Time to be wooed. Wooed with honeyed words and sweeter touches. Delightful tingles spread to Beatrice’s fingertips, rushed back again, and pooled in her stomach.
Spring filled the air with scents of new grass and wildflowers. The sun beamed from a cloudless arc of blue above her. Birdsong serenaded her, as cornflowers merrily bobbed beside the path. Even the insects buzzed encouragement. Only one thing was missing.
She dare not tarry much longer. Someone from the keep would soon come looking for her. Beatrice shifted her basket to the other arm and investigated a patch of what might be vervain. From the keep, anyone would see her picking wildflowers. Just as she intended.
A footpath disappeared between the dense green beech thickets. It crossed a small stream before meandering through the trees and down to the village below. Was he still down in the village? She tried to picture what he’d be doing. Working at the forge, perhaps?
She gave up on the plant and straightened. She wouldn’t know vervain from, well, anything. Opposite the village, a path shot straight as an arrow through the meadow toward the castle. For certain, Garrett wouldn’t come from that direction. Perhaps he wasn’t coming at all. He’d made her no promises. There was no understanding between them. But, she dearly hoped all the same.
Hoping, however, didn’t make him appear.The sun blazed down harsh on her face and she’d freckle.“Wish, wish, planted a feather and wished a bird would grow.” Nurse’s voice sang in her head. It was nonsense, pure and simple. Nonsense, like lingering alone on a path, pretending to pick wildflowers, whilst waiting for a man she barely knew to appear. A man with dark and mysterious eyes that whispered of secret places and forbidden pleasures. She was a goose. When she pictured the scene in her mind, it went thus. A beautiful maiden, garbed in her finest blue samite, engrossed in the gentle occupation of picking flowers by the roadside. The sun gleamed off her flaxen hair and brought roses to her alabaster cheek. Her slender form, bent like a reed to her feminine labors...
Roses be damned, she was sweating beneath her silk. It would leave stains on the fabric. She’d never hear the end of it from Nurse.
A soft whistle jolted her.
Her heart leapt.
There he stood, by the thicket.Smiling to warm her from the inside, one shoulder propped against a tree, arms folded across his broad chest.
An answering grin tugged at her mouth. She fought it back. A girl mustn’t appear too eager. Inside her mind, the lady in the blue samite capered. He is here, he is here, he is here. Beatrice breathed deeply to steady her heart. Her damp palms slipped on the basket handle.
Looking for all the world as if he owned the ground beneath them, he jerked his head, motioning her to join him.
How presumptuous. Beatrice clicked her tongue, but moved toward him anyway. She’d tell him so as soon as she caught her breath again.
“Were you waiting for someone?” The breeze ruffled his hair. It was too long, but so thick and lustrous, like purest sable.
“Nay.” Her cheeks heated at the lie. His mocking laughter irked her, but not enough to stop her willful feet from moving beneath the canopy of trees.
“What a pity.” Dark and rich as treacle, his eyes filled with deliciously wicked intent. He took her basket and dropped it to the ground. “I hoped you might be waiting for me.”
“And why would I do such a thing?” Her voice sounded breathy and eager. It would never do. He was already too sure of her. But how to dissemble when just being in his company was enough to make her limp as a pudding.
Garrett drew her out of sight of the path and the castle. Excitement tripped along her spine.
“I could not say. I could only hope.” A bump marred the straight blade of his nose, as if it had been broken.
Her legs trembled. She longed to know the secret behind that tiny imperfection. All his secrets.
“I hoped you enjoyed my kisses and wanted more.” He traced the line of her cheek. He was so terribly, delightfully, and wonderfully bad when he spoke thus to her.
“Nay.” She shivered. Gentle maids didn’t allow such things to be said to them.
“Nay? Mayhap I am not doing it right then?” Jaw firm, mouth full, he had a strong, beautiful face. He brushed her mouth with his thumb.
Her lips tingled. Oh, please, please, please kiss me. Her mind shouted what would be too brazen to utter.
“Shall I try again?” His voice sounded rough, like the coarse fabric of his tunic beneath her fingers.
Wordlessly imploring him to fulfill his teasing promise, she tilted her chin upward.
His lips brushed hers. Leather, fire, and earth, a scent uniquely his, would cling to her clothing long after he’d returned to the village.
Beatrice rose onto her toes, crushed her mouth against his. Heavenly. There was no other word for his kiss.
His tongue sought entry at her lips.
With the slide of Garrett’s tongue over hers, heat settled in an ache between her thighs. She pressed closer to his hard, strong body.
He groaned encouragement.
Her blood pulsed faster and wilder.
He cupped her bottom in his large hands and drew her to him.
His male flesh firm against her belly shocked her and summoned a wanton inside her. He hadn’t dared to go so far before. Yet, each time Beatrice encountered him, he took her further and further along a path that some tiny part of her mind warned her against.
When she was alone, reliving these stolen moments, her cheeks heated at her own daring. But when she was with him, male musk overwhelming her, she was powerless against the onslaught of his mouth and his hands. Need drove her.
Beatrice dared to rub her belly against his hardness.
His hands tightened, roughly urging her on as his tongue plundered her mouth.
The taste of him raged through her senses. So male. She wanted more.
One hand slid across her hip and upward. His touch burned right through her silk gown and the fine linen beneath it. He took and she gave, willingly. His hand curved around her breast.
She relished the swell of her bosom against his palm. It made the place between her thighs tingle. Thrilling. Too thrilling. She tore her mouth from his. “Nay.”
Immediately, his hand dropped away. His fingers dug into her hip and he rested his forehead against hers as he took deep, calming breaths. “Forgive me, you have no idea what you do to me. I lose all reason.”
“We must not.” She wasn’t sure on whom she was trying to impress this.
“You must know how I feel about you, Beatrice.” He planted a soft kiss against her temple.
“It is wrong.”
“Do not say so, sweeting. Do not say it is wrong. Nothing can be wrong for us.” His lips burned the sensitive skin beneath her ear.
Already, her traitorous senses were responding. The chaste maiden retreated to the back of her mind and grumbled. This was not so shocking. Harmless kisses. She tilted her chin so the sweet torment could continue, if only for a bit longer. “I should not.”
“Let yourself feel,” he said. “Just for this moment. You and I, here and alone, let yourself feel what is betwixt us.”
“It is a sin.”
“Nay.” He nipped at her bottom lip. “Sin would not feel this wondrous.” Garrett moved his hand toward her breast.
Beatrice’s knees weakened. Her head grew light. She could have stopped him. She should have stopped him, but she wanted more of his touch. A chaste girl would protest. Beatrice didn’t want to be that girl. She wanted to feel this wondrous always. Especially when his long, hard fingers brushed against the stiff peak and her nipple tightened.
He took possession of her mouth. Hot and hungry, he demanded a response.
It seemed the most natural thing in the world to arch her back and push her breast deeper into his hand. His rumble of approval reverberated through her bones. She made a soft protest as he withdrew his hand and lifted his mouth from hers.
“Beatrice,” he murmured.
She sucked air into her starved lungs, breast still tingling from his touch.
“I ache for you.” He placed her hand on his braies. “See what you do to me?”
His hard flesh pulsed in her palm. She let him curl her fingers around the shaft. It was so carnal and base, so incredibly exciting. Her thighs clenched together. She wanted him to join his body to hers, to ease the damp ache at her core. The chaste maiden whispered in the back of her mind. She tugged her hand away.
He let her go without protest.
Beatrice staggered back.
A flush stained his cheeks. Garrett straightened his shoulders and his hands clenched over his rope belt.
“We must stop.” She wet her parched lips.
Heavy with desire, his dark gaze tracked the motion. “Why?”
She couldn’t think of a good answer. Each time it grew more difficult to walk away. Disaster, hissed the maiden. It didn’t feel like disaster, though, or sin. It consumed her, glorious and so very, very tempting.
“I will be missed.” She gestured toward the castle. “I need to get back.”
He dropped his head as she retreated. The grip on his belt tightened, the skin going white around his knuckles.
Beatrice hesitated. She wanted his touch again, but that way led to trouble. “On the morrow?”
“I do not know.”
“Nay.” The word burst from her. He was the best part of her day.
He stepped away from her, raking his fingers across his scalp. “We cannot continue like this.”
She shivered and wrapped her arms around herself to ward off the sudden chill. “You do not want to see me?”
“Beatrice.” He frowned. “You know I cannot tarry here. I would have been gone long since if it were not for you.”
“What are you saying?” He couldn’t be telling her he was leaving. It caught inside of her like a barb, and she struggled to draw her next breath.
“I cannot stay.” He grasped her shoulders.
“You are leaving?” She could barely form the words past the constriction in her throat. Pain raked inside her chest. He could not leave.
“You know I must.” He shook his head. Regret lined his beautiful face. “I cannot stay here, like this, and not have you.”
“But you do have me, Garrett, you do.” Beatrice grasped the front of his tunic. She had to keep him here.
“Not in the way I need you.” His words hung in the air. He wanted to lie with her.
She wanted to, but doubt gnawed at her. Beatrice stepped back. Her thoughts were cloudy when she was close to him. He’d never said the words, but he touched her like he loved her.
Her virtue, however, must be prized and guarded. It had been impressed on her since she became old enough to understand the notion. Still, what could be better than to give such a cherished gift to the man she loved? And, yet, that maiden shrieked caution.
“Where will you go?” The thought of him leaving opened a yawning pit beneath her. This must be love. It could be nothing else. Since he had come at summer’s beginning, the loneliness hadn’t existed. With him, she was whole. She belonged. If he left, he would take that away. Her life would be gray again. Gray and boring and the same, day after cursed day.
“It does not matter.” He shrugged. “I have been many places and will be many more before I am done. But here, Beatrice—” He opened his arms wide. “Here I have come home.”
It so nearly echoed her thoughts tears flooded her eyes. She blinked to stop them from spilling over.
“Do not cry, sweeting.” He cupped her cheek and caught her tears with his thumb. “I am not worth your tears.”
“But you are.” Fresh tears spilled down her cheeks. “You are worth it to me.”
“My sweet, sweet girl.” He tugged her to him.
Beatrice burrowed into his chest, willing the world to fall away and let her rest here forever.
“We knew it could not be this way always. Sooner or later, we will get caught. Then, it will go badly for both of us.”
Beatrice shivered. Her family would kill Garrett if they knew.
“Your father will die before he gives you to one such as me.” He leaned his head back and looked at her. “I am a churl, Beatrice, a penniless traveler with naught to my name.”
She shook her head. It didn’t matter to her.
“And you are a princess.” He rested his chin on the top of her head. “A beautiful, fiery princess, living in her castle on the hill, too good for any man to claim as his own. For you, there must be a brave paladin on his pure white charger to carry you away to his kingdom in the sky.”
“I do not want a paladin. I want you.” With everything in her, she wanted Garrett.
“But you have me, Beatrice. All that I am, I give to you.” His pressed a kiss to her crown. “I have only my love and my body, and both are yours. Held between your delicate hands. You could drop my heart beneath your dainty slippers and step on it. I would not care.”
His words sank about her like golden honey. He did love her. She knew it.
Gently, he set her aside. His eyes glowed down at her and warmed the aching hollow in her chest. “You must go back before you are missed.”
“Do not leave.” She grabbed his tunic. She must have his promise before he left or she might not see him again.
“Beatrice.” He raised her fingers to his lips. “If only you knew how you torture me with your words.”
“I do not mean to torture you.” Her heart twisted. She wanted to take her words back and wipe the sadness from his brown eyes.
“I know that,” he said. “But you tempt me beyond bearing, when I know what I must do.” He looked deep into her eyes, as if he could see right down to the secrets of her soul. His sigh whispered through the air. “Very well.” He kissed her hands again. “I cannot leave you, not today, but soon.”
“But not today?” She would find a way for them to be together. She didn’t know how, but she would. She only needed more time. “Nay, sweeting, not today.”
Beatrice entered the castle through the postern gate to avoid being noticed by the guards. The main gates were kept tighter than Henry’s braies. With their father and older brothers away, Henry treated his responsibility for Anglesea with his usual, infuriating zeal.
She slid along the curtain wall to the entrance of the inner bailey. Guards on the outer wall had their backs to her, their eyes trained outward. There were far too many people about for this time of day. Bodies swarmed everywhere beyond the open inner gate. She jerked back into the gatehouse shadows.
“Damn.” She couldn’t stay here either. Someone was sure to pass through the gate and notice her. Holding her breath, she inched around the gate tower.
Beatrice ventured a few steps into the bailey then darted behind three horses a boy was leading to the stables. She stuck to the castle wall shadows, gliding from one to the other until she made it to the keep entrance.
A guard stepped in front of her.Beatrice froze, her heart in her throat.“My lady.” He bowed his head and turned away, scanning the busy bailey.
Her knees sagged in relief. She hurried into the keep, avoiding the hall. Fisting her skirts in her hand, she dashed up the stairs. Once she made her chamber, she would be safe from prying eyes. They were lucky at Anglesea to have to top floor so divided. If she were in an older keep, she might have to make a dash for safety across a wide-open space.
She threw open the door and slipped into her chamber.
“There you are.” Nurse pounced.
Beatrice screamed and clapped her hand over her mouth.
Hands on her ample hips, Nurse glared from below her wimple. As usual, Nurse’s wimple rested just above her eyebrows and pressed her face inward. “Where have you been?”
Beatrice needed a story, something to explain her absence. Her mind emptied.
“Saints,” Nurse shrieked. “Is that your new silk?” Nurse’s sharp eyes narrowed on the hemline. “And is that dust on your new silk?”
“What is all the bustle?” Beatrice tried for distraction.
“You should well ask.” Nurse charged toward her. “Your uncle has sent word he arrives in time for the evening meal.”
“Godfrey?” That would explain all the people about. “Do you think he brings word from London?”
“How would I know such a thing?” Nurse folded to her knees with a sigh. She grabbed Beatrice’s hem and examined it minutely. “Why have you got grass stains on your gown?”
“Leave it.” Beatrice wrested the material from Nurse. She wanted to hear more about Godfrey and what was happening in London.
“I will not.” Nurse held firm. “I cannot abide to see a fine fabric ruined. Stand still and I will brush these out. What are you doing wearing your best gown, anyway?”
“I merely wanted to wear it.” Beatrice waved an airy hand. She looked toward the embroidered flowers clambering the silk of her bed curtains. Anywhere but at nurse and those bright, beady eyes.
Nurse yanked on her skirt, forcing her closer. “Where have you been that demands your best gown and you leaving the keep?”
“I went for a walk. That is no sin, is it?” The lies were piling up in her throat, faster than flies on bad meat, waiting to gush out of her mouth.
“You went for a walk?”
“To the beech thicket.” Heat crept up her face, and she cursed mentally.
Nurse sank back on her heels and studied her. “And what was there in the beech thicket that had you all dressed up like a dog’s dinner?”
“Nothing.” Beatrice threw her arms up. “I wanted to wear the dress. Then I got bored and went for a walk.”
“Hmmm.” Nurse pursed her lips. “You are keeping secrets, my girl. I can see them on your face.”
“Why do you think Godfrey comes? He must know how father fares in London.”
“Saints have mercy.” Nurse shook her head. “Here we are chattering away and you could be called to the hall at any moment.” She gave the skirt a hearty shake.
Air rushed up Beatrice’s shift and cooled her. Nurse mustn’t find out about Garrett. Nurse would tell her mother for sure. Then, her mother would tell her father and—Beatrice shied away from the direction her thoughts were taking.
“Your uncle brings a party with him.” Nurse waved a pudgy finger at her. “There could be a young knight amongst them. A young knight desperately needing a wife.”
“He would have to be desperate, indeed, to come courting here.” Men looking for a wife stayed clear of Anglesea and the Lady Beatrice. Three failed betrothals took care of that.
“You will never be wed if you think like that.” Nurse never gave up. “Your sister, bless her sweet heart, stood always ready to receive her suitor.”
Beatrice rolled her eyes. It wouldn’t do any good to interrupt. Nurse would have her say. The sun was still high, forming patterns on the gleaming stone floor.
“And Lady Faye was ready, looking pretty as can be, when ill weather blew the Earl of Calder into the keep. And what happened?”
“He fell in love with her,” Beatrice recited.
“I know not of love.” Nurse stopped fussing with the hem and swayed to her feet on a lusty groan.
Beatrice held out a hand and steadied her rise.
“But what I do know is Lady Faye was ready, looking every inch a nobleman’s wife.”
“Faye was born looking that way.” Beatrice couldn’t quite control the surly note to her voice.
Her sister had been married for seven years and still Nurse carped on about her perfection. The entire kingdom knew of the beauteous Lady Faye. No less than eight ballads were written in her honor. Eight. Beatrice snorted. What was any sensible girl to do with eight ballads caroling her beauty?
“Faye never snorted like some vulgar trollop.” Nurse snatched up her brush from the oak chest in the corner. “And Faye did not go traipsing around the countryside wearing her best gown, sneaking back home with her pretty eyes full of secrets.”
“Faye was a saint.” Beatrice glared back at Nurse.
“And she still is.” Nurse nodded. “She is the image of her mother.”
“She is my mother, too.” Beatrice winced as Nurse dragged the brush through the snarl the breeze had made of her fine, straight hair.
“That she is.” Nurse tugged at a stubborn knot. “And you should make it a point to be just like your mother.”
Beatrice tried, she honestly tried, to be demure and mild-mannered and tranquil. But there was an awful lot of sitting about to being a lady. Sooner or later the itch would start somewhere within and end in her breaking for freedom as fast as her legs could carry her.
She yelped as Nurse hit another tangle and pulled. It was hard to be the family disappointment. Of the five living children Sir Arthur and Lady Mary had sired, it stood to reason all five could not be exceptional. Her only outstanding characteristic appeared to be a propensity for finding mischief. She didn’t have to try. Every time there was mischief about, it landed at her feet.
Blessedly, Nurse found no more snarls and brushed Beatrice’s hair in long, soothing strokes.
Garrett loved her hair. He thought her beautiful and passionate and clever. He was leaving.Beatrice’s heart sank.
“What is that face?”
Beatrice smoothed her expression, but not fast enough to stop the interrogation.
“You are having a mope again, are you not?”
“I am not moping.” Beatrice ducked her chin to hide her face. “I do not like to be constantly reminded I am not Faye.”
It worked like a magic potion. Nurse’s expression softened. “There, there, pet.” Nurse grasped her chin. “You will find your own way.” She gave Beatrice’s cheek a pat as she released her. “You will find what makes you special.”
She already had, Beatrice wanted to yell. Garrett made her special. She shrugged and let Nurse draw whatever conclusions she wanted. Anything was better than letting Nurse get a hint of the true reason for her sudden glum mood. “How is Mother today?”
“Too old to be having another babe.” Nurse’s gaze flew to Beatrice’s and away again. “She will be fine. She has brought five healthy babes into this world and only two stillborn. She is a strong woman, your mother, and she will bear this one fine.”
Nurse sounded too hearty. The old besom was hiding something. “Will she meet Sir Godfrey?”
“Nay. Lady Mary is not having a good day, and I have tucked her up in bed. Henry will have to do what is needed.”
“Shall I go and see her?”
“Nay.” Nurse squeezed her hand. “She is resting. It is the best medicine for her.”
“She has been resting a lot of late,” Beatrice said.
“Aye.” Nurse turned her back and smoothed the bed linens. There was naught wrong with the bed linens.
Beatrice stepped closer to see Nurse’s face better. “Mother will be all right, will she not?”
“Aye, aye.” Nurse moved to smoothing the furs. She chewed on her bottom lip like she did when something troubled her. Nurse caught her looking and stopped. “Wipe your face.” Nurse swiped the cloth over her cheeks.
“Nurse.” She grabbed the cloth and pulled it away from her face. “Tell me true. Mother will be all right, will she not?”
Nurse opened her mouth and shut it again.
Nurse sighed. “I do not know.”She snatched back the cloth and tucked it into her pocket.
Beatrice’s belly dropped. How could Nurse not know? Her mother was a constant in her life, always there and always capable and beautiful. She searched Nurse’s face for comfort.
“Nurse, you are not scared mother will...” That horrible word lodged in her throat.
“I am not saying anything, pet.” Nurse cradled her face between her palms. “I am a foolish old woman, and why would you mind me now, when you never have before.”
Suddenly, Beatrice wanted to run to Garrett. To have him hold her and tell her all would be well. Nay. She was a selfish, wicked girl to be thinking of a man of whom her mother would, surely, not approve. She should’ve been by her mother’s side today. She would do better, be a better daughter in every way.
“There is no sense fretting,” Nurse said. “God’s will shall prevail.”
God wouldn’t take Lady Mary from this earth. Would he? Lady Mary was good and kind and beautiful.
Nurse adjusted Beatrice’s girdle, then stood back and surveyed her handiwork. “There, now you are ready.”