Avelyn peered at him for a moment,tryingto decideifhewasannoyed withher for beingsucha bother,then decided that dallying would no doubt annoyhim more and ducked quicklyintothe tent. She returned moments later with a bagholding what she would need, andfound herself relieved of the bundle. Paen caught itup between his bandagedhands and hurried back the way they’d come,leaving herto run after him. Avelyn was beginning to feel a bit like ahorse onthebit, butremained silent as she ran to keepup with her husband. It seemed he’d forgotten that he needed to measurehis steps. Shewas not going to remind him.
He led herback to the spot he’d first chosen, butstopped dead on stepping into thesmallclearing. Directlyon hisheels andunprepared for thesudden halt, Avelyn stepped onhis heels and nearly raced up the back of hislegs before she caught herself, then muttered an apology and steadied herself with a hand on his back.
When there wasnoresponsetoherapology, shesteppedaround her husband to see whatheldhis attention. Her eyebrowsrose somewhat at the sight of Lordand Lady Gerville kissingin the clearing. Avelyn had thought the affection her parents shared was rare. Itappeared it wasn’t asunusual as she’d thought.
Muttering something under his breath about stealing their spot, Paenturned on his heel andstartedback outof the clearing, Avelynfollowing once again. Much toher relief, theymoved a little slower thistime,and it was only a couple of moments before he foundanotherspot hewas satisfiedwith.
"I shallbejuston the other side of thatbush doyou needme," werehisparting words; then he set her bag downandleftheralonein the clearing.
Avelyn stared at the spot where he haddisappeared backinto thetrees andfelt her heart swell with gratitude at his consideration in allowing her privacy. It hadn’t occurred toher thathemightexpectto stand watchand… well… watch, but she realized now that hewould have been wellwithin his rights to do so. Shewas terribly gratefulhe hadn’t… until she pondered why he might not want to.
Of course he wouldn’t want to. Who would wish to see her nak*d? Having thoroughly depressed herselfwithherown contrary thoughts, Avelyn sighed and set about undressingherself, notin the least uncomfortablethathe wason the other side of a bush fromher. She had no fear he wouldlook. Shewas as safe as if she were in her own room with thedoorbarred. Paen would never bother trying to catch a glimpse of her.
He was going to look. No, he wasn’t. Aye, hewould. Nay,he would not.
Paen argued with himself repeatedlyas he listened tothesoft rustlings of hiswife undressing a few feet away. He really wanted to look. Hewas going to. She was his wife. His property. He had a right to look.
But it was terribly unchivalrous,and reallyrather childish behavior. Itwould be reminiscent ofa stunthe andhis brother hadpulledwhen young striplings, peeking through the bushes ata bathingvillage lass. Aye, it was beneath him topeek through the bushesat hisnaked wife like somelustylad,he toldhimself.
A soft plopsounded. Something hittingthe ground? Her dress mayhap? Or was it already hershift? Was she standing there all creamy skin under the waning sun? He couldalmost pictureher with her soft brownhair falling over her fullplump br**sts andbrushing over the topsof her roundedhips. Paen licked his lipsat the imagethat formedin his mind. He had to look. He justhad to. It was killinghim. He wasno better than alustylad. He – Was supposedto be guarding her. Hewas tomake sure that no one absconded withher, and that she came to no harm like being attacked, or taken away, or drowning. Hisearspickedup asoftsplashingsound, andhestiffened. Was that a "bathingaway the day’sdust" sort of splash, orwasita drowning-type splash?It could be either,he reasoned, turning to facethebushes that stoodbetween himand his nak*d,wet wife.
Nakedand wet. Thewords ranthroughhishead, and he decidedthat hereally should just check. Just a quick peek to besureshe wasall right.
Of course,his conscienceargued, hecouldcall out to be sureshewaswelland never look.
"Shut up," Paen mutteredto hisconscience and used his bandaged hands to shove thebranchesof thebush asidetopeekthrough.
"Tsk,tsk,tsk. Peeking at her like an uncouth youth. "
Paen released the bushes so quickly at those amused words that he slapped himself inthe face with the branch. Cursing, he straightened and turned to glare at his father. Hemanagedto infusesome self-righteous indignation into his voice. "I was just checking to be sure she was all right. "
Wimarc Gerville arched one eyebrow at that claimand grinned ashe settled to sit beside Paen. "Then I raised you wrong. I would look if it was yourmother. Hell, I would be inthe waterwithher. "
Paen smiled athisfather’s disgruntled tone, thenasked the obvious. "Thenwhy are younot in the riverwithMother?"
"I would be if you had not come along. I was getting ready to when you interrupted us. Your motherdecided wehad best behaveifyou twowere so near. "
His resentment was obvious.
"Sorry. " Paenwas having trouble sounding sincere. It wasgood to know that he wasn’tthe onlyonesuffering. "I had not thoughtyou evennoticedus. "
"Oh, aye. Your mother noticed. You knowshe has eyes intheback of herhead when it comes toyou boys. "Thelastword hadbarelyleft Lord Gerville’smouth whena pained look followed it.
Paen feltguilt swamphim as it always did whenhisthoughts turned to his dead brother. He felt guilty for not havingbeenable to save him,guilty at being the oneto survive. He was silent for a long moment until his father cleared his throat and distracted them both from the subjectof Adam’s death. "So? Was she?"
"Waswho what?" Paen asked inbewilderment.
"Wasyoung Avelynall right?"
"Oh, aye. " Paen sighed heavily. "She was frolicking neck deep in water. "
Wimarc laughed at Paen’s rueful voice, knowing that his wife being up to herneck inwater had notbeen whathe’d hopedto spot while peeking throughthe bushes.
"Mayhapyoushould check again. Tis a tad quiet now on the other side of the branches. "
Paen hesitated, then shifted onto his knees on the boulder and pushed the shrubbery aside again to peerthrough. The sight ofhiswife floatingon the water’s surface,still and pale, drewan abrupt cursefrom him.
"Whatis it?" Wimarc asked, catchinghis son’salarm, but Paen was too busy scrambling to rescue his wife to answer.
Thewater had beencool at first, butAvelyn hadadjusted to it quickly. Shehad always enjoyed swimming. Whenshewasa child, her parents hadoften takenher andWarin on picnicsbythe river. Avelyn hadalwayslooked forward to those trips, but then Aunt Isidore hadarrived with the cousins. They, of course, then hadto be included in the picnics and had ruinedthem forAvelyn with theirtaunts abouther being a great whale floatinginthe river. These things were alwayssaid far enough away fromthe adultstobesure they were not overheard. Avelynhad taken lessand less joy in swimming untilshe’d refusedto do it at all. At least she’dnot forgotten how. She’d swum for a bit, and was now floatinghappily in the water, completely relaxed inthe knowledgethatherhusbandwould be sure no one disturbed her.
Avelyn had barelyhadthatthought when she was suddenly caught under the arms and liftedout of the water. Avelyn almost screamed, buta glance down showed a pair of bandaged stumps poking out fromunder her armsand sherealized it washer husband. As quickly as that, thoselinen-covered stumpsshifted her aboutand she found herself clutched to his massive chest. Stunnedand confused, she heardher husbandshoutingrather incoherently about drowning and devils as heran out of the water with her.
Avelyn tried to figure outwhat hewas trying totell her. Had his mother or father drowned just upriver asshe’dbathed? Orhadtheybeenattackedand killed by some devilsas she lay floating obliviously?
Horror consumed her at the thought of either possibility befalling her lovely in-laws. Avelyn lay still against herhusband’s chest ashe raced outof the waterand began to crash throughthewoods. There was nomistaking the tension in the arms holding hertight to his chest. Her husbandwasina panic. Paen did notseem the sort topaniceasily, so Avelyn knew for a certainty that something was gravely wrong.
The factthathe had not even paused to let her collect her gown wasanother sign of thegravity ofthe situation. It madeherthink that theymust be under attack, for if the matter had to do with one of hisparentsdrowning, shewas quite sure he would not beracing throughthe woods carryinghis rather large and heavy, nak*d wife.
Avelyncould have askedhim whathad occurred, but hehad gone silent since dragging her out of the water, and she feared he might be trying to keep their whereabouts asecret iftheywereunderattack. Itdid seem that she should notslow him down bymaking himattempt to talkwhile running, soshe forced herself to remain stillandsilent in his arms.
When they reached the campsite, Avelyn was suddenly mortified by her unclothed state. She noted the startledreactionsof themen as Paen charged through with hisnaked bundle. it wasobvious they had no idea whatwasgoingon. When Paen finally began to slow,Avelyn decided she might now ask what had occurredto causethisuproar,but before she could,Paen had lifted her and she was slammed downon her belly across the back of ahorse, knockingthe air out ofher. A bare secondpassed beforeher husbandwason the horse with her. One bare knee was inches from her face, the otherbrushing her legs and buttocks as he set thebeast into a run.
Any possibility for Avelyn to regain her breath died as shefound herself slammed repeatedly intothehorse’s back. Shewas grunting with each jolt,when she became aware of somethingpressing down firmlyon herbackside. Ittook onlya moment forher to realize that it mustbeher husband’s bandaged hand placed thereto hold herin place as he rodethem to safety.
Avelyn groaned between gruntsas she realizedherhusbandwas riding her around incircles,with herbare bottomup andinfull view of the men. At thatpoint she determined that iftheir men did not kill whoever hadattacked and caused all this uproar, she wouldsurely do so herself.
Avelyn soon became aware that herhusband wasspeaking again. He was talking inlow tones. Herhead was closer to thedrum of the horse’s hoovesthan to his mouth, but stillshe could make out some words. They soundedlike a cross between a curse and a prayer,or perhaps a plea and a rant. He wastalking of someone named Adam andtelling whomeverhe was addressing that he couldn’t take Avelyn like he had Adam. He was threatening whomever he was speaking to with dire consequences,and Avelyn was just beginningto think her husband madwhen she caught the word God and realizedit wastheir Maker he was addressing.
it was thenthat things began to jell in her head. It occurredto her that riding someone around strapped to the back of ahorsewasa commonmethod to tryto revive a drowning victim. Avelyn began tothink that she may havemisunderstood things. Perhaps Paen hadnot been shouting abouthismother or father whenhe’d pulled her from the water. Perhaps he’d thought shehad… Dear God! Her husband had mistakenherfloating for drowning. He wastryingto save herlife – wasn’tthat just the sweetestthing in theworld? That thought ended on an "oomph" as Paensent the horse leaping over somethingand she suffered a particularly nasty joltto her stomach. He apparently heard the whoosh ofairleaving her lungs for the handon her derrieretightened, squeezing her cheek asheurgently calledhername. Thenhe began to slow his mount.
Avelyn considered matters-forthe few brief moments it tookfor the horsetoslow toa stop. If, as she beganto think,her husband was attemptingto saveher life, she didn’t thinkhewould appreciatelooking the fool if sheexplained she hadn’tbeen drowning. Therewas also thefact that she was presently starknaked, butt-up onher husband’shorse. A most humiliating situation to findoneself in. Truly, Avelyn began to wish shehadbeen drowning. Shewas still trying to decide what todo when the horse cameto a complete halt and Paenmanagedto lift and shift her onto her back in hislap,nodoubt further damaging his poor hands ashe did so.
Avelyn kept her eyes closed. She did, however, manage to drape one arm strategically across her nak*d br**sts whilethe otherdroppeddown to allowher fingers to flop overthe patch of curlyhairat the apex of her thighs.
For a moment,she wastorn astowhattodo, and then shedecidedtogowith the nearly-drowned pretense, or at least notto deny it. She blinked her eyesopenand then let them drop closed, trying for a weak-nearly-drowned-and-oblivious-to-the-fact-that-I-am-naked attitude. She was rather hoping that if shepretended she wasn’t nak*d, he might notnotice.
"Paen?" Avelyn opened one eye, rather proud ofthetremble sheput in her voice.
Itmade her soundweak and nearlydrowned.
"Thank God," she heard him breathe. Sheopened both eyes to seethat despite her hopes, now thatthe crisis was over he was apparently becoming aware ofher nak*d state. Avelyn cringed inwardly as his gaze drifted over herexposed body. She could feel the heated blush following in the wake of his eyes and shifted uncomfortably, trying to manage afetalposition on his lap.
Her action seemedtomakehimawareof her distress,andPaen suddenly dragged hiseyesback to her face. He cleared his throat and sat up a little straighter,then suddenly dismounted, taking her with him. Avelyn found herself set gently in the grass and tookamomentto hopetherewere no bugs or worms under her bare bottom as shedrew herkneesup and clasped them toher chest in aneffort tohide as much ofherself as possible. She glancedup to find Paen removing his tunic,and felta thrill of alarmring through her. Surely he didn’t plan to consummate the marriage here? Had the very sight ofher nak*dnessimpassioned himsothat hehad tohave her now?
That thrilling possibility died in her as he finished removing his tunic andslid it over her head. He was merely trying to cover her up, Avelyn realized, oddly disappointed. She should have expected as much, of course. She just wasn’t the sort to impassionanyone, Avelynthought as he dropped to his haunchesto drawher hands into the arms of his tunic, dressing her likethe veriestchild.
"How do youfeel?" he asked anxiouslyonce she was covered.
"Er…fine… thank you," she murmured,then becameaware that his gazehad dropped and an odd expression coveredhis face.
Avelyn glanceddown to seethathis tunic was inworse shapethan she’d realized.
Paen had hadlittlechoice in wearing the tunic andbraes they’d used to put out the fire. The smoky, holey tunic was allhe’d hadto wear, butAvelyn had notnoticed until now just how damaged his clotheshad been. The tunic smelled ofsmokeand had several holes where the fire hadburned through. One of themjust happenedto be placed such that it allowed her breast to poke through.