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Chapter 8

Alice was very conscious of the amused gazes of Hugh's men. She went briskly back toward the tent, aware that several of those gathered around the fire were concealing wide grins. Even Benedict was watching her with a strange expression, as though he were having difficulty restraining laughter.

"If my ears do not deceive me," Dunstan remarked in a voice that managed to carry clearly across the fire, " 'twould seem that yon minstrel has found himself a new song to sing."

"Hugh the Relentless may put aside his sword

for he is betrothed to a lady who will defend

her lord."

"Aye," someone else said with satisfaction. " 'Tis far more entertaining than the other."

Laughter filled the air.

Alice grimaced and glanced back over her shoulder. The troubadour whom Vincent had paid to sing the nasty ballad about Hugh was indeed strumming a new tune on his lute. He was wandering back through the encampments, regaling one and all with the song.

"She has brought him a dowry more priceless

than lands

Sir Hugh's honor, it seems, is safe in her

hands."

A cheer of approval went up.

Alice blushed furiously. She was the new subject of the poem. She looked uneasily at Hugh to see if he was embarrassed.

"Wilfred is right," Hugh said calmly. "The minstrel's new song is much more entertaining than his last one."

Benedict, Dunstan, and the others howled with laughter.

"Sir Vincent may have been successful in the joust this afternoon," one of the men declared, "but he was roundly defeated tonight."

Alice was profoundly grateful for the shadows that concealed the red banners in her cheeks. She fixed one of the squires with a determined look. "Will you please bring some wine to my tent?"

"Aye, m'lady." The man stifled his laughter and leaped to his feet. He started toward the supply wagon, which stood nearby in the gloom.

"You may fetch a cup of wine for me while you're about it, Thomas," Hugh called. "Bring it to my tent."

"Aye, m'lord."

Hugh's grin flashed briefly in the firelight as he lifted the tent flap. " 'Tis not often I have the opportunity to toast one of Sir Vincent's defeats."

"Really, sir, you go too far." Alice hurried through the opening into the comparative privacy of the tent. "I did not defeat Sir Vincent. I merely corrected his misconceptions concerning today's events."

"Nay, madam." Hugh let the flap fall closed. "Make no mistake. 'Twas a defeat. A very decisive one. And the troubadour's new song will ensure that a great many people hear of it. I vow, 'tis almost as satisfying as a victory against him in the joust would have been."

She pivoted to confront him. "That is a very poor jest, sir."

Hugh shrugged. "Mayhap I overstate the case a trifle. Unhorsing my cousin in the joust would have been somewhat more gratifying, I'll grant you. But not by much." His chilled smile came and went. "Not by much."

"M'lord?" Thomas raised the tent flap. "I have the wine for you and my lady." He offered a tray containing two cups and a flagon.

"Excellent." Hugh swept the tray from Thomas's hand. "That will be all for now. Leave us so that I may honor my noble defender in a suitable manner."

"Aye, m'lord." With a last, speculative glance at Alice, Thomas bowed his way out of the tent.

Alice scowled as Hugh filled the cups with wine. "I do wish you would cease amusing yourself with this unpleasant incident, my lord."

"Ah, but you do not know how uniquely entertaining it is." Hugh handed one cup to her and then saluted her with his own.

"Is it so important for you to see Sir Vincent humiliated?"

"A taste of Vincent's humiliation now and again is all that I am allowed by my liege lord."

"I do not comprehend your meaning, sir."

"Erasmus of Thornewood has forbidden Vincent and me to take up arms against each other except in a jousting match. He claims 'twould be a wasteful indulgence that he cannot afford."

"Erasmus of Thornewood sounds a very intelligent man."

"He is that," Hugh admitted. "But his notion of sound economy leaves me hungry. You served me a well-seasoned dish tonight, madam. You must allow me to enjoy it to the fullest. However, your excellent cookery is not what I find so vastly entertaining."

Alice was becoming impatient with his sardonic answers. "What is it that amuses you so, my lord?"

Hugh smiled at her over the wine cup. His amber eyes gleamed like those of a hawk that had recently stuffed itself on a plump pigeon. "I do believe that tonight marks the first time in my entire life when someone else has come to my defense. I thank you, madam."

The wine cup trembled in Alice's fingers. " 'Twas the least I could do. You saved my life this afternoon, sir."

"I would say that our partnership is working rather well, wouldn't you?" Hugh asked with suspicious blandness.

The look in his eyes threatened to destroy Alice's composure. This was ridiculous, she thought. She had been through too much today. That was the problem.

Desperate, she racked her brain for a way to change the subject. She said the first thing that came into her head. "I had heard that you were born a bastard."

A lethal stillness came over Hugh. The wicked amusement died in his eyes. "Aye. 'Tis the truth. Does it trouble you to find yourself betrothed to a bastard, madam?"

Alice wished she had kept her mouth closed. What a stupid thing to say. Where were her wits? To say nothing of her manners. "Nay, my lord. I was merely about to remark that I know very little of your family history. You are something of a mystery to me." She paused. "By choice, I suspect."

"I have discovered that the less people know of the truth, the more they are inclined to believe in legends. What is more, they usually prefer the legend to the truth." Hugh sipped his wine with a contemplative air. "Sometimes that is useful. Sometimes, as is the case with that damnable green stone, it is a nuisance."

Alice gripped her wine cup very tightly. "I am a student of natural philosophy, sir. As such, I seek honest answers. I prefer to know the truth that lies beneath the legend."

"Do you?"

She fortified herself with a tiny sip of the wine. "Tonight I have learned a few more facts about you, but I still feel that there is much that I do not know."

"You have an inquisitive nature. Such a temperament can be dangerous."

"In a woman?" she asked tartly.

"In either man or woman. The world is a simpler and no doubt safer place for those who do not ask too many questions."

"That may be true." Alice grimaced. "Unfortunately, curiosity is my besetting sin."

"Aye, so it would seem." Hugh watched her for a long moment. He appeared to debate some issue with himself. Then he walked to a wooden chest and sat down upon it. He cradled his wine cup in both hands and studied the contents as though it were an alchemist's brew. "What do you wish to know?"

Alice was startled. She had not expected him to volunteer any information. Slowly she sank down onto the folding stool. "You will answer my questions?"

"Some. Not all. Ask your questions and I will decide which ones I choose to answer."

She took a deep breath. "Neither you nor Sir Vincent is responsible for the circumstances of your birth. 'Tis your ill fortune that you were born a bastard and therefore did not inherit the Rivenhall lands."

Hugh shrugged. "Aye."

"But I do not see how you can blame your cousin for that turn of events. And you do not strike me as the sort of man who would bear a grudge against the innocent. So how does it come about that you and Sir Vincent are sworn enemies?"

Hugh was silent for a time. When he eventually spoke his voice was devoid of any nuance of feeling or emotion. It was as though he merely related someone else's history, not his own.

" 'Tis simple enough. Vincent's people hated mine with an undying passion. My family returned the favor. Our parents and the rest of their generation are all dead and gone, so it is left to my cousin and me to carry on the feud."

"But why?"

Hugh turned the cup in his big hands. " 'Tis a long tale."

"I should very much like to hear it, my lord."

"Very well. I shall tell you the main part of it. I owe you that much under the circumstances." Hugh paused again as though gathering thoughts from some deep, hidden place.

Alice did not move. It seemed to her that a strange spell settled on the interior of the tent. The candle burned low and the embers on the brazier dimmed. Outside, the sounds of laughter and song grew faint, as though they emanated from a vast distance.

Shadows coalesced within the tent. They seemed to swirl around Hugh.

"My father was named Sir Matthew of Rivenhall," he said. "They tell me that he was a respected knight. His liege lord made him a gift of several fine manors."

"Pray, continue, sir," Alice prompted gently.

"A marriage was arranged for him by his family. The lady was an heiress. It was considered a fine match and Sir Matthew was, by all accounts, much pleased. But that did not stop him from lusting after the young daughter of one of his neighbors. Her father held the fief of Scarcliffe. My grandfather tried to protect his only child but Sir Matthew convinced her to meet him in secret."

"The woman was your mother?"

"Aye. Her name was Margaret." Hugh turned the cup between his hands. "Matthew of Rivenhall seduced her. Got her with child. And then he went off to give service to his liege lord. I was born while he was in Normandy."

"What happened?"

"The usual." Hugh moved one hand in a negligent gesture. "My grandfather was furious. He went to Rivenhall and demanded that Matthew be forced to marry my mother when he returned from Normandy."

"He wished them to break Sir Matthew's betrothal?"

"Aye. Sir Matthew's family made it plain that they had no intention of allowing their heir to throw himself away on a young woman who could offer only one small, rather poor manor as a dowry."

"What of Sir Matthew's betrothed? How did she feel?"

"Her family wanted the marriage to take place as much as Sir Matthew's did. As I said, it was considered an excellent match."

Alice nodded in comprehension. "So no one wished to see the betrothal severed, is that it?"

"Aye." Hugh glanced at her and then he looked into the dying coals on the brazier. "Least of all Matthew of Rivenhall. He had no intention of abandoning his fine heiress for my mother. But he did come to see her once after he returned from Normandy."

"To tell her that he loved her and would love her always even though he must wed another?" Alice asked quickly.

Hugh's mouth quirked upward at the corner in a humorless smile. "You seek to salvage a romantic ending for this tale?"

Alice blushed. "I suppose I do. Is there one?"

"Nay."

"Well, then? What did Matthew of Rivenhall say to your mother when he met with her and learned that he had a son?"

"No one knows." Hugh took another swallow of wine. "But whatever it was, my mother apparently did not care for it. She murdered him and then took her own life. They were both found dead the following morning."

Alice's mouth fell open. It took her several tries before she could speak. When she did so, the words emerged as a squeak. "Your mother murdered your father?"

"So they say."

"But how? If he was a great knight, how could she possibly manage to kill him? Surely he would have been able to defend himself against a woman."

Hugh looked at her with grim eyes. "She used a woman's weapon."

"Poison?"

"She put it in the wine she served to him that night."

"Dear God." Alice stared down into the red wine in her cup. For some reason she no longer had a taste for it. "And then she drank the wine herself?"

"Aye. Vincent's father, Matthew's younger brother, became the heir to the Rivenhall estates. He was killed three years ago. Vincent is now the lord of Rivenhall."

"And he bears enmity toward you because he believes that your mother murdered his uncle?"

"He was taught to hate me from the cradle even though he became lord of Rivenhall because of my mother's action. In truth, I was taught to return the favor."

"Who had the rearing of you?"

"My grandfather for the first eight years of my life. When he died I was sent to live in the household of Erasmus of Thornewood. I was fortunate in that I did not become a foundling."

"But you were denied your birthright," Alice whispered.

" 'Tis true that I lost Rivenhall, but that part no longer matters so far as I'm concerned." Hugh's mouth twisted in cold satisfaction. "I have lands of my own now. My grandfather's manor is mine, thanks to Sir Erasmus."

She thought of how she had lost Benedict's inheritance and swallowed a small sigh. "I am pleased for you, sir."

Hugh seemed not to hear her. "Scarcliffe has suffered much since my grandfather's death twenty-two years ago. In truth, it had fallen into decline even before he died. But I intend to make it plump and profitable once more."

"A worthy goal."

"Above all, I shall hold on to it for my heirs." Hugh's hand tightened around his cup. "By the blood of the devil, I vow that Vincent will not be able to do the same with Rivenhall."

Alice tensed at the chilling tone of his voice. "Why is that?"

"Rivenhall Manor is in very poor condition these days. 'Tis not at all the fine, prosperous land it once was. Why do you think Vincent enters every joust and tournament he can find? He is attempting to make enough money to save his lands."

"What happened to them?"

"Vincent's father was devoid of all sense of responsibility. He squandered the income from the Rivenhall estates to finance a trip to the Holy Land."

"He went on Crusade?"

"Aye. And died in some distant desert as so many did, not from a Saracen's blade, but from a foul disease of the bowel."

Alice frowned. "I believe my mother wrote of the many illnesses that afflicted those who went on Crusade."

Hugh set aside the empty wine cup. He rested his elbows on his knees and loosely clasped his hands. "They say Vincent's father was born wild and reckless. He had no business sense and no notion of duty to his own family. There was a reason why his people were so devastated by the loss of my father, you see. Everyone knew that his brother would ruin the estates. And he very nearly succeeded. Unfortunately, he died before he could complete the task."

"And now Sir Vincent is desperately seeking to save them."

"Aye."

"What a sad tale," Alice said.

"I warned you it did not have a romantic ending."

"True, you did."

Hugh slanted her an odd glance. "In some ways 'tis no more sad than your own tale."

"What happened to me and my brother was my own fault," Alice said grimly.

Hugh's expression darkened. "Why do you say it was your fault? It was your uncle, Sir Ralf, who deprived Benedict of his inheritance."

"He was able to do so only because I was unable to defend my father's manor." Alice rose restlessly and moved to stand closer to the dying brazier. "I did my best, but it was not good enough."

"You are too hard on yourself."

"I shall always wonder if there was something more I could have done. Mayhap I could have phrased my arguments to Lord Fulbert more cleverly. Or found a way to convince him that I could manage the defense of my brother's lands until Benedict came of age."

"Alice, hush. Your uncle no doubt meant to take your brother's lands from you the moment he learned of your father's death. And Fulbert was likely pleased to see him do so. There was nothing you could have done."

"You don't understand. My mother trusted me to protect Benedict's inheritance. She said that in spite of what my father believed, Benedict would one day prove that he was a worthy heir." Alice twisted her fingers together in front of her. "But I failed to give my brother his opportunity. I failed."

Hugh got to his feet and crossed the carpet to stand directly behind her. Alice shivered as his powerful hands settled on her shoulders. She experienced an almost overpowering urge to throw herself into his arms again as she had done earlier that afternoon. It was all she could do to resist.

"Alice, you are possessed of a brave and bold spirit, but even the bravest and the boldest cannot win every battle."

"I did everything I could but it was not enough. I felt so alone." With a small cry, Alice spun around and buried her face against Hugh's broad chest. Her tears flowed in silence, dampening the front of his black tunic. Her shoulders shuddered.

It was the first time she had cried since her mother had died.

Hugh said nothing. He simply held her. The candle burned lower and the shadows thickened within the tent.

The tears stopped eventually, leaving Alice drained. But to her surprise, she felt calmer, more at peace with herself than she had in some time.

"Forgive me, my lord," she mumbled into his tunic. "I do not usually indulge myself in tears. I fear it's been a long and somewhat trying day."

"Aye, that it has." Hugh tipped her chin up with the edge of his hand. He studied her face as though she were a mysterious volume he was determined to decipher. "And a most instructive one."

She looked into his shadowed gaze and saw the pain as well as the iron-willed determination that pain had inspired in him. Those amber eyes held darker, fiercer, infinitely more dangerous versions of the pain and determination that had been etched into her own soul. Storm winds.

She longed to reach inside him and still the savage tempests but she did not know how to go about it.

And then, quite suddenly, Alice knew that she wanted Hugh to kiss her. She wanted it more than she had ever wanted anything in her entire life. In that moment she suspected that she would have cheerfully sold her soul for his kiss.

As if he could read her thoughts, Hugh bent his head and covered her mouth with his own.

Alice nearly collapsed. Had Hugh not held her as securely as he did, she would have crumpled to the carpet.

The disturbing male energy in him poured into her, a force that was all the more awesome because of the control Hugh exerted over it. It revived Alice's spirits the way a shower of rain renews wilted grass.

The excitement that had flashed through her the first time Hugh had kissed her returned in a heated rush. The sensation seemed stronger, more vibrant this time, as though her body had been tuned for it by the first embrace. The desire she felt radiating from Hugh set a torch to Alice's senses.

She moaned softly and then something gave way inside her. The pain and defeat of the past were forgotten for the moment. The danger of the afternoon was a distant memory. The future was an unknown haze that did not seem to matter.

Nothing was of any import save this man who held her with a strength that simultaneously overwhelmed Alice and made her feel incredibly powerful.

Alice wrapped her arms around Hugh's neck and held on for dear life.

"I chose well," Hugh whispered.

Alice wanted to ask him what he meant by those odd words but she could not speak. The world shifted around her. She squeezed her eyes tightly closed as Hugh lifted her off her feet.

A moment later she felt the softness of the pallet blankets beneath her. She gasped as Hugh came down on top of her. His weight crushed her into the bedding. She felt his leg slide between her thighs and dimly realized that her skirts were hiked up above her knees. She knew she ought to have been horrified by that fact but for some reason she gloried in it.

Curiosity overcame good sense and modesty. The need to know where this aching, surging, swelling feeling inside her would ultimately lead was simply too strong to ignore. Surely she had a right to explore these exhilarating sensations.

"I never dreamed that it could be like this between a man and a woman," she said against his throat.

"You have not yet experienced the half of it," Hugh promised.

His mouth moved on hers, demanding, coaxing, claiming. Alice could do nothing but respond. She felt his hands on the laces of her gown but she paid no attention. She was too busy savoring the heat and scent of him. Then he touched her bare breast with a hand that was callused from years of gripping the hilt of a sword.

For an instant Alice could not breathe. She opened her mouth on a small shriek of amazement. No man had ever touched her in such an intimate manner.

It was thrilling.

It was immodest.

It was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to her.

"Hush." Hugh quickly covered her mouth with his own, swallowing the startled cry she made. "We are surrounded by my men and the encampments of others. A lover's sweet cries will travel on the night air as though borne on wings."

A lover's sweet cries?

Alice opened her eyes abruptly. "By Saint Boniface's cloak, my lord, you speak the truth. We must stop."

"Nay." Hugh raised his head slightly to look down at her. He drew his rough fingertip along the edge of her cheek as though he touched rare silk. "There is no need to stop. We must simply be cautious."

"But, my lord"

"And silent. Close your eyes, Alice. I will take care of everything."

She sighed and closed her eyes, surrendering control of the moment in a way that she had never been able to do before in her life.

Suddenly she saw herself as apprenticed to an alchemist who knew the secret of transforming base metal into gold. She was on the brink of wondrous new discoveries.

She would study whole realms of natural philosophy that had heretofore been closed to her. She would learn strange truths that had been concealed so well that, until this moment, she had not even guessed at their existence.

Hugh gently took one nipple between thumb and forefinger. Alice shuddered with pleasure. He moved his palm downward until he found her bare leg. Alice flinched in reaction and then instinctively bent her knee.

Hugh slid his hand up along the inside of her thigh and Alice clutched at him so fiercely that she wondered she did not leave marks.

And all the while Hugh kept her mouth covered with his own, swallowing each telltale gasp as though it were a rare, honeyed wine.

When he touched the hot, wet place between her legs Alice thought she would go mad. She could barely breathe. Her whole body was inflamed as if with fever. There was a curious tightness within her that clamored to be eased.

"Silence," Hugh said in a velvety whisper that teased and tormented as surely as his hand. "Not a word. Not a sound, my sweet."

The knowledge that she could not even give voice to these astounding sensations only served to intensify them. Alice shivered again and again as Hugh stroked her.

He parted her carefully with his fingers. Alice sucked in her breath. A small, terribly urgent whimper escaped her.

"Have a care," Hugh murmured against her mouth. "Remember that silence is all tonight."

He eased one finger partway inside her and then withdrew it.

Alice wanted to scream. She grabbed his head and pulled his mouth more tightly against hers. She thought she heard him laugh softly in the darkness but she paid no heed.

He moved his hand one last time against her softness and the night exploded around her. Nothing mattered, not the knowledge that Hugh's men might overhear her or the fact that there were encampments scattered all around the black tent.

Alice was utterly lost to the sensation that seized her.

At that moment the only other person in the whole world so far as she was concerned was Hugh.

She thought she screamed but she heard no sound. She dimly understood that Hugh must have swallowed the cry, just as he had all the others.

"Blood of the angels" Hugh's arm tightened around her as she convulsed beneath him.

Alice barely heard him. She sighed deeply and floated gently down to earth. A lovely sense of contentment filled up all the empty places within her.

Dreamily she opened her eyes and looked up at Hugh. His face was set in startlingly rigid lines. His eyes glittered.

"My lord, that was" Words failed her. "That was"

"Aye?" He traced the outline of her mouth with one big, blunt finger. "What was it?"

"Most instructive," Alice breathed.

Hugh blinked. "Instructive?"

"Aye, sir." Alice stirred lazily. "An experience quite unlike anything else I have ever come across in my study of natural philosophy."

"I'm glad you found it instructive," he muttered. "Have you had other instruction of this sort?"

"Nay, my lord, this was quite unique."

"Instructive and unique," he repeated carefully. "Ah, well. I suspect that, given your unusual nature, I should be satisfied with that much."

It dawned on her that he did not appear entirely pleased. She threaded her fingers through his black mane. "Have I offended you, my lord?"

"Nay." He smiled faintly and shifted his position on top of her. " 'Tis just that I find making love to you instructive and unique also. I feel certain that we both have a great deal to learn."

"Making love?" Alice froze. Her fingers tightened abruptly in Hugh's hair. "Dear Saints. That is what we are doing, is it not?"

"Aye." Hugh winced and reached up to gently unknot her fingers. "There is no need to pull out my hair in the process."

"Oh, my apologies, my lord." Alice struggled to rise. "I did not mean to injure you."

"I appreciate that."

"But we must stop this now, at once." She shoved against his broad shoulders.

Hugh did not move. "Why?"

"Why?" She widened her eyes, astonished. "You ask me that?"

"It seems a reasonable question under the circumstances."

"Sir, I may not have had much personal experience with this sort of thing, but I am an educated woman. I am well aware of what must happen if we continue on as we are."

"What of it?"

"You would be furious with yourself and with me if I allowed you to finish what you have started."

"I would?"

"Of course you would." She tried to wriggle out from under his heavy frame. "And knowing the sort of man you are, I am well aware that if you seduce me under such circumstances, you would feel honor-bound to go through with the marriage."

"Alice"

"I cannot allow it, sir. Indeed, I will not allow it."

"You won't?"

"We made a bargain, sir. I owe it to you to keep you from breaking it."

Hugh braced himself on his elbows. "I promise you, I am in full control of my passion."

"You may believe that to be true, sir, but 'tis obvious you are not at all in control. Just look at yourself, my lord. If you were exerting your usual degree of self-mastery, you would have stopped several minutes ago."

"Why?" he asked flatly.

"Because you would not wish to find yourself caught in a trap," she snapped, thoroughly exasperated.

"Alice," he said with ill-concealed impatience, "what if I told you that I am quite willing to go through with the marriage?"

"That's impossible."

"Give me one good reason why it's impossible," he growled.

She glared up at him. "I can think of a hundred but the most obvious is that I would make you a dreadful wife."

Hugh stilled. Then, very slowly, he sat up beside her. "What in the name of the devil makes you say that?"

"I am not at all what you require in a wife, my lord." Alice fumbled with her clothing. "We both know that."

"Do we? I disagree. I do not think we both know that." Hugh loomed over her. "In truth, I believe one of us is confused."

"I know, my lord, but try not to become overanxious about it. You will soon come to your senses."

"I am not the one who is confused, Alice."

She eyed him warily. "You're not?"

"Nay." He watched her coldly. "What makes you think that you would not make me a good wife?"

She was taken aback by the outrageous question. " 'Tis obvious, my lord."

"Not to me."

A strange sense of desperation descended on her. "I can bring you nothing. As the lord of a manor, you are in a position to wed an heiress."

He shrugged. "I do not require an heiress."

"Is this some sort of nasty game you are playing with me, sir?"

"I do not play games. I believe that you would make me a good wife and I am willing to turn our bargain into a true betrothal. Where is the problem?"

Realization hit her. She narrowed her eyes. "Have you come to this decision simply because I am convenient, sir?"

"That is only one of several reasons," he assured her.

Alice had an overwhelming urge to kick him in the shin. She restrained herself with an effort and because, given their present positions, such an action was not practical.

"What are the other reasons, pray tell?" she asked through her teeth.

He seemed to find nothing odd about her tone of voice. Instead, he took the question quite literally. "From what I have observed of you during the past three days, Alice, 'tis apparent that you have a sound understanding of loyalty, duty, and honor."

"Whatever gave you that idea?"

"The manner in which you have fought to defend your brother's future," he explained.

"I see. Anything else?"

"You are intelligent and practical by nature. I admire that in a woman. Or anyone else, for that matter."

"Pray continue, sir."

"You appear to be well versed in the arts of household management." Hugh was clearly warming to his subject. "I place a high value on professional abilities of any kind. I believe in employing only the most skilled craftsmen and the most talented stewards, for example."

"Do go on, sir." Alice could barely speak. "This is fascinating."

"You are obviously healthy and strong. That is important, of course."

"Aye." She would throttle him, Alice decided. "Is there more?"

He shrugged. "That is all, I think. Except for the obvious fact that you are free to wed, as am I. And we are already betrothed. That makes everything quite simple and straightforward."

"Efficiency and convenience."

"Aye." Hugh looked pleased at her intelligent grasp of the matter.

"My lord, I would have you know that I do not consider it any great thing to be wed simply because I can manage a household and I happen to be conveniently at hand."

Hugh frowned. "Why not?"

Because if I am to marry, I wish it to be for love, her heart whispered silently. Alice beat back the illogical response. Hugh would never comprehend it. "It seems somewhat cold-blooded."

"Cold-blooded?" Hugh looked startled. "Nonsense. 'Tis a most reasonable approach."

"Reasonable?"

"Aye. It seems to me that you and I are in the unusual position of being able to make our own decision on the matter. That decision will be based upon a practical knowledge of each other's temperaments and skills. Think of it as a continuation of our bargain, Alice."

Alice felt herself turn warm. "But I had plans to enter a convent. I had intended to devote myself to investigations of natural philosophy."

"You can study natural philosophy as my wife," Hugh said in a soft, deeply seductive tone. "You shall have both the time and the income with which to finance your investigations if you wed me."

"Hmm."

"Think of it, Alice," Hugh said as though offering her a treasure chest of gems. "Unlimited opportunities to purchase books, astrolabes, and alchemical apparatus shall be yours. You will be able to collect all the odd stones that catch your attention. You may have any number of dried insects. Pile them all the way to the ceiling of your study chamber, if you like."

"My lord, I do not know what to say. Everything is spinning about in my head. I do not believe that I have recovered from your kisses. I think you had best leave."

He hesitated for a tension-filled moment. Alice held her breath, sensing the struggle going on within him. He was a passionate man, she thought. But he was completely in control of that passion.

"If that is your wish." He rose from the pallet with predatory grace. "Think upon what I have said, Alice. You and I will suit each other well. I can offer you everything the convent can offer and more."

"My lord, I pray that you will give me ample time to contemplate this proposal." Alice fumbled with her gown as she got to her feet. She felt tousled and disheveled and more than a little disgruntled. "This is all happening much too quickly."

Hugh narrowed his eyes. He looked as if he wanted to argue. Instead, he brushed his mouth lightly across hers. In the instant of fleeting contact, Alice could feel the powerful force of the control he was exerting over himself. She shivered.

"Very well." Hugh lifted his head. "There is no need to give me your answer tonight. You may think upon it."

"Thank you, sir." She wondered if he noticed the tart sarcasm in her words.

"But do not take too long," Hugh advised. "I do not have a great deal of time to waste on such a simple matter. There is much to be done at Scarcliffe. I need a wife who is also a reliable business partner."

He was gone before Alice thought to dump the contents of the flagon of wine over his head.

She consoled herself with the realization that there would doubtless be other opportunities.


Chapter 7 | Mystique | Chapter 9