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Knight of Seduction

Knight of Seduction

Bestselling author, CHERYL HOLT, delivers another sexy, exhilarating tale of love, betrayal, and redemption. With her first story set in medieval England, Cheryl proves once again that she’s unmatched in her power to thrill and tantalize readers around the world.

CAN A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS

Hugh of Manche has lived a man’s life, fighting for king and country. He’s built his reputation as the toughest, most violent knight in the land. But when his loyalty is rewarded with the title Baron of Morven, when the king gives him the castle and lands that go with it, Hugh finally has a home of his own. He arrives at Morven and — in an effort to keep the peace — is determined to wed the prior lord’s daughter. He’s heard that the girl is a timid, shy maiden, and he’s resigned to the match. So he’s unprepared to encounter a fiery vixen who stirs his blood in ways he’d never imagined.

TAME THE WICKEDEST KNIGHT IN THE KINGDOM…

Anne of Morven has always wanted to become a nun, and she hopes to take the veil — if only she can get her cruel stepmother to agree. She’s always felt that a life of piety and prayer would calm her more wicked impulses. When Lord Hugh arrives, ready to claim his rights, Anne is the first person to learn how ruthless he can truly be. From the moment he lays eyes on her, he’s determined that she will be his bride. Nothing will dissuade him in his quest to make her his own.

As Lord Hugh forces Anne to the altar, then tutors her in the ways of the marriage bed, lust blossoms and sweeps them away. Can love be far behind?

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“CHERYL HOLT delivers a fast paced and highly entertaining tale of a conquering knight, honed and hardened by a lifetime of battles and a spirited young woman who wants nothing more than a life of her own. KNIGHT OF SEDUCTION is a must read, with captivating characters who practically come alive from the page and pull you into their tale of sweet seduction, witty banter, and soul touching emotions.” — Teresa St. Mary, Novels Alive TV

“Finished KNIGHT OF SEDUCTION. Good thing I had the tissue box handy. As always, I love your books. THANKS for another GREAT READ!” — Margaret

“Really liked KNIGHT OF SEDUCTION. Thanks for giving me my reading fix this month.” — Lorie

“When I saw that you’d written a medieval, I didn’t know if I’d like it or not, but I love all your books, so I tried it. Just wanted you to know that it was so great!” — Kathy

“Love KNIGHT OF SEDUCTION. You just keep getting better and better.” — Beth

CHAPTER ONE

Castle Morven, Northern England
Summer, 1192…

“Do this for me.”

“No.”

“Please, Anne.  You must.”

Anne glared at her half-sister, Rosamunde, and sighed.  She couldn’t count how many times in her twenty years Rosamunde had insisted that Anne must do something for her.

It was the constant rhythm of their relationship.  Rosamunde made demands, and Anne—out of an incessant need to keep the peace—acceded to Rosamunde’s pressure.

Surely, this request went beyond any acceptable limit.

“I can’t,” Anne said, adding more sternly, “I won’t.”

They were in the solar, hiding and furiously whispering, while Hugh of Manche paced in the great hall, waiting for Rosamunde to come down.  They’d already delayed an eternity, ignoring his command that she immediately attend him.

He had to realize that he was being insulted.  How long would the fierce knight allow himself to be snubbed by a mere girl of eighteen?  How soon would he climb the stairs and drag her down?

They’d heard such terrible stories about him:  that he’d murdered thousands, that he’d pillaged and plundered from Paris to Jerusalem.  He was King Richard’s sword, his most loyal subject and friend, willing to commit any mayhem the king chose to implement.

And now, he’d been given their home as his own.  He was no longer a lowly knight, but Baron of Morven, rewarded for his valor and fidelity with ownership of the castle, lands, and people.  He’d been given Rosamunde, too, with instructions from the king that he could marry her if he wished.

Or not.  If Rosamunde enchanted him, she would be his bride, and if she didn’t?

Well, that was the pertinent question.

If Lord Hugh wed Rosamunde, the family would be safe.  They would continue to live at Morven, their position secured by the union.  But if he declined, what would become of them?

Anne’s and Rosamunde’s father, Ranulf, had been branded a traitor and hanged for his duplicity, so they had few options.  They were fortunate that Lord Hugh was pondering their fates, at all.  He could have simply ridden up and tossed them all out on the road.

On the one hand, Rosamunde should be counting her lucky stars.  On the other, Hugh had killed their father, being the person who had carried out the king’s verdict.  What girl would agree to marry the man who had murdered her father?

“Please, Anne,” Rosamunde tried again.  “It will only be for a day or two.  Until Mother returns.”

“How could you think to trick him?”

“He’s never seen me.  He doesn’t know my looks.  If you pretend to be me, how is he to guess?”

Rosamunde wanted Anne to switch places with her, wanted Anne to claim she was Rosamunde—just until Rosamunde’s mother, Blodwin, returned to Morven.  Blodwin was off on a religious pilgrimage to the cathedral in Dumfries.  She’d traveled with Father Eustace, and they were expected back on the morrow.

Blodwin was crafty and shrewd.  She would easily deal with Lord Hugh and would never permit Rosamunde to marry him.

Or at least, Rosamunde was hoping she wouldn’t.  What if Blodwin considered their precarious situation, then ordered Rosamunde to go through with it?  Then what?

“How is he to guess that I am not you?” Anne sarcastically chided.  “The merest whisper from any occupant of the castle would provide him with our true identities.  The man is a monster; he makes giants tremble in their boots.  I have no intention of angering him on your behalf.”

“But you know I plan to marry Geoffrey,” Rosamunde wailed.

“And you know that your mother will never let you.”

“She might,” Rosamunde maintained, as Anne rolled her eyes in exasperation.

Geoffrey was a singer and scoundrel who had stayed at Morven for several weeks, then journeyed on.

He’d flirted with Rosamunde, as he had with every female in the castle—including Anne.  Naïve Rosamunde believed he was in love with her, that he’d come and steal her away.  She was still waiting.

“You must put Geoffrey out of your mind,” Anne scolded.

“I can’t.  Not when Hugh the Butcher is down in the great hall, demanding to speak with me.”

“All you have to do is talk to him.  Welcome him in your mother’s stead.  Where’s the harm?”

“The harm!  What if he grabs me and drags me off to the chapel?  What if he weds me, and Mother never has a chance to arrive and stop him?”

“Father Eustace is with her,” Anne pointed out.  “There’s no priest to conduct a ceremony.”

“What if Lord Hugh has his own?”

“Oh.”

“If he forced me to the altar before Mother could save me”—Rosamunde leaned nearer and hissed—“I’d kill myself.”

“Rose!” Anne gasped, shocked by her sinful comment.

“One day is all I’m asking of you,” Rosamunde said.  “One paltry day.  Why can’t you give it to me?”

“One day—where I pretend to be you and incur Lord Hugh’s wrath forever.  What if he grabs me and drags me off to the altar before I can stop him?”

“He never would.”

“Why wouldn’t he?”

“You’re smarter than me.  You’ll figure out a way to stall him.”

“If I can’t, I’ll be married to the oaf.”

“Why are you being so cruel?” Rosamunde nagged.  “Why are you punishing me like this?”

Anne dithered and fumed, her resistance fading.

She glowered at slender, pretty Rosamunde, wondering—as she often did—how they could be so closely related but be so different.  It was obvious they were sisters; their facial features and height were exactly the same.  Yet Rosamunde was very fetching, with blond hair and blue eyes, while Anne was arresting in a disconcerting fashion.

Her lush auburn hair, striking green eyes, and curvaceous body made her conspicuous in any group that gathered.  Occasionally, she caught herself being wickedly proud of her ability to generate unwanted attention, so as penance, she strove to blend in, to never stand out, which was impossible.

People always stared, men in particular, and Blodwin complained that it was because Anne behaved like her mother, Bedelia.  Bedelia had reveled in attracting male interest.

Anne never deliberately flaunted herself, but she was constantly noticed anyway.  In light of who her parents had been, she was too notorious to be ignored.

She and Rosamunde had the same father.  It was their mothers who caused the trouble between them.  It was their mothers who had Anne feeling as if she should grovel and cringe and do whatever Rosamunde asked.

Blodwin was Ranulf’s lawful wife, with Rosamunde—and her brother, sixteen-year-old Cadel—their legitimate children.

Anne’s mother, Bedelia, had been Ranulf’s great amour, with Anne the shameful child born of their illicit relationship.

Bedelia had been a beautiful, flamboyant singer who’d visited Morven with a traveling troupe.  Ranulf had taken one look at her and fallen obsessively in love.  When the rest of her company—Anne’s cousins and uncles—had moved on, Bedelia had remained behind, the adored paramour of the master of the castle.

Ranulf had built her her own house in the village outside the castle gates.  He’d lived openly with her, had carried on brazenly and been totally unrepentant as to his immoral conduct.

She’d died when Anne was four, and Ranulf had brought Anne into the castle, had ordered Blodwin to raise her with Rosamunde and Cadel.  Ranulf had been a renowned tyrant and Blodwin wary of crossing him, so she’d complied.  But she’d been bitterly opposed to the arrangement, and her malice toward Anne had never waned.

Although Ranulf had lodged Anne with his family, he was never at Morven to protect her from Blodwin.  After Bedelia’s death, he’d left for London, preferring the excitement and intrigues at court over the quiet existence of their rural village.

When he’d joined King Richard and ridden off to the Holy Land, Anne—and everyone else at Morven—had assumed they’d never see him again.

And they never had.

Anne had spent her life apologizing for who she was and struggling to fit in, but it was a futile effort.  Blodwin was too intent on hating her.

“If I help you,” Anne was disgusted to hear herself offer, “you have to help me.”

“How?”

“You have to convince your mother to assist me with the convent.  Say that you will, and I shall go downstairs and tell Lord Hugh that my name is Rosamunde.”

“You know Mother is against the idea.”

“I don’t care.  Will you have me forestall Hugh or not?”

Anne wanted to enter a convent and devote herself to Christ, but she had no money to pay her way, and Blodwin wouldn’t give her any.  With Ranulf dead, and Hugh in control of the castle, everyone was in jeopardy, but none more so than Anne.

By taking the veil, she could atone for her mother’s sins, for her own illegitimate condition.  If Hugh started tossing people out, hers would be the first eviction.  Why not leave for the Sisters of Mercy before Hugh could devise a worse conclusion?

Rosamunde squeezed Anne’s hand.

“If you will save me from Lord Hugh,” she said, “I will dedicate myself to your cause.  I will never cease trying to persuade Mother to send you to the nuns.”

“Thank you.”  Anne spun and walked to the door, but distrust had her glancing back.  “I will placate Hugh for one day, Rosamunde, but once Blodwin returns, the farce is over.”

“Of course.”

There was a gleam in Rosamunde’s eye that Anne didn’t like.

“One day, Rose.  Swear it to me.”

“Father Eustace doesn’t like us swearing.”

“Swear it, or I won’t proceed.”

“Yes, yes,” Rosamunde huffed, “the moment Mother arrives, the ruse will end.”

Anne nodded, figuring it was as close to a promise as she’d ever get.

“Spread word among the servants,” Anne advised.  “Make sure they call me Rosamunde and you Anne.”

“I’ll see to it immediately.”  Rosamunde tilted her pert nose.  “If anyone spills the beans, I’ll have them whipped.”

“You will not.”

“I will.”

Anne shook her head in annoyance and left, her mind awhirl as she went down the stairs.

If Anne saved Rosamunde from bloodthirsty Lord Hugh, Blodwin would be grateful.  It would afford Anne some leverage in her argument about the convent.  Her father should have provided her with a dowry, but he hadn’t, and Blodwin had always wanted her gone.  Anne’s opportunity was now within reach.

She tiptoed to the great hall, slowing, anxious to collect herself and catch her breath.  She had planned to sneak in so she could study Hugh of Manche, the man who had terrorized people all over the earth, the man who had murdered her father.

Ranulf had been dead for over a year, and Anne had hardly known him, so she couldn’t exactly claim to be grieving.  But that didn’t temper the fact that Hugh had killed him.

Her stealthy entrance was ruined by a serving boy who’d been watching for her.

“Lord Hugh,” the boy loudly announced, “I give you the Lady Rosamunde.”

Anne glared, wondering when he’d been apprised that she should be addressed as Rosamunde.  Obviously, Rosamunde had implemented her scheme before asking Anne’s permission.  Not eager to play Rosamunde’s game, Anne nearly stomped off, certain the ploy would end in disaster, but the infamous Lord Hugh had already spun toward her, and she couldn’t make her feet march in the other direction.

He was over by the hearth, lurking like a black specter.  His hair was black, his clothes black, his boots black, but not his eyes.  They were a piercing blue, a deep sapphire, like the western sky at sunset.

“Lady Rosamunde.”  He tipped his head imperiously and gestured for her to approach.

There was no hope for it.  She had to welcome him, and a niggling voice told her she should show no sign of weakness.  He’d likely have no patience for timidity.

She strode over, but didn’t curtsy to him.  She wouldn’t.  He’d killed her father, and she wouldn’t pretend he hadn’t.

They assessed one another, like combatants waiting to see who would strike the first blow.

He towered over her, his shoulders broad, his waist narrow, his legs very, very long.  He was incredibly handsome, which confused her.  She’d loathed him forever, so she’d pictured him as an ogre, had thought he would be ancient and wrinkled and hunched over, with a misshapen body to match his corrupt soul.

Instead, he had a face like an angel, a fallen angel that an artist might have painted on a church ceiling.  Strong nose.  Stark cheekbones.  His dark hair needed a trim, a strip of leather holding it so it dangled down his back.

His skin was very tan from being out in the sun, lines creasing his eyes and mouth, but she doubted they’d been caused by laughter.  He looked hard and brutal—and tired.

“You’re clean shaven,” she stupidly mentioned before she could remember to be circumspect.

“I’m relieved to note that you’re not blind,” he snidely retorted.

She flushed bright red.  “It’s just…just…”  She halted, aggravated by her stammering.  “Men here at Morven usually let their beards grow.  I was merely surprised.”

“Did you hear that, Hugh?” a man called from over at a side table.  “You’ve surprised her.”

Anne glanced over to see several knights sitting together.  At the comment, they rudely guffawed.  Someone had fed them, and they must have been famished.  They were gulping down food.

“My cousin, Henry,” Hugh said.

Anne made no sign of acknowledgment to Henry.  He was a black-haired devil, too; he could have been Lord Hugh’s twin.

She whipped her attention to Hugh.

“What may I do for you?” she asked.

“I’m told your mother is away.”

“Yes.”

“When will she return?”

“We expect her back tomorrow or the next day.”

“You received my letter?”

“Yes,” Anne replied, carefully shielding her view of his haughty message.

With a paltry two-sentence explanation, he’d informed them of her father’s perfidy, how Ranulf had betrayed the Crown and been hanged for it.  Then Hugh had proclaimed himself to be the new owner of Morven and had tendered a cold, tepid suggestion of a possible marriage.

For ages, they’d been aware that he was coming and why, but he’d taken his merry time in arriving.  They’d hosted other guests and travelers who had seen him on the road, with his gaggle of knights, drinking and rampaging in a slow dance across the countryside.

She was slightly afraid of him, but she was not impressed.

“So you know,” he said, “that I might deign to wed you—if you can convince me that it would be to my benefit.”

“I’m positive it wouldn’t be.”

“Is that your mother’s opinion, too?  Would she rather snub me and be thrown out to scrounge in the forest?”

“I’m bound for the convent, Lord Hugh.  Matrimony is the last thing on my mind.”

“And is it the last thing on your mother’s mind, as well?”

“Yes,” Anne lied, having no idea as to Blodwin’s position on a marriage between him and Rosamunde.

“Too bad, Hugh,” his cousin, Henry, chimed in.  “You journeyed all this way just to find a little nun.”

“Yes, pity that,” Hugh concurred, looking bored, as if he couldn’t care less whether Anne wed him or not.

His lack of regard incensed her, and she felt oddly let down.

“If that will be all, Lord Hugh?”

She stepped as if she might leave, but he impaled her with those blue eyes of his.

“No, my Lady Rosamunde, that won’t be all.  We must speak privately.  Where is there a quiet spot?”

“I’ll go nowhere with you.  You must wait and confer with my mother.”

“I don’t think so.”

He grabbed her arm and started out, and Anne was so astonished that she stumbled along after him.  She supposed she could have screamed and begged for assistance, but the only people in the room were his knights, and none of them would rush to her aid.

“Unhand me,” she hissed, trying to tug herself from his grasp.

“No.”

“Unhand me!” she repeated more vehemently, but he tightened his grip.

“It appears you have some fight in you.  I’m glad.  I’d heard you were a meek mouse, and I despise docile women.”

His comment rattled her.  He’d heard about her?  From who?  If someone had gossiped, how would Anne continue her deception?  If he discovered that she wasn’t Rosamunde, what might he do in retaliation?

He dragged her from the great hall, past the serving boy who was still lurking and not nearly as sure as he had been when she’d entered.

“Go get help,” she told him, but he merely gulped with terror.

Lord Hugh’s reputation preceded him.  He could ravage her or cut out her tongue or murder her and not a single man would lift a finger.

Cowards!

He marched her up the stairs that led to the family’s living quarters, and at the top, he chose the first room he saw.  It was Blodwin’s sewing room, where she kept her loom and baskets of wool.

He kicked the door shut, and as he enclosed them, he dropped his hand.  Instantly, she bolted, but she was a fool to have tried.

His strong arm circled her waist as he yanked her to him, giving her such a hard jerk that she was lifted off her feet.

Her entire backside was cradled to his front.  She could feel him all the way down, his broad chest, his muscular thighs.  His manly parts were pressed to her bottom, and she squirmed to wriggle away, which made him chuckle in her ear.

“What a hellcat you are,” he murmured.

Her heart was pounding so violently she worried it might simply burst through her ribs.  “Are you planning to…to…ravish me?”

“You should be so lucky.”

He scoffed and pushed her away.  She staggered and caught herself.

“You’re a brute,” she charged.

“That’s one of my best qualities.”

“Is this how you earn a woman’s favor?  You manhandle and abuse her?”

“It’s always worked in the past.”

“I despise you.”

“I don’t care.”  He gestured to her veil.  “Let me see your hair.”

“What?  I most certainly will not.”

With the speed of a hawk swooping down on a rabbit, he reached out and yanked it away to reveal her auburn tresses.  They were the color of autumn leaves, all red and umber mixed with strands of gold.

It was her mother’s hair, and she wasn’t ashamed of it exactly.  Yet throughout her life, she’d been informed that it was a witch’s mane, that it indicated a wild, brazen temperament.  Father Eustace was particularly annoyed by it, and from the time she was tiny, he’d made her conceal it.

Lord Hugh stared at her, his head cocked with curiosity.  She lowered her eyes to study the floor.

“I could have sworn I was told you were blond,” he said.

“No, I never have been.”  It was the absolute truth.

He took a slow trip around her person, meticulously cataloguing her size and features as if evaluating a horse he was about to purchase.

“You’ve seen my hair,” she said, “and now I should like to cover it.  May I have my veil?”

“No.”

“Please?” she begged, feeling naked without it.

“Learn quickly, Lady Rosamunde.  I don’t like to be questioned.  When I give you an answer, I don’t believe I should have to immediately give it again.  And don’t plead with me.  I find it unbecoming.”

Irked by his haughty remark, she snapped her gaze to his.  Though he was bigger and stronger, she would not be intimidated.  If she didn’t stand her ground, he’d bowl her over, and she couldn’t let him.

She should have scolded him for his arrogance, then stomped out, but he was very close, and she was flummoxed by his proximity.

There was a strange energy in the air, as if they were generating heat.  She didn’t like the sensation and recognized that she could tamp it out by stepping away, but she couldn’t make herself move.

“What is it you want of me?” she asked more plaintively than she’d intended.

“You know what I want.”

His lazy attention meandered down her torso.  He stopped at her breasts, at her belly, at the woman’s spot between her legs.  Then he wandered back to her mouth.

He actually looked as if he might kiss her, and though the prospect was ludicrous, she couldn’t get beyond the notion that he was contemplating it.  Pathetically, if he was suffering a burst of ardor, she did nothing to quell his enthusiasm.

She’d been kissed precisely one time—when Rosamunde’s love, Geoffrey, had groped her under the stairs—and she’d always wondered what it would be like to have it carried out by a man who knew how.  Lord Hugh oozed masculine vigor and definitely seemed as if he might be an expert.

He smiled at her, as he stroked his hand across her hair, following it down her shoulders and back.  As he approached her bottom, she squealed with outrage and lurched away, his smile altering to outright laughter.

“Are you a virgin, Lady Rosamunde?”

“A…what?” she gasped.  “How crass of you to inquire.”

“If I must marry, I aim to treat myself.  I’m a baron now, after all.  I can have whoever I want.  I needn’t settle for another man’s leavings.”

Anne’s cheeks turned such a brilliant red that she felt as if she might burst into flames.  “I suggest you take it up with my mother.”

“I will—if she makes an appearance before I grow tired of waiting for her.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, my lady, that I’ve decided to wed you.”

“Well, I have not decided to wed you¸ so I advise that you seek out a maiden who is amenable.  I shall never be.”

“Why is that?”

“You have to ask?  You murdered my father.”

“He was a traitor, tried and convicted by my king.”

“He was my father.”

Lord Hugh shrugged.  “I can’t change what happened to Ranulf, but by marrying you, I can protect you from some of the disaster.  Have you considered what will become of you and your family if you refuse me?”

“I’d rather live under a rock than have you as my husband.”  Her insult provoked more laughter.  “Besides, I told you I’m bound for the convent.  I shall marry my Lord, Jesus Christ.”

“I can’t allow it.”

“Why not?”

He studied her again, unnerving her with his salacious assessment.  He looked as if he might devour her, as if he’d set a trap and she’d fallen into it.

“It would be a sin to lock you away,” he claimed.  “I have to save you from yourself.”

“What?  You talk in riddles.  I have no idea what you’re saying.”

“How old are you?”

She almost gave her true age of twenty, then remembered she was supposed to be Rosamunde.

“Eighteen.”  The lies were coming so fast and so furiously that she’d have to spend a week in confession just to name them all.

“I can tell by the pink in your cheeks that you’re still a maiden.”

“And I can tell by your mentioning it again that you’re a complete ass.”

“We’ll get on fine.”  His gaze narrowed as if he saw traits in her that she didn’t see herself.

She shifted uncomfortably.  “We will not get on, as you so blithely put it.  If I have my way, we’ll never speak to each other again after this conversation is concluded.”

“We’ll wed on the morrow,” he abruptly informed her.

“We will not.”

“After the morning bells have chimed.  Then we’ll celebrate with whatever feast the servants can arrange on such short notice.  We’ll have the bedding in the afternoon.”  His lazy smile was back.  “I’ve been on the road for many months, so you should expect the event to last far into the night.  You’ll need to eat a hearty meal to keep up your strength.”

“Would you listen to me?”

“I never listen to women.”

“Try.  My mother is not here, and I hate you.”

“So?  What has your hatred to do with anything?  If you loathe me or love me, it matters not.  I’m doing you a favor.  You should be grateful.”

“A favor!”  She threw up her hands in disgust.  “Talking to you is like talking to a log.”

“That’s not the first time a female has said that to me.”

“I’m not surprised.”

“Women are frivolous beings, and I have no patience for their silly habits.  Stop complaining.  We’ll wed—as I’m certain your mother will agree is the appropriate course for you.”

“There is no priest to perform a ceremony.  Father Eustace has traveled with her.”

“One of my knights fancies himself as ordained.  We’ll use him.”

“We won’t,” she stubbornly replied.

“We will.”

Anne glared, engaging him in a staring match she couldn’t win, but she tried her best.  He was the most obstinate person she’d ever encountered.  Pity his poor bride.  She would have a life of misery.

He stepped to her, snaked an arm around her waist and pulled her near.  Though she pushed at his broad chest, she couldn’t create any space between them.

“You need a man in your bed,” he arrogantly contended, “like no woman I’ve ever met.”

“I do not.”

“You’ll be happier for it.  We’ll work off some of the piss and sass that drives your tongue.”

“I don’t even know what that means.”

“Yes, you do.”

“You’re insane.”

“I’ve never denied it.”

He released her as suddenly as he’d seized her, and as she struggled to right herself, he strolled to the door.

“Be ready in the morning,” he said, and it sounded like a threat.

“I won’t be.”

“We’ll see.”

He walked out, his forceful strides marching down the stairs.  He had a confident gait, a man sure of the world and his place in it.  She sneaked after him, hovering on the landing, eavesdropping as he reentered the great hall down below.

“Well?” his cousin, Henry, asked.

“Shackled by noon tomorrow.”

Male laugher and clapping drifted up.

“She’s a wild one, you lucky dog,” Henry said.

“She definitely is.”

“Be careful with her.  A brash girl like that might stab you in your sleep.”

“I’ll keep her flat on her back for months.  She’ll never have a moment to grab a knife.”

The male laughter became loud guffaws.

“What a disaster,” Anne murmured.

She crept away and rushed to find Rosamunde.

Reviews

“CHERYL HOLT delivers a fast paced and highly entertaining tale of a conquering knight, honed and hardened by a lifetime of battles and a spirited young woman who wants nothing more than a life of her own. KNIGHT OF SEDUCTION is a must read, with captivating characters who practically come alive from the page and pull you into their tale of sweet seduction, witty banter, and soul touching emotions.” — Teresa St. Mary, Novels Alive TV

Fan Reviews

“Finished KNIGHT OF SEDUCTION. Good thing I had the tissue box handy. As always, I love your books. THANKS for another GREAT READ!” — Margaret

“Really liked KNIGHT OF SEDUCTION. Thanks for giving me my reading fix this month.” — Lorie

“When I saw that you’d written a medieval, I didn’t know if I’d like it or not, but I love all your books, so I tried it. Just wanted you to know that it was so great!” — Kathy

“Love KNIGHT OF SEDUCTION. You just keep getting better and better.” — Beth

Sample Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

Castle Morven, Northern England
Summer, 1192…

“Do this for me.”

“No.”

“Please, Anne.  You must.”

Anne glared at her half-sister, Rosamunde, and sighed.  She couldn’t count how many times in her twenty years Rosamunde had insisted that Anne must do something for her.

It was the constant rhythm of their relationship.  Rosamunde made demands, and Anne—out of an incessant need to keep the peace—acceded to Rosamunde’s pressure.

Surely, this request went beyond any acceptable limit.

“I can’t,” Anne said, adding more sternly, “I won’t.”

They were in the solar, hiding and furiously whispering, while Hugh of Manche paced in the great hall, waiting for Rosamunde to come down.  They’d already delayed an eternity, ignoring his command that she immediately attend him.

He had to realize that he was being insulted.  How long would the fierce knight allow himself to be snubbed by a mere girl of eighteen?  How soon would he climb the stairs and drag her down?

They’d heard such terrible stories about him:  that he’d murdered thousands, that he’d pillaged and plundered from Paris to Jerusalem.  He was King Richard’s sword, his most loyal subject and friend, willing to commit any mayhem the king chose to implement.

And now, he’d been given their home as his own.  He was no longer a lowly knight, but Baron of Morven, rewarded for his valor and fidelity with ownership of the castle, lands, and people.  He’d been given Rosamunde, too, with instructions from the king that he could marry her if he wished.

Or not.  If Rosamunde enchanted him, she would be his bride, and if she didn’t?

Well, that was the pertinent question.

If Lord Hugh wed Rosamunde, the family would be safe.  They would continue to live at Morven, their position secured by the union.  But if he declined, what would become of them?

Anne’s and Rosamunde’s father, Ranulf, had been branded a traitor and hanged for his duplicity, so they had few options.  They were fortunate that Lord Hugh was pondering their fates, at all.  He could have simply ridden up and tossed them all out on the road.

On the one hand, Rosamunde should be counting her lucky stars.  On the other, Hugh had killed their father, being the person who had carried out the king’s verdict.  What girl would agree to marry the man who had murdered her father?

“Please, Anne,” Rosamunde tried again.  “It will only be for a day or two.  Until Mother returns.”

“How could you think to trick him?”

“He’s never seen me.  He doesn’t know my looks.  If you pretend to be me, how is he to guess?”

Rosamunde wanted Anne to switch places with her, wanted Anne to claim she was Rosamunde—just until Rosamunde’s mother, Blodwin, returned to Morven.  Blodwin was off on a religious pilgrimage to the cathedral in Dumfries.  She’d traveled with Father Eustace, and they were expected back on the morrow.

Blodwin was crafty and shrewd.  She would easily deal with Lord Hugh and would never permit Rosamunde to marry him.

Or at least, Rosamunde was hoping she wouldn’t.  What if Blodwin considered their precarious situation, then ordered Rosamunde to go through with it?  Then what?

“How is he to guess that I am not you?” Anne sarcastically chided.  “The merest whisper from any occupant of the castle would provide him with our true identities.  The man is a monster; he makes giants tremble in their boots.  I have no intention of angering him on your behalf.”

“But you know I plan to marry Geoffrey,” Rosamunde wailed.

“And you know that your mother will never let you.”

“She might,” Rosamunde maintained, as Anne rolled her eyes in exasperation.

Geoffrey was a singer and scoundrel who had stayed at Morven for several weeks, then journeyed on.

He’d flirted with Rosamunde, as he had with every female in the castle—including Anne.  Naïve Rosamunde believed he was in love with her, that he’d come and steal her away.  She was still waiting.

“You must put Geoffrey out of your mind,” Anne scolded.

“I can’t.  Not when Hugh the Butcher is down in the great hall, demanding to speak with me.”

“All you have to do is talk to him.  Welcome him in your mother’s stead.  Where’s the harm?”

“The harm!  What if he grabs me and drags me off to the chapel?  What if he weds me, and Mother never has a chance to arrive and stop him?”

“Father Eustace is with her,” Anne pointed out.  “There’s no priest to conduct a ceremony.”

“What if Lord Hugh has his own?”

“Oh.”

“If he forced me to the altar before Mother could save me”—Rosamunde leaned nearer and hissed—“I’d kill myself.”

“Rose!” Anne gasped, shocked by her sinful comment.

“One day is all I’m asking of you,” Rosamunde said.  “One paltry day.  Why can’t you give it to me?”

“One day—where I pretend to be you and incur Lord Hugh’s wrath forever.  What if he grabs me and drags me off to the altar before I can stop him?”

“He never would.”

“Why wouldn’t he?”

“You’re smarter than me.  You’ll figure out a way to stall him.”

“If I can’t, I’ll be married to the oaf.”

“Why are you being so cruel?” Rosamunde nagged.  “Why are you punishing me like this?”

Anne dithered and fumed, her resistance fading.

She glowered at slender, pretty Rosamunde, wondering—as she often did—how they could be so closely related but be so different.  It was obvious they were sisters; their facial features and height were exactly the same.  Yet Rosamunde was very fetching, with blond hair and blue eyes, while Anne was arresting in a disconcerting fashion.

Her lush auburn hair, striking green eyes, and curvaceous body made her conspicuous in any group that gathered.  Occasionally, she caught herself being wickedly proud of her ability to generate unwanted attention, so as penance, she strove to blend in, to never stand out, which was impossible.

People always stared, men in particular, and Blodwin complained that it was because Anne behaved like her mother, Bedelia.  Bedelia had reveled in attracting male interest.

Anne never deliberately flaunted herself, but she was constantly noticed anyway.  In light of who her parents had been, she was too notorious to be ignored.

She and Rosamunde had the same father.  It was their mothers who caused the trouble between them.  It was their mothers who had Anne feeling as if she should grovel and cringe and do whatever Rosamunde asked.

Blodwin was Ranulf’s lawful wife, with Rosamunde—and her brother, sixteen-year-old Cadel—their legitimate children.

Anne’s mother, Bedelia, had been Ranulf’s great amour, with Anne the shameful child born of their illicit relationship.

Bedelia had been a beautiful, flamboyant singer who’d visited Morven with a traveling troupe.  Ranulf had taken one look at her and fallen obsessively in love.  When the rest of her company—Anne’s cousins and uncles—had moved on, Bedelia had remained behind, the adored paramour of the master of the castle.

Ranulf had built her her own house in the village outside the castle gates.  He’d lived openly with her, had carried on brazenly and been totally unrepentant as to his immoral conduct.

She’d died when Anne was four, and Ranulf had brought Anne into the castle, had ordered Blodwin to raise her with Rosamunde and Cadel.  Ranulf had been a renowned tyrant and Blodwin wary of crossing him, so she’d complied.  But she’d been bitterly opposed to the arrangement, and her malice toward Anne had never waned.

Although Ranulf had lodged Anne with his family, he was never at Morven to protect her from Blodwin.  After Bedelia’s death, he’d left for London, preferring the excitement and intrigues at court over the quiet existence of their rural village.

When he’d joined King Richard and ridden off to the Holy Land, Anne—and everyone else at Morven—had assumed they’d never see him again.

And they never had.

Anne had spent her life apologizing for who she was and struggling to fit in, but it was a futile effort.  Blodwin was too intent on hating her.

“If I help you,” Anne was disgusted to hear herself offer, “you have to help me.”

“How?”

“You have to convince your mother to assist me with the convent.  Say that you will, and I shall go downstairs and tell Lord Hugh that my name is Rosamunde.”

“You know Mother is against the idea.”

“I don’t care.  Will you have me forestall Hugh or not?”

Anne wanted to enter a convent and devote herself to Christ, but she had no money to pay her way, and Blodwin wouldn’t give her any.  With Ranulf dead, and Hugh in control of the castle, everyone was in jeopardy, but none more so than Anne.

By taking the veil, she could atone for her mother’s sins, for her own illegitimate condition.  If Hugh started tossing people out, hers would be the first eviction.  Why not leave for the Sisters of Mercy before Hugh could devise a worse conclusion?

Rosamunde squeezed Anne’s hand.

“If you will save me from Lord Hugh,” she said, “I will dedicate myself to your cause.  I will never cease trying to persuade Mother to send you to the nuns.”

“Thank you.”  Anne spun and walked to the door, but distrust had her glancing back.  “I will placate Hugh for one day, Rosamunde, but once Blodwin returns, the farce is over.”

“Of course.”

There was a gleam in Rosamunde’s eye that Anne didn’t like.

“One day, Rose.  Swear it to me.”

“Father Eustace doesn’t like us swearing.”

“Swear it, or I won’t proceed.”

“Yes, yes,” Rosamunde huffed, “the moment Mother arrives, the ruse will end.”

Anne nodded, figuring it was as close to a promise as she’d ever get.

“Spread word among the servants,” Anne advised.  “Make sure they call me Rosamunde and you Anne.”

“I’ll see to it immediately.”  Rosamunde tilted her pert nose.  “If anyone spills the beans, I’ll have them whipped.”

“You will not.”

“I will.”

Anne shook her head in annoyance and left, her mind awhirl as she went down the stairs.

If Anne saved Rosamunde from bloodthirsty Lord Hugh, Blodwin would be grateful.  It would afford Anne some leverage in her argument about the convent.  Her father should have provided her with a dowry, but he hadn’t, and Blodwin had always wanted her gone.  Anne’s opportunity was now within reach.

She tiptoed to the great hall, slowing, anxious to collect herself and catch her breath.  She had planned to sneak in so she could study Hugh of Manche, the man who had terrorized people all over the earth, the man who had murdered her father.

Ranulf had been dead for over a year, and Anne had hardly known him, so she couldn’t exactly claim to be grieving.  But that didn’t temper the fact that Hugh had killed him.

Her stealthy entrance was ruined by a serving boy who’d been watching for her.

“Lord Hugh,” the boy loudly announced, “I give you the Lady Rosamunde.”

Anne glared, wondering when he’d been apprised that she should be addressed as Rosamunde.  Obviously, Rosamunde had implemented her scheme before asking Anne’s permission.  Not eager to play Rosamunde’s game, Anne nearly stomped off, certain the ploy would end in disaster, but the infamous Lord Hugh had already spun toward her, and she couldn’t make her feet march in the other direction.

He was over by the hearth, lurking like a black specter.  His hair was black, his clothes black, his boots black, but not his eyes.  They were a piercing blue, a deep sapphire, like the western sky at sunset.

“Lady Rosamunde.”  He tipped his head imperiously and gestured for her to approach.

There was no hope for it.  She had to welcome him, and a niggling voice told her she should show no sign of weakness.  He’d likely have no patience for timidity.

She strode over, but didn’t curtsy to him.  She wouldn’t.  He’d killed her father, and she wouldn’t pretend he hadn’t.

They assessed one another, like combatants waiting to see who would strike the first blow.

He towered over her, his shoulders broad, his waist narrow, his legs very, very long.  He was incredibly handsome, which confused her.  She’d loathed him forever, so she’d pictured him as an ogre, had thought he would be ancient and wrinkled and hunched over, with a misshapen body to match his corrupt soul.

Instead, he had a face like an angel, a fallen angel that an artist might have painted on a church ceiling.  Strong nose.  Stark cheekbones.  His dark hair needed a trim, a strip of leather holding it so it dangled down his back.

His skin was very tan from being out in the sun, lines creasing his eyes and mouth, but she doubted they’d been caused by laughter.  He looked hard and brutal—and tired.

“You’re clean shaven,” she stupidly mentioned before she could remember to be circumspect.

“I’m relieved to note that you’re not blind,” he snidely retorted.

She flushed bright red.  “It’s just…just…”  She halted, aggravated by her stammering.  “Men here at Morven usually let their beards grow.  I was merely surprised.”

“Did you hear that, Hugh?” a man called from over at a side table.  “You’ve surprised her.”

Anne glanced over to see several knights sitting together.  At the comment, they rudely guffawed.  Someone had fed them, and they must have been famished.  They were gulping down food.

“My cousin, Henry,” Hugh said.

Anne made no sign of acknowledgment to Henry.  He was a black-haired devil, too; he could have been Lord Hugh’s twin.

She whipped her attention to Hugh.

“What may I do for you?” she asked.

“I’m told your mother is away.”

“Yes.”

“When will she return?”

“We expect her back tomorrow or the next day.”

“You received my letter?”

“Yes,” Anne replied, carefully shielding her view of his haughty message.

With a paltry two-sentence explanation, he’d informed them of her father’s perfidy, how Ranulf had betrayed the Crown and been hanged for it.  Then Hugh had proclaimed himself to be the new owner of Morven and had tendered a cold, tepid suggestion of a possible marriage.

For ages, they’d been aware that he was coming and why, but he’d taken his merry time in arriving.  They’d hosted other guests and travelers who had seen him on the road, with his gaggle of knights, drinking and rampaging in a slow dance across the countryside.

She was slightly afraid of him, but she was not impressed.

“So you know,” he said, “that I might deign to wed you—if you can convince me that it would be to my benefit.”

“I’m positive it wouldn’t be.”

“Is that your mother’s opinion, too?  Would she rather snub me and be thrown out to scrounge in the forest?”

“I’m bound for the convent, Lord Hugh.  Matrimony is the last thing on my mind.”

“And is it the last thing on your mother’s mind, as well?”

“Yes,” Anne lied, having no idea as to Blodwin’s position on a marriage between him and Rosamunde.

“Too bad, Hugh,” his cousin, Henry, chimed in.  “You journeyed all this way just to find a little nun.”

“Yes, pity that,” Hugh concurred, looking bored, as if he couldn’t care less whether Anne wed him or not.

His lack of regard incensed her, and she felt oddly let down.

“If that will be all, Lord Hugh?”

She stepped as if she might leave, but he impaled her with those blue eyes of his.

“No, my Lady Rosamunde, that won’t be all.  We must speak privately.  Where is there a quiet spot?”

“I’ll go nowhere with you.  You must wait and confer with my mother.”

“I don’t think so.”

He grabbed her arm and started out, and Anne was so astonished that she stumbled along after him.  She supposed she could have screamed and begged for assistance, but the only people in the room were his knights, and none of them would rush to her aid.

“Unhand me,” she hissed, trying to tug herself from his grasp.

“No.”

“Unhand me!” she repeated more vehemently, but he tightened his grip.

“It appears you have some fight in you.  I’m glad.  I’d heard you were a meek mouse, and I despise docile women.”

His comment rattled her.  He’d heard about her?  From who?  If someone had gossiped, how would Anne continue her deception?  If he discovered that she wasn’t Rosamunde, what might he do in retaliation?

He dragged her from the great hall, past the serving boy who was still lurking and not nearly as sure as he had been when she’d entered.

“Go get help,” she told him, but he merely gulped with terror.

Lord Hugh’s reputation preceded him.  He could ravage her or cut out her tongue or murder her and not a single man would lift a finger.

Cowards!

He marched her up the stairs that led to the family’s living quarters, and at the top, he chose the first room he saw.  It was Blodwin’s sewing room, where she kept her loom and baskets of wool.

He kicked the door shut, and as he enclosed them, he dropped his hand.  Instantly, she bolted, but she was a fool to have tried.

His strong arm circled her waist as he yanked her to him, giving her such a hard jerk that she was lifted off her feet.

Her entire backside was cradled to his front.  She could feel him all the way down, his broad chest, his muscular thighs.  His manly parts were pressed to her bottom, and she squirmed to wriggle away, which made him chuckle in her ear.

“What a hellcat you are,” he murmured.

Her heart was pounding so violently she worried it might simply burst through her ribs.  “Are you planning to…to…ravish me?”

“You should be so lucky.”

He scoffed and pushed her away.  She staggered and caught herself.

“You’re a brute,” she charged.

“That’s one of my best qualities.”

“Is this how you earn a woman’s favor?  You manhandle and abuse her?”

“It’s always worked in the past.”

“I despise you.”

“I don’t care.”  He gestured to her veil.  “Let me see your hair.”

“What?  I most certainly will not.”

With the speed of a hawk swooping down on a rabbit, he reached out and yanked it away to reveal her auburn tresses.  They were the color of autumn leaves, all red and umber mixed with strands of gold.

It was her mother’s hair, and she wasn’t ashamed of it exactly.  Yet throughout her life, she’d been informed that it was a witch’s mane, that it indicated a wild, brazen temperament.  Father Eustace was particularly annoyed by it, and from the time she was tiny, he’d made her conceal it.

Lord Hugh stared at her, his head cocked with curiosity.  She lowered her eyes to study the floor.

“I could have sworn I was told you were blond,” he said.

“No, I never have been.”  It was the absolute truth.

He took a slow trip around her person, meticulously cataloguing her size and features as if evaluating a horse he was about to purchase.

“You’ve seen my hair,” she said, “and now I should like to cover it.  May I have my veil?”

“No.”

“Please?” she begged, feeling naked without it.

“Learn quickly, Lady Rosamunde.  I don’t like to be questioned.  When I give you an answer, I don’t believe I should have to immediately give it again.  And don’t plead with me.  I find it unbecoming.”

Irked by his haughty remark, she snapped her gaze to his.  Though he was bigger and stronger, she would not be intimidated.  If she didn’t stand her ground, he’d bowl her over, and she couldn’t let him.

She should have scolded him for his arrogance, then stomped out, but he was very close, and she was flummoxed by his proximity.

There was a strange energy in the air, as if they were generating heat.  She didn’t like the sensation and recognized that she could tamp it out by stepping away, but she couldn’t make herself move.

“What is it you want of me?” she asked more plaintively than she’d intended.

“You know what I want.”

His lazy attention meandered down her torso.  He stopped at her breasts, at her belly, at the woman’s spot between her legs.  Then he wandered back to her mouth.

He actually looked as if he might kiss her, and though the prospect was ludicrous, she couldn’t get beyond the notion that he was contemplating it.  Pathetically, if he was suffering a burst of ardor, she did nothing to quell his enthusiasm.

She’d been kissed precisely one time—when Rosamunde’s love, Geoffrey, had groped her under the stairs—and she’d always wondered what it would be like to have it carried out by a man who knew how.  Lord Hugh oozed masculine vigor and definitely seemed as if he might be an expert.

He smiled at her, as he stroked his hand across her hair, following it down her shoulders and back.  As he approached her bottom, she squealed with outrage and lurched away, his smile altering to outright laughter.

“Are you a virgin, Lady Rosamunde?”

“A…what?” she gasped.  “How crass of you to inquire.”

“If I must marry, I aim to treat myself.  I’m a baron now, after all.  I can have whoever I want.  I needn’t settle for another man’s leavings.”

Anne’s cheeks turned such a brilliant red that she felt as if she might burst into flames.  “I suggest you take it up with my mother.”

“I will—if she makes an appearance before I grow tired of waiting for her.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, my lady, that I’ve decided to wed you.”

“Well, I have not decided to wed you¸ so I advise that you seek out a maiden who is amenable.  I shall never be.”

“Why is that?”

“You have to ask?  You murdered my father.”

“He was a traitor, tried and convicted by my king.”

“He was my father.”

Lord Hugh shrugged.  “I can’t change what happened to Ranulf, but by marrying you, I can protect you from some of the disaster.  Have you considered what will become of you and your family if you refuse me?”

“I’d rather live under a rock than have you as my husband.”  Her insult provoked more laughter.  “Besides, I told you I’m bound for the convent.  I shall marry my Lord, Jesus Christ.”

“I can’t allow it.”

“Why not?”

He studied her again, unnerving her with his salacious assessment.  He looked as if he might devour her, as if he’d set a trap and she’d fallen into it.

“It would be a sin to lock you away,” he claimed.  “I have to save you from yourself.”

“What?  You talk in riddles.  I have no idea what you’re saying.”

“How old are you?”

She almost gave her true age of twenty, then remembered she was supposed to be Rosamunde.

“Eighteen.”  The lies were coming so fast and so furiously that she’d have to spend a week in confession just to name them all.

“I can tell by the pink in your cheeks that you’re still a maiden.”

“And I can tell by your mentioning it again that you’re a complete ass.”

“We’ll get on fine.”  His gaze narrowed as if he saw traits in her that she didn’t see herself.

She shifted uncomfortably.  “We will not get on, as you so blithely put it.  If I have my way, we’ll never speak to each other again after this conversation is concluded.”

“We’ll wed on the morrow,” he abruptly informed her.

“We will not.”

“After the morning bells have chimed.  Then we’ll celebrate with whatever feast the servants can arrange on such short notice.  We’ll have the bedding in the afternoon.”  His lazy smile was back.  “I’ve been on the road for many months, so you should expect the event to last far into the night.  You’ll need to eat a hearty meal to keep up your strength.”

“Would you listen to me?”

“I never listen to women.”

“Try.  My mother is not here, and I hate you.”

“So?  What has your hatred to do with anything?  If you loathe me or love me, it matters not.  I’m doing you a favor.  You should be grateful.”

“A favor!”  She threw up her hands in disgust.  “Talking to you is like talking to a log.”

“That’s not the first time a female has said that to me.”

“I’m not surprised.”

“Women are frivolous beings, and I have no patience for their silly habits.  Stop complaining.  We’ll wed—as I’m certain your mother will agree is the appropriate course for you.”

“There is no priest to perform a ceremony.  Father Eustace has traveled with her.”

“One of my knights fancies himself as ordained.  We’ll use him.”

“We won’t,” she stubbornly replied.

“We will.”

Anne glared, engaging him in a staring match she couldn’t win, but she tried her best.  He was the most obstinate person she’d ever encountered.  Pity his poor bride.  She would have a life of misery.

He stepped to her, snaked an arm around her waist and pulled her near.  Though she pushed at his broad chest, she couldn’t create any space between them.

“You need a man in your bed,” he arrogantly contended, “like no woman I’ve ever met.”

“I do not.”

“You’ll be happier for it.  We’ll work off some of the piss and sass that drives your tongue.”

“I don’t even know what that means.”

“Yes, you do.”

“You’re insane.”

“I’ve never denied it.”

He released her as suddenly as he’d seized her, and as she struggled to right herself, he strolled to the door.

“Be ready in the morning,” he said, and it sounded like a threat.

“I won’t be.”

“We’ll see.”

He walked out, his forceful strides marching down the stairs.  He had a confident gait, a man sure of the world and his place in it.  She sneaked after him, hovering on the landing, eavesdropping as he reentered the great hall down below.

“Well?” his cousin, Henry, asked.

“Shackled by noon tomorrow.”

Male laugher and clapping drifted up.

“She’s a wild one, you lucky dog,” Henry said.

“She definitely is.”

“Be careful with her.  A brash girl like that might stab you in your sleep.”

“I’ll keep her flat on her back for months.  She’ll never have a moment to grab a knife.”

The male laughter became loud guffaws.

“What a disaster,” Anne murmured.

She crept away and rushed to find Rosamunde.

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