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.
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.
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.
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
withdrew her hand, and he observed the way she tried to conceal the nervous
trembling of her fingers against the folds of her gown.
have come with you?” she inquired. “I will send word to the kitchen that we
will have guests for dinner.”
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.”
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?”
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?”
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.
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 would be here long enough to go hawking,” she reminded him.
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?”
surprise, she hesitated. Surely she was not afraid to be alone with him?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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?
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.
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.
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
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.”
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
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.”
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—”
Cassandry, I have not come to speak of Egelina. I have come to speak of you.”
blinked at him for a moment, then the cloth slipped out of her grasp and fell at
her feet. “Oh!”
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.
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
glanced over his shoulder and saw her sitting with her hands locked tightly in
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
fell to her laced fingers. “You wish me to marry again?”
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—”
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
“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.”
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
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—”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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
to betroth her to Rauffe?”
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.
Gerolt, you do not know how that relieves my mind!” Cassandry blushed. “I mean,
pleases you?” He had not been prepared for an immediate capitulation.
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!”
forward on the words, startling him when she reached out and grasped his hands.
am not marrying her,” Gerolt said. Oh,
heavens, how had he fumbled this, too?
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
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.
, he answered himself stubbornly, if I insisted, she would have no choice. We
were friends once. We could be so again.
, his head warned his heart.
Do you really want another “dutiful”
her hands. “Then it is settled. You will bring her to Lyonstoke a fortnight
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
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?”
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 . . .
the return of her formality, then held his breath as she caught his hand again,
the stiffness once more dropping away from her.
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
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.
then,” she said. “But when they are wed, may I ask of you a boon?”
not wait a year for that,” he replied. “When did I ever deny you anything you
gave a small twitch over the bridge of her nose. “Perhaps you should have been
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?”
hesitate before she nodded? Nay, surely it was only the shift of a cloud
against the sunlight.
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
with her toward the exit. “I do not wish to inconvenience you—”
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.”
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?
in response. “Will you tell her of the betrothal before we dine?”
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.”
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.
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?”
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.”
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.
not forget about the boon?”
not tell me what it is now?”
her head. “In a year, when Egelina and Rauffe are wed. That will be time enough
to speak it.”
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.
promise me you will grant it?” she said, her hand now pressing into his arm.
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.”
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
you ask is yours.”
have made me twice happy this day. Now come. I must greet your men.”
ahead of him down the stairs, leaving him awash in regret as he followed her.
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