Fair day. Nicole could scarcely keep the anticipating skip out of her feet. In Reme, it never would have occurred to her to be excited for a fair. Fairs were for the plebs, the common folks with their common wares and their common hopes and sadness. Women like the Saquinarii simply did not attend fairs. If they wanted to shop, they did not have to wait and then chase them down on the village green on one selected day of the week.
But it wasn’t glazed pottery or fine-woven cloth that set Nicole’s heart pitter-pattering today. And if she had thought of it, perhaps she might have remembered a time or two when she had been this happy to go to a party or a day at the races or a expedition to the Forum for shopping. Young men did have a way of finding their young ladies, no matter what the social backdrop.
Now, however, she was too busy wondering where Milo was to pay any mind to analyzing her motives or actions.
He had said that he was going to come to the fair incognito. He had been about to explain to her what that meant, too, but a puzzled frown had forestalled him. Some days he forgot that she was from Reme and could be expected to know these phrases that the nobility trotted out to prove their knowledge and sophistication. As for Nicole, she was merely glad that she was from Reme and so could explain her knowledge — otherwise, she would have been hard-pressed to invent a story, or else tell Milo the truth.
She scratched her head and looked around. The trouble with Milo’s commoner clothes was that they made him look, well, common. Any number of dark-haired men could be wearing a dull maroon tunic and faded green hosen. Unless she got a good look at the face, she could never be sure —
“Milo!” She ran around the rosebush and into his waiting arms.
They folded around her, and for a moment, she was just held — safe and secure and loved. When was the last time, before Milo, that she had felt that way?
She nestled her head against his shoulder and breathed in the scent of him. His clothes bore a faint hint of wayside taverns and long nights riding in the dark — no amount of washing would ever get rid of that — but stronger than that was good soap, linen and lavender. Somebody was taking good care of him at that fortress. But beneath all of that was the smell of sweat and leather and armor polish and more soap, and under all of that, a masculine smell that was just Milo.
Milo’s arms tightened just a little bit more, and his hold extended just a little longer. He needed this, Nicole knew, just as much as she did. And Lord knew how much she needed it.
Finally, though, just before somebody would jeer or the old biddies would turn to gossip, knitting needles clacking, Milo pulled away. “And how are you, sweetheart?”
“I’m fine.” Nicole giggled and swept her hand through Milo’s hair. “You messed up your hair again.”
“It fits with the disguise!”
“Please! Even the poorest man can afford a comb!”
Milo only let his eyebrows arch.
“Well …” Nicole ran her fingers through the wispy strands again. “They can at least use their fingers …”
“Or better yet, their lovely lass’s fingers.” He caught her hand, brought it down, stroked it. Eying her over her knuckles, he kissed the tips one by one.
Nicole was going to swoon, she just knew it. She had always thought she had too much dignity, too much circumspection, for melodramatics before — but that was before Milo. Now, she was starting to understand her sisters, so long ago falling dramatically onto couches and beds, declaring that if Servius or Publius or Marcus did not return their affections, they would just die.
“So what is it you do at these things?” Milo asked.
Nicole blinked rapidly. “What — you’ve not been to one?”
“Oh, aye, heaps of times,” Milo replied easily, startling Nicole. “But it’s different when your stepfather is the lord and the host of the fair.” He shrugged. “I’ve also been to the big spring fair at Ludenwic, but that …” He looked around. “Well, that’s a bit different.”
So in Glasonland the great went to fairs as well as the small. Odd, then, how she had yet to see any noble folks of Albion at a fair — but maybe she wasn’t coming at the right time. Or to the right fair. “Well, a lot of the men like the axe-throwing …”
“Axe throwing? Say on, my lady.”
She blushed, as she always did when he called her his lady. “It’s this way,” she said, starting to lead the way.
She had scarcely taken a step before Milo grabbed her hand and wove his fingers through hers.
The walk to the axe-throwing competition would not have been a long one for a snail; Milo would have seen them as soon as he turned around. But he did not seem disposed to hurry, and neither did Nicole. It was too pleasant to just walk hand-in-hand, enjoying the crisp and cool day, the heat of Milo’s body and her own making things just toasty enough to be comfortable. She might have led him a wide circuit around the fairgrounds, just for the pleasure of it, and she was not sure that Milo would have minded.
But she did not, because the shortest distance between two points was a straight line, and her feet were already walking that path before she thought better of it. “Here we are!” she smiled as the two of them stopped before the box of throwing axes.
Milo picked up one at random, tossing it from hand to hand, testing the weight and heft of it. Nicole watched the light play off the steel edge. “So,” Milo asked, “who’s going first?”
“What?” Nicole laughed.
“Don’t you want a turn?” He batted his eyelashes like an innocent girl begging her papa for a treat.
“Milo! Of course not!”
“Why not? You’re a cook, aye? Don’t you have to heft whole oxen and put them into the oven?”
She might have squealed and denied it — but she had a better idea. “Tell you what,” she giggled, “you go first, and then I’ll beat you.”
“Ooh.” Milo stepped up to his mark. “Achallenge. I like that.” He aimed. “So,” he asked over his shoulder, “what shall we wager?”
“Wager?” Nicole asked.
“Of course — after all, if you’re aiming to beat me, it’s something you’ll have to be giving up when you lose.”
“When I lose? Aren’t I the lass who can wrestle a whole ox onto the spit unaided?”
“My stepfather always told me that raw strength isn’t everything. Particularly in ax-throwing.”
“My mother always toldme,” Nicole replied, trying to bat her eyelashes and toss her hair as she had seen her sisters and Roma do, “that nice girls do not gamble.”
“Aww, come on, I won’t be taking anything from you that you won’t get back!”
Nicole’s eyes went wide and she blushed. He didn’t mean — he couldn’t mean –?
Milo’s eyes always went wide a second later, presumably as his brain caught up with his lips. “I meant like money! Not like — like — oh, hell.”
“Just throw your ax,” Nicole tried to laugh. Milo shot her an embarrassed smile and returned to aiming.
Then, to get back at him, just as he was aimed and about to let go, she asked, “How about a kiss?”
It was probably not the best thing to ask a man with an ax in his hand, ready to throw. But no worse mishap occurred than Milo letting go, leaning forward, and cringing. “Nicole! You messed me up!”
“Messed you up?” Nicole scarcely knew whether to laugh or cry out. “That’s a bulls-eye!”
“Well, aye …” He reached into the box and grabbed another ax. “But I could have gotten a better one.”
“A better one? How is one bulls-eye better than another?”
“Wait a moment, sweetheart, and I’ll show you.” He began to aim again, his night-blue eyes shooting over to her and twinkling like stars. “What, my lady? No inspired thoughts meant to destroy a man’s aim?”
Nicole blushed and shook her head.
She glanced at the target and giggled. “Because if you gets bulls-eyes when I talk, I think I’d best be quiet, don’t you?”
“Bah! That was nothing. I can get one whether you talk or are quiet.”
“We’ll see. I’m still aiming to win that bet.”
“So am I, ma cherie.” He winked at her and lined up his shot again. One smooth overhand throw …
And another bulls-eye. “Milo!” she gasped.
“Rethinking that bet?” he asked, innocently, blinking.
“N-n-no,” she replied. “Just wondering … what are you supposed to give up if you lose?”
“What?” Milo gasped. “I can’t pay you off with a kiss?”
Nicole shook her head, hoping her swaying hair would make her blushing face less obvious. “No, that’s my forfeit. You need to pick something else.”
“Hmm,” Milo grabbed a third ax and leaned on it, as a farmer might lean on his hoe or a guardsman his pike. “That will take some consideration.”
Nicole grinned, fully prepared to let him consider … until she caught movement out the corner of her eye, and turned to look. A small crowd of men — burly, dusty, dirt-stained men — had gathered around to watch. There was a murmur rising up from them.
“Two bulls-eyes! Aye, that’s rare, that is.”
“Bet he can’t get a third one.”
“How much?” came a third voice.
“Done!” A slap of skin, masculine agreement.
“And I’m to have half of the winnings,” Milo called, winking at Nicole as he did so. “So I can pay my forfeit to this lovely lady, if she happens to beat me.”
“Beat you?” laughed a fourth voice. “At what?”
A chorus of guffaws. “Lassie, can ye even lift the ax?” asked the second man.
“And if she wins,” Milo broke in, turning the crowd’s attention back to him, “she can have any trinket she likes to take home — paid for by yours truly.”
Nicole blinked. She’d never let Milo buy her anything, not one little pastry at a market. She insisted on that. But perhaps if she won it off him in a bet —
Who was she kidding? She’d be shocked if she could lift the ax — more shocked if she could throw it without killing herself! She’d never beat him!
“Better throw sharp, lad, else it’s a silk dress you’ll be buying her!”
“Or a gold bracelet!”
“Or a ring!” That was met by general laughter.
Milo, however, only smiled at her, winked, lined up his shot …
“Ha!” Milo yelped, jumping up. “Well, gentlemen? How much have I won?”
They were staring at the bulls-eye — and at Milo — and at the bulls-eye again. As for Milo, he beamed, proud as any young soldier marching in his first triumph. So could anyone blame Nicole for what she did next?
She would be told later that the men sent up a cheer when she pounced on her Milo. She wouldn’t remember the comments. They weren’t too bad, she would be told, more good-natured teasing than anything else. Nothing too ribald, nothing lewd.
However, Nicole would always remember what Milo said when she finally let him breathe. “Is that a forfeit?”
Nicole looked at the box of axes, then at Milo. “Unless you want to see me cut myself in half trying to beat you … yes?”
“Then it’s a forfeit.” He laughed and ran his hands down her side. “I’d hate for there to be two of you.”
“Hate?” Nicole pretended to pout. “Why?”
“Because then I’d have no excuse not to share you.”
He picked up a lock of her hair and began to play with it. “So …” he murmured. “Since I can’t interest you in trying to beat me at throwing axes …”
“And it’s for the best,” Nicole pointed out.
“True. One Nicole Saquina is all this world needs.” His finger moved from her hair to her shoulder, then down her arm, stroking it. “But can I interest you in log-rolling?”
“Log –” Nicole looked over her shoulder. “Milo!”
“What?” he asked, blinking in innocence.
“Will you have me kissing you until kingdom come?”
“Can’t say I’d mind that …”
“Milo!” she giggled. “But still! I’m not doing that! I’d have to …” She gestured to her dress. “You know!”
“No rule against competing fully clothed, I heard,” Milo blinked, smiling.
“I’d get soaked!” she laughed. “I don’t need to do my laundry with me still in my clothes!”
“But Nicole,” Milo wheedled, “If I can’t have you beat me at something, how will I be able to buy you something?”
Nicole blinked and backed away. She turned to the food area. “Let’s get some coffee, shall we?”
“I think you could use something to drink,” she answered, grabbing his hand and half-dragging him to the coffee tent, “don’t you? After all that exertion?”
“And you’ll be paying for yours,” Milo sighed.
“Why won’t you ever let me treat you? To anything? Nicole, I don’t want you spending money you don’t have –”
“I can’t be spending it if I don’t have it,” Nicole pointed out.
“You know what I mean — Nicole.” He grabbed her other hand, spun her around to face him. “I don’t want you to be the loser every timeI pesteryou into going out with me.”
She had no answer for that — only a smile. “A cup of coffee never put anyone into the poorhouse. Come on.” Milo did not argue as she dragged him to the coffee tent, as they made their orders, or indeed until they found a nice bench under a tree.
Then he had plenty of arguments to make. “Nicole …”
“Hmm?” she asked, trying to smile.
“I’d like to treat you, just once. Why don’t you want to let me?”
Nicole looked away. “You — you’ve got a life to rebuild. You don’t need to be wasting your money –”
“– on trinkets. And silly things, like coffee and pastries, and — things that won’t last. That’s all.”
Milo leaned closer to her, trying to see through the curtain of hair to her face. “Things that won’t last?” he asked.
“Well, pastries don’t.”
“You know what I mean.”
Nicole tried not to sigh. She cared for him — and she was almost certain he cared for her exactly as she did for him — but why did he not understand? Whatever he had been in Glasonland, whatever she had been in Reme, they were in Albion now. And in Albion, Nicole was a tavern waitress and sometime cook, and Milo was a knight, the king’s nephew. Where did he think this relationship would go?
Nicole only was here because she knew how slippery happiness was, how hard to grasp and how impossible to hold. It was best caressed before it escaped. Why could not Milo see the same thing? Didn’t he understand a thing or two about happiness by now?
Milo turned again to Nicole, startling her with those terribly blue eyes. “Nicole …” he said, so softly that Nicole scarcely heard him, “I’m not trying to buy anything that’s not … for sale. I’m not that type of man.”
Nicole gasped. “I know that!”
“Then why don’t you trust me to buy you something? Just something little?”
Nicole bowed her head, her whole body bowing with it. “It’s not a question of — trust.”
She felt Milo edge closer to her, bend with her, his shoulder practically touching hers, his voice in her ear. She wanted nothing more than to lean up against him and forget this conversation had ever happened, but it would not go away that easily. Indeed, Milo whispered, “Then what is it a question of?”
It was a question of dignity. Of independence. Of being beholden to nothing and nobody — other than Jamie, who had, in the end, only taken her own father’s money and used it to buy her freedom, in essence. It was a question of …
She looked up, letting the sun caress her face. “Even the best food loses its savor when you don’t cook it yourself.”
“Even if it’s freely given? Expecting nothing return?”
Nicole shrugged and smiled ruefully at him. “Sometimes.”
One half of Milo’s mouth snuck upward in a grin. “Don’t be,” he whispered, pushing a sheaf of her hair over her shoulder. “We’ve all got … quirks.”
A quirk. That was one way of putting it. Maybe a better way would be a shield. If she didn’t let him spend anything on her — no trinkets, no presents she couldn’t get on her own — then that would be one less thing she would have to miss when he found some nice girl of good family that he wanted to settle down with.
Maybe he read her thoughts, for he glanced into her cup, found it empty, put his down, and jumped from the bench. He extended a careless hand to her. “Dance?”
Yes. Yes, she’d much rather dance. Nicole clasped his hand; Milo swung her up and escorted her to the part of the lawn set aside for dancing.
They were still going strong when the sun went down.
But with the reddening rays of the sun came the inevitable end of the day. Milo took her arm and walked her home, as he always did when it was dark. Even if he had met her at the Onion, he would walk her home. Even if one could see her cottage from here — as Nicole laughingly pointed out — Milo still walked her home in the dark. It was nice, to feel cherished and protected again, not hung out to dry as she had been when her father’s schemes, whatever they were, collapsed and destroyed all of the Saquinarii.
The nice thing about him walking her home was that it put off leave-taking time. And even though their last conversation had been difficult, the dancing hadn’t been. The dancing had swept all difficulties away. The dancing had let them communicate without the bother of words.
So, of course, when leave-taking time came, it was just as hard as usual, if not harder.
That may have been why, when Milo let Nicole up for air, she said something. Something that she had not planned on saying that night. Something that she was not sure she had ever planned on saying. But something, she was sure, she would regret until the day she died if she never said it.
“Would …” She giggled, breathless, “Would you like to come in?”
Milo’s eyebrow went up, up, up — and Nicole’s heart sank down, down, down. Stupid, stupid! She never should have said that. Now he would think she was wanton, or just a silly slut, or that she was making up for their argument earlier by offering to open her legs for him. Stupid!
“Nicole …” Milo sighed. Then his hand came up to — caress her cheek?
“I’m not that kind of man. You know that.”
“I know,” she answered. “You haven’t … forced me into anything. I’m offering … if you’ll accept … because …” She blushed and stared at her feet. “Because I … want to.”
“But you deserve better than that, Nicole. You deserve something that won’t make you feel ashamed in the morning.”
“Maybe.” She shrugged. “But if I’ve learned nothing else, it’s that sometimes you have to take what you can get in this life.”
“But not you, Nicole. Not like … this.”
She could only shrug, and pray that he wouldn’t think less of her for this.
He didn’t — not by the way he grabbed her suddenly and kissed her, hard, harder than she had kissed him after his ax-throwing victory. Harder than she would kiss her mama, and her papa, and her brothers and her nieces and nephews when she saw them again in Heaven and begged for their forgiveness. So hard that she thought their lips would break and meld and become one, and they would never, never have to part again —
Milo broke away, but rested his forehead on hers, his hands on both of her cheeks. “You,” he whispered, “ought to be one person in this world who gets all of the good things she deserves. And the Lord grant that I be the man to give them to you.”
Then he walked away, fast, leaving Nicole to watch him go and gently prod her bruised lips.
He was a good man.
That would only make it harder when they had to part.