When the fearsome knight called Hugh the Relentless swept into Lingwood Manor like a storm, everyone cowered–except Lady Alice. Sharp-tongued and unrepentant, the flame haired beauty believed Sir Hugh was not someone to dread but the answer to her dreams. She knew he had come for the dazzling green crystal, knew he would be displeased to find that it was no longer in her possession. Yet Alice had a proposition for the dark and forbidding knight: In return for a dowry that would free Alice and her brother from their uncle's grasp, she would lend her powers of detection to his warrior's skills and together they would recover his treasured stone. But even as Hugh accepted her terms, he added a condition of his own: Lady Alice must agree to a temporary betrothal–one that would soon draw her deep into Hugh's great stone fortress, and into a battle that could threaten their lives...and their only chance at love.
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||4.30(w) x 6.90(h) x 0.79(d)|
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Alice prided herself on being well schooled in logic and possessed of intelligence. She was a lady who had never put much credence in legends. But, then, she had never needed the assistance of one until quite recently.
Tonight she was very willing to believe in a legend, and as it happened, there was one seated at the head table in the hall of Lingwood Manor.
The dark knight known as Hugh the Relentless dined on leek pottage and pork sausage just as though he were an ordinary man. Alice supposed that even a legend had to eat.
She drew courage from that practical thought as she descended the tower stairs. She was dressed in her best gown for the momentous occasion. It was fashioned of dark green velvet and trimmed with silk ribbon. Her hair was bound in a fine net of gold threads that had belonged to her mother and secured with a delicate circlet of gold-colored metal. She wore a pair of soft green leather slippers on her feet.
Alice knew that she was as ready as she would ever be to greet a legend.
Nevertheless, the scene that she encountered at the bottom of the staircase gave her pause.
Hugh the Relentless might well dine in the manner of an ordinary man, but there the resemblance ceased. A small shiver that was part dread and part anticipation went through Alice. All legends were dangerous and Sir Hugh was no exception.
She paused on the last step, the skirts of her gown clutched in her hands, and gazed uneasily into the crowded hall. A sensation of unreality seized her. For a disquieting moment she wondered if she had stumbled into a sorcerer's workroom.
Although it was filled with people, an ominous stillness shrouded the chamber. The air was heavy, as though weighted with awful portent and somber warning. No one, not even a servant, moved.
The troubadour's harp had fallen silent. The dogs huddled together under the long tables, ignoring the bones that had been tossed down to them. The knights and men-at-arms who occupied the benches sat as though hewn from stone.
The flames on the central hearth lapped futilely at the shadows that seemed to seethe and roil in the chamber.
It was as if a spell had been cast over the once familiar hall, rendering it strange and unnatural. She ought not to have been surprised, Alice though. Hugh the Relentless was reputed to be infinitely more fearsome than any magician.
This was the man, after all, who carried a sword said to be inscribed with the words Bringer of Storms.
Alice looked down the length of the hall, straight into Hugh's shadowed features, and knew three things with great certainty. The first was that the most dangerous tempests were those that raged inside this man, not those attributed to his blade. The second was that the bleak winds howling deep within him were contained and controlled by the force of an unyielding will and a steely determination.
The third thing she learned in a single glance was that Hugh knew how to use his legendary reputation to his own advantage. Ostensibly a guest, he nevertheless dominated the hall and everyone within it.
"You are Lady Alice?" Hugh spoke from the heart of the oppressive shadows. His voice sounded as though it came from the bottom of a very deep pool inside a very dark cave.
The rumors that had preceded him had not exaggerated. The dark knight was dressed entirely in unadorned, unembroidered, unrelenting black. Tunic, sword belt, bootsall were the color of a starless midnight.
"I am Alice, my lord." She deliberately sank into a very low, very deep curtsy on the assumption that good manners never hurt one's cause. When she raised her head she found Hugh watching her as though he were quite fascinated. "You sent for me, sir?"
"Aye, lady, I did. Pray, come closer so that we may speak." It was not a request. "I understand you have something in your possession that belongs to me."
This was the moment for which Alice had been waiting. She rose slowly from the graceful obeisance. She started forward between the rows of long dining tables, trying to recall everything she had learned about Hugh during the past three days.
Her information was scanty at best and based primarily on gossip and legend. She did not possess nearly enough knowledge to satisfy her. She wished she knew more because so much depended upon how she dealt with this mysterious man during the next few minutes.
But time had run out for her. She would have to make do with the bits and pieces of information she had managed to glean from the whispers that had swirled through the village and her uncle's hall.
The soft rustle of her skirts on the floor rushes and the crackle of the fire were the only sounds in the great chamber. An air of terror and excitement hung over the scene.
Alice glanced briefly at her uncle, Sir Ralf, who sat next to his dangerous guest. There was a sheen of sweat on Ralf's bald head. His plump figure, garbed in a pumpkin-colored tunic that had the unfortunate effect of emphasizing his gourd-shaped frame, was all but lost in the shadows that seemed to emanate from Hugh. One of Ralf's pudgy, beringed hands was clamped around a tankard of ale but he did not drink from the vessel.
Alice knew that for all his loud, blustering ways, tonight Ralf was anxious to the point of raw fear. Her burly cousins, Gervase and William, were equally alarmed. They sat stiffly at one of the lower tables, their eyes on Alice. She could feel their desperation and understood what inspired it. Facing them sat Hugh's grim-faced, battle-hardened men. The hilts of their swords gleamed in the firelight.
It was up to Alice to placate Hugh. Whether or not blood flowed tonight was in her hands.
All knew why Hugh the Relentless had come to Lingwood Hall. Only the occupants were aware that what he sought was not here. It was his probable reaction to that unhappy news that had everyone trembling at the knees.
It had been decided that it would be up to Alice to explain the situation to Hugh. For the past three days, ever since word had come that the grim knight was to be expected, Ralf had complained loudly to one and all that the impending disaster was entirely Alice's fault.
Ralf had insisted that she must bear the burden of attempting to convince Hugh that he should not wreak vengeance on the manor. Alice knew that her uncle was furious with her. She also knew that he was very frightened. He had good reason.
Lingwood Manor had a small, motley contingent of household knights and men-at-arms but they were farmers at heart, not warriors. They lacked experience and proper training. It was no secret that the manor could not possibly withstand an assault by the legendary Hugh the Relentless. He and his men would turn the entire place into a most unpleasant mincemeat pie in less time than it took to snap one's fingers.
No one thought it strange that Ralf expected his niece to assume the responsibility of soothing Hugh. Indeed, most would have thought it unusual if he had not done so. Everyone on the manor knew that Alice was not easily intimidated by anyone, not even by a legend.
At three and twenty years of age she was a woman with a mind of her own and she rarely hesitated to let others know it. Alice was well aware that her uncle grumbled about her decisive ways. She knew full well that he called her shrew behind her back, although not when he wanted one of her potions to ease his painful joints.
Alice considered herself resolute but she was no fool. She was aware of the dangers of the moment. But she also knew that a golden opportunity had arrived tonight along with Hugh. She must seize it or else she and her brother would be trapped forever here at Lingwood Manor.
She came to a halt in front of the head table and looked at the man who brooded in the hall's best carved oak chair. It was said that Hugh the Relentless was not the most comely of men in the best of light, but tonight the combination of flame and shadow rendered his features as forbidding as those of the devil himself.
His hair was darker than black chalcedony and brushed back from a peak above his forehead. His eyes, a strange shade of golden amber, were brilliant with a remorseless intelligence. It was plain to see how he had won the appellation of Relentless. Alice knew at once that this man would stop at nothing to obtain what he wanted.
A chill went through her but her resolve did not waver.
"I was disappointed that you chose not to join us for the meal, Lady Alice," Hugh said slowly. "I am told that you supervised its preparation."
"Aye, my lord." She gave him her most winning smile. One of the small facts she had managed to discover about Hugh was that he valued well-prepared, finely seasoned dishes. She was confident that the food had been above reproach. "I trust you enjoyed it?"
"An interesting question." Hugh contemplated the matter for a moment as though it were a problem in philosophy or logic. "I found no fault with the flavor or with the variety of the dishes. I confess I have eaten my fill."
Alice's smile dimmed. His measured words and obvious lack of appreciation annoyed her. She had spent hours in the kitchens today overseeing the banquet preparations.
"I am pleased to hear that you could find no obvious fault with the dishes, my lord," she said. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her uncle wince at her tart tone.
"Nay, there was nothing wrong with the meal," Hugh conceded. "But I must admit that one always wonders about the possibility of poison when one learns that the person who oversaw the preparation of the food elects not to eat it herself."
"Poison." Alice was outraged.
"The very thought adds spice to a meal, does it not?"
Ralf flinched as though Hugh had just drawn his sword. A collective gasp of horror came from the nearby servants. The men-at-arms stirred uneasily on the benches. Some of the knights rested their hands on the hilts of their swords. Gervase and William looked as though they were about to be ill.
"Nay, my lord," Ralf babbled quickly, "I assure you, there is absolutely no cause to suspect my niece of having poisoned you. I swear, sir, on my honor, she would not do such a thing."
"As I am still sitting here, none the worse for having dined well, I am inclined to agree with you," Hugh said. "But you cannot blame me for being wary under the circumstances."
"And just what circumstances would those be, my lord?" Alice demanded.
She saw Ralf squeeze his eyes closed in despair as her tone went from tart to downright rude. It was not her fault that the conversation was not beginning on an auspicious note. Hugh the Relentless had injected the antagonistic element, not she.
Poison, indeed. As if she would even think of doing such a thing.
She would have considered using one of her mother's more noxious recipes only as a last resort and then only if her sources had informed her that Hugh was a stupid, cruel, brutish sort who lacked intelligence. And even under those conditions, she thought, growing more irate by the moment, she would not have set out to kill him.
She would merely have used some harmless concoction that would have rendered him and his men so sleepy or so nauseated that they would have been unable to murder the household in cold blood.
Hugh studied Alice. And then, as though he had read her thoughts, his hard mouth curved faintly at one corner. The smile contained no hint of warmth, merely an icy amusement.
"Do you blame me for being cautious, lady? I have recently learned that you are a student of the ancient texts. 'Tis well known that the ancients were very adept with poisons. In addition, I hear that your own mother was an expert with strange and unusual herbs."
"How dare you, sir?" Alice was furious now. All thought of handling this man with care and circumspection had flown out the window. "I am a scholar, not a poisoner. I study matters of natural philosophy, not the dark arts. My mother was, indeed, an expert herbalist and a great healer. But she would never have used her skills to hurt anyone."
"I am, of course, relieved to learn that."
"I have no interest in murdering people, either," Alice continued rashly. "Not even rude, ungrateful guests, such as you, my lord.
"Ralf's ale mug jerked in his hand. "Alice, for the love of God, be silent."
Alice ignored him. She narrowed her eyes at Hugh. "Be assured that I have never killed anyone in my life, sir. And that, moreover, is a claim that you, I'll wager, cannot make for yourself."
The dreadful stillness that overlaid the crowd was broken by choked-off exclamations of horror from several of the listeners. Ralf moaned and dropped his head into his hands. Gervase and William looked stupefied.
Hugh was the only one in the hall who appeared unperturbed. He gazed at Alice with a thoughtful expression. "I fear you are correct, lady," he said very softly. "I cannot make such a claim."
The shocking simplicity of the admission had the same effect on Alice as running straight into a brick wall. She came to an abrupt halt.
She blinked and recovered her balance. "Aye, well, there you are, then."
Hugh's amber eyes lit with brilliant curiosity. "Where, precisely, are we, madam?"
Ralf valiantly attempted to stop the downward spiral of the conversation. He raised his head, wiped his forehead on the sleeve of his tunic, and looked at Hugh with a pleading expression. "Sir, I pray you will understand that my foolish niece meant no offense."
Hugh's expression was doubtful. "Nay?"
"Of course not," Ralf sputtered. "There is no call to be suspicious of her merely because she did not choose to dine with us. In truth, Alice never dines here in the main hall with the rest of the household.
"Strange," Hugh murmured.
Alice tapped the toe of her slipper. "We are wasting time, my lords."
Hugh glanced at Ralf.
"She claims that she, uh, prefers the solitude of her own chambers," Ralf explained hurriedly.
"And why is that?" Hugh returned his attention to Alice.
Ralf grunted. "She says she finds the level of the, uh, intellectual discourse, as she terms it, here in this hall too low for her taste."
"I see," Hugh said.
Ralf shot Alice a belligerent glare as he warmed to an old and familiar complaint. "Apparently the mealtime conversation of honest, stout-hearted men-at-arms is not sufficiently elevated to suit my lady's high standards."
Hugh's brows rose. "What is this? Lady Alice does not care to hear the details of a man's morning practice at the quintain or learn of his success in the hunt?"
Ralf sighed. "Nay, my lord, I regret to say that she shows no interest in such matters. My niece is a perfect example of the foolishness of educating females, if you ask me. Makes them headstrong. Causes them to believe that they should wear the braies. Worst of all, it breeds ingratitude and disrespect for the poor, hapless men who are charged with their protection and whose sad lot it is to have to feed and shelter them."
Goaded, Alice gave Ralf a fulminating glance. "That is nonsense, Uncle. You know perfectly well that I have been suitably grateful for the protection that you have extended to me and my brother. Where would we be without you?"
Ralf flushed. "Now, see here, Alice, that is quite enough out of you."
"I'll tell you where Benedict and I would be if it had not been for your generous protection. We would be sitting in our own hall, dining at our own table."
"Blood of the Saints, Alice. Have you gone mad?" Ralf stared at her in mounting horror. "This is no time to bring up that matter."
"Very well." She smiled grimly. "Let us change the topic. Would you prefer to discuss how you managed to spend what little of my inheritance I managed to preserve after you gave my father's manor to your son?"
"Damnation, woman, you are not exactly inexpensive in your habits." Ralf's anxiety about Hugh's presence gave way briefly before the long list of grievances he felt toward Alice. "That last book you insisted I purchase for you cost more than a good hound."
"It was a very important lapidary written by Bishop Marbode of Rennes," Alice retorted. "Indeed, it sets out all the properties of gems and stones and it was a wonderful bargain."
"Is that so?" Ralf snarled. "Well, let me tell you how that money could have been better spent."
"Enough." Hugh reached for his wine cup with one large, well-shaped hand.
The movement was a small one, but coming as it did from the depths of the vast pool of stillness that enveloped Hugh, it startled Alice. She took an involuntary step back.
Ralf quickly swallowed whatever further accusations he had intended to make against her.
Alice flushed, annoyed and embarrassed by the stupid argument. As if there were not more important matters at hand, she thought. Her fiery temper was the bane of her existence.
She wondered briefly and with some envy how Hugh had achieved such great mastery over his own temper. For there was no doubt he kept it in an iron grip. It was one of the things that made him so dangerous.
Hugh's eyes reflected the flames on the hearth as he contemplated her. "Let us dispense with what is obviously a long-standing family quarrel. I do not have the time or the patience to settle it. Do you know why I have come here tonight, Lady Alice?"
"Aye, my lord." Alice decided there was no point in dancing around the subject. "You seek the green stone."
"I have been on the trail of that damned crystal for more than a sennight, lady. In Clydemere I learned that it had been purchased by a young knight from Lingwood Hall."
"As a matter of fact, it was, my lord," Alice said briskly. She was as eager to get down to business as he.
"That is correct. My cousin Gervase discovered it for sale by a peddler at the Summer Fair in Clydemere." Alice saw Gervase start visibly at the mention of his name. "He knew I would find the stone extremely interesting and he very kindly procured it for me."
"Did he tell you that the peddler was later found with his throat slit?" Hugh asked very casually.
Alice's mouth went dry. "Nay, he did not, my lord. Obviously Gervase was not aware of the tragedy."
"So it would seem." Hugh glanced at Gervase with predatory interest.
Gervase's mouth opened and closed twice before he managed to find his tongue. "I swear I did not realize that the crystal was dangerous, sir. It was not very expensive and I thought it would amuse Alice. She is very fond of unusual stones and such."
"There is nothing particularly amusing about the green crystal." Hugh leaned forward just far enough to alter the pattern of light and shadows on his harsh features. His face became more demonic. "In truth, the longer I chase it, the less amused I am by it."
Alice frowned as a thought occurred to her. "Are you quite certain that the death of the peddler was linked to the crystal, my lord?"
Hugh looked at her as if she had just asked if the sun would likely rise on the morrow. "Do you doubt my word?"
"Nay, of course not." Alice stifled a small, inward groan. Men were so ridiculously touchy about their powers of logic. "'Tis merely that I do not see any connection between the green stone and the murder of a peddler."
"Is that so?"
"Aye. The green stone is not particularly attractive or valuable so far as I could discern. Indeed, it is rather ugly as crystals go."
"Your expert opinion, is, of course, appreciated."
Alice paid no attention to the sarcasm in his words. Her mind was leaping forward, pursuing the logic of the interesting problem. "I will concede that a vicious robber might have killed to obtain the stone if he was under the mistaken impression that it had value. But in truth, it was quite cheap, else Gervase would never have bought it. And why would anyone murder the poor peddler after he had already sold the crystal? It makes no sense."
"Murder is eminently logical in such a situation if one is attempting to cover a trail," Hugh said, far too gently. "I promise you that men have killed and been killed for far less reason."
"Aye, mayhap." Alice braced her elbow on her hand and tapped her fingertip against her jaw. "By the eyes of the Saints, I vow that men are certainly extremely keen on doing a great deal of stupid, unnecessary violence."
"It does happen," Hugh conceded.
"Nevertheless, unless you have some objective evidence that indicates a clear connection between the murder of the peddler and the green crystal, sir, I do not see how you can conclude with any certainty that there is a link." She nodded once, satisfied with her own reasoning. "The peddler might very well have been killed for some other, unrelated reason."
Hugh said nothing. He regarded her with a chilling curiosity, as if she were some strange, heretofore unknown creature that had materialized in front of him. For the first time, he appeared somewhat bemused, as though he did not know quite what to make of her.
Ralf groaned in obvious misery. "Alice, in the name of the Rood, pray do not argue with Sir Hugh. This is no time to practice your skills in rhetoric and debate."
Alice took umbrage at the grossly unfair accusation.
"I am not being ill-mannered, Uncle. I am merely attempting to point out to Sir Hugh that one cannot deduce something as serious as a motive for murder without solid evidence."
"You must take my word on this matter, Lady Alice," Hugh said. "The peddler is dead because of that damned crystal. I think we can both agree that it would be best if no one else died because of it, can we not?"
"Aye, my lord. I trust you do not think me lacking in proper manners, 'tis merely that I question"
"Everything, apparently," he finished flatly.
She scowled at him. "My lord?"
"You appear to question everything, Lady Alice. At another time I might find the habit mildly entertaining but tonight I am in no mood for such distraction. I am here for only one purpose. I want the green crystal."
Alice steeled herself. "I mean no offense, my lord, but I would like to point out that my cousin purchased that stone for me. In actual fact it is now my property."
"Damnation, Alice," Ralf wailed.
"For God's sake, Alice, must you quarrel with him?" Gervase hissed.
"We are doomed," William muttered.
Hugh ignored them all, his full attention on Alice. "The green crystal is the last of the Stones of Scarcliffe, lady. I am the new lord of Scarcliffe. The crystal belongs to me."
Alice cleared her throat and chose her words cautiously. "I realize that the stone may have once belonged to you, my lord. But I believe one could argue that, strictly speaking, it is no longer yours."
"Is that so? Are you trained in the law as well as in matters of natural philosophy, then?"
She glared at him. "That stone was procured by Gervase in a perfectly legal transaction. It was then passed on to me as a gift. I do not see how you can possibly lay claim to it."
The unnatural silence that gripped the chamber was shattered by another collective intake of breath. Somewhere a tankard crashed to the floor. The harsh clang of metal on stone echoed through the hall. A dog whined.
Ralf made a small, croaking noise. He stared at Alice with bulging eyes. "Alice, what do you think you are doing?"
"Merely establishing, my claim to the green crystal, Uncle." Alice met Hugh's eyes. "I have heard it said that Hugh the Relentless is a hard man, but a just and honorable one. Is that not true, my lord?"
"Hugh the Relentless," Hugh said in ominous tones, "is a man who knows how to hold on to that which is his. Be assured, lady, that I consider the stone mine."
"Sir, that crystal is very important to my investigations. I am presently studying various stones and their properties and I find the green crystal most interesting."
"I believe you described it as ugly."
"Aye, my lord. But it has been my experience that objects that lack superficial charm and attraction often conceal secrets of great intellectual interest."
"Does your theory apply to people as well?"
She was confused. "My lord?"
"Few would call me charming or attractive, madam. I merely wondered if you found me interesting."
"In an intellectual sense, that is."
Alice touched the tip of her tongue to her lips. "Ah, well, as to that, aye, my lord, one could certainly describe you as interesting. Most assuredly." Fascinating would be a more accurate description, she thought.
"I'm flattered. You will no doubt be even more interested to know that I did not come by my name by accident. I am called Relentless because of my habit of always pursuing a quest until I am successful."
"I do not doubt that for a moment, sir, but I really cannot allow you to claim my green stone." Alice smiled brightly. "Mayhap in the future I could loan it to you."
"Go and fetch the stone," Hugh said in a terrifyingly calm voice. "Now."
"My lord, you do not comprehend."
"Nay, lady, 'tis you who do not comprehend. I am done with this game you seem to delight in playing. Bring the stone to me now or suffer the consequences."
"Alice," Ralf shrieked. "Do something."
"Aye," Hugh said. "Do something, Lady Alice. Bring the green crystal to me at once."
Alice drew herself up and prepared to deliver the bad news. "I fear I cannot do that, my lord."
"Cannot or will not?" Hugh asked softly.
Alice shrugged. "Cannot. You see, I have recently suffered the same fate as yourself."
"What in the name of the devil are you talking about now?" Hugh asked.
"The green crystal was stolen from me only a few days ago, my lord."
"God's teeth," Hugh whispered. "If you seek to provoke me to anger with a maze of falsehoods and misleading words, you are close to success, madam. I warn you, however, that you may not care for the result."
"Nay, my lord," Alice said hastily. "I speak the plain truth. The stone disappeared from my workroom less than a sennight past."
Hugh shot a cold, questioning glance at Ralf, who nodded morosely. Hugh switched his disturbing gaze back to Alice, pinning her ruthlessly with it.
"If this is a true fact," he said icily, "why was I not informed of it at once when I arrived here this evening?"
Alice cleared her throat again. "It was my uncle's opinion that, as the stone is my property, I should be the one to tell you of its loss."
"And present your claim to it at the same time?" Hugh's smile bore a strong resemblance to the edge of a finely crafted sword blade.
There was no point in denying the obvious. "Aye, my lord."
"I'll wager that it was your decision to delay informing me of the loss of the stone until after I had dined well," Hugh murmured.
"Aye, my lord. My mother always claimed men were more reasonable after a good meal. Now, then, I am pleased to be able to tell you that I have a plan to recover the stone."
Hugh did not appear to have heard her. Instead he seemed lost in some private musings. "I do not believe I have ever encountered a woman such as yourself, Lady Alice."
She was momentarily distracted. A glow of unexpected pleasure warmed her insides. "Do you find me interesting, my lord?" She hardly dared add the rest. "In an intellectual sense?"
"Aye, madam. Most interesting."
Alice blushed. She had never had a man pay her such a compliment. She had never had a man pay her any compliment. It gave her a thrilling feeling of excitement. The fact that Hugh found her as interesting as she found him was almost overwhelming. She forced herself to set the unfamiliar sensation aside and return to practical matters.
"Thank you, my lord," she said with what she felt was commendable composure under the circumstances. "Now, as I was saying, when I learned that you were to pay us a visit, I conceived a scheme whereby we might recover the crystal together."
Ralf stared at her. "Alice, what are you talking about?"
"I shall explain everything soon enough, Uncle." Alice beamed at Hugh. "I'm sure you'll be interested to hear the details, my lord."
"A few, very few, men have, at various times in the past, attempted to deceive me," Hugh said.
Alice frowned. "Deceive you, my lord? No one here attempted to deceive you."
"Those men are now dead."
"Sir, I believe we should return to the subject at hand," Alice said crisply. "Now, as we both have an interest in the green stone, the logical thing to do is to join forces."
"There have also, I regret to say, been one or two women who played dangerous games with me." Hugh paused. "But I doubt that you would wish to learn of their fates."
"My lord, we digress from the topic."
Hugh stroked the stem of his wine goblet. "But now that I think back on those few females who tried my patience with silly games, I believe I can say with some certainty that they were not at all similar to yourself."
"Of course not." Alice began to grow annoyed again. "I am not playing a game with you, sir. Just the opposite. It is to our mutual advantage to combine my wits with your knightly skills so that we may recover the stone together."
"That would be difficult to do, Lady Alice, given that I have seen no evidence that you possess any wits." Hugh turned the goblet between his fingers. "At least none that have not been addled."
Alice was incensed. "My lord, you insult me most grievously."
"Alice, you will be the death of us all," Ralf whispered in despair.
Hugh paid his host no heed. He continued to study Alice. "I do not insult you, lady, I merely point out an indisputable fact. Your wits must have flown if you believe that you can toy with me in this manner. A truly clever woman would have realized long ago that she trod on very thin ice."
"My lord, I have had enough of this nonsense," Alice said.
"So have I."
"Do you wish to be reasonable and listen to my plan or not?"
"Where is the green stone?"
Alice reached the end of her patience. "I told you, it was stolen," she said very loudly. "I believe I know the identity of the thief and I am willing to help you discover his whereabouts. In return, I wish to strike a bargain with you."
"A bargain? With me?" Hugh's eyes held infinite danger. "Surely you jest, lady."
"Nay, I am quite serious."
"I do not think you would like the terms of any bargain you might strike with me."
Alice considered him warily. "Why not? What would your terms involve?"
"Your very soul, most likely," Hugh said.