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An Excerpt From

IN THE KING'S SERVICE

Arriving at the inner gate, Sir Blaidd Morgan pulled his horse to a halt and dismounted. Trev followed suit, and Blaidd handed him Aderyn Du's reins.

Before Blaidd could call out a greeting, though, a panel in the right half of the door slid swiftly back. No doubt the sentries on the wall walk had notified the guards below that they had visitors.

A thin face wreathed in a rough, dark brown woolen hood appeared. The guard's brilliant blue eyes regarded Blaidd as he wanted to accuse him of cheating. "Who are you and what do you want?" a slightly husky voice demanded.

"It's a woman!" Trev cried in what was meant to be a whisper, although it was loud enough to be heard twenty feet away.

After the first moment of astonishment had passed, Blaidd did what he always did when he met a woman. He smiled. "I wasn't aware Lord Throckton had Amazons in his garrison."

With an expression that looked suspiciously like scorn, the blue eyes surveyed him slowly, from the top of his soaked head, over his woolen cloak and leather jerkin, past his sword belt and breeches to the soles of his black boots. Then her expression changed to one of approval -- because she'd caught sight of Aderyn Du.

Blaidd stiffened. Aderyn Du was an undeniably fine animal, but he wasn't used to having his horse meet with more favor than he did.

Turning her attention back to Blaidd, the woman said, "I asked you who you were and what you want here."

"He's Sir Blaidd Morgan," Trev declared incredulously, as if the whole world must know that.

Blaidd, however, knew that the whole world did not know of him, and it was very possible that his fame, such as it was, had not traveled this far north of London and east of Wales.

"As my squire has said, I am Sir Blaidd Morgan," he replied, once more his calm, genial self. "I've come to pay a friendly visit to Lord Throckton, provided you will let us through the gate."

The woman sniffed. "You've come to court the Lady Laelia, like so many men before you. Well, good luck."

"I do hope I have good luck, if Lady Laelia proves to be worth courting."

"Well, well, no false modesty in you, sir knight, is there?" the woman replied. "It should be interesting to see how a Welshman fares. You are a Welshman, aren't you?"

By now, Trev was fairly hopping with indignation. "Are you going to let her talk to you like that? Do we have to stand here like a couple of peddlers asking to come in?"

Blaidd continued to smile, and while he ostensibly replied to Trev, he didn't take his steadfast gaze from what he could see of the woman's face. "As a matter of fact, since she is keeper of the gate, I am going to let her talk to me like that, and keep us waiting, if she likes."

The woman laughed, a low and rather cynical chortle. "I'll give you credit for your manners, Sir Welshman," she said. "Enter, then, and be welcome."

She slammed the grille closed and they heard the sound of the heavy bolt being drawn back.

"And about time, too!" Trev muttered. "God's blood, Blaidd, that's the rudest --"

"Never mind, Trev. We're hear without a specific invitation, so we can hardly be offended if the welcome is less than warm."

"I hope Lord Throckton is more polite."

"I'm sure he will be. It's a nobleman's duty to extend hospitality to a fellow nobleman."

His squire didn't respond; nonetheless, Blaidd could fairly feel the annoyance shooting out of him.

In truth, he was a little annoyed by the woman's brazen manner, too, but he had had more experience with disrespect. His father was not nobly born, and it had taken winning several tournaments, as well as the friendship of the king, before Blaidd was truly accepted at court.

So while this was far from his usual reception both at castles and with women, he wasn't as quick to take offense as Trev. As for the woman, he was very curious to see the whole of her face. If it was half so fascinating as those vibrant blue eyes, his time here might be more interesting than he had anticipated.

Although he mustn't lose sight of his true, and important, purpose.

The gates slowly swung open, and he and Trev proceeded through, entering a wide grassy outer ward. Beyond was the inner curtain wall of the castle, with towers at the corners.

Several armed guards -- all men -- stood at attention beside the gatehouse. The blue-eyed woman shrouded in a long brown cloak waited closest to the gate, as if she had personally drawn back the bolt. Her face was thin, her skin pale and her blue eyes seemed rather too large for her face. But her features themselves weren't too bad, and when he considered her lips, the first thought that came to mind was kissing.

"I hope you'll forgive my questions, sir," she said as she bowed low. "We so seldom have any visits from the king's minions that naturally I was suspicious."

Minion? Blaidd was no longer moved to excuse her insolence, vibrant blue eyes or not, and as for kissing her, he'd sooner kiss Aderyn Du.

"He's not a minion!" Trev said, echoing his thoughts. "He's a friend of King Henry's."

"Trev, please, allow me to deal with this underling," Blaidd said as he slowly ambled toward the woman until they were less than a foot apart.

She stiffened as Blaidd perused her in a leisurely manner.

"What's your name, wench?" he asked with deceptive tranquillity before he gave her a smile that his opponents in armed combat had learned to dread.

Her chin jutted out with defiance. "Becca."

"Tell me, Becca, do you always speak this way to your superiors?"

"Usually I don't speak to anybody who considers himself my superior."

She was, without doubt, the most insolent wench he'd ever encountered. "If this is the welcome nobles can expect at Throckton Castle, it's no wonder to me that your lord is not held in high esteem at the king's court."

The woman's steadfast gaze finally faltered -- but only for the briefest of moments. "If he isn't, that merely confirms what I think of the English court."

"What do you know of the English court?"

Her eyes widened with what he recognized as a completely fraudulent innocent bafflement. "I never said I knew anything about the English court, sir. I said it confirms what I think about it."

She bowed again, with an unexpected grace. "I'm sorry if I've offended you, Sir Blaidd."

He tilted his head as he studied her, not at all taken in by her change of manner. "Are you?"

"If what I've said causes trouble for Lord Throckton, I am."

Then she smiled, with so merry an expression, it was like finding a flower blooming in the dead of winter. "But if my honesty means you think I'm an insolent wretch who ought to be punished, I'm not sorry a bit."

Under the force of that smile, Blaidd's anger melted away. "Perhaps I'll be merciful and not tell Lord Throckton about his impertinent gatekeeper."

"Perhaps he won't be surprised." Her smile dimmed, but she didn't sound worried.

Then she wrapped her cloak more tightly about her slender frame. "Aren't you in a hurry to meet the lovely Lady Laelia?" She gave him another smile. "I think you might actually stand a chance."

"Well, then, since I've apparently won your good opinion, I'll consider myself nearly betrothed already."

The look in her sparkling eyes shifted again, becoming serious. "You may not have had much competition in anything before, Sir Blaidd of Wales, but you will now. I truly do wish you luck, if you think Laelia and her dowry will make you happy."

He asked the next question without thought. "Will I be seeing you in the castle?"

"I hope not," she replied, in a way that left no doubt that she meant it.

The guards nearby stifled smiles and tried not to laugh.

Sir Blaidd Morgan enjoyed having people laugh with him, and women most of all. But he hated being laughed at, and it had been years upon years since anybody had dared.

He turned on his heel, marched back to Aderyn Du and threw himself into the saddle. "Let's go, Trev," he snapped.

His squire immediately obeyed. "Do you suppose she really is a gatekeeper?" he asked as they rode into the ward.

"Whoever she is," Blaidd answered grimly, "I don't think she's right in the head and I hope I never see her again."

* * *

As Sir Blaidd Morgan rode away, Becca glanced at the castle guards, and the tall, gray-haired man in mail at the head of them. "Poor man. I don't think he expected my reception."

They burst out laughing.

"That's enough, lads," the commander of the garrison ordered, although Dobbin was having trouble being somber himself. "Back to your duties."

Exchanging muffled words and snickers, the men returned to their posts, while Dobbin joined Becca in the room in the gatehouse where the guards spent their time while not on patrol or sleeping. The plain stone walls were as stark as the battered trestle table upon which, over the years, men off duty had scratched their signs or initials. A couple of stools provided the only seating. A single shelf held materials for cleaning metal and leather, a task often performed here. The scent of the polish lingered, and helped add to the cozy feeling of the room, which was warmed by a fire.

Becca and Dobbin hung up their drenched cloaks on pegs near the door, and returned to their stools by the small hearth.

Dobbin stretched out his legs and sighed. "I'm getting too old to stand in the rain," he muttered, his words betraying his childhood spent in the dales of Yorkshire.

"You could have stayed inside."

"Too risky."

"They were hardly on the attack."

Dobbin gave her a shrewd look. "But what might you have said if I weren't there?"

She smiled, for he was quite right. She might have been even more impertinent toward yet another knight who'd arrived to see if the beauty of Throckton lived up to that name, and to court her if she did.

"Big fellow, he was, for a Welshman," Dobbin noted. "Sits his horse well. A man with shoulders and legs like that would probably be some fighter."

"I daresay he probably is a champion of tournaments," Becca agreed as she spread her damp skirts to enable them to dry more quickly. The ring of keys at her belt jingled with the movement.

"He's a handsome one, too, even with that hair. I've never seen a nobleman with hair to his shoulders like some kind of savage."

"Maybe all Welshmen wear it that way."

"I've never seen 'em do it," Dobbin replied, "and I've met a fair few at tournaments and such."

Becca clapped a hand on his shoulder. "I'll ask him, shall I?"

Dobbin nearly fell off his stool. "You'd better not. He looked angry enough to strangle you before. I thought he was going to, the way he got so close to you."

Becca tried not to remember how her heart had pounded when the handsome knight with the incredible physique had strolled toward her, a look on his face as if...as if...

Well, she'd never had a man walk up to her with that look on his face. "Very well, I won't ask." She gave Dobbin a grin. "Judging by that smile of his, I wouldn't be surprised if Sir Blaidd expects to win Laelia with nothing more than a wink and a grin."

"I just hope his lordship ain't going to be angry when he hears what you said to a knight from King Henry's court."

"I expect he will be." Becca hunched her shoulders, lowered her chin and gruffly spoke in imitation of the overlord of Throckton Castle. "Ignore her, Sir Blaidd. She's flighty and foolish -- a woman, that's all."

Dobbin shook his head. "You'd better take care, my lady, or one of these days, you might push your father too far and then where will you be?"


This book is part of Margaret's Warrior Series. As with all Margaret's books, however, this one is written with the understanding that not everyone will have read the previous books in the series, so a new reader shouldn't feel lost.


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Cover Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.

From the book IN THE KING'S SERVICE by Margaret Moore
Harlequin Historicals®
ISBN 0-373-29275-9
copyright© 2003 by Margaret Wilkins ® and TM are trademarks of the publisher.
The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.