Authors: Nicole Margot Spencer
Mrs. Lowry, promising mattresses later in the day, had come and gone again by the time I trod the stair that curved down along the tower wall to the hallway level. Duncan stood in the open doorway. He removed his hat and bowed, an intense twinkle in his eyes.
With a sudden hot blush, I moved closer to him, afraid to get too close. I recalled how useless my resolve had been around him earlier in the morning.
“Duncan,” I said, my tongue running easily over his name. I ignored my rising inner affliction and raised my chin. “I must go to my uncle once he retires to his library. That is his habit upon his return from a long campaign.”
“I cannot allow that,” he said abruptly, watching my every move. “Though I personally do not approve of Countess Marie Louise’s treatment of you, it is my duty to keep you here.”
His longing stare left me shaky and unsure of myself.
“Only my uncle can undo this betrayal,” I blurted out, determined to maintain my good sense around this man.
He blinked, opened and then shut his expressive mouth.
My gaze, at odds with my words, soaked up this intimidating new force in my life. I studied his fascinating hair, how it curled at the ends, just below his shoulders. It was the color of weathered brick, made up of many shades of red, light copper to dark bronze.
“You heard the countess,” I insisted, my eyes locked on his face. “She means to take me away, willing or no.”
“Yes. She is a callous woman.”
“My life will be lost to me. This is my home, the only home I have ever known. I will be alone and helpless,” I said, the words difficult to form in my tightening throat. I thought of Edward Gorgon and wished I could describe the terror the man created in me. “You cannot possibly understand.”
His thick red eyebrows pushed together in concentration for a fleeting moment, then his face cleared.
“But, Elena, life is no more than a succession of moves from place to place. If not physically, then certainly in our minds.”
I stepped back in bitter disgust. “You, who follow your prince from here to hell and back, can say that very easily, can’t you?”
His stance tightened with insult, then loosened, his facial expression settling into amusement. He searched my face.
“You are safe here. For now, it is the best I can do for you and your friend. No one will harm you while I am here. I will post guards at the lower tower door and at this entry. I am sworn to obey the countess’ orders.” He placed a warm palm atop my clutched hands and added in a soft voice, “I’m sorry, ‘tis my duty.”
He seemed sincere enough. Mixed up in that sincerity, I sensed his mounting desire which, to my distress, made my own soar. I wanted nothing more than to curl up in the safety of his embrace.
A group of approaching lifeguard cavaliers burst through the doorway and ended the moment. It was just as well, for I was probably about to embarrass myself. Duncan greeted them and snapped out clipped orders to the solidly built, black-haired man suddenly before us.
“Sergeant Burke, send two men down to the lower entrance and a man to the roof. You and Smith remain at this hallway entry. The two young ladies here may not leave this tower. Nor are they to be disturbed.”
“Sir,” Sergeant Burke responded sharply, though his salute was unhurried.
Duncan strode through the door and out of sight. His men dispersed around me, and Sergeant Burke, with his shocking blue eyes and a nasty-looking firelock, one of the new flintlock muskets, pushed me gently back into the room. I looked around, distraught at the thought of being left with soldiers I did not know. All I could hear of Duncan was the clank of his sword and the crash of his boots as he descended the stair in the distance. Fleeing as soon as he got the chance.
Sergeant Burke rested his firelock on its armored butt and pulled the door closed in my face.
When I returned to the upper room, Peg confronted me.
“I was on the stair, and I noticed that special something between thee and the good captain. Very attractive he is, with all that heathen hair.”
I ignored her, for she accused me of what I had tried desperately to avoid all morning. Sensing my withdrawal, she turned back to her fire. I returned to my perch atop my father’s hangings, where I ran my fingers through hair that hung to my waist, angrily jerking out the tangles.
I knew Duncan was as attracted to me as I was to him. Though he would not disobey orders for me, I could not fault that in him. In fact, I admired his loyalty. No, the ominous issue that disrupted my thoughts was my escalating feelings for him. They would surely engulf me if I gave in to them. So I spent some time trying to figure out how I might evade the one person whose services I needed, only to come to the conclusion that, short of a drop off the tower roof, there was simply no way out without his help.
Some time later, the sudden scrape of the heavy door sounded below, boots came through the open doorway, and the burr of his voice told me he had returned. I went immediately down to him, driven by unmitigated desire.
He stood in the cramped circular room over by the deep-set window and peered out as though he might find something useful in the rain in the postern courtyard. I moved toward him along the disordered path to the window. The sight of his powerful body sent a flutter through my stomach. His scent of precious horse leather and fresh air washed over me. His thick, leather buff coat and his breast plate were spotted with rain. He had been in the front courtyard then, if not beyond the walls.
At my approach, his hat in hand, he turned to me, tall, square-jawed and impressive. His eyebrows went up, and a smile warmed his face.
“I must see my uncle,” I said, plunging into the simple plea I had memorized. “I cannot defend myself without your help.”
He stiffened, and the smile waned. “At this time, the security of this house is my responsibility. I cannot and will not allow you to just willy-nilly walk away.”
I waved a hand, dismissing his words. His clean-shaven face appealed to me. I longed to run my fingers along its contours. His gaze followed the nervous movements of my hands that accompanied these illicit thoughts.
“I do not understand what you are afraid of. You have no reason to fear me.”
“And I do not appreciate your point of view,” I snapped.
He seemed strangely constrained, as if I had asked him to desert his post.
“I respect your feelings,” he said. His sudden words flowed out as though he had been holding them back. “I can see that you are not being treated well or fairly. And I say this despite my responsibility to Tor House, to my King, and to my prince, whom I honor above all things.” The constraint remained, and now something else, irritation, I think, played across his features. “Nor should I tell you that I think you should be very careful around Lord Devlin.”
“I am well aware,” I said, my natural poise regained. “Regardless, I must see him. Whatever he is, he is my only hope. And you are my only chance to get to him.” I fumbled with my hands, to conceal the cuticles I had ravaged in the past hours. “Can you not simply escort me to Lord Devlin and return me to my prison, should he so command, after I’ve seen him? That is within the range of your duties, is it not?”
His gold-flecked eyes locked with mine in amazement.
“Perhaps,” he said, his face reddening.
He pulled me close, turning us both around as he did so, so that his back was to the door and his guards. His head dipped to my neck, but stopped short.
“I will protect you,” came his passionate voice in my ear. His untainted breath enveloped me.
My aspiration caught in my throat. I stepped resolutely away from him. “You can do that best by doing as I ask,” I insisted, unable to keep the waver out of my voice.
He delayed, studying my face. For some moments, he ran blunt fingers around his hat’s edge, finally settling the plumed hat onto his head. Hand at my back, he ushered me quickly across the littered room, between his guards, and out the doorway.
“Hold your position,” he told his two men.
Relief left me shaky and anxious. I looked down at my clenched hands as Duncan’s sheltering arm wound around my shoulders. We moved quickly down the back hall toward the private tower. He leaned close, his hat and its peacock feather once again in my face.
“You are hardly my only responsibility, Elena,” he said in a delicious, chilling whisper. “You must learn to trust me.”
There were lifeguard cavaliers at the library door, all with firelocks. The door stood ajar, the deep hum of voices beyond. Duncan returned the cavaliers’ salutes. He turned his head, listened intently, then smiled. With a lift to his chin, he boldly opened the door and pulled me in with him.
The library was on the first floor of the private tower, a large, pleasant stronghold untouched by the recent siege. Watery sunlight knifed through the three evenly spaced windows to illuminate the document table on the opposite side of the circular room where sat a cavalier’s tri-bar helmet, probably the earl’s, for he had earlier carried just such a helmet in the great hall. At this time of year, the light left the table well before noon. This I remembered from many days spent in this room with my father. It was still early in the day then, still morning.
The air was chilly though the hearth popped and fizzled to my right, the old fourteenth century battleaxe still mounted in place above the mantel. Not even the warming fire could dispel the stuffy, moldering parchment smell of the room, this sanctum that had been homey, bright, and clean when my father was alive. I had been here often in those days. My mouth dried up in distress at the painful, abandoned memories around me.
To my left behind the chairs, a long book case commanded the attention of an exceptionally tall cavalier wearing a rich red sash over his armor. Soft cavalry riding boots were pulled down around his knees.
A deep layer of velvet dust lay along the tops of the precious books. My dear, learned father would have been appalled. Yet the earl, my uncle Charles, had not allowed staff to enter the library since my father died. In fact, the room had remained locked since he went to war last year. To me, who had frequented this room as a child, what lay before me now seemed morose with its new locks and layers of undisturbed dust.
“Lord Devlin, Lady Elena wishes to speak with you,” Duncan said proudly. With a little bow, he led me forward.
“Are you blind?” Startled by our entry, the earl flexed his hands in fury. “Deaf? Can you not see that I am engaged? Who are you anyway?” he demanded, his long, straight nose held aloft in pretentious dignity. The nose lowered, and he moved toward us.
The severe countenance of the earl shortened my breath. A step back and the blood left my face.
The tall cavalier strode quickly to intervene, his large, faithful dog with him step for step. His long arm flew out and stopped the earl’s forward momentum, pushing him aside.
“Calm down, Devlin. You should remember Captain Comrie.”
Duncan pushed me closer to the two armored men.
“Elena, I would like to present His Royal Highness and Commander-in-Chief of his Majesty’s Armies, Prince Rupert,” Duncan said, his face beaming.
The prince’s youth surprised me. He looked no older than Duncan, who could not be more twenty-one or twenty-two years of age. Knowing the prince’s reputation for fairness, as well as Peg’s fascination with him, I sank into a deep, respectful curtsy.
The earl’s face curled up in disgust.
“Come in.” Prince Rupert extended an open hand toward Duncan and me.
The earl shied away at Boye’s approach. He didn’t like the white dog. It was not wise of my uncle to let that distaste show, for the curly-haired dog, tail like a thick brush at its end, was a proven hunter and veteran of the war. He looked the part at that moment with his heavy neck ruff and an astute wariness of his master’s proximity to the earl. But Boye simply sat down beside the prince and looked up at the earl with a silent show of teeth.
Duncan motioned at my presence. “Your Highness, this is Lady—”
Off to my right, the earl expelled a loud huff and placed himself bodily between the prince and his captain, effectively cutting off Duncan’s words. Too close for the prince’s comfort apparently, for Prince Rupert stepped back in agitation.
“My niece, Lady Elena Roland,” the earl said, introducing me, stark resentment in his manner. “She is confined pending . . .”
I did not hear the earl’s remaining words, for the prince, the wary dog with him, stepped around my insolent uncle and bent pleasantly before me.
“Elena. I remember the name. John Roland was your father?” he asked with appealing dignity.
“Yes,” I said, nodding my head emphatically. “You knew him, your Highness?” The possibility of word of my father from this honorable man enthralled me.
“I knew him well,” he said, a slight German drag on his words. “He spoke of you often. He was a good officer. His death was a sad loss for King Charles. My sympathies, Lady Elena.”
The prince’s eye fell to my dress hem, where my red satin underskirt peeked out from under my black dress. Softness crept into his resolute expression.
“Sparkish style, there,” he murmured to me.
“Thank you, your Highness,” I said.
“Tell me, Devlin,” the prince said, turning to the earl, who had assumed an attitude of bruised dignity. “Who is this Mistress Carey, whom I met when I arrived?”
“She is no one, your Highness,” my uncle said blithely.
The doubting prince gave him a severe look.
“Mistress Carey is a distant cousin adopted by my brother,” the earl finally spit out.
I liked the handsome prince already, though Peg had told me of reports of his terrible temper and his refusal to accept anything less than loyalty, courage and strict military protocol.
“Mistress Carey is part of your household?”
The corners of the earl’s mouth went white, standing out beside his downward curving mustache. I stepped back in distress and grasped Duncan’s arm, for it was a sure sign of my uncle’s impending temper. The earl’s hand shook. Somehow it reminded me of his fury upon his entry into the great hall much earlier in the day. He controlled himself now, wisely, though it was something I had never witnessed before. He sniffed in indignation.
“She is. And she was out of place—”
“I will not,” Rupert interrupted in a deep, chilling voice that carried throughout the room, “have her ostracized on my account. Do you understand, Lord Devlin?”
“As you wish, your Highness.”
The earl moved away. Duncan looked at me uncomfortably. He seemed concerned for me as he had been back in the storage tower, when he tried so carefully to warn me of my uncle’s temper.
“What are you doing escorting young women around?” Prince Rupert asked Duncan, a crease in his brow.
“The countess’ orders, your Highness.” Duncan stepped forward and came to full attention.
That was not quite true, but I could hardly protest.
“Secured, sir. I have men at all the gates and on the gate towers at the main entrance. Captain Wallace of the house guard has been especially helpful.”
I had to smile at his mention of Wallace, whom he had not trusted earlier.
“Very good.” The prince seemed about to say something else, but Boye’s sudden movement caught his attention.
With obvious concern, the earl watched the dog, who growled and lunged in his direction, restrained only by the prince’s sudden hold on his collar. The earl stepped back toward the bookcase, running into one of the chairs there. Once the prince settled his dog and the earl knew it was safe to move about, he approached Duncan, craning up into his face. Duncan, well below the prince’s lofty height, was still considerably taller than the earl.
“Captain Comrie, you have not pleased my countess. I object to your blatant misuse of authority in bringing Lady Elena here.”
Boye now duly chastised and lying at his feet, Prince Rupert looked up, his mouth suddenly tight, eyes alight.
“Captain Comrie has done as I commanded him,” he said sharply. “He is not a lackey for my dear, brave cousin to use at will.” The prince put a hand on my uncle’s shoulder, spun him around and thumped an index finger on the earl’s breast plate hard enough to create a metallic
onk, onk, onk
The earl looked down at the tapping finger and cleared his throat. He stared up at an intent Prince Rupert.
“Are you threatening me . . . uh, your Highness?” he asked in a heavy voice.
“Think twice, Devlin,” Rupert shot back. His hand moved to the hilt of his rapier. “The King needs leaders like you. I should hate to lose you.”
In a duel, he meant. Boye’s deep growl underlined the threat.
“Of course. My apologies, Captain,” the earl said quickly, without turning to Duncan.
Rupert shoved my uncle away and turned his attention to Duncan, who had returned protectively to my side.
“Captain, I want you to leave your men in place here under command of an officer of your choice. You are to join Quartermaster General Gordon in the vanguard and proceed with that force to find suitable housing for our troops in Bolton. I want you to keep the general on course. That is your assignment. We must have quarters for every man by nightfall.”
The serious-minded prince gave his orders, and Duncan’s suddenly animated face left me amazed. I recalled his earlier words regarding the prince,
he whom I honor above all things
“Yes, your Highness.” Duncan saluted his prince, then turned and, with a quick, intimate lift to his eyebrows, smiled wickedly at me. “I will return, Lady Elena.”
His gallantry swelled my breast. I thought I would cry. In this room where I expected disrespect and coercion, his courtliness touched me. With a flourish of his hat, he bowed before me, then pivoted smartly on his heel, and departed.
I stood astounded by his dynamic ability to change direction in mid-stream and remain so happy about it. It was beyond me. Sudden loneliness whittled away at my fortitude, as though I had been deserted.
As the room went gray, misty fog at the windows now, I regained my intent and pushed Duncan, that fatal distraction, out of my mind. I shivered, a sudden chill once more upon the room.
“I will announce our plans at dinner tonight,” Rupert told the earl.
“Certainly, your Highness.” Mouth set in a hard white line, the earl lowered his head in muted bitterness. “We are honored by your presence and most appreciative of the relief of Tor House.”
Prince Rupert strolled past the earl and looked him over critically. “I don’t want to see you without your sash in future, Lord Devlin. If you don’t wear it, you can hardly expect your men to do so.”
The earl nodded in agreement, his face rigid. It was a rule that soldiers wear their sashes at all times so as to be identified in the case of a sudden action, a rule my uncle evidently did not think applied to him.
The prince whipped around, his dark locks flying, and left the room. Boye loped along at his side, and his lifeguards fell in behind him.
The prince, like Duncan, gave me a feeling of rock-solid safety. Its loss left me keenly insecure at that moment, for my uncle closed the door slowly. He turned on me, the veins in his temples huge and throbbing.
“You dare come here.”
“Uncle.” After a shaky breath, I steeled myself. I could not falter, not now. Chin raised, I spoke as matter-of-factly as I could manage, considering my quaking limbs. “I appeal to you for justice.”
“You would have justice?” He leered into my face, so close his straight, fly-away hair brushed my cheeks. His anger dissipated and he hawked a bitter laugh. “You, who conspire against the hand that feeds you? You, who flaunt your indecent nature by riding like a man with the house guards?”
My mouth fell open in surprise. I did not think anyone knew of my presence in the sorties against our besiegers.
“You,” he went on, his voice rising. A sneer lifted one side of his face. “—who instigate that companion of yours to insult the prince and my countess?”
“Peg? I did not.”
“Oh, Marie Louise warned me of your delusions.” He strode to the chair at the document desk, where he sat down and rubbed at a spot on the helmet that remained on the desk. “And now I suppose you want something more than the roof over your head and the support I’ve afforded you.”
Resentment flared within me. I struggled to maintain my calm.
“I want my rights restored to me,” I said flatly.
“What rights?” His thin-lipped pout stretched into a sly smile. “Lies and fabrications cannot change your duty to your family.”
My mouth dropped open. I snapped it shut.
“I refute the betrothal you forced on me last year. I will not marry Edward Gorgon, of all people, and I will not leave the house. Tor House is my home by right.”
He came up off the chair in a heated rush, swung past me and put his fist into the end of the bookcase. It rocked precariously. He turned back to me, like a maddened bull, and shook his fist inches in front of my nose, so close the small black hairs on the backs of his fingers stood out in stark relief.
“You are a willful, selfish child! Do you ever think of anyone but yourself?”
My lips quivered.
“There are other issues involving many people in this,” he screamed. “Do you really believe you are more important than they? What about your duty to your father’s memory? To me, who took you in? Did it never occur to you that I also care deeply for Tor House?”