|Subject: Honor on the Field, 23
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Date Posted: Sunday, November 27, 05:42:57pm
In reply to:
's message, "Honor on the Field, con't." on Wednesday, November 16, 09:49:08am
~*~*~*~*~* Chapter 23 ~*~*~*~*~*~
She heard her father lead the other men away, and for the first time in more than eighteen months, Nikita was alone in a room with the Duke of Rouen.
His voice was soft, a gentle inquiry that made her close her eyes against a sudden onslaught of what-might-have-been’s and what-could-not-be’s.
“Your sister told us what you were, um,” here he paused, obviously unable to find the right word.
Nikita raised her head, only mildly surprised the Rouen should have already extracted the information from Michelle. Once Michelle was in the confessing mood it was difficult to stop her. At the same time, Nikita was also mildly relieved that she wouldn’t have to be the one to reveal the humiliating truth that though her family expected her loyalty to them, they had very little to spare for her.
Rouen continued, “arguing about.”
Wrinkling her nose in chagrin at the mental image of what they must have looked like, Nikita said, “the shrieking, you mean?”
The slight tension of uncertainty left Rouen’s shoulders, and he smiled at her, his eyes warming with both good humor and sympathy. “Yes.”
Nikita smiled back and took a good look at him for the first time since he had entered the room. He looked much the same as she remembered, still tall and lean and handsome. His eyes just as remarkable as ever, and he was still wearing black. The only difference she could see was that he had cut his hair short, so instead of brushing his shoulders as it had the previous autumn, his hair curled crisply across his brow and over his ears.
He sobered immediately. “I am sorry.”
“Why?” Nikita frowned. “You had nothing to do with it!”
She shrugged and sighed, then crossing her arms over her chest, she moved toward the window, gazing out into the familiar fields and trying not to dwell on what she was losing.
“In any case, it hardly matters.” She glanced back over her shoulder to see Rouen watching her. He was leaning one hip against her father’s table, for all the world as though it were his own, completely at his ease taking over another man’s space.
She turned back to the window. “It did nothing to alter my father’s decision one way or another.”
“No. I shouldn’t think it would. But to know that she has not always been your friend, now, when you are being used to forward for her marriage… It can’t be easy.”
Worried that if she thought any more about Michelle’s revelation, she might cry, Nikita turned to face Rouen and changed the subject, dropping her arms to her side to twist her fingers in the folds of her skirts as she said, “You wished to consult with me?”
“Yes.” He looked somberly at her. “I’m going to war, immediately. I’m late already. I’ll be traveling hard and fast, and spending the summer on campaign. It’s no place for a lady.”
Swallowing her bitterness, Nikita reminded him in a slow drawl, “I am not a lady, my lord.”
Rouen looked briefly irritated, waving his hand through the air as though he was flicking away an annoying fly. “No. Not by formal title, perhaps. But by life, you are.”
Nikita started to protest, but before she could speak, he held up his hand, cutting her off. “Don’t argue with me about something you know nothing about. You have been raised the daughter of a Baron in peace and relative luxury. You have never in your life known hunger, or true cold, and I suspect you have never spent the night in the open or on the ground.”
He cocked his head and waited a beat for her to contradict him. Obviously judging from her averted eyes and frustrated scowl that she could not, he went on, “you have no personal experience with violence or with the type of men who fill armies. In this you are a lady, and I would not be the one to introduce you to these things.”
Knowing he was right, but feeling that he didn’t understand her situation any more than she knew the realities of war, Nikita looked at him and raised her hands in frustration. “So? What would you have me do?”
He widened his eyes in surprise. “I would think your preference would be to stay here in your father’s home until fall, when I would send for you.”
“Here?!” Nikita didn’t bother to conceal her shudder of horror at the thought of remaining trapped in her father’s household for any longer than necessary. One of her few comforts over the last month had been the idea that Rouen would take her away with him, that if she could not be a wife she would at least be the companion of a powerful and peripatetic man who would introduce her to a life of adventure and excitement. She had also not forgotten to consider what pleasures might come with that role.
She moved restlessly toward the fireplace, scrubbing her arms with her hands and frowning in dismay as she turned back to Rouen. Heaven knew war didn’t sound good, but staying was definitely bad.
The sly humor that she had seen before in Rouen revealed itself in his quick smile. “Well, Michelle and Barbant will be gone within the week, Volker, with luck, by tomorrow. How bad could it be?”
She was in no mood to respond to his attempt to lighten the moment. “Here.” In her shocked dismay, she repeated herself and stared at him and wondered that he could be so uncomprehending. “With my father?”
Assuming that he needed the obvious said aloud, she flung out, “As another man’s mistress.”
“As his daughter and the chatelaine of his house.”
“No.” Nikita shook her head negatively as she continued to circle her father’s chamber, her eyes raking over his substantial bed, the heavy blue linen drapes tied back to the corner posts, the high backed chair behind the table Rouen continued to lean against, the large sideboard lining the far wall with the small ornately carved chest about whose contents she and Michelle had spent hours speculating resting on top – all of it a reflection of the solid determination of the man to whom it belonged. “No. You don’t know my father, my Lord. Once the money has changed hands, my responsibilities in his house will cease. If you pay him, he would allow me my room for a time, but my place else wise will be with the manor’s other servants, villeins and bonds people. I would rather not stay here under those circumstances.”
Rouen nodded slowly, absorbing her concerns. “I see. Well, I can understand that.” He pursed his lips and stared down at his open hands, apparently thinking over the options. After a moment he lifted his head. “I will send you to Rouen, and…”
“So that I can be treated the same way in your house?” Nikita was aghast. The thought of being sent to a strange house in a strange place where she would have no friends and no station was too terrible to contemplate. “Thank you sir, but I would really rather not! I am, as you say, used to the position and respect of a lady. I am not ready to be reviled.”
Rouen rose swiftly to his feet and declared fiercely, “No one will revile you in my house!”
Nikita stared at him and marveled, not for the first time, about how little lords knew of their own households, especially how they functioned during their absence. She raised her brows and asked pointedly, her voice very dry, “While you are not there?”
After holding her stare for a moment, Rouen dropped his eyes and raised his hands in surrender. “Alright. Fine. Then may I set you up in London? It’s close enough to on my way to Brittany…”
Nikita interrupted, too angry and too confused about why he didn’t seem to want her with him after coming all this way to claim her for his own to restrain herself. “And have people say that you regret your purchase before you’ve even had time to enjoy it? And wonder what is wrong with me that you reject me? What terrible thing I did to offend you and lose your pleasure?”
To her relief he didn’t argue with her, the brief expression of chagrin that crossed his face even suggested he conceded the point. “Well, what would you have me do with you then?” He raised his hands again in obvious exasperation.
More than a little dumbfounded by his unwillingness to have her accompany him, having just agreed to buy her as his concubine for what she knew to be an astoundingly large sum of money, Nikita exclaimed, “Take me with you!”
“To war? No.” He folded his arms across his chest and settled his face into his haughtiest, most dismissive expression. The look that made her like him least.
Nikita hated the role of supplicant more than almost anything else in life, having been forced into all too often, but she would do close to anything to get out of her father’s house, whose walls she could feel rapidly closing in on her again, trapping her forever after a tantalizingly brief glimpse of freedom at Rouen’s side. She made her tone as conciliatory and calm as she could manage given her sudden panic, “You asked me to join you on your journeys. If not to war when you fight it, what did you mean?”
That gave Rouen pause and he stumbled at bit trying to answer. “I, I meant, I think, on the tournament circuit.”
Nikita deliberately gazed into his eyes then, willing him to see that she was serious and desperate. Stepping closer to him than she had yet come, she leaned toward him and said, “I would go with you now, my lord.”
Her plea was from the heart, and seemed, finally to have an impact.
Rouen started to waver. “Nikita…the travel will be hard and fast. I plan to move at the speed of a messenger, sleeping on the ground when there is no inn, and once in Brittany, I will have only the one tent and the one camp bed.” Rouen closed the distance between them and looked carefully at her face. “Are you ready for this?”
Feeling more than a little breathless at his nearness, at the thought of sharing a bed with him, Nikita took refuge in irritation. “I said I agreed to the terms of the arrangement, my Lord!”
His eyes searching hers, Rouen said, “Less than six months ago you were happily preparing to wed another man, one whom you held in your affections, if not your heart.”
Nikita did not want to remember or discuss that particular episode of her life with Rouen. She said, with what she hoped was firm finality, “He holds that place no longer.”
“Perhaps not, but when I asked you once before, you were adamant that you did not want to be a concubine. I’ve seen nothing to indicate that you do yet.”
Nikita met his gaze head on. “And yet, I am one, my lord. I will do my duty.”
Rouen let out a snort of laughter and moved a step away from her. “I’m not in the habit of thinking of myself as an obligation, my lady!”
“Well, better you than Volker!” It was out before she could stop it.
Rouen raised his brow in mock outrage over suddenly laughing eyes. “I certainly hope so!”
Blushing furiously, Nikita thought of a dozen different things that she wanted to say and couldn’t manage to articulate any of them.
Rouen drew nearer to her again, until he stood in front of her, so close she could see all the shades of green and gray that made up his eyes. “Be serious Nikita – one of the reasons I wanted to leave you behind this summer was to give you as much time as you need to acclimate yourself to your new situation.” He brought his hand up and gently brushed her cheek, leaving a small tingling trail behind as he stroked the pad of his thumb down her jaw. “I would have you be happy in this arrangement, because I am.”
Her heart pounding at the heat she saw flaring in his gaze, she asked, “Even after the shrieking?”
Rouen smiled warmly. “Even after the shrieking.” His gaze slipped from her eyes to her shoulder, and he skimmed his fingers down her arm until he reached her hand and slipped his fingers over hers, playing his thumb lightly across her knuckles, his voice distant with memory. “I’ve wanted you since I first saw you.” He raised his eyes to hers again without stopping his caress of her fingers. “Time has only increased my desire. I’m willing to wait for you to accept your own.”
His caress sending butterflies through her belly, Nikita turned her hand his so she could run her fingers across his palm, and smiled ruefully. “Desire was never the issue, my Lord. None know that better than you.”
This was the moment, she told herself. If she failed to convince him to take her with him, she could spend the summer, or, heaven forbid, if he died in war, the rest of her life as an invisible occupant of the manor she had run as her own for almost half her years. She continued to let her fingers explore his hand, feeling the rough callous and wondering if they came from a sword or a lance, noting with some surprise that his fingernails were longer than his fingertips and smoothly rounded. She looked back up to meet his gaze head on. “I know I know nothing of war, or true hardship. I appealed to you in my family’s distress over Michelle because it seemed, it seems to me now to be better to join you wherever your journeys take you than to wait here for some unhappy fate to find me.”
The doubt and desire and hope in his gaze almost did her in when he asked, “You really want this, Nikita?”
So she did the only thing she could think to do. Nikita leaned in and kissed him, dragging her parted lips slowly across his, inviting him to kiss her back. Which, after only the briefest of hesitations, he did. How long or short a time they stayed there, in her father’s room, learning for the first time the feel and taste of each other, Nikita never could say. It was quite long enough for her eyelids to close of their own accord, and not so long that she wasn’t frustrated and disappointed when he pulled away.
Resting the side of his forehead against hers, Rouen murmured, “We leave at dawn the morning after next.”
“Thank you,” she whispered.
He stayed still for another moment, his skin warm against her own, then stepping away from her, he continued in a stronger voice, “I’m afraid you may only carry with you what will fit in two saddlebags. Whatever else you plan to take away from here must be packed and sent to Rouen to await you there.”
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