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"A lovely, utterly compelling novel from an immensely gifted new author." —Jane Feather, New York Times bestselling author
"Debut author Hunter begins this new series with a thoroughly satisfying launch." —Publishers Weekly
He saw her and wanted her and paid the King a fortune to have her.
At least that is what everyone thinks.
But Christiana suspects that there is more to her arranged marriage than that, and much more to her future husband than he lets the world see.
Lady Christiana Fitzwaryn is not opposed to marriage. But she demands to be married on her own terms, not as punishment for a romantic indiscretion, and especially not to a common merchant. Yet she is in for a shock when she meets David de Abyndon. For she is confronted by no ordinary merchant but a man of extraordinary poise and virility. He is unaffected by their difference in social status. And even less affected by her well-thought-out arguments against their upcoming betrothal. Instead, it is Christiana who feels uneasy in the presence of this naturally lordly man behind whose cool blue eyes she senses the most uncompromising of passions.
Although she has promised her heart to another man, she cannot resist David's seductive charm. Lured by his charisma, she discovers pleasure, then love, and finally the secrets hidden in his heart.
FROM CHAPTER ONE
"My name is Christiana Fitzwaryn."
They stood in a long silence broken only by the crackle of the new logs on the fire.
"You had only to send word and I would have come to you. In fact, I was told that the Queen would introduce us at the castle tomorrow," he finally said.
"I wanted to speak with you privately."
His head tilted back a bit. "Then come and sit yourself, Lady Christiana, and say what you need to say."
Three good sized chairs stood near the fire, all with backs and arms. Suppressing an instinct to bolt the room, she took the middle one. It was too big for her, and even perched on the edge her feet dangled. She felt the same way that she had last night with the Queen, like a child waiting to be chastised. She reached up and pushed down the hood of her cloak.
A movement beside her brought David de Abyndon into the chair on her left. He angled it away so that he faced her. Close here, in the glow of the fire, she could see him clearly.
Her eyes fell on expertly crafted brown high boots, and long well shaped legs in brown hose. Her gaze drifted up to a beautiful masculine hand, long fingered and traced with elegant veins, resting on the front edge of the chair's arm. The red wool pourpoint was completely unadorned of embroidery or jewels, and yet, even in the dancing light of the fire, she could tell that the fabric and workmanship were of the best quality and very expensive. She paused a moment, studying the richly carved chair on which he sat, and the birds and vines decorating it.
Finally, there was no place else to look but at his face.
Dark blue eyes the color of lapis lazuli examined her as closely as she did him. They seemed friendly enough eyes, even expressive eyes, but Christiana found it disconcerting that she could not interpret the thoughts and reactions in them. What reflected there? Amusement? Curiosity? Boredom? They were beautifully set under low arched brows and the bones around them, indeed all of the bones of his face, looked perfectly formed and regularly fitted, as if some master craftsman of great skill had carefully chosen each one and placed it just so. A straight nose led to a straight wide mouth. Golden brown hair, full and a little shorter than this year's fashion, feathered carelessly over his temples and down his chiseled cheeks and jaw to his collar.
David de Abyndon, warden of the mercers' company and merchant of London, was a very handsome man. Almost beautiful, but a vague hardness around the eyes and mouth kept that from being so.
A shrewd scrutiny veiled his lapis eyes, and she suddenly felt very self-conscious. It had been impolite of her to examine him so obviously, but he was older and should know better than to do the same.
"Don't you want to remove your cloak? It is warm here," that quiet voice asked.
The idea of removing her cloak unaccountably horrified her. She was sure that she would feel naked without it. In fact, she pulled it a bit closer in response.
His faint smile reappeared. It made him appear amiable, but revealed nothing.
She cleared her throat. "I was told that . . .that you were. . ."
"No doubt someone confused me with my dead master and partner, David Constantyn. The business was his before mine."
The silence stretched. He sat there calmly, watching her. She sensed an inexplicable presence emanating from him. The air around him possessed an intensity that she couldn't define. She began to feel very uncomfortable. Then she remembered that she had come here to talk to him and that he waited patiently for her to do so.
"I need to speak with you about something very important."
"I am glad to hear it."
She glanced over, startled. "What?"
"I'm glad to hear that it is something important. I would not like to think that you traveled London's streets at night for something frivolous."
He was subtly either scolding her or teasing her. She couldn't tell which.
"I am not alone. A knight awaits in the courtyard."
"It was kind of him to indulge you."
Not teasing. Scolding.
That annoyed her enough that she collected her thoughts quickly. She was beginning to think that she did not like this man much. He made her feel very vulnerable. She sensed something proud and aloof in him too, and that annoyed her even further. She had been expecting an elderly man who would treat her with a certain deference because of their difference in degrees. There was absolutely no deference in this man.
"Master David, I have come to ask you to withdraw your offer of marriage."
He glanced to the fire, then his gaze returned to her. One lean muscular leg crossed the other and he settled comfortably back in his chair. An unreadable expression appeared in his eyes and the faint smile formed again.
"Why would I want to do that, my lady?"
He didn't seem the least bit surprised or angry. Perhaps this meeting would go as planned after all.
"Master David, I am sure that you are the good and honorable man that the King assumes. But this offer was accepted without my consent."
He looked at her impassively. "And?"
"And?" she repeated, a little stunned.
"That is an excellent reason for you to withdraw, but not me. Express your will to the King or Bishop and it is over. But your consent or lack of it is not my affair."
"It is not so simple. Perhaps amongst you people it is, but I am a ward of the King. He has spoken for me. To defy him on this . . ."
"The church will not marry an unwilling woman, even if a King has made the match. I, on the other hand, have given my consent and can not withdraw it. There is no reason to, as I have said."
His calm lack of reaction irked her. "Well, then, let me explain my position more clearly and perhaps you will have your reason. I do not give my consent because I am in love with another man."
Absolutely nothing changed in his face or eyes. She might have told him that she was flawed by a wart on her leg.
"No doubt an excellent reason to refuse your consent in your view, Christiana. But again, it is not my affair."
She couldn't believe his bland acceptance of this. Had he no pride? No heart? "You can not want to marry a woman who loves another," she blurted.
"I expect it happens all the time. England is full of marriages made under these circumstances. In the long run, it is not such a serious matter."
Oh dear saints. A man who believed in practical marriages. Just her luck. But then, he was a merchant.
"It may not be a serious matter amongst you people," she tried explaining, "But marriages based on love have become desired . . ."
"That is the second time that you have said that, my lady. Do not say it again." His voice was still quiet, his face still impassive, but a note of command echoed nonetheless.
"'You people'. You have used the phrase twice now."
"I meant nothing by it."
"You meant everything by it. But we will discuss that another day."
He had flustered and distracted her with this second scolding. She sought the strand of her argument. He found it for her.
"My lady, I am sure a young girl thinks that she needs to marry the man whom she thinks that she loves. But your emotions are a short term problem. You will get over this. Marriage is a long term investment. All will work out in the end."
He spoke to her as if she were a child, and as dispassionately as if they discussed a shipment of wool! It had been a mistake to think that she could appeal to his sympathy. He was a tradesman, after all, and to his life was probably just one big ledger sheet of expenses and profits.
Well, maybe he would understand things better if he saw the potential cost to his pride.
"This is not just a short term infatuation on my part, Master David. I pledged myself to this man."
"You both privately pledged your troth?"
It could be done that way. She could lie. She desperately wanted to, and felt sorely tempted, but such a lie could have dire consequences, and very public ones, and she wasn't that brave. "Not formally," she said, hoping to leave a bit of ambiguity there.
He at least seemed moderately interested now. "Has this man offered for you?"
"His family sent him home from court before he could settle it."
"He is some boy whom his family controls?"
"A family's will may seem a minor issue for a man such as you, but he is part of a powerful family up north. One does not defy kinship so easily. Still, when he hears of this betrothal, I am sure that he will come back."
"So, Christiana, you are saying that this man said that he wanted to marry you but left without settling for you."
That seemed a rather bald way to put it.
He smiled again. "Ah."
She really resented that "Ah." Her annoyance made her bold. She leaned toward him, feeling her jaw harden with anger. "Master David, let me be blunt. I have given myself to this man."
Finally a reaction besides that impassive indifference. His head went back a fraction and he studied her from beneath lowered lids.
"Then be blunt, my lady. Exactly what do you mean by that?"
She threw up her hands in exasperation. "We made love together. Is that blunt enough for you? We went to bed together. In fact, we were found in bed together. Your offer was only accepted so that the Queen could hush up any scandal and keep my brother from forcing a marriage that my lover's family does not want."
She thought that she saw a flash of anger beneath those lids.
"You were discovered thus and this man left you to face it alone? Your devotion to this paragon of chivalry is impressive."
His assessment of Stephen was like a slap in her face. "How dare such as you criticize. . ."
"You are doing it again."
"Doing what?" she snapped.
"'such as you'. Twice now. Another phrase that you might avoid. For prudence sake." He paused. "Who is this man?"
"I have sworn not to tell. My brother. . . .besides, as you have said, it is none of your affair."
He rose, uncoiling himself with an elegant movement, and went to stand by the hearth. The lines beneath the pourpoint suggested a lean, hard body. He was quite tall. Not as tall as Morvan, but taller than most. She found his presence unsettling. Merchants were supposed to be skinny or portly men in fur hats.
He gazed at the flames. "Are you with child?"
The notion astounded her. She hadn't thought of that. But perhaps the Queen had. He turned and saw her surprise.
"Do you know the signs?" he asked softly.
She shook her head.
"Have you had your flux since you were last with him?"
She blushed and nodded. In fact, it had come today.
He turned back to the fire.
She wondered what he thought about as he studied those tongues of heat. She stayed silent, letting him weigh however he valued these things, praying that she had succeeded, hoping that he indeed had a merchant's soul and would be repelled by accepting used goods.
Finally she couldn't wait any longer.
"So, you will go to the King and withdraw this offer?" she asked hopefully.
"I think not."
Her heart sank.
"Young girls make mistakes," he added.
"This was no mistake," she said forcefully. "If you do not withdraw, you will end up looking a fool. He will come for me, if not before the betrothal than after. When he comes, I will go with him."
He did not look at her, but his quiet, beautiful voice drifted over the space between them. "What makes you think that I will let you?"
"You will not be able to stop me. He is a knight, and skilled at arms. . ."
"There are more effective weapons in this world than steel, Christiana." He turned. "As I said earlier, you are always free to go to the Bishop and declare your lack of consent to this marriage. But I will not withdraw now."
"An honorable man would not expect me to face the King's wrath," she said bitterly.
"An honorable man would not ruin a girl at her request. If I withdraw, it will displease the King whom I have no wish to anger. At the least I will need a good reason. Should I use the one that you have given me? Should I repudiate you because you are not a virgin? It is the only way."
She dropped her eyes. The panicked desolation of the last day returned to engulf her.
She sensed a movement and then David de Abyndon stood in front of her. A strong, gentle hand lifted her chin until she looked up into his handsome face. It seemed to her that those blue eyes read her soul and her mind and saw right into her. Even Lady Idonia's hawklike inspections had not been so thorough and successful. Nor so oddly mesmerizing.
That intensity that flowed from him surrounded her. She became very aware of his rough fingers on her chin. His thumb stretched and brushed her jaw and something tingled in her neck.
"If he comes for you before the wedding, I will step aside," he said. "I will not contest an annulment of the betrothal. But I must tell you, girl, that I know men and I do not think that he will come, although you are well worth what it would cost him."
"You do not know him."
"Nay, I do not. And I am not so old that I can't be surprised." He smiled down at her. A real smile, she realized. The first one of the evening. A wonderful smile, actually. His hand fell away. Her skin felt warm where his fingers had laid.
She stood up. "I must go. My escort will grow impatient."
He walked with her to the door. "I will come and see you in a few days."
She felt sick at heart. He was making her go through with the farce of this betrothal and it would complicate things horribly. She had no desire to play this role any more than necessary.
"Please do not. There is no point."
He turned and looked at her as he opened the door and led her to the steps. "As you wish, Christiana."
She saw Thomas's shadowy form in the courtyard, and flew to him as soon as they exited the hall. She glanced back to the doorway where David stood.
Thomas began guiding her to the portal. "Did you accomplish what you needed?"
"Aye," she lied. Thomas did not know about the betrothal. It had not been announced yet, and she had hoped that it never would be. Master David's stubbornness meant that now things were going to become very difficult. She would have to find some other way to stop this betrothal, or at least this marriage.
By Arrangement, copyright © 2000 Madeline Hunter