The Silver Rose, страница 1
Ariel fumbled with the tiny pearl buttons of her shirt.
“Your hands must be freezing.” Simon moved her fingers aside and began to slip the tiny buttons into the braided loops that fastened them. His hands brushed her breasts and her breath caught. His fingers stopped their work and she felt her nipples harden against the fine linen of her shift as goose bumps lifted on her skin. Then abruptly his hands dropped from her and he stepped back, his face suddenly closed.
She turned aside to pick up her skirt, stepping into it, fastening the hooks at her waist, trying to hide the trembling of her fingers, keeping her head averted until the hot flush died down on her creamy cheeks.
If only he would go away now. But he remained leaning against the bedpost.
She felt his eyes on her, following her every move, and that lingering sensuality in his gaze made her blood race. Even the simple act of pulling on her boots was invested with a curious voluptuousness under the intentness of his sea blue eyes. She had never felt more powerfully attracted to anyone.
She picked up her gloves and stalked to the door. “I’m sure we’ve been away long enough for you to have proved your point to the wedding guests, my lord.”
“What point is that?” He raised an eyebrow as he moved to follow her.
“Why, your virility, of course, sir. Why else would you have accompanied me to my chamber so publicly? I’m sure our wedding guests are convinced you took the opportunity to bed your wife.” She looked over her shoulder at him. “That is what you would have them believe, is it not, my lord?”
ALSO BY JANE FEATHER
The Diamond Slipper
The Silver Rose
The Emerald Swan
The Hostage Bride
A Valentine Wedding
The Accidental Bride
The Least Likely Bride
The Widow’s Kiss
To Kiss a Spy
THE WINTER NIGHT was dark; snow fell softly, covering the slimy cobbles in the narrow lanes, overlaying the filth in the kennels, creating a delicate white world that would last until the first footfall of dawn.
The small room under the eaves of Sam Begg’s bakery on Distaff Lane was warmed by a brazier, lit by a dozen wax candles, the air fragrant with the smell of yeast and baking bread from the oven in the shop below. Sam’s first customers would appear with the dawn, and the hot bread must be waiting for them.
“It wants but ten minutes before five.” The man in a furlined chamber robe turned from the small diamond-paned window where he’d been watching the snow.
“When will I see you again?” The woman was dressing before the brazier, her fingertips clumsy with the cold despite the charcoal’s heat. The question was simple enough but the voice was filled with a deep yearning akin to despair.
“When do you return to Ely?” He came over to her, taking her hands in his, chafing them. His hands were large, fitting his physique, and the woman’s slender fingers disappeared in their grasp.
“My husband talks of tomorrow.” Her eyes were gray, clear, almond-shaped, the sable eyelashes long and curling. She moved her hands from his to put up the tumbling mass of hair, the color of liquid honey. “And you?”
“I still petition the king for the return of my land,” he said, gently tracing the curve of her cheek. “Some days I think he will grant me the favor, others . . .” He shrugged massive shoulders beneath the robe. “But I cannot as yet leave Whitehall. Not until I have an answer.”
“And if the answer is in your favor, then Ravenspeare will bear you even greater hatred.”
Again he shrugged. “That’s nothing to me, Margaret. So long as I have the undying love of his wife.” Smiling now, he caressed her face before kissing her, a long, lingering joining of their mouths that spoke of the night they had just passed and contained the promise of future nights.
“I fear for you,” she said, taking up her hooded riding cloak. “My husband bears the Hawkesmoors such ill will.” She shivered as she drew the garment tightly around her. “It runs deep in Ravenspeare blood.”
“The rivalry and hatred between our families has run deep in blood for nigh on two hundred years,” Geoffrey Hawkesmoor said somberly.
“And yet there has been love too,” Margaret murmured, almost to herself. “Love between the two families as powerful as the hatred.”
Geoffrey did not speak his thought that on the occasions when love and passion had fired the two neighboring dynasties, the results had been as violent and tragic as anything produced by the vein of hatred. Such reflections were too chillingly close to their own situation.
But they would be safe. They were careful. They didn’t ask for too much. They accepted the limits of their passion.
Thrusting the cold moment from him, he drew something out of his pocket. “There is something I would give you, my love. But you must keep it well hidden from your husband.” He extended his hand so that she could see what he held.
A strangely shaped bracelet lay on his huge palm. It was gold, pearl encrusted, shaped like a serpent. In the serpent’s mouth was a large perfect pearl.
“How beautiful.” Margaret lifted it from his hand, holding it to the candle flame, turning it to catch the light. “It’s very strange, though.”
“It reminded me of you.” He took it from her, running his finger over its shape. “All the beauty, the power, and the terror of Eve.”
Margaret shivered suddenly. “Don’t say that. I am no temptress, Geoffrey.”
“No.” He smiled. “It’s not your fault that I am tempted to madness by you.” He held up the bracelet again. “Do you see the charm it already carries?” He touched a delicate, glowing emerald cut into the perfect shape of a swan. “This one was already attached, but I have the notion to mark each of our meetings with another charm. So there will always be an enduring record of our love. And you will keep it as secret, as deeply hidden from the eyes of the world, as we must keep that love.”
Margaret was always surprised by the romantic, poetic side of her lover—a man more at home with the sword than the pen. But it was an essential part of the vibrant and varied personality that was dearer to her than life itself.
“Come,” he said with sudden urgency. “You must leave. Brian will be waiting with the sedan chair at the corner. You must be back in your own bed before dawn.”
She clung to him with the desperation of a hopeless love, then tore herself away without looking back, running down the stairs, past the bakery where the red glow of the great fireplace threw the black shadow of Sam Begg, huge, against the whitewashed walls. He didn’t acknowledge her. He never acknowledged her. He was paid well and silently by the man, who always arrived first and left last, and the baker maintained his own silence.
The door to the street was unbarred, and she threw back the oiled bolts with ease. Swiftly she slipped into the silent lane, drawing the door closed at her back.
They came toward her, moving out of the doorways opposite. Three men, cloaked and hooded. They held daggers glittering in the snowlight, but only one man struck the silent woman, whose eyes, wide with horrified knowledge, glowed in the dim white light.
The earl of Ravenspeare killed his wife as she stood immobile against the doorway. She made no attempt to evade the dagger, made no sound, until, as she crumpled to the ground, she cried out, a sound terrible enough to waken the dead, and loud enough to warn Geoffrey Hawkesmoor in the chamber above the street.
Her husband bent to pick up the lover’s bracelet. He dropped it into his pocket, pushed the body away from the door with the toe of his boot, and unsheathed his sword.
Geoffrey would have had time to fling open the back window of the small chamber. Time to escape over the rooftops. But instead he came down the stairs, out into the street. He knew what he would find. Margaret would not have had a chance. His sword was in his hand as he faced Ravenspeare.
Only their eyes spoke the hatred each bore the other. Geoffrey’s sword passed in salute through the air, but before he could issue the challenge, an assassin’s dagger slipped into his back, between his ribs, piercing his heart.
His opponent lowered his unused sword. He stood over his dying enemy. “You dishonor the house of Ravenspeare, cur. And you die without honor. The knife in the back is all the honor due you.”
“You speak of honor, Ravenspeare.” The dying man spoke slowly, haltingly, blood bubbling from his mouth. And yet he managed to sound ironic. “Remember Esther and remember dishonor.” A scathing laugh crackled in blood between his lips. His blue eyes were for a moment sharp with contempt, then the film crept over them, extinguishing the light, and Geoffrey Hawkesmoor died beside his mistress, their blood mingling in the snow.
QUEEN ANNE LOWERED her corpulent body into the great chair, decorated with gold lace and crimson velvet, at the head of the long table in the council chamber at the Palace of Westminster. Her ladies on either side of her arranged the crimson train of her gown in graceful folds, discreetly covering the swollen, poulticed, bandaged foot that they carefully lifted onto a velvet footstool. Despite their care the queen grimaced with pain. Her gout was at its worst today.
The men in the chamber saw the wince as they took their own seats, and knew that their sovereign would be irritable, intransigent, and most likely capricious in the day’s council.
“That’ll do. You may leave me.” The queen waved her closed fan at her ladies, who curtsied and stepped away from the canopied chair, back behind the tapestry hanging that separated the council chamber from its antechamber.
The queen took a greedy sip from the goblet of fortified wine at her elbow. Her color was high, her bloodshot eyes almost buried in folds of mottled flesh. Her hair was untidily dressed, her gown loose over her uncorseted body, her eyes filled with pain. She looked along the table, frowning as she examined each of the gentlemen in turn.
Her gaze finally fell upon a man at the far end. A man in his mid-thirties, with dark hair cropped close to his head, his powerful frame clad in a somber coat and britches of gray velvet. His large ringless hands rested on the table, the knuckles prominent, the nails filed short. They were a swordsman’s hands and bore the calluses of many a battle on the fields of Europe.
“Lord Hawkesmoor, we bid you welcome. You have a report for us from the duke of Marlborough.”
Simon Hawkesmoor bowed as he remained in his chair. “And it please Your Majesty. His Grace has entrusted me with a full report of the battle of Malplaquet.” His voice was low and deep, strangely melodious issuing from a rugged countenance marred by a livid scar down one cheek.
“I trust your wounds have healed, sir.”
Lord Hawkesmoor bowed again. “Tolerably well, ma’am.” He handed a sealed paper to a footman, who took it to the queen.
She broke the seal and read in silence for a few minutes, then she put it to one side. “Our general talks most highly of your exploits in the field, Lord Hawkesmoor. He deeply regrets that your wounds will prevent your return to his side.” The duke of Marlborough had also begged his sovereign to reward the earl’s skill and devotion, but Queen Anne was not known for her generosity.
She took another sip from her goblet. Fresh pain creased her brow. Her gloomy gaze wandered again along the two sides of the table and came to rest upon a dark-visaged man with angular features and charcoal gray eyes. He wore a full-bottomed wig and a suit of emerald brocade, in startling contrast to Lord Hawkesmoor, sitting opposite. But then the Ravenspeares, unlike the Hawkesmoors, had never been tainted by the cold sobriety of the Puritan.
In 1649, Simon Hawkesmoor’s grandfather had sentenced the king to death. His family had been prominent in Oliver Cromwell’s protectorate, and, with the Restoration, their punishment had been as severe as that which the Cromwellians had previously inflicted on the royalists. But now such times of conflict were over. In public. In private the queen knew they persisted. And among no two families did they run more deeply than between the Hawkesmoors and the Ravenspeares.
She smiled, although it was more a grimace than an expression of pleasure. Her Lady of the Bedchamber, Sarah, duchess of Marlborough, had had a most happy notion. It was a sovereign’s task to promote peace and happiness among her subjects, and not least among those who held high place at her court. It was also a sovereign’s task to reward those who had served her well, without depleting the privy purse. The duchess had hit upon a neat plan to gratify the duke of Marlborough by rewarding the earl of Hawkesmoor without it costing the queen more than an elegant gown, and perhaps a trinket, for a bride. And, by the same stroke, creating an alliance between two warring families.
“Lord Ravenspeare, you have a young sister, I believe.”
Ranulf, earl of Ravenspeare, looked startled. “Aye, Your Majesty. Lady Ariel.”
“How old is she?”
“Approaching twenty, ma’am.” Ranulf’s dark eyes narrowed.
“And she is not wed . . . nor betrothed as yet?”
“Not as yet,” he agreed carefully. He and his brothers had yet to find the perfect husband for Ariel. The husband who would bring the greatest benefit to the house of Ravenspeare.
“She has no stated preference?”
“No, Your Majesty.” She might well have, but Ranulf didn’t add that whether she did or no, Ariel’s wishes would be of little account in such a vital family matter.
“How very fortunate.” Queen Anne smiled again. “I have it in mind to bestow the hand of your sister, the Lady Ariel, upon the earl of Hawkesmoor.”
The silence in the council chamber was profound. The two men concerned didn’t move, but their eyes met across the massive mahogany table. Met and held. And spoke of the deep and deadly enmity that each, as the head of their respective families, carried for the other.
“There is some land that is in dispute between your families, I believe,” the queen continued. She was known as much for her phenomenal memory as for its selective quality. Matters of vital importance would disappear, never to be acknowledged by her, whereas strange trifles heard long ago would be dredged up and treated as enormously significant, frequently to the great inconvenience of others.
She looked inquiringly between the two men. Ravenspeares and Hawkesmoors were the great lords of the Fens and had held sway over that damp, flat, foggy land since William the Conqueror. Cromwell had given a large proportion of Ravenspeare land to the Hawkesmoors as a reward for their loyalty, but on Charles II’s return as king, the land had been confiscated from the regicide’s family and given, together with a large chunk of Hawkesmoor territory, in perpetuity to the royalist Ravenspeares. The Hawkesmoors had spent enormous sums on draining the fenland, reclaiming it for agricultural use, and with one stroke of the king’s pen had seen their efforts and its rich rewards handed over to the rival dynasty.
Since the death of Charles II in 1685, the Hawkesmoors had been petitioning for the return of their land, a petition violently disputed by its present owners.
“If the land forms part of Lady Ariel Ravenspeare’s dowry, then it will be jointly owned by both families,” the queen continued into the silence. “Should she die before her husband, the dowry reverts to her birth family. Should she die in the fullness of time, it will be inherited
She seemed serenely unaware of the lack of reaction to her proposal and was completely ignorant of the surging speculation in the minds of the two men. She had set her heart upon her little scheme, convinced now that it had come from her own fertile brain, and would not be persuaded out of it.
Simon Hawkesmoor’s half smile was ironic as he read Ravenspeare’s mind. Either one of them could reject the queen’s proposal, but to do so would mean immediate loss of favor and exile from the court. The queen never forgot a slight, and however irrational her dislikes, they were irreversible. The earl of Ravenspeare lived for his power at court. He had a hand in every intrigue and was as blatantly corrupt as any man serving the queen. He feathered his nest with bribery and extortion, influenced every court appointment, and could bring a man down as easily as he could raise him up. He thrived on the fear he induced in all who came into his orbit, and he would not willingly give up such power.
But could he tolerate such a price? To join his family with their blood enemies. The land quarrel was public knowledge, a common enough bone of contention between the country’s great families in the wake of revolution, but the dark river of spilled blood that flowed between Ravenspeare and Hawkesmoor was known only to the chosen few—and to no one who was not born to either name.
“So, my lords, how do you answer my scheme to bring harmony to your families and to my council chamber?” The queen’s voice was suddenly petulant. She was tired of the silence.
“I do not believe, madam, that either Lord Hawkesmoor or myself would presume to bring our private quarrels into Your Majesty’s presence,” Ranulf said with a stiff bow.
“So, my lords, how do you answer my scheme to bring harmony to your families and to my council chamber?” Her Majesty repeated. It was a trick she had perfected. She would resolutely ignore any response that didn’t suit her, merely repeating herself until she heard what she wanted to hear.