| Lord of Temptation |
By Paula Quinn
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“REMEMBER, CASEY,” GIANELLE SAID while she twisted the heavy rope into one more knot, “an hour after Lord Bryce and his guests retire to their chambers, we will make our escape.” She pulled on the knot as tightly as she could and then double-checked the other end, which was tied to one of the four legs on her bed. She tugged, bracing her weight against it. It would hold. She hoped.
“What if he wakes up and looks for us?” Casey watched Gianelle shove the long rope under the bed. She didn’t like this idea at all. The thought of flinging herself out the window made her stomach ache. If only there were another way to escape. But Gia was right. They had to leave Devonshire. Their master was bad enough, but it was his brother who truly frightened them both. He rarely laid a finger on them, but it wasn’t because he didn’t want to. At least in that, their master protected them. But Edgar Dermott found ways to make their lives miserable, especially Gia’s. His hooded eyes were ever on her. If she consumed more than her scarce share of food allowed Devonshire’s servants, he was there to accuse her. When anything went awry at the castle, he blamed her, taking immense pleasure in her punishment.
“He will not look for us,” Gianelle assured her. “Casey, this is the best night to go. With all the guests here for his feast, even if he does wake up, he will not realize we are gone until we are halfway to York.”
Casey wished she had the same confidence as her best friend. She wasn’t certain which part of the plan frightened her more: descending Devonshire’s walls on a rope, or actually making it to the ground, where the true dangers would begin.
“Do you have the coins?”
Casey nodded and lifted her skirt to show Gia the small pouch dangling above her knee.
“How much do we have?”
“Ten pence is as high as I can count,” Casey reminded her. “We have a little more than that.” She twirled her long chestnut braid in her fingers and chewed her lower lip. “What if the guards see us running away?”
Gianelle crossed the room and took Casey’s shoulders in her hands. “You know they fall asleep every night. You must not worry so. Think of our lives after tonight.” The determined spark in Gianelle’s eyes made them glimmer like polished amber. Her normally sallow cheeks dusted pink with excitement. “We shall be free. There will be no more masters to tell us how to think or how to behave. No more punishment if we raise our eyes to our betters. We shall be able to say what we want, eat when we are hungry, and bathe in clean lakes instead of in a basin behind the kitchen.”
The thrill in her friend’s voice was contagious. Even though Casey didn’t care half as much about freedom as Gia did, she found herself nodding and smiling with anticipation. They had to go, and Casey would never let her dearest friend leave without her.
“Now come. Let us get above stairs and be the dutiful servants our lord thinks we are.” Gianelle clasped Casey’s hand and pulled her toward the door.
“Gia.” Casey paused just before they slipped into the hall. “Are you certain he won’t wake up and catch us? You remember the last time we made him angry . . .”
Gianelle patted Casey’s hand to reassure her. “I promise, Casey, Lord Dermott will not wake up.”
Gianelle pushed a loose tendril of hair away from her face with the back of her hand and lifted the silver tray, heavy with a fat roasted pig. She ignored the groans of her belly as she stumbled and teetered backward from the weight of the tray. She swore under her breath. For the mercy of God, what had they fed this swine? She didn’t think she would make it to the great hall and stopped twice to rest the tray on her knee. Her blasted hair wasn’t helping matters, either. Even braided, the unruly waves managed to escape. She blew another golden strand out of her vision before preparing to continue onward.
The corridors of Devonshire Castle bustled with servants, vassals, and an occasional stray guest searching out the garderobe. Today, Lord Bryce Dermott celebrated the summer solstice festival and had spared no expense to please his noble guests. He had hired two extra cooks to help Maeve prepare an array of delicacies fit for the king himself. Minstrels knelt by the hearth fire issuing forth melodies of love and fidelity, while colorfully dressed jugglers tossed balls high over their heads, and midget acrobats somersaulted between the rows of banqueting tables set up for the feast.
From the dais where Bryce Dermott sat with his quieter and even more black-hearted brother, Lord Edgar Dermott, Gianelle’s master spotted her struggling with the tray after an acrobat tumbled into her path. “Move your arse, wench!” He snapped his fingers at her. “We are hungry.”
Gianelle gritted her teeth, but lowered her head and pressed forward. She finally reached the dais and laid the tray down. She nearly tripped over her own feet when Baron Douglas Landry, one of the guests who sat at a lower table beneath her master, pinched her backside. With a flaming oath battering against her teeth, she turned to glare at him, but he lifted a challenging eyebrow at her.
“Fill my cup,” he demanded.
“Of course, my lord.” Gianelle dropped her gaze to her feet and curtsied. “There is a freshly opened barrel of wine in the kitchen.” She snatched his goblet off the table and headed back to the kitchen with a smile curling her lips.
Since the kitchen was normally the place where gossip ran rampant, Gianelle didn’t think it strange to find several of the serving wenches gathered around Maeve, the cook, while she basted an ox turning over the spit.
“I heard tell the earl single-handedly rescued twenty of King William’s warriors from the dungeons of Edgar the Aetheling shortly after the conquest. Sarah, old Ingram’s daughter, says he is taller even than Lord Edgar, with hair as black as a raven’s wing, and eyes the color of fine pewter.”
“Aye,” said Sylvia while she prepared a tray of poached eggs. “I caught a glimpse of him when I visited my sister in Dover last spring. Came riding right into the village and stopped to have a word with some of the fishermen as if he were no better than they. Yet he’s wealthy as they come with lands in Norwich, and even France. My sister’s husband said the people of Dover love their lord well. Especially the women.” Sylvia threw a wink at Maeve. “I tell you, girls, Lord Dante Risande is finer than any man sitting in the great hall.”
Maeve chuckled. “Makes me wish I was serving tonight.” When she saw Gianelle, she waved her ladle at her. “Have you seen him, Gia?”
Gianelle shook her head and walked past the huddled women to where Casey stood setting apple tarts on a long, bronze serving tray. “I told you yesterday when you were all going on about his arrival, Maeve, I’ve no interest in any man who is eager to order me about.”
“Alas, I fear even the face of a god could not turn our Gia’s head.” Lydia, a swarthy wench, looked up from the swan she was stuffing. She popped her hand out of the fowl’s body and pointed a greasy finger at Gia. “You’ll die an old maid if you don’t find someone to love soon, girl.”
“Love is for poets, Lydia.” Gianelle pinched a bit of daffodil from one of the many jars lining a shelf above the chopping table, and dropped it into Baron Landry’s goblet. “I do not waste my thoughts on such romantic drivel.”
“What are you doing with the daffodil?” Casey asked her when Gianelle poured some red wine into the cup next.
“Baron Landry pinched my backside,” Gianelle told her with a mischievous grin curling her lips. “Now he will pay the price.”
“He’ll be expelling my delicious ox before it reaches his guts.” Maeve threw her head back and laughed.
“Well, it’s better than losing a tooth or two like Lady Millicent last month when she slapped Gia for looking at her dour old husband,” Casey reminded them.
“How was I to know that sticking those pebbles in her honey cakes would break her teeth?”
The women laughed when Gianelle held up Baron Landry’s cup and offered a quick prayer for his poor intestines. She eyed the apple tarts. She had one more thing to do before she left the kitchen.
She passed Margaret, another of Dermott’s serving girls, on the way out and rolled her eyes when the wench announced to the others that she had just seen Lord Dante, and the Almighty should roast her arse if he wasn’t the most magnificent beast of a man she’d ever clapped her sorry eyes on.
When she entered the great hall, Gianelle didn’t bother to look around for the man causing such a stir in the kitchen, but set her gaze on Douglas Landry and headed straight for him with a satisfied hum rolling off her lips.
“Your wine, my lord,” she said quietly and set the goblet on the table before him. When she turned to walk away, she hit a wall of solid rock.
Strong, broad fingers closed around her arms to keep her from bouncing backward and landing in Landry’s lap.
“Pardon me, mademoiselle.”
Before she had time to stop herself, Gianelle looked up. She caught a glimpse of dark hair and pale gray eyes an instant before she dutifully dropped her gaze. God’s teeth, the oaf was huge. His frame blocked everyone behind him from her vision. But it was the scent of him that overwhelmed her. A rich blend of leather and salty tang that filled her nostrils and went straight to her head. The moment he loosened his grip on her, she tried to step around him. Something tugged her back.
“A strand of your hair is caught on my button.” His voice was deep and smooth, rumbling from someplace within the wall of his chest, a few inches from her nose.
This must be the famed Earl Risande, she thought while she watched his fingers deftly untangle her hair from a small button on his surcoat. None of Dermott’s other guests spoke to her with such gentleness in their voices, and not many of them spoke with the sensual inflection of her homeland in Normandy.
“There. You are free.”
Normally Gianelle would never risk a second, bold glance at a noble, especially one standing this close to her. She wasn’t certain if it was his voice or his words that tempted her to do so now.
When she looked up at him, he captured her gaze with his and held it. Damn the kitchen wenches, they were right. His eyes were fashioned of beaten silver. Thick lashes, as coal black as his hair, made them appear even more piercing, more penetrating. His nose was straight and strong, his jaw rugged, his lips carved for pagan pleasures. He reminded her of a wolf whose magnificence made one forget the danger of getting too close. There was the same feral beauty in his eyes that captivates prey seconds before it is ensnared. Gianelle stood mesmerized for a moment before he smiled at her, flashing a frivolous dimple and tilting her world on its axis.
“Then you will excuse me, my lord.” She managed a slight curtsy and hurried away.
Lord Dante Risande watched her departure. His gaze followed the length of her long, golden braid down to the alluring swell of her buttocks.
“Merde. Did you see that, Balin?” He turned to another man waiting patiently at his right.
“See what, my lord?”
“That face.” Dante turned again to find the serving girl in the crowded hall. “Those glorious eyes. Find out what her name is.”
Balin expelled a great sigh. “Someday you’re going to find yourself father to a dozen sons you didn’t know you had,” he grumbled while he went to do his lord’s bidding.
Dante smiled, catching a glimpse of her weaving her way out of the hall. “Mayhap if I’m fortunate, thirteen before I leave this castle in the morn.”
Excerpted from Lord of Temptation , by Paula Quinn . Copyright (c) 2006 by Paula Quinn . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top