She curtsied as gracefully as he remembered. Twenty-four years and nothing had changed. Her tawny gown, with its sprinkling of embroidery beneath a modestly rounded neck, hugged her still-slender figure before it flowed into wide folds at her hips. Gerolt had come upon her unannounced as she’d crossed the great hall of Rengrave Castle before his footsteps had turned her about just short of the stairs. She had dispensed with a matron’s veil, allowing her long dark hair to hang in two thick plaits over her shoulders.
“We were not expecting you, my lord,” she said in the cool, familiar tone he had once held so dear.
He held out his hand as she rose, requiring her to place her fingers in his grasp. The blue sapphire from her wedding day still winked there, alongside a ruby he did not recognize, which graced her little finger. He bowed and brushed his lips against skin still smooth and white. He had not prayed for such a moment as this to come, but now that it was here, excitement fluttered in his stomach. Just for an instant, he felt as bashful as a squire.
“My apologies, Lady Cassandry. I am returning from business at Glinfield Manor, and I could not pass Rengrave without telling my men that I must stop and pay you my respects.” Such visits to her castle had once been common until all communication with her had ceased two years after her marriage.
Even after so long a time, he hoped she would welcome him. Instead she cast a doubtful glance over his shoulder. None of his men had followed him into the hall. He would not inflict his retinue on her before he was certain they would not be intruding. Rengrave had always been the smallest of her late husband’s fortresses.
She withdrew her hand, and he observed the way she tried to conceal the nervous trembling of her fingers against the folds of her gown.
“How many have come with you?” she inquired. “I will send word to the kitchen that we will have guests for dinner.”
“I ride with a small party,” he said, trying to reassure her. “Five men only. Samson, Ingram, and Fithian are with me, along with two young knights unknown to you.”
A smile curved her lovely mouth. “And does each of these knights bring a squire? Have you brought pages, too, and grooms? Perhaps a herald to bear messages for you and a huntsman should you decide to pause and chase a few deer along your way?”
Gerolt felt his lips twitch upward in response. She knew him too well. “A falconer, not a huntsman,” he said. “The skies have been unusually fair this spring. Perhaps you will join us for some hawking while we are here?”
Her smile faded and her brow furrowed with worry. “Antony sold our last gyrfalcon before he died. The mews have stood empty for three years. I fear your falconer will find sorry accommodations for your birds.” Her hands came together beneath her breast, twisting together in ill-concealed anxiety. “I will speak with Sir Patrick, our steward. Perhaps he can make the mews more hospitable. I will have chambers prepared for your men as well. You are all most welcome, of course.” She dropped another curtsy. “If you will excuse me? Invite your men in, and I will send up refreshments while—”
He was not fooled by her attempts to appear at ease. He stopped her with a hand on her arm, ignoring the pang of disappointment that momentarily dimmed his excitement at being near her again after so long a time apart. He had hoped for a few days to reacquaint themselves before he made his proposal, but her apparent dismay at his suggestion of an extended visit swiftly changed his mind. Or perhaps it was the fact that she had not asked after his health, or that of the men she had once known, or after the affairs at Lyonstoke Castle, or any of the small questions that passed between people who had once been as close as they had.
He swallowed his regret and said in an attempt to soothe her evident worry, “I do not mean to overwhelm you with our company. We will not be staying the night.”
“You said you would be here long enough to go hawking,” she reminded him.
“A whimsy,” he said lightly. “I would we could stay a few days, but it is a two-day ride to Lyonstoke, and I cannot tarry longer than I already have. My men would undoubtedly welcome the refreshment you speak of, but . . . is there someplace private we might speak while they partake?”
To his surprise, she hesitated. Surely she was not afraid to be alone with him?
“My solar,” she said. “If you will follow me?”
It was as they passed the midday light slanting through one of the narrow, arched windows of the hall that he saw his mistake. She had changed. A few silver threads—only a few—were sprinkled through her dark braids, and a faint web of lines had gathered at the corners of her eyes. It did not dull his ardor. Only this morning he had engaged in a sober study of his own graying brown hair and the deeply tanned face, which years spent in the sun and the joys and sorrows of life had creased. They were both past the years of youthful courtship. But not, he hoped, past courtship itself.
She paused to speak to a gray-haired knight she encountered at the head of the stairs, bidding him see to the welcome of their guests, before leading Gerolt on to the solar. He took a moment to take in the room before he spoke again. The intimate feminine space was not so different than his wife’s had been, save that this room was smaller. Tapestries had been hung to warm the walls during winter; a wide, arched window allowed for a streaming flood of morning light; two baskets filled with embroidery threads sat near a pair of cushioned chairs; and another pair of baskets with neatly folded squares of sewing and embroidered cloth sat just beyond those. He did not remember Cassandry being so tidy with her stitchery as a girl, but it was natural that marriage and motherhood would have taught her discipline.
He motioned her into one of the chairs, then arranged the other so that he might sit to face her. “I have not even asked after your welfare. You are well? And Egelina? You were both understandably subdued when last I saw you.” Three years ago, just after Antony’s death.
“Our lives are quiet here, but we are content enough,” she said. “You were generous to allow Egelina to remain in my custody after her father died. You must know how very grateful I am to you.” Her voice trembled a little.
“Did you think I would take her from you, Cassandry?” he said, surprised.
He noted how carefully she avoided his gaze. “You are our liege lord and now her guardian. If you wished to raise her in your own household, it would have been your right.”
“As I raised you? But she still has a mother. You had no one but my father, who most inconveniently died when I was but nineteen and left your care to me.”
The ten years between them had felt like a lifetime then. How swiftly those years had narrowed when she had entered her teens, and now the span felt no more than days. At least to him. He removed the round cap he wore and ran a hand through his hair, pretending to smooth it down but in fact trying to discern again the ratio of coarsened gray to the softer brown. Was it too late? Would he always be too old?
He moved the conversation into pleasantries, asking after her now-fifteen-year-old daughter, telling her of his seventeen-year-old son who had been but fourteen when she had come to Lyonstoke to pledge her fealty for her dower lands and the lands Egelina had inherited from her father. When it came to his own daughter, Fleur, he assured Cassandry that the wound of her death had healed. It had not, of course, but he did not want any shadows hovering about him on this day.
The exchange appeared to relax her at last, and she began to inquire after people she had known in his household during her childhood and youth.
“Did you say Sir Ingram and Sir Fithian are with you? And . . . and Sir Samson? I must speak with them all before you leave. Why, Sir Fithian was still a page when I left you.”
“He is three-and-thirty now and, alas, has never overcome his lisp. But he has the best sword arm among my men, and there are none who dare mock him now.”
She smiled and bent forward to retrieve a piece of unfinished embroidery, thus averting her face. “Sir Samson still rides with you as well? Has ill befallen his inheritance?”
“Alas, many ills have befallen Sam since last you saw him. Aye, he still resides under my roof. But that is not why I have come to speak with you today.”
She straightened in her chair, the embroidery cloth crumpling a little beneath the tightening of her fingers. “It is of Egelina, is it not? I know she is of an age to marry now, but—”
“No, Cassandry, I have not come to speak of Egelina. I have come to speak of you.”
“Me?” She blinked at him for a moment, then the cloth slipped out of her grasp and fell at her feet. “Oh!”
The dread in her face was so stark it drove him to his feet and to the window. This was not the reaction he had hoped for. But then, he had hardly made himself clear.
He clasped his hands behind his back and gazed down on the dovecotes below. Antony may have closed the mews, but at least he had not robbed her of this comfort. The birds’ sweet, mellow cooing floated upward on the air and into the silence of the solar.
Gerolt glanced over his shoulder and saw her sitting with her hands locked tightly in her lap.
He turned back toward her but did not return to his chair. “Have you not thought of your own future, Cassandry? Antony has been dead three years. Do you intend to mourn him forever?”
Her gaze fell to her laced fingers. “You wish me to marry again?”
“Are you not lonely? Aveline has been gone but a year, and while I sorely miss her . . . Lyonstoke Castle is in need of a woman’s touch. I found other positions for Aveline’s ladies after she died, and we have become a bachelor household, but I cannot remember to order the rushes to be swept, or restore the spices in the kitchen, or wrap Rauffe up when he is ill, or—” Oh, blazes! What kind of proposal was this, to make it sound like he had come in search of a servant rather than a wife? “What I meant to say was—”
“It is different for men,” she interrupted. “Poor Sir Patrick was so miserable when his wife died that I encouraged him to marry again, even though it had scarce been six months. Now he is no longer glum and short-tempered with our bailiffs but treats them fairly as he did before, and our lands prosper for it.” She paused. “Your lands prosper for it. Forgive me, my lord. I’ve spoken presumptuously. My dower lands are most comfortable. If you wish me to retire to them, I shall willingly do so. Only—only may I keep Egelina with me just a while longer?”
“I do not wish you to retire to your dower lands,” he said, an edge to his voice. What a fumble he was making of it! It did not help that she kept calling him “my lord,” as though he had not known her since she was nine. “I thought . . . It occurred to me after Aveline died that you might like . . . That is, I thought it might please you to come back to Lyonstoke.”
She stared at him unblinkingly now, the blank look in her dark eyes shaking him almost as much as her former dread had. Was it so incomprehensible to her that he should offer—
“You wish me to marry one of your knights?” She rose so swiftly she knocked over the embroidery basket next to her chair. Her laced hands began to wring one another. “My lord, I beg you, I am quite content as a widow. Do not—Of course, if you command me I must obey . . . but I pray you will not—”
“Command you? When did I ever command you to do anything, Cassandry? And when did you cease to call me Gerolt?”
She bit her lower lip before she replied. “When I became wife to your vassal, Sir Antony. Things are not what they were between us, my lord. They can never be so again. Too much time has passed. We both know that. I am your devoted servant.” She curtsied, her hands still moving with distress against her tawny gown. “And I must do as you . . . request. But I have no desire to marry again.”
Disappointment pierced his chest. He stepped forward, ignoring the sudden urge to move within arm’s reach of her. Even as she stood rejecting him, he still felt the charge of desire for her.
She did not look away this time but gazed with so much earnestness into his eyes that the hopeful fluttering in his stomach turned to a leaden ball.
“I should not change my mind if you asked me to wed yourself. I am too old to be a wife again, my lord. This knight of whom you speak—no, please do not tell me his name—I wish to remember all of them fondly, without awkwardness should we meet. Whomever he is, he deserves a younger, merrier woman than I.”
’Twas the first time he observed it, the loss of merriment in her eyes. She had been so bright and cheerful at Lyonstoke, her spirit so warm, her nature so sweet and trusting. But she’d had a joyful future waiting to embrace her then. He supposed a woman who had loved as fervently as she had would be a woman who would mourn the loss of that love to her final days.
He resolutely clamped down his hurt, as he had the day he had given her hand to Antony. He had lost enough years with her. Awkwardness was the last thing he wished between them now. He had hoped for a favorable response, but a part of him had been braced for failure. Nevertheless, he did not intend to let her simply slip out of his life again as she had two years after her marriage. If he could not bind her to him as his wife, he would bind her to him another way.
“Very well,” he said. He set a hand on her shoulder and pressed her back into her chair, then returned to his own. “It shall be as you wish. We shall not speak further of it. I’ve another proposition for you, however. And this one does involve the Lady Egelina.”
He watched Cassandry’s cheeks pale as though waiting for a blow. Have I become so great a stranger to you as that? He cinched the hurt down still tighter.
He crossed his legs, determined to appear as calm as she was rigid. “As you say, your daughter is fifteen and of an age to marry. With four castles to her name—your two and Antony’s—she is quite the little heiress. She is pretty and lively, and with you as her mother, I have not the least doubt she is well mannered and sensible as well. I believe she would make an excellent match for my son.”
This had been his original plan for their children. He had been preparing himself to speak of it to Antony just before Antony died. But the death of Gerolt’s daughter had distracted him from approaching Cassandry about the matter, and then Gerolt’s wife had died, opening an unexpected pathway to Cassandry’s hand for himself. But now that that hope had failed, he resorted to his first design.
“You wish to betroth her to Rauffe?”
“Have you any objections?”
As Egelina’s liege lord and guardian, he did not need to take her mother’s feelings into consideration in this matter, but he was not a man who enjoyed imposing his will on others, and he had his arguments marshaled to win an agreement from Cassandry, however reluctant she might be.
“Oh, Gerolt, you do not know how that relieves my mind!” Cassandry blushed. “I mean, my lord—”
“The idea pleases you?” He had not been prepared for an immediate capitulation.
“I knew Egelina must be married and that you have likely been considering the best alliance for her since she turned twelve. I have been in dread of your decision. Not that I thought you would choose poorly for her,” Cassandry added quickly, “but marriage is such a . . . weighty matter, and she has so little experience with men. Almost none, in fact, since Antony kept so few knights here at Rengrave Castle, and those he kept were old enough to be her grandfather. I hoped you would choose someone gentle and patient with her, but . . . oh, I never dared hope it would be you!”
She leaned forward on the words, startling him when she reached out and grasped his hands.
“I am not marrying her,” Gerolt said. Oh, heavens, how had he fumbled this, too?
She smiled again. “Of course not. She will marry Rauffe. I only meant that I know she will be safe with you. You will see that she is happy. How could she not be, married to your son? I never knew a kinder, more patient man than you, and Rauffe is certain to be the same.” She rose, squeezing his hands as he followed her to his feet. “Thank you! I have worried for her ever so much, but now I will be at peace.”
He felt another wave of yearning as he held her hands in his. Perhaps he had accepted her rebuff too quickly. He cast about almost wildly for some way to rescind the words he had just spoken. Once Egelina and Rauffe were wed, Church law forbade marriage between their parents. Gerolt would lose Cassandry forever . . .
You have already lost her. You lost her the day you gave her to Antony. Her heart remains with him.
Still, he answered himself stubbornly, if I insisted, she would have no choice. We were friends once. We could be so again.
Friends only, his head warned his heart. Do you really want another “dutiful” marriage?
No. He did not.
He released her hands. “Then it is settled. You will bring her to Lyonstoke a fortnight hence—”
“A fortnight? You are not thinking of marriage already? She is only—Rauffe is only seventeen! When I wished to marry Antony, you insisted that he wait for his twenty-first birthday.”
Gerolt hated to see the alarm return to her face. And he hated it more that this time he could not reassure her. “I cannot wait that long with Rauffe. His health has been poor all his life. He falls victim to the slightest chill, has a paltry appetite, and now these headaches. As he is my only heir, I cannot risk—” his dying. Gerolt could not speak the harsh word and replaced it with the softest one he could. “I cannot lose him before he gives me a grandchild. I still pray he will outgrow his weaknesses, but I am too clear-eyed to count on it.” He strove for a lighter note he was far from feeling when he thought of his son. “Rauffe is not tottering at the edge of the grave yet, however, and I would like them to have an opportunity to know one another before they wed. I am suggesting a betrothal, with marriage in a year—when Egelina is sixteen, your own age when you married Antony. I think you cannot object to that?”
She looked as if she wanted to object very much indeed, but she paused in what he sensed was a battle to hold her tongue. He wished he could offer her more, but with Rauffe’s health so tenuous . . .
“As you wish, my lord.”
He cursed the return of her formality, then held his breath as she caught his hand again, the stiffness once more dropping away from her.
“I would fight you on this if you wished her to marry anyone else. I would, Gerolt. But I know you will care for her and be kind and that Rauffe will be kind to her as well.”
Because he is your son. She did not speak the words, yet he read the thought in the brief, wistful smile she gave him. There is my Cassandry. A longing to sweep her off her feet and carry her and that smile back to Lyonstoke Castle shook him to his core, but the moment was fleeting, her smile already gone.
“A year, then,” she said. “But when they are wed, may I ask of you a boon?”
“You need not wait a year for that,” he replied. “When did I ever deny you anything you wished?”
Her brows gave a small twitch over the bridge of her nose. “Perhaps you should have been more strict.”
“I might have, had you not been so sensible. You never asked anything of me the least untoward—except to marry Antony when you were fourteen. Mad as you were for each other, he was far too ramshackle to be a husband yet. Was I not right to make you wait?”
Did she hesitate before she nodded? Nay, surely it was only the shift of a cloud against the sunlight.
“We have lingered overlong,” she said. “Your men will be thinking me the worst hostess in the world that I have not greeted them yet. Are you sure you will not stay to dine?”
He strolled with her toward the exit. “I do not wish to inconvenience you—”
“Heavens, it is no inconvenience. You took me unawares with your arrival; we are so unused to visitors. But a table is easily laid. We eat simply here, but your men will not go away hungry. I will have Egelina join us so that you may study her good manners.”
She spoke in a light, bantering tone, almost teasing him the way she used to. Did she tweak him for praising her daughter for virtues she knew his limited acquaintance with Egelina could only allow him to guess at?
He smiled in response. “Will you tell her of the betrothal before we dine?”
Cassandry cocked her head to the side in thought. So she had not lost the habit that had prompted him to laugh and call her “Sparrow” when she had been but nine years old.
“I think I will wait until you are gone. She has had no thought in her head of marriage. I know I should have been preparing her for this day . . . that is, I have prepared her to be a wife. You need not fear for that. She will see that your rushes are swept and your spices replenished and that Rauffe does not go out without his cloak. But we have not spoken of marriage coming so soon.”
Many women wed at Egelina’s age, but clearly Cassandry had thought that because Gerolt had delayed her own marriage he would do the same with Egelina. Had Fleur lived long enough to give him a grandchild, he might have afforded her more lenience. But his daughter had not, and much though Gerolt wished Rauffe was older, fate had not left him with easy choices.
“I thought you might wish for time to prepare her,” Gerolt said. He lifted the tapestry in the doorway to allow Cassandry to pass beneath it. “Will a fortnight be enough?”
“Oh yes. Thank you.”
“You will accompany her, of course, and I trust you will stay at Lyonstoke until she has settled in? A month or two at least—”
“So long? I do not know. We shall see. I trust she and Rauffe will strike a friendship quickly and she will have no need for me to linger. I’m afraid I have grown to enjoy the quiet here too much.”
Her lips moved as though they intended another smile, but the upward curve he expected failed to fully form. She paused and touched his arm as they stopped just short of the top of the stairs that would take them back to the hall.
“You will not forget about the boon?”
“You will not tell me what it is now?”
She shook her head. “In a year, when Egelina and Rauffe are wed. That will be time enough to speak it.”
He was about to remind her that she had never kept secrets from him before when her words came back as a bitter reminder: Things are not what they were between us. They can never be so again. He cursed his own generosity, which had given her to another man and lost him the comfort of her companionship for twenty-four years. But no longer. She had no children save Egelina. Gerolt intended to make sure Cassandry remained deeply involved in her daughter’s life, even after her marriage. And perhaps, in time, friendship would grow between them again. It was not what he had hoped for when he had arrived, but it was far better than losing her a second time.
“You promise me you will grant it?” she said, her hand now pressing into his arm.
“This mysterious boon of yours? As long as it is a sensible request.”
“It is most sensible. You will not find me to have grown into an impulsive, irrational woman since I left your house.”
“I am very relieved,” he said. “I’d feared perhaps Antony may have taught you to be capricious and wayward. What a high-strung fellow he was. I’d never have let him marry you had I not seen how deftly you steadied him. He loved you more than I’d ever seen any man love a woman.” A self-protest tried to rear itself, but Gerolt thrust it relentlessly down to where he had buried his hurt. He laid his fingers over the hand that still rested on his arm. “I am sorry it has been so difficult since you lost him.”
“Thank you. And my sensible boon?”
He did not need more time with her to recognize once again that the sweet, confiding child he had loved was gone, replaced by this remote, self-contained woman who turned aside his sympathy as though it were some invasion of her privacy. Yet, still, he could not imagine her so changed at her core as to find any reason to deny her.
“Whatever you ask is yours.”
“Then you have made me twice happy this day. Now come. I must greet your men.”
She swept ahead of him down the stairs, leaving him awash in regret as he followed her.
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