RT Book Reviews). I have a plaque to prove it, although the manuscript won under the working title of Tapestry of Dreams.
Here's a second bit of trivia. Guess which title won second place in the same contest? Illuminations of the Heart, by...well, you know. ;-)
Here's my favorite part of the letter I received, informing me of my win:
"So picture this: Over two hundred published and unpublished writers, booksellers, readers, a few cover models, the CEO of Random House, Lady Barrow and her entourage from Romantic Times all seated in an elegant ball room at the historic Menger Hotel. I stand at the podium to announce the winners. And your name is called, not once, but twice." ~ Julie Ortolon, Contest Coordinator
Forgive me for indulging in that bit of braggery, but it's probably the only time I'll ever have something that cool to brag about.
While the rest of the manuscript has been revised for publication, this chapter stands very nearly identical to the version that won as Tapestry of Dreams. Now read on to meet Mathilde in action in Chapter 1 of Dangerous Favor!
NORMANDY, AUTUMN 1181
“Quit gawking,” Girard de Riavelle growled and dug a chiding elbow into his sister’s ribs. “You’re a lady, not some wide-eyed serf girl straight out of Father’s fields. Attempt a little dignity, will you?”
Mathilde closed her mouth, which had popped open on entering the Great Hall of Grantamur Castle. It was like stepping into the world of King Arthur! She had never seen so many richly attired people in her life. Silken gowns and surcotes, lavishly embellished with embroidery and jewels, gleamed beneath the light of the torches. Tapestries with bright, glistening threads glittered in the torch light, their colors fresh and brilliant against the clean, whitewashed walls. Between them hung row after row of shields, some bearing emblems of birds or beasts, some painted with stripes or slashes that radiated out from gilded bosses.
“Those are the shields of the knights who will fight in the tournament tomorrow,” her brother told her. “As soon as I’ve settled you somewhere, I’ll hang mine alongside them.”
Mathilde allowed Girard to maneuver her through the throng to stand beside one of the tapestries, then watched him disappear through the crowd. He had not been too happy when their father had insisted that he use some of his high and mighty connections in the Young King’s court to find his eighteen-year-old sister a husband. Girard had grudgingly agreed to take Mathilde with him to Grantamur Castle where a great tournament of knights was soon to be held. But Mathilde knew that just any husband would not do. For her father’s sake, she must marry a man of wealth and power. A man who could help to right her father’s wrongs….
But there was nothing she could do about seeking a husband until Girard saw fit to introduce her to some gentlemen.
She sighed and turned to study the figures woven into the tapestry. The colors were much brighter than the soot-dulled ones that draped the walls in her father’s smoky hall. The flowers and birds sprinkled amid the weaving reminded her of the enchanted garden the jongleur had sung of one night at her father’s table. She closed her eyes and imagined again the jongleur’s sweet voice, chanting the strains of a poet’s lay of laughter, love and tears.
“I beg your pardon. Are you not Aymor de Riavelle’s daughter?”
Mathilde started at the jovial male voice that intruded upon her dreams. The gentleman’s jewels caught her eye first, diamonds flashing from a girdle about his waist, and chains with ruby and emerald studs slung across a broad, silk-clad chest. Her breath caught. A man of wealth.
She lifted her gaze to the speaker’s face. Soft, round features smiled back at her. Thin ginger hair, topped by a jewel-banded cap, hung in limp tendrils to his shoulders. His ruddy cheeks bowed out a little with his smile. And his chest, she saw now, was not so much broad as plump.
She hoped he was married.
“Aye, aye,” he continued in cheerful tones. “But of course you are. I saw you out riding near your father’s fields not a fortnight ago.”
She gazed doubtfully at the gentleman. “I do not think I know you, sir.”
“Forgive me.” He attempted a bow but his girth made him look more like a bobbing ball. “I should have introduced myself. I am your neighbor, Sir Nevell de Chesnei.”
That startled her. “Neighbor?”
“Sir Alun d’Amville’s castle? I thought it had been abandoned.”
Chesnei’s jovial face sobered. “Aye, so it has stood these past three years, since my uncle’s disappearance.”
Her heart gave an unpleasant stumble. “Disappearance? My father said Lord d’Amville was killed by forest bandits.” Pray heaven, it must be true! Far easier to challenge a dead man’s lies than a living tongue of honeyed deceit.
“So the rumors say, but his body has never been found.” Chesnei rubbed a pair of pink, fleshy hands together. “I believe he and your father were friends?”
“I-I was betrothed to Lord d’Amville.”
Memories came rushing back of a large, handsome man her father’s age, with reddish hair and gold-flecked hazel eyes. His soft, melodious voice had entranced her once. Before she heard that voice raised in threats against her father.
She had stood in the shadows, unseen by either man as they quarreled about her betrothal. Father wanted to annul it, but d’Amville had sworn that if he tried he would see her father’s last manor stripped from him. He had the power to do it, d’Amville insisted, power to prove her father worse than merely a thief. This time, there would be no royal mercy for his crime. The bargain had been made, d’Amville reminded him, the documents signed, the betrothal words spoken. Her father could either choose to stand with Mathilde at her wedding, or learn of its details while he languished in a prison cell.
That had been three years ago. Her father said that d’Amville was dead, the threat to them both gone. But the stain of d’Amville’s lies still lingered on her father’s honor.
Her father and Girard seemed content to leave matters so. But Mathilde had made a silent vow to prove her father’s innocence.
Chesnei’s gaze—hazel and gold flecked, as she remembered d’Amville’s—dropped from her face and traveled the length of her simple, unembellished silk gown. “Betrothed, eh? What a pity my uncle did not live to enjoy the fruits of a wedding.”
She tried not to shrink from the warmth in his eyes. Might d’Amville have confided his lies to his nephew? If Chesnei found her attractive, she might be able to persuade him to tell her how his uncle had incriminated her father in the theft. For she was convinced that was exactly what d’Amville had done.
But the idea of encouraging the gleam in Chesnei’s eyes brought a sour lump to her throat.
“Is your father with you?” Chesnei asked abruptly. “Will he join the mêlée tomorrow?”
Mathilde swallowed hard. “Nay, I am here with my brother. Girard says that only knights between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-five are permitted to take part in the tournament.” She wished Girard had not wandered away, wished her late mother’s maid-servant, whom her father had sent as her chaperone, had not become ill and returned to her father’s manor.
Chesnei flashed her a grin that puffed out his plump cheeks. “Then I qualify—just. Though I do not think my skill with the lance sufficient to give me much chance at the prize.”
She followed his glance to Violette de Maloisel, standing at the center of a semi-circle of glittering maids-in-waiting on the hall’s dais. A shimmering gold surcote of brocaded silk graced the lady’s prettily curved figure. Sleek, mahogany hair swept up and away from her exquisite face, bound in the back with a golden net twinkling with diamonds and emeralds. Lady Violette had promised her hand in marriage to the winner of the morrow’s tournament. The floor before the dais teemed with eager, hopeful men.
Mathilde sighed in wistful envy. Her own gown of simple blue silk clung becomingly, Father had said, to a figure he approvingly called “willowy”. But another glance at Lady Violette’s well-defined curves left her feeling as thin and unattractive as a dried-up reed. What man would look at her with Lady Violette in the hall?
“Tell me,” Chesnei interrupted her thoughts, “how did you leave your father? Well, I hope?”
“Yes, sir, I thank you.”
“I am glad to hear it. And your brother the same?”
“We are all well, I thank you, sir.”
Nervous, she touched the embroidered ribbon that threaded her flaxen hair. Girard carried it as a favor from one of his lady-loves. It had been so pretty and so exotically scented, and Mathilde had had so little besides a simple jeweled necklet to liven her appearance, that she had pleaded with Girard to lend her the ribbon for the evening. At first he’d refused. But she had promised to weave it most carefully through her hair and to check it frequently to be sure it had not inadvertently fallen out, until at last he had reluctantly surrendered it to her.
Chesnei offered her a lopsided grin. “You must think me very bold, approaching you this way without a proper introduction. But I know no other ladies here and when I saw you, I recalled how we are neighbors and thought that perhaps you would—” He reached out and took her hand. “My lady, might you do me the honor of granting me a favor to wear in the tournament tomorrow?”
The feel of his soft, moist skin against hers sent through her a wave of panic. “I—” She tried to disengage her hand without appearing rude, but his plump fingers tightened around hers. “Wh-What about your wife?” she asked, praying she did not sound as desperate as she felt.
He laughed. “My dear, we are none of us married. That is the point of this tournament. Lady Violette means to choose herself a young husband to replace the old one she’s recently buried. But only one of us can win that prize. The rest of us battle for honor and ransom—and for the smiles of the ladies whose favors we wear. I should consider myself much privileged if you would condescend to grant me yours.”
“I—I shall have to ask my brother.” The jongleur had sung of ladies bestowing tokens upon their chosen knights. But Custance, the maid-servant who had waited on Mathilde’s mother when she and Lady Caterine had both lived in the royal court, had warned Mathilde about warm-eyed, smooth-tongued men eager to prey upon fortuneless innocents such as herself.
“Your brother will understand,” Chesnei said. “He will no doubt wear some lady’s favor himself. Surely you can spare some small token for me? Perhaps a tassel from your girdle or that ribbon in your hair….”
To her relief, he finally released her hand.
To her horror, the plump fingers swooped towards her face.
He could not have missed the way she flinched to avoid him, the way her hand flew up to guard her ribbon. “I shall ask my brother,” she repeated breathlessly and slipped into the safety of the crowd before he could stop her.
Her panic ebbed as the milling company closed off her view of Chesnei. She looked at the dais, searching for her brother amongst the suitors gathered there. There was no sign of Girard. Violette de Maloisel still stood at the center of the dais, but she no longer smiled. She seemed to be exchanging sharp words with a tall, pale-haired gentleman who stood below her. The man’s back was turned to Mathilde, but Lady Violette’s brilliant dark eyes glared at him.
Mathilde’s gaze drifted from the lady’s fiery challenge to the exotic jeweled collar that graced her throat. Mathilde raised her fingers to touch her own necklet, a large sapphire framed in an ornamental setting of scrolling gold. She ran her fingers up the links of the chain and felt tentatively the clasp at the back of her neck. The clasp had been loose when she had checked it earlier today. Girard had promised to fix it for her, but it still did not feel right. The necklet had been the only piece of jewelry left to her by her mother. She would hate to have it break loose amid this crush of people.
She shifted into a little pocket of space in the crowd where she could look at her necklet without the risk of being jostled. Then she slid the chain around on her neck and tried to view the clasp. The chain was too short to see the small metal piece comfortably. She craned her neck back as far as she could and stretched out the chain to its utmost length, just past her chin.
“Fiend seize the wench, and all women like her! If she thinks, for her sake, that I am going to—”
“Therri, look ou—”
Mathilde heard the two male voices, the first one growling almost in her ear, just before the speaker trod into her so hard that he sent her staggering across the floor.
The clasp popped free in her fingers as the force of the collision threatened to hurl her into an ungainly sprawl. Her hands flew out to try to break her fall, but someone caught her and jerked her back.
“Devil take my clumsiness! Are you all right?”
Mathilde gasped, then flinched. A terrifying two-headed bird, with two equally fierce-looking beaks, soared out at her from tongues of wickedly leaping orange-red flames. She shivered and flapped out her hands in a protective movement as she backed hurriedly away.
“Lady? Forgive me, the fault was mine. I was not looking where I was going. Have I injured you?”
The voice drew Mathilde’s gaze away from the horrible apparition.
And riveted it on the most heroically beautiful face she had ever beheld.
Above her towered a man with pale gold hair waving back from a strong, high forehead and clean-shaven cheeks bronzed warm by the sun. Features of impeccable perfection which might have been thought delicate in a woman, somehow imparted a manly confidence bordering on arrogance in this face. Eyes as clear and bright as her sapphire looked down on her from beneath fair, finely chiseled eyebrows. The brows quirked upwards slightly as she gazed silently back at him. Mathilde could not speak. Her breath had somehow become trapped in her throat in a snare of pleasurably painful delight.
This time his voice fell on her ears like the mellifluous thrum of the jongleur’s harp.
“I told you to look out. You’ve knocked the senses from her.”
Her blissful trance shattered at this clipping remark, spoken from somewhere to the golden-haired gentleman’s left. Mathilde dragged her gaze reluctantly away from the vision before her to stare at the new speaker. Two green eyes laughed down at her from a face tanned to a deep nut brown. A mass of wild black curls riotously framed features handsome in their regularity but falling short of the perfection of his companion. Across the breast of his forest green surcote was blazoned an emblem in gold cloth of a five-petaled rose with a crimson center shaped like a droplet of blood. She felt a warm wash of color sweep up into her cheeks and glanced furtively back at the Vision. The frightening two-headed bird was nothing more than a similar emblem rising out of a pattern of flames on his black silk surcote.
The Vision gazed down on her with concern at her continued silence. “Lady,” he tried again, “did I hurt you when I stepped on you? You have my sorest regrets. I allowed irritation to distract me from where I was going.”
He paused, the clarity of his blue eyes darkening as he cast a glance at the dais. Mathilde followed his gaze. Her spirits plunged. The tall, pale-haired gentleman with whom Lady Violette had been quarreling no longer stood at its foot, but their hostess’s pouting glance across the floor at the Vision left no doubt in Mathilde’s mind that the Vision and the quarrelsome gentleman were one and the same. A sigh of regret escaped the snare in her throat, more painful now than pleasurable. She allowed herself one more moment to imagine herself basking in the glow of those wonderful, sapphire-hued eyes….
Sapphire! She stiffened and raised a hand to her throat. The necklet was gone!
“My jewels,” she whispered. “They must have fallen off when you bumped me.”
She turned about, but saw no sign of the necklet. It must be buried somewhere in the rushes on the floor. Without thought for the dignity her brother had chided her to remember, she dropped to her knees and began searching frantically through the dried grasses and herbs. Her fingers crushed free a scent of wild mint, almost casting her back into the jongleur’s world again. King Arthur’s court had sprinkled their rushes with this same sweet-smelling plant….
The Vision’s voice broke the spell before it could properly begin. “What the devil are you doing down there?”
He sounded as censorious as Girard.
“Don’t be a thick wit,” his companion said. “She’s looking for something.” He added as she resumed her search, “Maybe if you told me what you were looking for, I could be of more help.”
She glanced up. The green-eyed gentleman with the errant black curls was on his knees, plunging hands as deeply tanned as his face repeatedly into the rushes.
“People are staring at us,” the Vision muttered above them.
“Let ’em stare. A truly chivalrous knight cares more for a lady’s distress than for his dignity.” The green-eyed gentleman paused in his search to drive an elbow into the muscular calf of the Vision’s silk-hosed leg.
“Ow! Oh, all right.” The Vision knelt too.
By then, however, Mathilde had become aware of the decrease of humming around them and of all the shocked eyes turned their way. She felt the heat in her face as it stained with color.
“I-I’m sorry,” she stammered. “But it was my mother’s necklet. It is the only piece of jewelry she left me when she died. I dare not return home without it.”
She searched more hurriedly, as eager now to end this humiliating scene as she was to find the necklet. The Vision frowned, his perfectly molded mouth hinting of displeasure as he threaded his hands through the rushes with a half-hearted gesture. His companion scowled, whether at the Vision or at herself, Mathilde was not sure.
She felt herself on the verge of tears when the scowl vanished in a grin of triumph. Two wide, nut-brown hands swooped up, bearing in their palms her necklet lying in a bed of grasses and mint.
“Is this it?”
“Oh, yes!” She snatched the necklet out of his hands, picked the strands of dried grass out of the chain…. “Oh, but you’ve broken the clasp!”
The green eyes widened. “I—? I merely picked it up for you.”
“I mean—” Mathilde blushed again. “I mean it must have broken when you bumped into me.”
The Vision cut him off. “I’m the one who bumped into you. If I’ve broken it, I’ll take it and see it mended.”
Mathilde hesitated. Before she could answer, he drove a hand under her elbow and raised her firmly back to her feet. He cast a sharp glance at the crowd. Those who had been staring turned away, but not without a few titters and smirks.
“I apologize again for walking into you,” the Vision said. “I’m sorry I broke your necklet. But I promise I’ll see it repaired and returned to you safely.”
Mathilde observed that even his frown could not mar the beauty of his face. If she refused his offer, she might never speak to him again. But if he repaired the necklet, then he would have to return it. Surely by then she would have thought of something lively and witty to say, rather than embarrassing him or standing before him like a besmitten stock?
She held out the necklet. “Thank you. It is very kind of you, my lord.”
He snatched it out of her palm, sketched her a polite bow, then turned on his heel and strode towards the exit of the Hall.
Mathilde gazed after him, holding her breath until he disappeared through the exit. She pressed her hand to her fluttering heart, her palm still tingling from the brief touch of his fingers.
She whispered on a long, almost dizzying sigh, “He is as beautiful as I imagined Prince Erec to be.”
“Therri? You think he’s beautiful, eh? Well, most women do.”
She spun about at the laughing voice. The green-eyed gentleman still stood beside her, watching her with his dark head tilted at a quizzing, considering angle.
“Who’s Prince Erec?” he asked.
To Mathilde’s exasperation, she felt her face turn rosy again. Had she done anything but blush since these two men had blundered into her? “He was the son of King Lac, and a knight of King Arthur’s Round Table. No knight was more handsome or valiant than he, and only Sir Gawain was stronger. The great poet of Champagne, Chrétien de Troyes, wrote a poem about him and his love for the beautiful Enide.”
“You have met Chrétien de Troyes?”
His gaze dropped from her face to sweep her gown, reminding her briefly of Chesnei’s perusal. But there was nothing lewd in this glance. She guessed he merely sought to assess her status from the simple, unembellished silk. The beads on her girdle were painted wood, her shoes plain white linen. Only the fine silk of her gown and her sapphire necklet suggested that she merited even a lowly place amidst this glittering company. Certainly it made her seeming claim to have sat in the court of Champagne nothing less than ludicrous.
Embarrassment lent a defensive crispness to her voice. “Of course I’ve not met him. But my father is a great lover of poetry and music, and though he has not much otherwise to give them, any jongleur seeking a warm hearth and a meal is welcome in our hall. One of them repaid my father’s generosity by telling us the tale of Erec and Enide, as he claimed to have heard it from the lips of Chrétien himself.”
“My master, the Young King, loves poetry as well. He sought to engage Chrétien in his court after the Count of Champagne’s death last year. But Chrétien elected to accept the patronage of the Count of Flanders, instead.”
That caught her interest. “You are a knight of the Young King’s court?”
Even the Vision could not have sketched her a more flawlessly courteous bow. “Etienne de Brielle, at your service, my lady. Might you do me the honor of entrusting me with your name as well?”
“I am Mathilde de Riavelle. My brother, Girard, also serves the Young King. Do you know him, sir?”
The laughter in his eyes shaded with an expression Mathilde could not interpret.
“Girard de Riavelle? Aye, I know him. He never mentioned he had a sister.” He must have seen the dismayed way Mathilde’s face fell, for he hastened to add, “But we are not close friends. Perhaps he hoped to guard you from any dishonorable intentions amongst his cronies. Most of us in the Young King’s court are younger sons with little hope of advancement beyond the strength of our swords or a well-dowered wife.”
“My father is a poor man. I shall have little dowry when I wed.” That was, she knew, more likely the reason Girard had never mentioned her.
But the gentleman insisted, “Nay, then your brother must have held his silence to guard your pretty face. A woman with beauty but no dowry bears a different kind of risk than an equally beautiful woman who bears a fat purse.”
Mathilde studied him through narrowed eyes. Why would this man flatter her? Only her father ever called her pretty, and even he had never called her beautiful. There stirred in her mind her mother’s maid’s warning about smooth-tongued men.
“Is that why you have come to Grantamur Castle? To wed Lady Violette’s fat purse?” The pert words slipped out before she could stop them. His soot-colored brows twitched down slightly, the good humor fading from his face, but to her relief, he tossed his glance of displeasure not at her, but at their hostess.
The pout had vanished from Lady Violette’s lovely face, replaced with a fresh glow of pleasure as she bent down and allowed some gentleman below the dais to kiss her hand. Mathilde noticed that two of her ladies-in-waiting seemed to be staring in Mathilde’s direction. Had her bumbling search for her necklet been observed as far away as the dais?
“I’m as dependent on the Young King’s generosity as the rest of his court,” the gentleman said after a frowning moment, “and if his father, King Henry, tightens his purse-strings again, it’ll send a number of us crawling home to our fathers. Or in my case, my brother. I’d sooner wed Violette the Termagant than choke down my pride to do that.”
Mathilde gasped. “Does Lady Violette know you call her that?”
His humor returned with a rueful grin. “I hope not. She’d probably rip the tongue out of the man she caught doing so. You won’t betray me, my lady?”
She saw the twinkle in his eyes. He was laughing at her! She drew herself up proudly. “I am not a tattler, sir. And I wish you luck with your prize.”
She took a step away from him, but he touched her sleeve.
“Wait, I pray you. I was wondering … my lady, have you already bestowed your favor on some knight for tomorrow’s tourney?”
She turned, startled. Again, that too-ready color seeped into her face. She drew her arm pointedly away from his hand.
“No one has requested a favor of me yet,” she lied, unwilling to admit to Chesnei’s offer, “but I have not been long in the hall. I expect as soon as my brother introduces me to a few of his friends, I will—”
“Might I beg the boon of you first?”
She stole a glance at the dais, where Lady Violette was casting coy smiles at a large, bluff-featured man with light brown hair.
“What about the Fair Violette?” Thus had Mathilde heard Lady Violette called by her brother. “Since you hope to marry her, I should think it would be her favor you wish to wear.”
His lips parted, preparing, she suspected, to issue a stream of false flattery to win her acquiescence. But she had no intention of serving as a pawn in his game to make another woman jealous. She ground her slippered heel into the rushes, releasing a minty burst of aroma as she prepared to spin away from him.
But in the instant before she moved, he uttered abruptly, “The Fair Vi won’t have me. She won’t have any of us. She went back on her word to give Therri her favor and claims she scorns us all except Sir William. She’d like us all to play hangdog for her, but I’ll not give her the satisfaction. Let Therri skulk off and sulk if he likes, but I mean to show her she’s not the only wench in Normandy.”
His frankness took Mathilde aback. She had not expected him to admit to his purpose. “But if you wish to make her jealous, why choose me? There are many prettier ladies in the hall than I.”
He studied her for another weighing moment. “You remind me of someone. Besides, I like the way your eyes sparkle when you’re angry and go all dreamy when you’re thinking of that jongleur’s poetry.”
The smile he flashed along with these words held an unanticipated charm. Mathilde’s heart gave a disturbing thump and she observed very suddenly that his eyes were quite as vibrantly green as the Vision’s had been blue.
No, she did not wish to be used as a pawn—
—but on the other hand, it seemed a shame to allow pride to prevent her from having some champion in the field tomorrow. Girard’s continued absence from her side bespoke, she feared, little interest in finding a champion for her. At least this gentleman, irritating though his game with Violette was, looked lithe enough to win a joust or two in her honor.
Lithe, broad-shouldered, nearly as tall as the Vision….
Her hand fluttered to her bare neck, then fell away again. Disappointment twitched through her in a bewilderingly strong pang. “I’m afraid I don’t have anything to give you.”
His gaze drifted again down the length of her blue silk gown, more slowly and lingeringly this time. She backed away a little, dismayed by the rush of warmth that tingled over her flesh. When his eyes lifted again to her face, the green seemed subtly darker.
“What about this?” He reached out a hand to touch the embroidered silk ribbon.
“Oh, I couldn’t. It is not mi—”
The rest caught in her throat. His hand hovered near her face, distracting her with its wide brown palm and the odd heat that seemed to radiate from it. Before she could regain her voice to stop him, his fingers clasped the ribbon. Slowly, like a seductive whisper against her scalp, he threaded it out of her hair.
“I shall wear it on my sleeve tomorrow,” he murmured, “and do battle in your honor.”
“But—” Her scalp tingled, but her voice returned once his hand retreated from her face. “But you said you were fighting for Lady Violette.”
The corners of his mouth twitched up and a gleam of—mischief?—glimmered briefly in his eyes.
“Perhaps. But the glory of my victories shall belong to you.”
“Perhaps. But the glory of my victories shall belong to you.”
He bowed to her, his mouth curving up the rest of the way into another of his wickedly engaging smiles. Then he bade her good-even, and strode off the way the Vision had gone.
The disconcerting trance broke as soon as he vanished into the crowd. Again disappointment wove through her, more bitter than before. What use was the glory of his victories, when he, like all the other men still thronging the dais, had eyes only for Lady Violette?
Or had she misinterpreted his motive entirely? She frowned, remembering her reaction when he had taken her ribbon. Why had she not shrank from him as she had from Chesnei? What sort of trick had this gentleman used to freeze her voice and make her body flush the way he had? He had professed his intention of pursuing Lady Violette’s wealth. But he had also spoken of dowerless women at risk from dishonorable men.
Perhaps he knew of such men because he was one of them! Aye, he was undoubtedly the very sort of seducer her mother’s maid-servant had warned her of. What further evidence did she need than her own perplexing reaction to his nearness? It must be a small trick for a seducer to tantalize a woman, as he had tantalized her, with the mere proximity of his hand.
No doubt he thought her poverty and her unremarkable face would make her an easy target for his dishonest advances. She had been warned of men who lured unsuspecting women to ruin with soft-spoken flattery. But her mother’s maid had not had the foresight to caution Mathilde against men with delicious black curls and laughing green eyes and smiles that sent every thought from her head except the firm conviction that she had never seen anything quite as beguiling as the flash of this man’s grin.
Mathilde found herself drawing a dismayingly shaky breath. She must keep her distance from him, this green-eyed seducer. If his advances became too overwhelming, she would seek protection from the Vision. She closed her eyes and drew comfort in the memory of their meeting. Unlike his seducer friend, honor lay in every line of the Vision’s countenance and frame. A man of such valiant visage would warn his friend off, would no doubt even do battle to defend a lady’s honor. Aye, the contrast of the pleasant tingling the Vision had left in her palm to the provocative heat his friend had imparted without even a touch, told the tale of their conflicting characters more loudly than any words could have done.
The corners of her frown tilted upwards as her mind filled with the thrilling image of the Vision riding to her rescue, thundering to save her from a wicked abduction at the hands of his base, lascivious former-friend.
She opened her eyes, her pleasant dream shimmering away at her brother’s voice.
“I’m through here,” he said. He held up a strip of blue cloth. “I drew the south end of the field for tomorrow. I’ll find you a seat in one of the stands near there where you can watch. Now we had better retire. I’ll need a clear head and a good night’s sleep if I’m going to have a chance tomorrow of—”
He broke off, his gaze suddenly riveted on her hair. The flesh above his beard went pasty white. “Where’s the ribbon?”
She raised a hand to her hair. What had she been thinking? “Girard, I—”
“Where is it?”
She cast a glance about the hall in a search for the green-eyed gentleman before she remembered he had left. “He asked me for a favor for the tournament tomorrow. He took it from me before I could stop him.”
“I-I can’t remember his name. He had black curls and green eyes and—”
“I don’t care what color his eyes are, curse you!” He seized her by the shoulders so hard that his fingers pinched painfully into her flesh. “I should have known better than to trust it to you. How could you be such a fool? I need that ribbon back. Think. What was the fellow’s name?”
She racked her brains for the answer. She remembered he had introduced himself with a flourishing bow worthy of a master seducer. But she could not for the life of her remember the name he had told her, and the only name she could think of for his companion was the Vision.
“Curse you!” Girard shook her. “We’re not leaving this hall until we find him. Your memory for faces had better be keener than your memory for names.”
He started to drag her into the crowd.
“There is no use looking for him here,” she said. “He has left the hall.”
He swung around on her, and she saw fury mingled with panic in his eyes. “Left? Great heavens, Mathilde, have you any idea what you’ve done?” His voice came in a strangled wail.
“Girard, it was only a ribbon.”
“Only a ribbon? Only a ribbon?” For a moment, he looked so enraged she thought he might strike her. His free hand formed a fist, but he cast a sharp glance at the surrounding crowd and only growled, “We’ll settle this back at the tent.”
He jerked her towards the exit, all dignity abandoned as his angry strides forced her to alternately run and stumble through the crowd in an attempt to keep up with him.