La Flamme (Historical Romance)
one myself. It was damned hard talking to Sabine today. What do you say to one so young?"
    Stephen laughed. "The first time you've met a female who didn't swoon at your feet and she's your wife. Could this mean that you're losing your way with the ladies?"
    Garreth scowled as he dismounted and handed his reins to an attendant. "I find nothing humorous in the situation. Sabine is too young to be a wife. Most probably she still plays with toys. Besides, she liked you better than me."
    Stephen laughed. "I don't think so, Garreth."
    They entered the inn and found a table near the hearth. After the landlord had served them, Garreth took a sip of his ale and leaned back thoughtfully. "She has spirit—the kind I would wish for in a little sister, if I had one. I don't know that it's a quality I want in a wife, however." He looked at his friend inquiringly. "What is your impression of her?"
    Stephen hid a smile behind his tankard. Garreth was more taken with his new bride than he wanted to admit. "I believe that she is the loveliest little girl I have ever seen. I could look into those golden eyes for hours."
    "She's in pain," Garreth said in a troubled voice.
    "I saw that. 'Tis a pity."
    Garreth slammed his tankard down so forcefully that ale splashed onto the table. "Damn the forces that control my life! Sabine is too young to even understand what goes on between a man and woman. When a beautiful lady catches my eye, I feel damn guilty for what I am imagining. Being a husband does not set well with me."
    Stephen leaned against the high-back bench, unconcerned by Garreth's outburst. "Whatever troubles you, I'm sure you'll overcome it." He took a sip of ale. "I noticed you were struggling to make conversation with Sabine today. Why don't you just treat her the way you would any other woman?"
    "She's not a woman. I can't imagine ever . . . well, you know what I mean. I will never be able to be a husband to her because I'll always see her as a child."
    "I saw something in her eyes today that you obviously missed. She likes you, and I'd say more as a woman than a child."
    "Damn!"
    Humor danced in Stephen's eyes. "So you said several times. But don't worry, by now she is probably wearing the gift you brought her and thinking of you fondly for your thoughtfulness."
    "I doubt it—she still doesn't trust me." Garreth leaned forward. "I must remember to thank your sister for selecting Sabine's gift. What was it?"
    "Betty said it was a cape befitting a queen. When you get the accounting, you'll think you bought the Crown Jewels."
    "That would be your idea," Garreth said dryly.
    "It was. I told my sister not to consider the cost, and she didn't." Stephen drained his ale. "By the way, you wrote your little wife a charming sentiment."
    "I suppose that was your idea also."
    "Of course." Then Stephen became serious. "I pity the little duchess, Garreth. Be kind to her."
    "Perhaps you should have married her," Garreth said sourly.
    "The king didn't ask it of me. Of course I don't hold the power and rank of your family. But mark this well, Garreth, Sabine Blackthorn will one day make you proud to be her husband. Even though she's young, she has pride and conducts herself with honor and dignity. Those are rare qualities and you should cherish them in her."
    "This conversation begins to weary me," Garreth said, coming to his feet. "If we are going to make London, we had best be away."

 
     
    6
     
    Sabine was bent over her father's desk while his steward explained to her about keeping household accounts. Her mother had begun to train her more diligently in the management of a large household as she prepared to become mistress of Wolfeton Keep.
    Thea, her old nursemaid, appeared at the door. "No more lessons today. Her ladyship's asking for you."
    Sabine closed the ledger gratefully and stood. On her way out of the room she stopped at the window to look at the gathering clouds. "It looks as if it'll storm before nightfall."
    Thea nodded while peering

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