The day had warmed, and the shining sun brightened Cecily’s spirits as she left the stuffy air of the dark kitchens behind her. She strode through the grass and down the castle hill, out into a wide expanse of meadow that sloped down to the sparkling river. She sat on the growth of new grass and threw her head back, shutting eyes against the sun, letting a chilly little breeze play with her sleeves. The weight that had clutched her heart since her mum’s fit of coughing almost lessened, almost went away, was almost forgotten. She tossed her head and the sun caught the glint of her hair. Bright. Strong. She would prevail. All would be well. The day was beautiful, fine, fair, and pleasant. Why shouldn’t she be happy? Why shouldn’t Alis get better as the days got warmer?
Something came between Cecily’s closed eyelids and the sun, and she opened them to find that a man stood directly in front of her.
She was stunned for a moment, trying to make out who it was as the face was obscured, backlit against the brightness. She took in the soft leather boots, the expensive cut of the coat, the gold stitching along the edge of the cuffs…it was Master Jevan Auvray. With a little jump, she stuffed the last of her mutton underneath her skirt and tried to remember if she had washed her face since cutting up that venison. There was nothing appropriate to say so she kept her mouth shut and just looked at Auvray, waiting for him to make sense of the absurd situation.
“Good afternoon, Mistress Lockton.” The man collapsed to lie full-length on the grass, resting on his graceful elbow. Cecily had yet to really look at this man at close quarters for more than a few minutes, and it didn’t take long to confirm that he was indeed remarkable, unlike any man she’d ever seen. Narrow black eyes, a fine nose, lips that always seemed to be smiling—he had masses of thick, dark hair that waved about his face and were caught up by the affectionate breeze.
But there was a certain air about Master Auvray that made her prickle. He seemed to know that he was intensely handsome, and reveled in the fact. His posture was full of confidence and his words positively dripped with charm. “If you don’t mind my asking, why do you come all the way to the meadow to eat your meal? Why not in the company of other servants?”
“Why else? Because I wanted to be alone.” She immediately regretted saying it.
“Ah, I see. And I have ruined your solitude. Please forgive me.”
“Oh, no! No, of course not. I’m not disturbed at all, milord.”
“Your name is Cessy, I believe? Cessy Lockton?”
He had not stopped looking her in the eye, and it was making her uncomfortable. She had never looked down at a noble before. “Yes, milord.”
“Please, I abhor formality. Call me Jevan.”
That put her mind in a whirl. What could he be about? Why talk to me so strangely? Why come out here to see me, me, of all people? Does he remember that he nearly ran me down with his horse and shamed me in front of half of Camberton?
He squinted up at her. “Are you always this tight-lipped?”
“No, sire. Only with your kind.”
“Nobles, milord. I am afraid you must be mistaken in who I am, because I am only a cotter and we should not be talking together.”
“That is my prerogative is it not? I may speak to whom I choose.”
What did this man think he was? A philanthropist? A priest? Someone who condescended to speak to the lowest servants as an act of charity—or malice? “Yes, sire, but I am supposed to be silent and hard-working, and well-behaved. I am not supposed to speak with those who are above my station.”
“By what law?”
“By custom, sire.”
“Why should there be a custom between two people who wish to know one another better?”
“I have not said I wished to know you better, milord. I hope I know my place.” It was a bold speech, and one that would have earned Cecily a slap in the face from anyone else, but Auvray only smiled.
“Do you wish me to be perfectly blunt?”
“I am drawn to you, fascinated by you. I have been since the first moment I saw you.”
The first moment? Cecily doubted that.
“I wish that you could believe that even someone of my rank is not blind enough to ignore angelic beauty when he sees it.”
Though Cecily had heard similar lines, she had never heard them spoken by a similar man. When he spoke them, the saccharine words almost sounded earnest. Nevertheless, she did not feel obliged to respond.
“Do you wish me to be perfectly blunt, sire?”
“I’ve heard it said from more than one reliable source that you are ‘a self-absorbed, arrogant braggart.’ Is that so?”
He blinked twice. “I said you might be blunt, not brutal.”
“Excuse me if I have spoken out of turn. I did not mean to be disrespectful.”
“I assure you, I am not offended.” The glow in his cheeks might have said otherwise. “I have been called many thing over the years, and by people whose opinions I value highly. I don’t think that the ill opinion of butchers and laundresses will do me much harm. I’m sure the chambermaids have me spending half my day in front of the glass and acting as if I’m the king of the realm, but in my own estimation I have no such failings. Though I doubt my word means very much to you.”
Conscious of having misstepped, Cecily said the thing foremost in her mind. “I hope you enjoyed your morning ride?”
He frowned as if in thought. “I did not take a morning ride.”
“But my mother and I met you just a few hours ago, down by the river.”
His brow cleared and he gave her a weak smile. “Oh, yes. Of course. Well, let’s just say that I got such an early start I hardly considered it to be morning.” The explanation was pitiful at best. He had clearly forgotten the entire encounter.
“Why do you ride so much?”
“Do you disapprove of that as well?”
“No, I was only wondering, sire.”
“If you must know, it’s a habit I’ve picked up over the last year. Lately…I have wanted time alone. To tell it true, I can hardly stand most of the people I am closeted with all day (excepting my honorable uncle and aunt, of course), but Grane is the perfect companion.”
“My horse. He’s a two-year old stallion I’ve raised since birth. He’s powerful—lean, fine bones, deep chest, and fast as a hare. He might be my only true friend.” Auvray was in a world of his own now, and Cecily nibbled her mutton as he went on in a dreamy voice. “Riding is, well it’s wild. At least that’s how I prefer to ride. It’s a taste of freedom, almost like flying. Whether I’m hunting, or just galloping through the fields, I feel as though…. But I’m sure that makes everyone say I’m reckless and foolhardy, in addition to being a pompous ass. Do you think I am? Reckless, I mean?”
Cecily gulped her mutton. “I think I can understand something of it. Sometimes I wish that I could put reins on life somehow and go galloping away at my whim, daring to do something…wild.” Cecily looked Jevan in the eye for the first time and noted his quiet smile.
Ready to draw this rather unsettling interview to an end, she gathered up the remnants of her meal and said, “I’m afraid I need to go back now, milord. There is much work to be done.”
He caught her arm as she rose. “No more ‘milord-ing,’ I insist!”
Half-frightened, Cecily jerked away her arm and began walking away, but before she had gone ten paces she stopped and turned around. “All right then. If you do insist on it, then you should know that my proper name is not Cessy. It’s Cecily, though no one ever says it.”
“Then Cecily Lockton, I hope that you will not refuse my request for a second conversation. I have rather enjoyed myself with this first one.”
His arrogant words still irked her, but the excessive attentions of a man as attractive, wealthy, and highborn as Jevan Auvray were nothing to be scoffed at. “I am at your service, of course.”