Hethe stormed across the room toward the fireplace. He could not do this. How was he supposed to do this with her laughing? With her smell? Not to mention that blasted rash. Every time he looked at her red, blotchy skin, guilt consumed him - and annoyance. And both had a detrimental effect on an erection, it seemed. He had never considered it before.

Pausing by the fire, he turned to face her, half expecting to find her gloating and triumphant at her success in preventing the consummation. Instead, his wife looked absolutely miserable. Her laughter had died, leaving her sitting forlornly on the bed, her nose wrinkled against her own smell, and her hands clenched in her lap - probably to keep from scratching the angry red rash covering her. For some reason, the wrinkled look of displeasure on her face reminded him of the old hag Maggie. Of the fact that he hadn't looked into that matter yet.

Sighing, he sank into one of the chairs before the fire, his mind wandering to the old woman and her accusations. She claimed to be from Holden, but he didn't recall her. Still, that didn't mean much. He was never here. What he did recall, though were her bitter words about him burning old ladies out of their homes.

Restless, Hethe frowned, got to his feet and strode to the door. He pulled it open abruptly and started to step into the hall, but he was immediately confronted by Templetun, who stepped out of the shadows. It appeared the old man had followed him upstairs, this time. The king's chaplain opened his mouth to lecture, but Hethe cut him off sharply. "Make yourself useful, man. Send for some wine." He glanced back toward the woman in his bed. "Have you eaten?" he asked her.

Lady Helen's eyes widened in surprise. She hesitated briefly, suspicion rife on her face, but then she shook her head.

Nodding, Hethe turned back to Templetun. "Have some food brought up as well."

The king's man looked a bit affronted at being ordered around so, but he must have realized that doing as Hethe asked might get the deed done. After heaving a sigh, he nodded, turned on his heel and started away.

"Have a bath brought up, too," Hethe called after him. Then another thought struck. "And someone who knows something about herbs and such," he added, scowling as he realized he had no idea of the name of the healer in his castle.

Lord Templetun raised a hand in acknowledgement as he moved down the stairs. Satisfied, Hethe closed the door and turned to peer at the berashed woman in his bed - his wife. He felt as if he should say something, but didn't have any idea what. Instead, he merely returned to his seat by the fire.

They were both silent as they waited. Hethe felt her curious gaze on him, but he ignored it. He didn't feel like explaining himself. Besides, he himself wasn't sure exactly what he was about. He was following his instincts, that was all, and he had no idea where they would lead.

Helen was still trying to figure out what her husband was up to when the first tap sounded on the door.

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Hethe pushed himself up from his seat and moved to answer it, his bulk blocking her view as he carried on a whispered conversation with whomever stood on the other side of the door.

After several moments, during which Helen strained to hear what was being said and failed, Hethe suddenly stepped aside, allowing a woman to enter. Like every other servant at Holden, she was quite young and lovely. She also had the sweetest, most sympathetic eyes Helen had ever seen. Those eyes found her sitting miserable in the bed.

"Oh, dear, you must be suffering horribly," the young woman exclaimed as she approached the bed and eyed the rash covering Helen's once lily-white skin. She did not even wince at the odor, but smiled gently as she paused by the bed. Both the girl's kind concern and her not flinching in disgust combined to nearly put Helen in tears.

Telling herself her sudden emotionally turbulent state was all the result of the stress she had suffered since the arrival of the king's messenger, Helen blinked her eyes against the tears suddenly pooling there. She sniffled miserably and nodded that, yes, she was suffering horribly.

"May I?" The woman waited for a nod, then took Helen's hand, raising her arm to inspect the rash.

After a moment, she asked, "An allergic reaction?"

"Aye." Helen's gaze shot accusingly toward Hethe. "To night-scented posies. A vial of their essence was poured into my bath."

"Oh, dear." The healer's gaze slid to Hethe, who was looking uncomfortable under a mantle of guilt, then back to Helen. She offered a reassuring smile and produced a small bag from the folds of her skirt.

"Well, I have something that should help. I shall need some water."

She glanced at Hethe expectantly, and he shifted, his gaze moving around the room. Then there was another tap at the door and his expression brightened. "I ordered a bath to be brought up," he said.

"Good. I was going to suggest one as well, and that will take care of my need for water, too." The young woman moved off toward a chest against the wall beside the bed. Kneeling before it, she produced a small wooden bowl from her sack, and various herbs, too, and began to mix them as Hethe walked over to open the door.

Helen shrank under the linens as her husband swung the door wide, allowing the servants to enter. He ordered the food and wine to be set on the chest by the chairs in front of the fire, the tub to be set by the bed, then waited until all was prepared and the servants gone before glancing uncertainly at her. After a brief hesitation, he moved over to sit in one of the chairs by the fire. He poured himself some wine, then seemed to ignore the women's presence as he lifted the bottom of the linen surrounding his face to drink.

Helen nearly giggled at the silly sight, but she managed to restrain herself.

Retrieving some more herbs, the healer moved to place them in the warm bathwater. She stirred them in, then turned to smile invitingly at Helen. "This should help soothe the itching. And we shall add some ointment to help you heal."

Helen hesitated, her gaze sliding toward Hethe. He was seated in his chair, half turned toward the fire, his feet on a log before it, his gaze firmly on the flames. It appeared that this was all the privacy she was likely to get. She supposed she should be grateful for this much, since he had already watched her bathe once. Quickly shoving the linens aside, Helen scooted out of bed, rushed to the tub, and stepped in to sit in the water.

Much to her amazement, the water, while cooler than she had expected, had an immediate soothing effect on every patch of skin it covered. Murmuring her relief and pleasure, she began to splash the liquid up eagerly over her arms and chest.

"Better?" the healer inquired gently as she began to splash the treated water over Helen's back. . "Aye."

Helen sighed, then glanced over at her savior. "What is your name?"

"Mary, my lady."

"Mary." Helen leaned forward, submerging as much of her arms as she could under the water to ease their irritation as well. "T hankyou, Mary."

"You are more than welcome, my lady."

"Where did you learn your skills?"

"My mother," the girl admitted reluctantly, picking up a strip of linen to dunk it in the tub and use it to continue to draw water up over Helen's shoulders and back.

"And where is your mother now?" Helen asked, suspecting she already knew the answer. No doubt the woman had gone the way of Maggie.

"She was the healer here till last year. But..."

"But?" Helen prompted.

The other woman's reluctance was apparent, for it took her a few moments to speak, and when she did, it was in a hushed whisper. "She was dismissed. Fortunately, she is able to advise me on things still, for I haven't the knowledge she does." There was no doubting the resentment in her tone. It was more than obvious the girl felt her mother should be here in her place.

Helen felt goose bumps rise on her back and knew that Hethe's eyes had turned their way. He was listening to them.

Well, let him listen, she thought. He should be ashamed of himself. Perhaps hearing about his own behavior from another's lips would make him see how ridiculous and cruel his misdeeds were.

"I have noticed there are only pretty young servants in the castle. I was told that the older women are released once they are no longer deemed attractive, no matter their skills. Is that what happened to your mother?" Helen asked loud enough to be sure her husband would hear.

Mary went still. The silence in the room seemed to draw out to infinity, until at last she sighed and said,

"Aye. Lord Holden ordered her out of the keep. He prefers only young, pretty women here."

There was a crash as Hethe's feet hit the floor, then the stomp of his crossing the room.

"The hell I did dismiss that woman!" he snapped, towering furiously over them both. "And I have never, ever ordered that only pretty, young women serve me."

Helen glanced over her shoulder at her husband's looming presence, then toward the healer's pale and frightened face. Scowling at Hethe for bellowing and stomping about and scaring the girl, Helen protested, "Well, that is what Maggie was told when she was tossed out on her ear. She was too old and ugly to work in the keep."

"Maggie..." Hethe frowned. His eyes took on a faraway look. "No. She claimed she was burned out of her home for being too old, not thrown out of the keep."

"She was mistress of chambermaids here," Helen snapped. How could he not recall that? "She was tossed out on her ear for being too old. Fortunately, she had been seeing a farmer named White, and he asked her to marry him. She spent six happy months being a farmer's wife. Then he died, and you had her thrown out of their small cottage and all her belongings burned as heriot. She came to me for permission to accept charity from her daughter. Instead, I put her in charge of my chambermaids. She is still sharp-witted and skilled. She has value. Yet you tossed her aside like - "

"Get out."

Helen blinked at the interruption. It took a moment to realize that the grim order was not for her, but for Mary. She sensed the young woman's hesitation, so glanced over her shoulder to give her a reassuring nod. "Go on. 'Tis all right."

Mary stood reluctantly, then hesitated. "But the ointment... It must be applied to every inch of you after your bath."

"I shall attend my wife. Leave us," Hethe said, sounding less angry this time. Nodding, the girl handed him the damp linen she had been using to bathe Helen's back and turned to slip silently out of the room.

Helen eyed Hethe warily, then turned to peer down into the water, hunching her shoulders and leaning forward in the tub to try to hide her nakedness. It seemed silly to be shy after all they had been through, but something seemed different now. After a moment of silence, she heard the rustle as her husband knelt at the side of the tub. He dipped the linen into the water. They were both silent as he began to run the dripping cloth over her back. After the third stroke, he began to speak.

"I dined in the tavern at Tiernay while we were there."

Helen nodded but said nothing, waiting for him to continue. He ran the damp cloth gently over her back twice more before he did.

"I was served the vilest meal and ale it has ever been my pleasure to suffer - outside ofTiernayCastle itself."

Helen bit her lip at those words. Much to her amazement, there was a hint of humor in his voice as he spoke. Had he forgiven her for the horrid food she had served him as part of her efforts to convince him to refuse the marriage?

"I happened to glance up as the maid who served me - a maid very heavy with child, by the way - waddled back to the kitchen. When the door swung open, the old woman who served me at my bath that first day was inside."

"Maggie," Helen murmured, beginning to relax under the soothing scrubbing motion of the linen on her back.

"Aye. Well, I stormed in there all indignant and angry at such service, and the old woman tore into me. It scared her daughter silly. She nearly dropped the baby right there, I think," he said wryly, then sighed.

"She accused me of all sorts of things. Tossing her out on her ear. Stealing all her possessions. Having those possessions burned." He paused briefly, and she sensed rather than saw that he shook his head. "I didn't know what the Devil she was talking about. But before I could straighten the matter out, William came in to see what was doing. I didn't want to question the old woman in front of him... for several reasons. One, he's always had a rather nasty temper, and two, I didn't want our silent war to reach his or anyone else's ear. It was between you and me alone, as far as I was concerned. Getting into it with that old woman would have revealed far too much of what had been going on."

Helen shifted slightly, turning her head to look at him. He had removed the cloth from around his face.

There was no longer any need for it. Whatever Mary had put in the bath had at last removed the odor of stinkweed. Her husband's expression seemed sincere, she saw, and for a moment she was perplexed.

"Are you saying that you did not order Maggie removed as head of your chambermaids?"

He met her gaze straight on and shook his head solemnly. "As ashamed as I am to admit it, I didn't even realize that she ever was head of Holden's chambermaids."

When Helen gaped at him, he sighed and returned his attention to her back, running the cool, wet linen over it again. "I have not been at Holden much these last ten years. I have been wandering about, fighting one battle or another for the king. I was inWalestwo years, thenNormandyand Acquitaire. I spent another two years inIreland - "

"Anywhere but Holden," Helen finished for him. Her doubts faded. She had known that he was away a great deal, of course, but she had not realized just how much. Now that she thought about it, though, every time a servant from Holden had come to her, it was Hethe's second, Stephen, who was said to have done the dirty work.

Remembering the man in question and how nice he had been, she shook her head. It was practically impossible to imagine that he had not simply been following orders. He had an open smile and kind eyes, his face freckled and friendly under carrot-red hair. And he had tried so hard to not let her know how offensive her odor was when she arrived here. As if she had not noticed herself.

"And when Maggie's husband died?" Helen asked determined to get to the bottom of this. "When she could no longer bring in the harvest on her own, you didn't order her turfed and her belongings burned?"

Hethe raised his hand which held the dripping linen, the other covering the spot above his heart. "I swear to you here and now that I never gave either order. I never demanded that only pretty, young women work in the castle, that Maggie be removed - or Mary's mother, for that matter - and I never ordered Maggie tossed out when her husband died." He lowered his hands, his eyebrows lowering with them. "A pretty face, while nice, is useless on its own. I value skill and ability more."

He gave her a pointed look. "Wife, I intend to see that this situation is rectified. Mary is skilled, but her mother should be here, too. It is obvious, from what she said, that the girl is still apprenticing. The two of them should both be here - the mother to heal and to teach Mary to take her place, and Mary to assist and learn. That is only sensible. I have not won battles by keeping only the strong and fair young men about. My veterans are less impulsive and, therefore often more valuable. It is not brawn that wins a battle, but skill."

"Aye," Helen murmured, actually believing him. "But if you have not been giving Stephen these orders..." She let the sentence trail off, unwilling to voice the implication of his second's perfidy. "How long has he been in charge of Holden while you were away?"

Hethe paused and calculated silently. "About five years, now. Aye." He nodded. "It was shortly after your father died, I think. That was five years ago, was it not?"

"Aye," Helen said thoughtfully. "That is also approximately when I began to hear news of the unpleasantness at Holden."

Hethe's mouth twisted. "And soon after that, you started berating me with letters." He was silent for a minute, continuing to wash her back, then suddenly said, "We should wash your hair, too."

"Oh, I - " Helen began nervously, only to gasp in shock when a pail of water was suddenly poured over her.

"Lean your head back," Hethe instructed.

After a hesitation, she crossed her arms over her breasts and tilted her head back, remaining silent as he began to wash her hair. His hands were gentle and soothing as they massaged her scalp. Helen felt herself slowly relax, her eyes closing, her mind beginning to drift.

"What other problems have you heard of at Holden? What unpleasantness?"

Helen's eyes slid open, a sigh escaping her lips. She really didn't want to think about such things just now - his hands felt so good - but she supposed there was no hope for it. Hethe began to rinse her hair.

She closed her eyes again and considered the matter. There had been much unpleasantness over the years.

"Well." She opened her eyes, staring at the shadowed ceiling above. "There was the incident with that Adam boy. He started a fight in church. His hand was cut off for punishment. That was the first atrocity I heard of at Holden. It was shortly after my father died."

"I see." Hethe was silent for a moment, then cleared his throat and said, "Well, I do not remember ordering that, but it is the punishment suggested by the church. Fighting in church is - "

"He was seven years old," Helen interrupted grimly. "He and his brother were arguing and - "

"Seven?"

Helen twisted her head slightly to peer at him. There was no way he could be feigning his shock at this news. He was truly horrified, as she had been. Helen felt some of her years of anger against the man ease the teensiest bit. He truly hadn't known about this. She turned her face forward again, merely waiting, and after a moment he returned to rinsing her hair.

"Did he survive?" His voice was husky and tight.

"Barely. He is twelve now and helps out in the stables at Tiernay."

"At Tiernay?" Hethe repeated in surprise.

Helen nodded. "His mother brought him to me after the incident. She begged me to buy him and his brother from you ere something else could happen. They were both serfs."

"And you did." There was no doubt in his voice.

"Aye. I bought them all, including the mother. Paid a pretty penny, too," she added sharply, and felt his breath against her bare damp shoulder as he sighed.

"As far as I know, I have sold no serfs since becoming Lord of Holden."

Helen said nothing to that. She had purchased quite a few of his serfs over the years; sometimes after a punishment, sometimes to save them from one. Sometimes she didn't hear news of trouble soon enough and was unable to save them. Like with Bertha.

"Bertha?"

His question made her realize she had murmured the name aloud. Swallowing, she nodded and glanced back at him. "Old Bertha had her breasts severed."

Hethe recoiled at his wife's words. "Her breasts? Isn't she my alewife?" he asked, not missing the irony of the fact that she was one of the few servants he could recall. He had liked to drink when he was younger. But he had cut back on that since taking up the responsibilities of the lordship of Holden.

"She was." Lady Helen nodded her head awkwardly. "Her wound became infected. She didn't recover."

"Jesu," Hethe breathed. "What was her offense?"

"She was caught money-lending."

Hethe shook his head, furious. "I did not order these things done. I did not even know about them."

His wife peered up at him silently for a moment over her shoulder, then turned to face front again. He wasn't sure if she believed him. He didn't like the idea that she might not. He truly hadn't been aware of these things happening.

But whose fault was that?, his conscience asked. Hethe winced. He was lord here; he should be aware of all. He was responsible for his people. Ultimately, he was culpable for young Adam's severed hand and Old Bertha's lost breasts and life. Which were hard things to accept. He should have spent more time here, should have been more aware of his duty. Instead, he'd been off licking his wounds from the death of his first wife. The woman before him had been forced to protect his people.

"George lost his legs for poaching."

Hethe stilled, his hand unconsciously squeezing the damp linen he held and drizzling water down her back. He had no idea who George was, but that mattered little. "Poaching?"

"Aye. He was caught with a deer he said he found dead. From what I understand, there were no signs of injury to the animal; his story was most likely true. Still, the man's legs were cut off for trespassing in your forest and taking Your Lordship's game."

Hethe was silent. Removing a poacher's legs was an acceptable punishment by law, but... "Was it a first offense?"

"Aye. So it was said."

Hethe would never have ordered a man's legs cut off for his first offense. Hell, he probably wouldn't have for a second or third offense, either. Neither would he have cut off a child's hand for fighting in church, or severed a woman's breasts for any offense.

"I needs must have a talk with Stephen. Something is not right here," he announced, straightening abruptly and heading for the door, only to pause and swing back.

"What is it?"

"If I go out there now, with no proof, Templetun will be on me about consummating the marriage," he answered with a scowl. All these questions about who had been taking the rulership of Holden and its land into their own hands, and Hethe had to worry about the irritating interference of the king's chaplain.

He was not pleased, but what could he do?

Helen stiffened in the water. She had forgotten all about Templetun and his insistence that the marriage be consummated. He would not leave without being sure it was complete. Which meant they had to...

Hergaze slid over Hethe's naked chest, taking in the width and strength of him, the hard muscles, the flat stomach, the narrow waist, the breeches that covered him. He had started to remove them earlier, but she had been so busy laughing she had missed seeing what they hid. Now her gaze focused on the bulge of his manhood, and she shuddered at the thought of what he was supposed to do with it.

"You are shivering," he said to her. Hethe's scowl slid away, and he moved back to the tub. "No doubt the water has gone cold. We should get you out of there before you catch the ague." Bending, he picked up the linen the servants had left behind for her to dry herself. Unfolding it, he held it out.

Helen hesitated, feeling herself flush with embarrassment. Then she stood quickly and huddled into the linen, letting out a breath of relief when he quickly wrapped it around her. She let out a squeal of surprise a moment later when he scooped her up in his arms and carried her across the room to the fireplace.

Setting her down before it, to warm and dry herself, he turned away and moved back to the bedside chest to collect the ointment Mary had made up.

Helen was still toweling herself off when he returned. The activity had been slowed by the fact that she was trying to use a corner of the linen which was wrapped, toga-style, around herself. Hethe smiled slightly at the sight, apparently amused that she was suddenly so shy, when she had been splayed out naked before him earlier. Of course, she hadn't been comfortable then, either. Not exactly. And the possibility of their consummation suddenly seemed so much more likely. She turned away.

When, a moment later, he tapped her on the shoulder, she straightened immediately and whirled back to face him. As her eyes slid from him to the bowl he held, she forced herself to relax.

"Oh. Thankyou." She held out a hand for the salve, but Hethe merely arched his eyebrows and shook his head.

"I told Mary I would apply it."

"Oh." Helen felt herself flush at the very idea. "There is no need for that, my lord. I can do it myself."

He took in her pleading expression, appeared about to acquiesce, then shook his head with a sigh. "You might be able to do your front, but there is no way you can do your back. Turn around and I shall apply it there. You can do the rest," he bargained.

Helen hesitated. Then, realizing there was nothing else for it, she reluctantly turned her thinly clothed back to him. Knowing that his eyes were roaming down her barely covered skin, she was as stiff as stone as she waited for him to start.