but give the coins to Hugo, let the innkeeper return them to Harold when he came back on the morn.

The coins warmed in Logan's fist. What a foolish man, offering nearly a full week's wage to take a ride in the country, to this Lynwood Manor, wherever that might be.

Logan got up and adjusted the broadsword in the scabbard angled across his back. He should walk out to the stable and check on his horse. The poor beast had been confined to the inn's stable for several days, would likely welcome a long, hard ride.

Like a ride to Lynwood Manor. He glanced around the taproom, at the men quaffing ale, at Abigail bustling about to keep the mugs full. He could either take that ride to Lynwood Manor or remain there-nursing his wound, spending his hard-earned money on ale and coarse bread and molding cheese. Rotting on Abigail's stool.

Or he could earn some coin to tide him over until he was fully healed and able to take an offer more to his liking.

Mayhap in Harold's absence the thieves who stole geese and wounded children had been caught. Perhaps the need for his services no longer existed. And Harold claimed all Logan had to do to earn the coin was to meet Lady Joanna, not work for her. Mayhap he'd been too hasty, or more likely he'd simply lost his wits. Either way, Logan Grimm strode out of the Red Rooster, resigned to leaving on the morn to meet Lady Joanna of Lynwood Manor.

Excerpted from At Her Service , by Shari Anton . Copyright (c) 2005 by Sharon Antoniewicz. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

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