Vow of deception, p.11

Vow of Deception, page 11


Vow of Deception

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  “Indeed. I enjoy my wine. I don’t mind paying an exorbitant price for such quality.”

  Rand took another bite of his lamb. “How do you like the gardens? I hope they meet with your approval?”

  She put down her spoon and knife. “I have never seen more beautiful gardens,” she said, using her hands to express herself. “The kitchen garden has a number of herbs I would like to take and plant at Ayleston Castle. The townhome’s former owner must have been very knowledgeable of the healing herbs.”

  A quiver of excitement emerged in her words, triggering Rand’s memories of when she was younger—vibrant and full of life.

  “I bought it for you. For its privacy and because I thought you would appreciate the beauty of the magnificent gardens.” He took a gulp of wine.

  “Thank you,” she said softly, touched by his thoughtful gesture. He’d always been kind and considerate to her, despite his infuriating teasing. And unlike her first husband, Rand had never treated her cruelly, so it was unfair to continually expect Rand to behave in such a manner. It would take time to adjust, to accept her new position as Rand’s wife.

  To that end, she wanted to learn why he was the man he was. She clutched the stem of her chalice and cocked her head. “Your older brother inherited the Montague vineyards, did he not? Tell me about growing up in Gascony.”

  Rand leaned his forearm on the table. The sun behind his head created a glow around the edges of his long blond hair. “When I was a lad, Juliana and I would sneak away from our nurse to traipse about barefoot in our family’s vineyards. We always played with the tenant’s children, building forts and exploring along the banks of the river. Mother always bemoaned the fact that she could not tell us apart from the peasants whenever our nurse dragged us back home.”

  Rose’s heart did a flip at the image he presented. She could easily imagine Rand as a mischievous youth, getting into one scrape after another, his adoring twin sister gamboling at his side, eager not to be left behind. She was touched that he shared a glimpse of his life before his sister died.

  She sipped from her wine to wet her suddenly dry mouth. “’Tis where your love for a good wine flourished, if I am not mistaken?”

  A huge grin spread across his face. “I have business in London that I must see to, and I would like you to accompany me.”

  Her heart beat uncontrollably. Confused, she said more sharply than she intended, “Surely you don’t need my presence to conduct your business?”

  Rand merely quirked his brow; the crease between his eyes deepened so much it appeared as though a sharp V was carved there. “Come, I want to show you something very few people know about.” He stood up and reached out a hand to help her to her feet.

  Never a slave to curiosity, like her friend Kat, Rose felt an odd tremor of that very emotion shimmer through her.

  Without hesitation, she placed her hand in his.

  Rand’s gaze widened with surprise and pleasure as he stared at her hand clutched in his. Shock held her immobile. For the first time, she reacted without forethought and voluntarily touched Rand. Warmth flowed from his bronzed hand into her smaller, more delicate one, his pleasant scent enveloping her, enticing her.

  Rand smiled with gentle reassurance. His eyes—more green than gray, with gold flecks—softened. She shook her head to regain her senses and followed him down to the water stairs.

  After debarking from the barge, Rose clutched Rand’s forearm as he guided them off the lane and heading east crossed the wharves behind the stone buildings that fronted Thames Street.

  “Have you ever visited the wharves of London before?” Rand inquired, a half smile on his face.

  “Nay, I have only seen the riverside from coach or boat.” Her gaze darted back and forth at the teeming wharf.

  “This is the ward known as the Vintry. ’Tis mainly inhabited by wine merchants and their families. The vintners live above the warehouses and cellars where their wines are stored.”

  Raucous shouts of mariners vied with calls coming from the handful of cookhouses interspersed among the buildings and warehouses.

  “See those ships?” Rand indicated with a sweep of his arm.

  Several ships lined the wharves, which swarmed with activity as ships’ cargos were discharged onto the quays and revetments along the riverbank.

  “Aye. What are in those sacks and barrels being laded onto the vessels?”

  “Grain, wool, and salted herring mostly. Many of the ships are bound for Bordeaux, where their cargos will be traded for the new vintages, which in turn will be brought back to England in time for Christmas.”

  A beggar dressed in rags, a boy not much older than Jason, reached out a dirty hand to them. Rand’s muscles tensed beneath her hand, the strength and heat of him reassuring.

  Rose’s heart contracted at the poverty and misery of such an existence. She was grateful her son would never know such degradation and was touched when Rand retrieved a farthing from the purse hanging at his sword belt and tossed it to the boy.

  The black-haired child grinned at them, revealing two missing front teeth. “Thank ye, milord,” he said and then rushed off to the cookhouse nearby to purchase hot food with his recent fortune.

  “That was generous of you, Rand.”

  Rand shrugged, his cheeks reddening at her praise. “I have seen many such scenes at every port and city I have ever visited. I would never wish such an existence upon a child, especially not a child of my own.”

  “You do not regret you will never have a son?” Rose cringed inwardly. The words came out unbidden. Perhaps she wanted to torture herself with imagining the impossible. For she had secrets, secrets she could never share with anyone, and especially not with Rand.

  Rand shrugged. “If you will allow, I would be honored to stand in as father to Jason.”

  Rose swallowed, her eyes rounding.

  “Do not answer that now. Give it some thought,” he said gruffly.

  He hooked his arm through hers and they continued walking.

  A cart loaded with casks containing pitch and tar trundled past them. Her nose wrinkled at the sharp odor. A gust of wind off the river whipped her skirt around her legs, drawing her gaze out to the ships anchored in deeper waters. River traffic was brisk, with the smaller oar-powered fishing boats and cargo boats giving way to the larger, single-mast, square-sail cogs, keels, and hulks. The ships’ colorful banners flying from their sterncastles identified their owners.

  At the fourth building along the wharf, Rand stopped and Rose released his arm. Less than a hundred yards away, the door to the back entrance of the large, two-story stone house was open. Not far from the door was a bench beneath a grapevine-covered arbor. A gravel walkway led down to the waterfront, where porters were loading sacks of wool and grain into the open hold in the middle of a large cog. A forecastle rose upon stilts at the ship’s bow and at the back of the ship a sterncastle was built right into the hull. Rand’s banner, a gold lion rampant on an azure background, flew from the sterncastle.

  Rose glanced up at Rand, curious. Slowly, it began to dawn on her where his wealth came from—she guessed it was connected somehow to the vineyards his family owned in Bordeaux.

  A plump gray-haired man, who had been supervising the loading of the ship, approached them. “Sir Rand!” he shouted, waving as he weaved his way past several dockworkers.

  Rand smiled at the man. “Harwood. Have any trouble on the voyage back from the Baltic?”

  “Nay. Storms delayed our departure for five days, but otherwise the journey was uneventful.”

  Rand slapped him on the back. “Glad to hear it. Your timing is impeccable. The first vintage this season promises to be very profitable.” He turned to Rose.

  “Harwood. I want you to meet my wife, Lady Rosalyn. Rose, meet Master John Harwood. Harwood is my factor here in England and Bordeaux and master of my ship, the Argo.”

  Rose blinked, startled by the name of Rand’s ship. The Argo was the ship sailed by the myt
hical hero Jason in his quest to retrieve the Golden Fleece, which Rose had read about in the Greek epic poem Argonautica.

  Could it be…?

  Harwood bowed deeply. “My lady. I’m honored to make your acquaintance.”

  The raucous caw of a gull blared above Rose’s head. Spikes of fear shot down her lower limbs. Suddenly her knees buckled. She grabbed hold of the bench and lowered herself before she fell flat on her hindquarters.

  As Rand spoke to Harwood, she worried her lower lip, wondering if the ship’s name had any special significance. But there was no way Rand could suspect…Surely he had no idea of the secret she had nearly died trying to protect.

  Fear of discovery had been Rose’s constant companion for many years. Swiping her arm over her moist forehead, Rose stared at Rand’s broad back, noticing the subtle play of muscles beneath his dark red tunic as he gesticulated toward the Argo, giving Harwood instructions.

  She’d thought her worries were over with the death of her husband’s greedy cousin, Sir Stephen. Stephen had never guessed her deepest, most shameful secret, and fortunately, Bertram had never shared the knowledge with his cousin. Not that Bertram had had proof of the accusation he’d leveled at her the day of his death.

  But now, with her marriage to Rand, her fears came rushing back like a river surging over its banks at flood tide. For Rand would never forgive her for keeping Jason’s paternity from him.

  She clutched Jason’s stone beneath her bodice, shaking. It was for Jason’s own protection that she had kept it secret. And she had protected him. From Bertram and his vile threats.

  She remembered it as though it happened yesterday.

  Chapter Ten

  Ayleston Castle, Chester County

  In the year of our Lord 1274, January 2

  Second year in the reign of King Edward I

  “Milady. I tried to stop him, but he made me leave him alone with the boy.”

  Rose stopped outside her bedchamber. Her son’s nurse was pacing before the closed door. “Who, Edith? Who is with Jason?”

  “Lord Ayleston, milady,” she said, wringing her hands, her raisin eyes bright with fear.

  Rose gasped in surprise. Not once in the two months since Jason’s birth had Bertram shown an interest in his son. When he was born, Bertram simply inquired if the baby was the male heir he desired and returned to the bed of his whore.

  Worried herself now, Rose rushed into her bedchamber. When she saw the room was empty, she entered the adjoining chamber. Her husband, his golden hair elaborately curled, stood over Jason’s cradle, staring down at the sleeping baby.

  Bertram’s handsome, pale chiseled features were pulled down in a fierce glower.

  A pulse jumped in Rose’s throat. She moved subtly toward the cradle, her eyes cast down. “Milord, is there something you need of me?” She had learned well the role of docile, submissive wife Bertram required.

  She reached into the cradle to pick up Jason, but Bertram shoved her aside. His milk-white slender hands, which she had once thought elegant and refined, grabbed the boy and lifted him to his chest awkwardly. Jason’s head lolled to the side.

  “Milord, his head. You must be careful to support his head.”

  Dark ire flared in his jewel-green eyes. “Never think to instruct me as though I’m one of the castle pages.”

  Rose dropped her gaze, nodding obsequiously.

  But he did as she asked and cupped his hand around Jason’s head, which had a strip of wispy blond curls on top.

  “He does not look very much like me.”

  “He is still too young to look like anyone.”

  “His eyes are blue.”

  “I have blue eyes.”

  He grunted irritably.

  “Milord, may I take him? ’Tis time for his feeding.”

  “Not yet. Lydia mentioned that the boy was very big for a two-month-old baby born a fortnight early.”

  “He’s nearly three months old.”

  Bertram clutched Jason tighter; the baby whimpered. “Correct me one more time and I shall deny you visitation of the boy for a fortnight.” His eyes narrowed with the threat.

  Rose gasped. Lydia was a viper in the nest.

  The ease with which Lydia manipulated Bertram was diabolical. Rose could not understand the hold the woman had over her husband. He treated Lydia with more respect than his own wife. Ensorcelled by Lydia, Bertram seemed willing to do any vile deed at her behest. Indeed, Bertram’s marriage to Rose had been plotted with great care by Lydia. A vendetta for the perceived insult Rose’s brother, Alex, dealt Lydia when he rejected her.

  Yet Rose could never tell anyone of the humiliating situation in which she found herself. Married to a man who despised her, who’d wed her to please his mistress, a mistress who’d schemed to destroy Rose simply because she was Alex’s sister. Lydia’s vindictive tentacles could no longer reach Alex, for he was dead, buried in the rocky soil of Palestine.

  Bertram put Jason back in the crib and began jerking the swaddling off the baby. Jason began to cry, his scrunched-up face turning bright red.

  Her heart jumped into her throat, so her words came out as a croak. “Milord, what are you doing?”

  His hands searched all over the baby, rolling him over, checking his back and bottom and limbs. “I’m checking your son for blemishes or marks of the devil or of witchery.”

  Her heart stopped and a hand flew to her throat. What nonsense is this? “Milord. Prithee, have a care with your son. You are frightening Jason.”

  He spun around and grabbed her shoulders. She winced in pain. A light flared in his eyes, his gaze intense, fevered, and held her frozen in its grip. “Is he? Is he really my son? I say I do not know.”

  “Jason is your son and no other’s.” Drawing Bertram’s wrath upon her and away from Jason, Rose added, her lip curled in utter contempt. “’Tis all Lydia’s doing. That whore put these ridiculous notions into your head. And you are a fool to believe that viperous slattern.”

  Bertram shoved her hard. Rose fell to her hands and knees. Splinters jabbed into her palms and her hair flew down into her face. Unable to see, she shoved it out of her eyes and got up. But a long hard object struck her. Pain seared her back and she fell onto her knees again. She cried out, protecting her belly and face as repeated blows—with a broom, she realized—struck her back and buttocks. Her cries filled the room, begging him to stop.

  Then the blows ceased. Bertram’s heavy breathing smothered the air around her and her lungs worked like a bellows to staunch her fear.

  “That disapproving bastard Sir Rand was here last year and could very well be the father. I saw the way his eyes followed you when he thought no one was looking. Did you let him touch you? Did you?”

  Rose gasped and stared up at him, her hands clenched before her in supplication. “Nay. I have never let him or any man touch me. I have lain with no man but you.” She prayed God would forgive her for the lie.

  He raised the broom again. “Liar.”

  She gazed up at him, her eyes open, innocent. “Nay. I swear. You are Jason’s father.”

  His intense jewel, fever-bright eyes held hers. “Swear it on your brother’s soul.”

  “I swear on Alex’s soul Jason is yours.” She cringed inwardly upon her blasphemy. But Jason’s very life depended on her sacrilege.

  Bertram’s shoulders relaxed. “You’d better pray Jason begins to look like me. I shall be watching Jason as he grows. If it begins to appear the boy has even so much as a single feature of Rand Montague’s…Well, know that I shall not have a bastard bear the Ayleston title and let you make a fool of me. There are many ways for children to, shall we say, languish in childhood, either by accident or by illness.”

  Rose clutched her arms around her stomach as her entire body began to shake. “You would not dare do such a wicked deed as take the life of your own son.”

  Bertram clutched her hair and snarled in her face. “I will do whatever it takes to ensure a child of my own
loins. Either through you, or another wife, should you continue to defy me. Children are easily begotten till the mother either dries up or dies in childbirth. Wives are easily replaceable,” Bertram spat, and then, releasing her, marched from the room.

  Rose jumped up, grabbed Jason from his cradle, and clutched him protectively to her. She rocked back and forth, soothing the infant, her mind reeling with anxiety.

  Then a bolt of intense clarity shot through her like lightning and dispersed the fog clouding her reasoning. It was at that moment Rose decided to flee her husband. To seek the safety and shelter her powerful father could provide. Until this moment she had been too ashamed to tell her parents of her husband’s abuse and perfidy. After all, it was her fault Bertram could not perform his husbandly duties without the stimulation of knowing others watched. It was her fault she was too passionate and spoiled and unruly.

  Now Jason was in danger because of her weakness: her sinful passionate nature. So she must flee. Because she could not risk that Bertram would one day see Rand in the boy and retaliate.

  London wharfs

  In the year of our Lord 1276, October 22

  Fourth year in the reign of King Edward I


  The sounds of the city by the river, shouts of seamen and rumbling cart wheels, seemed far distant as Rand tried to get Rose to answer him.

  “Rose,” Rand said again. He knelt before Rose and patted her icy hand. She rocked back and forth, gazing through him as though he were a phantom. Her crystal blue eyes were dull with pain and her skin awash in a pale alabaster hue. “Rose, answer me,” he said sharply, his heart palpitating.

  Her eyes cleared. She stopped rocking and gazed around.

  They were alone. The porters and ship’s crew had been discharged for the day and he’d sent Harwood to check the cellars.

  “Rand, what are you doing?”

  Rand cocked his head. “I was concerned for you, Rose. When I returned from speaking with Harwood you were rocking and humming softly beneath your breath. You stared blankly through me and would not answer me when I addressed you.”

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