The Knight's Runaway Maiden
Publication: Harlequin/Mills and Boon (May 2021)
She hates all Warstones.
Can this one win her love? Balthus of Warstone secretly loved Séverine, even though she was unhappily married to his brute of a brother, then she fled six years ago. Now that her husband is dead, Balthus must find Séverine and reclaim her sons as his father’s heirs. Balthus’s desire is to claim her, too, and despite his battle-maimed arm and her distrust of his family, he’ll prove he’s a suitor worthy of such a courageous woman…
Harlequin & Mills&Boon
‘I must confess, Séverine, your living here like this was…unexpected.’
Séverine of Warstone, once Séverine de Marteldois, the name she secretly still called herself, slowly stood from her hunched position stacking kindling and hoped the shadows in the woodcutter’s hut hid her reaction. It wasn’t the use of her true name that alerted her to a threat. Nor the fact that she had been identified despite her poor gown, the ash brushed through her tightly bound hair, and the vigilantly patted sheep dung around her ankles.
No, her imminent endangerment came through the carefully cultivated construction of that sentence. Just a few words purposefully measured in a cadence to exploit fear. Ian of Warstone only used that tone of voice when he was about to strike. The tenor was different, but the control of it was the same, as was her reaction. That cold Warstone voice had always crystallised dread like hoarfrost along her spine.
Only now it was terror that stopped her. Because of what she had done to him and his family. Because of the punishment that would be enacted, the torture, the public rebukes. The certain lifetime confinement.
Because she had fled and disappeared from Ian of Warstone, her husband, and he would leave her with no merciful choices. Not that she expected any. After all, she’d stolen coin, priceless artefacts…his two only sons.
Running and hiding, actions she had effectively done for almost six weary years, were futile with him this close. Ian of Warstone, the eldest child of one of the few families feared by monarchs, kingdoms and emperors, had found her. He’d seize her before she took one step away.
Her life was forfeit, now she had to protect her sons. His sons. As long as no harm came to them, she would do whatever was necessary. In truth, she’d hidden from him far longer than she’d expected to. Long enough to avoid her sons from becoming the monster their father was. If fortune favoured her at all, it would always be so. For now, she would face the consequences. If only…
But the slight uneven scrape of his boot against the ill-swept floor indicated that the figure behind her was not a figment of her nightmares. However, his presence was curious. Warstones weren’t known for being quite so impulsive. Ian would have secured her by now. Never would he have announced himself first when there were two doors to the outside and one was near her. There was also something about his step that was odd. Every one of his family was uncommonly graceful. Her husband’s lone faltering step was almost alarming…but heartening. Was running possible? Perhaps he was injured and too slow to catch her. But…her children. She knew where they should be, but there was no certainty, and there was no risking them. Not ever, no matter what would happen to her.
Thus, Séverine, with a bundle of sticks cradled in her arms, turned to face a fate that was never meant to be hers. Only to be mired in more obscurity than her thoughts.
She was correct that the shadows hid expressions—it certainly hid her husband’s. The light from the opened door behind him outlined the man he’d become in the years since she’d seen him.
He had always been broad, but there was something more substantial about his shoulders; something entirely different in the way he held himself. More raw than elegant.
‘Ian,’ she said.
He inhaled sharply, as if she’d said something surprising or painful. He took another step inside the building. The light behind him receded, allowing her to discern almost familiar cheekbones and long lashes framing eyes below a lowered brow. The light didn’t allow for his distinct colouring, other than to see his hair’s natural waves edging along his nape, and that it was still as dark as midnight.
Warstones were always dark.
She remembered the first time she had seen that family at her eldest sister’s lavish betrothal announcement. Séverine had never cared for spectacle, but she did like to observe and listen. And many a jest had been made that day that there were four Warstone brothers for four Marteldois sisters. When she’d first overheard it, Séverine had had to cover up her snort with a quick cough. Though her sisters were expected to make advantageous marriages, as any royal member would, Séverine had had no such desire for herself.
Her father, ever indulgent, had agreed. After all, she was far younger than her sisters, and not the prettiest. She was also...different. Her penchant for snorting, scoffing and giving any sort of reaction at all was one of them.
Further, she had eschewed any knowledge of household management and fripperies. Instead, she’d enjoyed hiding in private chambers with her needlepoint, or meandering in abbeys to steal glimpses at books. While her sisters had conducted their lessons as if they were insignificant social gatherings, Séverine had badgered her tutors until they had begged her to stop her questions.
She was fortunate. Her family were great patrons of the arts and music, and her enthusiasm had been encouraged. No, a husband was not for her. The life in the abbey was the one she wanted.
And one she was denied by her husband, Ian, who had originally been meant for her sister, Beatrice, but who had demanded her hand instead. A man who was not the one in front of her.
She clutched the kindling in her arm. ‘Who...?’
‘Not Guy,’ he said with malicious amusement.
No, not Guy. She heard he’d met a violent death a few years before by some men he had crossed. Such a demise had always been a plausible end to the second eldest Warstone brother.
Not Ian, or Guy. He certainly wasn’t the father or Reynold, the third brother, who had always been singular. He was far too strategic a warrior to limit his sword range by entering a small woodshed. That left the youngest Warstone brother...
‘Balthus,’ she said.
The man stepped forward, and shadows scattered.
It was indeed the youngest Warstone, though he had greatly changed since she’d last properly seen him the day of the betrothal announcement. That one tentative moment when she had turned her head and caught him staring at her. That odd singular time when she had, because she’d been either perplexed or bemused...or perhaps embarrassed or equally arrested, returned his stare. That moment before an icy hand had manacled her wrist and wrenched her away from a life she’d thought she would be living to something else entirely.
Balthus was truly here in front of her. Over the years she had imagined that moment that had stretched before them until something had warmed her chest, and she had felt herself leaning towards him. Until his mouth had curved at the corner, and her heart had hammered, waiting for his smile. Snatched away too soon, she’d waited forever.
She’d thought she’d exaggerated that moment, but he was here, and she felt the hitch in her chest all over again.
He was beautiful, like all the Warstone brothers were beautiful. Dark hair, grey eyes, chiselled cheekbones and a cut jawline, features softened by ridiculously long lashes and lips that were upturned just at the corners as if he was internally amused. He had the assurance of wealth, power and the intimate knowledge that with either precise kindness or cruel malice he could have anything he wanted.
This boy turned man was indeed of that loathsome family, but there had always been something different about him, and she was again slammed with that realisation. She greatly resented it.