Authors: Laura Parker
His lids fluttered, the dark lashes stirring on his cheeks, and Meghan drew away, trembling in anticipation. Then his eyes opened and he looked straight up into her face.
For a long moment they stared at each other. She had not known what to expect, had only wished the life to stir within him once more; but the instant their gazes met, Meghan knew she would never forget a single line or curve of him, nor would she ever want anything of life but to be looked at by those wondrously deep green eyes.
She watched his expression change from confusion to wonder and then amazement. Until that moment she had not realized that he was staring…at her cheek.
Clamping a hand over the mark, she leaped to her feet. Only one thought filled her head as she fled back into the forest: perhaps he had lived because he had not looked upon her face until now.
When Revelin Piers Butler opened his eyes, his first impression was one of utter peace. He seemed suspended, disconnected from the earth and even from his body, as though he floated in the soft light of morning. He felt himself part of the amber air, shimmering, floating, riding the gentlest of breezes. Above his head spread green and gold distances. The sunlit regions of ray and shadow swirled and changed before his eyes, now green, now gold, now the blackest of greens.
Finally it was too much. He shut his eyes against the vibrant beauty of the light. Yet, a feeling of melancholy gripped him, for he knew he would never see such light again.
Green water now swam before his mind’s eye, sluggish dung green with purple depths that filled him with regret. He did not want to die, not yet, not when the day was so lovely, the year in its springtime, and he so full of unfulfilled promise.
Were those tears that dampened his cheeks, or was it the wet embrace of the marsh pond? He could not tell. But he was sinking, gliding deeper and more quickly with every moment
until there was only the icy cold depths of brown water and the slick wet arms of death’s embrace….
When he awakened again it was to the security of the ground beneath him. He could feel the cushion of grass and the jut of a rock at his back, but he had no desire to open his eyes this time. Heaven or Hell, it could wait a little longer….
There was the cool breath of morning in the air. It tickled his nose and roughened his exposed flesh with goose bumps. He felt his manhood shrivel and his belly tremble. Nothing in his religious education had predicted that Hell would be so mild and sweet. Perhaps, in spite of his father’s dire predictions to the contrary, he had earned Mercy’s Grace and Heaven. The thought pleased him, and a smile that did not quite form quivered on his lips.
He felt no longer capable of surprise. He did not open his eyes when arms enfolded him. When a gentle hand pushed the hair from his cool cheek, he felt only gratitude. He had heard that sailors, who feared drowning above all else, would sometimes throw themselves into the sea in hopes of sharing a mermaid’s embrace. If this were the embrace they sought, he marveled that a ship ever returned to shore. She was warm and soft, her breath scented with wild strawberries. He turned his face into the warmth and found the pillow for his cheek to be a tender round breast. His eyes opened then and he realized that he was, after all, still capable of surprise. Surely the most beautiful girl in the world was bending over him. And she was naked.
Enormous sea-blue eyes looked down at him and a sensation not unlike drowning, but much more pleasant, moved through him. A tendril of hair, as pure a blue-black as a raven’s wing, brushed his cheek as she moved closer. Her soft red lips parted, capturing his cool mouth for an instant, and then he
was again staring at her tempting breasts only inches from his face.
Was he her lover? He could not remember; could not remember anything beyond a painful tumble when his horse had stepped into a rabbit hole. But one thing was becoming increasingly clear. He had not died. This time when his manhood stirred there was no shrinkage but a sudden filling. The urge to reach for her, to bring those tender lips down upon his own once more rushed through him, but he found he could not so much as raise a finger. He was as weak as a babe.
What jest was this? Why could he not move? What held him? Bonds…chains…or the girl?
In near panic his gaze met hers again and she responded to his silent question with a look of fear. Her hand flew to her left cheek, then she leaped to her feet and was gone.
“Don’t go!” He must have said the words aloud, for they echoed loudly in his ears, but she did not come back.
Then more than a hundred pounds of Irish wolfhound settled on his chest, and Revelin found himself without breath to repeat the request. A long, rough tongue salivated over one cheek and then the other before the owner of the odoriferous breath backed off Revelin’s chest.
Cursing roundly and imaginatively, Revelin lay for a moment staring at the trees above him. And then it came back to him, slowly but completely what had occurred, memories of who he was and where he was…and why.
A mist too fine to be called rain blanketed the clearing where four hungry and saddle-weary men shared an evening meal beneath the shelter of a canvas tent.
When the last of the meat had been carved from the roasted joint, Sir Richard Atholl raised his tankard in a solemn toast. “God be praised He did not condemn me to life as an Irishman!”
Two of his three companions chuckled appreciatively and downed the contents of their cups. This ritual had been repeated
each evening around their campfire for more than a fortnight as the four men traversed the uncharted areas of Ireland beyond the English Pale of Dublin. But the rain-drenched day had taken its toll on the one Irish-born gentleman among them; the toast was one barb he no longer intended to tolerate.
Revelin looked up from his untouched ale with an expression that was unusually grim for a man of twenty-three years. “I doubt the good Lord took particular care where your mother dropped you.”
The words, though softly spoken, cut short the agreeable laughter. Sir Richard’s narrow, almost lipless mouth lost its parsimonious smile. “Sir! You insult my mother’s memory!”
Revelin shrugged, his muscles stretching the limits of his leather jerkin. He did not relish a fight, but neither did he fear one. “How else would you have me answer your attack upon my own?”
“He has you there, Atholl!” Sir Robin Neville broke in, adding his infectious laughter. Slight of size, and with a trace of freckling above his precisely cropped blond beard and mustache, Neville was the only man present dressed in courtly fashion with a Spanish ruff at his throat and ribbon cross garters. Not even the twin miseries of cold and rain had dampened his spirits. His blue eyes gleamed with high spirits. “You forget that the sod you scrape from your boots each evensong is sacred to Butler.”
He reached out and placed a familiar hand on Revelin’s shoulder, choosing to ignore the tensing of muscles beneath his touch. “Though Ireland’s home to Rev, he’s a man whom the queen has seen fit to commission as her emissary.”
Sir Richard Atholl raised his chin a fraction to better the effect of looking down his long beak of a nose as he regarded his young companions. His somber brown Reformation clothing and his thinning cap of light brown hair made him appear much older than his thirty years. “For all her astute and superior nature, our beloved queen is not above her maidenly weaknesses,” he said censoriously. “A strong form and an unlined
face ever finds favor in court these days. Yet, I am reminded of the saying: ‘The fairest skin may cover the sourest fruit.’”
Robin’s fingers dug into Revelin’s shoulder to hold him still. “You dare to suggest that our wild Irishman has caught the fancy of our sovereign?”
Robin turned a thoughtful gaze on Revelin, as though seeing him for the first time. “I admit that he exceeds my height by some inches and that he’s not ill made, for all that he refuses to submit to the manly itch of a beard and shaves his cheeks. Still and all, ’twould be a shame to cover so square a chin with bristles. Aye, he makes a pretty specimen for the tenderhearted ladies.”
He turned quickly to Atholl and winked. “But I reject his pretensions to our sovereign’s heart. He’s only a stripling. Whereas I am—”
“—A greater fool than that blackguard who attempted to sell us a diseased cow for meat this morn!” finished John Reade, the fourth member and the acknowledged leader of the party.
Reade’s bulky, heavily muscled shoulders moved restlessly beneath his leather jerkin as he reached to wrap a broad hand about his tankard. Below a jut of heavy black brows, his dark eyes shone with contempt as they moved from one to the other of those seated with him. “If the three of you will persist in this battle of the witless, I’ll seek the solitary company of my bed.” So saying, he drained his cup.
“That would be a novelty,” Robin exclaimed with a guileless smile. “Solitude in your bed,” he continued. “I never knew you to prefer your own company when a compliant wench was at hand.”
The four men glanced out the open tent flap to where their lone servant had retired for the night wrapped in a blanket beneath a canvas lean-to. John Reade said he had hired Flora, an Irishwoman, as their servant; but the others had quickly accepted the fact that she was John’s whore.
“Slut!” Sir Richard declared, his lean face tight with disapproval. “Gaelic slut! Pocket of disease-ridden foulness! They all seek a man’s mortal soul to serve it up to their master in Hell!”
The speech was answered by Robin’s laughter. “Such passion, Atholl, and before the second keg’s been broached. That bodes well for the potency of the ale. I could use such fervor to guard me against this deuced mist!” Turning up his tankard, he drained it.
Sir Richard rose, his face livid. “I was tempted to decline Her Majesty’s generous request to be her eyes and ears in this popish wilderness when the names of the other members of this company were made known to me. However, my acceptance does not force me to sit and be ridiculed by my detractors! I bid you good night.”
“Alas! I fear I’ve upset our Presbyterian friend,” Robin remarked when Atholl had retired out into the fine mist.
“Your court-jester airs will yet land you in trouble, Sir Neville,” John grumbled. “But, as to that, I’ve little stomach for the sermonizing of that self-righteous prig myself.”
“He does wax tedious,” Robin agreed as he twisted the huge ruby carbuncle ring on his left hand. “I wonder that he came at all.”
“The conversion of sinners is his mission, I’m told,” Revelin said sourly. “He might have done better to set his sights on the company of hangers-on at Whitehall.”
“He might have at that,” John said with a sneer as he eyed Robin over the rim of his tankard. “Purple taffeta and lace trunk hose. God’s body! If not for the scraggly bearding upon your cheeks, I’d believe that a skinny-shanked wench in gentleman’s clothing sat before me!”
Robin rubbed his ring, blew his breath against the dull ruby, then extended it toward the light of the campfire. “Really, John, you stoop too low to wound. I fancy a lesser barb might have served.”
He raised his eyes slowly to the larger man’s face, his lids lowered seductively in perfect mimicry of the best London
courtesans. “To cast me in the role of a woman does little credit to your vision…or your taste.”
“The devil take you!” John roared, rising menacingly to his feet. His hand went to the Spanish dagger he wore at the waist of his doublet. “Extend your gibbering tongue once more and I’ll split it for you!”
Robin nodded agreeably. “At your leisure, Reade. I would consider first, however, that ’tis the strain of the day that wearies you rather than my mild jests.
“A pox on this weather!” he continued, wiping the misty damp from his brow with a scented handkerchief retrieved from his sleeve. “I fear I will rot clean through before ever I dry out. Rev, man, can you do nothing about the plaguey poor weather? ’Tis bad hospitality, if you ask me.”
Revelin watched anger change to frustration on John’s tight face. Each of them knew that John could ill afford to provoke a challenge. The queen did not appreciate quarreling among her men, and John had recently spent six months as a guest at the Tower for a similar infraction. His new post as leader of this expedition had been nothing more than a royal slap on the wrist for a soldier of his ilk.
“A plague upon the pair of you!” John spat at last and left them.
“One day you will provoke him beyond control,” Revelin said quietly when they were alone.
Robin’s fine blond brows rose in astonishment. “You fear John wants my head on a pike? I thought he merely chose argument as the fastest method of settling his supper.”
For the first time that evening, Revelin smiled. It was well known that John sufferred from a sensitive digestive system and often complained of dyspepsia. “In truth, none of us has the stomach for this journey. There’s little for us to learn in this weather. Every hill, every glen looks the same wherever we ride. I must number my sketches to tell them apart. We might as well return to Dublin.”
Robin smiled. “I do not mind the damp by half. ’Tis the
company, present companion excepted, that tries my patience. Even John’s surly temperament is preferable to Atholl’s. Without him I would have fallen happily into some debauchery or another before now. Why, just this morning on the road I spied as sweet a pair of eyes as ever enticed a man to damnation. Alas, Atholl saw the gaze and routed the wench with one of his bombastic oaths. God’s life! I never met a sourer disposition where women are concerned. If this is what the Reformation does to a man’s appetites, I’d sooner follow a man of your stripe, for all its dangers.”