She loved him.
A long time later Hugh lay back against the plump pillows and contemplated the embers on the hearth. He was aware of a curious sense of peace. It was as though the dark storm winds that had raged within him for so long had quieted at last.
She loved him.
Hugh savored the memory of Alice's passionate declaration. She was not the kind of woman who would say such words lightly, he assured himself. She would not say them at all unless she believed them to be true.
He stirred and stretched cautiously in the great bed, not wanting to awaken Alice. She was snuggled close against him, her hips fitted neatly into the curve of his body.
Her skin was so soft, he thought. He touched the curve of her thigh with a sense of deep wonder. So warm. And her fragrance was more compelling than the rarest of spices.
She shifted slightly, responding to his touch even in her sleep. He tightened his arm around her when she nestled closer. He had chosen well, he thought. Alice was everything she had appeared to be that night when she had bravely faced him in her uncle's hall and dared to bargain for the future of herself and her brother.
Everything and more. He was the most fortunate of men, Hugh told himself. He had hoped for a wife who possessed the qualities of courage, honor, and intelligence that were so important to him. In addition he had gotten one who loved him with a sweet, hot passion that took away his breath.
"You look pleased with yourself, my lord," Alice murmured in a drowsy voice. "What are you thinking?"
He looked down at her. "That, contrary to your early fears, I was in no danger of being cheated when I paid your bride price. You were definitely worth two full chests of spices."
Alice gave a muffled giggle. "Sir, you are a rogue and an unchivalrous scoundrel."
She scrambled to her knees, grabbed a pillow, and began to pummel him unmercifully.
Hugh gave a shout of laughter as he made a halfhearted attempt to defend himself. "I surrender."
"I want more than surrender." Alice whacked him again with the fluffy weapon. "I want an apology."
He grabbed the pillow from her hands and tossed it aside. "How about a compliment instead?"
She pursed her lips, considering the matter closely. "I will have to hear it before I can determine if it will satisfy me as much as an apology."
"Your breasts are as sweet and round as fresh summer peaches." Hugh cupped one gently.
"That is a very nice compliment," Alice conceded.
"There are more where that one came from," he promised.
He tugged her down on top of him. She tumbled across his chest, warm and soft and so enticingly female. He stroked the edge of her fine-boned cheek. Memories of the day he had saved her from the robbers in Ipstoke came to mind. He recalled the way she had run to him. As if she had known, even then, that she belonged in his arms.
"Many more," he whispered.
Alice folded her arms on his chest. "Well, my lord, compliments are certainly very pleasant and I shall look forward to hearing more of them, but I think that in this case they will not do."
"You still want the apology?"
"Nay." She chuckled. "What I want is a boon."
"What sort of boon?" he asked, suddenly cautious. He threaded his fingers through her tousled hair. She looked so lovely lying here in his bed. He shuddered to think how if it had not been for an old legend and the whim of fate, he might never have found her.
Then again, Hugh thought, mayhap he had been destined to find her from the day of his birth.
Alice smiled beatifically. "I don't know yet. I wish to hold this boon in reserve, so to speak, until such time as I decide to collect it."
"I shall no doubt regret this, but I am in no mood to bargain with you again tonight. You may have my promise of a future boon, madam."
She batted her lashes outrageously. "You are too kind, my lord."
"I know. 'Tis no doubt one of my greatest failings."
The following morning Dunstan spat into the dirt with his usual gusto and eyed the sagging door of the storeroom. "A fine day, m'lord."
"Aye." Hugh surveyed the broken door with a sense of deep satisfaction. "No rain in sight. That means we'll be able to finish the work here in the bailey without delay."
He was pleased with the progress that had been made in such a short time on the manor of Scarcliffe. The last of the villagers' cottages had been repaired. The new refuse ditch was finished and the bridge across the stream stood firm once more. The first items on his list of priorities were completed.
It was time to see to less critical matters here in the keep itself. Matters such as the drooping storeroom door. The clang and clash of tools rang out across the yard.
"No shortage of men," Dunstan observed.
Hugh had been surprised at first by the number of villagers who had arrived early that morning to assist with the repairs. He had not ordered the men to appear. He had simply sent word that there was work for those who could spare the time from their farms.
Virtually every able-bodied male in Scarcliffe had presented himself, tools in hand, within the hour. They had immediately set to work with an astoundingly cheerful mien.
"We can thank my wife for the number of laborers we have here today," Hugh said dryly. "She seems to have made a favorable impression on the villagers while I was in London."
"Lady Alice is swiftly becoming as much of a legend as yourself, m'lord. It did not go unnoticed that she saved Young John, the miller's son, when the healer had given up the effort."
"I heard about that," Hugh said quietly.
"Nor has anyone forgotten that scene in the church when she ordered Calvert of Oxwick out of the pulpit."
"And she was most industrious in overseeing the repairs you ordered done while you were gone."
Hugh smiled wryly. "Alice is very good at managing things."
"Aye. But I think it safe to say that the incident that warranted that she would become a true legend was the rescue of Rivenhall."
Hugh grunted, his indulgent mood dissolving in an instant. "You mean the villagers were awed by her bravery?"
"Aye, m'lord. Awed is certainly the word for it."
"I'll grant that my wife does not lack courage but she did not rescue Rivenhall alone. She had you and most of my men with her. Eduard of Lockton knew he was no match for such a force, nor would he have challenged me by taking up arms against my betrothed."
"It was not the lady's bold ride into Rivenhall that gained the admiration of one and all." Dunstan grinned. "It was the fact that she survived your temper afterward that has us awestruck."
"By the bones of the devil," Hugh grumbled.
Dunstan shot him a knowing look. "Some say that she wields a mystical power over you."
"Is that so?" Hot memories of the night just past burned in Hugh's mind. He smiled. "Mayhap those that whisper of her magical talents have the right of it."
Dunstan quirked a brow. "Marriage appears to have had an interesting effect on your temper, m'lord."
Hugh was saved from having to reply by a shout from one of the watchtowers.
"Three visitors approach, m'lord," one of the men called down from his perch.
"Visitors?" Hugh frowned. "Who would come to visit Scarcliffe?"
"You are not entirely without friends," Dunstan drawled.
"None would have come without sending a message first." Hugh looked up at the guard in the watchtower. "Armed men?"
"Nay, m'lord." The guard studied the road from Scarcliffe. "One man wearing only a sword. He is accompanied by a woman and a child."
"Damnation." A sense of deep foreboding swept over Hugh. He swung around to face the open gate. "Surely he would not be so stupid as to pay a neighborly visit."
"Who?" Dunstan asked.
The question was answered a moment later as Vincent of Rivenhall rode through into the bailey. Lady Emma and young Reginald were at his side.
Hugh groaned in disgust. "Can a man not even be allowed to enjoy the morning after his wedding night in peace?"
"It would seem that things have changed in the history of Scarcliffe," Dunstan murmured.
Work came to a halt as everyone in the vicinity turned to stare at the newcomers. Grooms rushed up to take the heads of the visitors' horses.
Hugh watched morosely as Vincent dismounted and turned to assist Emma from her mare. Young Reginald hopped down from his saddle and grinned at Hugh
Vincent, his face set in lines of grim determination, took his wife's arm and walked forward as though he went to the gallows.
"Sir Hugh." He came to a halt in front of his reluctant host and nodded stiffly.
"I see you finally left off your jousting long enough to pay your estates a visit," Hugh said laconically. "What a pity you did not do so earlier. You would have saved my wife a deal of trouble."
Vincent flushed deeply and set his jaw. "I comprehend that I am in your debt, Sir Hugh."
"If you are in anyone's debt, it is my wife's. I do not want you laboring under the assumption that you owe me a damn thing."
"Believe me, I have no desire to be beholden to you, my lord." Vincent spoke through gritted teeth. "Nevertheless, I must thank you for what you did for my wife and son."
"Save your thanks. I do not want them."
"Then I will give them to your lady," Vincent snarled.
"That won't be necessary. Lady Alice is at work in her study chamber this morning." It occurred to Hugh that he had better rid the yard of the Rivenhall crowd before Alice realized they had visitors. "She does not care to be interrupted."
Emma spoke up quickly. "We understand that you were wed yesterday, my lord. We have come to offer you our congratulations." She gave him a tremulous but gracious smile.
Hugh barely inclined his head in acknowledgment. "You will forgive me if I do not declare a banquet to celebrate your unexpected presence in my bailey, madam. In truth we are not able to entertain at the moment. We are concerned with more pressing matters."
Emma's face fell.
Vincent glowered furiously. "Damn your eyes, cousin, I will discharge this debt if it is the last thing I do."
"You may do so by seeing to the welfare of your own keep so that Scarcliffe never again finds itself obliged to defend Rivenhall lands." Hugh smiled thinly. "I'm certain you understand my feelings on the matter. Rescuing Rivenhall goes much against the grain.
"No more so than having to be the recipient of Scarcliffe's assistance goes against mine," Vincent retorted.
"Lady Emma. Lady Emma." Alice's cheery voice got the attention of everyone in the bailey. "Welcome. How wonderful that you have come."
"God's teeth," Hugh muttered. So much for getting Vincent and his family out of the bailey before Alice learned of their presence.
He and the others raised their eyes to the tower window. Alice leaned partway out of the narrow opening, madly waving a kerchief in greeting. Even from this distance, Hugh could see that her face was alight with excitement.
"You are just in time to join us for the midday meal," Alice shouted down to Emma.
"Thank you, my lady," Emma called back. "We are delighted to be able to dine with you."
"I'll be right down." Alice disappeared from the window.
"Blood of Satan," Vincent said sourly. "I was afraid of this."
"Aye," Hugh muttered. It was clear that Alice and Emma had established a fast friendship.
" 'Tis a wise man who knows when to retreat," Dunstan offered helpfully.
Hugh and Vincent both turned on him with ferocious scowls.
Dunstan spread his hands in a placating gesture. "I'll see to the horses."
Two hours later Alice stood with Emma at the window of the study chamber and watched anxiously as Hugh and Vincent crossed the yard together. The two men were headed for the stables.
"Well, at least they did not go at each other's throats with their eating knives during the meal," Alice commented.
They had dined in an atmosphere of tension that could not have been good for anyone's digestion but there had been no outbreak of violence, much to Alice's relief.
She and Emma had kept the conversation moving along at a brisk pace while Hugh and Vincent had downed their food in grim silence. The one or two remarks exchanged between the men had been in the nature of sharp, taunting barbs.
"Aye." Emma's brows drew together in an uneasy expression as she watched the men enter the stables. "They are both innocent victims of that old feud between their families. Neither of them had anything to do with what happened all those years ago, but their elders burdened them both with the anger and the demand for vengeance."
Alice glanced at her. "What do you know of the history of the feud?"
"Merely what everyone else knows. Matthew of Rivenhall was betrothed to another when he seduced Lady Margaret, your husband's mother. He went off to France for nearly a year, during which time Hugh was born. When Sir Matthew returned he apparently went to see Margaret."
"The men of Rivenhall are convinced that she fed him poison that night and then drank the evil potion herself."
Alice sighed. "So 'tis unlikely that Sir Matthew went to see her to tell her that he intended to wed her, then."
Emma smiled sadly. "Lord Vincent assures me that there was no possibility of his uncle breaking his betrothal to the heiress. The match was a rich one and both families wanted it. But mayhap Sir Matthew intended to keep Lady Margaret as his leman."
"And she was too proud to continue as his lover while he wed another." Alice shook her head. "I can comprehend her feelings on the matter."
"Aye." Emma met her eyes. "But I doubt that one of your gentle nature would have resorted to poison in order to obtain your vengeance. And you surely would not have taken the potion yourself, thereby leaving your infant son motherless."
"Nay, I would not have done that, no matter how angry I was." She touched her belly with fleeting fingers. She might even now be carrying Hugh's babe. The thought sent a wave of fierce protectiveness through her.
"Neither of us would have done such a thing," Emma whispered.
Alice thought of Calvert of Oxwick, dead by poison. She shivered as though an icy wind had touched her. "What if Lady Margaret did not do it, either?"
Emma gave her a bemused look. "What do you mean? There is no other explanation for what happened that night."
"You are wrong, Emma," Alice said slowly. "There is one other possibility. What if someone else fed Sir Matthew and Margaret the poison?"
"For what reason? It makes no sense. No one else had a motive."
"I suppose you are right and in any event we cannot know the truth at this late date." Unless, after all these years, the poisoner had returned to Scarcliffe, she thought. But why choose the monk as a victim?
Thoughts churned in Alice's brain, making her suddenly restless. She turned away from the window, crossed the chamber to her desk, and picked up the green crystal. "Would you care to see my collection of stones, Lady Emma?"
"Stones? I did not know that anyone collected stones."
"I intend to write a book describing the various kinds."
"Really?" Emma glanced down into the bailey and froze. "Dear heaven, what are they doing?"
"Our husbands." Emma's eyes widened. She clapped her hands to her mouth in horror. "They have drawn their swords against each other."
"They would not dare." Alice sprang for the window and leaned out to get a clear view.
She saw at once that Emma was right. In the center of the bailey, Hugh and Vincent faced each other. Their bare swords gleamed in the sun. Neither man had donned helm or hauberk, but each carried a small shield. The villagers who had been doing repairs and several of the men-at-arms had put down their tools. A crowd quickly gathered to watch.
"Stop that nonsense at once," Alice yelled from the window. "I will not have it, do you hear me?"
The crowd in the bailey looked up at her. Several of the men hid wide grins. Alice saw a number of them turn to one another and mutter behind their hands. She knew they were placing wagers.
Hugh glanced at the window with a quelling glare. "Go back to your stones and beetles, madam. This is men's sport."
"I do not want any swordplay between you and our guest, my lord." Alice gripped the windowsill very tightly. "Find some other way to entertain Sir Vincent."
Vincent looked up. Even from this distance it was possible to see the feral quality of his smile. "I assure you, my lady, I am well content with this entertainment. Indeed, I cannot think of anything I would enjoy more than a bit of sword practice with your lord."
Emma glowered down at her husband. "Sir, we are guests in this house. I bid you respect Lady Alice's request."
"But her lord has suggested this sport," Vincent called. "How can I refuse?"
Alice leaned farther out the window. "Sir Hugh, kindly inform your guest that you wish to pursue other sport with him."
"What other sport would you suggest, madam?" Hugh asked innocently. "Shall we engage in some practice with the lance, mayhap?"
Alice lost her temper. "Show Sir Vincent the new refuse ditch, if you cannot think of anything more entertaining. I do not care what you do, but I will not allow the two of you to stage a joust in this keep. Do I make myself clear, sir?"
A breathless silence emanated from the bailey. All eyes were on the tower window.
Hugh studied her very intently for a moment. "You will not allow it?" he finally repeated carefully.
Alice took a deep breath. Her fingers dug into the sill. "You heard me. 'Tis not a seemly way in which to amuse a guest."
"Madam, it may have escaped your notice, but I am lord of this keep. I will entertain my guest as I see fit."
"Do you recall the boon you promised me last night, sir?"
"I am claiming it now, my lord."
Hugh's expression was more dangerous than it had been at any time during the meal. He held himself quite still for a few taut seconds and then, with a lethal whoosh, he rammed his blade back into its scabbard.
"Very well, madam," he said without inflection. "You have claimed the boon and it has been granted." He smiled coldly. "I shall show Sir Vincent the village ditch."
Vincent gave a roar of laughter, sheathed his sword, and clapped Hugh roughly on the shoulder. "Do not concern yourself, sir," he said, not without sympathy. "I have every confidence that you will soon adjust to married life."
A short while later Hugh rode past the convent in the company of the man he had been taught to hate since birth. Neither he nor Vincent had spoken since they had ridden out of Scarcliffe Keep.
"Are you actually going to show me the village ditch?" Vincent asked dryly.
Hugh grimaced. "Nay. In truth there is a matter we should no doubt discuss." He had been debating how much to tell Vincent concerning the murder of Calvert and he had finally come to a conclusion.
"If you intend to lecture me further on my duties to Rivenhall, you may save your breath. I have finally acquired enough money from the jousts to enable me to see to my estates. I do not intend to leave them again."
Hugh shrugged. "That is your affair. But as we are neighbors whether we like it or not, you should know that murder has been done very recently on these lands."
"Murder?" Vincent shot him a startled glance. "Who was killed?"
"I discovered the body of a wandering monk named Calvert of Oxwick in one of the cliff caves. I believe he may have been killed by robbers."
"Why would anyone kill a monk?"
Hugh hesitated briefly. "Because he was searching for the Stones of Scarcliffe."
Vincent snorted in disbelief. "That is nothing but an old tale. If there ever were any Stones of Scarcliffe, they have long since disappeared."
"Aye, but there are always those who believe in legends. The monk may have been one."
"And the murderer?"
"He may have also believed in the legend," Hugh said softly.
Vincent frowned. "If a thief killed the monk for the sake of a nonexistent treasure, he has no doubt realized his mistake by now. Likely he has already departed these lands."
"Aye. But in light of the fact that you've decided to return to your manor and assume your responsibilities, I thought you might want to take note of the incident. Neither of us needs a murderer in the neighborhood."
"You wield sarcasm as well as you do a sword, Sir Hugh."
" 'Tis the only weapon my wife has seen fit to leave me today," Hugh muttered.
Vincent was quiet for a moment. The hooves of the horses thudded softly in the dirt. Several of the nuns at work in the convent gardens glanced at the pair. The miller's son waved energetically from the shelter of his parents' cottage.
"Sir Hugh, Sir Hugh," the boy cried happily.
Hugh lifted a hand in greeting. Young John laughed with delight.
Vincent watched the boy disappear into the cottage. Then he looked at Hugh. "They say that Erasmus of Thornewood is near death."
"I shall miss him," Vincent said sincerely. "Other than his demand that you and I not go to war with each other, he has been a good liege."
Vincent glanced around at the repaired cottages. "You have accomplished much here in the past few months, Sir Hugh."
"Aye. With the aid of my wife." Hugh knew a deep sense of pride and satisfaction. Order and stability had been brought to Scarcliffe. In the spring, it would begin to know prosperity as well.
"Tell me," Vincent said, "do you still hunger for Rivenhall, or are you content with these lands?"
Hugh raised his brows. "You are asking if I will take Rivenhall when my oath to Erasmus is severed by his death?"
"I am asking if you will attempt to take it," Vincent corrected dryly.
"Attempt?" Laughter welled up out of nowhere within Hugh. It roared forth from the depths of his being. It rang in the street, drawing the attention of the nuns on the other side of the convent wall.
"I'm glad you find the question amusing." Vincent watched him with wary eyes. "I'm still waiting for your answer."
Hugh managed to control his mirth. "I suspect that Rivenhall is safe so long as my wife calls your wife friend. I do not care to contemplate the endless scolding I would be obliged to endure were I to lay siege to Rivenhall."
Vincent blinked owlishly and then he started to grin. "Something tells me that you have already begun to settle in nicely to the life of a married man."
"There are worse fates."
"Aye. There are."
The following morning dawned dark with ominous clouds. Hugh was forced to light a candle on his desk so that he and Benedict could work.
Hugh was midway through an examination of a list of spices when he noticed that the flame of the taper was shimmering in an odd manner. He put down his quill and rubbed his eyes with thumb and forefinger. When he opened them again he saw that the flame had grown very large. Too large.
"Is something wrong, sir?" Benedict leaned across the desk, his expression one of concern.
"Nay." Hugh shook his head to clear it of the cobwebs that seemed to have enveloped his wits.
Benedict's features started to run together. His eyes and nose flowed into his mouth.
Hugh forced himself to concentrate. Benedict's face returned to normal. "Have you finished those sums?"
"Aye." Benedict pushed aside the cups of green pottage that had been brought to the chamber a short while ago. "I will have the amounts ready for Julian to take to London on the morrow. Sir, are you certain you are well?"
"Why in the name of the devil is that candle dancing about? There is no draft in here."
Benedict glanced at the candle. "The flame appears steady, sir."
Hugh stared at it. The flame was leaping wildly. It was also turning a strange shade of pink. Pink flames?
He tore his gaze from the candle and focused on the tapestry that hung on the wall. The unicorn woven into the center came alive even as he watched. It turned its graceful head and regarded him with a politely curious expression.
"The pottage," Hugh whispered.
Hugh looked at the half-empty cup of pottage in front of him. A terrible premonition pierced his fogged brain. "Did you drink any?" His voice was a harsh whisper of sound.
"Of the green pottage?" Benedict's features wavered, just as the flame did. "Nay. I do not care for the stuff. I know Alice believes it to be very beneficial to the humors, but I dislike it. I usually throw it down the nearest garderobe shaft."
"Alice." Hugh grabbed the edge of his desk as the chamber began to spin slowly around him. "The pottage."
"What is wrong, my lord?"
"Get her. Get Alice. Tell her… tell her… poison."
Benedict leaped to his feet. "Sir, that is impossible. How dare you accuse her of being a poisoner?"
"Not Alice." Hugh could barely manage the words. "This is Rivenhall work. My own fault. Should never have let them into the keep—"
As he crumpled heavily to the floor Hugh was dimly aware of Benedict's footsteps pounding out the door and down the hall. And then the unicorn walked out of the tapestry and came across the chamber to gaze solemnly down at him.
"This is how it was for your father and your mother," the unicorn said gently.