The Perfect Wife (Page 21)

The Perfect Wife(21)
Author: Lynsay Sands

She’d learnedat tablethat ithad been decided they shouldwait another weekto go. It was hoped the extra time would give Paen’shands achance tofinish healing.

Avelyn thus had another week torepack her chests in preparationof moving. Not thatthere was muchto repack. Other than herclothes,nothing had come out of the chestssince the journey. Noneof it had been needed here.

Lady Gerville hadspoken with forced cheer aboutthe move,and itseemedto Avelyn that Paen’s mother was nomore happy about it than she herself was. Even Diamanda and Lady Helen had seemed subdued. Avelyn had been grateful toescape the solarto finish off hernew efforts at atunic and braesfor her husband. She’d started theprojectthe day after their arrival here at Gerville. After wandering the castle aimlessly formostof themorning, she’d decided she might aswellstarton another outfit forPaen. Whilehe still wore a pair of braes and a tunic that had belonged to his brother, they didn’t fit as well as they might.

"Rumsfeld is quite lovely," Diamanda continued as theyreachedthesolar. "I am sureyou shall like it. "

"You have beenthere?" Avelynasked curiously as Lady Helenpushed open the door.

"Aye. My family traveledby it onourway here when I first came totrainwith LadyChris – !" Diamanda stopped abruptly and glanced aroundwhen she bumped into her aunt. Lady Helenhad suddenlystoppedinthe doorto the solar, blocking either womanfrom enteringthe room.

"Aunt Helen? What is it?" Diamandashifted past the older womanandpeered into theroom, thengave asoft"oh" as Lady Helen suddenly turned and tried to usher Avelyn awayfrom theroom. "Why dowe not go for a nice walk in the bailey?"

"What?But ’tis raining out," Avelyn remindedher,then frowned at her pitying expression and moved past her, determined to see whatever was in theroom.

"Mydear, I do not think – "LadyHelentouched Avelyn’s shoulder to stop her, thenfell silent and letherhand fallaway with asigh asAvelyn slippedpast Diamanda andinto theroom.

Atfirst, Avelyndidn’t seeanything unusualor amiss. The roomwas empty except for Boudica andJuno. LadyChristina’s pet greyhounds were curled up asleepon top of an old stripof cloth theirmistress had laid out for their comfort.

Avelyn started to turn backtoward theother twowomen,then pausedand peered back at thebit of cloth sticking outfrom underthe hounds. It was the very same forestgreen as the fabric LadyChristina had given her to sew Paen’s new outfit – the remains of the cloththe lady had madehis wedding outfit from.

"Avy?" LadyHelen asked with concern.

Avelyn crossedtheroom ascarefully as ifshewere walking anarrow tree trunk laid over a river, placing one foot in front of the other, her gazelocked on the cloth.

When she reached the dogs, she knelt just as carefullyand pluckedatthe cloth, waking the dogs assheslowly pulled it out from beneath them. Boudica andJuno scrambled to their feet and stood watching, tails wagging asAvelyn held up the tunic she’dnearly finishedfor Paen. It was clawedandchewed up. Ruined.

"Ohhh. " It was apainedmoanfrom LadyHelen. "And after allyour work. Oh, Avelyn. "

"Ishall go fetchLady Gerville," Diamanda saidandhurried from the room.

Avelyn heard the girl hurryoff, but simply sat therestaringatthe ruined remains of Paen’s top. She could hardly believe it. She couldn’tbelieve it. Her stunned mind was floating uselessin her head, unabletograsp this latestcatastrophe.

A whine sounded, then Boudica’s wet tongue brushed up her cheek. Avelyn blinked her eyes back into focus and peered at the animal even as Juno moved closer togive her awet swipe on her cheek aswell. An apology? Comfort?

Boudicagave another whine,followed by another lick as if begginghernot to hurt them. Avelyn smiledfaintly at the thought. As if she could hurt the sillycreatures. A long sighslid fromher, taking all the tensionfrom her bodywith it. She dropped the cloth to pet them both reassuringly.

"’Tisall right,"shetoldthe animals,finding herself soothed by the feel of their soft furas she petted them.

"Butall yourhard work," Lady Helensaid.

" ‘Twasjust atunic," Avelyn murmured.

Lady Gerville had suggested the fatesmight be acting against her. Avelyn was beginning to believe it. If that werethe case, she hadtwo choices – to give upand stop trying to do anything, or to make the best of the situation and keep onplugging untilthe fates tired of toying with her.

Avelyn wasnot thesort to give up.

"Avelyn?"

She lifted her headas Lady Gerville moved slowlyinto the roomto stand beside Lady Helen. She was a little out ofbreath, sohad obviouslyhurriedup here, but nowshe was moving slowly, almost cautiously, uncertainty on her face. Avelyn supposed Diamanda had told her what hadhappenedand the woman feared her reactiontowhatthe dogs had done.

"I – " Paen’smother began, " ‘Tis all right," Avelyn interrupted her. She ruffled the fur of both Juno and Boudica one last time, thenpicked up thescrapof cloththat used to be a lovely tunic and got to herfeet. "I fearwe shall need more cloth, though. I hopethefabric merchant is expected to comearound soon. "

"I shallsend a man out to hunt him up," Lady Gervillesaid, eyeingher with concern.

Avelyn supposed that because of the way she’dfallenapart after the firehad destroyed her first efforts,Lady Gerville was unsure what to expect this time. But that had been an unusual reaction from Avelyn, a result of exhaustion, she suspected. She hadn’t sleptmuchinthe days before that disaster. Besides, ithad been one of many catastrophes over a short span of time. This was the first untoward event in thethree days sincearrivinghere. She wasn’t goingtofall apart.

Patting thelady’sarm as shewalked past her, Avelyn said, "I think I shallgosee if there is enough ivorycloth left to make a tunic. "

Avelyn slipped from the roomand walked to her own, the cloth clutchedinher hand. She could usethedestroyedgarment to measure the ivory cloth, andslung it over hershoulderasshe kneltat herchest,onlyto pause and sniff the air. She smelled… Avelyn sniffedagain, turning her head towardthe tunichangingoverher shoulder. Pork. Shelifted thegarment topress it to her face to besure. The tunic smelled of pork.

Avelyn sat backand staredat the garment. They’dhad porkfor dinner the night before, but she had no ideahow thescentcould have got on the tunic. Avelyn hadn’t sewnafter the meal last night. She’d gone totalk to Paen instead, andthen… well, she certainly hadn’t even thought ofsewingafter Paen had come to theroom.

She fingered the material. With the tunic smelling as itdid,it wasno wonder the dogshad gone after it. But how haditendedup smelling ofpork? Ithad to have been doneby someone else, but who?Justtouching it with grimy fingers wouldn’t have done it. The clothwas saturated with the scent, as if the meathad been rubbed across it.

It was the second outfit Avelynhad been making for Paen thathad beenruined.

Thefirstinthe fireand now this. She shook herhead atthe suddenthoughtthat struck her. Surelysomeonewasn’tsabotaging her efforts?Avelyn couldn’tbelieve it.

But she truly had thought she’d blown that candle out in the tent. And nowthepork smell. Onthe other hand,she had beenincredibly accident proneof late, and it was possible she hadn’t blown the candle out after all.

She wasbeing silly,Avelyn decided. Perhapsthesmellof pork hadgottenon the tunicaccidentally… though she couldn’t see how that could happen. Still, it just couldn’t have been done deliberately. Everyonewas so nicetoher.

Avelyn folded the tunic andput it inthechest on top of the ivorycloth, thinking that perhapsit wasa good thingthat sheand Paen were going to Rumsfeld. She didn’t thinkshe’dstart another tunic until shereached her new home. Just to be safe.

Chapter Thirteen

"Diamanda, I may havea faulty memory,but Iam sure you said Rumsfeld was quite lovely," Avelyn said weakly asthey rode close enoughto see the crumbling walls.

"Aye. " The younger woman shook herhead helplessly, herown gaze lockedon the castle ahead. "It was when I saw it. "

"How old were you?"

"Six," she admitted.

"Isee. " Avelyn let her breathout on a sigh, then triedfor an expression shehoped was serene as her husband slowed his horse to fallback next to them.

it was a week since the morningAvelynhad discovered Lady Gerville’s dogs sleeping on the ruined tunic. A perfectly peaceful, calamity-free week. Avelynhad come to the conclusion that her brief concern that someone might be trying to sabotage her efforts had just been too much imagination. Nothing had happened since then.

Actually,nothingat all hadhappened during the last week. Ithad been astring of boring days and boringevenings. Paen had ridden out withhisfather to Rumsfeld first thing every morning. Thecastlewas a half-day travel away, and bythetime the two men had returned eachnight,it wasquite late. Avelyn wasoften asleepwhen Paen returned. If not, she was assoon as he collapsed into bed exhausted and began tosnore.

Paen hadnotbeddedAvelynagain sincethe night they hadconsummated the wedding – muchtoherdisappointment – and she was once again fighting offthe fear thatit waspurely outof a lack of desire to doso. She tried totell herself that he was justtired,but it wasas if her three cousins had made a place forthemselvesinher head, for Avelyn could heartheir voices claiming thathehad only approachedher the first time out of duty and now could not bear to bebothered with herplump body again. When those voices arose, she pushed them away and told herselfto wait until they were at Rumsfeld to see what would happen. SoAvelyn had waited.

In themeantime, she hadlearnedfrom Lady Gerville that there hadbeen some trouble with reavers at Rumsfeld over theyears. Scottish raiders had crossed the nearbyborderto stealanimals and harass the people of the area. It seemed thaton one or two occasions, they had attacked the castle itself. This last point, Lady Gerville claimed, was the thing thatupset Lord Gerville themost, for his chatelain, Legere,hadnever informed him of these problems. Instead, he’d chosen todealwith them on his own, much to thedetriment of the castle andits people. Apparently, there was a great deal to do, and Paenand his father had been rushingto get all in readiness for Avelyn and Paen to move there.

Avelyn peered at the holes in the outer wall of Rumsfeld with concern. Theholes were clearly the result of attacks. Most of them weresmall, and there was evidence that several much largerholes had been repaired. In some areas,whole sections of the wall had obviously been recentlyrebuilt. She had no doubt thatrepairing the walls was one of the chores her husband andhis father hadbeen seeing to this last week. Neither man would havebeenwillingtobring theirwives to an unsafe castle.

"Rumsfeld is notthe home it oncewas," Paensaidonce his mount was alongside her.

Avelyn noddedat her husband’s words, butmanaged nottocomment.

"It was Mother’s childhood home. "

Avelyn glanced to where Lady Gervillerodenext to her husband. Paen’s mother had decidedto accompanythemto Rumsfeld,so of courseDiamanda and Lady Helenhad joinedthepartyas well. Realizing thather husband was waiting for some sort of response,Avelyn nodded.

"She willbe upsetwhenshe sees what time and troublehave done to it. "

When Avelyn nodded again,Paen grunted withsatisfaction and urged his horse back up beside his father’s. She stared after him, rather bewildered as towhat she was supposedtounderstand fromtheir briefconversation. She’dthought at firstthat he meantto warn or soothe her. Perhaps hewished her tohelp hismother over any upset thewoman might experience when they arrived.

Avelyn would be more thanpleased to cheer and comforther new mother-in-law if the situation arose. The womanhad been kindness itself to her. However, if it was whatPaen wanted,she wished he’d simply saidso. Honestly,mencould be the most unforthcoming of creatures.

Shaking her head, she remained silent for the remainderofthe journey, paying more attention to Lady Gerville thanthe bailey itself asthey rode through it to the steps of the keep. Paen’smother boreup wellat first, though her back did grow straighter with each stepthehorses took,her neck stretchingand head rising higher and higheruntil Avelyn thought itmight snap. Still, those were the only outward signs ofherupset.

Theydismountedat the steps of the keep. Paen and his father took the horsesby the reins and begantolead themtoward what shesupposed must be the stables, but the building was sofullof holes, it was a wonderthatit wasstill standing.

No one commented on the fact that noone wasthereto take the animals, but Avelyn saw Lady Gerville’s fingerstightenwhere she had themclaspedinfront of her. Aftera pause, the lady straightened her shoulders andled thewomen up the stairstothe keep.

It waswhen they stepped through the open large double doors and saw the state of theinterior that LadyGerville finally lost someof her composure.

Her eyes widened, her shoulders drooped, anda soft "oh" ofdismay andpain slipped fromhermouth, which remained openafter the sounddied.

Avelyn immediately took her arm lest shegrow faint. Her touchspurred Lady Gerville to speak. "This is… thisis – "

"Easilyfixedwith a little effort," Avelyn finished firmly, garnering adisbelieving look from Diamanda.

Fortunately, Lady Helen was more helpful, murmuring an agreement as they movedtoward thetrestle table in the centerof thehall.

"Oh, Avelyn," Lady Gerville sighed, then turned large eyes on her. "Truly Ihad not realized… You cannot stayhere. This is – "

"It will be fine," Avelyn assuredher, doing her bestto ignore her own dismay at thestateof the place. The floor wascovered with a scanty carpetof rushes so old there were plants and – worse –  molds growing in them. The walls wereblackened and soot-stainedas ifthey had never beenwhitewashed,though Avelyn wassure theymust havebeenwhile Lady Gervillehadlivedhere. Thestairs to the upper floor were in a terrible stateof disrepair,with steps missing in places. There were also great large holes – some the size of beds – in the wooden floors of the rooms overhead.

"My poor home,"Lady Gerville murmured as she sank onto the table bench under Avelyn’surging,andtumbled to thefloor when it collapsed beneath her.

"Are youall right?" Avelyn askedwith alarm assheand Lady Helenhelpedher back to her feet.

"Yes, thank you," Lady Gerville murmured as the women all proceededto brush at the dust and dirtherfall had collected.