Tom clasped his hands around the waist of his pretty young wife, drew her from the carriage, and kissed her before the footman could do more than hop from the back of the coach.
He could hear faint sniggering, and he was fairly certain there was a soft sigh coming from the driver’s direction. But none of that was important. What was important was the little moan he could hear rising from his Lynn’s throat, the way her hand fluttered and finally fell to rest on his hip, the flowing silk he traced under his fingertip as he stroked her. And then, when both of them had to breathe, there was Lynn’s forehead falling oh-so-gently on his shoulder.
Her blush — what he could see of it — was so adorable, Tom could not imagine a single man who would blame him for making it come so often. “Are they all laughing at us?”
“Of course not.” And it wasn’t a lie, either; at least one of them was sighing, not laughing. His glare took care of the rest of the stray snickers. “Do you think they’d dare laugh at their Crown Prince and Princess?”
“I seem to recall at least one of the footmen almost falling off the carriage …”
“That’s laughing with, Lynn, not laughing at. It’s generally advisable to laugh with the Crown Prince. Keeps you in his good graces and such.”
Proving the truth of his statement, Lynn giggled, her head falling against his shoulder. In response, Tom wrapped his arm around her shoulder and gently guided her around the carriage to get their first look at their new hunting lodge. It was at that moment the first fat drops of rain began to fall.
Tom’s first thought was faint surprise — not so much at the rain, which had been threatening to fall all day, but at the fact that Bors actually hadn’t cheaped out on the dowry! The building was tall and stout, well-built of thick stone. It was too distant for him to tell how well-kept it was, but still, if the inside was half as good as the outside, Tom would have to seriously consider revisiting his opinion of his father-in-law.
He glanced aside and saw Lynn’s face alight with surprise and smiles, and that was enough for him. “Well, love,” he asked, grabbing her below the knees and swinging her to his shoulder, “shall we go in?”
“That’s not an answer.”
Lynn glanced up. “I don’t think the weather’s giving us much choice.”
“But Tommy …” she murmured as he strode forward, still holding onto her, “I can walk.”
“Aye, and I can ride an old nag that will get me from point A to B with a minimum of difficulty, but where’s the fun in that?”
She giggled against his ear, which was quite ticklish, but he’d be damned if he admitted that now. The servants tittered and got out of their way, boxes and trunks stopped in their progress to the door.
Except the chamberlain, who had ridden ahead and had entered the lodge first, strode out the door, shut it behind him, and stood before it like a dragon guarding the mouth of its cave.
“Sir?” Tom asked, nodding his head to one side to motion the chamberlain out of the way.
“Your Highness, if I might presume … you might wish to perhaps take Her Highness out for a ride … we are not quite finished here, yet.”
“Is the bed ready, because that’s all I care about.” Tom laughed.
“I haven’t even gotten a chance to stretch my legs yet!”
“You can stretch them in bed — we can stretch lots of things in bed!”
“Tommy!” Lynn laughed. “You’re a pig!”
“And you like it.” To the chamberlain, however, he raised one eyebrow. I can keep going, that eyebrow said. And I’m pretty sure I’ll embarrass you before I embarrass her.
The chamberlain sighed, shook his head, and opened the door for Tom and his bride.
It was when the door shut behind him with a boom that Tom realized he should have listened to what the chamberlain was trying to say.
His first thought was retreat, but his second gave three reasons why that would be a bad idea. The first was that if he turned around as fast as he wanted to, Lynn’s head might hit the wall. The second was that he could not manipulate the door handle with Lynn in his arms. The third was that if he turned, Lynn would see — and Lynn seeing was the last thing he wanted.
“Tommy?” she murmured.
Oh, Lord! HELP!
“Is something wrong?” she asked. Her voice quavered. As much as he loved her, he hated that quaver. It only came out when she was frightened, and that she would be frightened with him made his heart drop to the level of his intestines.
He had no choice but to let her see. Without a word, he set her down, keeping one hand on her waist as she turned around.
“It could be worse,” Tom forced himself to say, forced himself to smile.
Lynn tottered forward, her white hand floating to the ladder that was the only access to the upstairs. Tom grabbed the other hand. Her fingers, so tiny and delicate, grasped his with the same fierce and surprising strength of an infant’s.
He did not want to look around the room any more. He did not want to see it through her eyes. But as he watched Lynn’s face, he saw the room through her eyes anyway, never mind his caution.
He saw the burlap sacks kicked to one side of the room. He saw the pile of trash in the corner. He saw the ancient shields left to warp and rot on the walls. He saw the puddles, the buckets meant to catch the raindrops and leaks and clearly failing in their office. He saw the ivy growing on the inside.
Tom did not need to see any more.
“Lynn …” he whispered, letting go of her hand to trail his finger along her sleeve. “It can all get cleaned up. It will all get cleaned up. We can –”
Lynn gasped, the kind of quick and sharp one that meant she was doing everything in her power not to burst into tears. Unfortunately, Tom knew from bitter experience that by the time that gasp came out, it was too late, or very nearly.
“We’ll just get out of the servants’ way, and they’ll fix –”
Lynn covered her face with her hands.
She didn’t sob, not out loud. Tom almost wished she would. If she sobbed aloud, that meant she trusted him enough to let him see her sadness, and she trusted that he would make it go away, not add to it. But trust like that needed a strong and sturdy foundation, and the Lord knew that the man who should have had the building of that foundation had been a lazy workman, a shirker of his duties.
Tom drew a finger along Lynn’s shoulder, and to his relief she leaned against him. He said nothing, only rubbing her back until she was ready to make a sound.
When he was seven, he and his father had been out hunting, and they had found a man beating a dog with a stick. No, not a stick — more like a club. And this was no quick tap meant to teach the dog not to do whatever it had been doing again, but the kind beating a convicted criminal didn’t deserve.
The only thing that kept Tom from vaulting off his horse and getting between the club and the dog had been his father’s hand, reaching out like lightning to grab Tom by the collar. Arthur’s glare kept Tom seated and the horse still, even when Arthur tapped the sides of his own horse and trotted the few yards between him and the man.
Tom never knew what was said between them. He remembered the look of shock on the man’s face when he looked up to see the King; he remembered something shiny flashing through the air. And he remembered the man bowing and scraping, and then running off — leaving the dog behind. What Tom remembered most clearly, though, was his father beckoning him to come closer.
Then Tom had vaulted from the horse, had run forward, had meant to embrace the dog —
The dog had whined and cringed away, as if expecting another club. Tom had thought of himself as a big boy then, but he could still remembered the shocked tears that had stung his eyes. “Easy, lad,” his father had said, laying a hand on his shoulder. “You can’t fix with one act of love what took years of hate to break.”
So he always reminded himself whenever Lynn flinched away, or watched him with wide dark eyes that put him in mind of nothing so much as that dog.
“C’mere, Lynn,” he whispered, so soft his breath scarcely stirred her hair. “Come here.”
She crept the rest of the way to him, her feet shuffling, her skirts stirring what must have been years of dust and dirt. The quivering weight of her trembled against him. “I’m sorry.”
“Sweetheart, don’t be. Anybody would be disappointed to see –”
She was shaking her head, and so Tom stopped talking. “It’s not that.”
He didn’t ask what it was. If he asked, she always felt she had to answer, even when she didn’t want to. So Tom only stroked her arm and shoulder, and kissed the side of her hair.
“It’s just …” she sighed.
“This is my dowry!”
“Lynn, honey! Don’t worry about that. I can give you twelve hunting lodges if you don’t like this one.” On second thought, he hoped she didn’t want twelve of them — that would take a bit of explaining to his father.
“No, no, that’s not it,” she shook her head.
“… You do like this one?” He looked around again, trying to determine whether it was the ivy or the leaky roof or the trash that attracted her regard.
“It’s all I have! It’s all — it’s all I brought with me!” she gasped. “I didn’t even have a real trousseau!”
Now was not the time to tell her that he saw no problem with her having no trousseau, since that would logically force her to spend a great deal of time sans clothing.
So he kissed her shoulder instead, and held her closer, and stroked whatever he could find. “Hush, hush … that doesn’t matter, Lynn. None of that matters.”
“You didn’t get anything from this marriage!”
“Lynn! Lynn, don’t say that. Never say that.” He held her closer, buried his face in her hair. “I got you. That’s all I ever cared about.”
“Your father …”
“My father isn’t going to hear a word about the — the state we found this place in, and so he shan’t be able to think anything about it.”
“Oh, Tommy,” she sighed. “You can’t keep it from him. The servants all saw. Or will see.”
… Damn! “See, Lynn, that’s why I needed to marry you. You see these things; I don’t.”
Lynn only shook her head.
“Yes. Yes, you do.” He kissed her forehead, one hand rubbing her side. “And that’s why you are a perfect Crown Princess, and will be a fantastic Queen someday, and have always been and will always be the only wife I will ever want.”
“Shush, love, shush.”
“Your father’s going to think …”
“My father is going to roll his eyes, and mutter some things into his beard that I shan’t repeat in front of you, but you know what? He’s not going to feel a speck of ill-will toward you. Hell, he might not even get angry at me, and we both know how he loves to do that!”
“Your father doesn’t love to get angry with you,” Lynn murmured — as if he was the one who needed reassuring about his father!
“Yes, he does, Lynn. You don’t understand. It’s how we operate. I do something foolish, he yells at me and gives his vocal chords a good workout, and then I yell back and give my vocal chords a good workout, and by the time we go out and face the Council we’re both limbered up and ready to go. Works every time.”
“I wish my father’s yelling worked for something,” Lynn whispered. Maybe he wasn’t meant to hear — she so rarely admitted things like that about her father.
But he was standing so close, how could she think he wouldn’t hear?
“Ah, but Lynn, it does,” he whispered to her. “It lets us all know where he is, so we can avoid him.”
She almost smiled. Then she looked around herself again.
“He didn’t even clean the place up,” she whispered. “Do you think — do you think he was that angry about me going to see Mother?”
If Bors had been so angry that he brooded, and plotted, and planned, and finally thought of a way to humiliate his sweetest daughter on her honeymoon —
Wait a minute. Brood? Plot? Plan? Bors?
“No,” Tom replied. “No, I don’t think that’s what happened at all. You know what I think?”
He jumped in front of her, grabbed her shoulders before her head could do more than droop. “I think your father’s an idiot!”
Lynn’s head snapped up.
“I think,” Tom continued with his widest fool’s grin, “that your father has once again managed to confuse his fantasy world with the real thing. I think he assumed that telling some half-dead caretaker to watch over this place, and paying him a pittance to do so, would actually make sure this place was — well — taken care of! Tell me, Lynn-love, when’s the last time your father used this place for hunting?”
Lynn looked up and around. “I — I don’t know … he took Elyan for a trip once, but …”
“Well … with putting Clarice and I through Camford, and Angelique’s dower for the nunnery, and Elyan’s training and equipage … he — he hasn’t been able to …”
“He hasn’t been here in years, has he?”
Lynn flushed and shook her head.
“Well, that explains it all! I would bet you anything that he — like I said — found some half-dead old man who would take whatever pittance your father could give him, because it was better than starving, as a caretaker — and, well, you see what happens when you do that!” He waved his hand around.
Lynn’s shoulders slumped.
“But, Lynn, love,” he murmured, “all of this? It’s nothing to do with you. It’s just … well. Your father being himself. Honestly? If he saw this place, he’d be even more embarrassed than you. Because he’s the one who looks bad with all of this, not you.”
“You … are you sure?”
Lynn looked around her again. “But … but your father …”
“Sweetheart, out of all the words that he will mutter into his beard, there is one I can repeat to you.” He slipped his hands around her waist and held her at an arm’s length. “Do you want to hear what it will be?”
Lynn tried to smile.
“Bors,” Tom whispered into her ear.
“And do you know what he’s going to say about you, my dear?”
Lynn bit her lip.
“He’s going to say, ‘Oh, da–er–darn! Poor Gwendolyn! Don’t tell me that as–jerk of a general of mine managed to upset her, too!”
Lynn ducked her head, but he saw that smile. “That sounds like something you would say.”
“Alas, Lynn! You’ve discovered our secret! My father and I are a lot alike! Hope you like him, because there are some in this kingdom who will tell you that you married a red-haired, be-freckled version of him.”
“Oh, Tommy,” she murmured.
He was losing her. Was he losing her? He held her shoulders this time. “Now, love, so that you don’t have time to panic over that — you know what we’re going to do?”
She looked up.
“We’re going to go hawking,” Tom said. “And then we’ll have a nice, long ride. And maybe … we’ll find a nice little copse along the way, and stay a while. And have lunch. And do some … other things.”
Lynn finally smiled.
“And by the time we come back — this place will be all cleaned up!” Tom promised.
Lynn stood on tiptoe and glanced at the window. “But what if it’s still raining?”
“Then I’ll be on top.”
“You only think of one thing!” she laughed.
“Maybe, but I also only think of that one thing insofar as it involves you — so I should say you were rather the winner here.”
She was so pretty when she blushed and smiled at once. Even when she felt compelled to duck her head, so he couldn’t see properly.
Tom offered her his elbow. “Well, my lady? Shall we?”
Lynn smiled and slipped her arm though his.
So arm-and-arm they went out the door, where the servants still waited with boxes and trunks, and now, worried looks.
And then, right on cue, the sun began to shine again.