Trapped at the Altar, страница 1
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To Wed a Wicked Prince
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Somerset, England, August 1667
The cavalcade of horsemen rode into the narrow defile between the steep cliffs that hung over Daunt valley. The River Wye was a thin ribbon below them, sunlight dancing off its surface as it wended its way across the lush green floor of the valley.
There were six horsemen in total, wearing buff leather coats, swords at their sides, pistols holstered in the saddles in front of them. They drew rein at the narrowest part of the pass, where two men, swords drawn, stood in their path.
“Who enters Daunt valley?” one of the challengers demanded, standing easily, legs apart, his sword held between his hands. Higher up the cliff, behind two rocks, two others trained their muskets on the new arrivals.
“Chalfont,” responded the lead horseman. He had his hand on his sword hilt but made no attempt to draw it. “We are come in peace with a gift for Lord Daunt.”
The challengers sheathed their swords and stepped aside. “You are expected. Pass.” He gestured to a youth standing to one side. The young man took off with the news of the visitors as if all the devils in hell were upon him, flying across the rocky ground with unerring footsteps, setting off a shower of loose scree tumbling ahead of him.
With a nod, the horseman led his little parade in single file through the narrow pass and down to the valley floor.
By the time they reached it, a small crowd had gathered on a square of flattened turf outside a substantial cottage. A tall gray-haired man stood in the doorway to the building, an imposing figure with harsh gray eyes, the nose of a falcon, and angular features. He was dressed plainly in leather britches and jerkin, but his linen was fine, gleaming white, the fall of lace at his throat immaculate.
The cavalcade drew rein in front of him, and the horsemen dismounted. Only then did the small figure huddled on a pillion pad behind one of the horsemen reveal his presence. “We have brought the boy, my lord Daunt.” The spokesman of the little group turned and lifted the figure from his horse. The boy was wrapped tightly in a heavy cloak, the hood pulled low over his forehead, and when his feet touched the ground, he staggered a little, before righting himself with a steadying hand on his shoulder.
“The boy has been riding for four days with only a few hours’ sleep during the hours of darkness,” the spokesman stated, as if excusing the child’s sudden weakness.
Lord Daunt merely inclined his head in acknowledgment. “Come here, boy.” He beckoned.
The child shook the hood off his head, revealing a thatch of short chestnut hair. He looked at the man who had summoned him, his deep-set eyes blue as a turquoise sea. The steady gaze held defiance, but his lordship could see behind that to the boy’s confusion and fear.
“Come,” he said again, more softly this time.
The child stepped forward boldly and offered a jerky bow. “My lord.”
“So, you are Ivor Chalfont.” The Earl tipped his chin with a forefinger. “Let me look at you.” He seemed to scrutinize the child for a very long time before saying, “You have much of your mother about you, my boy. I trust you have your father’s courage to go with it.” He looked over the boy’s head to where a group of women were gathered. “Dorcas, you will take charge of our ward. He needs food and rest.”
“Aye, my lord.” An apple-cheeked woman separated herself from the group and came over, dropping a curtsy in the Earl’s direction. “Come along with me, lad. We’ll soon have you running with the boys.”
Ivor Chalfont regarded her solemnly, then felt other eyes upon him. He looked behind the Earl. A pair of gray eyes were fixed upon him from the rather grubby countenance of a very small girl.
“I’ll bring the boy, Dorcas,” the child declared, stepping out from behind the Earl. She held out her hand to the newcomer. “I’m Ari,” she stated. “And I will look after you, boy.” She grabbed his hand in her small, warm fist.
Ivor stared at her, torn between amusement and indignation. How could this little baby scrap even think of looking after him? He was six. He was proficient with a wooden sword, and if he’d been allowed to ride alone instead of with the indignity of pillion behind one of his father’s men, he would have managed perfectly well.
The little girl tugged at his hand. “Come on, boy. Dorcas has made sweet cakes with honey. They’re very good, you’ll see.”
She tugged him along behind her, and after a moment’s hesitation, he followed her. He had no idea where he was or why he was there, but the little hand firmly grasping his was oddly comforting.
Somerset, England, September 1684
Ari . . . Ari, will you please stop climbing?” Ivor Chalfont stopped on the steep goat track leading up the sheer cliff from the river below. He looked in exasperation at the small figure climbing twenty yards ahead of him. He hadn’t a hope of catching her; he knew that from experience. Ariadne was small and lithe and astonishingly agil
He cast his eyes upwards again. Ari was still climbing. She couldn’t really think she could escape the reality of the gorge, could she? But Ivor knew she wasn’t thinking that. She understood the facts of their life as well as he did.
He cupped his hands around his mouth and bellowed, “Ariadne. Stop, now.”
Ariadne heard him, as, indeed, she’d heard his every other call. Those she’d ignored, too locked into her world of furious frustration to pay any heed, but now reason and logic took over, besides which, it was never wise to try Ivor’s patience too far. She stopped on the track, turned carefully to look down at him so many feet below, then sat down on a rocky outcrop to the side of the track, hugging her knees, watching as he began to climb up to her.
His shadow fell over her a few minutes later, blocking out the sun’s warmth. She raised her eyes to look up at him. Ivor stood with his hands on his hips, breathing easily despite the steep climb. He was a tall, well-built man, with the strong, muscular physique of one accustomed to physical labor and life in the outdoors. His deep-set eyes were the astonishing blue of the Aegean Sea, and they surveyed her upturned face from beneath well-shaped russet-brown eyebrows with a mixture of exasperation and wry comprehension.
“There are times, Ari, when I’d happily wring your neck,” he declared, kicking a stone out of the path before sitting down on a large rock.
“You and half the valley,” she returned, looking back down the track to the peaceful scene below. “The elders are ready to burn me at the stake.”
He gave a short crack of laughter. “Not that, exactly, but I wouldn’t put it past them to lock you up and starve you into submission.”
She shrugged slim shoulders beneath a thin white shirt through which the tones of her skin showed delicately pink. “They wouldn’t succeed.”
“Maybe not,” he agreed, lifting his face to the sun, letting it graze his closed eyelids. “But they’re mad as fire, Ariadne, and they don’t understand why, now, you’re refusing to honor the betrothal.”
“I give that for their anger.” She snapped her fingers contemptuously. “I’ll not marry you, Ivor. There’s no point in discussing it.”
Ivor sighed. Ariadne was as stubborn as a mule and always had been. But in this situation, all the obstinacy of a team of mules would not win the day for her. “You may now own half the valley, dear girl, but you are still subject to your grandfather’s will. Our marriage was willed by Lord Daunt before his death . . . for God’s sake, you agreed to the betrothal just a few days ago. Your grandfather’s will is sacrosanct; you know that as well as I do. You have lived by Daunt rules all your life. The elders will make the wedding happen one way or another.”
“Forcible marriage is illegal in the laws of the land.”
“In name, maybe, but not in practice. You have a duty to obey your grandfather’s will, and here in the valley that is the law. Since when,” he added, “did Daunt and Chalfont obey any laws but their own?”
“I’ll run away.”
“How? You have no money, no means of travel. You would never get past the guards on horseback, and you could not bring Sphinx up this goat track. He would break a leg for sure.”
“You could help me.” She didn’t look at him as she said this.
“No,” he stated. “I could not. I would not if I could.”
“You could refuse to marry me.”
“No,” he repeated. “I could not. I would not if I could.”
Ariadne made no response, but a small sigh escaped her, and a little shiver ran across her shoulders. It wasn’t as if she had expected anything else. Ivor had much to gain from the marriage. If only her grandfather had not died so suddenly, just the day after the betrothal. With more time, she knew she could have persuaded him to release her from the engagement. She had always been able to win him over in the end, but it always took time and patience, and she’d agreed to the betrothal to buy herself that time. And then death had just crept in that night and taken him. His servant had found him dead in his bed, when the previous evening he had been hale and hearty, presiding over the Council meeting in his usual sharp and incisive fashion, celebrating his granddaughter’s betrothal with some of the finest wines in his cellar. Wines destined for the cellars of West Country gentry, liberated in the dark of the moon by Daunt raiders from the smugglers’ trains of pack mules going about their deliveries in the narrow Cornish lanes.
Ivor leaned across and took her hands from her lap, holding them in a tight grip. “Face it, Ari. Accept it. We will be married this day week. As soon as Lord Daunt is in his grave, we will be wed.”
Her gray eyes held his deep blue ones in a fierce stare as she tried to free her hands. “You know that I love someone else, Ivor. I cannot marry you. It would be dishonest.”
He dropped her hands with a laugh as mirthless as before. “That’s rich, Ari, coming from one whose entire existence is based on deceit, on thievery, on piracy. Truth and morality mean nothing here in this valley. You were born into this life of dishonesty and trickery. We mock the laws of men and discount the imperatives of ownership. We take what we want, whether it’s ours or not. I will take you to wife, Ariadne Daunt. Your grandfather has willed it; my family has agreed to it. It is for us to unite the two families. You belong to me, not to that poet of yours, scribbling his nonsensical verse in the houses of the gentry.”
Ari’s gray eyes burned with an anger all the more fierce for being impotent. She knew she could not win this argument or, indeed, run from the bitter truth behind it. “The Daunts are of lineage as ancient and proud as any in the counties of Somerset, Devon, or Cornwall,” she retorted. “And my dower will be sufficient to overcome any minor moral scruples. Gabriel’s family will welcome me as a daughter; he has assured me of that.”
Ivor shook his head. “I wouldn’t be so certain. For one, do you really think your family elders would pay your dowry to the Fawcetts? Just hand it over, meek and mild, with their blessings on their precious niece? I had never thought you naïve, Ari.”
Tears stung her eyes, and she blinked them away. “Just leave me alone, Ivor. Go back down. I’m climbing to the top.”
He hesitated, then decided that she was best left alone for the moment. Maybe she was going to meet her precious poet and maybe she wasn’t. But she would not run away. Ari would never run when fighting was an option. She was a Daunt, born and bred.
He got up from his rock, dusting off his hands. “Very well. But you are expected at Council this evening before the feast for your grandfather’s wake. Make sure you’re there. We will both regret it if I have to come and find you.”
There was something about his tone, an authority he had never used with her before, that shook her. Realization slowly dawned. “They have made you my guardian?” It was barely a question; she knew the answer.
“Yes,” Ivor answered curtly. “Your grandfather is dead. Who better to watch over you than your future husband? I will see you at Council.” He turned from her and began the long scramble back to the valley.
Ariadne exhaled slowly. She shouldn’t have expected anything else. She knew the ways of the Daunt world—knew them but didn’t have to accept them. She watched Ivor’s retreating back. He was her friend, but she could never accept him as her governor. Her grandfather’s death had released her from the family’s control; she would not relinquish that independence now.
Rising, she turne
Gabriel Fawcett stood among the trees in the spinney, watching as Ariadne came across the field towards him. He held a small nosegay of late-summer roses from his mother’s garden and felt the customary surge of blood, the swift pounding of his heart, as she drew closer. Sometimes he wondered how it was physically possible for one body to contain so much passion, so much lust and love, as he felt for this girl. Ariadne Daunt was out of his experience, almost magical in her difference from anyone he had ever met before. She was not of his world, and sometimes he thought she was not of this world at all. But he knew that she was very much of this world. The very name of Daunt brought dread to all who heard it.
It had not always been so. They were one of the oldest families in Somerset and one of the wealthiest in both estates and fortune, until Charles I had lost his head and Oliver Cromwell’s Protestant Commonwealth had ruled the land with a dour fist. The Catholic Daunt family had raised their standard for King Charles and lost everything back on that cold January day in 1649 when the King had been beheaded. They had barely escaped with their lives, and they had been revenged ever since upon all who they thought had betrayed them, on erstwhile friends and neighbors, indeed, on anyone who had bowed their heads beneath Cromwell’s yoke.
Outlaws, they had created their own land and their own laws in a valley of the River Wye, a place easily fortified and defended. And when it pleased them to create mayhem across the usually peaceful countryside, they did so. They terrorized the seaports of Devon and Cornwall, piracy and even the vile business of wrecking were not beneath them, and they amassed a fortune rumored to rival that of any of the great landed families of the realm.