Vow of Deception, page 23
After ensuring Edith had Jason well in hand, Rose exited the castle Keep to find Geoffrey. Her gaze was drawn inexplicably to the castle wall walk where a lone figure loomed. Tall and broad shouldered, Rand stood staring northward with his arms crossed over his chest and his legs braced apart as though at the bow of his ship. The dark cloak he wore whipped and undulated against his legs in the cold, brisk wind, shaping against his firm, muscular buttocks.
Rose shivered, from the cold, she told herself, and clutched the collar of her fur-lined cloak closer about her. The cold air cut her breath in half and her breathing grew heavier. A seductive force stronger than her will conveyed a message to her legs and she suddenly found herself climbing the steps up to the battlements.
Rand turned toward her as her boots crunched on the snow-packed wall walk. His gaze, burning with an odd combination of anger and desire, slowly drifted down her form then back up before settling on her face.
“My lord, what are you doing up here? ’Tis ill advised for you to expose yourself to the elements so soon after your recovery.”
Rand stepped back and swept his arm beyond the battlements. Rose followed the gesture with her eyes; through the crenel, between two merlons, she spied a party of men traveling away from Ayleston on the road north.
“I wanted to see for myself that Sir Golan departed Ayleston.”
“Surely another could have verified Golan’s departure and informed you. Do you wish to have a relapse?” she accused him, frowning.
“That would please you, would it not? Should I relapse, that is?”
Rose jerked at the sudden unprovoked charge. Where was his anger stemming from? What had she done wrong?
“Of course not. I have never wished ill upon another man.” Rose winced; except for her deceased husband, she thought. But he’d threatened her son, and she would commit any deed to protect Jason. “What would make you believe such a thing?”
His gaze bore into her, as though he were trying to read deep into her long-dead heart. Uncomfortable with his intense regard, afraid he would see too much, she looked swiftly away.
In the bailey below, her gaze landed on David. He carried a satchel over his shoulder. A groom from the stable brought out his saddled horse. David raised his arm and gave her a wave of farewell.
Rose frowned in confusion. “Where is David going?” she wondered aloud. “Forgive me, Rand. I must go and see where David is headed.”
Rand reached out to stop her, but she slipped away and made her way down the steps. He followed her, and when he reached the bailey, he sped up and caught her by the arm to stop her advance. “You, madame, are going nowhere near the man. David is no longer your concern.”
She stared down in dismay at his hand clutching her arm. “What is wrong with you? Surely you do not mean to prevent me from speaking to my steward?”
“Your former steward,” he gritted out. “And, aye, I have every intention of doing so.”
Her eyes widened in disbelief. “Former steward? Whatever are you talking about?”
“I have decided to take up my duties as lord of Ayleston. In that capacity, for my first act, I dismissed David. I have no need of his services anymore.”
She planted her hands on her hips and her eyes blazed with fiery indignation. “How dare you get rid of David without consulting me. He has ever been a loyal servant of Ayleston and does not deserve to be treated so foully.”
Rand bent down and whispered in a cold, silken caress, “I know exactly the kind of loyalty the steward extended toward you. If you believe I shall turn a blind eye while it continues, you, madame, are mad.”
Rose lurched back. After a brief stunned silence, she whispered back in a painful rasp, “Are you accusing me of lying with a man not my husband?”
But he did not hear the hurt disbelief in her voice. While on the wall walk, the pain of her betrayal with the steward had festered and putrefied inside him like diseased flesh. It hurt so badly he wanted to cut the pain out and never feel again. But ever since he’d acknowledged his love for Rose, his normal defenses no longer seemed capable of protecting him, and he lashed out without thought. “Do not pretend you are incapable of betraying our marriage vows. Marriage to Bertram did not prevent you from fornicating with me.”
A shrill moan split the air; Rose clutched her stomach and her whole body seemed to collapse inward as her shoulders slumped. Her soft blue eyes rounded with shock and pain.
Rand regretted the words the instant they tripped from his mouth. Guilt, razor sharp, ripped him to shreds. “Oh, God. Rose, forgive me. I did not mean—”
Rose cast her eyes down. “You meant exactly what you said. And you are right.” She spoke so softly Rand leaned down farther to hear her. “Coupling with you was a sin and unforgivable. One day I shall pay for my transgression.” Her head snapped up and her eyes held his steadily. “But whether you believe me or not, I would never betray our marriage vows. Pardon me, I must check on Jason.”
Her face paler than the snow on the ground, she turned and hurried across the inner bailey and up the Keep steps.
Oh, God, what did I do? Rand cursed himself. I am a fool, an insensitive, bungling fool.
The moment he flung the accusation at her and saw her devastation he realized he’d misconstrued the conversation he’d overheard. He’d let his jealousy get the better of his sensibilities.
In a stupor of disbelief, Rand gazed around the bailey. Castle folk looked abruptly away and continued with their various duties. A woodsman in a green hooded wool cloak collected an armful of logs from the pack mule’s panniers and headed toward the Keep. The blacksmith turned back to his forge, plunging the half-formed rounded steel blade into the hot coals.
David, sitting atop his mount, glowered at him with seething hatred. With a mock bow of deference, he spun his horse around, kicked the gelding into a walk, and entered the passage leading out the castle gate.
Rand, needing a private moment to regain his faculties, had sought the armory to check on Ayleston’s inventory of weapons and armor. A sudden blast from the horn at the castle gate announced an important arrival. Exiting the building, he brought his hand up to block the bright glare of the sun reflecting off the snowy ground. Melting snow dripped from the roofs of buildings and landed in puddles.
Rand stopped before the raised portcullis at the castle gate. The clip-clop of horses’ hooves on cobbles reached his ears. Will emerged from the darkened passage. Behind him on the rump of his horse, facedown, was the man Rand had encountered frozen in the snow last night.
His squire called out, his arm raised in a salute of welcome. “My lord, ’tis glad I am you survived the storm. I can’t say the same for this unfortunate soul. When I found your horse wandering lost, I followed its trail to this man.”
“Indeed, Will.” Rand grabbed Leviathan’s reins from his squire and stroked his gelding’s cold, silky neck. “It would seem one man’s misfortune is another’s saving grace. I was lost in the storm when I came upon this man. Then Leviathan here, spooked by a wolf, bolted and left me stranded. I was fortunate that enough of the dead man’s tracks in the snow remained, which led me to Ayleston.” Rand stiffened. It was at that moment he realized the man might be the missing messenger.
Will dismounted. “I feared the worst when I discovered you were without your mount. But I was greatly relieved when I followed your trail here.”
Rand handed Leviathan’s reins to a groom who approached him. “See that you take especial care with him.”
Knowing his horse was in good hands, Rand pulled the dead young man off Will’s horse and laid him faceup on the ground. He searched his clothing, finding a small pouch attached to his girdle. Several letters were inside it. He sorted through them and found Rose’s sealed missive addressed to him.
Hearing voices behind him, Rand looked up. A crowd had gathered around him and Will, whispering and pointing at the body.
“You there,” Rand said, motioning to one of the guards who chec
The scruffy guard grimaced in recognition. “Aye, ’tis Owain Fychan, son of the head messenger. Last eve he left to deliver messages in Chester.”
A loud wail pierced the stunned silence. A middle-aged man rushed forward and flung himself over the dead messenger. “Na my fab. Nay, not my son. You can’t take my son from me.”
The wail of grief reverberated achingly inside Rand’s chest. He was envious of the untenable grief this man expressed for his son. Rand wondered how different his life would have been if his own father had loved him even a minor portion of what this man felt for his son.
Rand perused the young man once more. After he searched the messenger’s belongings, he checked his body but found no marks to indicate foul play. Which meant Geoffrey was innocent, in this at least. It did not explain who had drugged William. Or how it had been accomplished.
Where was the new castle page? Rand realized he’d not seen the boy since his return to Ayleston. His earlier encounter with Rose had distracted him from his quest to find Geoffrey. Rand wanted to ask the lad if anyone else had had access to William’s drink—the most likely source of the sleeping potion.
The crowd parted. Rose strode through the gap in her drab garb, an unusually frazzled Lady Alison following behind her. Rose glanced at him, and then her blue eyes darted away from his steady regard.
His gut clenched at her chariness, for he knew he was at fault.
She knelt beside the grieving father and covered her hands over the older man’s white-knuckled grip on his son. “Owain, I pray you, release Owain Fychan into my care. I promise to ready him for burial with the respect and dignity he deserves.”
At her earnest appeal, Owain’s shoulders shook with grief. “Aye, he was a good boy. A man could not ask for a more loyal son.” He released the lad.
Rose waved over two men holding a stretcher. “Take him to the scullery lavar so I can wash his body for burial.”
The crowd dispersed when Owain followed the men carrying his son.
“Alison, inform Father John of Owain Fychan’s death. Afterward, I’ll need your assistance in the scullery.” Lady Alison rushed to obey her mistress’s commands.
Rose began to walk away, but Rand caught her hand and pulled her to a stop. A spark shivered over Rand’s fingertips at the touch of her soft skin.
Rose gasped. Her breath ruffled the gray fur on the collar of her cloak. He released her slowly, reluctantly, wondering if she had felt it too.
But her gaze was closed to him and her voice sharp from impatience. “What is it you want, Rand? There is much I have to do to prepare for Owain Fychan’s burial.”
Rand patiently inquired, “Have you seen Geoffrey today? I have seen no evidence of the boy in the castle. I thought you would know where I could find him?”
Irritation flared hot and brilliant in her usually soft blue eyes. “I know not where the lad is. David could tell you Geoffrey’s whereabouts, had you not dismissed him. He was always in charge of the castle pages’ duties and assignments.”
“Rose, I shall not apologize for dismissing David. He had an inappropriate affection for you. But I wish to apologize for accusing you of infidelity. When I spoke with David earlier, he inferred an intimate knowledge of you, and I let jealousy cloud my judgment.” He did not reveal he had spied on her conversation with the steward. He wanted her to confide in him of her own free will, not because he coerced her. “I know now ’twas just prideful boasting meant to provoke me. Will you forgive me?”
Her eyes grew wide at his reversal. “Certes? You wish my forgiveness?” Her voice cracking.
“Aye.” He nodded solemnly.
“Then, of course, I forgive you.” She paused, then asked, “Why are you looking for Geoffrey?”
Rand debated whether he should inform Rose of what William had told him about the page. In the end, he decided to tell her what he’d learned. He wanted to see if she might inadvertently reveal anything more about what occurred last night when someone tried to break into her chamber. He sensed she was not telling him the whole truth about the incident.
“I wish to question Geoffrey. When William revived this morning, I interrogated him to see who had the wherewithal to drug him. It seems Geoffrey served him supper last night before William went on guard duty. Upon reflection, William remembered the ale he drank with his meal tasted bitter.”
“Are you suggesting Geoffrey slipped William a sleeping potion in his drink? He is but a boy.”
“A boy nearly on the verge of manhood.”
Rose stuck her hands up the sleeves of her cloak. “I do not believe it. What possible reason could Geoffrey have to drug William? We took him in when his parents were murdered and provided him with a new home and position. It defies common sense.” A brisk wind gusted, blowing Rose’s hood off her head.
Rand hooked his arm through hers and led her back toward the Keep. “What do you really know about the boy? You must admit he has not provided very much information about himself. Indeed, he is practically a stranger to you. How do we know he is not lying?”
“I know the boy has done naught to merit your suspicion. So Geoffrey served William the bitter ale prior to William’s guard duty—that proves nothing. Any number of people could have secretly slipped a sleeping concoction in William’s ale before the boy served it to him.”
“If that is so, then the most likely opportunity to mix it in his drink would have been when the ale was being prepared in the kitchen buttery. That means one of Golan’s servants could have bribed the kitchen help to administer it. Which would you rather believe, that one of Ayleston’s trusted servants is corrupt and duplicitous, or a boy you have known for a matter of months?”
“There is one other possibility you have not considered. It makes more sense that one of Golan’s servants gained access to the buttery and slipped something in the drink with none the wiser. Have you questioned the servants to see if anyone other than Ayleston folk were in the kitchen areas?”
“Nay. Not yet. I wanted to speak to Geoffrey first. He is the main link between the kitchen and William. Afterward, I intend to question every retainer if necessary to find the bastard who did this. But I have not seen Geoffrey.”
“I refuse to believe Geoffrey is the guilty party. And I intend to prove it. But first I need to see Owain Fychan properly prepared for burial.”
“What exactly do you intend to do to prove he is innocent?”
“I’ll simply question all the kitchen servants and see if one of Sir Golan’s party gained access to the kitchens during his stay.”
“Absolutely not,” he said with a fierce frown. “I forbid you to question the servants. If you are wrong and someone from Ayleston is culpable, there is no telling what lengths they may go to keep their involvement secret.”
She jerked back in disbelief. “You forbid me?”
He crossed his arms, his stance adamant. “I do not wish to resort to such tactics, but it is for your own safety.”
She bowed her head. Whenever Bertram had forbidden her from doing anything, he’d used the excuse that he was doing it for her protection. But what his commands were truly meant to do was to keep her under his overbearing control.
He tipped her chin up with his forefinger. “Rose, you understand I’m doing this for your own protection, don’t you?” His warm breath a shivery caress upon her lips, she stared deeply into his green eyes. The cold receded and a tingling heat suffused her.
Aye. Rand was not Bertram. She understood he wished to protect her, but that did not mean she was happy to have her activities curtailed. Or that she intended to docilely abide by his dictates. “Of course, Rand.”
In the scullery, Rose stood over a long table sewing the last stitches on the shroud that enclosed Owain Fychan. The lad held a plain, unadorned silver cross in his folded hands. He appeared surprisingly peaceful, as if he’d simply fallen asleep and never woken again.
“Edith,” Rose said, glancing up at her, “Praise God you are back.” Then she inserted the needle in the linen shroud, pausing in her chore. “I’m anxious to hear what you have discovered. Were you able to discreetly question all the kitchen servants?”
“I did, my lady, but I am afraid I don’t have much to report. No one saw Sir Golan or any of his men in the kitchens during their brief stay.”
Rose’s shoulders slumped with disappointment. She had been so sure Edith would find someone who had witnessed a henchman of Golan’s skulking around where he did not belong on the day in question. “That leaves then the likelihood that Sir Golan paid one of the castle servants to dose William’s ale. I do not want to believe Geoffrey capable of such deceit.”
“There is another possibility,” Edith said hesitantly.
“Go on, Edith. I am listening.”
“’Tis possible someone saw something but denied it because they are afraid they shall be punished.”
Rose cocked her head. “Hmmm…I never thought of that. Was there a particular servant you questioned whom you suspect was lying?”
“When I questioned Lisbeth, she said she did not see anyone, but her cheeks turned bright red. Initially, I thought it odd but not suspicious, until later when I remembered seeing Sir Golan’s squire flirting with her last night in the Great Hall. Now I wonder if he could have slipped into the buttery feigning interest in her and dosed the ale without her knowing.”
Rose braced her hands on the board. “If it were anyone other than Sir Golan, I might believe the plot far-fetched. But Sir Golan has no scruples. ’Tis exactly the kind of underhanded scheme he’d perpetrate in order to achieve his ends.”
“Lisbeth may now suspect she was used but may be too afraid to admit it because she does not want to get in trouble.”
She exhaled deeply. “We have no proof, merely speculation. I need to speak to Lisbeth to discover the truth. Bring her here so I can interview her in private.”
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