ROMANTIC VENTURE (chap 13-24)

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

London was heavy with the pungent summer smells of rotting garbage and unwashed citizens. Dominic Warbrooke, having completed his business in the city, was anxious to travel to Islington. That urge, however, was coupled with a certain reluctance. He did not know why but guessed, in his more honest moments, that he feared deeply the rejection of the one woman whom he wanted above all others. He had always thought of women in terms of momentary diversions from the real business of living. Now, in his thirtieth year, he discovered that he was like any callow youth in his longing for the fair Maurette.

He could have easily enforced the bargain they had made. He had every right to enter the estate at Islington and take the chit by force. But he recognized the fact that he did not want her that way. He wanted her soft and breathlessly ardent as she had been the night that she had told him of her love. He could not hope to win back that aspect of her with brute force. The heart of the self-willed and fiery Maurette must be won with other means. The fact that he wanted to win her heart surprised him.

It astonished him that he wanted her to come to him trembling with adoration at his touch. He wanted her as he had never wanted any other woman, but the satisfying of his lust was secondary to his need to feel her gentle compliance in his arms. He knew that he could force her young body to wild responses – he had done that more than a few times with eager but frightened wenches – but from Maurette, he longed even more for the response of her innocent young heart.

He paced his stifling suite in a well-appointed inn on the Strand, wavering between thoughts of taking her with uncompromising force and of wooing her gently with patience and gallantry. He could ride to Islington today, but, in his impatience of the moment, he would probably frighten her beyond repair. He must take the time to settle his blazing instincts. He moved about the hot room like a heat-prostrated panther. Perhaps if he went out, he thought, he could cool the fire in his soul.

. Dominic Warbrooke entered the dim parameters of the Mermaid Tavern at Cheapside in London and sat at his usual table. He preferred this tavern for its clientele. On any given day, one could find Ben Johnson or John Donna or Master Beaumont among others. These were men of wry wit and varied humors. As a body, they constituted a decidedly spicier company than did the gentry at the Blounton Club. Those good men, with their perfect manners and single-minded thinking, had bored Dominic early in his stay in London. Here, at the Mermaid, a rousing debate was always a potential element with such free thinking company.

Dominic was not disappointed on this particular afternoon as a vibrant crowd of young intellectuals entered and took over the atmosphere of the dim tavern, filling it with a life and vitality that only men of audacious bravado and impetuous overconfidence could engender. These men were pioneers in their own way. They were the creative geniuses of the time, and some maintained that their reckless abandonment of traditional values would one day topple the established and venerated status quo. Even in their presumptive impudence, however, these men had no such sullen wishes. They wanted simply to he left to their spirited and unsparing wealth of philosophies.

Dominic admired their courage as much as he admired the queen’s support of them. Elizabeth, it was said, had an actor’s heart, and that was why she supported the artists inhabiting her realm. It was in a mood of deep contemplation, that Dominic watched and listened to the spirited conversations that surrounded him. His reflection was interrupted by a voice speaking his name.

“Lord Warbrooke?” said the melodious voice from just above. Dominic looked up to find a face that was vaguely familiar to him. “I would not violate your contemplation, sir, except that I would make myself known to you,” said the young man. “We met in London on a dark night. There was a pretty horse and an equally pretty lad named Dan. My confreres and I were on the road to Islington.”

Dominic smiled and stood in recognition of the young actor. “You were Will, were you not?”

“I was and am,” said the actor amiably. “William Shakespeare.” He bowed low in greeting.

“When you greet me in such a way, you make me as old as our good Catherine of France,” said Dominic, vaguely embarrassed. “Please join me,” he added, pulling out a chair for the actor. “I thought you had left London to establish quarters in the country.”

Will smiled as he settled himself in the chair and ordered a tankard of ale from the pretty tavern wench who smiled at her handsome young client. “Alas, we were forced to abandon country matters for this day. We are in the city to buy some cloth and tend to the realities of our profession. ‘Tis sad but too true that the intrusion of the mundane stuff on life must on occasion interrupt our glamorous and poetic occupation.” He laughed softly. “In truth,” he added, accepting his ale, “we have need of a lad to take the place of our present one who plays the ingenue. We had great hopes for that young lad you spirited away from us the night we made your acquaintance in London.”

Dominic regarded Will with a jaundiced grin. “That was no lad, good master, and you know it.”

“Do I?” Will inquired tranquilly. “I must tell you,” he said, sitting back and sipping at his ale, “I had the pleasure of meeting a young lady in Islington who resembles that boy. I thought they might be brother and sister but learned she was of gentle birth, and so I could not imagine that young ruffian who rode in our cart to be her brother.”

“Did you question her on it?” said Dominic, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

“I did,” said Will solemnly. “And I learned something of a similar flight that the lady undertook to escape the terrible clutches of the notorious Silver Raven.”

“Why did she wish to escape him?” Dominic asked.

“Ah,” said Will with feigned sorrow, “That is a sad story. ‘Twould seem she feared him greatly. He is a rough gentleman, you see, and fearsome in his appearance. He is bold and ungentle in both his habits and his appointments. He is big and brawny and wears rough clothes. And” – Will leaned into his companion and lowered his voice to a confidential whisper- “to obtain the favors of women, he must hold them at swordpoint.”

Dominic threw back his head and laughed. “He sounds a perfect rogue.”

“No one, good Warbrooke, is perfect,” said Will gently “And this Raven fellow least of all. I told you, the girl becomes separated from her wit’s when his name is mentioned. The thought of him sends shudders down her supple spine.”

“What would you know of her supple spine, master?” Dominic said grimly, his laughter suddenly gone.

“Rein your ire, sir, I only imagine it to be so.” Will chuckled. “In any event, why does it bother you if I should know the condition of her spine?”

Dominic sat back heavily. “I love her” he said simply. William Shakespeare shrugged an elegant shoulder “In my lexicon, love is the conqueror of all. Ill feelings are but fleas upon a bear when love is truly present. Contracts come and go-and marriage is, in truth, but a contract-but love is forever.”

Dominic looked deeply into William’s eyes and sighed disconsolately. “If that were only the thinking of that young maiden you met at Islington.”

William’s heart grew large within his chest with immense joy as he smiled down into his tankard. “It is,” he said, his only slightly above a whisper.

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Maurette pushed a tangle of curls away from her perspiring neck. She had swept her hair up in an indifferent pile atop her head, and now, in the heat of the late afternoon, it was falling from its carelessly arranged pins. The month of July was almost over, the height of the humid summer. For all her love of the outdoors, even Maurette would be glad to see the cooling rains of late August. She stood on the front terrace, arranging a basket of lilies and baby’s-breath for the dinner table.

The galloping hooves in the far meadow made her ears prick. That someone was approaching was not unusual, but what caught her attention was the fact that the rider had abandoned the road into the estate and had cut across the fields to reach the house.

Maurette pulled a wilted handkerchief from her bodice and wiped at her face and neck. Her pink muslin frock, stained from her work in the garden that afternoon and darkened with perspiration, was hardly acceptable for greeting visitors. She slipped a dangling curl beneath a pin in an attempt to smooth her crop of errant tresses.

Maurette looked up and saw the horse and rider shimmer in the hot and hazy distance. Suddenly she looked more closely. That silver figure atop the magnificent black stallion could not be mistaken. “Dominic,” she breathed, as she stepped down off the terrace to wait in the melting sunshine for his approach.

He wheeled his horse as he halted before the house, the great hooves scattering sand and stone. Saluting her with a glistening smile, he dismounted with a flourish, advanced to her instantly, and swept her into his arms.

“May I entertain the fond hope that you have missed me, a little, maybe?” he said after he had taken her lips in a warm kiss.

Maurette could not suppress a giggle at his dramatic and overwhelming entrance. “You may,” she said, her arms resting on his muscular shoulders.

“I have come to woo the fair Maurette.” His eyes darted round the garden. “You haven’t seen her, have you?” he said flirtingly. “If you do, please tell me. If she sees me with my arms about you, she will probably run you through with her well-practiced sword. She is passing fair.” he said, arching a silver brow, “but jealous as a shrew where my attentions are concerned.”

He lifted Maurette from her feet and spun her soundly. Then, setting her down, he gazed into her small upturned face. “Would that were true, sweet Maurette,” he said huskily. “Will the day come when my Maurette might raise her sword in jealousy of me?”

“Dominic,” said a musical voice from the terrace.

The couple looked up to see Lady Violet emerging from the house.

“‘Tis about time you came. We have been sorely pressed by guests who ask after you and leave our house in disdain when you do not appear. They do not believe we really know the Silver Raven of myth and legend.” Lady Violet moved down to them and accepted Dominic’s gentle embrace.

“You do not greet me with the same exuberance with which you greet my granddaughter,” she admonished. “Ah, well,” she said, taking his arm and leading him to the small shaded table that held Maurette’s flower arrangement, ” ’tis one of the disadvantages of age, I suppose. Young men envisage only my brittle bones and not my warm flesh when they look upon me.”

Maurette blushed and called for refreshment as her grandmother and Dominic sat down.

“You are planning a long visit, are you not, Dominic? We must vindicate ourselves, you know, for our esteem is at an ebb arid will remain so until we produce the notorious Silver Raven. You must meet everyone. I fear this must be accomplished before the season is quite over, or we shall be hard pressed to make an appearance here next season.”

Dominic gazed up at Maurette, who was finishing her flower arrangement. “That is up to your granddaughter.”

Maurette smiled fondly into his eyes. “Please stay, Dominic,” Maurette said softly, “I would like that, and we must not disappoint the neighbors.” The three laughed happily as Dominic assured them that he was indeed planning an extended stay at Islington.

Dominic did stay through the rest of the summer, assimilating the rustic atmosphere of the estate. He seemed to thrive there as did Maurette. Early in the morning, he would ride out and hunt with Alex Harper and Maurette. The three noted that their sojourns had been discovered by the curious and that each day more and more of the country gentry made it their habit to ride out in the early hours also. Dominic took this with grace and waved to the gentlemen and their ladies with jovial good will.

He picked berries with Maurette on the verdant hillsides and then praised the pies Thelma made with the booty. His praise was well rewarded, for the smitten Thelma now made fresh pies daily.

He drank tea and conversed with Lady Violet and Lady Elaine during long, languid afternoons on the terrace. The women were planning a ball in his honor to introduce him to the country society He listened to their plans patiently and even made suggestions about the decorations and choices of food.

In the cool of the evening, he sat up late with Lord Harper; drinking brandy and discussing the gentlemen volunteers that he had succeeded in obtaining for Her Majesty’s Navy He apprised Alex of the Spanish progress in building their armada. Alex listened eagerly to the bits of information obtained by Dominic on his rounds in London.

Dominic seemed insatiable for the country life, and his pleasure in all the things that concerned the family made him a joy to be near. In soft white shirts and leather doublets, he moved easily into every phase of their life and seemed completely at home in Maurette’s beloved Islington.

The promised ball occurred at the end of August when the weather had cooled and the soft gentle rains had freshened the thirsty summer foliage.

The gardens of the Harper estate were silvery in the still summer night as guests arrived for the festivities. The sky had deepened from a dusky blue-gray to black and was clear and frosted with stars. Torches were fastened to ash trees, and candles flickered on tables covered with snowy linen cloths. Rosebushes were highlighted by low burning torch lamps that dotted the terraces and lawns. The dancing would spill from the ballroom into the soft summer night, and strolling musicians filled the fragrant gardens with music.

Maurette appeared on the side terrace, wearing a gown of soft cream silk. The frothy sleeves and underskirts, of the same ivory color, were delicately shot with gold. Dominic greeted her and presented her with a spray of golden marguerites to complement her lovely gown. She surveyed his tall form in the silvery starlight. His bronzed skin had been burnished to a tawny copper by the sun, and, adapting to the country fashion, he wore a soft white cambric shirt opened at the neck and with loose flowing sleeves. With his soft black leather doublet and breeches, he looked very much the country gentleman.

He bowed low over her hand, and kissed her wrist softly and sweetly. Maurette felt the corners of her mouth being tugged into a wry smile. She wondered if anyone could guess that that chaste kiss sent warm tingles of pleasure through her body. Placing delicate fingertips on his muscled forearm, she allowed Dominic to lead her out into the night and into the first dance.

They moved in splendid unison to the soft strains of a nearby lute. Maurette was filled with the same rich enchantment that she had felt the first time they had danced together. Dominic’s mane of silver-raven hair lifted as he twirled her, and his white teeth glinted in the flickering light of the torches. His eyes were a-sparkle with the pure joy of holding her, she realized, and she realized, too, that he was not playacting. He was truly enjoying himself as he had all that lovely golden summer.

Maurette’s eyes did not leave her knight as the dance ended and he excused himself to charm the country gentry with his smiles and his concerns for their gardens and their horses and other matters. He danced with every matron and every matron’s daughter throughout the long, luxurious night, but he had eyes only for Maurette.

Dame Elspeth, though she would not have approved, precisely, her own daughter’s involvement with such a notorious rogue, could not help but admit that the man had succeeded in insinuating himself into the simple life of the gentle folk at Islington.

“Is there another wedding in your future?” said the lady when she and Lady Violet found themselves alone for a few moments.

“In my future?” asked the Countess, her voice dripping innocence.

Dame Elepth clicked her tongue at her companion’s obtuseness. “In Maurette’s future, Violet,” she said peevishly.

“Oh, one never knows, but I would not be surprised if he asks to call on your daughter. Look at the attention he is paying her.”

The devilish glint in Lady Violet’s sapphire eyes was lost on Lady Elspeth as she noted the dashing Warbrooke’s attention to her daughter. Puffing herself up, she advanced on the couple with purposeful strides.

Lady Violet sympathized with the shy daughter of Dame Elspeth and knew that the spectacle of the girl’s mother intervening between her and the dangerous Warbrooke would set tongues wagging far into the London season. That story could well be the highlight of the poor girl’s dull life, thought Lady Violet with compassion. She smiled secretly, however, when she realized that such a highlight might characterize her granddaughter’s entire future.

Lady Violet continued to mingle with the guests, greeting and speaking to each in turn, until midnight when she retired.

Country balls ended early, and soon the guests were departing. Maurette and Dominic, however, were not ready to end the evening. They strolled about as servants extinguished torches and snuffed out candles. The night was suddenly still and they were alone in the silvery darkness.

“I have enjoyed this time with you, Maurette,” Dominic said as they made their way along a grassy hillside.

Maurette stopped and looked up into his eyes. “You sound as if you intend to leave, Dominic,” she said softly.

“I must, sweet. My own estates need tending, and I must needs go home.”

Maurette’s eyes widened. “I had not thought of that.” She lowered her eyes quickly, and in the pale moonlight tears shimmered on her silken lashes. Dominic took her shoulders in his large hands. He looked down on her with wonder.

“Is it for me you cry, little one?”

Maurette tried to turn away, but he held her firmly. Drawing her closer to his broad chest, he raised her chin with his fingertips so that she was forced to look up at him. Her lavender eyes shimmered in the starlight.

“I . . . I don’t want you to leave, Dominic,” she said haltingly. “I …. .I don’t want you to leave without me.”

He gazed down at her for a long moment before drawing her into a tender embrace. He looked up into the star-frosted night. Maurette felt the pounding of his heart against her cheek. She wondered at the tenderness of his caress. She wondered at its aching warmth and at its gentle hunger. She could not possibly know that, for Dominic Warbrooke, Duke of Ravenshead, notorious buccaneer and Silver Raven of myth and legend, her simple declaration was the beginning of his life.

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Her father had encouraged her to leave some of her possessions at Harper House, but Maurette, in a spirit of optimistic determination, had decided to pack everything. She looked round the bare chamber now, and the burden of dread weighed heavily on her heart. Would she be back in one year’s time? Or, would she never see this room again? Either prospect filled her with anxiety in these last moments of the life she had always known. The pull of Dominic and her love for him was as powerful, in this instant, as was her bond to her home and family.

Maurette shuddered in the gloom of the empty chamber. Moving to the hearth to build up the little fire, she gazed into its dancing depths. At Islington, she had been so sure that she had made the right decision, but now, back in London, facing the reality of her immediate departure, she knew a ravening uncertainty.

The door to her chamber was pushed heavily aside, and Edyth shuffled into the room, carrying a huge tray laden with a pitcher of ale, a great, deep sausage pie, bowls of steaming vegetables, and a plate of cheeses. A salver of sugared fruit sat in the center. Maurette almost laughed when she saw the overburdened tray, but she held her mirth at bay. She knew that this was Edyth’s way of comforting her: she could not go with the child, but she could feed her. The old woman set out the food on a table near the low, crackling fire.

“Will you not eat, child?” she said forlornly. “You have not had anything of substance for three days.”

Maurette smiled. “I have little appetite, dear Edyth, but I shall do my best.” She sat down and dutifully sampled the rich fare that Edyth had brought. “Will you sit with me awhile?”

Edyth adopted her characteristic haughtiness and declined, her mouth forming a small moue. The child knew better than to ask such a thing. Servants did not sit down at table with gentle folk. Seeing the girl’s pretty, entreating eyes, however, softened Edyth’s resolve. She lost her well-practiced defenses and moved to embrace her. Then, as Maurette pulled a low stool near the table, Edyth sat heavily and dabbed at her tear-glazed eyes.

“I shall miss you, too,” Maurete said gently. She took Edyth’s withered hand into her own. “But we have all decided that a sea voyage would not be the healthiest thing for a woman of your years.”

Edyth looked up sharply, and Maurette winced, realizing her mistake. Suddenly a musical voice sounded in the chamber.

“Women of our years, dear Maurette, often know well the truth of sea voyages.” Lady Violet moved with a sweeping grace into the room. “They always take you away from something, but they inevitable bring you to something. Knowing that,” said the lady, pulling another stool up to the table, “makes them easier to bear.” She winked gaily at Edyth. “I think the two of us would do quite well on one of those voyages, do you not agree, Edyth?”

Edyth nodded her head in hearty agreement.

“However,” continued Lady Violet, “we have, in truth, had our fill of such adventures. We have earned the right to be content with the comforts of home. The most water either of us ever wants to view is the murky depths of the Thames. A tame prospect, at best, but a decidedly less tiring one for women of our years.”

The three women smiled at one another, though Edyth’s eyes remained woeful. Lady Violet sat on her stool and viewed the feast that had been laid out for Maurette.

“Cloud you spare me a cup of ale,” she said with innocence, “and perhaps a small piece of meat pie? And I wouldn’t mind a vegetable or two and a slice of fruit, that is, of course, if you could spare it.” She looked up at Maurette and then at Edyth. “Or is it intention that the child should consume this leviathan all by herself?” The three women regarded each other solemnly for a moment and then burst into gales of laughter.

Lady Elaine suddenly entered the chamber to find the women doubled over in hilarity. “The carriages are-” She stop- short when she realized that even her presence would not halt the lunacy of their mirth. “What is so funny?” she asked, dumbfounded.

“Oh, nothing, Mama,” said Maurette while attempting to control her fits of giggling. “‘Tis only that we have decided that Edyth would render me, with this last meal, so corpulent as to sink poor Dominic’s ship in the middle of the North Sea.” Another burst of hilarity overtook the women.

“I do think it unwise to stimulate yourself so before embarking on a sea voyage,” said lady Elaine sternly, as the three women attempted once more to sober themselves. “In any event, dearest Maurette, the carriages are here and ’tis time to make your departure. Dominic said you must leave with the morning tide, and the morning is now half over.” She moved to the now chastened girl. “I will see to the loading of your chests, child. Please ready yourself for your ride to London. Know that your mama loves you and that she will miss you sorely.” She pulled Maurette into a gentle embrace. “I will send up a boy to take the last of your boxes,” she said as she drew away. Tears shimmered in her green eyes as she turned from her daughter and quickly left the room.

Edyth stood heavily. “I shall go see that things are done correctly,” she said stiffly. “Good-bye, dear child.” She held Maurette in the warmth of her plump arms for a long moment. “Do try to eat something,” she said as she bustled from the room.

Maurette eyed her grandmother solemnly. “Would you, In truth, help me will this food, Grandma? Edyth will be so dispirited if it is not at least sampled.” The two women smiled in resignation as they attacked the meal.

Imogene moved quietly into the room. She held a large, Wrapped object behind her back. “I have something for you, dear sister.” she said shyly. She advanced toward the table, and her eyes widened. “You are not intending to consume all that,” she gasped.

“Only if you and Grandmama will help me,” Maurette sighed.

“I could not eat a bite,” said Imogene dully. “I am too saddened by the thought of your going.” Then she brightened and held the package at arm’s length. “This is something for you, Maurette. No woman grown should be without one.”

Maurette accepted the gift and carefully undid the pretty wrappings. She found, in the midst of the colored tissue, a white bonnet. Frilled and feathered, it was the most elaborate headpiece Maurette had ever seen. She looked up at Imogene, and a question quirked her smooth brow.

“‘Tis symbolic,” Imogene giggled. “You are, upon your arrival at Ravenshead, to toss that,” she indicated the bonnet pointedly, “into the ocean. You may even,” she added pertly, “wish to divest yourself of it sooner than that.”

Maurette laughed openly. The girls explained to their bemused grandmother the significance of such an action and the independence that it implied. Lady Violet enjoyed the jest hugely.

Imogene, despite her stated lack of hunger, munched on the food that lay on the table. With her fingers she sampled the creamy onions and the spiced carrots. She pushed, with unladylike relish, a piece of the salty pie into her mouth as she reflected upon her own upcoming marriage.

“Gregory has requested that we be married at court,” she said. “‘Twould be an honor, to speak the least, to be wed with the queen in attendance, but his request must be one of hundreds, and such compliments, I fear, are placed with those in higher favor than we.”

Lady Violet smiled knowingly. “‘Twould require the word of someone of influence to accomplish such a triumph,” she said gently.

Both girls gaped at their grandmother. “Have you spoken for Imogene and Gregory,” Maurette inquired excitedly.

Lady Violet nodded tranquilly. “Your wedding at court, dear Imogene, is a fait accompli.”” Both girls rushed to embrace the older woman, nearly spilling the mug of ale she held and toppling the plate of spiced carrots she had placed precariously on her lap. “The affair will take place at the beginning of November and, if you are very fortunate, Her Majesty will invite you to share her Christmas court.”

With wild excitement, the two girls embraced each other. There was nothing in the world more exciting than an invitation to one of Elizabeth’s palaces at Christmas time. The color and the pageantry were unequaled anywhere in Britain. For a young girl at that time, for anyone in truth, such an experience was the dream of a lifetime fulfilled.

Alex Harper found Imogene and Maurette entwined in a rapturous embrace when he entered the chamber. He stood watching them for a long moment. He was, it seemed, losing both his precious daughters at once. His heart ached, not only for the wrenching away of the people he held most dear but also for the uncertain future of his elder. Though Dominic Warbrooke had been most generous in his assurances that Maurette would be well protected in his care, Alex could not bury the aching fear that she might be severely wounded in this business For all of Dominic’s avowed adoration of the girl, there was no question that her position was tentative at best.

At least Imogene had the protection of a marriage bond and a public ceremony. This was of course no guarantee that Gregory would remain a faithful husband and never leave her, but it ensured that the legal entanglements with which such a transaction was fraught would discourage such a circumstance. Beyond that, Gregory was a steadfast lad and truly devoted to Imogene. He would, in all likelihood, never have the inclination or the courage to start such a complex course of action as divorce.

Lord Warbrooke, on the other hand, was a man attended by complexity. He could never be depended upon to behave in expected ways. He was obstinate and self-willed. He had a chilling lack of respect for convention and was known to be something of a rogue where women were concerned, at least from what Alex had heard. To Alex, these characteristics were not particularly undesirable in a man, but where they concerned his elder daughter, they gave him pause.

Dominic Warbrooke in no way resembled the gentle Gregory just as Maurette in no way resembled her gentle sister. The union of Dominic and Maurette would not be an easy one. It would be a fiery blend at best. Alex hoped that the two were aware of the potential for calamity that they faced. Alex sighed audibly. He doubted that it had even entered their minds.

At her father’s sigh, Maurette turned. “We did not see you, Papa,” she said, moving to embrace him.

“I was watching my two little daughters, together for what may be the last time in this house,” he said with deep sadness in his tone. “‘Tis hard.” His voice halted. He covered his mouth and turned away from his daughters, uttering a small cough as he did so. “I shall miss our challenge in the courtyard, darling Maurette,” he said finally. “My mother will not miss them at all,” she said, slanting him a piquant gaze. Then she eyed her sister gaily, though her eyes shimmered with tears. “look what Imogene has tokened me with,” she said, holding out the bonnet for her father’s inspection. Imogene stifled a small giggle. Alex, not realizing the significance of the hat nor in what way it related to his wife, admired the gift.

“You are well-tokened, methinks,” he said softly. Maurette, smiled in response, remembering the handkerchiefs the kitchen girls had given her and the delicately sewn chemise from Thelma. As Alex sipped the ale lady Violet had poured for him, he noticed the embroidered pillow cover that the little serving maid, Jane, had specially made. He admonished his daughter that the girl would be broken-hearted if she found it there after Maurette had gone, and Maurette removed it from her bed.

“I shall take it down for you Maurette,” said Imogene. She moved from the room and giving a wink with one wide blue eye, she suggested that Maurette’s new white bonnet would go very well with her traveling outfit. Maurette smiled and set about her final preparations. Alex, after sampling the fare on Maurette’s table, decided to go downstairs and give a final check to the coaches for safety. He gave his daughter one last embrace.

“Remember that you are of proud and noble birth, my precious Maurette. You have the blood of aristocracy in your veins and the strength of your high breeding in your soul.” He took her face into his hands. “‘Tis not for nothing that you have been raised with the knowledge of your own self-worth. You are as valuable a jewel as any that Warbrooke would acquire. Keep that knowledge.” he said. Then, with a final kiss, he left her.

Maurette had for so long held back the hot tears of anguish that had threatened to flow at any moment. Now, she knew they would overwhelm her. Her heart gave way to a wrenching sorrow, and she went to her grandmother’s arms to sob out the aching loneliness she already felt for her beloved family.

Lady Violet waited patiently for the storm of tears to abate. She knew that Maurette would find the strength that she needed to carry on. Maurette had a resilient nature. As her tears subsided slowly and her trembling body relaxed, the old countess smiled.

Maurette looked up into her eyes. “I think I am ready now, Grandmama,” she said faintly as she wiped at her ebbing tears.

“You are indeed reedy, child,” said Lady Violet with pride. “Now I have one last token for you,” she said. She reached into a small pouch that was fastened to her stomacher and pulled apart the drawstring opening. She drew out a small platinum ring. “This, child,” she said, gazing at it with reverence, “was my wedding gift from Lord Audley.” She held out the little band. “I wish to place it upon your finger.”

Maurette held out her right hand, and Lady Violet slipped it onto her ring finger.

“You must promise me that you will take it off on only one condition.”

Maurette nodded expectantly.

“Only if you need me to come to you, are you to remove it.” Taking both of Maurette’s hands in hers, she leaned into her granddaughter. “No matter what the circumstances or how impossible your situation, you are to send it to me, and I shall come to you. Do you understand, Maurette?”

Maurette nodded solemnly. She could not imagine under what circumstances she would ever consider sending for her grandmother. But, as she gazed down on the mystical little round of platinum and then up into her grandmother’s vibrant sapphire eyes, she felt an unseen hand upon her shoulder. She felt somehow protected from whatever was out there.

“I vow to you, Grandmama, that I will never take it off.”

“Vow, too, child, that you will believe in the miracle of my promise. Vow that you will always believe in that.”

“I do believe it, Grandmama,” she said earnestly. At that moment, Maurette truly did believe that somehow her beloved grandmother would always be with her. She rose slowly as did the older woman. With final and absolute trust, Maurette embraced her. “We shall never really be apart, Grandmama.”

Lady Violet’s eyes glistened with unshed tears. “So many partings in my life,” she said spiritedly. “One would think I would be used to them by now.” She patted her granddaughter’s cheek with her fingertips. “Let us finish this parting,” she said and helped Maurette into her traveling cloak. They set Imogene’s bonnet atop her head at a jaunty angle.

The clopping of impatient hooves in the courtyard below told them that the time had come. They faced each other bravely. Then, in the time-honored gesture of deepest respect, Maurette took her grandmother’s hand in hers. She made a low curtsy while at the same time bowing her head and kissing Lady Violet’s hand. “I love you, Grandmama,” she said softly, “with all my heart.”

“And I you, child,” said the other woman, accepting the honor. She was deeply moved but stood proudly straight.

“Is this th’ only one left, my lady?” said the small voice. Maurette turned to see a sturdy lad standing near her chest.

“It is, lad,” said Maurette. He hoisted the heavy burden onto his strong young shoulders.

Edyth bustled into the room. “Get a move on, boy,” she said. ” ‘Tis time, little Lady Maurette,” she added in hushed tones.

Maurette moved with graceful resolve into the gallery outside her chamber door. She turned back once to survey the beloved room; then with a small smile and a slight wave of her gloved hand, she was gone.

Lady Violet and Edyth stood quietly together, remembering the night of Maurette’s birthday ball and how they had sensed then that she was moving from the protection of their arms forever.

“Really,” murmured Lady Violet, ” ’tis so much easier this way.”

Edyth swiped at her tear-glazed eyes. She turned to the table and began to gather up the remains of Maurette’s meal. As she piled the tray with empty dishes and mugs, she smiled brightly. “I am so relieved,” she said. “The child claimed no appetite, but look. She has devoured every bit of her meal.”

Lady Violet smiled. “The ‘child’ has more of an appetite than she imagines.”

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

The coursing waters of the North Sea captured the moonlight in its mercurial swells. The ship creaked and groaned as the ocean pounded at its heavy wooden girth. Pale clouds drifted low over the shimmery murk, and their silvery vapors were reflected in the lustrous billows so that it was difficult to distinguish where the sky left off and she sea began.

Maurette stood at the rail, gazing out over the black expanse of water and sky. A warm wind lifted her hair as, with a soft smile, she removed the fanciful bonnet that Imogene had given her and held it out over the rail of the Raven. With a gentle sweep of her arm, she released it from her fingers and watched it sail away into the gurgling darkness. She laughed quietly at its luminous descent into the ebon froth. Sensing Dominic’s presence at her side, she looked up at him and smiled.

“I shall explain that to you some day,” she said softly.

Her regarded her with a smile of his own. Dominic was in his element on this sailing ship. His loose shirt of creamy lawn Was opened at the neck, its long full sleeves fluttering in the breezy night. His soft leather breeches clung to his muscular booted legs like another skin. The gleaming sword backed to his side, his Wide smile baring gleaming white teeth, and his sliver-raven hair lifting in the wind gave him the appearance of a moon god. Encircling her waist with one muscular arm, he held her motionless in the warm winds as they stood gazing out over the moon-silvered water.

“‘Tis time to retie,” Dominic said, his voice a husky rumble.

“Yes,” Maurette murmured.

He turned her to him and held her shoulders in his bronzed hands. “I am the most fortunate of men,” he said softly.

His voice embraced her like the surging sea winds. Maurette allowed her head to fall back slightly so that she could see him against the blowing sails riding ghostly pale against the opalescent sky.

He gazed down upon her in wonder. This treasure, all milky skin and deep lavender eyes framed with magnificent velvet lashes, this pearl was his tonight. He would caress and embrace her and run his fingers through her glossy cascade of curls. He would kiss her tempting, tempting mouth and feel its full sweetness against his own. Like a flower it would open to accept his tender passion. The slender white column of her throat where a small vein pulsed gently invited his ardent hunger. He beat down and trailed kisses along its yielding length.

Maurette melted into his urgent demand, moaning breathlessly as he covered her face and neck with tantalizing kisses. The pounding of his heart beat in rhythm with her own. Each throbbing pulsation filled her soul with a yearning hunger.

With supreme control, Dominic checked his ravening thirst and held her against the powerful expanse of his chest.

“I will wait up here, little one, while you use the cabin.” Then, releasing her, he stepped to the rail to regain control. When his breathing was back to normal, he turned to her, smiling, and lit a small cigar.. “Do not be afraid of me, Maurette,” he said gently. “I shall not take you until you are ready for me.”

Maurette gazed up at him. Her eyes were wide in her pale face, and the bud of her mouth was coral-colored with the passion she had just experienced. “Will it be tonight, Dominic?” she asked softly.

He nodded. “It will,” he said huskily, his hunger fired by her innocence. “I shall be down in a moment, Maurette.”

She turned, and Dominic watched as she descended to the captain’s cabin.

Maurette contemplated the parameters of the cabin. Wood gleamed in the yellow glow of the lamplight, and highly polished brass shone like dull gold. A large wooden table filled the center of the cabin, maps and charts covering its richly glowing surface. Four chairs, all made of the same lustrous wood, surrounded the table. At one end of the cabin was a large enclosed bunk hung with richly appointed hangings and provided with a full feather comforter. This bed held her future, or at least a part of it.

Maurette reached into her trunk and drew out the soft night rail her grandmother had sewn especially for this night. Made of white gossamer with tiny appliques of silk embroidery, the gown had an astonishingly low neckline that barely reached her shoulders as she held it up before her. The long, flowing sleeves, slashed their entire length would reveal her bare arms at her slightest movement. Maurette felt her cheeks grow warm and quickly laid the filmy garment on the foot of the bed. Turning from the pale gown, she studied the cabin.

Opulent hangings, she discovered, hid shelves filled with masculine attire. On a low shelf, she found shaving tools of her husband, most likely naked to the waist, divesting himself on his manly beard. She blinked her eyes at the image that conjured itself before her She had seen only one man naked to the waist, and she shuddered at the vision she recalled. The man had been working in the with the horses, and the thick, dark hair that covered his chest had been matted and glistening with perspiration. And he had a fat belly. At any moment she would have to face her husband’s naked hairy self. She shut her eyes tight, to avoid that image.

Moving back to the bed, she looked down on the flimsy garment she was to wear when she faced Dominic. The three women in her life had counseled her both separately and, on the eve of her departure, as a group. Edyth had been cautious but elated as she spoke of Maurette’s coming adventure. “He will be tender, dear little Lady Edyth had burbled, “because you are so fragile looking.”

Lady Violet had stand her friend down. “Fragile, Maurette is not, Edyth,” she had said, dismissing the other woman’s assessment. “Do you want him to treat her as a porcelain doll? You will not break, child.”

And Lady Elaine had added her own advice. “Respond, my darling, to any feeling that he arouses. Do not be frightened.”

It was her papa, however, to whom Maurette listened now as the echoes of her family’s affectionate admonishment gathered about her in the tiny cabin. “Lord Warbrooke seems fierce and powerful,” he had said, “and able to face any challenge. But there is not a man among us who is not in need of a woman’s love, and not just any woman. We need to love and be loved as much as the most fragile babe that ever lived. Though we do not show it, we feel the pain of rejection, the frustration of resistance. The bravest among us is never as brave as he appears where women are concerned. Love him, child, for he loves you so.” Maurette knew this to be true. She lifted the delicate night rail, determined to face what needed to be faced. She undressed slowly and, unused to the feel of her own naked body, let the filmy fabric waft down her awakened flesh.

The door to the cabin clicked softly. Dominic’s large frame filled the small opening as he entered. In the amber lamplight his hair and skin gleamed. His silver eyes softened at the sight of Maurette.

“Is something amiss?” he questioned at her wild look.

“I was – waiting. I-” she stuttered faintly.

“Yes,” he said, a smile forming on his chiseled handsome face. “Waiting and afraid,” he said gently. He closed the door softly and advanced slowly until he stood directly in front in front of her and looked down into her great limpid eyes. Her perfect oval face shimmered, and her golden hair, which she had loosened from its combs, lay like velvet upon her white shoulders. He did not touch her, but she could feel the warmth of his body upon hers. He smelled of fresh sea air and tobacco. His shirt was open at the neck, and at Maurette’s eye level there was a hint of the raven furring on his chest. At last he touched her cheek so lightly that she wondered if she only imagined the touch. She looked up into his soft silver eyes that were hooded and filled with a glowing tenderness.

“Beautiful,” he breathed.

Maurette wondered what was expected of her. She knew that they would kiss as they had up on the deck. She knew also that he would fondle her in secret places, but, beyond that, she could not imagine what was to happen.

Dominic drew her to his lean length. His lips took hers in a soft exploring kiss. This was the beginning. Unexpectedly, he released her and stood back. He drew her to face a mirror that was bolted to the wall behind a hanging and turned her to face her own reflection. Maurette drew in her breath. In the glimmering lamplight, she saw herself. The opaque shadows of her gown barely covered her nakedness. She looked up at Dominic’s tall reflection behind her. Her color was high, her cheeks and lips were like sun-kissed coral, and her eyes like deep pools of fear. But Dominic was smiling an easy smile of self-assurance.

“DO not be afraid of me, little one, for I will not hurt you. You were made for love, Maurette, look at yourself.” As he said the words, Dominic lifted the gown veiling her over her head and exposed her curving form to them both, allowing the fragile garment to slip from his hand onto the gleaming deck. His smile vanished, and Maurette sensed, rather than heard, his gasp. Her breasts were high and firm and tipped with pink. Her flat belly and sweetly curving hips tapered down to a small, shadowy triangle. Her long slender legs narrowed to delicate ankles and perfectly formed feet. Behind her, Maurette could feel Dominic’s need. He turned her slowly to face him. His big hand cupped her face and lifted it to his.

“Please, Dominic,” she said softly as she moistened her lips with her tongue. Tears brimmed her darkly lashed eyes. “I am so very afraid.”

Dominic groaned softly as he looked down into her shimmering eyes. “You must trust me, little one,” he said huskily. His muscled arms came around her and pressed her small white face to his broad chest. “You must not fear me, Maurette, for I love you with all my heart.”

They stood that way for a long moment. She felt his hands tenderly caressing her whole body and his lips kissing her hair. Then lifting her face with one large hand, he trailed kisses along her forehead and eyes and cheeks, and finally, his mouth found hers. The embrace of his lips was unlike anything she had ever experienced. His tongue gently pushed its way between her small teeth and explored the sweetness of her mouth.

Warm swells of excitement began to flow through her body and, without understanding what was happening to her, or caring, Maurette felt her arms encircling his neck. Her fingers entwined in the curling raven tendrils at the nape of his neck. The room swam, and she closed her eyes to receive him in whatever way he wished.

She felt herself swept easily from her feet and carried to the great bed. As he lay her on her back,. she felt his weight follow her. She did not know what to expect, but at this moment she did not care. She only knew that he was touching her body and his touches were somehow detached from the two of them and were part of a universal and all consuming pleasure. When his exploring fingers delved into a secret spot, Maurette’s eyes popped open, and she gasped at the sudden rush of overwhelming excitement.

Dominic was smiling down upon her. “Your response promises a most satisfying union,” he breathed against her ear. Another secret spot, she mused in languid pleasure.

She turned to face him on the bed and felt, in his eyes, all the love and protective feelings he had toward her. She felt safe and trusting.

“Dominic,” she said timidly, “I wonder… could you perhaps . . . remove your shirt?”

He moaned softly as she said the words, and Maurette wondered if she had been too bold. She had suddenly, and for reason she could not begin to fathom, wanted to touch his skin.

Removing his arms from around her for only a few seconds, he divested himself of his shirt and wondered if that was the wisest thing to do. Control, he told himself, was all on this night.

Maurette watched in fascinated dread, and relief washed over her when she saw the light furring of silver-raven fleece that covered his chest. She tore her gaze away from his flesh and looked up into his eyes. “I was fearful that-” She stopped.

“What, sweet?” he said softly.

She placed her small white hand on his lightly furred chest. “I am glad that you are not all hairy;” she said and swallowed hard, ….. . and fat.” Her great serious eyes nearly unhinged the last vestige of his control.

Dominic registered both surprise and amusement at her solemn declaration. “Fat?” he said through a half-smile. He pressed her to him and then smiled warmly down into her face.

Maurette reached up and brushed her fingertips over the taut flesh on his cheekbones. She found that her hands wanted to touch every part of him, and she trailed her fingers down his neck and shoulders and then to his ribs and around to his back. She felt him stiffen at her touch and wondered once again if she had been too bold. She was, after all, unenlightened in the ways of love. Hearing his soft groan as he drew her hand away from his flesh, she looked up at him, her smooth forehead wrinkling in a question. His breathing was ragged, and he framed her face with his big hands.

“I am not schooled in the ways of love, Dominic,” she said softly “You must help me and tell me if I become too bold.”

He lowered his lips to her lightly parted ones, then raised himself from her. ” ‘Tis I, little one, who must school himself this night.” He smiled in self-appreciation. “This night is the most important we shall ever spend together, sweet, and if I am impetuous or if I lose control, I could ruin everything.”.

“I do not understand, Dominic,” she breathed. Suddenly, her mind turned to a veiled reference that Edyth had made to the terrible hurting thing.” A light came into her eyes, an awareness that turned passion into unadulterated fear, and her face went pale. “You intend to hurt me, Dominic?”

Dominic could not bear the fear he saw in her eyes. “I will try so hard, little one, so very, very hard to make this night beautiful for you. Will you trust me? Will you trust that any pain I cause you will be momentary and not intentionally dealt?”

Maurette looked into his eyes and saw a tender pity there. “I will trust you, Dominic,” she murmured and closed her eyes. “I love you,” she said through the tears rolling quietly down her cheeks.

Dominic drew her to his lean length and caressed her tenderly. He gently stroked the flesh of her slender back and her sweetly rounded buttocks. He could feel the peaks of her breasts against his chest. Her skin was like ivory silk. His fingers brushed the soft flesh between her thighs and came around to caress her hips. He lifted her arms to his neck, and on their own they encircled him. His lips trailed kisses down her throat and shoulders and grazed the mounds of her quivering breasts with tender, teasing touches. His tongue circled the peaks of her desire, and she arched herself against him. His mouth caressed the undersides of her breasts and moved down to her soft belly. He tantalized her willing flesh with nibbles and kisses as he licked and sucked at her writhing body.

Maurette trembled in throbbing pleasure. A tempest was building inside of her, and she did not know or care where it would carry her. She only knew that his lips and hands were transporting her to a land of rapture. He had made her body his sweet captive, and she never wished to be rescued. Her thighs parted as he rolled her onto her back and began to explore with his fingers the place where she felt the core of her desire. As her hunger mounted, she felt the warm juices of convulsing passion begin to flow. Her knees came up as he stroked and caressed and tantalized, with practiced fingers, the pulsating bud of her womanhood. Small moans of pleasure erupted with her breath, and a light sheen of perspiration formed on her body.

Dominic, his hand exploring the length of her quivering flesh, satisfied himself that she was, in truth, ready for him. He raised himself to remove his breeches, then lowered himself on top of her, taking most of his weight on one muscled arm. With the other hand he gently cradled her arching buttocks and slowly he entered her. Her impatience for him, he knew, was born of innocence. And though his body reeled with desire, his mind kept a firm grasp on reality.

At her first hesitant shudder, Dominic stopped. He did not withdraw from her, he knew she did not want that, but he entered no further. He murmured gentling words into her ear and felt her relax. Again, he pressed her virginal flesh. The sweet anticipation that she felt must now be rewarded with a woman’s pain. Dominic kissed her tenderly, and she clung to him. As the kiss became more demanding, Dominic knew that to delay the pain would be to draw it out cruelly, and so as Maurette’s passion once again peaked, he thrust once-hard. The savage tearing act was completed.

Maurette screamed at the torrent of sudden, searing, And inexplicable pain. Her nails raked his naked back in horrified denial. Tears welled in her eyes, but she remembered his words. In the blackness of her sudden agony, she remembered his tender pity and his admonition to trust him. She did, and as she lay beneath him, forgiving him and dreading what would happen next, the pain began to diminish. Her body, which had turned cold, was warming again, and with wonder, she opened her eyes to look up into his.

“You are magnificent,” he breathed. He let his own passion take hold as renewed hunger carried them both to unimaged heights of rapture. Maurette stroked the hard hollows of his back, and her pulse raced as, once more, he pressed himself inside her. This time there was to pain, and Maurette opened herself to the wonder and pleasure of his virile thrusts.

The fires of passion consumed her until she felt the mounting urgency of her need overwhelmed her. Suddenly her world exploded in a dizzying turbulence of stars and suns and pulsing torrents of flame. Then, as suddenly, she sank deep into a soft enveloping darkness, and her body relaxed with a trembling joy. When she opened her eyes, Dominic was gazing down at her. She felt his love as a palpable presence and knew that he was, to her, the heart of her life.

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

The small cabin was awash in milky blue-gray shadows, and rain pattered in windy torrents against the outside beams. Inside the rolling ship, the sleeping Maurette bumped against Dominic’s hard body in the plush softness of the feather bed. He awakened to find her snuggled against him, her head nestled in the curve of his arm. In that bronzed setting, she seemed a rare and perfect jewel. Her opaline skin was warm and flushed from her virginal passion, and her shimmering hair was tangled in wild curls. As he moved to lift himself to one elbow, she wriggled against him and sighed like a contended kitten.

He did not wish to awaken her, but the sight of her bared breasts, coral-tipped and rising gently with her breath, made his own catch painfully. He reached out and ran his fingertips over the opal mounds. Maurette squirmed and rolled to her side, and, groaning, Dominic laid aside his own passion and merely watched her sleep.

A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth as he remembered her unbridled response to his lovemaking. She had moaned and writhed at the touch of his mouth and the caress of his tongue. His hands had roved her sweet body with intimate freedom. Dominic winced at the thought of her deflowering. He forgave himself only in the sense that he knew that he would never have to cause her pain again. He would play with her and tantalize her eager flesh to his heart’s content. He would arouse new and wilder responses in her innocent body. Last night was only a beginning. Dominic would teach her every joy of passion that the world had ever known. Her virgin response was his to explore.

He heard the bells on deck and knew that he could ignore them if he wished. Looking down upon the treasure that had molded itself to him in sleeping trust, he drew in his breath. His whole reason for existence was the protection of this precious creature, but, hearing the rain and feeling the rolling of the ship, Dominic feared they had entered a storm. Though their crossing was to be a short one, he knew the perilous North Sea was the scene of many unexpected and savage storms that seemed to arise out of nowhere, do their heinous damage, then disappear.

Reluctantly, he drew himself from the cozy warmth of the bed. He had prayed for an uneventful crossing, but the pitch of the deck as he stepped out of bed told him that this was no harmless rainstorm. Shrugging into his shirt and doublet and drawing on his breeches and boots, he grabbed a slicker and ducked from the cabin.

The fore deck was a swarm with men. Huge drops of rain pelted the decks, and the riggings were slippery in the hands that secured them. Dominic moved quickly to the wheel and, questioning the helmsman, discovered that the storm had been brewing since dawn, and now the swelling ocean was tossing the ship as if it were a toy. Surveying the sky, Dominic saw great banks of rolling black clouds hugging the horizon and forming a low, surging ceiling over the ship. Dazzling swords of blue lightening cracked inside the churning vapors, thunder boomed threateningly, and a thickening wall of inky fog hung in the north sky. Dominic knew that they were in for the severe violence nature had to offer in this part of the world, and he prayed that Maurette would remain securely asleep until the worst had passed.

Geoffrey Frobisher, the first mate, moved unsteadily along the deck to where Dominic now stood. The younger man’s hat was cockily askew and soggy in the slanting rain, but a cheerful smile creased his friendly beaded face.

“Ahoy, Captain,” he called jovially. ” ‘Tis a bit of a breeze we’re havin’,” he said.

Dominic leveled a look of consternation at his friend and crew mate. “Let us hope,” he said over the roar of the rain, “that it is just a ‘breeze,’ Geoff. You know I have my lady, Maurette, aboard.”

“I have not had the pleasure of meeting her, sir,” said Geoffrey; moving to Dominic’s side, “but I’m told she is a beauty and well worth saving should, this little tub flounder.” He gave Dominic’s arm a friendly jab. “She’ll be getting a taste of the sea one way or the other now; won’t she?” he said gaily.

Dominic turned in disgust from his friend’s joviality. “Some things do not survive a jest,” he said roughly. Then, to the helmsman he said, “You need to get below, Roger. Send old Jase up with coffee for Geoff and me. I will be a long day, I fear. Will you look in on my cabin from time to time to see that Maurette is safe?”

The old helmsman nodded and swiped at his dripping face and hair, accepting the dismissal with a small smile of gratitude. He went below to the relative dry of the galley and informed the cook, Jase, of the captain’s order. Then, obeying his captain’s other order, he peeked in on Maurette.

Maurette was still deep in slumber. And what a pretty thing she was, thought the old man. Her body seemed to glow with an ethereal aura, her bright curls were splayed out over the white pillow, and her innocent mouth formed a small pout each time the ship pitched. Closing the door softly, he shook his head grimly and violence of the sudden storm. That, child deserved a more peaceful crossing, he thought, clicking his tongue. Were she his daughter, she would be at home where a delicate thing like that belonged, not out on this savage ocean.

Up on deck, Geoffrey continued to speak as if he and Dominic were idling in a sunny meadow. “When shall we meet your good lady, sir?” he said, leaning nonchalantly on the helm’s rail.

Dominic glanced at him and quickly righted the wheel that had suddenly twisted from his grasp. “Your good nature is wearing mine,” he said, gritting his teeth with the effort and causing Geoffrey to throw his big head back and roar with mirth. Dominic regarded him with disgust and placed his concentration on steering where it was most needed at that moment. The big ship was rolling wildly now, and the masts groaned in the vicious winds. Rain came in sheets to sweep across the slanting decks.

Suddenly, Geoffrey’s hat was snatched from his head by the wind and sent skimming across the sodden deck. Geoffrey smiled and shook his head as he started across the deck to retrieve the hat.

“Avast, Geoff,” shouted Dominic. “Don’t be a fool!”

“‘Tis my favorite topper, Captain,” the younger man yelled back as he pulled himself along the rigging. “I’ll be careful.” He gave Dominic a small wave of his hand over his shoulder. The ship pitched wildly at that moment, and Geoff’s grip on the ropes faltered.

Dominic saw Geoff fall but was powerless to stop him. The layer of water on the deck of the rolling vessel made traction impossible, and Geoff slid, arms and legs thrashing wildly, across the pitching deck. Dominic watched in horror as the big man crashed into the gunwale and then, propelled by the force of his own weight and by the slant of the deck, over the side. Dominic yelled for a crew man to take over the helm. Pulling himself along the slippery riggings to where Geoff had grabbed onto the running rig and was precariously dangling just above the smashing waves, Dominic reached one long sinewy arm out to his friend.

The young man, having every faith in Dominic’s strength, dared to loose one of his hands from its altogether too tenuous grip on the ropes. Slipping, with only one hand clutching the slippery ropes, Geoff instantly grasped the rigging again with his other hand.

“Go back, Captain,” he shrieked, grimacing with the effort of holding himself above the violently foaming ocean beneath him. Between the slick rope and the torrential gale, his grip was loosening.

Dominic, straining against the force of the storm, pulled himself further along the deck and then fastened himself to a rigging. One powerful arm held fast and one arm reaching in a slow painful stretch, he extended himself across the deck. With a mighty lurch, Dominic propelled himself against the now screeching wind and the pitch of the deck and grabbed Geoff around one wrist. Rope strained cuttingly against flesh as Dominic heaved mightily and dragged his friend’s heavy body from the side of the ship and across the deck. Oblivious to all else, they hugged each other, one protecting the other in a stronghold of defense against the raging elements. Neither man noticed the horror-stricken shout of the crewman who had taken the helm.

“Captain!” he called wildly, straining to make his voice heard above the howling winds and the crashing waves “Captain, please. Avast, you there, mistress,” he yelled. “Captain,” he shouted again, his desperate voice finally reaching Dominic on the shrieking wind. “She’s up amid-ship, sir,” he yelled, pointing, and Dominic’s gaze was now riveted.

There, in shroud of gossamer shreds, wet tendrils of hair flying wildly about her stiffened white body, stood Maurette. Fear emblazoned Dominic’s being, And, uncaring of his own safety, he struggled to a standing position. Gripping the riggings that had held him fast, he moved painfully over the water-soaked deck toward Maurette’s wraithlike figure. Her pale body was too fragile to withstand the horror of what it was now enduring.

“Maurette,” Dominic shouted as he dragged himself toward her. “Go back, little one! Go below!”

Maurette did not move. She seemed not to hear or see him. The wind raged around her, and the rain beat and tore at her flimsy covering until she seemed nearly naked in the deluge. She looked tiny and frightened beneath the tumultuous power of the storm. Her great eyes were wide and searching, and her lips moved soundlessly. She seemed to be calling Dominic’s name, but the force of the wind swallowed up the sound.

Just as Dominic reached her, the ship pitched fiercely without warning and threw them to the deck and a mighty wall of green water erupted over the side and engulfed them both. Dominic groped wildly for Maurette’s body. Feeling something solid, he grasped at it blindly with one hand. His fingers tore at the filmy sodden night dress, and reaching desperately with both arms painfully outstretched, he caught Maurette’s languid form in his arms and dragged her through the heaving mass of water to him. Grabbing onto a spar with one arm, he held her flaccid body to his chest with the other, and protected her as much as it was within his power from the intense ebbing pressure of the mountainous wave.

Straining against tons of receding water, the pitch of the ship, and the force of the howling wind and swirling rain, Dominic shored up the remnant of his immense strength. He must get Maurette below. Mercifully, she had fainted and no longer felt the pummeling of the storm. Dominic, holding onto the spar, felt as if his arm were about to be ripped from his body. Ignoring his agony, he lifted Maurette’s limp form over one powerful shoulder and drug them both across the deck through the unrelenting onslaught of the storm-swept ocean.

*

Three days later, Maurette had not regained consciousness. A dull, pounding roar echoed in her ears and became louder as she relived the storm. Sheets of icy rain pelted her small unclothed body, and wind whipped at her hair in awesome fury and she was helpless and horror-stricken in the tearing assault. A sheen of perspiration covered her tormented body and her breath came in short sobbing gasps. Twisting her head furiously from side to side in a frantic attempt to escape the terror that engulfed her, she reached out blindly and screamed Dominic’s name, but the howling wind pushed her voice back into her throat. She could not breathe, and her eyes popped open. Panic overwhelmed her as she saw a mountain of green water towering above her. The water turned black. Maurette screamed once more as the water plunged over her and consumed her in its ebony depths.

In the dim golden light of the cabin, the three men watching the horror of Maurette’s tortured awakening tried to restrain her, but she fought them wildly, desperately, until her fevered body stiffened and went suddenly limp. She lay quietly now, breathing in short irregular gasps. For three days, Maurette had lain in her own perspiration, her body and mind enmeshed in a terrible agony from which there was no escape.

The ship’s doctor, Ben Tremain, shook his tired head and hugged himself against the cold shivers that racked his body from September to June.

” ‘Tis horrible,” he breathed. “I’ve not seen anything like it, Dominic.”

Dominic, his eyes red-rimmed, his haggard face covered with a thick growth of coarse stubble, groaned in helpless agony. He had cursed himself a thousand times for exposing Maurette to this horror. As he looked down upon her fragile body in the huge bunk, it seemed even more delicate. Her hair tumbled about her white face in matted tangles. Her thick lashes lay upon her pale cheeks, and her closed eyelids were a translucent violet. How much more of this, he wondered, could that sweet, frail body withstand. She had suffered that nightmare many times over the last three days. Each time, Dominic had hoped that recognition would return to her, but each time, she had seemed to sink back into the depths of a horrible dream.

“Poor wee thing,” Geoffrey crooned as he stood beside Dominic, holding a cool cloth. “Let me sponge her, sir,” he said gently. “You go and rest.”

Dominic took the wet cloth from Geoffs hand. “I’ll do it. She is my responsibility,” he said sharply and gently wiped Maurette’s face and neck.

“Then let me watch her for you,” Geoffrey pleaded. “I can do that as well as you, sir, and you need rest.”

Ben gathered his tools into his bag. “Let him help you, Dominic,” he said. “Take another bunk and sleep. Geoff will let you know if there is any change. I must get to the other injuries.” He faced Dominic squarely. “I want you to get some sleep.”

Dominic simply shook his head. His big shoulders slumped as he sat down heavily on one of the chairs near the bunk.

The other two men looked at each other. They understood, though Dominic’s obstinacy worried them. Dominic had neither slept nor eaten in three days and had disregarded his own injuries, allowing Ben only a cursory examination of them.

“At least let me change the dressings on your hand and wrist, Dominic,” said Ben. “And your chest and shoulder should be rebound.” Ben was deeply concerned about Dominic.

Dominic placed his hand on the table but kept his eyes on Maurette. Ben removed the bandage with efficient speed and examined the welting cuts. Geoff placed a bowl of water on the table, and the doctor washed the injuries. He rubbed a greasy yellow salve into the wounds. Looking up at Dominic quickly to see if the stinging medicine was hurting him, he was disappointed to find no reaction in his patient. Whether Dominic felt pain or not, he was not responding to it. Ben had never seen such remorse in a man. He began to rewrap Dominic’s hand and wrist.

“You could not have prevented the storm, Dominic,” said the doctor with concern. When Dominic did not answer, Ben tried a new tack. “Only the gods could prevent a storm,” he said harshly. He hoped that his tone would inspire anger or even denial in his friend.

Dominic looked up slowly. His eyes were like deep, dark holes in his face. For the first time, Ben and Geoff noted that tears coursed down his roughened cheeks. His voice, when he spoke, was a hoarse whisper. “No,” he said raggedly, “I could not have prevented the storm.” His face was a mask of pain and haunted suffering. “No man has the power to do that. But for Maurette,” he continued haltingly, “I should have been a god.”

Geoff and Ben stared at their captain. Fear and pity were in their hearts and in their eyes as they turned to each other. Finally, Ben looked down and remembered the task at hand. He finished wrapping Dominic’s hand with a tenderness he seldom utilized in doctoring the rough sailors with whom he dealt. Ben was not a hard man, but a pragmatic one, and long ago he had accepted that injury, pain, and death were part and parcel of a man’s life. His heart went out to Dominic Warbrooke, who sat before him now, his muscular body convulsed in sobs.

Ben cursed his ability to tend a surface injury while being helpless in the face of the deep agony of the soul. Placing his hand on Dominic’s shoulder, he spoke gently. “Please let me replace this bandage, Dominic.”

Dominic stood and allowed Ben to examine his chest and shoulder.

A small moan erupted from the depths of the bunk, and the three men riveted their attention on Maurette’s small form. Dominic was the first to move. Ben and Geoff tried to hold him back, but he shrugged them off. Both men feared Maurette’s awakening again into a horrible dimension of a reality they could not fathom.

Dominic lowered himself onto one knee next to the bed and looked down into Maurette’s face. She moaned again and very slowly opened her eyes. She looked into Dominic’s woeful gaze, and recognition showed upon her face. She smiled weakly. Haltingly, she moved her mouth to speak.

“Dominic,” she breathed feebly. Her small white hand came up from the bed, and she reached for his cheek. Laying her palm on the dark stubble that covered his face, she grimaced lightly. “You are hairy,” she whispered with a soft smile.

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

For many hours Maurette slept the peaceful slumber that she needed to mend her shattered mind and body. Ben had assured Dominic that her state of the past three days had not been really sleep at all. Her waking nightmares had sapped her strength and left her emotionally unstrung, and her exposure to the raging elements, even for so short a time, had racked her body unmercifully. She was in a kind of fragile netherworld, he told Dominic, from which she might very well emerge unscathed, but nothing would be left to chance as far as Ben was concerned. He ordered Dominic from the cabin to bathe and rest, for if any lingering effects did show themselves, he wanted Dominic whole to love and care for his Maurette.

Dominic knew that Ben was right, and though he was unaccustomed to praying, he invoked the deity in the fervent hope that Maurette would recover her vibrant spirit and physical vigor.

A delicate luster was returning to her skin, and color was appearing slowly in her cheeks. Ben sat hunched in a chair and watched her. Wrapped in a shawl and reading by a small candle on the large table in the center of the cabin, Ben pushed his glasses onto the bridge of his nose and gazed, without comprehension, at the book he held. He had been with Maurette all night and, as a pale sallow dawn entered the tiny cabin through a porthole, Ben gazed up from his book and regarded his patient.

He knew something of the woman through Dominic’s description of her. For three days, the captain had spoken of her fire, her intelligence, and her strength of character. Ben chuckled to himself. He could not wait to meet this little paragon. She was in excellent physical condition, and all Ben really knew was that the natural resilience of youth would serve her well in the aftermath of the horror she had suffered.

Dominic had been in several times through the night, but with Ben’s assurance that Maurette needed only rest to recover, he had eventually taken a bunk in other quarters and was, Geoff had assured Ben, slumbering soundly.

Ben shivered against the chill that, he felt, was ever present at sea. He rubbed his reddened nose with a linen square he always carried for the purpose, for he was constantly subject to a sniffling ague. The muscles of his neck and shoulders had stiffened throughout his long vigil. Standing up, he moved to the porthole and looked out on the gentle swells of the empty ocean. Thank God, he thought, for the storm’s abeyance. He had seen worse storms in his life, and in his years as ship’s doctor he had seen worse aftermath, but he had never seen his captain, with whom he had sailed for many of those years, in such a vulnerable state. Dominic had been at his lowest ebb even as the storm’s fury had receded. He had been frightened, and Ben could not remember that ever before having been the case.

He moved away from the porthole and sat heavily on one of the wooden chairs. Pulling the shawl closer around his thin shoulders, he tried to read, once again, the tome he had left on the table. The candle was guttering shyly, and the jaundiced dawn afforded little light for his weak eyes.

Abandoning the thought of reading, he pulled off His spectacles, laid his head on the back of his chair, and stretched his lean legs. With eyes closed, he tried to relax his lank frame. Images of the years he had spent with Dominic on the Raven came sailing through his mind.

The captain had been ever bold, ever dauntless as they had prowled the Turkish Main or skimmed the warm waters of the Mediterranean. Ben could see him now, his raven hair lifting in the wild breezes and his skin gilded in the sun, valiantly braving whatever adversity God or man set in his path. In all things Dominic Warbrooke was confident and courageous-in all things but one. What powers had this fragile little lady over the valorous Warbrooke that reduced him to a fearful, troubled ordinary man?

Ben opened his eyes and rolled his head to the side so that he could better contemplate the pretty creature and perhaps better understand her appeal. Her eyes were open, and she was regarding him tranquilly.

“How is Dominic?” she said softly. Her simple words were filled with love, the inquiry connoting deep affection.

Ben smiled gently. “Your first words after all your trials are of our rough, captain,” he said fondly. “‘Tis good to know that he is well loved by one he loves so well.” He stood up slowly and moved to the bunk. Lifting Maurette’s hand, he pulled his shawl more snugly round his frame and sat down next to her. He counted the pulse in her wrist and noted her skin felt cool and dry. Satisfied, he looked down into her clear eyes. “our Dominic is well,” he said. “And from all appearances, you seem so, too. The fever has left. No hellish images haunt your waking?”

Maurette smiled into his kind blue eyes. “Only the image of an unshaven, red-eyed sea captain. Tell me that he has slept, sir, and I shall be cured completely.”

“He sleeps even as w~ speak, dear lady.” Ben spoke through a quiet laughter. “He would only do so, however, on the tidings of your own peaceful slumber. What shall we do with the two of you, if the one’s good health depends so on the other’s?”

“We must need keep them both unscathed, methinks,” said Geoffrey Frobisher as he entered the cabin with a quiet click. He carried a bowl of broth and moved to the bedside. “Our cook, Jase, has prepared this for you, my lady. Will you take some? The old fellow will be hugely elated if I can report your acceptance of his offering.”

Maurette struggled to raise herself, and the two men were quick to assist her. Setting down the bowl of broth, Geoffrey lifted her gently, taking her small shoulders in his large hands, while Ben set pillows in back of her. Geoffrey sat down on the bed next to her and began to spoon the heavy broth between her lips. Ben stood next to him, watching to see that she did not overindulge, for it was obvious by the enthusiasm with which she received the nourishment that she was healthily hungry. She swallowed vigorously and coughed, and Ben was there with a cloth and a warning to both of them that she must use caution in the taking of her first sustenance in four days. They all laughed merrily as some of the broth dribbled down her chin.

“Devour that broth with the dignity befitting a titled lady,” Ben admonished her with mock solemnity, “lest the other members of the crew have it that our worthy captain has brought a tavern wench on board.”

Maurette finished the soup and lay back against the pillows with a satisfied sigh. “Let them think what they will,” she murmured. “At the least, I am no longer a hungry tavern wench.”

Geoff stood and eyed Maurette happily. “I thank the deity that you are well, my lady,” he said softly.

Maurette slanted a glance at him and then at the doctor.

“Neither of you fools me for a moment. ‘Tis quite obvious that my own health or the state of my manners mean very little to either of you.” She splayed a hand to stop their protests. “You needn’t deny it, gentlemen. ‘Tis all too obvious that you care not two pins for me except in the manner that I relate to your captain.” She smiled rakishly. “Your loyalty to that lion-hearted rogue is excessive, and I would know from where it stems.”

Geoffrey set the bowl on the center table and Ben sat in a chair, huddled beneath his shawl. “Does our obvious loyalty dismay you, dear lady?” he said ,gently.

“It warms my heart,” Maurette stated in an equally gently tone. She moved to make herself more comfortable within the thick softness of the pillows. “And as we are to be companions in our loyalty and love for this lofty creature, I suggest that we dispense with formalities. Please, both of you, call me Maurette. How may I call you, sirs?”

Geoffrey laughed his big laugh and bowed low. “I am Geoffrey Frobisher. Please call me Geoff. And this sour-faced, myopic old fellow is Benjamin Tremain. He prefers to be called doctor. So puffed up by that degree he obtained at Oxford is he that he, wears it like a coat of arms. On any given day, he can he found prowling the decks with his ravaged nose in a volume on medicine. No wonder his eyes have weakened to the point of mere pretty blue orbs within his sour face. The candle gutters in the night but the doctor reads on.”

Ben shifted in his chair and eyed the smiling Geoffrey levelly “I do not read every night, Geoff,” he said mildly. “Some nights, when men whom I shall not name have drunk themselves into stupors and fight devils which they implore me to disburse, I play the nursemaid. I ply wet cloths and croon a bit and promise them in motherly tones that the nasty goblins that torment them will be gone on the morrow.”

Geoff reddened and smiled sheepishly as Ben continued. “If I read, ’tis only to discover how grown men so boastful of their prowess, and rightly so, become little frightened boys after a few sips of rum.” He turned to face Maurette, and he winked tartly. “Call me Ben,” he said kindly.

Maurette laughed openly at the verbal jousting. “Thank you, gentlemen, Geoff and Ben,” she said. “Now may I ask once again the stem of your loyalty to your captain?”

Ben settled himself back in his chair and, pulling at his shawl, folded his thin fingers over his chest. “‘Twould be impossible to tell you all, dear Maurette,” he said contemplatively. “What think you, Geoff? Where shall we begin?”

Geoff sat at the table excitedly. “Why do you not tell Maurette of the Turks?”

“Ah,” breathed Ben softly. Though there had been a lifetime of large and lesser events in their years with Dominic Warbrooke, this one stood out in both their minds as one the entire crew remembered with relish. Tales would be retold and the incident relived on moon-washed decks for years to come. It pointed out the excellence with which Dominic’s life and seamanship had both been marked, but it was the first time that the men had seen the true measure of their captain – his tested-and every man aboard had sworn his loyalty and unswerving trust to their captain. Ben smiled now, remembering the day.

“‘Twas a humid afternoon,” he began. “We had been attacked by the Turkish advance. We had known that the waters were unsafe when we entered them, but we were arrogant and unafraid as only young and reckless lads be. Dominic, I believe, was but twenty at the time, and Geoff here was not much less. I was older and wiser, perhaps twenty-five,” he said, his eyes sparkling with merriment, but I, was caught up in the youthful exuberance of our first voyage. I was, even in my maturity, as arrogant as the rest.”

All three laughed at Ben’s self-deprecation. Then Ben Became serious and his voice softened.

“We made a valiant fight against two well-armed and equally arrogant Turkish crews. We were subdued but undaunted until the fateful moment when, after boarding our ship, the Turks finally captured our captain. They brought him to the mainsail, and we watched in horror as they stripped him of his shirt. To a man, we knew what was to come, They tied him to the mast.”

Ben looked over and regarded Geoff. “Do you remember how he looked, Geoff?” Geoff nodded as Ben continued.

“He was so young and yet so brave. Lashed to the main mast, he still stood tall and proudly defiant. Some of us cried to see him thus.”

Both men lowered their eyes and it was many moments before Ben was able to continue.

“Dominic’s voice rose proudly over the general din of those voracious Turks. He seemed unaware of, or at least unperturbed by, the vicious curling knives that were being readied to make their agonizing cuts into his flesh. I remember his words exactly. ”Tis a noble victory that you enjoy,’ he snarled at them.

“The despicable bastards laughed. ‘You are many, and you pit your unworthy hordes against but one.’ Again they laughed, but Dominic continued. ‘You captains have before you the opportunity to ennoble this occasion beyond the plebeian aspects to which it has been reduced,’ His voice was very strong, stronger than mine would have been under the circumstances, and his tormentors stopped laughing.”

“The Turks have long hated their reputation as barbarians and, in the face of Dominic’s lordly disdain of his subjugation, they recognized their own commonness, I suppose. They were now listening. I recall the relief I felt when the two executioners were ordered to cease their preparations.”

“‘What do you suggest?’ one captain shouted. And I remember the hush that fell over the ship. ‘I propose a duel to the death,’ Dominic said with the most gentlemanly of nods.”

Geoffrey laughed. “You’d have thought him in God’s own drawing room, the way he spoke. He was so polite, so fashionably bloody proper was he.”

“He was that,” said Ben. “Dominic continued in that same civilized tone. ‘I offer myself as contestant to both you captains and to any ten men of your choosing; I shall fight you each, one at a time, one after the other.’ The captains glared at Dominic. ‘And if you win?’ asked one, and both crews rewarded his inquiry with hoots of laughter. The Turks could not believe that their captain could entertain such a ludicrous outcome. But we knew better. We laughed because that bloody Turk was scared, and he showed it. ‘If I win,’ Dominic said, you leave our ship and my men to their freedom.’ The Turks pondered this for a moment. ‘And what of their captain?’ one of them said. ‘Do what you will with me, but free my men, and I shall count the bargain fairly disposed. My men shall take word back to our queen that you are gentlemen.’

“The captains spoke quietly for a few moments. Our crew waited in silence. We were mobilized. For myself the battle was already won. I knew that no matter the outcome of this poor excuse for justice, I would not accept a passive death. I could feel the resolve that cut through the crew, like a sharp blade.

“One of the Turkish captains advanced toward Dominic. He smiled, I remember. I had never seen such cruelty in the face of a smiling man. ‘It shall be done,’ he said so softly that we had to strain to hear his words. There was a mighty roar of approbation from the men standing on the deck. The Turkish sailors offered their approval only because they hoped to see the arrogant English captain torn to pieces by their chosen assailants. “There is one last point I would make,’ Dominic said. ‘Your men are to lay down their arms while the duel progresses. Only the swordsmen may carry weapons. Is that agreed?’ The Turkish captain looked around. As our crew was chained, the man agreed.

“Dominic was unlashed and led to the foredeck where he was handed a sword. The sun was hot that day, and even the soft breezes did nothing to cool the humid air. Dominic stood and faced his first opponent. ‘Twas an easy victory, and the second went down as quickly as the first. As the day progressed and Dominic laid low six men, the Turks became unnerved. His boldness in the lace of their intended cruelty had shaken those men to their roots. They eyed their weapons, which had been piled midship, nervously. It went through the men that, in his travels, Dominic had accumulated some secret knowledge, some prowess of which they were unaware, for use in combat.

“Even to seasoned mariners, the great wilderness that lies beyond the charted seas holds awesome secrets.” Ben grinned broadly. “We are the most superstitious of men, Maurette.” He shook his head and shared a brief chuckle with Geoff before continuing.

“After the seventh, eighth, and ninth savage was beaten by our captain, the tenth man balked when it came his turn. He moved toward Dominic with almost slavish appeal in his eyes. Dominic was fatigued, but, when the man faced him, he became energized. The dog-faced Turk lost his weapon early on and, rather than be run through, ran screaming to the rail and dived into the ocean.” Geoff and Ben laughed at the recollection. “We often wonder among ourselves what became of the bloody, white-livered poltroon. To this day we congratulate his decision,” Ben said gaily. Then he continued, and his voice became hard, though his volume decreased with the solemnity of his words.

“Dominic’s flesh was sheathed in sweat. He glistened in the setting sun. His breathing was coming hard and, as ship’s doctor, I requested a cloth for his bead so that the perspiration would not run into his eyes. I had insisted that they allow him water during the afternoon, which they did, but cautioned him to drink sparingly. Dominic was fighting his fatigue very hard now. He was not through yet, however. He still had the two captains to fight, and my body and soul ached for him. I have seen much brutality in my time, Maurette, and I saw the worst of it that day, but what happened next turned my stomach to pap.

“The two Turkish captains were conferring away from the rest of their men. They eyed him over their shoulders and were most circumspect in their discussion. I had been allowed my freedom temporarily so that I could tend to Dominic. He had not been cut to any significant degree, but a few superficial wounds were bleeding sufficiently for the captains to allow the application of bandages. I was bemused by their generosity until I realized within a few moments what they were saving him for. The two men now came toward us. “You are no lily-skinned gentleman seaman,’ one said, and his voice was almost silky. ‘I have devised a real test for you. You have killed ten men. We have watched the slaughter with a great interest and, I must admit, great admiration. But,’ he added, ‘in our country, the real test of a man comes when his powers have waned. If he can survive the final and most arduous test, then he is truly a man.’ The little mustachioed bastard was smiling, and such evil lurked in that smile that I nearly vomited. He held a sword, and the other captain held a sword, and suddenly my heart lurched into my throat.

‘I will not allow this,’ I said.. The soils of diseased bitches were planning a dual assault. They were both going to fight him at the same time. I stood my ground, and thought they were both somewhat taller than I, I faced them with all the indignation that I felt at their dastardly contrivance. I started to say something else, I don’t remember what, when I felt a sickening pain on the side of my head. One of the men had swatted me as though I were a pesky bug in his way, and I went sprawling to the deck. Two sailors dragged me back to the line of men and chained me once more. I began to scream wildly at the unfairness of the contest, and the crew joined me in hoots of derision for our tormentors. Our defiance was rewarded with kicks and blows and equally derisive insults. I had never in my life, have never known since, such hatred. I could see in the eyes of the other men that their abhorrence equaled my own. The abomination that was about to happen had confederated us, and though we were separate individuals chained shoulder to shoulder on that deck we became in that instant one man.

“We watched with hate-filled horror as three swords were raised. Three men fought barbarously. Two against the one. Dominic was a ravening killer. He gave those bloody snakes in the grass no quarter. Dominic advanced and lunged with every ounce of tenacity that was in his soul.” Ben was leaning now with his arms on his knees. He pressed forward. “Dominic’s disadvantage was of very little use to those malevolent Turks. His aggression was all powerful. Time and time again he drew their foul blood, and they drew none of his. Their resistance faltered. In the face of Dominic’s great strength as well as his unyielding aggression, they were befuddled and unstrung. They could not gain the time they needed to plan out an adequate defense against the onslaught of Dominic’s combative sword.”

Ben paused for breath. He lowered his eyes. “I saw the blood spurting from Dominic’s shoulder. It ran in terrible gushing rivers down his sweat-streaked arm. The others must have seen it at the same time, for we moved as one. Our arms chained at the wrists in front of us, we became one killing vinculum. We advanced upon the Turks with a rapacious retaliation that both surprised and, I would imagine, horrified them. I will not say, however, that that was our advantage, for we could not be stopped. When men care nothing for their own lives, they are invincible. We hit and gouged and stomped as we encircled our enemy. With every ounce of the monstrous hate that had been building in us, we subdued them.

“The two Turkish captains lay on the bloody deck, one dead and one dying. Dominic stood over the one who remained alive. ‘Take your dead and go back to your ship,’ Dominic said, holding his blade to the man’s throat. The men of our crew urged Dominic to run him through, but he would not. ‘He will be dead before his men have carried him to his own ship,’ he said. And when his men lifted him, we heard the terrible low gurgle that told us that our captain had been right.”

Ben leaned back in his chair. “The setting sun had left a gilded rim of light on the horizon. In that golden twilight, Dominic moved to the foredeck and raised his sword arm. As one, we let out a mighty roar of victory. We are told,” he said softly, “That roar reached our home shores for when we returned, our queen dubbed our captain the ‘Silver Raven.'”

“There is not a man among us who would not die for him,” Ben finished in a hushed voice.

Maurette shuddered in the silence that followed Ben’s tale. She could not relate the tender lover she knew to the ferocious killer that Ben had described. She drew the blankets to her chest, and Geoffrey rose quickly to assist her. He seemed to sense her thoughts.

“Do not fear little Maurette, you will never see that side of our captain,” he said tenderly.

“I only spoke of this, child, because you inquired as to the stem of our loyalty to Dominic,” Ben said, rising and standing over her.

Very low in her chest, a soft laugh began. She remembered a fiery little eighteen-year-old girl who had seen nothing of life beyond the end of her nose. That defiant dansel had stood in arrogant belligerence before the Silver Raven and challenged him to a duel. Maurette’s laughter bubbled up. She closed her eyes, and tears of mirth spilled over her silken lashed to pour down her cheeks.

“I am grateful that you have told me this,” she said. Both men eyed her questioningly as she made an attempt to compose herself.

“I shall tell you all about it some day, my friends. You shall not believe it when I do.” She shook her head in self-deprecation. “You shall simply not believe it.”

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER NINETEEN

During the next few days of the crossing, Maurette regained her strength with surprising speed. She was able, on the second day of her recovery to walk the deck. In fact, Ben had insisted upon the activity. He accompanied her, of course, on the chance that her weakened condition combined with her exposure to the open sea might bring back the terrors of her recent visions of the storm.

Watching her carefully, he kept a proprietary hold on her elbow as they moved companionably over the lightly rolling deck. Maurette, bundled in a woolen cloak of sapphire blue with a full hood drawn up over her amplitude of redish-blond curls, glided over the sun-drenched deck, smiling and nodding to the roughened sailors, who nodded and smiled back as they continued with their work. Stern glances from Ben reminded them not to gawk at the enchanting figure of their captain’s lady.

“I really do not think I need this heavy cloak,” Maurette said as they moved to the rail to pause in their walk. Ben hid a small smile.

“Yes, you do, my lady,” he said pointedly. “But I will allow you to remove the hood.”

Maurette nodded, and her thanks was given with the arch of a well-shaped brow. Wispy tendrils loosened by the disarrangement of her hood floated out to frame her small pale face in a sweetly curling nubile. Her blue cloak was nearly the same color as the shimmering clear sky arching so serenely above them. One would not believe that the felicitous blue dome had, less than a week earlier, scowled in wrathful, self-indulgent cruelty.

Ben drew his shawl tightly around his shoulders and swiped at his dripping nose with the linen cloth that he kept always at the ready.

Maurette was contemplating the span of rolling, frothy ocean, the white spume topping the watery curls, when she heard Ben’s sniffle. She regarded him and wondered at his ague on such a fine, clear day. In truth, there was much to wonder at about this small, dapper man. He had quiet eyes that were nevertheless filled with the clarity of deep intelligence. His forehead was high, and his weathered skin, was pale, as though he spent a great deal of time indoors. Maurette knew this to be true. She had seen him poring over his heavy volumes in Dominic’s cabin as he had patiently awaited her recovery, or in his own cabin, on deck, or in the galley. Wherever Ben passed time, it seemed that he was not without a venerable, dog-eared tome. Books were not a common sight in 1587 outside of the universities or the houses of the very rich, and so it was rare to see a man study with such obsessive and constant devotion, especially in the climate of an adventure-tossed ship at sea. The tiny squint that made curling crinkles around his eyes was probably the result of that passion, for he rarely smiled or showed any emotion to speak of. It was this very constancy that inspired Maurette’s confidence in his gentle manner.

Her piquant regard drew his attention. “How is it with you, little noblewoman?” he said gently. “You are not fatigued, are you?”

“I am fine, Ben,” Maurette said. “But I am pressed with questions.”

Ben nodded, inviting her inquiry. “You wonder at my presence here,” he said evenly.

“I do, Ben.”

“‘Tis really no mystery,” he said, looking out over the water. “I met Dominic many years ago at Oxford.”

“Dominic at Oxford?” Maurette gaped.

Ben smiled knowingly. “That rough barbarous buccaneer that we know as the Silver Raven spent two years prowling those hallowed halls.”

“I did not know,” Maurette said, stunned.

“Indeed he did, though neither of us was the best of students. But I humbly admit to being the better of the two. And then, for a time, I was personal physician to Dominic’s father. He, too, was a man of the sea. He was what is disdainfully refereed to as a ‘gentleman seaman,’ though you must trust me when I say that the designation was an unfair one. ‘Tis an abomination to a seasoned mariner to sail with a captain who is so named, and Dominic and I have believed that some enemy, or disgruntled sailor, called him that. The designation was well taken because Terrence Warbrooke was very rich. He had his own shipyard, you see, and had many interests outside of sailing the seas. Dominic’s whole life has been lived to thwart the same being said of him. He is a complete man of the sea, or has been up to now.”

Ben chanced a look at Maurette. She was gazing out over the sapphire swells.

“As to my meeting Dominic,” Ben continued, “’twas at school, as I have mentioned. I was an Oxford lad who ne’er ought to have been there. ‘Twas recommended by my schoolmaster that, as a bright lad, I should attend. My father was poor but very proud and dishonored by my lack of manly talents. I could neither. ride-I am, in truth, inordinately afraid of horses-nor tool leather, or chop wood, nor hold my own in a manly debate. And I tended to enjoy my Latin grammar to an abnormal degree. And so when it was recommended to my father that I join the university, he felt, I suppose, that he had at last found a place for me. ‘Twas not the place he. would have envisioned for a son of his. Ben paused, lost in his own deep thoughts.

Turning again to Maurette, Ben continued. He was a strapping bullock of a man, my father, who took great pride in his manly brawn, and early on he had taken me with him to the taverns and meeting places in the hope that I would pick up the stuff of which men of my father’s ilk were made. Alas,” Ben smiled softly, “‘Twas not to be. And so to Oxford I was borne.

“Dominic depended a great deal on me in those days. We had formed an immediate friendship when I exposed To my dream of going to sea-for it was a dream I had always held-and we aided each other through the pompous preachings of our pedagogues. I learned and then taught him.”

“‘Twas not easy going, for just when Ovid was making sense to one of us, the sea would interrupt. One of us would begin to dream aloud of sailing out to explore the unchartered expanse of the wilderness ocean. Our last spring at school was to be the awakening of the passage to our dream.”

“I remember well the day. I had visited Ravenshead at the insistence of Dominic’s sister Lydia. As a young widow, she had just taken position as chatelaine of the great castle. She was concerned for their father’s health and asked that Dominic return with a doctor to look at the old man. I went and found him perfectly well.”

“‘Twas on the return from that visit that we toured his father’s shipyard outside London. An unnamed galleon was idling at the Southwark harbor. We saw her and knew our destiny. ‘Twas one of those bleak days that often occurs in April. The wind was high, and the sky a rolling gray. We boarded the little galleon, and Dominic was exuberant as we explored every spar and gunwale. I was merely freezing as I huddled in my cloak. I remember telling him that I would go anywhere with him if he would but build a fire to warm my toes.” Ben chuckled at the memory and snuggled deeper into his shawl, and wiped at his dripping nose.

“My own love of-or fascination with-the sea had come through my studies of Master Wagenaer’s maps. I had no idea of the reality of a voyage on the open sea. I had no idea ‘twould be so cold,” he said glumly, “and so bone piercingly damp. But I was conjoined. We named the vessel Raven, and by the end of that summer I was feeling the cold blown foam of untamed oceans upon my face.” He turned and faced Maurette. In his eyes there was a mixture of pride and resignation.

“I have never wavered in my loyalty to Dominic Warbrooke and our dream, but I have been profoundly thankful each time we settled into a harbor and rowed ashore to a fire-lit common room.”

Maurette laughed lightly but her eyes were dark with questions. “Can you tell me of Dominic’s father?” she said.

Ben shook his head sadly. He was leaning on one elbow on the rail. “He was a proud and good man and died two years ago.” Turning away from Maurette, he once more gazed out upon the empty ocean. “Lydia tells us it was suicide. She describes a lonely windswept night when Terrence had become exceedingly despondent.” His voice caught, and he lowered his head. “She says he jumped from a high parapet onto the rocky shoals below the Castle Ravenshead.”

“And you do not believe her?”

“I do not know, Maurette,” he said unhappily. “I do not know.”

Maurette’s heart went out to the dear little man at her side and to Dominic for he had never told her of this tragedy in his life. She would ask him of it one day. In the meantime there were other questions on her mind.

“Tell me about Dominic. Tell me of his life as a seaman.”

Ben turned back to her. He seemed glad of the change of subject. His eyes brightened. “I have told you only a very small-though exceedingly important-part of Dominic’s life at sea. After our Turkish adventure, he was commissioned by the queen for a very important mission. Sir Francis Drake was to attempt a voyage that would take him round the world. He wanted only the best of men to join him, and so, because of his proven bravery and indomitable strength, Dominic was chosen.

“I very sadly bid our captain farewell but vowed to return to him when the voyage was over I went to Ravenshead to see to Dominic’s father and to study what Lydia termed his ‘ailing mind,’ and the other men turned to work at sea or on land. I waited for three long years, and when Dominic returned and had been honored by the queen, we regrouped. There was not a man missing from our original crew.

“I never wondered at Dominic’s popularity as a captain. He battled his father’s onerous designation of ‘gentleman seaman’ with such ferocity. He drew and hauled with the mariners and worked with his men in all situations. As you have gleaned, he has never hidden from adversity.”

Maurette’s eyebrows quirked. “And what of this unbridled cruelty of his that we have so often heard about back home?”

Ben laughed openly for the first time since Maurette had known him. “Our captain’s only cruelty is that he makes us work as hard as he.”

“‘Tis, in truth, a cruel job you possess, Doctor Tremain,” a mild voice said from behind them. Dominic moved to Maurette and drew her to him. “How fare you, little one?” he said softly into Maurette’s ear. Then he glanced up at Ben. “Have you even thought to feed out little patient?” he said, arching an eyebrow.

Maurette laughed. “Oh, Dominic, if this man, in collusion, I suspect, with the charming old Jase of yours, forces any more food on me, I shall be as fat an old boar. Please allow me to be content with dinner tonight,” she pleaded.

“‘Tis true, Dominic,” Ben said. “Your Maurette may just make us short on our food supply, if she takes another meal.”

Maurette regarded Ben haughtily. “My doctor,” she said archly, “has ordered me to build up my strength. ‘Tis only for him I satisfy my appetite.” All three of them laughed.

“In any event,” said Dominic, “we shall arrive at Ravenshead on the morrow. Our food supply is in no real danger.”

At his words, Maurette’s good humor palled. She kept her smile, but it hid a sinking heart. It was at Ravenshead that she would meet the resplendent Lydia. Though she had not heard a great deal about her, she envisioned her to be most formidable in both her appearance and her attitude. She was the chatelaine of one of the greatest castles in all Britannia. Maurette knew that she would be haughty and arrogant. She only hoped that she would not be cruel.

The deck was awash with blue-gray shadows by the time Maurette and Dominic joined the crew for the evening meal. Lamps had been lit, and small golden rounds of light glimmered like sea-faring fireflies. A festive atmosphere prevailed as stores of ale were uncorked. The diners feasted on corncakes and gravy. Cheese and pork sausages had been roasted, and huge bowls of fruit were offered. Jase insisted upon everyone eating heartily as he determined that the galley needed to be emptied that night.

Several of the men produced musical instruments, and Maurette was very much in demand as a dancing partner. Roger Hampton, the scruffy helmsman, was the first to ask her. He danced stiffly as though trying to recall the movements that even in his youth had not been particularly familiar to him. Maurette twirled on the rolling deck with old Jase and with Geoffrey Frooisher. It was well past the midnight hour when one lonely flute breathed its sweet notes over the whispering waves of the quiet ocean and Dominic and Maurette said good night to the crew. The couple moved down the companionway and into their softly lit cabin.

Dominic’s eyes never left her as he closed the door with a soft click. He moved slowly toward her, and she felt that his smoky gray gaze would swallow her. He pushed the cloak from her shoulders and let it fall to the deck. Then, without words he unfastened the lacings of her gown and drew it back and down over her shoulders. His lips came down in butterfly kisses over her neck.

“Is it all right?” she gasped breathlessly.

Dominic looked up slowly. “Al’ right?” he asked.

“k….. Ben,” she – haltingly.

“Ben,” he stated flatly.

Maurette was sorry she had brought it up, but there was nothing for it but to bring it out. “So soon after my recovery,” she explained in a small voice.

Dominic smiled, and his eyes became chips of silvered ice. “Must I needs get a note from your physician to claim my rights?” he asked silkily.

“No, Dominic,” Maurette said hurriedly. “‘Tis only that-”

“Never imagine that you may refuse me, Maurette,” Dominic grated. He held her shoulders tightly in his big hands and looked down at her with an almost cold determination.

“I was not refusing,. Dominic,” she breathed.

“Ben has had you long enough. ‘Tis my turn.” he said, snapping her toward him.

Dominic’s mouth came down on hers, and she felt her nearly exposed breasts flatten against the granite hardness of his chest. With an unyielding hunger, he rained demanding kisses over her tender flesh. His arm snaked out, and he lifted her and carried her to the bed. As he looked down upon her, she shivered at the possessive menace she found in his pewter-glossed eyes. He was like a ravening bird of prey who guards his captured quarry with warlike surveillance.

“You are mine, Maurette,” he snarled. “Never forget that.” His lips came down on the tender pinkened tips of her breasts where they strained over the ridge of her gown. She felt them harden at the plucking insistence of his mouth and tongue. He arched her to him, and her head fell back, exposing to his searching voracity the most succulent of her soft flesh. With avaricious savagery he ripped at the bodice of her gown, exposing the lushness of her belly. Her flesh quivered as he ravaged her with his unrelenting hunger. Her breath came in ragged gasps. He tore the remnants of her gown from her body and stood over her to remove his own clothing.

She gaped in horror at the full landscape of his virile form. He advanced and covered her with his manly passion. Despite her terror, Maurette found her throbbing flesh aching to receive him. Her body writhed beneath the brutal assault of his rapacious need. She clung to him as he extended himself over her. She felt his hot breath in her ear as he cradled the back of her head with one hand and lifted her buttocks with the other. For all his merciless aggression, he entered her gently. His tenderly forceful thrusts ignited Maurette’s own flaming passion, and she received him with a hunger of her own.

A conflagration of stars shattered and cascaded over her, their hot little flames licking at the core of her desire. The blossom of her womanhood exploded, and the life-giving juices pulsed out and filled her soul with a final, rapturous puissance.

Maurette lay quietly in the warm shadows of her sated desires. Dominic’s arm enfolded her, and he stroked her beneath the covers that he had drawn up over the two of them to ward off the chili of ebbing passion.

“I did not mean to take you so, little one,” he breathed into her ear “But you fire me to madness with your extravagant beauty. And,” he said, raising himself over her, “I appear to he a jealous lover.” A small smile quirked his lips. “I have never been so with any other woman.”

Maurette hid a smile of her own. “‘Tis an ‘honor,”‘ she said flatly, “that I shall have to endure; methinks, until you have been educated to the fact that I am honor-bound to adore you.”

“Only honor binds you, sweet?” he asked pettishly.

Maurette lifted her fingertips to his face and brushed the bronzed planes tenderly. “Oh, yes,’, she said gently, “and love.”

Dominic embraced her, and with her head resting on his should, he fell into a deep slumber. Maurette felt his even breathing and the slow pounding of his heart against her. She rolled contentedly onto her side. Her secret knowledge that he had taken her, but that she had also taken him, warmed her into the dark hours of the night.

Half-waking dreams enfolded her. Questions whirled in the soft nether-land of the darkness. On the morrow, Maurette’s life would alter immutably. She wondered what life would he like at Ravenshead, that vast and looming stone and ‘sea-washed presence. Would she be no more than a guest in Lydia’s household? And what of Lydia? Maurette wondered at Ben’s assessment of Dominic’s father’s death. Did he not trust the great chatelaine?

Maurette’s questions went unanswered as she gave herself to slumber just as a pale, predawn light crept into the cabin.

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER TWENTY

Like a ship, cresting and then vanishing across a softly swelling sea, the Castle Ravenshead appeared and then vanished as the party of travelers rode overland in a carriage from the decks of the Raven. With each incline of the land, the castle could be viewed in all its ancient splendor, and then, with the land’s declivity, it disappeared from view, only to reappear once again. Each time it appeared, it seemed not only larger to Maurette but more imposing, changing shape and even color. New turrets appeared and towers. Maurette squinted against the afternoon sunlight to impress the image of the castle in her mind. But the pulsating, fluctuating, ever changing image only appeared and disappeared in spectral derangement.

As the great Warbrooke carriage wheeled up the mountainous path that led to the curtain wall of the edifice, the atmosphere inside the carriage became more and more strained. Geoffrey and Ben had attended Maurette and Dominlc on the overland journey, and Geoffrey had kept up an uninterrupted flow of happy conversation until the last few miles when they had begun the winding climb from the sea.

The Castle Ravenshead loomed atop a massive peak overlooking the ocean on all three sides. A drop of sheer, sea-smashed rocks fell on one side of the carriage to the pounding, rolling waters of a gray cove. The cove was surrounded by more jagged rock, and all that one could see, if one looked down, was a turbulent abyss of boiling vapor. The jagged white tops of the waves that cut through the mist looked as fearsome and sharp as the craggy rock upon which they beat.

Maurette drew a calming breath. She tore her gaze from the violence of her surroundings and pushed herself back against the cushioned seat and laid her head against the padded pillow of the headrest. After long moments, in which the crunch of the carriage wheels was the only sound apart from the crashing waves and the roar of the wind, she felt sufficiently composed to speak.

“There is a fearsome beauty here. ‘Tis almost like the dawn of creation,” she said in a small voice. “This is truly an adventure for me,” she added, attempting to lighten her voice with the thrill of discovery.

Ben glanced at her from across the coach. His eyes beneath his drawn brows were filled with understanding. He gazed ruefully out through a spume-clouded window. The sheering gray rocks offered no solace as they descended down into the convulsing vaporous maelstrom below. The small but vital Maurette would either be swallowed up by the shapeless void of her barbarous surroundings, or she would conquer it. Looking again into her determined eyes, he saw fear and resolve warring in their lavender depths. He prayed that she was equal to the challenge of this unaccustomed and ungentle miasma of nature’s cruelty.

Geoffrey was chuckling softly. “You have a most enchanting way of putting things, Maurette,” he said. “You call this the dawn of creation; I call it the dawn of hell. This place would wither the stamina of the heartiest adventurer.”

Dominic moved his arm round her shoulders and eyed his friend levelly. “‘Tis our home, Geoff,” he said quietly.

Geoffrey was immediately chagrined. “‘Tis that, Captain, and I meant no offense,” he said quickly. “‘Tis only that-”

Maurette’s gentle laughter interrupted him. “‘Tis only that a superstitious mariner sees danger and imagines demons where none exists.”

“Well aimed, my lady,” said Geoffrey good-naturedly.

An unsettling silence filled the coach as it continued up the winding road.

Dominic was lost in his own thoughts. In silence he reflected on Geoffrey’s words. “the dawn of hell,” he had called this place. Perhaps it seemed like that to some, but it had been home to the house of Warbrooke for over four-hundred years. It was, for Dominic, a renewal each time he entered the estate. His strength and his honor came from here. Everything that he was, was encompassed in the thick walls of Ravenshead.

For all her sweet amiability and her courage, Maurette was, he knew, frightened. But Dominic had felt that this was the only course for them to take. In London, where the more narrow-minded of the gentry were scandalized by the circumstances of their relationship, she would have been the victim of cruel gossip. Beyond that, the isolation here would give the two of them the much-needed privacy to sort out their feelings for each other. Dominic glanced over at Maurette’s piquant profile. He wondered how in hell, in one year’s time, he would be able to force himself to put her. out of his life. This darling, daring little creature had already ensconced herself in his soul. He knew, however, that he must harden himself to the inevitable. He was incapable of commitment to any woman, even Maurette.

Finally, the carriage turned onto the causeway of the castle. Beneath that narrow road a deep pit ran the length and breath of the castle. Though it had hardly been needed, Henry Plantagenet had, in the twelfth century allowed no margin for failure when he built this castle as a stronghold against the warlike Scots, and the Castle Ravenshead was as well protected as any fortress of the time. The coach crept across the narrow causeway and halted before a massive portcullis. Great ironwork bars were slowly and laboriously raised by a windlass overhead, and the carriage rolled beneath it into an expansive courtyard. The portcullis clanked shut behind the vehicle as it progressed to the entrance of the castle inside the battlements.

Maurette felt very small and suspended in time as she viewed her new home. The stone-column entrance was surmounted by lofty towers that pierced the fading gray light of the late afternoon sky. Maurette stepped down from the coach and gazed for long moments at the stone ramparts soaring above her, impenetrable and imposing. She turned to look back from where they had come. There was not the slightest view of the outside world behind her. That wide world seemed gone to her forever, and only the pounding rage of the ocean on the shoals surrounding the castle reminded her that it had ever existed. This inner world of stone and sky and the sound of the sea would become Maurette’s only reality. She shuddered involuntarily and placed her hand on Dominic’s proffered arm. Together they mounted the craggy steps to the great hall.

Inside, they were greeted by a hundred men and women who served the needs of the great house. They bowed and curtseyed at their entrance. Maurette offered her own grave curtsy as a tall thin man moved away from the throng of servants. He advanced to stand before Dominic and Maurette with an air of ownership.

He bowed stiffly before Maurette. “Welcome to the Castle Rasenshead, my lady,” he said. “‘Tis with abiding humility that we offer you our services.” He arched an eyebrow. It was obvious that his own humility was verbal only. At his glance over his thin shoulder, the household once again offered its obeisance. Maurette nodded and tried to smile. Dominic encircled her waist with one arm.

“This is Jonathan,” he said, offering Maurette a small sardonic smile. As he led Maurette down the hall to meet the others, he added, “The officious exterior hides nothing more than an overweening superciliousness.”

Maurette sfifled a giggle, and extricating herself from Dominic’s protective embrace, she stepped into the circle of men and women who had come to greet her. Unused to such personal notice, the servants were surprised and delighted as she passed among them. Offering her hand, she said to one, “I am happy to greet you,” and to another, “‘Tis with great pleasure that I join this household.” To still another, she commented upon the cleanliness of the livery. Maurette could not have known that this inspired compliment had been delivered to a much put-upon and now profoundly grateful laundress. To each servant she made a special and often personal statement.

Abashed and infinitely disapproving, the tall Jonathan remained rigidly stolid as Maurette moved gracefully among the servants. He sniffed in disapprobation as she cupped the chin of a small frightened girl and gazed kindly into her large brown eyes.

“Have I been assigned a tiring woman as yet?” she inquired, keeping her eyes on the child.

Jonathan twisted his cramped neck in an imperceptible warning to the young girl. “You have not, Your Ladyship. We thought to await your arrival, on the chance that you had brought your servant.”

Dominic regarded Jonathan with a level gaze. “We informed you of our lady’s need,”. he said sternly.

Maurette straightened. She regarded Jonathan through Her silken lashes. “‘Tis all right, Dominic,” she said Evenly, “I have not brought my own servant, Jonathan. Alas, my tiring woman is of an age, and we thought it best that she abide at my family home. I thought to enlist the service of a woman here at Castle Rayenshead.”

“We have many excellent women here,” said Jonathan, lifting his nose in disdain. “I shall see to your comfort immediately on dismissal of the servants,” he added haughtily.

“I shall see to my own comfort … in this case, Jonathan,” Maurette said pointedly. Maurette drew the girl in front of her. “See that she is properly attired and sent to my suite immediately. She is to begin unpacking my things as soon as she is turned out to my satisfaction.” Maurette regarded Jonathan with her most radiant smile.

“I do not think-this child, my lady-is by no means-”

“I shall expect her to be fully at ease in her new role.” She regarded the girl expectantly “Can you not complete this task with grace, young lady?” Maurette said gently. The girl nodded in wild excitement. She smiled gratefully up at Maurette and, in a warm rush of adoration, hugged her new mistress. The servants stiffened in fear for the girl but relaxed at Maurette’s tinkling laughter. “We shall get along just fine,” she said gaily, “If you do not crush my gowns each time I do you a turn.” She held the girl away from her.

“Now you must go and ready yourself for the noble task you undertake. You must wash your hair to the glisten and clean your fingernail’s and-” The girl interrupted Maurette by holding out a pair of very clean hands. Maurette looked appropriately impressed.

“That is well, but there is more. Your face must be polished.” The girl held up her immaculately scrubbed face for inspection. “Your shoes must be shined, and they are I see, and your ears must be scrubbed.” The girl looked downcast.

“Ah,” said Maurette. “But surely there is soap and water about.” The girl nodded vigorously. “Then go and use it.” said Maurette happily, “and meet me in my chamber within the hour.”

The girl rushed off but returned almost immediately to place an adoring kiss on the hand of the beautiful new mistress. The crowd of servants tittered behind their hands.

Maurette turned back to Jonathan. That stiff-shouldered creature was flushed with disapproval, but he held his tongue. “I am sure,” she said solemnly, that I will enjoy your able assistance on any number of occasions, dear Jonathan, but in this case, I trust only my own judgment.” She moved back to Dominic and smiled gaily into his eyes.

Geoffrey and Ben had stood just apart from the proceedings and now eyed each other. “The chit is not unused to handling servants,” said Ben through a small smile. Geoffrey nodded and stifled a deep laugh.

It was at that moment that a harsh clearing of a throat was heard, and heads turned to note a tall, lean woman standing at the edge of the crowd.

“My dear Lydia,” Dominic said as he moved to the woman’s side. Maurette stayed where she was, for though Dominic had called the woman Lydia, she could not imagine that this raw-boned creature dressed in a simple muslin gown covered by a stained apron was the Lydia of her visions. She was much taller than Maurette and, at the moment, seemed to be wearing an entire garden. She kept tucking at a wisp of hair that fell from her haphazardly upswept coif.

As Dominic drew the woman forward, she said in a rich, warm voice. “This must be your dear Maurette. I am Lydia, child.”

Maurette made her deepest curtsy.

Lydia lifted her by one elbow and offered a bony hand in greeting. “I would offer a curtsy myself,” she said gently, “but I have been all day covering my rosebushes, and, to be absolutely frank, my back is killing me.”

Maurette looked up in astonishment. Her brilliant eyes were wide with perplexity.

“And to add further frankness to our first meeting, I have not showed a leg in more than ten years. I have no idea if I still could.” Lydia laughed heartily.

Maurette gave her hand in the simple greeting and smiled faintly. She hardly knew what to make of this big, ungainly, and friendly woman. “‘Tis of no consequence,” she said in bemusement.

“Please forgive me for not being here to greet you.” said Lydia with a withering glare at Jonathan. “I was to be informed directly upon your arrival.” Her gaze on Jonathan did not waver. “We might have avoided a most unpleasant turn of fortune had I been here.” She turned her regard on Maurette. “The child you have chosen, my dear, is a troublemaker, and Jonathan knows this. She is never allowed beyond the servants’ quarters.” Lydia smiled genially. “You would never have met the girl, you see, if not for Jonathan’s laxity where it concerns his duties in this household.”

“Well, then,” said Maurette with her own small smile, “’tis my good fortune that your Jonathan slackened his vigilance at least for this one day.”

Lydia regarded Maurette with a gaze that the younger woman noted was not unlike Dominic’s for its silver intensity. “We wish your stay here to be a pleasant one, dear Lady Maurette. We do not want it spoiled by a guttersnipe who will cause you unending travail. I shall see to a more suitable tiring woman in the morn,” she finished peremptorily.

“I would like the opportunity to train the child,” said Maurette hesitantly, not wishing to prolong this obvious stand-off with the lady of the house “If she becomes a burden, I shall certainly apprise you of that circumstance.”

“Nonsense,” stated Lydia. “The child goes back to the servants’ quarters, and she is not,”-here she targeted Jonathan, and her voice became acid- “I repeat, not to be allowed among our guests ever again.”

Maurette felt her ire rise quickly, but she repressed an anger that she knew would be unseemly at her first meeting with Dominic’s sister. “I wish you would allow me to engage the child on a trial basis,” she said and appealed to Dominic with her eyes. He merely smiled indulgently at Lydia.

“The two of you would do well to continue this discussion at a later time, in private,” he said evenly. Then he regarded Maurette. “Lydia has run this house for ten years with no interference from anyone. I see no reason to question her methods now.”

Maurette stiffened. “May I engage the girl until I choose a more suitable woman?” she said, arching an eyebrow.

Dominic gazed amiably at Lydia. “Do you not think that a fair exchange, sister?” he asked. “This bickering could go on all night, and I am sorely in need of rest.”

Lydia nodded. “Whatever you say, brother,” she said, her shoulders rearing back. “I too would rather not confront this issue in front of the entire household.” Her eyes narrowed on Maurette. “We shall speak of this at another time, my lady.”

Lydia’s tone threatened a confrontation, and Maurette winced inwardly, for she realized that Dominic would apparently be of little assistance to her. She would have to fight her own battle with Lydia, and she sensed that if the matter came under Dominic’s mediation, he would side with his sister. For some reason this frightened Maurette immeasurably. She felt suddenly very alone.

“We shall have tea in the withdrawing room, Jonathan,” Her tone was sharp.

Jonathan nodded curtly and dismissed the servants, but Maurette noted the look of searing hatred that passed between servant and mistress and shuddered. As Lydia made her way, followed by her guests, from the great hall, up three steps, and along a short gallery, Maurette could not help but notice the bobbling disarray of Lydia’s silver-blond hair. She tucked again at a wispy tendril in a vain effort to smooth the unruly mass. All that woman really needs, thought Maurette with a sharp pang of homesickness, is Edyth’s spirited ministrations, and that curl would stay in its place or Edyth would know the reason why.

The withdrawing room was a fairly cozy chamber warmed by a fire blazing in an enormous hearth. Bookshelves had been built into two high stone walls, and the wealth of volumes made Maurette gasp inwardly. She had never seen so many books even in her father’s vast library. Two window embrasures were placed in the front wall of the room. They were so high that only the sky could be seen through them. The ceiling was plastered and had been painted at one time with floridly colored images, though the colors were now faded and cracked. It was obvious that this was a favorite room to someone and that great care had been taken to personalize it.

Over the fireplace hung a huge crest that dominated the room. On a silver field a raven with two swords in its fearsome talons peered through silver eyes at anyone who entered. Maurette looked quickly away from the bird. She knew that she was mistaken, but she felt it regarded her with an unsavory lust. As she gaped at the creature above the hearth, Lydia took her hand. When Maurette turned away from it, Lydia smiled

. “He is a handsome creature, is he not? It represents family, Maurette, and that is why we keep him there. You will get used to him, I promise. ‘Tis our coziest chamber,” she said with a twinkle of humor in her gray eyes, as she led Maurette to a chair before the fire. The plum velvet covering the chair was well worn and had obviously been pretty in its time. At the moment, however, it was apparent that Lydia had chosen the chair for its comfort and not for its opulence. “Take this chair, Maurette. ‘Tis my favorite.”

Maurette sat without protest to enjoy the warmth of the fire. She looked up to find Ben striding toward the fire also to warm himself. They shared a smile. For the first time, Maurette understood his constant feeling of overwhelming cold. The chill of the open sea was bad enough, but the cold of an ancient castle matched no other for its bone-chilling penetration. Maurette knew that she would spend many hours before this fire.

Lydia seated herself beside Dominic on a small sofa across from Maurette, and Geoffrey was standing near Ben at the hearth.

“I cannot tell you how happy I am to see you all,” said Lydia addressing the small assemblage. “‘Tis unimaginably lonely here.” She tucked at another errant wisp of hair. “I am, as you know, Dominic, a woman of solitary interests, but I am always happy for your company and that of your friends.”

Dominic placed his arm around his sister’s large, bony shoulders. “You shall not be lonely for a great while, dear Lydia,” he said. “Maurette and I plan to stay at least for the next year.”

Lydia’s smile vanished imperceptibly. Her mouth remained in a pleasant curve, but her eyes were solemn and penetrating. She glanced at Maurette and then back to Dominic. “I see,” she said softly. “And you, Maurette, how do you feel about this?”

Maurette lowered her eyes, for she wanted no doubt to show in them. “I am happy to reside wherever Dominic resides.” She lifted her gaze, and with a gentle spark of determination, she said, “I love your brother, you see. His home is my home.”

Lydia arched a gray-gold brow. “‘Tis not an easy life,” she stated, her semblance of a smile completely gone, especially for a well-bred lady.”

Dominic jabbed at his sister playfully. “Shall we discourage the child before she has even had the chance to make her own judgment?” he said amiably.

Lydia’s silver gaze held Maurette. “I would not discourage anyone from this life, Dominic. ‘Tis the one I have chosen for myself, and I find it equable enough. I consider only that our dear Maurette is young and unused to solitude. Do I make a mistake in my perception?”

“You do not, my lady,” Maurette said, and her little chin shot up. “You do, however, overlook the fact that, though I am unused to solitude, I am not averse to it. These books, for example” – Maurette’s eyes swept the vast library-“will provide me with many hours of fulfilling companionship. And,” she added brightly, “being a student of history, I intend to explore every corner of this remarkable castle.”

Lydia stiffened, and her lips pursed. “If you think ’twill provide you solace when the winter storms rage, you are welcome to such pursuits, Maurette. I would think twice, though, Dominic,” she said, turning severely to her brother, “about exposing your little guest to nature’s brutality. The winters here are evil,” she said to Maurette.

“Calm yourself, sister,” Dominic said with a quiet sternness. “Maurette has never been one to quail at adversity, natural or man-made.” Though his words were full of confidence, Dominic felt a lurching uncertainty. He remembered only too well the storm on ship. Perhaps Lydia was right, he thought. I would be foolish to expose Maurette to more danger.

Ben watched the tableau. He had naught but admiration for Maurette’s bold spirit, and though he had never liked Lydia or completely trusted the story of her father’s death, he was now in sympathy with her hesitancy. in approving Dominic’s decision to make Ravenshead their home. Maurette’s enthusiastic acceptance of her husband’s home was born of ignorance. This place was isolated and as lonely as a place could be.

Ben knew little of Maurette’s background, but he did wonder at the wisdom of transplanting a spirited young noblewoman from London to this forsaken sea-smashed mountain top. His real concern, though, was for Dominic. The man had practically been driven to insanity when Maurette had been injured at sea. What would happen here, if . . Ben stopped his thought before it fulminated into fear. He determined that, cold as it might be, he would stay the winter. He swiped at his reddened nose and pulled his ‘shawl tight around his thin shoulders. Perhaps he could get a heavier shawl, he thought forlornly.

Jonathan appeared at that moment with a serving girl in tow. They carried trays of refreshments, which they set on a low table in front of the fire. Geoffrey was the first one at the food. He took a large tankard of ale and a slice of roasted meat with a hunk of bread. As he wolfed it down, he commented that he was hungrier than he had realized.

“Take yourself to the kitchen, Geoff,” said Lydia. “There is food aplenty there.”

“I may do that, Lydia,” he said with a twinkle of mischief in his bright eyes. “And I may inquire there after a particular serving wench who was here last time we visited. By name, she was called Alys, I recall.”

Lydia smiled. “Ah, yes, she was a lovely child, Geoff.”

“Was?”

“She left,” Lydia said tranquilly. “Quite frankly, I was not averse to her going. She had begun to tell wild stories and spread vicious rumors among the servants.” Lydia tucked at yet another wisp of silver-blond hair. “There is little to do here at Ravenshead, and I suppose, a spirited young girl would, she became bored.” She smiled comfortably around the room. “What tales you may hear are simply the residue of that child’s wild imagination.”

Dominic regarded her keenly as did Ben.

“What were the nature of these tales, Lydia?” Dominic inquired.

“Oh, nothing of substance,” Lydia said, waving her bony hand in dismissal. She raised her big frame from the sofa. Tucking at her hair, she strode across the room. “I shall ring for Jonathan,” she said crisply. “I am sure that our little Maurette is exhausted from her journey.” Her hands clasped comfortably before her, she turned back to her company. “‘Tis such a pleasure to have you all here.”

Lydia’s brisk movement across the room and sudden dismissal of Maurette brought the younger woman’s attention to a feeling of unease that she had noted in herself for some moments. Lydia did not seem at all pleased that they were there. From where this perception of falseness stemmed was, at that moment, beyond Maurette. She only felt that Lydia’s overweening concern seemed to be underscored by a very real distress. Maurette rose on Jonathan’s entrance and excused herself, saying that she would see them all at dinner. Following the thin servant down the passage, Maurette glanced back over her shoulder and was bemused to find Lydia watching her. Maurette was even more bemused by the hard look of determination in the older woman’s silver gaze.

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

Maurette had never seen such a bedchamber. At one end of the immense, high-ceilinged room a rosy fire blazed in a splendid fireplace carved of white marble. Soft pink variegations rippled here and there through the exquisite iridescent stone. Upon the mantel were two massive gold candelabra. The glow of the polished metal rivaled that of the purling fire that warmed and lit the room with rose-gold shadows. Tall lighted candles brushed the walls with their soft auras. Maurette gazed around at the richly appointed furnishings.

A huge bed stood at the wall opposite to the hearth. Its pale pink velvet hangings, opened on one end to the fire, were fringed in gold silk as were the rose-colored velvet chairs dotting the room. Before the fire, and in deference to more modern tastes, the rushes had been removed and a pink and gold Persian carpet laid. At its center was a low marble table of the same pristine white as the fire-place, flanked on either side by two small pink velvet settees also fringed in gold silk. The two tall window embrasures were hung with pale rose velvet.

Maurette, though used to great wealth, was agape at the pushiness of the exquisite chamber. She moved to the center and turned herself fully around to appreciate its splendor The walls were hung with delicately woven tapestries, and on every table lovely objets of art could be admired. Small porcelain vases were filled with fresh autumn foliage, and pretty statuettes of dazzling marble were placed with care. A tall chest of gleaming dark wood stood between the two windows. Inspecting its contents, Maurette found her gowns and other possessions had been stored there. She was amazed that the task had been accomplished so quickly.

She turned to find her new tiring girl standing shyly just inside the chamber door. She had been dressed in a perky muslin gown, and her hair had been neatly replaited.

“Hope the chamber suits y’,” she said with a very proper curtsy.

“It does,” said Maurette, smiling.

“‘Twas the old lord’s, m’um. Him ‘n his lady shared it. Me’n Jonny ‘n Ruth cleaned it up for y’, m’um. An’ me ‘n Jonny ‘n Ruth put y’r things away, too.”

Maurette move to the girl. “I am amazed at your efficiency. May I know your name? And who are your remarkable assistants?”

“My name is Kitty, m’um,” the girl said, bobbing another curtsy.

“What a pretty name,” said Maurette.

“An’ Ruth is-well, just Ruth. She does the laundry. An’ Jonny is really Jonathan.” The girl giggled. “Me ‘n Ruth calls him Jonny just to get his goat. He puffs ‘imself up whenever we do ‘n sticks his skinny nose in the air and looks so funny.”

Maurette smiled. She took the girl’s chin in her hand.

“Well, dear Kit,” she said, “Jonathan seems to have made a great sacrifice where you are concerned. The household has lost a most treasured servant, methinks.”

Kitty lowered her soft brown eyes. “Oh, m’um, I’m no treasure.” She lifted her gaze to look adoringly up at Maurette. “Thank y’, m’um, for separafin’ me like y’ done. ‘Tis an honor, it is, especially wi’ me bein’ a bastard an’ all.”

Maurette arched her lovely brows.

“Kitty,” she said admonishingly, “I will not hear such things from you. Such things are not spoken in polite company.”

Kitty lowered her eyes in shame. “F’rgive me, m’um,” she said through tears that threatened to come blubbering out.

Maurette closed her eyes. There was much to teach this child, she thought wearily. But as she opened her eyes and gazed at her, she decided that ‘twould be well worth the effort in the end.. Maurette had seen the spark of intelligence in the girl’s bright face. What she lacked was formal training, and Maurette determined her mission would be to see that Kitty became the most mannerly and efficient tiring woman the world had ever known. She smiled kindly at the child.

“Would you help me out of my traveling clothes, Kit?”

Kitty smiled broadly, and her shame of a moment ago was a thing of the past. “Oh, m’um,” she said brighdy, “‘twould be an honor.”

Maurette determined she must never ween Kitty from that charming spontaneity of aspect. In the midst of her teachings, she must ever be aware that the child’s sweet personality must remain intact.

“To serve one’s mistress is an honor, Kit,” Maurette said gently, but ’tis also a job in which one must take great pride.”

“Yes, m’um,” said Kitty soberly.

Maurette noted the girl’s chastened attitude. Kitty would be a very quick study, she decided. She led her in the ways of preparing a bath for her mistress.

Kitty watched in delighted apprehension as Maurette emerged from the warm scented water with her pale skin still attached to her body. “‘Tis said by some 0’ the ladies that too much water will wear away the skin,” said the child with youthful glee at the gory idea.

Maurette laughed. “Water is good for us, Kit,” she said. “It will never wear your skin away.” She showed Kitty how to pat her dry. Placing large linen squares in the girl’s hands, she guided them up and down her own body, And Maurette continued her lesson on water.

“‘Tis a myth, Kitty. that I have heard, but I have been bathing all my life, and my skin is still connected to my bones. Water cleans and refreshes one. We must bathe often and well, and we must soap our hair and then rinse it till it squeaks,” Maurette said patiently, as the girl nodded at each instruction. Maurette then took her through the next task, that of placing the undergarments on the body in the correct order.

The girl echoed Maurette’s own distaste with the corset but squealed in delight as she carefully handled the laces and silks with which she was being taught to adorn her mistress. The child was learning very quickly. She was a most willing student, and Maurette was relieved to note that she had not made a mistake in choosing her.

Next, Maurette taught Kitty the intricacies of dressing hair. She happily realized that her pupil was probably the recipient of some previous training.

“Me’n Ruth sit for hours of an evenin’, we do, an’ fix each other’s hair,” said Kitty in response to Maurette’s inquiry. The girl twisted and stretched Maurette’s amplitude of golden-red waves with an authority that both astonished and pleased her.

“Kitty,” she breathed when the girl had finished an intricate coif. “‘Tis lovely.” Pearls were wound through the shimmering upsweep of Maurette’s hair. She turned from side to side to inspect the work. “You are a wonder,” she said.

Kitty dimpled prettily. In her starched and perky gown, her hair brushed to a crackle and her face and hands washed, Kitty looked a very respectable tiring woman. Maurette decided that she would enjoy teaching the girl all manner of enterprising ways in which to make her work easier and more enjoyable. Perhaps, Maurette reflected, she would even teach the child to read.

Taking Kitty’s hand in hers, she led her to the wardrobe. “We must choose a gown now, Kit.”

Kitty was overawed by the opulence of the gowns, and Maurette encouraged her to handle the rich silks and the heavy brocades and the plush velvets. “You unpacked them, Kit, and now you must choose one for me to wear. Remember that you have just wound pearls in my hair, however, and do not choose that which is adorned with other gems.”

Kitty nodded, and her wide brown eyes were deeply serious as she inspected the contents of the massive chest. She bit at her lower lip and glanced at Maurette and then back to the gowns before selecting one. Her eyes brightened when she saw Maurette’s smile.

“‘Tis perfection itself,” Maurette approved. The gown was a pale swirl of lavender and blue brocade. Blue cording piped the deeply cut bodice and the points of the long slender sleeves. Tiny pearls were sewn into the standing collar of deep blue lace. Maurette stepped into the gown with Kitty’s assistance and then surveyed her reflected image in the cheval glass. “Will I impress them, Kit?”. she said with a note of uncertainty.

Kitty smiled and bobbed her head brightly. The girl understood instinctively that one of her functions would be to earn Maurette’s confidence. Fortunately, she thought wistfully, gazing at her new mistress, to make this lady aware of her beauty and grace would be no problem.

Maurette entered the withdrawing room where Lydia and Dominic awaited her as a prelude to the evening meal. Ben and Geoffrey joined them soon after-Geoffrey heading straight for the side table arrayed with light refreshments and pitchers of wine and Ben advancing to the hearth. Geoffs usual banter was bright and welcome in what Maurette perceived to be a rather dour household.

While the others chatted, Maurette studied the chamber. She was impressed with the architecture and once again disturbed by the armorial insignia that threatened from the hearth wall. Deliberately, she turned her eyes from the austere and steady silver gaze of Donnnic’s raven and perused the other elements that made up the room.

Noting with profound disdain the filth that she saw everywhere, she concluded that it was the result of a total lack of caring on the part of the staff. She eyed Lydia over her cup of warm cider and wondered why the chatelaine had not mobilized the servants into some sort of action against this pervasive enemy. Maurette’s own chamber was immaculate, and she intended to expect that it was kept that way, but she wondered at the layer of grime she discovered here. She wondered too at Dominic’s forbearance of Lydia’s slovenly housekeeping. She watched the two of them now as they sat talking quietly together on the small settee near the fire.

Dominic laughed softly at something Lydia had whispered into his ear. His eyes became solemn at another proffered bit of information. He took his sister’s big hand in his and patted it at still another. For her part, Lydia seemed as intimately engrossed in their communion as Dominic. It was, Maurette noted, not only their size and physical similarities that betrayed their strong sibling relationship, but also their communication that seemed as close as any a brother and sister had ever had. Maurette, while not jealous, felt a vague sense of isolation. Recognizing a kinship between Lydia and Dominic that she realized she would never share, Maurette decided that she would make an effort to come to know Lydia. There was undoubtedly great good in a woman who inspired such admiration in a man like Dominic Warbrooke.

“You were correct, Lydia,” said Geoffrey, bursting into Maurette’s musings. “I was unable to find the whereabouts of my lady, Alys. “TWould seem she has disappeared off the edge of the earth, though Isabella’s young explorer has attempted to convince us that there is, in truth, no edge.”

Ben glanced up from his huddled stance at the hearth. “‘Twas nearly a hundred years past, Geoff, that Master Columbus made his discovery and, may I add, he was not young but well into his fifties at the time.”

Geoffrey nodded amiably. “I thank you for the history lesson,” he said and continued in his jovial fashion. “I have, ’twill please you all to hear, found a darling to replace my missing lady. Her name is Jane.” Smiling triumphantly,. he continued. “She is without a doubt the most beauteous of the beauteous. She is fair of face and form, to be sure, and she is of a gentle nature. And,” he added, pausing significantly, assuring himself of his company’s complete attention, “she is untried.” He looked at each person, awaiting their reaction. Maurette giggled into a lacy handkerchief. Lydia and Dominic regarded him with dubious smiles.

Ben adjusted himself purposefully so that he could look straight into Geoffrey’s foolish smile of self-satisfaction. “There are few such,” he said levelly, “and liars all are they that lie.”

Geoffrey’s thick eyebrows came together. “The fair Jane would not lie, Ben,” he said with ingenuous sincerity.

“Would she not,” said Ben dryly. “Then you had better lie with another.”

Everyone laughed, Lydia in spite of herself for she was not given to burst of emotion of any sort. Just at that moment Jonathan appeared to announce dinner. He had not encountered such geniality in the household for a long time, not, in truth, since Dominic’s last visit with Ben and Geoffery, and his bemusement was clear in his rheumy old eyes. The amiable sparring between the two young men continued into the family dining hall with Geoffrey still trying to make sense of his erudite friend’s needling puns.

Two servants, Henry and Gwynn, supervised the serving of the food. They received generous and well-deserved praise for their roasted game birds dressed with a creamy sauce.

“You have outdone yourselves,” Lydia approved. “‘Tis all in honor of Dominic’s homecoming,” she said, raising a toast. “And, naturally, to welcome dear Maurette to our table.”

“Hear, hear,” Geoffrey expounded.

“To Maurette,” said Lydia, looking directly into Maurette’s eyes. “May she come to love her new home and that it signifies.” The challenge in Lydia’s voice was apparently not perceived by the others as they clinked glasses and approved the toast, but Maurette felt sure that there was more in Lydia’s toast than a mere pleasantry.

Although Geoffrey’s ribald humor kept the tone of the evening light, Maurette could not ignore Lydia’s humorless gray gaze. It seemed to be upon her whenever she chanced a glance in Lydia’s direction, and Maurette was both bewildered and annoyed at the perusal.

When the meal was over and the men were deep in conversation, Maurette remarked on Lydia’s unrelenting attention. “‘Twould seem that I am something of a curiosity to you Lydia,” she said with a more boldness that she felt.

Lydia smiled her thin smile. “I am captivated by the brightness of your eyes and the radiance of your skin.”

“Thank you,” Maurette murmured, unsatisfied.

“I pray that aura will not be dimmed by loneliness and routine.”

“But I shall hardly be lonely,” Maurette said, startled. “Dominic will be here.”

“Ah, yes,” said Lydia with what Maurette perceived to be a sneer. “A man is the age-old chaser away of lonely specters. But,” she added, “a well-run household requires the attention of its master, does it not?”

“Yes,” answered Maurette haltingly for she did not understand the direction of Lydia’s conversation.

“Dominic will have many duties here, and often those duties will call him away. You understand that, I pray.”

“Of course.”

“There are the estates,” Lydia sighed. “These peasants are necessary though often demanding. Each tenant has his own little problems with which the master of the household must deal. And then there are financial and legal matters involved in the proper maintenance of an estate the size of Ravenshead.”

Maurette’s eyes widened. “How have you managed it on your own, Lydia?” She blurted.

“I sometimes wonder that myself,” Lydia said with a forced weariness. “But, in truth, all of this is no concern to you.”

“But it is, Lydia. I will, of course, be interested in all of Dominic’s affairs.”

“Oh, I shouldn’t think it necessary for you to concern yourself with the drudgery of Dominic’s household concerns. He wouldn’t want that.” The last was said with a harshness that gave Maurette pause. She sensed a hostility in Lydia and could not imagine what she had done to incur it.

“I…should think that Dominic would welcome…my interest,” Maurette said staunchly but with reticence.

Lydia’s eyes hooded, and she eyed Maurette obliquely. “Dominic will welcome your presence in his bed and your ignorance of his affairs, dear Maurette. He has never welcomed the attentions of a nosy woman.”

Maurette was abashed. Lydia’s words intimated that Dominic had brought other women here. Perhaps under the same conditions, that has predisposed Maurette’s own presence. ” ‘Tis only that I thought to share his life.” She said softly and lowered her eyes.

“Dominic’s life,” stated Lydia tranquilly, “is none of your concern.” Tucking an errant wisp of hair into her upswept coif, Lydia leaned back into her chair. “Won’t you have more wine, dear Maurette?”

Maurette shook her head. She raised her gaze slowly. “I am not ordinarily given to female rivalries, Lydia,” she began slowly, “but as you have set the tone of our relationship and have made your own judgement as to whether or not intimacy will thrive between us, I tell you this. I am not to be taken as lightly as you have imagined me to be. I shall not engage you in petty quarrels; not shall I follow your example and snipe you verbally. I do not wish to make you an enemy. Perhaps, for the time that I am here, we should avoid each other’s company.” Maurette rose and drew away from the table. “I wish to retire,” she said in a heightened tone.

The men, engaged at the other end of the table in deep conversation, looked up at her announcement. Dominic smiled.

“Of course, you are tired, little one. Will you see Maurette up, Lydia?” Dominic said.

Lydia nodded curtly and began to rise, but noting the sly, slanting gaze the older woman gave Maurette, Geoffrey rose, too.

“May I have that honor?” he said easily. At Dominic’s guarded glance, Geoffrey laughed and roughly patted his captain’s shoulder/ “Take your ease, my friend,” he said, pushing himself from the table. “I have told you that I am otherwise occupied. Allow me, my lady,” he said genially as he offered Maurette his arm. He suffered the heated flow of Lydia’s hostility and moved to the staircase.

When they had reached Maurette’s chamber door, Geoffrey stopped and turned her to him. “Tell me why you look so sad, Maurette,” he said gently.

” ‘Tis nothing, Geoff,” Maurette murmured. Tears shimmered in her eyes, and she blinked and looked away. Geoffrey raised her chin with a roughened fingertip.

“She was not very cordial tonight, was she?” he said, smiling tenderly. ” ‘Tis that very aspect for which Ben disdains her company.”

“Why, Geoff? What have I done?”

He shook his big head slowly. “No one really knows about Lydia. In one instant, she is your most protective friend, and in the next, she is a dark rival. Neither Ben nor I can figure her out.

“Dominic obviously adores her,” Maurette said in a small voice.

“And he adores you,” Geoffrey said easily. Do not fret that. You are not without friends here, Maurette.” He pushed open the chamber door.

Kitty was waiting up for Maurette, and she gazed with awe at the big handsome Geoffrey as he led Maurette inside. He smiled at Kitty and astonished her with a roguish wink, and then he was gone.

Kitty sighed, “He has been devilish well favored,” she said.

Maurette shot a glance at the girl. “You are but a child, Kit, and too young to notice such things.”

“I am nearly sixteen,” said Kitty pridefully as she helped Maurette out of her gown.

Maurette moved to the girl and held her face up in the firelight. She brushed at the fringe of hair that hung over the child’s forehead. Could it be that the child she had thought Kitty to be was, in truth, a very pretty young woman?

Grasping the girl’s hand, Maurette pulled her toward the cheval glass. Unbraiding and brushing out Kitty’s bounty of soft brown waves gave further evidence to Maurette that she had been mistaken in her original assessment. She turned Kitty slowly and studied her reflection carefully. Then, with uncontained joy, Maurette pulled the girl toward her in an exultant embrace.

“But this is wonderful, Kit,” she said joyfully. The puzzled girl dutifully returned the embrace.

” ‘Tis wonderful that I am nearly sixteen, m’um?”

“It is,” said Maurette, drawing away from the girl and twirling her around the chamber. “Tomorrow we will get your friend Ruth up here and see what we can do with one or two of my gowns. We shall make you into the young woman you deserve to be, Kit.” The two embraced once again.

After a bemused Kitty had tucked her mistress into bed and snuffed the candles, she left the room to go to her own chamber and dream of some exorbitant and totally unexpected excitement that had to do with her being nearly sixteen.

Maurette snuggled under her bed covers and watched the fire, framed by the soft velvet hangings at the end of her bed. She could make no sense of Lydia’s hostility nor of her implication that Dominic had shared his home with others like Maurette. Whatever jealousy she felt of those others was soon overtaken by sleepiness. The fire crackled softly, and the rose-shadowed room was at peace as was the mistress of the chamber.

Very slowly the shadows deepened and changed. I her dreamy half-sleep, light and darkness became one. Rose-colored specters danced wraithlike in the golden firelight, only to disappear into an ebon void. Soft soothing sounds emerged into her consciousness, and then silence enveloped her. The scrape of a door was sensed, the hiss and crackle of flames at a passing presence, the faint whisper of flesh against cloth. Maurette felt the warmth of a caress, the moistness of a breath, the unsubstantial, illusory firmness and yielding of flesh upon flesh. Impressions flew around her sleeping form, ebbing and fading as she found herself in Dominic’s embrace.

Reaching, she entwined her arms around his neck, and her lips were taken and given in demanding kisses. Her woman’s body ached for the union of their souls. The silky gown she wore was lifted above her head and discarded, and she felt the warm riot of her hair envelop her shoulders. Together the two beings, man and woman, explored each other-touching, caressing, embracing.

Fully awakened to the splendor of his love, Maurette felt herself caressed by Dominic’s firm commanding lips, held sweetly captive in the embrace of his strong arms, and touched to her very soul by his overpowering hunger. She offered him own hunger- her woman’s hunger. Arching to him in abandoned arousal, Maurette opened herself to his golden, life-giving essence. He filled her with the force of his need, the flaming turbulence of his desire. She offered to him the sweetness and urgency and wonder of her passion. Together they probed the height breadth of their banquet of rapture.

They luxuriated long in the ripeness of their ardor. Dominic’s large hands stroked and caressed Maurette’s awakened flesh, an she languidly partook of the pleasures of his warm, hard body. Before the dawn they had tasted of each other’s nectar many times, savoring the fragrances and flavor of their consummate passion. The throbbing rose-gold darkness embraced them even as they embraced and explored the silken treasures of their love. Warmed by the perfection of their union, fired by the star-shatter of discovery, they burst finally with dazzling, gilded shivers upon the summit of sweet enchantment. Then, as they sank into the lambent glow of blissful contentment, they welcomed the night flower of their love. It closed around them, and they nestled into luxurious slumber of repletion.

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

Maurette shivered awake amid the tangle of her bedclothes. She peered into the near-dawn murk of her chamber. The fire had died, and the ever-present damp cold of the sea-washed castle assailed her. She wrapped her heavy coverlet round her body. Today, as he had every day since their arrival, Dominic had left their bed very early, and Maurette, as she had every day since their arrival, had bemoaned his absence. She understood that it was necessary for him to be off on the business of his vast estates, but she would have welcomed the warmth of his presence in the moments of her stark awakenings within the walls of the Castle Ravenshead.

Though she had begged to ride out with him Dominic had told her that he would not allow such a circumstance. The terrain, he said, was too rough, the dampness to chilling, and the state of her health still fragile after what she had suffered on board the Raven. Unfortunately the Dr. Ben had, traitorously, she thought, agreed with him. And so it was that Maurette now sat trembling beneath her covers. She smiled at the irony of Dominic’s concerns. Maurette felt not the least bit fragile at this moment, only cold.

She pushed aside the heavy curtains hanging from the tester and cast a longing look toward the door, wishing that a servant would enter to build up the fire. In a well-run household, fires were never allowed to die on such mornings, an even more important amenity in an ancient castle. Why had Kitty not been in before this? And Kitty was usually not amiss in her duties.

Though Lydia had kept a scornful eye on the situation, she seemed to have allowed that, after Maurette’s rejecting every woman she brought for her approval, that young woman was not about to give up Kitty without a fight. And fight she would, Maurette had decided, if it became Necessary. So far, however, Lydia had appeared to concede with admirable, if grudging, restraint.

Gathering up her covers around her, Maurette reluctantly drew herself from the bed and went to open the door. She peeped out into the gallery, only to withdraw immediately when she spied Lydia towering over a cowed and terrified Kitty a few feet from the chamber. Lydia’s cold voice floated on the cold air.

“How would you like your tongue cut out, my girl?” she said stonily.

“I wouldn’t,” said Kitty in a small voice.

“‘Tis what a kitchen wench deserves when she seeks to rise above her station.”

“But the Lady Maurette picked me,” Kitty said tremulously.

Maurette peeked again into the gallery to see Lydia grasp the child’s arm in what she perceived to be a painful grip.

“I tell you this,” Lydia grated, “you shall not encourage this situation ‘Tis but temporary. Old rules still apply. You are a kitchen wench now, and you will be one till you die-which may be sooner than you imagine, if you disobey me. Your precious Lady Maurette is a fool if she imagines that, by dint of her relationship with my brother, she can flout my authority. You and all the servants know this to be true. You have seen what happens to those who try.”

Kitty stifled a wretched sob.

“And don’t sniffle, you loathsome baggage.” Lydia released her grip on the girl, throwing her against the stone wall. Kitty slid down to the floor and huddled there beneath Lydia’s fierce gaze. Maurette, astonished at such harsh behavior toward a servant, blazed from her chamber.

Kicking her bedcovers aside as she marched down the gallery, she cried, “Hold, Lydia. I will not stand for such cruel treatment of that young woman. You will leave her alone.”

“And you,” replied Lydia acidly, “will leave the running of my household and the chastising of my servants to me.”

“Kitty is my servant,” returned Maurette, her tone low and challenging. “I alone shall see to her chastisement, though I cannot imagine any such necessity. You are not to lay hands on this person again,” she finished evenly.

Lydia’s eyes hooded dangerously. Her silver glare impaled Maurette. “Do not test my power in this household, Lady Harper,” she spat. “You have much to learn. Will be a harsh lesson for you if you persist in nudging at my patience.” The bigger woman turned then and forged from the gallery.

With a ragged exhalation, Maurette reached for Kitty’s hand and dragged her back into the bedchamber. Slamming the door behind them, she leaned against it.

“Oh, Kit,” Maurette rasped. “That woman is devilish cruel, is she not?”

Kitty said nothing but moved about the chamber with quiet efficiency. She built up the fire and opened the window hangings to the morning sun. Maurette watched her in growing bemusement.

“Kit,” she said finally, “Lady Hamilton manhandled and punished you for something that was not your fault. You have a right to be angry, at least here in this chamber.”

“What’s there f’r me t’ be angry about?” stated Kitty stoically.

“Turn and face me, Kit,” said Maurette after a pause.

The girl did so. “You have my protection,” Maurette said gently.

“Lady Hamilton is mistress ‘ere,” Kitty said mechanically.

“I am your mistress now,” said Maurette archly “Lady Hamilton has no power over you.”

Kitty lowered her eyes. “She has power over everybody in this ‘ouse, my lady.”

“What power?” inquired Maurette with growing impatience.

Kitty shook her head sadly from side to side. “I ain’t at liberty t’ say, my lady,” she murmured.

“Of course you are, Kit. I insist.”

“Y’d best not insist,” said Kitty ominously. “We seen what ‘appens t’ them what gits ‘er blood up.”

“You are being very dramatic, Kit,” said Maurette, chastising the girl cheerfully. “In all events I can certainly count on Lord Warbrooke’s protection.”

Kitty’s countenance darkened, but she said nothing. Maurette stiffened, and a sudden and inexplicable fear thrilled out from her very soul. She smiled with false brightness to cover the sudden wave of terror.

“You must leave Lydia to me, Kit,” she said, laughing lightly. “I am stronger than I look.”

Kitty regarded her mistress, and her big soft eyes became pools of sadness. “Don’t git y’rself in no trouble on my account,” she pleaded.

“I shall probably get myself into all sorts of trouble on your account, dear Kit,” she said, moving to the girl. “I am, you see, quite well known in some circles for my recklessness.” She moved with Kitty to the newly awakened fire and sat her down. Kitty gazed up adoringly at her mistress. Maurette went on brightly.

“We must begin to plan all sorts of things for you. I intend to tutor you. You shall be the finest tiring woman that anyone has ever known. Someday you may even learn to read.” She smiled at the wrinkling of Kitty’s nose at that prospect. “But we must keep our activities secret from Lady Hanlilton and, in truth, from all the household. There is no sense in tossing sparks into a tinder box.”

Maurette was gratified at Kitty’s small smile. She perceived that the girl was frightened-there was something very frightening here at Ravenshead – but in the weeks to come, Maurette vowed that she would inspire Kitty’s confidence. Perhaps one-day she would know the source of the girl’s fears.

Kitty tilted her head slightly, and her intelligent eyes glittered in the firelight. “Do y’ really think th’ likes 0′ me could learn t’ read?” she asked with wonder in her voice.

“I do, Kit,” stated Maurette. “As for Lydia, I shall take full responsibility, should she find out. She is not the only powerful female in this house.” As always, Lady Maurette Harper was displaying far more confidence than she actually felt.

Dominic had ridden out very early, accompanied by Geoffrey at his request. During the week since their arrival at Ravenshead, they had inspected the inlands to determine what condition they were in. Today they would begin to investigate the tenanted farms. Dominic had decided that he wished to speak with each family individually to discover how they were faring. Though the sun was little more than a crimson ribbon across the pale morning sky, the first farm at which he and Geoffrey arrived was already abuzz with activity.

A woman in a soiled mobcap and shawl was drawing water from a rain barrel. A half-dozen children rollicked as they fed a gaggle of noisy geese in the small front garden. A large bearded man teetered atop the roof of the house where he was mending the thatched slope. His mouth gaped open at Dominic’s arrival.

“Moll, ol’ girl,” he shouted down to his wife, “strangers is comm’. I’ll git me down from ‘ere.” He immediately started a slow slide off the pitched roof to the ground.

The woman gazed up at the tall intruder and his equally tall companion without comprehension as they dismounted before the garden gate. The children suddenly became silent, and even the ordinarily aggressive geese scattered, seeming to sense the dismay of their owners.

“Are you the Garricks?” asked Dominic politely.

“We be they,” answered the woman, thankful that she was at least partially hidden by the low hedge. Such a handsome stranger undid her usual lack of concern over her appearance. She swiped at a greasy tendril of hair that clung to her grimy cheek.

“I am Dominic Warbrooke.” He bowed cordially.

“The young lord,” the woman gaped.

At that moment her husband forged to her side. He pushed her disdainfully behind him and smiled broadly. “How do y, do, Y’r lordship,” he said with excessive felicity. “Me woman ain’t used t’ visits from th’ likes 0′ you,” he added as though he himself received noble visitors every day. “Y’ll f’rgive ‘er, I ‘ope.”

“Your good wife has done nothing untoward, Master Garrick,” Dominic replied genially. “May I introduce my companion? This is Master Frobisher. He is acting as my lieutenant this day. May we stop inside for a few moments?”

“0′ course y’ c’n, Y’r lordship,” the man exulted. “Y’r always welcome here, sir, always welcome.” He shoved his timid wife aside and swept open the little gate. “C’m on in, Lord Warbrooke an’ Master Frobisher. Th’ wife’ll git y’ tea.” He turned to the woman and said beneath his breath, “‘Git to it, Y lazy wench.”

The woman scuttled away, preceding the men into the small house. Master Garrick strolled majestically beside his exalted guests.

“So glad y, come t’ call,” he said expansively. “We ain’t seen y, since y’ was a lad, sir. ‘Tis more’n a pleasure t’ see y’ now.”

He ushered the two men into the dim house. The kitchen was the only visible room. Dominic noted a loft above their heads and gathered that it was where the family slept.

“Sit y’ down, m’ lords,” said the man, drawing out two scabby stools and brushing at them with a thick weathered hand.

Dominic and Geoffrey sat and accepted the tankards of hot tea that the woman served them. They both took amused notice of the small faces that peeked round the doorframe.

“Git y’ gone, y’ little snipes,” growled the man when he realized where the attention of his guests had come to rest.

Dominic held up his hand.” ‘Tis quite all right, master. Children do not disturb me,” he said with a small smile, “though I have had little opportunity to acquaint myself with any in my life. Yours seem most affable,” he added, as their faces vanished at their father’s command.

“Thank y’, m’ lord,” said the man with exaggerated pride. “Now what c’n we do f’r y’?”

“I have come to live at Ravenshead for the next year at least, and I wish to inspect my lands so that I may reacquaint myself with the life hereabouts.”

“Thank God,” breathed Mistress Garrick to the surprise of the men. Immediately chagrined, she placed a roughened hand over her mouth. Her husband stood and would have cuffed her had she rot hastily side-stepped the movement.

“Git y’ gone, woman,” he thundered. She fled toward the front door but stopped and turned toward Dominic before exiting.

“I jtis’ want t’ tell y’, sir,” she said with timid haste, “How sorry we all were about th’ death 0′ th’ ol’ lord.” Then she scuttled from the room.

“I’ll add me own sympathies t’ that,” said the man solemnly, “though I’d of ‘ad it that th’ wife should not speak out so. Th’ ol’ gentleman was right fair an, honest.”

Dominic lifted a silver-raven brow. “Would you explain your wife’s outburst?” he said quietly.

“I’d rather not, sir,” Master Garrick said with deep embarrassment. “Women y, know . .” His voice trailed off. Dominic did not speak but waited for the man to continue. He swallowed hard. “I ain’t one t’ complain,” he finally went on, but th’ woman, sir, Lady ‘amilton, Again he faltered beneath Dominic’s stern perusal.

“Go on,” said Dominic evenly.

The man looked to Geoffrey, pleading for help, but there was nothing for it but to continue.” ‘Tis grateful we are f’r th’ life we got ‘ere,” he said, cursing his wife’s loose tongue for forcing this issue. “I’d ne’er speak ill o’ th’ Lady ‘amilton, sir. ‘Tis only that … well .. .” He rallied, and looking into Dominic’s cold gray eyes, he decided to brazen out the rest of his statement. “She’s raised th’ rents, sir, an’ we c’n barely make ends meet as ’tis We got fences t’ mend, livestock t’ replace, mouths t’ feed.”

“How much were the rents raised?” Dominic inquired.

“‘Twice again as much as we was payin’, sir,” said the man. He shifted on his own low stool, his discomfort obvious. Geoffrey’s brows came together as he looked sharply at Dominic. That man avoided his gaze.

“Is there anything else?” asked Dominic stiffly.

“There’s been talk, m’ lord,” said the man hesitantly.

“Talk?” Dominic said.

“I don’t like t’ say it, but two years past little Alys Grimes went up t’ th’ castle t’ work an’ was ne’er sees again,” said the man hurriedly.

“I do not understand,” Dominic stated. He noted Geoffrey’s sudden interest.

Master Garrick leaned forward, planing his large forearms on the table. “Ne’er seen ag’in,” he repeated, emphasizing each word. “Up at the castle they said it that she run off, but we don’t b’lieve it, sir. We git it from th’ house servants that somethin’ else might o’ ‘appened t’ th’ girl.”

Dominic stood slowly. His eyes blazed a steely silver challenge. “Surely none among you suspects foul play.”

Garrick’s eyes widened at what he perceived to be barely contained wrath in the lord of the Ravenshead estates. Obviously, in some way, Garrick had overstepped some boundary that he had not known existed. He retreated far back onto his stool.

“I ne’er said that, m’ lord,” Garrick said, defeat clear in his tone.”

There was a silence. When Dominic finally spoke, his voice was hard. “The girl was probably dissatisfied with her home life, as are so many young women today, and left without telling anyone. ‘Tis a common occurrence. Young women these days tend to challenge the old order.” He glanced at Geoffrey who was studying him shrewdly. “The girl was given to wild tales and disruptive behavior, I am told,” Dominic went on rapidly.

“Oh, no, sir,” Garrick interjected, raising himself. “Alys Grimes was th’ sweetest little chit I ever met. She ne’er caused no trouble in ‘er life.”

Dominic leaned forward, his hands taut on the table before him. “I will hear no more of this, Master Garrick,” he said stonily. “If I do, there will be trouble for you and for your neighbors. This gossip stops here and now, do you understand?”

Garrick nodded in instant acquiescence. He needed no Trouble with His Lordship. He smiled weakly as Dominic continued.

“Master Frobisher and I shall see to the Problems you have. We shall assist you with whatever repairs are needed. I shall see that your rents are returned to a more equitable rate. I shall see that your livestock is replaced and your lands prepared for winter. We shall work as hard as any of you. But”-the word was like cannon fire-“I will not tolerate another word about my sister.”

Dominic turned and headed for the low doorway. He ducked as he forged from the room. Mounting his horse without further word or gesture, he rode off. Geoffrey had a difficult time catching up with him.

When at last the two men rode side by side, Dominic wheeled his horse and skidded to a stop. Geoffrey heeled up beside him. The pale sun glistened on the dust caused by their quick stop. Only early-morning bird songs and the distant roar of the sea invaded the silence between them. Pain and anger warring in his countenance, Dominic finally spoke.

“I am aware of certain resentments toward my sister,” he said, masking all his emotion. “I will not tolerate them-not from servants and not from tenants and not from any member of my household. I do not understand why rents were raised, and I do not understand what happened to Alys Grimes. I know only one thing; my sister has done the best she could for the past ten years. She has kept Ravenshead alive so that I could be in service to our queen.” If his tone had remained even, his words were now a litany.

“Lydia was not yet twelve years old when our mother died. I was little more than a babe. Our father, as you know, was an active man and merchant and rarely at home. My sister and I are inseparable. As we grew, her devotion to me never wavered. There developed between us a love that years and changes of circumstance could not diminish.” He hesitated and then went on softly.

“When I was a lad, I went to play one afternoon on the rocky shoals below the castle. I had been warned, on pain of severe punishment, not to play there. But, being willfully and often disobedient, I went there anyway. I was cavorting upon a high rock when my foot slipped and I slid down toward the waters below. As I fell, I grasped onto the hanging branch of a tree that was growing out near the shoreline.

“I clung to the branch but was unable to regain a foothold. I called and called for help, but the roar of the sea drowned out my child’s voice. Night came and with it an ebbing of my strength. I was about to give myself to the raging sea and to the pull of the undertow when, unbelievably, I saw in the dark distance a circle of torchlight. It was moving in a wavering path toward where I hung against the slippery rock. The voice that accompanied the light was that of my sister. She was calling my name.

“With a last effort, I cried out. I saw the light move swiftly toward me. Suddenly Lydia’s face was above me. She set her torch in a chink between two rocks and stepped out onto the escarpment from which I had slipped. Lying down on her stomach, she reached over and, with loving arms, she grasped my waist. She was not strong enough to pull me up, and so she held me there against the rock with her arms locked round me. The waves were smashing over the shelf where she lay and nearly engulfing both of us, but Lydia held on.

“Through the night the sea pounded us relentlessly, whipping our fragile young bodies. Lydia said prayers our mother had taught us and sang – soothing melodies all through that terrifying night.

“When the sun rose, we began to call out again. Through the long dawn, we waited and called for help.

Finally we managed to gain the attention of our father’s man, Rodrigo the dwarf. He was standing on a high tor overlooking the rocky shoals. Being small but powerfull, he was able to make his way down the sheer drop of the cliff wall to us. He leaned over the rock with Lydia and grabbed onto me, and with his strength and Lydia’s presence, my life was saved.

“Our father will whip you soundly for being down there, he said later when we told him the story of how we came to be in such a predicament. ‘Our father will not whip him, Rodrigo,’ stated Lydia. ‘Our father will not know of this incident.’ ‘He will know,’ Rodrigo answered, ‘for I shall tell him.’ Lydia simply stared at the little man. She did not speak for many moments. Finally she said in a very soft tone, ‘If you tell him, I shall kill you.’

The dwarf laughed. “Tis for his own good,’ he said.

“We were standing in the kitchen, Lydia and I dripping and cold and exhausted. Suddenly, my sister snatched a butchering knife from the wooden block in the center of the room and held the point to Rodrigo’s throat. ‘If you tell our father of Dominic’s disobedience, I shall kill you,’ she said, and as she spoke, she pushed the knife into Rodrigo’s flesh, drawing a small trickle of blood.

“Neither he nor I doubted Lydia’s resolve. Rodrigo stood there rigidly, for he did not dare retaliation against the titled daughter of the house, but his eyes were filled with rage and humiliation. None of us ever repeated the story.”

Dominic was silent for many moments, his gaze resting on some far memory. When at last he met Geoffrey’s eyes, his own contained a deep tenderness. “You have wondered at my loyalty to Lydia. It stems from her profound loyalty to me.

“So much has happened to her; her motherless adolescence, her widowhood, her trials with our father and this estate. She seems to have grown hard, but for me she is and ever will be the tender sister of my youth.” Dominic stopped abruptly, daring Geoffrey to respond.

That man took up Dominic’s challenge. “And Rodrigo?” he asked.

“Rod has hated Lydia ever since that day. He has hated her to the extent that he came to me after my father committed suicide and wound a wild tale of Lydia having kidnapped the old man and imprisoned him inside the castle.”

“What did you do?”

Dominic’s face darkened. “I had him tortured.. He nearly died for his unholy lies.”

“Did you ever question Lydia about the story?” Geoffrey asked.

“I did,” said Dominic. “She did not bother to deny the story. I remember well her tears. ‘The little man has finally had his revenge,’ she said. ‘There is no revenge for him, unless I believe his story,’ I said. I told Lydia that I would have him killed for the lying serpent that he was. I nearly did-would have, in truth, had Lydia not interceded for him. The servants still speak of that time and shudder at what they perceive to be my cruelty. I cannot stop their talk, but the incident served as warning to them all that I will not tolerate any condemnation of Lydia.”

Geoffrey eyed Dominic keenly. “‘Tis hard to imagine that little man holding onto his hatred for so many years.

“But he did,” stated Dominic. “He admitted that he wished to defame my sister for her treatment of him that day in the kitchen.”

“Under the duress of torture,” said Geoffrey quietly.

Dominic swung his head up. “Do not defend that man’s infamy to me, Geoff,” he grated. “Even when the torture was over, Rod begged our forgiveness. He pleaded to be allowed to remain at Ravenshead. He lives here under Lydia’s protection to this day. Lydia regards him as a treasured servant for all his ignoble treatment of her.”

“Because of her forbearance, even I have come to look upon Rodrigo with kindness. The hardness of spirit that Lydia has acquired over the years must surely be overlooked in the light of such gallantry.”

“And what of Alys Grimes?” asked Geoffrey without emotion.

We have already discussed her, and Lydia has forwarded a perfectly acceptable explanation for the chit’s disappearance. Whatever anyone may feel, I believe her explanation. I want no further innuendo against my sister. You and everyone else would do well to remember that.”

Dominic spurred his horse. It wheeled and reared, its great hooves clawing at the air. Horse and rider thundered q off in a shower of dust and stones.

Geoffrey sat sill, stride his own mount. Ben had been right when he said that, where Lydia was concerned, Dominic was blinded by loyalty. The lines had been carefully drawn. And, in truth, Dominic had his reasons for his hot defense of his sister. The wild story that Rodrigo had contrived was as cruel an imputation as any that Geoffrey had ever heard. Lydia was hard, but she was no monster.

And if there was a mystery regarding Alys Grimes, Geoffrey reflected, it was not his purpose to reason it. The girl, he remembered, had a penchant for gossip, and a roving eye. Perhaps Lydia had driven her off, or maybe Alys had left in a snit. Whatever the cause, Geoffrey reminded himself, he was but a guest in this house and no instrument revelation.. Resignedly, he spurred his horse and trotted off to catch up to Dominic Warbrooke.

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Games of cards or chess before the blazing hearth characterized Maurette’s next weeks at Ravenshead. Dominic accompanied her to her chamber each evening after dinner. Sometimes they invited Geoffrey and Ben in for whist. Geoff, more often that not; excused himself from these “family” evenings and went about his own business.

Though Kitty had been confined to the servants’ quarters when she was not serving Maurette directly, she was, at Maurette’s insistence, allowed to join them. Dominic had long since decided that he would not interfere in this situation. Lydia and Maurette seemed to have come to some sort of peace concerning Kitty. Though the girl was in awe of Dominic’s presence, she suffered her whist lessons and even beat him once at chess. The lessons, Dominic had conceded, were harmless enough and even enjoyable in light of Kitty’s intelligence and enthusiasm. However, it was decided by all that Lydia should not be apprised of these sub rosa activities.

One night Geoffrey stayed very late, for there was ale aplenty, and the man of whom Dominic had spoken some days before, Rodrigo the household’s resident dwarf, was present. Geoffrey watched the man curiously, but no mention was ever made of anything about which Dominic had spoken. And finally, after an hour or so of riddles and entertainment provided by the vital Rodrigo, Geoffrey turned to his own diversions-ale and the petty serving girl, Kitty.

Maurette was particularly enjoying the little man’s company. She inquired as to why she had not seen him on her arrival at Ravenshead.

He simply laughed his infectious laugh and said, “The martin haunts the westward tower, covering himself when comes the shower.” His intelligent eyes beamed whenever he spoke in riddles and he often spoke in riddles. After each he would execute a jaunty cartwheel and strut cockily with his odd rolling gait round the room, waving his plumed hat as his feat was applauded along with his wit.

“Where do you abide, Rodrigo?” Maurette inquired through a bubble of laughter as the man engaged in a particularly clever robotic performance.

Rodrigo gave a small shrug as he sat down on the floor near the fire. Though he smiled, there was a sadness about his eyes that was noted only by Maurette “In a pause,” he said enigmatically, “in a sigh, dear lady. And,” he added, his usual enigmatic good cheer returning, “in a well-positioned dam’s good graces.” He giggled and pulled his knees to his chest. “Come and visit me, if you dare,* he said, glancing at Maurette between his folded knees.

” ‘Tis enough,” Dominic said good-naturedly as he drew the little man to his feet. “Enough riddles and enough ale,” he added with a pointed look toward Geoffrey and Ben. “‘Tis time we ended this evening of debauchery. We thank you, Rod, for your good company.” Dominic led his guests from the chamber.

Ben smiled genially as he was ushered from the room. “It has been a most enchanting evening,” he said, bowing to Maurette. His eyes were glazed with unaccustomed drink, but as he took Maurette’s hand in a courtly gesture, he noted her reflective aspect and decided, if he could in in fact remember it, to ask in the near future the reason for her darkened mood.

As he left the chamber, Ben tried to recall what the dwarf had said in answer to Maurette’s inquiry-whatever that might have been-to cause her mood of reflection. He reminded himself, as he weaved down the gallery to his own chamber, what every learned man knew.

“In the words of Master Hippocrates,” he muttered as he propelled himself into his room and onto his bed, “‘Everything in excess is opposed to nature.'” Then prayerfully he murmured, “If I live, let ale be barred from my lips.” He held onto the sides of his bed as the room spun in sickeningly distorted circles. “If I live,” he added as his stomach lurched obliquely, Please let me die.”

Geoffrey was lying on one of the small settees near the fire. Kitty sat on a low stool near his feet, which were slung ungracefully over the sofa’s delicate arm. She gazed worshipfully into his roguishly sparkling eyes.

“‘Tis time, Geoff,” said Dominic. “though we have enjoyed your company immensely”-here he eyed Kitty and added pointedly-“some of us, in truth, have enjoyed your company more than the others, but ’tis time we said good night. My lady and I wish to retire.” Dominic placed a powerful arm beneath Geoffrey’s broad shoulders and lifted him to a seated position. “Can you make it, old friend?”

Geoffrey nodded, and a foolish smile crossed his lips. “C’n I pierce holes in a girl’s petticoat?” he asked slyly.

“I am sure you could, old Geoff. But not tonight, I fear.” Dominic laughed and helped him stand. He ushered the big man to the door. “Shall I escort you to your chamber, Geoff?”

“Oh, please let me,” said Kitty. She stopped short as Dominic and Maurette eyed her in surprise. “‘Tis only that he seems in need of a woman’s gentle handling,” she said shyly. Maurette smiled. “Is he mobile, Dominic?” Dominic drew away from Geoffrey and essayed the man’s balance.

“He is.” said Dominic, satisfied that Geoffrey could walk steadily and would not topple over onto the slender Kit. “Take him, young Kit,” he said genially.

Kitty moved gratefully to Geoffrey’s side. They started off, and before they were a few steps from Maurette’s chamber, the girl’s sweet voice could be heard crooning an ancient lullaby. Geoffrey enveloped her slim shoulders in one big arm, and they shuffled off to his chamber.

The happy evening ended with a sleepy Maurette falling into a peaceful slumber in Dominic’s arms. As always he had made tender love to her and transported her to a world of rapturous quiescence. As always she awoke the next morning and found herself alone.

Boredom plagued Maurette almost constantly. The crushing rains that traditionally marked the month of September and the early part of October-rains that bore down bridges and flooded usually benign streams – had kept her inside. And the rains had added to the gloom of the castle.

Being unaccustomed to enforced inactivity, Maurette was restless She longed for something to do. Each morning she would arise and take her breakfast on a tray near the now constantly blazing fire. After her morning toilette she wrote letters to her family; that had become a daily ritual.

To allay any fears they might have for her, she kept the letters short and cheery. “Yesterday we entertained several of the neighbors for tea,” she would find herself writing, or “Dominic and I have accepted an invitation to a lovely ball, and I am at my wit’s end as to what to wear.” Neither of these things had truly happened. Nor had Maurette helped to plan a menu or seen to a purchase for the household. Maurette looked up from her writing on this morning and realized that, in truth, she knew nothing whatever about the place in which she lived.

She had attempted several small forays outside her chamber, but had been puzzled to find Lydia always in the vicinity. Maurette would catch a glimpse of the woman at a chamber door or spot her in a far gallery She wondered if the chatelaine was truly spying on her, but dismissed the idea as irrational. Sometimes, when her boredom overwhelmed her, she would enter the withdrawing room to find a book. She did not do this often, however, for she felt the chamber to be dominated by dirt and the terrible lusting raven of the family crest. She would cringe and choose her reading matter quickly, for the maleficent sentinel seemed to guard those envious with a proprietary hostility.

Maurette crumpled the paper on which she was now writing of yet another invented activity. From this moment she decided, she would tell her family of actual adventures. That very evening she would ask Dominic if she might be given a few responsibilities. She would ask if she might plan a ball or a small tea to introduce herself to the neighboring houses. Though, if she could, in truth, involve herself in these activities, she might feel less gilt over having falsely written of them to her family. In fact, the events might well have taken place before her letters arrived at Harper House, she consoled herself.

Kitty entered the chamber and Stood shyly near the entrance. Maurette turned to find her awaiting her daily lesson. The two young women enjoyed their studies very much. Maurette had found several volumes in the detested withdrawing chamber, from which they read every day. Kitty was a quick student and eager to learn. Maurette would read a passage while Kitty enthusiastically followed each word. Then, as she began to study individual letters and the sounds they made, Maurette would encourage her to pronounce phonetically a word here and there. Their work was tedious but rewarding.

Today Kitty was to read an entire passage by herself. Nervously she moved to the small sofa near the fire and sat down, nearly hugging herself in her excitement. Maurette picked up a volume from her nightstand and opened it to a page they had been studing.

“Here you are, dear Kit,” she said, gently handing the open tome to the girl. “Today, you shall attempt Master Roger Bacon.”

Kitty nodded solemnly. She took the volume and began to read uncertainly. “‘Th-there are in fact…four very sig-sig-signif…icant stumbling blocks in the way of gr-grasping the truth.’ ” She looked up at Maurette with a small smile of triumph. Maurette applauded her initial effort and urged her to go on. As she read, Kitty became more and more confident and her words began to flow smoothly.

Maurette’s eyes widened as her pupil completed the difficult passage. “Why, Kit,” she breathed raptly, “you have learned well.” She drew the book from Kitty’s hands and knelt before her. Taking the girl’s hands in hers, Maurette looked up at her in awe. “You are magnificent,” she said.

Kitty’s eyes were a-shimmer with tears of gratitude. She embraced her teacher warmly. ” ‘Tis you I bless for my new attainment,” she said softly. She drew back from Maurette, and a puzzled looked crossed her face. “Can you tell me, though, one thing, my lady?” Maurette looked into the girl’s warm, intelligent eyes. “Please tell me what the passage means.”

In their small luminescent circle of firelight, the two women smiled at one another. They both realized there was much to be done.

At dinner that evening, feeling confident that her small requests would be received equitably, Maurette brought up the subject of sponsoring a small entertainment. She felt Lydia’s narrow gaze upon her as she mentioned to Dominic that she would enjoy a tour of the great house-hold. She was sure that he hesitated imperceptibly before telling her that she could certainly satisfy her curiosity on the morrow. Even Geoffrey and Ben seemed mildly taken aback by her inquiry.

“Is there a problem?” She inquired as she glanced from one to the other.

“Not at all,” Dominic said evenly. He smiled then and patted her hand, which rested tensely on the table next to her plate. ” ‘This only that none of us can imagine your wanting to explore this musty old place.”

“Aye,” said Lydia, swallowed her wine with audible difficulty. “We stay to our rooms for the most part.” She swept a disdainful glance at the high ceiling and at the archway leading from the family-dining hall. “You expect to discover history here, but all you will find is soot and spiders’ webs.”

Maurette gave Lydia a sweet smile. “Perhaps that is the first thing that I should look to,” she said. “After all if we are to have people here, we must surely concern ourselves with the cleanliness of the place.” Maurette added tartly, “If there is one thing my mama taught me, it is the value of cleanliness.”

Lydia smiled derisively. “You mama has never lived in an ancient castle, methinks.”

Maurette arched an elegant brow. Lydia had a tendency toward sarcasm that Maurette found decidedly tiresome. Though they saw nothing of each other during the days, as per Maurette’s suggestion, their dinners together each evening were becoming more and more strained.

“I am perfectly prepared to face a full chart of responsibilities,” Maurette said archly, “I shall roll up my sleeves on the morrow and face them with a vengeance.”

The diners glanced at each other uneasily, and Dominic cleared his throat. “We do not, as a rule, invite people here, Maurette,” he said carefully.

Maurette smiled sweetly and brushed Dominic’s cheek with her fingertips. “Then,” she said amiably, ” ’tis time you started.” Her voice did not betray the trepidation she felt as the company regarded each other in suppressed bemusement.

It was much later, in the privacy of her chamber, that Maurette approached Dominic on the subject. “I do not understand, Dominic, why you seem so hesitant to grant me this small boon.” Her voice held a yearning that was both sad and sweet. ” ‘Tis only natural that I should desire the company of gay people, and, as to a tour of the castle, it is most perfectly natural that I should wish to better know the home in which I live. I barely leave my chamber. Why,” she said with sweet sincerity, “I have never even seen your bedchamber.”

“That,” he said, “can be easily remedied.”

Dominic laughed and whisked Maurette up into his arms and conveyed her into the dimly lit gallery. The flame light of the low burning torches brushed the stone walls with wavering shadows as they passed. At the far end of the gallery, Dominic shouldered his was through a huge door and set her down.

Maurette gazed at the tiny chamber lit only by a low fire. The bed was little more than a cot. Fresh rushes whispered beneath her feet as Maurette moved into the room. She inspected a low table near the bed and found a nearly gutted candle and a small volume of Master Marlowe’s writings. She looked up at Dominic.

Dominic smiled, and his strong white teeth glinted in the darkness. ” ‘Tis not a very lordly chamber, is it?” He said gently. He crossed to where Maurette stood and lit the low candle. He picked up the little book, and it fell open to a much-read passage.

“Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss!
Her lips suck forth my soul: see where it flies!
Come Helen; come give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven be in these lips.
And all is dross that is not…

Maurette,” he finished with a breath.

Maurette moved to him and reached up to take his face into her small white Hands. She drew his lips to hers in a sweet kiss. He took Maurette into his arms, and there they remained in a lingering embrace.

Then Dominic drew away and regarded Maurette ruefully. He turned away from her and stood with his head bowed for long moments, his broad back, usually so proud and straight, bent as if under some heavy weight.

“Tell me what’s troubling you, Dominic,” Maurette said tenderly.

“This is not a household fit for a spirited young woman, I fear,” he said softly, turning to face her, and a small smile crossed his lips. “” Was foolish to bring you here, Maurette. ‘Twas my selfish desires I considered and not you.” He held up the volume and offered a small shrug. “My ‘Helena,'” he added with a deeper smile.

Maurette placed a hand on his chest and gazed into the softness of his gray eyes. She returned his smile. “Your problems are my problems. Allow me a proper place in your life, Dominic,” she urged gently. ” ‘Tis all I ask. ‘Tis all I need.”

There was a simple longing in her tone that clutched at Dominic’s heart. He could not imagine another moment of his life without her. Bending his head, he caught her soft lips in a tender kiss, and she yielded with consuming tenderness. Enfolding her within his arms, he drew her ripe suppleness to the long lean length of him.

Maurette drew away just long enough to unfasten the lacings of his shirt. She reached inside to brush the masculine hardness of his lightly furred chest with her fingertips.

He groaned as he felt the coolness of her touch upon her warm flesh. Sweeping her up into his strong arms, he carried her to the bed where he laid her down and gently began to remove her clothing. She wore a soft filmy dressing gown and nightdress, which he eagerly lifted, from her shimmering body. In the shadows of the firelight, her silken softness shone in iridescent splendor. His hands melted into her tender flesh, and she arched willingly to his passionate ardor.

Much later, when she felt the rippling muscles of his chest beneath her soft cheek, she mused lazily that this stalwart gallant needed a few lessons himself. She smiled and nestled against him in the narrow bed. In spite of himself, he would learn to enjoy the solicitude of a loving woman.

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

Garbed in a simple gown of shimmering pink satin with a soft collar of creamy lace and sleeves that were slashed and lined with the same fabric, Maurette descended the staircase leading into the great hall. She had informed Jonathan, through Kitty, that she wished him to meet her there.

“There is much to see, Jonathan,” she said, greeting him with a bright smile as she passed in front of him. “‘Twould be best, I think, if we begin in the withdrawing room,” she said and started down the short gallery that led to the “coziest room in the house.” “I hope that you have brought quill and paper,” she said over her shoulder as she bounced brightly down the passage.

Jonathan pursed his lips and arched a thin eyebrow in the direction of Maurette’s slender back.

“This room is to be cleaned from ceiling to floor,” Maurette said as she entered the chamber. She indicated the thick black soot that clung to the stone surrounding the fireplace. “I do not know how you will do it, but I shall wager you shall needs dig through four centuries of filth to uncover the true beauty of this hearth.

“Also, these books must be taken down and dusted, Jonathan. Books are a proud possession of any house- hold. They should be ~ and well taken care of,” she said, choosing her words so that the servant would realize their importance. “They are to be individually cleaned, do you understand?”

The man nodded resignedly as Maurette moved about the room like a small whirlwind, pointing out a necessary task to be undertaken here and another there.

When they left the chamber to head for the family dining room, Maurette was thankful to be quit of the withdrawing room. She had deliberately avoided any mention of the family coat of arms and prayed that she could somehow convince Dominic to have it removed. She would need to tread carefully on that score, however. At least the chamber would be cleaned, and for the moment it was enough.

Maurette stood in the center of the dining hall. “The food served in this room is fine enough to honor any house, but the room itself demands a thorough cleaning.” Maurette shuddered as she traced a finger over the sideboard. “How long since a cloth has been applied to this wood?” she asked rhetorically and added, “All the furniture could do with a good coating of beeswax. This is fine good furniture, and the beeswax will heighten its luster as well as cleaning it. And it smells pretty,” she said, smiling brightly. “Also a few hangings would be in order for this room. We must hire a weaver from London.” She turned and left the room. With what Jonathan considered to be excessive speed, they traveled down another passage.

There was much to observe and to comment upon as the two passed along dim galleries and through high-ceilinged chambers.

Thick walls of gray ash rose to heights of thirty feet or more. Vaulted ceilings, which towered far above, were domed and rich in architectural detail. Staring upward at one particularly arresting group of carved timbers, Maurette lost her balance and decided that she would save her perusal of the castle’s ceilings for another time. She smiled sheepishly as Jonathan reached out to steady her.

“Thank you, dear Jonathan,” she said gently and then moved on.

She commented on things that needed doing as they passed. Everywhere she looked, from the smoky torch-lit galleries to the richly appointed privy rooms, Maurette encountered centuries of dust and grime. Massive window embrasures, she told Jonathan, must be fitted with glass. Though Maurette appreciated the morning air and sunlight that wafted through the apertures, she knew that, come winter, the castle would be much warmer for the insulation. The embrasures themselves needed to be swept, Maurette pointed out. She looked with disgust at posterns hung with spiders’ webs and broad shallow buttresses covered with oils from burning wood. The stuff clung to everything like a thick black mantle.

Jonathan wrote furiously as Maurette swiped her fingertips over filthy horizontal timbers and leaned into dusty embrasures.

“It will take at least the year of my contract with Dominic to get this job done,” she moaned as they continued their tour. Maurette intended to supervise this whole project herself, and she became weary at the mere thought of it.

At one window Maurette leaned into the embrasure and bade Jonathan to rest. The old man slid gratefully onto a low bench along the wall. “Thank you, my lady,” he said weakly and pulled out a soft square of cloth with which he swiped at his forehead.

Maurette could see through the opening in the thick walls of the castle the deep blue of a clear autumnal sky. It was the first day in weeks that it had not rained. Maurette stretched and peeked out over the thick sill. Directly below them, and much to Maurette’s amazement and delight, she saw a small privy garden.

“Who’s garden is that, Jonathan?” Maurette inquired.

“I haven’t the faintest, my lady,” said Jonathan- as he rose and squeezed into the embrasure with Maurette “It may be the garden where Lady Hamilton amuses herself with her roses,” he said vaguely.

“Lydia’s garden?” said Maurette.

Jonathan nodded and winced at Maurette’s familiarity in referring to the chatelaine. He drew himself from the embrasure, and, his rest over, he stood awaiting Maurette’s next order. “Is it your intention to continue the tour, my lady?” he said stiffly.

Maurette traced an idle finger in the dust on the sill. “I should like very much to have a garden of my own in the spring. I could, perhaps, plant some rosebushes.”

Maurette had come to the realization of just how gloomy and lackluster her existence was here at Ravenshead. She would naturally continue to teach Kitty, and that was a most rewarding task, but Maurette longed to be active at every moment. Right now she wanted nothing more than to be strolling in the fresh breezy October air.

Jonathan cleared his throat and repeated his question. Maurette glanced around and realized that she was neglecting her self-imposed assignment and keeping Jonathan at a standstill as well. She straightened and turned her attention back to their work.

“I suggest carpeting in all the galleries, and if that cannot be done readily, please see that at the very least new rushes are laid. The present ones are filthy. I must also insist that all the torches be replaced with brass sconces. Tapers are so much cleaner than torches, and their light is so much more refined. We needn’t live like old-time serfs, you know,” she said sternly.

Jonathan cleared his throat. He had stopped writing and was eyeing her stiffly.

“Is there a problem, Jonathan?”

“There is, my ‘lady,” be said. Setting his shoulders rigid. He lifted his chin in what Maurette recognized as her own gesture of defiance.

“What is it then?” she asked kindly. Maurette understood that, when she made that gesture, it was usually because she felt unsure of herself and afraid. She could not imagine such insecurity in the resolute Jonathan, but somehow she felt an empathy with the haughty servant.

“The expense, my lady,” he said, swallowing.

“Expense?” Maurette asked. She could not imagine to what Jonathan was referring. Dominic was, after all, a wealthy man. Money could have no bearing upon her judgment of what needed to be done within the household.

“The household budget,” Jonathan said, swallowing again, “is the domain of Lady Hamilton, and she permits no expenditures without her supervision.”

Maurette breathed a long sigh. “Is that all, Jonathan?” she said. “But surely Lydia will approve my suggestions. They are all legitimate improvements. I cannot imagine why she has not acted on these things herself.”

“I couldn’t say, my lady,” Jonathan returned when he realized that an answer was required of him.

“Well,” Maurette said determinedly, “I shall speak to Lady Hamilton myself. In any event, Jonathan, do not stop writing.” Maurette turned to continue their tour and then hesitated. Looking back at Jonathan, she asked uncertainly, “When did you last speak to your mistress on this subject?”

“Last evening, my lady. Lady Hamilton came to me and told me that no expenditure was to be permitted where you are concerned.” He looked down on Maurette with sympathy. Her slender shoulders seemed to bear the weight of this new information.

Then Maurette twirled on her heel and marched stiffly down the passageway, with Jonathan following and taking of all that she said and of the prideful way that she heel herself. She was, perhaps taunted by Lady Hamilton’s slight, but surly not broken. Jonathan allowed himself a small smile at the spirited determination of the young lady. He would give a great deal to be present at her meeting with Lady Hamilton.

“I wish to see the kitchen,” Maurette said when they had finally made their way around the bottom level of the castle.

Jonathan directed her to a large arched doorway at the end of the passage.

“I shall attend myself here,” said Maurette. “Please advise Lady Hamilton that I would see her in my chamber in one hour.”

Jonathan nodded and turned to carry out the order.

“And Jonathan?”

He turned back, and Maurette smiled.

“This has been a most pleasant morning,” she said fondly. “‘Twas not the most pleasant of tasks, but your companionship has made it bearable.” She turned then and disappeared into the kitchen.

Jonathan lingered for a long moment, looking after the lady. He felt his cheeks redden at her words. He offered a silent prayer that she was as strong as she was determined. Lydia was not a woman who took kindly to determination.

As lost in grime and lack of attention as the rest, of the castle was, the kitchen was a pleasant surprise for Maurette. She watched delightedly the activities in this bright bustling room. One reason for the room’s brightness, she discovered, was. the fact that one wall was almost completely open to the outside. A young man passed her, carrying a wooden crate filled with small flapping woodcock. She asked him about the open wall.

“That opens to the mantle, m’um,” he explained. winter it’ll be covered wi’ cloth so’s we don’t freeze.” He smiled and nodded a friendly farewell as he hustled off with, his burden.

Maurette reveled in the sunlight and fresh air that poured into the kitchen. She stepped further into the room, and her presence became an object of curiosity among the servants. One young kitchen maid approached her shyly, wiping her hands on a long white apron and offered a friendly curtsy. She remembered how kind Maurette had been on her arrival, and now that they were, in the girl’s territory, she wished to return the kindness. No one could imagine why such a grand lady was in the kitchen, and the happy chatter that had greeted her had ceased.

“Could we get y’ somethin’, my lady?” said the girl softly. Maurette could well imagine the perplexity of the servants.

“I should like to watch you work, if I may,” said Maurette.

The young kitchen girl cocked her head “Watch, m’um?”

“May I?”

The girl took hold of her puzzlement. “0′ course, m’um,” she said with a broad smile. “No reason why not, m’um. I be Moll, m’um. If ye’ve any questions, y’ jus’ holler fer me.”

She dipped another curtsy and then bobbed off to continue her chores. The smile on her face and haughty glances toward the other servants bespoke her pride at being the first to approach the Lady Maurette and anticipate her need. She watched Maurette’s progress around the busy kitchen with a proprietary regard. If a question needed answering, she would be there in an instant.

Maurette, genuinely touched by the girl’s solicitude, decided that, at some point in her tour of the kitchen, she would most definitely think of a question.

One old servant was kneading dough while another ground corn for meal. One young woman was bent low over a large fish that lay on a long pitted trestle table.

“May I watch?” Maurette inquired.

The woman regarded her with a cocked eyebrow. “Can’t imagine ye’r wantin’ to,” she said with a smile, “but if ye c’n stand it, I’m sure I c’n.” She reached her hand into the opening she had made in the fish’s maw and drew out a handful of slimy innards. Flinging the mass to a large pot nearby, she graced Maurette with a sly grin.

“That will be a fish stock, I should imagine,” Maurette ventured tranquilly. Her clenched smile hid an equally clenching stomach.

“Aye,” said the woman, ” ‘twould be that.” She continued with the delicate work of boning the creature. Maurette moved to a little boy who stood at another section of the table cleaning eggs.

“You had a very important job, young sir,” said Maurette, as the lad flushed beneath her scrutiny. “I cannot imagine eating eggs from a dirty shell. Oh, my, no.” Maurette shuddered.

“That’s me job, Y’r Ladyship,” the boy said proudly, smiling shyly up at her, “cleanin’ th’ chicken filth that might end up in y’r breakfast.”

The young woman who was cleaning the fish eyed the lad sharply. “Dickie,” she scolded, “Such talk before Her Ladyship is unseemly.”

Maurette only laughed. “This is a busy kitchen, mistress,” she said.

“Aye, my lady, ’tis that.”

“How many do you feed?”

The young woman eyed Maurette for a long moment. Then, with a loud crack, she chopped the fish’s head off and flung it into the pot. “Got no idea, m’um,” she said curtly. Another sharp crack of the woman’s long cleaver saw the fish’s tail rendered from its body and delivered to the pot.

“I just wondered how many were in residence here…”

“Got no idea, m’um,” the woman repeated tonelessly.

Maurette tried another tack. “Is that to be our dinner?” she said, indicating the kettle that the young woman was now placing over the fire.

“Don’t know, m’um. I ain’t th’ cook as y’ know.”

“Oh yes, I met Mistress Gwynn. Then she decided the menu?”

“Wi’ th’ approval o’ Henry, o’ course. An’ nothin’ happens here wi’out Lady Hamilton knowin’ it. Nothin’ happens anywhere at Ravenshead wi’out Lady Hamilton knowin’ it.” The woman caught Maurette in a hooded gaze. “Lady Hamilton is the mistress here.”

“Of course,” Maurette said evenly and managed a pleasant nod, but she was crestfallen. It was the second time that she had been told, in no uncertain terms, that she was nothing more than a guest in Lydia’s house. Maurette suddenly felt small and useless in the bustling kitchen.

She backed slowly toward the stairs, a stain of color rising in her cheeks. She managed a polite smile as a servant carrying a load of wood bumped into her and apologized. How could she ever have imagined that she would have any sway in the running of this huge estate? She turned and fled from the room. In her blind rush, she crashed into Jonathan, who was flung by the force of her momentum into the stone wall.

“Forgive me, Your Ladyship,” he said as he adjusted and dusted at his immaculate livery. “I came to deliver a message from Lady Hamilton. I was not watching where I was going.”

“Oh, don’t be stupid, Jonathan. Of course, you were watching where you were going. You always watch where you are going. The fault was entirely mine.” Maurette’s wide eyes were fevered with agitation.

“Of course, my lady,” Jonathan said vaguely. He stiffened at the onslaught of her puzzling outburst.

“You and Lady Hamilton and Lord Warbrooke and Doctor Tremain and Geoff and Kit all know exactly where you are going. Even young Dick who cleans eggs in the kitchen knows exactly why he is here. ‘Tis I, Jonathan,” she said, pointing wildly to herself, “who has no idea of her purpose.” Unbelievably, tears popped into her lovely eyes. “I should clean an egg or bone a slimy fish or transport a crate of woodcock. At least then I would have some sense of my worth.” She turned abruptly and continued her mad dash down the dimly lit passage.

Jonathan watched her flight in utter disbelief. Such emotionalism was not part of his experience in life. He had no idea how he should feel toward this outburst. He shrugged reflectively. One thing seemed certain; he would never felt indifference toward the fiery lass. He watched a froth of pink satin skirts rounding a corner and sighed deeply. This household was destined for a change, he thought, and allowed himself a small smile. Carefully straightening his livery once more, he eschewed his softened demeanor and solemnly entered the kitchen.

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