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|Publisher:||Penguin Random House LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.61(d)|
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The Brotherhood of Fallen Angels
By Heather Grothaus
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Heather Grothaus
All rights reserved.
Lady Mary Beckham took a deep breath of the fresh, warm air and rested her chin in her hands as she adjusted her elbows on the stone windowsill. The view of the village in spring always made her smile as she watched the people scurrying about below, small as birds when seen from the third floor of the keep. Occasionally Mary would see people she knew by name, but they never took notice of her—she might as well have been a tapestry hanging on the side of the castle, a woman in a window rendered in embroidery.
It was the many persons she didn't know whom she most loved to watch. She could give them her own pet names: Woolhead and Limpy Hip and Lady of Sausage. And she could create her own stories of their lives and personalities based on the small details she noticed from her observation point, high above the ground. Sometimes she had to watch for days to see some of her characters, but that suited Mary well enough. She had nothing else to do.
But her game had become more difficult the past several months, as the increase in Crusaders and pilgrims arriving and departing from the port of Beckhamshire caused temporary surges in the population of the town below. Mary would watch an individual for perhaps a fortnight, deciding on a name, a background, and then suddenly, with the ship departing to somewhere beyond the horizon, her character was gone and her story was dashed. This was particularly vexing with the soldiers, as they seemed to come and go from so many different lands, calling out with strange accents and wearing even stranger clothing.
Most vexing of all was that the majority of the fighting men would await their voyages in the lower levels of Beckham Hall, beneath Mary's very feet, and yet she would never set eyes upon them while they were within her home.
"Well?" Agnes asked, her ever-present smile obvious in her voice. "Who's out adventuring this eve?"
Mary glanced over her shoulder at her nurse, who was indeed smiling indulgently as she folded some freshly laundered linen at the table where Mary had taken her supper not even an hour before. Although Mary was a score and six years, Agnes still maintained her insistence that Lady Mary dine early, as she had since she was a child. Mary didn't mind. After all, it left more time before bed to watch the comings and goings below as the soldiers attended to their duties.
"Yes, let's see then," Mary said, turning her attention back to the view below and scanning the milling crowd. "Grandfather Crumb has just come across the green, and he is brandishing some sort of pastry. A treat for a sweetheart, perhaps."
"Likely a stale trencher to chuck at some lad who dares cross before him, I suspect," Agnes chortled.
"Oh, no, I can't believe that. He looks so kind—he's always smiling."
"He's a curmudgeon. It's a grimace."
"Whose adventure is this any matter?"
Agnes laughed. "What of Lady of Sausage? It should be nigh hour for her to pack up her wares."
"I've not seen her," Mary admitted, scanning the villagers for the portly old woman and her long stick full of swinging meats. "Oh! But there's Princess Lard."
"Her mother must've already come through, then. Who's the lucky prince today?"
"I can't tell exactly, bent over the way he is. Perhaps the Merman."
"For goodness, Lady Mary—likening that warty scavenger to a fantasy creature."
"Princess Lard cannot resist his siren's call," Mary teased. "Perhaps he's brung her a magic seashell."
"More likely a penny," Agnes muttered.
Mary grinned to herself and sighed again. Birds sang, and the air was sweet, indeed. Beckham Hall's upper two floors—where Mary had lived her entire life—were as lonely as ever, but she smiled because they would not be lonely for very much longer.
Besides Agnes and a handful of servants, the official Lady of Beckham Hall had no friends, no family, and no companions of any sort. Hadn't since she was a baby and her parents had been lost at sea. Mary's father had been the warden of the Cinque Ports of England, governing the ingress and egress of ships for England's southern shores and providing a substantial navy for the king. Upon his death, Beckham Hall—and Lady Mary's guardianship—had fallen to the Crown and been held in that manner until a suitable replacement could be found for her father.
Lady Mary suspected that the king had used the lengthy search for a new warden as merely an excuse to more closely monitor the wealth going in and out of the town, and to use Beckham Hall for his own purposes; it was largely a garrison and storehouse for the endless river of fighting men. Her presence had been but an aside, and Mary assumed the king had quite forgotten about her existence until just before last Christmastime, when a ship of returning Crusaders had landed in the town and been forced to take shelter at Beckham Hall by a sudden and unusual ice storm.
That's when she had met him—her future husband, her betrothed. He'd come up the stairs from the main floor—a passage that was usually barred from the inside to protect Lady Mary from the irascible ilk of the soldiers below—seeming intent on exploring the whole of the castle. He'd been quite shocked to find Mary before the hearth in her small private hall, tending to her handwork, and her heartbeat had increased at the sight of him. He'd worn a studded, dark leather hauberk with a cross burned into the hide, his weapon still on his hip, his flowing red hair cascading in waves from his high forehead.
"A thousand pardons, my lady," he'd gasped with a low bow, and Mary's heart had trilled in her chest. "I was unaware this floor was occupied. I shall leave you posthaste."
"No," she'd called, her voice shaking with fear and excitement. She'd glanced over her shoulder to the stairs, which led to the uppermost floor and Agnes's sleeping chamber. "Please stay, if you'd care for company. I know I would."
They had talked the moon into bed that night, and Mary had only crawled beneath her own covers when the sun sparkled through her icy window and Agnes had come in bearing the breakfast tray. For the next several days, they kept the same routine—Mary would unbar the door after Agnes was abed, and she and her brave knight would talk away the hours, speaking of her lonely childhood and deceased parents, of Beckham Hall and the surrounding village, and of his heroic escapades in the Holy Land. He even carried a fantastically embroidered coin purse hidden in an ingenious flap in his leather tunic, heavy with coin.
His company had departed within the week, and it was with bitter tears that Mary had watched her soldier go, waving at him from her window high above. Only after he was gone and Agnes would not ignore the heartbroken sobs of her ward did Mary confess her late-night activities. The nurse had been scandalized and outraged and questioned Mary mercilessly after her honor, but Mary answered honestly that her virtue was still intact, for not even a kiss had her lost hero bestowed upon her.
If she had been morose during all the lonely years of her residence at Beckham Hall, Mary soon became despondent. She didn't look out her window. She'd lost all imagination for her game.
But then, on the first day of the new year, when Mary was sitting before her hearth alone, there came a rapping at the door to the lower floors. It was just past midnight. Hoping against hope, Mary had once more disregarded Agnes's primary rule and dashed down the stairs to struggle with the bar. She flung open the door to find—
A strange soldier, dusted with his road travels and a light sprinkle of snow.
"Message from the Crown for Lady Mary Beckham," the soldier had stated, thrusting a folded and sealed parchment at Mary.
She took it and secured the door once more before flying up the stairs to her chair before the hearth. Pulling the wax away with trembling fingers, she'd opened the message and read, her heart pounding in her chest.
Then she'd looked up from the royal decree and given a shout of laughter. The king had found his man, and apparently so had Mary, for she was to be wed that very year to her knight in burnished leather.
"You'd better come away now and prepare for your lessons with Father," Agnes called, stirring Mary from her delightful reverie. Mary turned and regarded the nurse as she lifted her willow basket onto her substantial hip. "I'll come back in an hour with your pudding and warm milk."
"Yes, Agnes," Mary said. And as she did as her nurse asked, Mary thought happily that the woman would soon find new purpose in caring for Mary's own children, which would surely number more than the fingers on both her hands.
Perhaps her toes as well.
Mary was waiting in the tiny chapel tucked in a corner of the same floor as her private hall when Father Braund rushed in through the arched stone doorway. He gripped his leather-bound book in both hands and, after looking around at the hall behind him frantically, began to push the rounded wooden door closed. He apparently did not trust his eyes, for he opened the door again, leaned out, his head swiveling in either direction, and then shut the door firmly. He seemed to scan the closed door, as if looking for something.
Mary smiled at the usually calm priest's odd behavior, and then her eyebrows rose as he seized the back of a plain wooden chair nearby and wedged it against the door, its back legs dropped securely into a gap in the wooden floorboards.
He'd been searching for a lock. But of course a private chapel would have no need for such secrecy, and Mary wondered why Beckham Hall's priest suddenly did.
He spun around to face her at last, his flap of graying blond hair rising like a sail over his pate; and his eyes seemed to examine the very corners of the chapel, which was no more than twenty feet squared.
"Good evening, Father Braund," Mary began. "Is something amiss?"
"Where is your nurse?" he whispered, his gaze flitting about the chamber.
"Well, I don't know exactly," Mary said, nonplussed.
"She isn't here, is she?" the priest pressed, bending at the waist and peering beneath the benches as if he expected the portly woman to spring forth, shouting "Ah-ha!"
"No," Mary said, half-laughing. "I don't expect her until our hour is complete. She is insistent that I fully comply with my instruction before becoming a married woman, and I would wager she would rather spill a chamber pot across the floor than interrupt our lessons."
The young priest shook his head, his flap of hair flopping, his eyes wide. Mary noticed he was gripping his leather book to his chest, as if clinging to the true cross itself. "No more lessons," he said. "I've information of a much graver nature to impart to you this eve."
Mary brightened. "I've completed all the lessons already?" Again he shook his head, and his brows knit together in a pained expression. "You may not get the chance to put them into practice."
The first inklings of concern tickled at the nape of Mary's neck. "What do you mean?"
Father Braund swallowed and his eyes flicked down to the book in his hand. "Come," he said at last, scurrying to a tall, shallow side table against one of the walls. He set down his book as Mary appeared at his side.
"As you know, I must compile a document of your birth and lineage, and that of your parents', to be recorded in preparation for your marriage. Because your betrothed would gain not only your hand and Beckham Hall but also a noble position within the king's court, it is imperative that records of your pedigree be complete, for they shall be thoroughly examined by the king's advisers before your wedding takes place in the autumn."
"Yes," Mary said, "but I don't see how that could possibly give you cause for such alarm. My father's lineage is well documented here, where he and his predecessors were born for hundreds of years. And my mother's family is well known as one most loyal, even as long ago as to William. I was their only child, of that there can be no question."
"No, no—no questioning any of that at all," the priest agreed, still speaking in a raspy voice, as if he feared they would be overheard through the thick stone walls. "It's what was recorded after your birth that is so troubling."
Mary frowned. "After my birth?"
"Your baptism!" the priest hissed ominously.
Mary waited for further clarification from the agitated priest, but none came. "I don't understand. I was born unexpectedly at sea, on one of my father's ships, during a storm, and so the baptism was performed at a place other than Beckham Hall. But Father de Moy found nothing out of order when we at last returned home, obviously, else he would have performed the ceremony again. And he certainly never mentioned to me that anything was amiss before he died last year."
"You did receive the full sacrament, and it was recorded precisely," the priest whispered, and then leaned closer to Mary's face. "Along with another important agreement, documented here in Father de Moy's own hand." He opened the book, rifling through pages for a moment before spreading both halves flat and pushing the large tome toward her. "You can't marry your knight, my lady."
Mary was becoming worried, and that emotion wanted to manifest itself as anger. "Why ever not?" she demanded, taking hold of the book's edges and tiptoeing to lean close to the tiny scrawls, her eyes scanning the jagged marks made by Beckham Hall's longtime—and now deceased—priest.
Her eyes skipped along the unbelievable information just as the priest whispered at her shoulder.
"You're already married."
Mary read the lines scratched in the book perhaps fifty times before she straightened and looked at Father Braund. "Well," she said, "obviously I was promised in marriage shortly after my birth. But this document cannot be binding as the man has never come for me. All we need do is send a message to this family and demand that the agreement be annulled. Surely he has already married by now, or perhaps he is long dead and that is the reason we have had no word of him. His family has simply forgotten all about me."
The priest shook his head. "He's not dead."
"My goodness, how could you possibly know that?" Mary peered at the book again. "I realize I'm rather sheltered here, but I've not heard mention of any Spaniard—this ... this Valentine Alesander." She straightened.
Father Braund swallowed.
"How do you know, then?" she demanded. "Tell me, because I will not have this man, whoever, wherever he is. I refuse to be married to him. I don't want him!"
"Well, I should hope not," the priest said. "He's a criminal wanted by the Crown."
"A criminal?" Mary shrieked.
"Shh!" Father Braund clutched at her arm and looked around the chapel fearfully before returning his gaze to her and continuing in a whisper. "A group of pilgrims returned from the Holy Land only a fortnight ago, bringing further word about the king of Jerusalem's defeat at his mighty fortress. It's been determined that the siege was enabled by a small group of traitors in the king's own company, and that this Alesander was among the betrayers. Four men in total—Gerard, Hailsworth, Berg, and your Alesander—all on the run, and now sought by every bounty hunter and Christian ruler the world over."
"He's not my Alesander!" Mary hissed. She collapsed on a bench and threw a hand over her eyes. "No! No, no, no! It was all so perfect!" After a moment she dropped her hand and turned on the bench to face Father Braund. "Surely the king would see this farce terminated. He would not hold me to such an evil agreement."
"There's more," the priest admitted. "Alesander's family was once wealthy nobles—some of the most respected and powerful in the kingdom of Aragon. But there was a rebellion, and this man—your husband—double-crossed his family and absconded with a vast portion of their wealth. It is rumored he murdered at least one of them. His kin have been searching for him for years. If they—or he—should discover his connection to you, and that you are soon to wed another, it is completely conceivable that they could come looking for you and insist that the match be honored for the dowry to replace what was lost to them, and Alesander could then lay claim to Beckham Hall." Father Braund paused, seeming to consider. "That is, of course, if he was not hanged first, leaving you a penniless widow with no home."
Excerpted from Valentine by Heather Grothaus. Copyright © 2015 Heather Grothaus. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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