Matilda's Song [MultiFormat]
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eBook by JoAnn Smith Ainsworth
eBook Category: Romance
eBook Description: Duty requires sacrifice?but the heart will not be denied. At the time, pretending marriage to her middle-aged widower cousin seemed like the best way to escape a politically motivated betrothal to a brutal knight. Now, her journey toward a new life has landed her in hot water--she's been waylaid by a local Norman baron who's mistaken her for a real bride. And he demands First Night rights. Hot water turns to steam in a scalding night of passion?passion she has never known. And now must live without. Lord Geoffrey is entranced at first sight of the Anglo-Saxon beauty, and finds that one night in her arms is not nearly enough. But all he can offer the low-born Matilda is a life in the shadows--as his mistress. Her head warring with her heart, Matilda resigns herself to her duty in a masquerade of a marriage. It's a choice that could cost her life. For the knight who first sought her hand is back with murder on his mind. Now it's Geoff who's faced with the ultimate choice: which is more precious?his estates or the love of the one woman who can heal his soul? Warning, this title contains the following: a Norman baron who teaches an Anglo-Saxon beauty the medieval mambo in the bedroom. Men fight to the death for this lady's honor.
eBook Publisher: Samhain Publishing, Ltd., Published: 2008, 2008
Fictionwise Release Date: January 2011
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1 Reader Ratings:
1120 A.D., Britain
Matilda's heart threatened to escape it was beating so hard. Panic invaded every corner. If Sir Loric discovered her deception, it could be the end of her life. And that of her cousin.
She urged her mother and younger sister Nellopa to store the last bundles of clothing and household goods into the wooden cart so she could lash everything down. Her older brother Hylltun and Cousin William were hitching the ox. They kept their voices low and made as little noise as possible to avoid waking neighbors.
"You must be well away from here before Sir Loric knows you're gone," her mother said.
It was nearly midnight in early spring. Matilda and her middle-aged cousin were journeying to his home village of Caelfield where they would live the lie of a newly married couple. They must live this deception until the vindictive knight who demanded her hand to secure his loyalty to the earl saw fit to marry someone else. At eighteen, she was sacrificing all that was familiar to her--family, friends and home village--to evade this knight's attentions.
"You're a saint, William," her mother whispered, "to agree to this sham marriage."
"I could never let the family down," he replied matter-of-factly.
When her blacksmith father died last year, the earl invoked his right to choose a husband for her. While the law forbade a lord from marrying a woman to a man beneath her station, it didn't require the husband to be loving, generous or even to her liking. Her skin crawled when Sir Loric just looked at her. He won honors on the battlefield, but off the field he was a lout and a brute.
To escape, she was sacrificing a dream of a love so breathtaking her heart would sing. The lie protected her from a politically motivated betrothal, but it destroyed any prospects of finding and marrying the "man of her dreams"--a reality as bitter and chilling as the night air.
She gave one last tug and tied off the rope securing all her worldly belongings. Her brother--the village blacksmith upon their father's death--finished the harnessing and fed the ox a handful of grain while Nellopa strapped Matilda's most prized possession--a Simple Chest filled with healing herbs--under the cart's seat.
"I'll miss you, Daughter."
Her mother's love reached out and awareness of that loss almost broke Matilda's resolve. She compressed her lips to keep a sob from escaping.
"The earl may never forgive you for this," her older sister said. "It will embarrass him. He may even withdraw my dowry so I can't marry."
Tension built across Matilda's back. She couldn't sacrifice Ingunde's happiness for her own.
"I won't have you hurt. I'll come back if he withdraws your dowry."
"If you return, the earl would have no choice but to give you to Sir Loric," her brother said.
"Surely, he wouldn't harm Ingunde," their mother assured them. "If for nothing else, to honor his late wife, my dear cousin."
"But he might not let Matilda return to us," Hylltun said, "even if that bastard marries."
Matilda shuddered. She missed her family already and she was not yet gone.
She pulled her cloak closer around her neck.
"The sooner we leave here, the safer I'll feel," William said pragmatically as he took the lead rope and angled the ox toward the moonlit roadway.
Her older sister spoke urgently.
Matilda quickly hugged each one. Her mother's comforting scent of herbs and potions lingered when she tore herself away and caught up with her cousin who was already leading the ox down the rutted lane. Lashed to the cart, her wedding dowry--all her worldly belongings--teetered and wobbled.
As the ox-cart lurched over a large stone uprooted by the spring thaw, she clung with one hand to its wooden side. She looked back, searing her family's shadowed outlines into her memory until the darkness swallowed them.
Thundering hooves chewed chunks of the packed earth out of the manor house courtyard as the baron brought his enormous, black warhorse to a lurching halt. Lord Geoffrey de la Werreiur of Greystone, Norman baron, knight to the king and ruler of three former Saxon villages, leapt from his lathered stallion, handed off the leather reins to a patient groom stationed nearby and strode briskly toward the entrance of his residence. His white linen tunic stuck to the sweat on his muscular chest.
"Keep riding that hard and you'll break your neck," his elegant sister, Lady Rosamund, admonished from the expansive steps of the manor house. "Then we'll have no heir to continue the de Werreiur line."
Her delicate, beaded, red silk slippers took a beating on the stone pavement, but she insisted on walking outdoors in them.
The baron's brown leather breeches scraped as he rapidly advanced toward the stairs. Knee-high leather riding boots carried the dust of his exploits. His loose tunic flapped wetly in a breeze caused by his rapid strides.
Rosamund thrust her hands onto her narrow hips, a determined expression on her face.
"When are you going to do your family duty and marry? You're almost five and twenty."
Geoff looked at his sister--who probably sought refuge from her domineering husband more than holding a desire to visit her brother.
"You cannot expect me to marry one of those mealy mouthed females you brought with you."
He cringed at the thought of those insipid females, then turned stormy.
"They look at me and calculate the value of my lands. I want a wife who loves me for myself."
Rosamund haughtily defended her friends, her chin rising as she spoke.
"It's their family duty to marry well."
The baron angrily advanced toward the entrance.
"Their eyes glaze over when I discuss the welfare of my tenants. They have no interests except money and fashion."
"You wrong them," Rosamund cried out as he brushed past her to enter the manor through the massive wooden door being held open by a retainer in green and brown livery. "Any one of them can run a manor house."
"I already have an excellent housekeeper," Geoff flung over his shoulder. "I'm looking for a wife. Find me a spirited woman of good birth. Then I'll consider doing my family duty."
"Unrealistic," Rosamund called out as the door slammed shut.
* * * *
Two days after they left Wroxton, her cousin--a stalwart, sober man in mud-caked breeches--pointed toward a sturdy cottage--the first to be seen as they rounded a bend in the road.
"Your new home."
"Hallelujah!" The cottage nestled against the backdrop of a forest whose green tones were offset by the interspersed pastels of fruit trees and flowering shrubs. A yellow-green hedge defined the boundaries of the freehold.
She stretched tired limbs and looked around. Although dense forest encircled three sides of the dwelling, lush fields and verdant meadows surrounded the village proper. The rich brown of newly turned earth set off the green shoots of budding crops. Sounds of animals blended with muffled voices of villagers at work.
Despite the long journey, William walked with ease beside the ox. Gray was scattered throughout his dark hair, but his chest was broad and his arms strong from his years as a woodcutter. Matilda treasured the calm assurance of this upright man who had carefully guided the swaying cart upon which rested the accumulation of her past and the hope for her future.
Reserved by nature, he'd been especially withdrawn since his beloved wife died of the pox many years earlier. It was her mother's hope that her daughter's liveliness would bring William out of himself.
A sparrow--flitting amid sweet-smelling blossoms--caught her eye. She smiled as its wisps of brown were hidden, then revealed among the pink blossoms.
"Look." She pointed excitedly. "A sparrow."
"There are many," he replied matter-of-factly.
As the sparrow flew away, Matilda felt momentarily crestfallen that her cousin wasn't more spirited.
William stopped the ox at the cottage, its walls framed in dark wood against light-colored wattle. In good repair, its steeply sloped roof was fragrant from new thatching. A flowering dogwood beautified its front wall and highlighted the solid wooden door, skillfully planed to fit tightly against drafts.
She swiveled on the rough cart seat to look with satisfaction down the lane to village dwellings set at a distance.
"No nearby neighbors. Less noise and less smell from others living too close. And the barn is separated from the cottage."
"The animals have their own dwelling. My wood allotment as Chief Woodcutter made it possible."
"No straw, no fleas, no stink."
William unhitched the ox from the cart, then tied the patient animal to the dogwood tree. His work-roughened hands were half hidden by the delicate white blossoms. He lifted his long-handled axe--carried for protection against robbers--from the cart and set it against the cottage wall, out of reach of the ox chewing contentedly on young grasses. A finch chirped indignantly at him for disturbing its peace among the fragrant blooms.
"There's an untainted spring a short walk down that forest path."
He pointed to a path near the cooking shed.
"Spring water! I'd have gladly walked five miles in Wroxton to get water straight from the ground rather than use our creek."
William chuckled, the sound coming from deep in his throat.
"Aye. I can imagine you making such a nonsensical trip," he said as he checked the ox to see how it had endured the journey. "Give me ale any day. I'll not chance illness on bad water."
Matilda positioned herself to hop down from the cart. Before she could do so, William was there, his lean, strong fingers on her waist, lifting her easily to the ground. She watched him tuck the cloth of his deep blue tunic back into place at his belted waist afterwards with tidy, methodical movements.
"Come. I'll show you the cottage."
He turned and led the way.
Matilda stepped lightly over the skillfully planed doorsill, noting the solid, four-inch beams framing the wide doorway. William swung open wooden shutters to let in the spring sunlight. A small, central fireplace would heat the room when necessary, releasing its smoke through a loose flap in the sweet-smelling thatching.
"This room is snug enough to shed cloaks inside!" she said.
Matilda strolled about. For all her cousin's somberness, his cottage contained bright patches of color. Decorative pottery sat on the floor and shelves. One large pot contained long branches of pussy willows, dusty from many seasons of standing there. She would get rid of those and put fresh ones in their place. Another held dried, bright-hued straw flowers. Carved, wooden designs, stained in faded colors, hung on the walls. Moving toward a shelf, she picked up a dark green glass goblet, running her fingers over the rippled surface.
"You have many pretty things," she said, her back to William.
"That belonged to Aelswitha's family and came as part of her dowry. Please leave them as she left them. She loved bright things. I keep them in good repair for her."
A shiver passed through Matilda at the realization that he had spoken as if Aelswitha were coming back. She was an intruder. Her arm felt extra heavy as she returned the goblet to its shelf, but she straightened her shoulders. By the time she turned around to face William, a smile brightened her face.
"We had pretty things at home," she said, hoping to divert his attention from his deceased wife. "Because Father worked the forge, we were seldom affected by a bad crop. Someone always needed a tool or a cooking pot and was willing to trade or work for it."
She wandered toward the sleeping area in the large, one-room cottage. "This drapery looks new." Matilda fingered the unbleached, rough wool that had been drawn across to block off the area.
"Yes," he replied gruffly, unease evident in his voice. "I thought you'd want privacy. You may use the sleeping shelf," William said. "I'll sleep out here on mats."
Matilda was struck by his thoughtfulness. She was used to sleeping together in one room with her family, but this was different. Although family, William was practically a stranger.
"Come outside," he said, taking her hand and guiding her over the threshold.
"The root cellar for storing the vegetables can be reached from both the cooking shed and the back garden. I store the milk, cheese, butter and dried meat there as well. I have a few chickens and a cow. Aelfred the Herder has been taking care of them for me." He pointed. "Over there I grow the herbs. Here the carrots and turnips will be showing soon."
And indeed they would. The surge of spring had come to the land and the young buds could not resist that siren call. She breathed in the fragrant air, filling her lungs with the heady scent of mock orange blossoms, feasting her eyes on the sprightly blooms.
"May I pick some?" she asked as she ran her hand over a branch.
The gentle sadness that characterized William's face since talking about his wife lightened.
"I'll bring water from the spring for them."
"I can do that. Where's the bucket?"
"In the cooking shed."
He indicated the shed with a wave of his hand.
"I'll let Aelfred know I'm home. When I get back, I'll move the ox into the barn and feed the animals. Will you be all right on your own?"
"Don't worry," Matilda assured him, her voice deliberately light-hearted. "After I get water, I'll unpack and get out of these muddy clothes. I'm anxious to settle in."
William drew close to take her hand into his work-roughened ones. He turned it palm up and raised it to his lips to place a tender kiss there.
"Do you think you'll like it here?" he asked quietly.
"Oh, yes!" she said sincerely.
William started walking away.
This was more than she'd hoped for when she resolved to escape from Sir Loric by moving to Caelfield. The cottage was roomy and bright, warm and well furnished. Her cousin was industrious and sensitive. What more could she ask for? And her romantic heart echoed--what more, indeed.
* * * *
"What's that?" Geoff placed an authoritative hand on the arm of his overseer, forcing him to halt. Although a Saxon, this longtime overseer was also an older, wiser friend. They were traveling a footpath that connected the manor house with the road to the village of Caelfield.
"A woman. Singing." Voernulf spoke quietly. He pointed. "It comes from over there near the spring."
The baron stepped across the path and brushed aside a leafy branch revealing a young woman with gentle curves, flawless skin, emerald eyes and startling strawberry-blond hair. His body responded.
"What a beauty," he whispered. His heartbeat increased dramatically. "If I believed in love coming like a bolt of lightning, I'd say I was struck."
Voernulf was looking at him quizzically and Geoff knew why. He understood family obligation--the only love in his life must be Norman and noble. This woman with her Saxon features and dirt-splattered clothing was obviously neither.
"Who can she be?"
"We're near William the Woodcutter's cottage," Voernulf said. "She must be his new bride."
As Geoff watched, the woman rolled up her sleeves and removed her hose to reveal trim ankles and shapely calves. His breath caught in his throat. She sighed as she sank her feet into the cool water of the creek created by the run-off from a spring, then leaned forward to splash her legs. The baron felt like a voyeur. Still, he couldn't bring himself to leave her to her privacy.
"If this is his cousin-bride, she's greatly changed," he whispered. "I saw her when she was but twelve. True, her hair was wild like now, but more blond than red. Her features had some beauty, but she was excessively thin and she acted like a boy. No feminine grace."
"She grew up."
The woman tilted her head as if listening. The baron drew back, wondering if she'd overheard. He watched her stand and stare intently over the narrow creek bed. Then she lifted her skirts and started across, hopping from stone to stone.
"She'll slip," Voernulf hissed.
"Not if she's indeed William's cousin," the baron reluctantly replied, admiring her dexterity. "I witnessed her adroitness years ago."
Remembering her courage brought a thin smile of respect.
"Some years ago, William accompanied me on a tour of my estates when our forests needed thinning."
"I remember that."
"We passed the night in Wroxton and were relaxing by the river with his relatives. The children were splashing in the water near the bank when a three-year-old stepped too far out and got caught in the current. She went after him and kept the boy above water until some of us could wade in and grab them both."
Voernulf pointed, diverting his attention.
"A kitten in that elderberry bush. She's rescuing it."
"That must be William's bride," he told his overseer, the confirmation driving nails into the coffin of his hopes and giving birth to jealousy. "She has the same urge to rescue the vulnerable she showed in her youth."
Geoff watched the woman step onto a rock at the base of the tree and stretch up, a kerchief wrapped around her hands to protect them from the kitten's claws. She gently grasped the mewing animal and stepped back down.
"Got yourself into trouble, did you?" he heard her scold the black and white ball of fur. "Took on more than you can handle." She held the limp kitten nose-to-nose. "Well, like you, I narrowly escaped a pile of trouble."
As he watched the tabloid unfold as in a trance, an array of emotions he shouldn't be feeling for a Saxon washed through him. Overpowered by lust, his heart contracted in his chest as if hiding from the onslaught of raw emotions.
She set the kitten on the ground and gave it a push on its rear. "Go home to your family."
It circled around behind her and rubbed against her leg. Geoff envied the kitten.
The woman walked about, looking in all directions, the kitten scurrying to stay at her heels.
"Were you abandoned? Nothing looks like your home."
She scooped the little animal into a small pouch hanging from her girdle.
"You'd best come with me or you'll be food for the weasels."
As she re-crossed the creek, Geoff abruptly turned away. Leaving a startled overseer to catch up, he strode rapidly toward the village, putting distance between himself and this woman who evoked roiling emotions.
* * * *
William had already returned from Aelfred's by the time Matilda got back to the cottage.
"I found a kitten by the spring."
The agile kitten had scrambled from the pouch and was crawling up her sleeve. William looked indulgent.
"Make a bed for it in the barn. It can make itself useful killing mice."
"The mice would kill it, more likely. It's barely weaned."
"Put it in a rabbit cage at night," he suggested. "Mice can't get in there."
William unhitched the ox from the tree branch to walk it to the barn.
"Coming back from Aelfred's, I met our baron, Lord Geoffrey de la Werreiur of Greystone. He'll be calling here tonight."
Her breath caught in her throat.
William nodded. "To pay his respects to my bride."
Unsure that she was ready for this important first social role as William's supposed wife, Matilda's stomach churned.
Geoff chided himself as he meticulously dressed to call on his Chief Woodcutter and the dazzling female he was imagining unclothed.
"I'll make a fool of myself if not careful."
A certain part of his anatomy had a mind of its own.
He was clad simply, but with special care, wanting to make a good impression. "Because she's new to the village and I'm its overlord," he told himself, justifying his careful grooming. Yet, he felt like a cock preparing to strut before a hen.
After putting the female kitten onto a rag bed in a cage, Matilda joined William to empty out the cart. Her pounding heart and churning stomach had settled down somewhat with the ordinariness of the chores. She pushed aside a cloth to reveal a basket packed to the brim with the embroidered bed linens of her wedding dowry.
"See these, William? I learned fine sewing from Mother."
He looked up briefly from the bundles he was grabbing with two strong hands.
"I remember she learned the gentle arts while Lady-in-Waiting to her cousin, Lady Wroxton," he said.
"She taught them to my sisters and me. I could pass for gentry."
Her cousin looked at her sharply.
"Not that I would try," she quickly added. She didn't want William to think she had aspirations above her station.
"Our biggest lack was wood. The King's Forest Act restricted us too much from gathering kindling."
"Wood is part of my payment," he said.
"I'll be able to cook a hot meal every day, instead of only Sunday."
"Not that frequently," William replied as he passed her, carrying another load of goods into the cottage. "I must repair this freehold with that extra allotment and I make things to sell."
There was more to her industrious cousin than her mother had mentioned.
"Stools, benches, walking sticks. Things I can easily carry to the market. You could sell your embroidery there."
William picked up the basket of embroidered linens and took it into the cottage while Matilda sorted out the foodstuffs she'd brought.
"I'll use some of these for tonight's meal."
"We should hurry. The baron may come early."
"I need to clean off this mud," she said.
"I'll pour a basin of water for us."
Matilda appreciated William's thoughtfulness as she took the last armful of dry goods with her into her new home to put them on the shelves, then fetched clean clothing out of the painted chest.
"Will these be all right for you?" She held up a green tunic and brown leggings.
"Fine," William replied. He pulled his soiled tunic over his head and started washing.
When he finished, she took the basin with her behind the curtain. There she washed and put on a light-weight, purple kirtle she thought blended well with the green of William's tunic. The train kept cool air off her legs while the higher hemline in front made it easy for walking. She fastened it at her neck by a bronze brooch--a gift from her parents and one of two brooches that she owned--before fastening a girdle of woven hemp around her waist.
William was settled into a wooden chair with a mug of ale when she finished dressing. The afternoon sun streamed through the opened window, bathing his face with light as his strong hands clasped the earthen mug.
"Tell me about the baron," she said, hoping that by discussing her new overlord she'd reverse the unease, which was again building up.
William scratched his chin.
"Well, he's been running these lands since his parents died in an accident four years ago."
"He's fair. He requires but three days work a week in return for protection and a dwelling. We hope he'll marry soon and start a family. The cousin who'd inherit is a bad landlord."
"I pray he stays well."
"If he has a problem, it's his youth. These Normans are turbulent men, not given to half measures. He moves too quickly and some resist."
She clucked her tongue at such folly.
"The baron is wealthy," William continued. "Along with Caelfield, he controls two other estates and is knight to the king."
Hearing this did not put Matilda at ease. Her heart sounded in her ears again.
"I should put on my silver brooch and cover my hair. I should be more presentable."
Matilda crossed the room to kneel before a carved chest. She removed the bronze brooch that fastened her kirtle at her shoulder and attached an intricately crafted silver one in its place, but her unruly curls were another matter. She actually preferred her hair free. In truth, she resisted anything that bound her. Nervous fingers defeated all attempts to put a net into place.
"Help me," she pleaded. "My fingers won't obey." She stored the bronze brooch then hurried to the table.
William set aside his mug of ale and took the finely knotted net with its bone pins from her trembling fingers.
"Be calm. These visits are a duty."
William pinned one section of the net above her left ear then drew it under and around her hair to fasten it at the other ear with the second bone pin. The netting at last firmly in place, she put a light supper on the table while her cousin leaned back in his chair, looking content.
Matilda willed herself to be calm like William and failed.
Geoff took his time, seeking to resolve his troubled emotions before arriving at the cottage. He walked the path for a second time that day, hoping the physical exertion would relieve the longing ache that had settled in his gut since seeing the Saxon beauty. He fervently prayed the vexing woman was not William's new bride, but a traveling companion or a sister.
That woman has turned me upside down, he thought.
He was angry with himself, but, perversely, excited to stumble so unexpectedly upon a woman who set his blood boiling.
* * * *
Darkening shadows licked at the room. Matilda and William sat side-by-side at the table, finishing a meal of cheese and bread, their heads bent toward each other as they talked. A shadow cut between them, blocking the last rays of a sun that had been feebly forcing its way through the open door. Matilda looked up and gasped. The baron had arrived.
Golden rays from the setting sun caused the visitor's thick sandy hair to glow like fire. The elegant lines of a well-trimmed beard in no way detracted from a determined jaw.
Why is he not clean-shaven in the style of the Norman? she wondered. It's strange he should go against fashion.
Why this should be her first thought she didn't know, but the fact that he followed his own inclinations unnerved her.
His face--arrogant-looking with its straight, aristocratic nose--was nonetheless extremely handsome. Laugh lines around his eyes, crinkling in sun-tightened skin, showed him to be a man to take enjoyment out of life. No mustache hid those sensuous lips on which Matilda's gaze unwillingly locked. A warm flush started at her toes and worked its way up her body. The man's seductiveness was too close to that of her dream lover.
I must be careful, she reproached herself.
The baron stood in the doorway, his supple, knee-high leather boots planted firmly on either side of the wide doorframe. High cheekbones called attention to his intense, gray eyes that seemed to drink in Matilda's face and form. The riveting intensity of his gaze confounded her, making her uneasy.
William rose abruptly so that his chair toppled backward and slammed noisily onto the wide planks of the cottage floor. While he greeted the baron, Matilda uprighted the fallen chair. She stood behind it and nervously grasped its solid wooden back, trying to be inconspicuous, but William gestured for her to come forward.
"This is Lord Geoffrey de la Werreiur." William's voice resonated his respect. "Lord Geoff, this is my bride, Matilda." She noticed the word 'bride' left her cousin's lips easily.
As she reluctantly abandoned the chair's protective barrier to greet the baron, her heart leapt to her throat, allowing no sound to escape. The curtsy she intended to make never happened.
The baron captured one trembling hand in both of his, creating a tormenting prison. While raising it to waiting lips, he gently caressed its smooth skin with an insistent thumb. When at last he placed the inappropriate kiss upon the back of her hand, she didn't wait for release, but tugged, intending to free her hand quickly. Instead, the baron held it securely and pressed the tip of his tongue to her skin as if to explore its elemental nature. At the same time he looked up at her from under lowered lashes with a twinkle in his eye.
He's deliberately tormenting me, she realized.
She tugged harder and freed her hand, her face flushed with embarrassment, her mouth dry and her tongue still unable to utter a sound.
"Welcome to Caelfield." His voice reverberated deeply within her body. He smiled, teeth flashing white against shadow-darkened skin, acknowledging her discomfort, but not consenting to relieve the emotional pressure. "We've met before."
"Surely not, my lord. I would've remembered."
Her voice sounded strange to her.
"You were but twelve. You've grown up."
The caressing voice flowed around her, adding undertones of meaning. She felt wrapped in an encapsulating cocoon, as if William was pushed out and only she and the baron inhabited this world. Totally disarrayed, Matilda turned aside in panic as William pushed a precisely crafted chair in the baron's direction.
"Sit down, my lord. Would you like something to eat?"
The baron sat, declining the offer of food.
William positioned himself against the wall, allowing Matilda to sink gratefully onto the other chair, having first moved it so the stout table created a barrier between the baron and her shaking body.
She put her hands in her lap--rubbing the offended spot with her skirt--and cast her gaze downward. She didn't want to see those teasing eyes, to experience again that first compelling response that put her heart in her throat. She sat, turning her face to the final rays of the sun, and spoke not a word.
The shadows continued to deepen and the sounds from the village to lessen as evening settled in. With her gaze, she traced the outline of first one shadow and then another, on the smooth plank floor. She shifted nervously on the wooden chair.
As the two men talked, Matilda glanced stealthily at the baron and found him staring at her. She quickly looked away.
Time passed and Matilda heard the conversation become strained. William labored to find topics, while the baron talked haphazardly, seeming not to care. She stole glances to watch a frown--unconnected with the lagging conversation--periodically form on his arresting face.
The level of unease increased, making the atmosphere leaden. William shuffled restlessly.
At last the baron rose. His brows knitted in a deep frown as though some thought not totally to his liking moved around in his head. He shook himself, squared his shoulders and moved toward the door. There he turned. It was at William that he looked and to William that he spoke.
"I demand first night rights."
Matilda felt the color drain from her face. Droit de seigneur. The right of the lord to bed the bride on the wedding night. The thought filled her with horror. She would be ruined.
"First night rights?" William questioned hesitantly. "My Lord, we've been married three days."
"First night on the manor land then." The voice was hard and demanding, allowing no dissent. "I'll send my overseer within the hour."
Matilda's hands clenched, her arms rigid at her side. "You cannot, William," she murmured, her voice barely a whisper.
William stared wide-eyed, his own coloring completely gone. His face reflected the tumult surging through his mind. Pain was etched there--and anger--and bewilderment. Then, as if a great burden had been pushed onto his shoulders, so great it aged him by its touch, he bowed his head and said, "Yes, my lord."