Vow of deception, p.5

Vow of Deception, page 5


Vow of Deception

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  Uncomfortable with Rand looming over her, Rose lurched to her feet. Only a slight twinge in her hip indicated her bruising was nearly healed.

  She lowered her lashes, hiding her gaze. “Not exactly. It was many years ago. It was the first visit you made to Briand Castle with my brother. Curious to know all about you, I pestered Alex until he told me about you and your family.” She jerked her gaze up when he chuckled.

  His mouth curved up, smile rueful. “I remember how persistent you were when you wanted something. So what did Alex tell you?”

  Chagrined, Rose felt a slight flush heating her cheeks. As a young girl she had been spoiled and indulged, so she usually got whatever she wanted, be it a pretty silk dress for a celebratory feast, or extra sweet pudding for dessert, or intimate details about her brother’s handsome best friend. Her voice dropped, soft with sympathy as she replied, “He told me how your mother and sister died a year apart shortly before your father sent you to foster with your grandfather in England. Alex mentioned Lady Montague died in a fire. But he never spoke of how your sister died.”

  Rand stared down at the top of Rose’s head. The wimple and veil he despised were gone, destroyed by the slimy mud. Parted down the center, her hair was braided. The warm afternoon sunshine shimmered within the silky red locks, creating copper and gold streaks.

  “You never speak of your sister. Will you tell me how she died? Was it illness?”

  He did not know why, but suddenly the words were torn from him. “Juliana drowned.” The anguish of his loss seeped into his voice without volition. Grief for his mother and sister surged to the surface.

  Her questioning eyes softened, a warm glow of sympathy alighting upon him. Unable to bear her gaze, Rand turned his back on Rose and paced away. He did not deserve her sympathy. If not for him, Juliana would be alive today, married with children of her own and chatelaine of her own household.

  It had been his idea to go to the river that summer day six and ten years ago. They were playing near the riverbank when Juliana lost her footing and was swept out to deeper waters. Rand jumped in to rescue her, but he was tugged underwater with her and nearly drowned. So he let Juliana go to save himself.

  He should have died that day instead.

  It was his duty to protect her, but he had been careless and inattentive. They were extremely close and practically inseparable, as if being twins they had been of one soul. With her death, he had felt as if a piece of it had been ripped from him and lost forever.

  No amount of penance could relieve him of his guilt.

  Rose’s soft voice penetrated his reverie. “Rand, I am so sorry. Would you care to tell me what happened? How she drowned?”

  Rand could feel an internal struggle, wishing to confide in Rose. But he could not bring himself to reveal his secret shame and see the pity or, God forfend, accusation in her eyes.

  Rand fixed his countenance in his usual teasing grin and spun around. “There is nothing to tell, Rosie, truly. It happened so long ago.” He tweaked her chin. “Now, I need to check on my men and make sure they are ready to resume our journey. We depart for Westminster at dawn. I’ll see you in the refectory for supper.”

  He turned around and walked jauntily away.

  Rose slumped her shoulders, disappointed Rand did not wish to confide in her. Something did not feel right about his glib response. To lose his sister in a drowning accident when he was ten and three, then his mother in a tragic fire a year later, must have had a deep impact on one so young.

  As Rand neared the garden gate, he began whistling a ribald tune. Oh, what was she thinking? This was Rand. He much preferred the flippant attachments of loose women and could not be bothered with expressing deeper emotions of substance. He was a shameless rogue to the core.

  Six days later, Rose sighed in relief when Rand halted their party at the top of a hill north of Westminster. In the wide valley below, men in short braies and long shertes were busy cutting fields of wheat, barley, and rye, with the women and children following behind gathering the grain into stalks. Beyond the fields lay Westminster Abbey and the adjoining palace. The muddy serpentine Thames River hugged the palace to the south and east and glimmered with the last rays of the rapidly descending sun.

  Rand proceeded forward, and a while later they entered the north gate of the palace. Several castle attendants approached to take their horses. Before Rose could dismount, Rand came to her side, clutched her waist, and lifted her from her palfrey.

  A sudden breathless sensation quickened in her chest; confused, she frowned. Rand released her and stepped back.

  Sir Justin led Alison away to give Rose and Rand privacy.

  “Rose, I shall give you my leave now. I doubt I shall see you again before you leave court and return home.”

  Her heart thudded. “You are leaving?” Rose bit her tongue to still a sudden rush of nervous blathering.

  An awful sensation of being abandoned shuddered through her. Which was ridiculous, because Rand was only doing his duty. Yet during the journey, she had felt oddly safe in Rand’s protection. Now, fear of the unknown would not release its grip on her. She clutched Jason’s stone, her son never far from her thoughts. She would endure whatever the king had in store for her—for Jason’s sake.

  “I assumed you would stay long enough to discover what the king intends of me. Are you not even a little curious?”

  His eyes shone with an emotion she was unable to interpret. Was it regret? she wondered. Disappointment?

  “Of course,” he said, his voice oddly strained. “But I have other business that I have been neglecting that needs my immediate attention. Sir Justin—”

  The clatter of horse hooves erupted as a party of brightly dressed ladies on horseback entered the courtyard. One woman with hair the color of flame, dressed in a jewel-toned blue silk surcoate, and riding an elegant bay mare, left the group and approached them.

  Lady Elena Chartres held her arms out for Rand to help her dismount, drawing attention to her voluptuous bosom. “Rand, my dear, I am sooo glad you are back. Court has been a veritable desert without your delicious presence.” A smile of seductive promise graced her lips.

  Rand hurried to her side like an excited puppy. His strong, masculine hands clasped her waist and lifted her from her perch. The woman blatantly leaned into him and, her breasts cushioned against his arm, whispered into his ear.

  Rand threw back his head and laughed, glints of sunlight catching in his dark blond hair. “Elena, you need not flatter me. You are not a woman to remain lonely for long.”

  Rand made no move to extricate himself from the woman’s possessive hold.

  “You reprobate. You know me too well.” A slender finger caressed his cheek.

  Flushing with embarrassment, Rose clenched her fists in her gray wool skirt. “If you will excuse me, Rand.” She took a step to go around them.

  Elena turned to Rose, her gaze arch. “Why, Lady Ayleston, welcome back to court. ’Tis always a pleasure to see you.”

  Rose spun back to Lady Elena. “Likewise, I am sure.” The woman’s patronizing tone irked. Her gaze shifted to Rand. “If you will excuse me, I have business that needs tending,” she said mockingly.

  Rose did not doubt Elena was the “business” Rand had been neglecting. She flounced away and headed toward the residential ward of the castle, a three-story building with round towers at each corner. Alison and Justin, deep in conversation, stood before steps that led to a large double-door entry.

  “Rose,” she heard Rand call out a moment before his strong grip caught her arm and stopped her headlong flight.

  She shook his arm off. “What more is there to say, Rand? I believe we’ve said our farewells.”

  Crossing his arms, Rand caught her gaze. “Before Elena arrived I was saying that Sir Justin is staying at court. If you have need of me for anything, inform Justin. He will know where to get word to me.”

  She harrumphed. “I shall have no need of your help.”

bsp; He bowed, his eyes shifting away. “I wish you well, Rose. Till we meet again.”

  Did she detect a shadow of regret in his gaze? Nay, it was probably a trick of her imagination.

  “Sir Rand. Lady Ayleston.” A tall, distinguished man with gray-streaked brown hair came down the stairs and stopped before them.

  The king’s household steward bowed to her. “I see you have recovered fully from the fall from your horse, my lady. The journey was not too taxing, I hope?”

  Rose lightly touched the gash on her forehead below her wimple. “Aye, my lord. My headache and dizziness have subsided. I have no lasting effects from my injury.”

  He smiled with relief. “The king shall be pleased to hear it. He was quite concerned for your welfare. If you will follow me, I shall escort you and your attendant”—he nodded to Alison—“to your chamber so you may refresh yourself before supper. After supper, I’ll take you to an audience with the king.

  “Sir Rand, the king will have your report on the morrow.”

  Rand bowed to the steward his acknowledgment. “On the morrow.”

  His gaze lingered on her. “Fare well, Rosie.” Then he pivoted and walked off, Justin on his heels.

  Following behind the steward and Alison, Rose glanced back just before she entered the palace. Lady Elena skipped up to Rand, her softly sculpted lips lifted for a kiss.

  Rose averted her gaze. As she entered the cool shadows of the Great Hall, her fear unerringly returned.

  How I despise being at the mercy of a man, whether he is king or not!

  Escorted into a sumptuous private chamber, Rose curtsied deeply before King Edward, who lounged upon an elaborately carved throne in the middle of the audience chamber. “I give you good greeting, Sire,” she said, voice soft with deference, her eyes shadowed by her lowered lashes.

  “Rise, Lady Ayleston,” Edward intoned with regal flare, a gold crown upon his leonine head.

  She straightened, folding her hands demurely before her, and braced for his pronouncement.

  “Welcome to court, my lady. I summoned your presence here to inform you of decisions long overdue. I have neglected conferring upon Ayleston a suitable guardian. But neglect my duty I shall no more. I have chosen an honorable knight of great esteem to bestow the honor upon. Sir Golan, come forward.”

  Rose jerked her eyes up. From the shadows a man of extreme elegance, masculinity, and handsome features walked forward. His dark green silk surcoate flowed gracefully from broad shoulders and was belted with a jewel-mounted sword belt.

  “Lady Ayleston, I present to you Sir Golan de Coucy.”

  A tremor of recognition coursed through her blood like ice in her veins. He was the man she spied staring at her throughout supper, for whom snippets of rumors abounded concerning a dead wife and child.

  Sir Golan, stopping beside her, bowed, his dark brown hair sweeping along his broad cheekbones. “My lady, ’tis indeed a pleasure.” He smiled, his eyes crinkling pleasantly, but the possessive light that sparked within his gaze shot to her gut like a barbed quarrel.

  “Sir Golan, I am pleased to make your acquaintance,” she said, her heart thundering. This was the man who would administer her son’s estates. She had no wish to antagonize him.

  Edward waved to a servant, who came forward with a tray with three chalices. Edward plucked the more elaborate jeweled vessel from the tray. Rose took the chalice the servant proffered her, Golan following suit.

  Edward raised his chalice. “’Tis indeed a moment to rejoice. Sir Golan, for your dedication and exemplary service to our realm, we salute you.” Then he drank from his cup.

  Not wishing to offend, Rose lifted her chalice in tribute and drank a deep draught.

  Sir Golan stared at her over the rim of his chalice as he downed several drinks. “Sire, you do me great honor. I shall give you no cause to regret your generous reward.”

  Edward nodded and turned to her. “Lady Ayleston, your widow status is of great import to me as well. Sir Golan has made an offer for your hand in marriage. And I have accepted.”

  A rush of blood roared in her ears. Rose froze with her cup halfway to her lips. Her gaze swung to Sir Golan. He was watching her closely, his sensual lips curled up in satisfaction. Trepidation shuddered down her spine. She could not help feeling an instinctual distaste for the man. His eyes were too possessive and his manner too suave.

  She lowered her hand and smoothed her expression. “Sire, I admit to some surprise. I don’t wish to disappoint, but I have a prior commitment that precludes marriage. I have vowed chastity to God. Bishop Meyland—”

  “Neither Bishop Meyland nor any other bishop in this realm shall receive your vow, Lady Ayleston. You shall marry Sir Golan at my command. My will shall not be gainsaid.” His stern voice and fierce scowl promised dire punishment if she did not accept.

  Rose sucked in a deep breath, stunned. By his words, Edward confirmed her suspicions about the bishop’s postponement of her vow. “Aye, Sire.” Rose closed her hand over the round stone at her neck. Jason, how I miss your uncomplicated, laughing exuberance and loving heart. Soon, very soon, I shall return to you.

  The king leaned back in his chair, his forearm braced on the chair arm and wine cup dangling from his hand. “In three days’ time, here in the chapel at Westminster, we shall celebrate the nuptials, with a grand feast to follow.”

  “Sire, that does not leave much time for wedding preparations. And what of the reading of the banns?” She knew delay was fruitless but could not help a last attempt to slow the proceedings so she might discover a way to escape the shackles of matrimony.

  Having received his way, the king bestowed upon her a benevolent smile. “I shall wave the banns so you need not wait two weeks to marry. And the queen is quite fond of you. She intends to gift you with cloth from the royal wardrobe and grant her ladies leave to help you make the necessary arrangements.”

  How typical of the king to switch from arrogant despot to magnanimous benefactor in the space of moments, she thought bitterly.

  Golan had remained silent and still during this exchange. Now he turned to her. “My lady, I know this is very sudden, but I promise I shall give you no cause to regret marrying me.” His voice grew gruff. “My precious wife died giving birth to a stillborn son a year ago. If you would allow it, I’d be proud to raise your son, Jason, as if he were my own blood.”

  The man spoke eloquently, yet…She’d felt a subtle sinister air of speculation swirling around the knight at supper concerning his wife’s death. Now the king wished to shackle her to this man, this stranger? She tried to read de Coucy’s face. He had a smooth, wide forehead, straight eyebrows over a pair of wide-set, nearly black eyes, a long narrow nose that curved slightly to the right, and a shallow cleft in his chin. It was impossible to glean anything from his dark, impenetrable eyes.

  Edward handed his chalice to the servant, stepped down from his throne, and approached them. He clasped his hand on Golan’s shoulder. “’Tis a most gracious pledge, Sir Golan.” The king turned his gaze on Rose and cocked his head. “You can have no better knight as husband and stepfather to your son.”

  She chose her words carefully. “Sir Golan, I am overwhelmed. Jason would be fortunate to have such a noble influence in his life.”

  The king laughed heartily. “You shall make a fine match. Indeed, I do not doubt that before long you shall be busy producing heirs to carry on the proud de Coucy lineage.”

  A cold sensation slithered across Rose’s flesh and tentacles of fear took root. Her face paling, Rose mumbled a response. Golan’s intense dark gaze held hers. His smile was firmly in place, but his eyes reflected…what? Pride, offense, indignation?

  Finally dismissed, Rose hurriedly returned to her chamber. Thoughts and emotions roiled inside her like a violent storm at sea, making her sick with worry, fear, and indecision. She did not know how she was going to survive being forced to lie beneath Sir Golan as he violated her body, no matter that it was considered her con
jugal duty to submit willingly to her husband.

  Elena’s warm breath bathed Rand’s chest as she fell into a deep sleep. Rand slowly lifted her hand from his chest and slid off the bed. He padded across the rough floorboards, plucking up his clothes as he moved toward the fireplace, the blaze now extinguished. After piling his garments on the settle, he dressed as swiftly as he could.

  Chagrin filled him as he skulked out of Elena’s town house, retrieved Leviathan from the stable, and made his way back to the castle.

  He was uneasy. His head was hazy with drink, and dissatisfaction consumed him. The usual relief he achieved upon gratifying his carnal needs eluded him tonight. He felt empty and more alone than he ever had before. Usually he could stave off the feeling with various duties performed for the king, and by overseeing his thriving wine-trading business.

  But neither gave him a sense of fulfillment as they had in the past.

  Rand called out to the palace guard at the gate. In the stable yard, he dismounted and led Leviathan into the vaulted, wide-aisled structure. There were thirty stalls on each side of the aisle and a sliver of moonlight shone into the darkened building through a high round window above the stable door.

  It was silent except for the occasional rustling of hay and neighing horse. He led his horse into an empty stall and removed the saddle and bridle. Leviathan dropped his head and made a huffing sound of pleasure as Rand began grooming his back with the comb hanging on the stall wall.

  Rose’s upcoming marriage to Sir Golan had exacerbated his growing discontent with his life. All night he had been trying without success to forget about her, first with drink and then in Elena’s arms.

  With every passing day he desired her more, her unique essence seeping into his blood and bone and sinew—a potent concoction. His normal regimen of exhaustive pursuit of pleasure no longer could suppress his rising appetite to possess her, body and soul.

  He refused to contemplate offering Rose the choice to marry him instead. Even if the king would accept him, Rand would never inflict himself upon Rose, for death seemed to follow him. The two people he loved most had died before his eyes because he couldn’t save them. Once he married Rose, he would have to “love, honor, and protect” her. But he feared he was incapable of protecting her. The past had born out how inept he was when it came to those to whom he was closest. He could not bear it if Rose was harmed due to his inability to shield her from danger.

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