Rose stared into Rand’s eyes. At his intense regard, a shiver raced down her arm. It was not desire or pleasure she experienced. She was numb to such things. It was as though a reckoning was upon her that she could not control, and it frightened her. Unable to withstand his penetrating stare, she finally dropped her eyes.
Rand touched her pointed chin lightly, guided her gaze back to his, and repeated, “Do you believe me when I say I shall never let Sir Golan have you?”
She nodded. “Aye. I do believe you.” Shock rippled through her. She had not lied. She truly believed Rand would do as he said, in this instance at least. He would see to it that she never married Sir Golan. But that brought back to mind the weighty issue of what marriage to Rand would mean. She was terrified of the marriage bed. Where once Rand’s touch had thrilled her, Rose was cold to feelings of pleasure and felt only shame and humiliation at the act.
“I believe you, Rand.” Rose took several steps over to the next raised planter bed and plucked a sprig of rosemary from one of the plants. She pinched it, sniffing the sweet fragrance. With her back to Rand, she inquired, “But you still intend to marry me, do you not?”
“Aye, Rose. War with Wales is imminent. Edward wants one of his household knights in charge of Ayleston and its resources. He sees wardship of Jason’s estate and marriage to you as an opportunity to reward one of us, while also protecting the vulnerable borders from Welsh raids.”
“I have been managing Jason’s estate since his father’s death. I don’t see why I need some man in charge. I can protect Ayleston as well as any man with the help of the castle guard.”
“You have been an able administrator for Ayleston, Rose—”
She spun around. “Aha. So you agree.”
“You did not let me finish. Since Bertram’s death there has been relative peace between England and Wales. But I have been worried for your safety for some time now. As a wealthy widow, you are prey to abduction by any ambitious knight who wishes to enrich himself. You would be raped and forced to marry to recover your reputation.” He raised his hand when she opened her mouth to protest. “`Tis not fair to blame the woman and vilify her character, I know, but unfortunately that is how society and the Church perceive such cases of forced abduction. So far you have been lucky to avoid such a fate. Then too, when war is declared, it shall become even more dangerous.”
“I must disagree—”
“You may disagree as much as you like, but it shall not change the king’s decision. Or mine either, for that matter. Come, the hour grows late. I’ll escort you to your chamber. We can discuss these and other issues after we wed.”
Realizing the futility of the argument, Rose acquiesced, but not happily. “Very well. But there’s one thing I wish to settle before we marry, and it cannot be delayed a moment longer.” Rose flicked her knuckles over her collarbone.
“What is so important it cannot wait till the morrow?”
Rose took a deep inhalation and expelled her words in a rush. “I will marry you on one condition. That ours be a marriage of convenience.”
“Very well, I shall agree to your condition.”
She saw not even a flicker of surprise or disappointment. Her brows dipped down sharply at his easy capitulation. Rand was the most lustful male creature she knew. So why would he agree without hesitation to forego the marital duty a wife and husband owed one another? It made no sense. Unless he did not understand what she was insisting upon.
“You do understand that if I am to give my wholehearted consent when we wed, I insist that we never consummate our vows?”
“Of course. I understand very well. I have no objection to abstaining from carnal intimacy.”
“By agreeing to my condition, you shall never have an heir of my body. Never have a legitimate male heir to carry on your name. And yet you are still prepared to marry me? Why?”
“I am now one score and nine years of age and have never been married. Have you never wondered why this is so?”
Rose could not admit to Rand that she had indeed wondered why he never married. But she decided he enjoyed his blithe womanizing existence too much to give up his freedom.
“Why have you never married?”
Rand shrugged. “I vowed long ago never to marry. The reason no longer matters. If Edward had not betrothed you to Sir Golan, I would not have offered to marry you.”
“But you escorted me to court knowing Edward intended me for Sir Golan. You could have offered for me then instead of creating a fake prior betrothal. You admitted you were aware of Sir Golan’s reputation before he attacked me. So what changed your mind?”
“I have several reasons. `Tis complicated.”
She rubbed her upper arms. “Go on. I would hear them.”
Rand smiled grimly. “When I came to Ayleston to escort you to court, I admit I heard a rumor that Golan had murdered his wife. But his wife died in childbirth. Too, I knew Golan personally and his reputation was beyond repute, so I did not believe the rumors. Then when I learned how much you abhorred marriage, I considered offering for you in Golan’s stead. But I thought you would dislike marriage to me as much as to any other man.
“But what convinced me was that night in the chapel.” His eyes glittered. “When I saw him forcing himself on you despite your protests, I wanted to rip out his throat. I realized then I could never let him touch you like that again. Marrying you, despite my vow never to do so, is a small price to pay for the debt of gratitude I owe you and your family. Your parents have treated me like a son since I came to England long ago.”
An odd emotion punctured Rose’s heart and her breath caught. She was sure Rand did not mean to insult her, but disappointment flooded her. She had no reason to be disappointed. She did not wish to marry him, either.
“This is your last chance,” she said. “Are you sure you don’t wish to give more thought to your decision?”
Rand crossed his arms and leaned back on his heels. “I have given it plenty of thought, actually. I need no more time to realize you cannot abide my touch. I’d never force you or any woman to my bed. Our marriage would simply be a mutual exchange of benefice to us both. You shall receive my protection from Edward’s machinations and Sir Golan’s unwanted advances. And believe it or not, as my wife, I shall receive your protection from fathers who wish to betroth their daughters to me for my connection to the king.”
She did not despise his touch. She was just dispassionate in general. Passion was reserved for whores; her husband had taught her that lesson well.
Sudden heat flushed her cheeks and she dropped her eyes as her heart thudded with embarrassment. “Of course, I shall not begrudge you satisfying your desires with other women. I realize you must assuage your lustful appetites. I promise I shall not object or act like a termagant whenever you take other women to your bed.”
Rand stepped closer, his breath moist in the air between them. “That is very commendable of you, Rose. But how can I trust that you shall not change your mind once we are married? Now you say you do not mind me bedding other women.” Rand’s voice dropped to a dark, seductive whisper. “But what if you change your mind?” He ran a finger down her cheek, a soft caress that neither repulsed nor seduced. Shock held her immobile.
“Can you swear to never become a jealous shrew? That you won’t come to resent me or the other women I shall surely bed?” A dangerous current thrummed beneath his voice, which sounded suspiciously like anger.
Rose frowned. She was positive Rand was mocking her. She searched his face, framed by long golden hair. His smile was wolfish, deepening his dimples, and gray-green eyes appeared almost feral in the moon’s glow. But it must have been a trick of the moonlight, for a teasing light sparked in his eyes.
She shook her head. “You need not fear I shall change my mind. All I ask is for you to be discreet. That you not humiliate me by flaunting your mistresses or fornicating while you are in residence at Castle Ayleston. I will not have you bedding my own servants and undermining my authority as chatelaine.”
Rank kept his smile pasted on his face, unsure why he was so angry. Her crystal blue eyes made his stomach flip. Eyes wide and almond shaped, the corner of her outer lashes curled up together. Her sharp white teeth chewed on her plump bottom lip.
“So you don’t mind if I have mistresses. You just do not want to be confronted by them. Fair enough. I believe I can agree to that.” Rand forced the words past his lips. As comprehension dawned on him, he inhaled sharply.
He could have any woman he wanted, yet the one woman he desired—with a desperation that cut like a blade to his heart—did not want him. Rand rubbed his chest where it hurt. He nearly laughed at the irony. Married to the one woman he could never possess.
The justice of it was brilliant. When his mother died in the fire, Rand swore to atone for her and his sister’s deaths for the rest of his life. God was now reaping the ultimate penance Rand owed Him.