Realm of Angels – Kathryn Le Veque

HE DİDN’T KNOW where else to go. It had been an onset of an early winter this year and travel from the Continent had been difficult and slow. Snows had been heavy and deep, and the level of misery was beyond normal expectations. Coupled with the way he traveled these days… in shadow, his features hidden by a mask in the shape of a mouse that he’d purchased off of a physic who used it to keep away the smell of ill and dead patients, it made for slow and sometimes dangerous movement. People would see him and fear him because of the mask, but when they saw what was under the mask… well, that was even worse. In truth, the mask was there to hide a disfigurement from a fire he’d been caught in. The entire right side of his face had been burned, half of his hair singed off, and he had scars all on the right side of his head, face, and neck. His nose had survived, but it was red and scarred, too. The mask didn’t cover all of it, but it covered a good portion of it and what it didn’t cover, he concealed beneath a kerchief he tied over his head. What remained of his hair was tied off at the nape of his neck and trailed down his back. It had been beautiful hair, . In fact, he’d been a man of comely looks, so much so that a princess had once vied for his hand. They were to be married until the accident that robbed him of the face he’d been born with. She couldn’t stand to look at him because of it. So, he’d been given a good deal of money to simply go away.

It had been a terrible moment in his life, realizing that the woman he’d been slated to marry hadn’t been able to see past those scars to the man she said she’d once loved. A man who had left everything to be with her. Now, he was returning home in shame. But the truth was that he didn’t want to go to the home of his father. The man had told him he’d been a fool in the first place for having run off with a woman promising him lands and wealth. So he didn’t want to go back to his father’s house to admit he’d been wrong. That wouldn’t do at all. He may not have had much pride left, but there was something left. Remnants, in fact. And that was why he’d come to Selborne.

She was at Selborne. He could still see her face. Eyes like emeralds, lips like rubies. The most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, someone he’d adored and someone who adored him in return. But he’d stepped on that adoration and ground it under his heel, turning it into dust when he made the choice to leave with the princess who had promised him the world. It had been a superficial decision at best and one that had cost him everything. Now, he found himself back at the home of the woman who had adored him since childhood. He had to go somewhere, so he came back to Selborne. The massive bastion in Hampshire, home of the de Nerra family, home to people he’d known all of his life and had loved all of his life. His father had served Sir Val de Nerra when he’d been very young, and he had nothing but fond memories of his childhood at Selborne.

But that was all he had now – only fond memories. It had been almost four years since he last saw Juliana de Nerra, Val’s daughter and the only woman he’d ever loved. He’d wanted to marry her until the promises from the princess had turned his foolish head. But the betrothal to the princess hadn’t been his idea; it had been thrust upon him with the promise of massive wealth and titles, and he’d been blinded by it. He’d never had feelings for the princess, not ever. But he’d chosen her and her wealth over the woman he adored, and now he had nothing. Nothing but memories. Returning to Selborne was like returning to the scene of the crime. Juliana was here. He’d come back to Selborne because she was here, because he wanted to be near her even though he knew she didn’t want to see him.

After what he’d done, he didn’t blame her. But still, he wanted to be close to her, if only to catch a glimpse of her now and again. It was the only place he wanted to be. The only place he could go. He was a knight, and a very good one, but he did not seek service from Val. In fact, he didn’t want Val to even know he was there. He didn’t want anyone to know he was there. With the damage to his face and neck, it would take a sharp-eyed man to recognize him, but he couldn’t take any chances. He sought work in the kitchens or in the stables, and he was put in the butchery. He killed and processed animals for the de Nerra family table.

Having once been a powerful and celebrated knight, it was something of a sorrowful position to now be butchering animals as his vocation. But he didn’t feel shame in the position. In his estimation, it was better than he deserved and at least he had something to do now, a way to earn his keep. Moreover, he was close to the woman of his heart. In the month he’d been there, he’d already seen Juliana a few times and she was more beautiful than he remembered. He was content with admiring her from afar. He didn’t deserve any better. His domain was now the butchery and the kitchen yard, and he never ventured far from his domain. He rarely said a word and was obedient to the cook, who commanded him about and didn’t ask too many questions about the damage to his face and the odd mask he wore to cover it. Sometimes, he took the mask off just to breathe, but he quickly put it back on when people came around.

But that wasn’t too often because he slept in a shed next to the butchery that contained axes and knives and a sharpening wheel; tools of his trade. Still, he wasn’t entirely alone. He did have the companionship of the little mice that ran between the stables and the kitchen yard. Sometimes, he even fed them. The cook saw him once and, given the fact that the mask he wore resembled a mouse, laughingly called him the King of the Mice. It seemed that the mice were all he had these days. The once-great knight, now reduced to a Mouse King and his self-made realm of misery. He expected nothing more. CHAPTER ONE IT WAS HER Four Years Earlier The Ides of December, 1197 A.D.

Hollyhock House, London “HE İS HERE, Juliana!” “Who?” “Rhogan de Garr!” “How do you know?” “Because I heard someone call him by name! I saw him!” Lady Juliana de Nerra looked at her sister in shock. That shock soon turned to pleasure, and pleasure to giddiness. It was exactly what she’d been hoping for and to realize the man was here… the realization of it was enough to bring a blush to her cheeks. He was here! It was the Christmas season in London, perhaps the best season of the year for young and old alike. With just a few short days until the start of the Epiphany, the twelve days of Christmas that would cap off the season, there was a giddy excitement in the city as the great houses along The Strand open their doors and invited their guests into the warm and gluttonous halls. There was more food in these homes than some people saw in a lifetime, Hollyhock included. The de Nerra party had come all the way from Hampshire to attend the celebration, mostly because Val de Nerra was a very important man in England. As the recentlyappointed High Sheriff of Southern England, his jurisdiction ran from Cornwall to Kent, so if there was anything important going on in London, Val was either involved or invited to it. That meant any grand party, in this case given by the House of de Winter, was something Val and his family were expected to attend. But politics was the last thing on Juliana’s mind as she entered the massive manse.

All she cared about was the beauty and the festivity of it. Hollyhock put on a grand display – the glow of thousands of lit tapers and music filled the air. As she stepped towards the hall, packed with people, she could see flecks of gold falling on the guests, sprinkled from the Minstrel’s Walk above by servants to make it look as if it were raining gold. The shimmering effect in the light of the candles was both brilliant and magical. Still… that wasn’t the only thing that had her attention. She was most interested in a certain young knight her sister had evidently seen. But Charlotte was grabbing at her, annoyingly, and she couldn’t really enjoy the spectacle before he with her younger sister pawing at her. As a servant took her snowdusted cloak away, Juliana slapped at her sister’s hands. “Charlotte, stop,” she hissed. “Stop pulling on me!” Charlotte, a lovely girl who was a reflection of her beautiful mother, couldn’t quite keep her hands from her sister even though every time she touched her, Juliana batted her fingers away.

“But I saw him, Juli!” she whispered loudly. “He is in the hall, over near the food! You must go and speak to him!” “I have not seen him in years.” “But you have always talked about him!” She was right. Rhogan de Garr. Juliana had known that name her entire life. The mere whisper of it made her heart beat faster. Rhogan’s father and her father served together since before any of their children were born, so Juliana had always known Mayne de Garr as sort of an uncle. His handsome son, who was almost six years older than she was, had been a terrible little boy. She remembered him as he played with her older brothers and, somehow, he always ended up teasing her or trying to smash mud into her hair. That had been when she was very young but, as they both grew a little older, things had changed.

Her perspective on him had changed. Rhogan never seemed to grow out of that aggressive, sometimes nasty little boy but, somehow, he also became rather humorous. And sweet. He would take her along when he went to play jokes on the soldiers and then protected her from their wrath when she didn’t run fast enough to get away. And his grin… God’s Bones, she remembered that grin to this day. He’d flash it at her, with big white teeth and a massive dimple in his left cheek, as if that grin made anything he did a forgivable offense. In fact, she’d been infatuated with him for quite some time before he’d gone away to foster and Juliana had been left heartbroken. She’d been six years of age and Rhogan had been eleven, and they’d lost touch after that. She’d heard snippets of news from her father over the years – how Rhogan was part of King Richard’s fighting force in France and how he’d distinguished himself at even his young age, but it had been ten years since she’d last seen Rhogan. As she and her family filtered into the great hall of Hollyhock House, she found that she was buzzing with anticipation.

Would he remember her? Would he simply smile and pass her by? The suspense was building. “Come, Juli!” Charlotte couldn’t keep her hands to herself and tugged on her. “Let us go to the table with the food! There is a castle on it made from sweets!” By this time, Juliana’s younger brother and her youngest sister had joined them. Theo de Nerra and Sophia de Nerra were the two babies of the seven-child family, a second set of twins in a family where the oldest two brothers were also twins. But Theo and Sophia looked nothing alike, with Theo the exact image of their dark-haired father while Sophia was the one and only blond girl in the family. She looked like a little angel, but there was a devil spirit inside of that child. She was a brilliant little scamp. After throwing her cloak at her mother, she ran to her older sisters and grabbed Juliana by the hand. “Come!” she cried. “Let’s go in, let’s go in!” She was dancing her way into the hall, tugging at the barge of her reluctant older sister, while Theo got in behind her and pushed.

Somehow, Juliana was shoved into the festival hall whether or not she was ready. In she went, and the crowd swallowed her up. Still in the entry hall, shaking the snowflakes off the cloaks, Val and his beautiful wife, Vesper, were trying to keep an eye on their brood. Once the children pushed into the warmly-lit hall, Vesper handed the last cloak over to a servant and took a few steps after her children, preparing to follow. “We should not let them alone in there,” she told her husband. “They will eat all of the food and claim victory over the entire table.” Val grinned. “Juliana will not, but the younger three… aye, you are right. We should not let them alone in there. It is a cruel thing to do to the guests.

” Vesper turned to look at him, trying not to grin. “It is your fault,” she said. “Charlotte and Theo and Sophia are old enough to go and foster. They would learn better manners if they did. God help me, they are so much like your mother in so many ways. I see her boldness in everything about them. One child with her manner would be enough, but three? We are being punished somehow.” Val started to laugh, thinking of his aggressive, ruthless but loving mother who had passed away the year before. “I do not miss my mother so much when I look at them,” he said, his green eyes glimmering as he looked out over the crowd, spying his children near the big table laden with food. “I find such joy in the way they are.

I am not ready to part with them yet. See what happened the last time I parted with one of my children. It nearly killed her.” Vesper sobered unnaturally fast, her mind going back six months to the moment when one of their elder sons, Gavin, brought his sister home from fostering with the Duke of Colchester. The parents’ joy at the return of their children had turned into horror when they saw that their daughter had been gravely injured while serving in the house of a royal cousin. It had been an excellent position for Juliana, so Val had thought, and he’d negotiated the position with the Duchess of Colchester even though he knew the woman’s husband had a bit of a dark reputation. The man was a cousin to the king, of noble blood but not of noble heart. There had been rumors of his dirty actions through the years, questionable dealings and unsavory incidents, but the duchess had assured him that she and the duke maintained separate lives. For the value of the experience he believed Juliana would have, he agreed to let her go. Unfortunately, the duchess hadn’t told the truth.

In the duke’s quest to molest one of his wife’s ladies, Val’s daughter had gotten in the way. Colchester had beaten her, quite badly, but the parents knew nothing about it until their son, Gavin, had brought her home. Gavin had been in London at the time, serving at Westminster, and he had promptly brought his sister home to heal. But healing had taken awhile. Juliana had suffered broken ribs and a cracked skull, among other injures, and Val hadn’t forgiven himself for letting her go with the Duchess of Colchester in the first place. It was a good thing the duke had been killed shortly after the beating because, surely, Valor de Nerra would have torn the man limb from limb for what he’d done. But that incident had made Val extremely protective of his children, more than he already was, and wildly protective over Juliana in particular. Even now, his daughter wasn’t even fully out of his sight but he was starting to panic because she was away from him. Vesper understood his fears well but, in this case, she had to be the strong one. Val couldn’t take her fears, as well.

“It was an unexpected happenstance,” Vesper said calmly, reaching out to grasp his hand. “You could not have known. The duchess explained what happened and she explained she’d done all she could to protect her women. You cannot blame yourself, Val, and you cannot let this deter you from sending our other children to foster. They are wild hooligans and need the discipline that fostering in a good household will bring them.” Val had his eye on Juliana as she moved by the table, her dark hair in carefully-styled curls. “Mayhap I will consider it this coming year,” he said, although it was reluctantly. “I will send them to de Lohr or de Winter or even to de Wolfe in the north. I will know the character of the homes I send them to, but Juliana… I am not ready to send her away again so soon.” “And you do not have to.

I believe she wants to remain with her papa for a time.” Val nodded, thinking of his beautiful eldest daughter. “She still moves stiffly at times. And she tires easily.” “The physic said she would for a while. It is because of the cracked skull.” “I know.” There wasn’t much more to say to that. This was Juliana’s first big outing after her brush with death and Val intended that she should enjoy it. She should not have to worry about her father who was so terribly concerned for her.

Therefore, he forced a smile and looked at his wife. “Shall we go and manage our brood?” he asked. “Before they tear the place down?” Vesper nodded, squeezing his hand as he pulled her close to him. The love, the adoration between them, was evident, something that all men envied. For certain, the love story between Val and Vesper de Nerra was the stuff of legends. With a wink at his wife, Val led his love into the glowing, lavish chamber.

.

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