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Claiming

By´╝ÜSaskia Knight

CHAPTER ONE


Gresham Castle, Norfolk, England, 1207


Lady Rowena Gresham rode alone, ahead of her men as usual, along the well-worn bridle path that led to Gresham Castle. The crop of barley she’d been inspecting barely moved under the hot summer sun, but it wasn’t the bright light that made her eyes burn.

She swallowed hard, trying to keep at bay the knot of grief that would not release its grip. Her beloved father was dead and she doubted the pain of his loss would ever leave. She’d held him in her arms and watched him slip away from her, hour by hour, minute by minute, until his hands had gone limp in hers.

If that wasn’t enough she’d now been summonsed back to her own castle, by the High Sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk no less. His name sent a frisson of fear through her body. There had been no word from her father’s liege lord, and now the sheriff had arrived, unannounced. It did not bode well.

She urged her horse to the top of the ridge that overlooked the fertile river valley in which her castle lay, and reined him in sharply. Below her dozens of strangers swarmed around the castle bailey, disrupting the usual ebb and flow of people going about their business. The sheriff was not alone.

She frowned as the fear that had nagged in her head moved lower, gripping her gut. She spurred her horse into a gallop. The estate was hers, hers. Hers, she repeated again and again in time to the beat of her heart and the pounding of her stallion’s hooves on the dry ground.


Rowena strode into the Great Hall, shadowy after the bright sunlight, followed closely by two greyhounds who loped subserviently behind her. Her attention was immediately focused on the two men who stood by the light of the great window—one was the sheriff, the other a priest. Why, in God’s name, had the sheriff brought a priest with him?

“Sir William!” She beckoned to a servant to bring her wine. “I would offer you refreshment but I see you are both already enjoying my best Bordeaux. I hope it is to your liking?”

“Excellent, my lady.” He glanced over her shoulder and then back to her, his expression hard, unreadable. “Please accept my condolences on the death of your father. He was a good man.”

She shrugged. Of all the things her father could be called, “good” wasn’t one of them. He was strong, brave and could outwit his wiliest enemy, but he hadn’t been “good”. But she wasn’t going to argue the point with strangers. “Thank you. Please, be seated.” She accepted a goblet of wine from one of her servants and dropped down into a chair with a confidence she didn’t feel.

She took a sip of the wine and carefully placed it on the table as her mind raced, trying to gain their measure. Despite her quickened heart beat, she sat back, laced her fingers together and held them before her as she focused intently on the men, waiting for them to crumple like men usually did before the “Gresham stare”. She had inherited it from her father. Just like her personality, just like the estate.

“So, to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?” She refused to call it a summons.

The grizzled-haired sheriff rubbed his lips in silent consideration, as his eyes narrowed against her insolence.

“You are like your father, my lady, inclined to the point.”

“You compliment me, sir.”

“No, my lady, I do not. However under the present circumstances such directness is useful. ’Twill save me time.”

Rowena bit her lip. She’d angered him. It would not be wise to anger such a powerful man. She took a deep breath. “And these circumstances…?”

“Your father, my lady, was a wise man.”

She nodded, feeling a slight lessening of the tension. Sir William was correct this time. “Indeed.”

“And his estates have always been prosperous.”

“He worked hard to make them so. We both did.”

“Yes,” Sir William looked at her with a cool, disapproving gaze. “I have heard of your unusual interest in the estate.” His lips curled into a smile that sent a chill down her back. She shivered and one of the dogs leaned against her legs, sensing something was amiss. “You will no doubt be pleased to know you no longer have to run the estate alone.”

Rowena gasped as if winded and bit her lip as she tried to hide her reaction to his words. She reached down to the dog and petted it, giving herself time to try to understand, try to cover her confusion.

“I know not what you mean, sir.” She tried to form a smile as she looked up at Sir William, but she feared it hadn’t worked because he was not smiling back at her.

“I mean, Lady Rowena, that your father’s estate has now been settled and I’m here to advise you of this.”

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