Arianna had known for more than a year that her parents wanted her to be active in looking for a husband, but she simply could not do it. She was raised with freedom and independence; she did not like the absolute power a man would wield over her life once she was married. If she were ever to make that commitment, twould be for love. She thought it only fair that she should find him comely—that was not asking a lot! Alaric’s striking face flashed in her brain and her heartbeat picked up. She could not imagine the type of woman who would ever win his interest for life.
She tried to refocus her brain and concentrate on what her mother was saying as they neared the castle door.
“…just one. It will make your father so happy,” she coaxed.
Unable to argue without knowing all the facts but loathe to hear her mother recount them all over again, she took a bet. How bad could it be if it was something her father would like? “Fine, but just one.”
She knew she had made a vital mistake when her mother’s face lit up like a torch.
“Oh, Arianna! You will not regret this decision. I will handle everything; we will plan it before the yearly tournaments when all the kingdom travels here to compete so you may bestow your favor properly,” her smile was brilliant.
She was so excited that by the time Arianna realized she had agreed to a night of wooing by potential husbands, she could not refuse. Shaking her head, she sighed. Twas only one day. She could make it through one day. “I will leave it all to you, mother; but do not turn it into a party of follies. I only want interesting young men there and I must be allowed to refuse or dismiss suitors at my pleasure.”
Bernice scrutinized her demanding daughter. “You are just like Henry when you get your mind set on something,” a slow smile reappeared on her aging face. “Do not be hasty, child. Some men take time and some finesse to see through.”
Arianna smiled, hoping twas the case with Alaric, “Agreed.”
The pair walked through the front hall and paused when they heard the loud boisterous male voices.
Bernice glanced to her daughter and bit her lip thoughtfully, “It appears that something happened in our absence.”
“Let us find out what.” Arianna pulled her mother into the Great Hall and laughed at the sight that greeted them. “Oh My…”
Uncle Edward and Ryland were dancing with bread loaves on the table while Rowina circled and yelled for their safe return; Henry had Harrik in a headlock while Erik exuberantly cheered on, and it appeared Alaric, Hedrig and two other men were playing a game at a table. All were laughing and talking at an unusually high level and twas clear they had been drinking.
“Poor Rowina,” Bernice sympathized.
Attention was drawn to them as they neared and Arianna realized that Stefan was among the participants. Seeing her, he stood unsteadily and gave a crooked bow. “M’Lady! S’ good of you t’ join uss. Please, take m’ sseat.”
Arianna noted twas directly across from Alaric and accepted, “My thanks, M’Lord.”
She watched as her mother moved off to stop her husband’s bullying.
“Henry, for God’s sake, let Harrik go… We all know you are a big strong man.”
The small woman pulled at his sleeve and Henry did as he was asked but frowned, “Tiz all in funn, Bernnie!”
She rolled her eyes, “Mayhap we should ask Harrik if twas fun.”
“Are you taking Stefan’s place?” Alaric’s deep voice cut into Arianna’s thoughts.
Glancing to him, she shrugged, “What is it that you are playing?”
Stefan placed a friendly hand on her shoulder and gave her a quick synopsis before he winked. “Do no’ play if y’ canna’ handle yer alc’hol,” his lips moved close to her ear, “would hate t’ assidentally take advanage of you.”
Arianna’s eyes widened in disbelief. “I am perfectly safe with you and well I know it!” Her eyes returned to Alaric’s challenging stare, “I will play.”
That night the meal was haphazard and chaotic with people eating while standing, talking, wrestling and fighting. Pick and Flick was a great success, causing many occupants of the keep to be functioning at half capacity; Arianna and Alaric among them.
Their game had long ceased when the two remained at the table assessing one another. Alaric was frustrated to find himself filled with unwelcome arousal for her. He thought he could assuage his need with another but apparently all it took was five minutes in her delectable presence and he was randy as a goat. Netta was busy working for at least another hour and the knowledge was making him irritable. His whole body was tight and hot and demanding that he do something about it.
Arianna read the hard displeasure in his icy eyes and tried to figure it out. Things had been fine with him last night and again today. They had been fine when she had first sat down to play, but now they were not. She could feel the waves of impatience coming from him like a caged animal. He could not wait to get away from her. She chewed her lip. Why was she so different than Netta? Why could he sit and laugh and talk with her?
Even as she thought it, she saw his gaze shift and followed it over to the brunette.
“Excuse me, Lady St. James,” he muttered, coming to his feet.
He was dismissing her again—and this time, for another female! A strange wash of bitterness ate at her throat. What was his problem with her? Well, she thought as she pushed from the table, this time she was going to find out.
He was in a dark alcove whispering with the maid when she came upon them and seeing her, Netta jumped back from him, curtsying with haste.
“Uh, M’Lady! Please, excuse me. I was juss gettin’ back ter work,” she rushed to explain and then scurried off.
Alaric crossed his arms over his broad chest and turned to face her. “Were you following me, M’Lady?” he sounded agitated.
Arianna tilted her chin up defensively, “Yes.”
His face showed no change, “Why?”
“I—wanted to talk with you,” she explained, trying to remember why she thought she should do this.
“About what, pray tell?” he pressed.
The dim light cast shadows over the planes and hollows of his face, making him look like a beautiful marble statue. His expression was just as closed and cold. “I saw you with Netta earlier in the kitchens,” she began, licking her lips quickly, “and you were… laughing with her and I began to wonder.” Her eyes clashed with his and she spoke bluntly. “Why will you not talk with me?”
Alaric wanted to laugh right then. Talk with her? He had a lot of things he wanted to do with her, but talking was not among them. His smile was at once mocking and knowing. “Sweetheart, I only keep the company of a lady for one reason,” his eyes swept her, “and I doubt a little girl like you would know much about it.”
Arianna searched his face, wishing desperately that she did know; but the truth was she was an innocent in that regard, and her pride would not let her ask for an explanation. So she shrugged, trying to be nonchalant, “I see.”
For some reason that made him chuckle, a sound that would usually be most welcome, but she knew twas at her expense.
“No you do not…and that is the point,” he shook his head and sighed, seeming suddenly bored. “Why do you not simply retire, M’Lady? I am sure the ale has made you drowsy.”
Arianna’s back stiffened. “Hear this, Blackheart: I am no child. I may seem naïve to one such as you, but I am far more worldly than you think,” she said firmly. “Now I will excuse myself—not to retire, but to go back to the hall, or wherever else I desire to go!” she huffed at him and then stalked off.
Alaric watched her go, a smile tugging at his mouth. She was a feisty little thing for her age…and bold. He could not remember the last time he had been confronted by a lady for his inattention. Usually they appreciated it, or were at least deterred by it. He ran a hand through his hair. Why did it have to be the one woman he could not resist who persisted?
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