She did not know what made her choose the cave as her destination. But for some obscure reason Alice found solace in the shadows of the large cavern where Hugh had made love to her.
It had been a long, witless flight. What had she thought to accomplish by fleeing the keep so ignominiously? she wondered.
She sat down on an outcropping of stone near the cavern entrance and breathed deeply to recover from her wild run. She was disheveled and exhausted. The circlet that bound her hair had slipped to the side. Wispy red tendrils blew lightly about her cheeks. Her soft black leather shoes were scuffed. The skirts of her new gown were stained with dirt.
She had been so certain that, once his temper had cooled, Hugh would comprehend why she had gone to the rescue of Rivenhall. So certain that he would forgive her. He was a man of keen intelligence, after all, not a brute of a man as was Eduard of Lockton.
On the other hand, Hugh was not known as Relentless for naught, she reminded herself. Those who knew him maintained that nothing could alter his course once he had determined upon it. And he had been determined upon revenge since the day of his birth.
There was a great heaviness in Alice's heart. Her normally optimistic outlook had turned to a painful and quite unfamiliar mood of deep gloom. She was so accustomed to planning for the future that it came as a shock to realize that that future might well be empty.
She gazed out over the landscape of Scarcliffe and wondered morosely how she could marry a man who had no heart.
Mayhap it was time to reconsider a life within the calm, cloistered walls of the convent.
Mayhap it was time to abandon her fledgling dreams of love.
It was strange to realize that until she had met Hugh, she had never even been tempted to dream such dreams.
Alice tried to force herself to think calmly and logically about the situation. She was not yet wed. There was still time to escape the betrothal.
She could force Hugh to honor his portion of the bargain they had made. When all was said and done, he was a man who could be counted upon to abide by his word of honor. She'd had ample evidence of that last night at Rivenhall. He had stood by his oath to her even though it had cost him his vengeance.
Of course there was always the possibility that he would be only too happy to dissolve the betrothal, she thought bleakly. She had proven to be a good deal more inconvenient than even Hugh had anticipated.
The thought brought the tears to her eyes again. She started to dash them away with the sleeve of her gown, hesitated, and then succumbed to the urge to cry. She lowered her head down onto her folded arms and gave herself up to the storm of emotion that swept over her.
She had never felt so alone in her life.
It was a long time before the floodtide of feeling exhausted itself. Alice eventually ceased sobbing and sat quietly, her head pillowed on her arms, until she grew calm once more.
Then she embarked upon a series of short, silent, bracing lectures.
Nothing was ever resolved with tears, she reminded herself. One could not waste time regretting the past. In truth, even if she had it to do over again, she would not alter yesterday's events. She could not have turned her back on young Reginald and Emma.
She had been so certain that Hugh would understand, so sure that he would have done as she had done.
Clearly she had been mistaken in her judgment of the dark legend that was Hugh.
One had to put one's mistakes behind one. It was time to go forward. If she had learned naught else in her life, it was that a woman had to be strong if she wished to remain in control of her own destiny.
The difficulty she faced now lay in the fact that she was dealing with a man who had learned the same hard lesson.
She wiped her eyes with the folds of her skirts, drew a deep, steadying breath, and slowly raised her head.
The first thing she saw was Hugh.
He leaned casually against the wall of the cavern, his thumbs hooked in his leather sword belt. His expression was unreadable.
"You certainly contrived to shock the priest," he said blandly. "I do not believe that he has ever before witnessed such an entertainment at dinner."
Alice's stomach clenched. "How long have you been standing there spying on me, sir? I did not hear you arrive."
"I know. You were well occupied with your tears."
Alice looked away from his hard, implacable face. "Have you come to taunt me further? If so, I must warn you that I am in no mood for more battle."
"What a strange notion. I have never known you to weary of combat, madam."
She glowered at him furiously. "By the Saints, Hugh, I have had enough."
"If the truth be known, so have I."
The wry tone of his voice disconcerted her. She instantly quashed the spark of hope that leaped within her. "Have you come to apologize, my lord?"
He smiled faintly. "Do not press your luck too far, Alice."
"Nay, of course you did not come here for such a logical, sensible reason. Well, my lord, why did you follow me then, if not to make amends?"
"I told you that you were not to come here to the caves alone."
He was avoiding the issue, she thought, surprised. That was most unlike Hugh.
"Aye, so you did. The day you gave me your ring." She glanced down at the broad onyx stone that weighed heavily on her thumb. Another wave of sadness washed over her. "But surely this transgression pales into insignificance compared with my astounding sins of yesterday," she muttered.
"Aye. It does."
She wished she could tell what he was thinking. His mood was indecipherable. He did not appear especially furious, however. It struck her that Hugh himself may not have been certain of his own feelings. The flicker of hope resurged.
"Have you come to tell me that you wish to break our betrothal contract?" she asked coolly.
"Will you pursue me through the courts if I do choose to sever it?"
She bristled. "Don't be ridiculous. We made a bargain, if you will recall."
"Aye." Hugh straightened and came away from the wall. He reached down, grasped her by the shoulders, and lifted her gently to her feet. "You would not sue me for breach of promise, would you?"
"Nay, my lord."
"In fact, you would be only too glad to escape into a convent. Is that not so?"
She stiffened. "My lord, I know that you are very angry about what I did, but I would have you know—"
"Hush." Hugh's eyes gleamed. "We will not speak again of what happened yesterday."
She blinked. "We won't?"
"After much contemplation I have been forced to conclude that what occurred yesterday at Rivenhall was not your fault."
"Nay." He dropped his hands from her shoulders. "It was my fault and mine alone."
"It was?" Alice felt as though she had stepped through a magical window only to emerge into a strange land where the normal logic of the world was slightly askew.
"Aye." Hugh folded his arms across his broad chest. "I did not set clear limits on the authority I granted to you. I did not anticipate all possible situations. I did not make allowance for your soft heart."
"You could hardly have done that, sir." Alice began to feel quite waspish. "Given the fact that you do not seem to know what it is to possess a heart. And you may as well know that even if you had expressly forbidden me to ride to Rivenhall's defense, I would have disobeyed you."
Hugh smiled faintly. "You do not know when to stop, do you, Alice? And to think the world calls me Relentless. You could give me lessons in the art."
"I still maintain, my lord, that if you had been here to see young Reginald plead for help, even the stone you use in place of a heart would have melted."
"Unlikely. I would have kept my eye on the ultimate goal."
"Sir, that boy is your blood kin, whether you like it or not. Furthermore, he and his mother had nothing to do with what happened in the past. None of you living today had anything to do with it. Let the sins of the past rest."
"Enough." Hugh cut off the flow of her words with a finger on her lips. "It may surprise you to know that I did not come here to quarrel with you."
"Nay?" Alice gave him a look of mock astonishment.
"Nay." Hugh's jaw tightened. "Not another word on the subject of yesterday's affairs at Rivenhall, Alice. What's done is done."
She gazed mutely up at him, intensely conscious of the exciting roughness of his callused finger against her soft mouth. For a moment he simply looked at her as though he sought some sign in her widened eyes.
"Alice, on the last occasion when we were in these caves you told me that the reason you had never before made love was that you had never before met a man who appealed to you."
" 'Twas the truth." Not quite all of the truth. The real truth is that I had never before met a man whom I could love, she added silently. "What of it?"
He did not answer. Instead he pulled her close, anchored her tousled head with one big hand, and kissed her.
The dark passion in his embrace was very close to the surface. Alice shivered beneath its onslaught.
Always she had been aware of the depths of his control when he held her in his arms. But today she sensed that he was fighting the steel bonds that he had imposed on himself. She wondered what awesome force had brought him to the edge of his own limits of control.
She tasted the residue of his anger and frustration in his kiss. His mouth moved on hers, relentless in its demands. She thought that she could actually hear the storm winds that howled across his soul.
But he would not, could not hurt her, Alice realized suddenly. A wondrous joy leaped within her. Her arms stole softly around his neck.
Hugh raised his head just as she moaned and parted her lips for him. He gazed broodingly at her mouth. " 'Tis time we returned to the keep. There is much to be done before we are wed tomorrow."
Alice stifled a groan. She drew a deep breath and tried to steady herself. "My lord, mayhap we should wait a while longer before we take our vows."
"Nay, madam." His voice hardened. " 'Tis too late."
"If this is only a matter of knightly honor for you, my lord, rest assured, I will not—"
"Only a matter of honor?" His amber eyes were suddenly fierce. "My honor is everything to me, madam. Everything. Do you comprehend that? All that I am flows from it."
"Sir, I did not mean to imply that I thought your honor unimportant. On the contrary, I have always been most impressed—" Alice broke off as she caught sight of an object out of the corner of her eye. She turned her head to peer into the shadowed depths of the far end of the cavern.
Hugh frowned. "What is it?"
"By the Saints," Alice breathed. "Does that look like a sandal?"
Hugh glanced toward the opening. His eyes narrowed. "Aye, it does." He released Alice and strode toward the dark passage. "If that damned monk is still hanging about these parts, I vow, I shall personally throw him off Scarcliffe lands."
"But why would he wish to stay here if he could no longer preach?" Alice asked as she followed Hugh.
"An excellent question." Hugh came to a halt near the yawning tunnel. He paused and then crouched down as though to get a better look at the sandal.
"What is it?" Alice hurried toward him and looked over his broad shoulder. A deep unease filled her. The air emanating from the passageway suddenly seemed very cold. "Eyes of the Saints."
The sandal was still attached to Calvert's foot. The monk lay ominously still on the stone floor of the cave. His brown robes were tumbled about his scrawny frame as though they were so much dirty linen.
In the deep shadows it was possible to see that Calvert's body was oddly contorted. He looked as though he had been in great pain for a time but it was very clear that he was far beyond feeling anything at all now.
"He's dead," Hugh said quietly.
"Aye. Poor man." Alice crossed herself. "I could not like him but I am sorry that he died here alone. What do you think happened to him?"
"I don't know. Mayhap he fell and hit his head against a sharp stone." Hugh clamped a hand around the monk's ankle.
"What are you doing?"
"I want to get a closer look at him. There is something strange about this." Hugh dragged the monk's body out of the passage.
Alice backed hurriedly out of the way. Then she saw the odd blue color around Calvert's mouth. A shiver of dread gripped her.
She recalled something her mother had written about potions made from the juice of a rare herb. She glanced at Calvert's fingernails. His hands had stiffened into clawlike shapes but she could make out the blue tinge beneath his nails.
"Aye?" Hugh asked absently. He was concentrating on the task of stretching the monk's body out in the light of the cavern entrance. When he had finished, he stood and gazed down at Calvert with a speculative expression.
"I do not believe that the monk died from a fall," Alice whispered.
Hugh gave her a sharp, assessing look. "What are you saying?"
"I believe that this is the work of poison."
Hugh studied her for a long moment. "You are certain?"
Alice nodded bleakly. "My mother's book contains several pages of notes on the subject."
"In that case," Hugh said very evenly, "you will say nothing concerning the manner of his death. Do you comprehend me, Alice?"
"Aye." She was bemused by the intensity of his voice. "But I do not understand. Why is it so important that I keep silent?"
"Because the entire village witnessed your anger toward him in church." Hugh went down on one knee beside the monk's body. "And because everyone knows that you are expert with herbal potions."
Alice went cold to the bone. Nausea assailed her. She swallowed rapidly, trying to control the churning in her stomach. "Dear God. People may believe that I had a motive to murder poor Calvert and that I know enough of poisons to do so."
"I will not have my wife touched by such gossip if it can be avoided." Hugh unfastened and removed the leather pouch that was suspended from Calvert's belt. "This land has seen enough of legends and curses. I do not want new ones added to the old."
Alice was dazed. She barely registered Hugh's actions. Her legs were unsteady. She flattened her hand against the wall of the cave to brace herself. "And if such gossip cannot be avoided?"
Hugh shrugged as he got to his feet, Calvert's pouch in one hand. "Then I shall deal with it."
"Of course." Alice hugged herself against the chill that enveloped her. "It would seem that I am destined to cause you endless inconvenience, my lord."
"Aye, but there will no doubt be compensations." He opened the leather pouch and studied the contents. "Interesting."
His expression finally penetrated Alice's anxious mood. Her own natural curiosity reasserted itself. "What is it?"
Hugh drew out a sheet of rolled parchment. He unfurled it carefully. "A map."
She took a step toward him. "Of what?"
Hugh studied the drawing for a moment. When he looked up at last, his golden eyes gleamed. "I believe this may be a drawing of the passages of the caves of Scarcliffe. Or at least of those passages that Calvert had time to explore."
Alice hurried to where Hugh stood. She gazed down at the lines on the map. "Look, my lord, he marked several of the tunnels. See, here, he has indicated that these two passages are empty." She glanced at Hugh. "Empty of what, do you suppose?"
"I do not believe that our monk spent all of his time praying in these caverns. It appears that he was searching for something. There is only one treasure that would lure a man into these caves."
"The stones of Scarcliffe," Alice whispered, amazed.
"Aye. Mayhap he was murdered for them."
"You sent for me, sir?" Julian paused in the doorway of Hugh's study chamber.
"Aye." Hugh put aside his journal of accounts. "Enter, Julian. I wish to speak with you."
"I trust you are not going to send me off to London with a message before the marriage feast this afternoon." Julian sauntered into the chamber and stood before Hugh's desk. "I have been looking forward to the banquet. The food has greatly improved around here in recent days. Have you noticed?"
Hugh narrowed his eyes. "I have noticed. But I did not send for you in order to discuss the well-spiced dishes that now grace my table."
"Of course not." Julian smiled blandly. "I trust that you know who to thank for the excellent meals we all enjoy."
"Nor do I need any more pointed observations on the well-organized manner in which this household is now functioning. I have had a surfeit of such comments. I am well aware that the improvements are the result of my betrothed's skills in the business of household management."
"Naturally," Julian murmured. "Then how may I serve you, my lord?"
Hugh drummed his fingers on the desk. "You have a certain facility with graceful compliments and flowery words, do you not, Julian?"
Julian affected an air of modesty. "I do dabble a bit in poetry and I have written several songs, sir."
"Excellent. I need a list of compliments."
Julian looked baffled. "A list?"
"Three or four should do nicely."
Julian cleared his throat. "Uh, what sort of compliments do you prefer, my lord? Would you like me to concentrate on your skills with a sword or your triumphs in battle? I can do a nice line or two about your loyalty and honor."
Hugh stared at him. "What in the name of the devil are you talking about?"
"You said you wanted compliments, my lord."
"Not for myself," Hugh snapped. "For my betrothed."
Laughter appeared in Julian's eyes. "Ah. I see."
Hugh clasped his hands on the desk and frowned in concentration. "I am skilled at many things, messenger, but not at inventing the sort of compliments that please ladies. I wish you to draw up a list of pretty phrases that I may memorize and speak to my bride. Do you comprehend me?"
"Aye, my lord." Julian smiled complacently. "And may I say, sir, that, as always, you have employed the most skilled artisan for the task. I promise that you will not be disappointed."
The following night Alice paced the carpet of Hugh's large bedchamber and tried to still the fluttery sensation in her belly. She had never felt more unsettled in her life than she was at this moment. She and Hugh were no longer partners in a bargain, they were husband and wife.
She stalked past the fire and paused once more at the door, listening for the sound of footsteps in the hall. She had dismissed her women almost an hour ago. Hugh should have come to her by now.
She wondered if he was deliberately making her wait, thinking to arouse her passions to a fever pitch. If that was his purpose, she thought, he was due for a surprise.
She was not growing more lovesick by the moment. She was becoming quite irritated.
She had had enough of Hugh's clever stratagems, she thought resentfully. It had been a very long day.
It had begun with the burial of Calvert of Oxwick. He had been laid to rest in the small graveyard behind the village church. Alice, Benedict, Hugh, and Joan had been the only ones present. The priest, Geoffrey, who had accompanied Hugh and Benedict to Scarcliffe, said the prayers for the dead over the grave. No one had shed any tears.
A few hours later, shortly before noon, Geoffrey had conducted the wedding service in front of the church door.
The endless festivities and an elaborate banquet had followed. Alice was so exhausted from smiling and being gracious to everyone that she had thought to fall asleep the instant she got anywhere near a bed.
But the moment she had been left alone in the bedchamber to await Hugh a deep uncertainty had driven out her exhaustion. She stopped pacing and went to sit on a stool in front of the fire. She gazed into the flames and tried to envision her future.
It appeared shrouded in a fog that was not unlike the mist that clung to Scarcliffe that day. There was only one clear certainty.
She was Hugh's wife.
A small shiver went through her. Alice drew the folds of her night robe more closely around her. All her plans for the future had been irrevocably altered. There was no going back, no changing her mind. She was committed.
The door opened without warning behind her.
She turned her head quickly as Hugh entered the chamber. "Welcome, my lord."
She was relieved to note that he was alone. Apparently Hugh had decided to eschew the custom of a boisterous escort to the bridal bed.
"Good evening… wife." Hugh lingered over the last word, as though he found it of great interest.
His black leather boots made no sound on the carpet as he came toward her. He was truly a creature of the night, a dark sorcerer who absorbed the firelight and gave off shadows.
He wore one of the new black tunics embroidered with amber thread that Alice had had made for him. His black hair was brushed straight back from his high forehead. His eyes were brooding in the firelight.
Alice jumped to her feet. She glanced at the table where two cups and a flagon had been set out. "Would you care for some wine?"
"Aye. Thank you." Hugh stopped in front of the fire. He held out his hands to the blaze and watched Alice as she poured the wine. He cleared his throat.
"Have I ever told you that your hair is the color of a brilliant sunset in that moment before it is enveloped by the night?" Hugh asked quite casually.
The flagon trembled in Alice's hand. She felt the blush rise in her cheeks. "Nay, my lord. You never mentioned it."
" 'Tis true."
"Thank you, my lord."
Hugh's brows rose as the wine splashed into a cup. "You are anxious."
"Is that so very strange under the circumstances, sir?"
He shrugged. "Mayhap not for most women, but you are not like most women, Alice."
"And you are not like most men, sir." She turned to him with the cup in her hand.
His fingers brushed lightly against hers as he took the wine. "In what way am I different from other men?"
This was not the sort of conversation she had planned to have on her wedding night, Alice thought. She wondered if he expected a serious answer to his question or if he was engaged in some new stratagem designed to disconcert her.
"You are more intelligent than the other men I have known," she said cautiously. "Deeper. More difficult to comprehend at times and yet, at other times, much clearer."
"Is that why you married me?" Hugh met her eyes over the rim of the wine cup. "Because I am more clever than other men? More interesting? Do I intrigue your curiosity? Arouse your questioning nature? Do you regard me as an unusual object, one worthy of adding to your collection, mayhap?"
A trickle of unease went through Alice. She was suddenly very wary. "Nay, not precisely."
Hugh began to prowl the chamber, wine cup in hand. "Did you marry me because I proved useful?"
She frowned. "Nay."
"I did rescue you and your brother from your uncle's hall," he reminded her.
"Aye, but I did not marry you because of that."
"Was it to gain permanent possession of the green stone, mayhap?" Hugh asked.
"Of course not." Alice scowled. "What a ridiculous notion, my lord. I would hardly marry merely to possess that strange bit of crystal."
"Are you certain?"
"Quite certain," Alice said through set teeth.
Hugh paused near one of the posts of the huge, black bed. He smiled his dangerous smile. "Was it because of the passion, then?"
Anger flared in Alice. "You are taunting me again, sir."
"I merely seek information."
"Bah. You believe that I would wed you simply for the pleasure of a few kisses?"
"Not for the kisses alone," he mused, "but for what follows upon them. You are possessed of a most passionate nature, madam."
"Sir, this has gone much too far."
"And there is your great curiosity." His voice roughened. "Your appetite for sensuality has been whetted and you wish to experience more of it. The only practical way of doing so is in the marriage bed, is that not true?"
Alice was stunned. "You did it deliberately, did you not? 'Twas all a stratagem. I had begun to suspect as much."
"What did you suspect?"
"That you kissed me and touched me and made love to me until I was breathless because you thought to ensnare me with passion."
"If you think that what you have experienced thus far is interesting, wait until you discover how much more there is to learn of the subject. Mayhap you should keep a pen and some parchment beside the bed so that you can record your observations."
"Oh, you are a demon, my lord." She slammed her cup down on the table. She clenched her hands into fists. "But you are wrong if you think I would have wed you simply to secure more of your lovemaking."
"Are you certain?"
"I do not comprehend your goal in this unpleasant conversation. Nor will I participate in it." She started determinedly toward the door.
"Where do you think you're going?"
"To my own chamber." She wrapped her fingers around the iron door handle. "When you have emerged from this odd mood, you may send word to me."
"What is odd about a man wishing to know why his wife married him?"
Alice whirled around, outraged. "You are far too intelligent to play the fool, sir. You know full well why I married you. I did so because I love you."
Hugh went utterly still. Something dark and desperate swirled in his eyes.
"Do you?" he finally whispered.
Alice saw the lonely hunger in him and forgot all about escaping to her own bedchamber. She knew the depths of his emotions because she had experienced them herself.
"My lord, you are not nearly so alone in this world as you seem to think," she said softly. She released the doorknob and ran to him.
He caught her up in his arms, holding her so tightly that she could not breathe.
Then, without a word, he untied her night robe and let it fall to the floor. Alice trembled as he put her down on the white linen sheets.
He jerked off his own clothing, tossing them aside in a careless heap.
When he stood before her, Alice drew in her breath at the sight of his heavily aroused body. A torrent of emotion washed through her. She was disturbed, excited, and apprehensive, all at once. She reached out to catch hold of his hand.
"My wife." He sprawled on top of her, crushing her into the bedding.
She glimpsed the aching need and the raw passion in his golden eyes as he bent his head to take her mouth. She knew in that instant that the turbulent gales that howled at the core of his being had been freed at last.
She was lost in the storm of his embrace. It was unlike anything she had yet known with him. This was no slow, calculated seduction. This was a furious ride on the winds of a savage tempest. She was buffeted and tossed about until she could barely breathe.
She was aware of his callused hand on her breast. The instant her nipple firmed, Hugh took it into his mouth. His teeth grazed lightly across the sensitive bud. Alice shuddered.
A ragged groan surged through Hugh's chest. His hand went lower, flattening across her belly, searching out the soft, tangled thicket. She gasped and squeezed her eyes shut when she felt him moisten his fingers in the dampness that materialized between her legs.
And then, before she could catch her breath, he was parting her thighs, settling himself between them. Big, he was so big. And warm. And hard. Alice felt as though she were being swallowed alive. The words of his beautiful compliment came back to her. Sunset before it is enveloped by the night.
Hugh levered himself up on his elbows to look down at her. His features were starkly drawn, his eyes brilliant in the firelight. He captured her face between his strong hands.
"Tell me again that you love me."
"I love you." She smiled tremulously up at him, unafraid. In that moment she could see the secrets of his soul. You need me, she thought, just as much as I need you. Someday I pray you will comprehend that truth.
He surged into her with stunning force.