Barony of Owen
Beware the Delilah, my son. Beware the Jezebel.
That warning again, ever near though it did not belong in the space between this young woman and him. She was no Delilah. No Jezebel. Were she, his mother would not have chosen her to wed the heir of Lexeter.
She was pure, younger than he, and only pretty enough to please so he did not stray from vows exchanged a year hence when she attained her fifteenth year and he his nineteenth. Only pretty enough to ensure those who sought to make a cuckold of him were not overly tempted to make a harlot of her.
She laughed. “If you are done conversing with yourself, Lord Soames…” She leapt in front of him and danced backward to accommodate his stride. “…mayhap you would like to converse with me.”
Lothaire scowled amid embarrassment warming his face. “You are too expressive, Lady Laura.”
She arched eyebrows above eyes so dark they might haunt did they not sparkle like stars on a moonless night. “You make that sound a bad thing. Fie on you! I shall not be ashamed I am pleased to see you again.” She bobbed her head forward. “And more so in the absence of your mother.”
He halted. “What is wrong with my mother? You do not like her?”
She stilled her own feet, clapped a hand over her mouth, and smiled on either side of it.
The sight of her—so lovely and happy—made his heart convulse. And stirred his body as it should not. “Lady Laura!”
She dropped her hand but not her smile. “Do not take offense, Lord Soames. I did not say I do not like her, severe though she is. I am simply pleased to be alone with you.”
Only possible because the Lady of Lexeter had taken ill. Despite his mother’s attempt to sit the saddle, they had barely gained the drawbridge before she became so light of head she had to accept he alone would journey to visit his betrothed. Lothaire had been secretly heartened, her constant attendance making him feel like a boy—and appear one.
“As we are to wed,” Lady Laura continued, “we ought to know each other better, and now we can.” She threw her arms wide, dropped her head back, and whirled. “’Tis a beautiful day to fall in love!”
Appalled yet entranced, he stared. Such frivolity had not been apparent six months past when his mother accompanied him to the barony of Owen to determine if the girl fostered by Lady Maude D’Arci would make a suitable wife.
For hours, the young lady who was to bring a generous dowry to the marriage had sat quietly with hands folded and slippered feet tight against each other, speaking only when spoken to. She had seemed shy, and only twice had he caught her looking at him. What had happened these past months to make her think it appropriate to behave in this manner? And to speak of love!
She ceased whirling, gave a great sigh. “I will make you talk to me, Lord Soames. I vow I shall! And you will laugh, as I know you wish to do.”
She held up a hand. “If we are to wed, you must accept that though I shall be the proper and gracious noblewoman in the company of others, when ’tis but you and me, I shall be… Well, I shall be me, as I would have you be you. Now the question is”—she stepped nearer, tilted her head—“who are you?”
He could hardly breathe for how close she stood. More, for how much he wanted to wrap his arms around her and match his mouth to hers.
She raised an eyebrow. “I wait.”
He swallowed loudly, said tightly, “I am your betrothed, the man for whom you will bear children and keep a good household.”
She groaned. “That is not who you are. Lady Maude assured me ’tis not.”
“She said once you are away from your mother, you will not be dull as I fear—”
“I am not dull!”
She wrinkled her nose. “I believe what I see and feel, not merely what is told me. So show me, Lord Soames, the life we share will be blessed with far more laughter than tears.”
Again, he stared. Again, his body stirred.
She swung away. “Chase me!”
“I wish to be chased,” she called over her shoulder. “And caught.” Hitching up her skirts, she ran, unbound hair flying out behind her, sunlight gliding over strands of red amid brown.
“This is unseemly, Lady Laura!”
More laughter, but not mocking. It called to the boy in him he had thought shut away. Still, he held his feet to the beaten path that led to the pond she told lay just beyond the castle walls.
That had been his first mistake, allowing her to persuade him to leave the garden. And his second mistake would be to give chase. But she grew so distant she would soon go from sight.
A lady alone in the wood. His lady.
He gripped his sword hilt and ran on long muscled legs. And she made it even easier for him to overtake her by staying just enough ahead to reach the bank of the promised pond.
She spun, propped her hands on her hips, and with an open-mouthed smile, said, “Methinks Lady Maude is right. You are not dull.”
He should have drawn up far short of her, but his feet carried him to within arm’s reach. “Lady, we must return to the castle.”
“Aye, but first…” She stepped near and laced slender fingers with his that had never seemed so large and clumsy. Before he could correct her brazen familiarity, she turned and settled her shoulder against his. “Look, Lothaire. Is it not lovely?”
She was lovely. Not simply pretty as was required.
“I am fond of this place,” she said as he followed her gaze around the pond. “When I was little, Lady Maude brought her son and me here on the hottest days and we played and swam.”
“You speak of Simon?” he said to distract himself from the soft hand he should not be holding. He knew it was Lady Maude and her departed husband’s only child she spoke of. Though he liked the lady’s stepson who was now Baron of Owen, there was something amiss about Joseph D’Arci’s half-brother—something beyond the feeling Simon disliked Lady Laura’s betrothed. Their one encounter this day was brief as the young man prepared to return to the lord from whom he received knighthood training, but it had disturbed. And Lothaire was strangely relieved when Simon departed two hours past.
He frowned. “Surely you do not still swim here with Lady Maude’s son?”
Lady Laura looked up. “I do not. ’Twould be improper now we are no longer children.”
His mother would not like that Simon and she had frolicked here, and neither did he, but though that might cause Raisa Soames to reject this young woman, Lothaire was now a man. He would determine what was acceptable.
“But once you and I are wed”—she made a song of her words and angled her head toward the pond—“methinks it permissible for husband and wife to swim together.”
The thought of going into the water with her once more making him much too aware of their bodies, he told himself to release her hand and put distance between them.
Her sparkling eyes returned to his. “Perhaps even bathe together, hmm?”
He caught his breath, heard his mother’s words again—Beware the Delilah, my son. Beware the Jezebel.
He cast off her hand. “You should not speak thus, Lady. ’Tis sinful!”
She blinked as if slapped, and as the light in her eyes fell to earth alongside her smile, whispered, “Forgive me. Oh, Lady Maude shall be disappointed. I am a lady. Truly, I am. I just…” She peeked at him from beneath her lashes. “I am pleased you wish to take me to wife, Lord Soames. You are young and handsome, and I am certain you are kind. I but wish you to be as happy with me as I am with you.”
Though his mother would not overlook her behavior, the man before her decided she could be forgiven. She was young and would mature ere they wed, and once Lady Maude was made aware of her ward’s deficiencies, she would correct them.
His betrothed lifted her chin, and he saw her eyes sparkled again, but not with joy or mischief. “You are not pleased with me, are you?”
Struggling against the impulse to pull her close and wipe away her tears, he clenched his hands at his sides. “I make allowances for your age and am confident a year hence you will be nearer a woman than a girl.”
His words offended, as evidenced by a different sort of light in those eyes, but it scattered and she said, “Much can happen in a year. Be patient, and I shall not disappoint you or Lady Maude who has been so good to me.”
The lady had been generous, fostering Laura Middleton since the age of five when her mother’s passing left the girl’s father with one female child to raise amidst six males.
“You…” She moistened her lips, and he saw they trembled. “…will not be too harsh in telling Lady Maude of my failings, will you? She will count herself responsible, and she is not. Ever I have been excitable.” A tear spilled, and she clapped a hand to her cheek as if to hide it. Another fell. “Oh, how the fluff upon the air irritates my eyes!”
Dear Lord, Lothaire silently appealed, she should not captivate so.
But she did, and he had only himself to blame when he breached the space between them and set his mouth on hers. He had kissed a few chambermaids—the extent of his carnal sin—but he was familiar enough with the intimacy to know this was different. The taste of Laura was more than pleasant. It was sweet, like the honey milk of his childhood.
It was she who ended the kiss. Dropping from her toes he had not realized he had dragged her onto, she said, “I like that, Lord Soames, but now I must prove Lady Maude has made a lady of me.”
“This is good,” he said as if he but tested her—and wished he did. How many hours must he now spend praying for forgiveness?
She was smiling again, though more demurely, cheeks prettily flushed. “Methinks you ought to release me.”
He lurched back. And had only a moment to miss the press of her body before what sounded like a large insect passed between their faces and skittered across the pond.
He snapped his head around, considered the rippled surface. “What was that?”
“Simon?” she called with what seemed rebuke.
Lothaire followed her gaze to the trees between pond and castle. “You think ’twas him?”
“I…” She looked sidelong at Lothaire, pressed pretty white teeth into her lower lip.
“He is gone from Owen,” he reminded her, then wondered if he erred when he recalled the slingshot looped over the young man’s belt—of note since Lothaire was fond of that childhood weapon. Though these past years of training were mostly spent mastering the sword, he was certain he could still make his mark.
“You are right, it cannot have been him,” she said. “Do you think ’twas a dragonfly?”
He studied the trees again. No movement. No sound that did not belong.
Might it have been a large insect? Possible. Regardless, it would have struck him in the temple had he not released her. “We ought to return, Lady Laura.” He stepped past her. And halted.
We are going to wed, he assured himself. She will be my wife. We will swim in the lake near Thistle Cross. Mayhap bathe together.
He peered over his shoulder and met her wary gaze. Longing to see the sparkle return to it, he reached to her.
There. So much light shone from her he felt its rays enter him. And as she slid her palm over his and worked her fingers through his, he was so warmed he discovered within him places he had not known were cold.
It was a beautiful day to fall in love. Perhaps he would.
As they walked side by side, skirts brushing chausses, brown hair caressing muscled forearm, neither saw the one who pressed his back to the bark of an ancient oak. Neither saw calloused fingers gripping straps of leather whose missile should have turned Lord Soames’s dark blond hair red…knocked him to his knees…made him cry like a boy…
Neither heard him rasp, “She is mine. Shall ever be mine. She promised!”