What She Wants Online

《What_She_Wants》

Prologue

For Helen and Mackenzie,

two of the sweetest Southern ladies I know.

Prologue

Claymorgan, England

Spring 1199

Her passage through the woods set the leaves atremble. Her childish laughter rang through the trees and the wind blew her hair out behind her in a golden stream. The sun covered her with kisses and the rain-damp earth squelched up between her toes, embracing her with each step.

Willa loved to run barefoot after a rain. However, if Eada or Papa found out about this, she knew there would be trouble. It was worth the risk.

She broke into a clearing and abruptly paused. Her laughter faded at once, the happiness slipping from her face. Something was wrong. It was so silent. Too silent. The birds had stopped singing and were motionless in the trees. Even the bugs had stopped buzzing. And she couldn't hear Luvena running in front of her anymore.

Her brow creased with worry as she peered slowly around the clearing.

"Luv?" she whispered, taking a tentative step forward. "Luv?"

A quiet rustle drew her head around. Something dropped from the small cliff near where she had entered the clearing. Cloth - golden as the sunlight - fluttered through the air like a chick tumbling from its nest. The bundle landed with an ominous thud.

Willa swallowed nervously. Her gaze slid slowly over the bright pile of gilded material on the ground. It was the gown Lord Sedgewick had brought back from London for her. The one Luvena had been so eager to wear.

Then she spied the small, motionless legs, in their fine new hose, peeking out from beneath the skirts. One of the soft slippers was missing. A hand lay half-curled in supplication amidst the material of the gown. Shiny red-gold tresses lay limp in the grass. Luvena's pale face was turned away, her head at an odd angle.

These images assaulted Willa one after the other like the threads of a tapestry that had yet to be created. By the time her brain had woven them together and understood their meaning, she had been screaming for several moments.

Chapter One

The door flew open, slamming into the cottage with what would have been a crash if it had been made of stronger material. Hugh had been about to dismount, but paused to run a wary eye over the old woman now watching him from the open door.

Eada. She was very old, age bowing her shoulders and gnarling her hands and fingers. Her hair was a long coarse cape of white around a face puckered and wrinkled by the passage of years. Only her cobalt eyes still held any hint of snapping youth. They also held a knowledge that was unnerving.

She can look into your eyes and see your soul, pick out every flaw you possess, along with every grace. She can read your future in the dregs of the wine you drink and read your past in the lines on your face.

Hugh had been told all of this and, still, a jolt went through him as he looked into the eyes of the old witch. He felt a shock run through his entire body, as if she truly were looking right into him. As if she could see all the way down to his presently curling toes. She held Hugh in thrall for a moment with just her eyes, then turned to walk into the hovel. She left the door open - undoubtedly an invitation for him to follow.

Hugh relaxed once she was out of sight, then glanced at the mounted man beside him: Lucan D'Amanieu, his friend and confidant for years. Hugh had rather hoped his companion would soothe the foolish superstitions suddenly rising within him. The old childhood beliefs in witches and haunts were all rattling to life in his suddenly fancy-filled mind, and he'd been counting on Lucan to arch one amused eyebrow and make some derisive comment that would put everything back into perspective. Unfortunately, it appeared his sensible friend was feeling rather fanciful himself today. Rather than soothe him, Lucan appeared nervous, himself.

"Think you she knows?" he asked.

Hugh gave a start at the question. It hadn't occurred to him that she might. He considered the possibility now, his gaze fixed on the hovel. "Nay," he said at last. "How could she?"

"Aye," Lucan agreed with less confidence as they dismounted. "How could she?"

The old woman was fussing over the fire when they entered the shack. It gave the two men an opportunity to survey their surroundings.

In contrast with the filthy and dilapidated state of the outside