Vow of Deception, page 29
Rose’s jaw dropped in horror.
Lydia threw back her head and laughed with maniacal glee. “Exactly. I have been right beneath your nose the whole time and you did not even realize it. You even required my help in delivering you to Sir Golan, the very man I’ve conspired with to destroy you.”
A wave of disbelief washed over Rose. Her knees buckled. She staggered and reached out to catch herself on the bed niche. Her bottom smacked hard against the bench; the straw mattress crinkled loudly in the stunned silence.
Rose’s skull exploded with pain. Her vision spun and she dropped her head between her legs to keep from fainting.
She barely noticed the biting cold seeping into her posterior. Mother Mary, what have I done? Mother Mary, what have I done? The blade of guilt stabbed deeper with each lament.
Geoffrey, the boy she had given hearth and board to was none other than Lady Lydia. She’d let a viper into their midst, endangering everyone she ever cared about. So many questions whirled in her head she did not know where to begin. But with a newfound reserve of strength she’d discovered deep inside, Rose raised her head.
“How long have you been conspiring with Sir Golan? Were you the one who drugged Sir William and delivered the extortion message? Why did you save Jason from drowning if you wished to punish me?” She gasped. “Who were those poor people who were murdered on the road that you claimed were your parents? Surely you did not—” Rose could not complete her question. The idea that the merchant couple was killed so Lydia could perpetrate her deception was too horrible to believe.
“The merchant couple was an unfortunate casualty.”
“You had them killed?”
“’Twas Sir Golan’s idea. We had to come up with a plan to get me inside Ayleston Castle. And it worked brilliantly. You never suspected Geoffrey’s motives, or his loyalty to you. Sir Rand, on the other hand, was much more suspicious of me.”
“So it was you who drugged Sir William after all, and not Sir Golan’s squire?”
Lydia chuckled. Pride laced her words as she replied, “Aye. That was my idea. Sir Golan’s man distracted the slut while I mixed henbane in William’s drink. If anyone questioned the servants, Golan would take the blame. He was the obvious culprit, and he cared not what you thought of him.”
“And the extortion note? That was you also, wasn’t it? I saw you in the chapel that day. What was the purpose of your extortion plot?”
“After all these years you still do not understand. Bertram loved me.” Her voice rose as she repeated, “He loved me!” and thumped her chest with her fist for emphasis. “He knew all about my sordid past. He knew what was inside my soul, yet he loved me anyway. Bertram was the only person who ever understood me and accepted me as I am. But you took him away from me. You killed Bertram. So, aye, I sent you the threatening note. I wanted to frighten you. To torment you and make you believe that at any moment you could lose everything.”
“I don’t understand why you did not try to harm me or those I cared for while you were at Ayleston. For months you had the opportunity to wreck vengeance upon me. It would have been easy to poison the food or wine. You even saved Jason from drowning. Why?”
“I do not want your death to be quick and painless; that would be too easy. By saving Jason’s life, I gained your undying trust, giving me the time and opportunity to orchestrate Jason’s abduction and your imprisonment. When I learned you had married Sir Rand, I began to hatch a plot to see you suffer for what you did. You do not deserve to be happy and in love. You are not worthy of Rand’s love. Nor any man’s love.”
“Rand does not love me. He only married me because our families betrothed us.” To her dying breath, she would never reveal the true deception of their marriage vows.
“Fool. Not only are you guileless, but you are blind too. The man has always loved you. He was too stubborn and afraid to realize it. But it’s too late for you, Rose. Rand and Jason are lost to you. I have taken everyone you’ve ever loved, as you stole Bertram from me.”
The key screeched in the lock, and Rose winced, the sound like the cry of a banshee in her ears. Lydia began to move to the door pulling her hood up over her distinctive blond hair. Nay. It was too soon. Rose still had not secured Jason’s release.
“Lydia, prithee, I implore you. Do not harm Jason. Return him to Rand when I am gone.”
The guard pushed the door open. His nose was smashed flat against his face and a permanent scowl etched on his face. “Your time is up, milady,” he said, his voice deep and gravelly.
Lydia stepped out, her rich silk skirts swishing as she pulled them aside so the guard did not incidentally befoul them. Rose lurched toward the scarred oak door as it swung shut. She blared out in desperation, “What is to prevent me from exposing your identity?!” The door slammed in her face.
Rose dropped her head. Her shoulders slumped. Then the small door, which the guard used to peek into the chamber and check on her, snapped open. Lydia peered through the small opening covered with iron bars.
Rose straightened her shoulders and stared bravely at Lydia. “I have done as you asked. I confessed to Bertram’s murder. My trial is the day after tomorrow and a conviction is a foregone conclusion. You have won. Will you do one last honorable thing and see that Jason is returned safely into Sir Rand’s custody after I am passed?”
Lydia, her lips slightly pinched, nodded her agreement. An audible sigh whooshed from Rose’s lungs. She was able to breathe easier, as if a heavy stone had been dislodged from her chest. Then Lydia crooked her finger for Rose to come closer. Rose dipped her head toward the woman.
Blue eyes flared with an unearthly light. “Betray me and Jason dies.”
The words struck Rose in the heart like barbed arrows. She flinched, all the blood draining from her face.
Keys jingled. The guard fumbled around to find the correct key. Golan, his hand resting on his sword hilt, tapped the cool metal cross guard with his fingers, impatient for the bumbling fool to open the cell door. Finally, the garlic-reeking guard inserted the key in the lock and unlocked the door. Grunting, Golan elbowed him aside and shoved the door open.
He gazed around the dark and dank chamber. To his right inside the octagonal tower, Lady Rosalyn lurched up from a reclining position on the bed and stood up to move as far away from it as she could. Golan sneered. It would not stop him from bedding her. She should have been his wife. He deserved to get some sort of compensation for the prize being stolen from him.
Standing in the threshold, Golan turned back to the guard. He jerked his arm toward the door and pointed imperiously. “Leave us. Now! I want some privacy with the prisoner.”
The guard smiled slyly, then turned and headed down the spiral stairs whistling. Golan closed the door and turned back to Rosalyn.
She’d folded her hands before her, and stood with her shoulders thrown back proudly. Conversely, her dark clothes were wrinkled and dirty, her hair was tangled and uncombed, and the chamber reeked.
“Lady Rosalyn,” he said with derision.
Head angled as though she were a queen receiving one of her lowly subjects, she nodded. “Sir Golan.”
Proud, cold bitch. Despite her reduced circumstances and approaching trial and execution, she still had the audacity to act as though she were better than him. He vowed he would wipe the look of disdain from her face.
“Remove your clothes.” With slow, deliberate movements, Golan tugged the tie free at the neck of his cloak and tossed the outer garment on the table next to the water basin.
Her cheeks paled and a tremor shook her shoulders. He smirked, pleased. She was not so haughty now.
Golan grabbed the strap end of his leather sword belt, tugged it back freeing the pin from the hole, and slid it out of the buckle. He removed his belt and propped his scabbard and sword against the wall next to the cell door.
She had not moved from her position or done as he had or
“I said take off your garments!” He strode the five feet between them, and she raised her arms to ward him off. But he grabbed the neck of her blue woolen bodice—and ripped. “Now! Or I shall remove them for you.”
She clutched the ripped material closed, her chest heaving. “’Tis not…necessary,” her voice faltered. “I will do it.”
He watched, waiting until she did as he bid. She gathered the skirt of her surcoate and tugged it off over her head. A gray tunic and chemise remained.
Golan tossed his surcoate aside and reached next for the laces of his sherte.
Her fingers fumbled as she tried to untie the lace closing the neck of her undertunic. “Why are you doing this? Do you enjoy taking women who despise you? Who find you repugnant?”
Heat sizzled over his flesh. He swung his arm out and backhanded her. She cried out, stumbling, and fell to her knees against the bed niche. Satisfaction bloomed and spread, going straight to his cock. He hardened and grew as stiff as marble.
She reached up and propped her bent arm on the bed. Blood welled at the corner of her mouth. She wiped the back of her hand across her lips, smearing the blood across her cheek. Her blue eyes, smoldering with contempt, shot to his.
Slowly, she pushed to her feet. “Go ahead, take me against my will, but I shall not aid you, nor cower before you. You are a vile, cowardly man.”
A bright light flared inside his head like a strike of lightning. Pain seared his skull. With a shout of rage he reached out and wrapped his fingers around her neck. “Goddamn deceiving bitch. Am I not handsome enough for you? Am I not aristocratic enough for you? Who are you to judge me? Just like my wife, you are naught but a cheating whore.” Staring into her eyes, he watched them flare open wide in surprise. “Aye. Do not think I have not noticed the resemblance between Sir Rand and your son.”
With one hand he squeezed her neck tighter, lifting her off her feet. She dangled before him, her legs swinging, toes twitching as she tried to touch the ground. Her face turned vermilion, while her delicate fingers clawed at his wrist and her eyes bulged.
Just as her eyelids began to flutter closed, he released her. She crumpled onto the bed, limbs akimbo, choking and wheezing as she gulped in air and rubbed her throat.
He jumped on her. Before she could move, he grabbed her thighs, spread them forcefully, and shoved up her skirts. She screamed, twisted beneath him. Her fingers reached out and her nails raked down his cheek. He roared in pain, clutched her hands and shoved them down beside her head.
He thrust his hips forward, rubbed his throbbing erection against her vulnerable center. “I’m going to shove my cock so far up you I shall break you in twain, harlot.”
Raising his sherte, he reached down and loosened the tie at the waist of his braies, then shoved them down till his shaft sprang free. She screeched, twisted and bucked beneath him. Her center was open and ready for his invasion. Golan panted, his skin feverish, sweat popping out on his forehead.
Rose bucked up against Golan. Her neck throbbed with pain and revulsion shuddered through her as his shaft pressed against her exposed flesh. She kicked out again. She gazed at him with blazing scorn. “You are pathetic, Golan. Just like my first husband, you cannot get aroused unless by perversion. You are not a real man. You are a weak, worthless, repulsive slug.”
With a roar, Golan leaned up. A satanic light blackened his eyes.
Rose seized the opening and jammed her knee straight up into his loins. He howled in excruciating pain. Feral satisfaction soared inside her, lending her strength. She pressed her hands against his chest and shoved. Suddenly his head jerked, and groaning, he collapsed on top of her. Unmoving, his heavy weight crushed her, the stone bed jabbing into her back. Then his burden lifted from her and he was flung aside.
Her eyes grew wide as Rand’s grim visage came into view. “Rand,” she blurted out.
Rose’s face blazed bright red. A rush of emotion—shock, disbelief, shame—knocked the breath from her. She darted her eyes away. Pushing up into a seated position, she shoved her tunic and chemise down to cover her nakedness.
I cannot bear to look at him. What must he think of me? she wondered.
Rand, his heart pounding in his throat, grabbed Rose’s hand and pulled her into his embrace. “Oh, God, Rose, forgive me. I came as soon as I could. Tell me you are all right. Did the bastard rape you?”
“Nay. ’Twas close, but he did not—” She shuddered in his arms.
A red mist obstructed his vision as he remembered Golan, with his buttocks bared, poised over Rose. “Easy, love. I have you.” Rand clutched Rose tightly, attempting to soothe her as much as himself. Every muscle in his body stiffened as he constrained the rage rippling through him. Any moment his body could snap. He tamped down the emotion. He needed to keep a cool head if they were to escape the castle without alerting the garrison.
Concentrating on Rose, he clutched her head to him, his hand caressing down her back over her loose coppery hair. Gradually the warmth of her body melted into his, easing his own jumping nerves.
“I fought Golan, Rand. I swear it.”
“I know you fought him, Rose. I’m proud of you.”
“You are? Why? Are you not sickened by what you saw?”
He leaned back and cupped her cheeks in his palms. “I’m sickened that that bastard touched you. But I would never blame you. Nor does it change how I feel about you. You have naught to be ashamed of. You are not at fault. Understand?”
As she shuddered once more, relief showed in her soft blue eyes. “I understand.”
He kissed her, his lips clinging to the soft, sensual contours of her berry-sweet lips. She moaned, clutched his arms tightly and leaned into him. Her pert breasts burned into his muscled chest. Hard points stabbed him, the abrasion setting off a spark of heat. The sensation shot straight to his shaft.
Quivering, he pulled back with effort, breathing harshly. “Later, we shall finish this. But now we have to go. We don’t have much time.”
He released her and bent down to check on Golan. The man was unconscious, lying facedown, his undergarments bunched around his buttocks. Rand clenched his jaw, felt a muscle tic in his cheek. His fingers twitched with the urge to run the knave threw. But he needed the man alive for the nonce. Later, though…He would see to it Golan never had a chance to rape a woman again.
Rand glanced back at Rose. Her pale blue eyes glared daggers at Golan and then they grew shadowed with fear. “Rand. We have to go. They have Jason. Lydia and Golan, I mean. I think they’re holding him at one of the hospitals. Lydia let it slip when she was gloating about her scheme for revenge. Lydia has been—”
As Rand listened to Rose’s nonsensical babble, he wondered if her ordeal had stolen her wits. “Rose, what are you talking about? Lydia de Joinville is locked away in a nunnery in the north,” he said as he moved to the bed and ripped the straw pallet apart. Straw fluttered into the air and stuck to every surface.
Rose reached out and grabbed his forearm. “Rand, listen to me.” Her nails bit deeply into his skin. Shocked, his gaze jerked to hers. Her eyes bore into him. “Lydia escaped the nunnery. She is the one who concocted the whole extortion scheme. Yesterday, she came—”
“What extortion scheme are you talking about?”
“I don’t have time to explain everything, but Lydia delivered a note to me at Ayleston the night of the raid. In the note, she promised to release Jason if I confessed to murdering Bertram.”
“That explains a lot. I couldn’t figure out why you would willingly leave Ayleston.”
“’Tis the only thing that would have persuaded me to leave you. She lured me out of my chamber to the chapel, where I found her message, and then she knocked me out.”
“I don’t understand. How did Lydia get inside the castle to lure you away?” Now was not the time to ask her if Jason was his son. But soon Rand would need an explanation.
Her soft round eyes narrowed. “Because Lydia is Geoffrey.”
“Jesu. How can that be?” Even as he asked he remembered from their very first meeting thinking Geoffrey seemed familiar to him.
Rand ripped the thick woolen pallet cover into several long strips as Rose explained.
“She dyed her hair and skin dark. And bound her breasts. After escaping the nunnery, she joined forces with Golan and together they concocted a plan for revenge. She came to my cell yesterday and told me everything.”
“The woman is a menace.” Rand crouched down and tied Golan’s hands behind his back. “’Tis getting late. We have to hurry. The guard can come back at any moment.”
Rand lunged to his feet and grabbed the pitcher off the table.
“What are you doing, Rand?”
“I need to revive Golan so we can take him with us. If he wishes to live, he’ll tell us where he is holding Jason. I have my ship downriver to take you away to safety. Once I see that done, I’ll come back for Jason.”
“You don’t understand, Rand. Lydia swore she would kill Jason if I betrayed her. We have to get to Jason before she finds out I’ve escaped.”
“First we have to escape without raising the alarm. Below the castle walls, outside the postern gate is a barge waiting to take you to my ship.”
“I’m not going anywhere without Jason. Once Golan tells us where Jason is being held, I’m going with you to rescue him.”
A whistle warbled from below through the tower arrow loop. Rand swore. “That’s one of my men. The guard is returning. Hide behind the door.” He set the pitcher down on the table.
Rose lunged behind the open door. He crossed to the opposite side, quietly drawing his sword. He pressed one finger against his lips and his back against the wall. She nodded, her face alight with courage and determination. Pride surged within him. Most women who had gone through what Rose had would have dissolved into a puddle of tears and been too distraught to think, or react, with resolve.
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