The crush of rushes under the sole of a boot had her pricking her ears. Clarise dragged her eyelids upward. The warlord stood an arm's span away, his gray-green gaze on the pendant that lay between her naked breasts.
Clarise gasped with surprise and promptly sucked milk down her lungs. She succumbed to a fit of coughing. With the flagon in one hand and the baby in the other, she stared helplessly up at the warlord, her eyes stinging.
“Will you be all right?” he asked as she wheezed for breath.
She swallowed hard. Nay, she would not be all right. She would be flayed for a fraud and a liar. He would see straight through her flimsy disguise to the ugly truth that brought her here.
He stood so close that the candle's flame was doubly reflected in his eyes. His eyes saw everything. Clarise’s blood ran cold as she waited for judgment to come crashing down.
“He seems content,” he said, focusing again on the locket.
The words flowed over her, diluting her terror. God have mercy, had she actually deceived him? One knot at a time, her muscles relaxed.
Was he looking at the pendant to avoid looking at her breasts? She glanced down to see how suspect the hollow ball appeared.
"'Tis unusual for a servant to wear jewelry," he said, causing her heart to pound. "Is it gold?"
"Oh, nay," she replied, hastily covering the locket with the fabric of her gown. "My mother gave it to me. ‘Tis naught but bronze."
"Your mother?" he repeated. "And who was she?"
Did his narrowed gaze betray suspicion? "Jeannie Crucis," Clarise supplied. "She was a peasant."
"Why is it you speak like a noblewoman?" he demanded. She struggled to subdue her galloping heart. "My ancestors were Saxon nobles," she told him, grasping at straws. "When the Normans seized our home, our family served them, learning their language."
"You practiced speaking like a lady?"
There was genuine skepticism in his voice this time. "I'm a freed serf," she insisted. But she knew that he did not believe her tale. She would stick to it as long as she had to, and then she would be gone. If she lived that long, the man before her would be dead.
"From whence do you hail?" he asked, giving her no time to think.
"From Glenmyre," she answered, wishing he would cease his interrogation.
Glenmyre. The name rolling off the woman's tongue sent Christian's spirits plummeting. He turned away as shards of darkness wormed their way beneath his skin.
He resumed his place by the window, letting the night air take the edge off his self-incrimination. Genrose, his saintly wife, had died for his ambitions. Nineteen peasant women wept for the loss of their husbands. Glenmyre's fields would go to seed without hands to farm it. He was a plague to them all. A Slayer who butchered the lambs.
Behind him, Clare Crucis shifted. Simon emitted a wail, one that was immediately muffled. The baby's grunt of pleasure was followed by little sucking noises, sounds that tempted Christian to thank God out loud. Here, at last, was something good. He had been certain God would take his son from him. He’d expected it.
But an angel interceded on Simon’s behalf. Hope pulsed anew in his breast--not for himself, but for Simon’s future, Simon’s soul. Unless, there was more to this angel than met the eye.
"Did your husband die defending Glenmyre from my attack?" he inquired. Silence exploded in the tiny chamber, and he feared he had his answer. The woman had a motive for vengeance.
"He...he died in a skirmish," she finally answered. Christian searched his mind. There had been several skirmishes at Glenmyre, but no loss of life until just recently. "He must have been in Ferguson's slaughter, then," he surmised, realizing the full extent of the woman’s suffering. Here was a widow of one of the slain peasants. "I am sorry I wasn't there to prevent it," he added awkwardly. "I was called away for the birth of my son."
Clarise gnawed the inside of her lip. She'd told Sir Roger that her husband was not one of those unfortunate peasants. Should she correct the warrior’s assumption? Now that she considered it, it made sense to say her husband had been killed in Ferguson's attack, for then it followed to reason that she would turn to the Slayer--her overlord--for protection and sustenance.
Christian waited for the woman to answer him. Perhaps she was too bereaved to speak. He pictured her bowed over his baby, overwhelmed by her recent loss. Guilt cut deeply into him. "The Scot has no respect for human life," he growled. The words offered only hollow comfort. It was his fault the peasants were slain, but there was nothing he could do to bring her husband back.
The silence in the chamber grew oppressive. He longed to hear her honeyed voice again. Seldom did he come across a soul willing to converse with him. "Why did you journey south?" he prompted. "Why did you come to Helmesly?" It was a two-days’ walk from Glenmyre, perhaps farther. The road offered untold perils.
"I could stay no longer." He was relieved to hear resignation in her tone and not weeping. "'Twas logical that come to Helmesly, as you are now the ruler of Glenmyre. I came to...to serve you as I can."
To Christian’s dismay, he considered instantly how she might serve him best-—with her luscious mouth and her milky white breasts. He tamped down the wicked thoughts with self- disgust. His own wife was scarcely dead a week. And the wetnurse, poor woman, had recently lost a husband and a babe.
Ignorant of the warrior’s aberrant thoughts, Clarise struggled to keep her eyes open. She sensed that the Slayer had finished questioning her. Miraculously, she'd survived the initial round. With wildflowers sweetening the evening air and the rhythmic tugging at her breast, she was lulled into a false sense of security. Any moment now, she might fall asleep.
Through the bloom of light at her feet, the giant’s rasping voice reached her again. "I am sorry for the death of your lord, Monteign."
She could not quite credit the apology. Surely she’d misheard him.
“I’d heard rumors of an alliance between Monteign and Ferguson. I only meant to question him about the matter.”
“An alliance?” Reality jarred Clarise to wakefulness. Her heart lurched against her breastbone.
“’Twas a marriage, between Monteign’s only son and Ferguson’s stepdaughter.”
Her stomach slowly twisted. Her scalp tingled. He couldn’t have guessed who she was already!