Light spilling across her face woke Helen up some time later. Blinking her eyes open sleepily, she peered toward the window. There Hethe stood, framed in the morning sunlight, wearing nothing but a pensive look. It was sexy, Helen thought with a self-conscious smile. They had drifted off to sleep after their little

"bath"; she supposed they must have needed the rest. She felt much better now, had replenished some of her energy from the night's lovemaking.

Sitting up silently, she slid from the bed, retrieved and donned her chemise, then crept up behind her husband. She wrapped her arms around his waist and peered past him at the world beyond the window.

The sun was high in the sky and shining brightly. It had to be near the nooning hour.

"Good morning," Hethe murmured, covering her hands with his own.

"Good morning," she answered, briefly pressing her cheek to his back. "It is a beautiful day, is it not?"

Hethe grunted in response, and Helen frowned. He seemed distracted and she wasn't quite ready to let go of the intimacy they had shared.

Helen smiled wryly at her fickle thoughts. At this time yesterday she could never have imagined feeling this way. But then, at that time, she had believed Hethe a cruel man and believed that the bedding would be unpleasant. She had learned a lot since. If what he had said was true, her husband was not the cruel bastard she had thought. And, as for his attentions being unpleasant, nothing could be further from the truth. She knew he had had shown extreme kindness and gentle patience with her last night. Which had resulted in great pleasure rather than the pain her aunt had warned her about. Helen was grateful for that treatment, so grateful she thought she just might like to give him some pleasure back.

With that thought, she let one hand slide daringly down over his stomach until she found his manhood. It was flaccid again, and Helen turned her face into his back, pressing her smiling lips against his warm, salty skin as she recalled her reaction to her first sight of the member. She knew now, of course, that while it may not be very impressive in its relaxed state, once awakened, it could grow to rather intimidating dimensions. Just as it was growing now beneath her touch.

Hethe leaned back and groaned as she caressed him, letting the window covering fall back into place.

Helen immediately slipped between him and the curtain, and she began to press kisses to his chest as she did. She wanted to do for him what he had done for her, but wasn't sure how to go about it. Deciding it couldn't hurt to try, she dropped to her knees before him and began to press kisses to his elongating shaft. For a moment she released her hold on it, though, and it popped up and hit her on the nose.

Advertisement..

Frowning, she grabbed the tip again to hold it steady while she nibbled along the side as if on an ear of corn. Hethe's shudder made her think she was doing it right, but after another moment, she noticed that the fleshy cob was shrinking.

Choked noises from above sounded suspiciously like muffled laughter. Pausing, she tipped her head up to peer at him, feeling foolish and useless when she realized that he was, indeed, laughing. She wasn't doing this right.

"Come here," Hethe murmured, obviously containing his amusement. Grabbing Helen's arm, he urged her to her feet before him and hugged her close. He pressed a kiss to the top of her head, then tipped her face up and kissed her lips. "Thankyou."

"For what?" she asked unhappily. "I did it wrong."

"Nay, you just need a little practice," he assured her quickly.

"Shall I try again?" She pulled back to peer up at him. "If you told me what I was doing wrong, I could - "

"Another time," he murmured, then again draw her nearer. "Believe it or not, I have other things I must do."

"Stephen?" she asked quietly.

"Aye."

She was silent for a moment, her fingers moving absently over his hip. "But no one came to wake us.

Does not that mean he is not returned?"

"Aye. But there are other things to tend to as well. I have apparently neglected Holden for too long. I needs must find out if there is anything else that has gone awry while I was... absent."

Releasing her, Hethe turned and walked around the bed to collect his tunic and breeches. Straightening with them in his hands, he caught her yawning and faintly smiled. Seeing his amusement, Helen was suddenly aware that she must look a mess - with her hair all over the place.

Hethe dropped his tunic on the bed and began to pull on his breeches. "You are still tired. You should sleep a bit longer."

"Nay. I am hungry," Helen announced as he finished with his breeches and picked up his tunic. "I will dress and follow you below."

Hethe grunted in answer, tugging on his tunic, then straightening it about himself. He glanced her way again. "I will send Mary up to you, first. Your rash is nearly gone, but another application of her ointment may be a good idea."

"Hmm." Helen nodded in agreement as he collected his sword belt and dirk and moved toward the door.

She slid out of the bed as soon as the door closed behind him and went in search of a fresh chemise from the sack she had brought from Tiernay. She would wait for Mary, but would not take the time to have any more salve applied to her. That would have to wait until later. She was going to have something to eat, no matter what he said. She was absolutely famished. Starved. She felt as if she had not eaten for days. This being married business was hard work. Well, maybe not work, exactly. Not like running a keep. Smiling to herself, she began to dress.

"When do you think we will be leaving?"

Hethe grimaced at his first's question as he lifted his mug to drink. William had assured him that Stephen had not yet returned, else he would have fetched him as ordered. Certainly there was no sign of his second's return. Hethe was finding the man's absence worrisome as it was and now, considering his first's question, he sighed. He knew William would not be pleased with the answer. Where Hethe had always accepted battle as a necessary evil, a handy excuse to avoid a castle full of sad memories, William truly reveled in war. He would likely not be pleased to learn that Hethe intended to remain at Holden, to become the administrative lord he should have been years before.

"I have heard there is still trouble on the border," William said. "We could go up there and see if anyone needs our assistance."

"That is just rumor," Hethe said quietly, then cleared his throat and added, "It has come to my attention that I have been neglecting my duties here at Holden. It is time I took care of things, including my new wife. Besides, there will be peace for a while now."

William frowned, but overall took the news better than Hethe expected, merely nodding unhappily.

Perhaps the man was mellowing...

"Actually, you should consider marriage, William. You are not growing any younger," Hethe began. He nearly burst out laughing at the horrified expression that twisted William's face in answer.

Helen shifted fretfully and walked to the window to pull its covering aside and peer out. She was fully dressed now and had been for some time. She had even brushed out her long hair and fixed it atop her head. As she waited, her gaze moved slowly over the sunny bailey below and the people in it. A moment later, she let the covering fall back into place and turned away to pace toward the bed. Her gaze moved distractedly over its rumpled linens.

Mary still hadn't arrived, and Helen was growing impatient worse, she was hungry . Spinning away from the bed, she returned to the window. She should just go below and find the girl. She could tell the woman there as well as here that she would rather eat before having any more salve applied - if she even needed it applied again.

Deciding she would give the woman another few moments, she again tugged the window's drapes aside, and leaned out to breathe in deeply of the fresh air. It was a beautiful day, but though the sun was shining brightly and there was only a slight breeze, she could smell rain in the air. A glance at the tree leaves in the courtyard below showed they were turning, preparing for a downpour. Aye, it would rain soon.

Helen was about to let the window covering slide back into place when a sight below made her pause.

A man was crossing the bailey, and for one brief moment she thought it was her husband, but then realized it was Sir William. The two men truly were very similar in shape and form, she thought vaguely.

As she watched, a shout made William pause and turn back to wait for someone. Which made Helen lean further out the window and peer down toward the keep doors to see whom it had been.

Hethe! He started across the bailey toward William. Helen's gaze slid from one warrior to the other before she decided they were not so similar after all. Hethe was taller, a little wider, and had a proud bearing his first could not match, though the two men did have the same long-legged stride.

The sound of the bedchamber door opening drew Helen's glance to see Mary slipping inside. The girl hurried to her side.

"I am sorry I took so long, my lady. I had to send a messenger down to the village to - "

" 'Tis all right." Helen waved away the apology and glanced back outside at her husband crossing the bailey below. "I have decided I do not wish to put any salve on again until later if I must. I - "

She had been watching Hethe, but a sudden movement off to his side caught her eye. Peering closer, she saw it was a small wagon cart. But there was something wrong with the cart. The horse hooked up to it appeared to have gone mad. He was wildly rearing and pawing the air.

"Actually, I do not think you need the salve again," Helen heard vaguely as the healer examined her arm.

"I think the one treatment may have been enough."

Helen hardly processed the words; her gaze was frozen on the scene outside. In the next moment, the vague alarm that had been forming in the back of her mind exploded into true fear. The cart horse slammed its hooves to the ground and charged forward as if all the demon's of hell were chasing it - headed directly for Hethe. Couldn't he hear it coming? Her stomach lurching, Helen grasped the edge of the window and leaned out to shout a warning.

"What is it?" Mary asked, squeezing up to the window beside her as Hethe turned to glance up at where they stood. The healer spotted the trouble at once and breathed the words, "Dear God."

Ignoring her, Helen waved frantically, trying to turn Hethe's attention to his immediate danger. At the last second he spun the way she was gesturing only a bare moment before the damn horse would have run right over him. He had just enough time to throw himself to the side in an effort to avoid the horse and wagon, and he did save himself from the worst of it, but he couldn't avoid injury entirely.

Helen heard herself scream as she saw him knocked to the side. Then she whirled away from the window and raced from the room. Mary was right behind as they flew down the stairs and charged across the hall to the doors leading to the bailey.

A large crowd had gathered by the time Helen and Mary got to Hethe. Several people were standing silently in a circle. The two women had to push their way through to reach him. Sir William was already kneeling at his master's side, pale-faced and almost appearing to hold his breath as he stared down at him.

Ignoring the mud, Helen dropped to her knees on one side of her husband, while Mary urged William out of the way on the other. Both women peered down at Hethe breathlessly. His chest was rising and falling steadily, but his eyes were closed. Leaning forward, Mary quickly examined him. There was a cut on his forehead and a bump forming around it.

"There is another lump at the back of his head." Mary announced, and Helen winced. One was no doubt from hitting the horse, the other from hitting the ground. She took a deep breath and waited as Mary hurriedly completed her examination.

"His right leg also appears to be swelling, but I don't think it is broken," the young healer reported.

"He must have twisted it while attempting to get out of the way," Helen murmured, squeezing Hethe's hand between her own anxiously.

"Is he... ?" William could not even finish the question.

"Nay. He will be fine," Mary said with calm confidence. It reassured Helen, and when she heard William release a pent-up breath she glanced up sympathetically at the man. She knew exactly how he felt. She had been holding her breath, too. How surprising that she had come to care for this man, she thought in an oddly detached way. This man who had been her enemy for so long.

"We should get him inside," Mary directed, and glanced around.

Had she thought about it, Helen would have expected several of Hethe's men to step forward, to take his arms and legs and tend to the matter. None of his soldiers were about, however, and none of the serfs and villeins making up the crowd around them appeared to want to offer their assistance. Her husband was not the most popular person at Holden... thanks to Stephen.

The situation didn't bother William, however. He merely bent and lifted Hethe into his arms with a grunt, then started back to the keep.

Scrambling to their feet, Helen and Mary hurried after him. Once they neared the main door, Helen rushed ahead to open one. Much to her relief, Mary jumped forward as well to tug open the other, and William did not even have to slow or turn sideways to carry Hethe's limp form into the keep.

"I shall just fetch my medicinals and follow you," Mary called out and disappeared.

Helen scampered ahead of William and hurried up the stairs to get the master bedchamber door open for him. The knight stumbled into the room behind her and went straight to the bed. He nearly collapsed there, dropping to his knees to set Hethe on the bed.

"Thankyou, William. Are you all right?" Helen asked.

Sucking air into his lungs, he nodded. He rose slowly, then moved aside as Mary burst into the room to join them.

Helen helped the healer as much as she could, assisting in undressing Hethe and helping to wash the blood away from his two head wounds. There didn't appear to be any other injuries needing binding. As far as she could tell, the injury to his lower leg was only a twisted ankle.

When they finished, she helped cover Hethe up and sat on the bed to hold his hand unhappily as Mary prepared a tincture for the pain for when he woke up.

If he woke up, Helen thought, then chastised herself for such gloomy thinking. She supposed that a day or so ago she would have hoped for just that, that Hethe would not wake up. It would have been extremely handy for a woman who didn't wish to be married to him. But Helen's feelings had changed somewhat. The man she was coming to know as Hethe of Holden, and the man she had known as the Hammer, were not the same man. The man who lay in the bed had withstood some rather mean efforts by her to avoid marriage, all with good cheer and little retribution. At least, she supposed, he hadn't done anything to her she didn't deserve.

Hethe, the Hammer of Holden, the man of those tales, the cruel bastard who ordered children's hands cut off and women's breasts removed, would never have withstood her pranks so well, she was sure. In fact, she had thought she was taking her life in her hands when first she had resolved herself to flouting his will. Yet, he had not hit her - or even threatened to - once.

Too, he was a sweet and gentle lover. Surely the man she had thought he was would not be like that.

There was definitely something wrong, and she was beginning to believe that Hethe's second had truly behaved without sanction. But when she thought of the young, red-haired man in question she had trouble accepting that, too.

A groan from the bed drew her gaze, and Helen leaned closer as her husband's eyes opened.

"My lord?" she murmured, eyeing him with concern as he winced and drew in a long, hissing breath.

"My head," he moaned.

Mary was immediately there, tincture in hand. Helen helped her pull Hethe into a seated position, then watched silently as the healer urged him to drink. Her husband grimaced at the taste but swallowed the potion dutifully, then glanced at Helen as Mary took the mug away.

"What happened?"

"Do you not recall?" she asked anxiously, worried about damage to his brain. He had been thrown some distance.

He peered at her blankly for a moment; then his confusion suddenly cleared. "The horse cart."

"Aye," Helen breathed her relief.

"What... Why?" he asked.

Helen shook her head. She hadn't seen what set the animal off. Perhaps Sir William had, though she doubted it. His attention had been on Hethe, or so it had seemed. She glanced questioningly toward the knight who stood patiently at the foot of the bed.

"I shall find out," William vowed when he saw her look. And with that, he strode purposefully from the room.

"I need you to move your foot."

Helen glanced at Mary at those words. The healer was now by Hethe's swollen leg. Hethe twitched his foot, wincing in pain as he did, and the young woman nodded in satisfaction.

"Good. It is not broken. I did not think so, but..." She shrugged. "I think you had best stay abed for the rest of the day, my lord. Both your head and leg need a chance to heal."

Hethe scowled. "I will not spend the day abed. I have things to do."

"Whatever you have to do can wait another day or so," Helen said firmly. When he started to protest, she added, "William shall take care of whatever cannot wait."

Hethe grunted in disgust. "That was what I thought when I left Stephen in charge. You know how that turned out."

Helen's determination dimmed briefly, but after a glance at his forehead she straightened grimly. "This is different. You are here this time. Simply unable to traipse about."

"I - " Hethe began, but Mary interrupted.

"I fear that the tincture I just gave you for the pain in your head will not allow you to do anything, my lord. You shall be sleeping like a babe quite soon."

Hethe did not look pleased. His gaze narrowed and alternated from one woman to the other as if suspecting they were in cahoots. "I suppose this was my wife's idea? She was trying to lure me back to bed earlier, and now she has convinced you to aid her in the endeavor."

Helen's jaw dropped at her husband's accusation; then she caught the sparkle in his eyes and realized the man was teasing. Wrinkling her nose, she shook her head when Mary glanced at her uncertainly. She retorted, "I fear you may have suffered brain damage, after all, my lord husband. Surely you are imagining things if you think that I would want a scraped-up and dented specimen such as yourself in my bed."

Hethe started to laugh, as she knew he would, then stopped abruptly, wincing in pain. "Oh, my head,"

he groaned, clasping his hands to either side of it.

"It serves you right," Helen snapped, but inside she felt a brief twinge of concern.

Giving a great sigh, Hethe lay back in the bed and glanced at Mary. "Did you send someone to fetch your mother back yet?"

Helen widened her eyes in surprise, looking at the healer for an answer.

"Lord Holden sought me out this morning and told me my mother was needed here," the girl explained.

"He said he never intended or ordered her to leave, that I was to have her move back." She grinned shyly. "She will take her rightful place again, and I won't have to go running to her with questions all the time."

"Oh, 'tis marvelous," Helen murmured.

"Aye," the young healer agreed. She spun back toward Hethe, telling him, "She was here this morning when you told me to request her return. She checks up on me from time to time because - " She paused, flustered as she realized what she was saying.

Helen patted the girl's shoulder sympathetically. "She came to make sure the Hammer of Holden wasn't stringing you up by your thumbs, or something else equally heinous... all for some minor offense," she murmured with a hint of amusement at her husband's expense. He was looking terribly disgruntled at his ogrish reputation. " 'Tis all right, we understand. So you were able to tell her the good news yourself."

"Aye." Mary beamed at them both. "She is down in the village collecting her things now. Otherwise, you would have had her to tend you instead of me."

"You did well," Hethe said reassuringly, obviously struggling to push aside his irritation. "Never think I am bringing your mother here because you are inept. You are very skilled, but - "

"But she is more so," Mary finished, without taking insult. "I am not offended. I am grateful to have her near and to be able to learn from her. And she is grateful as well, my lord."

"Aye... well..." He shifted about in the bed, looking as uncomfortable at the praise as he had at being thought an ogre. "I am just sorry that she was thrown out in the first place. I truly did not order it." He scowled. "I considered having all the old servants returned to the castle, but I don't have the first idea who they are. And then there is the problem of what to do with the young women who replaced them."

"No doubt most of the women have found new positions elsewhere," Helen answered. She knew that a couple had found work with her. Hethe's expression said he suspected that might be the case. Shrugging wryly, she glanced at Mary. "Perhaps, if you know of anyone, or your mother does, who hasn't yet found work, you might have them report to me during the next couple of days."

"I will be happy to, my lady," the girl assured her sincerely, then began to collect her medicinals together.

She was at the door before Helen recalled her hunger.

"Mary?" she asked. The girl paused and swung back questioningly. "Would you please have Cook send up something for me to eat? I have not yet even broken my fast."

"Certainly, my lady." And with that, the healer was gone.

"You needn't stay here with me," Hethe murmured as the door closed behind her.

Helen glanced down at the man to see that Mary's tincture was already taking hold. He was starting to look as if holding his eyes open was a struggle.

"Tired of me already, are you, my lord?" she teased lightly.

He forced his eyes open to peer at her and gave a grunt. "Not likely." His expression turned serious.

"Do you regret that our marriage is final, wife? Do you wish you had found a way out of it?"

Helen peered down at her hand. It rested in his. She, or he, she wasn't sure which of them had done it, but one of them had sought the comfort of the other's touch. It might have been her. Watching him being struck by a horse had scared her silly. She still felt shaky from it. She shouldn't, really; she hardly knew the man. Or did she? She had not known him long, but she had seen his response to many situations over the past several days. She bad watched him wage their silent war with humor and good spirits. Had watched him keep his temper in the face of some unfair attacks. She had witnessed his wit and charm.

And she had truly enjoyed his lovemaking.

"Helen?" he asked, but she was saved from answering by a tap at the door. Slipping her hand from his, she moved to answer it, stepping aside to allow two young maids to enter. She started to direct them to the chest by the fireplace, but Hethe overrode her, ordering the girls to place the food and wine on the chest beside the bed.

Following them reluctantly, Helen watched the serving women set out the food, noting with some interest that they were sending tentative smiles toward Hethe as they did. Helen suspected that the news was making the rounds. Mary would have passed on the fact that Hethe denied having ordered the harsh punishments and removal of all but the pretty serving girls. They would also have learned that he had asked that Mary's mother come back, that he was searching for Stephen to straighten out the matter.

She had not seen their response to Hethe before this, but Helen suspected from his pleased reaction that these were the first servants' smiles he had received in a long time. She waited until the maids had left to comment.

"They appear to be willing to give you the benefit of the doubt," she said as the door closed behind the departing pair. She settled onto the edge of the bed near the chest where the women had set the food and wine.

Hethe gave a crooked smile. "As ashamed as I am to admit it, I never really noticed their fear and resentment of me. Looking back, I realize they were hardly welcoming, but I was here so rarely - "

"Why?" Helen asked, eager to avoid her husband recalling his earlier question. She was not sure how she felt about this marriage. Though her feelings seemed mostly good now - she was definitely beginning to see Hethe as a human being - they were too new for her to wish to dwell on. Keeping on some other topic seemed a good idea.

Hethe was silent so long, she thought he would not answer. Glancing over curiously from pouring some wine, she saw uncertainty and unhappiness pass over his face. When she offered him the goblet she'd filled, he refused and closed his eyes. She had just decided that he had drifted off to sleep when he spoke.

"When I was younger," he began slowly, "I hated it here."

Helen raised her eyebrows at that confession. Holden was a large gloomy castle, true, but it needn't be.

It simply lacked the finer touches that could make a keep a home, tapestries and the like. It had been neglected, and felt like it. But surely it had not always been so? When his parents had lived?

"My mother died when I was still quite young, and my father was a hard man," he answered as if she had spoken aloud. "I was a great disappointment to him."

Helen started to argue that that couldn't be true, but he waved away her attempts to comfort him.

"It's true. In fact, he brought both William and Stephen into the schoolroom with me to shame me into trying harder. He thought the competition would do me good. That I would try harder to do better than

'two village brats,' as he called them. It did not turn out quite the way he had hoped." His mouth twisted wryly. "I was trying, you see. But no matter how hard I tried, I always seemed to have difficulty. William and Stephen, rather than become competition, covered for me. We became firm friends. Of course, I could never let my father know that, else he would have removed them. So we pretended to hate each other when he was around - which, thankgoodness, was not often. Then when it came to training for knighthood, he kept me here and had them train with me. They became two of his best soldiers."

"And your best friends," Helen murmured. He nodded. "As soon as I was old enough, I ran away to war, and they came with me."

"Your father must have been livid."

"Oh, aye." He gave a short laugh. "He did not give me all that training and education to have me slaughtered on the field for the king's greed," he quoted dryly and shook his head. "The first time I returned home, he arranged for my marriage to Nerissa. He wanted to see me wed, to get an heir from me before I was killed on the battlefield."

"But that was not the only reason?" Helen guessed from his tone.

"Nay. In truth, he wanted Nerissa's dower. She was still young - barely twelve, too young for marriage - but our land needed the coin. My father pushed for the wedding."

"And Nerissa's father?" Helen asked curiously.

Her husband gave a brief bitter laugh. "The man was eager for the title. They were a wealthy merchant family, but were common. They wanted to be one of us. Nobles."

"So the wedding went forward."

"Aye." Hethe sighed, and opened his eyes briefly, glancing around at the tapestries overhead. "I tried to convince them that we should wait at least a year or so to consummate the marriage, but they would have none of it." He was silent for several moments and she was sure he was remembering. She could see the anger and frustration. The regret. "Nerissa died nine months later in child birth. It lasted three days." He paused, and a haunted look crossed his features. "Sometimes I can still hear her screams."

He seemed to fret over that for a moment, then his gaze suddenly raised to hers with horror. "Dear God, I forgot all about that! I was so distracted - first, with trying to accomplish the task, then with the doing itself - that I did not think to take precautions."

"Precautions?" Helen asked, both confused and made anxious by his obvious upset.

"I should have withdrawn or..." Regret filled his face. "If you are with child because of my - "

"I am not Nerissa, my lord," Helen interrupted quickly, her heart warming at his worry. "I am not a child.

I will not die on the birthing bed," she assured him, though she really couldn't guarantee such a thing. Her own mother had not survived her second child. But Helen would not have him fearing such a circumstance.

Deciding their original topic was a safer one, she prodded him back to it. "So, after Nerissa's death you went back to avoiding Holden?"

"Aye. And neglected my castle and my people... and they have suffered for it."

Helen reached out to touch his hand tentatively. The guilt in his voice was agonizing to hear. She wanted to comfort him, but could not find the words. Besides, in her heart of hearts, perhaps she held him to blame. At least a bit. Being a lord, or a lady for that matter, came with a great deal of responsibility. The lives of every person on your estate were, in the end, in your hands. He had failed his subjects miserably by trusting the wrong person, and for that he was terribly in the wrong.

They were both silent for a moment; then Hethe shrugged impatiently. "Father died a couple years later.

His chatelain continued as mine, but he died just a few months before your father did. I replaced him with Stephen, whom I thought I could trust." His mouth tightened bitterly; then his gaze seemed to focus on her hand where it still lay on his. He twisted and clasped it firmly. "I was wrong. I won't allow it to happen again."

He seemed almost to be making a vow to her. Helen opened her mouth to speak, though she wasn't sure what she intended to say, but a tap at the door made her remain silent.

"Enter!" Hethe called, and the door opened.

It was William, and he wasn't alone. He held a small boy by the scruff of the neck and pushed him into the room ahead of himself. The child couldn't be more than five or six, she saw, and she was swept by a wave of both concern and curiosity.

Hethe frowned from the obviously terrified boy to his first. "What is this?"

"The culprit behind the charging horse," Sir William announced grimly. "It seems young Charles here likes to throw rocks. He hit the horse in the back flank, and the horse charged." The knight gave the boy a shake. "Tell him."

"Aye, milord. I am sorry, milord," the boy gasped, hardly able to breathe. "I didn't mean to hit that horse, milord. But my aim ain't so good."

Helen peered at the child and felt her heart squeeze tight. He was pale and shaking, his voice trembling as he spoke. She had a vague recollection of him standing among the circle of adults who had surrounded Hethe when she had reached him. She remembered his pale, shaken face from then, too. He surely hadn't caused all this trouble on purpose.

"Let him go, William," Hethe said after a long moment. Helen felt herself relax.

"But - "

"Let him go. I imagine he has learned his lesson. He will not be throwing any more rocks. Ever. Will you, lad?" Hethe asked heavily.

The boy's eyes widened at the threatening tone, and he shook his head quickly.

"See?" Hethe smiled slightly. "Let him go."

William hesitated, scowling at the boy, but then released him. Being a smart lad, the child promptly scrambled out the door and fled. Hethe's first watched him go with discontent. "You were too easy on him, Hethe. You always are. We might have lost you... and all because of one boy's stupidity."

"We didn't," Hethe pointed out gently.

"Nay." William's shoulders slowly relaxed.

"I planned to go search for Stephen. I guess I will not be able to do that, now. Will you tend to it?"

"Aye. Of course."

"Good. If you find him, bring him to me. If not..."

"I shall let you know, either way," William assured him and left the room.

The moment he was out the door, Helen turned a grateful smile on her husband and squeezed the hand still holding hers. "Thankyou, my lord."

He turned to her, obviously surprised to see the relief and pleasure on her face. "For what?"

"For not punishing that boy."

"I can hardly punish a boy for bad aim. He was just playing." His eyes narrowed. "Did you truly believe I could be so vile? Did you still believe that I was the one to order those punishments on my people?"

"Nay," Helen protested, then realized it was too quickly. She sighed as her face flushed with guilt. "At least... I was not sure."

He seemed to struggle internally for a moment, then asked, "Are you sure now?"

Helen considered seriously, then nodded her head. "Aye."

"Then you are content to stay married to me?"

Back to this?she thought. Helen paused to ponder her feelings. Married to Hethe, properly and forever - or at least until death parted them... She tried to imagine the future, but all her mind could do was draw up images of their relationship so far. His horrified face each time she had shoved a baby into his arms that day of the picnic. Aye, he had looked petrified and completely at a loss as to what to do with each child, but he had not shoved them back, or dropped them in irritation. And the day of the boatride. Water was an old childhood fear, but he had summoned the courage to face it - if only so that he would not show weakness before her. And then there were his kisses. Her body began to hum just at the memory of his caress.

"Helen?"

She glanced up with a start. It was the first time she could recall that he had used her name without including "Lady" before it. She liked it. And she liked the fire in his eyes as well. It sent shivers down her back.

"Do you wish the marriage to stand?"

"Aye," Helen breathed, knowing that her agreement now was more binding than the actual marriage vow had been. She just hoped she wasn't making a mistake.