"Why assuredly, your grace," she replied at once. " 'Twas quite a shock to me to find such a woefully understocked kitchen. There was rosemary and thyme, but no raisins, or ginger paris, nor canel, oregano, or cloves to speak of. And I didn't see a nut in the place, except one poor, wizened chestnut! Nuts are such wonderful compliments to delicate sauces and delicious desserts—"

At the mention of "delicate sauces and delicious desserts," Aunt Elinor suddenly became the focus of undivided masculine attention. Only Arik remained disinterested, ostensibly preferring the joint of cold goose he was eating to rich sauces and desserts.

"Go on," Royce invited her, his speculative gaze riveted on her with rapt fascination. "What sorts of things would you have prepared—assuming you had the necessary ingredients, of course?"

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"Well, let me think," she said, her forehead furrowed in a little frown. "It's been decades since I presided over the kitchens in my own lovely castle, but—oh yes—there were baked meat pies with crusts so light and lovely they melted in the mouth; and—take for example that hen you are eating," she said to Sir Godfrey, warming to her new position of culinary expert. "Instead of being cooked on a spit and served dried out and tough as canvas, which it is, it could have been simmered in half broth, half wine, with cloves, mace, fennel, and pepper, then laid upon a trencher so the juices made the bread ever so tasty.

"And there's so much one can do with fruits like apples, pears, and quince, but I'd need honey and almond and dates for the glazes and, canel, too, but as I said, there's little to be found of any of that in the kitchens."

Royce eyed her intently, his cold goose forgotten. "Would you be able to find the things you need here at Claymore or perhaps at the village market?"

"Much of it, one would suppose," Aunt Elinor promptly replied.

"In that case," Royce said in the tone of one issuing a royal edict, "the kitchens are now in your hands, and we will all look forward to excellent meals in future." Glancing toward Sir Albert Prisham, who was nearing the table, Royce arose and informed him, "I've just put the kitchens in the charge of Lady Elinor."

The thin steward's face was carefully blank, and he bowed politely, but the hand on the white cane clenched into a fist as he replied, "As I said, food is of little importance to me."

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"Well, it ought to be exceedingly important to you, Sir Albert," Lady Elinor informed him authoritatively, "for you've been eating all the wrong things. Turnips, fatty foods, and hard cheeses ought never to be eaten by those with gout."

His face hardened. "I do not have gout, madam."

"You will!" Aunt Elinor predicted gaily as she, too, arose, all eagerness to begin foraging about in the gardens and woods for her ingredients.

Ignoring her, Sir Albert said to his lord, "If you are ready to begin our tour of the estate, we can leave at once." And when Royce nodded, he added coolly, "I trust you will not find my stewardship lacking anywhere other than the kitchens."

Royce gave him an odd, sharp look, then he smiled at Jennifer and pressed a polite kiss to her cheek, but in her ear he whispered, "I suggest you have a long nap, for I intend to keep you awake all night again."

Jenny felt the warm flush stealing up her cheeks as Arik arose, obviously intending to remain at Royce's side during the inspection of the estate. Royce stopped him. "Accompany Lady Elinor on her expeditions," he said, and then in an odd, meaningful voice he added, "and see that nothing untoward happens."

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Arik's face froze at this flat command to play escort to an elderly lady. He stalked off, positively radiating resentment and offended dignity, while Lady Elinor trotted excitedly at his heels. "We shall have a lovely time, dear boy," she said enthusiastically, "although this project will take several days, not merely one, for we're sorely in need of ingredients for my medicinals and ointments, as well as spices for food. I shall require clove to comfort the sinews, and mace, of course! Mace prevents colic, you know, as well as body fluxes and laxes—and then there's nutmegs, which are very beneficial for the cold and a bad spleen. And I shall take special care of your diet in particular, for you aren't well, you know. You've a melancholy disposition—I noticed that at once…"

Sir Eustace glanced around at the other knights, grinning wickedly. "Lionel," he called loudly enough to be heard by the departing giant, "would you say our Arik looks 'melancholy' just now? Or would 'piqued' be a better word?"

Sir Lionel paused in his chewing and studied Arik's rigid broad back, his eyes gleaming with amusement as he replied after a moment's thoughtful consideration, "Arik is vexed."

Sir Godfrey leaned back to have a look for himself. "Aggrieved," he concluded.

"Colicky," Stefan Westmoreland added with a grin. In shared camaraderie, the men looked to Jennifer, inviting her to join in their fun, but she was spared the need to refuse because at that moment, Arik turned and blasted a dark look at his cohorts which could have pulverized rock and would easily have terrified most men. Unfortunately, it had the opposite effect on the knights, who returned his look and then burst into shouts of laughter, their mirth bouncing off the walls and echoing to the timbers, following Arik out the door.

Only young Gawin, who'd arrived just in time to see Arik and Lady Elinor depart, spoke up in Arik's behalf. Glowering at the others as he seated himself at the table, he said, " 'Tis no fit job for a knight—squiring an old woman about while she picks herbs and gathers nuts. 'Tis a job for a lady's maid, not a knight."

Lionel gave the boy a good-natured cuff. " 'Tis thinking like that which leaves you forever in Lady Anne's bad graces, my boy. Were you to squire her about while she picks flowers, you'd get further with the lady than you do by bristling up and trying to impress her with your manly glower—as you did last night." Turning to Jennifer, Sir Lionel said, "This halfling prefers glowering to gallantry. He thinks it's more manly, you see. And while he glowers, Roderick dances pretty attendance upon Lady Anne and wins the fair maiden's heart. Would you care to enlighten him with a lady's point of view?"

Sensitive to Gawin's youthful embarrassment, Jenny said, "I cannot speak for Lady Anne, but I, for one, did not see anything to turn a lady's head in the person of Sir Roderick."

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Gratitude flashed in Gawin's eyes before he turned a smug glance upon his fellows and then dug into his somewhat tasteless fare.

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