Ashe hadthen, Davidquicklyscrambled back to his feet and continued on as if nothinghadhappened. Hisgrin was backin place by the time he stopped before her.
"His Lordshipsaysyou cango toprepare thetent forthe night, my lady. The menhave it up, and the chests and furs are inside. "
"Thank you, David," Avelyn murmured,unable to resist returning his grin.
Nodding, he turned to hurry back to Paen’s side, then paused suddenly and whirled backas Avelyn got to her feet. "Oh, and he said he would take youdownto theriver towashup once he isfinishedoverseeing…overseeing…er… whenhe is done whatever he is doing," the boy finished, obviously having forgotten what exactly his lord had said.
"Thank you, David," Avelyn repeated.
The boy nodded and turned away, managing to make itall thewayback to Paen’s side without fallingagain.
Shaking her head, Avelyn continued on tothetent. The lad was enthusiasticand cheerful, and clumsy ascouldbe, but Avelyn suspected the clumsiness was simply due to nervousness. Once hesettledin, she wassure muchof his awkwardness would vanish.
There wasn’t reallymuch todo inside the tent. Themen had piledthe furs in the corner as usual, and Runilda was putting linens and another fur on as Avelyn entered. That was pretty much allthere was to arrangingthe tent,other than to set the candle on the chest in preparation of lighting it when the last of the sunlight disappeared.
Thanking Runilda for herefforts, Avelyn nodded when her maid asked if she might gohelp Sely. The maids werebecomingfriends. Once alone, Avelynmoved to the chest to retrieve the tunic and braesshe was making for Paen. Avelynwasn’t sure how long Paen would be, but she was so close to finishing the tunic, she couldn’t resist getting in even a few moments’ work on it. First she wanted to recheck the seams on thebraes and besuretheywereperfect.
Avelyn would have finished the tunic the night before except that Paen had surprised herby joining her in bed at Hargrove. Actually,if she were to be honest with herself, she probably wouldn’t have gotten it finished last night. She’d been struggling to stay awake andsew whenher husbandhad entered theroom. Staying up all night, then forcing herself to remain awake all day in thesaddle had lefther feeling limp and exhausted by thetimethey’d arrived atHargrove to collectDavid.
They’d arrived atHargrove just after the eveningmeal, were welcomedwarmlyby Lord and Lady Hargroveand were served a quick meal while theirrooms and baths wereprepared for them. Avelyn had been soexhausted by then,she had nearlyfallen asleepin herfood. Once finished eating, she’dbeen gratefulto escapeabovestairs tobathe.
Avelyn didn’t think she’d ever before enjoyed a bath thatmuch. She’d soaked in thescented water for muchlongerthan shenormally would have, blissfully washing away the grimeof two days’ travel. Afterward, she’d dried her hairby the fire before settling in the comfortable bed with her sewing. She’d found herself nodding over the work,her eyes continually blinking closed and trying tostaythat way. It was almost a relief when Paen had entered the room ten minutes later with his squire on his heels.
Theboy hadsmiled at her, but Paen hadmerely grunted something of a greeting in her general direction, then walked to the tub wherethe boy helped him undress.
Avelyn hadgaped at his muscular, nak*d back until he’d settled into the tub.
Finally able to think again once mostof that nude flesh had beenhiddenby the sides of the tub, she’d balledup her sewing andtuckedit under the bed. She’d lain down andpulled the linens up, planning onpretendingto sleep until Paenfinishedhis bath and leftthe room. Then she would go backto work on his tunic. However,she’d barely closedher eyes when the pretendingbecame reality.
Avelyn had slept deep and hard and woken up to find Paen inbed next toher. He hadn’tleft the room tosleep below with his men. He’d spent thenightnotinches away fromher… and she’d slept through thismost auspicious occasion.
Avelyn sighedover hersewing. Ifhe hadn’t come to theirroom to bathe and she hadn’t fallenasleep, shewouldhavefinished his tuniclastnight and presenteditto himthis morning. Instead, she got the first full night’s sleep she’d had since the start of thisjourney, but the tunic wasunfinished.
She supposedit didn’t mattermuch. Shewould finishit in an hour or so andthen be able to present it to him. At least he would be able to arrive home looking splendid, as the son ofthelordof the manner should look, insteadof asifhe’d just escaped a fire.
"Avelyn!"Diamanda rushed into the tent, thenpaused abruptly at the sight ofher sewing.
"Aye?" Avelyn asked, but Diamanda was staring at the tunic in her lap with amazement.
"Why,you are nearlydone,"she said withsurprise and came forwardto look at it. " Tislovely. You are very goodat stitches. I can never seem to keep my seams straight,"she admitted wryly, then frowned. "But, again, itis too dark in here for you tobe doing such delicate work. "
Avelyn glanced aroundto note with surprise that while she hadworked,the sun hadcontinued itsdownwardjourney.
"Goodness,you will ruinyoureyes like this," Diamanda remonstrated, movingto collectthe candleoff the chestand carry it over to set onthe ground next to the stack of furs. Avelyn was surprised to see thatit waslit. Runilda must have once again slipped in andattended toitwithout hernoticing. She wasveryfortunate in having the girl for hermaid. Runilda didnot just dowhat wasexpected, butsawto those littleextras that made her indispensable.
"There, that is better," Diamanda announced with a pleased smile as she straightened. "At least we need not fear you shall go blind on us. " She patted Avelyn’s shoulder affectionately before leaving.
Avelyn stared after her,realizing that the girlhad beenso distracted by concern forher eyesthat she’d forgottento askor tell her whatever she’d come intothetent for. Shaking her head, she turned her attention back to her sewing, her mind ponderingwhatit mighthave been.
Momentslater, anexasperated Paenducked throughtheflap, muttering under his breath about silly, feather-brained girls. Avelyn quickly hid the tunic behind her back.
She offeredan enquiring smile as her husband straightened.
"Diamanda wasto tellyou I can take youdownto the rivernow, if you like," he announced, then frownedas he spotted the candle on theground so close to the furs. "Ye’ll start a firesetting thecandle there, wife. "
"I – " Avelyn closed her mouth onthe explanation that it hadn’t been her, but Diamanda whohad put itthere. She wasn’tthe sort to tattle. Besides, she hadn’t protested the girl’s actions.
"Blow it out,grab whatever you need and come along," Paen said, apparently decidingtolet the mattergo, then turned and ducked out of the tent.
Letting out a little breath of relief,Avelyn blew the candle out as shegot up,then collecteda wide swath of linen from the chest and hurried afterhim. "Icannot hear you. " Paen started to turn towardheras she bathed inthe river.
Avelyn immediately responded,"I donot know what to say. "
Paen stoppedturningand relaxeda little. This was the firsttime he’d taken herto bathe in a river since her near-drowning. Oncehere, he’d at first said he would not turn his back onher, explaining he did not wish another incident like that. However, when her shouldershad slumped andshe’d said she wouldbe fine without bathing that night,Paen had relented. It. seemed his wife was still shy. But he would not let her shyness deny her theopportunity tobathe after a long day in thesaddle. He’d agreed to keep hisback turned so longas she continuedto talk so that he knew she was well. At first, she’dsimply told him whatshe was doing: "I am notin the water yet;I am stillundressing," she’dannounced the moment hisback was turned. "Shall I just tellyou when Iam going to go in,or – ?"
"Aye," Paenhad said abruptly, not wishing a blow-by-blow ofher stripping. His imagination was filling his mind with imagesenough on its own, and it wassheer torture. His wifewas clumsy, accident prone, weak and apparently not very hearty, but she was alsoa sexy little bundle. It was torture enough to have her riding before himduringthe day – hoursin the saddle with her bottom pressedup against him,her outer thighspressed against his inner, the bottoms of her br**stsbrushing against the top of the arm he kept around her waist while they rode.
Paen hadspent agood deal of the last threedays trying tokeep from shifting in thesaddle to grind againsther, orraising his armto rub over herbreasts. Withher handling the reins, he’d had little else to dobut fantasize. Inthose fantasieshis hands werehealedandbusy – undoingandtugging the clothof her gown off her shoulders so that hernakedbreasts spilled out into his waitinghands, then squeezing and kneading thesoft round flesh, gently pinching each nipple. In his mind, he was kissing and nibblingher neckas he fondled her br**sts, hersoft, excited murmurs and panting breath music tohis ears as heletone hand dropdown over her gently rounded stomach to slide betweenher legs, teasing her tosuch a level ofexcitement thatshe worked herself around to face him on the horse,thenworked him freeof his braes and managed – with hishelp – -to raise, then lower herself on his staff, which she rode evenas they rodehis horse.
Of course, inreality his mount probably wouldn’ttake well to suchgoings-onand would no doubtrear up and dump them both in the dirt. Butthen, in realityhis hands werebandaged stumpsandhe couldn’t doanyof it anyway… whichwas something he resented mightily.
The firehadnot justinjured his hands and taken his clothes, it had robbed him of a wedding night… and every night since. Paenwas sure hewould have given hiswife a good "seeingto"every chance he’d gotten were he not injured. Certainly, his lower bodyshowed interest every time hewas near her. It no longer seemed tohelp that he avoided being nearher atnight,sleeping by the fire with themen rather than in the tentwithhernaked and sotemptingly near, yet as untouchable as a nun thanksto the state ofhis hands.
If hecould,Paen wouldmakeherride her own horse, butit was his place to train herin the areasshe waslacking. Although it did seem to him that she was a natural at horse riding, sheclaimed to not be confident enough inher skillsto ride alone. That being thecase, he saw it as hisduty to keep her on hismountuntilshe feltmoresure of herself. Having learned thehardway thatshe was accidentprone,Paenwasn’t taking anyunnecessarychances.
"What should Italk about?" Avelyn asked,distracting Paen fromhis thoughts.
"It matters little, just speak," Paen said. "Tell me what it was like growingup at Straughton. "Paen wanted to know what she had been trained in. Riding was a skill most ladies wouldhave, and he thought it best toknow whathe was up againstand whathe would need to see her trained in.
"Oh, well," Avelyn said, then launched into a ramblingspeech. Paensoon realized thathe should havebeenmore specific and simplyaskedwhatshe’dbeen taught, for his wife did tendtolike the soundof her own voice. Despite her obvious exhaustion, she hadtalked nonstop yesterday on the last day oftheir journey to Hargrove,and now to-day, the first of theirtwo-dayjourney home, she continued chattering. Not thathe really minded. In that time he had learneda lot about his wife. He was getting a ratherthoroughpictureof who shewas, ofherfamily and childhood.
Probablymore thorough than she realized, Paen thought. Avelyn did not say a cross wordabouther cousins. She did nottellhim theytaunted her and madeher feel inferior, or that their arrival at Straughton hadbeen a blight on what untilthen had been a perfect childhood, with loving parents, an affectionate brother and a secure home. Shedid notsay a word against them, and yet he saw it. He hadbeen quickto recognizethe trio asresentful andcruel,and hadfound littlepatience for them. Heunderstoodtheirresentmentat having their father,home andinheritance stolen from them,but thought little of their takingit out on Avelyn.
Paensupposedit wasenvy andaninstinctto gofor theweakest member of a group that made them behave so badly. They could not attack theiraunt anduncle the same way,and Warin wouldn’t have hesitated tobeat them had theytried this business on him. No doubt he wouldbeat them when he caughtthemtormenting Avelyn,but Paen was equally sure that they never attacked her whenothers might witnessit, and that Avelynwould never tattle on them. Her refusal to carry tales was an honorable choice, but had left herundefended against theirverbal attacks onher self-esteem.
By thetime Avelyn finished bathing and was safely out of the water dressing herself, Paenhad cometo the conclusionthat what he neededto teach his wife was her own value. He was also quitesure that he had notgottensuch aninept bride as he’d thought. Parentsas loving and caring ashers appeared to bewould notsend their daughter out into the world without the skills she’d need to carry on successfullyin life.
Paen suspected that Avelyn’s clumsiness and apparent ineptitude were really just a result of herlow-esteem and awkwardnesswith him… justas David’s tendencyto trip overhis own feet was a result ofnervousness and an eagernesstoplease.
Given timeand proper tending, Paenwas surehe would have himself the perfect wife.
"Iam ready, husband. "
Paen glanceddown at her andfound himself smiling. She was dressed inanother unattractive, overlarge and dark gown,and her hair was dampand scraped back harshly from her face. Still, herbeauty showed through to him. Her eyes werehuge and alight with goodhumor and kind-heartedness, andher mouth curved in agentle smile.
His parents haddonewell, Paendecided. He was pleased withthe bride they’d chosen for him. He thought he might even come to develop affection for her someday. For now, it was enough thatheliked her. It was good to likeawife. It made it easier to spenda lifetime with her.
Realizing he was standingthere grinning like an idiot,Paen did hisbesttowipe the smilefrom his face and gesturedforher to move ahead of him to the path backto camp. As theywalked, he considered ways he mightbolster her selfesteem. If she werehis horse, he’d feed her anapple every once in a while and pat her on the rump.
If she were his squire,he’dgive her ahearty pat on the back and a"well done. " Paen hadnoidea,though, how to bolster a wife.
"Oh, no!What – ?"
Avelyn’s startled cry drewhim from hismusings. He started to ask what had upset her so,but she wasalready rushing toward their tent. Paen followed,noticing thata crowd had gathered around the smoking tent.
Cursing, he broke intoa run, chasingafter Avelynas she pushed her way through the crowd.