The perfect wife, p.23
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       The Perfect Wife, p.23
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           Lynsay Sands
Page 23

 

  Theywerejust winding up their talk when the womenfinally made their way out of the castle. Paen hadno idea what the women had been discussing inside. He was sure that Lady Helen andDiamanda had given his mothera long list of thingsthey wishedsent on, and he doubtedverymuch if hismotherhad managed to avoid giving some instruction to Avelyn. It was second nature to her after training Diamanda for so long. However, he didn't know what was responsible for the red-eyed, sniffling state of the women.

  "Women," his fathersighedhis exasperation as thewomen approached. "You would think we were going to bethreedays' travel apartrather than halfaday's journey. "

  "Aye," Paen agreed.

  "Come along, wife. They will not be far away," Lord Gerville said when the women paused at the bottom of the stairs to embrace eachother in a tearful tableau.

  Reluctantly stepping away,LadyGerville movedto give Paen a hug, holdinghim so tightly he feared shewould crack a rib ere she lethim go. "Take care of her, son.

  She's a very sweet girl. "

  Paen nodded, though he wasn't surewhomshe was referring to. His first instinct was thatshe meant Avelyn, buthedid not tothink of his wifeas a girl. Diamanda was a girl. Paen's wife was allwoman.

  "Christina," Wimarc saidin long-suffering tones.

  "Men," his mother muttered, but finallyreleased Paen andmoved to mounther horse.

  "We shallvisit in a week's timeand see how things are going," Lord Gerville announced as he too mounted. "Send a messenger ifyou haveany trouble. "

  Paen nodded, thenwatchedhis parents ride out of the bailey, withtheir menand Lady Gerville's maid following. The momenttheywereout ofthebailey and heading forthehill,Paen turned toglance atthewomenat the base of the steps. Theywere staring afterthe small traveling partyas ifwatching theirvery last friend rideaway.

  Shaking hishead, Paincleared his throat todraw their attention. "I shall leave the servants andkeep to youwhile I see about matters out here. Come find me if you needme. "

  "Aye, husband," Avelyn murmuredandeven managed a smile.

  Paen gruntedhis satisfaction and turned tocross the baileyto where severalmen wererepairing thesmaller holes in the wall. Rumsfeld had been interribleshapewhen Paen and his father had cometoinspect things aweek earlier.

  Legere had run the castle since Paen's grandfather's death, shortly after his parentshad married. While hisparentshad made visits tothecastle when he was a boy, Paencouldn't recall them returningthere in the lastten years at least. Ithadbeen a mistake hisfather bitterly regretted when he'd seen the dilapidatedstate oftheplace last week. Legere had been no young man when he'd first taken up the role of chatelain,but he had been very old by thetime of his death, obviously too oldto take care ofthe castle properly, and too stubborn to admit it.

  Paen'sfather was apparently the only person in thearea who hadn't known the manwas no longer up to thetask ofrunningRumsfeld. Certainly, the Scots whohad stolen allthecattle and repeatedly attacked thecastle had been aware of it. They'd carriedawayeverything ofvaluethat wasn't nailed down,including partsof the wall itself.

  Allthat had been leftwhen Paen and his fatherfirstarrived toinspectthe castle was a broken wall,a shell of a keep with rotten wood everywhere, abandof tatty servants, fifty poorlydressed soldiers and a couple of pigs and chickens.

  The first problem Paen hadencountered wasthe soldiers. The men had been surly and resentful that their lord had neglected them so by leavingthem to an incompetentchatelain and never troubling himself to checkonthem.

  It had taken Paen the better part oftwo days toassure the men that things would now change for thebetter. it was onlythen that he'd managed togetmuch work out of them, but they'd worked hard since, and thingswere coming along nicely. The extra men his father had brought from Gervillehelped too, and if thingscontinued as they were, he expected to have Rumsfeld backto its original state by autumn. At leastthe outside. He needed to finish repairing thewalls andbuild new stables, a blacksmith's hut, a cobbler's and othercritical structures. Healso needed to find goodpeople to fill the positions. The skilled men had fled long ago,taking their skills where they wouldbe better appreciated.

  Paenwashoping that Avelyn would have the inside of thekeep inshape long before that. Her job should be easy compared to his, he thought ashereached the menworking on the wall and joined them in the endeavor. It was mostly a matter of cleaning, and hedoubted the servantswould be asresentful and hard to deal with as the soldiers had been.

  He was ratherproud of her reactionto the keep's sorry state. His father hadbeen positive she would be upset,butPaenhad guessed otherwise. In his experience, nothingmade a woman happier than setting things torights,and there was plenty for hertoset to rightshere.

  Aye, he thought, Avelyn would havethe keep shipshapeinno time. No doubt, right that moment she had an army of servantscleaning like mad.

  "Husband?"

  Paen turnedfrom the wall to watchhiswife approach. Hefound himself licking his lips as her hips swayed and her breasts jiggled as she walked. Hehad high hopes forbeing able to bed her tonight. Without the return journey to wear him out, Paen expectednot to drop into exhausted sleep themoment he lay down.

  "Husband? Did youhear me?" Avelyn asked, andPaenfrowned as he realized that she'dbeen speaking andhe'd beentoobusy anticipating the evening aheadto hearher.

  "No," headmitted. "What didyou say?"

  "Isaid I have lost theservants. "

  Paenstared. And stared. Then, sure he'dheard herwrong,he asked, "Excuse me?"

  "Well, Ihave notreallylostthem. I simplycannotfind them," Avelynsaid. "They are neither in the hallnor the kitchen,andI have no idea where else to look. "

  "Haveyou tried above stairs?" Paen asked.

  Avelyn stared at her husband blankly. "They could not possibly be upstairs, husband. The steps are broken. "

  "Only three orfour of them," he pointed out. "Otherwise theyaresoundenough.

  Father and I used them the first day we came here. The servants are probably upstairs preparing the rooms for thenight. "

  "Oh. " Avelyn shifted from one foot to the other, then sighed and murmured dubiously, "I shallcheck above stairs. "

  Leaving himto his work,Avelyn returned to thekeep. Shequickly came upon Runilda, whowas digging through the items on the back of the cart. The maid was in search of cleaning equipment, something they hadnotseen much of in the castle whenthey'd gone to find theservants. Avelynlefthertoherchore and walkedup the stairsandinto thehall.

  "Where is Lady Helen?" she asked Diamanda. The girl stood staring at the remains of the benchthathadcollapsedbeneath Lady Gerville.

  "She wentto see if there is an herb garden behind the kitchens. She said she expects that if there is it will have grown wild, buthopes itmaybe salvageable. "

  Avelyn nodded. She hadn'tevenconsideredthat issue yet,but a garden and the herbs andmedicinal plants it provided couldbe as indispensable as a well. The thought made her say, "Iwonder where the wellis. Thereshouldbeone. Even if the original were contaminated,Paen and his father would havehada newonedug. "

  "Aye, and we shall need water to clean with. " Diamanda glancedtoward the door.

  "Shall Igoask him?"

  "Would you mind?I needs mustcheck upstairsfor the servants. "

  Diamanda's eyes widened incredulously. "Why? Itisnotsafe, and they cannot possiblybe up there. "

  "Aye, well,I donot think so either, but Paen suggestedthey may beup there preparing the rooms. "

  Diamandasnorted at the idea.

  Avelyn smiled slightly. "Please go check with Paen on wherethe well is and I shall look for theservants. "

  Diamandahesitated. "Well, be careful. Those stairs do notlook atall safe. "

  "Nor doesthe floorupthere," sheacknowledged. "Ishall be careful. "

  She waited until Diamanda had headedfor the door,thenstarted cautiouslyup the stairs, gripping the rail when therewas one. She retained a clear image of the bench
collapsing beneathLadyGerville,and with her ownrecentrecordof accidentsand calamities,wasnot all thatconfident she was going to master thestairs without at least scraping a knee.

  Avelyn grimaced atthethought and wonderedwhy she was even botheringwith this task. In truth,she thought ita fool's errand. However, Paenseemed to think the servantswould be found upthere, busily preparing the upperrooms, andso she wouldcheck. it was hard to believethey would be busily working away in the bed chambers when they obviously had notlifted a finger to make any preparations in the great hall. . . or the kitchens, forthatmatter.

  If the great hallwas bad, the kitchens were worse. There the floors and counters and tableswere just as neglected as the hall,but alsocoated with layers ofgrease and smoke. Avelyn's slippers hadstuck to the floor and she'dbeen afraid to touch anything.

  Avelyn hadnearlymadeit tothe top of the stairs when the step she was on creaked ominously. She leapt back, nearlyfalling through the missing stairshe'd just steppedover. She landedon one knee on the edgeof the brokenstep, the other leg dangling intospacethrough the hole and bothhands on therailing.

  "Soundenough," shemuttered herhusband's words to herself assheheld onto the rail with a deathgrip and pulledherleg back up through the hole. She didn't have to lookat herleg toknow she'dscraped itnicely. The burning painin her shin told heras much. Gritting her teeth against thepain, she gotshakilyback to her feet.

  Avelyn leaned against the wall briefly andconsideredturning back,but therewere only acoupleof stairs leftafter themissing step. Slowlyletting her breath out, she forced herselftostraightenandcontinued up, this time being sure to keep her foot as close tothe wall aspossible asshebypassed the missing step. She was sure the woodclosest to thewall would bethe least likelytogive outonher.

  Much to herrelief, there wasno creakthis time and she continued safely up the last fewsteps. On the landing, she releaseda relieved breath, then paused to lifther skirt and look at her legs.

  Aye, she'd done afinejob on her shin, she thoughtwithdisgust as she let the skirt drop back into place. She could only hope the trip back down would be less eventful.

  Nowthat she was above stairs, Avelynrealized that she should have brought a torch withher. While the open doors allowed light into the great hall, thehallways were much darker. Avelyneased forward, feeling herway carefully withher foot.

  From belowshe had been able to see the great holes inthe woodenfloor and hadno desire to step into one.

  Avelyn checked eachof thethree rooms on the second floor. The firstroom was the biggest, and shesupposed it was the one Legerehadused. Ifso, either he hadn't owned much,orhis possessions had been stolen after he died. The room held nothing but a rickety old bed. The next two rooms, however, had nothing at all.

  They weren't even furnished andboth had at least two holesinthe floor. The last room had the biggest hole, though it wasn't quiteasbig as she'd thought. Avelyn doubted abed wouldfitthrough it.

  She stopped afew feet fromthehole and leaned forwardto peer through it. The great hall below looked no betterfrom thehighervantagepoint. Therushesreally werein a shameful state. Theentire castlewas.

  Shaking her head,shestarted to back away from the hole, thenpausedwhen a creak soundedbehindher. Shehad half turned whenwhat felt like a plank ofwood slammed intothe side of her face. Avelyn stumbled under theblow, fallingsideways.

  That wasprobably what saved her. She reached instinctivelyforthefloor as she fell, but while herrighthand slappeditwith a stinging impact, her left hand found onlyopen air. Then her headslammed into a broken bit of wood and darkness rushed to claim her as shefelt herselffallingthrough the hole she'd beenlooking through.

  Chapter Fourteen

  The first thingAvelyn noticed on waking was thather headwaspounding. She didn'tthink she'd everexperiencedsuch painand squeezed her eyestightlyshut in reaction, but that only seemedtomakeit worse.

  "Avy?"

  Recognizing Diamanda's voice, Aveylnforced her eyesopen and peered up at the girl with confusion. She staredat the prettyblonde's anxiousface, thenlether gaze driftpasthertothe cloth overhead and all aroundthem.

  "Thetravelingtent. " Her voice wasa huskywhisperand shelicked her lips,then swallowed beforetrying again. "Why?"

  "Paen hadthe men set it up so that we would have someplace to put you,"

  Diamanda explained. "Youhit your head pretty badlywhenyou fell. "

  "Fell," Avelyn echoed with confusion; then her heart jumped as she recalled standing in the upperroom,being hit, fallingforward andher left hand findingno purchaseas it went through theholein the floor. Shealso now remembered herhead slamming intowhat hadfelt like broken wood. Theedge of the hole, she thought.

  Then she'd realizedshe wasfalling through the hole.

  "Someonehit me," Avelynsaid. "I fell throughthe hole. "

  "Hityou?" Diamandashook her head. "Paen saidyou must have hit your headon the side of thehole. Your face was scraped, and there was blood on the planks upstairs. "

  "No, someonehitme," Avelyn insisted weakly, thenglanced toher other side as Lady Helen patted her hand and leaned forward.

  "It musthavebeen a dream,dear. You were alone above stairs. " Shegave her a reproving look. "You never should have gone up there in thefirst place. You are fortunateyou didnot fall down the stairs andbreak your neck. Asit is, if it weren't for your skirt catching on the edge of a brokenplank, you would have certainlyfallen toyour deathwhenyou stumbled throughthe hole. "

  "My skirt?"Avelyn asked.

  "Aye,my lady. " Runildastepped closerto the bed, peering at her over Lady Helen'sshoulder. "I was cominginto thehallwith buckets and abroom when you fellthrough the hole. " Themaid pressed ahand to herchest as if the very memory made her heart flutter. "Youfell severalfeet, butyourskirt caught on somethingand you jerked to astop and just dangledthere, hangingbyyourskirt like a doll made of rags. " Runilda bit her lip and shook her head. "I juststoodthere screaming. "
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