De Gernons subsided on to his chair. He was scarlet in the face as he took from Renard the seal he had lost at Lincoln.

‘Call it a gift of good faith,’ Renard added drily. ‘Let it be a token of the esteem in which we hold each other.’ Inclining his head, he drew Elene to her feet and left the dais and the speechless Earl of Chester.



‘I … I’ve got a confession to make.’ ‘Oh? And what sort of penance should I exact from you in payment?’

The bracken stuffing rustled and Elene felt his weight shift on the lumpy mattress. His hand came lightly down upon her body, smoothing over her belly and cupping her breast. He had been angry earlier, but his mood had since lightened, so that now, in the bedchamber they had been allotted for their stay at Leicester, she knew even in the darkness that he was smiling.

‘I do not know,’ she said apprehensively. ‘Either you will beat me black and blue or you will never speak to me again.’

‘A serious sin then,’ he murmured, nibbling her throat, his fingers busy.

‘It is … Renard, please!’

He propped his head on his hand. ‘Tell me then.’

Elene swallowed. ‘I … this meeting between you and Earl Ranulf. It was not his idea.’

‘I know, love.’

‘You do?’

‘Of course.’ His voice held a note of smug contempt. ‘It was his wife’s. You don’t think he would have done it of his own accord, do you? It shows too balanced a reasoning, and I know that Matille’s desperate to foster the girls somewhere that they’ll be loved for themselves even while they’re being pawns.’

‘It wasn’t Matille’s idea. She only improvised on what she was given … It was mine. I wrote to her and John carried the letter. He was carrying it on the day that Woolcot burned to the ground.’

‘Yours?’ he repeated blankly, and remembered her begging him in a shepherd’s hut not to seek revenge — because revenge would have spoiled her hopes for a truce. Even in the midst of losing everything for which she had worked, she had held herself to discipline.

‘Renard …?’ She touched his face, but was unable to tell what expression it held, not without the benefit of rushlight.

There was a long silence in which she waited, scarcely daring to breathe. Renard’s own breath emerged suddenly on a deep sigh and was followed by a snort of reluctant laughter. ‘Thus am I served justly for my conceit. What did I say about balanced reasoning?’

‘Are you angry with me?’

‘Angry?’ He considered the word. The mattress moved again. ‘I’m trying very hard,’ he admitted. ‘For the sake of my pride, I’m trying, but I cannot quibble with the outcome. Still,’ he added severely, ‘erring wives must know their place … which is firmly beneath their husbands.’

Elene dutifully accepted her punishment.

Some time later, Renard sat up in the bed. He was uncomfortable, he had no real desire for sleep, and besides, he was starving. Feeling around for tinder and flint, he lit the night candle and began pulling on his clothes.

Elene watched him and swallowed. ‘I won’t do it again, I promise.’

‘Was the punishment so terrible to bear then?’

‘No, I mean go making bargains behind your back. I’ve been so frightened these past few weeks in case you never trusted me again, but I had to do it, for Hugh’s sake.’ Her expression hardened.

‘And saddle him with one of Chester’s brood for a wife,’ he retorted as he pulled on his shoes, and then, on a gentler note, ‘You were right, Nell, and Ranulf and I were wrong. It is easier for a woman to back down than a man. Perhaps we’ve both learned lessons from this.’

‘Where are you going?’

‘To find something to eat. I might have made an alliance with Ranulf but sitting at the same board as him still curdles my appetite, and now I’m starving.’ He picked up her shift. ‘Do you want to raid the kitchens with me?’

Smiling, she took the garment from his hand. Their fingers touched. ‘Perhaps there’ll be some pottage on the fire,’ she teased.

‘Perhaps there will,’ he said with a grin, and kissed her.

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