Vow of Deception, page 18
Rand continued to play with the boy, his anxieties forgotten in the moment.
Until…Rose suddenly came storming into the chamber breathing heavily, her cheeks flushed. “Rand…I pray you…forgive Edith her impertinence. I shall see to Jason now. I promise you shall never be burdened with the care of him again.” In her hands she held a stack of folded garments.
Rand got to his feet. “’Twas no burden. Jason and I are having a fine time.”
“Mama,” the lad spoke up, “Sir Rand was showing me how to sail.”
Startled at the formal address, Rand gazed back down at Jason. The lad’s expression did not alter, but a conspiratorial gleam lit up his eyes. A burst of laughter escaped Rand at their secret.
A frown marred Rose’s brow. “Would you care to share with me what you find so humorous?”
No, he would not. Rose would not be amused that her son was disobeying her command not to address Rand as “Papa.” Rand did not understand her stubborn insistence that the boy not call him so because she wanted Jason to honor the memory of his father. It made absolutely no sense, for she’d despised the man. It made more sense that she’d want Rand to fulfill the role of father to Jason. It was obvious the boy desperately wanted a fatherly presence in his life. Not only was he constantly seeking Rand’s attention, but he was as stubbornly persistent about calling him “Papa” as Rose was that he should not.
Rose laid the clothes on the bed and retrieved a linen drying cloth. “Bath time is over, Jason. Sir Rand must be about his duties now,” she said, coming around to the side of the bath next to Rand.
Nose wrinkling, she stared purposely at his chest. He glanced down. A dark greasy stain smeared his tunic, and he smelled odorous—reminding him he still wore his clothes from last night.
’Twas not all he remembered. A sudden disturbing memory of his drunken confession in the solar lashed him.
It all made perfect sense now.
She knew his deepest fear and failings and did not believe him capable of being a good father to her boy, or of protecting him. She’d seen deep into his heart and judged him lacking. Just as Lord Montague, Rand’s dead father, had.
Raw disappointment, rising thick and virulent, stuck in the back of his throat. Rand stumbled back, giving her room to finish Jason’s bath.
Rose held up the large towel, and when Jason got out of the tub, she wrapped it around him and rubbed his whole body vigorously.
The mundane chore sparked a memory from when he was a child that he’d forgotten. But it returned vividly back to life, menacing him like a skeletal specter refusing to stay buried…
Gascony, Bordeaux countryside
In the year of our Lord 1253
Thirty-sixth year in the reign of King Henry III
“Oh, my son,” Lady Montague said. An exasperated laugh escaped her. “How do you manage to always find yourself in such messy straits?”
Rand raised his arms high above his head, giggling as his mother removed the last of his muddy garments and tossed them on a chest at the foot of her bed. He knew his mother did not truly expect an answer, but he replied, “A pirate never gives away the secrets of his brethren. You shall get no answers from me.”
His mother’s voice dropped to a deep, craggy tenor. “Very well, then, milord Pirate. You leave me no choice. If you do not divulge all your secrets to me, then I shall have to,” she paused, drawing out the suspense of what she intended to do to him, “torture you till you do.”
Her fingers reached out like claws, and then she caught him in her arms and ran her fingers lightly over his ribs. A feathery tickle skimmed over his flesh. He burst out laughing, wiggling in her arms to get free of the torturous tickles. Breathless, eyes watering, he cried out, “Craven, I say, I cry craven.”
His mother released him. “Good decision, milord Pirate.” Her voice had returned to the soft melodic tones familiar to him. “Now into the tub you go, son. You stink.”
She grabbed him beneath his armpits and lifted him into the tub of water. Rand sat down, the hot water soaking into his skin and loosening the caked dirt that covered him.
Wearing a faded blue tunic dress, his mother knelt down and scrubbed his chest and shoulders with a cloth she’d lathered with soap. The water quickly turned muddy brown. The front of his mother’s dress became splotched with dirty spots of water, and strands of her golden hair, having come free of her braid, hung in her face.
He giggled. “Mama, you are dirtier than me now.”
After brushing her hair back from her face with her arm, she gazed down and laughed. “So I am, Rand. Juliana needs a bath next, but I do believe I shall have to perform my ablutions afterward.”
Juliana, playing quietly in the corner with her wool-stuffed doll, piped up, “I don’t need a bath, Mama.”
Rand scoffed. “If I have to bathe, Juls, so must you.” He pointed to the mud from the riverbank spattered on her dimpled cheek and in her golden hair.
She stuck her tongue out at him. “But I do not stink like you do.”
“You do too stink,” he shot back.
“I do not,” she whined.
“Lady Montague?” They all froze at the faint call. Then it came closer, deeper, darker, angrier. “Lady Montague?”
“Where is she?” a gruff, masculine voice demanded from the antechamber.
Rand clenched his body tight to still his sudden shaking. His father always made him afraid. He was a mean man who said hateful things and enjoyed bullying them. Rand avoided his father whenever he could because he was quick to beat them for any wrong he felt they’d committed.
“Who, my lord?” Lady Montague’s maidservant replied.
“Your mistress, you fool. Tell me where she is.”
His mother, her gaze wide and fearful, ordered, “Get out of the tub, Rand. Hurry.” She helped him out of the tub, then grabbed a linen towel off the stool and handed it to him hurriedly. “Dry off, Rand, and put on your clean sherte. ’Tis lying on my bed.”
Juliana sat clutching her doll tightly, her small face frozen in fright.
Lady Montague, the wet washcloth in her hand, knelt before Juliana. “Darling, let’s get you cleaned as best we can,” his mother spoke softly, slowly.
Her calm voice fooled Juliana, but not Rand. It was the voice she used every time their father came from his townhome in Bordeaux to visit them at their country manor.
“Get out of my way, you old crone,” Lord Montague swore. A sharp slap followed. “I shall find her myself,” his voice grew louder as he neared the bedchamber.
Rand, wearing the clean sherte, turned toward the doorway.
In tempo with each step, Rand’s heart thumped.
His mother whispered, “Children, stay here. Rand, protect your sister.” Rand nodded, knowing his duty. The curtain swished closed behind his mother, her edict reverberating deep inside him.
“My lord. You called for me?”
Juliana stood with her doll dangling from her fingers, her eyes glossy with fright. Rand went over and wrapped his arm around Juliana’s narrow, shaking shoulders. He held his breath, listening.
“Aye. What were you doing? How come you did not answer me immediately?”
“I am sorry,” she said, voice deferential. “Just about to bathe, I was undressing and could not hear you.”
“Never mind. I’ve come to tell you we have—”
His father stopped abruptly. Footsteps echoed. “What is that appalling dress you are wearing? And what is that stain on it?” His voice cracked like a whip, “’Od’s blood, woman. How many times have I told you to dress in a manner befitting your rank as lady of Montague?”
His mother’s voice dropped to a thready whisper. “Forgive me, my lord. As I said, I was just about to bathe and change into appropriate attire. If you’ll excuse me I shall do so now.”
“Churl.” A scu
Rand’s fists tightened in anger, and then he hustled into motion.
“Hide, Juls,” he ordered and shoved his sister beneath the bed. “Don’t come out unless Mother or I call you.”
From the other chamber, fabric ripped. Iron curtain rings scraped along the rod and his mother came tumbling through the curtain and into the room. She landed on her bottom and scrabbled back on her heels as Lord Montague came in and towered over her.
Rand fell to his knees beside her. “Mama, are you all right?” He pushed her hair back from her face.
She appeared unharmed, except for her usual pale, gaunt face. The front of her tunic was ripped open to the waist and gaped open, revealing her chemise beneath.
She glanced around quickly, and seeing Juliana hidden, gave him an infinitesimal nod of approval. “I am all right, darling.”
Rand clutched her arm, as thin as his own, and helped her get to her feet.
His father exploded in anger. “What are you doing in here?”
“Son, you should go to your chamber,” his mother said, no doubt trying to protect him from his father’s temper. “Your father and I have things we need to discuss.”
Rand was about to refuse when Lord Montague gazed about the room. Rand saw what he saw. The tub of muddy water, the damp linen towel hanging over the side of it, Rand’s pile of dirty clothes on the chest nearby. Lord Montague’s eyes narrowed on Rand.
His eyes snapped green fire. “You worthless whelp.”
A large, beefy hand came out and smacked Rand upside his head. Pain exploded in his cheek and his ears buzzed.
Lady Montague cried out, “My lord, prithee, don’t hurt him!”
“I told you not to cavort with those filthy serfs, Rand. I shan’t let you embarrass me and remind people of your tainted blood.”
Rand glared up at his father. “I am not tainted. I have the blood of king’s running through me. Mama said so.”
“You may have royal blood in you, but your grandmother was a dirty peasant. She contaminated the pure blood of your mother and that same blood runs through you and your brat sister. Now begone.”
Rand opened his mouth to speak. But Lord Montague grabbed his wife’s braid, wrapped it around his wrist, and yanked her against him. A yelp of pain escaped Rand’s mother. “Not another word, or I shall make your mother pay for your insolence.”
Eyes glittering with pain, his mother spoke, “Go on, Rand, leave us.”
Rand, gut churning with fear, frustration, and guilt, backed from the room. His father was bigger than him and knew exactly how to hurt Rand by hurting the ones he loved. No matter what he did to try to protect his mother, Lord Montague found ways to retaliate for Rand’s defiance.
Lord Montague released her. As she backed away from him, Rand’s father glared, scorn contorting his aquiline features. “You are a disgrace, Mary. Your peasant roots run deep in the brats you bore me.”
An ache in his heart, Rand left the chamber. But he remained nearby, crouched down in the hall listening to make sure his mother was harmed no more.
“I received word that Lord Montclair and your sister will be arriving soon.” The wooden lid of the clothes chest creaked open, rustling of fabric sounded, and then the lid slammed shut. “Here, you’ll wear this. I expect you to be on your best behavior while Lord Montclair is here. He brought his wife so you two could visit. But the purpose of his stay is to negotiate a new wine trade agreement for the Crown of England.
“I’ve brought the best entertainment and a chef from the court of Aquitaine to preside while our guests are here. You’d better pray you do not embarrass me. I need not tell you how important these negotiations are.”
“Nay, my lord, you do not. I assure you I shall behave exactly as you wish.”
“See that you do.” He grumbled. “And keep the brats out of my sight. I want naught to go wrong while Lord Montclair is at Châteaux Montague.”
“As you say, my lord.”
Over the sharp rap of footsteps, he said, “I’ll inform the housekeeper to bring fresh water for you to bathe. Do not ever demean me by reverting to your peasant roots again. We have servants to do the menial tasks.”
Rand scrambled down the hall and hid in a wardrobe chamber. When the door to his mother’s chamber slammed shut, he ran back inside her bedchamber.
Lady Montague was helping Juliana out from under the bed. His sister’s golden curls hung in her face and two tracks of tears trailed down her dusty cheeks. A pallor of subdued sadness invaded everyone.
“Take your sister to your chambers, Rand.”
“Aye, Mama. Juls and I shall stay in our chambers and not bother anyone while Lord Montclair is visiting.”
“You heard everything?”
“Your father does not mean the things he says, Rand. He’s just…a bitter man who is prideful to a fault. Do not take his words to heart.”
“Of course, Mama. I know you are right,” Rand lied and wrapped his arm around Juliana’s shoulders and led her out of the chamber. Feet dragging, shoulders slumped, Juliana looked up at him with her big, sad, gray-green eyes, an exact replica of his. “Why, Rand? Why does father hate us so?”
Rand sighed, his heart a tangled knot in his chest. “I don’t know, Juls. I don’t know.” For the second time, Rand lied.
In the year of our Lord 1276, November 3
Fourth year in the reign of King Edward I
The haze of childhood memories evaporated and Rand stared at another bath scene, in another country, in another time, at another manor, with different people. Rose pulled Jason’s tunic on over the lad’s raised arms.
Rand blinked, for Jason looked amazingly like Juliana, down to the golden curls—though his were shorter—and the dimples in his cheeks. Blinking again, he discharged the absurd thought. His imagination was overreacting. For a moment, he’d actually wished Jason were his son.
Slowly, devastating thoughts swirling inside his head, he backed away toward the curtained doorway. Jason was not his son and never would be. The pain clenching his chest shocked him, made him realize deep down that he wanted to be a father. To be the kind of father he’d never had—who would teach him how to ride and fight and swim and to be respectful toward women. One who would even play with him at his bath.
But sadly, he had no happy memories of being with his father as a child. What few he had of Lord Montague he preferred to forget. Seven years after Lord Montague stormed from the bedchamber, Rand’s sister and mother were dead.
Because he was cursed to hurt the ones he loved.
He stared at Rose and Jason, mother and child. His heart began to palpitate and blood drained from his face. I cannot love them. I will not love them.
But he feared it was too late.
Nay. It was never too late. Distance would cure him.
“I must go. I have to get out of here,” Rand blurted out.
“Very well, my lord. Shall we see you at dinner?”
“Nay. I am leaving Ayleston. I think it best if we keep separate households. Rest assured, I shall give you authority to settle estate affairs as you wish. But I’ll leave Sir Justin in charge of the castle forces and for your and the boy’s protection. I have a home in the port of Chester and shall be recruiting in the surrounding countryside for the next several months, so I shall stop on occasion and check to make sure your needs are being met. If you should need me for any reason before then, have Justin send word to Chester and I can return in no more than two days’ time.”
Rose stared in stunned surprise as Rand practically ran from the chamber. A huge lump lodged in the pit of her stomach. Rand was gone, and she had no idea what she’d done to make him flee from her as if she were a fire-breathing dragon. Dazed, she reached down and retrieved Jason’s ship, bobbing in the water.
She stared at the crude toy made from Rand’s own
Beside her, Jason tugged on her skirt. “Mama? Did I do something wrong?”
Rose looked down at Jason. As he gazed up at her, his aquamarine eyes were wide and hurt.
She knelt down before him and clenched his arms. “Nay, darling. Of course, you didn’t do anything wrong. Why would you think such a thing?”
“Because I made Papa angry, and now he is leaving us.”
“Jason, you did not make Rand angry. Aye, he is leaving, but ’tis not your fault. Sometimes ’tis best if a husband and wife live apart. The king arranged our marriage. But Sir Rand did not want to marry me. He only did so out of loyalty and respect for your grandfather.”
“Why would he not want to marry you?” His voice quavered with childish indignation. “You are more pretty than any girl I know.”
Her smile slightly quirked, Rose said, “Thank you, dear. But it does not matter whether I’m pretty or not. People of our rank do not get to choose whom we marry. Marriages are arranged between two people so families can acquire more wealth and prestige. One day when you are older, you’ll understand.”
“But why can he not live with us? Doesn’t he want to be my papa?”
“I am sorry, Jason. I know you want a father. But we have always just had each other. Cannot that be enough?”
He pushed out his lip. “Aye, Mama. I am glad he is leaving. I don’t want no silly father anyway.” Suddenly, his face crumpled. He grabbed the toy from her hand and hurled it to the floor, shouting, “I hate him and his ugly boat!” It cracked—the mast and sail breaking off from the hull—and skittered across the floor.
Rose gasped. “Jason!”
But he ran from the room, leaving her staring at the shattered remains, her heart aching for her son. Rose collapsed on Jason’s bed, dropped her head into her hands, and wept.
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