Authors: Jody Hedlund
SIPPED THE WARM ALE AND IGNORED THE LEDGER SPREAD
open on the table in front of me. Even though my steward had brought it out upon my request, I couldn't muster any enthusiasm for making sense of the numbers.
Something deep inside admonished me to put forward at least a little energy in gaining a basic understanding of the massive fortune I'd inherited from my father. But now that I was actually sitting in the cozy solar, ready to take more responsibility as I knew I should, I couldn't think of anything but Juliana. The transformation from bandit to beauty had been so complete, she'd taken my breath away. Seeing her in my hall at the banquet, I'd known that's where she belonged. She'd blended in and resumed her natural role as a lady, with an elegance and poise as if she'd never left.
More than that, I couldn't stop thinking about her dedication to her band of thieving followers. The only reason she'd agreed to my bargain was so that she could get the goldânot for herself, but for them. I admired her commitment, her loyalty, and her willingness to sacrifice, even if she was going about it all in the wrong ways.
And I was still marveling that she'd allowed me to comfort her in the garden. Embracing her had made my heart drum
with a new kind of desireâa longing to be with her again, to spend the day with her, to discover more about her.
I sighed and stared unseeingly at William's meticulous marks on the parchment pages. “You've done a good job keeping the records, William,” I finally said to my steward, who stood next to the desk.
William pushed his thick eyeglasses up on his nose. “Thank you, thank you, my lord. Do you have any questions? Any questions at all?”
“William has kept me quite apprised,” Irene piped in from her chair in front of the hearth, where she sat quietly working on her embroidery. “And he's been as frugal and conscientious as he was when father was alive.”
William shifted and bumped into the quill pen perched on the corner of the desk. The pen toppled and William fumbled for it, but it slipped through his fingers and clattered to the floor.
I tried to focus on the numbers that filled the neat columns. Even if I understood what all the notes meant, I still wouldn't know what questions to ask.
Juliana's statement in the garden last evening came back to me as it had throughout the long night.
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.
Did I live in extravagance? Were others suffering while I feasted?
Obviously, the poor farmers and peasants who resided on my land didn't live the way I did. Nor did they expect to. They accepted their position in life the same way I did mine.
Sure, I'd visited among the poor with Lady Rosemarie this past summer. I'd witnessed her compassion. But at the time, I'd assumed they were in need because of the strange plague
devastating their towns. But what if the poor were suffering more than I'd ever considered?
“William,” I started, trying to work out my confusion. “Can we put together gifts for the poorest tenants on our land?”
“Gifts, my lord?” William had stooped to pick up the quill pen, but at my question it slipped from his fingers and clattered to the floor again.
I leaned back in the stiff chair my father had sat in every day of his life as he counted his gold and poured over the numbers William recorded. “Yes. You know, extra food, clothing, whatever they need.”
William opened and then closed his mouth, and then opened it again. The eyeglasses on the end of his nose made his eyes look especially big. They were kind eyes, but also astute.
“Our tenants don't need anything, Collin.” Irene peered at me over the tapestry in her hand, her needle poised to execute the next stitch. “They're content and happy. If we send them gifts, they'll only grow to expect more than they need.”
I grinned. “So you think we'll spoil them?”
She didn't return my smile. “I think we treat the people on our land more kindly than most. And our kindness is gift enough.”
I was tempted to shrug off the entire discussion. My idea had only been a whim. I didn't know why I'd even suggested it, except that I only had to think again of Juliana and her reaction to the feast for guilt to rear itself again.
I took a swig of my ale, wishing it were as easy to swallow the discomfort that arose whenever I thought about Juliana's dangerous situation. “What do you think, William? Should we give the peasants additional food? Ale? Perhaps for Michaelmas?” The feast of Saint Michael was only a week away, and would commence as the bulk of the harvesting was completed.
William took a step backward but bumped into a stool. “Such giving has never been done, my lord,” he said, throwing out his arms to steady himself, but in the process one of his arms knocked against a stack of books on the shelf behind him, sending the volumes toppling to the floor.
I couldn't hold in a chuckle. William's clumsiness had always irritated my father, but the servant had been so meticulous with the ledgers and so wise with his financial counsel that Father had overlooked the man's faults.
“It's never been done, my lord,” William repeated. “But with the growing tensions lately, a gift may help head off potential problems. It may indeed.”
“It's nothing.” Irene squinted at her needle as she re-threaded it. “Simply a stirring of discontent, likely produced by the Cloaked Bandit.”
Cloaked Bandit. This time I stifled my laughter. If Irene knew she was afraid of a girl several years younger than her, she'd burn with mortification. “We have the means to give them gifts, do we not?” I directed my question to William.
“Plenty, my lord. As the numbers will attest.” William leaned over the desk to point to a figure on the paper, but he knocked into several empty ink bottles.
“Then I appoint you to be in charge of arranging gifts, William.” I folded the ledger closed, the matter settled. “Send them food, clothes, and the like. Whatever you think might be helpful.”
Irene lowered her embroidery to her lap. “ 'Twould appear that no matter my counsel, you're determined to squander our father's fortune.”
I stretched, past ready to move on to something more entertaining. “At least there's plenty to squander.”
“I don't see anything humorous about the situation, Collin.”
I'd noticed she wasn't calling me by my proper title. At first, her use of my given name had been something of a comfort, reminding me of the familial bonds I'd missed all the years I'd been gone. But for some reason, lately I'd sensed a note of condescension. Or maybe it had been there all along and I'd just been too happy to see her to notice.
My smile faded, and I sat forward. “I don't see any reason why you should care, Irene.” I stressed her name. “You'll be married soon enough, and I'll make sure to send you to your new home with a handsome dowry.”
She kept her focus on the needle pushing through the canvas. “I just don't want to see you deplete the family estate on foolish things, especially when I have worked so hard these past years to do as Father would have wanted.”
“It's my estate now.”
“Yes, you keep reminding me of that.”
A knock on the door stopped the retort on the tip of my tongue. As William stumbled across the room to answer, I stared at Irene.
With her pale, unblemished skin and fair hair, she was a beautiful womanâregal, elegant, and every inch a lady. A large majority of our guests during the past month had been noblemen who were interested in winning Irene's hand in marriage. There had also been a fair share of young ladies and their parents who'd come to seek my favor.
I'd have to choose a wife from among the noblewomen eventually. Many of my friends were already married, including one of my closest friends and a fellow noble knightâSir Derrickâwho'd won the contest for Lady Rosemarie's love only that summer.
Now it was my turn. Especially after nearly falling in love with Lady Rosemarie myself, I was ready to find a woman just
as kind and sweet and gentle. But first, I needed to locate a husband for Ireneâand perhaps sooner rather than later.
“Lord Collin,” William said as he turned from the open door. “One of your guests requests your presence.”
Before I could reply, Juliana pushed past my steward into the study. I hadn't seen her yet that morning, as she'd been absent from the few guests who'd risen early enough to partake of a light fare of bread, fruit, and custards. I didn't imagine she'd overslept as many of the nobility were apt to do after staying up far into the night. And as I assessed her now, her eyes were bright, her cheeks flushed, and the hem of her gown wet with dew.
She'd been outside.
I didn't quite know what to think about thatâwhether to compliment her for looking pretty or to ask her if she'd been trying to get away.
“Lady Eleanora,” I managed, rising from my chair.
Worried lines creased her forehead and she started to speak. But I slid my gaze toward Irene, and Juliana's followed suit. At the sight of my sister sitting near the hearth, the lines in her forehead quickly smoothed. “Lord Collin.” She gave me the expected curtsey.
“I missed seeing you earlier this morning,” I said lightly, only to realize how much I meant the words.
At my confession, Irene stopped mid-stitch and perused Juliana from her slippered toes to her curly hair, tied back with a silk ribbon that matched one of the gowns I'd had Mistress Higgins hang in the wardrobeâall chosen from the collection of Mother's garments Irene hadn't made over. The purple was the color of the amethyst gems sewn around the waist.
“You look lovely.” The words slipped out before I could stop them.
Irene's attention jumped to me again and her eyes were filled with surprise.
I doubted she was surprised I'd given a beautiful lady a compliment. I was quite accomplished at flattery when I wanted to be.
But the sincerity? The awe in my voice? I astonished myself with how much the tone revealed.
However, Juliana didn't seem to hear me, and she didn't give Irene more than a passing glance as she crossed toward me.
“You'll be happy to know,” I continued, “I was just in the process of planning gifts for the tenants on my land. Isn't that so, William?”
“Very true, sir.” William stood awkwardly near the door.
Juliana quirked one brow, her expression more skeptical than approving. “I suppose that's a good first move for you, Lord Collin.”
I smiled in satisfaction. “We have to start somewhere, don't we?”
“Yes, I suppose we do.” But her voice wasn't convinced. She held out a folded piece of parchment. “Would you be so kind as to have one of your trusted servants deliver this missive to my family?”
I took hold of it, but she didn't immediately relinquish the letter.
“Due to the circumstances of my arrival, I have no doubt they will be worrying by now,” she explained. “And I would like to prevent any trouble that might occur as a result.”
From the serious set of her lips, I sensed she was concerned for her friends. They would surely be wondering what had become of her. “I'll have my swiftestâand most trustedâsoldier deliver it right away.”
“Thank you.” She let go of the paper and took a step back, then glanced at Irene before leveling her gaze at me.
“I shall provide your trusted soldier with delivery instructions when he's ready to start.”
I'd deliver the letter myself, but I didn't want Irene to know that. When I'd been out riding yesterday, I'd noticed that Juliana's young accomplice had come back to Goodrich land with another man. Even though they hadn't spotted me, I guessed they'd been searching for her. I'd have no trouble tracking them down if they were still on my land. They probably wouldn't let me get anywhere near them without riddling me full of arrows. So I'd have to sneak the letter into their camp and leave it anonymously.
“Perhaps you should invite your family.” Irene spoke from behind us. “Lady Eleanora â¦ What was itâDelacroix?”
Juliana's eyes flashed with a burst of anxiety that she rapidly smothered. “Yes, Delacroix.” Her voice was cool and her expression again placid before she turned to face Irene. “Thank you for the kind offer to have my family visit. But I'm not staying long. I shall be returning home at week's end.”
Irene studied Juliana's face. “I feel as though I've seen you before. But I'm certain that I've never had the privilege of meeting anyone from the Delacroix family.”
Did Irene doubt the stories I'd spread about Juliana's arrival? I'd hoped the information I'd sparingly provided about her false past would silence gossipers. But apparently, Irene hadn't believed everything she'd heard. What if my sister recognized Juliana? Irene had indicated that she'd never had much contact with Charles Wessex and his daughter. From what I'd gathered since my arrival, our father's grudge had kept the two families apart since we were children. But if I'd remembered Juliana's beautiful hair after all of these years, what if Irene did too?
I tried to quell the wariness worming through my stomach and reminded myself that surely Irene would have no reason
to suspect anything. Everyone believed Juliana Wessex had died along with her father.
Before I could think of an appropriate response, Juliana was answering calmly. “I'm sure you're simply confusing me with all of the other pretty ladies that Lord Collin has known.”
“Perhaps. Nevertheless, you must stay longer. Don't you agree, Collin?”
“I agree completely. You'll break my heart if you leave too early.”
“Oh, I'm sure your broken heart will mend quite easily,” Juliana said, tossing a small smile at me.