Hugh's soft black boots made no sound as he strode swiftly along the shadowed stone corridor but his ebony cloak snapped in the air. He was furious. "Damn it to the pit. Are you certain he is dead?"
"Aye, m'lord." Dunstan angled his torch as he turned a corner in the passageway. "One of the guards found him so a short while ago."
"Why was he not searched?" Hugh followed Dunstan around the bend in the corridor.
The underground passages of Scarcliffe Keep were not very different from the tunnels and caverns of the hillside caves. They were dark, cramped, and forbidding. No natural light reached this section of the keep where spices, grains, goods, and the occasional prisoner were stored.
"He was searched," Dunstan said. "But the guards looked for blades and other such weapons." He came to a halt in front of a dank chamber sealed with an iron grate.
Hugh looked at the contorted body of Eduard of Lockton, which lay sprawled on the floor of the chamber. Frustration rose like bile within him. There had been so many questions he had intended to put to Eduard, so much he had wanted to say to this man who had murdered his parents.
Most of all there had been the prospect of savoring both justice and revenge. Hugh had anticipated the satisfaction of those rich spices for so long that it took him some time to accept that they had been yanked from his grasp.
"No one found the poison he had secreted on his person, I see," Hugh muttered.
"Nay, m'lord. Mayhap 'tis just as well." Dunstan looked at Hugh. " 'Tis truly over now."
Hugh climbed the stone steps that led upward out of the bowels of the keep. He did not pause to think about where he was headed. He crossed the great hall, where preparations for the midday meal were under way. When he reached the tower stairs, he went up two more long flights of stone steps.
He reached the upper level of the tower, turned, and went down the corridor to Alice's study chamber. He opened the door without bothering to knock.
Alice looked up in surprise when he entered the chamber. She frowned in concern when she saw the expression on his face. "My lord." She closed the book that had been open on the desk. "What is it?"
"Eduard of Lockton took poison sometime during the night. He is dead."
Alice got up from her stool and came out from behind her desk. Without a word she went to Hugh and wrapped her arms around him. She leaned her head against his shoulder and said nothing.
Alice always comprehended him so well, Hugh thought. He did not have to put things into words for her.
He held her very tightly for a long time. After a while the bleak frustration that had seized him when he had learned that Eduard had escaped into death began to retreat.
A few more minutes passed in silence. Alice felt very soft and warm and good in his arms.
Eventually a sense of quiet peace stole over Hugh. The door to the past through which the cold storm winds had so often blown had finally been closed.
One month later on a crisp, fall morning, the watchtower guard cupped a hand around his mouth and shouted his news down into the busy bailey.
"Riders approach, m'lord. A knight and five men-at-arms. Also servants and a baggage wagon."
Hugh silenced the clamor of weapons practice with a swift signal. He looked up at the guard. "What colors does the knight carry?"
"Green and yellow, m'lord."
Hugh glanced at Dunstan. "Those are the colors of Erasmus of Thornewood."
"Aye." Dunstan frowned. " 'Twill likely be one of his men come to inform us of his lord's death."
Sadness washed through Hugh. He had been expecting the news; nevertheless, it still came as an unwelcome surprise. He knew then that he had dared to hope that Alice's recipe would help Erasmus.
Hugh shaded his eyes against the morning sun and looked up at the guard again. "Are you certain of the knight's colors?"
"Aye, m'lord." The guard studied the road. "A very rich lord, from the looks of his party. And well armed. There is a lady with them."
"A lady?" Hugh wondered if Erasmus's widow, Eleanor, had come in person to bring the news of her lord's death. He motioned to Benedict. "Fetch Alice. Quickly. Tell her we will have several guests, including a lady, for the midday meal."
"Aye, my lord." Benedict handed to Dunstan the bow with which he had been practicing, grabbed his staff, and hurried toward the hall steps.
A few minutes later the party of riders halted in front of the gates of Scarcliffe Keep and politely requested permission to enter. The guard waved them into the bailey.
Alice appeared in the doorway of the keep. She glanced inquiringly at Hugh.
"Who comes, my lord?"
"Someone who no doubt brings word of the death of my liege lord," Hugh said quietly.
"What makes you think he has died?" She scowled at him. "Did you forget to give him that recipe for a soothing potion that I sent with you to London?"
"You did tell his wife to make certain the doctors did not continue to bleed him, did you not?"
"Aye, Alice, I gave her your instructions, but everyone, including Erasmus, felt that the end was near. A man can often feel his own impending death."
"Ridiculous. From what you told me, he suffered only from extreme excitement of the nerves."
The visitors rode through the gate before Alice could continue her lecture. Hugh looked at the knight who led the small company. He stared first in disbelief and then in growing wonder at the familiar face.
"My lord," Hugh whispered.
"Well?" Alice asked impatiently. "Who is he?"
"Erasmus of Thornewood."
"Eyes of the Saints," Alice muttered. "I was afraid of this. Julian arrived only this morning. Why did he not bring us word that Sir Erasmus intended a visit? What good is a messenger who does not bring important messages?"
Hugh started to grin. "Do not be too hard on Julian. He has his uses." He went forward to greet his liege lord.
Erasmus brought his muscled stallion to a halt in the center of the bailey. Sunlight sparkled on rich robes and polished steel.
"Welcome, my lord." Hugh reached out to catch hold of the horse's bridle. "From the look of you, I would wager that you are no longer amusing yourself with arrangements for your own funeral."
"I have discovered that funerals are not nearly so entertaining as christenings." Erasmus smiled at Eleanor, who had halted her palfrey beside him. "And I am pleased to tell you that we intend to plan one or two new ones for the future."
Eleanor's face glowed with happiness as she looked down at Hugh. "I have come to thank your lady wife for making it possible."
"Alice will be delighted to know that her potion worked so well." Hugh could not seem to stop grinning. "As am I. I have always said that my liege lord has a talent for rearing children. Allow me to introduce you to my lady wife."
Alice came down the steps with a welcoming smile. "I am pleased to see that someone followed my instructions."
Later that evening when Erasmus looked up from the chessboard, his perceptive gray eyes were alight with appreciation. "Your move, I believe, madam."
"Hugh was correct. You are a very clever opponent."
"Thank you, my lord." Alice picked up a heavy black onyx bishop. She frowned intently as she concentrated on shifting it into position on the large board. "I enjoy the game."
"That much is obvious. I believe I may actually be in danger of losing this skirmish."
"Do not take offense, sir. My lord husband is the only person who can win against me. He has a great talent for stratagems."
"I am well aware of that."
Eleanor's laughter made Erasmus turn his head. He smiled at the sight of his wife seated next to Hugh. The two were sharing a bowl of honeyed figs as they conversed together in front of the hearth. Nearby, Julian strummed a tune on a harp.
"Your move, my lord," Alice prompted.
"Aye." Erasmus brought his attention back to the board. He touched a rook and then hesitated. "I congratulate you, madam. Not many women could have quieted the storms that seethed within my friend Hugh."
"Me?" Alice looked up, astonished. She glanced at Hugh. He met her eyes and smiled before he turned back to his conversation with Eleanor.
"You have brought him contentment," Erasmus said. "It could not have been an easy or a simple task."
"Sir Hugh enjoys being lord of his own manor," Alice said. "I have often observed that a person is most content when he finds pleasure in his work. My husband is very good at managing these lands. But then, you, of all people, are well aware of his skill in business matters."
"Hugh's intelligence was evident from the first day he came to live in my household."
"It was good of you to educate him well and to allow him the opportunity to develop his spice business." Alice gave Erasmus a direct look. "Many lords in your position would have taken advantage of his natural talent for knightly skills and ignored his keen wits."
" 'Tis just as well that I did not ignore those wits," Erasmus said dryly. "I have needed both Hugh's clever stratagems and his skill with a sword many times over the years."
"You have rewarded him well."
"I did not give him Scarcliffe because of his intelligence or his knightly skills," Erasmus said. "I gave him these lands because he gave me something infinitely more valuable. Something I could not purchase at any price."
"What was that, sir?"
"His unswerving loyalty."
Alice smiled. "I understand."
"There have been many times when I have wished that I could give Hugh a gift as fine as the one he gave me."
"Rest assured, he is satisfied with his own manor."
"I do not believe that it is the lands of Scarcliffe alone that have brought him satisfaction, madam." Erasmus regarded her with shrewd consideration. "You are the true healer in this matter."
Alice was acutely embarrassed. "I doubt that, sir."
"He told me much about you when he came to see me in London. He said that you had great courage and daring. He claimed you approached him with a bold bargain."
"Aye." Alice contemplated her next move with knitted brows. "We have forged an excellent partnership."
" 'Tis more than a business arrangement, surely."
Alice blushed. "Well, as to that, we are married, after all, my lord."
"And you love him with all your heart, do you not?"
Alice clutched one of the chess pieces very tightly. "How do you know such things, sir?"
"I myself am not without some wits. When one spends as many weeks as I did believing that one is on the brink of death, one becomes more aware of certain things. More perceptive, shall we say?"
"Only a very intelligent man becomes more aware and more perceptive under such circumstances." Alice sighed. "You are quite right, as it happens. I am very fond of my husband. Even though he can be amazingly stubborn at times."
"Aye, well, he is a man. Some things are immutable. Speaking of my recent brush with death, madam, I wish to thank you for your potion."
"No thanks are necessary. 'Twas my mother's recipe. She bequeathed to me a book in which she wrote descriptions of many types of illnesses. I merely applied the remedy she prescribed for your particular symptoms. I am pleased that you tried it and found it effective."
"Most effective." Erasmus smiled. "You have my deepest gratitude. I owe you more than I can ever repay, madam."
"Nonsense, my lord. I assure you, the scales are evenly balanced."
"How is that?"
"You saved my husband's life when he was but a young boy of eight."
Erasmus furrowed his brow. "I do not recall that Hugh was ever in danger of dying at the age of eight. He did take one or two nasty falls while practicing at the quintain and there was an unfortunate incident involving a bridge and a rather deep stream one day, but other than that he was quite healthy."
"Now that is where you are wrong, sir." Alice smiled gently. "He may have been in fine health as regards his bodily humors, but there are things that can die within a boy even though he continues to live."
"Ah. I see what you mean." Erasmus regarded her with knowing eyes. "You are alarmingly perceptive yourself, madam."
"Nay, my lord, I merely make an observation," Alice said matter-of-factly. "It is clear to me that had it not been for you, Hugh would most assuredly have been torn asunder by the storms that threatened his heart and his soul."
"I may have taught him how to contain and control those dark winds, Lady Alice. But you accomplished far more. You have stilled them with the alchemy of a loving heart."
Hugh strode into Alice's study chamber one morning a few weeks after Erasmus and Eleanor had departed. He had ordered a new list of compliments from Julian. He was eager to try them out.
But at the sight of Alice standing at the window, he came to a halt, briefly transfixed. The graceful words he had so carefully memorized a short while earlier were momentarily forgotten. He wondered if he would ever grow accustomed to the realization that Alice was his wife.
Her lively features were composed in an expression of intense concentration as she studied the chunk of rock crystal in her hand. Her hair glowed in the morning sun. The gentle lines of her body aroused a familiar, aching need within Hugh.
She did not turn to greet him. He realized she had not heard him come into the chamber.
Hugh cleared his throat and searched his mind for the first compliment on his list. "Madam, the glorious fire in your hair burns so brightly that I need naught else but your silken tresses to warm my hands on the coldest morn."
"Thank you, my lord." Alice did not look at him. She tilted the stone she held so that it caught more light.
Hugh frowned. Mayhap he had paid too many compliments to her hair, he thought. She was likely bored with them. He made a note to instruct Julian to be more creative.
"Your neck is as graceful as that of a swan."
"Thank you, sir." Alice pursed her lips and studied the crystal more closely.
Hugh tapped the sheet of rolled parchment against his thigh. Julian's compliments were not having their usual effect. "Your skin is as soft as the feathers of a dove dipped in cream."
"How kind of you to notice." Alice put the rock crystal down on the table. She picked up a large, gray stone and bent over it intently.
Hugh surreptitiously unrolled the parchment in his hand and quickly scanned the list of compliments. "It strikes me that your feet are as small and delicate as the unfurled fronds of small frogs."
Alice hesitated. "Frogs, my lord?"
Hugh scowled at the phrase. Damn Julian and his poor script. "Uh, ferns. As small and delicate as the unfurled fronds of small ferns." He hastily rerolled the parchment. That last had not been the easiest phrase to utter.
"Aye, of course. Ferns. Pray continue, my lord."
"Uh, well, that is about all that occurs to me at the moment." What was wrong with Alice today? She was not responding in her usual manner. Hugh wondered if Julian's skills were deteriorating.
"What of my eyes, sir? Do you think they are as green as emeralds or are they more in the nature of malachite?"
Hugh shifted restlessly. What if it was not Julian's skills that were slipping, but his own? What if he was not repeating the compliments in the proper fashion? "Emeralds, I believe. Although malachite is a very nice shade of green also."
"Thank you. Now, then, what of my breasts?"
Hugh swallowed. "Your breasts?" He generally saved that sort of compliment for the bedchamber.
"Would you say that they are still as delicately curved as ripe peaches?"
"And what of my waist?"
Hugh narrowed his eyes. "Your waist?"
"Aye." Alice put aside the gray stone and picked up a darker one. She still kept her face averted. "Would you say that my waist is as dainty as the stem of a flower?"
There had been something about flower stems and small waists on Julian's last list. Hugh was about to repeat the old compliment when it struck him that Alice was a bit more rounded in some places today than she had been a few weeks ago.
He very much liked her this way, he decided, but he was not certain that she would be pleased to hear that she was a bit more plump.
"I, uh, had not given the matter of your waist much thought," he said cautiously. "But now that you mention it—" He broke off to study her form more closely.
It was not his imagination, he concluded. Silhouetted against the sunlight, Alice was not quite as slender as she had been when he took her from her uncle's hall. He remembered the pleasant shape of her beneath his hands last night and sighed.
"Well, my lord?"
"In truth, madam, I would not say that your waist is as narrow as the stem of a flower, but I find the new shape very appealing. Indeed, you look quite healthy and fit with a bit more meat on your bones." He paused, appalled, when he saw that her shoulders were trembling. "Alice, you must not cry. Your waist is exactly the width of a flower stem. I vow, I will challenge anyone who claims otherwise to a battle to the death."
"Very gallant of you, my lord." She swung around to face him. Her eyes were aglow with laughter, not tears. "But I much prefer you to be absolutely honest in such matters."
"You're quite right. My waist is no longer as small as the stem of a flower. And, to be truthful, my breasts are a bit larger than summer peaches these days. And for a very sound reason. I am with child, my lord."
For an instant Hugh could not move. She was pregnant. With his babe.
"Alice." Joy surged through him with the force of bright sunlight after a storm.
Hugh freed himself from the fragile spell that Alice's simple words had placed upon him. He swooped down on her and scooped her carefully, gently off her feet.
She put her arms around his neck. "Do you know, my lord, I never placed much credence in legends until I met you."
Hugh looked into her eyes and caught a glimpse of their future together. It was filled with the promise of love and happiness. "We are even, then. I never believed in the alchemy of love until I met you."
Alice's smile was glorious. "Love, sir?"
"Aye." Hugh grinned, happier than he had ever been in his life. "Love."