If Sir Robert Clarwyn can’t find a way to compel Lady Juliana Verault to return to England, he’ll lose any chance of regaining his family lands and redeeming his heritage. Yet Juliana must complete her mission or endanger her gender’s future in the church. With danger and intrigue mounting, Robert and Juliana must rely on each other and risk everything … including their hearts.
Northwest of Genoa, July 1294
A harsh rumble and a chorus of screams tore Lady Juliana Verault’s attention from directing her small party up the hilly riverbank. Only steps away, a bridge collapsed, raising a shower of mud and havoc. Moments ago she’d declined to follow the rest of the caravan across the clearly unstable structure.
She must save as many folk as she could.
“Gretle, Berthild, find the salve and bandages we packed.” As the shout left her mouth, Juliana plunged down the slope. She’d covered half the distance when a mounted knight raced past her.
By the time she reached the river’s edge, the man, still on horseback, had doffed his surcoat and mail shirt, plucked two women from the current, and tossed a rope around the large chunk of bridge stone that pinned the caravan’s screaming guide up to his neck in water.
Downriver in midstream, a small boy clung to the pointy tip of a rock. The water rushed around him, drowning his cries for help. Busy with rescuing others, the knight could neither see nor hear the boy.
Juliana could not allow an innocent to die. She shed her tunic and boots, tied the skirt of her shift around her hips, leaving her legs free, and waded into the icy stream. Without warning, the river bottom dropped. She sank, her mouth filling with muddy water. She couldn’t see. Desperate to breathe and get to the boy, she kicked against the current, praying she aimed for the surface. Air and light hit her at the same instant. But relief died in the moment it took her to push her hair from her eyes. Where was the boy?
A weak “help” jounced to her over the roaring water. Fighting the current, she turned her head toward the voice. The boy still clung to the pointy rock, thank heaven!
Numbing cold threatened to drag her under, but she refused to yield and focused on the boy’s face. Closer now, Juliana gave up her fight against the current. Allowing the stream to carry her, she stroked toward the rock. Though her lungs and body ached, she swam for her life and the child’s.
She hit a submerged portion of the stone before she could reach him. The impact jarred her bones and flattened her along the hidden rock face. The boulder was larger beneath the river’s surface than she expected. Water pushed along the length of her, pressing her down onto the slick rock. She lifted her arms but could not grasp the child.
“Grab on to me,” she urged. “I will take you back to land.”
The boy whimpered and shook his head. “Mama.”
“She waits for you on the bank. Come, I will take you to her.” Pray heaven I speak true, and the woman still lives.
The child let go and reached for Juliana. She stretched. A crest of water splashed over her and smacked the boy backward. He teetered. She lunged for him, catching his foot as he fell into the river. He flailed against the current. Pain wrenched her shoulder, but she managed to haul the boy up and wedge him between her body and the rock before her arm fell useless to her side. He clung, coughing from the water he had inhaled, shivering with cold.
“You are safe now, lad. I have you. You will soon be with your mother. Just hold tight.”
The boy nodded and wrapped his arms about her neck in a near stranglehold, burying his face beneath her chin.
Juliana looked beyond him to the riverbank. Her shoulder throbbed so much she could scarce lift that arm. The short swim from the bank to the rock now stretched to an insurmountable distance. How could she get to the riverside with only one good arm and hold on to the boy at the same time? She wanted to weep but said a silent prayer instead.
“Are we going back now?” The child lifted his head and looked at her.
Her vision grayed. Juliana fought back the effects of pain and exposure. The boy needed reassurance. “Yes, child.” She did not know how, but she would keep him safe.
The only possible course would be to have the lad climb onto her back. They would float with the current until she could drift close enough to shore to find her footing and then carry the boy by land to his mother. She prayed she would not drown them both and shifted to let go of the rock.
A wet rope smacked the water in front of her face. Instinctively, she grabbed for the lifeline with her injured arm. Pain arced through her shoulder and limb, yet she managed to wrap the rope around it, anchoring the line in place. With her good arm, she maintained a sure grip on the tip of the rock, securing the boy against the stone with her body.
“Tie the rope around you both. When you’re done, tug on the line, and I will pull you to shore.” The strong, clear voice struck her ears.
She could no more tie knots one-handed than she could swim upstream. In either case, she would have to let go of the boy. The force of the water would snatch the child to a certain death the minute she released him, and that she refused to allow.
“What is your name, child?”
“Piers.” He gulped.
“And I am Juliana. You’re a good, strong lad, Piers. Can you tie a knot?”
The boy nodded. “Me da says I allus tie ‘im in knots.”
Juliana grinned. “Can you tie a knot in a rope?”
“I think so. I watched Da do it.”
“Good. I need you to tie this rope around your middle. I will keep you safe while you do so.”
“You will not let go?”
“No, Piers, I will keep hold of you.”
When the boy had the rope about his waist, Juliana continued. “Now, tie a knot in the rope good and tight.”
“Should I tie the rope around you, too?”
“Nay, I will be fine.” She could feel herself weakening. Would she slip from the rock before he managed to get the rope secured around him? “Hurry.”
“I have it tied.”
“Look over there. Do you see the knight and horse on the shore?”
“Keep your eyes on them. They will pull you through the water to land and take you to your mother.”
“But I don’t want to let go of you.”
“You must, Piers. Your mother is waiting, and if you don’t let go, she cannot get you back.”
“You are a very brave boy, and I know you can do this. Are you ready?”
Piers whimpered once more and nodded.
Juliana released him, then tugged on the rope with her good arm. And Piers was gone.
Her vision grayed again. The current pushed her sideways away from the rock. She had very little strength left.
Numb with cold, her good arm dragged, slow and ineffective against the rushing water. The river tossed her about. Her head banged into another rock. She had not thought she could hurt more. Then darkness closed over her.
Unknotting the rope, Sir Robert Clarwyn thrust the boy into someone’s arms and kneed his destrier into the water. He refused to allow another woman to die when he could prevent it. The riverbank rose steeply on either side. He let the horse do the work of keeping them above water and headed downstream toward the deadfall where some of the cloth of the woman’s shift had snagged, though she herself had disappeared from sight. He gripped the horse tighter with his thighs, urging his mount to hurry. Holy Mother, let the water around the deadfall be shallow and the footing solid; else even if the woman lives now, she might die before I can save her.
The horse scrabbled over the rocky bottom as the depth of the water shrank. ‘Twas the first time since his mother’s passing that Robert could recall having his prayers answered.
He leapt from the horse to stand knee-deep beside the deadfall where the cloth held fast between two logs. Just beyond, a quiet pool formed. The woman lay unnaturally still, floating face up.
Straddling the log nearest her head, Robert pulled her to him, securing her in a onearmed hold. With his free hand, he released the cloth of her shift. Then, with her cold form cradled against his chest, he swung his leg to the outside of the deadfall.
One stride took him to his gelding. He laid his precious burden across the steed’s withers in front of the saddle, then mounted, secured the reins in one hand, and took her back into his arms. Heading for the small group huddled on the spit of land near the ruined bridge, Robert kneed the horse into motion and concentrated on keeping the woman, himself, and the horse all above water.
Finally they reached dry land. Still holding her, he dropped to the ground and bent close to her face. Air, faint and warm, pressed against his cheek. She lives, thank the Holy Virgin. He expelled the breath he had not realized he held.
The woman shuddered in his arms. Her long, dark lashes parted, and he got his first close look at her face. Had heaven fallen to earth and hidden itself in this woman’s eyes? She came to her senses, and their color changed swiftly from the misty azure found where sea met sky to the pure, clear blue of high English summer. She smelled of the river mixed with the faint scent of heather. Would her hair be a warm, burnished gold that some would call red? Would her cheeks flush with rosy color against her creamy skin? Now, cold chased any roses from her features and paled the lips he wanted desperately to smile at him.
He shook his head. ‘Twas nonsense. No woman who knew his name would smile on him.
Those infinitely blue eyes were the only color in her face. That and the faint red in her slowly drying hair convinced him he’d found his quarry, Lady Juliana Verault.
The pain shining in her expression speared him as surely as a well-aimed arrow felled a stag. Like any wounded beast, he fled, forcing his gaze from hers before she could see the damage she had done. His glance traveled down her torso, checking for breaks in her delicate skin. He found none.
What he did find compelled him to turn his eyes back to hers. Only a shift covered her. Soaked as the material was, it might as well not have been there. Images burned in his mind, of tightly budded nipples thrusting against thin linen, of a tiny waist, of shapely limbs and a darker triangle flaring above her thighs.
Robert shook his head, trying to clear his brain so he could act. She coughed. A trickle of water escaped her mouth. Another shudder ran through her.
“You are cold,” he stated.
“Aye, chilled to the bone.” A raspy chuckle echoed the obvious back at him.
“And weary.” He stood, carrying her toward where two older women and the other survivors on this side of the river had built a fire. He shouted for woolen lengths as he walked.
“You will live,” he added quietly. “King Edward will be pleased.”
“Here, sir.” One of the older women approached.
“We will take her now.”
Robert stared at the aging woman dressed as a Beguine.
“Indeed, sir,” the other beldame said. “You must let us tend her.”
His arms tightened, and he bared his teeth.
The women stepped back.
“Nay.” He did not want to give up the maiden. But he had no personal claim to her, and these women did. That made him unaccountably angry.
“Please,” croaked Lady Juliana, “You hold me too tightly, and I need their help.”
Shame washed over him. For his sins, he had vowed never to harm any woman. Yet, I allow anger and guilt to override good judgment and cause pain to a woman already injured. And not just any woman, but one whom my liege has charged to my care. I must try harder at keeping my vow.
He listened to murmurs of pain from Juliana’s trembling lips and stared as the women fussed over her.
Someone thrust a woolen cloak at him.
He bent to wrap the material around her shoulders.
She whimpered at his touch, then smiled. “Thank you.” She tried to clutch the cloth about her with one hand.
‘Twas then he saw her arm hanging useless by her side.
He placed his hand lightly on her shoulder to look closer.
A strangled sound came from her throat, and she tried to pull away from him, biting her lip at his touch. He lifted his hand.
She sagged back against him.
“What ails you?”
“My shoulder. I hurt it in the river.”
Robert did not hesitate. He lifted the cloth and tore her shift away from the injury.
“Sir,” the taller of the older women erupted in protest.
“Indeed, stop,” wailed the shorter one.
Ignoring the maidenly objections of her companions, he studied Lady Juliana’s arm and shoulder.
Her skin was pale and clammy everywhere but at the joint. There, angry red flared across a misshapen knot beneath the skin. “‘Tis not broken,” he said.
“Not broken? What of the pain she has and the swelling?” the first Beguine doubted.
“Nay. I have seen such after battle. Through too much strain, some men’s arms leave their shoulders. When the shoulder is broken, the bones offer no support. If ’tis just displaced, the bones are still strong and can support the arm somewhat.”
“Can it be fixed?” Lady Juliana whispered.
“Aye, and you will be completely well, but ’twill hurt a great deal to put it right.”
“If you can fix it, then do what you must.” She is right. Much though I prefer not to hurt her, ’tis best to get this over quickly. Once he had preferred not to kill, too, but he had done what he must to defend the innocent.
That death would stain his soul throughout eternity. Robert instructed the two older women to brace Juliana’s body against them. He lifted her arm and placed one hand over the twisted joint. “Ready?”
She smiled and nodded. “I forgive you.”
How does she know that I need forgiveness? Rather than ponder that question, he gripped her wrist to pull on her arm and push on the joint.
A loud pop sounded.
“Monster,” the smaller of the two Beguines said. “You have made it worse.”
No good would come of wallowing; he had again done what needed doing. “Nay. I have caused her pain. For that I am truly sorry. But when she wakes, she will feel less hurt than before. Check for yourselves, then bind the arm. The joint must bear no strain for at least three days.”
The women turned away from him in stony silence. He went to his gelding, hoping to find a dry shirt, but water soaked everything in his saddlebags.
“Here, sir.” A large peasant held out a rough-spun tunic and leather jerkin. “These should fit. They are dry and even summat clean.”
“Thank you . . . ?”
“‘Enry, sir.” The fellow tugged his forelock. “I be groom for the ladies.”
Robert’s brow wrinkled.
“The Beguines. I tend the mules and help with loading and unloading.”
“Ah. Thank you, Henry. Have you ells of wool within your mule packs?”
“Aye, sir. Enough woolen cloth for all those poor souls and more.” He gestured at the survivors huddled nearby.
“What of those on the other side of the river?”
“They called across that they would camp the night there. They said summat of building a raft afore morning.”
Robert searched both banks to see that everyone was being cared for. “Excellent. When ’tis done I will speak with them about how best to bring the raft across the river.”
“The sun’ll set soon, and the ladies’ll need shelter.”
“Then we had best find some. Did you perchance pass a hospice, inn, or abbey on your way here?”
“Nay, sir. I was hoping that you had.”
Robert shook his head. “From the northwest, ’tis more than a day’s ride back to the nearest place that offers hospitality.”
“What will we do, sir? The women cannot travel far, and I think the guide has broke his leg.”
Robert eyed the heavily laden pack mules. “Do the Beguines have a tent amongst their belongings?”
“Oh no, sir. We allus slept at inns. Them mules carries all the things the ladies be bringin’ to the beguinage in Palermo. Was no room for tents wi’ all the supplies they brung.”
“Then we will have to make do.”
“Yes, sir.” Henry nodded eagerly, but the blank look in his eyes told Robert the man had not even a vague idea how to proceed.
“Here.” He handed Henry the destrier’s reins. “Be kind enough to tend to my horse, and I will search out a spot where we may all rest this night.”
“Oh, aye, sir. I’ll take right good care of yer ‘orse, sir.” Henry heaved a great sigh, smiled, and left.
Turning his gaze on the spot where the women tended Lady Juliana, Robert stripped off his wet shirt and donned the dry clothing. Too bad a soul could not be changed as easily as clothing. If such were possible, his life would be much different, and he would never have met Lady Juliana Verault.