Wrenched from a monastery before taking final vows, Adrian de Lancey's fighting skill wins him an earldom. Fierce discipline masters his darker nature--until he finds a winsome slip of a girl lost in his forest, an illegal falcon on her wrist.
Encountering the ice-blond warrior Earl of Shropshire, Meriel de Vere knows his dangerous reputation--and hides her identity to protect her brother's estate from the enemy earl. She does not expect to be arrested. Still less does she expect such a great lord to want her as his mistress.
Her passionate need for freedom clashes disastrously with his obsession with his enchanting captive. Given a second chance to properly woo Meriel, can Adrian learn tenderness? Will the two of them claim lasting happiness--or will they lose all to a brutal sworn enemy?
…a wondrous tale, brimming with adventure, intrigue, and memorable romance.
Uncommon Vows …is some of (Putney's) strongest and most inspired writing…A romance that definite qualifies as uncommon.
~All About Romance
Shropshire,1148. England is torn by civil war by the rivalry between King Stephen and the Empress Maud, daughter and chosen heir of her father, Henry I. Lady Meriel de Vere prefers to live a quiet life as her brother’s chatelaine, but she’s having a bad day. While out hawking, she has been thrown by her horse and almost lost her beloved falcon, Chanson. Her day is about to get a good deal worse:
When she thought back later, Meriel realize that her concentration on the falcon made her miss the sound of approaching horses, but at the time it seemed as if a band of fairyfolk had materialized. One moment she was tightening Chanson’s hood; the next she looked up into a chaos of hooves and horses and blazing colors. She gasped, too startled to be frightened, too slowed by her twisted ankle to dodge out of the way.
“Halt!” a man’s voice called out, and the group jangled to a noisy stop when the closest horse was scarcely six feet away.
It took a moment for Meriel to sort out the confusing images and realize that she had been discovered by a hunting party. Judging by the quality of horses and clothing, the hunters came from the highest level of the nobility, and all six of them were staring at her and Chanson with frank curiosity. Meriel tensed, all too aware that she was a woman alone with a group of strangers. While in theory a knight would never offer insult to a lady, in practice the ideals of chivalry were not always upheld.
Surely the band before her must include one of the rival earls of Shropshire. The question was, which one? Meriel tried to remember what she had heard about the two earls, but could recall little beyond the fact that both were renowned for ruthless military skill. As a member of a household loyal to Stephen, she would probably be allowed to continue undisturbed if this was the king’s earl, Guy of Burgoigne. But if this was the Empress Maud’s man, she might be in trouble.
The horsemen were ranged in a loose semicircle before her, and from the richness of his dress, she guessed that the man in the center was the leader. He was possibly the handsomest man she had ever seen, as tall and golden-haired as if he had just ridden out of a jongleur’s romantic ballad. Effortlessly holding his restless horse in check, he exclaimed, “Jesu, the wench has a falcon-gentle!”
Meriel understood his surprise, for usually only noblemen had peregrine falcons. Thank heaven his expression was amused rather than furiously disapproving. Her relief lasted only until an older man with grizzled hair said gruffly, “Aye, a falcon, and she’s been hunting with it.” The man dismounted, handed his reins to one of the servants, and walked over to her. “Well, girl, who are you, and what have you to say for yourself?”
Before Meriel could answer, a different man said quietly, “She might not understand Norman.”
Ruefully Meriel glanced down at her plain muddied gown and couldn’t blame them for thinking her a peasant girl rather than a Norman gentlewoman. Before she could correct the misapprehension, the grizzled man said in Norman-accented English, “Make your bow to the Earl of Shropshire, girl.”
Still wondering which earl was before her, Meriel prepared to curtsy to the golden man, then paused at the sight of his amused expression. He looked like a man anticipating diversion, and under these circumstances it would likely be at her expense.
What if he was not the earl? That would certainly be a rich jest on her. Warily Meriel scanned the entire group, and her gaze came to rest on a smaller man with silver-gilt hair, the one who had suggested that she didn’t understand Norman. His mount stood next to the that of the golden knight, and Meriel had assumed him to be a man of lesser importance, but as she looked squarely at him, she hesitated. He was not half so magnificent as the golden man, his clothing was far plainer, his expression as inscrutable as drifting smoke. Yet though he did not draw the eye quickly as his companion did, once Meriel looked at him, it was hard to look away. There was something about him, a quality like thrumming steel, an air of authority….
Praying that she was choosing correctly, Meriel dropped into a deep curtsy before the young man with silver-gilt hair. The group broke into appreciative laughter and the golden man said, “The wench has an eye for an earl, Adrian.”
“Perhaps,” the earl said, unimpressed. “More likely she saw me somewhere in the past.” Though his voice was dispassionate, he was watching Meriel with disconcerting intensity.
There was a strong resemblance between the two blond men. Brothers, perhaps? As Meriel studied the finely chiseled features, she decided that the silver earl was very nearly as handsome as his golden companion, though they were as different as crystal cold ice and warm sunshine.
The grizzled man approached her, his hand out and his expression grim. “Give me your game bag.”
Knowing that he would take it from her if she didn’t cooperate, Meriel slipped the bag from her shoulder and reluctantly handed it to him.
The man looked inside, them pulled out the grouse and one of the hares. “A poacher,” he said, scowling at the limp bodies. “What’s your name, girl, and where are you from?”
A poacher! Stunned, Meriel stood mute, her mind racing frantically at the unexpected charge. She had caught the game fairly on her brother’s land. Yet how could one prove where a particular hare came from? If they chose not to believe her…
She felt a bone-deep chill of fear. Poaching was a serious crime—so serious that in these uneasy times it was not impossible that the empress’s earl might use Meriel’s transgression as an excuse to attack Avonleigh. For a greedy lord, almost any pretext would serve to take land from men of the opposing side, and hunting the royal forest was a grave offense.
The grizzled man said impatiently, “Are you dumb, girl? What is your name?”
The earl said, “From the look of her, she’s probably Welsh, and may be as ignorant of English as Norman.” Then, to Meriel’s surprise, he addressed her in slow but accurate Welsh. “What is your name and where do you live?”
Meriel made an instant decision. Her brother Alan was not home to defend his property, and the manor had only half a dozen men trained to arms. But the earl would have no excuse to threaten Avonleigh if he did not know that she came from there. Very well, since they thought her lowborn, she would act the part. Bobbing a curtsy, she said in English, “Indeed I am Welsh, my lord, though I speak English too. My name is Meriel.”
Too late it occurred to her that she should have given a false name, but Meriel was not uncommon in Wales and the Marches. Earnestly she continued, “I swear I was not poaching, my lord—the hares and fowl were caught in the wasteland east of the forest, where anyone may hunt the beasts of the warren.”
The grizzled man snorted. “A likely story for someone afoot in the western half of the forest.” He stepped toward her. “And in England, it’s against the law for a serf to possess a falcon-gentle. Give me the bird.”
“No! I am no English serf, and the falcon is mine.” Meriel raised a protective hand to Chanson, horrified to realize that she had trapped herself in her own lie. As the daughter of a Norman knight she had the right to have a falcon-gentle, though it was an unusual choice for a female of any rank. But for someone of humble birth, possession of any falcon greater than a kestrel was unlawful.
She opened her mouth to confess the truth, then stopped. If she admitted her identity, she might bring danger to Avonleigh. Perhaps her fears were ridiculous and she was starting at shadows, yet dare she take a chance? Knowing that she had only a moment to decide whether to tell the truth or maintain her deception, Meriel raised her gaze to Earl Adrian, who watched her with implacable stillness.
Abruptly she remembered something Alan had said to his seneschal just before he left for Normandy. Meriel had been busy with her spinning, not really listening, but now in her head she heard Alan say: The new Earl of Shropshire is one of the wickedest men in England, capable of anything.
Could that be true of this quiet, contained man? Meriel looked searchingly at the earl, then caught her breath as she realized that the measureless depths of those gray eyes were not quiet, but blazed with dangerous emotion.
Sweet Mary, this man was capable of anything, ice on the outside and fire within. His dangerous, inarguable power reminded her of the angel of her long-ago vision, that bright, sword-brandishing being who had barred her path to the nunnery. But if the earl were an angel, he must rank among Lucifer’s fallen, for she saw no compassion or gentleness in him. His masked intensity was more frightening than obvious brutality, and her throat went dry with fear.
The faces of her people at Avonleigh flashed through Meriel’s mind, all of them trusting her to do her duty by them. From the chaos of her agonized thoughts emerged a solemn vow: she would say no word, do no deed, that might bring harm to Avonleigh. Nay, not even if the earl had her whipped or cast her into a dungeon.
Her frantic calculations had taken only a few moments, just long enough for the grizzled man to reach for Chanson. “I took the game lawfully,” Meriel said, backing way from him, “and in Wales there are no foolish laws about who can possess a falcon.”
“You’re in England now, girl,” he said impatiently.
“No! She is mine!” Meriel repeated as she continued to back away. There would be no escape into the forest; if she turned to run, they would have her in an instant. “I found her myself in a nest high on a cliff, and trained her, too. You have not the right to take her from me.”
The golden knight said reassuringly, “If what you say is true, you’ll have her back, but let Sir Walter hold the bird until the matter is settled.”
As if a nobleman would return a falcon-gentle to a woman he thought a peasant! Meriel might be at the earl’s dubious mercy, but grimly she resolved that he would not have Chanson as well. Swiftly she loosed Chanson’s jesses and bells, the fingers of her right hand hidden by her gauntleted left arm.
“You heard what Sir Richard said,” the grizzled man said as he extended his gloved hand. “We’ll not keep the bird if you can prove you’ve a right to possess it.”
As he spoke, she slipped the hood from Chanson’s head, then hurled the falcon skyward with all her strength, not casting into the wind like a hunter, but down the wind, the traditional way of returning a hawk to the wild. “You’ll not have her!” Meriel cried. “If she is not mine, she will belong to none but herself.”
For an instant Chanson seemed startled by the suddenness of her mistress’s action. Then, freed of the jesses she had worn for a year, the falcon soared heavenward with all the speed and strength of her kind, her four-foot wingspan casting a broad shadow across the clearing, her bold flight drawing the mesmerized gazes of the watching men.
“God’s blood!” Sir Richard gasped. “The wench has whistled a falcon down the wind.”
Meriel blinked tears from her eyes as she watched Chanson spiral upward, but she had no regrets, save that she could not fly away as well. Swallowing against the tightness in her throat , she lowered her gaze to the earl.
Of all the men in the clearing, he alone watched her rather than the diminishing form of the falcon. “You should not have done that,” he said, his voice low and intimate, as if they were alone in the clearing.
“She was mine to do with as I chose, my lord.”
Though her voice was soft, there was nothing humble in the tilt of the girl’s chin or in the eyes that met Adrian’s without flinching. Yet she was not defiant—defiance implied anger, but he saw no anger in her. The night-blue depths of her eyes were free and pure, and he knew intuitively that she was as untamed as the falcon she had released to the wind.
As he regarded the girl’s slim figure and tangled raven-wing hair, Adrian felt something dark and dangerous shift deep within him. He wanted her, with the same savage intensity that he felt when fighting for his life. In a distant part of his mind he knew that this madness would wane, for a man could not live at such peak without being consumed. But for the moment, he had only the most fragile of control over his actions.
Adrian knew that he should send the girl on her way with a simple warning to be more careful where she hunted, but he would not—could not—let her go. His voice strange in his own ears, he said brusquely, “And as a poacher, mistress, you are now mine to do with as I choose.” He gathered his reins in one hand. “We have wasted enough time here. Bring her back to the castle.” To touch her himself would be disastrous, so Adrian wheeled his mount, leaving his men to obey his orders.
As he rode off without looking back, he tried to define what he had seen in the girl. Once he understood her allure, he would be able to treat her impartially, as he would any other peasant girl. But no matter how hard he tried to argue away his sudden, fierce attraction, Adrian was unsuccessful. The girl called Meriel was special. And the word that haunted him as he rode away was “invincible.”