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Kissing the Bride
By Bennett, Sara
Avon BooksISBN: 0060584335
The weather had not been altogether bad. South beyond London, the Forest of Anderida had enclosed them like a green ocean, but Henry had arranged for a guide to lead them through its timbered vastness. Snow had fallen, but not heavily, and not enough to slow down his troop of men.
Henry, huddled in his thick, fur-lined cloak, had thought wistfully of Christina, her long, dark hair covering the smooth, pale skin of her back as last evening she'd poured him wine from a jug. Her movements had been graceful and languid, and as she had turned to him, she had smiled. Aye, she had made a tasty picture, dressed only in her ebony locks.
He did not love her, any more than she loved him. Theirs was a relationship of convenience, and love was not something that was part of the contract between them. For Henry, women like Christina were a necessity -- a necessary pleasure. If she was not the greatest conversationalist, and her intelligence was shrewd rather than deep, what did it matter, when she more than satisfied him in bed? And as for Christina, the daughter of an ambitious minor noble, she was more than happy with her comfortable rooms and fine clothes and jewels.
"I have to leave tomorrow," he had told her, sipping the wine.
She had blinked. "Go where, my lord?"
"To the Downs in the southwest, Christina. To Gunlinghorn."
Her eyes had widened. "Oh, my lord, I would not like to go outside London! There are savages in the countryside!"
Henry had grinned. "Then it is as well you are not going, Christina. You will stay here until I return."
She had been relieved, Henry thought now with wry humor. Christina had had no desire to share the perils of Henry's journey. She liked him, or at least she liked the luxuries he could afford to give her, but that was as far as it went. She was glad he was going alone.
Why were women so fickle? They couldn't wait to get into bed with him, but none of them sobbed more than a few false tears when it was time to part. Was it something to do with him? Did he not please them in some way? Henry knew that wasn't so -- his women were always well pleased. When their relationship had run its course, and they left, they nearly always took with them a mutual fondness. Nay, the problem lay elsewhere. And Henry had lately begun to understand that something was missing.
As clever and handsome as he was reported to be, Henry did not know.
In younger days he hadn't felt the need to dwell on such puzzling and incomprehensible matters. Then all he had wanted was a lusty woman in his bed. But now ... I must be getting old, he thought in disgust. Or maybe it was seeing Radulf and Lily, and Gunnar and Rose, and Ivo and Briar, all so happy, all content with exactly what they had, all so much in love ...
It was ridiculous, but it made Henry feel lonely.
In his heart, Henry held a dark fear. Love would mean sharing all his secrets with another person and trusting them to understand. It would mean giving more of himself than he was prepared, or perhaps able, to give.
Henry had been more or less orphaned at the age of five, and at thirteen he had been a man well and truly. He did not look to love as a reason to survive.
What does it matter if I haven't found a Lily or a Briar? he asked himself angrily. He had what other men envied. He was well favored in looks and fortune, he had the king's ear and any woman he wanted. It was no boast, but honest truth. Women never turned Lord Henry down.
He had no time for love; it was the least of his concerns. He admitted to himself that that was why he preferred the lighter intimacies of women like Christina; it was less trouble. It was safer.
Henry and his troop of men rode on, into the wintry forest, through the fertile Weald and onto the windswept Downs. Here the Gunlinghorn River was born in the chalk downs and grew wide and strong, leading them into the Vale of Gunlinghorn. Winter rains had turned ponds into small lakes, and the water meadows were full of life despite the weather. Henry watched a long-legged waterbird fly low across the gray surface, momentarily surrounded by a flock of smaller linnets. Gunlinghorn had always been plentiful in its harvests of both land and water. Before the Normans came, life here had been fortunate, bountiful, and under Lady Jenova little had changed. In that regard, Gunlinghorn was truly a small slice of Eden.
The castle stood upon a tall hill, overlooking the Vale. From the highest point of the keep, one could look out over the cliffs on the coast of England, to the very sea the Normans had sailed across to make their conquest.
The keep itself was constructed of timber cut from the woods surrounding the Vale of Gunlinghorn. The strong wooden ramparts encircling the keep were currently being remade in local stone, with the grim-looking gatehouse already completed. Jenova was ferocious when it came to protecting what belonged to her, and Henry had suggested stone the last time he'd been here. Now, seeing with his own eyes that she had taken his advice, he felt an unexpected rush of pleasure.
Gunlinghorn's heavy gates opened easily to his name. Henry led his men into the bailey, casting an eye over the busy castlefolk, and nodding in reply to the many cries of welcome. He was known here. Liked, too, he thought. It was almost like coming home. With an odd catch in his chest, Henry realized that Gunlinghorn was probably the nearest thing to a family and a home that he had ever had.Continues...
Excerpted from Kissing the Bride by Bennett, Sara Excerpted by permission.
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