Now they werereturning,and Avelyn was eager totell Diamanda about their trip.
Theyounger girl had been pleasantenough before, butever since their trip to the village, the twoof them werebecomingfast friends, spending a gooddeal oftime together and laughing and chatting as they went about their chores. In fact, Diamanda had wantedto comewith her to the village today,but thegirl’s aunthad refusedto allow it. Lady Helen insisted Diamanda remain home to practice her seams, as she was stillunable to getthem straight.
Avelynsuspected the girl would be as bored asmudby now, andwondered if she was watching froma window andcouldsee them approaching the gates to the bailey.
"He issquirmy. "
Avelyn smiled faintly and glanced down at David’s claim, just in time to see Samson wiggle his way outof the boy’s hold. Dropping to the ground with aplop, the pigletraced off along the wall,andDavid promptlygavechasewith a squealthat justseemed to urge Samson tofaster speeds. Avelynsetoff after the pair, worried thatthe lad would trip over his ownfeet.
Sure enough, Davidtooka tumbleaftera coupleof minutes,and Avelyn shook her head asshe slowed to a walk to approachhim. She knewher husbanddid not like anyone making a bigdealof the child’stumbles, so shepaused beside himand raised her eyebrows as Samsonturnedback and waddled over to snuffle athim.
David giggledas he crawled to hishands and knees, then snuffled back.
Avelyn shook herhead atthepair ofthem, andthen bentto scoopSamson into herarms as David climbed to his feet.
"You have some dirtonyour braes," she announced, and was waiting patiently as he brushed itaway when a grinding sound overhead madeher glanceup. Avelyn’s eyes widened in horror at the sight of a stone block plummeting down toward them from the wall. For asplit second, she wassure her heartstopped;then sheshouted and lunged forward, pushing David beforeher as she tried to get them out of the way.
A grunt of pain slid from her lips as her shoulderwas struck a glancingblow;then the three of them were falling. Avelyn let go of Samson, hoping to keep from crushing the piglet while tryingto avoid falling on David. Then she hitthe ground witha crash that sent a jolt throughherwhole body.
"Are you all right, my lady?"
Younger andmoreused totumbles, David was the first torecover and crawled over to peer at her.
Avelyn took a minute to catch her breath. Then she sat up, rubbed the pain from her shoulder and manageda smile as Samson wiggled between them. "Aye. I am fine, thank you,David. Were youhurt?"
"Nay. " He offered a handtohelpherup, and Avelyn accepted it even though she actually got to her feet under her own steam. The boy wasn’t big enough to trulyhelp her, but shewouldn’t rebuff his attempt at chivalry.
"Lord Paen will blame me," David saidmiserably, drawing Avelyn’s surprised attention.
"Why would he dothat?" sheasked as hergaze drifted up thewallto where the cut stone hadcome from. Avelynfrozeas she spotted Diamanda withdrawing from thewall directlyabovethem. Theblonde hadobviouslybeen leaningover, peering downat them from the spot wherethe cut stone hadbeen, but hadpulledback as Avelyn glanced up. Onesecond slower and Avelyn would havemissed seeingher.
"Well, afterthe boulder nearly hit me while I waswith him, hemademe stop going with him to the wall everyday. He said I wouldget myself killed, and one dead squire wasenough,"David said, reminding her ofhis presence.
Avelyn glanceddown to seehis eyeswiden with alarm.
"Youdo not think hewill makeme stop spending time withyouand Samson now, do you?"
Avelyn staredat David blankly, finding itdifficult to draghermind fromtheimage of Diamandapeering down at them. What had she been doing up there? Had the stone blockreallyjust fallen accidentally?
"Hewill!". theboy cried unhappilywhen sheremained silent. "Oh, pleasedo not tell himaboutthis, mylady. He will make me stop spendingthe day with youand Samson. Please do nottell – "
"Iwill not tell," sheassured himquietly,but had reasons ofher own tokeep this toherself. Avelynneeded to do somethinking. She considered Diamanda her friend, but there were so many questions whirling through her head at themoment… She thought suddenly ofthe ruined tunic saturated with the scentof pork,and the plank slamminginto her head and sending her through theholein the floor. And now a stone block had nearly crushed herand David… and Diamanda hadbeen standing upthere, directly where the cut stone had been.
But Diamanda washer friend, she argued with herself. Avelyn trulyliked the girl.
Of course, that didn’tmean the girl truly liked her back, she acknowledgedwith a sigh. However, her friendshipwithDiamanda madeher feel sheowed it to the girlto talk to her beforetellingPaen aboutthe incident.
Of course,Avelyn wasn’t a fool. IfDiamandadid mean her harm,shewould be an idiottoconfront her inprivate. She decidedshe would confront Diamanda infull view ofothers,just farenough away to be out of hearing.
"Thank you, my lady. "
Avelynpatted David’sshoulder,then bent to scoop upSamsonand urged the boy to hurry towardthegateinto the bailey. Theyhad taken several stepsinside the gate when she thought of the guards on the wall. SurelyifDiamandahad pushed the stone blockoff, the man stationed along that section of wall would have shouted or at least seen her. She turned to look towardwhere the guardusually stood, onlyto find it empty. it wasn’t until she slid her gaze along thewallthat she spotted aman mounting the stairs to thewall. As she watched, he walked back to his postand took uphis position.
"Good afternoon, my lady. You look lovelytoday. "
Avelyn glanced around, a blush coming to her cheeks as she nodded at the two soldiers approaching.
"Aye, lovely," the second soldiersaid astheypassed.
Avelyn wasshaking her head with bewildermentat the sudden penchanteveryone seemed to havefor complimenting her,when sheheard the first soldier say, "Lovely was my compliment. Could you notcome up with your own?"
"LordPaen said compliment her, hedid notsay we had tobecreativeabout it,"
the second man pointed outwitha shrug. "Besides, what should I have said? ‘Pretty pig, my lady?’Once you’ve tolda woman she islovely,there is little else tosayto her. "
Avelyn turnedslowly towatch themen walk awayas thefirstsoldier shook his head and said, "If that iswhat you think,’tis nowonder you have such troublewith women. "
The men obviously had no idea they’d been speaking loud enough to be overheard. Avelyn turned a thoughtful glance to her husband’s squire. "David?"
"Aye, my lady?"
"Did Paen tellthe soldiers to compliment me?"
"Aye, my lady. " David nodded. "Hesaidyou needed steam building dueto your nastyprick cousins and their years of damned evil insults and we wereall to aid in… er… preparing thedamage. "
Avelyn bit her lip to hold backa chuckle. She suspected he meantesteembuilding andrepairing thedamage, buthe had certainly remembered Paen’s curses.
Shaking her head, sheurged Davidtocontinueacross the bailey,but her thoughts were on what she’d just learned. Avelyn had been the recipient of countless compliments of late, andfound herself bothuncomfortable and embarrassed by it all, tothe point thatshe’d started to avoid the men. Nowsheunderstoodwhy she wasgettingso manycompliments: because Paenhad told them to. She wantedto cry. Herhusband had cared enough to tryto repair thedamagedoneby her’nasty prick cousins. ‘ The more she learned about her husband, the more she loved him. Avelyn stopped walking as she realizedwhat had just gone through her head. Love? Paen? Certainly she had the dutiful lovethat a wifewas supposed to have for herhusband – that was as itshould be – but she didn’t low love him… did she? "There you are. "
Avelyn pulled backfrom her thoughts and smiledat the manin questionas Paen appeared before them.
"David, go inside and polish my mail at the trestle table," heordered. "Do notgo anywhere without checking with Lady Helenfirst. "
"Aye, my lord. "
Avelyn raised her eyebrowsas theboy hurried off.
"LadyHelenagreed tokeep aneye onhim while wearegone," Paen announced, taking her arm and turning her around toleadher back the way she’dcome. She still heldSamson in her other arm.
"Whilewe are gone where,husband?" Avelyn asked, glancingcuriouslyat the sack and the folded fur he carried.
"Tohave our lunch," he said, and her eyes widened.
"Our lunch?Do you mean a picnic? We are having a picnic?"she askedwith excited pleasure.
"Aye," Paengrunted, but shecouldn’t help noticingheappeared embarrassedto admit it. Avelyn supposedthatmeant this wasanother of the suggestionshis mother hadmade while shewas here. Lady Gervillehad toldher all about Paen’s explaining thatthe rump patting and the handingover of an apple had beenhis ways of praising her. His motherhadfeared thatAvelyn might have taken offense at this "praise"and had hoped toprevent or repair it byexplaining his actions. Lady Gerville had also told her that she’d given Paen alternate waysto praise herand had suggested he also spend more time with her at pursuits such aschess and walks and so on. Avelynhad appreciated the suggestions this last week as she’d enjoyed her husband’s company.
For somereason,she hadn’t minded thatthechessgames atnight andthe walks duringthe day were at LadyGerville’s suggestion. Paenwanted to praise her and did followthe advicetospend time with her. That waswhatmattered.
Paen led her out of the bailey and into the woods, following a path he appearedto know. It wasn’tlongbeforethey came to a clearing with a small brook running through it.
"Oh, this is lovely,"Avelyn exclaimed, peeringaround as heset down thebagand began to lay outthe fur. "How didyou know this washere?"
"Icameout yesterday on horseback and looked for a suitablespot. "
"And this spot isso nearby," Avelyn murmured, but her heart was squeezing at the factthathe’dlookedfor anice spot for them. Lady Gervillemay have suggested thepicnic,but Paenhad put careand trouble into finding a nice placeto have it. It gave her hope that he was perhaps coming to care forher, at least a little.
"Sit," Paenordered oncethe fur was spread out.
Avelyn sat, a small smile playingabouther lips, then set Samsonon the fur. The piglet immediatelyset out on an exploration of the clearing. She watchedhim for a bit, but wasn’treally concerned that he would gofar. He never wandered too far from her unlesshe waswanting to be chased. Had Davidnot set outafter himtoday, Samson wouldhave stopped and come backonhis own.
Paenshook his head withamusement. "I shouldhave had David take the little pest, but I did not notice you had him. "
Avelyn’s eyebrows rose. "It is hard to believe youdid not notice I was carrying him, my lord. "
Paen grimaced. "I was distracted. "
"By what,mylord husband?" she asked.
"Iwas considering whetherI had forgottenanything,"he said.
Avelyn smiled at theadmission. Not that Paen noticed, he was busy digging food out of the sackandsetting it on the blanket. His face was a pictureof concentration as he worked, and she felt her heartswell as she watchedhim. How she didlove this man. Yes,she did. He mightsay little, but his actions spoke loud and clear. Paen put care into things that matteredto him – his castle, his horse…and her. The factthat he hadtaken great carein findingtheperfect spot for their picnic was only onein a list of examples. Hehad takenon the choreof chatelain at Rumsfeld becausehe’d thought she wasunhappy in not having a home ofher own to run. He had ordered his men to praise her tohelp raise her esteem. He hadstartedplaying chess withher and taking her forwalks, purely because hismothersuggested it would makeher happier. .
Beneath his gruffexterior, Paen was agood man. A caring man whom she loved, andwho she was beginning to hope might care forhera bit.
Paen raised his head andopened hismouth to speak,then froze as he caught the expression on herface. He satlike that for a minute, thenclosedhismouth, licked his lips and said, "You lookall soft and glowing rightnow. "
"Do I, my lord?"Avelyn asked softly.
"Aye. You looklovely. "
She smiled and admittedsoftly, "You makemefeel lovelywhen you look at me like that. "
"Like what?" Paen asked,beginningtoscowl.
Avelyngrinned at the defensiveactionand said,"LikeI amadelicious dessert you wouldlike to gobble up. "
"Iwould. "He began to lean toward her.
"You would what, my lord?" Avelyn asked breathily.
"I would liketo gobble youup," he admitted. Thenhis mouthcovered hers. His lips were allthat touched her, brushing softly back and forth and feather-light.
Avelyn’s eyes driftedclosed andshe sat still for a moment, but thenfound her lips drifting apartandherbodyleaningforwardof its ownaccord. She wanted morethan his teasingkisses. She wanted a proper kiss,shewantedto touch him, she wanted himtotouch her.
But the further Avelynleaned forward, the further Paen pulled back, forcing the kiss to remaina light brushing of mouths.
Just when Avelyn thought he would drive hermad with his teasing, she felt his tongue slip out to drift across her open lips. The intimate caress madehermoan,and her own tongue slidout until the tipof hers touchedhis. Paenimmediately slanted his head and pressed forward sothathis tongue couldthrust fullyinto her mouth.
Avelyn gaspedandkissedhimback. She raisedherhands to slip themaround his shoulders, but Paencaught them in his own and held on. It seemedhe was intenton drivinghermad, she thought witha touch offrustration; thenhe suddenlybroke the kiss and satback.
"Take off your dress," he orderedhuskily.
Startled at the request, Avelyn blinked. Her mind struggled briefly, shyness battling with excitement;thenshe shifted to her knees, only to hesitate.
"Please," Paen added. His gaze was hungry, hisexpression solemn.
Avelyn took a deep breath andslowly stood. A moment passed asshegathered hercourageandthenshe bent to catchthe hem of her gown and draw itup overher head. Avelyn immediately had a terrible urgeto hide behind the gown, butshe made herself release it to droptothe furs. It wasa decisionshe began to regret when Paen simply sat staring ather, his eyessliding over every inchof her exposedbody. Just as Avelyn reached thepoint whereshe decided shecouldstand it no more and must grab upher gown, Paen shifted tohis knees andleaned forward to brushthe tip of his thumb acrossoneerect nipple.