Excerpt: Wild Wind

Book 2: Lords of Conquest, The Perigueux Family

Wild Wind by Patricia Ryan

Chapter 1

July 1073, Normandy: The Rouen palace-prison of William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy and King of England

“Alex, who is that woman? Do you see how she’s looking at you?”

“Which one, Faithe? Is she pretty?” Alexandre de Périgeaux shielded his eyes against the morning sun and scanned the sizeable crowd assembled in the courtyard of the Tour de Rouen, grateful for some diversion from such a long wait in such hellish heat.

Faithe of Hauekleah, Alex’s sister by marriage, shifted the babe on her shoulder and cocked an eyebrow. “I thought all women were pretty,” she teased, flinging his own, oft-repeated words back at him, “if you but looked at them from the right angle.”

“Cheeky wench. So they are.” Alex studied the multitude of lords and ladies—the flower of Norman aristocracy—garbed in peacock-hued finery, fanning themselves restlessly as they anticipated the upcoming ceremony. Some had gravitated around a jongleur accompanying himself on lute, who serenaded them with a long and lyrical chanson about knights going in search of the holy Grail. At the outskirts, clerics chattered in small groups, like clusters of blackbirds.

“She’s wearing white,” Faithe offered. “An exquisite silken tunic.”

“No lady in white is looking this way.” Worse luck. A little harmless flirtation—and perhaps a bit more, if the fates favored him—was just what he needed to adjust his bodily humors, unbalanced by having re-crossed the English Channel for the first time in seven years. It should gladden his heart to stand on Frankish soil, the soil that had bred and nurtured him, after so long an absence. And it wasn’t as if he was alone here, his brother’s family having journeyed with him from their Cambridgeshire farmstead for this great occasion. Yet he missed England—missed it terribly—and had from the moment he’d left its shore.

Perhaps he should have stayed there. Having little tolerance for court life and less for standing about waiting, Alex wondered how he would bear up under the full week of royal celebration to come.

Faithe peered into the crowd. “She must have turned back round. Her mantle is blue.”

“Little help there.” The courtyard was a sea of blue-cloaked backs.

Faithe patted the squirmy infant Edlyn. “She turned and stared at you, with the most curious expression. I thought she must know you.”

“There you are, brother!” Luke of Hauekleah greeted Alex with a slap on the back that he felt in his bones. “Do you never tire of flirting with my wife?”

“Never. You’d best stop wandering from her side, lest I resolve to steal her from you.”

Faithe rolled her eyes. Luke guffawed. Even five-year-old Robert, perched high on his father’s shoulders, smirked at the familiar empty threat. Luke and Faithe’s middle child, Hlynn, oblivious to the adult banter, gripped her father’s hand and sucked her thumb as she gazed with wonderment at the grand noblemen and their ladies milling in the courtyard. The three children were identical in coloring, with their Saxon mother’s creamy skin and calm hazel eyes, and the distinctive blue-black hair that Luke shared with Alex and the rest of their swarthy kin.

“Steal her from me, eh?” Luke exchanged an amused but softly intimate look with his wife. “You’d have to kill me first. And I don’t die easily.”

“The Black Dragon didn’t,” Alex conceded. “But the Cambridgeshire farmer standing in front of me hasn’t defended himself with a weapon in years. I, on the other hand” —he patted the hilt of his broadsword, sheathed on the belt buckled over his ankle-length, ceremonial overtunic— “have been honing my skill in the service of our liege for fully a decade now.”

“Almost a decade,” Luke corrected with an ostentatious yawn. That was true. The de Périgeaux brothers, knights of Aquitaine, had been recruited by William, Duke of Normandy, when Alex was seventeen and Luke four-and-twenty, which would be but nine years ago. They both served their Norman master—Alex with his sword and Luke with his crossbow—through the conquest of England and the duke’s ascension to the throne of that kingdom. But whereas Luke had eagerly traded his crossbow for Hauekleah, Alex continued to reject King William’s offer of honorable dismissal and an English estate in recompense for his service—to the puzzlement of all, save perhaps for Luke and Faithe.

Almost a decade then,” Alex said. “And before that, I did naught but study the arts of war—I was swinging a sword when I was smaller than Robert here. So I daresay I could take you, brother. And then I’d have your lady wife all to myself.” He bowed with mock formality in Faithe’s direction.

“Let’s settle this now.” Grinning, Luke handed Hlynn to her mother and bent over to lift his son down. “Like men—with our fists.”

“Suits me.” Alex slammed his fist in his brother’s stomach as he was rising, earning him an answering blow that stole his breath, if only for a moment. The two men grappled in their long, elegant tunics, laughing breathlessly, as people turned to watch and the children rooted loudly for their father.

“Stop that!” A furious yank on his hair made Alex turn to find his sister, Berte, scowling at her younger brothers and casting anxious glances toward their audience. A formidable personage, Berte had inherited the de Périgeaux height, making her half a head taller than her round and balding husband, Baron Landric de Bec. He hovered behind her, clucking in sympathy with her outrage. “Have you two no sense of decorum whatsoever?” she demanded.

“Nay,” Alex answered.

“None,” his brother concurred.

“‘Tis my fault, my lady.” Faithe looked as if she were fighting a smile. “I should have stopped them.”

Berte shook her head, her expression doleful. “One may as well try to stop a raging storm. These two have always done just exactly as they please, and living on that barbaric island seems only to have made it worse.”

“Quite so,” Landric agreed.

Faithe raised an eyebrow at the slur to her homeland, but wisely kept her counsel.

“Now everyone is staring,” Berte fretted. Alex followed her mortified gaze toward the onlookers, chuckling as they disbanded.

One figure, a woman, stood perfectly still amidst the swirls of multicolored silk, the ripple of veils and glint of jewels. Pale and slender, as unreal as a church statue carved of pearly marble, she met his eyes across the courtyard…

Across the years, for she’d looked much the same the first time his gaze had fallen upon her nine long summers ago. Her beauty had a transfixing harmony to it—high, wide cheekbones, sharp little chin, willowy throat. She’d worn white that day, too, although then her hair had flowed in a gleaming flaxen stream down her back. Today it was plaited in two braids over which a veil of gossamer sendal silk trembled in the sultry breeze. Then, as now, her sea-green eyes were large and quiet and intent.

“That’s her,” Faithe said. “The woman in white. The one I told you about.”

From the corner of his eye, Alex saw Luke turn toward the woman in question. Recognizing her instantly, he shot an apprehensive glance toward Alex.

Faithe noticed this. “You do know each other.”

“She’s Nicolette de St. Clair.” Alex fingered the worst of his scars from that misbegotten summer, a puckered little rivulet that snaked down his forehead, carving a small bare patch through his right eyebrow. “My cousin’s wife.”

He definitely should have stayed in England.

As he watched, the lady Nicolette smiled tentatively, eyes alert and wary. The civil thing would be to return her smile, but his maelstrom of conflicting emotions—shock at seeing her, loathing, yearning—so confounded him that all he could do was stare. Presently her expression began to waver uncertainly.

A fanfare of trumpets startled him. He glanced toward the sound and saw a procession of youths descending the steps of William’s private chapel. A volley of cheers greeted them.

“They’re coming!” Berte exclaimed. “The young knights.”

“They’re not knights yet,” Luke pointed out.

Alex returned his attention to the lady Nicolette, only to find her turning away, eyes downcast, mouth tightly drawn.

“They soon will be,” Berte said. “There’s my Charles, third in line. Do you see him?”

“Aye,” Luke said, frowning at the red-haired lad and his comrades. “God’s eyes, how many are there?”

“Four-and-twenty altogether,” Berte answered. “Come, we must follow them to the sporting field. That’s where the dubbing is to take place.”

Alex allowed himself to be swept along in a slow surge of humanity toward a field of mown grass on the right bank of the Robec, near where the small river fed into the Seine. Unable to wrest his thoughts from Nicolette, he searched the strolling horde for her as he walked, but didn’t see her.

“I’ve never known so many young men to be dubbed at once,” Faithe said as she herded her two older children along in front of her while cradling Edlyn. “‘Tisn’t the English way.”

“‘Tisn’t generally the Norman way, either,” Luke said, taking the baby from her to free her hands, “unless, as today, a man of unusually high rank is bestowing the honors. Few families would pass up the opportunity to have their sons knighted by a king.”

The candidates for knighthood came to a halt at the base of a carpeted platform on which had been erected a long table displaying a dazzling array of armor and weapons—gifts from their families and invited guests. King William and his queen, Matilda—crowned and draped in ermine-trimmed mantles despite the heat—sat on grand thrones in the center of the dais, flanked by courtiers and high churchmen. To one side, a band of minstrels played a lively canso on flute, harp and castanets.

Berte squinted into the crowd as it settled into position facing the platform, her rouged bottom lip caught between her teeth, rings glittering as she wrung her hands. “Where’s Christien? I knew he’d be late.”

“Merciful heavens,” Landric muttered. “Christien.”

The eldest of the siblings, Christien had inherited the family’s Périgeaux estate in its entirety upon their sire’s death, prompting his landless younger brothers to leave the southern duchy of Aquitaine and take up arms for William in the hope of earning holdings elsewhere. Christien boasted many virtues of character, but punctuality was not among them—a potential complication today, inasmuch as he, along with Alex, Luke, and of course, Landric, was sponsoring young Charles for knighthood, and was expected to participate in the rites to come.

“Don’t trouble yourself, Berte,” Alex soothed. “He traveled all the way from Aquitaine for this. He wouldn’t miss it.”

“Aye, but did you see how much he drank last night? He might still be abed.”

“Not if Alyce has anything to say about it,” Alex said. “She wouldn’t let him sleep through his nephew’s initiation into knighthood.”

The music ceased. The audience quieted as the king rose to his feet.

“Find him,” Berte ordered her husband in an agitated whisper.

Landric darted like a fat squirrel through the crowd as King William stepped forward to address his vassals. Having expected long-winded and tiresome preliminaries, Alex was relieved when, after a brief word of greeting, William gestured for the first candidate and his sponsors to ascend the platform.

Everyone watched in silence as the young man’s male relatives outfitted him in his newly forged mail and presented him with his sword. Then the king delivered the colée—the ritual open-handed slap that transformed its recipient from callow youth to chevalier. Unfortunately for the chevalier in question, the colée knocked him off his feet, and he landed with a clank of armaments on his back. Crimson-faced, he allowed the king to pull him up.

When the second youth was summoned onto the dais, Berte began to mutter anxiously under her breath. “Charles is next. If his eldest uncle isn’t up there with him, what will people think?”

Alex and Luke exchanged a look. Berte hadn’t changed much in the years they’d been gone.

During the second lad’s initiation, Berte frantically searched the onlookers, finally gasping in relief. “There he is! He and Alyce and their two boys. Landric’s found them.” She returned her husband’s wave. “Who is that with them? By the saint’s bones. Is that Nicolette de St. Clair?”

Alex whipped around, tracing his sister’s line of sight to a small group near the front of the crowd, by the platform. Landric pointed proudly toward Christien while Christien’s wife, the lady Alyce, spoke into Lady Nicolette’s ear. The two women had met when Nicolette came to Périgeaux nine years ago. He recalled that they’d become fast friends, but they couldn’t have seen much of each other in recent years, what with Alyce living in Aquitaine and Nicolette up here in Normandy.

Whatever Alyce was saying made Nicolette smile—that cryptic half-smile that had always intrigued him so. Her air of mystery had enchanted him, drawing him to her like a bee to a tightly closed blossom full of promise—a promise never fulfilled.

The flesh around Berte’s eyes tightened. “What is she doing here? Did Alyce ask her? I certainly didn’t.”

“Why not?” Alex asked. “After all, she’s married to our cousin.”

“Milo?” Berte plucked at her wimple. “He’s the reason I didn’t ask her—or them, rather. Hardly anyone invites them anywhere anymore, considering what’s become of him.”

“What do you mean?” Alex asked.

“You don’t know?”

“I’ve heard naught of him since I left Périgeaux nine years ago.”

“You never thought to write to him? You two were such good chums.”

“I was trained to wield a sword, not scratch away with a quill like some soft-bellied monk.”

“You could pay some clerk to do it.”

“Berte,” he ground out impatiently. “What did you mean? What’s ‘become of’ Milo?”

His sister glanced around with feigned nonchalance and lowered her voice. “I’ll tell you later—best not to air such matters here. Suffice it to say he declines what few invitations still come their way, and it’s just as well. I hear he hasn’t set foot outside Peverell Castle in two or three years. She’s never seen, either, since it would hardly do for her to go larking about on her own. From what I hear, she spends all her time writing those long, tiresome poems about ancient battles and tragic lovers—a shameful occupation for a girl of her breeding.”

“Then what do you suppose she’s doing here today?”

“I can’t begin to imagine. And I must say I’m surprised to find her showing up here unescorted. Not like her to ignore propriety—not like her at all.” Returning her attention to the dais, Berte gasped and shoved Alex toward the stage. “It’s Charles’s turn! Go! You, too, Luke. Go! Go!”

Banishing thoughts of Nicolette from his mind, Alex mounted the platform, along with Luke, Christien, Landric, and young Charles.

First, Lord Landric, as his son’s primary sponsor, endowed him with a hauberk and gaiters of fine chain mail, which Alex and his brothers helped him to don over his gold-embroidered red tunic. The boy was flushed and sweating by the time Alex pulled the hauberk’s mesh coif over his head. It took a strong young constitution to tolerate a full suit of mail in midsummer. At Berte’s insistence, every one of the double-woven iron rings had been silvered, causing them to gleam like white fire in the bright sun. Alex turned from the sight, blinking…

And saw her again, gazing directly at him from the front of the audience, as doe-eyed and motionless as before. She quickly looked away.

“Alex,” Luke hissed as he buckled the lad’s swordbelt around his waist. “The sword.”

Quickly Alex crossed to the table and retrieved the broadsword he’d commissioned for Charles, the honor of giving it having been granted to him in light of his own renowned swordsmanship. The blade, of brilliant Poitou steel, shimmered in the sunlight. In the knob of the pearl-encrusted hilt could be seen a bit of dried blood of St. Romaine encased in transparent crystal. Alex handed the weapon to his nephew, who kissed the holy relic before sheathing it.

Alex watched Christien present his jeweled helmet and Luke his shield and lance, all too aware of Lady Nicolette’s gaze upon him. His skin prickled beneath his clothes; his body felt oddly large and unwieldy.

He’d thought he would never see her again, nor had he wanted to. He’d never expected her to be here. According to Berte, no one had.

He wondered about Milo. Despite everything that had transpired that last, eventful summer in Périgeaux, Alex harbored no ill will toward his cousin. What happened wasn’t his fault, not really. And he and Milo had always been, as Berte pointed out, the best of chums, the ten-year difference in their ages inconsequential—especially once Alex reached adolescence and could tag along with Milo and his mates as they hunted and caroused. Life was carefree and exhilarating and golden, and Milo was at the center of it all. Educated for Holy Orders as befitted a second son, but lacking the temperament for a religious vocation, Milo dedicated his considerable intellect to the pursuit of pleasure. Intensely charismatic, he possessed the striking de Périgeaux looks—the height, the raven hair—combined with a quick wit and amiable disposition that earned him many friends.

Trumpets blared. Shaking off his memories, Alex joined the other sponsors as they stepped aside for the king. William approached the youth, who bowed his head. Fully armored and equipped, young Charles looked every bit the soldier awaiting battle. The last Alex had seen him, before leaving for England, he’d been a small boy. Now, at sixteen, he was taller than his father, although Alex and Luke still towered over him.

The colée was swift and hard, but Charles remained standing, although he stumbled back a step or two. Cheers rose from the onlookers.

William embraced the novice knight. “Go in strength and courage, Sir Charles. Be of generous spirit and stout heart, and honor God and your sovereign with your faithful service.”

“Heartfelt thanks, my liege,” Charles recited, his voice on the edge of cracking. “May the lord God hear this oath of fealty, and may I serve and love both you and Him until my soul embraces the fountainhead of peace.”

More cheers arose from the crowd. Alex clapped his nephew on the back. “Well done.”

It took the remainder of the morning for all of the candidates to receive the colée. Then came the war horses, four-and-twenty destriers beautifully groomed and harnessed, which the armored knights mounted simultaneously from running leaps—a feat that drew an elated roar from the crowd. The lads tilted at quintains and engaged in mock duels through the early afternoon, by which time Alex’s old hip injury was throbbing like a drum. Generally it only troubled him on wet, chilly days. All this standing still must have aggravated it.

Almost worse was the grousing of his empty stomach. His gaze strayed frequently to the river’s edge, where banquet tables had been arranged beneath a pink and purple striped canopy. Savory aromas drifted toward him on the warm breeze, making his mouth water—yet still the games persisted. Only after two of the young knights had fainted dead away from the heat was it announced that the celebratory feast would now be served.

*   *   *

“I’ve asked Lady Nicolette to join us,” Alyce announced to her husband and his siblings as they seated themselves at one of the long trestle tables beneath the canopy.

Pink-stained sunlight filtered through the striped cloth above their heads, suffusing Nicolette with a rosy glow; she might almost have been blushing. She should blush, Alex thought, at the prospect of facing him again.

“Lady Nicolette,” Alyce said, “you’ve met my sons, Victor and Regnaud” —the well-trained boys bowed— “and I trust you know my sister by marriage, the baroness Berte de Bec, and her husband, Lord Landric.”

Cordial greetings were exchanged.

“Do you remember my husband’s brothers?” Alyce asked. “Luke and Alexandre. You met them in Périgeaux that summer you came—”

“I remember,” Nicolette said, in a voice so soft Alex could barely hear her, her hands tightly clasped. Stiffly she inclined her head toward the two men in turn. “Sir Luke…Sir Alexandre.”

“My lady,” Luke responded with a small bow.

“My lady.” Alex forced a polite smile, but she turned away too quickly to see it.

“And this,” Alyce said, “is Luke’s lady wife, Faithe of Hauekleah, and their children…” She hesitated, clearly struggling to recall their names.

“That little devil” —Faithe nodded toward her son, picking bits of spiced bread out of his trencher and stuffing them into his mouth, something Alex was tempted to do himself— “is Robert.” Faithe introduced Hlynn, propped up next to her with unfocused eyes and her thumb in her mouth, and the infant Edlyn, nursing at her mother’s breast. Faithe had drawn her mantle over the babe, a gesture of modesty lost on Berte, who looked away in disgust.

Nicolette did not appear shocked. Indeed, she smiled with seemingly genuine delight at the sight of the children and insisted on sitting between Hlynn and Robert—which placed her almost directly across the table from Alex. He hoped he wouldn’t be forced to engage her in strained conversation.

She leaned close to Hlynn. “Tired?”

The child nodded, her eyes half-closed.

“Me, too. ‘Twas a long ceremony—especially for a wee little girl like you.”

“I’m a big girl,” Hlynn said groggily without removing the thumb.

Nicolette smiled. “My apologies, Lady Hlynn. Are you as hungry as your brother?”

Hlynn shook her head. Her mother said, “I brought some bread and fed it to the children a while ago. Luke warned me it might be a long and trying morning.”

“I wish someone had warned me,” Nicolette said. Did Alex just imagine it, or did she glance uneasily in his direction? Returning her attention to Hlynn, she whispered conspiratorially, “I would have tucked some bread into my sleeve if I’d known.”

Hlynn giggled drowsily, again without extracting her thumb.

The obvious joy Nicolette took in Hlynn came as a surprise to Alex. He wouldn’t have thought her the nurturing sort, yet she displayed a warmth and ease with the little girl that couldn’t have been feigned. Seeing her like this reminded Alex that there were two Nicolettes, or used to be—the cool, formal public Nicolette, well-trained in decorum by her mother, and, hidden beneath that facade, the spirited young woman he’d once lost his heart to. Unfortunately, her more decorous—and calculating—side, incapable of real human affection, seemed to be dominant.

Robert paused in his methodical decimation of his trencher. “Will we eat soon?”

“That one’s always hungry,” Faithe explained, “regardless of when he last ate.”

“Alas, we must all strive for patience,” Nicolette counseled the boy. “King William hosts grand and wonderful banquets—often twenty courses or more—”

“Twenty?” Robert said excitedly.

“But there are some matters of ceremony to attend to first.” She nodded toward the high table, at which the king and queen sat with the four-and-twenty newly dubbed knights. The king’s banquet master made a show of presenting an ornate salt dish to the royal couple and their guests.

Robert sighed. “Now can we eat?”

“Patience,” Nicolette murmured as the banquet master summoned the pantler, who unwrapped a saffron-hued loaf from its portpayne of fringed cloth, sliced its upper crust, and presented it to the king. Next came the laverers, who made the rounds from table to table with their basins of herb-scented water, embroidered towels looped over their arms.

Hlynn, clearly struggling to keep her eyes open, swayed slightly on her bench. She tried to lean on her mother, but the nursing baby was in the way. “Wait until Edlyn’s gotten all the milk she wants,” Faithe instructed the sleepy child, “and then you may put your head in my lap.”

“She’s overdue for her nap,” Luke explained to the company at large.

“I’ve got a perfectly good lap that’s going to waste,” Nicolette told Hlynn, adding, to Faithe, “If your mama doesn’t mind.”

Faithe hesitated fractionally, then smiled. “Not at all. Hlynn, would you like to…”

But Hlynn was already curling up contentedly on her new friend’s lap, thumb firmly in place. Robert, meanwhile, rested his weight on Nicolette as he nibbled his trencher into nothingness.

“Do children always take to you so readily?” Faithe asked her.

“I like them. I think they sense that.” Nicolette’s smile struck Alex as sad.

“A pity you never had any children of your own,” Berte said.

 The smile vanished. “Aye, well…we were not so blessed.”

“Not yet,” Berte said. “But you’re not too old to quit trying—not quite. How old are you—thirty? A bit older, perhaps?”

Nicolette met the older woman’s gaze impassively. “Eight-and-twenty, my lady. And yourself?”

Reddening slightly, Berte ignored both the question and Alex’s little huff of spontaneous laughter. Nicolette was never easily cowed, a trait he couldn’t help but grudgingly admire. “Well, then.” Berte nodded resolutely. “There’s plenty of time. You haven’t given up hope, I trust.”

Alex and Luke exchanged a look. Their sister could be monstrously bothersome with all her probing and prying.

Nicolette merely lowered her gaze to the sleeping child in her lap, threading her fingers through the little girl’s sweat-dampened black hair. Alex speculated on her thoughts: after nine barren years of marriage, a child now would be nothing short of miraculous.

“Perhaps,” Berte counseled, in a unctuously maternal tones, “if you spent less time at that writing desk of yours, and concentrated on more feminine pursuits—needlework, say—’twould realign your womanly aspects, and facilitate the planting of a babe.”

With an incredulous little cock of her head, Nicolette said, “Are you suggesting that I’m childless because I compose verses?”

Berte smiled indulgently. “‘Tis a man’s avocation, is it not, my dear? I’m sure they’re much cleverer at it than a mere woman could hope to be, even one with such a…plethora of education as yourself. And for a woman to engage in men’s work causes an imbalance in the vital fluids that regulate” —she glanced awkwardly at the men and lowered her voice— “generative matters.”

Nicolette’s mouth twitched, just slightly. “What a remarkable theory. I shall take it under advisement.”

Berte nodded with self-satisfaction. “Do. No doubt my cousin, your lord husband, will be most grateful to see you set aside your parchment and quill.”

Alex wondered if there might not be some truth in that, recalling his own uneasiness with Nicolette’s learning, the product of a rigorous convent education. Granted, like most young knights, he’d been relatively unschooled, incapable of reading or writing anything but his own name. Although Nicolette’s intellect—and her facility with verse—had impressed him immeasurably, his admiration had been tainted with a vague sense of inadequacy. Milo, on the other hand, was a man of letters, having been brought up at the Abbey at Aurillac. He’d always seemed to enjoy Nicolette’s erudite perspective on things, and they shared an interest in literature and philosophy—disciplines of which Alex was largely ignorant, having a smattering of military history and little else. Perhaps Milo appreciated his wife’s mind as much now as he did back in Périgeaux. Or perhaps he’d grown weary of her epic verses, and longed for a simple woman with a fertile belly.

“Speaking of Milo,” Berte said silkily, “I must say I find it odd that he allowed you to travel from St. Clair all by yourself.” Eliciting no response from that, she said, “You did come here alone, did you not?”

“Nay, my lady,” Nicolette responded with a placid smile, and offered no further elaboration, to Berte’s evident frustration. The fates conspired to her advantage, for at that moment a laverer came up behind her and offered his basin. She turned toward him, rolling back the trailing sleeves of her tunic, then stilled, her gaze on something beyond their canopied enclosure—two men walking toward them from the direction of the palace.

Berte craned her neck; her jaw dropped. “Is that—?” She squinted hard. “Blessed Mary. It is.”

Alex focused on the two men as they advanced slowly—excruciatingly slowly—across the cropped lawn. The dark-haired fellow was tall and burly, with a massive chest and limbs like tree trunks. He supported his gray-haired companion, almost as tall, but gaunt and stooped over a cane, his legs quavering as he walked. Alex recognized the first man, but couldn’t place the older fellow until he looked up.

“Sweet Jesus,” Alex whispered when he saw the familiar face.

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