Avelyn wasterribly pleased with herself. She finally felt that she’ddone something rightas a wife. She may have made a muddle out of thewedding ceremony, the celebratory meal and the wedding night, but here todayshe’d taken her first right step. She’doutsmarted herhusband andtricked him into saving his hands further injury.
Avelynfrowned at her own thoughts. DearLord, she was proud abouttricking herhusband, aboutusingsly lies tolet himthink she couldn’t ride horsebacksothat she would have an excuse toride with himand take the reins. This was truly asad day, she decided and sighed heavily, thenglanced downather mother asthe older woman puta hand on her knee through her gown.
"You willdo well,daughter," she said in reassuring tones as if having read Avelyn’s thoughts. Shesqueezed her knee. "We love you and willvisit soon. "
Avelyn felt tears wellupin her eyesandblinked in an effort to stop them, butthey would not be stopped. She was leaving Straughton, the only home she’d ever known, and riding off into the unknown with a man she barely knew. It was a terrifying step to take, terrifying and painful.
"I love you, Mama," she whispered, then was relieved when Paen grunted something ofa good-byeand put his heels to his mount’ssides, urging it to move.
Blinking awayher tears, she tightened her hold on the reins and paid attentionto directing theanimalout of Straughton’sbailey.
Avelyn hadnot told a complete lie whenconvincing herhusband that she should ride before him. She’dlied aboutnotbeingable to ride – she’d ridden horseback since she was veryyoung and was quite goodatit. However,shehadn’t beenon long journeys. There had never been any need to leaveStraughton. Avelyn supposed she’dimagined that they’d ride for anhour, stopto rest and refreshthemselves,then ride abit more and stop for a nooning meal andanother rest, then head outagain.
She thought wrong. Theyate their noon meal inthesaddle – fruit,cheeseand bread thatPaen had her retrieve from a bagdanglingfrom the saddle. Or,that wasto say, she ate. His handsbandaged asthey were, Paen had heen unableto eat. He’d made the attempt,trying to hold a hunk ofcheese in one bandaged paw, buthad barely manageda bite or two before the cheese had tumbledto the ground. She’d offered tofeed him, but Paenhadshakenhis head and growled that he wasn’t hungry.
Avelyn’s heart had achedfor him. The man wastoo proud to accept her helpand so wouldgo hungry. She would have thought him a complete idiot, except that surelythis was no worse than her nonsense with the dress. She supposed pride made foolsof everyone.
For the most part,they rode in silencethroughoutthe day. It was a reliefwhen they rode into a clearingin earlyevening and Paen announced that they would stop there forthe night. Avelyn dismounted quickly and eagerly – too quickly and eagerly.
Her feet hit the ground and’ nearlycollapsed beneathher. Shewasforcedto clutch at her husband’s legandthe saddletostay upright.
"Are youall right, Avelyn?"Wimarc Gerville was at herside at once, takingher arm to help her remain upright.
Avelyn managed a smile and nodded, tooembarrassedto peer upat herhusband as she released his leg. Sheallowed hernewfather-in-law to lead herto a fallentree at the edge of the clearing and settledthere to begin stretching her legs as he returned tohelphis wife dismount. Much to Avelyn’s relief,Lady Gerville wasnot completely unaffected by the length oftimein the saddle either and leanedon her husband’s arm as he led her to join Avelyn.
"You ladies rest a bit while we seetocamp," Lord Gerville instructed.
Avelyn and Lady Gerville watched him walk back to join the men now dismounting and seeing to the horses. Both women sighed as one, then shared wry smiles.
"Are youas soreand weary as I am?" Lady Gerville asked with self-deprecating amusement.
Avelyn nodded, adding,"Thank goodness it isnot just me. Not that Iam happy you aresore too,"she added quickly.
"Iunderstand,mydear," Lady Gerville assured her gently.
"I am justsorry thatall of this has conspiredto force you to leave Straughton earlier than planned. Ihad hoped youwould have the chance toget to know us all better ere having to leave yourfamily. "
Avelyn glanced away and swallowed the lump in her throat,then forced a shrug.
"We can get to know each other on thejourneyandonce at Gerville. "
"Aye, and Ihope that we willbecome close. My one great sorrowwas thatIhad nogirlswithmyboys. While I love my sons, I envy your mother having one ofeach, andam pleasedtowelcome youas my daughter. "
Avelyn smiled andreached out to squeezethe woman’shand, thenturned her attention forwardas theother women joined them. Lady Helenand Diamandahad alsoridden on horseback, and Avelyn wasn’t surprised to seethat they were just as stiff as sheand Lady Gerville. She was,however, surprised to notethat the maids followingthem were also moving stiffly. Itseemedthat riding in thecarthad not beenmuch better than ridinghorseback.
"Lord Gerville is having the men setupthe tents first so that we mightready them whilethemen finish withtheotherchoresto make camp," Diamanda announced as she dropped onto the log on theother side of Lady Gerville.
Paen’s mother murmuredsomething ofan acknowledgment ofthisinformation as Helen settlednexttothe girl;thentheyall fellsilent astheywatchedthemen produce tents and beginto unroll the heavy cloth to set them up. Therewere two tents,one largerthan the other. Avelynknew thata travelingtent was an unusual luxury,and supposed thatthefact that theywere traveling with twoof themwas a sign thather husbandandhis familywerevery wealthy. That was nice to know, butAvelyn had a more immediate concern. She had a serious and somewhaturgent need torelieve herself, butwas rather embarrassedtobring the matter up. Bodilyfunctions were not somethinggirls were encouragedto discuss,and she’d been trying to ignore the necessity, but it was getting to thepoint whereshe could no longerignore it.
Avelyn felt sure shewas about to burstwhena pair of legs were suddenlyin front of her face. Raising her head, shepeered up at her husband with acombination of relief and question.
"The tent isup," he announced and held out a handtohelphertoherfeet.
Avelyn hesitated, then ignored hisbandaged hand and got stiffly to her feet onher own, sighing whenher unwillingness tocause him further injury to his bandaged handsbrought a scowl to his face. He wasdoing his best to pretend he wasn’t injured,andapparently didn’t appreciate her not playing along.
Shaking her head, shetookhis arm and listenedas he led her across the clearing tothe larger tent.
"This will beour tent," he announced,surprising her. "I have assigned two mento unload whatever you want to outfit it. They arealready starting on thebedding, but if there is aught elseyou want, you musttell them. "
"Aye,husband,"Avelynmurmured, glancing behindthemand relievedto note that Runilda was following. She had no idea how to outfit a tent and doubted Runilda did either, but hopefully, between the two ofthem, they could workit out.
"Do you have anypreference astowhere wearrangethebedding?" Avelynasked as he lifted thetentflap forhertoenter.
Paen shrugged as she releasedhisarm and stepped past him into the tent. "The back right cornershould dowell enough," hesuggested. "Is there anything else ere I helpthe others?"
"Aye. " Avelyn felt a blush rise up her cheeksand staredat the corner hehad gesturedtoas she admitted, "Ihave need touse the garderobe, my lord. And a bath after the dusty journey today would not go amiss. " With the embarrassing part of the request outof theway,she turned toward the tent flap saying,"Irealizethat both are out of the question out here, but…" Her voicedied as shesaw that he wasno longer standing in thetent-flap entrance.
Frowning, shewalked to theopening and looked out. Her husbandwas quite tall, a good head above mostof the men. Avelyn had noproblemspotting him,but was bewildered tosee that he was on the other side ofthecamp,talking earnestly to his mother and father.
"Agarderobe? She truly asked about a garderobeand a bath?"Wimarc Gerville shared hisson’sobvious horror.
"Aye. What do I do? Should Ihave the men dig one and – "
"And what?Prop your tentover it? Dear Lord. " His father shook his head at the very idea.
"I hardly think she expects you todig a garderobe for her, Paen," Lady Gerville interrupted with some exasperation. "If the girlhas togo now,she wouldhardly be willing, or even able, to waitabout for hours whilethe men dig one for her. No doubt she wasaskingwhatsort of arrangements were used out here while traveling. "
"Oh. Aye, she may have been,"Paen agreed with relief. "She was asking about a bath too, to get rid of thedust from travel, andmust realizethat I cannotpossibly present her with one ofthose. "
"Aye. Just so. So…find her a nice secluded spot by the riverwhere she may tend toboth matters," his mother suggested gently.
"Aye. " He nodded, obviouslyrelieved to have thecrisisresolved.
LadyGerville shook her head as shewatched him return to his tent. "Hehas spent much toomuch time on Crusade. "
"Hmm. "Wimarcnodded hisagreement, but wasgrinningas he did. "Helikes her.
The boyis eager to pleaseher. "
"Aye, he does. "LadyGerville joined him in grinning. "Aye. He does. We chose well. "
"You chosewell, my love. " Wimarcgave credit where it was due. "Though ’tis still beyond me how you knewwhen she was a wee babethat she would growup perfect forthe boy. "
"Thatis easy. I imagined you with her mother. "
"What?" Wimarc Gervilleturnedonhis wife inshock. "Youwhat?"
"Well, ’twas obviouseventhen that Paenwouldgrowup tobe just like you. He was very like you even as a small lad. AndAvelyn resembledher mother very much.
Isimply tried to imagine how you and Lady Straughton should have got onwere it notfor Lord Straughtonand myself, andit did seem to methat the two of you would have got alongrather well. "
"Well, we… I…she… She is afinewoman,but…But I love you,mypet. "
Lady Gervillegrinned ather husband’sdiscomfort. "Aye. But it would not have beenhard for you to love heras well. Andthat waswhat decided me on Avelyn for our son. "
Wimarc opened his mouth,then clampeditshut again,smartenough tolet this topic die without further comment. A man eventually learned which topics were dangerous, and which were safe to discuss with his wife. This was definitely one of those dangerous ones.
"Wife?" Paen stuckhishead into his tent,relaxingwhen he spied his wife busy withher maid arranging the furs that were to be their bed for the night. It had occurred to him thatifshe hadto "visit the garderobe" urgently,she might not wait about while heran off to discussthematterwith hisparents. Hewas relieved to see that she had not been so impulsive or foolish as to head out on her own. An obedient wife was asmart wife, and asmart wife wasa good wife in Paen’sbook.
"Aye, my lord?"Avelyn left Runilda to the bed and approachedhimat once.
"Come," wasall he said, then turnedand started away, waitinguntil they hadleft camp before he wedgedhis bandaged hand under her arm to help her keep her balance as theytraversed theuneven ground of the woods. He was quite pleased whenshe didnot barrage himwith questions asto their destination. In his mind this was furtherevidence of her obediencetohim.
Momentarilysatisfied withhis parents’ choice of bride and his life in general, he began to whistle a tuneas he walked. The habit, one he indulged whenever alone, was so ingrained that he was not even aware he was doingit. He led herdownto the river’s edge, thenalongit for a ways before he was satisfied that the spot he’d chosen wasout of the way. Thenhe turned to face her and hesitated.
Paen wasn’t sure what to do now. They were married. She was his wife.
However, they hadn’t consummatedthe marriage. Did thatmean he could stayand watch her bathe, ordid chivalry insist he allow her privacy?Thebaser sideof him, the lower half really, wasurging himto stay and watch. The-upper half – only a very tinyportion ofhis head – was urging him to do the chivalrous thing. She had proven herself shy on their wedding night. He’dhadquite a struggle relieving her of the linen she’d claspedsotightly toherself. Thenthefire had rather ruined his view. Intruth, he didn’t getmuch of alook at all,but that was besidethepoint. She was obviously still shy around him, and he really shouldallowherprivacywhile she bathed.
Paen wasn’tterriblypleasedwith this dictate of his conscience, but salved his lower halfby assuring himself that he wouldsee her soon enough. As soon as his hands had healed and he was able, in fact.
"My lord husband?"
Husband. Paen smiledat the word. Hewas a husband now. Her husband. Hehad realized that, of course, in some abstract sort of way, but having her call him husband somehow made itmore realto him. It made him feel rather proud and puffedup. He was a husband. He belongedto someone as his fatherand mother belonged to each other. He hada wife of hisown. Itmade him feel… well… warm inside… and a little olderactually,herealized with surprise. Hefelt kind ofgrown up.
Pushing his thoughtsaway,Paen turned his attention to his littlewife. "Aye?"
"What are we doing here?"
"You said you wished to bathe and tend other matters. This seems a suitable spot. "
Avelyn glancedaround with neweyes, then sighed, "Oh, dear. "
Paen frowned. "Irealize’tis a bit rough,but ’tis the best I can do. whilst we are traveling. Surelyyou realizeI cannot present you with a proper bath and – "
"Oh, aye. Of course, husband. I am quite pleased. This is lovely,"she interrupted toassurehim.
"Thenwhythe sigh and ‘Oh, dear’?"
"I… It is just that Iwish you had explained where we were going when you collectedme. I might then havethought to bringsomething to dry myselfwith and – " Shestopped andbit her lip when he cursed. Then he used onebandaged handto urge her around and kept it at her backas he hustled her back the waythey’d come.
Avelyn wasflushed and outof breathbythe time they broke backout ofthetrees andinto camp. He hurried her to theirtent.
"Fetch what you need. Ishall wait here," heinstructed, then took up position outside the tent flap,standing straight and stern,arms crossed over his chest.