Conquering William

Chapter 1

 

If she lived to be a hundred, Alice never wanted to attend another wedding, particularly not as the bride. The odor of roasting meats almost undid her, and she took a long draught from her water goblet. A bride did not vomit all over her wedding feast.

Her father, face ruddy with wine, sidled up and pinched her side. “God’s teeth! Smile, you stupid wench. I have found you a good ‘un this time. Far better than a butter-face like you could hope for.” Goblet held high, he strode away, sprinkling wine across the heads of those he passed. His forced laughter grated on her ear.

To her right, her groom drank from his goblet. In a deep, smooth voice, he murmured to his mother on his other side. As he shifted, his muscular thigh pinned her skirt to the bench.

Loathe to draw his attention, Alice tugged the dull brown wool.

He inclined his head with a smile, moved his leg, and freed her skirt. “I beg your pardon.”

God save her from her beautiful husband. “No matter.”

“May I serve you more water?” Eyes deeper blue than the lake beneath the castle twinkled at her. Candlelight gleamed off his dark hair and clung to his finely etched face.

“Thank you, but nay.”

With another smile, he turned back to his mother.

She would prefer if he did not smile so much. Or did not smell so appealing. His subtle woodsy-sweet spice teased her every time he leaned nearer. He did quivering things to her innards. How could she hope to hold a man such as this? Atop the scarred table, their trencher sat between them, still full of mutton, gravy oozing into a brown puddle on the table. It couldn’t be worse. Her father had outdone himself this time. Three husbands he’d chosen for her and this one, by far, the most daunting.

Aye, but William of Anglesea would make fine children. Tall, strong boys, broad and powerfully built like their sire, and girls to take after his mother and sisters. A child of her own. A downy head nestled against her breast, a tiny body cradled in her arms. She touched her palm to her flat, empty belly, and put her hand back on the table before anyone could notice. Even butter- faces had dreams.

A jester before the dais capered about, ringing his bells and doing his best to enthuse the assembly with joviality. Poor man raised only titters of amusement. He must have come with her father for the wedding, for they had no resident jester at Tarnwych. A few determined souls cheered the jester on his way, and a band of minstrels took his place. The cheery pipes led the lutes into songs praising the bride’s beauty and the groom’s virility. Could they not spare her those? She’d wager the minstrels would change their songs when they left for the inn tonight.

The bawdy ballad of Alice of Tarnwych and William of Anglesea. She made up her own words to the cheerful wedding song the minstrel band warbled.

The peacock ruts with a dull, brown wren,

 A dull brown wren,

 a dull brown wren

The peacock ruts with a dull, brown wren,

Fa, la, la, la la.

William, the peacock, with his striking looks and finery had stood beside her in the chapel, and the top of her head had only reached his shoulder. How the ladies in attendance had sighed as he dipped his dark head and recited his vows to her, the dull, little wren in her brown wool dress with her atrocious hair confined to a wimple. Both William’s sisters boasted glorious flaxen hair the hue of summer wheat, not brazen red. Willowy and graceful they glided in rich, silk slippers like butterflies, whilst she stomped around in her sensible clogs.

Sister Julianna leant in and kept her voice low. “This is a bad business. This family is sown with wild, spoiled seed.”

Then there was that. Whispers of the taint on Sir Arthur’s beautiful family carried even this far north.

“It is time.” Gracious and lovely, Lady Mary of Anglesea rose with a sweet smile for Alice. “Shall we?”

“Aye, let us get to the meat of the matter.” Smug grin eating his face, her father thumped the table.

Rising too, Sir William offered his hand to her. Grip warm and sure, he helped her climb over the bench, then straightened her skirts for her. No fault could she find with her groom’s manners. As far as she could see, he had no faults at all. Men like William should marry their faultless equals. How different would this be if she looked like his mother and sisters? If she could enter his bed with her head held high, confident in her groom’s delight in her beauty.

The other women stood with her. Lady Faye, flawless and serene in her pregnancy, golden hair framing her enchanting face. Her second new sister-in-law, Beatrice. Bea, they called her, and on occasion Sweet Bea. Not as fair as Faye, but her pretty countenance made more so by the lively march of humor across it.

God mocked her by surrounding her with all this overbearing comeliness.

“Come along, then.” Beatrice’s smile stretched false with forced good cheer. Nay, they no more welcomed this match for their brother than she did.

Another wedding night and she would endure.

****

Drained, her face stiff from forcing a smile, Alice tottered to the bed and perched on the edge.

Sister Julianna shut the door on the determinedly cheery faces of Sir William’s womenfolk. “I would not have you suffer those women at such a time.” Sister Julianna slid the bolt home. “It is bad enough your father ties you in marriage to such a family.”

“Lady Mary seemed most gracious.” William’s mother had made a point of wishing her well and welcoming her to the family, pressing a kiss on her cheek after the ceremony.

“Poor woman.” Sister Julianna smoothed the front of her pristine scapula. “Beset by such a husband. Your father may have forgotten Sir Arthur took his army and marched on King John, but those of us who value loyalty have not.”

“They say the new king has forgiven him.” Even this far north, King John’s infamy had touched their lives. Long, hard winters had marked the late king’s reign.

“King Henry is but a child. We must pray that the guidance of his guardian, the Holy Father, will prevail.” Sister Julianna crossed herself and raised her eyes to the roof. “We must pray that...abomination never takes up residence beneath this roof.”

“Amen,” Alice whispered, because Sister would expect it. She hadn’t yet seen the child Sister called the Abomination of Anglesea, but she wasn’t sure any child should bear such a name. They had named him Mathew. Several years younger than his siblings, he must suffer a lonely existence with his brothers and sisters getting wed and moving away. If not for Sister Julianna, she would have wandered her father’s keep for days without a soul bidding her good morrow, or even playing with her. Sister did not play, but she had provided company for a motherless little girl. Certainly, her father found no favor in his only child, a plain and quiet disappointment to him all these years.

“This is not your first wedding night.” Sister Julianna folded her hands before her.

“Nay.” It was her fourth, and she was as nervous as a first-time bride. Sir William unsettled her, left her stomach tangled. He would enter this chamber and find her not like the women he had known before. The ladies liked William of Anglesea. Her father made sure to tell her so. All the loveliest ladies of the court flocked to him. Rubbing his huge hands together with glee, her father had informed her of her good fortune, congratulating himself on the rich prize he had landed.

“You know what to expect.” Sister turned her about and worked on the lacings of her bliaut. “As is fitting, you must submit to your husband. It is the lot of women to suffer the bestial nature of men.”

“Aye, Sister.” Alice clasped her shaking hands together. She had done this before, her virginity long gone. What came next would be uncomfortable, a little painful, but her husband would satisfy his lusts and leave her.

“I am afraid he looks like a lustful one.” Sister tugged her bliaut off. She brought Alice her nightrail and slipped it over her head.

Beneath the garment, Alice wriggled out of her chemise. Sister insisted on modesty at all times. “I see my wedding nightrail survived the moths.”

“Indeed.” Sister bent and snatched her chemise. “I laid it amongst layers of bay leaves, in case you would have need of it again. The devil employs wanton waste to his own ends. Our Lord frowns on excess.”

Alice pushed her arms into the sleeves. Aye, she had worn it but once when her last husband had joined her on their wedding night. The linen retained its pristine white, the tiny blue flowers she had embroidered along the neck as perfect as when she had stitched them. She had not worn a new gown for her wedding, so it stood to reason she would not wear a new nightrail. Lady Faye had worn the most beautiful gown of deep blue samite, and Beatrice just as resplendent in emerald green. Alice would wager silk felt sinful and soft, like a constant caress on the skin.

She removed her wimple and handed it to Sister, who arranged it on the clothes tree beside her bliaut and chemise, ready for her to don in the morning.

With deft fingers, Sister braided Alice’s unfortunate hair. In open defiance to its brazen red, her hair grew thick and wavy, almost touching the back of her thighs when unbound. She only freed it long enough for washing. Such a color hair spoke ill of the morals of its wearer. Devil’s hair, Sister called it. Alice’s burden and her shame. Secretly, when Sister was not about, Alice left her hair free. A tiny act of vanity that would bring Sister’s wrath down on her head if she knew.

Icy flags chilled Alice’s feet as she padded to the bed and eased beneath cold linens. She would grow warm soon enough. Straw poked through the thin pallet, and she wriggled to get comfortable.

“Get yourself with child.” Sister stood at the foot of the bed. “The purpose of marriage is to bear children. This”—she waved a thin hand at the bed—“is an evil to be endured until the Lord blesses you.”

Alice tucked her cold hands beneath her thighs. Teeth chattering, she managed no more than a nod. She should have braved the lecture and requested a fire. Only when her father made one of his rare visits did this rule get broken. Father preferred the comforts of Yarborough over Tarnwych.

“I will wait until he finishes with you.” Sister shuddered as she studied Alice. “Remain steadfast, my child.”

The door shut behind Sister with a muted thud. A small taper on the washstand flickered in the draft. Shadows clung to the corners of the chamber, making ghostly patterns on the unadorned walls.

Alice tucked the covers beneath her chin and waited.

The peacock ruts with a dull brown wren,

Fa, la, la, la la.

****

William’s bride, so tiny he could tuck her in his pocket, left the hall with a gaggle of women. Amidst the bright yellow, green, scarlet, and blue silks the others wore, the lifeless brown wool of Alice’s gown stuck out like dog’s ballocks. In the rearguard strode the nun who seemed never more than arm’s length from his new wife. Emaciated, the nun’s habit bound her twiggy appendages together.

Wed. Not yet bed, and the gnawing dread in his gut had him grabbing his wine goblet.

“Well.” Roger drew the word out on an exhale. “It seems you’re done for, brother o’ mine.”

“She seems mild tempered,” he said. Alice had barely said a word above nay to wine and aye to water since they’d exchanged vows. Somewhere there existed a custom more agonizing than wedding a stranger, but he had not yet heard of it.

Roger adjusted his “good” tunic where it strained at the shoulder seams. “Meek even.”

“Perhaps.” William never assumed anything when it came to women.

“Not...that beautiful.” Roger sipped his wine.

William almost laughed. His brother lacked a glib tongue in his arsenal. “Not quite plain, though.”

“Aye.” Roger nodded a touch too heartily. “And definitely not ugly.”

“Indeed.”

A dour serving girl refilled their wine goblets.

“Why in hell did you agree to this?” Roger lost his battle for further diplomacy, and yanked at his tunic until the stitches ripped.

William feigned a carefree shrug as if he hadn’t asked himself that very question, for the last fortnight. “A man must marry. She will make as good a wife as any other. Indeed, better than most. She has land, and her father may have enough influence to restore our family’s good name at court.”

Roger pursed his lips and stared at their father.

Sir Arthur sat beside Lady Alice’s father. A big, rough-boned man, Sir Ivo had the look of a wild boar. For certain, too hearty a man to have sired little Alice.

“God’s bones but it’s cold. Thank God we leave tonight.” Roger huffed a cloud of white breath into the air. “You’ll freeze your ballocks off getting your wedding tackle out.”

In the gaping maws of all eight hall hearths, miserly flames eked out tepid heat against the bone chilling cold of a northern winter. Barely three days into October, and already William smelled the bitter ice on the air.

“I would have a word with your lady about the fare.” Roger poked his eating knife at the thin slithers of mutton on his trencher. Plain fare and in meager supply, suitable for an army on the move, but not for a wedding feast.

William drained his goblet. The wine had come from Anglesea, barrels and barrels of it from the depth of the Anglesea cellars where it had lain waiting to mark a celebration. Brought to Tarnwych by bullock train, it had provided the one bright point in his frigid wedding feast.

Cold, bleak, and as unrelentingly gray as the sky outside, his new hall resembled a tomb. Through the casement, blue water glittered from the lake beyond, the only color in a desolate view. God, what a depressing place. William snatched his goblet and found it empty.

Roger’s nudge almost sent him to the floor. “You look like you might need this more than I.”

William drained Roger’s cup and put it on the table. He motioned for the serving wench and her wine jug. Soon, the women would finish preparing his bride, and he would be called upon to swive his way into conjugal contentment.

 

 

Chapter 2

 

William opened the door to his wedding chamber. Frigid air greeted him in a rush. Stark as a crypt, and with only one taper providing a flicker of warmth in the miserable dark. Bare of adornment, with a few basic pieces of furniture the chamber lay free of the flowers and ribbons he would have expected for a wedding night. At the far end of the chamber, the bed hulked in shadow. A tiny mound in the center provided the only sign of life.

“God’s bones.”

Alice stirred and then went still.

William didn’t fancy frostbite of the ballocks. The chill of the miserable hall was bad enough. “Why is there no fire?”

“It is not yet December,” she said.

Bugger that. William strode to the door and bellowed, “Cedric!” Getting the job done, and done well, deserved a scrap of comfort. “I’m bringing December a little early this year.”

Alice made a soft noise.

Cedric barreled through the door, his cheeks flushed. “Sir William.”

“Get some wood in here. Lots of wood.” Let them have some semblance of good cheer between them tonight. He marked no honey cakes to sweeten the bride’s disposition, no bridal broth to stiffen the groom’s resolve. “And wine.” Neither he nor his wife had eaten much at the feast. “And fill a platter. Do it fast, Cedric.”

“Aye, Sir William.” Cedric spun about, crashed his shoulder into the doorjamb, and careened into the corridor. Nice lad, Cedric, willing and eager, but not the brightest squire he’d trained.

Silence filled the chamber. “That was Cedric. My squire.” He chafed his palms together for warmth. “He means well, but you will have to overlook his clumsiness.”

Alice might have moved, but who could tell in this fitful light. She had barely glanced at him through their parsimonious wedding feast. Every time he had shifted closer to her, his lady had shifted away. Part of him had wanted to see how far down the bench she would edge to put distance between them. As his efforts would have driven her straight into the lap of that sour-faced old nun, he’d resisted the urge and set himself to putting her at ease. Their wedding night would require renewed effort.

“Indeed.” His voice rang. Had they no rugs to take the chill off the flags? Even the rats, it seemed, deserted Tarnwych for warmer welcome. “Cedric joined me recently. He is a cheerful sort, if you don’t mind the chatter too much.” He’d give his sword arm for a bit of Cedric’s meaningless drivel right now. “He is a good lad.”

He strode to the casement and peered into the night. On the far side of the lake, lights twinkled from the village. From the wisps of smoke ghosting on the night air, he guessed they had no December rule there. “Why December?”

She gave a small huff of breath. “It is cold in December.”

“It is cold now.” Sod the miserable North. Bad enough they played neighbor to those blasted Scots. Barren, gray, and cold. Very cold. He toyed with his breath, locking his jaw and sending white rings into the air. Half expecting a cracked tip, he crinkled his nose. He’d bedded more woman than he would admit to, unless Roger asked, and then he would even swell the number, because it irked his older brother no end. He could do this. Alice was a woman, much like any other, with all the parts he liked so well on others of her sex.

“Will you be much longer?” she said, startling him.

“Longer?”

“Aye.”

At least he would be spared his wife chatting a hole in his head. “Longer about what?”

She stayed silent for so long, he prepared to repeat his question.“The bedding,” she whispered.

He spun from the window. Over the linens, two eyes glittered in the darkness. It might have been flattering if she hadn’t sounded so pained about the idea. A new experience to be sure, and his smooth address deserted him. “I thought we might get comfortable first.”

“I am comfortable.”

William strolled closer to the bed. She lay on her back, linens tucked beneath her chin. The rest of her, barely reaching half the length of the huge bed, stretched straight as a dead fish on the block. “You do not look comfortable.”

“I can assure you I am.” She glared at the canopy.

They had not made a love match, and a seasoned woman would not expect any professions of devotion from their arrangement. In time, they would rub together like a pair of comfortable boots. If not, a man need not hover about his wife for much longer than the begetting of an heir or two. But this? William pressed his lips together, biting back his laugh. She looked like a bedamned corpse lying there. A grumpy corpse, at that. Did she expect him to leap on her, rut around a bit, and dismount?

Her rigid face gleamed pale, so tense, he would wager if he plucked a hair she would vibrate. He settled a hip on the edge of the bed.

Her eyes narrowed, and she pressed her lips together.

A shy, timid virgin bride he could gentle out of her fear, slowly put her at ease, caress her until she opened her petals like a flower before the sun. He almost snorted at his bad verse. Even a reluctant bride could be gentled like a skittish yearling. What to do with an experienced, ill- tempered one, who looked as if she would rather chew nails than share his bed? Did she even have a smile buried deep inside her? He loved a challenge. “I do not, as a rule, sleep like I am about to be laid to rest. But if you recommend it for comfort, I will give it a try.”

She glanced at him and then frowned at the bed canopy.

“I wager you are warmer under there,” he said.

The door swung open and banged into the wall.“I am back.” Cedric, laden with a large wooden board piled high with food, staggered into the room. Hair hung in his eyes. “And I brought help.”

A handful of serfs slunk in. Wood, more wood and—thank you, God—wine. William welcomed a little fortification.

The tallest serf stacked wood in the fireplace.

“I found some more tapers.” Balancing the heavy board with one hand, Cedric dug in his tunic front and produced a handful of tapers.

“Masterfully done, Cedric.” William gave him a nod of approval. The lad had shown the first glimmers of initiative.

Cedric beamed at him and righted the canting platter.

A serf struck a flint, lit some kindling, and thrust it beneath the wood. Orange flames licked at the wood and caught with a soft whoosh.

“And then there was light,” William said.

Alice gasped. Her frown deepened into a pinched expression of disapproval. Ah, a lady of faith, he presumed. Fitting, because the room resembled a monastic cell, and offered about as much welcome.

Cedric laid his platter down with only one loaf of bread dropped. He snatched it, wiped it on his tunic, and put it back on the platter. “Will that be all, Sir William?”

Leaning closer to his bride, William whispered out the side of his mouth, “Avoid the bread.”

“I am not hungry.” She shrunk further into the pillows as if afraid his breath might graze her skin. A lesser man would be feeling slighted about now. Unfortunately for Lady Alice, she had William of Anglesea in her chamber.

“But you must be.” William ushered the last of the serfs and Cedric out of the chamber. He poured them both a goblet of wine and carried it back. “You barely touched your dinner.”

She shook her head at his offer of a goblet. “I do not drink.”

“I noticed that at dinner, too.” Never one to miss an excellent wine, William sipped from his goblet and placed hers on the chest beside the bed. “Why is that?”

Her gaze flickered over him, light eyes, blue or green, he could not make out in the dark. “Drunkenness leads to lasciviousness.”

And thank the Lord for that. William hid his smile behind his goblet.

Still bound in the bed linen, she scrutinized him.

He wandered back to the food board. The cheese looked edible, and he carved a slice for himself. Verily, she didn’t look able to move. “Are you sure I cannot bring you aught?”

After a headshake, she went back to her study of the canopy.

William picked at the offerings on the tray. His lady did not drink, nor would she partake of any food, and she viewed him as an interloper in her chamber. To be fair, given that they had only met hours earlier, he could understand her reticence. For the most part, the ladies delighted in finding themselves in his company and took matters into their own hands. He drained his goblet, rejecting the idea of another. Any sort of victory here would require clear wits.

Bending, he unlaced his boots and slid them off. Next, he removed his embroidered wedding surcoat and laid it across a nearby clothes chest. Clad in his chemise and breeches, he padded to the bed. Thank God, the fire had taken the worst of the chill. Alice had left plenty of space on the other side of the bed, and he climbed up beside her.

A soft noise escaped her, and she went even more rigid.

Dear God, give him patience. Even his large conceit felt dented. He lay on his side, propping his head on his hand. She had a neat profile with a slight upward tilt at the end of her nose. Pale, thick lashes fluttered as she stared upwards. Not a pretty face, but her pleasant features bore a faerie-like charm. A gleaming, thick braid lay against the white pillow.

William took the braid between his thumb and forefinger. Glorious, rich copper and the weight of the braid in his hand told him of its length and thickness. The ends curled around the tie holding it confined. “Your hair is red.”

“Aye.” The delicate line of her jaw hardened.

“And very lovely, it would seem.”

“Red hair is the devil’s hair,” she said.

The vehemence of her statement startled him. William knew many women who would lay down their lives for such beauty. “I beg your pardon.”

She growled and, finally, looked at him. The anger on her face left him wrong footed. “Red hair is the mark of a foul temper. Foul temper is the playground of the devil.”

God’s Bones, who had he married? So meek and silent beside him at dinner, cold as death lying in wait for him in their bed, and now glaring at him as if he were a hound of hell. “I think it is beautiful.”

She rolled her eyes on a huff. “My lord, there is no need for pretty words betwixt us. I am neither beautiful nor charming, but I am your wife. As such, we will lie together for the purpose of begetting a child. Can we please get to that part?”

 

 

Chapter 3

 

Alice kept her stare level on Sir William sprawled beside her. He threw back his head and laughed loud enough it rang about the room, and her cheeks burned.

“Indeed.” He stilled, but his fine eyes still laughed at her.

Alice hadn’t meant to blurt it out in such a manner, but he unnerved her with his offers of food and wine and his conversation. In her experience, a wedding night went differently. The husband entered, disrobed, and climbed in beside you. After he clambered atop you, he did the necessary, and left. Her first husband had slept beside her, but he had not consummated the marriage. Her second groom had discovered her chastity to his delight, but stayed only long enough to see her rid of it. After that, he had visited her chamber a bare handful of times before the village whores had lured him away. Number three followed almost exactly in number two’s pattern. Strange, she never thought of them by name. Steven! Her last husband had been named Steven. John came before him, and the first, who could not bear to touch her, had been named William. Like this one. Two Williams, and both of them strange. This William lounged like a big cat beside her, head propped on his hand and amusement gleaming in his gaze.

“It is not that I do not appreciate your efforts to put me at my ease, but they are not necessary,” she said. He had made more of an effort than the others.

“I see.” He toyed with her hair, wrapping the curling ends around his forefinger. “Perhaps my efforts were for myself as well.”

“Oh.” She had not considered that. Men always seemed so much more comfortable in these situations. “Are they?”

“A little.” He smiled at her.

She wished to God he hadn’t. A beautiful man with his face in repose, but when he smiled—Lord above—it hit her as a small quiver in her belly and crept through her chest, snatching her breath.

“You see, my lady, having done this before, you have the advantage of experience.”

He could not mean... “You are a vir—?”

“Nay, my lady.” He tickled her brow with the ends of her hair. “Do not frown so fiercely. I do not claim chastity, merely new to the wedded state.”

Well, of course, a man such as he would not be pure. A great favorite with the ladies. She would do well to remember that. Once he had gotten her with child, she could turn a blind eye to his activities outside of their wedding chamber.

He wrapped her braid around one large fist. “I meant what I said about your hair. It is beautiful.”

“Thank you.” She rather liked her hair, despite Sister’s insistence it be bound.

“Now.” Pursing his full lips, he laid her braid on her shoulder. “How best to carry on? Should we have some conversation?”

“It is not needed.” Alice dragged her gaze away from his mouth. She had never seen a man with a mouth so finely wrought. Top lip firm and carved, resting above the much fuller pillow of his bottom lip. “I desire a child above all else. I know how they come about.”

“And yet you have born no children?”

“Nay.” They whispered of her barrenness through Tarnwych. If this husband could not give her a child, it would mean the worst. A dull pain throbbed below her breast. “I have not been so fortunate.”

“Do not be sad, my lady.” With soft fingers, he stroked her cheek. “I am entirely at your disposal.”

Alice nearly laughed. His tone was kind, but his eyes invited her to share the joke. Best to get the unpleasantness over with. After, she would light a candle in the chapel every morning and evening, beg the blessed Madonna to grant her dearest wish. “You may proceed.”

He laughed, a full-throated, deep rumble that shook the bed beneath her.

Alice knew not what to make of him. Did he not think her in earnest? “I made no jest.”

“Nay, indeed.” He sobered. “But I think we should get these out of their bindings first.” He drew first one arm and then the other over the linens and lay them beside her. “In case you should feel the need to touch,” he said. “This will prove far more useful.”

“I have never felt the need before.”

“I am quickly forming that opinion, my Alice.” He winked at her and gave her another of his wondrous smiles. “Perhaps you could unclench your fists at the same time.” He straightened her fingers and spread them on the furs. Leaning over her, he took the goblet from the chest beside her and drank before offering it to her. “This is thirsty work.”

Strangely enough, she did feel like a drink. Once or twice, when Sister absented herself from dinner, she had tried wine and rather liked it. William certainly appeared to enjoy wine. “Perhaps just a small sip.”

She raised herself on her elbows.

Evading her hands, William touched the cup to her lips, and she sipped. The rich, fruity flavor delighted her palate. “It does not taste like the wine I have tasted in the past.”

“That is because I bought this with me from Anglesea. My father has some of the finest wines in the land. Have another sip. Let it rest on your tongue for a moment. See if you can taste the blackberries.”

One sip was enough of a departure for her. Two seemed positively wanton. “I think not.”

“Not even for the blackberries?” He lifted a dark brow.

Two sips wouldn’t lead the way to hell. “For the blackberries, then.”

He put the goblet to her lips.

Alice sipped, resting the wine on her tongue. A little woody perhaps, with a hint of fruit, and then blackberries. “I taste them.”

His smile of approval made her glow warm inside. He put the goblet on the chest beside her and moved back to his side of the bed. Through her gown, he pressed warm against her side. She felt delicate, tiny beside him. Wood-hued skin, with a warmed spice scent teased her from the opening of his chemise. She had never seen any of her husbands naked. They had lifted her gown without removing more garments than necessary. Would William’s skin feel as hers, or rougher perhaps?

“You still do not look comfortable.” Pulling at the bedding, he tucked it about her waist. “Now I can see more of you.”

He mocked her, he must. “Why would you wish to do that?”

He studied her face. “Green.” He smoothed her eyebrow with his forefinger. “I could not see before, but I see now that your eyes are green. Like a pea.”

“A pea?” Alice had heard worse descriptions, but still, a pea.

“Pea-green.” He bent closer to her. “Or summer grass.” He seemed to consider her eyes for a long moment. “Nay, I have it. Your eyes are as green as a stagnant pond.”

Alice snorted. The man needed to work on his poetry. “And yours are blue.”

“As blue as?” He raised a dark brow.

“Blue.” Best get this nonsense done with. His constant study of her features made her squirm. The huge fire he’d built had made the room uncomfortably warm.

“You, my Alice, have no romance in your soul.” He tapped the edge of her nose. “But you do have the dearest little nose. I would compare it to something fantastical, but you, I would wager, would prefer I call it a pig snout.”

“Nay, I would not.” She’d never been teased, and a tiny giggle escaped before she could control it.

He grinned as if she had handed him the moon. “That is much better. Now I shall move on to your cheeks.”

“Please, spare me.” The soft brush of his fingers left a warm tingle in their wake. “I do not think I can bear any more of your sweet whispers.”

“Cream.” He brushed his nose against her cheek.Whispering over her skin, the caress took Alice’s breath with it.“Thick fresh cream for my pottage.”

She should pull away, but her limbs melted into the bed. Cloves. She named the spice that clung to his skin.

“I must discover if it tastes as delicious as it looks.” Hot lips brushed her cheek.

For an instant she forgot how to breathe.

“And it does,” he murmured. “Sweet and silky on my lips.”

“My lord—”

“William.” He nuzzled into her neck and trailed his lips along her jaw.

“William.” Her skin blazed in the path of his wicked mouth. “What are you doing?”

“Inventory.” He popped his head up. “Next we move to your mouth.”

“It is just a mouth.” Her lips seemed to swell and plump under his perusal. Dear Lord, what beset her? He had bewitched her with his glib words and soft touches. Wrapped her in the befuddling scent of warm skin and cloves, in the sultry length of his chest against her side.

“Never say so.” His gaze heated. “Mouths are never just anything. They are made for smiling. For laughter and whispers between lovers.” He dragged his thumb across her bottom lip. “For kissing.”

His mouth drew closer, and Alice’s belly tightened. He was going to kiss her. Her first kiss, and from a man so beautiful she had nearly wept when she first saw him. Yet, his intent expression spoke of desire, his desire to kiss her.

Large hands framed her cheeks, turning her toward his seeking lips.

Her fingers twitched against the bedding. She did want to touch, like he said she would, to discover if his dark hair felt as silky as it looked.

The first tentative brush of his mouth on hers left her wanting more. She curled her hands about his forearms, hewn, hard muscle and so warm.

His mouth returned to hers and lingered a moment longer. Wanting more was unthinkably base. Alice tightened her grip on his forearms.

“Aye, my Alice,” he whispered against her mouth. “Shall I kiss you or leave you?”

“I have never been kissed.” The confession slipped from her, mortifying her.

“Nay.” His face softened. “How is such a thing possible?”

She had not the courage to ask him to kiss her. The words clattered around in her mind, but if she voiced them, he might laugh. Or pull away from her in disgust.

“Let it be my honor to be the first to kiss you.” He angled his head, slanting his mouth over hers.

Alice yielded beneath the firm demand of his mouth. The way he took control of the kiss robbed her of all thought and let her sink deep into the sensation. The touch of his tongue to her lip shocked her.

“Let me taste.” His thumbs worked her jaw open, admitting his tongue into her mouth.

Alice froze. She had never heard of such a thing. His tongue slid slick against hers. The strange intimacy disconcerted her, but not enough to stop it. An odd thing, to be sure, but he tasted of wine and something else—musk and cinnamon.

His groan rumbled through her. He lay close over her, but not on top of her. She could move at any time and dislodge him.

Demanding more of her, he deepened the kiss.

Alice gave in to his questing lips. Allowed him to explore her mouth with his tongue. Heat wound through her belly. It crept up her ribcage to the peak of her breasts. She was both unable to move and sparkling alive at the same time. Thus far, William provided her most enjoyable and intriguing consummation.

****

Finally, Alice responded to his kiss and triumph surged through William. Tentative at first, but growing in confidence almost as fast as his rod thickened. Her flavor flamed through him, rich, sweet, and a touch tart. Her full breasts pressed against his chest in a revelation he intended to explore with his hands and mouth. Lady Alice hid a lush little form beneath her armor of linens.

The chamber door swung open setting the taper flames flickering. The old nun stood in the doorway, the hallway light shadowing her face. “I brought water for you to cleanse yourself.”

His voice to tell her to get out stuck in his throat.

Too late. Beneath him, Alice stiffened, wriggling to escape him.

“You are still here,” the nun said. “I shall return later.”

Too stuffed full of lust to trust his voice, William flung himself onto his back. “Do not.”

“I beg your pardon.”

“You will not be required later.” William clenched his fists. The need to shove them through a wall raced through him.

Beside him, Alice returned to a corpse. If it weren’t so blasphemous, he would damn that nun to hell. So close to melting his icy bride and sinking into her wet heat. Another night then, and with no nun interrupting them.

His lady wanted him for stud, did she? Saw no other use for him but his seed. What a dreadful waste. He liked children, was very fond of them. More than children, though, he enjoyed women. Every woman presented a new mystery to be explored; the unique scent that clung to her, the brush of his hand upon her skin, the taste of her. With one kiss, Alice had become his new favorite uncharted land.

Clearly, her last three husbands had failed to convince her of the pleasures of the marriage bed. Her first, William of Clarges, he could understand. Sir William had not leant toward women at all. The subsequent two had only made his task harder.

William tucked his hands behind his head and smiled at the canopy. Challenge accepted.

 

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