Roana was beginning to realise that, while life didn’t always go as planned, advantages could still be found in many a situation, no matter how bad it seemed on the outside.
She could have reluctantly gone with William to Nottingham, and hated every minute of it. Or, she could join him willingly, and use the opportunity to rediscover her roots. By deciding to choose the latter, she made her own life so much easier.
The following morning, she was eager to set out from Filey, and waited impatiently for William to arrive. Accompanied by her maid, Alice, she soon found herself on the road, seated in a sumptuous carriage and watching Filey slip away as they headed for Goole.
While Robert and Eleanor were happy that she was prepared to accept her betrothal, they still worried about the journey ahead of her, and her absence from their lives. Roana hadn’t spent a night away from her aunt and uncle since she had arrived twelve years ago, a bewildered eight year-old who was missing her mother. But now, in the space of two days, they were losing her to Nottingham, and to William.
Roana had assured them that this was not the case, and that she would return soon. However, maybe there was a grain of truth in their concern, for she secretly feared that William would not be content to drag the betrothal out, and that a wedding would soon be impending.
Such was her fate, as a lady and a maiden with a respectable dowry.
William, for his part, seemed in high spirits during the journey to Nottingham.
“Like the cat who’s got the cream,” Alice observed in a hushed tone, her small nose wrinkling very slightly in distaste.
Roana agreed, but kept her counsel. It was inappropriate, to gossip with the help about her betrothed, and within earshot too. Anything she had to say would be spoken behind closed doors. She hid little from Alice, who had been with her since her twelfth birthday. She saw her more as a companion than a maid, but was under no illusions about the difference in their upbringings. Still, she trusted Alice implicitly, for the girl had yet to let her down.
William shared the carriage with them for part of the journey, and Roana watched him, covertly, from behind the curtain of her hair while they conversed. It was true: she thought he was an idiot, with the mind of a privileged oaf, but he was an attractive idiot. His blond hair flopped over his forehead in a disarming manner, yet the cut of his lips, far too fleshy to be masculine, was more than a touch petulant. He had a muscular build, yet his eyes were such a dark shade of brown that it was impossible to differentiate between iris and pupil, and Roana found this a little disconcerting. His gaze would often bore into hers with a severity that made her uncomfortable.
She hoped that she would grow to like him, maybe even love him, in time. Although, at that moment, it seemed like an impossibility, but he could very well have a hidden, softer side, one that she would uncover as they grew closer.
Or maybe it was just wishful thinking. Either way, she would use their time in Nottingham to get to know him as a person, and hopefully find some common ground; maybe even ignite a spark of interest.
She sighed, wearily. Her romantic heart would always crave love, but sometimes, it just wasn’t meant to be, and the best she could hope for was friendship, or even just tolerance.
They arrived in Nottingham on the afternoon of their third day on the road. After spending the night at a tavern in the town of Rotherham, William was eager to set out early the next morning, and, for once, Roana found herself agreeing with him.
The sun was high in the sky as their small convoy clattered through the gates of the castle, and Roana and Alice peered out of the carriage windows in barely concealed awe. William had rode on ahead on his bay stallion, peering imperiously down his long nose at the people of Nottingham as they darted out of his way.
Situated on a high rock, known hereabouts as Castle Rock, Nottingham Castle was a sprawling fortress built from grey stone, imposing in its position overlooking the town below. As an occasional royal residence, it was certainly a place of interest, and one Roana could vaguely remember visiting as a child.
Having passed through the huge gates by the gate house, the carriage crossed the lower bailey, heading for the main apartments and the keep. It was market day, and crowds were bustling around the stalls set out throughout the bailey, perusing the wares laid out on display.
Roana couldn’t help but notice the heavy and ominous presence of guards interspersed throughout the throng, and wondered, idly, if there was a reason for this. But she did not have time to dwell on it as the carriage entered the courtyard of the keep and came to a stop.
“We’re here, my lady,” Alice breathed, staring out at the building that lay before them.
The keep towered above them, dark and foreboding and sturdy against the cerulean blue of the sky. A wide staircase lead from the courtyard up to huge double doors, which stood open yet held not one iota of welcome within their portal. The courtyard itself was surrounded by a huge wall topped with battlements, behind which armed guards patrolled on the the wall walk. A raised portcullis was ready to descend and shield the keep from intrusion.
A small, grey-haired man dressed in black had appeared from the keep doorway and was proceeding down the stairs, smiling widely in welcome. William dismounted and stepped forward to greet him.
“Must be the Sheriff,” Alice mused as William’s page opened the carriage door for them to alight.
“Thanks, Beasley,” Roana threw him a smile of gratitude as she stepped out. The young lad blushed deeply but Roana had already moved on to greet their host. Alice, following her mistress, noticed and nodded at him with a wink. The lad blushed even deeper.
“Ah, Roana.” William smiled at her as she approached, a touch of the condescending in his manner. “I’d like you to meet my cousin, Jean-Paul Vaisey, the Sheriff of this good town.”
“My lady.” Vaisey turned to regard her, his sharp eyes taking in every inch of her in one sweeping glance. His gaze was cool and analytical.
“My Lord,” Roana inclined her head in greeting. “Thank you in advance for your hospitality. I’m looking forward to spending time in the castle.”
“The pleasure is all mine,” the Sheriff replied in a flippant manner. “It is your first visit to Nottingham?”
“It is,” William interrupted to answer for her, and Roana suppressed a smile.
It was true: William did not know much about her past. A self-important man who was above searching for answers, what he hadn’t gleaned from superficial interactions had been filled in with presumptions and hearsay. As far as William was concerned, Roana was an orphan, raised by Lord and Lady Filey, who had only come into existence when he first met her at twelve. Anything before that was of no interest to him.
It suited Roana. She was strangely private about her past in ways that she couldn’t fully explain. Although she understood why her father had sent her away all those years ago, there would always be a small part of her that felt like an abandoned and bereft child, and she had no wish to share that with anyone. Especially not William.
She couldn’t imagine ever opening up to someone like William and revealing the deepest, darkest corners of her heart.
Having been shown to their rooms and allowed to freshen up after the journey, William and Roana were summoned to the Great Hall, where a sumptuous meal had been laid on. Venison stew, rabbit pie, wheels of cheese, huge hunks of bread, and plenty of wine; just the sight of the filled table had Roana’s eyelids drooping. After two and a half days on the road, she was exhausted and couldn’t wait to fall into bed later that evening. But, until then, she was required to play the dutiful wife-to-be.
The Sheriff was quite the character. With his salt and pepper beard and thinning hair, he had the look of a kindly uncle. Yet his eyes were shrewd and his manner was loud, sarcastic, and lacking in any empathy. Roana found him to be outspoken and entertaining, yet there was an air of unpredictability about him that she knew she would have to watch out for.
He matched William drink for drink, yet, while William gradually became inebriated, slurring his words and growing more animated, Vaisey remained stone-cold sober, his sharp eyes taking in everything around him.
The food was delicious, but Roana was too tired to eat much. Sipping on a goblet of wine, she watched William, noticing how his gestures grew more expansive with each goblet of wine imbibed. She had heard rumours about his antics when under the influence, and hoped there would no repeat performance here in Nottingham.
As she was preparing to make her excuses and retire to her room, the Sheriff turned to fix her in his steely gaze.
“So. Lady Roana. You intend to make an honest man of my cousin?” He indicated William, who was mopping up venison stew with a corner of bread and humming to himself.
Roana cleared her throat and nodded. “It is true; we are betrothed. It is very new to both of us, and we are in the process of getting to know each other.”
“I’m sure you are,” Vaisey grinned in a vaguely unpleasant manner, and his eyes fell very briefly to her bosom before he returned his gaze to her eyes.
“And when will the happy day take place?”
“We have not yet set a date,” Roana replied at the same time as William, who blustered, “Very soon, cousin. Very soon.”
He burped. Vaisey gave a bark of laughter and raised his eyebrows at Roana.
“It would appear that your intended is not on the same page as you are, William. Something will need to be done about that.”
Feeling increasingly unsettled, Roana rose from the table and inclined her head to the Sheriff, darting her eyes at William, briefly.
“I feel that is something my husband-to-be and I should discuss between us, when he is in a better frame of mind. Now, if you’ll both excuse me, I’m going to my room. The journey here has quite exhausted me.”