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The Knight's Return

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«The Knight's Return» - Джоанна Рок

In dire need of a protector and escort, Irish princess Sorcha has no choice but to allow mercenary Hugh de Montagne to fulfill the role. Having been duped into marriage, then exiled in disgrace, Sorcha trusts no man. Yet something about the brooding warrior makes her yearn for his touch. . . .At the king's behest, Hugh must thwart Sorcha's enemies at all costs. He has no intention of taking a wife, but every dayand every nighthe spends with the flamehaired princess leads him closer to temptation. . . .
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“Will you keep my secret?” He stood close to her in the darkness, the warmth of his body making her shiver.

“Will you keep my secret?” He stood close to her in the darkness, the warmth of his body making her shiver.

“Secrets are dangerous,” she warned him, wishing she had listened to that counsel when her old nursemaid had bestowed it upon her long ago.

“Aye. All my life is a secret to me and it puts me in danger every day.” The heat behind his words presented an illusion of truth. He spoke like a man tormented by demons of his own.

“I owe you for helping me rejoin the world today, if only for a few hours.” She had enjoyed the intense interest he seemed to take in her. “I will keep your secret until we meet again.”

“When will that be?” he prodded, seeking answers she did not have.

“You may return to the cottage in daylight, but let us not meet under the cover of night anymore.”

There was an intimacy about it. A sense that they shared more than secrets in the darkness….

The Knight’s Return

Harlequin®Historical

Praise for Joanne Rock

“Joanne Rock’s heroes capture and conquer in just one glance, one word, one touch. Irresistible!”

—USA TODAY bestselling author Julie Leto

A Knight Most Wicked

“Rock starts with an unusual setting—Bohemia—and makes it work. Her character-building skills give us a hero and heroine who are deeply emotional and engaging.”

—Romantic Times BOOKreviews

The Knight’s Courtship

“Joanne Rock’s historicals will sweep you away to a world so filled with passion and pageantry that you’ll never want to leave.”

—Romance Junkies

The Laird’s Lady

“Classic battle of wills plot, fiery repartee and feisty heroine.”

—Romantic Times BOOKreviews

The Knight’s Redemption

“A highly readable medieval romance with an entertaining touch of the paranormal.”

—Romantic Times BOOKreviews

The Wedding Knight

“The Wedding Knight is guaranteed to please! Joanne Rock brings a fresh, vibrant voice to this charming tale.”

—New York Times bestselling author Teresa Medeiros

Joanne Rock

The KNIGHT’SReturn



TORONTO • NEW YORK • LONDON

AMSTERDAM • PARIS • SYDNEY • HAMBURG

STOCKHOLM • ATHENS • TOKYO • MILAN • MADRID

PRAGUE • WARSAW • BUDAPEST • AUCKLAND

For Dean, who ensures there is never a dull moment…

Available from Harlequin®Historical and JOANNE ROCK

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The Betrothal #749

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My Lady’s Favor #758

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A Knight Most Wicked #890

The Knight’s Return #942

DON’T MISS THESE OTHER NOVELS AVAILABLE NOW:

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Dashing but cynical Quint Seavers is unaware that independent, practical Annie Gustavson holds a secret longtime love for him. As they live together in close proximity, their attraction becomes undeniable, and suddenly Quint knows that Annie is exactly what has been missing in his life—till now….

A bride worth waiting for…

#940 HIS RELUCTANT MISTRESS—Joanna Maitland

Renowned rake Leo Aikenhead rescues Sophie Pietre, the famous “Venetian Nightingale,” from an assault. Resilient and self-reliant, Sophie has never succumbed to a man’s desires before. But dangerously attractive Leo soon becomes the only man she would risk all her secrets for!

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Three gentlemen spies: bound by duty, undone by women!

#941 THE RAKE’S INHERITED COURTESAN—Ann Lethbridge

Daughter of a Parisian courtesan, Sylvia Boisette thirsts for respectability. But her new guardian—wealthy, conservative Christopher Evernden—finds himself on the brink of scandal, because his body cannot ignore Sylvia’s tempting sensuality….

Let Ann Lethbridge seduce your senses when her heroine becomes

Unlaced, Undressed, Undone!

Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Epilogue

Chapter One

North of London, 1169

Waking proved difficult when one’s eyes were stuck shut.

The dizzy-headed man stretched the muscles in his face from his position on the hard pallet. He willed his lids to open so that he might see the world about him. The scents that assailed him were at once familiar and strange. Sheep dung. Hay. The burnt remains of some poorly cooked meal. Likewise, the sounds did not provide any clues. He heard children shouting and laughing. A woman’s voice yelling. Animals braying, naying and snorting.

The effect was unpleasant and not what he was accustomed to. Or was it?

Worry crawled along his forehead as he struggled to envision a normal morning. A normal day? He was not sure of the time let alone the place.

“The border leaves this morn, Meg,” a man’s deep voice barked nearby. “His illness is a burden on this family that robs our own children of food.”

“Have you no Christian charity, husband?” The softly sweet feminine tones sounded almost musical in the cool room.

Was he the topic of discussion? It was no leap to guess his health was poor since he could not open his eyes. His body ached with weakness, his limbs too heavy to lift.

“You are not a lord’s wife, Meg. If you want this unconscious lump of humanity to have his fill of food and broth, take him to a family who can afford him. You ken? He leaves today or I bring him to the village square to be with the other half-wits unfit to feed themselves.”

Something stung inside him. His pride, he realized.

He was not a half-wit. Just a suffering man.

“But John, what if he is someone of consequence? Young Harold says he brought in a horse and he hardly looks like a stable boy…” The woman continued pleading with her husband but their conversation became muted as another voice sounded closer to his ear.

“You must leave if you do not want to become fodder for the village pigs next week,” a boy’s voice—close to his bedside—whispered.

With a last great effort, the man dragged open one eye and then the other.

He was in a small wooden cottage with a dirt floor and one large chamber. Animals walked as freely as the four humans in residence. Well, four discounting him. The man was not sure he felt quite human and the consensus seemed to put him well below both people and animals in importance.

A lad peered up at him in a small wooden cottage, his face covered in dust, his filthy hair matted against his cheeks. The eyes were lit with interest, however. As if pig fodder proved fascinating.

“My brother says that is what they do with half-wits if they provide no service,” the boy continued.

The man touched his temple and winced. The hair had been trimmed, his forehead sutured with neat stitches. He knew at once the sewing had been the work of the sweet-voiced woman. No doubt he owed his life to these strangers.

“What is your name?” the boy prodded, poking him in the shoulder.

His eyes fell shut again and he scarcely heard the conversation growing heated across the room. By the rood, he would get up and leave if he could.

“Don’t you even know your own name?” The boy sounded exasperated, his speech mirroring his father’s in cadence.

“Hugh.” The man answered without thought, but that lone name was all he managed. Now that it hung in the air between them, he wished to add something to it—to claim his family and legacy with some other title.

Hugh son of someone. Hugh of York. Hugh of the Black Garter. But he could not find any hint of a second name in the chaos of his foggy thoughts. His head felt scrubbed clean of the past, as if it had retained nothing prior to this moment.

Panicking, Hugh slapped the thighs of his hose and waist of his tunic, searching for personal belongings. There was no sword. No eating knife with a family crest that might help identify him. No leather pouch of belongings or some lady’s favor.

And why would a man wearing rough woolen hose and a worn cotton tunic be possessed of some lady’s token? The idea seemed incongruous and yet…

Who in Hades was he?

“I don’t mind you eating my gruel, Hugh.” The boy sniffed back a wet inhalation and scraped his sleeve across his face for good measure. “But me da says you must go because, even though you came into my master’s stables leading a horse, you might not be more than a common thief.”

“A horse?” Hugh wondered if he might have belongings stored with the beast’s saddle and bags, though he suspected not since the cottage’s inhabitants were ready to toss him into the streets. Surely if he had possessions to speak of, his hosts would have taken them in recompense for their trouble.

“Aye.”

“How long have I been here? Where did you find me?”

“You came into town on Monday and left your horse in the care of my da’s stable. Later that afternoon, we discovered you in a ditch beside the alehouse, your head split wide and bleeding like soup from an overturned pot.”

Hugh searched his memory for some recollection of the event. Was he a drunkard then?

“And what day is it now?”

“’Tis Wednesday.”

“Can you take me to the mount?”

The lad nodded. Across the cottage, the other family members seemed to have noticed he was awake and speaking. The woman hastened to his bedside while the man hung back.

“I will leave immediately,” Hugh called to the crofter, determined to figure out why his head ached like the bloody devil and his brain seemed blank as a newborn babe’s.

Both the man’s and the woman’s raised eyebrows demonstrated mutual surprise.

“You must not go—” the woman began.

“You owe my boy for the care of the horse.

Perhaps you could trade those shoes,” the husband suggested.

Sweet Jesu. Was this what his life had come down to? Selling his shoes to stable his mount?

Hugh had the feeling he had not been raised in this kind of struggling world, though perhaps he just wanted to cling to a pleasing vision on a hellish day. But Christ above. His leather boots were not the frayed scraps of cloth his host wore to protect his feet from random sheep dung lying about the cottage. Perhaps his gut instincts were not pure fancy after all.

“I am beholden to you and your whole family.” Hugh attempted an inclination of his head to show respect to these people living with their pigs, and immediately regretted it. “I will give the lad the shoes upon retrieving my mount.”

A scant while later, his body aching after following the boy through a narrow street past women doing their washing, Hugh realized suspicious eyes turned toward him from every direction. No doubt the inhabitants of this area had heard of his condition from their neighbor. He would invent a full name for himself to ensure his wits were not in question. He could pretend a sanity he did not feel. But he would not allow himself to be taken for a victim of mania. Or drunkenness, for that matter.

“Here,” the lad said finally, pointing the way to a stall hardly worthy to be called a stable.

Yet the mount was a warhorse of great breadth and strength. The saddle that hung from a nearby post bore no unusual markings, and there were no bags or bundles through which to search for clues to his name.

“Thank you,” Hugh said carefully, leaning forward to remove his shoes while the boy saddled the horse. Hugh’s head pounded with the small effort to unfasten the boots, but he struggled to hide his weakness in front of the villagers’ peering eyes. “I am grateful to you, son.”

“Thank you,” the boy returned, eyes shining with pleasure as he took the offering. “Good luck to you in Connacht, sir.”

The farewell made Hugh straighten. The sound of the name rang with the familiarity of an old friend’s face.

“Pardon?”

“That day you dropped off the mount, you said you were riding to Connacht on the morrow, but that was some days ago. Me da says that’s a town in Wales, but the blacksmith who lives yonder claims it’s a kingdom across the Irish Channel.”

Hugh knew with a certainty he could not explain that he had planned to attend to some affairs in the Irish petty kingdom. Though for what purpose, he had no memory. But it was more of a clue than he’d had so far about his purpose. His place in life. He would go to Ireland to retrieve his sanity.

“I make my way to the Ireland. Fare thee well, boy.” Hugh stepped lightly to his horse, avoiding the filth in the road before he raised himself up on the mount’s back.

He did not know his own name, but he knew with a bone-deep certainty he could make his way to Ireland by his wits if nothing else. A fierceness roared within him.

He would discover his name. His legacy.

But first he needed to discover why the mention of a far-flung Irish kingdom sent the first tremor of recognition through his addled brain. He knew absolutely that some great task awaited him in Connacht. A matter that needed tending to with all haste.

A mission he might already be too late to accomplish.

Connacht, Ireland

Two months later

Sorcha ingen Con Connacht felt the presence of a stranger before she heard his footsteps in nearby woods.

Stilling herself, she reached for her dagger with one hand and hugged her young son closer with the other. No one walked the paths near Sorcha’s home. All of Connacht knew her shame.

Being banished from her father’s small Irish kingdom had put her into exile for over a year now, and the isolation in a remote stretch of forest made her senses keen to the presence of another soul. She could feel a change in the air when anyone neared—even when a maid from the keep delivered food stores or a villager traded meat for clothing from Sorcha’s loom. But when an approaching stranger was male, her senses sharpened all the more acutely.

Sharpened with the undeniably primal instincts of a mother protecting her babe.

Every day she half expected her father’s guard to arrive to take her son away and deposit her in a convent. Her father had threatened as much by summer’s end. But surely her father’s knights would not arrive quietly. They would storm through the forest with a full contingent to seize her.

“Who goes there?” she shouted into the trees in a harsh voice, determined her son would come to no harm even though they were vulnerable here—far removed from her father’s lofty keep on the coast. “My sire is lord of these lands and will allow no harm done to his heir.”

Her boy, Conn, squealed in response to her raised voice from his seat upon her hip. She hushed him softly while concealing her dagger up her sleeve. Should she run? Or did that invite some thief to give chase?

She cradled Conn tighter, squeezing the weight of his year-old body closer. He squirmed now, his hand gripping a hank of her hair and pulling hard.

“I seek the lord of these lands, lady, and I mean you no harm.” A masculine voice preceded the trespasser from the other side of a small clearing at the base of the mountains that protected the headlands of Connacht.

Sorcha roamed the mountainside daily since she’d been confined to an outpost at the edge of her father’s lands, the hills and valleys her refuge from the world’s disdain.

She’d always felt safe here, even if she was scorned. Now she couldn’t help but recall the warnings she’d received from her father’s keep that war might come to Connacht at any time. She walked steadily backward as she watched the man emerge from the trees.

And if the resonant thrum of masculine tones had been impressive, his size was twice as daunting.

The stranger was easily the largest man she’d ever seen. Thick-chested and girded by muscles that could only be honed for sword fighting, the traveler had to be a warrior even if he rode no horse and brandished no sword. Squinting through the late-afternoon sunlight, Sorcha struggled for a better look, only to feel faint as his features came into clearer view.

“For the love of Our Blessed Lady.” Her grip on her child slipped, the boy’s chubby fists shoving her mercilessly in an effort to walk on his own. She had no choice but to put him down if she wanted to maintain her grip on her weapon, so she tucked him behind her skirts.

She straightened, not believing her eyes. Did the dead return to walk among the living? She tucked the knife closer to her body, wishing the point did not scrape open her finger as she held it in place. Still, if the stranger stalked any closer, she would be glad to have the blade within easy reach.

“My lady?” The man paused, as if attempting to prove his claim he meant no harm.

Did he realize how much harm he caused with no more than his starkly featured countenance?

Dark hair streamed down his back, glistening in the sunlight as if he had just rinsed it clean in some fast-running spring brook. His gaze took on a curious gleam, although she could envision those dark, gold-flecked eyes turned to her in anger.

Or in passion…

Heaven help her, but did she have to be reminded of her sins at every turn?

“What business do you have with the lord of this place, sir?” Her words were raw in her throat, stripped of any soft courtesy.

A tremble tripped through her skin, followed by a tangle of emotions in her belly that seemed too convoluted to sort through now.

“Your expression makes me wonder if we have met, my lady.” The stranger did not incline his head like a courtier. He only continued to stare at her with an attention all the more rapt since she began her careful perusal.

And yet, this was not her former lover. She could see the differences in this man’s face now that he’d moved closer and the sunlight no longer played tricks with her vision.

Still…the trespasser’s resemblance to the father of her son was remarkable. Suspect.

“We are unknown to each other, sir. Pray excuse my surprise at seeing you here when I am accustomed to privacy upon this side of the mountain.” Wanting to escape him and flee the quiet glade where no one would hear her if she cried out, Sorcha bent to retrieve the blanket she’d brought along with the basket she’d used to gather flowers. “Conn, we must go, my love.”

While smiling reassuringly at her son, she never took her eyes off the man, watching his hands for any sign of movement toward his weapon. Cursing her father for consigning her to this godforsaken borderland, Sorcha would never feel safe in these woods again—not when Conn’s life depended on her. Keeping her boy secure was the only benefit of allowing her father to dispatch her to the convent. The king would protect his grandson. She would merely have to relinquish all contact with her child and trade the rest of her days to give Conn a future.

For now, she tried to keep her movements unhurried despite the maelstrom of memories, emotions and questions that attacked her from all sides. Not even the scent of spring flowers all around her could cover up the stench of her fear.

“Pray do not let me disturb you.” The man held up a hand in a show of surrender, keeping his distance from her and Conn. “I have journeyed far to see your sire and I would not let anything delay me from the task.”

“You would make better time on a horse, warrior.” Could he be a spy for the invading armies, surveying the lands before others arrived? She could not understand his alliance or his possible purpose here.

The man lacked the accoutrements she associated with a knight. He wore no sword, although a dagger gleamed from its sheathe at his waist. His garb bore no hint of family or heraldry, which she supposed was not strange for a mercenary, and yet his clothes had almost too humble an air for a man of such imposing stature and breadth. Still, given his resemblance to her onetime lover, she half expected to see the du Bois crest upon his person—the white stag rampant upon a blue field.

“I was set upon by thieves some leagues hence,” he explained, locking his hands behind his back as if to reinforce his message that he meant no harm. Unfortunately, Sorcha was well acquainted with men who were not at all what they seemed. “Their numbers were too many to defeat for a lone knight.”

“Thieves?”

He shrugged as if the loss of his horse and weaponry were no great offense, when she knew some knights owned nothing in the world save their armor and their mount. Had he made up the story about the thieves to explain away his presence here? Had his family sent him to find her? Curiosity grew, but she tempered it with wariness.

“I thought to offer your father my services in cleaning out the lot of them if he can provide me with a horse. Nothing would please me more than to rescue my own mount with the blood of his captors.” He inclined his head again, strangely polite for a mercenary, especially one with Norman forebears. “Begging your pardon for the threat, my lady.”

Something tugged at her hand and she nearly lost her grip on the knife up her sleeve as Conn tried to get her attention. Heart squeezing with a trickle of fear that the stranger might perceive the flash of a blade as a threat, Sorcha gave herself another cut as she shoved the blade back in place.

“My father is wily with horseflesh, sir.” She spoke quickly to deflect the man’s attention from the way she hitched at her sleeve. “So be careful to look upon the mount he provides. But I have no doubt he will gladly make such an exchange.” The lord of Tir’a Brahui had ascended to the throne with as much cunning as might, and while Sorcha did not appreciate his treatment of her, she could not deny her father the respect that was his due.

She could, however, torment him gently through this unseated warrior by encouraging the man to barter. The thought made her smile right through the strain of this odd conversation with a total stranger.

The sun slipped lower on the horizon, causing the man to shield his eyes.

“Might I know your name so that when I speak to your father I may tell him we have met?” He stood bathed in sunlight, his rough-hewn garments taking on a golden sheen as he studied her.

And once again there loomed a flash of recognition, a sense that she had once known him…Perhaps it was a good thing her knife was not more accessible.

“I am Sorcha.” She owned her identity with pride despite her father’s desire to make her regret all that she was. “And I assure you that your bargaining will prove more favorable if you do not mention my name to my sire. Fare thee well, sir.”

Turning, she kept the knife tucked up her sleeve. She wanted to put distance between her and the source of her muddled feelings—fear and resentment at his intrusion on her privacy, worry that he was some relative of her former lover. She recoiled at the thought. Her exile gave her far too much time to mull over past mistakes and fret for her son’s future. She didn’t need any more worries. There was no choice but to forget she’d ever met this dark-eyed stranger.

“You do not wish to know my name in return?” the stranger called to her.

“We will not meet again,” she returned without looking back, holding Conn’s hand with her free palm.

“Sorcha?”

Sighing, she paused. Turned.

“Aye?”

“You must hold the blade at your side. Within the folds of your skirts.”

“I beg your—”

She stopped when his gaze slid unerringly down her body toward the hand concealing her weapon.

“Your hold is too awkward to be unnoticeable. Whereas if you grip the handle in your palm, you are more comfortable and in more of a position to use it quickly. For instance, if I came at you now—”

He stepped forward.

“Do not.” She pulled Conn behind her again. Shaking her arm, she slid the blade free of her sleeve so she could use it if necessary.

By God, she would let no man touch her son. Not even one who looked strangely like the boy’s father.

“I only meant to suggest you could not react quickly enough with a dagger inside your sleeve.” He halted his progress, although she guessed he felt little threat from her blade. “I will pray you never have need of your weapon, but if you are inclined to use it, you would do well to draw blood from the enemy and not from your forearm. Godspeed, Sorcha.”

The mercenary spun on his heel, a crude excuse for a shoe covering his foot in straw and linen as he walked away. Was he a desperately poor knight? A common thief playing games with her? She could not imagine how a commoner could have taught himself such a pretty accent, but perhaps that was no more strange than a horseless English knight strolling through her father’s kingdom on shoes of straw.

Either way, she was well rid of his company and she would be more careful in the future. Hadn’t she heard the foreign wars would find their way to Connacht before long? And how sad that she feared the idea of foreign invaders less than another, more personal threat against her.

Her son.

Plucking up Conn in her arms, she ran home with all haste, grateful for another day of freedom from the convent to be with her child.

.

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