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‘Mother, are you out of your wits?’ Johanna sank down on the linen chest in her mother's chamber after midday dinner, her thoughts whirling like blustery blown windmill sails. She regarded Lady Constance scathingly.

‘Am I to understand that you opportuned some man of unknown origin in our deer chase this morning and offered him money to be my husband! Jesu, madam, the knave might be blabbing the tale out to half the shire by now if he has sufficient ale to make his tongue gallop. What possessed you?’

‘Your wellbeing for a start,’ muttered her mother reproachfully, ‘and I did not opportune him. We first met a few days ago when he tried to rob Father Gilbert.’

Johanna's eyes widened further. For an instant, she could not find words to clothe her feelings. ’Only tried!’ she exclaimed. ‘Jesu preserve me, now you are admitting he is not only an outlaw but a stupid one as well.’

Her parent sniffed defensively. ‘He is a poor scholar and he was desperately hungry.’ Was that supposed to make her feel more comfortable about the fellow?

‘And a failed one, by the smell of it.’ Johanna rose and paced between the bed and door. Lady Constance of Conisthorpe was not usually so reckless. Certainly she ordered the demesne as skilfully as Lord Alan ever had and for the most part she chose her servants well. But had this outlaw a silvery tongue and a cheerful eye? She would wager he had cajoled his way into her mother's goodwill.

‘And another thing?’ Johanna swung round. ‘Why is this scholar of yours not tutoring some rich man's sons or employed honestly as a schoolmaster? What was he doing apart from trying to rob old churchmen? Poaching our deer?’

Catching Johanna's hands in hers, her mother exclaimed, ‘I am not such a fool as you think me. This man will serve our purpose, trust me. Where else can I find a stranger so swiftly, one who is willing to swear that he married you before Fulk did?’

Johanna tugged her fingers away. ‘Do you truly realise the enormity of what you are saying? You have asked some incompetent trickster to come and pose as my husband? Think about it, madam. Why would a woman of my status have espoused myself to a poor scholar?’

‘You could swear you fell in love. Besides, you have yet to meet him. You are judging the wine before you taste it.’

‘Of course I am.’ Johanna flung up her hands like birds panicked into flight. ‘I would not even buy this vinegary wine in the first place.’ She gave an angry sigh and gathered up her sewing and silks.

‘Supposing I were to arrange for you to meet him, Johanna?’ Her mother reached out a staying hand. ‘No, listen, go and bathe your face at St Robert's spring early tomorrow morning. This young man can meet you there. Then tell me yea or nay.’

‘What, go to the chase to be assaulted? Out of one cooking pot into another.’

Her mother met Johanna's outraged glare undeterred. ‘Father Gilbert can accompany you. He knows the scholar already.’

‘The chaplain is embroiled in this?’ That reined in Johanna's galloping indignation. She folded her lips, pensively gathering the embroidery to her breast. What harm might it do? The old courage in her struggled for air. ‘I was thinking of visiting the holy spring anyway. It may help my bruises heal faster.’ Then she sighed, ‘But it will not do. Edyth will insist on accompanying me like a shadow.’

‘I will warn the man.’ Lady Constance began to unpin her veil. ‘I had better make haste if I am to let him know this afternoon. I hope he will agree to this. To be honest, he is not exactly enthralled by my plan any more than you are.’ That was scant relief.

‘But the jingle of gold, of course, is loosening the straps that binds his conscience.’

‘You are probably right, lambkin. Where is my cap?’ She searched through the untidy pile of garments on her bed. ‘I am thankful you are being co-operative at last. This man will be perfect for our purpose, and let us face the facts, Johanna, we are beggars and must ride whatever horse we can in this matter.’

‘Mother, he is a beggar and will ride us if we let him.’

Copyright Isolde Martyn
Reproduced with permission of Random House Australia. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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