One Knight’s Return

One Knight's Return, #2 of the Rogues & Angels series of medieval romances by Claire DelacroixThe Rogues & Angels series of medieval romances continues with the tale of Quinn’s return home to Sayerne.

Knight and crusader Quinn de Sayerne vowed never to return home while his villainous father drew breath. Twenty years after his departure, he is notified of his father’s death and summoned by his liege lord to claim his family holding. But his overlord has a stipulation: Quinn must wed Melissande, the beauteous heiress of neighboring Annossy. Quinn hoped to make a match based on more than mutual animosity, but he is resolved to win the heart of his lady wife, at any cost.

Melissande cannot believe that her liege lord has not only compelled her to break an old betrothal but wed her to a ruffian—and granted the seal of Annossy to him, despite her expertise. It is the dream of Quinn’s father brought to fruition, for the holdings will be merged just as he long schemed. But her overlord cannot be defied and she finds herself the chattel of this rough knight, despite her every protest.

Can Quinn win his lady’s reluctant heart? Or is he doomed to lose Melissande forever when her betrothed returns?

An earlier version of this story was published as My Lady’s Champion. What’s different? Ha. Pretty much everything – except Quinn, who I still adore. 🙂 The book has been completely revised, and there are new scenes linking the company of Rogues & Angels to the story. Tulley has a niece now, too.

Coming April 23, 2019.

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An excerpt from One Knight’s Return:

“A husband?” Melissande remained calm with difficulty.

She had never anticipated this. When the Lord de Tulley had summoned her to his court in the midst of winter, she had assumed he wished to consult with her about some issue regarding Annossy’s administration, perhaps setting the date for his court to arrive.

Though he could have done that with a courier.

When the Lord de Tulley’s niece, Heloise, had rushed to meet her at the gates, Melissande had assumed the younger woman in need of companionship. She knew Heloise had come to live at Tulley at Yuletide, after the death of her parents, and could well imagine that the other woman found little to amuse herself at Tulley. She also knew that Tulley doted upon his niece and would do whatsoever was necessary to ensure her happiness. Tulley had neither spouse nor child himself. Melissande had met Heloise several times over the years and knew the maiden enjoyed the hunt. The snow this winter was likely sufficient to limit that pleasure and the girl had need of company.

Aye, that must be it.

But the Lord the Tulley had ushered Melissande immediately into the small chamber where he conducted his business, leaving Heloise in the hall. Melissande found herself alone with her overlord, and that so quickly that she scarce had removed her cloak and gloves. She had time to fear that something was sorely amiss, then he had revealed the truth.

“Aye, a husband,” he repeated. “It is past time for you to wed.” Tulley was looking older than when Melissande had last seen him, the previous fall. Though his blue eyes were bright, the lines were etched more deeply in his brow. He looked smaller than he had, but no less determined than ever.

Melissande knew it was Tulley’s right to choose her spouse since her father was dead. She supposed she had been foolish to hope that he had forgotten his obligation since he had not insisted on her taking a spouse sooner.

Tulley forgot naught.

He sat then in his great chair and appraised her when she remained silent. “I thought you might have more to say of this matter, Melissande. You have never been reluctant to share your opinion before.” He seemed amused by this, which irked her.

“Dare I assume that you have found Arnaud de Privas?” she asked politely.

Her lord snorted in a manner that was a reply in itself. “I have already told you to put that whimsy behind you.”

Melissande stood taller. “A pledge is not whimsy, sir.”

Tulley held Melissande’s gaze. “If your sire were alive, he would have seen that childhood pledge dismissed long before now. There is more at stake here than you might guess, Melissande.”

The implication that she could not understand the repercussions of her choice annoyed Melissande as little else could have done. Her tone was less temperate when she replied. “My word is at stake and that, sir, is of immeasurable value to me.”

“My lands are imperiled by your lack of spouse,” Tulley countered. “You will wed.”

Melissande straightened. “My lord, when my father died, you promised me the opportunity to administer Annossy alone and prove my abilities,” she replied. “I am grateful for your trust. I had hoped that you might have invested me with the seal of my father’s estate by now.”

“I cannot entrust you with the seal!” Tulley almost laughed aloud. “You are but a woman!”

Melissande kept her tone even with an effort. “I am my father’s daughter, trained in Annossy’s administration from the moment I could read.”

“And yet a woman.”

“My mother held the seal while my father rode to war and administered the holding in his stead.”

“On the assumption that he would return, and he did. If he had not done so, I would have ensured she wed another. The compromises made in the instance of crusade cannot be construed as permanent solutions, Melissande.”

“My mother was an excellent administrator…”

“And you have taken a lesson from her, for which I am glad. But these recent attacks upon Annossy show that the holding is vulnerable!” Tulley spoke with heat. “The marauders know the holding is governed by a woman alone. You know as well as I that their actions reflect their perception of weakness.”

“I am not weak!” Melissande protested. “The villeins are satisfied and the tithes have been beyond expectation. Annossy is well-ruled…”

Tulley interrupted her. “But not sufficiently well-defended.”

Melissande’s lips tightened at this truth. “I could hire more men-at-arms,” she began but Tulley waved off her suggestion.

“They will follow a man, and you know that as well as I do.” He leaned forward and his tone softened slightly. “I hold these lands for the king by grant of the Count of Burgundy. Should any of them be lost, my own position would be compromised. You know that I cannot risk that. The attacks upon Annossy compel me to make a choice, Melissande.”

Melissande wished for the hundredth time that she might have been born a boy.

Tulley continued. “Whatever you or I or even your villeins might think, these bandits perceive vulnerability at Annossy.”

“With respect, sir, they perceive vulnerability at Privas.”

Tulley inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement of that fact. “But they raid Annossy from that border. I will not risk any loss for the sake of your pride. I have let you temporarily administer your family holdings, but I will not invest you with the seal and break openly with tradition. You had best make your peace with that and soon.”

Melissande glimpsed the warrior that the Lord de Tulley had once been, and appreciated anew his reputation as a man who would see his will done against all obstacles. She regarded him silently, recognizing that this battle was lost, however much she might wish otherwise.

If she had been a man, she would have openly defied him. If she had been a man, there would have been no criticism of her administration. If she had been a man, she would have chosen her own mate freely. Or taken no spouse at all.

She could not remain completely silent. “I will choose…”

“Nay, Melissande,” Tulley said with impatience. “You will wed and, as befits my right as your liege lord, I will decide to whom.”

“I am pledged to wed Arnaud de Privas,” she reminded Tulley. “It would please me to keep my pledge, my lord.”

That was an understatement in the extreme. Melissande’s word was her bond, a habit taught by her beloved father, and a source of pride.

Tulley glowered at her.

“When he returns from winning his fortune…”

“He will not return,” Tulley said briskly. “At any rate, the gaining of his fortune ensures that he cannot wed you.”

“I do not understand, sir.”

Tulley’s brow darkened. “Do you think, child, that after all these years I would ignore what I know to be important to you?” he demanded. “I did seek out that rogue Arnaud whom you inexplicably hold so dear and I found him.”

Melissande regarded the older man in surprise. Her heart skipped a beat at the possibility that Arnaud would be her spouse, though the lord’s tone was disparaging.

His next words surprised her even more.

“He has taken a wife himself.”

“A wife?” Melissande echoed.

“A wife. A rich wife.” Tulley nodded. “It would appear that your loyalty has been misplaced.”

This could not be. Arnaud would not break his pledge. They had been pledged to each other as children and Melissande could recall the day clearly. Though Privas had fallen upon hard times after the death of Arnaud’s father, still the match had been the wish of all four parents, and Melissande could not simply ignore what had been promised.

She could not believe that Arnaud would have done as much either. It was true that she did not know him well—she scarce remembered the boy who had taken her hand in his on that long-ago afternoon and repeated the words of the priest—for he had left soon after their betrothal to train for his spurs with a distant uncle. By the time he had been knighted, Privas had been desolate, and Arnaud had sent word that he would seek his fortune then return for her.

Melissande had waited, refusing all suitors to wed the man her father had chosen for her.

How could Arnaud have wed another?

Or did Tulley lie? What if Tulley was trying to remove her objection so that she would agree to his plan? He did not approve of Arnaud, she knew it well, although she could not understand why.

“That must be untrue,” Melissande declared before she could consider the wisdom of her words.

Tulley’s gaze turned cold. “The source was reliable beyond doubt,” he said. “Arnaud wed Marie de Perricault a year past.”

“Marie!” Although Melissande had not seen the older woman in years, she remembered her testy manner. Perricault was over the mountains and to the north of Annossy. Though the distance between the holdings was not far as the crow flew, the mountains required that any traveller take a circuitous route of much greater distance. Bonds were not close between Annossy and Perricault. “Arnaud would not break his word to me!”

“I regret to tell you that he did exactly that.”

“Might your source be deceived in this?”

Tulley gave her a warning look.

Melissande took a steadying breath and forced her hands to unclench. She had to speak her thoughts aloud. “All these years, you have treated me with respect and honesty. Please do not abandon that path now, my lord.”

Tulley said naught and his expression remained impassive.

“Tell me that you did not find Arnaud,” she suggested. “Tell me that you refuse to seek him out for whatever reason; tell me what flaws you find in his nature or what cause you find our fathers’ scheme to be a poor one, but do not lie to me about his fate. I know that I must do as you dictate. Do you think that deception will reconcile me to your will?”

The lord’s lips tightened. “If you do not wed my choice, you will forfeit your holdings to me this very day.”

Melissande was startled. “But Annossy is my family’s ancestral holding…”

“Annossy is administered in trust for the Count of Burgundy, to whom I must answer.”

Melissande was too infuriated to remain silent. “Should you wrongfully take Annossy from me, I shall see your word tested, sir. I shall appeal to the king himself!”

“Whose authority is thin this far from Paris,” Tulley responded. “Do you think that he will strain his relations with me over the pleas of a landless noblewoman, however beauteous she might be? Remember that you are not even invested with the estate. Annossy is mine to grant as I see fit and it was only by my grace that you have administered it these five years. I could easily make an argument that your refusal to wed threatens the security of my borders.” The lord settled back in his chair again. “Do you truly imagine that he would take your side?”

Melissande stared at her shoes. “I made a vow at my father’s behest,” she whispered.

“And now you will take another.” Tulley’s gaze was resolute.

Melissande would be wed, regardless of her own will.

Soon.

And likely to a man whom she did not know.

A man who would seize her holdings and consign her to the bedchamber, as the law fully granted him the right to do. Melissande could imagine no worse fate than this. She loved administering the estate and she knew she did it well. She had been tutored by both her parents, due to their lack of a son, and she knew she excelled at the task. It was unfair for her skill to be discarded, simply because of her gender, and her blood simmered at the injustice of her situation.

“At least, you have seen the wisdom of holding your tongue,” Tulley muttered.

Melissande took three deep breaths before she trusted herself to speak. “Who would you insist I wed, my lord?”

Who would be the man who held the seal of Annossy, the seal Melissande had hoped might pass from her father’s hand to her own? Who would claim every thing she held dear and have the right to leave her with naught at all, if he so chose?

A rap at the door to the lord’s office interrupted whatever Tulley might have said. The lord smiled, his expression prompting Melissande to glance toward the portal.

A knight filled its frame. Nay, not a knight but a renegade. Foreboding touched Melissande’s heart. Not a ruffian. Surely Tulley would not wed her to a man far beneath her social status. She said a silent prayer as the room, which had seemed too warm just a moment past, felt suddenly chilly.

Nay, her first impulse had to be wrong. This had to be some man-at-arms in Tulley’s employ. A messenger or a mercenary. His arrival at this moment was naught but a coincidence. He brought a message, no more than that.

But still Melissande looked.

He was tall and broad of shoulder, though his travel-stained garb made him look rough and disreputable. His mail glinted in the candlelight, half-hidden beneath a tabard with a torn hem. A well-worn cloak was tossed over his shoulders, its hem dirty, and his thick leather gloves were scuffed from years of heavy wear.

He removed his helmet and ran one hand through the length of his untrimmed hair. It was wavy but clearly unclean, falling to his shoulders. There was stubble on his chin and a streak of mud across his cheek. His eyes were the most remarkable hue of amber and they lit with appreciation after his gaze swept over her. Indeed, the corner of his mouth lifted, as if he might smile, and the expression was more beguiling than it had any right to be. Melissande was certain he must be plagued with lice, and took a step back.

Perhaps he have sought out Tulley to pledge his blade to that lord’s service.

But the châtelain would never have shown him into this chamber while she conferred with Tulley, if that had been the case. The vagabond would have been left to wait in the hall.

God in heaven, nay.

“My lord,” intoned Tulley’s châtelain. “Quinn de Sayerne, son of Jerome de Sayerne, as you requested.”

Son of Jerome de Sayerne! Melissande regarded the arrival with newfound distrust. Jerome de Sayerne was finally dead and gone, but here was his son arrived to torment her anew. That lecherous serpent could only have spawned a son of no greater merit than himself.

She had believed her troubles over when Jerome finally died. Melissande had never suspected that Jerome had fathered a son—though it was less difficult to believe Jerome’s spawn might sell his blade as a mercenary. It was too easy to recall the thievery Jerome had initiated against her family’s holdings.

Now the son would finish what the father had begun.

Indeed, if sire and son were cut from the same cloth, it was not unlikely that this man was behind the recent raids on Annossy.

Surely, Tulley would not compel her to wed him.

But her overlord’s resolute expression left no doubt that he would do exactly that.

Quinn de Sayerne would be Melissande’s husband and, if she did not miss her guess, their vows would be exchanged without delay.

She and Annossy were lost forever, and worse, there was naught she could do about it.

An excerpt from One Knight’s Return Copyright ©1996, 2019 Deborah A. Cooke