August 24, 1135
She knew his name was Raven Seabern, that he was here at Westminster Castle in the service of his king, and she was aware of something else as well, that the tall, raven-haired Scotsman was staring at her again. But she was the Lady Abrielle of Harrington, daughter of a late Saxon hero of the Crusades, stepdaughter of a Norman knight who had also gained high esteem for his brave years of service in the Holy Land, both to be honored here tonight, and she would give the man's attention the lack of regard it deserved. For here, at the court of King Henry, she was being paid the admiration of so many men. She turned away quickly and nodded to her mother's soft-spoken praise of the interior grandeur of the great hall of Westminster Castle. Two massive hearths dominated the room at each end, with flames roaring higher than a man. Tapestries kept out the chill drafts and depicted scenes of men in battle or men at the hunt. The stitches were colored in royal crimson and gold, the deepest blue of a king's robe, the startling green of dark forest. Never had Abrielle been in a castle so magnificent in its display of wealth and power. And she had been invited by the king himself.
She wanted to savor this happy occasion, as nights such as this had become sadly rare in her life since her father's death and her stepfather's recent difficulties. It was hard to be at ease, however, much less concentrate, with the Scotsman's vivid blue gaze following her with an intensity to which she was not accustomed. And as if his staring were not unsettling enough, the man seemed to possess some mysterious power over her own traitorous gaze, as time and again she found it straying in his direction, despite her resolution not to reward his attention in any way. Thus far, she'd caught herself before indulging in anything more than a swift sideways glance or guarded perusal from beneath the sweep of her long, dark lashes, but in fact she had no need to look his way simply to confirm the fact that he was watching her yet again. It was as if his keen appraisal were tangible; she could feel it, the heat and weight of it, as surely and distractingly as if he were trailing a silken feather over her skin.
He was but one of the many men who had shown interest in her in recent days. Ever since her arrival in London with her mother, Elspeth, and her stepfather, Vachel de Gerard, Abrielle had received the overwhelming regard of noblemen looking for a suitable wife. Though Vachel did not yet have a title, it was assumed that King Henry this night was ready at last to confer such honors on a man known for his heroic deeds on the great Crusade. As a title brought with it lands and income, all knew that afterward, Abrielle's dowry would increase substantially. During her short stay in London, men had come and gone from her stepfather's apartments within Westminster Castle, presenting themselves first to her parents, then to her.
Those who had done so were men of honorable intentions, which it would seem the Scotsman was not, as for all his apparent fascination with her, he kept his distance. Even now he stood beside King Henry on the other side of the great hall. Tall and powerful, decked out in bonnet and plaid, he was of an age perhaps a score and ten, mayhap two or three years beyond. But it wasn't only his height and impressive display of muscle and sinew that caused him to stand out from the rest of the noblemen gathered by the king to converse and await the announcement of dinner. There was about him an air of confidence that he wore as easily as he did his colors.
Or so it seemed to Abrielle, who could hardly judge for certain when she'd never heard him utter a single word or seen him without the distance and clamor of a crowded hall between them. Other men spoke to her of the fine evening air, or pointed out the treasures and paintings displayed beneath the light of thousands of candles, but not the Scotsman. It troubled Abrielle that his reserve caused her even a slight twinge of disappointment. She should not expect more from a stranger, a foreigner born, a man serving as emissary to King David of Scotland, one whose loyalty lay with those who had so often through the centuries ravaged the northern English lands in which she was born and bred.
He was the very last man she should be wasting her time thinking about, especially on a momentous eve such as this. For tonight she was concerned with matters of far more import, as the king's words would seal her fate, determining whether life held for her despair or joy. Sufficient largesse toward her stepfather would bring the maiden a boon dearly sought but rarely won, gained only with a very large dowry. 'Twas the gift of choosing her husband from among the best of the land.
She turned away and back to her stepfather and mother, whose excitement suffused her with pride. So much would be happening this night—reward for Vachel, a loyal servant of the king, but also a poignant ceremony that evoked a heartrending memory for Abrielle. Recognition for Berwin of Harrington's efforts in the Crusade was scheduled to take place this very evening, and King Henry was in agreement that some esteem should be shown to her late father as well as others who had fought in that campaign. At the Norman court, many Saxons had gathered, after spending countless months striving to have some homage bestowed upon their friends and kinsmen who had fought in the Holy Land, especially since the death of Lord Berwin of Harrington. It had been their way of throwing their own gauntlet at the feet of the unsavory Norman who had gone out of his way to provoke her parent and then, upon accepting his angry challenge, humiliate him for his lack of skill in defending himself. To their regret, the Norman had deftly delivered a deathblow that had left Berwin's family and friends grieving over his loss.
Excerpted from EVERLASTING © Copyright 2011 by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss. Reprinted with permission by Avon. All rights reserved.