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Authors: Christina Dodd

Castles in the Air

BOOK: Castles in the Air
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C
ASTLES IN THE
A
IR
CHRISTINA DODD

To Arwen
My Pragmatic Daughter

Who knows the value of a dollar.

Who frequently and pointedly reminds me that the only time anyone notices our housekeeping is if we don’t do it.

Who knows that her mama needs lots of love and who gives it so generously.

“I learned this, at least, by experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.…

If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundation under them.”

—Henry David Thoreau

Contents

1
   She had all her teeth.

2
   Geoffroi Jean Louis Raymond, Count of Avraché, reflected gloomily on…

3
   In places, the snow drifted up to Raymond’s waist, but…

4
   “My lady, are you ill?”

5
   Children. Raymond feared them as he feared no man or…

6
   “Your daughters are still out with that simpleton knave of…

7
   Juliana stared at the jowled, expressive face of the stranger…

8
   He hadn’t even kissed her.

9
   Raymond stomped through the frozen puddles in the bailey, breaking…

10
  “You can’t throw Felix out. He can’t ride with a…

11
  “I hear you heeded my advice and eased your stone-ache.”

12
  Don’t touch me, Juliana prayed. Just don’t come near me.

13
  Pickaxes thumped in an uneven rhythm, and the usual bustle…

14
  Juliana had been the image of the perfect woman all…

15
  A shriek of outrage pierced the solar door and woke…

16
  Juliana shaded her eyes against the sharp winter sun and…

17
  So annoyed he scarcely moved his mouth to speak, Raymond…

18
  Juliana ran at the door of the little hut, clubbing…

19
  Layamon pumped Keir’s hand and cried, “How did ye know t’ come?

20
  Fixing her gimlet eye on them, Valeska queried, “For this…

21
  Raymond let the madness flow over him again, the madness…

22
  “Oh, Mother, look at Lofts Castle,” Margery said, her voice…

23
  Unable to believe this reincarnation of his nemesis, Raymond stared,…

England, 1166

She had all her teeth
.

Raymond heaved a sigh of relief. She was wrapped in too many layers of clothing to see aught else, and she fought him with all the strength in her slight body, but her teeth glimmered behind her blue lips and they made a sturdy clinking as they chattered together. That meant she was young enough to bear children, in reasonable health, capable of warming his bed.

He tried to lift her onto his horse, but she twisted in his arms, flinging herself down onto the woodland path and scrambling away with a desperation he respected. Respected, but ignored. Too much was at stake for him to pay attention to a woman’s apprehensions.

She floundered in the snow that misted the ground. Catching her, he wrapped her in his cloak, bundling her so tightly that her hands and feet flailed uselessly. With a heave, he tossed her face down in front of the saddle and mounted before she regained
her breath. “Steady, Lady Juliana, steady,” he soothed, patting her back as he urged the horse forward.

She battled against his solace, kicking her heels and trying to slide away. He didn’t understand her persistent opposition in the face of such odds, nor did he understand the impulse that drove him to try and comfort her as if she were some wild bird he could charm to his hand.

Perhaps her refusal to scream appealed to his sympathies. She’d made no sound since he’d stepped out from the trees, only fought him with determination and silence.

Then again, perhaps she couldn’t say anything. Bundled as she was, with her head bobbing beside the horse’s belly, he couldn’t see her face, and he began to wonder if she could breathe properly. Leaning down, he groped for her face, and those same strong teeth he had admired bit deep into his fingertips. He jerked his hand back with a grunt and an oath, shocked by her violence yet not truly surprised.

Hadn’t he compared her to a wild creature? His own carelessness was responsible for his pain, and he sucked the drop of blood from his skin and then tucked his hand into his armpit to warm it.

Her breath froze as she panted harshly, the sound rending the still air. Scratched from the sky by bare, ice-tipped branches, the snow sifted down relentlessly, filling the spaces between the dried leaves with a thin layer of white. Damn, it was cold, and getting colder by the moment. “We’ll be there soon,” he said aloud, and held her firmly as his promise brought renewed strife.

He topped the hill, and the blast of frigid air snatched his breath away. Here the threatening bliz
zard threatened no more. It was reality, and the world disintegrated into a narrow, white passage that opened as they moved through and closed behind them. The woodcutter’s hut stood not far ahead, yet he worried about the lady, now rigid where she lay over the horse. He leaned over her to give her all his body warmth and peered ahead.

Dug into the hill, the hut had proved a godsend for him, providing a stock of fuel for warmth and a store of dried foods. Traveller’s provender, he’d guessed, provided by Lady Juliana of Lofts and used by him for her abduction.

“Just a few more steps, my lady.” His breath froze on the muffler before his mouth, but he thought it fair to warn her since she seemed so averse to his touch. Sliding out of the saddle, he pulled her down. She tried to stand; her legs collapsed, whether from cold or fear he didn’t know. Like a bear with a haunch of venison, he dragged her along and swung wide the door. “We’re here,” he said unnecessarily. “I’ll stable my horse close by the door. The fire’s just beyond. If you’ll sit on the straw until I can carry you in there…”

Her wide eyes glistened in the dim light as he dropped the bar, then she bolted into the little room beyond. Through the slats of the feeding pen, he watched as she frantically paced the length of the tiny room.

A fire burned in a pit in the middle of the woodcutter’s shed. The smoke rose to a small hole in the thatch, melting the flakes as they drifted in. Drawn by the flames, she held her hands out and looked around, dazed. All the cracks in the walls had been stuffed with cloth, the window had been covered
with a blanket. A rough bed laden with furs stood in one corner and his gear lay in another. But the only door lay behind him, and she couldn’t reach that.

To give Juliana time to adjust to her surroundings, he took his time feeding and grooming the hardy gelding that had served him so well, but at last he could delay no more. “We’ll be cozy enough, my lady, to weather the storm here.”

She blinked away the snowflakes melting on her lashes and stared at him, and he wondered what she saw that made repugnance curl her lip so expressively. He was only a man, albeit a tall one. “You need to remove your damp clothes,” he said.

He expected her to try and run again, but she seemed hypnotized by him, treating him with the attention one might give to a ravenous bear. She flinched when he removed his cloak from around her, then her cloak, heavy with snow. Working the gloves off her hands, his gaze remained fixed on her face, wondering what lay beneath the overhanging hood and the drooping muffler.

This woman he would spend the rest of his life with, and he was torn. Since the day King Henry gave her to him, Raymond had wondered what she looked like. Now he would see her, but what would a few more moments matter?

Her shivering calmed his brief cowardice. As he untied the hood and unwrapped the muffler, he realized she was more than just young and healthy.

Not a pruny widow at all. Not an invalid, not a whining witch. This Lady Juliana was smooth-skinned, tall, and fair. Not beautiful, although as low as his expectations had been, he might have thought so. Wisps of burnished copper hair escaped her hat
and waved around her forehead. Her lips were too full for her thin face, sculptured as it was by high cheekbones and square jaw. Her vividly blue eyes slanted up at the corners, but they never blinked. She didn’t want him undressing her or rubbing her hands to bring the circulation back. She projected an explicit message; this hut was a prison and he the lowest of gaolers.

Unwillingly, his pity stirred. Raymond of Avraché knew the sense of imprisonment too well.

“Your face is very white,” he said. A round, purple scar marred one cheek, also, but he didn’t mention that. “Are you frozen?”

She only stared, wary as a wolverine at bay.

“Your freckles float like tidbits of cinnamon on the clearest wine.” He lifted his hand to touch the fascinating specks, but she jerked her head aside. Prodded by her silence and her distaste, he queried, “You don’t want me touching you?” He reached out again. “Then tell me.”

She stumbled backward. “Nay!”

“Ah.” He relaxed. “You can speak. I wondered if we would ride out this blizzard in silence. Would you like me to build up the blaze?” Carrying wood to the fire pit, he stacked it in a pile beside him and knelt. “It’s going to be a bad storm, did you realize? Nay, of course not, you couldn’t have realized, or you wouldn’t have come out in such weather.” He glanced at her, pleased to see her creeping close. When his gaze touched her, she leaped back almost guiltily, and he turned back and fed the flames. “Surely a lady as exalted as you could send someone to the village to do your duties. You are Lady Juliana of Lofts, are you not?” She didn’t answer, and he swivelled toward her. “Are you not?”

She stood off to the side, closer to his woodpile but not so far he couldn’t touch her. He reached out his arm toward her, and she admitted, “Aye.”

His eyes narrowed against the smoke; he studied her tense figure and wondered what she planned. Her hands opened and closed on nothing; she stood braced for action. The brave girl looked like a squire before first battle, all nerves and anticipation. Slowly, he turned back to the flames. Listening to her every move, he chatted, “In sooth, ’tis good. You can say only ‘aye’ and ‘nay.’”

Behind him, a chunk of wood shifted, lifted.

“If a man must be trapped with a woman, what more could he desire than to be trapped with a silent one?” He waited, the hair on the back of his neck raising. He heard the faintest of indrawn breath. He twirled around, saw the log descending toward his head, and dove into her. The log smacked his shoulder so hard his arm went numb, then flew out of her grasp. Together they stumbled backward and sprawled onto the hard-packed ground. It knocked the breath out of her, but she’d almost knocked the brains out of him.

Although he understood desperation, he couldn’t help shouting, “What in the name of Saint Sebastian do you think you’re doing?”

His shout echoed in her ears. She shut her eyes and cringed away from the blow that would follow.

Nothing happened.

He lay on her, a motionless weight. He sighed and asked, “Are you hurt?”

She shook her head and opened her eyes a slit. A muffler left only his eyes and mouth exposed. He was watching her intently, trying to see more than she
wished to disclose. A woolen cap covered his head, black hair hanging ragged beneath it, but she knew she didn’t recognize those shoulders. He was a stranger, a man, one of the creatures she dreaded most. A shudder racked her. Sympathy deepened in his gaze, and somehow that brought a measure of courage back to her cowardly soul. She didn’t want his sympathy, and she rejected it even as another shudder shook her. “Get off.”

The corners of his eyes crinkled, and she knew he grinned at her. “Not only can you speak, you can give orders.”

“But can you obey?” she snapped.

He sobered, weighting his words with more significance than they deserved. “Indeed. I’m a well-trained monkey, didn’t you know?”

His bitterness confused her. He stood and shook his arm. He lifted it, twisted it, and when he was satisfied it would work, he said, “You’ve a fine swing, my lady.”

She stared up at him, trying to discern his features and his mood. Her gaze travelled down to his scuffed leather boots, up to the fine material of his cape, aging now, and she wondered at him. Her back against the wall, she scooted up until she had her feet under her. “What’s a monkey?”

His amusement returned. He extended his hand, demanding she take it, and said, “Come close to the fire where I can watch you, and I’ll explain.”

“Nay.”

Her lips had scarcely formed the word when in one giant step he stood next to her. She realized anew how tall he was, yet she had nowhere to move. Sensation was returning to her feet, and with it the
prickles of frostbite. Her teeth created a tapping noise that embarrassed her, but she couldn’t seem to stop.

“’Tis foolish to spite yourself. Come to the fire.”

Her teeth chattered even more, but she came, making a large circle around the proffered hand, afraid he would touch her if she didn’t obey.

As he intended. It irritated her that he knew so well how to manipulate her, like some conniving puppeteer with his doll. It irritated her more that he did it for her own protection, leaving her no room for rational objection.

“I’m betrothed to a man who’ll show you the color of your gullet for this.” The words burbled to her lips without thought, but she was glad when he looked alarmed.

“Betrothed? To whom?”

“To Geoffroi Jean Louis Raymond, Count of Avraché.”

“Ah.” He relaxed, and knelt to unwrap the frozen wool around her ankles. “Have you been betrothed for long?”

“Aye, over a year.”

“A reluctant suitor, then?”

“Nay! That is—we were betrothed by proxy in the king’s own court.”

“Yet you’re not wed?”

She shifted uncomfortably. “I was ill.”

He peered at her. “You don’t appear to be ill.”

“I was ill, then my children were ill.” He still looked politely incredulous. “Then it was winter, and ’tisn’t safe to cross the channel in the face of such gales. Then it was summer, and I couldn’t travel before the crops were in…”

She realized how ineffectual she sounded when he chuckled. “Ah, a reluctant bride. I trow the court found your hesitance most amusing.”

“Nay!” she protested in horror.

“And Henry, too, must have roared with laughter at the insult to Lord Avraché.”

“That would be most unfortunate. No insult was intended”—she said it in hopes of convincing him as well as herself—“for he’s a fierce warrior. A Crusader.”

“Crusaders are not necessarily fierce warriors, my lady. Some are snivelling cowards.” He busied himself with her shoes, lifting her feet to peel them off one by one.

She toppled and almost fell rather than grab him. At the last moment her dignity overcame her good sense, and she gripped his shoulder. Many layers of clothing lay between her fingers and his skin. Not even his body heat could penetrate the damp and cold which still enveloped him. Yet this was the first time she’d voluntarily touched a man in over three years.

This man couldn’t know that, but he’d coerced her by holding her off balance. If only he would look up, but he never removed his gaze from the toes he was unwrapping. Humble as a serf, she thought bitterly. As if this man could ever be humble. Every gesture, every tactic was planned and executed with forethought and intelligence. Aye, he’d known how much she feared his touch, and had forced her to touch him first.

Perhaps he wished to prove he was only flesh and blood, but she understood the danger of flesh-and-blood men. Oh, aye, she understood. Stroking the circular scar on her cheekbone, she protested, “My betrothed is not a snivelling coward. The Saracens captured him, and he escaped by stealing one of their own merchant ships and sailing it to Normandy.”

His hands were warm; her feet were cold. His hands were strong, yet he massaged each muscle as
skillfully as a healer and brought the blood rushing back.

“You shouldn’t believe everything you hear, my lady.”

“It’s true!” She should have been alarmed at his easy dismissal, but his amusement robbed the words of their menace, and she found herself offended instead.

“Indeed?”

“Aye, indeed.” She hopped a little, intent on convincing him. “King Henry sent me a letter informing me of my betrothal. In it, he described my betrothed and his history.”

Unimpressed, he asked only, “How did he describe your betrothed?”

BOOK: Castles in the Air
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