Hugh swept into the great hall of his sworn enemy with deadly grace and intent. He brought with him the gathering fury of the storm and the dark promise of oncoming night. His black cloak was a whirlwind that swirled around his black leather boots. His onyx hair was windblown. His eyes were molten amber.
He was not wearing his armor but the folds of his cloak were thrown back to reveal the black leather sword belt buckled low on his hips. One big hand rested on the hilt.
No one moved. Everyone in the hall stared at the apparition that had coalesced out of the impending tempest.
Hugh took in the frozen chamber with a single searing glance. Alice realized that he had assessed the whole situation in that instant. Assessed it and made the lightning-swift calculations that would determine his actions and the fate of everyone in the hall.
The manner in which he immediately dominated the hall was breathtaking. He commanded the wary respect of all within the chamber in the same fashion in which a great storm commands the skies.
Eduard of Lockton suddenly appeared a good deal smaller and much less intimidating than he had a short while earlier. Unfortunately, he looked just as mean and vicious.
Hugh's eyes came to rest on Alice.
"I have come for my betrothed." His voice was a whisper that carried to the farthest corner of the hushed hall.
"Dear heaven." Emma's hand went to her throat.
Reginald gazed at Hugh with rapt curiosity. "He is very big, is he not?"
Eduard jolted to his feet as though freed of the invisible spell that had temporarily imprisoned him. "Sir Hugh. Welcome to this hall. The Lady Alice is my honored guest."
Hugh paid him no heed. "Alice. Come here."
"Hugh." Alice leaped to her feet, picked up her skirts, and rushed down the length of the hall to greet him properly. "My lord, I am so very glad to see you. I feared that you would be another day on the road. Now you will be able to put this matter right."
"What do you do here, Alice?" Hugh's eyes reflected the flames on the hearth.
"My lord, I pray you will but listen to me for a moment and all will be made quite clear." Alice came to an abrupt halt directly in front of him. She sank into a deep curtsy and bowed her head. "I can explain everything."
"Aye, no doubt. And you will do so later." Hugh did not extend his hand to assist her as she rose slowly. "Come. We are leaving."
He turned on his booted heel.
Behind Alice, Emma made a small, soft, despairing sound.
"All will be well, Mother," Reginald whispered. "You'll see."
"One moment, my lord," Alice said. "Sir, I fear that we cannot take our leave just yet."
Hugh paused and turned slowly around to face her. "Why not?"
Alice mustered her determination. It was not easy. She realized that she must tread warily if she would banish the devil in him. Her only ally at this moment was his own intelligence. "First you must tell Eduard of Lockton to take himself and his men out of this keep."
"Is that so?"
Eduard gave a harsh crack of gloating laughter as he came forward. "Your betrothed is a charming little creature, my lord, but obviously headstrong and willful." He leered at Alice. "I admit that I envy you the pleasure of taming her. 'Twill prove interesting, I'll wager."
Alice whirled on him. "That is enough out of you, you great, obnoxious oaf. Who do you think you are? You have no rights here in this hall. Sir Hugh will soon get rid of you."
Eduard's yellow teeth flashed in his beard. He slanted Hugh a knowing glance. "If you want my opinion, m'lord, you've been too indulgent with the lady. She seems to think that she can give you orders as she would a servant. A touch of the whip would likely teach her to control her tongue."
"One more insult to my betrothed," Hugh said very softly, "and I will cut you down where you stand. Do you comprehend me, Eduard?"
Alice glowed with satisfaction.
Eduard flinched but recovered instantly. "Sir, I meant no insult. 'Twas merely an observation. I myself occasionally enjoy the saucy types."
Alice shot Eduard a disgusted look and then turned back to Hugh. "Tell him to leave at once, sir. He has no business here."
"Bah. Women." Eduard shook his large head. "They do not comprehend the ways of the world, do they, m'lord?"
Hugh studied him with the sort of idle interest a well-fed falcon might exhibit toward a fresh meal. "Why are you here?"
A crafty gleam lit Eduard's malicious eyes. "Why, 'tis obvious, is it not, sir? 'Tis no secret that Rivenhall's lord no longer commands the money or the men to defend his lands."
"So you thought to take them while he was gone?" Hugh's voice held only cold curiosity.
" 'Tis well-known that you have sworn an oath to Erasmus of Thornewood not to take them." Eduard spread his hands. "Your reputation as a man who does not violate his oath is legendary, sir. But your oath to your liege lord does not apply to the rest of us poor knights who must make our own way in the world, does it?"
"Nay, it does not."
Eduard grinned. "Erasmus of Thornewood is dying, by all accounts. He will not ride to the defense of Rivenhall."
Emma gasped. "You will not take my son's inheritance, Sir Eduard."
Eduard's small eyes glittered. "Who will stop me, pray tell, Lady Emma?"
"Sir Hugh will stop you," Reginald said loudly. "Lady Alice promised."
Eduard snorted. "Don't play the fool, lad. Lady Alice does not command her lord, whatever she may believe. 'Tis the other way around. She will soon discover that for herself."
Reginald clenched his fists at his sides and faced Hugh. "Sir Eduard tried to hurt my mother. Lady Alice said you would not allow him to stay here at Rivenhall."
"Of course he will not allow it," Alice declared.
Emma took a single step forward. She lifted her hands in a beseeching gesture. "My lord, I know that you hold no love for this house, but I pray you will honor your betrothed's oath to defend it."
"He will," Alice assured her. "Lord Hugh left me in command. He granted me the authority to act in his stead and he will support me."
"She promised that you would help me save my father's keep." Reginald fixed Hugh with an expectant look.
Eduard slapped his thigh as though at a fine jest. "The boy's got a lot to learn, eh?" Two of his men chuckled uneasily.
"Enough." Hugh silenced the hall once more with the single word. He looked at Eduard. "Take your men and begone."
Eduard blinked two or three times. "What's this?"
"You heard me," Hugh said quietly. "Leave this hall at once or I will order my men to retake the keep." He glanced once more around the chamber, clearly taking note of the position of Dunstan and the Scarcliffe men-at-arms. "It should not take more than a few minutes to do so."
Eduard was outraged. "Have you lost your wits, man? You would save this hall on the orders of a woman?"
"Lady Alice spoke the truth. I left her in command in my stead. I will support her decision in this matter."
"This is madness," Eduard snarled. "You cannot mean to force me out of here."
Hugh shrugged. "I could not help but notice as I rode into the yard that my men outnumber yours on the wall. It would appear that Sir Dunstan has things under control in this chamber. Do you wish to put the matter to the test?"
Eduard turned red with fury. Then a shrewd look appeared on his face. "By the blood of the damned. Now I comprehend. You wish to possess this hall yourself, do you not? In spite of your oath to Erasmus, you mean to take advantage of the situation to grab these lands and have your revenge against Rivenhall. I respect that, sir, but mayhap you would consider an alliance with me?"
"My lord Hugh," Emma cried desperately. "I pray you will have mercy."
"By the Saints." Alice fitted her hands to her waist and glowered at Eduard. "Don't be any more of an ass than you can help, Sir Eduard. Lord Hugh would not dream of violating his oath." She scowled at Hugh. "Would you, sir?"
Hugh watched Eduard. "A man's honor is only as good as his oath. Lady Alice acted in my stead when she ordered you from this hall, Eduard. The authority she wields flows from me. Do you comprehend?"
"You cannot mean this, m'lord," Eduard sputtered. "You would allow a mere woman to give orders in your name?"
"She is my betrothed," Hugh said coldly.
"That makes me his partner," Alice informed Eduard.
"Leave at once," Hugh said. "Or prepare for battle."
"By the teeth of the demon," Eduard roared. "I do not believe this."
Hugh's hand tightened around the hilt of his sword.
Eduard took a hasty step back. "I do not want war with you, Sir Hugh."
"Then you will leave."
"Bah. Who would believe that Hugh the Relentless has fallen under the spell of a sharp-tongued, redheaded—"
"Enough," Hugh said.
Eduard spat into the rushes. "Mark my words, you'll regret the day you submitted yourself to a woman's whims."
"Mayhap, but that is my problem, not yours."
"I have had enough of this foolishness." Eduard turned and stalked toward the door. He signaled his men to follow.
Hugh looked at Dunstan. "See him through the gate."
Dunstan relaxed slightly. "Aye, m'lord." He motioned to the Scarcliffe men-at-arms.
Alice watched with satisfaction as Eduard and his men departed. "There, you see, Reginald? I told you all would be well."
"Aye, my lady." Reginald gazed at Hugh with awe.
Emma clasped her hands tightly together. Her anxious eyes went from Alice to Hugh. "My lord, I pray you do not… I mean, I must ask if you intend to… to—" She broke off helplessly.
Alice knew what Emma was thinking. It would be all too easy for Hugh to take what Eduard of Lockton had just surrendered. "There, there, Emma. Rivenhall is safe from Lord Hugh."
"I am not going to take this keep, my lady," Hugh said without any emotion. "I gave my oath to Erasmus of Thornewood and in spite of what some would believe, he is still alive. While he lives, he has my loyalty."
Emma gave him a shaky smile. "Thank you, my lord. I know that your oath did not bind you to come to the defense of Rivenhall. It would have been most convenient for you to have let it fall to Eduard of Lockton."
"Aye." Hugh gave Alice an unreadable look. "Most convenient."
Reginald stepped forward and gave Hugh a courtly bow. "On behalf of my father, sir, I thank you for your assistance today."
"Do not thank me," Hugh said. " 'Twas the work of my betrothed."
"She was magnificent," Emma breathed. "We shall be forever grateful to her. We would have been lost without her."
Alice smiled happily. " 'Twas no great matter. I merely invoked the power of Lord Hugh's legendary reputation."
"So you did." Hugh's eyes burned. "And you will soon learn that all power commands a price."
"She meant well, my lord." Dunstan watched with morbid fascination as Hugh turned the wine cup slowly between his hands. "She is a woman, after all. With a woman's soft heart. When young Reginald pleaded with her to save his mother, she could not bring herself to deny him."
Hugh gazed into the flames on the hearth. He had come directly here to his study chamber as soon as he had returned from Rivenhall with Alice and his men. There had been no opportunity to speak to Alice during the wild ride through the storm.
Outside, the full fury of wind and rain lashed the black walls of Scarcliffe. The tempest mirrored his own mood. He had come so close. His hand tightened briefly on the wine cup. So very close. Vengeance had been all but within his grasp.
"Given your original opinion of my betrothed, I am amazed to hear you defend her, Dunstan."
Dunstan flushed. "She could not have known of your plans, sir."
"It was to have been so very convenient." Hugh looked into the heart of the fire. "Rivenhall was balanced on the brink of disaster. Vincent has stripped his own lands of what little his father left in order to pay for his endless jousts. He did not even leave enough men behind to guard his keep. It was ripe to fall into the hands of someone such as Eduard of Lockton."
Dunstan exhaled heavily. "I am aware that you have been waiting for Rivenhall to fall of its own accord."
" 'Twas such a simple stratagem, Dunstan."
"Yet she managed to tangle herself up in my net. She ruined it all."
Dunstan cleared his throat. "You did leave her in command of Scarcliffe, sir."
"Scarcliffe. Not Rivenhall."
"You did not make the limits of her authority clear to her," Dunstan insisted.
"A mistake that I will not repeat in the future." Hugh sipped wine from the cup. "I always learn from my mistakes, Dunstan."
"Sir, I must tell you that she acted with great daring. Never have I seen the like. She rode through the gates of Rivenhall with armed men at her back as though she were a queen in command of an army."
"You should have seen the expression on Eduard of Lockton's face when he saw that it was a woman who rode beneath your banners. He was most anxious. He did not know what to think. He fell back on the hope that you would not support her when you discovered what she had done."
"I had no choice but to support her. She left me no other option. She acted in my name." Hugh's mouth twisted. "Nay, it went beyond that, you know. She thinks herself my partner. A business associate."
"Whatever else you may say about her, you must know that she possesses a courage that is the equal to that of any man." Dunstan paused meaningfully. "Indeed, a courage equal to your own, my lord."
"Do you think I am not aware of that?" Hugh asked very softly. " 'Tis one of the reasons I decided to wed her, if you will but recall. I wanted to breed such courage into my heirs."
"Sir, I heard you tell her that power commands a price. Mayhap courage does also."
"Aye. So it would seem. She has certainly seen to it that I paid a very high price for that commodity, has she not? And to think that I believed myself skilled at matters of business and bargaining."
Dunstan drew a deep breath. "My lord, I ask that you consider that Lady Alice could not have known of the depth of your feelings toward all things Rivenhall."
Hugh looked up from the flames at last, straight into his old friend's eyes. "Ah, now that is where you are wrong, Dunstan. She knew how I felt about Rivenhall. She knew full well."
"I vow, it was the most astonishing sight, Alice." Benedict struck his staff against the floor to emphasize his enthusiasm. He turned from the window, his face alight with excitement. "Chests of spices were stacked to the roof. Cinnamon, ginger, cloves, pepper, and saffron. Lord Hugh is obliged to hire guards at all times to keep watch on the storerooms."
"I am not surprised." Alice folded her hands together on top of her desk and tried to listen with proper attention as Benedict described his trip to London. It was not easy. Her mind kept returning to the events of the previous day.
The storm had vanished with the morning sun. The warm light pouring through the window lit her collection of crystals, giving even the ugly green stone on her desk an inner glow.
Alice hoped the rare fine weather would find a reflection in Hugh's temper, but she was not counting too heavily on that possibility. She had neither seen nor spoken to him since they had arrived home last night. She was not at all certain that she wished to do so.
She knew that she had roused the fires of the past within him. It only remained to see how long they would blaze before they died down once more. In the meantime she sensed it would be prudent to avoid the source of the conflagration.
"He employs many men, Alice. He has scribes and clerics and stewards. They deal with members of the Guild of Pepperers and they forge contracts with the captains of sailing vessels. They barter with powerful merchants. One afternoon we went down to the docks and watched as a ship was unloaded. It brought the most amazing goods from the East."
"It must have been a fascinating sight."
"Aye. But the most interesting thing was the library where the records of the voyages and cargoes are maintained. The steward in charge of that chamber showed me how each item in a shipment is entered into a log. He uses an abacus, just as Lord Hugh does, but he works it far more swiftly. He can do great sums in a moment. Sir Hugh says he is expert at the business."
Benedict's enthusiasm caught Alice's full attention. She eyed her brother thoughtfully. "It sounds as if you would enjoy such work."
"If I could work for Sir Hugh, I would certainly enjoy it," Benedict agreed. "He says he hires only the most highly skilled people and then he gives them the authority to carry out their duties in whatever manner they see fit. He says that is the best way."
Alice grimaced. "What does he do if someone in his employ exceeds his authority?"
"He dismisses the person, I suppose," Benedict said carelessly.
"I wonder if he will dismiss a betrothed wife as easily," Alice muttered under her breath.
A small sound out in the hall caught her attention. She glanced anxiously toward the door, hoping that the faint footsteps she heard heralded the arrival of Elbert or one of the servants. An hour ago she had sent the steward to Hugh with a request to speak privately. Thus far there had been no response.
The footsteps passed her study chamber door without pausing. They receded down the hall. Alice heaved a tiny sigh.
Benedict glanced at her. "What did you say?"
"Nothing. Tell me more about your stay in London. Where did you stay?"
"At an inn that Sir Hugh favors. The food was plain but the cook did not attempt to disguise old meat in her stews and the bedding was clean. Sir Hugh says that is what one looks for in an inn."
"Were there any women at this inn?" Alice asked cautiously.
"Aye, some worked in the tavern. Why do you ask?"
Alice picked up the green stone and pretended to study it. "Did Sir Hugh talk to any of those women?"
"Certainly, when he commanded that food or ale be brought to our table."
"Did Sir Hugh go off with any of them?" Alice asked softly.
"Nay." Benedict looked puzzled. "Where would he go with a tavern wench?"
Something inside Alice eased. She set the stone down and smiled at her brother. "I have no notion. I was merely curious. Tell me more about London."
" 'Tis an astounding place, Alice. So many people and shops. So many buildings."
"It must have been fascinating."
"It was. But Sir Hugh says he prefers the comforts of his own hall." Benedict paused by a worktable to toy with the astrolabe. "Alice, I have been thinking about my future. I believe I know what I would like to do."
Alice frowned. "You have chosen a career?"
"I wish to become Sir Hugh's man."
Alice stared at her brother, astonished. "In what capacity?"
"I want to deal in the spice trade," Benedict said eagerly. "I want to learn to keep the accounts and make contracts with the ships' captains. I want to supervise the unloading of the vessels and the sale of the spices. 'Tis so exciting, Alice. You cannot imagine."
"You truly believe that you would enjoy that sort of career?"
" 'Twould be ever so much more interesting than a career in the law."
Alice smiled wistfully. "I see that Sir Hugh has accomplished what I failed to do."
Benedict glanced at her. "What is that?"
"He has given you a taste of the world and a hunger for your own future. 'Tis a fine gift."
And while Hugh had been graciously bestowing that gift on her brother, Alice thought sadly, she had been depriving him of his long-sought vengeance.
A startled hush fell over the great hall that afternoon when Alice descended the tower stairs for the midday meal.
The clatter of mugs and knives ceased momentarily. The bustling servants paused to stare. The men seated on the benches at the long trestle tables stopped talking. A burst of loud laughter was cut off abruptly.
Everyone gazed at her in astonishment. Alice knew they were held rapt not only by her presence but by the sight of her new black and amber gown. The significance of her apparel was not lost on anyone. Hugh's betrothed wore her future husband's new colors.
A soft murmur of wonder and curiosity swept through the chamber.
Alice smiled wryly. Her entrance had created a sensation second only to the sort that Hugh himself was fond of making.
She looked down the length of the chamber to where he sat beneath the new black and amber canopy.
In spite of the tension in the hall, Alice could not help but be pleased with the effect Julian had created. There were cloths on the tables. Tapestries hung on the walls. Fresh herbs scented the clean rushes. Many of the servants were already garbed in the new colors.
Hugh looked especially fine seated at the head table in his great black chair, Alice thought.
He also looked very cold and very remote. Her momentary flicker of pleasure evaporated. He had not forgiven her for going to the aid of Rivenhall.
"My lady." Elbert appeared at Alice's elbow. His expression was anxious. "Will you dine with us today?"
Elbert beamed with unmistakable pride. "Allow me to escort you to the head table."
"My thanks." It was obvious that Hugh was not going to perform the courtesy, she thought.
Hugh watched with chilling intensity as she walked toward the head table. He did not rise from his ebony chair until she was almost upon him. At the last moment he got to his feet, inclined his head in an icy gesture, and took her hand to seat her. His fingers were iron bonds around her own soft palm.
"How kind of you to honor us with your presence, Lady Alice," he murmured.
At his tone she shivered and knew that he must have felt her reaction. She tried to calm her racing pulse as she took her seat.
"I trust that you will enjoy the meal, sir." Alice hastily freed her hand from his grasp.
"Your presence will definitely add a certain seasoning to the dishes."
She knew that his laconic remark had not been intended as a compliment but she decided to pretend otherwise. "You are most gracious, sir."
Hugh took his seat once more. He relaxed against the inlaid back of the chair and rested one elbow on a massive arm. He studied Alice with dangerous eyes. "May I ask why a woman of such refined sensibilities has chosen to dine in such rude company?"
Alice felt herself turn pink with embarrassment. "I do not consider the company rude." She nodded toward Elbert, who sprang into action. "I look forward to dining with you, my lord."
"Do you, indeed?"
He had not even noticed her new gown.
This was not going to be easy, Alice acknowledged. But, then, things rarely were with Hugh. She cast about for a way to change the topic. Her gaze fell on an unfamiliar man seated at the far end of one table. He was dressed in religious robes.
"Who is our guest?" she asked politely.
"The priest I brought back with me." Hugh flicked a mildly curious glance at an elegant dish of poached fish as it was set in front of him. The fish had been garnished with a saffron-tinted sauce. "He will perform the wedding service tomorrow."
Alice swallowed. "Wedding service?"
"Our marriage ceremony, madam." Hugh's mouth curved in a wintry smile. "Or had you forgotten about it?"
"Nay, of course not." Alice picked up her spoon, gripping it so tightly that the blood left the tips of her fingers.
By the Saints, he is furious, she thought. Far more so than she had realized. She wondered what she should do next. She had no notion of how to handle Hugh when he was in this mood. Despair threatened to sweep over her. She fought it with sheer willpower.
"You have not answered my question." Hugh helped himself to a slice of the hot cheese and leek tart that a servant brought to the table.
"What question was that, my lord?"
"Why have you condescended to dine with your future lord and his men?"
"It was not an act of condescension. I merely wished to enjoy the meal with you. Is that so odd?"
Hugh considered briefly as he sampled a bite of the tart. "Aye. Most odd."
He was toying with her, Alice thought. Baiting her. "Well, 'tis the truth, sir." She concentrated on a dish of almond-flavored vegetables. "I wanted to welcome you home from London."
"Welcome me or placate me?"
Alice's temper flared. She put down her spoon with a thump. "I am not here because I seek to placate you, sir."
"Are you certain?" A humorless smile played around the edges of Hugh's mouth. "I have often noticed that your manners improve greatly when you seek a boon. One could view your actions today as those of a woman who knows she has overstepped herself. Mayhap you think to make amends for what you did yesterday?"
Alice knew she could not eat a single morsel now. She stood up abruptly and turned to confront him. "I did what I thought was necessary."
"Nay, I will not sit down, sir. I came to dine with you here today because I wished to see if you cared for the improvements that have been made in this keep." She waved a hand at the black and amber canopy overhead. "You have not said one word about the decorations."
"Sit down, Alice."
"Nor have you bothered to pay attention to the excellent food." She glowered at him. "I spent hours organizing this household while you were gone and you have not deigned to extend a single kind word. Tell me, do you find the tart tasty, my lord? Did you notice that it was warm, not cold?"
Hugh narrowed his eyes. "I am more interested in other matters at the moment."
"Have you tried the ale? It is newly brewed."
"I have not sampled it yet."
"Did you enjoy the pleasant scent of your linens? What about the fresh rushes on the floor? Did you note that the garderobe shafts have all been washed with a great quantity of water and now exude a pleasant fragrance?"
"What of the new colors that Julian and I so carefully chose? I added amber to match your eyes."
"Madam, I vow, if you do not sit down immediately, I shall—"
She ignored him to shake out the folds of her skirts. "And what about my new gown, sir? The maids worked late into the night to finish the embroidery. Do you like it?"
He raked the black and amber garment with a single glance. "Did you think that the sight of you wearing my colors would sweeten my temper?" His hand closed fiercely around the arm of his chair. "By the devil, do you believe that I care more about clean garderobes than I do about vengeance?"
Alice was incensed. "I did no more than you yourself would have done had you been here when young Reginald came to plead for aid."
Hugh's eyes gleamed with fury. "You think to excuse your actions with such poor logic?"
"Aye, my lord, I do. You will never convince me that you would have let Lady Emma, her young son, and her entire household fall into the clutches of that horrible Eduard of Lockton. Regardless of your feelings toward Rivenhall, you are far too noble to allow the innocent to suffer for the sake of your vengeance."
"You know nothing of my nature."
"In that you are wrong. I know a great deal about you, sir. And in my opinion, 'tis most unfortunate that your fine nobility of manner is exceeded only by your monumental stubbornness."
Alice whisked up her skirts, turned, and fled from the high table. Tears burned in her eyes by the time she reached the door. She rushed down the steps and out into the sunlight.
She did not pause or look back as she dashed through the keep's gate.