Vow of deception, p.3

Vow of Deception, page 3

 

Vow of Deception
 



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  Now, she slipped the cloth sling over her head, laid Jason in his cradle, and removed the swath of wool from beneath his warm body. The boy made not a sound as she pulled the colorful quilt up to his chin. Ever since his birth, Jason had been a quiet, happy baby. And Rose was thankful for it in this moment as she listened for any signs of a commotion below stairs.

  She thought she had measured with exacting care the belladonna she put in Bertram’s favorite evening wine, in order that she did not overdose him. But apparently she had been too careful. Rose tiptoed back to her bedchamber, hung up her garments on the pegs beside the door, and slid into her bed to wait for the raising of the hue and cry.

  Her heart continued to pump sporadically. She stared wide-eyed up at the canopy, her lips moving in silent prayer. Not for her deceased husband, may God forgive her, but that no one would ever discover her involvement in this night’s deeds. It was a confession she would take to her grave; she lived for her son alone now.

  Rose jerked awake. Panic beat like the wings of a bird inside her chest. Her mouth was open, a scream deep in the back of her throat. But no sound escaped. It wasn’t that she could not scream, but she knew better than to voice her discontent.

  Rose blinked, but the solid blanket of darkness surrounding her did not lessen. She crawled across the soft mattress, gripped the velvet bed curtain, and yanked it aside. A glimmer of moonlight from her open shutters illuminated the disheveled sheets and coverlet of her canopy bed. Her medical books were on her table too.

  A sigh of relief escaped her.

  It was only a nightmare. She was safe in her own bed. Alone. Taking deep breaths, she willed her fear to recede. With her husband dead nigh onto three years, her degradation and humiliation at his hands was a thing of the past. But deep inside, she knew she would never be the innocent, naïve, happy young woman she was when she married Bertram. Her heart was a hard, cold lump—she was a frigid woman who despised a man’s touch.

  She reached for her Trotula medical book—a gift from her mother—and caressed its beloved well-worn Cordoba leather covering. When Bertram was alive she’d hidden her books because he forbade her to practice her healing arts. She put the text back and chose another book. It was a special collection of healing recipes, prayers, and charms collected and passed down through the generations by the women in her family. Upon Rose’s marriage, her mother had gathered them together, then commissioned a local monk to transcribe and bind them into a beautifully illuminated manuscript. Flipping open the leather cover, she allowed the vellum pages to unfold, and closing her eyes, she stuck her finger on a random spot in the book. It was a ritual she performed as a way to ease her dark mood. Many times offering her insight and guidance and wisdom.

  She opened her eyes and read the Latin script. She stopped midentry; scoffing, she snapped the book shut. She’d touched on a charm for making a man fall in love with a woman. What superstitious nonsense. Her mother had taught her to use her intellect and observation to deduce whether a cure was effective or not. No spell or charm could make a man love a woman. She knew. Had she not tried a similar love spell when she’d discovered Bertram had a mistress—on the night they wed?

  Rose plunked the book back on the table and determinedly locked the memories away. She’d dwelled much too often of late upon the misbegotten cur.

  Rose slid off the tall bed, and her nightshift dropped down to cover her bare feet. The cooler air of the room dried the film of perspiration that covered her completely. Her linen shift clinging to her skin in damp patches, she shivered. A chill seeped into the soles of her feet as she padded across the floor to her washstand, which stood against the west wall opposite a cushioned window seat. Double arched windows above the seat looked down on the ornamental garden next to the Great Hall.

  Grabbing the open neck of her shift, she tugged it over her head and tossed it onto the bed. She plucked her chamber robe off the peg beside the washstand and slid into its enveloping warmth. Then Rose poured water from the chipped painted pitcher into the basin, splashed cool water over her face and chest, and finished her bath by drying off with a linen towel.

  An instinctual sensation tugged at her soul, drawing her into the adjoining chamber. A small bed, a chest, and a stool were the only furniture in the room. No one could enter her son’s chamber unless first coming through her bedchamber. Next to the small bed in the corner, Jason’s nurse and fierce protector lay curled up on a pallet snoring loudly. Rose quietly approached the foot of the bed and stared down at her sweet, innocent son. He lay on his side facing her, with his thumb stuck in his pursed lips and his other dimpled hand clutching a curly lock of light blond hair.

  Her heart seized with love, and she could not keep a huge smile from forming on her lips. It was a side of herself she revealed to only a few people. Though she adored her son, she took care never to indulge in sentimental excess. She controlled her inappropriate passions behind a stoic manner befitting a widow.

  Jason’s cherub lips drew down, and he kicked off his quilt. Rose pulled it back up under his chin, kissed his warm temple. She trembled with a sudden urge to grab her son and escape into the night. But her maternal instinct was stronger. Jason would be the one to suffer—loss of his inheritance, his title, and all the privileges that accompanied it.

  Did she have the right to steal it from him because of her fears, her insecurities, her cowardice?

  Rose started at a loud bang that echoed from her chamber. She left Jason and went in the other room. The door rattled on its hinges. The sound of a deep voice, a soft giggle drew her curiosity. Rose opened the chamber door and peeked out.

  Near a lit torch, Rand trapped Lisbeth up against the wall, his face pillowed between her indecently exposed plump breasts. The maid’s hose-clad thigh curled around Rand’s hip like a coiled serpent, pulling him flush against her, seeking to devour him inside her.

  Rose inhaled sharply in surprise. A quiver of repulsion raced through her. The man was an incorrigible lecher. As far as she knew, Lady Elena was his current mistress, or had been when Rose was at court a couple of months ago. Apparently not content with Elena, Rand had to debauch Rose’s castle servants too.

  Rand glanced up just then, and stared, gaze glittering. He winked at her, a wolfish grin on his face. Flashing him a look of contempt, Rose pulled back and slammed the door shut.

  Her gaze blurred as she stared at the oaken door. She regretted ever…Rose shook her head. The past was unalterable; she could only learn from her mistakes and never repeat them. Not that she had any desire to repeat them. Rubbing her arms, she turned and stared at her rumpled bed.

  She should get some more rest before the long trip on the morrow. But she could not bear the separation from Jason, so she went to his chamber, crawled into bed beside him, and wrapped her arms around his sweet-smelling form.

  When the oaken door to Rose’s chamber slammed shut, Rand jerked. His vision blurred with too much drink, yet the fog of desire dissipated with the rapidity born of…what? Shame? Embarrassment? Certainly not, Rand assured himself. A man had a right to indulge his baser instincts when a comely maid showed an interest in his manly attributes.

  Yet, his rock-hard shaft shriveled beneath his braies.

  Lisbeth reached out and palmed him with her hand, with dismal results. Rand drew back and patted her derriere, winking. “Too much drink, sweet.”

  Lisbeth huffed and, tugging up her bodice, she flounced away and down the stairwell.

  He refused to acknowledge the real culprit of his shrunken cock: guilt. It niggled at the edges of his drink-induced haze as he recalled the fiery determination that sparked in Rose’s gaze when she’d declared her aversion to marrying again. It’d been nigh on four years since he’d beheld such passion blazing in her eyes, albeit for a different purpose altogether.

  It was a clear indication of the fear she bore, and he was leading her down the path of her affliction without any warning. But there was naught he could do to change the outcome. Rand
groaned and leaned his forehead against his forearm, which he braced against the rough wall. He was torn between the duty he owed his king, and the loyalty he owed Rose for their past friendship and what they’d once meant to each other.

  He could offer for her instead—the thought slipped unbidden from the recesses of his sluggish mind. Rand jerked back and stared at the flickering torch. Jesu. He must have drunk more than he thought. Rose would abhor marrying him as much as anyone else. Probably even more so considering the heated parting they’d had several years ago, which she pretended never occurred.

  Even if Rose would agree to marry Rand, he’d never inflict himself upon the lady he admired above all others. She deserved a man who was not haunted by the demons of his past failures.

  As he stared at the torch flame, images flashed before his eyes. His body jolted as he felt the burning beam fall on his back, felt the searing pain scorch his skin. Trapped, he stared wide-eyed in horror as his mother ran, flames engulfing her. The stench of burning flesh filled his nostrils, while his mother’s agonized screams echoed in his ears, damning him.

  God, would the nightmare never cease. He jammed the heels of his hands painfully into his eyes to dispel the grotesque image of his mother’s charred body. But he could never escape the guilt he lived with every day, for it was his fault that she had died in the stable fire.

  His sister was dead, too, because he’d let her drown to save himself.

  Rand had even failed to protect Alex from being abducted in the Holy Land after they’d sworn an oath to protect each other as comrades in arms.

  Anyone he loved was cursed to suffer abominably. For that reason, he could never marry Rose and risk growing emotionally attached to her.

  Golan was not an ogre. Rand was sure once Rose married Golan she would come to see there were good men who would not wield their superior strength as a weapon over their wives.

  Rand stumbled to his bedchamber door, shoved it open, and collapsed onto the bed fully dressed. Unable to sleep, he stared unseeing up at the canopy.

  Rose knelt before Jason inside the large open door of the Keep. She clasped him by the shoulders and gazed into his tear-filled eyes.

  “Mama, don’t leave me. I want to come with you.” He knuckled away the moisture in his eyes.

  She swallowed back tears. “Oh, darling, I do not wish to leave you. But the king has commanded my presence at court and the journey would be too taxing for you. I will not be gone long, though. I promise.”

  “The king is a mean man,” he spouted, his bottom lip puffed out and his arms crossed.

  Rose could hardly agree, but she did not have the heart to reprimand him. She hugged him hard. “I shall miss you terribly, sweetling. Promise me you will study hard with Brother Michael and obey Edith in all things. Will you do that?”

  Jason pulled back. “Don’t be sad, Mama.”

  He reached under the neck of his tunic gown and removed the smooth, shiny brown rock attached to a leather cord. “Take it. When you miss me, rub it. It helped me ’member you when you left last time.” His lip trembled.

  “Darling, are you sure? I gifted the stone to you.”

  It was a rock Rose had discovered in a creek years ago in her happy youth.

  He nodded emphatically. “Now I’ll always be with you.”

  Rose smiled tremulously, clutching the necklace, and smoothed his hair back off his forehead. “I shall treasure it, Jason.”

  A giggle from the courtyard drew Rose’s attention. Her lips clamped tightly at Lisbeth’s coquettish smile. The servant curled her finger at Rand, who was sitting on his horse with a mounted party of armored men and Lady Alison. When he bent down, Lisbeth wrapped a hand round his neck and gave him a long, deep kiss.

  Whistles and shouts of encouragement filled the courtyard. Rose pinched her lips tighter in disgust at the public display. At that moment, Rand glanced up and stared directly into her eyes. His own darkened with an emotion she could not glean, and sent her heart racing. She jerked her head away and said her farewells to Jason and Edith.

  When she approached her mount, Rand’s squire, Will, assisted her onto her palfrey.

  Rand sidled his horse up next to her. “Are you ready, Rosie?”

  “I shall thank you to refrain from calling me by that absurd name.”

  Rand could not resist needling her. “You do not like it when I call you Rosie?”

  “Nay. It reminds me of childish things. I am no longer a child.”

  He searched her gaze, and then his eyes dropped to her lips. They were bowed in a softly sensual shape that begged a man to kiss her. Begged him to kiss her. The pull was strong as her lavender and rose scent enveloped him; all he had to do was dip his head just the slightest bit…

  “Nay, you are no longer a child.” At the husky rasp of his voice, Rand started.

  Wheeling his horse around, he shouted, “Move out, men!”

  He glanced at Rose. “You and your lady are to ride in the middle of the party. The pace shall be grueling, but we’ll stop regularly for breaks,” he informed her and then rode to the head of the party as it crossed over the drawbridge.

  Chapter Three

  Sitting atop her black palfrey, Rose arched her lower back trying to loosen the painful knot, and groaned beneath her breath. Their party had ridden from dawn to dusk for two days straight with only brief breaks to rest and care for the horses. Despite Rand’s relentless pace, she did not dare complain.

  They received a slight respite from the relentless sun when the road cut through a wooded area. The rhythmic creaking of saddle leather and jingling tackle created a gentle melody.

  Rand rode in the front of the party beside another knight, Sir Justin. The auburn-haired knight was polite and respectful, but when he was not riding beside Rand he was flirting with Lady Alison. Rose’s attendant, with her brunette hair and vivid, laughing brown eyes, easily attracted the attention of the male species. But at that moment, Alison, riding on a mule behind Rose, grumbled in irritation.

  Suddenly, a jagged pain shot down Rose’s spine. A sharp groan escaped her lips. Up ahead, Rand raised his hand and called a halt to the group. Rose stiffened when he turned around and came directly toward her.

  Beside Rose, Alison murmured with evident relief, “Blessed Lady Virgin.” Then sighing loudly, she slid from her brown mule and rubbed her posterior.

  Before Rand could help Rose dismount, she swung her right leg over Evangeline’s rump and, clutching the pommel of her saddle, wiggled down, her stomach pressed against her horse. In the process, her skirts bunched up, exposing her legs. She landed with a jolt and quickly rearranged her clothing. When she turned to greet Rand, he shot her a wide grin, his lips quirked in obvious humor at her ploy to avoid his touch.

  Rose gritted her teeth. The buffoon. She did not appreciate his amusement at her expense. The man was incorrigible and had an unnerving tendency to goad her temper. She relaxed her tense shoulders and smoothed her face of irritation.

  Having removed his gauntlets, Rand tossed them to a passing man-at-arms, and then ran his fingers back through his dark blond hair. With lighter streaks of gold threaded through them, his locks fell loose to graze broad, well-defined shoulders—shoulders that carried his suit of mail with apparent ease. Over his hauberk, or coat of mail, he wore a simple azure knee-length surcoate. His heater shield, hanging from a strap down his back, completed his accoutrements.

  Sir Justin took her palfrey’s reins at a nod from Rand and led Evangeline and Alison’s mount to a small clearing off the road fifty yards away.

  Gray-green eyes twinkling, Rand swept his arm before him. “After you, my lady.”

  She shifted her gaze away from his and followed the others into the grassy clearing.

  Rand kept his pace steady with her slower, measured gait. “I pray the journey has not been too taxing upon you or your attendant.”

  Jolted, Rose met Rand’s gaze. His solicitous regard continued to surprise her, though she supposed
it should not. Despite his flirtatious, irreverent wit, Rand was not unkind. But years of Bertram’s self-absorbed, self-indulgent behavior had engraved in her an expectation of wretched treatment.

  “Aye. I have naught to complain about. Though I don’t understand what is so imperative about this audience with the king that we could not take an extra day to make a brief stop at Lichfield?”

  “As I said yesterday, Edward instructed me to deliver you to Westminster with all due haste. It is not common knowledge yet, but in a few days he will be departing for his territories in France in order to raise troops and money for the upcoming war with Wales.”

  Rose’s hand flew to the stone hidden beneath her wimple and gown. “So the rumors are true? We are to war with Llewelyn?”

  Rand dropped his gaze to her, and his smile dimmed a fraction. “Aye. It would appear so, Rose. Since Edward became king, he has shown unusual restraint in his dealings with the prince. Numerous times Llewelyn was to meet with King Edward to pay homage for his principality, and each time the prince has not shown as promised.”

  “You knew this was possible and you forced me to leave Jason behind? We have to go back for him.” Rose lifted her skirts and made to retrieve her horse. “I can’t leave him unprotected when war with Wales can erupt at any moment.”

  “Rose, stop.” Rand caught her arm and pulled her around to face him. “Jason is in no danger. It shall be many weeks before Edward calls his council to discuss the merits of the war and get his magnates support for it.”

  Rose shook her head, and clutched her hands in her skirts to keep a tight rein on her emotions. “I can’t take that chance. You cannot guarantee me that hostilities will not break out sooner. I need Jason with me. I must protect him.”

  Rand crossed his arms over his chest, his gaze shadowed. “We are not going back for Jason, Rose. I have my orders and I will not disobey them. To set your mind at ease, though, I shall send two of my knights back to Ayleston for Jason’s protection.”

 

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