Authors: Amanda Quick
“Aye.” Dunstan’s expression turned glum. “She certainly did not shrink and cower as she ought to have done. Mayhap the lady does not have very keen eyesight.”
“She was too busy attempting to bargain with me to notice that my patience was stretched thin.”
Dunstan’s mouth curved sourly. “I vow, that particular lady would not back down from the devil himself.”
“A most unusual female.”
“It has been my experience that women with red hair are invariably trouble. I met a red-haired wench once in a London tavern. She plied me with ale until I fell into her bed. When I awoke both she and my purse were gone.”
“I’ll try to remember to keep an eye on my money.”
“See that you do.”
Hugh smiled but said nothing. They both knew that watching over his money and accounts would pose no undue hardship. Hugh had a talent for business affairs. Few of his acquaintances could be bothered with such mundane
matters. They spent lavishly and depended upon the usual sources—ransoms, jousts, and, for those fortunate enough to possess land, income from poorly managed estates—to replenish their treasuries. Hugh preferred a more certain approach to securing his income.
Dunstan shook his head sadly. “‘Tis a pity that the trail of the green crystal has led to one such as this Lady Alice. No good will come of it.”
“I’ll grant that matters might have been simpler if she were more easily intimidated, but I am not yet certain that this is an unfortunate twist of events,” Hugh said slowly. “I have been thinking on this for the better part of the night. I see possibilities here, Dunstan. Interesting possibilities.”
“Then we are likely doomed,” Dunstan said philosophically. “Trouble always finds us when you do too much thinking on a problem.”
“You will note that her eyes are green.”
“Are they?” Dunstan scowled. “I cannot say that I happened to notice the color of her eyes. The red hair seemed an ill enough omen to me.”
“A very distinctive shade of green.”
“Like those of a cat, do you mean?”
“Or those of a fey, elfin princess.”
“Worse and worse. Elves practice a very slippery sort of magic.” Dunstan grimaced. “I do not envy you having to deal with a flame-haired, green-eyed little shrew.”
“As it happens, I have recently discovered that I like red hair and green eyes.”
“Bah. You’ve always preferred dark-haired, dark-eyed women. Lady Alice is not even particularly beautiful, in my opinion. You’re taken with her rare boldness, that’s all. You’re amused by the courage she showed in challenging you.”
“‘Tis nothing more than a passing novelty, my lord,” Dunstan assured him. “‘Twill soon pass, just as does the sore head one gets from drinking too much wine.”
“She knows how to manage a household,” Hugh continued thoughtfully. “That banquet she arranged last night would have done credit to a great baron’s wife. It could
have been served in any noble hall. I have need of someone who can organize a household with such skill.”
Dunstan began to look alarmed. “What the devil are you saying? Think of her tongue, my lord. ‘Twas as sharp as my dagger.”
“Her manners, when she chose to display them, were those of a great lady. Seldom have I witnessed a more graceful curtsy. A man would be proud to have her entertain his guests.”
“From what I saw last night and from all the gossip I have heard since we got here, I have the impression that she does not choose to display those pretty manners very often,” Dunstan said quickly.
“She is old enough to know what she is doing. I am not dealing with some dewy-eyed innocent who must be protected and cosseted.”
Dunstan’s head snapped around, his eyes widening in surprise. “By Saint Osyth’s teeth, you cannot be serious.”
“Why not? After I recover the green crystal, I am going to be extremely busy. There is a great deal of work to be done on Scarcliffe. Not only must I see to the problems of my new lands, but the old keep must be set to rights.”
“Nay, my lord.” Dunstan looked as though he were strangling on a bite of meat pie. “If you are about to suggest what I think you are about to suggest, I beg you to reconsider.”
“She is obviously well trained in the art of household management. You know that I have always abided by the basic principle that it pays to employ skilled experts, Dunstan.”
“That principle may have served you well when it came to selecting stewards, blacksmiths, and weavers, my lord, but you are talking about a
“So? Blood of the devil, Dunstan, I’m a knight by trade. I do not have any notion of how to organize a household and neither do you. I have never even stepped foot inside a kitchen. I am not entirely certain what goes on in such a place.”
“What has that got to do with anything?”
“A great deal, if I am to eat well. And I do enjoy good food.”
“Aye, that’s a fact. No offense, sir, but to my mind you’re too choosy by far when it comes to your fodder. Don’t know why you cannot be satisfied with plain roast mutton and good ale.”
“Because a diet of roast mutton and ale grows boring after a time,” Hugh said impatiently. “In addition to the business of good meals, there are other matters of import involved in a household. A thousand of them. Halls and chambers must be cleaned. Garderobes must be washed. Bedding must be aired. Servants must be supervised. And how does one go about getting a fine, fresh scent in one’s clothing?”
“I am seldom concerned with that particular problem, myself.”
Hugh ignored him. “In short, I want Scarcliffe Keep to be properly managed and that means I require an expert, just as I do in my various business affairs. I require a lady who has been properly trained to manage a large household.”
A vision of his future danced before Hugh’s eyes. He wanted a comfortable hall of his own. He wanted to be able to sit at the head table under his own canopy and dine on well-seasoned dishes. He wanted to sleep in clean sheets and bathe in scented water. Most of all, he wished to entertain his liege lord, Erasmus of Thornewood, in a manner befitting his station.
That last thought dimmed the luster of the vision. Erasmus had not looked at all well six weeks ago when Hugh had been summoned into his audience chamber to receive the fief of Scarcliffe. It was clear that Erasmus had lost weight. There was a tense, pinched look about his features and a melancholic expression in his eyes. Erasmus had started at every small sound. Hugh had been greatly alarmed. He had asked Erasmus if he was ill. Erasmus had refused to discuss the subject.
On his way out of Erasmus’s keep, Hugh had heard the rumors. He learned that doctors had been summoned and had left muttering about an illness of the pulse and heart. Hugh had no faith in doctors, but in this instance he was worried.
“My lord, I am certain that you can find another lady
far more suited to the task of being your wife than this one,” Dunstan said desperately.
“Mayhap, but I do not have the time to spare to search for her. I will not have an opportunity to hunt for another wife until next spring. I do not wish to make camp in Scarcliffe Keep in its present condition for the entire winter. I want a proper hall.”
“’Twill be so efficient and convenient, Dunstan. Think of it. I have explained to you that recovering the crystal will go a long way toward reassuring the people of Scarcliffe that I am their rightful lord. Pray consider how much more I might impress them if I actually return to my new lands with a wife.”
“Only think of what you are saying, my lord.”
Hugh smiled with satisfaction. “‘Twill win them all to me for certain. They will see at once that I plan a future among them. ‘Twill give them confidence in their own future. Tis their hearts and their confidence I must have if I am to make Scarcliffe plump and prosperous, Dunstan.”
“I’ll not deny it, but you would do well to find some other female. I do not like the look of this one and that is the honest truth.”
“I will admit that, at first glance, Lady Alice does not appear to be the most amenable and tractable of females.”
“I am pleased that you noticed that much,” Dunstan muttered.
“Nevertheless,” Hugh continued, “she possesses intelligence and she is well past that frivolous stage that seems to overtake all young ladies.”
“Aye, and she is no doubt well past a few other things also.”
Hugh narrowed his eyes. “Are you implying that she is no longer a virgin?”
“I would only remind you that Lady Alice is of a decidedly bold nature,” Dunstan mumbled. “Not exactly the shy, blushing, unopened rosebud, my lord.”
“Aye.” Hugh frowned.
“Red hair and green eyes indicate strong passions, sir. You witnessed her temper last night. She has no doubt
indulged other strong emotions from time to time. She is three and twenty, after all.”
“Hmm.” Hugh considered Dunstan’s words. “She is clearly of an intellectual nature. No doubt she has known some curiosity about such matters. She would have been discreet, however.”
“One can only hope.”
Hugh shook off any reservations Dunstan had given him. “I feel certain that she and I will deal well enough together.”
Dunstan groaned. “What in the name of the devil gives you that impression?”
“I told you, she is an intelligent woman.”
“A surplus of intelligence and learning only serves to make females more difficult, if you ask me.”
“I believe she and I can come to terms,” Hugh said. “Being intelligent, she will learn quickly.”
“And, pray, just what will she learn?” Dunstan demanded.
“That I possess some wit myself.” Hugh smiled fleetingly. “And doubtless a good deal more will and determination than she can possibly command.”
“If you would deal with Lady Alice, I’d advise you first to demonstrate to her that you are vastly more dangerous than she presently believes you to be.”
“I shall use whatever stratagem seems most appropriate.”
“I do not like this, my lord.”
“I am aware of that.”
Dunstan spat over the edge of the wall again. “I can see there is no point trying to reason with you. This business of securing your new lands is turning out to be somewhat more difficult than you had anticipated, is it not?”
“Aye,” Hugh agreed. “But that state of affairs seems to be my lot in life. I have grown accustomed to it.”
“True enough. Nothing seems to come easy, does it? You’d think the Saints would take pity on us once in a while.”
“I will do whatever I must to hold on to Scarcliffe, Dunstan.”
“I do not doubt that. All I ask, my lord, is that you use
some caution in your dealings with Lady Alice. Something tells me that even the stoutest of knights could easily come to a bad end around her.”
Hugh nodded to indicate that he had taken heed of the warning but he silently consigned it to the nether regions. This morning he would strike his bargain with the mysterious and unpredictable Lady Alice. He fully intended that the lady, for all her clever ways and proud airs, would discover that she had gotten more than she had expected.
Last night, sensing that he might be up against a more wily adversary than he had first anticipated, Hugh had announced to the crowded hall that he did not do business in public. He had told Alice that he would discuss the bargain alone with her today.
In truth he had postponed the negotiations because he had wanted time to contemplate this new knot in what had become an exceedingly tangled skein.
Hugh reflected that he had received several dire warnings during the course of this venture. But no one had warned him about Alice.
The first clue to her nature had come early in the evening when her uncle had heaved a long-suffering sigh at the mention of her name. The lady, it seemed, was a great trial to Ralf.
Based on what little he had learned, Hugh had expected to find himself dealing with a bitter, petulant spinster possessed of a tongue that could flay a man alive. The only part of the description that proved to be accurate was the bit about her tongue. It was clear that Alice did not hesitate to speak her mind.
Her bold speech aside, the woman who had confronted him in the hall last night had been quite different from the one Ralf had described.
Alice was not bitter, Hugh realized at once. She was determined. He recognized the difference immediately. She was not petulant, she was strong-minded and no doubt a good deal more intelligent than those around her. A difficult woman, mayhap, but definitely an interesting one.
From Ralf’s description of his niece, Hugh had expected to find himself confronting a towering creature constructed along the same lines as his war-horse.
He had been in for a surprise.
Lady Alice was very slender and elegantly graceful. There was naught about her to remind him of his war-horse. Her long green gown had skimmed the curves of her supple body, hinting at breasts the size of ripe peaches, a tiny waist, and lushly rounded hips.
Dunstan was correct on one count, Hugh acknowledged. There was certainly sufficient fire in Alice to burn any man and it started with her hair. The flame-colored tresses had been bound in a sparkling gold net that had gleamed in the glow of the hearth.
Her face was fine-boned with a firm nose, a forceful little jaw, and an expressive mouth. Her eyes were huge. They tilted slightly upward at the corners. Delicate red brows arched provocatively above them. Pride and spirit were evident in the set of her shoulders and the angle of her chin. She was a woman who drew a man’s gaze not because she was beautiful, although she was far from plain, but because she compelled attention.
Alice was not a woman to be ignored.
If she was embittered at finding herself unwed at the age of three and twenty as Ralf had indicated, Hugh saw no evidence of it. Indeed, he had a strong suspicion that she enjoyed not having to answer to a husband, a fact that might pose a small problem for him. But Hugh considered himself adept at solving problems.
“Lady Alice wishes to bargain with you,” Dunstan said. “What do you think she seeks in exchange for helping you find the green stone?”
“Mayhap some books,” Hugh said absently. “According to her uncle, she is very fond of them.”