The silver rose, p.7

The Silver Rose, страница 7

 

The Silver Rose
 


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  Ariel felt the color rushing into her face. She heard the sniggers around the table, the rustle of whispers as folk asked what had been said, felt rather than heard the titters of false sympathy as they were told.

  “I am not overly fond of dancing myself, sir,” she said, glaring around the table. “I am as like to tread upon your toes as you are upon mine.”

  “That may be so,” Simon responded, his smile now warm. Her swift championship surprised him. “Nevertheless, one of us must dance at our wedding. I dare swear Lord Chauncey will stand up in my stead.” Laughing, he indicated one of his companions. “Jack is as nimble footed as any maid could desire, my dear, and I can safely promise there will be no missteps.”

  “If Lady Hawkesmoor would do me the honor.” Lord Chauncey rose, bowing, extending his hand. “I shall be delighted to take the groom’s place on the floor.”

  “And in his bed, too, I’ll be bound,” guffawed a young man, spraying the table with crumbs from the venison pasty in his mouth.

  Oliver Becket gave a sharp crack of laughter. “Such unseemly talk, Hollingsworth! A man may be a cripple on two legs, but it doesn’t have to follow that he’s as doltish when horizontal.”

  Loud laughter bounced off the rafters. Simon smiled faintly but made no comment. Hot words bubbled to Ariel’s lips, but before she could speak, Jack Chauncey had taken her hand and whisked her away from the table to the cleared area of the hall.

  Other couples stepped up to join them in the line of dance. Ariel glanced at her partner as they moved up the aisle made by the couples. His face was set in grim lines.

  “I would guess that you find it hard to hold your tongue when men make mock of your friend’s lameness,” she said quietly, turning beneath his arm as they reached the head of the line. He made no response until they were reunited again at the far end of the dance.

  “Only fools make mock of Simon Hawkesmoor,” he then said. “You will discover, ma’am, that your husband takes no notice of fools. Their opinions mean as little to him as a gnat bite.”

  “He doesn’t respond to provocation, then?” She performed the steps of the country dance automatically, her eyes resting intently on her partner’s face.

  Jack Chauncey laughed and the bitter anger vanished from his expression. “It depends upon the provocation, ma’am. Your husband is slow to anger, but no man who knows him well would willingly arouse that anger.”

  Ariel tucked this away for future reflection. She had first laid eyes upon her husband a mere half day earlier and so far was finding it hard to come to any conclusions about him, beyond his obvious physical characteristics.

  How would he react when told that he was not to bed his wife on his wedding night? Would he accede without a murmur? He would be within his rights to insist. Within his rights, but it would be the act of a brute and a boor, and from the little she’d seen of the man, neither description fit him.

  But how was she to know? The man was a Hawkesmoor. That simple fact told its own tale. She could no more contemplate sharing a bed with a Hawkesmoor than she would entertain sharing a sty with the pigs. And Ranulf had sworn to ensure that she didn’t have to.

  At the top table, Simon watched his wife dancing with his friend. His expression was placid, his eyes mild, and not even Ranulf could guess at the smoldering anger beneath the serene surface. This coarse, inebriated, unseemly festivity was an insult to both bride and groom. And Simon knew it had been so intended. And yet the bride, in her gown of cream silk and vanilla lace, seemed to float above the vulgarity, as if it didn’t touch her in any way. His eyes fixed upon the swirling liquid honey of her hair, falling down her back from the pearl-encrusted bands around her forehead. It struck him as like a cloak, a maiden’s cloak that somehow covered and protected her from the crude ribaldry surrounding her.

  Ariel—a sprite, a spirit of the air. There was something unearthly about her. But maybe it was just the contrast between her delicacy of frame and face and the heavy, earth-bound grossness of her brothers and their friends.

  “Brother-in-law?”

  Simon, his reverie interrupted, turned sharply toward Ranulf. Ranulf was regarding him smilingly from over his goblet, but it was an unpleasant, knowing smile.

  “There’s something I must discuss with you, brother-in-law,” Ranulf said, laying sardonic emphasis on the tide. “A matter of some privacy. Would you walk with me in the courtyard?” His chair scraped on the stone flags as he pushed it back.

  “A breath of air would be welcome.” Simon reached for his cane. “It grows overheated in here.”

  “In more ways than one,” Ralph said with a snigger. “Blanche Carey looks ready to slip beneath the table with anyone who’ll have her.” He rose unsteadily to his feet. “Perhaps I’ll offer m’services.” He tottered around the table to where the lady in question, flushed of face and glazed of eye, was unlacing her bodice at the invitation of a cheering group of men.

  Ranulf glanced quickly at his companion and caught the flicker of disgust in the deep blue eyes before it was banished. He smiled sourly to himself. The Hawkesmoors were ever prudish—except when they were bedding other men’s wives. “Perhaps you find our ways of making merry a little uninhibited, Hawkesmoor? To a Puritan, I’m sure our carousing must seem quite dissipated.”

  “I don’t count myself among Puritans, Ravenspeare,” Simon corrected mildly. “My family may have been parliamentarians, but we can enjoy ourselves as much as the next man. Cromwell himself was known to enjoy his wine, music, dancing, even the play.”

  Ranulf adapted his pace to the other man’s slower step as they walked around the hall toward the outside door. “Parliamentarians, royalists—such terms mean nothing these days,” he said. “The monarchy was restored over forty years ago, Hawkesmoor; it’s time to bury such bones of past contention, don’t you think?”

  “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here now,” returned Simon, and for the first time there was a tart note to his voice. He stepped out into the sharp evening air and drew several deep breaths, cleansing his lungs of the fetid, smoky atmosphere of the hall within. “Those political differences became irrelevant many years ago—”

  “Not quite,” Ranulf interrupted. “Or we wouldn’t now be joining our families to settle our property dispute.”

  “True enough,” Simon agreed, his tone mild once more. He limped across the grassy square in the center of the courtyard, his cane sinking into the soft, soggy soil. A fine, cold mizzle fell from the darkening sky, and he knew his leg would pain him unmercifully that night. This was a damp, inhospitable part of England, and although he had grown up in the Fens, he disliked the land heartily, and was never truly at home amid the dikes and windmills of this fog-swirled landscape.

  He paused at a stone sundial set hopefully in the middle of the grass. Resting on his cane, he leaned slightly against the sundial and surveyed the earl of Ravenspeare through the gathering dusk. “There is more than property that lies between our two families, Ranulf. I would bury that too.”

  The other man didn’t immediately reply, and then he spoke with a heartiness that Simon knew in his blood was false. “Indeed, why should the scandals of our fathers’ generation haunt us, Hawkesmoor?” He extended his hand. “Will you clasp on it?”

  Simon took the hand immediately. Neither men wore gloves and he felt Ranulf’s palm to be soft and clammy. His own, firm and dry, was the rough and callused hand of a swordsman. Ranulf was not offering him friendship and peace, he was extending the hand of treachery, and Simon knew it. But he had come into the Ravenspeares’ castle prepared for anything, and whatever slippery plans Ranulf might have, they would not succeed.

  “You had something you wanted to tell me,” he reminded him, casually dropping Ranulf’s hand and resuming his awkward pace to the far side of the courtyard.

  “Ah, yes. I trust you will not take this ill.” Ranulf kept pace with him, his head bent conspiratorially toward the other’s ear. “It concerns Ariel.” When Simon made
no response, he continued in measured accents, “She is somewhat ailing at present and begs that you will excuse her from the marriage bed until she finds herself well again.”

  Simon had thought himself prepared for anything, but this possibility had never entered his head. “Ailing? In what way?” He stopped abruptly.

  Ranulf’s little laugh was conspiratorial. “Women’s way, Simon. I’m sure you understand.”

  “Ariel set the date for the wedding,” Simon said slowly. “Why did she choose a time when she would be indisposed?”

  “She is an innocent, a child, Hawkesmoor. A motherless child,” Ranulf added with soft deliberation.

  Simon’s lips tightened but he refused to be drawn. They had just agreed that the sins of their parents should haunt them no longer. “Has she no woman to advise her? No nurse, no maid, no governess?”

  “Ariel has never shown any need for female companionship,” Ranulf said, shrugging. “She has cared for herself and her own needs since she left the nursery.”

  Simon hid his shock. In the last hours he had developed a fair impression of the careless, unseemly way matters were conducted at Ravenspeare Castle, but the idea that a gently bred young woman should grow up without female guidance, even of the most rudimentary sort, left him speechless. Presumably she had had no formal education either. That was not so shocking, many women even of the highest lineage were unlettered, but had she not been taught the arts of the stillroom, or to sew, to manage a household, to play an instrument? All the necessary skills of a country noblewoman. She could ride and she could hawk, that much he’d discovered. And it appeared that she knew the steps of country dances, but what of the galliard, and all the courtly measures that the wife of the earl of Hawkesmoor would be expected to perform?

  He contented himself with a dry, “I see,” and turned back toward the castle.

  “I had hoped you would understand,” Ranulf said, turning with him. “The situation is a little . . . well, unusual, don’t you think?”

  “An understatement,” Simon replied. “Tell your sister, since she doesn’t feel able to confide in me as yet, that I am a very patient man. When she’s ready to consummate this marriage, she has but to indicate it.”

  “Ariel will be most grateful for your understanding,” Ranulf said smoothly, opening the door and stepping aside so that Simon could precede him back into the riotous scene in the Great Hall.

  It was even hotter now, and so noisy it was almost impossible to hear oneself speak. Men and women had fallen forward into their platters, snoring audibly; goblets lay spilled upon the tables; people lurched and swayed around the dance floor. Ariel was dancing with Oliver Becket.

  Simon noticed that neither of them seemed to be following the steps of the dance, in fact none of the couples on the floor appeared to be following any coherent set of movements, and even the fiddlers in the gallery had lost track of the dance and were playing at will, regardless of the swaying couples. Oliver Becket’s color was high, his eyes glittered strangely, and his hands were roaming freely over the slender figure of Ariel, countess of Hawkesmoor, as she turned and twirled to his touch.

  She seemed to be enjoying herself, her husband thought acidly. She was lost in the music, and with her skirts swirling around her, her hair flying, her eyes sparkling, she reminded him of a gypsy girl dancing a wild tarantella.

  He couldn’t intervene without looking foolish, since he couldn’t offer to dance with her himself, not even a stately measure, let alone with such gay abandon. A clapping, stamping circle began to form around the pair as other dancers dropped back, and the two became the center of attention.

  Simon returned to his seat among his silent friends at the top table. He could no longer see his wife, who was blocked from view by the circle around her, but could infer from the stamping, roaring cheers that the two dancers were giving their audience their money’s worth.

  When the dance ended and the circle broke up, Ariel made her way back to the table, her arm tucked into Oliver’s, her cheeks pink, her lips rosy, her gray eyes glowing with excitement.

  “Ah, bud, but there’s never been such a partner as you!” Oliver declared. He caught her chin and kissed her full on the mouth as she reached her chair beside her husband. “I pity you, Hawkesmoor, if you never know the delights of dancing with her. She’s light as air—pure magic.” Laughing, he kissed her again.

  But this time, Ariel jerked her head away. In the exultation of the dance, she had forgotten about her husband, and now with the taste of Oliver’s mouth against hers, she realized what was happening. Oliver and Ranulf had planned this—this careful humiliation of the Hawkesmoor. Her own virtue meant nothing to them, and in this wedding company it meant nothing to anyone. Simon Hawkesmoor was to be cuckolded on his wedding night.

  She wiped the back of her hand across her mouth in an instinctive gesture of revulsion as she sat down again. Simon’s gaze flickered toward Oliver and saw the flash of anger in the other man’s eyes.

  “I may be unable to dance myself, my dear, but I enjoyed watching you,” Simon said coolly, reaching for the decanter to refill her goblet. “For one who’s ailing, you show remarkable energy. Drink. You’re overheated.” He raised the goblet to her lips.

  Ariel’s color mounted. She clasped the goblet and drank deeply, then set it down on the table. “Will you excuse me, my lord.” She rose, gathering her skirts in her hands as she turned toward the staircase at the rear of the hall.

  Simon, leaning on his cane, moved with surprising rapidity after her. He reached the foot of the stairs when she was halfway up. He called softly, “Grant me a minute of your time, madam wife.”

  His voice was as melodious and courteous as ever, so why then did she know she’d received a command? Ariel paused, her hand on the banister. “Will you come up, sir?” Then she continued upward, waiting for him at the head.

  Simon silently cursed his clumsiness as he clumped up the wide flight, aware that she was looking at him so that every awkward half jump, half dragging step seemed exaggerated in his mind’s eye.

  The raucous sounds reached them from below as they stood on the small square landing. Moonlight filtered through an arched mullioned window set in the stone high above them.

  Simon leaned against the cold wall, examining his wife in thoughtful silence. She lifted her chin slightly beneath his scrutiny. “You wished to speak with me, sir?”

  He nodded. “It’s hardly unusual for a man to wish to speak privately with his wife on their wedding day.” He glanced around the small space. “This, however, is hardly private. Do you have a sitting room . . . a boudoir?”

  There was only one room in this castle that Ariel could keep for herself. Her bedchamber was not sacrosanct—it was invaded at will by her brothers and by Oliver—but only a very few servants knew of the green parlor in the turret on the floor above her bedchamber. And she was not about to share that privacy with the earl of Hawkesmoor.

  Deliberately she laughed and Simon realized it was the first time he’d heard the girlish, chiming sound. Involuntarily he smiled, waiting to be told what amused her.

  “Ravenspeare Castle has no such nice chambers, my lord. We live somewhat roughly here.”

  “So I had noticed,” he agreed, no longer smiling as he detected a light mockery in her tone. “And you have my sympathies. However, do not expect me to believe that there is no chamber that you can call your own.” His voice had hardened, and his sea blue eyes were searching as they rested on her face.

  Ariel bit her lip. “I have a bedchamber, sir.”

  “Then let us go to it.”

  Again she heard the note of command. With a tiny shrug she moved past him along the corridor, hearing the click of his cane, the slight drag of his boot as he came behind her. She opened the door to her turret bedchamber and went in ahead of him. Immediately she was engulfed in a swirling, barking mass of gray fur as Romulus and Remus leaped upon her.

  It looked as if she were under attack from th
e massive wolfhounds, and Simon’s instinctive reaction was to reach for the knife at his belt. Then Ariel turned toward him; both dogs were on their hind legs, front paws on her shoulders, and she held them by their necks.

  “My dogs have been shut up since noon,” she explained. “Otherwise they would have followed me to the altar Down now,” she instructed, pushing them away from her, scolding laughingly, “Look what you’ve done to my gown with your great muddy feet!”

  Simon’s hand dropped from his belt. He remembered seeing the dogs with her by the river and again in the courtyard. Clearly, Ariel had nothing to fear from them beyond torn and muddied garments. He glanced curiously around her firelit bedchamber. The furnishings were plain; there was little evidence of girlhood to be seen. Except for a doll on the cushioned window seat. For some reason he found the wooden toy strangely moving. He closed the door behind him.

  Ariel jumped at the sound, and immediately the dogs turned on him, hackles raised, great yellow eyes glaring. Simon stood motionless, quietly staring them down. Ariel watched, as still as he. The dogs slowly sat down, then together lay with heads resting on their paws, still regarding him, but without suspicion or hostility.

  Ariel was impressed despite her chagrin that someone else had shown mastery over her beasts. “You have a way with dogs, sir,” she commented. “Romulus and Remus have never acknowledged anyone but me before.”

  “All pack animals recognize a superior,” he said casually. “Wolfhounds are no different from wolves in that respect. I assume that they acknowledge you as the pack leader, so I daresay I’m considered your lieutenant.” He laughed and she couldn’t help a responding smile. A man who could win the allegiance of her dogs dearly had hidden qualities.

  It occurred to her as he stood there smiling that he wasn’t nearly as ugly as she had first thought, if you took his features one by one. His deep-set eyes were startlingly attractive, the triangle of his large nose with its fine nostrils was imposing, and there was something disturbingly appealing about his crooked mouth with its strong white teeth. For a moment she forgot their situation and was aware of him only as a powerfully charismatic presence. Then reality flooded back and she remembered he was a Hawkesmoor. She stiffened her shoulders, clasped her hands in the folds of her skirt. “Did . . . did my brother explain—”

 
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