“A husband?” Melissande d’Annossy kept her tone temperate with difficulty.
Lord de Tulley was looking older than when last she had seen him. Though his blue eyes still sparkled bright with intent, the lines were etched more deeply in his brow. He looked smaller, but no less determined.
Melissande held his gaze with no small measure of resolve. She 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 marrying before this point.
“Yes, Melissande.” Tulley leaned back in his chair as he regarded her, his bright gaze appraising. “You are still young, but it is time we saw you wed.”
Melissande had a feeling that Tulley did not intend to secure the match that she desired. But nothing was gained by silence, as her sire had often said. Melissande cleared her throat. “Dare I assume that you have found Arnaud de Privas?”
Her lord snorted in a manner that was a reply in itself. “I have already told you to put that childish whimsy behind you.”
Melissande stood taller. “A pledge is not whimsy.”
Tulley braced his elbows on his desk as he resolutely held Melissande’s gaze. When he spoke, his voice was low and compelling. “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 nothing else could have done. Her chin shot up and her tone was less temperate when she replied. “My word is at stake and that, sir, is of immeasurable value to me.”
Tulley frowned. “My lands are imperiled by your insistence upon this nonsense,” he countered. “Annossy is a point of weakness for me, as long as you administer the estate alone.”
“My lord, you promised me the opportunity to administer Annossy alone and prove my abilities,” Melissande replied. “I had hoped that you might have invested me with the seal of my father’s estate by now.”
“And I am glad that I have not taken that step, given these recent attacks upon Annossy!” Tulley said with heat. “The marauders know the holding is governed by a woman alone and have probably guessed that you have not been invested with your family’s estates officially. You know as well as I that their actions reflect their perception of weakness.”
“I am not weak!” Melissande protested. “My father saw me well trained, sir. 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. She could make no argument, for her estates had borne the brunt of the attacks, precisely as Tulley maintained.
“I hold these lands for the king by grant of the Count of Burgundy and should any of them be lost, my own position would be compromised,” Tulley continued. “You know that I cannot risk that. The attacks upon Annossy compel me to make a choice, Melissande.”
Melissande stood, hands clasped, and wished she had been born a man.
Tulley continued. “Whatever you or I or even your villeins might think, these bandits perceive the weak link in my holdings to be Annossy. I will not risk any loss for the sake of your pride. I might let you temporarily administer your family holdings, but I will not invest you and break openly with tradition.”
Melissande saw the warrior that the Lord de Tulley had once been, and appreciated anew his reputation as a man who would see his will fulfilled against all odds. She regarded him silently, recognizing that she would have to cede to his bidding in this.
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.
“But nothing, Melissande,” Tulley said. “This situation has continued for too long now and the time for action has come. You will wed and, as befits my right as your liege lord, I will decide to whom.”
Melissande straightened and dared to ask what she most wanted to know. “I understand that you regard my childhood vow to Arnaud childish whimsy, but might he not be considered? It would please me to keep my pledge, my lord.”
That was an understatement in the greatest extreme. Her word was her bond and that was a source of pride for Melissande. Tulley’s brow darkened, though, and Melissande knew to dread his next words.
“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.”
Tulley had sought out Arnaud? 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 surprisingly disparaging.
His next words surprised her even more.
“It seems he has taken a wife himself.”
Tulley’s eyes narrowed as he surveyed her. “It would appear that your loyalty has been misplaced.”
No! This could not be. Arnaud would not break his pledge.
There could be only one explanation. Tulley was trying to deceive her so that she would agree to his plan.
“That is untrue!” Melissande declared before she could consider the wisdom of that accusation.
Tulley eyed her coldly. “The source was reliable beyond doubt,” he said. “Apparently, Arnaud wed Marie de Perricault a year past.”
“Marie!” Although Melissande had not seen the older woman in years, she remembered her testy manner. “Arnaud would never wed Marie and break his word to me! ”
“But he did exactly that. I would suggest you come to terms with the truth, Melissande.” He cleared his throat. “I appreciate that you spoke hastily and out of disappointment but it would be folly for you to repeat such an accusation.”
“Even if your source is deceived in this?”
Tulley gave her a warning look.
Melissande took a steadying breath and forced her hands to unclench. “All these years, you have treated me with respect and honesty. Please do not abandon that path now, my lord.”
Her heart began to pound as Tulley said nothing, his regard impassive.
“Tell me that you did not find Arnaud,” she suggested. “Tell me that you refuse to seek him out for whatever reason, 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 you cannot do!” Melissande protested. “Annossy is my family’s ancestral holding.”
Tulley arched a brow.
Melissande was too infuriated to stop. “Should you wrongfully take Annossy from me, I shall see your word tested. I shall appeal to the king himself!”
“Whose authority is thin this far from Paris,” the lord responded. “Do you think that he will test his relations here 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 estates.” The lord settled back in his chair again. “Do you truly imagine that he would take your side?”
Melissande stared at her shoes and reluctantly faced the truth of her situation.
“I took a vow,” she whispered.
Tulley arched a brow. “And now you will take another.”
His gaze was resolute.
Melissande would be wed, regardless of her own will.
At Tulley’s command.
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.
“At least, you have seen the wisdom of holding your tongue,” Tulley muttered.
Everything her father had built would be stolen away from her and there was nothing she could do! Melissande forced herself to remain calm, so that she might learn the worst. She took three deep breaths before she trusted herself to speak.
“Who would you insist I wed, sir?” she asked.
A rap at the door to the lord’s office interrupted whatever Tulley might have said. The lord smiled, his welcoming expression prompting Melissande to glance toward the portal.
A knight filled its frame. No, not a knight but a renegade. Foreboding crossed over Melissande’s heart and the room, which had seemed too warm just a moment past, suddenly chilled.
No, 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 nothing but a coincidence.
But still Melissande looked.
He was tall and broad of shoulder, though his travel-stained garb made him look rough and dirty. 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 stained, and his thick leather gloves were scuffed from years of heavy wear.
He removed his helmet with a grunt of satisfaction and ran one hand through the length of his untrimmed chestnut 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.
Melissande was certain he must be plagued with lice, and took a step back.
He must have sought out Tulley to pledge his blade to that lord’s service.
Melissande’s mouth went dry with the sudden certainty that the châtelain would never have shown him here while she remained, if that had been the case. The vagabond would have been left to wait in the hall.
She feared then that she knew who this man must be. But surely Tulley would not wed her to such a barbarian?
“My lord,” intoned Tulley’s châtelain. “Quinn de Sayerne, son of Jerome de Sayerne, as you requested.”
Son of Jerome de Sayerne! That detail dismissed any possibility of Melissande greeting this man with the slightest favor. She regarded him with shock and distrust. Trust that lecherous serpent to 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 sired a mercenary for a son. She recalled Jerome’s determination to join Annossy and Sayerne under his hand only too well. Her stomach churned as she stared at the new arrival and recalled 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 one glance at her overlord’s expression sent Melissande’s heart sinking to her toes.
Quinn de Sayerne would be her husband and, if she did not miss her guess, their vows would be exchanged without delay.
Excerpt from One Knight’s Return Copyright ©2018 Deborah A. Cooke
One Knight’s Return
Rogues & Angels #2