“About what?” Mordred asked, not even looking up for his porridge.
Rosette swallowed, half-tempted to make a remark about her classes or the state of the larder or even the weather, but looking at her mother’s letter she realized it was now or never. She folded her hands on the table to stop them from trembling. “Our–” She stopped. “My mother sent me a letter.”
“Oh? Is everyone well?” Mordred looked up with a smile. “How are Pierre’s marriage plans coming along?”
Rosette couldn’t hold back her smile; most lords could not even be bothered to remember the names of their own peasants (Sir Bors, her sovereign lord, for instance consistently called her father “Edward” and her mother “Collette”), but Mordred remembered each and every member of her family, even Toinette’s two little ones. “Everyone’s fine,” she answered, “though Pierre is still waiting for Meg to come of age … but … that’s not what I wanted to talk about.”
She took a deep breath. “My mother wrote that your betrothal to Lady Dindrane has become final.”
Mordred slowly put down his spoon. “Oh.”
“And–” Rosette swallowed. “She wanted to know about my plans for when I come home–my future … since I haven’t written her about a betrothal for me …”
“What?” Mordred shouted, the green aura that surrounded him — his mark as a master magician — becoming dark, thunderous.
Rosette yelped and pushed her chair back.
The fury in Mordred’s eyes was terrifying–for a moment–but soon (too soon?) it melted away, leaving only an arctic chill. “Explain,” he said, in a voice no warmer than the expression in his eyes.
Rosette stared at the table. “I didn’t–I never told my mother–any of my family–about us,” she murmured. “They wouldn’t approve … so …”
“So your mother thinks you’re here to find a wealthy — or wealthy enough — husband.” To her shock, Mordred’s voice was light and normal, even amused. She stared at him, only to find the coldness in his eyes gone and even a pleasant smile on his face.
Then the frown came back, only this was not a frown of anger. “She won’t be happy when she finds out the truth, will she?”
Rosette shook her head. “My family will be horribly ashamed … even Toinette, and she was always flighty, she saved herself for her husband–”
“From what I hear,” Mordred muttered to his plate, “your family married her off the day after she came of age, so it wasn’t like she had to hold out long.”
Rosette chuckled. “True. But–but the situation is different for me … four years with you, and not even a child to prove I’m fertile …”
“We took measures to prevent that!”
“I know,” Rosette replied. “And I don’t disagree that it was the right thing to do.” The university authorities were perfectly prepared to look the other way regarding Rosette and Mordred’s relationship as long as indisputable proof of impropriety was not brought to their attention; however, if proof (such as Rosette showing up big-bellied to class) was brought, they would not hesitate to kick Rosette out. And then Rosette would be destitute, for her family would not take her back, Lord Lot would never deign to support her, and Mordred couldn’t touch his money until he graduated. “But my family doesn’t know that, Mordred. They wouldn’t understand.”
Mordred nodded. Not only were contraceptive herbs such as they had used out of reach for most of the peasant class, they wouldn’t see the point of trying to prevent children. More children meant more hands on the farm, and more hands on the farm were always welcome. “So your parents would consider you to be a liability.”
“Hmm. Well, that’s easy to solve.” Mordred grinned. “You just won’t go home to your parents.”
“But–but where else would I have to go?”
“Simple. You’ll come home with me,” Mordred replied.
For a moment Rosette’s head swam … she couldn’t be hearing what she thought she was hearing, Lord Lot, indulgent though he was towards his only son, would never countenance their marriage, and the arrangement with the Gwynedds–that certainly couldn’t be put off–
“You’ll have to be a servant, of course,” Mordred continued, “I couldn’t exactly bring you into the household as my mistress. Dindrane might have no more natural affections than a block of stone, but the Gwynedds would be furious on her behalf.”
Rosette crashed back to earth — perhaps even a little below it. A servant? True, she’d been technically a servant here, but Mordred had never treated her like one. While housecleaning was half of the (official) reason she was here, Mordred had amazing powers of persuasion. Rosette couldn’t even count the amount of times she had walked into the bathroom or kitchen, scrub-brush in hand, only to find another student scrubbing until the counters shined. Cooking was always left to her — Mordred had sheepishly admitted that he favored her recipes too much to get someone else to do it — but even that felt more like the cooking a wife would do for her husband than a servant being paid to peform a task. Why, even when guests were present, Mordred refused to make a distinction between her and them and always insisted that she eat at the table.
“And,” Mordred was saying, again jolting her from her reverie, “I would–er–have to absent myself from your bed for a while, at least until I got Dindrane pregnant … after she was expecting, I could probably get away with visiting you without upsetting the Gwynedds too much … though I’d have to get you your own establishment once you fell pregnant. Couldn’t ask Dindrane to be faced with my, er, indiscretions every day of her life.”
“Oh … er, no, of course not,” Rosette heard herself murmur.
“You wouldn’t have to worry about a thing, though,” Mordred swiftly added. “I’d always care for you and the children. We can even set up some sort of legal agreement if it would make you feel more secure.”
“That would be …” Rosette trailed off, not even knowing what that would be.
“So do you agree?” Mordred asked brightly.
Rosette hesitated — but what else could she say? She knew damned well that the education she was receiving wouldn’t fit her for any sort of job, at least not the type of job that anyone would be willing to give to a peasant girl. She couldn’t move back home; even if she could hide her lost virginity from her parents, Pierre would be married by the time she got back, and there simply wouldn’t be room for her. She could, perhaps, move in with Simon (he would have found his own place by then) to keep his house for him, but even that solution would be temporary at best. Sooner or later he would marry, and when he did, doubtless his new wife would be eager to get the old maid of a sister-in-law out of the picture.
She had no other choice. So she nodded. “Yes. I agree.”
“Excellent!” In the distance, church bells — the symbol that classes were about to begin — began to ring. Mordred sighed.
“Go,” Rosette said, forcing a smile. “Enjoy your classes.”
“I’ll try.” He rose (leaving the dirty bowl on the table). “Don’t expect me back before evening … I have … things to do.” His green aura glowed almost ominously.
Rosette nodded. “Of course. I’ll have supper ready for you when you get back.”
“You’re an angel.” He left, but not before kissing her on the cheek.
Rosette sat still at the table, unable to hold back a soft smile. That kiss … it wasn’t like the hot, passionate kiss a man would give his mistress … it was the gentle peck a man would give his wife without even thinking about it …
His wife. Soon Dindrane would be getting those kisses …
Rosette swallowed and forced herself to stand up. She had too much work to do to sit here and feel sorry for herself. Still swallowing, she bustled to the kitchen and started to clean up.
Chores, her classes, and assignments kept her busy for the rest of the day, and once evening came, she still had no time to consider the conversation of the morning. Mordred was in a frisky mood, and the dinner dishes sat on the table, collecting flies, while he brought her over to the couch “to talk” — though it was not long before all speech between them ended.
But just when their pleasures had reached a point where Rosette was about to suggest taking things to the bedroom, Mordred suddenly pulled away from her and looked out the window, towards the full moon. “Sorry,” he said with a sheepish smile, “but I … I have things I need to do … and if I don’t do them now … you understand? The conditions won’t be right for another month.”
“Oh … of course, I understand,” Rosette lied. One more long kiss, and Mordred (quite literally) vanished, leaving her alone on the couch.
She listened, closely and carefully, but could hear nothing — nothing from this story, and nothing upstairs. If she didn’t know better, she would say that she was the only person in the house … but she did know better. With a sigh, she rose, dusted herself off, and went to see about the supper dishes.
It wasn’t until the dishes were washed, the ingredients put away and she was clean and in bed that Rosette could hear the strange noises coming from the basement. Try though she might, she could not determine what was causing them … and the coward in her told her that she did not want to know.
Sighing, she rolled over, felt herself alone in the wide double-poster bed, and for the first time since that morning, wondered if she had made the wrong decision.