Hello, lovely followers!

Spring has sprung, and Easter has come round again. And as always, the Crooked Cats are having a spring sale. You’ll find some excellent novels in their sale – some at 99p / 99c, and others for free! But only until tomorrow. So head over to your online Amazon store and search for ‘Crooked Cat’. You won’t regret it!

Dark Deceit is also in the mix, and it’s free! 🙂 So head over there now and grab your copy: http://mybook.to/Dark_Deceit

I’ll even give you a wee teaser to send you off to the Middle Ages. Imagine knights, castles, and orphaned heiresses during a time of great upheaval…

Also, make sure you sign up to my newsletter for news, giveaway, and more teasers! 😉 Here’s the latest.

Alleyne de Bellac leapt from the chair, sending it crashing onto the stone floor of the solar. With a flick of her wrist, she dropped her needlework into the basket at her side.

“And you are certain it is Father’s horse, Roger?” She adjusted her woollen gown as she addressed the grizzled steward of Bellac Manor. With her father, Lord Raymond, attending King Stephen, the inhabitants of the manor had a lax time, but that was about to change. Their lord was returning. Her heartbeat rose. How she had missed him!

She smiled, tucking a few strands of hair back inside her thick braid. She must look presentable so he would be proud of her. Where was Elvire when she needed her? Alleyne shook her head. Most likely, her maid was still in the village, taking food to the poorest families. She prayed she appeared as a knight’s only daughter should.

A glance at the steward’s face extinguished her smile. Roger nodded, his expression grave. “It is indeed, my lady. Ancel recognised your lord father’s stallion.” He shifted from one leg to another, his eyes studying the floor rushes.

Alleyne sighed and pulled the chair upright. She had known the old steward all her life and instinct told her that all was not well if he did not dare meet her gaze. She went to his side and placed a hand on his bony arm.

“So what is the matter?”

“Forgive me, my lady. But there is no sign of your lord father. Only his stallion, led by a stranger.” He kept his gaze lowered.

She swallowed hard. “Whose banner do they carry?”

“None, my lady. That raised my concern.”

“Let’s go and see for ourselves, shall we?” She grabbed his arm tightly and pulled him through the door.

Roger followed her down the stairs and through the deserted great hall. He reached past her and opened the solid doors to allow her through. Outside, Alleyne stopped on the bottom step, scanning the bailey. In a nearby corner, pigs and cows were tethered in a peg, ready for slaughter. Chickens roamed free, their wings flapping as they chased each other across the yard.

On the far side, women were beating clothes laid out over large boulders, trying to get the washed fabrics to dry in the chilly afternoon breeze. Alfred, the stable boy, gave her mare a brush outside the stable doors. The horse’s coat gleamed in the sunlight. Plumes of thick smoke escaped through the smithy’s open doors near the gatehouse. The shouting of men and laughter of the laundresses mingled with the banging of hammers on metal. Everything was as it should be.

Yet a sense of unease gripped her gut.

Turning her attention towards the gate, Alleyne stood as several men-at-arms raced up the stairs to the allure, the walkway that spanned the expanse of the wooden fence encircling the manor. The soldiers lined up against the wall, crossbows in hand.

The captain of the guard, hovering above the gatehouse, turned to meet her gaze. “My lady,” he called in greeting.

“Ancel, what is happening?” She raised her voice above the clamour.

“We don’t recognise the men, my lady. Strangers, all of them. We’re on guard, just in case.”

“But they have Father’s horse?”

“Aye, it seems so. Bear with me. They’re here.” He leaned over the fence and demanded the men outside the gate state their business.

Alleyne waited for a sign, hardly daring to breathe. She rubbed her arms, uncertain of whether it was the biting February winds that seeped through her thin linen sleeves or premonition. In her haste, she had forgotten to bring her cloak. ’Twas too late now.

Her heart plummeted at Ancel’s body language. His wariness changed to… surprise? Shock? At an abrupt signal from the captain, two guards threw open the gates. Three riders appeared through the gatehouse, one holding the reins of a warhorse.

Alleyne drew in a sharp breath. It was indeed Father’s. The distinctive white mark on the long, grey forehead and the saddle were proof enough. The noise subsided, a hushed silence settling over the manor.

As the strangers crossed the bailey, she studied them with a mixture of anxiety and suspicion. The first man, clad in black, had the bearings of a knight, but there was no coat of arms stitched on his surcote. The other two had the appearance of mercenaries, the expression on their weather-beaten faces grim. She exchanged an apprehensive glance with Roger.

“You see why I’m concerned, my lady.”

“Yes,” she agreed, cold fear gripping her heart. “It does not bode well.”

From the corner of her eye she noticed Ancel and his men on the allure had turned and now stood watching the horsemen, crossbows at the ready. Two of her guards came to stand nearby, hands on sword hilts.

Alleyne watched as the company rode towards her. The two men following the knight looked well prepared for any danger on the roads in their rough chain mail and padded gambesons, with sturdy swords at their side. Her gaze moved to the knight. He wore a pair of leather boots and a dark, thick woollen mantle, which had fallen open, revealing his unadorned surcote. Apart from his bearing, the one-and-a-half hander sword at his hip clearly marked him as nobility.

Seemingly oblivious to her scrutiny, the knight came to a halt in front of her and eased himself from the saddle. He handed his stallion’s reins to Alfred who had crept forward, his head held low. The knight then turned to take the reins of Lord Raymond’s warhorse and, speaking quietly to the boy, pressed them into his hands. The youth stared at the animal and nodded firmly before he turned towards the stable, gently pulling both horses behind him. The knight’s men dismounted and followed Alfred.

Alleyne took a deep breath and pushed her shoulders back, her heart racing. Something had happened to Father.

“Who are you, my lord?” she called out, trying to keep her voice steady. “And why have you my lord father’s stallion in your possession?”

The knight ruffled his thick black hair. She sensed his unease. He approached in tentative steps, as if preparing the right words to say. She took in the narrow, aquiline nose and thin, wide mouth. Light blue eyes met hers with a touch of arrogance. She stared back, not giving in to the sudden urge to lower her gaze. Blood pounded in her ears. Although he stopped at the bottom of the steps, he still towered above her.

“Geoffrey de Mortagne, under-sheriff of Gloucestershire.” He briefly inclined his head. “I assume you are the Lady Alleyne?”

She nodded, unable to speak.

“I bring sad news, my lady, about your lord father.”

(c) Cathie Dunn 2012

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