“I seek a bride, the wealthiest heiress in Ireland.”
No woman can resist the charms of Rowan de Montvieux. But the dashing rogue is in no hurry to marry—until his family dares him to find a bride…or risk losing his inheritance. So Rowan sets out on a Bride Quest, vowing to wed only The Heiress.
But his journey is interrupted when a slave merchant offers to sell him a ragged peasant girl who carries herself like a queen. Intrigued and never imagining she is the sought-after Bronwyn of Ballyroyal, an heiress in disguise, Rowan buys her, offering her his protection if she will lead him to the bride he seeks.
Never has he met a woman so proud, so beautiful, so defiant. He suspects she is no commoner and vows to uncover her secrets and melt her fiery resolve. But the perilous voyage to Ireland kindles passions that risk both their lives, as the slave girl who would not be mastered slowly takes possession of his wary heart.
“This twelfth century romance is as good as they come!”
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An excerpt from The Heiress:
London – July 1172
Rowan de Montvieux was in a foul mood.
Not only had he been ill beyond belief on the journey from LeHavre, but he was not where he had intended to be. Indeed, the last Rowan had heard, the Thames was not in Ireland.
Which meant that he must endure another sea voyage, no doubt even less pleasant than this last, and that he must do so immediately in order to win the challenge he had accepted from his brothers.
Nay, he was not in a fine mood. He strode through the tangle of merchants on the docks, retrieving his horse and finding his squire Thomas with no small effort. They badgered him from every side, these hagglers with their shoddy goods, and he braced himself against thieves in the crowd. He deigned to purchase a pair of meat pies from one merchant who looked more reputable than most, the welcome weight in his belly making him yearn for something more.
He had need of a measure of ale. Aye, then some song, and a solid measure of the sorry excuse for food in this country warm in his belly. Then blissful sleep. That would restore his interest in bucking his brothers’ expectations. Rowan loved a challenge – at least when he was feeling hale – and the more desperate the stakes, the better.
An Irish heiress, for the love of God. What had possessed him to take such a dare? On a morn like this, with the taste of his own bile ripe in his throat, Rowan doubted he could charm even the most ancient and desperate crone alive.
Or that he wanted to.
“Oho! A fine knight just into port!” cried a slavemonger. The man was unshaven and unkempt, his dark hair hanging in his eyes and more than one tooth missing from his mouth. “I have just the wench for you, sir, and she is a bargain on this day of days.” He leaned closer to whisper, his breath even more foul than Rowan’s own. “I shall make you a special deal, sir, on account of your knightly status and recent arrival.”
Rowan growled a dismissal and made to push past the man, his gaze drifting disinterestedly to the woman in question.
And then he stopped to stare.
‘Twas not the bright red gold of her hair that captured his attention, nor even that her tresses were cropped short. ‘Twas not the deep hue of her tan, nor even how that tan made her eyes appear ethereally blue. ‘Twas not the ripeness of her breasts fairly spilling from her chemise, not even that she wore a boy’s chausses which hid none of her copious charms.
Nay, ’twas that she feigned insouciance nearly as well as he.
“She is not much of a lay, if that is what you seek,” the seller confided in an undertone. He leaned closer to whisper. “Indeed, a corpse might serve a man better.”
The woman did not even blink. Her stance remained unchanged, her arms folded across her chest, her bare feet braced against the ground. She was nearly as filthy as her owner, a rough length of rope knotted around her neck and tethering her to that man.
Rowan swallowed as he noted the mark of a chafe there. “Indeed,” he said mildly. “I would have naught with which to compare.” The man looked quizzically at him and Rowan lifted his brows. “Having never been intimate with a corpse.” His squire chuckled at the jest, but the woman’s steady stare did not waver.
The would-be seller, though, grimaced and turned away, muttering something uncomplimentary under his breath and giving the woman’s rope a savage tug. She made no protest, obviously accustomed to his abuse, and strolled behind him with her head as high as a queen’s. Rowan could not help but watch them go.
He imagined the man taking his pleasure with this woman, his sweaty bulk heaving atop her as she stared fixedly at the rafters. His stomach rolled mutinously and Rowan felt ill again, though his boots were on dry land.
“How much?” he called impulsively.
“Three silver deniers,” the man cried, spinning to jab a finger at Rowan. “Two for you!”
“Outrageous,” murmured Thomas.
‘Twas a shocking price but Rowan found himself digging for the coins. “My mother will be proud of me,” he muttered. He fired a glance at Thomas. “Be sure to tell her of this. I may well be in need of her favor.”
Thomas nodded. A mere heartbeat later, Rowan’s purse was lighter and he held the end of the distasteful rope in his hand. The seller marched away, whistling.
But the woman surveyed him with the same cold manner. If Rowan had thought she might thank him for winning her release from that creature, he was clearly mistaken.
And that irked him. He had just bought a slave, for no good reason, a slave he did not want, expending coin he would have preferred to keep or at least spend on some amusement.
She could at least appreciate the gesture!
“For a smile and a word of thanks, I would release you,” he offered pointedly and her gaze flicked over him.
“Gratitude for paying him for his crimes?” she asked. “You will not have that from me, nor a smile.”
“A smile would cost you naught.”
“‘Twould cost me that very freedom you promise,” she retorted drily. Her eyes narrowed. “Or have you not noted the fine company we keep?”
‘Twas true enough that the docks were swarming with unsavory characters, more than one of whom making a thorough study of what filled her chausses.
“‘Tis your own fault for wearing such garb,” Rowan felt compelled to observe.
The hint of a smile crossed her lips. “The embroidery on each and every one of my kirtles is being mended.”
Thomas laughed, then looked to Rowan and stifled himself with difficulty. Rowan fixed the woman with a dark glance, not liking that she made the jests instead of he.
His look did not seem to trouble her in the least, which was doubly vexing.
“At some point,” he said sternly, “you donned that garb of your own choice.”
Now she did smile, although the expression was more sad than might have been expected. “‘Twas a whimsy of long ago and far away.”
“Why?” Rowan repeated, determined to have one answer from her.
Her smile disappeared. “I thought to disguise myself as a boy.”
“You? A boy?” Rowan laughed. He could have done naught else. “A man would have to be blind to doubt your gender!”
The woman glared at him and Rowan felt a measure of pride for stirring some response from her. “I thank you for observing my foolishness. I might have doubted it otherwise, given my current exalted status.”
Thomas snickered even as Rowan’s smile was snatched away.
“‘Tis the mark of maidens in a convent to imagine that they can deceive the world, simply by donning boy’s chausses and cropping their hair…” Rowan’s voice faded as he stared at her in sudden comprehension. “You speak too well to have been raised in a gutter. Who are you?”
The woman’s eyes flashed so quickly that Rowan almost missed the telltale sign that he had found a truth. “I am no one,” she declared.
“You have studied in a convent,” Rowan insisted.
“I labored in one,” she corrected hastily, though Rowan guessed that was a lie. She shrugged, her composure in place once more. “Until I ran away.”
“Shunning the compassion and care of the nuns for the charms of that one.” Rowan jerked a thumb in the direction her former owner had taken.
“I did not expect…” she began hotly, then caught herself and said no more. She folded her arms across her chest again and glared at Rowan.
“You made a mistake,” he acknowledged softly. “And I think you have already paid for it. Pledge to me that you will not flee and I will remove the rope.”
“So much for your fine offer.” She turned to Thomas. “Are your knight’s words worth so little as that?”
Before Thomas could answer, Rowan clarified the matter. “I offered an exchange, but I have yet to have thanks and a smile.”
Her full lips tightened. “Do not hold your breath.”
“Then ’twill be a year and a day of labor from you,” Rowan declared as though he made such arrangements all the time, “for I must have something from my coin.”
In truth, he could not have cared less for the coin, but he would not give her the satisfaction of knowing she intrigued him.
She visibly gritted her teeth. “I shall not labor on my back.”
“I would not expect you to.”
“Nay?” Her skepticism was more than a little grating and Rowan had the urge to provoke a response from her.
“Nay,” he retorted. “I like my women lean and lithe.”
Her eyes flashed dangerously and Rowan darted backward, not the least bit certain that she would not strike him. Instead she loosed a string of Gaelic so potent that it needed no translation. He knew she could not have learned that in a convent.
Rowan grinned at her. “Your pledge, ma demoiselle?”
“If you touch me, I shall flee.”
She considered him for a telling moment, her eyes no more than blue slits. “Then I swear it to you,” she said finally, her reluctance to accept his very generous offer more than obvious.
Rowan unknotted the rope, catching his breath when he realized the chafing was more extensive than he had guessed. “This must hurt,” he murmured, deliberately being gentle.
She averted her gaze. “One can accustom oneself to anything.” She was cold and composed again, though Rowan yearned for another glimpse of that spark in her eyes.
“Have you a name?”
Her gaze flicked to his and away. “Ibernia.”
“A lie,” Rowan concluded with a smile of appreciation for her quick wits. It meant literally from Ireland, something he would guess to be true judging by her earlier spate of Gaelic. “But ’twill do. And if you truly are of Ireland, then you can be of aid to me without rolling to your back.”
“How?” Her suspicion could have been construed as an insult by one more sensitive than Rowan.
“I seek a bride, the most wealthy heiress in Ireland.” He grimaced comically. “Sadly, I do not know her name.”
“You seek a bride for her wealth alone?” she demanded with one fair brow arched high. “How very romantic.”
Thomas – curse him! – chuckled again.
Rowan folded his arms across his chest, his good humor dispelled. “I seek her to answer a challenge from my brothers.” Her curiosity was undisguised, so he elaborated. “I have been challenged to a bride quest, to find the most wealthy heiress in all of Ireland and make her my bride.” He paused, looking the woman dead in the eye. “‘Tis a challenge I intend to win.”
“My lord does love a dare,” Thomas interjected.
“Oh, I should like to see you lose,” Ibernia murmured with unexpected heat, “for you are too confident by far.”
Rowan grinned that she once again revealed her thoughts. “Indeed, the near certitude of failure is what made me risk this quest.”
Ibernia blinked. “Truly?”
“Truly.” He spared her his best smile, to no discernible effect.
She straightened, a daring glint in her eyes that made Rowan’s pulse quicken. “Then you will be delighted to know that the wealthiest heiress in all of Ireland is one Bronwyn of Ballyroyal.”
“Why should that delight me?”
Ibernia smiled fully then. The result was so fetching that Rowan nearly lost the thread of their conversation, and he considered the challenge of winning this woman’s favor.
There would be high stakes of failure!
“Because she will not have you,” Ibernia declared with resolve. “There is no doubt of the matter.”
Rowan would not take that to heart so readily. He leaned closer and winked, well aware of his own good looks. “Because she likes her men less handsome? Less charming? Less amusing?”
Ibernia snorted with unwilling laughter, then lifted one hand to her lips to halt the sound. “Because she is already betrothed,” she said with satisfaction.
“Perfect!” Rowan cried, laughing at his companion’s startled expression. He gripped her waist and swung her into the air. “‘Tis hopeless! We shall proceed to Ballyroyal at once.” He set Ibernia on her feet and touched one fingertip to her nose. “And you, my lovely demoiselle, shall guide us directly there.”
She shook her head, clearly marvelling at his response. “You are mad.”
“But oh, so roguishly handsome,” Rowan retorted, taking advantage of her surprise to quickly kiss the tip of her nose.
Ibernia darted away, scrubbing at her nose with her hand, her expression wary. There was a glint in her eyes, though, that had not been there before. Rowan knew enough of women to not be fooled.
“You have granted me license to flee,” she reminded him.
Rowan’s surety wavered for only a moment before he recalled her own comment about their surroundings.
He smiled and gestured to the unsavory characters surrounding them. “Indeed, you are free to do so.” He bowed when she hesitated. “Although I should be honored to accompany you to Ballyroyal.”
She folded her arms across her chest, pushing her fine breasts to prominence. Contrary to his own claim, Rowan admired the view, less inclined to lithe and lean women as each moment passed. “How very gallant,” she commented drily, “to see my ends served to fit your own.”
Rowan grinned, liking her quick wits very well. “And your choice?”
“I will accept your companionship,” she said so regally that a blind man might have been convinced she had alternative options. Nay, this one was bred in no gutter, Rowan knew it well. “If only to witness your failure.”
“Do not be so certain of it as that,” Thomas counselled in an undertone. “Matters have a way of turning unexpectedly in this knight’s presence.”
“Aye,” Rowan agreed with a wicked wink. “By the end of this, even you will not be able to resist me.”
That made Ibernia laugh outright for the very time. There was a kind of satisfaction to be had in seeing her so surprised. Indeed, Rowan guessed that this year and a day might provide a very interesting pursuit, one beyond his brother’s quest.
He liked the sense of Chance mounting against him. Rowan would woo this Bronwyn of Ballyroyal to be his bride and he would seduce Ibernia before they parted ways. And there, Rowan knew well enough, would lay the greater challenge of all his days.
He could hardly wait to begin.
Excerpt from The Heiress ©1999 Claire Delacroix, Inc.