A Bit of Heaven on Earth
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A penniless knight who has lost everything dear to him.
A married noblewoman who has never known a man’s touch.
Two aching souls destined to find one another . . .
When Gavin of Ashgrove and his closest friend are captured in a fierce battle during the Hundred Years’ War, their captors demand a hefty ransom from their families for their return. Robert is quickly set free, but Gavin’s father refuses to pay for his son’s release, leaving him to rot in a squalid French prison. Aided by a sympathetic priest, Gavin escapes and returns home to England, only to find he has been proclaimed a bastard and disinherited.
With nowhere to turn Gavin journeys to Kentwood, where he fostered as a boy, hoping Lord Aldred will take him on as a knight in his guard. The old warrior is close to death, but Aldred soon realizes Gavin is his son. Aldred plots to have Gavin inherit Kentwood and marry his much younger wife, Elizabeth, a famed and opinionated beauty who remains a virgin after a decade of marriage.
Will the king recognize Lord Aldred’s first request of a marriage between Elizabeth and Robert, uniting Robert’s estate with Kentwood—or will the temperamental Edward reward Aldred’s years of service and honor a dying man’s final request?
*This is a revised addition of A Bit of Heaven on Earth, which was originally released under the pen name Lauren Linwood.
Release date: January 18, 2022
Publisher: Oliver Heber Books
Print pages: 230
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
A Bit of Heaven on Earth
Lady Elizabeth Bramwell of Aldwyn plopped upon the hearth, stretching out her long legs as she carefully concealed the breeches she wore under her borrowed kirtle. She yawned wearily, tired from her day of riding and exploring. The fire warmed her back and would hopefully dry her auburn hair, heavy from the summer shower she’d been caught in that afternoon. She ran a hand through her thick mass of curls, using her fingers to pull any knots free.
“I will have no more of this, Elizabeth,” her father roared. “You ignore me at your peril.”
She steeled herself for their usual argument. “Then quit parading suitors before me.” She tossed her head, the wild auburn curls spilling about her shoulders. “’Tis a waste of their time and yours, not to mention mine.”
She ignored his murderous glare and continued slipping her fingers through her tangled locks, hoping a servant would interrupt her father with a situation that needed his immediate attention. If so, she could slip away from the great hall and avoid this entire conversation.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Instead, her father began pacing the room, his voice bellowing as she imagined it did on the battlefield when he shouted orders to his loyal knights. She thought it loud enough that possible King Edward in London might be able to hear of her wrongdoing.
Her red-faced parent paused in front of her. “You think you can control your hair? I would but wish I could tame those devilish red locks. ‘Twould be a start to taming you.”
“My hair has as much brown as red in it, Father.”
He threw his hands up in despair. “That’s not the point, Elizabeth. I swear it’s the Devil Himself in you causing you to act the way you do.”
Though she knew where the conversation headed, she couldn’t help her retort. “And besides my shade of hair, what fault do you find with my behavior?”
Her father fisted his hands at his sides and took a deep breath. “You cannot run off every time I summon an eligible man to Aldwyn, Daughter.”
Her father began harping again, his long strides carrying him back and forth across the great hall. Elizabeth tuned out his lengthy tirade. After ten-and-seven years, she knew her list of transgressions by heart and could recite them from memory. On any given day, her father’s litany of his only child’s misconduct might go on for hours. It usually began with the fact that she was too headstrong. Unmanageable. Stubborn. Willful.
Then he’d move on and claim that she’d run wild, as if she were some hound that should be bent to a strong master’s will. Her father always managed to point out that no suitor pleased her. Ever. Elizabeth took secret pride in the fact that two had even asked to be released from their intended betrothal to her because of her strong will.
But his next words did not fall on deaf ears.
“... so in that case I have no choice, Daughter. I will force you into a convent and wash my hands of you.”
She smiled sweetly, ready to meet any challenge he threw her way.
“Then I shall merely plot my escape. Run away.” She placed her elbows upon her knees, resting her chin upon her fists. “Admit it, Father. I am incorrigible. You cannot make me do anything, especially find a convent that would want me. I would surmise that within a week the good nuns and their mother abbess would push me outside and lock the gates to keep me from returning to their fold.”
She stood and dusted the front of her man’s dark brown tunic, one she had swiped from where it lay drying in the sun. She left a gold coin in its place, knowing the owner would come out the better in the trade.
Her father looked at her solemnly. “Just as I thought you would say. Which is why I now produce this.”
Elizabeth watched warily as he walked to an oak chest and lifted its lid. He removed a thick scroll. She knew exactly what that meant.
“Sweet Jesu, Father. Not another betrothal contract?”
“Hush,” he commanded. “This time you’ll see a marriage through. ‘Tis to a much older man. He will settle you down. He has had two previous wives and already has three children by them, though the eldest died last year in the French wars. He will know how to discipline such wayward behavior. Hopefully, he’ll get you with child and keep you that way for the next dozen years or more. Lots of babes will take all these wild notions from your head.”
“Wild notions? Simply because I refuse to behave like a simpering—”
“Watch what you say, Elizabeth. Do not tread lightly on Thera’s memory.”
She frowned. “I do not tread upon my mother’s memory. I have no memory of her. How can I blacken what I have no knowledge of?”
But Elizabeth did know.Thera, from the descriptions she gleaned from servants over the years, had been full of sweetness and light, attending to her husband’s every whim. From an early age, Elizabeth knew she would never live up to what her gentle mother had been, so why begin to try?
Instead, she’d become the exact opposite. She was unladylike, volatile, and had a stubborn streak combined with a will of iron. She believed she would have made an excellent commander on the battlefield. Quick-witted and able to size up people in a matter of seconds, she’d been at war with her father for her entire life.
Usually on the winning side.
Why would she wish to have another, older man aim to tame her, breaking her spirit like that of a lively horse? No, thank you. Elizabeth was happy having already bent her father to her will. At least most of the time. He would get over this latest idea of fancy. Eventually, she would make him see that marriage was not a part of what she wanted.
“Bloody hell,” Elizabeth swore softly under her breath.
Now married, she sat at the head table in her wedding finery. Her father must have planned this marriage for quite some time, for her cotehardie and sideless surcoat had been made from the finest of silks. The rich scarlet and gold of both had delicate embroidery, so intricate she knew that a skilled seamstress had labored many months over its completion. Even her jeweled belt could be seen as a work of art, its golden chains embellished with rubies and freshwater pearls. No expense had been spared for this wedding attire. She viewed it and her generous dowry as a bribe from her father to her new husband. Lord Bramwell of Aldwyn had dressed up his daughter as a rare prize, but he was more than happy another man now took her off his hands. With the distance between Aldwyn and Kentwood, she doubted after today that she would ever see her father again.
The interminable feast progressed as slowly as the labor of a woman’s first babe. She’d lost count of the number of courses served over the last few hours. Duck, venison, roasted pig and goose, stewed apples and plums, cheeses, and cakes abounded.
Many were her favorite foods. She supposed her father had passed word along to the Kentwood kitchens, trying to appease her in no small way. She did love to eat. But not today.
Her wedding day.
She glanced from the corner of her eye to the old nobleman seated next to her. Her husband. He was well over six feet, with broad shoulders and a thatch of thick, white hair to match his equally white beard. She couldn’t place his age although she’d recognized his name the moment she heard it.
Lord Aldred of Kentwood. A legend throughout England for his warrior’s skills and cunning. Troubadours sang of his valor and victories as if he were a god. She doubted if there were a single person in all of England who hadn’t heard of Lord Aldred’s prowess on the battlefield.
Yet this gallant soldier, a favorite of King Edward, must be at least three score, mayhap more. Her groom, who used a walking stick to lean upon as he got around, was much older than any suitor her father presented in the past, and it worried her beyond measure.
Elizabeth wished both Lord Aldred and her father would fall over dead on the spot. She wondered idly if she would be entitled to any of Kentwood’s wealth if that small miracle occurred in the next few minutes.
Her father had outsmarted her, after all. Instead of the wedding party arriving at Aldwyn and the marriage taking place from the bride’s home, her father had brought her to Kentwood and this elderly bridegroom, with the help of Aldwyn’s healer. Elizabeth would love to know what had been placed in her drink at the evening meal. She had lost two full days’ time after consuming it.
She awakened miles away from home with heavy limbs and a throbbing headache. What little she’d seen of the property from her window was impressive, she admitted to herself, but she did not want to be at Kentwood. Did not want to be married to an old goat. Couldn’t begin to imagine what awaited her upstairs in the marriage bed.
She shuddered and reached for her goblet. Mayhap the wine would dull her senses. If she drank enough of it, hopefully she would have no recollection of what would take place this night.
Suddenly, a hand rested upon her wrist. “I would guess you have had enough, my dear.”
Elizabeth finally looked into the eyes of her new husband for the first time. Aldred. His voice was gentle, but the stern look he gave her was enough to make her set down the golden cup. She bit her lip in frustration. This was going to be far more challenging than she’d thought. Lord Aldred might be advanced in years, but steely resolve ran through him. She was certain of it.
“I think we’ve both had enough of the merriment, don’t you agree, my lady?”
For a moment, she detected a mischievous glint in his eyes, then it was gone. Had it been a mere shadow? She gripped her hands tightly in her lap.
Lowering her eyes demurely, she said, “Whatever you say, my lord.”
Her new husband chuckled. “You need not be meek with me, Elizabeth. I know a strong-willed woman when I see one. I have even heard a few tales about you. Quite interesting ones indeed.”
She looked up at him quickly. “What tales?” She studied him carefully. “Mayhap you are not as wise as I was led to believe, my lord, if you heard such tales and still chose to wed me.”
He suppressed a smile. “Oh, I believe I know exactly what I have gotten myself into, wife of mine.” He rose and offered her his hand. “Come.”
They made their way through the great hall, drunken revelers shouting their good wishes to them. Elizabeth met her father’s eyes defiantly before turning and ascending the stairs with her husband.
Her stomach lurched, bringing a wave of nausea. God in Heaven, what would come next? Actually, she had more than an inkling of what would be expected of her. When a child, she’d stumbled upon couples on three separate occasions in the stables, naked as newborns, caught up in their lovemaking. She’d thought the act disgusting. Besides, she knew it must be quite hurtful, as both the men and women cried out and quivered and moaned as if in great agony.
She’d also seen babes born on a few occasions. If that kind of pain were the result of a quick coupling, she decided long ago to have none of it. Her own mother had died in childbirth when Elizabeth was but two. The babe that came from Lady Thea lived only a few hours. Why would women put themselves through something of that nature?
No, Elizabeth decided long ago that physical love was not for her. She’d had no mother to correct her assumptions. She liked her life exactly the way it had been. Why ruin it? She didn’t need or want love. Instead, she desired more than anything to learn. To travel. A thousand experiences would be more gratifying than the act of love.
Yet here she was, ready to do the very thing she found loathsome, legally bound to a man whom she knew nothing about, other than what she had heard praised in song. Nothing she could do or say would prevent her new husband from exercising his rights by law. Any independence she’d once possessed ended with the vows she had uttered under duress in front of dozens of witnesses. She was little more than chattel to Lord Aldred of Kentwood, and beyond the ample dowry her father had provided, Elizabeth had no value to this man.
Aldred led her down a large hallway lined in stone and lit by sconces. Her heart pounded with each step she made, the sound echoing in her ears. They reached the solar all too quickly, and Lord Aldred opened the heavy wooden door and motioned her inside. She quickly took in that her personal possessions had been transferred from her guest bedchamber while she had been at the ceremony and subsequent feast. Her brush lay on a table by the bed. Her blue bed robe had been draped across a chair.
Elizabeth’s belly rebelled at the thought of sharing intimate details of her life with anyone, much less losing all privacy to a stranger—especially one who would force her into all kinds of vile acts. She knew from experience, though, to show no weakness, whether to friend or foe. She sucked in a quick breath and then exhaled slowly, hoping it would calm her.
She held her head high. She would dance to Lord Aldred’s tune in the bedroom if she must, but she refused to lose herself. She could learn to control this new husband of hers, learn to placate him, even live a separate life from him. She’d heard many couples did just that. Beyond the bedroom, they rarely even spoke. She hoped Lord Aldred would subscribe to this kind of marriage. She doubted she could tolerate more.
“Have a seat, Elizabeth. Let us talk and get to know one another a bit. We have not been given time to do so, in part due to the haste in which Fayne insisted that our marriage take place.” A shadow crossed his face. “I am sorry for the way you were brought here. ‘Twas not my wish to see you come to Kentwood in such a manner.”
He gave her a small smile. “Please. Come and sit. I would take care to know my new wife.”
Though her legs were a bit wobbly, she managed to glide to the proffered seat as if being alone with a strange, old man was the most natural thing in the world. Lord Aldred took the seat opposite her, slipping off his boots and propping his crossed feet upon the hearth in order to warm his feet.
“What a good idea,” she proclaimed, and she did likewise. He looked shocked at first and then laughed heartily with approval.
“Your father said you were... high-spirited.” His eyes glowed with unspoken approval. “I think we will do quite well together, my dear. Let us speak frankly and learn about one another.”
He poured wine for them both, and Elizabeth let him talk on a bit as she sipped the sweetened liquid. Lord Aldred explained that he’d been married twice before. She had met his two children earlier at the marriage feast, a son who was a sturdy lad, tall and outgoing, and a shy wisp of a daughter with raven hair. The long day was such a blur she couldn’t even recall their names now. As he spoke, she gradually began to relax a little. He seemed a decent sort. Mayhap this act of love could happen quickly and be done with.
Lord Aldred reached out and took her hand in his gnarled one. “I made both my wives happy, Elizabeth. I hope I can make you so.”
Her stomach knotted as the old warrior stood and gently pulled her to her feet. He kissed her forehead with surprising tenderness and led her to the curtained bed.
“I know this is awkward, my dear. I shall leave you to prepare. I will return in—”
“No,” Elizabeth interjected. If he left, her fears would grow. She might even try to slip out of the castle. She wouldn’t cause him the embarrassment of having to track down a runaway bride in front of all his guests, not when he’d already tried so hard to be kind to her.
“I am ready to do my duty now, Husband. Simply tell me what you expect of me. I had no mother to train me. I fear I am ill-prepared in this venture.”
He studied her. The flickering shadows from the candles played across his lined face. She locked her knees together and stood her ground. She took a deep breath and steadied herself.
“I see,” he said after a long moment. “Loosen your hair, then pull back the bed curtains and climb upon the bed. I will do my best in initiating you into the mysteries of marriage." He touched her cheek and stroked it. “Do not fear me, Elizabeth. You have great spirit. I would not see that change.”
His words brought her some comfort. She did as he instructed, pulling the caul from her head and unbinding her mass of curls. She pushed away the curtains and thought she should at least remove her surcoat and cote-hardie. Without turning, she wordlessly slipped out of them and tossed the garments aside, though she wouldn’t part with her kirtle. The thought of his old, weathered hands touching her bare skin caused her to tremble. She eased upon the raised bed and settled onto her back. Her heart raced. Her limbs felt stiff and heavy.
Despite the amount of wine she’d drunk, she found her mouth had gone dry. She bit her lip again as Lord Aldred went about the room, extinguishing candles, leaving the fire as the only light in the room. As he began to disrobe, she closed her eyes. She swallowed hard as he joined her upon the bed, drawing the curtains.
Aldred talked to her softly, murmuring words of comfort as he explained what they both would do. Elizabeth nodded, her voice failing her. She could do this. She would do this.
It didn’t go as he said it would. Oh, he touched her face and kissed her gently, caressed his hands up and down her body, cupped her breasts as she lay there, wishing herself far away. Yet when it came time for him to enter her, something was wrong.
Fearing his wrath, she said meekly, “I am sorry, my lord. Perhaps I did not quite understand what I am to do. This doesn’t seem to be going according to your plan.”
Her husband sighed and rolled from atop her, coming to rest beside her. He stared blankly up at the ceiling. Elizabeth lay motionless. Then her natural curiosity could stand no more. She turned to her side, propping her head upon her elbow.
“What am I doing wrong, my lord? If you will but explain things again, ‘tis certain I will get it right this time. I have always been a quick learner. I do not wish to disappoint you in any way.”
Her husband’s head turned. His eyes took her in. Elizabeth saw a trace of a smile play about his thin lips.
He reached out and touched her hair, smoothing it. The gesture comforted her. “’Tis nothing you’ve done wrong, child. I fear despite my best plans that I cannot make love to you.”
She was puzzled. “Why not? You are the one that knows how. You have done this many times in the past. If we are to accomplish this deed, then I must follow your lead. Of course, once I have mastered the task, I’d be happy to take the lead upon occasion.”
His laugh was rich and deep. His thumb brushed against her cheek tenderly. “Ah, my sweet wife. My very own Elizabeth.” He sighed. “‘Tis an apology I must make to you.”
He cupped her cheek in one hand. “I am old, my dear. And when men reach my age, many times they cannot perform the marital act. It becomes physically impossible. I thought a young, beautiful girl would make a difference. Now, in my folly, I see that it does not.”
Elizabeth tried to hide her growing excitement. She wouldn’t have to couple with him, after all. She sought to reassure Lord Aldred, for whom she already felt a strong fondness. “’Tis all right, my husband. If we cannot do this thing, then so be it. My loyalty remains with you.”
He shook his head.
“No, ‘twould not be fair to you, child. You are young and have a lifetime ahead of you. ‘Twill be babes you’ll soon want. A man’s love that you’ll need.”
He sat up. “I shall see that our marriage is annulled. ‘Twill free you for another, one closer to your own age.”
“No,” she said firmly. She pushed up until she was in a sitting position and took his rough hand in hers, holding it tightly. “I refuse to see you humiliated in such a way, my lord. I swore before God and guests to this marriage, and ‘twill be so.”
Aldred squeezed her fingers. “No. I cannot ask this of you, Elizabeth. I have already been fool enough.”
She smiled shyly. This new husband of hers was considerate and not quite the monster she’d conjured in her mind. He seemed most reasonable. Mayhap she could strike a bargain with him.
“Actually, my lord, ‘twould be you doing me the favor. You already have children and a son as your heir. I can be a mother to them. As you said, we seem to suit. I would prefer to stay and learn from you.”
A look of puzzlement crossed his face. “Learn from me?”
Elizabeth looked at him in earnest. This would be her chance to escape her father’s constant nagging. She could not return to her childhood home, especially since she knew better than to trust her father. She refused to be forced to marry against her will, especially a man that might not be as reasonable as Lord Aldred was proving to be.
“I can read and write a little. Would you be willing to teach me more, about all manner of things? Help me learn all about Kentwood and how to run a household? Allow me to be independent? I would answer to no man but you alone.”
Her new husband eyed her with interest and then shook his head sadly. “It would not be fair to you.”
She smiled sweetly at him. Often, her smile convinced her father when nothing else could. “In exchange, I will show you the utmost respect and affection, both in private and before the world. I shall never share what has passed between us here within the privacy of our solar.”
He sized her up. “You drive a hard bargain, my lady. You truly would stay with an old man until my time is up?”
Elizabeth took both his hands in hers, eager for him to agree to her proposal. “’Tis my fondest wish, my lord. I promise to be with you always, caring for you, even until the end.”
He laughed aloud, the sound of his mirth like sweet music to her ears. “I suppose ‘tis not every day a man of my age gets such a magnanimous offer.” He tenderly kissed her cheek. “You have your bargain, my lady. I will hold you to it. I will be your teacher and your closest friend. I will cherish you until my dying day and do whatever I can to please you in every way.”
He lay back upon the pillow, pulling her down to rest next to him. “Let’s get some rest, Wife,” he whispered softly.
Elizabeth lay next to him, awake for some hours, while Lord Aldred snored softly. It made her slightly uncomfortable being so close to him, but he was clean, had most of his teeth, and she knew he would never mistreat her. She finally fell asleep, dreaming about all the things she would do—the books she would read in his library, helping him run his estate, mayhap even learning swordplay. Excitement filled her at such prospects.
And if she had to mother his children from another wife, so be it. How difficult could that be?
Ashgrove—the north of England—1355
Gillian groaned as pain racked her body yet again. Cold sweat drenched her hair and the very bedclothes. She wanted it to be over. Twinges and tingles had turned from dull aches over the past months to this jarring pain, something far worse than childbirth all those years ago.
She smiled, thinking of Gavin, and wished he could be here at the end to hold her hand. The thought of her brave, handsome son brought the only comfort she’d known in days. With his image, though, guilt flooded her, as strong as any of the suffering that flowed through her now.
“What might I do to comfort you, my lady?”
She despaired as Father Michael, the doddering priest who barely knew his own name nowadays, leaned over her solicitously.
“You cannot give me physical solace, Father, but you can let me go to God with a clear conscience.”
The priest looked confused. “My lady, you have always been most pious in your devotions. I have often thought a cloistered life would have suited you well.”
Gillian sucked in her breath as another shot of agony, hot as liquid fire, poured through her withered body. God punished her now for the sins of her youth. She had spent a lifetime trying to make it up to Him. Apparently, her devotion hadn’t been enough to please Him. Mayhap her final words would.
“’Tis time, Father, for my last confession,” she managed to say. “Then the last rites.”
Suddenly, her husband stormed in. Berwyn was the last person she cared to see at her dying moment. She closed her eyes, willing him to go away. What if her wasted body expired before she could make her peace with God?
“Out, man!” Berwyn proclaimed.
She opened her eyes to see her husband pushing their priest out the bedchamber’s door. If she were destined to rot in Hell, she was certain Berwyn would be there to keep her company.
“Can you not get this over with, Wife?” he demanded, not bothering to chastise her in quiet tones. “How long does it take a devout woman to die? Surely God is anxious for you to come to Him.”
He narrowed his eyes and studied her, his thick lips curling in contempt. “You spent more time in conversation with God than you ever did in our marriage bed or even caring for this household. You already have one foot in the next world. If not for Gavin, your time on earth would be worthless. Hurry up and die. I wish to marry again, a woman who shall be a true wife to me.”
Gillian tried to wet her cracked lips in order to issue a quick retort but failed. Berwyn sneered at her weak effort. He left the room, brushing against the old priest who stood just outside the door.
Berwyn continued down the dimly lit passageway, barely restraining his fury. He did what his father commanded years ago and married Gillian. The old man hadn’t lived a twelvemonth afterward. At least Berwyn had enjoyed the wealth Gillian’s dowry brought to Ashgrove. It had allowed him to expand the estate and make numerous improvements over the years.
The worst was that Berwyn found himself saddled with what might as well have been a nun for a spouse all these years. She’d produced the required heir within the first year of their union and then promptly lost all interest in carnal things.
And he was a very carnal man.
“God’s teeth!” he roared.
He’d gone into the chamber that smelled like death in order to fetch a bauble for Clarine. He’d promised her a jewel after their lovemaking last night and knew he could not go to her again unless he presented the trinket. Berwyn angrily paced down the hall again to retrieve a gem from his wife’s casket. She never wore them and would probably be dead by the time he placed a necklace about Clarine’s luscious throat.
Father Michael no longer stood guard outside the bedchamber. Undoubtedly, he had gone inside again to offer solace to Gillian. Berwyn pushed open the door, grimacing at the stench of stale vomit that greeted him again, once more glad he had banished his wife from the solar, having servants take her to this bedchamber.
Before he could take more than a few steps, however, he halted. Gillian’s faltering words forced him to a stop.
“... and so Gavin is not Berwyn’s son. In truth, Father, ‘tis Lord Aldred’s blood that runs through my son’s veins.”
Shock caused a physical reaction. Bile rose in his throat. He swallowed quickly and took two steps back so as to remain out of sight. He had fostered with Lord Aldred of Kentwood when but a youth, worshipping the man far more than his own father, who was Aldred’s closest friend. Lord Aldred taught him how to ride and use a sword. How to wench and drink. Now, Berwyn learned a score-and-four later that the famed nobleman had cuckolded him?
When had it transpired?
He thought back to the earliest time in his marriage. Gillian delivered a son to him eight months after their vows. She told him many times first children came early, and he hadn’t any reason to question her. Gavin had been perfect in every way.
Now, he saw in an instant how much Gavin resembled his true father. Berwyn had wondered where Gavin’s height had come from and his unusual eyes. Why had he been blind to the truth all these years? Rage rushed through him.
“He might have been a score more than I, yet he was the kindest man, despite his reputation as a fierce warrior. Gavin is just like him, Father. He has Aldred’s eyes and smile and his gentle disposition.”
Gillian moaned softly and panted like a dog would before she continued. “I have seen Gavin nurse a mare in labor with tenderness, yet ‘tis fierce and unhesitating he is with his sword. A son any mother would be proud of. I have kept my secret all these years, Father. ‘Twas my sin to bear. I have suffered in silence so that my son would become lord of Ashgrove.”
The priest murmured soft words of absolution, but Berwyn blocked them out. He forced his clenched fists to open and took a calming breath. His face now a blank mask, he strode through the room and placed a hand on the clergyman’s back.
“Forgive my earlier outburst, Father. I regret the harsh words I spoke to my wife. I have come to beg her forgiveness, as she is so near to death.”
He gave Gillian a soft smile before looking again at the cleric. “Would you allow us some privacy?”
Father Michael turned and shuffled from the room, shaking his head as he mumbled to himself. Berwyn waited until he heard the door close before he looked at his traitorous wife.
Her beauty had faded long ago. Only her eyes burned brightly in her shriveled face. They held his, questioning, unsure why he would offer her an apology.
“You’re right, my dear,” he said almost tenderly. “I won’t beg your pardon.” Berwyn moved closer to the bed, breathing from his mouth so as to keep the scent of death from his nostrils.
He placed his hands upon her bony shoulders and gripped her tightly as he brought his face close to hers. The fear in her eyes brought a smile to his face.
“I am here to tell you one thing, Wife. Your bastard child will never be master of Ashgrove. Never.”
Tears sprang to her eyes as he watched the realization seep through her.
“Yes, I heard your pathetic confession.” Berwyn lifted a hand from her shoulder and wound his fingers around a lock of her graying hair. “I may have been fooled for years, but no more. Gavin is as good as dead to me.”
He smiled at her. “As are you.”
With a swift movement, Berwyn pulled a pillow from behind Gillian’s back and pressed it to her face. She struggled briefly, but the disease that ravaged her body had robbed her of her strength. When she ceased moving, he lifted the pillow and returned it from where it came.
She lay with eyes open, full of fright. Berwyn steeled himself and brushed his palm across her face, closing her eyelids. He straightened the bedclothes and then went across the room. Opening the casket that contained all of her jewels, he pawed through the contents, choosing a circlet to place inside his tunic. Clarine’s golden tresses would look lovelier than usual now.
Returning to Gillian’s bed, Berwyn knelt next to it. He took one of her hands in his. Already, it was cool to his touch. He bit his tongue hard to give himself a pained look, one that he hoped would pass for sorrow, and bellowed at the top of his lungs.
“Sweet Jesu! Come quickly! My wife is dead.”
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