|Subject: Honor on the Field, 17
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Date Posted: Sunday, November 20, 08:53:10pm
In reply to:
's message, "Honor on the Field, con't." on Wednesday, November 16, 09:49:08am
~*~*~*~*~*~*Chapter 17 *~*~*~*~*~
After the events at the shooting range, Nikita and Rouen took such good care to avoid each other that she never exchanged another word with him until she was standing on the steps two days later, biding the Prince’s party farewell.
Rouen turned to her after speaking briefly with her father. “Nikita. As always, a pleasure. You are a consummate hostess.” He smiled and bowed his head, “My thanks for an excellent stay.”
“You’re welcome, my lord. We are honored by your presence and your thanks.”
Seeing that Phillip was busy with the Princess Joan, Samuelle leaned closer and said quietly “and may you have a wonderful wedding and a good life, Nikita. My prayers will go with you.”
Biting back sudden tears, Nikita whispered, “Thank you.”
Then he was gone.
It was not until two days after the Prince’s party had departed that Nikita learned the extent of Rouen’s good wishes. His man Walter appeared, with his master’s permission, to visit Belinda for several weeks, and Nikita, seeing Belinda’s obvious happiness over this, had been pleased to make him welcome. That night, Walter begged a moment of her time, and presented her with a purse, heavy with coins.
“Walter! What is this?”
“My lord said, it’s your winnings, miss.”
“Your winnings, from the shooting wager.”
“I didn’t wager anything!”
“No. My Lord Rouen did, but said that they were properly yours, as you did the shooting.”
“I can’t accept this!”
“I can’t take it back to him.”
And as far was Walter was concerned, that was the last he would hear of it, and so Nikita was forced to accept the gift; a sum, when she came to count it, that was staggeringly generous.
The other news Walter brought was equally shocking, but not nearly as pleasant. Louis, Duke of Anjou and Philippe, Duke of Touraine, sons of Jean II, had slipped out of England along and returned home to France. Even more incredible, they had taken nearly all of the other hostages to Jean’s ransom with them. While Prince Edward and the majority of the tournament set were hunting in Marlborough, and King Edward and his court were hunting at Ponfret Castle with his youngest son, John, Duke of Lancaster, Jean’s sons had broken their word and rendered their father’s bond worthless.
The remaining visitors, still nearly a score of knights and their parties, could talk of nothing else but the new scandal. Jean was renowned for his devotion to the code of chivalry and his sense of honor, and no one could believe for a moment that he had either known or condoned his sons’ actions. It also seemed quite clear that Jean would be unable to force them to return. The French had been renowned for the better part of a century for their fidelity to the chivalric code and their attachment to their word of honor. That they were falling away from that commitment seemed an ill omen to take into the onset of another winter.
By the end of a fortnight the last of the guests were gone, and with a pounding heart and her future in her eyes, Nikita escorted Gray Wellman to her father’s private rooms.
“I will be so glad when this is over!” Nikita exclaimed as they stood looking at Phillip’s closed door.
“Me too.” Gray laughed gently and winked at Nikita, brushing an escaped strand of hair back from her face. “Give me a kiss for luck.”
Nikita enthusiastically did as he bid, then knocked on her father’s door and ushered Gray inside.
Expecting any moment to be called in to receive her father’s congratulations, Nikita stayed where she was, dreaming of her wedding, of her first home with Gray, of their children; building Cathedrals in the air.
Eventually it seemed to her that Gray had been closeted with her father for longer than necessary and she began to wonder what could possibly be taking them so long to settle. After all, she had already warned Gray that there would be no dower and he had said that wouldn’t be a problem. Impatient, she considered knocking herself and begging entrance, when the door opened and her father stood in the entry, his face grave and stern.
“Come in Nikita.”
Her stomach suddenly churning acid bile, Nikita looked to Gray to discover what could be making her father look like that, and Gray wouldn’t meet her eyes, instead staring determinedly out the window, his spine rigid with tension.
“Sir?” Nikita looked to her father, hoping he would explain what was wrong before panic closed her throat altogether.
“Master Builder Wellman has, very properly, approached me to ask for your hand in marriage.”
Nikita licked her suddenly dry lips. “Yes?”
“I have refused his petition.”
“What?” Nikita stared at her father aghast. “Why?”
“I cannot spare you.”
“Spare me? But, you… you have Michelle!”
Phillip held her eye as he explained, “I have never intended for Michelle to assume your duties, Nikita. On Lady Anne’s death, the care of my manor and my estates fell to you. From that day onward, I have expected that in exchange for my acknowledgement, for raising you in my own house, for seeing that you received all the training that you would need to perform your job, that you would devote yourself to that task. To my immense pleasure and pride, you have proven extremely adept at the job I expected you to do. I require that you continue to meet the responsibilities that have garnered myself, and you, such well-deserved praise.”
“You expect me to never leave your house?”
“Never is a long time Nikita, but if you will recall, I told you long ago that marriage was unlikely to be your fate.”
Swallowing bitter rage as she felt all her dreams, all her efforts over the last ten years, come crumbling drown around her, Nikita started shaking her head in denial. Her voice rough from suppressed emotion, she insisted, “You never said that sir! You never said that I owed you my labor for the rest of my life in exchange for your acknowledgement!”
“I’m sorry that you didn’t understand your situation better, Nikita. I would have spared you and the master builder here the disappointment you must be feeling. But the matter is closed. Please show Master Wellman out.” With that, Phillip turned on his heel and left the room, leaving two stunned individuals in his wake.
Reeling from the completeness with which Phillip had destroyed all her expectations, Nikita whispered, “Gray?”
In an instant Gray was enfolding her in a tight embrace. His own voice rough with emotion, he murmured into her ear. “I begged him to let you go, told him that everyone would think him a great man for allowing you to marry well with his blessing. I told him he was cruel to keep you from a good marriage, from a man who loves you. I even offered to stay here with you, so you could continue running his estates, even as my wife. He refused every suggestion.”
Leaning back to look him in the eye, Nikita seized Gray’s tunic, desperation filling her heart and giving her a burst of unexpected strength. “He can’t keep me here, not against my will! We can marry anyway. We don’t need his blessing. Oh please, Gray, please, don’t let all our hopes die because of him!”
Gray closed his hands over hers, his own breathing almost as ragged as hers. “I’m sorry Nikita. There’s nothing more I can do. We can’t marry against Phillip’s wishes. The scandal would crush my career.”
“No!” she cried. “It doesn’t have to! I have money! I have connections in France – we could go there, I know you would get work, I just know it!”
Gray smiled sadly. “I know you mean well, Nikita, but accepting help from your noble admirer would only make the situation worse. And, I don’t want to leave England. This is my home, my daughter’s home. This is where I want to make my name.”
Nikita was so stunned she dropped her hands. “My noble what?”
“Nikita, everyone speaks of the Duke of Rouen’s fondness for you. I do you the honor of disbelieving those who call him your lover, but I can’t discredit all those who have told me of his marked attentions toward you. I can’t discredit my own eyes.”
Nikita was mute; all she could do was shake her head as her chin trembled with tears she would not shed.
Gray took her hand and stroked her palm with his fingers as he spoke. “He came to see me you know. Wanted to meet the man who would marry you. I knew he was judging me, and I have to admit, it felt an honor to know that such a man would find me satisfactory, would go so far as to wish me happy in my future. But the whole time, I knew, the way a man knows, that he would rather have ripped out my throat than see me wed you. Knowing I would have something the Duke could not, that was an honor too.”
Gray gave her an embarrassed smile, one that quickly vanished under the weight of their loss.
“No, please no, don’t leave me here, please Gray. Please! Gray! I love you!” Nikita knew she was pleading incoherently, and the tears she would not acknowledge were beginning to spill down her nose, the salt starting to sting her lips.
“Shh.” Gray tried to dry her cheeks, but was defeated by the continuing streaming of her tears. Holding her face in his hands he kissed her forehead. “I’m so sorry Nikita. More sorry than you will ever know.”
Long after Gray left, Nikita stood in her father’s room, staring with unseeing eyes at a world gone dark and strange, a future yawning endless and bleak as far as she could see.
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