Paen and his father exchanged a glance. it was Wimarcwho said, "She is not so inept?"
"Nay," LadyGerville said firmly.
"Wife, I knowyou like her,but thegirlcannot even ride ahorse," Wimarc pointed out.
"Aye, she can. "
"She – "
"Mother is right," Paen interrupted whenhis fatherwould have argued thepoint.
"Avelyn may not have been able to ridewhen we first leftStraughton, butsheis a natural. She was very goodby the time we arrived here. Iwouldhavelet hermount her own horse on the wayback from Hargrove, but she did notfeel confident she could manageit on her own,so I letherride with me. "
"You do not understand,"LadyGerville said. "She knew how to rideereleaving Straughton. "
"Do notberidiculous,Christina," hisfathersaidwith disbelief. "Why would she lie aboutsomething like that and let us thinkherso incompetent?"
"Tosave Paen’s hands," she said.
"What?" Paen stared at her with dismay.
"You were insisting on handling your own mount. She – like me – feared you woulddo your handsfurther injury, so she let you thinkshecould notride sothat you wouldlet her take thereinswhile you’trained’ her. "
His father snorted at thesuggestion. "The chit slept through thesecond day. "
"Because shewas upallnightsewing,"Lady Gerville remindedhim. "But she sewedeach nightafter that, yet stayed awake despiteherexhaustion. "
Lord Gerville considered this news. "So, you are saying the girl is trained in proper wifery?"
"Aye. Her mothergave me a list ofher skills at the weddingmeal. She is fully trained,probablybetter than most girls her age. "
"Running a household? Tending injuries and illness? Instructing staff?" he queried.
"Aye, all that and more. "
"Thenwhyhas shenot tendedto Paen’s injured hands? ‘Tis always you checking andbandaging them. "
Lady Gervillelooked uncomfortable. "Aye. Well, Ihave apologized to her for that, but… he ismyson. "
"And this is your home to run," Lord Gerville saidwithgentleunderstanding.
Paen’s mother stiffened. "What do youmean?"
"You said you think hersadness had to do with Paen’sthinkingher unskilled, as well as missingherfamily and home. "
"Butmayhap it is more than that. "
"What else could itbe?" she asked.
"Shehasnot only lefther home andfamilybehind, Christina. She has cometo ours. IfAvelyn was trained and is asskilledas you claim, it was so that she could be a properwife, so that when she marriedshe would be prepared tomove toher new homeand run it," he pointed out. "But thisisour home,yours torun. You have everything well inhand and she has nothing to do. Shehas nowayto make aplace for herself. She islike a guest here. "
Lady Gervillemoved to the bench and droppedto siton itbetween herhusband andson. "Ihadnot thought of that. "
"I know," Lord Gerville said softly. He was silentfor a moment, then said, "I received news on ourarrival here that old Legere is dead. "
"Aye,I know,"Lady Gerville said withsomeconfusion. "You toldme at the time. "
"He was my chatelain at Rumsfeld," Paen’s fatherpointedout, speaking of his wife’schildhoodhome. The two lands had been merged when they married, butthey livedat Gerville.
"Aye. " Now sheappeared moreirritated than confused.
"Ihave been wondering who to replace Legerewitheversince. "
Paenstiffened,understanding where his father was heading,even as his mother did. Hecould seethe dawning realization on her face. She didnot look pleased.
"Wimarc,"shebegan,butLord Gerville continued. "PerhapsPaenand Avelyn should go there. "
"But – "
" ‘Twould givethem a chance to get to know each other better without our interference,"he pointed outover her protests. "And ‘twouldgiveher a home ofher own to run, someplace she wouldnot feellike a guest on sufferance. "
"Oh. " Lady Gerville sighedin defeat.
"Are you all right, dear?"
"Hmm?"Avelyn glanced up at Lady Helen blankly. They were seated at thehigh table,eating dinner. Avelyn sat betweenLady Gerville and Lady Helen. Paen, as usual, was not there. He had been seated atthe table speaking to his fatherwhen she’dcome belowstairs, but had left shortly afterward.
Avelynsupposedhehad leftto get awayfromher. Paenseemedalways to be avoidingher… to the point that he would not even sitat table andeat withthem. She didn’t know where hewas sleeping either, but it wasn’twithher.
"You sighed,dear," Lady Helenpointed out gently. "Areyou unhappy?"
Avelyn forced asmileto her lips. Lady Helen was akind woman,as was Paen’s mother. All of them had been wonderful to her sincetheir arrival at Gerville – kind andconsiderate and keepinghercompany all the time so thatshe hardly noticedthat her own husband couldn’t be botheredwith any of that. Avelyn sighed againthen realized she’d done it and shookher head, impatient with herself. "I amsorry,my lady. "
"You neednotapologize,Avelyn. " Lady Gerville joined the conversation and patted her hand. "It is hardly yourfault. "
Avelyngrimaced atthe word fault. "But I should apologize to you for Paen’s never joining us at table. That apparently is my fault. "
"What?" Lady Gerville appearedsurprised atthe claim.
Avelyn swallowed and admitted, "Your son does notseem pleasedwithmeas his wife. He avoids meatall costs now we are here. He will noteven eat at thetable because Iam here,let alone sleep in his own room. "
"Oh,Avelyn. "Lady Gerville peered at herwith dismay. "And you thought this was because ofyou?"
"What else could itbe?"Avelyn asked witha shrug. "I asked Diamandaand she saidthat hedid sleep in his roomand dineattable before I was here. Shedid not think it was my faultthat he does neither noweither,but couldnotcome upwith anotherexplanation. "
"Becauseshe does notknow…" LadyGerville pausedandbitherlip.
Avelyn was about to ask what Diamanda didn’tknow, butbefore she could, the older woman shook her head with disgust.
"So many secrets – ‘Donottell him this, do not tell her that,’" she said with exasperation. "I should haverealized that he wouldn’texplain. Theboy is just like his father in that regard. Well, letme save you some heartache, child, by telling youwhat it took meyearsof marriage to Wimarc to realize. If youdo notknow or understand something, you must ask. Never fear lookingfoolish by asking, for the only fool is the one whodoes not askandmakesassumptions inignorance. "
She paused to take adrinkfrom her goblet,then said, "Nowtakeyourself above stairs. Go to the chamber on the rightof your ownand enter withoutknocking. You shall learnalot without saying a word, but after that you willhave to ask your husbandwhyhe hasnot slept with you. I suspectthe answerwill surprise you. "
Avelyn stared at her with bewilderment. She hadn’t understood much of what Lady Gerville had said. So manysecrets? Who had secrets?She supposed shehad made the woman keep one or two herself. Now itseemed that hersweren’t the only secrets here.
"Go," Lady Gervilleinsisted, drawing her from her thoughts.
Avelyn glanced at Lady Helen, butDiamanda’saunt appeared tobeas perplexed asshe was. She got reluctantlyto her feet, stepped over the bench and moved slowly toward the stairs. Part of her wascurious atwhat shemight find upstairs, but most of her simply didn’t want toknow. It wasbad enough suspecting herhusband could notbear to benearher. Toactually havehimtell her so wouldbe much worse.
Avelyngrimaced at her owncowardice. Her parentshad not raisedher to be a coward, but so muchhad happened in the last week – shefelt rather like thecamel whose back mightbreak with the next straw setonit.
Not thatit was allbad. Thingswere a little better hereat Gerville. In someways, living here was likebeing home again. Lady Gervillewas much like her mother, running the castle with seemingeffortless ease. It leftAvelyn with nothingto do but sew, but she didn’t mind that so much. With her track record to date, she was relieved not to have tasks and chores to attend to that might further reveal the ineptitude she hadn’t realized shesuffered.
Avelyn felt safer sewing new clothesfor Paen instead. Fortunately, Paen’s brother Adam hadbeen the same size andPaen was now wearing a pair ofthe deadman’s braes as wellas one of histunics. Avelyn still felt he should have clothes of his own, soshe was pleasedto make themforhim. At least sheknew she was competent at that. And it was very pleasantspendingthe day chatting with Dia-manda, Lady Helen and Lady Gerville whileshesewed. Lady Gerville and Helenwere very kind,and Diamanda was bright and seemed tohave appointedherself the task of tryingto cheer Avelyn.
Avelyn’s only discontent came from her husband’s apparent rejection of her.
What elsecouldit be? The man avoidedher atall times,and had yetto bed her. It was dishearteningafter the high hopesshe’d had on herwedding night,when hehad touched and caressed her with seemingenthusiasm.
Avelyn’smusingscame toanabrupt end asshefoundshe’d reached the room nexttothe one she was supposed to share with her husband.
Taking a deep breath, she put her earto the door, tryingto anticipate whatto expect, butthere was nothing to hear,not evena murmurof voices. Straighteningher shoulders, Avelyn raised herhandto knock, then recalled that Lady Gervillehad instructed her not to knock.
Loweringherhand, shehesitated a momentmore,thenopenedthe door.
Davidhad just slippeda spoonfulof stewinto his mouth whenPaenheard the door open. He turned toward it, expecting to see his father, then nearly chokedas he spied his wifestandingthere. He stared. The surprise on Avelyn’s face told him she hadn’t expectedhim to behere,orperhaps she’d knownhe was here but hadn’t expectedhimtobe eating.
Paen’sgazeslid backto his squire. He’d been most relievedto finally have the boy at hisside. Thefirst fewdays afterthefire had beenthemost frustratingof his life. The injurytohis hands had madeit difficult to manage the simplestof chores – feeding himself, dressing,bathing. Even relievinghimself became something of an exercise in humiliation. He couldusethe stumps topush his braes down over his hips, buthad difficulty gettingthem back up. His father hadhelpedas much as he could,but it had been humiliating for Paen.
Aye, the day they’d reached Hargrove had been a bright one for Paen. He’dthen hadthe boy to help him with such things, butPaen wastoo proud to alloweveryone else to realizehow helpless he was, no matter how temporary thathelplessness might be. So, every mealtime since they had collected the lad, he’d hadDavidbring his meal to him away fromeveryone else. The boy fedhim ina clearing by the river the first night oftheir journey. Thesecond night, they’d arrived at Gerville, and Paenhad askedDavid to bringhis meal up here to Adam’sold room. Then the lad had helped himstrip for his bath, though that was wherehe drewthe line. The lad had offered – rather reluctantly – to help with scrubbing up, but Paensimply couldn’tsubject either himself or the boytothatembarrassment, so he madedo with soaking in thewater.
They’d followed the same pattern each night since. Every morning, David helped him dress,then followedhim around,doing his squire’s duties untilthe nooning meal, when they returned to the keep and Paen came up to waitwhile the boy collected hismealfrom the kitchen and brought it up to feed him. He didthe same for the evening meal. Then atnight, the boy helped him prepare for bed before taking tohis own pallet in thecorner.
" Tis fine,David. I amdone. Youcan take that back to the kitchens. "
The squire hesitated briefly, clearly doubtful that Paen was done with his half-eaten food,but he noddedand moved past Avelyn andout of the room. Paen thenturnedhis attention to hiswife, who washesitating in the door. Finally she drew her shoulders up, stepped into the room and closed the door behind her. Paen waited warily for her to speak, but when she finally did,herwordswereunexpected.
"So youdo not stay awayfrom thetableat mealtimestoavoid me ?"
Paen felt hismouthdrop open in shock,thenhe quickly closed it and said, "Why would youthink that?"
Avelynlether breath out onaslow sigh. "Becauseyouseem to constantly be avoidingme. You leave aroom shortly after I enter it, as you did today whenIcame below. You have notsat at table withme since arrivinghere. And while you joined me in our roomatHargrove, youwould notshare our tent, nor have you slept in your ownbed sincearriving hereatGerville. " Shesaid the last part in a rush,her faceflaming.
Paen blinked inconfusion. "I leftthe hall when you enteredtonight because I knewit wastimefor the sup and – as you now know – I have been eating up here. "
"Aye, I understand that now," she said quietly, but ducked her head and mumbled, "However, thatdoesnotexplainyour reluctance toshare ourmarriage bed…I understand if you do notwantme. I know Iam notthe most attractive – "
Paen snorted,andshe glanceduptofrown at him.
"There is noneed tobe rude about it, my lord husband. I am awarethat I am overlarge and – "
Anothersnort slid from Paen’slips and he shookhis head. "You are beautiful, wife. "
He saw theanger in her eyes and wondered if she really didnot know how lovely shewasto him. But then, he realizedsuddenly, of course shedidn’t. Her cousins had spent years doingwhat they couldto convince her that she wasn’t. He just wished he had realizedthis while hewas still at Straughton. He wouldhave done more than threaten them.
"Oh, aye," Avelyn said wryly. "I am so beautiful you have yet to consummate our marriage, and ’tis more than a week afterit wasdone. "
Paen gaspedin disbelief, thenheld up his bandaged hands. "Tis abit difficultto bed you just at the moment,wife. "
"Hugo said ’twas not your hands that were im-portant, and that ifyou could ride a horse, you could ride me," Avelyn snapped, then realized what she’d said and blushed at repeating thecrude words.
"Hugo,"Paen saidwithdisgust. "Whywould youbelievehim?"
"Because heis aman and more versed atsuch things,"Avelyn said quiedy,then tilted her head and asked, "Is it nottrue, then? Was Hugo wrong?"