What She Wants Chapter Twenty

Willa paced the length of the room and kicked the bed. She then paced to the other end and kicked at one of the two chairs in front of the fire before repeating the sequence.

They had reached court early that morning... after four days traveling to make a two-day journey. Muttering under her breath, Willa kicked at the bed twice this time as she paused before it. As she'd feared, Hugh's idea of being careful did not mesh with hers. Much to Willa's mortification, the incident in the woods with her singing guard had been repeated many times during the last two and a half days. On top of that humiliation, Hugh had insisted on traveling at a much slower pace "so as not to unsettle the babes." Willa had spent this much slower journey in the back of a cart because he was sure that "riding could not be good for the babes." He'd also overseen her meals, insisting she eat plentifully to "help the babes grow strong in her belly." Worse than that, though, was how he'd taken to hovering over her like a mother over a sick child, until Willa thought she might pull her hair out... or his.

Nay, she decided as her pacing took her to the bed again, worst of all was the fact that he'd sworn off touching her in a sexual manner, for fear of "jostling the babes while they may be sleeping." Aye. She missed that most of all. If the man could not tell her he loved her, the least he could do was bed her.

This time rather than kick the chair by the fire, she dropped unhappily to sit in it. They had been at court for barely an hour and already Hugh had been called to see the king. She supposed at this very moment, he was showing King John the letter from Papa Richard and telling him how her father, Tristan, was trying to kill her.

Willa stared at the fire in the fireplace with dissatisfaction. Hugh had determined that her complaints at his smothering behavior and her singing guard were merely the result of her being with child. That reasoning made it easy for him to discount her complaints, and Willa could just throttle him for it.

Why hadn't he declared his love for her? Not that Willa had told him of her feelings expecting a declaration in return, but it did seem that his offering one would have been the polite thing to do. It would have been nice. She was carrying his children, after all. She was his wife. Eada had said he would love her. She wanted him to love her. Why didn't he love her?

Her cantankerous thoughts were interrupted when the chamber door opened and a young maid entered. Willa eyed her with annoyance. After four days without peace, Willa had wished only to be alone on arriving here. The moment Hugh had left to speak to the king, she'd urged Eada to visit the market to see if there weren't some things here she couldn't easily get at Hillcrest. The older woman had not needed much prodding to abandon her.

"I was sent to see if there was anything you wished for, my lady?" The maid sounded sweet-natured, which merely annoyed Willa all the more.

"Nay." She knew she sounded surly, but could not help it. Willa felt surly. Which was unusual. She generally had the sunniest of dispositions. Perhaps being with child was affecting her after all, she thought, then quickly pushed the thought away.

"Well, if you are sure?"

The girl had half turned toward the door when Willa suddenly sat up and asked, "Do you know if Lord D'Orland has arrived yet?"

"Aye. He has." The maid smiled, pleased to be of some assistance. "He arrived yester morn. Do you know him?"

"Nay," Willa admitted unhappily; then her gaze sharpened on the girl. "Do you?"

"Oh, aye." The girl's smile widened. "He is one of King John's finest warriors."

"Is?" Willa asked curiously. By her calculations, her father must be nigh on sixty, at least. "Surely, he does not still ride into battle?"

"Aye." The girl looked sad. " 'Tis a broken heart that sends him constantly riding off to war."

"A broken heart?"

The maid nodded. "Everyone knows the tale. He loved his wife more than life itself, but she died with their child some twenty years ago. He has sought out battle after battle ever since. Some say he hopes to die and join them, but God has not taken him yet." She shook her head mournfully. "When not at war, he is here more often than at D'Orland. They say he cannot bear the memories that fill his castle. He is a very kind man. All the servants are happy to wait on him."

"I see," Willa murmured, but the girl wasn't finished.

"One of the footmen told me that his squire claims he rarely sleeps. He says that every time he does, Lord D'Orland is troubled by nightmares that leave him thrashing and crying out for his late wife. He begs her to forgive him, though the squire knows not what he has to be forgiven for."

Willa knew, but remained silent until the girl said, "Well, if there is nothing else?"

"There is," Willa stood abruptly. "I will need your dress."

The girl's eyes widened in shock and she began to back away, but a quarter hour later Willa had talked Joanne - as Willa had learned was her name - out of the gown and into helping her.

" 'Tisn't going to work," Joanne said mournfully as she helped Willa stack the last of several folded gowns in her arms. They made a nice bit of wall to hide behind.

"Aye. It will," Willa assured her. "You just say what I told you to say and stay behind the door. Are you ready?"

The girl nodded, but still looked doubtful as she followed Willa across the room. When they reached the door, Willa paused and took a deep breath. She was about to attempt to escape her singing quartet of guards.

Hugh had told the four men that they were not to let her out of their sight... ever. They had taken him at his word and followed her everywhere since that first embarrassing trip into the woods. The only place they had not followed her was into their tent, and that was only because Hugh had told them to stand point around the tent instead. Once they had arrived at court, Hugh had stationed them outside her chamber and she knew they were still there now. She wished to lose them for a little bit.

Releasing her breath, she opened her mouth and called out loudly. "They need a good washing! They got muddy on the journey here!"

"Aye, m'lady!" Joanne answered equally as loudly when Willa turned an expectant gaze to her.

"Here, let me get the door for you!" Willa shouted at the door and nodded encouragingly at Joanne. She then ducked her head and lifted the stack of gowns in an effort to block her face as the girl moved forward. The moment the door was opened, Willa sailed through and scampered down the hall at a near run as she heard it close behind her. She didn't dare look back to see if the guards had noticed anything amiss, but turned the first corner she came to with a breath of relief. Stopping at the first niche she came across, Willa set the gowns down, then continued on her way.

Joanne had given her instructions on how to find Tristan D'Orland's chamber. Willa followed them now, her hand at her waist to settle her suddenly nervous stomach. She wasn't at all sure she was doing the right thing in going to meet her father. There was a possibility that the man wanted her dead. However, the tortured individual Joanne had described did not match the cold-blooded killer who had tried so often to end her life. Willa had to see for herself just what kind of man her father was.

Raucous laughter made Willa glance around as two men came out of a room and moved down the hall ahead of her. She slowed her steps so as not to catch up to them, then turned down the next corridor. This was where Tristan D'Orland's chamber was. Joanne had said it was the third door on the left. Willa counted them out. Stopping at the third door, she pressed an ear to it and listened. There was no sound from inside. She almost used that as an excuse to turn and walk away, but caught herself before she could. It was cowardice that was urging her to do so, and she knew it.

Taking a deep breath, she raised a hand to knock, then simply opened the door instead and slid into the room. At first, she thought the chamber was empty. There was no one in the chairs by the fire, nor on the bed. Then a movement drew her gaze to the window as the man standing there turned slowly to peer at her.

He wasn't what Willa had expected. Her father was about the same age as Lord Richard would have been had he still lived. But Lord Richard had spent the last decade leaving war to younger men. His body had reflected that, his muscles atrophying and a paunch developing. He'd looked his age. This man did not. Though his hair was pure white, without a hint of the fiery red-blond coloring he'd passed on to his daughter, Tristan D'Orland was as strong and fit as a man twenty years younger. He was tall, with broad shoulders and muscular arms. He had the posture and bearing of a warrior. His eyes were the same blue-gray as Willa's, sharp and startling in his tanned face. All in all, he looked like what he was: a warrior.

"I did not send for a maid. What - " He paused, his eyes sharpening on her. Several moments passed in silence as he examined her from head to toe. When he finally spoke, his voice had lost much of its strength. "What is your name, girl?"

"Willa." Several moments passed as she awaited some reaction. Then she recalled that the name would mean nothing to him. Lord Hillcrest had named her. She left the door open and stepped further into the room as she said, "The man who raised me named me that because I was willed to him. My mother asked him on her death bed to tend me and keep me safe. She feared my true father might kill me, did he know I lived."

"Your true father?" he echoed weakly.

"Aye." Willa could not bear to see the mingled hope and fear on his face and turned, moving in the direction of the fire. "They say I took his coloring and have his eyes, but that I look most like my mother."

"Juliana," she heard him breathe.

Willa fought the urge to look at him and forced herself to continue toward the fireplace as she said, "They say he loved my mother dearly, but that he was terribly jealous. She had a dear friend who was like a brother to her, but my father feared there was something more to their friendship. His jealousy made him unbearable. He began to drink and that made things worse. Nothing she said could convince him that she loved only him and that there was nothing between her and her friend. They say - "

A crash made Willa glance toward him warily. He'd been holding his sword in his hand when she entered, as if he'd been polishing it and had carried it with him to look out the window. The sword now lay on the floor amongst a basketful of apples that had been sitting on a chest beside him. Either he'd moved and banged the chest, or he'd dropped the sword and it had toppled the fruit. Whatever the case, he now knelt trying to collect the spilled fruit. However, he could not seem to hold onto the red globes. Every time he picked up more than one, the first apple slid from his hand.

Willa hesitated, then moved to his side and knelt to help. They worked in silence, replacing the fruit in the basket, but she could feel his glance roving over her as they worked. Once all the apples had been gathered and returned to the basket, Willa picked it up and stood.

Lord D'Orland stood as well, grabbing at her hand when she turned to set the basket back on the chest. The move startled her and the basket tipped, sending the fruit back to the floor. Willa started to bend to again collect them, but he held her in place.

"Forget the apples. Tell me this man's name. The one who named and raised you and kept you from your father," he ordered harshly.

Willa met his gaze and said solemnly, "I think you know."

"Tell me," he insisted.

"Lord Richard Hill - "

"Hillcrest," he finished. It sounded like a curse. His eyes closed briefly in pain and Willa was alarmed to see him sway slightly. Then his eyes opened again. "The bastard stole you from me. All these years and he - "

"He saved me from you," Willa said quietly. "He knew you would kill me did you know of my existence."

"What kind of monster has he painted me to be!" Lord D'Orland cried. "I would never harm my own child. Nor anyone else's, for that matter."

"The night my mother fled you, were you not about to storm into your chamber to shake me loose from her belly because you thought me another man's child?"

"Nay! Dear God, no!"

Willa frowned at this denial, then asked uncertainly, "You were yelling and furious?"

"Aye. I was," he admitted. "Garrod had just told me that Juliana's maid had told him she planned to leave me to go to her Thomas. Aye, I bellowed. I was furious that she would think to leave me. I was going to stop her. But she had already sneaked out of our room when I got there." His face twisted with remorse. "I was too late. She had already fled to be with her lover. If I had just been a bit quicker, perhaps she would still live. Perhaps - "

"She did not flee you to be with Thomas. She did not love Thomas; she loved you. My mother fled because her maid had told her that you planned to rid her of me. That you felt 'twas better to be rid of me with my uncertain parentage, and beget another babe as heir."

"Nay!" He stumbled back a step, horror clear on his face. "I would never - Why would her maid - ? How could Juliana believe that of me?"

"How could you believe she would be unfaithful to you?" Willa countered and he sank wearily to sit on the chest.

"I - she was beautiful." He shook his head helplessly. "Her laughter was like birdsong. Her smile made me heart-sore. I knew every man must love her on sight. Juliana, however, never seemed to notice the men chasing after her. Except for Thomas." His expression darkened with displeasure. "With Thomas she could talk and laugh for hours. They spoke of things that had happened long ere she and I had even spoken to each other. I felt unnecessary whenever he was around, like a fifth wheel on a cart. I tried not to let it bother me, but he came so often and always seemed to be there. He was like a constant canker on my arse."

Willa winced at his choice of words. They made her think of Hugh and how angry he was going to be when he found out about her slipping from her guard to visit the man he believed was trying to kill her.

Lord D'Orland shifted impatiently, drawing her attention again. "Garrod tried to soothe my suspicions. However, the very fact that he had noticed when I had not voiced my fears aloud told me that he found their friendship suspicious as well."

"Thomas told Papa - Lord Richard," Willa corrected quickly, a twinge of guilt singing through her when he winced at the loving term. "Thomas told his father that my mother loved you. Lord Richard said that Thomas and my mother were close from the time they both arrived at Claymorgan as children. He said there was nothing but friendship between them."

Lord D'Orland stared at her, his gaze moving over her features. There was deep pain in his eyes, and a bit of wonder, too. He stood and took a step toward her. He cupped her chin and he marveled, "You look so like her. If not for your coloring, I would think you were her ghost come to haunt me for being such a fool." His eyes met hers and he smiled faintly. "Do you know why I chose your mother to wed?"

Willa shook her head the tiniest bit.

"I saw your mother for the first time when she was but six. She accompanied her parents to a tourney in which I was participating. Juliana was a sweet little thing. Even then, she showed promise of being a beauty, but that was not what drew me to her. I had a page at the time, a skinny lad her own age. He was new and nervous, with the unfortunate habit of wetting himself whenever I yelled at him. She and her parents happened to be walking past my tent on one such occasion. I yelled, he wet himself as usual, and I fear I was less than sympathetic. I berated him for behaving like a babe. Your mother stopped. Her parents continued walking, unaware she was no longer with them. She simply stood there and glared at me until I took notice of her. When I finally scowled at her she berated me for being so mean."

His face lit affectionately at the memory. "She was not the least bit afraid of me and berated me with a passion, championing my page. Then she patted the boy on the shoulder, told him not to be afraid and hurried off after her parents. She had such heart." His eyes filled with tears. "I was a fierce and powerful warrior. Grown men trembled in my presence, yet this little snippet of a lass had the mettle to stand up to me, I found myself watching her throughout the tourney. At every turn, I saw signs of the courageous, honorable and loving woman she would be. I approached her father about a match and agreed to claim her two weeks after her sixteenth birthday. And I did." His hand slipped away from Willa's chin. His voice was bitter when he said, "Then I destroyed her with my jealousy."

Willa felt her heart squeeze at his pain and self-recrimination. She knew he'd suffered them these twenty years. "I think, my lord, that you had aid in forgetting your honor. It seems to me 'twas encouraged."

"Mayhap. But 'tis no excuse," he said. His next words told her that he misunderstood the aid she was referring to. "I do not understand what her maid hoped to gain. Why did she lie to us both that day? Well... to Juliana and Garrod," he corrected.

Willa bit her lip, wondering how to explain that it had not been the maid she was referring to. Then her father suddenly brightened. "Garrod! I can hardly wait to tell him I have found you again. He shall be most pleased at this reunion."

"I somehow do not think so," Willa disagreed.

"Oh aye, he will," Tristan D'Orland assured her. "The day your mother died, all I could think of at first was tending to Juliana. But as we neared my keep I began to think that I should bury you with your mother. Then the fact that Hillcrest had not offered your body made me pause. I began to think that perhaps you were not dead as he'd claimed. When I spoke these thoughts aloud to Garrod, he volunteered to find out for sure one way or the other. He stayed near Claymorgan for weeks, asking questions and searching for news of your existence. Everything he learned, however, seemed to indicate that you were, indeed, dead. He returned quite distressed. I think he had imagined returning triumphant with you in his arms. He was quite distressed at your loss."

Willa turned away, hating to disillusion him. "About Garrod - "

"Is this not a touching scene?"

Willa turned sharply at those sarcastic words and found herself staring at a tall, red-haired man with a most unpleasant face. Her father confirmed his identity when he said, "There you are, Garrod. We were just talking about you."

"I am sure you were. I am sure little Willa could hardly wait to rush to your side to tell you tales." A cynical smile curved his lips. He closed the door and moved to the center of the room. "You have proven to be something of a thorn in my side all these years, Willa," he added, his cold eyes moving over her. "Aye. You are just as lovely as Juliana was. 'Tis obvious she was your mother. 'Tis equally obvious who your father is, of course."

Willa took a wary step closer to her father. She watched Garrod - a man she was sure had tried to kill her many times over - with the wariness and respect she would offer an adder.

"I was really hoping to kill you before you got here, thereby avoiding the necessity of murdering my own uncle," he announced, then gave an indifferent shrug. "However, perhaps this is for the best. Uncle Tristan has been taking his time about dying. I would have aided him in the endeavor but he never gave me the opportunity. If he was not off at war, he was here at court while I was stuck at the keep, running things. It made creating a believable accident difficult, I can tell you. I consoled myself with the thought that surely he would be killed in battle soon. From all accounts, he took plenty of foolhardy risks, but he has the damnedest luck. You appear to have inherited that, along with his coloring. You have managed to escape my every attempt."

"Garrod? What nonsense are you spewing?" her father asked in confusion. He was looking quite shaken.

"He is speaking of the fact that he has been trying to kill me ever since my birth," Willa told him quietly.

"What?" Tristan D'Orland turned to her with horror, and Willa nodded.

"Garrod did not return to Claymorgan to find proof of my existence, but to try to end it," she explained. "He lied when he said that everything he learned pointed to my having been born dead. He simply wished I had, and attempted to be sure I was before we could meet and you could see for yourself that I bore your coloring and was your daughter. When he was supposed to be seeking me out, he was actually sneaking into Claymorgan and smothering my wet-nurse's child. Ten years later, he broke the neck of my best friend, who had made the mistake of wearing my gown. Most recently, he has hired one man to kill me whom my husband dispatched, another whom his cousin dispatched, and then resorted to attempting the task himself. He chased my husband and me off a cliff into the river. Fortunately, we were able to make it ashore."

"Is this true?" Lord D'Orland asked his nephew sharply.

"Aye. 'Tis true. She has been a most troublesome wench. Is it not awful when women do not die as they should? Now her mother," he taunted, "I did not even think of killing her. I merely wished her gone ere she could produce a squalling brat for you. I worked at rousing your jealousy to gain that end. Juliana, however, did me the great favor of dying. Your wife was truly a good woman, uncle. Your daughter, however, appears to have inherited your cussedly stubborn nature."

Lord D'Orland shook his head. "But you tried to convince me that Juliana was true to me. You were constantly reassuring me that you believed her faithful."

"And every time I did, it strengthened and encouraged your own doubts," Garrod pointed out with amusement. Then he took on an earnest expression and said, "I realize it looks bad, my lord. Thomas is ever here spending time alone with Juliana, but I am sure she would never dishonor you. They are close, 'tis true, but I am sure friendship is as far as it goes." His words ended on a masterfully doubtful note and Willa's father blanched as he recognized how he'd been manipulated.

"She was true to me," he said faintly.

"Of course she was," Garrod said mockingly. "Juliana loved you. Even I could see that. She cared for Thomas as a brother, nothing more. You were the only one she wished in her bed."

Garrod shook his head with disgust. "Dear Lord, I played you all like a brilliant game of chess. You were jealous, so I nurtured that jealousy. She was afraid of your jealous tempers, especially when you drank. I encouraged her fears with brilliant tales of the violence you were known to wreak while drinking. I made them up on the spot and amazed even myself with some of them." He laughed.

"I even manipulated Thomas. I befriended him and encouraged him to visit often and long. Then I frowned over the matter with you, commenting that he was taking advantage of your hospitality and I was sure it meant nothing that he spent so much time with Juliana." Garrod shook his head. "Then, that last night, I told Juliana's maid to tell her that you planned to force the babe from her belly. And I told you that her maid had warned me Juliana planned to leave you." He gave a short impressed whistle at his own brilliance. "It worked better than I had hoped. She fled, starting the early labor that led to her death at Claymorgan. Everything would have been perfect - " his gaze turned to Willa - "except that you lived."

Displeasure crossed his face. "I did try to rectify that one small flaw. Many times. But, like your father - who survives battle unscathed while all those about him are slaughtered - you appear to have the devil's own luck."

"Or perhaps you are simply inept," Willa suggested.

Garrod was bristling over that inflammatory comment when Lord D'Orland asked, "Why? After all I did for you, Garrod. Why?"

She glanced at her father and felt her pity stir at his hurt bewilderment.

"All you did for me?" Garrod sounded furious and Willa turned a wary gaze back to him. His hands were fisted with fury. "You have done nothing for me! Nothing! I am your steward. No better than a lackey! I have made your estate prosperous. I defend it, collect rents owed... and for what? A place to eat and sleep and a couple of coins! All those years while you earned your accolades on the battle field I worked for you. I had hopes, dreams of one day being master. And why not? You had not married and produced an heir. I thought surely you meant to leave me all on your death." His mouth tightened and he spoke through gritted teeth. "You never mentioned that you had made a match. Then, all of a sudden you returned and announced 'twas time to go claim your bride."

He struck an arrogant pose and mimicked her father. "Good day, Garrod. How are things? I am off to claim my bride now. I shall be staying here and raising a family."

Willa stiffened nervously as he withdrew his sword from its sheath in one furious jerk. Gripping it tightly in hand, he went on, "One day I was working hard, imagining the estate soon to be my own. The next you announced you were marrying and hoping to raise a son to take your place. I could have struck you dead on the spot! But I knew I would gain naught that way. I needed to be more clever. And I was."

"Not clever enough," Willa pointed out, aware that her father was inching slowly in front of her. He was preparing to protect her even though he was weaponless and she felt a stabbing pain in her heart at the thought of yet another person dying for her. Her gaze dropped to the floor. His sword still lay at their feet where he'd dropped it. If she could just reach it...

"What do you intend to do now?" her father asked, inching another step in front of Willa. "You cannot think killing us will gain you anything."

"Of course it will, you stupid old man! It will keep my neck out of the noose. 'Twill also give me your estate."

"Do not be ridiculous, Garrod," Lord D'Orland snapped. "You cannot succeed at this madness."

Garrod suddenly went calm and smiled. Willa found that more frightening than his anger.

"Time will tell. I am thinking that perhaps just the sight of Willa enraged you," he suggested mildly. "Perhaps your hatred and jealousy were transferred from your poor dead wife to her. Perhaps in your senility, you even mistook her for your Juliana. You killed her. Then in your mad grief, you killed yourself." He nodded. "Aye. That should work. After all, I have already laid the groundwork by whispering to the king that you may not be quite right in the head. Now..." He raised his sword. "I will try to make this quick out of my past affection for you, uncle."

Everything happened in a blur after that. Lord D'Orland gave up his inching and lunged protectively in front of her as Garrod charged. Willa saw her father brace himself for the coming blow as she bent quickly to retrieve his fallen sword. She managed to straighten and rush around him, lifting the sword just in time to parry that blow. Garrod was strong, however. Willa cried out in pain as her arms vibrated with the impact. She felt them begin to give way, and the swords moved toward her. Then her father's arms came around her. His hands grabbed the hilt above her own, adding his strength to the defense. The three of them stood locked in combat for a moment, then the door crashed open. A bellow filled the room.

Willa felt relief course through her as she peered over Garrod's shoulder to see her husband advancing toward them. He looked extremely angry and Willa felt a brief moment of pity for Garrod. Then Garrod tore his sword free and turned to face a charging Hugh. He started to raise his weapon, but was too slow. Hugh felled him before his sword was fully raised.

Her husband glared down at the man who's life blood was coloring the rushes, then turned that glare on Willa and her father.

Willa had never been happier to see him. Even if he hadn't declared his love for her. Releasing the sword, she slid out from under her father's arms and threw herself at Hugh.

"Husband!" she cried happily. Lifting herself on tiptoe, she began to press kisses across his rigid face. When he continued to stand still and stern-faced, she pulled back to see that he was staring at her father with wary uncertainty. "What is it? Oh," she said. "Hugh, this is my father. He had no idea what Garrod was doing. He did not wish me dead. Father, this is my husband, Hugh."

She beamed at the older man as he lowered the weapon they had used to fend off Garrod's attack, then tilted her head in question at his expression. Lord D'Orland was staring at her with a bemused expression.

"You saved my life," he said with awe.

Willa felt herself blush, but shook her head. "Nay. My husband saved us both."

"Aye. But you saved me first," her father insisted.

"Well, I did try, but he was quite strong." She frowned, then turned to Hugh. "I do believe that Lucan has not been using his full strength at practice. I was unable to parry Garrod's blow. Father had to save us by adding his strength."

"Nay, you saved me," her father persisted.

"You saved me, too," Willa countered. "And Hugh saved us both."

"But you saved me first," he argued.

"But Hugh saved us all in the end."

"Dear God! Do stop arguing about who saved whom and shut up!"

Willa stiffened at that order and turned a scowl on the rude man who had spoken. He stood in the open door to the room, a crowd of gawking onlookers behind him. The man was dressed in the finest clothes she'd ever seen. Willa assumed this meant he held a high position at court. She decided his manners, however, did not reflect his position. She turned to Hugh and poked him in the stomach.

"Are you going to let this rude man speak to your wife this way?" she demanded.

Her husband's eyes widened in alarm. "Er... Willa... this is... er... King John."

"Oh." Her expression turned from outrage to disgruntlement. "Well, I suppose he is allowed to be rude then, but really, 'tis not well done of him."

Hugh closed his eyes briefly as the king's narrowed on her. Drawing himself up, King John spoke with exaggerated patience. "You have obviously been through a harrowing experience, Lady Hillcrest, so I will forgive that impertinence. Hugh, see to your wife. Then I wish you and Lord D'Orland to come and explain this matter to me. I will have it resolved today."

" 'Tis - " Hugh's hand over her mouth brought Willa's words to a halt. He smiled and nodded at King John. The royal's lips twitched with amusement; then he turned on his heel and left the room. The crowd of onlookers made way for him, then followed him away.

"I was only going to say that the matter is resolved," Willa explained when Hugh took his hand away.

Hugh gave a half laugh, then leaned his forehead against hers. "Wife?"

"Aye?" she asked warily.

"I love you."

Willa went still at that proclamation and pulled back so that she could see his face. "You do?"

"Aye. You drive me mad at times and are the most troublesome bundle I have ever come across, but - God save me - I love you."

"Oh, Hugh," Willa breathed, then beamed. "I love you, too."

Throwing her arms around him, she sought his mouth with her own in a kiss that soon turned passionate. Willa had just become aware of his hand drifting toward her breast when a throat clearing reminded her of her father's presence. Blushing furiously, she broke the kiss at once.

"Er... perhaps we should see Willa to your chamber and take ourselves off to meet with the king," he suggested to Hugh. "King John is not the most patient of men."

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