Hisdisappointmentsoon gave way tointerest,though, when Paen noted the way thedampgown clung to her curves. He found himself moving closer to the river’s edge as he watched herbendand scoopthe water up, and thennoted theway it cascadeddownthebrown cloth that envelopedher like a second skin. Paen found himselfwishing she was in thered dress she’d worn to their wedding celebration.
Thatgown hadbeen a silky cloth, the colorbrighter andmore flatteringto herthan the dull brown. He wasn’t complaining, however. Brown or red, the cloth was clinging lovingly and giving him thoughts ofjoining herin the water and stripping the cloth away, or running his hands everywhere it now clung.
Despite the thickness ofthewool,Paen was sure he could seethe outline ofher n**pleswhere thewater had made them erect. Hewanted topeel thedamp cloth away and replace it with his mouth. Hewantedto catch the nubs between his lips andflick his tongue over – "God’stoes!"
"My lord husband?"
Avelyn turnedto him in surprise at the curse, and Paen immediately stumbled forwardtojoinherin the water.
"Husband! What – ?"
"I got some egg on myself as well," Paen lied abruptly. The truth was, his wayward thoughts had encourageda certain part of his anatomy to awaken and stretch with interest. Paenhad glanceddownin mid-thought tofind himself sporting an erection… and unable to do anything about it.
Hecouldhardlyadmit thatto her, soPaen had plunged into the water upto his waist to hide his sorry stateandlied about the reason for it. Thegood news was, the cold water had takencare of the erectionalmost at once; the bad news was, he was urgently reminded thathe’d originally headed down hereto relieve himself and he was nomore capable ofmanaging the task of undoing his pantsthan he hadbeen before, and he’d be damned ifhe’dask hiswife’shelpin the matter.
"Come,we’reclean enough," he said shortly, thenturned and stomped out of the water. He turned his back and waited impatiently as she changed from the now soaked gowninto theblack one he’d notedlyingonthe ground when they’d entered.
The momentAvelyn was finisheddressing, Paen hurriedher back tocamp. He left herattheirtent and moved off to find hisfather to helphim see to his own ablutions. It was always anembarrassing chore, and he was glad when it was quickly finished. Paen could not wait untilhecould remove his damned bandages, but his mother had suggestedit would beat leasttwo weeksbefore he was healed enoughto go without them. Paen already knew those two weeks would bethe most miserable of his life.
Sighing over that sad fact, he led his fatherback into camp, frowning when he saw the half-collapsed tent and the two men moving into the woods behind it. Paen calledout to them and walked over to see what wasgoing on.
"One of the tent pegs was stuck prettytight intotheground. It flew outof Hob’s handand overhis shoulder whenhe did manage to pull itout," Paen was told.
"Neither of us saw whereit went, so weare havingtolook for it. "
Paen shifted with irritation at theholdup. "Get back to takingdown the tent. I shall look for thepeg-"
Whenthe man’s gaze dropped dubiously toPaen’s bandaged hands, he felt his mouth tighten. "I willcall whenIsee it and one of you can come get it. Just get the tentdown. You canhelpme look when you are finished. "
Shrugging, the two menreturnedto breakingdown the tent, and Paen turnedto stepinto the woods. He had noideahow farthepeg could have flown, orin which direction, and he wouldn’t be abletopick up thedamnedthing, but hedid have eyes andthey, at least, were working.
Paen had been scouring the forest floor for several minutes when he nearly stumbled over a dead fox. He peered down at the poor animalwith pity,then noted the gnawed rabbit leg inches fromitsmouth andknelt to examine the scene more closely. The rabbit leg wasonly lightlygnawed,leaving itobvious that the meathad been roasted. Since he doubted that foxes had taken to roasting theirrabbits, Paen could only assume that the poor sick creature had stumbled across someone’s leavingsand managed a couple of bites before expiring, or that someone was deliberately setting out poisoned meat to kill the creatures.
A shout fromsomewhere to his left made himraise his head. One of themen announced they’dfound the tent peg. Apparently, the men had finished taking down thetent and had joined him in the woods. Now that the tentwasdown and thepeg found, they could leave. Another day’s journey meant another day closer to Hargrove and hisnew squire.
Forgetting about the fox, Paen straightenedand had takenseveral stepswhen he set his foot down in somethingsquishy andnearly lost his footing. Glancingdown, hesawthat someonehad been sickin the woods. Grimacing, he wiped hisboot through the grass forseveralstepstoremovethe muck as hehurried back to camp.
Paen prayedevery step ofthe way thathismorningso farwasnot an omen of things to come. He wasreallyhopingthattodaywouldgo better than the day before – actually,better than the last two days had gone, Paen thought. Things hadn’t proceededwell since he’d arrived at Straughton. Hesupposed the wedding had gone well enoughuntil his bride had fainted, but everything since thenhad beennothing but one calamity after theother. Paen was starting to think he was cursed.
Avelyn talked nonstopthroughout the last hour oftheday’s ride. As she had the day before, she’dtaken herplace before her husband on hismount and taken the reins so hecouldcontinue "teachingher how to ridea horse. "Paen hadn’t thought sheneededany moreinstruction, but Avelyn had insisted she wasanxious about handling her own horse and he’drelented and agreed to continuethe lessons for anotherday.
Unfortunately, about half an hour into the journey, her all-nightsewing session, combined with therhythmicsway ofthe horse, hadconspired to lull her tosleep.
Paenhad apparentlytaken the reinsfromher slack hands, somehow managedto shift her to nestleagainsthis chest without waking her,andlet her sleep.
She’d wokenwell into the afternoon, dismayedto realize she’d sleptfor so long.
Determinedto remain awake forthe rest of the day, Avelyn hadbegun tochatter, saying anything that popped into her head. She had managedto stay awake… but thenit wasonly an hour later that Paen had decided to stop thehorses for thenight.
While Avelyn wasupset that her husband would nodoubt seeher nap asanother sign ofherweakness, she herself saw itas afailure of monumental proportions. Her job aswife wasto protectand nurture herhusband. She’d failedby letting him take the reins while she slept. Avelyn could only hope it hadn’t further damaged his hands. She vowed to set the sewingaside early andsleep that night so that she would be bright-eyed and ready to handle hishorse tomorrow.
Avelynfeared it would be a difficulttask. After sleeping all day, she was now wide awake and impatient to do something. Unfortunately,her husband had other ideas.
Avelynwatched unhappilyas the others bustled about,settingup camp. She’d wanted to help, but Paen had ordered her tosit andwouldbrook noargument. She hadn’t mindedat first while Lady Gerville sat with her,but once the tents were up, hernew mother-in-law had disappeared inside her own tent to help arrange the interior. When Avelynhadtried todo the same, Paen had repeated his orderforher tosit and had sent Runilda in to takecareof thematter.
Asifdrawnby her thoughts, her husband suddenlyappeared beforeher. Avelyn managed to smile ingreeting.
"Your maid is done setting up thetent," he an-nounced. "I want youto gorest untilthe meal is cooked. "
"But – "
Avelyn hesitated a moment, then gavein with a sigh and stood. Havingslept through whatever mealtherest of them had managed in the saddle at noon, she was starved. She also needed to relieveherself, but her husband didn’t appear in the moodto hear either comment. Deciding she could waiton both counts, Avelyn made her waytothe tent.
"I have made thebed ifyou wouldliketo rest, milady," Runilda greeted as she entered the tent.
"Isleptall day, Ru. I amnot tired,"Avelyn saiddryly.
"Aye. Iknowyou slept through the day. Lord Paenwasvery concerned about you. Are you notfeeling well,milady ?"
"I am fine, I just stayed up allnight sewing. Idid notmean to," she addedwhen Runilda lookedsurprised. "Iintended to put it aside whenmy husbandretired, but he never came to bed, and thenextthing Iknewit wasdawn. "
"Well…"Thegirl seemed at aloss, thenoffered, "I amsure he will be pleased whenhe sees the new clothes. "
"Aye. " Avelyncheeredslightly at the thought. Surely hewouldappreciate having properclothing? And presenting them tohim would allow her the chance to explain awayher exhaustion and perhapspersuade him she wasn’tas fragile as he thought.
Theidea madeher decide toget to workon the clothes againright away and she movedtothe chest to dig the project out.
"You sleptthrough the day and missed the cheeseand bread LadyGervillehad passed out at noontime as we rode. I’m surethereissomeleft. ShallI fetch you something to eat?"
"Aye, please, Runilda. I would appreciate that," Avelyn murmured,closing the chest and moving to the bed with the braes she’d started the night before. She should have them done in an houror so, shethought, thencouldat least starton the tunic eresleeping. Byher estimate, she could haveboth done in smother night or two.
Avelyn was working diligently away when Runilda returned. The maid had managed to find cheese, bread and apple. Sheset them all beside Avelyn andasked something aboutthe goods in thecart,then asked if shecould go helpSelywith something orother. Only half hearing her,Avelyn nodded and wavedher off,then continued towork, pausingevery fewminutesto take a bitefrom thefood thegirl had brought her. She was still working when Diamanda came some hours later, bearing agoblet ofstew.
"Stew?" Avelynaskedwithsurpriseas she accepted the goblet.
"Aunt Helen used thebig black pot your mothersentwith you from Straughton. "
She looked uncertain. "She didask Runildatoask you if itwould be all right. "
"Oh, aye," Avelyn murmured,recalling the maid chattering away atherwhenshe’d brought the food earlier.
"Aunt Helen thought itwould make it easierfor Paentoeat if hecoulddrinkit out of thegoblet. "
Avelyn nodded slowly, wishing she’d come up with the idea herself. It hadn’t occurred to her to wonder how Paen was managing to eat. She was a most thoughtless wife.
"Runilda was supposed to ask if she might borrow the goblets as well,"
Diamanda said when Avelyn was silentso long. She immediately nodded.
"Of course,that is fine. " Her motherhad sent sixgoblets with her. All hadbeen speciallymadeand bore her and Paen’s initials. There were a lot more than six people in their party, though. "Whatis everyone else eating out of?"
"The men are eating roastrabbitagain. Aunt Helenonly made enough stew for the family because there would not be enough goblets for everyone," Diamanda explained. "Anyway, Paen suggested I bring you some so that youwould notneed trouble yourself to comeout of the tent and couldcontinuetorest. You were terribly tired today. "
"Idid not sleep much last night," Avelyn said vaguely in response tothequestion onthe youngergirl’sface.
"Will you be all right fortraveling tomorrow?"Diamanda queried. "I only ask because Paen is frettingthatyou aresickening and – "
"I shallbefine. I amfine. I just did not sleep much, sowasweary today. I will sleep tonight. "
Diamanda didn’t look as if she believed her, but nodded politely, thenturned a curiousgaze on the black clothin her lap. "What are you sewing?"
Avelyn glanceddownand smiled. "Ithought to makesome braesand a tunic for Paen. Hisare in suchadisreputable statefromthe fire. Tis why Iwas so weary today. My stomach wasa tad upset and I couldnot sleep, soIstartedon these. The next thing I knew, it was morning," she explained and held thebraes up for herto see. "Do you thinkhe willlike them?"
"Oh. " Diamanda’s eyeswidenedand shereachedout to touch the cloth. "He will lovethem. "
Avelyn smiled with reliefandlet themsettleback in her lap. "I hope to have them ready inanothernight or two. "
"Well, do not make yourself blindworkingon them. Youshould haveanother candle in here. "
Avelyn glanced towardthecandle onthe chest. She had avague recollection of Runilda entering at somepointand settingthe lit candlethere,but wasn’t sure how long ago it had been.
"The one will befine," Avelyn said, smiling at thegirl’sconcern.
"Well, at leastset it abit closerso that you do notstrain youreyes. " Diamanda moved to collect the candle as shespoke andset it on thegroundnext tothe furs.
"There – that is better. Well…" She straightened andbeamed asmile at Avelyn. "I should go eat my stew. I shall comebackwhen I have finished andcollect your gobletto clean withmine," she announced,then added firmly, "And I shall expect you to haveeaten everylast drop. "
Avelyn watched the girlslipout ofthe tent,a smallsmile playing about herlips.
Despite her occasionalverbalblunders,Diamanda seemedto be a charming young woman, and she appreciated her efforts to befriend her. Avelyn’s gaze droppedto thestewand shegaveit a sniff. It did smell delicious, butshewasn’t reallyhungry after the fare Runildahad brought her. She didn’t wish to offend hermother-in-law, or hurt Diamanda’s feelings by not at least appearing to haveeaten it when thegirl returned for thegoblet.
Avelyn’s gazeslidto the tent flap. It hadn’t closedall the way, andshe could see thepeoplegathered around the fire inthecenter of the campsite. Setting hersewing aside, she picked up the goblet and stood. Paen had never approached her about tending to personalmatters, and whileshe knewhe hadinsistedthat sheask his permissionbefore going anywhereon herown,surely he didn’t include tendingto matters such as finding a handy bush. It would certainly be embarrassing to approach him by the fire to request anescort intothe woods.
Avelynrecalledthe day before and how uncomfortable it had beenhavinghim stand only feet away – within hearing distance – as she’d wateredthe bushes. No, she decided, he couldn’t have meant to include this task in hisorders. Besides,what he didn’t know wouldn’thurthim, and she could surely managewithout comingto any harm.
Mind madeup, Avelyntookthegobletof stew with her and slidout of the tent, then quickly around behind it. it was dark here away from the campfire, and she hadn’t a clue where the path to the river would be since her husbandhadn’tseenfit to take her there, but she moved into the woods, pushing her way through the clawing branches untilshe feltshe was agood enough distancefrom the tent. Then she turnedthegobletover andgave it agood shake to make sure allthe stew was out, then setthe goblet down whileshe tended to her needs.