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Lady of the Keep, 4/00

Book #4, the l'Eau Clair Chronicles

Copyright © 2000 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher

An excerpt from Lady of the Keep:


Ireland, 1215

     Moira FitzGerald released her hold on her husband's callused hand and let it rest, flaccid and pale, against the heavy woolen coverlet. She lowered her palm and cupped it round the bulk of her belly, then, ignoring Father Thomas's offer of help, struggled up off her knees and stood. Forcing herself to look upon what remained of her lord and husband, she bent and kissed his grizzled cheek. "Forgive me, milord," she murmured, too low for the priest to hear.
     Straightening, she crossed herself. "May God speed you on your way and give you ease."
     The babe chose that moment to kick hard beneath her ribs, the vigorous sign of life in this chamber of death piercing her heart with sorrow. And may God have mercy on us both, she thought, placing a soothing hand over her fatherless child.
     The child stirred once more. Despite her burden, Moira stood tall and willed her face into an emotionless mask as she stared at the remains of the once-vital man she'd wed.
     Life and death . . . all her sins come to fruition.
     Her hands cupped her belly yet again. Never more, she vowed, would she permit another to pay the price of her misdeeds.

* * * * *

Chapter One

     'Twas nothing like FitzClifford.
     Connor FitzClifford stood atop the headland and stared down upon the fortress of Gerald's Keep. Nestled among the rolling hills, its massive bulk rose dark and brooding from the soft green Irish countryside, the tall tower a dagger thrust deep into the heart of the land.
     Abandoned huts dotted the hillside below him, the simple stone and turf structures melting back into the earth that spawned them. In time, they'd disappear with barely a trace.
     'Twas ever the Norman way, he thought, scrambling over the rocky slope to his restless mount. Conquer, wreak vengeance, then sap the lifeblood of the people until they were gone from sight, if not from memory.
     Just as his Irish mother had been crushed within his Norman father's keeping.
     He turned from the scene below him, looked back to the churning sea and allowed its simple power to wash away the curious thoughts. His hand clenched hard about the well-worn hilt of his sword. His world lay outside the turbulent landscape of his mind, he reminded himself. Thinking had done nothing to ease his plight or that of those he loved, nor had it changed one whit the hellish reality of life at FitzClifford.
     Deeds, not thoughts, had changed his world, brought light into the darkness of his existence, shown him another way to live.
     That they'd been the deeds of another, and not his own, was a shame he'd carry with him to the grave.
     But he'd learned from past mistakes, and had no plans to repeat them. Never again could anyone call Connor FitzClifford weakling or coward.
     Though fool he undoubtedly was, to permit the past to taint the present.
     He shook off the lingering disquiet and strode back to his men. They'd paused along the winding road to rest the horses before completing the last, rugged stretch of the journey.
     They stirred to motion when he drew near, packing away food and drink and preparing to leave.
     "Here, milord," said Will. The former man-at-arms--now a knight newly made--had come from l'Eau Clair, the keep belonging to Connor's sister by marriage. He smiled and held out a squat pottery flask. "I've a new drink for you to try. This Irish brew is as fine--" he waved the bottle beneath his nose and rolled his eyes "--nay, 'tis better than anything we've got at home. 'Tis sure to burn the travel weariness from your bones."
     Connor took the jug, raised it to his lips and let the smooth fire of usquebaugh warm its way to his belly. He grinned as Will's roguish look gave way to surprise. The young Norman had doubtless expected the potent drink to knock him on his arse. "Burn the flesh from your bones, more like," he said, sampling the brew again before returning the flask to Will. "'Tis a rare treat. I thank you."
     Will tucked the flask away in his saddlebag. "Thought I had you fooled again, milord." He shook his head and laughed. "I'll have to try harder next time," he added, climbing into the saddle.
     Connor took his stallion's reins from Padrig, his newly acquired squire, and mounted up, wondering all the while what bit of mischief Will might think of next. For the entire journey from the Marches, the Norman seemed to have made it his purpose in life to jolt Connor's hard-won air of composure with his japes and tricks.
     Of course, Will had no notion that that composure was naught but a sham, an invisible cloak Connor drew about himself to conceal the weak, cowering fool he'd been.
     Will was doomed to failure, however, for Connor had no intention of allowing that coward free rein ever again.
     His men formed up into two columns behind him. "Gerald's Keep sits over the next rise. We'll have a hot meal and dry beds tonight," he told them, nudging his horse into motion and preceding them down the road.

* * *

     'Twas nearly dusk by the time they guided their mounts up the narrow, rocky track to Gerald's Keep. The road had dwindled to little more than a path scarce wide enough for a man to lead his horse, and the terrain grew more rugged the closer they drew to the castle.
     Connor knew that once he stood within the walls of the place, he'd admire the ingenuity of the man who'd built atop this rocky crag, even as he cursed him for it now. But the journey had been long and hard, and he was eager to be done with it.
     He shook his head. He'd once envied his brother Rannulf the freedom to travel from one end of the country to the other. Considering 'twas Rannulf who'd sent him here--while remaining at home with his wife and child--it seemed his twin still had the better bargain.
     Connor halted at the edge of the spike-strewn dry moat, his men and their horses restless behind him. The raised drawbridge made an impenetrable barrier--a good sign, he thought, except for the fact that they stood on the wrong side of it. He could see no one atop the walls, nor were there any torches lit against the encroaching darkness. Yet he could hear people within.
     Had they so few men they couldn't mount guards? "Open up, in Rannulf FitzClifford's name," he shouted.
     After an interminable wait, light glowed through the shutters covering the tower windows, then appeared atop the battlements. "Who's there?" cried a voice too high in pitch to be that of a man grown.
     Connor handed the reins to his squire and stepped closer to the edge of the moat. "I am Connor FitzClifford, sent by my brother Rannulf to bring you aid."
     "Indeed? And have you proof of who you are?" 'Twas a woman speaking, no mistake. Mayhap the situation was worse than they'd thought, else why not send a man to answer his summons?
     "I've a letter from my brother. Will you lower the drawbridge so I might give it to your master?"
     "Not likely," the woman said, her tone harsh. "Do you think we're fools?"
     "Nay. But how do you propose I hand over the letter, mistress? Shall I shoot it over the walls impaled on an arrow?"
     "You needn't mock me. And a letter means little--it could be forged." Though she said the French words slowly, her accent bespoke nobility. One of the women who attended Lord Brien's lady, perhaps? Whoever she was, she sounded as though her patience was stretched to the limit.
     So was his. In truth, his attention had been focused more on reaching the place; he'd scarce given a thought to how they'd gain entrance once they arrived. "Madam, I know of no other way to prove--" Someone jostled him, then stood beside him on the embankment. Connor glanced over and saw Will.
     "Do they know Lord Rannulf?" Will asked. "If they do, they only need to look at you to know you for his brother."
     "True." He felt a fool himself, not to have thought of that solution. "Madam, surely there is someone within who knows my brother?"
     Though he could not see the woman clearly, he could tell that she'd turned away to speak with another shadowy person behind her. She nodded, then mounted the torch she held in a bracket on the outer wall of the tower. "I have met Lord Rannulf myself. Is the resemblance between you so great?"
     "Aye, madam," he said with a laugh. "To see me is to see my brother's face." More or less, he added silently, the thought deadening his mirth nigh before it had begun.
     "You alone may enter the bailey, sir," she said, "that I may judge for myself whether you're the man you claim to be."
     "I thank you." He bowed, though he doubted she could see him in the deepening gloom. Her nodded response proved his assumption wrong, however, and made him glad he'd made the effort.
     Her movements awkward, she turned away and left the wall without another word.
     "Padrig, bring the letter from my pack," he ordered while he waited for the drawbridge to come down. He took the rolled parchment from the lanky lad and handed over his helm. "I won't need this."
     "You'll be careful, milord?" his squire asked, though he appeared more intent upon polishing the dust of travel from the helm with the tail of his tabard.
     "Aye." Connor had yet to grow accustomed to having someone concerned for his well-being, but that seemed to be one of his squire's many obligations. "Though I doubt there's anyone within who's ready to risk their overlord's wrath by harming his brother," he added wryly.
     Will gave a mirthless laugh. "You'd be surprised what some are capable of, milord." Eyes squinting in the dusky shadows, he peered at the keep. "Wouldn't hurt to have a care," he added, checking his sword in its sheath. "We'll be ready to come fetch you, should the need arise."
     Nodding his thanks, Connor fought back a grin at Will's eagerness for battle. While he himself enjoyed a good fight as well as the next man, he'd just as soon not engage in one tonight.
     Nor did he believe he'd have to.
     The squeal of metal upon metal heralded the drawbridge's ponderous descent, and they backed out of the way. As soon as the platform hit the embankment, Connor gave Padrig an encouraging slap on the back and headed into the torchlit maw of Gerald's Keep.

* * *

     Moira took her time as she made her way down the steep stairs of the gatehouse and entered the bailey to await FitzClifford's arrival. The uneven cobblestones felt slick beneath the soles of her boots, and her balance of late had become uncertain. Despite the circumstances of her child's creation, she'd do everything within her power to ensure the babe's well-being.
     She reached beneath the enveloping folds of her mantle and smoothed her gown over the mound of her belly. The child grew apace, and now, with scarce six weeks left before her time, Moira couldn't help wondering whether 'twas possible for her body--and her patience--to stretch any further. Her back ached, her ankles swelled and she'd a shrew's temper most days.
     Ah, Moira, you'll never again be vain about your looks after this, she thought with a quiet laugh.
     A meager guard--a large portion of their able-bodied men--gathered near the gate as the drawbridge creaked downward. They stood ready to protect the keep should the party outside try to make its way within, ready to seize the man she'd spoken with if he proved a threat.
     She prayed neither event occurred, for she had grave doubts about how well many of them could fight. 'Twas evidence of how desperately they needed the help she'd requested from Lord Brien's overlord.
     Light footsteps echoed down the stairwell behind her. "I still say you shouldn't be here, milady," Sir Ivor, one of her husband's few remaining knights, said. He halted beside her, his thin face looking more stern than usual in the uncertain light. "What if 'tis another MacCarthy trick? They're capable of anything to gain what they want, as you know better than most, milady."
     She forced herself to meet his gaze, to remain as placid as a milch cow beneath the censure he didn't bother to disguise. He alone of Lord Brien's men held her accountable for all that had happened since the MacCarthys decided to make Gerald's Keep their own. Though there were times his blame of her matched her own, she had no intention of making him aware of that fact. Her guilt was hard enough to face in the endless, lonely nights since her husband's injury and death. She'd not drag it out into the harsh light of public scrutiny. "The MacCarthys don't know we sent to Lord Rannulf for help." Nodding toward their men, she murmured, "Look at them--they'd give their lives to save us all, but there are so few of them left. We've been lucky till now, but how long can they prevail if the MacCarthys return?" She shook her head. "We must let FitzClifford in. 'Tis a risk we must take. We've no chance of withstanding another attack otherwise."
     Sir Ivor frowned, but nodded. "You'll stay back until we've determined he's no threat, at least."
     "I will not. How am I to tell if he is who he claims he is, unless I'm close enough to see him?" She gathered her skirts in her hand and started toward the men clustered by the gate, then paused and glanced back at him over her shoulder. "I'll simply have to trust you to protect me."
     "I gave my word that I would, milady," he said, though his scowl deepened. His hand clutched tightly on his sword hilt, he strode past her and positioned himself at the head of the guards as FitzClifford--alone, she noted with relief--passed through the gate. She hastened forward in turn.
     FitzClifford halted just inside the bailey, hands out at his sides to show he held no weapons. Moira drew a deep breath, smoothed her palms down the rough wool of her skirts and moved closer.
     Despite his stance, he bowed, then glanced up at her as Sir Ivor stepped forward and reached out to take his sword. "Nay, you need not disarm him," she cried. She lunged and caught Sir Ivor by the arm, holding on to him as much to steady herself as to halt his action. Shifting, she found her balance and released him at once.
     "Milady, stay back," Sir Ivor protested as she moved closer still, staring at Lord FitzClifford in the flickering torchlight.
     Moira looked FitzClifford full in the face and nodded. "Aye, milord, 'tis true you've the look of your brother."
     So alike--and yet so very different.
     His face appeared much the same as his brother's--his twin, she thought as she sank into an awkward curtsy and accepted his hand to steady her as she rose. They could not be so similar otherwise. Wavy auburn hair; dark eyes sharp with intelligence; his tanned, handsome face spattered with a redhead's freckles. . .
     But this FitzClifford's hair fell loose and waving to his shoulders, a narrow scar slashed his left cheek from cheekbone to jaw, and he carried an untamed aura about him that she'd not observed in her admittedly brief contact with his more polished brother.
     He did have the same air of courtesy, she noticed as he continued to clasp her hand within the callused strength of his. "Are you well, milady?"
     "Aye, sir. 'Tis just that I'm a bit unsteady on my feet these days."
     He nodded and released her. "You believe that I'm Rannulf's brother Connor, then?" he asked, his mouth curved into a faint smile.
     "How could I not, milord?" She returned his smile, then fought back a grimace as the babe chose that moment to kick hard. She placed a comforting hand upon the mound of her belly, not that it ever did much to soothe the child. "I am Lady Moira FitzGerald, Lord Brien's widow. Welcome to Gerald's Keep, sir, and thank you for coming to help us."
     "I am glad to be of service, milady. Will you send for my men now?"
     "Of course." She gave the order before turning to present Sir Ivor. "Sir Ivor d'Athée, milord, my late husband's man--" Pain twisted through her belly, wrenching the air from her lungs and causing her legs to crumple beneath her.
     Strong arms caught her, lifted her and cradled her against cool, rough mail. "By the Virgin, lady, is it your time?" FitzClifford shifted her so that her face rested on the soft wool of his tabard. "Where shall I take her?" he asked, his voice urgent.
     Moira couldn't reply. She could only wrap her arms about her stomach and try to breathe as the pain continued to swell.
     "This way, milord," she heard Sir Ivor say. She opened her eyes, raised her head, tried again to speak.
     The world went black and she knew no more.

From the book Lady of the Keep by Sharon Schulze


April 2000; ISBN 0-373-29110-8; Harlequin® Historicals
Copyright © 2000 by Sharon M. Schulze
® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher.
The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
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Reviewers' praise for Lady of the Keep:

"Lady of the Keep is a warmhearted tale where love mends old wounds and broken dreams. An enjoyable medieval romance to while away an evening.

--Beth MacGregor, Romantic Times Magazine

"Lady of the Keep, the final book in the l'Eau Clair Chronicles, is a marvelous medieval romance, rich and colorful as a tapestry. Moira and Connor are terrific characters, wonderfully-drawn and–developed . . . The story is well-written, nicely paced, and thoroughly enjoyable. Sharon Schulze has penned a heart-warming tale that will touch every reader's heart."
--HOST EBK Susan, Romantic Fiction Forum Leader, AOL

"Sharon Schulze has penned a sweet tale, which captures your heart and keeps your interest until the very last word. You won't want to miss Lady of the Keep.
--Sarah Anderson, Senior Reviewer, Romance Communications

"Ms Schulze's tale is true love at its finest. Everyone who's ever set out to prove something to themselves in the name of love should read this romance. It's touching, tragic and tender, yet full of surprises and strong-willed characters. A beautiful romance penned by a gifted author."
--Pamela James, Old Book Barn Gazette