The Defiant Bride(10)

By: Leslie Hachtel



“I cannot agree you are mad, William. And it is not like you to allow your imaginings to get hold of your mind. Perhaps you were fevered and as you fought those demons the vision appeared.”

“The lady of the castle and her maid deny she exists.”

“What precisely do you remember of her?”

“She was magnificent. Skin like ivory. Lips of reddest roses and thick black hair, dark as midnight.”

“Odd. There is something strangely familiar in your description, but just now it eludes me.”

“Press your memory, for I shall never be appeased until I am certain, and I fear I shall never be satisfied with another.”

“William, I cannot help but remind you that you are betrothed. What do you plan to tell Melissa when you go to seek your—phantom?”

“Leah, we both know how you feel about Melissa. She is not the most pleasant company, but I require an heir and her lands hold great attraction for me. Until now. I’ve been bewitched. And if my vision be the result of the wound or fever, I still cannot say. But I will not settle for another. Surely if I imagined the woman, it was a portent that she truly does draw breath somewhere and I have no choice but to seek her out.” He rose and began to pace.

“And then what? Give up your betrothal for a commoner? Keep the woman in the forest as your mistress?”

“Perhaps she is not of untitled stock,” he protested.

“A noblewoman living in the forest? That is certainly not likely. I must say your tale evokes a wisp of smoke that does not take shape. For now, William, you need to allow Hildy to tend your wound. And then a proper bath.” She, too, rose and called for the servants to make preparations for her brother’s comfort.

William stripped off his doublet and withstood Hildy’s ministering and clucking; he almost smiled as she reluctantly agreed that the wound was closing nicely. She was none too accepting of another’s handiwork in her area. Hildy had seen to the healings of the Redfields since well before William was born. She was crusty and disrespectful, but she had saved all of them too often to worry about bowing and scraping, as she put it.

Once she had finished checking his wound, William shooed her away so he could sink into the hot bath that awaited. He slid down into the welcoming water that rose to his chin as his thoughts drifted. The vision’s eyes appeared before him, her gaze direct and filled with concern. He imagined her rising from the stream like some mythical goddess from the Greek stories he had read as a child, her velvet black hair floating about her hips like a cloak, her skin sparkling with glistening drops. He wanted to reach out and sample the softness of her skin and inhale the depth of her sweet fragrance.

William made a fist and slammed it into the water, sending splashes all about the tub.

Damn her! Damn her for haunting his thoughts. I know you exist, woman. I did not imagine you. And I shall seek you out and prove I am not mad, not subject to feverish visions. And when I do find you, I shall…make you mine and nevermore let you go.

William had just finished pulling on his leather boots when a knock came on his chamber door. Leah burst into the room. “William, I have it! The woman. Your phantom woman. Who she brings to mind,” she continued, pacing back and forth with the speed of a yearling colt.

William said nothing, fearful if he interrupted his sister would lose the thread of her thoughts.

“When you described her, I was reminded of a tale I have heard of a great beauty who disappeared about a year ago.” She quieted, lost in thought. “I am surprised you do not remember.”

Finally, unable to keep silent another moment, William demanded, “For the sake of heaven, Leah, get to the point.”

“Of course, dear, but you had best sit down before I continue.” Her tone was suddenly filled with sympathy.

“Why?” His frustration was obvious.

“Because I believe you have indeed encountered a spirit. Or, more accurately, a ghost. It is not so unheard of, you know. There are tales of ghosts appearing to the living, especially in times when the living are in danger.”

“Leah,” he said, measuring the words to maintain his calm, “the woman I saw was no ghost. She was flesh and blood and as warm and alive as you or I.”

“Dear brother, if it is as I believe, you encountered the form of the Lady Dariana, dead now for some time.”

“Ridiculous! I believe not in ghost stories,” he responded, more loudly than he had intended.

“The girl is said to have died near where you were discovered. It is even rumored she might have taken her own life rather than suffer the destiny of marriage to a Spaniard she had never met.”

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