Earl Hugh Dulonget of Hillcrest was a formidable knight, used to getting what
he wanted. This time, he got himself into a bind. His uncle's will had a codicil:
He must marry. And Hugh had just insulted his would - be - bride by calling her
a peasant! How could he win back her esteem - and her hand?
Everyone seemed to have advice. Some men - at - arms thought that Hugh could
win the fair Willa's love by buying her baubles. The old witch who was her guardian
wanted Hugh to crawl back on his belly. And his castle priest proffered De Secretis
Mulierum , a book on the secrets of women. But Hugh had ideas of his own. He would
overcome every hindrance - and all his friends' help - to show Willa that he had
not only what she needed, but what she wanted. And that the two of them were meant
for a lifetime of happiness.
The door flew open, slamming into the cottage with what would have been a
crash had it been made of stronger material. Hugh had been about to dismount,
but paused to run a wary eye over the old woman now watching him from the open
Eada. She was very old, age bowing her shoulders like the branches of an ancient
tree and gnarling her hands and fingers. Her hair was a long coarse cape of white
around a face puckered and wrinkled by the passage of years. Only her cobalt eyes
still held any hint of snapping youth and intelligence. They also held a knowledge
that was unnerving.
She can look into your eyes and see your soul, pick out every flaw you
possess along with every grace. She can read your future in the dregs of the wine
you drink and read your past from the lines on your face.
He had been told all of this and still a jolt went through Hugh as the eyes
of the old witch settled on him. He felt a shock run through his entire body as
if she truly were looking right into him. As if she could see all the way down
to his presently curling toes. She held Hugh in thrall for a moment with just
her eyes, then turned to walk into the hovel. She left the door open - undoubtedly
an invitation for him to follow.
Hugh relaxed once she was out of sight, then glanced at the mounted man beside
him. Lucan D’Amanieu; his friend and confidant for years. Hugh had rather
hoped the man would soothe the foolish superstitions suddenly rising up within
him. The old childhood beliefs in witches and haunts were all rattling to life
in his suddenly fancy-filled mind, and he’d been counting on Lucan to arch
one amused eyebrow and make some derisive comment that would put everything back
into perspective. Unfortunately, it appeared his sensible friend was feeling rather
fanciful himself today. Rather than soothe him, Lucan appeared nervous and, tensely
asked, “Think you she knows?”
Hugh gave a start at the question. It hadn’t occurred to him that she
might. He considered the possibility now, his gaze fixed on the hovel. “Nay,”
he said at last. “How could she?”
“Aye,” Lucan agreed with less confidence as they dismounted. “How
The old woman was fussing over the fire when they entered the shack. It gave
the two men an opportunity to survey their surroundings.
Contrary to the filthy and delapidated state of the outside of the cottage,
the inside was clean and quite homey. Flowers sat in a wooden bowl in the center
of a rough hewn table at one end of the room, while a narrow cot was pressed up
against the wall opposite. A fire was built into the wall across from the door,
and it was here the woman stood stoking the flames, urging them into a more lively
dance. Once satisfied, she moved back to the table and collapsed upon one of the
three chairs, then waved Hugh and Lucan to the others.
After a barely noticeable hesitation, Hugh took the seat opposite the woman,
placing his back to the door. Lucan took the adjacent seat, leaving him a clear
view of the door should anyone enter. They then waited expectantly for the woman
to ask their reason for being there. Instead, she took the wine flask from the
center of the table and poured two mugs full. Ignoring Lucan, she pushed one to
Hugh, then lifted the other to her mouth.
For want of anything better to do, Hugh drank. He was immediately sorry. The
wine was bitter, scraping across his tongue with a caustic glee that left him
struggling not to pucker in response. Doing his best not to show his distaste,
he set the almost full tankard back on the table's worn surface. Hugh returned
his gaze to the witch, still expecting questions regarding his presence, or at
least who he was. The crone merely eyed him over the lip of her own mug, waiting.
When the silence had drawn out, long and tense, he finally spoke, “I am
“The fifth Earl of Hillcrest.”
He gave a start as she finished the introduction for him. “You know
of my uncle's-?”
“I beg your pardon?” he stared at her nonplused.
“I said he's dead. His heart gave out on him,” she repeated impatiently.
“Ye’ll succeed to his title and holdings.”
“Aye. I am his nephew. His only heir.”
“The only one, hmm?” Her tone was dry and had him shifting uncomfortably.
“Well... aye,” he lied, but found himself squirming under her
all-knowing gaze. He said, “Nay. Uncle Richard left a bequest for -”
“A bequest?” She seemed to look right through him.
Hugh picked up the wine, drinking from it almost desperately despite it's
bitter taste. Slamming the tankard down once it was empty, he straightened his
shoulders and scowled. “Of course, you shall continue to receive coin for
“The girl. This Willa person my Uncle was so concerned with.”
He did not bother to hide his distaste with the matter.
“Coin for her care, hmm?”
Hugh swallowed and felt his discomfort increase. Her steady stare was somewhat
disconcerting. He could almost believe that she was looking into his soul. If
so, he suspected the flaws to be found were many. He doubted if there were many
graces to be seen at the moment. After all, he was lying through his teeth.
“Do ye not mean she’ll be well-cared for once she marries you?”
Hugh went still. He could feel the blood rush into his face with reawakened
rage. That same rage had consumed him on first hearing this news from his uncle’s
solicitor. He’d inherited it all. The Earldom, the money, the servants and
estates....as well as his uncle’s bastard daughter to wed. In effect, he’d
been willed a wife. Nothing more than a village bastard, raised by an old crone
who had once served in the castle. It was one of the most asinine positions Hugh
had ever imagined himself being forced into. He, a Lord, the son of a great knight,
and now the heir to an Earldom, to marry some village brat! Not even a titled
lady, but a bastard village brat with no more training than milking cows or whatever
it was they trained village brats to do. Impossible. Inconceivable. But true.
Now, as he had that morning, he felt his body cramp with fury. His hands clenched
on the table-top, aching to be around the crone’s very throat for daring
to infuriate him so. That was when he heard the singing. A woman's voice, high
and clear and as sweet as a tankard of meade on the hottest afternoon.
Everything seemed to slow; his anger, his thoughts, his very heartbeat all
stilled in anticipation, even the room around him became motionless. Lucan and
the hag were unmoving. A fly he had absently noticed buzzing around his tankard
landed on it's lip and remained there as if listening to the sonorous voice as
it drew nearer.
The door behind him opened, bathing the dim interior of the cottage with afternoon
light, then something moved to block that light. The singing halted abruptly.
“Oh! We have guests.”
Hugh heard Lucan's gasp. Wondering over it, he turned inexorably toward the
source of the lovely voice. He felt his jaw slacken in shock.
An angel. Surely, that was what she was. Only an angel would glow golden,
Hugh thought as he stared at the radiant outline of the female form. Then she
stepped out from in front of the door. She moved to the old woman’s side
and he saw that the golden glow had merely been the sunlight reflecting off of
her hair. And what a glory that was! Full thick strands of pure gold.
Nay, not pure gold, he decided. Those tresses were brighter than gold and
there were strands of red shot through them. Her hair was woven sunlight set afire.
It spouted from her head, blazed down over her shoulders, and trailed past her
hips to her knees. Hugh had never before beheld such a vision and was sure he
never would again. At first, he was so transfixed by the sight, that he noticed
neither her face nor figure as she bent to feather an affectionate kiss on the
cheek of the old hag. Then she straightened. Her limpid gray eyes turned to him
and his attention shifted, taking in their pale color and bold expression. His
gaze dropped to the smile on her luscious lips and he found himself swallowing.
“You must be my betrothed.”
Those words stopped Hugh's perusal cold. His gaze immediately lost its rosy
tinge, dropping glacial and grim over the baggy, plain gown she wore, taking in
it's patches and repaired rends. The garment hung on her like a sack. She looked
like a village girl, a pretty village girl perhaps, but a village girl just the
same and he was a Lord, above being bound to a simple female of such uncertain
parentage. Marrying her was out of the question. Though, she would make a fetching
“Gold is gold whether buried deep in the mud or adorning a King’s
crown,” the crone said.
Hugh frowned at the comment, annoyed at the suggestion that she’d known
what he thought. He was even more annoyed at the meaning of her words since he
was positive they didn’t apply here.
When he remained silent, the witch tilted her head to the side, considering
him. She then reached up to clasp the hand at her shoulder, drawing the girl's
attention. “We will need more garlic, child. For the trip.”
Nodding, the chit collected a basket and left the cottage without making a
“Ye’ll marry her.” It was a simple statement of fact.
Hugh turned sharply on the witch, but stilled, eyes widening as he saw that
she now held his empty mug. She was squinting over the dregs that had been left
behind when he’d finished the drink. That knowledge sent a frisson of something
akin to fear arcing up his spine. This woman was said to see the future in those
dregs. In these uncertain times, Hugh did not think he wished to know what was
yet to be. But wish it or not, the woman read on.
“Ye’ll marry her for yer people, but she’ll quickly come
to claim yer heart.”
He sneered at this possibility, but the woman paid him little heed as she
continued to stare into the tankard. “The future holds much joy, happiness
and children aplenty...if ye solve the riddle.”
“What riddle?” Lucan asked breathlessly and Hugh sneered at his
being taking in by this trickery. When the woman merely raised black eyes to stare
at the other knight, he shifted and asked, “Well then, what if he does not
solve the riddle?”
Hugh saw the conviction in her eyes and swallowed a tad nervously. Then she
sat back and waved an impatient hand. “Begone. I am weary and your presence
The two men were more than happy to comply. They removed themselves from the
dim cottage, and stepped out into the sunlight with relief.
“Well?” Lucan queried as they returned to their mounts.
Grim-faced, Hugh waited until he was back atop his mount to ask, “Well
“Do you return on the morrow for her or no?”
Head snapping around, Hugh glared at the old woman for eavesdropping, then
angrily tugged on his reigns, drawing his horse around before spurring him into
a run that left Lucan scrambling to mount and catch up to him.
Hugh had to slow once he hit the trees, there was no true path to or from
this cottage, which had made finding it an adventure. The necessity to slow down
allowed Lucan to catch up to him. The moment he had, he again asked whether he
would marry the girl.
Hugh scowled at the question. His visit with Lord Wynekyn and the solicitor
had been short. Once he had heard the bit about his being expected to marry some
by-blow named Willa, he had worked himself into a fine temper. After bellowing
and stomping about a bit, he had headed for Hillcrest. Hugh had no desire to marry
the girl. But he wasn’t sure how he could get himself out of it. The way
the solicitor had phrased it; to gain his inheritance, he had to marry her. “I
do not wish it, but fear I may have no choice if I want Hillcrest."
“Surely you cannot be denied Hillcrest,” Lucan argued. “‘Tis
yours by law of primogeniture. You are next in line. Whether you marry the girl
or not, Hillcrest cannot be refused you.”
Hugh perked up at this comment. “Aye. You are right.”
“Aye. So what will you do with her?” Lucan asked and Hugh’s
posture deflated, along with his mood. “I do not know.”
They were both silent, then Hugh said slowly, “I suppose I really have
to see to her future. She is a relative after all.”
“Aye.” Lucan murmured, then when Hugh did not continue, he suggested
tentatively, “Perhaps you could arrange a marriage for her. See her settled.”
Hugh pondered that briefly, then gave a slow nod. “Aye. That might be
just the thing. She may even have someone of her own class that she already has
“Aye. She may.”
Relaxing a little, Hugh set his mind to how to accomplish the task. He would
have to work around the old woman, that was obvious. If the hag got wind of his
idea, she would most like put an end to it right quick and make trouble for him.
He supposed that wouldn’t be his responsibility. Afterall, the only thing
he could do was try to see to the girl’s future well-being. If the old woman
wouldn’t accept anything from him but marriage...well, she was going to
be disappointed. It was just a shame if she made things harder on the girl than
It was that melodious voice - high, clear, and angelic - that made him slow
moments later. Cocking his head, he turned it by degrees until he could tell from
which direction the song came, then he headed his horse toward it. He was unsure
what moved him to do so even as he did. Hugh came upon a clearing to find the
sound sweet in the air, but no sign of the girl whose lips it came from.
Perplexed, he scanned the area more carefully. He spied her half-hidden in
a crush of weeds. Rather than search out the garlic the old lady had sent her
after, the girl lay in a tangle of weeds and flowers. She made dandelion chains
as she sang. Hugh urged his horse forward, almost sorry when her song died mid-word
and she sat up abruptly.
“She sent you for garlic. Is this how you obey your guardian?”
Hugh asked. When she merely stared up at him in blank confusion, he shifted impatiently.
“She has no need of garlic, my lord. I collected that yesterday.”
“Mayhap she needed more. Why else did she ask you to fetch it?”
“She merely wished to speak to you alone.”
Hugh accepted that in silence. His gaze moved around the clearing and he began
to frown. “'Tis not wise to wander about alone. You could be set upon. Then,
what would you do?”
“Wolfy and Fen would keep me safe.”
His eyebrows rose. “Wolfy? Fen?”
“Friends of mine,” came her evasive answer. Then she tilted her
head in a listening attitude before collecting her empty basket and getting to
her feet. “I must return. She will want me now that you have left.”
“Wait.” Leaning down, Hugh caught her arm, then released her as
if stung when she turned back in question. Shaking his head at his own reaction
to her, he held his hand out. “I will take you back.”
Willa did not hesitate, but promptly placed her fingers in his. For one moment,
Hugh wondered at her placing her trust in him so easily. Then he reasoned that
as far as she knew, he was her betrothed. Of course, she would trust him. The
issue resolved in his mind, he lifted her up and settled her on the saddle before
him, then adjusted his hold on the reigns. Hugh turned the horse in a slow circle
back the way he had come, aware that Lucan was following a discreet distance behind
on his own mount.
“Who are Wilf and Fin?” he asked.
“Wolfy and Fen,” she corrected, then added, “Friends.”
The girl wiggled about a bit on the saddle in search of a more comfortable seat.
Hugh gritted his teeth against his body’s natural reaction as she rubbed
against him, but continued determinedly with his questions. “Would you ever
consider marrying either of them?”
That brought her head swinging around, her lovely golden tresses splashing
across his face as she goggled. Much to his chagrin, a burble of laughter burst
from her lips. “Nay! My Lord, that would be quite impossible.”
Her sincere amusement at the idea brought a scowl to Hugh’s face as
she turned to face front. Unfortunately, while she turned away, her hair remained
plastered across his face, caught on the stubble on his cheeks. By jerking his
head backward, he was able to dislodge the soft tendrils, then considered his
next question. While he was still curious about the Wolfy and Fen she had mentioned,
Hugh was more concerned with handling this situation in such a way that he would
not have to marry her. Yet, would not need feel guilty over it either.
“Is there anyone special in your affections?” He asked at last.
Hugh went still, his hands tightening on the reigns as hope rose at those
easily confessed words. He hadn’t expected to be so lucky. But if she held
a tendre for someone, all he need do is arrange for her to marry the fellow. He
would then settle some money on the couple and his troubles would be over, he
thought...until she added, “Agnes is like a mother to me. She is a wonderful
woman. Very special.”
Hugh rolled his eyes at that, finding it hard to see anything special or wonderful
about the hag who had raised the girl. But, whatever the case, that wasn’t
the kind of special affections he had meant when he had asked the question. It
seemed he would have to be more specific for her to understand. He should have
expected that, of course. She was an uneducated peasant, no doubt simple-minded.
Willa shifted about on the saddle before him, then gave her head a shake that
sent several strands of golden hair slapping up again to catch on his unshaven
cheeks. Scrubbing one hand down his face as if removing cobwebs caught there,
Hugh thought with some irritation that he should have taken the time to bathe
and shave before seeking out the hag’s cottage. He hadn’t been in
the mood for such niceties at the time, however. After receiving the unwanted
news of what he had inherited besides land and estates, he had made the two day
ride to Hillcrest with Lucan as company. He had stopped at Hillcrest just long
enough to look around, ask a few questions, and get directions on where to find
this Willa who had been left to him. It was then that he had heard about the hag,
Eada. His Uncle’s men and servants had been eager to warn him of her witchy
ways, but less happy to part with news of the girl the creature was said to be
both guard and guardian of. From what he had seen, their descriptions of the crone
had been right on the mark, he thought, recalling the rather spooky air to the
Shaking the memory of her out of his head, he turned his attention to the
matter at hand. “I fear you misunderstood me when I asked if there was anyone
special in your affections,” he told her. “What I meant was, is there
any particular man for whom you have feelings?”
The question had her swivelling to peer at him and Hugh found himself once
more with a face full of the soft golden strands. Those strands clung lovingly,
forcing him to again remove them. They were driving him mad. It wasn’t just
the tickling sensation they caused, but the scent of them was rather maddening
as well. Her hair smelled like sunshine and lemons. Hugh had never before noticed
having any odd attraction to the scent of lemons and sunshine, but coming from
her head, the combination seemed delicious. Almost as delicious as the feel of
her backside rubbing against his groin with every step his mount took. Where had
he come up with the brilliant plan to give her a ride back to the cottage so that
he might speak to her, he wondered with disgust. He had thought it a good opportunity
to speak with her away from the hag, but he was finding her terribly distracting
at a time when he needed his wits about him.
“I am sorry, my lord. I misunderstood.” She turned further to
give him a contrite glance. The girl was, apparently, wholly unaware of the fact
that the movement pressed her breasts against his chest and arm and her butt firmly
against his now growing manhood.
Hugh let his breath out in resignation. He had been semi-hard since he had
first settled her on the saddle. Now he could have been a flag-bearer.
“Aye. Well,” he said gruffly, wondering if she could feel what
she was doing to him. “So...is there any particular man you have feelings
Much to his relief, she shifted to face front again, easing his discomfort
somewhat. Unfortunately, her answer wasn’t quite as pleasing.
“Of course, my lord. You.”
“Me?” Hugh’s upper body went as stiff as his lower. “Surely
you jest, girl? You have just met me. How could you claim an affection for me?”
“How could I not?” From the face she turned to him, he guessed
that she was surprised by the very question. He puzzled over that even as he shifted
behind her, vainly trying to put a little space between them. Some parts of his
body were most definitely stiffer than others, which was terribly distracting.
He wished with all his heart that she would simply sit still.
“You are to be my husband,” she reasoned as if it were the simplest
concept and one he should comprehend without need of explanation. “‘Tis
my duty to love you. Papa explained this when he informed me of our betrothal
when I was fifteen.”
Hugh pulled his thoughts from his much abused lower regions and gaped at her.
“When you were fifteen?”
“Aye.” She nodded. “Papa told me when he made his will.
He felt ‘twas best to inform me that he had made some plans in that regard,
and to tell me a bit about you so that I would get use to the idea and understand
“I see,” Hugh said shortly. “And I suppose ‘twas not
important for me to know of these plans? What if I had married in the meantime?”
Much to his relief, she shrugged and turned forward again. “I presume
he would have arranged for me to marry someone else.”
Hugh snorted. His uncle would have found that a difficult prospect. At least
to anyone titled which he presumed the man had wished. He supposed his uncle had
had some affection for this girl and had wanted the best for her. He supposed
the man had hoped Hugh would be so grateful to inherit Hillcrest and its estates
that he would marry her out of gratitude and not question whether he had to or
not. The old man had presumed too much.
Hugh, like most men of his station, had been pledged to a lady of equal standing
while still in his infancy. It was just his bad luck that his own betrothed had
died ere reaching marriageable age, else he would have been wed long ago. It was
equally unfortunate that while she had died too young to have married him, she
had also died after bad fortune had struck and his father had squandered what
little wealth his family had possessed in his search for more. It had made it
difficult to arrange a second betrothal. Fate had changed matters, however. Hugh
was now wealthier than he had ever hoped to be. He could not wait to watch all
those women who had let him know that his “circumstances” left him
good for little more than stud service, trip over themselves to catch his attention.
Hugh would enjoy returning the insults they had thoughtlessly dished out over
the years. He decided his explanation would be that they were not virginal enough
and he had been in the position to know with many of them.
The woman before him shifted again and Hugh sighed softly. She was a beautiful
little bundle. Her smell was intoxicating, and the way she kept squirming about
against him was giving him ideas he just shouldn’t have when he did not
plan on marrying her. Which he was starting to think was something of a shame.
Hugh almost wished she were a lady. He would have married her then. He would have
draped her in silks and jewels to accent her glowing beauty, then paraded her
at court to flaunt her before all those lords and ladies who had sneered at him
over the years. He allowed this fantasy to fill his mind: Escorting her to table
to dine with the King before all of court, presenting her to him, dancing with
her, sharing his wine goblet with her, hand-feeding her luscious bits of succulent
food. Then he would escort her back to their room where he would strip off every
item of jewelry and silk, lay her on the bed and proceed to nibble and lick his
way from her delicate toes to her-
all saddles this lumpy, my lord?” The question drew Hugh from his daydream
to the realization that she was shifting again in an effort to find some comfort.
“There appears to be this great hard thing poking me just here.”
He felt something brush his thigh and glanced down. She was reaching between
them, trying to find what was ‘poking’ her. Hugh snatched at her hand
with alarm and held it firmly.
“Er...saddles were not made for two,” he said in a voice that
came out entirely too husky. Realizing that they were nearing the clearing where
the cottage was nestled and that he had yet to finish this conversation to his
satisfaction, Hugh drew his horse to a halt.
“What are you doing?” Willa asked him with surprise when he dismounted.
“As you find the saddle uncomfortable, I thought we might walk the last
little distance,” he prevaricated. A glance over his shoulder showed that
Lucan had paused a good distance back. He was waiting patiently.
“Oh.” Smiling uncertainly, Willa allowed him to help her to the
Hugh dallied about the job of tying his mount to a tree as he tried to think
how to proceed with this discussion. He had never been much of a conversationalist.
Battle had always been his game. There was not much need for eloquence on the
field of war. Unfortunately, none of his battle skills would help here. Lacking
in diplomacy as he was, Hugh decided he would have to rely on blunt honesty. He
gave up fiddling with his horse’s reigns and turned to face her. “Is
there no one you can think of whom you would desire to marry?”
“I am marrying you...am I not?”
Hugh avoided her now uncertain gaze. “While my uncle wished that to
be so, I fear ‘tis not the best of ideas.”
“You do not want me?” He could not resist glancing at her then,
but immediately wished he had not. She resembled nothing more than a wounded puppy.
Feeling guilt assault him, he quickly looked away again.
“‘Tis not that I do not want you,” he began with discomfort,
and nearly rolled his eyes. Wasn’t that the truth? He did want her. Hell,
he was still hard as a staff as he stood there. He just didn’t want her
“Nay. You do not want me,” she said unhappily and took a step
back from him, looking suddenly pale and miserable.
It was amazing how yellow her face could look under all that golden glory,
he thought guiltily. Hugh had never been one to bare up well under culpability.
It made him extremely uncomfortable and unhappy and generally was quick to turn
to anger, as it did now. This was none of his fault. He’d never even heard
of the woman ere two days ago. His uncle was the one who had gone about making
promises he could not possibly keep. Which was probably why the bastard had gone
and died leaving the problem in his lap, Hugh decided bitterly.
Frustration and anger churning within him, he scowled at the girl. “He
never should have told you that I would marry you without first speaking to me.”
She didn’t look any happier or more understanding after his comment.
He straightened with determination. “It simply would not do. I am an Earl
now, while you are a simple village basta-” Hugh paused abruptly as he realized
how he was insulting her, but it was too late, she’d already blanched and
turned to flee. Hugh stopped her with a hand on her arm.
“‘Twas not well done of me. I apologize, but I’ll not marry
you. We simply would not suit. I will see to your future though. A dower and a
“That will not be necessary. You need not trouble yourself so. I need
nothing from you, my lord. Nothing at all.” She turned to race out of the
Hugh stood gaping after her. The girl’s lack of gratitude took him aback.
True he was not marrying her himself, but it was no small thing he offered by
promising a dower and a match. Yet she’d refused it outright and there had
been a hint of fire in that proud refusal. It seemed the cuddly kitten had claws
after all. Though, she hadn’t said a single hurtful thing, Hugh still felt
he bore the sting of those claws on his conscience if nowhere else. He simply
could not allow her to refuse his aid. Her pride would have to be set aside. A
woman without protection was terribly vulnerable and while he refused to marry
her, he felt he owed it to his uncle to at least see that no harm befell her.
Hugh took a step forward, intending to follow her and pursue the matter, only
to halt abruptly as the door to the cottage flew open and the hag appeared. She
allowed the girl to rush past her, then took up position in the center of the
door-frame, arms folded, body stiff, and glaring eyes fixed on Hugh. He had the
distinct impression that she was ripping him to shreds in her mind. Then she jerked
her head up in a dismissing gesture and whirled to stomp into the cottage. She
pulled the door closed with a bang.
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