Authors: Jody Hedlund
“I want you to have it,” he said softly.
I shook my head. “I can't.”
“Please.” His eyes pleaded with me.
I couldn't make myself look at the necklace again. It was pretty, prettier than anything I'd worn sinceâsince the days when I'd dressed up for parties with my father. He'd always delighted in showering me with jewels and gifts, surprising me with tokens of his affection.
At the memory, an ache lodged in my chest. Those had been peaceful days, filled with such joy. My father and I had
always had such fun together, just the two of us. Until the day Uncle had ridden into our lives . . .
Collin leaned in and lowered his voice so that Mistress Higgins, near the door, couldn't hear him. “At the end of the week, you can keep all the jewels I give you.”
How could I resist? Not only would I walk away with a purse of gold, but I'd have the necklace too. “Very well,” I said, holding out my hand. “I'll wear it, but only because of what it will provide to those in need at the week's end.”
He didn't place it into my hand, but instead held it up to my neck. “May I?” He indicated that I should turn around and allow him to put it on me.
My stomach quivered and I rotated quickly, not wanting him to see my reaction.
He draped the necklace around my throat. The silver was cold and heavy against my skin, but his fingers at the back of my neck were as soft as the feathers of a baby bird. Working at the clasp, he faltered and brushed the skin where tiny, loose curls had refused submission into the knot Mistress Higgins had wound upward on my head.
I sucked in a breath at the contact.
He finished tightening the links, but didn't immediately pull away. His fingers lingered on the chain with the edges barely grazing my skin. A warm burst of his breath hovered above my neck.
I held myself still, hardly daring to breathe. What was happening to me? Now that I was dressed as a woman, was I beginning to feel like one too? Perhaps I'd acted the part of a man for so long that I'd forgotten what it was like to even be a woman.
I nibbled at my lip and then spun away from him, toward the door, toward Mistress Higginsâwho still wore a secretive
smile, as if she knew more about what was occurring between Collin and me than either of us could understand.
“I'm not sure I should show you off tonight,” Collin said once he'd caught up to me in the hallway. He offered me his arm and the look in his eyes smoldered. “I'd almost rather keep you to myself.”
I knew I ought to slip my hand into the crook of his arm and accept his gentlemanly offer of assistance, but I pretended not to notice. The merest contact with him was doing funny things to my composure, and if I hoped to survive the evening, I needed to be more careful.
“I'd prefer to stay off to the side, out of the way,” I said as we neared the entrance of the Great Hall. “The less attention I draw to myself, the safer I'll be.”
“You don't really think anyone will recognize you as the Cloaked Bandit, do you?” Collin whispered with a mischievous grin.
“Of course they won't.” I feigned nonchalance. Even if Collin had figured out who I really was, I wouldn't admit it, even to him. “They won't consider such a thing, because it's absolutely ridiculous and untrue.”
He laughed. “You're absolutely fascinating.”
I didn't have time to consider what the tone of his voice meant or the look in his eye, before he ushered me into the spacious hall. The other guests were already mingling, laughing, and chattering, and thankfully hardly noticed our entrance.
The servants bustled about carrying ale and wine, refilling goblets. The minstrels were playing. And rich aromas of roasted fowl, almond pudding, and spiced apple tarts wafted through the air, coming from the hallway that led to the kitchen. My mouth watered at the thought of tasting an apple tart. It had been years since I'd had anything so fine or sweet.
The long room was like the Great Hall of Wessex Castle, with a vaulted ceiling and oblong stained glass windows providing some light in the fading evening. But the decorations that graced the room were much more elaborate, the tapestries rich and complex, and the colors more vibrant.
Collin Goodrich was indeed a wealthy man, and his family had always made sure everyone knew their status. His father had been among the neighbors who had turned a blind eye to all that my uncle had done to my father. He'd ignored my father's plea for help when my uncle had first arrived with his army and pack of lies. Although my father had never said why the Goodriches hadn't come to our aid, I'd guessed it had to do with the fact that the late Lord Goodrich had held a grudge against my father because he hadn't agreed to the liaison that Collin's father had wanted between myself and Collin.
As we were seated at the front table, Collin carried on a lively stream of conversation with the guests around him and attempted to include me. He even introduced me to his sister, whom I recognized as the lady present in Collin's hunting party when I'd robbed him earlier in the week.
I didn't realize how nervous I was until halfway through the main course, when my heart finally subsided to its normal rhythm. I wasn't at all surprised when the servants brought out a peacock that had been cooked and then reassembled with its feathers. Or when they delivered a pastry molded into the shape of a miniature castle.
All the while I ate of the peacockâalong with roasted swans, geese, and heronâmy thoughts drifted to Thatch and Bulldog and the others huddled together in the cold fall air, their bellies rumbling from hunger. The ewerer brought us basins of water between courses. As I rinsed, I couldn't stop looking at my hands, scrubbed free of the dirt that had become a way of
life, or thinking of how my friends and I usually devoured every morsel of food and licked our fingers clean afterward.
The warmth, the laughter, the unending dishes of food surrounded me and made me dizzy with reminders of my former life, which had been so cruelly wrenched away. The ache in my heart swelled painfully. If only my father had been less trusting . . . then perhaps he would still be alive and I would have been sitting in my own Great Hall dining with him.
Tears burned the back of my eyes. I pushed away from the table and stood.
Collin stopped in the middle of the conversation he was having with the man next to him and turned to me, his brow creasing.
“I need a breath of air,” I said. “If you'll excuse me.”
Without waiting for his permission or his reaction, I made my escape out a side door. A harried scullion boy pointed me in the direction of the kitchen, which I knew would eventually lead me to an exit.
I ducked into the busy kitchen, ignoring the stares of the servants who stopped stirring and cutting and basting to watch me race to the door. The blood from the butchering slickened the floor, along with feathers, and entrails the dogs hadn't yet cleaned up. The heat from the two fireplaces dampened my forehead, so that when I finally burst free through the outer door, the cool evening air soothed my face.
I plunged forward into the darkness of the orchard and gardens that surrounded the kitchen entrance and pushed aside my melancholy and guilt over the fact I'd halfway enjoyed the meal and wished to be eating it in my own Great Hall. Instead I tried to be angry, to return my thoughts to all the injustices I'd witnessed, especially the disparity between the nobility and the poor.
I'd learned over the years that 'twas always better to be angry than sad.
Besides, how had I ever lived in such opulence? So calloused, so unconcerned for those people who had nothing? Who went to bed every night cold and hungry?
Even the lowest kitchen maid here had a better life than I had living in the forest.
“JulâLady Eleanora, wait,” came Collin's soft call behind me.
I didn't stop but sped deeper into the orchard, the tangy scent of overripe apples filling each labored breath. His footsteps crunched louder behind mine until his hand finally gripped my arm, forcing me to halt. He lifted his torch high, illuminating my face.
“Leave me alone,” I muttered while swiping at the unexpected wetness on my cheeks. Had I been crying? If so, it had been a long time since I'd allowed myself such a luxury. Tears were for weaklings, not for strong women like myself.
Collin didn't release my arm, but instead passed the torch to the servant who had followed him, and he then dragged me closer. “Are you running away already?” His voice hinted at humor.
“If I wanted to run away, I would, and there's nothing you'd be able to do to stop me.”
He chuckled, but ceased when he saw my face and the traces of tears lingering in my eyelashes. “You're upset,” he said, lifting fingers to my cheeks and touching a tear I'd missed.
I brushed his hand away and wiped at my cheeks again. I glanced at the servant. Collin followed my gaze and then nodded to the man, who proceeded to position himself a discreet distance away.
Once we had a modicum of privacy, I spoke in hushed tones. “I only regret that I've subjected myself to this extravagance when so many of my friends would be satisfied with the crusts of bread left over from the banquet.”
“Then we shall send them a banquet of their own. I shall have the cook prepare anything you wish. Tell me what you want, and it shall be so.”
I shook my head.
“Anything,” he said, pulling me to him, ever so gently.
I couldn't resist the tug. And when his arms closed about me, drawing me into his embrace, I crumpled against him and rested my head on his shoulder as though it fit there.
I didn't know what about him drew me, except that he was kind and concerned about me in a way I hadn't experienced in a long time. Even though Bulldog cared about me as fiercely as if I were his own daughter, he never hugged me. He expected me to be tough, like a man. And I always had been.
But with Collin . . . He had a way about himâa tendernessâthat seemed to break through the hard walls I'd built around myself.
I nestled my nose against the silkiness of his tunic and breathed in his spicy scent.
His hand cupped the small of my back and pressed me nearer, so that his chin rested against my head. In the short time I'd known him, it hadn't taken me long to realize he was kinder and sweeter than any man I'd ever known. In fact, he reminded me of my father. Had my father been alive to meet Collin as he was now, I was sure he would have liked himâperhaps even a great deal. Maybe he even would have agreed to the union Collin's father had wanted, and would have gained an ally.
“Tell me what you want me to do, and I'll do it,” he whispered again. “I'll do anything for you.”
I closed my eyes at the comfort that came from his words. I'd had to be strong for so long. I'd had to fight and scrap and struggle to stay alive. Everyone else depended upon me. And it felt so good to lean on someone else for a change and to know I wasn't alone.
He held me quietly for a long moment. In a distant stable, the baying of a hunting hound rose in the night air. But otherwise, the orchard was silent, and the steady thud of Collin's heart filled me with peace.
What would it be like to stop fighting? To stop thieving? To stop living in the woods? What would it be like to return to a normal life, one where I wasn't hunting every day or being hunted by those who wanted me dead?
I shook my head and pulled back from Collin. “No. There's nothing you can do.” I spoke the words sadly at first. But then the hopelessness of my life crashed back into me and renewed my anger. As long as Uncle lived, there was very little chance that my friends or I would ever be able to move out of our secret homes deep in the forest. We would have to hide there for the rest of our days, continuing to find ways to survive as best we could.
Even if Collin sent Bulldog a feast of the grandest proportions, the food would eventually be gone, and we would be left in the same situation we'd been in beforeâhelpless, homeless, and hunted.
Revolt was out of the question. Look where it had gotten Fatherâhe'd been mortally wounded during the uprising he'd led. Friends had brought him back to his hut where I'd been able to say good-bye to him before Bulldog had dragged me away into hiding. I'd heard that not long after our leaving, Father had been captured. Even though he'd been bleeding to death, Uncle's men had still tortured him in the most hideous fashion and tossed the pieces of his bloodied remains into the gutter.
Collin brushed a wisp of hair off my cheek. “There's got to be something I can do to make you happy. Something I can give you.”
I wished there was. I wished there was a way to change everything. But the reality was that I would have to return
to the forest at the end of the week. And maybe with Collin's purse of gold and the diamond necklace, I wouldn't have to resort to thieving for a while.
“Let's just follow through with our bargains to one another,” I said, putting more distance between us. “That's all I want.”
If only that really was all I wanted.