Her Lord and Protector – Excerpt

Her Lord and Protector

by Pam Roller

England, April 1667

From his vantage point on the hill facing Drayton castle, Alexander Fletcher scowled through the misty rain at the coach halting before his door. “She is here,” he said to the lanky rider beside him. “Would that I had declined the king’s request.”

“At least she will be silent,” his neighbor Robert Cooke said. “She’d make a perfect wife.”

“To anyone but me.” Alex shifted in the saddle to conceal a sudden, ridiculous loneliness that banded his chest. Crushing the feeling, he studied the prize sent to him by King Charles II, noting that she alighted from the coach with no companion. One pale hand at her throat clutched a cloak that covered her from head to knees. She paused, and her upper body bent and shook with what looked like a bout of coughing.

Even at this distance, Alex sensed her desperation. Useless sympathy sparked, and died, within him. “She looks sickly. Perhaps ’twas another reason fat Rochester made her cry off their betrothal after she became destitute.”

“Mmm. Ailing, poor, and mute.” Robert shook his head, causing the drop of rain on his hooked nose to fall. “And likely mindless from the fire. You have the luck.”

“’Twasn’t luck that brought her to my doorstep.” Alex didn’t explain further. Despite what her father had done, there was no cause to invite malice toward her from others. He watched his cousin Elizabeth appear at the door to greet the woman. “Forsooth, I will rid myself of her without delay.”

Robert glanced at him. “You will not act on the king’s suggestion?”

“No.”

“’Tis well you do not,” Robert said. “Taking a woman like that to wife—God knows she would cause you no end of trouble. And your pain over Mary’s death still runs deep.”

Alex was silent, his hands fisting around the slippery wet reins. Abruptly, he pivoted his horse toward the open fields. “Enough. We’ll check the north end for your runaway mare. But I will wager she has returned to her stall by now.” He pressed his heels to his horse’s flanks.

In seconds Robert’s mount galloped beside his. Alex stared straight ahead and allowed the wind to whip back the hood of his cloak and the rain to slap the bitter past from his thoughts.

****

Lady Katherine Seymour followed a servant across the withdrawing room while smoothing down her travel-worn dress. After making her wait an intolerable period of time—it was already one of the clock, more than an hour after her arrival—Lord Drayton had finally summoned her. In one damp hand, she clutched her slate.

The servant gave a tentative knock on the door.

“Come,” a deep voice spoke from within.

Katherine stepped into a dim, unadorned room, her startled gaze at once drawn to the striking profile of the man writing at a massive desk. She wondered that the slender white quill he held didn’t snap in two within his large hand.

“Sit.” Without glancing up, he flicked his free hand toward a wooden chair near his desk.

Despite his rude greeting, Katherine approached and sat, back straight and head high. She laid the slate in her lap and pulled the chalk from its holder, ready to answer his questions about her circumstances. How much information had the king given him?

She wanted no sympathy or pitying looks from this man. Only shelter and security. And to keep her pride. It was all she had left.

Pausing in his writing, he glanced at her from beneath furrowed brows. Briefly his features went slack. “You are the Lady Katherine?”

Katherine swallowed at the sudden dryness in her throat.

Blue eyes, lonely and steady and deep, engulfed her senses, emptied her lungs, made the chalk slick in her damp hand. An odd heaviness stirred within her. Stranger still was the sudden yearning that filled her, a desire to reach out to him.

At her hesitant nod, surprise—and something else she couldn’t identify—flickered in his eyes. For too long he stared at her while ink bloomed black on his paper from the tip of his quill.

Then, scowling, he returned his attention to his work.

Taken aback, Katherine glanced around the austere room, warmed by a crackling fire in the hearth. Candles atop the desk added more illumination, but heavy drapes over the windows shut out whatever light could be gleaned from the gray, rainy day outside.

While the scratch of his quill filled the room, she waited, holding herself erect, the chalk clutched in her fingers.

Where was the widower? This man’s intense concentration on the bookwork signified that he might be the steward, here to help with the ledgers. From the appearance of the papers piled in disarray on the desk and a nearby table, Lord Drayton needed help.

She fell to studying him, the way his dark blond hair fell in damp waves to his shoulders, the ends curling as they dried. An aquiline nose led to sensually curved lips over a strong cleft chin, on which a scar nestled within a light shadow of beard.

After a few moments, Katherine began to nibble at her lip in mounting perplexity. Did his confirmation of her identity sum up her introduction? Had she been dismissed?

She waited. He continued to write. Perhaps he wanted to complete a letter for her to read. It wouldn’t be the first time someone thought she was deaf as well as mute. She leaned forward slightly to see, but his arm, which looked strong enough to toss a horse into the air, blocked her view.

At length, Katherine released a thinly disguised, impatient breath. Indignant heat rose to her cheeks and a little knot of anger balled in her stomach. He was ignoring her!

No more.

Her chalk’s shrill screech could bring boisterous chatter in Whitehall’s banqueting room to an abrupt halt. Now, watching him with narrowed eyes, she set it to her slate and dragged it hard across the surface.

The man’s head jerked up and his shoulders hunched. Ah, now she had his attention, grimace and all. And she would keep it. With raised brows she wrote, And you are? She turned the slate for him to read.

A heartbeat passed. Two. Then, he locked crystal eyes with her. “I am Lord Drayton. Your guardian.”

Oh, mercy. The chalk slipped through Katherine’s numb fingers and dropped to the wood floor. With her defiant action, she had just compromised her chance to be sheltered, and the king would not likely attempt to help her again.

Even so, she held Lord Drayton’s gaze and fought to breathe. In turn, he scrutinized her as if searching her mind for some secret she might hold.

“You are trembling,” he said. “Have you a chill?”

No. Not a chill. The shiver was due to something else entirely, a restlessness that heightened all her senses. She shook her head—more in confusion over the new sensation than in answer to his question—and leaned forward to pick up her chalk.

“Wait.” He reached down, fetched the chalk, and held it out.

Careful not to touch his long fingers, Katherine took it, then wiped her slate clean with an attached cloth. When she began to scribble an apology for her discourtesy, he put up a hand. The hostile distrust in his eyes made her draw back in alarm and almost drop the chalk again.

“No games. I want the truth. Do you know why you are here?”

Through her bewilderment at his harsh tone, she tried to keep the chalk steady in her trembling fingers. The king wished to provide for me, she wrote.

The slight narrowing of his eyes indicated his disbelief. “I will make myself clear only once, Lady Katherine. Had I refused the king’s suggestion to send you here, he would not look favorably upon me. That is the sole reason you are in my home.” He leaned toward her and his voice slowed, but rose in volume. “Do you understand what I am saying?”

She drew back from him, frowning. Of course, she wrote. I am not an idiot. Nor deaf. She tapped an index finger on the last word for emphasis, wondering if Lord Drayton was aware of how stridently his voice had echoed in the bare-walled room.

Indeed, she would go deaf if he kept that up.

Contemplation passed over his features as he read. Then, his face became impassive, his voice low and cold. He stood. “Your opinion of yourself is of no concern to me.”

Katherine couldn’t voice her sharp retort regarding his disgraceful conduct, and writing it would diffuse her point into a petty, time-consuming reaction. Her head felt suddenly heavy and she lowered it, trying to will away the familiar weary despair. His statement summed up her existence since the fire that had raged through London and consumed everything dear to her, including her voice. No one cared to ask what she wanted. None of her opinions mattered.

She became aware that Lord Drayton’s snug rust-colored breeches, buttoned up his thighs, were directly in her line of vision. No fashionable loose petticoat breeches hid the powerful lines of his legs. In the midst of her stunned hurt at his discourtesy, Katherine felt heat blaze her cheeks.

Rising to her feet, she found her eyes level with his broad chest. She tilted back her head and ran her gaze to his face.

The man was a castle unto himself: tall, formidable, all hard lines and impenetrable fortitude. No one, to her memory, seemed packed with more strength. What was such a man doing out here in the countryside? He should be in London, where the women of the Court would drink him up like fine Madeira wine.

The rapid cadence of his pulse revealed itself on his neck above the unlaced collar of his white linen shirt. Warmth emanated from his body. Breathing him in, Katherine found his clean, masculine scent pleasing. Stirring.

She couldn’t pardon his insulting reception, however, and returned his scowl with a glare.

“I sympathize with your loss,” he said. “You’ve suffered a great deal.” He turned, and with a grace that belied his size, walked to the door. “Whatever the past, you are safe in my home, and may make yourself comfortable while you are here. I will find you a suitable husband who will treat you well. But try to understand, my lady, as soon as I make the arrangements, you will leave.” He opened the door.

It seemed he would waste no time in passing her off to someone else. Struggling for composure, Katherine remained rigid by her chair and waited for him to speak further.

Instead, he left the door open, returned to his desk, sat and picked up his quill.

His dismissal came without words.

****

God’s nails!

When the door clicked shut behind her, Alex dropped his sweat-dampened quill, slumped back in his chair, and let out a ragged breath.

Sweet heaven, she was beautiful.

Golden-brown hair. Small hands that gripped her slate against her slender body. A ramrod posture and proud tilt of her chin suggesting inner strength, which she had needed after losing everything in the fire.

Could she ever regain her voice? Had anyone tried to help her?

Her brown eyes, ablaze with vitality, had awakened something deep within him and stirred his heart into an unwelcome gallop. But those eyes revealed nothing about the knowledge of her circumstances.

Did she not know why she was here? Someone had to have informed her that Lady Castlemaine, the king’s jealous mistress, had plotted Katherine’s ruin upon discovery of Lord Seymour’s treason.

A pox on that. Alex wanted nothing to do with the scheme. Cromwell’s men had destroyed his family, but that was years ago and had nothing to do with these circumstances. He had no wish to ravage a dead spy’s daughter in the name of retribution. The very thought sickened him.

The door opened a crack. “My lord?”

Alex straightened in his chair, cleared his throat, and slid a ledger toward him. “I am working, Sam.”

Ignoring the obvious hint, his old manservant entered and sent a cursory grimace toward the unruly papers piled on Alex’s desk. “Well?”

“She is no softheaded mouse.”

“I took notice.” Sam leaned his gnarled hands on the back of the chair that Katherine had vacated. “What does she know?”

Alex sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. “She said—wrote—that the king sent her here to provide her a home. She is lying.”

“To protect herself, mayhap,” Sam said. “She doesn’t know you. But Lady Elizabeth might discover something if she befriends her.”

Alex shook his head. “I have said nothing of Katherine’s father’s treachery. I just want her out of here.”

Sam straightened. “’Tis almost mealtime. Shall I see to your dining clothes?”

“Do not bother. I will dine alone in the withdrawing room off my bedchamber.”

“Again? Even though you have a guest?”

Alex wouldn’t have tolerated the servant’s bold question from any other, but he owed his life to Samuel Peele. Even so, he bristled. “She is no guest. And tomorrow’s meal with the Cookes will garner enough socializing to last me through the rest of April.” He opened the ledger to another error-filled page, and muttered an oath. “Damnable steward. Should have killed him myself.” He heard the door shut as Sam departed, and paused in dipping his quill. His gaze slid to the chair Katherine had occupied.

Despite his attempt to remain unresponsive when she had leaned down to pick up the chalk, Alex had felt his face grow heated with the glimpse she unwittingly gave him of the creamy tops of her breasts. He’d no choice but to glare at her. It was the only way to hide his desire. And he would desire no one, least of all the daughter of a spy.

Hadn’t he promised himself? Had he not shut away his heart, created an iron wall around it to stave off the agony of loving a woman who seemed to hate him so much that she had taken her own life?

Impatiently he raised his fist and pounded once on his desk, sending his inkbottle into a drunken spiral that nearly spilled its black contents onto a stack of papers nearby.

He would never lose sight of the pact he had made with himself the night his insane wife died.

With grim finality, he shut away Katherine’s image from his mind. He grasped his quill, hunched over his ledger, and returned to his task.

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