Celeste sat in Madam Dubois' winter parlor waiting for Lord Rutherford to finally turn around and address her. A man she'd seen but once, six months earlier in the privy garden at Lambeth Palace. She closed her eyes briefly. She'd been young and innocent then.
She opened her eyes onto the silent, pensive figure, his fist clenching and unclenching in disciplined fashion at his back and his gaze locked onto the dark and quiet street. She shifted on her chair in an attempt to alleviate the stiffness in her back. She'd maintained the same position far too long. She bit down softly on her lower lip and wondered if he would notice if she left the room. She jumped at the sudden focus of his clear brown eyes on hers. If he noticed her discomfiture, he ignored it.
"I've come to offer you a way out of the predicament which now faces you," he said.
Celeste swallowed her panic and sought to compose herself. She pressed a hand inadvertently to her stomach. He couldn't know. She swallowed her panic and fought the urge to fidget or twiddle with her hands. She kept her gaze fixed on Lord Rutherford's grave countenance.
"Predicament, my lord?"
"You may well have heard of Lord Salisbury's successful unmasking of the powder treason."
"Those involved will soon be caught and executed and I fear Lord Tredawn will be among them. His duplicity has been proven beyond all doubt and I can only offer you my deepest sympathies."
Celeste frowned. "What a strange thing to say, my lord. Why should you offer me any sympathy at all? Has Lord Tredawn no family of his own to mourn his death or remember his name no matter the unerring shame to both."
"Yes, he does, my lady. That is precisely why I am here."
Lord Rutherford drew a deep breath in and waited. Celeste shifted uncomfortably beneath his gaze. Something in his eyes was telling her...what she already knew. She pressed her hand tighter against her stomach. How could she be sure? She'd been afraid to believe her heart and it had left her helpless in Scully's arms. Yet if she believed her heart now it could unleash an ache unlike any she'd already known.
She shook her head denying his unspoken words and postponing her pain.
Lord Rutherford retrieved a letter from within his doublet.
"Lord Tredawn bade me give this letter to you should the need arise, my lady."
My lady. At least Scully hadn't lied about that.
"Read the letter," Lord Rutherford prompted.
Her fingers shook as she reached for the folded piece of paper. "If you would allow me some privacy, my lord."
Lord Rutherford bowed curtly and moved to the far side of the small room.
She unfolded the letter and her brow softened at the familiar script. She read her father's words and her heart broke.
"I must go to him at once!"
She sprang to her feet and hastened to the door, her tears falling down her face.
Lord Rutherford intercepted her flight. "No!"
"I must see my father!"
His fingers tightened about her wrist. "If you wish to live you'll never on your life acknowledge Lord Tredawn in any way. The King is unforgiving and his Privy Council counsel stringent measures. All relations to Lord Tredawn and the families of those seven destined to hang alongside him are to be found and executed. You must forget your father, lest you seek to burn at the stake!"
"There are few who know I am his daughter," Celeste whispered, her eyes wide in her confusion. "I need not—"
"And is that not a few too many considering the price of betrayal, my lady?"
"Who would betray me? You, my lord," Celeste rejoined.
"Do you think that is the reason I'm here, to betray you? Never. But saving the King's life does afford me more privileges than not, my lady."
He released his hold on her arm and knelt down on one knee in front of her.
"Your father wanted me to protect you, to provide you with a home and ensure you wanted for nothing. I can do all those things and more, my lady, if you consent to be my wife."
Celeste pulled away startled and angry, saddened and uncertain. She looked from the man kneeling at her feet to the door and back again. Her teeth worried the flesh of her bottom lip. What was she to do? Lord Tredawn was her father and yet she would not be permitted to see him one last time.
"I must see my father. Please, my lord. I beg you. The King will listen to you, will he not? All London speaks of your favor—"
"Even I don't dare go to the King with any detail of a past association with Lord Tredawn," Lord Rutherford interjected.
His irritation scarce concealed he rose to his feet leveling his eyes on Celeste's rounded ones. "You must forget him, if you value your life."
"Then why tell me any of this? Why show me my father's letter? Wouldn't it have been kinder to leave me ignorant of the truth?"
"I am an honest and sincere man, my lady, in whom I trust you can find a friend and love as a husband."
Lord Rutherford released a deep breath. "You don't do me the honor of answering my proposal."
Celeste lowered her gaze. How could she contemplate marriage at such a moment when her father awaited execution for treason against the king?
"I admit I'm somewhat overwhelmed by your unexpected offer, my lord," she heard herself say. "Pray, do me the honor of allowing me a few days to consider your proposal."
"Of course. I appreciate there's much to understand in a single moment. I'll return within the week for your answer, my lady."
He bowed and brushed his lips across her hand. "Until then."
Celeste couldn't find the courtesy to address him. Her mind was too numb and her heart in mourning.
Madam Dubois entered the parlor.
"I passed Lord Rutherford in the hall. He didn't seem as pleased as he was upon his arrival."
The entrance door slammed shut.
Celeste moved toward the window and watched the thin man draw his crimson cloak tighter about his rounded shoulders as he strode with long purposeful steps toward a waiting carriage.
"Lord Rutherford sought my hand in marriage," she murmured. "But I could give him no answer."
Lord Rutherford stopped briefly and cast a swift glance at the window before stepping into the coach.
Celeste lowered her gaze to the letter she held between her fingers. She raised her eyes once more to the departing coach.
"How can I marry a man whose word sentenced my...father...to death?"
Fresh tears welled in her eyes and slid down her cheeks. "My father. He is my father," she said, voicing her disbelief. "Lord Tredawn is my father and I am Lady Tredawn, his daughter. This is the cruelest of jests."
At Madam Dubois' silence she spun about. "You knew?" she accused.
Madam Dubois nodded.
"When Lord Tredawn brought you to me I saw a man who cared very much for his daughter and wanted to keep her safe. Lord Rutherford is in a position to offer you his protection. He's the new Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He's powerful and rich and he has the King's ear."
Celeste released a shaky breath. "You cannot deny there's something to distrust in a man who first testifies against, and then conveniently rises to the position once held by, my father."
"We neither of us know what has truly taken place these last weeks. Since the discovery of the powder treason London has been resonant with rumors and hearsay. It's hard to know what to believe or whom. But your circumstances are such that you need think of yourself and the child that grows in you, Celeste."
Madam Dubois drew closer, her voice soft and tender. "For the life of me I don't know what possessed you to take one of the most dangerous men in England to your bed. Scully Stevens is a man who's given to keeping what he reasons is his. If he learns you're with child he'll never let you go. You know that, don't you?"
Celeste bowed her head and stared at her hands. "I know," she replied.
"Then, listen to me," Madam Dubois continued. "Lord Rutherford wants you to be his wife. Accept him. Accept the life he offers you even it that does mean you can never again acknowledge Lord Tredawn in any way. You'll have Lord Rutherford's protection and by right the King's. Your child will have a name and you'll be safe. Scully will never hurt you again."
Celeste gave a faint smile: "So, you were listening," she parried in gentle admonishment.
"I wouldn't have you suffer my life," Madam Dubois returned. She embraced Celeste in her arms. "I wouldn't have you follow me shunned from society and forever wondering the fate of your child. You have been given the chance I was not, to return to society, to marry and raise your child. But to do that you need to put aside what has gone before and embrace what awaits you. What better protection can you ask than as the wife of the Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Ireland?"
"If I married Lord Rutherford I will be forever in his debt and at his mercy."
"But alive, my dear, and your child too. Think of that, Lady Tredawn, before you refuse his hand."
Celeste replaced the carefully penned letter in her sewing box, although she knew its content by heart.
'...Mr. Peele of Harrogate is a man I trust more than my closest friend. He will provide the confirmation I know you must seek of my testimony, my daughter...'
Her gaze shifted to the small table at the side of her bed. Her father's ring still lay hidden after all this time among her private things.
For her own sanity she hadn't wanted to believe the possibility of such a connection but how could she continue to deny it when Lord Rutherford had brought her such irrefutable proof of it? Lord Rutherford who offered her a chance to live not in exile or in fear but as the rightful mistress of her father's home. She swiped away the solitary tear falling down her cheek. Whether or not her father was considered a traitor no longer mattered. He was her father and she couldn't help but grieve for him. In his final hour his thoughts were of her and nowhere in his letter had he tried to claim his innocence or decry his fate.
'If death be the price I pay to protect you then so be it,' he'd written, 'for my death will rectify all that is passed, and knowing that I'm content. God speed, my daughter.'
The door to the attic room was thrown open and Maggie Marsden flounced in startling Celeste from her reverie. She cast a suspicious glance at the sewing box on the bed.
"What are you doing?"
Ever since the night with Scully the extent of Maggie's resentment had become ever more apparent. Careful not to create more suspicion than already present Celeste casually closed the lid of the sewing box and smoothed a hand down the front of her dress. "My dress needed repairing," she said. "It's now done."
Maggie's gaze swept her from head to toe. She smirked. "Lady Bowes has arrived and will speak with you, at once," she announced.
Celeste swallowed her anger, her hurt and her pride. How was she to greet the woman whom her father deemed in his letter an enemy of the King and of England? A woman who had lied to her and used her to weaken her father's position, and then discarded her when she'd been of no further use.
She took a deep breath and rose from the bed and wondered at the knowing smile tugging at the corner of Maggie's lips. Celeste touched a hand to her stomach and raised her chin. She had to be strong.
Maggie followed her in silence out the room and down the winding attic stairs to the first floor. The second flight of stairs led to the hall. The fireplace crackled with flame and welcoming heat.
Her eyes darted nervously to Madam Dubois who stood rigidly in a corner. She then focused on Lady Bowes seated at the table in the center of the room. She wanted to turn and run but Maggie stood behind her blocking the small corridor to the stairs.
What am I to say?
Lady Bowes calmly stood. Compassion etched her features and her voice was soft with understanding. "My dear, Celeste," she said.
Celeste pressed her fingernails into the palm of her hand. She would've undoubtedly fallen for Lady Bowes' performance had her father not detailed every facet of her character. She steeled herself against Lady Bowes' fleeting embrace.
"I'm so very glad to see you safe and well, Celeste. You cannot imagine the grief I've suffered these many months and the guilt I've felt at your abduction. You were under my protection," she said, "and I failed you in the most despicable way."
Lady Bowes glanced in disdain about the parlor. "As soon as I learned of your whereabouts I lost no time in coming here. My only regret is that it has taken so long to find you. Can you forgive me?"
Celeste shrugged her shoulders in her apathy. "You must not distress yourself, my lady. I'm quite well."
"Then, you have not been hurt?"
Celeste turned her gaze to Madam Dubois with a tentative smile. How could she justly blame Madam Dubois for Maggie's trickery? She could no more do that than own to being dishonored and with child.
"No," she replied at length. "Madam Dubois has kept me safe when it was in her power to do so."
"Leave us! Both of you!"
Madam Dubois' gaze was wistful and hesitant but Celeste nodded her assurance. She would be fine. She would be more than fine. Madam Dubois proffered a final comforting smile.
"You," Lady Bowes emphasized with slow deliberation, "don't seem very pleased to see me. I would assume after these many months you would show a modicum of gratitude to those wishing to help you."
Celeste straightened her back and squared her shoulders. She fixed her gaze on the displeasure marring Lady Bowes' countenance.
"If I was in doubt of your intention, my lady, I would've prostrated myself at your feet but since my father is to be executed I can't possibly be of further interest to you. We are neither of us further served by your charade."
"How long have you known this?"
"But a few days. Lord Rutherford was kind enough to deliver my father's final words. He explained everything to me."
Celeste swallowed back her tears. "I was his Achilles' heel, wasn't I? You knew who I was and used me against my father. Well, will you deny it?"
Lady Bowes moved forward. "Bold words but take care and heed to whom you speak them."
"I do, indeed, my lady."
"Would you go against me?"
"My father's death is on your hands, my lady, and I'll not rest until I've avenged him."
"You are indeed a foolish child," Lady Bowes chided. "But I would warn you not to meddle in affairs that do not concern you."
"It was your pretence and your artfulness that dragged me into this," Celeste retorted. "I lived in ignorance, my lady, and I wish to God I could return to it for the pain you cause me is a thousand times worse than the cold emptiness I once knew."
"And what do you mean to do that Lord Tredawn could not?" Lady Bowes mocked. "Go to the King. It is the word of an untrustworthy gypsy against that of his mistress. The King will not hear you. Besides, your name alone is enough to see you hang the moment you step foot in his court."
"There is one who will hear me, Lady Bowes," Celeste boasted. "Lord Rutherford seeks my hand in marriage and I intend to accept him. As my husband and one who has the king's ear he will help me. You see, I have learned a great deal during my stay here, my lady. Maggie has taught me well."
"You have learnt nothing," Lady Bowes shot back. She stepped closer. "What of Scully?" she snapped. "Didn't he also teach you well?"
Celeste shrank backward.
"You are no match for me, child. Did you think I wouldn't know you carry Scully's bastard?"
Fear clinched at her heart. She could barely speak or breathe.
Lady Bowes took another menacing step closer. "What do you think Lord Rutherford would say if he found out you carried another man's child and that you would trick him into believing the child his? Would he be so quick to make you his wife, I wonder? I think, not."
A cry of anguish tore from Celeste's throat and she staggered backward. Tears of helplessness and frustration slid down her cheeks.
"Well? Do you think he would come to the aid of a gypsy whore?" Lady Bowes insisted, studying her leisurely. "You really are quite a naïve child. Did you think to best me when your father could not? You, still, have a great deal to learn before you can win this game."
She placed her hand against Celeste's stomach and leaned closer, her lips brushing her ear. "You may not care for your own life but what of your child? What would you do to save him? All I need is time. Time for him to grow before I snatch him away from you."
Celeste pressed her back against the wall and expelled a frantic breath. Lady Bowes chuckled.
"Come now, Lady Tredawn," she taunted. "Didn't you have all the answers?"
"What do you want from me? The chart? My father told me you would come for it."
Lady Bowes stepped back and waved a dismissive hand in the air.
"I no longer have need of the chart. Besides, it proves nothing but I can ill-afford your wagging tongue. You know a great deal too much."
She returned with slow measured steps to the center of the room. "That's why you will refuse Lord Rutherford's hand in marriage and accept the man I have chosen for you. Joseph Heslopp is a man of means, not only does he own a number of businesses in the Americas he has a large plantation somewhere in the Indies. I'm sure you won't be disappointed. You could be married before Christmas."
The Indies? The Americas? Celeste shook her head. "I cannot," she whispered.
Lady Bowes turned on her heel and angled her head in quiet contemplation. "Yes, you can," she murmured, "and what is more, you will. You'll refuse Lord Rutherford's hand in marriage and accept that of Joseph Heslopp. You'll do that or your bastard will die. Today, tomorrow...next year but be sure you will there to watch him die."
Celeste's tears rolled freely down her cheeks and without restraint. "You must hate my father very much? To plan his ruin and seek mine."
"Lord Tredawn brought his demise upon himself. I offered him life, my dear," Lady Bowes said.
She closed the gap between them a second time and traced a finger down Celeste's tear covered cheek. "Your father chose death. What will you choose?"
Two days later Maggie flounced into her room announcing Joseph Heslopp's arrival. Celeste moved to the wash table and took a moment to gaze at her reflection in the tiny mirror hanging on the wall.
She'd grown thinner these last few days, her constant sickness expelling whatever food she did manage to ingest. She poured water from a jug into the washbowl and submerged her face into the fresh coolness.
God, give me strength.
She dried her face and touched her fingers to her hair.
You'll have to do, Elina.
Celeste entered the hall and pulled her shawl tighter about her shoulders. This time the fireplace hadn't been lit. She stared at the closed door in front of her. This had nothing to do with love. She hadn't been in love with Lord Rutherford and she doubted she'd ever have those feelings for any man. But Madam Dubois had been right. She would be alive and her child too. She pushed open the door and entered the winter parlor.
She eyed the portly man standing before her and a wave of nausea swept over her. A slow smile crept across his ruddy-cheeked face as he inclined his large, round head in deference. She would've laughed at his attempt at gentlemanliness had her situation been less than dire but she dutifully acknowledged him, forcing herself to be civil to Lady Bowes' choice of husband. If she had any doubts about Lady Bowes' contempt then Joseph Heslopp was undeniable evidence of it.
Scully Stevens had shamed and humiliated her when her mind had been robbed of feeling. She would gladly numb her senses to mirror death rather than be conscious of Joseph Heslopp's possession.
Joseph tilted his chin a tad higher and scrutinized her through half-closed eyes. "Do you know who I am?"
Celeste couldn't take her eyes off his hideous over-sized under lip glistening with saliva. Her stomach roiled. It could've been on account of her delicate situation but the distasteful odor of beer about him and obvious disregard of his personal toilette contributed without doubt to her queasiness.
"This cannot be. This must be some mistake," she said, voicing her inner turmoil.
"You are Lady Tredawn, the gypsy, aren't you?" Joseph raised an eyebrow in his obvious awareness of that fact.
Her nausea swept over her and Celeste turned away and opened the door. "I must leave."
For all his bulk, he hastened after her blocking her path before she could disappear down the small corridor. He stood firm, his hands on his hips and his feet planted firmly apart.
"You are Lady Tredawn, aren't you?" he repeated, breathing down upon her.
Celeste nodded. She swallowed hard in an attempt to stem her rising nausea. "Then, my being here is no mistake."
"Please, allow me to pass. I must leave. I'm ill."
She made to step around him but Joseph's large hand reached out and his fingers curled about her upper arm, digging hard into her flesh. He pulled her back into the room, ignoring her choking gasps of protest.
His eyes traveled the length of her body. "Lady Bowes told me you were headstrong but never the mind I said. I like a woman with spirit."
He swept his thick tongue across his lips. "If you are the dutiful wife you'll want for nothing."
He released her and Celeste scurried across the room putting much needed distance between them. To her dismay Joseph Heslopp followed suit. Heat rose from her neck to her cheeks at the evident hunger in his eyes.
"I've brought you a present," he said.
He burrowed his broad fingers into the small pouch at his side. "Here. Never let it be said Joseph Heslopp is a stingy man."
He held the small gold ring he'd retrieved for her to see. "It's beautiful, isn't? Go on. Put it on. Think of it as an early Christmas present."
"Mr. Heslopp—" Celeste demurred.
"Joseph," he insisted. "You will learn to call me Joseph. Are we not to become man and wife?"
The very idea of sharing his bed was enough to make her unwell and an overwhelming wave of sickness gripped Celeste once again. This time she made good her escape and raced from the room no longer caring what he may think of her. She sped up the stairs back to her attic room.
A moment later the attic door burst open and Joseph Heslopp strode in heaving and panting from his exertion.
She spun around her sickness forgotten. "Get out!"
"You are in no position to dismiss me. As my wife you'll belong to me and it is I who will decide when you leave my presence."
Celeste swallowed nervously. The charade was over. She took an instinctive step from him and clasped her hands against her stomach.
"I'm not your wife, sir, nor will I ever be," she retorted.
Joseph Heslopp took three long strides toward her and with more agility than she'd accredited him with he caught her wrists in the fleshy mold of his hands. He tugged her firmly against him.
"You have no choice, my lady," he breathed against her mouth. "You can marry me and become mistress of my plantations or work the fields as my slave. And when your bastard child is born it will work alongside you. And if I so declare you will bear lots of my children to help you work the fields. You see, either way you will come with me and I will have you."
Celeste's eyes widened even further. She shrunk from him.
"My child—" She gasped. "You know?"
"I thought that might get your attention. Lady Bowes was kind enough to tell me everything. A woman in your position can ill afford to be particular. You have every reason to be grateful to me," Joseph spat. "There'll be none other forthcoming to offer you marriage with the child of another growing in your belly."
He imprisoned both of her wrists in one large hand and tore at the bodice of her gown. "I'm not a patient man, my lady."
Sensation gradually returned to Celeste's stunned senses and she felt the cold, wet assault of Joseph's hungry mouth at her breast. Shaking off the disabling shock engulfing her she fought her assailant in earnest. She pushed at him and pummeled his back with her fists. She screamed for help. The blow to her cheek caught her by surprise knocking her head back with its force. The imploding sound rang in her ears and pain registered through the black haze covering her eyes.
"Your show of innocence is commendable, yet hardly apt," Joseph hissed in her ear. "I hear you're much versed in the art of pleasing a man surely you'll not deny your husband a taste of such knowledge," he cajoled. The wetness of his tongue swiped the shell of her outer ear and she shuddered.
The staleness of his breath filled her nostrils and the nausea that threatened to engulf her finally found form. Her body shook with the violence of its expulsion. Uttering an oath Joseph Heslopp threw her from him.
"Get yourself cleaned up," he shouted.
Celeste surged to her feet and ran to the washbowl. She reached for a rag and submerged it in the cool water she'd used earlier. With shaking hands, she held the cloth against her cut lip and her brow and then started to cleanse away the traces of her sickness.
With a deep sigh she peeled the remnants of her soiled dress from her shoulders conscious of Joseph Heslopp's lewd gaze. Her fingers trembled some more. Again she submerged the cloth in the soothing water. She washed her neck and her breasts. She glanced at her reflection.
Her hands covered her breasts as Joseph sidled up behind her.
His voice sliced through her. "Don't! I want to look at you. Lady Bowes has indeed chosen well." His voice grew hoarse. "You're without a doubt the most beautiful creature I've ever seen."
He stepped closer until his chest touched her back and reached about her to cup her breasts. Celeste shook at the telling glint reflected in his eyes.
"Turn about," he ordered.
His stale, odious breath seared her neck. Vulnerable in her nakedness and defenseless in his embrace, Joseph raised her face to his, and his mouth descended upon hers. Saliva escaped his mouth and ran down her skin. An involuntary shudder of disgust passed through her.
She placed her hands at his waist steadying herself in her faintness and felt the blade at his side. Surprise, gratitude and relief swelled through her as she curled her fingers about the handle. She wrenched it free of its sheath and tore her mouth from his.
Joseph lowered his gaze to the sharp point raised between them. With an almost complimentary glance at her he loosened his grip about her waist and stepped backward. He snorted his derision and wiped his mouth with back of his hand.
"Now what, my lady?"
"Now, you leave."
He shrugged his heavy shoulders and stood his ground. "No," he said. The low sound rumbled defiantly from within the barrel of his chest. "I'm going to enjoy making you pay for this."
She crossed an arm across her naked breasts and raised the blade higher. Despite her resolve her hand began to shake.
"Stay back," she warned.
Joseph took a slow step forward, his eyes unwavering on her face. "Or what?" he smirked. "Will you kill me? Have you ever killed a man and hear him take his last breath? I have."
His eyes narrowed and his mouth thinned. She anticipated his move.
Joseph darted toward her, an arm raised to strike her but she was quick. She sidestepped his attack and ducked beneath his arm as he lunged forward.
She raced for the door and then stopped at the enormous crash behind her. Joseph lay motionless on the floor, broken pieces of washbowl and jug scattered about him, his head bloodied where he'd fallen.
The door opened and Maggie entered. She crossed the room quickly and calmly and knelt beside Joseph Heslopp.
"Is he dead?" Celeste whispered. Her eyes widened in horror. "What am I to do?"
"Be quiet! I must think."
The sharpness of Maggie's tone brought Celeste from the verge of the hysteria threatening to engulf her. "He fell," she murmured. "He fell. It happened so fast."
Maggie rose again and prized the knife from between Celeste's stiffened fingers. "I know but you must go with Sally now. Sally will take care of you. Don't worry. I know what must be done."
"You'll help me?"
Maggie pushed Celeste out the door. "We will help each other, my lady," she said. "Take her and get her cleaned up," Maggie instructed. "And then send word to Lord Rutherford. Tell him he must come at once."
Lady Bowes stared out the coach window as it trundled the old cliff road leading to Hawkridge. She gazed out onto the passing sea shimmering in the intense moonlight, her thoughts on the eight Catholic men condemned to die for their Faith. What other outcome could there be under such Protestant rule. Sir Everard Digby, Robert Winter, John Grant, Guido Fawkes, Thomas Winter, Ambrose Rookwood, Robert Keyes and Thomas Bates, Catesby's servant—all dear, loyal friends. A slow tear trickled down her cheek at the thought of Lord Percy and Catesby who had been shot and killed at Kingswinford.
Monsieur Guillot had been justified in his haste to leave London. The climate had changed toward all Catholics. Their hopes of greater freedom to worship as they chose would never be realized as long as King James reigned. Lord Salisbury hadn't been satisfied with just the King's expulsion of Catholic priests. He wanted to remove Catholicism from England completely and with the failed powder treason as an example of Catholic insurgence he could quite easily convince the King of this necessity.
She'd left Nuneaton and sought refuge at Sticklepath, an old country estate in Devonshire. It belonged to Lord Huntingdon who was in Indies overseeing his plantations. The estate was close to the sea and afforded a quick escape to the Americas should the need to arise. Although Lord Salisbury had issued no warrant for her arrest. This had puzzled her. As did his prompt action against Catesby and the convenient unveiling of the powder treason a mere few hours before Guido Fawkes would've lit the fuse.
Lord Salisbury had also been apprized of all the names of the conspirators. Tredawn hadn't lied. There had been one among them, an agent provocateur, who spied for Salisbury. Catesby had gone to his death without having divulged her part in the powder treason. She could continue her work for France without detection.
The coach door suddenly wrenched open and a cold draught of air wafted against her face. It took a moment for Lady Bowes to realize the coach had slowed. It rocked alarmingly beneath the weight of the man who climbed in next to her.
"You look almost startled, my lady," Scully said, closing the door firmly behind him. "Did you not specify this hour and this night?"
He settled across from her, the cold air about him fanning her cheeks.
"There's much that preoccupies my mind, Mr. Stevens. I lost track of the hour."
"And pray, what could weigh so heavily on your mind that makes you lose track of the hour, my lady?"
Lady Bowes shifted uneasily in her seat and drew her long cashmere cape tighter about the low-cut red gown she wore.
"Is it the thought of Queen Anne who takes residence in Whitehall Palace or Lord Salisbury whose zealousness against the Catholics has driven you to hide away in the country?"
"I do not hide, Mr. Stevens. I merely do not care to be around those planning Catholic executions."
Scully shrugged and leant back into the dappled shadow. "I own, I didn't expect you to show, my lady."
"And why not? Did you think I would renege our bargain? I confess I'm anxious to see Lady Hawkridge's reaction upon meeting the son she disowned in favor of another."
The moon's light fell across Scully's features highlighting the scowl marring his expression. "As am I, my lady. As am I, yet you kept me waiting. Where were you? It's nigh two months since we last spoke."
"Did you miss me, Mr. Stevens? I'd have thought the gypsy would have kept you preoccupied."
"You know she did not." Scully leaned forward, his face inches from hers. "In fact, my second attempt to visit the stew was greeted by the presence of the King's soldiers. I wonder, was my lady jealous?"
She heard the amusement in his voice. "I've no idea of what you're talking about, Mr. Stevens. Perhaps, it's your precious Lady Tredawn who wishes to see you hang by the neck."
Scully chuckled and shook his head in his amusement. "You set the King's soldiers after me, my lady. Own it. In the hope of...what?" he prompted.
"Preventing what I realize I could have never prevented."
"And that is, my lady?"
"Your attraction for the gypsy."
"The girl means nothing to me."
This time it was Lady Bowes who smiled. "You have tasted from the purest of springs, Mr. Stevens, and would give your life to drink there again, would you not? So potent is her attraction."
"You don't know that."
"I know no woman can compete with that, which is beyond her reach, and I don't care to entertain it."
"You don't need compete, my lady."
"You lie again, Mr. Stevens."
"Why do you doubt my word?"
"Because I believe you enjoyed bedding the girl much more than I'd hoped or you had expected. Did you not proffer marriage?"
"Words spoken at such moments are meaningless to people such as you and I. The King rewards you handsomely for nights of insincerities."
"Then, you won't care to learn she's to be married."
Scully leaned back concealing his face again in the shadows. His eyes flashed silver in the darkness. "To whom?"
"Joseph Heslopp. Perhaps you've heard of him."
No. I haven't."
Lady Bowes leaned back into the shadows hiding her smile and content now to allow their journey to continue in absolute silence.
Scully alighted from the carriage first and offered Lady Bowes a hand in assistance. Dashing gentlemen and elegant ladies, daughters and sons, demure young girls and sober chaperones greeted her with polite smiles, bows and curtseys. Eight broad sweeping steps led to the raised courtyard.
Lady Bowes swept her gaze over the stone façade. Teigne Hall was grand enough from the outside but she couldn't wait to enter and witness the destruction Scully's entrance would inevitably bring. She could still see the shock register across Lady Hawkridge's face as she'd repeated the name of her escort for tonight's Engagement ball. It hadn't occurred to Lady Bowes that Lady Hawkridge would know the name. Hugh Forbesham, a name given by Scully himself?
Gavel topped with a light sprinkling of snow crunched beneath their well-heeled shoes and anticipation stirred the frost-filled air. Lady Bowes graced Scully's stern countenance with a sweep of her hooded eyes. She'd prepared him well. His knowledge of the gypsy's impending marriage merely added to the excitement of the unpredictability of this man.
They entered the Great Hall enticed by the faint smell of mint on the straw-strewn stone floor and drawn by the lively music played by an orchestra. A number of guests were already engaged in a vigorous country jig among the Yuletide evergreens and beeswax candles decorating the room. Servants hurried to and fro collecting mantels, cloaks and capes from new arrivals. Lady Bowes drew a great deal of attention. In the minstrel's gallery the music gradually faded and the dancers stopped until complete silence filled the room.
The throng parted creating a path from the door to the dais at the far side of the long room with its high domed ceiling. Lady Bowes proceeded down the length of the room, a richly embroidered and jeweled gloved hand tucked within the crook of Scully's arm. She inclined her head dutifully left and right and returned polite smiles.
A tall, handsome man with a broad physique clothed in black stockings, black hose and black doublet moved forward and greeted her with a curt bow.
"It is an honor, my lady," he said. He raised her fingers to his lips. "I hope you're in good health. Your absence at court these two months has been most noticeable."
Lady Bowes returned smiled demurely.
Let the games begin.
She turned to Scully, introducing him a sweeping gesture of an elegant hand. "Lord Hawkridge, may I introduce—"
"Hugh Forbesham," Scully supplied with a stiff bow.
Lord Hawkridge furrowed his brow, although he similarly returned Scully's greeting. "There must be relation in our names," he said.
"Indeed, my lord. There is."
"I don't recall hearing the name Forbesham in the Manderville family line," Lord Hawkridge said.
"I'm given to believe our relation lies not on your father's side, Lord Hawkridge, and although it is but a distant one it's to Lady Hawkridge's family I must accredit our resemblance."
"Why did you not send word of your association, Mr. Forbesham? We would've been delighted to receive you on a less boisterous occasion."
"My connection to Lady Hawkridge is new to me, my lord. I have but recently learnt of it, although I believe Lady Hawkridge has known it for some time."
Lord Hawkridge's low guttural response didn't quite convey his conviction, yet he was civil in his address to Scully. "Still, I would've been pleased to receive any relative. Distant or otherwise."
With a polite incline of his head, he bade his guests follow him across the Great Hall to the dais where a long wooden table had been decked with all manner of fruit, wine, meat and fish. On one side of the hall a large spitted boar roasted above a crackling fire.
"May I present my fiancé, Miss Anne-Marie Lucas and, my mother, Countess Dowager Hawkridge," Lord Hawkridge said. "Miss Lucas, Lady Hawkr—"
"Hugh?" The Countess Dowager rose to her feet and stared at Scully, her face suddenly losing its radiance. "I never thought to see you again," she murmured.
"Lady Hawkridge," Scully parried with a curt bow. "Perhaps, we may consider a family reunion for another time."
"We will speak later," Lady Hawkridge said.
Scully returned no acknowledgement or smile but bowing stiffly turned on his heels, leading Lady Bowes away on his arm.
"I do believe they still watch us," Lady Bowes said.
"Did Lady Hawkridge not seem a tad pale? I thought she did. So much so I feared she would faint there, on the spot," Lady Bowes remarked.
She smiled while acknowledging several guests with a slight inclination of her fashionably coiffed head. "Do you think Lord Hawkridge suspects?"
"I doubt a woman callous enough to give up a son would be susceptible to such a feminine weakness," Scully sneered.
He smiled in turn to several young ladies vying without much pretence for his attention. "And as for my dear brother, he seems much too unsuspecting to see what is right before his eyes."
They both took wine.
"What do you have in mind?" Lady Bowes whispered, caressing the long stem of her glass with an idle gloved finger. "I assume you have a need to exact revenge. Look about you. Look at what has been denied you. The grandeur. The luxury. The honor."
"I know what has been denied me, my lady, and I've waited a long time to exact my revenge. Be sure I shall not waste the moment."
Lady Bowes followed Scully's meaningful gaze to the beautiful russet haired woman sitting at the long table at Lord Hawkridge's side.
"Anne-Marie Lucas is indeed quite beautiful, Mr. Stevens. Perhaps a night in her arms will help you forget your gypsy wench."
"Perhaps," Scully murmured. "Perhaps."
Laughter had erupted from an adjoining room where Lord Hawkridge sat enjoying a private drink with friends. He'd allowed their reasoning to persuade him Hugh Forbesham's uncanny resemblance was indeed nothing more than some quirk of distant connection. Although his mother's steadfast refusal to expound on Hugh's family relation left Darby mystified and suspicious of the older man's presence.
His friends' lively discourse soon sobered, however, as they argued the politics of King James and the plight of the Catholics under his rule. Lord Hawkridge returned his attention to the two men beside him locked in heated conversation and sought to diffuse the mounting tension.
"I bear no malice toward Catholics but the Hampton Court conference rose out of a need to defend our Faith," he interjected.
Bertram Goode answered him. "Our Faith has long been assured its superiority by the King's predecessor."
"And that explains why the King sees no reason to change what he finds already settled," Charles Beckett said.
"Yet the King would persecute the Catholics in a worse manner than his predecessor. He proclaims utter detestation of papists and demands the bishops oversee severe and exact punishment of every Catholic—" Bertram Goode retorted.
"I sometimes doubt your loyalty to our Faith, Bertram."
"Why? Because I believe we are all first and foremost Englishmen and as Englishmen Catholics deserve to be admitted into the ranks have His Majesty's other subjects."
"Nonsense!" Charles rejoined.
"It's not nonsense and you will find a great number of Catholics are of alike mind."
Charles gave a wry laugh. "Like whom. Catesby?" he proffered. "Guido Fawkes? Thomas Percy? Take care Bertram, there are those who may hear powder treason in your words."
"It's not treason to speak the truth."
"Yes, well, that does rather depend on whose truth it is, so forgive me if I don't believe any truth uttered by your Catholic friends," Charles disparaged.
"You need not take the word of a Catholic but open your eyes, Charles. The King now goes too far. Catholics no longer can make their wills or dispose of their goods. They're exiled and outlawed in their own country and like such they are treated. There's no longer any obligation to pay them their debts or rents for land held from them. They cannot go to the law for justice for it is that very law which has made them so. They can seek no remedy for ills or injuries received—"
Charles jumped to his feet. "They! They! They! Enough!"
Bertram rose as quickly.
"Charles!" Lord Hawkridge interceded. He sprang between both men. "Shield your sword. Surely a man and a friend may be allowed his opinion without being set upon. Besides, this night I am betrothed. Enough of religion and politics."
Charles retook is seat. "Perhaps you should become a priest, Bertram," he remarked.
Bertram, too, resumed his place. "Have you not heard, Charles? They have already been ordered out of the realm."
There was a brief pause before both men broke into fits of laughter. With order restored they set about finishing their wine.
"Darby is right. Let us no longer speak of the church and its politics for it sours the evening and a fine friendship."
Charles raised his glass. "To my lord Hawkridge and his beautiful bride-to-be. Miss Lucas."
"Speaking of which, my lord, should you not be in the softness of your fiancée's arms spinning about the room like a desperate man in love," Bertram joked.
Lord Hawkridge laughed and rose from his seat. "Indeed I should, Bertram. Indeed I should." He clasped his friend's arm. "I await the day, gentlemen, when a young lady takes your fancy and makes coxcombs of you both."
Their laughter had scarce subsided when a servant burst into the room. Without waiting permission to approach he hurried across the room toward Lord Hawkridge. He'd only whispered a few words before Darby raced from the room.
Charles closed upon his heels but he could barely hold Darby's stride. "What is it, Darby?"
Lord Hawkridge didn't reply. He moved at breakneck speed through the Great Hall to the Screen's Passage taking the stone steps that spiraled down into the kitchen. From the kitchen he sped through the door leading to the inner courtyard. None wore cloak or doublet and the freezing air stung through the thin fabric of his cotton shirt. He dashed to the stables situated at the side of the house. A stable-hand stood guard by an empty stall.
Lord Hawkridge punched the door of the empty stall. "Saddle Nightwind," he ordered. "Now!"
Charles tried again. He touched Darby's arm. "Darby, what is it? What has happened?"
Behind them the stable-hand fought to bring the high-spirited steed under his control.
Lord Hawkridge punched the stable door once more. "Anne-Marie...has taken Samael," he said.
He turned, his eyes meeting Bertram's who had taken over the reigns of the high-strung beast. Lord Hawkridge grabbed the reins and mounted the blue-black stallion. He sped from the stables into the snow-covered night.
Lady Sarah Hawkridge returned to the Great Hall, her bow furrowed in incomprehension and her despair. Her eyes searched the throng for Hugh. Laura Lucas appeared at her side.
"My lady, whatever is going on? First, Lord Hawkridge brushes past me without a courteous word and now I cannot find my sister anywhere."
"Perhaps they are taking a walk together, Laura. It's, after all, rather warm in here."
Laura pouted and knitted her brow in slow deliberation. "I don't think so," she returned. "From the look on Lord Hawkridge's face I feared he meant to murder somebody."
"Darby's gone? Where?"
"I don't know." Laura looked exasperated. "But something is very wrong, my lady. I know it is. I have to find Anne-Marie."
Lady Hawkridge fixed her gaze beyond Laura's shoulder to Hugh standing in close conspiracy with Lady Bowes. As if sensing her eyes upon him, he boldly met her gaze. An amused glint sparkled in the depth of his eyes and a faint smile hovered about his lips. And Lady Hawkridge knew. Everything that Anne-Marie had told her had been true.
She'd not doubted Anne-Marie's virtue, far from it, yet a part of her had hoped Anne-Marie had been mistaken. Scully pulled leisurely at the white ruff about his sleeve before inclining his head in mocking salutation.
"It'll all be right, Laura," Lady Hawkridge soothed. "Darby must have gone in search of her."
Lady Hawkridge crossed the room toward Scully, her head held high and her countenance rigid. "Sir, I would speak with you, at once."
Scully glanced askance at Lady Bowes and then held out his arm to his mother. Lady Hawkridge took her son's proffered arm with outward calmness and allowed him to escort her to the south terrace. Once outside and away from prying eyes she spun from him and planted her hand with a firm slap across his cheek. Scully's eyes glittered and their breaths misted angrily between them. Then, he threw back his head and did something that startled her. He laughed.
"Sir?" Scully scoffed. "You cannot even say my name, can you? Or acknowledge who I am."
He opened his hand to reveal the large white sapphire in the shape of a tear lying on his palm.
"The Jeweled Tear," Lady Hawkridge whispered. "For these long years I've mourned your loss and before this night I could indeed do both but your cowardly and despicable act erased any love I may have felt for you."
"You dare speak of love," Scully sneered. "You let me live in squalor while you and my dear brother enjoyed a life of luxury. A life denied me. You've no idea what I've had to do to survive and to think I could've been master of all this."
"Teigne Hall will always belong to a Manderville. It was never meant to be yours. Your father abandoned me, abandoned us, and I could do nothing to prevent your fate. Don't you think I agonized every day of every year when you were taken from me? I always hoped to see you again. Your presence here tonight took me by surprise but I knew you, Hugh. A mother always knows her child."
Lady Hawkridge looked coldly upon her son. "But you are not the man I'd thought to see and welcome with open arms into my home. Tonight shows me the kind of man you are."
"What kind of man did you expect having sent me to live among cutthroats and thieves?" Scully spat back.
"You despise me your life, yet it was not I who made you so. There are many who have shared your fate and remained decent and who do not force themselves on an innocent woman. You did. You sent Anne-Marie that note and you alone are responsible—"
"I think not." Scully gave a chilling smile. "The blame is yours and yours alone, madam. What would hurt Lord Hawkridge more? Knowing you kept secret the existence of a first borne son or learning his beautiful fiancée spent this very night—this very special night—in my arms, and you—you mother—could've prevented it—"
"I knew nothing of your despicable plan!"
"Do you think that matters now? You knew me. You knew I was your son, yet you led Lord Hawkridge to believe different. You said nothing. Not one single word. Nothing—"
"I wanted to—" Lady Hawkridge breathed.
"I doubt you'll be forgiven your silence." Scully closed the gap between himself and his mother, his eyes bearing down with fierce accusation. "Whatever else may have taken place this night one thing is certain. You have a great deal more to lose than I. Your reputation and your precious son."
Lady Hawkridge took an anxious step backward. "Then, I can tell Darby nothing," she gasped. "That is your revenge."
"Another secret, mother," Scully scathed. "Still, you are rather adept at keeping them."
"And Anne-Marie. What of Anne-Marie? Will she not know justice?"
Scully gazed into the distance past Lady Hawkridge's shoulders. "Somehow I doubt that question is longer relevant," he murmured.
Lady Hawkridge spun about following his gaze to the three figures stumbling across the garden. One of them cradled something in his arms. They drew closer and her eyes widened. With a loud gasp she raised a startled hand to her mouth.
"Tell him now, if you dare," Scully taunted.
"Madam! You spend a great deal of time in the country."
Lady Bowes swiveled on the spot. Cage had left a few beeswax candles burning and light now danced upon the walls and straw-covered floor from whence the faint smell of rosemary emanated. She perused the dimness for the unseen voice addressing her from within the shadows, her eyes wide and her breath locked in her throat.
"Show yourself so I may see who skulks about my home like a common thief."
Footsteps sounded through the Great Hall and then stopped. "I'm no thief, my lady."
The man stepped forth into the moonlight.
"Lord Rutherford! Your presence is unwelcome and inappropriate given the lateness of the hour. Return on the morrow when I have slept and am prepared to receive you."
"I understood your return to be much earlier. I've already wasted an entire day waiting for you," Lord Rutherford rejoined. "My return would be under less agreeable circumstances."
Lady Bowes bristled. "Meaning."
"Lord Tredawn didn't trust you," Lord Rutherford stated. He slipped once more into the shadows. "He thought you far too ambitious to be satisfied with the position of King's mistress alone. As do I."
Lady Bowes followed the sound of his measured steps to the window place. He sat down crossing his arms and legs at his leisure and watching her.
"But, unlike Lord Tredawn," Lord Rutherford continued, "I understand your lust for power. It's something we both desire, although there's but enough for one of us."
"What do you wish, my lord? The hour is late."
Lord Rutherford chuckled. "The King's court is awry with rumors concerning you my lady—"
"As it once was of you," Lady Bowes reminded him in sharp tone.
Lord Rutherford obliged her with a polite smile and slight inclination of his head. "Touché," he said. "And yet it is I who holds the King's ear and your life within my hands."
Lady Bowes approached, her strident steps evident of her displeasure. Her face loomed from the shadows and returned his confident glare with an angry one.
"How dare you threaten me? I am still the King's mistress, with all the power that entails!"
Lord Rutherford shrugged, unperturbed by her rhetoric. "Mistresses come and go," he replied. A suggestive glint sparked his gaze. "Perhaps it is I who will take your place in His Majesty's bed."
"No? Have I not been granted the use of Claerdal Manor and the title of Earl of Tredawn to use should I desire?" Lord Rutherford countered. He leant forward, "Certainly now Joseph Heslopp is no longer alive to lay claim to either."
Lady Bowes pulled back into the shadows and shrugged. "Is that name supposed to mean something to me?"
Lord Rutherford rose to his feet. He reached beneath his doublet and retrieved a small scroll.
"Lord Tredawn long suspected you of traveling to White Webbs with your Catholic conspirators, although apart from your some would say all too close liaison with the French Ambassador there's no further proof that your Faith is that other than His Majesty's. Even Guido Fawkes doesn't mention you by name in his confession."
Lady Bowes eyed the parchment held between taunting fingers. "Why would he? I'm guilty of nothing."
She moved forward, her cloak rustling the straw beneath her feet. "Would you accuse me of treason, my lord Rutherford? Do you forget that before God and country it was you, by your own testimony, who condemned the man you once called friend and ally to the gallows? If there's anyone here guilty of treachery it is you, my lord, and should the King learn the truth—"
"Ah, the truth, my lady."
Lord Rutherford eyed her carefully. "The truth has many sides but how is it you know I lie? And should you be foolish enough to divulge my truth, how are you to explain your actions during His Majesty's absence in Scotland? To be exact, your reason for kidnapping Lord Tredawn's daughter in the first place."
He opened the parchment in his hands. "A list of your Catholic friends..." His threat hung heavy between them.
The mask of composure slipped from Lady Bowes' face and she took a cautious step backward. Lord Rutherford pressed home his advantage.
"Lord Huntingdon, Ambrose Lucy, Anne Vaux, Elizabeth Tresham, Father Garnet..." he read. His eyes narrowed. "A Jesuit priest? Tut...tut...tut. All were seen in your presence at White Webbs secretly practicing the Catholic Faith. King James has been lenient of his Catholic subjects but not those who would plot against him with foreign insurgents sent by Rome. These names by themselves are not enough to send you to the gallows but there is this business of Joseph Heslopp. Lady Tredawn has told me everything."
"Lady Tredawn? Do you think the King would trouble himself over a man such as Joseph Heslopp or care what becomes of the daughter of a proven traitor? Besides, she will hang alongside her father. Not even the King will interfere on her behalf."
Lord Rutherford paused a moment. His considered riposte succeeded in wiping the triumphant look of satisfaction from Lady Bowes' face.
"No. But the King's curiosity would be aroused should learn of your part in Lord Tredawn's downfall and know of the lengths you went to, to discover the existence of his daughter. You used that knowledge to your advantage to assure Lord Tredawn's...what?"
Lord Rutherford pondered a moment longer. "His obedience? Loyalty? Silence? Death?"
At this final suggestion Lady Bowes took another involuntary step backward.
"The failure of the powder treason, my lady," Lord Rutherford continued, "has served to strengthen Puritans in their conviction of the threat posed by Catholics and it has made the King wary of those about him almost to the point of paranoia. If his once loyal and trusted friend could be proven treacherous then who in his court can be trusted? My condemnation of Lord Tredawn was made in a moment of opportune madness," Lord Rutherford acknowledged. "In the light of the ruthlessness of the powder treason I could scarce rectify it without suffering the consequences."
"What do you want?"
Lord Rutherford pursed his lips and folded the parchment with deliberate slowness. "Our lives are literally dependent on each other, my lady," he remarked. "Should either of us betray the other then we betray ourselves. I merely wished to remind you of that and also the climate in England has changed toward all Catholics. Noble and peasant alike."
"Tell me...how did you learn of the powder treason?" Lady Bowes questioned.
Lord Rutherford smiled. "I overheard Guido Fawkes speak treason in the cellars beneath Westminster Hall—and Lord Tredawn speak against it."
"And yet you happily laid blame at Lord Tredawn's feet," Lady Bowes returned.
"Lord Tredawn's presence turned out to be quite convenient, even, should I dare say, auspicious."
"You betrayed a friend for his lands, his estate and his title."
"We are both ambitious, my lady," Lord Rutherford said. He released a wistful sigh. "But I had hoped to atone for my deed."
"Ah." Lady Bowes understood. "That explains your proposal to Lord Tredawn's daughter."
"Indeed my lady, and we neither of us can wash our hands of his blood. From this moment we are to be the most loyal of friends. I trust we understand one another, my lady."
Lady Bowes curtseyed demurely. "My lord. I believe you know the way out of my house."
With quick, angry steps she crossed the Great Hall to the sweeping stairs leading to the Long Gallery. She strained her ears and listened as the main door closed. She stopped at the bay window and gazed down onto the courtyard. Lord Rutherford's carriage trundled down the long avenue toward the main gate.
France's covert operation against England would continue as planned with Claerdal Manor the insurance she needed when the time was ripe to distance herself from France and King Henri.
There had to be a solution to the problem Lord Rutherford had now proved himself to be.
An injustice was about to be done this day. Celeste gazed about her with worried eyes and faint heart. It had rained hard and furious the night before but no amount of rainfall or winter chill could succeed in dampening the spirits of those present on this early January morning.
The Old Palace Yard at Westminster was full to capacity, and more. Catholic and Protestant alike side-by-side, each man more than willing to part with his ten shillings to see traitors hanged, drawn and quartered today. Men, women, children the whole of London it seemed, jostled in the dawning light for vantage points and the best seats. None wished to miss this occasion. Voices were raised, loud and exuberant and none more vociferous than the Catholics present. Disassociation had proven vital to self-preservation and proudly did they condemn their fellowman their attack on King and country. The conspirators were found and their sentence, justified and where more fitting their execution than the scene of the intended crime.
Celeste watched the public revelry and suppressed her tears. Her face was in stark contrast to the jollity and liveliness upon those gathered about her. There was neither a smile about her lips nor zealous light sparking her eyes.
Laughter rippled in every direction about her and ale and wine spilled onto the street. Rowdy young men danced wild jigs with lively lasses while peddlers and hawkers milled through the crowd taking gainful advantage of good spirits and convivial dispositions.
Celeste raised her gaze above the crowd to the five condemned men standing high on the gibbet, weakened by torture and scarce able to stand. The hanging would soon begin. Her eyes rested on her father, standing tall and erect the noose tight about his neck. He stood courageous in the face of a traitor's death he didn't deserve and for one brief moment across the mass and through the heartless noise of indifference, his eyes met hers and time stood still.
With head held high, he looked down upon her. Love, regret, happiness, despair, hello and goodbye shone from his eyes.
He is innocent.
She wanted to return the faintest of smiles she alone could see but the pain of her emotions robbed her of the ability. She wanted to shout at those about her and demand his release. She wanted to show herself and tell him she understood. She wanted to tell him goodbye but her fear kept her silent.
"D'ya know 'im?"
A young woman standing beside her with few teeth and a grubby child perched on her hip scrutinized Celeste's face.
Celeste pulled the hood of her cloak closer masking the tears in her eyes. The sudden eruption of deafening cheers distracted the inquisitive eyes from her countenance and earned the briefest of gratitude.
The crowd had surged forward like an immense wave carrying her forward in its wake and returning her to the bosom of its anonymity.
Ghoulish merriment distorted the features swarming about her while morbid pleasure glazed their eyes. All chanted "Guy Fawkes! Guy Fawkes! Guy Fawkes!"
Unable to curb her curiosity, Celeste raised her eyes to the cause of this excitement. One man had cheated the executioner and butcher's knives. His naked body swung in weighty rhythm by the neck.
Celeste blinked back the gentle rain falling against her lashes and leveled her eyes on her father once more. His eyes hadn't lost sight of her in the crowd. His lips scarce moved, yet she heard him speak.
"Go, my daughter," he said.
She pulled her cape closer about her hiding her sadness as best she could. He didn't want her there. He didn't want her to see. She couldn't cry. Not here. Not now but she would weep for her father. She hurried away a black-hooded figure pushing her way through the merciless violence of a frenzied crowd and back to the carriage waiting to secret her to Cornwall and the arms of the man whose very word had condemned her father to death.
The image of her father standing proud and alone seared her memory. Her heart, and her heart alone, mourned him. How she'd longed to scream his name and acknowledge him. Her father, yet she'd denied him at the Old Palace Yard. She was the traitor.
She gazed out the carriage window her eyes burning with unshed tears and watched the relentless down pour. Her father was dead. The moment the rain thundered from the heavens she knew he'd breathed his last. Yet she was more than aware of her traveling companions too. Firstly there were Mr. Peele and his wife.
She contemplated the unlikelihood of this encounter and today of all days. Mr. Peele, the very man her father had mentioned in his letter and had advised to seek out. 'A man to trust above all others,' her father wrote. A man through whom she could learn everything she needed to know about her father and Claerdal Manor.
Celeste shifted uneasily. What use was such knowledge of her inheritance now? Nothing of it mattered anymore. Joseph Heslopp had died as a result of his own folly but she had been the cause of it. The truth hung over her head like the Sword of Damocles but it wasn't Lord Rutherford to whom she owed her life. She traced the form of her wedding ring with her gloved fingers.
Lord Rutherford had come to her aid and proposed marriage a second time, yet it was Maggie who kept her from the hangman's noose. Celeste glanced at Maggie Marsden seated opposite her. Her flowing flaxen hair had been darkened and tied in a severe knot at the nape of her neck. Her clothes, no longer brazen, were refined and simple by design as were her jewels. Maggie's appearance may have changed but her character had most definitely not. Celeste wondered the price for Maggie's silence.
"Are you all right, my dear?"
It had been Mr. Peele who, after nearly an hour, broke the long silence that had settled among them. Celeste raised her eyes to his bespectacled ones and tried to smile.
"I am quite well, sir," she lied. In all truth she was exhausted, both emotionally and physically.
She leaned her head against the dark blue upholstered seat and closed her eyes. She squeezed her hands fiercely together beneath the woolen material of her cloak and listened as Mrs. Peele sought to engage their fifth passenger, Mr. Lucy, in polite conversation.
The carriage had been equipped to carry four passengers but endured the extra weight of Mr. Lucy. He must have been a man of some influence and means since he managed to procure a much sought after seat on the last coach leaving London that morning.
Mr. Lucy replied to Mrs. Peele's inquiry as to whether he traveled on business or pleasure. "I've been in London these three weeks on business. Besides, I've already witnessed one hanging and I need see no more—traitors or no. But now my business is concluded and I return to Brighton."
"May I inquire what kind of business, sir?" Mrs. Peele asked.
"Most certainly. I've recently acquired the lands, estates and businesses owned by Joseph Heslopp."
Celeste clasped her hands together with even greater force. Her heart pounded against her ribs. Would Joseph Heslopp's name continue to hound her? She kept her breathing even and refrained from opening her eyes.
"Joseph Heslopp?" Mrs. Peele repeated the name as if testing it for degree of difficulty upon her tongue. "Heslopp? The name does seem familiar to me, although I cannot for the life of me remember why."
"Ah," Mr. Peele murmured. "I can now place your face, Mr. Lucy, where before I could not. You were present at Heslopp's murder trial."
"Indeed, sir. I wished to see justice prevail."
"And if you wished it swift and sure, sir, then you were aptly served."
Mrs. Peele addressed her husband, her voice rising in its disbelief. "You are familiar with this case, Mr. Peele?"
Sensing the weight of eyes upon her, Celeste opened hers directly into Mr. Peele's inspecting ones. When he turned away and spoke again her relief was immense but not evident.
"Yes, I'm familiar with this case."
Mr. Peele removed his glasses. "It was a most curious affair," he muttered, although more to himself than those awaiting his discourse.
"How so, curious?" Mr. Lucy put in. "The girl was found guilty, wasn't she? Her own words condemned her, Mr. Peele."
Mrs. Peele shifted against Celeste, her gown flouncing with the force of her movement in the confined space. She faced her husband squarely. "I didn't know you were involved with the case, Mr. Peele."
"Not I, Mrs. Peele. Mr. Bannerman. He was assigned to the girl. A good friend and colleague, although, he confided a great deal more on his death bed than at the trial."
Celeste released a soft breath. Laurence Bannerman had been persuaded into Maggie's web of lies. Mr. Lucy's voiced interest cut through her thoughts.
"Are you implying Mr. Bannerman had lied?"
"Shall we say Mr. Bannerman hadn't presented the complete truth."
"I don't understand," Mrs. Peele interjected. She pursed her lips and drew her brow heavily together. "Was the girl guilty or wasn't she? Had I known Laurence Bannerman would impart such a burden on your shoulders I would've forbidden you to go to him."
"Mr. Bannerman was dying. I couldn't very well stay away. Besides, his remorse was great and he needed someone to help alleviate it."
"Then, you must forget it. Whatever Laurence Bannerman imparted must be forgot. The girl has been hung and Laurence Bannerman is dead. There'll be none served by your interference."
"Interference, my dear?" Mr. Peele admonished with a gentle laugh. "There has been a grave miscarriage of justice. One, that even in our hellish times, must be righted."
"And what is this miscarriage of which you speak, Mr. Peele?" Mr. Lucy scoffed. He leant forward, and waited.
Mr. Peele replaced his glasses before his eyes. "An young girl went to her death for a crime she didn't commit, Mr. Lucy."
"And can you be quite certain of this?"
"Mr. Bannerman, although gravely ill was at times quite lucid. I was unable to connect all that he'd imparted but I'd heard enough to be certain of this one thing. When the wolves are baying for blood, Mr. Lucy, they do not care whose it is as long as it satisfies their appetite."
"Surely, you cannot believe the words of a man mad with fever as Laurence Bannerman was," Mrs. Peele interjected.
"Had he not been poisoned then I daresay I would've indeed dismissed his ramblings as that of a fevered man, Mrs. Peele."
Mrs. Peele gasped. "Poisoned? This is most strange, Mr. Peele, most strange. Why didn't you tell me of this?"
"As I recall the health of Miss Georgina Paxton occupied most of your time as did the forthcoming wedding between the Reverend Nolan and Miss Fitzpatrick."
Mrs. Peele glowered at her husband. "There's no need for your sarcasm," she snapped.
"If Celeste Darwent were innocent of the crime then who is guilty of Joseph Heslopp's death?"
Mr. Peele directed his attention once more to Mr. Lucy. "I didn't say Celeste Darwent was innocent, Mr. Lucy."
"I believe we all of us heard correctly," Mr. Lucy rejoined. "You did say a young girl went to her death for a crime she didn't commit."
"Then, I assumed you must speak of Celeste Darwent. She was the only one hung for the Heslopp's murder."
Mr. Peele removed his glasses once more. "Celeste Darwent, for as far as I can say, is very much guilty but she didn't hang. Another stood for her crime and died in her place."
"Who was she, this girl?" Mrs. Peele asked, aghast.
"Linette Palmer. A young servant in the employ of Madam Dubois."
Mr. Lucy drew his brow and reclined back into his seat. Mrs. Peel did the same.
Celeste caught Maggie's stony gaze.
The carriage rolled on hastening her to her new life.
She could've saved Linette but she chose to save herself. Lord Rutherford wanted her and she'd chosen life for her child.
"It would not do for the wife of the Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Ireland to be charged with murder," Maggie had said.
Maggie had found a scapegoat. It was Linette who'd been sent to the Tower and who'd answered to the name Celeste Darwent. Linette never understood what was to become of her even as she stood on the steps to the gallows. Linette, whose innocent brown eyes still haunted her waking moments and accused in her sleep. Celeste turned her gaze back to the window. Hers was wrong she could never make right. Would the rain ever stop?
A thoughtful quiet had resumed once more in the coach so the unauthorized stop at the inn at Horsham proved a welcome diversion for one and all. One of the wheels had shaken loose and required immediate adjustment if all were to reach their destination in safety.
"Owed to the extra weight it need carry," the coachman had remarked pointedly as Mr. Lucy alighted.
Celeste allowed Mr. Lucy to assist her from the coach, although she quickly sought to put some distance between them. She hurried to where Maggie stood scowling at her. The innkeeper had appeared in the doorway holding his lantern high and bid them hurry and enter from the cold. He led the traveling companions through the still darkened hallways and up small, winding stairs to his best, private room.
Mr. Lucy loudly declined Mr. Peele's invitation to share a table with Mrs. Peele and him. He strode across the room to where Celeste sat alone at a table by the window. Without awaiting her permission or seeking it, he promptly pulled out a chair and sat opposite her. Celeste pulled back startled by Mr. Lucy's presumption and unwanted company.
"At last we are free to speak in equal abandon, are we not?" Mr. Lucy suggested.
Celeste kept her eyes averted. She hoped Mr. Lucy would recognize her need for solitude and leave.
"I notice you keep very well to yourself and I've done my utmost these long hours not to disturb your apparent need for privacy but I believe you've been alone long enough and our journey would continue with greater speed if we were to become acquainted."
Celeste raised wary eyes more than conscious of Mr. Lucy's blatant interest. It was the first time she'd allowed herself to direct her eyes onto him. She flicked her gaze across his long, thin face. He was neither truly handsome nor unappealing. His small mouth nestled beneath a patrician nose and his brown hair, although styled in the latest fashion didn't do him justice. There didn't seem to be enough of it to comply with such demands. A wig would have been most preferable. Under different circumstances she would've probably allowed herself the luxury of a smile, although maybe the covetous expression in Mr. Lucy's marble blue eyes would've held it in check.
Celeste shuddered inwardly at the thoughts she read in their depths. Such looks were bestowed upon her at the stew. Such was the look in Joseph Heslopp's eyes and in Scully's. She released a tight breath. She longed to forget the night in Scully's arms.
She watched Mr. Lucy's gaze slowly roam her face and travel down her breasts and over her hair, wisps of which had unraveled from beneath her coif down to her waist. Instinct warned her Mr. Lucy was a man quite like Scully and not to be trusted.
"I would thank you not to stare at me, sir," she reproached.
"If I cause you embarrassment, then I do apologize," Mr. Lucy returned. " But I don't think I've ever in my life met anyone as beautiful as you are."
Celeste shifted in her seat. She lifted her eyes and caught Maggie observing them from across the room.
"You need not ridicule me, sir," she stated. She was careful to remove all trace of emotion from her voice. "I'm not so weak-minded to think you sincere in your affections."
Mr. Lucy's loud burst of laughter drew the attention she'd sought to avoid and sent her blood rushing to her cheeks.
"I see you're not afraid to speak your mind. You are a puzzle to me," he said. His tone was once again serious. "There's an air about you that scarce suggests a mere servant. I mean," he added with slow deliberation, "a courteous and respectful servant would know her place well enough to curtsey to her betters and—"
He paused pointedly holding her gaze. "Remove such indignation from her eyes."
She lowered her gaze until she felt the long dark hairs of her lashes brush her skin glad the innkeeper had chosen that moment to attend their table. Fresh bread, choice meats, cheese and fruit had been placed on the table, along with a jug of ale.
"Forgive me, sir," Celeste said after the innkeeper had withdrawn. "It wasn't my intention to be discourteous or disrespectful."
"What's your name?"
"Your name," Mr. Lucy repeated. "What is it? I'm neither acquainted with yours nor that of your mistress who watches you like a mother her child. You're young but old enough
Celeste moistened her lips with the tip of her tongue. "Tomorrow we won't see each other again. Therefore my name can be of no memorable consequence."
"Perhaps I may be permitted to call upon you at your mistress' address."
Mr. Lucy smiled broadly, and although she didn't extend it, he reached to clasp Celeste's hand between his long, smooth fingers. He raised her fingers to his lips, and planted a kiss upon them. With a startled gasp she withdrew her hand from his and rose swiftly from the table.
"Is there a problem here?"
Maggie had approached their table.
"I'm merely in need of some fresh air, my...lady," Celeste replied.
Mr. Lucy rose to his feet. "But your supper? Surely you will take supper with me?"
"No, sir," Celeste rebuffed.
"Yes, she will."
Both Mr. Lucy and Celeste swung their gazes to Maggie's impassive countenance.
"She is a servant, sir, and in that respect obliged to do as she is ordered or suffer the consequence but I will first speak with her."
Maggie glanced at Celeste. "Walk with me," she demanded.
They'd taken one full turn about the room before Maggie spoke again in a low voice. "You would do well to better conceal your antipathy toward Mr. Lucy, lest Mrs. Peele shows you more attention than is desirable for either of us. To the experienced eye your condition is soon obvious and how are you to explain it without mentioning Joseph Heslopp? Mr. Peele would have you arrested and hung before the night was out. And what then of the child you seek to protect?"
"His death was an accident," Celeste whispered, fearfully.
"That would not save you from the hangman's noose. You forget Linette."
Celeste shook her head, "No. I haven't forgotten, I never will but I feel Mr. Peele would understand once the circumstances surrounding Joseph Heslopp's death were made known."
"Would you truly take that risk? No one can help you now, except me. Remember that," Maggie snapped in hushed tone.
"I don't understand why you would help me."
"Haven't you figured that out yet? I'm not helping you. I'm helping me. You're indebted to me and I aim to collect what I'm owed."
"What can I give you? I have nothing."
"Oh come now, Celeste. You're the mistress of Claerdal Manor. You can give me everything I want."
Celeste opened her eyes and blinked back the surprise of having fallen asleep where she sat in the old chair before the open hearth. The fire had long died to glowing embers and she shuddered feeling the stinging cold of winter invade the thin fabric of the shirt she wore. Her dark brown travel gown and cloak lay across another chair by the open hearth. She reached for the blanket fallen from her shoulders to the floor and, wrapping it again about her, looked toward the bed.
They'd been required to spend this night at the inn. The carriage wheel, the coach driver had informed them much later, had suffered a great deal of damage and the blacksmith needed until the morning to make ready a new one. Mr. Peele had lost no time in instructing the innkeeper's wife to make ready their accommodation. An hour later all had retired to their beds. She and Maggie were required to share a room, yet the bed was empty and the sheets still smooth and undisturbed. She rose to her feet and went to gaze out the small window onto the big, round moon in the star-filled sky.
The pungent odor of stale wine suddenly suffused her senses but before she could turn around a rough hand grabbed her by the throat preventing her scream. Her heart collided against her ribs in a path of hot fear. Her breath rose in a painful surge, yet she could make no sound. Caught against her assailant's sturdy frame her arms flew out to the side to aid her balance. With widened eyes, her senses scrambled to unravel the overwhelming onslaught that clouded her mind and sealed her thought. The hem of her chemise sailed high above her waist and a knee forced her thighs apart, baring her naked skin to the bite of the frosty air. Fingers fumbled against the dry lips of her intimate flesh pulling her open. The breath against her hair quickened, growing louder with each firm stroke of his hand against her sensitive entrance. A finger penetrated the tight sheath of her shaking body. She jerked backward in vain attempt to free herself from his violent possession. The hand about her throat tightened. His soft chuckle suffused her brain.
"That's right. Pleasure yourself, my sweet. Move for me."
She recognized Mr. Lucy's voice, felt the slow rhythm of his fingers. Each firm thrust driving deeper within the tender folds of her softness and destroying the last vestige of her innocence. She choked on her tears. His hand moved from her throat to cup her breast and she could finally draw breath. She panted grateful for the reviving air filling her lungs.
His hand slipped under her chemise, the calloused palm scraping her skin, his fingers catching her turgid nipple in a painful grip. The tender bud between her thighs flared in a paroxysm of such intense heat that her knees buckled. Mr. Lucy squeezed her nipple once more and again she pulsed, raw and intense.
"That's it," Mr. Lucy urged.
Excitement raged in his voice. He withdrew his fingers from her trembling body brushing her wetness along the inner skin of her upper thighs and between her buttocks.
"My taste, by and large, extends to whores and young servant girls of neither class nor wit. You, my dear, are neither, yet you arouse my lust to the greatest degree," he rasped. "I like your spirit."
His hand caressed the bare skin of her back, her hips and the side of her breast.
"Defiant and proud like many of my slaves. A few strokes of the whip are usually enough to break their spirit. And this should break yours."
His fingers fumbled with ties on his breeches. His other hand grabbed her shoulder and his strength pushed her forward bending her at the waist and exposing her shamefully before his eyes. His fingers splayed her where he would possess her and his breath warmed her neck as he clumsily sought to take her.
Celeste summoned all her strength. She used the wall in front of her to level her body and shoved her hips backward in one swift movement. She pushed again kicking her foot hard against his knee. It was enough to make him loosen his hold. Another violent push freed her from his grasp and she darted across the room toward the fireplace.
Mr. Lucy stormed behind her. "I paid your mistress handsomely for the pleasure of bedding you tonight," he snarled. "Come back here. I will have my money's worth!"
Her hand reached for the poker resting in the embers. Celeste swung about and brought the tip of the hot staff against his neck. Mr. Lucy yelled in his pain and surprise. She quickly raised the poker again intent on smiting it but Mr. Lucy scurried beyond her reach.
He rushed out the room one hand clasping his neck and the other struggling to keep his breeches from falling about his ankles. Celeste ran to the door and leaned heavily against it. Her shaking fingers blindly sought the key in the lock. It turned and her relief escaped on a loud sob. She sank to the ground and pressed her hand against her mouth, stifling her cries.
She'd thankfully fallen asleep on the hard, cold ground but the bright light of morning brought back the harsh memory of what had occurred in the night. She sat upright and leaned back against the door. She felt sick. She wasn't prepared to face Mr. Lucy again or the consequences her action would bring. A servant didn't raise a hand to her master—no matter the circumstance—without expecting some kind of retribution.
Perhaps Mr. Lucy had already sent for the magistrate. She couldn't petition Mr. Peel for help without betraying herself. She pushed herself slowly to her feet, her uncertainty weighing heavily on her heart. Her legs trembled so much they could barely carry her to the wash table.
She scrubbed herself clean of Mr. Lucy's touch and got dressed. She made her way with hesitant steps to the top of the wooden stairs. She could scarce breathe. Her heart thudded in her chest and her hands trembled. There was no going back now. She descended the wooden stairs and contemplated the very distinct possibility of spending this winter, and many others, behind the thick stonewalls of Newgate prison. How many times could she count on Lord Rutherford to perjure himself on her behalf? She faltered at the bottom of the stairs and frowned in the stillness.
She glanced about her and strained her ears. Was everyone still in their beds? And Maggie? Where was Maggie? Celeste hurried through the narrow passageway leading to the back of the inn and climbed the set of stairs to the private room. She took a deep breath and entered.
The innkeeper's wife busied herself with tidying the plates, cups and leftovers from the previous night. On a far table a bottle of wine lay on its side. The contents had spilled onto the floor and collected in a pool of red.
"I don't understand," Celeste gasped. She turned her gaze onto innkeeper's wife. "Do they all still lie in their beds?"
"No. They're gone. The coachman brought word late last night of an early departure."
"And I was not notified?"
"Your mistress thought it best you make your own way lest the coach suffered again under the extra weight."
The innkeeper's wife moved toward Celeste. "If I'm going to make use of you, girl, you're going to have to rise much earlier than this."
Celeste drew her brows together and gazed at the woman. "I don't understand," she repeated.
The woman snorted with laughter. "I don't believe you do but that's none of my business. Your mistress has left you behind. Do you have fare for the next coach?"
Celeste shook her head.
"I thought as much."
The innkeeper's wife angled her head. "I'm a fair woman. I'll offer you a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. If you've a mind to, you can stay here and earn your fare and your keep. Well? I've not got all day, lass. Will you work for me?"
Celeste nodded. What else could she do? Where else could she go? The woman's face softened through the haze of her tears and Celeste could scarce believe the vision appearing before her eyes.
"You must be strong, Elina," the old gypsy whispered. "Sat sri akaal."
No! Come back. Don't go.
Another voice pulled her from her illusion. "Well, don't just stand there gawking, lass. I'll need water from the well and the beds must be cleaned and freshened before the next coach arrives later today. The sheep need tending and the geese must be driven to Horsham to be sold."
Celeste squared her shoulders and bit back her tears. She would survive this too. She set about clearing the plates.
Feb 10, 2018 in romance