Authors: Nicole Margot Spencer
I went back to my rooms and chafed at my unhealed cuticles. My hope of a life with Duncan at Tor House was severely curtailed, if not doomed. Change, that life force I so dreaded, had begun to shift toward a precipitous transformation. Though lack of a priest would indeed complicate matters, at least for a time.
Later in the morning, neither Duncan nor Peg had returned, so I made my solitary way to breakfast in the gallery. Unlike great hall banquets, gallery meals were small presentations of a variety of foods arranged on the sideboard, or buffet, and sometimes on the table itself for the sustenance of guests and family members who wished to partake at mealtimes. It would be like my intractable cousin to reappear at such a place and time, as though nothing in the world was amiss.
But Peg was not present. Instead Thomas lounged in the large fireplace chair, and Annie kneeled beside it. She looked up at him in awe. She had finally learned the art of understatement in facial makeup, her toned down rouge, eye kohl and lip balm artfully applied, which lent her face a soft beauty that had not been previously apparent.
“You eat only at table, Miss McGuire,” I intoned as I slipped past them, my skirts rustling over the carpet to the sideboard.
The sliced beef smelled slightly rancid, though I had never known Mrs. Deane to present such at any table. The heat, I presumed. I took a plate and a spoon and helped myself to some cubed apples and walnuts soaked in a honey sauce. I followed up my words with a withering look at Annie, which had the intended effect of eventually bringing her to join me at my breakfast, though with a decided sway to her hips.
But before she left him, Thomas stood, lifted his arms and rolled his shoulders as though to better fit into his fashionable doublet, which was adorned with seed pearls. They turned away in unison, heads together. Their conspiratorial exclusion left me with an acute sense of being outside the run of events and looking helplessly in, similar to my earlier distress at Marie Louise’s sudden departure.
Change on the move. Gooseflesh set up all down my arms.
“Thomas and I were just discussing the steward,” Annie said, rebelliously. She took her seat with a distinctive plop, as though anything to do with Steward Gorgon must inevitably impress me and thereby allow her liberties.
“Annie,” I said from across the table. I leaned toward her. “I do not want you around Thomas.”
“I thought he was your friend.” She batted long, blond-tipped lashes at me.
“That is none of your business.”
“Oh, we can talk about your friends, yet mine are circumscribed,” she said with aplomb. Her language and pronunciation had improved dramatically, but
was surely the word of the day, for I was not even certain Peg knew it. I had certainly never heard her use it.
“Did you learn that word from Thomas?”
She blushed heavily but kept her gaze firmly on me. “That one, yes. But Steward Gorgon has taught me quite a few others.”
“Gorgon?” I had turned away in disgust, but looked back at her in disbelief. “You have been spending time with Steward Gorgon?”
“He is a delightful, impressive man.”
“His own description of himself, I assume.”
“Well, yes.” Her face went a furious red, and she ducked her head. “But I know now what the words mean. He truly is—”
“When did you happen upon the steward?” I asked, interrupting her blissful dialogue.
“Yesterday evening and again this morning. He is so considerate. He enjoys teaching me.”
“You will stay away from the steward, as well as Thomas,” I said, aghast at that monster playing with my charge’s developing social instincts. In my distress, I dropped my spoon. It hit the table along the edge of my plate with a clank and a chink. “Do you understand? Or shall I have the captain discuss this with you?”
“No, please do not tell Duncan.” Though her glowing face assumed a faint gray hue, her red mouth puckered into a chin-raising pout. “But, I do not understand why I must not see the steward.”
“Men are untrustworthy around a comely lady like yourself. Peg has talked with you about this. I have heard her.”
A whiff of lavender floated over from Annie, in her low-cut gown now neatly edged with lace around the bodice. Her deep cleavage remained, the lace merely a tantalizing frame. I had told her over and over again not to wear revealing clothes, even if it meant wearing the same dress again and again. And there was only one place Annie would get the smell of lavender about her. She had used the emulsion I had just replenished at considerable toil.
“Yes, but men are so much more entertaining than sitting at a table playing draughts with you or Peg.”
“You must learn to control yourself, Annie.” I followed up that admonition with a hard stare.
“What do you mean?”
swing your hips in this house.”
“Oh. I guess I forgot.”
“Thomas, have you seen Peg?” I asked. He remained slumped in the large chair by the fireplace.
“No,” he said in a snide undertone without looking at me. He studied his fingernails. Finally, he stood, walked over to me and pressed his hot cheek against mine, a clear assertion of his intention not to be ignored. “I must be off. I have an errand to run for my lord,” he announced and promptly departed.
I finished my fruit and scraped up every bubble of sweet liquid on the plate, followed by a glass of warm, fresh milk, Mrs. Deane’s magic chill on the milk swept away by the heat of the already breathless day.
“I have no interest in going to the watch-tower with you. I want to try on the dresses Peg brought me last week,” Annie insisted.
We stood outside the gallery doors.
“Fine, just stay in our quarters,” I instructed her. We parted and I walked quickly down the south corridor to the watch-tower stair and climbed to the roof.
The day was well gone toward noon, and the baked outer air hit me like a hot wall. Intense sunlight radiated up through my feet off the roof, doubling the effect of the already sweltering heat. I would not be able to stay for long. I shaded my eyes with my hand and studied the distance off to the east, the direction I expected Duncan to arrive from. Beyond the army’s vast camp, a plume of dust rose from a galloping horse headed in the opposite direction, toward the west. It was Thomas, easily identified by the extravagant plumed hat and the flashing, silver-edged saddle.
So his errand took him out of Tor House. I could not help but recall Peg’s long-standing accusations, for there was nothing to the west but newly overrun, staunchly Puritan towns and residences. With that thought, I hoped the countess had encountered no problems in her forced flight along that same road to the coast. Though she had not treated me well, I held no animosity toward her, especially as the situation had turned out.
Perspiration ran in a rivulet along my backbone, wetted my underarms, and trickled down my temples. Dust lined my throat and clung to my tongue. The blinding sunlight quickly drained me of my resolve. I turned to go, but looked back one last time.
Out to the east another large dust plume roiled into the sky—riders coming in fast. Moments later, a black warhorse raced out of the woods well ahead of the remaining riders, carrying a distinctive, bright-haired man with a turquoise feather in his hat, who threw up his hand in greeting to the massive camp before him.
On my way down the tower stairs, I found Paul Simpson hiding from his duties and sent him to request a stable boy for the front courtyard. Excitement and unease warred within me as I lingered within the shade behind the big doors at the entrance. After all, with the prince back, Duncan would be leaving soon, a thought whose implications left me wringing my hands. I identified with Marie Louise’s uncomfortable presence within these same shadows and understood how helpless she must have felt when her own lord appeared after the Battle of Bolton to find Gorgon at his door.
Thudding horse hooves trod the roadway between the inner gates. The majority cantered back toward the stable, noses lifted to the smell of hay and grain. The lead black charged around the formal circle before the house toward me. I rushed down the steps, no one else in attendance. In a swirl of dry dust, the horse stopped before me, and Duncan swung down off his broad back. I stepped toward him, but he brushed past me. He held up his hand to keep me at a distance.
“I must see the prince. Wait for me on the second level.” He strode away and into the house.
A stable boy pelted around the corner of the house and caught Ajax’s trailing reins. In confusion at Duncan’s rebuff, I patted the black’s sleek, muscular shoulder and turned away, for I did not want the boy to witness my chagrin.
Anger flared within me, quickened my breath, and heated my face. I forced myself into a measured pace back up the steps and into the house, my attention directed downward toward my white-knuckled, clenched hands.
Duncan had warned me more than once, and I had accepted it. But the attitude that had extended that warding palm against me was now a bitter truth to contemplate.
My duty is to my prince, whom I honor above all things
I awaited him in the dark walled-off hallway that had once led to Amilie’s tower. We had met there often, and now, as always, time seemed to creep along. Minutes ran into an hour and more, for the wide shaft of sunlight on the south corridor had moved from the east to the center of the hallway. My feet and knees hurt, but I dared not leave. There were too few chances for us to meet alone. Finally, his clipped boot steps echoed down the east hallway. He must have come up the private tower stair from the library, or perhaps they had met in the prince’s rooms.
We came together in a heated rush of built-up desire that brought our mouths violently together. His arms wound tightly around me. The crush took my breath away. His arms loosened and his head dropped to my shoulder where his lips sucked at the soft skin where my neck joined my shoulder. We shuddered in unison.
“Oh, God, Elena. I need you so.”
He kissed my clothed stomach, and I ran my hands through his fabulous, weathered-red hair, the blue-beribboned love-lock hanging loose. We kissed again, a gentle, quiet searching. I tore his shirt open and rubbed a cheek over the warm copper nest that I so often longed for. He groaned and leaned to kiss each breast, my nipples erect under my dress, awaiting the warmth of his mouth. Frantic grasping and uncontrollable kisses followed. We had never allowed our desire to drive us this close to union. With a sudden jerk, he dropped my rucked up skirts and pushed me away, his breath coming in gasps. I leaned toward him, wanting more.