ROMANTIC VENTURE (chap 1-12)

ROMANTIC VENTURE

[Mystery/Romance]

CHAPTER ONE

The two swordsmen faced each other, arms elegantly arched. Then, in the starless mist of the April night, they separated, disengaging with an ominous slither of steel. They circled, barely crossing swords, playing with the ends of each other’s blades. They countered and parried lightly until the smaller of the two combatants finally uncoiled in a dizzying attack on the larger. The thrust was parried and riposted. The attacker lunged with final and inevitable swiftness.

“Touché,” came the triumphant cry from behind the mask of the aggressive little fighter. The crowd, watching the exhibition in the torch-lit courtyard, raised a single exultant cheer. The victor, sword raised, strutted cockily around the inner circle, receiving the exuberant praises of all.

The mask was whipped off, and a tumble of glistening golden waves fell to the waist of the little champion and great lavender eyes twinkled mischievously. Maurette Harper, unmindful of the cold drizzle that had settled over all of London, swept her guests a flamboyant bow. Then she turned to her opponent. Her salute to him was altogether too solemn and surely mocked true deference. Her audience tittered.

The worthy, though vanquished, adversary jerked off his mask and held his antagonist in a hooded gaze. His eyes glinted dangerously in the light of the torches. Finally he offered a stiff bow.

“You will, I trust, give me satisfaction on the morrow’s eve?” he said. As he rose to his full height, Alex Harper saluted his few supporters in the crowd, and finally his face split in a lopsided grin. He strode to the side of the accomplished swordswoman who had bested him as no man ever had.

“I should have known better than to teach my daughter the art of fencing,” he muttered good-naturedly. Then, raising her sword arm above her head, he bellowed, “The pupil surpasses the master!”

The crowd roared in appreciation but were immediately silenced by the sudden appearance, in the center courtyard, of the elegant and still lovely Elaine Harper. Dressed in a swirling, cloth-of-silver cloak, Maurette’s mother appeared to be an avenging specter as she eyed her husband and daughter with cold indignation. Plucking the sword from her husband’s hand, she held it aloft.

“Shall I put this sword in my heart, or shall one of you?” she asked stonily. She tapped a silken toe on the glistened cobbles and waited. Her silent wrath dissolved the triumph in her daughter’s wide eyes. Alex Harper grinned sheepishly but dared not speak in the face of his wife’s wrath.

Finally Lady Harper turned, and the crowd, which had closed round her to watch the debacle, parted as she marched stiff-backed up the steps and through the yellow light of the ornately arched doorway into the great hall of Harper House in London. She stopped before the bemused musicians in the minstrels’ gallery, and still clutching the offending sword, she swept the heavy cloak from her shoulders. Waving a slender white arm, she bade that the music should begin.

“Perhaps,” said Alex Harper into the breathless silence that followed his wife’s departure, “we should join our hostess.” No one moved. “I am told,” the lord of the house said finally, “that much ado has been made over our little Maurette’s birthday.” He looked fondly down on his favored child. She smiled hesitantly as Alex continued. “How often does one’s child reach the age of eighteen?” He smiled into the crowd, flashing strong white teeth. “Is not that cause to celebrate? Let us join my esteemed wife,” he said, a larger smile twitching the corners of his mouth. “She is gentleness itself, God knows, when the father of her children behaves himself.”

Soft, light-hearted titters arose from the assemblage. Everyone knew of Alex Harper’s yielding nature where it concerned his wife and his two daughters. Many men, in 1587, would have beaten their wives bloody for such an outburst. But Alex Harper simply gazed into the golden light of the arched entrance of his house at the silhouetted figure of his beloved wife.

“If that sweet lady will allow,” he said gently, “I shall be honored to partner her in the first dance. Will you join us?” he said, sweeping the crowd with the charming and ingratiating spirit of good will for which he was famous.

With renewed gaiety, the guests ambled into the great hall. Relieved and delighted by their host’s cheerful equanimity, their joy in the evening’s festivities was assured.

When Maurette held herself back from the happy progress, Alex turned a fond regard upon her. He placed his hands on either side of her pale face. “Will you not join the festivities?”

“0h, Papa,” she murmured, “Mama is so angry with me.”

Alex smiled and placed an arm round his daughter’s slim shoulders. “Life has not been easy for your mama,” he said softly as they followed the crowd into the house. “Each time I instruct you or your sister Imogene in a manly art, such as riding or hunting, your mother feels it her duty to instruct you both in a womanly art, such as needlework or music. Your sister has received your mother’s lessons well and merely tolerated mine. But you, my child, have placed a new perspective on the term ‘manly art.’ Your accomplishments bring your mother’s dear mother to mind. ‘Twas her thought, in truth, that you and Imogene learn your letters from the parish clerk. Imagine poor Elaine’s chagrin when he began your instruction in Latin. That was, if I recall, about the time that we began singing madrigals every night after dinner. Your grandmother rebelled openly, you will remember, and began taking dinner in her apartment.”

Maurette laughed openly at the reference to her grandmother. The stately and serene Lady Violet, dowager countess of Audley was, at present, a most respected and respectable noblewoman. At one time, however, she had been the bane of her family’s good name. The woman had scandalized all of British society when she had made the decision to sail with her husband, Jason Gordon, Lord Audley, on his pirate ship, the Pelican. Though Gordon was later sanctioned by the queen, the scandal lived on. Maurette frowned, remembering her mother’s embarrassment whenever the subject of Lady Violet’s past arose.

“Does Mama fear that I shall turn out to be like her mother?” she said, “For I shall say this, Papa. I should be proud and grateful to resemble my grandmama in all ways. That great lady is beyond reproach.”

Alex Harper stopped and turned his daughter to face him. The full measure of his devotion for her was in his eyes. “Do not think for a moment that your mama is not privately and publicly proud of you and your grandmother. At gatherings, her boasts upon the accomplishments of her family circle my own. She loves us all deeply.” He dropped his hands from his daughter’s shoulders. Her sweet searching face rendered him helpless as always, and he turned away in frustration. “Your mother fears, as I do myself sometimes, that you are quite simply too consummately accomplished for a … woman.” He could barely believe his own words, but there they were-spoken and hanging on the air between father and daughter.

Maurette stared at her father’s broad back. “Papa,” she breathed, “I can barely countenance what you are saying. I have always encouraged both Imogene and me to learn all that we could, to desire for ourselves all the possibilities. With the help of our mother and our grandmother and you, we have become people of whom you have said you are proud. Are you telling me this night that we have been mistaught?”

Turning back to his daughter, he knew he must conjure a patience and a conviction that he did not feel. “Misdirected,” he said quietly, musing as he gazed down at the little chin his daughter had now thrust out defiantly. “Misdirected,” he repeated without the conviction that he was striving to convey. “No, child,” he said with a sudden passion. “You have not been mistaught or misdirected. You have been reared wisely; never forget that.”

He took her face in both his hands. “Today is your eighteenth birthday. You are of marriageable age, my darling, though I would have it that you remained under my protection forever. Your mama wishes an exceptional marriage for you, and I too wish such a circumstance. Our concern is that the young men who surround you might find your vitality and your strength of character, your Intelligence and independence overwhelming. They jest with you and treat you as equal to themselves but, for that very reason, may hesitate to take you to wife.”

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‘Tis 1587, Maurette, and we are barbarians. All of Europe is perpetuating the myth of women’s inferiority to men.” He enfolded his daughter in his strong arms. “I hold that which gives the lie to such a notion.”

Maurette accepted her father’s embrace; then backed away from him. She slanted a doubtful look up into his sad face. she was not absolutely sure of what he was telling her, but she felt that her life was about to change. Her family had always encouraged her resourcefulness. Her wit was much the pride of everyone at Harper House. The young men who, as her father had pointed out, surrounded her had indeed enjoyed her adroit mind and her skill at riding and fencing. In truth, Maurette cared not a fig for any of them. She had always assumed she would marry one day, but she had never considered that her husband might come from their ranks. Did her father expect Maurette to become the wavering, hesitating female of male mythology for one of them? Did her mother expect a complete turnabout in the personality of her elder daughter for the gratification of an unworthy lot of gallants simply because the month of April had turned her eighteen?

Maurette withdrew from her father’s embrace and turned her slender back to him. She would fight like a wounded pig before she would enter the life of the fat, pasty, withered creature dominated by her husband and children And, if those lily-minded bucks of her acquaintance were threatened by the force of her personality, she would, quite simply, remain unmarried.

Maurette had long admired the strength of determination shown by England’s beloved sovereign, Queen Elizabeth. Though she had played the marriage gambol as divinely as she played her virginals, the queen had eschewed marriage and motherhood throughout her long life. She had made it clear to courtiers and heads of state alike that she was very much her own woman, that she would play the simper for no man.

In the end, the queen had forsaken even the great love of her life, Robert Dudley, The Earl of Leicester. Maurette would happily follow that magnificent example. Her life would, perforce, be empty of men, but she would retain her exemplar independence and free will.

Seeing the defiance that stiffened his daughter’s spine, Alex Harper moved to her side. “I know what your thoughts must be,” he said carefully. He knew that a wrong word at this moment could end the matter forever, and he had more to say. “Think,” he said, “of your sister Imogene, my darling. She will be coming along very soon. She has already passed her sixteenth birthday. ‘Tis only fair to her that you make a suitable marriage.”

At the mention of her sweet sister with all her blond and bubbly feminine dreams, Maurette’s resolve disintegrated. She could not harden herself to that circumstance. Imogene had lived her whole life to marry well. If Maurette’s own marriage was less than excellent, Imogene’s prospects would be considerably diminished. It was inequitable, to be sure, but inevitable that Imogene’s hopes and dreams hung in the balance of Maurette’s decision.

With a soft sigh, Maurette faced her father. “I shall try, Papa,” she said. “I cannot promise my mother that I shall deliver a son-in-law tonight, but I shall make a sincere effort to bring my womanly instincts to the fore. You know,” she added, her bright lavender eyes sparkling with devilment, “when I put my mind to it, I am quite an excellent flirt.”

Alex Harper laughed openly. “That you are, my darling.” He placed his arm round her shoulders, and they continued across the courtyard. “I have fallen victim on more than one occasion to your feminine talents.”

“And in comparison to my papa,” Maurette said teasingly, “those gallants in the ballroom should provide but a piddling challenge.”

“Do you know how I adore you?” Alex spoke into the damp night, then brushed Maurette’s ear with fatherly affection.

“‘Twould he a blessing,” Laurette said forlornly, “if your wife and my mother felt the same.”

“Well, of course she is angry,” Alex said, “But that does not mean that she, too, does not adore you. I tell you only that our cherished Elaine longs for the day when your needle point is as energetically wielded as your sword point.”

Father and daughter moved behind the last of the guests into the ballroom. Maurette squinted into the brightness of a thousand candles, and her breeched and booted legs lagged as the crowd turned their collective eye in her direction. Their friends were used to these displays by lord Harper and his elder child. Behavior that would not have been acceptable in other girls was not only accepted but expected of the exceptionally beautiful and spirited Maurette Harper. However, all were not deferential to the pair.

“Every man desires an heir,” clucked one dowager loudly and haughtily, “a male heir. ‘Twould seem that, with the aid of his mother-in-law, Alex Harper has achieved that end though he has but two daughters to his credit.”

Fans flicked and fluttered in the embarrassed hush that followed. Lady Elspeth was well known for her vituperative attacks on the moral insufficiencies that she seemed to find everywhere. She held herself an arbiter of virtue among the young womanhood of London.

The young Lady Maurette was also well known for her contempt for such vocal asperity. All readied themselves for the fray.

Maurette squared her slender shoulders and moved from the protection of her father’s arm. Stopping before the biddy, Maurette eyed her coldly. Then, in a sudden and seemingly sincere change of attitude, she dimpled prettily. “You will, I pray, forgive my unladylike behavior,” Maurette said, dipping a dainty curtsy “‘Tis all in fun. And I know that a woman of your sophistication can certainly appreciate such harmless pastimes. Gloriana, herself, rides and hunts, I hear. When Papa and I performed our exhibition for her at Islington during the summer progress last year, the queen was rapturous in her praise.” Maurette placed her hand on the older woman’s forearm and leaned confidentially forward. “There is rumor that Elizabeth has enjoyed a fencing lesson or two herself. Can you imagine? One can hardly credit such rumors,” Maurette laughed gaily, “but one never knows, does one?”

The crowd relaxed, and good-natured laughter arose at not only the picture of the dignified little queen in breeches but also at the amiable impudence of their host’s beautiful daughter.

“I know,” replied the older woman with a disdainfull flare of her nostrils, “that a proper young lady does not appear practically naked at her own birthday ball. I know, too,” she continued imperiously, “that the queen would not think of doing so.”

Maurette’s eyes flashed amethyst sparks, but her voice retained a conciliatory tone. “Since neither of us can know what Her Royal Highness would or would not think of doing,” she said pleasantly, “’tis perforce well that we end this discussion.”

Lady Elspeth was breathing hard. “This discussion will end when I end it, young woman,” she said stiffly and quickly amended her words. “When I end it, my lady,” she said, placing a special and not complimentary emphasis on the rank of her hostess.

“0f course,” Maurette said with a deferential nod. “You know,” she added, “‘tiS so important for a young woman in today’s confusing world to enjoy the guidance of a mature and authoritative figure such as yourself. London’s youthful females are the better for your presence. My sister Imogene and I look to such as you for the regulation of our conduct. Your standard is ever a source of inspiration.” Maurette smiled her prettiest smile at the woman and slanted a look toward her sister.

Imogene had paled visibly but now smiled weakly. she well knew her sister’s facility with words and as did their mother, that Maurette, having made her peace with the older woman, would retire as gracefully as she could. Alex Harper, standing watchfully at his wife’s side, knew that their hope was in vain.

Maurette continued. “Though remonstrance is often Painful,” she said with an impish wink at Imogene, “we have been taught, my sister and I, to take it according to its source.”

The crowd tittered, in awe of Maurette’s impudence. To the surprise and delight of all, the older woman seined not to have perceived any insult. She arched a self- righteous brow at her young hostess.

“You would do well to emulate your gentle sister,” she said. “That young woman is a credit to her mother’s example. If that would be your aim, you would find much less remonstrance in your path. I shall continue in the role with which you have so accurately endowed me, and I hope that you sincerely appreciate my effort.”

Imogene winced, Elaine Harper stiffened, and Alex merely waited, his amusement clear only in his eyes.

“Your effort,” said Maurette, dripping sincerity, “‘Tis most affected.” The guests drew their collective breath.

“If by that you mean that I have effected a change in your thinking,” said the woman haughtily, “I accept your gratitude.” The smile on the face that did not smile easily was ludicrous.

Maurette smiled too, but her smile, which came so naturally to her sweet face, lit up the already emblazoned room. “‘Tis your affectation that bids me beg your leave, dear Lady Eispeth, to change into garments which I pray you will find more entente cordiale to the occasion.” Maurette curtsied deferentially. “Will you wait upon that circumstance before making a final judgment on my character … or lack thereof?”

“We shall,” said the lady employing the royal ‘we,’ “and we shall make our judgment accordingly.”

“We…” Maurette hesitated for a fraction of a moment – “all humbly await your conclusion.” The corners of her mouth twitched irreverently.

The crowd was now thoroughly enchanted by the younger woman, if it had not already been so. Several of the guests applauded Maurette’s humor, and some, not wishing to incur the older’ woman’s wrath but desiring to approve the younger woman’s clever wit, simply nodded in her direction. She noted that her mother and Imogene looked supremely relieved and congratulated herself as she turned and strode through the hall, accepting the approbation of her guests.

As she moved toward the grand staircase, Maurette could not help but laugh openly at the exuberance with which she was congratulated by one particularly jovial pride of young gallants. Much of their enthusiasm, she knew, came from the many goblets of sugared wine that they had consumed. Maurette quickly hid her smile, however, as she noted her mother’s icy interest in the proceedings.

“You must allow me to pass, gentlemen,” she pleaded with gentle urgency.

“We shall certainly allow it, dear, dear Lady Maurette,” said one young man with a courtly, if somewhat unsteady, bow. “But first we beg you share with us your secret of great swordsmanship.” He eyed his fellow revelers askance. “Do we take it that the wrist is where the magic lies, or is some other part of the anatomy responsible for the expertise you display? If that is the case,” he said solemnly, “you must tell us if we may benefit from the knowledge. If not,” he continued, glancing at his comrades and receiving their encouragement. “we fear we must ever be suppliant to the secrets of swords-woman-ship.”

The young men howled raucously at their friend’s cleverness, and they gathered round Maurette to affirm her approval of his ribald wit. The young woman they had known since childhood needed no intellectual coddling; Maurette had an adroit mind, which her young suitors appreciated and often tested. They tried but could never seem to dismay her dexterous mentality. At the moment, though thoroughly amused by these young and eager gallants and perfectly ready and able to cross verbal swords with them, she had the presence of mind to note that her father was shouldering his way through the crowd toward her and her coterie. There was determination in his manner, and his eyes were slits of patriarchal righteousness.

Desperately she began moving backward toward the staircase, only to have the young men follow her as one. Her pleas to them were in earnest as her father neared. “Please, dear friends,” she supplicated them, her fingers splayed in front of her, “you must allow me to withdraw,” Maurette knew from past experience that her father, though well meaning and this night goaded by her mother, would disperse the phalanx of young men as well as their youthful high spirits without ceremony and without compunction. Maurette, feeling most favorable toward the youths, did not wish to see their spirits dampened. “If you will let me pass,” she said rashly, “I shall pledge to each of you two dances and a ride in the country.”

“Dance now!” one young man said with joyous abandon. He wrapped his fingers round Maurette’s wrist and pulled her toward the dance floor. “‘Tis a dance I crave,” he hollered, stretching his voice toward the high ceiling, “a dance with the fabulously breeched Maurette.”

Everyone laughed. Emboldened by that encouragement and by the wine, the young man tugged harder at the resisting Maurette. Her desperation and his befuddlement combined, and to her everlasting humiliation and surprise, Maurette lurched from the lad’s grip. With astonishing velocity, she skittered across the floor and slammed into a tall, hard, unfamiliar figure. Stunned, she felt a pair of strong hands steady her. She winced with embarrassment as she felt herself lifted and set unceremoniously onto her feet.

“If ever a woman needed rescuing,” said a low mocking voice from behind her.

She turned to see a broad chest at eye level. Even coated and draped as it was, the chest was obviously well muscled. Her eyes shot up to a deeply tanned face and cool pewter eyes that regarded her lazily.

“You will undoubtedly hate me for this come the morn,” the stranger said with annoying tranquillity, “but I should be honored to escort you to the staircase.” He bowed deeply, allowing Maurette a full view of his abundant raven hair. His firm lips twitched in amusement as he raised himself to his considerable height.

He regarded the rowdy young men, and his eyes became silver slits. “If you please, gentlemen,” he said, and a smile crossed his lips though his eyes remained hard, “and even if you don’t please, this lady is attempting to make a graceful exit.” Here he lowered his gaze in mock despair. “Though at this moment that seems a most inopportune hope.” He glanced roguishly in Maurette’s direction and noted, with satisfaction, the fleeting arch of one elegant eyebrow. Then he turned his attention back to the young men. “We shall all no doubt be rewarded when she makes her reentrance wearing…” He paused and turned to Maurette. “What was that dainty phrase you employed? Ah, yes, garments ‘more entente cordiale to the occasion.'”

With Maurette’s upper arm firmly held in his large hand, he guided her to the grand staircase. “We await your return, dear, dear Lady Maurette,” he said, presenting her a courtly bow.

Maurette bobbed a perfunctory curtsy and started up the steps. As the stranger turned back to the crowd, she snatched a glance at him over her shoulder. The young lads he had just reproved were slapping him on the shoulder and laughing with him. Maurette’s brows drew together as she attempted to assess the situation. Was he, in truth, her protector, or was he simply a pretentious swagger out to pilfer her interest in his company?

Haughtily flipping her shimmering curls, she turned her back on what she perceived to be a great deal of fun at her expense. As she climbed the stone staircase, she did not see the steady pewter gaze that was now focused upon her shapely backside. The hard proprietary glint in that gaze might well have given pause, had she known of it, to the gently bred Maurette Harper.

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER TWO

Though baths were not a normal part of Elizabethan life, Edyth insisted upon them for Maurette, as she had for Maurette’s mother, Lady Elaine. Edyth’s French ancestry set her rather wickedly apart from the staid old English traditions. And though in every way a proper Elizabethan woman, Edyth made no secret of the fact that she enjoyed this refinement in her status.

So it was that Maurette now found herself lolling in a warm bath as Edyth bustled about the chamber preparing Maurette’s attire for the evening’s ball. In all too short a time, Edyth stood over her charge and bade her rise from the consoling depths of the water. Maurette closed her eyes in weary dismissal of the woman’s admonition that her bath was ended.

“Please allow me this respite,” Maurette said tiredly.

Already this night she had caused more than her share of calamity. In all good conscience, Maurette could not blame her mother’s concern over her behavior. However, Maurette absolved herself in the knowledge that these incidents, such as the ones tonight, never happened by design but always by caprice of fate. Maurette was not by nature given to contrivance, wanting nothing more than to lead a quiet life, to be free to chart her own course. She wished to ride out and hunt in the fields of her Father’s country estate at Islington, to read and reread the poems of Master Marlowe and, at the moment, to simply stay in her warm bath a while longer.

One lavender eye opened and targeted the too efficient Edyth.

“First the French give us baths,” Maurette complained, “and then they take them away.” She rose reluctantly from the tub and allowed the older woman to towel her dry with, Maurette felt, the overabundance of energy that had always characterized her tiring woman. Tiring woman, Maurette huffed inwardly, the woman never tired.

Edyth held out the younger woman’s stiff corset. “You will step in,,’ she said patiently.

“I should rather be clothed in breeches, dear Edyth, than in that metal wolf trap.”

Edyth regarded her with a cocked eyebrow. “And I might as well be stable-boy to that rascal Dudley; than tiring woman to a coltish girl.”

Maurette smiled at Edyth’s sarcasm. The woman had been with the family for decades. She was now in her sixties and more tart-tongued than ever. Maurette’s grandmother, Lady Violet, was the only member of the family with whom Edyth would converse on a personal level. “Your grandmama is the only person I have ever met,” Edyth often remarked, “who knows how to treat the servants.”

Indeed the elderly but still beautiful countess did have a way with servants and gentry alike. She had survived her titled and rich privateer husband, Lord Audley, and was now situated comfortably with her daughter and much respected son-in-law. To the amazement and amusement of all who knew her, she traveled in royal and decidedly non-royal circles with equal ease. On any given day, Lady Violet was as likely to be found in the kitchens or the root cellars of Harper House, entertaining the servants with bawdy sea stories as she was to be found sipping wine with the gentry in the great hall. All were in awe of her venerable and, it was whispered, intimate friendship with the queen. Though the countess herself rarely spoke of it, the invitations she received to Elizabeth’s various residences throughout the year gave evidence of that relationship. It was rumored that Lady Violet had advised Her Royal Highness on more than one occasion, not only on personal matters but also on affairs of state. For all of that Lady Violet remained a humble woman. She was much loved for that virtue as well as for the mutinous little sparkle that often appeared in her lively eyes.

“I fear the instincts of rebellion run in my veins,” Maurette sighed with good-natured forbearance as Edyth prodded and poked her into her corset. “I received a great deal of trouble for those instincts this night,” she added as she sat down, stiff-backed, before her mirror.

“‘Tis, in truth, the talk of the house,” said Edyth pursing her lips. She began the arduous task of dressing Maurette’s golden and defiant curls.

“Shall I receive a dressing down from you, dear Edyth?” asked Maurette eyeing her tiring woman’s reflection in the glass.

Edyth chuckled low in her throat. “You’ll get no remonstrance from me, little lady. I am tickled by insurrection, especially where it concerns that biddy, Lady Elspeth. As to the other”-here Edyth shrugged a plump shoulder-“your grandmama and I know about men and their ways. We have spent many hours discussing both the merits and the wickedness of men.” She wound a curl tightly and stabbed at it with a pin as though emphasizing her point.

Maurette laughed and gazed back at her own reflection. She could not help but note her resemblance to her grandmother. Her eyes were large like Lady Violet’s and slanted piquantly at the corners. But where Lady Violet’s eyes had the sapphire sparkle of a sun-silvered ocean, Maurette’s were a warm opaline lavender. She brushed her fingertips over the gentle roundness of her cheekbones and along her jaw to the delicately cleft chin, which, like her grandmother’s, had been thrust out in defiance on more than one occasion. Though the countess had, in recent times, begun showing signs of her sixty-odd years, her skin retained the porcelain translucency that had made her a legendary beauty and that Maurette had inherited.

Beyond their remarkable physical beauty, the two women shared an extraordinary strength of will and a passionate need for self-respect that was rare for women of the sixteenth century Also, Maurette, like her grandmother, felt the desire to occasionally shock the natural order just enough to make it give itself a much-needed reappraisal, whereas Elaine Harper embraced the musty traditions to which the English gentry was expected to adhere. Nature had doubled back in the case of her daughter, for Maurette, like her grandmother, was possessed of a predilection to amend those traditions when the need arose.

Poor Imogene, thought Maurette. As the younger daughter, she faced a confusing labyrinth of models. She undoubtedly wanted to please their mother and did so to an extent that Maurette deemed noble. But Imogene shared with Maurette the influence of the dauntless Lady Violet. Though Imogene occasionally reproved a tired dogma and openly admired her older sister’s boldness, she was too much her mother’s daughter to give herself completely to that kind of rebellion. Imogene would think of Maurette always as the expert climber of yew trees when at their father’s estate up at Islington but would, herself, worry endlessly over torn slippers and grass-stained gowns.

At that moment, the object of Maurette’s musings burst into the room. In a froth of sparkling blue brocade, the blond and bouncy Imogene bubbled through the chamber door.

“Oh, Maurette!” she cried. “0h, Mama is piqued. Can you not hurry?” Imogene spoke in gasps as she rustled from one end of the room to the other. “Please, darling Edyth,” she pleaded, “make your usual wonderful work of Maurette’s hair, but please, please make it apace. Our mother fumes and keeps watching the staircase.”

Imogene’s forehead wrinkled in perplexity when she realized that her sense of urgency had encouraged the other two women not at all. Edyth calmly continued pulling Maurette’s wild curls into place; Maurette sat very still and silent, and, unbelievably, she wore a small smile upon her lips.

“You shall not smile long, dear sister,” said Imogene balefully. “Everyone awaits. ‘Tis most indelicate of you to be late for your own ball.”

“Thank you for your concern,” said Maurette with maddening calm. “I shall heed your admonishment. I shall hurry, shan’t we, Edyth?”

Imogene eyed them both with rueful petulance. “You have no intention of hurrying-either of you. And you must, you know,” she added excitedly. “He awaits.”

Maurette arched a brow at her sister. “Who awaits?”

“Why-him, of course,” said Imogene with genuine incredulity. “Darling Maurette, can you so easily forget the masterful gentleman who aided you so gallantly?”

“He helped me as any gentleman would help a lady in similar circumstances,” stated Maurette archly.

“Not many ladies come into such circumstances,” said Imogene with ingenuous candidness. “And for all of that, he watches for your entrance even as he speaks ever so seriously with our father.” Imogene hugged herself. “Such a handsome gentleman, that dark stranger. And,” she added shyly “a match for my bold sister, methinks.” Then in an abrupt change of attitude, she ran to Maurette’s side and impetuously hugged her. “You will hurry?” she asked. “Just perhaps we have found at last a worthy suitor for you, and I cannot wait to See what happens.” Imogene pulled herself away from her sister and danced, giggling infectiously, round the room. Maurette and Edyth could not help passing a smile between them. “‘Tis so romantic,” Imogene rhapsodized. Giving Maurette one last quick embrace, she bustled smiling from the chamber.

At her sister’s exit, Maurette sighed. The child wore patience to the bone. Of course the stranger was not waiting for Maurette. For all his attentions, he had seemed arrogant and certainly ignorant of whatever charms Imogene imagined her older sister possessed. And even if he did, in truth, await her, Maurette was not so sure that she was even vaguely interested in that circumstance.

He was, as Imogene had pointed out, handsome-in a rough sort of way, but his features were far too outrageous to turn a lady’s head. He had a hawklike nose, Maurette remembered, staring into the mirror at her own small tilted one. His lips were firm as if carved in bronze. He probably never smiled, thought Maurette, pushing the picture of his ready smile from her memory. His raven hair was almost silver in the rooms light, and the rough cut was far too short to be fashionable. The man was obviously not a gentleman for all his fine garments. His eyes, for one thing, were far too searching and brazen for a man of breeding. The way he had held her in his silver gaze made her blush even now. ‘Twas almost as if he had disrobed her, she thought hotly.

She could not shrug off that penetrating state with which he had so coarsely done away with her most practiced defenses. The young men of her acquaintance, all their drunken brashness, had never shown her that kind of discourtesy. The man who had supposedly aided her, Maurette decided, was quite simply one of those vulgar savages who had made their money and fame by pure villainy. Alex Harper, owner of one of England’s most powerful merchant fleets, had provided his daughter with glimpses of such men throughout her life. They were pirates and scoundrels and soldiers of fortune who wormed their way into the good graces of the gentry solely on the basis of ambition and a certain unholy charm.

Maurette was not about to be taken in by that charm, she decided scornfully. Such a man might beguile the likes of little Imogene, but not of herself.

Maurette looked up abruptly to find Edyth regarding her determined reflection. Maurette smiled weakly to hide her passion. “My thoughts are unguarded, dear Edyth,” she said sheepishly.

“Men,” spat Edyth and continued her efforts with Maurette’s thick tresses. “They always leave us with our guard down, child.”

Maurette hastened to change the subject. Looking at the miracle Edyth had worked on her unruly mass of flaxen curls, she said happily, “You have exceeded yourself, Edyth.” Her hair was waved up and away from her face in a heart-shaped coif atop her head. Gentle curls framed her face and neck. “Can we not darken my eyelids?” Maurette added hopefully.

Edyth rolled her dark eyes. “No kohl,” she said slipping Maurette’s petticoats over the girl’s head with care. “No Spanish paper and no ruff,” she added emphatically. “Nothing must overshadow the beauty of this.” Edyth turned away from the mirror, and when she faced it again, she was holding the most exquisite gown that Maurette had ever seen.

She gazed in wonder at the cloud of white Chantilly lace that had been cherished and lovingly stored for many years by Lady Violet. Into its pristine folds had been sewn eighteen perfect amethysts, also a gift from the dowager countess. The underskirting was of the palest ivory silk.

“Your grandmama has seen to it,” said Edyth pridefully, “That you will be the most beautiful lady at your birthday ball.”

“She would be in any event,” a dear, gentle voice said from behind Maurette.

“Oh, Grandmama,” Maurette cried and rushed to put her arms round the older woman. “‘Tis breathtaking. Thank you.”

“You will wear it well, my darling,” said Lady Violet and embraced her granddaughter warmly. “I think ’twill impress a certain tall courtier,” she added merrily.

“Courtier?” Maurette repeated dumbly. She allowed Edyth to slip the enchanting gown over her head as she spoke. “Did you call him ‘courtier’?”

“I did, child,” said the countess, lowering herself into a chair by the fire.

“Are you speaking of the stranger who . .. aided me earlier?”

“None other.”

“Who is he, Grandmama?” Maurette asked excitedly.

“He is Lord Dominic Warbrooke, Duke of Ravenshead.” Lady Violet eyed her granddaughter as one who has just dropped a heavy object purposely in a roomful of praying Puritans. She waited for and received the appropriate measure of astonishment before she continued. “He is, perforce, better known as the Silver Raven.”

Maurette gasped audibly “The Silver Raven,” she breathed. Lady Violet nodded. Maurette lowered herself to her knees before her grandmother. To Lady Violet’s delight, the girl’s voice and manner were chilled with awe. “I always believed the Silver Raven was an imaginary character, much in the manner of Robin Hood or some such legendary figure.”

Lady Violet laughed. “Oh, he is legendary-at the least as legendary as the young Robin – but he is hardly imaginary. His presence in your father’s house is proof against that.”

“I have heard wondrous and terrible tales about him, but I thought them figments of someone’s imagination.”

“The tales are most likely true, my darling,” said Lady Violet. “He was with Drake in ’79 when that great man sailed round the world. Then Lord Warbrooke’s own ship, the Raven, was sent with the queen’s sanction to sail the Spanish Main in search of gold and silver. His adventures there earned him the title the Silver Raven.” Lady Violet leaned down toward her granddaughter. Her voice became confidential. “Lord Warbrooke’s influence with Her Majesty is said to rival even Robin Dudley’s.”

Maurette’s eyes widened. She stood slowly and turned back to the mirror where Edyth was waiting to finish her work. “He is not then a ruffian,” the girl said reflectively as she sat down.

“Ah, no, dearest,” said Lady Violet laughing placidly. “He is very far from that.”

She stood and moved to where Maurette was sitting and allowing Edyth’s final ministrations with an uncharacteristic lack of interference. When one particularly errant tress defied Edyth’s careful attention to Maurette’s hair, Lady Violet stopped the tiring woman’s hand when she would have tamed it, and the curl fell sweetly over Maurette’s white shoulder.

“Nothing must be too perfect, my friend,” Lady Violet said contentedly. Edyth nodded, and both women stepped back.

They watched Maurette rise and set her shoulders regally. A slow unguarded smile crossed her lips as she turned to them. “When a ravening beast is finally bearded, I am told, he can be among the most devoted of companions.” She gave an impish wink and then floated from the room, gliding easily on a cloud of lace and ivory silk.

“In any event,” sighed Lady Violet, “She has the armaments with which to tame that lusty bird of prey.” The countess smiled. She and Edyth stood shoulder to shoulder in the bittersweet realization that their little Maurette had left the protection of their counsel forever. “‘Tis well, don’t you think, to enjoy the pleasures of youth vicariously?”

Edyth regarded her titled friend and, remembering her own youth and a certain big handsome Scotsman who had both pained and pleasured her, nodded. “‘Tis so much easier this way.”

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER THREE

Alex Harper eyed his unexpected guest with steel-eyed curiosity. He knew the man, if not by sight, at least – at the very least – by reputation. Everyone had heard of the Silver Raven, for he was feared and respected throughout the world. He was of noble birth, but his exploits on the seas were worthy of the most baseborn wharf rat. On the Spanish Main, he had killed expediently, and, it was rumored, with unscrupulous dispatch. His loyal crewmen told tales that would render the Raven proof against malice and the fairest man alive. His detractors disparaged him as a barbarian. No man as yet had been willing to test either claim, and so Dominic Warbrooke remained an enigma.

In Scotland, in France, wherever danger lurked for peaceful England, Dominic Warbrooke could be counted upon to squelch an uprising or bring a would-be assassin to justice. His dauntlessness in the name of his queen was legend. And yet . . . Alex Harper quailed at the bloody tales he had heard. He was not, himself, a man of violence.

The duke of Ravenshead had, it was whispered, cut the fingers off a Thurkish sailor one by one after the man had been discovered stealing. It was whispered at court that Mary Stuart’s little dwarf was stabbed to death before the eyes of his horrified mistress. Surely the hand of the Raven could be seen in that abomination.

Though his unyielding probity was held in high esteem, his brutality was horrifying. Whether rumor or truth, the bloody stories that attended his Silver presence were not to be taken lightly. Dominic Warbrooke was a man to be reckoned with.

Alex Harper watched as Warbrooke strode confidently toward him and wondered at the advisability of sheltering such a man beneath his roof. And yet, the message that had preceded him and had come directly from the queen had been clear. She wanted the two men to meet and discuss a matter of great urgency to the realm. Was this queen’s honored champion, then, a man worthy of the respect of ‘Her Majesty’s’ subjects? Or was he a rogue, innately capable of dealing cruel death without compunction?

The questions went unanswered as Dominic Warbrooke approached, his hand outstretched in greeting. As all eyes were upon the Crown’s most handsome, feared, and favored knight, Alex returned his greeting and indicated that the two of them should retire to a more intimate spot to converse in private. They stepped into a secluded alcove away from the prying eyes and ears of the assembled guests.

The two men were of a height and met each other with wary respect. Dominic presented his papers, and the older man accepted the parchment and loosed the queen’s seal.

He gave the contents a cursory scan. Suddenly his eyes caught a particular passage, and he looked up in disbelief. Dominic had been awaiting his reaction and now eyed his host closely.

“But this is not possible,” Alex said in astonishment.

“‘Tis possible, my lord,” Dominic said coolly.

“It says that Philip of Spain is amassing naval power and will use it against Britain.” Dominic nodded. Alex read further. “It says too that he has supporters in our midst.” Alex looked up once more for confirmation.

Dominic nodded. His demeanor was unperturbed. “Since the papal excommunication of our good queen, reports have come in from parishes as far off as Bangor and St. Asaph, that the Mary supporters have become bolder. The use of the rosary is widespread, my lord, and as the pope’s ignoble action has absolved Her Majesty’s subjects from obedience to her God-given authority, the Spanish have many supporters within our own midst. The queen has sent her royal commissioners on junkets into the provinces to quell this unholy tide, but even yet superstitious uses abound.

“More importantly, even here in London, as close to the throne as we are now, great puppets of Rome preach sedition and encourage the idolatry of images. The queen is well loved, but the supporters of Rome, and in consequence Spain, are becoming less benign and more vociferous. There is little doubt of loyalty within the Royal Navy; even now Drake sails for Cadiz to rout the privateers who pillage our shipping lanes, but Her Majesty needs special friends among the people.

“She has sent me out to speak with men who, like yourself, are loyal subjects and, as importantly, ship owners to discern whether your love of her and our country could include the commitment of guns for use in our defense.”

Alex Harper had paled visibly. “There is no question of my love for Her Majesty, nor could there be of my support with every resource at my command. I do, however, find all of this difficult to imagine. The Catholic population has seemed satisfied with the current status. I have not discovered any great dissatisfaction among their number. There is no prescribed penalty for the hearing of mass, and many console themselves with the old Latin devotions in their homes. ‘Tis unthinkable that these innocent numbers could rise up in support of that distant and disease-ridden old man.”

“Philip is old and sadly diseased, but do not underestimate either his power or his resolve. The one is based in the greatest armada the world has ever known, and the other in the sincere belief that he has divine authority and justification.” Dominic regarded Alex levelly. “Do I discern uncertainty sir?”

Alex shot his guest a riveting look. “You do not, my lord,” he said evenly. “‘Tis only that this information comes as tainted fish to my senses. I am appalled and bereaved to hear of disloyalty among Her Majesty’s subjects. And I am angered beyond words.” Alex Harper looked away from his guest and stood silent for a moment as he leashed his emotions. “I shall read the queen’s message thoroughly on the morrow,” he said when he felt control returning. “In the meanwhile”-he turned to Dominic and managed a relaxed demeanor-“will you accept the hospitality of my house?”

Dominic nodded slightly in acceptance. Alex regarded this audacious courtier with ill-concealed wariness. “A room has been prepared for you, Lord Warbrooke, and if you wish to retire until we meet tomorrow-”

Dominic interrupted his host. “I feel not the need for rest, but for recreation. If you will alow, I would much prefer to enjoy the present revelry.”

Alex cleared his throat. “We thank you,” he said after some hesitation, “for your assistance in the evening’s earlier episode. The lads are lifelong playmates of my daughter and think nothing of a ribald frolic with her.”

Dominic shifted his stance purposefully and arched a dark eyebrow. “The young woman, your daughter, is, I was told, eighteen,” he said.

“She is,” Alex answered almost defensively.

Dominic held his host in a silver gaze. “A woman of eighteen should not have men for playmates,” he said pointedly.

Sir Alex regarded his guest for a long moment. His words, when they came, were spoken in a slow, even cadence and were a warning, Dominic was sure, that was much utilized by the father of a daughter as outrageously beautiful as Maurette. “I have, perforce, protected the child overmuch,” he said, “and that will gain her nothing now that she is a woman grown. But ’tis done, and there is nothing for it but for me to continue my protection until I find a suitable husband for her.!”

“It will not be an easy task to find a ‘suitable’ husband for one so exceptional-as your daughter,” Dominic said tranquilly.

“Ah, yes,” sighed Alex. “Therein lies the most singular problem for a conscientious father.” Alex warmed to his subject.

Dominic smiled languidly. “‘Tis a heavy burden you bear,” he said with no hint of mockery in his tone.

Alex shot him a wary glance. “‘Tis that and more, sir,” he said. “The child is willful, ’tis true, but of a gentle nature when handled with care.”

“Your choice of husband must be a careful one,” Dominic said, bowing his head. “The process will be a long and complicated one, I fear.”

Alex Harper was a canny man and quick to assess the inclination of another. “You have children, my lord?”

Dominic lifted his gaze to his host. “I remain very happily unwed,” he said quietly.

“Ah, yes,” stated Alex flatly, “you must enjoy a fulfilling bachelorhood as the queen’s favorite.”

“At that moment; sir. I have no doubt that upon the morrow my vacant eyes within my disembodied head could easily be perusing the Thames from a spire atop London Bridge.” Dominic allowed a slow smile to curve his lips. Both men knew the oft touted vagaries of Her Majesty’s loyalties when it came to her courtiers.

“Those who take such things seriously find themselves the holder of blighted hopes and disillusionment and much worse. There is a younger man named Robert Devereux who even now invades Her Majesty’s affections.

“In all events, our queen has sent word to Catherine de Medici that she will accept that woman’s son, Francis, as a suitor. I have no reason to doubt that the duke of Alencon is as eager to usurp young Robert’s influence as that young man is eager to violate my own.”

Dominic paused and shook his head in sincere abrogation. “I left the sea with every intention of retiring to my estate at Ravenshead. I long, in my thirtieth year, for a quiet life.” He smiled roguishly. “Women are indispensable, ’tis true, but a great deal of trouble. In all honesty, court life and its aberrations of real life defeat me at times. When this unholy business comes to an end, I shall take up my mantle as Ravenshead’s master with a gladdened heart. In the mean times, I must curb my own desires in deference to our good queen’s. Do not mistake me, sir,” he said softly, “I accept and delight in the pulchritude that surrounds me, but I have not come to your house in search of a wife.”

Alex nodded reflectively. He did not doubt his guest’s sincerity, and that fact only served to make him even more wary of the man. He was but thirty and virile and aggressive in his manly needs. He bore watching, Alex decided.

At that moment, the men were joined by Lady Elaine. “If my husband will not honor me with an introduction, my lord,” she said delicately, “I must perforce introduce myself.”

Dominic bowed deeply. “The honor is mine, dear madam,” he said with profound deference as he took her hand and kissed it devoutly.

“Please join us and our guests in the diversion of our daughter’s birthday ball,” she twittered and led Dominic out among the company. Elaine’s inclination was clear as she offered herself for the dance. When it was done, Alex watched his wife and their guest retire to a cozy pouf near the fire. Their companionable conversation unnerved him.

The man was, by some reports, a rogue and possibly entertaining less than chivalrous thoughts concerning his beloved Maurette. He watched his wife sparkle and entertain their guest with her most practiced flirtations. She clearly saw Dominic Warbrooke as a candidate for their daughter’s affection. Little did she realize, as did her husband, that the man was as likely to bow to a woman as he was to sweep her off to that far-off retreat he had spoken of and without benefit of matrimony. He could as easily, it would seem, kill a man as discuss a point of disagreement. Such a “simple” nature in a man disconcerted Alex as much as it inspired his admiration.

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER FOUR

Maurette moved down the stone passageway toward the grand staircase. She lingered for a moment in the shadow of the landing. The ballroom was spread below her like a glittering counterpane. The small figures of the dancers glided over the marble floor in time to the lilting strains of the music. At the far end of the room, she spotted the silver stranger. He was sitting with her mother near the fire, and its glow cast gleaming highlights in his blue-black silver streaked hair.

Maurette thought of the stories her father had told her. The wildly romantic tales had enthralled her as a child. As she grew, she had become more and more enraptured by the adventurous deeds of the heroic Raven. And now, as if in a dream, he was here in her house; the silver splendor of the romantic legend a tangible reality. She could reach out and touch him if she so desired. She could walk down those stairs and place her hand upon his broad chest. She could touch that chiseled face, if she wished to, and run her finger along the line that ran down his bronzed cheek. She was the guest of honor, after all, and no one would question any action on her part. Maurette smiled and placed delicate fingertips to her lips as she thought of other, less acceptable, actions that she might take. Soft coral color mounted in her cheeks. He was, after all, not a legend but a man.

She shifted her weight a bit to get a better look at her Quarry. At that moment, the musicians spotted her as she emerged from the shadows that had hidden her. The music stopped, and Maurette was suddenly the center of all attention. She found herself looking into the crystal-line eyes of Dominic Warbrooke.

Across the ballroom Alex Harper noted the appearance of his child but not her embarrassment and moved easily toward her. Maurette saw her mother look up toward the landing and knew that, at that moment, a great deal was expected of her.

She forced a regal smile to her lips and straightened her shoulders as she stepped fully into view. One last glance in the direction of their unexpected guest told her that he was regarding her with something akin to amusement.

Maurette stiffened. She would show this ‘legend’ that she had made her own mark on society. He may be a favorite of the queen, but Maurette was not without her own status.

As guest of honor and treasured daughter of the household, Maurette lifted her lovely chin proudly. She began her descent and, with all the dignity of the heiress that she was, she made her entrance into the ballroom. Her father met her, his hand outstretched, and they swept out onto the floor. The music began again, and they danced with practiced ease.

They were a matched pair, this father and his daughter, as earlier they had been with their swords raised in the courtyard. Maurette was comfortable with her father and confident in his leadership. There was not a man present who could compete in Maurette’s mind with Alex Harper.

Alex was enjoying much the same feelings toward his elder child. No man, he felt, had ever sired a more perfect child. She was the picture of grace and beauty. And she was so much more. Her keen mind missed no opportunity to ask a question or venture an opinion. She was an excellent horsewoman, a spirited companion, and a loyal friend. She was accomplished in many things she had learned from her mother. she was the soul of diplomacy and tact when she wished to be. And all of this, Alex reflected with pride, in a woman who had just barely touched her eighteenth birthday.

His gaze fell upon the Silver Raven. The man had taken a bold interest in his daughter. He had not, in truth, taken his eyes from her since her entrance. Alex felt a shiver run through his body. Lord Warbrooke was clearly a man smitten, if such a mundane word could be used to describe any emotion that this tall and enigmatic noble-man might be feeling.

Alex’s arm tightened around his daughter’s small waist, causing Maurette to glance up quizzically into his eyes. He smiled down at her. She was now a woman, and she had aroused the interest of a most formidable gentleman Could Alex protect her in this? It seemed imperative, at that moment, that a husband be found for the girl.

Alex Harper surveyed the assemblage. Was there a man among the company to whom he could entrust his daughter’s future? There was young Timothy Braden, a lord in his own right, the fourth earl of Rice. The young man in question smiled archly in their direction as though he was aware of her father’s scrutiny. He had certainly made his interest known. He had ridden out with Alex and Maurette on many occasions and had proved himself an able, if not exemplary, horseman. His stables were, in truth, the talk of three counties.

There was Arthur Warwick. His father’s credentials were impeccable, but the boy himself, Alex groaned inwardly, was a scandal. Not only had he impregnated three kitchen wenches one summer, but he had bragged on it to several lads in the area and invited them to share his bounty one drunken night. The incident of the girls’ pregnancies gave no one pause or cause to censure the lad. In and of itself the deed was not unexpected of a well-born and high-spirited. youth, but the accompanying orgy, when discovered-for there had been little discretion in the young men’s actions that drunken night-had raised many an eyebrow and had led to questioning the boy’s judgment and his family’s failure to control him in the proprieties. Lady Elspeth had been among the first to denounce the affair and the family and had omitted the Warwicks, an old and highly respected family, from her next season altogether.

The sordid incident, in relation to the good name of the family, was insupportable. In relation to his own daughter and to her cherished future, however, the incident was to Alex appalling. To hand his child over to such a contemptible charlatan was unthinkable.

There were others, of course. Since Maurette had reached her fourteenth year, when the bloom of her promised womanhood being evident, there had been a parade of handsome, wealthy, and tided youths who had hoped to impress upon him the advantage of their suits, but Alex had resisted them. The pressure upon him had often been arduous. Though the families of the young gallants, his wife, and their friends had all insisted that this youth or that would be a perfect match for his daughter, Alex had remained adamant. None were equal to the treasure that he had to offer.

Maurette looked up at him now with perfect trust, and Alex realized that his was a mission of unyielding complexity. He must entrust this prize to one man, a man so stable and uncompromising in his masculinity that he would not be threatened by Maurette’s carefully taught and tended character. She was a young woman of rare talent and intelligence, and her spirit must be nurtured. Where would such a man be found?

He knew that Elaine had been correct in her concern for their daughter’s upbringing and the manner in which Alex had indulged her every whim. Maurette must, after all, live in a world whose very social structure made her powerless. Her wealth would automatically transfer to the man who took her to wife. She would be nothing more than chattel to that man with no legal or moral stand if the man should choose to mistreat her. The very thought made Alex wince, and again his arm tightened around her waist.

“Papa,” Maurette murmured, “you needn’t hold so tight to me. I promise I shall not leave you until after the ball.” She gazed up at him with a humorous twinkle in her eyes. Their amethyst glitter melted his heart. That he would kill any man who made those eyes sparkle with anything but joy, he knew, without a doubt.

Turning his mind from the dark reflections that haunted him, Alex attempted to simply enjoy holding his daughter’s lissome form in his arms. Every man there, he knew, envied his protection of her and would give a great deal to be in his place. He barely felt the pressure being applied to his shoulder. Smiling, he turned at the interruption to find Dominic Warbrooke standing at his side.

“May I have the honor and pleasure of this dance with your daughter, my lord?” he said genially. For all his amiability, the man’s eyes were like chill pewter as he stood with seeing patience in the middle of the floor.

Alex’s smile disappeared. He was not prompt in relinquishing his daughter’s hand. “We are, of course, honored by your request, Lord Warbrooke,” he said cautiously. To emphasize the reluctance with which he complied with the request, Alex took a long moment before he stepped away from his daughter. Tension crackled in the air between the two men.

Elaine Harper, seeing the reticence in her husband’s stance and expecting it from long years of dealing with just such confrontations, moved to the trio.

“Come, Alex,” she said gently, “dance with me that that our lovely daughter may enjoy the company of our guest.” She led a stern Alex away from the young couple. “He is an able dancer,” she said, smiling up into her husband’s eyes. “He might even test our daughter’s skill.”

When they were out of the hearing of the other guests,. Elaine murmured, “The child must needs he challenged by a new partner, my love.” Seeing the hurt in her husband’s eyes, she added, “‘Tis a sad fact of fatherhood, sweet Alex, but one that must he faced.” But Alex barely heard his wife’s words and continued to stare in the direction that his daughter had been taken by Dominic Warbrooke.

Maurette was unaware of the hard gaze that her father was bestowing upon her. At this moment, she knew only that she was being held in the arms of the Silver Raven, the hero of her childhood fantasies. He did indeed prove to be as able a dancing partner as any she had ever enjoyed. He held her and whirled her through every complicated step she had learned and some she had yet to encounter, but Maurette was an apt pupil. Keeping her eyes even with her partner’s shoulder and just above it, as she had been tutored, Maurette followed his every step. When the lively dance ended and she had given her partner the customary curtsy and he had bowed in turn, they stood motionless finally and looked into each other’s eyes.

For the first time Maurette was sensing this man as something other than the legend that had enthralled her. He was, indeed, a man. Maurette could feel the very masculine warmth emanating from his body. She breathed his musty scent that seemed a combination of tobacco and sea air. Gazing up at him as he gazed down on her, his eyes glowing with tender desire, she felt her cheeks grow warm as soft color rose to pinken her opalineskin.

Maurette lowered her silken eyelashes when the musicians Began a lilting tune. Dominic held his hand out to her in invitation, and she offered hers in gentle compliance.. This was the moment for which she had waited her whole life.

Dominic took her in his strong arms, and Maurette felt herself being lifted carefully and completely above and away from the candlelit room into a gauzy twilight of fading reality. Her world was music and starlight and the handsome courtier who twirled her effortlessly and with infinite tenderness. Time and place ceased to exist as they soared beyond substance in a dreamlike fairyland.

If the music ended, Maurette was unaware of it for the dance took the couple from the ballroom into the cool air of the courtyard without interruption. The dark starless night encircled them, and Maurette laid her head comfortably upon Dominic’s strong shoulder. The motion of the dance was like the gentle breakers of a deep lagoon that lulled her senses as it released her inhibitions.

The moon had risen, and in its pale light she suddenly found her face very close to Dominic’s. His lips hovered just above hers. The dampness of the London night coupled with the feel of rough cobbles beneath her feet brought Maurette back to reality.

“My lord,” she said quietly in the still night, “I fear that I forget myself.” She forced herself to move from his Embrace, though, in truth, nothing would have pleased her more than to remain forever in that shadowy unreality that his encircling arms represented.

They stood very close in the darkened yard. The moon cast a silvery aura behind his silver hair, leaving his face. in shadow. Only the glisten of his eyes told her that he was looking directly into hers. “If that were but true, sweet lady,” he said softly, “‘twould give sway to every other circumstance this night.”

Maurette drew a ragged breath and turned from him. Gathering her self-control she took a few steps further into the darkness. She wished the magic moment on the dance floor had never ended. Dominic Warbrooke was, by far, the handsomest man she had ever met. His real presence far outshone anything in her wildest imaginings. Somehow the thoughts that she had entertained before her entrance down the staircase seemed silly and girlish now. In the face of this man’s startling reality, his virile substance, Maurette felt giddy and childish. She wondered what he thought of her. Aside from the desire that he obviously felt, she wondered if he gave any credence to her as a person. She had tried so hard to remedy the evening’s earlier calamity.

She ran her tongue over her dry lips. He had not moved, and the silence between them raged on. “Would you walk with me, my lord?” she said finally.

“I should consider it an honor,” he responded easily. Her own trepidation, it would seem, was not shared by her companion. He offered her his forearm, and she placed delicate fingertips on it. They moved into the moonlit gardens that surrounded the courtyard. Shadows fell over the silvered pathways between the beds of foliage and early blooming iris. In a distant alley a dog barked. It was the only sound except for the music from within and the soft rustling of her skirts against the shrubbery.

“We have not really been introduced,” Maurette said after they had strolled for some moments.

Dominic stopped and turned to her. “Forgive me for forgoing the formality of asking for an introduction. My name, dear lady, is Dominic Warbrooke,” he said, bowing.

Maurette offered her hand and her prettiest curtsy. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance, good sir,” she said, smiling. Her eyes lowered as she noted the deeply etched amusement in his eyes. They continued to walk through the gardens. She knew that she could not allow more time to pass before mentioning what had earlier passed between them. She did not, however, know how to broach the subject. “I must thank you for your protection,” she said after a long pause.

“It was my pleasure, my lady,” he drawled. “I fear the young men are of a temperament,” she sighed through a despairing smile.

“They should not be blamed, my lady.” He swept her with a silver gaze.

Maurette hesitated mid-step and looked up squarely into his eyes. “I must beg your pardon, sir,” she said, a question in her voice. Her eyebrows quirked, forming a wrinkle of perplexity on her smooth forehead. She expected him to retract at once such an unvarnished statement, but he merely turned his eyes to the path in front of him and kept on walking.

“No need to beg my pardon,” he said amiably. “You heard me correctly The young men merely affected behavior that they were led to believe was licensed by your own. A person responds to another in kind.”

Maurette could not believe her ears. That any action of hers had caused unchivalrous behavior among the lads was unthinkable. “Again, I beg your pardon,” she said stiffly. “I cannot credit that you hold my conduct responsible for the lack of gallantry displayed by those young gentlemen. Each man is responsible for his own actions.”

“And each woman.” He stopped and turned abruptly to face her. “Please feel no need to beg my pardon again, my lady. I but point to the truth in the situation.” He bowed again and continued his walk.

Maurette’s eyes widened in disbelief.

“Truth, sir,” she gasped as she hiked up her gown to an unladylike degree and trotted after him. “I hear no truth in what you speak. It seems you fault me in the earlier debacle.”

“I do, my lady,” he said quietly, “at least in part.”

Maurette stopped short. “Then,” she said with an anger she had not, in all her eighteen years, experienced, “there is no use for further words between us.” Her great eyes sparkled with amethyst fire, and the moonlight kindled her dark upswept curls so that shards of silver reflected from them. She noted with satisfaction that her words seemed to have stopped his progress. He turned to face her. She had hoped to find that blatant masculine assurance quelled but, maddeningly, a smile played upon his lips and his gaze raked her with an insolent regard. Her little chin shot up in defiance. “I thank you for the walk, my lord,” she said with a haughtiness that she usually reserved for bumbling lads bent on courting her. “Your attention to me has honored our house.” She turned on her heel and swept regally in the direction of the ballroom.

In truth, his accusation tugged at her conscience. She knew that she had enjoyed the ribald attentions of the young men and had encouraged their easy camaraderie since her youth. Her guilt fomented her anger. Beyond everything, Warbrooke’s audacious behavior could not be countenanced, and his rebuke could not go unpunished.

Maurette could not reach the protection of her friends soon enough. In those secure environs, she would cut the impertinent Warbrooke to the quick and dispense with his uncomplimentary candor once and for all. Let the scoundrel wallow in his unwelcome uprightness for all eternity. Maurette would not be party to it, nor would her friends nor her father, for that matter. Whatever business he had with the devil, he would be well advised to end it here and now. Maurette’s resolve lengthened her pace and quickened her step. Suddenly, on the step that led to the entrance of the ballroom, Maurette felt herself jerked to a stop. She was whirled with ungentle speed to face Dominic Warbrooke.

Surprise showed on her face, and outrage flashed through her like a knife. “How dare you!” she sputtered. She could not quite believe what had happened. All her life she had known deference from men. And, the forays into swordmanship with her father and the occasional boldness of her young male friends, Maurette had never experienced overt aggression in a man.

She looked wildly up into his silver eyes. His face was hard, the skin taut and gleaming over his cheekbones, and his mouth a grim line. Maurette’s mind raced to his abominable past. No matter that a man possessed a title or the sanction of the queen or both, out on the untamed wilderness of the sea, he was his own master and lived by no rule but his own. Maurette’s gentle breeding had not prepared her for such a confrontation. It could provide only glimmers of what he might be capable of doing to her. Her fingers were splayed on his broad muscled chest, and she felt a scream rising in her throat. She tried desperately to free herself.

Without warning, his head came down toward her, and as his large hands trapped her white shoulders, his mouth caught hers in a brutal kiss. The pounding of his heart against her flatted breasts startled her as much as the kiss, and Maurette struggled wildly against him. For her struggles, she was simply held tighter and closer, his muscular arms going around her and her wriggling body pressed to the lean hard length of him.

As her strength slowly ebbed, she found herself recalling the sublime moments on the dance floor. Her heart leaped within her chest, and her will gradually began to give way to his desire. Mercifully, before that happened, he lifted his lips from hers. He continued to hold her in a viselike grip, one large hand cradling the back of her head.

“Forgive me, little one,” he rasped, “you are too much temptation for any man.” He trailed kisses down the slender arch of her throat, and Maurette felt the unbelievable sensation of warm response course through her veins. Not only was the feeling totally new to her, but she felt dismayed by the terrible power it seemed to have over her senses. She could not believe that his hot kisses were sending sparks of raw pleasure through her body. She struggled to regain her reason. This was not, after all, an untamed wilderness; this was her home in London.

Whatever the rapacious instincts of this barbaric nobleman were, she could not allow herself to fall prey to his rampant masculinity. Struggling against the betrayal of her treacherous body, Maurette relaxed in the arms that imprisoned her like bands of iron. She noted the loosening of his grip and took lighting -like advantage of his momentary lapse. With all the fury of unbridled righteousness, she gave a mighty shove. The Duke of Ravenshead registered the ultimate surprise and, without ceremony and much to Maurette’s satisfaction, landed squarely on his backside in an undignified sprawl. He immediately tried to scramble to his feet.

Maurette stopped him with her words and by placing a small silken toe on his chest. “Hold, Sir Errant Knight,” she said in a stentorian tone. “You imagine that you have strolled into this courtyard with a tavern wench, me-thinks. look again, sir.” She stood over him now, her feet wide apart and her hands on her hips.

Dominic regarded her from his lowly position. On his face was a mixture of outrage and admiration. He did not know what he felt at this moment. How dare the chit shove him unawares! And yet, there she stood, unchecked fury staining her cheeks coral and turning those remarkable eyes the most amazing shade of deep icy purple. Her breasts heaved, and her flaxen curls tumbled wildly in a tangled tumult of alluring spun gold. Most women, in the face of such an advance, would have swooned or burst into floods of tears. But not she.

“You have taken liberties with me, sir, that no man has ever dared,” she said steadily. “You shall see that this unacceptable behavior in my father’s house or anywhere in civilized society cannot be tolerated. Your title will not protect you here nor will your position at court.”

Maurette finished with a haughty swish of her voluminous skirts, and she turned to leave him alone and abashed in the dim courtyard.

“Forgive me, my lady,” he said evenly.

Maurette stopped and turned fully to face him. “Forgive, sir?” she said icily. “Forgive? Forgive insufferable behavior and loutish actions? Forgive insults of the most indelicate sort? Surely you jest, sir.” Her lips curled into a smile that did not reach her eyes.

Dominic had not moved from the place where she had unceremoniously dumped him but began to rise now, as he realized that her relentless anger was not about to lessen. She moved toward him with determination, and her delicate voice assailed him.

“You ask for, nay expect, polite reprieve for your insufferable behavior,” Maurette said, allowing him no moment for response. “Well, sir, I do not grace low actions with forgiveness. Instead, sir,” she spat out his tide, “Duke of Ravenshead, Silver Raven of the Queen, I demand satisfaction of an insult. And, sir, I do demand satisfaction of you.” Maurette regarded him contemptuously. “I is no more than I’ve a right to expect. And may I add that, if honor is to be upheld, you must needs also demand satisfaction. ‘Tis not every day, I would imagine, that a courtier of the queen is tossed willy-nilly on his hind end by a stripling girl.” She tossed her curls in smug satisfaction.

Dominic could not believe his ears. The chit was challenging him to a duel. And she was challenging him in such a way that for him to refuse would mean dishonor of the most laughable sort. The indignity of the outrageous situation suddenly struck a deep note of amusement, and Dominic reared back his head and gave forth with a loud peal of laughter.

Maurette bridled at this new attitude. She had hoped to intimidate him with her challenge and even now looked forward to reissuing her proposal in the presence of witness. Seeing him now, in that vulnerable and, by all reports, uncharacteristic pose, however, softened her heart. She felt laughter bubbling to her own lips. Maurette attempted to stifle the unwanted giggles by pressing her delicate fingertips to her mouth, but the laughter would not be stilled and emerged in merry harmony with Dominic’s.

It was in this unguarded circumstance that Lady Violet found her granddaughter and their guest. “God’s teeth,” she blurted when she saw the nobleman sprawled on the ground.

Maurette turned with a start, the laughter dying in her throat. She primly brushed at her skirts. “We were strolling, Grandmama … and we … we …, She looked to Dominic for help.

The duke rose and bowed to his venerable hostess. “Your lovely granddaughter and I were strolling,” he continued Maurette’s explanation. “We were strolling, and we stopped to try a particularly complex dance step – you are, I imagine, quite proud of your granddaughter’s mastery of the dance-and the cobbles proved a bit slippery and we-” Dominic’s smooth lie was cut off by a distinct, if suppressed, tinkle of laughter that emanated from the lips of Lady Violet.

“Do you know something?” said the countess, attempting to dispel her mirth. “I believe it was just that same intricate step that toppled Maurette’s grandfather and me over forty years past.” Lady Violet entwined her arms in those of the two younger people and led them into the ballroom. “Isn’t it odd that some things never change?”

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER FIVE

The entertainment for the evening proved a joyous complement to the ball. Alex Harper had imported a group of young masters from the country where they were making their warm-weather residence. Actors always added a festive note to any party, and Maurette’s birthday ball would not have been complete without their talents.

As a rule, actors were considered an unsavory lot, never to be trusted as conscientious citizens. Each troupe endeavored to receive the sanction and protection of a nobleman to guarantee their behavior while they were in residence. Raucous or untoward conduct on their part was not acceptable, and the men were expected to comport themselves in a manner that would honor their patron’s name. For the most part, the actors were a soft-spoken lot, serious in their demeanor and, under the watchful eyes of the gentry at least, businesslike in their approach to their art. On stage, however, there were few limits to what might be expected of them.

Maurette and Imogene seated themselves for the interlude that was about to be enacted and giggled appreciatively over the men who now danced and juggled and piped silly melodies as an introduction to the evening’s masque.

The two girls watched in joyful awe as the masters gathered on the makeshift stage; one they had themselves erected with the aid of four upright supports and a board set on top. The guests found seating and quieted while shadows thrown by the wavering flames of the torches apportioning the area of the stage danced on their expectant faces. Elizabethans loved their entertainment, and this one proved as dazzling as any they had seen.

The troupe performed a ribald interlude involving a ruffian named Christopher Sly. His wild antics, including an improbable brawl with a barroom bawd, enchanted and amused the audience. Maurette found herself laughing uproariously when the bejeweled and painted woman finally dragged the drunken Christopher over her knee and spanked him soundly. The bawd’s young and innocent daughter intervened and brought the young Sly to his senses with sweet words and hot broth. When the girl’s mother discovered the two in gentle communion, she promptly set to beating the unfortunate hero within an inch of his life, the actor doing several back-flips to emphasize the impact of the woman’s blows. Maurette and Imogene gasped audibly at the physicalness of the battle, then applauded heartily when the young daughter and Christopher turned upon the woman, giving her a dose of her own medicine. The bawd’s ensuing acrobatics sent the appreciative audience into gales of laughter.

Noting their mother’s admonishing glare, Maurette and Imogene realized they really should not be enjoying anything that outrageous so thoroughly. The sisters placed their hands primly in their laps and contented themselves with joining in a final round of exuberant applause as the actors came out to take their bows. The painted bawd and her innocent daughter were particularly appreciated when they removed their wigs and revealed themselves to be men.

Maurette was the last to cease applauding as candles and torches were re-lit and the room was once again bright with light. As the music started up, Maurette’s mind flew back reluctantly to the reality of her situation. She wondered if Dominic would report her inexcusable behavior in the courtyard. She did not believe so, else why would he have protected her when her grandmother had discovered them? In any event, the duke of Ravenshead did not seem the type to complain to others of injustices done him. He seemed more likely to carry out his own justice in his own manner And, Maurette reasoned further, his own behavior had been less than exemplary If he dared to call her out for her unladylike boldness, she certainly had her own tale to tell and her own rationale for seeking justice.

When Timothy Braden invited Maurette to dance, she accepted. She did not note the silver gaze that accompanied her and the earl of Rice onto the dance floor.

Slanting a look up at young Braden’s callow face, she thought he was a handsome lad. He had a nice face and was from a well-connected family He spoke well and rode well, and he had certainly made his devotion to her obvious. She really did like Tim, she mused as she as she listened to his light-hearted to his chatter recalling the events of the interlude just performed. She laughed easily as they danced in companionable and courtly fashion.

Maurette darted a glance in the direction of Dominic saw he was watching her from where he stood in isolation at the end of the room. His brooding demeanor unnerved her, and with deliberateness, she turned her attention back to Timothy.

She dimpled prettily for this worthy boon companion. Timothy would never cause her embarrassment as had that titled interloper Timothy would never force her into compromising attitudes and provoke emotional responses from her that she did not care to display. Timothy was deferential and constant in his attitude toward her, always gentlemanly.

At another, Maurette pondered, she might have termed him dull, but tonight she was grateful for his comfortable presence and proceeded to flirt with him outrageously.

The young man was surprised and delighted with her coquettishness, which Maurette had not shown him before. Perhaps it signaled a new and more fruitful area their relationship, one he had hoped to explore during the latter years of their acquaintance. Maurette was a delightful and fascinating creature, and Timothy felt his masculine sensitivities to her feminine wiles overtake him.

When dinner was announced, many of the young couples continued dancing, but Maurette decided that this was an excellent time to introduce her parents to the new facet of her and Timothy’s relationship. She knew it would make her mother happy, for Elaine had always liked Timothy and encouraged his suit. Maurette led the young man to the banquet hall where she invited him to join the family for supper.

>From across the room Dominic had watched Maurette’s flirtatious display in blazing silence. As he eyed her exit with the unsuspecting Timothy with disgust, he felt it would give him no end of pleasure to swat the shapely backside of that impish little chit for leading that that poor youth to what would surely be a bloodletting. That innocent young gallant would in all probability faint if the fair Maurette ever showed her vixenish nature to him as she had in the courtyard to Dominic. The earl of Rice would not know what to do with that wild and untamed aspect of the politely bred Maurette of his acquaintance. Dominic allowed himself a small smile as he contemplated Timothy’s reaction had she challenged him to a duel. There was no question that the young man would have fumfered, cleared his throat, and tried to cajole her out of her pique. Dominic knew what his own reaction would have been if the countess had not appeared just then.

He should, by rights, have accepted the hellcat’s confrontation, regardless. ‘Twould have served her right to be forced to face her own reckless behavior.

“Your secret is safe with me, but not for long, I fear.” The voice was soft and melodious. Dominic stopped short in his musings and turned to find a startling pair of sapphire eyes upon him. Lady Violet met his surprise with calm amusement. The corners of her lovely lips quirked as she noted Dominic’s sullen attention on the dining room. “She has not gone far,” said the dowager.

Dominic bowed respectfully “I am honored by your attention, my lady,” he said for lack of other words.

“Will you invite me to dance?” said Lady Violet with a dainty curtsy.

“Why-why yes, my lady,” Dominic said in bewilderment.

“Do not be so surprised,” said Lady Violet, taking his arm and allowing him to lead her onto the floor. “I love to dance, you see, but all the men worth dancing with fear that, in my dotage, I will break. I am not, I assure you, fragile; I only appear so.”

The countess’s stamina on the dance floor, once proved, was happily and perhaps rather wickedly essayed by her partner. “I told you, I love to dance,” she reminded Dominic as he executed a complex routine that she followed expertly. They both laughed.

“My granddaughter is lovely, is she not?” the countess understated when the dance had slowed.

Dominic growled his assent then looked directly down into the woman’s eyes. “Your granddaughter is is…”

“Yes?” questioned Lady Violet innocently. “Please go on, sir.”

“She is…”

“You seem to be having a difficult time with words this night,” she said pertly.

Dominic regarded the countess in amazement. This exquisitely beautiful older woman was flirting with him, toying with the duke of Ravenshead, the nefarious Silver Raven. He held her firmly, and they negotiated another complicated step. Dominic chuckled low in his throat. The apple had fallen not far from the tree, he decided. He cocked a silver eyebrow and looked directly into her lovely eyes.

“Your granddaughter is lovely,” he stated and added, “She is of excellent stock.”

Lady Violet nodded. “Indeed, sir. I envy the man who wins her hand in marriage, don’t you?”

“Marriage,” said Dominic archly. Then amending his attitude, he said, “Envy is not quite the response I would conjure for myself in thinking of another’s marriage to your fair Maurette.”

The two danced in silence for a few moments, and when the dance ended, they regarded each other with mutual admiration. Dominic led the countess to a window seat. In deference to her age, he offered her a chair, but she contented herself with settling down on the padded sill.

“You seem to display a distinct aversion to the word ‘marriage,'” she said easily when they were seated opposite each other in the cozy embrasure.

“Is that your assessment, my lady?”

“It is, sir.”

“‘Tis not the word I hasten to avoid but the condition.”

“And yet,” she continued relentlessly, “Our little Maurette interests you.”

“Very much,” Dominic said. It was his turn to do some toying. He did not know how far he could push the countess, but his instinct told him that her sense of adventure at least matched that of her granddaughter and that her spirit was not easily splintered. “You will undoubtedly be taken unawares to learn that the young lady we speak of has challenged me to a duel.”

“Has she?” said the countess tranquilly. Her poise irritated Dominic.

“Naturally I am interested in such a lady,” he said, emphasizing the last word.

“Naturally,” said Lady Violet, amusement evident in her bright eyes. “Did you insult her?”

“I spoke the truth to her.”

“Ah,” said the countess with understanding. “That is always dangerous.”

“More dangerous than I had anticipated,” said Dominic ruefully.

“Our Maurette is not in want of courage where she perceives offense.”

Dominic smiled. “She perceived offense this night, my lady.”

“And, I suppose, none was intended.”

“I must admit to a desire to-test a reaction,” he said with a wide grin.

Lady Violet liked his smile. She liked this young nobleman, in truth, as much as any she had met. “What was the outcome?” she asked sweetly.

“Outcome?” asked Dominic, suddenly serious. “Why, there was none. Your appearance on the field of honor ended the matter,” he said, his smile returning.

“I see,” said the woman, rising thoughtfully. “Shall we go into supper, young Raven?”

This woman bemused him. She was, at once, regal and serene; yet she was possessed of a kittenish, playful nature. He did not remember his emotions ever having been so tangled in the course of one conversation. She had a certain feminine power and a decided female mystique that intrigued him as much as he had ever been intrigued and by much younger women. If the granddaughter had a tenth of the grandmother’s finesse, she would almost be worth a matrimonially inclined perusal, that is, of course, if Dominic were matrimonially inclined.

The legendary privateer watched in admiration as the legendary beauty swept her way across the ballroom floor. He was alert to any one of a hundred possibilities where it concerned that infinite woman. With her, anything was possible. She glanced back at him over a slender shoulder. Dominic arched an eyebrow. Then, with a smile and a shake of his head, he followed and entered the banquet hall with the lovely countess, composed and contented, on his arm.

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER FIVE

The entertainment for the evening proved a joyous complement to the ball. Alex Harper had imported a group of young masters from the country where they were making their warm-weather residence. Actors always added a festive note to any party, and Maurette’s birthday ball would not have been complete without their talents.

As a rule, actors were considered an unsavory lot, never to be trusted as conscientious citizens. Each troupe endeavored to receive the sanction and protection of a nobleman to guarantee their behavior while they were in residence. Raucous or untoward conduct on their part was not acceptable, and the men were expected to comport themselves in a manner that would honor their patron’s name. For the most part, the actors were a soft-spoken lot, serious in their demeanor and, under the watchful eyes of the gentry at least, businesslike in their approach to their art. On stage, however, there were few limits to what might be expected of them.

Maurette and Imogene seated themselves for the interlude that was about to be enacted and giggled appreciatively over the men who now danced and juggled and piped silly melodies as an introduction to the evening’s masque.

The two girls watched in joyful awe as the masters gathered on the makeshift stage; one they had themselves erected with the aid of four upright supports and a board set on top. The guests found seating and quieted while shadows thrown by the wavering flames of the torches apportioning the area of the stage danced on their expectant faces. Elizabethans loved their entertainment, and this one proved as dazzling as any they had seen.

The troupe performed a ribald interlude involving a ruffian named Christopher Sly. His wild antics, including an improbable brawl with a barroom bawd, enchanted and amused the audience. Maurette found herself laughing uproariously when the bejeweled and painted woman finally dragged the drunken Christopher over her knee and spanked him soundly. The bawd’s young and innocent daughter intervened and brought the young Sly to his senses with sweet words and hot broth. When the girl’s mother discovered the two in gentle communion, she promptly set to beating the unfortunate hero within an inch of his life, the actor doing several back-flips to emphasize the impact of the woman’s blows. Maurette and Imogene gasped audibly at the physicalness of the battle, then applauded heartily when the young daughter and Christopher turned upon the woman, giving her a dose of her own medicine. The bawd’s ensuing acrobatics sent the appreciative audience into gales of laughter.

Noting their mother’s admonishing glare, Maurette and Imogene realized they really should not be enjoying anything that outrageous so thoroughly. The sisters placed their hands primly in their laps and contented themselves with joining in a final round of exuberant applause as the actors came out to take their bows. The painted bawd and her innocent daughter were particularly appreciated when they removed their wigs and revealed themselves to be men.

Maurette was the last to cease applauding as candles and torches were re-lit and the room was once again bright with light. As the music started up, Maurette’s mind flew back reluctantly to the reality of her situation. She wondered if Dominic would report her inexcusable behavior in the courtyard. She did not believe so, else why would he have protected her when her grandmother had discovered them? In any event, the duke of Ravenshead did not seem the type to complain to others of injustices done him. He seemed more likely to carry out his own justice in his own manner And, Maurette reasoned further, his own behavior had been less than exemplary If he dared to call her out for her unladylike boldness, she certainly had her own tale to tell and her own rationale for seeking justice.

When Timothy Braden invited Maurette to dance, she accepted. She did not note the silver gaze that accompanied her and the earl of Rice onto the dance floor.

Slanting a look up at young Braden’s callow face, she thought he was a handsome lad. He had a nice face and was from a well-connected family He spoke well and rode well, and he had certainly made his devotion to her obvious. She really did like Tim, she mused as she as she listened to his light-hearted to his chatter recalling the events of the interlude just performed. She laughed easily as they danced in companionable and courtly fashion.

Maurette darted a glance in the direction of Dominic saw he was watching her from where he stood in isolation at the end of the room. His brooding demeanor unnerved her, and with deliberateness, she turned her attention back to Timothy.

She dimpled prettily for this worthy boon companion. Timothy would never cause her embarrassment as had that titled interloper Timothy would never force her into compromising attitudes and provoke emotional responses from her that she did not care to display. Timothy was deferential and constant in his attitude toward her, always gentlemanly.

At another, Maurette pondered, she might have termed him dull, but tonight she was grateful for his comfortable presence and proceeded to flirt with him outrageously.

The young man was surprised and delighted with her coquettishness, which Maurette had not shown him before. Perhaps it signaled a new and more fruitful area their relationship, one he had hoped to explore during the latter years of their acquaintance. Maurette was a delightful and fascinating creature, and Timothy felt his masculine sensitivities to her feminine wiles overtake him.

When dinner was announced, many of the young couples continued dancing, but Maurette decided that this was an excellent time to introduce her parents to the new facet of her and Timothy’s relationship. She knew it would make her mother happy, for Elaine had always liked Timothy and encouraged his suit. Maurette led the young man to the banquet hall where she invited him to join the family for supper.

>From across the room Dominic had watched Maurette’s flirtatious display in blazing silence. As he eyed her exit with the unsuspecting Timothy with disgust, he felt it would give him no end of pleasure to swat the shapely backside of that impish little chit for leading that that poor youth to what would surely be a bloodletting. That innocent young gallant would in all probability faint if the fair Maurette ever showed her vixenish nature to him as she had in the courtyard to Dominic. The earl of Rice would not know what to do with that wild and untamed aspect of the politely bred Maurette of his acquaintance. Dominic allowed himself a small smile as he contemplated Timothy’s reaction had she challenged him to a duel. There was no question that the young man would have fumfered, cleared his throat, and tried to cajole her out of her pique. Dominic knew what his own reaction would have been if the countess had not appeared just then.

He should, by rights, have accepted the hellcat’s confrontation, regardless. ‘Twould have served her right to be forced to face her own reckless behavior.

“Your secret is safe with me, but not for long, I fear.” The voice was soft and melodious. Dominic stopped short in his musings and turned to find a startling pair of sapphire eyes upon him. Lady Violet met his surprise with calm amusement. The corners of her lovely lips quirked as she noted Dominic’s sullen attention on the dining room. “She has not gone far,” said the dowager.

Dominic bowed respectfully “I am honored by your attention, my lady,” he said for lack of other words.

“Will you invite me to dance?” said Lady Violet with a dainty curtsy.

“Why-why yes, my lady,” Dominic said in bewilderment.

“Do not be so surprised,” said Lady Violet, taking his arm and allowing him to lead her onto the floor. “I love to dance, you see, but all the men worth dancing with fear that, in my dotage, I will break. I am not, I assure you, fragile; I only appear so.”

The countess’s stamina on the dance floor, once proved, was happily and perhaps rather wickedly essayed by her partner. “I told you, I love to dance,” she reminded Dominic as he executed a complex routine that she followed expertly. They both laughed.

“My granddaughter is lovely, is she not?” the countess understated when the dance had slowed.

Dominic growled his assent then looked directly down into the woman’s eyes. “Your granddaughter is is…”

“Yes?” questioned Lady Violet innocently. “Please go on, sir.”

“She is…”

“You seem to be having a difficult time with words this night,” she said pertly.

Dominic regarded the countess in amazement. This exquisitely beautiful older woman was flirting with him, toying with the duke of Ravenshead, the nefarious Silver Raven. He held her firmly, and they negotiated another complicated step. Dominic chuckled low in his throat. The apple had fallen not far from the tree, he decided. He cocked a silver eyebrow and looked directly into her lovely eyes.

“Your granddaughter is lovely,” he stated and added, “She is of excellent stock.”

Lady Violet nodded. “Indeed, sir. I envy the man who wins her hand in marriage, don’t you?”

“Marriage,” said Dominic archly. Then amending his attitude, he said, “Envy is not quite the response I would conjure for myself in thinking of another’s marriage to your fair Maurette.”

The two danced in silence for a few moments, and when the dance ended, they regarded each other with mutual admiration. Dominic led the countess to a window seat. In deference to her age, he offered her a chair, but she contented herself with settling down on the padded sill.

“You seem to display a distinct aversion to the word ‘marriage,'” she said easily when they were seated opposite each other in the cozy embrasure.

“Is that your assessment, my lady?”

“It is, sir.”

“‘Tis not the word I hasten to avoid but the condition.”

“And yet,” she continued relentlessly, “Our little Maurette interests you.”

“Very much,” Dominic said. It was his turn to do some toying. He did not know how far he could push the countess, but his instinct told him that her sense of adventure at least matched that of her granddaughter and that her spirit was not easily splintered. “You will undoubtedly be taken unawares to learn that the young lady we speak of has challenged me to a duel.”

“Has she?” said the countess tranquilly. Her poise irritated Dominic.

“Naturally I am interested in such a lady,” he said, emphasizing the last word.

“Naturally,” said Lady Violet, amusement evident in her bright eyes. “Did you insult her?”

“I spoke the truth to her.”

“Ah,” said the countess with understanding. “That is always dangerous.”

“More dangerous than I had anticipated,” said Dominic ruefully.

“Our Maurette is not in want of courage where she perceives offense.”

Dominic smiled. “She perceived offense this night, my lady.”

“And, I suppose, none was intended.”

“I must admit to a desire to-test a reaction,” he said with a wide grin.

Lady Violet liked his smile. She liked this young nobleman, in truth, as much as any she had met. “What was the outcome?” she asked sweetly.

“Outcome?” asked Dominic, suddenly serious. “Why, there was none. Your appearance on the field of honor ended the matter,” he said, his smile returning.

“I see,” said the woman, rising thoughtfully. “Shall we go into supper, young Raven?”

This woman bemused him. She was, at once, regal and serene; yet she was possessed of a kittenish, playful nature. He did not remember his emotions ever having been so tangled in the course of one conversation. She had a certain feminine power and a decided female mystique that intrigued him as much as he had ever been intrigued and by much younger women. If the granddaughter had a tenth of the grandmother’s finesse, she would almost be worth a matrimonially inclined perusal, that is, of course, if Dominic were matrimonially inclined.

The legendary privateer watched in admiration as the legendary beauty swept her way across the ballroom floor. He was alert to any one of a hundred possibilities where it concerned that infinite woman. With her, anything was possible. She glanced back at him over a slender shoulder. Dominic arched an eyebrow. Then, with a smile and a shake of his head, he followed and entered the banquet hall with the lovely countess, composed and contented, on his arm.

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER SIX

Two fires blazed at opposite ends of the huge banquet hall. Crystal chandeliers hung from the arched ceiling and cast their softly flickering reflections onto the gold and silver serving pieces artfully arranged on snowy white linen cloths. Serving girls passed among the guests in the glittering hall with enormous salvers of cheese and meat pastries. Children, offspring of the adult and nearly adult servants, scurried about proffering pitchers of ale and sugared wines. Platters were heavily laden with woodcock and sausages, and fresh and candied fruits filled great silver bowls on each table. Creamed onions in an aromatic sauce were available, and spiced vegetables were passed. Plates of cheeses and tiny pilchards rolled in meal and fried crisp were emptied and refilled. The revelers ate with noisy enjoyment as they called for more bacon or another helping of potage.

Lady Violet stood at the entrance to the room, regarding the guests carefully. She knew that she must act before appetites waned and individuals were seen to excuse themselves from the tables to stroll in the gardens or simply enjoy a quiet moment before resuming dancing.

“You must join me at the head table, dear Dominic,” she said softly, her voice barely audible above the happy din.

Dominic eyed her guardedly. “I wonder that you voice such an invitation, my lady,” he said, matching her quiet tone.

She smiled serenely. “We have business there,” she said and swept through the crowds of servants toward the table where her family sat. Dominic followed, wondering at the advisability of the move. He knew that he would not be welcomed by at least one member of the Harper family, and if Maurette had told of their encounter, he might find himself discharged into the damp London streets. His behavior bad been something less than diplomatic, and though the queen had sanctioned his piracy, he doubted very much that she would warrant such impolitic treatment of the privileged daughter of this respected family. He chided himself for his baiting of the girl. But, God’s blood, how was he to know that she would call him out for it! The chit was as unpredictable as the month of her birth.

When they reached the table, Dominic offered a courtly bow though he declined Elaine Harper’s gentle insistence that he join the family.

“Oh, but you must sit with us, if only for a moment, my lord,” she said. “We missed you and my mother at dinner.”

“We were dancing,” said Lady Violet, tilting a sprightly look up at Dominic.

The matter seemed resolved. Dominic breathed a silent sigh of relief. Of course, he could have counted on the chit’s discretion, if not to save his reputation, then surely to preserve her own. The smile he bestowed on Elaine Harper was as much in acknowledgment of her sweet invitation as it was in remembrance of her daughter’s proclivity to mischance. The girl had made enough trouble for herself this night; she was not about to bring more upon herself.

Dominic turned to Maurette, seated next to her improbable little suitor. He bowed solemnly, then turned to the giggling Imogene and offered her a genial wink. She responded with a nod of her blond curls.

“Oh, sir,” she said joyfully, “could it be that I may steal you away from my grandmama when the dancing, resumes?”

Before Dominic could respond in the affirmative, Lady Violet’s voice resonated in the big room. “This family,” she said, “has more important things to think of than dancing.”

All eyes turned to the regal figure who now stood behind her son-in-law at the head of the table. The dais on which the table was situated provided an appropriate stage for her announcement. A hush settled over the room.

“‘Twould seem there is a dangling issue between the elder daughter of this house and our guest.” All eyes were upon the countess as she walked to the edge of the dais and faced Dominic. His face was a mask. Even with the advantage of the added height, Lady Violet was forced to look up at him. She gazed boldly into his eyes, which were glittering like polished steel. Even if she could have read his fearsome warnings, he doubted that she would have been daunted. As he suspected, she went on.

“‘Twould seem,” she said, turning her gaze on first the assembly and then the family and then directly on Maurette, ” ‘twould seem,” she said in a softer tone, “there is the matter of a challenge to be honored.”

A collective gasp filled the hall. Alex Harper stood, knocking over his wine goblet, and stared at his mother-in-law in disbelief. Lady Elaine gasped audibly, and Maurette quailed at her grandmother’s insistent regard. Surely she could not have said the words. And yet, there they were, hanging like a lightning-filled nimbus in the air.

“What is this challenge you speak of?” bellowed Alex Harper.

“‘Tis only that your own daughter offered the charge upon our guest, the duke of Ravenshead, for a perceived slight. I do think that this matter bears investigation, do you not agree, Alex?” Lady Violet’s face was a mask of innocence as she watched all eyes dart to Dominic Warbrooke.

“Is this true?” Alex Harper demanded.

“It is true,” Dominic said evenly.

“The challenge,” Maurette choked out, “was delivered in jest, Papa.” She stood and crossed to the front of the dais. “I assure you no insult was taken or intended preceding that exchange.” She swept the hall with a pleading look. Surely no one would expect her to duel with the Silver Raven. She looked toward Dominic but found no reassurance in the slow smile that was forming on his lips. Her eyes widened. His eyes had taken on a feral glint. Maurette flinched inwardly at the aggression she noted in his demeanor. His countenance, in truth, led her to the horrifying thought that he might enjoy facing her on the field of honor.

Lady Violet glanced from one to the other. “Was I mistaken, Dominic, in my understanding of your earlier comment? Did you not tell me that my granddaughter made you a challenge?”

Dominic hooded his gaze. “She did, your Ladyship.” He lifted his eyes to Maurette’s ashen face. His strong, bronzed hand fingered the golden hilt of his sword. “I cannot but believe that the child was bantering with me. ‘Twas foolish banter on her part, ’tis true. And though I have never, in my life, disregarded a challenge honestly made and steadfastly maintained, in this case and given the child’s lack of judgment, I will offer my apology to my host and hostess. That any circumstance that would cause them discomfort should arise on my account is most lamentable.”

Maurette reeled from his designation of her as a child. she faced Dominic with the full depth of her righteous abandon. A wiser head would have grasped at the opportunity given her to retract the rashly made challenge. She recoiled only momentarily at the menacing glower she encountered in Dominic’s eyes.

“The challenge was, I assure you, honestly made,” she said angrily.

He arched a finely shaped silver eyebrow, which only whetted her fury even further. “Indeed,” he said quietly. His tone seemed a warning that the assembled company hoped their enchanting little Maurette would heed.

“Indeed,” Maurette said sharply. “And,” she added with an uncertain waver in her voice that only Dominic detected, “It is, of course, steadfastly maintained.”

“So be it,” said Dominic softly.

The crowd reacted with gasping outrage. Lady Elspeth was exceedingly verbal on this circumstance. “Surely he does not mean to fight the child,” she said indignantly. “‘Tis one thing to play at dueling with her father, but quite another to face a queen’s knight in an actual contest.”

The guests were in agreement. The mere expectation of a duel would have been enough to feed their conversation for months, but the actuality of such a brutal display was not food for idle gossip. The situation was becoming fraught with-distortion. No longer was the picture of the mischievous Lady Maurette, with donned breeches and brandishing a sword, quite so titillating as it had been. Suddenly real danger was facing their favorite. Each individual eyed her potential adversary with fearful dismay. If he dared to harm her… The thought was unfinished for its horrifying significance.

Dominic Warbrooke stood before his tiny challenger. His demeanor indicated both deference and dispassion. In truth, he could not conquer his admiration for this courageous little swashbuckler.. He wondered how in God’s name she would get herself out of this. Or, he thought soberly, if she would.

Alex Harper, recovering from his mother-in-law’s disclosure and from his daughter’s ill-advised affirmation, finally stepped between the two rivals.

“My daughter,” he said, addressing Dominic, “has an obstinate sense of justice. For this I blame myself in full measure.” At this point, he placed an arm around Maurette’s slender shoulders. His purpose in doing so was to offer his paternal protection as well as to subdue his daughter’s anger. “‘Tis not unlikely that the challenge was made in earnest, though my daughter has said that no offense was taken or intended.” He turned to Maurette hopefully. “Did you not say that, child?”

“I was mistaken,” Maurette said evenly, not taking her eyes from Dominic.

“Mistaken?” Alex said despairingly. “Now, now, Maurette, think on this, my precious. In any event,” he said, turning back to the duke of Ravenshead, “this is a peaceful household, good sir. In all things, we strive for negotiation as opposed to violence. I will assume, therefore, that my daughter will withdraw her exception to any utterance to which she may have taken offense. I will further assume,” he said with stalwart sureness, “that you, my lord, will accept the apology of my, household for this distraction.”

Dominic inclined his head slightly. “If your daughter will accept this condition, I shall not press the matter.”

Maurette’s eyes flashed lavender sparks. “Papa is most protective, and I am grateful,” she said, her voice’ steady. “But,” and here she paused while the crowd waited, holdings its collective breath, “I shall not allow negotiation on this matter. If Lord Warbrooke accepts my challenge-and I am offering him the option-there can be no question of the attendant result.” She shrugged off her father’s arm. “I can see that words will not settle this matter. They are such tenuous tools. Lord Warbrooke is, I am told, a man of action. ‘Tis action he shall have.” Without warning she step- to Dominic and swung her delicate arm forcefully. With an appalling crack, her small hand connected with his bronzed jaw. Dominic barely flinched, but his eyes widened imperceptibly and then became slits of unyielding metal.

Slowly he reached up to touch his face where Maurette had slapped him. “I see,” he said almost inaudibly, “that the lady will accept no quarter in this matter. I see, too, that youthful exuberance and rashness cannot be attributed only to hotheaded young men. ‘Tis now I who demand satisfaction.” He bowed grimly, then rose again to his full intimidating height. He gazed down on his small assailant, whose wide eyes were liquid and arrogant. “twill await your presence in the courtyard, my lady,” he said, then turned and strode from the room.

A horrified hush fell over the assemblage at the terrible outcome of this night. They watched as Alex Harper growled beneath his breath and flung his napkin onto the table. Lady Elaine used hers to fan herself in a helpless frenzy. Imogene sat next to her in awed disbelief. Timothy Braden looked dumbly at his childhood friend standing in deep reflection. The stately and serene Lady Violet watched them all, a small secret smile touching her lips.

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER SEVEN

Maurette lay quietly upon her huge feather bed. She looked around her without comprehension at the velvet hangings, the fire crackling merrily in the hearth, the tall mullioned windows with the drapes closed against the damp night air. She turned onto her side and regarded her night table. A low-burning candle guttered musically, snapping and crackling. It cast its soft light on her comfit box and a leather-hound volume from which she read each night before retiring. All these familiar things surrounded her, and yet she felt far away from everything that was real. A strange emptiness had overpowered her when Dominic Warbrooke had accepted her challenge. >From the moment that she had struck him, she had experienced the feeling of being a disembodied Maurette watching with dispassion a separate identity. Her actions were somehow disconnected from her real self.

Edyth, Lady Elaine, Imogene, and Lady Violet had all gathered in her chamber to fuss over and console her. Elaine Harper had been consternated by the terrible outcome of the affair and had implored Maurette to disregard whatever offense she had taken to whatever the duke of Revenshead had said. No single cut was worth one’s life, her mother had pleaded. Lady Violet and Edyth, in their older wiser fashion had simply reminded Maurette of the man’s physical superiority and of his reputation as a villain. Maurette had sipped the tea that Imogene had brought her and had then quietly dismissed them all.

She did not have the heart to tell them that she was not afraid, that the Maurette they saw running around doing all those foolish things was, in no way, a part of the larger, watching, reasonable Maurette. A strange peace had overtaken her.

In her mind’s eye, the other Maurette raced into the courtyard. She faced the raging anger of Dominic. Their clash of arms was warlike and belligerent. They scrambled wildly over the cobbled yard, he ploddingly powerful and she wickedly precise. The larger Maurette smiled as she continued to view, in her fantasy, the broiling fray. Pictures flashed in her mind and held. She, baring her teeth, coiled for an attack. She, thrusting Sinuously. She, lying on the cobbles of the courtyard, blood pouring from the gaping wound in her chest. Reality and fantasy suddenly merged, and Maurette sat bolt upright on her bed.

That Dominic could kill her had not become a cogent thought until this very moment. She had pictured the fight but had not really envisioned the outcome. Now she realized the worst. Her stomach lurched, and her heart pounded violently in her chest. The barbarian, the indomitable Raven, could kill her without compunction. Her eyes widened with a terrible fear and her small hand went to her throat. She gasped for breath. She must, she told herself in a frenzy of desperation, control her emotions. She attempted to breathe normally. Slowly the fire of her panic began to cool.

Slowly her mind began to pull away from her darker fears. She was not, she remembered herself, completely without resources. She did possess superior skills as a swordswoman. There was a possibility, though a farfetched one, that she could lay siege to the omnipotent Warbrooke. She would, she decided, give him the fight of his life.

She stood with new resolve. How could she have allowed the brute to lay her so low? She began to dress. She allowed her dressing gown to slip down over her slender hips and to lie in a filmy cloud around her feet. She snatched the flimsy cambric shirt that she had worn in the earlier contest with her father from a low stool. Shrugging into the softness of the pale gray blouse, she pictured the spectacle of the romantic pirate sprawled at her feet in abject submission. She would not kill him, she mused with anticipatory satisfaction, but his humiliation at being beaten by a woman would be death to such a man.

Maurette smiled at her fancy as she stepped into her black kid breeches. She had no true hope of such a fine retribution, but she had the satisfaction of the humiliation of his reputation. To find himself in the position of being forced to face a woman on the field of honor must be mortifying for the swaggering lout. This was Maurette’s true victory over Dominic Warbrooke, she decided.

He must be awaiting the spectacle with dour dread. Maurette did not, as a rule, enjoy bringing men to such shame, but the brute, Warbrooke, deserved that and more.

Maurette caught the wide hem of her shirt inside her breeches and buttoned them. She surveyed herself in the cheval glass. Her outfit was suited to unrestrained movement. She tested its flexibility. The breeches were tight and molded themselves to every movement of her slender legs. The billowing sleeves of her cambric blouse were tightly cuffed at her wrists, and its collar was wide and open, allowing unimpeded movement of her shoulders and neck. Maurette pulled on her Spanish leather boots and smoothed the soft leather against her calves.

Her hair needed to be contained, for she would wear no protective mask to hold its amplitude in place. She struggled with the heavy mass, pining errant curls willy-nllly to the too of her bead. The resultant upsweeps, a mass of curls piled in wild disarray, was less than orderly or even vaguely stylish. Maurette smiled. She now looked every inch the wandering wench that she felt Dominic had envisioned when he kissed her in the courtyard, the same courtyard, she reflected with satisfaction, where he would meet, in one way or another, an ignoble defeat.

Dominic Warbrooke did not appear defeated or ignoble as he stood in the cold, predawn light of the courtyard. His silver-raven head was bared, and his full-length cape was draped with majestic abandon over one shoulder. In the wavering orange shadows of the flickering torchlight, he appeared to be a huge hellish creature awaiting with motionless resolve the appearance of its prey.

Arthur Warwick had offered Dominic his support as second and now strutted proudly on the periphery of the waiting crowd. The lad’s sickening cockiness disgusted even those young men who had waited in awe as he had approached the notorious Raven with his offer. They had congratulated the honored young gallant when he had come back among them to boast of his success. But now his triumph paled in light of his apparent insensitivity to everything but his own fortune. Did he not realize, the young men wondered, the terrible reality that was to play itself out in this cold gray place? The lads had to shiver in fear for their beautiful and delicate Maurette. At the very least, she could come out of this horribly scarred. Warbrooke was less than a gentleman for even considering facing a, woman on the field of honor. No gentlemanly instincts could be counted upon, therefore, in the actual contest. Still, they wondered if even the beastly Warbrooke could bear to mar the beauty of the fair Maurette without a sting of conscience.

The women huddled together with Lady Elaine, offering her their support and sympathy. Lord Harper stood apart from the assemblage, his hand firmly on the hilt his sword. He knew that he could not have deterred either of the two combatants. He resolved that he would watch, for the moment. He was, however, tense and rigid with a further resolve. He was fully prepared to deliver a swift and merciless retribution if Warbrooke dared to injure his daughter. Warbrooke disgusted him, as it was. How the man had allowed this to happen was beyond Alex Harper’s comprehension.

Lady Violet stood in her own circle with Edyth and Thelma, the cook in the Harper household, and several other servants. One young serving girl, a particular favorite of Maurette, wept bitterly and made great sobbing sounds which the other servants bade her stifle. ‘Twould not do, they reminded her, to let the guests see such a lack of discipline among the Harper house people. ‘Twould surely curse Lady Maurette’s efforts in the bargain, she was told. She stopped and sniffled loudly, and Lady Violet, rolling her eyes to the diety, yielded up her handkerchief to the girl.

All eyes were now riveted on Maurette as she stood in the doorway of the house. She hesitated for a breadth of a moment before moving deliberately into the courtyard. The soft mist of the night before had dissipated, and now a cold rain began to fall. The spattering of the large drops on the cobblestones was the only sound as Maurette passed among the hushed assembly. No one moved except to allow her passage. Even Arthur Warwick stopped his preening and regarded with awe Maurette’s courageous entrance. Her eyes were leveled upon her adversary; her concentration was complete. She stopped before the tall, caped figure who stood in isolation at the center of the yard.

“I have come to give you satisfaction,” she said, her voice clear and steady.

Without a word, Dominic swept his cape from his shoulders and flung it in Arthur Warwick’s direction. That young man nearly stumbled over his own feet to retrieve the heavy garment. Lord Harper started to speak, but Maurette held up her hand to stop him. She drew her sword and stood straight and implacable before her towering opponent. His features tautened as he gazed down on her. Her luminous white face, unprotected by a mask, might have been carved from the finest marble. Her eyes were like fiery chips of purple ice, and her small cleft chin was raised in magnificent defiance of the trial that she was about to undergo. She raised her sword arm slowly.

“En garde,” she said softly.

Dominic drew his own sword and crossed hers with an almost delicate touch. “Your servant,” he said. His lips were set in a firm line of determination and control. The combatants separated, their blades barely grazing. They circled slowly. Maurette thrust first. Dominic parried with a feathery clink of steel. Again Maurette thrust, and again the thrust was parried. They continued to circle, exchanging escalades. Their swordplay took on a fluid aura as though they moved in an eerie gavotte. Dominic parried one of Maurette’s ripostes with determined ease, and she felt the hilt of her sword, now slick with the rain and her own perspiration, twist in her hand. For the first time in her life, she felt the sickening claw of fear in her belly.

Dominic advanced, his blade stinging hers. Maurette was backed inexorably across the wet cobbles. The crowd gasped as her foot slipped and she found herself faltering. Dominic relaxed his advance-though it continued-as she regained her footing. Nothing his momentary gallantry, Maurette feigned further clumsiness until she could gain a firm foothold. An excellent swordswoman, she suddenly lunged. Her swift and unexpected attack put Dominic at a disadvantage and he found himself retreating from the rapid thrusts of Maurette’s aggressive blade. Unable to contain their joy, the crowd roared in approval. Maurette’s concentration was keen, and she did not waver for momentary indulgence in the approbation of her friends. Her teeth bared and her eyes leveled upon her opponent, she lunged and thrust with avid tenacity. Dominic kept her blade at bay. His movements were frugal, and he was regarding her, after his initial surprise at her offensive, almost lazily.

Maurette was tiring. She had never fought so long, and she had never, she now suspected, endured the full strength of a man’s resistance. Dominic’s parries were forceful, and each time she felt his sword deflect her blade, her Wrist responded with almost unendurable pain. Her shoulder ached sickeningly. The horrible truth of the situation dawned upon her. Dominic could disarm and kill her at any moment. Why was he toying with her, she wondered. She did not let the question daunt her, however. She fought harder than she ever had. Her breath came in gasps, and her eyes blazed in determination.

As Dominic sensed her weakening, he advanced and retreated at will. Recognition swept over Maurette that his practiced moves were enhancing the appearance of her own. He was making her look more adept than she was. Her eyes widened and shot up to look directly into his, and she could not believe the tenderness she found there. Her guard lowered imperceptibly, and suddenly, inexplicably, the sword was roughly plucked from her aching hand to fall clattering to the ground. Dominic had somehow backed her to the stone wall, and the point of his sword was now at her throat.

As she stared up at him, her great eyes were limpid with fear and perplexity. She could not divine what would happen to her; she knew only that the silver gaze of Dominic Warbrooke might be the last thing she ever saw. He was very close to her now, the pressure of his blade against the White column of her arched throat causing her the most terrible fear she had ever known. Her breasts heaved and her bodice was darkly wet with the rain and the perspiration that had soaked through the thin cambric of her blouse. Her arms were at her sides, palms splayed on the rough gray stone behind her.

The crowd had stifled a horrified gasp at Maurette’s defeat and now held its breath with expectant terror. No one moved, least of all Maurette, as she stared up into Dominic’s inscrutable face. Eternity seemed suspended in the pale, sallow dawn.

Dominic’s voice, when he finally spoke was unperturbed. “I shall now extract my satisfaction, my lady.” The words sent a tremor through the crowd. Lady Elaine gasped and fainted. Alex Harper caught his wife in his strong arms, then turned her care over to several waiting women. His gaze remained fixed upon Dominic Warbrooke. Alex had no choice in this matter. He could no more allow his daughter to come to harm than he could have fought her battle. Honor be damned, he thought determinedly. If Warbrooke drew so much as one drop of blood from the tender body of his beloved daughter, Alex Harper would kill him.

“My satisfaction is this,” Dominic said, his voice so soft that the assembly had to strain to hear. it. Their attention was riveted upon him, but he seemed not to notice. His own aspect, the full force of his powerful presence, was fixed on the brave and beautiful creature whom he now held fixed at the point of his blade. Seconds passed. “I demand that, for the period of one year, you agree to be my consort-my companion. That in all things you be my subjugate and that you give to me your support, service, and obeisance. And that you forbear all this with absolute equanimity, sufferance, and restraint.”

Maurette drew in her breath even as the crowd gasped audibly. She twisted away from his blade in outrage but yielded in submission as its pressure was subtly increased. She breathed heavily, and one finely winged brow arched in anger. looking up into his hooded gaze, her eyes flashed amethyst sparks, and she thought fleetingly of accepting death at sword point. Seeing the hard flicker of savage determination in his silver gaze, she thought better of it and shored up her resolve. If she were killed, the battle between them would be over, but if she lived, she might one day find a way to humiliate him as he was now humiliating her. Perforce, this was not the victory the foul Warbrooke envisioned it to be. She drew a long breath.

“As a woman of honor,” she said, not taking her eyes from him, “I do comply. If my acquiescence will appease your honor,” she spat the word at him, “I do comply.”

An almost imperceptible half-smile touched his lips as he held her at sword point for one last frozen second. Then, very slowly, he lowered his blade.

The voices of the assemblage rose in verbose horror at the man’s infamy. Surface emotions were stridently expressed. As people broke up into smaller clusters, however, they were heard to whisper their fears for the delicate Maurette and her uncertain future.

Lady Elaine roused from her faint, and the women fell upon her to apprise her of the horror that had just passed. Alex Harper untensed his sword arm and stood in grim silence. In the chaotic seconds after the combat, Lady Violet moved out into the courtyard. There, she stood alone and silent in the cold rain.

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER EIGHT

Sleep softened sheets and the whispery crackle of a warming fire were the first things that Maurette sensed upon awakening. She snuggled into the thick depths of her bed and slowly opened her eyes. The diaphanous inner hangings that surrounded her great four-poster fell in semitransparent folds like a cocoon, protecting her from the outside world. The chamber where she slept was quiet except for the fire, which she could make out in bright relief outside the shadowy drapes. Maurette closed her sleepy eyes and burrowed into her feather coverlet. As her breathing evened and sleep once more overtook her, something – some indefinable discomfort – niggled at her consciousness. Maurette could not remember what she felt she ought to remember.

Suddenly, her eyes popped open, and she sat straight up. Holding her cover close to her breast, she remembered what it was. Warbrooke! She winced ruefully at the thought of her mother’s sad eyes as she and Edyth had tucked her into bed. Softly, in the early morning, their voices came to her as she had wandered in and out of sleep. Maurette remembered Edyth murmuring something about men being barbarians and what did it matter in the end.

Maurette recalled her mother shushing the older woman and crying faintly. Somehow, through all of this, Maurette had drifted off to sleep.

And now, she stirred in her sleep and saw herself scramble from the bed and snatch at the filmy curtains. Overwhelmed, she looked wildly around her cavernous dark chamber. No one was about. Had the villainous Warbrooke overtaken and killed the entire household? Maurette ran to her door and dragged it opened. Popping her head out into the hallway, she looked from side to side, praying that someone would appear to assure her that the notorious Silver Raven had not murdered everyone.

Suddenly, his dark countenance appeared in a misty apparition before her. His sword arm was raised, and his strong white teeth glinted in a demonic smile. His silver eyes shot steely sparks, and his silver-raven hair seemed made of a white hot fire. Maurette heaved the great door shut on the hellish vision and flew back to her bed where she leaped between the jumbled covers and huddled and trembled and awaited the horrible fate intended, by the demoniac Warbrooke, for her alone.

The hangings swished softly as her chamber door was pushed open. In her half-sleep, Maurette held her breath. Someone, a shadowy figure, emerged in the dim firelight. The silhouette moved inexorably nearer and grew in proportion to Maurette’s terror. It reached out an arm to part the hangings. Maurette screamed and flung herself deeper into her covers.

“Dear child,” said a delicate, musical voice. Lady Violet peeked through the folds of draperies. “Are you having an unpleasant dream, dearest?”

“0h, Grandmama,” Maurette breathed as she struggled from the enveloping bedcovers and scrambled into the beloved arms. “At least he did not kill you,” she cried, unable to stop her tears of relief.

Lady Violet held her trembling grandchild for some moments, then pulled away from her to look into the shimmering wide eyes. “Who is this hound of hell from whom you cower in your bed?” she said with a flicker of amusement. When Maurette did not answer but instead hiccuped and swiped at her teary cheeks with the hem of her nightdress, Lady Violet gently pushed her back down onto the soft bed and went to the window to open the great hangings. “‘Tis a magnificent day, Maurette,” she said as a blinding flare of dazzling yellow sunlight entered and filled the room. Maurette peeped out and winced against the brilliance of the day.

Lady Violet came and drew her from her bed. “I suppose it is because we have not all been murdered in our sleep,” she said matter-of-factly.

Maurette shrugged into her dressing gown and moved to the window, fully baring herself to the morning’s glittering, rain-soaked glare.

Why does the world go on as though nothing has happened, she mused. She leaned on the embrasure to obtain a better view of the gardens below. Gloriously green and shimmering from the night’s rain and the morning’s sunny sparkle, the grounds radiated up at her, and she heard the chittering squirrels and birds and other small animals. Maurette pushed herself away from the exhilarating sights and sounds of spring. At another time, she would have made quick work of her tiresome toilette hopped into a pair of leather breeches, and burst from her chamber to join the frolicsome wildlife in the gardens. She would have had her frisky little mare, Melitte, saddled if she had not, in her enthusiasm, done the job Herself and would have ridden joyously over the grounds of Harper House, down the Strand, and into the streets of London to bedazzle and bemuse the good citizens and the rabble of the city with her high, good spirits.

Today, however, was very different from other days. Maurette’s natural and irrepressible ebullience had been stilled by the terrible events of the night before. On the occasion of her eighteenth birthday, she had discovered, to her everlasting amazement, what it was to be an adult person, to be finally and absolutely responsible for her own actions. ‘Twas a valuable lesson, to be sure, Maurette acknowledged. But that it should have come to her so abruptly, so cruelly, so unceremoniously through the odious channel that was Dominic Warbrooke infuriated her beyond words.

She would never forgive the man for being the instrument of her enlightenment. The way in which he had perpetrated the infusion of knowledge was not forgivable. Though this rite of passage was unavoidable, surely a carefully bred girl deserved a gentler coming of age. However the thing had been done, and Maurette’s perceptions had been forever changed. It was not for nothing that her learning had been acquired. She would use it, this new knowledge, against its omnipotent executor. Warbrooke no longer faced a reckless young girl. His adversary has become a woman. Maurette had to know, however, the territory on which she battled.

Abruptly and with a keen resolve, she faced Edyth and Lady Violet. “Have either Of you heard anything?”

“About what?” her grandmother inquired innocently She was busy at Maurette’s dressing table, testing the rare creams that lay in pots on its marble surface rejecting some and, with delicate shrugs, considering others. “What would be best for this day, child?” she asked casually. “I think a heather scent, do you not agree?” She held out a pot for her granddaughter’s inspection.

Maurette eyed the older woman suspiciously. “You know something, Grandmama,” she stated.

Lowering the pot of cream, Lady Violet regarded her granddaughter reflectively. “I know that your papa has been with Lord Warbroooke through the early morning. The subject of their interview is not known to me.”

Maurette chewed her lower lip. She targeted Edyth, and that woman turned nervously and, parting the areas that separated the privy chamber from the rest of the room, she began intense preparations for Maurette’d morning toilette. “How am I to know anything, tittle Lady Maurette? I am, after all, only a servant.”

Maurette arched an eyebrow. “When such a lowly status suits your purpose, I perceive,” she said dryly. Maurette paused, giving weight to her next words. “I wish you both to know that I shall not accept tamely what the men have decided. I wish you to be aware, in advance, that I am no sucking dove or bitch hound humbly licking the hand that strikes her. I am a woman born this day. I shall make my own decisions regarding my fate. Warbrooke may have his prize,” she said, turning back to the sunlit day, “but that prize will, perforce, be dressed in borrowed plumes.”

Edyth shuddered at the stiffened spine of her little charge.

Lady Violet hid a smile and turned back to her perusal of the scented creams. Dominic Warbrooke, lord and favored knight, was, she perceived, in for a harrowing crusade. Still smiling inwardly, she shrugged delicately and became even more intently concerned with the scents. “‘Twas, in truth, what a man of Warbrooke’s prideful temperament deserved. Jason Gordon, too, had required more than a small amount of resistance to learn that his bullying pride and powerful obstinacy would avail him nothing in the face of an equally obstinate woman. But when it was over and the smoke of battle had cleared, the laurels of triumphant love and unyielding devotion would fall extravagantly about the shoulders of the warriors. Their triumph would be the sweeter for the violence of the struggle. Lady Violet knew this to be true, and she exulted privately now in that awareness. She regarded her granddaughter levelly.

“Edyth and I accept your resolve, dear Maurette,” she said softly. “But we wish you to know that we would not see you harmed for your resistance. We hope that you will exercise all caution in dealing with so potent a force as Dominic Warbrooke.” She turned tranquilly toward the tiring woman.

“Forgive me for speaking for you, my friend, but I assumed that your feelings would be the same as my own, on this subject at the least.” The old servant nodded solemnly.

“You see, child,” Lady Violet continued, “we, Edyth and I, have both known powerful and stubborn men. ‘Twould seem,” she sighed, “they just happen to be the most interesting-at least for the likes of women such as we-and we fully appreciate your circumstance.” Her voice and manner now became thoughtful.

“We were young ourselves and intent upon challenging the status quo. And, I believe,” she added, casting an amused wink at Edyth, “that, given the opportunity, we would not, even today, shy away from such a challenge. We must add our warning, however,” she stated seriously. “‘Tis not an easy challenge-not easily fought and not easily won. We cannot aid you against this force of men with anything but our faith in you. That you have in full measure.” ‘The forceful words, delivered forcefully to Maurette’s proud back, made her turn.

She saw in her grandmother’s eyes all the love, support, and respect that she had always perceived from her earliest childhood but had never fully appreciated until this moment. Edyth moved to the side of her titled friend.

“We are here, child, to serve your purpose in whatever way we are able,” said the plump tiring woman. Shoulder to shoulder, the two elderly women made an unyielding picture of comforting worldly wisdom to Maurette. Her eyes softened with thanks and deepest gratitude.

“You are my grandmother and my tiring woman,” she said softly, “and you are my sisters.”

The room was filled with the tenderness felt by the three women. Their unity was a palpable force. Lady Violet moved to Maurette. She touched the younger woman’s cheek with her small bejeweled fingers. Then, the Countess turned away.

“When I told you before that I did not know the subject of your father’s interview with Lord Warbrooke, I was not dissembling. I did not tell you all, however” she said simply. Lifting her chin, she added quietly, “I visited that council early and made a suggestion.” She turned to her granddaughter. “I shall not tell you what the suggestion was, but I ask you to prepare yourself for what may, at first, seem a cruel turn.”

Maurette’s eyes widened. “Have you savaged me, Grandmama, before I enter the field?”

“No, child,” said Lady Violet. “Can you not, after all that has transpired in this chamber, trust me?”

The tenderness was still there, the love and comforting support still felt between the women. Maurette knew that any action taken by her grandmother must produce good. And, if that did not turn out to be the case, the purity of Lady Violet’s intent would with certainty redeem a negative outcome.

“I trust you, Grandmama,” said Maurette evenly. “I shall prepare myself for whatever comes. I shall be ready for the conjurings the men have composed for me.”

“That is good,” Lady Violet said, gazing with pride into her granddaughter’s eyes. “We must begin,” she added with a small smile, “at least a part of our offensive. The accouterment of beauty is ever an asset in the exhilarating contest you will face this day.” She took Maurette’s arm and, with a decisive nod to her confrere, began the task at hand. “As I said before, the heather is called for, in the bath, on the skin, through the hair. Do you not agree, Edyth?”

Edyth nodded as she prepared Maurette for her morning’s ablutions. Lady Violet proceeded to choose the perfect gown. All three women were busily engaged when a newly awakened and frazzled Imogene came bursting into the room.

“Oh, Maurette,” she breathed and began immediately to sob and sniffle. “What shall we do? Oh, whatever shall we do?”

Maurette lifted herself from her bath. And, as Edyth toweled her dry, she tried to console her little sister with comforting words. “We shall do, sweet Imogene, what needs doing.” When the toweling was done and Maurette was wrapped in a thick dressing gown, she moved to the flustered Imogene who was now lying upon the unmade bed and sobbing harder than before. “We shall discover what the men have decided,” Maurette murmured softly, “and then we shall make our own decisions.”

Imogene looked up through tear-clouded lashes. “Our decisions,” she said wildly. “We have no decisions. The men are, even now…”

“Shhh,” Maurette intoned. “‘Twill come to naught, this crying.”

“He is so comely, darling Maurette,” Imogene blubbered. “How were any of us to realize what roguish intent was hidden within? I hate him,” she wailed, smacking the bed with her small, pale hand. Her disheveled, blond curls bounced agitatedly with the action. “I shall kill him for you,” she stated suddenly, pushing herself to her knees among the tangled covers.

“Listen to me,” Maurette said sternly, taking hold of her sister’s shoulders. “Stop and listen.”

The sharpness in Maurette’s tone stilled the other’s noisy sobs. Imogene regarded her sister with awe. Her blue eyes were wide and glistening. Maurette wiped at the girl’s tear-stained cheeks. Her manner softened.

“You must not hate, darling sister. I would not have you feel that terrible emotion for a rash act of mine. You are yet a child, Imogene. Savor that sweet circumstance for as long as you are able. “‘Twas me and me alone that caused the disaster. Do you not understand that? Me, Imogene… I was reckless and unthinking. A woman is responsible for her own actions. I will have no other feel responsibility.” At that, Maurette pulled her sister into a fierce embrace. “All I ask of you, sweet, dear, loved Imogene, is that you accept and respect any conduct of mine in regard to this present predicament.” She held the girl away from her. “Can you make such a vow?”

Imogene sniffed loudly. She did not understand what her sister felt her “conduct” might effect. There was, after all, nothing any of them could do after Maurette’s fate had been decided by the men. And, she wondered, why could she not hate the man who had caused it all? But then Maurette had just said that he had not caused their present troubles. Imogene turned these things over in her innocent mind, her smooth brow wrinkling in perplexity. She looked up to find Edyth and Lady Elaine regarding her with a gentle solemnity. Looking back to her sister, the girl drew a deep breath.

“I do not really mark your reasoning, dear Maurette,” she said softly, “but I divine that you wish me to somehow lend succor to some action that you will soon take. I cannot vow such a thing, as I know not what you intend. I can vow” she said with childlike honesty, “that I love you more than I have ever told you.”

Maurette smiled a small smile. “That is all that I could ever want of you, sweet girl.”

The two embraced. Maurette led Imogene gently from the room and admonished her to dress and to soak her puffed eyes with cold cloths. When Imogene was gone, the three women continued the business that they had begun before the girl’s entrance.

Artfully coiffed and dressed in a morning gown of palest lavender brocade with a high standing collar of ivory-colored lace, Maurette made her way down the stone staircase and into the family dining room. She paused in the gallery at the entrance of the chamber and noted that her mother, looking tired and faded, was already seated and sipping at a cup of steaming tea. Maurette took a long, quiet breath, then, lowering her gaze, she entered the room and slid into her place at the table.

Maurette had no idea what aspect to assume in the strained silence between them. She wanted very much to apologize but recognized that a word from her could let loose a stream of recriminations from the older woman. That she could not face at this moment. Even though Maurette felt strong and calm, she knew that her reserve might crumble at any time. It was, after all, newly acquired, and she had not had an opportunity to test it. She well knew that uncertainty and the vulnerability of the child she had been these past eighteen years lurked just beneath the surface of her firm resolve.

Maurette reached for a scone.

“He has been closeted with your father for hours now.” Lady Elaine’s voice was almost inaudible.

Maurette raised her eyes to her mother’s strained face, then turned to look in the direction of a small arched doorway. Beyond it lay her father’s study. She squinted into the dim hallway and inclined her head slightly.

“Your father is attempting to put an honorable face upon this scurrilous business,” the older woman said. She set down her cup with a delicately sharp clink.

Maurette felt a sudden and acute contrition. For all her grown-up determination, self-mastery, and readiness to cross mental swords with male domination, she knew the truth. She had brought shame and scandal upon her beloved family with her rebellious ways. She had indulged in folly, and now her dear father was battling for her honor and the restoration of her family’s honor. And he was doing combat with the ferocious Silver Raven. How could her ‘pursuit of honor’ have yielded such infamy? Would her pursuit of self-respect yield further infamy? She was, after all, only a woman. Her fragile self-possession was slowly cracking. Tears welled in her eyes. Raising a tear-clouded gaze to her mother, Maurette pleaded for some sort of comfort.

The woman immediately looked away, but not before she had seen – and felt – the desperate guilt in her daughter’s eyes. “You did what you believed was right, Maurette,” Elaine Harper said tiredly. She stared at nothing in particular as she tried to think of words to say that might console the child and yet express the mother’s disapproval. Finally, she sighed audibly. In her own mind, she could not defend her daughter’s rashness, and yet she could not fully reprove her actions. Elaine recognized that much of Maurette’s recent troubles were the result of the encouragement, in her youth, of the child’s irrepressible willfulness. She felt at once confused and angry and sympathetic.

“Something will be done,” she said vaguely. “Your father always thinks of something.”

Maurette swiped at her teary cheeks. She wished bitterly that she could think of something, but she knew that, at the moment, her only recourse was to await the decision of the men. She must bide, for the present, with her terrible hurting guilt and her sullen mother. Maurette’s eyes kept returning to that dim gallery where her father and Lord Warbrooke would appear at any time with the news on which hung her fate. The minutes ebbed heavily away. Maurette imagined herself astride a giant tortoise, shambling sluggishly over an apathetic expanse of emptiness. Unable to set her own course, she languorously abided the slow march of the drawling beast. Succumbing to that vast spectral listlessness, Maurette was suddenly jolted by the appearance of the two men in the dining chamber.

In her confusion, Maurette knocked over the delicate porcelain cup from which she had been sipping tea. The thing shattered, sending thin shards everywhere. Maurette stood to wipe the debris from her gown.. looking up quickly, she realized that Dominic was regarding her dismay with something akin to amusement. Oh, how she hated this arrogant swaggerer. For the moment, at least, her determination returned in full force.

Composing herself, Maurette lifted her chin. “May I know what has been decided?” she said coolly.

Alex nodded slightly and moved to his daughter. He stood before her for many moments before speaking. Maurette noted the stubble of beard on his tired face. Twinges of guilt once more assailed her as she realized that Alex had the air of a man defeated.

“As you know, my precious daughter, a promise extracted upon the field of honor is immutable,” he began softly. “Lord Warbrooke has every right to-and every intention of-seizing the full measure of your bargain.” At this last, he cast a scornful glance at Dominic. Then he turned back to face Maurette. Brushing her silken cheek with his fingers, Alex perceived that the brutal words that he was about to say were best said quickly. He dropped his hand to his side but kept his daughter fixed in a relentless gaze.

In her confusion, Maurette knocked over the delicate porcelain cup from which she had been sipping tea. The thing shattered, sending thin shards everywhere. Maurette stood to wipe the debris from her gown.. looking up quickly, she realized that Dominic was regarding her dismay with something akin to amusement. Oh, how she hated this arrogant swaggerer. For the moment, at least, her determination returned in full force.

Composing herself, Maurette lifted her chin. “May I know what has been decided?” she said coolly.

Alex nodded slightly and moved to his daughter. He stood before her for many moments before speaking. Maurette noted the stubble of beard on his tired face. Twinges of guilt once more assailed her as she realized that Alex had the air of a man defeated.

“As you know, my precious daughter, a promise extracted upon the field of honor is immutable,” he began softly. “Lord Warbrooke has every right to-and every intention of-seizing the full measure of your bargain.” At this last, he cast a scornful glance at Dominic. Then he turned back to face Maurette. Brushing her silken cheek with his fingers, Alex perceived that the brutal words that he was about to say were best said quickly. He dropped his hand to his side but kept his daughter fixed in a relentless gaze.

“Lord Warbrooke has agreed to a nominal negotiation. He has aged to the signing of the pre-contract. That is to say, that a bond of marriage will be entered with the London registry and if, at the end of the stated year, no marriage has taken place, the bond is forfeit. If, however, a marriage does take place; the necessity of banns and other formalities need not transpire.

“English church law takes this bond very seriously,” Alex continued, lifting himself to his full height to face Dominic Warbrooke. “A pre-contract is nearly as binding as the marriage ceremony itself,” he said evenly. “If Lord Warbrooke forms any other liaison during the period of its term, that union could be declared void by the Ecclesiastical Court, and Lord Warbrooke could be excommunicated from the Church of England.”

The two men were facing each other, and the full measure of their early morning’s conflict showed on their unshaven, resolute faces. They resembled two embattled gladiators, nerves tautened and ready to battle again at the slightest provocation.

Dominic regarded the father of the delicate virginal Maurette without sympathy, but with a mixture of understanding and admiration clear in his silver eyes. He stepped only slightly back from the potential confrontation and nodded his head in a show of terse respect.

“I understand clearly the terms of the contract, my lord. ‘Tis my intention to keep it with diligence and reverence.”

Alex turned back to his daughter. “I will explain all to you, child. In the meantime, know that the scandal we had all envisioned is lessened by the man’s compliance. For that, at least, we must thank him.”

Maurette dared a glance in Dominic’s direction but lowered it instantly when she saw again the devilish twinkle of amusement in his eyes. Anger burned within her, but she forced it down. “Naturally, we do thank him,” she said flatly.

Looking to his wife, Alex said, “‘Twas all that I could do. I could not allow him to cart her off willy-nilly like so much baggage on a progress.”

Elaine nodded and, with her eyes, silently forgave him. Her small smile approved his arduous efforts in their daughter’s behalf. At the least, the promise of a marriage existed. Pre-contracts often resulted in legal ceremonies. She swept a prim glance toward the duke of Ravenshead. Eyeing his tall form from beneath her lashes, she acknowledged that the nobleman was, indeed, a prize.

Elaine twisted away from her perusal of Dominic and regarded Maurette. She wondered if her daughter, standing pale and silent at the news, realized her good fortune.

“Though my daughter’s thanks is somewhat lacking in sincerity,” Lady Elaine said evenly, “I wish you to know, Lord Warbrooke, that mine is not.” She looked once more into the clear silver gaze. “You have done a generous thing, considering the manner in which you have been provoked.”

Maurette cast an angry glance toward her mother. “YOU misjudge me cruelly, Mama.” She targeted Dominic with a stony glare. “I do sincerely thank His Lordship for rescuing me from an ignoble existence as his doxy.” Her anger no longer repressed, Maurette spat the words out.

Alex Harper tensed. Elaine’s lips formed a silent 0 of astonishment. Maurette stood rigidly, girded for the outcome of her wrath.

Only Dominic Warbrooke remained unperturbed. He leaned back, lounging against the stone archway, his arms folded over his chest. “You are more than welcome, my lady,” he drawled. “‘Twas not an alternative, I must confess, that had occurred to me. Your father’s cleverness in discourse is, in truth, your rescuer. Let me add one word,” he said, shrugging away from the wall and moving to Maurette. Standing over her, he held her in a hard gaze. “The terms of our agreement have not changed. Call yourself doxy or wife, for this next year, you belong to me.” A cold smile crossed his lips but did not temper the granite hardness of his yes. “Your honor lady, is in your own hands.”

Maurette shrank inwardly from the steely, masculine aggression in his tone. Her huge, lashed eyes became limpid with the sudden terror that closed itself around her heart. She felt the color drain from her face and gulped in calming breaths to ward off the dizzy fear that seemed to melt her bones. “‘Twould seem,” she said faintly, that you threaten me with my own sense of honor, sir. ‘Tis not fair play to do that.”

Looming above and very near to her, Dominic raised an eyebrow. His strong white teeth glinted in a wider grin. “‘Tis not fair play, you say? What of the well-bred, spoiled, and willful wench who decks her pretty little form in breeches, who teases a man to madness, who excites him to lunacy with her fiery temperament and then-nay, demands that her beauty and innocence save her from the consequences of her recklessness?” His hard smile was gone, and his voice had become a low growl. “Would you tell me that wench is exercising fair play? When you can take as much as you give, lady, then speak to me of fair play.”

Maurette tore herself from the hypnotic violence in his gaze. As on the field of honor, she knew the horrible realization that he could and, no doubt would, render her helpless to his will. A sickening dread filled her. She must protect herself. Raising her eyes once more to his, Maurette faced her adversary with the full force of that knowledge and with a determination that she would protect herself at all cost.

“That wench is no longer,” she said fiercely. “she does not exist.”

Dominic’s smile slowly returned as he regarded the forceful little creature beneath his gaze. She was, in truth, a most remarkable chit. “We shall see,” he said, then added, his manner lightening, “in the meanwhile, I am in need, after the morning’s labors, of some diversion.” He rubbed his hands together in apparent, good-natured anticipation. “And I must needs companionship.” He made a gallant bow to Maurette. “You will, I presume, join me in a morning ride, my lady. I’ve a desire to tour the city. In Her Majesty’s service, I rarely am able to go out and about.” His tone was conversational, courtly even, but brooked no dissent. “Although the tragedy of the burning of St. Paul’s destroyed the steeple, I should enjoy seeing the view of our fair London that we have gained at the cathedral’s loss. May I take it that you will accompany me?”

Again, the words, though light-hearted and delivered as a request, belied the underlying command that Maurette perceived. Without awaiting an answer, Dominic moved to Lady Elaine and swept her hand to his lips “Please excuse me, my lady,” he said, looking down into her green eyes.

Elaine could not hide the look of astonishment that crossed her face at his gesture. More importantly, she could not hide the feeling of warmth that suffused her as his lips brushed her hand. She did not speak but merely nodded in mute awe at his sudden gallantry. Then Dominic turned to Alex and nodded crisply. “Thank you, sir, for opening my eyes to the more satisfactory arrangement you have negotiated for your daughter and me.” He eyed Maurette with a glimmer of amusement before continuing. “I can see that all concerned are much more content with this adjustment.” Turning back to face his affianced,, he said, “I shall see to the horses. We shall meet in the courtyard within the hour, dear, dear Lady Maurette.” And then he was gone.

Maurette stared after him for a long moment. Her eyes were wide with disbelief. Perhaps she had driven him to lunacy The insufferable brute was one moment threatening her, the next conversing with her and her family as though they were idling in a noble salon, and then finally and infuriatingly flinging orders at her. She looked to her parents and recognized her own bemusement in their reactions to what had just transpired. She noted, with disgust, the softness about her mother’s eyes as she gazed fondly down upon the hand that Dominic had kissed.

“Methinks,” Maurette said dryly, “that you signed over the wrong female, Papa.”

Elaine looked up at her daughter. “I think,” she murmured softly, “that you had better ready yourself for your ride.”

Maurette eyed her mother and bit back a response. Lifting her skirts, she flicked them curtly and left the room.

There was a long silence between husband and wife when they were alone. Finally, Elaine looked up. “I like him,” she said without preamble. Her husband cocked a glance in her direction. “I do,” said the lady lifting her chin.

Alex sat down heavily. “So do I,” he stated flatly.

Elaine laughed softly and covered her husband’s hand with he own.. “Oh, Alex,” she said fondly. “I know ’tis hard for you to admit.” She lifted his chin with her other hand so that she was looking directly into his baleful gaze. “If ever you give up anything that is yours without a brawl, I shall have you placed upon the steps of St. Paul’s with a pewter cup, for you shall be of little use to me.” Her green eyes sparkled merrily. “You have done well, mighty warrior. They will find each other, I know it.”

Alex found that, unbidden, a small smile was forming on his lips. In the face of his wife’s sweet optimism, he could not hide his own.

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER NINE

The damp cobblestones dazzled in the brilliant morning sun as Maurette entered the courtyard. Dominic was awaiting her with two horses. Her own little apricot mare pranced prettily in anticipation of an outing while Dominic’s enormous black stallion stood solidly alert, his big head poised proudly.

Dominic swept the approaching Maurette with a silver gaze. He smiled, and his freshly shaved face, having lost the shadows of the night’s deliberations, shone with good health and robust pleasure in the glorious spring day and the beauty of his companion.

Maurette had donned a full-length, cream colored woolen cloak. Its bright yellow piping matched her gown and gloves while a bonnet of the same colors topped off her outfit. A froth of creamy netting covered her face, and her bright violet eyes sparkled through the veil. Tousled golden tendrils of hair peeped from beneath her bonnet and formed saucy curls on her forehead and at the nape of her neck. She looked like a fragile spring blossom in the morning sun.

“You are a rare and bounteous feast for the eyes, little one,” Dominic breathed huskily.

Ignoring the compliment, Maurette reached into her pocket and produced two carrots. “I have purloined these from the kitchen,” she said. “Here is one for Melite, and, if I may, I should like to offer one to your stallion.”

Dominic nodded his approval as Maurette held one of the treats for her own little horse and then, warily, approached the other animal. The stallion eyed her languidly and, dipping his big head, he gently, almost tenderly, plucked the carrot from her gloved hand. Dominic laughed heartily, flashing white teeth, and patted the animal’s velvety muzzle.

“Durham looks the mighty rogue, but he is, when needs be, a honey-tongued gallant.”

Maurette shot a glance toward Durham’s master. He stood at the edge of the courtyard near his big horse, looking every inch the pirate that he was. His skin was bronzed and gleaming in the morning sunlight, and his silver-raven hair lifted in the breeze. His broad shoulders strained against the thin white cambric of his full-sleeved shirt.

“Durham has enjoyed an excellent teacher,” Maurette said, casting a level look toward Dominic. He gazed at her, his smile deep and pleasant, and cocked a questioning eyebrow.

Maurette turned and moved toward her own horse. “Such perfidy of aspect seems not uncommon, I have perceived, in certain circles.”

Dominic’s smile remained, but his words came in a slow liquid drawl. “Another insult, little one? ‘Twould seem you would have not had your fill of brawling.”

Maurette swung around to face him. Her eyebrow arched, and her eyes flashed. She started to retort in anger but realized that to antagonize him would be foolish. She leashed her torrential emotions and took a deep relaxing breath. “As you said yourself, my lord, a person responds in kind. When in the company of a brawler, I brawl.” Maurette slanted her gaze and smiled sweetly. “You may have bewitched Papa, Lord Warbrooke, but I have seen you in all your recreant glory and know you for that which, in truth. you are.”

“And what, in truth, am I, my lady?” he asked amiably. Leaning back against the rough gray stone of the courtyard wall, he crossed his long booted legs before him and his arms across his muscled chest. When Maurette failed to answer his query, he added, “I have often felt it the most cowardly of cowardice to begin an accusation and then withdraw before the thrust is completed.”

“I do not wish a verbal battle with you, my lord,” she said archly. “In light of all that has happened only a dim-witted jackanapes would not take my meaning. I see no need to embellish what is most abundantly clear.”

Dominic waited for further words from her. His brows quirked in expectant invitation. “If I am a ‘dim-witted jackanapes’ I am for missing your intent, then so be it, little one,” he said finally. “I would hear what is on your mind.”

Maurette could not contain her anger any longer. ” ‘Tis the marriage contract,” she spat the words at him, has given my good parents some hope of nobility in you, sir. They see, in their optimism, that which I know is not there. They attempt to put the face of honor on your scandalous demand, but your compliance with that attempt deceives me not for a moment. You imagine that you have gained my confidence as well. Think again, sir.”

Dominic shrugged away from the wall and advanced toward Maurette. She held her ground but would not, when he stood directly over her, lift her eyes to him. He took her chin between his thumb and forefinger and lifted her face to his.

“Do you remember the terms of our agreement, my lady?” His voice was silky. “I thought hard upon those words. You will give to me your support, service, and obeisance. And you will forbear all this with absolute equality sufferance, and restraint. You were willing enough to agree to these terms at sword-point, sweet. Must I needs carry a blade to hold at your throat for the rest of our lives?”

In his surprise and hers, Maurette slapped his hand away. Her astonishment at her own bold action was sudden and momentary. Dominic’s eyes shot silver sparks of anger, but Maurette did not care, for she was angry too.

“For one year, sir,” she said hotly. “The term of our agreement is one year. For one terrible year, I must do your insufferable bidding. But do not for a moment imagine that I am one to suffer a bully. I shall not shake and shiver at your commands. You may threaten, beat, and try to terrorize me, but if you do, I warn you that you had better have that blade at the ready, for I shall fight you, sir. I shall have my own blade at the ready, and that one year may indeed turn out to be the rest of our lives.” Maurette’s eyes flashed amethyst sparks, and her breasts heaved in her anger. “You see, I know your gallant compliance to be slime, sir. Slime that covers small cutting pebbles in a stream. They would rip the flesh to shreds if it trusts their oily surface.”

She spun on her heel and made to leave the courtyard, but his big hand whipped out and grasped her arm before she could take a single step. He swung her to face him.

Dominic regarded her for a long moment. His mouth was a hard line and, as he attempted to leash his own wrath, a small muscle worked in his lean jaw. His words finally came, and they were like a taut cord vibrating with savage tension.

“May I make one suggestion to you my lady. You are from this moment to hold your viperous tongue.” He shook her shoulders in his big hands and snapped her toward him. Holding her there against his hard body, he added in a low growl, “Do you understand?”

Maurette was momentarily cowed. A soft gasp escaped her lips, and her eyes grew wide. Licking at her lips, she took a long slow breath.

“If my tongue is viperous, sir,” she said in a faltering voice, “’tis because I deal with a viper.”, She tugged against his viselike grip. When he would not release her, she felt her anger rise once again and kicked out at him. This caused Dominic to twist her arm behind her back and hold her even closer. Kicking and wriggling in his grasp, Maurette found he was too strong for her.

“If you continue this struggle, little one, I shall need to use force to subdue you,” Dominic said, his words coming in gasps.

“Use your damnable force, Dominic Warbrooke,” Maurette jerked out raggedly. Wrathfully tears now filled her eyes and ran down her white cheeks. “You shall need to use force in any event if you intend to compromise my virtue.” Kicking out wildly, she made contact with his shin which he pulled away but not in time to avoid the searing pain. She clamped her teeth down on his bare skin where the cambric of his shirt had fallen away and bared his skin. He flinched away, but again he was not swift enough to avoid pain.

Maurette was fighting now with a hysterical ferocity. Dominic had speared wild boars with less exertion than which he now used to subdue this tiny enraged woman. Desperately, chancing one injury to ease the pain of another, Dominic loosed his grip on one of her wrists, and reaching beneath her bonnet, he grasped a handful of curls and pulled. Her head snapped back-with force enough to snap her neck, she thought-but Dominic had reined in his strength to the point equal to that needed to quell her completely and no more. The action gave her pause.

A hush fell on the couple. Both took long calming breaths and attempted to subdue their roiling emotions. Dominic was startled by his use of brute force, having never had the need to apply it to a woman. what was it about this shapely, elfin lass that brought out his brutal instincts? Maurette knew that she had been foolish to rouse this man into a physical contest. He had proved that he could break her like a twig. And yet, there was something in his bold arrogance that made her want to lash out at him, to wipe that insolent smile from his lips.

“Let me go,” she said finally through clenched teeth.

“I shall,” said Dominic, looking down into her small, flushed face. Her huge eyes glistened with anger, and dewdrops of moisture trembled upon her thick lashes. A great tenderness washed over him. The last thing in the world he wanted was to harm this delicate creature whom he now held imprisoned in his powerful arms. She was made to be caressed and petted tenderly. He felt like a stupid, brawny oaf, willing a small animal to his bidding by main force. He loosened his grip but held her fast while he spoke.

“I shall loose you, Maurette, if you will give me your promise that you will stand and speak with me as normal people do.”

Maurette checked her desire to escape his grasp and, once freed, wield one last devastating blow to his pompous lout and flee. “I shall stand,” she said evenly.

“And speak with me?”

“Yes,” she hissed.

“Have I your vow?” Dominic hid a small smile. He had not meant to bait her, but the angry scintilla flashing in her eyes let him know that he had. “Have I your vow?” he asked sternly.

“I vow, I shall stand,” she said after a pause.

Dominic relaxed, then allowed Maurette her freedom, ever wary that she might at any moment attack him and injure herself as well as him, or run away. He would allow none of these to happen.

The two tried to compose themselves. Maurette attempted to tuck her curls beneath her hopelessly disarrayed bonnet, but gave up and removed the piece from her head. A wild tangle of curls fell over her shoulders and down her back. Watching Dominic steadily as he placed his hands upon his narrow hips and stood before her, his muscular chest heaving, she was silently glad that she had caused him such exertion and saucily flipped her curls.

“What is it you wish to say?” she said, looking without fear into his glittering silver eyes.

“I wish to say, my lady, that there is no need for all this hysteria.” His voice was a study in frustration and control. “I wish to say that ’twas never my intention to force you into bed.” He took several deep breaths before continuing. “No man truly wants a woman that way. As to doxies, dear, dear Lady Maurette, there are those enough to glut a man’s sensibilities.”

Maurette turned from him slowly so as not to provoke him into restraining her. Needing to untangle her jumbled thoughts, she moved to a low bench and sat down heavily.

“Exactly, sir, what is it that you want?”

“In truth I know not, Maurette.” His hands dropped to hang along his muscular thighs. “‘Tis only that I have never known the sting of what I feel when you are near.”

Maurette offered him a piquant gaze. “Sting, sir?”

“Sting, my lady,” he shot back. “‘Tis easily the most difficult circumstance I have ever dealt with. When I feel anger, I rail and brawl; when I am content I sigh; when I am in need of female companionship, I satisfy my need with a lusty wench. What, may I ask you, am I to do with these fluttery, unmanly, soft, and piteously mind-weakening moods that overtake me when I am in your company? More importantly, what do I do with these moods when I am not in your company?” He stomped away from her and stood staring in abstract contemplation of the courtyard wall.

Finally, when she had said nothing for several moments, he turned back to her. “Dare I tell you that, in the past, when not overtaken by these foolish sensitivities I have proved myself a most convincing suitor?” A small self-deprecatory smile crossed his lips. “Will you not give me the opportunity to prove my worth to you?”

“To what end sir?” Maurette said sweetly.

Dominic threw up his arms, pleading to the deity for control. “To the end that we spend a pleasant day together, my lady. To that end alone, I beg an end to verbal jousting.” He advanced and fell to one knee, looking at her with soulful eyes. “I do not tell you that this moment in eternity will solve all that we must solve together. I say simply that I would a day in your company I do tell you that, if it is within my power to make it so, ’twill be a pleasant one.”

Maurette hid a smile of her own. The man had a most endearing lack of control when it came to his dealings with her. She smiled fully now. Tossing her rumpled bonnet onto the bench, she said, “You shall have your day, sir, but please,” she added in a half-pleading, half-jesting manner, “do attempt to rein in this mind-weakening mood you speak of. I think my limbs cannot abide much more of it.”

Their mood was jovial and familiar as Dominic assisted Maurette onto her mare, then swung himself with an easy grace onto the solid back of his own mount. He wheeled the high-spirited animal to a stately trot as they rode off toward the center of London.

>From a high window, Lady Violet peeked through a curtain and smiled with satisfaction at the scene she had just surveyed.

Pedestrians scurried in diverging paths as the handsome couple rode along the Strand. Families with walking carts and grimy animals made an amorphous swath on the dust street. Picking their way along the congested avenues, Maurette and Dominic rode toward St. Paul’s. They made their way past the Royal Exchange where the gentry carried on their endless legal quarrels. They trotted through Eastcheap Market where country dwellers came to haggle with the townsfolk over the price of grain and livestock. Sonorous human voices mixed with sharp bleats and cackles and droning lows to blend in an uproarious, cacophonous clatter. The excitement of the city was infecting Maurette’s own mood, and she found herself happy and full of life.

The steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral were alive with beggars and trades-people, pigeons, and rollicking children. Finding a spot near the huge stone edifice, they dismounted and Dominic paid a lad to stable their horses, giving him an extra coin to provide good care. Then he and Maurette climbed the craggy steps.

>From the burned remains of the steeple in the old church, Maurette and Dominic scanned the city, which was animated with colorful traffic on this clear breezy day. To the east stood the Tower of London and St. Michel’s.

To the west was the Convent Garden of the Abbey of Westminster, and to the south, they could see the waterfront along the Thames. The arches of London Bridge spanned the waters while ships and small boats skimmed its white-capped surface. Across the great river were the Fields of Finsbury where Master Burbage had built his amazing theater, for the extraordinary exclusive purpose of putting on plays.

At times, and simply to make ends meet, the Burbages rented out the round structure for bear and bullbaiting. After one of these events and before the public could be invited back in to view a play, new rushes had to be strewn to soak up the blood and excrement, always a product of that less refined activity. Even fresh rushes, however, could not completely eliminate the odors that emanated from that remarkable building’s earthen floors. And a lingering scent of embattled animals accompanied each entertainment and wafted over the river to meet the city’s own gamy smells.

To the north was Maurette’s beloved home and the rich verdant country that supplied the city with so much of its fresh produce and meat. Maurette pointed excitedly to the location of the Harper country estate. If ’twas not for the overgrowth of spring foliage and gently rising slopes, one could perhaps see it from there, she explained.

Far below them, Maurette and Dominic could see the tumult in the dirty, crowded streets. For them, from their high vantage, the clamor and dust did not exist. The cold blue air they breathed was cleansed and clear, filled with scudding clouds and treetops, soaring birds and gray spires. The soughing wind was the only sound to reach their ears in their tranquil perch. The couple laughed at the silent masque-like quality of the jostling crowds beneath them on the cobbled streets. Strollers pushed and prodded at each other in an effort to win passage. While dogs and chickens and pigs vied for their own places in the crowded, foul-smelling mass.

It was with great reluctance that the couple moved from the stone wall of the tower and made their way down narrow steps to the nave. Gazing in reverent awe, they surveyed the statuary and hangings in the old church. Light and shadow played in shifting, Peaceful harmony among the lofty and massive carvings. Maurette knelt in silent prayer before the couple stepped out onto the narrow, noisy street.

Dominic took Maurette’s arm and led her past aggressive, ill-smelling beggars. The couple stopped to inspect a lacemaker’s basket and were jostled by vendors hawking vegetables and pastries, fruits and breads. In their progress through the city, they passed inns and alehouses, bowling alleys and brothels.

They selected, with much discussion, a blend of teas offered by a wizened old woman, who promised them that this particular concoction would ensure them, upon drinking it, a long, blissful life. Maurette, blushing at the woman’s final promise of many strong sons, eyed Dominic askance as she placed the orange-scented bundle in her pocket, to see if he had noted the prophecy. He was, however, already perusing the contents of a leather maker’s stall.

As the afternoon shadows lengthened, Dominic bought them each a meat pie, which they ate while they walked. They laughed joyously as the juices from the warm and succulent pastries oozed down their chins.

They turned up a narrow side street and ambled before peaceful gardens surrounded by iron fences. A small stone house stood in the center of one garden and was framed by long-stemmed, luxuriant, early-blooming iris. They stopped, and Dominic placed his arm around Maruette’s shoulders as a pair of young children tumbled around the side of the house. Their youthful laughter was unrestrained as they roughhoused unabashedly and disappeared behind the other end of the house. Dominic’s arm moved down to Maurette’s waist, and they continued their walk.

The gesture seemed completely natural to both. They spoke easily and touched with spontaneous intimacy as one or the other of them pointed out a sight of interest or a particularly curious happening.

As they moved from the shaded gardens of London’s residential area into the swarm and filth of Scalding Alley, they saw a fat butcher chasing a scrawny, featherless hen. Beggars no longer jostled passers-by but huddled in narrow doorways and pleaded for alms in feeble voices. Drunken men and woman sang raucously, leaning upon each other in unsuccessful attempts to walk upright, as Maurette and Dominic hurried through the strewn filth. Noting a particularly dirty, big-eyed child hawking his mother’s needlework and his father’s leather goods, Maurette stopped to bend low over his basket. She fingered a delicately sewn pincushion and wondered at the elegance and refinement of the work in so ungraceful an atmosphere. In the end, she chose the cushion and a scented sachet of leather goods and chose a pair of sturdy riding gloves. Dominic and Maurette hoped that the extra coins that Dominic had bestowed on the child would buy him a decent supper.

As they passed the malodorous Town Ditch, a crowd of robust teen-aged boys taunted with sticks the fearsome brown rats that fed upon garbage and the carcasses of decaying animals.

Maurette held her new sachet to her nose and giggled as she attempted to discourage Dominic from a serious and prolonged discussion with the lads as to the proper length a stick must be in order that it be both effective and safe for such diversion. Complete enjoyment of the entertainment depended, Dominic assured his newfound companions, on the length for maximum amusement. As Dominic finally led Maurette to an open carriage standing on the other side of the dusty street, the lads cheered him and bade him return soon. Maurette breathed a thankful breath , as the driver carried them away from the ditch, and chided Dominic as to the source of his important knowledge of rats and ditches. Dominic laughingly apprised her of the fact that his boyhood had not been entirely misspent in musty classrooms under the tutelage of stiff-chinned pedagogues. He had, he assured her, idled away many joyous hours at that very ditch.

In an amiable mood, they entered the lush expanse of Hyde Park. Dominic bade the driver stop and leave them for a few moments. With a gold coin firmly entrapped in his crust hand, the old man obliged and went to sit beneath a nearby tree while his withered horse munched happily at the rarely savored freshness of the luxuriant lawns.

Dominic faced Maurette on the wooden sear. “I am enjoying this day with you, Maurette,” he said softly.

“I, too, am enjoying the day, my lord,” she answered.

“You may wish to call me Dominic,” he said gently. “After all we have shared this day…St. Paul’s and the oozing pies and the Town Ditch…we should, perforce, be on the most intimate of terms.

“For all of that,” said Maurette solemnly, “I do not know you, sir.” She lifted her chin. “I do not really know you at all.”

He took her hands in his, his smile warm and full of tenderness. “What you say is true and that must be remedied. We have but a little year together.”

” ‘Twas an inauspicious beginning, Maurette,” he said earnestly, “but expedient.” He regarded her for a long moment. “You know, little one, this contract that we must sign is not so bad a thing. “‘Tis commonly accepted among commoners and kings.” He paused meaningfully. “And errant knights,” he added with a mischievous twinkle in his gray eyes.

Maurette stared at him in surprise. She could not imagine that he would jest in regard to the night before.

He continued, unabashed by her bemusement. “I am not the rogue you imagine me, Maurette…at least, I shall try to quell my roguish instincts from this moment where they concern you. If you give me the chance, I can show you that I am no monster. Trust me for but a while,” He set down her hands and turned slightly away from her.

“Would you like to know what your father and I discussed while the early morning passed? I shall tell you. We spoke of you, Maurette,” he said, turning to her once more and capturing her in a silver gaze. “We spoke of your welfare and of your reputation. I told him that it would be my pleasure to be faithful to our contract. No indiscretions will haunt our relationship. I told him that, for this next year, I would protect you from all harms and would cherish and adore you. For this next year, you shall have that life promised you by that old woman, not by drinking her teas, but by accepting what has come to pass and by realizing that, if only you will trust me, we can be happy. We can have our life of bliss, as that old woman prophesied, but we must make it so. I shall try, Maurette. Will you?”

Dominic’s eloquence disturbed Maurette. He had spoken only of the next year. She did not know that she could vow such an attitude for so temporary a period. Her mother seemed sure that a legal marriage would ensue, but Maurette did not know that she even wished such a circumstance. She turned away to stare, without comprehension, into the purple mist of the eventide that was shadowing the park.

“I cannot answer you this moment, Dominic,” she said faintly. Turning back to him and appraising the earnestness that she found in his eyes, she said gently, “I can promise you that I shall enjoy the rest of our day together. Beyond that, we must wait and see.”

Dominic bowed his head. “I shall not press you,” he said resignedly. “I ask only that you think on my words.” With that, he motioned the driver back to the cart, and in silence, they continued their ride.

In the softness of the twilight, the color and excitement of Convent Garden was muted and hushed. As they passed the opera house, they watched ballet girls giggling together as they left their rehearsals. Jugglers and acrobats, still in their garish costumes, sat on the lawns beneath trees and on low stone benches, chatting quietly together.

The early twilight had faded to a soft blue-black evening before Maurette and Dominic entered a small alehouse where they enjoyed a dinner of roast beef and bread pudding. After the satisfying meal, Maurette sipped a cup of warm, spiced cider, and Dominic lingered over a pint of ale.

The pleasant strains of a small consort of stringed instruments wafted through the golden warmth of the cozy dining room. Maurette abstractedly hummed along while Dominic watched her and listened to her lovely voice with tender regard. When the familiar coda began, he took up the song in his own clear baritone.

The two harmonized the sweet melody and laughed, as they sang, over the impossibly romantic lyrics and did not realize that all eyes in the room had turned to watch the tall, bronzed buccaneer and the fair, jewel-like gentlewoman sing together in spontaneous joy.

Finally, ending the song with a flourish of complex harmony, Maurette and Dominic noticed the approving gazes of the other patrons. With smiles and unselfconscious delight, they accepted the light applause that complimented their performance. The couple’s obvious bliss in each other’s company was respected by the other diners, who, without pressing the songsters for another air, went back to their own conversations and food.

“You have a charming voice, Dominic,” Maurette said.

“And you my lady,” Dominic said with a courtly nod.

Maurette accepted his compliment and fluttered her silken lashes. “‘Tis rare, indeed, to find such admirable facility in a man,” she said with a saucy smile.” Especially in a pirate…” Her jaw dropped suddenly, and her eyes widened in dismay at her gaffe. “I did not meant to speak so sir.” She said with alarm. “Forgive me, I beg you.”

Dominic reached out and touched her cheek with the tips of his fingers. He felt the hot flush of her embarrassment. “Be bot so alarmed, sweet,” he said fondly. ” ‘Tis only a word.” He held her chin with his thumb and forefinger when she would have turned away. “You have given me, this day, more confidence in the joys to come than I had reason to hope for.” He leaned across the table, “I am a most fortunate man, and I thank you for that sweet fortune.” He saw that her eyes were soft and yielding, and he leaned back into his chair and smiled. “Words are but transient passers-by. By one spring, hence it might be a compliment to call a man ‘pirate.’ ” His smile faded as he took in the tender pliancy that his words had caused to form in her aspect. “Your actions tell me more than that little word, Maurette,” he said solemnly.

Maurette gazed at him. The man could be as pleasant and engaging as anyone she had ever met. Her face took on an ingenious vulnerability as she spoke her next words. “I have loved this sojourn with you, Dominic. Your fine attention is more than I could have wished for. I hope, too, that this next year is a memorable one for both of us. If ’twere but my companionship that you desired, I would gladly agree. As to the rest, however, I cannot yet tell,” Here she lowered her eyes.

Recognizing the hesitancy in her demeanor, Dominic could see that their bargain was by no means sealed. His eyes when she looked up finally, were dark and shadowed. He looked off into a dim middle distance where Maurette knew he was alone and, perhaps, lonely.

She felt a feathery, insistent flutter somewhere deep within her. What was this thing, this sense, that had been growing all day in the hidden world of her emotions to throb now, so relentlessly within her soul? She would not have believed that the dominating, self-assured man before her could have caused such potent felicity. She would not have believed that the mighty Lord Warbrooke could ever feel what she perceived to be disappointment. She looked away from him once again.

“I will take you home, Maurette.”

She heard the huskiness in his voice and despaired at the thought that she had nullified whatever had been built between them that day. She could not call it friendship, exactly, but some bond had begun to exist. The tragedy was that Maurette had lost much of the determination she had erected earlier in the day. How could she protect herself against a man she was beginning to…love? The word startled her.

After they had collected their horses from the stable, they rode, in silence, to Harper House. The stone and wooden edifice rose before them darkly against the dark night. Starlight shimmered in the wide arch of the night sky as they dismounted and walked slowly to the entrance. They stopped before the gate. Maurette turned to him and looked up into his gleaming dark eyes. Silver moonlight played on the planes of his bronzed face, and his raven hair shimmered in the star-frosted night.

>From somewhere inside the house a small light gleamed yellow and caught Maurette’s face as she gazed, with liquid eyes, at his handsome face. He looked down at her for a long moment.

“I want so desperately,” she said in a childlike voice, “to hate you, Dominic. But I do not.” She moistened her curving lips with her tongue.

A soft groan emanated from deep within Dominic’s chest. He encircled her waist with one muscular arm and in the same movement reached to cradle the back of her head with a large hand. He gazed down at thee soft planes of her oval face radiating in the dark night like a pale star. Dominic titled his head slightly as if studying a treasured object.

“Lovely,” he intoned. His voice was a husky drawl. “So innocent and yet so wise.” His fingers tightened, and their gentle pressure sent waves of eager warmth coursing through Maurette’s being.

“Shall I be the one?” Dominic said with tender gravity. His lips came down toward hers. For a timeless moment they lingered just above her.

Maurette could feel their breathing blend in the tiny starlit space that separated them. With infinite yearning they came together in a rapturous kiss. Her arms entwined around his neck as a pliant fervor spread through her body. Her lips met his with their own demands. Maurette was swept away in a tender male-storm of passion.

After a long moment, Dominic released her. His strong arms encircling her supple young body, he held her firmly and steadied her. He stroked her hair as he drew her head to his broad chest and murmured low, gentling words to quiet the tremors that stirred her.

Maurette’s legs felt like water, and her breath came in gasps. She did not know what was happening to her, but now, in Dominic’s arms, she felt a completeness that she had not known before. Finally, as her trembling abated, she pushed herself back to look up into Dominic’s eyes. She found a strange mixture of sadness and desire there.

He drew her back toward him, and her soft cheek rested against his muscular chest. Each pulsation of his heart filled Maurette with a throbbing desire that was stronger and yet more weakening that the one before. With one powerful motion, he swept her up and carried her along the curved path to the rear of Harper House. Maurette’s head fell back over his arms, and her glistening curls were received by the night wind. In the silvery shadows of the back garden, he laid her down upon foliage, hidden from the world, he drew her cloak from her shoulders.

Abandoning herself to a glorious surrender, Maurette lay back on its languid folds and felt the fastenings of her gown being loosened. The tender scent of the moist April earth filled her soul, and the night’s cool wind touched her bared shoulders. The rustling of her gown mingled with the rustling of the foliage that surrounded them, and Maurette felt that she was one with nature as passions she had never before realized feathered to the surface of her senses.

Her eager response emboldened Dominic. He lifted her, arching her soft white throat to his lips, Gentle, teasing kisses trailed down to her quivering breast. Maurette moaned beneath his hungry assault. Her arms entwined themselves round his neck, and her fingertips lingered in his raven curls. She closed her eyes and allowed herself to be swept into the silken surge of Dominic’s compelling passion.

“I love you,” she whispered on the whispering night wind. At her simple declaration, Dominic suddenly stopped. Maurette’s eyes unclose, and she looked up into the silvered reflection of his gaze. “What is it?” she asked softly.

“Do not…love me, Maurette,” he said gently. “Never allow yourself to love me.”

Maurette’s eyes widened. “But I do, Dominic. I know ’tis true. These feelings I have could be nothing else. I have wrestled with them all day, and I know now that I love you completely.”

“No.” he rasped. He drew himself up and turned from her.

The motion wrenched her heart more painfully than if someone had plucked it beating from her breast. She felt first the onset of rejection. The deep, burning hurt flared out from the center of her soul. She could not believe that he could so cruelly dismiss her most precious gift. Then slowly the anger began. Its tendrils crept seething into her heart. When Dominic turned back to her, he found a different Maurette. Her eyes had hardened to purple flint, her lips were a grim line, and her pale face was whiter than before.

“Mine is the regret,” he said very softly.

“Yes,” Maurette hissed. She could not stop the wrathful tears that popped into her widened eyes. “Yours the regret, sir.” She twisted on the ground and pulled herself up, drawing up the neckline of her gown and snatching her cloak from the floor of the world. Hot shame engulfed her as she realized what had almost come to pass. She had nearly given herself to the loathsome Warbrooke.

“You are the most vile of creatures,” she spat. “You would dare to take me in the garden of my father’s house, without love, like a dog in the night. You dared to seduce me, to make me declare love that is not returned. Were I a man, I would rip out your detestable heart. But I am a woman, and so I must suffer your physical well-being. Know this, however. There is a woman who walks this earth with hatred ion her heart for you. Know that if ever the opportunity is hers, she will be avenged for what you have done to her this night. Yes,” Maurette finished, her voice a low growl. “yours the regret.” She turned and ran up the path and into the house.

Once securely shrouded behind the hangings of her bed, Maurette sobbed out all the horrible, piercing torment torturing her agonized heart. She had known that she must protect herself from the villainous beast. She had known that, if she allowed her woman’s heart to soften toward him, she would have no defense. She had known all this and had resolved before witnesses to fight against his virile invasion, and yet, in the face of his masculine aggression, she had allowed herself to weaken.

Her misery was replaced in the night by a wretchedness that she believed she could not bear. Self-loathing was all. Maurette convinced herself that she was most feeble-hearted, irresolute of woman. She deserved to be bullied, dictated to, and terrorized by a man. Humiliation enflamed her.

As the fire of shame threatened to engulf her, however, it was suddenly doused by an icy anger. It was the most terrible anger she had ever known. She was not to blame for Warbrooke’s rejection of her. Nay! She had acknowledged an honest emotion. That the cold-hearted brute could not accept such a profound sentiment was no fault of her. He was the dog, prowling in the night, having his way with any willing bitch. Maurette was no beast. She was a human being. She was above such vulgarity. Leave him to his diversions. She would not be part of them.

A horrifying thought thundered into her brain. It caused her to sit bolt upright on her bed. Her eyes widened in a rage of wild supposition. What if, after all that had transpired, the loathsome Warbrooke still demanded her compliance with the contract? She pounded her bed in denial of such a terrible possibility.

“No! No! No!” she shrieked.

Her lamentations were heard into the night by the two older women, who sipped at pints of ale in a nearby chamber. Both knew, too well, that they could neither soften nor abbreviate Maurette’s suffering. It must go its course, they had decided, and only waited throughout the long, awful night for the grief to end. They waited, too, for the demand for retribution that would take its place.

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER TEN

Maurette’s preparations were meager but adequate, she felt. Throughout the day, she had stayed in her room, ordering cheeses and bread for her meals and then hiding them in a length of cloth She had emptied a basket of fruit that lay on a table near his bed. And she remembered to add the sugared treats. If she was careful, this small store would last her for days. She had money, too, but that was to buy silence if her father or Dominic became too close to her. They would, no doubt, begin a search the moment they found her missing. Maurette hesitated when she thought of her family.

Her father would be concerned for her safety. Her mother and Imogene would be struck with grief. However, she could not allow such sentiment to deter her; she must leave. It was, as she viewed it, her only hope.

Maurette heard footfalls in the gallery outside her chamber door She quickly slid into her bed and, moaning softly, shielded her eyes with a delicate forearm and her wrist over one side of the bed. Lolling her head from side to side, Maurette gave a good imitation, as she had for much of the day, of someone feeling under the weather.

“You are still not feeling well, little lady?” said Edyth as she bustled into the room. “Shall I get you a dosage of my medication? After seeing you earlier in the day, your mama suggested that it might be necessary.”

Maurette stiffened. “No… please,” she said with more force than she intended. Ever since Maurette could remember; the terrible, slimy concoction had been a part of her family’s life. Health and vitality was so prized in the Harper household that, when one of their number did by some chance fall ill, Edyth was called upon to administer her brew, known to have amazing restorative powers. Two of its ingredients, it was rumored by those forced to sample it, were bat’s blood and frog’s eyes. Even if she were physically ill, she decided, the cure might be less welcome than the ailment, but her illness could not be aided by medicine. She was heart-sore and deeply aggrieved and filled with a terrible rage. No mixture of unholy powers could cure that.

Maurette had held off her family’s ministrations by Insisting that she was only weary from the previous day’s sojourn into the city and did not need the tonic. She prayed that she could deter their concern further, at least until night when she could slip out into the darkness and be on her way.

“Everyone is on the alert,” Edyth said, shaking her head sadly, having listened to the poor child’s lamentations throughout the long night. She moved to the ewer on Maurette’s washing table, doused a cloth with cold water, and placed it on the girl’s forehead. She looked down fondly on the pale young girl lying so despairingly on the bed.

Maurette turned over onto her stomach and feigned a restless sleep. Edyth drew up the covers and left the room Lingering just outside the chamber door, the old tiring woman breathed a ragged sigh and offered up a silent prayer that the child rely was ailing and not biding time while she planned some awesome imbroglio.

As soon as Edyth had left the room, Maurette was out of bed and on her feet. Running to the window, she noted the lengthening shadows of eventide slowly filling the garden below. She must hurry.

Gathering her breeches and shirt, she stuffed them into a small sack. She had. decided that she would travel as a lad, at least for the first days. Alarums would be out for a young lady, and if she was spotted, she wanted not to be recognized. She would keep to the countryside for the most part, but she knew that she must pass through London, in order to travel north, and through many small villages before she reached the hamlet of Islington. Though she was known there, she felt that she could live better in a place where she understood the land. She would stay in the great forests and live among the animals and birds that she had, over the years, befriended there. She would find sustenance in the nuts and berries that kept them alive.

When she was ready to send word to her parents, she would move to the outskirts of the village and find some young acquaintance to aid her in her cause. Perhaps she could go to Tim or, even better, to Arthur Warwick. He was not above any prank that would make fools of the adults and their stuffy morality. But all of that was far in the future. First she must make her plans to leave the house itself and go through the city while darkness shrouded her escape.

She had managed to tell a young stableboy to saddle Melitte in preparation for a long ride when darkness came. The boy was smitten with her anyway, and she had, with the weapon of her displeasure, sworn him to silence. Now, with food and money secured, she sat at her small writing desk to carry out the hardest task of this whole business.

She must write a note to her family. She decided that the news of her departure should go through her grandmother. She hoped that Ladyy Violet’s calm assessment of the situation would serve to mollify the family’s horror at her act. She hoped, too, that. her grandmother’s understanding and avowed acceptance of Maurette’s actions would serve as a buffer to the family’s response.

Maurette rolled the plumed pen between her fingers. She contemplated deeply what she would say to them. She could not allow any indication of her destination, and she wanted desperately for them to gain some insight into her reasoning. She could not explain her reasons, however, if she did not truly understand them herself.

She knew that she must buy time for herself. She knew that, knowing what she now knew about Dominic’s feelings for her, she would not tamely give herself to him and hoped she could negotiate her freedom from the hated contract. If she could not, she would stay away until the damnable Warbrooke had finally lost interest in her. That circumstance might occur more quickly than any of them imagine, given his cruel dismissal of her earnest confession to him the night before. She bit her lip as she felt shame and hurt rise to wrench her heart.

The sob that escaped her became a searing rasp. “The loathsome bastard,” she cried, pounding the hard surface of her desk and sending inkwell and paperweight scattering. Hot, wrathful tears dropped onto the parchment before her.

Without further thought, she began to write.

Dearest Grandmama,

By the time you read this, I shall be far away. I offer only that I shall keep myself safe.

The reason for my leaving is, in truth, the same. I must protect myself from the awful Warbrooke. He is more than a scoundrel than any of us had imagined. Trust me that I am far better roaming the world than in his dreaded clutches.

I shall send word of my plans for the negotiation of my freedom from him when I feel the time is at hand.

The message was without sentiment, and that was the way she wanted it to be. She did not wish any of them to imagine that she could be cajoled out of her purpose.

Maurette signed the missive and folded and sealed it She then tucked it beneath her pillow where Edyth would find it in the morning. By that time, Maurette would be safely headed north.

With determination, she turned to her mirror and faced another practical consideration in this business-what to do about her hair. She contemplated chopping off the thick tresses but despaired of that. Would she allow Warbrooke to cause her the further humiliation of. mutilating her crowning glory? She would not! Perhaps she could hide it somehow. Furrowing her smooth brow, she regarded her reflection and experimented with pinning her hair on the top of her head. When she had piled it thus she found a long swathe of blue muslin at the bottom of a chest and wrapped it round her head. She surveyed the results. With the scarf securely tucked and tied at the back and wearing her breeches and shirt, she was satisfied that she would look every bit the farm lad traveling back to his country home. She quickly unwound the kerchief lest anyone should burst in on her and stuffed it into the sack. Everything was at the ready, she decided and lay upon her bed to await the darkness into which she would steal.

At last the house was silent. One by one the family had entered her room before retiring to inquire about her health. She had assured them that all she needed was rest, they had left her, happy in the belief that Maurette was only weary. Her father had admonished her that, or not, she must on the morrow, face Dominic Warbrooke and the signing of the precontract. Her mother had reminded her that he was not a patient man and the family had warded him off all this day with the word of her ailment, but, she had warned, he had been barely appeased. Maurette had reassured her mother that, after a night’s sleep, she would do what was expected of her.

Only lady Violet had seemed reluctant to accept her explanation of her day’s confinement.

Her brow had quirked with a question when Maurette had embraced her with extra affection.

“I love you deeply, Grandmama,” Maurette had said in what the dowager felt to be an excess of fondness.

” ‘Tis only a good-night hug, dear child,” she had said smilingly. “are you planning a sea voyage?”

Maurette had uttered a startled laugh. “Naturally not, Grandmama ” ‘Tis only that I wish you to know how I feel.”

“I do, child,” the older woman had said knowingly. “Now sleep, and I shall come first thing in the morn to see you.” She had left Maurette with the feeling that she alone was aware of her plans.

Shrugging off that shivery sense of her grandmother’s prescience, Maurette sprang from her bed. She began to gather the accouterments of her journey. She removed a long, gray woolen cloak from her chest and placed it round her shoulders, puling the hood close about her face. After listening at her chamber door until she was confident no one loitered in the gallery, she moved silently from her room and down the back staircase.

In the kitchen, she stopped to stuff some small corncakes left in the larder into her food sack. She wrapped a quantity of sugar for Melitte and stuffed several carrots and dried apple slices in with her own food. She would use these not only as treats for her little mare but also as silencers in the event that they needed to hide from a passing traveler or some searcher who came too close.

Pushing against the back gate, Maurette entered the stableyard. Melitte whickered in friendly greeting as Maurette moved toward her and offered her a sweet slice of sugared apple. The mare munched it quietly as Maurette scrambled with difficulty onto her blanketed and saddled back. With as much stealth as possible, she directed her little mare away from the house and into the dark of the night.

When horse and rider had gone south nearly a mile into the countryside; Maurette stopped and dismounted. Loosening the lacings of her gown, she stepped out of it. To the accompaniment of crickets and small night-creature sounds, she worked feverishly to free herself of her stiff corset and farthingale. The crisp night air assaulted her naked skin as she fumbled in the sack for her breeches and shirt. Dressed in only a thin shift of the most delicate lace and lawn, she cursed herself for not having changed in the warmth of her house, but, in truth, she could not have risked it. If anyone had spotted her leaving, she had been prepared, with her baggage secreted beneath her cloak, to say that she was in need of exercise before being able to fall to sleep.

At last she found the breeches, which she slipped on and the cambric blouse. Next, she wound the length of cloth round her head. Then, placing her clothes near a large tree, she deliberately ruffled them. The searchers, whom she imagined would come with the dawn’s full light, might find them there and discern that she had removed them, as she had done, to change into other clothing. But with luck they would also assume that she had then proceeded in that same direction from the house. Instead, Maurette, stiffening against the chill of the spring night, doubled back through the moist forest and headed toward London. She rode swiftly along the road from her house but slowed her pace when she entered the city.

Lamps had been lit throughout the town, and only a few stragglers inhabited the darkly illumined streets. All was quiet except the alehouses, from which could be heard the noisy din of men’s voices. Bursts of laughter emanated from one yellow doorway while raucous singing poured from another.

Maurette felt lonely and isolated as she traversed the center of a cobbled street. Melitte’s hooves clopped smartly over the night-dampened stones. At this slow pace, Maurette thought dismally, it would take hours to pass through the city, but she could not risk a faster trot. First, she did not want to draw undue attention by racing through the streets of London at his late hour, and second, she feared injury to her horse. Melitte had proved a boon companion on many occasions, but tonight and for many nights to come the little horse would be Maurette’s only companion and sole means of escape. She continued the maddeningly stolid pace she had set for herself.

Suddenly, from one of the yellow doorways, a young man was propelled with astonishing velocity into the street directly into the path of horse and rider. Melitte shied and whinnied vigorously in an attempt to avoid the man, who was followed by a tumbling mass of male bodies and a shouting force of red-faced elder citizens.

“I told ye lads to do yer drinkin’ elsewhere,” hollered a bald-headed fellow. His ample belly was covered by a dirty apron, and he appeared to be the leader of the group who had ejected the unwanted revelers. “Ye’ll come back to th’ same treatment each time. Be warned!” He turned back to the other men and, shaking their heads indignantly and grumbling boisterously, they moved back into the dim interior of the alehouse. “I’ll have no actors here,” said the aproned one, shaking his hammy fist vehemently. “Nay but trouble are they.” He slammed the door that had been opened to the cool night.

“Trouble,” said one of those evicted, placing his fingertips against his tender jaw. “I see no trouble but that caused by that red-nosed buffoon.” He tested the workings of his injured face carefully.

“Easy, Tom,” said a calmer voice. “We cannot afford to ruffle the feathers of the good townsfolk. Tomorrow those brawns will be laying down their pennies to watch us perform.”

>From where Maurette she sat on Melitte, she looked down upon the sprawling men. The mare whickered impatiently and pranced in astonishment at the scene. As Maurette tried to calm the animal, she realized that the men were the same players at her birthday ball.

The calm one was now rising and brushing at his hose.

“I say we add a word or two in our next performance. Perhaps, we should include a scene where a large florid oaf is bested by a small-but brilliant-young poet. What say you, masters,” he said, laughing and urging the men to their feet. He offered a hand to the irate Tom, who took it and joined the others in their anticipation of the next day’s performance.

Maurette cleared her throat delicately. In a circle of dim yellow lamplight, the men were straightening their clothing and congratulating each other on blows well taken and did not notice Maurette. She slid down from her horse and approached them.

“Pardon me,” she said gently. “I hope that none of you have been injured.” The players regarded her in surprise, and then seeing the pretty horse that she held in tether, they smiled and realized what must have transpired.

“‘Twould appear we needs ask you the same question, lad,” said the man who seemed to be the leader of the group. “In our self-absorption, we considered not your circumstance.” He clapped Maurette on the back in a spirited show of friendship that threw her forward and into the circle of men. The man winked gaily at his companions. “This pretty lad needs a bit of growing before a manly gesture is thrust upon him. Sorry, Son,” he said, steadying Maurette. “How old are you?”

Maurette thought quickly. “Thirteen, sir,” she said; lowering her voice to a husky whisper.

“A grand age,” said the gentleman, and the others agreed. “And what name do you call yourself?”

“Dan, sir,,’ Maurette said, taking the name of the lad who had saddled her horse.

“We could use a lad such as Yourself. Young Tom here is getting too long in the tooth to be playing the ingenue.” The laughing men agreed heartily. Only “young Tom” declined to join the joviality of his friends.

“I have told you that, sir, for many months,” he stated archly. “But you would have me play the simper till I grow wizened and die, I fear. From my mewling, piddling youth to me mewling piddling old age, I shall be forced to be en role as the wavering, hesitating females of your imagination.”

The other men pressed amiably in on the indignant young actor, but he pushed them aside and regarded Maurette. “Now, there is a face for your needs, masters Dan, here, is what I looked like once. See you the difference between us?” He grasped Maurette’s face roughly in his hand and put his own near to hers. “See you, men, finally and forever that I am no peach-fuzzed boy?”

“Not even peach fuzz on that one,” said one of the men raucously.

Maurette pulled away from the unwanted perusal. “Me-thinks,” she said, smiling faintly, “that this ado is for naught. I am no actor, gentlemen.”

“But you need not be precisely an actor, young fellow,” said another of the men. “We could teach you. We art masters all,” he added, swaggering away from the group. “Where think you the Burbages learned and Master Kemp? From the likes of us,” he said prideful. The other men chided his boasting. “‘Tis true, ’tis true. We may not have that fancy edifice built for plays, but we have something better. We have Master Shakespeare.” The others laughingly agreed.

“Tune down your boasts except on that score, old fellow,” said another man. “We do, in truth, have Master Shakespeare. His worth outshines that fancy edifice a thousand times.” The men added their heartiest agreement.

Master Shakespeare, the man Maurette had perceived to be their leader, smiled in self-deprecation. “Now, now, good fellows,” he said gently, “You must needs end this praise lest Master Burbage, himself, hear you and snatch me from your midst. I am but a lowly poet attempting to earn his living at this dastardly trade.”

The others laughed.

“I would tell you, though, young lad, the men are right. We could teach you. If you’ve no other preoccupation and if you want to learn, we could give you those tools with which actors are made. And, in truth,” he said, kindly placing a hand on Maurette’s shoulder, “the acing life, despite what you have witnessed tonight, is not such a bad one.”

“We are a happy lot. When the weather avails us, we sleep beneath the stars.” He swept a hand toward the starry arch of sky above the dirty lamp-lit street. “We have some food which kindly patrons offer us from time to time. The rest we catch and cook ourselves. We have little need for money save what it costs to keep our families. And best of all,” he said, leaning in to Maurette, “we have the richness of the world and all there is in it to teach us what we have to know ‘Tis not a bad life.” He smiled fondly down into Maurette’s eyes. “A boy such as yourself could, in truth, find a pleasant living in such circumstances.”

Maurette lowered her gaze. “If I were, in truth, a lad-” She stopped short. “I mean, a lad for such a vocation, I would gladly go with you, sir,” she said huskily. “But I have other business to attend that cannot allow for my own desires. It is family business, you see,” Maurette went on hastily. “I have a mother who is ill and in need of my young strength to keep her farm.” That is very good, she said to herself as she appraised what she had just uttered without thinking. Perhaps I should be an actor, she thought.

“Ah,” said William Shakespeare, “’tis a noble course you follow young sir. And where is your home?”

With only a small moment’s hesitation, Maurette said, “Islington, sir.”

“Why, that is where we travel this night. We have a cart and horse at the stable, and we were ready to make our journey home. We are staying, while the weather is warm, on Warwick lands.”

Maurette’s eyes widened in astonishment. “They are neighbors, sir.” she blurted. Then, remembering her charade, she added, “I mean that we tenant a farm very near to the Warwick estate.”

“Then you must join us for the journey,” said William Shakespeare kindly. “The burden of travel is lighter when one has friends to share the time. Come and join us, little fellow.”

“Yes,” said Maurette, smiling deeply, “I think that will be most satisfactory. I will join you, sirs.”

Tom gazed at her. “He speaks well and is as pretty a lad as I have ever seen. Oh, but for his ailing mother, I could pull myself out of this mire of femininity in which I suffocate.” He placed a friendly arm across Maurette’s shoulders as they ambled toward the stable. “If your dam recovers within this season,” he said with good-natured resignation, “you will send word to me. And,” he added, pointing a finger in Maurette’s direction, “you will consider no other occupation than the theater.”

Maurette nodded. “I vow that I shall do what you ask,” she said with a secret smile.

Snuggled low in the big lumbering cart, Maurette felt warm and cozy. She was warmed not only by the many blankets that were tucked under and around her, but by the good fellowship that abounded in the company of her new friends. She wished desperately that she could somehow stay with them, but she knew that to be impossible. In the first place, she could not for long keep her sex a secret in the company of such open and free-spirited gentlemen. They would without doubt discover her. And though she did not fear their betrayal, she well understood that someone might discover her secret. And, if discovered, she would hold her family up to the most scandalous censure. A woman who consorted with actors was considered beneath the prostitute plying her favors in the street. A traveling wench was the most contemptible of women. Beyond all that and in the second place, if, in the spirit of their generous natures, the actors decided to aid in her concealment, they, too, would be laying themselves open to terrible punishment. An actor’s lot, though a happy one as pointed out by Master Shakespeare, was also a precarious one. Their freedom was tentative, and their collective reputation was ever a source of repugnance.

As evidenced by the prejudicial behavior of the townsfolk this night, many people needed no provocation to condemn these good men. Though she hated the thought, Maurette knew that, as soon as they reached Islington, she must bid them adieu.

She straightened herself and peeked over the edge of the cart to satisfy herself that Melitte was still in tow. The little horse was restless with the slow pace set by the plodding farm horse that pulled the wagon, but otherwise ungrieved. The way was fairly simple, though long and easily trod, and was clearly marked by low foliage on each side. Maurette watched the road from London slowly disappear in the darkness behind them.

Suddenly her eyes widened. Far back against the midnight gloom of the wood, she saw a darker shape riding toward them. “Tom,” she said, poking the young man next to her, “look. Could it be a highwayman?”

The others focused their attention on the murky shadows in back of the cart. Tom chuckled softly. “If it is a thief,” he said,” ’twill be the saddest day he ever had.” All the men laughed quietly. “In truth, an actor is one notch above a highwayman, some would tell you. Perhaps a kindred spirit will prevail, and we can jolly him out of cutting out throats.”

Nervous whispers could be heard above the creaking of the cart wheels as the rider gained on them. “Do not be concerned, Dan,” Tom said broadly, dismissing his own anxiety. “Those sluggards are cowardly to a man.” He turned to the others. “What think you, men? Shall we pull aside and let this lone rider pass?”

In hushed voices, the men agreed and bade the driver pull to the side of the road and stop.

“They usually travel in packs,” said Will Shakespeare, straining to make out the dark shape that bore down upon them. He turned to his companions, and a glint could be seen in his bright eyes even in the darkness. “If ’tis a rogue who wishes our money,” he said through a small smile, “we shall at the least have saved that poor steed of his from further chase. He is setting a fearsome pace for the beast.”

The passengers watched as the dark shape grew in proportion to its progress toward them. ” ‘Tis a fine animal, though,” said one man, and they all agreed as horse and rider advanced.

Maurette’s heart lurched. She knew the horse now, if not the rider. Very soon, however, seeing the heavy black cloak flying behind him and the flowing silver-raven hair glinting in the pale moonlight, Maurette knew the rider, too. She swallowed hard. Dominic Warbrooke was upon them.

Maurette scuttled down into the blankets next to Tom. He seemed to sense, without the necessity of words, that she needed hiding. Together they hoisted the heavy coverings over her head, and she huddled there next to him.

The great black stallion skidded to a halt beside the cart. Its black-cloaked rider spoke from the height of the animal’s back.

“Ho, there, men,” his voice boomed over the quiet forest road. “I am Dominic Warbrooke. I seek a young lady who has run off from the Harper estate near London. You have her horse tied to the back of your cart and I would know how you came by it.”

William Shakespeare stood. “That horse was the mount of a young lad, sir. We met him at an alehouse in the city. If ’tis true that the, pretty steed is another’s property, we beg you take the animal and leave us in peace,”

Dominic dismounted with powerful grace. “What lad?” he said, moving toward the cart.

“A young lad named Dan,” said Will serenely. “We wish no conflict, sir, and will gladly relinquish the animal.”

Dominic peered over the side of the cart. In the darkness he saw the figures of several young men. Their friendly faces were illuminated only by the starlight that peered down from the sky through tall trees.

“We are actors, my lord,” said one of them. “Patroned this season by lord Warwick of Islington. We are Lord Warwick’s men and guaranteed by him.” The man held a large shape close to his side. Dominic could not make out what it was because of the darkness and because it was partially sheathed by a blanket. It was probably some accouterment of their trade, he thought, and turned back to Will Shakespeare, who was now standing on the ground beside the cart.

“And what is your name, sir?” Dominic said as he eyed the actor.

“My name, good sir, is William Shakespeare.” He bowed deeply.

Dominic appraised him. “You played at the Harper house but two nights past, did you not?” He recognized the man as one of the actors he had seen at the ball, though he had not paid close attention to the entertainment.

“We did my lord. And we deeply pray that you enjoyed our performance.”

Dominic nodded curtly. ” ‘Twas amusing,” he said. “I seek the lady in whose honor the ball was held.”

“Lady Maurette?” said the actor.

“‘Tis she. Have you seen her?”

“Only the lad, sir.”

“Is he among your number?”

Will paused. The other men did not move. Maurette felt a band and of steel tighten round her heart. She could not allow these men to be harmed on her account.

“Are you deaf, master?”. said Dominic. “Did you bring the lad with you? I would question him.”

Suddenly Maurette stood up. She stood quickly before she lost her courage. “I am here, sir,” she said through a tangle of blankets that clung to her legs and shoulders.

Dominic’s head came around.

“Step down, boy,” He commanded.

Maurette did so, and Dominic advanced until he stood directly over her. “I only borrowed the horse, sir,” she whispered huskily.

“Where is the lady?”

“I know not,” said Maurette, keeping her eyes lowered.

“Where was she when you found her horse?”

“At the alehouse, sir.” Maurette was frightened but determined to brazen out this confrontation. “The lady seemed to be attempting to book passage on a ship. I told her that I would tend her horse while she was about her business.” She was thinking very fast now. This might be the perfect story to get the searchers off her trail. “The lady left with a man after a time. I think he was a sea captain. She must have forgotten her horse. I took it, sir, with no harm intended.”

Dominic regarded the lad for a long time. “You will come with me, boy,” he said sternly.

Maurette shot him a look of terror and then quickly lowered her eyes once again. “Please, my lord,” she said hoarsely, “take the steed and let me go.”

The men were all on their feet by now, and some had jumped from the cart to gather round Maurette. “He is but a lad, sir,” said one of the actors. Another joined in.

“He will harm no one, we will see to that.” The others agreed noisily, but Dominic was firm.

“The lad goes with me,” he said sternly. “Lord Harper will deal with him in his own way.”

“Let reason guide you, my lord,” said William Shakespeare. “The boy is no criminal. His mother tenants a farm near Warwick lands, and she is ill.”

Dominic shot the man a riveting gaze, but seeing the congenial warmth in the , extraordinary eyes, he said, “Lord Harper is no tyrant, Master Shakespeare. He only wants his daughter back. This lad will be better for a lesson learned.”

Dominic turned crisply, and with Maurette’s arm firmly held in his big hand, he pushed her ungently to her horse. “Mount the steed, lad,” he said sternly. He watched as she struggled mightily and finally landed in a heap atop Melitte’s back. Then he bounded onto Durham.

The actors pressed forward. They were alarmed at Dominic’s rough treatment of the boy and anxious for his ultimate welfare. Maurette looked down upon her new-found friends.

“Fear not for me, gentlemen,” she said fondly. “I know Lord Harper to be a fair man. As for this … noble fellow, I fear nothing from him. He will not harm me as long as I have your witness that he has taken me. If I am able, I will meet you in Islington. Good night, friends.”

Dominic eyed her and decided he would make his own speech. “The boy has nothing to fear from me. As to his mother, I will send word that while her son works off his debt, she is to be cared for. She will not go hungry, masters, nor her farm go untended.” He wheeled his mighty horse, and the two rode off into the darkness of the forest road.

The actors watched sadly as they rode off.

“Perhaps, once we are at Islington, we shall see the boy again.” said Tom.

“I make no claim to prescience,” said William Shakespeare “But I have the sense that we shall see the lad again.”

The actors moved with heavy hearts back to the wagon, and once more they stared their journey toward Islington.

“Hold,” said Dominic when the two of them had gone a distance. “Have you a coat, young sir?”

Maurette shook her head. Dominic moved his big animal to the side of her horse. He put an arm around her waist, and with a sharp tug, he pulled her onto Durhan’s broad back. Then he spread his cloak around them both.

“The night grows chill,” he said. With Melitte in tow, they proceeded back to Harper House.

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Moonlit shadows fell over the house and grounds as Maurette and Dominic rode up, though the creeping fingers of dawn were not far distant. They dismounted and moved up the walkway to the front entrance.

“I will see to the horses later,” Dominic said as he led Maurette up the path.

“Will you awaken the master at this early hour?” Maurette said, hoping for a postponement of what she envisioned to be a frightful scene. She could bolt and run at any time, but she knew that he would simply catch her again. A postponement would give her time to think, however, and time was what she needed now. She must find a way to best Dominic Warbrooke that did not involve physical strength. She must use cunning. She decided to keep to her disguise for as long as he could.

She moved with Dominic in the lead to the main hall and, to her surprise, he led her up the grand staircase.

“Where are you taking me?” she inquired faintly.

He said nothing but turned toward her once they were in the main gallery and held his arm out in invitation. Maurette could not imagine what he was about. Where did he want her to go? Obviously, he wanted her to lead the way.

But how could she, as Dan, do so? She moved in front of him. Dancing torchlight shadows illuminated his handsome face. He was not smiling, but a certain air of amusement lit his eyes. Maurette moved carefully before him.

“Are you taking me to see the master of the house?” she asked.

“I am taking you to the Lady Maurette’s chamber.” Dominic’s eyes were hooded. Once again, Maurette wondered at the flicker of amusement that lingered deep within their gray depths. She could not imagine what he planned. Perhaps her father waited in her chamber. She knew that she was trapped, for the moment at least, and with soundless resignation, she moved forward to her own room. She pushed aside the big door and entered. Dominic followed. A low fire lit the room with rose-colored shadows, and candles flickered on the mantel. The cavernous chamber was empty. Maurette turned toward Dominic as he shut and barred the great wooden door. To her amazement, he was laughing softly. Keeping her eyes to the floor, she inquired as to the source of his mirth.

“I apologize, dear lady, but you have given yourself away at every turn,” he said genially.

Maurette looked up in shock. “You say, ‘dear lady’?”

“I do,” stated Dominic.

“How-”

“I knew it from the first, little one. Your attempts at subterfuge have been woefully lacking in every way.”

Maurette regarded him patiently while his laughter subsided. “Have they?” she said levelly.

He nodded. “Your lingering fatigue gave me concern until I thought about the idea of the robust Lady Maurette being laid low by an excursion to the city. Your flight was no surprise to me. “‘Twas also not difficult to imagine you fleeing to Islington. As to that pretty story you told, I am well aware that the Lady Maurette would never ‘forget about’ her beloved horse. Beyond that, those charming breeches, which I have cause to remember, and your sweet form and face alone are enough to identify you to the less than casual observer.”

Dominic shifted from one foot to the other waiting for Maurette to say something. When she made no attempt to reply, he continued. “Think, too, of this past moment when you walked directly to this chamber, having naturally, never been here-I would assume-unless the little lady has been hiding a dalliance with a farm lad.” He leaned back against the door. “Oh, Maurette, intrigue is by no means your forte. In the future leave that to spies and wharf rats, little one.”

Maurette seethed inwardly. The lout had unabashedly debased all her well-thought efforts to maintain her dignity and her freedom, to say nothing of her virtue. Maurette desperation knew no bounds. She was certain now that the battle between them must come to but one conclusion. There could be no conciliation and no negotiation.

idea was forming in Maurette’s mind. The brute lusted after her, she knew. Why not play to that fact? She had nothing to lose, now that he was on to her disguise. And if she must give up her virtue, at least it would not be relinquished without a fight. But she had a plan. Her virginity would not be lost this night.

“A farm lad, you say?” Maurette drawled. She slowly began to unwrap her hair. Tantalizing tendrils fell seductively as she loosed the pins, and Dominic gazed with delight at the vision unfolding before him. She unlaced her shirt and languorously drew it over her head. Her breeches were next. She teased the garment down over the pale ivory lawn of her undergarment. A delicate layer of thin cloth was the only thing between Dominic and the sweet form that was Maurette. She smiled enigmatically.

“Shall I remove the rest, Lord Warbrooke?” she murmured breathlessly.

” ‘Twould oblige me perfectly my lady,” he said lazily. Maurette slanted her gaze. She had the hulking oaf in a perfect mood of complacency. He really expected, she thought furiously, a submissive surrender. She twirled slowly and in doing so spotted the tools on the hearth. No one knew that she was in the house. In truth, she could kill the unholy ass or at least render him unconscious for a time and then complete her escape. She would take Durham this time if that beast, with his unnatural affinity for his master, would go with her She would take him and lead him far into the countryside and tether him to a tree. Dominic would, in his affection for the loutish animal, forget his delusion of grandeur where she was concerned and search out the steed. That would borrow her some time. She must act swiftly, however, and not give herself time to think on the terrible deed she was about to perpetrate. She smiled a coquettish simper in the direction of her victim.

“I am shy,” she murmured. “Could you bank the fire, sir, and extinguish the candle flames before I expose myself further?”

Dominic moved, as if in a daze, to the hearth. He snuffled out the candles and then knelt on one knee to cover the flames with ashes. Maurette sidled toward him. She held her hands behind her back and turned her body so that it would face him and, hopefully, distract him while she grasped one of the sharp and heavy iron instruments that stood at the side of the stone aperture.

The problem was, of course, that Dominic now held a long stout poker. Even without that he was, Maurette well knew, superior to her in physical strength. Her only hope was the element of surprise. She must play out her charade to the last possible moment, for there was no question that her first blow would be her only blow. The success or failure of her effort depended upon that one attempt; there would be no second chance. And the blow must cause him to instantly lose consciousness.

She looked down now upon his silver-raven head bent low over the fire. His taut jaw gleamed in the wavering flicker of the dying fire. His muscled shoulders and back tugged at the confining restraint of his shirt. Maurette prayed that she would not kill him; she wanted to render him unconscious. But if she did by chance kill him, she knew she had the perfect vindication-he had come into her chamber and tried to rape her. That defense would never stand up in a court of law, she knew, but her cause would surely sway public sympathy; a lady defending her virtue was acting in self-defense.

Still, she reflected dispassionately, ’twas, in truth, a sad circumstance to have to bring down this magnificent specimen of God’s creative power. Remembering that it was Warbrooke’s intent to bring her down, however, strengthened Maurette’s resolve.

She gazed into his passion-hardened gray eyes as he stood to face her. Her own eyes flared with the determination that she felt. Their brilliance in the darkened room could be seen to reflect an avid anticipation of ecstasy.

“Thank you, my lord,” she breathed. “Shall we away to the raptures of my bed?” She had taken a sturdy weapon into her hands. She held it tightly behind her back, girding herself for the moment when his attention would be diverted. Perhaps he would lean down to unlace his breeches. Perhaps he would sit on a low stool to remove his boots. Maurette knew that she must be ready to strike at any moment. She must be swift and precise. She watched him keenly. “Will you divest yourself of your clothing, my lord?” she purred. He gazed down upon her. Again, in his eyes, she found that odd mixture of sadness and desire.

“Do you truly want to do this, Maurette?” he said with deep tenderness.

His gentle tone gave her pause. She knew a final moment of reticence before lifting her chin with defiant resolve. She curved her soft lips into a sweet smile. “I do, my lord,” she said and closed her eyes.

In that split second, she was jerked ungently forward and twisted so that her back was to him. He held her slender wrists in a viselike grip until her weapon clattered to the floor. He released her and swung her around to face him. “Did you think I was fooled by that sudden change of aspect?” he growled. “Again your trifling attempt at subterfuge was gained you naught. Give up these impotent ventures and face the truth. You will honor your contract to me whether you approve the conditions or not. I have proved myself the stronger time and again.”

Maurette’s eyes widened with the rage she felt. She looked down at the iron poker between them and then lunged to retrieve it, but he was too quick for her.

With a deliberateness that both startled and horrified her, the back of a large bronze hand connected soundly with her cheek and sent her sprawling to the floor. She attempted to spring to her feet, but he advanced, and gathering her in his strong arms, he conveyed her to the bed. There he threw her into its thick softness. She was instantly up. In one swift motion, he was upon her. The hard lean length of him pinned her to the bed. She struck out at him, her sharp nails attempting to rake his flesh. He grasp her wrists and pulled them over her head to hold her there, helpless and writhing against the force of his ravening, virile power.

Angry tears popped into her great eyes as she realized her total defenselessness against his brutal strength. Her breath came raggedly. She twisted her head from side to side to avoid the triumph that she knew she would find in his steely eyes.

“Please, please . . .” she cried desperately. “Please.”

“Please what?” he grated. “You would have killed me, had I given you the chance.”

“No,” she sobbed. “No, I meant only to hurt you. I would not have killed you, Dominic. I only wanted to render you unconscious so that I could escape.”

“Indeed,” he growled “But if in the attempt you had slain me, your virginal heart would not have broken.” He held her viselike beneath his searing anger. “Admit it,” he rasped through clenched teeth.

Maurette felt all the agony of the past few days fill her heart. In her helplessness, she saw the impossibility of what she had tried to do. Her tears flowed freely now. They moistened the thick lashes that shadowed her woe-filled eyes as she gazed up into his.

“I admit it,” she whimpered softly. “I admit that I could have killed you, Dominic. You’ threatened me and ‘courted me. You intimidated and seduced me. My mind was a-jumble with your mercurial aspect. I did not know what to do in my bewilderment.” Her voice had become stronger. She breathed heavily, and her breasts strained against the thin fabric of her chemise. “You speak to me of your own feelings-of the ‘sting’ of your confusion. What of me, Dominic? Misery has companioned me since the night we met. Yes, I could have killed you, Dominic,” she gasped. “I love you.”

Dominic stared down at her He could not contain his own confusion. His anger had left, and there was, in its place, only tender sympathy for this beautiful creature whom he now held trapped beneath his weight.

“You love me,” he said raptly. “And you could have killed me.”

“You rejected my love,” she said with aching simplicity.

Dominic raised himself, supporting his body with one muscled arm. He loosed his steely grip on Maurette’s delicate wrists. “Do you believe that, ‘little one’?”

Maurette nodded her head. “You do not want my love,” she whispered. “You told me not to love you.”

Dominic finally freed Maurette from his powerful constraint and stood slowly. She rubbed feeling back into her wrists as she watched him pace the length of the room and back again.

Finally, he turned to face her. Only a breath of firelight remained to glint in his silvered gaze. “I could have taken you tonight, Maurette. I could have, spread you and speared your delicate flesh as easily as I would spear a tender game bird. Why did I not?” he asked gently. “Yes, I perceived that you were failing in love with me. I have had women enough, in my time, to know when the little arrows of that devilish cherub have pierced their resistance.”

He saw Maurette’s ire begin to rise, even as she began to rise from the bed, and held out his hand.

“Contain your wrath, sweet, for but a moment.” He allowed a small smile to cross his lips. She was ferocious little chit, he thought fondly, as he ran his fingers through his hair. “I have, in truth, had many women,” he went on in a rush. “And, in my fashion, I have loved them all. But the moment I perceive an eagerness that would find me on the marriage block, I turn tail and run. I have made no pretense at wanting a wife, Maurette.

“A man is free until his spirit is invaded by the adoration of a woman. Her devotion shackles him to her demands. Feeling this, I could not offer you marriage. And, ultimately, that is what a woman of your fine’ breeding would demand and have a right to expect.

“‘Twould seem a perversity to say it, Maurette, but your sweet resistance was the only thing that protected you from me. And now you tell me that you love me.” He lowered his eyes’. “And you say that I do not want your love. What man, Maurette, would refuse such a priceless treasure?” He looked up and moved so that he stood directly over her. His voice was gentle. “I would be a fool to refuse it. And yet I know myself. I would not hurt you for the world. And yet I have.” He took her small face into his hands and lifted it to his own, raising her so that his lips hovered directly above hers.

“What shall I do with you,” he murmured, brushing her lips with his. “What shall I do with your beauty and your passion and your love? I know that I shall never take you by force, Maurette. You have my vow. I shall wait until you come to me. When that happens, I shall savor your sweet gifts with every ounce of gratitude in my body. Dare I say it?” His lips were so close to hers that she could feel the gentle moistness of his breath. “I do love you, Maurette, as I have loved no other woman in my life. And yet. . .” He turned away from her. “I cannot, even at this tender moment, promise you marriage.”

Maurette placed a small white hand on his broad back. “I know what I must do, Dominic,” she murmured. “I must live this next year for its own sake. I must ask nothing of you and expect nothing. And,” she added with throbbing poignancy, “I must forgive myself for not asking more of you.” Her heavy silken lashes fanned over her cheeks as she lowered her eyes.

Dominic turned and raised her chin. He would never forgive himself for bringing the fiery Maurette to this ignoble circumstance. Though he wanted more than anything to fill her life with joy and comfort, he recognized his own great flaw-the instability of his emotional character. He knew that, if he allowed this to be the beginning for them or, in truth, the end, he might turn her love to hatred forever as he almost had this night.

“You must have time to think on this, Maurette,” he said finally. “Though I would have it that I would sweep you into my arms and into my life, I shall not. I am going to leave you for a time. I have further business here in London, and I would attend to it. I know that your family will soon be traveling to Islington for its summer sojourn. ‘Tis there that you must think on this. ‘Tis there you will decide our fate. I shall come to you at summer’s end. Whatever you have decided, I will accept it. No dishonor will stain your decision, and I shall not use my damnable strength against you.” He smiled in self-deprecation. “I do want your love, Maurette,” he continued, “but I want it unqualified. If in August you deem it so, we shall sign our pre-marriage contract and begin a life together for one year. What happens beyond that, we cannot know.”

Maurette lifted her white arms and entwined them around his neck They held each other in a long, luxurious kiss. The vital flame of their rapture transcended the dark chamber, and they were in a starry other world of twilight bliss and yielding desire. When they finally parted, Dominic swept his cloak over his big shoulders. Without words, for there were none to say, he quickly left.

Maurette went to the window and gazed out into the star-shattered night. She did not know what she would decide in the next months. Dominic was right, she realized. She must have time to think on whether she could forgive herself for not expecting more of him. Could she love him knowing that one short year might be all they would have together? She hugged herself against the chill of the night and felt the warmth of Dominic’s last embrace still on her.

She listened as the sound of the clopping of the horse’s hooves in the courtyard receded and told her that Dominic was gone.

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER TWELVE

Islington! The little hamlet north of London blossomed with new verdant life. Early morning smells filled the springtime air. The fragrance of apple blossoms and cowslips were carried on blue breezes, and the cottages that dotted the countryside were redolent with the perfume of whitlow grass. English daisies lent their own delicate scent to the fragrant air. Life was busy and bustling in celebration of the earth’s annual renewal.

Maurette stretched herself as she moved from the summer kitchen, where she breakfasted whenever the family was at Islington, into the back garden, which was overgrown with a profusion of iris and broom and violets. The heavy aroma of herbs from the tiny, well-kept kitchen garden blended with the scent of dewy earth and freshly opened flowers.

Maurette skirts rustling in the high grasses, she began to run with the sheer exultation she felt in the wondrous spring morn. She finally collapsed, laughing delightedly to herself, into the plump wet grasses and lay on her back. She gazed up at the soft, pinkened clouds that melted into the cerulean sky and then closed her eyes and smiled, her face happily exposed to the morning sun. Edyth would have frowned in disapproval at her unshaded condition, but Maurette did not care. She stretched herself in lush and languid enjoyment.

“People will think you an idiot, if they see you smiling to yourself.” The voice was young and held a note of mischief. Maurette opened her eyes to see Imogene standing above her. Her sister was dressed in maidenly white, her light wide-brimmed bonnet carefully protecting her pale curls and the purity of her dewy English complexion.

“Take off that silly hat,” Maurette said lazily as she once again closed her eyes.

“I will not,” Imogene said primly. “Mama would kill me. In addition, she will be furious, dearest Maurette, if she sees you with your lovely skin exposed to the morning sun. Just because we are outside of London is no reason for us to go about like unruly country wenches.”

Maurette propped herself up on one arm and gazed for a long moment at her sister.

“Will you take off that silly hat, or will you not?” she said with a delicate challenge in her smiling eyes.

“I will not, and don’t you imagine that you can make me,” said Imogene, her blue eyes widening as Maurette began to rise and move toward her. “I know what you are thinking, Maurette Harper,” she said as she backed away from the advancing girl, “and you had better stop. Don’t you dare!” Imogene shrieked, losing her prim dignity and scrambling away. Her long skirts impeded her progress in the tall grass, arid she stumbled. As she tried to crawl away, Maurette was upon her, tugging at the offending white bonnet. The two girls rolled and tumbled together, their skirts twisting high up on their stockinged legs until Maurette grabbed the hat and, tearing it from Imogene’s now tousled blond head, tossed it with all her might into the far fields. Its wide brim caught the breezes, and it glided aloft, streamers fluttering. The two girls watched, wide-eyed and captivated, its lofty flight. As it settled like a drunken bird onto the deep grasses, Maurette burst into a fit of wild giggles. Imogene, her mouth drawn into a tight little pout, at last could not contain her own laughter as she watched her sister rolling in mirth on the grassy ground.

As their laughter died, both girls lay there for long moments. Maurette looked over at her sister. She did not raise her head, but she could discern from her sideways view Imogene’s small smile.

“People will think you an idiot, if they see you smiling to yourself,” she said softly.

Imogene rolled her head to the side to look at Maurette. “Was I smiling?” she inquired. “I suppose I was,” she answered herself indolently. “I suppose I was thinking of him. And when I think of him, I smile.”

“Who?” Maurette asked with an innocence that did not fool Imogene for a moment.

“He is devilish handsome, fearsomely so, I think.”

Maurette raised herself on her elbow. “If you are speaking of Dominic Warbrooke, I have told you that I do not wish to talk of him.”

Imogene looked up with wide eager eyes. “But you must, Maurette. In August, he will come for you, and you must have an answer. How can one answer a question if one does not think on it? Methinks,” she said, slanting her gaze, “I know what your answer will be.”

“How can you know if I do not?” Maurette said pettishly. She lay back down in the cool grasses. She could not and would not analyze her feelings. She knew only that when Dominic kissed her, she grew weak and could not reason. Thankful for this respite from his encompassing charm, she needed these clear breezy days to clear her head. Dominic Warbrooke had filled her soul since the night of her birthday ball. She sat up abruptly.

Imogene eyed her, suspecting her sister’s tumultuous emotions. Imogene, herself, was constantly prodded with questions concerning Dominic Warbrooke. Maurette was the most sought-after heiress in three counties. In London, her season was always fined with invitations and expectations. Imogene, for all her typical blond beauty and traditional womanly passivity, ran a poor second to her sister’s spirited and exotic charms. Though Imogene had her own following, she knew that she could never have engaged the attention of a man like the Silver Raven-not that she would necessarily want such a circumstance for herself.

Both girls had envisioned and often talked for long hours of the possible marriages that they could make. All their scenarios had ended with the two of them sipping tea in a formal garden, their many children playing about and their wealthy and boring husbands off at some business or other. But, while Imogene had accepted the scenario in dutiful resignation, Maurette had always rebelled at such a predictable future. Marriage to a man like Dominic Warbrooke was exactly what Imogene had secretly envisioned for her sister. She saw behind her closed eyelids the romantic picture of Maurette being taken away by the tall bronzed buccaneer to some far off castle and then carried up a wide staircase and then … Imogene sat up abruptly. She blushed at what she was about to envision. Straightening her skirts and brushing worriedly at the grass stains she found on them helped her to compose herself.

“I think he is wonderful, and so do you,” Imogene said suddenly “And I think you should take him whatever way you can,” Defiance filled her. “If you do not, Maurette, you will forever regret it.”

Maurette regarded her sister in astonishment. “You did not always feel. this way. I remember a morning when you wanted to kill him,” she said.

“‘Tis true,” said Imogene, “I cannot deny that I hated him once, but so did you.” She raised her chin. From all that you have told me, however, I sense that you no longer feel the same. In truth, Maurette, who will stand in his stead? Will you marry Timothy Braden?” Imogene nodded in the direction of a far field. “That good fellow loves you almost enough to merge his precious stable with your own. And what of Arthur Warwick?” Both girls rolled their eyes at the mention of his name. “Arthur will bed the kitchen girl and embarrass you with every willing wench in the household. And he will no doubt grow fat into the bargain.”

“I have other choices,” Maurette said archly.

“And all on an equal footing with our Islington boys. You are too good for any of them,” Imogene stated with finality.

Maurette smiled at her little sister “Dear, sweet Imogene,” she said fondly. “You are a treasure. Was ever any woman blessed with such a loyal sister?”

“‘Tis Only the truth I offer you, Maurette.” Imogene stood and shook out her skirts, and when Maurette followed suit, they both walked toward where Imogene’s hat had landed. “I know ’tis difficult for you, Maurette,” said Imogene, smoothing her blond curls, but unless you are willing to spend the rest of your days in a garden, sipping tea and shouting at your tiresome children, you had best heed my words.”

Maurette regarded her sister. “I had forgotten our little fantasies,” she said.

“I have not forgotten, Maurette, the way you used to rail at such a thought. As it is,” she sighed, “that is exactly how I envision my own future.” Imogene’s eyes were suddenly filled with sadness. “You have not heard, I suppose, but Gregory Knowles has offered for my band.”

Maurette stopped dead. “Gregory.” she said flatly.

Imogene nodded her head. Her curls bounced dejectedly. “‘Twould be foolish of me to reject him, Maurette. Even after all that happened at the ball and all that we have been through as a family, he came to Papa in a week and asked to take me to wife. You have been caught up in your own concerns that I suppose you had not taken notice that our family is the talk of the county.”

Guilt rose like bile in Maurette’s throat. “I can not believe that you have accepted him,” she breathed, “and that I have caused such an unworthy match for you.”

Imogene moved to her sister and embraced her warmly. “‘Twill not be so bad,” she said softly. “Gregory is a good lad. I have always liked him, and he is so in love with me. His father has the earldom, you know, and their family has resided at court.”

Maurette pulled away from Imogene and brushed a wayward blond curl from her cheek. “I shall never forgive myself, dear Imogene.”

Imogene smiled. “Do you know, Maurette,” she said fondly, “I believe that things would have worked out this way in any event? Greg and I have been friends for years.” She took Maurette’s hand in hers. “Perhaps I shall be married before my big sister,” she giggled. The younger girl picked up her bonnet and regarded the wrinkled brim. “When I am a married woman and go to court with my husband, I shall go bonnetless every day, if I wish to,” she said.

Maurette smiled softly. “Let us go back to the house and have some of Thelma’s muffins.”

“Oh, yes,” cried Imogene. “Thelma loves our hearty appetites when we are here at Islington. She always has muffins ready for us.” The two girls linked their arms. “We shall eat muffins with berry jam and grow fat and wise and never wear bonnets again,” said Imogene. “And everything will turn out just fine for the Harper sisters. I know it, Maurette.” squeezing each other’s waists, the girls skipped the distance back to the summer kitchen.

As the early summer settled in, the Harper household Began to relax. Window embrasures had been dusted and cleared of spider webs, chimneys had been sweet, and upholstery and hangings beaten clean. Windows had been polished until they sparkled in the sun and then thrown open to let in the rich country air After that first burst of springtime activity, Maurette found that, for the first time in her life, she was feeling restive and often bored. She took no pleasure in the idle gossip by and about the country gentry. The talk had passed from her own less than decorous behavior at her birthday ball and was now centered for the most part on the marriage of Imogene to Gregory Knowles. Both young people were highly regarded and, it was said, made for each other.

Lady Elspeth was heard to cluck that Imogene was a fortunate girl to have captured the attention of a young man of Gregory’s wealth and reputation, considering her sister’s open flaunting of all convention. But the good folk of Islington waved away such nay-saying and concentrated their praise on the couple and their excellent prospects as man and wife. It was rumored that they were to be invited to the winter court. The queen enjoyed the company of young, vital couples and filled her palaces with them. The speculation was that, through them, Elizabeth vicariously enjoyed the bloom of young love, something she had never allowed herself to experience.

Imogene’s wedding was to take place in the fall. Maurette wondered idly where she would be at that time. If she were to accept Dominic’s terms, it was likely that she could find herself on some isolated island in the North Sea, for that was where she knew his titled lands to be. If nothing else, she dreaded that circumstance as much as any other where he was concerned. To be forced to live in isolation in the midst of nowhere with a man she hardly knew made her shudder in the heat of the afternoon.

“You seem so detached,” she heard her grandmother say.

Maurette looked up to find that the company of women who had gathered beneath a giant yew tree to sip cold tea were regarding her curiously. “I am sorry,” she said with forced brightness. “Did someone address me?”

“Lady Elspeth asked what color you will wear when you attend Imogene at her wedding,” Lady violet said kindly.

“0h-I-oh,” Maurette stammered.

“We cannot begin to think of that,” said her grandmother hastily when she saw Maurette’s bemusement. “We must wait until we return to London. Mistress Onge will have so many suggestions.” Lady Violet forced a small laugh. She knew, too well, why Maurette stammered. There was no guarantee that she would even attend Imogene’s wedding. “Why don’t you ride out, Maurette?” the woman said gently. “Some exercise would do you good.”

“Yes,” said Maurette, placing her goblet of lemoned-tea unsampled on a nearby table. She knew her uncharacteristically subdued manner was much the talk of the countryside, and as she moved away from the company of women, she could feel them awaiting her absence before engaging in further verbal scrutiny of her behavior.

To avoid such unwelcome attention to her granddaughter’s character, Lady Violet immediately began a conversation regarding where the bridal couple intended to live. The women sprang upon this topic the way ducks gather at a new insect hatch. The countess, watching sadly as Maurette ambled to the stableyard, ached for the child. Maurette seemed so alone in this. Lady Violet had her opinions, but those she shared only with Edyth. The two elderly women had spent many nights in communion on the subject, and both had agreed that there was but one course for their beloved Maurette. If, at the end of the year, she came back to them humbled and with her heart in her hands, she would at the least have the memory of a glorious and vital love. That, the two women agreed, was worth something.

Maurette felt rejuvenated as she rode forth and communed with the glories of Islington’s natural beauty. The verdant fields, bursting with new life, commanded her joyous attention. On tree and bush, herb and flower, every new leaf lifted its virgin flesh to be nourished by the summer sun.

Maurette rode this day along the shore of the sparkling blue lake that reposed at the northern edge of her father’s estate and separated Harper lands from those of the Warwick family. Turning her little mare into the lilac grove, she entered with reverence the serene and leafy glade where heavy purple blooms hung like a canopy over the sun-dappled bower. The warm air, laden with fragrant lilac perfume, stirred the profusion of frothy blossoms. In the shade of the shrubbery. Maurette dismounted and set Melitte to munching grass. Settling down near an old shrub, she leaned back against its twisted trunk.

>From distant hives, the droning of bees filled the air, and the water mill in the nearby creek burbled its summer song. Maurette listened to the soothing liquid music of the countryside and would have drifted off in slumber had not the air suddenly been split by a high piercing wail.

“I won’t!” a voice screeched. “I won’t? I won’t? I won’t!”

Maurette popped up from her cozy nesting place and looked wildly about. She could hear raucous male laughter and voices. Moving with silent haste toward the periphery of the glade, she peered between the thick lilac foliage and prayed that some young maiden was not being menaced by local ruffians. Beyond a clump of willow trees, Maurette could see the creek that flowed into the lake, and near the water’s edge, she noted several small and colorful tents had been erected. A wagon stood nearby, and several horses of questionable lineage lazily chomped on the lush grass. A cook fire was burning near the water, and several men were gathered round it. Amidst all this stood the stalwart figure of a young lad, his sandy blond hair lifted by the breeze. Incongruously, he was dressed in a sumptuous gown of scarlet brocade shot with gold.

“I have played my last simper,” he shouted.

Maurette recognized the party of actors she had met in London and the indignant one as Tom. She recalled that this same argument had been going on the night of her attempted escape, and she kept herself from laughing aloud with difficulty. Placing delicate fingertips on her lips, she continued to watch the scene.

Tom now stood with his hands on his hips and his feet spread wide apart. “I am, in the event that you masters have not noted, a man grown. I have, sirs, facial hair,” he said hotly. The other gentlemen went toward him, miming magnifying glasses and reaching for his callow jaw to feel the boasted growth. Tom’s blue eyes sparked crystalline signals as the ribald teasing continued. He stamped his foot and ripped at the offending garment. “I will show you,” he cried, pulling the gown over his head and tossing it into the small cook fire. “I shall apprentice as a thread maker before I come back to this unfelicitous environment.” He turned haughtily and marched in his small clothes to one of the tents, while the other men deftly stamped out the burning costume.

“Methinks the lad is in earnest,” said Master Shakespeare to no one in particular as he lifted the ruined scarlet cloth. wearing a lopsided smile, he brushed at the offending garment. “Perhaps the gown can be repaired. I have some scarlet thread in my tent.”

“Will you speak to the boy?” an actor inquired.

“I will speak to him when he regains his ears, master. In the meantime, we must needs confer upon our upcoming interlude. You die with such grace, young James, that within the span of your throes that youth in there will become an old man.” The other men laughed. “Let us rehearse that murder and subsequent death while I sew.”

Concealing herself in the low bushes, Maurette advanced cautiously to the periphery of the camp. She watched, enthralled, as the men set to their rehearsal. It was not until her little mare gave a whinny that Maurette turned, startled, to see that Tom had circled her hiding place and was now stalking Melitte in the lilac grove.

Running in the direction of her horse, she saw the boy attempt to mount the animal and noted, with amusement, Melitte’s reluctance to comply. She could not hide her giggles as Melitte waited until the boy was off balance and then topple him with a well asigned side step. Maurette was laughing fully now, and the lad, sprawled upon the grass, leveled a dour glare toward her.

“Forgive me, sir,” said Maurette through a wide smile. “My little horse does not seem as willing as yourself to quit this ‘infelicitous environment’.”

“Then how in the name of holy sanity, shall I?” he said, standing and dusting at his soiled hose. He looked up at Maurette then with a chastened manner. “I am not, as a rule, a thief, my lady,” he said and bowed deferentially. “My name is Thomas Ashton.”

Maurette tipped him a curtsy. “And I am not, as a rule, a cajoler, sir,” she said. ” ‘Tis only that you have attempted to purloin not only my horse but my friend.” She indicated her horse with a tilt of her head. The little mare had moved away from the confusion and was now munching on grass nearby.

The two young people eyed each other for a long moment. Maurette was the first to speak. “I am sorry for your troubles, young master. I know what it is to feel one’s life in the hands of another.” She moved toward the actor, ” ‘Twould be a shame, though, for you to quit a profession in which you excel so admirably. You played for me an interlude at my birthday ball in London last April, and I enjoyed your performance very much. As I remember, you were the daughter of a tavern bawd.”

Tom’s eyes widened. “You are Lady Maurette,” he said in astonishment.

Maurette smiled and nodded. “I am she.”

“And I am decreed by fate to decorate the walls of hell, Your Ladyship,” he said forlornly. He bowed again, this time scraping the ground in his humiliation.

“Rise, young master,” Maurette said in mock severity. “I must needs see the face of the one I adjudicate.”

The lad rose and twisted his cloth hat in front of him. The rakish feather that adorned it was now bent and hung limply from the wrinkled brim. “May I expect mercy, my lady?” he said solemnly. “If you would but temper your wrath, I could introduce you to the other actors and, more importantly, to our ascendant playwright, Master William Shakespeare.” The young man’s voice was filled with pride.

“My name and meager reputation will not protect you, Thomas,” said a clear booming voice from behind the couple. William Shakespeare moved to Maurette and made a courtly bow. “This young master has done his worst, my lady, and now,” he said, facing Tom, the gates of doom yawn before him.” He shook his head in mock sadness. “Too bad, for I am in the process of composing a piece for just such a lad as he.” Will splayed his hand in front of the boy’s face as he saw him brighten. “No, no, young sir, you cannot possibly play a man of principle now that you have sullied your reputation with attempted horse thievery.

“Go,” said Shakespeare, pointing with emphasis, “go to your thread-maker. Make thread until your fingers bleed; And then,” he looked directly into the lad’s eyes, “come back and repair, with that thread that you have made, the scarlet gown you nearly destroyed in the inferno of, the cook fire.” The actor covered his eyes with his forearm in a gesture of dramatic lamentation. “Alas, I am out of scarlet thread and despair for one small length of it.”.

The three dissolved in laughter as the, tenor of the admonishment changed. Maurette gleefully applauded the actor’s performance. “Well aimed, master,” she said’, and William Shakespeare accepted her approbation with a small bow.

“Acting is all,” he said through a smile, “the rest is waiting.” He placed his arm around Tom’s shoulders. “This lad is right, though. I have, in fact, noted the covering of down upon his cheeks and have wondered at the future of our company. Within the year, we will have need of a lad to replace Master Tom in the gentler sex.”

Thomas’s face twisted. “A year,” he said with distaste. “But a year, Tom,” Shakespeare said pointedly. “And then, if we are fortunate, we will find us a lad the likes of that young Dan, whom we met in London, to take your place.”

Maurette blanched. She could barely believe that they remembered her. She smiled as she thought of that night. “Was this Dan so very special?” she asked.

“Oh, indeed he was, my lady,” said Tom excitedly; “‘Tis a rare thing to find such a comely lad who is also well spoken and personable.”

“And yet,” said Will, “we cannot pin our hopes too soundly on that boy. In the meantime, methinks, I must needs introduce myself and our company to the fair lady who has stood witness to our petty troubles. I am Master Shakespeare,” he said, sweeping Maurette a bow, “better known in some circles as Master Shake-scene.” They all laughed. “My critics abound, I fear;” he said, a smile playing on his full lips.

“But that fact will not deter me, young Thomas, from completing my piece for you. Perhaps we shall play it at Whitehall or at Master Burbage’s theater or,” he said, lowering his voice conspiratorially, “perhaps we shall build our own theater.” The other two applauded his ambition. “For now,” he said with extravagant surrender, “we must content ourselves with playing at the inn yards and the gentle houses, such as your own, my lady. For that kindness alone, we would beg you to let us offer you a simple meal. ‘Twould give me the greatest pleasure to introduce you to our fellows. Will you allow us the pleasure of your esteemed company?”

At the mention of food, Maurette felt her stomach grumble, not having eaten since morning. She accepted the invitation happily and found herself transported into the midst of the actors’ camp.

Their food was simple but tasty and filling. They enjoyed sausages roasted on the open fire and a venison pie that was the pride of one bearded mater who exclaimed, as they ate, that “cooking was all.. The rest was merely waiting.” Maurette found the meal satisfying but felt the good-natured teasing and warm-heartedness of the men thoroughly enjoyable and basked in the pleasure the actors took in her presence.

She was not unresponsive to their admiring glances. Many of them had wives whom they had been forced to leave in pursuit of their profession. It was obvious, in their lighthearted admiration of Maurette’s feminine charms, that they missed a woman’s company; A ribald comment or two, which was just out of earshot, prompted William Shakespeare to rise and help Maurette to her feet.

“You ruffians cannot be trusted in the company of a gentle woman,” he said with a self-righteous sniff. “I must needs take the lady from your offensive company.” He added a mischievous wink over his shoulder as he led Maurette away.

“You had best see to your own less than chivalrous instincts,” shouted one man gaily as the couple moved away.

“I like them, said Maurette when they had settled themselves on a grassy incline. They are happy people.”

“And you, fair lady? Are you happy?”

Maurette glanced up at him. “But of course I am happy, sir,” she said defensively.

“Ah,” said William Shakespeare; “please forgive me. I take it that this happiness of spirit you proclaim is what causes you to roam the dark streets of London dressed as a lad.”

Maurette’s eyes widened and the dappled sunlight caught in their sparkling depths. Her dewy lips finally curved into a soft smile. “You know then,” she said softly.

Shakespeare nodded. “I know,” he said gently. “And I will not. pry.”

Maurette lowered her eyes. For some reason, unknown to her, she wanted to tell this man everything. She had a feeling that he could help her make order out of the chaos of her heart.

“There is a man,” she began, looking into Will’s understanding eyes. “You met him, in fact, that night in London.” She related her story slowly, glancing about from time to time in fear that someone might intrude upon their private conversation. When she had finished, Will leaned in close to her.

“I would guard myself, if I were you,” he said. “This Raven seems a perfect rogue.”

Maurette nodded. “‘Tis exactly my thought, Will. And yet…to me…. sometimes…” Maurette paused and sat for long moments in abstract reflection.

“Let me see if I can put this into perspective,” said Will finally. The man is beastly large and unrefined in his manner and behavior.” He looked to Maurette for confirmation. Receiving it, he continued. “He has been known to be gentle with regard to you, but,” he paused significantly, “he has effected a most ungentle response in you.” Will stood and continued, pacing as he. spoke. “His reputation is fierce, and yet, if I am not mistaken, he has earned that reputation in the service of our good queen.” Maurette nodded. “He would take you, it would seem, in a Pre-contract agreement, but that agreement would run out in one year’s time. Am I correct?”

Maurette answered with a nod. As she looked down, her silken eyelashes trembled on her opaline cheeks.

That Warbrooke, thought Will, was surely fortune’s child. “I know something about pre-contracts, Maurette,” he said gently. “Such was the case between my lady and me.”

Maurette shot him a quizzical look. “You have a wife, Will?”

“Indeed I have,” he said with a smile. “And, Puritan though she may be, she is a good woman.

Maurette gasped. “Puritan?” The Puritans were well-known enemies of the theater.

“Aye,” Will said softly. “I am afraid my chosen profession is not to her liking. ‘Tis said. My good Anne sends me publications that designate me a ‘hound of hell’ and other things equally unpleasant.” He laughed. “‘Tis not easy, Maurette, for us to hold together a marriage under such circumstances. And yet, together, we have brought three children into the world,” he said with pride.

“You have children, Will?”

“A set of twins, in fact, and one other. ‘Tis for them and my sweet Anne that I continue in this life. I was born to it, and she understands that. I tell you this, Maurette, my destiny was named from the start. My marriage to Anne Hathaway and my life in the theater are the only two things in the world that I am sure of. Children are transient beings in one’s life. They grow and leave the procreant cradle. Friends drift into one’s life, then out and for one reason and another. Scenes change, lovers come and go, and the seasons of our existence alter with every passing year. Nothing is forever, Maurette. Yet I know that my marriage and my life in the theater will be with me until I die.”

Maurette shifted, and Will offered her his hand. The two walked back toward the lilac grove. They stopped amid the profusion of purple blossoms and faced each other. Maurette lifted herself on tiptoe and brushed a kiss against Will’s bearded cheek.

“I wish I had as clear a picture of my destiny as you have, Will.”

“You have, Maurette,” he said gently. “The problem lies in facing it.”

She nodded. There was no question now in her mind or in her heart. She knew that she would accept Dominic’s terms.

“I wish you good fortune, Will,” she said.

“And for you, dear Maurette, I wish the springtime and the stars and worthy friends.”

She looked up into his sensitive intelligent eyes. His face seemed to have within its gentle plane, a perceptiveness that encompassed all the world. “You are wise and kind, William Shakespeare. Please do not forget me when you build your theater. Perhaps you will allow me free admittance into the pit, at the least.”

Will laughed softly and brushed her cheek gently with his fingertips. “I will remember you, Maurette.” He noted the purple softness of her eyes and the golden curling hair that framed her white face. “I will never think of lilacs without thinking of you. And,” he added, his smile deepening. “I often think of lilacs.”

Will led her to her horse and helped her mount. After watching her gallop off, he returned to his tent and went inside. Many hours later, just as the evening’s first stars were beginning to twinkle in the moon-silvered sky, he emerged with a look of beatitude on his face. He had completed a new sonnet.

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