Charming the prince, p.1
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       Charming the Prince, p.1

           Teresa Medeiros
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Charming the Prince


  Charming the Prince

  Teresa Medeiros

  Bantam Books

  NEW YORK • TORONTO • LONDON • SYDNEY • AUCKLAND

  Charming the Prince

  PUBLISHING HISTORY A Bantam Book / April 1999

  All rights reserved.

  Copyright © 1999 by Teresa Medeiros.

  Front jacket art copyright © 1999 by Alan Ayers.

  Back jacket art copyright © 1999 by Lynne Sanders/Fortin-Sanders.

  No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

  For information address: Bantam Books.

  ISBN 0-7394-0294-3

  Published simultaneously in the United States and Canada

  Bantam Books are published by Bantam Books, a division of Random House, Inc. Its trademark, consisting of the words “Bantam Books” and the portrayal of a rooster, is Registered in U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and in other countries. Marca Registrada. Bantam Books, 1540 Broadway, New York, New York 10036.

  PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

  For Irwyn Applebaum, for his unwavering faith in his writers and his continuing dedication to women’s fiction.

  For Ms. Meriweather, Ms. Silvey, Ms. Truitt, Ms. Warren, Ms. Brown, Ms. Sharon, Mr. Wade Holder, Miss Alma Ferguson, Mr. Fielder, Mr. Johnson, Mr. Jent, Ms. Brenda Watson, Ms. Pat Mickel, Mr. Darvis Snod-grass, Mr. Ted Parrish, Miss Mary Hart Finley, Ms. Amanda White, Mr. Robert Adkins, Ms. Lisa DiPasquale, Ms. Becky Griffin, Mr. David Schuermer, Ms. Patricia Ramsden, Melissa Bregenzer and for all the teachers who strive to give their students a love of learning and reading, especially Mr. Ernie Davis, who once gave me a B in trigonometry when I deserved a C only because I promised never to take trigonometry again, and who spoke those immortal words—”There’s no such thing as a bad book. Some books are just better than others.”

  For Michael. God has blessed me richly in this life, but never so much as when you fell in love with me.

  Prologue

  England, 1347

  Lady Willow of Bedlington had been waiting for this moment her entire life. She clutched her papa’s hand and shifted from one foot to the other, so excited she feared she might wet herself.

  At long last, after six years of wishing and praying, she was finally going to have a mama of her very own.

  She stole a furtive look at her papa. He looked as handsome as King Edward himself, standing there so straight and tall in the courtyard of their castle, his undertunic draped with a belted scarlet surcoat. His surcoat might be threadbare and his scabbard tarnished, but Willow had scrambled into his lap and combed his reddish-gold beard for him only seconds before a blast from a herald’s trumpet had signaled the approach of his betrothed’s chariot.

  “Papa?” she whispered out of the corner of her mouth as they waited for the chariot and its retinue of knights to wend its way up the hill.

  “Aye, princess?” he replied, inclining his head.

  “Will you love the lady Blanche as you loved my mama?”

  “I shall never love any woman as I loved your mama.”

  Stirred by the bittersweet yearning in his expression, Willow squeezed his hand.

  He gave her a halfhearted wink. “But ‘twill please the king to see me wed to a noble widow such as Blanche. Her lord was killed in the same battle that cost me the use of my sword arm. So she has need of a titled husband and I have need of the generous dowry the king will provide.” He swung her hand back and forth. “Think how wonderful ‘twill be to enjoy the king’s favor once again, Willow! Your little belly won’t be growling like a bear anymore. There’ll be fresh game on the table every night. We won’t have to sell off any more of your mother’s treasures. Why, the profit from the timber yield of Blanche’s forests alone will overflow our coffers for years to come!”

  Willow pretended excitement, but she wasn’t the least bit concerned with timber yields or overflowing coffers. She simply hoped the lady Blanche needed a little girl as much as she needed a mama. She wouldn’t have been able to endure her papa’s prolonged absences from the castle during the recent months had he not been wooing her a new mother.

  Her yearning for a mother was the only secret she’d ever kept from him. In truth, most of the time she was perfectly content to be Papa’s little girl. Content to mend the rips in his shabby hose with her clumsy stitches. Content to scold him when he went out without his cloak on a snowy winter day and to thaw his icy beard with her kisses when he returned. Content to chortle with delight when he called her “his princess” and rumpled her dark curls. She never even minded that their beans and pottage was more pottage than beans as long as she could fall asleep in the crook of his arm after he’d regaled her with a story from the hand-lettered Bible that had belonged to her mama. ‘Twas the only book her papa had refused to sell.

  It wasn’t until after Willow was settled into the straw tick before the fire with the castle hounds nestled around her that her thoughts would stray to how nice it would be to have a mama to stroke her hair and sing her a lullaby as she drifted off to sleep.

  She tugged at her father’s hand again. “Will the lady Blanche love me?”

  “Of course, pet. How could anyone not love Papa’s little princess?”

  But this time Papa didn’t glance down at her. His grip on her hand tightened until it was almost painful.

  Pricked by doubt, Willow smoothed the woolen skirt of her kirtle with her free hand. She had made the kirtle herself from scraps of fabric cut from one of her mother’s gowns, working by candlelight until her eyes burned and her cramped fingers cracked and bled. Hoping to impress her new mama with her needlework skills, she’d even stitched a chain of roses along the square neckline. Although the wind whipping down from the north smelled like snow, Willow chose to shiver rather than hide her handiwork beneath her faded cloak.

  She lifted her chin, buoyed by a stubborn rush of pride. Papa was right, of course. How could anyone not love her?

  But as the splendid white chariot came rumbling across the drawbridge and into the outer bailey, accompanied by a dozen standard-bearing knights, panic seized her. What if all of her efforts weren’t enough? What if she wasn’t enough?

  The covered chariot glided to a halt. Willow gaped, awed by the magnificence of its embroidered damaskcurtains and cream-and-gilt wheels. Six snowy white steeds stamped their hooves and tossed their heads, flaunting their braided manes. The bells threaded through their leather bridles jingled a crisp fanfare.

  Papa leaned down and whispered, “Lady Blanche has a marvelous surprise for you.”

  The chariot door creaked open. Willow held her breath, dazzled by glimpses of a graceful ankle; a flared sleeve trimmed in sable; icy blond hair gathered into a silver crispinette.

  As the lady Blanche emerged fully from her silken cocoon, Willow’s heart leapt. Her new mama was even more beautiful than she had imagined.

  Her head danced with images of all the things they would do together—sing rounds and recite rondels for her papa on snowy winter nights, spin flax on the spinning wheel that had sat motionless and silent in the solar since her mother’s death, gather cowslips and sweet william in the aprons of their gowns when the tender green mist of spring came creeping over the meadows.

  As the lady inclined her head and favored Papa with a regal smile, the anticipation of being crushed to her sweet-smelling bosom made Willow feel almost faint. She took a step forward without realizing it, but froze when something came tumbling out of the chariot behind her new mama. At first she thought it was a dog—one of the furry, pug-nosed creatures so favo
red by noble ladies. But as it straightened and shook a mane of white-blond hair out of its eyes to give her a challenging gaze, she realized it was a child.

  Willow recoiled. It seemed the lady Blanche would have no need of her. She already had a little girl. Her eyes widened as a second plump little body scrambled out after the first—a boy this time, with rosy cheeks and legs like sausages.

  Her confusion mounted as he was followed by another child, then another. She struggled to count them. Three. Four. Five. Every one of them as blond and robust as Lady Blanche, but lacking in any hint of her grace. They scampered around their mother like a litter of white wolf cubs, whining and yelping and tripping over her train.

  “I’m firsty, Mama!”

  “I’m s’eepy!”

  “I gots to piss!”

  “Why did we have to come to this horrid old ruin? I want to go home!”

  Their pleas and demands were interrupted by a cry that struck dread in Willow’s heart.

  “Papa Rufus!”

  Untangling his fists from his mother’s skirt, the largest boy came barreling toward her papa. His cry was a trumpet sounding battle, launching a wild charge across the courtyard.

  Willow planted her feet, but the children simply shoved her aside as they surrounded her father, bouncing up and down and clamoring “Papa Wufus! Papa Wufus!”

  He was forced to sweep three of them up into his arms or risk being trampled himself. The oldest boy and girl, who appeared to be around the same age as Willow, clung to his neck, while the others attached themselves to his arms and legs.

  Their mother swept after them, holding a fur-wrapped bundle in her arms and smiling indulgently. “They’ve missed you, Rufus. They grew quite fond of you while you were courting me. As did I.”

  The lady’s voice was rich and sweet, like cream that needed stirring. It made Willow’s heart contract with yearning. She stood on tiptoe and tried to steal a peek at her stepmother’s burden. Perhaps it was the marvelous surprise Papa had mentioned.

  Struggling to juggle his own burdens between his strong and weak arms so he wouldn’t inadvertently drop one, Papa leaned down to brush Blanche’s cheek with a kiss. “I trust you had a pleasant journey, my lady.”

  “Not nearly so pleasant as the anticipation of what awaited me at its end.”

  Willow waited for her new mama to notice her, but the woman’s hungry gaze remained riveted on her father. It was Papa who finally turned a pained smile her way. “Willow, I told you your stepmother had a surprise for you. You’ll never again have to squander your time talking to those imaginary friends of yours. Now you’ll have real brothers and sisters to play with.”

  The children ceased their jabbering, lapsing into a sullen silence broken only by the greedy smacking of a toddler nursing on its thumb.

  Five pairs of icy blue eyes surveyed her. None of the lady Blanche’s children wore childish kirtles. They were all dressed like miniature adults in cream wool trimmed in cloth-of-gold brocade. The oldest boy even wore a small sword in a scabbard studded with rubies and emeralds. Their silky blond hair hung perfectly straight without a hint of the troublesome curl that had always plagued Willow.

  Her stomach sank as she saw herself through those pale, appraising eyes—a gawky child garbed in a dead woman’s rags, her neckline hemmed by knots that looked more like nettles than roses.

  The oldest girl rested her head on Papa’s chest and batted her white-gold eyelashes. “I’ve never seen hair so black, Mama. Does she roll in the cinders?”

  Her brother snorted. “In the stable dung, more likely. ‘Tis why her skin is so coarse and brown.”

  Papa frowned at the boy in his arms. “I say, lad, I’ll not have you—”

  “Do not mock your stepsister, Stefan,” Blanche interjected smoothly. “The poor child cannot help her looks.”

  “Willow don’t sound like a Christian name,” the girl said, still eyeing her suspiciously. “Is she a pagan?”

  “Willow” had been Papa’s pet name for her ever since she’d fallen asleep beneath a willow tree’s sweeping boughs as a babe, sending her papa and his villeins on a frantic search that had lasted until the following morning.

  Before she could reveal that her Christian name was Wilhelmina, she was silenced by Lady Blanche’s low, throaty laugh. “Of course she’s not a pagan, Reanna. Her mother was French.”

  The woman’s smile did not waver, but the faint narrowing of her eyes gave it a malevolent cast. Something deep inside of Willow began to curdle.

  “The French killed our papa in the war,” Stefan said coldly, his chubby hand caressing the hilt of his miniature sword.

  Willow crowded close to her papa’s leg and tried to tuck her hand back into his.

  “Not now, Willow,” he snapped, grimacing in pain as he struggled to pry his earlobe from the mouth of a teething toddler and keep his weak arm from collapsing beneath Stefan’s weight. “Can’t you see I have but two hands?”

  Willow snatched her hand back, flushing with shame. Her father had never before rebuked her in such a tone.

  Her stepmother purred, “Don’t pout, dear. ‘Tis most unbecoming. Here’s something to occupy your little hands.”

  The woman thrust her furry bundle into Willow’s arms. Willow didn’t even steal a peek at it, watching instead as Blanche linked her arm in Papa’s and steered him firmly toward the castle. The stray children toddled after them while Reanna leaned over Papa’s shoulder and poked her tongue out at Willow. Papa cast her one brief, helpless glance before they all disappeared into the shadows of the great hall.

  Willow might have stood there all day, dazed and bereft, if she hadn’t become aware of a most curious warmth spreading down the front of her kirtle. Her burden began to squirm. Her eyes widened in horror as a wisp of white-blond hair stuck atop a fuzzy pink scalp slowly emerged from a gap in the fur. The gremlin’s puckered face flushed crimson as it threw back its head and let loose with an earsplitting wail.

  Only then did Willow realize she was holding yet another of her stepmother’s whelps. Only then did she hear the snide chuckles of Blanche’s knights as they elbowed one another and pointed at her. Only then did she realize exactly what was soaking her precious kirtle and dripping into her shoes.

  Resisting the urge to add her howls to the baby’s, Willow lifted her chin and leveled a stern gaze at the smirking men. “What are the lot of you gawking at? Have you never seen a lady pissed upon before?”

  As the knights snapped to attention, choking back their mirth, Willow swept the sodden hem of her skirt around and went marching toward the castle, trying not to stagger beneath the weight of her squalling burden.

  Sons are a heritage from the Lord

  children a reward from him.

  Like arrows in the hands of a warrior

  are sons born in one’s youth.

  Blessed is the man

  whose quiver is full of them.

  Psalm 127

  The Holy Bible

  One

  England, 1360

  Sir Bannor the Bold raced through the shadowy stone corridors of the castle, his brow pouring sweat and his heart hammering in his chest like a war drum. He dashed around a corner, then ducked into the alcove of a recessed window, fighting to still the hoarse rasp of his breathing long enough to listen for his pursuers.

  For a blessed moment, there was silence. Then came the relentless patter of their feet, the savage cries portending his doom.

  His trembling hand went instinctively to the hilt of his broadsword before he remembered the weapon would be useless against them. He was defenseless.

  If any of the men who had fought by his side against the French for the past fourteen years had seen the shudder of dread that wracked his massive body in that moment, they would have surely doubted their own senses. They had seen him scale a castle wall with his bare hands, dodging the steaming gouts of boiling oil that rained down like hellfire from the heavens above. They had seen him leap off his warhor
se and race through a deadly hail of arrows to heave a fallen man over his shoulder and carry him to safety. They’d seen him rip the blade of a French sword from his own thigh with nary a flinch of pain, then use it to dispose of the man who had stabbed him. Much to King Edward’s delight, his enemies had been known to toss down their arms and surrender at the merest whisper of his name on the battlefield.

  But never before had he faced an adversary so formidable, so utterly lacking in mercy and Christian compassion.

  As they stampeded past his hiding place, he shrank against the wall, his lips moving soundlessly in a prayer for deliverance to the God who had always fought so valiantly by his side.

  But in the month since the treaty with the French had been signed, even God seemed to have abandoned him. The triumphant howl that assaulted his ears might have come from Lucifer himself.

  They had spotted him! Too panicked to consider the consequences, he bolted, darting back the way he had come. The devils were almost on him now, so close on his heels he could feel their hot breath scorching the back of his doublet.

  He scrambled up the winding stairs, hoping to reach the sanctuary of the north tower before they brought him down and began to tear him apart like a pack of snarling mongrels. The wooden door loomed before him. He lunged for its iron latch and shoved, praying his sweaty grip would hold. Something groped at his ankle. For one bone-chilling instant, he feared he was lost. Then the door swung open.

  He lurched across the threshold, shaking off the grip of the thing that had seized him, and slammed the door behind him. Only when the crossbar had thudded securely into its iron brackets did he dare to collapse against the door and suck in a great, shuddering breath. The enraged howls and demands for his surrender escalated, then subsided into ominous silence.

 

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