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Love Conquers All... or can it? Xavier Brice has returned the woman he loves home, but he will have to fight to make sure she can hold on to all she has claimed, including his heart.
Io Brice is ready to claim the only man who has never failed her and accept everything he offers her, but making a claim and actually holding it, might cost her her life.
The trials and tragedies they have worked through have deepened their trust and love and given them both the courage and strength they need to move forward.
But a danger waits to end them before they can begin. Love gives them strength, but can it protect them from a determined assassin? Will one or even both fall victim to a blade wielded by another who wants to claim everything?
No longer fighting each other, can Xavier and Io defeat the enemy who would see them lose everything the Scold Claims?
Publisher's Note: This book includes elements of power exchange, old-fashioned discipline, and explicit scenes. If any of these offend you, please do not purchase.
Xavier Brice dismounted and looked around. With hours before the sun set, there should be people about, but only a few scattered servants could be seen. All the work sheds were dark, and with the exception of the two men watching the small army come through the gates, none of the soldiers or knights of the house were out. The lack of activity and the dereliction of the duty in ensuring the safety of the buildings and people made his hair stand on end. Something wasn't right, and his gut twisted wondering if bringing his wife home was wise.
"Steady," Gerald said, still sitting his horse. "Everyone is in place. Stay with the plan."
Xavier gave him a curt nod and handed up his reins. He should be thankful for no crowds. He'd planned on arriving early morning for this reason, but the strong winds overnight prevented much forward progress. He wanted no gathering, still he was uncomfortable.
His men positioned themselves without prompting. Too, he knew they searched those about and took note of their reaction. Determining who was loyal or not, no one was above suspicion. The possibility the person or persons responsible for trying to kill his wife, trying several times, in fact, was under his roof was serious.
"You all know what you are to be about, get to it before it gets dark," Jon said to the men standing closest. One man turned to affirm the command through Xavier.
"Please," Xavier added and was strangely warmed by the smile his soldier gave him before they broke away to attend their assigned duties. Io was consistent about saying please and thank you. She didn't need to, but she did. Maybe because the response made her feel the same. And if it made Io happy to give people simple courtesy, he could make it a habit. Anything to see her smile.
"Should you get her?" Lucas asked as he came to stand by the others who'd gathered close in preparation to escort Io inside. "She has not been on her legs in two days."
Xavier sighed, concern made his feet drag. He headed to Io waiting in the small wagon. Around him, men moved to take horses and get the animals settled. Others headed for the barracks to eat and sleep before their rotation began. The first on duty formed a line and checked weapons. It'd be these men who'd be placing themselves between Io and any enemy in the house when Xavier couldn't be at her side. Some would make it obvious they watched, others would keep their distance, hoping to catch anyone in the act of treason. Not all were from Bainsport, many came from his other holdings. Xavier relied on them to find the disloyal in his ranks. The distance kept them from being blinded by familiarity. Io wouldn't be at risk because anyone refused to see the man they spent every day living with as a false friend.
With a deep breath, he pushed back the tarp, hooking the lines so it wouldn't fall, and glanced inside. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust before he saw her. She sat blinking at the invading brightness. She looked ready, wearing a clean dress, her hair braided back from her face and the new cloak in her lap. She looked ready. Only he'd spent too much time assuming and that was part of the reason his wife felt the need to run. To risk her life. So he asked to be sure, to give her the courtesies she deserved from him.
"Are you ready?"
"It is safe?" Io asked
"You will be safe, Io. I will not let anything happen to you. Nor will any of the men." Xavier gave her the assurance she needed but only as much as he believed in. She wasn't likely to let her guard down, but he didn't want her so afraid she couldn't find any joy in life.
"You will stay close?" She lifted her cloak around her shoulders and fastened it before crawling towards him.
"I will not leave you." It was a lot to ask her to trust him. She continued to move towards him a slight upturn on her lips.
"Xavier," she whispered as she settled on the edge. "I trust you."
He slipped his arms around her back and under her knees, lifting her close before turning towards the house. "I will not fail you, Io."
She sighed and set her head on his shoulder. "I hope not. I have been practicing." Xavier stumbled, caught himself and stopped walking while he willed the heat burning through him to ease. "I think you will be pleased," Io added and pressed her lips to his neck.
"I am always pleased with you," Xavier said, starting for the steps again, even as Io snorted at his remark. "I will be most pleased to see what you have mastered." He nuzzled his check against hers. "But first let us get you settled. A good meal and a real bed."
"Oh, Xavier." He heard the pout in her voice. "You do not intend to keep me in bed."
"Io, you have not been well. You need to recover. It will not be such a hardship to lie in bed and let me spoil you." Xavier shortened his steps as four of the men in the detail rushed forward inside to make sure Io wouldn't enter an ambush.
"For how long?" she asked, tightening her hold around his neck.
"Only until you are fully recovered," Xavier said and put his foot on the first step.
"Fully, according to whom?" She swiped at his ear with her tongue.
"Io," he chided. Levity wasn't the most appropriate thing, but his wife wasn't restrained by what was appropriate.
She giggled. "Well, if I must wait for you to say I am well, I will be in bed until midsummer."
Xavier laughed and watched his men come back through the door and signal no one waited in the entry. "Would that be so terrible?" He continued the banter. It was a fine way to distract Io from her worry and keep her from noticing his own.
"Well." Her fists curled and clutched his shirt as he started up the steps. "I have practiced, and if you are to stay close…" Xavier stepped up onto the landing, and Io became stiff in his arms. "Bed is a very good place."
"I would enjoy nothing so much as to spend the whole year in bed with you," Xavier said setting her on her feet.
"A whole year?" Io gasped and opened her mouth to say something more when raised voices sent her scrambling behind him.
"I said let me pass." The shrill female voice shot out of the darkened passage. It was followed by a masculine howl of pain. A moment later, one of the men Xavier sent in first came stumbling back out holding his hands to his face. Blood poured from between his fingers, and he staggered towards the steps as if unable to see. Lucas rushed forward to keep him from falling off the landing.
The scraping of blades coming free of their sheaths sounded all around even as, with a gasp, Io came out from behind him and stepped forward. Xavier reached for her only to find he had to catch himself before toppling down the stairs.
"What were you thinking? How could you?" Sarah cried out as she grabbed Io and alternately shook her and hugged her. "You left me behind. How could you?" Again the woman, taller and heavier than Io, shook and then hugged her. "I told you I would go with you anywhere. I told you, you could not go alone."
"Sarah," Lucas yelled at his sister. He was ignored completely.
"You should have told me your plan. I would have met you." Sarah gave Io one final shake then pulled her into a smothering embrace. "Do you know how worried we have all been? Do you know how…" Sarah abruptly stopped speaking and pushed Io away. Her hands swept over Io's face and neck. "Oh, you are so warm. You should not be so warm." Sarah wrapped her arms around Io's shoulders and turned toward the entry. "Kate, Jude."
Two more women rushed out of the house. With a cry, they both threw themselves at Io. Just behind them, a second man limped out, bent in half and holding his crotch, he used the wall as support. "What the hell happened?" Gerald shouted, and both men pointed at Sarah who snapped out orders to the other women.
"Kate, the tub and water. Jude get Ann to heat a broth and then see if Gail can ready the chamber. Poor Io," Sarah soothed as the others rushed off to do as asked. "You are home now, everything will be all right."
"I am sorry, Sarah," Io said.
"Oh," Sarah cried and again collected Io against her. "I did want to give you a pinch, but you are here, all is forgiven. Come, we will go inside and ma—"
"What is going on here? I—" Charlotte Brice stepped from the shadows, and as her eyes fell on Xavier, a look of satisfaction crossed her face. Then she looked towards where Io stood hiding behind Sarah. Charlotte didn't even attempt to disguise her contempt, and when she again looked towards Xavier, he saw contempt for him too. "You brought that back. Look at her," Charlotte snarled, pointing at Io. "She is more than half dead, better you should have dug a hole and—"
"Shut your evil mouth," Jon yelled, stepping up behind the women. Putting his hands on Io's shoulder, he pulled her back against him.
"Do not speak to me that way," Charlotte yelled back.
"I will, and I will be clear about it. Shut your mouth." Jon pulled Io back more. Sarah naturally stepped with them until Io was pressed between their bodies.
"Do not stand there and let that… cur speak to me like that." Charlotte directed her command at Xavier.
He'd hoped he'd at least get through one night before having to confront his mother. Truth, he hoped he'd never set eyes on her again. Xavier stepped over to where Sarah stood shielding Io. "Mistress Sarah," he started calmly, softly. "Take Io inside and see her settled comfortably. She has been unwell, and I know you are best suited to see to her care." He waited to see Sarah nod before he reached out and pulled Io against him. He lifted his hand to her cheek and brushed his thumb gently along her temple. "Go with Sarah, Io. I will follow shortly." He saw her eyes flash to Charlotte and her teeth bit down on her lip. "Io, you are lady of this house."
Her eyes came back to him. "Xavier, do nothing you will regret."
"I already did, and I learned from it," he said as he bent his head and kissed her softly. When he lifted his head, he could see her worry and concern but words wouldn't take either of those away. Only action. He smiled, then waved Sarah toward the entry.
"Xavier," Io called back with a shaky voice. "I left my camel… I…"
"I will bring it." He waved her on. "Go inside and get warm."
Xavier watched as Sarah took Io's hand and pulled her along. The maid kept herself between Io and Charlotte, even shifting to be at Io's back once they passed the woman. Everyone watched the women disappear into the darkness of the interior.
Xavier turned to see Lucas looking questioningly. "Go, see to them and get everyone set in place. As soon as I have Io's camel, I will be in." Lucas gave a nod and went after his sister and Io.
"Xavier, I demand—" Charlotte started.
"You are no one to demand anything," Jon interrupted, taking a menacing step toward Xavier's mother.
"Do not speak to me you worthless—"
"Madame," Xavier snapped.
Charlotte turned her full ire on him, and he felt the cold chill run up his spine. Everything he'd been taught, every experience, all advice, told him to stand down. He could feel the burn on his skin and the clenching in his muscles, pains from decades ago.
"Do not stand there," Charlotte said, stepping towards Xavier. "You will not let such things be said to me. I am your mother."
They were pains from decades ago. They were also nothing compared to the pain felt when he lost Io, when he learned the full peril she was placed in, the extent of her ordeal because he didn't stand up to this woman. He'd been a coward. He was not going to be one again.
"Shut your mouth, Madame," Xavier said, surprised by the calm, hardness of his voice.
"How dare you," Charlotte stepped up, raised her hand and swung.
"How dare you," Xavier snarled, catching her wrist before her hand made contact with his face. "How dare you come into my house, my home and disrespect me, my wife and my friends." He threw her hand back at her and stepped forward so he was nearly on top of her. "How dare you set yourself up as anyone with any authority here. Use my resources and abuse my people." Xavier took another step forward and found immense satisfaction in seeing his mother step back. "I will no longer tolerate or excuse you, Madame. You will not only be silent; you will be gone." He saw Charlotte's eye flare wide and she paled a moment before her face went bright red in outrage.
"I am your mother; you will never speak to me like this. Your father—"
"My father is dead, and I will never believe he would condone your behavior. You will go, Charlotte Brice. You are not welcome here." Xavier pulled back and straightened up. "Get out of my house."
"You cannot set me out," Charlotte sputtered.
"It is done," Xavier told her and watched as she thought about what she might do next. Whatever she thought, the only thing she'd do was leave. As would the other woman hiding in the shadows. "Harold," Xavier called, gaining his man's full attention. "Find two mounts if you will, and I know you only just arrived, but if you would escort Lady Charlotte and Lady Claire as far as… Paxtire." That should be far enough. "They can await Alexander there." He didn't miss the wicked smile that passed over his man's face before he turned to do as bid. "Go, Madame, it grows dark, and I would have my man able to sleep in his bed."
"You have gone mad," Charlotte huffed and turned to go inside.
Xavier reached out and grabbed her arm, pulling her to a stop. He turned them so he stood between her and the entry. "You are not welcome in my home. You are leaving."
"Let go of me," Charlotte screeched. "I am your mother."
"You are the woman who gave birth to me, and for that only I will see you sheltered until your eldest son fetches you. But you will not find shelter in my house," Xavier told her and tightened his grip as she struggled to get free.
"Let me go, you sickly whelp," she shrieked. "I should have drowned you the day you took your first breath. You ungrateful, ill-mannered, heathen."
Xavier swung around to find his brothers Michael and Stephen rushing from the house. The twins skidded to a stop as soon as they saw Xavier. "Why are you here?" Xavier asked, glaring at the two youngest siblings.
"We came to see you wed," Michael said, pushing past Claire Blake to stand beside Charlotte. Xavier saw him look from Xavier's grip on their mother back to Xavier's face. "The one you married last year is dead is she not?"
"She is not," Xavier growled, drawing in a steadying breath so he didn't snap his brother's neck.
"He brought her back, but she is half dead," Charlotte said rather calmly.
"Lady Io is far stronger than you will ever understand. Her death is anything but imminent. Unlike your departure." Xavier looked across the yard to see Harold with the horses. Practically nags, but capable of taking these people from his house. "Sir Harold waits," Xavier announced and pushed Charlotte towards the steps.
"You will stop this. I am in no humor for your wickedness." She set her feet and resisted being moved.
"You are not welcome; you will never be welcome again. Go now before you find I will not give you either mount or escort, and you must walk wherever you will end." Xavier pushed harder but his mother was no small, weak woman. She wouldn't budge.
"Xavier, what are you doing?" Stephen stepped up, trying to pull Charlotte back.
"These ladies are leaving," Xavier announced and waved up the men standing around. "As are you."
"Xavier, you cannot put mother out," Michael told him. "Let us all go inside and speak reasonably on the matter. If no satisfaction can be found, we can head back to Southtown." The words only confirmed the hold this woman had on her sons.
Xavier laughed, the sound held no humor. He was free of that hold and he'd remain free. "This woman is not welcome in my home. She is not welcome on any of my holdings. She should be on her knees giving thanks I will see her sheltered until Alexander arrives." He held onto his mother until the soldiers reached them and took her. They forced her down the steps. "Lady Blake," Xavier turned, the woman slinking back froze. "Your welcome, too, is at an end. Do you walk or must you be carried as well?"
"Xavier, you cannot do this," Michael insisted. "Let us take them back to Southtown and—"
"You will return to Southtown; I will allow that. You will return immediately to begin packing. I will send my assessor within the month," Xavier told the young men whom he set in as landlords on his southernmost holding.
"Packing?" Michael gasped.
"Assessor?" Stephen squeaked.
"I will give you the courtesy of waiting until spring to be out of my house, but do not think for a moment I will grant you any extension. I already have your replacement selected."
"You are removing us?" Michael asked even as Stephen continued to stare, slack jawed at him.
"You swore an oath to me as your liege when I set you in. You have violated that oath. You were set against Lady Io even as I wed her. You do not have the privilege of sharing your loyalties. And now you can get off my lands before I change my mind about letting our shared blood keep me from stretching your necks for treason."
"Xavier, where will we go? We have wives to care for." Stephen sounded about to cry.
"As do I," Xavier said not feeling any regret for the unplanned turn this day took. He didn't need anyone holding power in any manner if they weren't committed fully to his wife. Io could one day have to rely on those holding to defend her or his people. He'd put his younger brothers in as landlords as a favor to his father who couldn't find prospects for the twins. They'd married but their wives came with only a small dowry and no holdings. Such was often the fate of the youngest children in a large family.
"Brother, you cannot be serious," Stephen cried and Xavier saw the fear in his eyes.
"Do not address me with such familiarity. Any man who would betray me as you have I would never call brother. I am your liege lord and you have worked treason by standing against my lawful wife." He watched his brothers exchange looks. "Get out of my house."
"Xavier," Michael started, cowing back when Xavier glared at him. "My lord," he amended. "Please, we have no place to go. Reconsider, I beg you."
"No, get on your way."
"My lord, think of our wives, what they will suffer," Michael tried again, and Xavier could almost admire the man's persistence. If his plea didn't sicken him.
"Your wives have never known a day of discomfort because of me. Perhaps you should have considered them before you committed treason. Considered them before you acted in consort with her." He pointed down to Charlotte who was being forced onto the back of the horse. "Perhaps you should have considered my wife," he yelled the last in the man's face before grabbing his shirt front and shaking him. "My wife, Io. She did nothing to you, she caused you no harm, no discomfort, and you gave her not even a kind word." Xavier shook the man hard before throwing him to the ground. "Get out, you too will never find sanctuary on my holdings again."
"You cannot do this to me, Xavier," Charlotte yelled.
"Get them from this house and tell all who stand at the gates they are not to cross through again." Xavier said and watched his brothers scrambling down the steps to stand beside the woman who was directly responsible for their downfall. He did wonder if they hoped Xavier would yield to Charlotte as was the way of things as they understood.
"What of my things?" Claire yelled.
"Consider it forfeit for your acts against Lady Io." Xavier announced. This woman deserved no mercy and had no power to hurt him.
"You cannot think we will live perpetually in only what we have on," Charlotte squawked as she was tossed on the old horse and her feet jammed into the stirrups.
"It is no concern of mine, and you will not be long in your waiting. Alexander is on his way."
"Alexander does not know I am here," Charlotte said and with those words Xavier had a confession he didn't know he'd hear.
"I sent men for him, Charlotte, when I caught up to Lady Io. I sent men because I suspected Alexander was trying to avoid you. But I thank you for the confession. Now I know you intercepted my letters to him."
"Xavier, I had to. Do you not see? I had to. You must take a better lady to wife. You must join our house with the house of Blake. You must have a wife who will advance you. A good wife wh—"
"I have a good wife. I could have no better wife," Xavier yelled back, then turned away. "Get them out of my house." He didn't wait to see the manner in which they left. If they rode out with any dignity or if they were dragged out by their hair, he didn't care. He'd no respect left for any of them. His mother's involvement in the disintegration of his marriage was again foremost in his mind. Could she truly be behind the attempts on Io's life? And if she intercepted so many messages, did she also intercept ones Xavier sent to the king? As hard as Io worked to ensure their personal discourse didn't ruin Xavier's standing, even as ruin and death closed in, his mother might well have brought it on in her attempt to grab more for herself.
Xavier took two more steps towards the entrance of his home then stopped and turned around. Taking the steps two at a time, he went straight to the wagon. He'd told Io he'd bring her the little statue of the camel. He wasn't going to start over not keeping to his word. He wouldn't again say one thing and do another. Io would be able to count on him completely in both the large and small things.
It took a thorough search before he found the little hunk of wood, but he also found Io's pack. He'd return both, and she could start over with her belongs in her house, and he'd work to add to that which she laid claim.