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Chapter 37

“Here,” I handed Charles my letter, folded neatly and tied with a silky red ribbon. I knew by heart what simple words were written on the sheet: I love you. Father would recognize my script. It bore no crest, no wax seal to indicate where we were hiding out. Charles took it, smiling. Jon’s hand snaked around my waist as he pulled me close. His face showed traces of the recent skirmish between Meleryn and Thaniel—three thin, red lines, clawed into his face by his sister. I tried to hide my smile as I thought about it. Thaniel had escaped with only bruised ribs, and they’d talked it over with whisky in the end. Jon was still not happy at their budding relationship, but realized he was at the end of his control over someone else.

“Thank ye, truly,” Jon said, reaching for Charles’ hand in a gesture of goodbye. He beamed as their hands clasped. Parting, Charles placed his tricorn hat atop his head, pushing it snuggly into place.

“I hope to see you both again very soon.” The corners of his mouth dimpled. “Elise, would you care to walk with me a moment? I won’t keep you long,” he grinned at Jon, though I saw something flash beneath his mask of cheer. I turned to peer up at Jon. He, too, held the same expression. He was suspicious—confused, but he nodded.

“Aye, go along.” He gave my back a gentle nudge. Charles held out the crook of his elbow, always the gentleman. We walked down the rocky dirt path to his brilliant bay mare, her coat glimmering in the spring sunshine. The air was warm with a hint of a breeze, the smell of wildflowers freshly bloomed tinting it. We stopped, and I reached out a hand to stroke the gorgeous horse.

“Elise,” Charles began, causing me to turn my attention to him.


“I know Jon will be wondering what we talked of, and I don’t want you to feel you must lie to your husband,” he took a deep breath, his eyes searching mine. “Tell him we talked of our betrothal, of your family.”

I nodded, though I felt my forehead crease in confusion.

“What is it really, Charles?”

He blushed profusely and stuttered. I set my hand on his arm as a calming gesture.

“I know, of your feelings for Jon,” my voice was barely above a whisper. His eyes widened.

“Oh! Well, yes, I mean—”

“It doesn’t bother me.” I smiled. He sighed.

“I never thought it would. You’re far too gracious, like your father. But that is not what I meant to discuss, at the present.” His eyes clouded over once more, my heart skipping a beat.

“You must be careful, Elise. I believe there are those around you who are lying, lying about something on a grand scale.” His sky blue eyes were earnest.

“What?” I breathed.

“Haven’t you given thought to how coincidental the trial at Borthwick was? I mean, the guards and townspeople dropping dead right before Jon’s execution? No one that I know of could have planned or executed that.” He shook his head, his dark hair scratching across the rough fabric on his back with the movement. I felt as though the wind left my lungs for a moment. I’d been far too focused on my miscarriage and my reunion with Jon to care about the odd way everything seemed to work out.

“You’re right.” I muttered, glancing at the ground in thought. The woman, the red headed woman who I’d kept seeing. Something in my heart led me to the thought of her.

“Someone is stopping at nothing to make sure Jon stays alive.” He gripped my folded arms gently. I peered past his shoulder, searching for Jon. He was leaned against a tree, arms folded, staring at the sky. Was he in on it?

“Sometimes, we keep things from those we love most, to protect them, no matter the cost for our own soul.” Charles said. I caught the double meaning of his words. Jon was keeping something from me, as Charles was keeping his love to himself, as I’d wanted to keep the death of our child to myself. My mind reeled.

“What is it?” I whispered, still staring at Jon. His eyes flashed to me, and even from the great distance, I could see his suspicion.

“I’m not entirely sure, and there’s a possibility Jon may not even know. But I believe someone has to. No one here has brought it forward or questioned it.”

I let this revelation settle into my stomach heavily.

“Be safe, Elise.” Charles said, placing his foot in the stirrup and swinging lithely into the saddle. He grabbed the reins, pulling back a bit.

“You too, Charles. I hope to see you soon.” I peered up at him with worry in my soul. He tipped his hat to me, waved to Jon, and trotted away.

“Fuck, I need a dram o’ whisky!” Annie, the landowner’s wife, yelled over the screaming of her nine month old twins. She grinned broadly, handing me a squirming, angry child. It was impossible to tell them apart, though I knew one was named Bekah and the other Finn. The child became confused, the crying suspended for a moment as they reached for my bright red hair in fascination.

“Here ye go!” She shoved the other in Mel’s direction.

“Oh, no, I canna—”

Mel had no choice other than to grab the babe, lest she let it fall. Annie disappeared with a wink, their two dogs following her every footsteps. Mel’s face went white as the child screamed. We’d been helping those who’d kept us hidden, Jon and Thaniel repairing tools that aided in the field work, Mel and I cooking or cleaning. We’d come to adore Annie and her carefree attitude. That, and she could drink us all under the table. It was understandable, watching her care for two children all day long. Twins were a rarity; either the babes or mother (or all three) would die in childbirth. It served to prove how hearty she was.

“How do ye get yers to quit squealin’ like a stuck pig?” Mel called. I laughed at her awkwardness. I’d had practice with little Jon, and it helped that both children were intrigued by the hue of my hair.

“Just bounce,” I said, demonstrating as I bobbed slightly up and down. I laughed as she attempted, causing the child to wail even more.

“Gods help me,” she called to the ceiling. “I’m no meant for this. I’ll take a battle field any day!”

“Who are ye torturing?” Thaniel called, ducking into the cottage. He wiped the sheen of sweat from his brow, his dirty blond hair sticking to his temples and scar. Jon followed him, sweating from head to toe as well. They brought with them the musty stink of sweaty men and dirt. James, the landowner and Annie’s husband, reached for the squalling child in Meleryn’s arms, the screams quieting immediately.

I realized I held the baby girl, Bekah. She stared up at me with wide brown eyes, her tuft of soft hair a lighter shade atop her little head. My heart swelled. I brushed my finger over her cheek, completely absorbed in her eyes. I yearned for a child of my own. A shadow moved, and I glanced up into the eyes of Jon. He smiled tenderly at me, wiggling his finger for the baby to grasp. She wound her tiny fist around his finger and stared at it. The yearning in my heart was now accompanied by the dull, pulsating ache of loss.

“Yer goin’ to be the best mother,” he whispered, leaning down to kiss my forehead. Butterflies rioted within me. He’d asked me what Charles had said, of course, but I’d been able to tell him the partial truth. I’d barely had any other time to think on this revelation and how to approach Jon about it. James had run into problems working the fields alone, requesting the help of Jon and Thaniel, who couldn’t say no after they’d sheltered us.

“Here we are!” Annie bustled back in, carrying two decanters of whisky. “Enough work for the day!” She set them down on the table, reaching for Finn.

“I love my wife,” James beamed, reaching for the whisky.

Meleryn nearly threw the child back into her arms. Jon and I stared into each other’s eyes, a love between us being shared with only a look. Bekah yawned, having fallen asleep in my arms.

“I think we should…wash up, down in the river.” Jon said quietly to me. I flushed, catching the meaning of his words. My heart clenched in anticipation. I nodded. We left, giving our excuses, nearly running through the woods and down to the river. The water was clear, crystalline blue, and frigid. The weather was not yet warm enough to desire a dip in such cold conditions, but Jon stripped naked fearlessly and jumped into a deep pool. I pulled off my boots and stockings, choosing to instead perch on a rock and let the sun warm my face.

Jon surfaced, his curls dripping wet, his alabaster skin light against the darkness of the deep water. I was weary, being this close to the river after my near-drowning.

“Would ye like a swim lesson, princess?” Jon called, laughing up at me. I longed to be near him, to feel our skin touch as he’d hinted earlier, but I had boundaries.

“I’m quite alright, thank you,” I called back, nervous as he swam close to me. I placed my hands in my skirt pockets as a breeze drifted by. I sat above him, a few feet to the water’s surface.

“Ye can jump in right here, and I’ll catch ye,” he smiled, though I recognized the playful glint in his eyes. I shook my head.

“Do ye no trust me?” He grinned, though his words caused my smile to falter. I hoped he was too far away to catch the look on my face.

“Of course I do.” I said. He swam to the more shallow part of the river with a grace that made me jealous, standing carefully on the slick rocks. Water dripped from him, his wet skin glinting in the sunlight. He was breathtaking; every muscle taut, strained against the cold. Even his scarred legs did nothing to mar his beauty. My breath caught in my throat as he made his way up to me, sitting carefully.

“If ye’d just get in wi’ me, I wouldna have to sit my bare arse on sharp rocks,” he joked, nudging me with his shoulder.

“I believe I need some more…enticement.” I teased.

“Oh,” he said, his eyes widening the slightest bit. I saw the blush in his cheeks. “Weel, I think I can accommodate ye on that,” he winked. I reached for the ties on my bodice, slowly pulling them from their loops. He watched with keen eyes, his skin covered in goosebumps.

“I can help ye wi’ that,” he said eagerly, reaching for me. I swatted his hand away playfully, holding his eyes with my own gaze. I felt my bodice begin to loosen until it slipped free, exposing my bare chest to the wild and to my husband’s hungry eyes. Too impatient, he reached for me, grasping my neck and kissing my lips hungrily, a small growl in his throat. His icy hands caused me to shiver as one found its way to my bare breast.

He pushed me onto my back, lifting my skirts and leaning into me. We both sighed, euphoric at the pleasure we brought one another.

“Jon,” I said breathily.

“Yes?” He panted, pushing himself further and further. I reached up and wound my fingers through his damp hair.

“Do you love me?” I asked, unable to let go of the possibility that he had lied to me.

“Princess, I love ye more than the stars love the night sky.” He whispered, staring me deeply in the eye. Charles’ words resounded in my heart in that moment: “Sometimes, we keep things from those we love most, to protect them, no matter the cost for our own soul.”

I wondered just how high a cost Jon’s secret would turn out to be.

He pushed deeper into me, causing me to grip handfuls of my skirts as I lost myself. A peculiar feeling came to me then, the feeling of something absent. The bottle of poison Vala had given me was gone.

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