Authors: Laura Parker
Thoroughly intrigued by this bit of news, Robin could not resist drawing her out. “And what of you? Did you like Colin MacDonald’s kisses?”
Meghan considered this. “Aye, they were lovely. But Revelin’s are nicer.”
“And mine?” he encouraged.
She shrugged, aware that he was teasing her. “I cannot say. You did not do it properly.”
Robin’s whoop of laughter nearly unseated them. “God’s light! You saucy wench! We’ll see about kisses later!”
Revelin was preoccupied and his Latin rusty. He heard clearly only the last sentence of their exchange, but it was enough. He reined in his horse and turned to wait for them.
“She’s a natural flirt!” Robin volunteered cheerfully.
The thought was not a particularly comforting one. Ignoring Robin, Revelin gave Meghan a stern look. “Would you care to ride with me now?”
Meghan did not hesitate. She raised her arms to him and was immediately lifted across his saddle. Revelin turned his mount again, deliberately avoiding Robin.
Meghan encircled Revelin’s neck and forked her fingers through the thick golden hair at the back of his head. “Ye’re better,” she said, reverting to Gaelic. She pressed her cheek contentedly to his. “Ye smell better, ye’re better to gaze upon, and ye kiss better!”
“Better than whom?” Revelin questioned, with an odd catch in his voice.
Meghan placed a feather-light kiss on his chin. “Better than anyone.” After a moment she added, “It’s come to me that I’ll nae wed any man but ye, Revelin Butler.”
So there it was at last, the thing he most dreaded. “Meghan, lass,” he began, praying that the right words would come to his aid. “There’s a mort of difference between what you—what we—may feel and what leads to marriage. A man may meet and like many ladies but he can marry only one.”
Meghan leaned her head back to see his expression. “How does a man know which is the right one?”
“The problem exactly!” he agreed heartily, staring over her head with concentrated effort. “That is where the opinions of others help him. He seeks the advice of his family, sometimes even the queen herself. And, of course, the lady must do the same. There are matters of lands and moneys, family tradition, and alliances to be considered.”
A pucker appeared between Meghan’s winged brows. “’Tis difficult.”
“Aye, ’tis that.” As much as he disliked the idea, he knew he must be honest with her. “That is why we have a custom called—”
“’Tis called bundling,” Meghan finished for him. “If the
woman doesn’t breed within a year, there’s no wedding. But ye’ve nae cause to worry. Sila said there’ll be a babe before Saint Brigid’s Eve.”
Revelin choked. “Church law, of which you are not ignorant, Meghan, does not approve of—er—bundling before the wedding day.”
“Aye. Una said ’tis so. But ye did not wish to wait, Revelin, and I would deny ye nothing.”
She smiled up at him so sweetly that Revelin felt the blood rise into his cheeks. “I led you astray, lass, that I did. You’re not to blame. ’Tis my fault.”
Meghan shrugged, rubbing the fine silk of his hair between her fingers. “I charmed ye. ’Twas Sila put me to it, but I’ll nae say a word against her for it.” She snuggled closer to him. “’Tis a wondrous thing, this honey-making.”
Revelin sighed. “I was telling you about an English custom called an engagement,” he said hoarsely. “When a man is engaged he pledges to be faithful to the woman he loves. But sometimes he forgets when he is far away and the temptation is strong.”
Meghan leaned back again to look at him. The beauty that had drawn him from the first was still there but drained of its animation. He was telling her something that she did not understand, nor did she wish to, for suddenly she knew it would not be to her liking. “I do not like this ’gagement. We will nae have one.”
“You may not have one, Meghan,” he said in his gentlest tone. “’Tis I who am engaged.”
She heard the words, but as she gazed at him she could not believe it. “If—if ye wish it, we’ll have one.”
Revelin closed his eyes briefly. “Listen to me, Meghan. I am engaged to another, a lady who lives in London. We are to be married when I return to England.”
“Then do not go!” Meghan responded, flushing with dislike for the woman she had never met.
“’Tis not so simple as that. I’ve given her my pledge.”
“Ye do not love her,” Meghan maintained stubbornly, but tears had begun to blur her vision. “Ye cannot say ye love her when ’tis me ye chose on Beltane.”
Revelin felt her stiffen at his silence and then her arms fell from his neck. He had hurt her, but there was no other way to do this. “I—I want your promise, lass, that you’ll not run away again. ’Tis no safe place and I do care what happens to you.”
Meghan hunched her shoulders and pulled away until the brisk spring breeze cooled the space between them. “Ye’re nae wed. ’Tis no sin to love someone else.”
“Perhaps that’s so,” he answered slowly. “But I’ve given my word, as I gave your aunt my word that I would look after you. I cannot break my word.”
The logic escaped Meghan. A pain had begun to settle in her chest like a great stone pressing down on her, and tears swam in her eyes. “Ye do not like me anymore. ’Tis because I did nae act the lady for ye.” She raised her eyes to his, a plea in her voice. “But I can act the lady, I will do anything for ye, ye must know that.”
Revelin watched the path of a tear as it ran the high curve of her cheek, crossed the blood-red rose birthmark, and trickled down the slope of her jaw, where he caught it with his fingertip. He had made her cry. That knowledge hurt him more than the broken oath to Alison or the guilt of having taken Meghan’s virtue. She knew so little of joy. Now he had added to her burden of sorrow.
“Hush, lass, no tears,” he crooned as he brushed away a second droplet and slipped a hand behind her head to bring her cheek against his chest. To his surprise she went willingly, sliding her arms about his waist and pressing her cheek over his heart.
“I love ye, Revelin, that I do!” she said in a hushed, halting voice.
“I know, lass, I know.”
There was nothing more he could say. If ordered on pain of his death to tell the truth, he could not say whether the great swelling of emotion that squeezed his chest was love or pity or guilt. And what of Alison? She was as innocent as Meghan.
“God have pity on us all,” he murmured.
Dublin: June 1569
Meghan gazed down from an upper window of an oak-beamed cagework house that had been built within the shadow of Dublin Castle. A faint odor of turpentine rose from the surface of the wooden casement on which she balanced her elbows as she stared out in fascination. When they had arrived at the city gate of the walled town, the dark of night had hidden the sprawling expanse of Dublin. Now, in the daylight, the city lay stretched out before her. It was unlike anyplace she had ever seen. Turlough’s settlement of tents and wickerwork huts had not prepared her for the grandness of an Elizabethan city. Everywhere stood buildings of wood and stone, some of them reaching to the incredible height of three stories and topped by roofs of slate or shingle. The castle itself was a huge stone structure of Norman design. Smaller examples of Norman stonework dotted the countryside they had ridden through, but none of them compared with the curtain-walled fortress that
occupied the opposite side of the street beyond a ditch too broad for an enemy to broach easily.
She leaned out a little farther, eager to see everything at once. The street below teemed with soldiers. The unfamiliar uniforms of red and blue identified them as foreigners in Meghan’s mind. In vain she sought a glimpse of the saffron tunics of the O’Neills. In fact, none of the men below were dressed like the Irish she knew. They wore hose and doublets like Revelin. There was not a man in tunic and trousers among them.
In the distance to the south she saw the spires of a church. Stretching out until she balanced precariously on her hips, she spied the silver-gold flash of a river running beyond the castle walls. Turning her head in the opposite direction, she saw another, wider ribbon of green-brown water flowing past the end of the street. It seemed as if they were surrounded by rivers.
When the door opened behind her, she drew back with a cry of delight. “Ach, Revelin, come and see what—”
Standing in the doorway was a tidily dressed woman of middle years. She wore a white swatch of cloth tied over her long dark gown and a funny-shaped cap upon her head. Except for a pink mouth and wide blue eyes, her broad face was as pale and smooth as cream. She looked vaguely familiar, and then Meghan remembered that she was the one who had guided her upstairs to this room the night before.
The woman’s speech pattern was different from her own, but Meghan knew she understood her. “Where’s Revelin?”
The woman pursed her lips. “I’ll be thanking ye not to refer to the earl of Ormond’s foster son by his first name. ’Tis ‘Sir Revelin’ ye should be calling him. What learning have ye if ye don’t know that?”
Meghan lifted her chin indignantly. “And who are ye?”
“Me name’s Mrs. Cambra, and I’ll have none of yer airs, me wild heathen.” She looked about the room, frowning as
she took in the unused bed, then turned her inquiring gaze on Meghan. She looked the girl up and down and sniffed. “Ye’ve soiled yer gown already. I told them belowstairs ye should have been looked to first thing, but Sir Revelin, being a soft-hearted man and seeing as how ye were sore in need of sleep, had me put ye to bed.”
Meghan looked down at the brown streak marring the sheer white dressing gown she had been given and knew it was stain that had rubbed off the casement. She looked up with the kind of smile that had always worked on Una. “Would ye look at that, and me that proud of me new English clothes. ’Twill wear off by week’s end, never ye fear.”
“I should hope not!” Mrs. Cambra responded. She held out her hand. “Ye’ll give me that while ye wash proper. Then I’m to have a seamstress up here to make a decent showing of ye.”
Meghan took a backward step, clutching the front of her gown. “Where’s me
“Burnt it!” the woman said without a hint of regret.
“Burnt? Me clothes?” Anger shook Meghan as she thought of the bog-cotton gown she had lovingly rolled up and carried with her from Ulster. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever owned. Surely Revelin would not have allowed it to be destroyed. “What of me other gown? If ye’ve burnt it, I’ll—!”
“Ye’ll learn a few new things here, me girl,” Mrs. Cambra said, unperturbed by the girl’s outburst. Imitating the English maids she had occasionally shared quarters with when her masters, the Butlers, had guests, she folded her arms resolutely across her ample bosom. “Ye cannot go about in filthy rags; what a shame that’d bring on Sir Revelin. A sound scrubbing with lye soap should best the fleas and lice, and then we’ll tame that black devil’s nest on yer head.”
Meghan gasped in rage, no less angered than when Sila had suggested she crawled with vermin. But Mrs. Cambra stepped back into the hall and snapped her fingers.
A moment later the door opened wider and a young boy carried in a large, steaming copper kettle. His face turned bright red as he cast sidelong glances at Meghan standing boldly before him in dishabille.
“What do ye gape at, ye lazy cur!” Mrs. Cambra scolded. “Skelp ye, I will, and have yer thanks behind it! Out! Out!”
The boy ducked the expected blow and in the process tipped the kettle, which spilled a stream of steaming water onto the polished floor.
“Aarrah, ye’re spilling it!” Mrs. Cambra grabbed a poker from the fireplace and swung it half-heartedly at the boy.
He yelped in mock fear and scrambled out the door after depositing his burden on the washstand.
“Good riddance!” the housekeeper exclaimed when the door slammed behind him. With great precision she replaced the poker and righted the frilly cap on her head before turning back to Meghan. “Off with it, me lass, and bathe.”
Meghan looked at the shallow porcelain basin doubtfully. “In there?”
“Aye, that’s it.”
“But, ’tis so very small.”
Mrs. Cambra’s eyes widened in understanding. “Ye’re not to stand in it! Saints preserve us! No woman or man with sense would wet the whole body, else they’d be taken by a chill in a fortnight.” She shook her head, mumbling, “Wild Irish!”
Reluctantly Meghan began to fumble with the tiny pearls that had been sewn as buttons down the front of her gown, but she could not loosen them.
“Give over!” Mrs. Cambra said in disgust and came forward to slap Meghan hands away. “I’ve heard tales of Ulstermen. ’Tis said fair backwards folk they be.” The buttons flew open under her hands and then she pulled the gown from Meghan’s shoulders and let it fall to the floor.
Mrs. Cambra’s slight gasp made Meghan lift a hand to her left cheek. She had forgotten, forgotten so quickly, how it
affected strangers. Expecting a rebuff, she looked up into the woman’s face.
“Mercy!” But the housekeeper was not staring at her face; she stared at Meghan’s breasts and then her narrow waist and slim thighs. “’Tis more to Sir Revelin’s generosity than tenderheartedness, I’m thinking,” she murmured.