Vow of Deception, page 15
“Rose, you have the most generous heart I know. With more than enough love to give. Will you not open your heart and give Rand a chance, give love a chance? He is a good man and I believe he has feelings for you that he keeps deeply buried.”
“I’m sorry to disappoint you, Kat, but Rand does not love me. Why, he did not even hesitate when I made it a condition of our marriage that we keep it chaste and in name only.”
Strangely, that still hurt. Though she got exactly what she wanted, Rose wondered why Rand had been so quick to accept the condition when it was within his right to bed her.
“You mean you and Rand have never—”
“Aye, we have not consummated the marriage and we never shall,” Rose interrupted. “Our marriage is one of convenience only.”
She could never reveal even to her best friend that she had committed adultery with Rand. She was ashamed of her weakness. And, obviously, Rand had no desire to repeat the experience. Aye, he’d kissed her twice since their marriage, but her wanton behavior provoked him.
Kat reached out and squeezed Rose’s hand. “I have no idea why Rand agreed to such a condition.”
Because he does not desire me, Rose thought silently. She need only look at the women he bedded in the past to know why. He preferred the voluptuous curves and ample breasts of women like his current mistress, Lady Elena Chartres. It was the only explanation that made sense to Rose. If Rand truly wanted her in a carnal way, naught would stop him from trying to bed her again.
“But I do know this,” Kat continued. “Ever since you were a young girl, you and Rand have had an unusual relationship. He was always teasing you, and you were forever seeking his attention. Then Rand left on the Crusade and you met and married Bertram.”
Rand leaving on the Crusade had devastated Rose. Secretly, she’d hoped one day they would wed. Feeling lost and vulnerable when he left, Rose found solace with an adoring Bertram. He was gallant and charming and very attentive. It was only later she’d realized what kind of man he truly was.
“Have you never wondered why Rand teased you so relentlessly? Why he enjoyed calling you Rosie when he knew it annoyed you?”
Because Rand was an inveterate tease and enjoyed tormenting her, she thought.
Kat did not wait for an answer. “I shall tell you why. Because beneath all the teasing, I believe Rand has feelings for you. And despite your disavowal, I believe you feel something for him too. As a wise woman once told me, you owe it to yourself to discover what underlying feelings you truly have for your husband. If you do not, you will regret it for the rest of your life.”
Rose shifted in her chair, uncomfortable having her words turned against her.
Only a few months ago, when Alex had returned from captivity in the Holy Land to win back the bride he’d abandoned, Rose had encouraged Kat to give Alex a second chance. To explore the feelings she still had for her husband despite his betrayal, or she’d regret it forever.
“I know you wish the best for me, Kat. But my relationship with Rand is nothing like yours and Alex’s. Certes. Rand and I are content just as things are. So you need not worry about me or your cousin.”
Kat opened her mouth to speak, but a shadow fell upon her. Rose and Kat looked up at Alex. Placing his left hand on the back of Kat’s chair, he bent down and kissed his wife on her pale golden cheek. He smoothed the palm of his other hand over Kat’s slightly rounded stomach.
A tender smile spread over Alex’s wide lips. “This one hasn’t given you any trouble tonight, has she, my love?”
Rose had spoken truly. Kat and Alex’s relationship was different from hers and Rand’s. The love radiating between Kat and Alex was blinding.
As Rose watched them, a wave of emotion swelled up in the back of her throat. She swallowed, shocked to realize how envious she was of their love. No matter what she’d told herself, deep down she wanted what they had. She wanted Rand’s love—wholehearted and unwavering.
Sadly, even if Rand could love her, she did not know who she was anymore. She was just a cold, hard shell of her former self. Bertram had molded her into the perfectly biddable, passionless wife he wanted. And she didn’t know how to find the woman she once was, the woman who enjoyed life to the fullest, who never suppressed her emotions and feelings.
“Oh, and to soak my body in a hot, scented bath. Heavenly,” Lady Alison said with a dreamy smile on her face.
Riding atop her mount, Rose listened with half an ear to Alison’s excited ramblings about having a hot bath and soft bed to sleep in this eve when they arrived at Ayleston. Tired, wet, and cold, Rose was just as happy to have those things, but her excitement was reserved for her son. She missed Jason desperately and wanted to assure herself he was safe and unharmed.
As they approached the last stretch of woods south of Ayleston, a ray of sun broke through the clouds and the drizzling rain of the last two days ceased. Holding on to her reins with one hand, she slipped the hood of her cloak back and raised her face to the warm sun.
After traveling several miles into the woods, the men riding in front of Rose surged forward on their horses. Sir Justin and Rand’s squire, Will, came to Rose’s and Alison’s sides protectively and made them halt.
“Sir Justin, why have we stopped? Where are Rand and the rest of the men going?”
“A cart was attacked on the road up ahead by some outlaws. Sir Rand ordered us to remain behind to protect you while they hunt down the bastards.”
Rose gasped. “Was anyone hurt?” Without waiting for an answer, she kneed her palfrey into a trot.
Sir Justin groaned. Alison moaned.
“My lady,” Sir Justin pleaded, voice raised, “Rand made it clear I was to protect you—”
“I am not stopping you from protecting me,” she hollered back over her shoulder. “Merely going to the aid of some travelers in need.”
“But, my lady, you don’t understand. They are dead. Sir Rand did not wish to expose you to the bloody carnage.”
Rose caught sight of a cart tipped sideways on its broken front wheel, an assortment of wool cloth strewn across the ground. A merchant and his rotund wife clutched one another in the driver’s seat, a single lance run through them both, holding them upright together in a grotesque parody of a lover’s embrace.
Rose halted and stared aghast. Her hand flew to her mouth as her stomach rumbled with nausea. A sudden moan echoed from somewhere within the trees.
“Sir Justin, Will, did you hear that?” Rose dismounted.
She cocked her head and listened. The wind rustled the canopy of leaves. Sir Justin stepped up beside her, while Will helped Alison dismount from her mule.
The moan, louder, came again to the right of the downed cart. Rose grabbed her basket of medicinal supplies off the pack mule and made for the trees.
Justin stepped in front of her. “We don’t know if they are friend or foe.” He turned to Will. “Stay here and guard Lady Rosalyn and Alison.” To Rose he added, “Once I determine it is safe, then you may see to the care of whoever is in the forest.” Rose nodded and then watched Justin brush past a bush and enter into the trees.
Moments later Justin returned and waved her forward. Less than a hundred yards in, Rose saw a lad with short, curly dark hair sprawled facedown on the ground in the wet, moldy leaves.
Kneeling down beside him, she placed her basket nearby and then checked his limbs for broken bones. “Justin. Gently, help me turn the boy over.”
They turned him over onto his back.
The boy moaned, opening his eyelids and blinking. His gaze shot to Justin. Fear flared in his eyes and he cringed away.
“Easy there. No one is going to hurt you. I’m a healer and want to help you.” She reached over and held up her basket. “See. I have medicine in here.”
The boy sat up, groaning. “Who’s he,” the boy asked, suspicious, pointing to Sir Justin.
“He protects me. Now let me take a look at your head. You have a n
She leaned forward and gently probed around the wound. “You don’t appear to have any other injuries. Does it hurt anywhere else?”
“Nay, just my head.” His voice was soft and raspy.
“Can you tell me what your name is?”
“Of course. I’m not daft. My name’s Geoffrey.”
She tipped his chin up and stared into his eyes. They were unusually blue, the lashes curled on the end, but they appeared clear and focused. “Are you dizzy? Do you have blurry vision?”
He pulled his chin away and tried to stand up, but groaned and sat back down. Clutching his head, he moaned, “Oh, my head hurts.”
Rose lifted the lid on her basket and retrieved a linen bandage. She ripped a small strip off and doused it with water from the flask she carried in her purse.
She dabbed the wet cloth against his temple. As she wiped away the blood she asked again, “Do you have any dizziness or blurred sight?”
He crossed his arms over his chest. “Nay. I see fine.”
Next, she dabbed an all-heal ointment on the cut, and wrapped the linen bandage around his head to cover the wound.
Her voice gentle, she probed, “Can you tell us what happened to you, Geoffrey?”
“Mother, Father, and I—” He gasped and staggered to his feet. Short and somewhat stout, the boy appeared to be about four and ten. “I need to get back to my parents. They’ll be worrying about me.”
Justin stepped forward and stopped him. “Not yet. We need to ask a couple more questions. How did you get your injury and end up in the forest separated from the cart?”
“When the brigands attacked, Mother ordered me to hide in the trees. I ran, but one of the men caught me and hit me in the head with a club.” A stubborn glint entered his eyes. “Now, I answered your questions. I want to see my parents.” He dashed past Justin and back toward the road.
“Geoffrey, wait—” Rose hollered, wanting to stop him from seeing the horrific sight of his slaughtered parents.
Rose and Justin followed quickly. To the rear of the cart Will had his arms around Alison, giving her comfort.
The boy stood beside the driver’s seat staring at his parents in disbelief. A single tear ran down his small dark-skinned face. “They’re dead. The bastards killed ’em.”
“Aye. I am sorry, Geoffrey. I wanted to spare you seeing them this way,” Rose said.
Silence, except for the rustle of the leaves and dripping water from the trees.
“Get it out!” the boy shouted suddenly.
“What?” Justin asked.
He ran to his mother’s side and tried to pull the lance out. “Get it out! Get it out!” he screamed in a high-pitched voice over and over. “I want it out! Now!” His voice cracked.
Seeing the boy’s grief, her heart thumped painfully. Rose nodded to Justin.
Justin went to the boy and pulled him aside, then waved Will to the opposite side of the cart. “You pull, I’ll push. When the lance is free, we’ll put them in the back of the cart.”
Lady Alison kept her back to the gruesome sight. Grunting and groaning, the men pulled the lance out, lifted the pair up and over the driver’s seat, and laid them down in the flat bottom of the cart. The boy climbed in next to his parents, and after closing their eyes shut, he covered them with a dark woolen cloak that had spilt from a broken chest.
When he scrambled down, Rose noticed his right hand was clenched so tightly into a fist that his knuckles were white.
“What have you got in your hand, Geoffrey?”
The boy opened his hand. In his palm was a small gold cross on a delicate chain. A pointed edge had punctured his palm and a bead of blood ran down his hand.
“’Twas my mother’s. A gift from my father.”
Horse hooves and jangling tack pierced the dense silence.
Geoffrey swiveled his head back and forth as though looking for a place to hide. “Run. They’re back.”
Will and Justin drew their swords.
Rose turned her gaze down the road to the sound of the approaching horses. Rand, a black surcoate over his hauberk and his shield at his back, rode at the head of his men. He sat straight and proud upon his mount, sunlight glinting off his mailed coif.
“Be easy, Geoffrey. ’Tis my husband and his men. You have naught to fear from them.”
Will and Justin sheathed their swords. Rand dismounted, pulled off his gauntlets, then pushed back his mailed coif and ran a hand back through his hair. Sir Justin and the squire approached Rand. Though Rose was unable to hear their exchange, she assumed they were giving Rand an account of what had happened.
Rand lifted his head sharply and pierced her with his green-gray gaze. His smile never wavered, but Rose got the impression he was struggling to control his anger.
Rose clutched the boy to her, wondering whom she thought she was protecting, the boy or herself.
Rand made straight for her. She looked away, and taking Geoffrey’s hand in hers she examined the shallow wound.
“We’ll need to clean and bandage it to prevent it from becoming infected.”
A shadow fell on Rose. She released Geoffrey and gazed up at Rand, her chin raised stubbornly.
Rand clutched her shoulders tightly and pulled her to him. “I gave my men strict orders to stay behind to guard your safety.” She swore she saw fear glimmer in his eyes, but realized she was mistaken when he added, “Why must you,” exasperation creeping into his voice, “continue to defy my attempts to protect you?”
She jerked free of his grip. Defensively, she said, “I was in no danger. Besides, as you can see, we found Geoffrey alone and injured in the woods. Who knows what would have happened to him if we had not found him.”
Rand’s gaze shifted to the lad. Staring at him for a moment, Rand cocked his head, eyes narrowing.
The boy shifted nervously. Rose put her hand on his shoulder to ease his fear.
Rand turned back to her. “’Tis not the point. I do not give orders arbitrarily. When I do give them, I expect to be obeyed. ’Tis my duty to safeguard you—”
“Verily, we all know how greatly you have sacrificed by marrying me for duty’s sake,” she said bitterly.
His lips froze. “Exactly, so next time I expect you to follow my orders. Understand?”
They stared at one another, a tense silence between them.
The lad groaned, pressing his hand to his forehead. “My lady, do you have something for my head? It hurts.”
Relieved at the interruption, Rose turned back to Geoffrey. “Of course. But we’ll have to wait till we arrive at Ayleston. I’ll need to brew a tincture to give you for the pain.”
Rand, his fear slowly receding, inquired, “Geoffrey, where was your family traveling to when you were attacked?”
It was getting late and they needed to continue on their way if they were to make Ayleston before nightfall. But first he had to decide what to do with the boy.
“We were traveling to Chester to sell wool cloth to the soldiers who are going to be arriving soon for the conflict with Wales.”
“Can you tell us about your family and where they reside?” Rand thought the boy looked familiar but could not be sure.
“I have no family, except Mother and Father. And they are dead now,” he said sullenly.
“You may stay at Ayleston if you wish,” Rose said before Rand could respond. Her gaze, demure and sweet, met his. “Of course, ’tis up to my husband whether you can remain with us or not.”
Who did she think she was fooling with her feigned solicitousness? Or did she really believe him so heartless that he would leave the boy to fend for himself? There was only one choice. The boy had nowhere else to go and was too young to be left behind. Rand was sure he could find some position for him at Ayleston, mayhap in the mews or stables.
“Of course, you are welcome at Ayleston, Geoffrey.” Rand shouted to his men, “Will, the lad will ride with you! Mount up, men! We must make haste if we are t
To the boy he said, “When we arrive at Ayleston, I’ll send someone to come back for your parents so they can be buried properly.”
Geoffrey mumbled his thanks and went to Will.
Rand led Rose to her palfrey.
His hands settled on her small waist. The warmth of her body flowed into his hands, her flowery scent, and the luscious feel of her, taunting him. He quickly lifted her and set her on her mount.
“Never disobey me again, madame,” he said sternly.
Rand spun around, returned to his gelding, and mounted. “Let’s ride!” he called out, spurring his horse forward into a canter.
Immediately, his thoughts returned to the moment he had realized Rose had disobeyed his orders and put herself in danger. It was his greatest fear that she would get into a dangerous situation and he would not be able to save her. A shadow of his fear still hounded him, though he hid it well from Rose. He would rather she believe him domineering than discover his secret failings.
Emerging from the woods, Rand gazed up at the soaring crenellated walls of Ayleston Castle. The shadows of dusk crept westward over the castle. Rose rode beside him. He’d wanted to arrive together as a united front to allay any fears or anxieties the people of Ayleston might have now that they had a new lord ruling over them.
Evangeline shook her head, snorting. “Easy, girl, we’re almost home,” Rose said.
Five miles southwest of the city of Chester, the castle, surrounded by a moat, lay nestled in the Dee River Valley. The eighty-foot-high stone curtain wall was D-shaped and encompassed an inner and outer bailey, which included the stone Keep and Great Hall, adjoining chapel, stables, gardens, orchard, fish pond, and various outbuildings.
Serfs and freemen alike stopped their work and watched curiously as their party wound through the village toward the western gated entrance. The horses’ hooves clip-clopped loudly over the wooden drawbridge and cobbled passageway beneath the darkened castle gateway. They continued through the outer bailey, riding under an arch in the stone wall between the two baileys, before entering the inner courtyard.
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