Vow of Deception, page 8
“I must disagree—”
“You may disagree as much as you like, but it shall not change the king’s decision. Or mine either, for that matter. Come, the hour grows late. I’ll escort you to your chamber. We can discuss these and other issues after we wed.”
Realizing the futility of the argument, Rose acquiesced, but not happily. “Very well. But there’s one thing I wish to settle before we marry, and it cannot be delayed a moment longer.” Rose flicked her knuckles over her collarbone.
“What is so important it cannot wait till the morrow?”
Rose took a deep inhalation and expelled her words in a rush. “I will marry you on one condition. That ours be a marriage of convenience.”
“Very well, I shall agree to your condition.”
She saw not even a flicker of surprise or disappointment. Her brows dipped down sharply at his easy capitulation. Rand was the most lustful male creature she knew. So why would he agree without hesitation to forego the marital duty a wife and husband owed one another? It made no sense. Unless he did not understand what she was insisting upon.
“You do understand that if I am to give my wholehearted consent when we wed, I insist that we never consummate our vows?”
“Of course. I understand very well. I have no objection to abstaining from carnal intimacy.”
“By agreeing to my condition, you shall never have an heir of my body. Never have a legitimate male heir to carry on your name. And yet you are still prepared to marry me? Why?”
“I am now one score and nine years of age and have never been married. Have you never wondered why this is so?”
Rose could not admit to Rand that she had indeed wondered why he had never married. But she decided he enjoyed his blithe womanizing existence too much to give up his freedom.
“Why have you never married?”
Rand shrugged. “I vowed long ago never to marry. The reason no longer matters. If Edward had not betrothed you to Sir Golan, I would not have offered to marry you.”
“But you escorted me to court knowing Edward intended me for Sir Golan. You could have offered for me then instead of creating a fake prior betrothal. You admitted you were aware of Sir Golan’s reputation before he attacked me. So what changed your mind?”
“I have several reasons. ’Tis complicated.”
She rubbed her upper arms. “Go on. I would hear them.”
Rand smiled grimly. “When I came to Ayleston to escort you to court, I admit I heard a rumor that Golan had murdered his wife. But his wife died in childbirth. Too, I knew Golan personally and his reputation was beyond repute, so I did not believe the rumors. Then when I learned how much you abhorred marriage, I considered offering for you in Golan’s stead. But I thought you would dislike marriage to me as much as to any other man.
“But what convinced me was that night in the chapel.” His eyes glittered. “When I saw him forcing himself on you despite your protests, I wanted to rip out his throat. I realized then I could never let him touch you like that again. Marrying you, despite my vow never to do so, is a small price to pay for the debt of gratitude I owe you and your family. Your parents have treated me like a son since I came to England long ago.”
An odd emotion punctured Rose’s heart and her breath caught. She was sure Rand did not mean to insult her, but disappointment flooded her. She had no reason to be disappointed. She did not wish to marry him, either.
“This is your last chance,” she said. “Are you sure you don’t wish to give more thought to your decision?”
Rand crossed his arms and leaned back on his heels. “I have given it plenty of thought, actually. I need no more time to realize you cannot abide my touch. I’d never force you or any woman to my bed. Our marriage would simply be a mutual exchange of benefits to us both. You shall receive my protection from Edward’s machinations and Sir Golan’s unwanted advances. And believe it or not, as my wife, I shall receive your protection from fathers who wish to betroth their daughters to me for my connection to the king.”
She did not despise his touch. She was just dispassionate in general. Passion was reserved for whores; her husband had taught her that lesson well.
Sudden heat flushed her cheeks and she dropped her eyes as her heart thudded with embarrassment. “Of course, I shall not begrudge you satisfying your desires with other women. I realize you must assuage your lustful appetites. I promise I shall not object or act like a termagant whenever you take other women to your bed.”
Rand stepped closer, his breath moist in the air between them. “That is very commendable of you, Rose. But how can I trust that you shall not change your mind once we are married? Now you say you do not mind me bedding other women.” Rand’s voice dropped to a dark, seductive whisper. “But what if you change your mind?” He ran a finger down her cheek, a soft caress that neither repulsed nor seduced. Shock held her immobile.
“Can you swear to never become a jealous shrew? That you won’t come to resent me or the other women I shall surely bed?” A dangerous current thrummed beneath his voice, which sounded suspiciously like anger.
Rose frowned. She was positive Rand was mocking her. She searched his face, framed by long golden hair. His smile was wolfish, deepening his dimples, and gray-green eyes appeared almost feral in the moon’s glow. But it must have been a trick of the moonlight, for a teasing light sparked in his eyes.
She shook her head. “You need not fear I shall change my mind. All I ask is for you to be discreet. That you not humiliate me by flaunting your mistresses or fornicating while you are in residence at Castle Ayleston. I will not have you bedding my own servants and undermining my authority as chatelaine.”
Rand kept his smile pasted on his face, unsure why he was so angry. Her crystal blue eyes made his stomach flip. Eyes wide and almond shaped, the corner of her outer lashes curling up together. Her sharp white teeth chewed on her plump bottom lip.
“So you don’t mind if I have mistresses. You just do not want to be confronted by them. Fair enough. I believe I can agree to that.” Rand forced the words past his lips. As comprehension dawned on him, he inhaled sharply.
He could have any woman he wanted, yet the one woman he desired—with a desperation that cut like a blade to his heart—did not want him. Rand rubbed his chest where it hurt. He nearly laughed at the irony. Married to the one woman he could never possess.
The justice of it was brilliant. When his mother died in the fire, Rand swore to atone for her and his sister’s deaths for the rest of his life. God was now reaping the ultimate penance Rand owed Him.
Ayleston Castle, Chester County
In the year of our Lord 1272, September 12
Fifty-fifth year in the reign of King Henry III
In the bridal chamber, Rose stood naked before Bertram and about fifty guests who crowded into the chamber to get a glimpse of the happy couple. Her modesty was barely preserved by her waist-length red-gold hair, which she draped in front of her shoulders to conceal her small breasts. She covered her hair-covered groin with her hands as a chill gust of wind whistled through the shuttered windows. Goose pimples rose on her skin all over her body. She shuddered.
The bedding ceremony was a humiliation every virgin had to endure to prove to the groom he was getting an unmarred bride. Bertram, not looking at her exposed body, grabbed her chamber robe from one of the female guests, Lady Lydia, Rose realized. Lydia and Bertram exchanged a brief look, which Rose could not interpret, and then Bertram wrapped the robe around Rose’s shoulders. She smiled shyly at her new husband, grateful for his considerate gesture.
Since the day they had met at court last Christmas, his gallantry and charm had entranced her. He was ever spoiling her with his caring and generous heart.
Bertram quickly escorted the guests out of their bedchamber and poured her some wine to ease her fears. But her curiosity and excitement was greater than any virginal fears.
The spiced wine went down her throat in one smooth gulp. Then Bertram took he
Bertram pulled back and said, his voice hoarse, “Take off your robe and lie down on the bed.”
In a blaze of desire, Rose did as he bid. She removed the robe and smiled when he turned away, no doubt wanting to preserve her modesty. She climbed into bed and pulled the covers up. An odd smile on his face, Bertram stared at the wall across from the bed, where a tapestry of a stag hunt hung.
“I’m ready, Bertram.”
He came over to the side of the bed and stared down at her. “And now I am ready too,” he said, his raspy voice a caress.
“What do you mean?”
He smiled slyly. “You shall find out soon enough.” When he dropped his robe, she caught a quick glance of his erect shaft; then he slid into bed and on top of her.
He kissed her again, his mouth and tongue ravaging her. Her desire became a tempest, his heat and hardness driving her hips to rise up to seek a connection. His shaft probed between her legs and slowly eased inside her.
“You’re wet,” he spat out, disgust tinging his voice.
“What?” Rose squirmed, prickly sensations making her feel like she was going to explode if he did not shove inside her and complete the union of their bodies.
His emerald green eyes, usually creased with laughter, burned with condemnation. “You are wet between your legs.”
Rose’s face flushed. “I’m sorry, did I do something wrong?”
“Only whores get wet. My wife is not supposed to enjoy what is meant for procreation purposes alone.”
Rose moved, trying to escape her humiliating predicament. But she was pinned beneath him.
Bertram groaned. “It’s too late. Just lie still and keep your mouth shut.” Then he pumped inside her, grunting and groaning until his body shuddered and he collapsed on top of her.
Hot tears of misery leaked from Rose’s eyes as she lay trapped beneath him. Her face burned with shame, yet her whole body felt as though it had been dunked in a cold stream.
She was reeling with confusion at Bertram’s sudden shift in mood. It was not like him at all, and she wondered if she were unnatural. Somehow she had ruined everything, and she didn’t understand how. She had enjoyed his initial intimacies, but when her body had excreted wetness, he had become repulsed.
“That was an amazing performance, my love.” A seductive feminine laugh echoed in the chamber.
Rose jerked and scrambled to cover her breasts with a sheet when Bertram left the bed to greet the woman who entered the bedchamber.
“Oh my God, Bertram. What is she doing in our chamber?”
Bertram just laughed, grabbed Lady Lydia to him, and proceeded to kiss her thoroughly. Without shame, Lydia kissed him back and reached her hand down to stroke Bertram’s shaft.
Rose shot up in bed, her heart pumping rapidly. A shrill scream in the back of her throat was cut off. As her chest rose and fell, her panting breath sounded loud in the darkened chamber. She looked around, realizing she was not in her bedchamber at Ayleston Castle. In bed beside her, Alison slept soundly, her soft snores penetrating the quiet.
A sigh escaped Rose, her eyes damp with unshed tears. It was just another dream. Beads of sweat coated her face and chest, making her shiver. Rose crept slowly from the bed so as not to wake Alison and moved to the washstand, where she splashed cold water on herself to rinse off the perspiration. With a clean linen towel she dried off, rubbing her face briskly to try to erase the lingering remnants of her dream.
That night of her wedding was just the beginning of one humiliation after another she’d endured at the hands of her husband. Later, she learned she was so physically repugnant to him that he could bed her only with the titillation of having his mistress or cousin observe them. Behind the tapestry was a squint in the wall for the lord of the castle to peer into the chapel to observe Mass in privacy. But Bertram had corrupted it for his perverse lecherous proclivities.
With time the memories had faded, but with her upcoming marriage her nightmares were becoming more vivid. Rand had sworn to her he would not expect her to share a bed with him as man and wife, but what real guarantee did she have? Once they were married, as her husband he could demand anything of her and she would have no recourse to deny him.
But first he must defeat Sir Golan in the lists. Rose shuddered at the thought of what would happen should Sir Golan win the joust competition. She returned to the bed, got down on her knees, folded her hands before her, and began to pray fervently that Rand would prevail this day.
Rose, Kat, and Lady Alison strolled among the makeshift booths set up south of the Abbey Almonry. Next to the practice field where the lists were situated, wooden stands had been hastily erected over the last two days. Rose was distracted, unable to enjoy various festive entertainments and merchant offerings. The joust between Rand and Sir Golan would be the last of the day and would be celebrated later that evening with a grand feast.
In front of a booth protected from the elements by a black-and gold-striped tent, Kat and Alison were looking at some brightly hued scarves spread out on a board. Kat chose a sheer yellow silk scarf with blue embroidered roses on it. As Kat paid the mercer for her scarf, Rose gazed north past the lists where twenty-some-odd competitors’ pavilions were erected. Banners and pennons flew from the top of the various round-and rectangular-shaped tents. She spotted Rand’s banner, a golden lion rampant on an azure background, waving in the brisk breeze.
When Rose turned back, she caught Kat staring at her with a speculative look in her eyes. But Kat did not say a word. She smiled, wrapped the scarf around Rose’s neck, and tied it loosely over the dark blue cloak she wore.
“Kat, ’tis a lovely scarf, but I cannot accept your gift.” She touched the delicately woven silk.
“Of course you can. Every lady has to have a favor to grant the knight of her choice so he may proudly display it during battle.”
“I had not intended giving anyone my favor.”
“I know. Why do you think I gave it to you? When Rand requests a token, surely you do not wish to embarrass him by denying him?”
Alison sighed and clapped her hands before her chest in girlish infatuation. “Aye, my lady. Sir Rand is so handsome and gallant and brave. You cannot deny him your favor.”
Rose rolled her eyes and answered Kat. “What makes you think Rand will even ask me for one? He is marrying me only because of the loyalty he feels toward my family.”
“Because I know my cousin very well. He shall ask for your favor, and you must be prepared to accept.” Kat cocked her head and stared at Rose. A teasing light flared in her silver-gray gaze. “And to prove that I am right, how about we make things interesting by wagering on it?”
A bloom of caution unfurled in Rose’s chest. “A wager? What kind?” When Kat’s eyes glowed with mischief, as now, Rose knew to be wary—very wary.
“I am willing to wager that if Rand does not request your favor, I shall kiss a mule’s arse before a crowd of spectators. But if Rand does, then you must—”
“Aye? If you are correct, I must what?”
“Then you shall have to kiss Rand before the crowd when you bestow him the scarf as a token.”
Rand sat on a bark-denuded portable tree stump outside his round pavilion sharpening his dagger on a whetstone. His nostrils flared at the scent of wood smoke emanating from a number of lit fires in the makeshift encampment. The unusually hot weather had broken and been replaced with a cool, crisp autumnal day.
The whetstone in his left hand, Rand scraped the blade at an angle over the coarse, dusky yellow sandstone. He did it twice, then turned the dagger over and repeated the process on the other edge of the blade. By rote, he sharpened the blade
Sitting beside him, Will, his squire, polished Rand’s gauntlets with a pumice powder and wet cloth. When the youth had both gloves done, he buffed them thoroughly with a dry cloth. A dark-haired knight shouted a greeting as he passed the tent. Rand had accompanied him on a couple of missions for the king.
On the ground nearby lay three sturdy lances, having been thoroughly checked by his squire for strength and durability. It would not do for a defect or weakness in the wood of the lance to be discovered. Should a lance break too easily upon impact with his opponent’s shield, it could spell injury or even death for Rand. Rand would not—nay, could not—allow Rose to be left to the not so tender mercies of Sir Golan. Her very life, Rand was sure, depended on him defeating the vengeful knight.
Sir Justin approached the tent, leading Leviathan by the reins. “’Tis one more joust before your match, Rand.”
Rand stood up, tucked his dagger in the sheath at his waist, and took the gauntlets Will handed him. He moved to Sir Justin, who passed him the reins.
Shifting his gloves to the hand that held his mount’s reins, Rand patted Leviathan’s neck with his right hand and spoke softly. “Well, my friend, I have placed my faith in you numerous times in the past, and I know you shan’t fail me now.”
Leviathan dipped his head and shoved his nose against Rand’s chest, snorting a snuffling sound of puffed air from his muzzle. “Good boy.” Rand stroked his horse’s neck beneath its black mane. “Let us go show Sir Golan what happens when he crosses me, so he never forgets whom he is dealing with.”
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