Vow of deception, p.12

Vow of Deception, page 12

 

Vow of Deception
 



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  Rose blanched, growing paler. She pulled her hands free and rubbed them up and down her upper arms. “I am sorry. I’m not mad, if that is what you think.”

  “I do not know what to think. Obviously something was troubling you. You seemed distraught and fearful for no apparent reason. Care to tell me about it?”

  “I am fine, Rand, verily.”

  “You can talk to me. I know Bertram was a…a difficult man to be married to, but you can confide in me. I shall not judge you.”

  “How did you know I was thinking of Bertram?”

  “We have not spoken of it, but last night you had a similar spell. You cried out for Bertram not to hurt you. Obviously, you were not cognizant. You were locked in a nightmare where I could not reach you.”

  Rand understood her demons more than she knew. He wanted her to confide in him, but how could he expect her to when he was not willing to reveal his own inner torment?

  “Will you not tell me about it? You need not fear my censure. Unlike Bertram, I shall not condemn you for exhibiting an honest emotion.”

  Soulful blue eyes evaded his. “What do you know of an honest emotion?” she said with a sad sigh. “You can charm a lady to do your bidding with your laughing eyes and seductive smile. But you have no deep feeling for her beyond animal lust.”

  The insult cut deep. Rand stood up and stared down at her. He could not refute her accusation. To do so would reveal the means by which he allowed his emotions to be subsumed beneath a charming exterior in order to protect those he cared for.

  Rand laughed. “You are right. I enjoy women and they know better than to expect me to fall in love with them. ’Tis good you realize that, because I would not want you to fall in love with me,” he said with a devilish grin.

  Her gaze snapped, blue eyes glittering. Good. He much preferred her anger to her fear and pain. He felt helpless before her when she exhibited the effects of her abusive past. It brought back memories of his own ineffectualness to prevent his father from hurting his mother and sister.

  “Help!” A terrified shriek pierced the sound of splashing water.

  Rand turned and saw a black-haired boy bob in the river, his arms flailing as he tried to stay above water. Running toward the river, he watched the lad disappear beneath the surface.

  Rand slid to a stop near the bow of his ship. Frozen, his heart pumped in agitation. A cold sweat broke out over his body.

  Rose followed Rand to the river’s revetment. She expected Rand to jump in and rescue the boy, but he just stood there staring, trancelike. “Rand, don’t just stand there. The boy is drowning. Save him.”

  He shuddered. Mumbled what she thought was “I can do this” and then tore off his tunic and boots.

  Rand dived in and swam to where Rose last saw the child. His buttocks and feet surfaced as he dove down into the depths of the river. Twice he came up for air and went under again. Suddenly, Rand’s head popped up, the black-haired boy held in his arms. He swam toward her with one arm back, grunting with exertion.

  Harwood emerged from the cellar, and Rose turned at his approach. “The boy almost drowned.”

  Gaze troubled, the shipmaster nodded and knelt down, then grabbed the unconscious boy from Rand’s arms. Rose gasped. It was the beggar boy whom Rand had given a coin to earlier. Rose knelt over the child as Rand shoved up onto the revetment with both hands. She checked the boy’s pulse. It was steady but weak.

  “Is the boy going to be all right?” Rand flipped his dripping wet hair back, staring down at the lad, his eyes dark with fear.

  His gaze moved to hers and Rose realized it had been a trick of the light. For his green eyes were clear and untroubled. It had likely been a shadow created by his thick, dark eyelashes.

  “I believe so. Is there a bed where he can rest till he wakes up?”

  “Of course. He can stay in the apprentice’s bed off the kitchen. Harwood can show you where it is.” Harwood picked the boy up.

  Rose followed Harwood through the back door and down the stairs to the kitchen. Before she descended the steps, she turned back. Rand, his fists clenched at his sides, stared out over the river, a lonely sentinel.

  Rose sat on a stool beside the narrow bed situated along the fireplace wall in a small chamber off the kitchen. The boy now lay in a clean, dry sherte. As she waited for him to rouse, Rose could not help replaying in her mind Rand’s hesitation to rescue the boy.

  She had always considered Rand extremely brave and strong and afraid of naught. It reminded her of the afternoon at the abbey when Rand revealed his sister had drowned. Had he been there when Juliana died? Had he watched helplessly as she gave her last breath before surrendering to death?

  Watching the boy struggle in the water must have brought back feelings from that day, causing Rand to hesitate. It was the only explanation for his odd behavior.

  With sudden insight, Rose realized there was more emotional depth to Rand than he let show. Juliana’s death had had a profound effect on him. Rose had seen the devastation and guilt etched on Rand’s face when he’d spoken of his sister’s death. Nor could she forget Rand’s enraged defense of her in the chapel when Sir Golan assaulted her.

  Then today, when he revealed his concern for her, she’d accused him of being a heartless womanizer, and he’d responded with a provocative quip and an irreverent laugh.

  ’Twas not the first time he had retorted in such manner. Always she had negated the emotion he expressed as an aberration, and pounced, perhaps unfairly, on his blithe rejoinders and infuriatingly glib remarks.

  Now she could not help wondering, could his irreverent wit be a mask he used to keep people at a distance? Could it have anything to do with Juliana’s death? Rose got the feeling there was more to his sister’s death than he disclosed.

  The shield she wielded to protect herself from being hurt slipped a little and her heart softened toward him.

  The boy moaned on the bed, blinking, and opened his eyes. Rose left off her musings to assure him he was safe.

  Upon returning to Strand House, Rand entered the bedchamber and quickly completed his ablutions. Afterward, he tossed his soiled sherte in the wardrobe, grabbed a clean one, and returned to the bedchamber. A feminine gasp brought his head up.

  Rose stood at the foot of the bed, a hand to her throat, staring wide-eyed at his bare chest. “Forgive me. I didn’t know you were in the bedchamber. I thought you were with Will in the stable.”

  With a teasing wink, he spread his arms wide. “As you see, I’m here, hale and whole before you.” When he rose his arm too high, a streak of fire shot through his shoulder, and a groan escaped him.

  Rose hurried to his side, a frown of concern on her flushed face. “Not so hale and whole. Where did you get these bruises and why did you not tell me you were in pain?” she asked as she examined his left shoulder, her soft hands gently probing the black-and-blue areas.

  He stared down at her, her scent, her touch, her nearness enticing him beyond distraction. She bit her plump lower lip. His gaze drifted down to her lips. They were so near all he had to do was dip his head and press his mouth to hers. He wanted to thoroughly explore the delectable flesh with his teeth and tongue. He groaned.

  “I am sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.” She went to the wardrobe and returned with a glass vial. He deliberately kept his back, and hence his scar—which rose a few inches above his braies—from her gaze. “You should have told me you injured your shoulder. Sit on the bed, and I can rub this oil onto it. It should help heal the bruises and ease your pain.”

  Rand sat down on the bed and laid his sherte over his braies and his hands on top of the sherte to hide his embarrassing predicament. “’Tis just bruised. I did not wish to bother you for such a minor nuisance.”

  Rose removed the glass stopper from the vial and poured a small quantity into her palm. He caught a whiff of clove. She closed the vial and handed it to him. Then she spread the oil over her hands evenly before she began massaging it into his b
ruised shoulder.

  She shook her head. “I do not know why men insist on never admitting to any pain or illness. ’Tis not weakness to recognize a problem and seek help for it.”

  “And women tend to coddle, fretting about every inconsequential bruise or ache. ’Tis any wonder men are cautious not to seek help unless absolutely necessary?”

  A small smile curved her lips. “I shall concede your point, on condition you concede mine.”

  His heart flipped, and he could not keep the smile from his voice. “Very well. I agree there is some truth in your statement. What is in the oil?”

  “Saint-John’s wort and arnica oil for healing the bruises, clove for the pain. I also use the ointment to reduce swelling of the joints and muscles. You never said how you got the bruises.”

  “Jousting. When my lance broke on the last pass, I received the blunt force of Golan’s lance blow to my shield. My shoulder received the worst of it.” He did not mention he suspected that Golan had tampered with his lance, that the tent fire was likely a diversion to accomplish the deed. He had naught but suspicions and did not want to worry her.

  “I remember it.” She shuddered. “For a moment I was afraid you would not rise. That you were de—” she stopped, her big eyes wide, haunted.

  Rand dropped the vial on the bed and clutched her smaller, more delicate hand in his larger one. “Rose, I am not so easy to kill. You may be sure I have no intention of leaving you vulnerable to Sir Golan. The bastard shall never hurt you again. Whatever it takes, I shall protect you.”

  Rose looked into Rand’s warm gray-green gaze, the amber flecks like tiny candle flames. Warmth from his calloused hand seeped into hers. He smelled of clove with an underlying essence unique to Rand, of warm skin, leather, and clean, fresh soap. Her hands still retained the imprint of his firm muscles and silky skin.

  Nervous, she licked her lips. His eyes dropped to her mouth; amber flecks sparked and her lips caught on fire. Her heart constricted, making it difficult to breathe. Rand’s mouth inched closer toward hers. He was going to kiss her. Panic fluttered in her chest, or was it anticipation?

  Those beautiful, full sensual lips of his touched hers, a breath of a touch. A soft moan, hers, she thought. He brushed her lips again and again, the velvet caress melting her from the inside out. Her right hand flitted up and landed delicately on his chest.

  With a hoarse groan, he tugged her into his embrace and slanted his mouth over hers with fierce abandon. His tongue flicked out, rough and wet, probing the sensitive inner recesses of her mouth. Tingling heat throbbed. On her lips, and shooting straight to her moist feminine center. She trembled in his arms, wanting to rub her loins against him and ease the ache.

  Just as suddenly, shame engulfed her. She was weak, immoral. Passion had led her to destruction twice before, and she was blissfully following the path of old wanton behaviors with only a heated look and coaxing touch of his lips and tongue.

  Chest rising and falling, Rose cried out and yanked away. “You kissed me.” She flung the words at him like a curse, breath heaving. “How dare you. You promised our marriage would be chaste.”

  Rand stood up and Rose stumbled back farther. That wicked twinkle in his eye returned. Blast him.

  “Indeed. But you can’t expect me to abide by my promise when those soft blue eyes of yours were begging me to kiss you.”

  Rose gasped, appalled. “I did no such thing. And I’ll thank you never to kiss me again.”

  Rand crossed his arms over his chest. Distracted, she dropped her gaze. She stared, enthralled at his bulging chest muscles. “Very well. I promise never to kiss you again. But heed me well. I will take whatever you willingly offer. Don’t expect me to deny you when you weaken and want me to thrust my manhood between those beautiful thighs of yours to slake—”

  Her eyes flew up. Her hand swung out. The slap rang out in the ensuing shocked silence.

  The red imprint of her hand rose on his cheek.

  “I made that mistake once,” Rose cried out. “But I swear by no means shall I ever do so again.” She flung away and stormed from the room, the crude boast repeating a refrain in her head. The man was an incorrigible rogue, lecher, libertine.

  She could not believe how quickly she’d succumbed at the first touch of his lips. How easily the allure of his masculine scent and potent kisses had weakened her knees and drawn forth a passionate response from her. She’d thought she was no longer susceptible to the pleasures of the flesh.

  The rhythm of her heart came in short, rapid beats, in time with her echoing footsteps down the outer stairs.

  Rand had an uncanny ability to provoke her ire…She jolted to a stop. Blast the man. Once again she had let him goad her temper with his lewd boasts. He did it a purpose, she was sure now, when he wished to create a wall between them that in-depth feelings and emotions could not surmount. Rose whirled around and marched back up the stairs.

  She swung the door open silently.

  Rand stood where she’d left him, gripping the carved bedpost. A ripple of emotions swept across his face—an odd combination of desire and poignant regret.

  A tender, indefinable feeling clutched her heart. “Why do you do that, Rand?” she asked, her voice a soft plea.

  He jerked his gaze up. Rose stood not far away, her head cocked. Catching him unaware, her glare intent, she saw his pupils contract and then close off all emotion from her probing stare.

  “Do what?” Rand straightened and tugged a dark green surcoate over his head.

  “Every time it gets too emotional you say something to push me away. Why? What are you afraid of?”

  She saw a pulse beat in his throat.

  “I don’t know what you are talking about, Rose.”

  “I think that you do. And that it has something to do with your sister’s death. That day in the garden, I heard the anguish in your voice. Your refusal to speak of Juliana and your hesitation to save the boy from drowning made me realize how deeply her death affected you.”

  She took two steps and stopped. A hairsbreadth from him, she felt a sensual tension shimmer betwixt them. Rand grasped the bedpost once more, his white knuckles straining and jaw clenching.

  She cupped his cheek, his whiskers tickling her palm. “By the river today you asked me to confide in you, and I responded thoughtlessly, hurting you, I believe, and then you lashed out. Deny it, but I know better now.” She stood on tiptoes, clutched his shoulders, and kissed him, gently, tenderly.

  Rand’s velvety soft lips clung to hers, his sweet breath mingling with hers for an instant before he clutched her waist and drew her against him. Cushioned against the heat and strength of his hard, muscled chest, her nipples throbbed and pulsed with desire.

  Her soft moan merged with his deep groan. Someone rapped on the chamber door. Rose jerked away, startled.

  “Enter,” Rand called out, voice hoarse with arousal.

  Agatha entered. She glanced first at Rose, then Rand, an amused smile lifting her lips. “My lord, a messenger from court has arrived. The king requests your presence at court anon.”

  “Thank you, Agatha. I shall leave straightaway.”

  Rand turned to Rose, made a swift farewell, and beat a retreat. She stared at his departing back, unsure whether it was relief or regret thundering in her blood.

  Chapter Eleven

  At the palace the following night, servants broke down the trestle tables to clear the room for dancing, while Rand stared across the dining hall at Rose. She leaned close, in an intimate conversation with the attractive, dark-haired Henry de Lacy, the Earl of Lincoln. Despite Rand’s resolve to remain distant, a flare of jealousy erupted and his smile broadened as though he was amused. But inside ire clamored. His grip on his chalice tightened. Leaning against a column in pretend negligence, he caught her gaze, tipped his wine cup to her, and then took a fortifying gulp.

  She turned from him and then laughed at something the earl said. Smile still in place, Rand tensed. That did it. He coul
d not remember the last time Rose had laughed like that at anything he’d said or done. Rand lurched from the column, but a voice stopped him short.

  “Never say that the man known for the legions of broken hearts he has left behind is jealous of the attention his wife’s showing another man.”

  Rand spun around and glared at Alex. If any other man had spoken thus to him, Rand would have laughed and acted as though the comment were in jest. But Alex knew him better than any other person and Rand did not bother to hide his disgruntlement.

  “Your sister has the most unusual ability to twist me into knots despite my restraint.” After their interrupted conversation the other night when she’d delved uncomfortably close into his heart, he’d made it a point to return from court after she fell asleep. He’d made up a pallet on the floor again and left before she woke. He had to keep up the pretence of a real marriage, but he need not suffer the torment of forced intimacy when he could not touch his wife.

  “Which is not a bad thing, in my opinion. But you are overreacting. Knowing Rose’s previous marital woes, do you seriously believe her interest in the earl is of a prurient nature?”

  Pausing to reflect, Rand realized Alex was right. “Nay, I do not.” His gaze returned to Rose. “But now my curiosity is piqued to discover what she is speaking to the earl so intensely about.”

  Rose smiled up at Henry de Lacy. “My lord, I believe you will agree that my son, Lord Ayleston, would be an agreeable candidate as husband for your young daughter, Lady Alice. The parties are of the same age. But, more importantly, the honor of Ayleston goes back to the time of William the Conqueror, and is rich in titles, honors, and lands. Such a match would greatly benefit both Lincoln and Ayleston. Do you not agree?”

  Rose tried to strike the right tone of flattery, yet not be deferential. She needed to reinforce the belief that they were equals, or he would see no benefit to the marital alliance.

 

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