Celebrating the release today of A Common Enemy. An exciting medieval romance set during a fascinating time period. Originally released in paperback by My Weekly, it's now available on kindle for 99p.
Elizabeth’s riding habit tightened across her chest and she hastily pulled up her horse. A long bramble had snagged on the woollen fabric, once again she had drifted too close to the hedge. Pulling the thorny branch off, she sucked her finger as a bead of blood appeared. Jagged brown leaves drifted down from the trees above, casting moving shadows over the narrow lane. She urged the animal forward again.
The mare moved into a slow walk and Elizabeth patted its neck. if Will did not call a halt soon, she would. Thick, clay mud reached above the animal’s fetlocks and the horse trembled when a powerful blast of icy wind blew down the red scarf she wore as a hood. Reaching up to the soaked wool, she squeezed out a stream of red water, which stained the edges of Will’s fur cloak. She rubbed the mark surreptitiously.
Ahead, he reined in his horse and looked back. “We are almost here, Elizabeth!” He called cheerfully. He had tied his drenched hair back at the nape of his neck and the sleeves of his doublet clung heavily to his arms.
“Please take back your mantle,” she said.
He shook his head and grinned. “This is Shorecross weather.”
The path ended at the next corner and shielding her eyes from the rain, Elizabeth stared at a tall, grey stone curtain wall set with a black iron portcullis. Two men stood behind the gate with their pikes raised and she shrank back. She had expected a farm like her uncle’s, not a fortified manor house!
She glanced at Will. In truth, she hardly knew him. What if his intentions were not honourable?
Will swung down from his horse to approach the portcullis and her shoulders relaxed as the guards grinned, bowed and opened the gate. A loud clunk echoed down the lane, followed by a squeak and rattle as the heavy iron barrier rose into the air. Noticing sharp metal teeth along the base, she touched the back of her neck with a shiver.
“It is only locked while I was away from home,” Will said. “Shorecross is not a prison and you will be free to wander as you wish.” He put a hand on her bridle to steady her mare. “My sister and mother are expecting you. The messenger was instructed to say you were my new bride.”
She shivered again and looked away.
“Be not alarmed,” he said. “I do not wish to be wed either.”
“Will you tell your family of the plan?” she said.
He shook his head. “My mother is an honest woman and would not approve.”
“You imply I am not honest?”
“We are similar and lie when it is vital we do so.” He glanced into the trees behind her.
“Do you believe Edmund has followed us?”
“He knows where Shorecross is.”
A twig snapped in the bushes and she tensed. The gates to Shorecross looked more inviting now. Wrapping his reins around his hand, Will strode through the arch and Elizabeth trotted her mount after. She would not dismount until she knew it was safe.
Halting her horse in the courtyard, she breathed in the scent of roasting lamb and sage. It came from an outdoor kitchen—the open door revealing a brazier of leaping flames and a man lifting a rack of manchet bread from the oven on the wall. Her stomach rumbled; it had been a long time since lunch.
Behind the kitchen stretched the long front wall of the manor house, forming one side of the courtyard, which had been filled with stable blocks and a large well. The house had a large double door, left open, and small, leaded windows, which glowed under the pale autumn light like dozens of interested eyes.
“Let me take your reins,” Will said, striding towards her. She hesitated.
“Unless you would like to sleep in the stables?” he suggested. “I do not allow horses into the bed chambers.”
Looking behind her at the armed men, she gathered her reins into one hand and passed them to him. It would make no difference if she were mounted. An arrow could just as easily go through her back. She allowed him to help her down.
Footsteps thudded across the mud and she turned to see a man wearing the doublet and hose of an upper servant running towards them, then stopping to bow.
“I rejoice at your returned safe, my lord,” he said, glancing at Elizabeth. “The ladies are on their way down.”
Elizabeth straightened her hood and reached down to brush dust from her skirts. What would they think of her with a bruised face travelling without a woman companion? Her aunt would have called her a hussy.
Will stepped closer and whispered, “There is no need to look so pale. You will be made welcome.”
Two women came out the manor house and crossed the yard towards them. Although more than twenty years apart in age, they were dressed identically in dark, woollen gowns with plain linen coifs on their heads. Elizabeth’s gaze dropped to the younger girl and she drew a sharp breath, seeing the swollen stomach that pushed the woman’s dress high under her girdle. Raising her head again, she noticed the girl’s deep brown hair and wide chestnut eyes. She glanced at Will, then back at Joan to compare them. His sister had a more nervous smile.
“Remember they believe us to be in love,” Will murmured, speaking close to her ear.
“I am not sure I am sufficently good an actor.”
Elizabeth smiled as the two reached her, and dropped into a respectful curtsey.
“My son,” the older woman said.
“So formal, mother,” Will said, smiling. “Are you both well?”
“We are indeed, thank you. I received your letter.” She looked at Elizabeth. “My new daughter?”
“I am Elizabeth Farrell,” she said.
His mother’s grey hair had been tucked firmly under her head covering. The lines running down to her set, firm mouth deepened as she glanced at the servants who accompanied them.
"Where are your women, Mistress Farrell?”
“You may call her Elizabeth,” Will said. “And she has none. It does not matter, there has been no impropriety.”
“It is unusual to travel alone.”
“I did have companions, but we became separated,” Elizabeth said. If she was going to be here until spring, it would be good to start in the right way.
“Yes—they died, most tragic,” Will said.
His mother sighed. “Then I will arrange one of our maids to sleep in your room with you. I am Dowager Lady Downes, but you may call me Margaret, and this is my daughter, Joan.”
“Mistress Farrell,” Joan said, dipping her knee.
Elizabeth copied. “Delighted to meet you both.”
“And I am pleased to have a new companion,” Joan said, but she studied Elizabeth carefully.
“There’s a meal set out in the hall,” Margaret said. “Unless you would prefer to eat in the solar?”
Elizabeth breathed in the scent of roasting meat again. A quiet dinner would have been preferable, but it was important for the tenants and servants to know their master had returned.
“The hall would be agreeable,” she said.
“Come with me,” Joan said. “My brother will need to discuss estate business. The land obsesses him, but you have already noticed that.”
Elizabeth followed Joan across the muddy courtyard, shivering under the keen wind.
“Your decision to marry was very quick,” Joan said.
“Yes, it was.”
“I also had a short engagement.” She patted her stomach. “My husband is away at present.”
Elizabeth nodded. Did her new sister-in-law truly believe Edmund would return?