The least likely bride, p.1

The Least Likely Bride, страница 1

 

The Least Likely Bride
 


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The Least Likely Bride


  “DID I WAKE YOU?” THE PIRATE ASKED SLEEPILY.

  “You’re in my bed!”

  “Actually it is my bed.”

  Even through the tendrils of sleep, Olivia could hear the laugh in his voice. “But I’m sleeping in it,” she objected, wondering why she wasn’t screaming her maidenly outrage. “It’s been my bed for three nights … or is it four?”

  “This would be the fourth,” he said, his breath rustling against the back of her neck. The arm around her waist moved so that his hand flattened on her belly.

  Olivia’s stomach contracted involuntarily. She tried to push his hand away with as much success as an ant trying to move a mountain. But then, she didn’t seem to be pushing with true conviction. “You didn’t sleep in it before,” she protested.

  “In the opinion of your physician, you were too ill for a bedmate,” he responded solemnly. “The medical opinion has now changed.”

  The hand on her belly remained still and warm and curiously unthreatening. Olivia felt his other hand now on her back, moving up between her shoulder blades, clasping her neck firmly, pushing up into her hair, cupping her scalp. It felt wonderful and strangely familiar, as if sometime he’d touched her in this way before.

  “Let yourself go,” he instructed softly. “Just lie still and feel.”

  Also by Jane Feather

  VICE

  VANITY

  VIOLET

  VALENTINE

  VELVET

  VIXEN

  VIRTUE

  THE DIAMOND SLIPPER

  THE SILVER ROSE

  THE EMERALD SWAN

  THE HOSTAGE BRIDE

  A VALENTINE WEDDING

  THE ACCIDENTAL BRIDE

  ALMOST INNOCENT

  THE WIDOW’S KISS

  TO KISS A SPY

  KISSED BY SHADOWS

  available wherever Bantam Books are sold

  Preface to The Brides

  LONDON, MAY 11, 1641

  PHOEBE SWIPED ONE HAND across her eyes as she felt for her handkerchief with the other. The handkerchief was nowhere to be found, but that didn’t surprise her. She’d lost more handkerchiefs in her thirteen years than she’d had hot dinners. With a vigorous and efficacious sniff, she crept around the hedge of clipped laurel out of sight of the clacking, laughing crowd of wedding guests. The high-pitched cacophony of their merrymaking mingled oddly with the persistent, raucous screams of a mob in full cry gusting across the river from Tower Hill.

  She glanced over her shoulder at the graceful half-timbered house that was her home. It stood on a slight rise on the south bank of the river Thames, commanding a view over London and the surrounding countryside. Windows winked in the afternoon sunlight and she could hear the plaintive plucking of a harp persistent beneath the surge and ebb of the party.

  No one was looking for her. Why should they? She was of no interest to anyone. Diana had banished her from her presence after the accident. Phoebe cringed at the memory. She could never understand how it happened that her body seemed to get away from her, to have a life of its own, creating a wake of chaos and destruction that followed her wherever she went.

  But she was safe for a while. Her step quickened as she made for the old boathouse, her own private sanctuary. When her father had moved the mansion’s water gate so that it faced the water steps at Wap-ping, the old boathouse had fallen into disrepair. Now it nestled in a tangle of tall reeds at the water’s edge, its roof sagging, its timbers bared to the bone by the damp salt air and the wind.

  But it was the one place where Phoebe could lick her wounds in private. She wasn’t sure whether anyone else in the household knew it still existed, but as she approached she saw that the door was not firmly closed.

  Her first reaction was anger. Someone had been trespassing in the one place she could call her own. Her second was a swift pattering of fear. The world was full of beasts, both human and animal, and anyone could have penetrated this clearly deserted structure. Anyone or anything could be lying in wait within. She hesitated, staring at the dark crack between door and frame, almost as if the tiny crack could open to reveal the dim, dusty interior for her from a safe distance. Then her anger reasserted itself. The boathouse belonged to her. And if anyone was in there, she would send them off.

  She turned into the rushes, looking for a thick piece of driftwood, and found an old spar, rusty nails sticking out in a most satisfactory fashion. Thus armed, she approached the boathouse, her heart still pattering but her face set. She kicked the door open, flooding the dark mildewed corners with light.

  “Who are you?” she demanded of the occupant, who, startled, blinked but didn’t move from her perch on a rickety three-legged stool by the unglazed window where the light fell on the page of her book.

  Phoebe entered the shed, dropping her weapon. “Oh,” she said. “I know who you are. You’re Lord Granville’s daughter. What are you doing here? Why aren’t you at the wedding? I thought you were supposed to carry my sister’s train.”

  The dark-haired girl carefully closed her book over her finger. “Yes, I’m Olivia,” she said after a minute. “And I d-didn’t want to b-be in the wedding.

  My father said I didn’t have to b-be if I d-didn’t want to.” She let out a slow breath at the end of this little speech, which had clearly cost her some effort.

  Phoebe looked at the girl curiously. She was younger than Phoebe, although she was as tall, and enviably slim to the eyes of one who constantly lamented her own intractable roundness. “This is my special place,” Phoebe said, but without rancor, sitting on a fallen beam and drawing a wrapped packet from her pocket. “And I don’t blame you for not wanting to be in the wedding. I was supposed to attend my sister, but I knocked over the perfume bottle and then trod on Diana’s flounce.”

  She unwrapped the packet, taking a bite of the gingerbread it contained before holding out the offering to Olivia, who shook her head.

  “Diana cursed me up hill and down dale and said she never wanted to lay eyes on me again,” Phoebe continued. “Which she probably won’t, since she’s going to be in Yorkshire, miles and miles away from here. And I have to say, if I never lay eyes on her again, I won’t be sorry.” She looked defiantly upward as if braving heavenly wrath with such an undutiful statement.

  “I d-don’t like her,” Olivia confided.

  “I wouldn’t like her for a stepmother either…. She’ll be absolutely horrible! Oh, I’m sorry. I always say the wrong thing,” Phoebe exclaimed crossly. “I always say whatever comes into my head.”

  “It’s the t-truth, anyway,” the other girl muttered. She opened up her book again and began to read.

  Phoebe frowned. Her stepniece, as she supposed Olivia now was, was not the friendliest of creatures. “Do you always stammer?”

  Olivia blushed crimson. “I c-can’t help it.”

  “No, of course you can’t,” Phoebe said hastily. “I was just curious.” In the absence of a response from her companion, she moved on to the second piece of gingerbread, idly brushing at a collection of tiny grease spots that seemed to have gathered upon her pink silk gown. A gown specially made for her sister’s wedding. It was supposed to complement Diana’s pearl-encrusted ivory damask, but somehow on Phoebe the effect didn’t quite work, as Diana had pointed out with her usual asperity.

  There was a sudden whirlwind rush from the door that banged shut, enclosing the girls in semi-darkness again. “God’s bones, but if this isn’t the peskiest wedding!” a voice declared vigorously. The newcomer leaned against the closed door. She was breathing fast and dashed a hand across her brow to wipe away the dew of perspiration. Her bright green eyes fell upon the boathouse’s other occupants.

  “I didn’t think anyone knew
this place was here. I slept here last night. It was the only way I could get away from those pawing beasts. And now they’re at it again. I came here for some peace and quiet.”

  “It’s my special place,” Phoebe said, standing up. “And you’re trespassing.” The newcomer didn’t look in the least like a wedding guest. Her hair was a tangled mass of bright red curls that didn’t look as if it had seen a brush in a month. Her face looked dirty in the gloom, although it was hard to tell among the freckles what was dirt and what wasn’t. Her dress was made of dull, coarse holland, the hem dipping in the middle, the perfunctory ruffles on the sleeves torn and grubby.

  “Oh-ho, no I’m not,” the girl crowed, perching on the upturned holey hull of an abandoned row-boat. “I’m invited to the wedding. Or at least,” she added with scrupulous honesty, “my father is. And where Jack goes, I go. No choice.”

  “I know who you are.” Olivia looked up from her book for the first time since the girl had burst in upon them. “You’re m-my father’s half b-br-brother’s n-natural child.”

  “Portia,” the girl said cheerfully. “Jack Worth’s bastard. And so you must be Olivia. Jack was talking about you. And I suppose, if you live here, you’re the bride’s sister. Phoebe, isn’t it?”

  Phoebe sat down again. “You seem to know a great deal about us.”

  Portia shrugged. “I keep my ears open … and my eyes. Close either one of ’em for half a second and the devils’ll get you.”

  “What devils?”

  “Men,” Portia declared. “You wouldn’t think it to look at me, would you?” She chuckled. “Scrawny as a scarecrow. But they’ll take anything they can get, so long as it’s free.”

  “I loathe men!” The fierce and perfectly clear statement came from Olivia.

  “Me, too,” Portia agreed, then continued with all the loftiness of her fourteen years, “But you’re a little young, duckie, to have made such a decision. How old are you?”

  “Eleven.”

  “Oh, you’ll change your mind,” Portia said knowledgeably.

  “I won’t. I’m n-never going to m-marry.” Olivia’s brown eyes threw daggers beneath their thick black eyebrows.

  “Neither am I,” Phoebe said. “Now that my father has managed to make such a splendid match for Diana, he’ll leave me alone, I’m sure.”

  “Why don’t you want to marry?” Portia asked with interest. “It’s your destiny to marry. There’s nothing else for someone as well born as you to do.”

  Phoebe shook her head. “No one would want to marry me. Nothing ever fits me, and I’m always dropping things, and saying just what comes into my head. Diana and my father say I’m a liability. I can’t do anything right. So I’m going to be a poet and do good works instead.”

  “Of course someone will want to marry you,” Portia stated. “You’re lovely and curvy and womanly. I’m the one no one’s going to marry. Look at me.” She stood up and gestured to herself with a flourish. “I’m straight up and down like a ruler. I’m a bastard. I have no money, no property. I’m a hopeless prospect.” She sat down again, smiling cheerfully as if the prophecy were not in the least disheartening.

  Phoebe considered. “I see what you mean,” she said. “It would be difficult for you to find a husband. So what will you do?”

  “I’d like to be a soldier. I wish I’d been born a boy. I’m sure I was supposed to be, but something went wrong.”

  “I’m going to b-be a scholar,” Olivia declared.

  “I’m g-going to ask my father to g-get me a t-tutor when I’m older, and I want to live in Oxford and study there.”

  “Women don’t study at the university,” Phoebe pointed out.

  “I shall,” Olivia stated stubbornly.

  “Lord, a soldier, a poet, and a scholar! What a trio of female misfits!” Portia went into a peal of laughter.

  Phoebe laughed with her, feeling a delicious and hitherto unknown warmth in her belly. She wanted to sing, get to her feet and dance with her company ions. Even Olivia was smiling, the defensive fierceness momentarily gone from her eyes.

  “We must have a pact to support each other if we’re ever tempted to fall by the wayside and become ordinary.” Portia jumped to her feet. “Olivia, have you some scissors in that little bag?”

  Olivia opened the drawstrings of the little lace-trimmed bag she wore at her waist. She took out a tiny pair of scissors, handing them to Portia, who very carefully cut three red curls from the unruly halo surrounding her freckled face.

  “Now, Phoebe, let me have three of those pretty fair locks, and three of Olivia’s black ones.” She suited action to words, the little scissors snipping away. “Now watch.”

  As the other two gazed, wide-eyed with curiosity, Portia’s long, thin fingers with their grubby broken nails nimbly braided the different stands into three tri-colored rings. “There, we have one each. Mine is the one with the red on the outside, Phoebe’s has the fair, and Olivia’s the black.” She handed them over. “Now, whenever you feel like forgetting your ambition, just look at your ring…. Oh, and we must mingle blood.”

  Her green eyes, slanted slightly like a cat’s, glinted with enthusiasm and fun.

  She turned her wrist up and nicked the skin, squeezing out a drop of blood. “Now you, Phoebe,” She held out the scissors.

  Phoebe shook her fair head. “I can’t. But you do it.” Closing her eyes tightly, she extended her arm, wrist uppermost. Portia nicked the skin, then turned to Olivia, who was already extending her wrist.

  “There. Now we rub our wrists together to mingle the blood. That way we cement our vow to sup port each other through thick and thin.”

  It was clear to Olivia that Portia was playing a game, and yet Olivia, as her skin touched the others’, felt a strange tremor of connection that seemed much more serious than mere play. But she was not a fanciful child and sternly dismissed such whimsy.

  “If one of us is ever in trouble, then we can send our ring on to the others and be sure of getting help,” Phoebe said enthusiastically.

  “That’s very silly and romantical,” Olivia declared with a scorn that she knew sprang from her own fancy.

  “What’s wrong with being romantic?” Portia said with a shrug, and Phoebe gave her a quick grateful smile.

  “Scholars aren’t romantic,” Olivia said. She frowned fiercely, her black eyebrows almost meeting over her deep-set dark eyes. Then she sighed. “I’d b-better go back to the wedding.” She slipped her braided ring into the little bag at her waist. With a little reflective gesture, as if to give herself courage, she touched her wrist, thinly smeared with their shared blood, then went to the door.

  As she opened it, the clamor from the city across the river swelled into the dim seclusion of the boat-house. Olivia shivered at the wild savagery of the sound. “C-Can you hear what they’re saying?”

  “They’re yelling, ‘His head is off, his head is off,’ ” Portia said knowledgeably. “They’ve just executed the earl of Strafford.”

  “But why?” Phoebe asked.

  “Lord, don’t you know anything?” Portia was genuinely shocked at this ignorance. “Strafford was the king’s closest advisor and Parliament defied the king and impeached the earl and now they’ve just beheaded him.”

  Olivia felt her scalp contract as the bloody, brutal screech of mob triumph tore into the soft May air and the smoke of bonfires lit in jubilation for a man’s violent death rose thick and choking from the city and its surroundings.

  “Jack says there’s going to be civil war,” Portia continued, referring to her father with her customary informality. “He’s usually right about such things … not about much else, though,” she added.

  “There c-couldn’t be civil war!” Olivia was horrified.

  “We’ll see.” Portia shrugged.

  “Well, I wish it would come now and save me having to go back to the wedding,” Phoebe said glumly. “Are you going to come, Portia?”

  Portia shook her head, gesturing br
usquely to the door. “Go back to the party. There’s no place for me there.”

  Phoebe hesitated, then followed Olivia, the ring clutched tightly in her palm.

  Portia remained in the dimness with the cobwebs for company. She leaned over and picked up the piece of gingerbread that Phoebe had forgotten about in the events of the last half hour. Slowly and with great pleasure, she began to nibble at it, making it last as long as possible, while the shadows lengthened and the shouts from the city and the merrymaking from the house gradually faded with the sunset.

  Prologue

  THE ISLE OF WIGHT, JUNE 1648

  IT WAS THE DARK HOUR before dawn. Rain fell in a ceaseless torrent upon the sodden clifftops and smashed straight as stair rods onto the churning, white-flecked sea beneath. Great waves rose in the Channel and surged around St. Catherine’s Point to curl and break upon the jagged rocks in a thundering, relentless roll, sending white spray into the darkness.

  There were no stars. No moon. Only an occasional flash of lightning to illuminate the island crouching like a whale at the entrance to the Solent, its downs and valleys black with rain. The melancholy sound of the bell buoy off the rocky point pierced the rushing wind, bringing warning to the ships battling the summer storm in the seething Channel. Warning and a welcome sense of security.

  A small boat plunged into the troughs, the men at the oars grim-faced as they fought to keep the fragile craft upright. They approached the bell buoy, the boat vanishing into the waves, then bobbing up like a piece of driftwood. From the stern, one of the men hurled a rope around the buoy and hauled the boat hand over hand until it was touching the rocking buoy and the rhythmic sound of the bell was deafening amid the roar of the water and the wind and the ceaseless battering of the rain.

  No one spoke; the words would have been torn from them anyway, but they had no need of speech. The oarsmen shipped their oars while the man in the stern held the boat fast to the buoy and one of his companions swiftly, deftly, with hands of experience, wrapped thick cloth around the bell’s tongue, silencing the dull clang of its warning.

 
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