Roshelle retires as the Duke enters her bed chambers from the secret passage way.
She drew a deep, even breath before tossing back the thick quilt covers and placing her bare feet on the cold stone floor. Dazed, she made her way to the chamber pot behind the partition, stepping over a half-finished puzzle of the great Cathedral of Chartres, a pack of cards from a game played and won by her maids the other night and a rolled-up tapestry they had been working on.
The solar chambers reflected the unfair competition between two competing forces: the wide scope of Roshelle's interests and her servants' somewhat limited energies, resulting in a wall-to-wall menagerie of finished and half-finished projects. Clarice, one of her maid's little girls, had a little wooden doll house and its three dozen pieces sitting in the corner, arranged to occupy the child as her mother and Roshelle worked to finish the tapestry-- they needed yellow thread from Flanders, the only color Roshelle could not make. Three sewing boxes lay in the alcove, threads and cloth spilling from each, while one of her huge trunks opened to reveal a modest assortment of folded woolen gowns and night clothes. A caul lay discarded on the floor alongside the boy's clothes. Her saber—lighter than a sword, easier for her to wield—and her dagger leaned against the wall, her maids never knowing just where to set these weapons.
A long, carefully made wooden working table stood along one side of the far wall, and this area was scrupulously neat and clean. Here sat all manner of strange and wonderful things in glass jars: spices, fragrant herbs, plants, dozens of roots, flower petals, waxes, all kinds and various carefully marked mixes of things, all of it producing a fragrance so sweet and enticing as to have all the servants want to attend Roshelle in the privacy of her solar. This room alone escaped the foul air of the moat. Another trunk sat locked against the wall; the tools in there were worth far more than gold, while a wooden rack held over a dozen scrolls above Roshelle's small, fine writing desk. Five priceless, gold-trimmed, leather-bound books—all of these on the use of herbs—stood in a neat row there, while dozens of scrolled parchments sat on a bookshelf nearby, each a treasured gift from Papillion. Without exception, each and every thing in her room was a treasure to her, and so the only thing she feared more than an English king on the French throne was fire. Five buckets of water sat in a neat row outside her chamber doors at all times.
She returned to the bed. Her blue eyes fell on a tray Joan had left for her: an early green apple and a meager bowl of thin porridge, and a tall cup of goat's milk. She reached for the cup—
A strange sound came from beneath her bed.
The hairs at the nape of her neck lifted. She backed away slowly from the bed, her eyes flying wildly around the room, settling at once on her saber resting against the wall. She rushed to it, but before she could call out an alarm, before she had even grasped the nature of the threat, the bolt flew off and the trapdoor at the foot of the bed lifted.
Saber in hand, she cried out for help as she rushed to the spot. Two bare feet jumped firmly on the wooden square, smashing it back into place. "Cisely!" she shouted. "Joan! Help! Lo! Jean Luc!"
Several seconds passed while a strange tapping sound came from below, a sound she didn't hear as an enormous surge of panic rose through her, her entire being going into screams for help. Squawking with excitement, Greyman, her prized falcon, flew around the room, then apparently thinking it too dangerous, the traitor vanished out the open window.
With a sudden burst, the trapdoor opened. Like a child's precariously balanced tower of blocks, she crashed to the floor. Backside to the ground, Roshelle took one look and cried, "You! Tis you!"
Vincent wisely knew to get to his feet before discussing his unannounced presence. He started to move, but she scrambled to her hands and knees and that was it; his breath caught and he froze, for one too many seconds he froze as he took in the innocently seductive pose. Surprise was writ in her parted lips and founded, large eyes, an expression that would live in his mind forever. Her thin arms braced against the stone floor. Long, thick, loosened hair fell on either side of her arms in a cascade of rich auburn color, curling on the stone floor. Yet for all of it, the exposed seduction of this pose, his gaze riveted on the thin cotton nightdress where it dropped from a view he could die for.
Only too true. By the time he had collected the fragments of his stunned wits, she was on her feet. The very next breath came with the sharp point of her saber at his neck. For a girl, she was quick.
"Oh, no . . . Oh, no," she said in a heated whisper. "Do not move . . . just do not move. Joan! Oh, God, where are you? Cisely!"
She stepped back and forth in a frightened dance. What to do?
"All right, all right," she said as she watched his gaze sweep the room, brows lifting with confusion before at last his gaze returned to her person. "I shall not kill you if you go back down. That's it, English. Back down!"
Vincent made no move to comply.
''Move or you will feel the sharp point of my saber pierce your flesh!"
An amused light appeared in his darkly intelligent eyes. "As you wish."
A gloved hand snaked around the sharp blade of her saber to keep it still just as his other arm straightened, and in a shocking feat of strength, he lifted his weight and leaped from the trapdoor. Before she had drawn a breath. She jumped safely back with a startled cry, impressing him again with her speed; she stood feet apart and arms raised to attack. "Oh, no—get back, just get back!"
"Get back? After I spent the last hour getting in? I do not think you understand. This is a siege. I am here to take the castle back. By force And though I'm often inclined to heed a maid's directives, considering the circumstances—"
That was as far as he got. Roshelle had started to listen to his words just long enough to realize he mocked her, then she swung hard. She caught him by surprise, but he managed to parry just in time. She swung again, and he leaped back so as to save himself from a neat slice across his waist. She stepped back, appraising her opponent, the strange light in his eyes as he measured her in turn.
Oh, God, she thought, taking in the size and scope of the man, remembering the speed with which he had slain the outlaws, and Papillion's warning, "Beware the perfect cleft…” She had little doubt she needed the full force of her guard. At least. Yet seeing the light in his eyes, she said, "You think this a jest?"
"A jest?" A brow rose, that strange light shining bright in his eyes. "Nay, I would not use that word with you—"
Roshelle never fought fair, and with malicious forethought, she struck without warning as he spoke. He neatly parried, his gaze moving over her as he studied the shape and form of his unlikely opponent. And studied. Bare feet apart in an attack stance, both hands gripping her raised weapon, the long auburn hair framing the pale, delicately boned face before falling in silken streams past the small of her waist. He tried to ignore the bruise there. An easy feat as he watched the maddening play of light and shadow beneath the thin cotton of her nightdress, sleeveless save for an inch of cloth meant for straps, a dress that only hinted at the startling proportions there, a tease that stole every last thought.
Roshelle swung, struck steel, swung again. The fight was on. Desperate, knowing she could not beat this man single-handed as she swung and struck, she screamed a frantic list of names, then another, the musical lilt to her voice disappearing in the desperate call for her guards, and this spurred his decision to enlighten the wild young lady. Her mistress had obviously let her sleep through the day after all she had been through. She had yet to realize just how bad her situation was. "They are in the chapel for an evening mass—no doubt sung for your dead servant. They cannot hear you."
How did he know that? How? Oh, God—
Roshelle circled slowly, trying to think until she noticed the strange look in his eyes, that he had struck a pose so casual it might be used for a portrait setting: a gloved hand resting comfortably on the handle of his sword, its point to the ground as he continued to appraise her with a maddening, boyish kind of grin.
So maddening, she thought to cut it from his face! "You!" she hissed as she raised the saber. "You fiend! I shall die before I let you through here!"
His gaze lit with wild amusement as he assured her, "I am set to trembling." Then with feeling, he added, "I surrender, love, I surrender."
Fury livened her eyes as she swung. "I forfeit your surrender, you beast—" The saber sliced the air, strong and clean toward his chest. Vincent stepped cleanly away, while she stumbled with the force of her energies.
"You would dare laugh!"
"Nay, nay," he quickly tried to assure her as a hand went to his eye in the pretense. "There's something in my eye, 'tis all—"
She struck with surprising force, coming round with all her strength set in a quick, hard swing. With a speed that shocked, his sword raised again in a neat parry. Pain shot up her arms as her saber met the unyielding metal of his sword with a resounding clang.
Now he nearly doubled over with his laughter. "Oh, love, I did not mean to hurt you—"
He got no further. She swung to the side, her blade coming within a scant inch before he managed to respond to her strike. His sword met the saber once more, then twice and again in a quick succession of parries. Quick and lithe, she spun around in a circle, giving the next strike the force of her momentum and forcing him to jump back to save himself. Which she anticipated with a leaping strike.
A brow rose as he countered; he was a good deal more than impressed. He was fascinated. Again and again, she agilely wielded the weapon, and with surprising if not shocking skill. Someone—and he cursed the bastard to hell—had trained her to the weapon and trained her well.
With every fiber of his being, he tried to concentrate on restraining his strength as he countered her swift, clean strikes. No easy feat. Not as she danced around him, breathless and, dear God, so beautiful, determination set in her bright blue eyes and a hot flush spreading over her pale skin. He dropped his sword to the ground, countering her sudden swing at his legs just in time. She came up and swung down again. Too late to counter, he had to jump back. Two more swings and she had him cornered.
For small beads of perspiration lined her brow as a strap fell off her shoulder, and even worse, what made his breath catch—the light shining behind her now made the thin cloth no more than a transparent veil.
He had to sit down. "Sweet mercy—"
She abruptly dropped, jumping as she brought the saber down hard. He caught it just in time. The metal clanged loudly and she fell back out of reach, pausing for a moment to catch her breath.
She called out again and again, knowing only that she had to slay him and close that trapdoor or—less likely— convince him to return. "Joan, Ooowens! Mother in Heaven, where are you?"
"Tired, love? Shall we rest a moment?"
"Not yet, you nefarious, no-good villain of a whoreson!"
He caught his lip between his teeth to stop the laugh, his gaze dancing wildly at this. "Nefarious, no-good what—"
He stopped in mid-sentence as she swung with a breathless shout. "You heard me, you—" He countered but she swung again and again and again, pressing her advantage as he began to lose it, his responses slowing. Victory gave her strength and she attacked more fiercely, pushing him back and back until—
Until she stepped on one of little Clarice's small wooden jacks. A sharp shooting pain made her stumble with a cry. She fell to an undignified position on her hands and knees, took one look at his face and clutched tight the saber beneath her hand. Vincent bit his lip so hard he drew blood as he dropped his sword to help her up. Catching him completely off guard, she swung up as she leaped back to her feet. With his sword dropped, he could not parry. He bent back, and only the quickest reflexes she'd ever witnessed saved him from a neat slice across the chest as he raised his sword to counter her follow-up.
"The next time you're gelded!" she cried.
"Gelded? Oh, God—"
One more minute and he'd collapse. Quite desperate now, Vincent looked behind him to see the long worktable just as Roshelle pressed a hard strike to his legs. He managed to counter in time but, just as quick, she swung swiftly up, then down to cross at his knees again. He countered but just barely as he sat down, dropping his head as he collapsed in the nearly unbearable misery of his agony.
His agony mounted. More so as the warring beauty swung up, and only his unnerving instincts brought his sword up in time to prevent a painful slice to his neck; then even more as the high musical voice said in apparently mistaken triumph, "Forfeit your sword or meet your sorry end!"
Breathless and flushed, she stood poised, saber high, ready to land him a death blow when she abruptly froze, her hot gaze riveted on him. She suddenly saw he was struggling fiercely—struggling fiercely to stop from laughing out loud! Not fiercely enough, as the sound of his amusement abruptly burst out in the chambers; he could not for his life stop his laughter. Another sound of laughter came from behind, but she didn't hear, couldn't hear as her mind fastened on the horror of a sudden realization: not once had he swung his sword offensively.
Not once this whole time.
"You are not even fighting!"
Amusement shone as a bright light in his gaze, along with an unidentifiable something else she did not pause to contemplate. "Quite the contrary. I have never been more fiercely engaged; I am in fact fighting for my life."
She went wild. The saber came down with all her strength, hitting his sword with a resounding hard clang, echoing off the walls, and before it even stopped she swung again and again, striking his swift counters as if by doing so she could silence the very laughter on his lips.
With hands on hips and amusement bright in his eyes, Wilhelm watched this from the corner of the room. Seven of Vincent's best knights had slipped quietly in behind him while he carefully kept the girl's back to the trapdoor. Each knight now hid in a strategic place inside the castle, necessary in the unfortunate event Vincent's peaceful means of ending the siege failed, which seemed ever more likely if the man did not get a grip on his hot blood. Vincent's agony, as Wilhelm watched the girl try to geld him, would be a source of mirth the rest of their long days, no doubt; never had he enjoyed a show more. Until he noticed the girl's arms set to trembling with the exertion. "Enough, Vincent—"
Vincent saw it, too, his amusement dying at once as he cursed himself for not realizing sooner. "Aye." The very next strike of her saber hit an utterly unyielding force. It was the most shocking and maddening thing she had ever witnessed, the slight flick of his wrist, that was all. The saber flew from her hands across the room, hitting the wall and falling to the floor with a loud clamor that sounded with her scream. A scream that stopped as she spun around and saw Wilhelm.
Roshelle spun back around, staring in the utter horror of the name he had answered to. "Vincent..." she said on the heels of a frightened whisper as she shook her head. "Vincent de la Eresman! You are . . . you are the Duke of Suffolk!"
She did not think to wait for his acknowledgment; she bolted to the door. Not quickly enough. He caught her in three strides, his strong arms snaking around her thin ones as he pulled her against the hard length of his body. Fear seized the whole of her, overcoming her utter exhaustion, and she screamed, twisting and kicking for all she was worth and then some until—
Vincent tensed with the shock and feel of the small body against his, stiffening more as a lightning-like jolt passed through him, so powerful as to make him weak with the sudden rush of plain hot lust. "Good God, girl," he cursed beneath a warm chuckle. "Enough! You can believe, after the torment you put me through, this spirited struggle hardly helps to, ah, temper my response to you."
A shocking physical sensation gave sudden meaning to his words; she went limp in his arms. Only to hear another warm chuckle against her ear. Shivers rushed from the spot, her breath caught and she blushed hotly.
"Christ never had such temptation," he said in an amused whisper, his free hand brushing back a stray wisp of her hair. "And I assure you, I don't have his patience, much less his grace."
This she did not doubt. Her blue eyes shot to the open trapdoor, then to the giant watching from the side. Dear Lord, they were but two men. If she could just get through the door to sound the alarm—
"I need to know your name," he said, holding her slender figure with the gentlest of restraints. "I have waited to hear it long enough."
He did not know? "My . . . name?"
"Your name. What is it?"
"Ah . . . ah-"
"Are we slow-witted or merely preparing a lie?"
Fury brightened her eyes. "We are nothing if not sworn enemies! As for your wits, I can attest to their sorry inadequacies, as only the very slowest wit would ever bother maintaining the elaborate pretenses of knighthood when all the world knows he is a black-hearted, lecherous, loathsome bastard—"
A gentle hand came to her mouth to stop the enumeration of insults. "Not slow-witted, I see. So you would lie. Now the question is, why?"
Vincent's gaze traveled slowly around the room, noticing, among all the various things here, the open and shelved books, the tools and jars of a practicing alchemist or herbalist. His gaze went to her hair. He ran a hand through the long locks, pushing the stray wisps back until he saw it: the white streak that started at her temple and ran down the length of it.
Then he knew who he held in his arms.
"Roshelle of Reales—"
All gazes flew to Cisely in the doorway.
"Run! Run, Cisely—"
With wide, terrified eyes, Cisely took one step back and started to turn. Too late. To the woman's utter surprise, five guards emerged behind her exactly as Roshelle felt a mercilessly sharp dagger at her throat. Cisely's hands went to her own throat in terror.
Vincent kept his eyes on Roshelle but addressed Cisely. "You are the countess's waiting woman?"
Cisely managed to nod.
“You will tell the French guard of Reales that the Duke of Suffolk now holds their mistress in her chambers by the point of a dagger at her throat. You are to instruct them to open the gates before assembling in the courtyard, weapons laid at their feet," he said as easily as if ordering supper, adding just as easily, "They are to do this within ten minutes or I shall hang her head from that window."
"No, Cisely! No-"
The arm around her shoulders lifted to cover her mouth, the dagger pointing to a place where her pulse pounded wildly. Cisely paled, but for once she fought back the feeling of fainting to scream out instead, "Oh, God, do not hurt her! Please, I beg of you—"
"Enough," he said in a deep, clear voice, adding as his darkly menacing gaze fell upon Roshelle, "Only after the castle has been surrendered will I entertain pleas to spare her life."