Lady Of The Knight
ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
Rosie had never seen such a lavish table setting. The squire lifted the cover from the platter with a flourish. The supper’s delicious aroma filled the air. “Tis a torture,” she moaned.
Sir Andrew chuckled. “Tis merely combing your hair.”
“Nay! That!” Rosie pointed to the steaming dishes on the tray.
He stopped his painful occupation with her locks, and placed his hands on her shoulders. “When did you last • eat, Rosie?” he whispered.
“Yesterday after we landed in France, but twas only some stale bread crusts.” She glanced at him over her shoulder. His hazel eyes returned her look with a heart-melting warmth. She forced herself to ignore the confusing feelings that stirred within her. “We had a dinner of tripe at a public house in Dover, but the journey over the water was too rough. I puked it all away afore we were even out of sight of land. God shield me, twas a hellish trip.”
Sir Andrew put down the comb and brush on a chest. “Then I shall not make you wait any longer.” He stood and held out his hand to her. “Come, Rosie, tis now or never.”
Rosie groaned. Now the perfidious rogue had finally decided to debauch her! Just when she could almost taste the princely banquet set before her. Her empty stomach roiled with fear. Sir Andrew would soon discover her deceit, and she would never taste a mouthful of that delicious-looking supper. She stared at his hand, then at his grinning face. She cast a farewell glance at the roast chicken.
“Where do ye want me to lie down, my lord?” she murmured.
Sir Andrew’s smile broadened, making him look even more handsome than before. “Tis not yet time for bed, Rosie, but for supper, if it would please you to join me.”
With a great sigh of relief, she jumped up so quickly, she knocked over her stool. Andrew restrained her before she could lunge for the food.
He tucked her hand firmly within his. “A lady does not charge the groaning board like a battering ram,” he admonished her.
Jeremy smirked, though he was wise enough not to look Rosie straight in the eye.
Anger mixed with her hunger. “Haint a lady! And I am perishing for want of food. Is it your cruel jest to make me grovel for your pleasure?”
Sir Andrew chuckled in the back of his throat, though he still held her tight within his grasp. “My pleasure is to escort you to the table.”
Rosie tugged at her pinioned arm and shot him a frustrated look. “I can get there well enough on my own. In sooth, I can get there a good deal faster than ye, my lord. Tis but two short steps away.” The aroma of the roasted fowl enveloped her. “Let me go, for sweet charity’s sake!”
Andrew checked her second lunge. “A lady is led in a docile and demure fashion with downcast looks.”
She blew a damp curl out of her eyes and glared at the pigheaded gentleman.“Told ye afore, haint a lady.”
He planted his feet on his red-and-blue patterned rug, and gripped her arms. She lifted her chin and glared at him.
The laugh lines around his eyes crinkled in a maddeningly delightful way. “Attend upon this most important point, my dear. If you desire to partake of the delectable victuals that my good squire has procured for our enjoyment, you will act like a lady. That is my pleasure. Tis what I paid good coin for. Now, what say you?”
Rosie suppressed her immediate inclination to tell him exactly what she thought of his delusions. Instead, she decided to humor his whims while the food was still warm. She drew herself up and tossed her wild hair over her shoulders. “Then lead me to yon table, my lord, if that’s what pleases ye. But, prithee, do it quicklike.”
Sir Andrew beamed at her as if she had just said something clever. “Your dulcet voice is a delight to my ears, even if your words are a bit rough around the edges. Let us repair to our feast—my lady.” He cocked his head and grinned at her.
Rosie almost corrected him again, but she closed her mouth at the last split second. This stubborn lord would only argue the matter further while the food congealed in its sauces. Andrew led her to a folding chair, then he stepped behind it and gestured for her to sit. Rosie eyed the sway-bottom leather seat and wondered if it would fold up with her inside of it.
She twisted her fingers behind her back. “I do not know what ye want me to do.” She eyed the tempting dishes arrayed before her.
He gave her another one of those melting smiles. “You thank me very prettily, and allow me to push the chair closer to the table.”
Rosie cleared her throat. “Thank ye kindly, my lord.” She didn’t move. Her mouth watered.
Behind her, Jeremy snickered.
Andrew leaned over the back of the chair and whispered, “Rosie, you are supposed to slide in front of it and sit down when you feel the seat touch the back of your knees.”
Rosie wiggled her nose as she regarded the flimsylooking thing. She didn’t trust Sir Andrew. This could be a daft prank. He would pull the chair out from under her and laugh when she landed on her bum. She didn’t trust him an inch. He grinned at her and waited. No one uttered a word. The lure of the tantalizing supper grew stronger. Rosie’s stomach growled out loud.
“Trust me,” his lips mouthed the words.
Flinging her usual caution to the wind, Rosie took a deep breath and did as he had instructed. To her surprised delight, he seated her exactly as he had said he would. Once she was in place, he went around to the other side of the table where Jeremy seated his master in similar fashion. Rosie reached out to wrench a plump leg off the golden chicken, but Sir Andrew clasped her hand in midair.
He clicked his tongue against the back of his teeth. “We say grace first and thank the good Lord for this bounty.”
Rosie snorted. “Why? He never did cook it.”
Jeremy gasped while Sir Andrew merely raised his brows at this bit of blasphemy. She curled her fingers into a fist to keep herself from attacking the chicken.
“Have you never prayed before a meal, Rosie?” her patron asked.
She decided to tell the truth. This peacock of a gentleman should learn something about poverty. “Twas more like a-praying for a meal, and the Lord did not see fit to listen much to me.”
Sir Andrew’s face lost some of its mirth. His eyes glistened. “Then we shall make our thanksgiving mercifully brief.” He folded his hands and bowed his head without waiting to see if Rosie did the same. “Lord God, we thank you for this food and for the good company who share it. Amen,” he murmured quickly.
“Amen,” Rosie breathed with relief. She reached for the chicken leg again, but Sir Andrew caught her hand once more. Rosie nearly swore at him, but bit her tongue instead.
“A lady is always served her food,” he instructed with a grin.
She wanted to scream the tent down. “Haint ever been a lady and haint ever been served!”
The frustrating lord nodded as if she had spoken a grain of pure wisdom. “Then Jeremy will serve only me and you can watch me eat.” With his free hand, he snapped his fingers. The squire lifted the roasted chicken out of Rosie’s reach, carved several large portions and heaped half of it on his master’s plate.
Her lower lip quivered. “Ye said I could eat if I sat like ye wanted me to and if I said grace,” she muttered. “Ye are no better than any other deceiving man even if ye do wear finer clothes.”
He caressed her hand. The action warmed her despite her anger. “If a lady desires to partake of a meal, she is served,” he repeated with the tenacity of a billy goat.
Rosie swallowed her last shred of pride. “So serve me then.”
Sir Andrew smiled, then leaned over his mound of food. His lips brushed against the back of her hand. Rosie inhaled sharply at the contact. Her pulse quickened. She felt she might swoon. With a gentle squeeze, he released her. She hid her hand in her lap. Her skin burned with the imprint of his lips. When she glanced at him, she was startled to see a smoldering intensity darken the hazel of his eyes. Then the raw look disappeared and his usual smile returned.
Rosie was only dimly aware that Jeremy had spoken to her. Having no idea what he had asked, she merely nodded. All the while she stared at her host as if she had never seen him before. What spell had he cast upon her with such a simple gesture that it made her forget her hunger—except for more of his touch?
Sir Andrew’s mouth twitched. “Eat your supper, my dear,” he suggested in a husky whisper.
The poor girl gasped when she looked down at her plate. Jeremy had piled it high with the other half of the roasted capon, a wedge of cold mutton pie, a large slice of soft white cheese over which he had spooned the honey-mustard sauce and a side dish of spiced peaches. Rosie lost the disturbing pallor in her face as she fell to eating with both hands. The capon’s lemon glaze ran down her bare arms to nearly her elbow before she stopped its journey with a quick lick of her dainty pink tongue.
Andrew opened his mouth to instruct her in the proper use of her untouched napkin and the pearl-handled fork that lay by her plate. Then he checked himself. Plainly, the child was starving. Etiquette lessons could wait. He cursed himself for teasing her. He should have realized that the whoremaster would not have wasted his own coin to feed his wenches when there were rich gentlemen like Andrew to do it for him.
He drained the smooth claret and beckoned his squire to refill his goblet. Had the evening turned intensely hot or was it the wild creature opposite him that made the air seem thick with tension and his clothing uncomfortably tight around his tender parts? He had no idea what had prompted him to kiss Rosie’s hand, nor did he understand why the experience now made him feel like a callow youth green-sick with his first love. Andrew was too jaded for such childish feelings. He had kissed a hundred ladies in his day and few of them had ever made his heart leap into his throat or his blood pound against his temples. Obviously his discomfort was due to the headiness of the French wine and the close perfumed air inside the pavilion.
Rosie looked up from her feast, her complexion now as rosy as her name. She licked her fingers clean of the honey-mustard sauce. “Is there something amiss with your food?”
Andrew merely shook his head. How could he tell her that her fresh-washed beauty had stolen his appetite for food? She fully expected him to rape her at any moment. His honest admission would only confirm her worst fears.
He dipped a sliver of capon into its sauce and ate it before answering. “Your presence has given me much food for thought, sweetheart. And, in truth, I ate overwell at dinner today.”
She cast him a shrewd look. “Methinks I spy disapproval all over your face, my lord. What have I done wrong now?”
He shifted in his chair while he strove to think of some acceptable answer. This chit was too clever by half if she could read his expression so well on such short acquaintance.
He cleared his throat. “A lady eats with small mouthfuls so that her cheeks are not puffed out like a squirrel at nutting time.” He sipped his wine and expanded on this safer theme. “Ladies do not pounce upon their food as if it would disappear before they could taste it, nor do they discourse with their mouths full.”
Rosie swallowed her spiced peach. Then she remarked in a low tone, “Ladies and their gentlemen know there will always be another dinner for them to enjoy. Poor folk do not. Tis the difference between yourself and me.” She picked up the capon’s wing. “And haint ever seen so much food in one place afore, so pardon my appetite.”
He inclined his head to her. “Your philosophy smacks of the Greco-Roman—eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.”
Rosie furrowed her delicate brows, then looked over her shoulder at the grinning squire. “Does Sir Andrew always speak with such a mickle mouthful of words like that?” she asked Jeremy.
The boy attempted to look solemn as he nodded.
Rosie returned her gaze to Andrew. Her green eyes sparkled in the candle’s light. “Methinks you are happier to dine on your speech than your food, my lord, so can I have your cheese?”
He stared at her for a moment, then he burst out laughing. “You will be ill if you eat too much rich food all at once.”
She twirled her fork. “Haint ever,” she remarked as she skewered the cheese on his plate.
Rosie could not remember ever eating to the point of bursting. When Jeremy offered her a selection of thin sugar wafers she waved him away, just as she had observed Sir Andrew do. She sat back in her chair and patted her full tummy with the satisfaction of an overly fed kitten. She closed her eyes with a sigh of contentment. Surely this was how the angels in heaven felt all the time.
Sir Andrew snapped his fingers. “Wake up. We have work to do.”
Rosie winced inwardly. Now was the moment of reckoning. She steeled herself for the coming battle. At least, he had fed her well. She would always be grateful for that. She opened her eyes slowly. “My lord?” She hoped her voice did not sound as nervous as she felt.
Sir Andrew produced a silver coin from his clothing and tossed to his squire. “Clear away these dishes and yourself, my boy. The lady and I have a need for some privacy.”
Jeremy caught the money with one hand. He winked at Rosie when he removed her silver plate. “He’s a kind man,” he told her in an undertone. “So do not disappoint him. Be generous with your favors.”
Rosie glared at the boy. “Ye mind your business and leave me to mind mine,” she whispered back.
Sir Andrew took a long drink of his wine, then wiped his mouth with his napkin. He smiled at her as he did so. Rosie’s heart tumbled over. She felt like a rabbit caught in a velvet trap. To hide her unease, she picked up her own untouched napkin, shook out its artful folding and followed Sir Andrew’s example. His smile broadened as he watched her.
“You are a quick study, my sweet,” he remarked. “Let us pray that you will continue to be so.”
Rosie chewed her fingernail. How was she going to play the part of a virgin when her vial of blood was now only a stain on the sole of his shoe? She stared at the claret in her goblet and wondered if she could trick him with that. Probably not. Sir Andrew struck her as a very clever man, even if he was somewhat addled in his wits.
She drank more of her wine. The bedding might not be too bad if she were a little bit woolly-headed. “Whatever ye say, my lord.”
Sir Andrew snapped his fingers again. “Be off, sluggard!” he told Jeremy. “And mark you, guard my plate well and see that you return no later than the midwatch and with most of your faculties intact.”
The boy hefted the large tray filled with the leavings of their meal onto his shoulder. “Aye, my lord, and a merry good evening to you. A very merry one indeed!” With another wink at Rosie, the squire disappeared through the tent flap. The pavilion suddenly seemed a great deal larger to Rosie.
“Where do ye want to do it, my lord?” she asked in a small voice.
Sir Andrew slammed the flat of his hand down on the tabletop. His goblet rattled. “Od’s bodkins, Rosie! You try a man’s soul to the very nub! Understand this—I am not going to take my carnal pleasure with you tonight or any other night.”
She sat up straighter. “Your pardon, my lord, but if ye are not in the mind to swive me, then what do ye want me for?”
Sir Andrew drew his chair closer, then he rested his elbows on the table. “Do not draw hasty conclusions as to my natural desires and appetites, my dear. I am as lusty as any man would be when in the company of such a beauty as yourself.”
She rubbed the side of her nose. The gentleman had obviously drunk more wine than she had thought if he now called her a beauty. Perhaps he had drunk so much that he couldn’t…perform. “Ye talk in riddles, my lord. I am not much good at riddling.”
He chuckled. “Then I will speak plain. I enjoy making love with a woman, but I prefer not to buy the lady’s favor.”
Rosie narrowed her eyes. “Then why did ye pay a bloody great fortune for me just to drown me and feed me?”
His smiled widened. “Because I need your help, Rosie. I have made a great wager with one of those young lions whom you met earlier. I have told them that I will turn you into a proper lady within twelve days and that you will be so perfect a gentlewoman that none shall be the wiser. What say you to that?”
All the breath went out of Rosie. She opened her mouth to tell him he was moonstruck, but no words squeaked forth. Instead, she hiccuped.
He reclined against his chair back and looked even more pleased with himself. “Aha! I perceive that you have grasped the full import of my words. Sip some wine slowly, sweetheart, and twill cleanse you of that bothersome annoyance.”
Rosie needed no urging. She wished she could dive into the bottom of her goblet and never come up again. Sir Andrew Ford, Esquire, was stark, staring mad.
He shook his head and clicked his tongue. “Slowly, my dear. Ladies do not gargle in their drink.”
“Haint any kind of a lady,” she mumbled between sips.
“But you can be,” he whispered. His silky voice held a challenge. “Will you help me, Rosie?”
Not trusting herself to look into his beguiling eyes, she replaced her goblet on the table with deliberate care. Her mind spun like a whirligig out of control. If she said nay, he would toss her back to Quince in a heartbeat, and he would probably demand his money back. Quince, in his turn, would beat her, then sell her again. She recalled the sea of leering faces and shuddered. The next lord who took her could be considerably worse than this affable lunatic.
Rosie toyed with a droplet of wine on the tabletop as she pursued her deliberations. Her protector would lose a fortune to those laughing striplings, not to mention losing the respect of that sneering squire of his, if she did not play the part he asked. Despite his odd behavior, Sir Andrew seemed a good man and he deserved better than what she could give him.
“Well, Rosie?” he murmured, his wonderful voice soft and low.
She ignored the strange fluttering in her stomach. He had offered her a business proposition, not his heart. She hunched forward and plopped her elbows on the table. Their faces were only inches apart. He smelled of wine, sweetmeats and an intriguing exotic scent that was his alone. He raised his dark brows with silent inquiry.
“And what do I get?” she asked with bold directness.
One brow rose even higher. His eyes widened with his surprise.
Rosie hurried on before he had time to grow angry. “Ye say ye need me to help ye reap a bloody great fortune. What do I get in return?”
Sir Andrew folded his hands and looked up to the sloping roof of his tent as if he prayed to the Almighty for advice. “What would you like?” he finally asked. “Ribbons? Laces? A new gown?” He tapped the plate of tempting marchpane between them. “More sweetmeats?”
She shrugged away his limpid offers. “I was given ribbons and sweets once before and it came to nothing. That reeky coxcomb tricked me even though he wore pretty clothes and smelled so clean.” She pushed Simon’s lying handsome face out of her memory.
Sir Andrew cocked his head. “How now? And what, pray tell, did this rascal trick you out of?” he purred.
“My—” Rosie stopped herself before she blurted out the fearful truth. Her presumed virginity was the only ploy she had. “Something that was mine to give and not his to take.”
“Ahhh!” Andrew nodded as if he understood exactly what she meant. “So if you do not require fripperies and sweets for your reward, what do you have in mind?”
She took a deep breath. “Profit. Ye pay me a part of your winnings so that I can be my own self and beholden to no man. Tis what I want.”
“Independence.” His expression changed and became more sober. “I perceive that you are a woman of business, Rosie. Therefore, allow me to make you this offer. I will put a penny into your account for every lesson of mine that you learn correctly.”
She licked her lips. “I be a fast learner, my lord.”
He gave her a look of faint amusement. “And I will take away one penny for every mistake you make. Are we agreed?”
She felt as if he had dropped an icicle down her back. “Fie upon it, my lord! I cannot help making mistakes. Haint ever seen a lady close up.”
His full lips quirked with humor. “Very well, I will grant you three errors. After that, one penny gone.” He whistled to illustrate her new fortune flying out of his tent. “Now, are we agreed?”
Rosie crossed her arms over her breasts. “Hold, Sir Andrew. How will I know if I have a penny or not? I see no pennies on the table. I will not be cozened with your flowery speeches.”
He tapped the side of his nose with his forefinger. “A good point.”
He pushed back his chair and rose. He padded across the rug to another one of his chests, opened it and rummaged through a great quantity of clothing. Rosie craned her neck to see what he was looking for. He had more clothes in that one box than her whole family had ever possessed. At last, he withdrew a slate and a thick piece of chalk. He kicked the lid shut, then returned to the table.
ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî