The Brat Chapter Three

Balan managed to open the door just enough to slip into the room without drawing Malculinus's attention. Easing it silently closed, he paused to allow his eyes time to adjust to the darkness. A dying fire in the grate cast some weak light, but not much. It was enough for him to see that Malculinus was already at the bed, gently shaking Murie's shoulder in an effort to wake her.

"Murie? Wake up," the man whispered, scowling when she showed no sign of stirring. "Lauda must have been too generous with her herbs. Ah, well -  perhaps a kiss will wake you." Grimacing at the very idea of the despicable cur pressing his lips to Murie's, Balan snatched a statuette off the table by the door and crept swiftly behind him. As silently as he moved, he must have somehow given himself away, for Malculinus started to glance over his shoulder just as Balan reached him. Balan brought the statue sharply down on his head.

The thud was loud in the silent room, and Malculinus moaned as his feet went out from beneath him, but a quick look showed Balan that neither sound had woken Murie.

The hearth was on the other side of the bed, leaving this side in shadow. Balan stared down at the dark heap that was Malculinus, started to bend over to grab the unconscious man to drag him out of the room, but paused as his eyes slid back to the sleeping woman in the bed. He'd thought her beautiful when he'd seen her in the hall at midday, but she was even more stunning by firelight. Her features looked serene and mysterious in the shadowed room, and the weak light from the flames painted her hair with both light and dark brush strokes.

She must have been suffering a restless sleep; she'd kicked off her linens and furs and lay with her tunic tangled around her thighs, leaving her alabaster legs to glow softly in the dim light. Balan's eyes traveled over rounded hips to the soft swell of her belly, and finally to the neckline of her tunic. The cloth there had been disrupted by her tossing and turning as well. The tie at the neck had pulled loose and lay wide open, leaving her upper chest and part of one breast exposed.

Balan found himself staring at the curve of that breast. Were he to lean down and shift the cloth the tiniest bit, her nipple would be in full view. The thought made him lick his lips as he tried to commit this image to memory so that he could pull it out and enjoy it again later. He had no idea how long he stood there, but knew it was too long when a moan sounded from the heap on the floor.

Glancing down, he scowled at Malculinus for interrupting his pleasure. He then dropped to his knees to find the man's head, and to plow a fist into the side of to ensure he didn't make any more noise. At least, that was the plan. Unfortunately, the moment he caught him by the head to lift it, Malculinus squealed like a pig at the slaughter.

Cursing under his breath, Balan gave him a knockout blow, then glanced worriedly toward the bed, freezing when he saw that the man's scream must have woken Murie. She was leaning over the side, blinking sleepily as she peered at him where he knelt in the darkness.

"Who are you?" she asked with confusion, and it was obvious by the way she could barely keep her eyes open that she wasn't fully awake. "Are you my husband?"

Balan hesitated, surprisingly tempted to take advantage of the situation and say yes. Should he do so, however, he'd be no better than the man lying in the shadows at his knees. Cursing his conscience, he reluctantly growled, "Nay."

"Who are you then?" Murie asked with bewilderment.

"No one," he assured her. "I am not here."

"Are you not?" Murie asked.

"Nay. You are asleep. Lie down," Balan ordered. She pondered that briefly, and a thought seemed to occur to her. "Oh, aye, of course. You are not my husband yet. You are the man I am fated to marry."

Balan's eyes widened with alarm as she lay back down. Oh, this was so wrong. She now thought he ... She... Hell!

He bit his lip, uncertain how to rectify matters but knowing he had to. After a hesitation, he shifted closer to the bed on his knees and then half stood to peer down at her. Murie had followed his instructions, lying back and apparently promptly going to sleep. His gaze slid to her gown to see that her brief spate of activity had disrupted the cloth further, and her nipple was now in plain view. Balan sucked in a breath and squeezed his fists tight to keep from reaching out to touch her.

God, he wondered; what had he ever done to deserve this kind of torture? First, the plague had decimated his people - though that had wiped out half of England, so Balan supposed he shouldn't count that as a personal assault by the Fates. But, thanks to circumstances he could blame on the Fates, Gaynor had not rebounded as well as some others estates. Then his father had died, leaving the burden of Gaynor and its people in his hands. And now this temptation.

A small sigh slid from Murie's lips and she shifted, disrupting her gown further until a whole breast popped out, round and firm and very inviting.

"Damn," Balan breathed. It was impossible to think of how to rectify the situation with that staring him in the eye. After another moment wasted debating the wisdom of the action, Balan reached out to try to slip the breast back into her gown. It was a two-handed job, one hand needed to shift her breast and the other to tug at the cloth, but both hands froze as Murie moaned and arched into his touch.

His gaze shot to her face, and Balan saw that her eyes were starting to blink open. He did the only thing he could think to do he kissed her. His reasoning was, it would both keep her from screaming at the realization that someone was pawing her, as well as give him time to think of some way to fix the mess.

It was flawed reasoning, he now realized. If just having her naked breast inches away had been distracting to his thinking processes, actually kissing her completely stole his ability to think. The woman was a warm and sleepy bundle, her mouth soft and accepting, and she tasted of honeyed mead. He was lost. Balan had started out with a rather chaste kiss, just covering her mouth with his own, but when she sighed against his lips and stretched before him, he was helpless to stop from deepening the kiss, slipping his tongue out to urge her lips apart and then thrusting it forward to claim her.

This had a most gratifying effect. Murie groaned deep in her throat, and he felt her small hands clutch weakly at his arms as she rose up in bed, pressing her breasts against him. His hands immediately accepted the invitation, quickly returning to her chest, though this time he was trying to get her breast back out of her gown rather than put it away.

Finally freeing the coveted orb, Balan squeezed it gently in his hand. He swallowed her next groan with glee, suddenly finding himself eager to draw more happy noises from her. He was just shifting to lay himself on the bed when a deeper sound reached his ears.

Balan had so forgotten where he was and how he'd come to be there, that for a moment he was flummoxed as to where the noise had come from. But when something brushed weakly against his ankle, he was recalled to his circumstances. Without lifting his mouth from Murie's, he swung out with his fist, making a satisfying connection with what felt to be Malculinus's forehead. The soft thud as the man fell back to the floor made him sigh into Murie's mouth.

What he was doing was terribly wrong. He was taking advantage of Malculinus's scurrilous plot. He was mauling a drugged girl in her bed.

The last thought was like a bucket of icy water to the raging desire this slip of a girl had so innocently reared in him. Easing from the kiss, he slowly withdrew. Brushing her hair back as their lips parted, he whispered, "Sleep."

Murie sighed a sound of sleepy disappointment, but appeared to have fallen back asleep before the sound died on her lips. It made Balan realize how effective the herbs Lauda had given Murie were. He doubted if the girl had really been awake at all to begin with.

Sighing in disappointment, he turned to survey the heap that was Malculinus, then stooped to lift and swing him over his shoulder. Straightening, he turned for one last glance at Murie's sleep-rumpled state. Her hair was splayed across the pillows, her arms up by her head, her knees half bent to the side and her body more revealed than hidden by the gown now tangled around her hips and hanging off her shoulder.

It was a vision he'd give almost anything to wake to in the morning.

Turning resolutely, Balan carried Malculinus out of the room and pulled the door gently closed behind him.

"What happened?" Osgoode hissed, hurrying to his side. "Did she see him? Did she see you? Did - "

"Shut up, cousin," Balan ordered wearily. "Let us get this ..." He scowled at the unconscious man over his shoulder. "Let us just get him to his room and find our own beds."

For once in his life Osgoode did not push his luck, but fell silent in accompanying him to Malculinus's room. Fortunately, the man must have dismissed his servant before slipping away, for they found the room empty and the bed turned down. Balan and Osgoode undressed the lord and put him into bed in the hopes that he wouldn't remember anything in the morning, and would think that he'd stumbled back to his own room and gone to sleep. Of course, Balan realized, the man would have a splitting headache in the morning, which might work against them. But he little cared. It was nothing less than Malculinus deserved.

Murie woke with a smile on her face and stretched sleepily in bed. She felt marvelous, and she'd had the most wonderful dream. She'd dreamt a man had come to her in the night and -  Her eyes blinked open.

She'd dreamt of a man!

Sitting abruptly up, Murie stared around her room. He wasn't here of course; she'd dreamt him. But he'd seemed so real. She could still taste him on her lips and smell him on her linens. . . .

"Oh my," Murie breathed. She'd eaten rotten meat on St. Agnes Eve and dreamt of a man with long dark hair, dark eyes and the body of a warrior.

"Oh ..." Her eyes widened as she recalled his lips and hands on her. If the man was half as good in reality as he was in her dreams, she could hardly wait to meet and marry him. There would be nothing to fear in the marital bed.

Laughing, she tossed her linens and furs aside and leapt from bed, eager to go below and break her fast. She was famished this morning ... and her husband-to-be might be in attendance at court. She hoped so. She couldn't wait to meet him and find out his name and have him kiss her again. Her toes tingled at the very idea. That kiss had been -

"Ouch," Murie muttered, raising her foot to look at it. She'd stepped on something hard-edged on the floor, but while sore, her foot was unmarked. Rubbing the spot, she peered across the rushes, eyebrows rising as she spotted a bit of shiny gold. Murie released her foot and bent to pick up the object, eyes widening at the cross on a gold chain upon which she'd stepped. She examined the item curiously. It wasn't hers, and she'd never seen Cecily wear it. She turned it over in her hand and began to bite her lip, worrying at its origin.

The click of the door opening distracted her, and Murie glanced over to see Cecily stick her head into the room. Spotting her mistress up and about, the servant smiled and entered bearing a basin of fresh water.

"Did you sleep well, my lady?"

"Aye." Murie set the cross on the table by her bed and followed the maid to where she set the water by the window.

"Did you dream of anyone?"

Murie glanced at her with surprise. She recalled talking about the St. Agnes Eve superstition with the maid the night before, but didn't remember mentioning that she'd eaten rotten meat.

"Well?" Cecily asked curiously. The maid then tilted her head, eyes narrowing. "You did, did you not?"

"Aye," Murie admitted. By now, she realized, news of what she and Lauda had done was probably all over court. After all, the woman had gotten the rotten meat from the cook, and anyone sitting near them last night had been able to hear their discussion.

"You did!" the maid squealed excitedly. "Tell me all. What does he look like? Is he handsome? Do you know him?"

"He was very handsome," Murie acknowledged, an image of the stranger's face rising up in her mind. It was a strong, handsome face, with deep brown eyes, a straight nose and the sweetest lips - Murie unconsciously raised her hand to her own mouth at the memory. Their kiss was a little fuzzy in her mind, not as clear as reality would have been, but still, she could recall the feelings that kiss had stirred and could even still taste him on her tongue. She could not smell him anymore, though, not now that she was up and about, and she suddenly wondered if the rest of it would fade as quickly. Murie hoped not; she'd never been kissed before, and it had been quite the most exciting thing she'd ever experienced. She really didn't want to forget.

Realizing that she was rubbing her upper lip with her fingers, Murie forced her hand away and began to wash, saying, "I put a cross on the table by the bed. Go look and make sure it is not yours."

The maid moved dutifully across the room and picked up the cross. "Nay, my lady. 'Tis not mine."

"I did not think so," Murie said, troubled. She briefly considered that it might belong to her dream man and that he wasn't a dream at all, but she didn't recall him wearing anything of the sort.

"Most likely one of the servants dropped it while replacing the rushes yesterday," Cecily suggested. "Or it may have been caught up in the rushes themselves."

"Oh." Murie released a breath of relief. "Aye. That must be it. Set it back on the table, and I shall ask Becker to check with the staff and find out if someone has lost it."

Cecily set the cross on the table as instructed, then walked back to her side, asking, "Did your dream man say or do anything?"

Murie's hand slowed, the damp linen washcloth pausing over her left breast. She was reluctant to answer, really wishing now that she hadn't admitted to the dream. She suddenly didn't wish to share her dream man with anyone. She wanted to remember and savor what she'd experienced, and telling others seemed to lessen the experience somehow.

Raising her head, she forced a smile and lied: "Nay. And that is all I am telling you for now. Come; help me dress. I am famished this morn and would go down to break my fast."

Cecily looked disappointed but refrained from questioning her further. After helping her mistress get ready to face the day, she followed Murie out of the room and accompanied her below. Emilie and her husband, Lord Reginald Reynard, were just leaving their room as they approached, and both smiled upon spotting Murie and her maid.

"Good morn, Murie! Are you feeling better?" Emilie asked, waiting so that they could all walk together.

"Aye, thank you for asking," Murie answered. She smiled in greeting to Lord Reynard. Handsome and strong, the man adored his wife and treated her as such. Murie couldn't have chosen a better husband and was happy for her friend's happiness. They all made their way below, chatting about this and that and sundry, and once they reached the hall where the tables were set up and food was being circulated, Lord Reynard ushered them to an open spot above the salt. He then kissed his wife's cheek and excused himself to have a word with one of the other knights, promising to return quickly.

Emilie watched her husband go with a fond smile. "He will get caught up in a political discussion, and it will be the end of the meal before he thinks to come back and eat."

"Don't you mind?" Murie asked.

"Not at all," Emilie said with a laugh. "It is rare we come to court, and I like to see him enjoy himself. He has been working so hard since the plague rolled through." Her brows drew together with concern as she watched her husband disappear into the crowd.

Murie nodded solemnly. Castle Reynard had been more fortunate than most, losing few of their people,but the plague was terrifying all the same. Murie had been worried sick about her friend all through that horrible time, and knew Reginald had been as well -  especially after he'd learned his wife was with child. If he'd lost her and the babe, Murie suspected it would have been a blow from which he might not have recovered.

"Besides" - Emilie turned back to Murie with a laugh - "I think he just rushes off to allow me time alone visiting with you. He knows how close we are and how I look forward to seeing you." Murie smiled widely at this claim and gave her pregnant friend a hug. "And I always look forward to seeing you as well. You are the closest thing I have to family, Emilie."

"Oh, hush. Do not speak so loud. You shall hurt the king's feelings should it get back to him," Emilie cautioned.

"Aye," Murie agreed, glancing around to see if anyone was close enough to have heard. She really didn't wish to hurt the king's feelings. He'd been kind in his way, and she was grateful for it, but the man was rarely here. He was more like an uncle to her, while Emilie was like a sister.

"So, how did you sleep? Did you dream of your future husband?" Emilie teased, clearly to lighten the subject. When Murie hesitated, Cecily burst out with the news, saying,

"Aye, she did - and he was very handsome!"

Emilie's eyes widened incredulously at the maid, then she shifted to a blushing Murie. "What?"

"I... well... I am sure it was just a dream," Murie said finally. Trying to drop the subject, she added, "You do not think that Reginald minds that we are so close, do you? He - "

"Oh, no, no, no," Emilie said firmly. 'You are not changing the subject. Tell me all. Did you really dream about someone?" When Murie nodded and shifted uncomfortably, Emilie asked, "Was it someone you know?

Murie let out her breath in defeat. "Nay, I do not know him."

"You do not?" both Emilie and Cecily exclaimed at once.

"Is he handsome?" Emilie asked after taking some time to get over her apparent surprise.

"Aye, he is very handsome," Murie murmured.

"What does he look like?" Cecily asked.

"Yes," Emilie echoed eagerly. "What does he look like?"

"Well, his hair was very dark - black, I think - and he looked ..

. like him!" she finished with amazement as her glance landed on a man seated across the hall. Murie stared at the man in the faded blue doublet with wide, fascinated eyes. Her chamber had been dark in her dream, and she hadn't seen him as clearly as she was seeing him now, but she was sure it was the same man. He had the same long black hair that had felt so soft as it brushed against her cheek, the same proud face, the same wide shoulders she recalled clutching in her dream. The man was gorgeous.

"Who?" Emilie glanced around, trying to follow Murie's suddenly stunned gaze. "Which one is he?"

"The man in the blue doublet and green cotehardie. Just across the room. With the dark hair and strong wide shoulders and soft lips."

"Soft lips?" Emilie's head shot back around.

"Well, he had soft lips when he kissed me in the dream," she said. Then she frowned. "But firm. Soft but firm." Emilie stared at her, wide-eyed for a moment, then allowed curiosity to draw her gaze to the man in question.

"Lord Gaynor," she murmured.

"Gaynor," Murie echoed, testing the name on her lips. It was a fine-sounding name. Strong and solid.The man looked strong and solid as well. "You must tell me everything," her friend demanded. From the beginning of the dream to the very end. I want to hear it all."

"She saw you."

"What are you talking about?" Balan asked, trying not to look guilty as his cousin claimed the seat beside him.

"Lady Murie. On my way around the hall, I passed by where she and Lady Reynard are seated, and I overheard her telling Lady Emilie that you were the man she dreamed of last night." Pausing, he arched one eyebrow and said, "Why did you not tell me she saw you?"

Balan shifted uncomfortably. "Because I was hoping she would not remember it when she woke."

That wasn't really a bold-faced lie. Part of him, the more honorable part, truly wished she'd forgotten. That part would rather win her hand more honorably. The other part, however, couldn't care less how he won her and really hadn't wanted her to forget him at all. It wanted her to remember, demand a fast marriage and have her greet him stripped naked in every private corner of this castle. Not that there were many private corners at court.

"Only you," Osgoode said with a shake of the head.

"I - ," Balan began irritably, but Osgoode interrupted.

"There is more. I was not the only one to hear. Lauda was loitering nearby. She appeared about to hail them, but paused when she heard what Lady Murie was saying. She got most agitated as she listened and then rushed around the room. I followed, of course."

"Of course," Balan said. His cousin loved this sort of thing.

"Aye, and she went straight to her brother."

"And?" Balan asked, knowing there would be more.

"And she is still there. See?" Osgoode gestured along the tables, and Balan followed his pointing finger to where Malculinus Aldous sat listening as his sister spoke most animatedly. She was obviously not at all happy, and when she gestured in his direction and both Aldouses glanced his way, Balan found his mouth splitting into a wide, sharklike smile, teeth bared.It wasn't that he was happy about all of this, but he thought it could only be a good thing if they realized he knew what they had been up to. Perhaps it would prevent their trying any further nonsense.

"I wonder if they will be able to sort out what happened," Osgoode said, watching the pair.

"Probably, or very close to," Balan murmured. The Aldouses turned away from him and huddled together, whispering furiously.

"They are plotting again."

"Aye," he agreed with irritation. So much for his having any sort of influence on them. "I wish I knew what they were saying."

"You will," Osgoode assured him. When Balan glanced over sharply, he shrugged and explained, "I sent my page to spy on them."

Turning back to the pair across the room, this time Balan noted the lad loitering nearby. He was sitting cross-legged in the rushes, playing with a dog. No one was paying any notice at all. Balan smiled slowly. "William is a good lad."

"Aye, he is. And he is excellent at such tasks. The boy will recall and recite every word to me when he gives his accounting." Balan nodded and turned his attention back to the bread and cheese before him.

"So ..." Osgoode prompted.

Balan glanced at him warily. "What?"

"After all those protestations of not stooping to his level, you not only let her see you, you kissed the girl."

Balan shifted uncomfortably. "I did not intend either outcome."

"But once she'd seen you, you thought you may as well go the whole journey and kiss her," Osgoode said, nodding with condescension.

"I kissed her because she woke up while I was trying to right her nightgown!"

"Ah." The word sounded understanding, but Osgoode's expression was less so. Biting his lip, the man asked, "And how did her gown come to need righting?"

"She is apparently a restless sleeper," Balan muttered, then glanced to the side to see his cousin making a face. "What the hell are you grinning about?"

"Well, it is not often I get to see you so uncomfortable," Osgoode pointed out with amusement. "And besides, we are saved. You have won the fair maid's hand. She sounded quite taken with you as she described her 'dream' to Lady Emilie."

"She was telling her about it?" he asked with alarm, wondering how much Lady Murie remembered. Did she recall waking to find him seemingly groping her breasts in the dark?

"Aye, and it was all 'heated embraces, flames of passion, and burning kisses.'"

Balan stared, aghast, wondering if those herbs Lauda had given Murie had somehow distorted the actual event, combining the fire and his kisses in her mind. Not that it hadn't been hot and passionate for him, too, but there seemed to be a lot of references to fire in the descriptions Osgoode was giving. Perhaps the herbs or the gamy meat had made her feverish.

"Well..." Emilie sat back in her seat and fanned her face with one hand. "It sounds as though it was .. well. . ."

"Aye." Murie sighed. "It was."

Emilie eyed her for a moment, then said, "The St Agnes Eve nonsense aside, Lord Gaynor is a fine man. I know Reginald thinks highly of him. And the king."

"That is a good sign. I respect your husband's opinion, and if the king thinks highly of him, too, surely he would not protest our marriage."

"Aye," Emilie nodded and added, "he served the king in battle at both Crecy and Calais, and is said to be a fierce warrior." Murie smiled, pleased at this news. A strong sword arm to defend the home was important.

"I have never heard whispers about ill treatment from him toward man, woman, child or animal. It seems he is fair and honorable in all his dealings."

"That is promising as well," Murie said happily. Emilie smiled, but then cautioned, "There are some murmurs that Castle Gaynor suffered heavily from the plague. I know his father was among those who died, and Balan returned to find he'd inherited many troubles."

"Balan?" Murie said with confusion.

"That is his name," Emilie explained.

"Oh ... Ba-lan," she murmured, trying the name out. It was lovely to her ear. Balan and Murie.

Emilie bit her lip on a smile and then said, "Anyway,I understand he is in some financial difficulty at the moment because of it. I am sure it is only temporary, however - "

"My parents left me well off. Financial difficulties are of little consequence." Murie waved the concern away easily, her mind immediately going back to his name. Balan, Lord Gaynor. Balan and Murie. Lady Gaynor, she thought, and wondered what Gaynor Castle was like. She hoped it was by water and not too far inland. Murie loved the water. "Where is Gaynor?"

"In the north. I believe it is on the seashore, but am not sure. I know there is a river nearby," Emilie answered. "The best part of all this is that 'tis far enough away that you would not be expected to return to court very often."

"That is definitely good news," Murie admitted. She'd come to loathe court life. The debauchery, the intrigue, the cruelty ...

"Hmmm," Emilie said thoughtfully, her gaze moving over Balan, Lord Gaynor. "I suppose the only question that remains is whether the two of you would suit."

Murie nodded, trying to act halfway intelligent and sensible, rather than flighty and eager. Her gaze slid back to the man who might be fated to be her husband. Balan seemed deep in conversation with the man seated beside him, who was also attractive, but in her opinion could not hold a candle to Balan. He was paler in coloring and not quite as broad-shouldered or strong-looking. "Who is the man beside him?"

"His cousin, Osgoode. He went off to battle with Balan in France. It was the reason they were not here when the plague struck. Reginald thinks much of Osgoode, too."

"That is nice," Murie said. "Does he live at Gaynor?" Emilie nodded. "His mother died giving birth to him, and so he was raised at Gaynor after his own father died. He and Balan are as close as brothers."

Murie nodded. "Is there any other family?"

"I believe Balan has a younger sister. The mother died in labor with her, and now that their father is dead, she is orphaned."

"Like me," Murie murmured, her heart aching for the unknown girl. Though, the child was fortunate to have her brother to look after her; Murie had had no one once her parents died. Well, the king and queen had taken her in, of course, and she'd been fortunate in at least earning her godfather's affections. But it had been the queen's affections she'd truly desired. She'd wanted a mother's love and approval, something no amount of doting by the king could make up for. Perhaps she could give Balan's sister what she herself had not gained. "What is her name?"

"Hmm? I believe it is Juliana, but I am not at all sure."

'Juliana," Murie echoed, thinking the name quite lovely.

"So?" Emilie queried lightly. "Are you ready?"

"For what?" Murie asked with confusion.

"To meet him."

"Meet him?" Murie gulped. "Why?"

Emilie laughed, them said patiently, "To speak with him and see if he is suitable."

"But. . . now?"

"There is no time like the present," Emilie assured her. "This way you can decide if he is worth troubling with, or not. If so, you may spend more time with him. If he does not seem suitable, you can move on to other candidates."

"But..." Murie glanced down at the gown she wore, a white surcoat over a plain gray cotehardie. Had she known for sure she would meet the man from her dream today, she would have dressed more attractively.

"You look fine," Emilie assured her. "Come. Balan has spent time at Reynard. He stopped there on his way home from France. I know him, and he will not think anything of my stopping to greet him."

"Oh," Murie murmured; but her mind was in a panic as she stood to follow Emilie around the room.

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