Elisa expected changes when her brother returned to Thorncroft after years in the Kings' Crusade. That he returned with her future husband was unexpected. But Elisa fast learns to love the intriguing and attractive Signor Marco. All seems well, until the sudden arrival of visitors on the eve of her wedding…visitors who seem certain to destroy Elisa's chance at happiness.
It was a perfect morning for a homecoming.
Lady Elisa of Thorncroft thanked heaven for her brother's survival after fighting in the Kings' Crusade, but Sir John's return, marked the end of the life she'd enjoyed the past six years.
The aromas of roasting and baking followed her as she rode out to meet her brother. For three days, servants had been preparing the celebration feast. The entire house had been wild with activity since the first news of his return. Sir John was coming home to a hero's welcome and an estate that now fared well under her direction. Wheat stood strong and ready for the scythe, fruit trees bowed under the weight of an abundant crop and livestock had increased since the day John rode out to join the Christian cause.
They had not been easy years. She'd grown to a woman, learning along the way to direct servants and haggle with traders. The flood last summer and the drought the summer before she'd faced but with the authority to give orders. With John's return, she would descend from lady of the demesne to unmarried and now, perchance, unmanageable sister.
Still, that was preferable to marriage to Edwin Doune. Elisa would not feel anything as sinful as gladness that her betrothed was dead. Each night she prayed for his soul and thanked the Creator for sparing her from marrying him. She'd liked Edwin, and the alliance was blessed by all concerned, except the bride–to–be, who had no say in the matter. Edwin had been kind, she granted his departed soul that, but the one time he embraced her had been like kissing a dead carp.
She'd seen and heard enough between the servants and the villagers to know there was pleasure between men and women, but mayhap such a boon was just the Almighty's gift to peasants to compensate for their heavy lot in life. Perhaps such pleasures were not for those of her class and standing.
No time for pondering! The familiar blue banner of Thorncroft approached. It was faded and worn from long years of fighting, but the standard bearer carried it with pride. There were far, far fewer in the company than had set out that crystal-clear spring morning so many years gone past, but she could sense the joy in every heart at the sight of home.
At the head of the company rode her brother John, looking older than she remembered and weary and grime–streaked from travel. Beside John rode an unknown, broad-shouldered man on a white mount. The horse chomped, but the stranger held the reins with one hand, confident his horse would respond to a touch from his knees or thighs.
"Elisa!" John said as they met. "Let me present my rescuer from a heathen ambush, Signor Marco de Bella Vista. My sister, the Lady Elisa of Thorncroft."
"Lady Elisa," Signor Marco bowed, the tanned skin by his eyes crinkling as he smiled. "I am honored." His speech marked him as a foreigner, and his dark, searching eyes were unlike any she'd ever encountered.
"‘Tis my privilege, Signor Marco. Thorncroft is open to all loyal and brave knights, and my brother's savior gains a tenfold welcome."
"Gracious and beautiful, indeed," Signor Marco replied, taking her hand and kissing it. If good sense did not tell her otherwise, she'd swear she felt the touch of his lips through the leather of her glove. Or maybe it was his smile that stirred the warmth across her skin.