Margaret Moore - [Warrior 13], page 15
His father slowly let out his breath. “I have heard he defers to Eleanor more than he should, or at least more than the nobles like to see. He must be very serious about wanting peace in his court if he would threaten any of Eleanor’s relatives, however distant kin.”
Reece nodded. “It would be better if all her relations could be banished from the court completely. They are like poison.”
“I trust you didn’t say such an imprudent thing while you were in Winchester.”
Reece flushed with new shame. Before he made the impetuous mistake of following Anne, his father would never have suggested he would do such a foolish thing. “No.”
“Good. Henry cares too much about his wife’s opinion to tell her relatives to go, like it or not as we will.”
“I didn’t realize you knew so much about the court,” Reece admitted. “You never go, or seem interested.”
“Just because I do not endlessly discuss politics doesn’t mean I am ignorant, or pay no heed. What goes on there affects everyone in the realm.” His father sat again. “That is why I sent you, my most levelheaded son, to be my eyes and ears.”
Worse and worse.
His father meditatively rubbed his strong jaw again. “The marriage may lead more people to believe the Delasaines’ accusation, thinking the marriage is intended to restore the lady’s lost honor.”
As remorse for how he had compromised Anne’s reputation stabbed at him again, Reece said, “That charge will taint Anne, too, but apparently her half brothers didn’t think of that, or care, before they made their accusations.”
“From all I’ve heard, all they think about is their own hides,” his father agreed. He gave his son a pointed look. “Which is why they should have been avoided at all costs, except on the tournament field, and their sister, too.”
“I’m sorry, Father. I have disgraced our family and caused us to be linked to that brood of vipers. I promise you I shall do all I can to repair my mistake, as much as possible, but I know I have betrayed your trust, and your faith in me.”
His father’s intense eyes softened a bit. “I regret that you did not show more sense, Reece, but the Delasaines had no right to attack you, and Henry had even less right to make you marry. Fortunately, I believe your plan has merit. I shall also contact my friends and see if they can suggest anything more. In the meantime, you intend to stay away from your wife?”
His father raised a brow as he studied him. “You sound determined.”
“Good.” Unexpectedly, his father shifted as if he was embarrassed about what he was going to say. “A bastard who has raised himself up in the world is regarded with envy and suspicion, Reece, and so are his children. We must be above reproach. Being tied to the Delasaines gives our enemies more arrows in their quiver to aim at us.” He sighed. “Still, it is a pity that this must end this way. In some ways, she reminds me of your mother.”
Reece stared at his father. “But she scarcely said a word!”
Sir Urien regarded his son with the merest hint of a wry smile. “Have I ever told you to take the measure of your opponent by the way he speaks? Courage and determination are in the eyes, my son, of women as well as men.”
Reece hesitated on the threshold of his bedchamber. He hadn’t expected anyone to be there. Anne was still being shown about the castle by his mother, and he had seen Lisette in the hall not long ago.
Unfortunately, here was Lisette arranging what looked like Anne’s toilette articles—combs, ribbons and the like—on a small dressing table that his mother must have found in one of the storerooms.
Behind him, Donald waited to help him carry his belongings from this room to the chamber Donald and Seldon shared. Reece had refused Donald’s offer at first, for that was a servant’s task, but Donald had insisted.
Now Reece suspected he knew why. He had never seen Donald stare at a woman as he had Lisette. Trev and Piers were obviously about to have more competition there, which was not a pleasing thought.
At least it had been easier to explain the situation regarding Anne to Donald and Seldon than it had been to his brothers and the Morgans, or his parents. They believed Sir Urien the most remarkable of men, and some of that deferential respect extended to his sons. That meant they were, mercifully, less inclined to ask questions or cast doubt on his plan to have his marriage ended.
Indeed, Donald had asked more questions about Lisette, making his interest in the young woman even more obvious. Seldon had been a lot more curious about the knights at court, their battle prowess and how his old friends and foes had fared in recent years.
Donald coughed, startling Reece into motion.
“Oh, Sir Reece,” Lisette cried in greeting as he entered the room. Straightening, she gave him a bright smile.
No, not him—Donald standing behind him, and it was a far more friendly smile than she had ever given either Piers or Trev.
Apparently, the competition was already over, and Donald—who really ought to have a woman in his life—had won in record time.
“I have come to get that chest in the corner,” Reece explained when he realized Lisette was waiting.
“That will give us more room,” she agreed.
She didn’t sound at all surprised by his statement. Anne must have told her that he would not be sharing her bed here, either.
His chamber was rather crowded, what with the large bed that he had inherited from Lord Gervais, his chest for his clothes and the other for his armor, Anne’s baggage and the table and stool. Lisette smiled at Donald again, and his face turned as red as an apple’s peel in autumn.
“I’m helping,” he said brusquely, and quite unnecessarily as he strode toward the chest containing Reece’s clothes.
“It’ll take the two of us to carry the other,” Reece said.
“Then wait here. Won’t be a moment,” Donald said as he bent down. His arms stretched as far as they could go as he grasped the leather handles on either end of Reece’s clothes chest.
Reece suspected Donald would curse him, albeit silently, if he offered to help. He clearly wanted to impress the girl, and since it was the first time Reece had ever seen his friend act this way, he decided not to interfere, especially when Lisette kept staring at Donald as if he was the finest specimen of manhood in England. And although the chest was awkward for one man to carry, it wasn’t heavy.
Reece shrugged his acquiescence and sat on the bed. “If you’re sure, Donald.”
Lisette looked at Reece quizzically. “Do you not want to remove some clothing?”
Donald staggered and his burden hit the floor with a thump as Reece stared, aghast. Had he been completely wrong about the girl?
“From the chest,” Lisette clarified with a giggle when she saw the look on Reece’s face. “You will need your clothes, will you not? Do you not intend to move them to my lady’s chest?”
God’s holy heart, she didn’t know. Obviously Lisette had thought their lack of nuptial intimacy temporary.
It was up to him to explain things to her, too.
This girl was a servant. She did not require a long explanation. “I will not be sleeping here.”
Lisette’s brow furrowed.
It didn’t matter what she thought, or what anybody else in Bridgeford Wells thought, either.
He turned his attention to Donald. “Need some help after all?”
Donald again picked up Reece’s chest. “No,” he declared, the tendons in his neck straining.
“If you’re finished here, Lisette, you may go,” Reece said, looking at the befuddled maidservant.
“Very well, Sir Reece,” Lisette said, hurrying after Donald.
When she was gone, Reece wandered toward the window and looked out into the courtyard. Lisette wasn’t the only one who wouldn’t understand his relationship—or lack of it—with his wife.
His first impulse was to flee the room, but Donald would surely be back at any moment, and how would it look if he came tearing down the steps like a coward? He could surely stay a few moments.
Anne moved gracefully into the room and raised an inquisitive brow. “I understood this was to be my chamber, and since we are not to live as husband and wife—?”
“I came to collect my things.”
She frowned but said nothing.
He must both look and sound ridiculous. He had been standing there staring out the window as if he had nothing better to do. “The chest containing my armor is too heavy for one man to carry. I’m waiting for Donald to return to help me with it.”
Understanding dawned on Anne’s face and he felt somewhat less foolish. “And Donald is…?” she asked as she went to her dressing table and pulled the silken scarf from her head.
“A knight, one of my father’s liege men. He was the thin fellow who came out to meet the cortege when we arrived.”
“Who was the other fellow, the stout one?”
“That’s Seldon,” he replied, shoving away his desire. “Like Donald, he has sworn allegiance to my father and has been given an estate here.”
She sat on the stool and began to take out the combs that had been holding her hair coiled smoothly around her head, as easy and cozy as if they were any other husband and wife talking of the people in their household.
His father had seen courage and determination in her brilliant green eyes. So had he. He had also seen desire there, or so he thought. He wished he could be sure of his interpretations, but he knew so little of women, and trusted his opinions even less where they were concerned.
Anne untied the ribbons holding the ends of the braids. He could scarcely breathe when her hair fell loose about her slender shoulders. As she ran a wide-tooth ivory comb through the thick mass, all he could think about was burying first his hands and then his face in the golden waves.
“They are visiting?” she inquired, drawing him back to their conversation.
He got his wayward thoughts under control and ventured a little closer. “They live here and help my father. Meanwhile, their bailiffs run their estates.”
Determined to keep both his thoughts and emotions under control, he cleared his throat and said, “Anne, I doubt we’ll see very much of each other except for the evening meal while you are here. I will be busy helping my father and you will be…”
She set down the comb and swiveled to regard him, her green eyes steady. “What shall I be doing, Sir Reece?”
He suddenly realized he had no idea how she would be spending her days.
“May I help your mother, do you think?” Anne asked after a moment, while he stood there like a mute.
“Yes, you could do that,” he replied, relieved by her suggestion. “I’m sure she’ll welcome your assistance, especially since my sisters are from home.”
“I thought she would not mind. She is very nice, your mother.”
The force of Anne’s smile struck him like the swat of a strong man’s fist and her eyes sparkled like the jewels on the queen’s fingers.
He backed away. “Yes, she is.”
“Was your father very harsh with you after I left?” Anne inquired evenly, her cool tone making a mockery of his struggle to be calm.
“He agrees with your assessment of the situation?”
God save him, why must he always sound like a stern soldier or a tongue-tied fool when he was with her?
Perhaps, his mind replied, it was because no woman had ever looked at him with that combination of curiosity and interest, and certainly no woman had ever been so near his own bed. He was no virgin, but he had always sought his sport away from home.
He must and would talk to her as he would to any other acquaintance. “You need not worry about my father’s treatment of you, Anne. He knows you are not responsible.”
Her expression softened, to a winsome one that smote his heart anew. “Your father seems a very fine man. I already feel more comfortable in his presence than I ever did in that of my own father.”
“I do not suppose he was a kind man, to have such sons,” he said, his gentle tone encouraging her confidence.
Her smile drifted away. “No, he was not,” she said quietly as she toyed with her comb. “He did not want daughters.”
She sighed so quietly that if he hadn’t been focused on her, he might have missed it. “He took out his disappointment at my birth upon my mother.”
“But then she bore him a son.”
“After seven years of worry and torment, and died doing so.” Anne raised her eyes to regard him, her gaze as firm and resolute as it had been wistful before. “Because she had been so afraid of the consequences of birthing another daughter, she could not eat or sleep properly during the whole of the time she was with child.”
Her expression hardened even more, to one he recognized from the battlefield when an opponent refused to yield. “He killed her as surely as if he plunged a dagger in her breast.”
“I’m sorry, Anne.” His words sounded weak and useless, but he could think of no more to say.
“No, I’m sorry,” she said, turning away and putting the comb on the table. “I do not need to burden you with such things. They are not your troubles.”
“No, but they are yours.” He took her gently by the hands and raised her so that they were face-to-face. “If I cannot be your husband, I would still be your friend.”
To his surprise, she twisted out of his grasp and turned her back to him. “But I am still a Delasaine.”
He went to her, took her gently by the shoulders and turned her so that she faced him. Looking intently into her eyes, hoping she would understand, he explained, and reasserted to himself the reasons he must stay away from her and never let his burning desire free. “Anne, ever since I first realized that some men are noble by virtue of their deeds and honor, and some solely because of their birth, I have wanted to speak for those who have earned their titles and land. I want to be a voice for those who can be all too often and easily overlooked. But if I stay married to a Delasaine, Henry and those men he trusts may not be able to trust me. They will never let me into their inner circle. I will have failed to attain the thing that is the most important to me.”
“I see,” she murmured, moving away.
“Do you, Anne?” he said.
As she stood there, her back to him, his resolute goal, the future he had planned for so long, suddenly seemed to waver and diminish.
Someone standing in the doorway coughed loudly.
Reece swiftly turned to find Donald standing on the threshold.
“Do you want to take that chest now, or leave it?” he asked, his cheeks flushed either from the effort of coming back up the stairs, or with embarrassment at having interrupted them.
“Now,” Reece replied, crossing the room and grabbing one of the leather handles. Donald wordlessly joined him at the other side. Together they lifted it and left the room.
Erwina bustled toward the large man limned by the evening sunlight in the doorway of her inn. “Good day, sir!” she cried, gesturing a welcome. “Come in, come in. Plenty of room and clean beds here, I assure you.”
The man strolled inside, surveying both Erwina and the main room as he did. Peter, seated near the hearth, didn’t like the look of him—mean and vicious, with his dark hair and narrow eyes and scornful expression.
Erwina got a better look at the newcomer in the hearth light and seemed to reconsider her invitation, especially when the man ran a measuring gaze over her again. “You alone here?”
“No,” she replied at once.
“I mean except for the boy.”
Before she could answer, a group of farmers who had been to the market in the nea
Erwina stifled a sigh of relief and bustled about getting their drinks, and the ale and food the stranger demanded.
Another man who did not live in these parts came to the door, but Peter knew who he was. Arwen traveled from town to town, an entertainer like a minstrel or those jugglers, but he made his money playing games with his dice. Peter thought that would be a pleasant way to make a living, just throwing dice, and he didn’t understand why his mother always looked a little annoyed when he suggested it.
“Ah, Master Peter!” Arwen cried, strolling inside and casting a glance at the men gathered there. “How fare you?”
“I twisted my ankle, but a knight fixed it,” he eagerly answered.
“You don’t say? A knight?”
Arwen took a seat on the bench nearest Peter.
“Aye! It was—”
Arwen held up his hand to silence the boy. “Later, Peter, later I will hear about this knight who has obviously made such an impression on you. First, though, I must earn enough for one of your mother’s fine meals.”
Arwen took out a leather cup and the small pouch that contained his dice and smiled at the burly stranger. “How about you, my friend? Care to play a friendly game?”
Benedict Delasaine appeared to struggle with an answer.
“Oh, come, come!” Arwen cried. “We shall play for only a few pennies. Hardly a risk to a nobleman like yourself.”
“How do you know I’m noble?” Benedict growled suspiciously.
“Why, everything about you proclaims it! Your clothes, your weapons, your very visage! And surely that magnificent horse in the stable is yours.”
If Benedict had been wiser, he might have noted that the man seemed to be mentally tallying the value of everything Benedict owned.