"This will not do."
Helen gave a start at the sharp announcement from Lord Holden as he led his first back to the trestle table where she was seated between Lord Templetun and her aunt, perusing the contracts they had spent so much time drawing up. The contracts looked depressingly fine to her. Aunt Nell had certainly not allowed everything to go Lord Holden's way. Helen supposed it was the fact that she didn't really want to marry him that had allowed her aunt to be so demanding. Now, at the man's complaint, Helen felt a spark of hope that the wedding might at least be delayed a bit longer.
Hethe drew Lord Templetun aside, and Helen practically held her breath as she watched their discussion taking place. Lord Holden was grim and determined; Lord Templetun was waving his arms around and looking dismayed. Whatever Holden wanted was not impressing the man, she noted with interest and a touch of trepidation. At last, Templetun gave in and turned back to the table, his expression highly annoyed as he sought out her aunt.
"It would appear we have some more work to do," he announced.
Aunt Nell hesitated, her gaze veering to Helen; then she rose with a shrug. "Very well, my lord. Shall we?"
Helen was still watching the two walk away when Hethe dropped onto the trestle table bench beside her and said cheerfully, "Well, it would appear we have a little more time to get acquainted. What shall we do this morning? Another picnic?"
Helen turned slowly to glare at him, her eyes narrowing on his cheerful grin. "I think you should go to - "
Catching herself, she abruptly stood, her gaze going to the door to the kitchens. She considered making a quick detour there for garlic, but then she changed her mind. What was the use? Hethe had obviously already seen through that ploy. What she needed was time alone to figure out some new stratagem.
"Come, Goliath," she ordered, turning away from the table. She was halfway to the main doors before she realized that she was not alone. Lord Holden had stood and was now keeping pace with her.
"Where are we going?" he asked.
"We are not going anywhere. I am going for a walk to get some fresh air," she said grimly.
"A walk sounds nice. It will give us the chance to become better acquainted."
Helen merely gritted her teeth and held her tongue. The last thing she wanted was to walk anywhere with him. But she suspected that telling Lord Holden that would only please him. Glancing down at the dog keeping pace on her left side, she reached down to pat his head affectionately. She had missed the beast during his defection, but could hardly blame him. She hadn't been able to bear being around herself.
Doing her best to ignore the presence looming on her right, Helen stepped through the main doors, descended the stairs and started across the bailey at a quick clip, but Holden had no problem keeping up. They had left the bailey and started along a path through the trees surrounding the castle when an idea struck. They were not far from the river! She could hear its faint rush over the sounds of birds and other animals. She doubted Hethe knew what it was.
A smile suddenly bloomed on her face and she turned down a side path, chuckling softly when Goliath gave a bark of excitement and ran ahead before returning to her side, then doing it again. As the path broke through to the small clearing on the river's edge, Helen's smile widened, spilling across her face.
She was halfway across the small clearing, heading for the small dugout boat tied to a post driven into the shore, before she realized that she had lost one of her companions: the tall, almost human one. Pausing, she turned to find him standing at the edge of the clearing, his narrow-eyed gaze surveying the boat and the water.
"Something wrong, my lord?" she asked sweetly.
His eyes fell upon her, full of suspicion. "What are we doing here?"
"I thought a nice little boat ride on the river would be pleasant. Would it not?" she challenged.
Hethe's mouth tightened. "I do not think - "
"Or, are you afraid?" she taunted. He straightened, growing at least an inch in height, and his expression darkened, but he didn't say anything. He just moved grimly forward, leading the way to the small vessel at the river's edge. Once there, he paused, looking uncertain.
Enjoying his discomfort, Helen joined him and peered into the boat, then smiled and held out her hand.
His brow furrowing, he took it, then tightened his hold when she promptly used him for balance as she stepped into the small craft. Releasing his hand, she then held her arms out for equilibrium and stepped to the far seat where she settled herself comfortably, then turned and gave him a look of expectation.
Muttering under his breath, Hethe clasped the post the boat was tied to, then followed, clambering into the watercraft, not looking at all happy. Helen waited until he was seated opposite her before saying,
"You have to untie the boat."
He stared at her blankly for a moment, then turned to stare at the post and the rope leading to it from a metal hook inside the boat. She had meant for him to have to stand up to untie the end attached to the post, but instead he untied the end in the boat and tossed it over the side where it would drag in the water. He turned to her with a shark-like smile, knowing he had confounded her plan to watch his discomfort.
Helen's gaze narrowed slightly, but all she said was, "You have to push off now."
For a moment she thought that she'd won, that he would storm out of the boat and head for home. The thought made her giddy. She needed time to think. There had to be something she could still do to prevent this marriage. But while he did clamber out of the boat, it was only to push the craft out into the water.
"Goliath!" Helen called, and the dog, who had been nosing around something a little further up the riverbank, turned and raced back to them, leaping into the boat as Hethe shoved off and managed to lumber clumsily into the craft without getting too wet. Dropping promptly onto his rear, Hethe grabbed for both sides of the boat, holding on for dear life as Goliath settled by Helen's feet in the bottom of the boat.
"There now, isn't this nice?" she breathed, beaming at him as he peered at the water moving past and gulped.
'Hmmm," he grunted, then glared with displeasure from her to the oars lying in the bottom of the boat.
Seeming to realize that he was expected to row them about, he picked up one, examined it briefly, then set it in its mooring. The second quickly followed, and he began a clumsy attempt at propulsion. It was more than obvious that he had not done this before, but Helen wasn't too concerned. They wouldn't go far. There really wasn't much of a current here. This part of the river, while wide, was extremely slow and shallow. She wouldn't tell him that, of course. She could hardly play on his supposed fear of water if he knew they were really in nothing more than a wide puddle - at least compared to some of the deeper and swifter-running rivers around these parts.
Leaning slightly to the side, she trailed her fingers in the cool water. Helen had walked down here often with Goliath, but had rarely been rowing. She wondered now why she hadn't done so a time or two before. This was no one's boat, really - and everyone's. It had been here for as long as she could remember, something of a makeshift ferry, used by whomever was looking for a shortcut across the river rather than having to walk around or through it - providing it was on the appropriate side.
"Mayhap you shouldn't lean over like that," Hethe said suddenly, drawing her gaze. "The boat seems to be dipping rather low on that side when you do."
There was no mistaking the tense edge to his voice; the man was nervous and there was no doubting it.
Helen felt herself smiling. After what he had put her through yesterday, it was nice to see him suffer a bit.
More would be nicer still, she decided. Rather than straightening as he obviously wished, she leaned over further. The boat tipped precariously under her weight, until bare inches divided the boat's edge and the river's surface. She smiled as she did so, watching Hethe's expression tighten with anxiety.
Teeth clenching, he shifted to the opposite side of his seat, balancing out the boat somewhat and spoiling her fun. Heaving a sigh, Helen straightened and glanced around. He had been clumsy at rowing in the beginning but was getting the hang of it. They were sliding under a canopy of trees that had grown up on each side of the river, whose branches stretched overhead like a bower. The place would be terribly romantic if it weren't for the fact that she was with him .
It was Goliath's bark that set off the calamity. The dog had been lying calm and silent in the bottom of the boat, but suddenly shifted restlessly and sat up to peer over the side at the shore gliding past. Helen noticed the ducks paddling past at about the same moment that Goliath did, so she wasn't prepared for his sudden excitement. Leaping to his feet, the hound began to bark excitedly, then to romp first to the right, then to the left, then paused and put his paws on the edge of the boat as if to leap out after the birds. The ducks immediately began quacking frantically and flying off.
"Goliath! No!" Helen shouted, unable to enjoy Hethe's suddenly green visage; the way the dog had set the boat teetering in the water was alarming her as well. She started to rise from her seat, to catch and calm the excited beast, when he turned and romped her way again. This time, he crashed right into her in his excitement. She lost her balance in the bouncing boat, and the next thing she knew she was tumbling over the side and into the icy water. Goliath barked, Hethe shouted, and Helen shrieked for all she was worth. Then the water closed over her head, swallowing her in silence.
She surfaced a moment later, frantically coughing and spitting up the water that had filled her open mouth.
The idea came to her like a bolt of lightning. Still coughing and sputtering, she sank back into the water, jerking her arms about for effect as she did. She bobbed back up a moment later, calling weakly for help, then slid below the surface once more. After waiting a few seconds, she popped out again, her gaze frantically seeking and finding Hethe, who was now sitting in the boat several feet away, an odd expression on his face as he watched her floundering about.
Helen's jaw tightened. "I am drowning you churl. Are you not going to rescue me?"
Her fiance's mouth trembled; then he gestured. Helen swiveled in the water to see Goliath romping about right behind her, chasing ducks that were quacking and flapping madly from the water each time he approached. The water only came up to his shoulders. Thanks to the hound, she had not fooled Holden for a moment.
Grinding her teeth together as Hethe suddenly burst out laughing, Helen stood up. She was soaked, of course. Her gown was heavy with the river, her hair a damp mass about her head and shoulders, and she was freezing. Her dignity in shreds, she lifted her head grimly and strode out of the water, her gown slapping wetly against her legs, her slippers squishing with each step.
"Helen! What happened? Are you all right!"
Helen paused on the way to the stairs leading to the second level of Tiernay keep and had to wonder what had made her think she could slip inside and escape to her room before anyone became aware of her humiliation. She should have known better. Nothing had gone right since Lord Holden's arrival. Why should this time be any different? Of course , her aunt and Templetun would be sitting in the great hall, just waiting to witness the consequences of her stupidity.
"Whatever happened to you, dear?" Aunt Nell cried as she reached her side and took in her sodden state.
"I had a little accident," Helen answered succinctly, continuing toward the stairs and wincing at the squishing sounds she made with every step.
"I can see that," Aunt Nell snapped, chasing after her. "But what happened?"
"Hear, hear. And where is Lord Holden?" Lord Templetun added, catching up to them as they reached the stairs.
"I am hoping he is floating face down in the river, but doubt I could be so lucky." Helen returned in a sweet voice, starting up the stairs and ignoring Templetun's shocked gasp. Let him make what he wanted of her words. She didn't care. Leaving them gaping after her, she squished up the stairs to her room. She managed to strip away the sodden gown and was drying herself off with the top bed linen when Ducky rushed into the room.
The maid took one look at Helen's thunderous expression and apparently decided to keep her questions to herself. The two women worked silently to get her hair as dry as they could. Ducky then brushed it out and pulled it back into something of an acceptable style before helping Helen don a fresh gown, a green one to replace the sodden blue mess she had removed.
Still silent, Helen then led the way back down to the great hall. She would not hide in her room again today, as she had the day after the picnic! she determined. But she regretted that decision the moment she stepped off the stairs onto the great hall floor. Well, perhaps not the very moment, but it was then that the keep doors opened and Hethe strode in with an excited Goliath at his heels. Tail wagging wildly, the dog spotted his mistress at once and raced forward to launch himself at her.
Helen heard Ducky gasp in horror before she crashed backward under her dog's weight; then she pushed Goliath's wet body away to gape down at her newly soaked and muddied green gown.
"So sorry." Hethe strode cheerfully forward. "I suppose I should have left him outside, but I find I am becoming rather attached to the beast. Such a clever animal. Did you train him to do that little trick in the boat too?" he asked with a grin that rubbed Helen raw.
"No," she snarled at the reminder of what she had trained Goliath to do. The man wasn't even trying to hide his amusement, and she didn't appreciate that it was at her expense.
"Ah well, he is still clever." Lord Holden scratched an ecstatic Goliath about the ears, grinning at Helen the whole while, then straightened and turned toward the door. "I'll put him outside to dry while you change again."
Much to her fury all he had to do was slap his hand against his leg and Goliath, the traitor, rushed to follow him to the door. Helen had the childish urge to call the dog back to her side to prove just whose dog he was, but was prevented from doing so when Lord Templetun spoke up.
"Aye. You had best change," the king's man said, eyeing her wet and muddied attire with a wince. "The negotiations are complete. We are ready to proceed with the wedding. I have sent for your priest."
"I cannot believe it did not work."
Helen shifted irritably at Ducky's mournful words. "I can. The man is a dunce. He is also tasteless. I have never met a more annoying oaf," she snapped as the other woman continued to dress her hair with small flowers.
"Aye, but the garlic and - "
"He claims my breath is as sweet as flowers," Helen growled.
Ducky gaped at her briefly then shook her head. "Mayhap he has a poor sense of smell."
"Poor sense of smell, my eye! He figured out exactly what we were up to and has been doing everything he can to confound me."
"Are you sure? I mean, I know you thought that thepicnic on the posies was on purpose... but perhaps itwasn't. Perhaps he truly did not see the patch when heset the blanket out. And perhaps he didn't hear youraunt when she told Lord Templetun of your allergy."
"Aye, and perhaps he truly does like that awful ale I have been giving him, and thinks it is some of the finest he has ever enjoyed," Helen muttered.
"He said that?" Ducky looked taken aback, then bit her lip. "What did he say about the lack of covering or fire in his room?"
Helen's mouth tightened. "He finds the cool breezes invigorating."
"The fleas?" Ducky asked almost hopelessly.
"His tough hide must be immune to the little pests. He has said naught about them."
Ducky was silent for a moment as she braided flowers into Helen's golden hair, then murmured unhappily, "I noticed he has been eating heartily of the food we serve him."
"Aye." Helen's head ached with remembered irritation. "He claims I have the finest cook in Christendom."
"Oh." Ducky looked terribly disappointed at the news. But she could not be more disappointed than Helen herself, who had truly convinced herself that he would step forward and refuse the king's ridiculous order that they marry. The man had failed her, and now it was her wedding day.
Dear God! My wedding day, she thought with despair. Father Purcell was probably already waiting in the church. They would hold the ceremony as soon as she was ready.
And she had little choice but to obey Templetun, Unfortunately, there was nothing left to delay the inevitable. All else was in readiness. Helen's servants were all experienced and excellent at their jobs.
Even as they had carried out her plot to bring an end to this travesty, she had made certain they were preparing the keep for the wedding she had never believed would happen. Decorations, a fine feast - all was ready. She had gone ahead with the preparations mostly to keep her guests from suspecting anything was amiss; now they would be needed. The wedding was not canceled. In fact, despite all their efforts, Lord Holden appeared distressingly complacent about the entire arrangement.
Helen winced as Ducky accidentally stuck her scalp with a stem.
"Sorry," the maid murmured, concentrating harder on her task.
"Enough! This is good enough," Helen snapped, waving her away impatiently and standing. Turning to her maid, she held out her hand. "Did you bring the garlic and - "
"Aye, but you said he liked it." Ducky moved to collect the cloves and the mug holding their vile breath enhancer. "Why torture yourself with this if it has no effect on him?"
"Because I am not sure it is not having an effect on him." She shook her head. "I cannot forget his reaction when he first arrived. I swear the man was fit to die from the odor."
"But then why is he claiming to like it?" the servant asked in confusion. "Surely he does not wish to wed a woman who so despises the idea of marrying him?"
Helen shrugged helplessly and took the garlic, speaking as she began to peel several cloves. "Mayhap we overestimated his ability to refuse. Mayhap it is no more possible for him to flout the king's orders than I."
"Then you think he has no more desire to marry you than you have to marry him? That he has no choice?"
"That about sums it up," she muttered resignedly, lifting the first clove to her mouth.
"Nay!" Nell screeched from the door. Helen turned to stare at the woman in amazement as she rushed forward and snatched away the cloves of garlic.
"What?" Helen asked in bewilderment, then gaped at her relative as the woman threw her cloves out into the courtyard. "Whatever are you doing?"
"Getting rid of those." Nell turned back from the window and surveyed her niece with a sigh. "That was one of the addenda Lord Holden insisted on being added to the contracts. It is why we had to negotiate further. You are never to eat garlic again."
"What?" Helen screeched. "But Cook puts them in - "
"That is fine, according to the contract, but you are not to eat cloves whole and raw."
"And you agreed to this?"
"Well, what else could I do?" Nell asked with exasperation. "The very fact that Lord Holden was demanding it had Templetun questioning why. I had to agree just to stop his curiosity. I had to agree to it all."
"All?" Helen had a sinking feeling in her stomach. "What else?"
Nell shifted and grimaced. "You are never to cook for him again. You must eat from the same plate as he. You must drink the same ale as he. There shall always be coverings on the window unless he demands otherwise. A fire is to be built in his bedchamber every night, and you personally are to attend his baths."
Helen stood silent and still at the news, her mind not seeming to work. It was Ducky who muttered, "It seems he didn't find the food or your breath so pleasing after all."
"Damn," Helen hissed, and her maid peered at her with concern.
"Surely it doesn't matter so much, my lady? Does it?"
"It cannot matter now, Helen," Nell agreed, moving to sit beside her. "We gave it a good try, but the king ordered this marriage and it appears it is going to go through."
"The king may be able to order us to marry, but he can't make us like it. Besides, I had hoped that if I made myself stink enough, Holden might refuse to consummate the marriage. That would give me more time to come up with a way out."
"Oh." Ducky nodded slowly. "You always were quick-witted, my lady."
"Not quick-witted enough, I am afraid," Helen said mournfully.
Hethe glanced toward the door of his room as William hurried inside. Standing, he raised an eyebrow questioningly at his first. "Did you get them?"
"Aye. Though I still have no idea why you would want garlic," the man admitted. He handed over several cloves of the fragrant herb.
"Aye. Well, I have rather stumbled upon a new strategy in war," he muttered, beginning to peel the items.
William looked querulous. "And what is it?"
"Sometimes the best way to beat the enemy, is to join them at their own game." Ignoring William's bemused gaze, he popped the garlic cloves into his mouth, ignoring the way they burned his tongue and the insides of his cheeks as he grimly chewed.
"And what enemy exactly are we vanquishing with garlic?" William asked carefully.
Hethe swallowed, hesitated, then shook his head. He had not told his first of all the petty little tricks his intended had been trying in her struggle to avoid marrying him. It was far too humiliating to admit that she so disliked the idea of being his wife - regardless of the fact mat he himself had not originally been eager for this union, either. His pride was sorely tried by the fact that while he, upon first seeing her, had decided that this marriage might not be such a trial after all, she had not had a similar change of heart.
Nay, this was a silent and private war, and he intended to keep it that way. Which was the reason for the garlic. He didn't trust the little witch not to ignore the contract and continue with her dragon-breath tactics. She was trying to avoid marriage to him, after all, and surely she would see that breaking the contract would be grounds to end it. His own breath freshening was simply insurance against such an occurrence.
Hethe smiled to himself as he swallowed the pungent mess. He had no idea what else she'd inflicted on herself to make the stench that assaulted him every time they met, but the garlic really was the worst of it.
Which his own would cancel out.
"Let us go below. She should be ready soon," he said to his friend. He had finished changing into his freshest tunic and leggings while awaiting the man's return with the garlic. Now he reached the door and glanced back at William only to find him staring around the room with distaste.
"You have no coverings on your window."
Hethe shrugged at the observation. "They are being cleaned at the moment."
"But 'tis drafty in here. You should have had a fire built up. And really, Hethe, this room is half the size of mine. Even Templetun's room is - "
"Aye, but this was only meant for one night. We did not expect the delay in the ceremony. Lady Helen thought it best that I sleep in here for one night than for you be stuck in here for one night, then moved to a more comfortable room later. I agreed," he lied through clenched teeth. "Come, or I shall be late for my own wedding."
"Aye." William moved toward him, but he did not look pleased. "Are you sure you want to go through with this? Lovely she may be, but she is still the Tyrant of Tiernay.' "
Hethe grimaced at the name. She was a little tyrant, too. A sneaky little tyrant. A beautiful, sneaky little tyrant with a sweet voice, enchanting smile, and quite the most delectable little body he had seen in ages.
Clearing his throat, he pushed those thoughts away. "I am a lord with some power, William. Still, I will not refuse a direct order from the king without a very good cause."
"Aye, but if you told him how she has harassed and insulted you over the years - "
"He knows," Hethe reminded him quietly. "I dictated enough messages to you informing him of that."
"Oh, aye." William scowled. "Of course."
"Come." Hethe slapped him on the shoulder affectionately and steered him out of the room. "Have a little faith in me. I am your liege and a warrior. I can manage one little wife, don't you think?"
"I suppose," William said doubtfully. Hethe grimaced at the lack of confidence his man showed in him.
Unfortunately, he himself had some doubts as well. The wench had proven herself to be quite clever. And there was nothing more dangerous than a clever woman.