Vow of Deception, page 22
Edith wrung her hands. “Verily, my lord? Are Lady Rosalyn and the little lord unharmed?”
“Aye, your lady is in the private chapel and Jason is asleep in his bed.”
The nurse’s eyes grew wide. “In the private chapel, my lord?”
“Aye. What’s wrong, Edith? You seem surprised.”
Her expression shuttered. “’Tis naught really. After Lord Ayleston died, my lady closed up the second-floor chapel and never stepped foot in there again.”
Rand frowned, puzzled by the extreme measure. The locked chamber must have some special significance to do with Bertram. But why would she broach the chamber now? The timing so soon after someone had tried to gain entrance to Rose’s chamber disturbed Rand. Had aught happened last night that she did not tell him about? And the mysterious dagger—could it be of some significance?
“William. Edith. I found this dagger under the washstand,” he said, drawing it from his belt. He held it up for their inspection. “Do either of you recognize it? Or know whom the dagger belongs to?”
William stared at the wide pointed blade, his brow puckered. “Nay, my lord. I know no one who owns such a dagger.”
Edith shook her head. “I’ve never laid eyes on the weapon before.”
“’Tis not your lady’s dagger then?” Rand asked her.
“Nay, my lady has naught but an eating knife in her possession.”
“Very good. You may go, Edith.”
“I’ll send a servant to bring food for Sir Justin.” Edith bowed her head and left.
William’s eyes beseeched him. “My lord, forgive me. I failed in my duty.”
But it was not William’s fault. Rand should have been here to protect Rose. He’d underestimated Sir Golan, but he did not intend to do so again.
Rand clutched William’s shoulder. “Nay, for there is naught to forgive. I am to blame more than any other. Instead, we shall work together to discover the culprit who did this.”
“What would you have me do? Whatever you wish I shall gladly do it, my lord.”
“For now I need information. Whoever drugged you had to administer it in your food or drink. When was the last time you ate or drank?”
“I had supper and a pint of ale before I came on guard duty.”
“Did you notice anything strange about it? Anything unusual about the taste or odor?”
His eyes grew wide. “Aye, now that you mention it I remember my ale tasted slightly bitter. I did not drink the whole pint, thinking it was past its prime.”
“Were you served alone, or did you dine with others?”
“I supped alone at the gatehouse. When the steward informed me I was to guard Lady Rosalyn, I ordered one of the castle pages to bring me a repast to sustain me through the night.”
“Which castle page?”
William’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t know his name. ’Tis the lad your lady brought home with her upon your return from court.”
“Geoffrey?” Rand’s voice rose on a note of surprise. “Is that who it was?”
“Aye, sir.” William stiffened and his brow drew down in a fierce frown. “Do you think he drugged my ale?”
“I don’t know. But I intend to find out. That is all for now, William. You may go.”
William nodded and left, still a trifle unsteady.
Rand was having difficulty believing the lad had had a hand in last night’s events. Rose had rescued the boy and taken him in when he had nowhere else to go. And he seemed to be thriving in his new position. Yet what did they truly know about the lad except what he’d told them? He remembered that when he’d first met Geoffrey the boy had looked familiar to him.
“What are you thinking, my lord?” Sir Justin spoke up from the bed. “Do you believe Geoffrey could have drugged William?”
“I do not know, Justin. Anyone in the buttery would have had access to the ale. There are some who are willing to do anything for a price.”
“Do you truly believe someone from Ayleston could have done this?”
“I do not want to believe so. But I shall discover who is responsible if I have to question every person in the castle.”
Rand clenched his jaw and a tic flared in his cheek. “Most likely it was Sir Golan, though. If you’ll excuse me, ’tis past time I remove the vermin from Castle Ayleston.”
Rand exited the chamber in long strides. First he stopped at the chapel entrance. He tried the door latch, but it was locked. He continued down the stairs and entered the Great Hall. Many of the castle residents were sitting at trestle tables breaking their fast, but Rose was not among them.
“Sir Rand.” Father John hailed him over to the dais table.
Rand approached the stern-faced older man. “Father,” he greeted him, nodding.
“We were not aware you had returned to Ayleston.”
“I arrived in the night.”
“’Tis good you have returned. Your place is here at Ayleston. With your wife,” he said pointedly.
“I could not agree more. Do you know where I can find her?”
“Where she is at this time every day. Lady Rosalyn is with the steward in his office. She is a very diligent and devoted mistress.”
Rand stiffened and glared at the priest. “What did you say?”
The priest, realizing his gaff, reddened. “My…my lord,” he sputtered. “Forgive me. I meant mistress of Ayleston. I did not mean to imply any impropriety.”
“Pray you do not make the mistake again. I shall have no one disparage my wife or her reputation.” With a dark glower, Rand spun on his heel and headed for the estate office.
The priest’s poor choice of words had brought a surge of seething jealousy in the pit of Rand’s stomach. He’d seen the way the steward looked at Rose. He was sure the man was in love with her. Rand could not help wondering if she returned his feelings. During his self-induced exile from Ayleston Castle, he had been tormented by visions of Rose in the man’s arms. His suspicions were baseless, but his growing obsession with his wife, a woman who was forbidden to him, was making him laughably foolish.
As he approached the chamber door his footsteps slowed. The mist of anger began to recede; he could not let the fact that he was a jealous fool cause him to charge in there and accuse her of an improper relationship with the steward.
Looking down at the parchment in her lap, Rose tapped her fingers on the arm of her chair across from the steward’s writing table.
David read from his list to make sure their records were duplicated. “Of livestock, we have one bull; eight plow oxen; twenty-three grazing oxen and cows, with two lost or stolen this winter; five dairy cows; five yearling bulls and calves; and five heifers.”
“On to the next order of business, then.” Rose leaned forward and tossed the parchment onto the table. “I wish to discuss the conditions of the betrothal between my son and Lady Alice that Lord Lincoln and I settled upon. When I was looking over the contract the earl’s clerk sent me, I discovered an error regarding the maritagium. The gift of land by the bride’s parents to the couple upon their marriage should stipulate that the female heirs begat by my son and his wife are to inherit the grant of land upon Lady Alice’s death. I am sure ’tis a simple error. But I wish you to write the earl and inform him so he may remedy the discrepancy immediately.”
“I shall draft a letter addressing the matter and send it posthaste, my lady.”
“Very good. I’d like to have all the arrangements completed come summer when the Earl of Lincoln is to travel to Chester with King Edward. The king, joined by the queen and a large party of nobles, is to lay the foundation stone of the altar at the new abbey of Vale Royal. Afterward, Edward intends to visit Ayleston Castle for several days. ’Twill be the perfect opportunity to sign and seal the betrothal contract.” Rose climbed to her feet.
David stood up behind the table, his gaze clear and innocent.
Rose had purposefully delayed discussing with David her suspicions. It was an uncomfortable subject, b
She stared him directly in the eye. “You have no doubt heard by now that Sir Rand returned to Ayleston late last night.”
He nodded solemnly. “I did, my lady.”
“I imagine you were surprised by his arrival.”
“Surprised? Of course I was not. Surely you remember I sent his lordship the message you wrote telling him of Sir Justin’s injury.”
“Then why did Sir Rand never receive my message?”
“I am sorry. I don’t understand. If he never got the message, then what is he doing here?”
She waved away his question. “That is not important. What is important is that I discover what happened. Can you swear to me you sent Rand the message?”
“I do so swear, my lady. I would never lie to you or do aught to hurt you. You know my feelings for you.” His mouth twisted in disappointment. “But if you cannot take my word for it, ask the page, Geoffrey. I gave him the message. Or ask the head messenger—he’ll tell you who delivered the missive and when.”
Outside the steward’s office, Rand clenched his fist tight to keep from drawing his sword and challenging David to a duel. But he kept a tight rein on his anger and remained to hear more. Not only had David confirmed Rand’s suspicions about the steward’s feelings for Rose. But Rand also now knew David had supposedly given Rose’s missive to Geoffrey. Was it just coincidental that Geoffrey was involved in this bit of intrigue too? With the clues pointing more and more to Geoffrey, Rand was extremely skeptical that the lad was innocent. But what could he possibly have to gain by the deception? And who was he really? Something was not adding up here.
Inside the chamber, Rose’s steps tapped on the floorboards as she approached the door. Rand backed down to the end of the hall and hid in the shadows. Rose exited the chamber, but suddenly turned back and clutched the door frame. David’s heavier footsteps sounded, then stopped.
Rand strained to hear Rose’s softly uttered words. “David, there is one more thing. ’Tis about the night Lord Ayleston died.” Rand sucked in a deep breath in surprise. “We never spoke of it, but you alone knew I was going to flee my husband that night. You left a horse for me in the nearby woods for my escape.”
Shock at this revelation sent hot blood pumping through Rand’s veins. Bertram had fallen down the Keep stairs that night. Did Rose know more about his fall than she claimed?
“Aye, my lady. Lord Ayleston was a cruel lord. You were always kind to me, and when you asked for my assistance, I was more than willing to oblige you.”
There was a brief pause, then a deep inhalation. “David, I must ask you if you told anyone I was leaving my husband that night. Anyone at all?”
“Nay, my lady.” His voice betrayed utter hurt and dismay. “I would never divulge your confidence to a living soul. Why are you asking now?”
Why, indeed? That she was asking David if anyone knew about her escape plans led Rand to believe Rose was keeping a secret. His hand clutched the handle of the dagger at his waist. Did it have aught to do with the dagger he found? He remembered there was a moment when Rose had opened the chamber door to drag William into the bedchamber. Had whoever drugged William left the dagger as a warning to Rose?
“I cannot say. I must go now.”
“My lady?” It was more a desperate plea than a question. “I know you asked me to never speak of it again. But I cannot remain silent now that your husband has returned. Sir Rand does not love you. He’ll never love you as I do. If you give me a chance to prove how much I lo—” David reached out and cupped her cheek in his hand.
“Do not say such things, David,” Rose interrupted, her voice appalled.
Rand stepped forward to rip away the man’s trespassing hand, but when Rose jerked back, he froze in midstep.
“What you speak of is impossible. I told you last night that I do not love you. I am sorry you misconstrued our innocent friendship for more. Rand is my husband and naught can change that.” It was hardly a declaration of love for Rand, but at least he now knew she did not desire the steward.
“I would hardly call our friendship ‘innocent.’ These last few months have been wonderful without your husband making a nuisance with his presence.” A flash of light exploded in Rand’s brain. He could throttle the pair for playing him false. “You trust my advice and know—”
“I trust your professional advice,” she said, voice slicing like steel. “There is no other relationship between us, nor will there ever be. If you cannot accept that and continue to perform your duties as steward, I shall have to terminate you from your position and ask you to leave Ayleston.”
A heavy silence rife with desolation pervaded the atmosphere. Rand gloried in the man’s heartbreak. The man had dared to possess that which was Rand’s alone. But the upstart would learn there was an extreme price to pay for his audacity.
Finally, his voice devoid of emotion, David said, “That shall not be necessary. I will not burden you with my feelings ever again.”
“Good day.” Rose spun away and headed up the spiral staircase at the end of the corridor near the castle entry.
Rand charged into the office. The steward, his back to Rand, was walking to the table. Rand spun David around and grabbed the front of his tunic in his left hand. As he shoved him up against the stone wall, Rand withdrew the dagger from his belt and pressed the sharp blade against David’s neck.
“So you think to poach another man’s wife without retribution? I could kill you for bedding my wife.”
The man struggled, but when Rand drew blood with the cold caress of the blade, he stilled. David spoke, his voice a hiss. “She is hardly your wife.”
Rand stiffened and his eyes narrowed. Surely Rose had not confided in David about their unconsummated marriage. Images of the two entwined among tangled bedclothes whispering intimate confidences tormented him. “What are you talking about? I can certainly attest that Rose is my wife.”
“According to the Church, mayhap. But a true husband would not have abandoned his wife mere days after their wedding. You do not deserve her.”
Rand breathed an inward sigh of relief that the chaste status of his marriage was still secret.
David’s lips lifted in cool satisfaction. “Obviously she needs more than you can give her, because she fell into my bed not long after you departed.”
A surge of rage like a tidal bore washed over Rand. He shoved his forearm up against David’s throat and cut off his air passage. David, choking, clawed at Rand’s arm. His face reddened. “Never shall you speak of my wife in such lewd boasts or I shall kill you. Understand?” David nodded, gasping for breath.
Rand grabbed him by his tunic again and threw him against the table with a roar of disgust.
The steward caught himself on the edge of the table, jarring the pot of ink, which tipped over and spilled onto a parchment scroll.
“Pack your bags, David. Your services are no longer required. I want you gone from Ayleston within the hour.”
His face went from red to pale in a matter of moments. “You cannot do that. Lady Rosalyn will not allow you to discharge me.”
“I can do whatever I want. I am lord here.” Rand shoved the dagger into his belt, watching for any sign of recognition by the steward. “I suggest you leave now on your own power, or I shall remove you forcibly.” His cold glare indicated he preferred the latter method.
Charcoal eyes simmered with hatred. “You shall live to regret this,” David grumbled beneath his breath, then marched out of the chamber.
Rand followed him out of the Keep and watched him make his way across the inner bailey to Hill Tower, where his private chamber was located. Drifts of snow were piled against the castle walls. Not far away a party of men and their horses gathered before another tower. Golan’s shield was propped next to the tower door. But there was no sign of Golan.
Rand made his
“Ahh, Sir Rand. Good morrow. ’Tis a pleasure that we meet again,” Golan said pleasantly as he exited the tower, though his wide-set dark eyes reflected animosity.
Rand drew the dagger and drove it into Golan’s shield. “You forgot your dagger!”
The ring of steel being drawn from several scabbards sounded behind him. Golan raised his hand to stay his men. “I do not know whose dagger that is, but it certainly is not mine.”
Rand had watched him closely for signs he was lying. He saw none.
Golan removed the dagger from the wooden shield and held it out to him handle first.
Rand ignored it. “You are not welcome here, Golan. You may be able to fool King Edward, but I know what a conniving bastard you are.”
Golan shrugged and handed the weapon to his squire. His genial smile was as false as his next words. “I’d hoped we could put our past disagreements aside for the king’s sake, but I see you have no desire for peace between us.” Golan slung his arm around Rand and spoke under his breath. “I shall leave for now. But next time you see me, I shall have taken everything you hold dear away from you. Including your wife.” Teeth bared, Golan’s smile was a rabid snarl.
Rand threw off his arm. “Get off of my land,” he said, his voice dark and lethal. “And don’t return. You’re not welcome within these walls.”
Golan’s eyes narrowed to black pinpoints of hatred; then he turned and shouted, “Mount up, men!”
Once upon his mount, Golan accepted his teardrop-shaped shield from his squire. He slipped his arm beneath the shield’s leather strap and slung it to hang down his back. Spurring his horse forward, he left without a backward glance.
As Golan’s party made its way to the castle’s outer gate, Rand crossed the courtyard and mounted the steps to the top of the curtain wall to observe from the wall walk Golan’s departure.
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