The next thing she came up with was some rancid cooked meat. Not a very large piece, just an edge really, probably one of the bits Cook cut off some slab of meat before serving it. Helen laid that on the blanket, too, then made a big deal of digging about expectantly inside the now empty bag.
"Oh, dear," she murmured with poorly feigned dismay.
Acting concerned, Hethe raised his eyebrows. "Is something the matter?"
"Well, it looks as if Cook misunder – achoo!" Caught by surprise by her sneeze, Helen covered her mouth belatedly and blinked several times before shaking her head and continuing. "Cook must have thought I meant to picnic alone. He sent only enough for – achoo!"
"For one?" Hethe suggested, solicitously producing a small square of linen for her to blow her nose.
"Aye." Taking the linen, Helen paused to do so.
"Oh, dear, oh, dear," Hethe murmured, adding a "Bless you" when she sneezed again.
"Fortunately," Helen began, frowning as she noticed that her eyes were becoming agitated and itchy.
"Fortunately, I am not – achoo!"
"Hungry?" Hethe murmured, sounding unsurprised.
"Aye," she muttered, her voice coming out thick as she became aware of a scratchiness in it. "So you must go ahead – achoo! And eat – achoo! I shall just – achoo!"
Hethe was silent through another round of her nose-blowing before saying, "You appear to be suffering somewhat. Perhaps we should return to the keep rather than picnic."
Helen seriously considered his offer for a moment. She was having a terrible reaction to something. She only reacted this way to posies as a rule, but when she glanced around she did not see any. Still, there must be some nearby, she thought unhappily as another round of sneezing overtook her. Her gaze fell on the vile meal she had spread out between them, and she stiffened her back. She would see him suffer through it before they returned. Her itchy, irritated eyes and a couple of sneezes were nothing next to the intestinal discomfort he was about to suffer.
"Nay," she said, then turned her head to sneeze before continuing. "It would be a pity to let this f-f-f-achoo! – fine meal go to – achoo! – waste. I am content to watch you eat before we re – achoo! – turn."
"How sweet of you, Lady Helen. But there is no need for you to simply sit and watch. I could not leave you hungry while I ate."
"Oh, I – " Helen began quickly to make excuses, but he overrode her words.
"Is it not fortunate, therefore, that I thought to send William down to the village tavern to fetch a meal just in case something of the like occurred?" Presenting her with a smile as sweet as any she herself had produced, he tugged a much larger sack she had not noticed from the edge of their blanket. Then, while Helen watched in wide-eyed horror, he began to pull item after item out of the bag. The first item was roast chicken. And not just a leg or a breast, but an entire roast chicken, golden brown and succulent.
Helen’s mouth actually began to water at the sight of it. Next came a hunk of cheese that looked solid and sweet compared to her oily, crumbling mess. A loaf of bread followed, soft and fresh, then three roasted potatoes all cooked to perfection.
"I am sure they will not be as tasty as your chef’s fine meal," he went on as Helen peered at the food and licked her lips. "But I shall suffer this lesser fare while you enjoy your own cook’s repast."
Hearing the mocking tone of his voice, Helen slowly raised her eyes to his. There was no mistaking the triumph in his gaze.
The great hall was full of people eating theirmiddaymeal when Hethe escorted Helen back toTiernay Castle. He led her, because by that time her eyes were quite puffy, which obstructed her vision somewhat. They were arriving in the middle of the meal, despite having stopped to eat some two hours before, because it had taken Hethe that long to consume every last scrap of the food William had purchased from the tavern. And he had consumed it all. There hadn’t been a chicken bone with a nibble of meat left on it, or even a crumb from the loaf of bread left by the time he was done.
The glutton, Helen thought bitterly. He hadn’t offered her even a bite of cheese from his feast, but had encouraged her to eat her own fare, stating that he just knew her chef must cook to her preferences, that he would not think of denying her the pleasure of enjoying it. Helen had spent the past two hours spitting moldy old cheese and bad meat out of her mouth under the cover of her sneezes, which had grown more violent and persistent with each passing moment.
"Would you care to join the table?"
Helen stiffened at that solicitous voice near her ear. She wasn’t at all fooled by it. The man was an ogre.
A beast. He was as cruel as they came. And she’d be damned if she was going to display her present state before all – a state he was wholly responsible for, she knew. She realized how neatly he had set her up when they’d had finally finished and gathered everything together to leave. He hadn’t even bothered to try to prevent her from seeing what lay beneath the blanket when he picked it up. As he’d refolded it, Helen had stood squinting in horror at the compressed patch of posies beneath. Then, she had recalled the way he had fussed over laying out the blanket. He had snapped it out several times over the ground, picked it up and turned it over to snap it out one last time before being satisfied. No doubt the side upon which they had sat had been covered with the essence of posies. Hence her violent reaction.
Oh, Lord Holden was an evil one, all right. Even his offer to return to the keep when she had begun to sneeze had been staged. He had asked her before presenting his sack of food from the village tavern.
Had Helen known about that, she surely would have agreed to return to the keep at once, knowing that her plot had been foiled. But, nay, he had elicited her assurance that she would stay before revealing his master stroke, leaving her little choice but to remain and pretend to eat her own rancid food.
Helen tugged her arm free from his guiding hand, then shook her head. "Nay, I think I shall just go lie down and rest, thankyou," she announced stiffly. She waited for him to disappear, relieved when, after a hesitation, he released her arm and stepped away.
"What a gentlemen," she sneered as she listened to his footsteps move away toward the trestle tables.
Heaving a sigh, she squinted hard in an effort to see where she was going and made her way in the general direction of the stairs. She had only taken a few steps when she heard the pitter-patter of hurried footsteps approaching.
"Aunt Nell?" she breathed with relief.
"Aye, dear. Lord Holden said that you might be in need of my assistance. Is something wrong – oh, dear Lord!" the woman gasped, apparently having caught a glimpse of her face. "What happened?"
"Help me upstairs and I shall explain."
"Wait. Just let me fetch Duck – Oh, Lord Holden is sending her after us now. Just a moment."
There was a rustle as her aunt moved several feet away to meet Ducky, then a brief murmured conversation before a rustling announced Nell’s return. She took Helen’s arm to lead her to the stairs.
"What is happening with the marriage negotiations?" Helen asked as they started up the stairs.
"Oh. I am delaying them as much as possible," her aunt murmured, then tightened her hold on Helen’s shoulder. "That is what you want, is it not?"
"Aye. I shall need more time. We need another plan. He has discovered this one."
"What? Oh, no. How?"
"I do not know how," she admitted on a sigh as they reached the top of the stairs and started along the hall toward her bedchamber. "I first began to suspect he knew on his first night here, and I am positive he knows now."
"What happened today? How did you end up like this?" Aunt Nell’s voice was full of concern as they reached Helen’s room and she escorted her niece inside. "He did not hit you?"
"Nay." Helen grimaced with displeasure. "He had us picnic on a patch of posies."
"What?" she cried in alarm. "But why did you allow it?"
"I did not know they were there," Helen admitted with vexation as she eased over to lie on the bed. "I was distracted, and he placed the blanket over them. Actually, he wiped one side of the blanket over them repeatedly and, well, then he turned it over and laid it over them. I sat right down without realizing, and could not figure out why I was reacting so." Her admission was bitter.
"But when you began to sneeze and your eyes began to irritate you, why did you not ask him to bring you back to the castle?"
"I wanted to force him to eat those pastries and bad cheese ere we returned," she admitted with disgruntlement. "By the time I realized that he had fouled up that plan, too, it was too late. I was stuck there."
"How did he – "
Helen waved her aunt impatiently to silence. She had no desire to even think about the humiliation that morning, let alone explain it. She was more interested in other things. "We have a traitor in our midst."
"What!" Aunt Nell cried. Then they both fell silent as the door to the bedchamber opened. Helen turned her head and squinted at the person who entered. Her vision was rather impaired, but it appeared to be a woman in a dark gown. Ducky, she guessed as the blur rushed to the bedside.
"I brought cool water and a cloth as you asked me to, Lady Shambleau." Ducky’s voice was easily recognizable, and Helen relaxed somewhat. Then the servant gasped in horror and Helen tensed up again, her head swiveling this way and that, trying to peer about the room for the source of Ducky’s upset.
"What is it?"
"Your face. You are all swelled up," her lady’s maid breathed in dismay. Helen sank back in the bed miserably. It did feel all swollen and tight. She had a pounding headache behind her eyes, and she was fighting the urge to rub away their puffiness – something she had not been able to keep from doing in the clearing where they had picnicked. She probably would not be in as bad a way had she managed to restrain herself there, but she had felt so itchy and irritated…
"Give me the bowl of water, Ducky," Helen heard her aunt request softly. Then there was the sound of water splashing gently, and a cool cloth was laid across her face. Helen gave a start at the sensation, then breathed a sigh of relief. The cool damp had an immediate soothing effect and gave her the first relief from irritation she had known for two hours. It was heavenly.
"What happened?" Ducky’s anxious voice sounded, and Helen’s lips twisted bitterly.
"He had us picnic on a patch of posies."
"Posies? But you are allergic to posies."
"Aye. And he knew it, the blighter."
Helen sniffled miserably. "We have a traitor."
"I fear I may be the traitor," Nell announced quietly. Helen reached up to snatch the cloth away from her face and gape at her aunt’s blurry image.
"Well, there is no need to look at me like that. I did not mean to…" She paused and took the cloth from Helen, and there was the sound of water splashing again as she wrung it out. Turning back, she laid it back across Helen’s eyes. "He mentioned a picnic, and I thought to tell him to avoid posies – as you are allergic to them. But Lord Templetun dragged me off before I could." She quieted briefly, and Helen could almost hear the frown in her voice when she continued with vexation. "He must have overheard me telling Lord Templetun." She made a clucking sound. "It was truly awful of him to use it against you. Not very chivalrous at all."
Helen gave a snort at that. "This is the Hammer of Holden. He has no chivalry."
There was silence for a moment; then Nell asked, "What do you plan to do now?"
"I do not know," Helen admitted miserably.
"Well." Aunt Nell heaved a breath out, then patted Helen’s hand. "I have to get back below; Templetun is probably done stuffing himself by now and ready to get back to negotiations. You just rest awhile and relax. Mayhap something will come to you."
Helen gave a slight nod to that suggestion and listened to the rustle of material as her relative moved away to the door and left the room.
"Is there something I can get for you before I return below?"
Helen blinked her eyes open as the cloth was taken away to be soaked and wrung out again. Much to her relief, the cold cloths were already working. Some of the swelling must have gone down, because she could actually almost see properly. Her headache was still there, however. "Perhaps something for my aching head. And something to eat, too, please," Helen asked, closing her eyes as the cloth was placed back over them. "And maybe you could bring Goliath when you return, to keep me company?"
"Aye, my lady. Is there anything special you would like to eat?"
"Roast chicken," Helen said firmly. "If Cook doesn’t have any, send down to the village tavern and Maggie for some."
"Is there anything amiss with Lady Helen?"
Hethe stiffened at Lord Templetun’s question, then shook his head and finished sinking onto the trestle table bench beside him.
"Why has she not joined us, then? And why did you send her aunt off to tend to her?" the older man persisted as Hethe snatched a mug of ale from a passing serving wench.
Hethe took some time to sample the ale and release a breath of relief at its fresh taste before saying,
"She is fine. Or she will be," he added with irritation, trying to shrug off his guilt. He hoped she would be all right. She really had suffered a violent reaction to those posies he had purposely laid their blanket on.
He hadn’t meant to cause her so much discomfort. A couple of sneezes, a little irritation, were all he had expected. Now, the woman’s face was bloated like a corpse after being in the water a week. He grimaced at the thought, then shook his head and drank some more ale.
"Or she will be?" Templetun echoed slowly, his gaze narrowing. "What is wrong with her?"