Peter’s interest was waning already. He winked at Sarah as she wandered off toward the market, then turned to make his way back to his cottage. A lovely village lass with auburn hair caught his eye from across the street.
Her gaze slid over him with interest and paused at his pushed up sleeves. The ladies always did like his forearms, tanned from the sun and corded with muscle from his work in the stable. His da was Werrick Castle’s Master of the Horse, a job Peter would someday take over when the labor became too great for his father. Already he was doing most of the work, not that he minded. He enjoyed all of it: the sweet scent of hay, the glossy-coated horses and their individual personalities. And he enjoyed the long hours of companionship with his da. After all, they only had each other.
Peter tossed a grin to the auburn-haired villager. Her cheeks colored prettily, and she ducked her head with reticence.
She was a beautiful woman with a rosy glow about her cheeks, set off by her fair skin. He didn’t mind admiring her. Sarah knew he wouldn’t love her, that he’d never love any woman. Every woman he took to his bed was well aware of that fact.
He turned away from the auburn-haired woman rather than approach her, however. Her shyness was that of a virgin who had never flirted with a man before and he didn’t take virgins to bed. Those were his personal policies when it came to his lovers: no maidens and no woman who hoped she might get him for more than a bit of sport.
One might think such rules would inhibit his ability to woo the women of Brampton, but he’d never had an issue. The ladies had always be drawn to him. And he’d been drawn them.
He pushed through the door into the cottage he shared with his da. The fire in the hearth had gone out while they’d been working. It was such a simple thing, a common, daily thing, and yet every time he came home to the soot-blackened hearth standing empty and cold, he thought of her.
It had been ten years ago, when he’d been a lad of only nine. He’d pushed through the door as he did now, but the bright presence that usually filled the small single room of the cottage was missing. There was no salty smell of pottage with a bit of bacon warming in a pot, there was no soft humming of song in the air, and the hearth in the center of the cottage had gone cold.
He’d called for her mother, but she hadn’t come. She never would. Something deep and ugly and horribly familiar twisted in Peter’s chest.
He’d known his mother enjoyed being around other men. They made her laugh a deep, husky sound and set her eyes to twinkling. She brought them to the cottage on days when his da was at the stables and Peter was put outside to play. He hadn’t minded as there were plenty of places in Brampton for a boy to play.
Never had he thought she would abandon her life with him and his da for those men. Not until the day he came home to that cold hearth.
And now he was just like his mother. His lust burned with intensity even as his affections remained flighty. Except he would not make the same mistake his mother had. He would never allow himself to fall in love, for without love, there could be no family, and with no family, he would have no one to hurt.
A knock sounded at his door, the beating rapid and frantic. His spun about and jerked it open to find the stable hand, a boy of seven with messy black hair and eyes so brown they reminded Peter of the horses they tended.
“’Tis yer da,” he shouted.
Peter lifted his gaze to look beyond the stable boy and caught a sight his heart was not prepared for. His da, the great and strong Master of the Horse, whose hands were great as a blacksmiths and gentle as a seamstress, was laid out upon a board as several men struggled to heave his muscular frame into the cottage.
They settled him into his pallet along the far wall, then mumbled their apologies, saying they would fetch the priest and the healer. Peter hoped there would be more need for the healer than the priest, a hope that was dashed at his father’s pale, sweating form.
“Peter,” Da’s voice was gravelly with pain.
Peter sank to his knees beside his father. “What’s happened?”
“’Tis my chest.” Da panted for breath.
Peter gritted his teeth. He knew where that had pain came from, and who had put it there. Her.
His father shook his head. “This isn’t because of your mother. I suspect the last ten years has been enough to clear her from my mind.”
“We needn’t speak of her,” Peter said hurriedly. “You needn’t speak at all. Wait for Isla. She can help, but you must save your strength.”
If these would be his father’s last words, Peter would not have them be of her. She had left them. She had made them the object of salacious whispers and snickering laughs. For years they had been a joke because of her. His father may not blame Peter’s mother, but Peter did.
“I know you’ve vowed to never love.” More panting. More sweating. “Promise me you’ll open your heart someday. It wasn’t that her lust was too great, son, but that her heart was too weak.”
Emotion welled in Peter’s throat, for the mother he had never allowed himself to miss and for the father who had been both parents to him. For as much as his da had tried to pretend her disappearance didn’t upset him, or that he didn’t care a whit about the gossip, Peter heard him at night when darkness had fully consumed the night. Those quiet sobs that broke the stillness and cracked fissures into Peter’s heart.
“Save your strength, Da,” Peter said weakly.
“I do not regret having opened my heart and loving your mother.” Da reached for him, blindly.
Peter caught his flailing arm and locked their hands together in a solid grip.
“She gave me the greatest joy in my life.” A tear ran from the corner of his father’s eye, trickling over the crinkled skin at the corners put there from years of squinting in the sun. “She gave me you, Peter.”
A low groan came from his father’s throat and the hand locked in Peter’s squeezed with enough force, Peter feared his bones might break.
“Promise me,” Da ground out through clenched teeth. “Promise me you’ll never give up on love. You won’t resign yourself to being like her.”
Peter shook his head, tears blurring his father’s wide, kind face as a tension in his throat prevented him from speaking. Even on his father’s death bed, he was thinking only of his son.
“Promise me, my boy,” the Master of the Horse choked out.
“I promise,” Peter croaked.
His father’s breath exhaled in a hiss and he curled his shoulders forward up as if cradling a pain in his chest. “I love you, Peter.” He had to force out each word and it clearly cost him much to do so.
“I love you too,” Peter whispered, his voice small as if he was a mere child again.
The tension in his father’s body relaxed and the lines of pain on his face smoothed. Peter’s breathing rushed in and out, the sound like a roar in the discomfiting silence.
“Da?” Peter shook the hand in his. The large capable fingers had gone slack, the wrist limp.
Peter stared at his father in disbelief. He opened his mouth, but this time no sound came out. The knot in his throat had become too thick, making his whole neck ache and tears well in his eyes.
The strength bled away from him and he fell against his father’s chest, where his body was still warm, but his heart no longer thundered against Peter’s ear as it had when he’d been a boy. Nay, it had gone still.
Tears ran down Peter’s cheeks and bled into his father’s shirt, leaving it wet. How would he get by at the stables without his da? How would get by at home without his Da? He could do the work of it all, aye. That wasn’t the problem.
It was the absence of his father, the missing timbre of his voice as they spoke, the richness of his laugh, the companionship they’d shared these long years that it had just been them. For the first time in Peter’s life, he was truly and fully alone.
The promise he’d made echoed in his head, to never give up on love. But how could one ever love when loss scored such a deep hurt?
“I love you, Da,” Peter whispered, and despite his promise, guessed that it might be the last time he ever said those three words.