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Authors: Amanda Quick

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BOOK: Mystique
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“After you realized that she was not going to take over the management of your household?” Hugh asked with mild curiosity.

“Was it my fault none of my neighbors would have her as a wife?”

Hugh recalled Alice’s description of her very convenient fits of hysteria. “Nay, ‘twas most definitely not your fault.”

“Not once did she thank me for making the effort. I vow, she did her best to foil my every attempt to do my duty by her. I have no proof, mark you, but to this day, I remain convinced that she plotted stratagems to discourage her suitors.”

Hugh reluctantly decided to risk one more piece of the aged bread. “Your problems are over, Sir Ralf. You need not concern yourself with your niece again.”

“Bah. So you say now, but you have not had extensive experience with Alice.” Ralf narrowed his eyes. “Aye, no experience whatsoever. You don’t know what she can be like, sir.”

“I shall take my chances.”

“Will you? What if you change your mind about the
betrothal? Likely you’ll try to return her in a few weeks’ time after you’ve had a taste of her sharp tongue and demanding ways. What am I to do then?”

“I will not change my mind. You have my oath on it.”

Ralf looked skeptical. “May I ask why you are so certain that she will suit you?”

“She is intelligent, healthy, and convenient. Although she does not always choose to practice them in this household, ‘tis clear that she is well trained in the wifely arts. Furthermore, she possesses the manners of a fine lady. What more does a man need? The whole thing seems very efficient and most practical from my point of view.”

In spite of what he had told Alice, Hugh had no intention of using passion as an explanation for forging this hasty match. He and Ralf were both
men
of the world. They each knew that lust was a ludicrous reason for contracting such an important business arrangement as marriage.

Looking back on the incident in Alice’s study chamber, Hugh was not certain why he had even broached the possibility of using passion as an excuse. He frowned, wondering what had put the notion into his head. He never allowed himself to be influenced by passion.

Ralf watched him with a distinctly uneasy expression. “You believe that marrying Alice will be an
efficient
move, my lord?”

Hugh nodded brusquely. “I require a wife to see to my new household. But I do not wish
to
invest a great deal of time and effort in the business of securing one. You know how complicated that can become. Negotiation can carry on for months, even years.”

“True, nevertheless, Alice is somewhat unusual and not merely because of her advanced age.”

“No matter. I feel certain she will do nicely. And I have too many other tasks requiring my immediate attention to be bothered with a long search for another bride.”

“I understand, sir. Indeed, I do. A man in your position does not want to be burdened with a lot of fuss and bother over a bride.”

“Aye.”

“No denying a man does have to acquire one. The
sooner the better, I suppose. One has to see to one’s heirs and lands.”

“Aye,” Hugh said. “Heirs and lands.”

“So. You find Alice convenient.”

“Very.”

Ralf fiddled with a chunk of bread. His eyes darted to Hugh’s impassive face and quickly slid aside. “Ah, pray forgive me, sir, but I must ask whether or not you have discussed this matter with Alice herself.”

Hugh raised one brow. “You are concerned with her feelings on the subject?”

“Nay, nay, ‘tis not that,” Ralf assured him hastily. “‘Tis merely that in my experience, it is exceedingly difficult to persuade Alice to cooperate in a plan if she is not inclined toward it in the first place, if you see what I mean. That woman always seems to have plans of her own.”

“Have no fears on that point. Your niece and I have already agreed on this arrangement.”

“You have?” Ralf looked startled by that news.

“Aye.”

“And you’re certain that she is in agreement with the scheme?”

“Aye.”

“Astounding. Most astounding.” For the first time a cautious flame of hope appeared in Ralf’s eyes.

Hugh gave up chewing on the hard crust. He tossed it aside. “Come, let us get down to the business at hand.”

Ralf’s expression promptly turned crafty. “Very well. What is your price? I warn you, I cannot afford to give Alice much in the way of a dowry. The harvest was somewhat less than satisfactory this year.”

“Was it?”

“Aye. Very poor. And then there were the expenses involved in maintaining Alice and her brother. Admittedly Benedict was not a great problem, but Alice, I regret to say, is rather costly to keep.”

“I am prepared to offer a chest of pepper and one of good ginger as a betrothal gift.”

“She is always demanding money for her books and her collection of stones and other useless bits—” Ralf
broke off, dumbfounded, as Hugh’s words sank in. “A chest of pepper and one of ginger?”

“Aye.”

“Sir, I do not know what to say.”

“Say that you will accept the bride gift so that I may have done with this matter. It grows late.”

“You
wish to give
me
a dowry for Alice?”

“Tis customary, is it not?”

“Not when the bride goes to her lord with nothing in hand but the clothes on her back,” Ralf retorted. “You do understand that she brings no land with her, sir.”

“I have lands of my own.”

“Aye, well, so long as you comprehend the situation.” Ralf’s expression was one of bewilderment. “In truth, sir, I expected you to demand a large dowry from me in return for taking her off my hands.”

“I am prepared to take Alice as she is.” Hugh allowed an edge of impatience to underline his words. “Do we have a bargain?”

“Aye,” Ralf said quickly. “Most definitely. Alice is yours for the pepper and ginger.”

“Summon your village priest to witness the betrothal vows. I wish to be on my way as soon as possible.”

“I shall see to the matter at once.” Ralf started to heave his bulk out of his chair. He hesitated midway out of his seat. “Ah, your pardon, Sir Hugh, but there is just one more small point I should like to have made plain before we proceed with this betrothal.”

“What is it?”

Ralf licked his lips. He glanced around the chamber as though to make certain that none of the servants could overhear. Then he lowered his voice. “Will you be wanting your chests of pepper and ginger returned to you in the event that you decide not to proceed with the wedding?”

“Nay. The pepper and ginger are yours to keep, regardless of the outcome of our bargain.”

“I have your oath on that, too?”

“Aye. You have the oath of Hugh the Relentless.”

Ralf grinned in relief and rubbed his plump hands together. “Well, then, let us get on with the thing. No point
in delaying, is there? I shall send a servant for the priest at once.”

He turned and bustled off, more cheerful than he had been at any time since Hugh’s arrival.

A movement in the doorway caught Hugh’s attention.

Dunstan, his face set in grim lines, strode into the hall. He came to a halt in front of the table where Hugh sat. His eyes were dark with disgust.

“We have a problem, my lord.”

Hugh eyed him thoughtfully. “From your expression, ‘twould appear we are on the eve of the crack of doom. What is the matter, Dunstan? Are we under siege?”

Dunstan ignored the comment. “A few minutes ago Lady Alice summoned two of the men to her chambers to carry her belongings to the baggage wagons.”

“Excellent. I am pleased that she is not one to dawdle over her packing.”

“I don’t believe that you will be quite so pleased with her when you learn just what it is she expects to contribute to the baggage train, sir.”

“Well? Don’t keep me in suspense, Dunstan. What has she packed that annoys you so?”

“Stones, my lord.” Dunstan’s jaw tightened. “Two chests of them. And not only are we to carry a sufficient quantity of stones to build a garden wall, but she has made it plain we must also take another chest full of books, parchment, pens, and ink.”

“I see.”

“And a fourth packed with strange alchemical apparatus.” Dunstan’s face was mottled with outrage. “Then there is the matter of her clothes, shoes, and personal belongings.”

“Lady Alice has a large number of tunics and robes?” Hugh asked, mildly surprised.

“Nay, but what she does have apparently requires an additional chest. My lord, you have stated that we are on a mission of grave import. You have said that speed was of the essence. That there was no time to waste.”

“That is true.”

“Devil’s teeth, sir, we are a company of men-at-arms, not a troupe of traveling jongleurs.” Dunstan threw up his
hands. “I ask you, how are we to make haste about our business if we must be burdened with a baggage train laden with a woman’s collection of stones and alchemical apparatus?”

“The lady in question is my future wife,” Hugh said evenly. “You will obey her instructions as you would my own.”

Dunstan stared at him. “But I thought—”

“See to the travel preparations, Dunstan.”

Dunstan’s teeth snapped together with an audible click. “Aye, my lord. May I inquire as to our destination?”

“I do not yet know. I will after I take my betrothal vows.”

“No offense, but I have an unpleasant suspicion that regardless of the direction in which we set out, we are bound for only one destination.”

“And what destination is that?” Hugh asked politely.

“Trouble,” Dunstan muttered.

“It is always good to be in familiar territory, is it not?”

Dunstan did not deign to answer. Muttering ominously, he turned on his heel and stalked toward the door.

Hugh glanced around the hall. There was not even a simple water clock or a sand hourglass to mark the time. Apparently Ralf had no interest in such convenient and efficient machines.

Hugh made to rise from his chair with the intention of going outside to check the position of the sun. The clatter of footsteps and the scrape of a wooden staff on the tower stairs made him pause.

Benedict appeared. The young man was clearly anxious but also quite determined. He came toward Hugh with rigid shoulders.

Hugh examined him thoughtfully. With the exception of his sadly damaged left leg, Alice’s brother was tall and well formed. The lack of muscular bulk in his shoulders and chest indicated that he had never received training in arms.

Benedict’s hair was darker than his sister’s glowing tresses, almost a deep brown. His eyes were very nearly
the same unusual shade of green as Alice’s, however, and were enlivened with a similar degree of intelligence.

“My lord, I must speak with you at once.”

Hugh leaned forward, braced his elbows on the table, and loosely linked his fingers. “What is it, Benedict?”

Benedict cast a quick glance about and then moved closer so that he would not be overheard. “I have just had a talk with my sister,” he hissed. “She told me of this crazed bargain the two of you have concluded. She says she is to be betrothed to you until the spring and that the betrothal will be broken when it is
convenient
for your purposes.”

“She used those words? Convenient for my purposes?”

Benedict shrugged angrily. “She said something close to that, aye. She said that you are a man who values efficiency and convenience.”

“Your sister is of a practical nature herself. Let us be clear on one point here, Benedict. It is Lady Alice who spoke of severing the betrothal in the spring.”

Benedict scowled. “What does it matter who said the words? ‘Tis clear that this is no genuine betrothal if it is to end in a few months.”

“I take it that you have some objection to the arrangement?”

“I most certainly do.” Benedict’s eyes were fierce. “I believe that you seek to take advantage of my sister, sir. You obviously intend to use her for your own ends.”

“Ah.”

“You think to seduce her and have the conveniences of a wife until spring, do you not? Then you will toss her aside.”

“Not likely, given the price I paid for her,” Hugh muttered. “I am not one to waste my money.”

“Do not make a mockery of this,” Benedict raged. “I may be a cripple, but I am no fool. And I am Alice’s brother. I have a duty to protect her.”

Hugh studied him for a long moment. “If you do not approve of our bargain, there is an alternative.”

“What alternative?” Benedict demanded.

“Convince your sister to give me the information I seek without attaching a price to it.”

Benedict slammed his fist down onto the table. “Do not think that I haven’t tried to persuade her to be sensible.”

“Do you know the whereabouts of the stone?”

“Nay, Alice says she only reasoned it out herself a few days ago. She would not tell me because by then we had heard that you were on the trail of it.” Benedict’s expression turned glum. “Alice immediately began to make her plans.”

“Of course.”

“She is a great one for making plans, you see. When she heard that you were after the stone she began to concoct a scheme to remove us both from Lingwood Manor.”

“That is not all she bargained for,” Hugh said. “Did she mention that she made me promise to provide her with a large dowry for the convent of her choice and to send you off to Paris and Bologna to study law?”

“I do not want to study law,” Benedict retorted. “‘Tis all her idea.”

“But you do wish to be free of your uncle, do you not?”

“Aye, but not at the risk of Alice’s reputation.”

Hugh took pity on him. “Your sister is safe enough with me.”

“No offense,” Benedict gritted, “but you are not called Hugh the Relentless for naught. ‘Tis said you are very keen on stratagems. I fear that you have some secret plans for Alice. As her brother, I cannot allow you to hurt her.”

Hugh was impressed. “There are not many who would challenge me as you have done.”

Benedict flushed. “I realize that I am not skilled in arms and that I am no match for you, Sir Hugh. But I cannot stand by and watch you take advantage of my sister.”

“Would it relieve your brotherly concerns to know that I have no intention of harming Lady Alice?”

BOOK: Mystique
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