Excerpt: The Velvet Promise

Prologue

JUDITH REVEDOUNE LOOKED ACROSS THE LEDGER AT HER father. Her mother, Helen, was beside her. Judith felt no fear of the man in spite of all he’d done over the years to make her fear him. His eyes were red with deep circles beneath them. She knew his ravaged face was due to his grief at the loss of his beloved sons; ttwo ignorant, cruel men who were exact replicas of their father.

Judith studied Robert Revedoune with a vague sense of curiosity. He didn’t usually bother with his only daughter. He had no use for women since his first wife died and his second, a frightened woman, had merely given him a girl. “What do you want?” Judith asked calmly.

Robert looked at his daughter as if seeing her for the first time. Actually, the girl had been kept hidden most of her life, buried with her mother in their own apartments amid their books and ledgers. He noticed with satisfaction that she looked like Helen had at that age. Judith had those odd golden eyes that some men raved about, but which he found unsettling. Her hair was a rich auburn. Her forehead broad and strong, as was her chin, her nose straight, her mouth generous. Yes, she would do, he thought. He could use her beauty to his advantage.

“You’re the only one I have left,” Robert said, his voice heavy with disgust. “You will marry and give me grandsons.”

Judith stared at him in shock. All her life she had been trained by Helen for life in a nunnery. Not a pious education of prayers and chanting, but one of high practicality, leading to the only career open to a noblewoman. She could become a prioress before she turned thirty. A prioress was as different from the average woman as a king from a serf. A prioress ruled lands, estates, villages, knights; she bought and sold according to her own judgment; she was sought by men and women alike for her wisdom. A prioress ruled and was ruled by no one.

Judith could keep books for a large estate, could make fair judgments in disputes, and knew how much wheat to grow to feed how many people. She could read and write, manage a reception for a king, run a hospital; everything she would need to know had been taught her.

And now she was expected to throw all of this away and become the servant of some man?

“I will not.” The voice was quiet, but the few words could not have been louder if they’d been shouted from the slate rooftop.

For a moment, Robert Revedoune was bewildered. No female had ever defied him with such a firm look before. In fact, if he didn’t know she was a woman, her expression would have been that of a man. When he recovered from his shock, he hit Judith, knocking her halfway across the little room. Even as she lay there, a trickle of blood running from the corner of her mouth, she stared up at him with absolutely no fear in her eyes, merely disgust and a touch of hatred. His breath caught for a moment at what he saw. In a way, the girl almost frightened him.

Helen was over her daughter in minutes and, as she crouched there, she drew her eating dagger from her side.

Looking at the primitive scene, Robert’s momentary nervousness left him. His wife was a woman he could understand. For all her outward look of an angry animal, he saw weakness deep in her eyes. In seconds he grabbed her arm, the knife flying across the room. He smiled at his daughter as he held his wife’s forearm in his powerful hands and snapped the bones as one would break a twig.

Helen never said a word, only crumpled at his feet.

Robert looked back at his daughter where she still lay, not yet able to comprehend his brutality. “Now what is your answer, girl? Do you marry or not?”

Judith nodded briefly before she turned to aid her unconscious mother.