It was not long after this that proceedings wound up for the day and a very subdued Eden was escorted back to the Queen’s chambers with Jane Cecil. The Queen had gone to the King’s apartments to take supper with him, so Eden assumed it would just be an awkward dinner with just her and Jane. She wished she could warm up to Jane, but for some reason, they were both very reserved with each other. To her surprise, they had no sooner shut the door behind them, than a knock was heard upon it. The dogs went mad, and Eden was forced to drag them both by their collars into the next room as Jane answered it. Eden scolded Castor who was the instigator until his ears lay flat, then she released them and returned to the outer chamber with both of them close on her heels. To Eden’s astonishment it was her good friend the Lady Fenella, Countess Vawdrey along with Linnet, Duchess of Cadwallader. They were also, both her sisters-in-law. Neither had been present at the day’s official proceedings.
“There you are!” beamed Fenella, coming toward her at once. Eden immediately ran to her friend and they embraced. “My word, don’t you look pretty!” Fen exclaimed. “Let me get a good look at you. What a pretty gown! How well that sea-green color suits you! You look just like a nereid!”
“I could say the same for you, you’re positively glowing,” Eden told her in a choked voice. She was touched Fenella had not dwelt on her pallor, or the dark rings under her eyes. Her friend by contrast looked extremely well. “Motherhood is clearly agreeing with you.”
“Oh yes,” said Fen with a proud smile. “We’re all thriving, all four of us.” Eden’s smile was strained. She hardly knew what to make of Fen’s husband, Oswald Vawdrey these days. “And I have brought Linnet with me, to welcome you to the family.”
“It’s been an age since I last saw you, Eden. How lovely to see you again!” said Linnet with her sweet smile. Something was definitely different about Linnet, Eden thought distractedly as she kissed the freckled redhead on the cheek. Then she noticed the loose-fitting gown and fuller figure and realized Linnet must be expecting again. “And yours too,” she screwed up her eyes, trying to remember how many children Linnet and the Duke of Cadwallader already had.
“Oh this,” laughed Linnet. “It’s a pretty fabric to be sure, but cut like an old sack. Still, it will expand with me, so it’s good for comfort.” She placed a hand on her bump.
“Congratulations,” stammered Eden, unsure if she was supposed to offer them so soon. Perhaps that was why neither had been present? Fenella had only been delivered of her twin boys some two months ago, and Linnet was clearly in the family way.
“Thank you. Shall we sit?” The three of them moved toward the table where Jane was directing a servant to place the dishes. “This all looks excellent, what a treat,” said Linnet with easy grace, and she and Fenella exchanged pleasantries with Jane, who soon seemed to relax and look less ill-at-ease for intruding on a family party.
Eden managed to make a better meal than the previous evening when everything had tasted of ashes, and was secretly relieved when Jane rose as the last course was cleared away.
“If you ladies will pray excuse me, I will retire to the other room. My head aches sadly this evening and I would do all the better for a lie down with a damp cloth across my brow.”
They all disclaimed at this tactful retreat, but Jane was firm and bowed out of the room only moments later.
“What a discreet young woman,” said Linnet approvingly. “I predict she will go far at court.”
“She already has done rather well,” pointed out Eden, and then immediately felt contrite.
“Oh you must not mind so much, Eden,” said Fenella quickly. “Indeed, now you are a married woman, you will not have so much time to devote to the Queen’s service.”
Linnet murmured in agreement. “We are all devoted to the Queen of course,” she said painstakingly, “But there is no denying that she is rather demanding and best served by an unmarried lady I would say.”
Eden hesitated, not liking to bring up the fact she might very soon be restored to the status of single lady, depending on the outcome of the hearing. “I met your sister-in-law at Sitchmarsh,” she said instead, turning to Fen with a rather forced brightness. “Lady Orla Bernard.”
“Oh, how lovely!” exclaimed Fen excitedly. “Did you meet my brother Gilbert also? Or visit my old home at Sitchmarsh Hall?”
“No,” explained Eden regretfully. “Orla kindly called on me, but I did not get the chance to return the visit, although she did most cordially invite me.”
“Oh no, of course,” tutted Fen sympathetically. “Such a pity and so tiresome for you! This silly misunderstanding!” She pressed Eden’s hand. “Oswald is most put out on your behalf.”
“It is not the most propitious start to your wedded days,” agreed Linnet. “But after all, Mason and I suffered something not dissimilar, and our marriage made a full recovery from the experience.”
An awkward silence drifted over them as they reflected on the fact Roland had also been involved in that appeal for an annulment, but that time as a petitioner.
“He was not there today,” burst out Eden, unable to hold it in any longer. Her chest rose and fell. “Roland. He did not attend the hearing.” Her words sounded devastated, but she was too shattered to be embarrassed about that right now.
Eden and Fenella exchanged glances. “My dear,” said Fen kindly. “Did you not hear?”
“Hear what?” asked Eden hoarsely. But she already knew. He had gone home. Without her.
“Roland was summoned to the King today and stripped of his position as King’s Champion.”
Eden dropped her napkin through nerveless fingers. “What? No! I - I heard no such thing!” She stood up and then sat back down again in agitation. “I can scarcely believe… I mean, why did no-one tell me? I thought… That is, I quite imagined…” She gulped, stared at the table top a moment and then, to her embarrassment, burst into tears.
“I daresay no-one wanted to distress you unduly,” said Linnet kindly, as the storm abated. She passed her a handkerchief as Fenella patted her shoulder. “You are going through quite enough as it is, without anything else to worry about.”
“Is he very upset?” Eden sniffed, looking up at Fen and Linnet’s concerned faces. “Have you seen him today?”
They both nodded. “He’s not terribly upset,” Linnet said quickly. “About the title I mean. In truth, I do not think he cares two rushes for an honorary title.”
“Once I heard him complain that all it did was distort the odds so that it was not worth wagering on him any longer,” said Fen with a small laugh.
But Eden found she could not even muster the smallest of smiles at this. He hadn’t left her. He had been stripped of his title. Because of her.
Eden waved her hand awkwardly. “Speak of something else,” she said hoarsely. “I beg of you.”
“This seems like a funny thing to say,” sighed Fen. “But being involved in an annulment case is something all three of us have in common. Indeed, I think it must truly be a Vawdrey thing.”
Linnet gasped, lowering her goblet. “That is true!” she said, with a stunned look at Fen. “I forgot that Oswald had your first marriage annulled.”
Fen nodded sagely. “I was thinking it this morning, but I didn’t like to say so to Oswald. He’s so sensitive about the subject. You know how they can be.” She pulled a face.
Linnet laughed. “Only too well.” They both turned to Eden.
“Roland and I have not even been married yet a month,” she reminded them, when they seemed to be waiting for her agreement.
“Oh but I am sure you have his measure by now,” said Fen. “And I am so pleased, for it seems long overdue to me that Roland was settled.”
“Er, yes,” said Eden feebly. “I think we are – um – we were doing our best, although, it is rather an adjustment to make, don’t you think? To being a married person?” she confided in a rush. “And yet, strangely I thought at times that Roland seemed to make it almost without conscious effort!” She looked helplessly from Fenella to Linnet. “Whereas I-“ she broke off, looking down at her hands.
“I think,” said Linnet thoughtfully, after a pause. “That Mason found it more difficult to adjust than I did. But he took to it beautifully, once we were over the initial stages.” She turned expectantly to Fenella.
“Oswald definitely took it all in his stride,” said Fenella cheerfully. “Even though I had been married before, I was the one flailing around like a panicked hen.”
Eden huffed out a breath, and Linnet surprised her by reaching across and patting her hand. “Perhaps,” she suggested tentatively, “Roland took to married life easier because he was ready for it.”
Eden sat back in her chair. “You mean because he had decided to offer for my cousin?” she asked flatly. It seemed pointless to keep up the subterfuge. She was sure both Fenella and Linnet must be fully in their husband’s confidences.
“Oh but…” Fenella looked up quickly. “That’s not right. It was you that Roland wanted. Right from the outset.”
Eden shook her head with reluctance. “I expect Lord Vawdrey wanted to spare you the details, in case you would worry about it, as my friend. You had not long been delivered of your twins at the time.”
“Oh no,” said Fenella vigorously. “You’re quite wrong there. Oswald keeps me fully up to date when it comes to family matters. I was confined to my bed for the last few months of my pregnancy and he came and joined me every evening for cozy chats. We liked it so much that we still do it now,” said Fenella complacently. “He reads his paperwork in bed beside me.” Eden tried and failed to imagine the immaculate and precise Lord Vawdrey, retiring early to bed to sit beneath the covers with his wife, chatting over his day. She looked uncertainly at Fenella, but her friend was looking entirely sincere. “He told me from the very first, when Roland asked him to approach Sir Leofric for your hand, and then updated me every step along the way of negotiations.”
Eden’s jaw dropped. “Forgive me, Fenella, but that just isn’t right. You must have misunderstood…”
“There was never any question that it was Lenora,” Fenella insisted quietly. She looked to Linnet for support.
Linnet fiddled with the pear she was slicing with a small fruit knife. Looking up, she cleared her throat. “Well, Mason did seem to be under the impression that the intended bride was to be Lenora initially,” she admitted awkwardly. “But after the business at Hallam Hall, he told me that Oswald seemed vastly pleased with the outcome, and he did say he wouldn’t be surprised if it was the one he had intended from the very offset.”
“Of course it was,” frowned Fenella. “After all, Oswald saw Eden and Roland embrace at the Midwinter feast. He knew they were destined to be together. And, so did you, Linnet,” she prompted her sister-in-law when she looked blank. “Remember? What Baron Vawdrey said to you on his death-bed?”
Linnet’s confusion fell away. “Oh that,” she said enthusiastically. “Yes, Father was very insistent that Roland was to marry a girl of sense and not some feather-brain.”
“You see,” said Fenella, turning to her triumphantly.
Eden bristled. “Lenora is not a feather-brain.”
Fenella and Linnet exchanged glances.
“She’s not!” insisted Eden. “People just don’t understand her, that is all.”
“Well, in any event,” said Fen glibly. “You were the one that Oswald intended for Roland all along. I know that much.”
There did not seem to be much point dwelling on the whys and wherefores of it all. Eden felt tired after the day she’d had. Instead she sat back and listened as her two sister-in-laws gleefully shared with her tales of the early days of their own marriages.
“Mason told me that I should mix with our neighboring families,” said Linnet with a droll look. “As apparently, he did not have time to sit with a wife of an evening. Then when I went ahead and made plans to visit the Jauncey family, he suddenly forbade me from setting foot on their estate!”
Eden frowned. “Did he explain why he changed his mind?”
“Never,” snorted Linnet. “In fact, he told me I could see who I pleased as it made no odds to him. Then slammed a lot of doors, gave me an armed guard and told me he shouldn’t have to come looking for me when he returned home of an evening.”
Eden stared at her friends as they both dissolved into laughter. She couldn’t see what was funny about a male acting so unreasonably.
“Oswald told me as his wife, I could return to Sitchmarsh and pick back up with my day-to-day life in the country with very little material change,” said Fenella with a breathless laugh. “Then, a few days later, he turned around and said he’d changed his mind, expected me to become a courtier and declared, quite coolly that he expected me to ingratiate myself with the Queen and become one of her ladies-in-waiting!”
Eden blinked. “He changed his mind?” she repeated incredulously.
Fen nodded. “That’s husbands for you!” she shrugged, her eyes alight with mirth.
Linnet wiped her eyes. “They’re so funny sometimes!”
Eden watched them both and wondered if she was mad, or they were. Compared to how his older brothers had behaved, Roland seemed almost reasonable as a husband. She shifted in her seat as Linnet and Fenella exchanged more fond stories of their spouses acting inconsistently. Was this really just a part and parcel of married life? She bit her thumbnail now, and wished she had been more conciliatory with him, and not told him she did not want his kisses! Why had she done that? Fenella was telling the tale of how Oswald had gone ahead and had her previous marriage declared null and void simply because he did not like the idea of her being another man’s wife. Linnet followed this up with some story about Mason unblushingly upping the number of children she had promised him whenever it suited him. Eden sank further and further down into her seat. Roland’s brothers sounded like nightmare husbands in comparison to him!
Roland woke to a heavy weight across his legs and the sound of off-key whistling in his close vicinity. He poked his head out of his blanket and glared blurrily at Cuthbert who was clattering around with water and clean cloths. Then he looked down to find Castor lay across his legs, his massive head resting on his front paws. Castor cracked one eye open to look at his master and then shut it again. “What are you doing here?” Roland asked, reaching down to rub the dog’s ears. Castor yawned.
“The Queen sent for me to fetch him to you,” said Cuthbert, breaking off his tune.
“He wasn’t playing nice with her other lady-in-waiting.”
Roland sat up. “Explain.”
“Lady Eden is sharing a room presently with Lady Jane Cecil.” Roland pulled a face. He thought it a bit rich that someone else got to sleep in the same damn bedchamber as his wife. “Castor objected most strongly to the sleeping arrangements.”
“Is that so?” Roland asked, absently patting the dog.
“The Queen said Parnell could stay, but this one had to be returned to his master.”
Roland grunted. “Did you see your mistress?” Cuthbert nodded. “And?” he prodded with annoyance.
“And what?” asked Cuthbert. “She was scolding Castor up a storm. Then soon as I went to take him, she was hanging round his neck, crying her eyes out.” He shrugged. “She was likely tired,” he added fairly.
Roland eyed the large white dog who did look a bit sheepish, now he thought about it. “Ah well, not really your fault, my boy.” Castor thumped his tail against the bed.
“How do you make that out?” spluttered Cuthbert. “He had that Lady Jane pinned against a chest of drawers, screaming fit to raise the dead by all accounts. The guards rushed in thinking there was an attempt being made on the Queen’s life!”
Roland shrugged, supremely unconcerned. “I don’t agree with the sleeping arrangements either,” he said, climbing out of bed.
To his surprise, Roland found two occupants already in the adjoining room. His brothers were seated at the table. “Cuthbert never said you were here,” he commented, pulling out a chair. Castor darted forward, straight under the table.
“Good morning to you too,” said his brother Oswald dryly. “Was that Castor?”
Roland ignored the question, for he could see the dog was already sniffing in welcome at Oswald’s boots.
“Of course we’re here,” thundered Mason. “By all accounts I’m likely to be called for a witness. Yes, Castor, it’s me,” he said, holding out his hand for the dog to sniff. “I still haven’t heard how events turned out yesterday,” he said turning to Roland.
“No good asking me,” said Roland. “I wasn’t there either. He turned in his seat. “Where’s Cuthbert with the food-?” he started, but the door opened in hobbled Meldon, the old family retainer who now lived with Oswald. He was bearing a large salver.
“Meldon! How are you, you old rogue!”
“Meldon gets a warmer welcome than his own brothers, mark you,” complained Oswald.
“Better’n what I hear you are, master Roland,” grumbled Meldon censoriously. “What’s this about you getting your wife confiscated?” He clattered down the dish of salted fish and bread.
“Don’t remind me,” said Roland darkly.
“Just a temporary measure,” said Oswald airily as he reached for the butter. “And we’ll soon have it sorted out.”
Meldon sniffed and pulled out a cloth to polish up the knives. Castor poked his head out from under the table. “You never brought the dogs from the Keep here with you?” asked the old servant in startled tones.
“Only the two of them,” said Roland buttering a piece of bread.
“Well, I only hopes they’re better behaved than when the old baron had ‘em!” Meldon tutted.
Roland cocked an eyebrow. “Doubtful. Castor’s already been expelled from the Queen’s chambers.”
Meldon cast his eyes heavenward as Mason demanded details. Once the story was told, and chuckled over, with much fuss made of Castor, Mason turned to his younger brother. “I hear you’ve had something else confiscated,” he said bluntly.
Roland frowned. “What’s that?”
“Attley told me you’re no longer the King’s Champion.”
“Attley? When did you see him?” asked Roland brightening. “Is he at court?”
“He and Ned Bevan arrived this morning. I daresay to offer their support.”
“They will be called as witnesses,” Oswald corrected Mason.
“Attley and Bev?” echoed Roland. “What the devil do they know about anything?”
“They competed at Tranton Vale, did they not? Where you spent the days immediately following your wedding.”
Roland snorted. “Aye, and what of it? Do you mean to tell me-?” he broke off distractedly. “I can’t believe you’ve allowed all this this to happen!” He glared at his brother.
Oswald spread his hands wide. “I? What makes you think I was instrumental in any of this?”
Roland glared at him. “Everything’s down to you in this bloody palace, and everyone knows it!”
“You flatter me,” said Oswald dabbing a napkin at his mouth. “But if I could have delayed this exercise I would have. You have not been wed long enough for us to be assured of its outcome. After all, it’s been little more than three weeks.”
Roland sat up straight in his chair. “Our marriage is valid,” he said loudly. “And if I was allowed to speak, I would tell them so!”
“You will be permitted to speak on the third day, and not before that,” Oswald told him. “Have you heard that the King is sitting over today’s events?”
“The King?” Roland looked startled, and not pleasantly so.
“Is that a bad thing?” asked Mason, who had been watching Roland with interest.
“He was in a rare temper with me yesterday,” muttered Roland.
“Yes,” sighed Oswald. “He did not want to dismiss you as his champion. It always puts Wymer out of sorts when he is forced to do something he does not want to.”
“He acted like he wanted to clap me in the stocks!”
“I daresay he did,” said Oswald. “The Queen has been plaguing the life out of him. She was most put out to lose Eden. Most put out indeed.”
“Aye, well,” said Roland belligerently. “She’ll have to reconcile herself to it. And so will he!” He looked up and caught Mason’s smirk. “What?”
Mason shook his head, and crossed his massive arms. “Naught,” he said with a short laugh.
“The Queen’s most annoyed to be missing out on today,” warned Oswald. “So no doubt she will have put a flea in the King’s ear this morning already. Tread carefully.”
“Queen Armenal won’t be there?” asked Mason.
“No ladies will be there,” emphasized Oswald. “Not even Eden.”
“Why not?” spluttered Roland, who had expected to have a glimpse of his wife at the very least.
“It was decided it would be too indelicate for ladies’ ears,” said Oswald. “Today will be delving into the wedding ceremony and the aftermath.” Roland groaned. “Precisely,” said Oswald.
“Get on with it, man!” barked King Wymer, glaring through beetling brows at Sir Christopher Montmayne. “Spit it out if ye’ve something to say!”
Eden’s least favorite uncle bridled, but could hardly protest when answering his sovereign. “I proceeded with the others to the best guest bedchamber,” he said stiffly. “The door was locked, but with the help of the steward and Sir Roland’s two brothers it was forced.” He paused, screwing his face up. “What I saw there, shocked me, shocked me to the very core. A scene of licentiousness which I had never dreamt of seeing in the hallowed halls of Hallam.” The King snorted, and Sir Christopher looked affronted at the amused ripple that ran through the audience. No doubt, if the audience had contained ladies, he would have had the scandalized reaction he had anticipated. Among the lords, knights and barons however, his words were not having the effect he desired. “My niece, Eden Montmayne was lolling a-bed with Sir Roland, and both as naked as babes!” His jowls shook with horror. “’Twas plain what had transpired the night before, and what grievous step their illicit passion had led them to take,” he intoned piously.
“I see,” said the King, his eyebrows shooting into his fair hair. “And – er – Sir Roland offered no excuse or denial of the scene you witnessed?”
“Not he!” burst out Sir Christopher indignantly. “Indeed, in spite of his night of sin, he still evinced a shamefully amorous and lusty state for her!” A gust of laughter went up from the crowd and Roland shifted in his seat. “I scarcely knew where to look, your majesty! Never had I -”
“Yes, yes, I’m sure,” said King Wymer brusquely. “And then?”
Sir Christopher drew himself up, pursing his lips. “My brother Leofric and Lord Vawdrey had some words about how to restore my niece’s honor.” He cast a nervous look in Mason’s direction. “I –er –attempted to remonstrate with my niece upon the gravity of the situation, but was prevented by Sir Roland’s kinsman.”
“Which one?” asked the King with a flicker of interest.
Sir Christopher fiddled with the links of his belt nervously. “The Duke of Cadwallader,” he admitted. Heads swiveled in Mason’s direction. His brother looked entirely unperturbed, Roland noticed.
“And then?” prompted the King impatiently.
“Sir Roland climbed out of the bed, and shoved me from the room, shutting the door in my face,” Christopher finished in an injured tone.
“And where was the lady Eden at this point?” enquired the King.
“She was still a-bed, your highness.”
Wymer sat up in his throne, a frown on his face. “Do you mean to say, the pair of them were left to their own devices again, sequestered in the guest bedchamber?” he asked incredulously. “Not the smallest effort having been made to separate them or take your niece back?”
“I – er – well,” Sir Christopher stammered lamely. “Yes, your highness.”
“Both of ‘em,” said the King sarcastically. “Still ‘naked as babes’?”
“Er – yes,” admitted the unhappy Sir Christopher. “Naked as the day they were born.”
“Extraordinary! Oh, sit down, man!” he said impatiently, and scanned the crowd until his eyes fell on Mason Vawdrey. “Cadwallader,” he said grandly. “Best have your account next, I fancy!”
Mason made a stoic and unshakeable witness. He corroborated the facts without any embellishment and his fierce stare made sure his statement was not punctuated with any crowd reaction. They did not dare.
The King digested his account broodingly, before steepling his hands at his square jaw. “What I don’t understand…” he said slowly. “Is this. The host’s niece was found in Sir Roland’s bedchamber.” Roland felt himself tensing. Oswald laid a hand on his arm, giving a tiny shake of his head. “It seems to me that the Montmaynes were glad to rush through a quick wedding to set things to rights.” Mason gave a short nod of agreement. “The lady was heretofore of impeccable character and reputation,” conceded the King. “But why did the Vawdrey party not balk in any way at the way things turned out?”
“Why should we?” rumbled Mason in his deep voice. “When it was evident this was the very outcome my brother desired.” There was a crowd reaction to that. Mason did not acknowledge it, but the King’s hand shot up to quiet the murmured voices.
“What makes you so sure of that?” asked the King sharply.
“I heard him say it with my own ears,” said Mason firmly. “At the feast the night before. He said they were presenting him with ‘the wrong one’ and he would not take her to wife. When I asked him what possible objection he could make to the lady, he answered she was not the one he wanted. He said, ‘She is not Eden’.”
At that the muted voices rose in a great swell. Roland felt himself flush. Had he really said that? Mason’s bold gaze told him that every word was true. He felt strangely elated. Perhaps he wasn’t such a stupid bastard after all, when he let his baser-self rule on instinct alone? He had been consumed with Eden Montmayne, and what’s more he had been celibate, in the six months since she had kissed him, and made him hers. It had been his thinking self that had thought to put an end to his struggle by marrying the prettiest girl at court, like he had always intended. His thinking self was a fucking idiot. He had no patience with him. His blood ran cold at the idea he could have wed anyone else. But then he remembered that he had stated quite clearly at the feast that he would take none to wife, save Eden. That reassured him, and he could breathe easy again. He wished Eden could have heard that. Though not any of what her idiot uncle had come out with. One day that bastard would pay for talking about Eden being naked in a roomful of men.
His brother nudged him again. “Did you hear who has been called?” he murmured in an amused voice.
“No,” Roland looked up quickly and saw Cuthbert sauntering unhurriedly down the middle of the room as if he had not a care in the world. “You jest.”
But he did not.
“I see,” said the King nodding his head some time later, a smile tugging at his lips in spite of himself. “And what – uh – what made you suspect that your master was – ah – employing artifice on the journey?”
The King was not the only one enjoying Cuthbert’s testimony. The crowd was, immensely. Roland felt his face grow warm.
“Her horse was fine, your majesty,” snorted Cuthbert. “And showed no symptom of lameness.” He cast a knowing look at the audience, who laughed up their sleeves. “He just wanted her on his horse, up before him.” He nodded sagely. “It was obvious, even to someone of my tender years.”
Roland winced, closing his eyes briefly. When would this come to an end? He cast a resentful look at Oswald, but his brother was smothering another yawn. If anything, Mason was more sympathetic to his plight, he thought crossly. But maybe that was because that poor bastard had been through someone trying to annul his marriage. Him. He supposed, uneasily, that one of these days he ought to try and make that up to Mason. The thought had never really occurred to him before.
He listened with excruciating embarrassment as Cuthbert detailed how Roland had kept Eden locked in an inn bedroom with him for a night, a day and another night before he would consent to continue their journey to Tranton Vale. By all accounts, he reflected, he was coming across as an extremely lecherous husband when truth be told, they had not even consummated their marriage by this point! He squirmed inwardly as Cuthbert repeated a couple of the landlady’s choice remarks which had them rolling in the aisles. “I’m going to kill him,” he murmured out of the corner of his mouth.
“You’ll not touch a hair on his head,” Mason told him firmly. “Strictly speaking, he’s still part of my household, and only with you on loan.”
“Well, you can have him back directly!” Roland grumbled. “The little wretch!”
After Cuthbert, Roland’s friend Sir James Attley bore witness to how Roland had brought Eden along to their pavilion at Tranton Vale and bade them to raise a toast to his marriage.
“And how was his manner?” barked the King.
“His manner, sire?” asked a startled Attley, who clearly had hoped to get away with talking facts rather than opinions.
“His manner. One of your oldest friends isn’t he? Surely you can gauge his mood. Was he resentful, surly – how did he seem to you?”
Attley looked dismayed. “He – er – he seemed – er,” he stared down at his feet a moment and took a deep breath. “Jubilant, sire” he said at last. “Elated, proud. He was showing her off like he’d won some great prize.” Attley scratched his neck. “He – er – sat her on his lap, and not just in the pavilion with us, but at the banquet too,” he said looking embarrassed. “And – um – called her sweetheart.” Attley turned a dull red when people started up whispering again. “At the banquet he fed her from his plate and they shared a loving cup.”
“Hmmmm,” the King narrowed his eyes at him. “Did he make no mention of the circumstances of taking her to wife?”
“He just said he’d changed his mind, sire,” said Attley simply.
Sir Ned Bevan backed up his friend on these details when it was his turn, and additionally, he told of how they had walked in on Roland kissing his new bride on his bunk on the following afternoon. He was a lot less flustered than his friend and told the tale in a straightforward manner that went over well with the audience.
“In your opinion, did your friend seem resentful at being trapped into a hasty marriage?” asked the King.
“No, your majesty, he did not,” said Bev decidedly. “He looked like he could scarcely bear to let the lady out of his sight.” He hesitated, and the King picked up on it immediately.
“Yes, Sir Edward, you have something to corroborate this claim?”
“I do,” said Bev, raising his chin. “The next day, the victor of the joust, Lord Kentigern, awarded the tourney garland to Lady Eden. When he heard of it, Roly – your pardon – Sir Roland flew into a jealous rage, the like of which I have never seen him display before.”
“He was quite white about the mouth. Almost immediately, he determined to drag her off to Vawdrey Keep like a possessive husband.”
Roland kept his eyes straight ahead as he felt both his brothers turn to look at him with interest.
“Humph,” said the King. “Where he’s kept her closely guarded ever since,” he said irritably. “Shall we adjourn for some refreshment?” The guards at the far end opened the door and a buzz of conversation rose up toward the rafters. “Can’t think what Armenal expects me to do about all this,” Roland heard the King say plaintively to one of his advisors. “It’ll be a miracle if she isn’t with child already from what I’ve heard!”
Eden spent a very strange second day at the palace. Not long after breaking her fast, she received a missive from her grandmother Lady Dorothea formally requesting a farewell meeting. Queen Armenal, when apprised of it, encouraged her to receive her grandmother in the Queen’s own sitting room. “But yes of course, Eden. You must see your grandmother before she leaves. Send your reply with my page. Jane can sit in the antechamber with a book or some needlework to give you some privacy. As for myself, I am going hawking presently.” She refused to take no for an answer.
A half hour later, Lady Dorothea was ushered in. She was dressed as if for travel in a somber gown of charcoal gray. After seeing her seated before the fire, Jane tactfully withdrew with her book.
“You’re going back to Hallam Hall then?” Eden asked nervously. Her grandmother did not answer, and Eden sat in the chair opposite her. “I wrote you a letter,” Eden added, after a moment’s heavy silence. “Actually, I wrote you three.”
Her grandmother sat very still. When she spoke, her voice was harsh. “I understand you have been fraternizing with the Vawdrey family, despite your own flesh and blood being kept at bay.” She shot an accusatory look at Eden.
“I have not seen my husband since I arrived here at court,” Eden answered. “Though it is true, I did see my sisters-in-law yester’een.”
“Yet you did not see fit to send for your own cousin?” Lady Dorothea did not wait for Eden’s answer. “Is it too much to hope you have not been taken in by your new friends?”
“Fenella has been my very good friend now for many months,” Eden answered quietly.
“Well, far be it from me to offer any advice to my own granddaughter!” huffed Lady Dorothea. She glared at Eden. “I want to know what happened,” she said distinctly. “And I don’t want any of this rubbish Lenora has seen fit to spout at me. I thought, from you at least I would get plain dealing.” She broke off her words with a gesture of impatience. “Out with it, child! Come, did someone put you up to it?”
Eden stared. “No.” Such as who? She wondered.
“You thought you’d set yourself up as some sacrificial lamb then, is that it? To spare your cousin?”
Eden gave a shocked splutter. “Of course not!” Her cheeks turned red. “My sense of duty never extended that far!”
Her grandmother narrowed her eyes at her. “Then I cannot understand you.”
“I would have to have been a complete fool to even think of such an idiotic scheme,” Eden pointed out.
“You’d rather I thought you out to snare a husband for yourself, would you?” Lady Dorothea’s eyebrows rose. “Was it Leo’s plan? I want to know. How on earth did you of all people, end up in bed with the King’s champion,” snapped Lady Dorothea.
Eden fell back breathless in her chair. “Stop it grandmother!”
“It’s no use playing coy, if that’s the story you’re sticking to, my girl!”
Eden noticed the haggardness about her grandmother’s features and the tension in her tall, thin body. She had not been to court in twenty years, and yet she had dragged herself here to try and demand justice for her granddaughter who she had believed had been wronged. Even if it meant dragging her family name through the mud. “He – I mean, Roland - has been very… good about it,” she said avoiding Lady Dorothea’s pale blue eyes.
Her grandmother’s thin hands twitched in her lap. “If you’ve nothing else to say on the subject, then I will take my leave of you,” she said coldly.
Eden’s eyes darted to her face, which was an outraged mask. The older woman swept suddenly to her feet. “Wait!” she said, throwing up a hand. “If I tell you…” she gulped. “You will not… You must not..”
“If you cannot find it in your heart to trust me, your own kinswoman,” said her grandmother vehemently. “Then…”
“I walked into it,” said Eden. “You remember my old affliction, when troubled? How I… used to walk. In my sleep.” She covered her face a moment with her hand. Eden heard a rustle and peeped through her fingers. Lady Dorothea had dropped back into her seat, her face white as chalk.
“No,” she whispered. “Eden, you could not have!”
“I’m afraid I must have,” she replied tonelessly. “I’ve been over it in my head time and again. There can be no other explanation.” She swallowed. “He – he was uppermost in my thoughts at the time. We had discussed him that very afternoon, as you remembered. How we hoped Lenora would come to her senses and not go through with it,” she broke off a moment. “Of course, Uncle Leo always put his most honored guest in the yellow bedchamber, I would have known that instinctively. He was very drunk that night, and would not have woken when I let myself in.” Her grandmother’s face, when she steeled herself to look at it, was horrified. “I could not think straight the next morning. We were discovered, it was all such a living nightmare. I felt so unwell and unlike myself. I was confused, I had no defense or idea at that point what had even happened. When I realized later, well… You can imagine how I felt. Guilty, utterly wretched to find I was in fact, the author of my own undoing.”
Lady Dorothea rose to her feet and walked to the fire a moment, where she stood staring down at it. “I hardly know what to say, Eden,” she said awkwardly. “I had no idea you still did this childish thing.”
“I’ve only recently re-started,” said Eden tonelessly.
“You have done it again, since?”
“At least twice,” she admitted. “And probably would have done so more than that if it were not for-” she broke off, not wanting to admit that Roland would throw a leg or arm across her to still her unquiet slumbers.
“What an unhappy start to wedded life,” said Lady Dorothea heavily. She returned to her chair. She sighed heavily. “You say he has been kind to you?” she said after a moment’s pause. “Is it too much for me to hope that is the truth? He must have been exceedingly angry when you confessed, my girl and nothing you can say will convince me otherwise.”
Eden hesitated. “I – I have not confessed,” she said, raising her chin.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I have not confessed,” she reiterated clasped her hands together in her lap. “I tried to have a frank discussion with him on the subject, but somehow… it did not go to plan. We ended up quarrelling. I got extremely emotional. It’s hard to explain.”
Lady Dorothea tipped her head to one side. “Quarrelling,” she repeated.
“Oh yes. We quarrel and bicker, and then afterward, well…” she broke off again feebly. “He does not seem to really bear grudges. It’s almost seems as if it clears the air.”
Lady Dorothea cupped her chin in one hand and regarded Eden thoughtfully. “Your grandfather and I had some lively spats in the early days of our marriage,” she said vaguely.
“Really?” For some reason, Eden was startled by that information.
“I hope you don’t think I’m intruding, Eden,” her grandmother said. “But what exactly does Sir Roland imagine motivated you to climb into his bed?”
Eden sighed. “He thinks I decided to entrap him into marriage,” she said simply. “But for some reason, that did not give him a disgust of me like you’d think. He seems to… rather like the idea that I wanted him that much,” She felt her cheeks turn quite pink at her grandmother’s regard. “He’s ridiculous sometimes, and I’ve given up trying to understand him.”
Her grandmother gave a short, startled laugh. “Have I been worrying over nothing?” she asked shrewdly.
Eden looked away. “Possibly. Do you think I ought to discuss the sleepwalking thing with him?” she asked.
“What do you think?” Her grandmother sounded curious.
“I think it would make him feel sorry for me,” said Eden abruptly. “And I do not want that.”
“Do you?” Somehow Eden doubted it. “The thing Roland admires most in all the world is bravery,” she said suddenly. “I suppose, I would like him to think me brave, rather than an object of pity.”
Her grandmother did not speak for several moments, and when she did, Eden was taken aback.
“I’m going home,” Lady Dorothea said. “To Hallam Hall. In a month or so, when you have set everything in order here, you and your husband can invite me to stay with you, and I will accept. Then I will get to see these quarrels for myself.”
“Very well, grandmother.”
“Come and kiss my cheek and wish me a good journey.” Eden complied. “It seems your in-laws mean to draw a veil over the whole unfortunate business of the betrothal feast,” she said with a sigh. “On reflection, I can see that would be the best thing for all involved.” She tapped Eden lightly on the cheek. “Do not go running away with the idea that Roland Vawdrey is so very philanthropical or chivalrous in his consideration toward you.”
Eden hesitated. “How do you mean, grandmother?”
“It stands to reason. If he was not angry to find you in his bed,” she said dryly. “It was because he wanted you there in the first place.”
Eden saw her grandmother out and then returned to the sitting room. A packet of letters awaited her attention, and she untied the ribbon that tied them together without much enthusiasm. The first was from a Mr Childers who was one of the artists she supported. He was a very gentle and earnest man of middle years, who had been employed writing the same ballad for as long as she’d known him. This time he had sent her three verses he had extensively re-written, and had plunged into these without much by way of greeting. Luckily, she recognized his sloping handwriting, before she got to the illegible signature. She set this aside and turned to an irate letter she had to read through twice before she could make head nor tail of it. It seemed that the poet the Dowager Duchess of Rand had agreed to sponsor was very upset at the treatment he had received from her. Other than that, and an obscure charge of ‘wanton theft of intellectual property’, Eden was not sure what else could be drawn from it. The letter was signed R. Lewen. She cudgeled her brain, but could not bring R. Lewen to mind. Casting that aside, she came next to a very agreeable letter from Gunnilde Payne, and lost herself catching up with what her new friend had been up to. Gunnilde’s narrative held a wistful tone, and Eden thought things must have seemed a little flat at her father’s house after the tournament was done and dusted. To Eden’s surprise she only mentioned Arthur Conway once in passing, and Eden guessed that the friendship between their two families had not had any great resurgence since. Eden lowered the letter and thought a moment. In her estimation, her friend deserved considerably better. She wondered what she could do for her, when the Paynes came to stay at court as planned. Could she introduce her, for instance, to one of Roland’s well-connected friends? Before she had pondered too long on the eligibility of his acquaintance, she reminded herself of the uncertainty of her own wedded status. By the time the Paynes arrived at court, there was a very real chance she herself could be unmarried and in disgrace. A sharp knock at the outer door roused her from her glum thoughts, and she heard Jane Cecil conversing with one of the guards out in the corridor.
Suddenly the door to the sitting room opened, there was a whirl of turquoise silk and blonde ringlets and it shut again. Her cousin Lenora was stood with her back against the door, a determined look on her face.
“Should we take a walk, do you think?” Lenora suggested brightly. “We could take your oversized hound,” she said looking at Parnell.
Eden blinked at her. “That might be a good notion,” she agreed cautiously, and glanced at Parnell who was still lying at her feet.
“Has Grandmother told you she is leaving for Hallam Hall?”
“Yes, she told me. Will we need cloaks do you think?” Eden asked glancing at the window.
“No, ‘tis a fine afternoon.”
“Then I will just go and speak with Jane…”
“Oh, but we can chaperone each other, surely?” said Lenora hastily.
Were they to have some frank speech between them? Wondered Eden. She hoped so, however painful it might prove. Jane Cecil voiced no objection to the cousins taking a turn in the gardens, and they slipped out by a side door into the Queen’s rose garden.
“Does he not need a halter or some reigns?” asked Lenora, eyeing Parnell doubtfully as he bounded joyfully across the neat walkways.
“He’s not a horse,” Eden pointed out mildly.
“He’s practically the size of one.”
“He is rather large,” Eden agreed. Parnell sniffed and rooted in the tidy hedges as Lenora hooked her arm through Eden’s and they walked slowly along the path.
“Why did you never reply to my letter?” asked Lenora suddenly. “You were no doubt very cross with me, and you had every right to be,” she continued in a rush of words. “Only... I did hope for some word from you.” She turned her head and fixed her eyes Eden in unspoken appeal. “Indeed, I acted in what I believed and still believe to be for the best.” Eden blinked. What? “In truth I don’t blame you for not responding to my letter. It must have been a terrible shock to you and-”
“What letter?” Eden asked.
Now it was Lenora’s turn to stare. “The letter I asked Lord Vawdrey to give to you, after you had departed Hallam Hall on your wedding morn.”
“But… Lenora,” Eden frowned. “I received no letter from you.”
“What?” No letter?” Her cousin looked stunned. Then another thought struck her, and she seemed more assured. “Of course, your memory of that day will be quite sadly fragmented.”
Eden nodded, “That is true. I was feeling most unwell,” she agreed, before frowning. “But how do you know that?”
“Tis a common after-effect,” said Lenora with a wave of her hand. “But Lord Vawdrey assured me there would be no long-term repercussions.”
“I’m afraid I don’t quite understand-” Eden began, with a terrible feeling of foreboding. “After-effect of what?”
“The drug,” said Lenora impatiently.
“The drug I slipped in my wine, you remember? I asked you to drink it for me, as I did not care for it.”
Eden came to a halt. “Lenora what are you telling me?”
“Had you not already deduced that you and Sir Roland were drugged?” asked Lenora, her eyes opening very wide. “I felt sure that, even without my letter you would have worked it out. After all, how else did you imagine it happened?”
Eden stared at her. “Drugged? Are you-? But-?”
“Both of you were drugged,” said Lenora simply.
Oh, my gods. “But why?”
“Oh dear,” said Lenora. “My letter explained it so much better for me. Let us go and fetch it for you.” A certain fire entered her eye. “I mean to ask Lord Vawdrey exactly what he meant by not letting you have it!” She grabbed Eden’s arm and started towing her along the path.
“Now?” squeaked Eden.
“He must still have it,” Lenora tossed back over her shoulder. “I want you to read it.”
Eden looked about for Parnell, who had been distracted by a passing butterfly and was foolishly gamboling in the shrubbery. His massive head swiveled toward her, and he galloped after them.
“I can scarcely credit it,” Lenora was muttering under breath. “I am most put out!” And indeed, she looked it. Of course, on Lenora, anger showed as a deeper rose in her cheeks and an extra brilliant shine to her eyes like blue topazes.
“But couldn’t you just tell me what the letter said?” Eden asked breathlessly as they rounded the path that skirted the long gallery. The guard there fell back and they passed through the door unhindered.
“You don’t understand how long I agonized over writing that note,” said Lenora. “You know how poorly I express myself in general.”
They were striding along the corridor now toward the Official’s Corridor. Eden supposed Lord Vawdrey must have a large study here. She looked about with interest.
“Excuse me?” Lenora hailed a nervous looking clerk. “We are looking for the office of Lord Oswald Vawdrey, Chief Advisor to the King.”
He directed them to the very end of the corridor and when they reached that room, Lenora rapped loudly on the door. It was answered by a rather chubby young man with pale eyes and thinning hair, who introduced himself as Lord Vawdrey’s private secretary, Bryce. Eden recognized having seen him often in Lord Vawdrey’s wake. His discreet gaze passed over her and he admitted them both to his ante-chamber, directing them to be seated. He stared a moment at Parnell, as though unsure of his own eyes, then clearly decided to ignore him.
“His lordship is currently in an audience room with the King,” he said tactfully diverting his eyes from Eden.
“Yes, we know it is day two of the hearing,” said Lenora graciously. “But from our experience yesterday, we know there are breaks for refreshment and such,” she waved a hand. “Could you please have a message taken along to him that Lady Lenora Montmayne wishes to have a word with him about a most pressing matter. And that his sister-in-law Lady Eden Vawdrey, awaits him.”
Bryce gave a small cough, and then sat at his desk. He thought a moment and then wrote a couple of lines on a small rectangle of paper. Then he rang a bell. A page darted in from another small room. They had a whispered conversation and then the page made off with the paper.
“Can I offer you ladies anything while you wait?” he asked politely. Eden was impressed that he did not stammer or stare in Lenora’s presence. In truth, he wore a rather monkish air, so perhaps that was not to be wondered at. His office was scrupulously tidy and when they assured him they were not in need of anything, he returned serenely to his work.
It was some quarter of an hour later, that Oswald Vawdrey showed up at his offices, tall and dark and clad head to toe in unrelenting black. He paused on the threshold, bowed briefly at both ladies, had a quiet word with Bryce and then ushered them into his rather grand inner sanctum. His office was huge with a painted ceiling of the celestial heavens. Parnell padded around it sniffing at furniture until he found a spot under a table that he took a fancy to and curled up under it. In happier times, Eden would have been glad of the opportunity to peruse the extensive bookshelves and the large maps, but not today. “You will I hope, excuse my brevity,” he apologized urbanely. “But the King has only granted me a brief respite.” He gestured them toward chairs and seated himself behind his desk. “Did Bryce offer you some refreshment-?” he began, but Lenora cut him off.
“Why did you not give my cousin the letter I gave into your keeping for her?” she demanded.
Eden watched Oswald Vawdrey’s expression grow instantly guarded. “My dear young ladies…” he started lightly.
“You specifically promised you would deliver it to her!” Lenora persisted, slapping one dainty hand down on his polished desk-top.
Only by the faintest quirk of his very black eyebrows did Oswald Vawdrey betray any surprise at Lenora’s uncharacteristically animated behavior. There really was a very strong family likeness between the three brothers, thought Eden distractedly. Though Oswald was a lot less brawny than his two younger brothers, he had the same dark good looks and height. Of course, to her mind Roland was the better looking. Mason’s features were too harsh, and Oswald’s too smooth, whereas Roland’s were just right. “Your letter?” he mused, after an infinitesimal pause. “Ah yes, I seem to recall now. You did hand me a letter.” He looked regretful. “Alas, that morning at Hallam Hall was so chaotic, I fear…”
“You forgot!” choked Lenora. “How could you?”
Eden reached across to touch her cousin’s sleeve. “Lenora,” she said soothingly. “Calm yourself. This is not like you…”
“Calm myself?” Lenora wheeled around on her. “How can I be calm, Eden? Knowing what you must have thought? Knowing how you must have felt… my gods!”
Eden passed an arm around Lenora’s shoulders, and shot a look of bafflement at Oswald Vawdrey.
Lenora turned impulsively to her. “You thought I would blame you, did you not? You thought I would be upset?”
“Naturally, I was worried-”
“But that was so unnecessary!” burst out Lenora. “And it truly makes me angry to think of us being out of accord!” She turned back angrily to Oswald. “And all because of you!” she said accusingly.
He held up his hands appealingly. “If there has been any discord between the two of you, allow me to bear the blame-” he began.
“Discord?” echoed Lenora in disgust. “She is like a sister to me! Do you not understand? There is no-one whose opinion matters to me more!”
Oswald seemed to consider this a moment. He reached for a silver chain around his neck, extracted a key and then unlocked a small drawer in his desk. From this he withdrew a folded paper which he offered across the desk to Eden. She took it from him and unfolded it.
My dearest, Lenora had written.
Do not be out of reason cross with me. In truth, if I have offended, it is the fault of listening to your strictures rather too well. I am acting for once, without self-interest. Indeed, it is your interests which I have put first. I love you Eden, and want what is best for you. Too long you have played the poor relation at Hallam Hall. I want you to have nice things, steadfast social standing and to be mistress of your own home. Father would not have matched me to Sir Roland Vawdrey if he could not provide all this and more for a wife.
If it has not occurred to you already, then I must confess that I alone am the author of your disgrace. Please believe, it was not a decision that I took lightly. I know how much you value your reputation and virtue. Pray do not smart overmuch regarding your fall from grace. You will scarcely credit it, but in my experience, people do not warm overmuch to paragons of virtue.
In mitigation of my behavior, please believe my motives were not just in your interest. Sir Roland is sick for love of you. I am not the only one to have noticed it, so it is not merely a figment of my imagination as you thought. If you could only see the way his eyes follow you, the way you are his sole focus when you are in the room, then you would believe it too.
He is yours, and now I have delivered him. The rest is up to you.
Your ever-loving Lenora
Eden read the letter through twice, her mind reeling. She lowered the letter with trembling hands into her lap and stared unseeingly at the large window at the other end of the study.
“Please try to understand Eden,” begged Lenora with tears in her eyes. “I meant to act for the best. You were both being so sadly stubborn. I knew I had to do something rather drastic.”
“Drastic!” echoed Eden in a croaky voice. “My gods!”
“Yes,” Lenora concurred. “Nobody would ever believe I had it in me.”
“But how did Lord Vawdrey factor into this?” Eden asked, glancing over at Oswald who was watching them both with interest.
“Pardon?” Lenora looked momentarily disconcerted. “Oh, I simply asked him to pass along the letter…”
“No,” cut in Eden. “No, that won’t do Lenora, I’m afraid.”
“You think me lacking the ingenuity of course, but as I said in the letter, the scheme was of my own making...”
Eden held up a finger. “The drug,” she said.
“From a hawker I met outside the cathedral,” said Lenora quickly.
“But you said ‘he assured me there would be no after-effects’,” Eden reminded her.
Lenora licked her lips. “I meant the hawker of course.”
“No. No I do not believe you would dose me with a drug you had bought from a hawker. Besides, you said ‘Lord Vawdrey assured me’.”
Lenora’s expression was chagrined. “Oh bother!” she exclaimed. “Maybe I am as dim as everyone thinks me!”
Eden glanced again at Lord Vawdrey, who had a smile playing about his lips. “The truth, if you please,” she said crisply.
“The truth is,” interjected Oswald smoothly, “That your cousin and I found ourselves of the same mind on this matter. I too felt that drastic action was required to spur my brother into taking the right course of action. He had been, quite frankly, mooning over you for months. Since that kiss you shared at Midwinter…” Eden made an involuntary movement. “But alas, Roland has never been... shall we say, very self-aware?” Eden felt herself bristle at the criticism. “It’s true, you know,” he said regretfully. “It’s actually something of a family failing, when it comes to matters of the heart. All three of us brothers had something of a blind-spot in this regard. We stumble around in the dark with our feelings, when we should be dragging them out into the open sunlight. At least, until we find the right woman.” He gave his first genuine smile. “Then it all falls into place.”
Eden sat reeling. “But how did you even hatch up such a scheme? How could you drug your own brother?”
“The Lady Lenora and myself simply found ourselves stood next to one another at some function and started talking.” Oswald said reasonably. “As like-minded people do, we found our common ground and our discussion bore fruit.”
Eden didn’t believe that for a minute. She imagined him sidling up to Lenora and planting the seeds of the dastardly plot into her cousin’s mind. But perhaps Lenora had been ripe for such mischief, she thought looking back at her cousin, who was regarding her with anxious eyes. Who would have dreamt that Lenora would act thus?
“I can scarcely believe all this,” she said, closing her eyes. “All this time, I thought I sleep-walked myself into Roland’s bedchamber.” A stunned silence greeted her words.
“That did not occur to me,” said Lenora looking upset. “You have not done that for years!”
“Is Roland aware you thought as much?” asked Oswald looking intrigued.
“No,” said Eden, slumping in her chair. “He simply thinks I set about entrapping him.”
“He would of course,” sighed Oswald.
“Pompous thing!” cried Lenora indignantly. “Well, one good thing can come of our confession, and that is that you can set him right at once!”
Oswald winced. “Perhaps you could postpone such a confrontation, until after the hearing has concluded?” he suggested.
Lenora turned her blue eyes on him. “You don’t think we should take the opportunity tomorrow to confess all to the Queen?”
Oswald looked pained. “I do not think that would be at all constructive,” he said cautiously. “Unless…” he left a pause. “Annulment is the outcome you are hoping for, Eden?”
Eden gave a start. Annulment? Her hand flew to her mouth and she stared down at her feet.
“Are you very unhappy, dearest?” asked Lenora, looking even more distressed. She twisted her handkerchief in her lap. “I vow, I will never try to help anyone ever again! I wrought far less damage when I thought only of myself!”
Eden opened her mouth, but before she could answer, Oswald Vawdrey spoke.
“It is a shame,” he said thoughtfully. “That you were not permitted to hear the testimonies given this morning to the King. They would have set your mind at rest a little I think. People have such very strange views about women’s delicate sensibilities.” He hesitated. “Is there any point that I could qualify regarding the evidence I gave yesterday to the Queen?” he offered. “I think you should know that when I said Roland never once spoke your fair cousin’s name in connection with the betrothal, I spoke the truth. Your name however, has been on his lips many a-time in my hearing. And since that Solstice Eve, I would say, almost constantly.” He gave her a shrewd look as Eden’s cheeks grew pink. “I do not wish to be indelicate, my dear,” he said ruefully. “But I think you should know that at Hallam Hall, Roland told me quite categorically that he would not marry Lenora, solely for the fact she was not you.” Eden stared at him. “I would swear my life on that,” he said quietly. “And if you do not believe me, you may ask Mason. He himself gave this information to the King in sworn statement this morning. And he is not so adept at lying as I.” He smiled at her again. “I for one am very happy to have you in the family. And I am not the only one. My wife is thrilled and Linnet also. One of my father’s last wishes was to see Roland married to a woman of character and sense.”
Eden looked to Lenora but she not did not look remotely offended. “Lenora has a good deal more to her than just a pretty face,” she retorted, and meant it.
“I am sure that is true,” Oswald conceded, with a nod to Lenora. “But I think even she would agree, she would not have brought Roland to heel.”
“He does not need bringing to heel,” Eden responded tetchily. “He’s my husband, not my hound!”
Oswald turned his head aside and covered his mouth as if to suppress a sneeze or cough. Eden felt an uncomfortable suspicion that he was smothering a laugh. “Of course,” he agreed hastily. His face when he turned back was quite composed, but his eyes were still alight with laughter. It crossed her mind, that her dear friend Fenella must have her work cut out for her with this man for a husband.
“I think I will just go and take a look out of the window,” said Lenora decisively, as she stood up and wandered in that direction.
Eden could only suppose her cousin was trying to be tactful. She looked uncertainly to Lord Vawdrey to find him still watching her. “I saw your plans for the Keep,” she said awkwardly.
“My plans?” he sounded startled.
“Yes, for the expansion and a second tower.”
“Good gods,” said Oswald Vawdrey, and for the first time she could see she had taken him aback. “He never kept them!”
Eden looked at him enquiringly. “The old baron?” she guessed.
His unseeing gaze refocused on her. “Yes, my father,” he said slowly. “I presented them to him, rather pompously, as a gift when I was twenty or thereabouts. I was vastly proud of myself.” His lips twisted wryly. “Alas, he was not ostensibly impressed or grateful. He believed me an impudent puppy to want to improve on perfection. I thought he would have consigned them to a fireplace years ago. He certainly never mentioned them again. Well, well, wonders will never cease.”
“I expect he was impressed,” said Eden, feeling strangely sorry for a younger version of Oswald. “I can hardly see how he could fail to be. I thought they were inspired.” She looked at him searchingly. “Roland is terribly proud of Vawdrey Keep as well, he must have got that from his father, I think. Did you want to be an architect then?”
“What? Oh no, it was just a little project to while away the hours. Having spent time at Vawdrey Keep, you must realize how one must find ways to keep oneself occupied.”
“If I’d had my books and my music I daresay I would have been vastly contented there,” said Eden defensively. “It is a very beautiful part of the country with many spectacular views.” Noticing he was watching her keenly, she shifted in her seat.
“I think, with your encouragement,” he began tentatively. “Roland would not be averse to making improvements to the old place. You might not think it, but he has managed to amass a surprising amount of wealth beating his opponents to a pulp in the field.” He pulled a face. “And he is not noticeably hampered either by sentiment or pride, when it comes to melting down his trophies to add to his already groaning coffers.”
“While it’s true that my husband routinely melts down his trophies,” said Eden spurred into making a defense. “I think you’re quite wrong to attribute this to a lack of sentimentality.” She paused. She didn’t want to betray any of Roland’s secrets, but she could surely point out something which any onlooker was free to observe. She eyed Oswald doubtfully. “Have you never noticed that Roland is one of the only knights who declines to take hostages during the melee exercise?”
Oswald’s eyelids flickered, and he tipped his head to one side, a faint frown on his face. “You clearly attach some significance to the fact, sister?” he said mildly, but she could see his eyes were watchful, despite his relaxed pose.
“I do, quite frankly,” she answered him. “How could I fail to, given what happened at the Battle of Adarva.”
Oswald’s expression tightened, and she could see her directness did not please him. Good gracious, did he really expect her to tiptoe around the issue like some kind of diplomat? “He was only fifteen at the time,” she persisted. “And thought he’d watched you die. Then he found out afterward you were a hostage-”
Oswald waved a hand, “Yes, I am aware of what happened, Eden,” he said dryly. “None so well as I.”
She took a deep breath. “Is it any wonder then, that he has no taste for the practice? Even though his greatest rivals in the field - Lord Kentigern, de Crecy… They all do it, as a matter of course. If all Roland cared about was coin,” she persisted doggedly. “Then he too, would hold his vanquished foe to ransom. But he does not.”
“Out of deference to me, you think?” asked Oswald lightly, but she could see the idea had affected him. He rose from his chair and crossed to the fireplace, looking down at it a moment. “I did not realize that hostage-taking was so widely practiced at tournaments these days,” he said finally, without turning his head.
“Well, no, how could you?” muttered Eden. “When none of you actually go to watch him compete?”
He turned his head at that, and looked at her a moment, his expression curious. Then his lips quirked and he looked, Eden thought, rather pleased. “We have been most remiss,” he said gravely. “You are quite right to pull me up. Tell me, which tournament would you recommend we attend as a family en masse?”
Eden was quite sure she did not manage to conceal her surprise at this, though she tried. “But surely, you are aware of the King’s royal tourney in two month’s time…?” she began.
“Ah yes, of course. And who knows, we may even see him reclaim his title!” he said with relish. “What an excellent notion, my dear Eden.”
She hesitated. “Are you not worried I may tell Roland that we were drugged?” she asked frankly.
Oswald leant back in his chair. “He would be furious on your behalf of course,” he said thoughtfully. “But on reflection, I believe he would forgive me for his treatment. Eventually.” He gave a small smile. “After all, I made sure he married the right girl.”
Lenora accompanied Eden back to the Queen’s apartments and they sat a while in the window seat while they threw out random questions at each other, as they naturally occurred.
“Well, but who carried me into Roland’s bedchamber?” Eden fretted, sitting suddenly bolt upright.
“Lord Vawdrey of course, but I was with him the whole time so you need not worry about the propriety.”
“And who removed my dress?”
“Me of course,” answered Lenora complacently. “My turn. What did you think when you received my trunk?”
“That you were furious with me,” admitted Eden. “Did you truly pick out these dresses intending them for me?”
“Of course,” said Lenora. “And very well you look in them too, instead of dressed like an old crow.”
Eden nudged her and Lenora laughed. “You could have my own things sent along to me now,” Eden suggested.
“I’m afraid those old dresses have been donated to the poor,” said Lenora virtuously. “To atone for your elopement.”
“They have not!”
“Will you tell Roland that he was drugged?” asked Lenora curiously.
“I’m not sure,” sighed Eden. “It would only cause disruption between him and his brother. Poor Fenella would not like that. Besides, he really doesn’t hold it against me that he thinks I tricked him. If anything, he sort of admires it.”
“I don’t understand how you can’t tell him,” frowned Lenora. “Are you in love with him? I already know he is with you.”
Eden pressed her lips together a moment. “We quarreled before the summons arrived from the Queen,” she admitted. “It could not have come at a worse time.”
“What did you quarrel about?”
Eden sighed. “It won’t make much sense if I even try to explain. You see, there’s this knight called Sir Renlowe…”
Lenora listened with her chin resting on her palm. “You’re right, it doesn’t make any sense to me,” she admitted. “But I’ve no brains to speak of.”
“I also told him he should not kiss me so much,” said Eden awkwardly, and turned bright red.
Lenora’s eyebrows rose. “I hate it when they try to do that,” she admitted, and Eden remembered what their grandmother had said about Lenora’s dislike of ardent suitors.
“I don’t,” she confided. “At least, not when it’s Roland. I just said that because… I don’t know. I wanted him to reassure me that I wasn’t just a warm body to him. Does that make sense?”
“A warm body?” Lenora repeated blankly.
Eden lowered her voice. “I know that he likes the… intimacy of the marriage bed,” she said wishing she did not sound so prim. “But I don’t know if it makes any difference that it’s me …” she trailed off miserably. “I’m not expressing myself very well.”
“Oh dear,” said Lenora. “Poor Roland.” Eden gave her a startled look. “Did you not read my letter?” Lenora chided her. “He’s been longing for you for months. The looks he was casting at you, even someone as disinclined for love as I, could read them quite plainly.” She looked at Eden in surprise. “You read all that poetry, cousin. Can you really not tell?”
Eden puffed out a breath. “I’ve been thinking that poetry isn’t much like the real thing at all.” Sir Roland is sick for love of you. She cast a sidelong look at Lenora. “Do you really think he was lovesick for me?”
“I still think he is,” said Lenora. “He won’t be cured until you love him back.”
“Do you think Lord Vawdrey spoke the truth? When he said that Roland said he would wed none but me.”
“I do,” said Lenora. “But it doesn’t really matter what I think.”
Eden reached across and clasped her cousin’s hand. “Yes, it does,” she said.
They sat for a moment in silence. Lenora squeezed her hand and they both looked up as the door opened and Jane ushered in two guests to the sitting room. Eden grabbed at Parnell’s collar, for he had bounded up at the intrusion.
It was Lady Harriet Portstanley and Lady Winifred Hawes, two serious-minded members of court who moved in scholarly circles. They had come, they said, to invite Eden to the poetry reading in the small gallery which they were sure she would not want to miss. As Eden had been instrumental in setting up these same poetry readings, it felt strange to be receiving an invite. Still, she thanked them for their consideration, and though Lenora pulled a face and cried off, Jane kindly intimated she would be happy to accompany her. She had not explicitly been told that she could not leave the Queen’s apartments alone, but it had been heavily implied. The four of them went along to the small gallery and sat and listened to the gathering of patrons and poets who had assembled there. Eden enjoyed herself for the most part, and had a flattering amount of people tell her she had been sorely missed amongst their number. One of the less enjoyable factors, was a small number of people present who were not regular members at all, but seemed to be there simply there on the off-chance of catching sight of her. They took the opportunity to gawk at Eden and talk to one another throughout the poetry. In the old days, Eden would have had stern words with them, but now she felt less certain of herself. Sat clothed in one of Lenora’s bridal frivolous gowns, she felt most unlike her old self. A mere month ago, no-one would have dared point and whisper about her in her presence. Now it seemed like something she would simply have to get used to it, until the next scandal came along to replace hers. At one point, she did level a censorious gaze in their direction, but it just had the dubious effect of dissolving them into giggles. Eden pursed her lips and went back to ignoring them.
Toward the end of the gathering, she fidgeted in her seat, wondering if it might be a good idea to simply slip away now before she was collared by anyone wishing to grill her. She touched Jane Cecil’s arm, and to Eden’s relief, Jane seemed to catch her meaning quick enough. They both rose to their feet and started edging quietly toward the door. In fact, Eden thought they had got away with it, when they managed to open and close the heavy door behind them, effecting their escape. She breathed a sigh of relief as the two of them started down the corridor, only to find her way barred by an irate gentleman, waving a parchment in her face.
“Three weeks!” he yelled. “And nary a word! Secure a patron they said! All your troubles will be over, they said!”
Eden flinched and stared at him. Dimly, she remembered him as one of poets from the group. She glanced back at the door to see if they had disbanded already, but no-one else had emerged.
“You don’t even remember me, do you?” he said accusingly.
“Mr – er- Lewen?“ ventured Eden, as things clicked into place. So he was the one that had written her the angry letter. Jane had drawn tactfully to one side of the corridor and was trying to look like she was nothing to do with them.
“I’m vastly flattered,” he remarked sarcastically.
“Of course I remember,” said Eden smoothly. “You secured the patronage of the Duchess of Rand, I think? A couple of months ago, at one of our meetings.”
“Oh yes!” said Mr Lewen with a short, sardonic laugh. “Her!”
Eden paused. “I’m afraid I don’t quite follow you-”
“Took my life’s work she did!” he huffed, tears springing to his eyes. “Said she would be in touch with me forthwith, and then what do I find?” he swung wide an arm and covered his eyes tragically. “She’s carried it off to her middle son’s seat in the country with her! Without even sending me word!”
Eden hesitated. “Is it your only copy she has taken?” she asked, not without sympathy. He was certainly very distressed. “I am sure I can find the direction of her son’s estate and write to her there-”
“It’s one hundred and fifty pages madam!” he screeched, pulling at his lank hair. “How many copies do you think I have?”
Eden drew herself up, adopting her firmest, most no-nonsense manner. Clearly expressing any sympathy for Mr Lewen in his current frame of mind was a mis-step. “As I said,” she said briskly. “I will certainly speak to the Duchess, and-”
Mr Lewen wheeled around, blocking Eden’s path with his body. He flung his skinny arms wide, preventing her from brushing past him. “That’s what you say!” he said wildly. “But when? When?” The last word was practically screamed in her face. Eden pursed her lips together. He was going to cause a scene at this rate. She glanced past him, but no-one else was yet in view. She was sure she did not have much time before the poetry gathering broke up and there would be plenty of spectators. “Please collect yourself, Mr Lewen,” she said coolly. “I realize this has being a trying time for you, but-”
“Oh, do you? Do you really?” he gave high bitter laugh, and Eden heard an edge of hysteria with a sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach. “What would the likes of you know about my struggles?” he demanded shrilly, his voice shaking with emotion. “You couldn’t have the faintest notion, madam!” Eden braced herself as he stepped directly into her space, bringing his face close to hers. “You’re absolutely bloody-”. His words finished with a startled yelp and Eden felt a whoosh of air, and a blur before her eyes. When she blinked and refocused, Mr Lewen was pinned to the middle of the wall, his legs dangling beneath him. Eden turned her head and found Roland Vawdrey glaring down the length of his muscular arm at the poet whose tunic he held bunched in his fist.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” he asked softly. Eden gasped, thinking for a moment he was addressing her. “Answer me!” his voice rang out sharply, and he slammed the unfortunate man back against the stone wall for emphasis. Eden stared as Mr Lewen’s mouth opened and closed like a fish. “What’s that you say,” Roland barked, narrowing his eyes. “Let’s have it. The reason you think you can speak to my wife in that manner?” His voice had dropped again, but somehow the softly spoken words seemed even more ominous. Mr Lewen’s terrified gaze darted to Eden in unspoken appeal.
“You know this man?” Roland turned his head to look at her.
Eden cleared her throat. “Mr Lewen is a poet of some renown,” she said.
“Is that so?” His words were clipped and very hard.
“Until today,” she forced herself to add. “He has always conducted himself in a courteous manner.”
“Indeed?” Roland’s gaze was fixed on the cringing poet’s face. “And why was today any different?”
When Mr Lewen remained dumbstruck, Eden cleared her throat. “Unfortunately, Mr Lewen has suffered a disappointment with his patroness, the Duchess of Rand.”
“A disappointment he saw fit to vent on you,” said Roland in a cold voice, his steady gaze fixed on the man dangling from his fist. “Apologize,” he added harshly.
“My apologies, good sir,” gabbled Lewen hastily.
“To my wife, fool.”
“I do implore you for forgiveness, Lady Eden,” begged Mr Lewen.
“If I ever hear you’ve been disrespectful to my wife in such a manner again,” said Roland in a curiously expressionless voice. “You will not like what happens.”
Mr Lewen gulped, then nodded his head jerkily. Roland released him, and he fell to the ground, clutching his throat and wheezing. “It won’t happen again, I assure you,” he gasped.
“I should hope not indeed,” responded Eden gravely. She turned back to Roland who was stood watching her with a narrowed gaze. Was she imagining it, or was there a faint gleam of challenge in those eyes? “Thank you,” she said. For a moment, she thought he looked surprised, but then almost instantly, it was gone.
Mr Lewen lurched off on shaky legs, and they both watched his retreat a moment.
“I think that the meeting will be disbanding, any moment,“ said Eden with dread. Jane had come forward and was looking awkwardly between the two of them. “Jane,” she said. “I think it would be advisable for us to move from this place before everyone emerges.”
“I agree,” said Jane hastily.
“Would you object to my husband accompanying us down as far as the lower gallery?” Jane hesitated, looking torn. Clearly she had received some directive about keeping them apart. “Please,” appealed Eden. “We will stay in your view at all times.”
Jane swallowed, two spots of pink color appearing in her pale face. “Very well,” she said and fell in step behind them.
Eden placed her arm on Roland’s and faced forward, “You do not mind accompanying us?” she said, when he did not move at once. That seemed to spur him on and they started walking. She stole a sideways look at him, only to find he was doing the same thing to her.
“H-how did it go today?” she asked with a faint air of desperation. “With the King?”
He cleared his throat. “It was… interesting,” he said, though it sounded like he substituted that word for another.
Eden regarded him anxiously. “Did you get to speak?”
He shook his head. “Apparently, neither of us can, until tomorrow.”
Eden noticed she was fretfully plucking at his sleeve and pulled herself up. “Sorry, were you on your way somewhere just now? Have I dragged you away from something important?”
“Yes?” But Roland did not speak and unable to bear the silence, Eden decided on impulse to simply plunge ahead with what was on her mind. She took a deep breath. “I’ve been thinking about… everything you said, and the only conclusion that I can draw is that I am the absolute opposite of Sir Renlowe. In fact,” she carried on recklessly. “I’m a totally spineless coward. All I care about is appearing perfectly composed in front of others. You included. I can’t even imagine competing, week in and week out, in front of crowds of people, suffering humiliation after humiliation. And getting no encouragement, save from the likes of you, paying his ransom. You’re right. He must have incredible inner resilience and strength.” She steeled herself to brave a glance at Roland’s face. He looked rather stunned. She swallowed. “In future, I mean to take Sir Renlowe as my role model,” she said, her cheeks burning.
This last part seemed to startle him into speech, “Eden…”
Before he could continue, and she lost her nerve, she plunged on. “I’d been tormenting myself about that kiss I gave you for the past week. Because I felt like I made a fool of myself. You didn’t expect me to give you that sort of kiss, but I misunderstood you. It wasn’t appropriate…” She gripped at his arm, unable to think what to say next, her face aflame.
“The kiss was perfect, Eden,” he interrupted her sharply.
“…And so, I said all those stupid things, because…” she gasped, tilting her head upwards to discourage the wetness she could feel in her eyes. “Because I was too much of a coward to tell you how I really felt… which was sadly conflicted and… a little depressed in spirits after being left alone for so many days…”
Roland gave an exclamation and turned to look over his shoulder, as if checking Jane Cecil still followed them a few paces behind. By the muffled, but exasperated sound he made, Eden knew she was.
“I’m well aware that I acted like the w-worst sort of harpy after you thoughtfully brought me all those gifts back from Areley Kings,” Eden continued wretchedly. “But I-”
“Eden,” he said quietly, yet firmly interrupting her. “You are too hard on yourself. I had no idea…” He reached for her hand and applied pressure to her fingers. “This is not your fault. It’s mine.”
“So you… you will kiss me again, then?” she asked anxiously.
“Eden…” he said with a sharp inward breath. “You little wretch, what are you trying to do to me?”
She feared she had totally lost track of the conversation now. “But you said ‘rest assured it won’t happen again’, and I surmised from that...”
“I was fuming,” he said in a low, tense voice. “At the idea you did not welcome my kisses.”
“Oh,” she said softly.
“I had no intention of ever stopping kissing you,” he continued hoarsely. “That was just my hurt pride talking.”
Eden leant further toward him. He adjusted his hold to squeeze her hand. “It was my hurt pride made me say those things too,” she admitted with a small choked laugh. Sir Renlowe, she thought. Sir Renlowe, Sir Renlowe, Sir Renlowe. Then she spoke. “I wish you could kiss me now.”
He made a strangled sound in his throat. “Can you slip away later?” he asked in a low voice. Eden’s eyes widened. “I’d come to you,” he carried on, “But I understand you’re sharing your bedchamber with another.”
“With Jane,” she clarified. “But I don’t quite know how I’d manage to slip away. Unless…” she thought of Lenora and bit her lip.
“Perhaps I could enlist Lenora’s help?” she whispered. “My grandmother has returned to Hallam Hall today, but my uncles will likely be in the Montmayne quarters.”
“Come to me,” said Roland. “Mason and Linnet are staying with Oswald and Fenella tonight at their house in town.”
“Did they not invite you?” asked Eden, feeling stung on his behalf.
“I’m not good company right now. For anyone save yourself.” He spoke the words with a faint trace of self-consciousness and heightened color in his cheeks which made him look very boyish.
Eden told herself firmly that she was not enchanted by this bashful side of Roland. “If I don’t manage to get away,” she said in a low voice, glancing over her shoulder for they had reached the Queen’s quarters. “What will we do, if they try to say our marriage is unlawful?”
“Fight it,” he said grimly. “With every weapon at our disposal.”
Instead of feeling miserable, Eden felt a sudden reckless joy. She nodded, unable to think of appropriate words in response. The guards were standing to attention, and Eden waited reluctantly for Jane to catch up with them. As she withdrew her hand from his arm, he caught it and pressed it to his cheek a moment. Eden curled her fingers to feel the faint stubble on his jaw. Then he dropped her hand and walked away. Eden watched him all the way to the end of the corridor before she turned and entered the Queen’s rooms.
In the end Eden simply sent a message to Lenora via one of the Queen’s pages.
Dear Cousin, would it be possible for you to invite me to dine with you tonight in your chambers? It would be lovely to catch up with your news, and I would consider it a particular favor if you would invite our mutual acquaintance Lady G, who I quite long to see.
The page sped off carrying her note, and though she had initially been pleased as punch by her ingenuity, Eden had no sooner sent it, then she started doubting that Lenora would catch her meaning. Lady G referred to Lenora’s cat, Griselda, and Eden’s intention was that Lenora would see the supper request for the mere nonsense it was, and realize she was instead asking for her help in some subterfuge. However, so fond was Lenora of her cats, that Eden feared she might not find anything amiss with her letter! Even though the whimsical tone was most unlike Eden’s usual manner. She paced about, wringing her hands and fretting that she would not manage her escape from the Queen’s confinement that evening. The Queen arrived back from her ride and changed into a charming outfit of peacock blue. Eden tidied her hair and changed into her rose pink gown. When she emerged, the Queen was reading a note which she passed to Eden.
“Your cousin invites you for supper,” she said. “It might be a good idea for the two of you to clear the air, though I had hoped you might sing for me after supper. I have Viscount Bardulph dining with me this evening.” Eden noticed a fleeting look of dislike cross Jane’s face, before she suppressed it. Interesting, thought Eden. Jane does not like the charming viscount! “Never mind,” sighed the Queen. “Jane dear, you must read for us instead after supper.”
“Viscount Bardulph does not care for my reading voice,” pointed out Jane without any expression. “He said I have a nasal inflection, if you recall your majesty.”
“Nonsense!” said the Queen heartily. “He merely teases you. This is the problem with unmarried women,” she said turning to Eden. “They do not understand what teasing creatures men can be.”
Eden felt a sudden sympathy for Jane. “It is likely because he is not used to our accent,” she said. “Viscount Bardulph is from the Western Isles, is he not?” Jane’s answering look said she wished he would go back there, and soon.
“That is so,” nodded the Queen. “He is my countryman.”
“Will you dine with your family this evening?” Jane asked Eden in a deliberate change of subject.
“Oh… yes,” Eden replied. “My cousin writes she will call for me at seven.”
Lenora arrived promptly at seven, and even exchanged a few words with the Queen. Eden was amazed at her cousin’s self-possession. There was nothing furtive or nervous about her manner, and when Eden whispered her plan to her, as they proceeded to the west wing, she did not even blink an eyelid.
“Of course,” she nodded placidly. “I thought it would be something of the sort. I can return for you in three hours.”
“I hope it is not a great imposition,” Eden fussed nervously. “What will you do if a guard were to arrive for me, or something of that sort?”
Lenora shrugged. “I daresay I should think of something,” she said vaguely, with an air of assurance that quite staggered Eden.
“You must not worry,” Lenora said glibly. “Just make sure you are ready to return with me at ten o’clock.”
“I will.” They had arrived at the Vawdrey rooms, and Eden kissed Lenora’s cheek and knocked faintly at the door. It opened immediately. Parnell, who she had brought with her jumped up at his master in excitement. Eden heard Castor bark from inside, and the next thing she knew she was whisked inside, pressed back against the door and thoroughly kissed, as Roland turned the key in the lock. A loud ‘woof’ startled them both, as Castor came bounding over to welcome her and Parnell. Roland grudgingly made room for the large beasts, milling around them. “Hello, hello there Castor. I knew they would be pleased to see one another. Lenora is calling back for me in three hours,” she said, as Roland propelled her to a chair by the fire. He sat down and pulled her into his lap, kissing her again until she was breathless and clinging to him.
“Do you know what’s going to happen on the morrow?” she asked as soon as she could draw breath.
“Not really,” he admitted. “I think everyone who wanted to put in their two pennies has now done so. Mason caught me up on the first day and today seemed like much of the same.”
“What did he make of it?” Eden asked.
Roland exhaled noisily. “He scarcely knew what to make of it,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck. “And neither did I, hearing his re-telling.”
“Lord Vawdrey and Lenora swore that I was the intended bride,” marveled Eden lowering her voice. “Listening to them, I almost believe it myself.”
Roland looked at her then glanced away. “Mason said the same thing,” he muttered.
He flung his head back and rested it on the back of the chair. “You should have been,” he said closing his eyes. “If I hadn’t been so fucking blind about my own feelings. I never exchanged more than a half dozen words with your cousin.”
Eden slipped her arm around his neck. “Don’t be upset,” she said pressing in close to him. His jaw remained tense, even when she dropped a kiss on it. “If you had asked my uncle, I would just have said no. Screamed it, actually. Then run for a convent,” she said seriously.
His eyes flickered open and he grudgingly smiled. “I’d still have had you, all the same,” he said.
“Yes,” she whispered and kissed the corner of his mouth, where it turned up. “And today? Who was there?”
“Your uncle Christopher,” muttered Roland. Eden tensed. Oh no. “Mason and Cuthbert,” Roland continued with disgust.
Eden drew back to look at him uncertainly. “Really?”
“Little swine has gone to Oswald’s tonight. Making himself scarce.”
“Attley and Bev.”
“Oh dear,” said Eden. “I don’t think your friends approve of me.”
“Well, that’s where you’re wrong,” said Roland, his thumb circling her hip. “It seems they had my measure from the start. I like you in this dress,” he said. “But I still want to take it off you. Can I?” Eden wanted to ask what his friends had said for him to get that impression, but Roland was kissing her again, and demanding her whole-hearted participation. When she wound her arms around his neck, he gave a deep growl of appreciation. Eden drew back in alarm. “No, you don’t,” he said, tightening his arms about her. “Not after tormenting me like that this afternoon.”
“Tormenting you?” she asked uncertainly.
“Telling me you wanted me to kiss you, when I couldn’t.”
“Oh,” she smiled at him. “But I did not say that to torment you. I thought you would be pleased.” Noticing his expectant air, she reviewed his last few sentences in her head. “Yes, you can. Take my dress off me, I mean.”
She had no sooner uttered the words than he swung her up in his arms. “Stay!” he said firmly to the dogs who had jumped to their feet. They both dropped back down by the fire and Parnell rolled onto his side.
“I expect they are missing the others,” observed Eden ruminatively. Roland said nothing, just shouldered the door open. He carried her inside and Eden looked around with interest. “I miss our box-bed,” she sighed.
“Did I tell you I ordered another?” Roland asked, setting her on her feet and spinning her round so he could start unfastening her laces.
Eden looked back over her shoulder at him. “For here?” she asked with surprise.
“No, for Vawdrey Keep. It’s a lot bigger and grander, with carving and lots of shelves for books and sconces for candles and things.”
“Sounds nice,” said Eden.
“I ordered us new bedding too. With our initials.” He tugged at her bodice and then maneuvered it down to her waist. “I should get one for here too, though,” he reflected. “That’s a good idea.” With a few more short pulls, her skirts dropped to the floor and Eden stepped out of them.
“This bed looks fine though,” Eden said, walking toward it as Roland started hurriedly divesting himself of his own clothing. She had only just slipped under the covers, when he bounded in beside her and started pulling her shift up over her head. Once they were both naked, he pulled her into his arms and they lay still a moment.
“Naked as babes,” Roland murmured.
“I’ve heard that phrase several times today.”
“In what context?” puzzled Eden. Then she exclaimed. “About us?”
He laughed against her neck, tickling her. “Yes,” he admitted. “This reminds me of when I first woke up on that morning. Though it’s not entirely right.” His tone was teasing and he rolled onto his back, pulling her on top of him. Then with one hand he palmed her breast, the other coming to rest with great familiarly against her bottom. “It was more like this.”
For the smallest moment, Eden considered telling him they had both been drugged that night. But then she realized it would completely ruin his playful mood. Suddenly she realized, he would be angry on her behalf. “I remember, your hair smelled nice.” He sniffed it now. “Your skin smelled nice,” he buried his nose in her neck and breathed in there with every sign of pleasure. “And you sure as hells felt nice,” he carried on, giving her a good squeeze. “But the strangest thing was, when I realized it was you…”
“Yes?” Eden prompted tensely.
“I had the strangest feeling in my chest,” he mused. “At the time I couldn’t identify what it was.”
“A sort of sick feeling?” suggested Eden in muffled tones against his shoulder.
He gave a short laugh. “No, not a sick feeling.”
He cleared his throat. “It felt like a sort of burgeoning sense of well-being. Like… a huge weight had been lifted from there. Somehow it felt like everything had come right with my world. I was glad.”
Eden felt like all the air had been sucked from her lungs. She lay a moment like a stunned fish, before trailing her hand to rest over his chest a moment. “Here?” she asked.
He shifted her hand to the left so it lay over his heart. “More like… here.”
Eden thought of Lenora’s words. Maybe in some obnoxious Vawdrey male type way, he had been pining for her. She lifted her head to look at him. Glad. He said he’d been glad to wake up and find her in his arms, she thought, her head reeling. Glad. To find himself obligated to wed her? She felt her body trembling. It couldn’t possibly be true, could it?
“Cold?” He asked in concern, crowding around her at once, rubbing his palm up and down her back. Eden found herself glancing uneasily at the door. “No-one’s going to burst in, sweetheart,” he assured her. “We’d hear the dogs first.”
That was true enough, Eden found herself relaxing a little. “I wish we were back at the Keep,” she said wistfully.
“Really?” He sounded pleased.
“I don’t mind,” he said. “So long as…”
Unable to hear anymore sweet words so soon, Eden leaned forward and kissed his lips. He said her kiss had been perfect last time, so she kissed him again boldly, and with tongue. Roland groaned into her mouth, hauling her body more firmly against his own, which strained against her with bunched muscle and hard need. Eden grasped his shoulders and let herself relax against him.
“I don’t like poetry,” Roland Vawdrey whispered. “But I do like you, Eden.” He was tracing his fingertips over her hips. She shivered. Although his body felt tense and primed, his actions were lazy and unhurried. “And you don’t like tournaments, but you do like me.” He tugged one of her hands down from his shoulder back to his chest. “I want your hands all over my body.” His words with thick with desire now. Experimentally, Eden ran her hand over the warm skin of his muscular chest. His eyes darkened and his chest heaved. He definitely liked that.
“Oh Eden,” he whispered.
Why did he keep doing that? Speaking her name with pleasure? It scrambled her brains and turned her to a puddle of mush. She gazed down at him. “I thought of another weapon at our disposal,” she said breathlessly and let her hand wander lightly down his flat belly. He held very still, and made a noise of startled pleasure when she made out the shape of his maleness with her hand.
Roland sucked in his breath. “My cock?” he asked looking confused.
Eden blushed violently. “No! Yes…” she corrected herself. “I mean, well…” she lowered her voice. “You could put your baby in me.”
For a full minute, he didn’t utter a word. “What?” he asked finally in a strangled voice, breathing hard.
Eden glanced down in alarm at his violent reaction to her words. He seemed to have swelled to an enormous size, and thrust more firmly into her grasp. “Um.. well…” Eden was forced to adjust her hold. “It... was just an idea. I probably didn’t think it through…”
“Say it again, Eden,” he urged her huskily, his grip on her hips tightening.
Her eyes returned to his, her cheeks were scarlet. “I thought that well, one way around our marriage being annulled would be for there to be, a – um - well, a legal impediment to their nullifying…”
“Say. It. What. You. Said. Before.”
“You could put your baby in me,” she repeated wide-eyed.
He breathed in once. Twice. Then his glazed eyes seemed to re-focus on her. “Gods, Eden,” his voice was so gravelly she could barely recognize it. “Do you want that?”
“Ye-es,” she said, feeling a little alarmed by his reaction.
“Tell me then,” he urged, his nostrils flaring.
“Tell me to put my baby in you.”
“Roland,” she squealed, as he in one swift motion, he rolled her onto her back and loomed above her.
“I can’t wait,” he said shakily as he settled between her legs. “Gods. I could spill right now.”
She helped him by wriggling around underneath him, her legs wide, until he was poised exactly where he needed to be. His excitement seemed to be transferring to her. Eden felt wild and edgy with some kind of driving need. “Roland?” she asked uncertainly. He stilled, his eyes flying to meet her. “Please,” she whispered, licking her lips.
“Anything,” he vowed, though he was trembling now. “What do you need? My fingers? My mouth?”
“Put your baby in me.”
He thrust, and Eden had to stifle a cry with the back of her hand. He was lodged so deep, her eyes watered.
“I’m not crying, all is well,” she assured him, and to her surprise, found it was. She looked back up to find him watching her in pained enquiry, sweat beading on his forehead. “You can move now,” she said.
He grabbed her knee and pushed it out to the side, pinning her open to him as he withdrew and then thrust again. “Gods, I’m never leaving you again,” he groaned.
“What do you mean?” asked Eden, bracing a hand against the headboard.
“Taking you with me.” He planted his other hand against the mattress, in an attempt not to crush her with his ardor.
“T-to the tournaments?” stammered Eden, who was finding it hard to follow the conversation whilst his hard body jostled against hers.
Eden opened and closed her mouth. It would probably be as well to put an end to the conversation she thought. They could always return to it at some later point. “Very well,” she said, “Husband.”
His head snapped up and he locked eyes with her. They both gasped, when part of him seemed to swell further still, inside her.
“Eden,” he whispered, dropping his head down onto her breast. Everything inside her, where he was sheathed was fluttering. “Say it, again,“ he whispered.
“What?” she asked, confused at the odd sensation.
“Call me husband. Say my name.” He rocked his hips, making her gasp this time. “Do it, Eden.”
She licked her lips. “Roland,” she whispered.
“Yes,” he grunted, rocking hard against her.
“Husband.” It came out like a whine this time. Why was that?
“Fuck,” he spoke the expletive so clearly, her eyes flew wide. “Are you-?” His eyes were boring into hers. “Eden?”
What? Eden, turned her face away in confusion. It couldn’t possibly feel good, could it? “I-I’m not sure-” she gasped again. It wasn’t a good idea to try talking, when everything felt so strange. She tightened her grasp on Roland’s shoulders and felt his deep murmur of appreciation vibrate right the way through her. Suddenly she couldn’t get close enough to his big body. Her legs wrapped around his hips, she could feel herself tighten around his man-root so tight that she felt alarmed. She arched up into him, straining, reaching for she knew not what, but suddenly desperate to achieve it.
“Oh gods,” Roland groaned. “Yes, like that, sweeting.” He thrust into her and Eden yelped, but from pleasure this time, not pain. She gripped onto him so tight, she was sure he would object. Instead, he just flexed his body against hers harder. “Finally,” he breathed. “I knew... Gods I just knew you’d be like this.”
“Oh! Oh Roland!”
“Tell me,“ he ground out. “Now.”
“I-I hardly know!” she gasped. “It feels so… inside me,” she babbled.
“Good? Tell me it feels good to you, Eden.”
“You feel so… good.”
“Yes,” he gritted out. “Yes. Every time now, I’m going to make sure you feel good like this. As good as you feel to me.”
Really? She made him feel that good? Running her hands over his bunched and flexing muscles, she could feel his strength and resolve as his body labored above hers. She felt bold and daring, like she could not get enough of touching his warm skin.
“Yes!” she whimpered, sinking her fingers into his shoulders and arching up into him. “Please Roland!”
She watched his eyes smolder. “What else?” he demanded.
Eden gazed up at him helplessly. She wrapped her legs around his back, clutching him tighter to her. Why wasn’t he moving like she needed him to?
“Eden? What else am I to you?”
She refocused on his tense expression. What was he to her? She cast about wildly. “H-husband?” she ventured.
A look of vast satisfaction spread over his face. “That’s right.” He rewarded her with a few hard strokes that had her keening against his shoulder. When his pace slackened, threatening to stop again, a frustrated Eden dragged her hands down his back to his buttocks and gripped him tight.
Roland uttered a strangled oath, and started moving his hips in earnest. “If you want me gentle, you need to ease your grip,” he warned.
With a reserve of strength she didn’t know she possessed, Eden squeezed him even tighter, using all her strength to haul him against her.
His body shook. “Gods Eden, if you knew what you did to me-” his words broke off, as he crushed his mouth to hers. And then, he was pushing her back into the mattress, driving her into it. Their bodies were a tangle of pulsating need, with their limbs moving together with one purpose. To lose themselves in each other’s body. Eden cried out, when she found herself taken in a tidal wave of sensation and crashed against the rocks, coming apart in a thousand pieces. Only to find herself safe and in one piece once again, clinging to her anchor, which was Roland Vawdrey. He dropped his head and roared into her shoulder when his own wave broke. Eden’s hand flew to catch hold of the back of his neck, anchoring him to her.
By the time she came out of her stupor, she was lying sprawled over his chest, like a limp rag. Roland Vawdrey was on his back beneath her, breathing steadily. She should roll off him. If she could muster the energy. Was this what it had felt like every time for him? No wonder he was always clamoring for her. She cracked an eye open, but could not quite bring herself to roll off him. One of Roland’s hands was tucked behind his head at the pillow, the other rested on her lower back. He was lying still, as if asleep, but something told Eden that if she tried to extricate herself he would have something to say about it. She closed her eyes and gave up the battle before it had even begun.
“Sleep a while,” he murmured. “I won’t let you sleep too long.”
“Lenora returns at ten, don’t forget,” she said and yawned.
It was only half an hour later that Roland heard the door to their apartments open. He tensed immediately, and Eden grumbled into his shoulder. The dogs however, did not bark, and he recognized his brother’s low tones. Shit. A sharp rap on the door startled them both. “What do you want?” yelled out Roland, bad-naturedly.
“It’s me,” said Mason’s deep voice. “Come out and have a drink with us.”
Eden gasped and clung to him, so he stroked his hand down her side. “Shhh, it’s fine, love,” he assured her.
They dressed hurriedly, speaking in snatched whispers. He helped her back into her dress and craned his head toward her as she told him in murmurs that she had felt very low after receiving her cousin’s trunkful of clothes. How she had feared that all was lost between her and Lenora but now it seemed they had made it up and everything was resolved. He frowned over her reading of the gift of clothes from her cousin. It seemed to him that she had put the worst interpretation possible on it, but he hesitated before saying anything to put her out. It seemed to him, that he was growing damned tactful as a husband. “Well,” he said, “that’s good all is resolved betwixt the two of you, in any event.” She also repeated the fact her grandmother, who had instigated this whole hearing mess, was heading back home, something Roland had not really absorbed earlier. This news he also managed to accept without an explosion of righteous wrath, but when he stepped back to survey Eden he suffered a set-back to his new equanimity. “You can’t go out looking like that,” he scowled.
“What do you mean?” Eden frowned, turning to look at him. She patted the pink gown she had just hurriedly donned, clearly thinking she looked perfectly respectable.
Roland snorted. “They’re not seeing you like that, Eden. Only I get to see you like that.”
Her hands flew to her hair. “Do I look untidy?”
“Untidy is not the word,” he said dryly.
“What is then?” she asked.
“Tumbled,” he answered with great restraint.
“Tumbled?” She turned to arch a brow at him. “Does that mean what I think it means?” He smirked. “Disgraceful,” she said lightly, and smiled. He felt her smile right down to his bones. “You must have a comb somewhere hereabouts,” she said. “Do you remember,” she added with a hint of shyness. “How I borrowed your comb at-” But he had rounded the bed and pulled her firmly into his arms again. “Roland?” This time when he kissed her, he was gentle, but unhurried. When he finally lifted his lips from hers, she sighed. “That was a good kiss,” she said, and looked up at him through her eyelashes. “A very good kiss.”
“Good is not the word,” he said gruffly. “Besides, all kisses with you are good.” It was nothing more than the truth. She smiled again at that, completely unaware that he never said things like this. Never even thought them. Then again, Eden Montmayne wasn’t exactly famous for her smiles. Yet, here they were. Him spouting sweet words, and her smiling.
If anyone thought they were taking her from him, they were vastly mistaken. There was no chance in hells he was giving her up. Not now, or ever. She was his and so she would remain. It would take more than a royal decree to alter that fact. He shied away from what this meant, and instead led her to the door of his room and dragging back the bolt.
She caught his arm before he opened the bedchamber door. “What will your brothers say?” she whispered, looking worried. “About my having been here tonight?”
“If they’ve any sense of self-preservation, they won’t say a damned thing,” he answered grimly, and swung the door open, taking her hand and led her out into the sitting room.
Oswald and Mason Vawdrey were both sat before the fire, and though their eyes widened at the sight of Eden, they wisely said nothing, except utter a polite greeting. She murmured back in kind and Roland led her to a chair set slightly back from the others. Then he kneeled at her feet and helped her on with her stockings and shoes. The dogs thrust their noses at her over the arms of the chair and she stroked their muzzles. “Does it distress you that your grandmother has left already?” he asked, as it suddenly occurred to him. He kept his voice low, reluctant to have his brothers overhear their private conversation, but no doubt the bastards could hear every word.
“Not as much as it ought to,” she admitted, pulling a face. “She’s seldom at court, and I’m used to only seeing her when I’m at Hallam Hall which is not above twice a year these days.” She hesitated. “It does make me happy that she cared enough about me to cause all this fuss,” she confided in a rush. “Even though it has caused you and your family a good deal of inconvenience-”
“Eden,” he interrupted her. “When all this is over and done with… then I’ll appreciate it too. I just can’t right now, that’s all. We’ll invite her to Vawdrey Keep.” He winced. “When we’ve made it a bit more habitable.”
“What’s wrong with the Keep?” asked Eden defensively.
“Well for a start, there’s no mattresses in the guest bedchambers,” he pointed out dryly. Then his eye caught on a piece of paper on the floor, which he retrieved. The sloping hand was unfamiliar to him, and he stared at it in bewilderment for a moment or two.
Eden looked up from where she was fussing Castor. “Oh, I think that’s mine,” she said. “I must have slipped it into my sleeve cuff to finish reading it later.”
“Yours?” Roland lowered the letter with a heavy frown. “Who wrote this to you?” he asked with a sudden deadly calm.
“Mr Edwin Childers,” responded Eden readily enough.
“Childers? Who is he? What the hell does he mean by addressing you as ‘Mistress, whose every word, leads my heart to throb inside my breast’?”
Eden gave a startled laugh. “He’s not addressing me.” Her expression turned grave, seeing he was not amused. “He’s a poet. That is merely three verses of his epic poem he has revised.”
Her guiltless manner calmed him a little, but still he returned to the piece of paper with displeasure. “Tell him to write his poem on a separate damn page next time,” he said. “I don’t appreciate such sentiments being scribbled in the body of a letter sent to my wife.”
Eden straightened up at this, looking serious. After a moment’s heavy pause, she nodded. “I will.”
“I understand that this stuff is important to you Eden,” he said gravely. “But there need to be rules. I can’t have men accosting you in corridors and writing you love notes. I’ll end up killing someone.”
“What sort of rules?” she asked warily. “Is this about a private correspondence or attending poetry meets?”
“You can continue to do both,” he said, with extreme trust and generosity if he did say so himself. “But I need your word you’ll tell me if anyone oversteps any boundaries.”
She breathed out. “Very well,” she said.
“Very well, what?”
Eden looked disconcerted. “Very well, I promise?” she ventured uncertainly.
“Very well, husband,” he stressed.
Eden opened and closed her mouth on a no doubt tart reply. “Very well husband,” she said meekly, surprising them both.
Roland turned his head sharply, when he heard what sounded like a stifled chuckle from the vicinity of the fireplace. Both his brothers swivelled hastily back to face the fire. He returned to Eden, who was seemingly oblivious to their avid audience.
Hesitantly she reached out and took one of his hands in hers. “Thank you,” she said, robbing him of all breath. “For understanding when something’s important to me.” He looked down at their clasped hands a moment, before taking a deep breath. “Of course,” he said, wishing devoutly his bloody brothers weren’t drinking in their exchange. He twisted his hand and interlaced their fingers. “This time tomorrow night,” he said. “All this foolishness will be over, and we can get on with our lives. Our married lives,” he stressed, leaving no room for her to get the wrong impression. “Together.”
She nodded, and a light knock was heard on the door. The dogs both bounced up, but he managed to clamp Castor’s collar. “Quiet boy!” Her cousin had arrived for her. Already.
“So, it is true then, that you nearly strangled some poet this afternoon?” commented Mason as Roland closed the door after seeing Eden and Parnell off.
“Cuthbert heard it from one of the pages.”
“Come and sit with us,” directed Oswald, gesturing to a chair.
“Where is Cuthbert?” asked Roland, dragging a chair toward the fire. He slumped down in it feeling heavy of heart. When Oswald went to pour him some wine, he waved it away. “I want a clear head on the morrow.”
“One cup won’t fog your head,” Mason pointed out. “Unless you’re Oswald.” Roland just shook his head. “Cuthbert’s out making merry with the other squires,” added Mason. “No doubt fleecing them out of their pennies at cards or dice.”
“And telling them salacious gossip,” added Oswald. “You and Eden really are doing the current rounds at court. He will be dining out freely on that tale for many a week.” He replenished Mason’s goblet of wine, and poured himself and Roland water.
Roland shrugged, unconcerned. Castor came and lay at his feet.
“That dog recognizes you as his master,” said Mason. “He’s not looking for Father anymore. How is all at the Keep?”
“Baxter’s mad as ever. Fulco’s mother’s means to keep him unwed. We’ve a new maid from the village, named Brigid. I need to buy...” he waved a hand vaguely. “Hangings and draperies and such.”
A heavy silence greeted his words, looking up, Roland saw his brothers regarding each other with raised brows. “What?” he asked.
“Did our little brother first list people above possessions?” asked Oswald.
“Did he just bring up the subject of Fulco and his lack of a wife?” chimed in Mason.
“Did he just mention curtains?”
“Fuck off the both of you,” said Roland without heat. He took a sip of water. “All is fine, but I need to spruce up the place now I’ve a wife to keep happy.”
“I’m very pleased to hear it,” said Oswald. “I knew you were the man for the job.”
“I never would have thought Eden Montmayne was the woman for it, though,” admitted Mason.
Roland found himself bristling.
“I disagree,” said Oswald. “Though I do wonder…” he turned to Roland. “Has it ever crossed your mind, little brother, that Eden looks set to become a very formidable female indeed, once she’s had a few years to adjust,” he added thoughtfully. “From the role of poor relation.”
Roland frowned cleared. “Oh aye,” he agreed absently. “You should have seen how she ripped into the wife of that Lelland fellow at Tranton Vale. Reduced her to tears. Not,” he added. “That she didn’t deserve it.”
“Oh, I’m sure,” murmured Oswald.
“You sound almost proud of it!” Mason observed, swigging his wine.
“So what if I am?” demanded Roland. “A man wants a wife who can hold her own, and defend his corner.”
“Very true,” agreed Oswald hastily. “And after all, our father always wanted you to marry a woman of character.”
“Did he?” asked Roland with a flicker of interest. “First I’ve heard of it. He always told me he judged a wench by the broadness of their hips.”
“It’s true he came to wisdom lamentably late in life,” sighed Oswald. “But he did achieve it in the end.”
“I predict your marriage will have never a dull moment, brother,” said Mason with a wry smile.
“Well it hasn’t so far,” agreed Roland. “But if you mean I’ll lead her a merry dance, you’re quite wrong.” He glowered at his brothers who were watching him with interest. “For I mean to be a very good sort of husband.”
“Do you?” asked Oswald. “Well, that’s an excellent start.”
“You don’t need to tell me that,” said Roland. “I’m already far and away ahead of the both of you in that respect.”
“How so?” frowned Mason, plunking down his cup.
“Well,” expanded Roland. “You intended to saddle Linnet with a couple of brats and carry on much the same as always. And as for you,” he said turning to Oswald. “You meant to send Fen into the country and forget you even had a wife!” Both his brothers stiffened. “It took you both a couple of months at least before you realized you wanted to keep them by your side.”
“At least we never nearly married the wrong one!” pointed out Mason defensively.
Now it was Roland’s turn to look pained, but Oswald gave a small cough. “No, no, he’s quite right. He adapted a lot faster to wedded life than we.” He regarded Roland curiously. “How long did it take incidentally? Before you were reconciled?”
“Soon as I woke up, of course, and found her in my bed,” replied Roland smugly. “Turns out I’m a lot smarter than we all thought.”
Eden had never felt so on display, as when she walked into the audience chamber the next morning, her head held high and her back straight. She had performed music, sung and recited and even danced for a viewing audience and felt less conspicuous, than she did now. Every head turned her way and a loud whispering rose up to the rafters, increasing in volume. The Queen was directly ahead of her, dressed in a gown of glittering emerald green. But it was not Queen Armenal that everyone stared at, it was Eden. She wore Lenora’s most dazzling betrothal dress of gold, festooned with pink roses. It was a ridiculous confection of a gown, but strange to say, Eden recognized she looked well in it. Lenora’s maidservant Hannah had been sent along to dress her hair, so it had been like old times. Instead of her customary hairstyle, Eden had instead requested the same arrangement she had worn at Tranton Vale, with a section of her long black hair left loose down her back, and only the front part taken up and braided into a coronet. Then, she had a gauzy gold veil attached to the back of the braided section to flutter at her middle back. Looking at herself in the glass that morning, although she had felt sick with nerves, she had thought, I am too young to wear black. It is right there should be color in my life.
As she marched after Armenal now, she caught Lenora’s eye in the front row. Her cousin clapped her hands together in delight to see her wearing the gold dress. Eden permitted herself a small smile of welcome at Lenora, ignored her uncles, and allowed the page to discreetly direct her to a seat at the front. The Queen mounted the steps to the dais to join King Wymer, who already sat in his throne, looking rather impatient to get proceedings started. Eden kept staring straight ahead, though of course, her heart thudded against her ribs and all she really wanted to do was scan the crowd in search of Roland.
“Well, well,” said the King raising his voice, and beckoning to a plump scribe who hurried over. He turned to Queen Armenal and they exchanged a few words. He gave a short nod.
“We are pleased to have arrived at this third and final day in deliberations over the marriage of Sir Roland Vawdrey and Lady Eden Montmayne,” he said loudly. “We have now heard several statements from witnesses and parties involved. My consort, Queen Armenal will now sum up our findings.
The Queen nodded portentously as she waited for the buzz of conversation to die down. “It is undeniable,” she began sternly. “That this marriage did circumvent the proper order here at court, where both parties occupied prominent positions. The correct applications to our royal personages were not made. I was deprived of a most valuable lady-in-waiting. The King was deprived of his champion. Such behavior is not to be tolerated. It could even be argued that such a hasty marriage constituted conduct unbecoming in a courtier, setting an undesirable tone for our court.” She let these serious words sink in, her gaze taking in the multitude of courtiers who had gathered to hear the judgement. “My feeling is that the Montmaynes did obfuscate the matter of which bride was requested, though whether that was done willfully or through genuine confusion is not so clear.” There was a loud murmuring at this and the King glared furiously at Eden’s uncles who immediately snapped their jaws shut. “It could therefore be justifiably claimed, that Sir Roland acted in frustration that night, finding himself pledged to the wrong Montmayne. The testimony of his two brothers, and Lenora Montmayne herself bear out his dissatisfaction for the way things played out at the betrothal feast.”
“Remember, my dear,” cut in the King peevishly. “That Vawdrey has already been punished, when I stripped him of his position as my champion.”
“That is true enough,” agreed Armenal looking thoughtful. “And there was no mention of a dowry being presented to him.” She looked to Sir Leofric for confirmation of this and he looked extremely uncomfortable before giving a quick shake of his head.
“I care naught for a dowry,” said Roland loudly, and Eden jumped to find him only a few seats away to her right.
“The withholding of one could be considered an additional punishment,” pointed out the King blandly.
The Queen clapped her hands. “Enough! I am decided,” she announced in ringing tones. “His highness the King has kindly agreed the sentence is mine to dispose in this instance, as it is I who have suffered the greatest injury.” Eden blinked at this, and did not dare look in Roland’s direction. “I have given this matter great thought, and having taken Lady Dorothea Montmayne’s complaint into consideration. I think the best way forward would be to suspend the match, for one calendar month. During this time, Sir Roland will think how best to woo the Lady Eden in a manner fitting for a chief lady in waiting to the Queen. If, at the end of this period, the lady accepts his suit, then they will receive our blessing in the royal chapel.”
A loud buzz of exclamations spread throughout the hall, until the Queen raised a hand for silence. “Do you accept my judgement, Sir Roland?” she asked archly.
Eden waited calmly for Roland to object, but when he spoke, his words stunned her.
“I do,” he said simply.
Eden turned her head to stare at his handsome profile, and then turned back to the Queen, her fingernails digging into her palms. She had been expecting him to object, to rail at her pronouncement. Indeed, if he cared in any way, she told herself, he would argue back against such a ruling. Which meant he must be indifferent. She felt mortified at his lack of reaction. Suddenly she was finding it hard to even breath.
“You have something which you would like to say, Eden?” suggested the Queen.
Eden felt her face grow hot. “I have something to say to my husband,” she admitted tightly. “If I can still address him as such!”
The Queen’s eyebrows shot up, but she nodded and waved a hand obligingly.
Eden stood up from her chair and took a few steps forward and then turned around to face him. Roland looked back at her a moment, then came to his feet and walked forward also.
Eden waited until he drew level with her. Then she faced him down, her chest heaving with indignation. That he should not stand up against this measure, cut her to the quick. It was outrageous! Monstrous, even.
“Now, love, don’t take on so…” Roland started placatingly, clearly picking up on her mood, he closed the distance between them. “I only mean…”
Eden snatched away her hand as he reached for it, feeling suddenly extremely angry. “If you imagine for one minute I’ll be sneaking to your bedchamber again, you’re vastly mistaken!” she flung in his face.
“Again?” barked King Wymer behind them. “Hah!”
Eden ignored them, her furious gaze still on Roland’s face.
“Wife…” Roland started again, his reasonable tone infuriating her.
“I think not!” said Eden crisply. “If we are back to mere courtship days, then you can hardly call me that!”
“Eden,” he said loudly. “Don’t misunderstand me-”
“Oh, I won’t! Don’t worry!” she retorted bitterly. “Not again!”
At that, he gave a suppressed sound of irritation and taking another step towards her, seized her forearm, dragging her into his embrace. She tried to resist, but her satin slippers did not grip the flagstones and he was a lot stronger than she was in any case. Dimly, Eden registered the fact that benches were scraping along the floor as people craned in their seats to get a better view of them. Close by was the sound of a crash, as one bench overturned altogether. She found she didn’t even care, she could not tear her gaze from Roland’s even if her life depended on it.
“Stop being a little shrew,” he growled at her, his fingers tightening around her upper arms. “Do you want me to kiss you in front of everyone?”
Eden had already opened her mouth on a retort, when his words registered with her. “W-what? You wouldn’t dare!”
A look of amusement crossed his face. “Oh Eden,” he murmured. “I do love you.” The background noise faded, and time stood still. Everything else was just… irrelevant. Roland’s lips came down on hers and he kissed her. Not angrily, but thoroughly, and with complete conviction that it was his right. When she stopped resisting him, his arm slipped around her holding her firmly against him. “My love,” he whispered in her ear, his words alight with laughter. “That was so indiscreet, it was actually worthy of a Vawdrey.” His shoulders shook with laughter. “I think in future, Renlowe needs to take you for a mentor in fearlessness.”
Eden, realizing she had been rather impolitic, looked back over her shoulder in trepidation at the Queen. Roland’s arm was tight around her waist. She found herself clutching at the front of his doublet. She took a deep, fortifying breath, but before she could even utter a word, noticed the King was addressing the Queen in an urgent undertone.
“I think you’d better climb down off your high horse, Armenal,” he was recommending tetchily. “The Lady is clearly not pleased with your notion, not pleased at all. What’s the point in punishing the fellow further? That’s all I ask. Seems pointless if you ask me. He took her un-dowered and lost an honorary title, seems to me that should be the end of the matter.”
The Queen leant against one arm of her throne, and regarded Eden thoughtfully. “Now this is a strange turn of events,” she said. “I must confess myself at a loss. Your reactions are quite the opposite of what I expected.” She tilted her head to one side. “Perhaps if you explained why it is you would have no objection to following my ruling?” she said turning to Roland. The room hushed at once, and you could have heard a pin drop.
He cleared his throat, though did not release Eden. “In truth, I am not proud of the way I conducted my courtship of my wife,” he said, flushing slightly. “This gives me the chance to set that to rights.”
Eden held her breath. He wanted the opportunity to woo her? She was still reeling from this, as the Queen turned to her. Suddenly, she realized she had not even responded to his declaration that he loved her.
“And now Eden, why do you not wish to take this month-long hiatus from married life?”
This was it. Her opportunity to be as fearless as Sir Renlowe, she thought. “Because,” Eden said in a clear, carrying voice, that even those spectators at the back could hear. “As a wooer, Roland Vawdrey may have been indifferent. But as a husband, he is without peer. I love him, and I will have no other.”
The room erupted into chaos. And Roland kissed her. Again.
Two months later, The Royal Tournament, Caer-Lyoness
Eden reached up again to check the garland of flowers was sat straight upon her head. She still couldn’t quite believe that Roland had presented it to her in front of everyone as Tournament Queen. Or that she had taken it. The applause from the audience had been quite deafening. She knew there was a stupid smile on her face, but she couldn’t seem to banish it. She glanced over at her husband. He was stripped down to his braies and chauses now, and washing his hands in the basin Cuthbert had left out for him. She caught the direction of his gaze, flickering over her, before he plunged his hands back in, and started rigorously scrubbing his face and neck. For a moment, she had almost thought it was his lascivious look he was casting her way. The one he habitually wore before pouncing on her. But they were currently in a pavilion, in a field outside the palace and surrounded by courtiers. So, she must surely have misinterpreted his look, she thought. Maybe after all, she wasn’t the expert she was starting to feel on the various moods of Roland Vawdrey.
“Well,” she announced with a sigh of satisfaction, examining the fine gold bowl that Roland had been presented with, along with the return of his ‘King’s Champion’ accolade. “You did it. You’re the victor. Lord Kentigern was as dust beneath your feet. You are once more the King’s Champion.” Roland smirked as he reached for the soap leaves but gave no other discernable reaction. “You will be pleased to hear I’ve finally sorted my itinerary for the next week while we’re here at court,” Eden rattled on. “Tomorrow morn, I have a music recital in the Queen’s chamber. I shall take my harp. Then in the afternoon I have a meeting with my fellow ladies in waiting, followed by a poetry reading in the lower gallery.” She looked at him expectantly. “What say you to that?”
“Good,” he said after a moment’s pause. “Good.” He was running a drying cloth now over his shoulders and upper body.
“So, which do you think you’ll attend?” asked Eden politely. “The harp performance or the poetry reading?”
He seemed to consider this. “Harp. But I’ll be returning to the Quintain directly after you perform.”
She nodded at this, then seemed to absorb his words. “Really? The Quintain? Will you be back at practicing again so soon?”
“Yes,” he said. He had got through today’s proceedings remarkably unscathed. “But more importantly, will you be dancing again, any time before we leave?” he asked, casting his towel away.
Eden shook her head. It turned out that Roland genuinely liked to watch her dance, but not if there were any gentlemen involved in the performance. In that case, he was sure to watch very closely, and Eden’s partners tended to get rather flustered under his hostile regard. “No, I am merely teaching some steps to others on Thursday.”
“Well, you need to give some of the other maidens a chance,” he conceded. “When you dance, everyone else is thrown into the shadows.”
“Tis only you who thinks so,” said Eden, who still got a little flustered when he spoke thus. She set down the golden bowl carefully. “And then, we travel to Chilbury on the following Monday for the next tournament, where I will cheer you on from the crowd.” She turned to examine the rest of the things scattered on the table, lifting up one of his gauntlets. “How do you even lift your sword-?” she began, when suddenly she felt her hips seized from behind and Roland’s warm breath on her neck. He buried his face against the side of her throat and dragged her back against his front. Before she could stop herself, Eden let out a surprised squeak. “Roland! What do you think you’re doing?” But he didn’t want to talk. His fingers were in her hair, tugging her face to turn toward his. So, she had not misinterpreted that look after all! He kissed her until she was breathless, and then spun her around, and lifted her up to sit on the edge of the table. Eden’s eyes widened. “Roland-” she said, casting her eyes toward the entrance of the tent.
“The dogs are posted there,” he said, kissing her neck, his hands busy pushing her skirts aside. “All six of them. They won’t let anyone interrupt us.”
“We’re out of doors,” she reminded him in scandalized tones.
“We’re in a pavilion,” he pointed out, and he tipped his head back to look at her. “Will that fellow Childers be at the poetry reading?” He asked with a sudden frown. “When he dedicated that ballad to you, you blushed.”
“Well, it was a very great compliment he paid me,” Eden replied.
“Let’s get this straight, wife. I’m the one that makes you blush. Me. Your husband. No-one else.”
She looked at him gravely. “Mr Childers is fifty-five and balding,” she pointed out gently.
“I wanted to kill him.”
“I’m not in love with Mr Childers,” she said firmly. “So kindly do not murder him.” He said nothing. Eden tried again. “We simply have a shared interest and a similar taste and appreciation for the arts-”
“Eden,” he interrupted her. “You’re making me feel murderous toward him again.”
Eden broke off her words to look at him in exasperation. “The one I love is you. If you were to award the tourney crown to another, then I would understand that you were paying a great compliment to that lady, and I would not…”
“That won’t arise,” he said crisply. “As I’m never going to give the tourney crown to another.”
“I’m only ever going to give it to you, from now on.”
Eden paused, scanning his face. “Are you in earnest?”
She took a couple of unsteady breaths. “Fine, I won’t accept any more poetry dedications.”
They kissed, and Eden was quite lost in his embrace, when he pulled back again. She made a sound of protest.
“Unless…” he said, sounding frustrated. “Does that mean you will lose status somehow? As a patroness.”
Eden looked up at him in mingled amusement and exasperation. “Not really,” she pulled a face. “Poetry is not a sporting event. Though I suppose there is some prestige attached…”
“Very well, then,” he huffed. “They can still dedicate poems to you.”
“Roland Vawdrey,” she said with a sigh and laid her hand against his cheek. “You are such a considerate husband.”
“Open your legs then,” he recommended, breathlessly.
“Oh, very well!” Eden said, but she wasn’t even convincing herself with her show of reluctance. He stepped between her legs, and she had to bite back an answering sigh.
“How can you be so-?“ he asked thickly.
“What?” she asked.
“Tart, yet sweet,” he said distractedly.
“Like a piece of fruit.”
Eden looked at him incredulously. “A piece of fruit? But Roland was kissing the tops of her breasts. “It’s perhaps as well you’ve never tried to write me a poem,” she observed. “I suspect you would be very bad at it.”
“As bad as you at jousting,” he agreed, and she ran her fingers through his dark hair.
“All this,” he said greedily, dragging down her shift to expose her breasts. “Including this perfect bosom, is mine.” He cocked an eyebrow at her as if daring her to argue with him.
Eden regarded him solemnly as he waited. Perfect bosom? “Yes, yes,” she said indulgently. “It’s all yours.”
“It’s going to turn so red here, from my attentions,” he said with satisfaction, and ran a possessive hand over her white tender cleavage.
Eden gasped. “Did you not shave just now with your razor?”
“No.” He shook his head.
“Why not?” she squawked. He usually did without fail.
“So everyone can see at the celebratory feast, tonight,” he said wolfishly. “That you are a woman who is thoroughly desired by her husband.”
“Roland! That’s absurd!”
He shrugged. “I disagree,” he said calmly. “You have to give me some dispensation if I am to tolerate all your fawning admirers.”
“Fawning-?” Eden broke off. “You’re hopeless,” she said with a sigh, relaxing back on her elbows against the table top. “Are you really going to bestow on me all your tournament crowns?”
“Of course.” He was kissing now between her breasts with exquisite care.
“It will look most particular of you,” she warned him, her hand flying to the back of his neck to cradle him at her bosom.
“I don’t care, everyone knows I’m mad about you. No-one will be remotely surprised.” That was probably true. Sometimes she worried that people laughed, he acted so smitten around her, but Roland didn’t seem to care one whit. She had amassed more jewelry in the last two months than most ladies in a lifetime. She had glittering brooches and necklaces and rings to rival even the Queen’s. Most of them had sapphires as Roland said they matched her eyes. Their wedding had been blessed last month in the royal chapel with the King and Queen in attendance, Lenora, her grandmother and all of Roland’s family including Cuthbert.
”I took those plans into town yesterday, to see about getting the work started on the Keep.”
“Really? So that’s where you went! I was afraid you’d gone to commission more baubles for me.” A guilty look flitted across his face. “Roland, you didn’t!”
“You haven’t got a diadem,” he said in justification.
Then she realized what he’d said. “Oswald’s plans to expand the Keep you mean?” she gasped.
“We’ll need more room about the place,” he pointed out. “There will doubtless be children before long, and probably more dogs… Fulco and Brigid have become hand-fasted,” he reminded her. “They’re likely to start a family soon. And Baxter even has a helper now word’s getting out the place isn’t haunted. Besides, you liked them, didn’t you? The plans?” He pulled back to look into her eyes. “Eden?”
She nodded her head, unable to form words, just blinking rapidly up at him.
“We can afford it,” he said. “Even your uncle insisted I took that dowry in the end. Mind you, I think your cousin shamed him into it.” He frowned. “Shall we do this back at the palace, sweetheart?” he said, looking about them ruefully. “This was probably not my greatest notion. Oswald and Mason and everyone will all be expecting us to emerge…”
She wrapped her arms around his neck, drawing him down to her. “Your whole family watched you win,” she reminded him.
His gaze drifted over her face a moment, then up to the garland on her head. “And saw you crowned,” he added.
“Shall we go and join them, my love?” She shook her head. “No?”
“Not yet,” said Eden. “First I want you to do that thing you promised.”
“Which thing, my wicked faery?” his eyes grew warm. “Give you a baby?”
“Oh, I think you’ve already done that,” said Eden lightly. She watched the emotions flit over his face: surprise, delight, elation.
He laid a hand on her still-flat stomach, and rested it there a moment. “I can scarcely believe it,” he whispered.
“I know,” she whispered back. “It should be due next springtime.”
Roland cursed. “What was I thinking? That building work should have been started a couple of months ago at least!”
“All will be well,” Eden assured him with a gurgle of laughter. “You’re panicking.”
“What if it’s twins? They do run in the family.”
“We spend half our time at court!” she reminded him contentedly.
“I want everything to be perfect,“ he frowned.
“And it is,” she told him sagely. “But right now, I want you to untidy me, and make it clear that I’m a very desired wife.”
Roland’s gaze turned dark. “That my fearless lady, will be entirely my pleasure.”
“But you must have a care not to dislodge my crown,” Eden cautioned him, teasingly. “I’m very fond of it, for tis proof of my husband’s regard.”
He eyed her a moment with a mixture of amusement and tenderness. “This is merely the first of many,” he reminded her. “Now come and kiss me, Faery Queen.”
“You’ve been spending too much time with Baxter,” she laughed. But she kissed him all the same.
If you enjoyed this book, perhaps you would be kind enough to leave me a review on Amazon or Goodreads, or wherever you purchased it. Or consider checking out some of my other stories. Alice.
COMING in 2019:
More tales to come from the Kingdom of Karadok, by Alice Coldbreath:
The Unlovely Bride
Lenora Montmayne leads a charmed life as the most beautiful woman at King Wymer’s court, surrounded by ardent admirers. And then disaster strikes. The red plague sweeps the summer palace at Caer-Lyoness and Lenora’s fair face falls victim to its ravages. Without her looks, what does Lenora have left to her?
If ever there was a knight the crowd loves to hate, it’s Garman Orde. Even his own family despises him. Then one night a heavily veiled lady offers him an extraordinary bargain. And he finds out that Lenora Montmayne was never just a pretty face.
Wed by Proxy
Thrice wedded, but never bedded, Mathilde Martindale has long lived in the shadow of her indomitable mother, and meekly done as she was told. Until one day, she decides to become mistress of her own destiny and leave the royal court to find her own path.
Married by proxy, Lord Martindale has never even met his bride of three years. Wed as part of a peace treaty, he bitterly resents the mercenary wife who cares only for wealth and prestige. And then he meets her.
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