Her watcher might not even have seen the baker hand it to her, and therefore, even if he did find it, the cake would have no significance.
Yet, the doubt settled deeper. Like months of dust, stirred up by a cloud of ill wind, floating down to collect again in a stifling blanket.
The memory of Ryle's reddened face, twisted into that terrible sneer, again wrestled its way into her thoughts. That eve, he'd been angrier—and more drunk—than she'd ever seen him. Thank the saints, sleeping Ewan, tucked away in his chamber at the other end of the manor house, hadn't witnessed the violence.
She could only imagine Ryle's wrath when she was returned to him.
Oh, God. Oh, God!
Her legs shook. She pressed her back against the rough wooden wall, into the darkest shadows. With only one route in or out of the stable, she must force herself to be patient, to be as still and silent as a tomb sculpture. Despite the smell of hay tickling her nostrils.
Despite the splinter biting into her right palm.
Just as she covered her nose to stop a sneeze, the light in the stable's doorway dimmed. The muted thud of footfalls reached her.
Her pursuer had stepped inside.
Tension hummed inside her with the resonance of a single, plucked harp string. The air inside the stable changed. Shifted.
She sensed his presence. Determined. Inquisitive.
Confusion flared, even as she fought the terrified moan rising up inside her. She squeezed farther against the wall. Her hand moved sideways a fraction and bumped against a wooden-handled spade. With a loud rasp, the implement keeled sideways, then clanged onto the floor.
The man's rich, warm voice reached out to her, without a hint of menace. Disbelief shot through her. Fie! He sounded just like Dominic.
Memories of her beloved softened the edges of her fear, reviving moments of sunshine, laughter, and love so strong and true. She had known, when she kissed him full on the lips for the last time, that she'd never love another man as she had treasured him.
She blinked, fighting tears. Of all wondrous miracles, could it be him?
Cruel reality smashed her elation like a beetle beneath a stone. How foolish, to imagine the man was Dominic. He'd gone away on crusade. He'd likely perished on the bloody eastern sands, run through by a Saracen sword. Even if he survived the battles, the journey back to England on a filthy, rat-infested boat surely would have killed him.
Nay, the man could not be Dominic. Fear was corrupting her mind.
Yet, how did he know her given name? Not the name she used here in Clovebury, but her real name?
"Gisela, are you in here?" The man spoke again. His tone held an edge of frustration.
Oh, heavenly Mother of God. If she heard only his voice, she'd believe him to be Dominic.
Loneliness coaxed her to stumble out of the shadows and look upon him. Oh, my love. Is it you? Biting down on her tongue, she fought the urge to call out. Curling her hands against the rough wall, she struggled not to rush forward.
'Twas not Dominic, she reminded herself. 'Twas a stranger, who might well be working for her husband.
Straw rustled. The shadows shifted as the man walked farther into the stable.
"Why do you not answer me, Gisela? Are you hurt?"
Any moment, he'd round the bales of hay. He would see her. Expectation warred with a rising sense of panic. Caution had protected her and Ewan over the past four months; to foolishly risk them both now was unforgivable.
Her gaze darted to the opposite wall, searching for a hiding place.
Nowhere to conceal herself.
Yanking the bread loaf from under her arm, she tossed it onto a wooden grain barrel. Lunging forward, she picked up the spade.
A man stepped into view. The loose, ragged garments of the peddler hung from his broad frame. With only a few paces between them, standing upright rather than hunched over a stick, he looked far taller than she expected.
A warrior in a peddler's garb.
Facing him, she half-crouched, holding the spade like a pike between them.
He abruptly halted, respecting the barrier she enforced between them. He raised his hands in a gesture of surrender, even as a wry laugh broke from him. "'Tis not the greeting I expected. At least you were kind enough not to crack me over the head."
Her gaze sharpened on his face. Brown hair tangled about his shoulders, framing a handsome visage. In the shadows, she couldn't make out the color of his eyes, but they danced with undisguised mirth.
His face looked tanned, more angular, but his eyes were the same.
Her arms trembled with the weight of the spade. It wavered, sending the metal end listing down toward the straw-littered floor. As though sensing her astonishment, he said, "Gisela, I have not come to harm you. 'Tis me, Dominic."
Stinging tears flooded her eyes. Her throat ached, as though she had swallowed a mouthful of dry straw. How she longed to drop the spade and throw herself into his arms. The compulsion to go to him burned with such force, it robbed her of breath.
However, she could never forget her husband's merciless vow. You can trust no one, Gisela. Do you hear me? No one! This I promise you.
Ryle knew how much she'd loved Dominic; drunk and furious, he'd cursed that love time and again. Circumstances had left her no choice but to tell him of Dominic, a wealthy lord's youngest son, whom she'd cherished and lost. If, after his return to England, he had located her husband and asked to see her, Ryle had the gift of manipulation to convince any man to do his bidding. A treachery she added to all the others for which she despised him.
Knowing Ryle, he'd fabricated a clever lie to explain why she left. He'd stitch enough concern for her into his tale to convince Dominic he must find her—and bring her back.
The anguish of her thoughts struck her like a fist. Oh, Dominic, how desperately I have missed you. Every day, since you left me, I have wept inside. To see you here is my most cherished dream come true.
Yet, the cautious little voice inside her repeated Ryle's threat. You can trust no one, Gisela. No one!
Dominic's smile had faded. Now, his expression held a tormented blend of surprise and regret.
Misery weighed upon Gisela like a sack full of rocks. How she loathed what she must do. But, she had no choice. Protecting herself, and especially Ewan, was more important than her fondest wishes.
Forcing the lie through her stiff lips, she said, "You have mistaken me for someone else."
He frowned. "Nay."
The falsehoods snarled together in her mouth like tangled thread. Still, she managed to say, "My name is not Gisela. 'Tis Anne."
Shock widened his eyes. He shook his head, clearly grappling with her words. "'Tis Gisela. I make no mistake." The barest smile touched his lips. "I would never forget you."
A treacherous, pleasured warmth bloomed inside her. Oh, what wondrous words.
How very clever of him, if he aimed to undermine her wariness.
"My name is Anne."
"Anne is your middle name. 'Tis also your mother's name." He crossed his arms, then leaned one broad shoulder against the stable wall, a posture that implied a lazy ease, though she well knew she couldn't run past him to the door. "I remember the day you told me," he murmured. "We lay in the meadow, with the buttercups and daisies. You made me say it over and over—Gisela Anne, Gisela Anne—so I would not forget. Do you remember?"
Aye, I remember. A sob rose in her throat.
From somewhere outside came men's voices. They drew near. As though hearing them, too, Dominic's head tilted. His jaw hardened before he pushed away from the wall.
Fear jolted through her. The men approaching might be his cohorts who had followed his pursuit. Reinforcements, to help take her away, if she put up a fight.
Her shaking arms failed her. The metal spade hit the floor with a loud clunk.
"Gisela." Dominic moved a measured step closer. "I do not understand. I thought you would be glad to see me. Why are you so afraid?"
She stumbled back. Her foot knocked the fallen implement, and she winced. "Oh, Dominic," she whispered, all of her anguish bleeding into her voice. "Please. Turn around and leave. Pretend you never saw me."
Shaking her head, she fought not to weep. "Please."
His searching gaze traveled over her. "Do you fear someone will find us here together?" He paused, before adding, "Mayhap your husband?"
A horrified gasp broke from Gisela. When Dominic took another step toward her, desperation spurred her into motion. She bolted for the space between him and the hay bales. The musty crunch of straw, as loud as her own breathing, filled her ears.
If she were quick enough, if she surprised him before he realized her intentions—
Just as she brushed past Dominic, his arm slid around her waist. She shrieked, struggled against his hold, but before she could draw another breath, she found herself spun around.
Kicking his shins, pounding her fists against his chest, she tried to wrench free.
Dominic grunted. "Gisela!"
With a sharp oath, he wobbled, then keeled sideways. Before she could pull free from his hold, the stable blurred around her. She was falling!
Gisela landed on her back in the mound of straw.
With a loud "oof," Dominic landed beside her. He'd shielded her fall so she did not hit the hard-packed dirt, she realized with a twinge of gratitude.
Flicking bits of straw from her face, she struggled to rise.
Leaning on one arm beside her, his face a hand's span above hers, Dominic shook his head. His broad, tanned palm splayed on her belly. "I will not let you run away, Gisela. I will have an explanation."