Song of the Heart – Alexa Aston

GARRETT STANBRİDGE, EARL of Montayne, left the training yard and made his way toward the keep. The summer day had been sweltering and he was drenched in sweat from sparring with his men throughout the long afternoon. He wanted a cold bath and colder tankard of ale, not necessarily in that order. Racing up the staircase that led to the keep, he pushed open the heavy door and entered, the cool washing over him. He spied Annie, his daughter’s nurse, carrying Lyssa down the stairs and went to them. Leaning forward, he pressed a kiss to Lyssa’s brow. “How are you, my sweet girl?” he asked and she smiled, reaching her chubby arms toward him. “I am much too dirty to hold you, Lyssa. Once I’ve cleaned up, you may sit on my knee and I’ll tell you a story or two.” He turned to Annie. “Would you have water sent up for a cool bath if Lady Lynnette has not already done so?” “Yes, my lord.” He left and hurried up the stairs to the solar, ready to tell his wife about his day. It surprised him that she was not already waiting there for him. Usually, Lynnette made a special effort to be present when he returned to the keep each day. Though very shy—and very young when they’d wed—she tried her best to please him in small ways.

He was hoping she would soon have good news for him. He’d noticed her belly seemed slightly rounded two nights ago when he’d made love to her and prayed that she was with child again. They’d lost their firstborn, a son, last June, shortly after Lyssa’s birth. While Garrett doted on his daughter, he knew he needed sons to keep Stanbury strong. He set aside his sword and stripped off his clothes, leaving them in a pile on the floor. Several servants brought in buckets of water and poured them into the copper tub. Once they left, he eased into it and lathered well before rinsing and drying off. Feeling refreshed as he dressed again, Garrett wondered what might be keeping Lynnette. Mayhap she had gotten distracted in her garden, which she loved to tend. More likely, she and Edith, his mother, sat in the great hall and played with Lyssa, encouraging her as she toddled about.

The girl was just learning to walk, despite being almost sixteen months old. Richard had begun moving upright at nine months, delighting his parents with every step. Still, Garrett understood why Lyssa lagged behind her brother’s progress. Her mother was reluctant to put her down. Ever since the fever took Richard from them, Lynnette clung to their remaining child. It was only thanks to his mother’s encouragement that Lynnette had finally begun allowing Lyssa to explore more on her own two feet. His belly grumbled noisily and Garrett returned downstairs. The great hall was filled with people ready to partake in the evening meal. He moved toward the dais and greeted his mother with a kiss to her cheek. “Where is Lynnette?” he asked, beginning to be concerned.

“I haven’t seen her in several hours. Do you think she’s lost track of the time?” “It’s not like her to do so,” he replied as he gazed across the great hall, hoping to spy her in conversation with someone. They took their places as servants brought them trenchers and cups of wine. Garrett ate, uneasiness filling him. Lynnette was predictable, doing the same tasks every day. To miss greeting him in the solar and helping with his bath was surprising. To miss the evening meal was unthinkable. “I’m going to look for her,” he told his mother, leaving most of his food untouched. Leaving the dais, he spoke to several servants. None had seen the countess for hours.

Garrett returned to the solar and found it empty. He wandered the corridors, calling her name, even opening various doors to no avail. Finally, he went to Lyssa’s bedchamber, where Annie rocked the girl to sleep. Quietly, he asked, “When was the last time you saw Lady Lynnette?” “She decided to go riding after the midday meal,” the servant replied. “She wishes to gain more confidence upon a horse.” Garrett turned abruptly and headed for the stables. Concern filled him. Lynnette was a poor rider, too timid to manage a horse who knew when its rider was unsure. It had aggravated him when she arrived as his bride. He’d given her lessons but none seemed to take.

She tried sporadically to master the skill but had never kept with it for long. He felt guilty because he knew she always tried to please him. This latest effort at attempting to master riding was most likely due to her wanting to achieve a sense of ease upon a horse to make him proud of her. He reached the stables and found Barth, his head groom. The man looked nervous when he spied his liege lord and Garrett guessed why. He could smell the alcohol on Barth’s breath from several feet away. “Were you here when Lady Lynnette went out to ride?” he demanded, overlooking Barth’s drunkenness for now because of his growing concern regarding Lynnette. “I saddled her horse myself, my lord. And Stephen’s. He was to accompany her.

But he didn’t.” “Why not?” Though the grounds surrounding Stanbury were thought to be safe, Garrett always cautioned Lynnette to take someone with her on her rides. She’d become too nervous to ride with him, feeling he judged her with every mistake she made, and so she’d taken to asking their reeve to ride with her on the few occasions she went out. The groom shrugged. “You’ll have to ask him, my lord.” “What time did she return?” “I . I don’t know.” Barth swallowed, his eyes cast to the ground. “I’ve been busy.” Garrett strode down the row of stalls and came to a stop where Lynnette’s horse was.

The stall was empty. A sick feeling washed over him. She’d ridden out by herself and hadn’t returned. She could be hurt, thrown from the saddle, unable to walk. Or worse. He pushed that thought aside and hurried back to the keep. Entering the great hall, he spied his reeve and motioned to him. Stephen excused himself from the men he conversed with and came toward him. “Yes, my lord? You have need of me?” “I do. Why did you not accompany Lady Lynnette on her ride today? She is missing.

Her horse isn’t in its stall. I need to organize a search party to find her.” He glared at the reeve. “None of this would have been necessary if you would have gone with her.” The reeve’s solemn look as he gazed at Garrett made him go cold inside. “Could you come with me, my lord?” Stephen asked and hurried from the boisterous noise of the great hall. He followed but as soon as they reached the entryway, he called for the reeve to stop. “I have no time for nonsense. I need to organize the search.” Stephen shook his head.

“I fear . you will not find the countess, my lord.” Garrett seized the reeve’s shoulders. “Why do you say that? What has become of her?” “She is mostly like gone.” “Gone? Gone where?” Sadness filled Stephen’s face. “Gone from Stanbury. With another.” He tightened his hold. “What do you mean? You’re talking in circles.” “She’s left with another man,” the reeve ground out.

Garrett’s hands fell away. “Another man?” he asked, not comprehending what he was being told. “My lord, I should have told you,” Stephen began. “I . I did not know how to do so.” He swallowed. “Twice, Lady Lynnette went riding recently. She wouldn’t allow me to accompany her either time. I worried about her. She is still a novice in the saddle after all this time.

I decided to follow her at a distance. And that’s when I saw them. In the woods.” “Saw who?” His belly tightened. “A knight, my lord. One I did not recognize. Tall with dark hair. They . spoke at some length.” “And?” he demanded, nausea filling him.

Stephen looked miserable as he said, “They appeared to be quite close, my lord. They were familiar with one another.” Garrett didn’t have to ask what the reeve meant. He understood that Stephen had witnessed Lynnette kissing this stranger. Or something even more intimate between them. “I left my lady in the forest with this knight,” Stephen said, shaking his head. “I thought she would return. Now, I’m not so sure. I fear there were more of these clandestine meetings that I knew nothing of. And that this knight convinced the countess to run away with him.

” The words were like a physical blow. Garrett reeled from what he’d learned. “No. It couldn’t be,” he said, dumbfounded. “She wouldn’t leave me. Leave Lyssa.” Yet how much did he really know about his shy wife? Had she been in love with another man before she arrived for her arranged marriage at Stanbury? Had this man from her past come for her? Convinced her to flee with him? Were Garrett and Lyssa merely reminders of the babe they’d lost and she’d needed to get away? The answers might drive him mad. “We must look for her,” he said with determination. “Find my captain of the guard and have him bring every soldier to the inner bailey at once.” Stephen hurried away as Garrett paced restlessly.

His mother emerged from the great hall and came toward him. “What troubles you, my son? Did you find Lynnette?” “No.” Briefly, he recounted what the reeve had revealed. Shock filled his mother’s face. “Do you truly believe Lynnette would abandon her husband and child?” she asked. “It seems so unlike her. She is as timid as a mouse, Garrett.” “Mayhap I never knew her.” He thought back and realized how little his wife had spoken during their conversations. How he’d always talked about Stanbury and his soldiers.

Their tenants. The harvests. Other than knowing his wife enjoyed time in her herb garden, Garrett was hard pressed to think of anything else about her— other than she had been a good mother. Had Richard’s untimely death caused something to break within her? He might never know—unless they found her. Venturing into the inner bailey, he addressed the gathered soldiers. Garrett did not mention the unnamed knight or Stephen’s suspicions. He merely explained how Lynnette had gone riding and never returned and he feared she lay hurt somewhere nearby. “We must find her,” he said firmly, believing they would. The search that night proved fruitless. Garrett rode out many nights after that in all directions, asking others if they’d seen Lynnette.

He described her appearance in detail, mentioning the necklace that she always wore, which he knew would stand out. The emerald stones had been his wedding gift to her, its clasp made up of a lion holding a sword. Each time, he returned home emptyhanded—and bitter. Gradually, he ceased hunting for the woman who never sent word as to her whereabouts. And never came home.

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