Winner of the Holt Medallion Award for Best Medieval Novel
“The action never slows in this adventurous tale”
– Romantic Time Magazine
Taylor Sullivan is a raven-haired hellion fleeing the tragic flames that destroyed her family. She arms herself with a quick sword and a sharp tongue, hiring herself out as a mercenary, willing to do whatever it takes to survive.
Slane Donovan is a knight of honor, sworn to uphold his oath and his word. He seeks the woman who wears the Sullivan ring, determined to bring her back to Castle Donovan to fulfill a promise made to his brother.
When he finds the fierce young beauty, her sensual innocence enflames his heart, threatening to destroy the very essence of who he is and the vows he has sworn to uphold.
But there are others who seek the Sullivan woman as well, men who pose a far greater threat. Slane must protect his fiery mercenary companion from attacks, but can he protect himself from her undeniable charms?
Free Preview of A Knight of Honor
Taylor Sullivan wondered if her mother had gone mad. No one in her right mind would be wearing a bright vibrant smile like the one that lit her mother’s lips, not in a situation like this one. How could she smile in the face of such unspeakable horror? Taylor wondered frantically. Her own body shook with fear. She had to clasp her small hands tightly in front of her so her mother wouldn’t see her fingers trembling with terror and misery.
The black gown her mother wore contrasted sharply with her pale alabaster skin, making her flesh look almost ghostly white. Her brown hair was tied back tightly into a thick braid that hung down the length of her back, dangling to and fro as she walked toward Taylor.
Dangling like a rope.
Taylor dropped her chin to her chest, unable to look at her mother’s radiant face.
“Oh, darling,” her mother murmured and reached for Taylor’s hands. “Why such a sad face?”
Suddenly unable to control herself, Taylor hurled herself toward her mother, flinging her arms around her mother’s shoulders and hugging her as tightly as she could.
With a startled laugh, her mother returned the embrace.
Taylor squeezed her eyes shut against the tears that burned there.
Her mother stroked her hair calmly, reassuringly. “Don’t worry,” she whispered. “He’ll come for me. I know he will.”
Taylor pulled back to look into her mother’s blue eyes. They were glazed and had a faraway, dreamy look to them. The blissful smile Taylor had seen on her mother’s lips when she first stepped into the room returned.
“He won’t let me burn,” she went on, even as the reflections of the room’s candles dancing in her eyes tortured Taylor with a vision of the terrible things to come. Her mother turned to the window. She placed her palms on the cold stone ledge of the windowsill and stared out into the early morning sky. “We love each other far too much,” she whispered.
“Father?” Taylor wondered, a weak hope in her question.
Her mother laughed softly. “No,” she said.
Taylor heard the door opening behind her and turned to see two guards standing in the doorway. To a child of twelve, the two burly men looked like armor-plated giants. The light threw deep shadows across their faces, transforming them into gruesome masks that made Taylor think of the ogres in the tales her mother had once told her.
“It’s time, m’lady,” one of the ogres called, his voice gruff and menacing to Taylor’s ears.
Taylor’s desperate gaze returned to her mother. Her time was running out. She had to stop this. “No!” Taylor cried out, finally finding the strength in her voice. “They can’t do this!” She grabbed her mother’s arm, pulling her deeper into the room.
Her mother touched her cheek softly. “He’ll come,” she reassured her and gently pried Taylor’s small fingers from her arm. Then she stepped past her daughter, moving out the door.
Taylor watched her mother’s straight, tall form and wished that she could feel the confidence her mother voiced. Then the two brutes stepped in behind her mother, forming a massive wall of muscled flesh and cold steel. A sinking feeling grabbed hold of Taylor and pulled her deeper into despair. She followed the procession into the hallway. There was only one chance. There was only one man who could stop this.
Taylor turned away and ran down an empty hallway, fully aware of the blossoming sky as the sun chased the darkness from the land, fully aware that the sun’s rays heralded her mother’s doom. She couldn’t make her small slippered feet move fast enough over the stones of the corridor. Her silk dress wrapped around her legs, inhibiting her hurried steps.
Finally, she halted before a closed door. Her fear rose like a tidal wave to bathe her resolve. But like a brave knight, she fought down her dread and lifted a hand to push the door open.
The room was dark except for a lone candle on a desk. Taylor took a hesitant step forward. She made out the shadowed form of a man sitting behind the large desk.
The man slowly lifted his dark eyes to her as she entered.
The wavering flame of the candle threw slashes of reddish-orange light over his face, casting demonic shadows across his brow.
Taylor knew she could not give up, despite every one of her senses telling her to run, beseeching her not to incur his wrath. “Please,” she whispered. “Show mercy.”
The man leaned back and his eyes disappeared completely into the darkness. After a long moment, he rubbed his palms over his eyes. “I loved her, you know,” he murmured. “I gave her everything. Everything she ever wanted.” He shook his head, his gray hair swaying around his shoulders with the movement.
Taylor thought she saw a sparkling in his eyes as he lifted his head to gaze at the ceiling and she wondered if they could be tears.
“This I cannot forgive,” he groaned. “There will be no mercy.”
“Please, Father,” she whispered, barely able to contain the terror she felt.
Her father suddenly looked older than she had ever seen him before; the wrinkles on his brow, the lines around his mouth, all seemed to darken and deepen. “There is no such thing as true love,” he murmured. “Remember that, daughter.”
“But Mother –” Taylor managed in a whimper.
He rose and moved to the window, where the sun was just beginning to peer over the horizon. The morning’s light splashed him in a blood red wave. A sudden breeze from the window lifted his cape about his shoulders and the cloth fluttered behind him, making it look as if he had suddenly sprouted wings. “Will burn in a few minutes’ time,” he said flatly.
Taylor reared back. He was so cold. So uncaring. How could he say he loved her mother one moment and then sentence her to death the next? She straightened her back and glared at him, trying desperately to keep the pain from showing on her face.
She had failed. She had not been able to change her father’s mind. In the distance, she heard the drums and their foreboding rhythm begin. She had to hurry. It was starting.
She started for the door, but his voice thundered across the room. “You will remain with me,” he commanded.
“No,” Taylor gasped. She had to say goodbye to her mother.
“You will stand at my side and learn what infidelity leads to.”
Taylor felt her insides twist. Her blood pounded in her ears, drowning out the drum roll. “Please, Father,” she begged.
“You will stay,” he told her in a voice that could not be disobeyed.
For a long moment, a strange hush blanketed the castle. And Taylor’s heart. She thought of disobeying her father and racing out of the room to be with her mother, but never in her twelve years of life had she defied him. Years of strict discipline prevented her from doing it now.
She silently begged God to spare her mother. She prayed that her mother was right, that “he” would come for her. She desperately wanted to believe what her mother believed. She desperately wanted a knight in shining armor to race to her mother’s rescue and snatch her from the flames to which her father had condemned her.
Her mother’s words rang through her mind, ‘He won’t let me burn.’ Hope ignited in Taylor’s breast. Her mother had so much confidence. Could she be right? Would he save her?
Taylor raced to the window, to her father’s side. But her frantic gaze wasn’t on the courtyard, where the horror of her mother’s execution was being played out. Her eyes searched the lowered drawbridge and the road beyond for the knight. The knight of honor who would rescue her mother.
But the road and drawbridge were empty. Silent.
‘We love each other far too much,’ her mother had said.
Taylor glanced expectantly at the empty road, waiting for her mother’s rescuer.
Her father’s confession echoed in her mind, ‘I loved her.’
‘There is no such thing as true love.’ Suddenly, Taylor understood her father’s words. And with the comprehension came a chilling realization.
There would be no rescue. Her mother would burn. A panic filled Taylor so completely she trembled helplessly. As black smoke and dark orange flames spiraled up to meet the dawning light’s rays, a scream rent the silence.
Suddenly a triumphant burst of flames sprang high into the dawn sky, its hungry tongues licking the fading night. To a terrified child, it was the face of death. Taylor fell to her knees, burying her face in her hands, her own agonized cry replacing her mother’s suddenly silent one.
Jared Mantle cursed. What was England coming to if it allowed a fine woman such as Lady Diana to be put to the flame?
Diana was one of the most compassionate women Jared had ever known. Years ago, she found him beaten and near death at the side of the road. She took him to Sullivan Castle and nursed him back to health. Then she asked lord Sullivan to retain his services. It had taken ten long years of hard work after that, but Jared finally reached the rank of captain. He had trained most of the men that now kept the castle secure. Few of them, if any, could best him in combat.
Now, after fifteen years of loyalty and devotion, Jared found himself back where he had begun. Alone. He rubbed his short beard. Oh, he was certain Sullivan would keep him on, but he could not stay where they would burn a kind, generous woman. Jared shook his head sadly. Besides, it was time he sought his fortune before he could not lift a sword.
He strapped on his belt and his scabbard, and he glanced one last time about the room. He pocketed the measly coins he had saved in his service to the Sullivans and headed for the door, stepping outside into the night.
The moon was a mere slit in the dark sky, a narrowed eye watching his departure. He moved deeper into the courtyard.
Suddenly, Jared tensed. Instinctively, he knew someone was there. He pulled back into the darkness and watched with curious eyes as a silhouetted figure snuck into the empty courtyard. Huddled and tentatively watchful, the figure moved swiftly from shadow to shadow to the outer gates.
Jared’s eyes narrowed and he moved silently across the yard, his large strides taking him to the figure, whose back was to him. “Late for an evening stroll,” Jared said quietly.
The figure whirled to stare at him. Green eyes flashed defiantly up at him. The girl swung her clenched hand behind her back, concealing something in her fist.
Surprise jarred him as he stared down at the girl. Even with her face concealed beneath a velvet hood, he knew her instantly. Diana’s daughter. What would a young girl be doing out this late? he wondered to himself. And without a chaperone.
“Don’t try to stop me!” she snapped.
For the first time, Jared noticed the sack slung over her shoulder. She started to turn away from him, but he caught her wrist, pulling her hand out of the shadows. The ring on her finger shone in the night’s blue light. Two crossed swords with a large S in the middle were etched into its surface. He raised his eyes to hers. Had the girl stolen the ring?
Taylor raised her chin and her eyes narrowed. “It was my mother’s,” she said imperiously.
He glowered at her for a long moment. “Running away?” he asked.
“Leaving,” she insisted.
“With no one to watch over you? No guards?”
“I don’t need a guard!”
He pondered her words. He could see traces of her mother in every one of her stubborn movements, the worry beneath the defiance in her eyes, the resolution that set her shoulders. She was so young. So young and so inexperienced. He glanced at the gates. The world outside would eat her alive.
“Where are you headed?” he asked her.
Taylor paused for a long moment. She glanced at the wooden gate, then up at the walkways surrounding the castle as if they held the answer. “To London,” she finally replied.
He grunted softly. She had no idea what she was getting herself into, what kind of people waited to take advantage of a twelve-year-old-girl. Most likely she would end up a prostitute. Or dead on the side of the road without her rich velvet cloak. He briefly wondered if she had even thought to pack any food. He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. Well, I owe my lady that much, he thought to himself. “That’s where I’m heading,” he said. “Can you use the company?”
Eight Years Later
Slane Donovan dismounted in front of a small shop and tethered his black warhorse to a nearby tree. Woodland Hills was a simple town. There was only one shop to buy supplies in and this was it. The sign hanging from a weather-worn wooden pole jutting out from the building’s thatched roof creaked as it swayed in the easy breeze. He glanced up at the charred words burned into the wood.
A prickling at the back of his neck caused him to look away from the sign toward the shop’s open door. A small girl stood in the doorway, watching him with large brown eyes. Slane grinned and patted her head as he entered the shop.
The interior was dark except for the area lit by the flaming hearth burning to his left and the entranceway lit by the sun behind him. After his eyes adjusted to the gloom, Slane noticed a man sweeping the floor near the rear of the shop. When he heard Slane enter, the man stopped his work and looked up, clutching the broom handle with both hands. “Good day, sir,” he greeted. “What can I do for you?”
“You must be Benjamin.”
Benjamin nodded. “That I am. Are you needing supplies?”
Slane glanced around at the various tables that filled the room. Piles of dull-edged daggers, rusted knives, maces with chipped handles, and numerous other weapons filled several tabletops. Other tables held cooking utensils or farming tools. Shelves lining the wall held foodstuffs of all kinds, dirt-caked vegetables, trenchers, a few strips of salted meat. “I just need some information,” Slane said.
Benjamin began sweeping again. “Nothing comes cheap these days, sir.”
Slane sighed and pulled out a gold piece from the pouch at his waist. “I’m looking for a ring,” he said. “Two swords crossed, and an S on it.”
The man’s eyes lit up at the sight of the coin. He reached for it, but Slane pulled it back.
“Have you seen it?”
“Yes,” Benjamin said eagerly. “Not two days ago. A woman wore it.”
“Did you see which way the woman went?” Slane asked.
“She rode off to the west. Near as I can guess, she was heading toward Fulton.”
Slane nodded and handed the man the coin. Benjamin greedily snatched it from Slane’s fingers. Fulton. That was only a day’s ride. He turned and moved to the doorway.
He caught the small girl staring at him and her eyes went wide before she quickly pulled back out of the doorway. Slane grinned. He strolled out the door and moved toward his horse.
The soft tread of a child’s footsteps followed him. “Did she do something bad?”
The girl’s small voice caused Slane to turn. “No,” he told her.
“Then how come you want to find her?” she asked.
Slane smiled and knelt down to the child’s level. Her eyes were large and brown and innocent. “I’m looking for the ring.”
Slane ruffled her hair and turned back to his horse. He swung himself up into the saddle.
“Like those other men this morning?”
Slane froze. “What other men?”
“Some other men were asking about the ring and the lady this morning,” she said. “One of them was real mean, the one with the hair on his lip. I didn’t like him.”
“Corydon,” Slane hissed, staring off down the road. When Corydon had won lands that bordered Donovan and Sullivan lands five years ago, Slane himself had approached him in peace, seeking to secure friendship with his neighbor. But Corydon had scoffed at his efforts and attacked his party. Two good men had been killed that day. Slane could still hear Corydon’s laughter burning in his ears.
And now Corydon had actively begun to accumulate an army of men. Enough men to lay siege to a castle. Slane knew he had precious little time to complete his mission. Corydon’s appetite for new lands was insatiable.
Slane returned his gaze to the small girl. She couldn’t have been more than four, but she was obviously smart beyond her years. He bestowed on her one of his most beguiling smiles. “Thank you, m’lady,” he said. “You’ve been very helpful.”
She put her small hands to her mouth and giggled.
Slane spurred his horse and the large animal fell into a trot and then a full-out gallop. With Corydon so close, he knew there was no more time to waste. He needed help. He needed experienced trackers.
The arm slammed heavily down upon the table. Cheers broke out around the room, echoed by groans and finally, what Taylor liked to hear the most, coins clinking together. She watched Jared rise from the table, a victory smile on his bearded face. His brigandine armor shifted with his movement, the leather shining dully in the fire of the hearth as he reached his full height. Taylor looked at the fire for a moment, at the snaking, whipping flames, then she quickly turned away.
Jared’s opponent in the arm wrestling match, a taller and heavier man, rose from his seat rubbing his arm. Taylor froze for an instant, her hand moving inconspicuously to the hilt of her sword, but when she saw the defeated man’s shoulders slump slightly and his head hang she took her fingers away from her weapon. A smile curved the corner of her lips. He would be no trouble. There had been many a time when she and Jared had to leave an inn fighting. Most men were not easily parted from their hard-earned coin.
Jared clasped a few arms and slapped a few backs.
Most of the gambling men found it distasteful to give up their coin to a woman, and Jared was busy speaking with the patrons and his opponent, so Taylor and Jared had found it best to employ a man to collect their winnings. Taylor leaned against a wall at the rear of the tavern, scanning the room for the shady little creature. She had found it best to remain discreetly separate from the patrons, keeping an eye on Jared’s back.
She spotted Irwin slithering from person to person in the dark room, collecting the coins that glinted in the torchlight when they fell into his open palm. The way he held his hands curled into his chest, the way he scurried, reminded her of a rat. Keeping her gaze on him, she reached down to the table before her and grabbed her ale. Irwin held out his hand to the next man, who deposited two coins into his open palm with a grimace and moved away. Taylor lifted the mug to her lips, but paused as she watched Irwin’s eyes shift left and then right. She knew what he was going to do even before his small hand dipped into his pocket and came up empty. Her green eyes narrowed and she threw back her head to drain the mug of ale.
By the time Irwin finally scurried up to her, Taylor was on her second ale. A grin spread across his rodent-like face as he produced the coin-filled pouch, chuckling gleefully, “We emptied their pockets!” He dropped it onto the table and the coins clanked heavily as they hit the wooden surface.
Taylor scooped up the pouch. She weighed it in her hand for a moment and was gratified to see Irwin’s smile slip a notch. She tied the strings around her belt, watching him. “Nice doing business with you, Irwin,” she said and took a step past him.
Irwin moved to block her path.
Her gaze slowly shifted to him.
“My payment,” he whined. He extended his hand, palm up.
“You know, Irwin, as I see it, you have two choices. You can try to get your payment from Jared, but he’s a smart man and all he would have to do is look in your eyes to see how you cheated him.” She watched Irwin’s face turn from gray to white. But he recovered quickly.
“Cheated him? I am a man of morals. I would never –”
“I saw you, Irwin.”
He sputtered for a moment, his hands twitching nervously. “It was a mistake, a misunderstanding!”
Taylor nodded. “I know. And I sympathize with you. But I’m afraid that Jared is not the forgiving type. Do you know what he did to the last man he caught with his hand in our moneybag?”
Irwin shook his head, his black eyes wide, anxiously awaiting the answer.
“He followed him out into an alley and — well, the poor soul was never seen again. My guess is rat food.”
“Rat food?” Irwin echoed.
Taylor nodded. “Not the forgiving type.”
“You — you said I had two choices.”
“Well, yes. You can take what you have… and disappear.”
Irwin did not move for a long moment. Taylor was sure that she saw his little nose twitch. “But…” he finally protested weakly.
Taylor held up a finger, halting his objection. “Rat food,” she reminded him.
Irwin shuffled his feet. “I see your point.”
“And next time,” Taylor murmured, leaning toward Irwin, “be sure that no one is looking when you steal.”
“Sully!” Jared called.
Taylor turned to see Jared making his way through the crowd of well-wishers. He stood a foot above her, his bald head shining in the torch light.
“The ale is on me tonight!” he called out to her.
Taylor nodded. “I thought as much. Irwin here—“ Taylor turned to Irwin, only to find him gone. A smile lit her face. “They don’t like to get caught.”
“God’s right hand! Another one?” Jared roared. “Good help is hard to find these days. How much did he take?”
“Not enough to make a dent in the profits you brought in.” Taylor hefted the bag in her palm. “It looks as though we’ll sleep in a bed tonight!”
Jared dropped his head, seriousness washing over him. He took Taylor’s arm and steered her to a private corner of the common room. “We can’t keep on like this, Sully,” he murmured. “We have to find work. A few coins from wagering won’t see us past a night.”
“You worry too much, my friend. I’m sure the morning will bring better luck and a paying fare. Just watch.” She turned to move back into the crowd, but Jared caught her arm.
“If nothing comes on the morrow, we move north. Agreed?”
Taylor sighed. She didn’t want to go north in search of employment. It was too close. Too close to what she had been avoiding all these years. She clenched her teeth and pushed away the unpleasant memories that threatened to take hold of her senses.
Jared shook her arm. “Agreed?”
Taylor pulled free of his grip. “Agreed,” she reluctantly assented, then turned and barreled through the rowdy patrons and out into the night air.
North. She glanced up at the stars and suddenly their glistening brilliance shimmered, transporting her back in time. Flames roared before her eyes. A horrible scream filled her ears. She quickly shook her head and marched around a corner. She paused to take a deep drink of ale. It slid over her tongue and down her throat, washing away the memories.
“It’s dangerous for a woman to walk these streets alone,” a voice called out.
Taylor groaned, immediately recognizing the voice. Usually when she told the vermin to stay away, they did. But it looked as if Irwin wasn’t as bright as the rest. “Irwin,” Taylor murmured and spun. “I told you to take what you have –” Her voice faded. The firelight shining through the tavern window illuminated three men standing in the alley before her: Irwin and two burly others. So, Taylor thought, our little rat has friends. She leaned against a crate that lined the dark road.
“I’m not satisfied with the payment I received,” Irwin said.
“I could have guessed,” Taylor murmured, lifting the mug to her lips.
“And now I want it all.”
Taylor swallowed the ale in a surprised gulp. “All? Aren’t we getting a little greedy, Irwin?”
He shrugged his scrawny shoulders. “If I have to get my fair payment this way, I might as well take it all.”
Taylor dropped her chin to her chest, sighing. “I suppose I can’t talk you out of this.” Part of her didn’t want to. Her hands itched for a little swordplay.
“Oh, your tongue is witty, but you’ll need more than that to change my mind.”
Taylor set her mug down on the crate, careful not to spill its contents. Then she straightened up and faced Irwin. “All right.”
Irwin’s beady black eyes widened. “You will give us the bag?”
Taylor chuckled in disbelief. “Not a chance, Irwin,” she said. “If you want the bag, you’re going to have to take it.”
Irwin’s companions laughed lasciviously.
The half moon that lit the sky cast a bluish glow over the alley, allowing Taylor to see her opponents as they approached. They were both big men dressed in soiled breeches and ragged tunics — one with a long, dark, unkempt beard that reached almost down to his stomach, the other missing two teeth. They moved slowly and laboriously. Taylor was certain that their bulk would be more hindrance than help in their actual fighting.
“Get her,” Irwin ground out between his teeth.
“Tsk-tsk, Irwin,” Taylor admonished. “You’re not the one doing the dirty work. Give them a moment to think. Here, gentlemen. Let me make this easy on you. One of you go to my right, the other to my left. Try to surround me.”
The two men cast speculative glances at each other before doing what Taylor told them.
“What an ingenious plot!” Taylor laughed. She continued to face Irwin, keeping the two men in her peripheral vision. Suddenly, the men acted. The one with the beard rushed her from her right while the other man charged from her left.
Taylor feinted back and then stepped forward. The two men knocked shoulders, the man without the teeth falling onto his butt. Taylor whirled in time to see the man with the beard stomping toward her. She heard a movement behind her and brought her elbow back sharply into Irwin’s ribs, then danced two steps out of the bearded man’s path.
“If this is the best you’ve got, you might as well leave now,” she scoffed.
She stood two steps from the wall, able to see all the men. The man with two missing teeth climbed to his feet. Irwin stood beside the bearded man, his arm wrapped around his stomach.
The man with two missing teeth drew a small dagger.
All the amusement Taylor felt up until now disappeared. When weapons were drawn, it was no longer a game. Now, it was a fight for her life. She eased her sword from its sheath.
The men halted for a long moment.
“She’s a woman! She doesn’t know how to use it,” Irwin reassured the men. “It’s just for show.”
“Then you come and get it, Irwin,” Taylor invited. “I’ll put on a show for you.”
Irwin swallowed hard. “This is what I’m paying you for,” he said to the men. “There are two of you… and one of her.”
The man with the missing teeth came forward, rage in his dark eyes. She had somehow insulted him and his anger was burning. He would fight irrationally. Every instinct told her to fight her way free and flee. But painful memories still lingered like a glowing ember inside her. She needed to bury them again. She needed a fight.
The gap-toothed man approached steadily. Taylor did not move back until he lashed out at her. She ducked and whirled away, but he followed her, dogging her steps. She caught one of his swings with her sword, and the dagger bounced harmlessly off her blade. He kept at her, and she moved carefully within the small space of the alley, biding her time. Finally, he foolishly waved his weapon by her face and she took advantage of the moment. She reared her head back from the sharp edge of the dagger as it swept just beneath her chin—and thrust forward with her blade at the same time. She had meant to wound him enough to scare him, but the idiot stepped into her swing. The sword hit flesh and for a moment everything froze.
The gap-toothed man’s dark eyes went round with surprise; his mouth went slack with shock. His dagger slipped from his fingers and it clattered against the ground.
Taylor pulled her sword from his torso and turned.
The fist that slammed into her face sent her reeling to the ground! Her head spun fiercely for a moment and her cheek throbbed with a pulsing, biting pain. A kick to her side spun her over onto her back. She lay with her eyes open, gasping for a breath, unsure whether the white blotches that flared before her eyes were stars in the night sky or patches of pain clouding her vision.
A dark, twisted face suddenly appeared above her, a face covered with dirty hair and picked-at scabs. She felt hands shaking her shoulders. She saw lips moving and heard unintelligible sounds. Then two savage punches knocked her head back and this time she knew the flashes of white filling her vision didn’t come from the heavens above.
She lay still for a long moment, her cheek pressing against the dust and dirt of the road. Slowly, the stars swimming before her eyes faded and the world came back into focus. She saw a splash of moonlight washing over her mug, which had overturned in the battle. Her eyes followed the thin stream of ale as it dripped down to the puddle below.
The bearded man’s words cut through her fogginess. “Had enough?”
“You spilled my ale,” Taylor groaned. She was rewarded with a brutal kick to her abdomen.
As she lifted a limp hand to ward off any more blows, she heard laughter.
“You were right,” Irwin whispered in her ear. “That was a good show.”
Their shrill laughter faded into the distance.
Taylor lay in the road for a long time, watching the growing pool of ale on the ground, wishing the pounding in her head would stop. She tasted blood in her mouth; her tongue traced a gash on her lip. She forced herself onto her back and lifted a hand to her throbbing left cheek. She knew it would swell and bruise before the morning. She closed her eyes, taking note of her injuries. Stomach, side, but mostly her face. Her left cheek was by far the worst. The right cheek stung, but the ache was nowhere near as intense as the biting pain on the left side. Already she felt puffiness ringing her left eye. At least she didn’t think anything was broken.
Her head pounded savagely behind her eyes and she rubbed her forehead with the tips of her fingers, unsuccessfully willing the pain to go away. She opened her eyes to contemplate the heavens and the God that had delivered her to such a fate.
That was when she noticed that her ring was gone! Her mother’s ring! They had pried it from her fingers!
She tried to push herself up off the ground, but didn’t make it past her hands and knees. “Damn it,” she whispered, groaning as pain shot through every muscle in her body. She was in no condition to pursue the thieves, but she vowed she would have the ring back. Whatever it took.
She quickly scanned the alley, hoping they hadn’t taken everything. The man with the missing teeth lay sprawled not five feet from her. Her gaze shot past him, past her spilled ale, up the alley. Where was her sword? It wasn’t what they had been after. Had they taken it to sell it?
She spotted her blade lying in the shadows against the wall of the tavern and breathed a sigh of relief.
The sudden clattering of hooves made her freeze. She crawled into the shadows of the tavern, hoping that whomever it was would not look into this dirty alley — and that it wasn’t some wretched God-loving knight with a penchant for doing good. She was in enough trouble in plenty of towns as it was.
The horses continued past the alley without stopping. Taylor eased out of the shadows and took another look at the body only a few feet from her. The toothless man was definitely dead, his chest still and lifeless. Not the first man she had killed, and probably not the last. Unless, of course, she was caught here with his blood on her blade.
The dripping of her trickling ale caught her attention and she turned her head. Her mug rested on its side on the crate beside her. She reached up and grabbed it, then crawled over to her sword and took hold of it with trembling fingers. Kneeling, she resheathed the weapon, taking four tries to get it back into its scabbard.
She pulled herself to her feet, using the wall as support. Mustering as much determination as she could, she willed the pain away and straightened only enough to walk toward the tavern. Each step was agony; each footfall pounded through her entire body.
Finally, the open doorway of the tavern loomed before her. She stepped into the entryway and halted, leaning heavily against the wooden frame and closing her eyes against the throbbing pain that pierced every muscle in her body.
When Taylor opened her eyes, she saw Jared sitting across the room between two buxom serving wenches. He jumped up and rushed to her side. Relief washed over her so completely her shoulders sagged and her entire body started to go limp.
Taylor raised the empty mug. “I need a refill,” she grunted before collapsing into Jared’s arms.
Slane entered the Wolf’s Inn, his blue eyes narrowing immediately as he assessed the main room. It was the kind of place that had trouble brewing around every corner, where pickpockets lurked in every dark shadow, where a killer could be bought for a shilling. Laughter and conversation rose and fell around him. A harlot seated near the door reached under a table and demonstrated her skills to an eager-to-learn merchant. Four armored men sat to Slane’s right; all had the dull haze of too much ale in their red-streaked eyes. Most of the tables were occupied by solitary figures nursing their ales or filling their bellies with steaming vegetables and mutton. Nobody appeared to notice his presence, but he knew they were all aware of his entrance.
“What can I do for you, m’lord?”
Slane turned to see a short man standing beside him.
The top of his balding head barely reached Slane’s shoulder. “I’m looking for a man called Jared Mantle.”
The innkeeper chortled. “M’lord must understand that I can’t just –”
Slane quickly produced a gold coin, silencing the man’s objections. The innkeeper pointed a chubby finger in the direction of a back table, where two men were sitting. Slane tossed over the gold coin and moved through the room toward the table.
A lone candle illuminated the two figures in earnest conversation, one of them possibly a merchant — no self- respecting tracker would wear such gaudy colors, nor tie a yellow-and-red scarf about his waist. Slane’s eyes quickly assessed the other man’s well-worn leather armor and easy confidence, and he knew that this man must be Jared. He was much older than Slane had anticipated, but his age was probably a testament to his skill. He was still alive, after all. “Jared Mantle?” Slane asked.
The man raised his eyes, eyes that were suspicious and alert, to meet Slane’s. “Who’s asking?”
Slane swiveled his gaze to the merchant and then back to Jared. “Slane Donovan.”
Jared’s eyes narrowed slightly. “I’m Mantle. Do we have business?”
“I’d like to hire you.”
“I’m in the process of doing the exact same thing,” the merchant protested.
“I can offer you double what this man is offering,” Slane said. “I need your services immediately.”
Jared’s eyes shifted to the merchant. “Can you better that?”
The merchant shook his head and rose from the table. “Perhaps next time,” he murmured, casting Slane an irritated glance before moving away.
When Slane took the vacated seat, Jared asked, “What services do you require?”
Slane couldn’t help but notice the skepticism in his voice. Had Jared had dealings with his brother, Richard? No matter. “I need you to find a ring.”
“A ring?” Jared echoed. “What importance does a ring hold to you?”
“That is my concern. Can you track such a thing?”
“What does it look like?”
Slane opened his mouth to respond when a woman slipped into the empty chair beside Jared. Annoyed at her presumption, Slane scowled… until he saw her face. It was covered in bruises and healing scabs. “God’s blood!” he exclaimed. “Where did you get those injuries?”
The woman glanced over at Slane. The one eye that wasn’t puffed closed narrowed instantly, and her swollen lip curled into a humorless grin. “A friend.”
He stiffened at her cold tone. “If you’ll kindly excuse us, we are in the middle of a business transaction. I’m not in need of your services.”
The woman didn’t budge. “If it’s business, then you can talk to me as well. Jared and I are partners.”
Slane darted a glance at Jared, who nodded, an amused look crinkling his eyes. “I’m only hiring you,” he said to Jared.
“We come together or not at all,” Jared replied.
Slane turned his thoughtful gaze to her. She responded with a chilly glare. He turned back to Jared. “Fine. But I don’t intend to pay any more than I did before.”
“For the work of two?” the woman objected.
Slane crossed his arms. “Take it or leave it.”
He watched her shoulders sink as she sighed and glanced at Jared, who nodded once. “What’s the job?” she asked.
Slane leaned across the table. “I’m looking for a ring. Two swords crossed under an S.”
Jared and the girl sat motionless for a long moment, then looked at each other. Suddenly, the woman began to laugh.
“What is so funny?” Slane snapped.
She met his solemn look with amusement. “This is going to be the easiest coin we’ve ever worked for,” she replied.
Slane frowned quizzically. “You know where it is?”
She nodded and began to rise, but Slane grabbed her arm, halting her movement. “Look, woman. If you know where it is, tell me. We can begin and end your employment right here.”
She hesitated for a moment casting an unreadable look at Jared. “Sully,” she finally said, her lips curving up in a grin. With her swollen lip, the smile was more grotesque than appealing. “My name is Sully, not woman.”
Taylor leaned against a wall and crossed her arms over her chest as she regarded Slane out of curious eyes. What could he possibly want with her mother’s ring? They had been traveling together for half a day now and he hadn’t spoken one more word about it
He glanced at her and she smiled brilliantly through her cut and fattened lips. He scowled and turned away.
At least he’s consistent, she thought. Her gaze shifted to Jared, who was speaking earnestly with a large man — a man who was almost as tall as Slane but with a much less flattering physique. His belly flopped over his breeches; the muscles in his arms were slack. Jared had sensed he was the town gossipmonger the second he laid eyes on him. And as usual, Jared was right. The large man looked at her and smiled, then glanced back at Jared and spoke quickly to him.
Taylor shifted slightly. “This ring must be very important to rouse you from the comfort of Castle Donovan.”
“Yes,” Slane answered stiffly.
“No more tournaments to play in?” she quipped.
He stared curiously at her.
She cast him a wry look. It was like speaking to a wall. A well-muscled wall, with long, glorious blond hair, but a wall nonetheless.
Jared and the man headed over to them, Jared wearing the same exasperated expression he always wore when some man would insist on propositioning her. Taylor shook her head. They never learned. Or were there just too many to teach?
“He says he won’t give me any information unless you bed him,” Jared explained.
As a large, eager grin split the man’s lips, Slane’s eyes widened in outrage.
Taylor pushed herself from the wall, placing a hand on Slane’s chest to quiet him. “I’m used to it,” she said.
“You’re not thinking –” Slane began, but Taylor turned her attention to Jared.
“You offered him a gold coin?”
Jared shrugged slightly. “Two,” he said.
Taylor smiled at the large man. “You know, you’re being quite unreasonable about this,” she told him. “All we need is information. You’ve seen the ring?”
The man nodded. “I’ve seen it. But that’s all you’ll get from me unless I see some action.”
“Action?” Taylor repeated. “Is that all you want?” She half turned to Slane, clenched her fist, and turned back to the man, ramming her balled fingers into his stomach.
The man doubled over. Taylor shoved the brutish lout backward over Jared’s carefully positioned foot and he slammed into the ground. Taylor whipped out her dagger and held it to the man’s neck. “Is this the type of action you wanted?” she asked.
The man fought back the urge to swallow as Taylor pressed the side of the blade against his throat.
“All we want is a little information about the ring. I know that you’ll be very accommodating, won’t you?” Taylor eased the tip slightly from the man’s neck.
“I don’t want any trouble,” the man gasped.
“Out with it,” she ordered.
“They went toward Briarwood,” he gasped. “I swear that’s all I know. They rode north!”
Taylor paused for a long moment. She knew he was too shocked and scared to lie. Still, she liked the feeling of this slime groveling in the dirt. “Maybe next time you’ll think before you insult a woman,” she said and slowly stood up.
The man sat up, putting his hands to his throat, eyeing her with hatred.
Jared joined her, standing protectively behind her.
Finally, the man narrowed his eyes, stood and scrambled away.
Taylor’s lips quirked up in a grin of satisfaction.
“I bet you make a lot of friends that way,” Slane said and moved toward the stables.
“No one needs friends like that,” Taylor retorted, casting one last glance at the man’s retreating back before following Slane.
“Good job,” Jared congratulated as he trailed after the duo.
Slane rode behind Sully and Jared. His gaze lingered on the woman, this enigmatic Sully. Her long, braided black hair swung back and forth over her cuir-bouilli armor. The hard leather armor had been worked and shaped to fit her tiny figure. And the leather maker had done an admirable job. It fit her very well indeed. She wore black leggings beneath her armor. Black boots hid her calves. The sword strapped to her waist continued to catch his attention every time he glanced at her. He had rarely seen a woman with a blade and wondered how good she was at wielding the weapon.
It was a shame he probably wouldn’t have time to find out. He turned his concentration back to his mission.
The Sullivan woman.
He was certain that once he found the ring, he would find the girl and his search would be over. He wondered what she looked like. Had eight years on her own taken their toll? Was she haggard and gaunt from lack of food and working too hard? Did she look older than her twenty years? He knew she had dark hair. But that was all he knew of her.
His eyes shifted to the two horses before him as one of the animals snorted. Sully smiled at Jared in a private joke and spurred her horse on to take the lead. Slane wondered if Sully and Jared were lovers. And if they were, how could he have let her get beaten like that? How on earth had she gotten those cursed bruises? Why, if Sully were his woman, he would never let anyone hurt her. He would kill anyone who laid a hand on Elizabeth.
He sighed, thinking of Elizabeth waiting for him at her home in Bristol. He had sent word with his best man, John Flynn, that he would be delayed. He knew John would watch over Elizabeth and protect her while he was away. He wouldn’t be long. Not with the best tracker this side of France in his employ.
Slane nudged his horse and took up step beside Jared, turning his head to regard the mercenary. He was indeed old. There were deeply shadowed wrinkles around his eyes and his skin sagged around his cheeks. He glanced up ahead at Sully. What could she see in this old man? What kind of pleasure could he show her? And then another thought occurred to Slane. Perhaps they weren’t lovers. Perhaps their relationship was more of a father watching over a daughter.
“We’re coming to Briarwood,” Jared announced.
“Are you sure the ring is here?” Slane asked.
“Look,” Jared said, “you’re paying me to track. That’s what I’m doing. I’ll find the ring. Don’t doubt that.”
Slane nodded, satisfied. They rode in silence for a few moments, the hot sun beating down on their shoulders. “You used to work for lord Sullivan, did you not?” He felt Jared’s gaze turn to him.
“Aye,” Jared replied. “A long time ago.”
“Tell me of the girl,” Slane ordered.
“Taylor Sullivan,” Slane clarified. “What did she look like?”
“That was a long time ago,” Jared replied, keeping his eyes on the road. “I was surprised she ran away. Didn’t think she had it in her.”
Slane looked steadily at Jared, not saying anything. After a moment of silence, Jared added, “I suppose when your mother dies, you do impulsive things.”
“So you haven’t seen her since then?”
“No,” Jared said. “Don’t know if I’d recognize her anymore.”
“What do you remember of her?”
“Why do you want to know?”
Slane watched Jared’s knuckles tighten on the reins of his horse. He had no intention of telling him his reasons. Not with his unusual behavior. “Just curious.”
Jared looked at him then, and Slane swore he saw hostility in his blue eyes. But then it was gone. “She was a fat, lazy thing, from what I remember,” Jared said. “There was one pretty thing about her. She had the most brilliant blond hair that I’ve ever seen. Almost like gold.”
“Golden hair,” Slane murmured. “Indeed.” He allowed his horse to fall behind. As he studied Jared’s back for a long moment, Slane’s eyes narrowed slightly. Why would Jared lie? What was he hiding?
Taylor walked back and forth before Jared, who sat beneath a tall tree. With each step, her muscles stretched and she almost groaned in delight. After such a long ride, it felt good to be off the horse. She paused to glance over her shoulder at the stream, where the horses drank, to see Slane bent over near the water, splashing his face.
“What do you think he wants with the ring?” Taylor wondered.
Jared snorted. “Don’t know,” he said, lifting a flask of ale to his lips. He lowered the bag and wiped his mouth with his sleeve, then offered the flask to Taylor. “But that’s not all he’s interested in.”
Taylor took the flask and lifted it to her lips. The refreshing ale slid down her dust-filled throat.
“He was asking about you,” Jared whispered.
Taylor lowered the flask and shifted her startled gaze to Jared. He raised his eyebrows and nodded. She returned her gaze to Slane. He was standing now, stretching, reaching toward the sky with his arms.
“What did you tell him?” Taylor asked.
Jared chuckled. “That you were a fat, lazy girl with blond hair.”
Taylor lifted an amused eyebrow. “And he believed you?”
“They don’t know you like I do,” Jared said, chortling deeply.
She squatted beside her friend and handed back the flask. “Do you think Father sent him?”
Jared’s eyes narrowed as he looked at Slane. “I don’t know,” he said quietly. “All I know is I don’t like him.” His gaze turned to Taylor. “So stay away from him. You hear?”
“You know me, Jared,” Taylor said, standing. “I don’t court trouble.”
Jared groaned and rubbed his hands over his face.
Taylor walked across the small clearing toward the horses. Slane was checking his animal’s bridles and straps, and she watched his strong shoulders and golden head over the horse’s back. How many stories she had heard about him! Lord Slane Donovan of Castle Donovan winning the tournament at Warwickshire. Then the tournament at Glavindale. Then another tournament. And there were the great battles, fighting at the King’s side. She shrugged. It all seemed so unreal to her. She had just turned away when his soft voice reached her.
“Where was Jared when you got those bruises?”
Taylor turned slowly. “Jared is not my protector,” she said. “I am a free woman and I do as I please.”
He lifted his gaze to her, and she was suddenly startled at how blue his eyes were. Then those tawny brows slanted over his eyes, and he returned his concentration to his horse.
He had dismissed her without a word! Exasperation filled her. But in that exasperation was a sense of victory. For the woman he sought stood face-to-face with him and he didn’t even know it!
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