The Courageous Heart

And now, the exciting conclusion of the Noble Hearts trilogy, The Courageous Heart

He was the hero of the Holy Land, King Richard’s favorite, a bold and courageous knight.  But when Ethan Windale returned from the crusades he lost everything, his home, his pride, and his dearest friend.  Years later, alone and adrift, his courage is tested once again when the fate of his old rivals falls into his hands.  With one word he can destroy his enemies and regain the home he lost, but to do so he must betray the woman that even war and death couldn’t drive from his heart.

Joanna Dunkirke has sworn she will never forgive Ethan for leaving her or for his part in her brother’s death.  But when her master and mistress are imprisoned in the Tower of London it is Ethan who comes to her rescue.  Caught between anger and a passion she has fought against for years, Joanna embroils herself in deadly court intrigue.  When an act of devotion changes everything she thought she knew about the man who destroyed her life, she must choose between her heart and her duty.  But can she really trust Ethan?

Torn apart by betrayals that neither can forgive, bound together by a passion that cannot be forgotten.

The Courageous Heart is available from Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble.com, Smashwords, and wherever eBooks are sold.

Hungry for more?  Here’s a taste….

Derbyshire, 1194

Joanna paced through the rows of headstones in Windale church graveyard, a bundle of simple wildflowers clutched to her stomach.  The ache that hadn’t left her heart for two and a half years throbbed as she reached the end of the third row.  She stopped but couldn’t look at the stone.  She bit her lip and stared off over the hills and fields of Windale Manor, her home, instead.

The winter chill had gone.  Spring was in the air.  A promising breeze wafted the rich scent of the orchard blossoms from Kedleridge, on the other side of the hill.  The rhythmic melody of the farmers singing as they furrowed sleepy rows through the fields should have cheered her, today of all days.

She swallowed and forced her eyes to the name carved on the stone where she stood.

Toby Dunkirke.

Two and a half years and still she expected to hear her brother’s gentle voice in the manor halls, to see him waving to her as she walked through the fields.  Her handsome, hopeless, wonderful fool of a brother.

She knelt beside his headstone and squeezed her eyes shut to keep her emotions at bay.  Toby had been all she had, the last of her family.  They’d shared a womb, shared everything, from the day they were born to the day Toby left home with Ethan to fight in King Richard’s crusade.  She swallowed, opened her eyes, and lay the bundle of flowers at the foot of the headstone.

“Happy birthday, Toby,” she told him, blinking back tears.  “I miss you.  I’ve been so lonely without you.  I-”

There was so much more she wanted to say to him, so much that had been left unsaid.  Too much.  Toby had been wrenched away from her long before his tragic death.  In the five years since he had left for the crusade she hadn’t had one rambling conversation with him.  They hadn’t had a chance to stay up all night sharing their secrets, laughing over the futility of their dreams until they cried in each other’s arms.  They hadn’t had each other to keep the loneliness at bay.  And she knew full well whose fault that was.  Her grief coalesced into bitter resentment.

“Joanna?”  A small hand tapped on her shoulder.  Joanna blinked and pivoted to face the black hair and solemn blue eyes of little Wulfric Huntingdon.  “Joanna?”

“Yes, my lord?”  She cleared her throat, blinking to banish her tears, and forced a smile.

Her little lord, a sweet replica of his imposing father, stared up at her, chubby cheeks giving him the frown of a stoic cherub.  “There’s a man at the house.”

“Oh?”  Joanna squatted to look the boy in the eye.  “Is it your papa?”

Wulfric shook his head.

“Is it Uncle Jack?”

He shook his head again.

“Uncle Tom?”

“It’s a stranger.”

“A stranger?” Joanna repeated, brushing an unruly strand of hair away from Wulfric’s face.  “What kind of stranger?”

“He said his name was Ethan.”

Joanna’s heart plummeted.  She shot to her feet, hands balled into fists at her sides, turning towards the manor house.  Her pulse roared when she saw an unfamiliar horse standing near the edge of the common.  Aubrey had just come out of the house and was marching towards a man in a traveler’s cloak.

“I’ll murder him!” she hissed, out of breath after just those words.  How dare he show up now, today, after all these years.  What gave him the right to disappear for years and then just walk back into her life at random?  “Come on, my lord.”

Joanna scooped Wulfric into her arms, resting him against her hip and charging out of the graveyard and up the road to the manor.  She would strangle Ethan with her bare hands.  She would gouge his eyes out with a red-hot iron.  She would slice his balls off with a rusty dagger.  Ethan would regret the day he walked out on Windale, walked out on her, stealing Toby with him.

Her rage fizzled when she reached the common and the cloaked man turned to face her.  He was in his middle years with graying hair and a scar on his cheek.  He was not her Ethan.

“Oh,” she stuttered, glancing past the man to Aubrey.

Aubrey looked as confused as Joanna felt.  She softened at the sight of her son.  Wulfric held out his arms to his mother and Aubrey crossed in front of the stranger to take him from Joanna.

“Joanna, this is Sir Ethan Eversham,” she said.

“Sir.”  Joanna curtsied, straightening and sending Aubrey a questioning look.

“Sir Ethan has come from London.”  Her voice was thready and puzzled.

“I’ve been sent by the crown, my lady, to bring word to the nobles of Derbyshire,” Sir Ethan said and continued on as if he had already been making an explanation before Joanna arrived.  “King Richard has returned to England.  He has taken up residence in London, in the Tower.”

“The king is back?” Aubrey shuffled Wulfric in her arms as he poked at the netting holding her hair back.  “We hadn’t heard he’d been released.”

“Emperor Henry released him last month, my lady.  King Richard arrived in London last week and is eager to resume complete control of his kingdom from his rebellious brother, Prince John.”  He shifted his weight, glancing back towards the manor house.  “I have a specific message for your husband, my lady.  Is he at home?”

“No.”  Aubrey pushed Wulfric’s hand away from her ear where he was now trying to stick his finger.  “No, he and Jack, Lord John, are in Derby today.”

“Ah.  Lord John of Kedleridge?”  Aubrey nodded.  “This message concerns him as well.  It is a message of utmost urgency.”

“I could ride into Derby to fetch them,” Joanna offered.  Heaven only knew that she needed something to take her mind off her troubles.

“Thank you, Joanna, but I need you here,” Aubrey said.

“Joanna?”  Sir Ethan blinked and looked at her as though just seeing her.  “Not Joanna Dunkirke?”

Joanna’s eyebrows rose.  She glanced to Aubrey who seemed just as surprised.  Then she turned back to Sir Ethan.  “Yes.  That’s me.”

“I have something for you,” he said as though he couldn’t quite believe it himself.

He walked back to his horse and unfastened the portmanteau.  Joanna and Aubrey followed him and stood waiting as he sorted through its contents.  He took out a bundle and stepped towards them, presenting Joanna with a thick packet of battered old parchment tied with dirty string.

“I’ve been charged with delivering a backlog of missives that have accumulated in the court offices these last few years.  So many letters arrived in the court offices in London at various points as soldiers returned from the Holy Land that we haven’t been able to deliver them all,” Sir Ethan said.  “We’ve had these particular letters for over three years.  I  have stacks of the things to deliver all across Derbyshire, but yours are the only ones not addressed to a noble.  To tell the truth, I didn’t think I’d actually find you.”

Joanna took the bundle.  Her curious frown tumbled into a look of shock at the writing on the top letter of the pile.  Joanna Dunkirke, Windale Manor, Derbyshire.  The lump in her throat squeezed and all color drained from her face.

“What’s wrong?” Aubrey put a hand on her shoulder.

Joanna’s stinging eyes flew up to meet Aubrey’s.  “They’re from Toby.”

“What?”  Aubrey stepped to her side and craned her neck to look at the letters.

“That’s his handwriting,” Joanna explained.  She picked at the string holding the letters together with trembling hands.  Her heart fluttered.  The feeling that Toby was standing just behind her, that she could touch him, hung heavily over her.  She separated the top letter, tucking the rest under her arm, and turned the letter over to break the seal.

“Dear Joanna,” she read aloud.  “We’ve reached Marseille at last.  The journey was long and uncomfortable and I don’t think my backside will ever recover.  Ethan is in good spirits though.”  She lowered the letter and stared at Aubrey, eyes round.  “It’s dated June, 1189.”

“Five years ago,” Aubrey whispered.

“I do apologize for taking so long in delivering them,” Sir Ethan said.  “I suppose by now this Toby has told you all about his adventures in King Richard’s crusade.”

Joanna shook her head.  She tried to read more but tears blurred her eyes.  Her moment of joyful hope squeezed to the pain of loss.  “Toby was killed two and a half years ago.  He … he never had a chance to tell me about his time in the Holy Land.  We were never together long enough once he came home.”

“I’m sorry.”  Sir Ethan lowered his head in respect.  He shifted his attention to Aubrey.  “My lady, it is imperative that I speak to the earl as soon as possible.  The king’s business cannot be delayed.”

“I’ll send a messenger to Derby to fetch them.”  Aubrey took charge, leaving Joanna’s side to start towards the stable.

“If I may, my lady,” Sir Ethan stopped her.  “I will ride into Derby myself.  This cannot wait.”

Aubrey frowned.  “Fine, then we’ll take the carriage and come with you.”

Joanna cleared her throat and pushed her pain down to focus on her duty.  “I’ll see to it, my lady.”  She folded the letter, kissed it, and slid it and the others into the pocket of her kirtle.

She couldn’t think about her brother now.  She didn’t have the strength.  His first few words had sounded so cheerful, so like Toby.  She couldn’t bear to hear them.  Instead she did what Toby would have done and pushed everything else out of her mind but duty.

~*~

The War Room in the dungeon of Derby Castle had taken on an almost festive feeling.  A fire roared in the hearth and several candelabras had been set around the edges of the room.  Crispin had ordered the servants to keep the rushes on the floor fresh and someone had brought boughs of blossoms from the castle garden’s fruit trees to hang on the walls and lend their fresh scent to the air.

“So that’s three new permits to build shops.”  Tom Tanner gave his report while Crispin and Jack listened from their seats at the room’s large table.  “With the growth along the south side of town there should be about an eight percent increase in city revenue by the end of the year.”

“Good, good.”  Crispin nodded.  “What about the cathedral?  I’ve seen a lot of activity at the site, but have they started building again in earnest after the winter?”

Tom’s answer was delayed by the cry of a fussy baby.  “They have, my lord.  Brother Robert tells me they need to hire at least a dozen more workers for this year, which should increase the population even more.”

Jack hopped up from his chair and circled around the table to the fireplace where Madeline sat cradling their daughter.  “Do we have room for them?” he asked, trying to pay attention to two things at once, “Or should we plot out another street over by the cathedral?  Here, let me take her.”

He switched from business to smiling at his wife.  His eyes lit up as he scooped his daughter into his arms.  The wriggling red-headed baby stopped fussing almost at once.  Jack beamed at her, completely in love.  Crispin watched them, warring between sentimental approval and concern.  Madeline had been more pale than usual all winter, ever since Meg was born.  Her health was not improving anywhere near as fast as Aubrey’s had when Wulfric was born, yet Madeline kept pushing herself to be a part of things.

“I think we should plot another street,” Tom resumed the conversation where they’d left off.  Jack leaned over and kissed Madeline’s forehead before returning to the table with his daughter.  “The market has increased two and threefold in the last two years and every indication is that now that the weather is improving it will continue to increase.”

“Oy, bully for us then,” Jack cooed to Meg.  She grinned and gurgled back at him.

Crispin frowned to cover the warmth in his chest.  There was an apple that had fallen close to the tree.  God help him if Wulfric developed an interest in the girl in a decade or so.

“Plotting a new street is simple.”  Crispin sighed, sitting back in his chair.  “Increasing spending for the construction of new public buildings without the consent of the Council of Nobles is not.”

Tom frowned.  “Let me guess.  Matlock is causing trouble again?”

The ridiculous faces Jack was making at his daughter flattened.

“No,” Crispin answered.  “His crony Lord Gerald of Wyndham is though.”

“Lord Gerald is a pompous fool.”  Madeline joined the conversation, rising from her chair and walking towards the table, a hand on her back.

“Oy!  You need to sit down and rest.”  Jack arched an eyebrow at her in mock scolding, echoing the concerns Crispin felt.

“I’m fine.”  She brushed off his concern.  “Why is Lord Gerald blocking the construction of new buildings in Derby?”

“God only knows,” Jack muttered.

“He says it’s because it encourages peasants to settle in the city instead of becoming a part of a manor,” Crispin explained.

“Not like it matters to him.”  Jack continued to frown and speak to Meg.  “His manor is all the way out near Leek.”

“Which is why it’s clear that he’s lobbying on Matlock’s behalf.”  Crispin frowned.  He sighed and pushed his chair back, standing so that he could stretch his legs.

Tom rose as well.  “Wouldn’t we rather have Lord Gerald pestering us than Matlock?”

Crispin and Jack exchanged wary glances.

“My father hasn’t been seen in Derby since well before Christmas,” Madeline took up the explanation.  “The only thing worse than having your enemy breathing down your back is having no idea where he is.”

“Good riddance, I say!”  Tom crossed his arms.

As much as Crispin wanted to agree with Tom, he couldn’t afford to.  “Matlock is important, but so are many other things.  Right now we need to concentrate on improving Derby City’s infrastructure.  I think that we can safely-”

“My lord!”  A page appeared in the open doorway.  His young eyes were bright with excitement.

“Yes?  What is it?”

“My lord, Lady Aubrey has just arrived at the castle and she has a man from London with her.  She said to fetch you to the Great Hall as quick as I can.”

Crispin exchanged a glance with Jack.  Jack’s eyes reflected the same sinking feeling the page’s announcement gave him.  Crispin sighed and started around the table for the door.  Jack followed, Meg still in his arms, Madeline catching up to him.  Tom met them all at the door.  They marched through the halls to the main floor of the castle and on to the Great Hall together.  The black-liveried servants they passed stopped and bowed to them, some even smiling against protocol.

Crispin’s concerns didn’t ease a bit when they entered the Great Hall to find Aubrey there, Wulfric standing with her holding her hand, Joanna nearby, and a man he didn’t recognize.  Wulfric broke away from Aubrey and scurried across the rushes towards him.  Conscious of the overly domesticated picture they were presenting, he scooped Wulfric into his arms and held him as he went to face the man.

“Crispin, this is Sir Ethan Eversham.”  Aubrey stepped closer to him.  “He’s come from London with an urgent message.  King Richard has returned.”

Crispin’s reaction to his wife’s words matched the worry in Aubrey’s eyes.  “Sir Ethan.”  He nodded, unable to do more with his son in his arms.  “You are welcome at Derby Castle.”  He glossed over the formalities, eager to get to the man’s message.  “This is Lord John of Kedleridge, my bailiff, his wife, Lady Madeline, and Tom Tanner, Derby’s assistant bailiff.”

If Sir Ethan thought there was anything amiss in the leaders of Derbyshire greeting a representative from London with their young children in their arms he didn’t say anything or appear incredulous.  “My lord.”  He bowed low.  “I have come on behalf of King Richard.”

“So I understand.”  Crispin nodded.

“Your presence is required in London immediately, my lord.  You are summoned to appear at court to make an account of your position and activity in the last three years.”

Crispin’s stomach clenched, but not in surprise.  Word was that nobles from all over England were being called to account.  He would have been a fool to assume Prince John’s appointment would go unchallenged.  He glanced to Wulfric.  His young son looked back at him with a frown that matched his own.

“How soon am I expected in London?” he asked.

“Immediately,” Sir Ethan answered.  His eyes shifted to Jack.  “Lord John’s presence is required as well.”

Jack straightened, the flush on his cheeks betraying the anxiety that the announcement brought.  “Summoned by the king?”  He tried to grin it off.  “Didn’t think he even knew who I was.”

“He knows who you are, my lord.”  Sir Ethan nodded, deadly serious.

“King Richard knows who I am?”  Jack swallowed.  Madeline stepped forward to hold his arm.

An awkward silence filled the large room.  Crispin glanced up to meet Aubrey’s eyes.  Through her worry he could already see her steeling herself for what they knew had to be done.  The sight of her determination dissolved some of the tension roiling through his gut.  He let out a breath and said, “We’ll leave tomorrow.  Joanna, send word to Windale that we will be in London for a few weeks.  Lewis can handle the manor until we get back.”

“Yes, my lord.”  She curtsied and started out of the room.  The fact that the confident and unflappable Joanna seemed out of sorts didn’t help the cold feeling of dread in Crispin’s stomach.

“Tell Lewis that you’re coming with us,” Aubrey added.

Joanna stopped and turned back to her.  “My lady?”

“I’ll need your help.”

Joanna gaped as though she would protest.  She closed her mouth nodded, continuing on her errand.

“I can ride out to Kedleridge and tell Simon,” Tom offered as the mood in the room switched from shock to purpose.

“Take Madeline back while you’re at it,” Jack charged him.

“Oh no you don’t, Jack Tanner,” Madeline argued, pink spots on her cheeks making her appear more feverish than forceful.  “I’m going with you.”

“Oy!  I love you, MP, but you know your health has been-”

“I’m not sitting home at Kedleridge when you need me,” she cut him off.  “Especially not when we have no idea where my father is.  I won’t give him the chance to make good on his promise to punish me for disobeying him.”

Crispin held Wulfric closer at the reminder of Matlock’s viciousness.  Any man who could wish harm on his own child was a monster.  He wouldn’t fight it if Madeline wanted to come with them.

Madeline crossed her arms and stared at her husband until he relented with a sigh.  “Alright, you can come,” Jack caved in.  “But you will take it easy and get the rest you need, understand?”

“Yes, Jack.”  She smiled.  She was the only one smiling.

Crispin sent another glance between Aubrey and Wulfric in his arms.  “It’s settled then.  We leave for London tomorrow at first light.”

The Courageous Heart will be available in all eFormats in early November.

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2 Comments

2 thoughts on “The Courageous Heart

  1. Pingback: Medieval Monday – Coming Soon…. | Merry Farmer

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