What washe doing? she wondered in horror. Surelyhe would not take her below andhumiliate her before all?Muchtoherrelief, he did not cart herbelow topublicly humiliateher,butmerely dumped her in thehall like a bedpan needing emptying, moved toleanoverthe railingand bellow something tothosebelow, then lefther standing thereandchargedback into the room.
Avelynstood in the hallway, clutchingthe linen abouther and staring afterhim forlornly as herheart began tobreak. Then her eyessettled with disinterest on the flames licking their way up the bed drapes.
"Fire," shebreathed. Her eyes widened as her rather slow and stunned brain realized that was exactlywhathe had yelled to those below. Fire. He wasn’t dumping her likesomuch trash. He mightnot even have been horrifiedby whathehad seen of her. He was setting her out in the hallto keep her out of harm’s waywhile he fought thefire her candle had obviouslystarted.
Oh! He was so braveandgallant! And hewas at risk ofbeing burnt,she realized as she watched him snatch up his braes and bat thefire with them. Drawing the sheetmore securely around herself, she tucked the end betweenherskin and the linen, then racedin to hisaid.
Snatching up his tunic, Avelyn joined herhusband in batting atthe flames. She had barelybegun todo so when Paen snatched her up in his arms andhustledher out of the room.
"Oh, but I wish to help," Avelyn protested as he set her down inthe hall.
Paen merelygrunted and shook his head ashe rushed tothehead of the stairsto bellow "Fire!" once more. Then heraced back intothe room.
Avelyn watched himbattle the flames, but her mind was somewhat distracted as the firecast its goldenglow overhis nak*d muscular body. She’dknownhe was tall and large. That much had beenobvious even dressed,but nak*d she saw just how largehe was. There was no paddingin this man’s clothing to impresspeople. He was solidly built, his legs as strong and muscular as a horse, his chest wide and barrel-like, and his arms as big aroundas her thighs, butmuch firmer.
Avelyn’seyeswere just dropping tohisbehind when Paen grabbed the burning bed drapes and turned away, ripping them freeto fall to the floor. it wasthen she recalled herwater basin. Runilda hadanticipated her hotand sweatystate after the embarrassing binding incident and had possessed theforethought to bring up abasin of waterforher to have arefreshing andquick wash before slidingnaked into bed.
The used water had notbeenremoved and stillsat on the chest by thefireplace.
Ignoringhis order to remain where shewas, Avelynraced into the room, snatched up the basin and rushed toward Paen withit. She hadnearly reachedhim whenher sheet begantounravel from around her. Before she could grab atthefalling cloth, it tangled itself around her feet,tripping her up. Paenturned ather strangled cryas she tumbled toward the floor. Hegrabbed herarmin an effort to save her. While he managedto prevent her falling on her face, Avelyn ended up crashingto herknees, the waterinthe basin splashing everywhere as her dampface wassuddenly mere inches from an alienpart of his body. Her mother haddescribed this appendage whilepreparingher for her wedding night, butAvelyn had never seenone. She was certainly seeing hisnow, and inrather close proximity.
She found herselffrozen inplace, her wideeyes fixated onhisstaff. Her mother had said very little onthematterof the appearance of this appendage other thanto describe itas similar to a finger. "But larger, onehopes," she’d addedina mutter.
Avelyn suspected she hadn’t been meant to hearthe addedcomment. Paen’s was certainly larger than a finger,but it looked nothing like one to her. A rather lumpy sausage perhaps,she thought faintly, then blinked as a drop of water dripped off the end of it, drawingher eye. Shewas gaping at the odd end of it,an openingthat seemed almost to be growing, when Paenmade a sort of choking soundthat drew herattentionupward.
Avelyn peered at his face to find it dripping as well. The waterappeared to have splashed all down the front of him. Butthat didn’t explain the odd expression on his faceas his gaze slidfrom where shekneltto hisgroin. Avelyn followed his gazeand wassurprisedto see that his staff had grown larger still,and wasemerging from itself likea molepoking itshead out of itshole. Shehad just noticed thiswhen she found herself bundledupin hisarms againandtransported quickly to thehallway.
"Stay,"he ordered gruffly,thenwas gone again.
Biting her lip, Avelyn moved to lean against the doorjamb, watching anxiously as he battled theblaze. The curtains he’dripped away fromthebed had fallenacross a chest, whichhad caughtfire andwasnow burning merrily. Paenwasattemptingto beat out those flames withthebraes in one hand and thetunic she’d used earlier in the other. As she watchedhim,Avelynrecalled herfather’s comments about this man as they’d prepared for the wedding. Lord Staughtonhad spoken of himoften.
She supposed he’d been trying to allay any worries she may have as the day approached. Her father had thoughtheknew much about Paen. Avelyn supposed thathe’d known all thata man might thinkimportant, butit hadseemed verylittleto her.
According to her father, Paen had the unusual skillof beingableto wield asword in both hands. It madehima formidableopponent. To addto that, he was also said to be relentless. He,like his fatherbefore him, was considered a fearsome warrior.
That had been the selling pointinher father’s contracting the betrothal when Lord Gervillehad approached him on the subject. Theydid not live far apart, and even thenas a young lad, Paen had been large and strong for his age and had shown every sign offollowing inhis father’s fearsome footsteps. Lord Straughton had wanted his daughter’s husband to beable to care for her and keep her safe.
Watching her husband battlingthe firein their bedchamber, Avelyn began to understand why. The flames were lickingout at him like tongues of poisonous snakes, yet he did not shrink. His strong arms whirled in a constant, unflagging motion. Still, she feared that his determination would not be enough. It seemedthat theflames were dancing around him,moving oneway and then another,as ifthey hada mind oftheir own and playedpeekaboo games with him.
Wincingas a sliver gouged into the tender skinof one finger, she glanced downto see that she had clenched herfingerson the door frame in worry. Lettinggo of the wood, she started to step forward into the room, then paused and glanced toward the stairs instead. She wasamazed that no one had notedthefire yet orheard Paen’s call for help. Surely the smokehad reached the great hall by now, she thought,then realized that insteadit was traveling up the tower. Of course, the celebrations below hadgrownboisterous and loud. It seemed they had noteven heard Paen’s shouts, or someonewould be here with pails of water. Pushingaway fromthe door, Avelynran for the stairs.
She triedshoutingfrom thetop of themas Paen had done, but went unheard once again. Avelyn grabbed up the hem of her sheet and hurried down the stairs, shrieking at the top ofher lungs. She wasnearly at the bottom before anyone heard her,and they all seemed to hear heratonce,for the noisesdied out as allheads turnedher way.
Avelynwaited forsomereaction – a suddenrushoffeet,alarmed shouting for water, a surge of rescuers rushing her – but instead there wassudden and complete stillnessas all gaped at her. Unawareof thepicture she made with her lush curves andfullround br**stsattempting topush theirwayup out of the damp and clinging sheetshe wore. Unaware her hairtumbled abouther prettyflushed face in glorious chestnut waves thatbillowed over hershoulders and down toher knees. Unaware those who had thoughther merelypleasing ortoo plumpin herdark,dowdy gowns and with her hair pulled starkly back from her face, were now reassessing their opinions and seeingheras a luscious, sensualfeast. Avelyn’s bewilderment gave way to impatience. At thatmoment, her husband was upstairsbattling alone to save the castle,yet here they allsat likebumpsona log.
"Are youall deaf?"she cried in amazed fury. "Willyou let the castleburn down around you? Thebedchamber is afire!"
Warin was thefirst to move. Bounding to hisfeet, he belatedly bellowed for water as he rushed toward her. But hedid notfly past her andrace up the stairs asshe’d expected, instead pausingbefore her, blocking her fromthe view of thosebelow.
"Youhad bestretireabovestairs, sister. You are awakening appetites herethat werenot fed by the feast. "
Avelyn stared at him in bewilderment, thennotedhis eyes skating uncomfortably downward, then away. She peered down at herself, realizing only then thatnot only wassheclad only in asheet, but that it wasdamp and clinging indecently toher curves. She sighedinwardly at making sucha pickle of herself yet again,but then, whatwas one more humiliation? Solong as Paen had aid, she thought, relievedwhen thedoor to the kitchens swungopen andseveral servantsrushedout, pails in hand, splashing water as theyran. The clangor and rustle of at least a hundred men rising and rushing forward to claimthose pails reassured her. They would not all get one, nor could theyall fit upstairs, butatleastthey intendedto do somethingabout the fire.
"Forma line to the well!" She heard herfather roar in an attemptto bring some orderto the chaos. Shaking her head, Avelyn turned and hurried back upstairs, awarethatherbrother was hard on her heels.
Thesmoke hadthickened while she was gone, andAvelyn’s heart lodgedinher throat when she reached the room and couldn’t spot Paen. it wasas ifa thick fog had driftedinthe window and obscured the room. Whatever was in the chesthad caused a black smoke thickerandmore blinding than any she’d before seen.
"Wait here. "Warin pushed herto the side, then took the pail off the first manto arrive and charged into the room. Avelyn stood to theside ofthe door, tryingto stay out of the wayyet unableto keepfrom tryingto glimpse into the room everyfew seconds, eager to see that Paenwas onhis feetstill andhad not beenovercomeby the smoke. But her attempts toseeintothe room put her in theway of themen rushing up with water. She found herself urgedtothe side by man after man, each of them smilingat herin onemanneror another. These smilesseemed oddto Avelyn.
Shehad never been the recipient of them before. Her father’s men were always pleasant to her, but these smiles seemed different somehow.
She hadlittle time topuzzle overthe matter. Her mother was suddenly there, grasping her arm and leading heraway through the flow of men to her brother’s room. Avelyn found herself subjected toan examination as her motherchecked for injuries, then explained how the fire had started, thoughshe only admitted thatshe’d knockedthe candle to the floor,notthat she’d been trying to cloak her body in darkness when she’d done it. She also left out how Paen’s kisses had been distracting her, but suspected that her blushand hermother’s commonsensewere enough to give her a generalidea ofthe situation.
Lady Straughton patted her hand reassuringly and was murmuring something along thelinesof "accidentshappen" whenthe door opened andher father led a smoke-streaked Warininto theroom. Avelyn rushed to hisside.
"IsPaen well? He was notinjured,was he?"she asked anxiously.
"Were you injured?" her mother asked almost in the same moment, reaching Warin and beginning to examine him much as she’d doneAvelyn.
"I am fine, Mother," Warin assured her quickly, then turned his attention to Avelyn,who wasstrugglingwith guilt forsuch a poor showing of concern for a brother she loved dearly. "AsforPaen, I think heburnt hishands. And hetookin a lotof smoke. I thinkhe – "
"Where do you think you are going, young lady?" her father growled as she started for the door.
"I… Warin saidPaen burnt his handsandI thoughtto – "
"Lady Christina willsee to him," her motherassured her, taking her shouldersto turn her away from the door.
"But – "
"Nay. No buts, my girl,"Lord Straughtonsaidfirmly. "Youarehardlydressedto be flitting about thecastle. His mother istending to himin the room they were given.
Wewill see hecomes hereonce she is finished. "Heendedhisstern words with a patontheshoulder, thenturned to his wife with a new concern. "The room did not fare well. Avelyn and Paen cannot staythere tonight. We shallhaveto make alternate arrangements. At least fortonight. Hopefully,tomorrow we might repair itenoughto be habitable. I – "
"They can takemy room," Warin interrupted. "I cansleep in thegreathall this night. "
Lord Straughton turned a concerned gaze on his smoke-streaked son,but nodded with relief at this easy solution to his problem. "I shall have a bathput in our room for yousoyou might clean up," he announced, steering him towardthedoor with a hand on his shoulder.
"Mayhap you should have one senttoLord and Lady Gerville’s room for Paen as well, husband,"Lady Straughton suggested.
Avelyn’s father paused and glanced back, his gaze landing on his wife and daughter. Hislips quirkedup fondly. "Aye. And one for our girltoo," he assured her.
Avelyn glanceddown at herself asthe doorclosed behind the twomen, surprised tosee that thewhitelinen she’d been running about inwas now agray-black mess, as were her armsand shoulders and probably her face as well. She was sureshehad not been in that condition whenshe’d run below – herlinenhad been damp but still white when she’d peered at herself below. She couldonly think thatstanding in the door of the room as the thick black smoke had billowedout had covered her in the stuff. She definitely needed abath.
"You did afinejob on yourhands. "
Paen grunted athis mother’s wry statement as shetendedto his injuries. He was tryingnot to think on the matter too much. Hishands werepaininghim terribly. He feltas ifhe were holding them in a vat of boiling oil.
Hisgaze slid tothedoor oftheroom andhewondered wherehisbride had got to. She had triedtohelphim, he knew,but had beenmoreof ahindrance at first. At least until she’d fetched the others. Thathadprobably saved his life. The smokehad not been sobad with justthe bedcurtains burning, butonce the firehad reached the chest, somethinginside had madethesmoke thick andacrid. It had filledhislungs likea black mass,choking himto the point thathe’d become woozyand lost his footing. He’d tumbledtohis hands and knees amid the fire,his hands landingon the burning bed curtains.
The biteof the firehad roused him quickly andhe hadstruggled backto hisfeet justas Warin had rushed intotheroom witha pailof water. The first pailof water haddone little good, but the arrivalof several morepails and even more men had put out the fireand aided in removing a gooddealof the smoke from the room. Still, it had been a relief forPaento finally leavethat room. He’d spent the pastseveral moments half bent over choking upblack bile. He hardly recalled being led into this room and still had no idea where his wife had got to.