"He knows!" Helen cried as the kitchen doors swung closed behind her.
Ducky was at her side at once, alarm all over her face. "Nay!"
"Aye. He switched his ale for mine. He knows what we are about."
"Oh, dear," the lady's maid breathed, beginning to worry her lower lip. "Is he very angry?"
Helen hesitated, her eyebrows furrowing with confusion. "I do not know," she admitted at last on a sigh.
"He doesn't seem angry. At least, I do not think he does. But now he is talking about getting acquainted and going on a tour, having a picnic."
"A picnic?" Ducky's eyes widened.
"Aye. Have Cook pack a picnic, but only enough for one. Tell him to make it vile, as vile as he can. Vile enough to have this wedding called off by the time Lord Holden has finished it."
"You are not going?"
"Aye. I'm going." Helen answered, but wasn't herself too certain it was a good idea.
"Alone?" Ducky asked anxiously.
Helen grimaced at the question, her fear growing. If Lord Holden knew what they had been up to with the poor food, worse ale, and her bad breath, not to mention everything else - and she was sure he did know - the evil man might very well be taking her out to drown her in the river. That would remove the necessity of his refusing to marry her.
For a moment, Helen considered the possibility of taking nice food along on the picnic, a veritable feast, and of being sweet and simpering. But, in truth, that wasn't her style. Besides, it was too late to stray from her plan now. He would recognize any retreat as fear of his reaction, and that would give him an advantage. Nay, she would maintain her resolve. For good or ill, she would follow her plan to whatever final battle it brought about. She just hoped she survived.
"And this, of course, is little Nelly. Her real name is Helen - she was named after me - but everyone uses the nickname Nelly for her, just as they do my aunt."
Hethe caught the baby Lady Helen gaily shoved at him, then held it out at arm's length, staring at it with a sort of horrified disgust. Little Nelly was a horror to behold. Her face was a mess of some sort of jam, her diaper, which was giving off a smell not too dissimilar to that of his betrothed at the moment, was slipping from her chubby little body, and she was reaching out with sticky, grasping little fingers at anything she could get her hands on. Fortunately, holding her as he was, the little beggar's options were limited. Hethe had learned after the first two babies Helen had thrust upon him that they seemed to like to hold his hair and yank for all they were worth. That had been about ten cottages and ten infants ago.
It seemed to Hethe that either Tiernay was amazingly prolific in producing babies or Lady Tiernay was only stopping at those cottages with babies in them so she could torture him. For that was what she was doing. He supposed it was his own fault. He had been unprepared for the first child she had forced on him and had let his horror and discomfort show. A good battle strategist, Lady Helen had promptly made use of his weakness. He had to admire her for that. In fact, if he hadn't been piddled, spat and vomited up on repeatedly during this hellish tour, he surely would have admired her. However, right at the moment, all he wanted was revenge. And he had decided on how to get it, too.
"Time for our picnic!" he announced abruptly, thrusting the baby at its mother and turning to remount his horse.
"Oh! But we have so many more cottages to visit," Helen protested.
"Another time. It is growing late."
"It is only mid-morning," she pointed out dryly.
Hethe reluctantly followed her gesture at the sun in the sky and grimaced. It wasn't yet overhead, only halfway there. Which made it about ten. He could have sworn it was nearly the supper hour. The short while since they had left the castle had certainly passed slowly enough for it to be. With nothing else to say, he offered the only excuse he had. "I am hungry."
It silenced her. In fact, the declaration seemed to please her mightily. Smiling suddenly, she moved to her horse and mounted. "Well, then surely we must feed you."
Hethe's gaze narrowed. Her smug expression made it quite plain that she did not plan for him to enjoy the upcoming meal. Considering that he had only one petrified bite of pastry rolling about in his empty stomach, the idea did not much please him.
If it was true that the way to a man's heart was through his stomach, then it was also true that a surefire way to rile a man up was to stand between him and sustenance. Hethe was hungry, and mean with it. If there had been any guilt attached to the next strategy in his plan, it evaporated right there on the spot.
Lady Tiernay deserved what she was about to get.
"Here will do, I imagined. What do you think?"
"Hmm. Fine," Helen murmured absently, busy with the task that had consumed her since leaving the last cottage; trying to think up another way to torture the man on the horse beside her. Using the babies had been inspired. She had noticed his discomfort around the children at the first cottage they had stopped at, and she had used that to her advantage from then on. But his decision to stop for their picnic put an end to her fun, and she required something else to make the bastard miserable. Of course, the food she'd bought would go a long way toward that, but she wanted something more impressive and memorable for this excursion. She needed something that would finally push him into refusing to marry her, yet not make him angry enough to do her bodily harm. Even better would be to find something for which he could not blame her, something he could not be sure she had done on purpose. It was a tricky business, and it was consuming her thoughts as she dismounted and removed the blanket she had brought for them to sit on.
Hethe was there at once to take it from her. Relinquishing the covering, Helen turned back to unhook the sack of food the cook had prepared, then followed her fiance silently to the center of the clearing. She waited patiently as he unfolded the blanket and shook it out several times before finishing with his fussing and allowing it to lie flat. He stood back then, to let her settle on it, before easing down to sit across from her, his expression full of expectation. Helen felt her eyes narrow briefly, then shrugged inwardly and forced a smile. He wanted to eat? Let him eat.
Her smile becoming more natural, Helen opened the chef's sack and reached inside. The first thing she drew out appeared to be a small hunk of cheese wrapped in thin linen. It was only as she pulled it fully out of the bag that she noticed the scent wafting from it - one with which she was becoming quite familiar. The smell made Helen wonder what the contents of that special brew Ducky had concocted for her included. Not this cheese itself, she didn't think, because she hadn't noticed any chunks in the liquid Ducky had kept handing to her, though the beverage was thick in consistency. Perhaps she used the oil off of it, Helen considered as she set the cheese out on the blanket between herself and Hethe. Or perhaps it was cream gone bad. If that was the case, no wonder her stomach roiled after she drank it.
Forgetting her role, Helen wrinkled her nose briefly, then forced the expression away, determinedly plastering a smile back on her face. The next thing out of the bag was one of the sweet rolls she had claimed to have made. Really, Cook had made them, complaining the whole while.
The next thing she came up with was some rancid cooked meat. Not a very large piece, just an edge really, probably one of the bits Cook cut off some slab of meat before serving it. Helen laid that on the blanket, too, then made a big deal of digging about expectantly inside the now empty bag.
"Oh, dear," she murmured with poorly feigned dismay.
Acting concerned, Hethe raised his eyebrows. "Is something the matter?"
"Well, it looks as if Cook misunder - achoo!" Caught by surprise by her sneeze, Helen covered her mouth belatedly and blinked several times before shaking her head and continuing. "Cook must have thought I meant to picnic alone. He sent only enough for - achoo!"
"For one?" Hethe suggested, solicitously producing a small square of linen for her to blow her nose.
"Aye." Taking the linen, Helen paused to do so.
"Oh, dear, oh, dear," Hethe murmured, adding a "Bless you" when she sneezed again.
"Fortunately," Helen began, frowning as she noticed that her eyes were becoming agitated and itchy.
"Fortunately, I am not - achoo!"
"Hungry?" Hethe murmured, sounding unsurprised.
"Aye," she muttered, her voice coming out thick as she became aware of a scratchiness in it. "So you must go ahead - achoo! And eat - achoo! I shall just - achoo!"
Hethe was silent through another round of her nose-blowing before saying, "You appear to be suffering somewhat. Perhaps we should return to the keep rather than picnic."
Helen seriously considered his offer for a moment. She was having a terrible reaction to something. She only reacted this way to posies as a rule, but when she glanced around she did not see any. Still, there must be some nearby, she thought unhappily as another round of sneezing overtook her. Her gaze fell on the vile meal she had spread out between them, and she stiffened her back. She would see him suffer through it before they returned. Her itchy, irritated eyes and a couple of sneezes were nothing next to the intestinal discomfort he was about to suffer.
"Nay," she said, then turned her head to sneeze before continuing. "It would be a pity to let this f-f-f-achoo! - fine meal go to - achoo! - waste. I am content to watch you eat before we re - achoo! - turn."
"How sweet of you, Lady Helen. But there is no need for you to simply sit and watch. I could not leave you hungry while I ate."
"Oh, I - " Helen began quickly to make excuses, but he overrode her words.
"Is it not fortunate, therefore, that I thought to send William down to the village tavern to fetch a meal just in case something of the like occurred?" Presenting her with a smile as sweet as any she herself had produced, he tugged a much larger sack she had not noticed from the edge of their blanket. Then, while Helen watched in wide-eyed horror, he began to pull item after item out of the bag. The first item was roast chicken. And not just a leg or a breast, but an entire roast chicken, golden brown and succulent.
Helen's mouth actually began to water at the sight of it. Next came a hunk of cheese that looked solid and sweet compared to her oily, crumbling mess. A loaf of bread followed, soft and fresh, then three roasted potatoes all cooked to perfection.
"I am sure they will not be as tasty as your chef's fine meal," he went on as Helen peered at the food and licked her lips. "But I shall suffer this lesser fare while you enjoy your own cook's repast."
Hearing the mocking tone of his voice, Helen slowly raised her eyes to his. There was no mistaking the triumph in his gaze.
The great hall was full of people eating theirmiddaymeal when Hethe escorted Helen back toTiernay Castle. He led her, because by that time her eyes were quite puffy, which obstructed her vision somewhat. They were arriving in the middle of the meal, despite having stopped to eat some two hours before, because it had taken Hethe that long to consume every last scrap of the food William had purchased from the tavern. And he had consumed it all. There hadn't been a chicken bone with a nibble of meat left on it, or even a crumb from the loaf of bread left by the time he was done.
The glutton, Helen thought bitterly. He hadn't offered her even a bite of cheese from his feast, but had encouraged her to eat her own fare, stating that he just knew her chef must cook to her preferences, that he would not think of denying her the pleasure of enjoying it. Helen had spent the past two hours spitting moldy old cheese and bad meat out of her mouth under the cover of her sneezes, which had grown more violent and persistent with each passing moment.
"Would you care to join the table?"
Helen stiffened at that solicitous voice near her ear. She wasn't at all fooled by it. The man was an ogre.
A beast. He was as cruel as they came. And she'd be damned if she was going to display her present state before all - a state he was wholly responsible for, she knew. She realized how neatly he had set her up when they'd had finally finished and gathered everything together to leave. He hadn't even bothered to try to prevent her from seeing what lay beneath the blanket when he picked it up. As he'd refolded it, Helen had stood squinting in horror at the compressed patch of posies beneath. Then, she had recalled the way he had fussed over laying out the blanket. He had snapped it out several times over the ground, picked it up and turned it over to snap it out one last time before being satisfied. No doubt the side upon which they had sat had been covered with the essence of posies. Hence her violent reaction.
Oh, Lord Holden was an evil one, all right. Even his offer to return to the keep when she had begun to sneeze had been staged. He had asked her before presenting his sack of food from the village tavern.
Had Helen known about that, she surely would have agreed to return to the keep at once, knowing that her plot had been foiled. But, nay, he had elicited her assurance that she would stay before revealing his master stroke, leaving her little choice but to remain and pretend to eat her own rancid food.
Helen tugged her arm free from his guiding hand, then shook her head. "Nay, I think I shall just go lie down and rest, thankyou," she announced stiffly. She waited for him to disappear, relieved when, after a hesitation, he released her arm and stepped away.
"What a gentlemen," she sneered as she listened to his footsteps move away toward the trestle tables.
Heaving a sigh, she squinted hard in an effort to see where she was going and made her way in the general direction of the stairs. She had only taken a few steps when she heard the pitter-patter of hurried footsteps approaching.
"Aunt Nell?" she breathed with relief.
"Aye, dear. Lord Holden said that you might be in need of my assistance. Is something wrong - oh, dear Lord!" the woman gasped, apparently having caught a glimpse of her face. "What happened?"
"Help me upstairs and I shall explain."
"Wait. Just let me fetch Duck - Oh, Lord Holden is sending her after us now. Just a moment."
There was a rustle as her aunt moved several feet away to meet Ducky, then a brief murmured conversation before a rustling announced Nell's return. She took Helen's arm to lead her to the stairs.
"What is happening with the marriage negotiations?" Helen asked as they started up the stairs.
"Oh. I am delaying them as much as possible," her aunt murmured, then tightened her hold on Helen's shoulder. "That is what you want, is it not?"
"Aye. I shall need more time. We need another plan. He has discovered this one."
"What? Oh, no. How?"
"I do not know how," she admitted on a sigh as they reached the top of the stairs and started along the hall toward her bedchamber. "I first began to suspect he knew on his first night here, and I am positive he knows now."
"What happened today? How did you end up like this?" Aunt Nell's voice was full of concern as they reached Helen's room and she escorted her niece inside. "He did not hit you?"
"Nay." Helen grimaced with displeasure. "He had us picnic on a patch of posies."
"What?" she cried in alarm. "But why did you allow it?"
"I did not know they were there," Helen admitted with vexation as she eased over to lie on the bed. "I was distracted, and he placed the blanket over them. Actually, he wiped one side of the blanket over them repeatedly and, well, then he turned it over and laid it over them. I sat right down without realizing, and could not figure out why I was reacting so." Her admission was bitter.
"But when you began to sneeze and your eyes began to irritate you, why did you not ask him to bring you back to the castle?"
"I wanted to force him to eat those pastries and bad cheese ere we returned," she admitted with disgruntlement. "By the time I realized that he had fouled up that plan, too, it was too late. I was stuck there."
"How did he - "
Helen waved her aunt impatiently to silence. She had no desire to even think about the humiliation that morning, let alone explain it. She was more interested in other things. "We have a traitor in our midst."
"What!" Aunt Nell cried. Then they both fell silent as the door to the bedchamber opened. Helen turned her head and squinted at the person who entered. Her vision was rather impaired, but it appeared to be a woman in a dark gown. Ducky, she guessed as the blur rushed to the bedside.
"I brought cool water and a cloth as you asked me to, Lady Shambleau." Ducky's voice was easily recognizable, and Helen relaxed somewhat. Then the servant gasped in horror and Helen tensed up again, her head swiveling this way and that, trying to peer about the room for the source of Ducky's upset.
"What is it?"
"Your face. You are all swelled up," her lady's maid breathed in dismay. Helen sank back in the bed miserably. It did feel all swollen and tight. She had a pounding headache behind her eyes, and she was fighting the urge to rub away their puffiness - something she had not been able to keep from doing in the clearing where they had picnicked. She probably would not be in as bad a way had she managed to restrain herself there, but she had felt so itchy and irritated...
"Give me the bowl of water, Ducky," Helen heard her aunt request softly. Then there was the sound of water splashing gently, and a cool cloth was laid across her face. Helen gave a start at the sensation, then breathed a sigh of relief. The cool damp had an immediate soothing effect and gave her the first relief from irritation she had known for two hours. It was heavenly.
"What happened?" Ducky's anxious voice sounded, and Helen's lips twisted bitterly.
"He had us picnic on a patch of posies."
"Posies? But you are allergic to posies."
"Aye. And he knew it, the blighter."
Helen sniffled miserably. "We have a traitor."
"I fear I may be the traitor," Nell announced quietly. Helen reached up to snatch the cloth away from her face and gape at her aunt's blurry image.
"Well, there is no need to look at me like that. I did not mean to..." She paused and took the cloth from Helen, and there was the sound of water splashing again as she wrung it out. Turning back, she laid it back across Helen's eyes. "He mentioned a picnic, and I thought to tell him to avoid posies - as you are allergic to them. But Lord Templetun dragged me off before I could." She quieted briefly, and Helen could almost hear the frown in her voice when she continued with vexation. "He must have overheard me telling Lord Templetun." She made a clucking sound. "It was truly awful of him to use it against you. Not very chivalrous at all."
Helen gave a snort at that. "This is the Hammer of Holden. He has no chivalry."
There was silence for a moment; then Nell asked, "What do you plan to do now?"
"I do not know," Helen admitted miserably.
"Well." Aunt Nell heaved a breath out, then patted Helen's hand. "I have to get back below; Templetun is probably done stuffing himself by now and ready to get back to negotiations. You just rest awhile and relax. Mayhap something will come to you."
Helen gave a slight nod to that suggestion and listened to the rustle of material as her relative moved away to the door and left the room.
"Is there something I can get for you before I return below?"
Helen blinked her eyes open as the cloth was taken away to be soaked and wrung out again. Much to her relief, the cold cloths were already working. Some of the swelling must have gone down, because she could actually almost see properly. Her headache was still there, however. "Perhaps something for my aching head. And something to eat, too, please," Helen asked, closing her eyes as the cloth was placed back over them. "And maybe you could bring Goliath when you return, to keep me company?"
"Aye, my lady. Is there anything special you would like to eat?"
"Roast chicken," Helen said firmly. "If Cook doesn't have any, send down to the village tavern and Maggie for some."
"Is there anything amiss with Lady Helen?"
Hethe stiffened at Lord Templetun's question, then shook his head and finished sinking onto the trestle table bench beside him.
"Why has she not joined us, then? And why did you send her aunt off to tend to her?" the older man persisted as Hethe snatched a mug of ale from a passing serving wench.
Hethe took some time to sample the ale and release a breath of relief at its fresh taste before saying,
"She is fine. Or she will be," he added with irritation, trying to shrug off his guilt. He hoped she would be all right. She really had suffered a violent reaction to those posies he had purposely laid their blanket on.
He hadn't meant to cause her so much discomfort. A couple of sneezes, a little irritation, were all he had expected. Now, the woman's face was bloated like a corpse after being in the water a week. He grimaced at the thought, then shook his head and drank some more ale.
"Or she will be?" Templetun echoed slowly, his gaze narrowing. "What is wrong with her?"
Hethe supposed it had been too much to hope the man would let that pass. Shrugging with feigned nonchalance, he took another swallow before saying, "She appears to have reacted badly to the spot I chose for our picnic."
Templetun was silent for a moment, pondering that; then his eyes suddenly widened. "You did not picnic by posies, did you?"
"Nay," Hethe answered and watched the older man relax before admitting, "But I set the blanket out on top of some."
"On top of some? Out on - You set the blanket out on - But, Lady Helen is allergic to posies! Her aunt was fretting about it this morning. Oh dear, she - " He paused abruptly, his gaze moving past Hethe's shoulder. "How is she?"
Hethe glanced around in surprise, then shrank back guiltily under Lady Shambleau's hard-eyed glare as she paused behind him.
"She will recover, no thanks to you," the woman said coldly, and Hethe shifted again, feeling like a louse. Then irritation filled him. Reminding himself that Lady Tiernay would not be feeling guilty were he the one suffering right now, and that she, along with the woman standing scowling at him, had actually plotted that it should be so, he straightened and mildly shrugged.
"I did try to get her to come back sooner," he announced, adding when she looked doubtful, "When she first began to sneeze, in fact. I suggested it might be good if we returned to the keep. But she did so wish for me to enjoy the food she had had prepared..." He stared up at the woman with a meaningful look and was gratified to see her self-righteous attitude disappear, replaced by slight discomfort.
Turning away from him, Lady Shambleau glanced at Lord Templetun. "Shall we get back to the negotiations?"
"Yes, yes. Let us get back to them," the older man murmured, rising eagerly to his feet to lead the lady away. It seemed obvious to Hethe that the king's man was unsure what the undercurrents to this conversation were, and was unwilling to explore them. Coward , he thought dryly as he watched the pair disappear from the great hall.
"Well, let us hope that they complete the negotiations this time," William said suddenly, drawing Hethe's attention to his first. The man raised his ale to drink from it. He had been sitting silently since Hethe's return, merely listening to the conversations around him.
"Eager to have it done, are you?" Hethe asked.
His friend smiled wryly. "Well, you must be ready for it to be over, too. It will surely not be a trial for you to bed the wench; then we can get out of here and head back to battle." He scowled into his mug briefly. "The men are growing restless."
"We have only been here a little more than a day," Hethe pointed out with exasperation.
"Aye, well. We rarely last a full day and night at Holden, either. Why should here be any different? The men are not used to sitting about for so long."
Hethe contemplated his first's words unhappily but could not argue. This was the longest they had been away from the excitement and activity of battle for some time. Well, his men were away from it...
"No. No. You cannot come in. Goliath!"
Helen turned from peering out her window at those hissed words to see Ducky struggling to get into the room without the large wolfhound accompanying her. Her lips quirking with humor, she put an end to the quiet struggle. "Let him in, Ducky. He spent the night up here, but I let him out to do his business this morning."
"Oh! You're awake," Ducky gave up struggling with the beast and straightened, a smile of relief on her face. "You're looking much better today."
"Aye. I am fully recovered I think." She greeted Goliath with a pat on the head when he loped across the room to her, but her expression was grim. Helen had spent every waking moment since returning from yesterday's picnic trying to come up with another strategy to convince Lord Holden to abandon the wedding. Nothing brilliant had come to mind. Not even during the bath she had ordered brought to her - and Helen always thought best in the bath.
"Lord Templetun sent me up to see how you were doing today. He and your aunt are finished with negotiations. Lord Holden and his man are looking them over right now. Templetun claims if both of you agree, then there is nothing else to hold up the wedding."
Helen grimaced at her maid's words, though she had expected them. Her aunt had slipped in to see her late the night before, telling her apologetically that she had delayed things as long as she could, but the negotiations were done. Helen had known then that Templetun would not dally about finishing this business. The marriage would occur today unless she found some way to stop it. She had not found one.
There were so few acceptable reasons to refuse a marriage. Consanguinity was one of them - but Lord Holden was not even a cousin of a cousin. They were no relation at all, that she knew of, so she could not use that. Another reason was if one of the parties was a criminal, had committed rape or murder.
However, while she felt he raped his land and murdered his people through insensitivity, no one else would see it that way, so that option would not help. The final escape was if one of the parties had made a religious vow. Unfortunately, that was not the case, either, though she suddenly wished she had had the forethought to do so.
"My Billy was talking to Edwin last night," Ducky announced suddenly. Helen glanced at her blankly, confused by the change of topic. "My youngest son, Billy," Ducky explained. "He was talking with Lord Holden's squire Edwin yestereve..."
"Oh?" Helen murmured, still unsure what that had to do with the matter at hand.
"Aye. Billy says that young Edwin mentioned as how Lord Holden don't like water much."
"He doesn't?" Helen's interest was caught.
"Aye. He said as how His Lordship will ride hours longer than necessary just to avoid crossing a river or such. He said one of the other fellers told him that Lord Holden nearly drowned as a boy, hasn't gone near water ever since."
Helen's eyes sparkled briefly with devilment; then the glint died and her shoulders slumped. "Well, thank Billy for finding that out, Ducky. But I doubt it will be of much use to us now. The negotiations are over.
No doubt Templetun has already sent for Father Purcell." She made a face, then sighed and moved toward the door. "I suppose I may as well go below and see what is about. There is no sense trying to put off the unpleasantness any longer."