Authors: Traci E. Hall
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Western
“Pull back the covers.”
She did, and Nicholas took a knife from the pastry platter, sliced the base of his palm, and smeared the bottom sheet. “It’s done.”
Celestia watched his actions in silence, saying nothing at all when he walked out the door. Feeling like a giant ass, he added the latest sin to the others, wondering if Saint James even
the power to be so forgiving.
He thought the manor deserted, but then the loud snores of warriors sounded from the main hall. In the monastery he’d had his own small cell, a place where he could be alone with his thoughts. To read, or copy works. Until he’d sworn fealty to the baron and agreed to lead the caravan with the sacred relic of Saint James to King Richard in the Holy Land, he’d thought to live a simple life.
Perhaps to marry a woman of the land, who could be his helpmate. She would bear his children, plant and weed his garden, cook and sew and plow, if need be. He’d tell stories aloud after their evening meal. They’d be content. And if, in his very secret heart, he’d ever envisioned this woman who might stand by his side, for certes she had not looked like Celestia.
Petite to the point of daintiness, regal in her bearing. Nicholas couldn’t see her ankle-deep in oxen muck, following him as he plowed a spring garden. A chuckle broke free and he dropped his hand to his side. His life had changed much since he’d been that naïve young man. Now he knew the identity of his father. He had a keep of his own, men he couldn’t trust, and a wife he hadn’t chosen.
“What’s so merry this morning?”
“Lord Robert!” Nicholas looked up into the suspicious face of Celestia’s father.
“Where’s my daughter?”
“Upstairs, sir.” Uncomfortable with the man’s stare, Nicholas adjusted the tight sleeves of his tunic, keeping the scars covered. It wouldn’t do to make Lord Robert more of an enemy, and he owed the man much—even though pride was hard to swallow. “I don’t know how to thank you, Lord Montehue, for all of your kind gifts.” Nicholas set his jaw and continued, “I had but robes at the monastery, and just one left of those. I will repay you as soon as I am able.”
Lord Robert puffed out his barrel chest. “‘Tis nothing but a few tunics. I can’t have my Celestia marry a man with no clothes. Verily, the greatest gift I gave you was my daughter, and you’d best take care of her with your life’s last breath.” Lord Robert’s bushy blond brows came together as he scowled. “You and your father have given me no reason to trust nor like you, and would be to God that I knew why the baron insisted upon a hasty wedding. But know this—if my daughter comes to any harm under your watch, I will hunt you down and kill you myself, baron or no.”
Well said, Nicholas thought. He held the man’s gaze without flinching. “I will keep her best interests at heart, sir.”
Lord Robert exhaled and gave Nicholas a slap on the back with enough manly camaraderie to knock Nicholas forward a step. “Good. I agree that it would be safer traveling with one wagon, instead of two. It’s already done, and loaded with fresh provisions. Women. They can’t move into a new household without half of the old.” Robert pulled on his mustache, leading the way out a side door, which took them to the front of the manor. “The baron’s letter mentioned an injury?”
“Yes. How did you know I only wanted one wagon?”
“Deirdre told me, and you don’t question the women in this family. Crusader, eh?”
Nicholas kept going, confused. He’d been sleeping in front of the door; for certes he’d have noticed if Celestia had left the chamber. It was impossible.
“Did you see the king before you were brought down?”
The man was like a starving dog after a ham hock, but Nicholas refused to speak of his time as a prisoner. That was his shame alone, and one he could not share with another. He stepped faster.
“Petyr says that you were a hero! Escaping prison and making your way home from Tripoli. Where was that injury?”
Nicholas decided that he’d spent enough time alone with his father-in-law. “I never met King Richard. Neither the baron, nor Petyr, were there to judge if I was a hero.” His vision blurred with hot anger, but he tamped the beast down. “The wagon’s packed, you say? I’ll go hurry Celestia along so we can be off.” Nicholas walked away from Lord Robert’s probing with as much dignity, and speed, as he could.
He interrupted a flurry of activity. The bedsheet, with its telltale stain, was off the bed. Deirdre was crying and patting Celestia’s shoulder, while the grandmother, Lady Evianne, quirked a red brow in his direction before turning back to the maid. “Bess, do not forget Celestia’s embroidery hoop.”
“But, Gram,” the youngest girl said, “she doesn’t—”
“A lady has to keep her hands busy, Ela child. Do not argue. Oh, and Bess, tell Viola to get the spices from Cook. I had her prepare a few blends, just until …”
Ela snickered, and Nicholas wondered at the joke. “Until what?” he asked.
“Nicholas!” Deirdre cried at the sound of his voice, “my son, come and sit by me.”
Sitting down next to his sobbing mother-in-law didn’t seem wise, but he couldn’t ignore her order. He leaned over to give her the kiss of greeting, and she smacked his cheek. “There,” she said with a brilliant smile, “for causing my darling pain. But now! Welcome to the family.” With that, she burst into fresh tears.
Nicholas backed away, glancing at Celestia, who was biting her bottom lip. Galiana was outright laughing, her pretty eyes glittering with mirth. “Mother is very upset, this is all so sudden. And who but Celestia can soothe Mother’s migraines before they begin?”
He’d feared going insane, and God help him, there had been times when being crazy would have been easier than living with reality another day. Now that he was witnessing insanity with his own eyes, he had even more reason to fear it.
He turned away from the mayhem as he heard Petyr call his name.
“Pardon me,” Nicholas said quickly as he walked to the hall and peered out. “Petyr!” He lowered his voice, hoping that nobody had heard the momentary panic. “Petyr. Lord Robert says the wagon is already packed. Are the men ready?” He could not survive another round of tears and laughter and keep his wits.
“Yes. Cook has laid out bread and meat; we can eat and go over the map. I’m concerned with the stretch of woods between—”
“Hold.” Nicholas looked back into the room, where five pairs of feminine eyes stared expectantly at him. “Ladies? I must go.” Nicholas, unsure of what to do next, sent them a half bow and quickly urged Petyr away.
“Coward!” Lady Evianne called after Nicholas’s retreating figure. “Not that I blame him. Deirdre, your emotions go willy-nilly. I think you terrified the young man.”
Celestia finally released the laughter that she’d been holding in. “His expression when you welcomed him into the family was most amusing. But you need be kind to him, Mother.”
Deirdre wiped her eyes. “Aye, I’ve gained a son.”
“Mayhap.” Celestia jumped off the bed. Dressed for riding, she just needed her lightweight cloak and hood and she was ready to leave. True, she hadn’t wanted to wed, but since the marriage was to be annulled, it shouldn’t count against her when it came to losing her powers.
She’d have to ask Gram. Rather, she was embarking on a grand adventure before coming back home to Montehue Manor, possibly disgraced.
Besides, how could she let Nicholas sacrifice himself on her behalf, and then let him walk into danger, unaware? The man trusted nobody. It was up to her to save him.
She would prove that her gifts were God-sent, and then he could stop looking at her like she was the village idiot. Her stomach tightened. She much preferred when he looked at her like she was marzipan and chocolate and he had a sweet tooth.
She’d woken once, and found him stretched out on the floor, just as he’d said he would. It had been comforting to fall back asleep knowing she had her own gallant knight to protect her.
Celestia glanced around the corners of her room for any last small thing she might have missed.
“Mayhap?” Her grandmother tapped her on the shoulder. “That sounds mysterious.”
“I simply meant that one does not know what the future will bring.” Celestia peered beneath the bed one last time.
“Did you have another vision, ‘Tia?” Ela asked, her braids wound around her head like a crown.
“You’ve never had so many in a row. I was worried, but Mother said being married can bring on all kinds of maladies.” Galiana handed Celestia a corked bottle with a bow around it. “Did you remember any of it?”
“What’s this?” Celestia untied the bow. “You know how the visions can be, unclear or nonsensical. I am sure it was nerves, and nothing more,” she fibbed. If she told her family that Falcon Keep was swathed in danger, they would lock her in the dungeon infirmary and never let her go, despite what the baron could do.
She took the cork out and the trapped scent of orange and cinnamon, her very own fragrance designed by her talented sister, was released into the room. Her heavy heart lifted. “Gali, thank you! No one can make perfume like you. I thought you said there were no more oranges?”
“Cook found some at market three weeks ago and I’ve been hiding them ever since. I thought to give this to you at Christmas, but …” Galiana sniffed and blinked back tears.
Celestia reached up to hug her sister. “This will remind me of you and home whenever I open it.”
“No tears!” Deirdre pronounced, her arm slung around Ela’s waist. “‘Tis time for our last meal together as a family.” She started to cry again. “My oldest daughter, a woman, and leaving me. How can I stand it?”
“You will live, Deirdre,” Lady Evianne advised sagely. “I smell ham and toast, and I’m famished. Let us go before the men eat every last crumb.”
Celestia’s stomach rumbled, and she assured herself that it was from hunger and not apprehension over plunging into the unknown.
“Well before midday,” Forrester said with a straight face. “And we are on the road. Not quite the first blush of morning like ye’d hoped, eh?”
Petyr grunted, while Nicholas ignored the impertinent young knight. Trying to get these women done with their good-byes and out of the manor was enough to make him want to run back to the monastery, and forget all about revenge. Who needed a soul?
He tucked the canvas down over the back of the single wagon, his shoulders tight. Lord Robert had been more than generous with the household stuffs, and Nicholas added more guilt to the burden he already carried. Jesu, leading another caravan, with knights wearing the baron’s colors of blue and gold, was not something he’d ever thought to do again.
The toast and ham rumbled in his belly.
Nicholas continued down the line, checking the packhorses along the way. Horses. He didn’t recall having a horse, but he must have ridden something to get here—not that he remembered any of that. He turned back to Petyr. “Which horse is mine?”
Forrester, who had been standing next to Petyr, suddenly found the clouds of great interest. Petyr’s cheeks reddened beneath his beard as he gestured toward the sway-backed nag that Nicholas had passed by. “There.”
“That is my mount?” The toothless horse looked well used, and ready for pasture. A far cry from the stallion he’d ridden off to war on. What had he been thinking? “I had better walk, lest I kill her.”
Forrester pursed his lips and refused to meet Nicholas’s gaze. Petyr said defensively, “You were drunk, though you don’t remember, and wanted a poor beast that could carry you on your way to Spain in the most humble manner. You chose her.”
Nicholas coughed behind his hand. “I was drugged, Sir Petyr, and out of my mind, as well you know.” He was getting tired of looking the fool, but Fate was not finished with him yet. “If I thought she was good enough for Spain, then for certes, she should be good enough for Falcon Keep.”
The mare neighed obligingly before lifting her tail to piss. Forrester could hold his merriment no longer and burst out laughing until tears ran down his cheeks.
Nicholas stole a quick look at Celestia, who was leaning down from her glorious white mount and whispering in her father’s ear. Lord Robert looked over toward the nag and laughed as he waved to one of his squires. He whispered something to the man, who walked around to the Montehue stables.
The squire came back, leading a large brown stallion with a glossy chestnut mane. Lord Robert took the reins and said loudly, enjoying the moment, “Lord Nicholas! My daughter has asked that she be allowed to give you a wedding present. If it were up to me, I’d say to let that old nag carry you as far as she will before she falls over dead, but ‘Tia, she has a softer heart.”
Lord Robert handed the twin strips of leather to Nicholas. “Here’s your gift!” he said so all could hear. “Remember I will kill you if you hurt her in any way,” he whispered for Nicholas’s ears alone.
Nicholas tried to return the horse, but Lord Robert would not take it. “Celestia raised the stallion from a foal, when we all thought he’d die. Beasts or people, she heals them all. He is hers to give to whom she chooses.”
Embarrassed, Nicholas turned and sucked in his breath. The sun broke from behind a cloud, shining upon Celestia, who sat atop her mare as if she were one with it. She could be the mythical goddess Diana astride her white horse; all she lacked was a golden bow and arrow. Why, dear God, couldn’t she have been fat or plain? He didn’t want to think about his wife as if she was a desirable woman. He shouldn’t care that he preferred her hair long and flowing, as she had worn it last eve, to the tight braids she had now, coiled about her head.