Vernay Keep, Normandy: November 1154
The warm lips nuzzling his bare skin no longer had the power to arouse him, nor did the cool, silken hair trailing provocatively over his naked back. Ranulf lay sprawled on his stomach upon the musky linen sheets, sated and spent, his body glistening with sweat after his exertions. Pleasing two lusty wenches at once taxed even a man of his strength and stamina.
Yet Layla continued her merciless assault with mouth and tongue, her lush, opulent curves pressing erotically against him, her nails sending delicate shivers racing along his spine, her teeth intermittently nipping his buttocks with a sharpness that was just short of pain.
“Enough,” he muttered huskily—a command he lacked the energy to enforce.
When she bent to offer a luscious breast to him, teas- ing her dusky nipple against his mouth, Ranulf patiently averted his head. When she threaded her fingers through his raven hair and tugged insistently, he merely caught her wrist and pried loose her grip. It was only when Layla scraped her nails in a deliberate path over his scarred back that he finally reacted; she knew quite well such probing of his scars was forbidden, even though he had been unable to break her of the habit.
At his sharp tone, the ripe young body at his other side flinched, and Ranulf had to murmur gently to Flore and stroke her soothingly till she curled against him once more.
For temperament, he much preferred the petite, fair-haired Flore to the voluptuous Layla, whose ebony tresses were as dark as his own. Flore was a sweetly submissive Norman wench, always eager to do his bidding, whereas the foreign Layla had a grasping, querulous nature. Only because of her exquisite skills did he humor the beautiful Saracen.
“I seek simply to pleasure you, lord,” she said petulantly in her thick, honeyed accents. “You know well Layla pleases you far better than any other.”
Ranulf could not dispute her claim. Stolen from her family and enslaved in an infidel brothel, Layla had been trained in the sexual arts of the East, and knew well how to satisfy a man and bring his desire to a fever pitch.
If he also gained a bitter measure of satisfaction in possessing the exotic concubine his detested father had brought back from the Holy Land . . . well then, he would not deny himself the pleasure, even if he was perforce required to bear with Layla’s sharp tongue and acid jealousy. He could have chosen from a dozen peasant wenches just as eager to warm his bed, and yet tonight he had needed the fierce release the Saracen could bring him. He needed to forget. Summoning Flore at the same time only increased the odds that he would find respite from the demons that shadowed him.
“You are cruel to Layla, lord,” she complained, running her tongue over her pouting lower lip.
“Methinks thrice is enough,” Ranulf retorted, his tone dry, “even for a woman of your passion.”
In answer, she captured his hand and held it to the satiny flesh of her generous breast. “You dislike my passion? You desire Layla no longer?”
Ranulf grinned unwillingly as he gave her taut nipple a playful squeeze. “You would have to geld me to quench my desire for you, wench. But it is time for you to seek your own pallet.” When Layla made to protest, Ranulf raised his powerful body up on one elbow. “You know my wishes. I sleep alone.”
In truth, he was not singling her out for punishment by sending her away. His solitary slumber was a self-imposed rule. Though he took great pleasure in the female body, he rarely lingered with a woman. Too much sensual indulgence bred softness in a warrior; a knight who cavorted too often grew lazy and careless.
When Layla refused to budge, Ranulf gave her bare flank a mild cuff, which made her squeal in mock protest.
Defiantly, she lay back upon the dishevelled pillows, gazing up at him with languorous, seductive eyes. Provocatively her long fingers played over her sumptuous breasts, caressing the dusky crimson nipples in erotic invitation, while her lush thighs spread for his masculine appreciation. “Once more, lord, I beg you. . . .”
Despite her disobedience, Ranulf gave a rough chuckle. He was sated enough at the moment to be amused at her tactics, and wise enough to relent. Sometimes it behooved a man to let a wench win small victories so that she yielded more readily in important matters.
“Once more, then.” His fingers splayed over the smooth mound between her thighs, shaved bare in the Saracen style . . . parting the damp, passion-flushed lips, seeking the tender nubbin that was a woman’s delight.
Layla drew a sharp breath and closed her eyes, while her legs opened wide, giving his stroking fingers full access to her heated, dewy center. With controlled expertise, he caressed the slick flesh, sliding slowly inside the hot, sleek moistness. Layla quivered with arousal. In merely moments a throaty moan of rapture escaped her; her head fell back in ecstasy as she arched her supple back, her voluptuous, golden body undulating in the flickering candlelight.
Ranulf viewed her breathless, writhing response with gratification. Layla deserved to be rewarded for her earlier exquisite ministrations. She had provided him comfort tonight; it was only fair he reciprocate. Indeed, for the past fortnight—ever since he’d returned home to Vernay to cool his heels and await a summons from Duke Henry—Layla had succored him frequently. He should feel more remorse, perhaps, at relaxing his own strict custom of self-denial. Yet if he indulged his lust more often than usual when occupying Vernay Keep, it was because the diversion helped keep the memories at bay.
Restlessly, Ranulf lifted his gaze from the panting woman in his bed to glance beyond the open bed curtains. The solar at Vernay, where the lord slept and spent his leisure, remained a cold, stark, spartan chamber, devoid of comforts other than a roaring fire in the hearth and an occasional tapestry draping the stone walls to thwart the chill. He had refused to change a single appointment since his father’s tenancy, perversely determined to preserve the bitter evidence of his past.
Yet he was lord here now, Ranulf reminded himself. The honor of Vernay belonged to him, given to him in fief by Duke Henry, along with a charter of nobility that had reinstated him to his rightful rank. He was a disinherited, landless castoff no longer.
For all his present power and wealth, though, he could not quell the unease that always assaulted him in this chamber—the place where his father had flayed the flesh from his back. Even now, his skin turned clammy with dread each time he entered these apartments, for he could not help recalling the terror and pain of his youth. He had no need even to shut his eyes to remember crouching there against the far wall as a child, naked and trembling, waiting to endure the punishment of a vengeful sire. Not even the current consolation of heated female flesh could completely drive away the memories—although it made up in some measure for the countless hours of fear and torment he had suffered here.
The distant blare of the night watchman’s horn brought Ranulf’s head up like a wolf scenting the wind. At his sudden tensing, Layla’s eyes flew open.
“Nay! My lord . . . you cannot cease. . . .” Her demanding tone was sharp and insistent—and breathless as well.
He smiled faintly as his brutal memories faded. “We have time.”
And they would. Any new arrival must first await the lowering of the drawbridge, then ride through the outer and inner baileys before seeking entrance to Vernay’s tower.
He had the leisure to bring Layla to fulfillment.
Yet even before the grateful, sobbing woman had collapsed against him, Ranulf’s thoughts had already moved ahead to review his plans. If the new arrival was indeed the duke’s messenger with a summons, it meant King Stephen had died and Henry was preparing to claim his rightful crown as king of England. And since Henry was certain to be met with resistance, he would need to raise adequate forces to ensure the successful assumption of power.
Ranulf felt anticipation swell at the promised conflict. Not only was he willing to supply the knight’s fees he owed his liege, he was impatient to take up arms for Henry. He had remained idle too long, his battle sword and lance growing rusty with disuse. For the past three months and more, peace had reigned in Normandy. There had been no rebellions, no skirmishes, not even a nearby tourney where he could hone his skills and exhaust his frustrations in the melee or increase his wealth by capturing enemy knights for ransom.
For the past fortnight all had been in readiness for the forthcoming journey: the armor polished, the weapons sharpened, and the baggage wains staged for loading. His knights and men-at-arms had engaged in daily practice, sparring in swordplay, tilting at the quintains, shooting archery butts, and yet, they too were restless at the delay and eager to begin the campaign.
And now it seemed the moment was at hand.
As Ranulf expected, a lengthy interval passed before a rap sounded on the iron-banded door—time which he spent attending to Flore’s pleasure in reward for her sweetness and patience. At his command to enter, Ranulf’s vassal, Payn FitzOsbern, strode into the solar, half-dressed in an unlaced tunic and grinning broadly.
“Duke Henry?” Ranulf queried as he eased his body over the Saracen wench to sit on the edge of the massive bed.
“Aye, the duke—soon to be king of England. He rides for the coast in two days’ time and expects us to accompany him.” Payn made no apparent attempt to keep the glee from his tone. “The messenger would speak with you.”
Flashing his own grin, Ranulf solicitously twitched the linen sheet up over the two nude women in his bed. “Bid him enter.”
The messenger had obviously ridden hard from the duke’s court, for his cloak was spattered with mud, while grime and weariness lined his face. He confirmed what Payn had already announced, adding more details about the departure plans and composition of Henry’s forces, and warning of the resistance expected from the late King Stephen’s supporters in England.
Satisfied, Ranulf dismissed the man with orders to seek food and rest in the hall, then strode naked to the table where refreshment awaited. Pouring wine from a flagon into two pewter cups, he handed one to Payn and raised his own.
“On to England, then!”
“Aye, on to England! May we find a vast supply of English rebels to vanquish—before your impatience renders your temper even more vile than of late.”
“I?” Ranulf’s black eyebrow rose in amused mockery. “My disposition has been sweet as honey.”
His vassal gave a snort of laughter. “And what of the three quintains you destroyed yesterday? Had their straw forms been infidels, we would have freed the Holy Land by now! I vow I’ve encountered wild boars less dangerous than you after you’ve been caged here at Vernay for any length.”
Ranulf’s sole response was a shrug as he drained his cup. “Perhaps.”
“Yet I see you have been laboring at a cure for your foul mood.” Payn grinned wickedly as, with a nod of his head, he indicated the women in his lord’s bed. “By the rood, two wenches at once, Ranulf? Could you not save some for the rest of us?”
Ranulf surveyed the handsome, chestnut-haired knight with wry amusement. “I much doubt you lacked for company yourself.”
“Nay, but for some reason I find utterly unfathomable, females seem to favor you, despite your black scowl.”
“Simply because I take the time to ensure their pleasure instead of seeking merely my own.” At Payn’s grimace, it was Ranulf’s turn to grin. “Less selfishness would stand you in good stead, my friend.”
“Doubtless you are right.” Tilting his head back, Payn swallowed the remainder of his wine, then glanced at Ra- nulf with a measure of slyness. “And wise, as well. Best get your fill of your lemans now while you still can. Your bride will be none too pleased to share you after the wedding. A lady of her rank will expect you to devote your attentions to her, at least in the beginning.”
Ranulf’s good humor faded at the reminder. His betrothed awaited him in England—the sole reason he would not find this campaign entirely to his liking. “With the opposition we undoubtedly will face,” he said stiffly, “it could be months before I can manage time for a wedding ceremony.”
“ ’Tis likely you’ll not be able to put off your nuptials much longer, though,” Payn observed, laughter lacing his tone.
To hide his thoughts, Ranulf pivoted abruptly to refill his wine cup. His friend had long known of his reluctance to visit England but only lately begun to suspect the cause: The Black Dragon of Vernay had misplaced his vaunted nerve.
Ranulf shook his head ruefully. How was it possible? He was a warrior, a powerful knight who had earned his spurs at the youthful age of seventeen. In the eleven years since, he had proven his valor countless times over. His remarkable achievements in combat had earned him the name “Black Dragon,” a dreaded appellation that made his foes tremble. And yet the thought of wedding the Claredon heiress unnerved him.
He feared a mere girl.
Payn would think it a great jest—uproarious, in fact. It would indeed be humorous, if not for the possible repercussions, Ranulf admitted wryly. If his men learned of his trepidation, not only would he suffer untold ribbing, but their respect for him would diminish, a consequence that could prove detrimental to his leadership.
As if sensing his discomfort, Payn gave a guffaw of laughter and cuffed him on the back. “Take cheer, my lord. As you said, it could be months before you must face your bride. With luck, Stephen’s defenders will not surrender England easily, and your time will be spent fighting and subduing rebels. Perhaps you can manage to delay your visit to Claredon through next spring and even into the summer.”
“Aye,” Ranulf said, swallowing a long gulp of wine. What he needed was a good fight to take his mind off his impending nuptials. War, sport, and tourneys—those were his passion. Not women. Not his heiress bride. He was eager for battle, for confrontation, if only so that he might escape the affliction of matrimony for a short while longer.
“You can count on me to see to the final arrangements for the journey,” Payn assured him. “We shall be prepared to march at first light.”
Ranulf nodded, but scarcely noticed when his vassal departed. His thoughts were too wrapped up in the fate that awaited him across the Channel. While he anticipated the forthcoming military campaign with relish, he was not at all anxious to set foot in England.
More than four years had passed since the betrothal contracts had been signed, time which he’d spent fighting and serving his liege. He had permitted the seasons to slip past one by one, too occupied with his duties and obligations here to fetch his young bride; convinced that she would prefer to remain with her family in England rather than be dragged off to Normandy as his wife, to the fearsome lair of the Black Dragon. Even when an opportunity had arisen, though, he’d made no move to claim her, but instead found reason to tarry in Normandy. He had not even accompanied Henry to England last year when the duke met with King Stephen to secure the succession.
Absently, Ranulf moved to stand before the crackling fire in the hearth, his gaze engrossed by the flames.
At the time, his betrothal to Ariane of Claredon had seemed a sound idea—a politically expedient maneuver that would provide him land and heirs and cement an alliance with a powerful family who held fiefs throughout England. And after living much of his life without land or even a name, he had leapt at the chance to increase his wealth and extend his power base to England, where he possessed only minor holdings. He’d been eager for the connection offered him, driven by a fierce determination to become more powerful than his despised father, to forge for himself a dynasty that would rival any lord’s in the land. That a noble wife came with the transaction had not seemed too great a price to pay . . . at the time.
Her father Walter’s reasons for wanting the marriage were just as mercenary and perhaps more political. Walter supported King Stephen yet knew Empress Matilda and her son Henry might one day prevail. Shrewdly the lord of Claredon had betrothed his fourteen-year-old daughter to a Norman warlord who supported Henry, with the intent of leaving her well protected by a powerful husband should the English crown change hands.
At the time, Ranulf reflected, the scandal of his birth and his doubtful lineage was no longer much of an impediment, for he had just been reinstated to his inheritance and the honor of Vernay, which, added to bounty already gained from tourneys and wars, made him one of the wealthier knights in Normandy.
It had seemed a good match on both sides.
Except that the ink was scarcely dry on the parchment before he had longed to be free.
In these uncertain times, a betrothal pact could always be broken, for who would enforce the law? Civil rule in England was in shambles, while King Stephen had virtually lost the power to control his subjects or dispense justice. Yet as the years passed Ranulf had found no good reason to dissolve the contract. What could he say? That he feared such an advantageous marriage? His enemies would delight in his faintheartedness and he would appear a fool. Her brother’s death had made Ariane of Claredon a great heiress, a prize any nobleman would fight to possess.
Idly Ranulf rubbed his bare chest as he stared at the leaping flames, vaguely aware of the heat warming his naked loins.
He had met his intended bride only once—for the betrothal celebrations. Ariane had been a mere girl then, but he remembered her still: a long, thin body that held a coltish grace; pale hair a hue between flaxen and copper; plain, sharp-boned features dusted with freckles; and huge gray eyes that seemed to see more than he wanted to reveal.
Ranulf considered her youth an advantage. He had wanted a meek bride, someone young and malleable whom he could train to do his bidding, who could be taught obedience if not loyalty. He’d taken great care to ascertain her willingness for the marriage, desiring no repetition of his mother’s faithlessness to his father.
Ariane had seemed innocent enough, even possessing a virginal sort of charm that had surprised and enchanted him. Time would have changed her, though, Ranulf suspected regretfully. By now she would have had ample opportunity to learn the talents that were so prevalent in her sex—the arts of cruelty and lies and betrayal.
Her birth and station alone gave him cause to be wary. From the cradle, his ordeals with noblewomen had marked his soul, just as his father’s scourge had scarred his back. His own adulterous mother had condemned him to a life of torment, sentenced him to the hell of his father’s rage. Because of her infidelity, he had been forced to fight for his birthright, his identity, his very existence.
In truth, he had little use for women, other than the pleasure their bodies afforded. He was a man with strong appetites, but he preferred a simple peasant instead of a highborn lady. A lusty wench whose base and modest needs were easily fulfilled, who made no pretense of understanding such principles as honor and constancy and faithfulness. Who would not scorn him for his ignoble origins.
Give him someone other than his betrothed, Ariane of Claredon.
Ranulf exhaled a reluctant sigh, reminding himself it was far too late for him to withdraw his suit. He would honor his word regarding the contract. When England was won and Henry’s rule secure, then he would journey to Claredon and submit to the nuptials he had delayed for too long. Even if he would prefer to fight an entire enemy army rather than face his betrothed.
Realizing the absurdity of that thought, Ranulf laughed softly at himself. How had he been caught in this dilemma? His courage held hostage by a mere girl half his weight and a tenth his strength? What could she do to him, after all?
Deliberately, he shook his head, forcing himself to clear his mind. What need had he to concern himself with his bride—or with any female, for that matter? All he knew was fighting. All he wanted was a good battle or three. And yet . . . And yet his future was at stake. The moment he set foot in England, he would seal his fate. The only delay he could hope for would be revolts against the new king that needed quelling—
Ranulf was brought out of his unpleasant reverie by silken arms that entwined his waist from behind, by a lush, familiar, feminine body that pressed suggestively against his. Her delicate, stroking hands felt cool on his fire-warmed skin. Ranulf felt his tense muscles relax.
“She will not pleasure you as I do,” Layla purred, nipping the corded muscle of his upper arm with her teeth.
“Your English bride.”
Ranulf grimaced. He had no desire to dwell on his bride, or discuss the subject of his marriage with his leman. “She is not English, but Norman, as are all the ruling families there.”
“Norman, English . . . she will not delight you as Layla will.”
“Enough.” His hands came up to unclasp the concubine’s arms from around his waist. “I have no wish to speak of her.”
Moving sinuously to stand before him, Layla pouted up at Ranulf. “Forgive me, lord. Layla had no desire to anger you.”
His mouth curled in knowing amusement. “No? You delight in rousing my temper, wench, as you well know.”
Unabashed, she leaned closer to press her lips against his breast, swirling her wicked tongue over his nipple . . . lower, through the mat of curling ebony hair covering his chest . . . and lower still, along his flaccid member . . . arousing him deftly as she knelt on the stone floor at his feet. “Only because I also know how to appease you afterward, my magnificent stallion,” she throatily whispered against his swelling flesh.
“Aye,” he agreed, his tone husky. Already he could feel his groin stirring, his organ stiffening, throbbing. “So why do you delay? Appease me now.”
His hand on her shoulder, he drew Layla to his pulsing arousal. She knew what he wanted, what he needed from her. Her mouth curving in a feline smile, she closed her caressing fingers around the base of his burgeoning rod, now huge and thick, and took him in her hot mouth.
With a grimace of pleasure, Ranulf shut his eyes, his buttocks tightening rigidly as he thrust with slow, shuddering restraint into her slick heat. This was his last night at Vernay and he would make good use of it, of the exquisite skills the exotic Saracen possessed.
His hand rode her dark head as he tried to lose himself in the sensual pleasure she provided, as he tried unsuccessfully to forget his laughable dilemma. He, a powerful Norman warlord and one of Duke Henry’s most able vassals, had turned craven.
Yet it was not his mighty enemies and their armies who were to blame, but a young noblewoman. A mere girl.
Absurdly, beyond all reason, despite all rational arguments with himself, he feared his own bride.
A bride he could not avoid facing very much longer.
Excerpted from The Warrior by Nicole Jordan. Copyright © 2005 by Nicole Jordan. Excerpted by permission of Ivy Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.