Seigneur de Montgomery didn’t leave the next day, though his baggage did. Talvas wasn’t asked to leave, either. Instead, Sieur Roger was, in all ways, the best of hosts, who treated her father and her half-brother like invited guests, even taking them hunting on the third day. Still, he retained a distant and guarded manner toward her family.
But not toward Mabel.
She didn’t put herself forward, though she made sure she was available and in a position to be noticed. And it never failed. If he walked into a room where she was, he went to her immediately. If she was out in his mother’s garden, with its trellised plants, small tree, flowers, and fragrant herbs, he separated from his men and greeted her. He always treated her as a lady, even if they found themselves in a situation where he had an opportunity to touch her. That last was disappointing, since she was the one creating those opportunities.
Mabel tested her power over him. On the morning of the fourth day—pretending she didn’t notice his presence—she mentioned to her servant, Anne, that her stockings had been darned so many times she might as well have used the thread to weave a whole new pair. In the evening, her servant brought her several lengths of Flemish linen she said was found in a trunk, and which she had been given permission to take. Anne whispered excitedly that Sieur Roger had actually sent someone to Vimoutiers to buy them, and had made her promise not to tell Lady Mabel, so not to shame her. They both giggled about that.
On the fifth day, he told them he did truly need to leave the next morning, but the apple orchards were beginning to bloom and he wanted to show them. That was the subtle sweetness that was scenting the air.
“It will be much stronger, soon,” he warned them. “And then you may not like it so much, especially if it makes you sneeze.”
There were apple trees all around the castle, but he took them riding a distance to show off the vastness of the orchards. They dismounted near a stream, called La Vie, where they could only see the pointed roof of the donjon of Chateau Sainte-Foy. Despite the large spreading trees, Mabel still had a view of the distant, rolling hills and green fields. Brown and white cows were grazing on the spring grass while watching the strolling people with only mild curiosity.
“They’re just beginning to flower.” He indicated the trees, lightly dusted with subtle color. “Now they’re white, but when they open fully, they’ll be pink. Then, later in the summer, from a distance you’ll think the branches have turned orange. The apples are red and yellow. They’re too bitter to eat, so you shouldn’t try, but they make excellent cider.”
He was talking as if she’d be staying for the summer, but she had to be sure. Mabel glanced at her father, who then turned and walked away, pretending to point out something to Olivier.
“Are there apple orchards further north? My father says we have a distant cousin in Honfleur who may take us. I’ve never seen the sea, so I’m very excited about that, but I’d hate to miss the apples and the cider.” She walked over to a low-lying branch and touched the bark.
He didn’t follow her or speak for a minute. Oh, dear. Was she too obviously manipulating him? Or did he really not care?
“Sieur William,” he called out. Her father turned to his host with raised brows. “Your daughter says you intend to leave?”
“Naturally,” Talvas answered, stating the obvious. One didn’t impose when one’s host would be gone for months. “We have family nearby who will welcome us.”
It was one of those polite yet patent lies meant to save embarrassment and difficulty, and Sieur Roger was not having it. He bowed briefly to Mabel and pulled her father aside for private conversation. The pantomime was clear. Sieur Roger spoke plainly, not allowing her father to demur or dissimulate. Of course they mustn’t leave. For Lady Mabel’s sake. And, oh, the subtlety of Talvas’s performance. From his false bravado, to his hurt pride, to his humble acceptance. Masterful.
Pleased with the outcome, Sieur Roger walked back to Mabel with a broad smile. “I hope you won’t be too disappointed to postpone your visit to the beach. Your father has accepted my invitation to stay the summer here.”
“Oh,” she breathed and ducked her head. “But you’ll be gone. You’re too generous.”
“Your father is generous. He’s put aside his pride for my selfish reasons. I’ll sleep better knowing you are safe.”
He leaned in closer to her when he said that, and her face warmed with a genuine flush. Being affected in such a way by a man was new, unfamiliar, and it discomforted her enough that she turned away slightly. A cluster of flowers that were more open than the rest gave her reason for her distraction.
“Look.” She snapped the whole twig off the tree. “They are pink. And so pretty.” She raised them to her face, inhaling the scent and brushing them against her lips.
“There will be no apples if you pick all the flowers, Lady Mabel.” His voice was unusual, husky, and it sent a thrill of pleasure down through her core that made her very bold.
“No apples?” She smiled, very deliberately meeting his gaze. It was the first time she looked at him fully, unwavering. Not only was the expression in his eyes warm, their color was, as well. A pure, dark brown in a hooded gaze. She was light-headed and breathless. “Then you need not fear temptation, Sieur Roger.”