The knight's scarred maiden
Publication: Harlequin/Mills and Boon (July 2017)
“A maiden for the mercenary.”
Mercenary knight Rhain is living on borrowed time. With a vengeful warlord pursuing him, he has accepted his fate—though first he must get his men to safety. When he rescues mysterious and deeply scarred Helissent from her attackers, Rhain soon wishes he wasn't marked for death. He can never be the man she deserves—his scandalous lineage alone dictates that—but Rhain can't resist the temptation to show this innocent maiden how beautiful she truly is…
Locke's latest entry to her Lovers and Legends series is a beautifully written tale of loss, faith and the magic of love between a scarred maiden and the deadly mercenary she rescues. Well done! ― RT Book Reviews
Rhain and Helissent's story was amazing and lovely and I will confess to a few tears. - The Romance Reviews
He was here.
Helissent let out a breath and rearranged the flagons on the tray. Again. This was the second night he’d come in, which wasn’t the only reason she’d noticed him.
‘Hurry up, girl, customers are thirsty.’
Helissent didn’t glance at Rudd. She never glanced at the innkeeper’s son, now owner. She tried not to notice him at all, but it didn’t help. His eyes grew more calculating every day as if she was in a trap and he was merely fattening her up.
‘If you stand there much longer,’ he said, snapping a towel in the air, ‘I’ll add another flagon to that tray and make you carry it over your head.’
If he put one more flagon on the tray, she’d make sure to dump it on his head.
Then where would she be? Out in the streets.
Pasting a smile that only deepened her scars’ appearance, she gave him her most guileless look.
‘I’m simply ensuring that everything is in its place, so the customers have what they need.’
Rudd didn’t have any reaction to her scarred and distorted smile. And that fact frightened her most of all. The fact she couldn’t frighten him. Her deep scars that spanned the entire right side of her body from her temple to her feet made everyone frightened. It’s how she kept the travelling customers away.
‘If you give me any more grief I’ll ensure you give them what they truly need...’ he answered, twisting the towel around his fist.
She lifted the tray and suppressed the anger and fear she couldn’t afford to expose. Her village didn’t have many streets to live on and there were certainly no others who would take her into their homes.
The only reason her tiny village survived was that it was on the road between London and York. People mostly travelled through and never stayed. If only she didn’t have to stay. But she had nowhere else to go.
Here, at least, they knew why she was disfigured. Any place else, people could think she was cursed. Or worse, they would pity her.
Here, she was just ignored. Except for Rudd, the prodigal son, who had returned a month after his parents’ death. He didn’t ignore her at all.
It was up to her to avoid him and focus on the inn’s patrons. Some travelers, mostly regulars...and now him, who she could feel watching the altercation between Rudd and her.
Sidestepping the narrow counter, she dodged a stumbling patron on her way to the patrons by the large window and set the tray in the center of the table. For a brief moment, she closed her eyes to soak up the bit of warming sun slanting down. Often it was the only sunlight she felt during the daytime.
Then she gave a genuine greeting to the patrons at the table. Regular customers, who met her eyes and exchanged pleasantries. Patrons, who knew her family and the former innkeepers, John and Anne, who’d taken her in after the fire destroyed her home and killed her family.
She’d take any kindness thrown her way. It was probably why she kept skirting her eyes to him. He, who sat at the shadowed table in the rear. Sat in shadows, though he never lowered his cloak’s hood.
He watched her, which usually made her angry, made her tilt her chin so that those gawking could see every grueling angle of her physical and personal pain. She liked it better when they winced or flushed and turned away.
She liked it not because it hurt them, but because it reminded her of her shame, her cowardice, and all the hurt she deserved.
But she didn’t tilt her head with the man in the shadows because he’d told Rudd her honey cakes were exceptional. It was why he’d returned today. He’d ordered more and paid in advance. He was here to collect them.
Unaccountably nervous, she passed him to get to the kitchens out the back. His head was partially bowed and she still did not see his eyes, but she nodded her head in greeting. She woke up early this morning to make twenty-five cakes. She often received compliments on her baking, but was never requested to make this many cakes before. She’d never known a man with such a sweet tooth and she’d dared to ask Rudd about him.
Rudd didn’t know the man’s name, but he did know his business. He’d come in a couple of days ago and was staying in the lodgings at the edge of town, him and almost twenty other men. Travellers, but two had spurs. This man with his hood, and another man, who was immensely tall and ducked his head to avoid the ceiling rafters.
The first day, he and the other men sat at the different tables. There was much talking, sometimes in languages she didn’t know. All of them addressed the man in the hood. She never saw his face nor heard his voice, though the men did.
Whatever he said made them laugh, made them nod in agreement. They deferred to him. Fascinated, she watched when she could. She wondered who these men were, where they were going next. Not for her to know, but it was a small bit of entertainment she made for herself.
On the second day, it was only him and the giant. On that day, she swore he watched her.
She didn’t see spurs when her shadow man came in, but she thought he must have been a knight. His travel clothing wasn’t particularly fine, but it was his bearing that he couldn’t hide beneath his cloak. Tall, with a lean grace not many people possessed, and certainly none in this mostly farming community.
He couldn’t hide the sword he carried, like it was a part of him, either. Natural, predatory...lethal.
He returned alone on the third day. On this day to retrieve his order. Carefully placing the cakes in the travelling sacks, she turned again to the inn. She wondered if this time, he would raise his head so she could see him.
* * *
Rhain peered at the customers in the ramshackle inn. Nothing made this one any different than the hundreds he had occupied over the last five years. For a mercenary like himself and his men, only location and information mattered.
This inn had neither. What it did have was sheep...lots of sheep. Even with a stiff breeze, there was no mistaking the smell or din.
A few days’ ride north of here lay the comfortable Tickhill Castle, a strategic motte and bailey now held by the King himself. He and his men would be welcomed at such a castle, and when he started this journey, it was his intention to oblige himself of their company, sumptuous bedding and fair.
Castles had location...they also had information, but he could no longer indulge himself of such. Not any more.
Instead, now, he opted for obscurity. An obscurity that had nothing to do with his occupation as a mercenary. Hence he’d stopped at this wreck of village meant to accommodate the local farming community and the occasional poor traveler.
The lodgings down the street were adequate protection from the rains, but this inn—
Rhain lowered his head as the woman passed by his table. Even so, he noticed her greeting. It was difficult not to notice her. When he first came to the inn two days ago, he almost lost his protective hood.
She’d been standing at the counter, arranging cups. He’d opened the door and the sunlight had hit her. He only had a profile of her, but it was enough to stun him and his men had slammed into him before they’d stumbled around him. She was absolutely exquisite. The pale perfection of her skin, the thick eyelashes. The room’s light wasn’t bright enough to see the exact color of her hair, but it was close to chestnut and waved luxuriously down her back. Then she lifted the tray and he could see the curves of her body, the graceful way she moved. In this hovel of a tavern was someone who belonged in a king’s bed.
And he should know, having grown with wealth and privilege, knowing the King himself, he knew the quality of the woman. But that wasn’t all that surprised him.
It was the wide berth of patrons around her. The inn was crowded at that time of day and a beautiful woman should have been pressed against, or been fighting, some of the more inebriated customers. If nothing else, if she was some wife, or sister, there would have been some camaraderie, some familiarity with her. Instead, she was ignored...
No, in a crowded inn, she was ostracized, the berth continued though she was done arranging the goblets, had lifted the tray and was turning to serve them. Everyone’s back was to her. As the door behind him closed, she hoisted the tray and then he saw what he had not from the profile of her left side.
As she turned to feed the customers behind her, he saw her right profile. Then he understood why, while in a crowded bar, she was left alone. Scarred beyond any repair. Old and healed burns from what he could tell. She had suffered some time in her past and suffered greatly.
He watched her. It was as if that moment had locked something inside him. She made him...curious. He didn’t know what side of her compelled him more. It wasn’t just her physical differences, it was her personality. Wary with the innkeeper, friendly with regulars. Defiant as if she insisted on showing her scars to travelers like him.
So he watched her while he sat in the back of the inn and drank poor ale, but waited for food that should never have been produced in such a hovel.
The innkeeper was a giant oaf of a man, whose unctuous manner grated on Rhain. Though he’d seen enough cruelty in the world, the innkeeper taunting the woman angered him. More than once he found himself reaching for his dagger to throw. A disquieting impulse, since he’d been able to shrug off such behavior before.
Yet he came back since he and his men enjoyed food he’d never expected to taste here. The cuts of meat in the stew were poor and often the vegetables were not fresh. But instead of grease and gristle, herbs and flavors had been added. Fine, arduous sifting of flour had been done to the rolls, which also had a sprinkling of herbs, making them both light and delicious.
It was a tiny village with no information. Completely useless to him for his business. No one would expect for him to be here and his men could be dry and fed well. More to the point, none of them protested when he said they would stay a few days.
And that was before he ate the cake which was light, but dense with honey that dripped and glossed over the top. He might be a giant oaf of an innkeeper, but the man’s cooking was unmatched.
Two sacks set on the table in front of him. It was the woman who delivered them, one hand perfect, the other gnarled with scars. Ravaged from fire like the entire right side of her face, neck and no doubt, by the way she moved, her body as well. One side exquisite, the other disfigured.
Slowly, he tilted his head up so as not to dislodge his hood, but enough to meet her eyes, which were a color he could not guess—green, grey or brown. He couldn’t determine their exact color, but they were clear, straightforward with intelligence, wariness and just a bit of pride. The fire had tilted down the corner of her right eye, and marred just a hair of her full lips. Her nose was left perfect, but her cheek and ear were deeply grooved.
This was the first time he had dared look at her fully. He of all people knew what it was like to be stared at.
Compelling though she was, he tried not to keep watching this woman. Still...
Her voice was melodious, and cultured, with a hint of French, her teeth white and even. It was just as conflicting as the rest of her and this inn. A hovel of an inn, sumptuous fare, a woman both beautiful and disfigured. A voice that should be filled with laughter instead of sorrow.
It was the sorrow he heard. His hands almost shook as he grabbed silver coins from his pouch and set them on the table. Too many, perhaps, but he didn’t dare check or she’d noticed his momentary weakness. He didn’t let anyone see his weakness.
‘I’ll require fifty by tomorrow morning.’
A slight flutter of those hands like he surprised her. ‘Twenty-five can be done by morning, another twenty-five by afternoon. The ovens are too small for fifty.’
‘I’m leaving tomorrow morning, and I require fifty. I’ll pay you double.’
She darted a glance before she slid the money off the table with her perfect hand. Her movements were graceful, but more importantly, they were silent. She acted like she didn’t want anyone to know she was pocketing such money.
He dared to look at her again, although it gave her an opportunity to see his own features. No one could see him now. It wasn’t for his safety, but for his men’s. For that he wouldn’t appease her curiosity though he recognized it since he felt the same about her.
Her expression was unreadable, almost as silent as the scraping of the coins on the table. On closer inspection, her face wasn’t badly scarred, the scars were softer, white and a light pink. But the deep gnarled grooves on her hand spoke of another story. She hadn’t been subjected to fire for a short time. Only prolonged exposure could cause that kind of damage.
Another coin hit into her hand, then to her pocket, and she left the rest. ‘It’s too much. This is more than double.’
Ah, she’d been counting as she took. Cultured voice and educated. Contrasts, and his curiosity was more than piqued. It was good he would be gone tomorrow. He hadn’t been curious about anything or anyone for many years. He didn’t have time to be curious now.
‘I just want the cakes done on time,’ he said.
She didn’t take the coins on the table. An honest tavern keep, too.
‘Take the rest for you.’ He wouldn’t raise his head, but he saw her shake her head.
‘Double will be enough,’ she said. ‘I’ll talk to the innkeeper, but I have no doubt you’ll get your cakes.’
Pleasure coursed through him. Another emotion he didn’t have time for. But if a few coins would give him such delicious pleasure, albeit briefly, he’d take it. He hated coin at the same time he used it to his advantage. He’d use anything to his advantage. It was his nature and even more so now.
‘Thank you,’ he said as she walked away. He untied one of the sacks in front of him and released a cake. It was warm and the smell of butter and honey were extravagant in the musty, almost putrid smells of the tavern. It fit perfectly in his hand and he reveled in the color, and the springy texture of his first bite.
He knew the taste would be better out of the darkness of the tavern. For a man of his wealth and status, a man who made his money on his mercenary skills and diplomacy, he knew the art of patience. He could wait until he reached the lodging and his men, but he didn’t want to.
Cakes. Such a little pleasure to most, but to him all the more precious since a price went on his head.