Book 1: Warriors of York
When his saintly wife dies in childbirth, Sir Christian rescues his infant son with a violent act that seals his ruthless reputation. Now, the warrior known as the Slayer of Helmsley must find a wet nurse, or his babe, too, will perish. Yet how will he attain help when the populace fears him?
Clarisse du Boise is desperate. The lives of her sisters and mother depend on her committing a terrible act—murdering the Slayer, if only she can get close enough to do so.
Weaving an ever-growing web of lies, Clarisse gains access to Christian’s castle where she sparks his immediate interest. While caring for his son, she discovers redeeming traits in the warrior and an unexpected desire to know him better. With her resolution to commit the heinous act wavering, a shocking solution comes to mind. But is the price more than she is willing to pay?
This is a thoroughly revised and expanded version of Danger’s Promise, previously released only in print.
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SNEAK PEEK OF THE SLAYER’S REDEMPTION
In the Year of Our Lord, 1146
In battle, he fought like a man possessed. To the enemy, he gave no quarter. His nom de guerre sent shivers of horror down the spines of common folk. Yet, reflected in the gray depths of his newborn’s eyes, the Slayer of Helmsley looked like an ordinary man. A profoundly humbled man.
His baby had inherited his swarthy coloring and apparently, given that the infant was still alive, his father’s stubborn nature as well. Little more than a bundle of slippery limbs held in his father’s battle-hewn arms, the boy child’s chest swelled on a healthy breath. His fists resembled iron mallets. With a wail that bounded off the ceiling and magnified, Simon de la Croix heralded his own birth. Beyond the shutters, thunder boomed and lightning crackled with a midsummer storm.
A grim smile tugged at the Slayer’s lips. Simon would be the next Baron of Helmsley, not a bastard warrior like his father. Not a man forced to fight for all he had.
The portal burst open, startling the baby into silence. A draft beat up the torchlight and illumined the flapping sleeves of the midwife as she rushed into the chamber.
“Give me the babe!” screeched the wizened woman. She reached for him with her shriveled hands. “I must baptize it at once!”
Christian lifted his son above the woman’s reach. A pox on the midwife! Did she think Simon marked for the devil? “I told you to leave,” he said in his quietest voice.
The old woman stilled, her eyes moving beyond him to the lifeless form of the Slayer’s wife. “Mother of God, what have ye done?” she whispered.
Christian felt his horror bubble up, and he quickly squashed it down. “What have I done?” he snarled. “I’ve done naught but save my son from perishing with his mother. ’Twas you who let her die. Get you out before I think to imprison you for murder!”
The midwife blanched and scurried backward. Hastily she gathered her belongings: bottles of draughts and tisanes, knives and needles. They clanged together in the earthenware bowl as she scuttled from the room. With a furtive look, she darted away.
The door closed behind her. In the silence that followed, Christian heard the thudding of his own heart. His disbelieving gaze drifted about the room, touching on the mutilated body of his wife, the rosary beads lying useless in her palm, the half-embroidered altar cloth upon the chair. At last, he looked down at the baby in his arms. Simon returned his gaze intently.
“Your mother is dead,” Christian whispered. ’Tis my fault.
Until the midwife came, his wife’s labor had been unremarkable. Genrose had suffered the pangs of childbirth with the same saintly silence that she had suffered her husband. Then, oh, so subtly, she had faded with the dying light of day.
There is naught more I can do, the midwife had declared. These things are in God’s hands.
The words perturbed him even now. Christian had cast the woman from the room and dared to alter fate’s design. He had cut Simon free of his fleshy prison, and even cut the cord that tied the baby to his ill-fated mother. And the baby had lived!
Lowering his son into the cradle of waiting linens, he wrapped him carefully against the cold. Simon held still, accepting of his father’s ministrations. Yet his somber gaze demanded something of him—a mother, most likely.
With a deep breath, Christian called upon the ruthlessness that had given him his deadly reputation as the Slayer. Then he turned to the task of rolling his lady’s corpse in cloth. It took all the sheets on the bed, plus those folded on the chest, to staunch the blood still spilling from her body. His movements were deft with practice. Yet in all his experience of war, he had never felt so sickened by his actions, so keenly plagued by guilt.
Had he loved the woman who had died giving him a son? One thing he knew, if he hadn’t married her and begotten a babe on her, she would still be alive. For that, he shouldered the blame for her untimely demise.
In the act of covering Genrose’s face, he hesitated. Her quiet features were hardly even known to him. She had been as pure as a novice when he’d wed her a year ago. Then, as now, he had been unworthy of her sacrifice. His only comfort was the certainty that she was happier with God than she had been with him.
The baby gave a whimper from within his small oaken bed resting on wide curved rockers. Christian hurried to the cradle, worried that the cruel, unpredictable hands of death might yet snatch his son away from him.
Who would nurture Simon? Who would feed him? The questions hit him like the broadside of a sword. At that moment, his babe should be snuggled against a doting mother’s breast and then later moved upstairs, cradle and all, to the tower nursery.
Wiping the blood from his hands on the edge of a sheet, he scooped up Simon one more time and paced the length of the chamber. The baby ceased to fret, his bright eyes watchful. The rain began to pelt the shutters. A knock sounded at the door.
Roger de Saintonge edged into the torchlight. The droplets on the cloak of Christian’s master-at-arms gleamed like diamonds as he ran an eye over the nightmarish scene. “My lord, you are covered in blood!” the middle-aged knight exclaimed, shutting the heavy door behind him.
Sir Roger’s tilted smile was not in evidence that night. The scars that forked like veins upon his face paled as he approached. His gaze fell to the swaddled infant. “A boy, my lord?” he queried gently.
“His name is Simon. He will inherit his grandfather’s title,” Christian answered, though Roger already knew his motives for marrying the baron’s daughter.
The knight’s brown gaze flicked to the bed where there was nothing to see but a cloth-wrapped body, then back to the baby.
“I know not what to say,” he confessed.
“Say nothing.” Christian felt as if he wore a mask upon his face. Spots burst and swam before his eyes. “Tell me how the defense goes at Glenmyre.”
“The news isn’t good, my lord,” Sir Roger warned.
“Say it.” The struggle over Glenmyre was escalating into war. Between domestic matters and military preoccupations, Christian would have little time to spare for his son. “What has Ferguson done now?”
“He rode upon Glenmyre at dusk, when the peasants were returning from the fields. He slew them all.”
Christian swore viciously at the Scot’s perfidy. “How many dead?” he demanded.
A familiar queasiness turned Christian’s stomach. The Scotsman’s atrocities reminded him of his own past. Feeling his knees go weak, he thrust the baby at his vassal.
“Find a nurse for my son,” he commanded. “I will ride to Glenmyre to bolster our defense.”
He took several steps toward the door before turning to regard his wife’s dismal chamber. “See that my lady is buried alongside her parents,” he added gruffly.
Sir Roger looked older with an infant clutched to his hauberk. “As you will, sire,” he assured his lord.
Christian grasped the latch. “Send word to the Abbot of Revesby. Ethelred must bury her. Do not let news of her death reach Rievaulx.”
“I will not, my lord,” Sir Roger promised, and Christian took his leave.
Genrose’s chamber opened to a gallery, which overlooked the hall, as did the family solar and his chamber next to hers. Below, the servants gathered, awaiting news of the birth. The hush that greeted him made it apparent that they’d heard of their ladyship’s demise, no doubt from the hysterical midwife.
As Christian clutched the balustrade for balance, the light of the fire pit deepened the bloodstains on his tunic.
The servants looked up at him in one accord. Shock flared in their eyes. Hearing whispers ripple among them, he fell back into the shadows. Too late, he realized they were thinking of the abbot’s prophesy, cried out within the chapel just nine months earlier.
Mark me well, people of Helmsley. This virgin bride will be slain by her husband!
Nay, not he! Christian longed to defend his innocence, but his protests would fall on deaf ears. The servants wouldn’t take his word over that of a cleric. He would never win their loyalty now.
He longed to take the circular tower stairs upward toward solitude, but instead strode to the main staircase, set on reaching the courtyard and its deep, frigid well; despite the rain, he intended to pour bucket after bucket over himself, to wash his wife’s blood from his clothes. Two at a time, he descended the steps and in silence marched to the large oak doors that guarded his great hall. Before he reached the door, a servant’s cries rose with the smoke from the fire pit.
“Mother of God, he has killed Her Ladyship! Did ye see the blood?”