Helen was settled in a chair before the fire in the great hall, mending a small tear in the gown she had worn for the journey to Holden. It was an old gown, faded and a bit tattered. The rend might even have been in it when she had first donned it, but smelling as she had at the time, she hadn't wished to risk ruining any of her newer gowns with the scent. Now, it was the only extra gown she had. Ducky had thrown only one dress in the bag she had brought below - as Templetun had ordered, Helen thought with irritation, but wasn't really very angry about it. She supposed the king's man had not thought she would be away from Tiernay long. No doubt he had expected Hethe to return to his warmongering and her to be returned home immediately. Such was not the case, however. She was Lady Holden now. That thought brought her husband to mind, and Helen glanced toward the stairs to the upper level. Hethe had fallen asleep not long after she had agreed to let the marriage stand. It was a deep sleep and he snored and snuffled in it, pausing to mutter sleepily every once in a while. He was really rather adorable, Helen had decided as she peered on his sweetly innocent face in repose. But she had tired of that sport after a while and had come below to do her mending and ponder her changed circumstances. She was still there, her mind racing, when the great hall doors opened and William walked wearily in.
Her husband's first moved toward the stairs to the upper floor, but paused when she called out to him.
He turned and moved in her direction.
"No luck?" she asked curiously when he stood before her.
"Nay. Is he awake?"
Helen shook her head. "Mary said that he should sleep for a little while yet."
William nodded, then glanced at the chair opposite her. After a hesitation, he moved to sink into it with a sigh.
"It must be upsetting for you."
"That Stephen has behaved so. I know Hethe is unhappy."
"Aye." William nodded and glanced toward the fire. Helen had asked one of the servants to build it up to fight off the chill in the air. The coming storm she had sensed this morning hadn't yet broken, but the air was heavy and damp. "We are all very close. Well, we used to be. I guess Stephen has changed these last five years, what with being left behind all the time.
" 'Tis odd..."
"Hmm?" William glanced pointedly at her when she hesitated.
Shrugging, slightly embarrassed, she hesitated, then said, "The day we arrived here, I mistook Stephen for Hethe when he first stepped out of the keep. Today I did the same with you when I saw you cross the bailey. True, it was from the bedchamber window, but you all have the same build. And, while Stephen does not, you even have Hethe's coloring. The three of you could almost be related."
"That's because we are."
Helen glanced up sharply, catching the alarmed look that crossed the knight's face. He hadn't meant to say that.
"I mean - "
"Nay," Helen interrupted, knowing he was going to try to equivocate. "Tell me."
William hesitated, then sighed. "We are half-brothers. We all have the same father, just different mothers. Stephen's mother was the village lightskirt; mine was the blacksmith's daughter."
"I see," Helen murmured. "And the three of you were raised here in the castle together?" It was a logical conclusion, she thought. After all, she knew that the three of them had studied chivalry here together.
"Oh, nay." He gave a slight laugh at the idea. "Though Stephen and I were brought into the classroom, then onto the training field, we both continued to live in the village. Our father only paraded us around to try to shame Hethe into being a better student. He did poorly at his lessons."
"Aye. He told me so," Helen admitted, then shook her head. "I never would have guessed that. He is intelligent and speaks well."
"Oh, aye. He is intelligent," William assured her quickly. "He always did well in languages and such, so long as it was done orally, but he had difficulty with actually writing. He formed his letters backwards sometimes and - " William shook his head, seemingly at a loss to explain. "One of his teachers claimed he had come across it before, that the best thing to do was to teach and test Hethe orally and forget about the written word. But our father simply tossed the man out on his ear." He grimaced. "To his way of thinking, Hethe just needed more beatings - to inspire him not to be so lazy."
Helen had heard as much from Hethe, and it had disturbed her. She liked it even less now. She didn't like to think of her husband as a child being abused. She decided a change of topic was in order. "It must have been hard on you and Stephen. Living in the village and yet being forced to come up to the castle for lessons."
"Aye, sometimes," William admitted. "But Hethe always made us feel welcome. He was glad for the company, though our teachers never let us forget where we belonged. And the children taunted Stephen horribly about his mother - about being a bastard. About putting on airs and taking lessons in the castle."
Helen frowned at the thought. Children could be so cruel.
"You maybe shouldn't let His Lordship know I told you this," William said suddenly, looking uncomfortable. "He might be angry."
About to speak, Helen caught a glimpse of the man in question making his way down the stairs. Eyes widening with alarm, she quickly stood. "Hethe!"
Head jerking around, William caught sight of his lord limping down toward them. William was out of his chair in a flash and hurrying after his master's wife as she rushed toward the staircase.
"What are you doing? You could fall and break your neck!" Helen cried, rushing up the stairs. She saw that he wasn't so much limping down as hopping on his uninjured foot.
"I am fine," her husband grumbled as William caught up and gently urged Helen out of the way. Despite his protest, the knight then drew Hethe's arm over his shoulder and helped him down the rest of the stairs. Helen followed, her hands caught anxiously in the folds of her skirt.
"Besides, I was bored up there by myself," Hethe went on as William helped him cross the floor to the chairs by the fireplace.
"You are supposed to be resting your leg," Helen reminded him grimly.
"And I am. I have not put any weight on it. I hopped to the stairs."
"And halfway down them. You might have hurt yourself."
Hethe rolled his eyes and glanced at his first. "See what you are missing by not being married, William?
We really have to find you a wife."
William merely chuckled as he settled his friend in the chair he himself had been occupying only a moment before. Helen promptly moved to seize the chest beside the chair in which she had been seated, and began to drag it around in front of Hethe, but William was there to finish the task for her.
"What is that for?" Hethe asked in surprise.
"To put your foot on. You should be keeping it elevated."
Hethe grumbled, but he allowed her to lift his injured appendage onto the chest. His gaze slid to William.
"Did you find Stephen?"
"Nay," his first admitted, shaking his head in apology. "I looked everywhere I could think. I asked around the village, I even sent men out in various directions to question farmers, but no one has seen him.
It is as if he rode out of the bailey and disappeared."
Hethe sighed, looking weary. "That does not bode well."
"Nay," William agreed reluctantly. "He should not be gone from the keep for so long."
"He could be injured, or..."
Hethe's voice trailed away unhappily, but Helen saw him glance up sharply when William added, "Or he fears you have discovered what he was up to."
"How would he know that?" Hethe asked.
"Well, Stephen was never stupid. Besides, there is Lady Helen here."
"Me?" Helen asked, eyes wide. "What about me?"
"Well, he must know you two would eventually talk, that things would come out."
"Aye," Hethe said thoughtfully.
Helen picked up the gown she had been mending and reclaimed her seat. She saw her husband's eyes fall on what she was doing, recognizing the fabric as that of the frayed, ugly dress she had worn at Tiernay on her last day as its sole master.
"Why are you bothering to mend that gown?" he asked irritably as she began to stitch. "Surely you have others?"
"Aye," she agreed calmly, knowing his testiness was merely due to concern about Stephen. "At Tiernay."
"At Tiernay? Do you mean to say that the dress you are wearing and that one are the only clothes you have here?" he asked with dismay.
Helen gave him a look. "Lord Templeton was in a bit of a hurry. He told Ducky to put one gown in a bag and bring it below, then he rushed me out."
"Damned idiot man," Hethe muttered, shifting impatiently in his chair. "Well, we shall have to rectify that.
We shall make a quick journey to Tiernay. It is probably for the best, anyway. Your aunt is most likely worried about you. I am sure she will be relieved to see you alive and well. No doubt she fears I have killed you by now," he added grumpily.
"No doubt," Helen murmured with amusement. "She is most likely preparing for the funeral as we speak."
His eyes shot to hers, his mouth opening for a retort. Then he caught the laughter dancing in her eyes and he slowly relaxed, a smile curving his lips. "Aye. We can attend it, perhaps. See how well done it is, then give her notes for future reference."
Helen laughed softly and bent her head to her sewing. Hethe was silent for a moment. She could feel him watching her; then he addressed William. "We will leave on the morrow. Aftermidday."
Helen glanced up in time to see the knight nod. "I will see to the arrangements. How many men do you wish to bring?"
Hethe pondered briefly, then shrugged. "Ten and yourself should do well enough. It is not a long journey."
Nodding, William started to move away, but before he could, Hethe added, "SendJohnson in. I will be leaving him as chatelain. I must instruct him on how I want him to behave with the people here. And on how to deal with Stephen if he returns while we are gone."
William acknowledged the order with a wave, then continued out the keep doors.
"Why not William?" Helen asked. When Hethe peered at her blankly, Helen explained. "Why are you not leaving William as your chatelain?"
Hethe looked puzzled for a moment, then shook his head and shrugged. "William is always with me. He is my first."
"Aye, but - "
"Besides, he does not have the patience to be a chatelain. He is already growing restless here, and after only a few days. This little trip might perk him up some."
Helen accepted his words silently, then said, "Do you not think we might do better to wait another day or two before going?"
"Wait?" Hethe frowned.
"Aye. It would give your ankle more of a chance to heal before the journey, and perhaps Stephen will return in that time."
He considered that briefly, then said, "But you only have two gowns."
"Hmmm. That is a problem," she agreed solemnly. "I suppose I shall just have to wear them as little as possible." Meeting his gaze, she gave him a shy smile, then winked.
Hethe's eyes widened incredulously. "Was that... Did you just - " He took in her blushing cheeks and paused. She had. His wife was flirting with him. Throwing sexual taunts his way. Damn, he thought with amazement. Maybe this marriage would work out. Perhaps the unfortunate beginning they had known would give way to a successful union. If she turned all of that passion and creativity she had used to torture him toward finding ways to please him... The very idea aroused him.
"I believe I am swelling again," he announced abruptly, almost smiling when her blush receded and concern at once spread on her face. He felt anticipation rise within him as she quickly set her sewing aside, got to her feet and moved to bend over his leg resting on the chest.
"Are you sure? Is it sore?" she asked, peering at his hurt leg. "I can get Mary and see if she - "
Her words died on a startled gasp as Hethe grabbed her by the hips and pulled her into his lap. "Mary can't help me. It was Wee Hethe I was speaking of."
"Wee Hethe?" She peered at him with confusion even as she struggled to get off of him, then suddenly stilled as he shifted beneath her, pressing the swollen appendage in question against her bottom. Her eyes rounded, her earlier blush returning in full force. "You mean... ?"
"Aye." Hethe wasn't surprised to hear the huskiness now in his voice. "Aye. Just thinking about you being naked for the next few days has me swelling to painful proportions. And I fear only you have the cure for that."
Much to Hethe's pleasure, his wife's voice was now as husky as his own, and there was a fire coming to life in her eyes that made his mouth dry with anticipation. She settled into his lap, then reached out a tentative hand to caress his cheek.
"Would a kiss help, do you think, my lord husband?"
"I do not know. Why do you not try and see?" Hethe murmured the words into the palm of her hand, delighted when she turned his face and leaned forward to kiss him. Despite her blushes and tentative touch, this was no demure kiss. While she was not yet skilled at pleasuring him with her mouth in other areas, as her sweetly clumsy attempts that morning had proved, his wife had definitely got the hang of kissing. She laved his mouth, then when he opened to her, let her tongue slide inside to find his.
Aye, she definitely had learned well there. Within moments, she had him panting and kissing her back with an excitement that Wee Hethe's amazing growth was proving. And he, himself, wasn't the only one affected. Helen was moaning and making sounds deep in her throat, her body shifting and rubbing against his in ways that were increasing his swelling tenfold.
Eager to see if she was as affected, Hethe slid a hand under his wife's skirts and quickly up her leg, ignoring her startled jerk. When she broke their kiss in protest and turned her head away, he merely let his lips trail over her cheek and ear as his fingers continued up her thigh.
"Husband, I do not think - Oh." She stiffened even further as he reached the apex of her thighs, the arm she had wrapped around his shoulders tightening convulsively. The hand she had used to try to stop him, grabbing at his through the material of her skirts, clenched over his, no longer trying to pull away as he found the warm wet depths of her.
Aye, the kisses had excited her as well. And his touch was doing even more. She turned her head back and caught his lips again, kissing him almost desperately. Satisfaction rose within him at the knowledge of how he affected her, but that was quickly nudged aside by an eagerness to do more. He wanted to be inside her and briefly considered shifting her to straddle him so that he could have her right there, but the great hall would not afford the privacy he needed for all the things he wanted to do.
They would have to adjourn upstairs. But even as he thought that, he slid a finger inside her, smiling against her mouth when she clenched her legs around his hand and arched into the action. She was making little strangled sounds of pleasure in her throat, and they were exciting him, he nearly spilled himself where he sat as she suddenly pulled her mouth away and bit desperately into his shoulder, shifting on his lap so that she could find and press one hand against his manhood through his clothes.
"Upstairs." Hethe gasped, feeling complete sympathy with her when she groaned in disappointment. He retrieved his hand from between her legs, knowing he should have stopped it sooner, should have made the suggestion they move when they had first kissed. But they would go there now. Urging her off his lap, he got to his feet, wincing as he forgot his injury and set his weight on it.
Helen, of course, did not miss the look. She became concerned at once, some of the passion leaving her face. "Maybe we should - "
"Upstairs," he said firmly, turning her in that direction. Still, she hesitated.
"Mayhap we should have William come help you up the stairs," she suggested anxiously, and Hethe felt his pride stung a bit at the suggestion that he needed assistance like an old man.
"I can manage," he said testily. She didn't look wholly convinced, but she didn't argue further. Instead, she took his arm with the intention of helping him, but Hethe shook off her hand and took her arm instead. He was a man, a warrior. He didn't need help. And to prove it, he made sure to support her arm rather than lean on it as he hopped quickly to the steps.
They managed the stairs and had reached the door to the master bedchamber when Hethe lost his balance. Helen shifted to try to save him, but ended up being trapped between his solid weight and the wooden planks of the door.
Hethe rested against her briefly, then gave a breathless laugh. "This is right where I wanted you.
Lifting his head, he peered down into her face and found himself touched by the concern in her eyes.
There had been points during these last many days when he had doubted that he would ever see such a tender feeling for him in her eyes.
Swooping down, he caught her lips with his own in a passionate kiss that revealed that his earlier intentions were still alive and well, despite their most unromantic hopping trip up here. He wished he could sweep Helen up in his arms and carry her to their bed, but he knew that was beyond his abilities at the moment. Straightening, he pulled her away with one hand, reaching past with the other to open the door at the same time. Helen started for the bed the moment he released her, but Hethe had different ideas. He hopped to the chair by the fire.
"What are you doing?"
Pausing before the chair, he leaned against it briefly to catch his breath, then turned to face her as he removed his tunic. "Come here."
His wife watched the garment hit the floor, confusion on her face, but came forward as he ordered.
Pausing before Hethe, she watched curiously as he undid the tie of his breeches. When he moved to push them down, she knelt to accomplish the task for him. The moment he was free of the material, he sank into the chair and gestured for her to move between his spread legs.
Smiling at her continued bewilderment, he quickly undid the ties of her gown, then pulled the loosened material down over her shoulders. A sigh of pleasure slid from his lips as the fabric dropped to hang around her waist, leaving her sweet, firm breast bared to his eyes.
"Should we not move to the bed, my lord?"
Hethe grinned. While the question sounded uncertain, her voice was again becoming strained with passion. Reaching out with both hands, he covered her breasts. They were warm and round in his hands, a pleasure to touch. Much to his gratification, she responded at once, her breath catching in her throat, and her nipples hardening under his palm even as she arched forward. She allowed him to fondle her briefly, then bent, seeking his lips with hers, her hands clasping his shoulders for balance as she showed him her excitement. She was aroused, but not as frantic as she had been in the great hall, and Hethe would settle for nothing less.
Releasing her breast, he clasped her by the waist and tugged her down to kneel on the chair, so that she was straddling him with his manhood pressed flat between them. Then he kissed her. He felt her hands slide up over his shoulders and smiled against her lips as her small fingers delved into his hair, brushing the nape of his neck, his skull, then along the back of his ears.
Tearing his lips away from hers, Hethe pressed kisses along her neck, then urged her up so that he could catch one rigid nipple in his mouth. She was moaning again, her hands clasping his head and holding him close as he laved her silky skin. Reaching between them, he began to fondle her as he had in the great hall, caressing the nub at the center of her excitement with his thumb, sliding a finger into her.
It was apparently too much for Helen for, pulling her breast free of his mouth, she sat abruptly on his lap, then shifted herself and reached between them until she found Wee Hethe. In the next moment she had impaled herself on him.
Hethe clenched his teeth and squeezed his eyes closed as her flesh closed hot and slick over him, her muscles tightening around him in a glorious embrace. A moment later, he grasped her hips and helped direct her as she rode him until they both found glorious satisfaction.