These five historical romances from Anita Mills sweep readers back in time, to places like eleventh-century Normandy, where the danger of loving the wrong man can be perilous, and where forbidden love flourishes in the darkened corners of castles. Defiant women and heroic men roam the gorgeous countryside in this multigenerational saga—perfect escapist romance for readers who take their stolen kisses with a hint of danger.
“Mills is a sprightly storyteller, providing atmosphere and action aplenty, and cannily complicating her characters’ inner landscapes.” —Publishers Weekly
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An expectant air hung over the small high-walled garden set within the lower bailey at Nantes. Herleva, nurse to Count Gilbert's three daughters, fought a losing battle to keep her young charges busy, while the sounds and smells of festival preparations competed for their attention. Somewhere in the town below the castle, carpenters hammered on stands and hung gaily dyed bunting, while cooks tended pits and spits of roasting meat and bakers kept ovens going day and night baking enough bread and pastries for noble and peasant alike. From time to time, the clatter of newly arriving lords and their retinues carried upward from narrow cobblestone streets. Most would seek lodging within the town, but a few of the more distinguished of the nobility would enjoy Gilbert's own hospitality.
Herleva watched as the eldest girl, twelve-year-old Eleanor, struggled reluctantly with her needlework. The girl held up the altar cloth she had been working, surveyed it with disgust, and slowly began to pick out the stitches she had just completed. No, the girl would never be noted for her skill with the needle — or for any other housewifely accomplishments. Well, it would be a rare lord that would care, anyway, because the girl was already much remarked for her beauty. Unlike others her age, Eleanor of Nantes lacked that awkwardness so often associated with the approach of womanhood. With long dark hair that hung in a thick curtain to her tiny waist, clear fair skin blushed with health, and a pair of fine brown eyes fringed with thick black lashes, she presented as pretty a sight as flesh and blood could make. At twelve, she was small and delicately made, but her young breasts already outlined the smooth samite of her silver-threaded purple gown. It was rumored that Count Gilbert intended to negotiate for her marriage soon, and the servants of Nantes hoped that their Demoiselle would go somewhere where she would be more valued.
A mild oath escaped the girl's lips as she threw her work down in frustration. Abruptly she stood up and began to pace impatiently back and forth along the narrow flagstone walk.
"Demoiselle!" Herleva's voice rose in reproof.
"I don't care," Eleanor muttered mutinously. "It is easy to chide when you sew a fine hand. Mine is naught but a batch of knots that I should be ashamed to offer for Christ's altar." She kicked the crumpled cloth with a dainty leather-clad toe.
"Child, would you have it said that I taught you nothing?" Herleva asked quietly.
"Nay, but I cannot be what you would have me." The girl looked longingly at the high rock wall that enclosed them. "I would rather be a peasant out there tasting, seeing, feeling the festival. Instead, I sit unraveling poor stitches — and so it goes on and on." She hugged her arms to her. "Why is it that none but Roger can understand?"
The old nurse sighed in sympathy. "You cannot follow Roger around much longer, Demoiselle. It will soon be time to prepare to be a lord's lady." She stooped to retrieve the discarded cloth. "Here — it cannot be so very bad. Let us work on it together." Closer inspection caused her to shake her head.
"See — even you who love me must own it hopeless."
"Let me see," piped ten-year-old Margaret, "though I know mine's better."
Herleva whisked the cloth behind her. "As for you, little Margaret, you need to know there's more to being a lady than stitching," she admonished the younger girl.
"At least I do not spend my time in the courtyard with a bastard stableboy," the child retorted. "Maman says ladies do not follow stableboys."
"He's not a stableboy! For shame, Maggie — he's your own brother."
"Half-brother," Margaret sniffed disdainfully, "and a bastard at that."
"Through no fault of his own," Eleanor defended.
"Roger's a bastard," seven-year-old Adelicia chimed in. "Everyone knows he's a bastard."
"See — even Lissy knows what he is. Maman says he is only fit to feed the horses."
"Maman is just jealous because she never had a son," Eleanor shot back.
"Mmmmmmmm — I'll tell Maman," Adelicia threatened.
"You'll do no such thing," Herleva intervened, "unless you want to spend Festival in the nursery while the rest of us see the company. The duke himself comes to Nantes."
"The Old Conqueror?" Even Eleanor was diverted by the news. "I thought him on the French border. Will he bring England's crown to wear?"
"As to that, I cannot say. All I know is that I heard he comes to ask for the count's levy against King Philip."
"Well, he wastes his time," Eleanor pointed out with an insight beyond her years. "If he would have Nantes' levy, he'll have to demand it. My father is too careful of his own skin to fight another man's war. He'll claim he cannot fight because he is a vassal to both Duke William and King Philip."
"Nonetheless, he comes here — mayhap today or tomorrow."
But Eleanor's attention suddenly became intent on sounds coming from beyond the castle wall — sounds of a fight brewing in the field by the drainage pond. She could barely make out taunts of "Bastard! Bastard! Your mother's a Saxon whore!" Instinctively she gathered up her skirts and moved purposefully toward the gate.
"Demoiselle! Eleanor!" Herleva implored. "He can take care of himself!"
Eleanor broke into a run, passing sentries who hesitated to lay a hand on the heiress. As she cleared the gate, she could see a crowd gathered at the edge of the foul-smelling ditch. It appeared that Roger was cornered at water's edge by a group of boys brandishing swords. He was parrying off thrusts with a stout pole held in front of his chest. She hurled herself headlong into the startled group, panting for breath and pushing her way to the forefront. That these boys were sons of the greatest noble houses in Normandy, Maine, and Brittany bothered her not at-all — to her they were nothing but a group of bullies intent on harming her brother.
"Foul! Foul!" she cried. "Does it take all of you to beat one boy? For shame! Where is your honor? Where is your chivalry?"
Roger's chief tormentor, a tall black-haired boy, growled back, "Hold her — she can watch me drown the bastard."
The others were hesitant. By the richness of her gown, it was evident she belonged to a great family. She took advantage of this hesitation to rail against them. "Fools! Dare you put a hand on Nantes? I shall have you whipped if you do!"
"Lea, get out of here!" Roger called to her. " 'Tis no place for a maid!"
"Nay, brother, I'd not see you harmed in an unfair contest." Turning back to the group, she continued, "Art cowards all! He can take any one of you — why must it be all against one?"
"Nay, he cannot take Belesme," someone called out.
"Then let Belesme fight him alone."
The black-haired boy sneered. "I'd not sully my honor meeting the Saxon bastard."
"Fie! Shame! You call it honorable to fight eight or ten to one? You are not fit to bear the sword you hold!"
They were so intent on each other, girl and squires, that they did not notice the approach of several riders. It wasn't until the leader, a thick-set graying warrior, rode straight into their midst and dismounted that he got their attention. Expressions of shock, disbelief, and horror spread across the boys' faces. From behind Eleanor the old man called out, "What goes here?"
The crowd fell strangely silent and uncomfortable. Eleanor whirled to face the newcomer while the others looked at their feet. The old man's black eyes raked the group until they focused on her. "Well," he asked finally in a rough and raspy voice, "is there not a man among you save for the maid? She stands brave whilst you cower." In spite of the challenge, none dared to answer. "Well, Demoiselle, I leave it to you to answer — what goes here?"
"These ... these squires thought to amuse themselves by harming my brother for no reason other than that he is bastard-born." She pointed accusingly at the tall boy identified as Belesme. "He threatened to drown him."
"Robert" — the old man scowled at the black-haired youth — "is this true?"
Robert's answer was evasive. "Sire, he would use the quintains with us and he has not even fostered. 'Tis plain he's baseborn and not fit to meet with us."
"And why should he not use the quintains?" Eleanor questioned hotly. "They are his — he set them up and this is his practice field." She faced the tall boy defiantly. "What right have you to come to Nantes and to taunt Nantes' son?"
"If he's so noble, why hasn't he fostered?" Belesme countered.
"Silence!" There was unmistakable authority in the old man's voice. "I would only know if the quarrel is over bastardy — is there any here who can say it isn't?" He motioned Roger forward and stared hard at him. "Well?"
It was obvious that Roger had no wish to be a talebearer, but Eleanor refused to allow his tormentors to go unpunished. "Sir ... my lord," she cut back into the old man's attention, "they were all taunting him — calling him a bastard and calling Dame Glynis a Saxon whore. They fault him for that which he cannot help."
"I know much about bastardy, Demoiselle," was the terse reply. "Gilbert's by-blow, eh? You have not the look of him."
"I favor my mother, my lord." Roger met the black-eyed gaze squarely. "My mother is daughter to a Saxon thane and no baseborn whore."
The old man rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "A pity Gilbert's only son had to come from the wrong side of the blanket. I wonder ... " He let his train of thought trail off unsaid. "Never fostered, eh?" "My mother would not hear of it." Eleanor inserted herself back into the conversation. "She hates him."
"I can well believe that of Mary de Clare," he commented dryly. "How are you called, Demoiselle?"
"I am Eleanor, heiress of Nantes," she answered proudly, "and this is my brother, Roger, called FitzGilbert."
"I see. And how old are you, Roger?"
"He is nearly sixteen, my lord," Eleanor responded.
"Demoiselle, he does not appear addlepated," the old man told her. "Surely he can answer simple questions by himself."
Eleanor reddened and bit her lip to stifle a retort. Roger had to smile at her discomfiture as he answered for her this time, "Your pardon, my lord, but Lea is strong-minded and always ready to speak on my behalf whether I need the service or not."
"I see. Well, Roger FitzGilbert, you have not trained in any household, yet your sister says you can fight. Can you indeed acquit yourself with any skill in combat?"
"Aye, my lord, I can fight with a lance, ax, or sword," he answered simply.
Those around them laughed derisively. The one called Robert of Belesme snorted, "That marks him for a liar, Sire, for a broadsword is nigh as big as he is."
"I think we'll see, Robert." The old man glowered warningly. "If this fellow can account for himself against you, I'll foster him myself. When all's said, I think we bastards should stand together."
Roger was dumbfounded by this sudden change in his fortune. When he could finally find his voice, he managed, "But ... my lord, you do not know me — nor do I know you."
This brought another snort from Robert of Belesme. "The fool knows not Normandy and England, Sire."
A boy little older than Roger edged his horse forward from where he had been watching with the others who accompanied the old man. "Aye" — he leaned forward to address Roger — "FitzGilbert, you stand before your duke." His face broke into a friendly smile even as Roger's reddened, adding not unkindly, "My father will give you justice even though you recognized him not."
Both Roger and Eleanor sank to their knees beneath Duke William. The newcomer turned his attention to the kneeling Eleanor. "Art a fine champion for your brother, Demoiselle. I would that any of my sisters were half so spirited in my defense."
William gave the crowd one last withering look before raising them. With his own hand, he lifted Eleanor to her feet and studied her intently. Apparently he liked what he saw, as his face softened into a smile.
"Henry," he addressed the rider above them, "see the Lady Eleanor back inside whilst I deal with those who would taunt a bastard." His weather-roughened hand still enveloped hers in a firm grip. "Are you betrothed as yet, Demoiselle?"
Eleanor colored under his gaze. "Nay, my ... Sire."
"Art a fierce little maid, Eleanor of Nantes, and worthy to be a warrior's bride. Mayhap I should speak to Gilbert about a suitable husband for you." He released her hand with a sigh. "I've five daughters of my own, and not one has your spirit. I pray you are allowed to keep it." Motioning her over to his son's horse, he bent and cupped his hand. "Up with you, child," he rasped as she hesitated before stepping into the palm. With a quick boost, he put her in front of the prince. Henry slid back on the saddle to make room for her slender body and slipped an arm easily about her waist to steady her.
"Sometimes my father finds particularly pleasant tasks for me, Demoiselle," he murmured from behind her.
"Wait — what of my brother?"
Duke William answered her. "Your cousin Walter will lend his mail so that young FitzGilbert has his chance to meet Robert in a fair match. After that, I intend to birch Belesme myself."
Prince Henry twisted behind her to loose his sword. Raising it hilt-first, he proffered it to Roger. "Give a good account of yourself, FitzGilbert, and when you join my father's household, you shall ride in my train. Until then, I lend you Avenger. Use it well, boy, because you have a chance to do that which I have oft longed to try."
"But never dared," Belesme taunted.
The prince ignored the gibe. "Remember, FitzGilbert, you shall ride with me."
"Henry," the Conqueror warned his son, "I would have him learn warring rather than wenching."
The remark drew laughter from the rest of the boys. It was well known among them that the seventeen-year-old prince had an eye for beauty and a lusty appetite for the favors of some of the married ladies at his father's court. Henry laughed good-naturedly with them while tightening his arm around Eleanor. "Pay them no heed, Demoiselle, for today I am slave to you."
Roger frowned, his blue eyes narrowing at Henry's words. He moved protectively toward his half-sister, but stopped when he saw nothing but open friendliness and teasing in the prince's expression. Instead, Roger tweaked the toe of Eleanor's shoe for attention. "Lea, if I am to meet Belesme, I would wear your favor."
She flushed with pleasure at the request given as gravely as though they were knight and lady. Nodding, she removed the enamel brooch she wore pinned to her shoulder. Leaning as far as she dared while Henry held her waist, she tried to pin it in the rough wool of Roger's tunic. The task completed, she kissed him solemnly. "May my token bring you good fortune today, brother."
Prince Henry nudged his horse away. As they began the climb up the rocky road, Eleanor strained to watch as Walter de Clare began divesting himself of his mail and his gambeson.
"Do not fear for him, little one," the prince reassured her. "While I doubt very much that your brother can best Belesme — I doubt anyone can — you may be assured that my father will not let the boy come to harm."
It was then that the full import of the day's event came home to Eleanor and she fell silent. For Roger, gaining a place in William the Conqueror's household was a great honor. For Eleanor, it meant losing the person dearest to her heart. She tried hard to focus on the thought that it was at least an opportunity for him to make his way in a world that denied him an inheritance. Besides, had he been a legitimate son of a noble house, he would have fostered at seven or eight. At least she'd had him a lot longer than most sisters had their brothers with them.
"Why so silent, Demoiselle? You were full of words back there."
"I ... I shall miss my brother," she managed.
"My sisters could scarce wait to see me gone," Henry told her conversationally, "and I thought much the same of them. My sister Adela has the temper of a viper."
Eleanor spoke before she thought. "It cannot be the same for you, Your Grace. Your father does not hate you for being a girl, and I am sure that your mother did not hate you either. My parents have never forgiven me for that which I cannot help. I suppose that is why Roger and I have always meant so much to each other — we are both despised for what we were born. Only he, Dame Glynis, and my old nurse care about me. And I love Roger above all things." Her shoulders began to shake slightly.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Fire Series"
Copyright © 2014 Anita Mills.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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