Lavender Vows Page 1


“Father, are you mad? Beatrice of Callaway is barely ten years of age!” Bernard of Derkland frowned and finished off his tankard of ale, wishing his father would leave off grousing at him. If they’d only have one conversation where the man did not bring up suitable wives…!

“Aye, but if one judges by her mother, in five years she’ll be a good breeder—and a generous dowry she brings.” Lord Harold turned to look out over the rows of diners eating in the great hall of Wyckford Heath. They were guests at the week-long celebration of the wedding of the Lord of Wyckford’s youngest daughter. “What of Theresa, daughter of Lord Enderman?”

Bernard gaped. Was not his parent supposed to have some care for him? “Father, would you have that horse-faced shrew in your wedding bed? An’ she hasn’t a brides’ portion big enough to make one forget that her temper is worse than a goat in heat.” He drummed his fingers on the rough trestle table.

His father chuckled and traced the outline of his mouth with a thumb and forefinger. “Mayhaps you speak the truth on that. Even the dogs slink away when she walks thither.” He chuckled again and bit off a chunk of roasted venison from its cross-shaped bone. Chewing thoughtfully for a moment, he drew his bushy grey brows together as if deep in thought. A moment later, his brows sprang apart as a new idea lit his face. “Mathilda, Lady Cretton, has a generous bride’s price an’ she is not hard on the eyes. What say you that, Bernard? I’ll speak to her father on the morrow.”

“Only if you would like to find your firstborn son dead of mysterious causes,” Bernard shot back. “All the wagging tongues say that she helped her first two husbands to an early grave. I’d as lief not be the third.” He stood, stepping backward over the long bench that lined the trestle table at which they ate. “Father, I know that ’tis important that I wed, but I should prefer to choose a bride of my own liking.”

“An’ choose her you shall, if you make a decision anon. ’Tis past time you wed, and if you do not make your choice, I will make one for you.” Harold’s countenance took on a firm cast that brooked no disagreement from his son.

In truth, Bernard knew that the time for equivocating was gone. With his younger brother Dirick haring off with the new king in Aquitaine, and their middle brother wearing the robes of a simple monk, the necessity of wedding and breeding weighed heavily upon him. At one score and seven, Bernard had no excuses to offer. Duty beckoned.

“Aye, Father. I’ll begin to attend to it during our stay here.”

With a curt nod, he strode off, out of the hall, pushing past the throngs of people and stepping around the begging hounds. He took long, hard steps that bespoke of his height and solid build, and as he left the noise of the hall behind him, his boots made echoing thumps in the empty passageway.

If ’tweren’t dark, and he weren’t in unfamiliar territory, Bernard would mount his stallion and ride to clear his head. As ’twas, he could only visit the stables and talk to his favorite horse, Rock, and save the ride for daylight.

At times, the weight of being heir to the vast lands of Derkland weighed so heavily upon him that he wished for the freedom of his brother Dirick, who could travel and live his life as he wished. But then that weight would lessen as he recalled that his own brother had naught to bring to a beautiful lady whom he might wish to wed, and that his prospects would not be near as numerous as Bernard’s own.

And he did love Derkland, Bernard reflected as he slipped into the stables, with all of her rolling green hills and thick forests, tiny thatched huts and fat woolly sheep. But most of all, he loved the soft brown noses of the fierce destriers that Derkland bred—the heavy, stamping hooves that made even his bulk seem insubstantial, and their smart, shrewd eyes. There were none better than those from his father’s stables, and none better than his own Rock, the grey-brown steed that rode and kicked and fought as solidly as its namesake.

The animal was glad to see him, and although he wasn’t as gentle as a mare, he did toss his jet black mane and dance in greeting. Bernard shared some aged carrots and an apple core he’d sneaked from the kitchen earlier that day, patting Rock’s velvety nose with affection.

A soft cry from the depths of the stables reached his keen ears, even over the whuffling and stamping of the horses. Turning instinctively, Bernard thought to investigate, then halted. ’Twas likely only a man-at-arms finding his pleasure with one of the buxom serving wenches that adorned Wyckford Heath Hall. The piles of hay in a stable were warm and soft, if a bit prickly to the one on the bottom, and as good place as any to find privacy with Wyckford Castle being filled to the rafters by wedding-goers.

Bernard returned to Rock, allowing him to butt his head against his unshaven cheek, but keeping his ears attuned to from where the sound had come. He tried to return his thoughts to the path upon which they should be focused—finding a wife for himself, for his father’s threat was not an idle one—but something nagged in the back of his mind.

At last, with a frown at his foolishness, he gave Rock a quick pat and walked silently toward the back of the stable. In the event that it was just a randy man-at-arms rolling in the hay with his lady, Bernard could slip away silently with no one the wiser. But if, as the upright hair at the back of his neck warned, ’twas something more….

A dim light shone in the depths of the stable, and as he turned a corner, he found himself in a small room, lit by a torch on the wall.

A girl sat in the hay, her skirts bunched around her as she bent her attention to something he could not identify. Her back was to him, with a long braid that fell from an intricate headdress that did not belong to a serving wench.

She turned, saying, “Leonard, if you would—” Her words ended in a small gasp as she caught sight of Bernard.

As she scrambled to her feet, her eyes wide in a face shadowed by the flickering torch, Bernard noted that she was more than a girl, and most definitely not a mere serving wench. Even in the low light he could see the quality of her gown, and the glitter of some jewels in her hair and at her well-rounded bosom.

“My lady, I did not mean to disturb you,” he began, not quite certain how to proceed as she looked at him with such fearful eyes.

He knew that his great stature and solidness was oftentimes disconcerting for women. Something about this female who, though fear shone in her eyes, stood as tall as her height allowed, made him particularly conscious of his imposing appearance. He stepped backward to put space between them. “I meant only to assure myself that naught was amiss. I heard a sound that sounded like distress, and thought to see if I could be of assistance.”

She had a heart-shaped face, angelic and delicate, with ropes of honey-gold hair that glinted even in the flame-light. As he stood there, caught suddenly by her beauty, he saw the fear lessen in her eyes. “You heard my cry?” she repeated, her head tilting slightly, as she seemed to turn the words over in her mind. “You would have come to my aid?”

“Aye, of course, my lady,” Bernard replied. He didn’t stumble on the form of address. It was obvious she was of noble title—but what was not so clear was why she was in the stables, alone, during a wedding celebration. And what was she doing in the hay?

Curious, he took a step forward without thinking about how this would affect her—but she did not move away and only gave the barest flinch as he came closer. “What do you here?” he asked.

She did not need to answer, for at once he saw for himself the large grey cat ensconced in the hay. Five tiny kittens, barely covered with fur, and eyes still shut, nursed whilst the mother watched Bernard crouching next to her.

“They were born only today, and I came to see how they fared,” the woman spoke, still standing behind him, now with the height advantage. “Cleome—’tis the cat’s name—had a foot injured by one of the dogs, and ’twas only because Leonard, the stable boy, intervened that she lived to deliver this litter.”

Bernard reached to pet the mother cat. The woman warned him—“Nay, she will scratch!”—but became silent when she saw Cleome’s eyes barely flicker as Bernard traced a large finger over the top of her pointed head and down to rub her side.

“’Tis a miracle,” she murmured, watching as his hand traced the thick fur down to Cleome’s tail again and again. His hand was so wide and brown that it nearly covered the cat’s entire abdomen, and she watched with mingled fear and fascination as such a powerful appendage was used so gently.

I should be afraid, Joanna realized dimly, of this great man whose presence had filled the doorway. But she was not, and that was in itself a unique experience. Instead, she sat quietly on a stool Leonard had put in the corner and watched as he stroked the cat in silence, thanking the Virgin that she’d already covered the parcel in the corner with straw.

She glanced briefly toward the shadowed corner to reassure herself that it would not be noticed, then returned her attention to the countenance of the man, noting the tight, dark curls that covered his head in an unfashionably short style. His face was lean and sober, with deep-set eyes that had held no challenge when he’d greeted her earlier. The tan of his hand was echoed in the color of his face, and the wiriness of his dark hair in the short-clipped beard and moustache he wore.

“You have a gift,” she said at last, breaking what had become an easy silence.

He nodded once, turning a glance toward her that lingered over her face. “Aye. ’Tis my blessing that animals find no fear of me. My father—”

He was interrupted by the sound of someone approaching, and Joanna stood with a sudden fear clutching her middle, unable to keep a small gasp from her throat. God and the Virgin help her if she were discovered alone with such a man.

It was Leonard this time, thank Mary, and the discomfort in her stomach eased. But she must return to the keep now, for she’d been away too long and did not want to be missed.

Now ignoring the giant man, who watched her as she spoke to the stable boy, she told him to keep watch of the litter and where to move them should aught disturb the mother and her kittens. Then, with a quick glance at the giant, she dropped the slightest of curtseys and began to take her leave.

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