Authors: Doreen Owens Malek
Tags: #Romance, #Historical romance, #kc
Doreen Owens Malek
Gypsy Autumn Publications
P.O. Box 383 • Yardley, PA 19067
First printing April 1993
Copyright 1993 • 2012
by Doreen Owens Malek
The Author asserts the moral right to be
identified as author of this work.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by an means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recoding, scanning or any information storage retrieval system, without explicit permission in writing from the author or Publisher.
All the characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have no relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or names. They are not even distantly inspired by any individual known or unknown to the author, and all incidents are pure invention.
“It’s not the years between us that cause the distance, Alexandra,” Burke said.
“I will not think about it,” Alexandra said. “We have this moment, this time, and while we’re here I will not think about anything else.” She put her arms around his neck and drew him down to her.
“Oh, Alex,” he whispered, “you are so lovely. I think now I have lived only to see you, to be with you again.”
Table of Contents
An obedient woman is like a jewel unto her family...
The young woman burst
into the silent study, breathless and unable to speak.
Her uncle looked up from his writing, quill in hand, and his complexion reddened in the candlelight when he saw her dishabille. “Alexandra, what is the meaning of this?” he demanded. “You look like a charwoman with your hair about your face and your garments in disarray. Compose yourself!”
“Uncle,” Alex gasped, “is it true?”
He sat back in his chair and folded his arms across his doublet. She saw from his resolute expression that it was.
“Annie says that you will send me to the sisters at St. Mary’s whilst you journey to Ireland with my lord of Essex,” Alex said with a wail.
“Annie’s wagging tongue will lose her situation,” Philip Cummings said. “One less lady’s maid matters little to me.”
“But you said I might abide here at Stockton House while you were about the queen’s business,” Alex said, overlooking Annie’s fate in concern for her own.
“I have remembered me on that subject,” Philip replied. “I cannot leave my brother’s only child unsupervised and in the care of servants.”
“Then take me with you,” Alex said. “I’ve heard talk of your destination, Inverary Castle near Dublin where my lord of Carberry resides. It is thought a fair place, set in a green countryside and suitable for gentlefolk.”
Her uncle snorted. “Don’t be foolish, child. An expedition to suppress an armed rebellion is no place for a woman. A simpleton would not consider it.”
“Just take me on the ship,” Alex said. “I will eat little, sleep in a small space. I will be good and quiet. Once there I will stay within the castle walls and make myself useful....”
“You will go to the nuns,” her uncle said. “Annie will pack for you this evening and Luke will see you to the convent gates in the morning.” He looked back down at his desk. “That is all,” he said, dismissing her.
Alex’s eyes filled with tears of frustration. “I will not go to the convent! Uncle, it is insupportable!”
“You’ll do as you’re told, miss,” he snapped, raising his eyes to hers again, “or instead of stopping there whilst I’m away you’ll take the veil for good!”
Alex gulped, fear tightening the muscles in her dry throat. He could do it. He was her ony living relative, and women without means or protectors frequently wound up in nunneries, dedicating their lives to God when no one else would have them. Philip would hand a bag of sovereigns through the grille to the mother superior, and Alex would disappear inside, swallowed up by a religious community as corrupt as the late King Henry who had “reformed” it.
Alex bit her lip, stifling a sob. Oh, why had her parents died and left her at the mercy of a testy bachelor who disdained her? He lived only to advance himself in Queen Elizabeth’s eyes. This Irish venture, commanded by her favorite, Essex, the stepson of her lost love, Robert Dudley, was Philip’s best chance of currying favor. He was not going to let a little thing like an unmarried ward interfere with his plans. So Alex was to be shut up with the nuns while Philip danced attendance on the aging queen’s cavalier. She was to scrub floors and recite matins while he was trudging through the peat bogs and shooting rebels out of trees.
“Well?” Philip said, interrupting her reverie.
Alex pressed her lips together firmly, making a decision.
“I’ll ready my things at once.” She dropped a half curtsy to placate him while her mind raced.
“I thought you might agree,” her uncle said as he returned his attention to his correspondence.
Alex withdrew to the hall and then stopped short, closing her eyes. She had no more intention of obeying her uncle than she had of turning spy for the Spanish ambassador. But a pretense of acquiescence would give her time to formulate a plan. She lifted her skirts and hurried back to her chamber.
Annie was waiting there, pacing and crying. Alex dismissed her. She didn’t want to implicate the servant in whatever she might do. She sat down to think.
Two hours later Alex rose and stole into the hall. All was quiet. She slipped down through the darkened house and out onto the lawn, which was flooded with spring moonlight. She hurried to the stables and past the groom’s boy, Luke, who was sleeping in the tack room. The horses whinnied and stirred at her approach, but she managed without waking Luke to remove a set of his clothes from the chest where he kept them. She took a leather jerkin, homespun breeches, shoes, and a leather cap. Then she ran back to her room, her heart pounding all the way.
Once there, she changed into the horsey-smelling clothes and tried in vain to tuck her heavy hair under the cap. She quickly decided the hair had to go and hacked away at her thick auburn tresses with Annie’s sewing shears, glancing down sorrowfully as the shorn locks gathered at her feet. When she was done she jammed the cap on her head and stared at herself in the silvered looking glass.
She had done well. She was slim enough to pass for a boy, and the haircut gave her the look of a ragged adolescent, a page or a court messenger. She gathered up a few necessary items and tossed them into a bag, which she slung over her shoulder.
set sail at dawn for Ireland. Her uncle would be on the ship, and so would she. By the time she was discovered, it would be too late to turn back.
Philip wouldn’t check to see if she was leaving for the convent. He regarded her as an annoyance, but it would never occur to him that she would do something so outrageous. Her problem now was to get to the ship and stay on it until it was well out of the harbor. Anything was preferable to being buried alive in a cloister.
Alex sighed. She realized that her task would be a lot more difficult than it had seemed at first.
The London streets at night were not safe for any foot traveler. They were thick with cutpurses and criminals of every type. The quays where the boat was docked were the worst of all. Taverns spilled roistering, drunken patrons into the offal-strewn streets, and sailors, many of them impressed into service from prisons, were hardly better than the thieves who preyed upon them. Alex would have to negotiate this battlefield to reach the ship, and once there, she would have to find a way to get on board and remain there.
She had an idea that might facilitate her passage. She left her room once more and went down to Philip’s study. He had retired, but she knew he left the door unlocked to enable the servants to start a fire the next morning. She slipped inside and lit a candle from the hall sconce, hoping no one would see the light.
She knew where her uncle kept his letters. She opened a drawer in his desk and shoved aside quills and folded missives until she saw one with the queen’s seal, the scripted
entwined in the wax. The seal was split, since Philip had read the note. Alex seized the letter and held the wax to the burning candle, melting it enough to reseal the note as if it were new but leaving Elizabeth’s insignia intact. Satisfied with her handiwork, she shut the drawer quietly and fled with her prize held away from her body, to let the wax cool and harden.
On the way out of the house she stopped in the kitchens and took a leg of mutton and a round of bread from the larder, wrapped them in a napkin, and stashed them in her pack. The she slipped out through the pantry and headed once more to the stables.
Sunbeam was her favorite roan mare and Alex rode her almost daily. The horse nickered when she drew near. Alex shushed her and led her out of her stall through the paddock door at the back so she would not have to pass Luke again.
The ride to London from Stockton House was about two miles along the Thames. The night was warm for early spring and the moonlight bright enough to see by; she passed no one on the road. As she neared the town she could see the distant outline of Essex House, the riverside estate that Lord Essex had inherited from his stepfather, Leicester. It was below Fleet Street along the Strand, within view of Whitehall, and its wide lawns sloped down to the water where boat taxis dislodged passengers at a private gate. After going through a warren of cottages and inns, she reached her destination, the town home of Ronald Feeley, a solicitor friend of her uncle’s. Feeley had a daughter Alex’s age, Caroline, and the two girls often rode together. Caroline would recognize Sunbeam and return the horse to Stockton.
By then, everyone would know what Alex had done.
Alex kissed the blaze on the horse’s nose and tied her to the post bordering Feeley’s garden. She left her contentedly munching grass while, inside the house, everyone slept.
Alex took a deep breath and stepped out of the sheltering darkness. It was only a mile more to the docks, but it was through the part of town she feared most. Shoreditch, where actors and other disreputables abounded, disgorged people into the shadow of London Bridge nightly, and Cheapside, where they patronized many taverns, loomed as obstacles in her path. She put her head down and walked rapidly down the cobbled streets toward the water. Prostitutes whispered to her from doorways as she passed, and she took care to avoid the traffic from the alehouses. She made her way as unobtrusively as she could while proceeding at top speed. She tried not to inhale too deeply, as tenants had tossed garbage from windows into the alleys and the gutters ran with refuse of all kinds. The warrens got narrower as she neared the river, the wooden buildings crowding the passage so closely that three men could hardly stand shoulder to shoulder across the road. It was here that villainous creatures sprang from shadows. Twice, hands reached out for Alex, but she was nimble enough to escape. She sprinted the last few yards to the ship, which she identified from its fluttering flag, and then paused to plan her next move.