Vow of Deception, page 31
A harsh laugh burst from his lips. “Why would I wish to kill you? As my hostage, no one on the ship shall gainsay me, guaranteeing my escape. Now move. And do not try any tricks.”
“Amaury,” Rand uttered, clutching the reins in his left hand. He covered Rose’s hand with his free one in an attempt to soothe and reassure her. “Go back the way you came and head off the search party. Tell them you know where the escaped prisoners are hiding and you can lead them to their hiding spot. Just in case your ruse does not work, and they continue this way, Rose and I will veer off the track heading west. We’ll circle round the armed party, then return to the road.”
Amaury nodded his understanding, wheeling his horse around in the opposite direction. “I will lead them east to Boughton.”
The ominous clatter of tack, heavy armor, and weaponry grew louder, the ground shaking beneath them. Rand kicked his horse into a walk, saying over his shoulder to Amaury, “We’ll meet you back at the ship when we have Jason.”
Soon the fog encapsulated them in a seemingly private world. He kneed his horse into a trot.
“Will Amaury be all right?” Rose’s hot breath puffed against his ear, the pleasurable sensation making his stomach tighten. “What happens when they find out he’s led them astray?”
Once they were about three hundred yards away from the track, Rand pulled the cob up to a walk again and answered, “You need not worry about Amaury. He is a very cunning and resourceful man. The king, on occasion, has even utilized Amaury’s services to spy for him in Wales.”
“King Edward!” Rose gasped, her hand inadvertently brushing the tip of his suddenly stiff shaft. Rand shuddered, clasping the reins tighter. “Do you not fear he shall betray you to the king?”
He swung the horse back in a southerly direction toward the hospital. “Amaury has a reputation for being discreet. He has to be in his occupation. But more importantly, the man is loyal to a fault. He shall not betray us.”
“By helping us escape, is he not being disloyal to the king?”
“King Edward cares not what the man does. Now, if Amaury spied on the king for the Welsh that would be an entirely different matter. Besides, Amaury is in my debt for saving his life. He’d never betray me.” He was reluctant to bring up the latter, but he wanted to put Rose’s mind at ease.
“Do you hear that?” Rand queried, his voice low.
“What? I don’t hear anything,” Rose responded in kind.
“Exactly.” Reining in his mount, Rand strained his ears to listen.
The rumble of troops in motion was now silenced. Then the contingent of men on horseback was on the move again. The sound of thundering hooves rapidly faded as they moved farther away.
Rose’s head popped around his shoulder, her gaze bright with triumph. “Amaury has done it, Rand. The soldiers are heading in the other direction.”
“Aye,” Rand concurred heartily, “he most certainly has.” Then he kissed her. Deeply. Hotly. Confidently.
Her breath hitched, her lips melded to his.
He pulled back. She was dazed, her lips berry red and moistened with desire. His mouth curled up in a huge grin.
“Hold on,” Rand said before he turned forward again, kicked the cob into a gallop, and headed back east toward the track that led to the hospital. That led back to his son. The son he wanted to get to know much better. “Let’s go get our son.”
She clutched his chest, clinging to him with her small hands. “Aye, our son. He will be all right, won’t he? Do you think Lydia could actually—” Her voice ended abruptly in a strangled moan.
“I don’t know. But I believe he shall be safe until we can reach the hospital. Lydia, unwilling to draw attention to herself, will wait to commit her foul deed in the deepest hours of the night, when all but a few poor souls are asleep.”
“I pray you are right.”
“I am right; you shall see,” Rand swore with conviction, bolstering Rose with a confidence he did not entirely feel.
So, in silence, Rand moved his lips in prayer, seeking forgiveness and intercession on behalf of Jason. Bargaining for his son’s life. He had not prayed with such desperate fervency since he woke after the fire in excruciating pain and discovered he’d survived when his mother had not.
But now he had so much to live for. Rose. Jason. The family he’d always wanted but was too afraid to seek.
Yet doubt needled him each time he recalled the ease with which Golan had given up Jason’s location.
Water lapped at the hull of the barge as Golan stepped out.
“Well, my friend. This is where we must part.” Golan bent down and wiped off the bloody blade in a clump of tall grasses.
Slumped in the boat, Harwood remained mute and unresponsive. Blood gushed from his slit throat.
“No parting words?” Golan shrugged, then threw back his head and laughed.
He shoved the dagger inside his belt and headed across the moist ground toward the small hamlet in search of a horse. A huge grin of satisfaction spread across his face. God, he could not wait to see the surprise on the dastardly pair’s faces when he confronted them. He would see the couple dead without a bit of remorse. Excitement quivered inside him, and pleasure coiled tight in his belly at the thought of it.
Rose kept her gaze trained forward, seeking any signs of a settlement. Her lips moved in prayer, begging and beseeching the Lord to keep her son safe. But secretly she feared He would not hear her prayer for she had yet to confess her sin of adultery.
Yet she could not give up hope or give in to despair. She would not burden Rand’s confidence with the doubts that beset her.
In the distance, a faint glow shone through the dissipating fog. “Is that a light?”
She pointed to the left. “Over there,” she said excitedly. “Do you see it?”
“Aye. Now I do. It looks like…torches, two of them.” Rand guided the cob toward the lights. It was not long before they came upon the eight-foot-high stone walls enclosing the Hospital of St. John without the North Gate, and its adjoining chapel and bell tower.
Directly across from the hospital soared the forty-foot-high wall protecting the northern approach to the town of Chester.
A gate about six feet wide appeared in the wall before the hospital, flanked by two torches. Rand threw his leg over the neck of his horse and jumped down. Then he reached up and grabbed her beneath the arms and lifted her down.
She stared up at him, eyes wide, breathless, heart pounding. Though it was dark, the glow from the torches cast a golden light upon his head like a halo. Her very own earthly guardian angel. “What now?”
Rand stared back at the closed gate, then back to her protruding belly. “When I ring the bell for admittance, if the gatekeeper shows any reluctance to admit us, faint as though you are too weak to walk.” Rand reached over and pulled the bell string on the right side of the gate.
It rang loudly in the consuming silence.
Holding the cob’s reins in his right hand, he embraced Rose’s shoulders with his opposite arm. Bending to her ear, he continued, whispering, “If that does not work, I shall have to resort to more…drastic measures to gain entrance.”
Rose, pressed against his left side, felt the hard imprint of his sword and scabbard.
A sharp scraping of iron reverberated in her ears. A wrinkled face peeked through a small square opening in the door, grumpily inquiring, “Who’s there?”
Rand could just make out the black and white veil and wimple of a nun. “Good sister, may my wife and I seek hospitality for the night? I fear she is in a bad way. We have journeyed long and were unable to find lodging before nightfall.”
When the woman hesitated, mumbling under her breath, Rose slumped gracefully in his arms. Rand caught her behind her knees and lifted her up cradling her like a baby.
The heavy wood bar screeched as it was shoved up. Soon a small door big enough for a person to pass thro
Grateful the ruse worked, Rand did not point out that he had warned the nun of Rose’s “condition.” He shifted Rose higher in his arms and ducked as he passed through the low door. He followed the nun across the small courtyard and entered the porch. Rand had a brief view of the infirmary’s vaulted chamber on his left before the nun picked up a branch of candles on a table by the door. Her strides swift, she turned right and headed down a long corridor. Their footsteps padded across the tile floor, while flames in lit torches flickered as they passed by, creating interesting shadows on the red sandstone walls.
Rose felt as light as a bolster and just as soft in his arms. Her fingers twined in the hair at his nape. She gazed up at him, her blue eyes fathomless; a deep sensation of connection and certainty to do whatever was necessary to save their son passed between them. No words were necessary.
The corridor ended abruptly at an arched doorway. The nun proceeded through it, taking them outside again. A pentice, or covered walkway that was open on one side, connected the hospital to a small thatched-roof cottage.
“You may stay in the guesthouse for the night.” Using a key she retrieved from a leather belt beneath her scapular, a black sleeveless outer garment, the sister opened the chamber door and stepped back to allow Rand to carry Rose inside.
Rand glanced around the room quickly. It was small yet tidy and clean. He covered the ground to the canopy bed in two long strides and laid Rose down on top of the bedclothes.
“My name is Sister Hildegard.” Rand stepped back to give her room to light a hanging lamp beside the curtained bed. With her hand she indicated the chest at the foot of the bed. “Extra blankets are inside, and you’ll find firewood stacked next to the fireplace. One of the other sisters will return shortly with water for washing and a small repast.”
“Bless you, sister. We thank you for your kindness,” Rose addressed Sister Hildegard, her voice thready and her hands cradling her protruding stomach.
The older woman nodded to them both and left, closing the door quietly behind her.
Rand knelt before the fireplace in front of the bed, striking steel to flint. “I’ll start a fire to give us more light.”
Rose swung her legs over the side of the bed and got to her feet. She moved to the door and opening it peered outside. “What are we going to do now? Do you have a plan for how we are going to find Jason without raising anyone’s suspicions?”
Once he placed the burning tinder under the kindling, Rand gazed over his shoulder at her. “I have an idea, but I doubt you are going to like it.”
The fire blazed to life; Rand got to his feet, brushing off his hands.
Rose raised her chin determinedly. “I’m prepared to do whatever it takes to find Jason. We dare not wait any longer. But how do we even know if Jason is still here? Lydia could have taken him already. Or God forfend, she has already…harmed him.” Her voice rose on a shrill note and her shoulders suddenly drooped.
Rand hurried to her and pulled her into his embrace. The cloth she’d stuffed beneath her tunic shifted easily. He kissed the top of her head, saying fervently, “Jason is here. I am sure of it. Lydia’s days of terrorizing you will end this night. I shall personally see to it.”
Her warmth seeped into him, her scent ensorcelling his senses. Overcome by tenderness, he pulled back and stared deeply into her wide blue eyes, desperate to convey the verity of his words, his conviction that they would prevail.
When her gaze dropped to his mouth, he groaned and pressed his mouth to her soft, intoxicating lips. Feverishly. Hungrily. His tongue stabbed inside her velvety dark cavern.
Fire shot straight to his gut, and lower still. Shaft marble hard, he pressed against her, rotating his hips and seeking her moist heat. With a breathy moan, Rose undulated her lower body against the hard ridge of his desire. Stroking, teasing, penetrating, their tongues tangled with a burning, desperate intensity.
He could not think for her passionate response. For her brave action in trading her life for their son’s. Aye. Their son. Although it still hurt that she had not told him long ago that he was Jason’s father, Rand realized that she had wanted only to protect Jason. But after Bertram’s death, whom or what had she been protecting Jason from? He could only surmise it had been from him.
The reason she had kept it secret would have to wait. Jason was somewhere in the hospital and in extreme danger. He clutched her shoulders and pulled back. Breaths heavy, his and hers, they stared at one another.
They had to find Jason. His son was alive. He could feel it. But time was rapidly dwindling away.
“Rand—” Rose began.
At a strangled squeak, Rand started. He swirled to the door. Rose jumped back, a hand to her throat. The pale-faced nun in the open doorway stared aghast at them. The tray of food she was holding slipped from her fingers and clattered on the ground.
Slapping one hand over her mouth, the nun pointed at Rose’s stomach. “You are not…not with child.”
Rand swung his gaze to Rose, who looked down. The padding that was stuffed beneath her tunic had shifted and a huge lump protruded from her side like a grotesque tumor.
“Oh no.” Rose grabbed the stuffing and shifted it, but the damage was done.
Just as the sister opened her mouth and screamed, Rand, his heart crawling up his throat, lunged for her. He grabbed the woman around the shoulders and clamped his hand over her mouth, cutting off her cry of alarm.
Rose, meanwhile, moved to the door and closed it hastily.
“Have no fear, sister, I do not intend to harm you.”
The nun stared up at him, her body shuddering. He kept his hand over her mouth. “We only want to get our son. He would have been brought to the hospital about three days ago. He has blond curly hair, dimples, and is three and a half years old.” As he gave Jason’s description, the sister’s watery brown eyes grew huge. His heart beat so hard he thought he might have an apoplexy. “Did a boy matching that description arrive here in the last few days? Nod up and down if the answer is aye. Nod side to side if the answer is nay.”
Her head bobbed up and down rapidly. A great rush of air expelled from his lungs.
Rose moved around the nun to stand on the woman’s other side.
“Does the boy still reside in the hospital?” she asked excitedly.
Her head nodding up and down once more, the answer was aye.
Rand’s glance clashed with Rose’s, a rush of emotions—wonder, relief, and worry—shimmering between them.
Then Rose jerked forward and clutched the nun’s arm. “What about a woman, with short, blond curly hair, very beautiful, with a petite but shapely stature? Have you seen her? Is she a guest or mayhap an infirmary resident?”
The woman’s head twisted side to side.
Rose, eyes bright, asked desperately, “Are you sure? She could be disguised, perhaps even as a nun. If so, she would have arrived in recent days.”
Brown eyes slowly grew wide with shock. Then the nun nodded in the positive this time. Rand turned and stared at Rose. Her eyes became dark blue, shadowed with fear.
Rand narrowed his eyes on the nun, frown fierce. “Explain. I’m going to remove my hand. Do not scream or I’ll snap your neck.” God would forgive him for frightening a nun. “Do you understand?”
She nodded her head aye.
He uncovered her mouth slowly. “Tell us what you know of the woman.”
She exhaled a soft, shuddery breath and explained in stops and starts. “S-Sister Mary. Trav…she is traveling from the north…on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. She arrived just one day after two castle guards left the boy in our care.”
His voice roughened with emotion, Rand asked, “Has she had any contact with the boy since her arrival?”
“Nay, I do not believe so. While Sister Mary is recuperating before continuing on her journey to Leon, she has been busy ev
Rose clutched a hand to her throat. Her pulse jumped at the base, fear and relief that Jason was yet all right clamoring in her blood. “How is the boy? My son. Is he all right?”
“He seems like a sad boy, but he is strong and in good health.”
Rand asked, “Do you know where this Sister Mary is now?”
“She is attending the Compline services with the others before ’tis time to retire for the evening.”
The nun raised big fearful eyes to Rand. “My lord, I pray you, let me go. I have told you everything I know.” Then she took a short, mincing step backward, bumping against the door.
Rand closed the gap between them and clutched the slender nun’s shoulders. “I am sorry. I cannot let you go yet.” His voice was grim, determined.
The nun, clutching her hands before her, voice shaking, implored, “Prithee, do not hurt me.”
Rose felt sympathy for the frightened nun, but her son was in danger and she could not falter now.
“I have no desire to hurt you, but…”
“My wife has need of your habit. I shall have to ask you to remove it.”
The demand surprised Rose. Suddenly, the nun’s eyes widened in terror and rolled back in her head. She slumped in Rand’s arms.
“Lord help us,” he swore, exasperated.
Rose pulled the blankets down on the bed. “Lie her down over here, Rand.”
Rand did so. “’Tis as well she fainted. It shall be easier to remove her garments.” He motioned her to the other side of the bed as he began removing the nun’s black sleeveless outer garment worn over her white habit. “The habit shall disguise you as we search the beds for Jason.”
“’Tis a good plan.” Rose did not hesitate at the notion of Rand doing such an intimate chore. Jason’s life was worth any sacrifice. And the inappropriateness of Rand viewing a woman in her undress, and a nun at that, was inconsequential to Rose.
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