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An Excerpt From


Coming in December, 2015

from Harlequin® Historical

England, 1214

The November night had fallen, but inside Sir Melvin’s hall, warmth and light dispelled the cold and gloom and provided a welcome shelter for the young woman dressed in the habit of a nun. She had been traveling many days, and it had been a long time since Celeste had enjoyed such comfort.

A fire blazed in the long central hearth and several torches lined the gray stone walls. Two beeswax candles in silver holders graced the trestle table covered in linen on the dais. Behind the high table where Celeste and the plump and prosperous Sir Melvin sat, a tapestry of knights and finely dressed ladies swayed. His wife, the calm and competent Lady Viola, was seated to his left. Servants male and female moved among the other tables, where the steward, a priest, retainers, senior servants and household guards prepared to eat the evening meal.

The elderly priest, who put Celeste in mind of Methuselah, finished the grace. Serving maids brought trenchers of stale bread to hold a thick beef stew. More bread sat in baskets on the table, and wine was poured into bronze goblets that gleamed with the reflected glow of the firelight.

“It’s kind of you to offer me shelter and such a fine meal,” Celeste said to her host, her voice soft and sincere.

“We’re delighted to have you stay the night, Sister,” Sir Melvin said with hearty good cheer and a broad smile. “Delighted!”

“We’ll be happy to provide you with an escort for the rest of your journey,” Lady Viola offered.

“I thank you,” Celeste replied, “but I have not far to go. I should reach Dunborough tomorrow.”

“Dunborough?” Sir Melvin couldn’t have sounded more astonished if she’d announced she was going to the devil and happily so. “Why are you—?”

He caught his wife’s eye, cleared his throat and began again. “Dunborough, eh? I know the lord there. Sir Roland. He and his bride stopped here on their way from her home to Yorkshire. Lady Mavis of DeLac, she is.”

Celeste stopped reaching for a small brown loaf from the basket of bread on the table. “Sir Roland is lord of Dunborough and he’s married?” she asked, doing her best to hide her astonishment.

“His father and older brother died a short time ago and he is recently wed,” Lady Viola supplied.

Celeste had to believe her, and yet she still found it hard to imagine.

“A fine fellow, a fine fellow!” her husband cried, picking up his eating knife to carve a piece of beef from the roasted loin a neatly dressed servant set before them.

“Quiet and a bit stern for my liking,” he continued, “but I’m not the bride. Our byre caught on fire when they were here and she lost all her dower goods. He never asked for a penny in compensation.”

“And he led the efforts to put it out,” his wife noted.

“He’s not in Dunborough now,” Sir Melvin continued, unaware of the relief he was giving his guest with that information. “He’s at DeLac. He was—”

Lady Viola touched her husband’s arm and shook her head.

“Well, that’s not a fit subject when we have a guest.”

Celeste wondered where Roland was and why, although it didn't really matter. Her business was not with the lord of Dunborough.

“Have you been to Dunborough before?” Sir Melvin asked.

“I lived there until I went to the convent,” she admitted.

“Ah!” Sir Melvin cried. “So you’ll have seen Sir Roland. Grim fellow, isn’t he?”

“Rather,” she replied. Indeed, she remembered him very well, and his brothers, too. “He had a twin brother, too, I believe.”

“Oh, yes, Gerrard.” Sir Melvin’s pleasant face darkened with a frown. “Quite a different sort, he is, even though they’re twins.”

Gerrard had always been very different from Roland. “It's too bad he’s a wastrel and a lecher, like his father, or so they say," Sir Melvin remarked. "From the stories I’ve heard, old Sir Blane was as bad as they come.”

Worse, Celeste silently supplied. She could have told him stories about Sir Blane that would have made her host’s beard fall out from shock.

She also could have told him how Sir Blane had raised his sons to hate each other and compete for any crumb of praise. He’d even kept the knowledge of which of the twins was the eldest from everyone, including them, using it to goad or torment them, always dangling the hope that one of them could be the heir someday, should anything happen to their older brother Broderick before he married and had sons, as it had. Blane had made the twins bitter foes and rivals in a constant competition.

She could have described how the younger brothers had fought and quarreled and come to blows more than once when they were boys, and that only their stubbornness and their features were alike. Roland was hard, cold, stoic, a stickler for rules and duty. Gerrard was bold, merry and exciting.

As for what had happened to Gerrard in the years since she’d been gone, Celeste had only gossip and tales told by girls who’d arrived at Saint Agatha’s for information. One story had been particularly upsetting. Esmerelda had claimed that Gerrard had lured her into the woods with a promise to meet her there. He’d failed to arrive and outlaws had found her instead. Esmerelda had barely survived. Her maidenhead had not.

“Have you family in Dunborough?” Lady Viola asked, bringing Celeste back to the present and this comfortable hall and the reason for her journey.

“Not anymore,” she answered, turning away to hide her face before the sudden rush of sorrow became visible.

“I’m sorry, Sister,” the older woman said sympathetically.

Clearly, Celeste realized, she had been too slow to keep her reaction from her features.

“It’s all right,” she replied, giving her hostess as much of a smile as she could muster. “My mother died shortly after I went to the convent and my father some years later. My only sister passed away recently. I have no brothers, so I’m on my way to Dunborough to see to her things and sell my parents’ house.”

“Oh, dear me! How sad!” Sir Melvin exclaimed. “Your sister must have been very young. Sickness is a terrible thing, a terrible thing!”

“She was murdered.”

The moment the harsh and horrid truth escaped her lips, Celeste regretted saying it. She need not have used the same words with which the mother superior had informed her of Audrey’s death and the manner of it. “Forgive me for being so blunt. I have only my weariness for an excuse.”

“It’s quite all right,” Lady Viola hastened to assure her. “We’re so very sorry about your sister.”

“We’ll speak no more of it,” Sir Melvin said, his usually booming voice hushed with respect as he shut the door on any more talk of murder.

Or anything else to do with Dunborough and its inhabitants.


Shortly after noon the next day, Gerrard of Dunborough pulled his snow-white horse to a halt outside the stone fence surrounding the yard of the house that had belonged to the D’Orleaus. The soldiers of the patrol returning with him likewise reined in, exchanging puzzled glances at this sudden and unexpected halt.

“Seen something amiss, sir?” young Hedley asked the tall, broad-shouldered commander of the garrison.

“It may be nothing,” Gerrard replied as he slipped from the saddle, “but the door to the house is open.”

A few of the men gasped and more than one made the sign against ghosts and evil spirits. They all knew what had happened in that house and that it should be empty.

Gerrard did not believe in ghosts or evil spirits. He did, however, believe in outlaws and thieves drawn by rumors that money and jewelry were hidden inside the D’Orleau house.

“Take some of the men and search the stables and outbuildings,” he said to Hedley as he drew his sword. “Quick and quiet, though, so no warning given.”

The young man nodded and Gerrard walked swiftly toward the house that had been built by Audrey D’Orleau’s father, a prosperous wool merchant. The air was chill with the approach of winter, the sky gray as slate. Rain would come soon and wind from over the dales, bringing more cold and perhaps turning the rain to snow.

Gerrard’s steps slowed as he neared the front entrance. No ordinary thief or outlaw should have been able to pick that lock, yet only a foolish one would have left the door visibly open while he pillaged inside.

Gerrard eased the door open farther with the tip of his sword and listened. Nothing. Not a whisper, not a sound, not even the soft scurrying of a mouse. It was as if the house, too, had died.

He stepped over the threshold. Still all was silent.

He continued to the main room. The last time he’d been in that chamber, many of the furnishings had been broken and strewn about, obvious signs of the struggle between poor Audrey and her attacker. Since then, the unbroken furniture had been righted, if not returned to its proper place, and the ruined pieces taken away. The horrible bloodstain, however—

He wasn’t alone.

Someone else was there, swaddled in a long black cloak and standing still as a statue, looking down at the large, dark stain upon the floor, as if Death itself was brooding over the spot where Audrey’s murdered body had lain.

Gripping his sword tighter, Gerrard moved closer, making a floorboard creak.

The intruder looked up.

It wasn’t Death, or even a man. It was a woman in a nun’s habit, her skin as pale as moonlight, the wimple surrounding her heart-shaped face white as his horse, her eyes large and green, her lips full and open in surprise. Her nose was straight and slender, her chin pointed…

“Celeste!” he cried, his hand moving instinctively to the collarbone she’d broken years ago.

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SCOUNDREL OF DUNBOROUGH is the final book in The Knights' Prizes series. The first book is CASTLE OF THE WOLF, followed by BRIDE FOR A KNIGHT.
As with all of Margaret's books, this book is written to "stand alone," so you shouldn't feel lost if you haven't read the first two books, although she hopes you have!

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Text Copyright © 2016 by Margaret Wilkins
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