Kingsholm, Gloucester, England
September 1051 CE
On the evening of their arrival, Edric attended the prayer Mass at Vespers. He stood near the back of the chapel. Cynwise’s melodic singing drifted up over the other women in the hymn of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Even her angelic voice gave his heart no peace of mind. He thought only of Avicia.
How dare she be so happy in her marriage? He claimed contentment but little more. Cynwise’s demonstration of loyalty and her gentleness with their children aside, nothing else recommended her. She did her duty by the Church’s laws, not because she loved him. Surely, the knight loved Avicia and, worse, she loved him.
His mouth crimped in annoyance at lascivious thoughts of them together. Her husband must take immense pleasure in her body at night, his fingers kneading her breasts with her thighs pressed against him. Edric bridled at the images in his mind.
His hands were tight fists at his side when he stalked from the chapel after prayers. He waited outside for his wife in the fresh evening air.
In due course, she came. “Husband, I did not see when you left, you moved so quickly. Lady Edith told me the King devises a royal hunt in the morn. One of his relations, his sister’s husband Count Eustace of Boulogne, shall leave in three days. The King honors him tomorrow with a feast.”
“I wonder why he rode to Gloucester with the King at all, if he leaves so soon,” Edric grumbled. “I am hungry. Let us dine in the hall.”
Congregants streamed out of the chapel, headed for the hall. Cynwise scanned the crowd for Harold’s wife.
Avicia appeared, her arms interlocked with the black-haired man at her side and a woman on her right. She walked directly toward him and halted at his side. She and her female companion curtsied.
“Lord Edric, it pleases me to see you again.”
He blinked with surprise at her flawless Latin. When they had first met at Flanders, she spoke only the Flemish language.
Now, she regarded him without a hint of emotion. By contrast, his heart raced at the sight of her. The same pert nose and mouth he remembered. Her golden brows flared while he studied her. An uneasy silence stretched between them.
Cynwise rested her hand on his forearm and curtsied.
Recalling his wife beside him, Edric whispered. “This is my wife Cynwise of Elham. Wife, this is the Lady Avicia.”
Avicia said, “I present my husband, Sieur Philippe de Montfort and the wife of our overlord, Lady Alice.”
Edric bowed before them, as each acknowledged him with a slight nod. He straightened. “Lady Avicia, you surprise me, in many ways. Your fortunes have improved vastly since we last met.”
She arched her eyebrows at his statement. Though she seemed ready for a reply, Cynwise interjected, “How do you know my husband, Lady Avicia?”
Blood roared in his ears. Edric waited for the answer.
Avicia regarded his wife, who favored her with a pretty smile. “We met in Flanders three years ago, Lady Cynwise, when the retinue of Godwin of Wessex negotiated his son’s marriage to Lady Judith of Flanders. Milord Edric taught me some English words. Your country is very beautiful.”
“I have heard much the same of Flanders,” Cynwise said.
“I hold fond memories of it, but my home, my heart is in Normandy,” Avicia replied.
Edric sneered inwardly. How dare she come in all her glory, parading her happy marriage?
He interrupted whatever his wife’s reply might have been. “Indeed, Lady Avicia, much has changed since we last saw each other. Both of us married. You to a French knight. When last we saw each other, you held no lands or monies, and had no marital prospects. You were a mere attendant in the Flemish court. How you must relish your improved fortunes.”
Avicia gaped in stunned silence, while her friend gulped. Wide-eyed, Cynwise’s cheeks reddened.
“A lowly attendant?” A feminine voice intruded. “I am not surprised, for you do not possess the refinement of a true lady.”
Edric looked toward the interloper. A black-haired, green-eyed beauty stood nearby. She tittered behind her hands. The brawny man beside her tugged her arm. “Come along, Mabel.”
Avicia’s husband pulled her close. “A pleasure.”
He led her from Edric’s side. Her friend glared at him, before she followed.
Cynwise cleared her throat. “You embarrassed her, my lord. Why does she inspire such cruelty?”
Lady Edith’s arrival halted his reply. “Forgive me, for I tarried too long with the Queen. She shall let me see Wulfnoth and Haakon after Tierce tomorrow. You may both come with me. I am sure Wulfnoth would be pleased upon seeing Lord Edric again. Oh, the hall must be very full. Shall we go in?”
“I have no appetite,” Edric said.
Cynwise eyed him with an unwavering gaze. “You said you were hungry.”
“Not anymore.” He walked off into the dim evening alone.
Avicia sat beside Philippe on a long bench at the narrow trestle table. For the first time in which they dined together, she noted the coarseness of his table manners. He selected the thickest slices of venison for himself and piled thin scraps before her. He licked his grease-covered fingers. When he poured generous cups of wine for himself from the earthenware pitcher, much of it spilled on the white tablecloth. She sneered at his crude behavior and turned from him.
Across the hall and to her right, Mabel sat with two other women. Avicia could not remember their names, but knew they were also the wives of William’s closest advisors. Mabel met her gaze and laughed openly. The other women bowed their heads and smothered their sniggers. Mabel challenged Avicia with an unrepentant stare. Her green eyes narrowed with disdain before she sniffed haughtily and whispered with one of the women, who laughed.
Avicia’s stomach soured. Why had Edric embarrassed her? She had never experienced ashamed of her service to Matilda of Flanders, but when he belittled it before her nemesis, she felt lower than dirt. No doubt, Mabel had shared the insult among her friends. Most of them already presumed they were her betters, because her husband possessed no land. Now, they likely thought of her as a servant who aspired for higher status.
Mortified at her humiliation, she barely stomached the food. The butter tasted rancid, or perhaps the onset of her pregnancy made her think so because Philippe spooned copious amounts on his bread. The leathery meat and its taste, or lack thereof, disgusted her. She had never liked lampreys and refused them now, steeped in wine and covered in cold sage.
Her husband’s silence about the insult Edric had delivered hurt her. Philippe betrayed her trust and reliance on him. He devoured a leg of roasted pheasant with obvious relish. Not for the first time, she wished he might choke. He experienced no shame in his lack of action. How dare he act indifferent while she suffered?
“You do not eat.” Philippe discarded his bones.
She rolled her eyes heavenward. “How observant of you, husband.”
He raised one of his black eyebrows in a quizzical slant. “Why take such a tone with me? You became ill-tempered after you saw the Englishman….”
“Ill-tempered?” she sputtered. “Ill-tempered!”
Alice and others glanced at her, but she ignored their curious expressions. She stared at Philippe, with her lips pressed tight together.
“Avicia, I beg you do not scowl at me so. Lower your voice at the table.” His visage hardened. “Do not be angry with me, if your reunion with the Englishman went badly. Why did you seek him out? He has the arrogance of his kinsmen the Godwinsons. If he was rude to you, why should you care for his opinion? You shall never see him again, after we leave England.”
Although he acknowledged her suffering, he simply did not care about it.
He continued, “His actions do not matter. When we were in London, you said it meant so little to see the man again. Eat some food for the sake of our child.”
She forced a smile. “You only care about your heir. You did naught while Lord Edric shamed me before Mabel de Belleme.”
He chuckled and sought her hand. “She cannot harm you either.”
She tugged her fingers from beneath his grasp and stood. “How can you be so blind to my misery? I must leave. I shall return shortly.”
“You cannot wander alone in this strange place.”
“Please, leave me be!” She stifled a sob and darted from the hall. High-pitched laughter chased her.
Edric pressed his head against a timber post. He had behaved stupidly. Avicia’s happiness rankled on two accounts. Her marital pleasure surely outmatched his. She had given her heart in full to her man, while his wife did not love him.
He and Avicia had known each other only for a short time. Still, it seemed a betrayal that she loved another. She had forgotten him.
His heart ached with nostalgia. She had found someone else who made her happy. Her disloyalty hurt. For years, he had kept memories of her afresh and alive in his mind and heart.
Still, she had not deserved a measure of his pain, but like a fool, he had belittled her, reminded her of her humble origins. He gained little for his trouble, except more cause for regret.
He sank down on the dank earth and tugged his grandfather’s wolf skin pelt around him. Across the yard, a hound nosed for a few scraps in a heap. He emitted a baleful whine when he found nothing, before he loped off. Edric drew his knees up, rested his elbows on them, and slumped into silent misery.
Avicia stumbled into the courtyard and headed for a dense copse of thick leaves. Her eyes watered with every step. She wiped the tears aside as soon as they fell, intent on the solitude the thicket offered.
“Avicia?” In her path sat the source of her embarrassment.
When Edric rose, she stepped back. He advanced and she put her palms up, warding him off. His fingers closed on her wrists.
“Get away from me! By your own recent observation, I am a lowly retainer, worth no one’s notice.”
“Stop this. I did not mean to hurt you.”
She wriggled from his grasp, desperate for an escape. “Let me go, or I shall scream.”
“You behavior draws unnecessary attention. The King’s guards look at us.”
Two huscarls, who warmed themselves by a fire, nudged each other with shrewd leers. One winked at her and gave a raspy chuckle before he whispered to his companion, who also laughed.
“Come with me,” Edric urged.
She bridled. “Leave me be! How dare you?”
His hand clamped on her wrist. He dragged her toward a timber structure. Behind them, the sounds of laughter echoed.
He pried open the door and pushed her inside. Birds squawked in loud protest at the intrusion. They stood in the King’s mews.
“I am the wife of a knight, not some peasant you can abuse. Let me out, my lord, or I shall scream this place down!”
He barred the door and stepped closer.
Her stomach fluttered and she licked her dry lips.
She wiped her clammy hands in her skirts before she balled them into fists. Her senses grew attuned to the sound of his even breath, the smell of horses and grass that lingered on him. Masculine power emanated in his square shoulders and powerful legs.
“I acted without foresight. I regret my earlier behavior, my lady.”
“You regret it? You regret it! You embarrassed me before my friend, my husband, and a woman whom I despise. Yet you can counter my feelings with simple regret.”
“Shall I fall on my knees and beg forgiveness? I shall if you want!”
As if giving proof of his words, he did so. His body hit the earthen floor with a heavy thud. She held his rapt gaze in silence. The King’s birds quieted.
“Why did you do it?” Her eyes watered again.
“It was unforgivable. I was angry. I did not expect that you might marry, might love another.”
“Should I have brooded forever in your absence?”
He smiled but it seemed insincere, forced. “Was it too much to hope?”
She turned her back on him. “You are an English lord’s son. I lived by the whim of my uncle. Your status and mine dictated our fates.”
“My father is dead. I am the lord of his lands now. Your fate changed for the better, too. You left Lille and your cruel uncle behind.”
“Philippe rescued me.”
Stillness descended in the room again. Stifling warmth grew and swelled in the enclosure. Edric’s boots scraped the earth behind her. She whirled and faced him. He stood with arms rigid.
Perspiration glided down her back underneath her garments. She backed off, but he reached for her and held her firm.
“Do you love the Frenchman?”
“I married him.”
He jerked her toward him. “That is no answer. Do you love him?”
His breath warmed her cheeks. His mouth drew her gaze for a moment before her eyes flitted back to his. “I love him! I carry his child. Did you believe I would never find love again, content with shallow memories of you? There is a great divide, which separates us forever. Hope forsook me when you told me you belonged to another. Philippe found me. He desired and loved me. I chose to love him, too.”
Edric released her so fast, she stumbled a moment. He turned from her, his shoulders hunched. Waves of misery cloaked him. Her heart wrung with pity at the sight.
“Cynwise is no true wife,” he muttered. “She does not love me. I married her because Godwin wished it. She tolerates me at best.”
Avicia blinked back tears. His voice seemed so wooden, remote. With trepidation, she put a hand on his shoulder. Muscles bunched beneath her touch.
“I am sorry for you, my lord.”
He spun around, his face a dark mask. “Do you think I want your compassion? Am I some object of your pity, scorned and ridiculed for my loveless marriage? Do you congratulate yourself for the happiness of your union with the Frenchman?”
“Please, I meant no such thing! I would never pity you, or think myself above you. You have confused me and made me say things I do not mean.”
Edric captured her face in his hands, forced her gaze upward.
Her eyes traced the contours of his mouth. She remembered the pleasure of his lips on hers. Her heart fluttered in tiny ripples.
He loomed closer. “Did you forget me, Avicia?”
She tugged at her lips with her teeth. He inhaled sharply, desire warming his gaze.
“Please release me. I am a married woman, my lord.”
“What did you feel when you first saw me? Why did you stare openly? Did you remember our days together? Have you missed me as much as I have missed you?”
“I love my husband. Edric, do not do this….”
His lips hovered dangerously close to hers. “You forgot to say ‘please’.”
She drew breath in one space. In the next, the feathery light touch of his kiss trailed across her mouth. So softly, her mind scarcely acknowledged it. She leaned toward him, seeking proof of the phantom caress. With a low, urgent chuckle, his mouth pressed against hers in full. She responded with keen insistence. Their lips and breath melded together. Her hands swept up his arms to his face. She held it firm between her fingers.
The distance and time between them faded. His kiss outmatched the hesitant, exploratory embrace of their past. He grew bold and brutal, possessive. She moaned when his hands slid down her waist, cupped her buttocks beneath the coarse wool and lifted her against him. He hardened beneath the layers of cloth, and pressed against her firm, rounded belly where the child grew inside her. Philippe’s child.
She broke the kiss. “This is madness!”
Rushing for the door, she escaped into the evening air.
Alice whirled toward her in the middle of the courtyard. “Avicia! I have been looking everywhere for you! Philippe was worried and I….”
Her voice faltered when Edric emerged from the mews. Stiff-backed, he bypassed them in lengthy strides. Alice gaped at him before her gaze returned to Avicia.
They fell into step together. Near the hall door, Alice halted. Cold speculation frosted her gaze. “I shall not speak of what I have just seen.”
“You saw nothing….”
“Do not contradict me! I know what I saw. I love Philippe, Avicia. He is dearer to me than my own brother is. I shall never let anyone deceive him, not even you.”
“I love him, Alice! I would never betray him with Edric.”
Alice frowned, her lips drawn tight. “I do not believe you. I do not know why you and he were alone together. You are my friend, but if Philippe ever suspects your fidelity to him, I shall not defend you.”
“Naught happened, Alice!”
“I wish you spoke the truth. Yet, your lips are too full and moist, those of a woman who has just been kissed, passionately so.”
Alice continued toward the hall. Avicia fell into place behind her. She touched her swollen lips and shivered.