by Roberta Gellis
Harlequin Signature Select
Alinor knew when she married Simon, who was 30 years her senior, that he might well die before her; what she had not yet thought about in her grief was that she was now vulnerable to King John, who cherished a bitter grudge against her. Ian de Vipont had been Simon's squire and believed he owed Simon not only his property and his sanity but his life. He could never repay the debt to Simon, but he resolved to protect Simon's wife against the king. That was the argument Ian presented to Alinor when he asked her to marry him because he was afraid to speak of love when Alinor's beloved Simon had been dead less than five months. Reluctantly, because she feared King John's wrath would fix on Ian, Alinor agreed to the marriage. Soon she found herself differently but as deeply in love with Ian as she had been with Simon. Only Ian, she believed, was hiding from her an old unrequited love of his own. Ian had to rescue Alinor from an abduction and narrowly escape King John's plot to murder him before Alinor learned that the old, unrequited love was for her.
- A RICH AND TEMPTING WIDOW
- Although now a widow with two children, Alinor was still lovely to look at and even richer than when Simon married her. Many men would have found her a tempting prize except that King John had a very special fate planned for the woman who had rejected and defied him.
- A MOST TRUSTWORTHY SUITOR
- Ian de Vipont understood that the king hated not only his dead master, Simon Lemagne, but also Simon's widow, Alinor. He knew that if King John's choice of a second husband for Alinor actually married her, not only would she be tortured to death but her two children would be murdered so the husband could inherit Alinor's enormous estate. Though his life would be put at risk, Ian could not permit harm to come to Alinor or the children he also loved.
- A KING WITH SPITE
- King John was a hungry man and nothing seemed able to fill his maw. When he learned of Alinor's extensive lands, he conceived of a plan to seize a good part of them. He would marry her to one of his men, who would cede to him much of her property. But Alinor was already married when she fell into his hands. Frustrated of his purpose, John decided to use Alinor to cuckold her husband and get what he could from her since he could not seize her lands. Alinor was not compliant ... and John never forgot.
Excerpt from ALINOR
The afternoon light flooded the antechamber with brightness, but the inner wall chamber was dim. Ian hesitated and Alinor tugged at his hand, leading him safely around the large wooden tub that sat before the hearth. She unbelted his sword before he had even reached toward it, slipped off his surcoat, and laid it carefully on a chest at the side of the room. Ian gave up trying to be helpful and abandoned himself to Alinor's practiced ministrations, docilely doing as he was told and no more.
In a single skillful motion, Alinor pulled the hauberk over his head, turned it this way and that to see whether it needed the attention of the castle armorer, and laid it on the chest with the sword. Then she came around the front and unlaced his tunic and shirt. These were stiff with sweat and dirt, and she threw them on the floor. Next she knelt to unfasten his shoes and cross garters, drew them off, untied his chausses, and bid him stand.
Again Ian hesitated. Alinor thought how tired he was and was about to assure him he would feel better after he had bathed, but he stood before she could speak. Still kneeling, she pulled the chausses down and slipped them off his feet. When she raised her eyes to tell him to step into the tub, she saw the reason for his hesitation.
There could be no doubt now that Simon had been right. Ian was a fine young stallion, and he was displaying the fact with startling effect. Alinor's first impulse was to laugh and make a bawdy jest. A flickering glance at Ian's face checked her. He was certainly well aware of the condition he was in, but he did not think it was funny.
Briefly, Alinor was hurt. During the many years she had bathed high-born visitors to her keep, the reaction Ian was having occurred with other men once in awhile. Sometimes it was deliberately produced by men who thought Alinor had to be dissatisfied with her husband because he was so much older than she. They had underestimated Simon, and from Alinor had received such icy courtesy that the deliberate provocation did not occur a second time. With those in whom it was an innocent accident engendered by too long a period of continence or an inadvertent physical contact, it was best to make a jest, laugh, and forget.
It was usually best, but Alinor knew she must not laugh at Ian's stony-faced refusal to acknowledge his condition. She rose from her knees and stepped back and for the first time the full impact of his beauty hit her. The black curls that usually tumbled silkily over his forehead were lank and flattened, but that did nothing to reduce the luminous beauty of his large, dark eyes. The nose was fine, the lips both sensitive and sensuous. He was very tall for a man; head and shoulders both topped Alinor, and he was surprisingly hairless--just a shadow of dark down at the end of his breastbone and a narrow line from the navel to the pubic bush. His skin was very dark, very smooth, where it was not bleached and knotted by the scars of battle.
In the year that Simon had been ill, Alinor was too tired and too worried to think of herself as a woman. After his death, the fatigue and worry had only intensified. Now, without warning, she became aware of her long starvation. The blood rushed from her face to her loins. She put a hand on the tub to steady herself, and thanked God that Ian was staring past her into nothing.
Had Ian been in any condition to notice, Alinor's voice would have given her away. However, he was having his own problems and was grateful that they would be hidden if not solved so easily. He stepped into the tub and eased himself slowly into the water, which was rather hot. Alinor moved quickly to stand behind him.
She wondered whether she could bear to touch him and decided it would be simple and safer to run away and send a maid to wash him. She could always say she had remembered something overlooked in the excitement of his arrival. Even as Alinor tried to steady her voice to excuse herself, her eyes were drawn back to Ian. They rested briefly on the strong column of his neck, dropped to is broad shoulders.
"Ian! Holy Mother Mary, what befell you?"
Right across the shoulder blades, a large section of skin looked as if patches had been torn away. The wounds were not deadly, bit they were horridly ugly and gave evidence of having been reopened and rubbed raw more than once. Ian twisted his head, saw where her eyes were fixed, and laughed.
"Oh, that. A barrel of burning pitch blew apart. I was like to be a torch. My men doused me with water, but when it came to taking off my clothes, some of me went with them." His voice was normal, light, laughing at a stupid mishap. "I was ill enough pleased at it because we had taken the keep the day before, and I had not a mark on me from all the fighting. No one noticed that the barrel was afire, I suppose."
"But that was in August," Alinor exclaimed, also completely back to normal. "You idiot! Did you not have anyone look to you?"
"There were no physicians. The leeches treated me--for all the good they did."
"Oh, never mind. I will attend to that later. A warm soaking will do the sores good. First I want to wash your hair. Wait, you fool, do not lean back yet. Let me get a cushion to ease you. You will scrape your back against the tub."
"You will ruin the cushion if you put it in the bath."
"It can be dried. The maids are too idle anyway."
She went out. Ian closed his eyes and sighed. An expression of indecision as intense as to amount to fear crossed his face, changed to a rather grim determination. Alinor returned with a maid at her heels. She slipped the cushion behind Ian and he slid down against it and tipped his head back. He could hear the maid laying out fresh clothing and gathering up his soiled garments. Alinor reached over him to scoop up a ladleful of water, poured it over his head, and began to soap his hair.
"Tell me something pleasant," she said.
"Well, we took Montauban," Ian responded a little doubtfully but at a loss for anything to say that Alinor would consider pleasnt. "And a truce between Philip and John is being arranged."
"What is pleasant about that?" Alinor asked disgustedly. "It means the king will return here. Oh, curse the Angevins. Richard loved England too little, and John--" She gave Ian's hair a rough toweling so it would not drip in his face. "Sit up and lean forward."
"Yes, Alinor, but John does
love England." Ian elevated his knees, crossed his arms on them, and rested his forehead on his arms.
"Most assuredly. Like a wolf loves little children. He could eat three a day."
Alinor began to wash Ian's back very gently. She felt him wince under her hands, but his voice was steady.
"That is his nature. Like a wolf, he is dangerous only when running loose."
"And who will cage him?"
There was a long pause. Ian jerked as Alinor touched a particularly painful spot and then said, a trifle breathlessly, "I have much to say about that, but not here and now. To speak the truth, Alinor, I am tired and sore and that is no condition for me to match words with you."
"With me? What have I-- No, never mind. I see that you are about to engage in some harebrained enterprise, but I will not fret you when you are so tired. There, I have done with you for the moment. Sit up. Do you wash the rest while I go and get my salves."
Alinor handed Ian the cloth and the soap. She could, of course, have told the maid to bring the medicinal salves she needed, but she was afraid to wash the rest of Ian's body. There was too much chance of arousing him and herself again. By the time she returned, he was out of the tub and had drawn on a pair of Simon's chausses. Alinor was surprised that they fitted so well. She knew Ian and her late husband were much of a height, but Simon had always seemed a much heavier man. Perhaps it is the coloring, she thought, and the lack of body hair.
"Sit," Alinor directed, and then, "no, go lie on the bed on your face. This will be a long piece of work, and there is no need for my knees to be sore from kneeling."
"Do comfort me." Ian laughed. "Torturer."
"You will feel much better when I am done," Alinor remarked without the slightest sympathy. "Now, what other news is there?"
"None I care t tell--oh yes, one thing. There is a rumor that the queen is at last with child."
"Poor thing," Alinor commented. "With such a father and mother, I wonder what it will be?"
Ian laughed. "Do you expect horns and a tail? Do not be so harsh. There is good blood on both sides. The child need not be exactly like the parents, although God knows yours are like enough. And now I think on it, there is something I wanted to ask about. Did you forbid Beorn to teach Adam English?"
"Forbid it? No."
It was the first time Ian had said his name. It had slipped out quite naturally, but he tensed, fearing Alinor's reaction. There was none.
"I cannot imagine why he should. Why do you ask?"
"Because I think--ouch! Alinor, leave me what little skin I have. Give over a minute. Let me rest." He turned to the side so he could see her. "I think Adam wishes to learn, and it is no bad thing to understand what those beneath you say."
"Of course not. It is most necessary. I understand English myself, although I cannot speak it. Thank you for telling me. I will speak to Beorn. Sometimes he is overcareful."
"There is something else. Beorn is a good man, but--" Ian's voice checked as the sound of childish laughter came in the doorway.
"Oh, you are there, are you?" Alinor called. "Come in then. You might as well be of some use. Ian, lie flat again. Adam, hold this pot so I don't need to bend for it each time. Joanna, look you here. See how I clean this? It is not proud flesh, which must be cut away, as I have shown you aforetime. When the wound is of the skin rather than the flesh, wide and not deep, it must close all at once rather than from the inside. It is needful to be most gentle or the new, tender growth will be torn. See here, where the shield strap rubbed? There is no mending this. It will heal hard and shiny--and belike tear again."
"Were you wounded in the siege?" Adam asked excitedly. "Tell, Ian. You promised to tell."
"Mother, look here. What is this?" Joanna asked.
"Pox take it! That is an old scar torn open. That will need to be cleaned deeper."
"Ian, you promised," Adam said louder.
"Just a moment," Ian gasped, stiffening as Alinor directed Joanna to spread the lips of a pus-filled sore so she could clean it thoroughly.
"Adam, be still!" Alinor snapped.
"But Mother-- Oh Mother, may we sit at the high table for dinner? May we?" the irrepressible Adam demanded, jiggling up and down.
"May we, Mother?" Joanna echoed, unwisely looking up from her task so that a finger slipped and Ian jerked and groaned.
"Joanna, you careless girl! Adam, stand still! Sooner than reward you both, I will send you dinnerless to bed."
"Alinor," Ian said sharply, "do not punish them the first day I am here. They are excited. If you will be quiet, Adam, I will tell you at dinner."
"I am sorry, Ian," Joanna whispered.
"Never mind, love," he soothed, "it is nothing. Just do as your mother tells you. Do not be frightened. I will not die for a prick."
With her helpers properly subdued, Alinor finished her work quickly. Over the medicinal creams she spread a thin layer of grease to prevent the bandages from sticking to the sores, told Adam to pack up the pots carefully and take them away, and instructed Joanna in wrapping Ian firmly but not tightly in soft, old linen. Then she sent the girl away also. Ian started to get out of bed.
"For Mary's sake," Alinor exclaimed irritably, "lie down and sleep until dinner. If you show your face, those little devils will be at you."
"I do not mind," Ian said pacifically, then smiled. "It pleases me that they love me."
Alinor opened her mouth, shut it firmly for a moment, and then said, "Oh, go to sleep. If you do not, I
will be at you, and you are too tired now to be of the least help to me."
"Alinor--" He reached for her hand.
"No, Ian. Let me be. Let me go."
He watched her run from the room and, after staring some time at the empty doorway, lay down again. The task he had set himself grew harder and harder. Somehow he had expected Alinor to be less affected, more like Adam. He had never known her to carry a burden of woe for long. Even when she lost children-- You fool, he told himself, she would not make a parade of her grief for you. There was Simon to comfort her.
"It is too soon," he muttered, but there was no way around that part of the problem.
Simon was not Ian's father in the flesh, but in a more essential way he was the author of his being. Ian could remember his real father only dimly, and even that was too much. Simon had saved him from the hell of that dimly remembered existence, had taught him honor and pride and gentleness. It was a debt that could never be repaid, until now.
If only debt and desire were not so intermingled. Ian's trouble was that he wanted Alinor for herself. He had worshiped her from the day he had first seen her, almost 20 years ago, kneeling in the road to greet King Richard's mother. But one could not worship Alinor for long. She was far too real, far too much of the earth and the flesh, too kind and gentle, too hot-tempered and bawdy, to be seated on a pedestal. A man could only love or hate Alinor. Ian stirred restlessly, wondering again whether he was really paying his debt to Simon or trying to snatch something he had always wanted.
It was no use worrying that bone again. He had been at it as soon as his initial shock and grief at Simon's death was over. His first rational thought had been that he could now have Alinor. Sickened by the exposure of that long-repressed desire, Ian had recoiled from the idea, but it returned again and again. Each time the notion seemed more reasonable. The children loved him and he loved them. He would not steal their heritage or harm them as another might to gain absolute control over Alinor's vast estates. And as for Alinor--there was nothing Alinor could not have from him just for the asking.
In the privacy of her own chamber, a place she seldom sought now because it was redolent of happy memories, Alinor took herself to task. Of all the men in the world to lust after, Ian was the last. If she had such a need, there were a dozen men she could ask outright to service her. It would be a pleasure to them both and mean nothing to either. But not Ian. Simon had molded Ian into a mirror of his own uprightness. Not that Simon was a prude--far from it--nor that Ian would object to mating casually with this woman or that. Considering what he looked like, there must have been plenty of women, particularly in John's lascivious court. The king was openly a lecher and preferred that his gentlemen and his queen's ladies should not be overtly virtuous. Ian would not be horrified at bedding any lady of the court; he would only be horrified that Simon's wife could feel such a need so soon after his death.
Simon would not have been horrified, Alinor thought, chuckling while tears ran down her face. He would have bewailed her lack of morality aloud while his eyes laughed at her. Who would believe that Ian was not old enough to accept that the flesh had its own laws, and they had little to do with the heart or the mind? Yet look at his reaction to a most natural accident. Unless they were willing to use the common whores, men engaged in military actions were deprived of women.
Alinor was fairly certain that Ian had little need to use a whore under ordinary circumstances; there would be plenty of willing fine ladies. She was also sure he would recoil from using the filthy creatures that serviced the men-at-arms in a military camp. She understood that when a strong young man had been continent for months the slightest thing, the lightest touch, would wake his body. She would have laughed and forgotten it had Ian himself not been so appalled at his reaction to "Simon's wife."
"I am not only Simon's wife," Alinor sobbed softly. "I am Alinor."