Excerpt: Secret Vows

Secret Vows

Please note: the Prologue and Epilogue ONLY are in 1st person point of view. The remainder of the novel is in traditional 3rd person point of view.

Prologue

The Year of Our Lord 1233

 I am Catherine of Somerset. A woman without place or time. A woman, God help me, without hope.

From my earliest memory, my self-awareness mingled with a keen sense of disappointment. I possessed many flaws, and I was reminded of them often. Of these, my physical appearance proved most displeasing for my prosperous family, for I failed to fit the delicate, pale ideal of beauty for women in my world. I grew tall – as tall as some men. My hair was plain brown and of a texture that resisted the taming effect of comb and circlet, while my cheeks remained as rosy as a field peasant’s no matter how I was sheltered. I was doomed to be corrected for this and my many other inadequacies.

When I was sixteen, Father managed to rid himself of me. He found a man of title willing to take me as a wife, if only for the offering of a sizeable dower. Father begrudged me that allotment, claiming he would have been the one receiving payment and goods if only I was beautiful.

It was naught but exchanging one brutal man for another, though the burden increased in that my new husband owned the right to use my body for his pleasures. Still, I considered myself fortunate to have escaped my father’s household. To have made a fresh start, even if it was with a man who showed little care of me.

Within a year of my union to Baron Geoffrey de Montfort, God blessed me with the birth of twins, a boy and a girl as fair and bright as the sun itself. I named them Ian and Isabel, and I lived the next years waking and breathing each day only for them. My darlings grew strong and healthy, with none of the coarse attributes for which I had been condemned all of my life.

The year they turned seven was the most difficult I had known since their birth. I felt as if I had lost my reason for living. As was customary, Geoffrey had begun to search for a proper family with which to foster the twins, to help Ian learn the skills of a page and for Isabel to study needlework, writing, and household management. But to spite me, since he knew the love I bore them, Geoffrey chose to foster my babes far from us. It was a three days ride to reach them, and since he rarely allowed me free movement off of our estate, I saw but little of my children that first year.

I thought my heart would break from grief. I pined for the sight of their faces and the smiles that would light them when they saw me. I longed to feel the sweet caress of their breath on my neck as I carried them to their beds of an evening. Now all was vacant and barren. Their beds were cold, and I would huddle alone in their chamber, empty and lost.

But God showed me his mercy, yet again, in a way I never would have dared to pray for. Geoffrey returned from one of his jaunts to London shivering with a fever. In little more than two weeks he had died of the ague. For the first time I was free to make choices regarding my children’s well-being. A day later I was readying to send for the twins to bring them home at least for a while, when my husband’s younger brother, the fierce warrior Baron Eduard de Montford – a High Champion of the king – arrived, bringing with him his gentle sister Elise and an entire garrison of men. He had thought to visit his brother’s sick-bed but instead served as a witness to Geoffrey’s funeral Mass and burial.

By the following day, I was glad I had not acted too quickly to bring my babes home. If those innocent children had found Elise, as I did…I shudder when I think of the possibility. I walked into her chamber two morns after Geoffrey’s funeral, intending to wake her to accompany me to vespers. Instead of seeing the delicate young woman sleeping in her bed, I found a corpse, dangling from a sash tied to the bedpost.

It was not long I would need wait to learn why Elise had chosen so desperate a path. Eduard heard my scream and rushed in. He helped me to cut the sash and together we lowered the body. Then he sent me to my chambers with a sleeping powder to calm me. When I awoke, my chamber door was bolted, and none would answer my calls.

Eduard came in later and told me of his wicked plan. He had already primed Elise with beatings and threats to make her do his bidding, but she had escaped his plots with her desperate act. That left him with no other option but to find a replacement for her.

To my everlasting misery, he chose to use me.

Sickness and shock overwhelmed me upon hearing his scheme. I tried to tell myself that he played a perverse jest: that as Geoffrey’s brother, he too relished tormenting women. He showed himself more than his brother’s equal in one respect; when I refused to take part in his plans, he beat me savagely.

Eduard was a champion warrior for the king – a tall and physically powerful man; it took two days for me to rise from my bed after that first beating, and yet he came again and again, trying to coerce me to take part in his evil. Each time I refused, the beating was repeated, until I began to tremble every time the door opened.

He never would have gained my consent, no matter what the physical cost to me, had he not used the one weapon he knew I could not bear. He gave me a choice – either I would help him, or he would kill my children, his own niece and nephew.

I begged him, pleaded on my knees…but he only laughed. Though I hated him and would have done anything I could to thwart him, I knew then that I had no real choice. I did not possess the luxury of escaping as Elise had. My children’s safety depended upon my cooperation.

And so I said yes. Yes, I would help Eduard achieve his unholy ambitions. Heaven help me, but I would do what he commanded in order to save my innocent children from destruction.

May God have mercy on my eternal soul and the soul of the one who must die because of me.

 

Chapter One

Ravenslock Castle, Wiltshire

It was but the first step toward damnation.

Catherine swallowed the nausea that rose in her throat and forced herself to stand stiff in the entrance to the chapel. She shut her eyes against the sun’s glare, murmuring a prayer that the customary head-veil she wore would continue to hide her feelings from any that looked on her. But though the sheer fabric covering her face might mask her guilt from the world, she knew that nothing could stop the horrible truth from piercing deep into her own soul.

In a few moments she was going to pledge herself in holy wedlock to the man she had promised to help murder.

Revulsion washed over her again, and she swayed into a cool stone pillar, squirming at the trickle of sweat that made its way down her spine. Her amethyst kirtle clung to her in sticky folds, worsened by the day’s heat. It was stifling for September and undoubtedly a sign from God – a taste of the hellfire she was sure to suffer for the mortal sin she was about to commit.

“Damn you, Catherine,” Eduard murmured into her ear. “If you faint on me now, I vow to make you sincerely regret it.” He grasped her elbow and hauled her to a standing position.

The movement made her wince. Every inch of her body ached from the abuse he had lavished on her in the past weeks, compounded by the wrenching pain she felt in knowing that she would never see her children again, never hold them close in her embrace. Thanks to Eduard, the twins thought her dead, and that truth had cut her even more fiercely than any of his beatings. She had wanted to die from it alone. But she could not. He had made certain she knew the deadly consequences of changing her mind. If she refused to complete his plan, her children would suffer what she did, only worse, before he killed them.

The message had not been lost on her.

“I am not going to faint, Eduard. I just need some water.”

He grunted in response, but soon a cup of metallic tasting liquid was pressed into her hand. When she finished, she handed the empty vessel back to him.

“Are you ready now?” he demanded.

Catherine nodded, feeling too sick to hazard an answer. She had to save all of her strength for her vows; she knew it would take every ounce of reserve she possessed to utter their blasphemy without choking.

Vaguely, she felt the pressure of Eduard’s hand on her arm as they walked into the main portion of the chapel. The layers of fine gauze covering her face allowed her to see what was before her. The priest stood in his accustomed place below the altar steps, his hands folded in solemn piety as he awaited her arrival to the ceremony.

Almost against her will, Catherine swept her gaze over the other occupants of the chapel. Four score guests whispered and craned their necks for a better view. Apart from them, all that remained were two men who waited high on the altar behind the priest. The first was older and dressed in servant’s garb, the second a man who appeared to be about a score and ten, outfitted as a knight of the realm.

He, then, must be her groom, she thought. Bewilderment clouded her already weary mind. He hardly seemed foreboding. Eduard had warned her of her future husband’s vicious reputation, wanting to prepare her for what she would face so that she would not be distracted by undue fear when it came time to bed him and ultimately clear the way for Eduard’s hireling to kill him. If she had not dreaded another beating, she would have laughed at such skewed reasoning. It had seemed ridiculous that helping to murder someone could ever be made easier, regardless of what one knew about the victim beforehand. But she had remained silent in her opinion.

Now she wondered why Eduard had bothered to tell her aught about her betrothed. It was clear that he had exaggerated in his description of Baron Grayson de Camville’s powerful stature and warlike demeanor. This man was tall, and he looked sturdy, with fair skin and hair the color of wheat. But he was no fearsome warrior. She wondered if Eduard’s hatred of his rival was so great that it had made him see attributes that were not there.

Until a third man strode out onto the altar and turned his face toward them.

Catherine gasped audibly before stumbling into Eduard. He let out a curse and managed to right both of them before they could fall onto the marble aisle of the chapel.

“By all that is holy, Eduard,” she whispered, almost choking on the words, “With all else that you told me about this man, why did you fail to mention this?”

“Silence,” he said through grated teeth, “I will not have you botching our plans now.”

She moved without thinking as he pulled her the remaining paces to the altar, unable to drag her gaze from Baron Grayson de Camville. He was indeed the epitome of a fierce warrior knight, taller by half a head than Eduard, even, and carved from what appeared to be perfectly sculpted muscle and bone. But what her odious brother-in-law had neglected to tell her was that her future husband possessed the face of an angel, so stunning that were it not for his utterly masculine presence and the way his mouth tightened into a grim line, she might have thought him one of heaven’s messengers, sent by God to save her from Eduard’s plotting.

The buzzing in her ears slowly gave way to an annoying sound. Gradually, the noise needled and poked at her, until she turned her attention to the nasal voice. It bleated a name, over and over, and her stunned mind suddenly realized its error in failing to respond.

“Elise de Montford?”

Worried that her silence might have exposed her falsity, Catherine quickly looked to the priest who had been repeating her newly assumed name. He seemed to be waiting for an answer, and he was beginning to appear impatient. She hesitated to affirm the lie, but then her hand was gripped none too gently by a warm, immovable grasp. Another gasp passed her lips, and her gaze snapped to the man who had touched her so possessively.

Grayson de Camville’s smoky green eyes stared down into her own; he blinked, and she noticed how the sooty fringe of lashes accentuated their unusual hue. Looking into their depths made her feel hot and cold at the same time. His eyes were the color of a misty forest at twilight, his bronzed complexion and coal-dark hair only adding to his startling beauty. She would have continued to stare at him, but at that moment a corner of his mouth edged upward, in perfect time with one dark, arching brow. “My lady?” he murmured in French that was as flawless as his face.

Catherine found it very difficult, suddenly, to breathe.

“Yes?” she managed to whisper.

“The Holy Father attends your answer.”

A shiver progressed up her back. Calm yourself. He is naught but a man – a man who will be murdered thanks to you. That thought sent a fist of nausea into her belly, and it was all she could do to breathe the appropriate words when the priest asked them of her.

When her betrothed faced the assembly and made the traditional vow granting a third of his estate to her, Eduard caught her gaze. For the first time in a week, her loathsome brother-in-law smiled.

Stealing a glance back at her groom, Catherine saw that he looked calm and expressionless. How did he feel about this union with her? Was he anticipating a long life of happiness and peace with a loyal wife?

The evil of what she was doing settled home in her soul with renewed vengeance. She clasped her hands so tightly together that the crescents of her nails began to bite into her flesh. She stopped when she realized that her reaction had drawn Grayson’s attention. He had shifted his gaze to stare at her, and she saw that his reserved expression changed to a look of concern that sent daggers of guilt into her heart.

By the Holy Virgin, how could she ever bring herself to aid in his murder?

And yet with her children’s lives at stake, how could she not?

That terrible choice reverberated through her soul during the remainder of the interminably long mass. Somehow, she kept her wits and her feet until the end of the ceremony. She had almost breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that she would soon be allowed to sit in relative peace, when her new husband grasped both of her shoulders and turned her to face him.

She froze. Panic spread through her as he began to lift her veil, and she realized that she had forgotten about the kiss to seal their union. A whisper of breeze caressed her face as the gauze was pulled away. Blinking, Catherine looked up. For the first time, she stared directly into the angelic eyes of the man who was now her lord husband. Then her knees lost their substance as he fixed her with a stormy glare.

“Sweet Jesu,” he growled softly, “what the hell have I gotten myself into now?”

#

Grayson willed himself not to crush the goblet he held. He stood in his solar off of the great hall, staring at the water in his cup and fervently wishing he had not taken the vow years ago to forsake strong drink.

He still did not know how he had made it to the finish of his wedding ceremony. Somehow he had even managed to walk from the chapel to the castle’s main chamber, where happy feasting was already under way. But from the moment he had lifted his new wife’s veil, he had lost any desire he might have had to celebrate.

“I do not know what else to say, but that I am sorry,” Alban murmured, taking a step further into the chamber. Gray met his friend’s gaze. Their shared history, the blood they had shed for each other’s sake in the Crusade, was the only thing making this turn of events a little more bearable.

“I did my best when you sent me ahead to seek information about her. But Montford kept her so secluded within the keep, it was impossible for me to gain an audience with her. I told you the only information I could gather from the people of the village. They described Elise de Montford as small and fair-haired. One of the villeins even likened her to a tiny sparrow.”

Gray choked back a laugh. “Was the poor wretch blind as well as addled?”

“After having seen her myself, I would have to say he was, though he appeared as sound of mind and body as either of us.”

Gray’s mouth stiffened, and he felt a muscle in his jaw twitch. “Aye, well my wife is more akin to a warrior queen than a sparrow. She barely needed to lift her eyes to meet my gaze. And that face…”

His fist clenched as the image of her came to him again, lush and vibrant. Her unusual appearance had struck him like a blow to the chest. She was tall and solemn, her midnight blue eyes staring up at him, her face framed in rich brown waves that spilled from her circlet to fall below her waist.

“Damn Montford. The bastard played another farce, allowing me to think her a pale and delicate Court beauty.”

“He is more the fool then,” Alban said. “You have never cared for the fashions of Court, especially when it comes to women.”

“Aye, and yet I still lose. You of all people know why. God help me, but Elise de Montford is all that I vowed never to touch. Never again.”

Alban shook his head. “Let it go, Gray. You have served penance long enough. Accept your lady wife for the boon she is and move forward.”

Swallowing his retort, Gray reminded himself that his friend saw the world through clear eyes. Sir Alban Warton had no sin to hide, no rage churning relentlessly in his breast.

He clenched his jaw and looked away, glancing around the richly appointed solar of Ravenslock Castle – his castle – the most grand of the many strongholds he had won through bludgeoning opponents in countless battles and tournaments for King Henry. He had worked hard for all he had gained. Spilling his blood was but a small part of what he had suffered in the past seventeen years. He had gone through hell and back before managing to earn this measure of success and prosperity.

And yet for all of his efforts, for all of his sacrifice, it had all almost slipped through his fingers only a few months ago. He had almost lost everything, thanks to his new bastard of a brother-in-law.

As another of King Henry’s champions, Montford had envied Gray’s success. He had wanted the same rewards, the same honors as Gray, whether he deserved them or not. And so to bring him down, Montford had ferreted out and exposed Gray’s darkest secret. He had told everyone at Court that Gray had killed his own twin sister nearly two decades ago – that he had murdered his own sweet Grace.

Gray breathed in sharply, the pain of Grace’s death still aching, even now. Montford’s accusation had merely piled shame atop his misery, because he could not deny it. Not in essence, anyway. It was true. He, Baron Grayson de Camville, King Henry’s High Champion on the field of honor, justice and truth, had been culpable in his own sister’s death.

Eduard’s public accusation had disgraced him. It had pushed him to the brink of personal disaster. But it had also sparked volatile disputes at Court. Sides had been chosen and alliances made, lighting the wick to political unrest that had threatened to lead England’s barons into Civil War.

Peace had finally been restored by the king, but not without a price…and Gray had paid it today in his marriage to Elise de Montford – the all too tempting sister of the wretch who had tried to destroy him.

He cursed aloud. “I cannot do it, Alban. I cannot stay bound to her. I was a fool to think I could.” Gray walked to the end of the heavy table, searching beneath its edge to retrieve the silken pouch with its iron key. Pushing aside the tapestry on the wall, he exposed the door that would lead him into the tilting yard and away from the rage and the agonizing memories that haunted him. “I will seek an annulment.”

“No you will not. There is too much at stake,” Alban said. “King Henry commanded this union, and if you deny it now, you will only awaken his wrath anew, which at the very least will mean losing your chance to be appointed Sheriff of Cheltenham come Christmastide.”

That undeniable fact sank into Gray’s bones with the swiftness of an executioner’s blade. Alban seemed not to notice. Looking away he added, “Of course if you no longer wish to gain that position or any others that might come along—”

“You know I do.” Gray leaned against the door. His head ached, and his shoulders tightened until it seemed as if his muscles must shred from his bones. Christ, why could he not quench this constant need? Why could he not be satisfied with what he had already gained? But he could not rest. He craved more power, more influence, more security, like his body thirsted for water or air. And he knew that when it came down to it, he would do anything necessary to achieve his purpose.

Right now that meant being married to Elise de Montford.

Gray cursed softly again. “You know what this will mean, Alban. I am not made of stone.”

His friend did not reply at first, but his quiet expression told him more than words ever could. “It might not be so bad,” Alban offered. “It is not as if you need to fall in love with her to enjoy her. I know of many men who see their wives seldom at best. They needs only be alone with them when they wish to, ah…” Alban’s face reddened, and he coughed. “Well, what I mean to say is that you need only forsake your privacy when you wish to get heirs on her.”

Get heirs on her? Gray fisted his hands as tight as the knots in his stomach. God’s bones, he would not allow himself to think that far ahead.

After Grace had died, he had known that he was not worthy to bear the responsibility of being any child’s sire. He did not want to be a husband, either, especially not to the bewitching creature who was his rival’s sister, but it appeared that he would have no choice in the matter. Not unless he wanted to risk losing all he had worked so hard to gain.

“Damnation,” he muttered, running his hands through his hair. When his arms fell to his sides, it was with a sense of defeat greater than any he had ever known on the battlefield. It was no one’s fault but his own. He had gotten into this mess by himself. He and his damned ambition. If he had done as instinct had prompted, if he had stood firm and refused the king’s outrageous plan for peace from the start, he would not be in this chamber, drinking water like a parched sea sponge and avoiding a woman.

A woman who now shared his name and his life.

With a growl of frustration, Gray picked up his empty goblet and hurled it against the wall, not caring that the emerald-encrusted vessel would be ruined from the impact. It was inescapable. With or without his liking, his marriage to Elise de Montford was achieved, and he needed to accept it.

Bitterness gripped his innards. Striding to the door that connected to the great hall, Gray swung it open and scattered several revelers who had been drifting past. Then he gestured to the opening with a flourish, even as he mustered a sardonic smile. “Come, my friend, and accompany me. It can be postponed no longer. It is time for me to join my lady wife and celebrate the joy of our wedding day.”

#

Catherine watched Grayson emerge from the far end of the enormous hall, grim purpose etched in every sculpted line of his face. Without wanting to, she tensed, her hand tightening around her tiny silver cutting knife so that it gouged into the bread trencher in front of her. “Eduard,” she murmured. “What if he has discovered our deceit?”

Eduard leaned in, his whisper a sinister reminder of all she stood to lose if she failed in the task he had given her. “Control, Catherine. Do not let your weak-minded tendencies get the best of you. He knows nothing. It is impossible for him even to suspect.”

Despite that reassurance, Catherine could not suppress the shudder that rippled through her. Eduard made a sound of irritation. “Your constant quivering begins to wear on me, woman. It is not as if you are an untouched maid about to be deflowered.” Grasping her hand, he pushed it and the knife she held to the table. “Just do not fail to act that part when you join Camville in his bedchamber, or complications will arise that might be less than pleasant for you and your children.”

Catherine hid her reaction to his threat behind her wine goblet, swallowing some of the tart liquid before attempting to answer. “If you had have bothered to fully warn me about him beforehand, I might feel more prepared.”

But even as she spoke, she knew that nothing he could have said would have readied her for the impressive sight of Grayson de Camville. Still, she would touch hot coals before she would admit that or anything else to Eduard.

He shrugged. “I did not tell you, because I did not expect you to react like all of the other wenches who go aflutter with lust upon seeing him.” Pausing, he glanced across the hall. “But alas, poor Catherine. Your husband is quick approaching, and he does not seem likewise affected by your charms.”

Catherine pretended to ignore the jab. After almost eight years of marriage to Eduard’s brother, such remarks were to be expected. Every time Geoffrey de Montford had insulted her excessive height, every time he had cursed her, like her father before him because she was not dainty and pale like a true beauty, she had told herself that it did not matter. But it had. The constant debasement had hurt in a way that went as deep as the bruises he had periodically inflicted on her flesh; it had lodged an ache in her heart that refused to go away.

Taking a breath, she raised her gaze just in time to see her new husband halt directly in front of her. She struggled to adjust her expression, to appear pleased, as befit the bride of a successful man. It was an effort made possible only by thoughts of Isabel and Ian’s safety.

“My lord,” she managed to murmur, tilting her head with what she hoped was polite grace.

“Lady,” Gray responded, gazing at her for a brief moment. A shadow darkened his sea-mist eyes, and it sent a renewed stab into her heart. Eduard was right. Her lack of beauty disappointed her husband, and that meant she would be beaten for it later. She shuddered as she imagined the damage that this man’s hands could inflict on her.

“I trust that the feast meets your favor, lady?”

His solicitous question startled her. Geoffrey had never cared if she enjoyed a meal. He had usually been too drunk to notice. Twisting her fingers in her lap, Catherine murmured, “It looks superb, my lord. But I – I have not tasted of it yet.”

Gray scowled. “Why not?”

Catherine felt herself flush. “I thought it only fitting to wait for you, my lord.” She decided not to add that she possessed absolutely no appetite. Not with Eduard sitting at her elbow like one of hell’s gargoyles.

Her husband’s face revealed no change, though the shadow deepened in his eyes. He looked away. Finally he said, “It is not my custom to dine with women, and I cannot be expected to remember the niceties of such occasions.”

Waving his hand almost angrily, he gestured for someone to fill his goblet. A page darted forward with a cider pitcher, his young face stiff. The boy filled his master’s cup with a trembling hand, and Catherine felt a prick of sympathy. It seemed she was not the only person who feared the presence of Ravenslock’s Lord.

And so when her husband quaffed the contents of his cup and then reached out to affectionately ruffle the boy’s hair, it sent a thrill of shock through her. The feeling intensified when the boy grinned, his chest puffing out with pride and his grip steady as he refilled his lord’s cup again. Then he bowed and retreated to his place along the wall.

Without comment, Grayson stalked around the end of the banquet table, making his way to her on the dais. It was all she could do not to stare, so odd did his kindness seem in contrast to his outward appearance of a hardened warrior. She allowed herself to study Grayson as he strode nearer. She had not dwelt on much more than his face during their wedding, but now she took full measure of him. He was clearly as handsome in form as in face. For their wedding day, he had chosen elegant garments cut from fine, black cloth, with a cloak and tunic which bore an intricate design embroidered in emerald silk.

When he sat beside her, Catherine caught a faint scent of spice mixed with smoky leather; it tickled her senses, and she dared to turn and stare openly at him. She had rarely known men to smell good. Geoffrey, Eduard, Father – all had carried with them a scent that at its mildest could not be termed pleasant.

“Is something amiss, lady?” Grayson swung his gaze to her after she had been looking at him for far longer than she should have.

Her breath stuck in her throat. “Nay.” She felt her cheeks heat, her tongue tripping like a three-year’s child. “Nay, it is just—” The force of his attention unnerved her, though not in the same way that her father or other men she had known had frightened her. Of course they had usually followed their intimidation with a slap or blow, but that possibility seemed unlikely right now, considering that she and Grayson were newly married and in the presence of scores of wedding guests.

Glancing down at the table again, Catherine willed the shaking in her hands to cease. “It is just that you are – you are quite different from what I envisioned you to be.”

“As are you, lady. Very unlike what I was led to expect.” He paused, and she felt his gaze bore more deeply into her before flicking to Eduard, in the first direct look she had seen him give her odious brother-in-law all day. “I cannot help but wonder why I was so misled.”

Catherine’s stomach clenched, and Eduard coughed. She did not dare look at her husband to determine what he might have meant, or even if he was in earnest.

“Elise experiences many changeable moods, Camville. It is part of her nature. Hence, no two descriptions of her are completely like, even among those who know her best.” Eduard delivered his answer with smooth skill, leaning forward to pat her fingers as he spoke. It took all of her will not to snatch her hand from beneath his vile touch.

“I would prefer to hear your sister speak for herself.” Gray said coldly. Catherine’s shoulders hunched, and she slouched forward as she tried to make herself less noticeable.

“My lady, would you care to venture an opinion?” Gray continued to gaze at her, his soft tone belying the granite-hard demand behind his question.

“I – I do not know what it is that you wish me to say,” Catherine whispered, shrinking away from him as the knot in her stomach turned to nausea. It seemed she had been wrong to assume that the presence of wedding guests would shield her from a beating so soon. Eduard had said that Grayson was a monster, and judging from the leashed anger in her husband’s voice, it seemed increasingly certain that he was about to lash out at her now. She only hoped that he would not kill her with the power sure to be contained in a blow from his massive fist.

“All that I require is the truth as you see it,” Grayson answered evenly. “Nothing more or less.”

Catherine felt her stomach unknot a little; she hazarded a sidelong glance at her husband. He looked calm, his green eyes directed at her with a warm, penetrating expression.

Uncertainty assailed her; she felt as if she danced on the edge of a dangerous precipice, where a wrong answer might spell immediate, painful retribution. Grasping the only position of safety she could see – one that had been learned through years of suffering, Catherine murmured, “My opinion matters not, my lord. It is trivial, while your knowledge is what—”

“And yet I will have it,” Grayson insisted. “I am not accustomed to making requests more than once, lady; however, on the grounds that you know but little of me, I will ask you again. What is your view on why your own people gave descriptions of you that were so conflicting with your true appearance?”

Catherine flinched and looked to Eduard in desperation, more confused than ever about how to answer. Eduard’s gaze was flat, and the thought flashed through Catherine’s mind, then, of telling her husband the whole truth, so that Eduard could be detained and prevented from harming her children once the lie was revealed. But at that moment, Eduard lifted a tiny roasted starling from a platter on the table and snapped the delicate bird’s head from its neck. Then he blinked at her and licked his fingers.

Catherine’s idea fizzled to nothingness, doused by waves of fear. Eduard was not stupid. Even if Gray believed her tale of plots to kill him, her children would be doomed. Eduard always protected himself, down to the smallest detail, and he would have foreseen this possibility and prepared for it.

Her only salvation rested in concocting an answer that would sound plausible to her husband. What she had in mind meant demeaning herself, but considering the alternative, it was a small price to pay. Clearing her throat, Catherine shifted her gaze to Gray. “I am flattered that you wish my thoughts on the matter, my lord. In truth I believe that the contrary description you received of me arose from my peoples’ loyalty to me.”

Gray’s ebony brow arched in the same wicked way she remembered from the chapel. “Explain.” Though the word sounded conversational, nothing softened the severity of his command.

“As you wish.” Catherine flushed but met his gaze straight on, for once confident that the core of what she spoke, at least, would be the truth.

“My lack of attributes has long been acknowledged, my lord. My own father revealed that from infancy, it was clear to all that I would never achieve a state of feminine delicacy or beauty. It is a fact that I have learned to accept, though, apparently many of my people do not. In their desire to aid me in gaining a husband, it seems that they painted me in a much fairer light than I deserve.”

The heat burned so in her cheeks that she felt her face must ignite to flames. She looked away, finally, unable to bear Gray’s searching gaze longer, but glad that her humiliating speech was done. She had simply made use of the truth. Her tall, unfeminine stature and common attributes had been a source of shame for as long as she could remember. No man could be blamed for being disappointed when he looked upon her, and that was part of the reason, Father had assured her, that he, Geoffrey, or any other who held responsibility over her, found frequent occasion to beat her. She sighed and stared down at her hands, which she kept folded tightly in her lap.

Grayson studied his wife’s profile, uncertainty making him scowl. He had felt something soften in him at the resignation he had heard in her voice, and it warred with the hard shell of reserve he had erected around himself concerning this marriage. She had sounded so sincere. To his mind, no sane person could call her plain, and yet she had just bluntly declared it so. It was true she would never be a Court beauty, not with her impressive stature and vibrant coloring. But those same attributes also attracted Gray like no pale and delicate noblewoman ever would.

Why, then, did she belittle herself? So caught up was he in thoughts of her strange response, that he hardly noticed when Eduard stood up and excused himself from the table.

Narrowing his eyes, Gray twirled the stem of his goblet and gazed at his wife. A tiny bell went off in his mind, reminding him that he was not considering all that he knew of the fairer sex. By the time he had won his first tournament, he had been wise to women’s more subtle methods of entrapment, emotional or otherwise.

And his answer rested there, he decided. Like her brother, Elise toyed with him, only her game was in seeking compliments. Such banter was a form of intimacy, he knew, and of the kind that would lead to just the sort of emotional closeness he wanted to avoid establishing with his wife.

Gesturing for the serving boys to bring fresh platters of meats and delicacies to their table, Gray forced himself to turn his attention back to the feast. He would not fall for such a snare. Nay, he would do better spending his time in making the rest of the evening tolerable. Besides, he was surprised to discover that he was beginning to feel hungry.

He occupied himself with serving slices of capon in succulent gravy onto the trencher he shared with his wife, following it up with a generous helping of roasted pork and several flaky pastries stuffed with mincemeat and berries. Bypassing the whole swan, with its graceful neck, Gray chose portions of tiny sweet onion floating in butter. As a final thought, he heaped spoonfuls of spiced apples and peaches along the edge of their trencher.

Gray noticed that Elise sat still as a statue, pale now, while he arranged their food. However, her gaze kept drifting nervously to the arched doorway through which her brother had disappeared, as if she awaited his return. It annoyed Gray that she seemed unaware of how considerate he was being. She could not know, of course, that he had never allowed any woman to share his trencher, no less to serve her.

But Alban knew. His friend was seated across from them, not far down the table; Gray saw that from the moment he had begun selecting foods to share with his wife, Alban had paused mid-motion in his eating, his hand halfway to his mouth.

Gray cleared his throat and gave Alban a look that made clear he was to behave as if what he had just witnessed was commonplace. The awe-struck look faded from Alban’s face under the attack of a merry grin. His friend wasted no time in raising his cup in salute, nodding and calling for a drink to bless the union between the Lord of Ravenslock and his new bride.

When the entire hall followed suit, Elise looked as if she might faint. Now that he had spent some time with her, Gray noticed that she seemed rather timid. Almost roughly, he indicated that she should begin eating. Elise would not meet his gaze but gave him a nod and picked at one of the pastries. It was obvious that she forced herself.

Gray frowned. At this rate, she would starve to death before they had been wed a month. But before he could address the issue, one of Eduard’s pages came up to the table; his master had been delayed in his errand, the boy said, but he would return to the feast as soon as possible. Gray nodded and turned to Elise again, intent on insisting that she eat.

He never needed to utter the command. He watched, stunned and appreciative, as she began to polish off every last morsel of food he had placed on her side of the trencher. What had inspired her sudden change in mood boggled his mind, but he was not about to interrupt her by asking.

She seemed to relax during the remainder of the meal, even venturing to ask him several shy questions about his holdings. At one point she became almost animated, her hands moving with the grace of bird’s wings as she described the beauty of the willow fields near her previous home. Then she directed her gaze upon him, murmuring, “Is it possible that you have willow swamps here on your land? It is almost time to gather the withies, and I could replenish my stock.”

“Your stock, lady? And what do you do with these withies, as you call them?”

She smiled, and the beauty of her expression took his breath away. He could not help but notice that she talked with what seemed an almost palpable excitement. “After they are boiled and dried, I weave them into all sorts of shapes and fancies. My last work took form slowly, but it turned out to be a fine, comfortable chair.” She directed the full force of her gaze on him, suddenly, her face alight. “Mayhap I could weave another like it, as a gift for you?”

He was struck by the joy radiating from her blue eyes; it washed over him in a torrent, blinding him to everything but the desire to bask in it for as long as he could.

Without forethought, he answered, “It would please me well. I am not certain if willow fields grow on these lands, but perhaps in a few days I can free some time to help you find them.”

As soon as he said it he could have bitten off his own tongue, but by then it was too late. He looked away, silently cursing himself, unable to fathom what had possessed him to make such an offer. The woman had lulled him into a conversational mood, damn her.

Alban leaned in to offer them a platter of cheeses, wafers, and cakes baked in the shape of doves, smiling as he commented, “Your husband’s holdings are vast, milady. He governs much more than this one estate, though this castle and its lands are by far his most valuable prize to date.”

Alban seemed to ignore Gray’s pointed glare. His friend continued blithely, “As a native of this region, I am quite familiar with these lands. I would be happy to assist you both in mapping out a route that provides the most thorough overview of the area, if you wish to look for willows with Lord Camville.”

“Perhaps you should simply escort my wife yourself,” Gray offered dryly.

“Nay, I could not presume.” Alban feigned courtly surprise. “That pleasure is not mine to enjoy.”

If Elise noticed the undercurrents of his exchange with Alban, she hid it well. Glancing at her to gauge her response, Gray felt a flash of concern; her face had gone ashen again, and those graceful hands were clenched still, as before, in her lap.

“My lady are you ill?” he asked quietly. “Shall I –”

“Ah, my dear new brother by marriage. A thousand pardons to you and my sister for my absence.”

Gray snapped his gaze to Eduard, who talked as he approached, his face sharp with an expression that for some reason made Gray’s hand itch to slip down and grip the hilt of his broadsword. That Eduard would throw down a challenge here and now at the wedding feast seemed unlikely, but Gray knew from experience that anything was possible with the man. Hatred for him rose full in his throat again, along with a battle-honed instinct to gut him where he stood. Gray stood to face his rival, noticing that Elise pushed herself slowly to her feet as well.

Yet instead of issuing a challenge, Eduard thrust his hand forward with a brocade-wrapped bundle clutched in his fist. “It is here, finally. The wedding gift that I wanted to give to you and my dear sister.” As he swung the parcel towards Elise, its wrapping fell away, revealing a small oil portrait of two blond children, clutching hands and smiling in their matching silken garments.

Elise sucked in her breath, reacting, Gray decided, as if her brother had dangled a snake in her face. Eduard’s lip edged up at one corner. “Come, sister, and accept your gift. It is a fine copy of the twins, is it not? I had this portrait of them commissioned earlier, as a memento of home, and it has only just arrived by messenger.”

“Twins?” Gray asked, feeling the bottom drop from his stomach. Alban caught his gaze, concern written in his expression. Gray clenched his jaw, willing the painful memories of Grace back; he concentrated instead on the portrait and his certainty that the children painted there must be related to his new wife and her brother. “Who are they?”

“They…they are—” Elise tried to answer, but she sounded breathless and shaky.

“It is a portrait of our niece and nephew, Ian and Isabel. They are the children of our elder, departed brother Geoffrey, and Elise became quite attached to them. I thought it would bring her pleasure to be able to gaze upon their faces whenever she wished.”

Grayson instinctively gripped his wife’s elbow when she swayed and clutched the edge of the table. “Are you unwell, lady?” he murmured again, this time with more insistence.

After a strained pause, she shook her head. “Nay, I am fine.”

Looking to Eduard, she leveled her gaze at him. “It is just that this gift is unexpected. And I – I am overcome by the stunning likeness that the artist achieved.” Gently shaking Gray’s hand from her arm, she stood erect under her own power. “Would it be possible to grant me a few moments alone with my brother? I wish to…to thank him in private for the gift.”

Gray nodded in silence, watching the purposeful rhythm to Elise’s steps as she walked with Eduard to a more secluded area of the hall. Though he caught only glimpses of her profile, he could not miss the tight line of her lips or her sudden pallor.

Alban moved in close behind Gray. “It is a strange reaction from your wife.” He glanced to the portrait that had been left partially wrapped on the table. “The gift is beautiful, yet she seemed none too pleased with it.”

Gray’s eyes narrowed as he studied the hushed conversation taking place between brother and sister across the hall. “Aye, it is odd indeed.” He folded his arms across his chest. “There is more to all of this than either of them are letting on.”

He settled his wife into his sight like a hunter marks his prey. Sitting down, he leaned his elbow on the table and absently rubbed his finger across his lip as he let his gaze bore into her, relentless. Penetrating.

Finally he saw a delicate shudder ripple up her back. Like a cat alerted to danger, she looked at him sideways, her glance barely connecting with his before shifting away again. After a few more murmured words to Eduard, she turned to inquire something from one the lady maids who stood ready to accompany her to the bridal chamber. Then in the space of a heartbeat, she skittered from the hall, casting one more anxious glance at Gray before she began to climb the steps that led to his chamber.

As he watched her go, realization stamped a burning brand across his chest and deep into his groin. Heat flooded him, for the time being masking the suspicion that had begun to cloud his mind. He understood with sudden clarity that his wife was going upstairs for a particular reason tonight, and it threatened to make him cease taking the deep, regular breaths that usually filled his lungs…

Because he realized that at this very moment, Elise was leaving the hall to ready herself for their marriage bed.

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