Forbidden Night with the Warrior

England, 1174

Chapter One

“You cannot ask this of me.” Rosamund de Courcy stared at her husband in disbelieving shock. “It is a sin.”

Alan de Courcy, the Baron of Pevensham, leaned back against the pillow of their bed. His brown hair hung limply against his face, and his gray eyes were shielded with unending pain. He had grown weaker over the past three months, and though Rosamund prayed each night for his recovery, the shadow of death lingered over him. It terrified her to imagine him gone, for he had been a true friend through her darkest nightmares.

But he wanted her to lie with another man to conceive a child they so desperately needed. The very idea was unthinkable.

“We need an heir, ma petite. And I am incapable of giving you one.” Her husband spoke of the proposition as if it were a business arrangement. “I will not let my brother inherit everything I have built. Owen would ruin Pevensham within a year.”

Rosamund paced before the hearth, her heart racing at the very thought of Alan’s command. How could he even imagine she would betray him in that way? She was a woman of honor, not an unfaithful wife.

Whispers of guilt pulled at her conscience, reminding her of the mistakes she had made as a young woman. But Alan knew nothing of them, and she had always been true to him during their marriage. She had paid the price for her sins, though the heartbreak haunted her still.

“I have been nothing but loyal to you,” she insisted to Alan. “For three years, I have obeyed you. Why would you ask this of me?”

“Because you do not want Owen to inherit, either. You know what he would do to you when I am gone.” His voice held a trace of ice, and she understood his unspoken words. If Owen took possession of Pevensham, he would force his unwanted attentions upon her. She suppressed a shiver of revulsion.

“But…to lie with another man when I am married to you? You ask too much of me. I could never do such a thing.” She closed her eyes, gripping the edges of her skirt. The union between a man and a woman was not painful, but she had never enjoyed it with Alan. He had been so careful, treating her with such gentleness. But there was no thrill of passion between them, hardly more than a gesture of marital comfort.

Alan had tried to please her, though he’d sensed her distance when he had claimed her body. Because of it, he had not asked that she share his bed often. And ever since he’d fallen ill, she had not lain with him in half a year.

“I have asked Warrick de Laurent to come to Pevensham. He will be here within a sennight.”

An icy chill suffused her skin, and she felt lightheaded for a moment. Warrick was the man she had loved since she was a maiden. Tall and strong, with dark hair and piercing blue eyes, she had wanted him desperately. Never had she forgotten the fierce warrior who haunted her dreams. Or the way his kiss had awakened her body, arousing her blood.

“I cannot lie with him,” Rosamund insisted. Because if she did, it would threaten the very foundation of her marriage. Her throat closed up with a flood of memories she couldn’t face. She had closed off her heart to what would never be, accepting Alan and becoming a proper wife.

For him to ask this of her evoked such a fury, she could hardly speak. Alan knew what this would mean. He knew it, and yet he was forcing her to confront the past.
If she dared to let Warrick touch her, she could no longer trust herself. It would be impossible to guard her feelings and behave as if the union meant nothing. Even the memory of his touch made her pulse quicken and her body tremble.

For a time, Alan was silent. She heard only the sound of his labored breathing and the rustle of sheets. “I know you did not want to marry me, ma petite. I was never the man you wanted.”

No, he wasn’t. Everyone had known it, though she had obeyed her father’s command and married the man of his choosing. There had been no other way.

The pain in Alan’s voice weighed upon her, cooling the anger. She remained beside the hearth, closing her eyes as she chose the words she wanted. “You have always been kind to me. I could not have asked for a better husband.”

But the arranged marriage had forced her to put aside the broken dreams and start anew. Warrick had joined the king’s forces, fighting in Normandy, and she had not seen him again. Instead, Rosamund had accepted this new life with a man who cared for her, and it should have been enough.

He expelled a sigh. “The words do not make it true, Rosamund. I know you wanted to wed Warrick de Laurent.”

It was far more than that, she thought, but didn’t say so.

“That was a long time ago,” she said quietly. She couldn’t understand why Alan was bringing up the ghosts of the past. “When you took me as your wife, I tried to be everything you wanted.”

“And you were, Rosamund. But I was never what you wanted.” His voice was quiet, rimmed with sadness.

She hated to hear it, for this man had become her friend as well as her husband. Alan had never raised a hand against her, and he had given her dominion over the castle and household. “You have always been good to me.”

“But we have no children,” he said softly. “And now, we will find another way. There must be a child to keep Owen from inheriting Pevensham.”

She didn’t stop the tears now, for it had been nearly three years since she had delivered a babe that was stillborn. It was a resounding ache in her heart, and time had never diminished the emptiness. Perhaps the loss might have faded if she had carried a child to term, but after the death of her daughter, she had never conceived again. It was as if God were punishing her for her disobedience as a young maiden.

A part of her was grateful that she had not become pregnant again. The idea of bearing another child terrified her, for she had given birth too soon. All the pain and blood had resulted in nothing but death.

“Look at me, Rosamund,” Alan demanded. When she turned, his expression held apology. “It was my fault, never yours. I was not a virtuous man before we wed. I had my share of women, maids, and other serving girls who were willing. Not once did any of the women bear a bastard child. And there were many opportunities.”

He was trying to blame himself, and she didn’t want that. “Both of us share the blame.”

“You have already conceived a child once before, and you will do so again. But I know that the only man you would take into your bed is Warrick de Laurent.”

The blood roared in her ears, and she turned away again. Battered emotions poured across her soul at the thought of letting him touch her. “I cannot. And he will not agree to this, either.” She couldn’t imagine that a man as proud as Warrick would let himself be used in that way.

“I will ask him,” Alan said quietly. “He may agree to it with adequate compensation. I want him to marry you when I am gone. He will defend Pevensham from our enemies, and he can protect you from Owen.”

Rosamund gripped her shaking hands together. He had everything planned out, didn’t he? One wicked night of sin, a man to take his place, and a child who would inherit everything under the pretense of being a trueborn heir.

Tears of anger and frustration burned in her eyes at the thought of this deception. “Alan, no.”

“I am going to die, Rosamund. Both of us know it.”

She didn’t want to face it, though she feared the worst. It was easier to imagine that it wouldn’t happen. She could bind herself with this life and shut out harsh reality.

“I have prayed for you-”

“Prayers will not change it. But before I go, I can ensure that Owen never inherits my property. I will provide someone to protect you, someone who would give his life for yours.”

She moved to sit beside him on his bed. Fear gripped her hard, even as she took his hand in hers. “Do not ask me to betray you, Alan. I will not. You deserve better than this.”

“So did you.” In his tone, she heard compassion and love. “I wanted to marry you, Rosamund, and God help me, I did everything to make you love me.”

“I do,” she whispered.

“Not in the way you loved him.”

Rosamund bit her lip so hard she tasted blood. He was right, though she wanted to deny it. She had loved Alan like a brother, and their marriage rested upon pillars of friendship, not affection. For the past three years, she had tried to make the best of her marriage and forget about Warrick.

Alan squeezed her palm, and before she could protest, he touched a finger to his lips. “I know you care for me, Rosamund, and I will take that with me to my grave. But before I die, you must obey me in this.” His face hardened. “You will do everything possible to ensure that we have a child to inherit. Swear to me that you will lie with him.”

She said nothing, not wanting any part of this devil’s arrangement. It was unthinkable, and if the adultery were discovered, she could lose everything.

“Swear it,” he demanded. “If you have any loyalty and obedience toward me, I demand this of you.”

She bit her lip, wanting to lash back at him. But despite his rigid tone, she sensed the regret behind his words. This was about more than conceiving a son to inherit. He was trying to right the wrong, to give her back the man she had wanted to wed. And the arrangement would irrevocably bind her to Warrick.

With all her heart, she wanted to refuse him. But when she looked into his pain-filled gray eyes, she realized that her words held the power to give a dying man peace. He loved her enough to make this sacrifice, even knowing the Pandora’s box it would open.

If she refused his proposition, it would intensify his worries and weigh down upon his spirit. But if she lied and voiced her agreement, it would soften his fears. What harm was there in speaking a lie? He need never know that she had kept her vows.

She pushed back her apprehension, knowing that she held the power to refuse his request. If words would grant him comfort, then she could give him that much.
“All right,” she said softly. “I will allow him to claim me.”

* * *

“Why would I kill a man for your sake?”

Warrick De Laurent gripped the hilt of his sword while staring at Owen de Courcy. The man had summoned him to his settlement at Northleigh, a rotting fortress that reeked of old rushes and neglect. Owen was a younger man with cold gray eyes and dark brown hair cut short to his ears. His beard had not fully grown in, and his lips were pursed like a pouting child.

“Because I will give you land in return,” Owen said. “And because you may take Rosamund de Courcy as your battle prize.”

Warrick was careful not to reveal any reaction to the mention of Rosamund. For three years, he’d tried to forget her, but the memory of her beautiful face still haunted him at night.

She made her choice, and it wasn’t you, his mind taunted.

“I have no need of a woman.” He spoke the words without emotion, as if she meant nothing to him.

Owen appeared dismissive. “As you will. I am certain I can find another of my men who will…take care of her.”

The barb struck true, and his instincts rose up in warning. No, he didn’t want to see Rosamund again, but that didn’t mean he would let another man harm her. Before he could snarl at Owen, the man continued. “Kill my brother, and you shall have everything you’ve ever wanted. You have killed many men in battle already. Why would one more matter?”

It didn’t surprise Warrick to learn that Owen wanted his brother dead, for he would inherit Pevensham and vast holdings across southwest England. Although Owen already possessed the small estate at Northleigh, it was clear that it was falling into disrepair. All around, he saw the signs of a man who lacked wealth of his own.

“Your brother is already dying,” he told Owen. “Everyone knows it. You need only wait, and you will have what you want.”

“I have debts that must be paid.” His expression narrowed with distaste. “And I grow weary of living like a swine in this place. If Alan’s wife bears a child, I inherit nothing.”

A sudden flare of possessiveness washed over him at the mention of Rosamund. Warrick didn’t want to imagine her giving birth to another man’s son. His fists clenched and blood roared through him when he thought of Alan de Courcy touching her. Three years had done nothing to diminish his fury.

“What if she has already conceived?” he asked. Even as he spoke the words, Warrick suspected Owen would ensure that she lost the child. This was a man determined to get what he wanted, no matter the cost.

At his question, a slow smile spread over Owen’s face. “She will not give birth to an heir. I will see to it.” His servant returned and handed him a message. Owen poured a cup of ale and handed it to Warrick. “My servants intercepted this missive a few days ago. My brother has invited you to Pevensham as his guest. While you are there, you will have every opportunity to take his life.”

Warrick accepted the parchment, and saw that the broken wax held Alan de Courcy’s seal. Within the message, de Courcy mentioned that he had a special task for Warrick, one that would bring him a vast sum.

He had no interest in whatever “task” Alan de Courcy desired him to complete. Ever since Rosamund had married de Courcy, Warrick had not spoken to either of them.

“You will see to it that Alan does not survive this fortnight. Rosamund will be isolated from him until I can be certain she is not with child. He must not have an heir,” Owen said.

“Why now?” He could not understand why the man was determined to see his brother dead so soon-especially within a short time. It made him wonder if Owen was facing a threat of his own.

“King Henry will be returning from Normandy soon. We must be ready to prove our alliance.”

The pieces started to fall into place. If Owen commanded two estates, he would be a valuable ally to the king. Unless he intended to side with the rebellious sons of Henry, in the hopes of securing a higher place for himself.

“And you want to cast no blame upon yourself. If I am caught, I would be executed for murder, not you.”

The man seemed unconcerned. “I would suggest that you do not get caught. Let them believe Alan’s death occurred from a natural means.” Owen studied him a moment. “You could kill him in his sleep, and no one would know the truth.”

Warrick still wanted nothing to do with this man. “I do not kill innocent men.”

Owen eyed him with a sly expression. “You’ve done it many times in the service of your king. How many have you slaughtered in battle? They call you the Blood Lord, do they not?”

Tension knotted within him, but he betrayed no emotions. “I am no lord.”

“Indeed you are not. And that is why you will help me-because you possess nothing at all. I will give you land in Ireland where your poverty will not matter. You can begin again as the lord you always wanted to be.”

It was true that he did want his own land. The desire for his own demesne burned through his blood. As the youngest son, he had hardly anything of his own, and he had no wish to live with his father or his older brother Rhys.

But Warrick wasn’t about to reveal this to de Courcy. His hand returned to his sword. “If land was all I wanted, I could take it for myself.”

“You haven’t enough men to lay siege to a fortress,” Owen pointed out. “And it isn’t only land that you want. You want vengeance against Rosamund and the man who stole her from you. I am giving you the chance to take her back. Punish her if it makes you feel better.”

He did still harbor anger at Rosamund, after the night she had turned her back on him. But he could not help but wonder why Alan de Courcy had summoned him. What did the man want? Undoubtedly, it was connected to Rosamund.

Warrick knew that the moment he set eyes upon her again, it would only rub salt in his wounded pride. He had tried to spend time with other women, attempting to forge a life without Rosamund. And yet, he could never forget the way she had smiled at him with love, pressing her hands against his heart. He had wound his hand around her long black hair, kissing her until she made soft sounds of yearning. Those green eyes had looked upon him as if no other man in the world existed.
A part of him was still furious that she had chosen someone else. Her father had forbidden them to be together, since Warrick had nothing to offer her. But he’d believed that Rosamund would defy her family and stay with him. He had suffered a brutal whipping on her behalf after her father had caught them fleeing together.

But instead of holding fast to the promises they had made on holy ground, she had denied everything and chosen Alan de Courcy.

Warrick needed to look into those treacherous green eyes and understand why she had done it. Rosamund was married to a man of wealth, yet she had no children and a dying husband. Did she regret her choice after all these years?

“Find out what my brother wants,” Owen said. He tossed a heavy bag toward Warrick. “Take this as proof of my offer.”

He opened it and found it full of silver-rather appropriate for blood money. Warrick placed the bag back on a nearby table and shook his head. “I will not kill on your behalf.”

“Not even for her?” Owen ventured. “Not even if it meant she would belong to you after her husband is dead?”

He had already made up his mind to find out what Alan de Courcy wanted. But he had no interest in becoming Owen de Courcy’s assassin. “I will go to Pevensham,” he said. “But only to satisfy my own curiosity. If you want your brother dead, it will not be by my hand.”

Owen’s expression turned thoughtful. “We shall see, de Laurent. We shall see.”

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