"Yourtunics will notfitme. "
Wimarc paused halfway to thedoor and turnedback with a frown. His shoulders sagged as he took in hisson’s size. "Aye. You have outstripped me. When did you growto be such a large lad?"Hescowled briefly,then shook his head and waved the hardenedcloth. "But you cannot wear this. Perhaps Warin – "
"I’llnot go beggingfor clothes. Myown clothes will do me untilwe reach home,"
Paen insisted grimly. "Justgive the shirt ashake;it willsoften up with wear. "
Wimarc opened his mouth as if to argue, then shookhishead again and started back. "Warin’s clothes probably wouldnotfit either. Tisthe truth, you have six inchesin height on everymanhere. "
It tookmore than a bitof a shake to make Paen’s clothingwearable. His father had topull the cloth out of its set position and beat it energetically before it was suitable for donning – if suitable could be said about clothing that was smoke-stained and full of holes. But while Paen’s tunic andbraes smelledof smoke andweremarred with holes and stains, they covered all the importantbits, and Paen decided they would have to do. His handswere aching, his headnow hurt,and he hadnopatience for searching out clothes that might be freeof stains and smells but would tear at thefirst movement he made. He would just have to see that they returned home at once. While Paen wasn’t much concerned withthe latest looks in clothing, and usuallykept onlytwo outfits so thathealways had one to wear while the other was beingcleaned, his brother Adam had been of a size with him andhad been more of a follower of fashion. There were one ortwo outfits in his brother’s room back atGerville. Paencould make doas he was until they got home.
Paen doubted that his motherwould be pleased attheneed to travelat once. The intention had been torest herefor afew daysso that Avelyn could become better acquainted with them all beforetheyreturned home. Thathadbeenhis mother’sidea.
Paen didn’tunderstand whatmade her think the girl would need timeto get to know them better. She had the rest of their lives forthat. However, hismother had insisted, and he and his father had agreed to please her. Now, however, necessity had changed theirplans. Or atleast, his plans, Paen thoughtas he followed his father into thehallway. His mother andfathercouldstaybehindifthey wished. Butheand his wifewould be leaving as soon as he’d broken hisfast. They would go fetch his new squire, then – "Oh, there isyour mother. "
Paen glanced along the hall to see his mother speaking to Lord and Lady Straughton.
"Go on belowandwe shallcatch up," hisfather suggested.
Nodding,Paen continued to the stairs as his fathermovedtojointhe trio.
Avelynwasthe first person he spotted onreaching the great hall. His wife was seated atthe table. She wasn’t alone. Thosecousins of herswere with her, and, judging by her unhappy expression,he guessed the triowere being rude again. Paen reached instinctively for his sword, grimacing when his bandaged hand bumped againstits hilt. Hecouldn’t use it.
Leftweaponless, Paen was reduced to glaring at the trio as he approached.
Fortunately for his mood,thethree ofthem were cowardly enoughto flee thetable even without his sword to back up his irritation. Releasing a satisfiedgrunt, Paen dropped to sit on the benchbeside his wife,bringing her surprised face his way.
"Husband, you are up. "
Paen didn’t comment on hersurprise. He also showed what he considered to be great restraint in notrebuking her for comingbelow on her own andleaving himto fend for himself. Instead,he asked, "Whatwereyour cousins saying to make you so unhappy?"
Much to his interest, his bride flushedwith embarrassment and refused tomeet his gaze, but instead stared at her goblet ofmead assheanswered, "Nothingworth repeating, my lord. In fact, I have already forgotten. " Clearing her throat,she said brightly,"Are you hungry,my lord husband?Would you care to break yourfast withme?"
Paen was sure she was lying and considered explaining toher that wivesdid not lie to husbands about anything, not even insignificant little things like whatever bodiersome words theircousinsmightsay, butthe bright smilesheturned onhim wasrather dazzlingand hersoftvoice addressing him as "my lord husband" was musicto hisears. When sheheld out a bit of bread for himhe found I himself forgetting his irritation and reaching for the offering, only to pause when his bandagedhandrosebetween them, a fat, round stumpthat was as useless as it looked.
Sighing heavily,he let the handdrop and turnedto the table, findingthat he was now theoneembarrassed.
"Icould feedyou, my lord," Avelyn offered gently,understanding theproblem.
"Iam not hungry," Paen lied grimly, refusing tosubject himself to the humiliation of his new wife having to feedhim likethe veriestbabe. Heglancedto the sideto see Avelyn peering at him with something dangerously closeto pity and growled, "Eat. "
She hesitated, and Paen was about to again order her to eat, when a servant hurried up with a goblet of mead for him.
Relievedthat herewassomething he felt he could manage, Paen carefully lifted both bandagedhands to hold the goblet between them and lifted it to his mouth.
Reliefcoursed through him asAvelyn finally turned her attention away from him,and Paen lowered thegoblet alittle and swallowed ashe glanced at her. She waslifting a bitof cheeseto her mouth,and hewatched, suddenly dry-mouthed, as she bit off a piece and chewed itslowly. The action raised yet anotherhunger inhimhe was incapableof satisfying, andPaen felt his insides turn over with despair. He couldn’t eat,couldn’t dresshimself, and couldn’t even bed his wife. Married life was falling somewhatshort ofbliss for Paeri. In fact, it seemed tomoreresemblehell. Once he had his new squire with him things wouldbe better, he assured himself, watching Avelyn take another biteof food. At least then he would have theboyto helphim dress and eat. Itwould still leave him unabletobed his wife,but – Paen’s thoughts died andhe swallowed hard as his wifepoked her pink little tongue outand ranitoverher lips,-both upper andlower, catchingand cleaning away anylittle crumb she’d leftbehind. In his mind, Paen could almost feelher lickinghis lips – and things further southon hisbody,parts thathad not been burned and didn’treallycarethathis hands were.
The sudden clang as his goblethit the table and the cool splash ofliquid down his chestandinto his lap drewPaen’s attention back to reality. Getting to his feet with a surprised roar,he stared down at the mess he’d madeand feltembarrassment paint his cheeks a bright redas his wife gaped up at him.
She openedher mouth to speak, but it was a voice behind them thatspokewith concern. "Son, are you all right?"
Turningslowly, hefelthis" shoulders sagas he watched hismother and father as well as Lord and Lady Straughtonhurrying across thegreathall toward them. It seemed there had been witnesses to hisembarrassing showof ineptitude.
Paen closed his eyes briefly, then shook his head as he opened them and announced,"Avelyn and I are leavingin an hour for Hargrove to collect my squire, then continue on to Gerville. You may accompany us or remain behind as you wish. "
Ignoring the startled gasps this announcement invoked, heturned on his heeland strode out of the keep in search of the stablesto see his horse readied. It was the only possession that remained intact after one night of marriage. Paen hoped this wasn’tan omenof things to come.
"I am sorry, my dear. The original plan was to visithere for a bit after the wedding so that you could get used to us. However, I fear that Paen – " Lady Gerville sighed, then explained, "He has only the clothes on his back to wear; everything else went up inthe fire. Andwith hishands injured asthey are, he cannot eat without aid… ordress… or anything else really. Having hisnewsquire withhim will be a great aid I amsure, and – "
" Tis allright, my lady,"Avelyn interrupted gently. "I understand. I am not upset. "
Her gaze slid to her mother’s face, andAvelyn knew the samecould notbe said forthat lady. Margeria Straughton was obviously upsetatthe idea of her daughter leaving so soon. She was alsoobviouslybitingher tongueon the subject. Avelyn was sure that Paen’s motherwas aware of the other woman’sdistress, and that it was propelling her need to excuse her son’s sudden decision.
"I supposeI should gosee that everythingis packedand ready togo," Avelyn said calmly. "Mother?Wouldyou like to accompany me?"
"Yes,dear. " MargeriaStraughton caught the hand Avelyn held outand grasped it almostdesperately as theywalked toward thestairs. Sheheld on as ifshe would never let go. Avelyn knew the nexthourwas going to be the hardest of her life. She was about to leave her mother, her father,her brother – everyone andeverything she had ever knownand loved. She was about to follow her new husband, aman she hardlyknew, across England toher new home – a placeshe had neverseen, full of people she’d nevermetanddidn’t know. Avelyn had neverexpected that growingup could be so hard and painful. It seemedtoherthatmenhadit easier. Warin, when he married,would bring his wife here, andwould never beexpected to make a new placefor himself somewhere else. Itdidn’t seem fair.
"Please, Paen,ride in the cart. You will cause furtherdamage to your hands if you – "
"Iwill not ride in the cartlike an oldwomanor an ailing babe. ‘Sides,there isno room in the cart,whatwiththe maidsandeverything else init. My wife appearsto be taking half of Straughtoncastle with her. "
Avelyn andher mother pausedat the foot of the castle steps and exchanged unhappy glances. Theyhad seenhim pull himself up intothe saddleas they started down the stairs, using his bandaged hands despite theirinjury, but now theywere close enough to seethe resultsofthis effort. Paenwas a sicklypallidcolor,and sweat had brokenout on his foreheadand upper lip. This spoke more clearly of the painthe action had caused him than if he had screamed aloud in agony.
Still he satstiff andstraightin the saddle, pride holding himerect ashe struggled toget the reins wrappedaround his bandagedhands.
Giving up on him,his mother turnedand moved to joinAvelyn and hermother at the steps,concern tracingdeep lines on her face. "He will do himselfmore injury withhis foolish pride than thefire did. "
Avelyn bit her lip and nodded. Her eyes shifted to her husband’s stubborn expression,and she considered what to do. Margeria Straughtonhad not raised a fool. Avelyn tookafter hermother – a frightfully intelligent woman – and as such, had listened wellto all her mother’s training. Lady Straughtonhad not thought it necessaryto only trainher in how to run’ a household, or how todeal with staff.
Margeria hadthought it important to trainher daughter in howto deal with men as well. The first lesson she’d taught her was that men were the most stubborn, pigheaded, proudcreaturesGod had created andthat a woman hadto be smartand quick-thinking to keep them fromkillingthemselves with that pride.
This, in Avelyn’s judgment, was one of those times her motherhad warnedher about. She hadn’t adoubt in the world that herhusband would insiston continuing their journey despite his injured hands, riskinginfectionand death simplyto deny weakness. Life with her fatherand brother had taught her that men did tend to be foolishthatway.
"Father – mayhap you could help me – "Paen said, fumbling with the reins.
When sheheard Paen ask his father towrap the reinsaround his bandaged hands and tie them so thathecould control his horse, she decided that this wasone of those times when a smartwifehadtoact to save a husband from his own pride.
"Oh, dear," she gasped loudly as she rushed forward to stand at her father-in-law’s side, distracting him fromdoing ashis son had requested.
" ‘Oh, dear’?" WimarcGerville eyedher with what she suspected was hope. Her husbandmerely looked leery as he stared at her.
"’Oh, dear,’what?"Paen asked, expression grim.
Avelyn batted her eyelashesat her new husbandand forcedan uncertainsmile. "I fear Ido not knowhow to ride. "
"What?" Both men peered atherblankly.
Avelyn shrugged mildly. "I have never neededto know. I have never traveled fromStraughton. Ihad expected to ride in the cart, but I underestimated all the things that Motherintendedtosendwithme. "
Paen staredat hisyoung wife. She was fresh-faced androsy-cheeked and smiling brilliantlyupat him. She wasas lovelyas aspringday, butshe was also turning out to be the mosthelpless of creatures. She’d faintedattheir wedding, proved herself clumsy enough to start a fireontheir wedding night, and nowadmitted she could not ride. It did seem that Avelyn was not the strong, skilled bride he’d hoped for.
His gaze slid to his father’s face,but the man was looking back atthewomenby the step. His mother waslooking concerned, but his bride’s mother was looking merely bewildered. Before Paen could puzzlethat out,Avelyn captured hisattention again. "Mayhap you could teach metoride?"
Paen noted the way the confusion on Lady Straughton’s face cleared at this suggestion,buthad no time to ponder the matter, for his mother was suddenly rushing forward,a beamingsmile on her face.
"Well! What a marvelousidea! You shall ride with Paen andheshallshow you how to ride. It should only take a couple of days. Why, by the time we arrive back at Gerville, he shall have you an expertrider. Lovely. "
Paen shifted in the saddle, feeling as though he’d rather missed something.
Everyoneseemed so damned pleased, he was sure there was something amiss, but couldnot figure outwhat. He wasfrowningoverthe matter whenhiswife grabbed herbrother’s handanddragged him forward. "Help me mount, please, Warin. "
"I can help you to…" Paen’s voicefaded away. It was too late to make such a protest – Warin had already set her on themountbefore him.
She turnedher head to smile overher shoulder atPaenwith a sweetness that somehowmadehim suspicious. Shrugging the uncomfortable feeling away, Paen grumbledunderhis breath about wives andwomeningeneral,then reached around to try totakethe reins,but she grabbed them upinstead and asked innocently, "If you aretoteachme to ride, shouldI nothold the reins?"
Paenhesitated, reluctant to give up control of hismount,then satbackwith a sigh. "Very well. "
Hedidn’tfeelanybetterwhen shebeamed at him. Hewrappedhisarms around herwaist almost reluctantly, felt her snuggle into him, and suspected it was goingto be along journey home to Gerville.