Kingdom of Cyprus
“AND SHE THOUGHT SHE WOULDN’T ENJOY the marriage bed,” Cecilia giggled, putting a hand over her mouth in coy embarrassment. She was sharing the joke with Sir Hugh. They stood at the entrance to the narrow crevice in the limestone mountain that gave access to the “Baths of Aphrodite.” The “baths” were a crystalline, natural spring that surfaced in a small cave. They were lit by shafts of light that broke through cracks in the natural dome of the ceiling. On a sunny day like this, enough light penetrated to make the walls white and the water a brilliant aqua. Usually, guests were taken to the baths in small groups: five to six men or the same number of women, never mixed groups. Sir Balian, however, had slipped a large enough coin to the keeper to be allowed to go with Lady Eschiva—alone.
They had been gone long enough for Hugh’s imagination to run wild with him and Cecilia’s remark showed her thoughts had taken the same direction. The combination of his thoughts and her proximity was making him hot and very uncomfortable below the beltline. “Maybe we should take some refreshment?” He gestured in the direction of tables set up under the thick, horizontal branches of an ancient plane-tree. The broad leaves offered so much shade that the tables were barely dappled with sunlight. The squires had already settled themselves at one of the tables and ordered wine, water, and stuffed grape leaves.
Sir Hugh led to a different table and signaled to the proprietor, who came over hastily. “Shall we have the same?” he asked Cecilia and she nodded agreeably. He ordered for them in Greek, a little self-consciously showing off his language proficiency, since the proprietor spoke perfectly serviceable French.
“Have you been here before?” Cecilia asked him as he sat down opposite her.
“We came as boys,” Hugh answered. “Our uncle Philip brought all of us and we made so much noise competing to touch the bottom and then getting into fights trying to dunk one another that our father came to tell us off. Despite all that, Bella was indignant that she had to wait and swim with the women.” He laughed at the memory.
“I thought your sister Bella wanted to become a nun,” Cecilia countered with a pert expression that made Hugh’s loins swell even more.
There was something about Cecilia that he found utterly irresistible. It wasn’t just that she was beautiful, it was that she was bright and full of life and laughter. It was hard to concentrate on answering her question rather than imagining kissing her. “Bella does want to become a nun, but she’s not your usual priggish or sickly convent-type. She’s plump, for a start, and growing up with five brothers made her remarkably tough. She once beat Baldwin up. I mean, she literally straddled him and lay into him with her fists for something he’d done to a cat. Balian and I had to drag her off before she did him serious harm.”
Cecilia was giggling over her hand again, her eyes alight with mischievous delight. “Your father must have been furious with her! What did he do?”
“Oh, we didn’t tell him.”
“Not even Baldwin?”
“Especially not Baldwin! How could he admit he’d been bested by a girl? No, no. That kind of fight stayed between us. What about yourself? We’ve known each other for two months, yet I know so little about you. Did you have brothers?” Was he being too bold?
“Oh, my life was very boring compared to yours. I was an only and a very late child. My mother died giving me birth, so I lived alone with my father, and he turned 50 before I was born.”
“Eschiva said he was a spice merchant. Is that right?” Hugh had tried to get more information about Cecilia without sounding inappropriately interested.
“Yes. If you know Acre, you will know his shop. It was very prominent. Right next to the Golden Lion Apothecary, on the corner of South Street and St. Joseph.”
“Yes, of course! But I thought the old man died in terrible debt—” Hugh bit off his words and could have kicked himself.
Cecilia’s beautiful sunny face was instantly shadowed with sorrow as she nodded bravely. “Yes. He did. You see he had entrusted his entire inventory to my husband. Maurizio had promised to take it all the way to London, where—he said—it would bring many times more profit than in the ports of Italy and France. My father trusted him, and Maurizio hadn’t lied. His last letter reported that he had sold the entire cargo at fabulous prices. But on the return journey,” Cecilia looked away, over her shoulder toward the sea. “On the return,” she started again but couldn’t get the words out. To Hugh’s horror, he realized that she was crying. Tears were trickling down her face in silent testimony to her pain and it was all his fault.
“Cecilia! I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to distress you. I’m so sorry.” Hugh wanted to stroke her shoulder in comfort, but he didn’t dare. “Please forgive me!”
Cecilia turned and smiled at him through her tears. “It’s alright.” She wiped the tears away almost irritably. “It just suddenly struck me that the wreck of his ship washed up very near here. Somewhere out there,” she gestured vaguely with one hand, “not far from shore, is all the gold and silver my father needed to pay his debts—and my husband’s last remains.”
“I’m so sorry,” Hugh murmured again, hating himself. Why was Balian so good at this and he so clumsy?
“Our joy was short-lived, just one year of courting, three days of blissful marriage, then less than a year of waiting—and it was gone. I have been with Lady Eschiva longer than I was with Maurizio. This is my life now, with Lady Eschiva. It was the realization that I hadn’t even thought about Maurizio on this trip that made me sad for a moment, but it is not your fault, Sir Hugh.” She was smiling at him with her big blue eyes still swimming in tears.
“Your husband was a very lucky man, Cecilia,” Hugh told her solemnly, overwhelmed with jealousy.
“Until he pressed his luck too far and lost everything,” she answered with a wisdom he had not expected in anyone so young and beautiful.
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