Authors: Nicole Margot Spencer
Nicole Margot Spencer
New York Bloomington
Copyright © 2010 by Nicole Margot Spencer
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Certain characters in this work are historical figures, and certain events portrayed did take place. However, this is a work of fiction. All of the other characters, names, and events as well as all places, incidents, organizations, and dialogue in this novel are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
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ISBN: 978-1-4502-4410-7 (sc)
ISBN; 978-1-4502-4412-1 (ebook)
ISBN: 978-1-4502-4411-4 (dj)
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iUniverse rev. date: 7/28/2010
For my sweet Cathie
Civil war raged in England in 1644, the country consumed by Parliamentary and Royalist clashes. In his sweep through Lancashire in May of that year, Prince Rupert of the Rhine lifted a long-standing Parliamentary siege against a fortified house which had been ably defended by a woman.
No one slept this cold, spring morning. Like mist, expectancy hung in the air.
Beyond the gate towers the last siege cannon was hauled off the field. The distant, high-pitched squeal of those massive wheels grated on my nerves. Since that cursed gun had stopped booming, silence had settled uneasily over Tor House. Even the rain had stopped.
Not trusting Colonel Rigby, who had been at our gates for three bitter months, I stood on the roof of the watch-tower, that tall, square jewel in the house’s crown, to witness the departure of the besieging Roundheads for myself. The event was a blessing, still I trembled in the wake of this change. But then, I had never been one to deal well with the new or the unknown.
I left my shelter under the roof stair’s arched entry, my skirts whispering around me, until I came to an available crenellation in the battlement. The outer walls were limned gray by the light of early dawn. Below me, the mansion sprawled within its inner walls. Touches of light from countless windows on the ivy hung walls and around the many towers reflected blearily onto the rain-soaked ground.
Uncertain whether or not I yet dared go down to the great hall, I rubbed my shaking hands in nervous anticipation. It was almost time and so much was at stake. At eighteen, I was the heiress of Tor House, yet I was no more than a convenient pawn, my precious home stolen from me by the very relatives who should defend my rights.
Urgent boot steps pounded up the stone stairs behind me and out onto the roof. I turned and looked up into a dynamic masculine face I had never seen before, a face that carried a distinctly irritated expression. Our eyes connected, and something startling moved between us. I stared at the stranger, open-mouthed. At sight of his long, red hair, I stepped back.
The stranger’s eyes widened. In the gray light of dawn, he looked me up and down. His full-lipped mouth parted slightly, as though he, too, were mortally astounded. Quite tall and square-jawed, he wore a quality buff coat under his breast plate and bandolier. Thigh-high, heavy leather boots, holstered pistols, and the bridle gauntlet on his left hand and forearm marked him as a cavalry man just out of the saddle.
I nodded hesitantly, uncertain of this apparition’s intentions. He bowed, big, plumed hat held across his midriff in salute. When he regained his full height, he extended a gloved hand.
“Come with me.”
I moved beyond his reach. Frantic thoughts ran through my mind. With his heathen hair and burring accent, he could be a rogue Scot. Was he masquerading as a Royalist? In collusion with the enemy? I stepped back to the parapet wall and clenched my shaky hands together. Kidnapping? An attempt to broach Tor House by ransom?
A dread thought occurred to me. My lower lip began to quiver, and I pressed my lips together to stop it. Kidnapping and murder would, in fact, be a quick way to eliminate my claim to Tor House. But this man, Scot or no, whose face softened at my terror, did not seem of that ilk.
I stood poker-straight, attempted a severe look, and studied him. A sudden wild urge to turn and run fluttered over me, but I forced myself to remain. The man was powerfully built, with exceptionally broad shoulders. My gaze returned to my useless hands. I pulled my thoughts together and poured my frustration into my words.
“Why would I go anywhere with you? You, with your highlander’s brogue. I will not leave my home.”
I glanced around and behind him, but no one was on the roof, where earlier it had swarmed with house soldiers and cannon crews. Cannon shot remained stacked along the parapet. The smell of hot metal from the shot brazier still wafted about. I searched the area frantically and finally recognized an old gunpowder ladle, its wooden shaft broken, lying half hidden in the shadow at the base of the parapet.
With a swift, side-ways lunge, I grabbed the broken shaft and turned back.
“Get away from me,” I yelled, then slashed my weapon at the strange cavalier.
His deft steps easily avoided my assault. He took a rapid stride forward and seized my wrist, twisting the shaft brutally out of my grasp. Shaking his head in amazement, he released me.
Only then, in the rising light, did I notice the red satin sash tied across my apparition’s chest and over his shoulder, that universal token of a King’s man. I lowered my eyes and watched him through my eyelashes. His rapier at his side, his fine clothes, and his bearing, despite his current smug expression, indicated he was indeed a Royalist cavalry officer. Besides, he had a cavalier’s arrogance and a natural air of command.
In flushed embarrassment, I closed my mouth.
“I do not ask you to leave your home, lady,” came the quiet, sincere voice. He threw away the broken staff with a clatter. “There is no time for this. Much remains to be done.”
“What do you want with me?” I asked, rubbing my sore wrist.
“I am here to assist Countess Marie Louise.”
His reference to the countess brought me up short. I smiled, or at least attempted to. “To assist the countess? Not Tor House?”
“They are the same.”
A laugh bubbled out of me. “Certainly the countess thinks so.”
The rising sun lanced wide, horizontal beams across the roof, illuminating his clean-shaven face. My smile faded, for I momentarily fell under the spell of his dark, gold-flecked eyes. I drew a slow, awed breath. Even his eyelashes, like his hair, were multiple shades of red, long and thick. A closer look revealed sprigs of the same curly locks that peeked over his breast plate where his collar lay open at his throat. Fascinated, I leaned toward him. His hand came up to support me. At the last possible moment, I caught myself. I gaped up at him, mortified, only to recognize in him the same shock that I struggled to contain.
I wanted to berate him, send him from my sight, but stood there like a fool without a word, breast heaving.
Despite his professed lack of time, he remained in relaxed attentiveness, watching me, the dimple in his chin deepening. With everything I loved about to be thrown to the wind, my sudden attraction to this man was the absolute last thing I needed.
Cannon fire sounded in the distance, and he pointed out over the tall battlements at the land below, at that gray oblivion where the sun had not yet reached. “Finally, they flee,” he said.
I grasped at the stone’s edge to steady myself and studied the distant writhing torchlight interspersed by shadows of wagons, oxen, horses, and running men. A thunderous sound arose in the east. Beyond the walls, the sun rose, not on the dull round helmets of the parliamentary troops that had so long occupied these approaches, but on an undulating cavalier force of thousands that swarmed onto the field north of the gate towers.
“Prince Rupert has arrived?” I asked brightly, hardly able to speak for the apprehension racing through my veins. Though he had saved Tor House, I feared what the prince’s presence would bring into my life. Unknown consequences had always cost me dearly.
He nodded sharply, then studied me with kindness and desire. His smile dropped away. Though his dark eyes still watched me, he reclaimed his determined posture.
“The countess requires your presence. Now, lady.”
“You will force me?” I clutched the parapet’s wet rim. The solid, abrasive feel of the stone comforted me, for it was all I had that remained unchanged. “I have no interest in the countess’ demands. Actually, I would prefer to avoid her.” Tor House, and my place in it, was all I was interested in.
“You must come with me,” he responded, adamant.
“I prefer to stay here,” I insisted to this impressive man who so easily crushed my defenses. “You’re a cavalier, always moving. Don’t you find it difficult never knowing where you’ll be next day?”
“No.” He smiled, despite his clear resolve not to, showing good white teeth, a rarity.
“You actually enjoy it, don’t you?”
He did not reply or I did not hear his answer, for a distant hum, rattle, and clank came to my ears. I took a hard swallow. It was, yet again, the sound of thousands of armed men at the house walls. This time in the name of King Charles and his divine right to rule. King Charles was my father’s sovereign, my uncle’s sovereign, my sovereign. A chill crept up my back, for sovereign or no, control was the issue. Just as this Royalist force had fought its way into Lancashire to preserve Tor House from the Parliamentarians, I also would have to fight to keep my home. A different kind of fight, but a fight nonetheless.
As though in answer to my militant thoughts, my cavalier apparition shoved his hat onto his head, grabbed my arm, pulled me across the rooftop, and into the stairwell.
“Your father is with the prince,” he offered as we jolted downward, feeling sorry for his violence, I suppose, and attempting to mollify me. “They should arrive shortly.”
“My father?” Shock hit me like an unexpected wall in my path, creating a painful void in my stomach. I gathered my wits and spoke with indifference. “No, I expect it’s my uncle, Lord Devlin, who rides with the prince.”
The cavalier halted on the stair. I grasped his sleeve to keep from toppling forward.
“My father, John Roland, died at Edgehill.” The truth of that statement hit me full force. Truly I was alone.
Though he retained his guarded attitude, his intense expression relaxed. I had to fight the temptation to once again lean toward him.
“My apologies, lady.”
“I accept them, sir. You may call me Elena.”
He dipped his head in mild assent, and red cavalier’s locks fell forward over his impressive shoulders. The turquoise peacock feather in his hat tickled my forehead in the close stairwell.
“Your name,” I demanded, with a backwards jerk. I refused to continue down the stairs until I had an answer. Who was this electrifying man? Where did he come from, and why did he leave me weak in the knees and disabled by a pounding heart?
“Captain Duncan Comrie of Prince Rupert’s Lifeguard of Horse, at your service.”
“Ah! Besides the brogue, now you hand me a Scottish name.”
Bemusement at some inner thought lifted the edges of his mouth. “It could be far worse, lady.” He seemed to adjust his thoughts, then nodded, and pulled me down a step. “I am a Scot by birth, but a loyal King’s man nonetheless.”
“A loyal King’s man and a Scot,” I said, with a huff of disbelief. “I’ve never heard of such a thing. Duncan, is it?”
Deep within, I wondered what it would be like to stand in the shelter of this man’s arms.
A step down and his former irritation darkened his face. “You distract me with this drivel.”
“No. My uncle comes. I have reason to fear.”
Under his pressed guidance, we rushed down a dozen or more steps. His well-shaped mouth pressed together again and again as we descended. He questioned me with a quick, covert glance.
“I doubt that,” he finally said. “I expect you get whatever you want with those great sapphire eyes of yours.”
“No, I do not,” I insisted. With a restraining tug at his arm, I stopped on the stair in consternation. I stared at his bulk in the half-dark, offended that he would consider me a spoiled child. “At least not anymore.”
Slowly, my composure returned, and we continued our downward journey. His assumption was not an unusual one in my life. I had never fit into social ideas of what I should be or what I should do. But certainly my father had done his best to indulge me. Not so my uncle.
We came to the mansion’s upper-level south passage. He guided me to the left, toward the gallery, where the passage ended.
“The prince’s arrival is imminent. The countess wishes to speak with you before he arrives. We must hurry.”
My uncle’s return would bring my situation to a head. After all, I was the legitimate heir, and I was in the way. But what could the countess possibly want at such a time?
I had been the lady of Tor House until a chilly, sunless day two years ago. On that ominous day, my father’s younger brother had arrived at Tor House with his entire household. With curt impatience, he had advised me that my father was dead, and that he, good Uncle Charles, would care for me.
He had demanded my dowry gold and the silver plate, installed his countess as the new lady of the house, and forced me into the shadows in my own home. I was a woman, a mere sixteen years of age, and could not own property. It was the King’s law and for my own good, he had insisted, which only humiliated me and made me angry, King’s law or no. Shortly thereafter, my grandfather died, and my uncle ascended to the Devlin earldom, sealing my immediate fate.
Now, my uncle rode with the relieving Royalist forces. Clearly Marie Louise, who, in her usual off-handed manner, simply expected relief, was taking matters into her own hands. What could have forced her to act so precipitously? And why would she send the prince’s representative, of all people, to detain me?
Feeling as though I inhabited one of my own merciless dreams, I pushed these concerns out of my mind and, while I could, enjoyed the sleek, powerful movement of Duncan’s armored body as he strode beside me. He must have felt my anxiety, for his gauntlet hand released my arm, and he shepherded me onward, a comforting, protective arm around my shoulders.
It was the kindest thing done for me since the death of my father. I looked up at him with wide-eyed appreciation, wondering if I could ever love a Scotsman. A little smile from him, and we continued east along the south corridor. Just off the landing of the great stair, his protective arm fell away, and I walked through the open doors of the gallery, feeling unreasonably bereft.