Madelyne watched her husband roll his eyes heavenward, knew he thought all this talk about looking well and feeling well was ridiculous.
"Madelyne, I've never had such a fine meal," Gerald said in praise, drawing her attention away from her husband.
"Thank you, Gerald."
"I've eaten too much of everything," the baron told her. He turned to Adela then. "Would you like to walk with me in the courtyard after dinner, Adela?" He glanced over at Duncan and hastily added, "Gaining your brother's permission, of course."
Before Adela could deny the request, Duncan granted it. Adela immediately looked at Madelyne for help.
Madelyne didn't know what she could do, but determined to find a way to change Duncan's mind. She nudged his leg with her foot. When Duncan didn't even look over at her, she nudged him again, much more forcefully.
Her patience wore out when he still wouldn't look at her.
Madelyne kicked him then, but all she gained from her effort was to lose her shoe under the table. Yet while Duncan still pretended to ignore her, he did reach under the table and grab hold of her foot, pulling it up onto his lap. Madelyne was mortified by her undignified position and thanked God no one seemed to notice how she gripped the table with her hands when Duncan began to stroke the arch of her foot. She tried to pull away but she lost her balance.
She almost fell off the stool. Gilard was sitting next to her. When she bumped him, he gave her a puzzled look and then grabbed hold of her arm and helped straighten her. She knew she was blushing. Adela was staring at her, reminding her of the dreaded walk outside, Madelyne supposed. She decided it was high time she took control.
Duncan might have hold of her foot so she couldn't kick him again, but he couldn't grab hold of her mind, now, could he? "What a wonderful idea, to stroll outside after dinner," Madelyne said. She looked at her husband when she made the comment.
Duncan frowned. Madelyne smiled, sensing victory.
"Duncan and I would love to join you, wouldn't we, husband?" she asked. One had to be on one's toes around Duncan, Madelyne thought, even when the toes were in his lap. He wouldn't dare deny her suggestion in front of their guest. Madelyne turned to Adela and shared a smile with her. Adela did look relieved.
"No, we wouldn't," Duncan announced to the group in a mild voice.
His denial forced frowns on both Madelyne's and Adela's faces. "Why wouldn't we?" Madelyne challenged.
Madelyne tried to smile at Duncan because she knew Gerald was observing the exchange.
Duncan smiled at her. His eyes, however, told a different story. He was probably wishing he could throw her out a window, she supposed. She had noticed that Duncan didn't like his decisions questioned. Madelyne thought the trait was an irritating one. Aye, irritating for Duncan, she thought with a bit of sympathy, knowing full well she'd continue to question his orders whenever the mood came over her. She couldn't help herself.
"Because, Madelyne, I would like to speak to you in private after dinner."
"Speak to me about what?" Madelyne demanded with a disgruntled look.
"Men and their horses," Duncan told her.
Edmond snorted; Gilard laughed outright. Madelyne gave both of them a good frown before she turned back to Duncan. She didn't believe this nonsense any more than his brothers did. Men and horses, indeed. The real message was clear enough. He was going to strangle her for challenging him. Madelyne thought to give him a saucy retort, couldn't think of any, decided then she'd better not goad him further. He just might say something to embarrass her.
Madelyne decided to ignore him and all but turned her back on him. It was a rude gesture, a mistake as well, because she'd forgotten all about her foot resting in his lap. Gilard had to catch her again.
Duncan knew she was trying to dismiss him. The smile reached his eyes. When he turned to nod at Gerald, he realized his friend had also caught on to Madelyne's game. The baron was trying not to laugh.
"With Duncan's permission, I've a gift to give you, Adela."
"You do?" Adela was surprised by Gerald's thoughtfulness. "Oh, I couldn't accept anything from you, Gerald, though it was good of you to take the trouble to bring me something."
"What'd you bring her?" Gilard asked. It wasn't a polite question. Baron Gerald didn't seem offended though. He grinned and shook his head.
"Well?" Gilard demanded.
"A musical instrument," Gerald advised. "A psaltery."
"Catherine had one of those," Gilard said. He turned to Madelyne. "Our oldest sister couldn't seem to conquer the thing though. Thank God she took it with her when she married," he added with a grin. "She could set our teeth to grinding with one song."
Gilard turned back to Gerald and said, "It was a good gesture, Gerald, but it'll only gather dust here. Adela doesn't know how to work the strings and God help us all if Catherine comes back to teach her."
"Madelyne knows how," Adela blurted out. She remembered Madelyne had told her she played the instrument for her uncle every evening. Adela was embarrassed by the way her brother tried to denigrate the gift. "And she'll teach me the way of it, won't you, Madelyne?"
"Of course," Madelyne answered. "It was most kind of you to bring such a gift, Baron."
"Yes," Adela rushed out. "Thank you."
"Well then?" Gerald asked, looking at Duncan. Duncan nodded, Gerald grinned, Adela actually smiled, and Madelyne sighed. "I shall go and get it for you now," Gerald announced. He stood up and started for the doorway and then called over his shoulder, "Perhaps we can persuade Madelyne to give us a song or two before we take our walk, Adela, if Duncan's talk about men and horses can wait a while longer."
Gerald heard Duncan's laugh before he left. Gilard also stood up. "Where are you going?" Edmond asked.
"To get Madelyne another chair. There seems to be something wrong with this one," he added. "She keeps trying to fall off it."
Madelyne slowly turned to Duncan and glared at him. If he said one word, she was going to throw him out a window.
Adela thought it was a wonderful idea for Madelyne to play the psaltery. She was all for any plan that would delay her walk with Gerald. She pleaded with Madelyne to play for them all.
"Oh, Adela, I don't think tonight would be a good time—"
"Are you so eager to be alone with your husband?" Duncan asked in a soft whisper.
Madelyne turned to her husband again, frowned, and was rewarded with one of his heart-stopping smiles. The dimple was back in his cheek too. And then he winked at her again, right in front of everyone.
Duncan was tearing a piece of bread in half and she very stupidly watched him, until it dawned on her that he wasn't holding her foot now. How long had both his hands been in plain sight?
She immediately removed her foot from his lap. "And if I sing like a frog, Duncan, and shame you?" she asked him.
"You could never shame me," Duncan answered.
It was such a kind thing to say. Madelyne didn't know how to respond. Was he teasing her or telling her the truth? "You're my wife, Madelyne. Nothing you could do would shame me."
"Why?" Madelyne asked, leaning toward her husband so they wouldn't be overheard.
"Because I've chosen you," Duncan answered. He also leaned toward his lovely wife. " 'Tis a simple fact, even to a—"
"If you call me half witted, I shall be forced to take Adela's gift and knock you senseless with it."
Madelyne was more appalled by her threat than Duncan appeared to be. Duncan took hold of her hand and pulled her closer. "Stop touching me," Madelyne whispered.
She glanced over to the other Wextons. Gilard was telling an amusing story and both Adela and Edmond were listening to him.
She looked back at Duncan when she heard him deny her request. "I don't like it, Duncan."
"Yes, you do, Madelyne. When you're in my arms, you like everything I do to you. You moan and you beg me to—"
Her hand covered his mouth and she blushed as red as the fire in the hearth. Duncan laughed, a loud booming sound that filled the hall with warmth. Edmond and Gilard both demanded to know the cause. Duncan looked like he just might tell them. Madelyne started praying, and held her breath.
She started breathing again when Duncan merely shrugged and changed the subject.
Madelyne happened to notice Adela was straightening the sleeves of her gown. She patted her hair too.
And then it dawned on her. Lord, she really was simpleminded. Adela wanted to look pretty for Gerald. She was primping and squirming enough to give that impression at least.
Now that she thought about it, Madelyne realized Gerald was still attracted to Adela. The way he had stared at her said as much.
Madelyne's heart softened with the knowledge that Gerald might still want Adela. It made her feel great affection for the baron.
And then she immediately began to worry. Adela's mind was set on remaining with her family. Duncan had given his word. It was a complication.
"What has you frowning so, Madelyne?" Gilard asked.
"I was just thinking how complicated life becomes the older we get," Madelyne answered.
"We can't stay children forever," Edmond interjected with a predictable shrug that made Madelyne smile. She thought Edmond was as set in his ways as her uncle was.
"I'll wager you frowned your childhood away," she teased.
Edmond looked taken aback by the remark. He started to frown and then stopped himself. Madelyne laughed.
"I don't remember much of my childhood," Edmond said. "I do remember Gilard as a boy all too clear. Our brother was in constant mischief."
"Did you get into mischief when you were a little girl?" Gilard asked Madelyne, thinking to draw attention away from his embarrassing escapades. Madelyne didn't need to know about his wild inclinations. She might think less of him.
Madelyne shook her head. "Oh, nay, I never got into mischief, Gilard. I was very quiet. "Why, I never did anything wrong."
Duncan laughed as loud as his brothers. Madelyne took exception until she realized she'd made herself sound like a saint. "Well, I did have flaws," she stammered.
"You? Never," Edmond interjected, smiling.
Madelyne blushed. She wasn't sure how she should take Edmond's comment. She still didn't completely trust this Wexton, though she'd adjusted to his smiles. She turned to look at Duncan.
"Don't embarrass Madelyne," Duncan admonished his brother.
"Tell us one of your flaws, Madelyne," Adela asked, smiling with encouragement.
"Well, I know you'll find this difficult to believe, but I was a most awkward child, clumsy, in fact."
No one found it the least bit difficult to believe. Duncan shook his head at Gilard, who looked ready to shout with laughter over Madelyne's confession. Edmond started choking on a drink he was trying to swallow when Madelyne shyly admitted her flaw. Adela was giggling while she slapped her brother on his back.
Baron Gerald returned with the psaltery and placed it on the table in front of Adela just as Edmond controlled his fit of coughing. The triangular-shaped instrument was made of a light bleached wood. The strings numbered a dozen and Madelyne watched with envy as Adela ran her thumb across the wires.
"Father Laurance will have to bless this instrument," Adela said.
"Aye, at mass tomorrow," Gilard interjected. "I've instructed the priest to say the mass in the hall each morning until the chapel is repaired, Duncan."
Duncan nodded. He stood, giving the unspoken command that dinner was over.
Madelyne waited until everyone started to walk toward the chairs in front of the hearth. As soon as their backs were turned, Madelyne knelt down and searched under the table for her missing shoe.
Duncan lifted her by her waist, pulled her back against him, and then dangled her shoe in front of her face.
Madelyne turned and tried to grab her shoe.
"Why are you frowning at me?" Duncan asked. He lifted her onto the edge of the table, took hold of her foot, and put her shoe back on.
"I could have done that," Madelyne whispered. "And I'm frowning because you're teasing me, Duncan. I don't like it."
"Why?" Duncan lifted Madelyne back to the ground. He didn't let go of her waist, however, a fact that bothered Madelyne more than she cared to admit.
"Why?" she asked, wishing she could remember what she wanted to say. It was all his fault, of course, because he was staring at her as though he'd like to kiss her, and how could she think of anything but kissing him back?
"Why don't you like me teasing you?" Duncan asked, leaning down toward her upturned face.
"Because you aren't predictable when you tease," Madelyne answered. "You're like a blade of grass in the winter, Duncan. Cold and stiff, aye, rigid." She tried to take a step back, but Duncan increased his hold and slowly pulled her closer, until she was touching his chest. "And now you're acting like the grass of summer, bending this way and that…"
She looked so flustered, he didn't dare laugh. "I have never been compared to a blade of grass," he told her. "Now give me the truth and not another parable if you please."
"If you please?" She looked appalled by his suggestion. "Duncan, I don't like you teasing me because it makes me think you're being kind to me. I want you predictably angry," she muttered. "And I'm going to break my neck looking up at you like this."
The woman wasn't making sense. That shouldn't have surprised him, he told himself. Wives were more difficult to understand than he had suspected. "You don't want me to be kind to you?" he asked, sounding incredulous.
"I do not." Her voice increased in volume.
"Why the hell not?" Duncan didn't whisper his question. He had forgotten all about his family and his guest. All he could think about was getting this contrary woman into his arms, and making love to her.
Madelyne didn't want to answer him. She'd have to be honest.
"We'll stand here all night until you answer me," Duncan promised.
"Madelyne, if I didn't laugh at your suggestion that I was like a blade of grass, I doubt I'll laugh at your next comment."
"Oh, all right," Madelyne said. "When you're kind to me, I want to love you. There, are you satisfied?"