Dunstan tensed, looking everywhere but at Faithe. She lifted her tankard to her mouth, watching him over the rim as he fidgeted. Never had she known a man who was easier to read. And she'd never known him to be able to keep a secret. Whenever there was gossip circulating at Hauekleah, she always went to Dunstan. She could invariably coax him into revealing what no one else would tell her. Was that why Orrik had sent him away? Because there was something he didn't trust Dunstan to keep his counsel about if pressed?
"You and Orrik are the only men at Hauekleah who survived Hastings," she said speculatively.
"Do you want some more ale?" he asked, rising.
"Nay. I want you to tell me whatever it is Orrik doesn't want revealed."
He sat back down slowly. "I... I don't know what you're-"
"I think you do," she said quietly.
"Milady... I can't. Master Orrik, he made me promise I wouldn't tell."
"Wouldn't tell what? Something about Caedmon? Does it have to do with Hastings?"
"Milady, please. He said it was for your own good, and it is. He said it would hurt you too much to know-"
"Hurt me?" Faithe gripped the edge of the table. "You two have been keeping something from me? What?"
"Hear me, Dunstan. Orrik was wrong to swear you to silence. I'm not a child, and I don't need protection from unpleasant truths."
"And I a.s.sure you I don't appreciate such protection. I hate to make threats, but you must know that I can't have a reeve who withholds information from me."
The color washed from Dunstan's face. "Milady..."
She leaned toward him, fixing him with a resolute look. "Just tell me what it is that's been kept from me, and all will be forgiven."
His head sank into his hands. Presently, he rose from the table and stood facing the tiny opening that served as the room's only window. She heard him draw in a breath, and then let it out in a gust. He wrapped his arms around himself. "After we left here last summer, me and Orrik and Caedmon and them other fellows, to join King Harold... well, your husband, he wasn't himself, milady."
"He was... ah, there's no point in going into all that."
"Did something happen while you were waiting for the Normans? Something I should know about?"
Dunstan stood very still for a few moments, as if contemplating what to tell her. "The important thing, the thing Orrik told me not to tell you, is what happened once the battle started."
Faithe knew he was withholding something-something that had occurred during those long months of waiting for William to lead his army across the Channel. Perhaps it was something that would reflect badly on Caedmon, and that was why Dunstan hesitated to share it. Swiftly surveying the possibilities, she voiced the one that rose to the surface. "Was there... a woman?"
Dunstan spun around. "How did you know?"
She gritted her teeth. She hated this. She would have hated it worse, she knew, if she'd had stronger feelings for Caedmon, but she hated it anyway. Her marriage might have been pa.s.sionless in most respects, but they'd both enjoyed the s.e.x-so much so that it never occurred to her that he'd want to seek more of it elsewhere. Disillusionment, flavored with betrayal, burned in her stomach.
At the same time, she felt a sense of relief that she'd uncovered at least one of the secrets being withheld from her. Not wanting Dunstan to see how shaken she was, she gathered herself together and said, "I didn't know for sure, but it stands to reason there would have been-" Her voice snagged; she took a sip of ale, trying to ignore Dunstan's expression of compa.s.sion. "We'd never been separated for that long. Caedmon was... well, he was a man, with a man's needs. And he was anxious about the fighting. I'm not surprised." She forced herself to ask, "Was he in love with her?"
"Oh, nay, milady, 'twas nothing like that. They were, well..."
"Aye, well, you know. They were... common women."
Prost.i.tutes. Of course. She shouldn't care. She really shouldn't. Such liaisons were quick and impersonal. But then she pictured Caedmon in some strange bed somewhere, doing with some faceless wh.o.r.e what she'd thought he only did with her, and it seemed very personal, indeed.
"I gather he just wanted a bit of comfort," Dunstan a.s.sured her. "Except that once, well..."
He chewed his lip, then wheeled back around and leaned on the windowsill. "Nothing, milady. 'Tis of no importance."
She closed a hand over her keys, willing confidence from them. "Tell me. Tell me everything."
"I'll tell you what happened when the battle started." He was still keeping something from her, she knew, something about some prost.i.tute, but before she could demand the rest of that story, he said, "Your husband wasn't taken prisoner, like you were told, milady."
Faithe stood slowly. "What do you mean? Was he killed during the battle? Then why-"
"He disappeared," Dunstan said, "just as the fighting started."
"What do you mean, 'disappeared'?"
Dunstan shook his head, expelling a ragged breath. "I was the last to see him. I've never told anybody this, not even Orrik. As far as he knows, Caedmon just vanished. But I saw him, right as the horns sounded and the war cries were raised. He was crouching at the edge of the woods, howling and rocking back and forth with his arms over his head."
Faithe was speechless. She clutched her keys so hard that they bit into her palm.
Dunstan turned to face her, his eyes glimmering in the dark little room. "I'm not sure what happened, milady. I think he finally just..." He raised his shoulders slightly. "Orrik called me and asked me if I'd seen Caedmon. When I looked back, he was gone. I lied. I told him I hadn't seen him. Maybe 'twas wrong, but I just couldn't... I couldn't tell Orrik how he'd been, like a terrified animal. I just couldn't."
Faithe swallowed down the anguish in her throat. "He deserted, then."
Dunstan looked down. That was answer enough.
Her head felt numb, wobbly. "That's what Orrik didn't want me to know."
He nodded. "Orrik searched for him till Christmastide, and then he'd use any excuse he could to get away and look for him some more."
"Of course," Faithe whispered. "Of course."
"He found him at Hocktide. Found his body, that is, in a grave in Cottwyk."
"How did he die?" Faithe asked shakily.
Dunstan looked distressed. "Nay, milady. You don't need to know-"
"Don't tell me what I don't need to know!" Her eyes burned. Caedmon had killed himself; that must be it. He'd taken his own life and would be condemned to h.e.l.l for it. She knew it, but she had to hear it from Dunstan's own lips. "Just tell me how he died!"
A moan came from beyond the leather curtain.
"Audris." Dunstan started for the doorway.
Faithe grabbed him by his shirt. "Tell me!"
Another moan, followed by a thready voice calling, "Dunstan? Synn?"
"Please!" Dunstan tried to pry her hands loose. "My sister needs me. Please let me-"
She shook him. "Tell me!"
The voice again: "Dunstan?"
"He was murdered!"
She stared at him.
Dunstan squeezed his eyes shut. "I'm sorry, milady. He was killed over a... woman. Some Norman soldier, they think. I didn't want to-"
"Go to your sister," she rasped, releasing him.
"Go!" She turned abruptly, before he could see her tears, and raced downstairs and out of the shop.
Luke could smell the coming storm. As he secured the last of the fresh reed thatch to the rooftop of the parish church, he wondered for the hundredth time where Faithe was, and when she'd be home. She tended to go her own way, rarely reporting her comings and goings, and it had never troubled him. But storm clouds had been gathering all afternoon, gradually dimming the light by which he thatched, and he found himself preoccupied by her whereabouts and anxious for her return.
Glancing overhead, he found that the clouds had congealed into a solid blanket the color of old steel. The warm, saturated air squeezed in all around him, and the hairs on his arms stood on end. Summer storms could be h.e.l.lish. If she wasn't home soon, he hoped she'd find shelter.
"Looks like you finished up just in time, milord!" young Alfrith called up to him as he and the other boys gathered the reeds scattered about on the ground.
"Look, milord!" Felix pointed toward the road, where it emerged from the woods. Luke could make out the distant figure of a woman on horseback, riding their way. "Is that her?"
"That's her," he breathed in relief. Climbing down the ladder, he withdrew a handful of pennies from the pocket of his loose braies and handed them out to the boys, who chorused their thanks. "Clean up as much of this thatch as you can before it starts raining," he instructed, grabbing his shirt off the bottom rung of the ladder and shrugging it on. "If you hear thunder, go home."
He'd hoped to intercept her on the road, but by the time he got there, she'd already pa.s.sed by-at a gallop! Perhaps she didn't want to get caught in the rain when it began. Still, she'd torn up the road as if she were being chased by demons.
He saw her ride around to the back of Hauekleah Hall. When he got to the stable, Daisy was in her stall, being curried by a stable boy. This struck Luke as odd; Faithe always did this herself.
"Where's your mistress?" Luke asked the lad.
"I saw her go into the barn, milord."
"Aye, and the fellow who was workin' in there, he come out and shut the door, so's she could be alone. She looked like she'd been..." The boy hesitated uncertainly, as if worried that he was saying too much.
"Crying. Her eyes were all red. Kind of wet, too, and she hurried away so quick. Me mum... well, she says milady likes to do her crying in the barn so she thinks we don't know what she's about."
"Is that so," Luke said dryly. On his way out he said, "Finish up quickly and get home before the storm comes."
He paused outside the door to the barn. Faithe had gone there to be alone-to hide her weakness from others, evidently fooling no one. She hated for people to see her cry. Everyone at Hauekleah knew it, and respected her desire for privacy. Luke should respect it, too, especially considering the recent chill in their relations-a chill for which he had no one to blame but himself.
He hadn't wanted to withdraw from her so completely-to undo the intimacy they'd managed, against all odds, to establish-but how could it be otherwise? He'd killed her husband. He'd made her a widow and then married her for Hauekleah. Every time he looked at her, a knife blade of remorse slid deep into his heart. He was a beast. How could he even think about touching her... and more... considering what he'd done? Considering what he was?
If he disturbed her now, she would probably order him away. Most likely, she'd be annoyed with him, even angry. And he would deserve that anger, for intruding on her precious solitude. He should leave.
Yet he didn't. He stood outside the door until he began to feel foolish, and then he pushed it open, slowly and silently, and stepped inside, closing it behind him. It was dark in the barn. From behind the closed gates of the stalls on either side of the central aisle, he heard the snufflings and restless movements of the livestock. He wondered where Faithe had secreted herself.
As if in answer, a half-grown kitten padded out of an open stall at the far end and looked at him. This was the grayish kitten Faithe had dubbed Smoky.
As he approached the open stall, he heard a sound-a soft, scratchy inhalation. Presently there came another. Luke's chest tightened. Don't let her send me away. I know I deserve it, but I couldn't bear it.
When he saw her, curled up with her face buried in the straw, her back shaking, the tightness squeezed him from inside. He whispered her name. She didn't hear him.
Taking a step toward her, he said, "Faithe?"
She looked up, startled. Her face was wet; she was trembling.
"Are you all right?" he asked softly. She looked surprised, and a little puzzled. It came to him why-he'd spoken to her in English. He always conversed with her in his native French-always. It was a way of a.s.serting his authority, and she knew it. He'd never begun a conversation with her in her own language-until now.
He took another step toward her. Again in English, and as tenderly as he could, he said, "Faithe, what's wrong? Talk to me."
She closed her eyes, tears spilling down her cheeks as she hitched in a breath. Sitting up, she looked at him, her eyes filled with pain, her face crumpling, and held out her arms.
His world spun. She wanted him, she needed him.
He crossed to her and sank into the straw, gathering her in his arms and murmuring words of solace, endearments-all in English. He whispered her name over and over as he kissed her hair and rubbed her back and reveled in the almond-sweet scent of her and the damp, heartbreaking heat of her face and the lush pressure of her body against his.
"Faithe." The tension in his chest pounded away at him, making him shake. "My sweet, sweet Faithe. Don't cry. It's all right. It's all right. Everything's all right."
"Nay," she murmured, her voice like wet rust.
He threaded his fingers through her hair, pulled her close against him. "Nothing could be this bad."
She nodded, her face wet in the crook of his neck. "It is. I don't understand anything anymore. I thought I knew how everything was. But I didn't know anything. I didn't know anything..."
She wasn't making any sense. "Shh... it's all right, now. It's all right."
"Oh, G.o.d, I wish it were. I'd give anything it if were."
"It is. Faithe, look at me." Pulling back just a bit, he cupped her damp face in one hand and tilted it up. "Tell me what has you so distraught."
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