The silver rose, p.15

The Silver Rose, страница 15

 

The Silver Rose
 


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  “Simon?”

  Another snore.

  With a muttered curse, she half sat up, pulling the quilt up to her chin, and reached up her hand to thrust it under the covers of his bed, guessing where his feet would be as she felt blindly for the brick. It was wonderfully toasty in the big bed, and when her fingers brushed his leg, his skin was enviably warm.

  “You’re letting the cold air in, girl!” The sound of his voice, not in the least sleepy, shocked her, and she withdrew her hand with a little gasp. “Come in here and stop being silly.” There was a mountainous heave of the covers on the poster bed, and the next minute, Ariel felt hands gripping her strongly beneath the arms. She was hauled bodily out and upward, her naked shivering frame enveloped in thick, warm quilts, her toes curling around the hot brick almost before she was aware of it.

  She remembered noticing how much strength he had in his upper body when she’d seen his exposed torso that morning. She lay too startled to speak. He wasn’t touching her but she was overpoweringly aware of his body a mere few inches from hers.

  “I don’t have a drawn sword handy, so the bolster must suffice. Here . . .” He heaved at the thick sausage behind his head, pulling it loose, and stuffed it down beside him. “God’s grace, girl, you’re as prim and prissy as a convent-bred virgin. People have been bundling together without lascivious purpose for centuries.”

  “Only when there aren’t enough beds to go around.” Ariel found her voice at last. “There’s no such shortage here.”

  “There’s a shortage of warm beds, it seems to me. Now go to sleep. I can barely keep my eyes open.” He rolled onto his side with another mountainous heave of the covers. Ariel grabbed onto her side to keep them over her. She lay rigid for a few minutes and then, as a wave of sleepiness swept over her, turned onto her side with the bolster at her back and fell into the deep black pool of oblivion.

  When she awoke it was broad daylight. And something warm and heavy was resting on the curve of her hip. She lay still, disoriented, then slowly realized that it was the Hawkesmoor’s hand under the covers. It wasn’t doing anything, just sitting there, but it seemed as if it belonged there . . . as if it had been there for a very long time.

  Her nipples hardened as a little shiver rippled over her skin, tightened her scalp. She wanted to move but couldn’t. Then the hand moved across her turned hip. She held her breath, pretending to be asleep, waiting despite her brain’s screaming protests to see what would happen next. The hand curled, slipped down over her bottom . . .

  The silent vociferous protests were finally translated into action. “You promised!” she cried, pushing his hand away. “You promised!”

  “Promised what?” The earl rolled onto his side. Resting on a propped elbow, he blinked drowsily at her from across the bolster. “I promised I wouldn’t take advantage of you. I can’t help it if my hand slipped a little in my sleep.”

  “You weren’t asleep!” she declared furiously, flinging aside the covers before remembering that she was naked. She pulled them back again with an oath. “You are a dishonorable Hawkesmoor!”

  Infuriatingly, Simon merely laughed and lay down again on his back. “A wandering hand in such circumstances is hardly dishonorable, my dear.”

  “You promised you wouldn’t touch me. You said you could no more exercise your marital rights than—”

  “Oh, I know what I said,” he interrupted, still laughing. “But that was last night, when it was perfectly true. But that draught of yours has put new life in me. Wonderful stuff it was. I had a rare good night, and how wonderful to wake up with such silken curves a mere bolster away.”

  “Oh, you’re detestable!” Ariel sat up, glaring down at him, but she felt strangely uncertain. Her own body was too alive and didn’t seem to be responding in accordance with her brain’s commands.

  Lazily he lifted a hand and stroked down her bare back as she sat beside him, the covers held tight to her chin. She jumped at his touch. “Don’t!”

  “How can I resist?” he murmured, flattening his palm over the base of her spine, his fingertips edging dangerously beneath her. “I’m only flesh and blood, wife of mine.”

  Ariel promptly flung herself onto her back, shoving his hand out from under her, hugging the cover to her chin. “I can’t believe you’d break your promise, when you had the gall to say you didn’t trust my word because I’m a Ravenspeare!”

  Simon merely chuckled again. “Circumstances change. And if you want to avoid further intimacies, I suggest you get up and call for my breakfast and shaving water.”

  Ariel inched to the edge of the bed and gingerly slid out, pulling the top quilt with her. Safely wrapped once more, she stood up. “Don’t you ever dare to question my honor again, Hawkesmoor. Where’s the door key?”

  Simon, clearly unrepentant, merely grinned. “In the pocket of my robe, I expect.”

  Ariel felt for it in the robe lying over the end of the bed. She drew it out and frowned, glancing to the window where a pale sun cast chilly rays. She forgot the irritating if tantalizing exchange under a new thought. “I wonder where the dogs are? It’s not like them to stay out after daybreak.”

  “Maybe they found a bitch in heat and are sleeping off the night’s excesses,” Simon suggested.

  It was always possible. Ariel gathered up her riding habit and undergarments and went to the door. “I’ll dress in your chamber, since you’re occupying mine.”

  As soon as she’d left, Simon got up and stretched, noting how much easier his leg moved this morning. Most days it was as stiff as dried leather and every stretch was agony until the blood flowed again. He pulled on his chamber robe and went to the window, flinging it wide, inhaling the crisp air, enjoying the heaviness in his loins, the swift blood of arousal. She was a most winsome creature, his young bride. And indignation certainly became her. He chuckled to himself.

  But then his smile faded. He might desire her, but could she ever desire him? Helene had laughed at him when he’d expressed these reservations. She’d told him he was beautiful, despite his scarred countenance and lame leg. But Helene saw him through eyes of love and friendship.

  The turret room looked out beyond the moat wall to the flat countryside with its intricate pattern of intersecting rivers and canals. Windmills studded the landscape, their sails turning lazily in the light breeze. Way off toward the port of King’s Lyn were his own estates. Hawkesmoor Manor was a pleasant timbered house with green lawns stretching to the river and windows that looked out over the Wash. It was a warm family house, as different from this chilly, inhospitable castle as two abodes could be.

  How would Ariel find it?

  He pulled the window shut again. The cold air had chilled the room, and he bent to make up the fire. This month of so-called celebration was the very devil.

  As long as he was stuck here, perhaps it was time to pursue the elusive woman named Esther.

  “The dogs are nowhere to be seen.” Ariel spoke worriedly as she hurried into the room. “I’ve called and called, and whistled for them. Edgar said he hasn’t seen them since I left the stable last night.”

  “They’re lying up somewhere,” Simon said, nodding his thanks to the servants who had accompanied Ariel with hot water and a breakfast tray. “When I’m dressed, I’ll come down with you to the stables.” He began to sharpen his razor, drawing the blade along the strop.

  Ariel took a slice of ham from the tray, placed it on a chunk of wheaten bread, and chewed slowly. She filled the ale cup and drank before refilling it for Simon. “What shall I do if they don’t come back before the hunt?”

  Simon wiped the lather from his face before answering. She was sounding very forlorn in her uncertainty, not at all like the Ariel he was accustomed to. “My dear girl, they’re a pair of great wolfhounds. What could possibly have happened to them? There’s nothing to worry about. Dogs are dogs and they do annoyingly doggish things.”

  Ariel half smiled. “I suppose so. And there are two of them. The
y can’t both be in trouble.”

  “Of course not.” He took up the ale cup and drank deeply. “I’ll be back directly I’m dressed.” He took up his cane and limped off to his own chamber across the corridor.

  Ariel wondered why he spared her the ordeal of having to watch him dress. He hadn’t shown such delicacy in other of their dealings, and he’d stripped off his robe in front of her both last night and the night before. But there had been little light, she recalled. Only the flicker of the fire to combat the shadows. She’d seen nothing but his back view, and that no more than a fleeting impression. Maybe he had a natural modesty.

  The thought made her laugh aloud until she remembered that he came of Puritan stock Hawkesmoors were known for sober, grave, churchgoing prudes. They probably believed that nakedness was sinful and dangerous and even lovemaking must take place in the darkness, beneath the covers. And never for pleasure. Only for procreation.

  But somehow that didn’t sit right with what she knew of Simon Hawkesmoor. It didn’t accord with that straying hand on her hip, the caressing fingers on her back, the teasing laughter. She didn’t feel as if the earl of Hawkesmoor was an inhibited prude. There was too much amusement and knowingness in his character. And her body was most emphatically not responding to the signals of a staid and sexless Puritan. Simon aroused her most powerfully. There was little point denying it to herself, even if she’d cut her tongue out rather than speak it.

  “Very well. Let’s go and see these horses of yours.” His voice from the door broke her reverie, and she felt herself blushing again as she picked up her cloak.

  Simon looked at her curiously. “What wicked thoughts brought the fire to your cheeks, Ariel?”

  She clapped her hands to her flaming face, saying crossly, “I blush at the slightest thing. It’s unchivalrous to take notice.”

  “It must be most inconvenient,” he said with mock solicitude. “I imagine you would always be caught out in a lie, for instance.”

  Ariel didn’t dignify this truth with a reply. It was certainly the case that if she told a direct lie, the evidence blazed from her cheeks for all to see. As a result she had perfected the art of lying by omission and was remarkably skillful at avoiding direct questions that might require an inconvenient answer.

  “These special horses of yours. Are they a particular strain?” Simon inquired, diplomatically changing the subject.

  “They’re Arabians,” she replied shortly. “It’s a harmless enough hobby. Gives me something to do besides sewing fine seams.”

  “Are you skilled with a needle?” A laugh trembled in his voice as they crossed the stableyard.

  Ariel gave him a look of disgust that was answer enough.

  “I didn’t think so,” he said, grinning. He ducked into the low building and waited for his eyes to become accustomed to the dim light. An elderly groom ambled up the aisle toward them.

  “You found them dogs yet, m’lady?”

  “No. I’ll go into the paddock and call them in a minute.” Her forehead was creased with worry. “Edgar, this is the earl of Hawkesmoor . . . my husband,” she added after an infinitesimal pause.

  Edgar pulled his forelock but his shrewd eyes examined his lordship with a pitiless clarity. “You want t’ take a look, m’lord?”

  “If I may.” Simon walked slowly along the stalls, pausing to look in at each one.

  Ariel remained with Edgar. “Did the colt get off all right?”

  “Aye,” he said, his eyes still observing the earl.

  “My brother hasn’t appeared this morning?”

  Edgar shook his head. “Like as not he’s enough to do wi’ gettin’ ’imself up and about, I’d say.”

  Ariel smiled sourly. “They sat late, I suppose. The start of the hunt will be delayed.”

  “Aye, like as not,” Edgar said with the same placidity. “What does yer ’usband know about the animals?” He gestured with his head to Simon, who was now at the far end of the building.

  Ariel shrugged. “The same as everyone else. They’re a harmless hobby of mine.”

  Simon couldn’t hear what the groom and Ariel were saying to each other, but he sensed a complicity between them, and a certain importance to the conversation. He paused, looking in on a pregnant mare in the farthest stall. She was a beautiful animal, as indeed they all were. Very special. Ariel hadn’t been exaggerating. But what could such a young thing know about the science of horse breeding? And yet, judging by the results of her efforts, she clearly knew exactly what she was doing.

  He limped back to them. “Very impressive, my dear. Are you breeding them to race?”

  Ariel flushed again in the shadowy light. “Perhaps,” she said.

  “Ah.” He nodded slowly, watching her face. “Are you finding buyers for them?”

  “They’re mine,” Ariel said in a rush. “I have no interest in selling them. Why would I?” She walked away with swift step toward one of the stalls.

  “Why indeed?” he agreed with a lift of one mobile eyebrow. “Horse trading is hardly the province of an earl’s daughter, let alone an earl’s wife.” Ariel made no response, so he continued, raising his voice a little as she was still moving away from him, “We must make arrangements to have them transported to Hawkesmoor Manor. There’s no stable as well ordered as this to accommodate them at present, but I’ll give order that one be built without delay.”

  Ariel stared down at the straw-laden floor. Hardly the province of an earl’s wife. Of course he would think that. Everyone would think that. But there was no denying the generosity of his offer. If she was truly wedded to him and they were truly to set up a life together, then his offer to accommodate her horses in style had been most open-handed. Of course, she couldn’t tell him that he would be wasting his time and his money on such a project. When she left Ravenspeare Castle with her horses, they would be going somewhere quite other than Hawkesmoor Manor.

  He seemed to be waiting for a reply, so she said as naturally as she could manage, “That is most considerate of you, my lord. Most generous.”

  “Not in the least. I am perfectly happy to accommodate my wife’s hobbies,” he responded with a bland smile. “Edgar, I assume you will wish to take up service in my household? Lady Hawkesmoor would be loath to do without your help. Isn’t that so, my dear?”

  “Indeed,” Ariel said, still keeping her face averted. “I couldn’t manage the stud without Edgar.”

  “Then we must come to an agreement satisfactory to all parties.”

  This easy, natural generosity was too much for Ariel. Why couldn’t the man be the pompous, uncivilized, puritanical boor she had expected? Why did he have to be so . . . so . . .? Oh, it was impossible to describe! “Excuse me. I’m going to the paddock to call the dogs.”

  She brushed past him, her face turned away, and vanished into the bright light of the yard.

  Edgar pulled his chin and began to suck on a straw. Simon after a minute followed Ariel outside. There was no sign of her, and he began to limp toward the paddock gate.

  “No! No!” Ariel’s anguished scream of outrage and denial shivered through the crisp morning air. Grooms dropped their brooms and buckets. Edgar raced out of the stable block toward the paddock. Simon, his heart cold, cursed his lameness as he forced himself to walk faster toward the gate.

  Chapter Ten

  ARIEL WAS AT the far end of the paddock, a scarlet hunched figure on the ground. From the distance, Simon could make out the gray shape of one of her hounds. He forced himself to move more quickly, although the grass was thick and wet, riddled with molehills set to snag a hesitant foot or a misplaced cane. As he drew closer he made out another long gray shape in the grass. His stomach turned to acid.

  Edgar had reached Ariel minutes before Simon came up to them. He too was kneeling in the wet grass beside the gray shapes.

  Ariel looked up as Simon reached her side. Her eyes were living coals in a deathly white face, her lips were blue, her nose pinched. “How could anyone do
such a thing?” she cried, her voice a long, sobbing moan of distress. She was sitting in the grass, both handsome great heads resting in her lap.

  Simon saw immediately that the animals were still alive, although clearly suffering. Their eyes were open but rolling with pain, and green slime oozed from their hanging mouths. “What is it?”

  “Poison!” she said, and now the despair had left her voice, replaced with an icy hardness. “I won’t know what kind until I find the source, but we have to get them back to the stables. I can do nothing for them here.” She beckoned one of the stable lads who stood gawping helplessly to one side. “Tim, fetch a cart. Quickly, boy!” she snapped when he seemed not to hear her.

  The lad took off at a run. Simon awkwardly bent over the dogs. They looked far gone to him and his instinct was to put them out of their agony with a merciful bullet. “What do you think you can do for them, Ariel? Wouldn’t it be kinder—”

  “No, damn you!” she cried, her eyes blazing at him. “I will not give up on them. They’re big animals, with the body weight of a human being. It takes a lot to kill them. I must try to do something to save them. Don’t you see that?”

  He ran a hand through his hair and looked down at the pitiful sight. Such magnificent beasts brought so low. “How could it have happened?”

  “Ranulf,” she spat out. “And I’ll get even with him for this. I swear it on my mother’s grave. I know the signs,” she said, her face closed and hard. “It’s arsenic or nux vomica.” She stroked the dogs’ heads the whole time she spoke, and her voice now was low and considering, as if she were speaking her thoughts and conclusions as they came to her. “But the dose must be carefully measured to be effective. Romulus and Remus would need a dose sufficient to kill a man. Ranulf may have miscalculated. I have to try!”

  “I understand,” he said quietly. He walked away, poking through the grass, looking for some clue as to what the dogs could have eaten. He found it in a ditch a few paces away from where the animals had fallen. He poked at the sheep’s carcass with his cane. It was not fresh and had a strange bluish tinge to it. They didn’t seem to have made too much of a meal of it, however. Perhaps its rotting condition had put them off.

 
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