A/N – Well, this has been on my computer for a while. It was either scrap it or display it. It's just an introductory, situation building one-shot.

A Meeting at an Inn

Her name was Kate, and she was sixteen years old. A stubborn and fiercely impulsive girl, she roamed her father's estate with perfect confidence that nothing would ever harm her and no one would ever wish her ill. Her looks were unremarkable – dark eyes, dark hair and a skinny body that had never really developed the curves of her peers; in compensation, she ignored the womanly arts and concentrated on her skills at climbing trees and fighting. She had a fine mind, but no formal education, a fierce intelligence, but on an isolated farm near the Marches, nothing on which to apply it.

She had a father and three older brothers – her father cosseted her and her eldest brother tried his hardest to force her to conform so that he could marry her off. The two younger brothers simply ignored her existence, preferring instead to concentrate on their advancement and ambitions. Of them all, she loved her father, hated her eldest brother and tolerated her younger brothers. The main influence on her life was the herb woman on the estate – an aloof, abrasive woman who disguised concern beneath brisk competence, and who taught her all she knew about herbs and healing. She may not have known anything about being feminine, but she knew how to be practical, how to run a large estate smoothly, and how to see that the things that needed to be done were done.

It was not an idyllic existence – her brothers occasionally caused her angst, but she couldn't act on it, occasionally her father's rages threatened her and occasionally she was lonely, the taunts of her fellow children might have damaged her sense of self-worth – but it was her life, and she was content.

She had never wanted more, never yearned for a wider existence, or for a perfect husband or for anything else. It was enough.

One day, in her sixteenth year, her eldest brother bought in a suitor who would not be discouraged. Of course, she hadn't known then that she was a substantial heiress - her mother, different to her brothers' mother, had been quite wealthy and had left everything to her. All she knew was that this one would not be so easy to get rid of – he proved her right by trying, one day, to abduct her and take her to Gretna, where they could be married with or without her guardian's, or indeed her own consent.

She had been forced to resort to desperate measures – she'd developed, in her years running wild, a very skillful right hook, which she used to great effect on the overzealous suitor once they had stopped for the night at an inn. Then, after bloodying his nose, she'd picked up a poker and struck him on the head – by all rights, this should have knocked him unconscious, incapacitating him – but fate was against her that night. He'd merely staggered forward, losing his grip on her, just enough for her to flee his grasp and the room, clattering down the stairs in a great hurry and just ahead of his enraged pursuit.

She'd almost made it before he grasped the edge of her skirts, jerking her to a stop in the middle of the common room and spinning her around in preparation, in full view of the inn and its patrons, for the blow which would teach her a lesson once and for all. She'd closed her eyes, screwing them shut in anticipation, braced for a crashing blow –

It never came.

Cautiously opening her eyes, she saw his clenched fist only inches from her face, trembling with fine tension. It had been prevented from striking her by another, stronger force; wrapped around his wrist, restraining it, was a fine, elegant hand, rock solid despite the straining tendons holding back nearly two hundred pounds of muscle and rage.

He was surprisingly slender, she saw: disconcerting, to see such strength in such a lean, spare frame. Not that he wasn't favourably built, but the man he was restraining was much bulkier, and he held him at bay with no discernable effort. His face was entirely impassive – no sign of the strain he must be under showed on his face, which was aristocratic, faintly stubbled, and remarkably fair. He had to be some ten years older than she – in his late twenties – with white-fair hair and eyes of glacial silver. Those eyes were fixed unblinkingly on her would-be attacker, completely blank, but intimidating in their emptiness, their coldness.

Under that expressionless gaze, her attacker slowly, carefully released the tension in his arm, making no sudden movements, warily regarding the other man as he backed off and his wrist was released. When he was completely free, he held up his hands, showing he was unarmed, slowly stepping backwards until he had retreated to a safe distance – then he bolted and ran, leaving Kate alone with the stranger and a common room of fascinated onlookers. Under the stranger's gaze, the onlookers all looked away, going back to their conversations and their meals, making very sure that they were minding their own business.

Grey eyes regarded her impassively – no judgment, no curiosity, only detached analysis. She swallowed, controlled her impulse to flush or wipe her hands on her skirts, and lifted her chin to meet his gaze. Searching her eyes, he seemed to come to a decision, for he nodded, and then indicated the private dining room.

He turned on his heel and led the way.

There were two other men in the room with him – both of them slender and dressed in black, but the similarities ended there. Dark haired, and dark eyed, they appeared to be just as dangerous as her rescuer, but without his glittering brilliance. They were subservient to him, she saw – it wasn't in their posture, which was almost insolent, but it was in the way that they looked at him, the way that they came to attention when he entered the room. Looking closer, she saw that their right hands were tattooed with the same design – no doubt it was a significant clue, but she had no idea what it meant.

The stranger had yet to say anything to her, so she decided to stay silent for the moment, accepting the drink he held out and sipping it slowly, sinking down into a chair, watching him all the while.

"Thank you," she finally ventured, trying to break the tension and the slight silence that had built up between them. The stranger said nothing, only focusing those silver eyes on her, almost looking through her, as if he were examining her from the inside out. She knew she wasn't pretty, or even particularly desirable – the stranger seemed to ignore that, though, and was focusing on her mind.

"What is your name?" he asked softly, his voice smooth and fine and only slightly accented – a Welsh accent, like her own, softened by aristocracy. She frowned. She thought she knew all the families around her part of Wales, but she had never encountered him or anyone who looked anything like him before. Nor had she met anyone who went around with two bodyguards – yes, they were bodyguards, she knew that much – and exuded such an air of authority and power.

She lifted her chin. "I am Kate Kellands," she said clearly. "And I must thank you for saving me from him."

He looked distinctly amused – his face didn't change, but his eyes glinted unmistakably. "You're quite welcome, Kate Kellands. It looked like you had done some damage to him yourself."

She flushed. "My brothers taught me."

"Ah, yes, your brothers," he said, swirling the brandy in his glass. "Oliver, Ethan and John Kellands, and your father Richard Kellands," he mused absently. Looking up again, he fixed her with an amused but very serious smile. "Not, if you will forgive me, the most popular of men."

She bristled automatically, but subsided at the sardonic glint in his eyes. He knew all too well that she was too honest to deny it. Her family had a bad reputation – they were rich and influential yes, but there were too many stories told about them, too many facts she knew personally. So in the end she said nothing.

"And where are they, your brothers and your father, when you need them the most?"

She didn't say anything. It was all too apparent that they either didn't know what had happened to her, in which case they should have sent out search parties and most definitely a message to this, the main inn on the road north, or they knew and they didn't care, or they approved. There had been no messengers to the inn – so she had to conclude that the forced elopement had been made with the full knowledge and consent of her brothers and father. It was not a nice thought.

He could see it in her eyes, of course – the pain, the disillusionment – but had the grace to say nothing. Instead, he looked at one of the two bodyguards lounging discreetly in the corner, and the man got up silently and went outside. The stranger's silver eyes focused on her again, but this time with something like compassion.

"Your would-be fiancé's reputation is most unsavoury," he raised an eyebrow, "but he has a great deal of money, money that your brother Oliver greatly covets." He saw her face fall, continued on nevertheless. "Your attacker wished to marry into the gentry; this scheme fulfilled both their needs."

She made a whimpering sound, stunned at the hurt that the truth had caused, despite how inured she'd thought she'd become over the years to her brothers' callous ambition. He looked at her with swift concern, but she quickly regained outward composure and waved him off.

She forced herself to look at her situation objectively. She was at a public, roadside inn miles from her home, abandoned by even her prospective suitor, and no one was going to come after her. She had a general idea of the way home, but she had no money and walking would take days. She wasn't even sure that she wanted to go home, now. But where else could she go? And last, perhaps least important of all to her, but not to society, she was hopelessly compromised.

It didn't look good.

The stranger came closer and knelt down by her chair, offering her a handkerchief. She took it automatically, noting it was made of fine linen, and rather than being monogrammed, had three diagonal lines, one on top of the other, running downwards at about 45 degrees from upper right to lower left embroidered in the corner. She stared at it absently, preoccupied by her problems, until the significance of those three lines penetrated her thoughts.

The Montfort sigil.

Her wide eyes must have given her away, because he sighed soundlessly and nodded. "Yes, indeed, Miss Kellands."

She blinked and said the first thing that came into her head. "And you said something about popularity and good reputations…?"

He grinned – and it changed the whole character of his face, imbuing it with a radiance, a light, as if it were illuminated from within. She gasped involuntarily, because she had never seen anything so beautiful, so…alive.

But then common sense took over.

The Montforts were the most powerful family in Wales, certainly one of the most powerful in England itself. It wasn't military power, but manipulative tendrils of alliances and influence that reached through nearly every household in the land. They were courted, flattered, resented and hated by anyone who wanted to gain influence – and they continually walked the knife-edge between absolute power, and too much that the king would turn on them and destroy them.

Intriguers, one and all.

What was a Montfort doing here, of all places, and sitting talking to her?

He saw the thoughts in her face; saw the exact moment when she realized something of the truth. "Your brothers," he agreed, "and your father."

"Forgive me," she said a little acidly, "But I didn't think my brothers, and my father, were of a sufficient level of…" she raised a brow, "notoriety to warrant Montfort intervention."

He took a small sip of his wine. "No, you're quite right," he said casually, "they aren't. However, an alliance between Kellands and your prospective suitor might have been enough to tip them over. I was sent to make sure it didn't happen."

She frowned, teeth tugging at her lower lip. She didn't notice the way his eyes noted the movement, the silver darkening fractionally, even though he made no other reaction. "But who could send you?" she asked, a little naively. The Montforts were not arbitrarily sent anywhere by anyone.

He smiled a little ruefully, a little crookedly. "Direct orders from the King himself are not to be lightly ignored." She noted he hadn't said they weren't to be ignored. "As to his sending me on such a small mission, perhaps he thought it a rather polite way of putting me in my place." The smile sharpened, became less pleasant. "It would not be the first time he has tried."

She tilted her head, intrigued by the undercurrents in that statement. But, perhaps sensing that he had revealed too much, he smoothed over his expression and became impassive, stilling his expressive hands. In a burst of impulsiveness, inspired by his former confidences, she asked one last question, reckless in her ease with this stranger. "Which Montfort are you?"

He raised his eyes back to hers at that, his own sardonic, hers slightly shocked that she had asked such an intrusive question. Because such things were not asked on ten minutes acquaintance. Because the answer, if he chose to answer, could be most dangerous…

A reckless light appeared in his eyes, and, almost unbelievably, he grinned. Unlike before, when the amusement had been true, this time his smile was ironic and mocking. "Don't you know?" he asked softly. "I am the Montfort…"

The Montfort. Julian Montfort, the Lord himself.

Oh, Lord. Unconsciously, she began fiddling with her sleeves, a nervous habit she had had since childhood. His eyes followed the gesture and understood. "Don't worry," he said dryly. "I'm not going to harm you, Miss Kellands. You have seen to my task yourself."

"I've gotten some practice at chasing off suitors lately," she said, a little giddy. She didn't see how his eyes narrowed at that news.


"Yes," she laughed suddenly, a high pitched, utterly out of character sound. Her hand flew to her mouth, pressing in the rising feeling of…

"Here." A long, slender white hand pressed a glass of brandy into hers, and once more he came to kneel down by her chair. It was the second time he had done that, she noted absently, but she didn't think that he made a habit of doing such things too often…

She gulped the brandy down, ignoring his wince at the way she treated the expensive spirit. "Thank you," she said, voice muffled, turning her face away from his too-perceptive eyes.

There was a period of silence as he allowed her to recollect her composure, and then eventually he said, "Tell me about these suitors."

She frowned, puzzled. What did the suitors matter? But he was insistent, the hand placed on her chair gently but effectively caging her in not about to move at any time soon. Finally, her wits a little fuzzed by the brandy, she sighed and gave in. "I'm not the type of girl that men like to marry," she began, sneaking a look at him to see how he took this news. He was impassive. "So when suitors started popping up out of nowhere, all of them wanting to marry me, I was a bit suspicious…" His grey eyes were clear and showed absolutely nothing but polite interest, but he leaned in a bit further, giving her silent encouragement with his body language.

How she knew these things, she didn't know. She had never met the man before, but she felt that she knew him even so. She felt that she could read him. But she didn't tell him that, or indicate it in any way; something told her he wouldn't appreciate anyone having that much of an understanding of him. There was something intensely private and self-contained about him, some kind of inner, fundamental strength; some part of her recognized it, and was drawn to it.

Kate had never met anyone quite like him. Her own family was hotheaded, with a kind of feral intelligence; she had never before encountered this fine, iron discipline, very thinly veiled by a veneer of manners, elegance and grace. Under the grace was an iron strength, she could sense it in the finely drawn lines of his body, in the clean, smooth lines of his profile – the thick white hair, the bright silver eyes so unfathomable and yet so direct, the perfect features…

She shook her head. She had never been fanciful about a man before, and she wasn't going to start now. Most especially not with this man – this Montfort, who need only lift his finger to command more power than she could ever dream of.

"I'm sorry?" he said, his eyes quizzical. She wondered if he could see what she was thinking, could somehow divine the reason for her truly spectacular blush.

"N-Nothing," she stammered. "I was just…drifting."

He smiled, a crooked, lazy, genuine smile. "Perhaps, then," he laughed, "we could drift back to the subject? Your suitors, and their unusual persistence. Did you ever discover the reason?"

Her mouth set grimly. "Money." She thought, with great distaste, of the fortune her mother had left her and the way it had ruined her life. "My mother left me a fortune, you see."

"You don't sound pleased."

"Too bloody right I'm not pleased!" she snapped, causing him to blink. "I turned from an invisible nobody to a commodity, an object, a prize! And if what you say is true, my brothers suddenly began to see me as an asset to be traded…"

"Unfortunate," he commented. "Especially if it led to tonight's episode. Do you think that it will happen again, if you go back?"

"But where else am I supposed to go?" she all but wailed. "I don't have any other friends – if I don't go home, I'll have nowhere to go."

He looked at her for a time, then, his eyes serious and his face curiously set. His lips, normally half-smiling, were pressed together quite firmly – and his fingers were iron hard in their grip.

"My dear Miss Kellands," he began, "do I take it that you have absolutely nowhere to go? Your mother's family, perhaps? There's no one else?"

"No," she sniffed, blowing her nose defiantly. "I told you. No one else."

"I see." He smiled quite strangely. "Are you telling me the truth? Because, I assure you, had it been anyone else –"

She glared at him. "This is no jest, sir."

"Had it been anyone else," he ignored her interruption, "I would suspect you of laying the most cunning trap I've seen in quite a while."

"Well really," she stared at him, speechless. This was the outside of enough – she'd thought she could trust him, thought that he understood… "Do you call me a liar, sir?" She said hotly. "Do you think that I invented my importunate suitor, or placed myself here miles out of my way solely to bring myself to your–"

He placed a gentle hand over her mouth, stopping her indignant tirade.

"Will you do me the honour, Miss Kellands, of accepting my hand in marriage?"