"You have the look of an alchemist gazing into his crucible, my lord." Dunstan indulged in his old habit of spitting over the edge of the nearest obstacle. In this instance it was the old wall that surrounded the bailey of Lingwood Manor. "I like it not. In my experience the expression bodes ill for my aging bones."
"Your bones have survived worse than an unpleasant frown or two." Hugh rested his forearms on the top of the wall and gazed out over the dawn-lit landscape.
He had risen half an hour ago, prodded from sleep by a familiar restlessness. He knew the mood well. The storms that abided deep within him were stirring. They shifted and swirled in new patterns. It was always like this on those occasions when his life was about to take a new turn.
The first time Hugh had experienced the sensation had been when he was eight years old. That was the day he had been summoned to his grandfather's deathbed and told that he was to be sent to live in the keep of Erasmus of Thornewood.
"Sir Erasmus is my liege lord." Thomas's pale eyes had burned in his thin, haggard face. "He has agreed to take you into his household. He will see that you are raised and trained as a knight. Do you understand?"
"Aye, Grandfather." Hugh had stood, subdued and anxious, by the side of the bed. He had stared in silent awe at his grandfather, unable to believe that this frail old man who lay at death's door was the same fierce, embittered knight who had raised him since the death of his parents.
"Erasmus is young, but strong. A fine, skilled warrior. He went on Crusade two years ago. Now he has returned with much glory and wealth." Thomas had paused, his words briefly severed by another racking cough. "He will teach you the things you will need to know in order to achieve our vengeance against the house of Rivenhall. Do you comprehend me, boy?"
"Study well. Learn all that you can while you are in Erasmus's care. When you become a man, you will know what to do and how to do it. Remember everything that I have told you about the past."
"I will remember, Grandfather."
"Whatever happens, you must do your duty by your mother's memory. You are the only one left, boy. The last of your line, even though you were born a bastard."
"You must not rest until you have found a way to wreak vengeance upon that house from whence sprang the viper who seduced my innocent Margaret."
To young Hugh, it had not seemed altogether right to seek vengeance on his father's house, in spite of what he had been taught about the evil nature of the Rivenhall clan. His father, after all, was dead, just as his mother was. Surely justice had been done.
But that justice had not satisfied Hugh's grandfather. Nothing could satisfy Sir Thomas.
Eight-year-old Hugh had dutifully brushed aside his moment of uncertainty. Honor was at stake and nothing was more important than his honor and that of his grandfather. That much he fully comprehended. He had been steeped in the importance of honor since the moment of his birth. It was all a bastard had, as Sir Thomas had frequently pointed out.
"I will not rest, Grandfather," Hugh had promised with the fervent intensity only a boy of eight could muster.
"See that you don't. Never forget, honor and vengeance are all."
Hugh had not been surprised when his grandfather had died with no words of love or a farewell blessing for his only grandchild. There had never been much in the way of affection or warmth from Thomas. The brooding anger that had resulted from the untimely seduction, betrayal, and death of his beloved daughter had tainted all of the old man's emotions.
It was not that Thomas had not cared for his grandson. Hugh had always known that he was vitally important to his grandfather, but only because he was Thomas's sole means of vengeance.
Thomas had died with his daughter's name on his parched lips. "Margaret. My beautiful Margaret. Your bastard son will avenge you."
Fortunately for Margaret's bastard son, Erasmus of Thornewood had made up for much of what Thomas had been unable to give Hugh. Perceptive, intelligent, and possessed of a gruff kindness, Erasmus had been in his early twenties when Hugh had gone to live with him. Fresh from his triumphs in the Holy Lands, he had played the part of father in Hugh's life. As a boy, Hugh had given his mentor his respect and youthful admiration.
As a man, Hugh now gave his liege lord absolute and unswerving loyalty. It was a rare and much-prized spice in the world in which Erasmus moved.
Dunstan wrapped the edges of his gray wool cloak more securely around his stocky frame and studied Hugh out of the corner of his eye. Hugh knew what he was thinking. Dunstan did not approve of this business of chasing after the green crystal. He considered it a waste of time.
Hugh had tried to explain that it was not the crystal itself that was valuable, rather what it represented. It was the surest way to secure his grip on Scarcliffe. But Dunstan was impatient with such notions. In his opinion good steel and a stout band of men-at-arms were the keys to holding Scarcliffe.
He was fifteen years Hugh's senior, a battle-scarred veteran of the same Crusade that Erasmus had taken. His tough, weathered features reflected the harshness of that time. Unlike Erasmus, Dunstan had returned from the quest with neither glory nor gold to show for his troubles.
Dunstan's skills as a warrior had been useful to Erasmus but everyone, most especially Erasmus, knew that it was Hugh's uncanny ability to plot stratagems that had made Erasmus a quietly powerful man. Erasmus had recently rewarded his loyal man with Scarcliffe, a manor that had at one time belonged to Hugh's mother's family. Dunstan had chosen to go with Hugh to his new estate.
"No offense, Hugh, but your frowns are not as other men's scowls." Dunstan grinned briefly, exposing the gaps between his stained teeth. "They convey a remarkably oppressive air of doom. Even I am struck by it on occasion. Mayhap you have perfected your legend as a dark and dangerous knight a bit too well."
"You are wrong." Hugh smiled faintly. "I have obviously not perfected my legend well enough if I am to judge by Lady Alice's reaction last night."
"Aye." Dunstan's expression turned glum. "She certainly did not shrink and cower as she ought to have done. Mayhap the lady does not have very keen eyesight."
"She was too busy attempting to bargain with me to notice that my patience was stretched thin."
Dunstan's mouth curved sourly. "I vow, that particular lady would not back down from the devil himself."
"A most unusual female."
"It has been my experience that women with red hair are invariably trouble. I met a red-haired wench once in a London tavern. She plied me with ale until I fell into her bed. When I awoke both she and my purse were gone."
"I'll try to remember to keep an eye on my money."
"See that you do."
Hugh smiled but said nothing. They both knew that watching over his money and accounts would pose no undue hardship. Hugh had a talent for business affairs. Few of his acquaintances could be bothered with such mundane matters. They spent lavishly and depended upon the usual sources—ransoms, jousts, and, for those fortunate enough to possess land, income from poorly managed estates—to replenish their treasuries. Hugh preferred a more certain approach to securing his income.
Dunstan shook his head sadly. " 'Tis a pity that the trail of the green crystal has led to one such as this Lady Alice. No good will come of it."
"I'll grant that matters might have been simpler if she were more easily intimidated, but I am not yet certain that this is an unfortunate twist of events," Hugh said slowly. "I have been thinking on this for the better part of the night. I see possibilities here, Dunstan. Interesting possibilities."
"Then we are likely doomed," Dunstan said philosophically. "Trouble always finds us when you do too much thinking on a problem."
"You will note that her eyes are green."
"Are they?" Dunstan scowled. "I cannot say that I happened to notice the color of her eyes. The red hair seemed an ill enough omen to me."
"A very distinctive shade of green."
"Like those of a cat, do you mean?"
"Or those of a fey, elfin princess."
"Worse and worse. Elves practice a very slippery sort of magic." Dunstan grimaced. "I do not envy you having to deal with a flame-haired, green-eyed little shrew."
"As it happens, I have recently discovered that I like red hair and green eyes."
"Bah. You've always preferred dark-haired, dark-eyed women. Lady Alice is not even particularly beautiful, in my opinion. You're taken with her rare boldness, that's all. You're amused by the courage she showed in challenging you."
" 'Tis nothing more than a passing novelty, my lord," Dunstan assured him. " 'Twill soon pass, just as does the sore head one gets from drinking too much wine."
"She knows how to manage a household," Hugh continued thoughtfully. "That banquet she arranged last night would have done credit to a great baron's wife. It could have been served in any noble hall. I have need of someone who can organize a household with such skill."
Dunstan began to look alarmed. "What the devil are you saying? Think of her tongue, my lord. 'Twas as sharp as my dagger."
"Her manners, when she chose to display them, were those of a great lady. Seldom have I witnessed a more graceful curtsy. A man would be proud to have her entertain his guests."
"From what I saw last night and from all the gossip I have heard since we got here, I have the impression that she does not choose to display those pretty manners very often," Dunstan said quickly.
"She is old enough to know what she is doing. I am not dealing with some dewy-eyed innocent who must be protected and cosseted."
Dunstan's head snapped around, his eyes widening in surprise. "By Saint Osyth's teeth, you cannot be serious."
"Why not? After I recover the green crystal, I am going to be extremely busy. There is a great deal of work to be done on Scarcliffe. Not only must I see to the problems of my new lands, but the old keep must be set to rights."
"Nay, my lord." Dunstan looked as though he were strangling on a bite of meat pie. "If you are about to suggest what I think you are about to suggest, I beg you to reconsider."
"She is obviously well trained in the art of household management. You know that I have always abided by the basic principle that it pays to employ skilled experts, Dunstan."
"That principle may have served you well when it came to selecting stewards, blacksmiths, and weavers, my lord, but you are talking about a wife here."
"So? Blood of the devil, Dunstan, I'm a knight by trade. I do not have any notion of how to organize a household and neither do you. I have never even stepped foot inside a kitchen. I am not entirely certain what goes on in such a place."
"What has that got to do with anything?"
"A great deal, if I am to eat well. And I do enjoy good food."
"Aye, that's a fact. No offense, sir, but to my mind you're too choosy by far when it comes to your fodder. Don't know why you cannot be satisfied with plain roast mutton and good ale."
"Because a diet of roast mutton and ale grows boring after a time," Hugh said impatiently. "In addition to the business of good meals, there are other matters of import involved in a household. A thousand of them. Halls and chambers must be cleaned. Garderobes must be washed. Bedding must be aired. Servants must be supervised. And how does one go about getting a fine, fresh scent in one's clothing?"
"I am seldom concerned with that particular problem, myself."
Hugh ignored him. "In short, I want Scarcliffe Keep to be properly managed and that means I require an expert, just as I do in my various business affairs. I require a lady who has been properly trained to manage a large household."
A vision of his future danced before Hugh's eyes. He wanted a comfortable hall of his own. He wanted to be able to sit at the head table under his own canopy and dine on well-seasoned dishes. He wanted to sleep in clean sheets and bathe in scented water. Most of all, he wished to entertain his liege lord, Erasmus of Thornewood, in a manner befitting his station.
That last thought dimmed the luster of the vision. Erasmus had not looked at all well six weeks ago when Hugh had been summoned into his audience chamber to receive the fief of Scarcliffe. It was clear that Erasmus had lost weight. There was a tense, pinched look about his features and a melancholic expression in his eyes. Erasmus had started at every small sound. Hugh had been greatly alarmed. He had asked Erasmus if he was ill. Erasmus had refused to discuss the subject.
On his way out of Erasmus's keep, Hugh had heard the rumors. He learned that doctors had been summoned and had left muttering about an illness of the pulse and heart. Hugh had no faith in doctors, but in this instance he was worried.
"My lord, I am certain that you can find another lady far more suited to the task of being your wife than this one," Dunstan said desperately.
"Mayhap, but I do not have the time to spare to search for her. I will not have an opportunity to hunt for another wife until next spring. I do not wish to make camp in Scarcliffe Keep in its present condition for the entire winter. I want a proper hall."
" 'Twill be so efficient and convenient, Dunstan. Think of it. I have explained to you that recovering the crystal will go a long way toward reassuring the people of Scarcliffe that I am their rightful lord. Pray consider how much more I might impress them if I actually return to my new lands with a wife."
"Only think of what you are saying, my lord."
Hugh smiled with satisfaction. " 'Twill win them all to me for certain. They will see at once that I plan a future among them. 'Twill give them confidence in their own future. 'Tis their hearts and their confidence I must have if I am to make Scarcliffe plump and prosperous, Dunstan."
"I'll not deny it, but you would do well to find some other female. I do not like the look of this one and that is the honest truth."
"I will admit that, at first glance, Lady Alice does not appear to be the most amenable and tractable of females."
"I am pleased that you noticed that much," Dunstan muttered.
"Nevertheless," Hugh continued, "she possesses intelligence and she is well past that frivolous stage that seems to overtake all young ladies."
"Aye, and she is no doubt well past a few other things also."
Hugh narrowed his eyes. "Are you implying that she is no longer a virgin?"
"I would only remind you that Lady Alice is of a decidedly bold nature," Dunstan mumbled. "Not exactly the shy, blushing, unopened rosebud, my lord."
"Aye." Hugh frowned.
"Red hair and green eyes indicate strong passions, sir. You witnessed her temper last night. She has no doubt indulged other strong emotions from time to time. She is three and twenty, after all."
"Hmm." Hugh considered Dunstan's words. "She is clearly of an intellectual nature. No doubt she has known some curiosity about such matters. She would have been discreet, however."
"One can only hope."
Hugh shook off any reservations Dunstan had given him. "I feel certain that she and I will deal well enough together."
Dunstan groaned. "What in the name of the devil gives you that impression?"
"I told you, she is an intelligent woman."
"A surplus of intelligence and learning only serves to make females more difficult, if you ask me."
"I believe she and I can come to terms," Hugh said. "Being intelligent, she will learn quickly."
"And, pray, just what will she learn?" Dunstan demanded.
"That I possess some wit myself." Hugh smiled fleetingly. "And doubtless a good deal more will and determination than she can possibly command."
"If you would deal with Lady Alice, I'd advise you first to demonstrate to her that you are vastly more dangerous than she presently believes you to be."
"I shall use whatever stratagem seems most appropriate."
"I do not like this, my lord."
"I am aware of that."
Dunstan spat over the edge of the wall again. "I can see there is no point trying to reason with you. This business of securing your new lands is turning out to be somewhat more difficult than you had anticipated, is it not?"
"Aye," Hugh agreed. "But that state of affairs seems to be my lot in life. I have grown accustomed to it."
"True enough. Nothing seems to come easy, does it? You'd think the Saints would take pity on us once in a while."
"I will do whatever I must to hold on to Scarcliffe, Dunstan."
"I do not doubt that. All I ask, my lord, is that you use some caution in your dealings with Lady Alice. Something tells me that even the stoutest of knights could easily come to a bad end around her."
Hugh nodded to indicate that he had taken heed of the warning but he silently consigned it to the nether regions. This morning he would strike his bargain with the mysterious and unpredictable Lady Alice. He fully intended that the lady, for all her clever ways and proud airs, would discover that she had gotten more than she had expected.
Last night, sensing that he might be up against a more wily adversary than he had first anticipated, Hugh had announced to the crowded hall that he did not do business in public. He had told Alice that he would discuss the bargain alone with her today.
In truth he had postponed the negotiations because he had wanted time to contemplate this new knot in what had become an exceedingly tangled skein.
Hugh reflected that he had received several dire warnings during the course of this venture. But no one had warned him about Alice.
The first clue to her nature had come early in the evening when her uncle had heaved a long-suffering sigh at the mention of her name. The lady, it seemed, was a great trial to Ralf.
Based on what little he had learned, Hugh had expected to find himself dealing with a bitter, petulant spinster possessed of a tongue that could flay a man alive. The only part of the description that proved to be accurate was the bit about her tongue. It was clear that Alice did not hesitate to speak her mind.
Her bold speech aside, the woman who had confronted him in the hall last night had been quite different from the one Ralf had described.
Alice was not bitter, Hugh realized at once. She was determined. He recognized the difference immediately. She was not petulant, she was strong-minded and no doubt a good deal more intelligent than those around her. A difficult woman, mayhap, but definitely an interesting one.
From Ralf's description of his niece, Hugh had expected to find himself confronting a towering creature constructed along the same lines as his war-horse.
He had been in for a surprise.
Lady Alice was very slender and elegantly graceful. There was naught about her to remind him of his war-horse. Her long green gown had skimmed the curves of her supple body, hinting at breasts the size of ripe peaches, a tiny waist, and lushly rounded hips.
Dunstan was correct on one count, Hugh acknowledged. There was certainly sufficient fire in Alice to burn any man and it started with her hair. The flame-colored tresses had been bound in a sparkling gold net that had gleamed in the glow of the hearth.
Her face was fine-boned with a firm nose, a forceful little jaw, and an expressive mouth. Her eyes were huge. They tilted slightly upward at the corners. Delicate red brows arched provocatively above them. Pride and spirit were evident in the set of her shoulders and the angle of her chin. She was a woman who drew a man's gaze not because she was beautiful, although she was far from plain, but because she compelled attention.
Alice was not a woman to be ignored.
If she was embittered at finding herself unwed at the age of three and twenty as Ralf had indicated, Hugh saw no evidence of it. Indeed, he had a strong suspicion that she enjoyed not having to answer to a husband, a fact that might pose a small problem for him. But Hugh considered himself adept at solving problems.
"Lady Alice wishes to bargain with you," Dunstan said. "What do you think she seeks in exchange for helping you find the green stone?"
"Mayhap some books," Hugh said absently. "According to her uncle, she is very fond of them."
Dunstan grunted. "Will you give her one or two of yours, then?"
Hugh smiled. "I may allow her to borrow them from time to time."
He returned to his contemplation of the morning. The air was crisp. The farms and fields of Lingwood Manor lay quiet and still beneath a leaden sky. It was early fall. The harvest was partially complete and much of the land lay stripped and bare, awaiting the fast-approaching chill of winter. He wanted to get home to Scarcliffe as quickly as possible. There was so much to be done.
Lady Alice was the key. Hugh could feel it in his bones. With her, he could find the damned green stone and unlock his future. He had come too far, waited too long, hungered too deeply, to stop now.
He was thirty years old but on cold mornings such as this one he felt closer to forty. The storms inside him blew fiercely, filling him with a great restlessness, an inchoate need that he did not fully comprehend.
He was always aware of the tempests that shrouded his soul but only in the deepest hours of the night or in the gray mists of dawn could he sometimes actually perceive the dark winds that drove him. He avoided such opportunities when he could. He did not care to peer too deeply into the heart of the storm.
He concentrated now on the task that lay ahead of him. He had land of his own. All he had to do was hold on to it. That was proving difficult.
During the past few weeks Hugh had begun to discover why the lands of Scarcliffe had passed through so many hands in recent years.
It was a fact that in recent memory no man had successfully held Scarcliffe for more than a short span of time before losing it through death or misfortune. Some said Scarcliffe was haunted by ill omens, bad luck, and an old curse.
He who would discover the Stones and bold fast
must guard the green crystal with a
Hugh did not believe in the power of ancient curses. He trusted in little else other than his own skills as a knight and the determined will that had brought him this far. But he had a healthy respect for the power such foolish nonsense often wielded over the minds of other people.
Regardless of his own opinion of the irritating prophecy, he knew that the disheartened folk of Scarcliffe believed in the old legend. Their new lord must prove himself by guarding the green crystal.
Since arriving to take possession of the manor less than a month earlier, Hugh had found the inhabitants who now called him lord surprisingly sullen. The good people of Scarcliffe obeyed him out of fear but they saw no hope for the future in him. Their gloominess showed in everything they did, from the lackluster way they milled flour to the halfhearted manner in which they worked the fields.
Hugh was accustomed to command. He had been trained to it. He had been a natural leader of men for most of his adult life. He knew he could coerce a minimal level of cooperation from those he governed but he also knew that was not sufficient. He needed willing loyalty from his people in order to make Scarcliffe thrive for all their sakes.
The real problem was that the inhabitants of the manor did not expect Hugh to last long in his position as lord. None of the other lords had survived more than a year or two.
Within hours of his arrival, Hugh had heard muttered omens of impending disaster. Crops had been trampled by a band of renegade knights. A freakish lightning storm had done considerable damage to the church. A wandering monk who preached doom and destruction had appeared in the vicinity.
To the people of Scarcliffe, the theft of the green crystal from the vault of the local convent had been an event of cataclysmic proportions. It had also been the last straw. Hugh knew that in their eyes it was proof positive that he was not their true lord.
Hugh had realized immediately that the fastest way to gain the trust of his people was to recover the green stone. He intended to do just that.
"Have a care, my lord," Dunstan advised. "Lady Alice is no anxious maiden to be awed by your reputation. She will no doubt try to bargain as though she were a London shopkeeper."
"It should prove an interesting experience."
"Do not forget that last night she appeared more than willing to trade her soul for whatever it is she expects to have from you."
"Aye." Hugh almost smiled. "Mayhap her soul is just what I shall require."
"Try not to barter away your own in the deal," Dunstan advised dryly.
"You are assuming that I have one to lose."
Benedict's twisted leg prevented him from actually storming through the door of Alice's study chamber. Nevertheless, he managed to convey his anger and outrage with a flushed face and fierce green eyes.
"Alice, this is madness." He came to a halt in front of her desk and tucked his staff under one arm. "Surely you cannot mean to bargain with Hugh the Relentless."
"His name is Hugh of Scarcliffe now," Alice said.
"From what I have heard, Relentless suits him all too well. What do you think you are doing? He is a most dangerous man from all accounts."
"But an honest one apparently. 'Tis said that if he strikes a bargain, he will keep it."
"I vow that any bargain made with Sir Hugh will be on his terms," Benedict retorted. "Alice, he is said to be very clever and keen on plotting stratagems."
"So? I am rather clever myself."
"I know you think that you can manage him as you do our uncle. But men such as Hugh are not easily managed by anyone, especially not by a woman."
Alice put down her quill pen and contemplated her brother. Benedict was sixteen years old and she had had the sole responsibility for him since their parents had died. She was well aware that she had failed in her duty by him. She intended to do what she could to make up for the fact that she had allowed his inheritance to slip into Ralf's hands.
Her mother, Helen, had died three years earlier. Her father, Sir Bernard, had been murdered by a street thief outside a London brothel two years past.
Ralf had followed fast on the heels of the news of Bernard's death. Alice had soon found herself deeply embroiled in a hopeless legal battle to hold on to the small manor that was to have been Benedict's inheritance. She had done her best to retain control of the tiny fief, but on that score Ralf, for all his ox-brained wit, had outmaneuvered her.
After nearly two full years of argument and persuasion he had convinced Fulbert of Middleton, Alice's liege lord as well as Ralf's, that a trained knight ought to control the manor. Ralf had claimed that, as a woman, Alice was incapable of managing the estates properly and that, with his ruined leg, Benedict could not be trained as a knight. Fulbert had concluded, after much prompting by Ralf, that he needed a proper fighting man in charge of the tiny manor that had belonged to Lord Bernard.
To Alice's rage and disgust, Fulbert had given her father's manor to Ralf. Ralf had, in turn, given the lands to his eldest son, Lloyd.
Alice and Benedict had been obliged to move to Lingwood shortly thereafter. Once safely in possession of the fief, Lloyd had married the daughter of a neighboring knight. Six months ago they had had a son.
Alice was practical-minded enough to realize that no matter how well she argued her brother's claims in the courts, she would likely never regain possession of Benedict's inheritance. The knowledge that she had failed to fulfill her responsibility to Benedict was a source of deep pain for her. She rarely failed at a task, especially not one as important as this had been.
Determined to make up for the disaster in the only way possible, Alice had set out to give Benedict the best possible chance for advancement in the world. She had determined to send him to the great centers of learning in Paris and Bologna, where he would be trained in the law.
Nothing could make up for his lost lands, but Alice intended to do her best. When she was satisfied that Benedict was safely on his way in life, she would fulfill her own dreams. She would enter a convent, one that possessed a fine library. There she would devote herself to the study of natural philosophy.
Only a few days ago both of her objectives had seemed out of reach. But the arrival of Hugh the Relentless had opened a new door. Alice was determined to seize the opportunity.
"Do not alarm yourself, Benedict," she said briskly. "I have every confidence that Sir Hugh will prove to be a reasonable man."
"Reasonable?" Benedict waved his free hand wildly. "Alice, he's a legend. Legends are never reasonable."
"Come now, you cannot know that. He seemed perfectly amenable to rational discourse last night."
"Last night he toyed with you. Alice, listen to me, Erasmus of Thornewood is Sir Hugh's liege lord. Do you know what that means?"
Alice picked up her quill and tapped the tip thoughtfully against her pursed lips. "I have heard of Erasmus. He is reputed to be quite powerful."
"Aye, and that makes his man, Sir Hugh, powerful, too. You must be careful. Do not think that you can bargain with Sir Hugh as though you were a peddler in the village market. That way lies madness."
"Nonsense." Alice smiled reassuringly. "You worry overmuch, Benedict. 'Tis a fault I have begun to notice in you of late."
"I worry for good cause."
"Nay, you do not. Mark my words, Sir Hugh and I shall get on very well together."
A large figure loomed in the doorway, casting a wide, dark shadow across the carpet. It seemed to Alice that there was a sudden chill in the room. She looked toward the opening. Hugh stood there.
"You echo my own thoughts, Lady Alice," he said. "I am pleased to see that we are of similar minds on the matter."
Awareness prickled along the surface of Alice's skin as his deep, resonant voice filled the study chamber. He spoke very softly yet his words seemed to still even the smallest of competing sounds. The bird on the window ledge fell silent. The echoes of horses' hooves down in the bailey faded.
Alice felt her insides tighten in anticipation. She could not stop herself from staring at Hugh for a moment. This was the first time she had seen him since last night's confrontation in the flame-lit hall. She was eager to discover if his presence had the same odd effect on her this morning that it had had on the first occasion.
Against all reason and the evidence of her own eyes, she found Hugh the Relentless to be the most compelling man she had ever met. He was no more handsome in the morning light than he had been last night yet something about him drew her.
It was almost as if she had developed an extraordinary additional sense, she thought, and that she now employed a level of sensation that went beyond hearing, vision, touch, taste, and smell. All in all, a most intriguing problem in natural philosophy, she decided.
Benedict jerked around to face Hugh. His staff struck Alice's desk. "My lord." His jaw tightened. "My sister and I were having a private conversation. We did not see you standing there."
"I have been told that I am rather difficult to overlook," Hugh said. "You are Benedict?"
"Aye, my lord." Benedict straightened his shoulders. "I am Alice's brother and I do not think that you should meet alone with her. 'Tis not proper."
Alice raised her eyes toward the ceiling. "Benedict, please, this is ridiculous. I am no young maid whose reputation must be protected. Sir Hugh and I merely intend to converse on matters of business."
" 'Tis not right," Benedict insisted.
Hugh leaned one broad shoulder against the door-jamb and crossed his arms over his chest. "What do you think I am going to do to her?"
"I don't know," Benedict muttered. "But I won't allow it."
Alice lost her patience. "Benedict, that is enough. Leave us now. Sir Hugh and I must be about our business."
"I will speak with you later, Benedict."
Benedict flushed darkly. He glowered at Hugh, who merely shrugged, straightened, and got out of the doorway to make room for him to pass.
"Fear not," Hugh said to him quietly. "You have my word that I'll not ravish your sister during the course of this bargain she wishes to strike."
Benedict turned an even darker hue of red. With one last, angry glance at Alice, he stalked awkwardly past Hugh and disappeared down the hall.
Hugh waited until he was out of earshot. Then he met Alice's eyes. "A young man's pride is a tricky thing. It should be handled with some delicacy."
"Do not concern yourself with my brother, sir. He is my responsibility." Alice indicated a wooden stool with a wave of her hand. "Please be seated. We have much to discuss."
"Aye." Hugh glanced at the stool but he did not sit down on it. Instead he walked to the brazier and held his hands out to the warmth of the glowing coals. "That we do. What is this bargain you would make with me, lady?"
Alice watched him with an eagerness she could not conceal. He seemed quite amenable, she thought. There was no sign that he meant to be difficult. A sensible, reasonable man, just as she had concluded.
"My lord, I shall be blunt."
"By all means. I much prefer directness. It saves a great deal of time, does it not?"
"Aye." Alice clasped her hands together on her desk. "I am prepared to tell you precisely where I believe the thief took my green crystal."
"It is my crystal, Lady Alice. You seem to have a habit of forgetting that fact."
"We can argue the fine points of the matter at another time, my lord."
Hugh looked faintly amused. "There will be no argument."
"Excellent. I am delighted to see that you are a man of reason, sir."
"I make every effort."
Alice smiled approvingly. "Now, then, as I said, I will tell you where I believe the crystal to be at this moment. In addition, I will even agree to accompany you to its present location and point out the thief."
Hugh considered that. "Very helpful."
"I am glad you appreciate it, my lord. But there is even more to my part of this bargain."
"I cannot wait to hear the rest," Hugh said.
"Not only will I help you find the crystal, sir, I will go one step further." Alice leaned forward to emphasize her next words. "I shall agree to relinquish my claim to it."
"A claim that I do not accept."
Alice started to frown. "My lord—"
"And in exchange for this magnanimous offer?" he interrupted calmly. "What is it you would ask of me, Lady Alice?"
Alice braced herself. "In exchange, my lord, I ask two things. The first is that, two years from now, when my brother is old enough, you will arrange for him to go to Paris and, mayhap, Bologna, so that he may attend the lectures given there. I would have him become proficient in the liberal arts and particularly in the law so that he may eventually obtain a position of high rank at court or in the household of some wealthy prince or noble."
"Your brother wishes to pursue a career as a secretary or clerk?"
"It's not as though he has a great deal of choice in the matter, my lord." Alice tightened her fingers. "I was not able to protect his rightful inheritance from our uncle. Therefore, I must do the next best thing for Benedict."
Hugh studied her speculatively. "Very well, that is your affair, I suppose. I am prepared to finance his studies in exchange for getting my hands on the crystal."
Alice relaxed. The worst was over. "Thank you, my lord. I am pleased to hear that."
"What was the second thing you would have of me?"
"A very minor request, my lord, of no real consequence to one in your position," she said smoothly. "Indeed, I daresay you will barely take notice of it."
"What, precisely, is it, lady?"
"I ask that you provide me with a dowry."
Hugh gazed into the brazier coals as though he saw something of great interest there. "A dowry? You wish to be wed?"
Alice chuckled. "By the Saints, whatever gave you that notion, my lord? Of course I do not wish to wed. Why on earth would I want a husband? My goal is to enter a convent."
Hugh turned slowly toward her. His amber eyes gleamed intently. "May I ask why?"
"So that I may continue my studies in natural philosophy, of course. To do so, I shall need a large library, which only a rich convent can provide." Alice cleared her throat delicately. "And to get into a fine religious house, I shall naturally need a respectably large dowry."
"I see." Hugh's expression was that of the hawk that has sighted its prey. "That is unfortunate."
Alice's heart sank. For a moment she simply stared at him in open disappointment. She had been so certain that he would agree to the arrangement.
Desperately she rallied her arguments. "My lord, pray think closely on this matter. The green crystal is obviously very important to you. I can see that you obtain it. Surely that is worth the cost of my dowry."
"You misunderstand me, lady. I am willing to provide a bride price for you."
She brightened. "You will?"
"Aye, but I'll want the bride to go with it."
"Or at least the promise of one."
Alice was too stunned to think clearly. "I do not comprehend, my lord."
"Nay? 'Tis simple enough. You shall have a portion of what you want of me from this bargain, Lady Alice. But in return I demand that you and I become betrothed before we set out after the green crystal."