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The Middle March, Scottish Borders—November 1528
Bessie Brunson took a deep breath and prepared to climb a flight of stairs for what seemed like the hundredth time since sunrise. It was not yet noon.
The steps that faced her now led to the top of the barmkin wall, where her brothers had taken the watch, all the better to keep them from under her feet while she made final preparations for the wedding celebration. But two grown men needed food, so she raised her skirt in one hand, balanced the bag of oat cakes in the other, and started up the stairs.
Thunder rumbled and she looked up at the November sky, startled. Grey, windswept, but..
Not thunder. Hooves.
She hurried the last few steps to reach the wall walk, then stood between her brothers and looked west over the valley that was theirs. 'Who comes?'
Black Rob shook his head. 'No one I want to see.'
She squinted against the wind, as the banner's green and gold became clear. The colours of Lord Thomas Carwell, Warden of the Scottish March.
I'll hold you responsible, if something happens. Bessie had told him that, right before Willie Storwick escaped. And the warden had never proven he wasn't.
Not to her satisfaction.
She turned to her brother John. 'We did not invite him to your wedding.'
'No,' Johnnie answered. 'But he was courteous enough to send a man ahead to announce his coming.'
'Only because he knew he'd be shot from his horse if he arrived without warning,' Rob said.
She sighed. Neither one of them had thought to tell her the guest list might swell. 'Will you let him in?'
On her left, Black Rob, now head of the family, fingered his crossbow. 'I'd rather shoot him.'
Johnnie, taller, with hair red as her own, shook his head. 'We've done enough to anger the King. Let's at least see what Carwell has to say.'
Rob scowled and she held her breath, waiting for them to quarrel anew, but finally, he nodded. 'But we tell him nothing.'
The horses slowed as they approached the gate. Car-well removed his steel bonnet, a gesture of peace, and pushed straight brown hair off his forehead as he looked up at the three Brunsons. 'We're here to celebrate a happy occasion.'
'Cease your blather, Carwell,' Rob growled. 'No one invited you.'
'An oversight. I'm sure you meant to include the King's representative.'
Beside her, Johnnie clenched a fist. He had come home a King's man, but stayed home a Brunson. Some day, they would all have to answer for that.
'Our hospitality does not extend to those who betray us,' Rob called down.
'An accusation I've denied.'
'But did not disprove,' John answered.
'And still you've ridden and fought by my side.'
'True,' Rob said. 'That doesn't mean we trust you.'
No one knew whose side Carwell was on, except for his own.
Carwell stretched out his left arm, palm up, smile unshaken. 'I swear by my baptised hand that I come in friendship.'
Now it was Johnnie who yelled, 'And will you leave the same way?'
Bessie sighed. She could feed twelve more if she cut the beef in smaller chunks, though she wasn't sure where the men would sleep. She leaned over the wall. 'Leave your weapons at the gate and cause no trouble and you're welcome to the feast.'
She turned to go back down the stairs, ignoring Rob's glare and Johnnie's raised eyebrows. 'The meat wasn't cooking itself while you three dunderheads traded insults. I'll not have Johnnie's wedding spoiled by the likes of him.'
Carwell had spoiled things aplenty already.
Carwell forced himself to smile while his men handed over pikes, swords and crossbows and entered the tower's courtyard.
Disarming was no risk. If a Brunson wanted to kill you, he would be sure you had a sword in your hand when he did.
And Thomas Carwell was a man who always calculated the risks. He might be unpopular, but he was alive. So he'd smile at these people and celebrate this wedding without pointing out that the marriage of John Brunson and Cate Gilnock had put him in a very, very difficult position.
Bessie Brunson stood in the courtyard, the stern set of her chin less than welcoming. 'Tell them to eat no more than their share.'
Rude words for soft lips, but he let her insult lie unanswered.
I'll hold you responsible, she had told him. Apparently, she blamed him still.
He blamed himself. For things she would never know.
The smile strained his cheek muscles. 'We'll not make ourselves gluttons.'
He had a moment's sympathy for her. His own castle had room aplenty these days. He could have housed legions of unexpected guests.
But the Brunson tower was built for strength alone. And Bessie Brunson, red-haired and small boned, looked as if she needed its protection.
The light brown eyes that studied him brimmed with suspicion. 'It was no oversight that you weren't invited.'
Despite her woman's delicacy, she was as blunt and stubborn as the rest of her kin. Good way to get yourself killed.
'But I wanted to celebrate with you,' he said. 'To congratulate John and Cate.'
That, and to deliver a message her family would not want to hear.
Her raised eyebrows and crooked frown suggested he had not fooled her. 'So do that,' she said, 'and naught else.'
He tipped his head in thanks, as if she had the right to dictate to him. She'd discover the truth soon enough.
As she glanced toward her brother, a smile finally touched her lips. 'They deserve a long and happy life together.'
'Aye,' he said. Something his marriage had been denied.
Despite, or because of, the extra guests, the celebration that began at midday went long into the night.
Ignoring the ache between her shoulders, Bessie looked over the crowded hall, satisfied. Drink still flowed, singing had begun and, with the addition of Carwell's men, they had tapped the last barrel of red wine her dead father had taken from the church for safe keeping after the priest fled to Glasgow.
They had cleared space for dancing and the bride and groom skipped down the row together. Though Cate was still more comfortable in breeches than the skirt she wore, she floated beside John, mirroring his movements. The men began singing the new ballad they had composed about her.
Braw Cate, they called her, Cate the Belde
Cate, laughing, tripped over her skirt and leaned against her smiling husband.
Bessie looked away.
The room was filled with men she had known her entire life—Odd Jock, Fingerless Joe, the Tait brothers—and not one among them could make her smile the way Cate smiled at Johnnie.
'A good day,' said Rob, next to her. It was not simply for his dark hair and eyes that her oldest brother was called Black Rob. Yet even he was smiling.
Her gaze drifted back to Thomas Carwell. A half-smile still stamped his face, slapped there like a permanent mask only meant to conceal what was beneath.
She knew something about concealed feelings.
'Here, Bessie!' Johnnie called. 'Take a turn with me.'
She shook her head. 'Brunsons sing, they don't dance.' Words her father had grumbled whenever her mother had tried to pull him to his feet.
Her brother laughed with the easy joy of a man just wed. 'This Brunson does. Here.' He reached out a hand. 'I'll show you how they dance at court.'
She waved him off, suddenly conscious of Carwell's eyes on her. That man, too, had the courtliness Johnnie had acquired living beside the King in distant castles in places she had never seen.
And she had no desire to look like a country fool in front of them. 'Dance with your bride, Johnnie.'
And then, before she knew it, Carwell was beside her, his hand on her waist. 'I'll show you.'
He did not wait for her protest, but swung her on to the floor, facing him.
'It's called the galliard and there are only five steps. Right, left, right, left, and then ' He jumped off one foot and landed squarely on two. 'Now you.'
She stared down at his feet and followed his lead. For just a moment, wearing her best dress, with her hair fresh washed, the ache slid off her shoulders. This must be how it felt to be a lady at court, light on your feet, dancing before the King
Her eyes met his—his damnable, changeable eyes. He had no doubt danced with ladies like that. Ladies who knew all the steps.
She stumbled and tripped over Carwell's feet.
Her forehead knocked his chin, her cheeks turned hot and she pulled away, feeling like the lout she was. 'I do not dance. Let me be.'
She left the floor to lean against the wall and he turned to the other wives and sisters, making each of them giggle and smile in turn as they stumbled through the steps. Had she looked that way when she was beside him?
She bit her lip and turned away. Silly women.
The last honey-flavoured oat cake disappeared into Odd Jock's maw and she pushed herself away from the wall, scooped up the empty platter and started down the stairs to fetch more. Let the other women enjoy the dance. She would fill the platters and mugs.
Carwell followed her out of the hall and down the stairs. He'd drunk enough to need a piss, no doubt.
'There's a garderobe in the corner,' she called, over her shoulder, pointing. 'No need to go outside.'
Opening the door a crack, she wished she, too, could stay within the tower's walls instead of braving the courtyard to reach the kitchen. A cold mist hung in the night air, threatening to dissolve into rain.
Carwell joined her by the door. 'Do you feel unwell?'
A strange question. She was as healthy as a Galloway nag, her mother had always said. 'Of course not.'
'Then perhaps you need some help.'
'Help?' How was it that a man, a stranger, noticed what her brothers did not?
She turned to face him, certain she must have misheard, but he was so close that she bumped against him. So close, she caught the scent of leather and the sea.
'Yes.' One word, too close to her ear. Close enough that she could have turned her head, touched her lips to his.
And then he was safely, smoothly, a step away, the awkward moment gone so quickly she thought she had imagined it.
An errant wind whistled through the open door and she tightened the plaid around her shoulders. Thomas Carwell, she was certain, never made an offer that wasn't calculated. She wondered what he meant by this one.
Well, let him spy on the kitchen if he liked. 'Come.' She pulled the shawl over her head and darted into the damp darkness without looking back to see if he followed.
It was only a dozen steps across the courtyard, but by the time they stood inside again, the fog had settled on her shoulders and clung to his brown hair. She studied him in the fire's light, hoping to see a hint of discomfort.
There was none.
His smile seemed as unmovable as a rock. His eyes, on the other hand, changed in every light. Were they brown or green or hazel?
Turning her back on him, Bessie shook off the question. The man's eyes could be as brown as a Brunson's and it would not change her opinion of him.
She had left the youngest Tait girl here, with instructions to watch the fire, but the poor girl had fallen asleep, snoring on the grain sack, leaving them a moment alone.
'You didn't really want to help me,' she began, facing him again, 'Just as you didn't really come to make merry at John and Cate's wedding. So before you upset the happiest occasion the Brunsons have enjoyed in months, why don't you tell me why you are here?'
Carwell kept a smile clamped on his lips. He was learning not to underestimate Bessie Brunson, but it was hard to keep that in mind when he looked at the woman. Red hair tumbled over her shoulders, her brown eyes sparked with suspicion and her lips were full and soft and ready.
He stopped his thoughts. 'Leave this night for celebration. I'll speak to your brothers tomorrow.'
'Tomorrow? When Rob's head is double its size because of the wine he's drunk this night and Johnnie is comfortably abed enjoying his new bride?'
He swallowed a sour retort. 'They'll be ready to listen when they hear why I've come. It's a matter for men's ears.'
She looked to Heaven before she met his eyes again. 'You've no women in your household.'
He blinked. He hadn't. Not for years. 'No. Not now.'
The memory cramped his heart. He would never take a woman for granted again. A twinge, a weary sigh—these could signal the threat of something worse.
He set the thought aside. That was not to be shared with anyone, least of all with this woman. Yet for a moment, he had imagined she would understand.
'If you had,' she said, 'you would know that we do not need to be protected from the truth.'
Looking at this woman, he doubted that her family had protected her from anything at all. 'Then you'll know it when they do. And it will be tomorrow.' The King had no more patience than that.
Despite his offer of help, she asked for nothing as she moved around the room, effortlessly scooping up oat cakes and putting another batch near the hearth. When she finished her sweep through the kitchen, she shook the girl awake and told her to watch that the fire did not burn the kitchen down.
Finally, she joined him at the door.
'You wanted to help.' She set down her cakes, filled two flagons with ale from the barrel, and shoved them at him, her eyes flashing with anger. 'Carry these.'
Silent, he followed her into the cold, proud that he had refrained from pouring her precious ale into the dirt. The woman was as stubborn as the rest of her kin. Maybe more so.
But as he watched the sway of her walk, he remembered the way she had leaned towards him in the dance, following his lead through the unfamiliar steps. For those few moments, there had been nothing but music and movement and the two of them.
Well, her hatred would be back in force tomorrow. Just as soon as she discovered he was here to take her brother hostage.