William brought his new bride to Carrowood a week after their nuptials. They had honeymooned at one of the vast royal estates in the north. William had objected privately to Towson, but the elder councilman was firm; it was only proper that a member of the council should accept the princess's offer of a private, safe honeymoon on her family's land.
Lynelle was a pleasant girl, and too good for him, William thought bitterly. She was only just seventeen, with a vast cloud of gold curls for hair, a womanly enough body, and brown eyes. He hated her eyes, but that misfortune was beyond the new Baroness of Ingraham's control. She deserved better than him, better than a pretender to a councilman's chair whose mind was elsewhere. All he could offer her was gentility on the wedding night and thereafter, and a comfortable home with a title. Any man in Selles would have been lucky to have her, such a pleasing young maiden with the wild gold hair and warm brown eyes and innocent smile. Any man but William.
He told himself over and over again that he ought to love her, that he did love her and at the very least appreciate her, and she seemed to believe his false sincerity. William could carry off a charade with the best of them, even in the marriage bed. He never said her name when they coupled, for he knew it would come out something different. The act had never before been a duty; he imagined it was how the young noblewomen felt when they were married off, bound to warm their older husbands' beds without pleasure. But he had too much honor in him to treat her poorly out of spite, or like a means to his own satisfaction, because that she was not. She deserved better.
The household at Carrowood took to her quickly if unenthusiastically. She was a child in their midst, practically a babe in arms compared to the Baron of Ingraham and his brothers. She did not know how to run a household, let alone a baronet. William thought to introduce her privately to his youngest brother Everard, only three years her senior, and give them his blessing to fall in love properly, as innocent young people deserved. But she deserved better than a secret tryst with a brother-in-law on account of her husband's broken heart.
And it was broken, of that much he was sure. Derrick and Aliana had been as constant in his life as breath in his lungs. Now one lay crippled in bed, while the other had sold him off like a marriageable daughter, a bargaining chip with which to play.
William tried not to begrudge Aliana her duty, but even forgiving her that did nothing to soothe the ache in his chest where the memory of her lived. Phantoms of her hands clawed at him unbidden when he closed his eyes at night. He often had to close his eyes when he laid with Lynelle lest hers be open, because the brown irises would morph into Aliana's and he would lose his nerve, or worse lose his careful promise not to pretend his wife were someone else.
On the frequent nights on which he could not sleep, William wandered by candlelight down to the private chapel. He prayed to the gods that Lynelle's womb would not quicken, that she would bear him no sons, and then he prayed for forgiveness of such a horrible wish for so young a girl. He begged for Derrick to be well again most of all, to rise and stand beside him as they used to, first as boys and then as men, a king and his knight. In his delirium, he inevitably ended up praying for Aliana too. He could not curse her, not knowing all she was cursed with already, and so he prayed for her.
That was how Lynelle found him one night, a fortnight after their arrival at Carrowood. He startled at hearing footsteps in the chapel, and whirled around on his knees to find his young bride standing on its threshold, bundled in a robe that swallowed her up. He sighed with relief; better her than his brothers that should find him.
"Is something troubling my lord husband?" Lynelle asked. William was of half a mind to curse the courtesies her mother and governesses had no doubt taught her, but she was but a child still.
"I was praying for the king." It was only half a lie.
Lynelle bore a look of childish understanding in her accursed brown eyes. "Your grace was a good friend to our poor King Derrick, yes?"
William hated to hear was. "And I still am, and still will be until the gods see fit to take us from this earth, which I pray is not for a good long while yet."
His child wife seemed surprised at his tone, and fairly so. William was rarely if ever so blunt with her, and never with even half so much feeling. "May I pray with you?" she asked timidly, taking a step closer. William nodded his assent and turned back to the altar and the lone candle he had lit there, clasping his hands and bowing his head to them. His mouth was shut in a firm line; his prayers would be silent ones now.
Lynelle approached the altar and knelt at her husband's right, farther from the altar than he. Damn your courtesies, he thought again, and kept it to himself.
As if to lessen the lie about his prayers, William thought again of Derrick. It had been nearly two months since he'd been hurt, with but a few fleeting moments when he seemed to be close to consciousness, only to slip back into mindless sleep. If it had been difficult for William to bear, he knew it had to be worse for Aliana, ruling in her brother's stead.
And so he was thinking of her again.
It was then that he heard Lynelle's tears, and his heart dropped; it was impossible she could know his thoughts, but it felt no less ominous for its unlikelihood. William dropped his clasped hands and turned to the girl he had married. She shook with sobs, biting her lip to keep them quiet.
William felt ill. "Lady wife, why do you cry?" he asked, reaching out a hand to touch her shoulder. He thought perhaps matching her own courtly courtesies would help somehow.
"I know you come down here often," Lynelle wept, peeking up at William beyond her clasped hands. His heart sank. "You leave our marriage bed so often that I fear I have displeased you." It was not uncommon for wife and husband to have separate chambers, but Carrowood was no large estate and William had felt it was some token of goodwill to stay with his new wife each night. The sleeplessness was hardly her fault, in any case.
"No, Lynelle, of course not," William answered her. He realized how little he dealt with women this way. At least, women other than Aliana. That thought made his head spin.
But Lynelle seemed not to hear his reassurance, and said instead, "I do want to please you, my lord, and I am trying so! I only fear I have displeased you, or that I will fail to give you sons..."
He began feeling sick again, remembering his own ill-intentioned prayers that Lynelle would do as she feared and fail to bear him an apparent heir. William thought of Aliana, of the still unanswered question that lingered after her salvation from Tyron's Keep. He did not want her to be barren, for he knew how it would pain her, but nor did he want her bearing another man's children.
"There is much time for that yet," William replied, nauseous. "We will not worry ourselves with it now, my lady. You have been nothing but pleasing." He took one of her small delicate hands in his and gently squeezed. She looked up at him with her big brown eyes, and William nearly wretched. "I will return to you, I promise. I usually pray alone," he explained, and Lynelle seemed eager to make it so, taking no offense. She smiled at him and silently departed the chapel, taking those horrible eyes with her as she went.
William breathed heavily when he knew she was gone, palms pressed against the cold stone floor and head bowed as he resisted the urge to be sick. Lynelle deserved better than a liar who spent his nights praying for her barrenness and for another woman's happiness, even if that woman was the princess regent, for whom all ought to be praying.
When he returned to his chambers, William roused Lynelle and coupled with her, eyes closed and mouth open only for breath.
He did not keep his promise not to imagine she were someone else.