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Never If Not Now
A Midsummer Knights Romance: A Tournament World of Chivalry, Intrigue, and Passion
(This is a long novella, about half as long as one of my novels)
Summer, 1193. England is in turmoil, and a great tournament is scheduled near the border of Scotland and England. The greatest knights and lords from England, Scotland, Ireland, and France have gathered to compete for a great prize. There will be celebrations and jousts and feasting. It will be an exhibition of chivalry and warrior skills, a breeding ground for treason…and for love.
They call him The Devil’s Blade and say that the fires of hell burn in him when he wields his sword.
It might be midsummer when Zander arrives at the tournament, but there is winter in his soul. Battle-hardened and war-weary, he intends to amass spoils, win the champion’s prize, and find a wealthy wife. Then he discovers that Elinor of York has accompanied her father to the tourney. He desired her as a youth, and soon learns that he still does. But whatever he will ever have of her will have to be seized in secret, before the tournament ends.
Elinor was born a lady, but the last years have impoverished her. She now sews for coin, and takes care of her lame, aging father, a knight who blames Zander for his diminished fortunes and health. She should ignore the handsome knight whom she teased when they were young, but his magnetism draws her closer. He is not for her—he is her father’s enemy and she has no dowry. Yet he evokes sweet memories, deep emotions, and a heart-wrenching dilemma— Can she keep her father from issuing the challenge that will leave one of the men she loves dead?
Other books in the series:
(The series does not have any designated reading order.)
Forbidden Warrior by Kris Kennedy
An Irish warrior takes an arrogant heiress captive to ensure a debt is paid.
The Highlander’s Lady Knight by Madeline Martin
She wants to save her honor. He wants to save his people. Can their love do both?
The Highlander’s Dare by Eliza Knight
When a simple dare leads to the most enduring love…
The Highland Knight’s Revenge by Lori Ann Bailey
A Scottish warrior wronged… An English woman on the verge of attaining freedom…
My Victorious Knight by Laurel O’Donnell
She desired only one kiss, but what she received was so much more!
An Outlaw’s Honor by Terri Brisbin
When the only man she can trust is known for his dishonorable past, what could go wrong?
Elinor threw open her chest. She held up a blue dress and considered whether she could improve it before the grand feast when the tournament ended. A bit of embroidery inside the long open sleeves might help, and some new lacing on the side, but nothing could mask that the lightweight wool had been well worn over the years.
One by one she checked the contents of the other chests. She removed a crucifix and set it near father’s pallet. An old little painting of the Virgin Mary, brought back from Crusade by her father, went near her own. She set out pots near the tent’s flap, so they would be handy for cooking, along with a basket for gathering fuel and also some bladders to collect water from the river.
She removed a simple surcoat from her father’s garments and set it aside for mending. When she lifted the lid on the final chest, her blood chilled.
She let the lid crash closed, turned on her heel, and strode from the tent. She spied her father talking to another knight at a camp nearby. He saw her coming, and strode forward to meet her.
“You’ve got the look of an angel preparing to fight the devil.” He spoke jovially as he approached, his strides long but his gait stilted due to his bad leg.
“Devil is the truth of it, since one has taken hold of you,” she said. “What possessed you to bring your arms?”
“’Tis a tournament, Elinor.”
“I know what it is, just as I know the cost of coming here. When I objected to this journey, you promised feasts and festivities. You did not say that you intended to compete.”
“No reason for a knight to go to a tourney and not compete.”
Her thinking exactly, and her argument for not coming.
“You are thinking about this bad leg. It doesn’t bother me much, and I won’t be running a race.”
No, he’d be fighting with sword and mace against men half his age, none with a limp, or eyes that could no longer read their own names.
Even if her father had not been wounded in battle, even if he had not had his health ruined by months in a damp Frankish donjon, his age alone argued against competing. At two and forty, his strength and stamina had naturally declined.
“You have no horse,” she reminded him.
“I intend to get one.”
“How? We have very little coin. Barely enough for provisions, especially since everything will be priced too high so the townsmen can pluck the fat chickens that have taken to roost in their field.”
“Don’t you worry about how. I won’t be using the coin you have, either.”
“No, you won’t.” She had accumulated that money by working as a servant, plying her needle for others. They had travelled here with two other knights, both of whom would wear surcoats in the tournament that she had sewn.
At least she had a skill to sell. It had kept them in food and some semblance of honor. It would serve her after her father died, so she would not be destitute. She tried not to be bitter, but she heartily wished her father had not answered the call to defend the Holy Land. Some men made fortunes on Crusade. Others, like Hugo of York, came back to a life diminished beyond recognition.
The world of the tournament had enlivened her father’s mood, at least. He now grinned at her. “Once I win a few challenges, there’ll be enough money so you don’t have to sew again. There will be fat ransoms for the arms and horses I take as the winner in my jousts, enough to live well and make a dowry.”
She didn’t know whether to laugh, scream or cry. She walked away quickly, so he would not see that the last reaction had won. The mention of a dowry had undone her, and she plunged into their tent.
As the flap fell behind her, she halted in her tracks. The tent had an occupant. A man had entered uninvited. She wiped her tears so she could confront him as a knight’s daughter, and not a weeping child.
He stood near her pallet, his back to her. He seemed to be studying something. He was a knight, from the look of his fine green tunic and the breadth of his shoulders.. Tall and strong, and still lean in the way that spoke of youth. A knight in his prime. The kind of warrior who would either hurt or humiliate her father in the days ahead.
“Are you looking for Sir Hugo? He is not fifty paces from here. I should tell you that he will accept no challenges today.” Or tomorrow, if she had her way. Or the next day.
“I am not seeking him. I was looking for you, Elinor.”
Shock froze her. She knew that voice.
He turned. She just stared.
Memories flew through her mind. Wonderful ones, of girlish joy and childish games. The man in front of her had little left in him of the squire she had once known. The wiry strength had turned hard during their five years apart, and the beautiful face had found angles with maturity. The eyes had not changed at all, though. Blue and fiery. Stars few out of them when he was happy, and flames when he was not.
“Zander,” she breathed the word more than spoke it. She stood immobilized, while she relived another life.
Her past had found her at this stupid tournament, making her present all the more sad.
“I am not called that anymore,” he said while he watched her reaction. He did not expect a good welcome, but the sight of her brought him joy anyway. A lightness entered his soul while it briefly tasted the innocence of those days again, back when he truly believed in knightly honor and goodness and fighting for just causes. He ignored the soulful pain the nostalgia carried.
“I will try to remember that, Sir Alexander.”
He made a face. “That sounds strange coming from you. I think I prefer Zander from your lips.”
She came farther into the tent, and noticed that he held the little picture of the Virgin. “It was all he brought back with him,” she said. “He said the Frankish lord who held him let him keep it, since it was religious.”
“Religion was all we had in common with some of the other crusaders.” He set the wooden painting back on the ground near the pallet, where he had found it.
“You should leave. Before he returns, you must go.”
“I have heard that he blames me. Do you?”
“I blame all men who think war is a game and an adventure. Or an easy path to wealth.”
“That is not why we went. We fought for God.” He threw out the answer, doubting she would accept it. Still, it was the reason. The purpose. The cause. “God Wills It.” They would shout that as they rode into battle. Only after many months did he learn that the Saracens were yelling much the same thing.
Elinor stood a bit taller than he remembered. The pretty girl had grown into a prettier woman. Her chestnut hair carried lustrous lights and her skin was still white as snow. Her dark eyes watched him warily. Perhaps she thought he would behave badly, even in this first reunion. He had kissed her once before he left, in a garden. A sweet kiss, full of the ardor of youth on his part. Her first kiss, he was almost certain.
He’d assumed at the time that she would be married before he returned. She was of age. That he’d wanted her then was not enough reason to stay behind, but it emboldened him to steal that kiss.
If not now, never.
“You at least seem to have done well in the years since I last saw you, heading off to fight with the last king in France, and then joining Richard on his crusade.” Her gaze traveled down his tunic to his boots. “You have grown and filled out.”
“As have you.” The filling out part stretched the bodice of her simple dress. She caught his gaze lingering there, and smiled in spite of herself when he grinned.
“I am in the service of Lord Jean Fitzwarryn. He has lands on the northern marches where he guards the realm against the Scots. It is at most a day’s ride from here.”
“Did you leave the Crusade when the king did?”
“Shortly before. I did not stay long.” Long enough, though. Too long.
“There are some Scots here. I have heard their tongue. I suppose they will challenge you if you are in this border lord’s service.”
She had walked back to the tent’s entry. She now lifted the flap and glanced out. “He will be back soon. Please go.”
He did not want to leave. He wanted to take her down to the river and sit and talk about those innocent days years ago. The concern in her eyes made him give up that intention, for now.
He went to the flap. He looked down at her and felt her warmth in the air between them. “I will see you again soon, Elinor.”
He did not make it a request. That would give her the chance to deny him, and he didn’t want to hear that. As he walked away, he calculated how he could change her caution to smiles, however, but how to avoid telling her that Sir Hugo’s woes were all of his own making.
Never If Not Now, copyright © 2020 Madeline Hunter