"Where is – "
"Ibelieveshe is up the hall," ChristinaGerville murmured.
Paen cast a discomfited gaze his mother’s way. The womanhad always seemed to be able to readhis mind. Itsometimes lefthim feeling waryaround her, as if he must guardhis thoughts.
"Aye. She is,"Wimarcannounced, catching the questionand answer between his son and wife as he enteredthe room. "Straughtonsays hermotheris seeing her cleaned up. They aresending a bathupfor youas well. Her brother hasgiven up his room tothe twoof you. " He paused at his son’s side andgrimaced on seeing his damagedhands. "Not that it wouldappear that privacy will beneeded this night. You can hardly do aughtwiththose. " Heraised an eyebrowhopefully. "Ido notsuppose you were abletomanage thebedding ere – "
"Nay," Paen said miserably, for truly he had been all ready for the bedding.
Avelyn had been as warm and soft as he’d anticipated. She’dsmelledsweetly of summerflowersandbeenas passionate and responsiveas aman could wish. Truly, he was resenting the fire’sinterruption. Wereitnot forthat, he wouldno doubt be buried deep in her moist warmth by now. Paen heaved a little sigh of disappointment. His sigh was echoed by hisfather.
"How did the fire start?" Lord Gerville asked after allowing a moment to grieve for alostopportunity.
Paen shook his head in bewilderment. "I am not sure. I think a candle got knocked to thefloor, though I amnot sure how. "
"Hmmm. Oh, here isyourbath," Wimarc said as aknock soundedon the door before several servants entered bearing thenecessities.
"I shallstay and helpyou," Lady Gervilleannounced, drawing Paen’s alarmed gaze. He’d not beenbathed by his mother since… well, he couldnotrecallever being bathedbyher. There had alwaysbeennurses and servants to seetothe task as a child. Asan adult, he certainly had never considered accepting her help, andhad nointentionof startingnow.
"Ineednoaid. I can manage on my own," he said firmly. She did not appear the least impressed with his sterntone. Infact, she merely smiled withamusement. This wasthe troublewith parents,of course. Such was his reputation on the battlefield that men had beenknownto quiver atthevery mention of hisname, yet his mother hadnot theslightest fear of him.
"Manageonyour own, willyou?" she asked dryly, drawinghis attentionfrom his silent griping. Noting the meaningful look she cast down at his hands,Paen followed her gazeand nearly gasped. The painhad stopped shortlyafterhisfather’s arrival, whenshe’dsmeared acool, soothingbalm on it. He’dpaid littleattentionto what she was doing after that,his mindtakenupwiththe factthathe’dnot managedtobed his bride. Now he saw that while he’d beenbemoaning thatlost opportunity, she’dbeen bandaging his hands, and bandaging them. Dear Lord, his hands were now linen-covered stumps. Therewasn’t a finger or even a thumb to beseen. It seemed he would need help to bathe.
His mind had barely begun to rebelat thatthought when he realizedthat not only would he need help bathing, but the stateof his handshadput an end toanyhope of bedding his wife this night, or the next night for that matter. He stared at his bandaged stumpswithdismay. There was no wayhe could caress her to thepoint of excitement, or even hold her with them. To manage consummating the wedding right now, he’dhaveto have Avelyn either seat herself on – or bend over – something at his hip levelso that he need only drive his staff home. Such an act would be humiliating andpainful for his newbride without any caresses to prepare herand exciteher, and he had no desiretocause Avelyneither humiliation orpain. It seemed the beddinghadtobe delayed…indefinitely.
Avelyn opened her eyes and stared blanklyat the dark bedclothes overhead, confused for a moment as to howher light blue bed draping hadbeen switched for these dark redones withouther waking. Then she realized shewasn’t inher own bed. Full recollection quickly followed, and her head shot to the side, her eyes findingthe man asleep beside her.
Her husband, Paen Gerville.
The man was soundasleep,but evenin sleep his expressionwas pained. Her gaze dropped to his bandagedhands and she sighed. Avelyn had hardly believed her eyes when he’d first entered the room last night. His bandaged hands, along with the painedexpression on his face,had beenenough toconvince her that the bedding wasn’t likely to take place. She’d been right. Paen had looked at her longand hard where she lay nak*d under the bed linens, his eyesseeming to devour her; thenhe’d heaved a sigh andmoved to the bedside, only to pause andstare from his handsto the bedlinens with frustration.
Realizing that he wasn’table to lift the linens himself,Avelyn had quickly pulled them asidefor him to get into bed, then tucked themaround him,biting herlipwhen she noted the embarrassed flush on his face. Onceshe’d finished and lain backon herside ofthe bed, he’d sighed heavily, closed his eyes and gone to sleep.
Thathadbeenit for their wedding night. Sighingherself, Avelynhadturnedonher sideawayfrom him andforced herself to sleep. It had taken a while. Hermindhad been awhirl withguilt atcausing the firethat had injured him,as well regretthat she wouldn’t experience whatwouldhavefollowed theexcitingkissesand caressesher husbandhadlavished uponher.
Now it was morning, but judging bythepained expression on her husband’sface even in sleep, Avelyn was sureitwould be bestto let himrest as long as he was wont to. Her motherhad always said that sleep was the best cure for any illness or injury.
Easing fromthe bed, Avelyn released asmall relieved sighas shemanagedto gain her feetwithout waking the man. Leaving him there, shescurriedto the chesther fatherhad brought from herold room. Her red dresshad gone up in flames, along with the others she’d left out to wearinthe next few days. She wouldhave to raid her chest for another gown. Very consciousof her nudity, Avelyn donned the first gown that came to hand,a light brown one she often wore while working around the castle. She frowned over its wrinkled state asshesmoothed it down, but all ofher gowns would bewrinkledfrom being packed away.
Giving up onthewrinkles,Avelyn glanced toward herhusband to be sure he still slept, then eased out ofthe room and made herway downto the great hall. She paused on the stairs, a small sigh slippingfrom her lipswhenshe saw that the rest of the castle wasalready apparentlyup. There wasn’t a single guest or servantasleepon the hall floor. Theonlypeople in the room wereher three cousins, seatedat the trestle table. Avelyn nearlyturned aroundand started back upthe stairs,but where wouldshe go?She wouldn’trisk waking herhusband, and all the other roomswere occupied.
Realizing there was nothingfor it, she straightened hershoulders and continued down the last fewsteps. Avelyncrossed the hall to the table with herhead high, hopingherproud attitude wouldhideherreluctancetobe there.
Avelyn stiffened at thelong-drawn-out word fromhercousin Eunice.
"You do not lookanydifferent," shefinishedand Avelyn couldn’t resist glancing herway with surprise.
"Aye," Eunicesaid dryly. "Igatheryour husband couldn’t bring himselfto bed you…as we feared. Else surelyyou wouldlook different. "
"Nay,Of course he didn’t, Eunice," Hugo saidwhile Avelyn silently wondered how she would lookifshe’d been bedded. "Else the proof of her innocence would even nowbe hanging from the stair banister. "
Avelyn did not needexplanation ofthis"proofof herinnocence. " She knewher cousinreferred to thebloodied sheet thatwould have resulted from herhusband’s breaching her maiden’s veil. Avelyn had attended the wedding of her neighbor and. witnessed the rituals and ceremonythere.
"My husband’s hands wereinjured in the fire," she said with all thedignity she could muster. "He was unabletocomplete thedeed fornow. "
"Is thatwhat he toldyou?"Eunice asked withpityeven as Hugo laughedand said," ‘Tisn’this hands he needed to completethe deed. "
"Aye," Staci grinned. "Was his piffleburntin the fire as well?"
Avelyn ground her teeth as her dignity deserted her and she found herself swamped with uncertainty. Her cousins must have spotted the flicker of her expression, for – likewolves spotting a weak deer on the edge of a herd – they surrounded her and began to tear away atevery bit of esteem shehad.
Paen was dreaminghe was fighting a fire. Inhissleep, he hadnothing touseto combat theflames. Out ofdesperation liebegan to beat at themwith hisbare hands, forcing himselftoignore the agonyas theroaring fire licked at thefleshof his fingers andpalms. Thepainwas excruciatingandfinally forced him awake.
Paen sat up witha gasp andraised his hands before his faceto stareatthem as the fiery pain followed himinto wakefulness. He stared blankly at his bandaged hands for amoment, thenlet them drop into hislapand fell back on thebed as he recalled that hehadindeed burned his hands. He stared hard at the cloth overhanging thebed, trying toblockout the throbbingpain as his mind wentoverthe events of the nightbefore. Hisweddingnight hadn’t been what he’d hoped for.
The thoughtmade Paen glance to the side, only to findthe bed beside himempty.
His wifehad alreadyrisen and left, it seemed. Scowling, he kicked thelinens aside withhis feet, then sat up again. It seemed hewould have to discuss a few thingswith his wifewhen hefound her. He wouldn’t be toohard onher, Paen assured himself.
She was newto being abride, after all, but Avelynneededto learnthe thingsthat wouldmake her agood wife. Thingssuch as thata wife did notleavethe beduntil herhusbandwas up and about as well. What if he’d wished to finishwhat they’dleft incomplete the night before? Not that he could do a proper job of it with his hands as they were, but still… Histhoughts ended as he stood up besidethe bedand stared around the room, slowly becoming awarethat he didn’t haveanything to wear. All his clothes, every last stitch,had been destroyed in the fire the night before,boththose that he’dbeen strippedof by the menon the wayinthe door, and those in his chest, whichhad gone up in flames. Paen had worn only the linenhis mother had used to dry him after his bath.
The memory of that humiliating bath madehimnow scowl atthelinenin question.
Being bathed like a baby and by his own mother had beensomewhat distressing.
Not that she’dseemed upset by theordeal. She’d simply rolledup hersleevesand set to the taskas ifbathing one ofthose dogs ofhersat Gerville. Thenshe’d ordered him out of the bath,quicklydriedhim, then wrapped the linen aroundhis waistand sent him down to this room.
Paen shook his head at thememory, then turned his attention to contemplating the linen on the floor. it was apparent that therewas nowayhe’d be able to pickup the bit of cloth and wrap it about his waistagain. Hetoed it briefly, wonderingif he couldn’t get his foot beneath itand lift it enough to catchit onone of his bandaged hands. Then,of course, he would have tomaneuver it around until he had it about his waist – Who was he kidding? Paenwonderedwith irritation. There was no way he could get the linen fastened around his waist by himself. As unpleasant as it was to acknowledge he needed help, he did. Heneededto borrowclothesfrom someone, andhe neededhelpin donning them.
If hiswife were here,he could have garnered her aid in dealing withtheproblem.
Butshe wasn’there – another reason he would have to talk to herabout notleaving the bedchamberbefore he was up and about.
Irritated alloveragain at her absence, he crossed the room to thedoor,hoping that hisparentswere stillin their own room and could assist him in thematter. The latch gave him abit of trouble, butin the endhemanaged it and made his way out into thehall. He was halfway to the room hisparentshad been given at the opposite endof thehall when the dooracross from itopened and Lord and Lady Straughton steppedout.
Paen stoppedabruptly,as didtheoldercouple. For amoment, the three of them were frozeninplace; his newin-lawsgaping, he dropping hisbandagedhandsto hide himselfas best he could. Then the door to his parents’ room opened and Wimarc Gervillestepped out. Paengruntedat the sight of him, the small sound drawinghis father’s gaze his way.
"Son!" LordGerville roared, hisgaze shifting from Lordand Lady Straughtonto his nude son. "What thedevilare ye doingstanding about the hall bare-arsed?"
Sighing, Paen merely shook his head, pausing whenheglimpsed the open door beside him. It was the doorto Avelyn’s room. The damagehadn’t beenas badas it had seemed lastnight, he realized with surprise. The fireappeared to have been confinedmostly to thebed. The smoke had still been denselast night whenhe’d beenled fromthe room, and he’d been sure thewhole room had gone up. He’dbeen wrong.
Hope rising in him thathis chestmay also have escapedworse damage, Paen turned abruptlyand entered the room,forgetting all about the trio in the halluntil he heard hisfather’s gruffapologiesonhis behalf.
Ignoring the sound, Paenwalked around the ruined bed in search of his chest.
Any hope died the moment his eyes landed on thecharredmess. Thetop of the chest wasmissingaltogether, leavingthe blackened bottom and sides, andafew black ashes inits bottom. There would be nothing he could salvage from there, he acknowledgedwitha sigh. Thenhis gazeshifted to the smoky remains of his clothes from thenight before. In his desperation, he’d used his tunic and braesto beat at the flames last night. Now the bits of clothing layin two crumpled piles on thefloor.
Grimacing, Paen toed each lump of material. They had been doused with water when the men had rushedinwith the buckets, butwere now dry. Very dry. They seemed to havealmost hardened in theshapethey’d been left to Hein.
"Dear God! What atimeyou havehadof it here!"
Paen glanced toward his father ashe entered the room. The older man shook his head and closed the door, then leanedheavily against it with a sigh. When Paen made no comment,WimarcGerville frowned and moved forward.
"You need clothes, of course. I should have thoughtof that. It wasnot until you turnedinto thisroom that Irealized why you were wandering aroundnaked. "
"I have clothes here," Paensaid, thenadmitted with no littlereluctance, "Ineed helpdonning them, though. "
"Well, of course Ishallhelp you,son. Whatclothes have you… ?" His voice trailed off when he followed Paen’s gazeto the stifflittlebundleson the floor. "Dear God! Surely you do notintend to wear those? They are a ruin!"
Bending, hemanagedto lift the pilethat appeared to bewhat was leftof Paen’s tunic. Ashepeeled it offthe floor, it madeatearing sort of soundand stretched straightas aboard ashe heldit up. "You cannot wearthis. I shallfetch you one of mytunics and – "