Sir Ralf choked on his morning ale. "You wish to betroth yourself to my niece?" His round, heavy features screwed themselves into a grimace as he sputtered and coughed. "Your pardon, sir," he gasped. "But did I hear rightly? You want to wed Alice?"
"Your niece suits my requirements in a wife." Hugh helped himself to a wedge of aging bread. The unappetizing breakfast fare that had appeared from the kitchens this morning indicated that Alice had lost interest in culinary matters after she had arranged last night's banquet. The lady had achieved her goal and had promptly ceased working her magic.
Hugh wondered wryly what she herself had dined on this morning in her private chambers. Something more interesting than weak ale and old bread, he suspected.
Ralf stared at him, openmouthed with amazement. "She meets your requirements? You actually believe that Alice will make you a proper wife?"
Hugh did not blame Ralf for his incredulity since his host had not been the beneficiary of Alice's mastery of household arts.
The great hall was empty this morning except for Hugh and Ralf, who sat at a small table near the fire, and a sullen band of drudges moving about in a desultory fashion. The servants made a halfhearted show of cleaning up after last night's feast but it was plain they took little interest in the task. One took occasional swipes with a cleaning cloth and another made a few idle attempts to scrub the wooden boards. There was little soap and water involved in the process.
The ale-soaked rushes that had covered the stone floor last night were still in place together with the bits and pieces of food that had fallen among them. No amount of scented herbs scattered about could disguise the smell of rotting meat and sour wine. Not that anyone was bothering to toss fragrant herbs onto the moldering pile.
"The wedding will have to be held at some future date in the spring." Hugh eyed the stale bread. He was hungry but not hungry enough to eat another slice. "I cannot spare the time for a proper celebration just now."
"And there is the business side of the thing to be considered."
Ralf cleared his throat. "Uh, certainly. The business side."
"I think it would be best if Alice and her brother accompanied me back to Scarcliffe so that I will not be put to the trouble of making another trip to collect my bride at some later date."
"You're going to take her with you today?" Ralf's beady eyes reflected undisguised disbelief.
"Aye. I have instructed her to see that she and young Benedict are packed and ready to leave by noon."
Ralf blinked several times. "I don't comprehend this, sir. Forgive me, I don't mean to pry into your personal affairs, but I cannot help but wonder at this turn of events. Granted, Alice appears young for her years, but you do realize that she is three and twenty?"
" 'Tis no great matter."
"But 'tis well known that a young bride is much easier to train than one of more advanced years. The youthful ones are more docile. Easier to manage. My own wife was fifteen when we wed. I never had a bit of trouble out of her."
Hugh looked at him. "I do not anticipate any difficulty in managing Lady Alice."
Ralf flinched. "Nay, nay, of course not. I'll wager that she would not dare to gainsay you, my lord." He sighed ruefully. "Not the way she does me, in any event. Alice has been a great trial, you know."
"Is that so?"
"Aye. And after all I've done for her and that lame brother of hers." Ralf's heavy jowls shuddered with indignation. "I gave her a roof over her head and food to eat after her father died. And what thanks do I get for doing my Christian duty by my brother's children? Naught but constant quarrels and irksome demands."
Hugh nodded soberly. "Annoying."
"By the Rood, it's damned annoying." Ralf scowled furiously. "I tell you, sir, that, except when it suits her purposes, as it did last night, Alice cannot even be bothered with the management of my hall. You will note, however, that her own chambers are kept clean and perfumed."
"Aye." Hugh smiled to himself. "I did notice."
" 'Tis as if she lived in a different household up there in the east tower. One would never know it was connected to the rest of Lingwood Hall."
"That was plain enough," Hugh said, half under his breath.
"Not only does she dine in the privacy of her own chambers together with young Benedict, she gives her own instructions to the kitchens regarding the food that is served there. And it's a far cry from what the rest of us eat, I can assure you."
"That does not surprise me."
Ralf seemed not to hear the comment. He was in full sail on the sea of righteous indignation. "Last night was the first decent meal I've had here in my own hall since my wife died seven years ago. I thought things would be different when I brought Alice here. Thought she'd assume her natural female responsibilities. Thought she'd supervise things the way she did when she was in charge of her father's manor."
"But it did not work out that way, I take it?" Hugh suspected that Alice had practiced her own form of revenge against her uncle.
Ralf sighed glumly. "She blames me for taking her and her brother away from their home, but I ask you, what choice did I have? Benedict had but fifteen years at the time. And you've seen him. The boy's crippled. No amount of training will turn him into a proper fighting man. He could not possibly defend his own lands. My liege lord, Fulbert of Middleton, expected me to see to the defense of my brother's lands."
"Which you chose to do by installing your son as lord there," Hugh observed softly.
" 'Twas the only solution, but my shrew of a niece would not acknowledge the fact." Ralf swallowed ale and slammed his mug down on the table. "I did my best to secure her future. Tried to find her a husband."
"After you realized that she was not going to take over the management of your household?" Hugh asked with mild curiosity.
"Was it my fault none of my neighbors would have her as a wife?"
Hugh recalled Alice's description of her very convenient fits of hysteria. "Nay, 'twas most definitely not your fault."
"Not once did she thank me for making the effort. I vow, she did her best to foil my every attempt to do my duty by her. I have no proof, mark you, but to this day, I remain convinced that she plotted stratagems to discourage her suitors."
Hugh reluctantly decided to risk one more piece of the aged bread. "Your problems are over, Sir Ralf. You need not concern yourself with your niece again."
"Bah. So you say now, but you have not had extensive experience with Alice." Ralf narrowed his eyes. "Aye, no experience whatsoever. You don't know what she can be like, sir."
"I shall take my chances."
"Will you? What if you change your mind about the betrothal? Likely you'll try to return her in a few weeks' time after you've had a taste of her sharp tongue and demanding ways. What am I to do then?"
"I will not change my mind. You have my oath on it."
Ralf looked skeptical. "May I ask why you are so certain that she will suit you?"
"She is intelligent, healthy, and convenient. Although she does not always choose to practice them in this household, 'tis clear that she is well trained in the wifely arts. Furthermore, she possesses the manners of a fine lady. What more does a man need? The whole thing seems very efficient and most practical from my point of view."
In spite of what he had told Alice, Hugh had no intention of using passion as an explanation for forging this hasty match. He and Ralf were both men of the world. They each knew that lust was a ludicrous reason for contracting such an important business arrangement as marriage.
Looking back on the incident in Alice's study chamber, Hugh was not certain why he had even broached the possibility of using passion as an excuse. He frowned, wondering what had put the notion into his head. He never allowed himself to be influenced by passion.
Ralf watched him with a distinctly uneasy expression. "You believe that marrying Alice will be an efficient move, my lord?"
Hugh nodded brusquely. "I require a wife to see to my new household. But I do not wish to invest a great deal of time and effort in the business of securing one. You know how complicated that can become. Negotiation can carry on for months, even years."
"True, nevertheless, Alice is somewhat unusual and not merely because of her advanced age."
"No matter. I feel certain she will do nicely. And I have too many other tasks requiring my immediate attention to be bothered with a long search for another bride."
"I understand, sir. Indeed, I do. A man in your position does not want to be burdened with a lot of fuss and bother over a bride."
"No denying a man does have to acquire one. The sooner the better, I suppose. One has to see to one's heirs and lands."
"Aye," Hugh said. "Heirs and lands."
"So. You find Alice convenient."
Ralf fiddled with a chunk of bread. His eyes darted to Hugh's impassive face and quickly slid aside. "Ah, pray forgive me, sir, but I must ask whether or not you have discussed this matter with Alice herself."
Hugh raised one brow. "You are concerned with her feelings on the subject?"
"Nay, nay, 'tis not that," Ralf assured him hastily. " 'Tis merely that in my experience, it is exceedingly difficult to persuade Alice to cooperate in a plan if she is not inclined toward it in the first place, if you see what I mean. That woman always seems to have plans of her own."
"Have no fears on that point. Your niece and I have already agreed on this arrangement."
"You have?" Ralf looked startled by that news.
"And you're certain that she is in agreement with the scheme?"
"Astounding. Most astounding." For the first time a cautious flame of hope appeared in Ralf's eyes.
Hugh gave up chewing on the hard crust. He tossed it aside. "Come, let us get down to the business at hand."
Ralf's expression promptly turned crafty. "Very well. What is your price? I warn you, I cannot afford to give Alice much in the way of a dowry. The harvest was somewhat less than satisfactory this year."
"Aye. Very poor. And then there were the expenses involved in maintaining Alice and her brother. Admittedly Benedict was not a great problem, but Alice, I regret to say, is rather costly to keep."
"I am prepared to offer a chest of pepper and one of good ginger as a betrothal gift."
"She is always demanding money for her books and her collection of stones and other useless bits—" Ralf broke off, dumbfounded, as Hugh's words sank in. "A chest of pepper and one of ginger?"
"Sir, I do not know what to say."
"Say that you will accept the bride gift so that I may have done with this matter. It grows late."
"You wish to give me a dowry for Alice?"
" 'Tis customary, is it not?"
"Not when the bride goes to her lord with nothing in hand but the clothes on her back," Ralf retorted. "You do understand that she brings no land with her, sir."
"I have lands of my own."
"Aye, well, so long as you comprehend the situation." Ralf's expression was one of bewilderment. "In truth, sir, I expected you to demand a large dowry from me in return for taking her off my hands."
"I am prepared to take Alice as she is." Hugh allowed an edge of impatience to underline his words. "Do we have a bargain?"
"Aye," Ralf said quickly. "Most definitely. Alice is yours for the pepper and ginger."
"Summon your village priest to witness the betrothal vows. I wish to be on my way as soon as possible."
"I shall see to the matter at once." Ralf started to heave his bulk out of his chair. He hesitated midway out of his seat. "Ah, your pardon, Sir Hugh, but there is just one more small point I should like to have made plain before we proceed with this betrothal."
"What is it?"
Ralf licked his lips. He glanced around the chamber as though to make certain that none of the servants could overhear. Then he lowered his voice. "Will you be wanting your chests of pepper and ginger returned to you in the event that you decide not to proceed with the wedding?"
"Nay. The pepper and ginger are yours to keep, regardless of the outcome of our bargain."
"I have your oath on that, too?"
"Aye. You have the oath of Hugh the Relentless."
Ralf grinned in relief and rubbed his plump hands together. "Well, then, let us get on with the thing. No point in delaying, is there? I shall send a servant for the priest at once."
He turned and bustled off, more cheerful than he had been at any time since Hugh's arrival.
A movement in the doorway caught Hugh's attention.
Dunstan, his face set in grim lines, strode into the hall. He came to a halt in front of the table where Hugh sat. His eyes were dark with disgust.
"We have a problem, my lord."
Hugh eyed him thoughtfully. "From your expression, 'twould appear we are on the eve of the crack of doom. What is the matter, Dunstan? Are we under siege?"
Dunstan ignored the comment. "A few minutes ago Lady Alice summoned two of the men to her chambers to carry her belongings to the baggage wagons."
"Excellent. I am pleased that she is not one to dawdle over her packing."
"I don't believe that you will be quite so pleased with her when you learn just what it is she expects to contribute to the baggage train, sir."
"Well? Don't keep me in suspense, Dunstan. What has she packed that annoys you so?"
"Stones, my lord." Dunstan's jaw tightened. "Two chests of them. And not only are we to carry a sufficient quantity of stones to build a garden wall, but she has made it plain we must also take another chest full of books, parchment, pens, and ink."
"And a fourth packed with strange alchemical apparatus." Dunstan's face was mottled with outrage. "Then there is the matter of her clothes, shoes, and personal belongings."
"Lady Alice has a large number of tunics and robes?" Hugh asked, mildly surprised.
"Nay, but what she does have apparently requires an additional chest. My lord, you have stated that we are on a mission of grave import. You have said that speed was of the essence. That there was no time to waste."
"That is true."
"Devil's teeth, sir, we are a company of men-at-arms, not a troupe of traveling jongleurs." Dunstan threw up his hands. "I ask you, how are we to make haste about our business if we must be burdened with a baggage train laden with a woman's collection of stones and alchemical apparatus?"
"The lady in question is my future wife," Hugh said evenly. "You will obey her instructions as you would my own."
Dunstan stared at him. "But I thought—"
"See to the travel preparations, Dunstan."
Dunstan's teeth snapped together with an audible click. "Aye, my lord. May I inquire as to our destination?"
"I do not yet know. I will after I take my betrothal vows."
"No offense, but I have an unpleasant suspicion that regardless of the direction in which we set out, we are bound for only one destination."
"And what destination is that?" Hugh asked politely.
"Trouble," Dunstan muttered.
"It is always good to be in familiar territory, is it not?"
Dunstan did not deign to answer. Muttering ominously, he turned on his heel and stalked toward the door.
Hugh glanced around the hall. There was not even a simple water clock or a sand hourglass to mark the time. Apparently Ralf had no interest in such convenient and efficient machines.
Hugh made to rise from his chair with the intention of going outside to check the position of the sun. The clatter of footsteps and the scrape of a wooden staff on the tower stairs made him pause.
Benedict appeared. The young man was clearly anxious but also quite determined. He came toward Hugh with rigid shoulders.
Hugh examined him thoughtfully. With the exception of his sadly damaged left leg, Alice's brother was tall and well formed. The lack of muscular bulk in his shoulders and chest indicated that he had never received training in arms.
Benedict's hair was darker than his sister's glowing tresses, almost a deep brown. His eyes were very nearly the same unusual shade of green as Alice's, however, and were enlivened with a similar degree of intelligence.
"My lord, I must speak with you at once."
Hugh leaned forward, braced his elbows on the table, and loosely linked his fingers. "What is it, Benedict?"
Benedict cast a quick glance about and then moved closer so that he would not be overheard. "I have just had a talk with my sister," he hissed. "She told me of this crazed bargain the two of you have concluded. She says she is to be betrothed to you until the spring and that the betrothal will be broken when it is convenient for your purposes."
"She used those words? Convenient for my purposes?"
Benedict shrugged angrily. "She said something close to that, aye. She said that you are a man who values efficiency and convenience."
"Your sister is of a practical nature herself. Let us be clear on one point here, Benedict. It is Lady Alice who spoke of severing the betrothal in the spring."
Benedict scowled. "What does it matter who said the words? 'Tis clear that this is no genuine betrothal if it is to end in a few months."
"I take it that you have some objection to the arrangement?"
"I most certainly do." Benedict's eyes were fierce. "I believe that you seek to take advantage of my sister, sir. You obviously intend to use her for your own ends."
"You think to seduce her and have the conveniences of a wife until spring, do you not? Then you will toss her aside."
"Not likely, given the price I paid for her," Hugh muttered. "I am not one to waste my money."
"Do not make a mockery of this," Benedict raged. "I may be a cripple, but I am no fool. And I am Alice's brother. I have a duty to protect her."
Hugh studied him for a long moment. "If you do not approve of our bargain, there is an alternative."
"What alternative?" Benedict demanded.
"Convince your sister to give me the information I seek without attaching a price to it."
Benedict slammed his fist down onto the table. "Do not think that I haven't tried to persuade her to be sensible."
"Do you know the whereabouts of the stone?"
"Nay, Alice says she only reasoned it out herself a few days ago. She would not tell me because by then we had heard that you were on the trail of it." Benedict's expression turned glum. "Alice immediately began to make her plans."
"She is a great one for making plans, you see. When she heard that you were after the stone she began to concoct a scheme to remove us both from Lingwood Manor."
"That is not all she bargained for," Hugh said. "Did she mention that she made me promise to provide her with a large dowry for the convent of her choice and to send you off to Paris and Bologna to study law?"
"I do not want to study law," Benedict retorted. " 'Tis all her idea."
"But you do wish to be free of your uncle, do you not?"
"Aye, but not at the risk of Alice's reputation."
Hugh took pity on him. "Your sister is safe enough with me."
"No offense," Benedict gritted, "but you are not called Hugh the Relentless for naught. 'Tis said you are very keen on stratagems. I fear that you have some secret plans for Alice. As her brother, I cannot allow you to hurt her."
Hugh was impressed. "There are not many who would challenge me as you have done."
Benedict flushed. "I realize that I am not skilled in arms and that I am no match for you, Sir Hugh. But I cannot stand by and watch you take advantage of my sister."
"Would it relieve your brotherly concerns to know that I have no intention of harming Lady Alice?"
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"It means that I shall honor my vows of betrothal. From the moment Alice puts herself in my keeping, I shall fulfill all of my obligations to her."
"But that would mean marrying her," Benedict protested. "And she does not wish to marry you."
"That is her problem, is it not?"
Benedict looked baffled. "I do not comprehend you, sir. Surely you do not mean that you actually intend to wed her?"
"Your sister is content with the bargain. I fear you must be satisfied with that much for now. All I can offer you is my oath that I will take proper care of her."
"But, my lord—"
"I said, you have my oath on the matter," Hugh repeated softly. " 'Tis generally considered more than an adequate bond."
Benedict's face turned a deeper shade of dull red. "Aye, my lord."
"You will say naught of your suspicions to your uncle, do you comprehend me? 'Twould be of no use. Sir Ralf will not listen to you and Alice will be most upset." Hugh smiled. "To say nothing of my own reaction."
Benedict hesitated. Then his mouth thinned in mute surrender. "Aye, Sir Hugh. I comprehend you very well."
"Try not to be too anxious, Benedict. I am very good at stratagems. This one will work."
"I just wish I knew exactly what your stratagem is," Benedict grumbled.
Three hours later Alice experienced a strange rush of expectancy as Hugh assisted her into the saddle. Her plan had worked. She and Benedict were free of Sir Ralf at last.
Suddenly, for the first time in months, the future seemed fraught with promise. A crisp breeze stirred the folds of her traveling cloak. Her gray palfrey tossed its shaggy head as though eager to begin the journey.
Out of the corner of her eye Alice saw her brother mount his horse. Although hampered by his bad leg and encumbered by the staff, Benedict had taught himself a surprisingly efficient, if somewhat odd, method for getting into the saddle without assistance. Those who knew him had long since learned not to offer a helping hand.
Alice saw Hugh watch with concealed interest as Benedict climbed atop his horse. For a moment she feared Hugh might order one of his men to help her brother. She was relieved when he did not do so.
Hugh glanced at her at that moment and raised his brows slightly as though to say he had comprehended her thoughts. She gave him a grateful smile. He nodded and vaulted lightly into his own saddle.
Hugh understood. The small, silent exchange sent a curious wave of warmth through Alice.
She was only too well aware that Benedict was not happy with the sudden change in their fortunes. He was as eager as she to escape Lingwood Manor but he was convinced that they might very well have leaped from the hot cook pot into the fire.
Alice took a far more optimistic view. Everything was going along quite nicely, she told herself.
All of her worldly possessions, together with Benedict's, were safely stowed in one of Hugh's baggage wagons. There had been a few minutes of concern early on when Sir Dunstan had complained forcefully about her chests of stones and equipment, but that had soon been settled. Alice was not entirely certain why the obstinate Dunstan had ceased railing about her baggage but she was content with the results.
The vows of betrothal had taken mere minutes to repeat in front of the village priest. A strange shiver of sensation had shot through Alice when Ralf had placed her hand in Hugh's, but she attributed the feeling to her excited state and to the fact that she was not accustomed to a man's touch.
Just as she was not accustomed to a man's kiss, she reminded herself. In spite of the coolness of the day, her body heated at the memory of Hugh's embrace.
"Well, lady?" Hugh looked at her as he took up the reins. The edge of his cloak was thrown back, revealing the hilt of his sword. Sunlight gleamed on his black onyx ring. "The time has come for you to begin to fulfill your part of our bargain. What is our destination?"
Alice took a deep breath. "To Ipstoke, my lord, where a joust and fair are to be held in a day's time."
"Ipstoke?" Hugh frowned. "That is less than two days' ride from here."
"Aye, my lord. A troubadour named Gilbert stole my green crystal. I believe he will attend the fair."
"A troubadour stole the stone? You are certain of this?"
"Aye, sir. Gilbert stayed in my uncle's hall for a time." Alice tightened her lips. "He was a rogue and a fool. While he was here he tried to seduce every female servant he could find. His songs were poor and he could not even play a decent game of chess."
"A poor troubadour, indeed." Hugh studied her with a disturbingly intent gaze.
"Aye. He was also a thief. He made an excuse to visit my study chamber and he saw the green stone. He asked me about it. Shortly after he left Lingwood Manor, I noticed that the stone had disappeared."
"What makes you think he will have taken it to the Ipstoke fair?"
Alice smiled, quite satisfied with the logic of her deduction. "One evening, while deep in his wine, he mumbled something about going to Ipstoke to play his foolish songs for the knights who will have gathered for the jousts."
"There is no reason to doubt it. It is a perfectly reasonable thing for a troubadour to do. There will be a number of knights seeking sport at Ipstoke, will there not?"
"Aye," Hugh said quietly. "If a joust is to be held, there will be no shortage of knights and men-at-arms present."
"Precisely." Alice gave him a complacent smile. "And where there are knights seeking sport and the chance to make money from ransoms on the jousting field, there are troubadours seeking to entertain them. Is that not true?"
"In addition to an opportunity to earn coin for his songs, I suspect that Gilbert plans to sell my crystal at the fair."
Hugh was silent for a moment. Then he nodded. "Your logic is sound, lady. Very well, Ipstoke it is."
" 'Tis likely that Gilbert does not yet know that you are in pursuit of my stone," Alice said. "But if he chances to discover that you are on his trail, he may not remain long at Ipstoke."
"Then we shall take care that he does not learn that I am after it until it is too late for him to flee. There is just one more thing, lady."
"You seem to have formed the habit of forgetting that I am the true owner of the green stone."
Alice blushed. "That is still a matter of opinion, my lord."
"Nay, madam. 'Tis a matter of fact. The stone is mine. Our bargain is sealed." Hugh lifted his hand in a signal to his men.
Alice glanced back over her shoulder as the company clattered through the gates of Lingwood Hall. She saw Ralf and her cousins standing on the hall steps. She waved at Gervase, the only one for whom she had felt some attachment. He raised a hand to bid her farewell.
As Alice started to turn her head, she noticed that Ralf was smiling. Her uncle appeared vastly pleased with himself. An uneasy suspicion went through her.
"I trust the rumor I heard about my dowry was mere gossip," she said to Hugh as he guided his large black stallion into place beside her palfrey.
"Personally, I do not pay much attention to gossip."
She slanted him an assessing glance. "You will not credit this, sir, but there was a tale going round the hall to the effect that you actually promised my uncle two chests of spices."
"Aye, one of pepper and one of ginger." Alice chuckled at that outrageous piece of nonsense. "I am well aware that such overblown gossip is clearly false, my lord. Nevertheless, I am concerned that you may have been cheated. What, precisely, did you give Sir Ralf as a dowry?"
"Do not concern yourself with such details, lady. 'Tis of no great import."
"I would not want to think that you were fleeced, my lord."
Hugh's mouth curved faintly at one corner. "Never fear. I am a man of business. I long ago learned to get my money's worth out of every transaction."