Hethe was exhausted when he made his way below stairs the next morning. His plans had gone forward well enough the day before. At least they had after Goliath's show of affection, he thought with disgust.
He had never been so angry in his life as he had been at that moment. Even now, he felt sure he would have given up his plans, gone against his nature, and throttled Lady Helen to within an inch of her life if Lord Templetun had not chosen that moment to make his way down to the great hall.
The first to spot him, Lady Helen had urged Goliath off Hethe's stiff leg and moved quickly to the tables to take a seat, her randy hellhound settling himself at her feet. Hethe had stood rigid and furious, glowering at her back as he tried to rein in his temper.
Templetun had nearly reached him by the time he composed himself. Promising himself he would get Lady Tiernay back for her nasty trick, he had greeted the king's man coldly, then returned to the table with a renewed determination to bury his betrothed under false sweetness. Which is exactly what he did: Showered her with compliments of a sort on her breath, the food, the ale, and all the other disgusting weapons of this battle that he was sure was meant to drive him off. In the meantime, his "compliments"
for everything else were poorly disguised insults.
The shine to her hair looked almost as if she greased it, he had claimed, watching with interest and anticipation as her eyes had flared. Her lips looked almost bee-stung they were so swollen and ripe.
Overripe, even... like fruit about to fall off a tree... How old was she?
He chuckled wearily as he recalled her outrage at that. She had not taken comments on her age well at all. It seemed she was sensitive about that subject. In truth, she should have been married and had three or four babes by now. Such was the way of things. But she was still single at twenty years and apparently feeling her age. He had almost felt guilty using it against her - especially considering the irony regarding his own young wife's death - but then he'd realized he was scratching absently at a bite on his calf, and his guilt fled as he recalled the flea patch in his bed.
He grimaced now, thinking about it. He'd tossed the flea-bearing fur out the window before coming below after his bath, hoping that action would remove the problem, but when he had retired later and crept warily into bed, he had nonetheless found himself nearly driven mad with scratching. Whether the itching was due to any fleas still present in the bed or due to the earlier bites becoming more irritated now that they were free from his clothes and vulnerable to the open air, or because of his own imagination, he didn't know, but it had sent him tripping quickly out of the bed. He had spent the night sleeping dressed and seated in the cracked chair by his cold fireplace, without even a linen or fur to cover him since they were all likely as flea-infested as the bed.
He had not slept well or comfortably. He was tired, his neck was sore from being twisted at an odd angle all night, and his mouth had a nasty taste to it from all that rotten food he had been forced to eat and the pissy ale he had drunk. Which had been part of his plan as well, to eat and even seem to savor the rotten food they served him. His stomach had reviled him for it ever since, threatening to rebel and generally churning in displeasure. The only consolation Hethe could find was that his feigned pleasure had first stunned, then frustrated and infuriated his adversary. Lady Helen had been clenching her hands and teeth so tightly through most of last evening that he would not be surprised if she had scourged the flesh of her palms and ground the tops of her teeth away. Aye, his campaign was a complete success, or would be if it weren't such a torture to endure. But he had put some of his sleeplessness to good use last night and come up with a new campaign, one that promised to be less punishing... on himself at any rate.
Hethe had just reached the bottom step when the door to the kitchens opened and Lady Helen came out. Her appearance was brief. The moment she spotted him, she spun about and hurried back to the kitchens.
Hethe heaved a sigh and headed for the table where a goodly portion of the rest of the castle appeared to be breaking their fast. He knew without a doubt that she was refreshing herself with whatever putrescence she used to make her breath so bad. She had done so several times the night before, slipping away to the kitchens, only to return shortly, the potency of her breath reinforced.
At least, Hethe consoled himself, she seemed to find no more pleasure in the scent than he himself did.
He was positive he had caught a glimpse of misery on her face a time or two when she had been slow to redon her ever-present smile on her way back out of the kitchens.
Preparing himself for the onslaught of her dragon breath when she returned, Hethe seated himself beside a gorging Templetun. The man had been doing little else but stuffing his skinny face since their arrival.
That, if nothing else, reassured Hethe that the food here was not as bad as what he had been served. The king's man appeared to enjoy it greatly. Templetun was also completely oblivious to the silent struggle being waged beneath his very nose, and Lady Shambleau was the reason. It had not got past Hethe's notice that his fiancee's aunt was forever busy distracting the man, and William, too, from what went on at the table around them. And she was doing a fine job of it. Templetun was kept so knotted up and William so amused by her sharp-tongued comments to the king's man that neither of them had had a chance to catch even a whiff of Lady Helen's putrid breath, or to notice Hethe's insulting retaliations.
Which was all for the best, he supposed. He really didn't wish everyone to be aware that she was so averse to marrying him that she would take such drastic measures. He had his pride, after all.
A pride that was rather tattered at the moment, he realized with some self-derision as he reached out to snag hunks of Templetun's cheese and bread while the man was distracted talking to Lady Shambleau.
The courtier glanced back to his food just in time to catch him at his pilfering, but Hethe determinedly ignored the man's startled glance and raised the cheese eagerly to his mouth. This was the only chance he would have for real food for the rest of the day, he was sure. Once Lady Helen returned from the kitchens...
"Oh, nay, my lord!" The cheese was touching Hethe's lips when he heard the shriek, his tongue just catching the first hint of its sweet taste. He almost groaned aloud at the loss as she snatched away the first edible morsel he had laid hands on since arriving.
"Nay!" she went on, all happy concern. "There will be no bread and cheese for my lord. Nay. I have a special surprise for you."
"A surprise?" Hethe asked warily. He was hardly comforted to see that his reaction sparked some mysterious pleasure in her.
"Aye. I asked Sir William what your favorite breakfast was, and then I made it for you," she announced.
She made a quick motion and plopped a tray of pastries before him.
Hethe blinked in surprise at the offering. They looked perfect. Absolutely delicious. They smelled good too. And these pastries were his favorite. He glanced warily from the food to her innocently smiling face.
She had gone to the trouble of making them for him herself? For one desperately hungry moment, he allowed himself to believe that he might have been wrong about her intentions. Perhaps he had misunderstood, and she was not waging war against him. Perhaps she was truly trying to impress him!
The thought died an abrupt death as Hethe picked up one of the confections and bit into it. Or tried to bite into it. He nearly snapped a tooth off in the effort. Good God! It was as hard as a rock! It was also salty and dry, he learned as the bite he had taken began to slowly dissolve inside his mouth.
"How are they?" she asked with almost believable anxiety, then added uncertainly, "This was my first effort at baking. Cook did not like the idea of my fussing about in his kitchen, but he relented. Is it all right?" When Hethe hesitated, unable to answer because he was still rolling the bit of rock-hard pastry around in his mouth, afraid to swallow, she began to wring her hands in an excellent portrayal of an anxious betrothed. "You don't like them! Oh I knew it was a mistake, but I wanted so much to do something to please you and - "
"I love them," Hethe abruptly lied to silence her. The woman was carrying on so, Templetun had started to glare at him for upsetting her. Which no doubt had been her plan. She was trying to make him look bad in front of the king's chaplain. No doubt, should he not eat the damn things, she would manage to make him look like some sort of uncaring beast. Hethe made a face, then swallowed his first bite determinedly. A heartbeat later he was grabbing up the ale she had set on the table nearby. The pebble-like bite of sweet bread had got stuck halfway down his throat, and he was hoping to wash it down with the ale. The ale was warm, flat, and tasted like urine, of course, but it did the trick and loosened the bit of food lodged in his esophagus. He was almost sure he felt it splash in his stomach, rather like a stone dropping into a well.
"Really? You really like it?" she asked, but he thought her irritation must be affecting her acting abilities, because she appeared to be overplaying her anxiety. Clearing his throat, he took a deep breath in preparation of facing her and turned to beam blindingly at her. "Aye, my lady. They are quite delicious.
Just the way I like them, in fact."
"Oh." Her jaw tightened, and he caught a flash of fury in her eyes before she managed to cover it. That was when the idea struck him. He acted on it at once.
"But I mustn't be greedy and hog them all to myself. Surely you will join me? They are the result of your hard efforts, after all." He pushed the tray toward her.
"Oh, nay, my lord. I made them for you." She pushed the tray back.
"Oh, come now," he cajoled, taking one of the pastries and offering it up to her. "You should try your own handiwork."
"Oh, nay, I - " She floundered briefly, then suddenly smiled widely at him. "I have already eaten and am too full to have more. They are rather large."
Hethe's eyes narrowed. "Aye. They are," he agreed slowly, but he wasn't going to be put off. "Perhaps just a taste, then."
While she watched with growing consternation, he made a great show of attempting, and failing, to break a piece off. He saw her panicked glance toward her aunt and knew exactly what that woman intended when she began to babble at Lord Templetun, also drawing William's attention away from what Hethe was doing by pulling him into the conversation. Hethe let her get away with the distracting tactics and simply kept trying to snap the sweet bread in half. When he found he couldn't, he resorted to taking it in both hands and smashing the center of the roll violently and repeatedly against the table. It took three solid thumps before the item snapped in half. Helen was flushed bright red by the time he finished, though whether from anger or embarrassment, he couldn't say. He didn't much care, either; he just smiled sweetly and silently offered the larger half to her.
"Oh, I - " Lady Tiernay glanced around, obviously seeking an escape.
"Perhaps Lord Templetun would care to have some, then?" he suggested quietly, and Helen froze, her eyes going round as plates. Some of the color fading from her face, she reached out and snatched the food from his hand.
Hethe smiled in satisfaction as she attempted to bite off a chunk. None broke free, and she winced with the effort.
"You know, I find it quite amazing that a lady would trouble herself to cook," Hethe commented as she continued to gnaw grimly at the pastry.
Using the need to speak as an excuse to avoid ruining her teeth, his betrothed lowered the sweet roll and smiled at him coldly. "Well, it pleased me greatly to do so for you. In fact, I am hoping once we are married that I might get to cook for you often."
Hethe turned his head away and coughed to avoid laughing out loud at the obvious threat. For a moment, the false smiles had been dropped; she had shown her teeth. And he found them adorable. He had to bite his lip to keep from laughing again when he turned back to catch his betrothed attempting to pass off the rock-hard treat on her big, oafish dog - but the beast would have none of it.
Hethe was about to comment on her not eating her pastry when a new idea struck him. While she was distracted by trying to bribe her pet into saving her from her own cooking, he quickly switched his ale mug for hers. He had barely finished the task when she turned back to the table, her expression one of utter annoyance.
"Something amiss?" he asked easily, taking in her irritation-flushed face with feigned concern.
Apparently too peeved to bother keeping up her charade of the dutiful bride-to-be, she ignored him, her mouth tightening with frustration as she reached for her ale.
Hethe bit his lip when she promptly choked on the liquid and gasped.
"Something wrong with your drink?" he asked, all concern as she turned narrowed eyes on him suspiciously. Smiling at her, Hethe raised his own mug to his lips and savored a sip. Much to his surprise, it really was excellent. "Mmmm. I know I told you this yesterday, but truly you have the finest alewife in Northern England, I am sure."
"You - " she began angrily, only to pause when Lord Templetun rose from the table and turned to them to speak.
"Lady Shambleau and I are going to retire to the church to negotiate the marriage contracts. I trust you wish me to handle this on your side, Lord Holden? You shall have final approval, of course."
Hethe hesitated, then smiled suddenly. "Certainly. That will give Lady Tiernay and me the chance to become better acquainted. We could tour the estate and perhaps have a nice little picnic ere returning."
Lady Helen's eyes widened in horror at the suggestion, and she opened her mouth, probably to protest, but Lord Templetun forestalled her.
"A charming idea," he approved, nodding his head. "Aye. I doubt this will take all morning, but I see no reason why you shouldn't enjoy some time together. This afternoon is early enough for the wedding.
Helen's mouth snapped closed; then a somewhat forced smile stretched her lips as she stood. "Lovely. I shall just arrange with Cook to prepare a picnic."
She was gone before Hethe could suggest that something edible would be nice. Turning to glance at Lady Shambleau as Templetun urged the woman to her feet, Hethe caught the concerned expression on her face. He arched an eyebrow at the lady. Likely she was in on her niece's plot, but he offered her reassurance anyway. "Lady Helen will be perfectly safe with me, my lady. We shall ride about the estate, visit a tenant or two, then stop for a picnic. I may even pick a flower or two for her along the way."
Lady Shambleau's eyes widened at that and she seemed about to speak, but Lord Templetun was growing impatient and took her arm, turning her away from the table.
"Come along. They shall be fine," he said impatiently. He urged her toward the keep doors.
"Oh, but... I should tell him Helen has a terrible reaction to posies. They make her eyes puffy and her nose run."
"I am sure Lady Helen will inform him of that should the situation arise."
"Nay. She will not. She is far too stubborn to admit something like that to him"
"Nonsense." Lord Templetun continued determinedly toward the door. "Besides, I suspect Lord Holden was speaking in jest when he mentioned picking flowers. He doesn't seem to me to be the sort."
Hethe watched the couple disappear through the keep doors, his mind taken up with what he had heard.
Templetun had been right, of course. Hethe had been speaking in jest when he had mentioned plucking flowers. He had never in his life done anything of the kind - not even as a child. But now he considered the possibility seriously.
"So, she is allergic to posies," he murmured to himself, tucking the information away for strategic consideration later, then spotted his first approaching the table. "William, I have a small task for you."