Chapter One

He dreamed of Yorkshire again as he had done almost nightly since returning to England: the vast, purple covered moors and deep valleys that he had not seen for almost four years. The people from his past were present too, though this caused his dreams to darken and even though he was somehow aware he was dreaming, his stomach twisted with loss. He wondered if they thought of him as often as he had thought of them and if his name was ever mentioned within the stone walls of his father's house.

Loud shouts infiltrated his brain and he was transported as happens in dreams from the home of his childhood to stand knee deep in mud and gore. Someone was calling his name. At first the voice melded with the scenes of death and carnage and Roger Danby found himself on the battlefield in France with a dying archer tugging at the neck of his cloak. He waved his arms to fend off the man but the tugging continued and when he opened his eyes it was his squire Tomas looming over him, hands on Roger's bare shoulder.

The young Italian's eyes were wide and his hair was unkempt. He had fought beside Roger at Canturino so his presence on the battlefield in Roger's dream was unsurprising. It took a moment for Roger to shake sleep completely and return to where he really was: a comfy bed in the manor house of a Derbyshire nobleman.

"My lord, please wake up. We need to leave," Tomas said urgently.

Roger started up at him from the soft mattress, so strange after months of straw pallets or bare ground. He frowned in confusion and irritation. Soft light peered around the edge of the tapestries covering the window and his breath made a cloud in the cold room.

"Did I oversleep?"

"No, it's early." Tomas' voice was urgent.

Roger threw himself back onto the pillow with a groan. They had stayed three nights with Lord Bigueley in Shropshire and had planned to leave in the morning but Roger had not intended to start so early. The maidservant- whatever her name was- who had been his companion the previous night rolled onto her side, still fast asleep. Her bare buttocks rubbed against his hip as she rolled onto her side and sent small throbs of pleasure through him.

"It's barely daybreak," Roger growled. "What's the hurry?"

Tomas was already moving around the small chamber they had shared, gathering possessions and stuffing them into his saddlebag. He threw Roger's boots and cloaks at the foot of the bed and lowered his head.

"Lord Bigueley decided to pay his wife a visit early this morning," he muttered, buckling his sword to his side. His face took on a pinched expression, his cheeks turning pale beneath his dark beard. "He discovered Lady Bigueley dressed and presented in a manner that indicated she had been availing herself of the pleasures only a husband should give."

Roger swore. Katherine Bigueley was younger than her husband. A pale wisp of twenty five. She was a fruit ripe for picking but he'd put the flirtation he'd seen pass between her and Tomas as nothing worth worrying about. Apparently he was wrong. He pushed himself from beneath the covers. The cold blast of air raised goosebumps across his flesh serving to wake him fully but even if the room had been comfortably warm his soldier's instincts made him alert to the sudden danger they were both in.

"Are you serious? You young bloody fool!" he raged. "Lord Bigueley has every right to cut you down where you stand and I've half a mind to let him get on with it."

The Italian's face twisted in panic and Roger was reminded of how young his companion was. Despite having survived the battlefields of Europe the thought of death clearly terrified him. Tomas had not yet reached his twentieth year and if he continued to act so recklessly would be unlikely to do so. Roger bit back his sympathy. If Tomas was old enough to stick his staff into a willing woman, he was old enough to bear the consequences of unwise decisions.

"How long ago were you discovered?"

"I ran straight back here," Tomas said miserably. "Katherine was trying to persuade her husband she had been anticipating his visit, which explained her state of undress, but I do not know how convincing she will be."

That bought them some time. If luck were on their side they would be gone from his house before he came searching for them.

"I was hidden behind the door and slipped out before I was seen. He might not know it was me," Tomas said hopefully.

Roger turned away so Tomas did not see the irritation on his face. How many dark haired visitors were staying in Lord Bigueley's house? Two, he reminded himself, scratching at the dark nest of beard that covered his own cheeks and chin. He dragged on his braies and tied his curls back with a leather cord.

Hopefully Lady Bigueley would confirm which of the two men she had been indiscreet with and he would not be put forward as a culprit. The urge to knock some sense into Tomas reared up inside him. Recriminations and reprimands could wait for later, however. A quick departure was paramount. Their mission could not be jeopardised by something so trivial, not when it was Roger's chance to make the name he craved.

He pulled on his woollen breeches and tunic, casting a regretful glance at his own bed companion. She'd been as lively and demanding as a bitch in season and had taken almost no persuading into bed for a thoroughly enjoyable night. He'd hoped for another tumble with her before they parted but it that was not to be. Tomas deserved a clout around the head for that, if nothing else. Ah well, there would be another bed before long and no doubt someone else to warm it, and this way had the advantage of no need for farewells. He tossed a coin onto the pillow where the girl would see it on waking then stowed his scrip with the rest of his money inside his high leather boot.

Roger finished dressing rapidly in his thickly padded jerkin and travelling cloak and reached for his own sword. Tomas had gathered the leather bags containing all their possessions. Roger cast a final look around the room in case they had forgotten anything then led the way down the stone staircase. He headed for the kitchens where he knew there was a door that would most likely be unguarded. Making friends with the maidservant had proven to have a benefit he had not anticipated and they would be able to creep out without notice and make their way to the stables.

In silence they wrapped sacking around their horses' hooves and shouldered their saddles. The animals snickered in protest at the early start and Roger paused to run his hand across the rough winter coat of the chestnut courser. They led their mounts round the edge of the courtyard and fortune was on their side as they passed through the gateway without notice.

They saddled the horses, stowed their bags in the panniers and mounted. Their breath hung in the frosty morning air but clouds gathering promised the day would be warmer and wet. The horses were not warmed through and to push them beyond a trot would do no good. When they came to the fork in the road Roger turned right.

"This is the wrong direction, my lord. We came this way yesterday," Tomas said.

Suppressing his annoyance Roger nodded. "Lord Bigueley knows we are heading to Cheshire. If he decides to pursue us that is where he will go, so we are going in the other direction. Now ride!"

They stopped when Roger's stomach began to growl, dismounting and leading their horses into the shelter of the trees. The rain had begun in earnest and the two men pulled their oiled wool cloaks around themselves for warmth.

As soon as they were settled Roger cuffed Tomas around the ear. The younger man yelped.

"What do you think you were playing at?" Roger demanded.

"The same thing as you!" Tomas answered with a frown. "Your bed wasn't empty and it rarely has been for as long as I've known you."

"It was never filled with the wife of the house!" Roger shouted. "I've crept from many a house in my time but not when I've been the guest of an earl. Perhaps practice is different in Italy but in England, if you're going to cuckold a husband, pick one who is mild of temper or often absent from home."

"But Katherine and I are in love, and her husband is a brute."

Roger guffawed.

"After two days in her company! Don't fool yourself lad. You may fool yourself - or better still the wench - that it's love but don't confuse the twitch in your braies for the thump of your heart."

Tomas flushed red. Roger leaned back against a tree and chewed his thumbnail, his anger subsiding now they were clear of Lord Bigueley's lands. He knew so well the hot fire that riddled a man's limbs and refused to be ignored and his next words were spoken more gently.

"You need to learn to pick your women more carefully. Balance the pleasure gained with the trouble caused. I don't blame you for listening to your pole but you can't let it rule you."

Hypocrite, a small voice in his mind shouted. His own yard had led him into trouble often enough.

"Not at the moment when we've got work to do," he clarified. "Once we've delivered our message you can sard as many women as you like. We both can, and we'll be rich enough to pay for the best."

"And what if I don't want to pay?" Tomas mumbled. "What if I want to marry?"

Roger felt his jaw tighten. "Then pick a rich one and hope the lady's father thinks you've got enough in your pockets to warrant handing over his treasure. Otherwise stick to tavern wenches who will give you what you want in return for a ribbon or a kind word."

Tomas was silent, perhaps thinking of Katherine Bigueley. Roger concentrated on the pattern of raindrops falling into the puddles that were forming rather than let his mind drift back to the memories he had put behind him. Acid filled his belly.

"Do you think Lord Bigueley will send men to fight in France?" Tomas asked.

Roger stretched out his legs, glad of something fresh to think on. He uncorked a flask and took a long drink of wine.

"We don't get our bounty otherwise but I don't see why not. Leaving aside you seducing his wife, he was interested in the thought of increasing his fortune. The peace won't last forever and a man prepared to fight is a man who will become rich."

A man such as himself.

Roger yawned and drew his cloak tighter round him.

"We're going to stay here until the sun, or what passes for it in this miserable country, has passed overhead then we'll head back. It won't add more than a day to the journey."

He closed his eyes and settled back. The day had started far too rudely.


The weather had worsened and they rode through driving rain back into Cheshire. The clouds had rolled in as they climbed into the hills. Winter in England was truly appalling. January in Italy was never so bleak and Tomas looked more miserable with every twist of the road, glancing behind him and pulling his cloak forward to envelop him.

"We'll be back across the water before too long," Roger called as they cantered side by side.

Tomas merely shivered in response and glanced around moodily.

They passed the turning for Lord Bigueley's manor without encountering any hindrance and Roger began to believe his plan had worked. Tension he had not known he was carrying began to melt from his shoulders and he slowed to a walk, rolling his head around to ease the knots.

It was probably this that saved their lives because as they reached the brow of the hill Tomas gave a cry of alarm. The road ahead curved downwards and round to the right and just beyond the bend three riders were waiting. If Roger and Tomas had ridden a few paces further the men would have been hidden from view until they rode straight into them.

The men could have been ordinary travellers but for the fact that their horses were too grand and they were dressed uniformly in black. The way they lingered at the edge of the road looked as if they were planning trouble.

"I think we've been found," Roger muttered.

Tomas let out a moan. Roger felt for his sword, wishing he had a lance to hand. He'd ended more lives with his preferred weapon than he cared to count.

"We can't fight them," Tomas said.

He was right. Three men against two was not good odds. The road was passing through forest, crossing the highest point and Roger stared around him. Night would soon be upon them and in the distance beyond the forest he could see lights in three directions coming from different villages and a larger cluster that must be the town.

"We'll cut through the forest," Roger said. Cross country in the near darkness was risky but better than riding straight into trouble. "If we can reach one of those settlements we may be able to lose them, or hide."

A shout echoed in the silence of the hills and one of the prospective ambushers pointed towards them. Roger cursed his stupidity. He'd been so intent on watching the men ahead he had given no thought to their own visibility but on the hilltop they would have been in clear view. Already the horsemen were moving towards them up the road.

Roger turned his horse's head towards the woods and gave a sharp kick of his heels. Tomas followed. They plunged through the trees away from the path. They rode fast into the darkness, pushing their horses to their limits as much as the forest would allow. For the first time since returning to England Roger gave thanks it was winter. A few months more and the undergrowth would have grown up and tangled about the horses' legs making it impossible to ride quickly.

A quick glance behind reassured Roger they had not been followed but he had not accounted for being intercepted ahead. One horseman appeared seemingly from nowhere to their right. His head was down and he rode directly towards them, his cloak obscuring the weapon he clutched.

Roger swung around in the saddle, reaching for his sword but before he could draw it something punched him in the back of his right shoulder, sharp and cold and forcing the breath from him. He had been stabbed in the leg once during a fight in a French inn and the sensation was the same but the horseman was surely too distant for that. There was no pain but he knew from experience that would come later. He looked down and was astounded to see the head of an arrow protruding from below his collarbone close to his armpit. Arrows! He hadn't anticipated that and he gave a laugh that ended as a grunt as the pain began to spread.

They were in real danger now. The bowman was fumbling behind in his quiver but on horseback he was struggling.

"Give me your sword," Roger barked at Tomas.

The boy passed his weapon but the strength was already going from Roger's arm. He took the sword in his left hand and wheeled around, slashing around him blindly. He felt the sword make contact and heard the crunch of bone. The bowman gave an unearthly, wordless scream. Roger looked and saw to his disgust that he had hit the rider full in the face, half slicing his jaw off. The man fell forward over the horse's neck. Roger retched and leaned across to slap the horse with the flat of the blade. It whinnied in fear and pain and galloped away with its rider still in the saddle. He dug his heels into his own mount's flanks.

"Come on," he grunted at Tomas, riding in the opposite direction the horse had taken. There was no time to think where they were heading in now but he rode towards what he hoped was the smaller of the villages. The other two men would not be far behind but he hoped they would follow their comrade in confusion.

Roger's head was spinning and his arm felt like ice by the time they reached the depths of the woods. His fingers refused to grip the reins and he knew he was not long for consciousness. He bit his lip to try keep himself awake, the small pain serving to sharpen his senses as the greater one dulled it. Instinctively Roger reached for the arrow then stopped. At the moment there was little blood but he had seen what happened when such wounds were unplugged. Now was not the time to deal with his injury. He did not think they had been followed so finding refuge was the priority.

He heard splashing and realised they had reached a shallow river and were halfway into the water. On the furthest bank the trees began to thin. A single light flickered in the darkness, so briefly that he thought he had imagined it but then it appeared again. If he had barely noticed the light, the chances were his attackers would miss it. A slender chance but the only one he had.

"Get me there," he ordered Tomas. They were his last words as he slumped forward in the saddle. He watched Tomas dismount and take both reins, leading them on foot towards the light and closed his eyes. His last thought was that if he died tonight his father would finally be rid of his troublesome heir.


The chickens were safely shut away for the night. Lucy Carew picked up the lantern from the ground and made her way round the side of the small barn back towards the door of the inn, swinging the light back and forth as she walked.

She closed the door and dropped the bar across. Shivering she unbuckled her cloak and hung it beside the fireplace. The fire was almost spent but she gave the remaining logs a half-hearted prod with the poker and sank onto the stool beside he hearth, enjoying the peace. The rain had eased but the earlier downpour had meant no customers had called since mid afternoon. If she had lived closer to one of the villages people might have called by but there were few travellers at this time of year and the road was quiet.

She took her cap off and unwound the plait, leaving her hair loose. Only a handful of tasks remained then she could go to bed early. Perhaps tomorrow she might wake less weary than she usually was. Her hopes were dashed as a loud hammering on the door made her jump. She was halfway to her feet when she caught herself and sat back down, torn as what to do. She badly needed the money that visitors would pay for their drinks but her head ached. Save for the lantern and the glow from the fire the inn was in darkness. If she sat quietly they would leave. She felt a pang of sympathy for whoever was about in the bad weather but not enough to rouse herself and let them in.

The hammering grew louder and more insistent. It was not going to cease.

A male voice bellowed, "I know someone is there. I saw your light."

Lucy pushed herself from the stool. Clutching the poker behind her hand she crossed the room and eased up the bar and pulled the door open a crack. It was pushed open with unexpected violence from outside, causing her to spring out of the way with a gasp of alarm.

Two men pushed their way inside. One had his arm around the other's shoulder and was being supported by his companion. His legs buckled and he staggered as he walked, moaning softly. His black hair was tangled over his face.

Lucy gritted her teeth.

"I don't want drunks at this time of night," she said firmly.

"He isn't drunk, he's hurt," the man supporting him said. His words were heavily accented and Lucy struggled out make them out but realised he was not English. He drew a short sword from beneath his cloak and brandished it towards her. She gave a squeak of alarm, clutching the poker firmer in her hand and retreated to the bottom of the staircase.

The man she had taken for a drunk now raised his head that had been lolling to one side. He gave a wolfish grin beneath his thick beard but it was his eyes that transfixed Lucy. Deep brown and fixing her with a stare of such intensity that a sensation stirred inside her she had not felt in longer than she could remember. She felt a blush begin deep between her breasts that was only stayed from spreading by the realisation that his gaze was so intense because he was struggling to focus.

"What happened?"

"Ambush," the injured man slurred in an accent closer to Lucy's own. "Don't fear, little dove. We won't hurt you. If you do what we ask."

"Are you alone?" the foreigner demanded, raising his sword again and stepping towards Lucy, dragging his companion with him. "Has anyone else come this evening?"

"No one," Lucy answered, sweat pooling in her lower back at the sight of the weapon. "I'm the only one here."

Except for Robbie. A sob welled inside her as she thought of her son lying peacefully in his cot in the room above. If these men killed her it could be days before anyone found her, and who would think to look upstairs? Worse, she imagined the child clambering from his cot as he had begun to do and coming down to find her.

"I'll do whatever you want," she whispered. "Only please don't hurt me."

"Good little dove," the injured man slurred, grinning crookedly. "Be sensible and we all might live." He said something in a foreign tongue. His companion frowned and replied.

"We take him upstairs," the foreigner instructed. "Now!"

Lucy took a step back, shaking her head. Not to the floor where Robbie slept in peace, unaware of the events happening beneath him. She barred the way, finally revealing her poker and brandishing it like a sword. The injured man gave a wheezing laugh. Lurching forward unexpectedly he raised his left arm and knocked it out of her hand. He staggered, as if this had taken the last of his strength, and fell forward towards her. Instinctively Lucy reached her arms out to catch him, her hands sliding beneath his armpits. She stepped backwards and found herself wedged between him and the wall, his weight crushing her. Something sharp scratched her left shoulder through her heavy wool dress and she yelped in pain. She looked down to see the head of an arrow protruding from the man's right shoulder.

"You're really hurt!" she exclaimed.

"Don't let me die unmourned, dove," the man slurred, his voice deep and husky.

Before Lucy could think how to reply he had reached his left arm to the back of her head, tilted it back and covered her lips with his.