Standing in the cloth merchant’s stall, Armus Grey realized he had no clue what he was doing.
“Perhaps something more like this?” The man held out a bolt of blue that looked no different than the blue cloth he’d shown him two choices ago.
Um,” Armus began, and realized he had no plan to finish the sentence.
It had been so much easier to give Eleanor birthday presents when she’d been normal. Well, not normal. Normal for Eleanor. A new crossbow, or leather gloves like the ones she’d stolen from Richard, then destroyed when she’d left them out in the rain, those would have been easy gifts, were this year like last year.
With a heavy sigh that had nothing to do with purchasing fabric, he reflected that nothing at all was like the previous year.
He turned toward the speaker, and the polite smile he’d summoned froze and died on his face.
It was the girl, Mullens’s daughter, the one Cedric had jilted. Her name, oh God, what was her name? And she looked pleased to have run into him for some reason, so it was likely that she expected him to remember her.
“Alexandra,” she prompted. She didn’t look hurt or upset that he hadn’t remembered. That was a relief.
“I’m the Baron’s daughter. Your neighbor,” she went on, as if further explanation was needed. “I know your brother, Cedric?”
That, he was fully aware of. Nearly everyone in the the Grey family-- save their father, thank God-- had known, and worried over, Cedric’s involvement with the daughter of Sir Thomas’s sworn enemy.
“Of course,” he said quickly, noticing that she had taken his prolonged silence for further confusion. “I’m sorry, I’m a bit out of sorts. It’s not every day that I shop for dress material.”
“I’m sure it is not everyday that the village seamstress makes a dress in your size,” she said, all together too serious for just a moment, so that Armus could not be certain she was joking until she laughed.
“Yes, well.” Why on earth was she talking to him? Couldn’t she see he was in the middle of a crisis of commerce? “Actually, I’m looking for a gift for Eleanor. Her birthday is coming up and...”
Damn. The very first rule of polite conversation was never bring up relatives that had killed a relative of the person one was speaking to. And if it wasn’t the first rule, it should have damn well been posted near the top of the list. Seeking to fill the uncomfortable silence, he blurted the only thing he could think to say, though he hated himself for even uttering the words. “And how is your father? Well, I hope?”
The look she gave him indicated that she was trying to decide if he were a lunatic or a simpleton, or both. “He is well, thank you,” she answered anyway. “And how fares your brother?”
The grim hope that darkened her expression, like the shadow of the gallows falling over a condemned man, made the purpose of their meeting suddenly, horribly clear. She planned to ensnare him in the net of friendly talk, then launch into a thousand lovelorn questions about Cedric. Armus very nearly answered, “All three of them are fine,” before fleeing the marketplace empty-handed, but then he noticed the way Alexandra’s eyes had gone all soft and weepy, an didn’t have the heart to be cruel to her
“He is well.” That was-- perhaps a bit unfairly-- true. Cedric seemed to have forgotten Alexandra entirely, just weeks after he’d been sneaking off to their clandestine meetings.
Though she nodded bravely, it was clear that Alexandra had not been blessed with such a forgetful heart. She ducked her head, her gaze set on her hands as they worried the edges of her woolen cloak. “Oh. Very good,” she said, her voice quivering only slightly. “You see, I had heard that he was exposed to the plague and I... worried for him.”
“Yes, he was, in fact. He did not succumb. For that, we’re all very grateful.” No sense in telling her that Cedric had been helping a beautiful girl escape to a plague sanctuary, and that was how he’d endangered himself.
“And I also heard that there was a girl? That he was protecting her?”
It would have been insensitive to groan and pull his hair out, so he resisted the temptation. Still, he and Cedric would be having a conversation about this when he got home, though he wasn’t sure his little brother would be able to keep up his end of it with a forearm across his throat. “Yes,” he said, fervently hoping that she would not burst into tears. “Yes, there was. He prays that she will recover and return to him.”
That should have settled the matter, in Armus’s estimation. She knew now that Cedric had replaced her in his affections, and that would be the end of it.
She nodded, still fidgeting, desperate, it seemed, to think of another way to talk about his brother. Finally, she looked up, summoned a smile betrayed as false by the tears in her eyes, and said, “Well, I should go. It was nice to see you again, Armus.”
She turned away from the cloth merchant’s stall, took two steps, and paused. Her thin shoulders hitched up straight and she turned to face him again, smiling as though she had not just been about to run off crying. “Did you say you needed a gift for Eleanor?”
As much as he wished to avoid another torturous conversation, he did need some feminine guidance. “Yes. Unfortunately, I’m a bit out of my territory here.”
“A bit?” She arched a brow as if to ask if he was in the habit of buying dresses for ladies.
“If my territory was England, this would be Rome.”
She laughed. It was a nice laugh. Genuine, not some practiced feminine wile. She strode confidently up to the stall, and indicated the blue fabric that the merchant had laid out. “Is this what you were thinking of?”
Something about the question, the tone of it, told Armus that he’d made the wrong choice, but that she was unlikely to tell him that straight out. “Perhaps. What do you think?”
Alexandra tapped her pursed lips with one dainty finger. “It is beautiful. But I don’t know if it would be the most flattering shade.” She waved the merchant over. “What do you have in gold? Or a deep green?”
The man turned to pull down bolts of cloth, and Armus wondered how she had made the process look so simple and painless. “You sound so knowledgeable.”
Another easy laugh. “I think I have an eye for clothing. Father says it’s just an eye for spending money.” She looked down at the blue fabric. “I do wish Cedric would have taken my advice and stopped wearing so much leather. He doesn’t have the frame for it.”
She was so earnest and sounded so hurt, that when Armus reviewed his fantasy of crushing his brother’s windpipe, the satisfaction in the imagining came not from punishing Cedric for the awkwardness of the afternoon, but from giving him a physical trouncing that would hurt as much as the one he’d given Alexandra’s heart.
Perhaps it the was the fact that his sister was so close to Alexandra in age, or because he simply did not like to see a woman’s tears, but it pained Armus to see her sadness so plainly displayed. “What about me?” he said, desperate to provide another distraction. He lifted the blue fabric and held it up in comparison to his face. “Would it be a flattering shade for me?”
Again, her tears were forgotten, abandoned by a disposition far better suited to laughter. “A flattering shade, but the cloth is a bit too delicate, I think.”
He feigned disappointment and sighed. “I’m terrible at this. It’s a good thing you’re here to help, or my dress would turn out all wrong.”
The merchant returned with two bolts of cloth. The man had appeared increasingly agitated with Armus, but somehow, the sight of Alexandra had softened his demeanor. She looked over the two colors, the gold and green, with an expression of increasing seriousness. She tilted her head to the side. She tapped her finger to her lips and made a soft “hmmm” noise. Armus had seen archers in tournaments aim their shots with less concentration.
It was a shame, really, that she had let Cedric’s casual rejection bother her so. Loads of young men in the county must have had their eyes on the Baron’s daughter, if not just for the advantages her father’s influence could bring them.
There was so much more to recommend her, though. He had to admit that she was a beautiful girl. Her face was a bit more plain than Charlotte Wyatt’s, her features a bit sharper, but she smiled more often, and she didn’t seem to be aware of her attractiveness. Her hair was just as golden as Charlotte’s, and she was just as slender and delicate.
At the realization that he’d been mentally comparing the favorable physical attributes of one brother’s former paramour to his other brother’s fiance, he cursed himself silently.
And then, at the realization that he was openly staring at Alexandra, and that she was looking at him expectantly, as though she’d just asked him a question he had not been paying attention to, he looked away quickly. “The green, I think,” he told the merchant, and then, to Alexandra, “Don’t you agree?”
“I do.” She tilted her head to the side again, turning the same shrewd consideration she’d given to the fabric onto him. “In fact, I just said that.”
He decided to employ a trick his father used often, pretending that he hadn’t just been caught with his mind elsewhere, and said, “Ah,” as though he completely understood what had just happened. He reached for his coins and counted them out, not bothering to bicker with the merchant over the price, which was far more than he’d wanted to pay. “I’m sure the green will be lovely,” he said, to neither the merchant or Alexandra in particular.
“A lovely color for a lovely girl, Sire,” the man agreed, winking at Alexandra.
“No, we’re not--” Armus hurried to explain, but the man turned away to cut and fold the cloth, no longer listening.
Alexandra still stood beside him, her lovely pale face flaming red with embarrassment. Armus wasn’t sure if it had been the merchant’s words or his who’d caused it. “Thank you. I might have been here another hour, without your help.”
“It was only the neighborly thing to do,” she said, not meeting his eyes. “Now, I really will be off, or I’ll be wandering through the forest come nightfall.”
There was no chance of that happening. Baron Mullens guarded his only surviving child as though she were a chest of gold.
It was strange, Armus thought later, as he carefully placed Eleanor’s present in his saddlebag, that Alexandra had managed to slip out of the sight of her ever-present guards long enough for their short meeting. Of course, she’d managed to get away often enough to meet with Cedric.
Cedric. The thought of the long discussion they needed to have made Armus forgo a mug of ale at the tavern and instead head directly for home.
Though spring had finally come, the sun still set early, and now it flared warning orange through the trees. If he had stopped for that ale, Armus realized, he wouldn’t have made it home before dark. Now, the only question would be whether to trounce his brother before dinner, or after. His spirits lifted considerably as he considered both options, but his thoughts inevitably drifted back to the source of his upset.
As distressing as her heart-break was to the casual observer, John Mullens’s daughter was not nearly so obnoxious as her father. Armus did not remember the girl’s mother-- their two families had never been close, and the Baron’s wife had died almost as long ago as Armus’s own mother had-- but the girl must have taken after Lady Mullens more than her father.
Guiltily, Armus remembered warning Cedric away from Alexandra. He and Richard had detailed all of the things that John Mullens would do to him if the secret relationship were discovered. He’d assured Cedric that those terrible imaginings would seem mild in comparison to what their own father would do to him. But then, Armus had gone and pursued Charlotte, daughter of Lord Wyatt, a man his father hated almost as intensely as the Baron. Though it hadn’t turned out the way Armus had wished it to, Richard was now betrothed to Charlotte, and the families were enjoying a tenuous peace, if only for the moment. Perhaps Cedric and Alexandra could have been happy together, with the blessings of both of their fathers.
No. The Mullens family and the Grey family were too contentious for that to ever occur. And Cedric was nothing like Richard. Richard was ready to settle down. He had no qualms about being with just one woman for the rest of his life. Cedric was too young, and too romantic for that kind of commitment. Though he still proclaimed his love for the girl at the plague sanctuary, he hadn’t exactly taken a vow of chastity in her absence.
The problem with having a brother like Cedric was that one could never anticipate when one might run into one of his jilted lovers. At the market, for example.
Or, on the road, completely alone and too absorbed in her crying to notice the man on horseback who approached.
Armus urged his horse forward, slowing as he reached her. She looked up, noticing him for the first time. He was about to launch into the type of speech he would have given Eleanor, were he to find her her wandering down the road from the village alone, paying no attention to her surroundings, but the tears streaming from Alexandra’s swollen eyes stopped every utterance of “Are you mad?” and “You could have been killed!” from leaving his tongue.
Instead, he said, “Did you lose your horse?”
She laughed, and it was not the pleasant laugh he’d heard at the market. “No. I did not lose my horse.”
She went back to walking, and he let her gain a few steps before following. “I can’t help but notice that you’re upset.”
“Of course I am upset!” She turned, her fists clenched, her eyes shut tight against the tears that still spilled out. “Your brother--”
“-- should be blinded with hot irons. No! He should be flayed alive! Flayed alive, and then dragged behind a horse!” Her voice broke on a sob and she sank down onto the grass at the roadside, burying her face in her sleeve.
“I agree,” he said wearily. “I was about to go home and do nearly the same thing to him.”
Alexandra glared up at him. “Do you mock me?”
“No.” Though if it had been anyone else saying such things about his brother, he might have been offended. “You’re going to ruin your dress, sitting down there.”
“I don’t care,” she snapped. Then, wiping miserably at her eyes with her sleeve, she asked in what was almost a whisper, “What is wrong with me?”
Her pained question sent a dagger through Armus’s heart. “Nothing is wrong with you.”
Another bitter laugh. “If there is nothing wrong with me, why isn’t Cedric sitting on the side of the road, crying? Why isn’t Cedric going to the market every day in the hopes of seeing me? Why isn’t--”
“Because Cedric doesn’t care.” It sounded far more brutal than he meant it to, so he was quick to continue. “Maybe he can’t care about you as much as you care about him.”
“So, he’s blameless?” she climbed to her feet, brushing angrily at her skirt. “It doesn’t matter that he’s hurt me, because I’m... unlovable?”
“That isn’t what I meant,” he watched helplessly as she stormed away. “Alexandra, wait!”
Though she would rage at him in his brother’s place, he didn’t want her to walk away angry at the wrong brother. And she didn’t appear ready to pass up a chance to shout some more. She spun to face him and crossed her arms. “Fine. What did you mean, then?”
He’d meant exactly what he’d said, but she’d twisted his words into something else entirely, but he didn’t think it would be wise to point that out. “If he was too stupid to see that you’re... well, that you’re worth caring about, then the problem is clearly his.”
She twisted the edges of her cloak and frowned down at her hands. “Thank you. I am sorry that I shouted at you. Please, don’t let me detain you further.”
If she hadn’t spent it all shouting at him, she might have carried herself home on her anger. But the air was growing colder, the sun hung low in the sky, and the shoes that peeked from the soiled hem of her gown were not made for long walks. “Why are you out here by yourself?” He surveyed the road in both directions. “And without a horse?”
“Father would have noticed if I’d taken a horse from the stable.” A smile tugged at her mouth, but it died quickly. “One of his spies would have gone running to him.”
“You snuck out.” It shouldn’t have surprised him. She’d always been ducking her father’s notice to see Cedric.
For some reason, the thought of her meeting Cedric made him uncomfortable, when it never had before. He’d even teased his brother about how obvious those meetings were. Now, he added those meetings to the list of things he would pummel Cedric for.
Now, her smile stayed. “If I had not, you would still be trying to decide on a color for your dress.”
“Eleanor’s dress,” he corrected.
“So you say.”
It was far too late for her to walk home, even if it weren’t a dangerous trip. Damn . “Well, as you rescued me once today, perhaps you will allow me to return the favor?”
She looked as though she could not tell if he were jesting or not. “My father wouldn’t like that.”
“I am sure that your father would be glad to have you delivered back safely, no matter who escorts you.”
She said nothing. She didn’t have to. Her incredulous expression was enough to give Armus the distinct impression that she believed John Mullens might be capable of springing from the trees to scold her and kill him.
He nodded. “Just to the edge of your lands, then?”
She gave a relieved sigh. “That would be best.”
He offered her hand and helped her climb up to sit behind him. His horse, annoyed at the added weight, took a step forward, and Alexandra, not yet settled, gasped and threw her arms around Armus.
That was something he hadn’t thought through. He would have to ride onto Mullens’s land with Mullens’s daughter clinging to him like a vine.
At least she had the good sense to realize how awkward the arrangement was. She relaxed her panicked hold on him until the circle of her arms around his middle no longer crushed him, and he urged his horse forward.
“You know, you’ve rescued me before.”
He was not sure how he should respond. It was one thing to forget the name of one’s sibling’s romantic conquest. It was quite another to forget a girl one had saved from certain peril.
Fortunately, Alexandra hadn’t expected an answer. She continued, “at the tax collection at Arundale. My father and I were there when you rode in to save us all from those bandits.”
He chuckled at the memory, at how absurd it sounded when told by someone else. “I had quite a lot of help in that,” he reminded her.
“So, I’m still allowed to rescue you, as I need to repay you for this afternoon’s kindness.” He clucked to his horse and steered it away from the fork of the road that lead to Covington Cross. The horse blew out a breath, as if he found Armus’s choice of route quite vexing.
“You don’t owe me anything,” she said, suddenly serious. “Not after all of the things that my father has done to your family.”
To Armus’s knowledge, Alexandra Mulls adored her father to the point of blindness. Hearing her admit that her father had done something wrong, no mater how vague the admission, was like seeing an eclipse.
“I know it seems as though I were totally naive about my father’ schemes, but I’m not. No matter what Cedric may have told you.”
He’d told him that he could no longer be with Alexandra, so long as she remained so unfailingly trusting of her father and the elaborate stories he told her to cover up his evil deeds. “He never mentioned it,” he lied. He wasn’t a good liar.
“Of course he did,” Alexandra said. “It was the reason that he spurned me. He thought that I should see just how truly awful my father can be. As if I didn’t already know.”
He decided to step cautiously here. “Perhaps he didn’t believe you were... uninformed. It’s possible he was confused as to why would defend your father’s involvement in those schemes.”
“If I began to rail against your father, and all of the things he’s done to my family in the past, wouldn’t you defend him, even if you knew he was wrong?”
My father never burned down a village, he thought, and Alexandra seemed to know what he was thinking, because she continued, “If, for the sake of argument only, I began talking about how your sister shot my brother in the heart with a crossbow--”
“No, no, I see your point,” Armus hurried to reassure her. “Did you tell Cedric this?”
“He doesn’t understand.” Alexandra sighed, but she did not sound likely to burst into tears again, which was a relief. “I know my father has done many terrible things. But he’s my father. I’m not going to stop loving him just because Cedric thinks it’s the moral thing to do. My father is my only family in the world now.”
“I heard Lord Wyatt invited you and your father for his birthday celebration at the end of the month,” he said, to change the subject. “Will you attend?”
“I don’t know.” The gloom that had possessed her before returned swiftly. “I haven’t been in a mood to celebrate lately.”
“I understand.” The prospect of showing up at Lord Wyatt’s castle and seeing his brother and Charlotte together made Armus feel as miserable as Alexandra sounded.
“I heard about your brother and Lord Wyatt's daughter. You fancied her, didn’t you?” She sounded apologetic. “I’m sorry. It isn’t my place to ask.”
He didn’t want to discuss the matter, but it would be a long ride if he remained sullen and silent. “Yes, I did. Very much.” Though fancied was hardly the right word. Loved. Adored. Passionately. That was a more accurate description. “But, she loves Richard, and he loves her.”
“It is very chivalrous of you, not standing in their way.” It might have been his imagination, but she seemed to tighten her arms around him, just a bit.
“It’s not as though I could have stopped them.” Damn. That was meant to be a thought. Now, he sounded childish and pathetic.
“But would you want to, even if you could?” Her tone was not judgmental, but gentle. “If you could be with Charlotte, but it was at the expense of both of their happiness, could you really interfere?”
He suspected she already knew the answer, but he gave it, anyway. “No. No, I would not.”
“There.” She laughed. “At least one person in your family is a kind, decent soul.”
“You can’t really judge us all by Cedric, you know. Unless Richard broke your heart, as well--”
“No, Richard only threatened my father’s life during a roadside robbery,” she reminded him. “Your sister killed my brother, though I’ll grant that her hand was forced somewhat--”
“Yes, yes, all right.” Really, it was a miracle she hadn’t just cut his throat at the market place to have done with it. “Well, William hasn’t offended you yet.”
“I haven’t met William,” she said with that lovely, genuine laugh.
He was beginning to look forward to that sound. “Well, then I will strive to be an ambassador for the Grey family.”
“So far, you’re doing fine.” She fell silent as they rounded a bend in the road and the hulking turrets of Mullens’s castle peeked over the trees. “You’d better stop here. It isn’t much farther, and I’ll be perfectly safe. Father’s spies are everywhere.”
A gentleman would have argued to accompany her to the castle gate, but now the prospect of an altercation with the Baron seemed much more real. Armus climbed down from the saddle and offered his hand to Alexandra. She leaned forward and braced herself against his shoulders, while he put his hands at her waist to lift her down. When her feet were on the ground and she looked up at him with a polite smile, he, without thinking, leaned down and kissed her cheek.
Almost as soon as his lips brushed her skin, he realized how insanely foolish he was. A look at her face-- wide-eyes, suddenly pale-- confirmed that she realized it, too.
“Sorry.” He let go of her as though she’d burst into flames. “We should probably never mention this to anyone.”
She nodded, mute with shock, and walked past him, toward her home. He watched her for a moment, then, cursing his stupidity and shaking his head, mounted his horse and tugged the reigns to head for Covington Cross.
When he looked back, Alexandra stood in the middle of the road. She twisted the ties of her cloak in her fingers. “For seeing me safely home.”
“You’re welcome.” He turned back to the road.
“Armus!” The way she called his name was bit startled, as if she hadn’t meant to say it. He looked back again, and she quickly dropped her gaze to her hands. “Will you be attending Lord Wyatt’s birthday feast?”
“Um...” Whether the stupidity that had caused him to kiss her still lingered, or this was a fresh batch, he did not know. He did know that he didn’t care to spend a night in the company of Lord Wyatt and John Mullens, and yet, for a reason he did not want to examine, the idea seemed to be growing on him.
“Because I thought I might go,” Alexandra rushed on, not waiting for him to answer. “If there was was someone there who would be pleasant to see again.” She paused, took a loud breath, and finally met his eyes. “So... do you think you will be there?”
Not answering her would have been just as disastrous as answering. His tongue found the words before his brain could halt them. “Yes. I think I will be there.”
She smiled an uncertain little smile, and then ducked her head to hide it. “Well. Perhaps we will see each other there. Thank you again, Armus. It was a very pleasant afternoon.”
“It was,” he agreed. He turned back to the road in his direction, and she to hers, and that seemed to settle the matter, until he glanced over his shoulder and found Alexandra doing the same. She laughed and turned away once more, and he did, as well.
It had been a pleasant afternoon. And an oddly confusing one. And now he wouldn’t get home until well after dark, and he would have to convince his father to accept Lord Wyatt’s invitation, and attend what was likely to be a very boring birthday celebration for a man he didn’t like.
But he still couldn’t stop smiling, all the way back to Covington Cross.